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SS-21 in Ukraine

Roman Goncharenko / sgbAugust 2, 2014

Ukraine's defense minister and a NATO representative in Kyiv have denied DW reports that the Ukrainian army has been using ballistic missiles against pro-Russian separatists in the country's east.

(Photo: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

At first, NATO confirmed to DW a report by US news channel CNN that the Ukrainian army has used short-range ballistic missiles against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. "The information is based on data from US reconnaissance" a spokesman at NATO's Brussels headquarters said Friday (01.08.2014). He did not disclose any further details.

However, shortly afterward, Ukraine Defense Minister Valeri Heletej strongly denied the DW report in a televised statement. "Ukraine has no such missiles as has been reported," he said. Also, NATO's own representative in Kyiv denied the report.

The latest comments come after an earlier denial by the Ukrainian government refering to the CNN report.

"The Ukrainian army does not use ballistic missiles during the anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine," Ukrainian National Security Defense Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko told the news agency Interfax Ukraine on July 30. "They have enough less powerful arms." Another spokesman denied even possessing ballistic missiles to Ukrainian media.

Media in Russia and Ukraine have speculated for days about the use of these weapons. A likely candidate is the "Tochka" missile system (NATO reporting name: SS-21 Scarab). These ballistic missiles can fly over 100 kilometers. The explosive force of their payloads is significantly greater than that of the weapon systems in use until now. Experts say this could change the military balance of power in the conflict region.

No clarity about purpose

There is no information on how many rockets there were or where they were fired. It is also unclear whether anything was hit.

Russian SS-21 Scarab test-firing
Ukraine may have used the Tochka or SS-21 Scarab short-range missile against enemy positionsImage: AP

Missiles of this kind are not designed to shoot down aircraft, meaning it is unlikely there is any connection to the crash of Flight MH17.

On their website The Russian Spring, pro-Russian separatists said they suspected that the Saur-Mohyla heights, located between the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, could have been a target.

There was fierce fighting for the area in late July. It is strategically important because a large part of the Russian-Ukrainian border can be controlled from it.

The separatists also say they found parts of a ballistic missile warhead in Luhansk region. There has been no independent corroboration of this claim.

CNN's Barbara Starr reported on the use of ballistic missiles in eastern Ukraine on July 29. "US intelligence saw through its satellite systems Ukrainian forces launching short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles from Ukrainian government positions into the separatist-held areas," she said. "This happened over the last 48 hours. This is a game-changer."

So far, there has been no explanation for the diverging information and no comment from US intelligence in response to Ukraine's denials or that of the NATO representative in Kyiv.