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How These Adorable Puppies Exposed Russian Involvement in Ukraine

March 11, 2015

By Aric Toler

Данный отчет также доступен на русском языке.

On March 2, Elena Kostyuchenko of the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an explosive interview (English) with Dorzhi Batomunkuyev, a 20-year old tankist from Mogoytuy in the Zabaykalsky Krai, bordering Buryatia. Batomunkuyev is a member of military unit 46108, the 5th Tank Brigade, based out of Buryatia, lying between Lake Baikal and Mongolia in the far east of Siberia. However, Batomunkuyev is far from home, now recovering from serious injuries in Rostov after being transferred from a burn recovery unit in a Donetsk, Ukraine hospital. Like many other Russian soldiers, Batomunkuyev sustained injuries while fighting against Ukrainian soldiers in eastern Ukraine. In this case, the Mogoytoy native and his fellow 5th Tank Brigade soldiers were firing upon Ukrainian soldiers in the “Debaltseve pocket” on February 19.

This report will verify and expand upon the claims made in the Novaya Gazeta report through open source information, including satellite photos, social media reports, and photographs from reporters working in and near Debaltseve in mid-February. Each claim from either Batomunkuyev, the Russian tankist, or Novaya Gazeta is presented below in bold. The English translation of the interview from Euromaidan press is used in each quotation.

Firstly, there is the issue of Batomunkuyev himself. Was he truly a Russian tankist in the 5th Tank Brigade, and if so, was the injured man that Novaya Gazeta spoke to really Dorzhi Batomunkuyev?

On February 27, the local news site reported that the mother of Batomunkuyev was traveling to Rostov to see her injured son, who sustained injuries while fighting Ukraine. This news release was published a week before the Novaya Gazeta interview came to light. Additionally, as mentioned in the Novaya Gazeta report, the Russian singer Iosif Kobzon did indeed visit Batomunkuyev in a Donetsk burn ward on February 23. A video of this meeting, showing Batomunkuyev in the same bed as in the Novaya Gazeta report, can be viewed here [warning: graphic content]. Lastly, many online sleuths quickly confirmed the tankist’s identity after the Novaya Gazeta interview surfaced by finding Batomunkuyev’s VK (VKontakte) profile. Batomunkuyev’s VK profile has since been deleted, but numerous screenshots and archived versions of the profile are available:

Screenshot of Dorzhi Batomunkuyev's VK profile before its deletion

Screenshot of Dorzhi Batomunkuyev’s VK profile before its deletion

(Novaya Gazeta) I know he was wounded in Lohvynove. Lohvynove – the bottleneck of the Debaltseve pocket – was cleared and secured in the early morning of February 9 by a DNR special forces company (90% of which were Russian organized volunteers). The pocket was closed so fast that Ukrainian soldiers in Debaltseve didn’t know that. In the next few hours the troops of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic burned cars running from Debaltseve with impunity. This is how a deputy ATO head was killed.

The claim that 90% of the soldiers were Russian cannot be verified or disproved. However, it can be confirmed that heavy fighting took place in Lohvynove on February 9, as seen in a documentary from Russian state television on “Vesti.”

Screenshot from a feature on Vesti on fighting near Lohvynove on February 9

Screenshot from a feature on Vesti on fighting near Lohvynove on February 9

On February 9, separatists released a video claiming to have killed the deputy ATO head near Lohvynove, as seen in a separatist video where a bloody document supposedly belonging to him is displayed. The Ukrainian military has not confirmed this claim, but supposed video evidence of the claim exists with this document and the separatist boasting of the feat.

Bloodied passport of deputy ATO head, according to separatists

Bloodied document of deputy ATO head, according to separatists

(Batomunkuyev) On February 19, I got blown up. …

(Novaya Gazeta) The special forces fell back, replaced by rebel cossacks that were then shelled by Ukrainian artillery. Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops started preparing a breakthrough. A Russian tank battalion was sent to hold the position, after staying in Donetsk for several days before.

The specific battle that led to Batomunkuyev’s injury during dusk of February 19 is difficult to verify; however, fighting was reported as Ukrainian troops withdrew near Lohvynove on February 19.

A dispatch from separatist fighters on February 19 describes how the road between Debaltseve-Artemivsk in the area of Lohvynove has become a “road of death” for Ukrainian soldiers. From the other side, Ukrainian military blogger Dmytro Tymchuk wrote on the morning of February 19 that separatist forces, including about a dozen tanks, were positioned near the Debaltseve-Artemivsk road near north Lohvynove. Lastly, a member of the Ukrainian military claims that his 1st Tank Brigade damaged or destroyed three separatist/Russian T-72b tanks on February 19 near Lohyvnove, but this information cannot be independently verified and only appeared after the Novaya Gazeta report.

The specific skirmish that led to Batomunkuyev’s injuries cannot be confirmed through reliable open source information written on or shortly after February 19. However, numerous sources from that day indicate that separatist forces were positioned in the area where Batomunkuyev suffered his injuries and engaged with Ukrainian forces on the Debaltseve-Artemivsk road near Lohvynove throughout the day.

We painted our tanks over back in Ulan-Ude. Right on the train. We painted over the numbers, those who had Guards markings painted them over as well.

When searching through photographs of tanks on the Kuzminsky training ground, where the 5th Tank Brigade and others were stationed, numerous images of tanks with obscured numbers on the hull can be easily located.

tank1 tank3 tank2

However, not every identifying number on tanks at the Kuzminsky training ground was obscured:


The unloading ramp was at Matveev Kurgan. As we went from Ulan-Ude to Matveev Kurgan, we passed lots of cities. It took us 10 days to get there. 

A number of 4th and 5th Tank Battalion soldiers photographed themselves in throughout the Winter at the Matveev-Kurgan railway station, marking it as a key rail yard for transporting military equipment.

Photograph taken in the Matveev Kurgan railyard

Photograph taken in the Matveev Kurgan railyard

Photograph taken in Matveev Kurgan in November 2014

Photograph taken in Matveev Kurgan in November 2014 by a 5th Tank Brigade member


Additionally, one 5th Tank Brigade soldier photographed himself and his comrades on the way to Matveev-Kurgan in key cities along the railway, including Poletayevo and Saratov:

Photograph taken at railyard in Polstayevo, en route to Matveev Kurgan

Photograph taken at railyard in Polstayevo, en route to Matveev Kurgan

Photograph taken at a rail yard in Saratov, en route to Matveev Kurgan

Photograph taken at a rail yard in Saratov, en route to Matveev Kurgan

Kuzminsky. There are lots of such training grounds there. Tent towns. Some went out, some went in. They greeted previous trains there. After us, there was the Kantemirovskaya brigade from Moscow Oblast. They had paratroopers and a weak tank company.

A large training ground near Chkalova, located at the coordinates 47.403252, 39.227971, grew out of nothing in 2014. The first satellite below is from 2013 with no trace of a training camp, while the others are from the most recent available imagery on Google Earth, clearly showing military build-up and signs of training exercises:

Historical satellite imagery available from Digital Globe, taken at August 25, 2013

Historical satellite imagery available from Digital Globe, taken at August 25, 2013

Recent satellite imagery, available on Google Earth at 47.403252, 39.227971

Recent satellite imagery, available on Google Earth at 47.403252, 39.227971

Recent satellite imagery, available on Google Earth at 47.403252, 39.227971

Zoomed-in recent satellite imagery, available on Google Earth at 47.403252, 39.227971

Zoomed-in recent satellite imagery, available on Google Earth at 47.403252, 39.227971

A number of 5th Tank Brigade members were photographed at this camp, along with members of military unit 19612 of the 4th Tank Brigade and unit 54096 of the 6th Tank Brigade, among others.

Photograph of the Kuzminsky training grounds

Photograph of the Kuzminsky training grounds

Geotagged locations on VK are often unreliable, but there is a common thread that links many soldiers together to confirm that they were at the same place at roughly the same time: two Siberian husky puppies. Many tank brigade members photographed themselves with these two huskies at the Kuzminsky base over the winter. In the background of the photographs with the dogs, various elements of the camp—tents, military equipment, trenches—are visible., allowing us to confirm the existence of the camp and the specific military units stationed there.

It is quite rare to have a common identifying feature that is unique to a specific date and time when conducting geolocation, but this is such a case. And yes, much like some camouflage patterns on uniforms and tanks, the fur patterns of the puppies match perfectly in each photograph.


Through the satellite imagery, geotagged photographs of soldiers at the base, and the common thread of two Siberian huskies, it is safe to say that members of the 5th Tank Brigade, and other Russian tank brigades, were stationed at the Kuzminsky base throughout the winter of 2014-15. This verifies a key detail from the injured tankist’s account, bolstering the veracity of his more explosive claims.

There were 31 tanks in the battalion. We went in company by company. Ten tanks in each company. Each 10 tanks got three BMPs, a medical MTLB and 5 Ural trucks with ammo. This is the composition of a company tactical group.

No one has verified the location or makeup of the exact convoy that Batomunkuyev entered Ukraine with, but the Bellingcat Vehicle Tracking Program has identified videos of two convoys in Makiivka uploaded on February 17 similar to those the tankist described (1198 and 1199). In video 1198, there are 4 BMPs, 10 tanks, 1 MTLB, 7 trucks, and 4 fuel trucks with white rectangles (keep this in mind for the next section). The second video, 1199, is filmed in the same location as the first video showing the part of the same convoy, with the same vehicles visible from a different angle. This Makiivka convoy is not Batomunkuyev’s, but the similarity between his description of a convoy’s makeup with BMPs, MTLB, and trucks accompanying the tanks reflect his familiarity with the organization of Russian/separatist military convoys in eastern Ukraine.

About 300 went in. All from Ulan-Ude. Most of us were Buryats. Locals saw us and said: “Well, you are sure reckless guys.”

While the presence of Buryats in eastern Ukraine is only circumstantial evidence, it is worthwhile to note that local residents remarked upon a large presence of Buryat soldiers who arrived around Debaltseve in early/mid-February. Ilya Barabanov of Kommersant published an article on February 19, weeks before the Novaya Gazeta article, describing how a number of Buryats (dubbed the “Donbass Indians”) were fighting in Debaltseve. Andrey Borodulin, a photographer who contributes to Agence France-Presse (AFP), photographed a small group of soldiers near Vuhlehirsk identifying as volunteers from Buryatia. These volunteers were wearing helmets typical for tankists. These Buryats playing football were located at around 48.3094917,38.2968535 in East Vuhlehirsk, next to a Russian T72b and BMP, both of which had white squares drawn on them (also seen here). As pointed out by Ukrainian open source investigator Askai, these white squares are in the same spots as the outline of squares on a T-72b tank photographed by a 5th Tank Brigade member. The 5th Tank Brigade member later deleted this photograph, but kept the rest of his account active. It may be circumstantial evidence that there are Buryat tankists in Deblatseve near tanks with squares in the same spots as tanks earlier photographed by a 5th Tank Brigade member, but it is quite a circumstance for these facts to overlap.

Comparison of th white squares on tanks near Debaltseve and outlines of squares from the 5th Tank Brigade

Comparison of the white squares on tanks near Debaltseve and outlines of squares from the 5th Tank Brigade

However, not all Buryats fighting amongst separatists in Ukraine are enlisted with the Russian military. There is not a very large Buryats population around Debaltseve, thus they raised considerable attention from both journalists and locals, but one cannot automatically accuse every Buryat in Ukraine of being an enlisted Russian soldier. One separatist fighter using the pseudonym “Vakha Donbass” has given interviews describing how he has traveled from Ulan-Ude in Buryatia to fight in Ukraine. Unlike those in the 5th Tank Brigade, this particular Ulan-Ude native is a bona fide volunteer to the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

Photograph from the VK page of "Vakha Donbass" near Lohvynove or Horlivka, February 9, 2015

Photograph from the VK page of “Vakha Donbass” near Lohvynove or Horlivka, February 9, 2015

Minakov got his leg torn off in the tank? It went off with the whole boot. He lost a toe on his right foot, also torn off. The battalion commander was burnt, Chipa the gunner, Spartak… that’s what I recall.

Ukrainian blogger Anton Pavlushko did not just confirm that some of the characters mentioned by Batomunkuyev exist, but that they were in the 5th Tank Brigade with the interviewed tankist. There is no open source evidence available  proving that Aleksandr Minakov lost a foot, but we can say that he is a 21-year old contract soldier of the 5th Tank Brigade. Minakov’s VK page has been deleted, but a screenshot of his account remains:


Screenshot of Aleksandr Milakov’s VK profile, a tankist who lost a foot, as described in the Novaya Gazeta interview

Spartak also exists: a 32-year old man from Ulan-Ude seving in military unit 46108, the 5th Tank Brigade. His Odnoklassniki (Russian social network) profile is still working (archived version).

Spartak with his fellow soldiers. Taken from his Odnoklassniki page.

Spartak with his fellow soldiers. Taken from his Odnoklassniki page.

I had a very good tank. Not just a T-72, but a T-72b. The T-72b is different in that it has a 1K13 aiming device, intended for night shooting, night surveillance, shooting guided missiles.

Journalists have photographed numerous T-72b tanks around Debaltseve in mid-February, including a piece for Buzzfeed from Max Avdeev. Graham Philipps, who has given numerous video dispatches from eastern Ukraine throughout the conflict, gave one of the best available looks at Russian T-72b3 tanks near Debaltseve (more information here with identifying features of the uniquely Russian T-72b3). His useful video provides solid proof that this Russian tank is a part of the separatist arsenal, as reflected from Dorzhi’s claim of transporting T-72b tanks across the border.

Graham Philipps with one of the best views of a Russian T-72b tank, seen near Debaltseve

Graham Philipps with one of the best views of a Russian T-72b3 tank, seen near Debaltseve

In conclusion, the details of this interview stand up to scrutiny of open source research. Not every detail of Batomunkuyev’s story is indisputably verifiable or entirely damning to the Russian narrative of non-involvement in Ukraine, but the cumulative effect of all of these details is hard to dispute. Members of the 5th Tank Brigade of Ulan-Ude were indisputably at the Kuzminsky training ground throughout the winter, starting in November, but it is difficult to determine how many of the 5th Tank Brigade fought in Ukraine. Regardless, one of these tankists was in a burn unit in Ukraine from battlefield injuries, and nearly all of the verifiable details provided in his interview can be confirmed through open source data. It would have taken either an inconceivably talented conspirator or a cosmic coincidence for this interview not to be considered key evidence of Russian military involvement in Ukraine after the adoption of the February 15th Minsk cease-fire accords.

Special thanks to Kirill Mikhailov and Anton Pavlushko for contributions in research in this article.

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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  1. Lutz

    Apparently the problem is a twitter post by @UKinUkraine that shows a guide to spot Russian tanks, which is flawed:
    -> metal plate to disguise kontakt-5 armor, which can be taken off in 5 minutes.
    For the sake of truth, the information that the Graham tanks must be Russian should be rechecked, it seems based on false facts distributed by @UKinUkraine

    • rabarbarus

      Those tanks are definitely Russian T72B3. Kontakt-5 is not only significant element. More important is Belorussian Sosna-U with thermal vision from french company Thalles. Of course You can shout Your eyes for obvious trues, but it does not change the reality. On Graham Philips movie You have column of Russian tanks.
      Ukrainians have never bought Sosna-U’s from Belarus. Non of Ukrainian tanks have such a viewfinder.

  2. Lutz

    Btw, I am pretty sure there is Russian support for the rebells one way or another, but what I am looking for is 100% proof of regular Russian tank columns in Ukraine.

    • Max

      well Lutz, you want the smoking gun… Maybe you just need to go there and ask the guys.

      If I understand correctly: “proof of regular Russian tank columns in Ukraine” thats what you are looking for. So unregular russian tank columns are not enough, regular Russian tanks (not in column formation or single ones) are not enough. What’s your creepy definition of regular? The troops have to be under regular command stucture? The soldiers need to wear official russian signs? C’mon wake up. Those 100% proof of regular Russian troops where not given at crimea. The story there: Putin denied “regular russian troops in crimea” in the end he admitted: regular russian troops did it.

      If your not a Troll, why don’t you handle the informartions given here as very clear indications that the story of nowaja gazjeta is likely true. Why this obsessions for the 100% proof for a specific named fact (“regular Russian tank columns”)? I can’t remember that there was this very special allegation in the article.

      • what a joke?

        Perhaps you have not served in your country’s army so let me explain to you.Army Units,mechanized or not,do not fight as individuals but as a team,they do not move one by one but in groups and(most importantly)they have a logistical tail to keep them functioning-whether on the move,in combat or just stationed it doesn’t matter.Do you have logical and consistent proof that this is happening from this article?That the 5th tank brigade was in Debalceve,or that it send there tactical groups of squadron or troop level?I do not think so.

  3. What a joke!

    According to the guy who wrote the above piece russian army security is the second biggest joke on earth:The vaunted US satellites(by far the biggest joke) fail completely to notice russian tank squadrons heading for the ukrainian front,but,thank god,the troopers are stupid enough to post more or less real time photos of themselves en route on social media,and their comrades and officers act as if nothing happens.Now that’s entertainment!

    • what a joke!

      And i forgot to mention:All “facts” about 5th tank brigade armour fighting in Ukraine are at best assumptions based on dubious coincidences like painted tactical numbers and false identifications of T-72 types(For example t-72ba with kontact1 ERA for t72bv kontact5 ERA).The puppies only prove that there is a russian army training ground inside russia(Good heavens!russian army on manouevers!Agression!Agression!)So,you are deliberately misleading your readers Mr Toler…

  4. Duncan


    If you want an easy demonstration of russian involvement, simply investigate the logistical support on the seperatists/russian troops. DNR/LNR don’t claim to have any logistical units. Modern fighting forces can consume 30 tons+/week of supplies (fuel/parts/food etc.). If the rebels were fighting guerilla warfare I would accept they are unsupported. But they are going toe to toe with modern military and WINNING. That would not be possible without the command/control/logistics/air defence/intelligence/sat imagery etc. provided by russia, or direct military involvement (more likely).
    I know pics of trucks are a lot less sexy than tanks, but they demonstrate a significant logistical chain back across the boarder. And non-front line logistic units would not be operating without significant force protection.

    • what a joke!

      The problem is that since western states provide very obvious military support,sending mortar radars,military advisors etc showing that Russia is sending food,ammunition etc to the rebels means very little(and of course as you pointed out trucks are not sensational).The point is to blame Russia for escalating the war by direct involvement of military units,plain logistical support is not escalation but mere response to what our enlightened western democracies do.Our good fellows at Bellingcat know that,hence they do not care to prove it…

      • Duncan

        what a joke! – you’ve missed the point. DNR/LNR simply do not possess sufficient military to go toe to toe with the rest of Ukraine. At best they are sub units to larger russian formations, or just checkpoint guards/media escorts.
        The logistical chain will point directly to full russian combat units. And teeth to tail ratio will show large russian formations are active in the war zone – rather than the poor explanation of ‘volunteers’ only.
        Plus I challenge you to demonstrate western military support – they are being sold (not supplied) non-lethal equipment, and in such small numbers that Ukraine forces are not utilising the equipment on a large scale (lack of spares etc.). This can also be demonstrated by the Russian state media reaction to the threat of military support being provided.

        • Lutz

          Duncan – don’t agree on the “sold vs supplied” part. Without the billions of credit flowing into Ukraine from the West, they could not afford the war and to “buy” non-lethal equipment. The West knows very will how Kiev is spending the billions.

        • Lutz

          Also, if the large Russian formations in the war zone are a fact, it remains a mystery to me why NATO does keep their – in that case clearly existing – military intel to themselves and does only share blurred low-res images of Russian tanks with the world. Even German Gov doubts Breedlove’s figures about Russian tanks, so US must be eager to prove the large Russian formations do exist. Look at the ‘ultrasharp’ full-color sat images DigiGlobe is bragging on about here: and compare that to the bw-images of Ukraine. Mil-Sat is supposed to have even higher res.
          Any thoughts?

          • Lutz

            Also – think of the many images of that single infamous buk inside Ukraine – but no shots take by the local population of the large Russian tank formations?

          • Lutz

            Sorry, one more thing: one would also need to explain why OSCE never sees these large Russian formations:
            I went back as far as Feb 5 – there is the only mention of a group of 15 T-72 at a DPR-controlled military base. Could this be the “large Russian formation”? For the size of the Russian campaign in Ukraine, the sightings of OSCE seem to be quite sparse.

        • What a joke!

          Actually,i miss nothing at all.Of course Russia is sending military aid to the rebels in the form of ammunition,spare parts etc and of course specialists(that is officers and special forces personel)to organize them into effective military units.Also for every superweapon the US will supply to Kiev,there will be a countersuperweapon supplied by Moscow to maintain the equilibrium.But Russian military units per se simply do not exist in the rebel held areas.Because it is not necessary and because Putin and his people are not stupid.And of course it is funny for someone to believe that Bellingcat can prove through open source data what intelligence services like CIA fail to prove with means like recce drones and satellites.Now about western military support,the sold vs supplied argument is not valid.Sold or supplied-and some weapons are supplied-it doesn’t change the fact that the west is engaged actively in the ukrainian war,supporting the Kiev side(Maidan cookies anyone?).So no double standards please.Russia is in no way worse than the US in her role in the Ukrainian war,not to mention that what happens is basically US is trying to advance right up to the current Russian border,through historic russian territories,and with the blood of others.

          • What a joke!

            PS With all the dangers that such an endeavour entices.We are not talking about a peripheral power like Iran.Neither for a country like Somalia or Afghanistan were people are armed with AKM’s and RPG-7’s at best.Russia is a nuclear power,has held under her influence these areas for the past 300 or so years(not to mention Kiev was the first capital of russia)and consistently fought for these lands,populated in large with russians or russian speaking peoples.Ukraine is not an historical vacuum,certainly not for Russia.

          • d_le_nen

            @what a joke! – It may be true, that the US consider their own interventions as justified, no matter how many lies they may be based on. It may as well be true, that there have been a lot of murky covered operations and quagmire around the Maidan events and the overthrow of Yanukovitch’s regime. It may even be true, that there have been over-nationalistic, overshooting anti-russian moves on the side of the government. But then there were elections, and a reasonably democratic state to allow the Donyetsk and Luhansk people to fight for their rights in a civilized an democratic manner.
            But some extreme parts of the population (it’s always the extremists) chose to start an outright war for separation and created a crass militarization and polarization of the whole situation. So we observe the dreary events we observe, with all the mobilization of atavistic an pre-civilizational emotions, that have accompagnied war since the beginning of mankind.
            In a word: the separatists started the violence.
            And the Russians fuel it, which can be stated without seeing one single picture here on bellingcat, just deducing from logistical arguments.

          • Lutz

            @d_le_nen “there were elections, and a reasonably democratic state to allow the Donyetsk and Luhansk people to fight for their rights in a civilized an democratic manner.”

            Sounds like an unwarranted assumption to me. The nationalist, anti-russian sentiment in West Ukraine has been promoted since 1990 also by Westen Money. There was a violent overthrow of democratically, albeit, corrupt, government in Kiev. There were threats against the now opposition – what makes you think the elections were fair?
            No, the people in the East have a right to raise and fight for their political will.

  5. Max

    Igor Sutyagin, compelled a briefing paper about the russian troops inside Ukraine and there involvement in fightings, leading to the assumptions, that Cremlin has trouble to continue the covered operations for the rebel support.

    In this briefing a number of russian units where mentioned that (or parts of them) where involved in the spring, summer and at least winter campaign in eastern urkaine and Crimea. I don’t know his sources, but do you think that the report can be veryfied by open source?

    Best wishes: Max

    • Lutz

      Some claims in this paper sound too incredible to be credible, at least to my taste. For instance the claim that Kremlin has not enough funds to support a prolonged campaign of that size in Eastern Ukraine.

      • Lutz

        Lol, just noticed that this document provides no source for the facts & figures it claims, except an US General for one general figures.
        I think this paper is self-debunking.

  6. Lutz

    RUSI is financed principally by the UK Ministry of Defence from the United Kingdom Defence Budget.


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