A growing number of Western diplomats and military leaders believe Russian aggression in Ukraine has created a situation that makes Russia the single greatest threat to the West. This is because for a year now Russian leaders have been threatening to use their nuclear weapons if NATO interferes with “legitimate” Russian moves in Ukraine. These threats have been vague but many (Ukrainians, Russians. Westerners) believe Russia is intent on grabbing all of Ukraine, even at the risk of starting a major war or even at the risk triggering use of nuclear weapons. These threats first appeared when the Russian government (in the form of leader Vladimir Putin) warned the West to not get involved in Ukraine otherwise Russia would consider using its nuclear weapons to protect Russian interests. This was a frightening development because Russia had, since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 cooperated in dismantling most of its nuclear weapons. The West provided billions in aid and technical assistance to help with this effort. Ukraine agreed to give up the Soviet nukes it inherited in return for cash and a promise from Russia that Russia would never take advantage of the surrendered Ukrainian nukes to try and regain control of Ukraine. Russia ignores all the evidence, from inside Russia and Ukraine, that its officials are lying about Russian efforts to grab more Ukrainian territory (Crimea and Donbas). Many now fear that all this might lead to a nuclear war. At the very least it has become clear that Russian feels it has a right to grab territory from its neighbors and is willing to see itself destroyed in a nuclear exchange if the rest of the world does not give in. So far the Russians have not been blatant about their invasion, continuing to try and make it all look like a local rebellion and believing that eventually Ukraine and the West will get tired of resisting and let the Russians take what they want.
The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) recently voted (97 in favor, seven opposed and 32 abstained) to condemn Russia for clearly violating the February ceasefire agreement. The 400 OSCE monitors in eastern Ukraine and Donbas, whose job is to oversee the ceasefire, have been complaining for months that they are being restricted by rebels and, less frequently Ukrainian forces from carrying out inspections. Anyone in or near Donbas (as a lot of foreign journalists are) can hear or see the daily machine-gun, mortar, rocket and artillery fire by Russian and rebel units. Russia denies everything and insists that any evidence is fabricated.
Nearly 7,000 people have died in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) since early 2014 and more than 17,000 wounded. More than a million people have been driven from their homes. Worse, the UN openly agrees with the growing evidence that Russia is responsible for all this, rather than a spontaneous uprising by disaffected Ukrainians. Russia, as a founding member, has a lot of clout in the UN but not enough to reverse the UN accusations regarding Ukraine. The UN blames Russia and the Russian backed rebels for continued violations of ceasefire agreements and firing on civilians. NATO analysts note a buildup of Russian forces on the eastern borders of Ukraine and other indications that the February ceasefire will eventually be broken (as the one before it was) by another major attack in Donbas, led by Russian troops who, officially, are not there. Violations of the ceasefire are increasing, another indicator of a new offensive.
Ukraine and the West complain about the growing number of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) and the growing number of attacks by the Donbas “rebels” (often Russian soldiers wearing uniforms with national insignia removed) that are ignored by the Russian government. The official Russian line is that there are no Russian troops in Donbas (maybe some Russian volunteers) and all those aerial and satellite photos of Russian weapons (especially stuff Ukraine never had) in Donbas are Ukrainian and Western fabrications. Opinion surveys show that Russians, exposed to more and more pro-war propaganda are still supporting their government but that majority is shrinking. The government needs an economic victory or they will be undone by privation, not military conquest (which is put forward as the NATO goal in East Europe, to succeed where Napoleon and Hitler did not). Meanwhile more Russian troops and heavy weapons arrive on the Ukrainian border and, in small number, drive into Donbas.
Inside Russia the government line that the sanctions (and the lower oil price) have done little harm are belied by opinion surveys that show over 70 percent of Russians have less to spend. The unemployment rate is up to 14 percent and despite government efforts to distort or hide official statistics economists inside and outside Russia agree that the Russian GDP is shrinking and foreign trade is sinking even faster. Inflation is over 16 percent and rising as the government tries to paper over the situation by printing more cash. In only one area are things looking up; the popularity of president Vladimir Putin. In June his approval rating was 89 percent. But this approval is maintained by government controlled media and lots of publicity stunts and grandstanding. Reality has a tendency of eventually catching up with fantasy. You can delay the bad news, but you can’t stop it.
The government propaganda effort has included increased efforts to stifle critics both foreign and domestic. Thus the government continues to ban foreign NGOs that promote democracy or freedom of expression. Local groups with similar attitudes are also under attack. This includes election monitoring organizations, stoking fears that even the elections will become manipulated by the government and Putin will be able to remain president-for-life.
Despite the economic problems and corruption at home the government is seeking to exploit similar problems in Ukraine in an effort to get most Ukrainians willing to accept reunion with Russia. This assumes that Ukrainians are not as hostile to Russia as they really are. Russians have underestimated this for centuries and were somewhat mystified when Ukraine sought to become independent during the civil war (1917-22) and at the end of World War II. Before that there had been occasional separatist unrest and a few rebellions but the Russians never wanted to believe how much most Ukrainians hated Russian rule. The Russian efforts to sabotage the Ukrainian economy are seen by Ukrainians as more proof that Russians are evil and toxic for Ukraine. For the Russians all this is simply a righteous attempt to rebuild the Russian empire and better defend the high opinion the Russians have of themselves.
One tactic Russia uses to destabilize and demoralize Ukraine is to quietly support (with cash, advice and sometimes weapons) the many minorities that live on the borders of Ukraine. These non-Ukrainian minorities are the result of Czarist and Soviet Russia frequently shifting the borders of Ukraine, usually to suit the political needs of Russia. Thus in western Ukraine Transcarpathia has over a million people who feel more Hungarian, Romanian, German, Slovak or several obscure ethnicities than they do Ukrainian or Russian. There is no unified resistance here, just a collection of dissatisfied people who speak a different language and are getting more organized and violent, in some cases with Russian help and encouragement.
The corruption in Ukraine is real, another legacy of centuries of Russian rule. Before 1991 it became patriotic for Ukrainian separatists to screw the Russian officials at every opportunity. During the communist period, when all major businesses were state owned, that made if popular to foster corruption in economic as well as government and political matters. Independence from Russia in 1991 did not eliminate much of the corruption although most Ukrainians agreed that reducing corruption was the right, proper and most effective thing to do. The 2014 Russian invasion and growing anti-Russian attitudes that prompted it made it more popular to demand a major reduction in corruption. But old habits, especially those that impact your standard of living, are hard to shake and too many Ukrainians benefitting from the corruption will talk the talk but quietly refuse to walk the walk. As a result the military effort in eastern Ukraine is crippled that that corruption gets a lot of publicity.
Meanwhile Russia is returning to the past. Russia entered the 21st century with a new elected government dominated by former secret police (KGB) officers who promised to restore economic and civil order. Some of those promises were kept but in the process this has been turning Russia into a police state with less political and economic freedom. A growing number of Russians oppose this and the government responds by appealing to nationalism. Russia has returned to police state ways and the traditional threatening attitude towards neighbors. Rather than being run by corrupt communist bureaucrats, the country is now dominated by corrupt businessmen, gangsters and self-serving government officials. The corruption has made it more difficult to do business with foreign countries and anti-corruption efforts have only been partially successful. For example several Western banks are being investigated for taking (or discussing taking) Russian bribes to help Russia get around economic sanctions. Inside Russia the corruption appears to be getting worse.
The Russian semi-free economy is more productive than the centrally controlled communist one but that just provides more money to steal. A rebellion against the new dictatorship is brewing, showing enough democratic impulses remain to shape government and push reform. The government is pushing back, which often backfires because most Russians want economic and personal security and are willing to tolerate a police state only if there is some benefit. With the low oil price, the local and international opposition to the Ukraine invasion and the international sanctions the government is not able to deliver tangible benefits. This toxic atmosphere has scared away a lot of foreign investors and many Russian ones as well. Russia can downplay this in the state controlled media but without all that foreign and Russian capital the economy cannot grow. This is difficult to hide.
For example the government recently had to admit that its undeclared war with Ukraine had stalled plans to rebuild the Russian navy. Ukraine was always a major supplier of ship components for the Russian navy. While many of those components can now be manufactured (with some delays and greater expense) in Russia, one crucial component (gas turbine engines) will take much longer (up to a decade) to replace via Russian suppliers. These engines power most of current or planned Russian surface warships. Russia never sought to create a second supplier in Russia and thus the current lack of new gas turbine engine threatens the reliability of their surface fleet as well as halting new construction.
Russia is increasingly desperate to get out from under their long-time support for the Assad government in Syria. This is an expense Russia can’t afford right now. So Russia has been proposing possible peace deals. Earlier in the year efforts to negotiate a Russian-Iranian supervised peaceful political settlement of the Syrian civil war failed. Russia has quietly abandoned that and is now trying to build a new coalition (Russia, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Assad controlled Syria) whose sole goal is to destroy ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and leave the issue of Assad rule for later. This is the goal few in the West want to admit is even under negotiation. Russia sees this approach as one that does not abandon the Assads but does mean less cash for the Assads which means more money spent on the needs of Russian civilians. Already Russia has pulled many technical advisors out of Syria and cash and material contributions have been quietly cut. Everyone can agree on the need to stop ISIL and doing that as soon as possible. The longer ISIL exists in Syria the greater the chance that ISIL plans for terror attacks elsewhere (the West, Russia, Iran and the Middle East in general) are likely to become reality. With ISIL crushed the Assads have a better chance of surviving because the most powerful rebel force the Assads face is ISIL. That appears to be the Russian thinking but there is a lot of distrust in anything the Russians propose. Even the Turks and Arabs are wary.
The war in Ukraine is increasing unpopular in Russia and Ukraine. This can be seen by the growing instances of desertion or insubordination on both sides. This is particularly acute in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) where most of the fighting takes place. The risk of being sent to Ukraine is making it more difficult for Russia to attract volunteers (contract soldiers) to the military and encourages more families to avoid conscription. While resisting Russian aggression in Donbas is popular in Ukraine the corruption and government incompetence that often results has demoralized civilians and military personnel alike. Some Ukrainian units in Donbas, which have suffered real harm (hunger, additional casualties, lack of promised replacements) have taken to varying degrees of mutiny. Ukrainian civilians sympathize more with the aggrieved troops than with the government and this has become a major political crises. The Russians are trying to cope by offering more cash to troops who will serve in Donbas (where, technically, there are no Russian troops). Russia is believed to have over 5,000 soldiers in Donbas and frequent rotations (back to Russia) and higher pay are keeping things under control. This approach works less well for the local rebels and the Russian groups (like Cossacks) who volunteered to go fight in Donbas. Ukraine also has problems with its local and international volunteers who get screwed as much as the Ukrainian soldiers do. The Russian presence in Donbas is getting harder to hide because of cheap UAVs Ukrainian troops and volunteers are using to get photos of the Russians in their midst.
July 12, 2015: In the east (the Siberian city of Omsk) a 40 year old army barracks collapsed, killing 23 soldiers and injuring over 40. During the communist period (1922-91) shoddy construction practices became more of a problem as time went on and because of that this barracks was refurbished in 2013. It is feared that the growing corruption in Russia caused that refurb to be done so poorly that it contributed to the collapse. Despite strenuous efforts to control bad news (and the corruption angle) like this details get into circulation via the Internet and some of the more daring mass media. Most Russian mass media is government controlled, but the Internet dilutes the news monopoly that control of mass media used to confer. For this reason the government is spending a lot of money and effort on imposing more state control over what Internet content Russians can easily reach. The barracks collapse is particularly troublesome because it weakens Russian efforts to recruit more volunteer soldiers (to handle tasks that require long training and lots of skill). Most Russians fear military service, despite dramatic reforms in the last decade. Russian troops now live much better, but most young Russian men don’t believe it and continue to avoid conscription or voluntary service. The barracks collapse wipes out all the goodwill years of building new barracks and refurbishing old ones. Many government officials believe that conscription is here to stay for the foreseeable future, but only for support troops, especially jobs that require little training. Conscription is very unpopular and service has been reduced to 12 months. Efforts to curb draft dodging have had little effect, so the government is considering giving those who have done their military service (as a conscript or volunteer) a major edge in getting government jobs. This backfired as most Russians believed it was just a ploy by bureaucrats to create a new source of bribes.
July 6, 2015: In the Russian Far East (Khabarovsk) an elderly Su-24 light bomber crashed on takeoff. The entire fleet of over 200 Su-24s was grounded until the cause could be determined. This is the fifth major military aircraft accident in the last month. Russia is way behind in updating and upgrading its Cold War era air force and such groundings are more frequent. Readiness (to fly) rates for military aircraft continue to decline. This does not get much publicity but the crashes and groundings are hard to hide.
June 26, 2015: Several hundred American soldiers have arrived to help train Ukrainian reservists and volunteers. One of the major complaints of new Ukrainian troops was the poor (or non-existent) training they received before being sent to Donbas.
June 21, 2015: In the south (Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria) several groups of Islamic terrorists pledged allegiance to ISIL and ISIL responded by declaring the Russian areas of the Caucasus a province of the ISIL “Islamic state.” This was done in a video released via the Internet. Russia believes that several thousand Moslem Russian from the Caucasus have already gone to Syria to fight for ISIL and that over a thousand appear to be fighting there now. Hundreds have survived their combat experience there and returned to the Caucasus to seek more recruits. Islamic terror groups have been pledging allegiance to ISIL since late 2014 but ISIL has not accepted them as part of the Islamic state until now. Apparently the latest pledges convinced ISIL leadership that the radical Moslems in the Caucasus could survive any crackdown. That is partly true, but over 15 years of counter-terrorism efforts has reduced Islamic terrorist violence quite a lot in the Caucasus and one reason for so many Caucasus Moslems going to Syria was because it was safer there for active Islamic terrorists than in the Caucasus.