Russia’s Undeniable Role in the Proxy War Against Ukraine

Most of the world may well be tolerating Russia’s actions in its ongoing proxy war against Ukraine, but the catalogue of damning evidence against the Kremlin’s role in the crisis continues to grow almost on a daily basis. There are undisputed facts, and then there are lies and propaganda in the middle of the information war. Let’s take a look at the evidence.

Russian media outlets are known for their mendacity and outright prevarications. On June 12, some outlets reported that Ukrainian security forces had used phosphorus shells against civilians. There was an international media campaign to push the point. Why? Russia’s goal was to besmirch Ukraine at the international level, as the use of the chemical weapons is banned under international law. Footage aired on Russian television was filmed in Iraq’s Al Fallujah back in 2004. One can find the unaltered video of phosphorous use in Iraq on Youtube. In addition, Russian media has repeatedly aired images and videos, purportedly recorded in Ukraine, that were instead gleaned from other conflict zones.

Furthermore, Russian media also reported recently that Ukraine was allegedly using Grad multiple rocket launcher systems against civilians. However, there is no documented evidence of the Ukrainian anti-terrorist operation troops using Grad systems. Russian media’s lies are even more ridiculous given that is was Russia, during the wars in Chechnya, which used this weapons system against densely-populated urban areas.  The world knows about these facts perfectly well; they are very well registered in photo and audio materials.

It is instead the pro-Russia militants, not the Ukrainian military, who are using Grads against the Ukrainian army and populated areas. Military journalist Dmytro Tymchuk of the Information Resistance Group, said on 13 June that there is photographic evidence that the Russian army’s Grad multiple-launch rocket system was used in a fatal incident near the town of Dobropillya, Donetsk Region, on 13 June. In addition, Tymchuk spoke of terrorists transporting modern Russian Grad systems into Ukraine from Russia. “At least two border checkpoints are virtually working for the terrorists. Gunmen and military hardware are moved through them in close cooperation with Russian border guards,” he said.

The posts of other Ukrainians on social media also tell a similar story. Just a few days later, activist Yaroslav Honchar reported on his Facebook post that there was “rapid escalation” on the Ukrainian-Russian border. A Russian air defence missile system entered the town of Snizhne from Russia, Honchar reported. He added that 10 tanks, five armoured vehicles and seven GAZ-66 vehicles with mounted anti-aircraft guns, 20 KAMAZ lorries carrying people and one fuel tanker entered Krasnodon in the Luhansk region on 20 June. He also claimed that six Grad multiple-launch rocket systems entered from Russia in the vicinity of Amvrosiyivka in Donetsk Region and that an assault party consisting of five helicopters carrying around 50-60 people landed near Uspenka, with Amvrosiyivka being the expected direction of attack.

When the Ukrainian volunteer Donbas Battalion was ambushed by pro-Russian terrorists outside the village of Karlivka in the Donetsk region, battalion commander Semen Semenchenko wrote that the separatists had brought an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) and large calibre machine guns. When the National Guard captured the APCs used by terrorists, documents were found showing that they originated from Russia.

Another aspect of Russian involvement is in the open recruitment of fighters. Volunteers are openly recruited online, without any punitive action from Russian authorities. VKontakte, a social media service popular in the former Soviet Union, has proved essential for would-be fighters to coordinate action. Nationalist organizations and even official military enrolment centres are used for recruitment, with the latter most likely acting as a contact between recruiters and mercenaries.  VKontakte also contains contact information and instructions for those who want to fight. Some pages have an explicit recruitment purpose: “Russian volunteers. Donbass,” with 12,000 subscribers, has the tagline: “Hot trips to Ukraine.” Ukraine has reiterated on several occasions that Russia must stop supporting terrorists. The Security Service of Ukraine says recruitment centres and mercenary training camps exist in Russia from where mercenaries are dispatched. There are known recruitment locations in the Moscow and Rostov regions, and Pskov and Krasnodar territories.

In an interview published on 27 June by popular daily Moskovskiy Komsomolets, a man claiming to be a coordinator of one such group said “hundreds of people write to us every day” and that a rigorous selection process is applied to volunteers. Internet recruiters on VKontakte assert that Russians join the rebels as unpaid volunteers. Speaking on Ukrainian UT1 TV on 20 June, Russian oppositionist Boris Nemtsov, a strong critic of the Kremlin, said “the propaganda has been continuing for a few months, these people… are crossing the Ukrainian border with weapons, and it is quite likely that they are not doing this for the money”.  Even if this assertion is true, and that many Russian fighters in Ukraine are unpaid volunteers, Russian state propaganda plays an essential role in encouraging recruitment. Russian media constantly shows fabricated and distorted images about the conflict in Ukraine, likening the Ukrainian government’s anti-terrorist operations to a genocide.

The evidence is stacking up for Russia’s direct support and sponsorship of the war being waged against Ukraine. So far, the international community’s response to Russian aggression has been muted. The international community must stand up to Russia’s violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty and insist that such actions are unacceptable. The Ukrainian authorities must use this growing evidence to garner international support for its cause, and demonstrate Russia’s duplicity and support for armed separatism.

Peter Dutczyn for Ukraine Crisis Media Center