By John Helmer, Moscow
A Russian declaration of war and the despatch of troops to secure the Crimea would be very serious things, if they materialized.
The Financial Times reporter, Kathrin Hille (image), is the only person in the entire world who claims to have been told by “a senior government official”: “If Ukraine breaks apart, it will trigger a war. They will lose Crimea first [because] we will go in and protect [it], just as we did in Georgia.” Hille not only keeps the name, rank and authority of this official secret, but she refuses to provide evidence to substantiate that the official exists and said the quoted words with the meaning Hille’s newspaper claimed in its story  headline: “Russia rattles sabre over fate of Crimea”. Hille’s claim that a Russian government threat was issued last week to move forces into Crimea appears to be a fabrication.
In war, as well as in covert military operations, disinformation plays an operational role. On February 23, three days after Hille’s report, the US National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, responded that if Russia were to launch military intervention in Ukraine, it “would be a grave mistake.” Rice didn’t claim there was evidence for the hypothetical question.
Nor did Rice reveal — or any American, British or European newspaper — that the US began a military operation on January 21. That is when the Pentagon announced an agreement with France to despatch a military force into the Black Sea within shooting range of Crimea and the Russian naval base of Sevastopol. The announced justification was that this was a humanitarian mission to assist Russia in the event of a security crisis during the Sochi Olympic Games, and allow evacuation of the US Olympic team.
Two US Navy warships entered the Black Sea on February 4, according to Russian and Turkish sources. On February 5 they were identified by the Pentagon as the USS Taylor and the USS Mount Whitney.
The Taylor (above) is a guided missile frigate. In effect, it’s a bodyguard for the lightly armed Whitney (below). That vessel is a floating signals intelligence base, and just as importantly, the forward command-and-control headquarters of the NATO Strike Force. For operational purposes, the Whitney is meant to coordinate air, missile and ground attack by US and NATO forces in Poland, Romania, and Hungary, as well as further back from the Ukrainian frontier.
Russia did not ask for US Navy or NATO Strike Force assistance, and neither did any NATO member state at Sochi.
The Russian fleet which was deployed at Sochi has not been formally identified by the Russian Navy or the Defence Ministry in Moscow. Local reports, however, identify on station in and around Sochi seven vessels from the Sevastopol base, including the missile cruiser Moskva and the intelligence ship Azov Sea; nine vessels from the Novorossiysk naval base; and eight Border Guards patrol boats.
A press officer on board the Whitney was asked to say when his vessel had entered the Black Sea, and when it planned to depart, now that the Games have concluded. He replied: “I’m not able to disclose that information.” Russian sources report the Whitney sailed through the Bosphorus and out of the Black Sea on February 25. Article 18 of the Montreux Convention of 1936, composed after World War 1 to regulate maritime movement into and out of the Black Sea, imposes a 21-day limit in the Black Sea for warships of non-littoral states, and the Whitney has complied. The Taylor has not, and is reported to be undergoing repairs at Samsun.
Sevastopol sources report that the return of the Russian fleet from Sochi is a routine homecoming, expected today or tomorrow, and unconnected to the Ukrainian turmoil.
The only appeal for outside security intervention to have come from the Ukraine since Hille reported her claim originated from the one of the three rabbis of the Jewish community in Kiev. On February 20 Rabbi Moshe Azman announced  his call for Israeli intervention, backed by the head of the Jewish community in Ukraine, Edward Dolinsky. The Israeli history  of military operations with US intelligence ships like the Whitney is not one of cooperation.
The Russian Defence Ministry, Navy and Army have issued no statement, on or off the record, relating to Crimea. The Pentagon has reported  there was a discussion on January 21 of the naval deployment between the two general staff chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey and Gen Valery Gerasimov. They met in Brussels. The US record indicates that Gerasimov was explicit that the US Navy flotilla off the Russian coast was unnecessary, uninvited, unwelcome.
At the Pentagon in Washington three days later, the US and French defense ministers appeared  to be coordinating the same plan. “Right now, “ said US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, “the Russians have not requested any specific assistance or technology. We want them to know that if they need our help we want to help.”
On February 5 the Navy briefer at the Pentagon, Rear Admiral John Kirby, told  a questioner: “It’s true that they’re in the Black Sea. The USS Mount Whitney and the USS Taylor, a frigate, and a command and control ship, they’re in the Black Sea as we — as we said they would be. It’s routine for us to be operating in the Black Sea. They are going to conduct port visits, they’re going to be doing training, multiple missions inside the Black Sea. Again, that’s — that’s routine. ..Navy ships all over the world are available for multiple tasking and should there be a need for them with respect to the Olympics, they’re obviously — they’re assets that could be called upon, should they be the right asset, and should the State Department need that help.”
Kirby added: “there’s been no request for that. There’s no demand signal for that right now. The European commander — European command commander does what every combatant commander does every day, and that’s take a look at the assets that he has available to him for any wide range of military tasking.”
The US press failed to report the operation for more than a week, and might have ignored it altogether, had the Taylor not run aground, damaging its propeller as it berthed at the Turkish port of Samsun on February 12. US Navy officers told the US press the Taylor would go to sea again after two days of repair. A Turkish leak revealed  the accident a week after it had happened. According to US military sources, the Taylor remains in port at Samsun; its commander has been replaced for the grounding incident.
Sources on the Crimean and Russian sides of the border say that despite political demonstrations and the raising of the Russian flag instead of the Ukrainian one during the February 23 Defender of the Fatherland ( Red Army) Day celebrations, there have been no unusual troop or ship movements. A Ukrainian opposition figure, Yury Lutsenko, and Andrei Illarionov, a former advisor to ex-President Boris Yelstin who works for a Washington think-tank, announced yesterday that Russian armoured personnel carriers (BTR) had been deployed on the approaches to Sevastopol town. Illarionov has also broadcast  that Russian armour “has completely blocked all entrances to Sevastopol”, while the fugitive Ukrainian president, Victor Yanukovich, is extracted from Sevastopol by a Russian warship. Its identity, according to Illarionov, has been pinpointed by the signals operators on board the Whitney. In Illarionov’s version of the Crimean events now unfolding, “I’m not sure that Putin will accept that [White House] warning.”
A video clip  ostensibly providing the blockade evidence reveals five BTR vehicles, stopped by the roadside on H9, the coastal road to Alushta and Feodosiya, with a municipal police escort for traffic control. They are not in deployment, checkpoint, or roadblock position. Look closely at the blue road sign, and it will become clear the BTRs are heading northeast towards Kerch, away from Sevastopol.
The author of the video clip is heard to say on the soundtrack that convoys of these vehicles regularly make the run up and down the highway. Crimean sources report the police have set up road checkpoints for halting vehicles displaying number plates from western Ukraine, especially Lviv. Other vehicles are passing normally.
Hille, the Financial Times reporter carrying the Russian declaration of war, is so new to Russia she might mistake north from south, and be unfamiliar with the layout of a region she hasn’t visited. She arrived at her Moscow post just 17 weeks ago from China. The sources for her published reporting to date have been Russian think-tanks; anonymous ambassadors from European Union countries; two unnamed Russian officials whom Hille quotes as saying things already in the Russian-language record; plus Vladimir Chizhov, the Russian ambassador to the EU, and Vladimir Lukin, the retired human rights ombudsman, and last week the Kremlin’s official representative to Kiev. They too have repeated to Hille what they had already said elsewhere.
For Hille’s brief reporting record on Russia, click here . She started in print from the Moscow bureau on October 9, 2013. In the ensuing four months she has published 62 articles, averaging about 550 words a piece. None breaks military news unless loss-making at the Kalashnikov rifle factory counts. She revealed she didn’t have a Defence Ministry source when she reported the deployment of Iskander tactical nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad; for that she cribbed from a Russian Defence Ministry handout.
Hille was asked to substantiate, not the identity of her source, but the authenticity of what she reported with supporting evidence, if she had it. Was the “senior government official” a Russian, or an official of another government? Hille refuses to say. What was the language in which the reported remark was made, and by what channel of communication – email, telephone, or face-to-face interview? Hille won’t elaborate.
How did she and her editors authenticate what she claims she was told? Hille replied: “The reason we decided to go with this story was that we judged this an excellent source. The reason we decided to describe the source only in the terms I did was to protect the source. If you are following this topic closely, you will have noticed that there has been a lot of debate within the Russian government about Crimea scenarios, so what we reported is not that surprising.”
Asked to identify where, when and by whom there had been such a “debate within the Russian government”, Hille answered: “You misunderstand the situation. I don’t know you, and I am under no obligation to discuss my sources with you.”
One of the sources Hille has relied on in her reporting was asked if he had passed on the war threat from a government official he knew. Asking for anonymity, he said Hille’s quote “is not an [official] statement” but a hypothetical assessment which “is widespread. If everything there will swing further and the euphoria of the nationalists will not subside, then internal instability will begin, and Russia will hardly be able to stand aside given the human connection and strategic interests. I do not think that this is fabricated. Any Russian expert will tell you this simply based on a logical assessment of the circumstances and risks.”
A Russian military source says there is an obvious difference between speculation by experts and official statements defining the threshold for war. In his view, a coup has taken place in Kiev, with the consequence that “Crimea and Southern Ukraine have the right to decide their future political destiny – with Ukraine, or separately with a course of rapprochement with Russia. If, say, in Ukraine there will be a civil war, if the Ukrainian army, which swears allegiance to the new Ukrainian authorities, or the opposition militias invade Southeastern Ukraine and Crimea and start large-scale fighting, which will result in massive loss of life and suffering of the civilian population, Russia has the right to use the Kosovo precedent – that is, to start a peacekeeping operation. Russia’s hands are untied to act in such a scenario. But this is a matter of the political choice of Vladimir Putin.”
Other sources close to the level of government which Hille claims to be reporting say the reporter either misunderstood what she was told; exaggerated the meaning; or fabricated it. “Of course it’s fictional,” said one senior source. “What Russian politician in his right mind and blessed memory [could say it]? Yes, some Zhirinovsky type, but he is not a politician! Honestly, I do not even want to say out loud such things.”