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Unpicking the Donetsk People’s Republic’s Tangled Volnovakha Bus Massacre Narrative

January 18, 2015

By Aric Toler

At approximately 2:25pm (Kyiv time), a passenger bus near a Ukraine government-controlled checkpoint to the northeast of Volnovakha, Ukraine was attacked, leaving  12 dead and 13 wounded. Soon after, the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatist forces blamed each other for this attack: Ukraine accused separatists of firing a Grad rocket from a nearby village towards the checkpoint, accidentally hitting the bus, while separatists levied three different scenarios against the Ukrainian military and nearby forces. This report will examine the initial claims from each side and consider how these claims morphed—or stayed the same—in the days after the attack.

Claims within the first two hours

At 4:09pm (Kyiv time), the “Novorossiya First operative” VKontakte (VK) account posted a message that detailed an attack on a checkpoint near Volnovakha. This account has over 7,000 followers and has made over 4,400 posts, most of which detail attacks launched by separatist forces against Ukraine. The account edited the post soon after it became apparent that a passenger bus was attacked at the site detailed in the declaration of a separatist attack. The edited post can still be seen:

“Ukrop (derogatory term for Ukrainian) checkpoint at the exit from Volnovakha to Donetsk has been destroyed, with information received at 3:53pm Kyiv time (4:53pm Moscow time).”

A pro-separatist Twitter user, who often reposts dispatches from separatist groups of ongoing battles, sent out a tweet at 4:17pm (Kyiv time) (eight minutes after the Novorossiya First operative post) with the exact text in the above screenshot. In case the tweet is deleted, an archived copy can be viewed here.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry immediately accused pro-Russian separatists of conducting an artillery strike from a Grad launcher at the checkpoint outside of Volnovakha, and striking the passenger bus that was traveling from Zlatoustovka to Donetsk. In a Facebook post at 3:06pm (Kyiv time), less than an hour after the attack, a Ukrainian Interior Ministry official of the Donetsk region, Vyacheslav Abroskin, said that:

Thirty minutes ago from the direction of Dokuchayevsk, an artillery strike was carried out by militants on the Ukrainian law enforcement checkpoint in the area of Volnovakha. A direct strike on a passenger bus. As of now, ten people are dead and thirteen are wounded.

The village Dokuchayevsk is located approximately 19km (12mi) northeast of Volnovakha and 30km (19mi) south of Donetsk. This post was later edited to include additional details and a photograph, but the Facebook edit history clearly shows that this vital piece of information—that the strike was conducted from a town to the north-northeast of Volnovakha—was initially included less than an hour after the artillery strike (times in EST).

AT1

This claim did not change throughout January 13, the day of the bus attack.

January 13 claims from Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR)

The explanation from the Donetsk People’s Republic  (DNR) on how the bus attack occurred changed throughout the day, depending who was providing an account and what time of the day they responded. Soon after the attack, the Donetsk People’s Republic Ministry of Defense gave the following explanation:

An expert of the Ministry of Defense has studied with photograph with detail of the attacked bus and has unequivocally concluded that, judging by the holes, an automatic weapon or machine gun was used to fire at this vehicle at a distance within 50 meters.

If we had fired from Grads, as the Ukrainian side claims, then you would not recognize the bus. Shelling from Grads has an entirely different nature of consequences. And the wounded in the bus would not have remained after the shelling of Grads.

Donetsk People’s Republic politician and former chairman Denis Pushilin gave a different account on the day of the attack that did not include automatic weapon fire, instead blaming a rogue Ukrainian battalion:

The Ukrainian battalion ‘Sich’ has been conducting shelling Donetsk from the direction of the village ‘Peski,’ whose leadership has openly declared that the battalion does not obey the official orders of Kyiv. And they actually provide our militia to respond.

Pushilin went as far as to accuse Ukraine of conducting a false flag attack to pin blame on separatist forces:

I don’t rule out the possibility that [the attack] could be the Ukrainian army’s provocation, to attempt to put the blame for what has happened on local militia.

January 15 claims from Donetsk People’s Republic

Two days after the attack (January 15), the “operational-investigative group” of the DNR, which include “representatives of the police, prosecutors, and experts from the DNR Ministry of Defense,” introduced a new scenario for the Volnovakha bus attack. A document received by the Donetsk News Agency (DAN) describes how a MON-50 anti-personnel mine was responsible for the deaths on the bus:

The nature of the damage in the body of the bus based on the scattering of fragments, the height of their entry, and the diameter of the holes concludes that the striking [of the bus] came from a staff engineered explosive (directional) of the MON type, in service with the combined arms units of the armed forces of Ukraine.

Additionally, the report declares that along with a MON-50 explosion,  “with a high probability, the bus came under fire from small arms using the 7.62mm caliber (AKM). This report from the DNR refutes that the bus was hit by a Grad rocket, explaining that (selected among a longer list):

  • The bus did not exhibit signs of “thermal shock” that would occur after a Grad attack, citing a bus that was completely destroyed in a Grad attack in Luhansk in summer 2014.
  • No fragments of a Grad rocket were found near the attack site.
  • A Ukrainian soldier was holding a MON-50 claymore in his right hand soon after the attack.
  • The nearest Grad crater to the bus was 300 meters away.

The report concludes that:

The destruction of the bus was carried out straightforwardly at the checkpoint by Ukrainian troops with a directional landmine and staff small fire arms of the 7.62mm caliber. The most likely cause of the deliberate landmine blasts and the subsequent firing at the bus by Ukrainian servicemen could be due to incorrect actions of the driver (not stopping the bus for inspection) being regarded as an attempt to break through the checkpoint.

OSCE findings and response

On January 14, the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) released its initial “spot report” of the scene of the Volnovakha bus attack. Their findings corroborated Ukraine’s initial claim and contradicted all of the DNR’s claims except for the possibility of a “rogue” Ukrainian artillery battalion

The bus had shrapnel damage consistent with a nearby rocket impact, estimated by the SMM to be 12-15 meters from the side of the bus.

On January 17, the OSCE released its findings from conducting crater trajectory analysis, which determines the origin direction of the rockets that were fired towards the Volnovakha checkpoint. This claim further bolstered Ukraine’s initial claims and contradicted all of the DNR’s claims, barring the possibility of a “rogue” Ukrainian artillery battalion operating from separatist-controlled territory in the north-northeast:

The SMM conducted a comprehensive inspection, focusing on five craters caused by explosions that had occurred during the incident. The investigation included comprehensive crater analysis of two specific blast craters, including the crater located 10 metres from the side of the passenger bus. In the SMM’s assessment all craters examined were caused by rockets fired from a north-north-eastern direction.

Andrei Kelin, Russia’s representative to the OSCE, released a statement that claiming that the findings of the OSCE contradict Ukraine’s claim:

The [OSCE] observers established that the firing came from a Grad, but from the north. This refutes the previously hypothesis that was sounded by Kyiv and taken up in Washington, that the militia fired from the east.

It is worrying that the Russian representative to an organization that takes a guiding role in monitoring the movement—which heavily relies on the cardinal directions of north, east, west, and south—of soldiers is unable to tell the difference between “north,” “north-northeast,” and “east.” For reference, below is a map marking the site of the attack (blue bus) and the general area of the suspected firing site (red warning sign), along with a compass showing north, north-northeast, northeast, and so on.

AT2

Since the morning of January 13, Ukraine has pushed a single narrative: a Grad rocket strike conducted by pro-Russian separatists from town of Dokuchayevsk caused the tragedy outside of Volnovakha. The Donetsk People’s Republic has maintained three narratives, sometimes combining them beyond the point of comprehension (a mine explosion, followed by a Ukrainian soldier firing an AK-47 into the bus, followed by a false flag artillery strike). Russia has not formally offered a scenario, but state-controlled media has clearly come out against the Ukrainian narrative, evidenced by their interview of a fake victim on Vesti on January 14 that supported the mine theory. The closest thing to an official Kremlin narrative has come from the Russian OSCE representative, Andrei Kelin, which left much to be desired in confirming the details of the attack. The Russian OSCE representative’s assertion that Ukraine claimed that the strike came from the east originates either from astonishing incompetence or willful deceit.

Aric Toler

Aric Toler started volunteering for Bellingcat in 2014 and has been on staff since 2015. He currently heads up Bellingcat's training efforts and its Eastern Europe/Eurasia research.

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29 Comments

  1. Adam

    Oh, hey, just now someone’s denying there was a minefield. Human Rights Watch investigated the scene 8 days later, but not after a weeklong mine-clearing operation. It’s all on the rockets they think, that left craters – some showing real rocket explosions, some with a “tube-like” shape pointing to the rebels. Anyway, they were worried about the landmine signs, and heard this:
    “Ukrainian military officers at the checkpoint told Human Rights Watch that there were no landmines near the checkpoint except signal mines (trip flare) and that the signs were there to prevent people from running into the field.”
    These guys would be the expert – Kiev-2 and Aidar battalion volunteers. It was a psych-out, they say. Not buying it myself. Did HRW buy it? They say the rebel Grad barrage “violates the laws of war,” … “Regardless of whether a landmine exploded.” Hedging bets?

    http://www.hrw.org/news/2015/02/03/ukraine-rising-civilian-death-toll

    Reply
    • Rob

      Adam, you are here at Bellingcat. Open source journalism, remember ?
      Only “open source” evidence counts, and the opinion or acclaimed authority by one or the other is not relevant.

      Not even by HRW (who appear rather quick to blame Ukraine without presenting evidence).

      Your report is a case in point. It acknowledges the overwhelming evidence that the Mariupol and Volnavaka attacks were fired from Russian controlled areas.

      But it also assigns blame to Ukraine for a January 16 attack, even though they have no evidence that this attack was caused by Ukraine. Just a note that it is “more likely” that Government forces launched the attack because it was physically not impossible for Ukraine to have done this. Excuse me ? What happened to the scientific method in this HRW analysis ?

      Interesting that they did NOT investigate the Jan 30 mortar attacks on Donetsk targets that ALL CLEARLY were launched from within DPR’s own area.

      The pick-and-choose mentality and lack of evidence in this HRW report is similar to the HRW report on use of cluster ammunition (which they took all the way to the UN), which they blamed on Ukraine, again without presenting evidence (and in fact contradicting themselves in the evidence they presented, and contradicting another report that put the Oct 2 attacks clearly from Russian controlled territory), In the end, HRW’s evidence implicating Ukraine for the use of cluster ammunition was only based only on one eye witness account from someone whose wife lives in Donetsk.

      So, before you try to take down or uplift the credibility of HRW, note that this organization presents very little evidence that can be publicly verified.

      Reply
  2. Walker

    When I first heard of the mine theory, it seemed to me to be plausible. The round holes looked like it could be shot from a mine, but I expected a much dense even pattern. I did a search for claymore damage. I found that my suspicions were right. When compared to pictures of known mine damage, the bus did not look like it at all. Bello at, this line might be worth looking at, but really, enough evidence shows this to be exactly what it was. A grad attack on a check point where the rebels did not expect so many civilians.

    Reply
    • Rob

      If not civilians, who DID these “rebels” intend to kill when they shelled the Volnovakha checkpoint ?

      Reply
      • Walker

        Rob, I guess I don’t understand your question. Military checkpoints are generally military targets. They line the edge of a controlled area. If you want to expand area, you take out the checkpoints.

        Reply
        • Rob

          Walker, apart from the FACT that this senseless attack on civilians was a clear violation of the Minsk agreement, if this was a “military” target, as you suggest, then it failed miserably.

          Some 88 GRAD rockets fired, and not even the checkpoint building was hit.
          And the center of the GRAD rocket impacts is something like 100m up the road.

          Reply
  3. Adam

    okay, again with no links? (all shown in evolving page I linked above) (3rd and final try)

    Rob: “Fired from areas” on one side = proof, same the other way = “no evidence.” Rather, both are evidence, neither is proof. Again, direction plus distance says where. Since you can see direction = “no evidence” sometimes, you must get this point.
    But to me it’s a side point. I can accept that PROBABLY the rockets came from Dokuchajevsk, to hit a check point (at what now passes for rush hour, but…). Point is, none of them hit next to the bus, in the usual way at least. All I can see is proximity fuze, maybe detaching warhead, blowing up about a meter up, remaining tube piercing the ground after – just like an OZM 72 detonation, but in reverse. Odd but possible. I no sign of lateral momentum in the fireball; seems it came from right there. Where the Grads hit, 5-7-meter crater, 22-24-meter dirt cloud. Here: 10-15 cm. tubular tunnel, maybe half-shovel shape, some severed brances. No crater, no dirt cloud, dirt still in place, with snow – just chopped up a bit by shrapnel.

    Walker: known mine damage is an issue: bus damage looks like bigger, less numerous fragments than usual for at least OZM 72, or Claymore. Grad-consistent? Is it possible in a special case to improvise a Grad warhead into a bounding landmine? (thought exercise)

    Either way, signs say, the Volnovakha blast fireballs are maybe too small to be
    from Grad warheads. Besides no crater and clearly above-surface blast, the fireball next to the bus is 6-7 meters across, about the size of OZM 72 fireball.
    Northern tree-line fireball: about the same (about as wide as the trees there).
    Grad impact fireballs I can see elsewhere and measure (Mariupol) are more like 14-16 meters across, longer in momentum direction. This is all rough measurement
    by video, easily off by a bit, but not enough to leave that consistent with a Grad impact, IMO.
    Anyone who can add to the fireball size issue, I’m all ears. But no rocket crater + a blast more consistent with a mine anyway, in a denied but fairly evident minefield probably = mine. Sorry so long. My final interim report still being developed… I can stop spamming until that link (if then) and taking so much of this platform. Hope that makes the case for my case, for the moment.

    Reply
  4. Rob

    Now that the evidence shows that not just the Volnovakha checkpoint (12 civilians dead), but also the Mariupol deadly GRAD rocket attacks (12 civilians dead),
    as well as the Jan 22 Leninsky trolley bus mortar attack in Donetsk (15 civilians dead),
    http://ukraineatwar.blogspot.com/2015/01/graphic-leninsky-bus-attack.html
    ALL clearly originated from Russian-controlled DPR territory, the DPRs narrative becomes increasingly sinisterly hypocritical.

    After these attacks on civilians from DPR territory, DPR’s Zakharchenko vowed to take “no more prisoners”.
    http://tass.ru/en/world/773072

    and promptly DPR starts executing Ukrainian POWs at point blank range. And they even record these war crimes themselves.
    http://ukraineatwar.blogspot.com/2015/01/graphic-warcrimes-russians-shoot.html

    If anyone is not yet convinced that East Ukrainian civilians are being killed by Russian-controlled DPR forces, who then use these attacks to blame Ukraine, and use their OWN aggression to validate their increasingly violent war crimes against Donbass civilians and Ukraine military POW, then exactly WHICH evidence would be convincing ?

    Whatever your opinion on this matter, please STOP and LISTEN for a second, and gve the residents of Mariupol, at the border of being consumed by Russian aggression, a chance to speak :

    Reply

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