Russia: Trapped In The Tragic Past


June 2, 2016: The post-Cold War Russian hopes for a better life fading fast among Russians. In the 1990s the prospect of a more prosperous, livable and powerful Russia was widely anticipated. No more, for after the 1990s came the return of totalitarian rule and the traditional aggressive attitudes towards the outside world. Especially since 2014 Russia has been in sharp decline. The economy is a mess. Russia has fewer allies and the future looks dim. The government insists the economy is getting better but the reality is it is getting less worse and Russians, as they have often been forced to do, are adapting. Another bit of unwelcome nostalgia is the return to the days when Russia had pathetic allies. These days it is nations like Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, Afghanistan, China, North Korea and several other poor nations whose loyalty can be rented for a while if the price is right. The more prosperous nations see Russia as a threat and not to be trusted or befriended. It wasn’t supposed to work out this way.

After the Soviet (Russian) empire dissolved in 1991 the rest of the decade was spent trying to reorganize and rebuild. That did not work out well at all. 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. They did so but in the process turned Russia back into a police state with less political and economic freedom. Many younger Russians resisted this and the government responded by appealing to nationalism. This was done by reviving the traditional threatening attitude towards neighbors. Just as corrupt communist bureaucrats replaced corrupt imperial officials after World War I (1914-1918), post-Cold War (1947-1991) Russia is now ruled by corrupt businessmen led by self-serving government officials dominated by members of the communist secret police (which was founded by veterans of the tsarist secret police). The current semi-free economy is more productive than the centrally controlled communist one but that just provides more money to steal. Like the tsarist and communist government before it the new Russian rulers tolerate corruption as a necessary tool to control the nation. The new tyrants, like past ones, use propaganda and control of the mass media to justify the mess and convincingly depict Russia as under siege by outsiders. Opinion polls show wide popular support for this paranoid fantasy and most Russians are willing to tolerate a police state to get some economic and personal security. That atmosphere, plus the anxiety generated by the Ukraine aggression 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. The corruption discourages the kind of innovators and entrepreneurs that create and sustain the sort of prosperity and freedom Russians have always envied. This is causing real problems for the government (as it had for communist and tsarist rulers) because no matter what a tyrant does they cannot motivate and retain enough of the talent needed to be competitive in world markets. Some government officials admit this, for a while at least until ordered to shut up. Thus in the last decade or so military leaders have pointed out that Russian defense firms are still not competitive with the West and probably never will be without some fundamental changes. The head of the Russian program recently came out and said the same thing, in part to explain the continued failures of Russian efforts in developing new satellite launchers and long-range rockets in general. Shortly thereafter that official insisted his remarks had been misunderstood.

The decline of the Russian economy is part of major shifts in global economic power after the Cold War. In 1991 the U.S. and EU (European Union) had over half the world GDP. The Soviet Union had about ten percent and China two percent. The Soviet Union and its economy was falling apart (hence the dissolution of the Soviet Union) and had been for decades. By the end of the 1990s Russia (now with half the population of the Soviet Union) had three percent of world GDP, China seven percent, the EU 24 percent and the U.S. 21 percent. China began growing at ten percent a year in the 1980s and kept going. China was still ruled by communists but had made the bold decision to allow and sustain a free market economy. The compounded growth really adds up if you can sustain it over several decades, which China did. By 2015 China was 17 percent of world GDP, Russia three percent, the EU 17 percent and the U.S. 16 percent. Projections for 2020, even taking into account showed down Chinese growth, have China with 19 percent of world GDP, Russia three percent, the EU 15 percent and the U.S. 15 percent. One important factor in the Chinese GDP growth was the fact that China has more people than the EU, the U.S. and Russia combined. On the down side China also has the worse pollution, and corruption than the West, or even Russia. China also has growing labor problems and a booming middle class that is, as it has always done elsewhere, demanding more of a say in making government policy. This is mainly self-preservation because the communist rulers of China have enriched themselves via corrupt (even by Chinese standards) behavior that now threatens to trigger an economic collapse. Failure to cope with these problems threatens to hobble growing Chinese economic and military power as well as triggering a global economic recession. All this terrifies Russia because Chinese economic power is a growing presence in and around Russia and China has ancient territorial claims on the Russian Far East that many Russians fear China will eventually act on.

All Sort of Quiet On The Southern Front

Fighting continues in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) but at a low level and usually instigated by pro-Russian rebels. Russian efforts to grab a portion of eastern Ukraine appear to be on hold and they are. That’s because the Russian government realizes that their bold effort to grab Donbas has failed but can’t admit that and have not come up with a politically acceptable way to admit defeat and get out. Russian officials admit (among themselves and occasionally to outsiders) that the Ukrainian operation suffered a fatal blow in July 2014 when undisciplined Russian supported rebels in Donbas used a Russian anti-aircraft missile system to shoot down a Malaysian airliner overhead (which they through was a Ukrainian Air Force transport). No amount of Russian media spin or propaganda could undo the international outrage this incident created. The world sort of tolerated the earlier (2008) annexation of parts of Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea but the death of 298 airline passengers over Russian controlled Donbas was not acceptable. In late 2015 Russia tried to redeem itself by sending forces to Syria (to fight the rebels, not support them like the rest of the world was doing). That did not work, on any level and now Donbas is a problem that won’t go away and can’t be solved without damaging the reputation of the new Russian dictatorship.

In Ukraine most of the violence is taking place outside the rebel held city of Donetsk and the government held port city of Mariupol. 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 nearly 10,000 dead at over 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 this Russian misadventure. So far only six other nations (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, Afghanistan, and North Korea) have agreed with Russians claims that taking Crimea was legal and not in violation of international law or a treaty Russia signed in the 1990s guaranteeing Ukrainian borders.

Stalemate In Syria

The Syrian “intervention” is becoming a problem. Although Russia officially “withdrew” in March they had to leave behind at least half the troops and equipment they sent simply because otherwise the Syrian government (an ally of Russia since the 1970s) would again be in danger of losing the civil war, as they were before the Russians showed up in late 2015. Russia is now trying to find new allies in Syria, including the Sunni Arabs (led by Saudi Arabia) who share the Russian goal of destroying outlaw groups like ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and al Qaeda. Russia is hoping to get some of the al Qaeda factions to accept a negotiated peace that will leave the Assads (and most other Syrian non-Sunnis) alive and still in Syria. Some of the Gulf Arabs are willing to negotiate, especially if makes Russia less of an Iranian ally. After all, historically Russia and Iran have been enemies while Russia has been trying to cultivate good relations with the Arabs for over half a century. Turkey and Russia are also trying to patch up the feud triggered by the sudden Russian appearance in Syria, a former part of the Turk (Ottoman) empire and a place the Turks considered off limits to troops from their ancient Russian foe.

Meanwhile Syrian rebels complain that Russian air strikes along the Castello road, the main supply route into Aleppo (and the 300,000 civilians who are still there) are more frequently hitting civilians as well as rebels complying with the ceasefire. The road is also used by ISIL to move weapons smuggled in via Turkey. From the air it is difficult to tell what is in a truck and who it belongs to. This does not bother the Russians who have come to fire on anything they see moving on the road. There are not enough Russian aircraft to watch the road all the time, so the attacks are sporadic but frequent enough that a growing number of rebels are planning to abandon the ceasefire. Russia sees its air power in Syria as a useful diplomatic tool, to remind potential allies that it is better to be friends with Russia than bombed by them.

June 1, 2016: The Defense Ministry reported that navy forces in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea increased training exercises 70 percent in 2015 over 2014. The 2,300 “ship days” in 2015 is expected to increase in 2016 as Russia continues to expand the number of warships in both seas. This includes new submarines and surface warships. The training exercises usually involve patrol boats, larger warships and support vessels. This was not just to improve skills, but to send a message to Iran that Russia was still the primary naval power in the Caspian and to the West that the Black Sea will not become a “NATO Lake.” A sixth Kilo class diesel-electric submarine for the Black Sea fleet was recently launched in a Baltic Sea shipyard.

May 31, 2016: Turkey is trying to improve its relations with Russia and are now insisting that the incident that triggered the current tensions was all a mistake. Turkey now considers the November 2015 incident where a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian fighter-bomber the result of the F-16 pilot making an error. No details of what the error was were given but until recently Turkey insisted the Russian warplane had crossed the border into Turkey while the Russians insist that never happened.

Now Russia is very angry at Romania. Two years after the movement process began the only land-based Aegis anti-aircraft/missile system in existence (in New Jersey) has been taken apart, packed into 60 large (40 foot) shipping containers and sent to Romania where it has been be put back together, tested and became operational as an anti-missile system. The U.S. is building two more ground-based Aegis systems; one in Poland and one in Hawaii. When Aegis went live in Romania recently Russia got very upset. For the Romanians, annoying the Russians is a bonus for a system that is there mainly to protect Europe from Iranian missiles. The U.S. has long sought to put anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe to protect against ballistic missile attacks from Iran. Russia has opposed this and sees it as a subterfuge to weaken the effect of Russian ballistic missiles attacking European targets. Most Europeans don’t know what to make of that, but East European countries (like Romania) that spent 1945-89 as involuntary Russian vassal (or “satellite”) states, do see a need for protection from Russian missiles.

May 30, 2016: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) three Ukrainian soldiers were killed and eight wounded when rebels violated the ceasefire and attacked in several areas using machine-guns and mortars.

May 29, 2016: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) five Ukrainian soldiers were killed and several wounded when rebels violated the ceasefire and attacked in several areas using machine-guns and mortars.

Russia announced that it was returning an Israeli M-48 tank, captured by Syrian troops during the 1982 Israeli war with Syria and later given to Russia by Syria. The American made M-48 is currently in a Moscow military museum. Israel won the 1982 war but in one action had to abandon some armored vehicles in order to get most of the Israeli troops out of danger. Giving the tank back to Israel is another Russian effort to maintain good relations with Israel, which could cause big problems for Russian troops in Syria.

May 26, 2016: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) two rebel fighters were killed and one wounded in what the rebels said was an unprovoked attack by Ukrainian troops. The government said the soldiers were returning fire after being attacked first by the rebels.

May 25, 2016: Russia announced that it is halting air strikes against al Nusra rebels to encourage the al Nusra leadership to abandon their informal alliance with ISIL. 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. Al Nusra allied itself with ISIL in 2015 to avoid being destroyed by ISIL, which considers any Islamic terrorist group that does not obey ISIL an enemy thatmust be destroyed (for being insufficiently Moslem). While this alliance was necessary it is known to be increasingly unpopular with many al Nusra factions. Al Nusra is basically a coalition of Syrian Islamic terror groups who allied under al Qaeda leadership to take down the Assads. Al Qaeda is less concerned with being top dog right now and more interested in making gains wherever it can. ISIL wants everything and wants it now, with ISIL in charge.

A Russian shipyard has obtained a billion dollar order from Iran for five offshore oil drilling platforms for use in the Persian Gulf.

May 24, 2016: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed when rebels violated the ceasefire and attacked in several areas using machine-guns and mortars.

Russia has halted delivery of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran because Iran was not making payments as agreed on. In late 2015 the long delayed (since 2007) S-300 deliveries resumed. Iran was to have all five S-300 batteries operational by 2017. The S-300 version Iran is receiving can use the latest S-300 missiles with a range of 200 kilometers. The new contract was signed in October 2015 and Russia expects to be the major supplier of weapons to Iran now that sanctions are lifted. Russia and Iran settled disputes over the 2007 S-300 contracts and three S-300 batteries have already arrived before the current halt. Each S-300 battery has a long-range search radar to detect targets and 6-8 launcher vehicles (each carrying four or two missiles).

May 22, 2016: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) one Ukrainian soldier was killed and another wounded when rebels violated the ceasefire and attacked in several areas using machine-guns and mortars.

May 20, 2016: The United States turned down a Russian proposal that the two countries coordinate air strikes against ISIL in Syria. Russia has made this offer before, without success. Russia responded by announcing it would increase its air strikes in Syria, including attacking arms shipments from Turkey (which the Turkish military allows for Islamic terrorist rebel groups it supports). A lot of what Russia does in Syria is posturing for the folks back home. The reality is that Russia has limited military options in Syria because the Russian armed forces have been in decline since the early 1990s and recent efforts to reverse that and provide new equipment have been crippled by low oil prices, international sanctions because of aggression in Ukraine and a worsening economic recession made worse by the corruption.

May 19, 2016: Russian troops are in central Syria openly helping to build a new military base in Palmyra, a major world historical site that was nearly destroyed by ISIL. The new base is being built within the UN “protected zone” that is not supposed to be fought over or attacked from the air. This could cause problems for the American led air coalition supporting Syrian rebels. In March Syrian troops retook Palmyra, which ISIL grabbed in May 2015. Palmyra was a major ISIL victory but since the beginning of 2016 Russian air and ground forces have worked with Syrian troops to methodically fight their way back to Palmyra and surrounding Deir Ezzor province in general.

May 17, 2016: Russia met with 16 other nations and attempt to work out a more comprehensive ceasefire in Syria. This new round of talks failed and no date has been set for another meeting. The February 27 ceasefire agreement does not include the entire country because the most extreme Islamic terrorists (ISIL and al Nusra) are not part of the agreement. Russia is seen helping the Assads exploit the ceasefire to regain territory. That means the Assads, assisted by Russian artillery and airpower, will attack any rebels in the way and justify it by later saying they through the targets were ISIL or al Nusra. This might work a few times but the government has used it so many times that most rebels are threatening to abandon the ceasefire and go back to fighting. Meanwhile Russia and Iran keep trying to get international support for a peace deal that would keep the Assads in power. That is slow going but making progress. Many countries are fed up with the seemingly endless war in Syria and the growing flood of refugees headed for Europe.

May 14, 2016: In the south (Dagestan) police, acting on a tip, raided an apartment and encountered four armed Islamic terrorists who refused to surrender. All four men were killed and three were identified as known Islamic terrorists.

May 13, 2016: In southeast Turkey PKK (Kurdish separatists) fighters used a Russian SA-18 shoulder fired anti-aircraft missile to shoot down a Turkish AH-1 helicopter gunship. This had never happened before. At first Turkey denied that a missile was used but the next day the PKK released a video showing their fighters firing an SA-18 at the gunship. It is unclear if Russia supplied SA-18s to anyone in Syria or Turkey or whether illegal arms dealers did. This is the first time PKK has been seen with the SA-18 although some showed up in Iraq as early as 2011 and many have been stolen from Iraqi (since 2003) and Syrian (since 2011) military warehouses. Hundreds of SA-18s and more recent SA-24s are known to have entered the illegal arms black market after being stolen from Libyan military bases during 2011. Usually the older SA-7 is what rebels and Islamic terrorists can get and use. While cheap and widely available these older missiles have a bad reputation. Experience has shown that for every ten SA-7s fired, you are likely to bring down a smaller aircraft or helicopter. An SA-18 is about twice as effective. Russia no longer makes the SA-7, but does manufacture more modern versions, closer to the American Stinger in capabilities. Many Turks believe that Russia deliberately supplied SA-18s to the PKK as part of the growing conflict between Turkey and Russia.

A North Korean warship seized a Russian sailing yacht some 160 kilometers from the east coast of North Korea (very much in international waters). The yacht and crew of five were taken to a North Korean port. The yacht was released on the 15th and continued on its way to its original destination (Vladivostok) for a sailboat race. North Korea would not say why they took the yacht and then released it.

May 12, 2016: In central Syria another (the ninth) Russian soldier was died from wounds he recently suffered in combat. At the same time two Russian soldiers were reported missing and may have been captured by ISIL. Elsewhere in Syria (outside Damascus) Mustafa Badreddine, the military leader of Hezbollah, was killed by an Israeli air strike (or rebel artillery, according to Hezbollah and the Syrian government). Unspecified Islamic terrorists were blamed for this killing although no one denied the possibility that it was Israel. Hezbollah blamed Israel for the death of another senior Hezbollah official killed in Syria last December. Badreddine was a more important target because he has been an active terrorist since the 1980s and has long been sought by the Israelis and the many Arab governments who have suffered from his attacks. Israel is suspected in this attacks because in April Israel revealed that it had, in the last few tears, actually carried out “dozens” of air attacks against Hezbollah efforts to move Syrian, Russian and Iranian weapons from Syria into Lebanon. It was no secret that Israeli aircraft have been attacking Hezbollah trucks trying to move Syrian missiles and other weapons into Lebanon. But confirmation, or extensive mention in the media, only occurred for about six of these attacks since early 2013. Israel always promised more such attacks and in late 2015 apparently worked out an arrangement with Russia that eliminated the risk of Russian interference. Hezbollah has been threatening another massive rocket attack on Israel, larger than the last one in 2006. Russia has been tolerating Israeli UAVs and warplanes over Syria, which angers Russian ally Iran.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

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

Each month we count on your contributions. 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