July 18, 2012: The Russian plan to spend $700 billion during the next decade, to buy new military equipment, has come off the rails because of the falling price of oil. Currently it's under $90 a barrel, while the Russian defense buildup program was based on a price of $110 or higher. A disproportionate amount of the new stuff was for the Far East, to protect territories that are claimed by China. Japan is also making noise about its claims on the South Kuril Islands but that is nothing compared to the amount of real estate China insists was stolen from them over the last few centuries. China has been quiet about these claims since the Cold War ended but has not withdrawn them. China is also spending more on its military, although more of that new stuff is directed at the United States and India, not Russia. While Russia makes a lot of noise about the threat from the West, the real problem is in the East, and Russia would rather not talk about this openly.
The Russian parliament (Duma) has recently passed laws allowing greater censorship of the Internet and resuming Soviet era laws that allowed prosecution of anyone who criticized the government. There are also new laws increasing punishments for those who hold unauthorized demonstrations. At the same time, the government continues to do nothing about the apparent use of police death squads to murder active critics of the government (especially journalists).
The government has also passed new laws that declare foreigners working for NGOs (Non-Government Organizations, like the Red Cross and pro-democracy groups) as "foreign agents" who must register with the government and be subject to constant supervision. The FSB (the Russian FBI/CIA) has long accused Western nations of working with pro-democracy Russian NGOs to spy on Russia. Western states deny it. The government has been campaigning against NGOs and foreign influences in general over the last six years.
The government believes that most of its political opponents are concentrated in Moscow and other large cities. For example, a recent opinion poll found that 60 percent of Russians approved of Vladimir Putin and his policies (which are rebuilding a Soviet style police state). But in Moscow, only 38 percent approved of Putin.
A Russian admiral made it clear that Russia expects to keep its naval base in Syria no matter what happens to the Assad government. That could get interesting. The Soviet Union made a deal in the 1970s, with Hafez Assad's father, to establish a naval support facility at the Syrian port of Tartus. That base has been in use ever since. Several hundred Russian personnel are there now, upgrading those facilities and Russia continues to deliver weapons and military equipment to Syria. However, these only appear to be for pre-revolution deals. Russia recently announced that it would make no new arms deals and deliveries to Syria. The 16 month old uprising in Syria has been going badly for the Assad family. Rebels are closing in on the capital (Damascus) and have taken over most of the countryside. A NATO naval patrol off Tartus seems to be daring the Russians to try and violate the international arms sanctions against Syria. Russia has been using its UN veto to prevent the UN from doing anything drastic to condemn the Assad's slaughter of their unarmed citizens. For Russia, it’s a matter of preventing international intervention to remove a dictatorship that has declared war on its own people. Such a policy would adversely impact many Russian allies and arms customers. For that reason Russian officials have been insisting that Russian warships would escort Russian arms shipments into Tartus.
The Defense Ministry has decided to replace many of the tracked combat and combat support vehicles in the army with wheeled versions. Thus the Russian military would look more like Western forces. For example, the U.S. military employs over 10,000 hummers, and the Russians have begun obtaining a locally made equivalent (Tigr) over the last five years. Russia is developing new wheeled armored vehicles, again similar to the U.S. Stryker (and West European models on which Stryker was based). A lot of the tracked vehicles in Russian service are Cold War vintage and wearing out anyway. This shift is confirmation that Russia is not planning on large, cross-country World War II style mechanized operations. Russia's army is too small for that. Nuclear weapons are now the main defense against invasion. The army now helps keep the peace internally. Wheels are cheaper to use for that sort of thing.
July 17, 2012: Russia and Tajikistan have reached an agreement on what Russia will pay for its base in Tajikistan and extended the lease 49 years. That base is used for 7,000 Russian troops of the 201st Motor Rifle Division. That unit is at half strength and has sent most of its heavy weapons back to Russia. Current gear includes 96 tanks, 300 Infantry Fighting Vehicles, 54 self-propelled artillery vehicles, 1,100 other vehicles, eight helicopters, and 5 ground attack aircraft. The 201st was there during the Soviet period and the post-Soviet Union Tajik government asked Russia to leave the 201st in place to help with internal security. This was a problem because Tajikistan shares a long border with Afghanistan, which Russian troops had only left a few years earlier.
Tajikistan is a part of the Heroin Highway that brings these drugs into Russia from Afghanistan. Corruption in Tajikistan and brutal violence used by the Afghan smugglers has meant that most of the heroin gets through to Russia. The presence of the 201st Motor Rifle Division has had little effect on the drug smuggling. Russia has several million drug addicts and has been willing to cooperate with NATO to attack the drug production in Afghanistan. As part of that cooperation, Russia has offered more and more assistance in moving NATO supplies and troops to Afghanistan via Russian railroads and air space. The Russians have refrained from charging extortionate fees because they want NATO forces to continue fighting the Afghan drug gangs. This effort is currently in doubt, as most NATO forces are expected to be out of Afghanistan by 2015.
July 16, 2012: Off Russia's Pacific coast, a coast guard ship opened fire on two Chinese fishing ships that were operating illegally in Russian waters and refused orders to stop. The Russians eventually forced the 36 Chinese poachers to surrender, after a three hour chase. There were no injuries but one of the Chinese boats suffered some damage.
July 14, 2012: In Dagestan two policemen were shot dead. The assailants were believed to be from one of the twelve Islamic terror or nationalist rebel groups operating in Dagestan. While these groups have only about 300 active (and armed) members, they have thousands of supporters among the general population. Elsewhere in the Caucasus Russian commandos killed eight Islamic terrorists, including two wanted leaders.
July 9, 2012: Floods over the weekend in southern Russia left nearly 200 dead and thousands injured or homeless. Victims are blaming inept local officials for not doing much of anything to avoid the catastrophe or helping the victims.
July 4, 2012: The government revealed that its counter-terrorism policies include willingness to shoot down hijacked passenger planes if those aircraft seem to be headed for a nuclear plant (or other sensitive facility), military base, or city for a suicidal attack.
Over the last few days police in Dagestan arrested 40 members of one of the largest criminal gangs in the area. Gangsters outnumber Islamic terrorists and rebels in the Caucasus but these criminal gangs often provide support and services for the terrorists.
July 3, 2012: In the Caucasus (Kabardino-Balkaria) a wanted Islamic terrorist leader and an associate were caught at a checkpoint. The terrorist leader was killed in a gun fight while his associate escaped.
July 2, 2012: The Defense Ministry revealed that government spending on military research and development (R&D) had declined 50 percent in the last seven years. Many defense officials blame this for the failure of Russian weapons to keep up with the West. But many others in the military see the cuts as justified because Soviet era R&D produced mostly second rate weapons and the end of the Cold War (and the Soviet Union) in 1991, did not change the quality of Russian R&D efforts. Since 2005, the government has pushed the military make deals with Western firms to get better military tech. This has involved buying an increasing number of Western weapons, usually with technology transfer and some production in Russia. While Russian government propaganda depicts the West as a potential enemy, the West doesn't see it that way and sells Russia the more advanced weapons technology. Welcome to Russian Logic.
July 1, 2012: Russia revealed that in the first six months of the year, 194 militants (Islamic terrorists, rebels, gangsters pretending to be rebels) were killed in the Caucasus. This included 25 wanted terrorists, mostly leaders. Another 235 terrorists were arrested and eight surrendered. The security forces lost 104 dead. There were also 32 civilians killed, out of 160 who were attacked (often for cooperating with the police). In that period the security forces carried out 1,200 counter-terror operations. In the same period last year 209 terrorists were killed. This fighting, especially in Chechnya, has been going on since 1991. Actually, it's been going on for several centuries but during the Soviet period (1921-91) state terrorism (secret police, death squads, and mass deportations) kept things pretty quiet. These tactics, however, caused even more hatred towards the Russians and fuels a lot of the current terrorism in the Caucasus.