by and for citizen investigative journalists

Ukraine Conflict Vehicle Tracking Project: First Week

February 12, 2015

By Veli-Pekka Kivimäki

On February 3rd, Bellingcat launched the Ukraine conflict vehicle tracking project, a collaborative effort where we collect reports on movement of military equipment in and near Ukraine to determine if Russian units have crossed the border.

We opened a channel through Checkdesk through which anyone watching the conflict can submit reports of interesting vehicle sightings. These reports are validated by the Bellingcat team, after which they’re added to our data set that is made available through Silk, a platform for creating rich visualizations of data.

The project has gotten plenty of attention during its first week, with mentions ranging from Kyiv Post to Norway’s Aftonbladet.

During the first week, we made a number of improvements to Bellingcat’s vehicle tracking project Silk site, including some tweaks to the home page, as well as generally improving the presentation of many pages. Most notably, the sightings pages got some additional information, and now contain geolocation information, as well as quick links to other sightings from the same location. (See an example here.)

At launch, our data set had 94 entries, and during the first week we’ve taken in 71 new entries, bringing us to a total of 165 entries. The entries range in time from early 2014 to the past few days. We also still have many entries in unprocessed in our backlog as we’re reacting to current events, so the data set will keep growing as quickly as we can process it.

Let’s take a look at what kind of sightings we have from February.

A few things stand out here: there are Kamaz Vystrel and Pantsir-S1 sightings, equipment which is not used by the Ukrainian military. (Note: we’re using Vystrel as the generic bucket for all vehicles of that family, including the Dozor-N variant used by Russian armed forces.) If we have a closer look at the Vystrel sightings, something interesting stands out. The vehicles have also been seen in footage of the Debaltseve offensive.

All Vystrel sightings

Another interesting finding related to the Debaltseve offensive comes from combining that footage with earlier footage from August. Video taken in Russia’s Staraya Stanitsa shows a BMP infantry fighting vehicle with the text “Лавина”, or “Lavina” (meaning ‘avalanche’ in Russian) written on the side. This same writing can be found on a unit filmed in Uglegorsk, and in another clip from the Debaltseve offensive. On closer examination, also the damage on the units match.

Above: "BMP Lavina" in Staraya Stanitsa, Russia. Below: same vehicle in Uglegorsk, Ukraine.

Above: “BMP Lavina” in Staraya Stanitsa, Russia. Below: same vehicle in Uglegorsk, Ukraine.

Another visualization, showing the reference location where the unit has been sighted.

Thus, it seems clear military equipment has been transferred from Russia to Ukraine, and is also being used in the Debaltseve offensive. This is in line with other findings we’ve mentioned earlier, such as the Pantsir-S1 sightings in Ukraine, a modern Russian air defence system not found in the Ukrainian military’s inventory.

As we continue adding new data, we hope to gain new insights to the extent of the cross-border military equipment transfers. So, please keep on contributing new reports!

Veli-Pekka Kivimäki

Veli-Pekka is a doctoral student at Finnish National Defence University, researching open source intelligence and use of social media. He has a long background in product development, along with military and emergency management experience.

15 Comments

  1. Nill Nilsen

    Cease-fire it is good. But we see, that Putin violates more times the promises. In Moscow already now say that won’t execute the agreement. The lethal defensive weapons for Ukraine can force it to keep the promise this time. Not to provide weapons for Ukraine simply increases Russia’s temptation to violate an agreement. The purpose of the president Putin – destroy Ukraine and execute the “sacred mission” – fight against the West.Putin to stop only when restores the USSR. Or even all socialist camp. Until it was stopped, Putin will threaten Baltic states and East Europe. KGB officer understand blow in a muzzle, but not talk.

    Reply
    • Jim Beale

      You’re reading a site full of evidence and asking “where is the evidence”? What a jack ass you are.

      Reply
  2. Walker

    Have heard previously that the white dot painted on vehicles means Russian forces. Any confirmation that this is true or still holds true?

    Reply
    • Max

      Not only the dots refer to russian troops. As far as I understand it, geometric markings on the vehicles where used to reference company tactical groups or battalion tactical groups. E.g. forces of the 5th guards (armored) brigade where using unfilled rectangles. If those troops are russian only (“volunteers”) I can’t tell, but in my view it is likely.

      Maybe this can be verified or discussed by bellingcat.

      Reply
  3. Pertti Dahlström

    The democratic development of Russia ended 1993 and the country chose the authoritarian way, way back to czarist or party ruling, with ideas from the past. Mr. Putin thinks he is the savior releasing the people from a long oppression? Why first now, that is an interesting question. However, Russia has been very aggressive since 1917, which the neighboring countries know too well. Putin thinks he can made a new superpower with arms – partly to cover his country´s real problems. Bad thing for him is that Europe has almost 500 Mio inhabitants, Russia 120. Even worse is that the World has 7,2 billion inhabintants……

    Reply
  4. rabarbarus

    If I could suggest you, put more attention to the determination of the specific types of tanks used in the Donbas. Particularly important here is the presence of T72B3 tanks, documented on several photos and films. T72B3 were never used by the army of Ukraine. They can be relatively easily identified by the presence of the thermal viewfinder Sosna-U. They are the proof of support from Russia. It should be noted that these tanks require better trained crew than older types and it is very likely that they were send to Ukraine with crew.

    Reply
  5. Andriy Makukha

    Thanks a lot, Veli-Pekka, it proved to be a very useful resource already!
    However, I would suggest to add yet more information to the sightings pages to improve their verifiability. For example, I think the “[1136] Luhansk: Pantsir-S1” page would benefit from a link to a street view of the street seen in the video: http://maps.yandex.ru/-/CVGuM6JG
    And in general some comment about how a video or a photo was geolocated would be helpful for journalists and researchers.

    Reply
  6. van de cremer

    why are there no photos published here made by the highly sophisticated USA satellites ?
    they can make very clear pictures of every vehicle, which could easily be distributed to the whole mainstream media . . .

    Reply
    • Max

      It is not the job of IMINT to deliver informations to mainstream media. There function is to deliver information to military and political decision makers. IMINT’s capability, is a valuable asset of intelligence agencies, that in their own interest should not be spread and demonstrated public to the eyes of the counterparties. Never tell the enemy that you know what you know, thats a pretty simple rule.

      If they leak those IMINT informations, what can be achieved with it? At least US would manoeuver it self into a position where they have to react in some way. So they whould loose options.

      Well, and one thing is obvious: mainstream media has enough sources to make a case about Putins lies over the Russian agression in Ukraine. When bellingcat can, why not the media. Media should not get intimidated by this cheap attemps of professional Russian Troll agencies, which pay hundreds of poor guys to spam social media with this bullshit you can allready read here too (f.e. Ok – February 14th, 2015: What kind of nonsense! Where is the evidence?).

      One thing can be taken for granted: sooner or later – Crimea demonstrated it – Putin has to admit that he lied about some obvious things to cover the crimes of his Hunta. Mainstream media should not hesitate to publish every aspect that can be assured by good redearch work.

      Reply

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