Vladimir Putin has attracted considerable attention for comments in Budapest yesterday, February 17, where he urged Ukraine to accept defeat in Debaltseve after losing to “yesterday’s miners and tractor drivers.” Putin's appeal comes as many on the RuNet believe they've found video proof that someone with slightly higher military credentials than a tractor driver is calling the shots in Debaltseve: Deputy Commander of Russia's Ground Forces Aleksandr Lentsov.
Dutch blogger “Dajey Petros,” who runs the popular Ukraine@War blog, seems to be one of the first online to have suggested Lentsov’s involvement in commanding the separatists who laid siege and recently captured Debaltseve. He tweeted on the evening of February 17 saying that Lentsov is “overseeing the takeover of Debaltseve,” comparing a still from a video apparently showing “Lentsov” in Debaltseve to a confirmed photograph of Lentsov in his military uniform. Soon after this tweet, a number of popular Ukrainian and Russian social media users shared his findings, expanding the possible discovery into a full-fledged Internet phenomenon.
— Ukraine@war (@DajeyPetros) February 17, 2015
In the video “Dajey Petros” cites, the man resembling Lentsov counts off Ukrainian prisoners and later discusses the surrender of the Ukrainian soldiers alongside a rebel commander of the Luhansk People’s Republic. A second video later emerged, supposedly showing “Lentsov” issuing commands on a radio during an attack in or near Debaltseve.
Whether or not this man is actually Lentsov remains unconfirmed, but it's hard to deny the resemblance between the man in the separatist videos and the man who we know to be Lentsov. The OSCE Twitter account does indicate, however, that Lentsov was at the JCCC quarters about 35 miles from Debaltseve, in the eastern Ukrainian city of Soledar, on the night of February 16. OSCE reports also state Lentsov met with Luhansk and Donetsk separatist representatives in Debaltseve in December 2014 in his official capacity as head of the Russian Representation in southeast Ukraine.
Many on the RuNet have already made up their minds about Lentsov, tying what they claim to be his leading role in the Debaltseve battle to Putin’s comments of separatists being “miners and tractor drivers”:
Генерал-тракторист РФ Ленцов, он же “полковник ЛНР Киселёв”, командует “шахтёрами” под Дебальцево. pic.twitter.com/WW00SRBvlL
— Мысли Перзидента (@VVP2_0) February 18, 2015
General-Tractor Driver of the Russian Federation Lentsov—also known as “colonel of the LNR [Luhansk People’s Republic] Kiselev,’ who commands “miners” near Debaltseve.
— opol4enec (@RUopol4enec) February 18, 2015
On the left, a “simple miner” and, on the right, Deputy Commander of the Ground Forces of the Russian Federation Aleksandr Lenstov.
Vitaly Kiselev, a commander of the Luhansk People’s Republic, was actually standing next to “Lentsov” during the video, thus the confusion over the name that was “attributed” to Lentsov during the clip.
Some skeptics suggested the Lentsov doppelganger was actually a local man who had risen in the ranks.
Это бывший тракторист, ныне таксист, возит Захарченка.
He used to be a tractor driver, and now he's taxiing around Zakharchenko [head of Donetsk People’s Republic].
Not all of the commentary was focused on jokes about tractor-drivers and miners, as others recalled Lentsov's checkered past as a military commander, calling into question why he in particular was involved in the Ukrainian conflict now:
Сегодня доблестный десантник, товарищ генерал -лейтенант Ленцов стал звездой интернета, хотя его видная фигура уже неоднократно засвечивалась в Украине с начала войны в лугандоне. Ранее этот бравый вояка был отмечен боевыми наградами за утюжение населенных пунктов с мирными жителями Чечни, ну а российская десантура, думается не забыла, что именно Ленцов отказался дать огневую поддержку цинично подставленной 6-ой роте псковских десантников , из-за чего погибло 84 бойца в 2000 году. В общем генерал как раз то что надо для подлой войны.
Today the valiant paratrooper, comrade Lieutenant General Lentsov, became a star of the Internet, even though his prominent figure has popped up in Ukraine since the beginning of the war in Lugandon [Lugansk and Donetsk]. Earlier this brave soldier was honored with military awards for flattening residential neighborhoods in Chechnya, and Russian paratroopers have probably not forgotten that it was Lentsov who refused to provide covering fire for the 6th Pskov paratrooper infantry—a cynical decision that led to the deaths of 84 soldiers in 2000. Basically, this general is just what this vile war needs.
The degree of citizen verification flame wars online was such that Lentsov himself finally spoke to Russia's state channel Pervyy Kanal and denied his presence in Debaltseve on February 16 or 17, claiming “it would have been impossible for him to get into the area” even if he had wanted to. While this might extinguish the fervor of some fact-checkers on social media, others will no doubt take Lentsov's excuses with a grain of salt.
The verification pros on the RuNet, it seems, can be as entrenched in their views as pundits and political commentators on mainstream media. Given that both the Ukrainian and Russian sides have committed fact-checking blunders in the past and have tried to use fake evidence to prove or disprove the presence of Russian military in eastern Ukraine, getting the public to believe any such proof might be a long and thankless battle.