Saturday, 16 May 2015

U.S. Troops Prepare Ukraine Soldiers For Russian Onslaught

YAVORIV, Ukraine -- The sounds of gunfire and explosions are constant on the firing range at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center outside this western Ukrainian town. 
At one spot, behind an earthen bunker, U.S. Army paratroopers are qualifying Ukrainian National Guard soldiers in Soviet-era, shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

Further down the line, Ukrainian soldiers shoot at targets using different types of Kalashnikov assault rifles and RPK and PKM machine guns.

Together, the sounds of these Soviet weapons form a booming background din, which some of the U.S. soldiers here are all too familiar with.

After a Ukrainian soldier fired an RPG, one U.S. paratrooper turned to another and dryly remarked, “I’ve heard a lot of those things fired in the other direction.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” the other soldier responded.

“For a second there it felt like ‘go time.’”

On April 20, about 300 U.S. Army paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade based in Vicenza, Italy, began training the Ukrainian National Guard as part of a six-month exercise called Fearless Guardian.

Like their position relative to the sounds of the Soviet weapons (which the Taliban and Al-Qaida often use) on the Yavoriv range, Fearless Guardian marks a reversal for many of the U.S. soldiers here.

For one thing, unlike U.S. missions to train Afghan and Iraqi soldiers, the U.S. Army paratroopers will not be fighting alongside Ukrainians.
This leaves the U.S. soldiers in the unfamiliar position of training for a fight in which they don’t expect to have a direct role.

“It’s hard not to get emotionally involved,” Captain Nick Salimbene, 31, said.

“The reality is that in a few months we’re going to be back in Italy, and these guys are going to be in the ATO [anti-terrorist operation, the Ukrainian name for the conflict area] staring down separatist tanks.”

Fearless Guardian also reflects an evolution in the U.S. military’s role in Europe as it reverts to a Cold War-era mindset.

U.S. soldiers, some of whom have spent their entire careers in counterinsurgency campaigns in the post-9/11 era, are refocusing on state-on-state warfare, such as training to defend against tanks and heavy artillery.

Even the movement of U.S. equipment to Ukraine had a strategic purpose.

A convoy from the 173rd’s home base in Vicenza to Yavoriv was used to scout lines of transportation across the region that might be needed for the rapid deployment of NATO assets in a crisis.

“It makes you wonder if the Cold War ever really ended,” Sergeant Alexander Skripnichuk said.
The U.S. military is also adjusting to the media spotlight that comes with exercises like Fearless Guardian, which, while an independent exercise, is part of a larger rebalance of U.S. military power in Eastern Europe.

Highlighting the diplomatic sensitivity of having U.S. troops on Ukrainian soil is an April 17 statement by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich, in response to the 173rd’s arrival in Yavoriv.

“We wonder if Washington, London and Ottawa know that they will train the very same Ukrainian ultra-nationalists from the volunteer battalions who have Nazi symbols on their uniforms and who killed women, children and the elderly during the punitive operations in Donbass,” Lukashevich said.

“Will the overseas instructors train them in more efficient methods of killing Russian speakers in Ukraine?”

He added, “It is obvious that U.S. troops will not bring peace to Ukraine.”

Citing the Leahy Law, which prohibits the U.S. from supporting foreign military groups accused of human rights violations, a U.S. military official said the Ukrainian National Guard units involved in Fearless Guardian had been thoroughly vetted.

Some prominent units have been left out of the training, however, such as the Ukrainian National Guard Azov Regiment, which Moscow has accused of being a neo-Nazi group.

Finding Common Ground More than a decade of combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has helped U.S. soldiers earn the respect of their Ukrainian counterparts.
But the Ukrainian soldiers’ attitude toward their American trainers is not one of unquestioning gratitude.

The Ukrainians, some of whom have been fighting in eastern Ukraine for more than a year, frequently challenge the Americans’ techniques, reflecting the challenges of fusing the experiences of militaries that have been tested in two very different types of combat, with different resources available.

“These guys just came back. They’re fresh,” Salimbene said.

“You have to tread lightly because it’s hard to relate. All five of my deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have been with Ranger units, and we had air superiority. Talk about being spoiled.”

At the RPG range, for example, a Ukrainian insisted on firing left-handed.

Initially the American instructor protested, saying, “If you don’t shoot right-handed, you’re not shooting today.”

But after a few minutes of debate, in which the Ukrainian argued that he had shot RPGs left-handed in combat against separatist tanks, the U.S. soldier finally conceded.

“Fine. Shoot however you like.”

The Ukrainian hit his target on the first shot.

“This is a two-way street,” Salimbene said.

“They can offer me as much as I can offer them. It’s been educational. But it’s been more of a challenge than I expected.”
he occasional butting of heads also highlights differences in military cultures.

At an obstacle-breaching course, a Ukrainian officer peppered the U.S. instructor, Sergeant Caleb Michaud, with a series of questions, challenging his techniques on cutting through barbed wire and quizzing him on what to do if the enemy has machine guns zeroed in on his troops.

“Well, then don’t breach there, obviously,” Michaud said.

“Just go somewhere else.”

“But what if we planned to breach at that spot?” the Ukrainian officer countered.

“Then change your plan,” Michaud replied.

“We can ask ‘what-ifs’ all day long. Just use common sense.”

The U.S. military chain of command decentralizes decision making from the upper ranks, teaching junior officers and noncommissioned officers to take the initiative to make tactical decisions based on battlefield realities.

“If there’s anything we’ve learned from the last 14 years of war, it’s to trust the guy on the ground,” Salimbene said.

“They know what they need.”

The Ukrainian military, however, still reflects the Soviet model, in which decision making is concentrated at the top of the chain of command, leaving junior officers with little flexibility to exercise their own initiative.
Additionally, the role of noncommissioned officers, considered to be the backbone of the U.S. Army, is virtually nonexistent within the Ukrainians’ ranks.

Despite some initial friction, the U.S. example seems to be rubbing off on the Ukrainians, who have started to adopt the U.S. chain of command model.

“I think initially they were a little bit standoffish within the ranks themselves, just because ‘Why is someone else coming to train me? I’ve been to the ATO, I’ve seen what’s going on there,’” said Lieutenant Colonel Kyle Reed, commander of the 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment.

“But then when they got into the program and they started seeing why we were here and the capabilities that we can provide them, I think they really took ownership of it.”

“We’re two very different militaries,” Corporal Nicholas Stevens, 22, said.

“But they seem to grasp the concepts we teach them. They seem grateful.”

Train to the Threat 

The U.S. training syllabus was drafted by Ukrainian officials and approved by U.S. commanders.

However, as the training progresses and Ukrainian soldiers share their insights from a year of combat against combined Russian-separatist forces, the U.S. soldiers have adapted the training to match the threats Ukrainian soldiers face in the East.

U.S. soldiers are prohibited, however, from visiting the conflict areas to see firsthand the conditions they are training the Ukrainians for.
“That’s a red line we’re not crossing,” said Major Michael Weisman, the 173rd’s public affairs officer, denying Ukrainian media reports that U.S. Army soldiers had traveled to the ATO as observers.

“As close as we can without going there, we have a sense of what tactics are being used,” he added.

“We get national military intelligence reports, and we combine that with the feedback we get from the Ukrainian guys coming back from the ATO, to adjust the training.”

Fearless Guardian is broken into three two-month blocks.

Within each block, a new crop of about 300 Ukrainian soldiers move through a training pipeline that begins with basic individual skills such as shooting and movement drills, progresses through small-unit tactics and eventually culminates in combined company-level exercises.

Ostensibly, the U.S. training is not focused on preparing Ukrainians to fight a war against Russia.

There is, however, some specialized training tailored to the specific threats Ukrainian soldiers face in the ATO from combined Russian-separatist forces.

For example, the U.S. is training Ukrainians in countering IEDs (improvised explosive devices), which U.S. forces frequently faced in Iraq and Afghanistan and are now prolific in the Ukraine conflict.

Ukrainian troops are also taught how to conceal themselves from drones (which are observed over their front-line positions daily), as well as how to better encrypt their communications.
“We’re trying to tailor it to them, but not so much because of the whole politics issue,” Sergeant Gregory Crocker, 29, said.

“We can’t get involved with that—that’s way above my rank. But we want them to learn these basic soldier skills.”

The training syllabus also includes two days of law of armed conflict training, including instruction in the Geneva Conventions and the ethical treatment of prisoners.

“We’re teaching them everything an infantry company should be expected to do,” Weisman said.

“It’s a crawl, walk, run process from the individual to the company level.”

Mindful of the propaganda attention focused on their presence in Ukraine, U.S. soldiers are careful about how they describe the intent of Fearless Guardian.

Many paint the exercise as an effort to “help Ukrainians protect their sovereignty.”

Others claim the exercise is not geared toward any specific threat or country but is intended to develop the Ukrainian National Guard as a professional fighting force.

“As we look to the provocation of us merely being here, I don’t think it was really directed just at the combined Russian-separatist forces,” Reed said.

“It is really designed for the development of a professional military force within Ukraine.”
For both the U.S. and Ukrainian soldiers, however, the reality of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine looms over the training.

U.S. and NATO officials have accused Russia of building up forces in Ukraine to support an upcoming separatist offensive.

“Russian forces used the opportunities presented by the recent lull in fighting to reset and reposition while protecting their gains,” U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, commander of NATO forces in Europe, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 30.

“Many of their actions are consistent with preparations for another offensive.”

Russia denies aiding the separatists or having troops in Ukraine.

Faced with the near certainty that many of the Ukrainian soldiers under their tutelage will soon be back on the front lines, the U.S. Army trainers in Yavoriv take their training mission personally.  

Speaking to a group of Ukrainian soldiers prior to a training exercise, Michaud said.

“I know that a lot of you will be going back to the front lines soon, but take this time to learn the things that can keep you and your men alive.” 

Evidence Mounts That Russia Supplied Buk Missiles To Ukraine Separatists

KIEV, Ukraine -- More and more evidence is emerging that seems to document a large Russian military convoy that traveled to eastern Ukraine in June 2014 and brought Buk antiaircraft systems to Russia-backed separatists fighting against Kiev. 
On May 13, a group of pro-Ukrainian citizen activists published a report purportedly identifying a Russian soldier who was a driver in that convoy and showing photographs of Buk systems apparently being escorted across Russia to Ukraine.

A few weeks later -- on July 17, 2014 -- Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine's Donetsk region.

All 298 people on board were killed.

Although the investigation into the MH17 downing is ongoing, many believe the aircraft was shot down by the separatists using a Russian-provided Buk system.

The separatists and Russia have blamed Kiev for the downing of MH17, and Moscow denies providing Buks -- or any other weapons -- to the separatists.

However, the activist group InformNapalm has found photographs on the VKontakte page of a Russian soldier named Dmitry Zubov that seem to detail the convoy's June 2014 journey.

According to Zubov's posts on VKontakte -- his account on the Russian social-media site has subsequently been closed down, but InformNapalm saved cached copies -- he was serving with the 147th Automotive Logistic Support Battalion, Unit 83466, based just outside of Moscow.

At the time, he was serving his last few days before being demobilized.

Some of his photos show the convoy as it crosses Russia and the soldiers who were traveling with it.
An additional photo shows Zubov on a train returning to his unit in Russia, where he was demobilized a few days later.

Eliot Higgins is the founder of the citizen's journalism website Bellingcat, which occasionally cooperates with investigators from InformNapalm.

He said the information released by InformNapalm jibes well with Bellingcat's own probes into the convoy that allegedly brought the Buk systems to eastern Ukraine, including the one he believes was used to shoot down MH17.

"We've been looking at this same convoy and there's quite a lot of interesting information," Higgins told RFE/RL.

"InformNapalm has found one piece, one profile. We've found much, much more additional material. We've got the names of the people who were in the convoy. We've got a good idea of which vehicles they were driving. In fact, the guy who they feature in the article was actually almost certainly driving just one vehicle in front of the actual missile launcher that [we believe] shot down MH17."

"There was a big, massive movement of equipment between June 23 and June 25, including the missile launcher that shot down MH17, and a few weeks later we see it in Ukraine on July 17," Higgins said.

Bellingcat has been sharing its findings with investigators in the Netherlands who are looking into the downing of MH17 and plans to issue its own report on the convoy on May 28.

The InformNapalm information comes one day after the release of a report based on research by slain Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov documenting Russia's alleged involvement in the conflict in Ukraine.
The Nemtsov report also makes extensive use of social media to document its claims that Russian soldiers and Russian-paid mercenaries have been fighting with the separatists.

Chapter Eight of that report argues that MH17 was shot down by separatists using a Buk antiaircraft system.

Putin Tries To Freeze The Ukraine Conflict

DONETSK, Ukraine -- We hadn't heard much from the separatists in eastern Ukraine lately, but this week they put forward proposals for the long-term status of those regions. 
These are mainly in line with the Minsk peace plan of February, but they are also designed to be rejected by the government of Ukraine as a way to produce a permanent frozen conflict zone, akin to the Russian-controlled areas of Georgia.

The separatists published their proposals on the website of the "Donetsk News Agency," where they often post official statements.

There is a document suggesting amendments to the Ukrainian constitution and another outlining a draft law on elections for the rebel-held areas.

Both have Moscow's fingerprints; they demonstrate a lawyerly cunning that the rough and ready rebels have never exhibited.

Judging from the two documents, President Vladimir Putin's goal is for Ukraine's leaders in Kiev to reject the proposals.

Then he will be able to say Ukraine has broken its political terms and renounce his own key concession -- to return control of Ukraine's southeastern border to the central government by the end of the year.

At first glance, the separatist documents seem promising.

In a sharp break with previous practice, they make no mention of the unrecognized Donetsk and Luhansk "people's republics."

Instead, the territory is called "a separate district with a special status."

Although the separatists had never acknowledged it before, the Minsk agreement specifies that their territory should remain part of Ukraine.

It also requires judges and prosecutors to be appointed by Kiev.

So if the rebels are to be the constructive party, they can't say otherwise in their proposals.
The rebels do, however, claim their right (set down in the Minsk accord) to field a "people's militia" with local commanders, allowing the current insurgent army to keep its weapons and, ultimately, control over the area.

The proposals also contain demands that simply weren't covered in Minsk.

These include locally controlled election commissions, fiscal control over local businesses that would allow the "special district" to balance its budget, an exemption from the article of the Ukrainian constitution that says the country's regions are run by Kiev-appointed governors, and power-sharing between the central government and local councils.

In addition, there is a demand that Ukraine restore a law requiring the country's military non-alignment, which was rescinded under President Petro Poroshenko.

That would prevent Ukraine from applying for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  

None of these demands directly breach the letter of the cease-fire agreement.

The only proposal that does is a list of "special district" towns in the draft election law.

It includes: Ukrainian-held Shyrokine, near the port city of Mariupol; Piski, adjacent to the hotly contested Donetsk airport; and Debaltseve, the railroad junction the rebels seized after the Minsk deal was signed.

The cease-fire explicitly enshrines last September's separation line between the rebels and the Ukrainian military, and would put all three towns on the Ukrainian side.
The separatists have submitted their proposals both to the Ukrainian Constitutional Commission, charged with working out a decentralization plan, and to the Minsk contact group, which is supposed to monitor cease-fire compliance.

Ostensibly, the rebels -- and Russia -- want a dialogue with Ukrainian authorities about the documents.

They know, however, that it won't take place.

"We don't really want to respond to this clear provocation by the separatists," a person at the Constitutional Commission told

Putin undoubtedly wants the commission to reject the proposals.

That's why the separatists also submitted them to the international contact group, where French diplomat Pierre Morel oversees the political part of the Minsk deal.

It's important for Putin to convince his Western adversaries that Ukraine won't do its part to bring about lasting peace.

That's the reason Putin's propaganda machine seized on Poroshenko's recent statement that Ukraine would "free" the Donetsk airport, part of which is in rebel-held territory, according to the cease-fire terms.

Putin wants Western leaders to get tired of Poroshenko's combative stance.

As soon as they show signs of such fatigue, he can freeze the situation and proceed to build ties with the rebel-held areas on the model of other frozen conflict zones: Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.
It's hard for Ukraine to break out of this Kremlin scenario.

The last thing it wants is to negotiate its new constitution with Putin and his proxies.

A refusal to negotiate, however, isn't going to please German Chancellor Angela Merkel or her French counterpart, President Francois Hollande, who brokered the Minsk deal.

Merkel has reportedly told Poroshenko that Putin is prepared to recognize east Ukraine's "people's republics" and send in a "peacekeeping force," as he did with the disputed areas of Georgia.

If she did say that, she was probably trying to compel Poroshenko to be more flexible and keep the Minsk deal alive, so Putin would be forced to hand back control of the border by the end of the year.  

Such flexibility, however, would be politically impossible for Poroshenko.

He doesn't have a popular mandate to create a pro-Russian autonomous area within Ukraine.

His response is to try to scare his Western partners with a new Russian onslaught -- but they will only believe it when they see it.

PayPal Blocks Fundraising For Report About Russia Invading Ukraine MOSCOW, Russia -

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russian opposition activists want to reveal Russian military involvement in Ukraine. 
They're raising money to distribute a report that allegedly proves that claim.

But PayPal has blocked their account.

On Friday, PayPal confirmed it made the move to block the funds.

In a statement to CNNMoney, the company portrayed it as a calculated business decision.

PayPal blamed overbearing Russian regulation -- and an inability to track who's actually giving money.

"PayPal Russia does not currently allow any political parties or political causes in Russia to receive donations due to the complexity of complying with local rules which require validating the identity of donors," the company said.

"We regret any disappointment this may cause our customers."

Critics argue that PayPal is actually trying to avoid diplomatic problems in Russia.
At issue here is a report that claims proof that Russian troops are indeed invading Ukraine -- even though Moscow has denied any involvement in the conflict.

The Russian government continues to say any Russian citizens fighting in Ukraine are actually volunteers.

The 65-page report, titled "Putin - War," says at least 220 active Russian soldiers have died while fighting in Ukraine.

Another key aspect of this:

The report is based on materials gathered by Boris Netmsov, a major populist figure in Russia who was murdered in Moscow in March.

Nemtsov was Russia's former deputy prime minister and an outspoken Kremlin critic.

His supporters blamed Vladimir Putin's regime for his death.

The report was released on Tuesday, with 2,000 copies distributed to journalists and opposition leaders.

Vsevolod Chagaev, one of the activists behind the publication, said the PayPal account was set up to crowdfund wider distribution of the report.

"The day after the presentation, PayPal restricted my account and the payments started to fail, I went through identification procedure and the limit was removed," Chagaev said.
"But the next day the account was entirely blocked," he added.

PayPal then sent Chagaev an email, explaining his account was blocked because the service does not support political fundraising.

However, PayPal does support fundraising.

It has a special service specifically dedicated to accepting political donations.

It even offers customizable "donate" buttons for fundraisers to put on websites.

Additionally, PayPal also collects additional information from anyone who uses its system.

Like any bank or money transferring business, PayPal abides by strict Anti-Money Laundering regulations.

That's why, the company says, it demands "documentation to help prove your identity."

That includes your name, address, phone number, email address and -- at times -- a bank account number and Social Security number too.

PayPal also did not clarify why identifying donors in Russia was a difficult task.

Russian law prohibits anonymous donations to political parties.

It is also illegal for parties to accept donations from foreigners and foreign-owned organizations.

Asked why he thinks PayPal blocked the account, Chagaev said:

"I have only one suggestion: Russian office of Paypal is afraid of the impact of the Russian government."
This isn't the first time PayPal blocks rebellious political activism.

In 2010, it famously shut off the ability for people to support Wikileaks, the rogue journalistic outfit that reveals government and corporate secrets (such as the killing of journalists by American soldiers in Iraq).

In that case, PayPal froze the account of the German foundation accepting Wikileaks donations.

Then last year, PayPal temporarily froze donations to ProtonMail, a startup that sought to create a secure, private email service in the wake of the NSA domestic surveillance scandal.