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29.10.2018 | Halya Coynash

OSCE drone downed after it spotted Russian military movement by night in Ukraine

OSCE drone (photo OSCE)2
   

A drone used by the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission in Donbas was ‘lost’ during the early hours of 27 October, soon after experiencing signal interference, or ‘jamming’, as it reported movement of a Russian convoy of trucks and of a surface-to air missile system in non-government-controlled area.  While there is no proof that the drone was brought down deliberately, this is not the first time that jamming has been used to prevent the equipment recording the movement of Russian convoys, including one mounted with an anti-aircraft gun, travelling at night on dirt roads to or from the border with the Russian Federation where there is no official border crossing.

The OSCE SMM’s task is merely to monitor, not to draw conclusions.  It was seemingly this restriction in the scope of their mission that Alexander Hug, Deputy Chief SMM Monitor was referring to in a Foreign Policy interview that caused anger in Ukraine.  The unfortunate wording, that seemed to suggest that there was no direct evidence of Russian involvement has now been removed, though even in the original it was clear that Hug was pointing to the lack of any other explanation for the Russian “convoys leaving and entering Ukraine on dirt roads in the middle of the night, in areas where there is no official crossing”. 

On 28 October, the SMM issued a ‘spot report’ stating that its long-range unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, had gone missing over a non-government-controlled area in the Donetsk oblast.  

The report explains that at 01.18 on 27 October, the UAV had first spotted a surface-to-air missile system and a fuel truck east of Nyzhnokrynske, 66 km east of Donetsk).   At 01.36, it “spotted a convoy of seven trucks on a dirt road near the border with the Russian Federation where there are no border crossing facilities, driving in a south-westerly direction towards Manych (non-government-controlled, 76km east of Donetsk). The UAV was then re-directed south towards Nyzhnokrynske in order to continue observing the convoy. At 01:53 the SMM lost all communications with the UAV while it was flying at an altitude of about 7.000ft over an area south-east of Nyzhnokrynske. For about 35 minutes before communications were lost, the UAV had experienced signal interference, assessed as jamming, at intervals in areas near Saurivka and Nyzhnokrynske. The UAV did not return to its ground control station near Stepanivka (government-controlled, 54km north of Donetsk) and is considered lost.”

Jamming

This is not the first occasion when the UAV has faced interference which the SMM assessed as jamming, with the interference on 10 October also coming after the UAV spotted a Ural truck mounted with an anti-aircraft-gun (ZU‑23, 23mm)) on a dirt road around 2 km from the border, as well as other movement.  On that occasion, the SMM managed to recall the UAV “due to multiple instances of GPS signal loss assessed as jamming.”

Illicit convoys of vehicles entering or leaving Ukraine by night and on dirt roads

In the above-mentioned spot report, SMM notes that, since 7 August, it has observed “convoys, including trucks, on seven occasions on the same abovementioned unpaved road in the area near the border”. 

There is no good reason for convoys of Russian trucks and other vehicles to travel by night on dirt roads near the unguarded border with the Russian Federation unless they have something to hide.  Given that the two occasions where jamming was serious (10 October, 27 October) occurred after the UAV spotted major items of military hardware, there is every reason to assume that Russia is transporting other weapons of war to a country which it claims to not be at war with.

The sightings (in chronological order)

 7 August 2018

“An SMM long-range UAV spotted convoys of trucks entering and exiting Ukraine via a dirt track where there are no border crossing facilities in the middle of the night”.  

At 22.15 on 7 August, the UAV recorded a convoy of eight cargo trucks (five KamAZ-4310, the others undetermined) near Chystiakove (non-government-controlled) and travelled around 3.5 kilometres before reaching the Russian-Ukrainian border and turning onto a dirt road.  The two convoys passed each other for around five minutes.

“Each of the convoys separately stopped for about three minutes next to an off-road vehicle that was parked in a field along the above-mentioned dirt track, 1.7km from the border, and again next to two trucks parked at the intersection of the dirt track and the paved road (3.5km from where the convoys crossed the border)”. At both spots, the occupants of the parked vehicles interacted with the drivers of each convoy’s lead vehicle.

The convoy coming into Ukraine was later observed in territory within the so-called ‘Luhansk people’s republic’. 

The SMM also reported that on 7 August it had, for the first time, “observed what it assessed to be an improvised camp consisting of six armoured reconnaissance vehicles (BRDM variants) and 15 military-type trucks (two KamAZ variants, four Ural variants,… “

This was in a non-government-controlled area 59 km south-east of Luhansk, and, as the SMM pointed out: “About 1.6km east of the camp, there is an unguarded road crossing into the Russian Federation which is barricaded with a metal bar.”

4-5 September 2018

“An SMM long-range UAV spotted a convoy of trucks on a dirt road near the border with the Russian Federation where there are no border crossing facilities in the middle of the night. On 4 September, at 00:01 an SMM long-range UAV spotted a convoy of ten KAMAZ canvas-covered cargo trucks and four escort vehicles (one escort vehicle at the front of the convoy and three parked at the back), all parked in a single file line, oriented north, on an unpaved dirt road north-east of Manych (non-government-controlled, 76km east of Donetsk). About 10-15 people were walking around between the parked vehicles. After about 30 minutes, at 00:30, all the trucks moved towards the international border between Ukraine and the Russian Federation via the dirt road that leads across the border, while the four escort vehicles remained in Ukraine and drove north”.

9-10 October

During the night from 9-10 October, OSCE SMM reports that its unmanned aerial vehicle [UAV] “spotted vehicles move north-east on a dirt road near the border with the Russian Federation where there are no border crossing facilities in a non-government-controlled area of Donetsk region.”

The first spotting was at around 23.00, when the UAV detected four Ural and KamAZ covered cargo trucks, as well as four cars.  All were stationary, and there were about 20 persons walking between them. 

At 00.30, all the individuals got into the vehicles.  Three Ural and the KamAZ trucks, together with three cars, headed further towards the border with the Russian Federation, while one Ural and a car travelled towards Manych (which is non-government controlled).

The evening of 10 October

Similar activities were observed late in the evening of 10 October.  At around 23.00, two trucks (a Ural and KamAZ), together with four sport-utility vehicles, were recorded driving to a location near the border where the SMM had reported a convoy of covered cargo trucks entering Ukraine during the night from 7-8 August.

During the same period, the UAV spotted two Ural trucks (one mounted with an anti-aircraft-gun (ZU‑23, 23mm)), a minivan and a car in a field along the same dirt path, approximately 2km from the border.”

There is no clarity as to which direction the truck with the anti-aircraft gun had been travelling in, though clearly such a Russian weapon had no business being in Ukraine at all.  As mentioned, there were clear signs that Russia did not want its movements observed, since it was at around 23.45 that the SMM was forced to recall the UAV “due to multiple instances of GPS signal loss assessed as jamming.”

11-12 October

Between around 22:20 and 01:40, two trucks (probably Ural) were spotted parked along an unpaved road half a kilometre south of the centre of Manych. 

Three separate groups of vehicles were observed driving eastwards and parking near the border with the Russian Federation, at a location used by the convoys of covered cargo trucks observed during the night of 7-8 August.

This time the vehicles included, among others, two tractor trailers; seven KamAZ trucks; four Ural trucks; and a heavy-equipment KamAZ transport trailer carrying an MT-LB armed personnel carrier.

The UAV observed two sedans travelling from the border which parked on the side of the road, and established a makeshift checkpoint about 100m north-east of the location where the three groups of vehicles had parked and 3.5km east-north-east of Manych.   The other vehicles came up to this improvised checkpoint in pairs, and after interacting with the people present, continued travelling eastwards.  The two sedans turned around at 01.22 and travelled eastward in the direction of the border with the Russian Federation.

At 01:34, the UAV spotted a KamAZ truck with a twin axle trailer, two Ural trucks and a KamAZ truck as well as a sport-utility vehicle traveling westward on the same road from the border with the Russian Federation in the direction of Manych.

16-17 October

In a non-government-controlled area of Donetsk region, an SMM long-range UAV again spotted vehicles on the unpaved road moving north-east towards the border with the Russian Federation and then south-west away from it where there are no border crossing facilities.

At around 23:00 on 16 October, the UAV spotted a Ural truck and a car near Manych heading north-east on an unpaved road until it reached a parking area in a field about 3.5km east-north-east of Manych. The truck then reversed onto a dirt road where it “stopped with its rear cargo deck facing north-east towards the border with the Russian Federation. About one hour later, the UAV spotted a group of at least 12 people walking from the border to the parked truck and some of them entering the rear of the truck, which remained in the area. At around 00:20 on 17 October, in the same area, the UAV spotted three trucks separately moving south-west from the border: one of them continued to travel south-west along the aforementioned dirt road while the others remained in the aforementioned parking area.

27 OctoberThe spot report described above. 

There is no reason to believe that these are Russia’s only secret and almost certainly military movements to and from Ukrainian territory. 

Ukraine lost control of a vast expanse of the border between Russia and Ukraine during the summer of 2014. It was this uncontrolled border that made it possible to bring the BUK missile launcher that downed Malaysian airliner MH17 into militant-controlled territory in July 2014, as well as tanks, military personnel, mercenaries and arms. It is all of this border that needs to be monitored, but it is that that Russia and the militants are opposing. 

Back in July 2014, Russia agreed to an OSCE Observer Mission at the border, but severely restricted its mandate to only the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and [Russian] Donetsk.  This mission has 20 civilian monitors, including the Chief Observer, who boast on their website of operating on a shift basis to ensure 24-hour cover.  This is all very well, and they doubtless monitor the area within their scope very well – all 40 metres of the Ukrainian-Russian border.  (more details here: Russian tanks entering Ukraine that the OSCE is mandated to miss ).

There is also a steady flow of so-called ‘humanitarian convoys’ from Russia, which neither OSCE SMM monitors, nor Ukrainian officials are permitted to see.  On 24 May 2018, SMM observers were aggressively prevented from viewing the 75th such ‘convoy’ even though it was asserted that this contained only children’s food and rescue equipment

On 31 May Charge d’Affaires Harry Kamian from the US Mission to OSCE pointed out that they “have no idea what is actually inside these supposed humanitarian aid convoys, because the Russian Federation will not let the Observer Mission or the SMM inspect them or watch them unload. We do know, however, that these so-called aid trucks did not unload at any hospital, school, NGO, or UN warehouse. Rather, they were unloaded at a compound the SMM reported as used by Russia-led forces. Armed men in military uniforms guarded its perimeter and prevented the SMM monitors from seeing the cargo or speaking with anyone on site”.

Only the first of these convoys ever attracted international attention.  The 280 trucks in August 2014 were supposed to be checked near Kharkiv and reloaded onto International Red Cross trucks.  Instead the trucks suddenly changed direction entering the Luhansk oblast through the militant-controlled border.   

It should therefore not be of any surprise that foreign journalists discovered that many of the trucks they were shown appeared either half or almost totally empty.  Some of their contents may have been quietly removed en route, or the entire exercise was aimed at exhausting international interest so that the subsequent convoys could pass virtually unnoticed. 

The ‘convoy’ may possibly have always had near empty loads and been intended as a decoy.  Around this time, a Polish TV correspondent was filming a seemingly endless succession of Russian military trucks with men, armed personnel carriers, artillery and anti-aircraft weapons moving towards a part of the Russian-Ukrainian border not under Ukrainian government control.

The footage from 18 August 2014, and the days around this, is still available and well-worth close scrutiny, especially given the sudden unexpected turn in the fighting near Ilovaisk towards the end of August 2014  Although the International Criminal Court’s Office of the Prosecutor stated on 4 December 2017 that it was still considering whether there is enough evidence of Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Donbas to call the war an international armed conflict, it did report that “during the course of the conflict, periods of particularly intense battles were reported in Ilovaisk (Donetsk oblast) in August 2014 and in Debaltseve (Donetsk) from January to February 2015. The increased intensity of fighting during these periods has been attributed to alleged corresponding influxes of troops, vehicles and weaponry from the Russian Federation to reinforce the positions of the armed groups.” (para 92).

The ICC Office of the Prosecutor’s report for 2018 will presumably soon be released.  It will come at the end of a year that saw the publication of the Joint Investigation Team’s conclusions about the downing of Malaysian airliner MH17 on 17 July 2014.  JIT concluded that the BUK missile which downed MH17 did not merely come from Russia, but “from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile brigade which is a unit of the Russian army from Kursk in the Russian Federation”.  While Russia’s proven liability for this horrific war crime is surely the most damning evidence of its direct involvement in the conflict in Donbas, let’s hope it is also following the ongoing flow of Russian military trucks at night along dirt tracks to avoid detection and its efforts to jam and down SMM drones that spot its military hardware once again transporting death to Donbas. 

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