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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 has written with Bellingcat since 2015 and currently leads the Eurasia/Eastern Europe team. Along with his research into topics in the former Soviet Union, he organizes and leads Bellingcat's Russian-language workshops for journalists and researchers.

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29 Comments

  1. Nariman Namazov

    Ukraine has pushed a single narrative, which was later bolstered by OSCE.
    The separatists has maintained multiple narratives, combining them beyond the point of comprehension.
    Meanwhile Russian rep. of OSCE doesn’t understand cardinal directions.. Probably, he has the same locational training as Russian soldiers, who continue to appear in Ukraine “by mistake”.

    Also, UPDATE, minutes ago, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also stated, that OSCE report refutes Ukrainian claims.
    Ukraine’s claim: it was GRAD, and it was fired from north-eastern direction, from separatists-controlled territory.
    OSCE claim: it was GRAD, and it was fired from north-north-eastern direction.
    And Russia claims it is refutation.
    Because why not, lol?

    Reply
    • Balderdasche

      Interesting that Ukrainian forces had a videographer posted on a light tower at the checkpoint who recorded the ‘grad strike’ for whatever reason. The Strike fell across fields and on hit on the road well to the north of the checkpoint. Some eight minutes after the strike he pans down and to the right to record the yellow bus waiting at the check point,.

      A dash cam on a vehicle located well behind the bus simultaneously recorded the event. It records three persons ion what appears to be military dress located at or near the stopped bus. The sound of explosions is heard (the grad strike) almost simultaneously with a blast from the right of the bus and directed toward it (blast smoke and detritus). the car then crossed the median and is recorded departing hurriedly in the opposite direction, on the opposite lanes of the split highway.

      Further videography of the site records mine warning signs in the ditch by the southbound lanes and a shot taken of the victims on the bus records one soldier at the checkpoint holding (removing?) what appears to be the ‘russian’ version of a claymore anti personnel mine.

      In this case supplementary scenarios are probably more credible (as information comes in) than the first, knee-jerk standard ‘the Russians dunnit’ Kyiv-inspired sound byte.

      All videos are available on UTube through militaryphotos.net

      Reply
  2. Mikhail

    More confusion to add to the rest Aric.
    If the checkpoint is Ukranian, and under attack then it ‘seems’ to be the separatists are the ones at fault. Unless??? Who the hell knows?

    Reply
  3. Mikhail

    However by the photograph it seems that damage at bottom of door could have come from a land mine. Is there a better picture of this bus somewhere?

    Reply
  4. Roger

    A very sketchy analysis akin to showing which way the wind blows by holding a wet finger to the air in a closed house.

    The demarcation line at NNE allows either party to be the source. If the UA’s intent was to ascribe blame to the DNR, then of course it would pose one story and stick to it. The DNR then being the defending party and assuming for argument’s sake it was not the guilty party and not having access to the site, would, along with its supporters, very naturally propose all theories that might explain the event, subject to confirmation by detailed forensic examination of the damage, which – we can all be fairly assured will not be happening.

    Therefore, I’d argue that a fixed and unwavering story may actually be more indicative of guilt than multiple theories, subject to forensic confirmation.

    Reply
    • chuck

      “assuming for argument’s sake it was not the guilty party and not having access to the site…” Your assumption is completely flawed, so your conclusion is as well.

      The logic in the article is widely recognized as logic, though inside Russia it would unsurprisingly become lies from the enemy. This is how Russia’s Disinformation works to deceive its own people. Your contribution to the Disinformation campaign will certainly be rewarded at home. Well done, comrade, an extra 100g bread for you today!

      Reply
    • Joe

      So according to your logic, a witness in a murder case who consistently tells the same story to police and in the courtroom is probably lying, while the person who continually switches stories, adds and subtracts details is more reliable. Every intelligent person understands why DNR and their Russian sponsors keep offering multiple theories on everything from explosions to why the sun rises and sets, and it never involves the truth.

      Reply
  5. AussieInUkraine

    Well, The DNR is responsible for ALL the deaths. If they did not pick up heavy weapons and attack, this would not be happening. Otherwise its like saying the Nazis were not responsible for WWII, it is the fault of the allies for defending!

    Reply
    • Josh

      Well Assie – if you followed this conflict from the start, then you will note that any escalation (ie switching to heavier weapons or more violent tactics) happened on the Kiev government side. Also, you ‘nazi’ comparison does not work: the people in eastern Ukraine are defending their own land; your Kiev government is seen as occupiers, and to top off the ludicrous nature of your accusations, some Kiev battallions actually feature SS symbols.

      Reply
  6. Adam

    Rocket admissions and “fake” witnesses aside, can anyone here answer these questions?
    1) why is the bus blast different in appearance from the seen rocket impacts (fireball above ground, fast-rising smoke cloud, no dirt splash)?
    2) Why is that difference in the direction of looking like a landmine blast of the OZM 72 (jumping) type?
    3) why are there two other flashes of the same type, all 3 in the tree lines along the road?
    4) How can you be certain the “STOP! MINE!” signs along the road’s edges are irrelevant, rather than warning of an illegal minefield that would explain how a mine got there?
    5) Is it just coincidence a person runs towards that spot, taking about 1.5 steps, just before the blast some meters away from them? Or is it possible there was a tripwire there?
    Details here if needed (still in progress):
    http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Talk:Volnovakha_bus_incident#Land_Mine_Anyway.3F

    Reply
  7. Mikhail

    Recently read more about this incident. Apparently this was a place that buses stopped to let people go to the toilet. One individual called it a piss stop. Passengers getting out of the bus accidentally stepped on the mine, photo shows a perfectly round hole in front of the door. This would explain all the blood nearby in the snow.
    However I await with baited breath for the real experts on this forum to provide the real truth of what happened. They are forensic specialists don’t you know?

    Reply
    • Adam

      doesn’t sound like anyone got off the bus, or were allowed out of their vehicles. But someone was out of some vehicle. They weren’t going to pee, I think, during the rocket barrage, but trying to get away from the explosive vehicles. You see a very quick back and fort before they decide to leave the roadway (maybe weighing the mine warning signs vs. rockets and gas tanks), and then the explosion. Blood outside the bus is probably from people climbing out after, to get in the ambulance, or maybe just because snow and cold slow down bleeding.

      Reply
  8. Rob

    Regardless of the rhetoric from the separatists (as far as that differs from “Russians”), the evidence suggests that this attack was fired from the north-east, and thus from Russia-controlled areas :
    http://ukraineatwar.blogspot.com/2015/01/volnovakha.html
    with a followup here showing that Dokuchajesk is the likely launch location :
    http://ukraineatwar.blogspot.com/2015/01/dokuchajevsk-grad-video-was-filmed-at.html

    Not to mention that the (Russian) OSCE again does not seem to be able to figure out which direction the GRAD rockets came from even using their own picture evidence
    http://ukraineatwar.blogspot.com/2015/01/aerial-photo-from-osce-uav-of.html

    Reply
    • Adam

      No, the direction is a line, with lots of Gov-held territory and further out, rebel-held. Accurate reading of line plus how far along that line is how you can say whose turf they were fired from.
      Thanks for the tip on Petros’ latest, which I reviewed. He seems to be mapping out the strongest sub-breezes at the moment, if you look where he puts the red lines and watch how these dirt rings are formed on video. Coincidentally, it’s almost opposite of the firing direction, as it seems to me, se he’s coincidentally close to right about that here anyway. I think he read the “craters” (rings of settled dirt drawn out by the breeze) backwards (thinking dirt from impact will fly all ways BUT forward) … (I tried to comment there but he’s not approving it).
      And anyway, the landmine that might well be responsible wouldn’t have been placed by separatists or Russians.
      And I applaud Bellingcat for at least allowing my comments to appear! Better yet, some video analysis on the points I raise, to confirm or deny or whatever seems fit.

      Reply
      • Rob

        Adam, if you have something to say about the Volnovakha bus attack, then say it.
        Meanwhile. the evidence that Volnovakha (13 civilians dead) was caused by a GRAD missile attack from Russia controlled Dokuchajesk stands.

        Reply
        • Adam

          Well, okay. The physical evidence leads me to think it was a landmine. I’m working on a PDF with the explanatory stuff that’s already at the above line, but more concise. The evidence a rocket did it doesn’t really stand but leans on things. OSCE called that little gopher hole an “impact crater” but it isn’t. I probably won’t get far pointing this out, but there’s no impact crater the usual 6 meters wide, just a little tunnel maybe 12 cm across. No splash of soil 23 meters wide, seen on video or in the aftermath,ike with all the real rocket hits. No rocket remains in situ, just that different kind of above-ground explosion with high-rising smoke cloud we see all over in the back half of the tree-lines on both sides of the road – right behind the signs saying “Stop! Mines!” No one even denies there was probably a minefield here, they just decide it’s irrelevant, since it was clearly a rocket that hit by the bus. Presumption seems to be a Ukrainian volunteer-brigade-managed minefield couldn’t possibly kill anyone, since that wouldn’t be Russia’s fault, and so they give Kiev a free pass on the subject. But … I’m pretty sure that’s the only thing that killed or hurt anyone that day.

          Reply
          • Rob

            Adam, there were something like 88 impact GRAD missile craters visible in video evidence.

            What makes you think that the one explosion that caused 13 deaths was from a “land mine” ?

          • Adam

            Rob: see below, especially if latest is approved. No rocket crater, too small an explosion, other clues.

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