Debunking claims that Russia is already preparing a proposed UN peacekeeping mission to the Donbas
On September 17, Ukrainian Twitter user @KrmVictory shared a video apparently from Kirzhach, Russia, showing a series of white BTR-80 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) transported via rail.
— Victory Krm (@KrmVictory) September 17, 2017
The post from @KrmVictory reads:
Have they called up the UN peacekeepers? Russia has already an echelon of equipment. Kirzhach station, Moscow-area railroad. 17 August 2017.
The most notable aspect of the armored vehicles was not necessarily the unusual white paint, but the two letters painted in black: UN (United Nations).
While the original tweet did not directly suggest that these BTRs were being sent to the Donbas for the peacekeeping mission along the contact line that Russia recently proposed in a somewhat surprise move, it was heavily implied and understood as such by those replying to the tweet. The Ukrainian site Myrotvorets went as far as to say that the appearance of these white BTRs was the beginning of a new invasion of Ukraine.
The Myrotvorets tweet and accompanying Facebook post reads:
The Russian war criminals in the Kremlin have thought up a new plan for invading Ukraine.
Is there any reason to connect the appearance of these UN-branded Russian BTRs and Russia’s proposal for a UN peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine? Is there any validity to Myrotvorets’ claim that this is a “new plan” for Russia invading Ukraine? And first of all — can we verify that the video was really shot in Russia?
As with any photographic or video evidence, our first step was verification through geolocation. It is not hard to verify the original tweet’s assertion that the video was filmed in Kirzhach, a city of around 30,000 people located between Moscow and Vladimir. In several frames of the video, we can clearly read the words “Kirzhach” (Киржач) on a sign, showing the likely location for the station.
When watching the video, it’s clear that there are only a handful of visible features, but they are only visible for a split second in the gaps between the BTRs.
We can piece together the background visible in the gaps between the BTRs on the right part of the video through a patchwork of screenshots, showing a crude reconstruction of what the scene looks like without the BTRs. This composite shows a two-floor building in the background, along with trees and another structure behind a black (or dark grey) and red sign that says “Kirzhach”.
This sign is visible in a recent Instagram photograph taken at the station:
The buildings identified in the composite photograph above are visible — in part — from other photographs taken at the station. For example, a photograph from Panoramio shows a very similar two-floor building in the same location as the building in the BTR video.
Taken together, we can conclusively geolocate the video to the Kirzhach station, with the camera facing southwest. Below, we compare the satellite imagery from Google Earth with other photographs of the area, including the house to the opposite side of the track (top of image) and the station itself (bottom).
Many have tied the appearance of these white BTRs to Russia’s proposed UN peacekeepers plan in the Donbas; however, there is little evidence supporting this claim. In fact, this is not the only recent appearance of dozens of white Russians BTRs with “UN” inscribed — the same thing happened in Russia’s Yaroslavl Oblast last year. The popular LiveJournal blog BMPD summarized the Yaroslavl sighting in a September 2016 post, with the following photos.
It turns out, these white BTRs from almost exactly one year ago had nothing to do with Ukraine — they were being sent to Bangladesh for local UN peacekeepers (@UNPeacekeeping).
The Russian defense company Arzamassky mashinostroitel’ zavod (AMZ) signed a contract to export a large number of BTR-80s to Bangladesh for local UN peacekeepers, with the export set for completion through 2016 and 2017. The long line of white BTRs photographed in the Yaroslavl Oblast were part of this delivery.
A quick comparison between the BTRs in this photograph from the AMZ newsletter, the BTRs photographed last year in the Yaroslavl Oblast, and the new BTRs photographed in Kirzhach shows that they are one in the same.
In February 2017, Kremlin-funded news outlet Sputnik reported that the last of the white BTR-80s purchased by Bangladesh were set to be delivered in 2017. The Director General of Voenni-promyshlennaya kompania (VPK), the parent company of AMZ, told Sputnik in February 2017:
Bangladesh is our regular client. The white-colored BTR-80 will go the local UN peacekeepers working there since the 1980s. We will complete this delivery this year.
While anything is possible when considering actions of the Kremlin in supplying the Russian-led separatists in Donbas, it is almost certain that the white BTR-80s filmed at the railway station in Kirzhach are actually headed southward to Bangladesh, which is one of the largest contributor countries to UN peacekeeping missions, and not to participate in a potential UN peacekeeping plan in eastern Ukraine.