Newly uncovered imagery from 2015 shows Russian drone operated out of Ukraine
@DFRLab found new evidence of Russian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) providing reconnaissance for artillery fire against Ukrainian government positions. Notably, in one image, a separatist in eastern Ukraine poses with a Russian Granat-4 short range UAV, poised to be launched. This separatist was part of a reconnaissance group for artillery.
On June 22, 2015, the ВКонтакте (Vkontakte or VK) group named “Wizards of Novorossiya” (Волшебники Новороссии) posted a photo of the aformentioned separatist fighter posing with a Granat-4 UAV. This photograph was not the first time this type of Russian UAV was spotted in Ukraine, as at least one was shot down prior to this post. Other Russian UAVs, such as the Forpost and Orlan-10, have also been downed by anti-aircraft fire inside Ukraine throughout the conflict.
@DFRLab previously reported on the shootdowns of five Forpost UAVs, the largest of the Russian drones deployed in the conflict in Donbas. These drones, like the Granat-4, directed artillery fire for separatist and Russian units against Ukrainian positions.
At the time that this image was posted, at least one Granat-4 UAVs had already been downed over Ukrainian territory. This incident took place in November 2014, where a Granat-4 was shot down near Schastya, in the Luhansk Oblast.
The Wizards of Novorossiya VK group was dedicated to a group formed in 2014 at the outbreak of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. This group went by the name Wizards DRG (Sabotage-Reconnaissance Group), or Волшебники ДРГ (Диверсионно-Разведывательная Группа).
Surveying the members of this online group, @DFRLab came across one user, named Mikhail Ivanov, who has shared several of the same images featured in the group, organized into albums.
The image of the Granat-4 ready for launch was found in one of the last albums, titled “Petrovskoe, Styla, Dokuchaevsk + Bezymennoe 2015”. From this information, assuming it was truthful, we could deduce that the picture was taken between mid-June and early spring 2015, due to the amount of vegetation in the photo. The album contained imagery from all over the southern front in eastern Ukraine, from the beaches near Novoazovsk to the quarries in the Dokuchaevsk area. All sorts of weaponry was depicted: heavy machineguns, mines, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and other systems.
Using more of the information from the album title, we could geolocate the image to a location outside the village of Styla.
The most defining feature in the landscape is the tailings from the quarry in the background, which features roughly three levels of accumulated dirt. The different levels of dirt accumulation are numbered in the photograph above for cross-verification. The bulge in the lower platform (line 1) is especially useful in geolocating this quarry.
The above image illustrates the similarities between the image posted on VK by Wizards DRG members, and the Styla quarry viewed from satellite imagery. The dirt formations are the main features for geolocation, but other terrain features such as field borders (blue), rocks lining a small road (green), and tree formations also corroborate the identification.
While fighters from this group participated in virtually every prolific battle since the beginning of the war, it wasn’t until late 2014 and early/mid-2015 that they began embedding with artillery units. The reason for this is not known, nor are several other specifics, but what we do know is that during the run-up to the battle for Debaltseve, the group was attached to the DNR’s Third Independent Motor-Rifle Brigade (OMSBr) based out of Horlivka, although members of the group were also spotted with the Seventh OMSBr which now operates out of Debaltseve.
Specifically, the “Wizards” were to be part of a battery of D-30 122 mm towed artillery pieces which provided devastating shelling attacks against Ukrainian positions in the Debaltseve salient. This battery was in turn part of a towed howitzer battalion (ГАДн — Гаубичный Артиллерийский Дивизион), per Ivanov’s VK album description (screenshot).
The battery consisted of six D-30 122 mm howitzers, likely extending up to as many as ten. Below, a panoramic view that was created by piecing together shows several shots from the video, with all six D-30s in plain view. A typical D-30 battalion would consist of eighteen pieces.
An additional four artillery pieces were spotted behind a tree-line, likely also D-30s, part of the same battalion. We assume that the obscured artillery pieces were in the same battalion because they fired on the same commands as the D-30s within view of the camera.
Footage of interest from the battle of Debaltseve included a clip during some of the most intense artillery fire. One of the separatists was spotted with a Russian Army standard issue GLONASS/GPS 14C822 GROT-M navigator, used to direct artillery fires.
After the battle, however, it appeared that the group moved southward to the area of Dokuchaevsk, where they were attached to 82 mm mortars, and likely also 120mm mortars, judging by images from the VK group. These were likely the mortars that the Granat-4 in the image was providing reconnaissance for. The exact role of the group was not entirely clear since most footage showed the group alongside artillery, rather than in the field directing it, as would be expected for a reconnaissance group. The plausible explanation would of course be that they received the Granat-4 in the leadup to the battle for Debaltseve, but there is no way to confirm that with the available information.
The group fought in several high-profile battles in Donetsk, and traversed the majority of the Donetsk battlefield in the early stages of the war. Below is a simplified visualization of the group’s movements, with the current frontlines outlined for reference.
It’s clear that Russian-supplied technology was involved in directing artillery fires for separatists in 2015. This is one of the milder aspects of Russian interference in the conflict compared to supplying several battalions’ worth of T-72 Main Battle Tanks (MBT) as well as conducting cross-border artillery fires into Ukrainian territory, along with sending mercenaries and regular troops to assist separatist fighting efforts, as previously documented by the @DFRLab.
Still, the employment of overwhelming artillery fires was a key strategy in the early days of the war to dislodge Ukrainian positions for pro-Russian infantry to assault, the results of which are still visible today.
Michael Sheldon is an Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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