Russia

Turkey’s strikes in Syria

“Chest X-rays, 3D Image of lungs, Sagital Plane Image” by Praisaeng at freedigitalphotos.net

With the COVID-19 pandemic rampant, it’s easy to forget that other world events are still taking place, and with good reason. No other events now matter as much. Even so, after 33 of its soldiers were killed by the Syrian military (or perhaps by a Russian airstrike) last month, the Turkish government launched a devastating counterstrike against the Syrian military on February 27, 2020. The use of drones and other technology simply overwhelmed the Syrian armed forces, and let to the destruction of even the most sophisticated Russian equipment, such as the Pantsir anti-air systems. As usual, the Oryx blog has the best information. The list of destroyed military equipment on this website is striking. For example, the Syrians likely lost 32 tanks, which they could ill afford, and eight aircraft (mostly helicopters). …

The Skripal Poisoning

Ever since the Skripal poisoning, Russia has denied that its agents were involved in any way with the killing. Of course, this was not the first such poisoning of former Russian citizens in Great Britain. The Litvinenko case was so carefully researched that there could be little doubt regarding who used a radioactive agent to kill a former Russian citizen, who was cooperating with Spanish authorities. Still, Russia has engaged in an extensive and full-throated defense against these accusations. This week this defense became much more difficult. …

Russian Hackers

I believe that in a 100 years people will believe that digital globalization was as an important a trend in the twenty-first century as financial, political and economic globalization. Cyberwarfare, artificial intelligence, cyber-currencies, the sharing economy, drones and robotics are fundamentally reshaping our world. In this context, hackers have become not only a security threat but also part of pop culture. But how do hacker’s themselves think about their culture and their activities? You can learn more by watching the BBC program, “The Hackers of Siberia,” which focuses on the “SiBears” of Siberia.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Literature and Espionage

Sometimes you just can’t make up a story as strange as reality. For anyone following the inquiry into possible Russian collusion with the Trump White House, the endless details are as fascinating as they are intriguing. Clive Irving has a wonderful piece, “What Would Le Carré’s Master Spy Think of Trump and Russia?,” in the Daily Beast, which imagines what George Smiley (the fictional master spy) would make of current events.

Espionage is also in the news because of the case of Sergei V. Skripal. A former spy in Russia, he and his daughter were both found seriously ill on a bench in Salisbury, England. This particular case has many parallels to the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, which was covered in a book titled “A Very Expensive Poison.” To date, both of the victims are alive; let’s hope that the terrible events associated with Litvinenko aren’t repeated.

In online forums a vigorous discussion has already begun regarding the likely poison. If I had been working for the FSB (AKA Moscow Central), I would have chosen fentanyl. It would be deadly at a low dose, and the victim could be blamed for ingesting or inhaling it. After the debacle with polonium in the Litvinenko case, it seems unlikely that a radioactive substance would be used again. While poisons from Himalayan plants may be difficult to detect, they also raise too many questions. Much the same could be said ricin. Nerve agents also point to a state actor, as was the case last year in Malaysia. I will be very curious to see if a poison can be identified, and whether that information will be released.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

PS- the poison has now been identified by the British authorities. According to press reports, it was a nerve agent, which would seem to be a means to draw attention. One of the police officers who responded has now been hospitalized and is in serious condition, likely because of exposure to the poison. George Smiley would have done more subtle and careful work.

A very expensive poison, a book review

“The reception room in the building of the Federal Security Service.” RIA Novosti archive, image #98400 / Vladimir Fedorenko / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Luke Harding’s, A Very Expensive Poison, describes how Russian security services murdered dissident Alexander Litivenko in 2006. While the study of the assassination itself is detailed, riveting, and depressing, the true horror is the picture that the book paints of the Russian state. According to Harding’s detailed and well-sourced account, Russia’s senior leaders -including Vladimir Putin himself- are deeply involved in corruption and organized crime. As such, the book is not the story of one man’s death, but also an indictment of an entire government.

The FSB is the successor agency to the much feared Russian KGB. Litvinenko had served as an agent within the organization, and even briefly met with Putin itself. Disillusioned with the FSB’s criminality he defected to the West with the aid of a Russian oligarch, and began to work for the British intelligence service, M-16.

The Russian state had many secrets to keep. I’ve made an academic study of conspiracy theories related to everything from the 2009 H1N1 “Swine flu” pandemic, to (with my colleague Leopoldo Rodriguez) the death of Argentine prosecutor Nisman. This man died hours before he had been scheduled to testify before Congress regarding the 1994 AMIA bombing. Conspiracy theories are interesting, because sometimes conspiracies do happen. Whether a narrative represents an accurate depiction of facts, or is part of an irrational worldview characterized by paranoia, is always a judgement call. In the case of Russia, there are numerous examples of conspiracy narratives of uncertain validity. For example, Harding discusses (50-51) the apartment bombings that provided the justification for the Russian invasion of Chechnya. Litvinenko argued in a book, Blowing Up Russia, that the Russian FSB itself had undertaken this attack as a false flag event. To the best of my knowledge no important new information to support this argument has emerged since the book’s publication, and the truth of this assertion is unclear. Given the seriousness of this allegation, however, it’s unsurprising that Litvinenko would fear Russia’s security services. Still, what drew him to Russian attention, Harding suggests, was not his work with M-16, but rather Spanish intelligence services. The Spanish state was investigating Russian organized crime’s activities (money laundering, bank fraud, real estate purchases, etc) in their own country. The Spanish authorities found evidence of close collaboration between Russian criminals and government authorities in their home country. …

The Soviet Navy versus Russia’s

Despite the collapse of oil prices, Russia has remerged onto the global stage as a major player, in the aftermath of the conquest of the Crimea. Russia’s involvement in Syria, for example, reversed the course of that conflict, which was sliding towards the government’s defeat. Before the recent ceasefire was declared the government was on the verge of encircling Aleppo, which would have been impossible with Russia’s intervention. During the conflict, Russia launched missiles from naval ships in the Black Sea, which reminded observers of its new military capabilities.

While Russia has formidable military forces, however, it’s also worth remembering that it is not the great power that it was during the Cold War. In many respects, Russia barely has a blue water fleet, which is capable of operating globally. This graphic from Contemporary Issues and Geography makes clear the astounding decrease in the size and capabilities of Russia’s naval forces. While Russia is using its modest naval forces effectively, they still cannot compare either with the naval forces of the Soviet Union, or the U.S. navy today.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

The Dylatov Pass Incident: a new book

From Wikipedia: “The Mikhajlov Cemetry in Yekaterinburg. The tomb of the group who had died in mysterious circumstances in the northern Ural Mountains.” Photo by Дмитрий Никишин / Public domain

Every Halloween, I look at mysterious topics, such as books on international folklore, or the story of the strange ghost ship called the Baltimore. This year I want to review a book on one of the strangest mysteries in Russian history, the Dyatlov pass incident. The book is written by Donnie Eichar, and is titled Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident.

On the night of February 2, 1959 a large group of hikers disappeared in the northern Ural mountains. They were experienced campers in winter conditions, and when they did not return, people were not initially worried. After eight days, however, an expedition was organized to find this group, all of whom were university students at the Ural Polytechnic institute. After a great deal of effort, their tent was found on the side of Dead Mountain (Halatchahl mountain). Everything inside the tent was in order -there was even food set out waiting to be eaten, although the stove had not yet been set up- but the nine students were not there. The tent itself had been damaged, and there was a cut in the back, which would later lead to speculation that perhaps someone had tried to cut their way into it. Investigators later determined that the tent had been cut from the inside, probably because people were rushing to get out. The searchers were able to follow a trail of footprints that led away from the tent, and soon came upon the bodies of two of the students, who were only partly dressed. Three other bodies were then found nearby, also in a state of partial undress. It was not until May that the remaining bodies were found, at the bottom of a ravine. …

Beijing to Seattle Railroad

Berengia present day from Wikipedia Commons
Berengia present day by the U.S. Geological Survey on Wikipedia Commons

According to a recent article in the Guardian, China is planning to build a high-speed railway to the United States. The rail trip would take two days to travel through China and Russia, underneath the ocean in the Bering Strait, through Alaska and Canada, before arriving in the continental United States. As the article points out, there are many reasons to doubt the seriousness of this proposal, not the least of which neither the United States or Canada (and perhaps Russia as well) have been consulted. But what is interesting is the historical background to this story, which represents a dream that can neither achieve fruition nor die. James Oliver’s The Bering Strait Crossing, discusses the lengthy history of exactly this idea. Of course, Siberia and Alaska in ancient times were united by Beringia, a land bridge that allowed camels and horses to travel to the Old World, and people to arrive in the Americas. But the two regions have been separated since the end of the last glaciation, when rising sea levels sank Beringia. Oliver’s work discusses the early history of Russian exploration in the Americas, which represented an effort to bring these two regions back into sustained contact. Vitus Bering, a Danish sea captain in the service of the czar, first reached the Western hemisphere on 15 July 1741. This launched a Russian empire in Alaska that endured until 1867, when the Czar sold Alaska to the United States. In the end, Russia’s heartland was too far, and the U.S. dream of manifest destiny was too powerful, for this empire to endure.  But the realization that only a brief stretch of ocean separated Russia from the United States led people to discuss building a railroad to connect the two nations. …

The Mystery of the Arctic Sea

"Sea Victim" by Evgeni Dinev at freedigitalphotos.net
“Sea Victim” by Evgeni Dinev at freedigitalphotos.net

In July 2009 the world was fascinated by the mystery surrounding the cargo ship the Arctic Sea. American owned, Canadian operated, based in Malta, and with a Russian crew, the ship had taken on a load of timber in Finland, which it was delivering to Algeria. It never arrived. After passing through the English channel, its tracking system was shut off, and the ship disappeared from the world. It was amazing enough that in an era of satellites and modern navigation systems an entire ship could disappear. But then came the remarkable announcement that in July the ship had been taken over by pirates in the waters off Sweden. The men had approached the ship, and -in English- claimed to be police. They took over the ship, and interrogated the crew, before leaving hours later. But first they allegedly had disabled communications equipment and confiscated the crews’ phones. This was unusual enough, as there had been no pirates in the Baltic in living memory, or for centuries for that matter. The ship was in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Even stranger, however, was what happened next- the ship continued on its way without stopping for authorities to investigate the crime (for a timeline of events, click here). …

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