Sporadic shelling continues in Ukraine’s east in the Zolote disengagement area
Ukrainian forces fired mortars at positions maintained by Russian-backed separatists in an area notionally free of conflict.
Skirmishes remain a frequent occurrence in what has become a slow, grinding war of attrition, as the conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government is a longstanding stalemate in Ukraine’s eastern region of the Donbas.
On January 31, monitors from the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine observed nine impacts from 120mm mortars inside the Zolote disengagement area. These findings were later backed up by video footage posted by a social media account with close ties to Ukrainian armed forces.
Zolote is a collection of five settlements on the frontlines in eastern Ukraine. The area recently became the center of attention for many observers of the conflict after Ukrainian forces moved into several of these settlements previously considered “gray zones,” or unoccupied by either side. Ukrainian government forces have current control over four of five settlements in Zolote. The fifth is the easternmost (Zolote-5/Mariyvka), which was never considered a gray zone and remains occupied by the Russian-backed separatist forces of the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR).
Zolote is notorious for its convoluted naming conventions, which has led to great debate about which settlement corresponds to which number. @DFRLab previously reported on military movements within these settlements, which have grown to become a focal point of the conflict.
The OSCE Report
As part of the OSCE SMM daily briefs, monitors reported on January 31 about events observed the day prior. Among other ceasefire violations, most of which were in the Luhansk region, the SMM found nine fresh impact points from 120mm mortars at a Russian-backed separatist checkpoint inside the Zolote disengagement area. Artillery of 100mm or more is supposed to be kept 50 kilometers (31 mi) or more from the line of contact, as per the oft-disregarded clause two of the Minsk II agreements.
Disengagement areas are intended to create zones of demilitarization in areas with potential for becoming hotspots for fighting. The areas were agreed upon by the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG), a group composed of representatives from Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE to facilitate a diplomatic resolution to the war. The OSCE described the areas as follows:
As specified in the Decision, disengagement will be carried out through a withdrawal of armed forces/formations and hardware from their current positions, starting in three areas, with a view to creating disengagement areas that will be, as a rule, at least 2 km wide and 2 km deep. Moving forward into disengagement areas is prohibited.
On the northern edge of the Zolote disengagement area is a Ukrainian government checkpoint for screening vehicles entering and exiting non-government-controlled areas. @DFRLab previously reported on ceasefire violations and violations of TCG disengagement agreements throughout the conflict, including the Petrivske disengagement area in Donetsk.
The report noted that the attack allegedly took place in the early afternoon of January 29, according to Russian-backed separatist fighters present at the scene.
On 30 January, at the checkpoint of the armed formations on the southern edge of the disengagement area near Zolote (government-controlled, 60km west of Luhansk), the SMM saw nine fresh impacts, assessed as caused by mortar rounds, as well as nine tailfins of 120mm mortar rounds and two fuse tips located within a 4m radius of the impacts. At the same checkpoint, the SMM also saw fresh shrapnel marks on a north-facing concrete block (which had been moved 1m south of its regular position) and dents and fresh shrapnel damage on a north-facing wall of a prefabricated container. The Mission also observed the tailfin of a 120mm mortar round and fuse tip fragments 2m north of the concrete block. About 10m south of the same checkpoint, the SMM saw for the first time a piece of unexploded ordnance (UXO) (tailfin of a 120mm mortar round) covered with a used tire and tree branches and an improvised red square mine hazard sign with “Stop, Mines” written in Russian 2m south from the UXO, as well as the tailfin of a 120mm mortar round embedded in the asphalt of the road,. The SMM also saw three fresh mortar impacts and fragments of the tailfin of a 120mm mortar round nearby. The SMM assessed that all the above mortar rounds were fired from a west-north-westerly direction. An unarmed member of the armed formations told the Mission that there had been shelling in the early afternoon hours of 29 January.
The OSCE made the distinction that the man they interviewed was unarmed, an important detail when considering that the checkpoint was within the Zolote disengagement area.
A few days after the OSCE report, Facebook user Anatoly Shtirlits posted drone footage of an artillery attack against the position mentioned above. The footage was presumably from the same attack, but there was no way of corroborating that it had taken place on January 29. In his post, Shtirlits claimed that “three occupiers signed contracts with the 200th brigade.” Seeing as there is no 200th brigade in that area, Shtirlits likely referred to the colloquialism of “cargo 200,” which was a way to refer to dead soldiers shipped home during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The OSCE SMM report did not make mention of any casualties.
Using open-source geolocation techniques, @DFRLab could confirm that this footage was indeed from within the Zolote disengagement area.
On February 4, another frequent uploader of drone videos, Yuriy Misyagin, posted higher resolution footage of the same incident, clearly detailing what took place. The video was titled “operation ‘payment,’ with a vengance,” likely in reference to an earlier incident in which a Ukrainian service member was killed by an anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) reportedly launched from this position.
The video showed a structure heavily resembling a bunker or checkpoint, with personnel visible in the footage. After a lull in the shelling, the personnel manning the checkpoint fled to a nearby bunker. There was no evidence of casualties at the checkpoint from this video.
Next to the structure, in a protective trench, a military truck was visible and appeared to take a near-direct hit toward the rear of the vehicle. The vehicle appeared to be a Kamaz truck with a ZU-23–2 anti-aircraft gun to its rear. This is a common setup in “LNR” armed formation with Ural trucks, but less so with Kamaz trucks. This truck armed with an anti-aircraft gun would have been in violation of the disengagement agreements.
Given the details of the video including snow cover, it was clear that the northward facing road was untouched by tire tracks, while roads in all other roads had seen at least some use. This is the road that connects to the government-controlled checkpoint. The pristine nature of the connecting road meant that civilian traffic in that area was likely nonexistent, and that the shelling was at minimal risk to civilians. By the end of the attack, the anti-air truck had left its protective trench, and the checkpoint was left with minimal structural damage.
Two weeks later, on February 14, Misyagin uploaded a video aptly named “Operation ‘Payback’ part two.” The video took place just over five hundred meters from where the original video was recorded. Again, a Kamaz with a ZU-23–2 anti-aircraft gun on its bed was the target of what appeared to be shelling from several different calibers.
It was not clear from this video whether the same truck from earlier was relocated to this position and then re-engaged, or if it was a different one. Nonetheless, the truck appeared to take damage to its cab during this round of shelling.
From the available footage, the continued utility of commercial quadcopter drones in conducting ranged attacks is apparent. Throughout the conflict, quadcopter drones have been utilized for their ability to maintain a stable hover for guiding artillery fires and dropping payloads on enemy positions. These incidents in specific also showed the limits posed by unguided munitions and consumer hardware in war as many rounds were expended, but the damage to target remained unclear. Days before this incident Ukrainian forces lost a serviceman in this area after a vehicle took an anti-tank missile hit, wounding an additional four. It is possible that this shelling was in retaliation to that incident.
These recent incidents, in part through publicly available drone footage, highlighted the nature of this protracted conflict. While fighting overall is in decline, mechanisms set in place to reduce fighting are routinely ignored, leading to a conflict characterized by intermittent skirmishes and casualties in service of no apparent territorial gain.
Michael Sheldon is an Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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