Russia: The Unpleasant China Surprise


May 16, 2017: The government has adapted to lower oil prices and economic sanctions but has done so by cutting and reorganizing government spending. This is dangerous because the latest economic revival plan calls for cutting benefits to older Russians. The government wants to change the retirement age (at which Russians become eligible for a government pension) by doing what many nations have been forced to do; increase the age of eligibility. In Russia it is currently 55 for women and 60 for men. The new plan will change that to 63 and 65. Currently 30 percent of Russians draw a pension and the fact that Putin increased pension benefits when he took over in 1999 has been a key element in his continued popularity.

Since oil prices collapsed and sanctions were imposed in 2014 the defense budget has been cut 25 percent and the government is trying to prevent further cuts. Russia admits that this will slow the rate of replacing Cold War era technology and the development of modern military technology. The biggest loss has been access to Western technology. While Russia could not buy the latest military tech they did have access to non-military tech and that enabled them to build modern commercial aircraft and upgrade their manufacturing industries. Until 2014 it also enabled them to buy some Western weapons systems often including licensing agreements to assemble and partially manufacture armored vehicles, warships and other Western weapons in Russia. The main reason for doing that was to upgrade the Russian defense industries, which remained largely state-owned and inefficient after 1991. There was a lot of resistance to buying foreign weapons, mainly from those running the defense industries. The more pragmatic generals and Defense Ministry officials were able to force these changes to be made, until the sanctions and low oil prices made these deals impossible. This was difficult for Russian military reformers to accept and the government initially pitched it as an opportunity for Russian defense firms to do better. It soon became obvious that the reformers had a point about the Russian defense industries being resistant to change.

It was also soon noted that China was still had plenty of cash and access to Western tech and were making great strides. Russian defense experts had long dismissed Chinese efforts as little more than copying (often with stolen tech) Western and Russian designs. But now it became obvious that the Chinese were facing the same problems as the Russians since the Cold War ended and were adapting more effectively. Because the Soviet Union began developing modern military tech in the 1930s and the Chinese didn’t really get going until fifty years later the Russians believed they would be ahead of the Chinese for a long time. But now the Chinese are gaining on Russia even faster because of the low oil prices (which are a plus for major oil importers like China) and far fewer sanction restrictions.

Thus China is moving ahead on developing fifth generation stealth warplanes while Russia has had to scale back their effort. China is building a new, and very modern, navy while Russia is watching its modern (in the 1980s) Cold War fleet die of old age and neglect with fewer replacements. But the most painful loss is the inability to modernize defense industries that are clearly being outclassed by their Chinese counterparts.

Thus the numbers do not tell the whole story. On paper Russia has gone from number four on the list of largest defense spenders to number eight. But in terms of potential to do better Russia has slipped even further and that trend shows no sign of reversing itself anytime soon. Russia has also accepted the reality of permanent lower oil prices (because of fracking and more use of other energy sources) and, for the moment, shows no signs of ending the aggressive policies towards its neighbors that triggered the economic sanctions. Russia has, for the moment, chosen to downsize itself economically and militarily.


To make their Syria intervention work Russia had had to resort to Russian private security companies. About half these private security firms are believed to have organized combat units that are reliable enough to be used in place of scarce army special operations troops. By monitoring Russian language social media activity (which anyone can do) it has been noted that recent military veterans working for several of these private security companies have been in Syria and Ukraine. Casualties were suffered in both places although the duties of the contractors were different. In Syria the security contractors mainly guarded Russian bases but were also used in combat when they provided security for Russian artillery units supporting Syrian Army troops. In a few cases the contractors were sent in to assist Syrian troops who got themselves in trouble. Russia described these men as special operations troops, because outside Russia the security contractors often wear Russian military uniforms. But social media revealed that many of these dead Russians in Syria (about 32 so far) were actually contractors. In Ukraine at least one private security company has been used as “enforcers” to punish troublesome pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels. Often this just meant arranging an accidental death for a disobedient rebel leader but in a few cases a larger number of rebels had to disappear. The Russian supported rebels came to call these contractors “cleaners” and were justifiably terrorized and impressed.

The most reliable source of data on Russian casualties in Donbas are groups representing the families of the Russian dead. These are active on the Internet and use the net to share and compile casualty data. These groups believe about 1,500 Russians have died in Donbas since 2014 and many of those were contractors rather than conscripts or career military.

In eastern Ukraine the Russian use of contractors extends to the leaders of the local rebels, who are largely ethnic Russians whose families migrated to Donbas before World War II. Not all these rebels get along with their Russian overlords, who insist on keeping the extent of Russian support and control of the rebels secret. Since that often involves Russian agents killing rebels leaders who refuse to cooperate, it has also led several rebel leaders to flee Donbas and, if necessary, Ukraine (because of Russian assassins). But Western and Ukrainian intel services have questioned the defecting rebel leaders and can confirm their authenticity and also obtain a lot of details of how Russia runs its “local rebellion” in Donbas. Meanwhile Ukraine has negotiated a visa free travel deal with the EU (European Union). This took effect on May 11th and to many Ukrainians the visa deal marks a link with the rest of Europe that Russia has been trying to prevent. Ukraine is also participating in a growing number of NATO and EU military training events. In effect Ukraine is becoming an unofficial member of the EU and NATO.

Middle East

Russia has some tricky opportunities here. In addition to the Palestinian problem Israel considers Iran the major military threat and for that reason is actively involved opposing Iran in Syria. Iran’s allies there, Russia and Turkey, are not backing Iranian efforts to destroy Israel once ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is destroyed in Syria. Russia is quite open about its good relationships and cooperation with Israel while Turkey is making it clear that if pressed to choose sides, they would prefer Israel to Iran. Nevertheless Turkey is still run by an Islamic political party that is highly critical of Israel, and the West in general. But that’s another problem.

Iran is losing this war with Israel and seeking a way to do better. This is important inside Iran where the government has long publicized victories (usually invented) over Israel. Highly visible defeats by Israel, as are happening in Syria, does little to prop up the unpopular religious dictatorship that has been running the country since the 1980s. Another embarrassment is the success of Russian air power and ground forces (mainly special operations and artillery) to help the Assad forces win back territory. Until 2016 Iranian forces were seen as the key to Assad survival and the Assads were not shy about praising their Iranian saviors. But that changed in 2017 as the alliance with Turkey and Russia began to come apart. Iran blames this on Israel which, in this case, is partially correct. Israel knows that Iran wants to establish a pro-Iranian militia in Syria similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Assads know this would mean they would have to share power in Syria with Iran. Most Syrians don’t care for this, just as most Lebanese don’t care for the Hezbollah presence since the 1980s. No one, including Russia, Turkey and Israel, want another Hezbollah established in Syria. Iran will not back down on this and that has damaged their relationships with their allies.

Turkey is still technically an Iranian ally in Syria but that has changed since late 2016. This is mainly because Turkey is trying to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing an autonomous region in northern Syria and that goal outweighs everything else. The Turks are the only member of the anti-ISIL coalition that wants to keep the Kurds out of the final offensive to crush ISIL in Syria. The Turks are also opposed to the growing Iranian presence in Syria and Iranian plans to make that presence (and control of the Syrian government) permanent. Turkey also favors the Sunni Arab states when it comes to disputes between Iran and the Arabs. This was clearly the case when Turkey demanded that the Assads be overthrown in the wake of the April 4th nerve gas attack. Israel also opposes the Iranian presence but is neutral about the Kurds and has the support of Russia and the United States for that. Russia and the United States are trying to prevent the offensive against ISIL from being disrupted because of growing hostility between the Turks and the SDF (Kurdish led secular rebel coalition) but are not having much success.

While Russia is officially in Syria to defeat ISIL and keep the Assads in power they (semi-officially) also want to maintain good relations with Israel and Sunni Arab countries while doing it. This annoys Iran. Israel has made it clear that there can never be peace in Syria if Iran tries to establish a permanent presence there. The Iranians say they are in Syria to stay and the Russians (so far) have said they oppose that. Iran wants to stay in Syria as part of its decades old effort to destroy Israel and a centuries old effort to make the Shia form of Islam dominant in the Islamic world (that is over 80 percent non-Shia). Meanwhile Israel says it can live with the Assads as long as Iran is not maintaining a military presence in Syria. Many Turks agree with Israel on that point and newly elected U.S. government has come out strongly against any permanent Iranian presence in Syria. The Americans still want the Assads gone but despite that the U.S., Israel and Turkey agree on some key goals.

Central Asia

The U.S. accuses Russia of colluding with Iran, or Iranian arms smugglers, to supply the Taliban with weapons. Apparently Russia is again trying to destabilize the Afghan government so that they, and their ally Iran, will have more influence. This has been going on since the 1800s. But for over a thousand years before that warlords in Iran and northern India fought to control parts of Afghanistan, especially those areas that were part of the “Silk Road” between the Middle East (and Europe) and China (as well as stops along the way, like India and Iran.)

Russia further complicates the issue by currently hosting Afghanistan peace talks that involve leaders from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and China but not the United States. Even many of the invited participants point out that this makes no sense. But for Russian leaders the idea that most problems in Russia and with Islamic terrorism worldwide are the work of the United States is important to maintain. This makes the Afghan peace effort pointless because the non-Russian participants know nothing will work without American participation.

May 15, 2017: The government openly disagreed with the American decision to send more weapons to Kurdish forces in Syria. This criticism of the Kurds and Americans is part of a Russian effort to maintain good relations with the Turks who, in turn, will go along with Russian plans to keep the Assads in power. The Americans are arming the Kurds because the most effective ground troops in Syria who are willing to defeat ISIL are the Kurds (and their Arab allies). This coalition is currently surrounding the ISIL held city of Raqqa. Russia and Turkey are not willing to help but the Assads have offered to take control of Raqqa once someone else has cleared ISIL from it.

May 12, 2017: For the second time this week Russian media reported that Russian jets in the Black Sea forced an American P-8A maritime reconnaissance aircraft to turn away from the Russian coast. The P-8A was over international waters at the time and in both cases a Russian fighter flew very close (less than 20 meters/61 feet) to the American twin-jet patrol aircraft. The Russians also report seeing American UAVs (like the RQ-4) in the Black Sea but Russian fighters have not tried to intimidate a UAV yet.

May 11, 2017: In the Far East a Russian Su-24 fighter-bomber flew south until it got close enough to South Korea to cause two South Korean F-16s to come and investigate. The Su-24 came near (about 150 kilometers away) to an American carrier task force training with South Korean and Japanese warships nearby. Aircraft incursions like this are on the rise in this region. Japan is the most common target and nearly all from China and Russia. These incursions near Japanese airspace hit record highs in 2016.

May 10, 2017: Russia accused the United States of intimidating North Korea and thus being responsible for a lot of the erratic and threatening behavior from North Korea. Russia suggests that the Americans should negotiate with North Korea and try being nice. After the Cold War ended it was confirmed that it was Russia, not China, that was responsible for putting the Kim dynasty in charge of North Korea and ordered the invasion of South Korea in 1950.When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 Russia halted its three decades of economic and military support for North Korea, which led to a famine and the death of over a million North Koreans. Now Russia is concerned about the threat from North Korea and recently announced that air defenses (interceptors and missile systems) were being increased near the North Korean coast. This decision was prompted by the most recent North Korean ballistic missile test, where the missile went north and landed off the Russian coast.

May 6, 2017: Russia reinstated the “deconfliction” agreement they with the United States regarding each other’s warplanes operating over Syria. Russia had cancelled this on April 8th to protest the American reaction to the Assads use of chemical weapons. This agreement avoids accidental clashes and the U.S. observed the agreement by informing Russia shortly before the American cruise missiles were launched on April 7th. Russia did not cancel a similar agreement with Israel.

May 5, 2017: Russia delivered (by ship) another 21 M30 122mm howitzers to Syria. These were widely used during World War II and production continued until 1955. They are still used by over 20 countries because they are cheap, reliable, easy to operate and rugged.

May 3, 2017: The pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government began two days of peace talks with each other about how to settle the Syrian mess. This took place in the Central Asian city of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan). This time some rebel factions were there as well but the rebels soon left because they described the Astana talks had nothing to do with peace but everything to do with how to defeat the rebels. The rebels refused to attend the last round of talks in March and were enticed back with assurances that things would be different during the May talks. That was not true. The rebels see the decision by Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government to establish “de-escalation” zones in rebel held areas (Idlib province, of Homs province; near the Israeli border and outside Damascus) were just a ploy to make it easier to defeat the rebel forces there. By the terms of this the zones would be “no-fly” zones for all aircraft except those from Russia, Turkey and Syria. The Assads and their supporters (Russia, Iran and Turkey) would establish checkpoints around the zones to control ground access. This would, in theory, allow emergency aid to get in (or be blocked) and eliminate air attacks on civilians. But the rebels point out that in previous ceasefire agreements the Russians and Assads ignored the terms and attacked rebels and civilians claiming they were reacting to rebel violence. In the case of the four de-escalation zones that’s exactly what happened.

Israeli and Russian officials are increasingly open about how the two nations coordinate military operations in Syria and cooperate in other areas as well.

Another Russian soldier was killed in Syria while working with Syrian soldiers fighting rebels and ISIL. That makes 32 Russians killed in Syria since mid-2016. Another Russian apparently died in the same incident but he seems to have been a contractor. It appears that Russia does not give much publicity to contractor deaths which are believed to be at least equal to military casualties, if not two or three times higher.

May 2, 2017: Twelve senior officials (most of them generals) of the Interior Ministry were fired. This is believed to be another side effect of the creation of a “National Guard” in 2016. This paramilitary organization of some 400,000 soldiers and police is officially a “rapid reaction” force for dealing with terrorism or any other threat to Russia that requires quick and decisive action. There is growing resistance in parliament to a recent Putin request for new laws that allow the National Guard to fire on Russian citizens whenever the government wants to without warning. In addition National Guard leaders are to be immune to any prosecution for anything they are ordered to do. This reminds too many people of the kind of power the Soviet era KGB (secret police) had. The new National Guard is suspected of being the new KGB army. As organized the new National Guard is taking nearly all of the best trained and most effective units from the Interior Ministry. That is seen as weakening an existing force that could prevent a new KGB from misbehaving. Putin, a former KGB officer, also made the National Guard immune to FSB (the post-Soviet KGB) oversight. Another interesting aspect of the National Guard is that the many para-military groups formed by the pro-Putin government of Chechnya are now considered part of the National Guard. A growing number of Russians are calling the National Guard “Putin’s Private Army.” This sort of force is an ancient practice. Thus in pre-2003 Iraq Saddam Hussein had his Republican Guard, a force that was filled with the best paid, best armed men in the armed forces who were, above all, loyal to Saddam. All other successful dictatorships have similar forces. In Soviet Russia the secret police (KGB) employed over a million domestic spies and informers backed by several divisions of troops trained and equipped to deal with rebellions by the population, or the armed forces. Iran has a similar force, the Revolutionary Guard that serves a similar role as the old KGB. The Saudi monarchy has its National Guard and surviving monarchies usually have a least a ceremonial remnant of the once powerful “guards.” Even the pope still has a Swiss Guard. In 2016 ISIL formed a 4,000 man “Shield of Islam” force which is composed of the most skilled and resourceful ISIL fighters, including many foreigners (especially hundreds of the much feared Chechens). During World War II, Adolf Hitler had the SS, Gestapo and his private army, the Waffen SS, all of which kept Germany fighting until the very end. The new Putin version of the KGB army is being created by taking most of the armed personnel available to the Interior Ministry (the national police and various riot control, SWAT and special operations forces) as well as investigators and intelligence experts and assigning them to the new National Guard which swears to protect the president of Russia (currently Putin), not the Russian people.

April 29, 2017: One of four new A-50 AWACs aircraft has shown up in Syria. This new version entered service in 2011 but foreign ELINT (electronic intelligence) operations have not yet had a good opportunity to see how effective the new A-50 is. To do that you have to get your ELINT aircraft close to an A-50 in a combat zone. Israel believes the A-50 was brought in to deal with a possible air battle between Russian and American warplanes and also to keep track of the F-35 stealth fighters Israel has received this year and are already flying close to the Syrian border and, possibly, across the border as well.

April 27, 2017: A Russian intelligence collection ship (the Liman) sank off the Turkish Black Sea coast near the straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The Liman was operating in a thick fog and collided with a cargo ship. The Liman crew (of 78) suffered no losses and was helped off their sinking ship by Turkish coast guard ships.

In Syria Israeli missiles, apparently fired from inside Israel, hit Iranian warehouses near the Mazzeh Air Base outside Damascus. This was a night attack and cell phone videos showed that these buildings apparently contained weapons because there were numerous secondary explosions as in a missile setting off ammunition or missiles stored there. The Israeli missiles also hit a fuel storage site, causing large secondary explosions and fires. This attack went after munitions and fuel used by Iran mercenaries in Syria in addition to missiles and other weapons meant to be smuggled into Lebanon. Some Iranian and Hezbollah personnel were killed. Later in the day Russia condemned the attack as a violation of Syrian sovereignty. Despite this public demonstration of anger Russia understands that Israel has a legitimate need to protect itself from Iranian attack via Hezbollah or similar Assad forces. This angers Iran but so far the Iranians have kept their criticisms quiet. Before the end of the day Israel confirmed that it had fired one of its Patriot missiles at an aircraft (apparently an Iranian made UAV) flying from Syrian into Israel. Iran is desperate to obtain some kind of “victory” over Israel and the Gulf Arabs are content to stand aside and watch these two unpredictable adversaries have at each other. Israel has tweaked (modified) the software in its two AWACS (Airborne Early Warning Aircraft) so the CAEW (Conformal Airborne Early Warning) radar system can spot small, low flying UAVs as well as manned aircraft.

April 26, 2017: Russia got into another dispute with Turkey over how to deal with the Syrian violence. This all began on the 24th near where the borders of Turkey, Syria and Iraq meet. Turkish jets and two UAVs attacked Kurds and secular rebels. These attacks killed at least 30 of the rebels and many more were wounded. The Turks warned the U.S. and Russia an hour beforehand and there were no U.S. troops with the rebels attacked. The Americans and Russians tried to persuade the Turks to back off on attacking rebel forces that have not fought the Turks and concentrated on overthrowing the Assad government. Turkey believes the Kurds are a permanent threat. Yet the Turks were careful to make sure the United States did not have any troops with the targets bombed. It turned out that the closest American troops were about ten kilometers away. Since then there has been more fighting with Turks and Kurds firing at each other across the Syrian border and Turkish airstrikes continuing. Iran condemned recent Turkish attacks on Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

April 25, 2017: The U.S. released a report that accused Syria of not surrendering all its chemical weapons as it promised to do in a Russian arranged deal that gave the Americans an excuse to not attack the Assad forces.

April 23, 2017: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) an OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) vehicle hit a landmine, killing one OSCE observer (an American) and wounding two others (a German and a Czech). In three years that OSCE has been monitoring the Donbas violence this is their first fatality. In the time Russia has regularly been accused of interfering with the OSCE efforts. The OSCE presence is recognized by Russia and is supposed to be monitoring the situation in Donbas and verifying who is doing what. That has proved to be difficult because the Russian backed rebels (and sometimes Russian troops pretending to be rebels) regularly interfere with OSCE monitoring team. The Russians ignore or harass OSCE whenever they feel the need to, or simply feel like it. The pro-Russian rebels continue to block the movement of observers in their territory. The OSCE has found that Russian backed rebels are responsible for most (sometimes 90 percent) of the violent incidents in eastern Ukraine. The 600 OSCE staff (most of them roving monitors) in eastern Ukraine and Donbas, whose job is to oversee the ceasefire, have been complaining since 2015 that they are being restricted by rebels and, less frequently Ukrainian forces from carrying out inspections. Since early 2016 the rebels have been violating the ceasefire on a daily basis. Anyone in or near Donbas (as a lot of foreign journalists are) can hear or see the daily machine-gun, mortar, rocket and artillery fire by Russian and rebel units. Russia denies everything and insists that any evidence is fabricated. Some OSCE observer teams report coming under rebel fire which, in some cases, is believed to be deliberately directed at the OSCE personnel. The treatment of the OSCE is regularly reported back in the various West European nations they come from and that has eroded European confidence in Russia telling the truth about anything.

April 21, 2017: In the south (Stavropol) two men died in a gun battle with police at a checkpoint. The two refused to stop and opened fire. Police later identified one of them as a member of ISIL while the other man belonged to a different Islamic terrorist group.

In the Far East (Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border) a man armed with a pistol, first identified as a neo-Nazi, killed a guard at a shooting range and then entered an FSB (secret police) facility and opened fire killing an FSB member and a civilian before being shot dead and a suspected accomplice was arrested. ISIL later claimed the attacker as one of theirs. This is the second ISIL attack in Russia this month, the first one being a suicide bomber in a Moscow subway on April 3rd that killed 14.

April 19, 2017: Russia blocked a UN vote to censure North Korea for its latest ballistic missile test. China backed the measure, continuing its abandonment of voting with Russia to block UN measures hostile to North Korea.

April 18, 2017: Another Russian soldier was killed in Syria while working with Syrian soldiers fighting rebels and ISIL.




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