In July 2018, footage emerged allegedly depicting a Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) operation against an armed, pro-Ukrainian far-right formation. The SBU and most notable Ukrainian media outlets decried this video as a staged fake. We at the @DFRLab echoed this conclusion, writing in August that “there is no reason to put trust in this suspicious video” and that the “most likely way to conclusively debunk this video would be (…) in geolocating the scene.”
Nearly two months after the video was published online, this very thing happened.
Geolocation: Abandoned Donetsk Factory
Twitter user @666_mancer managed to geolocate the scene of the “SBU crackdown” video on September 11 and determined the video was actually filmed in non-government-controlled Donetsk, as opposed to Ukrainian-controlled territory.
The location under question was, according to Wikimapia, a chemical factory called “Reactive.” While there are no ground-level images of the building accessible online, comparing the satellite imagery of the location with that from the video makes clear that they are the same location.
Additional details and photographs concerning the “SBU crackdown” video emerged among Russian and so-called separatist circles online, namely the popular Colonel Cassad blog. While the building in the video is almost entirely covered by a canopy in the video, we can see some of the windows in additional photographs published on the Colonel Cassad blog, with a long, vertical shape. The same window shape was visible in a 2015 satellite image on Google Earth. Below, the white arrow indicates the perspective from the video, and the dirt road (yellow) and roof of the building (red) are also highlighted on both the ground level and satellite image.
This area was filled with abandoned chemical factories and offices. In 2010, years before war, urban explorers roamed the area and photographed abandoned Soviet-era buildings. Russian-led separatist forces of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) have been in the area for years, as indicated in a 2015 video from the “Essence of Time” online video series when a “separatist” fighter gives a tour of the abandoned chemical factories.
These factories being long-abandoned made it a perfect staging area for a fake video, similar to how an art center was seized by Russian-led separatist forces and then used for a series of fake photographs and videos back in 2014.
Vehicle Found: “Separatist” Armored Personnel Carrier
The location was not the only detail gleaned from the video — a number of digital sleuths also found possible matches for the BTR (armored personnel carrier or APC) from the video within the ranks of Russian-led separatist forces.
In the “SBU” video, the BTRs have a distinctive a green cage surrounding the vehicle.
As pointed out by @666_mancer, an April 2018 video from the so-called DNR “Ministry of Information” showed BTRs with the same cage and side skirt over the wheels. Both side cages, for example, have five horizontal bars between the top and bottom, interlacing with twenty-five vertical bars.
Comparing from the same perspective, side-by-side, shows hows the side skirts and side cages along the BTRs are the same.
Researchers at the InformNapalm collective also found the same BTR in Donetsk in September 2018, still equipped with the side cages and skirt. The video is too low resolution to say definitively if these are the same BTRs, but it is quite likely that they are one in the same given the distinctive side cages and skirt.
Conclusion: Yet Another Donetsk Fake
With this latest debunk, we can mark down yet another fake video produced in Donetsk as an misfired salvo fired in an information war with Ukraine. By exploiting the very real tension between the Ukrainian government and far-right elements stationed on and near the front lines of the Donbas, Russian-led separatists tried to use pre-existing fault lines within Ukrainian society.
However, only one major Ukrainian outlet — Strana.ua — gave any credence to the video, due to the fact that it was very awkwardly filmed. While Donetsk-based Russian-led separatists have attempted a number of staged videos concerning Ukraine and ultra-nationalists, they have all come off as stilted and had little credibility, thus negligible resonance in Ukrainian society.