David Pratt's Four Corners: 'Unexplained' fires in Russia might not be much of a mystery ...

·10-min read
David Pratt's Four Corners: 'Unexplained' fires in Russia might not be much of a mystery
David Pratt's Four Corners: 'Unexplained' fires in Russia might not be much of a mystery

Insight and analysis on stories from across the world by Foreign Editor David Pratt

Russia: “Sabotage” and “deep strike” strategy behind mystery fires

As headlines surrounding the war in Ukraine go, they have so far garnered little attention.

But as the weeks drag into months in this bitter conflict, a series of unexplained fires and explosions at strategic locations in Russia have raised speculation over what some military analysts say could be a series of ‘deep strike’ operations carried out by the Ukrainians.

For over a month now mainly in areas that border Ukraine, fuel, and ammunition storage depots along with other military related installations have mysteriously caught fire or blown up.

On March 29 it was a series of explosions at an ammunition warehouse approximately twenty-five miles inside the Russian border and less than fifty miles from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

On April 21 much deeper inside Russia mysterious fires broke out first at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defence Forces in Tver, a city northwest of Moscow, then at a chemical plant in Kineshma, 250 miles east of Moscow.

Only a day after this it was the Korolyov Centre for Security and Civil Defence of the Population just fifteen miles from Moscow that went up in flames while on April 27 it was explosions across southwest Russia, that destroyed an ammunition dump in Belgorod province

While in some cases the Ukrainian military was clearly behind the strikes, including the helicopter attack on a Belgorod fuel depot, other fires are less obvious. In a giant country such as Russia where quite often poor maintenance of such facilities is not uncommon a fire at such remote installations would not normally gather much attention.

But ever since Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24, there have been more than a dozen blazes which some analysts say point to a concerted campaign of “sabotage” and even “deep strike operations carried out by the Ukrainians. For their part Ukrainian officials have adopted a similar repose to that of the Israelis who never confirm or deny covert attacks.

In a post on the instant messaging service Telegram earlier this month, Mykhaylo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, called the fires “divine intervention.” “Large fuel depots periodically burn ... for different reasons,” he wrote. “Karma is a cruel thing.”

But many war analysts believe several of the infernos, particularly those tied to oil, fuel and ammunition storage facilities supplying Russian forces in the Donbas - the focus of their latest offensive - were deliberate and planned.

Writing recently in Foreign Policy magazine, Douglas London a professor of intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a former CIA operations officer, detailed how sabotage behind enemy lines is a fundamental element of special operations warfare.

“It’s an integral tool for an insurgency or an army facing an opponent with superior numbers or equipment, as is the case in Ukraine. It works best for those enjoying a home-field advantage,” said London.

Such a capability he added, “has been in the modern US intelligence community’s playbook since the days of the World War II Jedburgh Program through which the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), supported resistance groups across Europe and Asia.”

To date it’s been well known that for some years now Western military training, advice and support has been forthcoming to the Ukrainian defence establishment. The provision too of crucial US and other European intelligence data has doubtless enabled and improved the effectiveness of any Ukrainian miliary operations including any covert activity.

But as Professor London also points out any such Western enabling of strikes inside Russia itself is laden with risk. Crudely or over zealously executed it could “provoke rather than pre-empt” giving Russian President Vladimir Putin the excuse to escalate while underlining his argument of the threat posed by NATO interference and expansionism.

It goes without saying of course that few if any Western officials are willing to comment on whether, deeper inside Russia an active campaign of sabotage hitting targets less directly related to the invasion is underway.

Perhaps some of the fires and explosions are indeed just coincidence or a series of ‘accidents’ and result of poor maintenance. But you would be hard pressed to find anyone who actually believes that, and no doubt there will be more fires and explosion to come inside Russia the longer its war in Ukraine goes on.

Israel-Palestine: International investigation needed into journalist’s death

Her death has become emblematic of the enmity that has characterised this seemingly interminable conflict. The shooting of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last week who worked for Al Jazeera and the appalling scenes that followed as Israeli police officers charged at Palestinian mourners carrying her coffin during the funeral procession in Jerusalem's Old City was a stark reminder of the ugliness that underpins this battle of wills between two peoples.

Abu Akleh, who was 51 was a household name for many Palestinians and Arabs, having reported on the Israeli occupation and other regional issues for many years. She was shot dead last Wednesday while covering an Israeli military raid in Jenin

Like many people I found it hard to watch the television footage last Friday showing Israeli police officers, in an apparent bid to stop mourners proceeding by foot rather than taking the coffin by car, burst through the courtyard gates and charge at the crowd, some beating pallbearers with batons and kicking them.

At one point the group carrying Abu Akleh’s coffin backed against a wall and almost dropped the casket, recovering it just before one end hit the ground as stun grenades detonated.

Amidst the outpouring of grief and anger over her killing the now all too familiar blame game that has become the hallmark of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict has begun.

While Palestinian authorities have described Abu Akleh's killing as an assassination by Israeli forces, Israel’s government initially suggested Palestinian fire might have been to blame, but officials have also said they could not rule out it was Israeli gunfire that killed her.

In a statement, agreed by consensus on Friday, the 15-member UN Security Council strongly condemned the killing and called for an “immediate, thorough, transparent, and fair and impartial investigation.”

Whether this happens remains to be seen, but for now the bullet that killed Abu Akleh has become the focus of two competing narratives about the circumstances of her death.

While Israel, has proposed a joint investigation with the Palestinians, and asked them to provide the bullet for examination, the Palestinians have rejected the request insisting that Israel could not be trusted to investigate the killing.

Such scepticism that Israel based on it track record would rigorously investigate itself, is shared by Israeli and Palestinian rights campaigners.

“The bullet can help only if the soldiers have surrendered their guns immediately,” said Michael Sfard, a legal adviser to Yesh Din, a rights group that investigates Israeli abuses in the West Bank speaking to The New York Times. “Otherwise, they could manipulate their guns.”

While just who was responsible for Abu Akleh’s has yet to be definitively determined, there is no escaping the long history of harsh treatment of Palestinian journalists by the Israeli authorities.

According to a recent report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) at least 144 Palestinian journalists have been at the receiving end of live rounds, rubber bullets, stun grenades or teargas fired by Israeli soldiers or police - or their baton blows - in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the past four years.

Whoever it was that fired the bullet that killed Shireen Abu Akleh it will take an independent international investigation to get to the truth.

Sri Lanka: A nation nearing meltdown

For weeks now the country has been in the grip of a catastrophic economic crisis. It has left the government on the brink of collapse and a state largely bankrupt and at risk of becoming a failed one.

At the epicentre of the crisis is Sri Lanka’s president Gotabaya Rajapaksa who has faced intensifying protests in recent weeks calling on him to resign over an economic meltdown that has led to severe shortages of everyday essentials and double-digit inflation and pushed the government close to default.

Such is the seriousness of the situation that already it has taken the political scalp of Gotabaya’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who stepped down as prime minister last week after a wave of violence, triggering the dissolution of the cabinet.

Mahinda argued that his resignation would pave the way for a cross-party government to restore calm while keeping Gotabaya in power. But the continuing failure to form a new government has only further fuelled calls for the president to quit also.

“This is the time for all Sri Lankans to join hands as one, to overcome the economic, social and political challenges,” Rajapaksa wrote on Twitter last week. “I urge all Sri Lankans to reject the subversive attempts to push you towards racial and religious disharmony.”

But such appeals appear to be falling on deaf ears as the country breaks down and the army is deployed to enforce a nationwide curfew with orders to shoot looters on sight.

As much of the public ire continues to be directed at the Rajapaksa brothers, who are blamed by the protestors for leading the country into the economic crisis, the question now is what comes next for Sri Lanka? The short answer is that to bring the country out of the crisis the first step would be to have a stabilised government at the centre.

President Rajapaksa has appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister, marking the fifth time has held that role and he can now form a cabinet.

Wickremesinghe is seen as an ally of Rajapaksa – which puts a question mark over whether the move can quell protests.

Time is not on his side and Sri Lanka’s hopes of transforming itself from a war-scarred country into one of Asia’s economic powerhouses is diminishing with every day that passes.

Time is not on their side and Sri Lanka’s hopes of transforming itself from a war-scarred country into one of Asia’s economic powerhouses is diminishing with every day that passes.

Paraguay: Prosecutor’s killing harks back to dark days of the cartels

The head of Colombia’s police has said it was likely a “transnational hit.” The victim Paraguayan Prosecutor Marcelo Pecci, known for fighting organised crime was gunned down on the island of Baru near the Caribbean city of Cartagena last Tuesday while on his honeymoon with his wife the prominent Paraguayan journalist Claudia Aguilera.

In a scene that could have come from a movie the two assassins arrived either by boat or jet ski at the resort where the couple were staying before shooting Pecci.

While the motive for the attack remains unclear Pecci reportedly investigated some of Paraguay’s most high-profile organised crime cases, where local criminal groups often work with larger Colombian and Brazilian cartels.

General Jorge Luis Vargas, head of Colombia's national police, told reporters the “big hypothesis” is that Pecci's killing was likely related to his prosecutions in Paraguay, which often focused on high-stakes anti-money laundering and anti-drug cases.

“We're talking about a transnational crime system, highly planned, in which it's probable that a large amount of money was spent to carry out the murder,” said Vargas.

Paraguay is the largest marijuana -producing country in South America and is an important transition hub in the smuggling of cocaine around the world. That Pecci had recently participated in operation Ultranza Py against drug trafficking in Paraguay leaves criminologists to conclude that this was this kind of activity that would make him a target.

“It is difficult to establish a link as to why, although everything points to the fact that he harmed the interests of the criminal cocaine-trafficking market that operates from Paraguay and uses the entire Paraguay-Parana waterway to take the drug out through the ports of Buenos Aires or Montevideo on its way to European, Australian and Asian markets. It is the strongest hypothesis as to why he was murdered,” Juan Martens Molas, criminologist and director of Paraguay’s Comparative Institute of Social and Criminal Sciences told the Spanish language newspaper El Pais.

Whoever was behind Pecci’s shooting, it is one of the latest in a surge of contract killings of Paraguayan officials. Many Colombians meanwhile likewise fear it could mark a return to the darkest moments of their own country’s history when drug lords such as Pablo Escobar could order brazen murders of public officials.

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