Chaos in Luhansk, Explained

Change in Russian-led separatist leadership, a military invasion, and occupation

Chaos in Luhansk, Explained

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Change in Russian-led separatist leadership, a military invasion, and occupation

(Source: VK)

Beginning on November 21, the Russian-led separatists of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) were turned upside-down with an attempted coup and change in leadership. The action included an apparent military invasion from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), which was likely assisted by Russia’s 71st “humanitarian aid” convoy. @DFRLab looked into the change in leadership, situation in Luhansk city, and military movement from the so-called DNR.

A Change of Leadership

After chaos broke loose in the “capital” of the so-called LNR on November 21, Russian-led separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky allegedly fled to Russia. He was reportedly seen arriving at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport on November 23. This likely “coup” emerged after relations strained between Plotnitsky and the so-called LNR “Interior Minister” Igor Kornet. Plotnitsky attempted to fire Kornet from his position on November 20, after Kornet reportedly seized a luxury mansion for private use. Plotnitsky was installed by the Russian Kremlin, while Kornet is rumored to be favored by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Plotnitsky issued a “formal” resignation “for health reasons” relating to “military injuries” on November 24, which was accepted by the so-called LNR “parliament” on November 25.

Following Plotnitsky’s “resignation,” “Minister of State Security” Leonid Pasechnik (call sign “Magadan”) was appointed “Acting Head” of the so-called LNR until “elections” are held. Allegedly, Pasechnik was a Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agent before 2006, prior to moving to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), where he at least achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Conflicting information regarding Pasechnik’s involvement in corrupt actions. Some reports stated he is anti-corruption and will not take bribes, while others contend history of corruption involving purchasing food at artificially high prices, smuggling coal and fuel, and illegal arms trade. In an interview (below), Pasechnik expressed hope to work closely with the so-called DNR towards integration into the Russian Federation.

Pasechnik’s “official” statement included his recommitment to the Minsk agreements, as he called it his first priority. However, Igor Plotnitsky, the former LNR “leader,” was the official signatory to the Minsk agreements. Both “Head” of the so-called DNR Aleksandr Zakharchenko and “Chairman of the People’s Council” Denis Pushilin issued formal congratulations and announced the Minsk peace process will continue despite the LNR’s leadership change. Only a few official Russian statements were issued on the on the LNR’s change in power, but on November 27, Press Secretary to the President of Russia Dmitry Peskov reportedly stated, “continuity, especially in the implementation of the Minsk agreements, initiatives for the exchange of detained persons, are certainly preserved.”

Militarization of Luhansk City

After the war of the pretenders, in which unidentified armed persons, similar to the Russian “little green men” that invaded Crimea in 2014, reportedly seized key so-called LNR “administrative” buildings in Luhansk city in part of the possible coup, Luhansk city saw a dramatically increased military presence as the situation evolved.

Unidentified armed persons in military-style clothing, wearing baklavas and white tape armbands are still in Luhansk city, according to observations by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission (OSCE SMM) to Ukraine. These forces seem to be decreasing, as about 30 persons observed on both November 23 and 24 compared to approximately 100 observed on November 22. In addition to the decrease in “military” persons, previously observed barriers were removed and fewer armored personnel carriers (APC), heavy machine guns, PKM machine guns, or automatic grenade launchers were observed. The situation overall appears to be de-escalating, as the OSCE SMM also observed 20 military-type trucks (ZIL-131) traveling south out of the western outskirts of Luhansk city.

(Source: Twitter Users @666_mancer and @Mortis_Banned)

On November 22, the OSCE SMM observed “cordoned off” areas near at the former Ministry of Internal Affairs building at 38 Lunacharskoho Street.

The unidentified persons described above were armed with disposable anti-tank weapons, automatic grenade launchers (AGS-17) and other small arms, and were transported by four armored personnel carriers (two BTR-variant APC, one BTR-80, and one BTR-70). About 800m away from the building at the intersection of Radianska and Lermontova Streets, the OSCE SMM observed “at least four military-type trucks (with no license plates), an APC (BTR-variant) and five unidentified armed persons wearing military-style clothes and wearing white tape stripes on both arms.”

In violation to the freedom of movement guarantees under Minsk agreements, the armed persons denied the OSCE SMM passage south through Lermontova Street. Curiously, the OSCE SMM noticed there were no radio or TV signals available in the hotels where OSCE SMM staff were accommodated from November 21–22. Note that overall, the SMM was limited in its ability to observe the situation due to additional security measures taken by the OSCE SMM.

On the first day of the chaos in Luhansk city, the OSCE SMM observed about 150 armed persons and about 30 vehicles, including armoured personnel carriers (APC) and military-type trucks and vehicles. The same day, the OSCE SMM observed “a convoy of two APCs (BTR-80), six military-type trucks, and about 20 vehicles, all stationary, as well as about 50 armed persons in military-type clothes with white bands on upper arms, some of whom were in balaclavas, near Debaltseve” and later in the day, “a similar convoy, likely the same one as observed earlier near Debaltseve, on road M04 moving east near “LNR”-controlled Vesela Tarasivka (17km west of Luhansk) (see below) — an area where such a large number of military-type vehicles had not been observed recently.” Given the information provided by the OSCE SMM, it is possible the convoy observed near Debaltseve was traveling to Luhansk city. Vesela Tarasivka is just outside of Luhansk city and en route if a convoy was traveling from Debaltseve.

A BTR observed by the OSCE SMM (right) and stock photo of Ukrainian BTR-80 (right) (Source left: OSCE SMM Facebook, right: Wikimedia Commons)’tseve,+Donetsk+Oblast,+Ukraine/Vesela+Tarasivka,+Luhans’ka+oblast,+Ukraine,+92010/Luhansk,+Luhans’ka+oblast,+Ukraine/@48.4497963,38.2958975,9z/am=t/data=!3m1!4b1!4m20!4m19!1m5!1m1!1s0x40e06cbacd8d4763:0x451cc6338f9207c0!2m2!1d38.4062034!2d48.3340595!1m5!1m1!1s0x411fd92d86812471:0xd83eb9260ddfb502!2m2!1d39.1142246!2d48.5301998!1m5!1m1!1s0x411fc564844c6285:0xf8e02e7e879e7164!2m2!1d39.307815!2d48.574041!3e0

Withdrawal Back to Donetsk

Speculators theorized the so-called DNR was in Luhansk city to seize control and create a single, united, so-called “separatist” republic, fulfilling the “Malorossiya” (“Little Russia”) agenda. Eduard Basurin, a spokesperson of the so-called DNR, flatly denied Donetsk’s participation in the events in Luhansk. However, following the apparent resolution of the leadership crisis among Russian-led separatists in Luhansk city, many of the military vehicles that arrived in Luhansk city from the so-called DNR withdrew. Two videos on the “Debaltsevo Online” YouTube channel uploaded on November 26 show a number of military vehicles coming back from Luhansk, including a number with the word “Chechen” visible. “Chechen” refers to a former commander of the so-called DNR “Spetsnaz” (special forces) group loyal to the “Leader” of the so-called DNR, Aleksandr Zakharchenko.

BTR-80 with “Chechen” inscription. (Source: Debaltsevo Online)
Various vehicles present in the convoy leaving Luhansk. (Source: Debaltsevo Online)

These videos were filmed just southwest of Debaltseve, Donetsk Oblast, with the vehicles headed west towards Vuhlehirsk.

Geolocation of a video showing DNR military vehicles leaving Luhansk. Left: Google Earth; Middle: Debaltsevo Online; Right: Old Debaltsevo entrance sign, via Panoramio

@DRFLab found quite a few photographs of these Donetsk-based military vehicles and a number of so-called DNR fighters thanks to oversharing from Russian-led separatists on social media. One soldier from the Pyatnashka International Brigade shows dozens of fighters, including the same “Chechen” military vehicles, throughout central Luhansk city. The Pyatnashka and Chechen Brigades are known to be loyal to Zakharchenko, and have been a part of the so-called “Republican Guard,” alongside other Zakharchenko-loyal military units, such as “Patriot” and “Legion.” The same Pyatnashka flag, with orange and black bars, was visible in both the hands of the fighters in Luhansk and flying on the military vehicles leaving Luhansk on November 26.

DNR and Pyatnashka fighters in Luhansk, at Lermontova 50. (Source: VK)

This photograph with dozens of fighters was taken at Lermontova 50 in central Luhansk.

DNR and Pyatnashka fighters at the Luhansk Central Market. (Source: VK)

The pig in the background of this photograph is easy to track down — the Luhansk Central Market, where the new pig monument was placed just a month ago.

DNR and Pyatnashka fighters in Luhansk. (Source: VK)

Thanks to the large “I ♥ Luhansk” sign visible here, we can be certain that this photograph was taken in the same city.

From the approximately week-long presence of the Zakharchenko-loyal military units, it is now clear that these forces were sent to ensure a smooth transition of power beneficial to the so-called DNR and its Russian backers. The so-called DNR tried to refute allegations their forces were present in Luhansk, which was a futile attempt due to the dozens of photographs and videos that immediately emerged showing Zakharchenko-loyal troops in central Luhansk. In fact, even the “Spetznaz DNR” group on Vkontatke posted that their troops were returning from Luhansk on November 25, asking Donetsk residents to greet them at a particular traffic roundabout at 7:30pm that night. Judging by the jubilant reaction of the so-called DNR soldiers on their return back home from Luhansk city, they were apparently successful.


The situation in Luhansk city has de-escalated for now, as the OSCE SMM noted:

No armoured vehicles or armed persons were observed in the area of a hotel at 48 Radianska Street and that a sports facility to the rear of the hotel, that had been housing armed persons, had re-opened for public use. Mobile patrols near the former Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) and different former administration buildings were no longer there. The SMM observed also that the static position outside the former MIA building was no longer there.

The so-called LNR will now operate under new leadership, seemingly in close cooperation with the so-called DNR and unofficial Russian leaders. Announced recommitments to the Minsk agreements are a preliminary comfort, but the future of the situation remains to be seen.

Follow the latest Minsk II violations via the @DFRLab’s #MinskMonitor.

Also, follow @DFRLab on Twitter for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.