As the U.S. slaps additional sanctions on Moscow and Donetsk separatists, new evidence emerges that short-range rockets are being launched from Russia into Ukraine.
Just as news broke today that the U.S. Treasury Department was instituting a new suite of sanctions against Russia, video evidence has emerged apparently showing the most definitive proof yet of Moscow's direct participation in the ongoing war in eastern and southern Ukraine: Russian rockets being fired toward Ukraine.
This afternoon, a video was posted to YouTube and shared on social media that claimed to show Grad rockets being fired from a Russian border town likely into Ukraine. Our team at the Interpreter found several other videos with the same descriptions -- Grad rocket launches from Gukovo toward Ukrainian territory.
The BM-21 Grad is a Soviet-designed, multiple-launch rocket system mounted to a truck, capable of firing unguided rockets with a range of 12-27 miles, depending on the particular rocket used. Both the Ukrainian and Russian militaries use BM-21 Grads, though videos of Grads in the possession of the separatists show vehicles with a different camouflage pattern than what is used by the Ukrainian military. Despite claims by the U.S. State Department, there has so far not been any direct evidence that these weapons came from the Russian military.
If confirmed, the videos posted today could be the smoking guns that directly connect the Russian military with the weapons being used against the Ukrainian military on the other side of the border.
Several of the videos, filmed near a pond of some sort, were apparently taken by a resident of the town. A careful perusal of Google Street View reveals that several physical features in the videos match exactly a location in the northwest corner of the town, less than two miles from the Ukrainian border. The distinctive topography of the lake, the placement of bushes and rocks, the tree line in the background, and a series of evenly spaced light poles that appear in multiple videos and in the Google maps appear to place the rocket launch inside of Russian territory. A preliminary analysis of the angles in the videos shows that there is almost no way that a Grad rocket launch from this location could miss Ukrainian territory. Yet another video, taken due south of the rocket launch, proves conclusively that these rockets were launched inside Russia and not over the border.
On July 11, 19 Ukrainian servicemen were killed and 90 to 100 were wounded when a Grad rocket strike hit their armored convoy in the southeast corner of Ukraine. At the time, there were rumors that those rockets were launched from Russian territory. The convoy was destroyed while it was camped roughly 10 miles southeast of Rovenky, a town that is only about 20 miles from Gukovo. In other words, it is possible that Grad rockets launched from the site identified by the Interpreter could have reached the site where the armored convoy was destroyed on July 11.
This startling new evidence emerges just as the Obama administration has made the decision to impose the most hard-hitting sanctions yet against Russia for its continued military interference in eastern Ukraine, an interference that U.S. officials have lately defined as the dispatching of heavy weaponry to separatists and the renewed buildup of approximately 12,000 Russian troops near the border. On Wednesday, July 16, the Treasury Department added to the list Russian arms manufacturers, separatist leaders, and the separatist administrative governments, known as the "People's Republic of Donetsk" and "Luhansk People's Republic." While the administration refrained from full sectoral sanctions, its biggest quarry was Russian state-owned entities: Gazprombank OAO, the financial arm of gas giant Gazprom; Vnesheconombank (VEB), an extremely powerful Russian bank; and Rosneft, the world's largest oil company. (Rosneft's chairman, Igor Sechin, was blacklisted in an earlier round of U.S. sanctions.)
That said, there are two limiting factors to these new U.S. sanctions.
The first is that, according to the Treasury Department's press release, the prohibition is on "U.S. persons and persons within the United States from transacting in, providing financing for, or otherwise dealing in new debt of longer than 90 days maturity or new equity for Gazprombank OAO and VEB, their property, or their interests in property." Russia's long-term financing for major transactions is typically secured externally, so the 90-day restriction on new debt could greatly impact Russia's already embattled economy.
But there's a significant distinction between the sanctions instituted against the banking and energy sectors. Treasury states that no U.S. persons can finance or hold equity in Gazprombank or VEB, but the issue of equity is absent from the designations of Rosneft. In other words, ownership of shares or other equity securities in the state oil company is not specifically prohibited. Nor have any U.S. property or interests in property owned by Gazprombank, VEB, or Rosneft been sanctioned, although Treasury says that that may follow, depending on Moscow's behavior.
Nevertheless, the future of Rosneft's ongoing deal with Exxon Mobil for Arctic oil exploration may now be in doubt. The banks especially stand to lose from today's measures. "If it doesn't cripple them, it bleeds them pretty hard," one U.S. official involved in the sanctions told the New Republic.
Another loophole is that U.S. dollar-clearing transactions are still permitted, meaning that foreign institutions or individuals doing business with either bank or Rosneft can continue to transact in their preferred currency of greenbacks. No doubt this is to let the legions of European companies engaged in long-term business deals with these entities proceed unhindered, although the "pariah effect" of U.S. sanctions may ultimately scuttle future transactions.
Indeed, the European Union's leadership announced today that it has agreed to impose expanded sanctions on Russia, with a list of individuals and entities to be decided upon on by the end of July.
It remains to be seen if Brussels's sanctions will follow Washington's lead. But it is clear that the West's diplomatic and economic confrontation with Russia has expanded at the same time that Moscow has let slip the veil on its war against Ukraine.