July 22, 2014

Ukraine: the plot thickens

Part I

Monday 21 July 2014

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Far from the situation getting clearer as time goes on, the events around the destruction of Flight MH17 are getting murkier with each passing hour, the reporting from the popular media continuing to obscure rather than inform.

Having followed the developments all Sunday, a single post I have written is now over-long so I have broken it up into several parts, starting with a review of a piece in The Observer that offers a headline proclaiming "MH17: the evidence against Russia".

What grabbed my attention, though, was the sub-heading, which immediately goes on to declare: "In the hours after the Malaysia Airlines crash in Ukraine, evidence assembled from various sources appeared to point the blame at militants armed with Russian missiles".

This seems classic of the genre, tainting the media coverage. The "militants" (or separatists) are being automatically linked with the Russians – fair enough in normal circumstances but not in this situation, where the assumption that the two are working together has Russia share the responsibility for the destruction of HM17.

After rehearsing matters familiar to readers of this blog, we thus find The Observer failing to make any mention of the reported capture of one or more missile launchers from the Ukrainian Army base at Donetsk airport on 29 June, thus suggesting that the "militants" obtained the equipment independently of the Russians. This is simply not part of the newspaper's narrative nor, it seems, any part of the British media's remit.

In this particular article, which is reviewing the "evidence" linking the Russians to the downing of MH17, we get is the paper telling us of a report that satellite images show a plume of smoke left by a ground-to-air missile. These, we are told, help to compile an intelligence analysis shared with the UN security council by US ambassador Samantha Power, which she claimed showed the airliner was "likely downed by a surface-to-air missile, an SA-11, operated from a separatist-held location in eastern Ukraine".

This, we have no problem in accepting, but evidence that the separatists fired the missile is not in any way evidence that the Russians supplied the equipment or provided support, unofficially or officially. We need more than just the assumption that linkage on other matters necessarily means high-level involvement in this tragedy.

Yet – according to The Observer - Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby had declared that: "It strains credulity to think [the missile] could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance". This, would appear, is sufficient grounds to assert that the Russian government – and Mr Putin in particular – is responsible for the murder of 198 innocent civilians.

The interesting thing, though, is that Kirby does not actually allege that the equipment comes from Russia. What, effectively, we are getting is that since it "strains credulity" to suggest that the Russians are not involved, they must therefore be involved. If this was a trial, I would be very worried indeed.

But, from the Observer, this is all we are allowed to see from what is just a very short extract from a Department of Defense press briefing on 18 July.

What readers are not given the opportunity to see is what happens immediately after Kirby effectively asserts that the Russians must have helped the separatists. In fact, he is asked by a journalist: "Do you have evidence of that?" This is the response:
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I - look, there's a lot that's gonna be investigated, and I think we want to - we want to let investigators do their work. I don't have an indication now that - that a system was brought over. And we don't exactly know who is responsible for firing that missile, or with -- or with what assistance. What I'm saying is that that system is fairly sophisticated.
Rear Admiral Kirby is then asked: "What is the level of their training and systems? Does it include Russian forces going across the border to act as training and advisers side-by-side with the separatists?" And, once again, the answer is anything but unequivocal:
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well there have been Russian, I mean there have been incursions across the border by Russian aircraft. So, I mean we don't have any reason to suspect that they have not provided some measure of support on the other side of that order. These paramilitary forces that we do not talk about as much anymore certainly didn't act or behave or organize or resource like some ragtag militia.

So nobody is suggesting that Russian military advice and assistance hasn't somehow crossed that border. It's just unclear exactly how much and when and who. Again, that's what the investigators are going to look at and we've got to let them do that.
In other words, if the Americans have any evidence of collusion, at this stage they are not releasing it. But the Admiral does say: "I don't have an indication now that - that a system was brought over".  That is unequivocal: at this time, there is no evidence available to the Pentagon which supports any claim that any SA-11s were supplied to the separatists by the Russians. And if the US does not have the evidence, it is hard to see anyone else in a better position.

This brings us to the conclusion of part one, with the second part to follow shortly.



Part II

Monday 21 July 2014

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In Part I, we reviewed a specific newspaper report from yesterday which failed somehow to inform us that there is no good evidence that Russia (as in the Russian government) supplied or conspired to supply SA-11 anti-aircraft missiles to Ukrainian separatists.

That does not in any way diminish the evidence that Russian and the separatists are working closely together, but that is not sufficient in itself to assert that the Russian government is complicit in assisting the separatists in what amounts to a major and dangerous escalation in a growing civil war in eastern Ukraine, one far more serious than has been generally appreciated.

But, the media in particular seem to be ignoring the admission that any evidence of Russian complicity is supplying SA-11s is very slender indeed, while CNN is going way over the top in alleging Russian complicity, with no evidence at all other than unsupported statements by anonymous officials.

In the main, the media also seems to be ignoring reports that the separatists obtained the equipment on 29 June from the Ukrainian air defence regiment A1402 in Donetsk. The evidence is not even being contested. Largely, it is simply being ignored.

However, there have been reports to the effect that, while launcher systems were captured, they werenon-functional - even "junk" or broken beyond repair - at the time of capture.

What we have now though is an uncorroborated report which tells us that that Russian "civil society" assisted the separatists in repairing a launcher after it had been captured, returning it to a working condition, allowing it to be put into use by the 14 July (see screen grab above).

A point of interest here is that the term "civil society" does not necessarily imply official Russian support. Furthermore, in that the border between the separatist-held territory and Russia is porous, it is quite possible that the launcher, having been captured from the Ukrainians, could have been transported over the border, and than then back into Ukraine, where it was used against an An-26 military transport on 14 July.

What then becomes quite crucial is that, if movement across the border implies complicity of the Russians, we cannot necessarily use this movement as evidence of high-level support from the Russian government, and not can we say that, even if one launcher was seen coming in from Russia (which does not appear to have been the case), that does not necessarily mean it was supplied by the Russians.

What is also extremely significant from the source just cited, though, is that we see confiormation that the SA-11 launcher was used to down an An-26 military transport on 14 July, after the equipment had been repaired to make it usable.

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This is the first Russian language source I can recall which specifically suggests that the Antonov was downed by an SA-11. Nevertheless, this is by no means the only report. We also see it from theFinancial Times, which tells us that the aircraft was hit while flying at 6,500m – well beyond the range of a portable missile system.

The attack, we are told, sounded alarm bells in Kiev. And although then it was regarded as "an isolated" incident, we are told that officials in Kiev are now in little doubt as to what caused it – and the crash of MH17. They point the finger at a Russian-made "BUK" missile launcher.

At the time, though, it seems the Ukrainians were keen to blame Russia, charging that "a more powerful missile" than a shoulder-carried missile had been used, "probably fired" from Russia.

David Stern for the BBC even then described the accusation that Russian forces had shot down a Ukrainian transport plane as "potentially a game changer". If Russia was indeed targeting Ukrainian aeroplanes from inside its territory, it was "an act of aggression of the highest order".

However, the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) claims it knew full well from a telephone intecept on 14 July between a pro-Russian militant and a man identified as "Oreon", an intelligence officer with Russia, that the separatists were talking about "avenging for planes today", with Oreon recorded as saying: "We already have BUK, we'll be shooting down them to hell".

Yet, on the day, the SSU did issue a press release about the detection of anti-aircraft missiles, but what it was reporting was the finding of a cache of man-portable "Igla-1" missiles. There was no hint whatsoever, that massively more dangerous missiles were in the hands of the separatists.

However, despite choosing publicly to pin the blame on the Russians, the Kiev authorities that very day imposed a minimum height requirement of 32,000 on all overflights. It was a thousand feet higher than that, on the instructions of Ukrainian air traffic, that MH17 was later to fly.

What has been completely missed, however, is that Ukraine bears the primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of aircraft in its own airspace and, if it had been aware that the separatists had missiles which could reach 72,000ft - and they had already shot down one aircraft - then it had a duty to publish a warning and exclude aircraft from the danger area.

That it kept silent, revealing its knowledge about "BUK" only after MH17 had been shot down, puts the Ukrainian government in the frame as responsible for putting the Boeing 777 in harm's way. 

Not least, Ukraine was protecting the revenue from the overflight fees levied on the 350 aircraft transiting each day, amounting to millions each week. But one can only speculate on further motives. The indications are that the government was looking for a "game changer".

With the separatists in possession of high-performance anti-aircraft missiles, and the air traffic control obligingly routing a stream of airlines over their territory, it could only be a matter of time before the Ukrainian government got its wish.

In fact, it took a mere three days for that "gamer changer", with the "BUK" system intercepting MH17. Things will never be the same again. And that brings us to the conclusion of Part II.



Part III

Monday 21 July 2014

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With hardly any more evidence that it had on Saturday – which was none at all - it seems the United States, represented by John Kerry, is prepared to accuse Russia of sending "powerful rocket launchers" to the separatists who shot down MH17.

This is according to The Times which carried the report on its front page, claiming "Damming US intelligence puts Russia in the dock". It is referring to an "American intelligence report" which also alleges that President Putin allowed separatist fighters to receive training inside Russia - including on the air-defence systems apparently used to bring down MH17.

The US report then goes on to claim that three BUK-M1 surface-to-air missile units of the type believed used for the attack were hurriedly taken back into Russia at night, within hours of the incident on Thursday.

The interesting part of that claim is that it relies largely on "intelligence" from the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU). However, the evidence suggesting that the origin of the missile launcher(s) was the Ukrainian Army, and that one launcher at least had been in use on 14 July, has been largely glossed over.

In fact, we have the New York Times saying that American officials have ruled out the possibility that the separatists used a captured system from the Ukrainian government's arsenal. The SA-11 unit that the separatists said they captured in June, American officials say, "is not operational and is in a different region of Ukraine".

Thus, the SSU is still asserting that it has "compelling evidence that a Boeing 777 aircraft was shot down with the use of BUK anti-missile system which together with a crew had been transferred from Russia to Ukraine".

Intercepts from mobile phones, it is claimed, have revealed that a BUK missile launcher controlled by an all-Russian crew of between three and six men had crossed the Russia-Ukraine border at 1am on Thursday near the village of Sukhodolsk.

The launcher is said to have been tracked to the rebel stronghold of Donetsk and then escorted by rebel forces to the village of Pervomayski in the battle-torn area around Luhansk. Just after 4pm its radar system detected a large aircraft flying at 33,000ft. According to the official, the BUK's Russian operator reported the size of the aircraft to his commander, a junior rebel officer, who gave the order to launch a missile, believing the target to be a Ukrainian transport.

In a statement issued on Saturday, Security Service then said: "The SSU conducts investigative actions and receives irrefutable evidence that Russian citizens were involved in the act of terrorism", adding that, "the Russian side ordered terrorists to withdraw BUK launchers from Ukraine".

As a result, the SSU says, at 2:00 (am presumably) on 18 July (the day after MH17 had been downed, "two movers each with a BUK missile launcher crossed the Russian border in Luhansk region. At 4:00, another three movers: one of them empty, other carrying a launcher with four missiles and the latter allegedly with a control unit, crossed the state border".

A senior SSU official has also told The Sunday Times that "the missile launcher that shot down the passenger jet was smuggled into eastern Ukraine from Russia on the morning of the attack and hastily withdrawn back over the border hours after the tragedy".

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That the launcher was taken across the border to Russia after the attack is indeed possible, as this report suggests. But that does not constitute evidence of the original source of the launchers. And where this gets especially interesting is that the SSU has posted several pictures of one BUK unit, on a low loader with a white tractor cab. The launcher is clearly an M1 model, with the vehicle designation 312 (pictured above).

From an entirely different source, however, we see what appears to be exactly the same launcher, vehicle designation 312 (pictured below), claimed to have been filmed in March in the Gorlovka area, north of Donetsk (outside the separatist area), as part of a Ukrainian Army convoy. The YouTubevideo is here (see 37 seconds in). 

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If these two pictures do show the same launcher, and the March video does indeed show a Ukrainian Army unit, then the SSU have very kindly furnished evidence that supports the case that the launcher used to down MH17 was indeed captured from the Ukrainian Army on 29 June and subsequently repaired.

What is also possibly an issue is that while the Russians and the Ukrainians both use the BUK anti-aircraft missile system, the Ukrainians are equipped with the older M1 version, which pre-dates the break-up of the Soviet Union. Russian forces tend to use the upgraded BUK M2 model (NATO code SA-17 Grizzly), most easily identified by the different radar package (picture below).


There remains little doubt that the separatists did have one or more M1 launchers (possibly up to three). And such that we have reported already is further reinforced by a report from an Associated Press reporter who claims that on Thursday 17 July that he saw a BUK missile system, alongside seven rebel-owned tanks, parked at a petrol station outside the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne.

Then there is this picture of the BUK missile system said to be in the possession of pro-Russian separatists, reported on 17 July, the location now identified as Gagarin Street in close-by Torez, one of the nearest towns to the MH17 crash site.

The appearance of the BUK M1 312 launcher (with the photograph published by the SSU) is of course entirely compatible with assertions made by analyst Sergei Kurguinjan, who has it that a Ukrainian launcher was repaired by Russian "civil society" and put into use by the separatists.

This same report is expanded upon here, with Kurguinjan claiming on 13 July in a video report (now deleted, but possibly this one) that the separatists already had a BUK anti-aircraft missile system and that they were ready to use it.

According to Kurguinjan, styled as a pro-Kremlin political analyst, "Civil society delivers a large number of armoured vehicles and other equipment on private terms". He adds that, "Russian civil society will never cross the line and will supply very modest equipment. They will not supply Iskander or C-300 or other ambitious systems because it is not in [the] competence of a civil society to do so and because it is not needed".

He affirms that the separatists have BUK, which was allegedly "seized from the Ukrainian military". Kurguinjan goes on to say: "Our talented electricians will of course repair it. I think that they seized from the Ukrainian bandits - it is already repaired. They will restore it in the near future. It will be restored. It is possible that there are few of them".

The report closes with Kurguinjan stating unequivocally that the militants are ready to use the weapons. "I do not recommend to Kyiv to make any foolery", he says.

That the separatists had possession of the BUK system on and before 14 July can be triangulated with the SSU mobile phone transcripts, and also the downing of the An-26 which Kiev is now accepting was brought down by an SA-11. Yet part of the US intelligence case is that the launcher which downed MH17 was part of a convoy of 150 military vehicles that secretly crossed into Ukraine "days before the atrocity".

What is turning out to be typical of John Kerry's brand of "intelligence", though, there is no physical evidence offered of the existence of this convoy – much less that it included an M1 launcher. US assertions, it seems, can be believed without the need for evidence, even when made by officials on condition of anonymity, while Russian denials are just denials.

You can see why Putin is not exactly impressed by what the West has to say.



Part IV

Tuesday 22 July 2014

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I really don't know what is more fatuous – the idea that Mr Putin was personally responsible for supplying the missiles that shot down MH17, or the idea that it doesn't matter – that as long as he is supporting the separatists, he bears the ultimate responsibility for the downing of the Malaysian airliner.

The reality, of course, is that Putin is playing a dangerous game, supporting the separatists to an extent, but only to an extent. He has no interest whatsoever in escalating the conflict to a level where it gets out of control, or in causing dangerous international incidents, which can have serious economic and political consequences.

Furthermore, it only takes a very slight knowledge of the situation in Russia and on its border to understand that Putin does not have full – and in some cases even partial – control of events. He must carry the "hard men" with him, and if he steps outside the bounds of the acceptable, his own power base comes under threat.

To a very great extent, therefore, Western leaders have greater control over their own machines than Putin, at least within their own domains. And in that context, people such as President Obama have in certain respects as much power to shape events in Ukraine as does the Russian President.

And it is here that we need to be looking, at whether the United States could have done anything to influence events, and  prevent the loss of MH17.

Here, we have already looked at Ukraine and whether it should have sounded the alarm about the existence of high-performance anti-aircraft missiles in the hands of the separatists. But what applies to the Ukrainians applies in spades to the United States and Mr Obama.

The crucial issue here is that downing of the An-26 on 14 July, and whether it was picked up by US satellite systems. It is now widely acknowledged that the shooting down of MH17 was witnessed by satellites, but there is no evidence that the US intelligence agencies were watching the area on 14 July.

Nevertheless, there is absolutely no question that the SBIRS network is capable of detecting, monitoring and recording the deployment of a surface-to-air missile, and there is also the Defence Support Programme, which launched 23 missile warning spacecraft between 1970 and 2007.

But, as this blog also tells us, several SIGINT and ELINT satellites cover this area, including various MENTOR (ORION) satellites and one MERCURY satellite in GEO, and USA 184, which is both a TRUMPET-FO SIGINT satellite and a SBIRS platform, in HEO.

One does not have to understand the jargon to appreciate the significance of all this. SIGINT satellites amongst others serve to detect and monitor signals from military radar and missile systems. Given the interest of the USA and NATO in closely watching military developments in the Ukraine conflict, it is almost certain that some of these are (and were) targeting the area.

With the flare-up of fighting in eastern Ukraine over June and early July, there is every reason to expect that the US would have deployed satellites to observe the area, and if they picked up the BUK launch which destroyed MH17, then it is entirely reasonable to assume they picked up the downing of the An-26 on 14 July. Furthermore, the equipment could have identified the launch of an SA-11 missile.

From what we know of the way the US administration works, it is also the case that the President is given a daily security briefing. The fact that Ukrainian separatists had acquired a missile system which could threaten commercial aviation, and the lives of US citizens, is surely something he would have been told during such a briefing.

Sadly though, with the media (and Western politicians) obsessed with Putin's role and his degree of responsibility for the actions of the separatists, they have been distracted from events of 14 July. No one is asking, therefore, whether it was possible as a result of satellite intelligence delivered to the US President  to have warned the world's airlines of a potential threat, taking measures to keep them out of harm's way.

Amongst a very few others, one journalist in particular is asking what the US satellites might have seen. Investigative reporter Robert Parry thus comments:

… here we are yet again with the MSM relying on unverified claims being made by the Kiev regime about something as sensitive as whether Russia provided sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles – capable of shooting down high-flying civilian aircraft – to poorly trained eastern Ukrainian rebels.

This charge is so serious that it could propel the world into a second Cold War and conceivably – if there are more such miscalculations – into a nuclear confrontation. These moments call for the utmost in journalistic professionalism, especially skepticism toward propaganda from biased parties.

Yet, what Americans have seen again is the major US news outlets, led by the Washington Post and the New York Times, publishing the most inflammatory of articles based largely on unreliable Ukrainian officials and on the US State Department which was a principal instigator of the Ukraine crisis.
The alarming thing is that, when we look at the State Department and John Kerry - responsible for many of the headlines yesterday, we find that he is very far from offering evidence of Russian complicity. Kerry is asked: "Are you bottom lining here that Russia provided the weapon?", whence he responds:
There's a story today confirming that. But we have not, within the administration, made a determination. But it's pretty clear, when, you know, there's a build-up of extraordinary circumstantial evidence. You know, I'm a former prosecutor. I've tried cases on circumstantial evidence. It's powerful here. But even more importantly, we picked up the imagery of this launch. We know the trajectory. We know where it came from. We know the timing. And it was exactly at the time that this aircraft disappeared from the radar. We also know, from voice identification, that the separatists were bragging about shooting it down afterwards.
But, when it comes actually to answering the question, all he can say is: "… there's a stacking up of evidence here, which Russia needs to help account for. We are not drawing the final conclusion here".

PressTV picks up this sleight of hand, calling the Kerry accusation a "hoax", remarking that nowhere has he made statements about the source a missile, noting that dozens of journalists around the world have been "burned" by this type of story.

What has been called a "reckless rush to judgement", however, is more than a matter of shoddy journalism and gullible journalists. The role of US intelligence, its threat assessment of the events of the 14 July and the failure to give a warning to the world's airlines is part of the story. And it is being missed.

Peter Mckay in the Mail is one of those who is beginning to question the consensus and we see some sensible writing from Mary Dejevsky in the Spectator, who argues that the "blame game reflects badly on all of us".

That, though, is the least of it. There is a case to be made that there has been a major system failure here, with the US authorities every bit as culpable in their own way for the MH17 tragedy as the Russians - culpable in the sense that they could have stopped it from happening.

Thus, when Mr Cameron says, as he did yesterday, that the shooting down of MH17 was "a defining moment for Russia", he needs as much re-education as the journalists who report his words. The real story - the whole story - has yet to be told. What did satellite intelligence tell Mr Obama, and why didn't he insist on the world's airlines being warned of the emergent threat?



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