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MH17 – Who Did It? What Next?

“…and once the TAR (Target Acquisition Radar) has lock-on, this light will go green. Then just push this button here, and the rest’s automatic. Good luck!  Oh, and make sure nobody’s standing behind the missile when you launch.”

Maybe the crew who launched the missile that brought down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine on Thursday afternoon were trained professionals, but it seems unlikely. That crew (or somebody else) was good enough to down three Ukrainian Air Force planes over the rebel-held zone in the past week, but they weren’t good enough to tell the difference between a military aircraft and a civilian airliner.

The Ukrainian planes were smallish aircraft flying low in a combat zone; the huge Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 was flying straight and steady at 10,000 metres (33,000 feet). A fully trained operator would know the difference in an instant. Somebody who had just had a crash course in firing Buk missiles (two tracked vehicles and a lot of electronics) might not. So 298 people died.

There are two questions to answer here. One is: who did it? The Ukrainian government, the pro-Russian rebels and the Russian Federation have all denied responsibility. The other is: what happens if, despite their denials, the rebels and/or the Russians themselves are to blame? Is this horrible event a “game-changer”?

Who did it is actually pretty obvious. At least one Buk launch team was spotted by an Associated Press reporter in the rebel-held zone on Wednesday, and there may have been more. The Russians have been trying to deny the air-space over the combat zone to the Ukrainians so that their army has to do all its fighting without air support and suffers increased casualties. Six Ukrainian planes have been shot down in the past six weeks.

The Ukrainian government says it has no surface-to-air missiles in the area, and it is probably telling the truth. With one possible exception, there have been no reports of Russian planes overflying the region, so anti-air defences were not needed.

The really damning evidence, however, is on the social media sites. First there is a post on a top rebel commander’s site, just at the time MH17 went down, claiming to have downed a Ukrainian transport plane. Within hours that post was deleted. Then the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) posted intercepted telephone conversations between rebel commanders on YouTube.

“Demon”, commanding the rebel troops who are the first to the crash site, reports: “Cossacks from the Chernunkhino checkpoint shot down the plane….They found the first body. It’s a civilian.” “Were there many people?” asks his superior, nicknamed “Greek”. “A fuckload,” replies Demon. “The debris rained right into the yards.”

“Any weapons there?” asks Greek. “None at all. Civilian things. Medical stuff, towels, toilet paper,” says Demon. “Any documents?” asks Greek. And Demon, finally realising what must have happened, replies: “Yes. From an Indonesian student. From Thompson University.” And he curses again.

It’s pronbably not Thompson University, which is an entirely online institution in the United States. It’s almost certainly Thompson Rivers University, in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, which has a student exchange agreement with the International Islamic Education Council (IIEC) in Indonesia.

And there’s no way, without access to the crash site and with only a few hours to do the job, that the Ukrainian intelligence service could have come up with that kind of detail to put into a fake recording. It’s genuine. The rebels did it.

Russia didn’t want the Cossacks at Chernunkhino to shoot down a civilian airliner, but it has been giving the rebels heavy weapons while strenuously denying it. It has been caught red-handed, and hundreds have died. This is indeed a game-changer – but in which direction?

One option would be for Moscow to admit it, apologise whole-heartedly, and abandon its clients in eastern Ukraine. That is unlikely to happen. As President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, “This tragedy would not have occurred if there were peace in that country, or in any case, if hostilities had not resumed in southeast Ukraine. And certainly, the government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy.”

In other words, yeah, we gave the rebels the weapons, and they used them to shoot down the airliner, but the whole thing wouldn’t have happened if the Ukrainian government had just given in to the rebels. So it’s really Kiev’s fault, not ours.

The signs are clear: Russia is going to brazen it out, and go on supplying the separatist rebels with weapons. The Western Europeans have been trying to look the other way (although the United States did impose some extra sanctions this week), but they can’t look away after this. Western sanctions against Russia are going to go up quickly and steeply now. It’s already ugly, and it’s going to get even uglier.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“There are…game-changer”; and “The Ukrainian…needed”)

Ukraine: How To Avoid a War

9 April 2014

Ukraine: How To Avoid a War

On one hand, eastern Ukraine appears to be slipping out of the government’s control, as pro-Russian groups seize control of official buildings in big eastern cities like Donetsk and Luhansk and demand referendums on union with Russia. They almost certainly do not represent majority opinion in those cities, but the police stand aside and people who support Ukrainian unity are nervous about expressing their opinions in public.

On the other hand, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, has just announced that the EU, the United States, Ukraine and Russia will all meet somewhere in Europe next week to discuss ways of “de-escalating the situation in Ukraine.” That will be the first time that Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has agreed to meet with a representative of the Ukrainian government.

So is this crisis heading for a resolution or an explosion? It still depends on whether Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks that the annexation of Crimea is enough compensation for the humiliation he suffered when his ally in Kiev, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown by a popular revolution. And clearly Putin hasn’t yet decided that himself.

Rationality says take your winnings to the bank and quit the game while you’re ahead. Putin’s action has guaranteed that almost any imaginable Ukrainian government will be hostile for the foreseeable future, but the NATO countries will be willing to forget about Crimea after a while if he goes no further. Does he really want the United States, Germany, France and Britain as his enemies too?

Yet the temptation is there. Putin’s agents are everywhere in eastern Ukraine, he has 40,000 troops ready to go at a moment’s notice just across the frontier, and all the Russian navy’s amphibious assault ships are now in the Black Sea – he could grab the Ukrainian coast all the way west to Odessa at the same time. The Ukrainian army would fight, but could not hold out for more than a day or two, and NATO would not send troops. Why not do it?

There are lots of good reasons not to. Putin would face a protracted guerilla war in Ukraine (he would call it “terrorism”, of course). He would find himself in a new Cold War that Russia would lose much faster than it lost the last one: it has only half the population of the old Soviet Union, and now depends heavily on Western markets for its modest prosperity.

He would find new NATO military bases opening up in various countries on Russia’s borders that joined the alliance for safety’s sake, but have so far not allowed  foreign (i.e. American or German) troops to be based permanently on their soil out of consideration for Russian anxieties. He really shouldn’t even consider grabbing Ukraine, but he is a man with a very big chip on his shoulder.

So what sort of line should the Europeans, the Americans and the Ukrainians be taking with Russia next week? This is about hard power, so appeals to sweet reason are pointless. “Sanctions” are also irrelevant: this has now gone considerably beyond the point where gesture politics has any role to play. The economic and strategic prices that Russia would pay need to be big and they need to be stated clearly.

But at the same time, Russia’s own legitimate concerns have to be addressed, and the main one is its fear that Ukraine might some day join NATO. That requires a firm commitment that Ukraine will be strictly neutral, under international guarantee. Russia will also try to get a promise that Ukraine will be “federalised”, but that is none of its business and should be rejected.

In the meantime, the shambolic Ukrainian provisional government needs to get a grip: not one of its leading figures has even visited the east since the revolution. In particular, it needs to take control of the police in the east (whose commanders were mostly Yukanovych’s placemen), and restore the chain of command from Kiev to the local municipalities.

Then it will be relatively easy to take back the occupied government buildings without violence. Just stop all movement in or out, turn off the water, and wait. None of this stuff is rocket science, but it’s not being done, and so the situation gets steadily worse.

Finally, money. Russia, under relatively competent authoritarian rule, has a GDP per capita of about $14,000. Ukraine, after a quarter-century of incompetent and sporadic authoritarian rule, has less than a third of that: $4,000 per head. It helps that Russia has a lot of oil and gas, but the contrast is huge, and Ukrainians are aware of it – especially in the east.

Ukraine needs lots of money, in a hurry, to stay solvent while it holds an election (on 25 May) and sorts itself out politically. And if all that is done, then maybe Putin will settle for Crimea and put up with the prospect of having to live next door to a neutral but democratic Ukraine.

Otherwise, it’s going to get quite ugly.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“In the meantime…in the east”)

Israel: Nuclear Hypocrisy

12 February 2014

Israel: Nuclear Hypocrisy

When Mordechai Vanunu, a humble Israeli technician who worked for years at Israel’s secret nuclear site at Dimona, spilled the beans about Israel’s nuclear weapons in 1986, very bad things happened to him. He was lured from safety in England for an Italian holiday by a woman who was an Israeli secret agent, drugged and kidnapped from Italy by other Israeli agents, and imprisoned for eighteen years (eleven of them in solitary confinement).

When Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Israeli parliament, said last month that that Israel has both nuclear and chemical weapons (you know, like the nuclear weapons that Iran must not have and the chemical weapons that Syria must give up), nothing bad happened to him at all. He is protected by the Important Persons Act, the unwritten law that gets powerful and well-connected people off the hook in every country.

They didn’t even go after Burg when he said that Israel’s long-standing policy of “non-disclosure (never confirm or deny that it has nukes) was “outdated and childish.” But even ten years after Vanunu finished serving his long jail sentence, he is not allowed to leave Israel, go near any foreign embassy, airport or border crossing, or speak to any journalist or foreigner.

Vanunu defies the Israeli authorities and speaks to whomever he pleases, of course. But he really can’t get out of the country, though he desperately wants to leave, and his decision to live like a free man gives his watchers the pretext to yank his chain by arresting him whenever they feel like it.

The Israeli government’s excuse for all this is that he may still know secrets he might reveal, but that is nonsense. Vanunu hasn’t seen Dimona or talked to anybody in the Israeli nuclear weapons business for 30 years. What drives his tormentors is sheer vindictiveness, and he may well go on being punished for his defiance until he dies – while Avraham Burg lives out his life undisturbed and offers occasional pearls of wisdom to the public.

So here are the “secrets” that Vanunu and Burg revealed, in rather more detail than Burg chose to give and in a more up-to-date form than Vanunu could give from personal knowledge.

Israel has a minimum of eighty and a maximum of four hundred nuclear weapons, those limits being based on calculations of the amount of fissile material that it has enriched to weapons grade. The best guess is that the total is around two hundred warheads, most of them two-stage thermonuclear devices (hydrogen bombs).

At least some dozens are “tactical” weapons designed to be fired by 175 mm and 203 mm artillery pieces at ranges of 40-70 km. The remainder are meant to be delivered by missiles or aircraft, and Israel maintains a full “triad” of delivery systems: land-based missiles, sea-launched missiles, and aircraft.

The missiles are mostly Jericho II medium-range ballistic missiles, which can reach all of Europe and most of western Asia. Since 2008 Jericho III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) have also been entering service, with a range that would allow Israel to strike any inhabited point on the planet except some Pacific islands. Both can carry a one-megaton warhead.

Why such remarkably long ranges, when Israel’s avowed enemies are all relatively close to hand? One speculation is that this is meant to encourage caution in other nuclear states (Pakistan? North Korea?) that might at some future time be tempted to supply nuclear weapons to Israel’s near enemies.

The maritime leg of the triad is highly accurate cruise missiles that are launched from underwater by Israel’s German-built Dolphin-class submarines. These missiles constitute Israel’s “secure second-strike” capability, since it is extremely unlikely that even the most successful enemy surprise attack could locate and destroy the submarines. And finally, there are American-made F-15 and F-16 strike aircraft that can also carry nuclear bombs.

Israel probably tested its bomb in the southern Indian Ocean in 1979 in cooperation with apartheid South Africa, which was also developing nuclear weapons (subsequently dismantled) at that time. The test was carried out under cover of a storm to escape satellite surveillance, but a rift in the cloud cover revealed the characteristic double flash of a nuclear explosion to an American satellite, Vela 6911.

This was a violation of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, which forbids open-air nuclear tests, but the United States did not pursue the matter, presumably in order not to embarrass Israel.

The United States did not help Israel to develop nuclear weapons in the first place (France did that), and even now Washington does not really approve of Israel’s nukes, although it tolerates them in the interest of the broader alliance. But why, after all these years, does Israel still refuse to acknowledge that it has them?

The only plausible answer is: to avoid embarrassing the United States in ways that would make it restrict its arms exports to Israel. But realistically, how likely is that to happen? The US Congress will ensure that Israel goes on getting all the money and arms it wants no matter what it says about its nukes, and it is high time to end this ridiculous dance around the truth.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 12 and 13. (“Vanunu…it”; and “Israel…Israel”)

Syrian Peace Talks

19 January 2014

Syrian Peace Talks

By Gwynne Dyer

It would be interesting to know just what tidbits of information the US National Security Agency’s eavesdropping has turned up on United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. He certainly caved in very fast: on Sunday he invited Iran to join the long-delayed peace talks aimed at ending the three-year-old civil war in Syria; on Sunday evening the United States loudly objected, and on Monday he obediently uninvited Iran.

So the peace talks get underway in Switzerland this week after all, and the omens for peace are not that bad. Unless, of course, you were also hoping for the overthrow of the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad and the emergence of a democratic Syria, in which case the omens are positively awful.

The breakthrough may not happen at Geneva this week, but the Russians and the Americans are now on the same side (although the US cannot yet bring itself to say publicly that it is backing Assad). Moreover, some of the rebels are getting ready to change sides. It won’t be fast and it won’t be pretty, but there’s a decent chance that peace, in the shape of an Assad victory, will come to Syria within a year or two.

What has made this possible is the jihadis, the fanatical extremists of the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, who have frightened both the United States and a great many ordinary Syrians into seeing Assad’s regime as the lesser evil.

Two years ago, it still seemed possible that Assad could lose. The rebels had the support of the United States, Turkey and powerful Sunni Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and they still talked about a democratic, inclusive Syria. Assad’s only friends were Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

But then the jihadis showed up, alienating local people with their extreme version of sharia law and scaring the pants off the United States with their allegiance to al-Qaeda. It took the United States quite a while to admit to itself that it does not actually want Assad to fall if that means putting the jihadis in power, but it has finally grasped the concept.

The catalyst was the poison gas attacks in Damascus last August, which forced the US to threaten air strikes against the Assad regime (because it had already declared that the use of poison gas would cross a “red line”). However, President Obama was clearly reluctant to carry out his threat – and then the Russians came up with the idea that Assad could hand over all his chemical weapons instead.

Obama grabbed that lifeline and cancelled the air strikes. After that there was no longer any prospect of Western military intervention in the Syrian war, which meant that Assad was certain to survive, because the domestic rebels were never going to win it on their own.

More recently, a “war-within-the-war” has broken out among the rebels, with the secular groups fighting the jihadis and the jihadi groups fighting among themselves. So far in January more people have been killed in this internecine rebel war (over a thousand) than in the war against the regime. And the US and Russia are working on a deal that would swing most of the non-jihadi rebels over to the regime’s side.

General Salim Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army (the main non-jihadi force on the battlefield), said last month that he and his allies were dropping the demand that Assad must leave power before the Geneva meeting convened. Instead, they would be content for Assad to go at the end of the negotiation process, at which time the FSA’s forces would join with those of the regime in an offensive against the Islamists.

He was actually signalling that the Free Syrian Army is getting ready to change sides. There will have to be amnesties and financial rewards for those who change sides, of course, but these things are easily arranged. And Assad will not leave power “at the end of the negotiation process.”

The jihadis are not at Geneva this week, of course; just the Russians and the Americans, and the Assad regime and the Syrian National coalition (the Free Syrian Army’s political front), and a few odds and sods to make up the numbers. It is an ideal environment for the regime and the secular rebels to discuss quietly how they might make a deal, with their Russian and American big brothers in attendance to smooth the path.

The fighting in Syria will continue for many months, even if a joint front of the regime and the FSA is formed to drive out the foreign extremists and eliminate the native-born ones. In practice the end game will probably be even more ragged than that, with all sorts of local rebel groups trying to cut their own deals or holding out until the bitter end. But the final outcome has become clear, and it is no longer years away.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“The catalyst…on their own”)

Gwynne Dyer in an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries