#MinskMonitor: Russia’s Great British Fake Off

Russian and “separatist” reports of “British Military Advisers” in the Donbas for a chemical attack

(Source: YouTube / 60 minutes)

Last week, officials of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) claimed that “a group of military specialists from Great Britain” arrived in Bakhmut (formerly Artemovsk) to work with Ukraine’s 72nd Mechanized Brigade. In particular, these British specialists were to assist Ukraine in a chemical attack that would be blamed on Russia and “separatist” forces — a clear allusion the Russian government’s line on the Skripal poisoning. There has been no credible evidence presented by Russia or the “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine to back this claim.

This claim is the latest installment of a long tradition of announcements from the so-called DNR that Western nations have sent military specialists or advisers to assist the Ukrainian Armed Forces. However, to date, there has not been a single credible, documented case of a Western country’s servicemen participating in the conflict in the Donbas.

Claim from Donetsk: British False Flag in Horlivka

On November 21, Daniil Bezsonov, the head of the so-called DNR Militia Press Service, claimed, “we’ve received intelligence that a group of British military specialists has arrived in Artemovsk [Bakhmut] with the 72nd [Mechanized] Brigade.”

“According to our recent reports, some of those who have arrived are part of the special operations forces of the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom,” Bezsonov continued.

At the same briefing, he also noted that the so-called DNR intelligence observed 10 people among a Ukrainian special forces group near the settlement of Dacha with “boxes with a chemical hazard sign” and chemical protection equipment (e.g. a hazmat suit or gas mask).

Specifically, Bezsonov accused Ukrainian and British forces of planning to sabotage the Stirol factory, which operates in the “separatist” stronghold of Horlivka. This sabotage, according to Bezsonov’s unfounded claims, would result in a massive chemical leak and cause untold amounts of ecological and human damage, all while blaming the incident on Russia or “separatist” authorities. It is unclear how British and Ukrainian forces would place blame on the so-called DNR for launching a chemical attack within their own territory and near their own soldiers.

On November 22, so-called DNR spokesperson Eduard Basurin cut through any of the remaining subtlety of his colleague’s reports on “British chemical specialists” by claiming that the United Kingdom would be using the same methods of blaming the so-called DNR for a chemical attack as they did with Russia in the Skripal case.

(Source: YouTube / 60 minutes)

A few days prior, so-called DNR authorities accused the Ukrainian forces of planning a sabotage of the Stirol factory on behalf of Ukraine’s “Western curators,” with the “British specialists” claim dramatically escalating the geopolitical intrigue.

As one would expect, there is no actual evidence provided for any of these claims, and there have not been any visual materials or witness accounts published corroborating the so-called DNR’s claims of the arrival of British specialists in eastern Ukraine or of any military activity near the Stirol factory.

Phantom Military Advisers and Chemical Attacks

Claims regarding Western soldiers, advisers, and chemical agents finding their way along the war’s front-lines appear almost monthly in press briefings of the so-called DNR and so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). Yet, like Godot, these attacks and mysterious foreign meddlers never and likely will never materialize, despite the fact that so-called DNR officials such as Eduard Basurin and Daniil Bezsonov still regularly herald their almost imminent arrival.

For example, in May 2015, Basurin claimed that Ukrainian forces were planning to use chemical weapons against civilians, with the help of “American military specialists” who came into Mariupol. This, of course, did not happen.

Headline from 29 May 2015: “DNR: American military chemists are preparing chemical weapons for Kyiv… It’s possible that the Kyiv regime will prepare a diversion in the territory of Ukraine in order to blame the DNR leadership for crimes against humanity.” (Source: Regnum.ru)

Just a few weeks ago, Bezsonov claimed that Ukraine was preparing a chemical attack in the same style “as in Syria with the White Helmets and Western security forces.” This, of course, did not happen.

(Source: DNR-Online.ru)

While Basurin and Bezsonov like to claim that Western governments have sent soldiers to fight on the frontlines of the war, they also like to employ Islamophobia and create an imaginary connection between the so-called Islamic State and Ukraine. For example, in December 2015, Basurin claimed that “300 foreign mercenaries” arrived in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, and that “the local population has noted that those who have arrived speak Arabic and Turkish.” This, of course, did not happen.

Over a year later, in April 2017, Basurin claimed, “we have discovered the arrival of an Islamic battalion with as may as 500 people in Mariupol.” This, of course, did not happen, though Basurin used a tiny kernel of truth in his claim, as at that time, there were plans (which were never implemented) to create a 250-man unit of Crimean Tatar soldiers in Mariupol.

These claims arise fairly frequently, but rarely with any visual evidence to corroborate the reports. However, back in 2015, there would be videos or photographs attached to reports of foreign intervention in the war in the Donbas. In the most humiliating example of this, authorities of the so-called LNR claimed that the U.S. gave Stinger missiles to Ukrainian soldiers, which would have been a significant escalation in U.S. involvement in the conflict.

(Source: YouTube / LNR Today)

However, this “Stinger” and the video accompanying its discovery was a crude fake. In fact, the weapon featured was a fake modeled after a version of the missile launcher in the Battlefield 3 videogame. The “weapon” found in Luhansk had misspellings on it — including “TRACKING RAINER” instead of what an actual Stinger missile has, which is “TRACKING TRAINER.”

In many video games, guns modeled after real-life weapons are slightly changed in order to avoid copyright issues. Thus, the “Stinger” in the Battlefield 3 game was slightly modified with a non-accidental typo. Unfortunately for the fake artists in Luhansk, they did not realize this when they modeled their “Stinger” off of a video game model, instead of the real-life one.

The fake Stinger missile launchers. (Source: Kotaku)
Battlefield 3 model for the Stinger. (Source: Kotaku)

Since such embarrassing failures in 2015, there has been little visual evidence to support the extraordinary claims made by so-called DNR and LNR officials.

Russian State Media Amplification

With over four years of Basurin and other so-called DNR and LNR officials crying wolf about foreign mercenaries and approaching chemical attacks, one would think that these claims would only be humored by sensationalist Russian media outlets, such as LifeNews, and more serious Russian media outlets, including state-funded TASS and RIA Novosti, would pass. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

The Russian state-funded news service RIA Novosti covered the claims of British soldiers and an approaching chemical attack in the Donbas as if it were a reliable report, with the headline “Military specialists from Great Britain have arrived in the Donbass, per the DNR.” The article uncritically reports the key quotes and claims from Bezsonov’s briefing.

(Source: RIA Novosti)

While RIA Novosti left a bit of room for doubt in their article, noting that the “news” about the British military specialists was only as reliable as the so-called DNR officials making the claim, Russian state-funded TASS wire service left no less ambiguity in their reporting with the headline of “The Donbass arrival of British military specialists preparing a chemical attack has been discovered in the DNR” (alternative translation: “It’s been discovered in the DNR that British military specialists have arrived in the Donbass in order to prepare a chemical attack”).

(Source: TASS)

The TASS report mirrors the RIA Novosti article, though with an added sentence:

“The People’s Militia of the DNR has urged the international community to do everything possible to stop the Ukrainian authorities’ plans.”

Conclusion

Even though the so-called DNR and LNR regularly invent tales of Western involvement in the war in the Donbas, there are actual actions from the U.S., United Kingdom, and other nations that are worth monitoring.

While the U.S. never sent Stinger missiles (real or from Battlefield 3), they have sold modernized rocket launchers that ended up in the hands of soldiers from the far-right Azov Battalion. The U.S. does not send soldiers, let alone specialists in chemical warfare, to eastern Ukraine, but they have U.S. military servicemen training the Ukrainian military. British forces are not going to work with Ukrainian soldiers to blow up a factory in Horlivka, but Ukrainian forces have set up military positions perilously close to a phenol plant near the front-line, creating a significant risk of ecological catastrophe.

However, when both state-funded and fringe websites in Russia report the same outlandish stories of British chemical attacks in Ukraine, it is difficult to discern real questions of Western and Ukrainian conduct in the Donbas from the outright propaganda.


Aric Toler is the Lead Digital Forensic Research Associate for Eurasia at the@DFRLab.

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