The War of the Pretenders
Donetsk separatists send in troops to Luhansk amidst proxy dispute in easternUkraine
Donetsk separatists send in troops to Luhansk amidst proxy dispute in eastern Ukraine
Unidentified armed men in green uniforms took control of key administrative buildings, patrolled the center of Luhansk, and have reportedly replaced a local leader. This is not 2014, but November 2017, where a power struggle is underway between Luhansk’s separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky, police chief Igor Kornet, and apparently the forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), which are currently present in Luhansk. Videos from the “state-run” news network in Luhansk, GTRK LNR, published videos of these men patrolling the streets of the city center.
The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine also observed a series of military vehicles and masked, armed men in central Luhansk.
Today in Luhansk city #OSCE SMM observed the presence of military-type vehicles and armed men in the area around the building previously housing the Department of the Ministry of Interior of Ukraine in #Luhansk region >> More: https://t.co/n7dvlIhwRH pic.twitter.com/6xURydinaD
— OSCE SMM Ukraine (@OSCE_SMM) November 21, 2017
The exact reason for the sudden “invasion” of little green men in Luhansk is not clear, but the event is likely related to a power struggle between Plotnitsky and Kornet after the former fired the police chief. This conflict is not just between the two strongmen of Luhansk, but also serves as a proxy war between Russian and Donetsk authorities. The Ukrainian news outlet Depo.ua called the Luhansk conflict “Surkov versus the FSB,” putting the support of the Russian security services (FSB) with the ousted police chief Kornet, and the support of the Kremlin’s point person in the Donbas, Vladislav Surkov, with Plotnitsky.
Donetsk Invades Luhansk
The dispute between Plotnitsky and Kornet does not end with Surkov and the FSB, as is evidenced by the arrival of soldiers and military equipment from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). One open source investigator noticed a military vehicle photographed in Luhansk had the word “Chechen” (Чечен) and the number 771 on it — the same numbering sequence and word used by military equipment of a DNR “Spetsnaz” brigade loyal to DNR “leader” and strongman Aleksandr Zakharchenko.
— Necro Mancer (@666_mancer) November 21, 2017
Eventually, Twitter user @5urpher found the exact BTR 771 in an old photograph with DNR Spetsnaz forces.
— surpher (@5urpher) November 21, 2017
Subsequently, reports surfaced that over a dozen tanks from the Somalia Battalion — a Donetsk/Makiivka-based tank unit ran by Mikhail “Givi” Tolstykh before his death — entered Luhansk.
#Luhansk: [vk] ~18:00 15 Somali tanks passed by and a score of green painted [vehicles] w/o marking
— English Lugansk (@loogunda) November 21, 2017
While there were no direct photographs or videos of these tanks, the rumor seems to have credibility when corroborated with a video that surfaced in a Luhansk Vkontakte (VK) group showing dozens of military vehicles, including Kamaz trucks, entering Luhansk. The vehicles were reportedly from Donetsk.
According to the original post on the “Other Luhansk” VK group, the video was filmed from the “1st subdistrict” of Luhansk, facing the “new overpass.” We can easily geolocate this video to the area, thus showing the video was filmed from an apartment in the district of Luhansk facing west and overlooking the Parkhomenka market.
The so-called Luhansk People’s Republic has always been more unstable and chaotic than its separatist counterpart in Donetsk, as shown by the proxy wars being fought in central Luhansk today. The internal strife between the separatist strongmen in Luhansk and Donetsk and among their Kremlin backers shows that while Russia is clearly a guiding influence and active participant in the creation and management of the separatist republics, it does not have complete control over their patrons in the Donbas. Even in Moscow, the disagreements between various organs of the presidential administration (Surkov) and security services (FSB) are fought hundreds of miles away in a different country, rather than in the Kremlin and Lubyanka.
Most likely, the Donetsk troops arriving in Luhansk are meant to stabilize the situation in Luhansk. That said, with the precarious grasp that separatist leaders in Luhansk and Donetsk have on both power and their own lives — best seen in the suspicious death of former Luhansk “Prime Minister” Valery Bolotov earlier this year — it is hard to predict if stability or bloodshed will come in the wake of a massive convoy of tanks and troops.
In the meantime, @DFRLab will continue monitoring the unfolding events in this war of pretenders in eastern Ukraine.
Also, follow @DFRLab on Twitter for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.