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How a Russian submarine almost started World War III

The Cuban Missile Crisis story you may have never heard of.

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Originally appeared on National Interest

There is some disagreement over how close Savitsky really came to launching the nuclear torpedo. The nuclear warhead required a certain amount of preparation, and some maintain Savitsky’s order reflected a momentary loss of temper under stressful conditions rather than a commitment to following through. Nonetheless, it seems clear that a nuclear exchange was averted for reasons far more circumstantial than any would care to stake the fate of humanity on.

It is commonly accepted that the world has never come closer to nuclear war than during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the United States confronted Soviet Union over its deployment of ballistic nuclear missiles to Cuba. But in popular imagination, the decisions for war would have come from national leaders sitting in the comfort of executive offices in Washington or Moscow.

In fact, that decision was nearly taken out of Khrushchev and Kennedy’s hands by a group of men in the throes of dehydration and CO2 poisoning as they sat in a malfunctioning submarine surrounded by U.S. destroyers, unable to consult with Moscow.

Two officers gave the order to prepare a nuclear weapon for launch.

Fortunately, they brought their boss with them.

The origin of the Cuban Missile Crisis in fact lay in Operation Anadyr, the Soviet plan to covertly deploy fifty thousand personnel and their heavy weapons to Cuba by sea. Anadyr remains a masterpiece of operational security. Even the name Anadyr itself, referencing a river in Russia, was meant to deflect attention from its actual goals. Soviet diplomats prepared a cover story by boasting of a major civilian development program in Cuba. Meanwhile, orders for the troop deployments were transmitted by courier, and the troops and ship captains did not learn about their actual destination until they were given letters by KGB agents at sea.

A total of eighty-six Soviet ships transferred an entire motorized rifle division to Cuba, as well as forty MiG-21 jet fighters, two anti-aircraft divisions with SA-2 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), sixteen ballistic missile launchers loaded to fire R-12 and R-14 missiles, six Il-28 jet bombers, and twelve FROG-3 tactical ballistic missile systems. The last three systems came with their own nuclear warheads. The troops and equipment were mostly concealed from sight on the ships, though U.S. Navy aircraft did spot some of the SAMs on one transport on September 4. On the whole, however, the Soviet deception was a remarkable success.

The problem was that it wasn’t possible to deploy such a large force on the ground without being detected. On October 14, a U.S. U-2 spy plane photographed the Soviet ballistic missiles at San Cristobal, leading to the missile crisis. Eight days later, Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba. It would involve hundreds of ships, including four aircraft carriers, as well as numerous additional shore-based patrol planes.

The Soviet Union remained outwardly defiant of the blockade—but mostly turned its ships around. A small number of Soviet ships did attempt to run the blockade—but they were the exception. Weeks earlier, the Soviet Union had set in to motion Operation Kama to deploy four Foxtrot-class diesel submarines of the Sixty-Ninth Torpedo Submarine Brigade to the Cuban harbor of Mariel. The subs were numbered B-4B-36B-59 and B-130.

Command personnel from the brigade were attached B-4 and B-59, including Chief of Staff Vasili Arkhipov, who had earlier distinguished himself as the executive officer of the nuclear submarine K-19, which narrowly averted a nuclear meltdown. Arkhipov was badly irradiated during the incident but recovered to live until 1998—unlike many of the K-19’s crew.

The Foxtrot submarines, known as Project 641s in the Soviet Union, were not at the cutting edge of submarine design. Introduced in 1957, they just predated the introduction of teardrop-shaped hulls which offered superior stealth and underwater speed—and in fact were noisier than usual thanks to their three propeller screws. The third deck of the Foxtrots was entirely devoted to enormous batteries, allowing the diesel subs to operate underwater for ten days before needing to surface—but they could only sustain 2.3 miles per hour at maximum endurance, and the crew of seventy-eight was left with the absolute minimum of living space. Fatefully, the submarine’s cooling systems were not designed with tropical waters in mind.

Two other submarines would later be dispatched: the Zulu-class B-75, which escorted a Soviet transport carrying ballistic missiles, and B-88, which deployed off Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to prepare a surprise attack (again!) in the event that war broke out. These submarines do not appear to have been detected by the U.S. Navy.

The flotilla of Foxtrots sailed from the Kola peninsula on October 1 and managed to evade NATO Neptune and Shackleton antisubmarine aircraft in the North Atlantic. However, as they approached Cuba, they still needed to surface regularly to recharge their batteries.

Living conditions in the submerged submarines rapidly grew intolerable. The Foxtrots’ cooling systems broke down and temperatures rose to a range of 100 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. CO2 began to build up, worsening the physical and mental condition of the crew. A lack of fresh water led to widespread dehydration, and infected rashes broke out across the entire crew.

On October 23, Defense Secretary McNamara authorized U.S. ships to use special Practice Depth Charges, or PDCs. The grenade-sized charges were intended as a means of signaling to the submarines that they had been detected, compelling them to surface. However, the blasts damaged the Soviet subs’ radio antennae and terrorized the crews, who could not easily distinguish the signaling charges from real depth charges. Although the United States notified Moscow of its “Submarine Surfacing and Identification Procedures,” the message did not make it to the subs of the Sixty-Ninth brigade.

The U.S. Navy did not realize the risk of the cat-and-mouse game they were playing with the Soviet subs. In addition to the twenty-one regular torpedoes they carried, each Foxtrot was armed with a single “Special Weapon”: a T-5 torpedo that could be armed with a RDS-9 nuclear warhead. The T-5s had a range of ten kilometers and were designed to detonate thirty-five meters under water and rupture the hulls of nearby ships through the shockwave. Sources disagree as to whether the T-5s had small 3.5- to 5-kiloton warheads, or fifteen-kiloton warheads that could well have destroyed the firer. Regardless, setting off any nuke in the Caribbean would likely have incited a chain reaction of nuclear retaliation.

According to some accounts, Capt. Nikolai Shumkov on board B-130 ordered the arming of a nuclear torpedo—but later maintained he did so to impress Moscow with his dedication to the mission. B-130’s political officer objected, and Shumkov ultimately relented, noting that “we would go up with it” if they fired the torpedo and surfaced B-130. In the end, all three of B-130’s diesel engines broke down. With its battery power exhausted, it was forced to surface directly in front of the pursuing destroyer USS Blandy on October 30. B-130 had to be brought home to Murmansk by a tug.

The nearby B-36, under Capt. Alexei Dubivko, was chased by the destroyer Charles P. Cecil. Dubivko maintains that the destroyer nearly rammed B-36 while it was attempting to surface. B-36, too, ran out of battery and was forced to surface on October 31 and head back for home.

However, the most dangerous incident occurred days earlier on October 27 at the time of maximum tension between Moscow and Washington, when patrol aircraft forced B-59 to submerge with almost no battery accumulated. The American destroyer USS Beale began pelting the Soviet sub with PDCs. It was soon joined by ten additional destroyers from the USS Randolph carrier task force.

Communication Officer Victor Orlov recalled of the hours-long bombardment, “It felt like sitting in a metal barrel with someone hitting it with a sledgehammer. The crew was in shock.” Capt. Valentin Savitsky stubbornly kept B-59 submerged as the temperature built up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit and oxygen steadily depleted, causing the crew to begin fainting.

Russian sailor Anatoly Andreyev described the deteriorating condition of B-59’s crew in a series of diary entries addressed to his wife:

For four days we haven’t been able to get a breath of fresh air, to emerge at least to periscope depth. The compartments are hot and stuffy. . . . It’s getting hard to breathe in here, too much CO2, but no one wants to leave, as it is slightly cooler here. I barely made it through my previous watch. I feel faint all over, slightly dizzy, and I am also showing the results of this way of life, something like hives.

Of Captain Savitsky, Andreyev wrote:

“The worst thing is that the commander’s nerves are shot to hell, he’s yelling at everyone and torturing himself. . . . He is already becoming paranoid, scared of his own shadow. He’s hard to deal with. I feel sorry for him and at the same time angry with him for his rash actions.”

Unable to communicate with Moscow, Capt. Valentin Savitsky concluded that war had already broken out. According to Orlov, Savitsky ordered the crew to arm his submarine’s nuclear torpedo and prep it for firing at USS Randolph.

“There may be a war raging up there and we are trapped here turning somersaults!”

Orlov recalled Savitsky saying.

“We are going to hit them hard. We shall die ourselves, sink them all but not stain the navy’s honor!”

His political officer, Ivan Maslennikov, concurred with the order.

Normally, the approval of these two officers would have sufficed to launch the torpedo. But by coincidence, Arkhipov, chief of staff of the Sixty-Ninth Brigade, happened to be on board—and he was entitled a say. According to some accounts, Arkhipov argued at length with Savitsky before the latter calmed down and ordered B-59 to surface.

As the submarine breached the surface, it was immediately illuminated by searchlights from destroyers. Helicopters and aircraft from the Randolph buzzed B-59 repeatedly at low altitude, firing their weapons across its bow. Destroyers closed within twenty meters, guns leveled, blaring warnings over loudspeakers. The Soviet sub was forced to limp back home.

There is some disagreement over how close Savitsky really came to launching the nuclear torpedo. The nuclear warhead required a certain amount of preparation, and some maintain Savitsky’s order reflected a momentary loss of temper under stressful conditions rather than a commitment to following through. Nonetheless, it seems clear that a nuclear exchange was averted for reasons far more circumstantial than any would care to stake the fate of humanity on.

Of the flotilla, only B-4 under Capt. Rurik Ketov was able to avoid being forced to the surface by the U.S. blockade. Although detected by patrolling aircraft, B-4’s batteries had sufficient charge to remain underwater long enough to lose the U.S. patrols. Nonetheless, Ketov too was forced to abort the mission.

Kennedy ultimately moved towards resolving the crisis on October 28 with a secret deal suggested by Khrushchev, in which the United States withdrew missiles in Turkey and promised not to invade Cuba, in exchange for Russia withdrawing its nuclear weapons.

But next time you think of the Cuban Missile Crisis, don’t think first of Kennedy brooding over his options in Washington. Think instead of dehydrated, harassed men trapped in a fragile metal box under the surface of the ocean, trying to decide whether or not to go down in a blaze of radioactive glory.

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

This first appeared last year. 

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Is the Violent Dismemberment of Russia Official US Policy?

Neocons make the case that the West should not only seek to contain “Moscow’s imperial ambitions” but to actively seek the dismemberment of Russia as a whole.

The Duran

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Authored by Erik D’Amato via The Ron Paul Institute for Peace & Prosperity:


If there’s one thing everyone in today’s Washington can agree on, it’s that whenever an official or someone being paid by the government says something truly outrageous or dangerous, there should be consequences, if only a fleeting moment of media fury.

With one notable exception: Arguing that the US should be quietly working to promote the violent disintegration and carving up of the largest country on Earth.

Because so much of the discussion around US-Russian affairs is marked by hysteria and hyperbole, you are forgiven for assuming this is an exaggeration. Unfortunately it isn’t. Published in the Hill under the dispassionate title “Managing Russia’s dissolution,” author Janusz Bugajski makes the case that the West should not only seek to contain “Moscow’s imperial ambitions” but to actively seek the dismemberment of Russia as a whole.

Engagement, criticism and limited sanctions have simply reinforced Kremlin perceptions that the West is weak and predictable. To curtail Moscow’s neo-imperialism a new strategy is needed, one that nourishes Russia’s decline and manages the international consequences of its dissolution.

Like many contemporary cold warriors, Bugajski toggles back and forth between overhyping Russia’s might and its weaknesses, notably a lack of economic dynamism and a rise in ethnic and regional fragmentation.But his primary argument is unambiguous: That the West should actively stoke longstanding regional and ethnic tensions with the ultimate aim of a dissolution of the Russian Federation, which Bugajski dismisses as an “imperial construct.”

The rationale for dissolution should be logically framed: In order to survive, Russia needs a federal democracy and a robust economy; with no democratization on the horizon and economic conditions deteriorating, the federal structure will become increasingly ungovernable…

To manage the process of dissolution and lessen the likelihood of conflict that spills over state borders, the West needs to establish links with Russia’s diverse regions and promote their peaceful transition toward statehood.

Even more alarming is Bugajski’s argument that the goal should not be self-determination for breakaway Russian territories, but the annexing of these lands to other countries. “Some regions could join countries such as Finland, Ukraine, China and Japan, from whom Moscow has forcefully appropriated territories in the past.”

It is, needless to say, impossible to imagine anything like this happening without sparking a series of conflicts that could mirror the Yugoslav Wars. Except in this version the US would directly culpable in the ignition of the hostilities, and in range of 6,800 Serbian nuclear warheads.

So who is Janusz Bugajski, and who is he speaking for?

The author bio on the Hill’s piece identifies him as a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington, D.C. think-tank. But CEPA is no ordinary talk shop: Instead of the usual foundations and well-heeled individuals, its financial backers seem to be mostly arms of the US government, including the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the US Mission to NATO, the US-government-sponsored National Endowment for Democracy, as well as as veritable who’s who of defense contractors, including Raytheon, Bell Helicopter, BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and Textron. Meanwhile, Bugajski chairs the South-Central Europe area studies program at the Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State.

To put it in perspective, it is akin to a Russian with deep ties to the Kremlin and arms-makers arguing that the Kremlin needed to find ways to break up the United States and, if possible, have these breakaway regions absorbed by Mexico and Canada. (A scenario which alas is not as far-fetched as it might have been a few years ago; many thousands in California now openly talk of a “Calexit,” and many more in Mexico of a reconquista.)

Meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine a quasi-official voice like Bugajski’s coming out in favor of a similar policy vis-a-vis China, which has its own restive regions, and which in geopolitical terms is no more or less of a threat to the US than Russia. One reason may be that China would consider an American call for secession by the Tibetans or Uyghurs to be a serious intrusion into their internal affairs, unlike Russia, which doesn’t appear to have noticed or been ruffled by Bugajski’s immodest proposal.

Indeed, just as the real scandal in Washington is what’s legal rather than illegal, the real outrage in this case is that few or none in DC finds Bugajski’s virtual declaration of war notable.

But it is. It is the sort of provocation that international incidents are made of, and if you are a US taxpayer, it is being made in your name, and it should be among your outrages of the month.

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At Age 70, Time To Rethink NATO

The architect of Cold War containment, Dr. George Kennan, warned that moving NATO into Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics would prove a “fateful error.”

Patrick J. Buchanan

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Authored by Patrick Buchanan via The Unz Review:


“Treaties are like roses and young girls. They last while they last.”

So said President Charles De Gaulle, who in 1966 ordered NATO to vacate its Paris headquarters and get out of France.

NATO this year celebrates a major birthday. The young girl of 1966 is no longer young. The alliance is 70 years old.

And under this aging NATO today, the U.S. is committed to treat an attack on any one of 28 nations from Estonia to Montenegro to Romania to Albania as an attack on the United States.

The time is ripe for a strategic review of these war guarantees to fight a nuclear-armed Russia in defense of countries across the length of Europe that few could find on a map.

Apparently, President Donald Trump, on trips to Europe, raised questions as to whether these war guarantees comport with vital U.S. interests and whether they could pass a rigorous cost-benefit analysis.

The shock of our establishment that Trump even raised this issue in front of Europeans suggests that the establishment, frozen in the realities of yesterday, ought to be made to justify these sweeping war guarantees.

Celebrated as “the most successful alliance in history,” NATO has had two histories. Some of us can yet recall its beginnings.

In 1948, Soviet troops, occupying eastern Germany all the way to the Elbe and surrounding Berlin, imposed a blockade on the city.

The regime in Prague was overthrown in a Communist coup. Foreign minister Jan Masaryk fell, or was thrown, from a third-story window to his death. In 1949, Stalin exploded an atomic bomb.

As the U.S. Army had gone home after V-E Day, the U.S. formed a new alliance to protect the crucial European powers — West Germany, France, Britain, Italy. Twelve nations agreed that an attack on one would be treated as an attack on them all.

Cross the Elbe and you are at war with us, including the U.S. with its nuclear arsenal, Stalin was, in effect, told. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops returned to Europe to send the message that America was serious.

Crucial to the alliance was the Yalta line dividing Europe agreed to by Stalin, FDR and Churchill at the 1945 Crimean summit on the Black Sea.

U.S. presidents, even when monstrous outrages were committed in Soviet-occupied Europe, did not cross this line into the Soviet sphere.

Truman did not send armored units up the highway to Berlin. He launched an airlift to break the Berlin blockade. Ike did not intervene to save the Hungarian rebels in 1956. JFK confined his rage at the building of the Berlin Wall to the rhetorical: “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

LBJ did nothing to help the Czechs when, before the Democratic convention in 1968, Leonid Brezhnev sent Warsaw Pact tank armies to crush the Prague Spring.

When the Solidarity movement of Lech Walesa was crushed in Gdansk, Reagan sent copy and printing machines. At the Berlin Wall in 1988, he called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

Reagan never threatened to tear it down himself.

But beginning in 1989, the Wall was torn down, Germany was united, the Red Army went home, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, the USSR broke apart into 15 nations, and Leninism expired in its birthplace.

As the threat that had led to NATO disappeared, many argued that the alliance created to deal with that threat should be allowed to fade away, and a free and prosperous Europe should now provide for its own defense.

It was not to be. The architect of Cold War containment, Dr. George Kennan, warned that moving NATO into Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics would prove a “fateful error.”

This, said Kennan, would “inflame the nationalistic and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion” and “restore the atmosphere of the cold war in East-West relations.” Kennan was proven right.

America is now burdened with the duty to defend Europe from the Atlantic to the Baltic, even as we face a far greater threat in China, with an economy and population 10 times that of Russia.

And we must do this with a defense budget that is not half the share of the federal budget or the GDP that Eisenhower and Kennedy had.

Trump is president today because the American people concluded that our foreign policy elite, with their endless interventions where no vital U.S. interest was imperiled, had bled and virtually bankrupted us, while kicking away all of the fruits of our Cold War victory.

Halfway into Trump’s term, the question is whether he is going to just talk about halting Cold War II with Russia, about demanding that Europe pay for its own defense, and about bringing the troops home — or whether he is going to act upon his convictions.

Our foreign policy establishment is determined to prevent Trump from carrying out his mandate. And if he means to carry out his agenda, he had best get on with it.

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Photos of new Iskander base near Ukrainian border creates media hype

But research into the photos and cross-checking of news reports reveals only the standard anti-Russian narrative that has gone on for years.

Seraphim Hanisch

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Fox News obtained satellite photos that claim that Russia has recently installed new Iskander missile batteries, one of them “near” to the Ukrainian border. However, what the Fox article does not say is left for the reader to discover: that in regards to Ukraine, these missiles are probably not that significant, unless the missiles are much longer range than reported:

The intelligence report provided to Fox by Imagesat International showed the new deployment in Krasnodar, 270 miles from the Ukrainian border. In the images is visible what appears to be an Iskander compound, with a few bunkers and another compound of hangars. There is a second new installation that was discovered by satellite photos, but this one is much farther to the east, in the region relatively near to Ulan-Ude, a city relatively close to the Mongolian border.

Both Ukraine and Mongolia are nations that have good relations with the West, but Mongolia has good relations with both its immediate neighbors, Russia and China, and in fact participated with both countries in the massive Vostok-2018 military war-games earlier this year.

Fox News provided these photos of the Iskander emplacement near Krasnodar:

Imagesat International

Fox annotated this photo in this way:

Near the launcher, there is a transloader vehicle which enables quick reloading of the missiles into the launcher. One of the bunker’s door is open, and another reloading vehicle is seen exiting from it.

[Fox:] The Iskander ballistic missile has a range up to 310 miles, and can carry both unconventional as well as nuclear warheads, putting most of America’s NATO allies at risk. The second deployment is near the border with Mongolia, in Ulan-Ude in Sothern Russia, where there are four launchers and another reloading vehicle.

[Fox:] Earlier this week, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said authorities of the former Soviet republic are being “controlled” by the West, warning it stands to lose its independence and identity as a consequence. “The continuation of such policy by the Kiev authorities can contribute to the loss of Ukraine’s statehood,” Mr Patrushev told Rossiyskaya Gazeta, according to Russian news agency TASS.

This situation was placed by Fox in context with the Kerch Strait incident, in which three Ukrainian vessels and twenty-four crew and soldiers were fired upon by Russian coast guard ships as they manuevered in the Kerch Strait without permission from Russian authorities based in Crimea. There are many indications that this incident was a deliberate attempt on the part of Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko, to create a sensational incident, possibly to bolster his flagging re-election campaign. After the incident, the President blustered and set ten provinces in Ukraine under martial law for 30 days, insisting to the world, and especially to the United States, that Russia was “preparing to invade” his country.

Russia expressed no such sentiment in any way, but they are holding the soldiers until the end of January. However, on January 17th, a Moscow court extended the detention of eight of these captured Ukrainian sailors despite protests from Kyiv and Washington.

In addition to the tensions in Ukraine, the other significant point of disagreement between the Russian Federation and the US is the US’ plan to withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Russia sees this treaty as extremely important, but the US point of view expressed by John Bolton, National Security Adviser, is that the treaty is useless because it does not include any other parties that have intermediate range nukes or the capability for them, such as Iran, North Korea, and China. This is an unsolved problem, and it is possible that the moves of the Iskander batteries is a subtle warning from the Russians that they really would rather the US stay in the treaty.

Discussions on this matter at public levels between the Russian government and the US have been very difficult because of the fierce anti-Russia and anti-Trump campaigns in the media and political establishments of the United States. President Putin and President Trump have both expressed the desire to meet, but complications like the Kerch Strait Incident conveniently arise, and have repeatedly disrupted the attempts for these two leaders to meet.

Where Fox News appears to get it wrong shows in a few places:

First, the known range for Iskander missiles maxes at about 310 miles. The placement of the battery near Krasnodar is 270 miles from the eastern Ukrainian border, but the eastern part of Ukraine is Russian-friendly and two provinces, Donetsk and Lugansk, are breakaway provinces acting as independent republics. The battery appears to be no threat to Kyiv or to that part of Ukraine which is aligned with the West. Although the missiles could reach into US ally Georgia, Krasnodar is 376 miles from Tbilisi, and so again it seems that there is no significant target for these missiles. (This is assuming the location given is accurate.)

Second, the location shown in the photo is (44,47,29.440N at 39,13,04.754E). The date on the “Krasnodar” photo is January 17, 2019. However, a photo of the region taken July 24, 2018 reveals a different layout. It takes a moment or two to study this, but there is not much of an exact match here:

Third, Fox News reported of “further Russian troops deployment and S-400 Surface to air missile days after the escalation started, hinting Russia might have orchestrated the naval incident.”

It may be true that Russia deployed weapons to this base area in Crimea, but this is now Russian territory. S-400s can be used offensively, but their primary purpose is defensive. Troops on the Crimean Peninsula, especially at this location far to the north of the area, are not in a position strategically to invade Kherson Oblast (a pushback would probably corner such forces on the Crimean peninsula with nowhere to go except the Black Sea). However, this does look like a possible defense installation should Ukraine’s forces try to invade or bomb Crimea.

Fox has this wrong, but it is no great surprise, because the American stance about Ukraine and Russia is similar – Russia can do no right, and Ukraine can do no wrong. Fox News is not monolithic on this point of view, of course, with anchors and journalists such as Tucker Carlson, who seem willing to acknowledge the US propaganda about the region. However, there are a lot of hawks as well. While photos in the articles about the S-400s and the Russian troops are accurately located, it does appear that the one about Iskanders is not, and that the folks behind this original article are guessing that the photos will not be questioned. After all, no one in the US knows where anything is in Russia and Ukraine, anyway, right?

That there is an issue here is likely. But is it appears that there is strong evidence that it is opposite what Fox reported here, it leaves much to be questioned.

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