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 Ukraine: MH17 – two weeks on

 Friday 1 August 2014

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With two weeks elapsed since the downing of MH17, we are no closer to learning what really happened. Official investigators have been unable to access the crash site and the only really significant development is the emergence of a major conspiracy industry, combined with a continued determination on the part of the media to pin the blame of the Russians.

One example of the plethora of emergent conspiracies was posted recently by Gordon Duff on CCN ireport (now removed). This was a video purporting to be obtained from a weather satellite, said to be showing the launch of a BUK mission, cited as evidence that Ukrainian forces had shot down MH17.

Picked up and spread uncritically by diverse sources, it takes a little time for the debunking to deliver the goods. But the stupidity has been well and truly debunked. Not only, it seems, have the satellite owners disowned the "video", not least on the basis that their satellites do not record videos, it seems that the actual footage is taken from a video game and is thus completely fake.

This material, at least, did not reach the Putin-obsessed legacy media, but this is the sort of stuff that the Daily Mail was churning out yesterday, briefly its lead online report.

Copied out almost verbatim from Buzzfeed, a post written by Max Seddon who asserted that a Russian soldier had posted pictures to Instagram "that show him operating military equipment inside Ukraine, including manning a missile launcher system of the type used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17".

Actually, the pictures (or the brief narratives that go with them) did no such thing. They had communications specialist Alexander Sotkin making what appears to be brief incursions into Ukrainian territory in early July, in one episode apparently riding in an armoured personnel carrier. But the only time Sotkin writes of a BUK is in a brief reference to working on one after he has returned to Russia.

Sotkin is apparently based in Voloshino (topmost arrow on map) a few miles from the eastern Ukranian border, but his Instagram geolocation shows him to be in the Krasnyi Derkul area, about 30 miles northeast of Luhanska, on 5 July (lower arrow).

This is cited by the Mail as evidence that "could prove Putin is operating in Ukraine" but, as always, the full story isn't been told. Looking at the map, the area in which Putin is said to be "operating" is a small and almost completely uninhabited salient that projects into Russian territory, defined by an arbitrary and unmarked border.

The natural border in the area is the River Derkul, to the west of which – on the Ukrainian side – are cliff-like structures forming an obvious demarcation. To the east is a narrow road which roughly follows the river, cutting across the neck of the salient – from Russian territory, briefly into Ukraine and then back into Russia.

This is the only road out of Voloshino going south and is a logical patrol and communication route, with no alternative route which follows the official border. No one could patrol that border without traversing arable fields, partly against the grain of the terrain.

Thus, even assuming the Instagram geolocation is accurate, to make anything of the narrative plagiarised from Buzzfeed is utterly bizarre.  Likely the route through the salient has been used as a short-cut for as long as the border has existed.

Most likely, therefore, all this "revelation" shows is the continued determination of the western media – and the Mail in particular - to demonstrate that Putin has in some way been responsible for the downing of MH17. 

By way of an antidote, however, the mindless Russophobia has been examined up by a group of ex-Intelligence professionals who call themselves Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

In a far-reaching and intelligent commentary, they are responding to the local civil war in Ukraine turning into a US confrontation with Russia, calling for President Obama "to release what evidence he has about the tragedy and silence the hyperbole".

The US administration, they note, still has issued no coordinated intelligence assessment summarizing what evidence exists to determine who was responsible – much less to convincingly support repeated claims that MH17 was downed by a Russian-supplied missile in the hands of Ukrainian separatists.

The US administration, they complain, has not provided any satellite imagery showing that the separatists had the weaponry that could down MH17, and also that there are several other "dogs that have not barked".

Obama's credibility, and that of Washington's as a whole, they say, "will continue to erode", should the President be unwilling – or unable – to present more tangible evidence behind administration claims, they add, declaring that they believe that the charges against Russia should be rooted in solid, far more convincing evidence.

They are also troubled by the amateurish manner in which fuzzy and flimsy evidence has been served up – some of it via "social media" – and as intelligence professionals they are embarrassed by the unprofessional use of partial intelligence information.

As Americans, they say to Obama, "we find ourselves hoping that, if you indeed have more conclusive evidence, you will find a way to make it public without further delay".

In charging Russia with being directly or indirectly responsible, they conclude, Secretary of State John Kerry has been particularly definitive. Not so the evidence. His statements seem premature and bear the hallmarks of an attempt to "poison the jury pool".

It is this same abject failure, of course, which led to airlines not being told about the emerging threat. And that failure has to be considered partly responsible for lack of avoidance measures, implementation of which could have prevented MH17 from being shot down in the first place.

The longer this failure continues, though, the more poisonous will become relations with Russia, and the more the conspiracies will proliferate. We need this issue settled. We need the hyperbole silenced.


Richard North 01/08/2014 link

 MH17: How the missile works

 Friday 1 August 2014

Just to give you a clear idea of how this kind of damage occurs, here follows a scene from Behind Enemy Lines featuring an F18 Super Hornet, shot down by a very similar class of missile. Just before impact you can see the effect of the warhead. Pay particular attention to the point of impact.

Peter North 01/08/2014 link

 Immigration: scoring political points

 Thursday 31 July 2014

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The Mail and others were busy yesterday on a particular slant to the immigration story, based on input from Migration Watch. While the story was also picked up by the Telegraph, who gave it to Farage to play with, it was only the Mail which claimed an exclusive.

The gist of the reports is that Britain is spending £5 billion a year on tax credits for migrant workers, with official figures showing that 415,000 foreign nationals out of 2.45 million claimants are benefiting from the "perk" –equivalent to 17 percent of all recipients.

The reports also tell us that migrant workers are more likely to be claiming tax credits, paid to 6.7 percent of all non-UK nationals of working age, compared to six percent of Britons.

The expenditure, we are told, "dwarfs the total savings achieved by David Cameron's latest crackdown on out-of-work welfare payments to migrants, which was unveiled amid great fanfare on Tuesday", which will reduce the benefits bill by just £100million a year.

What is seriously awry with all this, though, is the idea that this spending, which actually totals £30 million, constitutes a "perk" paid to the recipients. In fact, this is a covert subsidy to employers, who are able to pay their workers below subsistence wages, with the taxpayer obligingly topping them up.

As to whether this constitutes a "pull" factor for migrants, we have Robert Rowthorn, Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of King's College, assisting us in deciding.

He says in a recently published research paper: "The main driver of migration is the big difference in wage rates and job opportunities. There is also the attraction of in-work benefits as a wage supplement".

The question is what would happen if no tax credits were paid to immigrants. In order then to conform with EU law, they would also have to be ended for the indigenous population, amounting to a saving for the taxpayer of £30 billion and an effective wage cut of the same amount for one of the poorest sections of our society.

For sure, that would probably dissuade many immigrants from joining the ranks of the employed, and thus deter some migration. However, the effect of that would be to create a huge gap in the lower-paid jobs market and, as employers competed for labour in a diminished pool, wages would rise.

Increased wages – and vastly enhanced job opportunities - would then, as Professor Rowthorn suggests, act as a driver for migration. It doesn't take a genius to work out that we would probably end up in very much the same situation as before – if not worse: the initial loss of benefits would drive more indigenous workers onto the better-paid dole, opening up more jobs to migrants.  

If we were to follow the Farage route, however, we could pull out of the EU in order to exclude immigrants from tax credit and other in-work benefits. That, presumably, would also create a national labour shortage as the "pull" of [relatively] high wages stopped dragging in immigrants. And that, of course, would drive up wages, to attract new workers into the market.

The end result would be rather difficult to predict. One outcome could be the state regulating income for some workers, but not for others, interfering in the jobs market to a greater extent than it is already. This would not be pretty.

However, what Mr Farage does not tell his acolytes is that price of achieving this mess is to rule out any possibility of post-exit participation of the Single Market. It would not meet with EU minimum standards for its EEA trading partners, which require non-discrimination on the grounds of nationality, and freedom of movement.

Thus, we have to decide whether we want a messy half-solution to one part of the immigration problem in exchange for locking us out of existing trade relations with the EU. The price of the latter would doubtless be huge economic disruption and massive job losses, negating any advantages we might get from limiting immigration.

As far as solutions go, this is not very far from the idea of burning down your house to save on heating bills – good while it lasts, but rather short-lived and horribly expensive.

This is the trouble with these easy nostrums. A partial solution is actually no solution. We have to have a complete, balanced solution, or none at all. To pretend otherwise is fundamentally dishonest – Mr Farage's stock in trade.

To deal with immigration, as well as maintain all our other post-exit objectives, we will need to be more subtle and more considered, making compromises to achieve the desired end. We can manage immigration, but it has to be a steady, negotiated process, relying on a combination of "push" and "pull" factors.

And this is why we need a comprehensive exit plan – I've posted version 18 but there is still a long way to go. Unlike Farage, we have to live in the real world: scoring political points is not any sort of solution.


Richard North 31/07/2014 link

 Ukraine: mistaken identity?

 Wednesday 30 July 2014

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Ten days ago, at the height of the media interest in the whereabouts of the BUK launchers in the hands of the Ukrainian separatists, the Mail published a YouTube video, purporting to show "a military truck carrying a BUK M1 in a [Russian] border town" (video grab, top centre).

Also picked up by the Independent and others, the actual location was unspecified, but we are told that the driver of a vehicle equipped with a dashcam filmed a military truck on a main road for two kilometres in a "border area" of Russia at 8.45pm on Saturday 19 July, two days after the shooting down of MH17.

Breathlessly, the Mail asked: "Is this the BUK missile launcher that shot down MH17 being smuggled back to Russia", the "back" to Russia implying that that had been its origin.

Leaving the question hanging, the paper does not explore the obvious discrepancies – such as the only photographs the SBU (Ukrainian Security Services) could produce of the BUK launchers being transported, showed civilian low loaders being used (and one from 18 March). Why should they suddenly appear on military transporters? 

Also unanswered was the question as to why, having supposedly been trucked into Russia in the small hours of Friday morning, not one but two launchers should be seen, obscured by tarpaulins, being moved by low loaders in Russian military colours. How come they had only been moved two kilometres from the border, some 40 hours after they had supposedly arrived? 

Apart from these problems, though, the thing that has been troubling me most is that the shrouded vehicle on the back of the low loader didn't actually look right for a BUK launcher. Without being able to go into specifics, there were several elements that don't seem to fit.

Firstly, the covered vehicle on the transporter (middle pic) looks very much longer than the identifiable BUK launcher on the Metrovagonmash GM – 569 chassis. The clearest anomalies, though, are the huge overhang from the chassis and, just discernible, seven road wheels (as opposed to the six on the BUK).

Having trawled through the Russian weapons inventory, I now think we are looking at a 9A83-1 launcher (SA-12a Gladiator, NATO designation), or a close variant (lowest pic in the top sequence). Based on the MT-T tracked cargo carrier, with an overall length of 8.7 metres, as opposed to just over 5m for the BUK launcher, this seems much more plausible. There is another picture here.

Also helpful is a computer-generated graphic (below) of the KamAZ-65225 tank transporter seen in the centre pic, carrying a BUK launcher. The vehicle on the load bed gives a much better impression of the scale, compared with the space taken by the actual launcher photographed.  The BUK is quite obviously very much shorter than the loads being carried under tarpaulins.

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If it is indeed an S-300 launcher under wraps, that is in itself significant. The Russians thus appear to be deploying this long-range missile just over the Ukrainian border. It has a much longer range – up to 120 miles - than the BUK, with a maximum altitude of 100,000ft. A battery could do serious damage to the Ukrainian Air Force.

Whatever the actual equipment resided under those wraps, though, I am now pretty sure the Mail wasn't showing BUK launchers. And that means we have no reliable sightings of a BUK closer than 30 miles to the Russian border, and that one comes without corroborating evidence as to the date.

The closer one looks at this, the more the "evidence" falls apart and the less secure the claims of Russian government involvement seem to be.


Richard North 30/07/2014 link

 Ukraine: sanctions and the descent to madness

 Wednesday 30 July 2014

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Since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, says Van Rompuy, "the European Union has been calling on the Russian leadership to work towards a peaceful resolution".

"We have", he says, "done this collectively and bilaterally. We regret to say that despite some mixed messages coming from Moscow, and exchanges in the Normandy and other formats, there has been scarce delivery on commitments. Our call has been, in practice, left unheeded".

So is demonstrated the complete incomprehension on the part of the "colleagues" as to the situation they have created, and the absurdity of their imposing sanctions on Russia for something for which they share responsibility.

For the rest, the Financial Times is as good a source as any, telling us that the EU has "agreed to its toughest sanctions against Russia since the end of the Cold War". It has backed sweeping measures intended to cripple the Russian economy and convince the Kremlin to abandon its support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.

And, it appears, the "colleagues" are not messing about. The restrictions target Russia's financial, energy and defence sectors and include a measure that would prevent Russia's largest state-owned banks from issuing stock or bonds in European markets.

In addition, they will bar exports aimed at modernising the Russian oil industry and impose a blanket arms embargo that includes a carve-out allowing existing contracts – including a €1.2bn French deal to sell helicopter attack ships to the Russian navy – to go forward. Details of the sanctions are expected to be published by the end of the week, when the measures will go into effect.

And true to form, Obama is following in their wake, also announcing sanctions, saying they will make Russia's "weak economy even weaker". The co-ordinated actions of the US and European Union, he claims, would "have an even bigger bite" on Russia's economy.

Elsewhere, analysis suggests that sanctions will not make Putin back off. He knows that if he were to step back, pressure on him will only increase. Any serious concession he makes will lead to him losing power in Russia, which will probably send the country into a major turmoil. Yet any serious concession by the United States - in terms of accommodating Russia - will mean a palpable reduction of US global influence, with consequences in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere.

The US, the EU and Russia, therefore, are locked into an impasse, an unsolvable situation. But having effectively accused Putin of conspiring with the separatists, "leading to the killing of almost 300 innocent civilians in their flight from the Netherlands to Malaysia", there is no way either the EU or the US can expect the Russian leadership "to work towards a peaceful resolution".

So the madness descends. Imbued with their own brand of self-righteousness, neither the EU member states nor the US are going back off, but neither is Russia. No matter how clever they all think themselves, there is no way this ends well.


Richard North 30/07/2014 link

 Immigration: reducing the pull factors

 Tuesday 29 July 2014

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I don't really care what is motivating Mr Cameron in putting up his new immigration policy. But, in an authored piece in the Telegraph, he tells us that: "We're building an immigration system that puts Britain first", and if that serves to defuse the immigration issue, then it will have served its purpose.

What is interesting about Cameron's strategy is he is quite evidently stepping away from the drawbridge philosophy and addressing some of the "pull" factors that are drawing migrants to these shores.

His first focus is on clamping down on abuses. Some of the most egregious examples, he says, were those new arrivals claiming to be students, enrolling at bogus colleges. In one of these colleges, inspectors found no students at all; the excuse was that they had all gone on a field trip to the British Library.

Says Mr Cameron, "We have taken radical action, shutting down more than 750 of these colleges. Today we are announcing a further step to make sure colleges do proper checks on students: if 10 percent of those they recruit are refused visas, they will lose their licence".

Next on the list is illegal immigration. Yes, we need effective controls at the border, the prime minister says, "but it also means taking action inside the country too".

There has evidently been some thinking here, as David Cameron declares that it was absurd that those who were here illegally could get a licence to drive a car, or rent a flat, or have a bank account.

Since earlier this month, the government has been revoking driving licences – with 3,150 already withdrawn. From November, landlords will have a legal obligation to check the immigration status of their tenants. From December, rules to prevent illegal immigrants from opening bank accounts will be introduced. And crucially, once illegal immigrants have been identified, deportation will be easier.

From now on, for example, there will be a policy of "deport first, appeal later", so foreign criminals will be deported first and their appeals will be heard once they're back in their home country.

Cameron says his government is also addressing the abuse of Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to a family life. Too many judges have treated this as an unqualified right. So judges must also consider the British public interest too. As far as his government is concerned, the rights of law-abiding citizens come well above the rights of criminals.

Next in line is a new visa system for graduate entrepreneurs and the exceptionally talented, and establishing a much more robust system that accepts immigrants with the right skills, setting a cap on economic migration from outside the EU.

Then, the "magnetic pull" of Britain's benefits system is being addressed. No one can come to this country and expect to get out-of-work benefits immediately. They must wait at least three months. And now the time for which people can claim these benefits is to be cut.

It used to be that European arrivals could claim Jobseeker's Allowance or child benefit for a maximum of six months before their benefits would be cut off, but this is now to be cut to three months.

On housing, statutory guidance is to be changed to ensure that councils only add people to housing waiting lists when they have lived in the area for two years.

Another irritant is also to be removed –employers hunting out cheap labour from abroad, while too many young people are out of work: some recruitment agencies have even been recruiting directly from elsewhere in the EU without British workers ever getting a chance to apply for the jobs.

Thus the government is banning overseas-only recruitment – legally requiring agencies to advertise in English in the UK. And there will also be cuts in the vacancies posted on the EU-wide job portal, massively restricting the number of jobs advertised overseas.

Cameron also looks at the bigger picture, telling us that, when talking about getting young British people into work, the problem isn't a simplistic one of too many people coming here – it's also about too many British people being untrained, and too many thinking they can get a better income on benefits.

Thus, Cameron is talking about "building a different kind of Britain – a country that is not a soft touch, but a place to play your part, a nation where those who work hard can get on".

Carefully and painstakingly, he says, "we are building an economy that has real opportunities for our young people; an education system that encourages them to do their best; a welfare system that encourages work; and an immigration system that puts Britain first".

From politicians, one must expect this type of rhetoric, but what is not wrong is the "careful" and "painstaking" approach. Immigration control is not just (or even) about grand gestures, but numerous small policy initiatives, all to change the perception of our country to putative immigrants, and to allow appropriate measure to be taken.

This does mean addressing the "pull" factors, about which we have written so often, and a government that understands this is more likely to succeed than one wedded to gesture politics.

And from this, the point we expect to see emerge is that, increasingly, the government will be able to re-assert sufficient control over the flow of migrants to give us breathing space to engineer an EU exit plan that does not involve ditching "freedom of movement".

Implemented with sufficient control over "pull factors", and then with greater focus on "push" factors, we stand a chance of neutralising immigration as a referendum issue, leaving us to fight from the higher ground.

Thus, whether he appreciates it or not, Mr Cameron may just have made it a little bit easier to plot our exit from the EU. The one problem, though, is that some of the plans may fall foul of EU anti-discrimination requirements. If benefit entitlements are to be cut for immigrants from EU member states, they must also be cut for UK citizens.

However, it will do Cameron no great political harm to be seen to be having an argument with the European Commission, if they are unwise enough to intervene.

But if it comes to a battle, it is one Mr Cameron must win. Unless we can show that control measures can be taken without the "big bang" abolition of "freedom of movement", it will be very difficult to devise a workable exit plan for the short-term, and thereby win a referendum campaign.


Richard North 29/07/2014 link

 Yeovilton International Airday 2014

 Tuesday 29 July 2014

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It were a bit 'ot, but a good time were 'ad by all ... the following day as well, partly at the Weston Helicopter Museum, where the Dragonfly was snapped.

Richard North 29/07/2014 link

 Ukraine: clarity and mystery in equal measure

 Tuesday 29 July 2014

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The data from the MH17 flight recorders have been successfully downloaded by British experts and, while the information is still being evaluated, Reuters is conveying from a premature news conference in Kiev the claims of Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine's Security Council.

Says Lysenko, analysis of the data show that the aircraft was destroyed by shrapnel coming from a "rocket blast" and went down because of "massive explosive decompression", thus indicating that a BUK surface-to-air missile may have been the weapon which brought the aircraft down.

A photograph of a segment of the fuselage – seemingly including some of the port framing from the cockpit windows (see above) – shows shrapnel penetration compatible with the aircraft having being downed by an anti-aircraft missile, the flight recorder data apparently corroborating physical evidence.

One might, incidentally, aver that the captain may have taken the full force of the blast, with the possibility that he died instantaneously, as it ripped through the cockpit wall.

All of this now builds a picture and, given that the US is also claiming to have satellite data which confirm a missile strike (although the actual data have not yet been released), there are potentially three sources which point towards a missile attack.

Add a photograph showing a dissipating smoke trail from the alleged launch site, and the sightings of a BUK missile launcher in the vicinity on the day of the shooting, and the balance of probability goes towards a missile strike.

This will not, of course, weaken the resolve of the many conspiracy theorists who are determined to show the aircraft was brought down by a bomb, or air-to-air missile. In the years to come, we can expect to see dedicated advocates come up with ever more extreme variations which will concede nothing to reality.

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Nothing of the recent information, of course, helps us determine the immediate origins of the BUK launcher, although the French magazine Paris Match has managed to come up with another photograph of the famous white low loader, this time tracking down the owner by dint of telephoning the number on the side of the truck. 

The owner of the truck company, Stroy-Bud Montage, claims the low loader was stolen "earlier this month", although the date is not specified. The location of the Paris Match photograph, however, has been traced by Ukraine at War to a lay-by on the outskirts of Donetsk – marked (1) on the satellite map (below - click to enlarge). 

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Interestingly, this is not very far from the truck depot where it was supposedly stolen and en route to a location in Donetsk where it was spotted on 17 July (but not photographed). Thence it was driven on the low loader along the H21 highway where it was seen travelling eastwards outside Zuhres – marked (2).

From there, it was seen in Torez, first on the low loader (3) and then after the launcher  had been offloaded (4). The launcher was then seen driving along the road under its own power (5) to a spot close to Snizhne, where the missile was launched (6).

From there, the Russian border is only about 15 miles almost due south, along an unclassified, but metalled road, easily traversable by a tracked vehicle to the border crossing at Marynivki, which is big enough to have its own customs post on the Ukrainian side.

Instead of taking this direct route, though, the launcher is apparently re-united with the low loader, whence it is identified in a suburb of Luhansk (7), at the intersection of Korolenko St. and Nechuya-Levitsky Blvd. So far unexplained, the low loader and the BUK were travelling in the direction opposite to that which they had supposedly come, and were not on any direct route to the border.

According to the Ukrainian Security Service, however, the picture labelled as (7) is near Krasnodon (marked 8), the rig close to the Ukraine-Russian border and shortly to cross over (with one other) apparently at 2am, despite the shot showing daylight conditions.

By coincidence, though, Krasnodon is very close to Izvarino where the Ukrainian An-26 flying at 6,500 metres was downed on 14 July, allegedly by an SA-11 missile, possibly from the same launcher that destroyed MH17.

That then is where it stands. On the one hand the indications that MH17 was downed by an SA-11 now firmer than ever but, on the other, the immediate origins of the launcher even less clear.

According to some narratives, the launcher manages to travel from the Russian border to Donetsk completely unobserved. It then pops up in Donetsk on a "stolen" low loader, only a few miles from the Ukraine base from which, earlier, one or more launchers were claimed to have been captured.

Then, on its trip from Donetsk to Snizhne, the launcher is constantly observed, its presence recorded on video or still camera a further five times. It is then filmed once more, in a suburb of Luhansk.

This is apparently after MH17 has been shot down, but without any corroborative evidence which would identify the date and time of filming, the detail can only be surmise. The SBU, who apparently released the film, have lied about the location and the time, so they could just as well be lying about the date.

After that, though, the launcher drops out of sight, 30 miles from the Russian border, and has not been seen again. Discount the Luhansk footage and the launcher has not been seen since it appearance near Snizhne, while no pictures of any other launchers, tracker unit or command module have been seen.

In evidential terms, therefore, it seems we are no closer to pinning down whether the federal Russian government assisted the separatists in obtaining the BUK M1, or took any part in the shooting down of MH17.

Of course, one cannot say that Putin and is government are innocent, but that isn't the point. No one, not even the Americans, have come up with any robust evidence that will support a claim that the Russian government, directly – or even indirectly – helped the separatists take possession of a BUK M1 launcher.

It is thus positively bizarre that the EU tomorrow is set to impose sanctions on Russia, alongside the United States.

It has come to a pretty state that sanctions can now be imposed on an important nation, with significant diplomatic and economic implications, without first furnishing any convincing evidence. This is not the way things are supposed to work.


Richard North 29/07/2014 link

 Flooding: what a difference

 Monday 28 July 2014

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Pete went down to Burrowbridge in early March to have a look at the situation, and sent us the picture above. Yesterday, we revisited the same scene, with the picture taken below – with our Pete in the left of the frame. There is evidence of dredging, although it is not extensive. The work is scheduled to continue to October.

Richard North 28/07/2014 link

 Booker: could Obama have prevented the MH17 tragedy?

 Monday 28 July 2014

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It seems to me that three points need to guide us in our appreciation of MH17 – and generally on contentious issues. The first is that just because one party to a dispute is lying, that does not mean that the other parties are necessarily telling the truth.

The second point is that, just because a party tells lies, everything they say will always be lies. Sometimes, just to confuse the issue, they tell the truth - after all, the best way of lying is to cloak your deceit in the garments of truth.

Thirdly, rather like the first point, just because a party self evidently has something to hide, and is therefore not telling the whole truth, that does not mean that other parties do not also have things to hide. Everybody might have something to hide, albeit they may be hiding different things.

And with that in mind, later than usual – but posted for the record – we have the Booker column, which takes up the very real and important question of whether President Obama could have prevented the MH17 tragedy.

This, says Booker, is the most alarming unanswered question over the shooting-down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, one so fearful to contemplate that it has scarcely even been asked. Was President Obama in fact been better placed than anyone else to prevent that disaster from taking place?

When, in his statement 24 hours after the plane was downed, the President stoked speculation about the involvement of President Putin, did he deliberately obscure the fact that, days earlier, he had already learnt enough from his many intelligence sources to know that the 55 international airliners travelling every day along that flight path over eastern Ukraine faced the threat of precisely such a disaster?

If so, why did the US authorities not make it a top priority to ensure that such flights were immediately halted?

In all the initial confusion over what Mr Obama called "this outrage of unspeakable proportions", there was a hysterical rush to pin the blame on Russia’s president. "Putin's killed my son", as one newspaper front page had it. But, over the days that followed, as ever more information emerged about this story, the US government appeared to be backtracking on its original narrative.

The 30-year-old SA-11, or Buk M1 missile launcher, apparently responsible for the downing of MH17, had not been recently smuggled in over the Russian border, as was alleged. It had almost certainly been in Ukraine all along, as part of the equipment of Ukraine's official armed forces. 

On June 29, several launchers were probably captured from those forces, in a non-operational state, by the pro-Russian rebels. By July 13, at least one was again fully functional, and used the next day to down a Ukrainian Antonov 26 transport aircraft, from a height that only such a missile could have reached.

All this, including the exact position from where the fatal missile was launched, would almost certainly have been detected by the plethora of US satellites that have been closely monitoring that area, and confirmed by other intelligence, including mobile-phone intercepts.

It is inconceivable that this did not ring alarm bells with anyone, including the authorities in Kiev, which should have had prime responsibility for immediately closing their airspace.

But for various reasons, not least the sizeable income Ukraine would have lost from the airlines making 350 flights a day across the country as a whole, they did nothing. No one, then, was in a better position to know the danger that air travellers were being exposed to than Washington. Which also apparently did nothing.

It was three days after the downing of the Antonov that the rebels shot down MH17, almost certainly unaware that it was an airliner. When Mr Obama made his statement, he explicitly mentioned the Antonov, but fogged over the implications of that earlier incident by blurring it with the rebels’ shooting-down of other aircraft from lower altitudes, using much less powerful rockets.

Mr Obama then went on to say that "we know that these separatists have received a steady flow of support from Russia", including "anti-aircraft weapons".

The uncomfortable question, to which the world really does deserve an answer, is why, in the light of all that has emerged as to how much Washington knew in the days before MH17 was shot down, did it not take steps to ensure that civilian overflights were immediately halted?

As so often before in the West's weak and wrong-headed response to the Ukrainian shambles – created more than anything by those vaingloriously provocative moves to absorb that country into the EU – we can begin to understand rather better the way in which Europe sleepwalked into war in the summer of 1914. 

Pray God, Booker concludes, it does not come to that this time. But the hysterical misreading of this latest chapter in the Ukrainian tragedy has hardly inspired confidence in those who rule us.


Richard North 28/07/2014 link