Russia: With Friends Like This


February 17, 2015: The Russian leadership creates one crisis after another in Ukraine to distract the attention of Russians from the collapsing economy, continuing corruption and the expanding police state that is dragging Russia back to the bad old days of the Soviet Union. While the government can keep the discontent largely invisible via the state controlled mass media, the unease at the top is harder to conceal. It’s the “Cold Warriors” (KGB and Soviet military veterans) who dominate, led by former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. Keeping Putin in power are the technocrats (many of them never KGB or military officers) led by prime minister (and former president) Dmitry Medvedev (a longtime Putin protégé). This dissent at the top (mostly from the Medvedev technocrats) is all about the technocrats doing the math and pointing out that the Ukraine aggression is doing permanent damage to the economy and threatening to use nukes scares Russians as much as everyone else.

The impact of this dispute is felt by all Russians. That’s because GDP will shrink by at least three percent (the official number) in 2015 and probably closer to 10 percent. If oil prices remain low Russia will lose (according to government estimates) about a third of the $500 billion a year in export income (most of it from oil and natural gas). Population is also shrinking again as foreigners flee and migration from Central Asia declines because of the economic problems (far fewer jobs). Nothing good comes out of taking some territory from Ukraine.

Efforts to cope with the economic problems create other problems. To get around the banking sanctions Russia has, in effect established a barter system with China, North Korea and Iran. China has become a major trading partner of Russia. As a result Chinese businesses with Russian dealings have been advised by their government to use the rubles they are paid for goods to buy Russian assets, which are finding far fewer other foreign buyers because of the Russian economic crises. This Chinese aid comes with strings, mainly in terms of Russia agreeing to sell more military tech (design and manufacturing methods) to China.

Many Russians are nervous about this because of Chinese claims on much of eastern Russia and increasing Chinese economic domination in the Russian Far East. At the moment Russian leaders are more concerned with the imaginary threat from the West rather than the very real one from the east.

Russia seeks closer ties with the few foreign allies it has (North Korea, Iran, Pakistan) but some of these are having similar cashflow problems. Iran is getting help from Russia in evading their own banking sanctions. For example Russia has agreed to use Russian and Iranian currency for food imports and exports between the two nations. The problem with allies like North Korea, Iran and Pakistan is that they are also dependent on economic and other favors from China. A growing number of Russians are becoming vocal about the Chinese threat and the fact that current Russian policy is driving away the only effective allies (the West) Russia could have to deal with a Chinese move on the Russian Far East.

Russia gave the Chinese yet another reason to exact some revenge when Russia recently agreed to sell jet engines directly to Pakistan for the Chinese made JF-17 fighters Pakistan was importing and also building under license. China is still dependent on Russia for high-performance military jet engines. If the Chinese followed Russian practice they would insist that Pakistan buy the Russian engines from China, and China would up the price a bit so China made a profit on the deal. The Chinese do not forget slights like this and the Russians know it.

The growing Russian threat is also sensed in the United States, where a recent opinion poll found that 18 percent of Americans saw Russia as the most dangerous foreign threat. That’s up from nine percent in 2014 and two percent in 2012. The second more feared threat is now North Korea, at 15 percent. For a long time North Korea was at the top of the list.

Ceasefire negotiations for the fighting in Ukraine are not working. Russia pretends to agree to a ceasefire then declares it has no control over some rebel factions (that are seeking to gain an advantage using ceasefire terms that are obeyed by the Ukrainians but not the rebels.) The September ceasefire was regularly violated by the rebels until the rebels launched a major offensive in January. Since September the rebels, with the aid of up to 10,000 Russian troops inside Donbas, have gained more than 500 square kilometers of territory. This led to another round of ceasefire negotiations with Russia, as it did in September, pretending to be the peacemaker and denying all evidence that is supervised and often carried out most of the ceasefire violations. It is happening all over again. This sort of bad behavior has characterized over a year of Russian interference in Ukraine and even the appeasement prone Europeans are fed up with it. For the East European nations this is more than annoying as Russia is seen as a very real threat. Inside Russia there is talk of rebuilding the Russian empire and that means bullying and extortion demands from Russia. After centuries of that kind of abuse the East Europeans were hoping things had finally changed. Apparently not, especially since the West Europeans seem just as willing as always to sacrifice East Europe in order to appease the Russians and keep Russia from doing much damage to West Europe.

Foreign supporters and Ukrainians themselves are wondering if Ukraine can save itself. Many Ukrainians point out that the Russian-backed fighting in the east involves less than four percent of Ukrainian territory and population and the cost only consumed five percent of the government budget in the last year. Yet the other 96 percent the country is still oppressed (and crippled) by corruption and bad government. This is becoming more of an issue in Ukraine because international lenders (like the IMF) and donors (like the U.S.) are demanding that Ukrainian officials halt the stealing (especially of the foreign money) and eliminate wasteful spending and other forms of bad government. To no one’s surprise (especially inside Ukraine) that has proved very difficult. The corruption has been present for centuries. Even during the Soviet Union years, when corruption was officially declared “eliminated” it wasn’t and now it’s back big time and increasingly obvious. The corruption at the top spreads and now there is more draft dodging as many young Ukrainians (and middle-aged reservists being recalled) seek to avoid the risk of getting killed fighting Russians in Donbas. Older Ukrainians despair at this form of corruption, because over the last century many thousands of Ukrainians have died trying to get the Russians out and keep them out. The current war with Russia has left over 7,000 Ukrainians dead in less than a year of fighting. Some 80 percent of the dead were civilians, some of them armed volunteers. The Russian sponsored rebels have had fewer losses but total losses are believed to be over 11,0oo dead so far and many more wounded. The fighting this year has left over a thousand dead so far.

As of 2015 Russia has made it easier for foreigners to join the Russian military. Now all you have to do is be able to speak passable Russian and have no criminal record and meet physical and educational standards. These recruits join for five years as “contract soldiers” in the military or para-military (Interior Ministry) forces. The navy and air force are particularly short of technically qualified personnel and don't care if the new guys speak with an accent. Successful completion of the five year contract makes it easier for the foreign soldier to become a Russian citizen. Russia had earlier begun accepting foreigners but only those that could prove some connection to the old Soviet Union. By late 2014 only a few hundred foreigners were serving. The new rules aren’t expected to bring in many more recruits, but every new one counts as Russia is desperate to attract enough volunteers to be able to eliminate the use of conscription.

Westerners in Russia, especially those who speak and read Russian, report that state controlled Russian media has seemingly reverted to stories and attitudes right out of the Cold War. It is, in short, unreal but actually happening. Russian media is full of stories of NATO aggression against Russia and anything that is going wrong in Russia is blamed on a NATO conspiracy to destroy Russia. The Russian aggression in Ukraine is described as largely a fable created by a NATO conspiracy to take over the Ukrainian government and institute a terror campaign against the ethnic Russian minority in Ukraine, especially eastern Ukraine. There, the Russian media described ethnic Russians leading a rebellion against this NATO puppet government running Ukraine and NATO soldiers pretending to be Ukrainians doing most of the fighting. No captured NATO agents are presented which Russian media describes as proof of how clever and dangerous this NATO aggression is.

In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) most of the Russian backed rebels are actually disorganized, discouraged and not all that effective. Interrogations of captured rebels indicate that there are many different factions, some of them not even from Ukraine. The most colorful of these foreigners are the “Cossack” units from southern Russia. The Cossacks are very nationalist, aggressive, persistent, independent minded and really keen on rebuilding the Russian empire (which is what Cossacks were invented for centuries ago). Actually the Cossacks attract a wide array or rebellious Russians and many of those in the Donbas are not keen on taking orders from anyone. So one reason for sending more Russian troops in is to try and get the Cossacks to do what Russia, not Cossack leaders, want. That’s not the only problems the Russians are having with these guys. Cossacks are a number of things, including righteous. Although poorly treated by the communists, the Cossacks are believers in collectivism and tend to be very hostile to corrupt leaders they come across. This has caused problems in Russia and again in Donbas because some of the local separatist rebel leaders are, for want of a better term, quite corrupt. Cossacks accuse these leaders of stealing Russian aid and taking care of themselves and their armed followers rather that sticking with the goal of an independent Donbas or incorporation into Russia. What is feared is the troublesome and righteous Cossacks triggering a civil war among the rebels. To deal with this Russia has to send a lot more Russian troops in to get a proper offensive going.

In the Caucasus the terrorist violence continues, but there is less of it. In 2014 terrorist related deaths were down 36 percent, to 340. Only about 52 percent of those deaths were in Chechnya, but that was up 33 percent from 2013. Russia believes a major reason for the reduced violence was the movement of so many Russian Islamic terrorists (mainly from the Caucasus) to Syria to fight for ISIL.

February 16, 2015: The EU (European Union) made a move sure to anger Russia by admitting in print that Russian troops are in eastern Ukraine. The EU also added Russian military commanders known to be controlling Russian troops fighting in Ukraine (or firing artillery and rockets into Ukraine) to the list of those sanctioned. The EU had previously gone along with the Russian lie that there were no Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. But as Russian involvement became more obvious and Russian bad behavior (making and then violating ceasefire and other agreements) the EU decided to send Russia a message.

A Swedish newspaper exposed another incident of the Swedish government giving in to Russian pressure. This involved agreeing not to land any of its warplanes in Estonia or Finland during joint military exercises held in March and April. The Swedish government saw this as throwing the Russians a bone while remaining involved with the U.S. sponsored joint exercises (which include NATO nations). Russia is also pressuring Sweden to stay out of NATO but news stories like this make it more likely that Swedish voters would approve joining. Russia is now considered more threatening than they were during the Cold War.

February 15, 2015: In eastern Ukraine a new ceasefire came into effect and was promptly (within hours) violated by the Russian backed rebels.

February 12, 2015: Russia, Ukraine and NATO negotiators agreed on a new ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, to begin on the 15th.

Separately NATO agreed to increase the size of its “Response Force” from 13,000 to 30,000 troops. The Response Force is composed of combat and support units from NATO members that train together and maintain themselves so that they can be sent into combat with less than 48 hours’ notice. The increase is to deal with the growing threat from Russia and Islamic terrorism. The police can handle the Islamic terrorists, but Russian misbehavior sometimes requires a stronger response.

January 28, 2015: In Damascus, Syria someone fired three rockets at the Russian embassy, wounding three people. Some locals accused the Syrian government of carrying out that attack because there were no rebels reported close enough to have done so.

January 26, 2015: In the West Russian government debt was downgraded to “junk” status (officially a warning investors to stay away from it). This makes it much more expensive for the Russian government to borrow outside Russia.





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