First, my apologies
Okay, so I will admit that this isn’t the most original title I could have come up with, but it serves its purpose – which is to register the idea that there is an alternative narrative to the West’s picture of a paranoid and delusional despot launching an unprovoked attack on a perfectly innocent, unthreatening neighbour that had just wanted to peacefully go about its own business. I will also readily admit that this article has precious little to do with climate change and I respect that many of you out there are less than happy when Cliscep goes off topic. However, the reason why I chose to write this article was to draw attention to the extent to which the BBC, with all of its disinformation reporters and its Reality Check Team is, nevertheless, quite capable of totally overlooking a well-documented reality that does not fit with the approved account. I invite the reader to transfer this insight to the climate change debate, in which the same organisation flaunts its reputation as arbiters of the factual whilst often displaying the same lack of journalistic rigour/integrity that I seek to expose below.
Setting the scene
In his Victory Day Parade speech of May 9th, Putin took the opportunity to reiterate his justification for invading Ukraine. It was a speech that invoked images of neo-Nazis and Banderites seeking to gain ascendency in Eastern Europe, of NATO encouraging Ukraine to heighten the nuclear threat, and of preparations for an imminent attack on what Putin holds to be part of the Motherland, i.e. Crimea and the Donbas. Predictably, the BBC was onto this speech immediately with a number of articles, including one of its notorious Reality Checks. I do not intend going through every claim and counter-claim here, but I do think it is important that one particular issue should be drawn to your attention. Of particular interest to me is the following remark made by Paul Kirby of the BBC:
“He also made unfounded allegations against Nato and Ukraine and described the invasion as a pre-emptive rebuff: ‘They were preparing a punishing operation in Donbas to intrude on our historic lands’.”
The BBC are very fond of pointing out the lack of evidence offered by others – they purport to do it all the time when exposing climate change ‘deniers’. Ostensibly, this is just another example of the BBC using their rapier sharp journalism to expose the fake news that they are fighting on a daily basis. But in saying that this is an unfounded allegation, just who is pushing the fake news here?
Founding the allegation
In accusing Putin of making unfounded allegations regarding Western preparations for conflict, the BBC appears to have somehow completely overlooked the fact that NATO has been holding such exercises in the Black Sea, and upon Ukrainian soil, on an annual basis since 1997. The exercises are co-hosted by the United States and Ukraine as part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PFP) initiative and they go under the name Sea Breeze. As the name suggests, they are principally designed to demonstrate how NATO countries, and those other ex-Soviet nations who might now feel threatened by Russia, would co-operate militarily in any future naval conflict. However, the actual scope goes somewhat beyond that, since past exercises have typically involved joint operations between land, sea and air units. In describing them in more detail below, I am entirely indebted to aviation journalist Vladimir Trendafilovski, who has written up detailed accounts covering both the 2020 and 2021 exercises. Firstly, let us go back to what NATO and Ukraine were getting up to back in 2020.
Writing in the November 2020 issue of Air Forces Monthly (‘Officially the world’s number one authority on military aviation’) he describes a relatively muted exercise severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Even so, eight nations took part – Bulgaria, Georgia, Norway, Romania, Spain, Turkey, the Ukraine and the United States – providing in total 2,000 troops, 20 ships and more than 20 aircraft. The land component of the exercise was completely cut out but that still left plenty of scope for the participating nations to demonstrate ‘high levels of interoperability’. Standard tasks such as air defence, anti-submarine warfare and search and rescue featured prominently. Of particular note was an exercise in which US Air Force jets practiced their stand-off offensive capabilities:
“One of the numerous scenarios trained for during this mission included the employment of the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM). This is the second time that USAF aircraft have been training in the use of this weapon over the Black Sea this year – the earlier occasion being the May 29 mission performed by a pair of B-1B Lancers from the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota.”
Muted or not, this sort of exercise hardly exemplifies the true spirit of social distancing and one can easily see how Putin would interpret the practiced delivery of stand-off weaponry as preparation for a ‘punishing operation’. Perhaps the BBC were looking the other way in 2020. How about 2021?
Writing in the October 2021 issue of Combat Aircraft Journal (‘America’s best-selling military and aviation magazine’) Trendafilovski describes a much more extensive exercise that fully explored all three theatres of war: land, air and sea. On this occasion no fewer than 28 nations took part, including the UK and Germany with Eurofighter Typhoons. Altogether, 5,000 servicemen, 30 ships, 40 aircraft, fifty tanks and other weapon systems, and 18 Special Operations and diving teams took part. According to Trendafilovski, ‘All task planning and execution was carried out in accordance with NATO standards’. A wide variety of scenarios were practiced including:
“…a separatist force taking over government institutions and organising a puppet state supported by a rogue nation [mentioning no names]. The multinational task force had to stabilize the region by defeating the separatist forces, re-instating the elected government and organizing the distribution of humanitarian aid.”
A more explicit demonstration of the intention to undertake a ‘punishing operation’ against separatists in the Donbas is difficult to conceive of. To further emphasise the intent, there was the choice of training area:
“The initial phase for the [ground] component was conducted on a new training range called the Oleshky Sands (Oleshkivski Pisky), a semi-dessert area near the Dnieper river, 30km east of Kherson and 50km north-west of the Crimean administrative border.”
Landing operations were also practiced:
“Supported by Mi-8MT ‘132 Red’ and a pair of Su-25s, the tactical group made an amphibious landing in Izmail on the Danube River. Its vehicles and men arrived aboard two Navy Landing ships, Yuri Olifirenko (L401, Polnocny-C class) and Svatove (L434, Ondatra class), augmented by additional troops deployed by the Mi-8 using a FRIES. After successful deployment, the group seized the town’s port and other important facilities.”
Appropriately enough, Special Operations Forces (SOF) were employed:
“The SOF teams using CV-22Bs [the USAF’s Osprey troop carrier] took part in various episodes at the Zmiyinvy and Pervomayskiy Islands but details of these were classified.”
The use of electronic warfare (EW) systems during the ground component phase were brought into play, bringing the events ‘as close as possible to reality’.
An unintended introduction of further realism resulted from the fact that Russia sought to disrupt the exercise as much as possible by simultaneously holding its own exercise in the Black Sea. As a result, a number of simulated aerial attacks from friendly forces were augmented by the real thing. The buzzing of HMS Defender was well-reported at the time but less well-known was the treatment received by the Dutch HNLMS Evertsen, which was continually harassed by armed Su-24M bombers and Su-30SM fighters from the 43 oshap of ChF RF at Saki air base. Even more concerning, during these ‘attacks’ the Evertsen had its electronic countermeasures jammed. As a result of such skirmishes, exercise Sea Breeze 2021 came as close as any other to breaking out into the real thing.
Why this matters
Just how the practice of amphibious landings and the insertion of special forces cannot be seen by the BBC as evidence of NATO’s offensive potential beggars belief. Either the BBC were simply unaware of these exercises, and had been so since 1997, or they have chosen to deliberately overlook them. In past dealings with BBC disinformation reporters there have been times when I have found it difficult to discern between rank incompetence and a lack of journalistic integrity, and this case is no different. The BBC are not alone in this regard, of course – I cannot recall seeing any mention of Sea Breeze in any of the mainstream media and the only reason I know about it is because my hobby leads me to read publications such as Airforces Monthly and Combat Aircraft Journal. The difference, however, is that the BBC sets itself up as a trusted source that specialises in unbiased reporting. They are the ones who have fact-checkers whose opinions appear to stand as the final statement on a subject. It is that cloak of apparent respectability that makes their disinformation and selective take on reality particularly damaging. As I said above, if they can be so cavalier when fact-checking Putin’s allegations of war preparation, one has to wonder just what they have been getting up to on other matters, such as global warming.