Russia is putting out a lot of optimistic press releases but most of it is spin. Throughout Russia the popular perception is that the nation is losing ground or stalemated. It’s not just the economy, which all Russians can experience daily, but with the foreign situations, Russia is involved in.
Russia is still hurting from low oil prices. These were headed up in 2018, peaking at $74 a barrel in early October then falling over 40 percent (to $43) by December 25th. Since then prices have recovered to $53 but the prospects much more price growth in 2019 are not good. The major customer for oil, China, continues to reduce use because Chinese economic growth continues to decline and it is feared China might even suffer a major recession because of the continued economic problems. Meanwhile, North American oil and gas production continues to soar and the U.S. beginning to take business from Russian gas producers, supplying LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) at a lower cost than Russia provides via pipeline. European customers don’t trust Russia, partly because of the war against Ukraine but also because of the increasing belligerence against NATO (for an imaginary scheme to weaken Russia, some Russia seems quite capable of doing all by itself).
Although the government has been able to bring the inflation rate down (from 12 percent in 2015 to about 4 percent in 2018-19) the cumulative effect is a continued reminder to Russians that the economy is still weakened by the sanctions and low oil prices. Worse, Russians now tend to blame their own government for this not “the West.”
The government has less economic activity to tax and as a result, government spending has to be cut. The cuts in retirement benefits were particularly unpopular as were the cuts in infrastructure (roads and utilities) maintenance and improvements. At the same time, the defense budget suffers fewer cuts, mainly because Russia is still racing the clock to replace elderly Cold War weapons and equipment. There is still a lot of that pre-1990 stuff around. The navy is something of a lost cause, mainly because the major ships are so expensive and were never as much of an export item as armored vehicles and warplanes. The shipbuilding industry is uncompetitive. Aviation and armored vehicle exports are thriving and because of that the military received a hundred new aircraft in 2018 and will get about the same in 2019. Most of these are improved models of late Cold War designs (especially the Su-27/30) and some late-Cold War helicopter designs that were completed in the 1990s. The air force inventory of modern aircraft is still shrinking but deliveries are keeping the shrinkage rate low. This comes at a cost. New aircraft designs, like the Su-57, are not going into production. Same with new tank designs (namely the T-14). These are too expensive and too untried. The generals prefer to get improved models of what they know works rather than untested new designs.
All this malaise has also expressed itself in accelerated population decline. Not just birthrates but also migration. In the last year the number of people moving to Russia declined over 40 percent and the number who left went up 22 percent. More people are leaving than arriving. Add that to more people dying than being born and the shrinking population becomes more visible. Even expatriate Russians who send money to kin still in Russia are less active. Before the 2014 sanctions, expats sent nearly $20 billion a year back to Russia. Those amounts have since declined by a third and continue to shrink.
In the south (Crimea), Russia is still holding three Ukrainian ships (a tug and two patrol boats) and the 24 Ukrainians on board that were seized while traveling from the port of Odessa (west of Crimea) to the port of Mariupol in Donbas and 800 kilometers southeast of Kiev. As the three Ukrainian ships approached the Kerch Strait they were fired on by Russian aircraft. This was apparently to stop the Ukrainian ships from going under the Kerch Strait Bridge and into the Sea of Azov. The air attack was quickly followed by another Russian attack using armed ships and boarding parties of commandos which resulted in 24 Ukrainian sailors being taken prisoner. After that Russia stationed warships under the Kerch Strait Bridge to block any unwanted traffic. The Kerch Bridge is too low (35 meters above the water) for 30 percent of the ships that usually use Mariupol, which is the largest Ukrainian port east of Crimea. Worse, the Russian backed rebel front lines are less than 14 kilometers from Mariupol which had a population of 450,000 before the Russians invaded five years ago. Because of construction activity on the Kerch Bridge shipping activity at Mariupol was only 28 percent of capacity. Ukraine sees this blockade of the Sea of Azov as an illegal effort to make it more difficult to supply Eastern Ukraine and make Mariupol more vulnerable to attack.
Over the last few months, Russia has been moving warships from the Northern Fleet (Barents Sea) and the Pacific fleet to the Black Sea to reinforce ships already there in case there is a confrontation with NATO over Russian threats to restrict access to the Sea of Azov. Those restrictions were imposed on November 25th. In January Russia has been patrolling the Sea of Azov and adjacent Black Sea areas more frequently, often harassing foreign ships, not just Ukrainian ones.
This dispute went critical back in April 2018 when Russia declared the Sea Of Azov, reached from the Black Sea via the 4.5 kilometer wide Kerch Strait, was now under Russian control. The Crimean Peninsula, when it was part of Ukraine, was separated from Russia by the Kerch Strait. Maximum depth of the strait is 18 meters (59 feet) and there had long been talk of building a bridge between Crimea and the Kerch Peninsula (now and always part of Russia). Once Russia seized Crimea in 2014 proposals that a bridge be built actually turned into construction activity. The Kerch Bridge opened in March 2018 (at least the highway part, the sturdier railroad section is not finished). With that Russia declared the Sea of Azov under Russian control and no foreign ship could enter with Russian permission.
So far the Russians have seized over a hundred ships trying to reach the Ukrainian ports of Berdiansk and Mariupol that are on the shore of the Sea of Azov. Russia is putting these two ports out of business. The EU and U.S. protested the Russian blockade but have not done anything to get that changed, like sending American warships to conduct a FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) in the Sea of Azov. So far no NATO warships have sought to enter the Sea of Azov.
On land, a new ceasefire was agreed to on December 29th but Russian backed rebels in Donbas began 2019 with several days of heavy attacks on Ukrainian troops. The attackers, many of them Russian, suffered casualties, including several dead and over a dozen wounded. The Ukrainians held their positions.
Since 2014 over 10,000 people (many of them civilians) have died in Donbas as a result of the combat operations.
Israel believes they are winning their battle to keep Iran from establishing a permanent presence in Syria, even with American troops leaving northeast Syria. This Israeli goal has been achieved via a combination of force (air and artillery strikes on Iranian bases and personnel in Syria) and diplomacy (convincing Russia to persuade Iran to keep their forces away from the Israel border or suffer Israeli attacks the Russians will not interfere with). Other diplomatic activities involved the Americans and Arab nations. There is general agreement by Israel and their Arab allies that the forces Iran has assembled in Syria and Lebanon are a far greater threat than Hamas in Gaza. But the war in Syria is not yet won and whether it is depends more on what happens in Iran. The Americans are preparing to pull their 2,000 troops out of Syria but not their support for the large force of Syrian Kurds who did most of the fighting to destroy the ISIL presence in eastern Syria. The American withdrawal was dependent on Turkish willingness to continue the fight against ISIL in Syria. The Turks backed off from doing that and were unwilling to negotiate with the Syrian Kurds.
Israel still appears to be able to carry out air strikes on targets in Syria despite the presence of the most modern Russian air defense systems. Israel does not discuss this openly. In part that is to keep secret details of how it is done. This silence is also a favor to the Russians, who don’t want the bad publicity that confirmation of Israeli ability to neutralize the latest Russian air defense systems. That way Russia can continue to sell its S-300 and S-400 systems.
With the Americans leaving the SDF (Syrian Kurd rebels) is shifting its forces to face the Turks who are, and always have been, their most formidable threat. Ominously the Turks have also reinforced their forces facing the SDF. But figuring out who might attack, or support, the SDF now is not easy. The Turks do not want to fight the SDF for the very simple reason that there is not much popular support in Turkey for any operation that would get a lot of Turkish troops killed in Syria. For that reason, since the Turks crossed the border into Syrian in 2016 they have used local FSA (secular Free Syrian Army rebels) forces to do most of the fighting. What the Turks do want is to get the Kurds, especially YPG (Syrian Kurdish separatist) forces, away from the Turkish border. Going much further than 20 kilometers south of the border (at least on a permanent basis) is not part of the Turkish strategy. Turkey expects to use over 10,000 FSA fighters against the Kurds, along with Turkish tanks, artillery and air power.
Likewise, the Syrians use Iranian mercenaries (many of the Afghan Shias) for the heavy combat. The Syrian Army was never noted for its combat capabilities and after seven years of civil war, there are few Syrian combat units with much ability or willingness to carry out a successful offensive.
The Russians don’t have sufficient ground troops to carry out a large scale offensive and the most effective Russian ground troops are Russian mercenaries because Russian popular opinion is very hostile to Russian troops getting killed in foreign wars. Iraqi officials openly discussed sending Iraqi troops into Syria but the Iraqis have an even worse reputation for combat effectiveness than the Syrians. There was talk of the Saudis and UAE replacing the Americans in Syria. Possible in theory but not likely in practice. The Saudis are more concerned with the Iranian threat to Saudi Arabia itself.
That leaves Israel, which is focused on Iranian forces in Syria and Lebanon and continuing Iranian public backing for the destruction of Israel. Armed with the most formidable air force and special operations troops in the region Israel is currently allied with the Gulf Arab states being threatened by Iran.
Another factor in all this is that the Syrian economy is a mess and Iran is currently the only one helping out. Syrian GDP is about half what it was in 2011 and limping along largely with the help of economic aid from Iran. The enormous expense (billions of dollars a year) has caused growing unrest in Iran and that aid may have to be cut. Gulf Arab states have expressed an interest in providing huge amounts of aid and loans for reconstruction, but only if Iranian troops and mercenaries are removed from Syria. In fact, no one is willing to put a lot of money into rebuilding Syria has long as Iran has a large military force there whose main goal is to start a war with Israel. This presents the ruling Assad clan with a dilemma. Do they try and betray their long time (since the 1980s) benefactor Iran for the good of Syria or stand by while Syria remains rubble, poverty and hunger while Iran tries to take on Israel. Even Iranian allies Russia and Turkey are unwilling to invest in a potential war zone and would prefer that Iranian military forces leave Syria. Worse, for the Iranian religious dictatorship, most Iranians back withdrawal from Syria and have been openly demonstrating for that since late 2017.
Russia has been helpful in providing military and technical trainers to improve the combat and support skills of Syrian troops. The latest effort in this area is to help set up an IG (Inspector General) service that would regularly check units for their readiness and conformity to army regulations. More importantly, the IG would report on actual or suspected corruption, which is still a big problem in the Syrian military.
January 17, 2019: In Israel, a Russian military delegation completed several days of meetings with their Israeli counterparts to refine procedures and agreements between the two nations to prevent accidental clashes in Syria.
January 16, 2019: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas), Russian backed rebels carried out another series of small scale attacks on Ukrainian troops. At least four of the attackers were killed and three wounded in the failed effort.
The Russian space program won its showdown with the FSB (successor to the KGB), which threatened to cancel a lucrative contract Roscosmos (new state-owned corporation running commercial space operations) had negotiated to use 21 Soyuz satellite launchers to put 627 small Internet communications satellites into orbit. A British firm, OneWeb, will use the worldwide satellite network to provide Internet access to anywhere on the planet. The FSB concern was about their ability to monitor and censor or block any Internet traffic coming into or out of Russia. The OneWeb system will have a few ground stations to connect the satellites to the rest of the Internet. The FSB was willing to compromise if one of those ground stations was in Russia and the FSB has access to all the Internet traffic passing through it. OneWeb opposed that demand even if it meant Russia would outlaw the use of OneWeb by Russians. That ban would not be completely effective because some Russians would find a way to pay for their access. OneWeb makes money by acting as an ISP (internet service pr9vider) and for hundreds of millions of people in areas with poor, or no, Internet access the satellite service is all they would have access to. That includes millions of Russians in remote areas. The fact that the FSB would not have access to that Internet traffic would be a bonus for Russian users. OneWeb was willing to wait a bit because Roscosmos believed they could get the FSB overruled and that recently happened. Implementation of the OneWeb launches was first pushed to late 2018 and now to early 2019. The FSB had a compelling argument as the government is determined to control Internet activity in Russia. But the space program cannot afford to lose that kind of money and that was that.
January 15, 2019: The government has agreed to extend payment of Venezuelan loans by ten years. Since 2017 Venezuela has been unable to repay most of its foreign debt. Starting in 2006 Russia has loaned Venezuela $17 billion, much of which (Russia won’t say how much) has not been repaid but since Venezuela has not got the cash and given the current state of its economy will not have any additional cash anytime soon Russia “extended” payments. In return Venezuela allowed Russia to invest $6 billion in oil and gold mining projects in Venezuela. These projects probably won’t begin until the Venezuela economy recovers, meaning not for a long time. Venezuela currently owes more than $120 billion to foreign lenders.
January 14, 2019: The government has agreed to back (financially and otherwise) a Russian mining firm (Alrosa) that has negotiated a deal with the African nation Zimbabwe to do a better (and more profitable) job of extracting diamonds from the large deposits Zimbabwe has but has been unable to exploit effectively because the state-run mining company was corrupt and inefficient. Alrosa will have more freedom to operate. Russia is also a major producer of diamonds and is willing to invest in Zimbabwe despite the corrupt and erratic government there. Alrosa is protected because Russia and China continue to protect their business interests in Africa. For example, earlier in 2018 both countries vetoed a UN resolution to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe, where the government has trashed the economy and chased a third of the population away. Russia and China also blocked UN attempts to halt the Sudan governments’ mass murder and depopulation of rebellious people in Darfur. Russia and China both do a lot of business with Zimbabwe and Sudan. But the opposition to UN sanctions is more personal. Russia and China both have long histories of mass atrocities against their own populations, and do not want to support any precedent for foreign intervention to halt this sort of thing. Zimbabwe would also like Russian help in modernizing its armed forces but hasn’t got any money to pay for it. Russia is willing to work out a deal that involves providing more security for Russian commercial operations in Zimbabwe.
January 11, 2019: The EU (European Union) called on Russia to release the 24 Ukrainians who were taken prisoner in late November as Russia restricted access to the Sea of Azov. The EU considers that an illegal blockade. Russia ignores the EU protests, which is one reason the EU, which used to be the major trading partner for Russia, continues to support the 2014 sanctions.
January 10, 2019: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas), an OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) observer team UAV was shot down by Russian backed rebels. Apparently he unarmed UAV was about to spot another illegal activity. The OSCE continue operating ground patrols in Donbas and keep reporting violations (of ceasefire and other agreements). There are often thousands of violations a week. Russia simply denies it, calling the photos and witness accounts contrived. The OSCE personnel are still targets for rebel fire. 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. There are satellite photos available as a backup and local sources on the ground. The OSCE UAVs usually survive their missions and often catch violations, which is apparently why they not more frequently come under fire. Russia believes that because the front lines have not moved much in years, they can do what they want with no consequences. Despite that attitude, the Russian operation in Donbas is falling apart. Morale among the Ukrainians who agreed to keep the rebellion going is bad and getting worse. More and more of the “rebel activity” in Donbas is carried out by Russians pretending to be Ukrainian rebels. The Russian government apparently believes it will ultimately win but does not have a clear idea of when or how.
January 9, 2019: In northwest Syria, most of Idlib province has been taken over by the HTS (Hayat Tahrir al Sham) coalition of Islamic terrorist groups. This takeover was completed recently despite Turkey, Russia and Iran-backed Syria having a plan to prevent it. That plan was never implemented because no one wanted a major battle in Idlib, except Iran. Back in August 2018 Russia, Turkey and Syria agreed on a plan to attack and destroy the Islamic terrorist groups in Idlib province, particularly HTS. Idlib was and is the last Islamic terrorist stronghold and is on the Turkish border. Six months ago Idlib was controlled by various rebel groups. Back then over half of Idlib was controlled by the HTS coalition. This is the main al Qaeda organization which evolved from al Nusra by absorbing (willingly or otherwise) many other like-minded groups over the years. About a third of the province was controlled by several other Islamic terrorist groups. In late August 2018, the largest six of these factions merged to form the NLF (National Liberation Front). This merger was arranged by Ahrar al Sham a longtime rival of HTS and backed by Turkey. About ten percent of the province is controlled by Turkey (in the north along the hundred kilometer long border with Turkey) and Assad forces (several towns and villages in the southeast). HTS recently convinced NLF to join a larger coalition, under the leadership of HTS that would be better able to defend Idlib. Despite its Turkish ties NLF was persuaded (after HTS attacked and eliminated NLF factions who opposed the deal). Iran still has Syrian forces, controlled by the Assads, willing to attack but such an effort would be very costly without Russian airpower and unthinkable if Turkey opposed it (because of the risk of many Idlib civilians trying to flee into Turkey.) The Russian and Turkish leaders are to meet on the 23rd to try and work out a new agreement about Idlib, one that can be carried out.
January 7, 2019: In Syria, Russian military police began patrolling outside the Syrian Kurd held city of Manbij. Russia is trying to establish a buffer between the Kurds and Turkish forces (either Turks or Turkish backed FSA rebels.)
January 6, 2019: A U.S. Navy amphibious ship (the 16,000 ton LSD-43, that carries 400 marines and landing craft) enters the Black Sea for a scheduled training operation. This is the first American warship to enter the Black Sea since last August. The U.S. criticizes the Russian blockade of the Sea of Azov but has not announced plans to challenge the blockade.
In the Philippines, three Russian warships arrived for a five day stay. This was the first time Russian warships had ever visited the Philippines.
January 5, 2019: The United States refused to provide Russia with an export certificate for the 40 Superjet 100 airliners that were selling to Iran. Because more than ten percent of the components in the Superjet 100 are from the United States the Russians need an export certificate to sell these airliners to foreign customers, Iran is subject to sanctions that block American aircraft exports. Russia can replace the American made components in the Superjet 100 with Russian ones but that will take years so it appears that the Iranian sales are lost.
January 3, 2019: In eastern Ukraine, Russia is having morale and financial problems with the increasing number of Russian troops it has there, pretending to be Ukrainian rebels. There are about 50,000 armed rebels in Eastern Ukraine (Donbas) and over half of them are Russians. Most of these armed rebels are part-timers who signed up for the regular pay and other benefits. But a growing percentage of the armed rebels are Russian soldiers who have long formed the backbone of the rebel combat capability. Russia has gotten rid of the Russian volunteers from outside Donbas because they were too much trouble to control. Many of the locals (Ukrainians and ethnic Russians) are not much better but getting a government job from the Russians is about the only way to make a living in the rebel-controlled half of Donbas. Even then a job with the Donbas rebel forces is not attractive if that means there is a chance of getting killed or wounded. So most of the local Donbas rebels are used for security and support jobs. Most of those in the front lines are Russian professionals and local rebels who get paid a combat bonus to be there.
Getting enough Russians to serve in Donbas has been a growing problem. Most Russian conscripts refuse to serve in Donbas and they have the law on their side. The Russian volunteer (or “contract”) soldiers are also unwilling to serve in Donbas and when forced to they are reluctant participants in the Donbas deception and often do not renew their contract. The only alternative to contract soldiers are the even more expensive former soldiers working for military contractors. The current solution, which may or may not work, is to provide better training for the contract soldiers sent to Donbas and to send them there in units for short tours of duty. Until now most of the Russian soldiers were sent in as individuals or small groups to replace those whose time was up. Now Russia has adopted the same time-tested methods employed by all-volunteer Western armies (and the Russian army during World War II).
The replacements go in as units, often company size (at least a hundred troops) or larger. The units are all contract soldiers who have not only trained together for months but have received special training by Donbas combat veterans on what to expect and how to handle it. This is not only good for morale but reduces casualties. While Russian commanders prefer this the Russian government is having a hard time paying for it. The defense budget has been cut by over 40 percent since the sanctions and lower oil prices hit in 2014. The higher unemployment rate has not helped military recruitment much. The population is still shrinking, except for the Moslem minority, who comprise about 15 percent of the population and over a quarter of those eligible for conscription or to become contract soldiers. The government wants to keep the percentage of troops who are Moslem as low as possible.
January 2, 2019: Russia reported that is believed Israel had successfully used six F-16s armed with air to ground missiles and firing them from Lebanon to destroy their targets during a December 25 attack. Russia and Syria had claimed that the Syrian air defenses (including several operational S-300 batteries) had shot down some of the Israeli missiles but there was no evidence of that (Israeli missile fragments from someplace other than the target area) and in any event, the targets were destroyed.
Ukraine announced the delivery of the first of twenty 33 meter patrol boats for use in the Sea of Azov. The boats are built in Mariupol, the largest Ukrainian port on the Sea of Azov coast.
December 29, 2018: Turkish and Russian military officials met in Russia to work out how the departure of American forces from Syria would be exploited by the two allies. There were apparently disagreements because Turkey wanted to exercise more control of the Syrian side of the border (currently occupied by Syrian Kurd militiamen) that Russia thought Turkey could handle (diplomatically and militarily).
December 28, 2018: In northern Syria, Assad forces advanced closer to the Kurdish controlled city of Manbij. Since the Americans announced (on the 19th) they would pull their forces out of Syria the Kurds have been withdrawing from some areas to concentrate troops in areas they believe may in danger of attack by Syrian or Turkish forces.
December 26, 2018: In Korea, on the DMZ separating the two Koreas, a ceremony was held to mark the reconnection of South Korean and North Korean rail lines for the first time since the 1950s. The ceremony was mainly for show since the current sanctions prevent the two Koreas from going any further. Worse, it turns out that the North Korean rail network needs major upgrades and refurbishment before it can handle more traffic and do so at efficient levels (higher speeds by heavier rail cars for longer periods). In 2018 South Korean rail officials were allowed to make a personal inspection of key North Korean rail lines and found the conditions worse than expected. North Korea allowed South Korea engines and railroad cars to be used. Since the 1990s much less has been spent on repairs and maintenance and the North Korea railroads are increasingly unusable. Despite that reviving rail links between the two Koreas has been a goal for more than five years. For both Koreas, there are tantalizing trade possibilities. For example, an effective rail link could lead to business for North Korea by allowing South Korean goods to move through North Korea to China, Russia and (via the Trans-Siberian rail line) the rest of Eurasia. This is very concrete optimism for all three countries and is being backed by cash commitments from Russia and South Korea. It all depends on the northern leaders agreeing that economic reforms are the way to salvation. At the moment the northern elite fear any change because it might bring revolution. But the change is happening anyway and the more affluent neighbors are trying to explain it all to the perplexed northern leadership.
December 25, 2018: The Defense Ministry reported that deliveries of modern weapons and equipment continue but that older Cold War era weapons still account for 39 percent of weapons used by Russian forces. On the plus side, there were few deliveries of new weapons during the 1990s so most of the new stuff is less than twenty, and most of it less than ten years old. But much of the new weapons are just upgrades of Cold War era designs. Smaller defense budgets, because of the economic crisis (sanctions and low oil prices) means that the original plan of having all the Cold War era weapons gone by the mid-2020s will not happen until the mid-2030s.