Journalists have discovered the secret subdivision in the Russian army that is directing the missile attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. Moreover, the independent media noticed that the myths underlying Putin’s regime have unraveled one after the other due to the war in Ukraine.
The INSIDER: Remote killers. Who is guiding missiles towards Ukrainian civilian targets and how?
On the morning of October 10, Putin's forces fired another series of guided missiles on Ukrainian residential areas and civilian infrastructure. At least 20 civilians were killed and 108 wounded. The next day, about 30 more missile strikes were launched against Ukrainian cities. The missiles left giant craters in playgrounds and disabled energy facilities, depriving hospitals and homes of electricity. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights considers rocket attacks comparable to war crimes. Strikes by “high-precision” rockets against residential facilities occur regularly: for example, a Kalibr missile hit Vinnitsa on July 14 killing 27 civilians, and on June 26 several guided missiles struck a residential area in Kyiv. Up until now, it was not known who exactly was choosing civilian targets for those missiles, but we managed to identify a secret unit within the Main Computer Center (MCC) of the Russian Armed Forces that determines flight tasks for precision missiles, and identified 30 military engineers, most of whom are young men and women with backgrounds in information technology and even computer game development. Their phone call logs, matched to the shelling dates, confirm their involvement in the killing of Ukrainian civilians.
This is a joint investigation by The Insider, Bellingcat and Der Spiegel
Visual evidence and photographs of missile remnants show that many, if not all, of the missiles fired on October 10 and 11 October were sea-launched Kalibr cruise missiles (3M-14), land-launched R-500 (9M728) for Iskander complexes, and air-launched Kh-101 type missiles. These are positioned by the Kremlin as «high-precision» weapons that hit only targets of military significance. However, since the beginning of the Russian invasion, long-range cruise missiles have repeatedly destroyed civilian infrastructure and resulted in the death and injury of hundreds of civilians. Either those missiles did not follow a pre-programmed flight path, the targeting was based on unreliable intelligence, or the destruction of civilians was the Kremlin's true objective. In any event, those responsible for targeting and launching those missiles are war criminals who were well aware of the consequences of their actions. We managed to establish their names and positions.
Missile guidance specialists from the Main Computer Center (MCC)
It is not evident from open sources which agency of the Russian Armed Forces is in charge of targeting and calculating flight paths for guided missiles. To find the answer to this question, we analyzed data on thousands of graduates of Russia's leading military institutes specializing in missiles and target designation. […] Some of them, after graduation, joined the Main Computer Center (MCC) of the Armed Forces, which sounds like the right place to calculate guided missile trajectories, although there is not much information about the MCC in open sources. It is noteworthy that all of those missile specialists who have joined the MCC are registered as living and working at 19 Znamenka Street in Moscow, i.e. the official address of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces.
Believing that the MCC's connection to guided missile targeting was highly likely, we decided to test this hypothesis and examined phone call logs of Major General Robert Baranov, the head of the Center. A study of his calls from February 24 to the end of April 2022 showed that each time before a cruise missile launch (known from open sources) he received a call from one particular number, which, as we have determined, belongs to Colonel Igor Bagnyuk, who is registered at the same address as the other known MCC officers, 19 Znamenka Street. Then we studied the call logs of Bagnyuk himself and found he was in active contact with more than 20 military engineers and I.T. specialists from the MCC. Based on clusters of recurring calls, we reconstructed a team of 33 military engineers reporting to Colonel Bagnyuk.
Moreover, by studying those data, we were able to link many individual cruise missile strikes to specific MCC units and found correlations between missile types and specific MCC personnel.
The MCC unit we identified consists of three teams, each of which programs the flight paths of one specific type of high-precision missile: the ZM-14 (Kalibr, sea-based), 9M728 (aka R-500, Iskander (land-based) operational-tactical missile systems), and X-101 (air-based).
“I work on a pig farm!”
When The Insider began contacting the missile guidance specialists using the phone numbers from the call logs received, they all admitted that these phone numbers belonged to them, but categorically denied they worked at the Main Computer Center and had anything to do with the shelling of Ukraine.
For example, one of them admitted his name was Sergey Vladimirovich Ilyin but said he was “self-employed” and worked as a plumber. Lieutenant Artem Vedenov, answering the number we found in the call logs, did not deny he was Artem Vedenov, but said he worked on a pig farm and did not know anything of value: Captain Yuri Nikonov said he was a bus driver and the information about his work in the Computing Center was “nonsense”. Major Ivan Popov said he was just learning to code in Python and did not know anything about any computer center, and it was pointless to ask him about guided missiles. Lieutenant Yekaterina Chugunova said she had a flower shop.
When The Insider showed some of the mission guidance specialists a photo of them standing in military uniforms with computer center patches, they appeared totally confused. For example, Vladimir Vorobyev who had initially said he had nothing to do with the MCC, upon being shown his photo in uniform answered cryptically: “I see it for the first time in my life. Especially in uniform...”
One of the engineers agreed to share with us, on condition of anonymity, some contextual information and a few photos of the MCC trajectory computing block situated in front of the Ministry of Defense in Moscow.
Biographies of the killers
Military engineers who program guided missile trajectories have different backgrounds. They range from having spent their entire careers in the Army or Navy and subsequently becoming military engineers to having been recruited from civilian professions, usually IT-related.
The immediate commander of the MCC missile guidance unit is Colonel Igor Bagnyuk. He was born in 1982 in Riga and graduated from the Serpukhov branch of the Strategic Missile Forces Academy in 2004, specializing in information systems for Russian missiles. Bagnyuk served in military unit 29692 (2027th Aviation Technical Depot) near Vladimir, until at some point, no later than 2010, he was transferred to Moscow to serve in the MCC.
A photo of him obtained from an MCC employee shows that Bagnyuk had been awarded the Medal for Participation in Combat Operations in Syria. This medal is awarded to Russian servicemen since 2015 (Russia has used guided missiles more than once in Syria - for example, during strikes on Aleppo in 2016).
Phone records of Bagniuk and his subordinates in the weeks prior to the October 10 strikes show an increase in call activity, starting from October 2 and peaking on October 9. At the same time, 11 calls were made to the mission guidance engineers on the last day before the strikes. There were no calls for about two weeks before October 2, which is also consistent with the lack of reports of cruise missile use. This suggests that planning for the October 10 strike began about a week earlier, which is consistent with the intelligence received by Ukrainian authorities. It also implies that the attack on Ukraine's energy infrastructure could not have resulted from the Crimean Bridge blast on October 8, 2022.
Bagnyuk rarely calls his commanders – Lieutenant General Baranov and Colonel Kapshuk. A study of his calls to MCC senior officers shows a connection between those calls and the impending large-scale missile attacks.
What kind of missiles are launched at Ukrainian cities and how?
Russia has been trying to develop modern long-range precision weapons since the 1990s, but only in recent years has it managed to put into service cruise missiles capable of hitting targets behind enemy lines from safe distances en masse.
The main types of such weapons are:
- the 9M728 (R-500) cruise missile for ground-based Iskander systems;
- the 3M-14 cruise missile of the sea-based Kalibr family;
- the Kh-101 air-to-ground cruise missile, air-launched.
The information on the use of these missiles indicates that their “high precision” is somewhat exaggerated: very often such a missile either misses the target, or some technical failures or malfunctions occur in it causing it to fall. The question of how frequently those missiles intentionally hit civilian targets remains open.
RIDDLE: Russia’s public outing
Riddle writes about five myths of the Putin regime which the Kremlin went to great lengths to create, only to see them exposed with the start of the war
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the course of hostilities and the reaction of the Russian authorities and ordinary citizens to the invasion have proved that the stability of Putin’s regime is a mythical construct. In the space of a few months, the five main myths on which the image of Putin’s state was founded have been consistently undermined and almost entirely stripped away. The facade of the regime is built on a powerful army, a monolithic power vertical, skillful propaganda that can indoctrinate citizens with anything the Kremlin wants, the militarization of much of society and the active support of that society for any of Putin’s undertakings. The Kremlin has conveyed these myths to both external and internal audiences. By going to war in Ukraine, the Putin regime tried to be what it pretended to be, but its facade crashed into reality. Of course, the system is still holding on: Russians still see no alternative to Putin; they fear a return to the ‘roaring 1990s’ while the budget is replenished by the sale of hydrocarbons. But it is the core of the regime, not the trappings, which has undergone erosion.
Myth no.1 – a mighty army
The myth of a powerful Russian army which seemed super-efficient and modern even to Putin himself was the first to be dispelled. If the Russian president had been even partly aware of the shortcomings of his own armed forces, he would have been unlikely to launch a full-scale war against a large state. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his subordinates knew how to construct an image of a super-efficient structure even when Shoigu worked in the Ministry of Emergency Situations. The Defense Ministry regularly reported on new weapons that Putin threatened the US with on the eve of the 2018 presidential election. The Ministry organized large-scale events — military drills in and outside Russia, tank biathlons and forums to demonstrate and sell military equipment and vehicles. The president personally participated in many of these events. The Russian leadership clearly hoped for a blitzkrieg: it was assumed that the Russian army was in excellent condition, the Ukrainian army was not at its best, the Ukrainian leadership was demoralized and the Ukrainian population would greet the Russians with flowers. As regards the latter two assumptions, the Kremlin was persuaded by the security services.
In a few months of the war, it has become clear that the Russian army does not have much top-notch military equipment or vehicles — some of them damaged or obsolete — and that its stocks of missiles are being gradually depleted. Arms manufacturers are now upgrading obsolete T-62 tanks. The Russian army’s offensive quickly ran out of steam, and by autumn the Armed Forces of Ukraine had begun to squeeze Russian troops out of captured territory.
Myth no. 2 – an efficient power vertical
The war shattered the myth of Putin’s power vertical, yet another seemingly efficient and well-oiled Russian machine. It was assumed that the president controlled his subordinates, who cooperated closely with one another and delivered on their commitments to the head of state. In practice, however, this is not the case. Even the siloviki are in conflict with one another, and they certainly do not want to act in concert with civilians. Members of the president’s inner circle or their avatars in the Presidential Administration or the government lobby for decisions that benefit themselves, not the regime as a whole, and are willing to depart from the interests of the vertical. Putin is no longer giving a heads-up to his subordinates about his key decisions, and, as a result, they are being implemented in an emergency manner and in an atmosphere of chaos and misunderstanding. Naturally, Russian citizens are bewildered or even horrified by this chaos.
The already-mentioned draft, which was announced in late September, is the best example of the dismantling of the myth of an efficient power vertical. The announcement of mass conscription clearly came as a surprise to most of those called on to implement it. The political bloc had not prepared the ground in any way; a few days earlier, Kremlin officials had assured the public that there would be no national conscription and that there was no need for it. Military registration and enlistment office personnel were also unprepared for it, as they began chaotically sending out conscription notices and conscripting men at random in fear of not being able to deliver.
Myth no. 3 – the omnipotent propaganda machine
The effectiveness of another of Putin’s trump cards, the powerful propaganda machine, has been greatly undermined. It was well oiled as long as citizens were not facing serious economic difficulties and the Kremlin demanded relatively little from them — for example, to endorse election results, to refrain from protesting and at least to pretend to support the government. Many Russians were happy to repeat propaganda about ‘fascist Ukraine’, ‘Banderites’, ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and the horrors of life in the West, without giving them much thought. However, at a critical moment for the authorities, the moment of mobilization, it turned out that many people who had been listening to the tunes were not ready to die for them. They can talk about ‘fascist Ukraine’ or the ‘rotten West’ in a rented flat in Kazakhstan, Turkey, Armenia or Georgia rather than at a military enlistment office in Russia. In addition, Russians have proved unprepared for the endless propaganda inflation. Beginning in spring, state TV had broadcast geopolitical talk shows nearly non-stop until TV ratings plummeted, and the Kremlin had to put entertainment programmes back on the air. An attempt by the presidential administration to create a new pro-war Z-pop culture failed.
Myth no. 4 – the rampant militarization of society
Indeed, some Russian citizens really do not mind dressing their child up in a sham military uniform and putting them in a DIY paper tank, putting on camouflage, calling the Defense Minister the most popular politician and the army the most trustworthy institution. This militarized part of society is ready to support the ‘special operation’ with the hands of contracted professionals, vaguely suspicious of its real progress, and to think that information about atrocities in Bucha and Izium was faked by Ukraine and NATO. The ‘militarized’ Russians are clearly in no hurry to put on camouflage and head to the trenches. They have lined up in huge queues at the borders, not at military recruitment stations. The number of Russians who have left the country since the beginning of mobilization has reached about 700,000. The Ministry of Defense has reported about 200,000 conscripts.
Myth no. 5 — unconditional support for whatever Putin does
Finally, the myth of the cult of personality in Russia has begun to crumble. It was believed that Russians were ready to put up with any decision by Putin and support him no matter what, trusting the president with their future. In the wake of mass conscription, the anxiety level of citizens rose precipitously, and the president’s ratings began to fall. The Kremlin cannot and, it appears, will not be able to improve the sentiments of Russians. Citizens may indeed declare that they are prepared to support their president against all odds, but they declare this only as long as no sacrifices have to be made. As soon as the president crosses red lines, his support begins to fall.
Any myth is effective as long as its creator does not allow it to clash with reality. Skilled myth-makers know this well and guard their creations, and they do not, of course, believe in their own myths. Putin observed these rules for a long time, but he gradually began to believe in the myths that he and his entourage created and then to act in accordance with them. The result has turned out to be quite logical: we are looking at a new image of the regime — its real image. That regime has failed to create an effective army, a propaganda machine or a militaristic society. The Kremlin’s threats, excluding nuclear, are no longer taken seriously.