Don’t fly through war zones… The Spotless Sun

View 833 Friday, July 18, 2014

“Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

President Barack Obama, January 31, 2009


Spotless Sun: see below


One reason I do not like to comment on breaking news is that it’s generally impossible to know what is really going on. Despite all the new technology, news reporters still can’t find out what’s happening without a lot of work which will include investigative techniques that are increasingly rare in the modern press corps – and this at a time when means of deception are increasingly available to governments and various organizations who want everyone to believe their own version of the story.

Yesterday Bryan Suits said that he was inclined to believe the Russian separatist rebels in the Ukraine who said they did not have the capability to shoot down an airliner at 33,000 feet. Suits has the advantage of having served in combat missions as both an enlisted man – medic – and an officer – infantry platoon leader – in both the Balkan Expedition and in Iraq after the US invasion following 911. He’s about the only news reporter/commentator with such experience, and if I have to form an opinion on breaking military matters, I’m inclined to give more weight to his views than others. In this case he – and I – were wrong.

The Ukrainian separatists do have such capabilities, having acquired Surface to Air Missiles either from overrunning Ukrainian positions (as they claim) or as a gift from the Russian forces on the border (denied by the Russians). Either way it’s the same equipment. Moreover, in days previous to the Malaysian airliner incident, the separatists claimed to have downed a Ukrainian national forces transport aircraft at high altitude. And then there’s this story from the Daily Mail (not an unimpeachable source):

Is this the smoking gun? Footage emerges of BUK missile launcher being smuggled back to Russia and missing TWO rockets

  • Expert believes that MH17 was downed by a missile fired from rebel-held Torez in eastern Ukraine
  • BUK launcher has been pictured rumbling into the town just two hours before the crash
  • Ukraine’s security agency, the SBU, has released recordings of intercepted phone calls
  • Claim they prove Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by a group of Russian-backed Cossack militants
  • Neither recording — which allegedly includes a Russian military intelligence officer — could be independently verified
  • Laughing rebels filmed the plane as it crashed, gleefully bragging ‘that was a blast – look at the smoke!’

There is still the possibility, now more remote, that the Cossacks have dealt themselves a hand in this mess. Unlikely, but don’t forget that they are there, and will have their own agenda.

When considering this event keep in mind that there was a war we were not part of going on between Iran and Iraq when the Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner in the Persian Gulf. It’s a war zone over there.

And now it appears Malaysia Airlines were trying to save money on fuel costs by ignoring a NOTAM.


Either that, or just sheer incompetence.


Roland Dobbins

The event is likely to change the situation, but hardly for the better for the US. Like it or not, we have common interests with the Russians – more than we had with Saddam before his invasion of Kuwait ended the era when Iran and Iraq cancelled each other out and provided stability in much of the Middle East except, of course, for their border areas. But Putin will not forget his need for more Russians in Russia, and the Don Cossacks will not forget that they are Cossacks; and Eastern Ukrainians will remain between a rock and a hard place.



My guess is that the Russians gave their paramilitary proxies an SA11 or SA17 for reasons of face, without experienced advisers, and are now regretting it.

Of course, the alternate theory is that Ukraine decided they’d give Putin a lesson by shooting down a Russian cargo plane, with unexpected results.

Altitude and apparent size are always difficult for trainee SAM operators to get right. The USS Vincennes shot down IR655 due to this sort of confusion in 1988.

It appears that inexperienced missileers believed they were firing on an AN26 cargo aircraft. My guess is that the Russians gave their paramilitary proxies an SA11 or SA17 for reasons of face, without experienced advisers, and are now regretting it. MH17 was flying in a well-known commercial air corridor, and it should’ve been obvious that positive confirmation was required before launching.

Either that, or the operator was drunk – which is always a possibility.


Roland Dobbins

These were unlikely to be even trainees: just militia, given the missiles with the keys and a field manual. Good luck Comrade. Or perhaps it’s Gospodin now? I haven’t been to Russia since the end of the USSR.



You wrote "..the separatists… ..wouldn’t have missiles with that capability unless the Russians gave them and the Russians would have to send some technical advisors too; it’s just not likely."

I agree that it’d be incredibly stupid of the Russians to give such high-altitude missiles to the ethnic Russian separatists. Alas, it’s looking very much like they were that stupid.

The rebels are currently denying any high-altitude AA missile capability. But it’s looking near certain they’re lying.

From three days ago:,

"The 9k37 Buk is a weapon with a range of up to 14000 meters, but has never been seen in the hands of separatists. The Russian network TV Zvezda, the news network for the Russian military, did report that a Buk fell to separatist hands on June 29th. However, is it possible that TV Zvezda was "seeding" the story, planting an explanation for why the separatists would have such an advanced weapons system? After all, they are the only source reporting this story to our knowledge, there are no pictures or videos of the separatists possessing this missile system, nor have we been able to tie the claims made by TV Zvezda back to a specific incident that may have resulted in the loss of such a weapon."

The TV Zvezda story referenced, in Russian, is at

From Google translation of the content: "Militias in Donetsk captured military unit defense. On point defense, which is a division of missile troops, have self-propelled anti-aircraft missile systems "Buk". Now this weapon, according to the militia to defend the skies at Donetsk."

And from this morning, before the airliner shootdown:,

"An Associated Press reporter on Thursday saw seven rebel-owned tanks parked at a gas station outside the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne.

In the town, he also observed a Buk missile system, which can fire missiles up to an altitude of 22,000 meters (72,000 feet)." (Snizhne is about ten miles south of where the airliner came down.)

The SA-11 "Buk" is described elsewhere as very effective, but very technically complicated to run. Whether the separatists actually captured the missile battery or were given it by the Russians, it would have been extremely difficult to operate without Russian technical advice.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian security chief says he has phone intercepts proving two Russian military intelligence officers were involved in the shootdown.

And just now I heard a TV news report that US intelligence sources are saying that we have phone intercepts proving the Russian separatists were involved. One was supposed to have been from a separatist sent to the crash site, reporting back that it wasn’t a Ukrainian military transport they’d shot down after all. There are also news reports of hastily-deleted tweets by separatists boasting of having shot down a Ukrainian transport right after the airliner went down.

All in all, it very much looks like the Russians really were just exactly that stupid.

23 Americans were on the manifest. All who actually got on board are now dead, along with everyone else of the 295 people from a dozen different countries on board the airliner.

The Russians will do everything they can to obscure responsibility, but the area in question is under heavy surveillance and Russian fingerprints are all over this.

So, now what?


Now what?  I wish I could predict a rational response in the national interest, but what is likely is bluster and threats and red lines and – and not much else, with the hope that it will all peter out.  Russia cannot control the separatists, nor can Putin allow them to be defeated and sent off to reeducation camps or executed as terrorists; he certainly cannot and will not turn over Russian nationalists to some international court.  This is not the old USSR, but it is still a Great Power in the old sense of the word.  We are in the world of Grotius again…

On reflection, perhaps The Alabama Claims apply?  England sold the commerce raider CSS Alabama (and other commerce raiders) to the Confederacy; after the Civil War ended, the United States sued Britain for damages,  which were in fact paid.  It is an international law precedent that might apply here….




President Obama is reacting strongly, but in my judgment weirdly: “Russia, Ukrainian Separatists, and Ukraine  must adhere to an immediate cease fire.  Evidence must not be tampered with.”

And demands that the FBI be admitted to a war zone.  And –    Well I can think of other international situations in which we could wish for strong words from the President, but none came forth.

What Putin can say:  “Look up the Vincennes affair.  I do not recall that you allowed Egyptian and Iranian investigators aboard your warship.”  Mr. Obama is speaking more severely to the President of Russia than ever he has to Dear Leader despite North Korea’s various incursions and bombardments in South Korea. Treating the President of Russia as an international terrorist that one can speak down to is not, in my judgment, an optimum foreign policy.


Meanwhile the Israelis have invaded the Gaza Strip, stating as one objective the final and permanent closure of tunnels and other illegal entry points to Gaza: to stem the flow of missiles into Gaza (and out of Gaza into Israel). There is precious little news on that today:   Breaking: the President is speaking now.  “We are hopeful that “ the Israelis will work to reduce civilian casualties, and…      Anyway I heard nothing significant.  The Israelis at considerable cost abandoned Gaza and stripped out Israeli settlers – even as some of the Army refused to take part in that effort –but the result was that Hamas took control, and missiles began to fly out of Gaza toward Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion Airport, and points north and east.  This has gone on since not long after the Israelis abandoned Gaza.   I confess that at the time my view was that stopping the Settlers and establishing a stable border was the only way to a two-state solution to the Palestine situation. Most of my Israeli friends agreed although some very reluctantly.  The result was not successful.  The West Bank territories are governed by – well, you read the papers.  And Gaza has become a warehouse for missiles to be launched in the general direction of Israel, and with about that accuracy.  Because they have so far been ineffective there seems to be no call for prosecution of Gaza Palestinians as international terrorists.


I am now hearing that the missileers must have had sophisticated training from Russia.  This is nonsense.  They were not designed to be operated by long experienced technically trained troops.  Maintenance and be more complex, but operation is easy: here’s the screen, here’s the arming switch, this mouse selects the target…  Operations are no more difficult than a modern computer game.  And as noted above, it is easy to be mistaken about altitude and size of the target.  Had the operators of that missile been better trained it probably would not have been launched at a civilian aircraft.  On the other hand, the crew of the Vincennes were quite well trained…


The President says there will have to be an international investigation.  So far I have heard no comment from the Russians.  I expect a full press conference sometime but possibly not until next week.



Spotless Sun

The sun has been officially spotless for 24 hours, and the last visible spot decayed just after the start of the previous 24 hour period.

Two spots may be forming this morning.

Maunder Minimum anyone?




Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




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