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Published in Stream:
Day 940: September 14, 2016
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Ukrainian Officials Deny Reports That Russian Jets Flew Over Donetsk Today
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This morning September 14 the Ukrainian military was moved to issue an official refutation of claims that Russian jet fighters were flying in Ukrainian airspace.

While the Ukrainian government has long reported, and provided demonstrable proof of the intrusion of Russian military drones, several of which have been shot down, Kiev has long denied that manned aircraft are crossing the border (with the exception of one incident*).

This morning Oleksandr Bryhynets, an MP and adviser to the minister of information policy Yuriy Stets, wrote on his Facebook page that four Russian jets had been observed from the Avdeyevka area, flying from the direction of separatist-held Lugansk over Gorlovka towards Mariupol, to the southwest.

According to Bryhynets, the sightings took place between 5:45 and 6 am.

A fifth aircraft was reportedly spotted conducting "demonstrative maneuvers" over Gorlovka at 6:05.

"The altitude of the flight, based on our instruments, was 6,000 meters; their distance from the contact line was around 15 km into occupied territory.

The occupying military has been conducting this maneuver for five days in a row. 

I'm astonished that there have been no corresponding announcements from our military."

Bryhynets also posted several photos, which he said showed contrails from the jets: 

Ось ранкові фотки з літаками. З першого... - Олександр Бригинець | Facebook

Ось ранкові фотки з літаками. З першого разу зрозуміти їх важко, бо відстань значна і апарт не ідеальний. Але якщо ви переглянете кілька фото одне після...

View full page →
Sep 14, 2016 16:06 (GMT)

But this afternoon Ivan Arefyev, press officer for the Ukrainian military operation in the Donbass (referred to by the Ukrainian government as the Anti-Terrorism Operation [ATO]), told Ukrainska Pravda that Ukrainian air defense systems had not detected any fighter jets flying over the Donbass.

The online paper also spoke to soldiers deployed in the Avdeyevka area, who could not confirm the MP's claims.

Bryhynets is not the only person to have reported sighting aircraft over the Donbass in recent days.

At around the same time yesterday morning, one Twitter user posted this photo showing contrails visible from Makeyevka, a separatist-held eastern suburb of Donetsk:

Translation: To the question about aircraft. 14/09 Makeyevka 06:10. Chaykinskoye roundabout. In the direction of the east and south.

Last week Novosti Donbassa described several reported sightings in both the Donetsk and Lugansk areas.

Translation: Eastern outskirts of Lugansk. Trails from aircraft in the sky.

Translation: Along the line from Amvrosievka to Lugansk there were flights, from 3:30 until 4:30, 5:30, 6:30.

However these sightings may well indicate something far more innocent than Russian jets testing Ukraine's air defenses.

The last report, of flights going approximately north-south along the Ukrainian border at regular intervals, may give us a clue as to what the source of these contrails really is.

This is a screenshot from FlightRadar24 showing commercial airliner flights along the Russia-Ukraine border, many of them flying between Moscow and Rostov-on-Don:

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2016-09-14 17:28:54

This is from a playback of flights in the morning of September 8. Flights continue along this path throughout the night, but at a lower frequency.

The distance between eastern Lugansk and the Russian town of Glubokiy, which lies directly to the east under this flight path, is approximately 70 kilometers (around 43 miles).

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2016-09-14 17:32:54

This is well within the range that contrails can be seen from high-flying aircraft. FlightRadar24 gives altitudes of around 33-35,000 feet for airliners on this section of the flight path.

Plane spotters frequently spot contrails from a distance of well over 100 miles. See this forum discussion for examples of photos taken at a distance of 125 miles or over.

Therefore, given the low elevation of the contrails relative to the horizon when looking east from Lugansk, it is most likely that these are trails left by commercial airlines flying in or out of Rostov-on-Don.

Let's do the same with the FlightRadar24 playback of commercial flights between 5:40 and 6:05 am today, the time that Bryhynets reported sightings and took photographs of contrails.

Three flights can be seen near Novocherkassk, northeast of Rostov-on-Don:

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2016-09-14 17:58:49
A few minutes later, several aircraft fly along the Moscow-Rostov route to the east of Lugansk:
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2016-09-14 17:59:45

Google Maps gives the approximate distance between Avdeyevka and these two areas as 196-200 kilometres (121-124 miles).

This would place the contrails near the limit of visibility from Avdeyevka, but once again the photos posted by Bryhynets show trails very close to the horizon, which would correspond with them being distant.

It does not however explain the recordings of altitude and distance he claimed to have obtained.

The current spate of claims regarding aerial intrusions may perhaps borne of heightened nerves following the Russian military buildup and provocations in Crimea, and the degradation of the ceasefire that came into effect on September 1.

But there have been occasions in the past when Ukrainian officials' denials of any enemy manned aerial activity in the Donbass have been rather more questionable.

During the last days of the battle for Debaltsevo at the beginning of February last year, several Ukrainian journalists described reports from soldiers of Russian Su-25 attack jets conducting air strikes. 

The Ukrainian military declined to confirm these reports

More convincingly, footage recorded on August 31, 2014, at the height of the Russian invasion of the Donbass, does appear to show two aircraft conducting a strike on a Ukrainian coastal patrol boat off the coast near Mariupol (skip to around 1 minute in):

But the Ukrainian military insisted at the time that the vessel had been sunk by a missile fired from a Russian tank.

Playing down reports of Russian air activity inside Ukraine may be in the interests of a government which is desperate to avoid the risk of a dramatic escalation such an acknowledgement would entail.

But as far as the recent spate of reports go, there is no evidence yet to indicate that Russian manned aircraft are flying over Ukraine.

* On August 26, 2014, a Ukrainian military spokesman claimed that two Russian Mi-24 attack helicopters had conducted a cross-border rocket attack in the Lugansk region, killing four border guards. 

Two years later a report from the International Partnership for Human Rights quoted several witnesses corroborating this story.

-- Pierre Vaux