Who are Ukraine’s pro-Russia rebels?

Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
Wed July 23, 2014

(CNN) — The horrifying crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has put the pro-Russia rebels operating in Ukraine’s eastern regions center stage — and raised all kinds of questions about who they are, what they want and who’s in charge.

U.S. and other officials have said it appears the plane was shot down by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile located within rebel-held territory.

The rebels have repeatedly denied responsibility and instead point the finger at Ukraine’s armed forces.

Where are the rebels?

The rebels are pro-Russia militants concentrated in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, with the industrial city of Donetsk a particular stronghold.

Recent gains by Ukrainian armed forces have seen the territory controlled by the rebels contract. But the rural area where MH17 crashed to earth July 17 remains under the rebels’ sway.

The various rebel groups operating across the region do not appear to have a strong central command.

When did they first appear on the scene?

After popular protests toppled Ukraine’s pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February, pro-Russia rebels first appeared in Ukraine’s Crimea region, where they seized key infrastructure. The region was subsequently annexed by Russia.

Unrest then broke out in eastern Ukraine, a heartland of support for Yanukovych, where many people speak Russian and feel closer ties to Moscow than to Kiev.

Rebel leaders in Luhansk and Donetsk seized key government buildings and declared themselves the heads of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. In May, a referendum was held in each region on secession from Ukraine.

Who are the main rebel leaders?

Alexander Borodai, a Russian citizen, was appointed prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and has been a prominent public face for the rebels.

He’s the rebel leader who after speaking with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak agreed that the plane’s flight data recorders would be handed over.

According to Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, there are rumors Borodai is a Russian intelligence officer who has reached the rank of general in the FSB, the successor to the KGB.

"Borodai himself has denied (the rumors), but I would say that given his trips back and forth to Moscow, he has certainly been consulting with parts of Russian intelligence over the past couple of months," he said.

In an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, Borodai denied any responsibility for the downing of MH17.

Another name that crops up frequently is that of Igor Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov, the self-proclaimed defense minister for the people’s republic.

According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Strelkov on July 17 "posted a social media report bragging about the shoot-down of a transport plane — at which point when it became clear it was civilian, they pulled down that particular report."

Also a Russian, Strelkov was a military commander in the rebel redoubt of Slovyansk before it was retaken by Ukrainian forces, later reappearing in Donetsk city. He was also present in Crimea at the time of its annexation.

Added to an EU sanctions list in April, he was described as being on the staff of the Russian military’s main Intelligence Directorate.

What is the rebels’ response to the claim they shot down MH17?

After three months or more of bitter fighting against the Ukrainian authorities, the rebels are disinclined to believe anything they hear from Kiev or the West, says freelance journalist Noah Sneider in Ukraine.

They deny shooting down MH17 and many instead claim it is a provocation conjured up by the Ukrainian authorities in Kiev, he said. Many of them claim they don’t have the equipment to have hit the plane.

"Anything that’s released by the current authorities in Kiev is seen in rebel eyes as fabricated, as intended to — essentially to draw NATO into Ukraine," Sneider said.

Asked about the growing weight of evidence gathered by Washington and Kiev, such as social media postings and phone intercepts, Borodai told CNN it was fake.

"It is very simple to disprove it. All of the information that comes through the Internet, in my opinion, is practically all lies," he said.

Would the rebels have been able to shoot down the plane?

Russia denies claims by Kiev and the West that it has provided training, heavy weaponry and logistical support to the rebels. It also dismisses any direct involvement of Russian forces in Ukraine.

In recent weeks, rebel forces have brought down a number of Ukrainian military aircraft in the eastern regions, including two Antonov AN-26 transport planes, several Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters, an Su-25 fighter jet and an Ilyushin IL-76 cargo plane.

However, Ukrainian and U.S. officials believe Russian expertise would have been needed to operate the SA-11, or Buk, antiaircraft system that seems increasingly likely to have been used to shoot down MH17.

Vitaly Nayda, Ukraine’s director of informational security, told CNN that he is certain a Russian officer personally pushed the button to shoot down the plane.

CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, who has reported extensively from Ukraine and met many of the rebel fighters, said it was hard to say if any of them had the specialist training needed to operate the Buk system.

"The people we’ve met, the militia, they’re ragtag, a lot of them have old military experience, and that’s mostly ground, street-to-street fighting, rather than the technological stuff you need to know to run something like that."

A lot of heavy weaponry has flooded in during the past few weeks, said Paton Walsh. "But the majority of video you see of separatist armor and weapons, lighter artillery, even Grad rocket launchers sometimes, are nothing of the scale of the Buk."

What weapons do the rebels have?

The military aircraft brought down by the rebels were flying at relatively low altitudes and were for the most part brought down by shoulder-launched SA-7 missiles and ZU 23-2 anti-aircraft guns. Such weapons were seized when pro-Russian rebels took control of several Ukrainian military depots and bases.

But those weapons are a world away from the Buk system, effective at a higher altitude, at which the Malaysia Airlines plane was flying.

Peter Felstead, an expert on former Soviet military hardware at IHS Jane’s, says that "the Buk is in both the Russian and Ukrainian inventories, but it’s unclear whether the one suspected in the shoot-down was taken by rebels when they overran a Ukrainian base, or was supplied by Russia."

Video posted by Ukraine’s Interior Ministry on its Facebook page shows a Buk system, according to the Ukrainian officials, heading toward Russia, with one missile missing.

Borodai told CNN that the rebels had never been in control of a single Buk missile system.

What does Russia say?

Russia insists it has no direct influence over the separatists. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been consistent in his denials of any Russian involvement in the bringing down of MH17.

"No one should have the right to use this tragedy to achieve selfish political objectives," he said.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia wanted to see an objective, open and independent investigation, adding that Ukraine must take the initiative since the tragedy occurred on its territory.

"With regard to the claims raised by Kiev, that it was almost us who did it: in fact I haven’t heard any truthful statements from Kiev over the past few months," he told state TV channel Russia 24.

Russian state media reports have sought to suggest that Ukraine’s own armed forces may have been involved in bringing down MH17.

Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, also blamed Ukraine for the crash in remarks Monday. But when asked about audio recordings of purported pro-Russia separatists talking about shooting down a plane, he suggested that if they did, it was an accident.

"According to them, the people from the east were saying that they shot down a military jet," he said. "If they think they shot down a military jet, it was confusion. If it was confusion, it was not an act of terrorism."



Andriy Gerashchenko: Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs has proof Shoigu participated in arming the terrorists in eastern Ukraine
Ukraine Crisis Media Center

Kyiv, July 23, 2014 – The actions of terrorists and the supply of military equipment and weapons are coordinated by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. This was stated by Andriy Gerashchenko, advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs (MIA), during a press briefing at Ukraine Crisis Media Center. “The MIA received indisputable evidence of the Russian Defense Minister Segey Shoigu’s involvement in handing over arms to the terrorists, as well as “Grad” systems, tanks and artillery. He is also the centerpiece of control over all weapons supplies and coordination of various groups of mercenaries. We are working on verifying the information that it was Shoigu who approved supplying the “Buk M1” to the terrorists in eastern Ukraine to enable them shoot down Ukrainian jets,” – noted the Minister’s advisor.

According to Anton Gerashchenko, at the beginning the terrorists’ actions were coordinated by the FSB and MIH. Taking into account the lack of consistency and efficiency of action, the decision to give these powers to Shoigu directly has been made. “Before, some groups of terrorists were governed by the FSB, others by that MIH of the General Headquarters of the Russian armed forces. As of today the decision has been made that Mr. Shoigu will command all of the terrorists,” – added Gerashchenko.



How rebels in Ukraine built up an arsenal capable of reaching the skies
Tim Lister, CNN
Sun July 20, 2014

(CNN) — Under a blazing sun in early June, a group of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine were digging amid pine woods near the town of Krazny Liman.

Their grizzled commander was a bearded man in his 50s who would not tell us where he was from, but acknowledged that he wasn’t local. He was proud to show off his unit’s most prized possession — a truck-mounted anti-aircraft unit that was Russian-made.

He told us the weapon had been seized from a Ukrainian base.

A few miles away, in the town of Kramatorsk, rebel fighters displayed two combat engineering tanks they said they had seized them from a local factory. Eastern Ukraine has long been a center of weapons production. They had parked one of the tanks next to the town square.

These were just two instances of how the rebels in eastern Ukraine were steadily adding more sophisticated weapons to their armory, including tanks, multiple rocket launchers — and anti-aircraft systems.

In early June, they began to target Ukrainian planes and helicopters, with some success.

The day after we met the commander in the pine woods, an Antonov AN-26 transport plane was brought down over nearby Slovyansk.

Several Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters were also hit in this period, as was an Ilyushin IL-76 cargo plane near Luhansk — it is about the size of a passenger jet.

Forty-nine military personnel were killed when the IL-76 crashed short of the airport.

For the most part, these aircraft were flying at relatively low altitudes, and were targeted by shoulder-launched SA-7 missiles and anti-aircraft guns. The pro-Russian rebels had taken control of several Ukrainian military depots and bases and stripped them of their weapons.

The SA-7 was standard Soviet issue. Relatively easy to operate, it is effective to altitudes of some 2,500 meters (8,000 feet).

But it and ZU 23-2 anti-aircraft batteries, which rebel units also obtained, are a world away from the SA-11 or "Buk" system that seems increasingly likely to have been used to shoot down Flight MH17 on Thursday.

Stealing a Buk

Could the pro-Russian rebels have acquired a serviceable Buk from a Ukrainian base and operated it? The evidence is circumstantial; a great deal of Ukrainian military hardware is in poor condition or redundant.

But on June 29, rebels raided the Ukrainian army’s A-1402 missile facility near Donetsk. Photographs show them examining what they found.

The Russian website Vosti ran an article the same day titled "Skies of Donetsk will be defended by surface-to-air missile system Buk."

The article claimed: "The anti-air defense point is one of the divisions of the missile corps and is equipped with motorized "Buk" anti-aircraft missile systems."

Peter Felstead, an expert on former Soviet military hardware at Janes IHS, says that "the Buk is in both the Russian and Ukrainian inventories, but it’s unclear whether the one suspected in the shoot-down was taken by rebels when they overran a Ukrainian base, or was supplied by Russia."

He told CNN that the Buk "would normally operate with a separate radar that picks up the overall air picture. This was almost certainly not the case with MH17," making it more difficult to identify the target and track its course.

Among the pro-Russian rebels are fighters who served in the Russian army. It is possible that some were familiar with the Buk, but Felstead agrees with the U.S. and Ukrainian assessment that Russian expertise would have been needed to operate it.

"The system needs a crew of about four who know what they’re doing. To operate the Buk correctly, Russian assistance would have been required unless the rebel operators were defected air defense operators – which is unlikely."

It is now the "working theory" in the U.S. intelligence community that the Russian military supplied a Buk surface-to-air missile system to the rebels, a senior US defense official told CNN Friday.

Russia has denied that any equipment in service with the Russian armed forces has crossed the border into Ukraine. And Aleksander Borodai, the self-described prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said Saturday his forces did not have weapons capable of striking an aircraft at such a high altitude.

But someone in the border region where eastern Ukraine meets Russia has been using an advanced anti-air missile system.

Late Wednesday, the day before MH17 was presumably hit, a Ukrainian air force Sukhoi Su-25 combat jet was shot down close to the border with Russia.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry told CNN that the plane was flying at 6,200-6,500 meters (about 21,000 feet) and was hit near a town called Amvrosiivka, which is only some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from where MH17 was hit and 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the border with Russia.

The Ukrainian military alleged the missile had been fired from Russian territory. It was the first time that a combat jet flying at high speed had been hit and came two days after an AN-26 — flying at a similar altitude in the same area — was shot down further north, in the Luhansk area.

Smuggling on the black roads

The Russian Defense Ministry said Friday that weapons could not be smuggled across the border "secretly." But they can.

By early June, rebels controlled several crossings along a stretch of border more than 200 kilometers (125 miles) long. The border area is open farmland that was neither patrolled regularly nor even marked in many places.

Dozens of unmonitored tracks known as black roads — because they have been used for smuggling — cross the border. Additionally, the Ukrainian border guard service was in disarray after an attack on its command center in Luhansk early in June.

On the road east toward the border through the town of Antratsyt there was no sign of a Ukrainian military or police presence. The pro-Russian rebels had already begun to bring across heavy weapons at that point.

A CNN team visited the border post at Marynivka in June, soon after a five-hour firefight involving border guards and members of the self-declared Vostok battalion of rebels who had been trying to bring over two Russian armored personnel carriers.

They had been abandoned during the battle.

The unknowns are these: Just how much weaponry has been brought in from Russia, how was it obtained, and did it include the SA-11 Buk?

In June, the U.S. State Department claimed that three T-64 tanks, several rocket launchers and other military vehicles had crossed the Russian border. Ukraine made similar accusations, saying the weapons had gone to Snezhnoe, a rebel stronghold close to where MH17 came down.

The State Department said the tanks had been in storage in south-west Russia, suggesting collusion between the Russian authorities — at some level — and the rebels. It said at the time that the equipment held at the storage site also included "multiple rocket launchers, artillery, and air defense systems."

It added, notably, that "more advanced air defense systems have also arrived at this site."

Moscow rejected the claims as fake.

NATO has also released satellite images which, it said, showed tanks in the Rostov-on-Don region in Russia early in June, before they were taken to eastern Ukraine. The tanks had no markings.

Even so, some experts, such as Mark Galeotti at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, say the evidence is largely circumstantial. NATO’s images did not show the tanks actually crossing into Ukraine.

Wherever they came from, Russian language websites soon featured calls for people with military skills to call a number associated with the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic if they could help operate or maintain the tanks.

One answered, "I served in the military engineering academy…and am a former commander in the intelligence."

But the separatists’ greatest vulnerability was always from the air.

The Ukrainians had already shown, in driving them away from the Donetsk airport at the end of May, that they could use airpower to devastating effect. And they had begun to fly at higher altitudes to avoid shoulder-launched missiles.

To hold what remained of their territory, the pro-Russian rebels needed to be able to challenge Ukrainian dominance of the skies.

Whether they received help from across the border to do so, and in what way, is the question that governments around the world want answered.



“From Russia With Love”: Terrorists No Longer Conceal the Fact That Russia Supplies Them With Weapons
Ukraine Crisis Media Center

Kyiv, 22 July 2014. Ukrainian forces found several hundred units of military equipment, entire arsenals of Russian weapons, ammunition and uniforms on the territories left behind by terrorists. Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) spokesman Andriy Lysenko made the announcement at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center briefing.

“Terrorists no longer conceal the fact that it is Russia that supplies them with weapons,” Lysenko said.

One of the smaller-scale missile flamethrowers left behind by terrorists sports a handwritten sign, “From Russia With Love.”

As a result of a successful military operation, the town of Severodonetsk, Lughansk oblast, has been freed from terrorists today. The Ukrainian flag has been raised over Severodonetsk. During the operation, our soldiers managed to free four hostages who were being held captive for approximately a month. At one of the buildings, the officers also discovered bodies of two people who had been executed as the terrorists were leaving town. The ATO forces are currently sweeping the buildings and roads in Severodonetsk for possible land mines.

At the moment, battle is underway to free the town of Lysychansk. In order to avoid siege, terrorist gangs are hastily leaving town, fighting back, and suffering serious losses.

Ukrainian border control units remain under fire. Today, artillery fire from tanks and armored vehicles was opened near the localities of Dmytrivka and Marynivka. The attacks were repelled.

Russians continue to amass military forces at the border. Today, near the locality of Petrivka, Lughansk oblast, 3 armored vehicles and approximately 40 Russian soldiers were spotted within 200 meters of the border with the Russian Federation on the Russian side.

At the Vovchansk checkpoint, the border control squad discovered a GRAD system in traveling mode, i.e. in the process of preparing to open fire, at the distance of 200 meters from the border with Ukraine on Russian territory.

We reported this morning the terrorists were setting up land mines as they retreated near Severodonetsk. Today, one of the bridges between Severodonetsk and Rubizhne was blown up.

Yesterday in Lughansk, the terrorists kidnapped nine students, who were citizens of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Russian mercenaries are holding the foreigners hostage inside the State Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) building, which is under their control. Relatives of the hostages intend to petition with the Nigerian Embassy in Ukraine in order to facilitate their release.

Communication lines are under repair in the Ukrainian towns that have been freed from terrorists. Phone networks, along with Internet access, has been recently restored in Kramatorsk, Krasnoarmiysk, Mar’inka, Sloviansk and ten other locations.

Last night SSU officers detained a group of five spies who were plotting terrorist acts in Odesa oblast. The Russian mercenaries had self-made explosives in their possession, which they were planning to use in locations with large amounts of civilians. The State Security Service of Ukraine established that they had already blown up several bank chains in Odesa and were planning to blow up military commissariat buildings.


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