Verifying, identifying, and geolocating a viral photograph in the non-government-controlled stronghold
On Monday, a local news portal for Horlivka, a city currently controlled by Russian-led separatists of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), shared an image of a piece of military equipment. The message included additional images that compared this piece of military equipment to the RB-531B Infauna, a new Russian-made electronic warfare vehicle. The message reads:
#Horlivka Good day to the beloved city, friends, the Donbas, Ukraine! About that “civil war” in Ukraine, about those who “aren’t here”, about those things that “miners and tractor drivers dug out” from their flooded mines — the brand new, state-of-the-art Russian electronic warfare complex RB-531B “Infauna”…
#Горлівка Доброго дня любе місто, Друзі, Донбас, Україна !!!
про "громодянську війну" в Україні, про тих, кого "тут нема", про те, як "шахтарі з трактористами відкопали" з затоплених шахт найсучасніший, новенький, російський, коплекс РЕБ РБ-531Б "Инфауна"… 😉 pic.twitter.com/DKKfpJHfJB
— Nova Gorlivka (@NovaGorlivka) April 23, 2018
The photograph included with the message was quite low resolution, but some key details were discerned upon close inspection.
This tweet gathered over 100 retweets at the time of publishing, and received coverage from larger Ukrainian news outlets, such as Gazeta.ua.
Can we verify that this photograph was actually taken in Horlivka, and identify the type of military equipment pictured?
At first glance, this photograph offered a difficult geolocation challenge: there were no visible signs identifying the area, with only a few nondescript buildings along with a high fence and a yellow building with a green ladder. The building on the right part of the photograph was easily the most identifiable aspect of the photograph, along with the high fence that would be more likely in a high-security or industrial area, rather than a residential or commercial part of a city.
Instead of going on a wild goose chase in looking at every street in Horlivka, we focused our search to just this one building. The fact that the building was clearly higher than the nearby trees means that we could maybe spot it in panoramas or drone footage of Horlivka showing the cityscape.
A panorama of Horlivka found in Google Image Search results showed a few buildings with a similar color scheme.
This area, as detailed on Wikimapia, is a grain elevator on International Street in Horlivka. One of the best ways to find ground-level imagery of a location, especially in Ukraine, is to search for a city and street name on YouTube, providing dashcam videos of people driving through town. If we do this with International Street in Horlivka, we find a video titled “Horlivka before the war. International.”
At the very end of this video, the driver passed by the grain elevator seen in the panorama photograph — with the same fence seen in the military equipment photograph.
With these details matching, we can conclusively say that the photograph was taken in Horlivka outside of a grain elevator on International Street.
Conclusively identifying the type of military vehicle was somewhat more challenging than its location, due to photograph’s low quality.
In a lengthier post than its tweet, the NovoGorlivka Facebook page shared a series of links and videos describing the photographed military equipment, claiming it is a Russian electronic warfare vehicle.
The post showed a slightly higher resolution version of the military vehicle, likely a still from a video received or taken by the local group. By matching up a few elements seen in the photograph, the NovoGorlivka group claimed that there was a match to the Infauna system, specifically citing a box seen on the left side of the vehicle (in yellow), a hatch with a horizontal handle (blue), and, per analysis of the system from TopWar.ru (see this photograph for greater detail), a configuration of a camera and smoke grenades (red).
The Infauna system uses “a modified chassis of the wheeled armoured vehicle personnel carrier BTR-80”, making it difficult to identify without the antennae visible, due to the huge number of systems based on the BTR-80 chassis present in the Donbas.
While the original source claimed that this is an electronic warfare vehicle, independent analyst sled vzayt (@Askai707), who the @DFRLab has previously profiled, disagreed with the assessment, instead pointing to a type of command vehicle with a BTR-80 chassis, the Kushetka-B. He pointed to the turret being small and a few details being different than the Infauna system.
Похоже, КШМ "Кушетка-Б".
— Askai (@askai707) April 23, 2018
Видно, что башня небольшая, как у БТР-а, слева рядом труба; короб, который в жёлтом квадрате, внизу гораздо ближе к стыку бронелистов.
— Askai (@askai707) April 23, 2018
By finding photographs of the Kushetka-B modification of the BTR-80 — which is manufactured in Ukraine — we could see that there was a much clearer match for the Horlivka photograph than the Russian EW system. Below, we compare the Horlivka photograph (right) with a photograph of a Ukrainian Kushetka-B system, found on the (Russian/separatist-leaning) website Lost-Armour, which compiles photographs of destroyed and captured military equipment in the Donbas.
In particular, the element in red was a much better match for the Kushetka-B than the Infauna, with the long, rectangular box rather than a camera.
There is no shortage of evidence of Russia’s direct involvement in providing and even operating electronic warfare systems in eastern Ukraine, as seen in OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine photographs and independent research projects.
— OSCE SMM Ukraine (@OSCE_SMM) June 20, 2016
However, new reports about the “Infauna” system arriving in the Donbas are unfounded, with the identification likely due to the fact that the chassis of the EW vehicle is based on the BTR-80, with similar placement of elements such as hatches. Close inspection of the Horlivka vehicle revealed yet another vehicle with a chassis derivative of the BTR-80, in this case a Kushetka-B, rather than an advanced EW system.
When monitoring direct Russian involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine, it is vital to pay close attention to the details, as mistaken sightings of modernized Russian equipment can detract from the credibility of true ones.
Follow the latest Minsk II Violations via the @DFRLab’s #MinskMonitor.
For more in-depth analysis from our regional experts follow the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. Or subscribe to UkraineAlert.