Ukraine’s Bloodiest Battle of the Winter
An open source survey of the information — and disinformation — surrounding the battle in the Svitlodarsk Bulge
Fighting erupted over the weekend near the Ukrainian-controlled town of Svitlodarsk, north of the strategic hub of Debaltseve, marking the conflict’s bloodiest battle since the summer. Dozens of fighters from the Ukrainian and separatist forces are reported to have died, and the OSCE SMM to Ukraine observed over 2,900 explosions on December 18 alone. Most of these came from the so-called “Svitlodarsk Bulge,” including over 600 outgoing 122mm artillery rounds in the early afternoon northwest of the OSCE’s Svitlodarsk monitoring location. It is still unclear who initiated the battle, but it has become evident that the Ukrainian forces have pushed back at least three attacks and separatist forces are staging their artillery attacks from Debaltseve and the surrounding towns, including Kalynivka and Vuhlehirsk. Unconfirmed rumors indicate that Ukraine has taken some territory previously controlled by separatists, including Hill 223 and the shore of a pond southeast of Svitlodarsk and west of Lohvynove.
Information surrounding the fighting near Svitlodarsk first came to international attention on December 18 after the press center for the Ukrainian “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO) confirmed rumors that Ukrainian forces had suffered significant casualties near Svitlodarsk. Five Ukrainian soldiers were killed, and another six wounded (two of them severely), after separatist forces began an hours-long attack early in the morning. The ATO press center also claimed to have inflicted 50 casualties on the separatist fighters, including 20 deaths.
However, the official number of casualties has been called into doubt by both separatists (one of whom claims that there are five times as many casualties as reported) and Ukrainian journalists. A correspondent from the Ukrainian news service TSN claims there were not eleven, but thirty Ukrainian casualties on December 18.
Many, if not all, of these wounded or killed soldiers served in Ukraine’s 54th Brigade, which has defended Ukrainian positions near Svitlodarsk throughout the year. On December 19, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense’s Military TV YouTube channel uploaded an interview with soldiers of the 54th Brigade, including a commander with the callsign “Tisa.”
Among the casualties from the 54th Brigade was Roman Radivilov (callsign “Gryuza”), a 30-year-old volunteer who started fighting in the Donbas in 2014. In a photograph posted by Serhii Kukzan on Facebook, the red-and-black flag of right-wing nationalist groups is draped over Radivilov’s body. Radivilov died during a series of December 18 artillery strikes against military positions near Svitlodarsk.
Numerous videos have been posted by pro-separatist news outlets and video bloggers showing nearby artillery fire and interviews with soldiers from the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). The videos below were all filmed south of Svitlodarsk between December 18 and 20.
Fake videos of the fighting are also spreading through social media and major Ukrainian news outlets. One video supposedly showing a December 18 battle near Svitlodarsk was shared on Facebook by a Ukrainian MP and collected over 250,000 views and 5,000 shares. The same video was uploaded onto VKontakte making the same claim, collecting over 4,500 views. However, the video was actually taken from a Russian military training event in 2012. A screenshot from this fake video was used in an UNIAN news article.
Another video, which gathered over 120,000 views, supposedly shows the fighting in the Svitlodarsk Bulge on December 18. In reality, this video shows a “firefight” with Airsoft guns in the American state of Utah from 2009 that was cropped, zoomed in, turned black and white, and horizontally flipped. The video also seems to have the audio of more realistic sounding gunfire dubbed in.
This fake video was even included in a Ukrainian television news broadcast on Channel Ukraina.
This was far from the first time that this video was misattributed to a different event, with various copies of the video supposedly from the Ukrainian town of Shyrokyne, various locations in Iraq, and Syria.
At the time of this article’s publication, the fighting near the Svitlodarsk Bulge continues, with more casualties reported on Tuesday by Ukrainian officials. There are dozens of accounts coming from the frontlines, but it is difficult for most people to know which ones to trust, amongst attempts at disinformation from all sides of the conflict and the use of fake videos in both social media and mainstream news. While we are accustomed to hearing competing narratives between Ukrainian and separatist news sources, we are now seeing disagreement within these camps, most evidently in the conflicting accounts of the number of December 18 casualties reported by the official ATO press center and a Ukrainian journalist in Svitlodarsk. We at the DFRLab will continue to monitor open source information surrounding this battle and help separate fact from fiction.
Update: This article previously attributed the black-and-red flag to Right Sector (Pravy Sektor). The article has been updated to note that this flag is not exclusively used by Right Sector, and is used by other right-wing nationalist groups as well.