Developing: Skirmishes in the Sea of Azov

Russia effectively began blockading Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov earlier today when sealing the Kerch Strait by placing a merchant vessel across the sea lane passing under the Kerch Strait bridge and forcing a small convoy of Ukrainian vessels to head back. The incident included vessels of the two sides making contact with limited damage. However, pictures have surfaced of another Russian Border Guard vessel with damage apparently from a collision, and it is unclear if more vessels than originally reported were involved, if the incident is unrelated, or if the pictures are old.

However, a while ago reports started coming in that a firefight have taken place. Apparently the first casualty was Ukrainian patrol craft (gun) Berdyansk (pennant U175) which reportedly lost propulsion. After that Russian forces tried boarding the vessel, with Berdyansk returning fire.

Berdyansk is a relatively new unit, having been launched only in 2016. Source: Ukraine MoD via Wikimedia Commons

Exactly what has taken place since is even more unclear, but it should be remembered that the closing of the strait lead to a significant number of civilian vessels being stuck in the area waiting for things to clear up that they could continue their journeys. There is a very real risk for these, including both Russian and Ukrainian ones, being caught in crossfire. Significant air activity was also observed throughout the day, including Su-25 attack aircraft and armed Ka-52 attack helicopters. One report stated that following the exchange of fire both Berdyansk, sister Nikopol, and a naval tug has been captured by Russian forces, but currently the word is that six Ukranians are wounded, two vessels are under tow by friendlies, and one vessel is held by Russian forces.

The Kerch Strait after hostilities had started. The connection across is roughly 15 km in length. Source: Marinetraffic.com

Unconfirmed reports have stated that the Ukrainian Navy has left its base in Odessa, but it is very unclear if this indeed has happened, what vessels are at sea, and if there is some battleplan. The Russian Black Sea Fleet together with air and ground units will have no problem stopping the Ukrainian Navy if they try to force passage through the strait. The sole major surface combatant of the Ukrainian Navy is the Krivak III-class frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy (U130). It should be noted that the Krivak III was the coast guard-version of the class, and while very heavily armed for a coast guard vessel, it still lacks any kind of anti-ship missiles. The Ukrainian Navy has a number of older fast attack craft as well, but their operational status is unclear. If this motley flotilla is supposed to survive, let alone do any damage to their Russian counterparts, it will need some serious air support.

Ukrainian flagship Hetman Sahaydachniy. Source: Ukrainian MoD via Wikimedia Commons

Both Ukraine and Russia have large numbers of aircraft in the region, including Su-24M which while old still can do serious damage to surface units, especially as the target vessels in many cases are old as well with limited air defences (though it should be noted that the Russian Black Sea Fleet include a number of modern corvettes and frigates which likely will eat Su-24s for breakfast). For Ukraine the question is where any potential battle would take place, as the Kerch Strait is ‘behind’ occupied Crimea. If Ukraine is to secure even limited air superiority, the battle will likely have to take place somewhere else, which might require the Russian Navy cooperating. Another question is if things could now deescalate as it seems the active battle at the strait has died down following the Russian capture of one of the vessels involved? There is no longer an urgency on the part of the Ukrainian to rush headlong into the waiting Russian forces.

Ukrainian Su-24M armed with unguided rockets. Source: Ukrainian MoD via Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, the wheels might already be in motion, and a serious question is at what level command currently rests on both sides? If the politicians have transferred operational decisions to the military things could keep on escalating. In the same way, decisions by local commanders in the field can have outsized impacts upon the continued developments on the Russo-Ukrainian War as a whole. This would not be the first time that politicians have had to come to grips with the fact that measured escalation is difficult.

In the end, a conflict over Russia blockading the strait has been one of the scenarios discussed numerous times since 2014, and as predicted it shows signs of escalating easily. A crucial factor regarding the timing is that Europe is focused upon Brexit, diminishing the potential of EU to work as a stabilising factor. At the same time, it should be remembered that early reports seldom are to be trusted, and by tomorrow morning we should all be wiser.

Putin’s Undeclared War – A look at Bellingcat’s Artillery Investigation

It is by now no secret that regular Russian units played a major role in turning the tide of the Ukrainian summer offensive of 2014. This has been reported by international actors as well as the Ukrainian government, and Russian support has included both older as well as newer systems (such as the Pantsir and T-72B3), and whole units. One aspect which has received relatively little coverage is the considerable artillery support provided by the Russian Army to the Russian/Separatist forces. The latest Bellingcat report remedies this.

The report, titled ‘Putin’s Undeclared War – Summer 2014 Russian Artillery Strikes against Ukraine’ (ENGLISH/RUSSIAN), uses satellite imagery from the border area to locate possible firing positions that can be tied to Russian Army units, as well as artillery craters from a firing direction pointing towards Russia within close proximity to the border. These have then been classified according to a given set of criteria, to give a high probability that any firing position or crater field really could be tied to Russian artillery.

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Perhaps the single most damning picture in the report: Presenting all the cases where it has been possible to directly link artillery targets to Russian firing positions. Source: Bellingcat

The method employed is described in detail in the report, with helpful examples and illustrations to show its implementation. The numbers are staggering. Russian artillery units fired on Ukrainian targets on at least 149 separate occasions during the summer of 2014, with another 130 positions being identified as ‘likely’. On the receiving side, 408 crater fields coming from the direction of the border have been identified within range of Russian artillery, and of these 127 are within 3 km of the border itself, a range close enough to more or less rule out that the firing system has been stationed on Ukrainian territory. The Russian artillery have participated in the war by firing thousands of shells, a number so great that even in case of some of the incidents would have been from Ukrainian or separatist guns, there’s no denying the underlying conclusion: Russia provided a significant amount of indirect fire in support of their campaign in the Donbas.

There are at least three distinct phases of the campaign, with the first being the early shellings. Here, Russian units crossed the border, and once just inside Ukrainian territory they took up a firing position, and once again withdrew back to Russian territory once the firing was over (leaving easily identified tracks and thread marks). This poorly disguised attempt at getting some kind of deniability was then phased out as the campaign went on, the downing of MH17 being something of a watershed moment, and it became more and more common for the units to fire from Russian territory. The targets in most cases were the Ukrainian military camps set up during the Ukrainian offensive. A third phase of the artillery campaign started with the Russian ground offensive that reversed the Ukrainian gains. Here it is harder to determine which side has performed the attacks, as the Russian artillery pieces moved deep inside Ukrainian territory on the heels of the advancing Russian units. The attacks were usually performed by a limited number of guns, ranging from three to eight artillery pieces (though some sites have been targeted from multiple firing positions), with everything from mortars to self-propelled as well as towed howitzers and MLRS having been used. In some cases these included newer pieces of equipment, such as the BM-30 Smerch heavy rocket-launcher and the Msta-S self-propelled howitzer, both systems which indicate Russian involvement.

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The Russian BM-30 Smerch is identifiable on satellite pictures due its size compared to earlier systems. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Digr

The report as a whole gives a thorough picture, and is probably the first up until now to disclose the full extent of the Russian use of cross-border artillery strikes in the conflict. Noteworthy is the fact that 35 of the targeted sites sported more than a 100 impact craters.

Does the artillery strikes in themselves constitute an act of war? The report claim so, but as my knowledge of international law is limited, I asked Oscar Jonsson, a visiting researcher at Berkeley and  PhD-Candidate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, for a second opinion. His answer, to my surprise, was that as ‘War’ isn’t really properly defined. The UN Charter e.g. does not use the word (except in the preamble), but instead forbids the ‘use of force’ (except when defending from an armed attack). Cross-border raids and artillery strikes doesn’t necessarily amount to war unless they reach a certain (non-specified) intensity, with e.g. Nagorno-Karabakh having seen cross-border shootings which usually aren’t described as war. As such the question of what exactly constitutes a war largely rests on the individual states and the security council to pronounce.

However, as Jonsson also pointed out in an earlier post, the question is largely semantic, as the fact that Ukraine has international law on their side in Putin’s secret war doesn’t really help, unless they got the power to implement it (i.e. fight back). Even though the report indicates a degree of fighting that would classify as an armed attack, Ukraine still defines the conflict as an anti-terrorist operation from their lack of power.

All in all, the report is well worth a read, and gives yet another piece of the puzzle regarding Russia’s direct involvement in Ukrainian affairs.

Comment on the US Assessment of the Downing of Flight MH17

The following is the complete text of the statement published on the homepage of the US embassy in Kyiv, with my comments in italics. Original text here.

United States Assessment of the Downing of Flight MH17 and its Aftermath

We assess that Flight MH17 was likely downed by a SA-11 surface-to-air missile from separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. We base this judgment on several factors.

The SA-11 designation corresponds to the versions 9K37 Buk and 9K37M Buk-M1.

Over the past month, we have detected an increasing amount of heavy weaponry to separatist fighters crossing the border from Russia into Ukraine. Last weekend, Russia sent a convoy of military equipment with up to 150 vehicles including tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and multiple rocket launchers to the separatist. We also have information indicating that Russia is providing training to separatist fighters at a facility in southwest Russia, and this effort included training on air defense systems.

Note the difference in wording: the US have “detected” the vehicles coming into Ukraine, meaning that they have observed this happening (likely either by satellite, UAV, or boots on the ground). However, they have only “information indicating” the presence of a training facility where air defence systems are taught, signaling a lower degree of certainty. The specific mention of anti-air training given by the Russians to separatists adds credibility to the charges that the Buk-M1 is indeed Russian supplied (and possibly crewed), as opposed to stemming from captured Ukrainian stocks.

Pro-Russian separatist fighters have demonstrated proficiency with surface-to-air missile systems and have downed more than a dozen aircraft over the past few months, including two large transport aircraft.

This is not necessarily relevant. As far as I know, one single transport has been downed at height, the other aircraft and helicopters all having been shot down at low altitude and/or during take-off or landing. The single Antonov An-26 is the sole plane shot down at a height which rules out the use of MANPADS, and it is better described as a medium-sized transport.

At the time that flight MH17 dropped out of contact, we detected a surface-to-air missile (SAM) launch from a separatist-controlled area in southeastern Ukraine. We believe this missile was an SA-11.

This is the core evidence of the statement. The US has detected the launch of a missile from separatist-controlled area happening at the same time the MH17 was downed. It is unclear what kind of intelligence indicates (note the word “believe”) that it indeed was a Buk, but it is still a very strong piece of evidence.

Intercepts of separatist communications posted on YouTube by the Ukrainian government indicate the separatists were in possession of a SA-11 system as early as Monday July 14th. In the intercepts, the separatists made repeated references to having and repositioning Buk (SA-11) systems.

Having perhaps the world’s best intelligence network, and then using easily faked videos of separatist communications posted on YouTube as evidence sure has a degree of ridicule attached to it, but is also an inidcation that US intelligence believes at least some of these transcripts are real.

Social media postings on Thursday show an SA-11 system traveling through the separatist-controlled towns of Torez and Snizhne, near the crash site and assessed location of the SAM launch. From this location, the SA-11 has the range and altitude capability to have shot down flight MH17.

See the earlier post where I discuss some of the OSINT evidence available.

Ukraine also operates SA-11 systems, but we are confident no Ukrainian air defense systems were within range of the crash. Ukrainian forces have also not fired a single surface-to-air missile during the conflict, despite often complaining about violations of their airspace by Russian military aircraft.

Yet another indication that the US is closely monitoring the Ukrainian crises, probably through the use of recce satellites as well as SBIRS. This raises questions about what kind of intelligence the US has on the claimed use of BM-21 Grad MLRS by both the separatists, Ukrainian armed forces, and from Russian territory, as well as the alleged civilian targets these were used against.

Shortly after the crash, separatists – including the self-proclaimed “Defense Minister” of the Donetsk People’s Republic Igor Strelkov – claimed responsibility for shooting down a military transport plane on social media.

In an intercepted conversation that has been widely posted on the internet, a known-separatist leader tells another person that a separatist faction downed the aircraft. After it became evident that the plane was a civilian airliner, separatists deleted social media posts boasting about shooting down a plane and possessing a Buk (SA-11) SAM system.

This is nothing new, but has been openly available since the day of the downing.

Audio data provided to the press by the Ukrainian security service was evaluated by Intelligence Community analysts who confirmed these were authentic conversations between known separatist leaders, based on comparing the Ukraine-released internet audio to recordings of known separatists.

Compared to the brief mentioning of YouTube-videos above, here it is explicitly said that the Intelligence Community have evaluated the videos, and believes these are real.

Video posted on social media yesterday show an SA-11 on a transporter traveling through the Krasnodon are back to Russia. The video indicated the system was missing at least one missile, suggesting it had conducted a launch.

The video is found on my earlier post. Note that in this statement the location of Krasnodon is not doubted, but seen as confirmed.

Events on the ground at the crash site clearly demonstrate that separatists are in full control of the area.

This comes as no surprise for anyone. In itself, it is not evidence of the missile stemming from separatist held territory, the missile has a range of roughly 30-35 km, and the plane didn’t not fall straight down when hit. However, taken into consideration with the other evidence presented here, it does strengthen the case against the Russian-backed separatists.

In conclusion: The US authorities seem sure that the missile was launched by the separatists, but so far lacks hard proof that they were trained in Russia, or that the crew would indeed have been made up of Russian regulars or volunteers.

The Buk and MH17

The shooting down of Malaysian Airline’s MH17 turned yet another page in the Ukrainian crisis. To begin with, I want to assure that although this text will focus on the technical side of the shoot-down, my heartfelt sympathies are with the next of kin of those onboard the flight.

To shoot down an airliner flying at its cruise altitude, in this case somewhere around 33 000 feet (~10 060 meters), requires at the very least a medium-ranged surface to air missile system, with some kind of radar for target data. There has been much use of the word “advanced” in reference to these systems, but this is somewhat misleading. Already the crude “flying telephone poles” of the S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Guideline) had a high enough ceiling to be able to down Gary Power’s U-2 in the famous incident in 1960. A quite large number of different systems could be used to down an airliner flying straight and level in a low-noise environment. However, what they all share in common, is the fact that an untrained person (or, rather “persons”, as these usually aren’t crewed by a single operator) will not be able to get a missile of, let alone actually hit anything.

S-75 Dvina launcher and missile in Egyptian service. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Note that “untrained” is a relative word. As James Mashiri notes, to be able to fire at a “soft” target the operator needs relatively little training (a few hours of seeing the system in action and getting some answers to the “why did you push that button?”-type of questions).

The prime suspect in this case is the Soviet-made Buk-system. This was created as a successor to the earlier 2K12 Kub (SA-6 Gainful), which had proved to be a serious threat to aircrafts operating at high and medium altitude during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. What was noteworthy with the Kub compared to the earlier S-125 Neva (SA-3 Goa) in that it was carried on a tracked transporter erector launcher (TEL), giving it the ability to rapidly change firing positions, making it harder to destroy. Still, the weak link was that the launchers relied on the 1S91 radar vehicle accompanying each battery, meaning that if the radar was taken out or malfunctioned, the whole battery went blind.

To solve this issue, the 9K37 Buk (SA-11 Gadfly) was normally mounted on a TELAR, which not only transported and fired the missiles, but also held a 9S35/9S35M1 (Fire Dome) tracking and engagement radar. The radar is not meant for acquiring targets, notably it lacks the 360o field needed to do this properly, but gives the launcher a degree of autonomy in the event that the 9S18/9S18M1 (Tube Arm/Snow Drift) target acquisition radar of the Buk battery is knocked out.

9A310M1 Buk-M1 TELAR in Finnish service. Radar in dome to the right in picture. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Buk is a widespread system, being found both as regular exports and in a number of former Soviet states. The 9K37M Buk-M1 is also found in Finnish service as the ItO 96, but is expected to be phased out in the near future. Another noted user is the Georgian armed forces, which used the Buk-M1 to down a single Tu-22M and possibly up to three Su-25 during the 2008 war. The Ukrainian armed forces operate at least the M1-version, but it is unclear to me what other versions might be in their arsenal.

A number of pictures and videos have surfaced, purportedly shot in the area of the downing of MH17. A reminder is needed: the conflict in Ukraine has seen both purely photoshopped pictures, pictures from e.g. Syria, and pictures taken out of context, which allegedly show different events which might or might not have happened at all.

This video claims to show the downing of the Ukrainian air force An-26 that took place on July the 14th prior to the downing of MH17. It has also been claimed to show the downing of MH17, which is false, as the plane in the video isn’t a Boeing 777. It obviously might be from somewhere else, but the language and vegetation fits Ukraine this time of the year.

The downing of the Antonov is not contested, and was admitted by both the separatists and the Ukrainian government as it happened. Of interest is the fact that according to the Ukrainian government the plane was flying at 6 500 meters (21 300 feet), meaning it was outside the target envelope of handheld systems like the 9K38/9K338 Igla/Igla-S (SA-18 Grouse/SA-24 Grinch). If the stated altitude is correct, this in itself proves the existence of a medium-altitude system in the area around Krasnodon in the middle of July. The crash sites of the two aircraft are separated by a roughly 150 km long trip by road from each other.

As a side-note: it is open to speculation why the airspace above 32 000 feet was deemed safe on July the 17th, as the Antonov proved that 21 000 feet wasn’t. I for one can’t come up with a system with a ceiling between these two values.

On his blog Cornucopia?, Lars Wilderäng has listed a few pictures and videos claimed to show the movement of a single 9A310M1 Buk-M1 TELAR along Ukrainian roads in the area. The two most interesting are found here and here. Both seems to be authentic, and fits the description of the situation.

A video that surfaced after the downing of the plane shows a single TELAR (the same?) being transported by a civilian truck. Note the fact that only two out of the normal load of four missiles are visible, and that using white civilian trucks to transport (unmarked?) TELAR’s is not standard operating procedure (at least not in Finland). A still frame from the video is shown below.

9A310M1 Buk-M1 TELAR transported on civilian truck.
9A310M1 Buk-M1 TELAR transported on civilian truck. Source: Video linked above

All in all, there seems to be enough evidence to indicate the existence of a single 9A310M1 Buk-M1 TELAR in the area of the crash site of MH17. If the TELAR operated independently, target acquisition would have been somewhat problematic. As said, the system has a limited capability in this field. However, using the radar requires fuel for the gas turbine as well as emitting radiation which can be picked up by Ukrainian ELINT-planes. Another possibility is that the target was first picked up visually by a spotter (in the crudest version by a crew member standing outside the TELAR), who relayed an approximate position to the operators. These then proceeded to shoot down the plane, most probably believing it was a military transport. On the juridical part of this, see James Mashiri’s detailed analysis.

Of interest is also the evidence in the case. Although currently most facts seem to indicate it was the separatists who shot down the plane, hard evidence is so far lacking. The US almost immediately pointed finger on the separatists (and Russia). The interesting part is that the US very well could have the proof for these charges, namely by being able to pinpoint the launch site through the satellite based SBIRS and/or by ELINT-measures based in nearby NATO-countries (e.g. planes orbiting over Romania). Here SBIRS seems to be the most likely case, but it is possible the US withholds the form of the evidence as not to show the exact capabilities of one of their major strategic defence systems. The less than proper handling of the crash site by the separatists on the other hand, seems to indicate that they are either covering up something and/or are simply worthless at public relations management.