The Ukrainian experts dismantling bombs for clues to Putin’s arms supply

A century-old institute that used to focus on criminal cases is studying Russia’s weapons, and where parts are coming from

Oleksandr gently manoeuvred a piece of circuit board under the microscope, watching as the intricate network of chips and tiny wires was rendered in large on an adjacent screen.

Three shiny silver letters came into focus: “FSB” – a jumbo-size rendition of a tiny hologram sticker on the board, hardly visible to the naked eye, showing it had passed through the quality control procedure of the Russian security agency.

The circuit board was one of several small electronic components laid out on a table in Oleksandr’s lab. Together, they made up the internal system of a Russian Iskander missile that hit a crowded theatre in Chernihiv in mid-August, killing seven and wounding more than 140 people.

Oleksandr, a ballistics specialist who has a background in anti-aircraft defence in the Ukrainian army, spends his days at the Kyiv Scientific Research Institute of Forensic Expertise picking apart the remains of Russian missiles, looking for information about how they work and how Moscow is adapting as its pre-war stockpiles of missiles dwindle.

“Each time we get missile fragments, we analyse what it is, where it came from, and what parts are in it,” said Oleksandr, who declined to give his surname.

Russian missiles in the institute’s courtyard.
Russian missiles in the institute’s courtyard. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Taking apart missiles and drones to discover what’s inside them is also a key part of Ukraine’s efforts to make life harder for Russian weapon’s manufacturers, given the prevalence of foreign-made parts in Moscow’s weapons. The list of components and manufacturers is sent to other agencies, as well as to the official in the presidential administration coordinating Ukraine’s sanctions lobbying.

“We have the task of discovering the electronic components, aggregates, who is the manufacturer, the chips, micro-elements. The Russians can’t do much high-tech stuff; almost all the high-tech components inside are imported,” said Oleksandr.

In the institute’s courtyard there is a veritable museum of Russian missiles – more than 20 tonnes of various parts, including fragments of huge Kh-22 missiles, parts from the Kinzhal, a newly developed hypersonic missile, Iskanders, S-300s and other weapons used by Moscow against Ukraine.

“A lot of the Russian missiles we knew about before, but many we are seeing for the first time in combat use, and we didn’t know what was inside them,” said Oleksandr. “We also see them adapting and changing their missiles as the war goes on.”

Laid out on the ground outside the lab are the engines from two “Shahed” drones – the so-called kamikaze drones produced in Iran which Russia has used widely in its attacks on Ukrainian cities. Because of the crude design and loud engine, the drones have been nicknamed “mopeds” by Ukrainians.

One of the engines is from a drone made in Iran, which was launched at Kyiv last year, but the second engine is one the experts believe was made in Russia, at a factory in Tatarstan where home-grown production of the drones is now under way. The drone hit Odesa over the summer.

One striking element of the new drone was several parts stamped with “Tillotson: Made in Ireland”. The parts, apparently small carburettors, are designed for use in lawnmowers and other civilian applications, and the company has said it works closely with the relevant authorities to “monitor and track” their sale and distribution. It is also aware, it has said, that its products are “commonly faked” in China.

A document obtained by the Guardian suggested that up to 57 separate foreign-made parts have been found in recent Shahed drones.

The forensic expertise institute is one of several Ukrainian institutions carrying out such research, but claims to be the biggest. In peacetime the institute, which is more than 100 years old, focused on forensic work for criminal investigations; its director, Oleksandr Ruvin, says proudly it has 97 different areas of work, including handwriting analysis, carbon dating, assessing financial damages from criminal acts or natural disasters and a team of psychologists who work with lie detectors.

Since the war started, at least half the institute’s work has been redirected to help the war effort. As well as its work on identifying missile and drone components to better inform the Ukrainian army about how Russia’s missiles work and to help with Ukraine’s sanctions lobbying abroad, the institute has also focused on counting the financial cost of Russia’s war.

One team has used 3D mapping of destroyed houses in Kyiv region to create a financial estimate of the war damage caused by the Russian invasion. Another team works on analysing the black boxes from downed Russian aircraft and helicopters, and the lie detector machines are put to use to test people in the occupied areas who claim they cooperated with the Russians only because they were forced to. (“It’s 95% effective, if the operator is well-trained, it’s almost impossible to cheat it,” claimed Ruvin).

Dishes of soil samples from various parts of Ukraine.
Dishes of soil samples from various parts of Ukraine. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

The scientist Oleh Posilsky and a team of lab assistants analyse soil samples from various parts of the country.

“We take soil from the same place at different times, and then we see how it changed as the result of certain events,” said Posilsky, surrounded by dishes of soil samples. At the start of the war, the work was mainly about showing the economic consequences of missile strikes on agricultural land; but recently, the team has been working on the consequences of the flooding caused by the explosion of the Kakhovka dam.

Ruvin said: “We need the estimates of damage to attach to cases in the international criminal court, as well as for our own courts. They need professional expertise to assess these cases, and we provide it.”

• This article was amended on 27 September 2023. An earlier version referred incorrectly to drones being used in attacks on “Iranian cities”, rather than Ukrainian cities.


Shaun Walker in Kyiv

The GuardianTramp

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