Russia: Cold War Weirdness Returns


November 29, 2015: After initially avoiding ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) targets in Syria Russia has switched its air power from attacking Syrian rebels doing the most damage to the Syrian government to ISIL. The switch came in early November when Russia realized that it was indeed, as ISIL claimed, a terrorist bomb that brought down an airliner full of Russian tourists over Egypt. Then came the ISIL Paris attack on the 13 th and suddenly France and Russia were allies in Syria going after ISIL targets. This led to Russia using more cruise missiles launched from Russia (via heavy bombers over Syria or from ships). France is now using the same (but not identical) ROE (Rules of Engagement) against ISIL targets and ignoring the use of human shields. Since the middle of November Russian aircraft have been hitting over a hundred targets a day and concentrating on ISIL finances. That means hitting the oil production and smuggling (oil into Turkey) operation. The American led coalition had also been attacking these oil targets but under the much more restrictive ROE and despite a year of effort had not hurt the oil income substantially. Russia also accused Turkey of quietly helping to finance ISIL by not doing more to halt the smuggling of oil into Turkey and sale of it on the black market. The anti-Turk angle has become more prominent since Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su-24 on November 24th.

Russia and France have agreed to coordinate air operations in Syria. Russia has similar deals with the United States and Israel but the French deal went farther than just avoiding friendly fire. Closer cooperation with France will be difficult because France still opposes Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Russian insistence that ISIL is all an invention of the United States. This is Cold War type propaganda as is the Russian accusations that NATO and the United States is plotting to conquer Russia. Meanwhile Russia sees other opportunities in the ISIL situation. Because of the ISIL threat more Western countries are willing to ignore the Assads, at least for the moment, and concentrate on ISIL. This is what Russia wants because this gives Russia an opportunity to pour more military and economic aid into Syria to make the Assads stronger. Russia points out that the Assads are still the recognized (by the UN) rulers of Syria and Russia is there at the invitation of the Assads. NATO and the United States are not, nor is Turkey which had been flying some bombing missions against targets in Syria. Technically Russian warplanes and air defense systems could be used to attack aircraft that are illegally (according to the Assads) operating in Syria. Yet Russia does not want war with NATO or Turkey because the Turks control access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and that is the shortest water route to Syria for the Russians. Moreover Putin knows that, despite all his boasting about rebuilding the Russian military his forces are still no match for NATO, especially in Syria.  

Russia is also upgrading its air defenses in Syria to include the new S-400 anti-aircraft (and missile) system. The S-400 entered service in 2007 when the first units were deployed around Moscow. Russia claimed the S-400 could detect stealth aircraft, implying that the hypothetical enemy is the United States. Russia also claims the S-400 can knock down short range ballistic missiles (those with a reentry speed of up to 5,000 meters a second, in the same way the similar U.S. Patriot system does.) Russia is offering the S-400 for export, an effort that is limited by a lack of combat experience for the system. Patriot has knocked down aircraft and ballistic missiles, S-400 has not. Moreover, Russia anti-aircraft missile systems have a spotty history (especially when confronted by Western electronic countermeasures.) The S-400s based around Moscow are part of a project to rebuild the Soviet era air defense system, which has fallen apart since the early 1990s.

The Russian intervention appears to have stopped most rebel advances. Russian airstrikes now include ISIL forces which had been attacking Syrian rebels who oppose ISIL (who believes it should command all rebels). The Russians were initially willing to leave ISIL alone as it attacked other rebels. One thing everyone understands is that ISIL is the primary rebel threat to the Assad government and would be the main target of Russian air attacks once the other rebels were out of the way. The problem is that non-ISIL rebels are mainly operating against or near territory that is vital to the government (the land connecting Damascus and the Israel/Jordan borders with the Syrian coast and Turkey.) Controlling the Turkish border means regaining control of Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria.

The Russian air strikes have killed about 1,500 so far, nearly 70 percent of them rebels. The rest were civilians used as human shields or just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Over a year of American and allied air strikes have killed nearly 4,000 and less than ten percent were civilians. The American have more restrictive ROE that seeks to keep civilian deaths to a minimum. That appears to be changing, in part because the Russians and Arabs are much more effective and because it is obvious that the old ROE greatly limited the damaged that could be done to the enemy. Because of the old American ROE ISIL (and some other Islamic terrorist groups) used a lot of human shields, often quite blatantly (like putting them in metal cages and posting pictures on the Internet). The Russians openly ignored human shields and that means the ISIL (and other rebels) suffered much greater losses and became are more cautious when warplanes were about. 

The economic costs of Russia’s more aggressive foreign policy continues to pile up. While unemployment has remained at about five percent underemployment and widespread poverty is growing. The government recently announced that the GDP shrank 3.7 percent so far this year. But average family income has fallen ten percent and inflation (over ten percent a year) is reducing consumer purchasing power further. A lot of this increase has been caused by escalating food prices. The official poverty rate is up to 15 percent and the actual rate could be nearly twice that. Some parts of the country have an official poverty rate of close to 40 percent. Foreign and local economists do not see this decline halting for another two or three years. That assumes that the price of oil will remain low, Western sanctions remain in force and foreign investors will continue to stay away. The economic damage has been so great that Russia has fallen out of the top ten of world economies. The government budget is shrinking as well but some government spending has not been cut much, if at all (like the military, intelligence services and police). There are big cuts in construction and maintenance of infrastructure (housing, transportation, utilities) and cost-of-living increases for millions of elderly pensioners. The fall in the value of the ruble (against foreign currencies) had led a growing number of foreign airlines halting all service to Russia and a growing number of foreign companies are shutting down their Russian operations. Now, because of Turkey shooting down a Russian warplane, Russia has imposed a lot of economic sanctions on Turkey, a major trading partner. While these will hurt Turkey, the Turks do not have international sanctions imposed on them like Russia does and can find outer customers and suppliers. Russia is not so fortunate and will suffer more economic damage because of the sanctions on Turkey.

Russia says it is adapting to the sanctions and doing a lot more trade with China and China is supplying a lot of the lost foreign investment (essential for economic growth). China is not replacing what has been lost of foreign investment, which is down over 80 percent even with the Chinese help.

The IOC (International Olympic Committee) is demanding that Russia make fundamental changes in how it treats its international athletes and rid itself of the Cold War era corruption and use of illegal drugs that survives in Russia. A recent investigations documented many cases of Russian athletes using performance enhancing drugs and the Russia secret police (FSB) threatening Russian lab personnel processing drug tests for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. The illegal activity was so widespread that the IOC is threatening to ban Russian athletes from international (including the 2016 Olympics) competition. Russia denies everything but the sheer mass of evidence in the report is going to be hard to suppress. 

The Russian problems have led to a curious alliance with Iran (also under sanctions) and. Russia and Iran have become allies in part because of the economic opportunities. Both nations are hobbled by economic sanctions. Iran believes that the end of economic sanctions on Iran in 2016 will enable trade with Russia to more than double by 2018. Russia needs the business because the Russian economic sanctions are still in place. These economic links creates a coalition of three nations (Iran, Russia and China) that are all accused of armed aggression against their neighbors and increasingly isolated from the rest of the world because of it.  Each of these three aggressors blames others for their situation. Russia insists that NATO is engaged in a scheme to surround and strangle Russia. China insists that long dormant territorial (except, for now, the ones with Russia) claims be resolved now and in China’s favor. The claims on India and the South China Sea are seen as illegal by the victims and international law. China ignores these issues as irrelevant. Iran has claims on Saudi Arabia, all in the name of religion because the Shia Iranians believe they would be more effective guardians of Islam’s most holy places in Mecca and Medina. Less loudly Iran believes it would make better use of Saudi oil as well. Iran believes the Arabs are resisting these propositions mainly because of pressure from the West and the United States. China finds itself allied with some powerful but dangerous friends.

The Russian deployment of troops (about 4,000 so far) to Syria is not likely to ever include a lot of more military personnel and Russian leaders are aware that they do not have a lot of popular support at home for Russians fighting and dying in Syria. In fact getting troops to go to Syria at all has involved using only true volunteers and paying large cash bonuses. This means pay of up to $4,000 a month for those at risk of combat, like special operations personnel and any troops who will be close to the front lines.

Because of Syria Ukraine is facing a less aggressive Russia in the east (Donbas) but the Russian-backed rebels are still there and still shooting, just not as much as before the Russians turned their attention to Syria in August. The Russian aggression in Ukraine, which began in early 2014 has killed over 6,000 so far and done considerable economic damage to Ukraine. GDP is declined 13 percent since the Russians grabbed Crimea and tried to do the same in Donbas.

November 27, 2015: Turkey suspended its air operations over Syria to prevent a clash with Russian warplanes seeking revenge for the Su-24 shot down on the 24th. Turkey has been using its F-16s to bomb ISIL targets in Syria.

November 25, 2015: The economic war between Russia and Ukraine escalated as Ukraine announced it was no longer buying natural gas from Russia and that Russian commercial aviation was no longer allowed to use Ukrainian air space. Ukraine explained that it has found other suppliers for natural gas. Ukraine is not alone here as earlier in 2015 Norway surpassed Russia as a supplier of natural gas to Western European nations. Russia still supplies about a third of the natural gas used in West Europe but the continued aggression in Ukraine and accusations that Western European nations are planning an invasion of Russia has European customers for Russian natural gas anxious about the reliability of those supplies. Russia also demonstrated in Ukraine that it would use natural gas supply cuts as a political weapon, something they promised their West European customers they would never do.

November 24, 2015: In Syria a Russian Su-24 operating near the Turkish border was shot down by a Turkish F-16. The Turks say the Su-24 entered Turkish air space and ignored warnings to stay out. The Turks later released recordings of Turkish air controllers trying to contact the Su-24 and warn it to stay away from the border. Turkey has been threatening, since early October, to shoot down Russian warplanes that continue to slip in and out of Turkish air space. Russia appeared to take that threat seriously and apologized for several such incidents which appear to have been accidental. Russia says bad weather is often at fault but the main problem is Syrian rebels operating close to the Turkish border and often crossing it unexpectedly. The Russian pilots will often lose track of the border when going after rebels who may have recently slipped across the border. There is another element in all this. Russia and Turkey are ancient enemies and Turkish public opinion backs using violence against Russian incursions, even accidental ones. The Su-24 crashed in Syria and both the pilot and weapons officer were able to eject and land safely. The pilot was then killed by Syrian Turkmen rebels while the weapons officer was eventually rescued by Russian commandos. One of the helicopters involved in the rescue operation was forced down by small arms fire and one Russian marine was killed. Turkey was also angry at Russia for bombing the Turkmen (who are ethnic cousins of the Turks in Turkey.)

Iraq suspended commercial flights from Baghdad, Basra and Najaf to the Kurdish north for security reasons. This was said to include the fear that the Russians would fire more cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea towards ISIL targets in Syria.

November 23, 2015: In the south (Kabardino-Balkaria) Russian troops completed a search and destroy operation that resulted in eleven local ISIL members being killed in a gun battle. The Caucasus has been the one part of Russia where ISIL has been able to recruit and maintain small groups of followers. So far the Russian ISIL members have not been able to do much more than murder local officials and extort money and goods to keep themselves going.

November 22, 2015: In the south (Crimea) someone (apparently Ukrainian nationalists) blew up the main power lines supplying Crimea with electricity. The entire peninsula went dark until emergency generators kicked in at a few locations (hospitals, some government and military facilities and a few homes).

November 20, 2015: An al Qaeda attack on a Mali hotel popular with foreigners left 19 dead, six of them Russians and three of them Chinese businessmen. The Russians were flight crew of a Russian cargo airline. Many Russian and Ukrainian cargo airlines have been operating in Africa since the 1990s, carrying out legal and illegal activities.

November 19, 2015: The government offered a $50 million reward for information leading to the capture of death of those responsible for the October 31st bombing of a Russian airliner that left 224 Russians dead.

China has ordered 24 Su-35 fighters at a cost of about $84 million each. The deal has taken several years to negotiate because of Russian fears that China would steal the new tech in the Su-35 and make their own clone, as China has already done with the Su-27 and Su-30. Apparently the technology transfer and security aspects of the deal are still being negotiated. Russia made its biggest purchase since the end of the Cold War in 2009 when it ordered 48 of the new Su-35 fighters. Delivery will take until the early 2020s. The Su-35 is another extension of the Su-27 design, using a much more powerful engine and stealth features. Development has been expensive and difficult. The Su-35 has been called the F-22ski, but it's more analogous to a proposed advanced F-15 fighter but with stealth features.

November 17, 2015: Russia launched its largest aerial bombing operations since the 1980s (in Afghanistan) when 25 heavy bombers used cruise missiles and bombs to attack ISIL targets in Syria. Six Tu-95s, five Tu-160s and fourteen Tu-22s launched 34 cruise missiles and dropped even more bombs in Syria. Over a hundred combat sorties were flown by fighter-bombers stationed in Syria. This was the first combat use of the Tu-95MS and the Tu-160 and for one of the several types of cruise missiles employed. Some of the Tu-160 heavy bombers flew from a base on the Arctic Ocean out over the North Sea and entered the Mediterranean via the Strait of Gibraltar in order to fire cruise missiles at ISIL targets in Syria. The Tu-160s could have taken the shorter route directly south, over the Caspian Sea then through Iran and Iraq but used the longer route to show off the long range of the Tu-160. Russia began doing flights like this for about a decade, soon after it finally got its Cold War era fleet of Tu-160s back into service again. The last Russian heavy bomber built, the Tu-160 took over a decade to develop and entered service in 1987. Only 35 were built before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and about half of those are now in service. The aircraft is similar to the U.S. B-1, as the Russians never got to try and build something similar to American B-2. The Tu-160 can carry up to a dozen cruise missiles each.

November 15, 2015: In Tajikistan Russian troops unexpectedly pulled out of one of the three bases they use there. It was unclear where the troops were being moved to from their base in the city of Kulyab. It is known that there has been some tension, mainly caused by drunk Russian soldiers getting into trouble in Kulyab. In 2013 the Tajik parliament approved an extension of the military cooperation treaty with Russia to 2042. This included Russia continuing to station 6,000 troops there, mainly on the Afghan border to help keep out drugs and Islamic terrorists. All this required operating three Russian bases in Tajikistan. Russia also continues to train Tajik military personnel (mainly officers) and supply weapons and ammo at low cost or for free. Afghanistan is the main source of heroin worldwide. The Central Asian route (to West Europe and North America) is long, but for most of the way, you can bribe your way past border security. The drug trade is much more unpopular in northern Afghanistan, and are often informed on, or even attacked, by hostile tribesmen. With Russian help the Tajiks have made their border guards more resistant to bribes and more likely to prevent smuggling. This can be seen by the numerous seizures of drugs and gun battles with the heavily armed smugglers. A lot of drugs do get through, but for the Russians every ton that is stopped is helpful. Drug addiction is a big problem in Russia.

November 14, 2015: In Ukraine pro-Russian rebels broke the September ceasefire in Donbas again and in a big way. Machine-gun and mortar fire killed five Ukrainian soldiers. This was the largest ceasefire violation so far. The shooting continued over the weekend, leaving a sixth soldier dead.

November 10, 2015: An Israeli official announced that Israel was now neutral when it came to removing the Assad clan from power in Syria. That is the goal of the Syrian rebels but Russia and Iran back the Assads. Many Israelis note that as the Syrian rebels were taken over by Islamic terrorist groups (especially ISIL) there were calls for a more aggressive hatred of Israel than the Assads practiced. At that point it became clear that, for Israel, Assad was not so bad after all. However Assad has long depended on Iran for support and Iran backs Islamic terrorist group Hezbollah in Iran which has long used violence against Israel. Russia has become a close ally of Iran and all these developments and connections are not good for Israel.





Help Keep Us From Drying Up

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

Each month we count on your contribute. 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