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Afghanistan: snatching defeat from victory?

September 9, 2014

Summary: Surely the risk of internal conflict is increasing as both presidential candidates continue to claim victory.

The election saga continues but threatens to move from farce to tragedy.  Both candidates are still claiming victory and failing to reach plausible compromise despite the complex and costly vote recount.  The Washington Post is highlighting some worrying information that surely boosts the risk of a civil war:

Washington Post, 8 Sept 2014: The prospect of two candidates declaring themselves the elected successor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai grew significantly Monday, threatening the Obama’s administration’s efforts to prevent the country from erupting in political unrest.  After weeks of recriminations over the disputed results of a June runoff election and negotiations on forming a unity government, Abdullah

Not smiling now...

Not smiling now…

Abdullah declared victory on national television and pledged to block his rival from taking power through “fraudulent results.” The defiant statement heightened tensions days before the announcement of audited election results, which are expected to deliver the presidency to former finance minister Ashraf Ghani.  ‘“We are the winner of the election based on the clean votes of the people,” said Abdullah, claiming that the vote was plagued by widespread fraud. “Fraud, fraudulent results and the announcement of the fraudulent results are not acceptable.”

In response, Daoud Sultanzoy, a top aide to Ghani, said Ghani is prepared to assume power unilaterally should Abdullah fail to return to the bargaining table.

“This is not about a spoiled group that wants to keep a grip on power,” said Sultanzoy, noting the stalemate is hurting the economy. “This is about the people of this country, and we are cognizant about this and won’t be reckless.”

I wasn’t entirely sure whether a “government of national unity” wasn’t simply a fudge that would more or less guarantee internal argument and strife in the months to come.  Now, however, it seems that the country might not even get to that stage.  The highly respected American analyst Seth Jones:

Wall Street Journal, 8 Sept 2014: Afghanistan faces its most serious crisis in a decade. This time, however, it is not caused by an emboldened Taliban but by growing friction between the two contenders for president. Only a determined effort by the United States and other NATO allies can prevent an escalation into violence…The stakes are high. So is the tension in Kabul, where there are rumors that some of Mr. Abdullah’s supporters are considering violence if Mr. Ghani is declared the winner in coming days…

An outbreak of violence could have serious consequences. It could trigger a coup attempt or in-fighting among government security forces allied with the respective camps. There are growing concerns that key military, police and intelligence officials in Kabul and out in the field would support different sides in an insurrection.

Such a split would weaken the government and the fragile Afghan National Security Forces, which could rupture along ethnic lines. That could allow pro-Abdullah forces to consolidate control of the capital and other primarily Tajik and Hazara provinces in central and northern Afghanistan, while pro-Ghani forces could control Pashtun areas in the east and south of the country.

There are already indications that segments of the Afghan National Army, such as the 205th Corps headquartered in Kandahar, could face significant divisions if the losing candidate broke with Kabul. Its subordinate units—which consist of four brigades, a commando battalion and three garrisons—might fracture because of the divided political loyalties of its commanders.

This is key – the Taliban can remain a broadly manageable threat only if the ANSF is unified and controlled by a coherent central government.  With violent fractures in the Kabul regime, the ANSF becomes worse than ineffective – it will split into pro-warlord factions and become a part of the problem.

My thesis from last year looked at directions in which the Afghan conflict could go after 2014.  It highlighted the risks that other political/military factions beyond the Taliban might get drawn in to contest control of the state and suggested that a struggle for army loyalty is plausible and could become a further danger to the stability of the country.

Russia planning another convoy into Ukraine

August 25, 2014

Summary: Suggestions that the Russians are planning to send in another “aid” convoy in a few days

Here we go…

BBC, 25 Aug 2014: Russia plans to send another humanitarian convoy into eastern Ukraine “in the next few days”, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said.  Mr Lavrov said the humanitarian situation there was “deteriorating”.  Ukraine did not authorise the first convoy, which returned to Russia at the weekend, fearing it carried military equipment for pro-Russia separatists.  Ukrainian officials said a column of armoured vehicles crossed from Russia on Monday, sparking heavy clashes.

The likelihood of this becoming a more general – and, dare I say it “official” – armed clash seems greater.  The Ukrainians did not allow the Russians in last time and the unilateral decision by Russia to send the convoy in anyway, without ICRC accompaniment, was roundly condemned by everyone apart from, well, Russia, really.  I suggested previously that one tactic might be to establish the principle of entry and use it to slowly increase presence and influence inside eastern Ukraine.  But an article in Time thinks this is but part of a wider Russian effort to challenge the US seeming monopoly over aid distribution.

Not sure if this is accurate, but I agree with this sentiment, expressed here in American Thinker:

No nation in world history has destroyed its relationships with the outside world as rapidly or decisively as Vladimir Putin’s Russia has done in 2014.

The solution to Putin is not military but essentially political and economic and will take several years.  People will simply stop wanting to work with his version of Russia.

“The Russian side has decided to act”. Convoy pushes into Ukraine regardless…

August 22, 2014

Summary: Developments on the aid convoy – Russia decides to run the convoy into Ukraine anyway.  Ukraine calls it “invasion”.

Carry On Regardless...

Carry On Regardless…

Russia takes the next logical step in the art of provocation and moves part of the aid convoy into Ukraine without the permission of the Ukrainian government.  Russia says it has met all the requirements and that Ukraine is delaying.  An official, but angry, provocative and accusatory defence of this move comes in the form of a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement:

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY STATEMENT ON THE START OF THE DELIVERY OF HUMANITARIAN RELIEF AID TO SOUTHEASTERN UKRAINE1956-22-08-2014

The endless delays hampering the initial deliveries of the Russian humanitarian relief aid to southeastern Ukraine have become intolerable.
A lorry convoy with many hundreds of tonnes of humanitarian relief aid, urgently needed by the people in these regions, has been standing idle for a week now on the Russian-Ukrainian border. Over this period, the Russian side has made unprecedented efforts in all areas and at all levels in order to complete the required formalities. We have met all conceivable and inconceivable demands of the Ukrainian side and have submitted to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) exhaustive lists of food, drinking water, medications, essential items and diesel generators due to be delivered to Lugansk, where they are urgently needed by women, children and the elderly. These people are experiencing the horrors of daily artillery attacks and air strikes that have resulted in an increasing number of killed and wounded and destroyed the entire vital infrastructure in the area. Time and again, we met requests to check and recheck the shipment route, to coordinate procedures for the shipment’s delivery, and have signed the required documents with the ICRC. We have provided all essential security guarantees and have ensured similar guarantees on the part of the self-defense forces. These guarantees apply to the Russian convoy as well as other humanitarian relief aid being sent to Lugansk by the Kiev authorities.
At the same time, Kiev has delayed granting its formal consent required by the ICRC for several days, while repeatedly inventing new pretexts and stepping up attacks on Lugansk and Donetsk that involve military aircraft and heavy-duty armored vehicles, targeting residential areas and other civilian facilities. Over the past few days, the Ukrainian side has been launching ballistic missiles, including the deadly Tochka-U missiles, ever more frequently.
On 21 August, the situation appeared to have been resolved when the Ukrainian authorities finally informed the ICRC of their readiness to start clearing humanitarian shipments for prompt delivery to Lugansk. The Ukrainian side officially confirmed its unconditional consent for the convoy to start moving during a phone conversation between the Foreign Affairs Ministers of Russia and Ukraine. On 20 August, customs clearance and border control procedures were launched at the Donetsk checkpoint. On 21 August, however, this process was stopped, with officials citing much more intensive bombardment of Lugansk. In other words, the Ukrainian authorities are bombing the destination and are using this as a pretext to stop the delivery of humanitarian relief aid.
It appears that Kiev has set out to complete its “cleansing” of Lugansk and Donetsk in time for the 24 August Independence Day celebrations. It seems increasingly credible that the incumbent Ukrainian leadership is deliberately delaying the delivery of the humanitarian relief aid until there is nobody left to deliver this aid to. Quite possibly, they hope to achieve this result prior to the planned 26 August meetings in Minsk.
Russia is outraged by the blatant external manipulation of the international experts involved in preparing this operation. An endless succession of contradictory and mutually exclusive signals and messages we have been receiving is a true indication of behind the scenes games for purposes that have nothing to do with accomplishing a set humanitarian objective. Those who are holding the reins and hampering efforts to save human lives, to mitigate the suffering of sick and wounded people neglect the basic principles of society. We have called on the UN Security Council to promptly declare a humanitarian armistice, but these proposals are being invariably blocked by those who pay lip service to universal human values. Last time, this happened on 20 August, when the United States and some Western members of the UNSC declined to issue a statement in support of a ceasefire during the delivery of humanitarian relief aid to Lugansk by Russian and Ukrainian convoys.
We hereby state once again: All the required security guarantees regarding the passage of the humanitarian convoy have been provided. The ICRC has officially recognised these guarantees. The delivery routes are known, and they have been checked by an ICRC mission. The documents have been drawn up. The shipments have long been ready for inspection by Ukrainian border guards and customs officers who have been waiting at the Donetsk checkpoint in the Rostov Region for a week now. The capitals that display heightened concern for the situation in southeastern Ukraine are well aware of this. The endless artificial demands and pretexts have become unconscionable.
It is no longer possible to tolerate this lawlessness, outright lies and inability to reach agreements. All pretexts for delaying the delivery of aid to people in the humanitarian disaster zone have been depleted. The Russian side has decided to act. Our humanitarian relief convoy is setting out towards Lugansk. Naturally, we are ready to allow ICRC officials to escort the convoy and to take part in distributing aid. We hope that representatives of the Russian Red Cross Society will also be able to take part in this mission.
We are warning against any attempts to thwart this purely humanitarian mission which took a long time to prepare in conditions of complete transparency and cooperation with the Ukrainian side and the ICRC. Those who are ready to continue sacrificing human lives to their own ambitions and geopolitical designs and who are rudely trampling on the norms and principles of international humanitarian law will assume complete responsibility for the possible consequences of provocations against the humanitarian relief convoy.
We are once again calling on the Ukrainian leadership, as well as the United States and the European Union, which are exerting their influence on Kiev, to promptly launch negotiations in southeastern Ukraine and start complying with the accords formalised in the 17 April 2014 Geneva Statement by Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the EU on stopping the use of force, mitigating the humanitarian situation and immediately launching nationwide dialogue that would involve all Ukrainian regions.

22 August 2014

Ukraine has termed this an “invasion” but says that it will not act militarily to intervene.  I am very sceptical of the Russian position, having started all this in the first place.  Lets watch this very closely.  All the preconditions for a violent provocation by some party or other are all in place…
Update: This is what the Ukrainian government have said:

ukraine flagOn August 22 Russia, ignoring established international rules, procedures, and agreements reached, without the consent and accompaniment of the International Committee of the Red Cross began to smuggle humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Even though the border and customs control services of Ukraine started clearing the Russian convoy, this morning Ukrainian officials had been blocked by Russian forces and prevented from finishing inspecting the remaining vehicles of the convoy, despite previous agreements and having been invited to Russian territory by the Russian side. We are worried about the safety of our employees. Moreover, so far neither the Ukrainian side nor the ICRC knows about the content of the abovementioned vehicles, which causes particular concern.

The fact that Russian cars entered the territory of Ukraine without proper border and customs clearance and that their cargo was not submitted to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross by established procedures testifies to the deliberate and aggressive actions of the Russian side.

As we have previously emphasized full responsibility for the safety of the cargo is the Russian side. Please note that the Ukrainian side has taken all necessary measures to ensure the security of cargo.

In order to prevent provocations we gave all the necessary instructions for the safe crossing of the convoy. However, attempts to establish contact between the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and Russia, which is critical to ensure security for the convoy’s route, have failed, despite all attempts from the Ukrainian. Please note that terrorists are shelling the convoy’s possible route with mortars.

We also do not know about agreements made by the Russian side with the Luhansk militants, and we do not exclude the possibility of any planned provocation.

We consider that in this act the Russian Federation once again flagrantly violated the key principles of international law, including inviolability of borders, non-interference in the internal affairs of another state, and conscientious fulfillment of international obligations.

We call on all international partners to join the strong condemnation of illegal and aggressive acts of the Russian Federation.

Russia/Ukraine: Russian armour moving into Ukraine

August 15, 2014

Summary: Western journalists following the Russian “humanitarian” convoy report Russian military vehicles crossing over into Ukraine.

map donetsk, luhanskMore salami slices here.  The Russian convoy has not ended up at the border entry point north of Kharkiv (and controlled by Ukraine border troops) as originally intended but has ended up opposite eastern Ukraine bear to the only border entry point controlled by separatists.  No one (and certainly not the Red Cross!) is really sure what is going to happen with it.  A photo of the contents of one truck seemed to show a lot of space inside.

Possible to squeeze a little more aid in here...?

Possible to squeeze a little more aid in here…?

Russian armoured convoys and helicopters in large quantities are being routinely observed by the equally numerous Western journalists on the fields, roads and motorways in and around Rostov – some are being spotted with peacekeeping signs on the vehicles.

 

The Daily Telegraph (and other journalists) are reporting Russian military vehicles crossing into Ukraine over last night:

Daily Telegraph, 14 Aug: A column of armoured vehicles and military trucks crossed the border from Russia into Ukraine on Thursday night, in the first confirmed sighting of such an incident by Western journalists.

A separate, larger convoy of around 270 Russian trucks, which Moscow claims is carrying aid, rumbled to a halt just short of the border on Thursday night, while in east Ukraine, shells hit the centre of rebel-held Donetsk for the first time.

The Telegraph witnessed a column of vehicles including both armoured personal carriers and soft-skinned lorries crossing into Ukraine at an obscure border crossing near the Russian town of Donetsk shortly before 10pm local time.

The Ukrainian and Western governments have long accused Russia of filtering arms and men across the border to fuel the separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but such an incident has never before been witnessed by Western journalists.

The convoy, which included at least 23 vehicles, appeared to be waiting until sunset near a refugee camp just outside Donetsk, before moving towards the crossing without turning off headlights or making any other attempt to conceal itself.

 

Russia, selection of armour

And this:

The Guardian saw a column of 23 armoured personnel carriers, supported by fuel trucks and other logistics vehicles with official Russian military plates, travelling towards the border near the Russian town of Donetsk.

After pausing by the side of the road until nightfall, the convoy crossed into Ukrainian territory, using a rough dirt track and clearly crossing through a gap in a barbed wire fence that demarcates the border. Armed men were visible in the gloom by the border fence as the column moved into Ukraine. Kiev has lost control of its side of the border in this area.

The trucks are unlikely to represent a full-scale official Russian invasion, and it was unclear how far they planned to travel inside Ukrainian territory and how long they would stay. But it was incontrovertible evidence of what Ukraine has long claimed – that Russian troops are active inside its borders.

Russia/Ukraine: Salami Tactics – “slice by slice”

August 14, 2014

Summary:  A humourous and still oh-so-relevant lesson in realpolitik from a 1980s comedy as we contemplate a Russian humanitarian convoy’s meanderings close to the Ukrainian border…

I am not being particularly original here but I still want this on record.  The classic “salami tactics” clip from the BBC’s 1980s comedy “Yes Prime Minister” gives salient political lessons as we contemplate a Russian humanitarian convoy’s meanderings close to the Ukrainian border.  First watch and enjoy the masterclass itself:

So, following the syle of the scenarios offered to Jim Hacker, in the context of trying to understand Russian military intentions regarding the Ukraine, we might have:

Scenario 1:

  • Russian aid convoy genuinely full of aid
  • Seeks entry to Ukraine but deliberately mismanages its dealings with the ICRC and the Ukraine government (eg by not informing anyone of the convoy’s movements, desired entry location, contents of lorries and claiming agreements from ICRC and Ukraine) to ensure it is turned away.  This really does sound like the curent situation.
  • Russia gets to pose as a genuine helper and the Ukrainians as mean-spirited fascists who cannot or will not even want to help their own people – eastern Ukraine looks more towards Russia and away from Kiev, reinforcing and extending separatist sentiment

Scenario 2:

  • Similar to Scenario 1.
  • Russian convoy genuinely full of aid
  • Seeks entry to Ukraine but deliberately mismanages its dealings with the ICRC and the Ukraine government (eg by not informing anyone of the convoy’s movements, desired entry location, contents of lorries and misrepresenting any discussions with ICRC and Ukraine as approval for their actions)
  • Engineers a clash with Ukrainian troops/border guards as it tries to force its way into Ukraine
  • Provides justification for military action

Scenario 3:

  • Russian aid convoy genuinely full of aid
  • Seeks and gains entry
  • Gets to distribute aid, gaining a useful pause in all the negative media stories – much needed positive PR

Scenario 4:

  • Similar to Scenario 3 but establishes principle that Russian “humanitarian” personnel can come and go across the border, more convoys follow
  • establishes semi-permanent aid bases inside Ukraine for distribution purposes, manned by Russian personnel – access to bases by ICRC, journalists, Ukrainian representatives is restricted
  • Russian Emergencies Ministry security personnel involved – just for base security/crowd control
  • Riots/rocket attack/explosion occurs – Russian military personnel brought in to provide additional security, punish any attackers, etc, etc…

Scenario 5:

  • Aid convoy story “will it/won’t it cross the border” a distraction for some planned military intervention

Scenario 6:

  • Aid convoy is attempting to take weapons (or other forms of support) into separatists.  I really find this unlikely as it would be too easy to uncover the truth now the media spotlight is on it and the Russians have likely been running weapons into eastern Ukraine already anyway.  Suggestions that the convoy might now have divided into two parts,

BBC, 14 Aug: More than 100 lorries carrying Russian aid have set off towards the border with Ukraine, amid continuing confusion over their final destination

however, might suggest the idea that a smaller part of the convoy could break away from the main body with a more secretive mission in mind

Scenario 7:

  • The aid convoy is more or less genuine, but Putin really doesn’t know yet what to do and is still attempting to seize some form of media initiative.  This is at best an exercise in stalling for time while he decides what next.

As I look at these scenarios, I think I have accidentally produced them in ascending order of likelihood – that is Scenario 1 may be the most likely.  But the whole approach by the Putin regime has been to throw up as much sand and dust as possible to cloud issues until he can introduce another initative.  I think he quite likes having the world’s attention as it tries to guess what is coming next…

 

 

Russia/Ukraine: “humanitarian” convoy clouds, confuses and complicates…

August 12, 2014

Summary: A Russia humanitarian aid convoy will reach the border of Ukraine probably tonight.  No one is sure whether this is a genuine attempt to assist (less likely) or a further attempt by the Putin regime to distort, provoke, pressurise or subvert in some way (more likely).  At worst it could be some form of further military intervention…

Meaning what, exactly?

Meaning what, exactly?

Amongst much internet and media chatter, Russia appears to be sending a 280-truck convoy full of humanitarian aid towards (and presumably across) the Russo-Ukrainian border into the Ukraine:

12 August, Financial Times: As 280 lorries made their way from a military base near Moscow towards the Ukrainian border, some Russian internet users passed around photos of the convoy as it was sighted along the route. Others shared video clips of the Trojan Rabbit, the Monty Python episode involving King Arthur and his knights trying to cheat their way into a French castle.

Confusion, fear and satire followed the convoy as it made its way to the border. Russia says it carries humanitarian aid for the tormented residents of Ukraine; Kiev and most western governments suspect Moscow is plotting a Trojan Horse to trigger or conceal a military intervention.

Russian bloggers are more or less plotting the route from Moscow towards Kharkov live with a series of geo-located video clips.  As you can see, the trucks are painted white and flying the Red Cross.  Footage at the beginning of the convoy’s journey showed inside the vehicles and water, food, blankets and sleeping bags all visible, but the Red Cross have no idea what is in the vehicles and there is little clarity whether the Red Cross or the Ukrainian government actually approve this convoy at all.

12 August, Daily Telegraph: Ukraine has said it will not allow a mammoth Russian convoy reportedly carrying aid for the war-torn east to enter its territory and that any assistance should be handed over at the border.

“We will not consider the possibility of any movement of the Russian column on the territory of Ukraine,” said Valeriy Chalyy, deputy head of the presidential administration, adding that any aid would have to be loaded onto transport provided by the Red Cross and that no Russian personnel would be allowed to escort it.

People have been calling “invasion imminent” for some while now, particularly after the exercises of 10,000-20,000 Russian troops over the last couple of weeks.  I still struggle to believe that such a highly telegraphed manouvre as a humanitarian convoy will be a military trigger.  But it could be a distraction or it could be the first in a series of similar activities that might slowly lead to more efforts to develop influence inside eastern Ukraine.  One report says that other Russian military movements are now taking place in Belarus, directly to the north of Kiev, however:

The Interpreter:Russian Armored Convoys On The Move In Belarus

Over the last several days there has been a significant uptick in Russian troop movements on the move in Belarus. This video, reportedly taken today in Vitebsk, shows troops, transport trucks, and armored-personnel carriers moving through the city. The city is due north of Kiev:
This video…reportedly shows a massive armored convoy iin Novoshakhtinsk, Rostov region of Russia,  on August 10th. The geolocation is done in the actual video…The point, which we will be illustrating in depth in a later update, is that Russia is deploying and mobilizing forces near multiple border crossings, in every direction of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but also in regions (and even other countries) that are further away but still within striking distance of Ukraine within hours or days. Russia could easily put troops into Ukraine west of the fighting in Eastern Ukraine, perhaps in Kharkiv, or even Kiev, and they could do this nearly as easily as they could put troops into Lugansk or Donetsk.
Vladimir Putin is, at the very least, seizing the media initiaitive in an impressive style – everyone is dancing to the beat of his new story.  But this is getting tiresome.  To put it crudely, will he take it to the next level or is he as much in the dark about what to do next as everyone else is?  Something will have to give soon:

“No state or regime goes to war firmly convinced that it will lose it,” Andrey Piontkovsky says, and Vladimir Putin is no exception: if he goes to war with NATO and even if he escalates that conflict by using nuclear weapons, he will be acting on the basis of a belief that he can win it.

That belief, the Russian commentator says, is based on Putin’s assumption that the logic of mutually assured destruction (MAD) which prevented a major war between Russia and the West has broken down because of divisions within the West about how to respond to Russian use of a limited nuclear strike.

Piontkovsky does not provide direct evidence for this, but his argument is both suggestive and disturbing because if he has read Putin correctly, the world is in a far more dangerous situation than most have thought and the risks to Russia’s neighbors, the West and Russia itself are far greater…

Putin’s actions would be “revenge for the defeat of the USSR in the third (cold) world war just as the second world war was for Germany an attempt at revenge for defeat in the first.”

If the Russian speakers of Narva in Estonia were to conduct a referendum and Moscow sent in its forces overtly or covertly, how might NATO react? Piontkovsky asks. If NATO did not respond, “that would mean the end of NATO and the end of the US as a world power and the complete political dominance of Putin’s Russia not only in the area of the Russian World but in the entire European continent.”

I guess we will find out tomorrow.  Or maybe not.

Ukraine and MH17: A lesson in the value of Open Source Intelligence…

August 3, 2014

Summary: The Daily Beast crunch the data and demonstrate how hard it is to hide an armoured vehicle these days…

 

BUK air defence missile system, Torez, 17 July 2014

BUK air defence missile system, Torez, 12.30 pm, 17 July 2014

Some fascinating OSINT – ie Open Source Intelligence – here, using social media and local accounts to trace the route of the BUK missile system believed to be responsible for shooting down flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine:

“Over the last two weeks I’ve documented the various open source information that has revealed key pieces of information about the Buk Missile Launcher linked to the downing of flight MH17.  Now, using that information, I believe it’s possible to construct a timeline of events on the ground in Ukraine on July 17th that can be evidenced using a variety of open source information…”
It is definitely worth going through in full.
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