Russia is using gamers to target Ukraine with deadly cruise missile strikes. Dozens of people were killed in attacks across Ukraine earlier this month as Moscow appeared to take revenge over a strike on a bridge linking annexed Crimea to the Russian mainland.
After a six-month investigation, Bellingcat, The Insider and Der Spiegel have exposed a secretive group of dozens of military engineers with backgrounds in missile programming.
Investigators studied phone metadata which showed contacts between those people and their superiors were spiked just before many of Russia’s cruise missile strikes.
The group works from the Ministry of Defence headquarters in Moscow and at the Admiralty headquarters in St. Petersburg. According to Bellingcat, the group is buried deep within the Russian Armed Forces’ vast Main Computation Centre of the General Staff, often abbreviated as GVC.
Most of the members identified are young men and women, including a husband and wife. Many have IT and even computer-gaming backgrounds. Some also worked at Russia’s military command centre in Damascus between 2016 and 2021 when Russia deployed cruise missiles in Syria.
According to Bellingcat, Lt Col Bagnyuk’s call records showed communication with more than 20 military engineers and IT specialists linked to the GVC.
By analysing phone records, Bellingcat reconstructed a team of 33 military engineers who appeared to report to or communicate often with Lt Col Bagnyuk, who made a series of calls prior to the October attacks on Ukraine.
An avid coin collector, Lt Col Bagnyuk’s phone records reveal he communicated a number of times with coin-trading website eurocoin.ru about an hour before a salvo of missiles struck Kyiv, killing dozens, on October 10.
The military engineers working for the GVC include people who spent their entire careers in the Russian army or navy as well as young people recruited from civilian jobs usually linked to IT and computer science.
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Matvey Lyubavin appears to be one of Lt Col Bagnyuk’s most senior subordinates.
He was born in 1992, attended the Nakhimov naval-military school in St Petersburg in 2009 before graduating in 2014 from the Military-Naval Engineering Institute in the same city with a specialisation in IT automation of special-purpose systems.
After graduating, he worked in IT support at two banks and at a pharmaceutical company.
According to Ukraine’s national emergency service, Russia attacked Ukraine’s largest cities with missiles killing at least 20 people and wounding more than 100 on October 10.
The Kremlin claimed the attacks had targeted Ukraine’s military and security command centres as well as the country’s energy grid.
Open source evidence showed a number of missiles hit non-military targets, including homes, nurseries and playgrounds.
The attack marked Russia’s largest coordinated missile strikes since the beginning of the war. Further attacks came on October 11, 17 and 18.
Journalists from Bellingcat have since reported visual evidence and photographs of remains of the missiles show many launched on October 10 and 11 were winged cruise missiles of the sea-launched Kalibr (3M-14), the land-launched R-500 (9M728) for the Iskander system, and air-launched Kh-101 types.
Bellingcat says such long-range cruise missiles have repeatedly destroyed civilian infrastructure and caused hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries since the war began on February 24.
Meanwhile, Russia said on Wednesday it would continue to make the case to the international community that it believed Ukraine intended to detonate a “dirty bomb” with radioactive contaminants. Kyiv and its Western allies have not only rejected Russia’s allegation, but also voiced concern Moscow is using it as a pretext for a further escalation of the conflict.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “We have information that suggests Ukraine is preparing for such a terrorist sabotage, and we will vigorously continue to convey our point of view to the world community in order to encourage them to take active steps to prevent such irresponsible behaviour.”
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu made calls to his Indian and Chinese counterparts on Wednesday to convey Moscow’s warning. It came after a series of calls earlier in the week with NATO defence ministers.