Investigating the attack on the “DNR” Ministry of Defense on the night of February 1
On the night of February 1, separatist media outlets reported on a rocket attack against the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR) Ministry of Defense (MoD). The attack was framed as an assassination attempt against Minister of Defense Vladimir Kononov, though he was not present in the building at the time. This would be far from the only assassination attempt on a well-known separatist commander. For example, on February 8, 2017, an unsuccessful assassination attempt was made on Mikhail “Givi” Tolstykh, who later died in an attack similar to the one on February 1, 2018.
In the aftermath of the event, certain aspects of Russian-language reporting stood out as suspect. In our review of available evidence, we identified two primary points of interest — the amount of damage done to surrounding buildings and the launcher left behind after the attack. Using imagery from the scene of the attack, we investigated the failed assassination attempt.
Footage from inside the MoD building and the surrounding localities gives us the impression that the neighboring buildings suffered more damage than the target building itself.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, separatist and Russian sources claimed that an RPG-26 was used. The RPG-26 is an anti-tank rocket launched grenade, meaning that it explodes in a forward fashion, with the ability to perforate up to one-and-a-half meter of brickwork.
While walls of the MoD building are robust, they are by no means over a meter thick. A hit from an RPG-26 should pass right through the first wall and creation significant debris.
Evidently, this was not the case, instead the window was blown into the room in its entirety and most of the real damage occurred to the outside of the wall.
With the help of a 3D visualization of the scene of the incident, we can begin to piece together where the damage occurred.
Three buildings are displayed here: the defense ministry building and two apartment blocks. From matching imagery from the site with a reconstruction, we can now see the extent of the damage.
On the graphic, an “X” signifies a blown-out window and other superficial damage, and the “O” denotes the point of impact. There is also a straight line traveling about 50 meters from the presumed point of launch in the corner of where the two buildings meet, to the point of impact on the MoD building.
The launch point seems to be at the corner of where the two residential buildings at Cheluskintsev Street (212 and 212A) meet. The ground floor balcony next to the launch point received moderate damage, and there were broken windows along the path of the rocket. This likely resulted from the pressure caused by the launch of the rocket, which can be very intense, but still the damage seems extreme.
Significant damage can be observed on the side of the building facing the defense ministry building at 1 Pokrysheva. Broken windows along with surface damage to the façade can be found all the way up to the fourth floor, relative to the second floor on the neighboring building where the explosion occurred.
From the first blurry pictures posted online, the device used to launch a rocket at the MoD building bore more resemblance to a child’s telescope than an RPG-26.
It is unclear where exactly the notion that the MoD building was hit by an RPG-26 originated, but it has been the prevailing theory since the incident became public . The tube in the above image does not bear much resemblance to an RPG-26, pictured below.
On closer inspection of more recent video footage, it looks like the tube more closely resembles a PVC tube, the kind you might use for a home improvement project, than a component for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
The launcher’s tripod is crudely welded and fastened to the tube with electrical tape. The entire launcher appears to be constructed from materials readily available to civilians.
None of the features of the launcher in the video match with those of the RPG-26, but it was still technically possible that the actual rocket launched from it was an RPG-26, or any other rocket for that matter. In order to understand this, it is pertinent to examine the debris surrounding the launch site. Lots of the debris surrounding the launcher is inconsistent with an RPG-26 launch, which fires the rocket in its entirety.
The image above pictures a spent rocket booster, presumably from the rocket used in the attack. It doesn’t match with an RPG-26, but it does match with the first stage booster of the RPO-A Shmel thermobaric rocket propelled grenade launcher.
This is the same model that was used in the assassination of Somali battalion commander Mikhail “Givi” Tolstykh. The first stage booster is visible in the image below, to the right of the rocket itself.
It is likely that the assailant opted for a homemade launcher to conceal information about the origins of the weapon. Both the OSCE and other independent observers have reported Shmel rocket launchers being brought in from Russia.
Markings on each individual launcher denote the origin and type of the weapon, so it would be in the interest of any insider threat not to disclose this information. The rockets themselves also carry some of this information, which becomes irrecoverable upon successful employment of the system.
The damage done to the surrounding buildings is much more consistent with that of the RPO-A compared to the RPG-26. Most other rocket launched grenades in the conflict, including the RPG-26, were developed for anti-tank roles and have what is referred to as shaped charges. These charges explode in a forward directional manner, cutting through anything in the way. This serves as a contrast to the Shmel, which is meant to detonate in all directions inside of a confined space after passing through an opening or light armor.
Thermobaric warheads are meant to incinerate the structures they hit, as was the case with Givi, but the targeted room in the MoD building does not show signs of fire damage. Possibly this was because the projectile ignited against the brick wall rather than passing through the window. Closer inspection of the façade revealed scorch marks on the red brick surrounding the target window, further lending credibility to this hypothesis.
Kononov was quick to report to Russian state television that a Ukrainian “saboteurs” were behind the attack. The statements made to Russian media by the separatist official were much stronger than those to more local media, which was far more dialed back.
In an article by Svobodnaya pressa, pro-Kremlin made very clear that they believed Ukrainian saboteur groups were behind the attack, in spite of the complete lack of evidence supporting this. The article, which was a transcribed interview with Aleksandr Dmitriyevsky, reiterated that the attack was a disposable RPG of the type RPG-18, 22, or 26 even when this was clearly not the case.
Blaming the seemingly omnipotent Ukrainian saboteur groups remains a common tactic of separatist forces when faced with an attack from within. This was also the case during the last attack on the MoD building in March 2017.
The Ukrainian saboteur group story is a bit of a bogey man in separatist circles, and thus widely accepted, but not all separatists were so quick to accept the official story. Olkhon, a well-known outspoken separatist commander, wrote in a social media post that it was equally likely just to be one of the many disgruntled former servicemembers of separatist armed forces.
Even though Kononov was not in the building, but instead the Deputy Minister of Defense Sergei Velikorodny, pro-separatist media still reported on the attack as though Kononov was the intended target. Velikorodny was wanted for fraud in Russia prior to joining the separatist forces, and is not an unlikely target given his murky tendencies.
From the evidence available, it remains impossible to verify who was behind the attack on the “DNR” MoD on February 1. Separatist reports have, however, been untruthful or inaccurate about the type of munition used in the attack, possibly to discourage the public from drawing a parallel between this attack and the one on Givi in 2017. The major question that remains is why the RPO-A Shmel failed to ignite its target, as it was intended to do. This might be because the projectile failed to enter through the window, but instead exploded against a thick brick wall. This attack was just one amongst many insider attacks against prominent separatist military figures, and while the future is unpredictable, it is unlikely to be the last.
Michael Sheldon is an editorial intern at the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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