Putin’s proxies: How much did he control Ukraine’s rebels?

Stephen Saideman
The Globe and Mail | Jul. 18 2014

Stephen M. Saideman is Paterson chair in International Affairs at Carleton University and a fellow at CDFAI

Thursday’s horrible disaster in the skies above contested Ukrainian territory may or may not change the politics of the conflict, but it may suggest to Russian President Vladimir Putin and to others the dangers of relying on others to do one’s bidding.

From the outset of the Crimean crisis to now, it has been most clear that the separatists in Ukraine have been organized, facilitated, and equipped by Russia. They may not be entirely of Russia’s creation and they are not entirely staffed by Russia, but it is clear that Russia’s politicians have seen these separatists as their agents – their employees – to pressure and destabilize the Ukrainian government.

Leaders often have problems making their own militaries behave well, but controlling proxies, such as rebels elsewhere, is much, much more difficult. If one is relying on one’s own military, you can promote/demote/fire poorly behaving officers. You can more easily control the assets they have, expanding or shrinking their authority and their capabilities. But with proxies such as rebel groups? Even ones which have members of your own military within them? Not so easy.

Russia wanted to destabilize Ukraine and, voilà, these “little green men” turn up, armed and equipped. So, the key questions to ask are:

What were the orders and the guidance given to the separatists? What was their job? Were they given authority to shoot down planes? Was that something permitted or at least not forbidden by Russia?

What were the separatists’ rules of engagement?

Were the politicians back in Russia aware of the separatists’ capabilities?

What kinds of leverage does Russia have over the separatists? Can they reward good behavior and punish bad behavior?

Does Russia have agents on the ground operating within the separatists’ organizations?

So far, we do not know the answers to most of these questions. To be clear, the rebels in this area had been shooting down Ukrainian planes. Yesterday’s attack was only new in the sense that the rebels shot at the wrong plane. So, Russian officials certainly knew that the airspace over eastern Ukraine was a dangerous place, and we now have some stories suggesting that Russia, unlike the European airline authorities, was re-directing planes away from this area. Thus, it is very, very likely that Mr. Putin knew of the use of anti-aircraft weaponry by the separatists.

Why allow or condone separatist attacks on Ukrainian aircraft? In recent weeks, the separatists were losing on the ground. Their best way to impose costs on Ukraine has been to shoot down aircraft – helicopters, transport aircraft, even fighter planes. Mr. Putin’s moves have been inconsistent over the past few weeks, but the continued use of anti-aircraft weapons by the separatists seems to have been acceptable. How do we know this? Mr. Putin’s government had not criticized the separatists for their previous attacks on aircraft. Indeed, the initial reports yesterday indicate that the rebels were in contact with Russian officers shortly after the shootdown to report their activities. So, the best inference we can make right now was that the separatist anti-aircraft attacks were well within Russia’s expectations. The shooting down of the Malaysian airliner was most likely a mistake by those who had been authorized to attack Ukrainian aircraft.

This leads to the advantage of using proxies. Russia can deny responsibility and has done so, blaming Ukraine for having a crisis where this stuff can happen. It is not clear how plausible the deniability has to be to serve the government. If it becomes even clearer that the separatists in Ukraine were responsible, Mr. Putin can simply deny that he has any control over these forces, that it is not his mistake but one made by those on the ground.

Such denials will be more problematic if we can trace the weapon used in this attack back to Russia or if we can get further confirmation of the tight relationship between those who fired the weapon and Russian officers in the region.

Relying on proxies is always a dangerous game, as the U.S. has discovered repeatedly (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so on). The advantage of seeming to have less control over the various actors is also a disadvantage because you actually have less control. This strategy, as we found out yesterday, is not just dangerous for politicians and for those living in the contested territories but for those flying above it.


Russia’s Latest Land Grab

How Putin Won Crimea and Lost Ukraine
Mankoff, Jeffrey
Foreign Affairs. May2014, Vol. 93 Issue 3, p60-68. 9p

Russia’s occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in February and March have plunged Europe into one of its gravest crises since the end of the Cold War. Despite analogies to Munich in 1938, however, Russia’s invasion of this Ukrainian region is at once a replay and an escalation of tactics that the Kremlin has used for the past two decades to maintain its influence across the domains of the former Soviet Union. Since the early 1990s, Russia has either directly supported or contributed to the emergence of four breakaway ethnic regions in Eurasia: Transnistria, a self-declared state in Moldova on a strip of land between the Dniester River and Ukraine; Abkhazia, on Georgia’s Black Sea coast; South Ossetia, in northern Georgia; and, to a lesser degree, Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked mountainous region in southwestern Azerbaijan that declared its independence under Armenian protection following a brutal civil war. Moscow’s meddling has created so-called frozen conflicts in these states, in which the splinter territories remain beyond the control of the central governments and the local de facto authorities enjoy Russian protection and influence.

Until Russia annexed Crimea, the situation on the peninsula had played out according to a familiar script: Moscow opportunistically fans ethnic tensions and applies limited force at a moment of political uncertainty, before endorsing territorial revisions that allow it to retain a foothold in the contested region. With annexation, however, Russia departed from these old tactics and significantly raised the stakes. Russia’s willingness to go further in Crimea than in the earlier cases appears driven both by Ukraine’s strategic importance to Russia and by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s newfound willingness to ratchet up his confrontation with a West that Russian elites increasingly see as hypocritical and antagonistic to their interests.

Given Russia’s repeated interventions in breakaway regions of former Soviet states, it would be natural to assume that the strategy has worked well in the past. In fact, each time Russia has undermined the territorial integrity of a neighboring state in an attempt to maintain its influence there, the result has been the opposite. Moscow’s support for separatist movements within their borders has driven Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova to all wean themselves off their dependence on Russia and pursue new partnerships with the West. Ukraine will likely follow a similar trajectory. By annexing Crimea and threatening deeper military intervention in eastern Ukraine, Russia will only bolster Ukrainian nationalism and push Kiev closer to Europe, while causing other post-Soviet states to question the wisdom of a close alignment with Moscow.


These frozen conflicts are a legacy of the Soviet Union’s peculiar variety of federalism. Although Marxism is explicitly internationalist and holds that nationalism will fade as class solidarity develops, the Soviet Union assigned many of its territorial units to particular ethnic groups. This system was largely the work of Joseph Stalin. In the first years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin headed the People’s Commissariat for Nationality Affairs, the Soviet bureaucracy set up in 1917 to deal with citizens of non-Russian descent. Stalin’s commissariat presided over the creation of a series of ethnically defined territorial units. From 1922 to 1940, Moscow formed the largest of these units into the 15 Soviet socialist republics; these republics became independent states when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

Although designed as homelands for their titular nationalities, the 15 Soviet socialist republics each contained their own minority groups, including Azeris in Armenia, Armenians in Azerbaijan, Abkhazians and Ossetians in Georgia, Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, and Karakalpaks in Uzbekistan, along with Russians scattered throughout the non-Russian republics. Such diversity was part of Stalin’s plan. Stalin drew borders through ethnic groups’ historical territories (despite the creation of Uzbekistan, for example, the four other Central Asian Soviet republics were left with sizable Uzbek minorities) and included smaller autonomous enclaves within several Soviet republics (such as Abkhazia in Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan). From Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan, the presence of concentrated minorities within ethnically defined Soviet republics stoked enough tension to limit nationalist mobilization against Moscow. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic already had sizable Russian and Jewish populations, but Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to give the republic the Crimean Peninsula in 1954 added a large, territorially concentrated Russian minority. (Crimean Tatars, who are the peninsulas native population, composed close to a fifth of the population until 1944, when most of them were deported to Central Asia for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis. According to the last census, from 2001, ethnic Russians compose about 58 percent of Crimea’s population, Ukrainians make up 24 percent, and Crimean Tatars, around 12 percent. The remaining six percent includes Belarusians and a smattering of other ethnicities.)

For a long time, the strategy of ethnic division worked. During the 1980s, most of these minority groups opposed the nationalist movements that were pressing for independence in many of the Soviet republics, viewing the continued existence of the Soviet Union as the best guarantee of their protection against the larger ethnic groups that surrounded them. As a result, local officials in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria largely supported the August 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, who they believed was speeding the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In Crimea, only 54 percent of voters supported Ukrainian independence in a December 1991 referendum — by far the lowest figure anywhere in Ukraine.

As the Soviet Union dissolved, many of these divisions sparked intercommunal violence, which Moscow exploited to maintain a foothold in the new post-Soviet states. In 1989, as part of a national project to promote a shared linguistic identity with Romania, its neighbor to the west, the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic voted to reinstitute the Latin alphabet and adopt Moldovan as its only official language, downgrading Russian. Feeling threatened, the ethnic Russian and Ukrainian populations of Transnistria declared the area’s independence in 1990, and, in an eerie preview of recent events in Crimea, pro-Russian paramilitary units took over Moldovan government buildings in the territory. Later, in 1992, when fighting broke out between Transnistrian separatists and a newly independent Moldova, Russia’s 14th Army, which was still stationed in Transnistria as a holdover from Soviet times, backed the separatists. A cease-fire signed in July of that year created a buffer zone between the breakaway region and Moldova, enforced by the Russian military, which has remained in Transnistria ever since.

Similar scenes unfolded in Georgia. In 1989, the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, on its way to declaring independence, established Georgian as the official state language, angering Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which had enjoyed autonomy in Soviet Georgia. In 1990, clashes broke out after Georgian authorities voted to revoke South Ossetia’s autonomy in response to the region’s efforts to create a separate South Ossetian parliament. After Abkhazia declared its independence from the new Georgian state in 1992, Georgia’s army invaded, sparking a civil war that killed 8,000 people and displaced some 240,000 (mostly ethnic Georgians). In both conflicts, the Soviet or Russian military intervened directly on the side of the secessionists. The 1992 cease-fire in South Ossetia and the 1994 cease-fire in Abkhazia both left Russian troops in place as peacekeepers, cementing the breakaway regions’ de facto independence.

Tensions were renewed in 2004, when Mikheil Saakashvili, a brash, pro-Western 36-year-old, was elected president of Georgia. Saakashvili sought to bring Georgia into NATO and recover both breakaway republics. In response, Moscow encouraged South Ossetian forces to carry out a series of provocations, eventually triggering, in 2008, a Georgian military response and giving Russia a pretext to invade Georgia and formally recognize Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, which was an autonomous region in Soviet Azerbaijan populated primarily by ethnic Armenians, intercommunal violence in the late 1980s grew, in the early 1990s, into a civil war between, on the one side, separatists backed by the newly independent state of Armenia and, on the other, the newly independent state of Azerbaijan. Although Soviet and then Russian forces were involved on both sides throughout the conflict, the rise of a hard-line nationalist leadership in Baku in 1992 encouraged Moscow to tilt toward Armenia, leading to the separatists’ eventual victory. In 1994, after as many as 30,000 people had been killed, a truce left Nagorno-Karabakh in the hands of the ethnic Armenian separatists, who have since built a small, functional statelet that is technically inside Azerbaijan but aligned with Armenia — an entity that no UN member recognizes, including, paradoxically, Russia. As energy-rich Azerbaijan has subsequently grown wealthier and more powerful, Armenia — and, by extension, Nagorno-Karabakh — has cemented its alliance with Russia.


In each of those cases, Russia intervened when it felt its influence was threatened. Russia has consistently claimed in such instances that it has acted out of a responsibility to protect threatened minority groups, but that has always been at best a secondary concern. The moves have been opportunistic, driven more by a concern for strategic advantage than by humanitarian or ethnonational considerations. Pledges to defend threatened Russian or other minority populations outside Russia may play well domestically, but it was the Azerbaijani, Georgian, and Moldovan governments’ desire to escape Russia’s geopolitical orbit — more than their real or alleged persecution of minorities — that led Moscow to move in. Russia has never intervened militarily to defend ethnic minorities, including Russians, in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, who have often suffered much more than their co-ethnics in other former Soviet republics, probably because Moscow doesn’t assign the same strategic significance to those Central Asian countries, where Western influence has been limited.

Leading up to the annexation of Crimea, Putin and his administration were careful to talk about protecting "Russian citizens" (anyone to whom Moscow has given a passport) and "Russian speakers" (which would include the vast majority of Ukrainian citizens), instead of referring more directly to "ethnic Russians." Moscow has also used the word "compatriots" (sootechestvenniki), a flexible term enshrined in Russian legislation that implies a common fatherland and gives Putin great latitude in determining just whom it includes. In announcing Crimea’s annexation to Russia’s parliament, however, Putin noted that "millions of Russians and Russian-speaking citizens live and will continue to live in Ukraine, and Russia will always defend their interests through political, diplomatic, and legal means." The Kremlin is walking a narrow line, trying to garner nationalist support at home and give itself maximum leeway in how it acts with its neighbors while avoiding the troubling implications of claiming to be the protector of ethnic Russians everywhere. But in Ukraine, once again, Moscow has intervened to stop a former Soviet republic’s possible drift out of Russia’s orbit and has justified its actions as a response to ethnic persecution, the claims of which are exaggerated.

It is important to note that although Russia has felt free to intervene politically and militarily in all these cases, until Crimea, it had never formally annexed the territory its forces occupied, nor had it deposed the local government (although, by many accounts, Moscow did contemplate marching on Tbilisi in 2008 to oust Saakashvili). Instead, Russia had been content to demand changes to the foreign policies of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova, most notably by seeking to block Georgia’s NATO aspirations. The annexation of Crimea is thus an unprecedented step in Russia’s post-Soviet foreign policy. Although in practice the consequences may not be that different from in the other frozen conflicts (assuming Russia does not precipitate a wider war with Ukraine), Moscow’s willingness to flout international norms in the face of clear warnings and the Obama administration’s search for a diplomatic way out of the crisis hints at other motivations. More than in the conflicts of the early 1990s or even in Georgia in 2008, the Kremlin conceived of the invasion and annexation of Crimea as a deliberate strike against the West, as well as Ukraine. Putin apparently believes that he and Russia have more to gain from open confrontation with the United States and Europe — consolidating his political position at home and boosting Moscow’s international stature — than from cooperation.


Despite the differences in the case of Crimea, what has not changed in the Kremlin’s tactics since the fall of the Soviet Union is Russia’s paternalistic view of its post-Soviet neighbors. Russia continues to regard them as making up a Russian sphere of influence, where Moscow has what Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in 2008, termed "privileged interests." In the early 1990s, Russian officials described the former Soviet domains as Russia’s "near abroad." That term has since fallen out of favor. But the idea behind it — that post-Soviet states in eastern Europe and Eurasia are not fully sovereign and that Moscow continues to have special rights in them — still resonates among the Russian elite. This belief explains why Putin and other Russian officials feel comfortable condemning the United States for violating the sovereignty of faraway states such as Iraq and Libya while Russia effectively does the same thing in its own backyard.

Such thinking plays another role as well. These days, Russia has little to justify its claims to major-power status, apart from its seat on the UN Security Council and its massive nuclear stockpile. Maintaining Russia’s influence across the former Soviet Union helps Russian leaders preserve their image of Russia’s greatness. Under Putin, the Kremlin has sought to reinforce this influence by pushing economic and political integration with post-Soviet states, through measures such as establishing a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan and forming the Eurasian Union, a new supranational bloc that Putin claims is directly modeled on the EU and that he hopes to unveil in 2015 (Belarus and Kazakhstan have already signed on; Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have expressed their interest).

Putin hopes to turn this Eurasian bloc into a cultural and geopolitical alternative to the West, and he has made clear that it will amount to little unless Ukraine joins. This Eurasian dream is what made the prospect of Kiev signing an association agreement with the EU back in November — one that would have permanently excluded Ukraine from the Eurasian Union — so alarming to Putin and led him, at the last minute, to bribe President Viktor Yanukovych with Russian loan guarantees to Ukraine, so that he would reject the deal with Brussels. Thus far, Putin’s tactic has failed: not only did Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the association agreement spawn the protests that eventually toppled him, but on March 21, the new, interim government in Kiev signed the agreement anyway.

Although Moscow has a variety of tools it can use to exert regional influence — bribes, energy exports, trade ties — supporting separatist movements remains its strongest, if bluntest, weapon. Dependent on Russian protection, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and now Crimea serve as outposts for projecting Russian political and economic influence. (Nagorno-Karabakh is different in this sense; Moscow doesn’t back Nagorno-Karabakh directly, but backs Armenia.) Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria all permit Russia to base troops on their territory, as does Armenia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia each host roughly 3,500 Russian troops, along with 1,500 Federal Security Service personnel; Transnistria has some 1,500 Russian soldiers on its territory; and Armenia has around 5,000 Russian troops. One of the principal reasons Moscow has regarded Crimea as so strategically valuable is that the peninsula already hosted Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

But Russia’s tactics are not cost-free. By splitting apart internationally recognized states and deploying its military to disputed territories, Moscow has repeatedly damaged its economy and earned itself international condemnation. The bigger problem, however, is that Moscow’s coercive diplomacy and support of separatist movements diminish Russian influence over time — that is, these actions achieve the exact opposite of what Russia hopes. It is no coincidence that aside from the Baltic countries, which have joined NATO and the EU, the post-Soviet states that have worked hardest to decrease their dependence on Russia over the past two decades are Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova.

These states have moved westward directly in reaction to Russian meddling. During the 1990s, Azerbaijan responded to Russia’s intervention over Nagorno-Karabakh by seeking new markets for its oil and gas reserves in the West. It found a willing partner in Georgia, leading to the construction of an oil pipeline from Baku through Tbilisi to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, which started operations in 2005. A parallel gas pipeline in the southern Caucasus opened the next year. Both freed Azerbaijan’s and Georgia’s economies from a reliance on Russia. Since 2010, Azerbaijan has also secured regional security guarantees from Turkey, which would complicate any future Russian intervention. Georgia, meanwhile, continues to pursue membership in NATO, and even if it never makes it, Tbilisi will be able to count on some support from the United States and other Western powers if threatened. And Moldova, despite its fractious domestic politics, has also made great strides in aligning itself with Europe, committing to its own EU association agreement last November, just as Yanukovych backed out.

Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, especially if it is followed by incursions into eastern Ukraine, will have the same effect. Far from dissuading Ukrainians from seeking a future in Europe, Moscow’s moves will only foster a greater sense of nationalism in all parts of the country and turn Ukrainian elites against Russia, probably for a generation. The episode will also make Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, including those targeted for membership in the Eurasian Union, even more reluctant to go along with any Russian plans for regional integration. Russia may have won Crimea, but in the long run, it risks losing much more: its once-close relationship with Ukraine, its international reputation, and its plan to draw the ex-Soviet states back together.

PHOTO (COLOR): Marking its territory: the Russian army in Grigoriopol, Transnistria, Moldova, April 1992


JEFFREY MANKOFF is Deputy Director of and a Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

If Putin isn’t punished, Europe risks a wider war

Stephen Blank
The Globe and Mail | Jul. 24 2014

Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

The tragic downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 on July 17 by Russian-armed troops provides another occasion for the West to use its superior power to bring Russia’s war in Ukraine to an end. This assertion may sound surprising but nobody denies that the West, if it acts in unison, possesses more than enough power to force Russia to stop its war in Ukraine, withdraw its soldiers who shot down this plane, and move out all of its weapons. Yet the West has only employed a fraction of its power to date, driven as it is by commercial considerations and misplaced geopolitical fear of Russia’s reaction. It is precisely this disunity that has allowed Vladimir Putin to keep raising the ante in Ukraine because it lets him indulge his belief that he can outlast any Western pressure. After all, major energy firms have signed big deals with Rusisa while this fighting was taking place, confirming his belief in the West’s essential decadence and greed.

Moreover he has so identified himself with the nationalist passion in Russian politics that he himself has generated that to retreat now would undermine his domestic political position and acknowledge a stunning geopolitical defeat caused solely by his obstinacy. If the West does not exploit this opportunity to impose truly powerful sanctions, Mr. Putin will likely continue to raise the stakes in Ukraine and be drawn into a deeper and still more protracted aggression that would truly increase the possibility for a general war.

In other words, because nothing until now has convinced Mr. Putin to stop and because he has hitherto seen his enemies as weak and divided, unless they impose such severe sanctions that make the message of Western resolve crystal clear, he is likely to keep plunging. If the West wants to deter a greater or wider war from breaking out it must now seize control of the so called ladder of escalation. By imposing severe sectoral sanctions on the key sectors of Russia’s economy – energy, banking, and finance – it can send Mr. Putin a message that continuing this war risks a wider war that Russia can neither win nor sustain.

The French Revolutionary Louis St. Just once acidly observed that those who make revolution by half steps are only digging their own graves. This insight also applies to the deterrence that the West should have provided before this crisis and since it began until now. Instead, the timorous half-steps and warnings backed up by nothing but air have led Mr. Putin to conclude that he can stand the sanctions imposed to date since they will probably not last and in any case the West is divided.

Moreover he has convinced himself that he cannot let Ukraine be an independent westward-looking state, for that spells the end of his system at home. As a result he has put the security and stability of Russia itself and Europe at greater risk than anyone has done in years. Paradoxically, a strong Western response, along the lines being called for by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron are essential to impose deterrence upon Russia, rescue it, Ukraine, and Europe from a wider war, and begin the task of pacifying post-war Ukraine. Another round of half-steps will only confirm St. Just’s observation although the forum for that justification will be war not revolution.

Indeed, the pathetically divided and hesitant Western response until now has allowed Mr. Putin to widen the war and maintain the strategic initiative. The sight of stronger, richer states cowering before Mr. Putin is more than a little reminiscent of the appeasers of the 1930s who feared what Hitler or Mussolini might do if they acted forcefully to thwart their aggressions in their early stages. While Mr. Putin is not Hitler – although he evidently aspires to something like Mussolini’s status – the same lesson holds today. Those who resist aggression by half-steps are only digging their own (and others’) graves. Thus the nearly 300 victims of the Flight 17 demonstrate the costs of inaction, along with the brutality and corruption of the Russian forces, largely composed of Russian intelligence, paramilitary, military, and volunteer forces.

The West must also act because Mr. Putin has repeatedly shown that he will not accept responsibility for his actions. This should not have surprised anyone. As a veteran KGB officer he and his colleague have long ago internalized the notion that their all their crimes were actually committed by the victims while they were saving the state. To let this kind of behaviour go unpunished, not only risks a wider war, it also further corrupts both Russia’s and Europe’s public morality. Once again the West has the opportunity to deter a war, rescue the latest victims of Russian aggression from its grasp and continue its historic mission to civilize international politics. If we forfeit that chance by not imposing the deterrence, punishments, or sanctions clearly required here, who knows when, if ever, we will get a second chance to do the right thing.

Stephen Blank is co-author of an upcoming project with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute on Russia’s ambitions in the Arctic.




Will Putin crash and burn with MH17?
Nina Khrushcheva
The Globe and Mail | Jul. 23 2014

Nina L. Khrushcheva, author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics, teaches international affairs at the New School and is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York.

When incompetence in the Kremlin turns murderous, its incumbents can begin to tremble. As news of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine trickled into Russia, people with a long memory recalled the Soviet Union’s attack, 31 years ago this September, on Korean Air Lines Flight 007, and its political consequences.

Back then, the Kremlin first lied to the world by saying that it had nothing to do with the missing KAL plane. Later, it claimed that the South Korean jet was on an American spy mission. But, within the Soviet leadership, the incident was a tipping point. It ended the career of Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, Chief of the General Staff and a hardliner of the hardest sort, whose inconsistent and unconvincing efforts to justify the downing of the plane proved deeply embarrassing to the Kremlin.

Mr. Ogarkov’s ineptness (and inept mendacity), together with the mounting failure since 1979 of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, exposed the system’s advanced decrepitude. The stagnation that had begun during Leonid Brezhnev’s rule deepened after his death in 1982. His successors, first the KGB’s Yuri Andropov and then the Communist Party Central Committee’s Konstantin Chernenko, not only had one foot in the grave when they came to power, but were also completely unequipped to reform the Soviet Union.

The huge loss of life in Afghanistan (equal to the United States’ losses in Vietnam, but in a far shorter period of time) already suggested to many that the Kremlin was becoming a danger to itself; the attack on a civilian airliner seemed to confirm that emerging view. It was this realization that spurred Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power, as well as support among the leadership for Mr. Gorbachev’s reformist policies of perestroika and glasnost.

Of course, history is not destiny, but one can be sure that at least some in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entourage, if not Mr. Putin himself, have been thinking about Mr. Ogarkov’s failure and its impact on the Soviet elite. After all, Kremlin leaders, Mr. Putin included, define themselves through what was, not what could be.

Indeed, Mr. Putin’s rationale for annexing Crimea closely resembles Mr. Brezhnev’s reasoning for invading Afghanistan: to confound enemies seeking to surround the country. In 2004, speaking to Russian veterans about the Afghan invasion, Mr. Putin explained that there were legitimate geopolitical reasons to protect the Soviet Central Asian border, just as in March he cited security concerns to justify his Ukrainian land grab.

In the Brezhnev era, expansionist policies reflected the country’s new energy-derived wealth. Mr. Putin’s military build-up and modernization of the past decade was also fuelled by energy exports. But Russia’s latest energy windfall has masked Mr. Putin’s incompetent economic management, with growth and government revenues now entirely reliant on the hydrocarbons sector.

Moreover, Mr. Putin’s incompetence extends far beyond the economy. His security forces remain brutal and unaccountable; in some parts of the country, they have merged with criminal gangs. His managed judiciary provides no comfort to ordinary people, and the country’s military installations, submarines, oil rigs, mining shafts, hospitals and retirement homes regularly blow up, collapse or sink, owing to neglect and zero liability.

When public support for Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea wanes – as it will – his failings will shine more starkly in the light of the MH17 catastrophe. If the Russian state functioned well, Mr. Putin could continue to withstand pressure from opposition leaders. But the opposition’s charge that Mr. Putin’s regime is composed of “swindlers and thieves” will resonate more strongly, because Russians can now see the results all around them.

By making himself, in effect, the state, Mr. Putin, like the gerontocracy that collapsed with Mr. Gorbachev’s rise, is increasingly viewed as responsible for all state failures. And though thoughtful Russians may be hostages to Mr. Putin’s arrogance and blunders, the rest of the world is not. Indeed, his partners – particularly the other BRICS countries (Brazil, India, China and South Africa) – are now unlikely to be able to turn a blind eye to his contempt for international law and for his neighbours’ national sovereignty, as they did during their recent Brazilian summit. And Europe’s last blinders about Mr. Putin seem to have fallen, with the result that serious sanctions are almost certain to be imposed.

Mr. Putin is only 61, a decade younger than the leaders who led the Soviet Union to the precipice, and the constitution permits him to remain in power for at least another 10 years. But with GDP up by just 1.3 per cent in 2013 – and with sanctions likely to hasten the economy’s decline – patriotic pride will not be able to shield him much longer.

By overplaying its hand in Afghanistan and lying to the world about the downing of KAL007, the Soviet regime exposed and accelerated the rot that made its collapse inevitable. There is no reason to believe in a different fate for Mr. Putin’s effort to re-establish Russia as an imperial power.


Foreigners Fighting for Ukraine in 6 Profiles

Alexey Eremenko
The Moscow Times | Jul. 23 2014

The conflict has tended to attract European ultra-rightwingers on one side, and Russian imperialists on the other. Gleb Garanich / Reuters

From Lord Byron to Che Guevara, warfare has always had a way of attracting foreign activists passionate enough to fight and die for their respective causes.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine is no exception. But the foreigners involved are no Comandante Che. Rather, the conflict has tended to attract the likes of European ultra-rightwingers on one side, and Russian imperialists on the other.

The Moscow Times has selected the three most colorful foreign warriors on each side to provide our readers with a crash course in the types of people that would opt for machine guns, sniper rifles and the front lines of Donetsk and Luhansk as the most appropriate means by which to defend their ideals.

The Ukrainian Army:

1. Mikael Skilt, Sweden

A retired army sniper, 37-year-old Skilt is a member of Svenskarnas Parti, a Swedish neo-Nazi party. According to the BBC, he opposes "racial mixing" and campaigns in Ukraine to support his "white brothers." Up next on his world tour is Syria, where he reportedly plans to join up with  strongman Bashar Assad to help him combat "international Zionism."

2. Francesco "Don" Fontana, Italy

The 53-year-old Fontana has reportedly been fighting the Communist menace since the Years of Lead, a street war between the ultra-right and the radical left in Italy between the 1960s and 1980s. These days, he is better known as a Kalashnikov-toting trooper who has joined leagues with Ukraine’s nationalist Right Sector group. Daily newspaper Il Giornale reported that Fontana’s grandmother, the matriarch of the family, idolized Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and that Fontana himself has always wanted to avenge the death of his grandfather, who was slain in southern Russia by the Red Army during World War II.

3. Gaston Besson, France

Besson, 47, recruits foreign volunteers for the Ukrainian army. According to Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita, the ex-paratrooper and self-proclaimed "anarchist individualist" also heads an association of foreign veterans that fought the Croatian war of 1991-1995, the bulk of whom were neo-Nazi sympathizers, including from the French Foreign Legion.

The Rebels:

1. Igor Girkin aka Strelkov, Russia

Girkin, a retired FSB officer also linked to the GRU intelligence agency, fought in Transdnestr, Bosnia and Chechnya. For some Russians, he is the closest thing to a national hero the country has had since Yury Gagarin. A historian by education, 43-year-old Girkin whiles away peaceful times shooting imaginary weapons: He is an avid historical re-enactor, with a particular penchant for the imperial army troops of World War I and the anti-Bolshevik forces of the Russian Civil War.

2. Alexander "Babai" Mozhayev, Russia

Atop his square frame, he sports an epic beard, police sunglasses and a Kalashnikov. He leads a unit of Cossacks, a quasi-warrior caste seen as the spetsnaz of the tsarist era. He owes his nom de guerre, Babai, to a Russian fairytale bogeyman and is rumored to have killed U.S. mercenaries and shot down gunships. Mozhayev, 36, has the general appearance of a comic-book character. Even the attempted murder charges currently pending against him at home in Russia have done little to dim his popularity: He is the star of a thousand online memes.

3. Chechen volunteers, Russia

Nobody knows who they are, or how many of them are out there, but even Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov has admitted that volunteers from the North Caucasus republic, where an anti-Russian insurgency has simmered for 15 years, are now flocking to join a pro-Russian rebellion in Ukraine. Talk about fortunes of war.




Face to face with the Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine
news.com.au July 25, 2014

‘I wish it wasn’t like this but it is, it has to be’ … Vice Commandant Oxana Grinyova. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

WITH a Makarov pistol in a holster on her left and a jagged edged knife on her right, Oxana Grinyova is more Che Guevara than suburban soccer mum.

But standing dressed in battle fatigues beside her two sons the 43-year-old says it wasn’t always this way.

“I wish it wasn’t like this but it is, it has to be,” shrugs Vice Commandant Grinyova from the separatist militia group’s SVOT Squad in their city stronghold of Donetsk.

“My life changed in one day for sure. Am I afraid now of dying? Probably just the stupid is not afraid but someone has to do this.”

As government forces close in on the city stronghold, the local ragtag militia with Russian-issue weapons is ready to fight.

Camouflaged … the battalion consists of around 80 people. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

Surprisingly they are not the embittered revolutionaries one could imagine say in Chechnya or Syria, rather they are idealists led by extremists who can see no way forward. And now too they are potentially mass murderers with the blood of 298 innocents on their hands.

The engaging softly spoken commander with the warm smile and (bottled) flame red hair looks out of place talking guns, bombs and war, surrounded by edgy-looking young men whose index fingers shift nervously over the trigger guards of their Kalashnikovs in a permanent state of readiness.

But that is probably because a few months ago she was a manager of a large international hotel and restaurant commanding an army of cooks, clerks and cleaners and not directing 70 to 100 men and women of the self-styled Pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic looking to secede from Ukraine through bloody revolt and become an independent state tied to Russia.

Tough guy … Ihor, separatist with the pro Russia militia. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

Those nearby are equally out of place — until a few months ago they worked in shops and factories, or were accountants, farmers, shopkeepers, housewives or students.

Until a week ago, there would be few outside of Ukraine who would have ever heard of or cared about such a ragtag army or their industrial city 40km from the border of Russia, founded by a Welshman 140 years ago as a steel and coal producing regional capital.

Then Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 dropped out of the sky in the disputed Donetsk territory killing all 298 passengers and crew on board, including 40 Australian residents.

Suddenly, the world is taking an interest.

Just who shot the aircraft down is being investigated but it is likely to have been fired by the Pro-Russian separatists mistaking it for a military aircraft from the Ukrainian air force.

Comrades in arms … the militants come from the Sloviansk area. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

Talk of the downed aircraft sits uncomfortably among the militia spoken to by News Corp Australia inside their base. They either don’t know who shot it down or declare with absolute authority it was a Ukraine fighter jet tailing the aircraft and slaughtering it to bring the West into the war. But Cmdr Grinyova and her force agree it was a terrible tragedy. No-one wants to see civilians killed — not least of all because before April 1 the militia were largely ordinary civilians themselves.

Either way, that is of little consequence to the families and loved ones of the 298 killed during the little known armed struggle in Ukraine’s east and who are now just searching for answers among the fields of sunflowers where the wreckage of the doomed jet fell.

The multinational force of air crash investigators are struggling to gain access to the site despite both sides declaring a 20km exclusion zone around it.

No soccer mum … Oxana Grinyova with her son Stanislav. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

No one is prepared to guarantee their safety, not the rebels nor the Ukrainian military who during the week were firing rockets at the rebels but inadvertently killing civilians with wayward missiles dropping into the suburbs of the city.

Cmd Grinyova’s sons Stanislav and Vladislav are also both in the army now, the 25 and 19 year olds joking that the family now always know where each other are at any given point in time in the day.

Stanislav was studying to be a tour operator and Vladislav had only just finished school.

“Before all these events I loved my country a lot and was even proud of the Ukraine flag,” Stanislav said.

“But when they made heroes out of those fascists in Kiev I became ashamed to be Ukrainian. They want to cut us off from our (Russian) culture and I don’t agree with this.”

Smoking cigarettes and waiting … the separatists are waiting for the Ukrainian troops. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

The “fascists” were ironically men just like him in Kiev in February who overthrew the Kremlin-backed presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. There were extremists directing the ordinary Kiev residents into armed conflict — just as there are now in Donestk ordinary people being directed to revolution by extremists.

Vlad was a teacher before he decided to fight for independence. He says it’s about controlling the land and their own destiny.

“The EU is guilty over all of this, they created this situation,” he says, referring to decisions made during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

He said he went to bed a Russian and woke to be told he was now Ukrainian. He said he speaks Russian, dreams in Russian and for centuries his people considered themselves Russian but Ukraine wanted to erase the past.

Platoon leader Denis Shapovsky, 31, (formerly a mechanical engineer) likes to show photos of his “baby girl” the 11-year-old Daria. Three months ago he sent her away with her mother to be safe after he decided to join the fight.

‘This is my home’ … psychologist Irina joined the battalion last week. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

“You need to ask the Ukrainians — who are you fighting? The women and children they bomb in their houses, the people whose electricity and water they turn off and try to starve. These Ukrainians fight with their NATO weapons and they accuse us of being Russian — well I’ve only been there once in my life. This is not Russia’s fault. I do hope this cause ends and we can get back to a normal life.”

At the moment they wait, smoke cigarettes, play cards and wait. They know the Ukrainian troops are coming, the shelling is getting closer, but they say they are prepared.

Irina, 27, had just completed a degree in psychology. There is no work so last week she decided to wear military green garb.

When asked is she is ready to fight and die, the pretty new recruit smiles coyly.

“Of course, this is my home,” she said.


Collateral damage

The shooting down of an airliner shows how reckless Vladimir Putin’s sponsorship of Ukrainian rebels has been
Economist | Jul 26th 2014


THE sight of bodies fallen from the sky and strewn across the fields outside the village of Grabovo will stay with those who saw it for a long time. The image of a thug taking a dead man’s wedding ring, evoked with dignity and disgust by Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans in a speech to the UN Security Council, is a powerful one. The missile attack on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 by Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine killed 298 people and shocked the world. How it might affect the outcome of the war into which the wreckage fell, though, remains to be seen.

On July 21st, four days after the Boeing 777 was brought down, the human remains that had been piled into grey refrigerated railway cars near the crash site finally left for Kharkiv, from where they were to be flown to the Netherlands (see article). The separatist forces at the scene numbered the bodies at 282; Dutch experts put the number closer to 200. In the small hours of the next morning the plane’s black boxes were handed over to Malaysian representatives in a bizarrely formal ceremony in the rebels’ administration building in Donetsk. One Dutch expert praised the local teams that had taken part in the recovery as doing “a hell of a job in a hell of a place”. But the obstruction and intimidation by rebel forces that kept investigators and other responders from the site served only to deepen anger in the rest of the world.

Among the rebel rank and file, and in most places where news outlets are controlled by Russia, there is a widespread belief that MH17 was brought down by Ukrainian aircraft, perhaps as a way of eliciting further Western support by blaming Russia, perhaps because they mistook it for an aircraft carrying the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Local people in eastern Ukraine, used to seeing rebels with outdated weapons on the streets, don’t think them capable of bringing down an airliner. In the rest of the world, though, the evidence seems, if circumstantial, incontrovertible.

“We have just shot down a plane”

The flight was cruising at 10,000 metres (33,000 feet), an altitude at which only a sophisticated surface-to-air missile system or another aircraft would be able to hit it. The only such systems known to be in the area are Buk missiles which are under the control of the rebels. On July 17th a Buk missile launcher was seen on various social media moving towards Snizhne, about 80km from the rebel stronghold of Donetsk and close to where the aircraft was shot down. America says a missile was launched from the area just before the aircraft was destroyed.

In a phone call made half an hour after the remains of MH17 hit the ground Igor Bezler, a separatist leader, told a Russian intelligence officer “we have just shot down a plane”. That call and others were intercepted and made public by Ukrainian intelligence; the American embassy in Kiev subsequently issued a statement confirming the authenticity of the transcripts.

This evidence led Barack Obama and many other Western leaders to place the blame firmly on Mr Putin, the rebels’ reckless sponsor and, in all likelihood, the supplier of the missile. That condemnation added to the pressure felt when the European Union’s foreign ministers met in Brussels on July 22nd to consider its response. The EU’s previous unwillingness to propose sanctions that might impose real costs on the members looked more spineless than ever.

The Netherlands, which lost 193 citizens in the attack, including the eminent AIDS researcher Joep Lange (see article), supported a toughened line; Italy, often an obstacle to tightening sanctions, made no attempt to block such moves. Several ministers spoke of a turning point in relations with Russia. The communiqué they issued said they would “accelerate the preparation of targeted measures” which had been agreed at an earlier summit, increasing the number of people and entities “materially or financially supporting” Russia’s policy of destabilising eastern Ukraine that will be subject to travel bans and the freezing of assets. The ministers said they would act by the end of the month.

Such incremental measures amount to expanding so-called “phase two” sanctions against Russia, bringing Europe closer in line with America. Of greater importance is that the communiqué raised the prospect of the EU moving to “phase three” sanctions, which are aimed at whole economic sectors, if Russia fails to meet demands that it use its influence with Ukrainian rebels to ensure the crash site is preserved intact for investigation and that the flow of weapons and fighters from its territory into Ukraine be halted.

From Rostov, with Buks

That the Russians are supplying the rebels is not open to doubt. Indeed, a recent increase in the flow of supplies seems to have set the scene for the tragedy.

On July 1st Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, brought to an end a ceasefire in the east of the country which had lasted for ten days and which, he claimed, the rebels had broken 100 times. He was betting that Ukraine’s armed forces, their morale boosted through the expedient of newly regular pay as well as training and better maintenance for their equipment, could take on and defeat 10,000-15,000 rebels armed mainly with light weapons and a few elderly tanks. On July 5th, after an artillery bombardment, Ukrainian forces hoisted their blue and yellow flag over the strategically important town of Sloviansk, which had been the military headquarters of the insurrection. Air power was a big part of the success. Though the rebels had shot down several planes and helicopters using Strela-2 shoulder-fired missiles, they were impotent against anything flying above 2,000 metres.

The separatists’ military leader, Igor Girkin (aka Igor Strelkov), a former or possibly current Russian intelligence officer, pleaded with Mr Putin for help in turning the tide. Although Mr Putin would not send the troops that Mr Girkin wanted, he was willing to provide him with enough weapons and assistance to stay in the game.

Since late June small convoys of Russian heavy weapons had been flowing into the Luhansk region of Ukraine from a deployment and training site set up near Rostov by the separatists’ Russian military helpers, according to Western intelligence sources. On July 13th, at about the same time that Mr Putin was sitting down to watch the World Cup final with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, American sources say that a much bigger convoy of around 150 vehicles made the journey. It is said to have included tanks, artillery, Grad rocket launchers, armoured personnel carriers and Buk missile systems. Russia flatly denies having sent any such missiles.

Whether it was a missile delivered by that convoy that brought down MH17 is unknown. There were reports in late June that the rebels had captured such missiles from the Ukrainians, though the Ukrainians deny this and it may well have been deliberate Russian misinformation. But successful attacks on aircraft started straight after the convoy’s arrival. On July 14th a Ukrainian military cargo plane with eight people on board was brought down a few kilometres from the Russian border. The aircraft was flying at 6,500 metres, well beyond the range of shoulder-fired missiles. The following day a Ukrainian Su-25, a ground-attack fighter that has been used extensively against rebel positions, was hit. On July 16th another Su-25 suffered a missile strike but managed to land.

It may be significant that the pictures showing the Buk missile launcher that shot down MH17 on its way to Chernukhino show it travelling alone. In normal operations the launcher would be accompanied by separate vehicles carrying radar and control facilities. Without these the system would have lacked, among other things, an ability to sense the transponders that civilian aircraft carry. Assuming that the crew wanted to shoot down another Ukrainian military transport, this lack would have made it easier for them accidentally to hit a passenger jet flying both higher and faster than any such target.

The show must go on

That it was indeed a mistake is hard to doubt, not least because it clearly put Mr Putin on the defensive. In the days after the attack he threw himself into a frenzy of diplomatic and public activity, talking repeatedly to Mrs Merkel and Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, as well as to the leaders of Australia, Britain and France. On July 21st he gave an address to the nation unremarkable in every way other than its timing; it was broadcast in the middle of the Moscow night, which means just before the previous evening’s prime time on America’s east coast. Having asked for concessions it did not receive, Russia still backed the Security Council’s resolution calling for a full investigation and for those responsible to be held to account, a resolution which accordingly passed unanimously. For all his anti-Westernism, Mr Putin cares about his international image enough to want to avoid defeat.

He cares even more about his power at home. The Russian people are keen on both the war in Ukraine and Mr Putin: his approval rating is a remarkable 83%. Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin consultant, wrote recently that Russians see the war as a “bloody, tense and emotionally engaging” television drama that has little to do with reality but which they want to see continue. Mr Putin prospers as the drama’s producer and leading man; he cannot rewind the narrative in such a way as to extricate himself.

But the audience’s enthusiasm does not mean it wants to pay to keep watching. So far the sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea have seemed of greater symbolic than economic importance, and this plays to Mr Putin’s strengths. In Russia he controls the symbols. But serious economic sanctions of the sort to which the EU seems to have inched closer could do him genuine harm, given the already stagnant economy.

If concern along those lines led to Mr Putin’s efforts on the international stage, though, it does not seem to have changed the situation in eastern Ukraine, or the show being offered to Russian television audiences. The rebels are still using ground-to-air missiles; they brought down two Su-25s on July 23rd, though they did not use Buks to do so. Mr Poroshenko says that weaponry is still rolling over the border to the rebel forces (which he wants the West to designate as terrorists, saying it would be “an important gesture of solidarity”). American intelligence sources say their analysis, too, points towards continuing supply from Russia.

One explanation for the lack of change could be that Mr Putin does not believe that Europe will act decisively. The evidence of history seems to be on his side. Though on July 22nd the council of ministers sent a stronger message than it had before, Europe retains a deep ambivalence about inflicting real economic pain on Russia. In a newspaper article on July 20th David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, told fellow European leaders: “It is time to make our power, influence and resources count. Our economies are strong and growing in strength. And yet we sometimes behave as if we need Russia more than Russia needs us…” They—including Britain, fearful of damage to the City of London—could well continue so to behave.

The most obvious evidence of this is France’s determination to go through with the sale of the first of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Russia. Other nations have demanded the contract be halted, but President François Hollande fears that reneging would endanger shipbuilding jobs at the Saint-Nazaire dockyard, incur stiff financial penalties, leave France with expensive ships it has no use for and damage its reputation for dependability among other countries thinking about entering into arms contracts with it.

That said, sticking with the deal also poses risks to France’s reputation—and to its military equipment makers. The NATO country which is currently investing most in defence is Poland, with a budget of $46 billion (see article). France is well placed to sell it combat helicopters and other expensive kit. But François Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think-tank, points out that Poland, staunchly opposed to Putin’s power play in the Ukraine, is unhappy about the sale of the Mistrals and unlikely to welcome French arms-sales teams in its aftermath.

Another piece of the evidence: the expanding base near Rostov

Mr Hollande this week tried to deflect the pressure by saying that while the Vladivostok would be delivered this autumn as agreed, delivery of the second such ship—the Sevastopol, ironically—it is building for Russia would depend on Mr Putin’s good behaviour. Meanwhile the head of his Socialist party, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, hit back at British criticism of the deal, noting that many Russian oligarchs had “sought refuge in London”, and added: “this is a false debate led by hypocrites.” France is demanding that, in any phase-three sanctions, Britain act on Russian financial transfers through the City. Germany for its part would be expected to contribute by restricting Russia’s access to high technology, especially in the energy sector.

That is more conceivable than it was; German opinion seems to be turning. “Nobody can blame Germany for not having taken efforts to talk,” says the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “But Russia did not stick to the agreements to the necessary extent.” The day after the foreign ministers’ meeting Germany’s mass-circulation Bild, unimpressed, ran a headline mocking the EU for its Empoerend Untaetig—outrageous inactivity. But if this signals a new German toughness, it is a stance that will build up over months or years, not in weeks.

Doubling down

As Europe plays, at best, a long game, Mr Poroshenko is hoping to regain control of the east of his country with a decisive offensive. Much will depend on his tactics. Ukrainian forces have been making liberal use of air strikes and Grad rockets as they move toward Donetsk. On July 18th 16 civilians were killed in shelling; on July 21st Ukrainian Grad rockets killed four civilians south of Donetsk airport. “Do I look like a terrorist?” asked Galina Afrena, a woman of 60, as she surveyed the damage wearing a leopard-print dress and carrying a jar of homemade fruit juice. The Ukrainians say they are under strict orders not to use artillery or air strikes on Donetsk, a city of nearly a million people. If those orders are followed, it will mark a significant change.

It is natural to expect an enormity to be a turning point. There is a depressing chance, though, that MH17 will remain an unfathomable aberration. Ukraine, the rebels and Russia show every sign of eschewing any opportunity it might offer for reflection and reconciliation. The incompatibility of their interests has only been thrown into sharper relief.


Final days could be approaching for Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine

Mark MacKinnon
The Globe and Mail | Jul. 25 2014

The Russian-backed separatists who control the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Lugansk have been fighting and losing on two fronts for the past week.

In the battle for public opinion, they’ve struggled to convince the world they had nothing to do with the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, their credibility ebbing even further as they badly mismanaged the crash site and the handling of the bodies of the 298 people killed in the atrocity.

In the second and more tangible war, the seemingly demoralized rebels have been rapidly ceding ground to an invigorated Ukrainian army. This week the separatist fighters deserted their positions around the city of Donetsk, their de facto capital, withdrawing to the city’s centre in an apparent attempt to lure the advancing national army into a street-by-street battle.

These could be the last days of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic. And, if so, they’re likely to be bloody and drawn out – featuring the sort of urban warfare Europe hasn’t seen since the crumbling of Yugoslavia two decades ago.

Russia’s Itar-Tass news service quoted the military leader of the separatists, Igor Strelkov, on Thursday saying the rebels had suffered 50 casualties – “mostly wounded fighters” – and had lost two tanks, two fighting infantry vehicles and one armoured personnel carrier in clashes with the Ukrainian army in and around Donetsk. It was not clear what time frame the losses occurred in and, although Mr. Strelkov claimed government losses were “several times greater,” there was no question that it was his forces that were on the defensive.

It’s a reversal of the situation of two months ago, when it seemed the rebels were capturing new cities and towns almost every day. At one point, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the affiliated Lugansk People’s Republic controlled a swathe of territory stretching from the port of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, to their fortified military headquarters of Slavyansk, more than 200 kilometres to the north, and another 200 kilometres east to the Russian border.

As battle-hardened mercenaries from Russia’s wars in Chechnya poured in to support the rebels – and the rebels gained Soviet-era tanks and antiaircraft batteries – it seemed the poorly equipped and under-trained Ukrainian army could do nothing to stop the separatists from carving out their mini-state.

More than 1,000 combatants and civilians have been killed since fighting began in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in April. The two Russian-speaking oblasts, or provinces, declared independence from Kiev following controversial referenda in May. Both regions seek eventual union with Russia.

That has always seemed a distant goal, and it has been getting more remote. The rebels fled Slavyansk in early July and since then the Ukrainian army has been taking the fight to them – using air strikes and artillery that the rebels don’t have (and which the Ukrainians had previously been reticent to use). Now the rebels are in full retreat and looking across the border for more help from Russia that likely isn’t coming on the scale the separatists need.

“Before last week’s events, I would rather suggest that support [for the rebels] would intensify to avoid military collapse,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “Now it’s more difficult.”

The rebels appear to have lost focus and morale since MH17 crashed in their territory, bringing the Donetsk People’s Republic under intense worldwide scrutiny. At the same time, the Ukrainian army – which stood aside and did little as Russian troops flooded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula earlier this year – has emerged as a credible fighting force, rapidly gaining in training and experience it previously lacked.

In an interview with the BBC – during which he repeated the claim that his forces didn’t have the capability to shoot down an airliner flying at an altitude of 10 kilometres – rebel “prime minister” Aleksandr Borodai admitted that his fighters were in a “forced retreat” on the battlefield.

“We admit it honestly, the size of our force does not compare to the mobilized forces of the Ukrainian army, whose ranks are swelled by huge numbers of mercenaries from many different countries,” he said. Sounding somewhat bitter, Mr. Borodai said “the Russian people” were supporting the separatists, but he claimed to be getting little help from the Russian state.

That doesn’t mean Moscow has ended its support of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Russian President Vladimir Putin has showed no signs of giving in to the key Western demand of shutting his country’s border with Ukraine to cut off the flow of fighters and weapons. Analysts say Mr. Putin would see his popularity sag at home if he suddenly abandoned his key foreign policy principle of standing up for Russian-speakers abroad.

On Wednesday, two Ukrainian fighter jets were shot down, with Kiev claiming they had been hit by missiles fired from Russia (Moscow denied involvement, and the rebels said they shot down at least one fighter). There have also been increasing exchanges of fire across the Russia-Ukraine border, and new reports of a buildup of Russian troops in the region.

The United States said Thursday it had evidence Russia was firing artillery across the border – directly targeting Ukrainian military positions – and was moving to deliver “heavier and more powerful multiple rocket launchers” to the separatists.

But unless Moscow chooses to wade in even more directly, and with the Ukrainian army on the verge of routing the rebels as a military force, Mr. Lukyanov said the next stage of the battle for eastern Ukraine may be a guerrilla war, rather than a continuation of a head-on military confrontation the separatists don’t look able to win. “As long as there’s a chance to prolong the fight – no one can confirm how much Russia helps [the separatists], but of course there’s some help – Russia will continue. There will be an insurgency in some form.”

The Ukrainian army’s gains have come despite international calls for a ceasefire in the region to allow for a proper investigation into the fate of MH17. Both Mr. Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko have called for a halt in the fighting, but there has been little sign of it on the ground.

A Donetsk resident told The Globe and Mail that he could hear artillery rounds and rockets landing in the city throughout Wednesday night and all day Thursday. Earlier this week, shells struck near Donetsk’s train station, killing at least five people. Thousands of residents have already fled the city.

Lugansk has also seen heavy fighting. Dozens of people were reportedly killed there in the last week amid seemingly indiscriminate shelling that the Ukrainian army and rebel forces each blame the other side for.

The advances have come at a heavy cost to the Ukrainian military. A government spokesman said eight soldiers were killed and 50 were injured in one 24-hour period last weekend. On Wednesday, Mr. Poroshenko signed a decree ordering partial mobilization of the country’s reserve forces.

Moscow and Kiev remain at odds about how to end the crisis. The Kremlin wants to see a redrawn Ukrainian constitution that weakens the central government, puts the Russian language on an equal basis with Ukrainian, and guarantees Ukraine will be a neutral country, unable to join blocs like NATO or the European Union. Mr. Poroshenko has hinted he’d accept some of those changes but has refused to meet directly with the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic, whom he calls “terrorists.”

No one sees a quick end in sight to Ukraine’s troubles. But for the first time since March, when Russia swept in an annexed Crimea from a staggering Ukrainian government, Kiev has the upper hand.



Here Are The Arms Russia Has Given To Rebels In Ukraine To ‘Create A Proper Army’
Jeremy Bender
Business Insider | Jul. 24, 2014

The pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine are outfitted with military hardware that has almost certainly been provided by Russia, Sam Jones reports for the Financial Times.


Some amount of weaponry that the rebels use was looted from Ukrainian military installations in the east of the country. However, Russia is thought to have provided the majority of the weapons that are currently in rebel hands (in addition to training rebels in Russia).

NATO intelligence services have recorded convoys of Russian military hardware being sent into Ukraine.

One of the first points of delivery within Ukraine is the town of Snizhne, where the Buk missile system that shot down flight MH17 is believed to have been located.

“The overall strategy – that has been missed by many in the west – has been to create a proper army,” Jonathan Eyal, the international director of the military think-tank the Royal United Services Institute, told FT. “It is not to create a guerrilla organisation. It is not a resistance movement. Russia is trying to create a proper military force.”

Aside from providing small arms, semi-automatic weapons, mines, and troop carriers, U.S. intelligence officials believe that Russia has also given Ukrainian separatists heavy equipment which we have highlighted below.

T-64 Battle Tanks


T-64 battle tanks once featured prominently in the Russian military. Since Russia started military reforms within the past decade, it has had a number of these extra tanks lying around waiting to be decommissioned.

Grad Rocket Launchers


Grad rockets are a multiple rocket launch system. The system was developed in the Soviet Union and can fire up to 20 kilometers. 

2S9 Nona Self-Propelled Guns


The 2S9 Nona originated in the Soviet Union. The weapon is a self-propelled mortar weapon system. It can also double as an amphibious vehicle.

BMP-2 Infantry Combat Vehicles


The BMP-2 is an amphibious fighting system. Its main armaments is an automatic canon, and it has a secondary machine gun. 

Buk Surface-To-Air Missile System


Buk missile systems are self-propelled surface-to-air missile systems. The weapon system is radar-guided, and it is believed to have been the weapon that was used to shoot down flight MH17.


Who Are the Rebels Controlling Flight MH17′s Crash Site?

Mirren Gidda
TIME | July 22, 2014

The men behind the "Donetsk People’s Republic" and other separatist groups

Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard in front of the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Grabove, in the region of Donetsk on July 20, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

On Monday the two black boxes from flight MH17 were finally handed over to Malaysian experts who had been petitioning for their safe recovery. The black boxes, however, weren’t returned by the Ukrainian government, but by pro-Russian separatists from the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

The handover, attended by international press, did not seem bound by diplomatic protocols. Hulking rebels dressed in camouflage loomed over the diminutive leader of the Malaysian delegation as he addressed the media.

Next to him stood their leader, Alexander Borodai, the self-styled Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, who had negotiated the black boxes’ return with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. During the talks, Borodai had also agreed to transport the bodies of the victims to Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, to be flown out to the Netherlands for identification. He later kept his word.

But what authority did Borodai have to negotiate the terms of the agreement with a world leader? Little more than the authority of the gun. In April, a gang led by Borodai and another rebel, Igor Girkin, declared the eastern province of Donetsk a republic. Girkin, who goes by the moniker “Strelkov” meaning shooter, is Borodai’s right hand man, running the armed forces within the so-called “Republic.” Negotiations between the two prime ministers—legitimate or otherwise—may have been fraught given that Girkin reportedly boasted about shooting down the plane.

Despite their grand claim to have founded a republic, Andrew Weiss, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment, told TIME Borodai and Girkin only control shifting parts of the region, which is also populated by other separatist groups numbering about 5,000 rebels.

The separatists are far from a unified force, says James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House. “They are a series of disparate and only vaguely interconnected groups,” he says. “They’re very disorganized with no real structure or headquarters. Most of the rebels are poorly trained, ill-educated and ignorant of geopolitics.”

Borodai and Girkin however, aren’t everyday thugs like some of their rebel brethren. The pair are both Russian nationals with suspected ties to the Kremlin and experience in separatist conflicts.

Borodai, 41, is rumored to be particularly close to Moscow. In the early 1990s he wrote regularly for the far-right newspaper Zavtra and in 2011 founded the nationalist television channel Den-TV. He confirmed earlier this year that he worked as an adviser to the separatist Prime Minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov. Russia annexed Crimea in March.

Borodai claims he was invited to eastern Ukraine by Girkin, a former Russian security-service officer. Girkin, meanwhile, has alleged he was asked to head the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, though refuses to say by whom. Like Borodai, he also advised separatists in Crimea.

The Russian pair’s group may have staked their claim to the crash site—Iryna Gudyma, a spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe who is currently in the area told TIME “we’ve only encountered armed rebels from the Donetsk People’s Republic”—but other rebels are on the scene.

The Wall Street Journal has claimed Cossacks led by commander Nikolai Kozitsin control part of the area where MH17 fell. Unlike Borodai and Girkin, Kozitsin is a Ukrainian who was born in Donetsk. Like them, he has been involved in separatist conflicts in Transnistria and Georgia.

On July 18, the day after the crash, Ukrainian authorities released a transcript of a conversation in which a man they identified as Kozitsin says of MH17: “they shouldn’t be flying. There’s a war going on.” Another transcript implicates Igor Bezler, known to his men as “Bes”, or “devil.” During a call Bezler reportedly told a Russian intelligence officer his men shot down a plane. Bezler’s group currently controls the town of Horlivka in Donetsk province.

But none of the rebel leaders have any overarching authority. “The people who are leaders in east Ukraine are not playing leading roles,” says Sam Greene, director of King’s College London’s Russian Institute. “They hold the de facto power in that part of the Ukraine but that’s all. They don’t have long established electoral legitimacy.” Borodai was only allowed to speak to the Malaysian Prime Minister because his men currently control the area.

Any fleeting power the groups have is considerably bolstered by Russia’s supply of money and weapons into the region, but that may soon cease. “Moscow’s commitment to supporting the rebels is waning, particularly after MH17,” notes Greene. “The costs are becoming too high politically both in terms of sanctions and the damage to Putin’s international reputation.”

And without Russian support, the future of the Donetsk People’s Republic looks decidedly shaky.




Ukraine crisis: Fears rise of Russia-fuelled arms race
By Sam Jones, Defence and Security Editor
Financial Times | July 23, 2014


Though barely a week has passed since MH17 was shot out of the sky over Eastern Ukraine, an aggressive anti-aircraft campaign is still in full swing above the territories controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s defence ministry said two Su-25 fighters had been blown up by surface-to-air missiles, bringing the count of downed planes, not including MH17, to 14. The incident underscores a stark truth for the international community: the separatist insurgency is armed with an arsenal of growing size and sophistication. The question is: where has it come from?

When rebel brigades and units of Cossack volunteers sprouted in Crimea and eastern Ukraine this year, Russian president Vladimir Putin shrugged off questions about the source of their arms. Shops, he suggested.

But tanks cannot be bought in shops. Nor can anti-aircraft missile batteries of the kind that probably blew Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 out of the sky last week.

Dozens of online images – several of them with location tags in rebel territory and checked by the Financial Times with imaging software to ensure they are recent – confirm large amounts of such equipment now in rebel hands and in use in the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied providing arms to the separatists and using undercover operatives on the ground. But western intelligence chiefs say they have little doubt about the origin of the weaponry. The downing of MH17 was achieved, they allege, with sophisticated Russian arms and expertise as part of a smuggling programme directed by Russian military and intelligence officials that has seen materiel moved over Ukraine’s border in ever-larger amounts in recent months as Kiev’s fightback has grown in intensity.

Among the equipment US intelligence officials believe Russia has supplied are dozens of T-64 battle tanks, Grad rocket launchers, 2S9 Nona self-propelled guns, artillery, BMP-2 infantry combat vehicles with automatic cannons, armoured troop carriers, small arms from semi-automatic weapons and mines, and sophisticated anti-aircraft systems.

“The overall strategy – that has been missed by many in the west – has been to create a proper army,” said Jonathan Eyal, international director at the Royal United Services Institute, a military and strategic think-tank. “It is not to create a guerrilla organisation. It is not a resistance movement. Russia is trying to create a proper military force.”

The numbers of weapons coming into eastern Ukraine – and their capabilities – appear to be anything but small. In the months before the downing of MH17, Russian armament supplies amounted to dozens of vehicles in any given week, according to a Nato intelligence briefing.

The weekend before the Malaysian airliner was shot down, killing the 298 people on board, US intelligence officials said they detected a convoy of “up to 150 vehicles” crossing the border to separatist positions.

“Most of Ukraine’s border controls have simply melted away,” said Mr Eyal. “Russia has been transporting weapons across on the back of trucks as if it was in the middle of Russia.”

Against such a backdrop, the US is releasing few details however. Satellite images released by the US and Nato allies have been commissioned from private sector companies, so as not to give away details of high-resolution imaging and tracking capabilities.

In private, officials are less guarded. “There is a stealth war being waged,” said one senior Nato official. “Russia is covertly arming the rebels en masse to specifically make these ambiguous attacks possible. And it is accelerating.”

Such is the flood of weaponry that anti-Kiev forces have a shortage of skilled technicians, drivers and engineers to operate it. In Lugansk and Donetsk last month, they distributed leaflets looking for tank drivers.

Some of the equipment in use has been captured from Ukrainian forces. Eastern Ukraine is the centre of the country’s large armaments industry and some Ukraine military installations and arms caches have been over-run.

But such an explanation only accounts for a small number of arms, military experts say.

In addition, the markings on the tanks and armoured vehicles pictured in use by the rebels across social media are not consistent with those of the Ukrainian military.

Most are not marked at all – echoing the sudden appearance of unmarked vehicles in Crimea before Russia annexed the territory this year.

Much of the equipment also tallies with models known to be part of Russia’s mothballed armoury of weapons. Russia has 2,000 spare T-64 tanks, for example, which have officially been earmarked for destruction – part of an 18,000 tank stockpile of equipment phased out in recent military reforms.

On June 27, Ukrainian forces, after over-running a rebel position near Artemivsk, captured a T-64BV battle tank, and with it, documentation. The serial numbering of the tank shows it was manufactured in Kharkov Tank Factory in 1987, Ukrainian military officials said, and was stationed in the Russian city of Budenovskiy with Russia’s 205th infantry brigade until being recently taken out of service. The tank had been fitted with batteries and other parts recently made in St Petersburg, they added.

The means by which such equipment has reached rebel hands is less clearly documented but there is circumstantial evidence.

Satellite imagery compiled by Nato intelligence services seems to show defunct Russian military equipment being shipped to Ukraine in convoys.

Snizhne – the town from where Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, believes MH17 was shot down – is one of the first stopping points on what Nato intelligence officials say is one of the main routes for illicit arms into the country from Russia.

Nato images from late June, for example, show T-64 tanks being loaded on to transporters in Novocherkassk, about 50km from the Dolzhansky border crossing southeast of Snizhne, in what it has identified as a base – a previously little-used military site – for a logistical campaign to get heavy arms into Donetsk and Luhansk.

The questions that remain unanswered, however, concern exactly who is controlling such an operation.

So far, Moscow has denied strenuously that it has supplied the anti-Kiev insurgents with weaponry. But the Kremlin has also skirted proposals for international observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to be sent to border crossings.

“Obviously, you can’t just hand over these weapons systems without authorisation from high up,” said Keir Giles, an associate fellow and Russia expert at Chatham House in London. “There has to be significant military and intelligence authority to make this happen. Nobody is going to be doing this without authority from an extremely high level.”




Here’s Where Russia Trains Separatists Before Sending Them Into Ukraine
Michael B Kelley
Business Insider | Jul. 23, 2014

Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, tweeted satellite imagery showing a Russian training facility for separatists near the Ukraine border.

The U.S. State Department asserts that over the last few months, U.S. intelligence has "detected an increasing amount of heavy weaponry to separatist fighters crossing the border from Russia into Ukraine."

The U.S. has also gathered "information indicating that Russia is providing training to separatist fighters at a facility in southwest Russia, and this effort included training on air defense systems."


Russian-backed separatists are suspected of accidentally shooting down Malaysia Flight MH17 on July 17, killing 298 people.