There are a plethora of sources available to cover the conflict in Ukraine, but I think that two in particular are worth noting. First, the Oryx blog uses open source intelligence to track hardware losses. It’s based in the Netherlands, and is so effective that I have the feeling that even governments rely upon it. The blog also covers issues such as which European nations are donating equipment to Ukraine. If you are interested in objective information about Russian losses, or equipment donations, this is the source for you.
This conflict has also seen an unprecedented information war, one which Ukraine has certainly been winning. In my opinion, the best analysis of open source intelligence is Bellingcat. This blog provides critical thinking and research related to digital issues, but in the case of Ukraine it also provides key data on military events. If you only want to follow a couple of blogs to learn more about the conflict, these are the top two that I would suggest.
What is clear is that Russia has neither conquered major urban centers, nor achieved air dominance; it’s planes can no longer fly over Europe; the Russian stock market has plunged, and the rubles’ value is crashing. Ukraine is rallying its population and resources. Europe is providing major military resources to Ukraine, while turning away from Russian energy. What is remarkable is that there now is serious discussion of having Ukraine join the European Union. Even Switzerland is following Europe’s lead on financial sanctions. It is difficult to unite Europe. But with the possible exception of Hungary, Russia seems to have both alienated its major energy customers, while leading Europe -particularly Germany- to pay huge amounts to strengthen their military forces. Whatever happens now in Ukraine, it’s hard to imagine a world in which Russia could have done more to undermine its national interests so quickly. It’s a strange war.
As someone who loves folklore and mystery, every Halloween season I try to find some global mysteries to discuss. Earlier on the blog I did a book review of Donnie Eichar’s Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident. In 1959 a large group of hikers disappeared in a remote and mountainous part of the Soviet Union. It was only when the first bodies began to appear, however, that the mystery began to acquire broader attention. Something appeared to have made them flee out of their tent in the dead of night while only partly dressed, something that was suicide in the depths of the Russian winter. Everyone in that tent was an experienced hiker and camper. What could have scared them so badly? Or was there a killer on the mountain that night, from whom they fled in terror? Given that this event took place in the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, there were a plethora of conspiracy theories about secret Soviet experiments, strange radiation injuries, and military guards. But what can we learn about this event in hindsight?
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). …
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. …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. …
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.
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. …