The Council of Europe, responding to Russia threatening to quit the organization, recently restored Russian ability to vote on Council of Europe resolutions and participate in debates. These rights had been suspended in 2014 because of the Russian attack on Ukraine, which is still underway. In response to restoration of Russian rights, Ukraine threatened to quit the Council of Europe, as did other East European nations. Giving in to Russian threats was an effort to maintain better relations with Russia, which is still a major supplier of natural gas to Western Europe. Moreover, Western European nations lost a lot of business, and jobs, when economic sanctions were imposed on Russia for Ukrainian aggression. For East European nations that were abandoned by West Europe to Russian and German aggression before World War II and to Russian rule after World War II this was familiar. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 ,Western Europe promised Eastern Europe that lessons had been learned from the World War II mistakes and would not be repeated. Now Eastern Europe is not so sure.
A Lot of Bad News
The current government, run by Vladimir Putin and his KGB cronies, is visibly losing its popular support. Despite the restoration of the many police state aspects of the old Soviet Union and a constant diet of “we are at war with NATO” propaganda, a growing number of Russians are visibly blaming Putin and his policies for a growing list of problems. Worse are the Russians who are defying new laws against public demonstrations. Because of declining support in opinion polls, using police state tactics on critics has now made the problem worse rather than burying it for a while. This is how the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, as did the communist governments in East Europe in 1989. Sacrificing good relations with the West for an alliance including traditional enemies like Iran, Turkey and China does not leave most Russians feeling better. That’s especially true as the economy keeps getting worse and living standards decline visibly every year since 2014. That was the year Putin sought to forcibly make Ukraine pro-Russian. That backfired badly, with Ukrainians very visibly mobilizing to stop the Russian “invasion”. Western trading partners imposed economic sanctions and a promising feature became an unwelcome revival of past mistakes.
The most prominent foreign mess is in Syria, where Russia is currently the best friend Assad government has. But that is not enough for the Assads. As much as the Assads want Iranian forces out of Syria that is not going to happen unless the Iranians decide to leave. At the moment the Iranians are reinforcing their presence, despite growing problems back home. Turkey is seen as a foreign invader by the Syrians while Iran is appreciated for all its help in defeating the rebels but resented for trying to turn Syria into an extension of Iran rather than treating Syria as a sovereign nation. Syria cannot ignore Iran because the Iranians still have a large force of mercenaries in the country. Asking the Iranians or Turks to leave is not really an option.
The Syrian War has been difficult for Russia because of their need to maintain good relations with most everyone involved, especially Israel. There are very practical reasons for that. Israel has regularly demonstrated it can shut down (permanently with bombs or temporarily with countermeasures) Syrian air defense systems. The Israelis don’t destroy all the Syrian air defense systems because that would be expensive and Israel only needs to shut down systems that attempt to interfere with Israeli airstrikes or surveillance missions. This approach intimidates the Syrians and Russians and anyone else using Russian air defense systems. The Israeli policy is to avoid damaging Russian air defense systems as long as Russia does not try to interfere with Israeli air operations. One reason Russia is exasperated with Iran is that the Iranians fail to appreciate the technical and military superiority the Israelis have when it comes to air defenses and how to defeat them. The Russians are being practical while the Iranians are believing their own press releases.
In northwestern Syria, at least 300,000 Idlib civilians have so far fled their homes and headed north to escape the Russian and Syrian airstrikes and artillery fire. The Turks have kept these Syrians out of Turkey so far but that becomes more difficult as more refugees flee towards Turkey. The Turks are blocking access to the border and pressuring, without much success, Russia and the Syrians to suspend their offensive. Liberating Idlib from rebel control is a big deal for the Syrian government as it is the last rebel-controlled part of Syria. The Turks and Kurds are willing to negotiate, the remaining rebels are not.
Israel has been accusing Russia of causing GPS signal disruption in northern Israel since early June. Russia denies any responsibility but it appears that Russian EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment in Syria causes intermittent disruption of commercial aircraft GPS navigation systems over Israel. While Russia has EW gear specifically for GPS jamming or spoofing (create false signals), that does not appear to be what is happening here. Israel believes the GPS disruption is an unintended side effect of Russia using EW equipment heavily to protect their bases from Islamic terrorists attack using explosives equipped commercial UAVs, as well as other EW equipment being tested against the American F-22 and Israeli F-35 stealth aircraft that regularly operate over Syria. Russia EW gear, even the impressive new stuff, still relies a lot on “brute force” solutions. That means sending out powerful, multi-frequency jamming signals rather than less intense but more focused signals (which Western EW gear favors). Russia depends on export sales of these new EW systems to pay for developing them. “Unfortunate side effects” are not what they want to be associated with their new EW equipment and would, as is their custom, prefer to believe the bad news does not exist or is propaganda spread by jealous Western rivals. Israel maintains good relations with Russia in Syria by not revealing flaws found in new Russian EW gear or any of the new systems Russia has used in Syria. But this Russian systems flaw is impossible to ignore or explain without going into detail about how Russian EW equipment works. Russian and Israeli negotiators are trying to work out a mutually acceptable solution, as they have done so many times before.
Syria is not the only headache, there are lots more, as described below.
July 2, 2019: Russia criticized the recent Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria. Russia did not interfere and Iran sees that as tacit support of the Israeli operations.
July 1, 2019: Off the northern coast (Barents Sea) fourteen sailors died when their nuclear-powered research sub had a fire while submerged. The fire was put out but fourteen of the crew died of smoke inhalation. This is a relatively new
(entered service in 2003) and smaller (65 meters long) nuclear-powered sub called the AS-12 Losharik. This sub carries a crew of up to 25 to great depths (up to 6,000 meters) and has a top speed (for emergencies only) of 72 kilometers an hour. Losharik is believed to be for checking Russian underwater data cables for bugs (or damage in general) and more easily tamper with underwater cables and other equipment belonging to the United States and other Western states. Because Losharik can dive deeper than any other sub and is quite large for a deep diving sub it can find and retrieve useful items that end up in very deep waters (electronics from Western aircraft or ships). Losharik can also survey very deep sea bottoms for suitable sites for placing various electronic devices. The accident took place in Russian territorial waters off the north coast. The AS-12 is stationed at a naval base on the Kola Peninsula.
June 30, 2019: In Syria (Damascus in the south and Homs Province in the north), Israel carried out several airstrikes overnight (into July 1st). Several large explosions took place near the two target areas and local news reported four dead and over twenty wounded. One of the Russian made S-200 anti-aircraft missiles fired by Syrian forces at the Israel air raid in Homs missed its target and continued traveling out to sea and landed in a mountainous area of the island of Cyprus (the Turkish zone) and started a fire. Cyprus is 105 kilometers off the Syrian coast.
The same day Israel released satellite photos the Syrian had deployed a battery of its new Russian S-300 air defense systems. These arrived in 2018 but have not been used yet. In the past, some of these S-200 missiles fired southward entered Israeli airspace and were destroyed by Israeli anti-missile systems. In a related incident noted by Russia, the U.S. carried out airstrikes in northwest Syria (Idlib province) for the first time in two years, against al Qaeda targets. In the past the Americans had hit ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) targets all over Syria but in the last two years, American airstrikes had concentrated on supporting Kurdish operations against ISIL groups in eastern Syria. Now the Kurds are dealing with al Qaeda as well and further west.
June 29, 2019: Russia finally offered terms for releasing the 24 Ukrainian they kidnapped in late 2018. Russia is demanding that Ukraine release Russians imprisoned for various crimes in return for the Ukrainian sailors. In May the UN International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ruled that Russia had illegally seized the 24 Ukrainians and should release them along with the three ships they were on. Russia responded that it was going to prosecute the Ukrainian sailors for whatever Russian prosecutors could come up with. Ukraine has captured a lot of Russian soldiers and agents in Donbas and other parts of Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Russian-backed Donbas rebels continue to violate the ceasefire on a regular basis. While this causes military casualties, the troops are better protected from this machine-gun, artillery and rocket fire. Sometimes this firepower misses the front lines and lands deeper into Ukraine, where civilians are the casualties. So far this year 70 civilians have been hit by this errant firepower and 20 of them died. Since Russia first attacked in April 2014 3,332 civilians have been killed and over 7,000 wounded. In addition, about 3,000 military personnel have been killed.
June 25, 2019: In Israel (Jerusalem), security officials from Russia, Israel and America met to discuss who should do what in Syria. The Russian position was pro-Iran, yet in practice, Russia will not confront Israel or the Americans in Syria. Russia criticizes Israel for airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria but will not open fire against Israeli missiles or aircraft. So Russia gets criticized by Iran, Israel and the United States. Iran suspects that Russia has a secret deal with Israel and the Americans but cannot afford to antagonize Russia because Russia does supply considerable support to the Syrian military. Even that can be interpreted as anti-Iran because Russia agrees with the Assads that Syria should not be dominated by Iran and permanently occupied by Iranian special operations troops (IRGC) and Iranian mercenaries.
June 24, 2019: In Venezuela, a Russian
arrived with a hundred technicians who will replace the same number who arrived in March to help maintain Russian military and commercial equipment Venezuela had purchased. The Russian technicians were also training Venezuelans to do the work but many of these newly trained locals flee Venezuela at the first opportunity because the socialist government of Venezuela has wrecked the economy and its once flourishing oil industry. Russia and China are sending in technical teams and some equipment to revive the oil production and shipping facilities. Russia is seeking ownership of some natural gas deposits to pay for current help and past loans. China has loaned Venezuela more than ten times as much as Russia and is seeking ownership of a large fraction of Venezuelan oil reserves. These deals are being opposed by most other South American nations and the United States. Cuba is also helping out with security and medical experts. So far this foreign support has kept the socialist government operational. Meanwhile, most Venezuelans have no electricity, running water, sanitation or food. The government is focusing on protecting the oil fields in the north, at the expense of everything else. Russia sees Venezuela as a great opportunity that has little real risk attached to it.
The newest warship in the Russian fleet, the 5,400 ton Admiral Gorshkov arrived in Havana, Cuba to show support for one the last communist dictatorships and a country that is suffering from growing food shortages and a failing economy. The Gorshkov will also visit nearby Venezuela, a major oil producer that went broke after a socialist president was elected in 1999 and proceeded to turn Venezuela into the poorest nation in the region while also eliminating any more free elections. Russia is one of the few allies Cuba and Venezuela have but is itself too broke (despite being one of the largest oil exporters in the world) to provide economic aid to Cuba or Venezuela. The Gorshkov entered service a year ago as the first of four new, “stealth frigates.” These ships can operate in distant waters and are replacing Cold War era destroyers, few of which can still get to sea. There were seemingly endless delays getting the Gorshkov class or "Project 22350", into service. Construction on three Gorshkov class ships began in 2006 but by 2010 only one had been launched and it was still only half complete. The navy originally wanted twenty Gorshkovs to replace the Cold War era Sovremenny class destroyers and Burevestnik class frigates. The government only promised money for twelve Gorshkovs. The first Gorshkov took a long time to pass sea trials. Gorshkov was first commissioned in 2017 but could not enter service until it passed all the sea trials. By early 2018 Gorshkov had not done so. That was because the anti-aircraft missile system did function properly and resisted several attempts to fix it. There were also problems with the engines. The builder said all would be well by mid-2018 and succeeded at that. While the Gorshkov was able to cross the Atlantic it is unclear if all its weapon systems actually work. A second Gorshkov was launched in 2014 and is to be ready for sea trials in 2018. Those trials are still underway and supposed to be completed by the end of 2019. A third Gorshkov is under construction but launch date is unknown because another side effect of the Ukraine invasion was Ukraine refusing to supply any more naval turbines. Russia said it was having a Russian firm begin construction of replacement turbines but that is behind schedule and now it looks like no more Gorshkovs (aside from the first two) will be available for completion until the early 2020s. These ships cost about $400 million each, and will replace larger ships like the 7,900 ton Sovremenny class destroyers. These older, larger, ships, were designed for high seas operations far from Russian shores. This new fleet will be a return to the traditional Russian navy job of defending coastal waters. Even accomplishing that mission is in doubt if Russian cannot get its shipyards up to speed. Russia has been able to build some new corvettes but these are smaller and much less capable ships than the Gorshkovs. In 2018 Russia agreed to loan Cuba $50 million to buy Russian weapons but that may not happen because the Cuban economy is getting worse, not better.
June 23, 2019: In the south (Chechnya), ISIL took credit on an attack against the home of the pro-Russia Chechen leader. The attacker, armed with a knife, came after the security guards. He wounded two of the policemen before being shot dead. ISIL claimed that the attacker used an assault rifle and grenade and killed a policeman.
June 19, 2019: Dutch prosecutors have identified and indicted four people (three Russians and a Ukrainian) as being largely responsible for
the destruction of Malaysian Boeing 777 airliner (flight MH17) over eastern Ukraine in 2014.
In 2018 Dutch investigators revealed that they had
the Russian aid defense unit (53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade) the missile came from. As with previous Dutch investigative reports about the MH17 Russia denied any involvement. A late 2016 report concluded that the missile used was owned by Russia, not Ukraine. The UN has been unable, because of Russian opposition, to conduct such an inquiry but that has not stopped similar investigations by nations whose citizens were passengers on the aircraft. In July 2015 eleven of the fifteen members of the UN Security Council voted to establish a tribunal to investigate who was responsible for shooting down flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014. Russia used its veto to block the resolution. Russia and Russian backed Ukrainian rebels were always the main suspects in the destruction of MH17 and the deaths of all 298 aboard. Russia blames the loss of MH17 on the Ukrainians but offered no convincing proof. The Russian manufacturer of the missile believed responsible admitted that it was their missile. At a press conference, a company rep showed how the pattern of fragments found in the aircraft hull could only have been made by one version (now out of production) of the missile used by their BUK M1 system. Less convincing was the company theory that the missile was not fired from territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels. The aircraft was shot down as it passed over territory controlled by pro-Russian separatist rebels in Donbas. The airliner was at an altitude of 10,000 meters and the rebels were known to have some captured or Russian supplied systems BUK M1s systems that can hit targets as high as 14,000 meters. For three days the rebels allowed only limited access to the site for international airline accident investigators. Russia will never admit that the missile was fired with their assistance by rebels under their orders but that’s what the evidence continues to show.
The Netherlands has received little cooperation from Russian during this investigation and Russia refuses to extradite the accused. The Dutch will continue their investigation, compiling more evidence of Russian misdeeds in Ukraine.
June 18, 2019: The United States announced that it was providing Ukraine with another $250 million in military assistance. Since 2014, when Russia attacked Ukraine, the Americans have provided Ukraine with $1.5 billion in military assistance. However, until 2017 that assistance had to be “defensive” only. Since 2017 the American aid has allowed offensive systems and weapons. The amount of aid provided each year has also increased. Since 2014 Ukraine has also received another $1.5 billion in economic aid. That is also being increased. The Americans are also increasingly aggressive in sending warships and aircraft to the Black Sea region, where Russia is in trouble for kidnapping 24 Ukrainian sailors in late 2018 and trying to block sea access to the major port Ukraine has in the Sea of Azov.
June 14, 2019:
In western Syria (the port of Tartus), two Russian amphibious ships arrived, apparently with reinforcements (combat vehicles) for Russian forces in Syria.
June 13, 2019: In northwest Syria (Idlib province), near the Turkish border someone fired on a Turkish observation post, wounding three Turkish soldiers. Turkey blamed nearby Syrian army forces and demanded something be done. Russia said the attackers were Islamic terrorist rebels and Russia gave the Turks the location of where Russian was carrying out airstrikes to hit the rebels responsible. Russia said Turkey had actually asked them to do this. Turkey let that slide because of greater concern for how Russia was not doing anything to stop Syrian air strikes on areas that were supposed to exempt because of ceasefire agreements. Turkey refuses to accept Russian explanations that they cannot control the Assads. Turkey is probably right but also wrong. The Russians don’t want to get into a major dispute with Iran, which is urging the Assads to be more aggressive in Idlib. While Russia provides vital assistance to the Assads, Iran supplies more assistance and has been doing it for longer.
June 12, 2019: In northwest Syria (Idlib province), Russia and Turkey managed to persuade Syrian forces and Islamic terrorist factions to accept another ceasefire. This only applies the “de-escalation” zones established in early 2017 by Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government to as a ploy (according to the Idlib Islamic terrorists) to make it easier to defeat the rebel forces. 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 pointed out that during 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. One aspect of the de-escalation zone agreement that was honored and that was safe passage arrangements for rebels and their civilian supporters who surrendered and were transported to Idlib province. This new ceasefire, like earlier ones, didn’t last long and within hours there were some violations. That was because the Russian and Syrian airstrikes are continuing, usually at civilians and Islamic terrorists close to the de-escalation zones. The airstrikes and less frequent artillery (cannon and rockets) fire has been going on since April. There have been a lot of civilian casualties because the Assads have found that attacking hostile civilians forces them to move and often leave the country. This is considered a war crime but that has never stopped the Assads, who have been using these tactics since the 1980s.
June 9, 2019:
In northwest Syria (Idlib province), Iranian support for an offensive against the 20,000 or so Islamic terrorists trapped there has failed to make a difference, mainly because can no longer provide much infantry. Since late April Russian and Syrian airstrikes and artillery have forced over 300,000 Idlib civilians from their homes and killed over a thousand people (40 percent of them civilians). The Syrian and a few Iranian mercenaries gained some ground but not enough and in the last week the Islamic terrorists have been launching more counterattacks. The Turks have allowed military supplies to reach the Islamic terror groups in Idlib, with the understanding that this military aid would be used to halt the Syria-Iran efforts to destroy the Islamic terrorist control over most of the province. This is a win for the Turks, who do not want over a million desperate Idlib civilians trying to force their way into Turkey.
The main problem Syria has is a growing shortage of effective combat troops. The Syrians long depended on Iranian mercenaries to do the aggressive and dangerous ground fighting for them. But money shortages back in Iran have cut the budget for Iranian mercenaries and many mercenaries have been laid off and sent home. The Syrians have managed to keep the most effective militia units on the payroll. This selection process was aided by the Russians, whose military advisors and ground controllers (for calling in air strikes) advised on which militia units were most worth keeping.
Iranian efforts to bring in Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias to replace the unaffordable mercenaries has not worked. Iraq is reluctant to see pro-Iran Iraqi militiamen heavily involved in the Syria fighting. So is Israel, which will bomb any pro-Iran forces if they become a problem. In effect, the Syrian army can no longer depend on Iran mercenaries to help out with the high-risk combat operations. Russia has stepped in and increased their training efforts for Syrian soldiers and has increased the effectiveness of Syrian artillery, armor and infantry units. This does reduce infantry casualties but is not as effective as using Iranian mercenaries, who tended to be fanatically aggressive and not discouraged by the risk of heavy casualties. Few Syrians have that kind of enthusiasm after nearly a decade of civil war. Worse, the Russian training program has only produced about 20,000 graduates so far. The training takes months and not all the trainees are successful. The training program remains popular because it does turn dispirited Syrians soldiers (veterans and conscripts alike) into capable and confident troops. But that confidence will only last as long as there are no heavy casualties. Iranian trainers and advisors are still working with the Syrian armed forces. The Russians are more popular but the Iranians can use their presence to retain control, or at least access, to key support operations (like intelligence) and headquarters.
June 8, 2019:
In northwest Syria (Idlib province), Islamic terrorists counterattacked Assad forces that had taken Islamic terrorist positions on the border between Idlib and Hama province to the south. The fighting has lasted for at least three days and resulted in several hundred casualties (including about a hundred dead) equally split between the Syrian army and Islamic terrorist forces. The army had help from Russian advisors and ground controllers to call in air strikes and that enabled the soldiers to hang onto the ground they had gained and push the rebels back a little more.
June 7, 2019: In the East Pacific, an American cruiser, operating just west of the Philippines, was deliberately overtaken by a Russian destroyer that appeared intent on a collision. The American cruiser was unable to maneuver quickly as it was maintaining a steady course while one of its helicopters landed. This was plainly visible to the Russians, who insisted the near collision was the fault of the Americans. Video of the incident, from the American cruiser and from the air made it clear the Russians were at fault.
During the Cold War (1947-91) there were numerous incidents, usually involving Russian ships or aircraft playing "Chicken Of The Sea" with American warships by moving close or even on a collision course. This was all for the purpose of interfering with U.S. intelligence operations, especially those off the Russian coast. For that reason, Russian fighters are again confronting American electronic reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace and trying to persuade them to leave. Earlier in the Cold War, Russian warplanes would fire on American intelligence gathering aircraft, shooting some of them down. This sort of thing declined when the U.S. quietly informed the Russians that American warships and combat aircraft would return fire. By the end of the 1960s, this aggressive activity diminished to the point where it was considered a minor nuisance and even that was eliminated by a 1972 treaty. The recent incidents are violations of that treaty but the current Russian government has shown scant regard for treaties (recent or otherwise).
The Chinese have resumed this sort of thing since 2001, mainly to harass American intelligence operations off the Chinese coast. This consists of aggressively interfering with American intelligence gathering aircraft and ships.
June 4, 2019: In the eastern Mediterranean, an American P-8A maritime surveillance operating in international airspace, was harassed several times by a Russian Su-35 based in western Syria.
In Nigeria, the government has agreed to suggestions by military commanders to seek more military equipment and training assistance from Russia. While many Nigerians (civilian and military) would prefer Western aid the Americans and British demand that any gear they sell or training they provide, emphasize avoiding corrupt practices. In the past Western gear quickly became unusable because corrupt officials would steal funds needed to keep the equipment operational. Western nations also wanted assurances that their weapons would not be used to kill civilians or political opponents. These demands were unacceptable to many politicians and officers and gave Russia and China opportunities to provide somewhat less capable but cheaper versions of the Western gear and do it no questions asked and with no criticism about how the weapons were used. Nigeria also liked the Russian and Chinese attitudes towards Islamic terrorists, which was basically “kill everyone” if that’s what it takes. The Russians and Chinese also have a talent for evading or minimizing criticism in the international media. The negotiations with the Russians have been hampered by the corruption of Nigerian diplomats in Russia. The Nigerian embassy recently had its water supply cut off because the water bills were not paid. The Nigerian government provided cash to cover that but not enough to cover the embassy staff greed.
May 31, 2019: The
LNA (Libyan National Army) leader Khalifa Hiftar held his first official meeting with the Russian leader in Moscow. Hiftar has made several unofficial visits to Russia in the last few years, where he met with diplomats and Ministry of Defense officials to discuss the situation in Libya and arrange for illegal (because of the arms embargo) shipments of Russian weapons to the LNA. Hiftar has the support of most Libyans along with Russia, most Arab states, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and now the United States as well. The UN opposes Hiftar, as does ISIL, the Moslem Brotherhood and pro-brotherhood nations like Turkey, Qatar and Iran. The main argument against Hiftar is that he could turn into another dictator like Kaddafi, who was overthrown in 2011. Hiftar had been an early supporter of Kaddafi and was a colonel in the Libyan army when, in the late 1980s, he and Kaddafi became enemies and Hiftar was declared a traitor. Hiftar got support from the CIA to form an opposition force (the first LNA) but no African nations were willing to host it for long and by 1990 Hiftar was living in the U.S. and seeking citizenship. Hiftar became a U.S. citizen and spent 20 years living in the West before returning to Libya after Kaddafi was overthrown in 2011. By 2014 he realized that Islamic terror groups and independent militias were preventing the formation of a new government. His solution was to form the LNA in the east (Benghazi) and take on all the warring factions, especially the Islamic terror groups. Five years later the LNA, the only organized military force in Libya, is closing in on the last concentrations of militias in Tripoli and Misrata.