Russia: Rehabilitating Imperial Ambitions


May 12, 2015: To the discomfort of many Russians, and people in neighboring countries, Russia is rewriting the official interpretations of Russian history. The latest revision is praising the 1939 non-aggression pact between communist (Soviet) Russia and Nazi Germany. The official position now is that the 1939 agreement was essential to protect Russia from German aggression. What is left out of this new interpretation is the secret portions of the agreement, which became known after World War II, in which Germany and Russia agreed to divide up East European territories between the two of them. Thus when Germany triggered World War II with its late 1939 invasion of Poland that was followed by a Russian invasion and occupation of eastern Poland. Germany signed the 1939 treaty to give it time to deal with West European foes (especially France and Britain) before invading Russia in mid-1941. The current Russian rewrite of the school and official history books is mainly about making Czarist and Soviet imperialism look justified and worth the risks of repeating. This sort of thing justifies Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and whoever is next. This rehabilitation of empire is dangerous. While most Russians like the idea of a more powerful (and larger) Russia, they also remember that during World War II some 18 percent of all Russians were killed. And before that (from 1905 to 1939) decisions by Czarist and Soviet leaders got many Russians killed. Thus the first half of the 20 th century killed off a quarter of all Russians. Things like that are difficult to rewrite, revise of ignore.

The government revealed that another large arms export deal is being negotiated with Iraq, this one worth $3 billion. This follows the success of a 2012 deal worth $4.3 billion and the prompt delivery of most of an emergency order in 2014 for a billion dollars of weapons to deal with an upsurge in Islamic terrorist activity. For a short while Iraq cancelled the 2012 deal because of accusations in Iraq that the deal included hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes for the politicians and officials who negotiated the purchase. The Russians are known to be compliant when it comes to including bribes in export sales. Western countries have laws against such things, but the Russians consider it just another cost of doing business. This cancellation was quickly reversed for reasons unknown. Iraqis like to buy Russian for many reasons. Iraqi troops have used Russian weapons since the 1960s and are comfortable with them. While many Iraqis prefer the more capable and expensive American stuff, the U.S. has more rules governing arms exports and what the buyer can do with the stuff. These restrictions bother many Iraqis, giving the Russians an edge they often exploit successfully.

Although global defense spending declined slightly in 2014 for the third year in a row it still stands at $1.8 trillion a year. While most countries are either reducing or not changing annual defense spending, those that feel threatened have been putting more money into weapons and troops. Thus it is no surprise that Ukraine boosted spending by 20 percent in 2014 and is increasing it even more in 2015. Russia had been boosting defense spending since the late 1990s but sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine and plunging oil prices have led to a slight reduction in 2014 and more declines in 2015.

The latest ceasefire in Ukraine is holding, sort of. The pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) continue to fire on Ukrainian troops and then insist it was self-defense. Foreign monitors generally side with the Ukrainians and agree that most of the ceasefire violations come from the Russian/rebel side. Russia then says that this is clear evidence that the monitors are biased. At the same time Russian senior leaders (like the prime minister) have recently appeared on the state-controlled mass media admitting that the sanctions and falling oil prices have done enormous harm to the economy and this is not likely to change soon. This may be a ploy to test the resolve of the Russian people to continuing backing the Ukrainian war despite the economic (and very personal) costs to most Russians. Despite control of most mass media there is growing popular opposition to the Ukraine operation. Russia continues to portray the battles in Ukraine as a response to a NATO plot to weaken or destroy Russia by instigating an uprising against a pro-Russian Ukrainian president in late 2013 and now encouraging the new pro-Western government to resist legitimate Russian claims on Ukrainian territory (Crimea and Donbas). Ukrainians, the West and other East European nations find this absurd but the Russian government has convinced most Russians by exploiting the revived state control of the mass media, the traditional Russian paranoia and sense of persecution plus increasingly ruthless (including assassination and false imprisonment) suppression of critics and dissenters. This effort has led to increased censorship of Internet use inside Russia. Recently introduced rules make it illegal to say anything bad about government officials, especially senior ones. This includes jokes and parody. Criticism of the leadership is illegal, just like in the bad old Soviet days. But even young Russians are not ignorant of the Bad Old Days and are getting more active and angry about growing government efforts to rebuild the traditional Russian police state. The Russian leadership also remembers that ignoring, or not sufficiently controlling, this opposition are what eventually doomed the Czarist and Soviet police states.

Ukraine continues calling on NATO nations to send weapons and more military assistance in general. Many Western military experts believe such aid will have no significant impact on the war in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainians disagree and keep coming up with more good reasons to send such aid. The Russians appear convinced and have cranked up their anti-NATO propaganda and threats to NATO nations that might send weapons. Ukraine reports that nearly 7,000 have died so far (since early 2014) in eastern Ukraine. Most of the dead are Ukrainian civilians and over 20 percent are Ukrainian police and soldiers. Nearly ten percent are Russians, either mercenaries or members of the Russian armed forces.

May 9, 2015:  Russia commemorated the 70 anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. The annual Victory Day parade was held in Moscow and it was the largest ever for this event. The trend towards larger and larger Victory Day parades began in 2011 what there was the (up until then) the largest ever parade, featuring 20,000 troops and a growing array of new weapons. World War II (the Great Patriotic War in Russia) is still a very big deal. The conflict killed nearly 30 million Russians, a figure that was a state secret until the Cold War (and the Soviet Union) ended in 1991. Before that, the Soviet government downplayed their wartime losses, which were about twice what the Soviets would admit to. The war was a catastrophe for Russia, destroying much of the economy, in addition to causing widespread hunger and privation. It took decades to repair most of the damage, and the annual victory celebration was a reminder of all that. But things change. By the 1970s, older Russians were beginning to complain that memories were starting to fade. Younger Russians were put off by the forced celebrations and constant propaganda extolling the efforts of the Communist Party in defeating the German invaders. When the Cold War ended, the annual parades continued, but without the forced attendance. The government is trying to maintain Victory Day as something important for most people. Thus the big parades since 2011 (where the event cost a record $43 million). It's become less a celebration of how great the Communist Party was, and more about how the Russian people came together to defeat a common enemy.

May 8, 2015: Russia and China signed a Cyber War mutual non-aggression pact. Both nations agreed not to carry out state-sponsored Internet based attacks on each other. The two nations also agreed to cooperate to identify and eliminate hackers in each other’s territory who were attacking Russia or China for any reason. Unmentioned was the existing and continued cooperation between the two countries to develop Cyber War weapons.

Another, more important to Russia agreement with China, has run into trouble. The $400 billion 2014 deal for China to buy Russian oil and gas has the two nations deadlocked over Chinese demands that Russia lower their prices to reflect current world prices for oil and gas. Russia is holding out for the higher prices stipulated in the contract but the Chinese insist this interpretation makes no economic sense for China.

A former Defense Ministry official (Yevgenia Vasilyeva) was sentenced to five years in prison for corruption. Vasilyeva was arrested in 2012 as part of another major effort to deal with corruption in the military. Crime in the armed forces has been tracked since the late 1990s and it keeps getting worse. While much of the crime involves illegal sale of government property for private gain, the most common source of corruption is among officers responsible for inducting conscripts. Parents are eager to pay bribes to keep their kids out of the military.

April 30, 2015:  NATO officials noted that while NATO nations were forces to scramble jet fighters 150 times in 2014 to confront Russian warplanes (often long-range bombers) coming too close to NATO air space, such interceptions are back to pre-2014 levels (30-40 scrambles a year.) These aggressive Russian flights began again in the late 1990s and accelerated dramatically in 2014.

April 28, 2015: Russia seized an opportunity in Thailand, where many Western nations, especially the United States, refuse to sell weapons to the new military government. That resulted in negotiations with Russia to buy major weapons systems. Russia is interested in buying food from Thailand and a barter deal is possible given the growing number of sanctions placed on Russian because of their invasion of Ukraine.

April 27, 2015: Kazakhstan dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev was reelected for the fifth time, receiving over 97 percent of the vote. Nazarbayev has been in power since Kazakhstan became independent when the Soviet Union dissolved and was a former Soviet era official who maintained the Soviet era political controls. The five new nations of the Central Asia are generally run by Soviet era officials who are happy to see Russia returning to its traditional police state ways. Nazarbayev has played both Russia and the United States for various types of support. All three countries have one thing in common and that is opposition to Islamic terrorism. Thus in 2011 Kazakhstan sent some counter-terrorism troops to Afghanistan. So far, Kazakhstan has kept Islamic radical groups under control (as in chased them out of Kazakhstan), and wants to keep it that way. Nazarbayev, like the other Central Asian dictators, will eventually face rebellion fueled, not by Islamic conservatism, but anger at corruption and a lack of jobs. Russia stands by to help out, in return for loyalty.

Russia reports that there are 20 percent more North Koreans working in Russia now than a year ago. This is mostly in parts of Russia near the North Korean border, where there is a shortage of Russians for jobs in factories, construction and lumbering operations.  Russia reported that 47,364 North Koreans were working in Russia at the start of 2015. These legal migrants are part of what amounts to a slave labor program that has become a major source of foreign exchange for North Korea. This is basically the export of North Korean workers which has gone from 60,000 men and women in 2014 to over 100,000 in 2015. The government takes up to 90 percent of the wages these men and women earn outside the country (mainly in Russia and China) and holds the workers’ families hostage in case the worker does not return home when ordered. If someone does not come back, their families are sent to prison camps. The number of workers outside the country is nearly triple what it was before since Kim Jong Un took over in 2011.

April 26, 2015: Russia broadcast a TV documentary in which senior government officials accused the United States of providing logistical and other support for separatists and Islamic terrorists in the Caucasus. The unsubstantiated accusations include secret contacts between American Special Forces troops in Azerbaijan (training local soldiers) and members of the rebel groups from the Caucasus.

April 23, 2015: The pro-Russian Chechen strongman (Ramzan Kadyrov) ordered his security forces to shoot on sight any unauthorized Russian soldiers or police encountered in Chechnya. This sort of misbehavior is normal in the Caucasus. For several years after he was appointed local ruler in 2007 there was a clan war between groups supporting Chechen president Kadyrov and those opposed (most of whom want an Islamic religious dictatorship.) There are over a hundred clans in Chechnya, and Russia backed Kadyrov because he assured them he could persuade, or force, most of the clans to be calm. He has largely succeeded, but some clans, and several Islamic radical groups, continue to resist. While Islamic radicals are blamed for most of the violence in the Caucasus, local and national police officials admit that, in addition to religious extremism there are also serious problems with corruption and unemployment. The corruption is an ancient problem, stemming from the hostility towards government and preference for clan based organizations. The Russians can replace Kadyrov, but it would be messy and they would rather avoid the mess if possible. All this banditry, separatist rebels, clan warfare and Islamic terrorism continue to make the Caucasus the most dangerous region in Russia. A combination of carrot and stick are being used to pacify the area. Chechnya, the nexus for most of the violence, has received about a billion dollars a year in economic aid since Russia reoccupied the place in 1999. This provided a big boost to living standards and economic activity. The Russian Caucasus is still a violent place, but it's now a more prosperous violent place. The Islamic terrorism in the Caucasus has resisted two decades of vigorous efforts to stamp it out. Half of Russia's 20 million Moslems (14 percent of the Russian population) live in this area. These religious and ethnic differences have long made the region unruly. In fact, it was the criminal behavior that spilled over into non-Moslem Russia that sent Russian troops into the Caucasus initially, over two centuries ago. But that was then, and this is now, and the problems remain the same. It's worse, as Islamic conservatives worldwide have adopted plight of the "oppressed Moslems of the Caucasus" and sent lots of cash, and a small number of volunteers, to keep the fight going. Yet the Moslem problems in the Caucasus are largely self-inflicted. Ethnic (there are dozens of different groups) and clan animosity has generated endless violence in the region for thousands of years. Corrupt forms of rule make it difficult to build a modern economy or efficient government. The violence against rulers is considered an honored tradition in the region. If the Russians left, the violence would continue, against less distant neighbors.  Meanwhile, increasingly energetic Russian efforts to half the violence are being stalled by external support from the larger Moslem world.



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