Ukrainian forces claim to hit military vehicle, separatists counter with images of destroyed medic jeep
The Ukrainian Anti-Terror Operation (ATO) Press Center shared a video on Thursday showing, as they claimed, the destruction of an “enemy infantry combat vehicle.”
Today, thanks to the skill of the soldiers of the “Mospino” tactical group of the Joint Forces [Operation] near occupied Dokuchaevsyk, an enemy infantry fighting vehicle [IFV] was destroyed, the crew of which were likely conducting reconnaissance of the forward troops of the Ukrainian defenders.
However, soon after the incident, officials from the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) claimed that it was not an IFV that was destroyed, but instead a medic jeep, killing three.
What can the available digital evidence tell us about this incident and the competing claims of responsibility?
The day after the attack, DNR official Eduard Basurin claimed that the Ukrainian Armed Forces did not destroy an IFV, but instead an UAZ jeep marked as an ambulance that was transporting a wounded soldier. Basurin said:
An UAZ ambulance [medical vehicle] that was transporting a wounded soldier was cynically shot with an anti-tank guided missile [ATGM]. The vehicle, which had easily distinguishable marks with a red cross was hit, killing three people: a medic, a driver-medic, and the wounded soldier.
The identities of these three people, including what was reportedly a deputy commander, were not revealed by the DNR spokesperson. However, as detailed in the following section, independent researchers have uncovered two individuals who likely died in the incident.
On February 24, two days after the attack, the DNR published a video that supposedly shows the UAZ that was destroyed in the attack.
DNR official Mikhail Andronik also published high-resolution photographs from the scene, showing a destroyed jeep near a tree.
As will be detailed in the following section, independent Ukrainian researchers raised concerns about the scene photographed and filmed by the DNR press service, pointing to an alternate version of events from both the Ukrainian and separatist narratives.
The DNR also published an infographic detailing what they claimed were the key facts of the incident: the location of the Ukrainian soldiers, including its mortars and anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) complex, and the UAZ jeep destroyed.
In the infographic above, “ПТРК” indicated the ATGM just east of the government-controlled town of Novotroitske. Additionally, east of this position was where the UAZ jeep (“Санитарный автомобиль,” meaning ambulance or medical vehicle) was allegedly struck by the Ukrainian ATGM complex.
Due to the low resolution of the original ATO Press Center video and the lack of identifying features in the DNR Press Service publications, it is difficult to conclusively geolocate the materials and verify the map provided by the DNR. For example, we cannot conclusively discern if there was or was not a tree line visible in the video that was consistent with the trees seen in the DNR Press Service’s photographs and videos. Below, we can see the general shape of what seems to be a treeline behind the smoke of the destroyed vehicle, but it remains difficult to match these vague shapes with the trees in the DNR Press Service materials.
However, the basic features visible in these materials and available satellite imagery were roughly compatible. For example, at the position where the ATGM supposedly fired, we observed trenches from 2016 satellite imagery.
Without conclusive geolocation, we cannot say with certainty if the location photographed and filmed with the destroyed UAZ jeep was the same one struck by Ukrainian forces.
In sum, the DNR’s narrative of what occurred was somewhat consistent, but leaves some questions unanswered.
The Ukrainian military claimed the destroyed vehicle was not an ambulance, but instead an infantry fighting vehicle. Since the ATO Press Center published the video, there have been no statements from Ukrainian officials regarding the incident.
However, a number of independent Ukrainian media outlets and researchers dug into the evidence surrounding the incident.
Independent Ukrainian media outlet OstroV dissected the photographs of the destroyed UAZ jeep and found inconsistencies with the DNR’s narrative.
Firstly, as OstroV argued, the placement of the UAZ jeep is curious. The jeep was clearly moved at some point, as indicated by a visible towing cable attached to the UAZ. The OstroV writer claimed, “the destroyed vehicle did not arrive at the location of the ‘shelling’ by its own power — it was dragged their with a tow cable.” However, one could argue that there was no ulterior motive in moving the jeep by towing it a short distance to help evacuate the three people who were killed.
The OstroV analysis also pointed out that the visible details on the nearby trees did not match the story provided by the DNR. While a DNR official said that the UAZ jeep burned for “four hours” after it was struck by Ukrainian forces — a fire that burned so hot and long that the rubber on the rear tires was melted off — there was only kinetic damage like broken branches to the nearby trees. There was not any visible evidence of fire, like soot or other markings, on the trees.
In a generous interpretation, we can say that this was indeed near the location where the UAZ jeep was struck by Ukrainian forces, but the jeep was later towed nearby to a new location. The kinetic damage to the trees could either be from the jeep hitting it, from an unrelated incident, or from mortar attacks that allegedly took place in the area.
While the OstroV analysis presumed that the DNR engaged in an elaborate propaganda stunt, more in-depth analysis can tell us that the truth was likely somewhere in between the DNR and Ukrainian narratives, with misdirection from the DNR and a mistake from Ukrainian forces.
Popular independent Ukrainian researcher “Necro Mancer” discovered what were likely two of the three people who were killed in the attack: Donetsk native Sergey Khokhlov and Makiivka native Denis Lakeyev. Notably, there is no evidence pointing to either of these two men being medics, contradicting the DNR’s claim that two medics and one soldier were killed in the attack. The third victim has not yet been identified.
— Necro Mancer (@666_mancer) February 24, 2018
— Necro Mancer (@666_mancer) February 24, 2018
Both Lakeyev and Khokhlov were part of the DNR’s 5th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade (“Oplot”), with Lakeyev acting as a deputy commander — in line with initial reports from the DNR that a deputy commander died in the attack. Dokuchaeyvsk was within this fighting group’s area of operation.
Both of these men were killed on February 22. Lakeyev’s mother, through the Russian social network VKontakte (VK), mourned for her son and explicitly said that he lost his life in the Dokuchayevsk attack from the same day. The other killed soldier, Khokhlov, was not explicitly tied to the Dokuchayevsk attack by his friends and loved ones, but the fact that he was a DNR soldier from the same fighting group who died on the same day makes it quite likely that he was in the same vehicle as Lakeyev.
From the available evidence, neither both the Ukrainian narrative (an IFV was destroyed) and the separatist narrative (an ambulance jeep was destroyed) were entirely true. Rather, judging from the fact that two of the men who were apparently killed in the attack were soldiers from the same fighting group instead of medics, it seemed likely that Ukrainian forces destroyed a non-medic UAZ jeep that was being used by the DNR’s 5th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade near Dokuchayevsk. In this UAZ jeep, the rear seats were removed, but the stretcher visible in the DNR Press Service’s materials seemed to be longer than the jeep, itself.
Again, evidence from either side proved neither completely true, as it would require unusual steps from both side.
For the Ukrainian narrative to be true, an IFV would have been hauled away by DNR forces and replaced with an already-destroyed UAZ jeep. For the separatist narrative to be true, which claimed that Ukraine knew about the passage of an ambulance, Ukrainian forces would have had to knowingly fired on a medic jeep (with two non-medics inside) and then brazenly posted a video of it online.
Because of the low quality of the ATO Press Center Video, more evidence and analysis was necessary to conclude with certainty what transpired on February 22nd. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine would be crucial to this end.
The current available evidence points to a mixture of truths: Ukraine misidentified their target as an IFV, but it was actually a non-medic UAZ jeep transporting soldiers in the DNR’s 5th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade. That said, we would require conclusive evidence and/or the analysis of the OSCE SMM to Ukraine to say if Ukrainian forces carried out an illegitimate strike on an ambulance, or if the DNR fabricated evidence to push this narrative.
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