MOSCOW -- A cybersleuthing group says it has uncovered new evidence pointing to deep, direct Russian involvement in the battle of Debaltseve in early 2015, a turning point in the conflict in eastern Ukraine that weakened Kyiv’s hand at peace talks.
Using posts and photographs gleaned from the Russian social networking site VKontakte, the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) concluded that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu last year personally awarded a commemorative wristwatch to a Russian soldier hospitalized in Moscow after being wounded in the battle.
A report published on February 8 by the CIT, led by Russian blogger Ruslan Leviev, focused on the battle that raged around the strategic Ukrainian railway hub of Debaltseve as peace talks loomed. Fighting continued for days after a cease-fire was signed on February 12, 2015, with critics accusing Russia-backed separatists of violating the deal in order to seize control of more territory.
The CIT asserted that its findings involving Yevgeny Usov, a soldier in the Sixth Separate Tank Brigade from Russia’s Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, “prove that the decision to escalate the conflict in Ukraine and attack Debaltseve was taken in the highest ranks of the Russian authorities.”
“It is hard to believe this decision could have been taken by anyone [other] than Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin,” it said.
Putin has repeatedly denied sending regular Russian forces into eastern Ukraine, while Kyiv and NATO say there is overwhelming evidence of their presence during the war between government troops and the Russia-backed separatists, which has killed more than 9,000 civilians and combatants since April 2014.
The CIT evidence drawing largely on social-network monitoring and analysis is detailed, although some of it is circumstantial.
The group zeroes in on a blurred photograph posted on February 22 by Usov on his VKontakte profile that appears to show him lying bandaged in a hospital bed with Shoigu standing by him.
In a comment posted beneath the photograph, a VKontakte user alleged to also be a soldier from Usov’s tank brigade asks what the minister said. Usov replies: “He didn’t say anything much, just [expressed hope] that we’d get better...He also gave a gift of a watch!”
A social-media post made by Usov a day earlier, on February 21, comprises a close-up photograph of a boxed Aviator Airacobra watch with a Defense Ministry logo printed on the watch face. The photograph appeared to remain live on VKontakte almost a year later.
CIT says it collated publicly available photographs and personal photographs posted by Usov and deduced that he was treated at a Moscow military hospital for a shrapnel wound to his leg sustained at the battle of Debaltseve. The Internet investigators traveled to the Moscow hospital to compare buildings in the area with the buildings photographed in the view from Usov’s hospital ward.
The Russian Defense Ministry declined to comment on whether Shoigu had visited the hospital in comments to RFE/RL’s Russian Service.
CIT draws attention to a post dated February 19, 2015, in which Usov himself writes that he had sustained a "shrapnel" wound. He subsequently says that he is serving in Mulino in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast.
The CIT reasons that, if Usov had received the wound while mishandling weapons or during maneuvers, "we doubt in that case that the defense minister would have visited him in person and awarded him with a watch."
Instead, the CIT contends that Usov was wounded at Debaltseve. The group notes that Usov was a regular user of VKontakte at the beginning of 2015 but that he made no posts from January 26 to February 14 -- a period that coincides with the Debaltseve operation, which began on January 22.
His first post after this period of absence was a photograph from a hospital ward on February 14.
The CIT alleges that tanks belonging to the Sixth Separate Tank Brigade were used in Ukraine and were identified by a white circle on their armor. The findings include photographs of tanks with these markings from the battle of Debaltseve.
The CIT report joins a large body of evidence indicating the Russian military has been deeply involved in the war in eastern Ukraine. A fragile cease-fire has been in place since last year, but there are daily violations.
Roland Oliphant, the Moscow correspondent for the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, wrote on Twitter that “evidence Debaltseve was a Russian army operation is mundane (and overwhelming). Wouldn’t even be news if Russia didn’t keep on denying it.”