Russia: The Usual Suspects


April 13, 2014: The recent Russian operation to take the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine had a bracing effect on the other countries that, until 1991, were part of the ancient Russian Empire. In part this is because the Crimean operation was the second such land grab Russia has undertaken in the last five years. The first was against tiny Georgia in 2008. Many of these former Russian subjects feel that the Russians are trying to get their empire back. Ask many Russians that question and most agree that it would be a nice thing. Some Russians are more outspoken and bluntly call for the empire to be reassembled no matter what. In reaction to all this the fourteen nations (the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and the five Central Asian “stans” of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) that were part of the Soviet Union until 1991, as well as many East European states that were subject to Russian occupation from the end of World War II to 1989 have become very nervous. Poland is particularly agitated because large parts of Poland were part of the empire for most of the 18th and 19th centuries. Same deal with Finland, which broke away after World War I and had to fight off a Russian invasion in 1940 and many threats since then to stay independent. That makes the forlorn fourteen the scared sixteen. All of these nations have noted what happened to Georgia and Ukraine with great trepidation and are responding in expected, and unexpected ways. Poland and the Baltic States managed to join NATO after the Cold War ended and are hoping that the mutual defense terms of the NATO alliance will dissuade Russia. Nevertheless all four, plus Finland, have increased their military readiness this year and are seeking assurances from the West that they will have help against Russia. Many Finns have called for Finland to join NATO, but a large minority has opposed this because of the fear it would anger the Russians. There was a similar division in Ukraine but now more Finns are thinking that NATO membership is preferable to trusting Russia to always behave. Even Sweden, never part of the Russian empire and successfully neutral since the early 19th century is thinking about joining NATO for protection from an increasingly aggressive Russia.  The stans of Central Asia have another option; China. The stans have been very receptive to Chinese diplomatic and economic cooperation. This bothers Russia, but not to the extent that threats are being made, as was the case with the former imperial provinces to the west. The stans also have a problem with never having been democracies. When the Russians conquered them in the 19th century, the local governments were monarchies or tribes. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, locals who were former Soviet officials held elections and manipulated the vote to get themselves elected "president for life." But many people in the stans want clean government and democracy, as well as continued independence from Russia. China is no help with that because the Chinese prefer dictators. In the Caucasus Georgia still seeks closer ties with the West. Armenia, because of disputes with Azerbaijan and long-term fear of Turkey remains a close ally of Russia. Azerbaijan maintains good relations with Russia mainly because Iran claims Azerbaijan as a lost province (stolen by Russia in the 19th century).  

Russia has long been quite open about wanting to rebuild the old Tsarist Empire that the communists managed to lose in 1991 when the Soviet Union came apart and half the population of that empire went off and formed 14 new countries or reconstituted old ones the Russians had conquered. Russia is proposing things like customs unions, military cooperation and rebuilding the old Soviet air defense system that used to defend everyone in the empire. There’s been some progress, but many of these 14 nations want nothing to do with Russia.  Meanwhile Russia has to face that fact that when the Soviet Union broke up half the population willingly went to the 14 new countries and most of those people were quite enthusiastic about ending the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was basically the Russian Empire cobbled together by the old czarist monarchy over more than two centuries of conquest and expansion. Thus in the Soviet Union half the population felt like conquered people, not part of any union. The Soviet Union dissolved quickly in 1990-91 because over half the population really wanted it to happen and had wanted it for a long time. Moreover many ethnic Russians were tired of supporting a lot of the less affluent conquered people and were fed up with the economic failures of communism.  The former Soviet Union citizens who regret the breakup tend to be older people who were disillusioned at how corruption and bad leadership made post-Soviet life less wonderful than was expected. The younger people are more realistic, never having lived as adults in the Soviet Union and intimately familiar with the fact that freedom isn’t free and democracy is hard. For younger Russians there are more economic opportunities than under communism. While Russia lost half its population when the Soviet Union broke up, it hung on to most of the valuable natural resources (like oil and natural gas) and that meant more prosperity for post-Soviet Union Russians. While the post-Soviet government was initially reluctant to increase state supplied pensions (which were low during the Soviet period because there was little to spend it on and the state supplied housing and some health care), the pensions did eventually go up. But not as much as the economy grew and the working Russians were obviously doing better than the pensioners who had grown up under communism. In Soviet times that meant there was little economic opportunity and most everyone was equally poor. The old-timers never got used to the changes and most would prefer the communists to come back. That won’t happen and as the generations that grew up under communism die off so will any desire to return to the bad (but familiar) old days. Nevertheless enough Russians favor rebuilding the empire to make the idea a popular talking point among major politicians and that may continue for decades.

This new Russian aggression has found some interesting supporters. President Karzai of Afghanistan has openly backed Russia over the seizure of Crimea. Karzai sees this support as a prudent move since Russia would be a natural ally if Afghanistan ever sought to settle border disputes it has with Pakistan. While not an enemy of Pakistan, many Russians hold Pakistan responsible for the deaths of Russian soldiers and civilians because of Pakistani support for anti-Russian Afghan rebels during the 1980s and for providing sanctuary for Russian Islamic terrorists ever since. Moreover China is the main foreign ally and arms supplier for Pakistan while Russia has long done the same for India.

Another big supporter of the Russian aggression is China. In large part this is because China is also an empire trying to reclaim lost territories. That some of those territories are currently Russia’s Far East (areas bordering the Pacific) is not officially discussed in Russia or China but is no secret to many Russians and Chinese. That is a problem for another day as currently Russia and China support each other’s imperial ambitions in Ukraine and the South China Sea and help each other out to deal with any associated problems, especially the UN or economic sanctions. China is also helping by putting economic pressure on Ukraine by suing Ukraine to cancel a $3 billion loan.  

Yet another reason China is watching Ukraine carefully is because China is violating an international maritime borders treaty it signed by claiming all of the South China Sea. What happens to Russia for violating the 1994 agreement to protect Ukrainian borders in return for Ukraine getting rid of its Cold War era nukes is of interest to China. Russia simply says the 1994 agreement does not apply and that attitude will influence what China does with its numerous offshore territorial disputes. Another problem with violating the 1994 agreement is the message it sends to states like Iran and North Korea. The message is that if you really want to keep invaders out you need nukes. Iranians believe the negotiations to limit Iranian nuclear research and development are an effort to block Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Most Iranians see nukes as a necessity for maintaining Iranian dominance in the region. Iran has been the regional superpower for thousands of years. Once you get a taste of superpower status, it’s a hard thing to put behind you.

Russia and China are both using nationalism, in this case the promise of the restoration of lost imperial territories, to distract the population from the corruption and mismanagement of their government officials. This is an ancient political technique that depends on near-total control of information available to their populations. The Internet threatens that and this is a new risk for those planning to build and maintain an empire. That’s because empires are costly and inefficient. Britain realized that by the 1940s and that’s the main reason they got rid of theirs so quickly after 1945 and why the United States never took advantage of its power to create one. But the allure of empire remains, sort of as the ultimate luxury a state can indulge. Again, the Internet spreads the bad news about the real cause, and effect of empire. China tries to cope with this by concentrating on imperial ambitions (natural resource rights from the ownership of uninhabited rocks and reefs in the South China Sea and elsewhere off the coast) that have some practical appeal. When empires involve conquered people the cost goes way up, as the Chinese are rediscovering in their northwest (Turks) and southwest (Tibetans). A growing number of Russians and Chinese are aware of these angles and are not happy about it. But both Russia and China are still police states with state-controlled media. Holding anti-government opinions is dangerous, especially if you express these traitorous thoughts in public.


Fracked Again

Russia is making the most of its Crimea annexation. Russian media are praising the armed forces, which have gotten mostly criticism for over two decades. The government is being praised (or praising itself because most of the mass media is now state controlled) over its masterful handling of the situation. What is not discussed is how Crimea is likely to be far more expensive that anyone wants to admit. That’s because European nations (including Ukraine) who buy Russian natural gas are now much more enthusiastic about their own shale gas deposits. Until Crimea, there was a lot of resistance to shale gas in Europe because to get it you had to use a new American technology called hydraulic fracturing (or fracking). Environmentalists and leftists in general are very hostile to fracking. But with Russian natural gas providing a third of European energy and Russia demonstrating some really bad, and undependable, behavior, customers of Russian natural gas are now more enthusiastic about seeking alternative supplies. Most European states have shale gas deposits, but they have to frack to extract the gas. Suddenly fracking has become pragmatic and even patriotic. Europe is believed to have shale gas deposits almost (about 80 percent the size of) the United States. Meanwhile fracking is not a new threat for Russia. The rapid growth of shale gas in the United States has crippled the ability of Russia to overcharge European customers for Russian natural gas. That is because suppliers of liquefied natural gas (delivered by ship anywhere in the world) have lost a lot of American business (to cheaper shale gas) and are shipping their gas to Europe and selling it for less than what the Russians are demanding. Russia long dismissed shale gas and fracking as more American fads that would soon fade. Now Russia has to cope with lost markets because of shale gas and their own misbehavior. Since oil and gas are Russia’s major exports, this is a serious matter. With less foreign currency available from energy sales, there is less money to import new technology and consumer goods as well as rebuild the military. Older Russians remember how successful American efforts to lower the price of oil in the 1980s helped bankrupt and destroy the Soviet Union. It is happening again. Even ally China is now less likely to be a customer for Russian natural gas because the pending deal to build a $22 billion natural gas pipeline to China depends on the price of natural gas staying high enough to justify the pipeline cost. With Europe and China fracking a lot, the price of natural gas will stay low and the China pipeline will be a big money loser and not get built.


Taking Names

The chaos Russia created in Crimea and eastern Ukraine created a dangerous environment but Russia was unable to keep journalists out completely. Cell phones and the Internet also allowed a lot of interesting details to run free. Thus now we know that in Crimea the 22nd and 45th GRU (Military Intelligence) spetsnaz (special operations) regiments were active early and often. There were only a few hundred of spetsnaz, and Ukrainians soon were able to recognize the “little green men” with weapons and lots of attitude wearing uniforms with no insignia. Also identified were members of the infamous (for brutal but effective special operations in Chechnya) Vostok battalion and an airborne unit (31st Airborne Brigade) that has showed up in a lot of tricky situations (Bosnia, Chechnya, Georgia). In other words what foreign intelligence agencies have come to regard as The Usual Suspects whenever there is an operation using a lot of special operations troops. In the Crimea all these commando type troops carried out a complex but thorough plan to disrupt Ukrainian command and control of the 193 Ukrainian military bases in the area and encourage the Ukrainian troops to not resist and eventually to switch sides or peacefully leave.


Syrians Hate Us

In Syria t he government and its suppliers Russia and Iran see eventual government victory although it may take years. The government forces still have an advantage with their armored vehicles, artillery and warplanes. Russia has been a big help in keeping a lot of this stuff operational. The Assads recently announced that the main fighting will end this year, followed by “counter-terrorist” operations for as long as it takes. The government has made it clear that it can play rough. In addition to the use of chemical weapons, the government is also accused to running brutal prison camps and regularly executing or torturing prisoners who do not provide information on rebel activities. This has produced calls for war crimes investigations against the Assads. This has not deterred the Assads, who are still in “fighting for survival” mode.

April 12, 2014: Despite recent pledges to not intervene in eastern Ukraine, Russia now says that if the Ukrainian government uses force against armed “civilians” who have seized some government buildings in eastern Ukraine, Russia will send in special forces to protect the armed thugs. Many Ukrainians believe some of the thugs are Russian special forces, doing the same sort of stuff they did in Crimea and that if any of these guys were arrested and interrogated their origins would be quickly discovered. Meanwhile another group of gunmen seized more public buildings in eastern Ukraine and replaced the Ukrainian flag with Russian ones and demanded that eastern Ukraine become part of Russia. Ukraine says its own special operations troops were on the way to deal with the situation.

Russia is encouraged by recent opinion polls showing most Americans oppose armed assistance for Ukraine, even if Russia invades. Western Europeans are nearly as reluctant as the Americans and only the East European NATO countries are calling for armed response. These countries are worried that NATO might not comply with the mutual defense clauses of the NATO charter if one or more of the East European nations get the Ukraine treatment.

April 11, 2014: China announced it is investing $5 billion into the Russian Far East (areas bordering China and the Pacific Ocean). China is investing in infrastructure, to make it easier for Chinese businessmen to operate in this area. One aspect of this, the rapid growth of Chinese trade in the thinly populated Far East, stirs Russian fears that Chinese businesses will take over the economy out there. The Chinese have done this before, over the centuries, with other neighbors. Chinese today are well aware of that and know that once you control the economy it’s a lot easier to annex the area to China..

Russia says it has no military personnel in eastern Ukraine. At the same time Russian mass media is full of stories about American “mercenaries” operating in Ukraine. Russian media also dismisses the impact of Western sanctions and points out that Russian stock markets are doing well. What is less frequently discussed is that pre-Crimea economic problems (corruption and reluctance of foreigners and wealthy Russians to invest in Russia) have brought GDP growth to a near stand-still.

April 9, 2014: The president of Lithuania is urging his parliament to approve a sharp rise in defense spending that would increase what the country spends on defense from the current .8 percent of GDP to two percent within five years. Although Lithuania is now a member of NATO, the national and military leadership believe more than doubling defense spending is needed to boost the ability of the military to resist the Russians until NATO reinforcements can arrive. NATO has an unofficial agreement that all members will invest at least two percent of GDP into defense forces and infrastructure. This makes it easier for NATO allies to come to the assistance of a member under attack and get there in time. This is particularly essential when dealing with “The Bear” (Russia) who, it is feared, might grab all or part of a small country like Lithuania and then call for peace talks (the alternative being Russia threatening to use its nukes). This change in thinking is in sharp contrast to 2009, when Lithuania announced it was cutting its defense budget 20 percent, to $431 million.

April 7, 2014: In eastern Ukraine (Donetsk) special operations troops arrested armed demonstrators who had seized a police compound the day before and raised the Russian flag.

April 6, 2014: In eastern Ukraine groups of armed men seized government buildings in the cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkov.

April 5, 2014: Over the last two days over 20 mortar shells landed in various parts of Damascus. Russia reported one shell exploding near their embassy. At least 22 people were wounded by all the mortar fire. Most Syrians now have an intense hostility towards Russia, which is seen as a major supporter of the hated Assad government and responsible for the fighting continuing.

In Ukraine the government has moved troops to the border opposite concentrations of Russia troops that have been camped out there for over a month.

April 3, 2014: Ukraine is going to the International Court of Justice to try and get Crimea back, or at least embarrass Russia.

April 1, 2014:  The Russian Glonass (Russian GPS) satellite navigation system was unusable (it was providing incorrect information) for several hours today. The reason for the system failure is still being sought. GLONASS has had a lot of problems. In 2013 the government revealed that the cause of a recent satellite launch failure was criminal negligence by space program workers and managers. At the Soviet era Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan a Russian Proton-M rocket exploded ten seconds after launch on July 2nd, destroying three Glonass satellites it was carrying. This disaster cost Russia over $200 million and further blemished the reliability of Russian satellite launch services. The satellites, being state property, were not insured so the total loss comes out of the government budget.  An investigation of the wreckage soon revealed that the cause of the Proton-M failure was the installation of a sensor upside down, which caused the rocket control system to believe the rocket was going in the wrong direction. The rocket them tried to adjust for the incorrect sensor signal and began behaving erratically and crashed. There were supposed to be visual inspections of all installed equipment and the government is seeking to discover who did not do their job. This is supposed to lead to prosecution of whoever was responsible. During the Soviet period (1921-1991) those responsible for disasters like would often be executed or imprisoned. But now the government corruption and inefficiency makes it difficult to get competent people to run operations like the Space Agency, or Glonass for that matter.

NATO ordered an end to civilian and military cooperation with Russia and ordered NATO commanders and staff to prepare plans to deal with Russian aggression against NATO members. This move was to reassure NATO members closest to Russia (Poland and the Baltic States) that NATO would stand by its mutual defense promises.  

March 31, 2014: In order to resolve the current Ukrainian crises (which Russia created) Russia is demanding that Ukraine change its constitution to allow much greater autonomy for eastern Ukraine. That, of course, would make it easier for Russia to use bribes and intimidation to annex eastern Ukraine.

March 28, 2014:  At the UN over a hundred nations voted to declare Russian annexation of Crimea illegal. Russia could only muster ten votes (from such stalwart allies like Cuba, North Korea and Syria) to oppose the Australian proposal. It has no force of law, but it tells the world that most people on the planet do not approve.

March 27, 2014:  The Strategic Missile Forces began a three day exercise involving thirty units, 10,000 troops and over a thousand pieces of equipment. This was all to test the ability of the troops to respond effectively to a situation where nukes would be used. These troops operate and guard the nuclear weapons and it has long been the practice for the brightest and most reliable conscripts to serve here, if only to provide reliable security for the nuclear weapons and missiles. But over the last few years more volunteer (and higher paid) contract troops have been used. A few years ago about 25 percent of missile forces troops were volunteers and this is being increased to 60 percent. The current exercise is testing how much the use of more volunteers has improved capabilities.

March 24, 2014: Ukraine ordered its remaining troops in Crimea to withdraw and Russian forces allowed this to happen. 




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