For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.
For the latest summary of evidence surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 see our separate article: Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?
Last week we reported that a group of Russian strategic bombers were escorted out of the English Channel by British fighter jets. Yesterday we reported that according to sources in the British government who spoke to the Sunday Express, signals intelligence intercepted messages from the Russian pilots which indicate that a nuclear missile, specifically designed for destroying submarines, was on board one of the bombers.
Sources within the Ministry of Defence last night revealed that one of the two long-range bombers was carrying at least one air-dropped “seek and find nuclear warhead-carrying missile, designed to seek and destroy a Vanguard submarine.
Both Prime Minister David Cameron and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon were alerted after cockpit conservations confirming the bomber’s nuclear payload were intercepted by a Norwegian military listening post, and shared with the Ministry of Defence.
The missile was not armed, and the aircraft’s crew would have required a direct order from President Putin before making it live.
The Russian state-operated news outlet RIA Novosti, citing a source in the Russian military, says no nuclear weapons were on the aircraft. The Moscow Times reports, however, that Russia is going to increase strategic bomber flights:
Russia has ramped up its long-range aircraft patrol activity over the last year, with NATO reporting over 100 intercepts of Russian aircraft operating near the alliance’s airspace, a threefold increase over 2013.
In an interview with a German television station last year, President Vladimir Putin justified the increased aerial activity as an answer to similar practices by NATO nations, especially the United States, which still sends its B-52 strategic bombers on regular long-range patrols along Russian airspace.
The Russian Defense Ministry has said it will extend the breadth of its strategic bomber coverage in the future, extending into the eastern Pacific and western Atlantic Oceans.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has downplayed concerns that the moves are provocative, ensuring that they are conducted in accordance with international regulations over neutral waters.
Russian expert and journalist Edward Lucas has written an article in The Daily Mail about the incident, and despite Defense Minister Shoigu’s claim that these incidents are not a provocation, Lucas says that these incidents are a significant threat and could easily trigger a major confrontation between Europe and Russia. Lucas notes that in 2008 one Russian strategic bomber, flying in an “unfriendly posture,” carried a dummy nuclear warhead within 90 seconds of British airspace. Since then, NATO interceptions of Russian aircraft pulling similar maneivers have become routine. Russian aircraft often pull these maneuvers after having turned their transponders off, a clear threat to civilian airliners. On at least one occasion in the last year there has been a near-midair collision as a result.
Lucas also explains that these missions, and the behavior of Russian submarines and naval vessels, have strategic value for the Russian military, and since the end of the Cold War NATO has been reducing its capabilities and is now largely unprepared for Russian aggression:
One reason is that these stunts also bring valuable military information. Russian electronic snooping devices monitor our reaction times. They see how well our pilots are trained, and what our warplanes can do. They want to know how they communicate with their bases, and how our chain of command works.
Such electronic intelligence-gathering is supplemented by the work of Russia’s human intelligence assets — spies, in plain language — who recruit and run sources in the defence establishments of Nato countries.
Knowing how your adversary reacts in an emergency gives crucial insights into how he will behave in war. And it is not just in the air that Russia is constantly testing us. Last year, a Russian flotilla of warships — bristling with electronic listening equipment — brazenly sailed up the Channel, ostensibly on the way to an exercise in the Mediterranean.
The only available vessel in our shrunken Navy had to sail at full speed halfway around Britain to intercept them.
— James Miller
Journalist Maxim Tucker reported earlier today that he had seen “massive reinforcements” in Ukrainian-held Artyomovsk, north of Debaltsevo.
He uploaded video footage of one of these helicopters, a Mi-24 Hind gunship:
In the description of the video Tucker noted that Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council, had initially denied the presence of the helicopters.
[W]hen told about the video, [Lysenko] suggested they would only be used to transport wounded. Analysts expressed skepticism that five attack helicopters would be used to evacuate wounded from positions around 40 km from the nearest hospital.
The use of attack helicopters to evacuate wounded would also suggest that the key highway between Debaltsevo and Artyomovsk had been cut off by Russia-backed forces, who are working to encircle the town.
However freelance journalist Oliver Carroll reports that he has heard from a “reliable Ukrainian military source” that Debaltsevo has not been surrounded:
His source did, however, contradict the claims we reported on earlier from Lysenko, that the Ukrainian military was in control of Uglegorsk, to the west of Debaltsevo, reporting that Ukrainian forces were relegated to the outskirts of the town, which Russian-backed forces entered on January 30.
— Pierre Vaux
Mariupol news site 0629.com.ua reported at 15:59 GMT that residents of the port city have heard artillery salvoes this evening.
The Interpreter translates:
“Windows were shaking in Vostochniy,” said residents of the city.
Mobile communications in the neighbourhood are down at the moment.
“We ran into the hallway and lay on the floor,” added a resident. “They were firing Grads.”
Dmitry Chaly, press officer for Sector M [Mariupol area of the ATO], told 0629 that militants had just now fired on checkpoint 14 in the village of Vinogradnoye. Shells did not strike residential areas.
The lack of mobile communications in the Vostochniy area, on the eastern outskirts of the city, which was shelled on October 24, killing 31 civilians, was not explained. Infrastructure damage or electronic warfare could be responsible. There have previously been reports from the Ukrainian military of Russian electronic surveillance and signals jamming equipment on the move in the area.
This morning UNIAN reported that the volunteer-based Azov regiment had reported artillery and Grad shelling in the Mariupol area.
Reconnaissance activities and diversionary attacks were also reported “on both sides.”
The Interpreter translates:
“At Novoselovka Vtoraya Ukrainian army and Azov positions were attacked by the enemy with small arms. At Nikolaevka – an artillery duel. The enemy used a tank and mortars. The enemy firing positions were suppressed.”
Azov claimed that there had been no Ukrainian losses on the front line.
— Pierre Vaux
The Ukrainian government has recently been accused of underplaying the number of casualties they’ve lost in the battle. In an article on this subject, Kyiv Post calls the number of casualties among Ukraine’s military the country’s “worst-kept secret.” While the Ukrainian military is reporting only a handful of deaths a day, Kyiv Post interviews an army medic and the director of a hospital who say that the casualties could be orders of magnitude larger:
On Jan. 22, the director of Kostiantynivka hospital told Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitors that in the last two weeks that the number of soldiers admitted has “increased dramatically, with figures comparable to those in August and September 2014.”
Between Aug. 10 and Sept. 3, when Russian troops first entered Ukraine in support of a beleaguered rebel force on the brink of defeat, the Kyiv Post estimates at least 200 servicemen were killed.
Many of the recent casualties are coming from areas around the besieged town of Debaltseve, a strategic rail junction between Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, where thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are struggling to prevent being surrounded and cut off from Ukrainian lines.
The government appears to be firing back at these allegations:
Russia’s Kommersant reports that the ‘Soldiers’ Mothers of Saint Petersburg’ organisation has received more than 20 complaints of conscript soldiers being forced to sign military service contracts. “Practically all” of these complaints concerned soldiers being deployed to the Rostov region, which borders Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions.
It seems likely that such servicemen would then be either sent into Ukraine itself, or maintained as reserves for future actions.
Signing a contact of military service allows soldiers to be deployed in “high-readiness” units, and the system effectively provides for Russia to deploy soldiers in “hot spots” or abroad without suffering the negative response engendered by endangering conscripts.
According to the organisation the increased number of complaints came from the Nizhny Novgorod, Leningrad, Murmansk and Kursk regions.
The Interpreter translates:
“Some are persuaded, some are threatened, but in general the complaints are of the same nature,” explained Aleksandr Peredruk, a representative of the non-commercial organisation, to Kommersant.
For example, conscripts from military base number 54096 in Mulino, in the Nizhny Novgorod region (the 6th tank brigade), alleged in their complaints that their command simply confronted them with a fait accompli, notifying them that they had, without prior agreement, been transferred to contract service.
“The leadership told my son that he must sign a contract, but that it could then be cancelled. They explained that he needed to be sent to the Rostov region for exercises, but it is supposedly forbidden to send contracts off somewhere for the long term,” a father of a serviceman from a base outside the village of Kamenka in the Leningrad region, who asked to remain anonymous, told Kommersant.
As Mr Peredruk notes, practically all of the complaints discuss soldiers being sent to the Rostov region after signing contracts.
Peredruk told Kommersant that the organisation had already appealed to the Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Defence, but that they had not received answers.
The Ministry of Defence claimed meanwhile that they had not yet received any complaints.
Ella Pamfilova, Russia’s commissioner for human rights, told Kommersant that she had contacted the group, asking for more detailed information on the cases.
— Pierre Vaux
The New York Times reports that, according to “a range of senior Pentagon, administration and Western officials,” the White House is now “taking a fresh look at” the option of supplying defensive weaponry to Ukraine, as authorised by Congress in the Freedom Support Act signed last year.
According to the report, despite support for supplying weapons from the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, and “openness” to the discussion from the secretary of state, John Kerry and Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the idea has been resisted so far by Susan E. Rice, the president’s national security adviser.
However, the paper reports that “one official who is familiar with her views insisted that Ms. Rice was now prepared to reconsider the issue.”
The article cites recommendations made in a report published today by the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
The report, titled Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do, proposes that Ukraine be supplied with several specific types of military assistance:
• Counter-battery radars that can detect and locate the origin of multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) launches and artillery firings out to a range of 30-40 kilometers. These will enable the Ukrainian military to identify ceasefire violations and potentially to target the Russian/separatist weapons that have thus far caused the greatest number of Ukrainian casualties. (Approximately 70 percent of Ukrainian casualties are from rocket and artillery fire.)
• Medium altitude/medium range UAVs. These will assist the Ukrainian military to increase its tactical situational awareness, identify opposing troop deployments, and locate opposing MLRS and artillery.
• Electronic counter-measures for use against opposing UAVs. This will give the Ukrainian military capabilities to disrupt opposition UAVs conducting missions against Ukrainian forces.
• Secure communications capabilities. Much Ukrainian tactical communication currently is conducted over non-secure radios or cell phones and thus is extremely vulnerable to interception by Russian intelligence gathering systems.
• Armored Humvees. With Russian UAVs patrolling the skies and the persistent threat of Russian precision rocket and artillery fire, Ukrainian forces require all-weather mobility, speed, reliability and a measure of protection as they move between positions on the battlefield.
• Medical support equipment. Ukrainian casualties are greater because of their relatively underdeveloped and severely under resourced military medical system. The provision of field hospitals would greatly improve their soldiers’ survival rate.
• In addition to the above non-lethal items, the U.S. government should immediately change its policy from prohibiting lethal assistance to allowing provision of defensive military assistance, which may include lethal assistance, most importantly, light antiarmor missiles. Ukrainian light anti-armor capabilities are severely lacking at a time when the Russians have moved large numbers of tanks and armored personnel carriers into the Donbas (70 percent of their existing stocks of light anti-armor weapons reportedly do not work). Any major Russian/separatist advance beyond the line of contact would presumably make heavy use of tanks and armored personnel carriers. Anti-armor missiles would give the Ukrainian army the capability to impose heavier costs and support the disruption of such attacks. Raising the risks and costs will help deter further Russian offensive operations.
— Pierre Vaux
The separatist-run Donetsk News Agency (DAN) reports that Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the leader of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic,’ has announced a major mobilisation over the next ten days.
Zakharchenko said (translated by The Interpreter):
“We intend to mobilise the neccessary amount of people to bring the numbers of our army up to 100,000 people. This will be a voluntary mobilisation.
In the south – Donetsk Airport, Peski, the Opytnoye district – the enemy is building up forces, likely for an attack. There is a large concentration of hardware there, and we need to equalise the situation.
While we have time until the spring, new units will have the opportunity to go through military training: from the mobilisation we are expecting at least five additional brigades – three motorised infantry, one artillery and one tank.”
Zakharchenko said that the first stage would be voluntary, and that the decision on whether or not a general conscripted mobilisation would take place would be based on the success of the voluntary mobilisation.
He also claimed that, “in the long term”, the armed forces of both the Donetsk and Lugansk ‘People’s Republics’ will be combined to produce a combat force of over 100,000.
— Pierre Vaux