Note to the reader (Oct 2020): I first published this piece the day following the explosion at the Luhansk Administration Building on June 2, 2014. While content was subsequently added in the days that followed (as commentary to that effect below will indicate), I have made no effort to sanitise what follows. As a result, what follows amounts to a pretty crude analysis of those events that gives a snapshot of my abilities as both a writer and OSINT interpreter at that time. More importantly, six years on I still stand by the conclusions I drew back then. Please forgive the amateurish images, especially if you’re colourblind. It wasn’t until late 2014 that Bellingcat had really professionalised OSINT investigations. -Tom
There is no doubt people were killed yesterday after the Luhansk regional administration building was attacked. Just how many remains to be seen, though reports indicate at least five.
Western media is skeptical, and Ukrainian media completely disagrees with the theory, arguing that while the Ukrainian Air Force was in the Luhansk Oblast, it was providing support at a border post being sieged by some 500 separatists.
The Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations, Yuriy Sergeyev, was questioned on the subject (6:44) and responded, “no… even Russian experts recognise that it was not a Ukrainian air-strike… it was misuse of grenades by the terrorists themselves. No bombing either by air-plane or artillery was permitted by the Ministry of Defence.”
There is much conjecture on both English- and Russian-language social media regarding the incident, so I decided to investigate myself.
The video below was one of the first to surface after the incident, and shows Shevchenko Park in Luhansk.
At 0:02, we see a flash between the flagpole and the tree to the left, which critics of the separatists claim is a misfired rocket-propelled grenade. This theory is certainly believable as we can see what appears to be a blow-back flash to the right of the first flash immediately afterwards. The rocket then hits the ground – perhaps a second (or third) is also fired – and hit the administration building. Certainly seems plausible.
The second video below shows a ground-support jet releasing defensive flares as well as at least eight unguided missiles before flying away.
Many Russians and separatists claim this video shows the exact moment the regional administration building is attacked by the Ukrainians. There are definitely rockets fired, but the location of filming is ambiguous. Could this simply be a video showing the Ukrainian Air Force providing support to the soldiers surrounded near the border?
The final video was streamed by “Newsfront” and shows the chaos immediately following the incident. It shows damage to the fourth floor of the administration building (0:45), as well as what appear to be small craters in the road and footpath (10:12, 13:44) in the park. Warning: video shows dead and injured people. Update 2020: this video was taken down and I haven’t been able to find it since.
Given the contradictory information, I decided to use some free software to try to make sense of the situation. Firstly, I found the location on Google Earth, then, using geo-tagged photos uploaded to Panoramio, located the positions of each camera. I have included stills from all three videos as well as the locations on a map of central Luhansk. The administration building is highlighted in green.
The letters on the map correspond with the letters on the stills from the videos in order to link the filmed events with the map.
What I found from the first video is the first flash (A) could have occurred anywhere along the yellow line drawn. The second (B) and third (C) flashes are clearly on the road.
The second video was a lot harder to analyse given the zooming and panning, but the location I have indicated for ‘Camera 2’ is 100% accurate to within about 20 metres. Make up your own mind on the trajectory of both the plane and the missiles, but given there is no obvious turn made by the aircraft, I have indicated a rough flight path on the map. How far to the left the missiles were released (D) is hardest to tell, but it’s certainly to the left of the administrative building.
It’s pretty damning evidence. As much as I would like to hope the Ukrainian Air Force wouldn’t fire on the centre of a major city, it certainly appears that’s the case here. While the trajectory of the rockets is impossible to calculate precisely, they definitely aren’t travelling in the opposite direction to the building. We can’t discount provocation by pro-Russians nor Russians, but it seems highly unlikely that a Russian jet would enter Ukrainian airspace, let alone fly over a major Ukrainian city and – even more impossibly – fire missiles on it. I just hope some further evidence comes out that proves this was just a horrible accident, not a government-sanctioned air strike.
We have a fourth camera, and I’ve located it using Yandex Streetview!
Update 2020: it seems the author of this video was banned from YouTube, so the link no longer works.
Below is an updated map with each of the four cameras, and rough flight paths for the jet. The dotted lines show roughly where the camera was pointed when the rockets were launched. A good project for someone with more time than me would be to precisely calculate the direction of each camera, and triangulate the position of the plane when the rockets were fired.
Unfortunately, the new angle agrees with the existing conclusion.
As accurately as I could, I have identified the location of the jet at the moment which it released the rockets, using the two available videos.
I calculated the location by first pinpointing the location of the camera holder. Camera 2 was pretty easy – I just used Yandex maps and lined up the sign on the building with the trees either side when he pans. Camera 4 was even easier, as he moves forward past the last tree in front of the bar just before the rockets hit.
I then paused frame on both videos just as the rockets were released. On Camera 2 you could see the edge of the trees as he zoomed out, and when he turns the other direction later, you can see roughly how far back he is standing. I gave a wide margin of error for Camera 2 as it is unclear how far from the road he is standing.
I then used these two points to extrapolate the red and green lines you see on the picture below. For reference, the yellow line runs perpendicular to the entrance of the administration building. The plane most likely fired its rockets from somewhere inside the “box” created where the red and green lines intersect.
If you still have questions or are intrigued by this story, please read the comments as I go to some length to respond to questions there.