#ZapadWatch: Tankers Day Beneath The Baltics

Monitoring the celebration before military exercises in Russia’s western most territory

Left: (Source: Instagram); Up-Right: (Source: GoogleMaps); Bottom- Right (Source: Instagram)

On September 10, a regional media outlet reported on the annual Tankers Day celebration in the Russian city of Sovetsk, located across the Neman River from Lithuania. The holiday was established in 1946 in recognition of Russia’s mechanized forces, and is celebrated by many of the countries that were part of the Soviet Union. Unsurprisingly, the celebration included a display of the mechanized forces, including troops, tanks, multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), and long-range air defense systems. This particular celebration was held 300 meters away from a NATO member state.

The units featured in the Sovetsk Tankers Day celebration are scheduled to participate in Zapad 2017, the highly anticipated Russian-Belarusian joint military exercise, in Kaliningrad. According to Russian defense officials, the Pravdinsky military training range in Kaliningrad is one of only three training ranges in Russia scheduled for use during Zapad 2017. The range is located over 100 kilometers away from the city of Sovetsk, but it remains significant as it is the only Zapad 2017 site in the Russian exclave and outside of Russia’s continuous borders.

(Source: Yandex maps)

Tankers Day Tanks

On September 9, Artyom Nikitin, posted an image on Vkontakte (VK) of a military vehicle geotagged in Sovetsk. The banner next to the vehicle identified it as a T-72B, a variant of the standard T-72 Russian tank.

(Source: VK user Artyom Nikitin)

On September 9, daria_sorokina_kld posted a video on Instagram of a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) also geotagged in Sovetsk. The system visually resembles the BM-21 “Grad” MLRS.

Left (Source: Instagram user daria_sorokina_kld); Right (Source: militaryarms.ru)

Artyom Nikitin posted another photo geotagged in Sovetsk of a missile system that visually matched the tactical ballistic missile system OTR-21 “Tochka-U” (NATO reporting name SS-21 Scarab), which is capable of destroying stationary targets such as airfields, storage facilities, and command centers.

Left (Source: VK user Artyom Nikitin); Right (Source: militaryarms.ru)

Alongside the “Tochka-U”, ireypeople posted an image on Instagram of a missile system that visually matched the Pantsir-S1 (NATO reporting name SA-22 Greyhound), a short to medium range surface-to-air missile (SAM) and anti-aircraft artillery system. As @DFRLab reported, Russia previously displayed the same system during the Victory Day parade in nearby Kaliningrad on May 9, 2017.

Left (Source: Instagram user ireypeople); Right (Source: YouTube user ВЕСТИ Калининград)

Finally, both Artyom Nikitin and Instagram user kristina.bondarenko posted images geotagged in Sovetsk with the S-400 “Triumf” (NATO reporting name SA-21 Growler), an anti-aircraft surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, which was similarly featured at the Victory Day parade in Kaliningrad.

Left (Source: VK user Artyom Nikitin); Right (Source: Instagram user kristina.bondarenko)

The presence of mechanized forces at a celebration of mechanized forces is unsurprising. However, the continued presence of such equipment in Kaliningrad Oblast directly across the Neman River from a NATO member state is notable.

(Source: YouTube user ВЕСТИ Калининград)

Why Sovetsk?

On September 11, Sovetsk city administration published an official report about the Tankers Day celebration. The report quoted a speech by a local official commemorating the holiday.

(Source: Administration of the Soviet city district)

The highlighted part of the report reads:

In Sovetsk, where the tank division was formerly stationed, there was one military town — this was the former 28th tank regiment. Thanks to the governor of the Kaliningrad region, N. Tsukanov, talks are being held with the Russian Defense Minister. We hope to maintain the military campus. And if we succeed, then in the future it will host the law enforcement bodies of Sovetsk.

The official referred to part of the 40th Guards Tank Division, which was based in Sovetsk prior to its disbandment in 2008. The statement suggested Sovetsk has not hosted any mechanized forces in almost a decade and there are no plans to reestablish any.

So where did the tanks at Tankers Day in Sovetsk come from?

Russian Army television reported the motorized rifle brigade of the 11th Army Corps of the Baltic Fleet participated in the Tankers Day parade.

The 11th Army Corps of the Baltic Fleet is a new unit, and only celebrated its first anniversary on April 3, 2017 in Gusev, a city 70 kilometers away from Sovetsk. Local residents confirmed the 79th Independent Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade from the 11th Army Corps participated in Sovetsk’s Tankers Day parade.

Alexey Butov posted a group photo on VK geotagged in Sovetsk. The post also uses hashtags, which translate to “#parade” and “#tankersday”.

(Source: VK user Alexey Butov)

On September 10, Evgenij Sergeevich posted the same image on his VK profile.

(Source: VK user Evgenij Sergeevich)

Three days prior, Evgenij Sergeevich posted an image of two military men, one of whom has a unit patch on his uniform that reads Инстербургская or “Insterburgskaya”.

(Source: VK user Evgenij Sergeevich)

The full name of the 79th Independent Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade is “79th Independent Guards Motorized Riflemen of the Insterburg Double-Red Order of the Suvorov Brigade”. Evgenij Sergeevich also belongs to the brigade’s VK group.

(Source: VK user Evgenij Sergeevich)

The open source evidence confirmed the 79th Independent Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade, based in the city of Gusev, arrived to the city of Sovetsk, the former home of the 40th Guards Tank Division, to celebrate Tankers Day just five days before the beginning of the Russian-Belarusian joint military exercise Zapad 2017.

Arrival of Cossacks

Cossacks from the Donsk Company of territorial defense mobilization reserve also participated in the Sovetsk Tankers Day according to the official website of the Military Cossack Society.

The article published on September 12, mentions the Cossacks arrived the last week and are, similar to the 79th Independent Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade, scheduled to participate in Zapad 2017.

Cossacks posts on social media corroborate this.

On September 7, alexandr_hromyh posted an image of himself on Instagram geotagged in Sovetsk.

(Source: Instagram user alexandr_hromyh)

The post used multiple hashtags that read:

alexandr_hromyh #All-powerful #Host #Don #Glory #God #what #we #Cossacks #Army #Exercises #West2017

Earlier on September 5, alexandr_hromyh posted on Instagram a video that shows the company departing from Rostov-on-Don, where parts of the Donsk Cossack Army are based.

(Source: Instagram user alexandr_hromyh)

The post read:

alexandr_hromyh #All-powerful #Host #Don #Glory #God #what #we #Cossacks #Army #Exercises #West2017 #IL76

A day later the user posted a similar image from an airfield, this time geotagged in the city of Sovetsk. The post used the same hashtags with the addition a hashtag indicating the use of Il-76 heavy military transport aircraft to transport the company.

(Source: Instagram user alexandr_hromyh)

According to the article by the Military Cossack Society, the company recently carried out military exercises. The article states, “last week the Cossacks-reservists showed themselves well in combat training fights, performed exercises on throwing grenades, passed a course of tactical-special and medical training.”

The preliminary exercises were likely conducted as a warm-up to their participation in Zapad 2017.

Conclusion

Five days prior to Zapad 2017, the 79th Motorized Rifle Brigade and Cossacks of the Donsk mobilization reserve company participated in the annual Tankers Day in the city of Sovetsk, located just 300 meters away from the border with Lithuania.

As Zapad 2017 begins, celebrations are over and the work of military preparation begins. Kaliningrad is home to one of three Russian training grounds scheduled for use during Zapad 2017; and notably is the only training ground in Russia or Belarus outside of either countries’ continuous border. The elements and equipment utilized in this area during Zapad 2017 will be of particular import due to its forward proximity to NATO.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.

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