Reasons Why Malaysian Airlines MH17 Was Probably Shot Down By A Rebel Missile – And Why This Means The Rebels Have Lost

Of course, it’s still too early to say definitively what happened but this is a personal blog, not a newspaper article or a government report, so I have the space to vent and express what I think rather than what I know. So, here goes.

Although I wish it were otherwise, I feel the overwhelming odds are that MH17 was shot down by a Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile fired by the rebels (but supplied by the Russians):

1. The rebels, notably generalissimo Strelkov actually claimed to have shot down a government An-26 in the general area of the MH17’s demise. The social media claims in question have been retrospectively deleted, but in this age nothing is truly lost.

2. The rebels have shot down other government planes and indeed there is strategic merit to their denying their airspace to Kyiv’s forces, given that air power is one of the government’s real advantages. If they thought the MH17 was a government plane, then this might have seemed a great opportunity.

3. MH17 was flying too high for the man portable and light vehicle-mounted SAMs the rebels have openly deployed, but recently they admitted–and again these claims seem to have been retracted–to having at least one Buk-M1 SAM system, a tactical battlefield system that has the range to claw a civilian airliner out of the sky, and the warhead to do it with one hit.

4. The Buk is a radar-guided missile, so it could quite possibly have been launched without any eyeballing of the target. Furthermore, while the rebels may have the Buk’s radar targeting system, they lack the extensive radar network and, above all, the skilled sensor operators who might have been able to tell a passenger airliner from a government troop plane.

5. The pattern of wreckage, the state of the corpses, suggests a catastrophic in-air impact and then rapid descent, not a crash from engine or system failure. Again, this speaks to a missile attack, and there do not seem to have been Russian or Ukrainian fighter jets in the air near there. So, again we’re back to a SAM.


The CGA and Russia in 2014

Originally posted on The Global Citizen:

Moscow2014GFIThis June saw the first Global Field Intensive course to Moscow, led by Professor Mark Galeotti, who is currently researching in Russia. MSGA students enjoyed a varied and busy program in which they visited the Carnegie Moscow Center, explored Russian and Georgian cuisine, spoke to academics, officials and journalists, sampled the city’s nightlife, networked with expats working in Russia, and listened to the Australian ambassador give a candid briefing over tea and muffins. Student reports prepared in advance of the trip are up on their own blog. Professor Galeotti then traveled to London where he spoke at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, on the evolving role of the Russian intelligence and security apparatus.

GaleottiLondonFirst2014Subsequently, he gave a briefing for LondonFirst on the security implications of the Ukrainian crisis for London, ranging from the impact of sanctions to the risks of increased Russian espionage…

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Of Strelkov and Stolypin


Banner celebrating Strelkov and the ‘Strelkovtsy’. Can a movie deal be far behind?

Strelkov, the military commander of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’, imperial adventurer and historian-with-a-gun, and Stolypin, the reforming reactionary prime minister who, I would suggest, represented tsarist Russia’s last chance for survival: two imperial(ist) figures of the moment, both of whom see the revival of something past or passing in reshaping the future, by violent means if need be. (There’s a reason why the ‘Stolypin necktie’ became a slang term for the hangman’s noose.) I mention them not just because Russian imperialism seems very much in vogue, but because of purely self-interested promotion.

I have a piece over at Russia! magazine that throws out some thoughts about Strelkov and what role he plays: ‘“War nerd,” “military romantic,” “god of war,” “monster and killer”: no one seems entirely sure to make of Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, the “defense minister” of the equally-unrecognized “Donetsk People’s Republic.” And so they project what they expect to see.’

Petr Stolypin

Petr Stolypin

And my fledgling new column for Business New Europe now has a title. The Economist has Charlemagne; BNE now has Stolypin! I hope to bring the same brand of ruthlessly clear-eyed pragmatism to bear as Stolypin, as I explore Russia’s domestic and foreign affairs each month. Even if I  cannot hope to match his impressive facial hair. My most recent column, on Ukraine of course, is here.


NATO and the new war: dealing with asymmetric threats before they become kinetic

I’m enjoying the privilege of attending this year’s Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn and already there have been fascinating discussions in both formal sessions and informal conversations. Needless to say, despite the intention on focusing on the Baltic as a potential “mare nostrum”, Ukraine hangs heavily over the whole event. Many who were once considered hawks are able to, if I may extend the analogy, preen a little and feel that Moscow has justified their concerns admirably. And I cannot blame them.

If once the divide was between those who saw Russia as a problem, even a potential partner, rather than a threat and those who simply saw the threat, then I wonder if now the divide that is opening up is between those who think purely in terms of “old wars” rather than new. In Ukraine we have seen a distinctive evolution of old forms of political-military, covert-overt conflict. To be sure,  the Ukrainian situation was distinctive and extraordinary: a state in virtual collapse, a large Russia-looking minority, a disgruntled and scared eastern elite looking for a new krysha (‘roof’ – protection) and seeing it in Moscow. We do not see this in Europe. If Cossacks or Night Wolves motorcycle gangers rolled into Narva tomorrow, not only would the Estonian security forces be perfectly able to deal with them, but it they would have the support of the overwhelming majority of Russophone Estonians in doing it, too.

Instead, the response to any potential threat of “little green men” at the conference tends to focus on kinetic capacities: special forces, precision weapons, command and communication, etc. Understandable, and I agree that if foreign paramilitaries or special ops teams try to make their way into your country, these are the guys you want to unleash. Likewise, there’s is still certainly a value to a credible conventional and nuclear deterrence: had Ukraine’s forces been more capable and Kiev more decisive, then maybe things would not have reached the current stage. 

But my point is that the Russians–if they really did want to make incursions into Europe–would only unleash such tactics after they had already created suitable conditions. Just as in Ukraine, they’d need already to have created pretexts, disorder, confusion, local allies.

In other words, the real conflict would not be so much PGMs vs LGMs (Precision-Guided Missiles vs Little Green Men) but a shadow one of ensuring that Russia’s abilities to create the preconditions for incursion could be deterred, detected and dealt with. The soldiers of this war are spies and criminals, cynical lobbyists and gullible commentators, businesses desperate to make a profit from Russia, and populations eager not to see themselves engaged in any civilizational struggle.

I appreciate NATO is not the obvious instrument with which to combat this potential threat, that is better suited to developing those kinetic solutions to the actual military stage of any conflict. But given that it is, at present, hard to see the EU able to muster the will, strategy, resources and cohesion to do the job, I wonder who else can fill the role of identifying and addressing this form of asymmetric warfare? If it comes to shooting, then I agree that the West needs smart, well-trained shooters. But given that the shooting stage would be the final one of an escalating campaign of subversion, division and misdirection, I’d rather this be headed off Putin’s guerrilla geopolitics before it reaches such a stage.

Security Forces in and close to Kiev: a preliminary tally


SBU special forces, armed and ready

I honestly have no idea what will happen in Kiev, whether the regime will fracture and crumble, whether the protests will subside, whether martial law has been declared: I am not a Ukrainian politics specialist and in any case, this is one of those situations in which I feel all bets are off and the only real question is who is the most plausible and lucky guessers amongst the assembled ranks of pundits. However, in a depressive moment, togo with my previous note on Berkut, I thought I’d quickly throw together a list of — to my knowledge, at least — the security forces available either in Kiev or close by. Of course, treat this with some caution, not least as it would be easy for the government quickly to bring in reinforcements from other police, Interior Troop and army commands. Still, I hope this list remains of no more than academic interest.

MVS Police

Central MVS assets

‘Sokil’ (Falcon) police commando unit

Kiev City Berkut Regiment – c. 450

Kiev City Berkut Regiment – c. 450

Kiev Region Berkut Regiment – c. 350?

Kiev City Police (especially its Public Order Directorate) – total force c. 11,000 cops

Cadets from the Kiev MVS Police Academy

MVS Interior Troops (VV)

Unit 3027 Bars (‘Snow Leopard’) MVS VV Special Purpose Brigade

Omega counter-terrorist company

22nd MVS VV Special Purpose Brigade

25th MVS VV Special Motorized Police Brigade

3rd MVS VV Brigade

Cadets from the MVS VV Academy

State Guard Directorate (UDO)

Some 2900 armed officers, mainly in Kiev

Titan special security unit

Security Service of Ukraine (SBU)

Security Directorate

Alfa counter-terrorist unit


72nd Guards Mechanized Brigade: some 3,000 troops at Bila Tserkva, 80 km south of Kiev

Силы безопасности в и близко в Киев: предварительной оценки

Berkut: Yanukovich’s stormtroopers?


Berkut at Work

As the terrible events in Kiev unfold, I’m getting increasing media queries about Berkut (‘Golden Eagle’), the Ukrainian riot police busily out on their skull-cracking work, so I thought it might be useful to post a quick summary here. In short, they are the descendants of the Soviet OMON and thus very similar to their Russian OMON counterparts (the acronym now stands for Special Purpose Mobile Units, even since the militsiya was renamed politsiya and no one much liked OPON as a new name). They even wear the same blue urban camouflage or black uniforms (although just to show that they are their own men, they wear maroon berets instead of their Russians’ black ones). In other words, Berkut (click here for a gung-ho recruitment video) fulfills a range of roles, from armed support to the regular police (such as in raids on gang headquarters), through additional patrollers on the streets. However, their prime and backstop role, as here, is in public order duties. Members either apply directly or are recruited from regular police and disproportionately served in the paratroopers or Naval Infantry (marines). Whatever one may feel about what they do, in fairness they are pretty good at it: they know how to pick the right kinds of recruits, train them well and keep them at a good level of physical and moral conditioning. As I say, this is a technical observation about their skills, not a moral judgement…



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