Winter Jitters in Europe

The US was able to get Brussels onboard with its anti-Russian agenda by promising quick resolution to the conflict. "If we stick together on the sanctions threat and present a solid front," Washington promised, "the Kremlin will fold before there's any real damage to EU's economic interests in Russia." Well, the plan was rubbish to begin with and nobody's really surprised it didn't work. But there's one thing you can always count on this time of year in Europe: cold weather. It's coming, it always does.

When a few months ago Ukraine's impromptu government floated the idea of reverse-flow gas supplies from Europe, experts in the field noted the plan's - how should I put it kindly - technical unfeasibility. They experimented a bit, but by now that game's over. And so the new leadership in Kiev is coming face-to-face with some old friends: the Kremlin and the winter. If you've seen a map of Ukraine (maybe you're not American), don't be fooled by the country's southern disposition: I'm from Kiev and - trust me - it gets cold there. Very cold, very quickly.

Most residential heating in Ukraine is done via centralized water heating plants pumping steam and hot water into massive cast-iron radiators mounted by the window in every room of your steel-reinforced concrete apartment. Yes, it is a massively inefficient system developed during Khrushchev years and replicated throughout the former Soviet Union.

If you think huddling around an electrical space heater would provide temporary relief, you should think again. Had Ukraine spent the past two decades fixing its crumbling infrastructure instead of spending money on annoying Russia and hosting sports extravaganzas, at it could have upgraded its electrical power grid. Presently, electrical distribution system and residential wiring simply can't support widespread use of electrical heaters. People would end up without heat and without electricity, as they often do already.

Another thing happens in Kiev when central heating plants go down: water pipes burst. In Kiev, just as in the rest of the former USSR, the water distribution system was designed to work in tandem with the central heating plants pumping hot water to keep pipes from bursting. No hot water - no water at all. And no electricity. Hopefully, this explains why all of the sudden Ukrainian government found itself back at the negotiating table with Gazprom.

The EU knows exactly what will happen if that deal falls through again: Ukraine will have no choice but to steal gas destined for the EU consumers. Unlike similar situations in the past, this time around Russia's beef is not just with Ukraine but with Brussels as well. There's a lot of talk about how Europe is an important customer for Gazprom and what technical challenges there are with cutting off gas supplies. True - all of it. Having said that, the current anti-Russian sanctions regime is nothing short of economic warfare and Russia may decide that desperate times require desperate measures after all.


Ukrainian Refugees Invade Russia

In early August, the UNHCR reported some 730,000 Ukrainian citizens fled to Russia since the overthrow of the Ukrainian government earlier this year. Today the number of Ukrainian refugees in Russia is estimated at around 820,000. According to the latest report by the FMS (Russian INS equivalent), more than 130,000 Ukrainians have applied for official refugee status. Some 78,000 Ukrainian refugees applied for temporary visas. An additional 33,000 Ukrainians have submitted Russian citizenship applications and more than 22,000 Ukrainians are seeking a permanent resident status. So much for Russian "invasion."

A temporary housing camp in Russia for refugees from Ukraine.

Ukrainian Propaganda, part 2

Washington Post just announced a Russian invasion of Ukraine. "Russian soldiers, tanks and heavy artillery began rolling into southeastern Ukraine in earnest Thursday," it says. Naturally and as usual, nobody with a video camera was on hand to capture such a remarkable event. It seems to me, the key phrase defining WP's entire article about the "Russian invasion" is "the Ukrainian government said". This may very well be Poroshenko's epitaph. Of course, if they had put that key piece of information in the title, probably only two people would have clicked the link: Petro Poroshenko and Andres Rasmussen.

According to the Ukrainian government, Russia has been launching full-scale invasions of Ukraine for the past eight months. They must be changing their minds a lot in the Kremlin. Poroshenko should really stop crying "wolf". On the other hand, this probably doesn't matter anyway: if Russia finally does decide to invade Ukraine "in earnest", a couple of days later its troops would be in Kiev and the Ukrainian "government" would not be saying much at all.

However, panicky mood in Kiev does raise certain questions about Poroshenko's stability: both political and mental. He starts to sound increasing more like his buddy Mikhail Saakashvili - the hapless former president of Georgia currently in hiding somewhere in the US. Perhaps, if we're lucky, we may see Poroshenko chewing on his necktie. And Georgia actually was invaded by Russia, so Sakashvili's reasons for a mental breakdown were at least partially rooted in reality and not just in his imagination. Poroshenko is making grand claims because he needs to explain how a rag-tag band of separatists in just three days managed to undo several weeks of Ukrainian army's offensive. By resorting to a blatant PR campaign, Poroshenko is pursuing a very short-term domestic political objective without thinking about long-term repercussions.

With every passing week, the Ukrainian government is losing credibility. So much so that even respectable news outlets like the WP have to get creative coming up with attention-grabbing headlines. The wartime propaganda folks in Kiev are blindly following the bad advice they get from the US PR agencies hired by Poroshenko. Similarly, during the 2008 war with Russia, Saakashvili hired American and European PR experts to help him bamboozle the international press corps camped out in Tbilisi. In both cases the key mistake was to think something that works for the US would also work for Georgia or Ukraine.


Ukrainian Propaganda

Here are just a few examples of Ukrainian wartime propaganda showing various "captured" armored vehicles that supposedly belong to the Russian army. Without exception, all of this scrap metal is either old Soviet-made hardware from 1980s or experiments by Ukraine's defense industry from the early 1990s when it was trying to find a market niche.

One example of Ukraine's chaotic propaganda efforts is the video from Ukrainian "Espresso TV" channel showing a "Russian tank" near the town of Ilovaisk. This one got even professional tank experts stumped. It's an early-version T-72BA with Kontakt-5 reactive armor that doesn't belong on it. Further, the welded armor seen on the turret is not 1K13, as would be expected for this model. The white lines on the tank are typical of Ukrainian army armored vehicles.


The serial numbers visible on the video indicate the tank was manufactured in Lower Tagyl in September of 1989. The serial on the turret says the turret was made by Stankomash in Chelyabinsk in June of the same year. However, modified armor on the turret is unique and suggests this may be a test design that Ukraine had to press into service due to lack of operational tanks.


Just recently, Ukraine's president ordered the defense companies to transfer any available operational military hardware to the military. At no cost. This may explain how this odd duck ended up sitting in a field somewhere in eastern Ukraine.

Another hoax currently making rounds on Ukrainian TV is a video of what is claimed to be Russian BMDs (Armored Assault Vehicles). Of course they are neither BMDs nor Russian. These are three MT-LBs (an old Soviet general-purpose tracked vehicle usually used as a tractor to pull various heavy things through mud). One of these vehicles is a unique MT-LB6MA with a turret from a BTR-80 APC. Only a few such vehicles have been assembled in the early 1990s by Russia's "Muromteplovoz" jointly with Ukraine's Kharkov Tractor Works.



The "Russians" in Ukraine

After a string of embarrassing losses by the Ukrainian government forces in the past few days, the country's president is desperately seeking an explanation. Like the boy who cried "wolf", for the umpteenth time Poroshenko reported "Russian armored columns" supposedly seen (yet never photographed) somewhere in eastern Ukraine. Poroshenko also accused two of his military commanders of treason. Supposedly, the two units under their command went AWOL while defending the town of Ilovaisk, recently re-captured by the DNR (the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic") forces.

Pressured by ultra-nationalists in Kiev, Poroshenko made an impossible promise to end the eastern uprising exclusively by military means. Predictably, things did not go his way. After a few days of retreat, the separatists forces regrouped around Mariupol in the south-east and launched a well-coordinated counter-attack, taking back several key towns from the government forces.

NATO has produced some hazy photos that it got over a week ago from some commercial satellite photo agency, supposedly showing Russian armor in Ukraine. Since there are no big red stars on top of the squiggly spots NATO says are Russian tanks, we sort-of have to take their word for it. So how did NATO experts determine this is Russian military fighting in Ukraine? Simple:

“This configuration is exactly how trained military professions would arrange their assets on the ground, indicating that these are not unskilled amateurs, but Russian soldiers,” NATO said in a captioned description of the photograph. (source)

Since Ukraine is a country with compulsory military service, you'd be hard-pressed to find any "unskilled amateurs" there. Neither the government "army" nor the separatist soldiers are what one would call "experts". Nevertheless, the vast majority of them have formal military training. At the very least they would know how to arrange artillery in a proper firing formation. Still, kudos to NATO command for at least not downloading their "evidence" from Facebook this time.

And something funny. The BBC has revealed the only visual piece of evidence of purported Russian tanks in Ukraine. Just one suspected Russian tank. Someone named Joseph Dempsey from something called IISS (not ISIS) claims to have positively identified a tank on a video (taken by someone somewhere in Ukraine at some time) as a T-72BM that supposedly cannot exist in Ukraine (which manufactures and exports T-72s of many models in large numbers).

"Whilst date and location are unconfirmed, he says the operator of the convoy is apparent: flags associated with the separatist movement are clearly displayed and some vehicles feature bright green areas, a common feature of separatist armour." (source)

So, for all we know, this video could have been taken in Russia ten years ago. Naturally, it is assumed that the "invading" Russian army would be flying the separatist flags... And here's why BBC thinks this can only be a Russian T-72BM:

"This variant, distinguished by the prominent Kontakt-5 Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) arrangement - the boxes on the turret front - is commonly referred to by Western sources as the T-72BM. It is operated by the Russian Army in large numbers, but crucially it is not known to have been exported or operated outside of Russia." (source)

Here's a clue for IISS and it's analyst Mr Dempsey:

"Kontakt-5 armour is employed by Russia, Ukraine and Serbia (on M-84AS MBT), among others." (source)

In particular, Kontakt-5 reactive armor system is installed on the Ukrainian-made T-80U and a number of upgraded T-72 models produced for foreign customers. In other words, even if BBC's video could be authenticated, placed and dated, there is absolutely nothing on it to identify the tank as uniquely Russian. So there you go: I just shot a hole in BBC's so-called proof of Russian invasion by spending two minutes with Google.

Hundreds of abandoned Ukrainian tanks at a tank repair plant in Kharkov, eastern Ukraine.

Crimean teams and the 2018 World Cup

The Guardian and others wrote about the Crimean football teams playing in the Russian cup and how this may cost Russia the right to host the 2018 World Cup. A supposedly unauthorized leak from the meeting among Russian football federation officials revealed a deep conflict among them. The consensus seems to be that allowing the Crimean clubs to play for the Russian cup will incur UEFA penalties and, possibly, cost Russia the right to host the 2018 World Cup. Yet, participation by the Crimean soccer clubs has been authorized personally by Putin.

A number of possibilities have been discussed. All except one: the Kremlin may actually want the FIFA to take away the 2018 World Cup from Russia. The event is expected to cost Russia tens of billions of dollars. A number of Russian and foreign experts estimate the cost at much higher than the 2013 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Considering the latest economic sanctions against Russia, this is the money Russia needs elsewhere.

Obviously, withdrawing from the event would be deeply embarrassing to the Kremlin. Having the hosting rights taken away from it is a face-saving way out. Russia can blame Western control over FIFA for all its troubles and spend the much-needed cash on more relevant infrastructure projects: like building the new bridge to Crimea, for example. The closest analogy would be Russia's efforts to get the US to abandon the 1987 medium-range ballistic missile treaty that puts Moscow at a distinct disadvantage and costs the Russian defense budget billions of dollars.

You may argue that the 2018 World Cup is Putin's "baby" and losing the right to host the event would be a major blow to his image. Perhaps, but he can handle it. Putin is known to be a practical man and, in this case, financial gains far outweigh political costs. If the right to host the World Cup is taken from Russia, the Kremlin will get to keep the estimated one hundred billion dollars earmarked for the sports extravaganza and use the money to address the more pressing needs. And all the blame will be put on Washington, Brussels and the corrupt FIFA officials: a win-win scenario for Putin.