Russia: Elusive Illusions

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August 2, 2019: Today the U.S. withdraws from the 1987 INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) treaty. With this deal, the U.S. and Russia (Soviet Union) agreed to ban the production and use of land-based missiles, especially ones with nuclear warheads, with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers. By 1991 2,700 missiles had been withdrawn from service and the agreed upon ten years verification continued into the 1990s even though the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

The American withdrawal decision was announced in 2019 and was in reaction to Russian violations of the treaty. The Americans pointed out that some versions of the new Iskander and RS-26 ballistic missiles violated the range restrictions. The Americans were also angry about Russian violations of other important nuclear disarmament deals. In particular, there was the 1994 treaty one that got Ukraine to surrender its nukes in return for a Russian guarantee that it would never seek to annex all or part of the Ukraine. In addition, China is not bound by the INF and producing weapons that violate it. Russia immediately denounced the Americans, who sent senior negotiators to Russia to discuss the matter. Nothing came of that and now Russia is threatening to base missiles “near the United States.” That would mean Venezuela because Cuba is covered by an earlier treaty that keeps Russian missiles out of Cuba. Russia already has a lot of South American nations angry at what Russia has done to make Venezuela a political and economic mess. Bringing in long-range missiles would make that worse.

Russia sees the Americans leaving the INF as a major setback because until now Russia has been able to violate several Cold War era arms reductions treaties with impunity as Russia sought to rebuild its empire using the excuse that NATO was conspiring to conquer or contain, Russia. On a more practical level, the poor condition of the Russian economy plus the sanctions imposed for the annexation of Ukrainian territory has reduced Russian military capabilities. This is particularly true when it comes to producing new weapons systems. Russia has become like Iran, announcing new weapons that are little more than a press release and some unworkable prototypes.

The Russians also know this American decision is really aimed at China. The U.S. realizes, and the Russians refuse to admit, that China has, for the first time in centuries, a more powerful military than Russia. The Chinese lead is growing and unlike the United States or NATO, has very real, and recently (1970s) fought over, claims on Russian territory in the Far East and parts of eastern Siberia. China has very deliberately never renounced these claims, not even after the communists took over China in 1949 and not since. Now Russia is increasingly economically dependent on China, a condition that is getting worse and appears headed for China getting its disputed territories back via economic, not military conquest. For the moment Russia plays down the Chinese threat and makes much of the imaginary one posed by NATO.

The Russian fuss over the INF cancellation also serves to help the Russian government divert public attention from worsening economic conditions. For five years in a row, household incomes have declined and GDP growth is, in a good year, about one percent. Corruption is rampant to the extent that most Russian entrepreneurs stopped trying because without a “sponsor” (corrupt partner) in the government, new enterprises are crushed.

The government still has an active anti-corruption operation but it is mainly for use against those who are seen as opponents of the government. Despite the government domination of the mass media, more Russians are digging up and publicizing details of corruption among prominent government officials and supporters.

Then there are the constantly rising prices (over 10 percent a year since 2014), growing poverty and inflation. In addition to increasing unemployment, many who still have jobs are not getting raises. With all the inflation it means those with static pay are getting pay cuts (less purchasing power). For ethnic Russians, there’s another sense of loss. Since 1991 the number of ethnic Russians in Russia and former parts of the Soviet Union has declined by 17 million. This is largely the result of higher death rates and sharply lower birth rates. The main reason the population of Russia is stabilizing and rising once more is that more non-Russians are coming to Russia looking for work and making it harder for native Russians to keep their jobs or get more pay.

Syria

Russian forces in Syria have been reinforced this year because Russians are once more fighting in Syria. Since May the major fighting has taken place in northwest Syria (Idlib province). The last large concentration of Islamic terrorist rebels is trapped there along with over a million pro-rebel civilians. The Turks have militarized their zone to eliminate Islamic terrorist activity and prevent refugees from getting to and across the Turkish border. Most of the Idlib borders (east, south and some of the west) are controlled by Syrian forces (army and militias). The Syrian Assad government wants to regain control over Idlib but lacxks the military power themselves to do it, at least not quickly. Syrian troops are largely demoralized by eight years of fighting. Until 2018 Iran mercenaries provided the offensive ground forces for the Syrian army. Over the last year, most of those mercenary units have been disbanded because of cash shortages. or reassigned to operations against Israel. That means Iranian forces are largely in the south, around Damascus and the southeastern borders (Jordan and Iraq). The Syrian Kurds are still handling ISIL remnants in eastern Syria. That means the Syrian army can concentrate its best using in an effort to regain control of Idlib. That means a lot of help from Russian troops. The fighting is going slowly because the Syrian commanders accept that they have to keep Syrian casualties low to maintain morale and prevent massive desertions, as have occurred in the past.

The Russians have provided about a thousand ground troops (special operations, ground controllers and military contractors) to help with calling in airstrikes and putting in teams of Russian troops to handle difficult and dangerous (especially for the Syrian troops) situations. This is similar to what a few hundred American Special Forces troops and CIA field agents did in Afghanistan in late 2001. Back then a small number of Americans provided specialized services to the Afghan anti-Taliban forces and that made an enormous difference.

Afghanistan and Idlib are different in some key respects. The Afghans, even the Taliban, avoided “fighting to the death” and were more practical about combat. If they believed they were up against someone they could not beat, like American smart-bombs, they would retreat to fight another day. The Afghans knew about the Arab Islamic terrorist custom of suicide bombers and fighting to the death and though it was stupid. Arabs and Afghans disagreed on a lot of things. In Idlib not only do the Islamic terrorist forces fight to the death but they have nowhere to retreat to. No one wants these last rebels and the civilians trapped with them. The Assad solution, based on past performance, is to keep attacking until organized resistance is eliminated and then send his police to seek out and arrest suspected Islamic terrorists pretending to be civilians along with any civilians suspected of being active supporters of the rebels. Some of these will be killed quickly, after interrogation. Some will be released but most will be imprisoned where the majority will eventually die or be killed.

The fighting in Idlib is leaving about a thousand dead a month. Most of these are civilians or armed rebels. The Russian and Syrian aircraft attack the enemy wherever they believe they are. That includes residential neighborhoods, mosques and hospitals. Currently, the airstrikes and ground operations are as intense as ever and Turkey is angry about that and the possibility of a massive surge of Idlib civilians trying to get into Turkey. So far about 400,000 civilians have been driven from their homes and more of them are trying to move towards the Turkish border. The Turks have been unable to persuade anyone to help with halting the Idlib violence and potential refugee crisis. Despite that, the Turks keep trying and the latest gambit is a threat to attack Kurdish controlled northeast Syria (Hasaka province) if something is not done about the Idlib mess. The problem is there no solution to the Idlib problem that will satisfy everyone. For Russia and Syria the priority is shutting down the Islamic terrorist threat there, something Turkey is less concerned about because the current Turkish government is more “Islamic terrorist friendly” than anyone else in the region.

Libya

Turkey is alone in providing military support for the GNA (UN backed but largely powerless Government of National Accord) while Russia (and many others) support the opposition, whose LNA (Libyan Nacional Army) has pacified most of the country since 2014. The Turkish support violates the UN arms sanctions as well as creating tension with Russia and the many Arab states that support the LNA. There are few other foreign supporters of the GNA militias and especially the many Islamic militias. Sudan used to be a source of support but that has ended because of a recent uprising that replaced the pro-GNA Sudan government. Two major Turkish allies, Iran and Russia, are no help in Libya. Iran is preoccupied with its own economic and political problems. Russia has long backed the LNA as have Egypt and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). Egypt and the UAE also supply weapons and air support. The U.S. recently declared its support for the LNA and a growing number of European nations are openly or covertly supporting the LNA.

Turkey, despite its closer ties with Russia, is still a member of NATO. The intervention in Libya may be one of the issues that gets Turkey thrown out of NATO and openly acknowledged as hostile to the West. This prospect motivates more Turks to openly and actively oppose the Turkish leader Erdogan, who has established something of a police state to deal with local opposition. The extent of Turkish support for the GNA could be limited by other NATO nations enforcing the ban on importing weapons by sea.

Rust Belt Defense Industries

Russian efforts to equip its army with a new generation of tanks and other armored vehicles are going bankrupt, literally. The Russian firm that developed the new T-14 tank and T-15 IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle) has been effectively bankrupt since 2016. Government loans are keeping these zombie firms alive. Adding to the problems are some major defaults by export customers. This is all about Venezuela, which bought about $10 billion worth of Russian weapons on credit secured by Venezuelan oil reserves and exports. But a combination of falling oil prices and Venezuelan government mismanagement of the economy have led to a collapse of the Venezuelan economy (GDP fell by more than half in five years). Some export shipments were canceled when it was clear that Venezuela might default on the entire amount. Russia had also withdrawn most of the thousand maintenance and tech support personnel it had sent to keep all that high-tech stuff (warplanes, air defense systems, artillery) operational. Russia has since allowed some of the tech support people to return as well as allowing Russian military contractors to supply 400 security personnel to serve as bodyguards for senior government officials. Venezuela owes five times as much to China, mostly for loans. China has sent in oil field maintenance personnel to begin repairing the damage over a decade of mismanagement have done to Venezuelan oil facilities. Together with Cuban mercenaries Russia and China hope to rescue the current Venezuelan government and then get repaid. That is a risky proposition but the only alternative is to walk away and risk losing it all.

When the Cold War ended in 1991 so did orders for a lot of Russian military equipment, especially armored vehicles, warplanes and warships. In the 1990s the old Soviet era military budget shrank by over 90 percent. Many Russian defense firms went bankrupt or converted to non-military production. For over a decade the economic situation was improving. But in 2014 the Russian economy and the defense budget took a major hit from lower oil prices and Western sanctions. The situation quickly went from promising to desperate. Many defense firms were still living on loans because they had not completely recovered financially. A lot of money had been spent on developing new weapons. Some defense firms gambled their own funds on developing and marketing the revolutionary weapons. Russian leaders were impressed but there was no money to place large orders and there were no export customers either. And some of the existing export customers were like Venezuela and unable to pay for what they had already received.

July 27, 2019: In Moscow, large protest demonstrations continue. People are angry over the federal government’s blatant efforts to rig the September city council election. The 45 member council has long been dominated by pro-Putin members but this time the polls show most voter support is going to opposition politicians. The current government, run by Vladimir Putin and his KGB cronies, is visibly losing its popular support and the Moscow unrest is the latest manifestation of this. 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. In the last week, there have been daily demonstrations, some with over 20,000 people. Today over 3,500 people turned out in Moscow to illegally protest the election rigging. Police arrested about 30 percent of the demonstrators as well as hunting down and arresting the anti-Putin politicians the government believed were encouraging the protestors. Police also raided a TV network that was live broadcasting the protests. News of the protests gets out eventually but TV coverage makes it happen faster and more vividly. Police also shut down at least one Russian YouTube user uploading live coverage of the protests. The government has taken over most electronic media in the last decade and makes it difficult for any remaining independents to operate. Police also arrested five protests leaders. That is a futile gesture because the demonstrations are largely self-organized. The opposition has applied for a demonstration permit in Moscow. The city officials said they would approve it, even though the permit application estimates that at least 100,000 people will show up.

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 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.

July 26, 2019: North Korea released a Russian fishing boat and its 17 member crew (all Russian except for two South Koreas) that had been seized on the 17th for entering North Korean territorial waters. Russia denied the charge and threatened to halt economic cooperation with North Korea if the fishing boat and crew were not released. North Korea needs Russia more than the other way around but stunts like this are not unusual and leave those who do business with North Korea wondering why the North Koreans are so self-destructive.

July 24, 2019: The July 1st fire on the nuclear powered research sub Losharik was caused by the lithium batteries overheating, causing a fire and then exploding. This left fourteen members of the crew dead. This occurred while the sub was submerged. The fire was put out but fourteen of the crew died of smoke inhalation because emergency breathing gear ran out of air before the sub could surface and vent the smoke from the sub.

Losharik originally used Ukrainian made silver-zinc batteries but since 2014 Ukrainian military imports have been less “available” and Losharik switched to Russian made lithium batteries, which behave differently than silver-zinc ones. Losharik is a relatively new (entered service in 2003) and smaller (65 meters long) nuclear-powered sub whose full name is 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.

July 21, 2019: In central Syria (Homs province) Islamic terrorists derailed a train carrying phosphates from a mine that was recently reopened by Russian investors. The phosphates are used to produce fertilizer and Russian investors are involved on that end as well. Russia cannot afford to give money for reconstruction in Syria but Russia can invest in reviving and operating Syrian businesses that are likely to be profitable. In neighboring Hama province rebels fired rockets at a battery S300 SAM (surface to air missiles) Russia had recently provided Syria. The rockets did not cause any damage. Israel has avoided attacking the S300s so as not to embarrass Russia.

July 17, 2019: Syria denied that there were a growing number of Russian ground troops assisting Syrian forces fighting in the northwest (Idlib province). The Islamic terrorist rebels in Idlib have been seeing more evidence, and sometimes getting cellphone photos). Russia denies it as well but since June more deliveries (by Russian amphibious vessels) of combat vehicles have been arriving the Syrian port of Tartus. In other words, despite denials, the Russians have answered Syrian pleas for more special operations troops and air and artillery spotters to quickly bring Russian artillery or airstrikes on rebel targets.

July 16, 2019: Off the south coast of South Korea, two Russian A-50 AWACS aircraft twice flew closer than 22 kilometers of the islands. This was a violation of South Korea territory and jet fighters were sent to intercept and the drive the Russian aircraft away. South Korea said their fighters fired several hundred cannon shells towards the A-50s to get their attention. The A-50s left South Korean air space and Russia later insisted that the A-50 pilots never saw the South Korean fighters or cannon fire. Japan also sent up jets but the South Korean aircraft got there first. The Russian aircraft were taking part in an international training exercise with Chinese forces. To further complicate matters there is no agreement on owns that are also known as the Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan. South Korea currently controls these tiny unoccupied islands which Koreans (north and south) call Dokdo but the Japanese call Takeshima. Both Koreas and Japan claim ownership. South Korea forces regularly hold training exercises dealing with how to defend Dokdo from foreign aggression. South Korea has long been willing to sacrifice good relations with Japan over the issue of who owns the uninhabited Dokdo “Islands” in the waters between Japan and Korea. There are two large rocks permanently above water and 35 smaller ones (and about 50 that are seen only at low tide). North Korea also asserted it had a claim on Liancourt Rocks. One of the few things South Korea and Japan agree is that Russian aircraft should not be flying over the islands.

July 15, 2019: A veteran (77 years old) scientist at a rocket/and spacecraft design firm was arrested and charged with treason. He was placed under house arrest. Last year another veteran (age 75) scientist was arrested on suspicion that he had provided data on hypersonic aircraft and warhead tech to someone outside of Russia. That is considered treason. Actually disclosing any defense related information is considered treason even if the recipient is foreign media. Most of the people arrested for disclosing information have been younger and not veteran researchers and developers of this tech.

July 14, 2019: In Israel, two more F-35s arrived from the United States, giving Israel 16 so far. The first one arrived in 2016 and Israeli F-35Is were declared operational in 2017. Israel has ordered 50 F-35s and will have 20 by the end of 2019. Israel has been given priority in deliveries to export customers, mainly because Israel was able to customize its F-35s (making them F-35Is) and use them regularly in combat zones. While the F-35 is still working out the usual new aircraft problems, Israeli pilots have been enthusiastic about how well the aircraft performs right now. The stealth apparently works well against the latest Russian air defense systems and the many sensors carried, combined the “information fusion” software provides the pilots the ability to react more quickly to combat situations.

July 12, 2019: In a related development Turkey recently began receiving Russian S400 air defense systems, which means Turkey will not get receiving the F-35. Since 2000 Turkey has had a government hostile to Israel and the West. Now Turkey is receiving an air defense system the F-35 is optimized to defeat while not receiving F-35s itself and increasingly likely to be expelled from NATO. Israel would prefer to have the friendlier more cooperative pre-2000 Turkey back but that is not likely to happen any time soon.

 

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