The Obama administration stepped up pressure on Russia with another release of commercial satellite imagery in an attempt to stop the fighting and increase international pressure. However, considering how Putin squandered his opportunity to ratchet things down with the MH17 disaster, it’s doubtful these efforts will be met with any success.
As evidence, DigitalGlobe imagery released by the U.S. State Department shows some troubling developments over the last week on the border between Ukraine and Russia. A PDF document sent to the press titled “Evidence of Russian Shelling in Ukraine” suggests that Russian military forces are directly helping the separatists by firing at the Ukrainian military from Russian soil.
This is explicitly depicted in imagery from 23 July (above) which shows self propelled artillery setup in unprepared firing positions aimed at a nearby Ukrainian military unit. Accompanying this image was also a battle damage assessment showing the subsequent impact craters viewed right.
The Battle Damage Assessement was conducted comparing imagery between 20 and 23 July of the Ukrainian position. A quick geolocation of both units’ respective positions using Google Earth shows a distance of approximately 8.5 miles (about 14 km) well within the range of Russia’s self propelled artillery. Despite the low fidelity of the imagery, those viewed above may be the 2S1 or 2S3. It’s doubtful these are Russia’s more potent 2S19, as suggested by the size and shadow of the vehicles. Besides, Ukraine has 2S1s and 2S3s in abundance which could provide Russia cover for any accusations regarding outside material assistance. Though, that argument may be difficult to defend as Russia would have to explain why it allowed a separatist unit on its side of the border.
Though perhaps more interestingly, we also see the remnants of various firing positions located inside the Ukraine border. Blast marks or ground scaring depicted in imagery from 21 July is consistent with that from a multiple rocket launcher. Comments from US officials on Thursday (24JUL14) suggest these may be from the BM-30 Smerch, a potent Multiple Rocket Launcher (MLR) consisting of 12 tubes for 300mm rockets. Additional damage assessments and the respective strike distances were provided in imagery inserts viewed above.
Thursday’s comments from senior officials suggested that Russia had the intent of giving the BM-30 to the pro-Russian separatists. Despite ground scaring inside the Ukraine border, it is not certain at this time if the transfer occurred. In fact, imagery from 25 July also provided in the released document shows additional MLR ground scarring back on the side of the Russian border. Although inconclusive, this may suggest that the MLR unit had returned. Unfortunately, it is difficult to assess without additional imagery.
In the meantime, Ukraine claimed yesterday that it was ready to retake Donetsk, the heart of the Russian-backed separatists movement. With approximately 15,000 Russian troops amassed on the border ready to supply the rebels, it may be a tough fight ahead.