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POLITICS

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

ALL CARDS
  • Missile guidance specialists from the Main Computer Center

  • «I work on a pig farm!»

  • Biographies of the killers

  • Murder Chronology

  • What kind of missiles are launched at Ukrainian cities and how?

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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

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 - in particular, the Military Academy of Strategic Missile Forces near Moscow and the St. Petersburg Naval Engineering Institute. 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.

Officially, the MCC's functions are described in military publications as «providing IT services» and «automating» the Armed Forces. Despite its long history (founded in 1963), the institution is rarely mentioned in the Russian media. Most of those MCC employees whose biographies we were able to study graduated either from the Academy of the Strategic Missile Forces (in particular, its Serpukhov branch) or the Naval Engineering Institute. Some of them had previously served as officers or ship engineers in the Navy. Others had previous civilian experience as corporate IT people or even game designers.

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).

 By their call logs, MMC missile guidance specialists were divided into three clusters
By their call logs, MMC missile guidance specialists were divided into three clusters

«I work on a pig farm!»

When The Insider began contacting the missile guidance specilaists 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: «I have nothing to do with any calculations, except for those needed for plumbing work.” 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: «I do not mind talking to you but what can I tell you, how to cut pork? Or how to pluck a chicken properly?» 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: «It's like me asking you about ballet now, you know?» Lieutenant Yekaterina Chugunova replied, «I have a flower shop. You are definitely mistaken.»

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.

Top row: Denis Shishkin, Sergey Divenko, Vladimir Vorobyov. Second row: Yuri Martinets, Alexei Mikhailov, Dmitry Sidorik, Vladimir Naumov. Third row: Sergey Ilyin, Natalia Diachenko, Elvira Obukhova, Ksenia Popova, Yekaterina Chugunova, Igor Bagnyuk. Front row: Rostislav Shirokov, Artem Vasin
Top row: Denis Shishkin, Sergey Divenko, Vladimir Vorobyov. Second row: Yuri Martinets, Alexei Mikhailov, Dmitry Sidorik, Vladimir Naumov. Third row: Sergey Ilyin, Natalia Diachenko, Elvira Obukhova, Ksenia Popova, Yekaterina Chugunova, Igor Bagnyuk. Front row: Rostislav Shirokov, Artem Vasin

As Bellingcat was able to establish, this photo could have been taken in the courtyard of the Ministry of Defense building on Znamenka Street:

An "overhang" similar to the one under which the officers from the MCC had been photographed was found in the courtyard of the building at 19 Znamenka Street
An "overhang" similar to the one under which the officers from the MCC had been photographed was found in the courtyard of the building at 19 Znamenka Street

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.

Igor Bagnyuk, photo provided by a colleague. Decorated, among other awards, with the Medal for Military Valor, 1st Degree, and for his participation in the military operation in Syria
Igor Bagnyuk, photo provided by a colleague. Decorated, among other awards, with the Medal for Military Valor, 1st Degree, and for his participation in the military operation in Syria

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).

Bagnyuk is not the only MCC employee to have distinguished himself in Syria. For example, Major Andrey Ivanyutin, a member of the MCC unit with whom Bagnyuk has been in active contact during the current war, appears in a Kremlin-published photo of a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in January 2021 at the Russian military command center in Syria.

Major Andrey Ivanyutin (top left)
Major Andrey Ivanyutin (top left)

Many of the MCC officers are IT specialists who used to work for private companies. Among them, for example, is Matvey Lyubavin, one of Colonel Bagnyuk's key subordinates, judging by the number of phone calls. Lyubavin was born in 1992, graduated from the Nakhimov Naval Academy in St. Petersburg in 2009, and then from the Naval Engineering Institute in St. Petersburg in 2014 with a degree in IT automation of special purpose systems.

After graduation, he worked as an IT specialist for two banks and a pharmaceutical company. For several years he led the life of an ordinary Muscovite, traveled abroad, commented on the latest Hollywood movies in Twitter and even took a civic stand: he retweeted Pavel Durov's statement that Telegram was not going to share data with the state, supported the Active Citizen movement and even participated in the Smart Vote promoted by Alexei Navalny’s team (his phone is in the leaked SV database).

Major Matvey Lyubavin. Left: Graduation 2009. Center: Graduation from the Naval Academy, 2014. Right: Photo from the 2022 resume
Major Matvey Lyubavin. Left: Graduation 2009. Center: Graduation from the Naval Academy, 2014. Right: Photo from the 2022 resume

By 2020, Lyubavin was already working at the MCC. According to his own resume posted on a job search site for freelancers in March 2022, he had received a commendation from the president of Russia. Curiously, after the war began, Lyubavin apparently thought that his main job at the MCC did not prevent him from working in copywriting and editing - indeed, a «versatile intellect» with «critical thinking» and «classy writing skills», whatever that means, should not be put to waste.

Murder Chronology

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.

On October 9, just before the missile strikes, which began at 3:00 pm, Bagnyuk called three engineers from the CMM team one after another, each of them specializing in one of the three types of cruise missiles. At 3:17 p.m., Bagnyuk called Captain Alexei Mikhailov, a member of the subgroup specializing in ground-based missiles for the Iskander complexes. A few minutes later he called Major Matvey Lyubavin, one of the senior engineers in the subgroup specializing in the sea-based Kalibr missiles. He called Lubavin on a landline work phone - this shows that Lubavin was at work on a Sunday afternoon.

After a two-hour pause, Bagnyuk received a call at 5:10 pm from Colonel Yevgeny Kapshuk, one of the MCC’s deputy commanders. Immediately after speaking with his superior, Colonel Bagnyuk called Senior Lieutenant Olga Chesnokova, a member of the subgroup specializing in X-101 air-launched cruise missiles. Bagnyuk called Chesnokova twice, at 5:16 and 5:17 pm, respectively, and then again called her superior, Colonel Kapshuk, at 5:20 pm. Thus, between 3:17 pm and 5:17 pm, Colonel Bagniuk contacted officers from each of the units specializing in the three types of missiles to be launched at targets in Ukraine the next morning.

Bagnyuk then headed from his suburban home on the outskirts of Moscow to his office at 19 Znamenka Street, the headquarters of the General Staff. Cell tower metadata show that he remained at his workplace until late in the evening. He made his last call to General Baranov, the head of the MCC, at 9:15 pm, after which he went home. Bagnyuk returned to his workplace at 5:30 am on October 10.

One of the "high-precision" Russian missiles hit a children's playground on October 11
One of the "high-precision" Russian missiles hit a children's playground on October 11

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.

For example, the last time Bagniuk spoke with General Baranov before the October strike was at 12:41 pm on September 10. After Baranov's call, Bagnyuk was in his office at 19 Znamenka Street. The last call Bagnyuk made at 9:20 pm that Saturday night was to Captain Alexei Mikhailov, a specialist in the field of guidance of Iskander cruise missiles. The next day, Sunday, September 11, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that Russia had launched several Iskander missiles targeting a Ukrainian military base in Donbass over the past 24 hours. Later that day, Russia launched 12 more cruise missiles - six sea-launched Kalibers and six air-launched Kh-101s - at Ukraine, the first known attempt to cause significant damage to Ukraine's energy infrastructure.

The next day, September 12, 2022, Bagnyuk flew to Rostov near the Ukrainian border, his phone metadata shows. On the night of September 12-13, his call logs reported a new flurry of calls. Between midnight and 2 am he spoke four times with his superior, Colonel Kapshuk, and called Major Matvey Lyubavin and Captain Alexei Mikhailov twice each. The next day, the Russian Defense Ministry released a video of the nighttime launch of an Iskander cruise missile targeting a command base of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Screenshot of a video distributed by the Russian Ministry of Defense showing a night launch of an Iskander missile
Screenshot of a video distributed by the Russian Ministry of Defense showing a night launch of an Iskander missile

Later that same day, September 14, Russian aircraft fired several X-101 cruise missiles at Kryvyi Rih's waterworks, leaving some of the city districts without water for several days.

The earliest calls between Bagnyuk and General Baranov identified by our team date back to March 13, 2022. They spoke twice that morning between 10:00 and 10:30 am. Earlier that morning, Russia fired its deadliest salvo since the start of its invasion: 30 Kh-101 and Kalibr missiles killed at least 35 people and wounded 134 at a military training ground near Lviv.

Astonishingly, the mass murder of civilians in Ukraine has become quite routine for MCC officers; at least it is obvious from Bagnyuk's phone calls on the very morning when Russia started the October strikes that the first thing he did, as if nothing had happened, was to contact a coin selling website (Bagnyuk is an avid numismatist), and his colleague Major Roman Kurochkin was haggling with prostitutes over the price of services as guided missiles were hitting children’s playgrounds (The Insider managed to get access to his account on the dating site where he spends half his working hours, having registered under the name Sergey):

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

Iskander system
Iskander system

- the 3M-14 cruise missile of the sea-based Kalibr family

Kalibr missile launch
Kalibr missile launch

- the Kh-101 air-to-ground cruise missile, air-launched

X-101 launch
X-101 launch

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.

Remnants of a guided missile in Konotop
Remnants of a guided missile in Konotop

Navigation systems play an important role in missile guidance, with homing heads and navigation sensors adjusting the flight course according to a pre-planned route. The route consists of navigation points (i.e., course correction reference points that are determined by sensors and allow the landmarks over which the missile is flying to be compared against the pre-planned course), zonal evasion of air defense, and the final phase: navigation in the target area and target recognition. Several layers of data are used to accomplish this.

The inputs consist of various area maps and models, terrain and target descriptions. They are entered into the databases of various branches of the Armed Forces, one of which is the GRU satellite reconnaissance system. When all the data are collected, computers must calculate the flight route, which in turn is loaded into the cruise missile before launch.

Usually, the preplanned flight route is stored on large removable storage media, like secure USB drives, which are usually delivered by armed couriers in a special briefcase. Such data are received either by a Navy unit with ships and submarines equipped with Kalibr missile launchers, by an Air Force unit with aircraft capable of carrying cruise missiles, or by army missile units with Iskander tactical operational missile complexes.

Flight routes are calculated at special stations in several secret military units, where military engineers and some very young and potentially promising programmers emerge as key actors in allowing Putin to wage aggressive wars. Their anonymity affords them a sense of impunity and allows them not to feel personally responsible for killing dozens of civilians. This investigation is intended to snatch those sensations of safety away from them.

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