Not just corrupt, impotent too

Now there’s a surprise, eh?

The missile that downed a Malaysia Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine in 2014 belonged to a Russian brigade, international investigators say.

For the first time, the Dutch-led team said the missile had come from a unit based in western Russia.

All 298 people on board the Boeing 777 died when it broke apart in mid-air flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

It was hit by a missile fired from rebel-held territory in Ukraine. Russia says none of its weapons was used.

But on Thursday Wilbert Paulissen, a Dutch official from the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), told reporters: “All the vehicles in a convoy carrying the missile were part of the Russian armed forces.”

He restated the JIT’s conclusion that the plane had been destroyed by a Russian-made Buk missile, adding that it had been supplied by the country’s 53rd anti-aircraft brigade in Kursk.

The bulk of this was known at the time of the incident. There were only three possibilities as to the origins of the missile:

1. Russian forces

2. Russian-backed militias in Ukraine

3. Ukrainian forces

The Ukrainians quickly stated they don’t possess this missile system, ruling out their culpability. My guess was the Russians had, with staggering irresponsibility, given the business end of a Buk anti-aircraft system to some poorly trained militia operating on Ukrainian territory who’d shot down the plane by mistake. However, I believed part of the system was still controlled by Russian forces, who would give the militia the nod to engage any targets. As it turns out, it was operated by Russian forces all along, and it was they who shot the plane down.

At a news conference in the Dutch city of Utrecht, the investigators also showed social media pictures which they said traced the route the missile convoy had taken to reach eastern Ukraine.

Shortly after the incident some investigators online worked out using mobile phone footage and satellite images exactly where the missile had been fired from. Nobody showed any interest, and the silence from what passes for western leadership over this incident was deafening. The Oilfield Expat explains why:

Considering the magnitude of the event, it is remarkable how quickly the world brushed it under the carpet and moved on, particularly the Dutch who lost the greatest number of citizens in the incident. But there are good reasons for this: it suited the interests of European and American politicians to do so.

For those who thought the shooting down of MH17 would prove to be a Lusitania event in the crisis in east Ukraine, proving beyond doubt the nature of the Russian government which the west is facing, it would have seemed unbelievable at the time that barely 6 weeks later Russian armour would be moving en masse into Ukraine whilst EU and American leaders repeat the same empty, lame, and downright pathetic bleating about “de-escalation” that has done nothing but embolden Putin thus far.

It is blatantly obvious in whose interests Obama, Merkel, Hollande, etc. are acting over this Ukraine crisis: their own. And I don’t mean their citizens, or their country, I mean their own personal interests. Any support they may receive from their citizens or corporations is purely coincidental, although in the case of Germany it is clear that Merkel’s interests have been identical to those of certain favoured German companies with large operations in Russia all along. She damned near admitted as much.

This is wholly consistent with these same individuals sucking up to Iran, and now even cosying up to Putin in the aftermath of Trump’s nixing the deal. So much for solidarity with Britain over the Skripal poisoning, eh? But it’s not just cynical commercial interests that caused the disgraceful silence over the shooting down of MH-17, it was also cowardice. There were reports doing the rounds that Putin was visibly shaken when news reached him of MH-17 being shot down, no doubt fearing a serious backlash. However, within a day or two he was back to his usual swaggering self, confident no response would be forthcoming, and the tidal wave of disinformation began. Quite simply, the feckless leaders in the west didn’t want to make any tough decisions. Here’s The Oilfield Expat once more:

In reality, the EU leaders are a bunch of shyster politicians who give a shit about one thing: their political position, and by extension the powers they wield and the personal fortune they amass. Like all politicians, they are a bunch of backstabbing, duplicitous, untrustworthy c*nts who you wouldn’t trust to look after a wet breeze block, let alone guarantee the safety and security of a nation of people they don’t know and give less of a shit about. The Ukrainians have probably worked this out by now, only it’s too late. The Baltic States should also be waking up to reality and realising that they are on their own and always were. There were times when this fecklessness wouldn’t matter so much as the US could be relied upon to step in when required (as they eventually did in the Balkans), but the current occupant of the White House is so out of his depth and so wrapped up in preserving his image that he makes the EU leadership look Napoleonic by comparison. The collective language of this gaggle of incompetents over the Ukraine crisis screams “Oh why did this have to happen on my watch? Why won’t the problem just go away?”

They want the status, salary, and trappings of power that come with the position but don’t want to take the decisions and carry the responsibility that comes with it.

At the time of the incident – and not much has changed, at least on one side of the Atlantic – the western leadership was not only corrupt, but impotent too. The results of the investigation will only serve to illustrate this fact.

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When the Unserious meet the Serious

This:

is more an indication of the intellect and general knowledge of British MPs than a criticism of the Israeli ambassador. Whether or not you agree with the IDF’s use of live rounds and accept Hamas’ claims of the number of dead and that some were children, shooting people with rifles under those circumstances is hardly the epitome of an unmeasured and indiscriminate military response. Machine-gunning them would be a lot worse, strafing them from the air even more so. When the Russian army took Grozny in 1999-2000, this is how they went about it:

The Russian strategy in 1999 was to hold back tanks and armored personnel carriers and subject the entrenched Chechens to an intensive heavy artillery barrage and aerial bombardment before engaging them with relatively small groups of infantry, many with prior training in urban warfare. The Russian forces relied heavily on rocket artillery such as BM-21 Grad, BM-27 Uragan, BM-30 Smerch, ballistic missiles (SCUD, OTR-21 Tochka), cluster bombs and fuel air explosives. (The TOS-1, a multiple rocket launcher with thermobaric weapon warheads, played a particularly prominent role in the assault). These weapons wore down the Chechens, both physically and psychologically, and air strikeswere also used to attack fighters hiding in basements; such attacks were designed for maximum psychological pressure.

This was the result:

If asked, perhaps the Israeli ambassador would cite the above as an example of what he thinks “unmeasured and indiscriminate” looks like. More likely, though, he’d have referred to Russia’s bombing of Aleppo in 2016:

The effects of Russia’s bombing campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo — destroying hospitals and schools, choking off basic supplies, and killing aid workers and hundreds of civilians over just days — raise a question: What could possibly motivate such brutality?

Observers attribute Russia’s bombing to recklessness, cruelty or Moscow’s desperate thrashing in what the White House has called a “quagmire.”

But many analysts take a different view: Russia and its Syrian government allies, they say, could be massacring Aleppo’s civilians as part of a calculated strategy, aimed beyond this one city.

The strategy, more about politics than advancing the battle lines, appears to be designed to pressure rebels to ally themselves with extremists, eroding the rebels’ legitimacy; give Russia veto power over any high-level diplomacy; and exhaust Syrian civilians who might otherwise support the opposition.

This is not to excuse what the IDF are doing on the border with Gaza (although personally I don’t see they had any other option). It is merely to point out that British MPs accuse Israel of unrestrained and indiscriminate brutality only because they are utterly ignorant of what the genuine article looks like, even when there are recent examples of it. Either that, or they’re lying.

Whichever it is, it comes as no surprise Russia refused to take them seriously over the Skripal affair. You don’t have to like anyone’s policies or behaviour very much to realise the world is rapidly dividing into politicians and nations that are serious, and those that are not. Russia and Israel are clearly on one side; MPs like Wes Streeting are very much on the other.

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Europe’s choices over Iran

A response from Germany following Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that Europe can no longer count on the United States to protect it, urging the continent to “take destiny into its own hands.”

“It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us, but Europe must take its destiny in its own hands. That’s the task of the future,” she said during a speech honoring French President Emmanuel Macron, according to Agence France-Presse.

This will be music to the ears of many Americans, who are wondering why the US remains committed to defending Germany from…well, who? Russia? Germans have made it quite clear they prefer Putin’s Russia to Trump’s America, and who else is there? Oh, but wait:

German defense spending will fall far short of levels demanded by President Donald Trump’s administration for years to come, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s defense minister said.

Those levels are actually NATO commitments; Trump’s demand is merely that Germany meets them. The problem Germany has is that it is dependent on the US for security (assuming it is actually required) and hates it, but they don’t hate it enough to reach in their pockets and pay for it themselves. Like a spoiled teenager who hates the rules in their parent’s house, they don’t want to move out either because that would involve hardship.

What will be interesting is the response of Germany, France, and the UK to this:

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif was in Moscow on Monday, as Russia tries to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive in the wake of Washington’s pullout, pushing it into rare cooperation with Europe.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was scheduled to discuss how to try to save the nuclear deal with Zarif, the Interfax news agency reported.

Zarif’s tour also took him to Beijing at the weekend and will see him visit Brussels later in the week, as the international backers of the 2015 accord scrabble to save it.

“The final aim of these negotiations is to seek assurances that the interests of the Iranian nation will be defended,” Zarif said at a news conference with Lavrov.

Lavrov, meanwhile, said Russia and Europe had a duty to “jointly defend their legal interests” in terms of the deal.

A few months ago, Russia was accused – perhaps fairly – of conducting a chemical weapons attack on British soil, and there were expulsions of diplomats and lots of tough talk from European leaders about solidarity with Britain. Then a few weeks ago Russia’s client in Syria allegedly used poison gas against civilians and everyone went mental, with Britain and France joining the US in launching missile strikes against targets in Syria. Russia was a pariah nation run by a gangster regime, we were told, so it’s going to be very interesting whether the commercial interests of European businesses consign all this rhetoric to the dustbin. It’s going to be particularly interesting to see what Britain does, given Boris Johnson and Theresa May’s recent criticism of Russia. At least nobody is pretending it’s about nuclear security any more.

Something the media has failed to mention is the difficulty of doing business in Iran even without US sanctions in place. I can’t find the link now (Google search results are swamped by recent developments) but a few years ago one of the big Chinese companies effectively walked away from an Iranian oil and gas project having utterly failed to make any progress, citing the intransigence of the locals as the primary reason. Anyone who has read the history of Iran, particularly the bit concerning Britain’s dealings with Mohammad Mosaddegh over BP, will get a clear idea that doing business there is fraught with difficulties, not least because the Iranians are severely tough negotiators. There has been nothing preventing Chinese, Russian, or Turkish firms making hay in Iran in the absence of American and European countries for decades, but they haven’t, and for good reasons.

One of the main problems facing western companies concerns the ownership of Iranian companies. As is to be expected under such a regime, pretty much every major company is in some way owned by the government or powerful individuals connected to it. In many instances it is the The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which controls the company. From Wiki:

IRGC first expanded into commercial activity through informal social networking of veterans and former officials. IRGC officials confiscated assets of many refugees who had fled Iran after the fall of Abolhassan Banisadr’sgovernment. It is now a vast conglomerate, controlling Iran’s missile batteries and nuclear program but also a multibillion-dollar business empire reaching almost all economic sectors. Estimates have it controlling between a tenth and around a third of Iran’s economy through a series of subsidiaries and trusts.

The Los Angeles Times estimates that IRGC has ties to over one hundred companies, with its annual revenue exceeding $12 billion in business and construction. IRGC has been awarded billions of dollars in contracts in the oil, gas and petrochemical industries, as well as major infrastructure projects.

Last October Donald Trump sanctioned the IRGC as a terrorist organisation, independently of the nuclear deal. Leaving aside the difficulty of executing major projects in Iran without falling foul of US sanctions on the IRGC, can you imagine having an IRGC-owned company as a partner or contractor? Would they carry out the work as per the contract? To whom would you turn if they didn’t? It’s hard enough doing business in Russia with companies run by well-connected gangsters; now imagine what it’s like contracting with the private army of the Ayatollahs.

Major European nations risk creating an enormous political and security rift with the US over this Iranian nuclear deal, all for the benefit of a handful of companies who reckon they can make money in Iran. The way they’re talking, and the way it’s being reported, you’d think the money was already in the bank. It’s not, and probably never will be. Politicians should heed this point.

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Can Russia act as peacemaker between Israel and Iran?

One of the interesting things about the Israeli attack on Iranian forces in Syria is the relative silence from the Russians. The first thing it shows is that Russia has no interest in adding its forces to those of Iran in some sort of unified effort, which is undoubtedly a good thing for everyone except the Iranians on the ground in Syria. Both Russia and Iran have a shared interest in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, but that doesn’t imply there is much cooperation between the two. Russia wants to retain Syria as a client state for geopolitical bragging rights, a customer for arms sales, a testing ground for weapons, and as a victory in their ongoing zero-sum struggle with the USA. Iran wants to throw its weight around the region and threaten Israel from over the border.

In that latter regard, Russia has no major beef with Israel and little interest in helping Iranian forces menace it from Syrian soil. Indeed, Russia would probably be pleased to see Iranian forces getting pummeled in Syria by Israeli planes were it not Russia’s air defence systems that were supposed to stop that sort of thing. There’s a good article on Israel’s strengthening ties with Russia in the face of Iranian attacks here, which includes the following on weapons sales:

The Israeli prime minister had a number of talking points he wanted to ensure were well-delivered to the Russian side, said a source in the Kremlin familiar with the Putin-Netanyahu meeting. The source, who spoke with Al-Monitor not for attribution, said the first point, a minor one, was Russia’s potential delivery of S-300 missile systems to Syria. Even before Netanyahu’s visit, Israel was signaling to Russia that Israel didn’t favor the delivery.

Moscow had said it was leaning toward not providing Syria with the missiles, but after a US-led strike on Syria last month, Russia isn’t ruling out the idea. Many observers interpreted a bombastically worded statement from Russia as an actual intent to deliver the weapons, but Russia probably considered it more as a deterrent against potential foreign strikes and a bargaining chip in talks with Israel and, possibly, with the United States.

If Moscow indeed goes through with the S-300 delivery, Israel will tolerate it as long as Russians maintain control over the system. If, however, the Syrian military plans to operate the missiles, Israel will have a stronger reaction, but probably not an extreme one.

“The entire Syrian air defense system is based on Soviet- and Russian-made arms. The S-300 is a more powerful system and we wouldn’t have liked its appearance. But as much as we are ready to [take on] Syrian defenses, we would be ready to see how to tackle the S-300,” former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said.

Ya’alon also revealed that there is a “hotline” between the Russian Khmeimim air base in Syria and the Israeli Kirya command center in Tel Aviv. Ya’alon served as Israel’s defense minister from 2013 until May 2016 and helped establish the deconfliction phone line shortly after Russia began its campaign in Syria. The line is thought to have helped prevent a number of serious incidents.

This probably puts Russia in a unique position to act as peacemaker between Israel and Iran:

Russia has been acting as a “political shrink,” listening to complaints and fears that Israelis and Iranians have and prescribing them prescriptions of sorts to alleviate their grief. It’s a heavy burden, but also a political resource for Russia and its regional policies. Russia also has its own interests, including in Syria, that are not necessarily aligned with those of Israel or Iran. Taking sides would be folly.

As Sean Guillory says:

Personally I don’t think this is a bad thing.

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Sprightly Veterans

I came across this story on Twitter, which I’ve translated using Google:

During the Victory Day parade, Vladimir Putin’s guard firmly pushed the veteran of the Great Patriotic War, who was walking next to him, from the president. After that, Putin personally approached him and suggested going to the Alexander Garden and laying flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

If you follow the link you can watch a video of the events unfold, and you can clearly see this man in uniform being manhandled by a goon in a suit. If this veteran of the Great Patriotic War was 18 in May 1945 he’d be 91 now. I must say, for a man that age he looks awfully sprightly – almost all the British or American WWII vets are wheelchair bound (George Bush Snr. for example, who is 93 years old).

The victory celebrations in Russia underwent somewhat of a revival during Vladimir Putin’s rule and are now seen as much as a celebration of his new, assertive Russia as anything else. But the veterans played an important symbolic role at the parades and other celebrations (Defender of the Fatherland Day, for example), without whom the whole thing would have looked a bit like something a South American dictatorship might have put on. Provided the link to the defeat of the Nazis can be maintained it remains authentic, and the presence of veterans reinforced that. But what happens when the veterans have all died off?

Life expectancy in Russia for men is just shy of 65 for men, and was even lower for those who lived through the war. It is frankly quite incredible that any Russian war veteran should even be alive now, let alone wandering alone and unaided alongside Putin’s entourage and able to withstand a shove from a security guard without falling over. I don’t know if the whole thing was staged, but I am pretty sure that whoever this man in uniform is, he wasn’t wearing one during the Great Patriotic War. I’ll be interested to hear what story gets told about him in the coming days, and how many Russia-watchers repeat it uncritically.

UPDATE

Apparently the veteran is one Dmitri Sirkachev and born in 1924, making him 94. All I can say is that he is in incredibly good shape for a man of that age. I suspect we’re going to be seeing WWII veterans at these parades for a decade or two yet.

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The Death of Maxim Borodin

This is pretty awful:

A Russian investigative journalist who wrote about the deaths of mercenaries in Syria has died in hospital after falling from his fifth-floor flat.

Maxim Borodin was found badly injured by neighbours in Yekaterinburg and taken to hospital, where he later died.

Being a journalist in Russia is not especially dangerous. Being a journalist in Russia and writing about things which concern powerful people is incredibly dangerous, bordering on suicidal.

Local officials said no suicide note was found but the incident was unlikely to be of a criminal nature.

Uh-huh. One minute he’s exposing the clandestine use of Russian mercenaries in Syria, the next he’s just fallen off a balcony. Could happen to anyone.

However, a friend revealed Borodin had said his flat had been surrounded by security men a day earlier.

Vyacheslav Bashkov described Borodin as a “principled, honest journalist” and said Borodin had contacted him at five o’clock in the morning on 11 April saying there was “someone with a weapon on his balcony and people in camouflage and masks on the staircase landing”.

Borodin had been looking for a lawyer, he explained, although he later called him back saying he was wrong and that the security men had been taking part in some sort of exercise.

Many a time have I come home to find people with weapons on my balcony and masked, camouflaged men in the stairwell conducting an exercise. Yeah, this is all perfectly normal.

In recent weeks, the journalist had written about Russian mercenaries known as the “Wagner Group” who were reportedly killed in Syria on 7 February in a confrontation with US forces.

Maxim Borodin was phenomenally brave in investigating this story but, like Anna Politkovskaya, you’ve got to wonder if it was worth it. I don’t know who is behind the Wagner Group but you can be sure they are nasty, brutal, and well-connected. Going anywhere near an outfit like this and raising awkward questions was bound to end badly, and sadly it has.

The story is a useful reminder that Russia is a violent, lawless place in many respects and not every high-profile murder is carried out on the orders of Putin. Putin must take a lot of the blame for presiding over the conditions which allow journalists to be murdered with impunity in Russia, but it’s worth noting he is a product of the same culture, not its architect. Murders don’t occur in Russia because Putin allegedly has people murdered; any murders ordered by Putin occur in a culture where murdering people is routine. There’s a difference, and I think this was missed during the Skripal affair when it was assumed Putin simply must have been behind it. Now he probably was, but there was also a fair chance he wasn’t, which those unfamiliar with Russia utterly failed to even consider. It has become an article of faith among western reporters that Putin is responsible for the murder of Politkovskaya, and they go so far to directly charge him with the murder of journalists. The sad truth is any number of people would have wanted Politkovskaya dead, and Putin might not even have been one of them. We’ll never know.

The other noteworthy point to this story is that Maxim Borodin was genuinely brave and attempting to uncover a story which is in the public interest. Contrast this with western journalists who are mainly propagandists for the ruling classes yet are forever congratulating one another on their bravery, despite facing nothing more perilous in their day-job than a burned lip from an over-hot latte. I wonder how well a journalist like Borodin would go down in a western media outfit? Not very well, would be my guess.

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Professionals at Work

From the BBC:

A woman who was partially sucked out of a window of a US passenger plane after an engine exploded in mid-air has died.

Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 made an emergency landing in Philadelphia after a window, wings and fuselage were damaged. Seven passengers were injured.

Initial findings say an engine fan blade was missing. In a recording, one of the pilots can be heard saying “there is a hole and someone went out”.

That’s the background. Now listen to this conversation between the female pilot and an air traffic controller at Philadelphia airport:

You can hear the pilot struggling to contain the emotion in her voice, but she does a tremendous job of keeping calm. The guy in the tower is as cool as ice, and that’s due to professionalism and training rather than the fact he’s safe on the ground and not up there in a crippled plane. That the pilot, Tammy Jo Shults, managed to handle this situation brilliantly perhaps ought not to surprise:

Shults applied for the Air Force after she graduated. She wasn’t allowed to test to become a pilot, but the Navy welcomed her. She was one of the first female fighter pilots in the Navy’s history, and the first woman to fly F-18s. She later became an instructor.

She’s now an American hero, and deservedly so. I suspect Trump will shortly be hanging a medal around her neck and saying something well-meaning but cack-handed as he does it.

I find the calmness with which Shults and her interlocutor handle the situation almost mesmerising, but I often find that when watching a real professional go about their job. Oddly, the scene I most enjoyed from the the film Captain Phillips is when the corpsman aboard the US Navy ship examines Tom Hanks for the first time. The way she went about giving him direct, clear, and repeated instructions with completely calm, professional body-language made me think this was a very good actress. Or:

Tom Hanks claimed that the scene of Captain Richard Phillips’ medical examination was improvised on the spot with real-life Navy Corpsman Danielle Albert, who was told to simply follow her usual procedure.

Which explained it. A friend later told me he’d also been struck by the same scene. Calmness is vital to thinking clearly, and the best way to remain calm is to follow an established procedure and practice as much as possible. If you panic you’ll make mistakes and, panic being highly infectious, you’ll cause other people to make mistakes too.

A Russian friend was flying from Paris to Lagos with Air France once, and a Nigerian lady started having some sort of seizure in her seat. The passengers alerted the stewardess who, frankly, had no idea what to do and her body language let the entire aircraft know it. The passengers began to get agitated, and the stewardess (who was not joined by a couple of others) go the lady to lie down in the aisle. Then she started going into convulsions, and the stewardesses started to panic. They called the head steward, a Frenchman, who arrived and immediately panicked himself. The passengers lost control of themselves and started screaming and shouting. Somehow the air crew regained control of the situation, the woman stopped flapping around, and she got back to her seat. My Russian friend was very unimpressed, and said he had little confidence the pilots would do much better under duress. Given Air France’s safety record, nor have I.

By contrast, I was once flying Aeroflot from Moscow to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk when my companion ate the wrong thing in the in-flight meal and had an allergic reaction. Her throat began to swell and her breathing got difficult. Normally she carries medicine with her, but either didn’t have it with her or forgot where it was. I alerted the stewardess – the usual slim woman with bleached-blonde hair and painted nails – who took one look and asked my companion firmly what she’d eaten. She asked a few more questions, never raising her voice, then calmly told her colleague to fetch the medicine chest. My companion’s face was swelling up and she was breaking out in spots. A helpful chap in the seat behind thought she was simply airsick and offered her a tumbler of cheap cognac, which I still laugh about today. The stewardess returned with the medicine chest, they confirmed with my companion that it was the correct one, and gave her the tablets. Within a few minutes everything was back to normal, and only those sat nearby had any idea anything had happened. Aeroflot might be the butt of a lot of jokes, but the air crew knew their stuff and didn’t panic, and you can be damned sure the pilots wouldn’t either even if they plane had lost a wing, was upside down, and on fire.

I’ve noticed in my professional life that Frenchmen are prone to panicking under pressure, and letting their emotions get the better of them. By contrast, I don’t think I ever saw a Russian man panic, and there are numerous videos of Russians walking nonchalantly away from horrific car crashes and this legendary one of a pilot lighting up a cigarette after ejecting from his MiG-29. That’s not to say Russians never panic and Frenchmen always do, but propensity to panic is probably cultural in part, and training is needed to overcome it.

Whoever they may be, I find something awesome about a professional calmly going about his or her business, especially in a situation which would render most people unable to function at all. That might be because absolute professionalism is something I don’t see as much as I should. Clearly, the Americans flying planes and manning control towers still have it in spades. Good for them.

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Story Changed

From the BBC:

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog is to meet in the Hague and discuss the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the UK.

The emergency session was called by Russia, who denies being behind the attack and wants the UK to share evidence.

But the UK government says the only “plausible explanation” is that Russia is to blame.

Yes, this is what the government said from the beginning. They took a sample, sent it off to Porton Down – an indisputable centre of excellence for chemical warfare – who identified the substance as Novichok, which could only have come from Russia. Yup, this is what I remember quite clearly. Oh, hang on:

On Tuesday the UK’s Porton Down laboratory said it could not verify the precise source of the nerve agent used against Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

Ah.

The laboratory, which has previously identified the substance as a military-grade Novichok nerve agent, said it was likely to have been deployed by a “state actor” but said it was not their job to say where it was manufactured.

Right, this is beginning to piss me off. Now Porton Down’s position is perfectly reasonable and doesn’t mean anything in itself – their job was almost certainly to identify the substance not to speculate as to where this particular batch may have been manufactured. But this is not what the public was led to believe. Within a day or two of Porton Down getting involved their name was invoked by government ministers who heavily implied it was their experts who confirmed it almost certainly came from Russia. So where did they get this idea from?

The UK says further intelligence led to its belief that Russia was responsible.

Now this isn’t unreasonable in itself and the intelligence may be 100% accurate. But this is not what we were told. Why is this only coming out now, a month after the event and several weeks after Russia was issued with ultimatums and threats, plunging us neck-deep into a diplomatic row we’ve dragged around thirty other countries into?

To me, there is a big difference between:

Our experts at Porton Down have analysed the substance and concluded it is a nerve agent of the Novichok family, and could only have come from Russia.

and:

Our experts at Porton Down have analysed the substance and concluded it is a nerve agent of the Novichok family. Intelligence sources say it could only have come from Russia.

Whereas I don’t doubt the impartial expertise of the chaps at Porton Down, British intelligence hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in recent years. What form does this intelligence take? How much was it subject to interpretation? How much political pressure was brought to bear on the analysis? The British government has implied the source of manufacture has been determined by scientific analysis rather than intelligence sources. In other words, they have mislead the public.

Here’s what I reckon’s happened:

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog is to meet in the Hague and discuss the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the UK.

The emergency session was called by Russia, who denies being behind the attack and wants the UK to share evidence.

As a member of the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Russia has the right to request an emergency meeting of the body.

Among other things, it wants to know what kind of evidence the UK has provided to the OPCW, which inspectors visited the site of the attack in Salisbury, who they met and where the samples are being analysed.

The OPCW expects to receive the results of its own independent laboratory tests within a week.

Until now, everyone has been led to believe the Russian connection was made by Porton Down. The independent testing by the OPCW is likely to confirm the substance is Novichok, but will not be able to say where it was manufactured. At this point, the Russians will ask those at Porton Down “Then how did you know?” Anticipating this, Porton Down has distanced itself from making any Russian connection, forcing the government to come clean.

I have said right from the start that Theresa May’s government has handled this affair spectacularly badly. They’ve rushed to judgement for political reasons without getting their ducks in a row. Probably the best thing I can say at this point is that it doesn’t surprise me in the least.

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The tragedy in Kemerovo brings forth a much greater one

There is a story developing in the aftermath of the Kemerovo shopping mall fire which is getting uglier by the day. It concerns this man:

Last week Igor Vostrikov was a successful businessman, married with three young children. Today he says that he has “nothing more to lose” and will fight for justice to be served.
Vostrikov recalls that his wife, Elena, had been “beyond panic” by the time she reached him at around 4pm on Sunday. Elena, who had been in the cinema with Vostrikov’s sister and three of their children ‒ a seven-year-old girl and boys ages five and two ‒ knew that her husband was away in a nearby town, so she initially called her mother-in-law when smoke first began pouring into the movie theater.

But miles away, Vostrikov knew differently. Elena told him on the phone that she was “suffocating,” and he instructed her to get down on the ground and breathe through a wet cloth.

“Why aren’t they coming to save us?” his daughter asked. Recalling the moment when he stopped hearing the voices of his children in the background, he now thinks that they may have already been dead, even as Elena stayed on the line.

“Igor, we are burning here, I love you,” she said. He continued talking into the phone for several minutes, but there was no reply.

By the time Vostrikov arrived in Kemerovo, the death toll was rising. His wife, sister, and three children are among the 64 who have been officially declared dead.

For a man to suddenly lose his wife, sister, and three young children in this way is a level of tragedy I can barely imagine. News reporters quickly picked up on his anger and grief, and his name began to spread around the internet. Most people felt desperately sorry for him.

However, at some point in the past few years, Vostrikov had posted remarks on social media which were supportive of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria, and derogatory towards Ukraine. This enraged Ukrainians online who openly said they had no sympathy with someone who made such remarks, and losing his family in a fire was an act of karma. Now we’re getting stories like this:

I expect this already deeply unpleasant situation will now get even worse.

Among the rather disgusting remarks aimed at Vostrikov was one that had some merit, and that’s the regime which Russians praise for “recapturing” Crimea and putting those uppity Ukrainians in their place is the same one which presides over corruption and dysfunction such that deadly fires in shopping malls occur. It is unlikely you can have one without the other, they are two sides of the same coin. It’s a point I’ve made often in the past, that the characteristics of Putin’s regime that Russians cheer are the same characteristics which make their life harder on a daily basis. Very few see it that way, though.

But the main point of this post is to highlight what an absolute, utter, appalling tragedy this pointless conflict between Russia and Ukraine is. As I said before:

It is well known that civil wars are fought with more bitterness and brutality than those between different peoples, and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine looks to me far more like the former.

Without even trying I can name six people I knew in Sakhalin whose surname ended with the Ukrainian -enko. If I rummaged through my memory banks I could come up with another six. Ukraine and Russia were so intertwined in the Soviet era and before that people would move from one to the other interchangeably. The cultures were so similar that one could move to the other and nobody would know you were an outsider.  Nikita Khrushchev passed himself off as a Ukrainian for years, even though he was Russian. By contrast, Stalin and Beria remained stubbornly Georgian and Mikoyan Armenian. I would bet that if you were to ask a Russian whether they had a Ukrainian grandparent, relative, or a relative living in Ukraine most of them would say yes. Okay, maybe not most, but a lot. The cultural and physical border between the two was all but non-existent for years.

There is no easy dividing line between Ukrainians and Russians, and the origins of this conflict seem to concern how people want to be governed in future rather than by whom, and had little to do with ethnicity, language, culture, national security, or any other excuse that’s been wheeled out by the hardliners on each side since.

A few years ago no Ukrainian would have dreamed of saying a Russian deserved to lose his family in a fire, and no Russian would have gloated on the internet about Russian military victories over Ukraine. The whole thing is so pointless, and the wounds will take decades to heal, assuming they ever do. This artificial driving of a wedge between two peoples reminds me of the way many Scots now see England, despite there being little meaningful cultural differences between the two peoples that an outsider could coherently describe. I’d like to say the relations between Scotland and England are not as poisonous as those of Ukraine and Russia, but I’m afraid I can’t. Ten minutes on Twitter will tell you there are people north of the border quite capable of telling an Englishman his family deserved to die in a fire because of his place of birth or political beliefs.

It’s tragic. How the hell did it come to this?

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Воскрешение

This morning I woke up to news that:

Yulia Skripal, the daughter of ex-spy Sergei Skripal, is improving rapidly and no longer in a critical condition, says the hospital treating her.

The BBC understands from separate sources that Ms Skripal is conscious and talking.

However Mr Skripal remains in a critical but stable condition, Salisbury District Hospital said.

Doctors said Ms Skripal, “has responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day”.

Which comes as a bit of a surprise. A couple of weeks back we were told that this was a “weapons grade” nerve agent (as opposed to the sort you hand around at parties) and multiple times more deadly than sarin. Since then we’ve had the policeman who was exposed walking out of hospital, and now one of the principle victims is sitting up in bed, probably complaining about NHS food.

On Wednesday, police said the Skripals first came into contact with the nerve agent at the former Russian spy’s home in Salisbury.

Forensic tests show the highest concentration was found on the front door.

From what I can tell, the nerve agent was smeared on the door handle of the Skripals’ home. As a way of exposing someone to it, this seems risky. What if it washed off in the rain? What if the target wore gloves? What if a visitor turned up, taking the bulk of the poison away with them, and you end up killing the wrong person? Now I don’t know anything about murdering people, let alone with nerve agents, but there’s no denying this job was botched. Neither of the intended victims is dead and one seems to be making a reasonable recovery.

The whole thing sounds rather amateurish to me, something you wouldn’t normally associate with FSB assassins. Now Russians do botch jobs: if you’d have hired a chap to fix the electrics in a flat in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in 2007 chances are he’d have shown up with a carrier bag containing some ancient tools, two of which were lump hammers (the second one is his screwdriver), and a couple of weeks later you’d open up the junction box to find a fork in place of the fuse. But when it comes to knocking off political opponents at the behest of the president, Russians tend to get the job done properly. So it’s all a bit strange.

In addition, as I’ve already made pretty clear on this blog, I haven’t yet heard a plausible theory as to why Putin would order this hit and this method would be used. Various theories might work if it were one or the other, but the two combined leave us mainly with complex conspiracies which claim to know the inner workings of Putin’s mind and portray him as some kind of villain from a Batman film.

Now here’s what worries me. The BBC said the police are interested in speaking to Yulia Skripal once she’s well enough to answer their questions. Well yeah, I bet they are. But are they more interested in hearing what she has to say or making sure whatever she says fits the narrative the government assembled long before she woke up? You can be sure that whatever she says, the public will be told nothing that will make the government or police look bad.

I don’t believe governments and police departments engage in complex conspiracies from scratch, starting with a blank piece of paper. But I do believe they would burn whole neighbourhoods to the ground to cover up their own incompetence, or maintain a narrative once they’ve set the ball rolling in a particular direction. We are now in the middle of a full-blown diplomatic crisis with Russia into which we’ve roped several other countries, and it is still escalating. Now we find one of the two key persons is able to talk for the first time, perhaps shedding vital new light on what happened. Let’s face it, nobody has the slightest idea what she might say. Could we not have waited a little bit?

I know there are people out there who think any delay in issuing accusations, threats, and ultimatums would have “played into Russia’s hands”, but they seem awfully blasé about this whole thing. Contrast this with when MH-17 got shot down and Putin was visibly shaken, until he realised that what passes for EU leadership was not about to jeopardise business opportunities in Russia just for the sake of a couple of hundred dead passengers, and Obama might have to make a decision. Then they launched an absolute whirlwhind of disinformation, knowing full well they were culpable. This time they seem content with straight-faced denials and heavy sarcasm. They’re acting like they know full well they had nothing to do with it and at some point Britain and its allies are going to have egg all over their faces.

Of course I might be wrong, but I believe I’m justified in thinking the British government would stop at absolutely nothing to ensure this doesn’t happen, the truth be damned. I hope Yulia Skripal has a decent lawyer present when she talks to the police, one that is representing her interests and not the government’s. Who is representing the public’s interest in all this is anyone’s guess.

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