Russians in Rio

With Beslan Murdanov's spectacular judo gold win, a realization sets in that Russia's gutted Olympic team is still a top contender. Only two weeks ago few expected any miracles, but now US News & World Report writes:

"The victory showed that Russia is set to remain a serious contender for medals in Rio, even though it lost some of its top athletes to a widespread doping scandal... [Russia] has been extremely successful in minimizing the damage elsewhere and escaping a blanket ban, with a mixture of a savvy public relations campaign and old-fashioned backroom lobbying."

One should also add Russia's unexpectedly effective legal action causing CAS to reverse IOC's rule on the basis of earlier "Osaka rule" supposedly dropped in 2011. Russian lawyers decided to revisit the issue anyway and got their first Olympic victory re-admitting Russian swimmers to the Games:

One hastily imposed IOC rule was overturned, allowing several athletes caught in doping tests back on the Russian team, while even some implicated in the McLaren report as having benefited from a cover-up were reinstated.

I recall some years ago Putin's critics complained that Russia undervalued the concept of "soft power", preferring heavy-handed power tactics. This does not seem to be the case anymore. It would appear the Kremlin brought all guns to bear and even the good old Gorby pitched in:

"Meanwhile, an international public relations campaign spread Russia's soft power worldwide and undermined McLaren's report. The U.S. firm Burson-Marsteller distributed a speech by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev urging the IOC to keep Russia in the games."

Regardless the final medals standing, the Rio situation confirms my previous assertion that the idea of "isolating" Russia is little more than an Obama fantasy. The more Washington sticks with this failed policy, the further it will fall behind in world politics. And Washington's notoriously-amateurish diplomatic corps is only adding to the problem.

Truth be told, this is a time for a major shakeup in US foreign politics. And, as much as it pains me to say this, Trump is America's best hope to regain its position of respect as a credible player on the international arena. When Trump announced his presidential candidacy a few months ago, I (and probably you) thought it was a pure PR move. Now he's the official GOP candidate. And for the first time in modern history, much of the GOP establishment is not behind their own guy.

I find myself in a singularly strange position: I want change and the only candidate left who can deliver it is a GOP billionaire. This is why I find politics interesting. If I vote for Hillary, I'll get at least four more years of the same thing. If I vote for Trump, I just don't know what I will get: options ranging form a nuclear war to a strategic partnership with Russia and China seem to be on the table.

If it rains or is too cold, I will not vote. But, if I decide to leave my house and stand in line at the local voting center, I will give my vote to the only candidate who will guarantee the end to "more of the same".

DNC Emails: Russian Hackers or Just Poor Security?

Following the release by WikiLeaks of some 20,000 embarassing DNC emails, the Democrats are understandably anxious to shift public attention away from the substance of the matter. Presumption of guilt does not require actual guilt: presumption alone is usually sufficient. Having said that, if Hillary's email habits are common among her fellow party members, not much hacking would have been required.

The NBC published a list of what someone thought might have been evidence of Russian involvement. It's a short list of anonymous suppositions. Two B-class commercial IT security firms are mentioned, but they never turn down free publicity. Hind sight is always 20/20 and it helps the sales.

Here's my free email security tip: if you don't want the Russians to read your emails, please don't give them your password.

Russian Mi-35M Shot Down in Syria

A fairly high-quality video from Syria shows an Mi-24VM, or its export version Mi-35M, identified by the non-retractable landing gear, sustaining an explosion near it's tail rotor, sending the helicopter into an uncontrollable spin. A sizable object can be seen tumbling toward the ground on a ballistic trajectory away from the aircraft. The object may be the tail rotor. The Mi-35M uses the same twin two-blade scissored tail rotor design as the Mi-28. The incident occurred as the helicopter was firing what look like under-wing gun pods. A second helicopter - an Mi-24P (with its gear retracted) - passes by seconds after the explosion.

The initial statement by the Russian military spokesperson was that all Russian helicopters have returned to base that day. The later statement indicated that the downed helicopter was a Syrian Army Mi-25 piloted by a Russian instructor and a Syrian pilot. It was finally acknowledged that the lost helicopter was Russian and was piloted by two Russian officers on a training mission that developed into an impromptu combat operation.

The semi-official story in the Russian media suggests the aircraft was downed by a US-made TOW missile. Barring some new computerized targeting system optimized for low-flying aircraft, a TOW hit like that would have required considerable skill and much luck. Talking about a lucky shot, another explanation may be a hit from a high-caliber anti-aircraft gun. A portable SAM is almost out of the question: these heat-seeking missiles aim for the engine exhaust and are equipped with proximity fuzes designed to detonate near the aircraft.

A theory has been advanced by a group of armchair admirals that the lead helicopter was downed by friendly fire from the following Mi-24. Analysis of the video does not support this theory. The separation between the aircraft was about 800 meters, the speed was around 75 m/s, the unguided rocket launch angle would have been -3 deg and rocket would have passed about 40 meters below the lead aircraft. Having said that, the standard flying formation calls for at least 100 meters separation between the flight vectors.

I think the key to figuring out this mystery is the loss of the tail rotor: something knocked it off the aircraft, without causing any visible damage to the rest of the tail section. As if something hit the tail rotor directly. Some say that if this was an anti-tank missile, the resulting explosion would have ripped the helicopter apart. True, but only if the warhead detonated. TOW missiles are designed for detonating after impacting heavily armored targets. A missile like that could have sliced through a helicopter's tail rotor blades without detonating. The relatively small explosion we see could have been caused by the missile's motor.

The video still above shows an upward-bound plume of smoke emanating from the aircraft's tail section. In my view this lends credence to both TOW and AAA theories. Still, a lucky shot, but "unlikely" should never be mistaken for "impossible". The incident occurred near the airfield, allowing for a possibility of a carefully-prepared ambush, making such a shot more likely.

At the time of the explosion the helicopter was firing unguided rockets. A mechanical malfunction could have sent one of those rockets tumbling out of the launch tube, bouncing off the wing or fuselage and hitting the tail rotor. Even as the lead helicopter is spinning out of control, the second helicopter continues flying in a perfectly straight line. This would not have been the case if the pair was under fire from the ground. The second helicopter had several seconds to initiate an evasive maneuver.

Aerial Encounters

The Times asks "Why Do Chinese and Russian Fighters Keep Buzzing U.S. Spy Planes". A question that is followed by two pages of largely irrelevant amateur analysis of military matters that seem to escape the author's grasp of reality. A much better question would be: why do US spy planes keep buzzing China and Russia? I can certainly understand the indignation if the Russians and the Chinese were flying their fighter jets off the coast of California. But they are not. We're talking about the Baltic Sea and the South China Sea: a long way from Los Angeles for sure.

An unarmed Russian Su-24 tactical bomber buzzing a US Navy destroyer near Russia's Baltic Sea coast.

Responding to the Meldonium Scandal

In case you haven't been following the news, as of the beginning of this year, Meldonium - a Latvian-made anti-ischemia medication - has been declared a banned performance-enhancing substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Meldonium has been used chiefly by Eastern-European athletes to counteract muscle tissue damage resulting from strenuous physical activity.

The USADA spent millions of dollars looking for traces of Meldonium in urine samples primarily of Russian athletes and later lobbied WADA to ban the previously-legal substance. As a result, over a hundred athletes from Russia and several other countries who tested positive for traces of the substance that two months ago was perfectly legal are now facing disqualification.

According to medical experts interviewed by the Russian media, each test for Meldonium conducted by USADA costs 400-500 USD and the agency conducted over 15,000 such tests. Keep in mind that the testing has been done when Meldonium was not on the list of banned substances, calling into question the agency's motives: why spend millions of dollars testing for traces of a legal medication?

This was clearly a well-financed attack on Russian athletes by the US anti-doping agency and it deserves a response. Russia should not be shy about spending the necessary rubles to re-test the samples. Given the volume of initial tests by USADA and questionable reliability of the third-party labs used for this purpose, at least procedural mistakes are likely. Considering that most testing has been performed by the same personnel, any such mistakes would cast doubt on the entire undertaking.

As a separate effort, Russia should challenge WADA to substantiate its decision to designate Meldonium as a performance-enhancing substance. WADA itself conducted no pertinent research and its decision was based entirely on USADA conclusions. Russia has the necessary capabilities to question these conclusions on a scientific level.

Finally, at least based on statements by Sharapova, it would appear WADA's procedure for notifying athletes, medical personnel and relevant sports authorities is inconsistent and capricious. Email should not be WADA's sole method of communication with the world of sports, and "as of now" hardly seems a reasonable advance warning.

The bottom line is Russia should fight this tooth and nail. Washington is clearly using anti-doping bodies to get ahead in a political fight with Moscow and the athletes deserve to be insulated from such unbecoming tactics.