First OSCE Monitor Dies in Ukrainian Conflict

Analyzing claims regarding the first death in the monitoring mission

An OSCE SMM patrol vehicle destroyed in an explosion on April 23, 2017 (source).

On April 23 at 11:17am (EEST), an international ceasefire monitoring patrol in eastern Ukraine was caught in an explosion, possibly caused by a landmine. One team member died, the first fatality in the monitoring mission’s three-year history.

What can open sources tell us about the circumstances surrounding this incident?

The patrol consisted of six members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine. They were driving in two armored vehicles near non-government controlled Pryshyb, Luhansk Oblast (located very close to the line of contact) on a secondary road previously used by the SMM and local civilian traffic.

The rear vehicle was severely damaged in an explosion, after possibly coming into contact with a mine. No mine hazards were visible along the road, and per the September 19, 2014 Memorandum, mines and other explosive devices are prohibited, and any mines laid out prior to the Memorandum should have been removed as coordinated by the Joint Centre for Control and Co-ordination (JCCC) per the March 3, 2016 TCG Decision on Mine Action.

In a press conference, Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE SMM Alexander Hug confirmed that one SMM paramedic died (Joseph Stone, male-U.S.) and two others were injured (female-Germany, male-Czech Republic). The injured have since been released from Luhansk Regional Hospital to government controlled territory for further examination.

By referring to a daily breakdown of ceasefire violations published by the OSCE SMM, we can determine the location of observed fighting immediately before the incident took place.

— Only one hour before the explosion at the site of the OSCE SMM’s patrol, at 10:04 and 10:15am (EEST), the OSCE SMM heard two outgoing artillery explosions approximately 5–20km north/northwest from a position 2.5km southwest of Pryshyb.

— From 10:10–10:13am in Lopaskyne (~10km southeast from Pryshyb), the SMM heard four explosions assessed as impacts 10km to the west.

— About two hours prior to the incident, when stationed 1.5km north of the neighboring town Trokhizbenka (~4km northeast of Pryshyb), the SMM heard four explosions assessed as impacts 10km to the southwest. At 11:15am in Lobacheve (16km southeast of Pryshyb), the SMM heard one undetermined explosion approximately 1km south.

Excerpt from the OSCE SMM breakdown of ceasefire violations (source).

Additionally, on April 23, an OSCE SMM mini unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) observed one T-64 tank and at least twenty heavy-vehicle tracks 4km northwest of non-government-controlled Smile. For reference, the site of the patrol explosion was about 3km south of Pryshyb, and Smile is 7km south of Pryshyb. The placement of these pieces of military equipment is in violation of respective withdrawal lines. The site of the incident is in an area with frequent violations of the Minsk agreements, including violations of freedom of movement, heavy weapons, and ceasefire conditions. It is notably near Krymske, a town where there have been frequent observations of Minsk-proscribed heavy weapons, including 152mm artillery and MLRS Grads.

Russian and separatist response

In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry called the incident a “provocation aimed at derailing the settlement in Donbass,” calling for increased Trilateral Contact Group talks.

The head of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Igor Plotnitsky released a statement calling for coordination with LNR forces in determining OSCE routes, which would be in direct conflict with the OSCE freedom of movement mandate. Plotnitsky later added that he holds Ukraine responsible for the incident. The head investigator from the LNR “General Prosecutor’s Office” Alexander Alexandrov stated that a mine was planted at the site of the explosion by three saboteurs from the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The so-called Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR) Deputy Defense Minister Eduard Basurin stated that the SMM deviated from its route and was not supposed to be at the location where the explosion occurred. This allegation is unfounded, as agreements in place stipulate that OSCE SMM is not to be restricted in its freedom of movement.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zsyu6rKR0Qw

Russian media have been quick to echo the claims made by separatist officials, including an explosive headline from LifeNews of “Foreign instructors prepared the Ukrainian saboteurs who blew up the OSCE car.” In this article, an LNR official was cited regarding how “military specialists from NATO” are to blame for preparing the Ukrainian “saboteurs” who allegedly planted mines to create a false flag event, blaming the LNR.

More specifically, some Russian/separatist news outlets have placed the blame directly on specific Ukrainian soldiers. Citing separatist officials in Luhansk, the Luhansk Information Center (lug-info.com) named a particular Ukrainian soldier as being the leader of the alleged saboteur group that led to the patrol explosion. This soldier named in this unverified report is a major in the 8th Special Forces Regiment of the Ukrainian Armed Forces; however, there is no available evidence corroborating this allegation.

Ukrainian Responses

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko expressed his condolences and offered to “activate discussions on deployment of UN international peacekeeping mission in Donbas.” The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the incident, calling it a “confirmation of Moscow’s and its puppets’ attempts to intimidate the OSCE and nullify the efforts of Ukraine and the SMM to stabilize the situation on the contact line.” Ukrainian Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksandr Turchynov held Russia wholly responsible for the incident.

https://www.facebook.com/volodymyrgroysman/posts/534568830045369

On Facebook, Ukrainian MP (People’s Front) and military analyst Dmitry Tymchuk presented an alleged timeline that implicates Russia and the LNR in the attack, implying that the three minutes that it took a film crew from Kremlin-funded RT to arrive was not mere luck.

11:17 — automobile explosion;

11:20 — Russia Today film crew arrives;

11:28 — a khaki-colored “Niva” automobile arrives with unidentified plainclothes individuals who give directions to the Russian “journalists”;

15:44 — the “LNR police” arrive;

15:48 — a coroner/medical service car arrives for the removal of the body of the deceased OSCE SMM employee;

OSCE response

The unarmed monitoring mission continues to reiterate its commitment to its mandate throughout the aftermath of the incident and fully resumed patrols on both sides of the contact line only two days later on April 25. Despite facing unsafe and insecure conditions, including 183 life-threatening incidents (since January 15, 2015), the OSCE SMM continues to operate under these extremely dangerous circumstances. The SMM is conducting its own investigation of the matter and will release its findings when they are confirmed.

https://www.facebook.com/oscesmm/posts/807578562727184

The OSCE SMM has been targeted frequently over the past three years, but this is the first time that a monitor has died during a mission. Some of the previous, and frequent, dangers posed to OSCE SMM monitors include shots fired at monitoring vehicles, threats made against monitors trying to reach areas blocked off by both Russian/separatist and Ukrainian armed groups, and targeted attacks that have left multiple OSCE SMM vehicles non-functional in both western and eastern Ukraine.


Despite allegations from the so-called LNR/DNR and Russia, including specific statements regarding particular Ukrainian soldiers, there is no evidence that the tragic events leading to the death of an OSCE SMM monitor were a “provocation” from either side. That said, while there is no direct evidence linking the incident to an intentional attack, the LNR is responsible for the unsafe conditions that led to the death of an OSCE SMM monitor and the injury of two others.


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