A digital mishap committed by the Russian-led separatist republic exposes close connection
On October 19, 2017, the leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), Aleksandr Zakharchenko, awarded a watch to Sergey Yurievich Istrakov for his “significant personal contribution to the formation and development of the Donetsk People’s Republic.” A document — numbered 337, “issued” from Donetsk — describing Istrakov’s award was posted on the “official” website of the so-called DNR (dnr-online.ru) as a PDF file.
This award and document would not be noteworthy except for the fact that Sergey Istrakov is a Colonel General with the Russian Armed Forces (RAF) — the second-highest rank of active commanders, behind only the General of the Army — and the Deputy Head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation since 2015.
Soon after news spread that this document appeared on the so-called DNR’s website, the file was deleted. Predictably, the same so-called DNR website published a statement (archive) from the so-called DNR’s “administration” calling the document a “lie and disinformation.”
“The information is completely fabricated by Ukrainian propagandists who are trying to use any means to find ‘proof’ of the presence of Russian forces in the Donbass and thereby provoke another political scandal.”
The denial was quickly refuted thanks to Twitter user @666_mancer, who found traces of the damning document on Yandex, a Russian search engine similar to Google, where it was cached, similar to how Google caches earlier versions of websites.
Ребята, вы серьёзно думаете, что в цифровой век достаточно удалить файл с сайта и сказать #вывсеврети? Я вас разочарую, даже Яндекс работает против вас. А дискредитирует вас ваша собственная глупость, а совсем не украинские спецслужбы https://t.co/MFnOsDfN1K pic.twitter.com/vcUMjIOCUM
— Necro Mancer (@666_mancer) November 12, 2017
Though the cache since refreshed, the archive site Archive.today (also registered as archive.is and archive.to, among other domains) was able to take a snapshot of how the cache looked when @666_mancer found traces of the PDF on the DNR-online.ru site. Below, highlighted in blue, we can see the footprint of the PDF document on the so-called DNR’s official site, saved on November 12, 2017.
The text for the document in the cached copy of the file as it appears in screenshots from those who opened it before being taken offline, such as Ruslan Leviev of the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT). You can find the original PDF re-uploaded to the website of Ruslan Leviev’s Conflict Intelligence team here.
Who is Colonel General Sergey Istrakov?
The man who received the award from Zakharchenko has long been known as a key figure in Russia’s active and guiding role in the war in eastern Ukraine. In 2015, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MOD) left no room for misunderstanding when they named Istrakov as “responsible for the coordination of activities of Russian occupational forces in Donbas.”
We also know that Istrakov had a personal hand in managing the “separatist” battalions of eastern Ukraine through a 2016 inbox leaked published by the Ukrainian open source research group InformNapalm. Among the leaked emails was a message from Alexey Markov (email@example.com), a leader of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR)-based “Prizrak” (Ghost) Brigade.
In one of the emails sent by Markov on July 2, 2015, he notes that there were two examinations at a headquarters of the Prizrak Brigade, conducted by two different commanders. The first was from Sergey Ivanovich Kozlov, a “separatist” commander from the so-called LNR who has since become the Prime Minister of the so-called LNR. The other examination was held on June 15–16, 2015 by “Colonel General Sergey Yurievich Istrakov.”
Open Secrets Revealed
Over three years into the war in eastern Ukraine, the fact that Russian officials — including colonel generals, the second-highest active rank in the Russian Armed Forces — visit “separatist” commanders in the Donbas and provide guidance is an open secret. While we should not take Ukrainian military intelligence at their word in making these assessments, we can cross-reference their claims with open source evidence — including the personal inbox of a “separatist” commander like Alexey Markov directly admitting that a Russian general carrying out an examination of his brigade, or the leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic giving this same active Russian General a watch for his role in developing in the so-called DNR.
When assessing the claims coming out of Moscow, Donetsk, and Luhansk that Russia has no direct hand in funding, guiding, and assisting the separatist republics, we only need to look to their own words — accidentally revealed or not — to know the truth.
Also, follow @DFRLab on Twitter for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.