Russia: Something Everyone Can Agree On


August 6, 2021: Russia has problems in Syria because they developed a complex network of alliances to make it all work. In the Middle East “complex” means endless headaches and the constant risk of catastrophic failure. Russia sent forces to Syria in 2015 to help preserve its old Cold War era ally the Assads. This was done for the benefit of Russia, not Syria. Russia was the second foreign power to come to the aid of the Assads, Iran had already been helping keep their old Shia ally, the Assads, in power. Iran had more ambitious goals, as in increasing its threat against Israel. A year after the Russians showed up, the Turks sent in troops, but actually depended on Syrian mercenaries.

The Russians hoped to rebuild the Syria military. That proved impossible and the only alternative was hiring local or foreign mercenaries, which the Iranians, Turks, Americans and Syrians all relied on. By 2015 the pre-2011 Syrian military was gone for good and improving the equipment and air support for the Syrian forces merely made it easier for the Assad troops to play defense, which is all they really wanted to do after several years of civil war. Eventually Russia began hiring some Syrian mercenaries as well, if only to help eliminate the last remnant of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in eastern Syria. Russia was content to let the Israelis keep the Iranian forces busy and taking heavy damage trying to destroy Israel.

For centuries Turkey, Iran and Russia were all antagonists, not allies and their seeming “alliance” in Syria was all a mirage. All three of these allies are scheming against their allies. Russia notes that Turkey is selling weapons to Ukraine, where Russian forces are still at war with Ukraine. Turkey is also trying to repair its damaged relationship with NATO, and that means reneging on weapons purchases from Russia and other forms of anti-Russian behavior. Russia is sticking it to Iran by backing Israel and the efforts of Arab states to replace Iran as the protector of the Assad government.

The only real war still going on in Syria is about the remaining Islamic terrorist groups. Most of the remaining Islamic terrorists are trapped in northern Syria (Idlib province) where the terrorists, and many civilian supporters, ended up because of a tactic the Assads successfully used to regain territory where the Islamic terrorists and their supporters were surrounded with no hope of escape, but willing to fight to the death. As much as the Assads wanted these Sunni diehards dead, they did not want to suffer more losses for their own forces as well as the destruction of more property. The Russians agreed with this approach while the Iranians did not, but not enough to fight the Assads or Russians over it. The Russians helped by providing Russian military police battalions composed of Russian Moslems to assure the rebels that the Assads would not renege on the safe-passage-to-Idlib deal. The Syrian Kurds, with American help, crushed ISIL political power in eastern Syria, thereby destroying ISIL ability to control any territory. The Russians and Iranians provided some help with this. Not so much the Turks who considered the Syrian Kurds their enemy.

Which brings us back to Idlib and over 30,000 armed rebels belonging to various Islamic terrorist groups, none of them affiliated with ISIL. There are also nearly a million civilians. These rebels have nowhere to go and will fight to the death rather than surrender. The Turks play defense, adding layers of protection to their border to prevent any of the Idlib residents from getting into Turkey. Iran doesn’t care and is content to let the Turks deal with Idlib while Iranian resources concentrate on Israel. The Assads don’t want any “fight to death” battle in Idlib and the Russians unofficially propose a more traditional tactic for this siege situation; starve them out. While an ancient and often successful tactic, this approach is currently considered a war crime by most, but not all, nations. Without any publicity, Russia, the Turks and Assads are seeking to apply the ancient siege tactic quietly and unofficially. It’s not been easy, with the most troublesome opponent being the foreign aid groups who provide aid for a living but don’t want to go to war with Russia, Turkey and the Assad government.

As long as the Islamic terrorists remain in Idlib, ISIL in the east and Iranians near the Israeli border, the Syria Civil War will not be over. The only ones who cannot walk away from this are the Assads, Turkey and Israel. Russia depicts itself as the good buy interested only in peace and prosperity. That leaves Iran as the real interloper and troublemaker. Dealing with Iran has been a headache for Turkey and Russia for centuries while the Arabs have several thousand years of bad experiences with the Iranian threat. In other words, Iran is difficult to deal with, something everyone can agree on.

August 2, 2021: In Libya Russia resumed oil production at facilities it manages with its German partner. This facility had been closed for ten months because of the chaos following Turkish intervention in the Libyan civil war.

July 29, 2021: Some 400 kilometers above earth the new Russian made Nauka (“Science”) module arrived at the ISS (International Space Station) and three hours after it was attached to the rest of the ISS some maneuvering rockets on Nauka malfunctioned and activated, slowly spinning the ISS. Ground control noticed it first and activated maneuvering rockets on other modules to halt the movement while the ISS crew was alerted and the malfunctioning rocket was shut down. The ISS was never in any danger and the unwanted spin lasted about 45 minutes. Until the source of the problem is found and fixed some other planned missions to the station (like the new American Starlighter capsule) will be delayed. The problem appeared to be in the software.

Russia needs a win for its space program because the last decade, and especially the last decade, have been a disaster. In late 2019 it became a very public disaster when a senior government official openly complained about the corruption and incompetence that was crippling the Russian Space program. This was in reference to the 2018 investigation by auditors and prosecutors found a billion dollars’ worth of corruption. Nearly as bad as the corruption has been the losses due to launch failures. Even with insurance the Space Agency suffered nearly $200 million in losses from uninsured launch failures since 2010. Insurance took care of commercial launch failures but these also required the Space Program to refund over $300 million to customers who had lost satellites. The Russian Space has a harder time finding customers and is paying more for launch insurance. Meanwhile the American SpaceX technology (with first stage rockets and that return and land for reuse) is going to cost the Russians even more business. The long delayed Nauka module was supposed to be a clear win. Not yet and now everyone involved with the ISS is carefully monitoring Nauka, just in case.

July 28, 2021: In northeast Syria (Hasaka province) a Russian patrol was seen blocked by an American patrol with the soldiers from both sides getting physical with shoving, pushing and some punches thrown. This soon ended and the Russians turned around and left. Many of these disputes are about preventing Turkish and Russian forces from moving east of the Euphrates River into Kurdish dominated territory. Some of these clashes are also about control of the M4 highway. At the start of 2021 Russia announced it had negotiated the reopening of the M4 highway for commercial traffic after being closed for a month while Turkish forces cleared some Islamic terrorist rebels who were periodically attacking traffic. The M4 is the main east-west highway from Aleppo to the Assad stronghold Latakia province and its Mediterranean ports.

July 26, 2021: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) the Russian-backed rebels escalated their violations of the July 2020 ceasefire agreement. Since March these violations were relatively minor, using machine-guns, automatic grenade launchers and mortars at Ukrainian troops. Today the Russian forces used heavy artillery and OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) monitors noted that more artillery and armored vehicles were being brought close to the ceasefire line, as if it were preparation for a major offensive. Russia has also brought in more new weapons and systems, apparently to continue their practice of testing this stuff under combat conditions against the Ukrainians.

In the last year, since the 2020 ceasefire began, Ukraine has had 46 troops killed and 150 wounded by the escalating ceasefire violations. Until March 2021 violations had left 16 Ukrainian soldiers dead and many more wounded. Since 2014 over 13,000 soldiers, rebels and civilians have died in the Donbas.

In mid-2020 OSCE brokered a new ceasefire agreement between Ukraine and Russia. Germany and France have always taken the lead in these negotiations because they represent the largest economies in Europe. Russia wants the sanctions lifted but first it has to convince France and Germany that the Russian aggression against Ukraine is over. OSCE observer teams have been operating in eastern Ukraine since 2014 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 0riginal 2015 Minsk (where it was negotiated and signed) Ceasefire have seen that ceasefire agreement renegotiated several times since 2015. OSCE staff have been complaining since 2015 that they are being restricted by Russian-backed rebels and, less frequently Ukrainian forces from carrying out inspections. There are satellite photos available as a backup as well as local sources on the ground. Russia believes that because the front lines have not moved much since late 2014, 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. Threats to invade all of Ukraine are not practical because the current Russian military is tiny compared to that of the Soviet Union. That force disappeared with the Soviet Union and Russia cannot replace it. Currently Russia does not have enough ground and air forces to invade Ukraine and win. Ukraine has a lot of problems but lack of determination to fight the Russians is not one of them. Ukraine can muster more defensive forces that Russia can overcome.

July 25, 2021: Russia is accused of interfering with the operation of the European Space Agency’s Sentinel radar satellite when it passes over certain areas of Russia.

July 24, 2021: An LNA (Libyan National Army) delegation completed a five-day visit to Russia to discuss the future of Libya and the Russian role in that. No details of exactly what was covered during those five days but the LNA founder and commander Khalifa Haftar’ is now calling in all Libyans to participate in the December elections. The Russians also have economic deals in Libya that depend on who leads the unified government. Russia has been promised billions of dollars’ worth of oil research and development contracts. Even more than the Turks, the Russians need the money. Haftar has promised to resume his offensive against the weaker GNA faction, despite the Turkish presence, if the December elections are not held and the results respected.

July 23, 2021: Poland has ordered 250 American M1A2SEP3 tanks for $6 million each. These are currently the most advanced version of the M1. The Poles consider this tank the best option to deal with any new Russian tank developments. Like the new and untested in combat 48-ton T-14, a radical new design that appears quite impressive but has so far proved too complex and too expensive for Russia to mass produce. Mass production was supposed to have started in 2015 but technical problems and shrinking defense budgets halted that until when covid19 restrictions again delayed production until 2022. Russia has fewer than a hundred development and pre-production T-14s which have been undergoing field tests with a Russian tank unit since 2016. The T-14 has a three-man crew and a fully automated turret with the three crew all in an armored capsule under the turret. Division. The T-14 relies on a lot of new tech, some more advanced than any other Western tank has installed. Getting all that tech to work reliably has been a major problem. Getting all these problems fixed has made the T-14 more expensive, at about $4 each. That’s twice what the reliable T-72B3 costs and Russian combat commanders and crews will have to be convinced that the T-14 works and is as reliable as the T-72B3. Mass production to build less than two hundred more T-14s is supposed to begin in 2022. At the moment it looks like the Polish M1A2s will be the first American tanks to meet the T-14 in combat if Russia ever tries to make a move on Poland.

July 22, 2021: In eastern Syria (Homs province) Israeli warplanes carried out airstrikes against Iranian military targets again, as it had done yesterday. A Russian source claimed that four of the Israeli air-to-ground missiles, launched from Lebanese air space, did not reach their targets. If true this meant that Russia had, for the first time, used the S-400 air defense system to spot and track Israeli missiles and intercept them. Syria had long been asking for Russia to use its more advanced air defense systems to counter the hundreds of Israeli air strikes. The Russians refused to confirm the media report the media report and Israel ignored it. Both “intercepted” air strikes destroyed their intended targets and it is unclear what the purpose of the false report that Russia would neither confirm or deny. If true it would have meant Israel finally had their long-sought opportunity to scrutinize the S-400 in action and upgrade their countermeasures. Israel has been using standoff weapons (fired from Lebanese, Israeli or Jordanian air space) to avoid exposing its manned aircraft to the S-400 if the Russians should finally decide to actually use them. Tracking missiles is a start because Israel has a wide variety of air launched missiles, some better equipped to deal with the S-400 than others. This unusual rumor appeared to be a Russian effort to improve the reputation of their new systems without actually using them against the Israelis.

July 21, 2021: In Russia, the MAKS 2021 aviation show featured a Russian aircraft manufacturer showing off a mockup of the new single-engine Checkmate stealth fighter, which is apparently the Russian answer to the similar American F-35. Checkmate is being developed by Sukhoi, the same firm that designed the Su-57, the Russian answer to the American F-22. The Su-57 proved to be a failure as an F-22 clone and few are being built, only for the Russian Air Force, because export customers cancelled orders and accused Sukhoi and the Russian government of fraud and trying to sell an aircraft that does not work. Checkmate appears to be a desperate move to salvage something from all the money spent on developing the Su-57.

July 17, 2021: Russia and Turkey are supposed to have secretly agreed to withdraw their forces from Libya in return for some kind of mutual economic benefits. This is unlikely but rumors like this are believed by many factions in Libya and are a reason why the civil war has been going on for a decade. Meanwhile the Turkey backed GNU faction prime minister insists that the December 24 national elections will take place despite a growing list of obstacles.

July 15, 2021: In eastern Syria (Raqqa province) Russian efforts to keep the vital M4 highway open are being undone by fighting between the Turks and Syrian Kurds. The Turks have also been fighting the Kurdish led SDF coalition and now that fighting has moved close enough to the M4 that the artillery and machine-gun fire exchanged by Turkish and Kurd forces causes civilian traffic to be halted.

July 14, 2021: In the Far East, nearly a thousand North Korea workers have not been able to return home at the end of their work contracts because of North Korean fears that some of them may have been infected by covid19 and are not showing any symptoms. North Korea is considered paranoid and irrational in the way it deals with covid19, but North Korea still controls its borders and can close them whenever they want for whatever reason they choose to disclose, or no reason at all.

July 8, 2021: In mid-2021 there were more incidents involving manipulation of shipboard location devices, which no one is taking credit for. This time it was in the Black Sea, where NATO warships from several countries had assembled for joint training exercises with Ukrainian naval forces. Ukraine is not yet a NATO member but would like to be and joint training like this makes it easier to get in, especially when Russia violently opposes it.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close