The Slaughter of Innocents

Why collateral damage undoes the best-laid plans of "limited" war makers.

Modern low-intensity conflicts are won and lost on their ragged edges. Nations act as though the careful plans of their militaries and intelligence operations can harness the chaos of combat and guide it to advance their interests. And then the unplanned happens, collateral damage occurs, and it has a bigger impact on politics and the position of combatants than all the calculated elements of the conflict added up.

We need look no further than the headlines of this week -- to the four dead Palestinian boys on the beach in Gaza or to the scattered wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines flight allegedly shot down over Ukraine.

While the Israeli government can and repeatedly does justify its actions against Hamas as self-defense, it cannot argue away the deaths of four children on the beach or, for that matter, the large number of other civilian victims of its attacks. The government may take every precaution, use the most advanced smart munitions available, and periodically stop its warring to offer humanitarian relief. But when innocent children die while playing on the beach, every justification rings hollow, every precaution is revealed to be callously inadequate. When a child's lifeless body lies in a Ukrainian field to which it has fallen from the sky, the prevarications and plausible deniability that may have been useful in managing less horrifying incidents lose their effectiveness.

From a purely political perspective, such tragedies, isolated though they may be, instantly dominate the narrative of a conflict because they speak to the heart of observers -- whereas government speeches, Twitter feeds, and press releases seem too coldly rational and calculated, too soulless and self-interested. There are no arguments a political leader or a press officer can make that trump horror or anguish. There is no moral equation that offers a satisfactory calculus to enable us to accept the death of innocents as warranted.

In a moment, the rationales for waging such "limited actions" become moot. Arguments about self-defense ring hollow when the defenseless are murdered. Indeed, the notion that such actions could be "limited," which is to say managed or contained, is belied by the unintended consequences like those that have dominated the news this week. This is doubly tragic in the case of this most recent round of fighting between the Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors -- which now sees Israel Defense Forces troops on the ground in Gaza -- because of the inherent futility of the efforts of both sides. We have seen these skirmishes before.

Never once have they improved the situation of either side. Neither can damage the other sufficiently to change the balance of power between them. No action that either can muster can be punitive enough to change the behavior of the other.

Nonetheless, both parties to the conflict in Israel and Gaza seem to still be under the delusion that these regularly repeated outbursts actually serve a purpose. Leaders on both sides have lost all sense that when you share a land, you share each other's children, and that they belong not to the flawed nations of today but to the promise of what might come tomorrow. The sight of dead children not only weakens Israel politically and dents the country's international standing, but it taints every defensible action Israel might take and devalues any future peace by literally having snuffed it out for those who might have benefited from that better future.

The sad part is that we all knew such a consequence would come. Yes, violent extremists who pose a threat to Israel have been killed in this latest round of hostilities, but history has shown they are like dragon's teeth: remove one, another grows in its place. But when bystanders are killed in action, not only does that speed the process by which new extremists are created, but it strengthens Hamas's case that Israel is the callous user of disproportionate force, the problem the world must help it solve. There is no question that Israel is weaker today as a result of the death of those four boys than it was a few days ago when they were still able to play soccer on that beach.

Similarly, just a few days ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin stood among his fellow leaders of the BRICS nations and basked in their support. They would stand by him against American and European sanctions. But if it is proved that Russian-supported separatists using Russian weapons were, as it seems, responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the deaths of 298 passengers and crew members, then it will be much harder for the friends of the Russian leader to embrace him or his brazen efforts to destabilize Ukraine.*

For all his mastery in seizing Crimea without firing a shot, for slipping Spetsnaz special forces and intelligence units into Ukraine in such a way that not even his enemies dared call it an invasion, for leveraging the unrest to influence his neighbor, it could well be that this tragedy will ultimately define this conflict in the eyes of the world. Certainly, it will rewrite its narrative.

Putin has already said that it's Ukraine's fault. In time, he may come to blame it on rogue separatists. But even if a trigger-happy Cossack irregular is to blame, the slaughter of innocents still will likely redound to the disadvantage of the apparent sponsor.

In total warfare, it is easier to shrug off collateral damage as the cost of achieving a vital goal, of survival. But in more limited conflicts, it can reset the political context that is as much a part of the overall battle as is the use of force. Random errors can as a consequence become great defeats. When innocents die, standard military metrics for success or failure pale in comparison with the human costs depicted so graphically in the media -- highlighting once again with indelible and deeply disturbing images the hubris of leaders who delude themselves into believing they can control the uncontrollable.

Update, July 18, 2014: This article has been updated to state that 298 passengers and crew members died in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. An earlier version stated that 295 died, a death toll that had been earlier reported. (Return to reading.)

Photo via NBC News


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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