In mid-April an American destroyer in the Baltic was subjected to more than 30 acts of harassment by Russian Su-24 bombers. The Russian aircraft flew very low (less than a hundred meters) over the American warship. This was more about publicity (for the Russian government at home and abroad) than a demonstration of military capabilities. It is also a replay of what occurred half a century ago. During the Cold War (1947-91) there were numerous incidents, usually involving Russian ships or aircraft playing "Chicken Of The Sea" with American warships by moving close or even on a collision course. This was all for the purpose of interfering with U.S. intelligence operations, especially those off the Russian coast. For that reason Russian fighters are again confronting American electronic reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace and trying to persuade them to leave. Earlier in the Cold War, Russian warplanes would fire on American intelligence gathering aircraft, shooting some of them down. This sort of thing declined when the U.S. quietly informed the Russians that American warships and combat aircraft would return fire. By the end of the 1960s this aggressive activity diminished to the point where it was considered a minor nuisance and even that was eliminated by a 1972 treaty. The recent incidents are violations of that treaty but the current Russian government has shown scant regard for treaties (recent or otherwise).
On the surface the latest Baltic Sea incidents were about Russia protesting NATO (and particularly American) “intrusions” into “traditional Russian waters” (the eastern Baltic and Black Sea). The American destroyer was in international waters but was 120 kilometers from the Russian city of Kaliningrad. This used to be part of the ancient German province of East Prussia, which disappeared after World War II. Most of it went to Poland, but Russia retained the city of Konigsberg and its environs (15,100 square kilometers, about the size of Northern Ireland.) They renamed the city Kaliningrad and made it a major naval base. When the Soviet Union fell apart Russia kept Kaliningrad, in part because Kaliningrad is a special place, a reminder of the great (and costly) World War II victory over ancient foe Germany and decades of Russian domination of East Europe that followed. World War II and what came before it (communist mass murder, civil war, revolution, World War I) still resonate in Russia because all this mayhem killed a quarter of the population and so crippled the economy that Russia still lags the rest of the industrialized world. The current Russian government is falling back on traditional Russian solutions; blame it all on foreigners and their conspiracies against Russia. And rather than fix things at home, let’s go out and rebuild the empire.
The domestic problems are severe, intractable and to many Russians, worth ignoring. The current economic recession was brought on by low oil prices (created by Sunni Arabs to weaken their enemy Shia Iran) and economic sanctions (in response to Russian aggression against Ukraine and threats to other neighbors). Even without those two problems there is an even bigger one; an economy ruined by 70 years of communist rule and still waiting for reform and rebuilding. After three decades of communism the Chinese realized communist economic policies did not work and adopted those (a free market system) that did. Russia has, so far, been unwilling and unable to do that to the extent China did and if you take away sanctions and low oil prices Russia will still be in trouble. Rather than confront this problem the government prefers publicity stunts like the current Chicken Of The Sea incidents and rekindling dreams of empire.
Another bit of Cold War déjà vu is the way American military commanders responding to all the Russian military theatrics by solemnly declaring that the Russian military threat may be more than the United States can handle. This sort of thing is reminiscent of the Cold War exaggerations of Soviet (Russian) military power. Even during the Cold War, many civilian analysts pointed out the tendency to overestimate the effectiveness of Soviet weapons, equipment, leadership and training. This distortion became pretty obvious after the Cold War, when much was revealed, but the puffery is back now with regard to China and Russia. It's no secret that China and Russia have long found it impossible to create effective military forces in peacetime. Not to underestimate them, but both nations have a long history of spectacular failure in this area. The Soviets proved that the historical lessons still apply. But there were still a lot of military secrets that make it an easy matter to report the other side's weapons as being, if only potentially, more lethal than they actually are. This culture of exaggeration, even during the Cold War, was often just called "professional courtesy." The Russian intelligence agencies also exaggerated the capabilities of American weapons. Thus the generals on both sides of the Iron Curtain had a better chance of getting more money out of their respective governments. Now we have the Cold War attitudes returning and with that the return of professional courtesy when it comes to evaluating the state of the Chinese and Russian armed forces. The goal of this puffery appears to be the same as it always was.
The Limits Of Power
Despite all the saber rattling and traditional aggression towards neighbors, Putin has been quite frank about the true extent of his power. He regularly hosts call-in shows and a frequent subject is his lack of control over the government bureaucracy. He admits it is real. This brings to mind what Russian Czar Nicholas I said, before he died in 1855, about the extent of his powers; "I do not rule Russia. 10,000 clerks do." The clerks are the bureaucrats, major nobles and, even in the time of Nicholas I, members of the growing merchant class. Putin can threaten, imprison and even murder troublesome “clerks” but he cannot get them all to do whatever he wants. And like the czars, Putin has to wonder if he represents the past or the future.
Putin also has to worry about the economy, which is in worse shape than he is willing to admit publicly. It is becoming impossible to maintain the illusion that Russia is coping with the low oil prices, growing sanctions and crippling corruption. Putin has built a house of cards that shows signs of imminent collapse.
The Savior Of Armenia
Russia and Iran are cooperating to maintain the ceasefire they arranged to end nearly a week of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both these countries were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Forces from the two nations began firing at each other on April 2nd and a cease fire was negotiated and implemented on the 5th. Since then that deal has been in danger because not everyone has been persuaded to stop shooting. Since the 2nd over a hundred have died and more than twice as many wounded. Nevertheless the peacemaking effort is succeeding as the violence is declining. Russia considers itself the “protector” of Armenia but has managed to maintain good relations with Azerbaijan as well. In doing that Russia established one of the more successful peacekeeping operations since the Cold War ended in 1991 by getting Armenia and Azerbaijan to agree to a ceasefire in 1994. Russia became a military ally of Armenia as part of that arrangement. Iran has tried, and not always succeeded, to be on good terms with Azerbaijan, if only because about a quarter of the Iranian population are Azeris. At the same time Iran and Russia, traditional enemies, have become allies and those links are being used to deal with latest round of violence. Iran has long harbored an intense interest in Azerbaijan. This is because most of the Turkic and Moslem Azeris live in Iran. Up until 1813, modern Azerbaijan was part of Iran. Then the Russians showed up. Armenia and Azerbaijan were the last Russian conquests as the tsar’s soldiers and Cossacks advanced down the Caucasus region (between the Black and Caspian Seas) in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Russians stopped when they ran into the Turkish and Iranian empires, but not before taking a chunk of Azerbaijan from Iran. The Iranians have not forgotten. In effect, most of "Azerbaijan" is in Iran and Iran has long hoped to reunite all Azeris under their rule. Many Iranian Azeris have risen to senior positions in the government. Despite that, most Azeris would like all Azeris united in a single Azerbaijan. This is not a popular idea within Iran. The Russians, on the other hand, have come to accept the 1991 loss of Azerbaijan and Armenia.
This cooperation comes at the same time as Iranian and Russian announced that deliveries of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems resumed. Israel believes that not enough components have arrived in Iran to get the S-300 operational. This seems to have been confirmed on April 17th when a military parade in Iran featured S-300 systems that were clearly lacking some key components. It is believed that Iran blames Israel for negotiating a secret deal with Russia (involving Syria and other matters of mutual interest) to delay the Iranian effort to get the S-300 systems delivered. That these S-300s are not yet operational makes the Iranians very angry. The Iranians are also upset about some Russian behavior in Syria, mainly the Russians insisting that everything be done the Russian way and often get away with this.
In Syria Russian troops are still quite active in supporting government forces. Now that people know what to look for (Western looking men wearing uniforms similar to the Syrian army and serving with Syrian units) it has become easier to follow the movements or Russian troops in Syria. The latest reports have Russian artillery units and commandos showing up with Syrian army reinforcements around Aleppo. There the Syrian forces are taking advantage of the fact that the current ceasefire allows everyone to continue attacking ISIL and al Nusra (an al Qaeda affiliate) fighters because those two groups refused to participate in the ceasefire. The government has been taking back territory from ISIL and the allies (Western and Arab) of the rebels can’t complain because everyone agrees that ISIL must be destroyed. But this victory over ISIL is at the expense of rebel gains in general. All this is seen as part of a Russian (and Iranian) plan to help the Syrian government regain control of much of the country and make it impossible to end the fighting without leaving the Assad government in power. A less visible Russian contribution to the recent Syrian army victories has been the effort to rebuild and refurbish Syrian equipment. Russia has sent enormous quantities of military supplies to Syria since late 2015. This includes lots of spare parts for Syrian Air Force aircraft along with hundreds of Russian technical personnel to get aging and worn out Syrian warplanes (almost all of them Russian built) back into service. There were apparently some deliveries of new or used Russian warplanes. It is also believed that Russia has “loaned” the Syrian Air Force some military pilots and helped train additional Syrian pilots. The Syrian Army has received a lot of new Russian weapons and equipment. Syrian artillery support is noticeably more plentiful and accurate than it was a year ago although some of the artillery turned out to be Russian crews operating Russian artillery that was marked as Syrian. Meanwhile the Assad forces continue to avoid ISIL in some cases, like when the Islamic terrorists are being heavily attacked by Kurds and a U.S. led coalition of warplanes. Assad troops are now concentrating on al Nusra and ISIL rebels around Damascus and Aleppo. The Russians claimed to have carried out a lot of air attacks against ISIL targets but there is little evidence of that. The Russian warplanes supported the Assad forces and the Assads have always avoided ISIL whenever possible. This has led to speculation that there is a secret alliance between Assad and ISIL but that is unlikely as there continue to be ISIL terror attacks against Assad forces and territory as well as occasional clashes on the ground. ISIL hates the Assads but the Assads note that ISIL has plenty of other enemies (like most of the rebel factions plus the United States and every Moslem nation in the region) so why waste any effort on ISIL when you can concentrate on other rebel forces, especially al Nusra.
Rediscovering the Lessons of the Rhineland
Fighting continues in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) but at a low level and usually instigated by pro-Russian rebels. Ukraine continues to gather evidence that many of the “rebels” are actually Russia troops. The original pro-Russian Ukrainians (most of them ethnic Russians) have become discouraged because the fighting has dragged on. The Ukrainians refuse to give in. This war is two years old and has left over 9,100 dead at least 20,000 wounded. Most of the casualties have been civilians. There is a ceasefire in place but no progress on working out an end to the Russian effort to grab a chunk of eastern Ukraine. Given all the domestic economic problems Russia has plus the military operation in Syria and peacemaking in Armenia the aggression in Ukraine (which began in late 2014) appears to be on hold.
Peace talks between Russia and NATO nations over Ukraine have made it clear that the price of peace is a NATO agreement to back away from Russian borders. Russia has been demanding this since 2000. Then in 2008 Russia went ahead and, in effect, annexed the Georgian separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. No one was willing to face down the Russians on this issue, which many of Russia’s neighbors saw as the first of many such annexations. There is a precedent for this sort of thing, and it all began on the French-German border in 1936.
Some historians see the German reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 as the real beginning of World War II. As part of the treaty that ended World War I, Germany agreed to keep troops out of the Rhineland (a German region on the French border). Going back in was a huge gamble for the Germans, who were in the midst of rebuilding their military, and, in 1936, much weaker than France or Britain. But neither of these countries were willing to risk the violence that might occur if they went after the 32,000 troops and police Germany sent into the Rhineland. This convinced Hitler that he could bully the Western allies, and grab neighboring countries with impunity. This worked for Austria and Czechoslovakia, but triggered World War II when Germany and Russia (by prior agreement) carved up Poland in 1939.
Russia may not have its sights on Poland this time around, but Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic States and a few of the Central Asian "stans" would be nice. In 2014 Russian confirmed this by moving on Ukraine, seizing (and annexing) Crimea and getting stuck trying to do the same in eastern Ukraine (Donbas). The question remains as to whether would, or could, anyone stop Russia from continuing to do this Hitler didn't have nuclear weapons, nor was Germany the supplier of a quarter of Europe's energy needs. Hitler also didn't have the support of the German people for such military adventures, the current Russian government does but only if there are few Russian casualties. Russia also still has its secret police apparatus. Perhaps not as large as when the Soviet Union was still around, but it's still there. Credit Cards, the Internet and cell phones make it easier to keep track of people. There are still KGB old timers around who remember how to run a prison camps. Absorbing the nations of the "near abroad" (as Russia calls its neighbors), would mean having to deal with a lot of dissidents. That's what the Gulag (the Russian acronym for the prison camp system, or "The Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies") was created for. It gets the troublemakers off the streets, permanently, as needed. Puts the fear of Moscow into the newly acquired citizens of the Russian State. It worked before, it can work again. So did taking over the Rhineland. No wonder there is so much fear in East Europe, not just about Russia but about how the rest of Europe doesn’t seem to care.
Western support for Ukraine is coming at a high price for Ukraine as the West is demanding that Ukraine do something about its rampant corruption if it wants to see the Western support continue. Now curbing of corruption and closer ties with the West are both popular with most Ukrainians. But with those who benefit most from the corruption (senior government officials, owners of the largest businesses) success in curbing corruption comes at their expense. Because of this, even though most (or at least many) senior government officials (and members of parliament) back some real curbs on corruption, so far the corruption reforms have been stalled.
Superpower Games In Africa
Another bit of Cold War nostalgia recently showed up in Somalia. Noting the success of corrupt African officials during the Cold War, who could get past corruption charges by threatening to invite foreign aid from the other superpower, Somalia has asked Russia for military aid. During the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union (Russia) were the only two superpowers and the African tyrants were infamous for their willingness to play the superpowers off against each other. Russia has expressed interest but has not yet acted.
April 20, 2016: Britain, France and Russia agree to support for the GNA, new national government in Libya. Italy has offered to send 3,000 military trainers to Libya to operate camps to train members of a new army and national police. Other nations have promised economic aid to a new national government while Western nations (especially the U.S. and France) offer more commandos and air support for a united military in a united Libya. Russia however declared today that it would not back foreign military support of the GNA unless it was approved by the UN Security Council (where Russia has a veto).
April 13, 2016: Armenia, Russia, Iran and Georgia agreed to build an “energy corridor” that will consist of an electrical power transmission system that will go from Iran to Russia and link all four countries into an electric power network. The corridor is to become operational by 2019 and will eventually be able to handle up to 1,000 MW.
April 11, 2016: In the south (Stavropol) three Islamic terrorists attacked a police station. That failed and two of the attackers were shot dead by police and the third blew himself up with a grenade. There were no police casualties. Stavropol is adjacent to the Caucasus and often the scene of Islamic terrorist activity as it is the first part of Russia you enter when leaving the Caucasus.
April 5, 2016: President Putin announced the revival of another Soviet tradition, a special armed force whose main purpose was to protect the rulers from disloyalty in the national police or military as well as popular uprisings. This is an ancient practice. Thus in Iraq Saddam Hussein had his Republican Guard, a force that was filled with the best paid, best armed men in the armed forces who were, above all, loyal to Saddam. All other successful dictatorships have similar forces. In Soviet Russia KGB employed over a million domestic spies and informers in addition to several divisions of troops trained and equipped to deal with rebellions by the population, or the armed forces. Iran has a similar force, the Revolutionary Guard that serves a similar role as the old KGB. The Saudi monarchy has its National Guard and surviving monarchies usually have a least a ceremonial remnant of the once powerful “guards.” Even the pope still has a Swiss Guard. Currently ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has its 4,000 man Shield of Islam which is composed of the most skilled and resourceful ISIL fighters, including many foreigners (especially hundreds of the much feared Chechens). During World War II, Adolf Hitler had the SS, Gestapo and his private army, the Waffen SS, all of which kept Germany fighting until the very end. The new version of the KGB army is being created by taking most of the armed forces available to the Interior Ministry (the national police and various riot control, SWAT and special operations forces) as well as investigators and intelligence experts and assigning them to a new force (the National Guard) which is loyal to the president of Russia, not the Russian people. The new National Guard is officially a “rapid reaction” force for dealing with terrorism or any other threat to Russia that requires quick and decisive action. The exact size of the National Guard is not yet determined but is expected to consist of at least 100,000 personnel and perhaps several times that.
March 29, 2016: In the south (Dagestan) a roadside bomb destroyed two police cars, killed one policeman and wounded two others. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) took credit.