Little Green Men. Now with Tanks.

In 2014, what became known as little green men invaded Crimea, Ukraine. No, these were not aliens, but what we’ve later learned were unmarked Russian Army soldiers. They routed what little resistance Ukraine mustered in 2021 Crimea is de facto Russian, though de jure it remains Ukrainian.

Following Crimea, insurrections erupted in the Donbas, part of the mainland—yes, Crimea is connected through a thin strip of land, but in many ways it’s effectively not part of the mainland—bordering Russia. We suspect these too also included Russian Army regular, most notably the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. That civilian passenger airliner, filled with 298 people, was shot down by an SA-11 Gadfly, in use by the Russian Army across the border. But overall, the feeling is that in Ukraine, Russia uses paramilitary forces and private mercenaries, or at worst, soldiers “on holiday” to do Russia’s dirty work.

I covered the invasion of Crimea and the operations in Donbas extensively. Well, extensively for me.

In the years since, we’ve seen the emergence of the Wagner Group, a private mercenary group similar in concept to Blackwater. You have some fighting to do, they’ll do it for cash. But Blackwater, whose name has changed several times over the years, was largely staffed by ex-soldiers and had some infantry weapons to support them. Wagner Group is different.

And to see how different, you need only read this great BBC article that exposes some of the group’s details because of a tablet left behind by a Wagner mercenary. It is a bit of a lengthy read, but it’s well worth it. Wagner has been engaged/hired in Ukraine, Syria, and now Libya where it fights against the UN-backed government in Tripoli.

The data visualisation and information design here is mostly around forms and some illustrations of mines—the blow up and kill/main people kind, not the mineral extraction kind. But what sells the idea that Wagner is really more a shadowy appendage of the Russian state than some rogue private mercenary army are things like this document.

You get a tank, and you get a tank, and you…

It, as the file photo hints, shows that Wagner is requesting a T-72 main battle tank for their operations in Libya. Blackwater committed crimes in foreign countries, but it never operated modern main battle tanks.

I also highlighted two other requisitions contained above the T-72. In purple we have an ask for two BTR-82s. These are more modern versions of the Soviet staple, BTR-80, a wheeled armoured personnel carrier. Then in orange we have a request for one BMP-2. This is a tracked infantry fighting vehicle.

In other words, Wagner is requesting the equipment necessary to field a scaled down version of a modern armoured division with heavy tanks and supporting infantry vehicles, both tracked and wheeled. It also contains requests for 120mm mortars, highlighted by the BBC. These are not things that a private mercenary army would have floating around a warehouse.

For this and other funding-related reasons, Wagner Group is increasingly seen as a part of the Russian government’s, i.e. Putin’s, foreign and security policy apparatus. The Russian state might not be able to be officially involved in Libya or Chad or the Central African Republic, where rumours abound of Russian-speaking mercenaries, but Wagner can because officially it doesn’t exist.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC.

Russia Tomorrow

In news that surprises absolutely nobody, Russia “re-elected” Vladimir Putin as president for another six-year term. The Economist recently looked at what they termed the Puteens, a generation of Russians born starting in 1999 who have no memory of a Russia pre-Vladimir Putin.

This piece features a set of interactive dot plots that capture survey results on a number of topics that are segmented by age. It attempts to capture the perspective of Puteens on a range of issues from their media diet to foreign policy outlook to civil rights.

The ideas of youth…
The ideas of youth…

The design is largely effective. The Puteen generation sticks out clearly as the bright red to the cool greys. And more importantly, when the dots would overlap they move vertically away from the line so users can clearly see all the dots. And on hover, all the dots of the same age cohort’s interest are highlighted. I think one area of improvement would have been to apply that same logic to the legend to allow the user to scroll through the whole dataset without always having to interact with the chart. But that is a minor bit on an otherwise really nice piece.

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist’s graphics department.

The Russian Threat

A few days ago a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned with a nerve agent, e.g. VX, in Salisbury, England. Over a decade ago, another former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, died in London after being poisoned with polonium, a highly radioactive substance produced inside nuclear reactors, placed inside his tea. Russia’s spies are still a threat in the 21st century, at least attempting to assassinate people they choose in Western cities and capitals.

All that made me think back to an issue of the Economist I received a few weeks ago. It had a special report on the future of warfare and this map on the threat posed by Russian conventional forces.

The Russian threat
The Russian threat

It does a good job of showing that in just a conventional sense, Russia remains a dangerous threat to NATO. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are incredibly vulnerable, all but surrounded by Russia and its allies/proxies.

But as this week’s news highlights, Russia remains a threat in the unconventional space as well. (As also pointed out by the red colour sitting in the formerly Ukrainian Crimean peninsula, seized by unmarked “little green men” in 2014.)

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist graphics department.

An Update on Trump-Russia Ties

Between travelling and being ill, I apologise for a lack of posting the last week or two. But as promised, we are back with a small update to the Trump–Russia ties. It turns out that shortly before the Syria air strikes, news broke that Jared Kushner omitted dozens of contacts with foreigners on his security clearance form. One, of course, is Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. But the other was Sergey Gorkov, who runs Vnesheonombank, which is a bank owned by the Russian government, which is obviously headed by Vladimir Putin. Both Gorkov and Putin share a second tie as they were both trained by the KGB/FSB.

The new link is the connection between Kushner and Gorkov
The new link is the connection between Kushner and Gorkov

There is also news out of the UK today, via the Guardian, that British and other European intelligence agencies began, in summer 2015, to note contacts between Russian agents and persons of interest and people within the Trump campaign. And these European agencies were the ones that alerted American agencies, because American agencies are not allowed to collect intelligence on American citizens. More smoke and people who saw it earlier than we previously knew.

Credit for the new info comes from Politico.

The Nunes Connection

I am in Chicago today, visiting friends and former coworkers. Generally taking a break from my team’s recent fantastic work at my new gig. But don’t think that I wouldn’t leave you without some sort of light-hearted Friday content.

My Tuesday post was about Monday’s news about another connection between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Today’s post is a screen capture from the Late Show with Stephen Colbert from last week. Do you recall the weird story about Devin Nunes, Republican Chair of the House Select Committee on Intelligence and, don’t forget a member of the Trump transition team, receiving news from the White House about the White House to tell to the President (of the White House) before telling members of his own committee? Yeah, it was weird.

Colbert put together a great little monologue segment about the entire thing. And that’s what I’m going to share with you today. You should watch the entire thing, but I’ve keyed you into the referenced segment.

This does link to a video with sound. You're warned.
This does link to a video with sound. You’re warned.

I suspect this won’t be the last time over the next four years we take a look at what the Figure-It-Out-a-Tron is telling us…

Credit for the piece goes to the graphics department of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Prince, Prince, Goose?

Well, this wasn’t what I was expecting to post today. But that’s okay, because it’s big news all the same and allows me to get my hands dirty. Yesterday the Washington Post broke news that the United Arab Emirates, specifically Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and the UAE’s national security advisor, arranged a meeting between an official reportedly close to Vladimir Putin and Eric Prince.

Who is Eric Prince? Besty DeVos’ brother for starters. But more importantly for the story, a major donor and supporter for and of the Trump campaign. He also has ties to Stephen Bannon, Chief Strategist for the President. Most importantly, the article alleges, potentially damningly, that Zayed would not have arranged the meeting without “the nod” from both Trump and Putin.

What was discussed? Allegedly the strategic aim of separating Russia from Iran. Yeah, that’s probably a good thing. But given things like the S-300 surface-to-air missile system, the Bushehr nuclear generating station, and the ongoing support of the Iran-Assad-Hezbollah faction in Syria, it is highly unlikely that Putin would be very willing to suddenly drop his support for Iran.

Why is this on my blog today? Well, I have been increasingly curious about all the stories about how various people and organisations are linking Trump and Putin. To be fair, a link is not inherently, necessarily nefarious let alone illegal. But, given the intelligence collected that Russia was attempting to influence the election in Trump’s favour, and given his electoral college win, and given the known connections, it is important that we look at the breadth and depth of the unknown connections.

Prince, Prince, Goose? Because a sheikh is kind of like a prince.
Prince, Prince, Goose? Because a sheikh is kind of like a prince.

And that is what this graphic will be. For now it will be a static graphic that I update whenever news breaks—and when I have time to go cite previous news articles—about unveiled connections. Ideally in the future I can turn this into a more dynamic and interactive piece.

Credit for the news goes to the Washington Post. Graphic is mine.

The Russians Are Coming

I mean, they’re already here…we will return to that shortly.

I hope you enjoyed your three-day weekend, but this is a busy week, folks. Most importantly we have Thursday’s by-elections in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent, those are in the UK for my American audience, where we will see just how crazy British politics gets post-Brexit referendum.

But today is Tuesday, and in a slight departure from the normal, as a new subscriber to the failing New York Times, I was pleasantly surprised to see this cover waiting for me Sunday.

In Soviet Russia, newspaper reads you…
In Soviet Russia, newspaper reads you…

Quite a nice use of the Russian constructivist language going on. I’m not accustomed to seeing newspaper copy set on an angle.

Credit for the piece goes to the New York Times graphics department.

The T-14 Armata

Or the post’s sub-title could be something like, Boys with Toys, because I have long enjoyed diagrams of military hardware, like these examples. Today’s post is about Russia’s new main battle tank, the first new design since the 1970s: the T-14 Armata. It premiered in last year’s parade and is expected to enter service soon. This BBC article from last year’s parade shows the various new models expected to enter the Russian Army.

Russia's new toy
Russia’s new toy

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

S-300 Surface-to-Air Missiles for Iran

Russia has agreed to complete its years-old sale of advanced S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran. What does this mean? Well, it does not make Iran’s airspace invulnerable, but it will be a significant upgrade with the potential to deter Israel from launching an air raid against Iranian nuclear sites. In a nice, illustrated piece the Washington Post explains what the S-300 system is.

S-300 SAM system
S-300 SAM system

Credit for the piece goes to the Washington Post graphics department.

Ukraine Retreats from Debaltseve

This is a short piece—it is only really an inline map—but it illustrates fairly well why Ukraine’s loss of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine last week is kind of a big deal. Basically, the now mostly abandoned city is a transport hub linking the two quasi capitals of the Novorossiya.

Rebel-controlled area

Credit for the piece goes to Gene Thorp.