In Syria Russian armed forces, particularly air forces, have simultaneously hurt the Islamic terror groups there while also enabling the Assad government to survive. So far Russian bombers and attack helicopters have killed over 3,000 people. Only about a third of the dead have been ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) with the rest being other rebels and civilians. These Russian air attacks are now frequently hitting over a hundred targets a day. Western critics accuse Russia of ignoring civilian losses. That is true but because of that the Russian air attacks have been more effective and have been of great assistance to the Western war against ISIL. Russia calls Western criticism hypocrisy especially since Western and Arab leaders backing the fight against ISIL are not pressuring Russia to change its ROE (Rules of Engagement) over this because everyone admits that this would just encourage ISIL to use civilians as human shields even more.
Inside Syria heavy fighting continues in Deir Ezzor province, especially the provincial capital (Deir Ezzor city). ISIL had, at the end of 2015, controlled most of the province, including Palmyra, which is astride the main road from Deir Ezzor province to Damascus (the national capital and Assad stronghold). Supporting government forces in Deir Ezzor became more difficult with the loss of Palmyra in mid-2015. So far this year Russian air support has made it possible for Syrian forces to recapture about 30 towns. The rebel, especially ISIL, fighters tend to be inexperienced and not capable of camouflaging their positions to make them difficult to see from the air. Moreover when rebel fighters nearby are killed by a bomb or missile those close tend to panic and flee. Equally important Russia has sent spare parts and technical experts to help the Syrians to get a lot of their self-propelled and towed artillery operational again. Large quantities of artillery ammo has also been sent and the Syrian Army can again use their artillery intensively and that is something else the rebels are not used to and often flee from. All this has made it much harder for the rebels to defeat the Assad government.
Since early October, largely because of Russian air support, government forces have advanced in the northwest around Homs, Palmyra and Aleppo as well as in the south near the Israeli border. As always, the government forces are willing to negotiate terms with rebels to gain control of a city or town in order to minimize damage to the place and avoid casualties. Government forces have also cleared most rebel forces who had been advancing into Latakia province, which is where the Syrian ports are. Most of the Russian aid comes in through these ports.
The Syrian intervention has caused some problems with ally Iran. Russia and Iran have had disagreements over how to conduct the campaign in Syria. Iran was not happy with the Russia attitude, which implied that Russia should be in charge even through Iran had been fighting in Syria since 2013. By the end of December Iran had moved a lot of its personnel to Iraq, where Iran was assisting the Iraqi government in driving ISIL out of western Iraq (Anbar province and Mosul). Russia and Iran still need each other but over the two centuries they have been neighbors relations have usually been cordial but tense. Sort of like two predators who don’t quite trust each other even when they have a common cause. Or, as the saying goes, Russia and Iran are the best of frenemies (friends who are also rivals or enemies). Other frenemies are China and Afghanistan. Internationally Russia does not have too many friends these days, so you make the best of what you can get.
The tensions between Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran have crippled UN efforts to get Syria peace talks going. The growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran has made cooperation over brokering a Syria peace deal less likely. Russian efforts to mediate are also compromised because of tensions with Iran and the Saudis.
In Ukraine Russia has been quiet so far this year. The pro-Russian rebels continue to fire on Ukrainian troops but this is largely harassment fire, and an effort to boost sagging rebel morale. In late December Russia appointed a more powerful (in the Russian government) official to handle Russian operations in eastern Ukraine (Donbas). That effort has been stalled for over a year, in part because the pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels in Donbas had become too independent minded and often refused to follow orders from their Russian patrons. Russia has been quietly removing or murdering troublesome rebel leaders. Officially there is no Russian involvement in Donbas. In reality no one really believes that fiction anymore. But since September 2015 Russia has shifted its military efforts to Syria and apparently wants to end the Donbas situation quickly and, as much as possible, in Russia’s favor. This will be difficult. When the Russian instigated fighting began in early 2014 Russia tried to take possession of all Donbas, an area consisting of two Ukrainian provinces (Donetsk and Luhansk). Donbas comprises about nine percent of Ukrainian territory, 13 percent of the population and 15 percent of the GDP. Donbas was about 38 percent ethnic Russian. The two provinces comprise the Donets Basin (or “Donbas”) which was for a long time an economic powerhouse for Russia. But that began to decline in the 1980s and accelerated when the Soviet Union fell (and Ukraine became independent) in 1991. Since 2014 over two million people have fled rebel controlled parts of the Donbas (most to Ukraine) and only about two million remain in rebel controlled areas. The Russian sponsored violence in Donbas has reduced economic activity to less than a third of what it was in 2013. Rebel occupied Donbas is sustained by supplies trucked in from Russia. Where rebels control the border, the border has ceased to exist. The rebels control only about half of Donbas and that area has already become part of Russia. It is the Russian currency that is used and any foreign trade is with Russia. Some rebuilding is being financed by Russia. If the new Russian “ruler” of rebel Donbas can get the Ukrainians to agree on some kind of compromise Ukraine will manage to keep about half of Donbas while the rest will be part of Russia (legally or otherwise). That will be the price of peace, a peace that may not last long because many Russians believe all of Ukraine should be part of Russia. Meanwhile Ukrainians are feeling the economic and military pain more than the average Russian. In late 2015 opinion polls revealed that 79 percent of Ukrainians consider themselves poor compared to 62 percent a year earlier. Polls also indicated that Ukrainians are glummer than they have ever been since achieving independence in 1991. It’s not just the Russian aggression but the persistence of corruption, even in the face of the Russian threat.
One particularly nasty example of the corruption is the fate of over 200 Russian reformers and dissidents who fled to Ukraine since 2014 to escape prison, or worse, in Russia. Only a few have been granted asylum and some are faced with extradition back to Russia. This is believed to be the result of many pro-Russia Ukrainians still working for the immigration service (and the Ukrainian government in general) and many anti-Russian Ukrainian officials willing to do what Russia wants if the bribe is large enough. This is a situation that makes some Russian leaders believe that they could eventually gain ownership of Donbas, and perhaps all of Ukraine, via bribes. The corruption in Ukraine, while unpopular, is still widespread and too often tolerated. This has limited Western investment, because such investments are often crippled or wiped out by the corruption.
To no one’s surprise in Russia an effort to get the military to investigate the deaths of 159 Russian soldiers in Donbas failed. Military and judicial officials declared that no laws had been broken. This happened despite ample evidence that Russian had plenty of troops in Donbas and hundreds had been killed or wounded so far. Russia has again become a police state and if the leaders want inconvenient facts ignored, that is done. Meanwhile since late 2015 Russia has been pulling many of its best troops out of Donbas and sending them to Syria. Russian troop strength in Donbas peaked at about 7,000 in early 2015 and is now much lower. Another trend during 2015 was more Russian troops refusing to serve in Donbas. This was a tricky situation because officially Russia denies having any troops in Donbas. In fact (and Ukraine has plenty of evidence) there are thousands of Russian troops in Donbas and without them the rebellion there would collapse. Throughout 2015 a growing number of Russian soldiers were opening defying their government and refusing orders to “volunteer” for service in Donbas. Over a hundred were prosecuted. The reason for all this is unexpected Ukrainian resistance and massive international outrage (and sanctions). Ukraine has tripled its defense spending since early 2014, greatly reduced the corruption in defense procurement and managed to build or refurbish thousands of armored vehicles, artillery and other heavy weapons. One reason for the initial Russian success in Donbas was the sorry state of the Ukrainian military. Much of the money for maintaining equipment and buying new stuff had regularly been stolen since independence in 1991. Ukraine still has major problems with corruption and foreign donors insist that aid will be limited until more progress is made eliminating corrupt practices.
Since the Donbas fighting began nearly two years ago over 8,000 have died. The local rebels (largely ethnic Russians) believed Russian military might would quickly make Donbas part of Russia and that would be the end of it. It did not work out that way and now the rebels are spending a second Winter in a bombed out and shot up Donbas. The rebels in Donbas have lost a lot. The economy is a shambles and many have seen their families flee to exile in Russia or Ukraine.
The economic costs of Russia’s more aggressive foreign policy continues to pile up. The government tried to put a positive spin on it. For example GDP shrank 3.7 percent in 2015, but it was forecast to fall 3.8 percent. What was less publicized was that the trends in late 2015 showing accelerating economic decline. Industrial production, fixed investment and inventories are all rapidly falling. At the end of 2015 retail sales were declining 15 percent a month. All this points towards even greater GDP decline in 2016. Unemployment has remained at about five percent but widespread (and very visible) poverty is growing because of underemployment, inflation and pay cuts. That explains why average family income has fallen over ten percent so far 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 was up to 15 percent by the end of 2015 while the actual rate is believed to 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 to halt 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 last November, 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.
In order to retain India as a development partner and export customer for the new “5th generation” T-50 (or PAK-FA) stealth fighter Russia has agreed to cut the development cost by a third (to $8 billion) with India providing half that and Russia being responsible for any additional costs. In addition three of the eleven prototypes will be built to Indian specifications and the first of these will be flown to India by 2019. In return India will buy up to 250 T-50s. Russia already has six T-50 prototypes flying, although one was damaged in a fire. Indian Air Force officials have been criticizing the progress of the T-50 program for several years. This aircraft is the Russian answer to the U.S. F-22 and according to the Indians, who have contributed over $400 million (so far) to development of the T-50, they are entitled by the 2007 agreement with Russian to have access to technical details. The Russians tried to withhold detailed development updates from their Indian partners. The Indians know from experience that when the Russians clam up about a military project it is usually because the news is bad and the Russians would rather not share. There are growing doubts about the Russian ability to develop the needed tech and pay for it, even with the Indian assistance.
One of the side effects of the 2015 Russian attempts (some successful) to annex parts of neighboring Ukraine was to increase the degree of anti-Russian sentiment throughout East Europe. Ukrainians have hated Russians for centuries. After 70 years of communist rule ended in 1991 there was a lingering hatred of communism which imposed by Russians and killed millions of Ukrainians in the process. Many symbols of communism were destroyed after 1991 but there were so many, and so much other work to be done (like rebuilding the economy and trying to create a democracy and honest government) that many of the larger (and difficult to remove) communist monuments were left alone. That changed once Russia began grabbing Ukrainian territory in 2015 and one of the main targets of a new “decommunization” program was the destruction of the remaining 2,200 statues of Lenin (the founder of the Soviet Union) in Ukraine. In other east European countries, with more robust economies, this has already been done. But so great was the anger against Russia in 2015 that many Ukrainians volunteered to get rid of these statues and in less than a year nearly 40 percent of them have been pulled down and destroyed or hauled away and left somewhere until there is an opportunity to recycle. A few Lenin statues were considered to have artistic or historical value and were preserved, for now. Other communist era artifacts (posters, wall paintings and the like) are also being destroyed or painted over. For other reasons many current Russian leaders are also critical of Lenin (for “weakening Russia” in the long run) but have not ordered statues destroyed. Lenin still has a lot of fans in Russia.
January 26, 2016: The government announced that ten ICBM missile regiments (about a hundred missiles in silos or mobile launchers) were engaged in a realistic training exercises where the missile crews and security forces practiced what they would have to do in wartime. This meant security forces making sure the routes the road-mobile launchers would use were clear. Other security forces increased activity around silos to ensure no sabotage efforts were being made.
January 25, 2016: In the south (Dagestan) troops cornered three Islamic terrorists in a village and after a brief gun battle killed one and captured the other two. Islamic terrorism was lower throughout the Caucasus (especially Dagestan and Chechnya, the usual hot spots) during 2015 in part because of effective counter-terror programs but also because many of the most capable Islamic terrorists have gone off to fight for ISIL in Syria and Iraq. There many of these Russian Islamic terrorists are killed and more are quietly returning. These survivors are subdued but most are expected to eventually become active again in Russia.
Poland, desperately seeking ways to protect itself from possible Russian invasion, is organizing a defensive reserve force in each province. This is similar to local militias that have been used many time in Polish history. But this new force will be similar to the American "National Guard" which is the 18th century local militias trained and equipped to the same standard as the regular army but under command of state governments most of the time. In national emergencies the "National Guard" is often transferred to the active duty military. The Polish National Guard is to consist of about 46,000 troops with the first three brigades (for provinces that border Russia) to be created in 2016.
The United States, for the first time, openly accused Russian leader Vladimir Putin of being corrupt and tolerating massive corruption in Russia. Most Russians openly admit that bribery is the best way to deal with government bureaucrats. Only ten percent of the population believed that only criminals and cheats resorted to these bribes. International surveys of corruption place Russia at 119 out of 168 countries in 2015 and 136 out of 180 nations in 2014, which was actually up from 146 in 2010. The least corrupt nation (at number 1) is Denmark and the most are Somalia, Afghanistan and North Korea at the bottom. Russian officials simultaneously criticize such surveys as part of a Western effort to destroy Russian independence while simultaneously citing the change as evidence the government efforts against corruption have been successful. These efforts have been successful, but were mainly aimed at corruption controlled by non-government groups (gangsters). The government will tolerate corruption as long as it is government controlled and the government gets a cut. Ukraine did somewhat worse in the 2015 survey coming it at 130 out of 160 nations.
January 16, 2016: In Syria Russian cargo aircraft have been seen dropping supplies (by parachute) to civilians and Assad forces cut off in parts of Deir Ezzor city. Resupply by road has become difficult because of the recent ISIL offensive to take the city. Russia later revealed that 22 tons of supplies had been drooped in so far and more is on the way.
January 15, 2016: Despite Western sanctions Russia has found a legal way to export some weapons. In January 2015 Russia sold Egypt 46 Ka-52K attack helicopters to equip the two Mistral-class helicopter carriers recently purchased from France. The Russians had developed the Ka-52K for use on the Mistrals but after sanctions were imposed on Russia (for aggression in Ukraine) France cancelled delivery of the ships. Russia was left with some helicopters that had lost their customer. To solve this they got France to agree that anyone who purchased the two Mistrals would be obliged to buy these helicopters as well. It took many months to work out that agreement. The Egyptian deal will include 46 helicopters as well as weapons, ammunition, spares and training for pilots and ground crews. The helicopters are to be delivered by the end of 2017. The Kamov Ka-52 is a two-seat version of the earlier Ka-50. It is a reconnaissance and attack helicopter. Its development started in 1994 while the first flight was conducted in 1997. Till now only Russia had been using it and in small number due budget restrictions.
January 14, 2016: Russia released the text of the agreement it signed with Syria in August 2015 to authorize Russian intervention in Syria. One interesting aspect of this treaty was the fact that the Russians can stay as long as they wish. This is apparently irritating to Iran which is believed to want a post-civil war Syria that is under more direct Iranian control and a semi-permanent Russian military occupation would interfere with that. Short term the Assads want to survive but long term they and most other Syrians are not keen on becoming, unofficially, another province of Iran. If a permanent Russian military presence will prevent that then it is OK.
January 10, 2016: Russia revealed that during the last three months of 2015 it had flown (using about 100 warplanes and attack helicopters) over 4,300 sorties against Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria. Russia believes its air strikes are much more effective than those flown by Western and Arab air forces because Russia has better intelligence. In addition to intel from over 200,000 Syrian soldiers and pro-government militiamen, Russia also obtained target information from 150 rebel groups (over 5,000 rebels) willing to cooperate against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).
January 8, 2016: Internet security researchers in Ukraine and the West agree that the December 23 blackout in western Ukraine that left 80,000 people without electricity for six hours was caused by malware created and often used by a group of Russian hackers called the Sandworm Collective. What is still unclear was whether the Russian hackers were acting under government orders or simply taking advantage of the government tolerating Russian hackers attacking nations considered enemies of Russia. A month later similar malware was found in some airport computers and removed before it could shut down operations at Boryspil International Airport outside of Kiev.