#MinskMonitor: Aerial Footage Illuminates Fighting in Donbas

Drone imagery shows ongoing fighting and positions in the Svitlodarsk Bulge and Horlivka

(Sources: Facebook / Ophidian Asp [left], Google Earth [right])

In one of the few territorial shifts in 2018, the Ukrainian Armed Forces gained control of a small village in northwest Horlivka last week. During that time, government forces defended their pockets of control in this area, along with continued engagement in the so-called “Svitlodarsk Bulge,” northeast of Horlivka. In particular, aerial footage taken from drones help us understand the exact hot spots in this area near Horlivka and Svitlodarsk, with footage showing both Ukrainian and Russian-led separatist positions under attack.

Ongoing Fighting In The Area

Throughout May, the region of Horlivka and the Svitlodarsk Bulge have garnered the bulk of attention from armed formations in Ukraine along with civic monitoring groups. This region lies on the frontline in strategically important locations near the border of the Luhansk Oblast, with several key highways in the area. Below, a map (top) of eastern Ukraine is shown with non-government-controlled areas shaded in red, and another map (bottom) showing the region of Horlivka and the Svitlodarsk Bulge.

(Source: LiveUAMap)

A more granular map from the @DFRLab, seen below, closely considers territorial control over trenches and other fortified positions (seen in the red markers scattered throughout the map) in assessing the current situation of territorial control (seen in the red shading).

(Source: Google My Maps)

The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine, in its most recent report, described the heavy fighting it recently observed in the area.

(Source: OSCE SMM to Ukraine)

A number of civilian casualties in this area have also been reported by the OSCE SMM, including an 86-year-old woman who died on May 18 after shelling in northwest Horlivka and a 76-year-old man who died on May 20 after shelling in Zaitseve (north of Horlivka). Due to restrictions on the OSCE SMM’s movement, especially in non-government-controlled areas, civilian casualty reports are often delayed. For example, on May 30, the OSCE SMM’s work was disrupted when a mortar round was fired a couple hundred meters away from an OSCE patrol south of Donetsk.

As detailed by Nikolaus von Twickel in his weekly newsletter, the “situation in [Horlivka] got so bad that Horlivka’s separatist-appointed mayor, Ivan Prikhodko, denied rumours of an evacuation because of an imminent Ukrainian invasion” and Ukrainian forces were attempting to “cut off Russian supplies for the separatists” near Horlivka.

Aerial Footage of Ukrainian Attacks

It is often difficult to parse through the current situation on the front line given the unreliability of situation and casualty reports from both the Ukrainians and Russian-backed separatists. but drone footage gives us a more verifiable glimpse at the ongoing conflict.

This week, popular Ukrainian military commentator Yury Mysyagin, who often shares “insider” information from the front lines, shared updates and drone footage of Ukrainian activities in the Svitlodarsk Bulge.

On May 28, Mysyagin shared a series of photographs taken from a drone showing an attack from Ukraine’s 54th Brigade in what he described as the Svitlodarsk Bulge. This attack, as he describes it, led to the destruction of a separatist MTLB-ZU — a Soviet-made armored personnel carrier with a ZU-23–2 anti-aircraft gun mounted.

(Source: Facebook / Yury Mysyagin)
(Source: Facebook / Yury Mysyagin)

After geolocating these drone photographs, it became clear that the separatist positions are quite a ways from the Svitlodarsk Bulge, but still in the general area, as seen in the red icon in the upper-right (northeast) part of the below satellite image. Svitlodarsk is approximately 20 kilometers southwest of this position.

(Source: Google Earth)
(Source: Google Earth [left], Facebook / Yury Mysyagin [right])

On May 31, Mysyagin shared another video of Ukrainian attacks on separatist trenches — this time, much closer to Svitlodarsk.

https://www.facebook.com/100000828276750/videos/1707285302642396/

This drone footage shows, according to Mysyagin, Ukraine’s 25th Battalion attacking the “Prysh” position. Previous videos have emerged showing Ukrainian attacks on this lake-side position.

(Sources: Facebook / Yury Mysyagin [left], Google Earth [right])

This position (Pryshch) is located near the northwest shore of Hryazevskyi pond, which has seen heavy fighting for years, as detailed by the @DFRLab last year. This position can be seen by the red icon in the satellite imagery below.

(Source: Google Earth)

Aerial Footage of Separatist Attacks

However, not all of the footage showing fighting in the Horlivka-Svitlodarsk Bulge region shows Ukrainian attacks on Russian-led separatist forces.

A Ukrainian Facebook user posting under the name “Ophidian Asp,” who frequently shares updates concerning drone technology in Ukraine, shared a brief video claiming to show a Ukrainian position under attack near Horlivka. In the post first sharing the video, “Ophidian Asp” directly addresses Yury Mysyagin — who shared the previous imagery discussed in this article — and accuses him of providing an overly-optimistic view of Ukrainian actions in the Donbas. “Ophidian Asp” describes how Mysyagin talks about “unbelievable victories” and said that there is “not even a drop of truth” to his descriptions.

The published video, according to the Facebook user, shows a command post of Ukraine’s 24th Battalion (popularly known as the Aidar Battalion) attacked by Russian-led separatists, leading to the destruction of the post itself, ammunition, two armored personnel carriers, and additional equipment.

The Facebook has been deleted, but the video has been reposted to YouTube:

Twitter user @etkmkao geolocated this footage to a Ukrainian position west of Horlivka, near the “Yuzhnaya” mine.

https://twitter.com/etkmkao/status/1001880459037544452

Comparing satellite imagery from this location pinpointed by @etkmkao and the drone imagery shows a clear match:

(Sources: Facebook / Ophidian Asp [left], Google Earth [right])

Conclusion

Below, the incidents described in this article are compiled together, alongside the areas of territorial control from LiveUAMap. The area shaded in red designates territory not controlled by the Ukrainian government.

(Source: LiveUAMap)

With casualty and situational reports from all sides of the Ukrainian conflict unreliable, we increasingly see aerial imagery from drones used to provide a more concrete view of the front lines of eastern Ukraine, especially for the effect of showing successful attacks on enemy positions. Clearly, this is the goal of Yury Mysyagin’s frequent images and videos showing successful Ukrainian operations — but also the responses of other Ukrainians who take issue with his overly-optimistic portrayal of Ukraine’s progress in the Svitlodarsk Bulge.

We will continue to monitor the situation in Horlivka and the Svitlodarsk Bulge, with an eye on aerial imagery showing military positions on both sides of the front line.


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.