| DONETSK, Ukraine, July 29
DONETSK, Ukraine, July 29 On the last day of
May, a surface-to-air rocket was signed out of a military base
near Moscow where it had been stored for more than 20 years.
According to the ornate Cyrillic handwriting in the weapon's
Russian Defence Ministry logbook, seen by Reuters, the portable
rocket, for use with an Igla rocket launcher, was destined for a
base in Rostov, some 50 km (31 miles) from the Ukrainian border.
In that area, say U.S. officials, lies a camp for training
Ukrainian separatist fighters.
Three weeks later the rocket and its logbook turned up in
eastern Ukraine, where government troops seized them from
The logbook, which is more than 20 pages long, records that
rocket 03181 entered service on May 21, 1993, and had regular
tests as recently as 2005 to make sure it was in fighting form.
The seal of the Russian Defence Ministry has been stamped over
the signature sending the weapon to Rostov.
A copy of the log was passed to a diplomat in Ukraine's
capital, Kiev. Reuters was unable to verify its authenticity
with the Russian military, and Moscow has consistently denied
arming the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The Igla and its logbook are just one indication that weapons
are flowing from Russia into Ukraine. Interviews with American
officials, diplomats in Kiev, and Russian military analysts
paint a picture of a steady and ongoing flow. These people say
weapons - from small arms to armoured personnel carriers, tanks
and sophisticated missile systems - have flooded into the region
since May, fueling the violence.
In an interview with Reuters last week, a separatist leader
said that Russia may have supplied the separatists with BUK
rockets, which were used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines flight
MH17. The destruction of the civilian passenger plane over
eastern Ukraine on July 17 killed nearly 300 people.
Alexander Khodakovsky, commander of the Vostok
Battalion, told Reuters: "I knew that a BUK came from Luhansk
(in east Ukraine) ... I heard about it. I think they sent it
back. Because I found out about it at exactly the moment that I
found out that this tragedy (of MH17) had taken place. They
probably sent it back in order to remove proof of its presence."
Three U.S. government officials said the weapons flow from
Russia increased dramatically several weeks ago in response to
successes by Ukrainian government forces, including the
recapture of Slaviansk, a separatist stronghold in eastern
Ukraine. The new shipments included anti-aircraft systems
designed to combat Ukraine's air power, those officials said.
"If you trace the increase in supplies and materials ...
we've seen in the last few weeks culminating in this tragic
incident, it's clearly in the face of successes by the Ukrainian
forces," said a senior U.S. official, who like the others spoke
on condition of anonymity.
Moscow, which has said it is willing to cooperate with an
international investigation into the loss of MH17, has denied
sending any BUK missiles to the rebels. It has said Washington
is attempting to destabilise Russia through events in Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week that
Moscow was hopeful that monitors from the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe could be deployed along
Russia's border with Ukraine to dispel suspicions that Russia is
aiding the rebels.
"We hope that this will dispel suspicions that are regularly
being voiced against us, that those (border) checkpoints
controlled by the militias from the Ukrainian side are used for
massive troops and weaponry deployment from Russia to Ukraine,"
Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine maintain most of their
weapons have come from captured Ukrainian armouries or have been
seized directly from the Ukrainian military on the battlefield.
In the weeks following Russia's annexation of Crimea in
March, tensions grew on the south and east frontiers of Ukraine.
Kiev's border guard agency said it stopped thousands of Russian
citizens who tried to enter Ukrainian territory carrying weapons
or bags full of camouflage.
Separatists started firing on border guard positions,
according to Ukrainian officials. On May 29, the
Stanychno-Luhanske border guard division in Ukraine's Luhansk
province was attacked by 300 gunmen with small arms and grenade
launchers. Rebels seized control of the facility after five days
of fighting. Other border guard divisions and checkpoints along
Ukraine's more than 2,000-km border with Russia also fell.
Separatists were able to ferry in people and equipment
That led to more ambitious attacks on Ukrainian targets. On
June 14, for instance, separatists shot down a Ukrainian IL-76
military transport jet coming in to land near the eastern city
of Luhansk. All 49 people on board died; charred pieces of the
fuselage and engines littered the rolling wheat fields outside
the village of Novohannivka.
The weapon used that day, according to separatists who later
spoke about the attack, was an Igla rocket launcher, sometimes
known generically as a MANPAD, for man-portable air-defence
The origin of the weapon remains unclear: There is no
evidence this was connected to the Igla rocket seized by
Ukrainian forces a week later along with its log book. Iglas
were used extensively in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia in the
1990s and are easy to transport and common in eastern Ukraine.
Videos, posted online after Ukrainian troops drove separatists
out of Slaviansk on July 7, show boxes marked 9M39 - the model
of missile used with an Igla - stacked in the basement of the
The day after the IL-76 was shot down, Valery Bolotov, top
commander of the Luhansk People's Republic, claimed
responsibility. "I can't tell you anything more detailed on the
IL-76, but I will repeat that the IL-76 was hit by our militia,
the air defence forces of the Luhansk People's Republic,"
Bolotov, who wore a camouflage T-shirt, said in a video posted
The commander said that separatists in Luhansk controlled
nearly 80 km of the border from Dolzhanksy to Izvaryna at that
time, but denied getting weapons from Moscow, saying they had
been pillaged from Ukrainian army and police store rooms.
A separatist officer in Slaviansk who used the nom de guerre
Anton also said the Igla in the IL-76 attack was not Russian but
a weapon seized from Ukrainians. He declined to say whether the
separatists received other weapons from Russia.
Alexander Gureyev, a Russia supporter from Luhansk, told
Reuters last week that all the separatists' weapons had been
found in local arms warehouses.
"We had to boost our arsenal," he said. "If you have
small-calibre weapons and they're shooting at you with Howitzers
- that's not right. But now they're getting it from us with
Howitzers, mortars, tanks. It's given them something to think
He declined to detail the origin of heavy weapons, but said
separatists were "thrilled" when the IL-76 was shot down. "It
was like a holiday in the city. People thought things would
change and that with such a success people would stop dying in
He said the Luhansk rebels had decided to station
anti-aircraft sharpshooters at the nearby airfield in
retribution for the deaths of at least eight people in what he
called a Ukrainian airstrike on the rebels' headquarters in
"They simply flew above us, we were already fed up with it
all and decided that we would start shooting at everything," he
said. "We simply took anything out of the sky that flew above
Not everyone believes the separatists' assertions that their
weapons had been seized from Ukrainian troops.
A diplomat said that arms had started to come in from Russia
regularly around the time of the independence vote in Crimea in
May. In the past couple of weeks an increasing amount of
materiel had arrived "in reaction to the collapse of Slaviansk,"
he said. That included T64 tanks from stocks of old weapons
discarded after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Anton Lavrov, an independent Russian military analyst said:
"It would be stupid to deny that Russia supports the
separatists. The main question is only the scale of this
He said pro-Russian separatists have been found in
possession of a Kamaz Mustang military transport vehicle that is
not used in Ukraine and cannot be bought there. Reuters could
not independently verify that.
"There was a serious escalation in the middle of June, when
heavy weapons began to appear among the separatists, including
tanks and artillery in such quantities that it would be hard to
attribute it to seizures from Ukrainian stockpiles."
Another independent Russian military analyst, Alexander
Golts, also said the rebels had received arms from Russia. He
described it as "all old Soviet weaponry." He said rocket
launchers were spotted in April or the beginning of May very
early in the conflict.
Washington is in no doubt Russia is the source of many of
the weapons. At least 20 tanks and armoured personnel carriers
have crossed the border from Russia since the downing of
Malaysia Airlines MH17, a senior U.S. intelligence official
In a media briefing on July 22, U.S. intelligence officials
also released satellite photographs of what they said was a
training site for Ukrainian separatists near the Russian city of
Rostov. The photographs appear to show increased activity at the
site between June 19 and July 21.
A Moscovite volunteer called Valery Kolotsei, 37, said he
joined the rebels in Ukraine's Luhansk region for a few weeks in
May and June. He said he had connected with other volunteers
over Vkontakte, Russia's version of Facebook. They had gathered,
he said, in the Rostov region, where U.S. officials say a camp
for training Ukrainian separatist fighters sits.
Kolotsei said the rebel group he joined used a motley array
of weapons, including a mortar produced in 1944.
"OUT OF CONTROL"
Before the MH17 incident, U.S. spy agencies issued multiple
warnings that Russia was shipping heavy weaponry, including
rockets, to Ukrainian separatists, U.S. security officials said.
The officials said that before MH-17 went down, the United
States had become aware separatists possessed SA-11 BUK
missiles, but believed they were all inoperable. Officials
acknowledged, too, that U.S. intelligence agencies do not know
who fired the missile or when and how separatists may have
Russian President Vladimir Putin has firmly denied his
country had any involvement in the fate of MH17. Putin and the
separatists blamed Ukraine for the disaster, with some
suggesting a Ukrainian missile team brought down the passenger
Ukraine rejects such claims. Vladyslav Seleznyov, a
spokesman for Ukraine's military operations in eastern Ukraine,
said: "The Ukrainian army has portable missile systems of the
Igla and Osa type and the complex BUK. However, they are not
used in this campaign because there is no need for them." The
rebels have no aircraft, he said.
Despite the MH17 tragedy, the conflict shows little sign of
diminishing. Another U.S. official said: "There are indications
that some groups feel betrayed by Moscow not doing enough.
Others don't like the way this is headed." He said some rebels
fear the fighting has "gotten out of control."
Olexander Motsyk, Ukraine's ambassador to the United States,
told Reuters in an interview that his country has evidence
Russia is preparing to supply separatist rebels with a powerful
new multiple-rocket system known as the Tornado. According to
military websites, the system first saw service earlier this
decade and is an improvement on Russia's older Grad missile
The evidence for this, Motsyk said, includes satellite
photographs as well as intercepts of telephone conversations. He
declined to be more specific.
Referring to the flow of weapons from Russia into eastern
Ukraine, he said: "Nothing has changed after the downing of the
(Grove reported from Donetsk, Strobel from Washington;
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Jason Szep, Matt
Spetalnick and Phillip Stewart in Washington, Elizabeth Piper in
Kiev, Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow, and Maria Tsvetkova, Anton
Zverev and Peter Graff in Donetsk; Editing by Simon Robinson and