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Deadly 'hail'

Roman Goncharenko / sadJuly 25, 2014

Fighting in eastern Ukraine continues after a passenger airplane was allegedly shot down. One weapon in particular keeps coming into play: the Grad rocket launcher. Kyiv accuses Moscow of supplying it to the separatists.

Russian airplane with Buk rocket launcher system (Photo: MAXIM SHIPENKOV/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Kalashnikovs are so yesterday. Fighting in eastern Ukraine is increasingly done with heavy weapons, like the one that reportedly shot down the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 on July 17. Pro-Russian separatists appear to have not only tanks and cannons at their disposal, but also complex rocket launcher systems, according to Ukrainian officials.

The government in Kyiv and Western intelligence services suspect that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by a rocket from a Buk missile system. The separatists deny that they downed the passenger plane.

40 rockets in 20 seconds

The separatists, however, admitted to operating other rockets: "Yes, we have 'Grad,'" the self-proclaimed leader of the "Luhansk Republic," Valeri Bolotov, said at a press conference. Grad, which translates to "hail," is another name for the M-21 rocket launcher system that uses BM-21 launch vehicles.

Grad is a further development of the Soviet Katyusha multiple rocket launcher - which the Nazis named the "Stalin Organ" during World War II, due to its design of multiple tubes.

Russian military exercise using Grad rocket launchers (Photo: Ildus Gilyazutdinov/RIA Novosti)
The Russian army also uses Grad rocket launchersImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The Grad, which was developed in the 1960s, can shoot off 40 rockets in 20 seconds and has a range of up to 40 kilometers (25 miles), according to manufacturer information. One rocket has the capability of annihilating "all life within a radius of 100 meters," a promotional video proclaimed.

A Ukrainian unit shot near the village of Selenopillya on July 11 suffered more than 20 deaths and 100 injured, according to official sources. Pictures showed mangled trucks and armored vehicles.

"The farther the distance, the less precise the shot," Kyiv military expert Serhiy Sgurez told DW, adding that the consequences of inaccuracy meant more civilian in eastern Ukraine dying in a hail of rockets.

Grad's unknown origins

The Ukrainian government has accused Russia of supplying Grad rocket systems to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. The rocket launchers and accompanying launch trucks are driven through open portions of the border or across agricultural fields, according to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.

Officials in Kyiv at the start of July presented weapons supposedly captured by separatists; a Grad launcher was among them.

"The device was from the Soviet era, and could not be confirmed to have originated in Russia," a Western military expert who preferred to remain anonymous told DW.

Shooting from Russia?

Kyiv has also accused Moscow of shooting across the border into Ukrainian territory from Russia. Amateur videos appeared on the Internet mid-July apparently shot in the Russian village of Gukov, just a few kilometers from the border, show a pond with a column of fire rising in the background. This allegedly shows Russia's direct intervention in the conflict.

Journalists based in Donetsk have said the attack appears to have come from the West (Photo: DW, Filip Warwick)
Rockets allegedly fired from Russia damaged UkraineImage: DW/F. Warwick

Sgurez, however, was cautious in ascribing such accusations to Russia, saying this would have to be confirmed through comparison of geographical features. If proved to be true, Moscow could be attempting to provoke further conflict to destabilize the region.

Moscow weapons expert Alexander Golz said there's one quick way to confirm whether the shots came from Russia: "US intelligence services have the required technical capability."

Pointing fingers

The separatists accused the Ukrainian army of using Grad rocket launching systems, adding that it is responsible for many civilian deaths. Kyiv, for its part, denies shooting at civilian neighborhoods.

Moscow also accuses Ukraine of shooting into Russian territory. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently threatened to "snuff out" those who would take such action. Golz said that amounts to a new tone from Moscow.

A few days earlier, the Kremlin dismissed as "nonsense" accusations that it would fire "targeted strikes" in reaction to Ukrainian shots.