On July 4, 2018, a Russia-backed separatist from the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) posted photographs of Russian-supplied anti-tank mines being readied for deployment in eastern Ukraine. These photographs were posted years after the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) agreed on mine mitigation and prohibitions on live-fire exercises.
As the fourth anniversary of the war in eastern Ukraine passed, danger still looms on the front lines despite a reduction in fighting to daily skirmishes and nightly artillery duels. While Ukraine has grown increasingly assertive throughout 2018 and moved troops into relatively uncontested territory in the “grey zone”, the frontlines themselves remain virtually unchanged. One of the greatest dangers facing soldiers and civilians alike in eastern Ukraine today are the mines, unexploded ordinance (UXO), and boobytraps saturating the front lines of Donbas on both sides of the line of contact.
On July 4, 2018, VKontakte (VK) user Vlad Shamray uploaded a set of photos of himself sitting by a pile of anti-tank mines. Twitter user @666_mancer was the first to notice these photos, and tweeted about them, pointing out the manufacture date and factory of origin as further indicators of Russian interference in the conflict.
The mines bore a set of markings:
TM-62П3 meant that the mines were TM-62 mines of the P3 type, and the series of numbers below denoted the factory, lot number, and year of production. 121 indicated that the mines originated from the “Bryansk Chemical Plant named after the 50th anniversary of the USSR” in Bryansk, Russia. 94 denoted that the mines were produced in 1994, three years after the independence of Ukraine from the Soviet Union.
@DFRLab was unable to find information about any arms imports from Russia that would match these mines, but such data was scarce during the 1990s. Therefore, it was not possible to say with complete certainty that these mines were supplied directly to the LNR from Russia, though it is the most likely origin.
Some of these images showed Shamray and another individual inserting fuzes in the TM-62s, with protective plastic caps and wrapping littering the area, suggesting that they received them from storage.
The pictures with the TM-62 mines in and of themselves did not contain enough visual information for conclusive geolocation, but a photograph with the same upload date did contain a geotag to separatist positions a couple of hundred meters east of the town of Zholobok. The area around Zholobok saw a significant increase in violence in 2016 and 2017, made evident by the unusual surge in trench lines in that area, uncharacteristic of most other parts of Luhansk for that period.
Most likely, these photos are from the same area, especially considering that the war in eastern Ukraine has currently reached a practical stalemate with each side deeply entrenched, necessitating little mobility along the front lines.
From Shamray’s profile alone, it was not possible to discern in what unit he serves. Going through his friends list and analyzing the profiles of other users geotagged to this location, @DFRLab concluded that the men in the pictures were from the Prizrak (Ghost) Battalion, or at the very least, the 4th Independent Motor-Rifle Brigade (OMSBr) of the LNR.
Once a well-known brigade at the outset of the war, Prizrak was under the command of Aleksey Mozgovoy before he was assassinated. Now, Prizrak is one of LNR’s eight reported territorial defense battalions, a concept that caught on more in Luhansk than with their Donetsk counterparts. Prizrak was reformed to be the 14th Territorial Defense Battalion (14OBTrO/14BTO), connected with the 4-OMSBr of the 2nd Army Corps (LNR). This type of structure, where territorial defense battalions were tied to regular brigades, is a common way of organizing forces in the separatist “republics” of eastern Ukraine.
The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine has repeatedly reported on mining activity in Donbas, albeit mainly in Donetsk, where pieces of road or large fields were saturated with TM-62 anti-tank mines.
As the OSCE SMM to Ukraine mentioned in their tweets, it is not only separatist forces who are culpable in violating the Minsk accords, and subsequent agreements to demine, such as the March 3 2016 TCG agreement on demining and prohibition of live-fire exercises.
Judging by the patterns shown in the OSCE SMM to Ukraine tweets, the @DFRLab outlined an overview of likely locations for mines to be laid near the geotagged location.
Likely locations are marked by striped-white outlines. Red-dotted lines indicate pro-Russian separatist defensive positions, and blue-dotted lines highlight Ukrainian defensive positions.
Separatists in eastern Ukraine, the 14 OBTrO “Prizrak” group in particular, have continued their mine-laying efforts in 2018 despite commitments to demine. The mines photographed in July 2018 were of Russian origin and likely supplied directly to separatist forces in an effort to cause attrition to Ukrainian forces and to limit the necessity of more direct involvement in the behalf of Moscow.
Mines, boobytraps, and other UXO remain a tangible danger to civilians in the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, especially near checkpoints and trafficked roads. While Russia-backed separatists have been more flagrant in their mining efforts, the Ukrainian Armed Forces also must commit to the promises made in the Trilateral Contact Group meetings if they are serious about reducing risks to civilians on the front lines, as the OSCE SMM to Ukraine has photographed instances of Ukrainian forces mining roads near the frontline.
Michael Sheldon is an Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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