On 5 June, ahead of his visit to Austria, Russian president Vladimir Putin gave an interview to Armin Wolf, the news anchor of Austrian ORF television channel. In his usual manner, the President of Russia dodged uncomfortable questions, manipulated facts and lied.
In this feature, InformNapalm volunteer intelligence community would like to expose some of the manipulations and outright lies of Vladimir Putin that are within our field of expertise, based on the materials of our own open source intelligence (OSINT) investigations supplemented and by the human intelligence (HUMINT). We will address some of the statements Putin made in his interview, explaining why or how they are untrue.
Putin: “I want to note that both sides to the conflict – the Ukrainian army and even Ukrainian volunteer battalions who are accountable to nobody save their commanders, and the Donbas militia, the armed units in Donbas – they all use Soviet and Russian-made weapons.”
In reality: Forces waging war on Ukraine in Donbas are not “militia”
The forces coyly referred to by Putin as “Donbas militias” are anything but. They can be referred to as a hybrid or a proxy army, or, in accordance with Ukraine’s Law on Occupation, Russian Occupation Forces (ROF). Acting servicemen and reservists of the Russian army hold all the key command positions, and operate all the equipment and systems that require professional military skills, whereas local collaborators play secondary roles in the ROF. Russian servicemen left innumerable traces of deployments with the so-called armed forces of the artificial, puppet occupation administrations, Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR/LPR). InformNapalm has reliably documented the participation of over 2,400 regular Russian servicemen from about 90 military and law enforcement units in the hostilities in Donbas and put them in a searchable database of the Russian aggression. We have strong grounds to believe that there have been many more deployed to Ukraine.
These Russian servicemen report to their higher command in Russia. The ROF ranks are staffed through virtual military units and reserve commands of the Russian army in Rostov Oblast . These servicemen are deployed to the Ukrainian Donbas one-by-one, or in groups.
At the height of hostilities, during Ilovaisk and Debaltseve operations, Russia deployed whole reinforced battalion tactical groups, or task forces, from the massive reserves held across the Ukrainian border. In his candid telephone conversations with friends, Russian lieutenant-colonel Yershov painted a compelling picture of the Russian hybrid tactics in Donbas.
Another important part of the ROF are Russian private military companies (PMCs) . They are closely associated with the Kremlin. Putin himself stated in April 2012 that “Russian PMCs are the tools for the implementation of national interests without the direct participation of the state”. Their activity in Ukraine was supervised by the people from the Russian presidential administration, among them Vladislav Surkov, a personal adviser to Vladimir Putin on relationships with Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ukraine. Surkov is believed to be one of the chief ideologues and supervisors of the war in Ukraine.
Russian Cossack paramilitary groups also played an important role in the early stages of the Donbas invasion.
In reality: The Russian occupation forces in Donbas operate dozens of specifically Russian types of weapons and military equipment that are not available to the Ukrainian Army
It is true that the Ukrainian Army has a massive stockpile of the Soviet-style armaments, and they are effectively used in the war in the east of Ukraine. On the other hand, Ukraine has next to no Russian weaponry manufactured after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the same time, the ROF use dozens of types of the post-soviet Russian weapons which are not operated by the Ukrainian Army. Sightings of these systems and vehicles left innumerable traces on social media and video sharing sites. Volunteers of InformNapalm spotted and identified a considerable number of them, but we are sure that we have not nearly exhausted the available evidence base. Based on the data collected through our investigations, we made a searchable database of the purely Russian military equipment spotted on the occupied territory of Ukraine.
The database lists 44 types of weapons, armament systems and military equipment that could not have been captured in battle by the ROF. Some of the equipment types are operated by the Russian army only (e.g. T-72B3 main battle tanks). Some of the systems are highly powerful weapons (e.g. 96K6 Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile and gun system or 9A310M1 TELAR of Buk-M1 air defense system, which brought down MH17) that are not easily available in the international armaments markets. Not only are they too expensive for the Russia-held enclaves in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts to acquire, there could have been no other source than Russia for their acquisition, or rather, provision.
Electronic warfare (EW) systems are worth a special side note, as there were no fewer than ten types of Russian EW systems spotted in Donbas, some of them are cutting-edge new developments of the Russian military industrial complex (e.g. RB-636AM2 Svet-KU ). These are technically sophisticated systems that require highly trained military specialists to operate them and insure their interoperability with other arms of the combined military force. No popular militia would have been capable of it.
In reality: There are no “Ukrainian volunteer battalions who are accountable to nobody save their commanders”.
All Ukrainian volunteer battalions were integrated in the army and police structures in 2014 and 2015. InformNapalm did not systemically focus on the Ukrainian volunteer battalion movement, but this study gives an honest and knowledgeable outline of the nature and role of the Ukrainian volunteer battalions.
“By October 2014, more than 44 territorial defense battalions, 32 special police battalions, three volunteer national guard battalions, and at least three pro-Ukrainian unregulated battalions that answered officially to no one (Right Sector’s “Volunteer Ukrainian Corps (VUC)”) had been stood up in Ukraine.”
The VUC has indeed retained its independent status, however its strength is believed to be around one or two rotating companies at the moment, its personnel is deployed for reconnaissance and assault roles in the areas around Avdiyivka and Pisky under close supervision of the respective brigades of the Ukrainian Army.
Putin:”The two sides have all sorts of items – both firearms, aviation, and anti-aircraft systems. All of them were made in Russia.”
In reality: The ROF use a number of small arms types of clearly Russian origin not available to the Ukrainian Army
Apart from the military equipment and heavy systems, even the composition of the firearms used by the ROF differs from that used by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Some of the small arms types are clearly of Russian origin. The most vivid example is a Vinotrez rifle captured by the Ukrainian forces in Luhansk Oblast on the Russian scouts, active servicemen of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). Vintorez has also been spotted multiple times in the social media accounts of Russian military men taking part in the hostilities in the East of Ukraine. This rifle was developed for the special force units of Russia. It has no civilian or hunting versions. It is not in service either with the Ministry of Interior forces, or the Army of Ukraine.
Other specifically Russian firearms were spotted in use of the ROF: sniper rifles (VKS or Vykhlop, 6S8 ASVK Kord), medium and heavy machine guns (PKP Pecheneg, Kord heavy machine gun) and some modifications of the AK rifles (AK-74M) have also been spotted in Donbas. None of them are in use with any uniformed services of Ukraine. They are also not available in civilian versions or readily available in the international arms markets.
In reality: The ROF in Donbas do not have aircraft or aerial defense systems captured from the Ukrainian Army
The ROF have never captured any aircraft or aerial defense systems from the Ukrainian Armed Forces. After the invasion had started, all of the systems were moved out, none were left behind. Armament systems of this level could have come only from Russia. And this could not have happened without the knowledge and approval from the very top levels of command, including the commander-in-chief, i.e. Putin himself.
Putin: “When the unconstitutional armed coup took place in Ukraine, and power changed hands by force, our army was legally deployed in Crimea – under the agreement on our military base there.”
“The first thing we did was increase our contingent to guard our Armed Forces, our military facilities, because we immediately saw that they were being threatened. That is where it all began.”
In reality: The deployment of Russian troops in the territory of Crimea was illegal
Indeed, Ukraine had a status of forces (SOFA) agreement with Russia for the basing of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in its territory. However, any deployment of the Russian forces beyond the territory of the fleet bases was illegal, and any deployment of additional forces from the territory of Russia was beyond the scope of this agreement. Russia, in its turn started airlifting and ferrying massive numbers of airborne troops, special purpose units, and infantry in late February 2014, even before it became clear that Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine. The combined forces deployment of such scale, and the massive logistical effort associated with it, required careful advance planning. It means that preparations for the military intervention to Crimea started long before the Euromaidan Revolution, while Russia-aligned Yanukovych was still in power.
Here is a story of a battalion task force consisting of 1097 servicemen from just one infantry brigade deployed to Crimea.
There were many more. To date, the Military Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine has collected reliable evidence of the participation of seven airborne and infantry brigades of the Russian Army in the Crimean operation. However, this list is likely incomplete, as the list of holders of the medal For the Return of Crimea compiled by our community contains servicemen from eight more Russian military units (airborne, infantry, special-purpose and armoured brigades) that apparently took part in the operation . This list excludes the units of the Black Sea Fleet that were already stationed in Crimea before the operation’s launch.
In reality: There was no threat to the Russian bases in Crimea, whereas Ukrainian military facilities were rapidly blocked
There are no traces in open sources of any Russian military facilities being threatened by Ukrainian troops or “aggressive nationalists”. However, there is ample evidence of the Ukrainian military facilities being besieged all over the peninsula in a concerted, and well organized operation. The operation began in late February 2014. In less than a month, all Ukrainian military facilities on the peninsula were surrounded by “little green men” wearing Russian military uniforms without insignia, and operating Russian armoured vehicles and military trucks, as well as by representatives of different paramilitary groups posing as “Crimean self-defense”. There are numerous videos showing the gunmen blocking and then storming Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea.
Putin: “By the way, the decision to hold this referendum was made by the Crimean parliament which was elected in strict accordance with the Constitution and the laws of Ukraine before any such events. Therefore, nothing illegal…”
In reality: The Crimean referendum was illegal
Ukraine is a unitary republic, and any move to separate any territory from Ukraine would have required an Ukraine-wide referendum. Moreover, the Crimean Parliament had been seized before the decision on holding the cessation so-called “referendum” was passed. This decision was taken at the Russian gunpoint, and the “referendum” was held in what was effectively Russian occupied Crimea.
The referendum of March 16 was declared illegitimate not only by all branches of power in Ukraine, but also by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe (PACE), and the Venice Commission. On March 27, 2014, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution rejecting the referendum in Crimea on secession from Ukraine held on March 16 and further illegal annexation of the peninsula by Russia.
We reviewed only a small part of the manipulations and lies directly concerning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine which falls within the systemic focus of our investigations. However, Putin’s takes on the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, meddling in European politics, the MH-17 tragedy, application of chemical weapons in Syria, and other topics are equally cynically twisted and manipulated in this interview. The interview itself is yet another argument for the leaders of the civilized world to understand and admit that Russia with its current regime is not a “strategic partner” and cannot be one. It is an enemy. Regardless of whether western leaders recognize it or not, Putin is already waging a hybrid war on the collective West, and its values and institutions to achieve his own strategic ends. He poisons the media with toxic propaganda, corrupts politicians and organizations, hacks computer systems, etc. The lack of this recognition makes the collective West weak and vulnerable in the face of this aggression, and makes it prone to appeasing the aggressor. And we all know the terrible costs of these policies from the history of the 20th century.
Artem Velichko specially for InformNapalm