Nursery school bombing photographs look like a false flag attack – by Ukraine

Nursery school bombing photographs look like a false flag attack – by Ukraine
Internal damage to the nursery school / Ukraine Defence Ministry
By Gav Don February 21, 2022

Ukrainian authorities over the weekend claimed that Russian forces had attacked a nursery school 14 km north-east of the centre of Luhansk. The claim was supported by two photographs of damage to the school, showing a purported shell hole in the ground floor wall. Western news channels immediately picked up the claim, describing it as a Russian provocation designed to justify a forthcoming Russian response. UK open source channel Bellingcat added to the news flow with an analysis which was intended to corroborate the trajectory and source of the shell.

Close examination of the photographs of the damage quickly reveals the Ukrainian government claim and the Bellingcat analysis to be comprehensively false.

Starting inside the damaged nursery room, the photograph shows a hole roughly one metre across. Bricks from the wall are heaped from the foot of the wall to three metres into the room. Below the hole stands a wooden cupboard containing footballs. The cupboard remains standing, and a handful of footballs rests both in the cupboard and at the edge of the rubble pile.

Apart from the rubble, the room has suffered no damage. There are no signs of a high explosive detonation of any kind. The wall coverings are undamaged. A quantity of brick rubble rests precariously on the lower ledge of the hole, where even a very small impact shock would dislodge it. The window one metre from the centre of the hole is undamaged. This was clearly not a high-energy event. The internal walls are not deformed outwards in any way by blast, and there is no evidence of any heat or fire damage.

These features show clearly that there was no explosion inside the room. It is possible that an incoming shell might fail to detonate, for one of several reasons. However, the location of the footballs on the shelves of the cupboard below the hole suggests that there was no impact shock, and the photograph does not show an undetonated shell or mortar round. A high-speed shell striking a building usually punches a small entry hole, not much larger than its own diameter, not a one metre rubble hole.

In contrast, the damage shown is completely consistent with damage to the wall inflicted from outside, by a standard road-worker’s tractor-mounted pneumatic drill. When a drill is applied to a brick wall as it penetrates and moves a brick, the moving brick will carry adjacent bricks with it, forming exactly the shallow V-shaped hole the photograph displays. A drill-attack also leaves a quantity of rubble on the bottom edge of the hole (unless someone takes the trouble to remove it, which clearly did not happen here). Here rubble appears to have been moved by hand from near the hole a little further into the room, to simulate the effects of shock, and footballs placed on top of the rubble pile.

Moving to the outside photograph of the building, approximately three metres square of the render has been removed. Looking at the lower part of the render, there are clear signs that it has been pulled away from the building, as the edges of the damage area face outwards. The same outward trending damage is visible to the left of the neat square one-metre hole in the wall below. The render appears to have been pulled or grabbed to remove it, in an uneven fashion, as the damage on one side is 1.5 metres higher than the damage on the other.

On the ground at the foot of the wall the removed render and insulation has been scattered up to ten metres laterally, at 90 degrees from the hole, and there is an area at the foot of the wall with less rubbish scatter – probably the area where the excavator was placed.

If a high explosive detonation had occurred outside the wall (as it would on impact with a graze fuze) the wall would have deformed inwards, all adjacent glass would have shattered, there would be clear marks of fire and shrapnel spatter on the wall exterior, and rubble would be scattered uniformly in an arc of roughly 45 degrees away from the wall, as well as large quantities of rubble accompanied by fire and shock damage inside.

Taking this evidence as a whole, it is unarguable that the building was not attacked by a shell.

Ukrainian reports claim that the attack happened while the nursery was occupied by children and teachers, who were in another room. However, the photograph of the interior shows clearly that outside the room it is dark. There is no time stamp on the photograph, but it is likely that this photograph was the first to be taken, and was taken very shortly after the damage was inflicted, at night, when the building was unoccupied.

The nursery is located four kilometres north-east of the Contact Line, in Ukrainian-held territory. The evidence as presented strongly suggests that Ukrainian forces damaged the nursery with an excavator, probably equipped with a pneumatic drill attachment, and then released the photographs in an attempt to make a case that Russian forces had carried out an attack on an occupied children’s nursery.

That trope has been enthusiastically taken up by European and US media. Prime Minister Boris Johnson went so far as to describe it as a false flag attack designed to justify a Russian assault. He omitted, however, to clarify how an attack on a nursery in Ukraine-held territory would either motivate or justify a move by Moscow, or to explain how an attack on a Ukrainian asset on Ukrainian territory could be a false flag move by anyone other than Kyiv.

Events over the past two days within the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics are somewhat shrouded in the fog of near-war. It seems reasonably clear that the two leaders of the Republics have ordered some sort of mass evacuation of civilians from the republics to Russia, and in this context the number 700,000 has been repeated in multiple media channels. That number coincides with the number of people in the Republics who have received Russian passports. The total population of the Republics is somewhere in the region of 3.5mn.

However, bne Intellinews sources inside the republics do not corroborate a movement of this number of people. One source cited the movement of 25,000 people across the Russian border on Friday. There is a clear ambiguity as to whether the Republics have ordered women and children to leave, or have simply advised them to do so, and as to whether large numbers of people are actually evacuating.

bne Intellinews sources on the ground report that Ukrainian forces on the contact line have shelled civilian targets regularly for “years”, at intervals ranging from days to months. The rate of fire has certainly escalated. OSCE Monitoring recorded 1,413 shell and mortar detonations within the Republics on Friday, including rounds from 122-mm mortars banned under the Minsk ceasefire.

One resident of a western suburb of Donetsk (actually an ethnic west Ukrainian living in the Republic) stated that 10 shells had landed around her settlement 600 metres from the Contact Line, and that the shelling was the worst she had experienced since 2015. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes – there is more shelling than there has been recently, but not as much as “constant”, and not aimed directly at homes or other buildings.

Shelling appears to have been “harassing” rather than aimed. Republic authorities on Saturday stated that no-one had been killed in the republics by shelling. They also claimed to have details of plans for a Ukrainian invasion of the republics, but it seems unlikely that, if they did, they would disclose that fact.

Ukrainian sources cite a smaller number of similar artillery and mortar detonations on Ukrainian territory. Sources do not report which side fired first.

With these events tension between Russia and the Western allies has reached a new and uncomfortably high level. Mainstream media have drawn a (fatuous) connection between the nursery attack and Russian plans to invade Ukraine. The connective tissue between the two appears weak at best, but both US and UK authorities are continuing to forewarn of a major attack based on (unrevealed) intelligence. There is as yet no evidence that Russian Federation troops are located in the republics, but there is clear evidence that the republics have initiated a call-up of reservists.

The republics lack strategic depth – from the Line of Contact to the Russian border is only 70-100 km, over open flat country. This fact in turn forces any Russian response to a major attack to be immediate and in force. Therefore if Ukraine does intensify shelling to inflict real harm, or does initiate a full-scale attack on the republics, the most likely Russian response will be the establishment of a no-fire/no-move zone over the border, using air patrols along the Line of Contact, with two objectives. The first, and less troublesome, task would be the destruction of Ukrainian drones (purchased from Turkey) to deprive Ukrainian forces of intelligence and targeting data.

The second objective would be to use short range air-to-surface missiles to suppress artillery units firing into the republics. Air patrols would probably stay in republic airspace. Action along these lines would occupy a difficult space in international law. Air attacks would be an attack on the sovereign territory of another state, and therefore illegal unless carried out in self-defence. However, the territory and people being defended are legally Ukrainian, not Russian. A no-fire zone enforced by ground attack aircraft would fit within the description “military technical” means used by President Putin in an interview this week as a possible next step. Kyiv would likely react by moving its artillery 10-15 km back from the Contact Line to take it out of range of air attack, thereby also rendering republic territory out of its own range.

Moscow might use the "responsibility to protect" under international law as a justification, but RtoP requires authorisation by a Security Council resolution, which is unlikely to be forthcoming. Moscow may bring forward a resolution in order to force a veto by the US and the UK, in order to embarrass them later when any evidence of indiscriminate shelling by Ukrainian forces enters the mainstream media’s ambit.

In the event of a major attack on the republics by Ukraine, Moscow may well extend air cover over Eastern Ukraine (neutralising Ukraine’s small air force along the way) to destroy armoured and artillery units within the attack and to cut the attack’s logistic lines.

So far, however, events over the past few days do not amount to a major change in the overall situation, and the powerful logic (legal and practical) that has prevented a major ground offensive by Russia so far still applies.

Gav Don trained as an officer in the Royal Navy and has a degree in international law. He grew a global energy intelligence business over 25 years and now specialises in geopolitical analysis, focusing on the interactions between politics, law, energy and armed force.