Saturday, August 13, 2022

The volunteers go to a show trial

Putin is still playing his dirty games in Ukraine. Having captured five foreign volunteers -- Matias Gustavsson from Sweden, Vjekoslav Prebeg from Croatia, and John Harding, Andrew Hill, and Dylan Healy from the UK -- his proxies will try them on Monday and no doubt sentence them to death as "mercenaries". In June, a similar kangaroo court sentenced three others to death for the same absurd offense, including Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner from Britain and Saaudun Brahim from Morocco, though nothing more has been heard about that. Probably they will be used as hostage, much as Russian troops use Ukrainian civilians and more recently a nuclear reactor to protect themselves from return fire.

Following the full-on invasion of Ukraine on February 24, foreigners flocked to the country and enlisted in the National Guard, much as Americans did in the Spanish Civil War (the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) and in China (the Flying Tigers of the American Volunteer Group). Putin of course pretends that Russia has nothing to do with the mistreatment of these prisoners -- their fate is up to the breakaway "republics" he has created in eastern Ukraine.

Yet another Brit,  Paul Ury, died in captivity in July. It may be a coincidence that six British nationals have been caught up in this farce, or perhaps Putin plans to use them to influence the prime minister who replaces Boris Johnson, the West's most stalwart supporter of Ukraine.

Putin himself is an enthusiastic employer of mercenaries, including troops from Chechnya, Syria, and the men his own Wagner Group has recruited from Russian prisons with the promise of freedom after six months' service in Ukraine.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

The Bear and the Atom

Moscow loaded Ukraine up with nuclear power plants before the breakaway nation gained its freedom in 1989. These tended to be huge and somewhat risky, most famously the plant at Chernobyl in Ukraine's north, the site of a melt-down in 1987, before the Soviet Union itself melted down. Chernobyl's was the only nuclear accident known to have killed people, about 30 in the immediate blast and up to 16,000 in Europe alone over the decades since.

Chernobyl is close to the Belarus border and was one of the first conquests of the Russian army in its invasion of the Ukraine heartland. That was frightening enough (the "exclusion zone" has since been recovered) but Russian forces have since developed the habit of shelling and otherwise endangering nuclear power plants, most recently at Zaporizhzhia in the south. Like Chernobyl it is a typical Soviet enterprise: a sprawl of six nuclear reactors and a thermal plant, one of the largest in the world, accompanied by a purpose-built city. The Russians captured it in March and have since built it into a military garrison from which they shell Ukrainian targets, daring them to respond in kind and accusing them of doing just that. (Above: a Russian soldier in front of Reactor Number One, which apparently is being used to store ammunition.)

It's a "ticking time bomb," according to an article in the English-language Kyiv Independent. "Repeated Russian shelling from within the plant’s territory, causing one of the reactors to shut down, has put the entire complex’s safety at stake."

Rafael Mariano Grossi, the head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, called for an immediate end to all military action near the site, saying there is a “very real risk of a nuclear disaster.”

Typical of Moscow's exploitation of its victims, Russia may hope to connect the plant to the Crimean grid and steal its output, which accounts for a fifth of Ukraine's electric supply.

Thursday, August 04, 2022

Murdering the prisoners

Olenivka is a small town in the Russian-occupied Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. A few miles from the village is a prison that since 2014 has been used as a filtration camp for those captured while resisting the takeover of the Donbas region. In May, it became the destination for soldiers taken prisoner at the Azovstal steel mill, the last holdout in the defense of Mariupol in southern Ukraine. Many of them were fighters of the Azov Regiment, a volunteer unit formed in 2014 to fight in the Donbas region and later incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard. The Russians liked to portray the regiment as containing "Nazi" elements.

The Ukrainian government has reported that the Azov fighters were tortured at Olenivka Prison, though the United Nations and the Red Cross had "acted as guarantors of the life and health of our soldiers," in the words of the Ukrainian president.

On July 29, Russian state television posted a video of a prison barrack that had been hollowed out by an explosion, with charred bodies lying around. According to the Russians, 53 prisoners were killed and 75 injured by the blast. The Russians of course blamed the explosion on the Ukrainians, though there are no military targets in the area; while Ukrainian and Western intelligence agencies concluded that Russia was behind the blast. (Indeed, the Russian embassy in London had tweeted the following day that prisoners from the Azov Regiment "deserved death.")

Specifically, Ukrainian intelligence believes that the attack was the work of mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, citing an intercepted telephone conversation in the Donbas.

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Standing up for Taiwan

I am impressed by Nancy Pelosi's courage and the backing she has received (after some initial dithering) from the Biden administration. Not to have visited Taiwan, after her intention to do so was leaked, and after all the chest-thumping from Beijing, would have been a climb-down, almost as humiliating our retreat from Afghanistan last year. It would have been an invitation to Xi Jingping to invade the island whenever he wants. (And he wants very much to do just that, to cement his leadership at the Communist Party Congress in November.)

The People's Republic has no legal claim on Taiwan, which China ceded to Japan in 1895. The island was ruled by Japan for fifty years, after which it was occupied by troops loyal to Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist government in Chongqing. China's civil war was won in 1949 by Communist forces under Mao Zedong, whereupon Chiang's government fled to Taiwan. Since 1972 the US has recognized the Peoples Republic as the country ruled from Beijing, while maintaining friendly but not formal relations with Taiwan. As a prosperous democracy and our ninth largest trading partner, the island deserves our support from its bullying neighbor, just as we have supported Ukraine when it was invaded by Russia.

There are strategic reasons, too. Among its other achievements, Taiwan is the world's most important manufacturer of computer chips. Letting it fall into Xi Jinping's orbit would be a folly as great as when Europe allowed Putin to control its flow of natural gas.

Monday, August 01, 2022

Is Putin losing his grip?

Timothy Snyder, the author of Bloodlands and other good books about Eastern Europe, thinks that Putin's grip on Russia is weakening. He points out that lesser Kremlin figures like Dmitriv Medvedev and Sergei Lavrov are behind a lot of the chest-thumping in recent months. "Before the war," Snyder writes, "there was less of this.... I tend to see the drastic proclamations as evidence that important Russians ... understand that Russia can lose wars, and is losing this one." Their bluster improves their chances of replacing Putin if he gets taken down.

Another is the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. He has loaned his troops for the Ukraine war but somehow manages to keep them out of harm's war: their casualties are the lowest of all Russian regions. A shakeup in the Kremlin would leave him well positioned to claim independence for Chechnya.

"[O]ut there in the real world," Snyder goes on. "the Russian army is taking losses, in equipment and in officers, that threaten its integrity as an institution, not to mention its ability to fulfil its many other missions beyond Ukraine." (Congress was recently briefed by American intelligence that Russia has lost 75,000 men killed, wounded, or captured in Ukraine, a huge portion of its invasion force.) "The Russian state is not designed for a war of this kind," Snyder says. "It looks fascist at the top, but it lacks the fascist capacity for total war."

"For the war to end," he concludes, "Putin must feel the politics change around him; and so for the war to end, Ukraine must win. For the West, this means patience and firmness and the consistent supply of the weapons Ukraine needs."

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Monday, July 25, 2022

How not to win a war

 "The West is so far providing Ukraine with enough weapons not to lose but not enough to take back its territory from Russia," says the Wall Street Journal today. "The fastest way to a settlement is to convince Russia that the costs of war will keep growing and that it can’t outlast the West. That means Russian military defeats on the ground."

It's increasingly obvious that "the West" has no such ambition. The whining began in Paris and Berlin: we mustn't "humiliate" Putin, as French president Macron likes to say. Why not, for crying out loud? As for the Germans, they've done almost nothing to keep the Russian bear from moving west, just as in 1939 the French and British did nothing to keep the Germans from moving east. Hitler then, Putin today: dictators always depend on inaction from the democracies. As for Washington, yes, certainly, we'd love to send more sophisticated and longer-range missile systems, and maybe even warplanes, but unfortunately "it's complicated." And London, which has been punching above its weight all along, is about to see Boris Johnson step down, and his successor is unlikely to match his brio. Few leaders could.

What fun Putin is having! One day he solemnly signs an agreement with Ukraine and Turkey and the United Nations to open the Black Sea for the export of grain to a food-short world, and the very next day he sends missiles crashing onto the Ukrainian ports from which those cargoes would have to depart.

On the ground, meanwhile, five more foreign volunteers have given their lives for Ukraine: Tomasz Walentek from Poland, Luke Lucyszyn and Bryan Young from the United States, Emile-Antoine Roy-Sirois from Canada, and Edvard Selander from Sweden.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Ukrainian special forces v. the Wagner Group


When Russia meddles in other people's wars, it employs the notorious Wagner Group, a supposed private military contractor owned by the oligarch and Putin buddy Yevgeny Prigozhin (see Wiki for more on him and it). Now, because Putin shrinks from mobilizing the country, he's using it to fill the gaps in his depleted army. Today the invaluable Kyiv Independent has a story on how Ukrainian special forces arranged to hit a Wagner Group encampment and ammunition depot in an athletic stadium in the occupied Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. 

The football or soccer stadium in the image above is located in the town of Kadiivka, 45 km (27 miles) behind what civilians know as "the front" but soldiers like to call the Main Line of Resistance. It seems that a Wagner Group company moved into the stadium's gym in May, which fact was reported to Ukrainian special forces by a local resident. After the information was verified, which took about two weeks, the stadium was hit on June 9 by a missile of unidentified type, killing between 50 and 150 mercenaries, with two civilian deaths. Some estimates are higher, while the Russians of course reported that a total of 22 civilians were killed when the missile hit a "residential area." (The inset photos are apparently from Russian television.)

The Wagner Group is also behind ransomware and cyber attacks on Western countries, apparently including the US elections of 2016 and 2020.