Who shot down MH 17?

Today’s press conference by the Russian MOD shows that the Russian government has decided to double down on its narrative that the Ukrainian military is responsible for shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight 17. The Russian case is comprised of two parts. First, the Russian MOD released imagery showing that Ukrainian Buk systems were located in the region near where the airplane crashed. Second, the Russian MOD stated that its radars had noted two Ukrainian aircraft, one of which was a Su-25 fighter jet, tailing the Malaysian airliner immediately prior to its crash. The Russian government speculates that either 1) Ukrainian air defense forces were mistakenly aiming at the Su-25, having assumed it was a Russian plane, shot down the airliner by mistake or 2) they deliberately shot at the airliner in order to pin the attack on the separatists.

Since I am not an expert in imagery analysis, I will leave that to someone who is. As for the Su-25, Russian sources have pointed out that it’s maximum altitude is 7,000 meters, well below the 10,000 meter altitude at which MH17 was flying. Furthermore, there is no actual evidence beyond the words of the Russian spokespeople that Ukrainian aircraft were shadowing MH17. Furthermore, the presence of such planes would conflict with the second version of events. Why would Ukraine send up its planes into an area into which it is about to fire an air defense missile?

On the other hand, while the evidence for MH17 having been shot down by pro-Russian separatists acting with direct Russian assistance is circumstantial, it is nevertheless fairly strong. This includes information and video provided by separatist fighters at the time of the incident that they had shot down a Ukrainian military transport aircraft. These statements and video were deleted once it became clear that the aircraft was civilian. In addition, Ukrainian security services have released tapes of conversations among separatists first reporting that a plane had been shot down and then reporting that it had turned out to be a civilian plane rather than one carrying armaments. Even if one chooses to not believe Ukrainian government statements, the statements of the separatists still remain.

The attack on the plane also followed separatist claims to have captured a Ukrainian Buk surface to air missile system. Such claims have in the past been used by separatists to mask the transfer of heavy military equipment from Russia across the open border. Video evidence has surfaced showing a Buk system being moved earlier in the day in an area near where the plane went down and then again being transported in the direction of the Russian border with one of its four missiles notably absent. The Buk system is equipped with its own radar system and can hit targets at altitudes up to 49,000 feet, well above the 32,000 feet at which MH17 was flying over Ukraine.

Furthermore, the separatist forces have in recent weeks compiled a record of shooting down Ukrainian aircraft at increasingly higher altitudes. On July 14, a Ukrainian An-26 military transport plane was shot down while flying at an altitude of over 21,000 feet, well above the range of man-portable air defense systems that the separatists have admitted to possessing. Separatists took credit for this attack, though some evidence shows that the plane was shot down by a Buk missile fired from Russian territory.

Finally, the separatists’ reaction since the downing of the plane is highly suspicious. If they had not had anything to do with the attack, why would they not allow the OSCE to secure the site and allow foreign investigators full access? Their best hope of having their story accepted would be if the investigation is seen as credible in the West and absolves them of responsibility. Instead, the media has been talking for days about how the crash site has been looted by separatists and evidence tampered with. If they truly believed that the Ukrainians had done it, the separatists’ behavior over the last five days has only made it more difficult for them to get Western observers to accept their version of the story.

It appears that the key unresolved question is whether the missile that was launched at MH17 was fired by separatists or by Russian operators who had arrived with the system in separatist-controlled territory. It is impossible to tell which was the case, though some analysts have argued that since operating a Buk system requires 6-9 months of training it is unlikely that separatists could have operated it themselves. On the other hand, there have also been reports that Russia has been training separatists in air defense warfare in recent weeks. Since the systems in question appear to have been moved back to Russia and evidence about the attack is being destroyed, it is likely that this question will never be definitively answered.

 

Ukraine: Putin is trying to rectify a historic wrong

I was interviewed by Erika Korner of Euractiv on the Ukraine crisis. Here’s the beginning of it.

In April US President Obama spoke of applying an “updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment” in light of Russia’s behaviour in the Ukraine crisis. Is an association with the Cold War useful? And is containment an appropriate remedy for the conflict?

To some extent, the association is useful but I would not overplay it. In the Cold War, the key feature was an ideological difference between the two sides that is almost absent now. There is no big ideological fight, where Russia is trying to convince the rest of the world to follow a completely different system of economics and government compared to the US. What is left, is much more of a general foreign policy difference in terms of perceptions of interest and so forth. Having said that, clearly it is not in the US interest to let Russia have a sphere of influence. This is what Russia seems to want in its immediate neighbourhood.

So from that point of view, I would not use the word containment because of all the ideological baggage from the Cold War. Instead, it would be a situation where the US tries to give the countries around Russia more options in terms of their foreign policy course. But this is something the US has been doing for the last 20 years or so.

What are some similarities and differences between the current state of Russia’s relations with the West and those during the Cold War?

I mentioned ideology. Another important difference is that the Soviet Union really strove for autarchy during the Cold War, for self-reliance among the Soviet Union and its allies and as few interconnections as possible with the rest of the international system. It never really achieved this completely, at least not after the 1930s or so, but the goal existed.

Whereas now we are dealing with an environment where there are a lot more connections both in terms of economic ties but also freedom to travel, for example, allowing Russians to go abroad.

That creates a lot more interdependence between Russia, Europe, the United States and the rest of the world. This has a moderating influence on relations.

That is the general difference, but we can talk about more specifics within that, like energy ties. While the Soviet Union certainly exported energy to Europe, starting in the 1970s, at that time it was much less central than it is to the relationship now. Energy is playing a more central role now in policy.

How much of the current conflict in Ukraine can be traced back to Western or Russian antagonism, and how much can be perceived as an organic movement from the Ukrainian population?

At the first stage of the crisis, before it became internationalised with the intervention, it was primarily a domestic crisis. Then, at least for a while after Yanukovych left, it shifted to becoming primarily an international crisis over Crimea.

(Please read the rest of the interview at the Euractiv website.)

Sergei Ryabkov hopes for continued cooperation

While in Moscow a few weeks ago, I was part of a group of U.S. scholars that met with Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and BRICS sherpa, who has particular expertise in arms control and European cooperation. The meeting with Ryabkov was in many ways the complete antithesis of the Russian speeches at MCIS, which took place the next day. He said that Russia did not want to remove anything from the bilateral relationship with the United States, expressed concern that the push for sanctions in the U.S. had taken on its own dynamics while perceptions of the other on both sides were only consolidating, and declared Russia’s intention to maintain all possible channels of dialog.

He mentioned three possible areas for bilateral cooperation, including Syria’s chemical disarmament, limits on the Iranian nuclear program, and management of climate change. In particular, he highlighted the danger of nuclear proliferation, especially in the Middle East,  depending on how the Iranian negotiations turn out. U.S. and Russian interests on this issue are very close, so prospects for cooperation are good. However, given the current state of relations, Russia will not seek to develop a new agenda for cooperation with the U.S. until after the dust settles on the current crisis — 12-18 months. Until then, Russian leaders will simply try to manage the situation to limit the damage to the relationship. At the same time, there is no plan to revise Russia’s fundamental foreign policy approach toward the U.S.

He said that there is no need for Moscow to backpedal on its Ukraine policy. Russian leaders truly believe in their explanation for why the crisis in Ukraine occurred and subsequent developments in the crisis will depend on further events in Ukraine. He wanted to make sure that we got the message that Russia has no ambition to further deteriorate the situation in Ukraine. He noted that Ukrainian plans for dialog were a step in the right direction. Russia would like to ensure that there is a new division of powers in Ukraine and to secure the status of the Russian language. He stated that a quest for establishing Novorossiya, either as an independent state or as part of Russia was out of the question and was not being considered by the Russian leadership in any way. He said that there was no risk of further deterioration in Ukraine and that therefore there was no basis for sectoral Western sanctions on Russia. At the same time, Ryabkov ruled out the possibility of any kind of negotiation with Ukraine over Crimea, since Russia considers the issue closed. Though he did not exclude the possibility of compensation of individuals or businesses for lost property, he said there would be no settlement on a government level.

The public tends to perceive the current state of relations with the U.S. as a natural outcome of past events and therefore unavoidable. Many people don’t care about or about how American political elites think of Russia. There’s no obvious vision on how build a different kind of relationship. As for the annexation of Crimea, most people see it through the prism of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and believe that one part of that historical injustice has now been remedied. References to Kosovo among some Russian commentators are to some extent artificial. The trope of “if others can do it, why can’t we?” only emerged after several cases of Western intervention. But at the same time, each case is unique, one can’t draw parallels even with the intervention in South Ossetia in 2008.

Given this divergence in views between Russians and Americans, it would be better to focus on less politically loaded issues. Russia needs to try to communicate in a more focused way with those who work Russia issues in Washington. John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov have been speaking almost daily on the crisis. This has helped a more reasonable direction to emerge, including the involvement of the OSCE and international observers, as well as the withdrawal of Russian troops in late May. He believed that the situation in late May was much better in a political sense than it had been 2-3 weeks earlier.

I asked a question about the possibility of U.S.-Russian cooperation on the Arctic once the current crisis is less acute. Ryabkov noted that contacts are still being maintained on practical questions, including monitoring fisheries limitation agreements and channels on environmental issues such as oil spill cleanup and protection of polar bears. Work in the Arctic Council is continuing, with a gradual consolidation of approaches by the Arctic littoral states. While competing claims to sectors on the continental shelf may produce some difficult motives, all sides have been trying to keep the dialog open and to keep it low key.

Another question was asked about other areas of cooperation. Ryabkov highlighted the importance of maintaining cooperative programs in peaceful nuclear energy. Although the U.S. canceled its participation in a June meeting in Russia on how to use spent fuel in energy production, the meeting was simply shifted to France. He mentioned cooperation with GE in this field and said that it was unfortunate that the U.S. government was influencing U.S. businesses against engaging with Russian economic actors.

 

Ukrainian protests: A tale of two maps

I have a post on the Ukrainian protests on The Monkey Cage. Washington Post rules don’t allow the entire text to be published here, but here’s a teaser: 

As the situation in Ukraine’s eastern regions deteriorates, with more and more administration buildings in eastern cities and towns being occupied by separatist activists, it is worth remembering some parallel events that took place in late January. In the immediate aftermath of the passage of a set of repressive anti-protest laws by the Viktor Yanukovych government, anti-Yanukovych activists took over local administration buildings in a host of western and some central Ukrainian regions. The map below, posted on Facebook by Sergii Gorbachov, shows the extent of these protests as of Jan. 25. Regions with occupied administrative buildings are marked in blue and yellow, while regions where seizures were attempted but had been unsuccessful are marked in red. The southeast is largely quiet.

Source: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=850763154938797&set=pb.100000153610067.-2207520000.1398887460.&type=3&theater

It’s worth comparing this map to a map produced on Wednesday, based on information provided by the Ukrainian Information Resistance group…. [To read the rest, click here]

Russian Politics and Law, September 2013 Table of Contents: Ukrainian Right-Wing Extremism

I’ve fallen behind in posting tables of contents from Russian Politics and Law. Here’s the September 2013 issue, which presciently enough was devoted to Ukrainian right wing extremism.

Volume 51 Number 5 / September-October 2013 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the mesharpe.metapress.com web site.

Starting Post-Soviet Ukrainian Right-Wing Extremism Studies from Scratch: Guest Editor’s Introduction pp. 3 – 10
Andreas Umland
Ukrainian Integral Nationalism in Quest of a “Special Path” (1920s-1930s) pp. 11 – 32
Oleksandr Zaitsev
Ultraright Party Politics in Post-Soviet Ukraine and the Puzzle of the Electoral Marginalism of Ukrainian Ultranationalists in 1994-2009 pp. 33 – 58
Andreas Umland and Anton Shekhovtsov
Right-Wing Extremism on the Rise in Ukraine pp. 59 – 74
Viacheslav Likhachev
Social-Nationalists in the Ukrainian Parliament: How They Got There and What We Can Expect of Them pp. 75 – 85
Viacheslav Likhachev
A Typical Variety of European Right-Wing Radicalism? pp. 86 – 95
Andreas Umland

My views on Ukraine crisis

Last Friday I participated in a panel on the Ukraine crisis at George Washington University. The panel was broadcast by C-Span. I discussed the military aspects of the operation and US policy towards Russia. Other speakers included Volodymyr Dubovyk of Odessa National University and Oleksandr Fisun of Kharkiv National University, who discussed developments in Ukraine, and Viacheslav Morozov of Tartu University, who discussed some of the causes of the crisis. Unfortunately, I can’t link directly to the various parts of the video, but my presentation starts at the 1:02 mark.

 

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet

The crisis in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. I’ve written about the fleet in the past, but it may be worthwhile to provide an update, especially as there have been a couple of surveys of the fleet published in recent days in the Russian press and blogosphere.

The fleet currently consists of 40 combat ships, 28 of which are on active duty while the others are undergoing repair or modernization. The average age of these ships is 25, though the largest and most capable ships that are based in Sevastopol are also the oldest. (The average age of Sevastopol-based ships is 32.5) The flagship is the Slava-class cruiser Moskva. Large combat ships also include the Kara-class cruiser Kerch, the Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivyi, and two Krivak class frigates (Pytlivyi and Ladnyi). The Ladnyi is current being overhauled and is scheduled to return to active duty in August. A second Kara-class cruiser, the Ochakov, was decommissioned several years ago and has now been scuttled so as to block the exist of several Ukrainian Navy ships from Lake Donuzlav. These ships comprise the 11th brigade of ASW ships. The 197th brigade of amphibious ships includes six active ships: three Alligator class (Saratov, Orsk, Nikolai Filchenkov) and four Ropucha class (Novocherkassk, Azov, and Yamal), as well as one inactive Ropucha class ship, the Tsesar Kunikov. Together, these two brigades comprise the 30th division of surface ships. Smaller combat ships based in Sevastopol include three Grisha-class corvettes (Suzdalets, Aleksandrovsk, and Muromets) in the 400th ASW ship squadron, four mine warfare ships in the 418th minesweeper squadron, and 4-5 missile boats in the 295th missile boat squadron. There is also the Alrosa Kilo-class submarine. The newest of any of these ships were commissioned in 1990.

Ships based in Novorossiisk include three Grisha-class corvettes (Kasimov, Eisk, Povorino), two Nanuchka-class missile ships (Mirazh and Shtil), five active and two inactive mine warfare ships, and two hoverborne guided missile corvettes (Bora and Sivuch). These ships are generally newer than the Sevastopol-based ships, with an average age of 22.8. There are also several quite new patrol boats based in Novorossiisk.

Over the next few years, the BSF is expected to receive six new Admiral Grigorovich class frigates over the next three years. These are similar to the Talwar class frigates that Russia exported to India a few years ago. It is also expected to receive up to six new improved Kilo class diesel submarines in the same time period.

Finally, it may be worth briefly pointing out the Black Sea Fleet’s land and air forces, which include the 11th coastal missile artillery brigade armed with Bastion anti-ship missile systems. These are normally located in Anapa (2 on the map), though there have been some reports that they have been relocated to the Crimea in recent days. The 1096th anti-aircraft missile regiment is located in Sevastopol (5 on the map). Naval infantry forces include the 810th naval infantry brigade based in Sevastopol (3 on the map) and the 382nd independent naval infantry battalion based in Temriuk (4 on the map). The 431st naval reconnaissance post is located in Tuapse, near the border with Abkhazia (6 on the map). Naval aviation forces include facilities at Kacha (7 on the map) and Gvardeiskoe (8 on the map), both Crimea. The former houses (approximately) 20 Ka-27 and Mi-14 helicopters and 10 Mi-8 helicopters, as well as 10 Antonov transport planes of various types and 4 Be-12 amphibious planes. The latter houses 22 Su-24M attack aircraft.

Update: Thanks to Constantin Bogdanov, who highlighted some changes that I (and the authors of the surveys) missed: “The 1096th anti-aircraft missile regiment was disbanded in 2011; now there are two anti aircraft battalions (зенитно-ракетных дивизионов) combined with 810th brigade. Also, all Mi-14 are scrapped between 1995-2005.”

Map of Russian and Ukrainian military forces

Here’s a useful map of the locations of Ukrainian military bases (as of 2008) and Russian forces located near Ukraine’s borders. It’s drawn from a new Russian language blog, and due to limited time I haven’t checked the accuracy of the map, I’m afraid. Feel free to note any inaccuracies in the comments.

Note that the majority of Ukraine’s forces are located in Western Ukraine, as the positioning of the forces is left over from the Soviet period, when they were placed so as to maximize Soviet defensive potential against NATO forces. There are two mechanized infantry brigades, a tank brigade, and an artillery brigade in the east, though, as well as  airborne brigade and a tactical aviation brigade. Compare this to western Ukraine, where there are five mechanized infantry brigades, two artillery brigades, a tank brigade, a rocket brigade, four tactical aviation brigades, two army aviation regiments, and an air mobile brigade. Also worth highlighting the forces located in the south, near the Crimea: one mechanized infantry brigade, a tactical aviation brigade, an air mobile brigade and an army aviation regiment.

Here’s another map from the same source, with just the Ukrainian forces shown.

The accompanying text notes that the total personnel of Ukraine’s armed forces consists of 184,000 people, including 93,000 in ground forces. These are comprised of four tank brigades, 15 mechanized infantry brigades, 15 artillery brigades, two rocket brigades, 3 air mobile brigades, one airborne brigade, and one air mobile regiment. (Obviously this doesn’t match the numbers on the map) The air force has 160 combat and 25 transport aircraft. Of course, it’s likely that only a relatively small percentage of these units are combat-ready, especially in the air force.

Ukraine discussion on Foreign Entanglements

I was on the Foreign Entanglements video blog yesterday with Robert Farley, talking about Ukraine. Here is the show description with links to the various segments, or you can just watch the whole thing.

On Foreign Entanglements, Rob and Dmitry discuss the recent Russian incursion into Crimea. Dmitry summarizes Russian interests in the region. Have the US and Europe handled the situation correctly so far? Dmitry suggests that, in the long run, Putin will pay substantial costs for the incursion. Is the new Ukrainian government stable enough to fight back? Rob and Dmitry compare the strengths of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries. Finally, Dmitry thinks through some options for the Western response.

Putin’s potentially costly blunder in Ukraine

I’ve avoided writing anything on the situation in Ukraine, because there’s so much material being written already and I’m not an expert on the Ukrainian military. But I do want to make just a couple of quick points.

1) Russian military experts seem to have been caught up in their government’s propaganda. This is especially disappointing when it comes from usually top-notch analysts such as Ruslan Pukhov and Igor Korotchenko. In an article that was picked up and translated by Russia Beyond the Headlines, they display a frightening amount of self-delusion in arguing that Ukrainian troops are not combat-capable simply because they stayed in their barracks while Yanukovych was being deposed. To assume, as Korotchenko does, that a military that stays on the sidelines during an internal conflict will not be able to act in the event of a Russian invasion betrays a willful lack of understanding of the difference in motivation between intervening in an internal conflict and defending your country when it’s under attack. Pukhov argues that because the army is made up of contract soldiers, local Crimean boys will not fight the Russians. This is a much more serious possibility and may well turn out to be the case, but so far there are at least a number of units that are refusing to submit to the “polite people” without insignia that are surrounding their bases. For the moment (and thankfully), they have not received any orders to fight, so the jury is still out on this question.

Now from what I know, the Ukrainian military is not in particularly good condition and would undoubtedly lose to the Russian military in any serious conflict. But that doesn’t mean that it would not be able to inflict some serious pain on its opponents in the process. And I would venture that should the conflict spread to “mainland” Ukraine, the soldiers would be highly motivated to defend their homeland.

2) Some Western analysts have argued in recent days that Putin is scoring a massive victory by taking Crimea with pretty much no resistance. But it seems to me that this action was taken not as a triumphant victory but as an effort to avoid what Putin perceived to be a complete geopolitical rout in the aftermath of the defeat of Yanukovych. This seems quite short-sighted to me, as without the Russian intervention the Maidan forces were likely to fall to squabbling and would have most likely come to a relatively quick accommodation with Moscow. Now, it appears that the likeliest scenario is that Putin gets Crimea as a client state (or new province to subsidize) while permanently losing any influence in the rest of Ukraine. The majority of Ukrainians in eastern and southern Ukraine have no desire to be ruled by Putin and will support their leadership while the threat of Russian invasion persists, absent any really stupid polarizing actions on the part of said leadership. I would count this as a net strategic loss for Putin. 

The second likeliest scenario is a Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine, leading to a quite bloody and potentially long-lasting conflict with Russian troops involved. Even though Russia would be likely to win such a war, the result would be long term instability on Russia’s immediate border, with guerrilla warfare likely for some time. And Russia would have to bear the full cost of supporting Ukraine for the foreseeable future. This would be an even bigger strategic loss for Putin.

Putin has also already lost all of the international goodwill generated by his investment in the Sochi Olympics. He is gambling that EU states will fail to impose any serious penalties on Russia for its actions. Given past history this may seem to be a reasonable bet, but sending Russian troops into Ukraine is likely to be seen as a game-changer in the most important European capitals, including Berlin, London, Paris and Warsaw. While sanctions are by no means guaranteed (especially if Russian intervention remains limited to Crimea), they are more likely than one might expect given Europe’s general unwillingness to act.

For more on this, I would suggest that readers take a look at Mark Galeotti’s assessment, which parallels mine in many ways.