Heat signatures from fighting in Ukraine

As you might guess one of my favorite TV shows from the last 20 years was “House, MD”. House was noted for saying “It’s a basic truth of the human condition that everybody lies, the only variable is about what.” When it comes to geopolitics and especially military action, this goes double, and it’s essentially impossible to get somewhat neutral information. The only way to sort of get a handle on the situation is to delve in to the various propaganda sources and try to figure out who is lying about what, and thus get a glimpse of the truth. Even photos and videos are not objective data – I’ve seen many times where reporters will do stand-ups in front of the most devastated structure after a wind storm – surrounded by areas that look like nothing happened. Likewise, especially in Ukraine where both sides are using similar military hardware, knowing who that burning ATV belonged to is difficult.

It’s fascinating to see how things are reported on each side of this conflict. Many of you have seen the video of a missile hitting an apartment building. In the Western media it is universally being called a “Russian Missile.” However, pro-Russian media and the Russian MOD says it was a Ukrainian BUK-M1 anti-aircraft missile that had malfunctioned/missed its target. That’s certainly a plausible explanation based on the appearance and flight path. Recall that during the Pearl Harbor attacks, a lot of the 5″ anti-aircraft artillery rounds were improperly fuzed in the panic or malfunctioned, landing in Honolulu and caused fires and damage. Which is true? Almost doesn’t matter at this point, not to those in the middle. It seems likely the “Kindergarten attack” from a week or so before the Russian Invasion was, in fact, friendly fire – the wall was apparently facing away from the LDPR forces who were returning fire across the border. No matter who is shooting, civilians always get caught in the crossfire in these conflicts.

From space we can see heat signatures that are normally used to track wild fires. They also are useful for tracking other human activities; often the operating status of factories or refineries can be assessed from their thermal images. During COVID I’ve used this data to monitor China’s factories to see if their rhetoric about production is truthy or not. Likewise, wars generate a lot of unique signatures detectable from space. Here’s one example, the fighting northeast of Kiev yesterday in the outskirts of the town of Chernhiv, which lies on the route between Belarus and the capital …

Fighting has been intense near the airfields around Kiev. Here is Antonov International Airport …

And yesterday, after the order was given to resume the advance (which had apparently been paused by Russia to allow negotiations – or was it the delay caused by the heroic resistance of Ukrainian forces?), the fuel dumps near the military airfield at Vasylkiv were hit by missiles …

Clearly there is heavy fighting – but in the fog of war, with propaganda the only thing coming out of the “news” sources from all sides, facts and truth are in short supply. In summary, I’d suggest that you not jump to any conclusions as to how the war is going. My guess is by the middle of this week we will really know how things are really going, based on seeing if the government of Zelenskii is still in Kiev or has relocated to Livov.

I’d also urge everyone to consider that this is getting out of hand, and realize that the global leadership are taking actions that will potentially make a bad situation worse. Disconnecting Russia from the global financial system is going to have severe repercussions. Europe and the US are trying to have it both ways – hurt Russia while still keeping access to Russian energy, since without it Europe will likely plunge in to economic chaos, which will cascade across the rest of the world. What if Russia doesn’t cooperate in this and stops the flow of gas (and wheat – it’s not 1980 any more – while certain US politicians seem to be ignorant of this fact, Russia now exports more wheat than the US and Canada combined!). May be obvious, but it’s going to get uglier the longer this goes on.

One other note, I think it is very dangerous to call foreign leaders insane, crazy, compare them to Hitler, and use that kind of rhetoric in most cases, including this one. It’s “good” politics and a “good” way to manipulate public opinion, but it’s terrible policy because once you call someone “crazy” you don’t have to consider if maybe you share some responsibility for what has happened, and it paints you into a corner that shuts down the path to negotiation and compromise. To be clear, I don’t approve of the invasion, and think they had other options, but I understand why Russia has done it, and feel we didn’t take Russia’s legitimate concerns seriously. If we had I think the people of Ukraine would be better off, and this would have been avoided.

Finally, thanks for all of the kind comments and support for previous posts. These events are so emotional, and people tend to have knee-jerk reactions to things. There are over 20,000 readers of a typical post, and if even half of a percent of people misunderstand something, take it the wrong way, or even are just having a bad day and vent, that’s over a hundred angry emails or comments to deal with (not to mention the hundreds of reasonable replies of people who may disagree, but just want to have a discussion and understand). For one person that’s a bit exhausting and some times it gets to be a bit much. Again, thanks for the understanding.

#Madagascar update post-Emnati

Fortunately, Cyclone Emnati paralleled the coastline and collapsed to a minimal hurricane before making landfall …

Additional impacts were probably “only” in the low hundreds of millions of US dollars. It seems there were no additional casualties, but it has exacerbated the impacts from the three previous cyclones over the last month (link to Reuters article). Yes, that’s right: the island nation has been hit by four cyclones in a month, and is struggling to recover. Given the global political situation, natural disasters like this often go under the radar …

Twenty years on: a tale of two wars

Heat signatures/fires probably related to fighting near Kherson, Ukraine.

During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was able to post commentary and analysis from what many seemed to think was a fairly neutral position, pointing out how and where US policy was right and wrong in how we got there, and the mechanics and flow of the invasion. I posted links to various sources, both pro and con, as well as original analysis based on satellite imagery. It got a fair amount of praise from those who opposed the war (who thought it was a little “pro war” but fair) and those against (who implied I had “anti war” sentiments but provided a good service). It even broke a couple of stories well before the popular media. Although there were of course the occasional trolls, rarely did any of the critics resort to insults or wild accusations. Most people asked civil questions and the discussions were interesting.

What a difference 20 years makes! The Internet was a much smaller place back then, and society was less angry. When I pointed out that Saddam Hussein had started as a US ally and reformer, and that the evolution from that to despotic dictator and enemy was in part (maybe significant part) due to US policy miss-steps, no one ever accused me of being his supporter. Yet, if I point out that from his perspective, Russia and Putin have valid reasons for doing what they are doing in Ukraine, and that we bear significant responsibility for this tragedy, I am accused of being a Putin Lover and purveyor/victim of misinformation.

The biggest problem is the media environment. The US media was hijacked by the government and corporate interests a long time ago. The Pentagon and CIA spent a lot of money and resources studying how they lost control of the narrative over Vietnam. Those ideas were put in to practice by one of the (then) young officers involved in those studies who had risen to the highest levels by the time of the first Gulf War – Colin Powell. They were a spectacular success; the news media was totally co-opted through the use of tactics like embedding, selective background briefings and leaks, providing “warheads” (“former” military officers and intel agents) who have taken over expert commentary and even reporting in some cases, and so forth. The consolidation of the media and, with the advent of CNN, the change of news divisions from prestige, public service loss leaders into profitable business units dependent on engaging viewers and advertising revenues completed the transition from journalism to stenographers for the US Government or large corporate viewpoints on most subjects.

Now with Fox News and the proliferation of internet sources, you can easily find a source that matches your worldview without challenge. Fox in particular helped blur the line between news and commentary, and the advent of advocacy journalism on the left means neutral news reporting – always at risk – is now firmly a thing of the past. So today the vast majority of people who are engaged in online discussions are far too secure in their own information bubbles. Rather than think through and consider their possible preconceptions and try to understand the other side, they lash out and assume the worst about anything and anyone that contradicts their worldview in the slightest way. Rather than present reasoned arguments, ad hominum attacks and dismissal based on personality or source rule the day. Humility in the face of a complex situation with decades, even centuries of convoluted history is totally absent. As is self awareness, and considering critically actions by all actors in context.

Functioning as an independent part time commentator in that environment is almost impossible. So I’m going to scale back public analysis and comment on the subject of Ukraine and other geopolitical issues. It’s not that I’m thin skinned – I relish a good, fact based discussion of contrary views since it helps sharpen arguments and we all learn from it and evolve our positions. I’ve certainly changed positions on some subjects based on feedback. The problem is that in today’s environment it has become just too stressful and time consuming to try to moderate, respond, and keep discussions on a civil and rational level. Even with the support of my honored Patreons I just can’t keep up (I still have a “real” job, which as noted funding has declined so I no longer have as much flexibility as I used to anyway). So I’ll do what so many have asked, stick to natural disasters, with occasional commentary on the information/news dynamics and misinformation/propaganda problem (but no longer suggest sources – it seems you aren’t supposed to even *look* at anything that might contradict your worldview, even for the purpose of criticizing it!).

The biggest threat and problem is this: information dynamics, geopolitical stresses, resource limitations, and other issues have overwhelmed our systems of governance. It is clear our leaders are no longer capable of guiding our society – and society is so fragmented and delusional it is rapidly becoming dysfunctional. Democracy simply isn’t possible without some kind of shared values and basis for decision making. These have eroded to the point of collapse. I fear hard times are coming, and our leaders and the societies that select/support them are incapable of dealing with the difficult circumstances to come.

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra: #Ukraine and the danger of historical analogs

I didn’t really care for Star Trek: Next Generation most of the time, but every now and then it had worthy episodes. One of the best was “Darmok,” where Picard encounters a race that communicates largely with metaphors (link to Memory Alpha). The Universal Translator was able to translate the literal words, but unless you know the cultural references and history of the Tamarans, they are meaningless. This made communications almost impossible.

Of course, we communicate the same way, far more than we realize. If you’ve ever studied a foreign language you quickly learn (sometimes the hard way!) that every language has local idioms, phrases that have a figurative meaning far beyond their literal translation. In addition, we often communicate complex concepts by referencing some common cultural phenomena. The Bible used to be a key binding element in our society, today movies and TV are far more likely to be used. Saying “It’s not my fault!” in a certain tone of voice has a lot more meaning to someone who has seen the original Star Wars movie than someone not familiar with that film.

These metaphors can be a useful and fast way of conveying information. History is also used as a metaphor to quickly convey someone’s position or viewpoint on a subject. Invoking Munich, for example, conveys a flood of concepts: hubris, compromise with evil, etc. The problem is that used inappropriately or taken too literally, it can misrepresent a situation. The past isn’t always a good guide to the present, and the nuances of the situation matter, often a lot. Images like Munich and the Invasion of Poland, which has been invoked a lot in the last 72 hours, intentionally convey a lot of emotion along with meaning. But are they accurate depictions of the current crisis? Or are they designed more to manipulate than inform?

I highly recommend two books on the Cuban Missile Crisis for those interested in how decisions are made behind the scenes in a crisis (well, used to be; not so sure the process works so well with the last few Administrations.). The first (links to Amazon) is “One Hell of a Gamble“, the second is “The Kennedy Tapes,” which contains actual transcripts of the meetings in the White House during the crisis. One interesting thread is how the participants used metaphors and references to shared historical events like Munich, Pearl Harbor, and so forth, and how these events haunted the decision making. Would compromise with Khrushchev be seen as a new Munich? Would no-notice military action on Cuba to destroy the missiles be seen as a Pearl Harbor type sneak attack by the US, hurting our credibility? What was Khrushchev thinking? The participants struggle with all this, and discussed how much (or little) those events were similar to the crisis in which they found themselves.

If there is any common thread to this blog and the message I try to convey, it is this: the world is hideously complex, and it can be very dangerous to try to over simplify situations, or crowbar a difficult concept into a simple sound bite or 140 character Tweet. This is especially true when it comes to foreign policy.

Shaka. When the walls fell.

Beware of those who try to make things black and white, or overly similar to the past. Metaphor only gets you so far. Make those who say Russia is wrong, and their actions unjustified, prove it, and treat them as skeptically as you should those who argue Russia is in the right. And realize the truth is probably somewhere in between … and that whatever the parties do, it should be always with an eye towards long term international stability and peace in the interests of all of the parties (including the innocent people caught in the middle), and not just expedient political measures based on domestic concerns.

#Russia, #Ukraine, and Carl Schurz

As I write this (5:30am Tuesday) it seems Russian forces are moving into the areas of eastern Ukraine that declared independence in 2014. This is likely the prelude to the ultimate storm, depending on where these forces ultimately deploy, and how Ukrainian forces react. I suspect the more ultra-nationalist elements within the Ukrainian armed forces will open fire and trigger a violent “shock and awe” exercise by Russia. Domestically, the posturing is well underway, and before the military situation escalates further and dominates the discussions, I’d like to say a few words about patriotism.

Vladimir Vladimirovich setting the next phase of events in motion. Official Kremlin Photo.

I’ve written before about Civil War General (later Senator and Secretary of the Interior) Carl Schurz. His most famous remark is probably related to a toast by Commodore Stephen Decatur, and while often abbreviated, is vital to repeat in whole: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” On these pages are a lot of words that, to a politically biased or casual reader, might seem to support Russia in general and Putin specifically. I’ve spent my life as an analyst, and my primary role is to understand situations from an unbiased perspective. That is often uncomfortable – people love to hear about the flaws and mistakes of the “other,” but really don’t like looking in the mirror. It is especially difficult when the “other” isn’t the most savory of characters, and has some problematic aspects. But the truth is the truth, and we owe it to ourselves and the future to hold ourselves to fixed standards without regard to the actions of the “other.” Saying “they are worse” is a dangerous track – especially when it blinds you to just how bad your own actions are, and can lead you down a path where, to an objective observer, you’re not only not “better than the other,” you have become the same or worse. Sadly, I fear this is where we have gone.

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of comments accusing anyone who points out the legitimacy of some of Russia’s positions or actions in this crisis as Kremlin Apologists, Putin Fans, or other derogatory labels. Yes, there are some who seem to gravitate towards authoritarian figures, or reflexively support anyone who the “mainstream” seems to demonize. But there are solid reasons to be extremely disturbed by the actions of the Government of the United States that led us to this point (link to rant last year about this). It is no disservice to point out that much of the blame for the current situation lies with three decades of failed post cold war leadership provided by the current and previous five Presidents. Given the power the US wielded in that time frame, the catastrophic state of the global political situation largely lies at the door of the Congress and White House, and the middle finger of blame points equally at both political parties. Trying to smear those who think that the US is on the wrong track with the broad brush of the odious Tucker Carlsons or tRump MAGA fanatics is a political tactic to avoid facing responsibility for these failures, and paths to resolving the difficult problems created as a result.

It has become fashionable to imply that even trying to understand a contrary point of view is wrong. In today’s politically charged environment, it also invites the accusation of having sympathy for that point of view, especially if understanding the contrary point of view acknowledges the validity of some of the points they make. This is utterly absurd. The entire basis for negotiation is to seek out and find points of agreement and valid points of commonality. To fail to understand the “other” and demonize them is to destroy the negotiation process before it even starts. We see this domestically in discussions of race, economics, and other hot topic issues, and it is a point that Russia has made forcefully in the last two months – that the US fails to substantively respond to or acknowledge their concerns. Saying the “other” is illegitimate may be expedient politically, but it is toxic from the standpoint of getting things done.

There are dangerous times ahead. Please don’t fall into the trap of reflexively ignoring voices that are contrary to the mainstream (especially Government sponsored) narrative, or likewise agreeing with the leaders of your political tribe without critical thinking because their carefully crafted words fit your preconceptions. And be especially careful about projecting domestic political fights into this complex international crisis. This situation is messy enough without overlaying our woke vs. MAGA madness on it …

#Ukraine situation spiral, and the moment of crisis is now likely at hand

Watching President Putin’s speech (on both Russia-1 and CNN, until I cut off CNN in disgust) recognizing the independence of the Luhansk and Donets regions that broke away from Ukraine in 2014, and now he is signing mutual aid agreements with the LPR and DPR. That means that Russia now has the formal legal basis to intervene. Now, I’ll bet that isn’t how this will be spun in the US media. You will be told that it has been Russia that started this, but take a look at this map generated this weekend by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) (who, if anything, are biased against Russia). These are artillery impact locations (explosions) and cease fire violations.

Click to embiggen.

If you look at this and other reports recently, the vast majority of violations have been directed at the areas that declared independence. This is in violation of the Minsk II accords, and to be blunt clearly places the Government of Ukraine (and their backers) in the wrong. So the feces is about to hit the air moving device. Before jumping to conclusions, and buying in to the propaganda (especially, I’m sad to say, coming from the US/NATO side), please read up on the history of how we got here (link to long background post). As I’ve said elsewhere, I understand why the US wants Ukraine to commit “suicide by bear,” I just don’t understand why Ukraine (other than the minority of ultra-right, neo Nazi groups) wants to.

I was infuriated at the CNN coverage, that for a while I had on in the background. The real time translation was horrible, and the cutaway to a “reporter” halfway that called Putin’s review of history a “diatribe” was unprofessional. To be sure his view of history was biased, but it was an interesting and a not entirely wrong depiction. The reporting was typically shallow as well- but that’s the state of “journalism” in the US these days. And it’s helping to push us into yet another unnecessary war, only this time it isn’t with a fourth or fifth rate power like Iraq, it is with a peer military that may well have the edge in certain conventional systems – not to mention nukes. Hopefully the US/NATO has the sense to not make this worse by trying to intervene in a big way and turn it in to a general conflict, but wait for the Russian intervention to stabilize things. As I’ve said repeatedly I don’t expect Russia to conquer all of Ukraine, only the eastern areas (aka Novorossiya).

#Emnati continues towards #Madagascar

The track hasn’t changed much since yesterday, although the forecast winds at landfall are slightly less (100 vs 110 knots). That will help – recall that dynamic pressure (force the wind exerts on an object) is based on the square of the wind speed, so 110 knots is 21% stronger than 100 knots. But still going to be bad …

Rain is another big worry. Here is the forecast rain amounts for the next five days – some parts in the south could see 0.7 meters, or two feet of rain!

After Madagascar, it looks like Emnati will turn out to sea and not make landfall on the mainland of Africa.

#Madagascar can’t get a break: Cyclone Emnati two days away

Madagascar is in the path of yet another intense cyclone (hurricane), this time SH132022, Cyclone Emnati. Emnati is forecast to make landfall as a Category 3 hurricane in just over two days …

(click to enlarge).

Emnati is on track to hit the same areas devastated by Cyclone Batsirai two weeks ago, and just south of Tropical storm Dumako, that made landfall the 15th:

This is just the current plus last two this month!

Needless to say all this, combined with two previous cyclones, has created a major humanitarian disaster on the island https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/madagascar-braces-next-cyclone-least-14-killed-by-storm-2022-02-19/.

Master class in trolling …

Peskov advised Ukrainians to set an alarm clock so as not to oversleep the “invasion”

Dimitri Peskov is Putin’s press secretary, and was poking fun at the British tabloids reporting that according to US intelligence the invasion was kicking off Wednesday (today) at 3am.
Original story (Russian): Link to RIA article.
English machine translation (Yandex): Link to Yandex.ru RU-EN translation of RIA link.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova asks the New York Times to publish when Russia’s invasions are scheduled so she can plan her vacations (in English):
Link to TASS article.

And then there’s this (fake) memo of the 76th Guards Airborne Division schedule for the day making the rounds:


Here’s the translation:
06:00 Getting up.
07:00 Morning toilet
08:00 Breakfast
09:00 Assault on Ukraine
12:00 Lunch
13:00 Taking of Kiev
18:00 Gazmanov’s Concert
21:00 Fireworks. 

With all the somber pronouncements coming out of Washington, it’s interesting seeing how it’s being handled from the “other side” … with a lot of sarcasm. Is all this actual bafflement at the Western “news” media and Western Governments? Clever disinformation? Saving face from backing down after the “show of resolve” by the West? As I noted a couple of days ago, the layers within layers on all this are beyond any reasonable analysis. The average person, and the unfortunate people of Ukraine caught in the middle of this circus, are just along for the ride.

The surreal #Ukraine situation.

I think Londo has something to say about it all this. From Babylon 5

Up until yesterday it seemed that everybody was saying war was imminent except the three parties actually supposedly about to go to war. Today, Ukraine’s government finally gave up and jumped on the bandwagon, and is now saying it’s about to kick off. Unless President Zelenskii was joking or being ironic, which his spokespeople are now claiming? OK, you can’t make this stuff up!

Things are increasingly dangerous – there was almost shooting off the Kuril Islands this weekend as a US submarine was chased out of Russian territorial waters with “active measures” (probably a weapons lock). The fact it is reported the submarine deployed countermeasures means the sub probably worried it was about to come under attack. If true, that’s a dangerous business that can get out of hand.

I’ve written so much on the background on all this I won’t repeat it here. As for the immediate situation, the US has been flooding the airways with so many warnings the situation has to evolve in one of two ways: either violence ensues (and the US can claim it was right), or it doesn’t (and the US will claim its warnings and posturing scared off the Big Bad Bear). There’s just two small problems: 1) it really isn’t in Russia’s interest to start a war (although for the last two years there is no doubt they’ve been preparing to finish it), and, 2) given that, if it doesn’t happen, it’s not because of anything the US did, but what either the US or the Ukrainians didn’t do. But at this point I don’t really believe much of what anyone is saying.

So I’m sticking with what I’ve been saying for months: a conflict is on the horizon not because it is in the interests of anyone directly involved (UA/DPR/RU), but because of external meddling – and painful as it to say, the truth demands it: the most destabilizing actions in all this are coming from Washington, not Moscow. I’m cautiously not entirely unhopeful that, in the short run, the conflict will be contained to eastern Ukraine and not get out of hand. It is clear the US/NATO are withdrawing “advisors” from the conflict zone (aside from the expendable SOCOM and IC guys), which is good if things do get hot.

I’m somewhat pessimistic this will cause a major meltdown in the global economic situation, especially in Europe, although the US may actually benefit somewhat. But it’s one helleva risk if that’s the goal. Which I don’t think it is; I think those speculating that economics is the ultimate reason for the conflict are reading too much in to it; in my view, this is just run of the mill geopolitics, war profiteering, misplaced ideology, with the usual helping of ignorance/stupidity/arrogance, rather than some crafty conspiracy.

I’m hearing so many utterly stupid things being said by “analysts” in the western media that I’ve just about given up. A quick channel surf between CNN, Fox News, and BBC resulting in me dropping more F bombs than a cooking episode featuring Gordon Ramsey. One trivial (yet telling) example: anybody who thinks the state of the ground freeze has anything to do with the timing of a Russian invasion is ignorant of modern warfare as practiced by Russia. Not to mention the geography of Ukraine. Or recent weather (which has been well above freezing in key areas).

Either way, rest of this week will be “interesting.”