Research & Analytics

Who Are the Russian Mercenaries in Donbas?

Russia soldats in Donbass

Ukraine currently adjusts to the realities of the armed conflict with Russia. If the Russian Federation declares itself responsible for the Crimean Peninsula annexation and occupation, the allegation of Donetsk and Luhansk regions partial invasion has to be argued. The aggressor state does not recognise the fact of its presence in eastern Ukraine and participation in armed confrontations. Instead, there are statements about the Russian Federation Armed Forces participation in the hostilities on the side of the self-proclaimed republics’ illegal armed groups. Also, there are mentions about Russian weapons and military equipment availability, regular supply of humanitarian aid from the Russian Federation, and political support for the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Luhansk People’s Republic.”

Promote Ukraine publishes the materials of the UHHRU analytical report on mercenaries fighting in Donbas. These materials were developed during the preparation of the Report by the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries as a Means of Violating Human Rights.

Characteristics of the occupying forces

According to the data obtained from the interrogations of captured Russian military personnel and information from open sources, it is known that the separatist units, their organisation, command, and operations are under the Russian military personnel control. In particular, they are a part of the separatists’ units’ officership up to the battalion/division level (battalion commander, chief of staff, and deputy battalion commander for armaments) as military advisers. And the direct control of the Russian regular troops’ units in the temporarily occupied territory of Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine is carried out by the Operational Command based on the headquarters of the 8th Army of the Southern Military District of the Russian Federation (Novocherkassk).

According to Vladimir Starkov, the captured major of the Russian armed forces, Russian servicemen to Donbas are appointed officially to positions in the 12th command of the Southern Operational District reserve (Novocherkassk), from there they are assigned to the advisors’ positions in “LNR” or “DNR.”

The Russian regular army participation in Donbas

Russian regular military forces were involved in resolving the military conflict in Ukraine directly. Unfortunately, the Russian Federation still denies the fact of its permanent army allocation in Donbas.

According to data collected by the international volunteer group InformNapalm, during the whole conflict from June 2014 to November 2016, the personnel from 75 military units and formations of the Russian Federation armed forces and other law enforcement agencies attended Ukraine. The experts managed to identify personnel of the ground forces (45 military units), airborne troops (12 military units), specified units of the Main Directorate of the General Staff (7 units), navy (4 units), National Guard (5 units) and air and space forces.

Captured Russian military personnel

The captured soldiers and the casualties of the 6th separate tank brigade (unit 4054096, Mulino village, Nizhny Novgorod region) became known due to the investigation of the fighting in Ilovaisk consequences in the summer of 2014. On 29 August, Ukrainian soldiers captured a group of Russian servicemen near Ilovaisk. They were active servicemen of the Russian Federation Armed Forces 6th tank brigade.

Apart from the Russian Federation Armed Forces 6th tank brigade Ukrainian military detained military personnel are from:

  • the 331st regiment of the 98th Svirsk Division of the Airborne Troops of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (unit 71211, stationed in Ivanovo);
  • the 9th separate motorized rifle brigade (stationed in the Rostov region);
  • the 104th Guards Assault Regiment (unit 32515, Pskov);
  • the unit 30616-6 (523rd Guards Mechanized Training Regiment);
  • the 23rd Guards Separate Motorised Rifle Brigade (unit 65349);
  • the 31st Separate Guards Assault Brigade (unit 73612), Ulyanovsk;
  • the 3rd separate specified group of the GRU of the General Staff of the Russian Federation, unit 21-208, Togliatti.

Soldats Russia in DonbasEven captured internal documents of the Russian law enforcement agencies confirm the participation of regular military units and units of Russia’s Armed Forces. For example, Bellingcat journalists published a letter addressed to the head of the Interior Ministry in the Rostov region by his subordinate, i/c the chief of the Internal Ministry regional branch. This letter reported about an incident during which four servicemen of the Russian Federation received injuries. According to the investigation, the incident occurred in the Luhansk region (near the village of Krasna Balka), when a group of Russian soldiers illegally entered Ukraine’s territory and was attacked by Ukrainian border guards.

A report by the British Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security also confirms the presence of Russian regular troops in Donbas. On page 52 of the report,  a representative of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service stated that despite Russia’s efforts to decline guilt over the Malaysian Boeing aircraft shot down in Donbas, British intelligence was sure that Russia was involved in the incident. A quote: “We know without a doubt that the missile system was set up and after the MH 17 downing – evacuated by the Russian military.”

Besides, the Russian military equipment presence in the Donbas was confirmed by American researcher Philip Carber in his report “Hybrid Warfare in Ukraine Lessons Learned,” according to his investigation. Having visited the war zone, Carber received numerous photos and other material evidence of the Russian regular army’s participation in the battles in Donbas (the pictures of columns of T-90 tanks in the Luhansk region, of Russian-made shells, etc.).

Volunteers and private armies

In addition to the Russian army regular units, the Russian Federation civilians and other countries took part in the war on the territory of Ukraine, some as “volunteers,” others as fighters of “private military companies.”

It is quite possible to identify some of the “volunteers” who took part in the war in eastern Ukraine. And the best means, in this case, are the separatists’ sources, publications in the Russian press, posts on social networks, and research groups materials.

For example, the “media” leader of Russian citizens participating in the war in eastern Ukraine is Igor Girkin “Strelkov.” It was he who, with his detachment, formed the Russian Federation, and other countries citizens and trained in the Crimea, started a hot phase of confrontation and captured Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, Svyatogorsk, and Krasny Lyman. In one of his interviews, Girkin said that he had been in Crimea since 21 February, negotiated with Ukrainian troops, took part in the peninsula annexation, “pushing the Crimean Rada members” to a vote on the so-called referendum.

In another interview for the “Zavtra” newspaper Girkin says, “But the trigger of the war was pulled by me. If our detachment had not crossed the border, everything would have ended as in Kharkiv and Odesa. There would have been several dozens of killed, burned, arrested. And that would have been the end. And practically the war flywheel, which still goes on, launched our detachment.”

In general, mercenaries from several Russian “private military companies” joined the war on the territory of Ukraine. In particular, InformNapalm provides the following list of such Russian companies that took part in the war in eastern Ukraine: “RSB-Group,” “MAR,” “ATK-GROUP,” “Slavonic Corps Limited,” “Wagner,” “E.N.O.T. Corp,” and “Cossacks.”

Some of these armed groups are officially registered and have legal addresses, sites where they present their activities and services. Thus, in an interview for Russia Today, the founder of “RSB-Group,” Oleg Krynitsyn, called it a “private military consulting company.” He argues that the activities of such companies in Russia are not allowed or prohibited, but are in a grey legal vacuum. Meanwhile, de-facto such actions are fullly covered by the Criminal Code articles: 359 – “Mercenary” and 208 – “Organisation of illegal armed groups.”

Another interesting point is that this structure positions itself as a service provider for the UN and UNICEF, as the company reported on its official website. That is quite surprising given that the company’s activities, even in the country of origin, are illegal. The company’s website states clearly that the subject of the company’s activities is: “private military services”, and the company’s goal is: “to make a profit from the private military services providing.”

Another Russian private military company, “E.N.O.T. Corp,” openly publishes information about its involvement in the war in Donbas on the Internet: it has a website, where it describes its activities. In an interview, Roman Telenkevich, the organisation head, says that for the first time members of “E.N.O.T. Corp” arrived in Luhansk the day after the alleged attack by Ukrainian aircraft, namely on 3 June 2014. According to him, they delivered humanitarian aid. In the same video, Telenkevich points out that the organisation members visited Stanytsia Luhanska, which currently was made free by Ukrainian troops. In the video, the “E.N.O.T. Corp” head claims that part of the group took part in hostilities in Ukraine, which took place near Luhansk and Luhansk airport during the fighting for Debaltseve from June 2014 to winter 2015. Given the number of videos on the organisation’s YouTube -channel “E.N.O.T. Corp,” members have repeatedly crossed the administrative border of Ukraine with the so-called humanitarian missions: it has posted the videos about at least 14 “business trips” to Donbas.

Vagners army RussiaThe most famous “private military company” that joined the war in Ukraine is the so-called private military company “Wagner” or Wagner’s group. It does not have a legal address, website, or any other source of public information about it. This group, like other Russian military companies, is in close contact with the Russian security forces, which created it to perform specific tasks, which in no way can involve Russian security officials.

The publication was prepared within the framework of the USAID Human Rights in Action project implemented by the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union.

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