by and for citizen investigative journalists

Russia’s War in Ukraine: The Medals and Treacherous Numbers

August 31, 2016

By Bellingcat

Translations: Русский

The full report can be downloaded here stock_save_pdf

The war in eastern Ukraine is known under multiple names; most often formulations similar to Ukrainian civil war or Ukrainian conflict are still used to describe the war. The implied characteristic as solely internal Ukrainian conflict is heavily disputed and an active Russian participation is widely accepted. While there is now plentiful evidence documenting a direct and decisive participation of Russian servicemen and the Russian armed forces in the fighting in eastern Ukraine since summer 2014, it is however not possible to support the various claims about the size of the Russian involvement using public available information.

Given the nature of open source evidence, it is near impossible to provide an exact number of Russian servicemen participating in the fighting in eastern Ukraine only relying on this type of information. The open source research done by @Askai707 and InformNapalm strongly suggest that – at minimum – hundreds of Russian servicemen were involved in the fighting so far. The most direct evidence could be provided by the Russian bureaucracy. However, such an information is also most likely a Russian state secret and not publicly available. Other information, similar to official statistics, would also allow an estimation of the number of involved Russian servicemen. Such information is available in previously published individual cases of Russian servicemen.

Previous published analyses identified Russian servicemen who published imagery of awarded medals. This imagery is valuable because most of the higher Russian medals have a consecutive numbering, explicitly stating the number of medals awarded so far. Therefore, imagery from two medals awarded at different dates allows us to calculate the number of awarded medals between both dates. Awards of four medals are analyzed in this report. It is possible to demonstrate that the number of awarded medals, compared to the years before 2014, suddenly and strongly increased in 2014 and 2015. The large number of awarded medals “For Distinction in Combat”, 4300 awards between 07.11.2014 and 18.02.2016, strongly suggests larger combat operations with active Russian military involvement in this period. In sum, the data suggests that more than ten thousand medals of all four considered types were awarded in the considered period. Therefore, it can be directly concluded that:

  • Thousands of Russian servicemen participated in 2014 and 2015 in combat operations and were awarded with medals for their actions in these operations.

Because of the evidence presented in preceding reports documenting the presence of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in eastern Ukraine and its participating in the fighting, and because it is a rather unrealistic assumption that every Russian serviceman participating or involved in the fighting in eastern Ukraine has been awarded with one of the discussed medals, it is possible to conclude:

  • Most likely far more than ten thousand Russian servicemen participated in combat operations in eastern Ukraine.
  • Most likely tens of thousands Russian servicemen participated in or contributed to the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

In sum, the findings of this report support the claims that thousands of Russian servicemen were active in eastern Ukraine. With these findings, it is also possible to strongly increase the lower data-based estimate of Russian servicemen involved in the fighting in eastern Ukraine using only open source information.

Bellingcat

474 Comments

    • Daenerys Targaryen

      Arya Stark, does it bother you that your job involves saying stupid stuff online for money? Obviously not.
      FSB, or KGB, removes any links efficiently and quietly.

      Reply
    • charioteer

      All links work fine for me. If you can’t open them, it means you are writing from a country that blocks this content. Are you in Russia now?

      Reply
  1. Daenerys Targaryen

    I agree with Konstantin. Lets say one person received two types of medals. That cuts down the number of medals awarded to 5,000. However, it is very unlikely that every person fighting in Ukraine received a medal. Also, are the medals awarded posthumously? If not, than the number of Russian soldiers who died in Ukraine should also be included in the estimate. Overall, estimated number of Russian servicemen fighting in Ukraine highly exceeding 10,000 seems accurate.

    In regards to publishing the evidence, it is clear that Russia will persecute & punish any servicemen who posts such evidence online, therefore no direct link should be provided. I am sure with a little research, any one of us could find photos of Russian soldiers touting these medals on odnoklassniki.ru.

    Reply
    • Aric Toler

      Excuse the need for double comments, as a couple of your submissions got caught up in the pending folder. All fixed.

      Reply
      • dszubert

        “We cant trust the report if there’s no links to evidence. Simple as that”

        Did you even download the report an look at it? The evidence is in there (of Russian servicemen who published imagery of awarded medals).

        I suggest you engage your brain first before typing nonsense

        Reply
          • dszubert

            The photographic evidence has the names of the medal recipients on the award cards. That’s evidence, whether you like it or not.

            The footnote says: “Archived version of the conversation available. Provided by @Askai707 for this report.”
            If you want to see the original source material why don’t you ask for the archived conversations, instead of making blanket statements about what can be trusted?

          • stranger

            What ‘archived conversation’? The report analyzes the stats of about 20 – 30 or so medals. No any source links for them provided! We just need to be able to verify the data, since you claim it is open source investigation.

  2. Justwantthetruth

    I am British, live in Russia. My neighbour’s son, a conscript, said he was in Debaltseve, a major battle last September. He is a cook and he said that his unit literally prepared 1,500 of meals, three times daily, for Russian soldiers. Other units nearby were of a similar scale. He said braggingly there were estimates of 3,000-5,000 regular army guys there for weeks, judging by the huge amounts of grub they were preparing for them.

    Reply
    • Aric Toler

      Very interesting, thanks! If possible, you should show him this documentary, tracing the journey of one Russian tankist from Siberia to Debaltseve and back again:

      With Russian dubbing:

      Reply
    • Mr.Bushkin

      I am Santa Clause living in Jamaica and a friend of my neighbours pet said that his cousine believes that there is plenty of non verifyable nonsense posted anonymously.

      Reply
  3. stranger

    Ukrainian cyber warriors have started a massive informational offence. Based on an article on the events of 2.5 years ago as the excuse. Probably they are preparing to the G20 in China where Putin and Oland and separately with Merkel are going to discuss the progress of Minsk. If Putin met Oland and Merkel together that would look like Poroshenko was not invited, so they decided to split into 2 meetings.
    And the only one lonely Aria Stark along with a small sword and brave heart is keeping the defense against the overwhelming battalions of trolls thrown all at once into the last battle before G20.
    Cool!

    Reply
    • Zachary Layne

      What are you trying to say? That there have never been active-duty Russian soldiers covertly fighting in Ukraine?

      Reply
      • stranger

        There has never been Russian regular army in Donbas. Take a look at any picture or video or satellite image from Syria, from Georgia 2008, from Crimea. You can find nothing like that from Donbas, just subtle BC investigations that somebody posted something of facebook and no pictures ever similar to other places above. I don’t exclude only occasional involvements of the army.
        There were the volunteers and the weapon from Russia. You can ask what’s the difference, well, I may agree. There are many people both Russians and Ukrainians by ethnicity who do support Russia in Donbas and perceive Ukrainian army not as liberators but those who are coming to their land and killing them by mass shelling and blockades economically. Russia helped to start the upraising in Donbas and believes to defend and stand behind people of Donbas. We can doubt that was really the case and that there was so mass support in the beginning. But over time as the war is going on and more civilians get killed that picture becomes more and more closer to the reality. The contradictions always existed between Ukrainian east and west have turned into a civil war for that last several years.
        Now the Minsk agreements are up to date, not the war to the end, not the war between Ukraine and Russia, not granting more weapon to Ukraine, but the agreements to cease fire and grant more independence to Donbass inside Ukraine.
        Ukraine cannot accept any special rights for Donbas which is perceived as a threat to the sovereignty if Donbas will support the Russian side. Donbas cannot give up after 3 years of the war, the separatists and their supporters don’t want to be either killed or prisoned by Ukraine. Russia cannot give up the support to the rebels. So that is a stalemate.
        Ukraine calls the western countries to push Russia with sanctions and isolation (here is where all those informational campaigns and trolls go) and is waiting until Russia is collapsed and at the same time blockades the Donbas waiting people there would beg to return and just intensifies the fire on the borders with DNR/LNR any time something important is discussed in Europe. The western countries are happy to use it as an excuse to get rid of whatever Russian influence and push it out from the European markets, Clinton is using Russian scarecrow as a cornerstone of her presidency campaign against Trump. Russia is trying to keep Donbas but push it back to Ukraine but with Donbass elected leaders. Ukraine in turn doesn’t want to get back Donbass at any price, but only after it is allowed to clear up all separatists.
        So that is such a stalemate, some sides are trying to use in own interests. I don’t justify Russia, don’t appreciate all other sides as well.

        Reply
        • Geoffrey Oates

          What a load of Bollocks you write! . . Bloodimir ras-Putin CONSTANTLY DENIED any Russian Soldiers were in Crimea, and that the “Little Green Men” that the ENTIRE World saw were NOT Russian Soldiers! . . .. EVERY DAY he denied that there was NO Russian involvement !!!!! . . .. 3 months, yes THREE MONTHS later he ADMITTED on Russian State TV that the Soldiers WERE Russian, and that he was “Prepared to go Nuclear” over Crimea!!! . . .The Soldiers were there to “PROTECT Russian Citizens”!!!! . . .. Protect them from who?????? Russians ????? . . . . . . And now, we have the same DENIAL that “there are no Russian Soldiers in Ukraine” . . . . . There is SO MUCH PROOF that it is just laughable at how Bloodimir ras-Putin expects to maintain ANY Credence in the West! . . . . We have now seen Putin for what he is!!!! . . . . A BULLY BOY!!!! . . . .An Asshole KGB Operative who cannot forget the USSR and the “Glory days” of the Soviets!!!!! . . . . . ..FORGET IT!!!! . .The USSR is as dead as the Dodo !!!!. . .. it is NEVER coming back !!!!! . . …The Russian “Sphere of influence” is also like the Dodo . . .DEAD !!!! . . ..NO ONE wants Russians, Russian People, Russian Influence, OR ANYTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA!!!!! . . .. STICK IT UP YOUR ASS!!!!

          Reply
          • stranger

            You don’t need Putin to tell you what you should or shouldn’t see. Look for videos from Crimea and from Donbas yourself, you will see it yourself.

          • stranger

            “Protect them from who??” protect from Ukrainian nationalists mostly from the western Ukraine who bragged to send a ‘train of friendship’ to Crimea and ‘set the order’. Protect the Russian black sea fleet which was there from 18th century. Protect the right of Crimeans to use their native language as the official one. There were some evidences for that – please google also: “The pogrom of Korsun”. Whether the threat was possible most Crimeans welcomed Russia as voted for that at the referendum.

          • stranger

            The attackers of buses in Korsun looked pretty much like those monkeys at BBC documentary – ridiculous and cruel.

          • Arya Stark

            You are raving, Mr Oates. Please take your medication and lie down in a dark room.

        • justwantthetruth

          Dear ‘stranger’,
          please read my post from above. There have been and are are Regular Russian soldiers in Donbass. I personally spoke to one who didn’t deny his presence there and thousands of others. In fact, he bragged about it. I feel sad that you are in denial.

          Reply
          • stranger

            Dear just-truth,

            It is very interesting what you are saying. Though, first of all I don’t know you personally to take everything you are saying for granted. No offence. For my understanding I mostly rely on the mass media and facebook posts from locals and videos found on the internet.

            As I said, I know who was Strelkov/Girkin and how he came, and how Yarosh bragged it was him to start the war, they worth each others in some sense. I know that there were Russian volunteers and the weapon must be also from Russia. On the other hand many locals do support Russia, all Donbass leaders now are locals as well as the majority of the their militia. I just said the regular army would look differently as we saw in Georgia and as we saw in Crimea. Here we see a limited support for the rebels instead. And if Ukraine finally allows the elections there as it is obliged by Minks, they probably would elect pro-Russian leaders. As I said many times I don’t justify Russia. I don’t appreciate US politics including support of Maydan due to pure geopolitical purposes either. I find current position of the official Ukraine disgusting and dead-end as well.

            If you have any verifiable evidences or unknown facts please share.

      • Erwin

        You would not be able to convince Russian trolls like stranger and Arya Stark, and they would not be able to convince you since there are numerous facts of Russian aggression in Ukraine. But please do not give them the pleasure of earning few rubles for each post they write.

        Reply
        • stranger

          To convince somebody in something you first need a calm voice, reasonable thinking and some facts. All that I see from our Ukrainian trolls here is extreme hatred, insults, personal assaults. That is how we know they are from Ukraine unfortunately. The westerners would never ever choose such a tone.

          Reply
  4. Arya Stark

    This prestigious medal for distinction in service is awarded in a solemn ceremony by the Minster of Defence himself according to my research on Russian law.

    Acoording to the Bellingcat report, over 300 such medals were awarded in one day on 16th December 2014.

    I have a hard time believing this high award is given out in such numbers and I don’t see how they would fit 300 such ceremonies into one day.

    You’re at least going to need a short speech about the heroic deeds of each individual recipient.

    Reply
      • Arya Stark

        I thought maybe they could do them in a group but that wouldnt fit the facts that this is the highest award of the Russian MoD and it’s for distinguished conduct.

        Each soldier would need a speech which at leat outlined what was exceptional about their conduct.

        Ultimately I don’t believe 300 of these medals were handed out in a day. That’s preposterous. It would be like 300 Victoria Crosses being handed out in a day in the UK. Does. Not. Happen.

        Either the researchers are lying or they’ve made an incorrect assumption about these medal numbers.

        Reply
        • dszubert

          Where is your evidence that it Does. Not. Happen.”?

          Without evidence you are just making wild statements, such as ” I don’t believe 300 of these medals were handed out in a day.”

          There is no evidence to back-up your supposition.

          Reply
    • dszubert

      I don’t see how they would fit 300 such ceremonies into one day.

      How long does it take to present and talk to each guy – 20 seconds?
      That’s 3 a minute, or 180 in an hour, so could do the lot of them easy in less than 2 hours – never mind a day.

      Reply
      • Arya Stark

        You’ve obviously never done any public speaking or been to any such formal ceremonies where awards are handed out. You can’t do anything in 20 seconds.

        Reply
        • dszubert

          I have done public speaking a plenty as it happens – but that is not relevant to this issue.

          If your handing out 300 medals you would only do one speech – not 300.

          Reply
          • Arya Stark

            In this case you’d have to do individual speeches. This is the Russian MoD’s highest award.

            But not to worry. This simply never happened. No way were 300 of these medals awarded on one day.

          • dszubert

            “But not to worry. This simply never happened. No way were 300 of these medals awarded on one day”

            I’m not worrying – because their is no evidence to back-up your statements.

    • fireguy

      Russia law is such an unnecessary formality, really, especially if you do not want much publicity for obvious reasons. 🙂

      Reply
  5. stranger

    I wonder also who of those massive Ukrainian cyber warriors/trolls are writing from the same IP under different accounts?

    Reply
    • Arya Stark

      Ukrainians are present, certainly. One can easily tell from the extreme levels of anger and hurling insults etc.

      Reply
      • stranger

        I guess that is the reason why BC published events of 2 years ago now and the massive support from Ukrainian cyber warriors/trolls attacked all again at once.
        http://rus.newsru.ua/world/31aug2016/bez_osobyh_diskussiy.html
        Europe is going to discuss and extend the sanctions against Russia. Next week Putin is going to G20 in China where he will be meeting Merkel and Oland. Ukraine is very afraid Russia can finally get out of sanctions since the Minsk is stalled and many people believe – because of Ukraine.
        That MIGHT explain the acute informational campaign offence. That was exactly the same during the last time sanctions were discussed.

        Reply
      • stranger

        “One can easily tell from the extreme levels of anger and hurling insults etc.”
        That’s true, I don’t understand why (some) Ukrainians believe that is cool, it is typical unfortunately, but very sad.

        Reply
  6. Emotrix

    A Sequence… Ukraine is playing a transparent cyber game, and I really don’t understand why the west, or US for that matter are buying it, but then again I don’t think its Ukraine fooling the west or anyone for that matter with its information war, if one could look closely and coordinate every Dot, one will see that this is the US’s game, I mean the Ukraine government is Pro-US, and the US is out to get Russia, why isn’t anyone seeing this?

    If Russia does have its Armed forces in eastern Ukraine, so what? The Donbass region is of Ethnic Russia Majority and if their will is to achieve Autonomy or Reunification with the Russia Federation why not let it be? If Russia does have its armed forces in eastern Ukraine I think is a very wise though costly move.

    As for evidence linking Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine, I don’t think that’s important. what’s important is that people’s opinions or choices be taken to deep consideration in all this US-West-Ukraine proxy ~ Russian Saga!

    Reply
    • MartinFierro

      If Russia does have its Armed forces in eastern Ukraine, so what? The Donbass region is of Ethnic Russia Majority —— no, it isn’t. Crimea is. Ethnic Russian in Donbass region is about 1/3 of the pre-war population.

      Reply
    • dszubert

      “If Russia does have its Armed forces in eastern Ukraine, so what? The Donbass region is of Ethnic Russia Majority and if their will is to achieve Autonomy or Reunification with the Russia Federation why not let it be?”

      1. Because it is illegal under international law (but Russia does not care about law)
      2. Russia did not apply that logic to Chechnya which is majority Chechen population (but Russia is a special case – because they are Russia)
      3. San Diego may be majority Mexican population – so in your logic it is OK for Mexico to send in its armed forces?

      This is nonsensical logic.

      Reply
      • Arya Stark

        If Mexicans were being killed in the area by the US military I wouldnt blame Mexico for doing so.

        Reply
        • dszubert

          Nobody was being killed in the Donbas before Russia started this. There was no history of ethnic conflict there before Russian special forces without badges began taking over public buildings.

          Reply
          • stranger

            NOBODY was killed at Donbass until the Right Sector from the western Ukraine came and attacked the check point and then Ukrainian army came trying to get the rebels out of the cities using heavy weapon and aviation.
            Please read Strelkov’s interview and Yarosh. Please be more precise in your statements.

    • Flight

      There it is. For stranger, it is not important that Russian soldiers are killing innocent Ukrainians. Russians are cowards enough to not even declare an official war. Sick from lying to themselves and sick from fear.

      Reply
      • stranger

        I didn’t say that. I’m saying Ukrainians are not so innocent as they try to seem. That Ukraine threw regular army to level with the ground the cities of Donbas. That ukrainian volonteer battalions wearing swast1ka and not subordinated to the government used to rob, prison, torture, and kill civilians suspected in separatism or just for their fun. That the prisoners returned by Ukrainian battalions on prisoner exchange with the rebels were beaten up to like sacks with bones. That journalists get prisoned and even killed in Ukraine just for their civil position.

        And then Ukraine fingerpoints to Russia and claims Putin is the source of all their problems and calling the west to push Russia with sanctions, anticipates Russia is collapsed and call for the direct ‘raw aggression against Russia’ as said by some Ukr troll above.

        And at the same time they humiliate themselves before Europe and welcome the almost direct governing from US while still not fighting with corruption but begging for money, visa abolishments, joining Europe, but most importantly of all – to revenge its northern neighbor.

        I’m just saying they are not so weak and not so innocent and not do honest as they love to always pretend. I’m saying look at both sides. I don’t justify Russia at the same time. Anyway sooner or later it will require to start negotiations and look for a compromise. Right now nobody wants to talk, everybody wants to fight.

        Reply
      • stranger

        Russia doesn’t declare the official war because it is not fighting with Ukraine. If it were Kiev would be taken for a week and then welcomed Putin as the liberator as they always do with invaders. Russia do support the rebels. Which I don’t think it should do.

        Why doesn’t Ukraine declare the war to Russia if it believes it is fighting with Russia?? Why Poroshenko doesn’t sell the factory he owns in Russia and hence supports the ‘aggressor’??

        Reply
      • stranger

        On the other hand I understand that any time I criticize Ukrainians, somewhere hypothetically in US neocons camp, Masonic lodge, Reptiloid Universe Government or just devils in he11, are laughing: look how those deb1l Ukrainians and id1ots Russians are fighting each other’s, soon they will destroy each other’s and they will need us to manage ‘this sustainable chaos’ pretending to ‘rule out’ the conflict and earn by robbing the remnants. I believe in negotiations, looking for a compromise and respecting the interests of multiple sides. That is not what anybody aspires to do right now. Now the logic of constant escalation and the long lasting beseage is launched, polarizing the opinions using the propaganda and painting the image of new enemies. And that is not coming from only Russia.

        Reply

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