#MinskMonitor: Civilian Exposure Near Expo Center

Drone imagery shows Russian-led separatist base precariously close to civilians

Left: Google Earth. Right: Drone image from “Come Back Alive.”

Under half a kilometer from the Donbas Arena, Russian-led separatist forces are using the Donetsk Expo Center (ExpoDonbass) to store military equipment. Though the Donbas Arena was deserted and turned into a “football graveyard” since the beginning of the war in eastern Ukraine, the expo center has seen more action.

Because of its usage, the expo is a potential military target, which puts the heavily trafficked areas around it, including an operating youth center, at risk.

Drone imagery

The Ukrainian NGO “Come Back Alive” recently shared a photograph taken from a drone that flew over Donetsk showing military hardware in the parking lot of ExpoDonbass.

This same NGO published a drone video, in which a mysterious electronic warfare device caused the drone operators to lose control over the device, as discussed in a recent @DFRLab report.

In their description of the photograph, the NGO speculated about an escalation of the conflict after the cold winter during the spring thaw.

“Take a look at the photo and the amount of military equipment. And how much more do we not see? How many cadets and artillerymen are going to arrive from Russia to the Donbas to take their exams during the ‘spring ceasefire’?”

We verified the area by cross-referencing the photograph with satellite imagery on Google Earth, which showed the footage does indeed show central Donetsk.

Left: Google Earth. Right: Drone image from “Come Back Alive.”

A closer look at the equipment in the parking lot does not immediately reveal anything barred under the Minsk agreements, such as heavy-caliber tanks or artillery systems. However, there appeared to be a number of cargo trucks visible in the lot, and there could be others out of sight in this snapshot that the Ukrainian NGO alluded to in its Facebook post.

(Source: Facebook / Повернись живим)

Known base of operations

This drone photograph was not the first sighting of military equipment at the ExpoDonbass facility. In 2016, open source research collective InformNapalm published an open source investigation detailing military equipment sighted at this location, including armored personnel carriers (BTR) from the “Vostok” battalion of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR).

A video from July 2016 showed a soldier attempting to drive a BTR up the steps leading up to the ExpoDonbass building.

Other social media posts unearthed in the investigation showed an apparent DNR fighter handling an artillery shell inside of the ExpoDonbass facility from November 2015.

Since this investigation was published, there have been additional credible sightings of military equipment at the ExpoDonbass center, including from October 2017.

Today, in front of ExpoDonbass on the Chelyuskintsev [street that runs north-south to the west of ExpoDonbass] side, there were orcs [Russian/separatist soldiers] and four BTRs, and at least one of the BTRs had new camouflage.

There have also been sightings of military equipment inside the ExpoDonbass center, including one discovery from Askai, who was profiled by the @DFRLab in 2016.

The stairway and support column to the left of the soldier in this photograph was the same as in a photograph from the ExpoDonbass Facebook page showing the event space.

(Top: Facebook / ExpoDonbass. Bottom: Twitter / Askai707)

Conclusion

The “discovery” of military equipment outside of the ExpoDonbass facility was far from surprising, as it has been a major base of operations for Russian-led forces in Donetsk over the past few years. However, the fresh drone footage from the Ukrainian NGO provided additional data for how this continues to be a base of operations, and served as a reminder of the danger of housing military equipment near major civilian areas, including the children’s youth center located a few dozen meters away from the military equipment.


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