the home of online investigations

Bellingcat Investigation – Russia’s Path(s) to War

September 21, 2015

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

Translations: Русский

Full report here.

The extent of Russia’s role in the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine has yet to be determined. Thus far, Russia denies any direct involvement in the war. However, most Western nations do not share Russia’s position and assume that Russia is directly or at least indirectly involved. This same ambiguity, which continues to affect the conflict in Eastern Ukraine to this day, also characterized the annexation of Crimea last year. At first, Russia denied any direct involvement in the military operations that blocked Ukraine’s armed forces and led to the seizure of key buildings and other locations on the peninsula. Later, however, Moscow acknowledged the active role played by Russian servicemen. (It should be noted that photographic and video evidence had already clearly depicted the involvement of Russia’s armed forces in March 2014.)

The current state of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is similar to the situation in Crimea in March 2014. Russia claims that its forces are not involved despite a plethora of evidence to the contrary. Reports have been published analyzing the presence of Russian equipment in Ukraine, documenting cross-border artillery attacks, and demonstrating the participation of active Russian servicemen in the conflict. This report examines one aspect of the Russian-Ukrainian war, namely, the alleged cross-border traffic of Russian forces into Eastern Ukraine. If it is possible to link cross-border traffic to Russia’s armed forces, this not only provides additional evidence for Russia’s involvement, it also allows for a better assessment of the extent of Russia’s involvement. This report, which primarily focuses on events in the summer of 2014, is solely based upon open source information; the identification and verification of border crossings was performed relying on publicly available satellite imagery.

Using satellite imagery, this report’s assessment of the border area in the conflict zone shows that there are at least 60 tracks crossing the border. Four to five border crossings are of a scale not seen along the border before, and roughly two dozen are assessed as being closely related to the Russian army. Two different types of border crossings were identified: tracks crossing the border to launch attacks from inside Ukraine and tracks crossing the border to enter Ukraine and reach – in most cases – an unknown target inside Ukraine. New tracks were documented for July, August, and September 2014, the months that saw the most intense fighting along the border last summer. The key findings and results of this report include:

  • A description of approximately 30 of the visible border crossings and the close relationship – both in place and time – between all major border crossings and major battles in the border area of Eastern Ukraine.
  • New visual evidence documenting the border crossings, including military vehicles and equipment stationed along the border and large groups of military hardware traveling on paths clearly related to border crossings
  • An assessment establishing or strengthening (as the case may be) the links between the border crossings and Russia’s armed forces through the documentation of Russian bases via satellite imagery and/or photographs uploaded to social media by Russian soldiers

The evidence presented below confirms that Russia’s armed forces participated in the war throughout the entire summer of 2014. Moreover, it is further shown that this participation by Russia decisively changed the course of the war.

You can explore the report on StoryMap here.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Bellingcat Investigation Team

The Bellingcat Investigation Team is an award winning group of volunteers and full time investigators who make up the core of the Bellingcat's investigative efforts.

Join the Bellingcat Mailing List:

Enter your email address to receive a weekly digest of Bellingcat posts, links to open source research articles, and more.

33 Comments

  1. ROBERT

    Russia is not a problem..US is making problem..interfering in Ukraine crisis…Interfering in other countries issues…eg Syria..Libya..Afghanistan etc..only Russian allies. American and European media are just making Russian as enemies…America is the real Satan. Just want to isolate Russia : just want entire businesz for them..no opposition for them.

    Reply
    • tourist

      Yes you are absolutely right, US has moved 20 divisions of marine soldiers with helicopters, tanks, trucks, rocket launchers, some vessels and an airport carrier and so on into Ukraine. The problem is: Nobody has seen them.

      Reply
    • Yuriy (Ukraine)

      Dear Robert,
      i just cant pass by and not to put a comment…

      Russia is not the problem any more, You are absolutely right.
      The country with third biggest army in the world…
      The country which has (pardon, had ;))0,5 billions of reserves in USD…
      The biggest suppliyer of gas and oil….

      This country cant defeat the Ukraine which had no army, no government, no money at the beginning of 2014.
      This country become an isolated even more than during soviet times.
      The promices and agreements with this country worth less than paper on which agreement is sight – It is obvious even to traditional russian allies.

      So, You are right. Russia is not the problem due to Putin’s clan “wise” decisons.

      Keep on. You are on the right way.

      Also, as I suppose You name is not the Robert and You are not the native western citizen :).

      Best regards from sunny Ukraine,
      Yuriy

      Reply
    • John

      Robert, based on what you just reply, all of us make a conclusion about your Russia address and place of work- TROLL HOUSE in Olgino!!!!
      How do they pay you for this fake? By lines , or by hours?

      Reply
    • Valery J Cool-Kulakov

      Comrade Robert, kindly keep your breath. Your “Intourist English” stinks very much, Comrade Robert Cominternsky.

      Reply
    • Sloan

      The problem from the very beginning has been perspective. Experts say it is or is not an economic war, a play by Russia to introduce itself back into world politics as a major player. These wars are all Russia has. They have no other economy but iil, gas, and war.
      From the beginning this has been a turf war. Ukraine stood up and said we want our country back and like any good Mafia Godfather Putin sent in his goons.
      Where Putin has installed leadership all have a criminal past.
      The black market control over goods and services is run by the terrorist leaders in Donetsk and Lugansk. Money laundering schemes have been broken up in Kharkov, Kiev, Dnipropetrovsk, and other locations. The money from theses schemes is funneled back into the temporarily held ukraine territory.
      Putin doesn’t run a country. He runs a criminal enterprise.

      Reply
  2. bobby

    Putin wants a frozen conflict. It costs less and threatens more.

    Since the Soviet Union dissolved, Russia has had one especially common pattern in its military interventions in the Commonwealth of Independent States, the region directly around its southern seas: frozen conflict, which would work well in Ukraine.

    [Russians see Ukraine as an illegitimate state]

    To see how this approach works, let’s look at what happened in Transnistria, a small strip of land on the Moldova-Ukraine border.

    In accordance with the cease-fire agreement ending the 1992 war between Moldova and Transnistria, Russia stationed 2,000 troops in Transnistria. These troops prevented the autonomous region from rejoining either Moldova or Russia. Moldova denounced this Russian military presence as a violation of international law because it infringes on Moldovan sovereignty. Russia has resisted international pressure to withdraw its military force because its presence deters Moldova from applying for NATO membership.

    Frozen conflicts are typically created as a result of settlements in countries beset with deep-seated ethnic tensions. Before 2014, Ukraine’s ethnic tensions were not high enough to threaten civil war. In fact, substantial evidence suggests that Russia manufactured ethnic tensions before its military intervention to prepare for a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine

    Ukraine could also deter further Russian aggression by increasing the costs of Russian military involvement. If the Ukrainian government can coordinate with its oligarchs to escalate counterterrorism efforts against pro-Russian separatist militias, and procure lethal arms or technical support from its Western allies, more Russian soldiers would perish in Donbas. That would make a tactical withdrawal a more cost-effective, politically justifiable strategy for Putin.

    Reply
    • Andrew

      Bobby:

      “Russia stationed 2,000 troops in Transnistria. ”

      Russia had had troops in Transnistria since it was liberated from the Ottoman Kleptocracy in the 1700’s, and Russians have lived there even longer. It did not move troops there in 1992 in some sort of intervention. Its actually the other way around – the Moldovan/Romanian majority in Moldova attempted political moves opposed by the minorities of Transnistria and Gauguzia and the Russian troops who were there helped the Russian people there resist this movement. The same as we just saw in Crimea where Russia also did not invade since it had been part of Russia since the 1700’s when liberated from the Ottomans and Tartar slave traders. Similarly, the Moldovans are not even native to this area, since they are the descandants of the Latin Roman population of Thrace and Dacia and fled there to escape the Ottoman invasion in the middle ages which is why the area is a throughly mixed pastiche of Romanians and Slavs.

      Reply
    • Mad Dog

      Russians ‘liberating’ a group from the Ottomans in the 1700’s? Seems kind of like replacing one set of corrupt bureaucrats with another. Really surprises me to see the term ‘liberated’ used in conjunction with 1700 Czarist Russia. Wonder if they purged any remaining Muslims during their ‘liberation’?

      Reply
  3. bobby

    RONNY REAGEN TOLD IT AS IT IS…

    Our enemies may be irrational,even outright insane, driven by nationalism, religion, ethnicity or ideology. They do not fear the United States for its diplomatic skills or the number of automobiles and software programs it produces. They respect only the firepower of our tanks, planes and helicopter gunships.” – Ronald Reagan

    Ronald Reagan at the time was talking about the Russian controlled soviet union and the soviet union ALSO HAD Nuclear weapons and soviet union was controlled by the same type of personalty types as KGB Putin after all Putin is a productof the soviet KGB…

    And just like KGB Putin the soviets also did a lot of shouting about using Nuclear weapons and wiping out the west and wiping out Europe from the face of the earth ect ect ect…bla bla bla bla ,,,,,

    Yes talking big is typical for Russians they ike to intimidate.. It is not the big talkers you need to be afraid off it is the ones that don’t talk and just act… Just like the USA when they bombed japan not 1 time but 2 times … BIG TALKING RUSSIA’S have never drooped the bomb as they just like to intimidate like all cowards and bully’s do..

    “Putin bases his policies on Lenin’s principle: probe with bayonets; if you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, withdraw,” the aide said. “With Obama, Putin has encountered mush for nearly seven years, never steel, and that’s why he continues to challenge the United States time after time.”

    Moscow HAS NO RIGHT TO take over Ukraine just because Putin feels threaten that his autocracy may become shaky if Ukraine and other nations that border Russia, becomes democratic and move towards the west geo politically.Putin has reserves the right to resort to economic blackmail in Georgia in 2008 and now Ukraine he is taking military intervention to keep his neighbors in line with Moscow hegemony and just because he has nukes the quasi intellectuals now are saying just let Putin do as he wants .

    Putin will not use Nuclear weapons

    1.if he did then he will be not just nuking kyiv the blast and fall out will also hit East Ukraine, Crimea , Poland Belorussia and Russia

    2.He will get the orthodox church agenst him for taking out Pecerska Lavra center of orthodox faith in the world and the far right orthodox is his power base at home

    3. How will it look if he bombed Russians in Ukraine

    4.if he did this then any friends he has in the international community will run for cover and distance then self s from him and and RuSSia in every way they can they will admit openly that Putin is a mad man that needs too-be taken out asap..even his god old buddy in Syria Assad will not return his phone calls and run for cover.

    5. Russia will become a international outcast and pariah in diplomatic relations with the rest of the world..

    6.The world will respond with an attack on Russia and Putin and Moscow will only be left in history books just like the soviet union is now …

    7.Putin like Hitler and Stalin is a very smart calculated psychopath he is not crazy or insane and does not have a political death wish or any other type of death wish for that matter he pushes as fare as he feels he can and then backs down if he feels he gets pushed back and if he dose not get pushed back he continues until he dose.

    Russia’s sphere of influence..

    Well I say Russia’s sphere of influence argument is a big propaganda clam, Russia has no special rights to tell Ukraine what it as a nation can do or not do…, Russia can not just because it borders that nation tell it what it can or do or not do anymore the Norway or Finland can tell Russia what it can or can not do because they border Russia..

    Can Russia tell USA what it can do because it borders Alaska ?

    The West says is not taking over Ukraine it is supporting the democratic aspirations of Ukrainians that were under assault from Putin boy Viktor Yanukovych.

    The West and the rest of the world needs to stand for
    Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as a nations against the Russian invasion, which violates international law. even if Russia has its nukes or not..

    And in any case USA and Briton as obligated to send army troops and equipment in accordance with the Budapest memorandum So really they have no choice Ether the agreements done by the USA president and the British PM or those they appoint is worth something or it is not …If it it not worth the paper they have written on then why will Putin stop at just Ukraine Poland and the Baltics will then be next… Why not he has nuks and the quasi intellectuals like are now say let him do as he wants he has nukes…

    IF Putin hurts one hair on the head of any NATO nation or the USA then all of NATO will respond

    And her is a bombshell….that Putin must also know as Putin is crazy but he is NOT stupid ..

    When it comes to firepower USA is uptoo in some cases 7 times the size of Russia … Just take f. exs.

    Aircraft carries USA has 20 Russia has 1

    Fighter aircraft USA has 2207 Russia 769

    Fix wing aircraft USA has 13892 Russia has 3842

    Helicopters USA 6196 Russia 1120

    And lets not forget that all the USA weapons are tip top and high tec,. Russia for the most part has old soviet leftovers not so much new stuff some new stuff but not something worth worrying about ..

    The truth is Russia is a analog watch in a digital age …When it comes to the USA …

    ooo YES AND manpower

    NATO has over 2,6 mill more soldiers under arms then Russia has

    USA alone has 145,212,012 backup manpower available for military service and they are all professional soldiers ..

    Russia only has 69,117,271 backup manpower available for military service For they most-part farm boys doing their national service

    USA has today active serving military personnel
    1,400,000 The USA are battle harden professional soldiers ..

    Russia has only active military personnel
    766,055 Most of them are farm boys doing their national service

    AND IF WE PUT NATO INTO this mix we are talking fire power advantage up-too 19 times of Russia

    globalfirepower.com/countries-comparison-detail.asp?form=form&country1=united-states-of-america&country2=russia&Submit=COMPARE.

    Above is conventional weapons

    Lets take also take into account nuclear weapons…

    United Kingdom 225 warheads (submarine delivery systems new and up to date systems )

    France 300 warheads
    (submarine delivery systems new and up to date systems )

    United States 7,315 warheads
    (Mixed delivery systems new and up to date systems )

    Russia 8,000 warheads
    (Mixed delivery systems old mostly from the soviet union times NOT up to date systems )

    http://www.icanw.org/the-facts/nuclear-arsenals/

    Base on this facts Russia does not stand a chance as most of NATO warheads are on Subs. and NOT in silos like Russia that makes it easy to take out with NATOs defiance systems …

    All NATO must do is take out Moscow and 5 -6 other city’s to take out all of Russia…. But Russia must take out city’s all over the planet from USA , CANADA ,FRANCE UK. ALL OF EUROPE and as fare away as , AUSTRALIA and so on and so on …

    PS. lets not forget the the Submarine KURSK was part of Russia’s nuclear weapons platform and it was falling apart to such an degree that its systems torpedo systems on the Sub. malfunctions and blow up under water and sank the sub and .. killed all of its crew ….

    Now if that is what Russia’s nuclear delivery platform and weapons platform is like all I can say is hahahahahaha and lest us not forget that Kursk was the pride and joy of Russia’s navy… What does the rest of the Russian nuclear weapons program look like if Kursk is anything to go by ?

    I mean…… If you can not hold your submarines floating in
    pace time what hope do you really have for holding your submarines floating in war time ?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_submarine_Kursk_%28K-141%29

    Kursk was an Oscar-class submarine, twice the length of a 747 jumbo jet, and one of the largest submarines in the Russian Navy.

    An official investigation after most of the wreck was raised along with analysis of pieces of debris concluded that a faulty weld in the casing of the practice torpedo caused high-test peroxide (HTP) to leak, which caused the kerosene fuel to explode. The initial explosion destroyed the torpedo room, severely damaged the control room, incapacitated or killed the control room crew, and caused the submarine to sink with all of its nuks not much of a nuclear weapons platform now was it hahaha

    List of countries by military expenditures
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_military_expenditures

    Reply
    • Andrew

      bobby:

      Thank you for illustrating that the primary threat to world peace comes from the United States and its bloated military complex.

      Reply
      • boggled

        The biggest security of peace is ‘it’s bloated military complex’.
        No one else has shown the level headed and acting on the rule of law when they do it.
        Who would you like to be the policeman of the world?
        North Korea?
        Iran?
        Russia? We saw how their police action in Beslan worked out and their protection of human life.
        Cuba?
        Right Andrew, we all have seen their human rights activities.
        The biggest threats to world peace all stem from Uncle vova’s head right now.
        And then they will all stem from terrorists stealing RF nukes technology if their is a civil war there, unless the military takes swift action to replace the Moscow elite.
        The world can only hope for that to happen to keep peace continuing.
        Another year of Uncle vova is something we all can do without.

        Fare thee well

        Reply
        • Arthur

          “Who would you like to be the policeman of the world?” – the world itself, not a single country.

          Reply
          • boggled

            Agreed, International Law should rule the roost and an international body should control that.
            USA makes coalitions where it can.
            They have their own security interests, above and beyond enforcing international Law.

            As we saw with Crimea even the USA, Britain and Russia failed in the international agreement they signed for having Ukraine get rid of the 3rd largest nuclear weapons arsenal.

            Russia was the aggressor and breaker of International Law regarding its occupation, hence it’s change of ownership is not recognized in the UN.
            That non recognition by the UN has not done anything to curb Uncle Vova’s path to expanding or attempting to retain Moscow’s sphere of influence.

            The main thing that has curbed it is Uncle Vov’as knowledge that the USA, NATO, and China will wipe RF from the Earth financially first and militarily second if he goes much further.
            IF Thatcher and Reagan were in office right now, vova would not have even thought about doing what he has done.

            UN cannot agree on climate change or enforce it, what makes you think they could do anything without Western Coalitions and NATO to back them up?

            Do you believe NATO should be the world’s police force?
            IT is the closest to a coalition of international bodies we have now.
            OR do you believe it should be under UN’s umbrella and must wait for UN approval before it does anything?

            IF vova or North Korea went on the rampage, should we wait 2 years for International Inspectors to check everything out and vote on it?
            Time is of the essence, and either one’s vote in the UN could slow it down dramatically.
            Syria has yet to be solved by the UN.
            The refugees from Syria were not solved by the UN, it was a discussions inside Europe itself that is working that solution.
            It would be nice if everyone respected International Law, but they do not.
            They, like Saddam, Ghaddafi, ASSad, vova, Muslim Brotherhood, etc. flick their nose and say stop me.

            Eventually we might get there, but when humans like those and Stalin are out there, there needs something now.

            Fare thee well

        • Andrew

          boggled:

          “No one else has shown the level headed and acting on the rule of law when they do it.”

          Such as? Invading Iraq? Twice? Bombing Libya/overthrowing Khaddafi? Bombing Serbia/fomenting the Bosnia war? Fomenting the Kosovo war? Creating Al Qaeda and ISIS by dumping weapons into the Middle East and Afghanistan? The Vietnam War? Overthrowing dozens of legitimate governments around the world from 1950 onwards?

          “Who would you like to be the policeman of the world?”

          No one. No one has that right or mandate, and certainly not my US.

          “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” (John Quincy Adams).

          That would include the captive nation of Donbass/Cossackia.

          The US is quite well protected by two oceans and a border with Mexico and Canada. Therefore, its military needs to be reduced back to something much smaller resembling what it had pre-WWII which would simultaneously end all of the Atlanticist globe straddling meddling that occurs.

          Reply
          • boggled

            Invading Iraq was the right thing both times.
            First the invasion of Saddam on another state with no military assets but an ally.
            Second the blocking of Inspectors left and right as well as ignoring International Law left and right, he gave up his right as a leader of a nation.

            Libya, was mostly inside turmoil, the USA was there obviously, but the people said it is time for him to go for various reasons.

            Kosovo and Bosnia problem, are you really so ignorant of the Srebnica massacre and the incidents in the region?

            Creating Al Qaeda? They supplied weapons to those that paid for them to fight the Soviet invasion.
            Blocking the Red Square Army invasions and Imperialism is what we do and we are pretty good at it.
            Little did they know Al Qaeda would form from that.

            ISIL is a Chechan/ Russian invention.

            RF drops as many weapons in the region if not more.
            RF is a large part of the proliferation of contraband weapons as well.

            Vietnam? Even Jane Fonda says she was so wrong then with what she knows now.

            Preventing dictatorships from the 50’s on wards helps prevents genocides like the Holocaust which the large scale death of Jews by Moscow and Germany from happening again.

            Justice mandates and so far America has shown itself repeatedly to be responsible with the power it has.
            Not perfect and thank goodness there is the UN and some kind of democracy with it.
            Have Stalin Jr or Neville Merkal handle it? no thank you.

            Unfortunately for the USA those monsters keep popping their heads up and we do not have to go searching for them to destroy.
            They let us know with their genocides and HR abuses.
            Are you suggesting the world should just let another Holocaust happen?

            Scale back military to preWWII levels? BAH, you know what the USA had to do to build up to challenge the world’s dictators and aggressors and stop those genocides?
            It took time to acquire those and build up to stop those idiots in their tracks.
            If we were ready, we could have prevented Hitler and Stalin from dividing up Poland and the wide scale slaughter of innocents there.
            Never again!

            Your arguments are pathetic Andrew and an appeasement to the dictators and genocidal maniacs of this word.
            You disgust me.

            Fare thee well

  4. boggled

    Excellent work.
    The sifting through satellite images must have been exhausting and then coordinating those with reported battles and photography.
    More proof that this was never a civil war inside Ukraine, but a plan implemented from the top of the Kremlin.
    You do not move this amount of Russian forces across Russian highways to the border and into Ukraine without getting approval from up top.
    The continually flow of weapons and ammo along the railroads is a good indication as well, follow the trains.
    Excellent work BC with a wealth of data and I think many different nation’s government thinktanks could learn from your example.

    Fare thee well

    Reply
  5. tourist

    When you have a closer look at the official borders in that area you will also see that the ukrainian buildings have been attacked/destroyed also from russian side. You can see that from craters.

    Reply
  6. Nariman Namazov

    please, delete the first paragraph of this article. It just isn’t needed and reads like “both sides are bad”-bullshit.

    Reply
    • Arthur

      Don’t want to feel yourself bad, aren’t you, white and fluffy harmless piggy? But when “war” happens, both sides are interfered and both have their hands in blood. Like now.

      Reply
  7. Stanislav Apetyan

    “The extent of Russia’s role in the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine has yet to be determined.”
    First sentence – first pro-Putin lie.

    >extent
    >role
    Russia has freaking invaded and occupied eastern parts of Ukraine. That was determined more than a year ago by all the evidence possible, and still, well-meaning folk continues to post this pseudosceptical pseudoneutral we-know-nothing bullshit, BBC-style; it helps only agressor – Russia.

    Reply
    • tourist

      During vacations in Italy I met by coincidence a russian guy on the beach. We talked together for a while. He was very frustrated as costs of his vacations rised up a lot since he booked the appartement, so no big sightseeing, only area and beach not too far from house. He told me that he and his colleagues, friends and so know very well that all what russian media and governement are telling about the conflict is a big lie, just propaganda. He told, that it is a war by Russia against Ukraine. He was ashamed about what his country does and he and all of his friends/colleagies are now reading foreign (mostly english) websites to inform themselves. Maybe he also reads here. (If you read this: Greetings! I will not forget our talk, it gives a lot of hope!) He told, there are many like him, but they are anyhow too less to change it, governement stops very effectively any oposition. This is frustrating.

      Reply
      • Ivan

        Listen to me, the one you were talking to was not from Russia, and i suppose you are from Ukraine. Its not a war between two countries, why the ambassadors are in their own positions? Why Ukraine buy gas? etc. Think with your own head not thanks to your TV.

        Reply
        • Serge

          You’re a liar, because this is a typical war waged cowardly Kremlin
          Ukraine do not buy gas in Russia
          Brainwashed russian, says that some one has to think his own head – it’s just funny

          Reply
  8. horor

    I do not understand as it is possible to trust such ‘ to proofs ‘. To send official observers, journalists in ДНР and ЛНР a gut probably at the West it is thin.

    Reply
    • Serge

      So of course , photos of Russian tanks that invaded in Ukraine – is not proof, video of Russian military and armored vehicles in Ukraine – is not proof, captured russian troops, is also not proof.
      For russian morons are the only evidence if Putin will say yes on TV.
      You fuc.ing moron and liar there is already a officials from OSCE but your Russia not allow them on the border.
      “President Obama emphasized the need for combined Russian-separatist forces to implement the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and to provide monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) with unfettered access to separatist-controlled areas, including the Russia-Ukraine border”

      Reply

Leave a Reply to bobby

  • (will not be published)