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MH17: don’t expect information and evidence gathering to be easy…

July 18, 2014

Summary:  Efforts underway by pro-Russians and separatists to destroy evidence and hinder information gathering…

HelItR ohjuspäivät Helsingin Ilmatorjuntarykmentti ItO 96, BUK M1Good report from the Guardian, printed in full here, about the seemingly inevitable attempts by separatists to cover up their tracks and destroy any evidence – including information that might have appeared on social media…

Russian separatist groups in eastern Ukraine are hastily covering up all links to the Buk missile battery suspected to have been used to shoot down the Malaysia Airlines passenger plane, according to western-based defence and intelligence specialists.

As the UN security council called for a “full, thorough independent international investigation” into the downing of the plane, concern that a cover-up was under way was fuelled by a standoff at part of the crash site between observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and rebel gunmen, which ended with a warning shot being fired.

Postings on rebel websites immediately after the crash boasted of having shot down what they claimed was an Antonov Ukrainian military transport plane, but these have been deleted.

The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha POSCEower, blamed a surface-to-air missile fired by rebels in eastern Ukraine and hinted that they might have had Russian technical help. The rebels are suspected of having used a Russian-built, vehicle-mounted Buk missile system to bring down MH17, killing all 298 passengers and crew. Power called for the crash site to be preserved. “All evidence must be undisturbed,” she said. “Russia needs to help make this happen.”

But hopes are not high. The OSCE was trying to gain access to one part of the large crash site but the commander of a rebel unit, known as Commander Glum, blocked them. After the warning shot, the OSCE convoy departed.

MH17 crash map There is also confusion over the black boxes and other devices apparently salvaged from the plane. A rebel military commander initially said he was considering what to do with them, while another rebel leader, Aleksandr Borodai, contradicting his colleague, said the rebels had no black boxes or any other devices.

The Ukrainian interior ministry added to fears of a cover-up when it released video purportedly taken by police showing a truck carrying a Buk missile launcher with one of its four missiles apparently missing, rolling towards the Russian border at dawn . The video could not be independently verified.

Other material on rebel social media sites was being deleted, including pictures showing the alleged capture of Buk missile vehicles by rebels from a Ukrainian air base last month.

Rebels said the boast on the social media site on Thursday that a plane had been shot down was not put up by them but by a sympathiser who mistakenly assumed it was a Ukrainian military plane that had been shot down. But in a separate posting a rebel leader also claimed that a plane had been brought down. “We warned you – do not fly in our sky,” he said. That too was removed.

A Nato intelligence specialist quoted by the military analysts Janes said the recordings “show that the Russian ‘helpers’ realise that they now have an international incident on their hands – and they probably also gave the order for separatists to erase all evidence – including those internet postings. It will be interesting to see if we ever find this Buk battery again or if someone now tries to dump it into a river.”

Video footage allegedly taken on Thursday appeared to support the idea that pro-Russia separatists had been to blame. It showed a Buk battery seemingly being moved in the rebel-held area between Snizhne and Torez close to the crash site. A still picture allegedly shows a missile in vertical launch mode beside a supermarket in Torez. However, the location has still to be established.

Ukrainian intelligence has published a tape said to be a recording between rebels and Russian intelligence in which they realise there has been a catastrophic blunder. One recording is said to be between a rebel commander, Igor Bezler, and a Russian intelligence officer in which he says: “We have just shot down a plane.” A second recording from an unidentified source puts the blame on Cossack militiamen.

Defence analysts with Russian expertise shared Power’s scepticism that Russia-backed rebel groups would have had the expertise to fire the missile and suggested it was more likely to have been Russian ground troops who specialise in air defence, seconded to help the rebels.

At the Pentagon, officials said a motive for the operation had yet to be determined, as had the chain of command. One said it would be “surprising to us” if pro-Russia separatists were able to operate the Buk missile battery without Russian technical support. The Ukrainian military confirmed it has Buk batteries but said it had none in the area the missile was fired.

Nato had Awacs surveillance and command-and-control planes flying in the Baltics around the time of the crash, but Pentagon officials did not think the aircraft picked up indications of the disaster.

Bob Latiff, a former US weapons developer for the air force and the CIA and now a professor at Notre Dame University, said he leaned towards a belief that it was a case of mistaken identity on the part of those who pressed the button.

“A radar return from an airplane like this would look very similar to that from a cargo plane, as was initially claimed by the separatists. If radar was all they were using, that is a shame,” he said. “All airliners emit identification signals which identify the aircraft and provide other information like altitude and speed. They also operate on known communications frequencies. It doesn’t sound like the separatists were using any of this.

“My guess is the system’s radar saw a return from a big ‘cargo’ plane flying at 30,000 feet or so and either automatically fired, or some aggressive, itchy operator fired, not wanting to miss an opportunity.”

Latiff said that if they had only one radar, as Ukrainian officials suggest, it would have been pointed at the target. A second, rotating one would normally have been part of a battery to pick up other planes in the immediate vicinity, but he said even that would not have established whether it was a commercial plane and there would normally have been communications equipment to pick up signals showing the plane was non-military.

Igor Sutyagin, a Russian military specialist at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said he regarded the tape recordings as genuine, as well as postings on social media pointing the finger at pro-Russian separatists or Russia itself.

But getting evidence would be very difficult. He said: “A decision has been made on the Russian side to hide their tracks. It will be hard to find the battery.” Satellites might have been able to catch something, but the trail from the missile would have been very short, Sutyagin said.

How’s this for “irreversible consequences”?

July 18, 2014

Summary: In my opinion Russian-backed (and likely Russian-armed) separatists mistook MH17 for a Ukrainian military aircraft and shot it down.

My heading is based on President Putin’s 13th July statement that Ukraine may suffer “consequences” as a result of a reported artillery round that landed in Russian territory, reportedly killing a Russian civilian. 

MH17 wreckageI spent quite a few hours through last night and early morning reading (and re-reading, in many cases) the various feeds coming through on the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17.    The detailed minute by minute reports I don’t intend to air here, but the BBC live feed has been very useful.  I will cut to the chase and give my first pass at an assessment, while awaiting investigation results (reports that the black box recorders may be on their way to Moscow do not look encouraging).  In an “Information War”, the evidence collected over the coming days will also become a crucial battlefield to be fought over.

This looks to have been a mistaken shoot-down by Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists based in eastern Ukraine.  These forces had reportedly recently gained access to at least one powerful surface to air missile system – BUK, or SA-11 “GADFLY”, in NATO parlance.  Separatists had been boasting about this acquisition and had been using it to effect – they had already shot down several Ukrainian aircraft.  At more or less the same time that MH17 lost contact with ground control, a separatist leader (Strelkov) of highly dubious repute appears to have gleefully claimed via social media to have shot down a Ukrainian AN-26 large military transport aircraft.  Transcripts of the separatist’s triumph followed shortly by recognition that a civilian aircraft had struck the ground, followed by “radio silence” read convincingly.  The separatist leader rapidly deleted the Facebook claim and separatists appear in denial mode.

The responses of Presidents Obama and Putin have both been limp thus far.  Obama has been very cautious, calling it a “tragedy” and prioritising the establishment of US casualties.  Putin is treading very carefully – he likely recognises most of the world believe Russia is meddling dangerously in eastern Ukraine.  He does not come out fighting (or denying) and, in my reading in of it, almost – in the first line here – seems to accept some blame:

this tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine. And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.

Lets see how Putin and the separatists deal with this.   But this is the downside of clever schemes to create and manipulate armed groups and firing up (or manufacturing) ancient hatreds.  They are much easier to turn on than turn off and hard to control and direct.  At least, for the moment, Putin finds it convenient to acknowledge Ukraine as a state.

Don’t expect to hear much from Strelkov for a while – he’s probably been reassigned to Georgia or Chechnya…

Ukraine aircraft shot down – suggestion missile fired from Russia

July 14, 2014

Just in from the BBC:

A Ukrainian military transport aircraft has been shot down in the east, amid fighting with pro-Russian separatist rebels, Ukrainian officials say.

They say the An-26 plane was hit at an altitude of 6,500m (21,325ft).

The plane was targeted with “a more powerful missile” than a shoulder-carried missile, “probably fired” from Russia. The crew survived, reports say.

Russia has made no comment. Separately, Nato reported a Russian troop build-up near the Ukraine border.

A Nato official confirmed to the BBC that the alliance had observed a significant increase of Russian troops, bringing their number to up to 12,000.

Russia denies supporting and arming the separatists, and has invited officials from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor its border with Ukraine.

Direct talks plea

A statement on Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko’s website said the An-26 was taking part in the “anti-terror operation” in the region.

Luhansk: fighting in the area has intensified in recent days

Ukrainian government troops have re-taken control of a number of towns and villages in recent days
Ukrainian Defence Minister Valeriy Heletei said a search-and-rescue operation was under way to locate missing crew members.

Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s security and defence council, was later quoted by Ukrainian media as saying that eight people had been on board the plane.

In a Facebook message, some of those taking part in Ukraine’s “anti-terror operation” said they knew “about the fate of two of the crew” and were checking information about the others.

Rebel forces – who earlier said they had targeted the aircraft in the Luhansk region – claimed they had captured the crew and were questioning them in the town of Krasnodon, reports in Russian media say.

Last month, the rebels shot down a Ukrainian Il-76 military transport plane as it was about to land at Luhansk airport, killing all 49 soldiers and crew on board.

Earlier on Monday, the Ukrainian air force said it had delivered “five powerful air strikes” in the region in an effort to end the blockade of the strategic airport in the rebel-held city.

Ukraine’s military later said the airport had been “unblocked” and the army had retaken several villages.

Some air strikes hit the city on Monday, a resident of Luhansk told the BBC on Monday.

Meanwhile, the rebels claimed they had destroyed a Ukrainian armed convoy near the airport.

Fighting in the area has intensified since a rebel rocket attack near the Russian border on Friday, in which at least 19 government soldiers were killed.

President Poroshenko has vowed retaliation for that attack. On Monday, he also said Russian military officers were fighting alongside the separatists – a claim denied by Russia.

Tensions rose further over the weekend when Russia accused Ukrainian forces of shelling across the border, killing one person and wounding two others.

At least 15 civilians were killed in Luhansk and the neighbouring Donetsk region on Sunday, reports say.

Germany and Russia have urged direct talks between Kiev and the rebels.

And the UK and US have renewed calls for Russia to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine.

Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama stressed the need for Moscow to take further steps towards peace or face further sanctions.

Separatist rebels have been fighting the government in Kiev since declaring independence in Luhansk and the neighbouring region of Donetsk in April.

The government began an “anti-terrorist operation” in April to crush the rebellion in the eastern regions.

More than 1,000 civilians and combatants are believed to have died in the fighting, which followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March.

Russian warning to Ukraine after Ukrainian shell falls in Russia and kills Russian man

July 14, 2014

Summary: difficult to verify Russian accusation that Ukrainian gunfire lands in Russia.  Russian warning of “irreversible consequences”.

Whether a genuine incident or a manufactured one (the aim of this “game” for many of the players on both sides is to ensure that reality remains a very opaque concept), this is exactly the sort of incident that might indicate/trigger further Russian military actions…

(Reuters) Russia threatened Ukraine on Sunday with “irreversible consequences” after a Russian man was killed by a shell fired across the border, while Kiev said Ukrainian warplanes struck again at separatist positions in the east of the country, inflicting big losses.

Although both sides have reported cross-border shootings in the past, it appears to be the first time Moscow has reported fatalities on its side of the border in the three-month conflict which has killed hundreds of people in Ukraine.

Kiev called the accusation its forces had fired across the border “total nonsense” and suggested the attack could have been the work of rebels trying to provoke Moscow to intervene on their behalf. The rebels denied they were responsible.


Elections: tentative breakthrough – recounting to start…?

July 12, 2014

Summary: Possibility of a breakthought – a vote recount to begin…

Various Twitter and news outlets are now starting to suggest that some form of “vote recount” deal, brokered by John Kerry, has been struck between Dr Abdullah and Mr Ghani.  Seems as if a recount of all 8 million or so votes will take place in Kabul.  This recount to begin in the next day or so.Abdullah and Ghani, all smiles


This from the BBC

“…disturbing upward spiral” – Afghan civilian casualties continue to rise

July 10, 2014

Summary: The UN report that civilian casualties this year have so far risen by 25% compared to 2013 levels

The election crisis appears to have retreated behind closed doors, as least for the next day or three.  I take this to be a tentatively encouraging sign.  After all the damaging inflammatory brinkmanship (eg talks of “parallel governments”), both parties are surely engaged in some slightly more pragmatic conversations now.  Both Abdullah and Ghani are very well aware of the risks of national fragmentation, although their more volatile supporters may not be (or may not care).

But if it is not one thing, its the other.  A bleak report from the UN has emerged, which is highlighting civilian casualties on the increase – their standard mid-year assessment (with some depressingly standard news):

UNAMA logoThe Guardian, 9th July: The number killed or injured in the first six months of the year rose by a quarter from 2013 levels to nearly 5,000 people, the bloodiest total since the UN began keeping records in 2009. Women and children are particularly badly affected.

It was also the first time that ground fighting has proved more dangerous for civilians than the often indiscriminate homemade bombs that have become a key Taliban weapon, a worrying sign that the conflict may only get more bloody as Nato forces head home.

This comes at the same time as a report from western Afghanistan of six Halo Trust deminers appparently shot dead – presumably by insurgents.

Map, herat provinceReuters – The Taliban shot and killed six people working for a demining company in western Afghanistan, police said on Thursday, a day after the United Nations said the number of civilian casualties in the country jumped by a quarter in the first half of 2014.

“The Taliban killed six de-miners from the Halo Trust landmine clearance organization while they were on an operation in Kohsan district of Herat. They abducted three people,” said Abdul Rauf Ahmadi, a spokesman for the provincial police chief.

The insurgents (Taliban, Hezb-e Islami and the Haqqani “network”) still, according to the UN, take the blame for 75% of casualties although this is hotly disputed by the Taiban.  The UN, as usual, calls for more efforts to be undertaken to avoid such casualties, yet no solution, as usual, presents itself.  Routine noises from both.  This attack on deminers – people generally seen to be doing something constructive and neutral for the benefit of the country – is still relatively rare.   It might be because they were uncovering IEDs being used by the Taliban in this instance, or perhaps because they did not secure “permission” from a local insurgent group.  As ever, with information sources contracting, it will be difficult to extract with confidence the real reasons behind this attack.

Afghan elections update – results rejected, threats of “parallel governments”

July 8, 2014

Summary: Situation gloomy and opaque – preliminary election results put Ghani ahead.  Abdullah disputes this and is hinting at setting up a “parallel” government.abdullah and ghani

Wall Street Journal, 8th July: Afghanistan’s political crisis came close to a meltdown Tuesday, with candidate Abdullah Abdullah —who lost the country’s presidential election, according to preliminary results—claiming victory and contemplating the formation of his own government amid demonstrations in Kabul.In a speech in Kabul, Mr. Abdullah struck a defiant tone and said he wouldn’t reach a compromise with his rival, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani.

Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah shout slogans during a gathering in Kabul

Abdullah supporters claim victory, 8th July

Nothing is looking encouraging at the moment.  Yesterday some initial results – final results are currently scheduled for 22nd July – put Ashraf Ghani ahead with 56.4% against Dr Abdullah Abdullah with 43.6%.  Both sides are claiming victory, however.  Yesterday there were were several clear suggestions that Abdullah is contemplating setting up his own “parallel government”, whatever that means at the moment.  US Seretary of State John Kerry has warned against “extra-legal” attempts to seize power.

Daily Telegraph, 8th July: Supporters of Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan presidential candidate, have rejected preliminary results of the presidential election as a “coup” and say he will announce plans for his own national government on Tuesday.  The move came as John Kerry, American Secretary of State, warned against either side trying to seize power.

John_Kerry_Ukraine_Reuters_360Wall Street Journal, 8th July: John Kerry: “Any action to take power by extralegal means will cost Afghanistan the financial and security support of the United States and the international community,”

It is very difficult to understand whether talk of “parallel government” is merely another form of escalating the argument (and hopefully the international community rallies round to help resolve issues) or what it might mean in reality.  But it really does raise a shadow of civil war and even some form of north/south split.  The Taliban must be loving this, having denounced the electoral process as a fake but having been demonstrably unable to prevent it taken place.  They will be looking to exploit this in-fighting.  Expect to see more of this sort of chaos in the coming days and weeks:

czech flagFox News, 8 July: A suicide bomber struck Afghan and foreign forces near a clinic in the eastern province of Parwan, killing at least 16 people, including four Czech soldiers.

and this:

Oil tankers ablaze, July 2014The Guardian, 6th July: Taliban insurgents have set fire to about 200 oil tanker lorries supplying fuel for Nato forces in an attack just outside Kabul, police said.  Television footage showed black smoke billowing above the site of the attack, with the charred wreckage of dozens of trucks scattered around a vast parking space.  The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the vehciles carried fuel intended for US-led forces.

Update to update:  Sigh.  Gary Owen does this much better.

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