Amnesty have published a few satellite images apparently showing armoured vehicles and artillery in an area in Eastern Ukraine and claim these prove the involvement of Russian troops in the country. However, the research Amnesty has published falls far short of proof, and in a matter of such importance, undermines the organisation’s claim to provide impartial and unbiased research.
According to Amnesty:
The images show new artillery positions being established just inside the Ukrainian border between 13 and 29 August, including what appear to be 122-mm Howitzer D-30 artillery units in firing positions pointed toward the west. Two of the positions have a support vehicle and what looks like bunkers. On 29 August, six armoured amphibious vehicles (likely BRDM-2s) can be seen.
Another similar artillery position can be seen in a field northeast of the first, also within Ukrainian territory. Imagery from 26 August 2014 shows six relatively advanced self-propelled howitzers (likely 2S19 Msta-S 152-mm) in firing positions facing southwest at Ukrainian army locations.
Amnesty have not provided the exact location of their satellite imagery, which is not very good in itself, but HRI has managed to geolocate the fields shown which are east of Starobesheve, in between and just to the north of the villages of Petrenky and Shmidta.
The location is here:
This location is actually 18 km inside Ukraine as the crow flies and at least 30 km by road from the Russian border.
Amnesty continue, “Between 26 and 29 August 2014 the artillery has been moved into a west-facing firing position still within Ukraine. On August 29 the imagery shows what look like numerous military vehicles in the area along the tree line and in the neighboring field.
Numerous sources attest to this general area being a battle zone between rebel and nationalist forces around the period of 26-29th August, with reports mentioning Starobesheve as a town captured by the rebels with serious losses of nationalist men and vehicles, many of which were taken as “trophies.”
The equipment which Amnesty claims proves direct Russian involvement is equipment which pro-Kiev forces have deployed to the East of Ukraine – and that includes the 2S19 Msta-S 152-mm howitzers.
An Evgueniy Maloletka / AP photo shows these howitzers being deployed in the war zone by pro-Kiev forces on 15 August:
We also know that the rebels claimed, on the 26th of August, to have captured some of these howitzers.
It did not take long to find photos and video footage from the Starobesheve area showing 2S19 Msta-S 152-mm howitzers with Ukrainian markings (The white lines are used by pro-Kiev forces to identify their vehicles).
Nevertheless, without providing any maps of the situation on the ground, without referring to the rebel claims or the wealth of material showing Ukrainian 152-mm howitzers in the area, Amnesty’s General Secretary Salil Shetty ( @SalilShetty ) concludes saying:
“These satellite images, coupled with reports of Russian troops captured inside Ukraine and eyewitness accounts of Russian troops and military vehicles rolling across the border, leave no doubt that this is now an international armed conflict.”
Shetty does not make clear which eyewitness accounts he is talking about, although the suspicion is that he is referring to the accounts of journalists Roland Oliphant and Shaun Walker who claimed, in the “pitch black” (Guardian reader editor words), to have seen a convoy of vehicles with Russian military plates moving over an “unmarked” (Walker’s words) fence despite being unable to pinpoint where this actually happened, in an area where the real location of the border varies depending on which map one consults.
During a briefing in Ukraine Crisis Media Centre, Shetty placed even more emphasis on satellite images, reportedly saying, “Based on the satellite images taken in the Novoazovsk region and the proofs of cross boarder[sic] movement of Russian tanks we’ve gathered, we believe that Russia is a party of the conflict in Ukraine and all what is happening would not be possible if not for Russian support.”
Amnesty have published no satellite images from the Novoazovsk area.
In an interview with Ukraine Today, Shetty made another unsupported claim that the satellite images showed “satellite images that we have from Novoazovsk region is showing a very well-organised mobilisation of artillery and armoured units in a way that seperatist forces simply could not have done without the backing of Russia.”
He claimed this was “on top of eyewitness testimonies of whats happening on the ground of border crossing of tanks, Russian tanks.” Amnesty have published no such testimonies and there were no tanks in the convoy Walker and Oliphant observed so we suggest Shetty produce the satellite images and testimonies or retract that particular claim.
The cumulative effect of all these unsubstantiated pieces of dubious evidence being presented as fact is, of course, a drastic escalation of tensions, a lowering of the bar on actual involvement by foreign forces and a distraction from the main issue in the Donbass which is the struggle for the fundamental right of self-determination following the seizing of power in Kiev by a coalition of neo-Nazis, pro-Europeans, anti-Russians and opportunistic oligarchs and the subsequent launch of an illegal armed offensive, arming and legitimizing neo-Nazi groups and seeking to crush those seeking autonomy by force of arms.
The apparent misuse of satellite imagery to “sex up” the case against Russia and the failure to explain to readers and their members the full context of the evidence they have presented really is not acceptable.
It does not help that this research is published not long after the appointment of Anna Neistat as Amnesty’s Senior Director of Research, straight from New York-based Human Rights Watch. Neistat, who (ironically) supports the arming of “moderate” Syrian rebels, has not exactly made a secret of her support for Western action against Russia and especially its support for the Syrian government which she describes as stemming from “Putin’s existential fear for his own survival and the survival of the repressive system that he and al-Assad represent.“
Despite promising that “High-quality research is essential for effecting change and fighting injustice. Together with my team we will ensure that our research is always credible, objective, timely, and impact-driven.” Neistat has been unable as yet to substantiate her team’s conclusions.
Salil Shetty needs to review this matter in detail and
1) Fully explain Amnesty’s reasoning behind Amnesty claiming these howitzers are Russian vehicles and not pro-Kiev or rebel vehicles.
2) Explain why the rebel view, supported by photographs and video, that they captured vehicles of the same type as apparently shown in the satellite images was not referred to in Amnesty’s reporting.
3) Explain why Amnesty did not mention Ukraine had deployed this same model of howitzer to the war zone.
The designation of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine as an international one would have some important consequences from a human rights point of view (status of prisoners etc), so it is an area of legitimate research for human rights organisations, but a determination has to be on the basis evidence and analysis, not skewing the facts and hiding alternative explanations.
If, as appears to be the case, there has been a deliberate or negligent “sexing up” of the evidence in this matter, then Neistat should be asked to resign from her very important role and replaced with someone more objective, because everyone, including Amnesty members, are fed up with being fooled into unnecessary conflict on the basis of faulty information.
(article updated 15/09 with Shetty & Neistat quotes)
Comments on the topics covered in this article are welcome below.
Please support evidence-based human rights investigations by using the donation button above.