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Court in Russia inadvertently reveals the huge number of Russian military forces deployed in Donbas

17.12.2021
Halya Coynash

Debaltseve - one of the battles where heavy Russian military involvement was evident Photo Reuters

A court in Rostov-on -Don recently issued a ruling on corruption charges that effectively confirmed the deployment in occupied Donbas of a large number of Russian military forces.  The ruling is in clear conflict with Moscow’s continued attempts to deny any involvement in what it claims to be a ‘Ukrainian civil war’, and was, within hours of the initial report by Radio Svoboda, deleted from the court’s website. A cached version can be found here.  

The ruling could not be more incriminating.  It makes it quite clear that deliveries were made once a fortnight to Russian military personnel in the east of Ukraine, with these constituting a formidable 1300 tons of food items from the Rostov oblast (Russia).

Although other individuals implicated, both in the supplies to occupied Donbas and in the corruption, are mentioned, the ruling passed on 10 November 2021 by judge L.V. Sholokhov from the Kirovsky District Court in Rostov, was in connection with criminal charges against Viacheslav Zabaluyev, deputy regional manager on military issues of the commercial company ‘Technology’.  He was found guilty of mediation in bribery (in connection with bribes paid to the Head of the Centre for State Sanitary Inspection of the Southern Military District) under Article 291.1 § 3b of Russia’s criminal code and sentenced to five and a half years’ imprisonment. 

The ruling directly states that Zabaluyev’s “duties included organizing and carrying out procurement and sale of food items, and creating the necessary supplies at the warehouse <>.  The said food items were designated to be sent to military units of the Russian Federation Armed Forces deployed on the territory of  DPR and LPR.”

The supplies of food items to DPR and LPR were carried out from the warehouse, located at

, once every two weeks.”   Convoys were made up of over 70 trucks, with an overall weight of over 1,300 tons.  The supplies included flour, preserves and fresh vegetables, with the overall value for one delivery coming to over 130 million (a little over 1.5 million euro).   Radio Svoboda estimates that 1,300 tons of food every fortnight would be enough for around 26 thousand men.  It points out, however, that there is nothing in the ruling to indicate whether supplies were only provided by this one private company. 

The above was not the only clear statement that these supplies were to Russian military personnel deployed on Ukrainian territory.  Later in the text, mention is made of “threats to disrupt the supplies of produce for the benefit of [one of the individuals in the case] and Russian Federation military personnel on military duty in DPR and LPR…..”

Such deliveries were made at least in 2018 and 2019.

Interfax.ru turned to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, for his comments on the court ruling.  He claimed this to be “a mistake of those who wrote the text” He went on to assert that “this is impossible.  There are no armed forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of the self-proclaimed republics.  There have not been and are not”.

The Kremlin has been repeating such denials like a mantra since the Spring of 2014, although there is considerable proof of heavy military involvement. 

Back in August 2014, when the Ukrainian Army seemed on the point of defeating Russian or Russian-led and armed militants, Moscow was seen and filmed sending vast amounts of military hardware and men to Donbas.  The first Russian military deaths were reported by independent media shortly afterwards, with serious grounds for estimating that a large part of a Pskov paratrooper unit were killed in Donbas in late August 2014.  In  2015 Russian contract soldiers were jailed after going absent without leave rather than face being sent to fight in Donbas.  

Russia has certainly expended considerable effort to maintain its fiction regarding supposed lack of military involvement in Donbas.  In July 2014, it made sure to strictly limit the scope of the OSCE Observer Mission at Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and [Russian] Donetsk.  It recently blocked even that limited monitoring and the militants in ‘L-DPR’ are at present on an almost daily basis preventing OSCE Special Monitoring Mission from gaining access to occupied territory.

The reasons were clear long before the revelations made in the Rostov court ruling. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission has regularly reported sightings of Russian military trucks travelling across the border into or from militant-controlled Donbas by dirt roads at night.  Such sightings have only hit the headlines when the militants shoot down the drones, though there is no good explanation for travelling by night in this way unless you have something to hide (details here).

By 2019,  Putin had signed into force a law preventing military personnel from making incriminating revelations about their ‘military duties’ or ‘prowess’ on Ukrainian territory via social media, etc.  Had there been such a ban in July 2014, Russia might have succeeded in concealing the information used to establish the transportation of the BUK missile launcher from a military site in Kursk (Russia) to territory under the armed formations where it was used to down Malaysian airliner MH17, killing 298 adults and children. 

Fortunately, Russia has proven less successful at shutting up key Russian militants who are presumably too valuable to get rid or, or who have found methods for ensuring that they do not end up killed ‘in unexplained circumstances’.  Igor Girkin, MH17 defendant and the ‘former’ Russian FSB officer who brought war to Donbas;  fellow Russian militants Alexander Borodai and neo-Nazi Alexander Zhuchkovsky, have all made Russia’s direct involvement abundantly clear, with it equally plain that they are referring, among other things, to military engagement.

In November 2021, Conflict Armament Research, an independent body probing weapon supplies to armed conflicts, published a study of the weapons; ammunition; vehicles; armour and artillery used by the Russian-controlled armed formations in Donbas, entitled Weapons of the War in Ukraine.  The three-year study, carried out with funding from both the EU and the German Federal Foreign Office, found that of  the almost five thousand rounds of ammunition which CAR documented between 2018 and 2021, the majority had been produced in Russian Federation factories, as had 41 of the 43 weapons they examined.  “A significant proportion of the items” had been produced after the collapse of the USSR (and were thus not ‘Soviet stockpiles”. 

In the battles of Ilovaisk in August 2014 and Debaltseve in 2015, Russia is known to have used considerable contingents of military personnel and hardware.  In a study entitled Russian Forces in Ukraine * and published in March 2015 by the UK-based RUSI [the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies], military specialist Igor Sutyagin estimated that there were at least 10,500 – 11,000 Russian troops operating in eastern Ukraine by March 2015. 

Sutyagin wrote that “Direct intervention by Russian troops in combat roles then followed in the middle of August, when the prospect of rebel defeat had become realistic. The presence of large numbers of Russian troops on Ukrainian sovereign territory has, more or less, since become a permanent feature of the conflict.”

Judging by the Rostov ruling, it was so clearly a feature of the conflict on another country’s sovereign territory, that neither the defendant in a criminal case, nor the court saw any reason to conceal it.

* If the hyperlink does not open, the report can be found at http://mepoforum.sk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Russian-Forces-in-Ukraine-RUSI.pdf

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