#MinskMonitor: Separatist Coup Conversation in Turkey

Ukrainian intelligence publishes alleged conversation discussing removal of Donetsk leadership

(Source: YouTube / Security Service Ukraine)

On September 27, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) published an explosive video that claimed to show the recorded conversation between unknown individuals and Aleksandr Lavrentyev, who is an aide to Denis Pushilin, the current leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR).

Even more curious, this conversation was allegedly recorded in June 2018 in a cafe in Turkey.

@DFRLab verified the location of the meeting through open source techniques and identified Lavrentyev as Pushilin’s aide through separatist sources. These finds further evidenced that former “DNR” leader Zakharchenko’s assassination was the result of a separatist power struggle.

What was discussed?

During the conversation recorded by the SBU, Pushilin’s aide, Aleksandr Lavrentyev, discussed the possibility of removing Aleksandr Zakharchenko from his post as the leader of the DNR before September 2018.

Below, we captured and summarized some of the key segments of the conversation between Lavrentyev and the two unidentified men he was meeting with in Turkey. One of Lavrentyev’s interlocutors began to discuss Zakharchenko, who he described as supported by “comrade Surkov.” Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov is one of the leading forces in organizing the leadership structure and guidance of the so-called “separatist” republics in the Donbas. Indeed, Zakharchenko was a hand-picked leader for Donetsk chosen by Surkov and other Russian “curators” who control the direction of non-government-controlled eastern Ukraine.

(Source: YouTube / Security Service Ukraine)

Lavrentyev spoke in a range of hypotheticals to the unidentified men and described a scenario in which “a certain person” could ascend to the DNR leadership to “stabilize the situation.” This statement referred to his boss and current DNR leader Denis Pushilin replacing then-leader of the DNR Aleksandr Zakharchenko.

(Source: YouTube / Security Service Ukraine)

One of the unidentified men cut through the opaque language that Lavrentyev used and stated Pushilin had a “conflict” with Timofeyev (reference to Zakharchenko’s right-hand man, Aleksandr “Tashkent” Timofeyev) and Zakharchenko.

(Source: YouTube / Security Service Ukraine)

After discussion of how Zakharchenko’s leadership in Donetsk was an issue that must be resolved, Lavrentyev suggested concrete actions to replace Zakharchenko with Pushilin. He said:

There is a situation that we could, in principle, resolve together. Resolve quickly. Extremely quickly. Because we don’t have much time, like you. Let’s say that September is quickly approaching.

Zakharchenko’s assassination, it should be noted, took place on August 31 of the same year.

(Source: YouTube / Security Service Ukraine)

Lavrentyev also described an ideal outcome for him. He outlined a situation in which “there are no elections“ and instead “victory”. In other words, he suggested Pushilin’s assignment as leader of the DNR following Zakharchekno’s assassination, without the need to out-maneuver the incumbent leader in this autumn’s elections.

(Source: YouTube / Security Service Ukraine)

In an exchange that almost seemed a bit too accurate with their scheming and eventual results, one of the two unidentified men laid out the eventual assassination quite clearly.

“Your idea is understood, you take out Zakhar [Zakharchenko], put in Pushilin, get rid of Tashkent.”

All of these things did indeed happen, with Zakharchenko’s assassination, Tashkent’s injury and escape to Moscow, and Pushilin’s ascendence to the acting leader of the DNR. Furthermore, the man recommended getting rid of the battalions loyal to Zakharchenko, likely a reference to the slain leader’s “republican guard” and “special forces regiment”. This group included a now-disbanded group whose deputy commander was well-known author and Zakharchenko loyalist Zakhar Prilepin. Prilepin made a very public exit from the Donbas a month before Zakharchenko’s assassination and a month after the alleged conversation in Turkey.

(Source: YouTube / Security Service Ukraine)

Nearly everything described in the conversation came to pass, raising suspicious with just how cleanly the plans aligned with eventual reality. Verifying these calls with complete confidence is nearly impossible without direct acknowledgment from those in the conversations; however, we can verify portions of the SBU release.

Verification of the video footage

The first part of the video showed where it was allegedly recorded — the Yuvam cafe in Antalya, Turkey. The verified location helped partially confirm the call, while finding a different location for the scene shown by the SBU would cast serious doubt on the allegations raised in the recorded conversations.

(Source: YouTube / Security Service Ukraine)

The video also shows a clearer view of the face of Pushilin’s aide, Lavrentyev, while presumably at the same cafe.

(Source: YouTube / Security Service Ukraine)

This location is not difficult to verify due to the fact that this café is fairly popular with tourists, providing a wealth of photographs from both inside and outside the café on sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp.

A photograph uploaded onto Trip Advisor in 2015 shows the same distinct shape for a street lamp that is visible in the SBU video.

(Sources: Top — YouTube / Security Service Ukraine; Bottom — Trip Advisor / FlavioGiaveno_To_)

The design on the chair visible in the SBU video is also a match for a user-uploaded photograph from September 2018 on Google.

(Sources: Top — YouTube / Security Service Ukraine; Bottom — Google / Dmitry Vtorov)

Additionally, the SBU briefly showed a different perspective of Lavrentyev’s face in the cafe. In the background, we can see a fan above his table. This same model of fan can be found in photographs on FourSquare.

(Sources: Left — YouTube / Security Service Ukraine; Right — FourSquare / Ahmet K.)

Many more additional photographs of the cafe are available on FourSquare. In short, we can confidently say that the SBU video was indeed filmed at the Yuvam cafe, as was alleged.

Additional verification

Again, without direct confirmation from the individuals recorded, it remains difficult to have complete confidence that the conversation was not taken out of context or manipulated, either in whole or part. However, by looking at the opinions of insiders to separatist leadership, we can find ways to move closer to finding the published conversations credible.

Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, perhaps the most infamous of all separatist commanders, posted on his personal VKontakte (VK) page that the recording was genuine, as told to him from his sources within Donetsk.

(Source: VK / Igor Strelkov)

Girkin described how he “received” confirmation that the voice of Lavrentyev was genuine. Girkin also maintained that Lavrentyev had an important role in Pushilin’s team in June 2018, when the conversation was allegedly recorded. Girkin went on to say that Pushilin’s team was well aware of the plot to assassinate Zakharchenko; however, Girkin has feuded with Zakharchenko and others within the current Donetsk leadership since his exit to Russia in 2014.

Whither Donetsk?

These new materials from the SBU confirm what many already assumed: the assassination of Zakharchenko was planned out from the Russian and separatist side as a way of moving to new leadership. We cannot be entirely certain that the intercepted call is genuine or has not been manipulated, but considering the (not entirely unbiased) judgment of Igor “Strelkov” Girkin and a solid geolocation of the scene to a Turkish cafe, the call is more likely real than not.


Aric Toler is the Lead Digital Forensic Research Associate for Eurasia at the @DFRLab.

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