Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Return of the Little Green Men

One of the problems of Western journalism, which Russia uses to its great advantage, is its apparent inability to identify a spade as a spade unless it is witnessed by three independent sources.

Even after the capture of 10 Russian soldiers on Ukrainian soil on Monday, the BBC on Wednesday night, in its flagship World Service Newshour program, was referring to the troops who crossed the Russian border and took control of the town of Novoazovsk on Wednesday as "pro-Russian rebels."

Even if they were "rebels", the reports failed to note that this well-armed force would have had to cross Russian territory, with the connivance of the Russian authorities, to have opened up a new front outside of the small, and until recently shrinking, patch of ground that the anti-Ukrainian fighters previously held. It is implausible to conclude that Russia did not support this escalation of the conflict. So why was this not reported?

Well, in Crimea, as Russia discovered (or actually understood quite well beforehand), the Western press was loath to draw conclusions from second-hand and circumstantial evidence, probably for fear of making an error. President Vladimir Putin and his generals used this fact to effect a brazen takeover of the territory of another state. They have used the same tactics of subterfuge and covert action to foment a "rebellion" in the east of Ukraine. And they are using it again now to spread the war in Ukraine.

We saw this excessive journalistic caution again on August 17, when journalists from the UK newspapers the Guardian and the Telegraph, Shaun Walker and Roland Oliphant, witnessed a column of Russian APCs furtively violating the Ukrainian border at dusk. Even then, they could not conclude the obvious – that that these were Russian reinforcements off to prop up the teetering "rebel" defense in Luhansk and Donetsk – not having seen this for themselves.

Why is this such a problem? Remember the MH17 atrocity, when there was also a great deal of circumstantial evidence, but no direct eyewitness reports, that the anti-Ukrainian forces shot down a civil airliner? There was nevertheless a huge public outcry at this awful news of the horrible deaths of nearly 300 people, including 80 children, and this outcry undoubtedly caused the Western governments whose citizens had been killed to take a firmer stand against Russia, introducing stricter sanctions. Western governments, being democracies, have to have an eye on public opinion, as their positions depend on it. Public opinion, in turn, is molded by the media. The media thus have a great responsibility to provide correct information to the public, as this will indirectly have an effect on government policies in a democracy.

But the BBC, in continuing to refer to the troops who invaded Novoazovks as "pro-Russian rebels" is not providing correct information to the public in the UK, (and given the wide reach of the World Service, the public in many other countries), about the true state of affairs in Ukraine. The troops who invaded Novoazovk are Russian regular soldiers, and there is a great deal of evidence that this is so.

First, the troops, according to several eyewitness reports, are dressed in unmarked Russian-issue military uniforms. They carry Russian-issue weapons. They are masked and wearing goggles, as in Crimea. They refuse to speak to reporters (for fear of people hearing their "Russian" Russian accents). They are supplied with Russian military field rations – which they swap with the locals for more palatable fare.

Next, these troops are equipped with T-72B tanks with reactive armor – these tanks are not in the Ukrainian arsenal: they could not have been stolen from Ukrainian arms depots, they could only have come directly from the Russian military.

Moreover, some of these troops have already been captured, and videos of their interrogations are available on YouTube. The BBC employs several native speakers of Russian as journalists. It is quite possible for them to identify these men as Russian by their speech. Even Russia has admitted that they are Russian troops, but claimed they strayed a dozen miles into Ukraine "by accident." But is it really plausible that some of Russia's finest troops are incapable of reading a map correctly? Why is the media not asking such questions on behalf of the public?

Instead, we simply get interviews with Russian officials – proven liars –
presented as "the other side of the story" as if what they had to say had the slightest credibility after what happened in Crimea.

There is no doubt that the Little Green Men are back, and have now invaded mainland Ukraine. As before, the Western governments will probably try to ignore this, for fear of getting involved in "a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing," to quote the wretched appeaser Neville Chamberlain.

It is the duty of the media not to allow them to do this, to correctly report the real situation in Ukraine to the Western public, so that the public will in turn bring pressure to bear on their governments to make the correct response. The West's cautious approach to Putin has failed. It failed to stop him after his annexation of Crimea, and its continued use as a policy will fail to stop the destruction of the current Ukrainian state, which is most probably one of Putin's aims. The West's calls for Russia to "de-escalate or else" have proved useless, because Putin has continued to escalate and the West has never come up with a meaningful "else." Putin will escalate and escalate. He will not stop until he achieves his aims or is actively prevented from doing so.

It's time for the media to call the situation what it is – a direct invasion of Ukraine by Russia – and for the West to take action to stop Putin.

Otherwise, Western journalists could soon be reporting the arrival of the Little Green Men in Moldova, or Estonia, or Latvia, or Lithuania.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Russia's 'aid convoy' trucks: Trojan Horses, or Trojan Mules?

Courtney Weaver of the Financial Times, who has been traveling with the Russian "aid convoy," has been taking a look inside the Russian trucks said to be carrying aid to the Donbas. Unsurprisingly, many of the ones she looked at were mostly empty. See her pictures at

Why unsurprisingly? Because the amount of aid Russia said it was sending (about 2,000 tonnes) did not tally with the amount of tonnage the nearly 300 trucks of the convoy were capable of hauling. Even accounting for backup trucks in case of breakdowns, less than 100 trucks would have been needed to carry the declared tonnage (at 25 tonnes per truck, only 80 trucks required.)

Russian convoy drivers told Weaver the trucks were lightly loaded in case there were breakdowns, and loads had to be repacked from a broken down vehicle into another one in the convoy, but as far as we know all the trucks made it from Moscow to Rostov region without problems, so this seems excessive and unlikely. For comparison, Ukraine's aid convoy of 75 trucks carried to the Donbas 800 tonnes (just over 10.6 tonnes per truck), in a convoy of much lighter trucks than the heavy 10-wheeler Kamaz trucks sent by the Russians.

Why then, do the Russians need all that extra space?

As far as I can see, there are two most likely reasons for Russia sending this amount of trucks to the Donbas area – an optimistic one, and a pessimistic one.

The optimistic one is that the Russians intend to carry out of the Donbas a great deal more than they hope to bring in – a load of weapons, supplies and fighters - in a covert withdrawal of Russia's proxy army from Ukraine. This would be a face-saving withdrawal for the Kremlin, allowing the Russians to claim that their troops were never in eastern Ukraine, and the war was a purely Ukrainian internal conflict. Russia, in that case, would not have suffered a military defeat at the hands of Ukraine.

The pessimistic one is that Russia is deploying a large supply facility to the war region, which will be used to support a large-scale military intervention in eastern Ukraine, perhaps as part of its long-feared "peacekeeping" intervention, or even an all-out open invasion of the east and south of Ukraine. The deceptive nature of the deployment of such a logistics vehicle group would fit in well with the new Russian military tactics of Hybrid War, which seamlessly blends the use of stealth, deception and disinformation when preparing for and implementing an attack on another country. Further support for this scenario is the fact that the Russians are still sending armor into Ukraine to support their proxy army in Luhansk and Donetsk – as eye-witnessed by the Western media for the first time on the evening of August 14. It does not appear that the Russians are scaling down their military operation in eastern Ukraine – rather the opposite seems to be the case.

The Russian military's Hybrid War tactics are at least as revolutionary as the Wehrmacht's Blitzkrieg from the Second World War, but thankfully each time such tactics are employed they become less effective, as ways are thought up to counter them. (Germany's Blitzkrieg only really worked properly once, during the Fall of France in 1940.) We are all now on the look out for Little Green Men, and hopefully becoming more immune to the Kremlin's lies.

Nevertheless, we should still be wary: the fact that the Russian "aid convoy" presents us with puzzles could well be an indicator that it is indeed a Trojan Horse - not all that it seems – although it might be more accurately described as a Trojan packhorse. Ukraine should be very leery of allowing such a potentially dangerous dual-use "aid" convoy onto its territory.

Better to be on the safe side, and keep it out.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Timeo Danos et dona ferentes

"I fear the Greeks, even those bearing gifts." So said the Trojan priest Laocoön, when he saw the great wooden horse built before the gates of the besieged city of Troy by the armies of Agamemnon, as related by the Roman poet Virgil in his Aeneid.

Quite why the Trojans, starving after the ten-year siege of their city by the Greeks, should have been so enamored of a large wooden horse as to raise it onto wheels and draw it through their city's gates is not explained in Virgil's Aeneid or Homer's Iliad, but there are some prosaic theories.

One of the more interesting ones is that the horse had not been constructed merely of wood, but was a wooden frame to which had been attached great quantities of provisions - amphoras of wine, baskets of fruit, loaves of bread, joints of meat and so forth. The Trojans, starving as they were, could not resist this supposed gift of the Greeks, and despite the warnings of Laocoön, they dragged the horse into their city and began to feast joyously on the food and wine that had been nailed to the Greek offering.

But within this food hoard a single Greek soldier had been hidden, whose task was to unbar the gates of Troy once the Trojan feast was over and their guards had fallen into a drunken stupor. This he did; the Greeks streamed into Troy, razed it to the ground, and the rest, as they say, is history.

According to the above theory, the Greeks brought war to Troy, and then destroyed their enemies with a feigned  humanitarian gesture. The parallels with today's offers of humanitarian aid from the Kremlin for the besieged Donetsk and Luhansk "People's Republics" are so obvious that already Trojan Horse memes are galloping across the Ukrainian part of the Internet. The Russians have been calling for humanitarian intervention - brought, of course, by Russian peacekeeping forces - since their proxy army in Donetsk and Luhansk began to be forced back from the territories they had occupied since mid April.

To allow the Russians to make such a "humanitarian gesture" in the Donbas would be a folly on a par with that committed by the people of Troy.

There was no such entity as Russia when Virgil penned his famous phrase about the Greeks, so I can't give a Latin paraphrase of his words with regard to the Russians. But my English version carries across both the meaning, and a warning that the Ukrainian government should heed when Russia proposes sending a humanitarian convoy into eastern Ukraine: "I fear the Russians, even when they bear gifts."

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Mr. Putin and the News Cycle

The gaze of the Western media is brief, but intense. When the latest international crisis erupts, it is subjected to detailed scrutiny - for a while. Then another big story breaks, in another far-off location, and the searchlight of media news cycle attention sweeps off to that place. Meanwhile, former trouble spots recede into the shadows.

This is difficult to appreciate when you're actually located in one of these trouble spots, like Ukraine, and the local news is filled with the news of the crisis all the time. Only when you leave the country does the short attention span of the Western media become starkly apparent. Abroad, you strain to hear the latest news from the east, and every international news broadcast is a disappointment.

This is understandable, as there are lots of trouble spots in the world, and lots of disasters, crises and catastrophes for the roving eye of the media to focus on - we can't expect the world to have a unique concern for the particular problems that concern us the most.

But this is something Russian President Vladimir Putin also seems to understand well. If the spotlight of international media attention falls on his doings in Ukraine, he freezes like a fox caught in headlights. Once the light moves on, he slinks off again in the darkness to continue to pursue his objectives.

We saw this after the annexation of Crimea in March: once the echoes of the outcry against that blatant abrogation of the international order had died away, Putin in April started to work on the destabilization of eastern and southern Ukraine. When the drama of the Ukrainian presidential elections in May put Ukraine back in the spotlight of international media attention, Mr. Putin appeared to draw back from the brink of invasion with his "peace keepers" - who are, by all accounts available on Russian Facebook clone Vkontakte, hell-bent on restoring "order" to eastern Ukraine.

But by June the news cycle had moved on, Ukraine faded from view, and Putin began to implement the next stage of his "Novorossiya" project - to neutralize the Ukrainian forces' airpower advantage by supplying his proxy army in the east with sophisticated means to bring down Ukrainian warplanes - namely the BUK-M "Gadfly" surface-to-air missile system. He also pushed fresh troops and armor into the combat zone to counter the Ukrainian army's successes on the ground.

But a tragic consequence of Putin's pernicious plans - the downing by the insurgents, apparently in error, of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 - again brought the keen attention of the international media down on eastern Ukraine in mid to late July, and Putin was again forced to freeze, and adopt the aspect of the reasonable man of peace. Kremlin rhetoric was softened - Kyiv's government was no longer referred to as "the junta" and calls for a ceasefire came every day from Moscow.

But now it is August, Ukraine has slipped down the order on the news bulletins, and Putin is again moving forward with his schemes. His troops are being reinforced on the eastern border, trainloads of armor have been sent into Belarus to menace Ukraine's northern frontier. There are reports that Russian fighting machines bearing Russia's "MC" peacekeepers symbol are gathering near Ukraine's border. Putin's proxy army in eastern Ukraine is all but beaten, its two main strongholds, Donetsk and Luhansk, are cut off from each other and surrounded, and if no help comes from Russia, they will be forced to surrender. Yet Ukraine's military success ironically brings fresh danger to the country, and Putin appears to be positioning himself for his next move - open military intervention.

As Ukraine again drops out of the international news cycle, what will September bring? The Western media excel at bringing us news of events after the fact. When Ukraine again hits the headlines, I'm very much afraid it will be because Russian troops are streaming across the border to occupy Luhansk and Donetsk.