#MinskMonitor: OSCE Drone Takes Fire Amid Continued Escalation of Hostilities
Newly-mined positions, fresh trenches, aggressive anti-aircraft systems, and artillery along the front line
The long-range and mini-drones used by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine continue to shed light on the ongoing conflict in the Donbas, as both the Ukrainian Armed Forces and Russian-led separatist forces deploying heavy weaponry along the front line and creating new entrenchments.
On Friday, June 15, the OSCE SMM to Ukraine published three sets of drone imagery showing different violations of the Minsk accords, including the placement of heavy-caliber weaponry within seven kilometers of the contact line, new placements of anti-tank mines on roads, and new entrenchments within a kilometer of the contact line. Additionally, on the same day, Russian-led separatist forces north of Donetsk fired a surface-to-air missile from a 9K33 Osa system (likely supplied by the Russian Armed Forces) at an OSCE SMM long-range drone. The missile was fired in a straight line, suggesting that the system lost track of the drone immediately at launch, it was fired as a warning shot, or it was fired before it gained a radar lock.
Separatist attempt to down OSCE drone
The most startling footage published by the OSCE SMM to Ukraine shows a 9K33 Osa anti-aircraft missile system, operated by the Russian-led separatist forces of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), unsuccessfully trying to shoot down a long-range OSCE drone. As the spot report from the OSCE recounts, the 9K33 Osa system fired two missiles at the drone, both of which missed, followed by a ZU-23 anti-aircraft gun also firing at the drone. The OSCE SMM to Ukraine told the DNR forces that the drone would be at the location it was monitoring that night.
Geolocating the drone footage shows the exact location where the 9K33 Osa system fired — near a fuel station just north of the M-04 highway.
The most recent satellite imagery on Wikimapia, from May 2017, shows extensive entrenched positions in the area where the missile was fired. This area is firmly under the control of the Russian-led forces of the DNR.
Putting this location into context with the help of the current situation provided by LiveUAMap, we can see that the approximate missile launch site was a few kilometers from the front-line, in non-government-controlled territory (shaded red) between Horlivka and Donetsk.
Heavy equipment near the front-line
One of the three tweets showing OSCE drone photographs depicted heavy weaponry near the front lines, violating the Minsk accords.
The first image is in non-government-controlled Sofiivka, also known as Karlo-Marksove, located in between the non-government-controlled cities of Horlivka and Yenakiieve. The most likely location that the OSCE photographed was a former boarding school in the eastern part of the city, where Russian-led separatists have long stored military equipment.
By aligning the perspective close to that of the drone photograph, a statue underneath a tree west of the equipment can be seen. The same equipment, including heavy trucks and towed D-30 122mm howitzers, are visible in both images in roughly the same alignment.
The other image provided by the OSCE SMM to Ukraine shows a Ukrainian BMP-2 (infantry fighting vehicle) near Katernyivka, about a half-kilometer from the frontline. This town, currently held by Ukrainian forces, is on the northern edge of the frontline, and to the northeast of the Svitlodarsk Bulge. In February 2018, Ukraine took this village under its control, after it was previously under occupation from the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR).
The two images from new trenches from the OSCE are also in this area, a few kilometers to the east in Zolote, showing the current state of the war in the Donbas — little territorial changes, with both sides hunkering down with new trenches.
Newly mined roads
One of the more under-reported issues in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine is the continued use of landmines — for example, two months ago, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released a statement stating that two million Ukrainians are affected by landmines, and over 1,600 civilians have been injured or killed by landmines and unexploded ordnances.
The OSCE SMM to Ukraine published two images of freshly-mined roads in the Donetsk Oblast, in both government and non-government-controlled areas.
The included map makes clear the location of the mined roads — Dolomitne, near the Svitlodarsk Bulge and north of Horlivka. The area highlighted by the OSCE SMM to Ukraine was directly on the front line.
These aerial images are far from the only indications of newly-mined roads near the front line. On Friday, an OSCE SMM to Ukraine patrol was forced by a drunk separatist soldier to drive near a newly-mined path in Petrivske, south of Donetsk. Though the patrol passed through safely, the incident could have led to a far more tragic result:
While the patrol was considering the possibility for the first vehicle to drive east away from the mine and for the second vehicle to turn around and drive north to safely leave the area, a member of the armed formations carrying an assault rifle (AK-74) and displaying signs of intoxication approached the first SMM vehicle from the east and told the patrol to leave the area immediately and that it would not be permitted to proceed any further east. Despite the SMM pointing out the presence of the mine, he refused to let the first vehicle drive eastwards, thus leaving the first vehicle no choice but to drive back westwards once again across the freshly dug ditch filled with rubble near the identified mine. The first SMM vehicle then drove on the southern side of the road towards the crossroads as far as possible from the visible mine.
Worsening situation for civilians and monitors
As with each of the last four years, the situation in the Donbas worsened with the onset of summer, with an increase of fighting across the conflict zone and unnecessary danger posed to civilians and neutral monitors. Civilians were injured in non-government-controlled cities in the Donetsk Oblast in the last week, including from gunfire and shelling, and minor territorial shifts continue to take place along the northern front line.
This spring, the OSCE SMM to Ukraine relaunched its long-range drone monitoring program, with numerous drones operating to observe the uptick in fighting with the winter thaw. While these drones have revealed numerous flagrant violations of the Minsk accords, they have also been targeted, by far the most often by Russian-led separatist forces. As seen with the video of the anti-aircraft missile, Russian-led separatist forces are blatantly trying to reduce the OSCE SMM to Ukraine’s capacity to monitor the war.