On January 15th, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported claims by Donetsk People’s Repulic’s (DNR) PM Aleksandr Zakharchenko that American weapons were found from areas of the airport previously occupied by Ukrainian forces. It was specifically claimed that the types of weapons included M-16 assault rifles, machine guns, Browning pistols as well as types of ammunition ‘banned by conventions’. Deputy Eduard Basurin also claimed the weapons were shown to OSCE observers, though RIA Novosti separately reported OSCE observers did not actually visit the airport, a fact which was also noted in the OSCE SMM daily report.
On January 18th, images of these weapons started appearing online. These included a video filmed by Russian LifeNews TV channel.
On the video, M4-family rifles are clearly visible and identifiable. A machine gun is also briefly seen in the video, along with what looks like the cylinder of a multiple grenade launcher (update: likely a Bulgarian ‘Lavina’), and a large case, which seemingly bears the logo of Harris Corporation, a communications equipment manufacturer.
— Aric Toler (@AricToler) January 18, 2015
Separately, a picture claiming to be the weapons was also posted on Google+, showing again the same type of M4 rifle, a machine gun, a rifle resembling an M24, a suppressed rifle, and two handguns; Glock- and M1911-style pistols. (Update: later pistol identified as FN 35 GP)
However, on Twitter it was pointed out that Russian troops are not unfamiliar with the M4. During the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, Bushmaster M4 rifles were looted by Russian troops, along with other weapons of Georgia’s army.
Related to the guns looted, a very interesting observation was made in 2010 on American hobbyist forums about the guns being destroyed: Israeli Negev machine guns were among the loot being destroyed.
Going back to the footage from Donetsk, we can actually see that the machine gun handled in the LifeNews video and visible in the photograph bears a strong resemblance to an Israeli Negev.
A nice reference photograph of a Negev can be found on a Russian LiveJournal page’s photo album titled 7-я десантно-штурмовая дивизия, 7th Airborne Assault Division.
A Google search reveals the unit in question is a Russian Airborne (VDV) troops unit based in Novorossiysk, near Crimea, about 300km south of Rostov-on-Don and about 400km from Georgian territory. What is also interesting is that the same picture with the Negev also includes a Bushmaster XM15-E2S, M4-family carbine, as well as a Browning M1911-style pistol.
A separate source yet confirms that the Georgian army also fields the M24 sniper rifle, meaning those could also likely have been part of the loot.
Given DNR’s history of dubious claims, it’s fair to ask how the guns shown by DNR in photos actually ended up at the Donetsk airport. From a military logistics point of view, it makes little sense to provide frontline troops with weaponry where the caliber differs from the one used by the standing army, making resupplies complicated. It’s also quite a coincidence several of the types of weapons identified are known to have been used by the Georgian army, or even in training use with Russian forces still a few years ago.
So, the question remains: which route did the guns actually take to Donetsk – East or West?
You may contribute to this story via the Bellingcat Checkdesk.