Assessing similarities in recent assassination attempts in the separatist republics
Last week, the @DFRLab reported on an assassination attempt against the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Defense Minister, in which an RPG-26 grenade launcher was allegedly fired at the DNR Ministry of Defense (MoD). About two weeks after that alleged use of an RPG-26, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine reported on February 16, an RPG-26 was fired at the Luhansk state-run television and radio station (GTRK). Substantial building damage and no casualties were reported.
Here’s what we know about the incident using the digital evidence available.
The February 17 daily report from the OSCE SMM to Ukraine details the attack on the LNR GTRK:
On 17 February, at 25 Demokhina Street in Luhansk city, the SMM observed that two radio cables and one television cable, laying bundled atop an elevated metal structure next to a four-storey brick building where the television station is located, had been damaged. The SMM also saw ten shattered windows on the south-west-facing side of the building of the television station. The SMM assessed the damage as fresh and caused by a round of a rocket propelled grenade (RPG-26) fired from a south-westerly direction. Approximately 100m south-west of the television station building, on a platform inside a park, the SMM saw exhaust marks in the snow; it assessed these as caused by blast dust from an outgoing round of a rocket propelled grenade launcher (RPG-26). During the evening of 16 February, while in Luhansk city, the SMM heard two undetermined explosions 0.6km north-east (see ceasefire violation section above).
Indeed, the OSCE SMM to Ukraine did record two explosions at 10:05pm in Luhansk. The annexed table of every observed incident from the evening details this incident, which took place approximately 0.6km northeast of the OSCE’s monitoring position.
There were no casualties from the attack and relatively minor damage to the telecommunication infrastructure in Luhansk. The self-proclaimed government in Luhansk uploaded a video showing OSCE monitors at the site of the incident.
Again, the incident at the GTRK was relatively minor and included broken windows and damaged cables.
The OSCE assessed the RPG was fired from a “ platform inside a park” southwest of the incident, where “exhaust marks” were visible in the snow. We can see an OSCE monitor southwest of the damage, photographing what could be this same platform, but it is unclear from the available video.
The OSCE did not determine who carried out the attack, but rather determined the weapon used and the extent of damage at the television and radio station.
According to an official of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Ministry of State Security (MGB), “unknown persons” carried out sabotage by firing a rocket-propelled grenade at a television station in Luhansk at approximately 10:00pm on February 16. The official said:
“…sabotage was carried out against a technical facility at the LNR State Television and Radio Company (GTRK). The explosion was carried out with an RPG-26 (22).”
In a video published by the same LNR “Ministry” on February 17, we can see the weapon allegedly used in the “sabotage” attempt. The weapon was an RPG-26, judging from the engine of a PG-26 rocket. Below, we can see a composite of the weapon, as shown from three angles in the video.
The OSCE SMM to Ukraine agreed with their assessment that it was an RPG-26, as reflected in the February 17th daily report.
The LNR went on to blame the “diversion” (sabotage attempt) on a 45–50 year old man and even provided a police sketch of what the suspect looked like.
The supposed motive for the attack was described by an LNR official as an attemtp to “try to damage the civilian warning system intended to inform citizens of the [so-called] Republic in the case of emergency situations, the beginning of military activities, or during shellings.” An LNR MGB spokesperson speculated that this attack was carried out in “preparation by the Armed Forces of Ukraine to resume hostilities.”
In an LNR news broadcast, alleged surveillance footage of the attack was shared, with multiple angles. However, the time stamps are inaccurate: both the OSCE SMM and a worker at the building said that the attack happened at 10:05pm, while the footage shows 11:59pm. It is possible that the surveillance videos have an incorrect time stamp.
According to the OSCE SMM to Ukraine assessment, the grenade was fired southwest of the building and struck the southwest part of the facility. In order to cross-reference these assessments with the surveillance footage, we need to use simple geolocation to align ourselves with the geography of the building that was attacked.
Below, we can see how the camera is facing northeast, with a number of major landmarks visible in both the satellite imagery and a video reportage from the scene, including a larger tower (pink), a short building in front of the camera (green), the large building with satellite dishes on its ceiling that was struck by an RPG (yellow line), and a small blue building on the west side of the area (blue).
The most important shot from the surveillance footage showed what was apparently the RPG making impact with the LNR GTRK building, designated by a yellow line in the composite above. Footage from an LNR videos showed a number of officials looking up at the damage to the building. This building was the same one that was hit in the surveillance footage, with a fence and small structure visible in both the post-attack video and the late-night footage.
From this perspective, it appeared that the surveillance camera was somewhere south of the building that was hit with an RPG, facing the same scene that was filmed the following morning in the LNR video showing OSCE monitors. Below, an image composite shows the approximate location and point of view of the camera that filmed the RPG attack, with a white circle (camera) and arrow (perspective).
By geolocating the surveillance footage, we verified the surveillance footage was taken at the LNR television and radio station. While the location of the RPG strike matches the assessment of the OSCE, it is unclear why the time stamp in the surveillance footage differed so greatly from the time given by the OSCE and LNR.
There are far more concrete details surrounding this attack when compared to the recent “assassination attempt” in Donetsk. For example, the weapon found in Luhansk was assessed by the OSCE SMM to Ukraine to be an RPG-26, as compared to what appears to be a homemade device in Donetsk, per our recent analysis.
Like with the Donetsk incident, it was nearly impossible to sort through fact and fiction when it came to the perpetrator. While it is not a stretch to say that Ukraine would carry out attacks targeting Russian/separatist targets, the propaganda-filled response from the LNR and lack of damage at the LNR GTRK should give us pause before believing these initial claims.
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