Who Are the Rebels Controlling Flight MH17′s Crash Site?

Mirren Gidda
TIME | July 22, 2014

The men behind the "Donetsk People’s Republic" and other separatist groups

Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard in front of the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Grabove, in the region of Donetsk on July 20, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

On Monday the two black boxes from flight MH17 were finally handed over to Malaysian experts who had been petitioning for their safe recovery. The black boxes, however, weren’t returned by the Ukrainian government, but by pro-Russian separatists from the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

The handover, attended by international press, did not seem bound by diplomatic protocols. Hulking rebels dressed in camouflage loomed over the diminutive leader of the Malaysian delegation as he addressed the media.

Next to him stood their leader, Alexander Borodai, the self-styled Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, who had negotiated the black boxes’ return with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. During the talks, Borodai had also agreed to transport the bodies of the victims to Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, to be flown out to the Netherlands for identification. He later kept his word.

But what authority did Borodai have to negotiate the terms of the agreement with a world leader? Little more than the authority of the gun. In April, a gang led by Borodai and another rebel, Igor Girkin, declared the eastern province of Donetsk a republic. Girkin, who goes by the moniker “Strelkov” meaning shooter, is Borodai’s right hand man, running the armed forces within the so-called “Republic.” Negotiations between the two prime ministers—legitimate or otherwise—may have been fraught given that Girkin reportedly boasted about shooting down the plane.

Despite their grand claim to have founded a republic, Andrew Weiss, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment, told TIME Borodai and Girkin only control shifting parts of the region, which is also populated by other separatist groups numbering about 5,000 rebels.

The separatists are far from a unified force, says James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House. “They are a series of disparate and only vaguely interconnected groups,” he says. “They’re very disorganized with no real structure or headquarters. Most of the rebels are poorly trained, ill-educated and ignorant of geopolitics.”

Borodai and Girkin however, aren’t everyday thugs like some of their rebel brethren. The pair are both Russian nationals with suspected ties to the Kremlin and experience in separatist conflicts.

Borodai, 41, is rumored to be particularly close to Moscow. In the early 1990s he wrote regularly for the far-right newspaper Zavtra and in 2011 founded the nationalist television channel Den-TV. He confirmed earlier this year that he worked as an adviser to the separatist Prime Minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov. Russia annexed Crimea in March.

Borodai claims he was invited to eastern Ukraine by Girkin, a former Russian security-service officer. Girkin, meanwhile, has alleged he was asked to head the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, though refuses to say by whom. Like Borodai, he also advised separatists in Crimea.

The Russian pair’s group may have staked their claim to the crash site—Iryna Gudyma, a spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe who is currently in the area told TIME “we’ve only encountered armed rebels from the Donetsk People’s Republic”—but other rebels are on the scene.

The Wall Street Journal has claimed Cossacks led by commander Nikolai Kozitsin control part of the area where MH17 fell. Unlike Borodai and Girkin, Kozitsin is a Ukrainian who was born in Donetsk. Like them, he has been involved in separatist conflicts in Transnistria and Georgia.

On July 18, the day after the crash, Ukrainian authorities released a transcript of a conversation in which a man they identified as Kozitsin says of MH17: “they shouldn’t be flying. There’s a war going on.” Another transcript implicates Igor Bezler, known to his men as “Bes”, or “devil.” During a call Bezler reportedly told a Russian intelligence officer his men shot down a plane. Bezler’s group currently controls the town of Horlivka in Donetsk province.

But none of the rebel leaders have any overarching authority. “The people who are leaders in east Ukraine are not playing leading roles,” says Sam Greene, director of King’s College London’s Russian Institute. “They hold the de facto power in that part of the Ukraine but that’s all. They don’t have long established electoral legitimacy.” Borodai was only allowed to speak to the Malaysian Prime Minister because his men currently control the area.

Any fleeting power the groups have is considerably bolstered by Russia’s supply of money and weapons into the region, but that may soon cease. “Moscow’s commitment to supporting the rebels is waning, particularly after MH17,” notes Greene. “The costs are becoming too high politically both in terms of sanctions and the damage to Putin’s international reputation.”

And without Russian support, the future of the Donetsk People’s Republic looks decidedly shaky.




Ukraine crisis: Fears rise of Russia-fuelled arms race
By Sam Jones, Defence and Security Editor
Financial Times | July 23, 2014


Though barely a week has passed since MH17 was shot out of the sky over Eastern Ukraine, an aggressive anti-aircraft campaign is still in full swing above the territories controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s defence ministry said two Su-25 fighters had been blown up by surface-to-air missiles, bringing the count of downed planes, not including MH17, to 14. The incident underscores a stark truth for the international community: the separatist insurgency is armed with an arsenal of growing size and sophistication. The question is: where has it come from?

When rebel brigades and units of Cossack volunteers sprouted in Crimea and eastern Ukraine this year, Russian president Vladimir Putin shrugged off questions about the source of their arms. Shops, he suggested.

But tanks cannot be bought in shops. Nor can anti-aircraft missile batteries of the kind that probably blew Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 out of the sky last week.

Dozens of online images – several of them with location tags in rebel territory and checked by the Financial Times with imaging software to ensure they are recent – confirm large amounts of such equipment now in rebel hands and in use in the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied providing arms to the separatists and using undercover operatives on the ground. But western intelligence chiefs say they have little doubt about the origin of the weaponry. The downing of MH17 was achieved, they allege, with sophisticated Russian arms and expertise as part of a smuggling programme directed by Russian military and intelligence officials that has seen materiel moved over Ukraine’s border in ever-larger amounts in recent months as Kiev’s fightback has grown in intensity.

Among the equipment US intelligence officials believe Russia has supplied are dozens of T-64 battle tanks, Grad rocket launchers, 2S9 Nona self-propelled guns, artillery, BMP-2 infantry combat vehicles with automatic cannons, armoured troop carriers, small arms from semi-automatic weapons and mines, and sophisticated anti-aircraft systems.

“The overall strategy – that has been missed by many in the west – has been to create a proper army,” said Jonathan Eyal, international director at the Royal United Services Institute, a military and strategic think-tank. “It is not to create a guerrilla organisation. It is not a resistance movement. Russia is trying to create a proper military force.”

The numbers of weapons coming into eastern Ukraine – and their capabilities – appear to be anything but small. In the months before the downing of MH17, Russian armament supplies amounted to dozens of vehicles in any given week, according to a Nato intelligence briefing.

The weekend before the Malaysian airliner was shot down, killing the 298 people on board, US intelligence officials said they detected a convoy of “up to 150 vehicles” crossing the border to separatist positions.

“Most of Ukraine’s border controls have simply melted away,” said Mr Eyal. “Russia has been transporting weapons across on the back of trucks as if it was in the middle of Russia.”

Against such a backdrop, the US is releasing few details however. Satellite images released by the US and Nato allies have been commissioned from private sector companies, so as not to give away details of high-resolution imaging and tracking capabilities.

In private, officials are less guarded. “There is a stealth war being waged,” said one senior Nato official. “Russia is covertly arming the rebels en masse to specifically make these ambiguous attacks possible. And it is accelerating.”

Such is the flood of weaponry that anti-Kiev forces have a shortage of skilled technicians, drivers and engineers to operate it. In Lugansk and Donetsk last month, they distributed leaflets looking for tank drivers.

Some of the equipment in use has been captured from Ukrainian forces. Eastern Ukraine is the centre of the country’s large armaments industry and some Ukraine military installations and arms caches have been over-run.

But such an explanation only accounts for a small number of arms, military experts say.

In addition, the markings on the tanks and armoured vehicles pictured in use by the rebels across social media are not consistent with those of the Ukrainian military.

Most are not marked at all – echoing the sudden appearance of unmarked vehicles in Crimea before Russia annexed the territory this year.

Much of the equipment also tallies with models known to be part of Russia’s mothballed armoury of weapons. Russia has 2,000 spare T-64 tanks, for example, which have officially been earmarked for destruction – part of an 18,000 tank stockpile of equipment phased out in recent military reforms.

On June 27, Ukrainian forces, after over-running a rebel position near Artemivsk, captured a T-64BV battle tank, and with it, documentation. The serial numbering of the tank shows it was manufactured in Kharkov Tank Factory in 1987, Ukrainian military officials said, and was stationed in the Russian city of Budenovskiy with Russia’s 205th infantry brigade until being recently taken out of service. The tank had been fitted with batteries and other parts recently made in St Petersburg, they added.

The means by which such equipment has reached rebel hands is less clearly documented but there is circumstantial evidence.

Satellite imagery compiled by Nato intelligence services seems to show defunct Russian military equipment being shipped to Ukraine in convoys.

Snizhne – the town from where Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, believes MH17 was shot down – is one of the first stopping points on what Nato intelligence officials say is one of the main routes for illicit arms into the country from Russia.

Nato images from late June, for example, show T-64 tanks being loaded on to transporters in Novocherkassk, about 50km from the Dolzhansky border crossing southeast of Snizhne, in what it has identified as a base – a previously little-used military site – for a logistical campaign to get heavy arms into Donetsk and Luhansk.

The questions that remain unanswered, however, concern exactly who is controlling such an operation.

So far, Moscow has denied strenuously that it has supplied the anti-Kiev insurgents with weaponry. But the Kremlin has also skirted proposals for international observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to be sent to border crossings.

“Obviously, you can’t just hand over these weapons systems without authorisation from high up,” said Keir Giles, an associate fellow and Russia expert at Chatham House in London. “There has to be significant military and intelligence authority to make this happen. Nobody is going to be doing this without authority from an extremely high level.”




Here’s Where Russia Trains Separatists Before Sending Them Into Ukraine
Michael B Kelley
Business Insider | Jul. 23, 2014

Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, tweeted satellite imagery showing a Russian training facility for separatists near the Ukraine border.

The U.S. State Department asserts that over the last few months, U.S. intelligence has "detected an increasing amount of heavy weaponry to separatist fighters crossing the border from Russia into Ukraine."

The U.S. has also gathered "information indicating that Russia is providing training to separatist fighters at a facility in southwest Russia, and this effort included training on air defense systems."


Russian-backed separatists are suspected of accidentally shooting down Malaysia Flight MH17 on July 17, killing 298 people.



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