Russia: The Cost Of Empire Goes Up


October 13, 2014: The fighting in Ukraine has left about 3,500 dead so far. About 25 percent of the dead have been Ukrainian soldiers and militia. About 30 percent were rebels and nearly ten percent were Russian soldiers. The rest were civilians. The death of so many Russian troops, and the attempt by the Russian government to hide the fact that they died in Ukraine, has caused a growing number of anti-government demonstrations and protests. About ten percent of those deaths occurred after the September 5 th ceasefire agreement with Russia and the rebels continuing to attack. That agreement has been regularly violated by the rebels who seek to capture the airport outside rebel held Donetsk. Russia insists that the rebels are defying Russia with all these violations of the ceasefire. No one believes that, least of all NATO intelligence, which has been tracking the presence of Russian troops and special operations troops in Donbas and just across the border in Russia.

The Donbas rebels still demand independence for the five million people in Donbas areas that the rebels control. The Ukraine government refuses to allow that and is willing to negotiate some autonomy. Most Ukrainians, and many Russians believe the Russian government wants to annex Donbas and nothing less will do.

For the operations in and near Ukraine the Russians have sent in about twenty percent of their combat brigades, usually the most effective (Spetsnaz and airborne) and experienced (ones recently in the Caucasus). Parts of at least three of these brigades are currently or recently inside eastern Ukraine. Over a dozen combat brigades have had some of their troops in Ukraine so far this year. These brigades represent the best Russia has, as the rest of the army is crippled by inexperience and shortages of personnel and equipment. Russia is still trying to replace obsolete and worn out Cold War era weapons and equipment.  Army strength is now about 300,000, including SOF (special operations forces, or Spetsnaz). The combat forces comprise 55 combat brigades (33 mechanized infantry and four tank, 22 Spetsnaz, airborne or air assault).  These brigades are about half the size of American combat brigades and about a third of the personnel are conscripts who serve for one year. So the skill levels of troops in these brigades is much lower than for comparable troops in American or British brigades (and elite brigades in French, German and some other Western forces.) There are also 28 combat support brigades (eight armed with multi-barrel rocket launchers like the U.S. MLRS, nine with short range ballistic missiles, ten with anti-aircraft missile systems and one engineer brigade).  

While Russian aggression in Ukraine gets most of the headlines, there’s plenty of Russian misbehavior against other neighbors as well. Finland reports that Russian aircraft increasingly test Finnish air defenses and twice recently Russian warships have threatened a Finnish research vessel operating in international waters in the Baltic. The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) are receiving similar harassment, as well as Russian offers of a large discount on what they pay for Russian natural gas if they will leave NATO. None of the Baltic States sees this as a good deal and consider NATO their only real protection from Russian aggression. Some Baltic States leaders have been openly comparing Putin’s aggression to that of Stalin and Hitler before World War II. Russians get very upset at these comparisons, insisting that they are only seeking to regain territory that is really theirs’ and lost due to foreign conspiracies. At that point Russian logic involves plots by NATO and the United States which strike Westerners as absurd but appeal to a lot of Russians. That’s what makes Russia’s neighbors nervous.

Russia is being forced to depend on China for tech and cash it can no longer get from the West because of the growing sanctions. As much as Russian leaders loathe and fear NATO, many also resent being forced to grant China access to Russian markets, raw materials and military technology in payment for help coping with the sanctions. Russian leaders believe they can handle China and Chinese leaders believe their economic power will give them unprecedented control over Russia. Someone has miscalculated here and it is as yet unclear who. While China gains more raw materials and export markets along with improvements to its locally developed weapons, Russia is forced to halt its efforts to diversify its economy away from dependence on raw materials exports. The diversification depended on Western tech and investment. That has been halted for the moment and the Chinese can’t replace it. Many Russians see this as a bad decision and that helps fuel the growing popular opposition to the government.

The Russian leadership is divided about the ultimate cost of these border wars. The nationalists, led by president Putin, are willing to sacrifice to rebuild the empire. But many in the leadership see the cost as too high. The economy is being weakened, leading to a recession and lots of Russians, rich and poor, are going to feel the loss. Economic experts warn of long-term damage as Western governments and firms decide that Russia cannot be trusted and, even after the current crises, charge extra because of the perceived risks of dealing with Russians. This surcharge, and the distrust underlying it, will hurt the Russian economy for decades to come. Also damaging is the growing Chinese economic power inside Russia. Even many Russian nationalists fear this while other pro-empire Russians believe the Chinese are intrinsically weak and will fold under pressure. That’s not what the Chinese think and some Russians are well aware of that. A growing number of Russians believe they are being ruled by a dictator, who only pretends to respect democracy and will, if cornered, use force to remain in power. President Putin dismisses such accusations, while continuing to operate like they are all too true.

October 12, 2014: In Ukraine the government fired the defense minister. That’s the third time this year and is the result Ukrainian forces being unable to deal with both Donbas rebels and occasional intervention of Russian troops. The third defense minister took over in July and the new one is expected to improve the capabilities of the armed forces. NATO is providing trainers, equipment and weapons to help with that. Russia interprets this as part of a plot to use Ukraine as a new NATO base.

October 11, 2014: Russia ordered 17,000 troops away from the Ukraine border. Those forces were there for “training” but were in fact meant to threaten Ukraine. Russia is believed to be withdrawing these forces in an effort to get the Western sanctions eased. That did not work.

October 9, 2014: Ukraine implemented a long sought anti-corruption law. The question now whether the government will enforce the new law. There is talk of doing that, but many believe this is just in recognition of the October 26 elections and that after that anti-corruption efforts will fade.

October 6, 2014: In Ukraine two UAVs arrived from Austria with two more to follow. These will be used by EU (European Union) ceasefire observers. Assuming the UAVs are not quickly shot down by the rebels and Russians, they cameras on these aircraft will document ceasefire violations.

In the south (Dagestan) police raided a home and killed a wanted Islamic terrorist. Two policemen were also killed in the gun battle. Inside police found a bomb making operation, which was not surprising as the dead terrorist was a noted bomb builder. Weapons and documents were also captured and over 170 kg (374 pounds) of explosives were removed and destroyed along with other bomb making materials.

October 5, 2014: In the south (Chechnya) five policemen were killed as they tried to halt a suicide bomber approaching a concert hall. Another twelve people were wounded by the explosion. The suicide bomber was wearing a police uniform but his ID was suspicious and that prevented him from getting into the concert hall.

October 4, 2014: Russia plans to increase defense spending over 20 percent in 2015, with a lot of the additional money going to rebuilding Soviet era facilities in the newly acquired Crimea. This includes radar stations and naval facilities.

October 2, 2014: Car sales declined 20 percent last month compared to a year ago. This, for most Russians, is another sign that the governments’ aggression in Ukraine, and the resulting Western sanctions, are hurting the economy, and a lot of Russians.

In Ukraine a Swiss aid worker was killed outside Donetsk as rebels shelled a residential neighborhood where the Red Cross had a facility.

October 1, 2014: NATO reported that while most Russian regular troops had been withdrawn from Donbas, there were still several hundred special operations (Spetsnaz) troops there, most of them involved with the rebel effort to take the airport outside Donetsk.

September 30, 2014: Another casualty of the Russian war on Ukraine is the Russian plan to build new An-124 air transports and refurbish some of the existing ones. The An-124 is the world's largest production aircraft and can carry a payload of 120 tons. It first flew in 1986 and only 55 have been built so far. New ones will cost over $100 million each. Russia has been trying to get it back into production for over a decade but needed to work out a deal with Ukraine, where the An-124 is built.  All this is driven by Russian efforts to replace their aging Cold War era weapons and military equipment. In 2012 the Russian Air Force announced ambitious plans to invigorate their aging force of air transports. This was to be accomplished by ordering 170 new aircraft by the end of the decade. These included 20 An-124s, 39 Il-476s, 11 An-140s, 30 L-410s, 50 Il-214s and 20 An-148s. Currently the air force depends on a lot of Cold War era transports (An-124s, An-22s, Il-76s and An-12, An-72, An-24 and An-26s). A lot of the older transports cannot be used because of age, or cannot be used much because of the high cost of maintenance. Some of the older aircraft (An-124s and Il-76s) were to be refurbished, but most of the remainder will be scrapped as they become too old to be used (too expensive to maintain or simply too unreliable). Now the An-124s may be retired as well, another victim of the Ukraine war.

September 21, 2014: In Moscow over 20,000 Russians marched to the city center to protest Russian aggression in Ukraine. The protestors got permission for the Moscow rally, but in St Petersburg another thousand or so protestors marched in an unauthorized anti-war rally. State owned media was ordered to not cover these protests, just as they have been ordered not to cover the presence of Russian troops, dead and alive, in eastern Ukraine. But cell phones and the Internet make it impossible to keep the news, as well as photos and videos, from getting out.

The latest (September 12th) round of sanctions have made it impossible for the Russians to effectively carry out many of their oil and gas exploration and development efforts. Oil and gas are 14 percent of the Russian GDP and over 70 percent of exports. Some Russian oil industry leaders warn that the sanctions could lead to a 20 percent decline in oil production. With the price of oil and gas falling exploration for new sources of oil and gas are even more critical. This work requires the assistance of specialized Western firms and that is no longer allowed. The seriousness of these sanctions was soon reflected in the value of the Russian currency (the ruble) which fell to a record low (38.8 rubles per dollar). Russian, and foreign, investors are alarmed at the impact of the sanctions on the Russian economy and the ruble/dollar exchange rate is a major indicator.






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