MOSCOW — In the days that followed Monday’s report in The New York Times that North Korea may have illicitly procured advanced Soviet-era rocket engines from Ukraine, the response out of the post-Soviet nation could best be described as trolling.
Not long after the report was published, outraged Ukrainian social media users directed their outrage at the source of the allegations: Michael Elleman, a missile defense expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The New York Times story referenced in detail a report published by Elleman that same day, in which he noted apparent similarities between North Korea’s new missile engines and those once produced by Yuzmash, the Ukrainian rocket factory that builds the Zenit, Dnepr and Cyclone satellite launchers and the main stage of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket.
Rather than challenge Elleman’s argument, Ukrainian social media users quickly made things personal. Freelance investigators scoured his Facebook and Twitter profiles to find evidence that Elleman was a Russian agent peddling propaganda.
This is low. Ukrainians going after @Elleman_IISS online with his own social posts, claiming ‘ties to Russia.’ https://t.co/Y9zHxrd9eG
— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) August 15, 2017
“It was extremely interesting to read the Facebook page of someone who, in The New York Times story, was presented as a rocket expert,” Artem Sokolenko, the head of a communications firm in Kiev wrote on Facebook Sunday.
“He does not like to show his wife on his page, but there are some photos,” Sokolonko wrote, sharing photos purportedly of Elleman’s Russian wife, Tatyana, dressed in a Russian military uniform — one that was obviously not her own.
Elleman was the head of a cooperative nuclear missile dismantlement program in Chelyabinsk, Russia, from 1995 to 2001, and is a respected expert in the field of arms control and missile defense.
“The initial Ukrainian response was unhelpful,” Michael Kofman, an expert in Russian military affairs at the Virginia-based CNA think tank told SpaceNews.
“They blamed the expert and then Russian information warfare, which had nothing to do with the matter,” Kofman said. “After categorical denials, only now are they launching an investigation to see if there was any connection.”
On Wednesday, two days after the reports were published, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko finally stepped up with a proactive response.
“No matter how absurd the accusations,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday, “as responsible partners…we shall carefully verify…the alleged supply of missile engines … to North Korea.”
Poroshenko ordered Yuzhmash, the Ukrainian rocket firm in question, along with state investigators, to conduct a thorough investigation into the claims and report back to him. The report is expected imminently.
Also on Wednesday, the Yuzhnoe design bureau — the R&D wing of Yuzhmash — released a strongly worded statement refuting The New York Times and IISS reports.
“This material is riddled with technical inaccuracies,” the statement said, “amateur level assessments of technology, and a clear lack of understanding of rocket and missile technology.”
The statement echoed online sentiment questioning Elleman’s expertise. And Elleman was subject to such intense pressure online that he was prompted to delete his social media accounts. Elleman did not respond to a request for comment on this report.
Sokolenko, along with his followers and other Ukrainians on Twitter, also took note of Elleman’s dog — named Sobaka, the Russian word for dog — and photos of an empty bottle of Putina vodka.
All of this, in their mind, was evidence he was compromised.
The idea that Elleman’s report was somehow the product of a Russian disinformation campaign was initially echoed by Ukrainian officials, namely the Oleksandr Turchinov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council.
“This information is baseless,” Turchinov wrote Monday on his blog, “it is provocative in content and most likely provoked by the Russian intelligence services to cover up their own crimes.”
It is, perhaps, understandable that Ukraine’s initial reaction was unsavory. After all, Elleman’s report comes after three years of conflict with neighboring Russia — a struggle that is waged in eastern Ukraine and in the global information space.
“The claims of Russian disinformation were probably inevitable,” says Russian nuclear weapons expert Pavel Podvig, “as were the attacks on Elleman.”
“I think Yuzhmash had the right to question his expertise and they were understandably angry,” Podvig continued, “but the campaign against [Elleman] of course turned rather ugly on social media — but I’m not sure officials made it worse. There are plenty of freelancing trolls in Ukraine.”
For Ukrainians, the timing must have certainly been suspect. At a time when tensions are flaring between North Korea and the United States, no allegation could perhaps be more damaging for Ukraine’s reputation in Washington.
Mikhail Barabanov, an expert with the Moscow-based Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said that politics likely played a role in the assessment that Ukraine may have transferred technology to North Korea.
“This excessive searching for ‘foreign assistance’ in the North Korean missile program is purely political in nature,” Barabanov argued, “and is the result of shock, especially in the United States, from North Korea’s recent missile success.”
Barabanov argued that North Korea’s indigenous missile program is 50 years old, and that information on rocket technology has proliferated in the past two decades thanks in part to the internet. That said, he believes Ukraine could have played a role in helping North Korea.
“This story would be completely in the spirit and customs of Ukrainian military-technical cooperation,” Baravanov said. “Ukraine has a bad reputation with regards to the sale of former Soviet military hardware, including high-tech equipment.”
The most famous example, said Barabanov, was a 2001 sale to Iran and China of the USSR’s Kh-55 air-launched cruise missiles. Ukraine admitted to the sale in 2005. The idea of Russia giving North Korea the engines would go against Russia’s interests, he said.
But amid renewed talk of arming Ukraine with lethal American defensive weapons in Washington, information warriors in Ukraine — as well as their fellow travellers in the West — see motive for Russia to frame Ukraine at a time when U.S. tension with North Korea are high.
The sentiment that Elleman was somehow compromised by his Russian wife was echoed by anti-Putin Twitter activists in the West. One of these activists, Julia Davis, doubled down on the idea that his Russian wife was evidence.
— Julia Davis (@JuliaDavisNews) August 15, 2017
Russian info warriors had their own fun.
Two famous Russian telephone pranksters, renowned for prank calling singer Elton John and convincing him he was talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin, managed to get the head of Yuzhmash on the line and talked him into admitting ties to North Korea.
Luckily, the expert-level discussion on all sides appears to be more level-headed. Podvig, who runs the Russianforces.com blog, said that he doubts Elleman’s conclusions.
“Although it’s not entirely impossible, sending actual rocket engines to North Korea would be a very difficult thing to pull off, whether in Russia or Ukraine. And I thought Yuzhmash handled the situation reasonable well,” Podvig said.
Yuzhmash has said all engines of the type Elleman believes are being used by North Korea were produced by the plant and sent to Russia long ago.
“They must have the records. It is a bit unfair to put the burden of proof on them, but maybe they’ll come around to realizing that this kind of openness would help them,” Podvig said.
Kofman echoed Podvig’s sentiment: “Ultimately, I think that Ukraine will be vindicated in this scandal.”