Russia Is Firing Missiles at Ukraine

As the U.S. slaps additional sanctions on Moscow and Donetsk separatists, new evidence emerges that short-range rockets are being launched from Russia into Ukraine.

Just as news broke today that the U.S. Treasury Department was instituting a new suite of sanctions against Russia, video evidence has emerged apparently showing the most definitive proof yet of Moscow's direct participation in the ongoing war in eastern and southern Ukraine: Russian rockets being fired toward Ukraine.

This afternoon, a video was posted to YouTube and shared on social media that claimed to show Grad rockets being fired from a Russian border town likely into Ukraine. Our team at the Interpreter found several other videos with the same descriptions -- Grad rocket launches from Gukovo toward Ukrainian territory.

The BM-21 Grad is a Soviet-designed, multiple-launch rocket system mounted to a truck, capable of firing unguided rockets with a range of 12-27 miles, depending on the particular rocket used. Both the Ukrainian and Russian militaries use BM-21 Grads, though videos of Grads in the possession of the separatists show vehicles with a different camouflage pattern than what is used by the Ukrainian military. Despite claims by the U.S. State Department, there has so far not been any direct evidence that these weapons came from the Russian military.

If confirmed, the videos posted today could be the smoking guns that directly connect the Russian military with the weapons being used against the Ukrainian military on the other side of the border.

Several of the videos, filmed near a pond of some sort, were apparently taken by a resident of the town. A careful perusal of Google Street View reveals that several physical features in the videos match exactly a location in the northwest corner of the town, less than two miles from the Ukrainian border. The distinctive topography of the lake, the placement of bushes and rocks, the tree line in the background, and a series of evenly spaced light poles that appear in multiple videos and in the Google maps appear to place the rocket launch inside of Russian territory. A preliminary analysis of the angles in the videos shows that there is almost no way that a Grad rocket launch from this location could miss Ukrainian territory. Yet another video, taken due south of the rocket launch, proves conclusively that these rockets were launched inside Russia and not over the border.

On July 11, 19 Ukrainian servicemen were killed and 90 to 100 were wounded when a Grad rocket strike hit their armored convoy in the southeast corner of Ukraine. At the time, there were rumors that those rockets were launched from Russian territory. The convoy was destroyed while it was camped roughly 10 miles southeast of Rovenky, a town that is only about 20 miles from Gukovo. In other words, it is possible that Grad rockets launched from the site identified by the Interpreter could have reached the site where the armored convoy was destroyed on July 11.

This startling new evidence emerges just as the Obama administration has made the decision to impose the most hard-hitting sanctions yet against Russia for its continued military interference in eastern Ukraine, an interference that U.S. officials have lately defined as the dispatching of heavy weaponry to separatists and the renewed buildup of approximately 12,000 Russian troops near the border. On Wednesday, July 16, the Treasury Department added to the list Russian arms manufacturers, separatist leaders, and the separatist administrative governments, known as the "People's Republic of Donetsk" and "Luhansk People's Republic." While the administration refrained from full sectoral sanctions, its biggest quarry was Russian state-owned entities: Gazprombank OAO, the financial arm of gas giant Gazprom; Vnesheconombank (VEB), an extremely powerful Russian bank; and Rosneft, the world's largest oil company. (Rosneft's chairman, Igor Sechin, was blacklisted in an earlier round of U.S. sanctions.)

That said, there are two limiting factors to these new U.S. sanctions.

The first is that, according to the Treasury Department's press release, the prohibition is on "U.S. persons and persons within the United States from transacting in, providing financing for, or otherwise dealing in new debt of longer than 90 days maturity or new equity for Gazprombank OAO and VEB, their property, or their interests in property." Russia's long-term financing for major transactions is typically secured externally, so the 90-day restriction on new debt could greatly impact Russia's already embattled economy.

But there's a significant distinction between the sanctions instituted against the banking and energy sectors. Treasury states that no U.S. persons can finance or hold equity in Gazprombank or VEB, but the issue of equity is absent from the designations of Rosneft. In other words, ownership of shares or other equity securities in the state oil company is not specifically prohibited. Nor have any U.S. property or interests in property owned by Gazprombank, VEB, or Rosneft been sanctioned, although Treasury says that that may follow, depending on Moscow's behavior.

Nevertheless, the future of Rosneft's ongoing deal with Exxon Mobil for Arctic oil exploration may now be in doubt. The banks especially stand to lose from today's measures. "If it doesn't cripple them, it bleeds them pretty hard," one U.S. official involved in the sanctions told the New Republic.

Another loophole is that U.S. dollar-clearing transactions are still permitted, meaning that foreign institutions or individuals doing business with either bank or Rosneft can continue to transact in their preferred currency of greenbacks. No doubt this is to let the legions of European companies engaged in long-term business deals with these entities proceed unhindered, although the "pariah effect" of U.S. sanctions may ultimately scuttle future transactions.

Indeed, the European Union's leadership announced today that it has agreed to impose expanded sanctions on Russia, with a list of individuals and entities to be decided upon on by the end of July.

It remains to be seen if Brussels's sanctions will follow Washington's lead. But it is clear that the West's diplomatic and economic confrontation with Russia has expanded at the same time that Moscow has let slip the veil on its war against Ukraine.

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Israel and Hamas Need Each Other

The two warring actors may hate each other, but they can't seem to live without each other either.

In her fascinating book A History of God, Karen Armstrong posits that the reason people believe in God is because God "works for them." That is to say, God is compelling because the idea of a divine being serves a useful purpose in people's lives. That utilitarian argument may be masked beneath a deep layer of spiritual devotion -- but it's a pragmatic decision all the same.

The same logic works, to a large degree, in explaining the motives and interests of Israel and Hamas toward one another. As the current Gaza conflict proves once again, these two actors -- in a perverse way -- need each other.

That's not to deny the enmity that marks the ties between Hamas and Israel, or the existential rhetoric that drives the tone of their public accusations. It's perfectly reasonable to assume that if Israeli and Hamas leaders had one wish, it would be to destroy the other. But in the practical world of Israeli-Palestinian politics, getting rid of one another is neither achievable -- nor perhaps even desirable. Indeed, because it's not an option, Israel and Hamas have not only made do with each other's existence, they have tried to figure out how to derive the maximum benefit from one another.

The Israeli-Hamas bond goes back to the very inception of the Palestinian Islamist organization. Israel didn't create Hamas in 1987, but in an effort to counter the more secular Fatah and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1970s, it gave a variety of Islamist groups political space and leeway. It even granted an operating license for an organization created by Hamas's founder, Ahmed Yassin. Paradoxically, Hamas's very reason for being depended on the existence of Israel -- even though its main aim was to destroy it.

One way to look at this is as a Middle Eastern form of mutually assured destruction. Hamas cannot destroy Israel, and Israel knows that it cannot reoccupy Gaza and eradicate the Islamist organization at a cost that it is willing to bear. So each actor uses the other for its own purposes.

For Israel, Hamas is a convenient address to achieve many of its short-term goals. In the strange world of controlled military confrontation, when it wants a cease-fire, it goes to Hamas, not to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. When it wants Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit released from captivity, it goes to Hamas, not Abbas. And when it needs to strike out in response to the brutal murders of three Israeli teens in the West Bank, it cracks down on Hamas -- whether or not the movement's leadership authorized the action. Hamas is a convenient target of attack -- and having applauded the kidnapping of the three boys, it is probably deserving as well.

Second, Israel needs Hamas in Gaza. Of course, it doesn't want a militant terrorist organization launching rockets at its cities and citizens. But a Hamas that maintains order there and provides a hedge against even more radical jihadi groups is preferable to a lawless vacuum. Indeed, fewer rockets were fired from Gaza in 2013 than in any year since 2001. I've often pondered why al Qaeda has never been able to set up shop in an effective manner in Gaza, or undertake a terrorist extravaganza in Israel. The absence of an al Qaeda presence is not only a result of the Israeli security presence -- it's due to the determination of Palestinians not to allow the jihadists to hijack their cause.

The last thing Israel wants is a vacuum in Gaza. In fact, Giora Eiland, former head of Israel's National Security Council, argues that it's in Israel's interest that Gaza be stable, with a strong economy and central authority. Indeed, Eiland argues, a statelike structure can be held responsible in the event of a confrontation: Israel could attack national infrastructure, not just rocket launchers.

Third, Hamas presents a wonderful bogeyman for those Israelis looking to avoid dealing with the questions of how to make the two-state solution a reality. Hamas's hostile and frequently anti-Semitic rhetoric is a gift to Israeli right-wingers, providing them with any number of talking points about why Israel can never trust Palestinians.

The problem posed by Hamas is not just a piece of propaganda by the Israeli right. The fact is that the absence of a monopoly over the organized use of violence in the Palestinian territories poses a legitimate threat to a two-state solution. What Israeli is going to make what are regarded as existential concessions to Mahmoud Abbas -- a Palestinian leader who lacks the power to silence all the guns and rockets of Palestine?

Finally, Hamas -- particularly its military wing -- also thrives on the existence of Israel. Hamas's very legitimacy is derived from an ideology and strategy steeped in confrontation and resistance. However self-destructive the ideology may be, the movement represents to many Palestinians an effort to preserve their national identity and to resist Israel and its ongoing occupation. Abbas has his peace process -- or what's left of it -- and his international campaign to drum up recognition of Palestinian statehood. Hamas has its resistance. It's in the nature of its very reason for being.

There is a good chance that the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is going to escalate, perhaps to include an Israeli ground incursion as well. But even if that's the plan, the odds don't favor Israel's success in breaking Hamas as an organization or ending its control over Gaza. More than likely, it will only mark another bloody phase in a long struggle between two parties who can't seem to live with one another -- or apparently without one another either.