Russia-Backed Separatists Conduct Explosive Training Exercises

Breaking down footage of recent maneuvers in eastern Ukraine

Explosion at a training exercise organized by the armed forces of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic on April 11, 2017 (source)

On Tuesday and Wednesday, April 11–12, forces of the Russian-backed separatists in the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) participated in training exercises. These exercises employed a variety of types of military equipment, including the Strela-10 anti-aircraft system, MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems), and artillery complexes originally manufactured to clear mines from the battlefield.

What equipment did the Luhansk separatists show off from their arsenal, and who was operating them? In this investigation, we will detail the most notable pieces of military equipment deployed during the exercises, and show what military units amongst the Luhansk separatists participated.

April 11 Exercises

The Tuesday exercises took place at the Uspensky firing range and included the use of the UR-77 “Dragon” and UR-83p rocket systems, both originally manufactured with the purpose of clearing minefields.

Two videos, one of which was published by an organ of the LNR security forces and the other by pro-separatist/Russian outlet News-Front, provide footage of the UR-77 and 83p in action outside of Luhansk.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uhv98TjhTjA

Composite image showing the UR-77 (orange) and UR-83p (green) deployed at the Uspensky firing range near Luhansk. Left: From Luhansk training footage (source). Bottom right: From News-Front Luhansk footage (source). Top right: From unrelated Russia 2 footage showing a UR-83p in use (source).

The UR-77 uses the chassis of an armored personnel carrier, with a launcher and two charges attached to the rear.

Source
Source
Source

While the UR-77 is a vehicle, the UR-83p is a portable system designed to be mounted on a vehicle. Below, a UR-83p is mounted to the back of a truck, where it launches its charge.

Source

With both of these pieces of equipment, the goal is to fire a charger with a cable attached into a minefield, clearing mines from the area. However, the weapons have also been used in a role similar to mortars, targeting buildings and fighters. Russia used the UR-77 in the battle of Komsomolskoye in the second Chechen War to target houses, leading to widespread destruction. A 2008 edition of the Moscow Defense Brief describes the devastating effects of the UR-77 when turned against houses, rather than minefields:

The storming of the village of Komsomolskoye completed the first stage of the second Chechen war. As soon as rebels were besieged in it, the operation became simple from the military viewpoint. The main reason for the unjustifiably high losses, however, was the lack of coordination between formations of different subordination. The storming involved units of the Armed Forces, the Main Intelligence Depart­ment, the Federal Security Service, Interior Troops and the Interior Ministry. The mass use of the UR-77 Zmei Gorynych line-charge mine­field breaching vehicle can be singled out among the technical innovations used in the storming. The weight of a charge exceeds one tonne and the power of the explosion is such that houses in Komsomolskoye were simply wiped off from the face of the earth. Neverthe­less, part of the rebels led by Ruslan Gelayev managed to break away from the encirclement, a situation quite typical of many operations in Chechnya.

The UR-77 has also been spotted in Syria being used by the Russia-backed Syrian Arab Army (SAA).

April 12 Exercises

A separate exercise was conducted on April 12 with anti-aircraft missile systems, most notably with the Igla MANPADS and the Strela-10 missile complex. As with the April 11 exercise, a video was uploaded to the YouTube channel of an organ of the Luhansk security forces.

Composite image of equipment used during the April 12 training exercise. Top-left: 9K38 Igla being fired (source), Bottom-left: Cache of 9K38 Iglas found by Ukrainian security forces on June 14, 2014, soon after the downing of a plane near Luhansk that killed 49 people (source), Top-right: 9K35 Strela-10 (source), Bottom-right: Line of vehicles at the training exercise that includes Strela-10 (source).

Fighters are carrying the 9K38 Igla, a MANPADS (man-portable air-defense system), and later fire it during the training exercises. The most deadly use of this weapon during the Ukrainian conflict was on June 14, 2014, when separatist forces reportedly used an Igla to destroy an Il-76 transport plane at the Luhansk airport, killing 49 people, including 40 Ukrainian paratroopers. Ukrainian security forces found “empty tubes of two Igla handheld surface-to-air missiles” near the airport.

Source
Source
Source

Also on display was the 9K35 Strela-10, a mobile anti-aircraft missile system. The Strela-10 has been in the arsenal of the Russia-backed separatists since the summer of 2014, but it is unclear where they received all of their systems, as this anti-aircraft missile system is operated by both the Ukrainian and Russian Armed Forces.

Source

Who is participating?

In the video released by the press center of the LNR People’s Militia depicting the April 11 UR-77 and UR-83P exercises, they interviewed Vladimir Shaposhnikov, calling him the Commander of the Engineer Sapper Company in the 6th Separate Motor Rifle Guard Regiment (L-69647) of the 2nd Army Corps (L-77077).

Vladimir Shaposhnikov. Source

This regiment is also known as the “Cossacks,” largely known to operate out of Stakhanov and includes many of the fighters once led by Pavel Dremov, before he was assassinated in December 2015. A patch for the “Great Army of the Don,” a Cossack group of fighters, is shown towards the end of the footage. This group was formed in the spring of 2014, and some of its members were eventually merged into the Luhansk 6th Separate Motor Rifle Guard Regiment.

Emblem for the “Great Army of the Don,” used by members of the Cossack National Guard (source)

In another video released by the press center of the LNR People’s Militia showing the April 12 exercises, with 9K38 Igla MANPADS and 9K35 Strela-10, vehicles were marked the number four in a box. This symbol tells us that the vehicles were from the 4th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade (L-74347). This brigade reportedly operates out of Alchevsk and Krasnyi Luch of the 2nd Army Corps (L-77077).

Source

Within the military structure of the so-called LNR, the battalions and companies under the larger encompassing brigades and regiments tend to have separatist commanders, while higher level units have Russian leadership operating under false pretenses. The 4th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade and 6th Separate Motor Rifle Guard Regiment operate out of towns, Stakhonov and Alchevsk, that are 20km (12mi) away from each other, bordering the line of contact outside of Debaltseve.

Going forward, it is worth paying greater attention to the frontline near Svitlodarsk, just north of Debaltseve and near the border of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Thus far, there have been no observed aggressive uses of the UR-77 or 83p, but the Igla has already proved deadly in the war, and there have been alleged uses of the Strela-10 in the summer 2014.


Follow the latest Minsk II Violations via the @DFRLab’s #MinskMonitor.

For more in-depth analysis from our regional experts follow the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. Or subscribe to UkraineAlert.