Putin’s Undeclared War – A look at Bellingcat’s Artillery Investigation

It is by now no secret that regular Russian units played a major role in turning the tide of the Ukrainian summer offensive of 2014. This has been reported by international actors as well as the Ukrainian government, and Russian support has included both older as well as newer systems (such as the Pantsir and T-72B3), and whole units. One aspect which has received relatively little coverage is the considerable artillery support provided by the Russian Army to the Russian/Separatist forces. The latest Bellingcat report remedies this.

The report, titled ‘Putin’s Undeclared War – Summer 2014 Russian Artillery Strikes against Ukraine’ (ENGLISH/RUSSIAN), uses satellite imagery from the border area to locate possible firing positions that can be tied to Russian Army units, as well as artillery craters from a firing direction pointing towards Russia within close proximity to the border. These have then been classified according to a given set of criteria, to give a high probability that any firing position or crater field really could be tied to Russian artillery.

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Perhaps the single most damning picture in the report: Presenting all the cases where it has been possible to directly link artillery targets to Russian firing positions. Source: Bellingcat

The method employed is described in detail in the report, with helpful examples and illustrations to show its implementation. The numbers are staggering. Russian artillery units fired on Ukrainian targets on at least 149 separate occasions during the summer of 2014, with another 130 positions being identified as ‘likely’. On the receiving side, 408 crater fields coming from the direction of the border have been identified within range of Russian artillery, and of these 127 are within 3 km of the border itself, a range close enough to more or less rule out that the firing system has been stationed on Ukrainian territory. The Russian artillery have participated in the war by firing thousands of shells, a number so great that even in case of some of the incidents would have been from Ukrainian or separatist guns, there’s no denying the underlying conclusion: Russia provided a significant amount of indirect fire in support of their campaign in the Donbas.

There are at least three distinct phases of the campaign, with the first being the early shellings. Here, Russian units crossed the border, and once just inside Ukrainian territory they took up a firing position, and once again withdrew back to Russian territory once the firing was over (leaving easily identified tracks and thread marks). This poorly disguised attempt at getting some kind of deniability was then phased out as the campaign went on, the downing of MH17 being something of a watershed moment, and it became more and more common for the units to fire from Russian territory. The targets in most cases were the Ukrainian military camps set up during the Ukrainian offensive. A third phase of the artillery campaign started with the Russian ground offensive that reversed the Ukrainian gains. Here it is harder to determine which side has performed the attacks, as the Russian artillery pieces moved deep inside Ukrainian territory on the heels of the advancing Russian units. The attacks were usually performed by a limited number of guns, ranging from three to eight artillery pieces (though some sites have been targeted from multiple firing positions), with everything from mortars to self-propelled as well as towed howitzers and MLRS having been used. In some cases these included newer pieces of equipment, such as the BM-30 Smerch heavy rocket-launcher and the Msta-S self-propelled howitzer, both systems which indicate Russian involvement.

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The Russian BM-30 Smerch is identifiable on satellite pictures due its size compared to earlier systems. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Digr

The report as a whole gives a thorough picture, and is probably the first up until now to disclose the full extent of the Russian use of cross-border artillery strikes in the conflict. Noteworthy is the fact that 35 of the targeted sites sported more than a 100 impact craters.

Does the artillery strikes in themselves constitute an act of war? The report claim so, but as my knowledge of international law is limited, I asked Oscar Jonsson, a visiting researcher at Berkeley and  PhD-Candidate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, for a second opinion. His answer, to my surprise, was that as ‘War’ isn’t really properly defined. The UN Charter e.g. does not use the word (except in the preamble), but instead forbids the ‘use of force’ (except when defending from an armed attack). Cross-border raids and artillery strikes doesn’t necessarily amount to war unless they reach a certain (non-specified) intensity, with e.g. Nagorno-Karabakh having seen cross-border shootings which usually aren’t described as war. As such the question of what exactly constitutes a war largely rests on the individual states and the security council to pronounce.

However, as Jonsson also pointed out in an earlier post, the question is largely semantic, as the fact that Ukraine has international law on their side in Putin’s secret war doesn’t really help, unless they got the power to implement it (i.e. fight back). Even though the report indicates a degree of fighting that would classify as an armed attack, Ukraine still defines the conflict as an anti-terrorist operation from their lack of power.

All in all, the report is well worth a read, and gives yet another piece of the puzzle regarding Russia’s direct involvement in Ukrainian affairs.

One thought on “Putin’s Undeclared War – A look at Bellingcat’s Artillery Investigation

  1. Pingback: Putin’s Undeclared War – A look at Bellingcat’s Artillery Investigation — Corporal Frisk – Finland Politics

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