30th Anniversary of the Chernobyl Disaster

On April 26th 1986, there was an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in modern-day Ukraine. It is one of only two nuclear accidents classified as a level 7 event (the maximum classification) on the International Nuclear Event Scale and of those two it was by far the most serious (the other is the Fukishima incident in 2011).

While remembered as a Soviet tragedy the nuclear explosion was in reality a warning to the world of the danger of nuclear energy if not handled properly and an indication of just how much of a threat to all of humanity nuclear weapons are. What makes Chernobyl so frightening is that its consequences went far beyond the immediate disaster area spreading radioactive particles across western Europe and Scandinavia.

Many historians rightly argue that Chernobyl marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War as the calls for a halt to the seemingly restless nuclear arms race became louder and had a rallying cry: no more Chernobyls.

This fascinating documentary covers the details of the accident and the incredible story of the battle to make the site safe.

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NEWS: Ex-British Army soldier fighting for pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine because of “non-mainstream” media

Pro-Russian rebels (voanews)

Pro-Russian rebels (voanews)

The BBC have reported that there are two known British men fighting for the pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine. One man is said to come from Manchester while the other, who declined to be interviewed, is said to be of Scottish origin. The man from Manchester claimed to be ex-British Army having seen frontline service during United Nations peacekeeping operations in Bosnia. During the interview the man claims that he was inspired to join the rebels after empathizing with the local rebel population in Eastern Ukraine.

He told the BBC;

I see this as more western imperial aggression towards Russia, to people who aren’t playing the western game…I’m not a terrorist.

The man claimed that despite being in-country for three months now he had yet to fire a shot in anger due to the ceasefire apparently holding. He did however declare that should he die in Ukraine that it would be a cause worth dying for.

What is worrying for the UK government is that both men did tell the BBC that it was “non-mainstream” media that was a major factor in their decisions to leave the UK and fight for the pro-Russian rebels. This refers to both Russian-backed online sources and the RT news channel that has become the symbol of Russia’s propaganda effort. There is now an RT UK that reports directly on UK matters offering an “alternative” view to the mainstream such as the BBC and Sky news among others. RT UK produces news stories contradictory to the BBC and Sky views which are often pro-Western and even shows commercials that intend to emphasize what it calls the “lies” of these news outlets.

The British concept of freedom of the press means that attempting to stop RT UK and others like it from reporting pro-Russian news is a violation of British law despite the strong anti-UK government stance the channel takes while pro-Western news reports are heavily suppressed in Russia. This along with a traditional Western mistrust of commercial news services gives the Russians a strong advantage in the “media war”.

NEWS: British and NATO forces conducting exercises in Poland near Russian border

British Army Warrior IFV in Poland (yahoo news)

British Army Warrior IFV in Poland (yahoo news)

The British Army has deployed its Lead Armoured Battle Group to the plains of North East Poland to participate in Exercise Dragon 15. The exercises are taking place just 60 miles from the border with the Russian state of Kaliningrad Oblast. The armoured force will join up to 6,000 Poles, Germans and Canadians on the seven week training exercise which aims to improve the way the allies work together.

On the dusty Orzysz weapon range, dignitaries from the host and visitor countries were treated to a spectacular display of firepower with armoured vehicles from the UK, Poland and Germany firing shells at targets in a mock battle sequence for their benefit while British troops demonstrated the firing of two Javelin anti-tank missiles. The Polish media provided extensive news coverage of the display no doubt as a warning for Russia that the country is now better protected than Ukraine was last year.

Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Garner, Commanding Officer of the First Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment, said:

I think our proximity to the Russian border will be noticed, but I think the exercise is really all about exercising closely with our Nato allies and the assurance that that brings, especially to our Polish allies – obviously for them, the threat is very real and credible…I think it shows the UK is committed to NATO.

The British Army have deployed around 350 British Army vehicles 135 of which are Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFVs). The exercise is being carried out in the wake of British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s statement that Britain is to station around 100 troops in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in an advisory capacity as a response to the heightened tension with Russia following Russian air strikes commencing in Syria.

NEWS: War between NATO and Russia has almost broke out 66 times in the last year

Ukrainian troops (RT)

Ukrainian troops on exercise with NATO forces (RT)

That was the shocking conclusion a report published by the European Leadership Network (ELN) claimed last week. The European ministers conducting the report warned that the situation was “ripe with potential for either dangerous miscalculation or an accident” that would result in the outbreak of open hostilities between NATO and the Russian military. The ELN also warned that Russia is “actively preparing for a conflict with NATO” most likely in the Baltic or Eastern Europe itself.

The think tank came to the conclusion after listing an alarming number of incidents that have occurred between NATO and Russian forces that could very easily have sparked an armed conflict. This included an incident in May 2015 when an Su-27 fighter nearly collided with a US reconnaissance plane while Su-24 fighter-bombers roared over an American warship. The ELN warned that had a Russian aircraft crashed in to either the aircraft or the ship then it would mark a rapid deterioration in the situation causing tensions to rise.

However the ELN said that NATO is to blame as well given the amount of military exercises that are taking place across Eastern Europe that Moscow is interpreting as provocative. One of the biggest took place in Ukraine itself in July where the annexing of the Crimean peninsula by Russia has been the source of much of the renewed hostility. With more exercises planned for the remaining months of 2015 and Moscow’s vow to combat “NATO aggression” it is no exaggeration to say that the situation is as tense now as it was in the early 1980s when the Cold War reached its height.

NEWS: RAF Typhoons return home from Baltic mission

RAF Typhoons escorting Russian MiG-31s (www.raf.mod.uk)

RAF Typhoons escorting Russian MiG-31s (www.raf.mod.uk)

After nearly four months operating out of Estonia on behalf of NATO’s Baltic air policing mission the pilots, groundcrew and aircraft of the RAF’s 121 Expeditionary Air Wing have stood down and began the process of returning to the UK. The mission has now been assumed by the German Luftwaffe’s 31st Tactical Air Wing which operates the German version of the Eurofighter Typhoon. The transfer of duties was carried out at a special ceremony on Tuesday attended by the British ambassador to Estonia, Chris Holtby.

This deployment was the third time the Royal Air Force has undertaken the duty on behalf of NATO since October 2004 when a flight of Tornado F.3s were deployed to the region however this has certainly been the busiest. Since arriving in May of this year the Typhoons have undertaken 17 live scrambles recording a total of 40 individual Russian aircraft operating near Estonian air space as Moscow becomes ever more hostile to the west over the situation in the Ukraine. On one day alone ten aircraft from across the Baltic found themselves shadowed by a heavily armed RAF fighter.

Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas took to Twitter to thank the RAF detachment by tweeting;

Thank you, job well done!

What is the extent of British support to Ukraine?

Ukrainian troops (RT)

Ukrainian troops (RT)

We work to improve links between Ukrainian and British people and institutions. We support Ukraine’s EU aspirations and help increase positive change in the rule of law, economic reform, public administration and fight corruption. We work to improve energy security and energy efficiency, beat international crime and threats to international security.

British government statement regarding Britain’s relationship with Ukraine
Viewable at Gov.uk

Few countries in Europe have been as vocal in their support to Ukraine as the United Kingdom. In the wake of perhaps the most chaotic year the people of Ukraine have seen since the end of the Second World War the country suffered revolution, scandal, the loss of the Crimean peninsula and a pro-Russian uprising in the east of the country with constant rumours of Russian regular forces fighting clandestinely on behalf of the rebels. Add to this the constant fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t be happy with just annexing the Crimea and it paints a worrying picture of a situation that could spiral very rapidly out of control.

On February 24th 2015 Prime Minister David Cameron announced that Britain would be sending military advisors to Ukraine to aid the Ukrainian military in the fight against the rebels. This was in response to rumours and indeed some compelling evidence that Russian soldiers were at least training rebels in the Ukraine. Around 75 British military personnel were initially dispatched to the Ukraine where according to the UK government their primary function was to teach essential non-lethal skills which primarily revolve around combat first aid, logistics and intelligence gathering.

However the government did also admit in their February 24th statement that there would be an infantry based assessment program to determine what future training requirements the Ukraine armed forces may need to tackle the rebels in the east of the country. It is likely that these training requirements will be met in the upcoming Rapid Trident 2015 exercise to be held in the Ukraine at the end of July.

Britain’s support for Ukraine has understandably upset Moscow who responded in that typically Soviet way of flying bombers and sailing warships around the coastline of the United Kingdom. The British press continue to make sensationalist headlines regarding these operations by the Russian military but it has to be remembered that British forces have done and continue to do the same near Russian territory and interests. At present a force of RAF Typhoon FGR.4 combat aircraft are providing air defence duties on behalf of NATO for the Baltic States while in 2014 during the Crimean crisis Russian forces were watched very closely by RAF Sentry aircraft using its long range radar to look over the border at Russian activity. On the ground, British Challenger tanks deployed on exercise to Poland where British politicians made efforts to tell the world that the UK and NATO remains committed to protecting eastern Europe – put simply this was a warning to Moscow about having ambitions beyond Ukraine.

So just what is the extent of British support for Ukraine?

Training of Ukrainian government forces

British troops on exercise in Ukraine in 2014 (army.mod.uk)

British troops on exercise in Ukraine in 2014 (army.mod.uk)

According to official British government figures around 850 Ukrainian personnel have been retrained by British advisors since February. This figure is set to rise as in June 2015 Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that Britain’s retraining of Ukrainian forces would be stepped up to such an extent that 250 Ukrainian troops are scheduled to be retrained in August alone. It should be noted that these figures do not include the number of Ukrainians expected to receive additional training from British and international forces that will be participating in Exercise Rapid Trident 2015 at the end of July. 

British advisors operate as part of four teams each of which is assisting the Ukrainian government forces in different ways.

  1. Medical Short Term Training Team.
    British forces are currently training combat medic instructors in the Ukraine on the basis that they then can train their own medics and thus increase the number of combat medics in the Ukrainian military fully trained to modern NATO standards. Extensive combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has meant the British armed forces are in a prime position to teach the most effective methods as well as pass on personal knowledge of administering first aid in a combat scenario.
  2. Logistics Short Term Training Team.
    This team’s role primarily revolves around the assessment of Ukrainian logistics operations on the ground and in the air and then assisting in identifying weaknesses before finally addressing those weaknesses. To the lay-person this may seem like a low priority but as combat experience has proven insurgent forces are very fluid in their movements and often live off the land in some way. Ukrainian government forces may not have that option especially when operating in a pro-rebel area where the local population may view them as the enemy. Therefore their logistics chain needs to be at the top of its game to keep the Ukrainian troops mobile and able to keep fighting while at the same time being able to evacuate wounded quickly and safely.
  3. Infantry Short Term Training Team.
    It has been repeatedly made clear that the British Army mission is non-combat however that does not mean that British advisor’s aren’t looking at the way the Ukrainian military has been engaged in the fighting. This team’s role is to look at how the Ukrainians are tackling the rebels directly and pass on knowledge gained from experience in Afghanistan to improve their combat effectiveness.
  4. Intelligence Capacity Building Short Term Training Team

This team’s primary goal is to provide tactical level analysis training aimed at making Ukrainian troops more proficient at analysing information and gathering intelligence to allow them to better understand their combat environment.

Material Support to Ukraine

Over the last year the UK has also provided personal protective equipment (PPE), winter fuel, medical kits, winter clothing and sleeping bags to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. On July 3rd 2015 a Royal Air Force Lockheed C-130J Hercules took off from the UK bound for Ukraine with a cargo of items requested specifically by the Ukrainian government to support their troops. The aircraft carried 1,000 individual battlefield First Aid Kits, 2,000 Mk.6 helmets and up to 54 helmet-mounted monocular night vision goggles (MNVGs) to improve the Ukrainians government forces’ ability to fight under the cover of night which is still something of a limiting factor for the rebels.

On the 13th of July the British government announced that it would be sending additional equipment in the form of 200 global positioning system (GPS) units, 220 hardened laptops, and a further 100 MNVGs. These items had been promised along with the equipment sent on the 3rd of July back in March but are yet to be delivered. The whole cost of Britain’s material support to Ukraine is currently listed as being in the £2 million range but this does include transportation and maintenance costs.

Additional Support

The above support is in addition to ongoing British involvement in helping to keep the country functional and thus reduce the effect the fighting has on the country. This includes providing;

  • Crisis management skills
  • Anti-corruption tactics
  • Defence reform to meet the challenge ahead
  • Improved strategic communications

Beyond Ukraine

The European Union continues to sanction Russia for its role in the Crimean crisis and the fighting in the east of Ukraine with the earliest they can be expected to be lifted at present being January 2016. This means that many financial assets Russian banks hold in the west have been withheld to put pressure on Putin’s economy.

It hasn’t all been one sided however as Putin has “retaliated” politically. Firstly, in his own country the west continues to become demonised in the eyes of the Russian people increasing mistrust and even hatred back to Cold War levels. Putin’s own particular dislike of Britain has seen his government voice its support to Argentina over the Latin American country’s claim on the Falkland Islands even to the point of possible arms negotiations which at one point included Sukhoi Su-24 low level strike aircraft. Meanwhile the Russian military itself continues to flex its muscles warning the west it will not be provoked with Russian aircraft making high speed passes over American warships in the Baltic.

The situation in the Ukraine is in many ways like a microcosmic replica of the Cold War; the two major sides fighting over a piece of land in the middle but training and equipping someone else to do the fighting all the while making claims, counter-claims and denials to one another. The actual fighting has largely ground down in recent months to a slow war of attrition and the relationship between Ukraine and its western supporters with Moscow continues to be frosty. On Friday July 17th the Ukrainians expelled Russia’s consul general from the Black Sea port of Odessa accusing him of “actions incompatible with diplomatic activity” which proves that despite efforts to establish a permanent ceasefire the air of hostility is still quite fresh.

NEWS: UK and NATO troops to conduct exercise in Ukraine

British troops on exercise in Ukraine in 2014 (army.mod.uk)

British troops on exercise in Ukraine in 2014 (army.mod.uk)

Rapid Trident 2015 will involve British soldiers together with troops from several other partner nations including the United States in the west of the country. The location of the exercise has been made very public so as to stem Russian suspicion that the exercise is really a cover for NATO involvement in the fight against pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country which continues despite several ceasefires being declared.

The exercise is scheduled to begin on the 20th of July and will last up to 11-days. According to the UK government the exercise is

…designed to promote regional stability and security, strengthen Ukraine’s defensive capacity, and build trust between participating nations. It also aims to improve the ability of Ukraine and partner nations to conduct joint operations, and to develop the capacity of our partners in Eastern Europe to contribute to international peacekeeping operations.

Again the wording here is very careful given the sensitive situation in the Ukraine. The wording makes no mention of the situation in the east of the country almost ignoring it completely which again is most likely a careful effort not to openly antagonise the Russian position. It would be natural that any military exercise in the Ukraine by the west would be viewed upon suspiciously by the Russians as they themselves began their involvement in the Crimea in 2014 under the guise of a military exercise. Rapid Trident has been an ongoing series of exercises since 1998 which again adds to the impression that the exercise is not related to the situation in east Ukraine.

However, the UK government statement does discretely add;

While the purpose of this training is to develop the capacity of participating soldiers to take part in international peacekeeping operations, the skills being shared are essential tasks for any defence force as they will need to protect themselves and personnel under their protection.

This more or less implies that skills learned during the exercise can at least be applied to the situation in the east of the country if that is not the true purpose of the exercise in the first place.

British forces involved in the exercise will include Battle Group Headquarters staff and an infantry platoon from the 1st Battalion The Rifles amounting to a total of around 50 personnel. The exercise will take place in two phases the first of which will see British forces training Ukrainian personnel in how to organise an effective defence against an attacking forces and will primarily revolve around the command and control role. The second phase will concentrate on battle skills and will test the training undertaken during phase one.