December 18, 2015:
An opinion poll conducted in late November showed that 75 percent of Russians believe the government should improve its relations with the West (including the United States). Nearly as many (70 percent) want relations with Ukraine improved. Fewer (56 percent) felt Russia was isolated as a result of all the sanctions and 65 percent believed Russia should continue its present policies. Russians still had negative attitudes towards the U.S. (70 percent), the EU (60 percent) and Ukraine (63 percent). In other words while most Russians want improved foreign relations but also believe the bad relations are not the fault of Russia.
The feud with Turkey (because a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 on November 24th) continues to escalate. This includes both countries holding the others merchant ships for more inspections. So far this involves eight Turkish ships stuck in Russian ports and 27 Russian ships stuck in Turkey. Since the 14th the Turkish internet has been crippled by a DDOS attack that is believed to be Russia based. Despite all the Russian economic sanctions the Turkish economy continues to grow which the Russian declines.
The Russian presence in Syria and general agreement that ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) must be destroyed has led the United States to agree with Russian demands that the war on ISIL include a halt in efforts to remove the Assad government in Syria. This, Russia insisted, was necessary to apply maximum pressure on ISIL. Russia intervened in Syria mainly to keep the Assads, who are long-time Russian allies and weapons customers, in power. Thus initially Russia did not attack ISIL unless ISIL was threatening Assad territory. But now Russia realizes that concentrating on ISIL can get other nations supporting Syrian rebels to ease the pressure on the Assads.
The Russian presence has forced the Americans to make other changes in Syria. For example the U.S. no longer sends manned aircraft into parts of northwest Syria covered by recently introduced Russian anti-aircraft systems. The Americans are apparently more concerned with an accidental Russian attack, which is seen as more likely than a deliberate one. Such an accident is more of a possibility because Russia and Turkey are feuding over who controls air space in the area, especially along the Turkish border. Since both the U.S. and Turkey operate F-16s an accidental attack on American aircraft is more than an imaginary risk as far as the Russians are concerned.
Russian air strikes in Syria continue to grow in frequency and intensity. These have killed nearly 2,000 people so far, about a third of the victims have been civilians. This is condemned as a war crime by many but is also why the Russian air strikes have been so much more effective than the larger number of American ones. Russia does not abort a strike because there is too much risk of civilian casualties. This makes ISIL more vulnerable to air attack than when just the Americans were handling it.
The UN believes that Russia is still sending supplies, weapons and reinforcements into eastern Ukraine (Donbas). This activity has been so blatant and persistent that even Russia now admits that it has military personnel in Donbas, but only for support functions. Ukraine has a lot of evidence that Russian combat troops are very active in Donbas although since October many appear to have been withdrawn, apparently because of the demand for them in Syria and the Caucasus. In both places Russia is dealing with Islamic terrorists. The UN also believes that over 9,000 have died (and 20,000 wounded) in Donbas since the fighting began there in early 2014.
Because Ukraine is joining the EU (European Union) free trade zone in 2016 Russia announced that once that happens Russia will cancel the 2011 free trade treaty with Ukraine. This will cause some economic damage to Ukraine but in the long run the EU deal will be much more beneficial. This marks a major move away from centuries old ties with Russia. For all that time Ukraine was a key economic component of the Tsarist and Soviet economies and the Ukrainian preference for Western links is what triggered the Russian aggression in the first place. Russia is not pleased with the EU deal. But then neither is the West because Ukraine is still cursed with other Tsarist and Soviet traits, namely corruption and poor government in general. Most Ukrainians know this and many Ukrainian politicians admit it is a problem. Curing the problem has so far proved impossible. The West warns that without progress in this area Ukraine will never prosper and will remain at risk of falling under Russian control again. Inside Ukraine that is a powerful incentive.
China and Russia recently signed 30 new military, diplomatic and economic deals. A positive spin was put on this, to hide the fact that both countries are in the midst of economic recessions. Trade between the two countries is down about a third since 2014. China is suffering from a self-inflicted recession, caused by corruption and inept management of the economy. Russia also has problems with corruption and bad economic policy but most of the damage has been done by low oil prices (which help China, a major oil importer) and economic sanctions in response to Russian aggression in East Europe. Russia is looking to China for economic help but because of Chinese economic problems and other shortcoming, the Chinese cannot provide all the Russia has lost due to international sanctions. In short both nations, although allies in opposing the west and supporting dictatorships in Syria, North Korea and Iran, have become economically weaker. Worse, Chinese diplomatic support for Russia in Syria amounts to nothing. Worse, the Russian presence in Syria has led to bad relations with Iran. The two countries cannot agree on tactics in Syria and Iran is beginning to withdraw some of its troops in protest.
Russian officials are feeling the economic heat personally as more Russian businessmen go public with their complaints and often point fingers at individuals responsible for bad economic policy and the economic pain most Russians are feeling. Russia leaders consider such public complaining treasonous but realize that so many Russian businessmen agree with the complaints that arresting the ones who do it publicly would be counter-productive. The government calls on Russians to do what Russians have always done and suffer bravely, and silently, for the motherland.
December 15, 2015: In a rare success for the Russian space program a Russian spacecraft successfully delivered three new crew (from Russia, Britain and America) to the International Space Station. Meanwhile Russia has assigned ten of its 90 or so military satellites to support military operations in Syria. These satellites use cameras and sensors to monitor Syria as well as provide communications services for Russian troops there.
December 10, 2015: Overnight Ukrainian police raided two locations in Kiev and Karkiv and uncovered a Russian effort to carry out terror attacks in western Ukraine. One of the terrorists fired on the police and was killed. Three of those arrested were Russian and police seized nearly fifty grenades and 23 bombs plus documents proving this was part of a new Russian strategy to move the fighting from Donbas to the rest of Ukraine. The Russian backed rebels in Donbas have been unable to advance and with Russian forces active in Syria and more active in Caucasus this switch to terrorism makes sense.
December 9, 2015: Officials blame Turkey for tolerating Islamic terrorist training camps that train Russian Moslems. While these camps are supposed to be supporting Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria Russia notes that many of these Islamic terrorists return home and carry on their terrorist activities there. Turkey has always officially denied the presence of such camps.
December 7, 2015: In eastern Ukraine there were more than twenty ceasefire violations by the rebels over the weekend. This left one Ukrainian soldier dead and several wounded. Rebel casualties are unknown. Despite these small scale rebel attacks the September ceasefire is holding.
December 5, 2015: A new Russian military satellite (for ocean surveillance) was lost during launch when the satellite would not separate from the last stage of rocket. This is the latest in a growing list of failures in the Russian space program.
December 4, 2015: Russia announced that deliveries of the long delayed (since 2007) S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems for Iran had begun. Iran will have everything by 2017. The S-300 version Iran is receiving can use the latest S-300 missiles with a range of 200 kilometers. The new contract was signed in October and Russia now expects to be the major supplier of weapons to Iran once the sanctions are lifted. Russia and Iran also settled disputes over the 2007 S-300 contracts.
Russia revealed that it is bringing some of their new S-400 anti-aircraft (and missile) systems to Syria. Israel says it has no problem with that as long as the S-400s are kept under Russian control. While S-400 could, on paper, threaten Israeli air superiority in the region, having them operating in Syria gives Israel a change to collect more data on how the system works and develop more effective countermeasures. Israel has done this before with great success. The S-400 entered service in 2007 when the first units were deployed around Moscow. Russia claimed the S-400 could detect stealth aircraft, implying that the hypothetical enemy is the United States. Russia also claims the S-400 can knock down short range ballistic missiles (those with a reentry speed of up to 5,000 meters a second, in the same way the similar U.S. Patriot system does.) Russia is offering the S-400 for export, an effort that is limited by a lack of combat experience for the system. Patriot has knocked down aircraft and ballistic missiles, S-400 has not. Moreover, Russia anti-aircraft missile systems have a spotty history (especially when confronted by Western electronic countermeasures.) The S-400s based around Moscow are part of a project to rebuild the Soviet era air defense system, which has fallen apart since the early 1990s.
December 3, 2015: Russia shares intelligence on Islamic terrorism with Thailand. This was revealed when Malaysia police reacted to leaked Thai intelligence reports that ISIL had sent ten members to Thailand in October. This information was provided by Russia to Thailand in confidence but was leaked a week ago. Malaysian police reported that they had arrested five suspected ISIL and al Qaeda members in late November and that four of them were foreigners so there was alarm at the Thai report. Much more so than Thailand, Malaysia has been the target of foreign Islamic terrorists.
December 1, 2015: In the south (Dagestan) another Moslem cleric was murdered for preaching against Islamic terrorism. There have been at least three such murders in Dagestan this year and several more in the rest of the Caucasus. At the same time Russia announced that it had killed 156 Caucasus based Islamic terrorists so far this year, including 36 leaders. Most (20) of these leaders had pledged allegiance to ISIL and thus were urgently sought out. Another 771 Islamic terrorist suspects have been arrested and incidents of Islamic terrorism have been less than half of what it was in 2014.
Russia and North Korea have worked out an agreement whereby Russia would build electric transmission towers to the North Korean border and sell North Korea major amounts of electricity. It will be several years before this electricity trade actually begins.
November 30, 2015: Ukrainian border guards report that Russian paratroopers appeared on the Crimea border for a few days after two battalions of paratroopers arrived in late November. Recently the paratroopers disappeared from the border. It is unclear what that was all about.
November 29, 2015: A Russian warplane briefly entered Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights. An Israeli air controller was able to contact the Russian pilot, who acknowledged his error and immediately returned to Syrian air space. Russia later reported that it was a navigation error and the Israelis accepted that. This was all quickly resolved because Russia and Israel had already agreed to procedures for situations like this. Israel will attack intruders and shot down a Syrian warplane in September 2014 that had entered Israeli airspace over Golan.