Category Archives: Russia

Following the war in Ukraine – an update

SLOVYANSK, UKRAINE – APRIL14: Ukrainian troops ride tanks on the way toward Slavyansk on April 14, 2014 in Ukraine. Tension has been rising in Ukraine, with pro-Russian activists occupying buildings in more eastern towns and a Russian fighter jet making passes over a U.S. warship in the Black Sea. (Photo by Ilia Pitalev Kommersant Photo via Getty Images)

My post, How is the war going?, from two months ago recently got a lot of attention. Probably because of recent changes on the ground in Ukraine. A lot has changed in those two months, and I have found other military analyses that are worth following for their daily updates. So here is a list of the sites I currently think anyone interested in this war should follow.

Of course, one should never take any particular analysis as gospel. Everyone has their bias and different skills – I have sometimes been shocked at the poor knowledge of the Ukrainian events of 2014 or of the concern about European security that some analysts show.  That is why it is worth following several analysts and making one’s own critical assessment of what they present.

So here is my current list of YouTube channels I watch that are usually updated daily. I have ranked these with those I consider the best first.

Military Summary Channel

The guy running the Military Summary channel seems to be a military expert. His summaries often provide information like the number of battle groups in each area, which is lacking in other summaries. It is worth remembering that this war probably has more to do with the destruction of enemy forces than the capture of territory. He also does get into speculating on the likelihood of impending battles (interesting but not necessarily correct – the hardest thing to predict is the future). He comes across as knowledgeable but objective

Defense Politics Asia

Defense Politics Asia is run by a guy from Singapore. He has a Singaporean sense of humour and is always checking and reevaluating his sources and information so often makes changes when he can get verification of a claim.

New World Econ

This is a newer channel I have come across with far lower subscription numbers – but still worth following. It has regular posts and often does short posts on breaking news.

THETI Mapping

Another new channel with lower subscription numbers but valuable analyses.

Weeb Union

Yet another newer channel with lower subscription numbers but valuable analyses.

The subscription numbers for these last three channels are growing rapidly as more people become aware of their work.

War in Ukraine

The War in Ukraine summaries of harder to understand, if only because his maps are less detailed. He does also provide extra information which I find sometimes good (like his analysis of the situation in Lithuania regarding the blockage of the Kaliningrad) and sometimes not so good.

He definitely has a pro-Ukrainian bias (he is Ukrainian) but has no illusions about the dire state of the Ukrainian economy and the widespread corruption there.

Denys Davydov

Denys Davydov is a Ukrainian pilot and is clearly biased toward Ukraine – he comes across as a bit naive. Still worth watching because he does give an idea of what Ukrainians may be pinning their hopes on.

While he continues to present a propaganda message which is unfortunately common on social media, his predictions are often fanciful. Some people prefer his simplistic messages. (One of my followers recently combed through my list and ended up reposting only Denys – obvious confirmation bias.

The economic and geopolitical wars

There is also an economic war, based on the sanctions and their effect on the Russian economy and Western economies – particularly those of the NATO countries but also the rest of the world. It’s much harder to find convincing and objective information on this. It is up to readers to use the sources they feel most comfortable with. However, for those interested in this aspect I recommend Alexander Mercouris. His analyses are always thoughtful and I learn a lot from him. For example, he was the only analyst I am aware of who suggested the Russia Military would withdraw from Izyum several days before it happened. He argued that Izyum no longer had military value to the Russians.

War and the loss of young lives are horrible, but I think the economic and geopolitical wars will end up being more important than the military war as their outcome will affect us all.

Russian anti-war protester goes to see for herself

Maria was a Russian who fiercely opposed the invasion of Ukraine. She was adamant it was wrong, and she had no hostility towards the Ukrainian people. As she said, like most Russians she saw the Ukrainians as practically family. That in fact, many Russians and Ukrainians belonged to the same families. She could not understand the reason for the war and basically believed the western propaganda about the war.

But her attitude changed after she got the opportunity to travel to Donbass as an interpreter for an independent journalist, John Mark Dougan. What she saw shocked her. As well as interpreting she helped bring humanitarian aid to the people there who were suffering from the war – which for them had been going on since 2014.

Now she understands that the war was inevitable, even necessary. And that the western propaganda she had formerly largely believed was false – full of lies.

Her story is interesting and informative. t gives an insight into the beliefs of many liberal Russians who opposed this war when the invasion occurred in February 2022.

 

You can’t understand Ukraine without acknowledging its deep divisions

Our media insists on telling us that Ukraine is a unified country suffering aggression from its neighbour the Russian Federation. But it is hardly unified. A violent civil war has raged there since the overthrow of the democratically elected government in February 2014.

This civil war arose from deep divisions within Ukrainian society. These divisions and their political effects are one of the reasons for the current war.

Richard Sakwa, in his book Frontline Ukraine, describes these divisions as between “the monist Ukrainian nationalist aspirations of creating culturally uniform Ukrainian-speaking nation, by contrast with the pluralist concept of Ukraine as culturally and linguistically diverse.” With the rise of ultranationalism after independence this was manifest in conflict between ultranationalist political forces and those recognising the fact of cultural diversity in the country and the need for friendly relations with their ethnically similar neighbour, Russia. In the end a conflict between the ultranationalists and the ethnic Russians living in the east.

So, it is no surprise that many people in eastern Ukraine may prefer living in an area administered by Russia. They may be interested in travelling from Ukrainian administered parts of the country into Russian administered parts of the country, even moving there, as indicated in the video above.

But these facts contrast with stories we usually get from our mainstream media.

UN refugee data

The refugee data also conflicts with the mainstream media narrative.

Far from seeing the Russian Federation as a brutal enemy, many Ukrainians that flee the country as refugees go to Russia. In fact, the UN data shows that the country hoisting the largest number of Ukrainian refugees who fled the country since February this year is the Russian Federation. With almost two million refugees, Russia is hosting a much larger number than Poland which has the next highest number of about one and a quarter million.

See the data below which was taken from the Ukraine Refugee Situation on the UN Operational Data Portal.

Beware of simple stories

Understandably, simple stories are promoted in a war situation, and they may well appeal to many people. Understandably and many people “pick sides” and have a desire to confirm their bias.

But simple stories rarely convey the truth of a situation. And in the case of Ukraine one simply cannot understand the conflict of one does not recognize the divisions in that country. In fact, ignoring those divisions means one easily falls into the trap of believing the propaganda from the preferred side and inevitably aligning with that side – no matter how unjustified their position is.

MH17 tragedy- 5 years on

A recent video prepared by independent reporters places serious doubt on the scenario for the MH17 tragedy promoted by pro-western investigators.

Five years on from the MH17 tragedy and attribution of blame is still a huge problem confounded by political agendas.

In July 2014 the Malaysian Airline Flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine. All 283 passengers and 15 crew died. A Dutch-led international Joint Investigation Team (JIT) has been investigating the tragedy with the aim of determining criminal blame. However, it’s investigation is plagued by geopolitical interests and the current claims of the JIT are unconvincing. Nevertheless, the JIT is planning to start criminal proceeding against four people connected with the separatist movement which rose up in Eastern Ukraine after the February 2014 coup in Kiev.

Geopolitical agendas were, of course, involved right from the moment the tragedy occurred with the USA, other NATO and western countries blaming the tragedy on separatist forces. An evidence-free narrative supported only by the anti-Russian and Russophobia ideologies existing in these countries.

Eventually, these narratives condensed into a story initially promoted by the NATO and Atlantic Council aligned Bellingcat “open source” internet investigation group. The JIT appeared to initially go with this story. Their public appeals for evidence were initially directed simply to confirm the story and no attempt appears to have been made to consider alternative scenarios.

The video above from independent journalist critiques the JIT approach. In particular, there is evidence of fraud in the video evidence collected by Bellingcat and in the telephone taps provided by the Ukrainian security service, the SUB.

I have been particularly concerned about political bias in the JIT. The unwillingness initially to include Malaysia in the team. The unwillingness to carry out investigations at the site – claims that security could not be guaranteed by local authorities are clearly wrong as the Malaysians were able to arrive at the crash site and take delivery of the recovered black boxes from local authorities.

Claims, by a member of the JIT at their most recent press conference (partially covered in the video above), that the Russian Federation refused to cooperate with the JIT were clearly wrong as evidenced by the reply from another member of the JIT to a question from a reporter. The Russian Federation has been providing data (much of it requiring declassification) from the beginning. In particular, they provided information (requested by the JIT) on the manufacture and deployment of the BUK missile used to shoot down the aircraft and also primary radar information related to the destruction of the aircraft (see Flight MH17 tragedy in Ukraine – new evidence).

While receipt of this crucial information by the JIT was acknowledged by one of the JIT spokespeople he seemed to argue that it was not considered because it didn’t fit with their preferred scenario (the missile system had been deployed in Ukraine, not the Russian Federation). The fact that such crucial information is being ignored (even after the JIT had made a public appeal for the information) just shows how political the investigation has become.

I think the politicisation of the JIT is disgusting. It shows a fundamental lack of respect for the 298 lives lost in this tragedy. Those lives and the feelings of surviving relatives should not be used in a blatant geopolitical game.

Unfortunately, the current international political climate probably means that the JIT with its current composition will be unable to bring justice to the victims of this tragedy and their relatives. The involvement of Ukraine (which had possession of the missile system used and political motivation to blame the Russian federation and separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk), the initial exclusion of Malaysia and recent statements by the Malaysian Prime Minister criticising the investigation) and the anti-Russian political alignment of other countries in the JIT (the Netherlands, Australia, and Belgium) simply make this impossible.

Surely a new, politically neutral, investigating team is the only way the victims and their families can get the justice they deserve.

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Psychology of Russiagate – an adult discussion for a change

This is a fascinating interview – and not only because it is a highly respected independent journalist, Aaron Maté, interviewing his highly respected mental health expert father, Dr. Gabor Maté. It is fascinating because it is objective and adult – unlike so much of the Russiagate reporting. It is an adult discussion.

I have been shocked at how people I thought should know better got caught up in the Russiagate hysteria. This interview helps me understand the psychology behind such unthinking acceptance of what I saw from the beginning was a diversion away from the real issues and an unthinking excuse for an election result which did not conform to predictions. This whole approach has prevented liberal and democratic forces from addressing the real problems they have. It has disarmed them at a time when a more intelligent approach is needed if Trump is to be defeated in 2020.

Well, I have often said that humans are not a rational species, more a rationalising one. I should have not been surprised at the way apparently rational people ended up being emotionally driven. Dr. Gabor Maté explains how we all succumb to such approaches when facing trauma like the election of a Donal trump.

I advise readers who do not have time to watch this very important interview to read Caitlin Johnstone’s article about it – This Talk Between Aaron & Gabor Maté Is The Best Political Video I’ve Ever Seen.

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And you thought Russiagate could not get sillier.

It’s true – clouds do have silver linings. If it weren’t for the mindless hysteria of the Russiagate mythology promoted in the USA and UK I would never have heard about this delightful children’s animated video series – Masha and the Bear.

This isn’t the first silver lining I have come across. The mainstream media have now and then offered up lists of automated “Russian bots,” “Russian trolls,  social media accounts promoting “Russian propaganda,” and alternative media sources the mainstream media want us to steer clear of. These lists have given me, and others, media sources and social media accounts which often give information and news of a far higher quality than that promoted by the mainstream media.

In one of these lusts I even came across an amazing Ukrainian pianist, Valentina Lisitsa, who was described as an automated “Russian bot” by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. (The Digital Forensic Research Lab is currently helping Facebook remove “fake” and “inauthentic” accounts – so no wonder there are problems.)

Valentina Lisitsa plays a Rachmaninoff Prelude. She had been identified as n automated “Russian bot” by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

But now the mainstream media has brought Masha and the Bear to my attention (see UK Times: Children’s show is propaganda for Putin, say critics and The Daily Mail: Is Masha and the Bear a Putin stooge? Critics claim cartoon with 4.18m subscribers is made by Kremlin to subvert children). Apparently the child video series is simply another of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plots to spread discord in the West! Specifically by subverting our children! And not just our children – also our adults, according to The Times:

“A spoiled girl and a bear, which certainly symbolizes Russia, penetrate into the immature children’s mind and influence it, while adults obviously fall under the influence of ‘Russian propaganda channels’,”

The authors of these articles found quotable sources in countries bordering the Russian Federation to “prove” their point. They even found an intelligence expert from The University of Buckingham, Professor Anthony Glees, to give “expert” academic backing to their story.

Russia has a deserved reputation for high-quality animations so it is not surprising this series is very popular. It has received more than 30 billion views on YouTube (see How a goofy Russian cartoon bear is conquering the world‘MASHA AND THE BEAR’ TAKES ON THE WORLD and  ‘MASHA AND THE BEAR’ RISES TO THE TOP)

Judging from comments on these articles claiming the child videos are “Putinesque,” readers are laughing. Many comments are from parents whose children regularly watch and love Masha and the Bear.  One commenter attempted to start a rumour that Masha was sighted in Salisbury earlier this year. Another wondered if his son would develop the habit of riding bare-chested on his teddy bear.

Problem is that one should really be concerned when supposedly “reputable” news media publish this sort of rubbish. Perhaps even more concerned that a reputable academic, expert on intelligence and security matters and advisor to governments is promoting this sort of hysteria.

Oh well. At least I have discovered Masha and the Bear and I am looking forward to using these videos in my future babysitting tasks.

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Nuclear dangers if INF treaty abandoned could be worse than in the 1980s

Gorbachev and Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 1987. Source: Wikipedia.

The 1980s were an eventful time in New Zealand. Older readers may remember the Springbok tour, the behaviour of Mr Muldoon, the National Party Prime minister in the early 80s, the snap election (over a proposed nuclear-free bill), the election of Labour in 1984, the French terrorist bombing of a ship in Auckland harbour, the local terrorist bombing of the Wellington trade union centre and murder of its caretaker Ernie Abbott, and New Zealand’s proud international stance opposing nuclear weapons.

An exciting time, but a very worrying time. Even in New Zealand, we were concerned about the nuclear arms race, and particularly the buildup of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. These were extremely dangerous as they significantly shortened any warning time of a nuclear attack to mere minutes and produced a trigger-happy situation. “Use them or lose them” became a real military strategy – and this raised the potential of a worldwide nuclear conflagration.

So the signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) in 1987 was very welcome. This treaty banned the deployment of such destabilising weapons in Europe and European politicians have rightly described it as a foundation of European security ever since.

Now the US is threatening to pull out of this treaty. It clearly wants to develop and deploy these class of weapons again. The Russian Federation has replied with a pledge to respond with their own weapons development. Europeans are concerned, but seemingly not US politicians.

Perhaps because the immediate threat from this class of weapons is local (even though their use would most probably trigger a worldwide nuclear conflict). The US is not immediately threatened by such missiles close to their borders like European countries are.

But isn’t this very short-sighted? After all, abandonment of this treaty could encourage the Russian Federation to set up bases for these weapons closer to the US and to buildup deployment of nuclear-armed submarines close to the US coast. This would be the only way for Russians to achieve real parity with the USA with these weapons.

Remember the Cuban missile crisis? The US responded with appropriate fear to the threat of a Soviet missile base in Cub in 1992. They were so concerned that the world watched in horror during October 1962 as their response threatened world war. One would think with that history they should understand how Europeans, including Russians, view the current US stance.

But the current situation is more dangerous

The INF treaty has prevented any reoccurrence of situations like the Cuban missile crisis. But, I think the abandonment of the INF treaty could lead to a situation more dangerous than we saw in the 1980s. For two reasons:

1: These missiles will be stationed even closer to dangerous international borders. Previously the Soviet Union had the buffer territory of the Warsaw Pact countries, eastern Europe. Now the Russian Federation has no buffer. (As a telling Twitter comment said: “It’s really a bit much for Russia to set up a country for themselves on NATO’s very doorstep!”). These missiles could be based right on their border. And correspondingly, Russian missiles could be based on the borders of neighbouring NATO countries.

Reaction times will be even shorter than in the 1980s and nuclear strategy would become even more trigger happy.

2: The international climate is more tense than in the 1980s, and specifically the USA-Russian Federation relationship more problematic.

In the 1980s there were clear ideological and political differences but the situation was recognised by both sides and there seemed to be respect for each other. A recognition that the other side had their own legitimate interests which should be taken into account.  Negotiations were possible – and indeed fruitful when it came to controlling nuclear arms.

Today there seems to be no respect. Negotiations seem impossible. Indeed, the US president gets accused of treachery if he so much as talks with the Russian president. Despite the lack of obvious ideological and political divisions, the anti-Russian hysteria in the US is much greater than the anti-Soviet fears during the 1980s.

That in itself creates an extra danger. It inhibits the necessary contacts and negotiations at a time when such contact and negotiation have become extremely important.

Negotiations and contact the key

Of course, the very success and importance of the INF treaty do not mean it has no problems or that it should not be reviewed or renegotiated. After all, it is over 30 years old. Other countries now have such nuclear weapons and are deploying them. Israel, India, Pakistan and China for example.

Pakistani Intermediate-range ballistic missile. Image sourceMissile deterrence: Pakistan tests nuclear-capable ballistic missile.

The US itself may have intentions of deploying these sort of weapons in Asia (not covered by the INF treaty) as well as along the Russian border in Europe. Deployments in Asia and the Middle East bring a new set of problems and this is an argument for renegotiation of the existing treaty or new negotiations on new treaties involving Asia and Middle Eastern countries.

Difficult I know, but a hell of a lot safer than another intermediate-range nuclear arms race and deployment.

The US claims that the Russian Federation has violated the INF treaty with the development of new weapons. The Russian Federation has made similar claims about the US. While President Trump appeared to use this claim to justify their abandonment of the treaty this is disingenuous.

Like all such treaties, the INF contains provisions for inspection and investigation of complaints. Charges of treaty violations are simply political garbage if not accompanied by formally invoking the complaint and investigation procedures. In fact, I think when complaints like this are made and the formal procedures not followed we can be sure the claims are false.

However, the answer to all these problems is surely maintaining contact, using the existing treaty negotiation processes and embarking on any new negotiations where required. All this is infinitely preferable to the alternative of launching the world into a new dangerous and very destabilizing nuclear arms race.

Is Trump the problem?

Well, the guy is a buffoon, even if a legitimately elected buffoon, and makes unexpected and stupid decisions. But I think in this case he is simply following the record and policies of ultra-conservatives in the US and UK who really seem to be pulling his strings on such matters.

The USA has a record of withdrawing from important treaties predating Trump. The USA pulled out of the anti-ballistic missile treaty in 1992. There have been ongoing problems with US cooperation in the Open Skies Inspection Treaty which helps monitor adherence to treaties like the INF.

Trump is guilty of a lot of things – but I believe it wrong to blame him for the current US political hysteria which inhibits contact between the US and the Russian Federation and the negotiation or renegotiation of important agreements.

US anti-Russian hysteria is dangerous – for the world as well as the USA

It is easy to pass off the anti-Russian hysteria in the US as simply an US foible. Nothing for us to worry about it. Just a way fo a defeated presidential candidate to explain her failures.

The anti-Russia hysteria is out of control and dangerous. Image Source: AMID ‘RUSSIAGATE’ HYSTERIA, WHAT ARE THE FACTS?

But the hysteria is real. No matter there is no evidence to support the charges made against Russia this hysteria has developed its own legs. It has penetrated into the organs of state and severely limits the ability of top state officials to carry out their responsibilities at the international level. Specifically to carry out their responsibilities in their relations with the Russian Federation.

And that affects us all. Yes, there has been a political overflow so that this anti-Russian hysteria has even infected many of our politicians and media people in New Zealand. Relatively easily as it has built on a long-standing anti-communist and anti-soviet base. (In fact, I sometimes find current critics of the Russian Federation referring to that country as the Soviet Union, or describing it as a communist country).

More concerning for me is that this hysteria is making the world a more dangerous place. It inhibits the ability of major powers to cooperate in solving outstanding international problems like the war in Syria. And such US-Russian cooperation is vital to solving these problems.

The hysteria is also making the collapse of treaties like the INF treaty much more likely. It is making it harder to renegotiate these treaties or to negotiate new ones. That is destabilising.

It seems to me that the production and deployment of new intermediate nuclear missiles are very dangerous because it is destabilising. it will lead to a new “use them or lose them” military strategy and encourage trigger happiness. I can only hope that wiser heads will manage the situation until the US political hysteria disappears and sanity can be returned to international relations.

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Flight MH17 tragedy in Ukraine – new evidence

New evidence presented at Russian Ministry of Defence press conference, 17 September 2018.

In July 2014 the Malaysian Airline Flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine. All 283 passengers and 15 crew died. A Dutch-led international Joint Investigation Team (JIT) has been investigating the tragedy with the aim of determining criminal blame.

Update: Facebook took it upon themselves to censor my timeline and remove the Facebook post of my article. It seems their fact-checkers at the Atlantic Council have judged this information as “not following community standards”

Bit of a lesson there.

 

The JIT produced a preliminary report in 2016 (see But will it stand up in court?) and updated this with new evidence at a press conference last May 24. At the conference they revealed the serial number of the missile which shot down the plane and made a general appeal for people who might have information on this to come forward. At a Press Conference this week the Ministry of Defence (MOD) of the Russian Federation has responded with information from the manufacturer’s log books about this specific missile.

This appears to be the most concrete evidence to date which could be used to lay credible blame for the tragedy.

The JIT reveals serial numbers of the missile and appeals to the public for information about it.

While the JIT May 24 statement laid the blame on the Russian Federation, their evidence was rather subjective – relying on subjective interpretation of markings on vehicles in videos available online. “Open source” evidence. In contrast, the Russian MOD was specific and taken from archived information from the missile manufacturer.

In a way, this is rather unique because this information was understandably classified. Presumably, Russian officials have been active in the period between May and September locating the log books, interviewing relevant staff members from the time of production and going through the bureaucratic procedures required to declassify the material.

The new evidence

The video of the Russian MOD press conference above summarises three pieces of evidence the Russians have made available:

1: The most convincing evidence is the date of manufacture of the specific missile (December 1986) and its transport to the military unit where it was deployed. The records show it was deployed to a unit based near Lvov in the then Ukrainian Socialist Republic. It had never been returned to Russian territory.

I think that evidence is solid. The MOD spokesperson said the information has been passed onto the JIT and if they ask to inspect the archives they will be invited to Moscow to do so. He also made the point that the Russian side has asked the JIT to request the log books of the Ukrainian military unit which has been in possession of that missile and reveal its movements and location during July 2014.

2: Analysis of the video material the JIT had relied on to support their conclusion that the missile came from the Russian 53rd Anti Aircraft Missile Brigade based near Kursk in the Russian Federation. That video material had initially been compiled by Bellingcat, a suspect internet group now allied with NATO. The JIT conclusion relied on subjective tracking of markings on a BUK unit and its transporter and claimed to track it through its journey.

JIT open source video evidence supporting their conclusion that the BUK unit came from Russia

Russian experts have analysed these videos and shown problems with lighting and perspective indicating they have been faked. Something as simple as placing an image of a BUK unit into an existing video.

Their analysis seems credible, but obviously, this is the sort of thing which could be debated between experts in a court.

3: A recording of a telephone conversation made in 21016 where Ukrainian Armed Forces Col. Ruslan Grinchak refers to the tragedy in a way that implied it was caused by the Ukrainian armed forces. This person was in charge of airspace over the Donetsk region at the time of the tragedy.

This evidence relies on interpretation so is less convincing by itself.

Conclusion

The new evidence resulting from the discovery of the missile serial numbers by the JIT looks conclusive. As Russian Lieutenant General Nikolai Parshin told reporters the archives show:

“the missile was assembled on December 24, 1986, and delivered by rail to the military unit number 20/152, officially named the 223rd Air Defense Missile Brigade. It was deployed to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s Ternopol Region, which was part of the Subcarpathian Military District.”

Unless archive evidence in the possession of the Ukrainian armed forces can show that the missile was subsequently exported back to the Russian Federation there seems no doubt that Flight MH17 was shot down by a Ukrainian missile.

However, much more has to be done to apportion blame. There is still the possibility that this particular BUK unit was in the hands of the separatist forces in the Donetsk or Lugansk regions (although Dutch Intelligence reports at the time indicated any BUK units in the hands of separatists were not functioning -see Flight MH17 in Ukraine – what do intelligence services know?).

What is clear is that the ball is now back in the hands of the JIT, and more specifically, the Ukrainian armed forces. The JIT should now demand archived information on the locations, servicing and possession of this specific missile in the period between 2086 and July 2014.

Of course, as in other aspects of this investigation, the Ukrainian side may claim that records do not exist or have been destroyed. I do not think that is good enough and such lack of cooperation has already damaged the reputation and reliability of the JIT. Ukraine, as possibly one of the suspects, should never have been given membership of the JIT where it can influence the investigation and exert veto power over the dissemination of findings.

Perhaps reporters should now be asking the Ukrainian military to go away and find this specific missile and hold their own press conference where they can expose the serial number of the one they have in their possession.

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Novichock detection and the Salisbury tourists

Image credit: EU Today.

The Salisbury novichok poisonings are a real can of worms. Media coverage is obviously politically, rather than scientifically, driven. Social and mass media reporting is highly partisan and the scientific components and reports (which are mostly classified) can become slaves to the particular political masters. I find the whole drama a mystery and certainly do not want to tie myself to any of the conspiracy theories, official or otherwise, that are floating around. It’s probably a subject to keep well away from.

However, one aspect intrigues me – the claimed identification of novichock residues in the London hotel room used by the Russian duo, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. In particular, is the identification of the material reliable and, further, is the reporting of this identification factual and reliable?

Media reporting: This generally assumes a positive identification, although at trace levels. The Sun, for example, reported:

“Petrov and Boshirov stayed in the City Stay Hotel in Bow, East London, during their time in the UK.

Cops searching their room two months later on May 4 are said to have discovered minute traces of Novichok, a high-grade military nerve agent created by Soviet scientists.”

And later:

“police found traces of Novichok in the hotel room in which the pair stayed for two nights.”

Similarly, the Independent reported:

“Investigators later found traces of novichok in their room at the City Stay Hotel.

They said the amount was too low to present a health risk but are appealing for any hotel guests who stayed there between 4 March and 4 May to contact investigators.”

Since Petrov and Boshirov surfaced and were interviewed the media coverage has become even more partisan and the discovery of these traces of novichock is being portrayed as even more definite.

The police reportIn the absence of an official scientific report of the analyses this is the best we have to go on:

“On 4 May 2018, tests were carried out in the hotel room where the suspects had stayed. A number of samples were tested at DSTL at Porton Down. Two swabs showed contamination of Novichok at levels below that which would cause concern for public health. A decision was made to take further samples from the room as a precautionary measure, including in the same areas originally tested, and all results came back negative. We believe the first process of taking swabs removed the contamination, so low were the traces of Novichok in the room.

Following these tests, experts deemed the room was safe and that it posed no risk to the public.”

This raises more questions, for the scientifically inclined, than the answers, seemingly, provided:

  • How many samples were taken – 2 positives is probably a low proportion of the total measurements?
  • Where were the sample sites located in the room
  • How do the low levels reported compare with the detection limits for the methods used?
  • Was the decision to take further samples based on lack of confidence in the results form the first sampling?
  • Again, how many further samples were taken and from what sites in the room?

I suspect that the two positive detections were probably false positives which the analyst had low confidence in. It is likely many samples were taken from the room so that two positives near, or at, the level of detection is not a good result. I suspect experts would challenge this evidence in court.

Absence of evidence is not proof of innocence

I should stress that in questioning the results I am not trying to argue for the innocence of the two guys. After all, a true professional would not have contaminated the hotel room. If the evidence is genuine, though, it may be more suggestive of a non-professional or non-state actor than a professional hitman.

The problem, though, at this stage is that all the other evidence made public is circumstantial and unlikely to stand up in court. The claimed positive detection of novichock-type compounds in the hotel room could be the key to a successful conviction so any doubts should be removed.

Novichock compounds

The following presents my views on the problems of detecting novichock compounds at low levels and why I think we should not accept the current media reports as positive evidence. A court would have to look very critically at the actual data and detection methods used. At the moment the political and police statements could be expressing far more confidence in the reported findings than is actually warranted by the real evidence.

An Iranian paper from two years ago, Hosseini et al., (2016) provides information on the synthesis, structure and detection of novichock-type compounds. It is probably the most up-to-date information publicly available and its citation is

Hosseini, S. E., Saeidian, H., Amozadeh, A., Naseri, M. T., & Babri, M. (2016). Fragmentation pathways and structural characterization of organophosphorus compounds related to the Chemical Weapons Convention by electron ionization and electrospray ionization tandem mass spectrometry. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, 30(24), 2585–2593.

The paper describes the micro-synthesis of two compounds that are listed under Schedule 2.B.04 of the Chemical Weapons Convention. These are:

  • Compound 3: N-[Bis(dimethylamino)methylidene]-P-methylphosphonamidic fluoride, and
  • Compound 4: O-alkyl N-[bis(dimethylamino)-
    methylidene]-P-methylphosphonamidate Novichok derivatives

The figure shows the chemical structures of these compounds.

The F atom in compound 3 is replaced by an organic group (R) to form the novichok derivative. As this can be either of a wide range of organic groups (the authors list nine different groups for derivatives they synthesised) the novichock-type compounds include a range of different chemicals with differing levels of toxicity.

This is why more official reports on the Salisbury poisonings refer to novichock-type nerve agents and not just novichock.

Before any clever reader decides to use this paper to synthesize their own samples of these or similar compounds I must stress the warning provided by the authors:

“It should be noted that, due to the extreme toxicity of these materials, the separation and purification of CWC-related chemical are very difficult and therefore should be carried out only by a trained professional in an efficient fume cupboard equipped with an active charcoal filtration system.”

Detection of novichok-type compounds

Mass spectrometry methods are used for detection. This involves breaking up the molecules into fragments using an electron ionizer (EI). These molecular fragments are then separated according to mass and charge and the amounts of each detected in a mass spectrometer (MS) to produce an EI-MS spectrum.

Each compound has its own “fingerprint” – a pattern of peaks defined by the mass/charge (m/z) of each molecular fragment and the relative intensity of each peak. The figure below shows the EI-MS “fingerprints” for compound 3 and the O-ethyl derivative of compound 4.

We can see why the detection of a compound relies not only on a single peak but also other characteristic peaks and their relative sizes.

For example, the largest peak (H) at m/z = 71 occurs in both compounds. This is because the molecular fragment (see the chemical structure to the right) responsible for it is produced by ionization of both compounds. So that peak cannot be used alone to differentiate between the two compounds. Identification of a specific compound requires locating all the major characteristic peaks and ensuring their relative intensities are correct.

This is straightforward where the compounds are available at relatively high concentrations and the combination of mass spectroscopy with gas or liquid chromatography helps to remove some of the background chemicals. The ability of UK experts to conclude that the type of novichok used to poison the Skripals is the same as that in the fake scent bottle used by the second victims (Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley) means that they were able to recover samples containing the nerve agent at sufficiently high concentrations.

But, at low concentrations one may simply not be able to find all the characteristic peaks, and identification using just the most intense peaks is not so reliable. For example, compounds 3 and 4 could not have been differentiated at low concentrations if all that could be detected were very small peaks at m/z =  71, 135 and 150. Yet that is the situation when searching for trace levels and one is always conscious that the peaks that are detected could be due to low levels of a completely different compound.

Conclusions

I suspect the description of the two possibly positive samples in the London Hotel as trace levels or “at levels below that which would cause concern for public health” were interpretations driven by “wishful thinking” and exaggerated confidence and not surety. After all, scientists often face such pressures when their political masters are looking for results to fit a preconceived narrative. It is easy to be persuaded in such situations. And it is tempting for both scientists and police to describe their findings in a more confident way when presenting to the media than they would during peer discussions in the laboratory or office.

My suspicions are supported by the fact that the total number samples taken from this hotel room must have been quite large so that makes the reliability of the positive values at such low levels for only two samples quite suspect (although information on locations of sampling sites would help this interpretation).

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Who is weaponising the vaccination debate?

Image credit: How To Win a Vaccination Debate

The  media are promoting a new scientific paper on the vaccination debate. Their interest is undoubtedly driven by the study’s conclusion that “Russian trolls” (and by implication the Russian state) are amplifying this debate to promote discord in the US. The title describes this as “Weaponization of Health Communication.”

I am very cynical. After all, the media loves to dramatise these matters – and scientists are not immune to the temptation of taking advantage of this and the current political environment. The data the authors present is weak and has a far more reasonable explanation than the one they assume.

Yes, I may well be called a “Russian troll” or one of “Putin’s Useful Idiots” (and it wouldn’t be the first time) for expressing these doubts. But I have read the paper and this was helpful as it provides sources enabling me to do my own checking.

The paper is:

Broniatowski, D. A., Jamison, A. M., Qi, S., AlKulaib, L., Chen, T., Benton, A., … Dredze, M. (2018). Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate. American Journal of Public Health.

That’s just the abstract but here is a link to the full text.

The paper summarises its main claim about “Russian trolls” as:

“Russian trolls and sophisticated Twitter bots post content about vaccination at significantly higher rates than does the average user. Content from these sources gives equal attention to pro- and antivaccination arguments. This is consistent with a strategy of promoting discord across a range of controversial topics—a known tactic employed by Russian troll accounts. Such strategies may undermine the public health: normalizing these debates may lead the public to question long-standing scientific consensus regarding vaccine efficacy.”

The sources

The analysis relies on subjective judgment for defining a twitter account as a bot, but it does use two publicly available lists of twitter accounts (and tweets from these accounts) defined as inauthentic or false “Russian trolls.”

These sources are:

  1. “Russian troll accounts identified by NBC news” which allegedly documented “Russian interference in the US political system” (see Twitter deleted 200,000 Russian troll tweets. Read them here), and
  2. “Accounts the US Congress identifies as Russian trolls” (see Twitter’s list of 2,752 Russian trolls).

The evidence supporting their main claim is given in their Figure 1: Bots’ Likelihood of Tweeting About Vaccines Compared With Average Twitter Users: July 14, 2014–September 26, 2017. See below:

Tweets from the “NBC Russian Trolls” contain a higher incidence of vaccination keywords than tweets from the average twitter user. To be clear – this is not evidence of promotion of an anti-vaccine message (“Content from these sources gives equal attention to pro- and antivaccination arguments”). It simply shows these collection of tweets contained a higher than average reference to this polarizing subject.

I suspect a similar analysis of this collection of tweets would also show a higher than average incidence for other polarizing subjects in this collection. It is the nature of the tweet selection not evidence of a specific motive.

In fact this claim of “promoting discord” is so commonly used nowadays that it seems to have lost any meaning. Politicians now attribute this motive to much of the Russian social media – and to Russian mainstream media (eg., RT and Sputnik) news reports.

We should note that the authors did not attempt to justify the highly political allegation. They simply aligned themselves with the political message, but the senior author Broniatoski admits “we cannot say that with 100% certainty, because we’re not inside their head.”

Unfortunately, they did not consider for one moment other possible explanations for their results (that is highly unscientific and reveals a bias). I think this illustrates the power of the controlling or prominent political narrative. Anti-Russian hysteria is widespread in the US at the moment.

But there are more innocent motives for such tweets which a more objective analysis would have considered (see below).

The “guilty” tweets

I have looked through the database listing the tweets identified as from“Russian troll accounts identified by NBC news.” The incidence of reference to vaccination in the tweets from“Accounts the US Congress identifies as Russian trolls” was not much different to that for the “average user” so I did not consider them.

There were 203,451 tweets in this collection and I found about 100 (about 0.05%) included a vaccine keyword (vacc*). The paper gives examples of both pro and anti-vaccine tweets from this collection and mine were similar. These were hardly remarkable – indeed most of them were retweets. For example:

  • RT @HealthRanger: Don’t miss this: #autism-vaccine link explained by doctors!   https://t.co/L9ziemow6o  #antivax #vaccines #adhd
  • RT @ActivistPost: States are rushing to pass vaccine mandates before everyone realizes that they’re completely unnecessary at best, harmful…
  • RT @HealthRanger: Danish #documentary exposes widespread damage caused by HPV vaccine https://t.co/nuQqQ1u0XZ  #health #vaccines #antivax #…
  • RT @HealthRanger: Never inject them. #antivax #vaccines #natural #health https://t.co/oY0XLqRkdH
  • RT @pakalert: The Scary TRUTH About Vaccines (Satanic illuminati Vaccines Agenda Exposed Full Documentary) https://t.co/fxs8zOwVnV
  • RT @WorldTruthTV: Robert De Niro To Produce Film Proving Vaccines Cause Autism | World https://t.co/telXZBWPRi https://t.co/VrApvqn62s
  • RT @CobraCommans: Canadian scientists to test promising HIV vaccine on 600 volunteers @ANCParliament @My_AfricanUnion @AfricaHealthFor
  • RT @GStein269: Perry talking about Drugs and Vaccines? https://t.co/lsxJN2Udcy
  • RT @SanJosePost: #politics California’s vaccine bill passes Assembly, next hurdle: Gov. Jerry Brown
  • RT @varadmehta: Having a vaccine truther chair a commission on vaccine safety is something that merits actual outrage. But media only has o…
  • RT @blicqer: Major HIV Vaccine Trial Set to Begin in South Africa  https://t.co/fPkW3XYV32 @TheRoot https://t.co/I5iRgU42Yn

The #VaccinateUS hashtag

The paper describes the #VaccinateUS hashtag as:

“designed to promote discord using vaccination as a political wedge issue. #VaccinateUS tweets were uniquely identified with Russian troll accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency—a company backed by the Russian government specializing in online influence operations.”

Again, it did not provide any evidence to support this allegation.

The authors claim these tweets “contain a combination of grammatical errors, unnatural word choices, and irregular phrasing.” I did not see this myself – the grammar in these tweets appeared to me to be far better than the average tweets I see. The authors did acknowledge that these “messages contain fewer spelling and punctuation errors than do comparable tweets from the general vaccine stream.”

Tweets with this hashtag are about evenly divided between pro- and anti-vaccination potions (“43% were provaccine, 38% were anti vaccine, and the remaining 19% were neutral”). It occurred rarely in the quarter million tweets.

While they appear to have been specifically written by the account holders or staff at the organisation behind them, rather than simple retweets, they hardly provide evidence for a motive of “sowing discord.”

Here are some examples:

  • what will you fill when you get a disease that you could’ve been protected from? #VaccinateUS
  • if we don’t have regular chek ups and get #vaccines-what’s the point of doctors’ work? #VaccinateUS
  • open your eyes, people! It’s all government conspiracy plan  #VaccinateUS
  • our government cares only about money so it’s profitable for them to say that #vaccination is necessary #VaccinateUS
  • the production of a #vaccine is disgusting #VaccinateUS
  • #VaccinateUS FDA  state that #vaccines are safe
  • #VaccinateUS For sure #vaccines work!
  • God bless big pharma. You fools #VaccinateUS

Amplification of the anti-Russian hysteria

Ironically the charge laid at the supposed “Russian trolls” (that they seek to sow discord by amplifying existing electoral or polarizing debates) is actually typical of much of the reaction in our media to stories like this. In fact these media reports are aimed at sowing discord and promoting Russophobia. And, unfortunately, such anti-Russian amplification, or weaponization to use the language of the paper, comes from people I would have thought should know better.

This example from March for Science – a social media group formed after Trump’s election and aimed at mobilising scientists against anti-science policies of the new administration.

They are reposting an article from the Guardian (which these days leaps onto any anti-Russian argument they find). But in doing so they add their own claim:
” Study finds that 93% of tweets about vaccines between 2014 and 2017 were planted by bots and Russian trolls with the aim of sowing division.”

The 93% is the invention of March for Science as neither the paper or The Guardian provided this figure. And the study did not “find” that Russian trolls were sowing divisions – that was the prevailing assumption they started with. March for Science is simply crudely (very crudely considering their invention of 93%) amplifying the anti-Russian narrative and contributing to weaponization of social media against the Russian Federation.

Bringing this home, the NZ Facebook page Science Community New Zealand reposted the March for Science claim. Here we have social media accounts claiming to be pro-science amplifying an outright lie on social media.

Update: Science Community New Zealand has now removed the offending post – a good sign perhaps.

I am disappointed at such a naively political falsification from organisations which is meant to be promoting science. It does show how persuasive the current anti-Russian hysteria is – but it is especially disappointing to see people who should know better succumbing to it. Or, perhaps, I have been fooled and the real motives of March for Science and Science Community New Zealand have been far more questionable right from the start.

A more realistic motive for these tweets

The motive given by the study’s authors, and usually promoted in the current mainstream media narrative (sowing discord to weaken US society), really does not hold water. That strategy could more legitimately be attributed to ordinary US twitter users who indulge in tweeting on controversial subjects in far larger numbers. Anything  added by these Russian trolls is minuscule. If the Kremlin genuinely has such a strategy it should be judged a pitiful failure.

But what about this shady company Internet Research Agency based in St Petersburg? I have no doubt it exists and that it is planting material in social media like Facebook and Twitter. Presumably it is also setting up non-authentic or fake accounts for this purpose.

However, the paper’s claim that it is “a company backed by the Russian government” is not supported by any evidence at all and is typical of the way our media continually falsely claims that Russian individuals and entities are connected to the Kremlin or “close to Putin” – simply because of their ethnicity.

While the company (and many similar companies indulged in similar activity) have no credible results in “sowing discord” (compared with the ordinary, authenticated users of Twitter and Facebook in the US) they do seem to be doing this for commercial purposes. These appear to be similar to the activity of the Cambridge Analytica company which acquired personal data from social media users which they then marketed to political users.

Using fake or inauthentic accounts to retweet messages, or plant original messages, in a polarizing political or health debates is one way of mining personal data. Authentic users who retweet, “like” or repost such messages reveal a preference or bias which is of interest to companies involved in marketing products and ideas. Even seeding social media with pictures and videos of cats and dogs which attract likes, retweets and reposts can help obtain information of use to commercial and political entities.

Hell, Google, Facebook and Twitter themselves are involved in mining account holder’s personal information and selling it to advertisers.

How else do we end up getting social media messages related to topics we have searched for information on, or have commented  on in social media. On the surface this appears harmless, even useful (although the continual  messages I still get offering travel insurance just because I researched the topic several months ago are rather tiring – and counter-productive as they turn me off the advertiser).

Conclusions

My main objection to this paper is its uncritical and unthinking acceptance of the prevailing political narrative. I think it shocking that a scientific study makes no attempt to question or validate the narrative it relies on.

The data is extremely weak – only someone intoxicated by the political narrative will seriously see the extremely small number of tweets and retweets they found as evidence of a “strategy of sowing discord.”

Finally, the authors make no effort to consider other more reasonable explanations for their data. That is a pity as mining personal data by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Cambridge Analytica, the Internet Research Agency and other commercial companies should concern us all. Targeted advertising is very intrusive and annoying. Targeted political influence is also no doubt occurring and should concern us.

But the old trick of blaming the Russians for these problems is diverting our attention away from the real culprits.

I guess this shows how a bad political climate and destructive prevailing narrative can influence even the most scientific researcher.

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