Additional evidence of advanced, recently developed Russian military hardware was discovered in the Donbas last week. @DFRLab found two photographs depicting a newly-produced satellite communications module in non-government-controlled eastern Ukraine. This finding marks the second known combat deployment of this system.
@DFRLab has extensively reported the presence of Russian military hardware in eastern Ukraine, particularly noting the newer electronic warfare and drone systems that are in non-government-controlled Ukraine due to the direct and deliberate actions from the Russian military. These systems, in addition to more kinetic Russian assistance, significantly enhance Russian-led separatist fighting capabilities through support mechanisms such as psychological operations via signal interception, reconnaissance, and enhanced communications.
While Russia has decreased the number of active duty servicemen and heavy weaponry sent to eastern Ukraine, it has maintained — if not increased — both the quantity and quality of non-lethal equipment, along with continuing to provide the necessary personnel with technical knowledge of these systems, such as electronic warfare specialists.
On June 9, 2018, ВКонтакте (VKontakte or VK) user Artyom Donetsk posted an album with several photographs, which spanned an uncertain timeframe and depicted his activity as a Russia-led separatist fighter in the Donetsk oblast of eastern Ukraine.
The album included two photographs of him posing with another fighter outside of a building complex with an army green satellite dish deployed in the background. This radar dish is identical in appearance to the Russian Auriga-1.2V (Аурига-1.2В) satellite communications system, which went into production in 2014. This system has never been exported to Ukraine or used by its armed forces. In other words, it can only be in eastern Ukraine through direct Russian assistance to separatists.
@DFRLab compared the image of the satellite dish in the image with rear-side imagery of an Auriga-1.2V atop the newly-commissioned Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate Admiral Essen of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to confirm the system in question.
In 2016, this system was spotted in service with the Russian military in Syria. @DFRLab was unable to find evidence for any previous recorded sightings of this satellite system in eastern Ukraine.
One of the first sightings of the Auriga-1.2V was in 2015 for the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) “Day of Innovation” (День инноваций) at a fair in the far-eastern port city of Vladivostok. The Auriga was on display with a card listing its specifications.
The card listed a number of general, technical, and mechanical characteristics and included its production date of 2014, meaning that this system could not be in eastern Ukraine without the direct involvement of the Russian military. Other notable specifications included the following three points:
- Application in operationally deployed satellite communications stations, including VSAT technology. Works in field conditions.
- Compatibility with Intelsat and Eutelsat
- Operation under severe environmental conditions
This wide compatibility means that the systems with which the Auriga was communicating may have been commercial, off the shelf. Within the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Auriga-1.2V is part of a larger package named MK VTR-016 (МК ВТР-016), a mobile video transmission system.
Other components of the system include a Dallmeier camera and a Huawei router. At a June 2018 military exhibition, it was revealed that the MK VTR-016 is:
Designed to organize video broadcast in an open segment of a data network.
Thanks to the upgraded router, it has the ability to manage and support multiple live video broadcasts in the allocated virtual private networks. A feature of the kit is the presence of a satellite communications station, which allows the transmission of video content from any point in the world.
The station of satellite communication Auriga 1.2 is intended for the organization of high-speed duplex channels of satellite communication when operating through a space station on geostationary orbit of the type “Express”, “Yamal” and others in the C or Ku-Band.
Other similar satellite communications systems were previously spotted in the Donbas, including the Barrier-T ( Барьер-Т), a battlefield communications system.
Geolocating the Auriga satellite system
Thanks to the observations of one #DigitalSherlock, @DFRLab has a possible location for where these pictures were taken.
Below, a rough composite of the area with stitched-together images shows the U-shaped building in the background of the photographs with the Auriga system, along with a potential match with geolocation.
The images depict facility held by so-called Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR) 11th Motor-Rifle Regiment “Vostok” in the Donetsk suburb of Makiivka, as marked on @5urpher’s map over bases in Russian-led separatist-held Donbas.
The potential match for geolocation shows U-shaped building with a second structure across the courtyard. While there is an abundance of buildings with these shapes in the Donbas, @DFRLab has not found another match that shows a second structure located in the same layout as seen in the source material. Two protuberant objects on the building nearest the camera may confirm that this was the location of the photographs.
If you can find further details about this base, or other potential matches for the photographs under question, please tweet at us (@DFRLab) with any of your own findings.
When were the images snapped?
As the VK user uploaded a large number of photographs taken at different times, it was impossible to determine the date that these photographs were taken. However, we can approximate potential times. Information gathered from the user’s older duplicate profile allowed for an estimation the photographs being taken during the spring or early summer of 2017. This was determined by looking at the user’s uniform and how it changed over time. In the image of interest, the user wore a uniform with the seemingly omnipresent multicam camouflage pattern, or a derivative thereof, with a matching chest rig, and a cap in the EMR pattern.
Between 2014 and 2017, the user primarily wore EMR uniforms or “Gorka” style mountain suits. Other uniforms were observed in this time period too, but these were the most prevalent, and at no time during this period was the poster depicted wearing multicam. It was only in a late May 2017 upload that all three factors matched — the chest rig, the cap, and the uniform. The user did not upload any further imagery matching this setup after this date.
While it is clear that the Auriga-1.2V saw use in Russian-led separatist territory in support of Russian-backed military operations, the precise time of its application remains unclear.
Although the system is primarily intended for video communications, it is possible that it was used as a more secure way of communicating with units on the front lines; given the documented application of battlefield satellite communications systems in the past, this remains a distinct possibility.
It is, however, equally possible that the Auriga system was used for communications between the Russian military, but there is no way to conclusively know through open-source means.
However, it is clear that the Russian-led separatist forces continue to heavily rely on Russian military resources and expertise in these times of relative calm, as previously documented by OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine’s drones that captured photographic evidence of the use of advanced Russian electronic warfare systems.
Michael Sheldon is an Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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