June 21, 2016:
Russian military efforts continue to be concentrated on
Syria. There the beleaguered Assad government, backed by Russian and Iranian military aid, has regained ground from rebels and is encouraged because they, with the help of Iran and Russia, are really hurting ISIL. Now Syrian troops are advancing into eastern Syria and the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) capital in Raqqa. While Assad forces are advancing on Raqqa city from the west U.S. backed Kurdish and Arab rebels are advancing from the north. Iran has spent over $10 billion to support the Assads since 2011, while Russia has spent less than a third of that. But it is all paying off as Iran has expanded its mercenary force of Afghan, Iraqi and other Shia volunteers recruited, trained, armed and paid for by Iran for service in Syria. The largest and most effective Shia paramilitary force is Hezbollah from Lebanon. Thus only about half the Syrian government force advancing into Raqqa province are from the Syrian Army. The rest are largely controlled by Iran while air support and logistics is provided by Russia. The Kurds have been raiding into Raqqa province since late 2015 and often showed up on the outskirts of Raqqa city. But this time the move south is much more than a few hundred raiders. The several thousand Kurdish fighters are accompanied by American and other (mostly NATO) commandos to ensure that there is plenty of air support. This does not mean that Russia, Iran and NATO are allies in the fight against ISIL. There is some communication and Russian leaders recently admitted that Russia and the United States communicate twice a day and share information on operations in Syria. This is apparently to prevent inadvertent clashes (especially from the air) between the two forces advancing on Raqqa city. Nothing has been revealed about how these two forces would operate once they reached Raqqa city. The easiest way to take Raqqa city is to surround it and cut off the defenders from reinforcements or supply and then coordinate an air and ground attack. But who would end up controlling Raqqa city? This unofficial anti-ISIL alliance won’t survive the capture of Raqqa. Meanwhile Turkey accuses Russia, Iran and the United States of forming a secret alliance to defeat the Syrian rebellion and do a lot of other evil stuff. Many Arabs believe the same thing and believe it is all part of a Western effort to destroy Islam.
Although Russia officially “withdrew” their forces from Syria during March they had to leave behind at least half the troops and equipment 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. A crucial factor in the revival of the Syrian armed forces has been the enormous Russian logistical support. This logistical angle is largely unseen but is has replaced a lot of worn out Syrian military equipment and Russia brought in spare parts and technicians to help the Syrians repair a lot of the elderly (Cold War era) Russian armor, aircraft and artillery. Hundreds of these systems were returned to service and did wonders for Syrian army morale since it is much safer (and effective) to fight using armored vehicles, artillery, air support and new supplies of ammo. Some new Russian artillery (multiple rocket launchers) have shown up, with mixed Russian/Syrian crews. This is mainly to get some combat testing for these new rocket systems, to make them easier to move in the export market.
Surviving The Economic Apocalypse
Another Russian victory is playing out back home where the government’s economic policies have been pragmatic and generally successful at adapting to the low oil prices and sanctions. This has not prevented more people from losing jobs (or seeing their work hours decline) but it has made life more tolerable for those still working. Inflation has been reduced to eight percent (from 15.5 percent in 2015). Retail sales are down but savings rates and home purchases are headed up again. People are spending less on non-essentials and more on long-term survival. GDP is expected to decline one percent in 2016, a year in which the world GDP is expected to grow nearly three percent. But in 2017 and thereafter Russian GDP will slowly grow. That assumes oil prices remain low and sanctions largely in force. Russian and foreign economists agree that the low oil prices and sanctions could have done a lot more economic damage if the government had not put experienced professionals in charge and told them to do what had to be done (even if it was unpopular) to minimize the damage. The government has cut just about everything in the budget (except the military) in order to make all this economic coping work. The bad news is that Russia is still mired in corruption, despite the official government policy of trying to eliminate practices which hurt economic growth and much else besides. Meanwhile the Russian government interprets open opposition to corruption, and especially ineffective government policies, as subversion and uses that as justification for more censorship on the Internet and in every other form of media. Something the government does not like to discuss openly is the fact that with higher oil prices and no sanctions there would still be economic problems caused by the corruption and reluctance of foreigners (and a growing number of wealthy Russians) to invest in Russia.
The Baltics Remember
Poland and the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) have asked for some American troops. Not enough to halt a Russian invasion, just enough to ensure that the Americans and their NATO allies (or at least some of them) will intervene if Russia does attack. These four nations already have a mutual defense guarantee from NATO in the form of NATO membership. But that is not enough and what has been asked for, and granted, are some American troops in each of these nations. The response is an offer to send one reinforced battalion per country. That means about 4,000 troops overall. These four East European countries join a growing list of nations who, threatened by dangerous neighbors, have agreed (and often asked) to host American troops. The first and most obvious examples of this are South Korea, Japan and Germany. This form of defense has been quietly followed by a number of nations in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). All of these Persian Gulf nations want the Americans around to keep the Iranians out. But it is not just the Iranians. Inside Iraq there have been American troops in northern Iraq to protect the autonomous Kurdish majority up there from the Arab majority. This form of security is also called a "tripwire force" because if the host nation is attacked the presence of some U.S. troops means that a lot of U.S. reinforcements will promptly arrive. Several other nations are seeking this form of security guarantee but are not getting it, at least not yet. This includes Ukraine and Georgia. The United States is the favored source of these armed hostages because the U.S. is a superpower and, compared to all the alternatives, the least likely to take advantage of the situation.
The Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 had some benefits for the victim. It finally forced Ukraine to get serious about the corruption that had crippled its economy since it became independent in 1991. That led to long-overdue military reforms as well and more national unity than Ukraine has seen since the 1990s. That made it possible to quickly put together a large enough military force to halt the Russian advance by late 2015. Ukraine is learning from this, as are other nations that border (often quite nervously) the self-proclaimed “resurgent Russia.”
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. In Ukraine most of the violence is taking place outside the rebel held city of Donetsk. 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 more than 9,500 dead and 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.
June 18, 2016: Russia and the United States agreed to expand their information sharing arrangements to include daily updates of a common map to show where each other’s ground forces are and where planned air strikes will be. This is meant to eliminate misunderstandings that could lead to friendly fire (hitting the wrong target) incidents.
June 17, 2016: In the south (Dagestan) Russian commandos killed a much wanted (for attacks on police) Islamic terrorist leader and nine of his followers. Islamic terrorists and local separatists are still active throughout the Russian Caucasus but on not making any progress.
Over the Baltic NATO F-16s escorted two Russian Su-27 fighters which were flying with no flight plan, transponders turned off and ignoring radio requests from air-traffic control. This is illegal and has caused some near misses when done near busy civilian air space. Russia appears to have backed off from the more crowded areas but still regularly flies its warplanes across the Baltic Sea in violation of international air safety rules. Non-combat military aircraft (like transports) usually comply.
June 16, 2016: Over southern Syria American jet fighters confronted Russian warplanes that were bombing U.S. supported Syrian rebels near the Jordanian border. These Syrian rebels had been fighting local ISIL forces but it was understood that, like most Syrian rebels once the ISIL threat was eliminated attention would be turned to overthrowing the Russian supported Assad dictatorship. The U.S. fighters appeared to be getting into position to attack the two Russian Su-34s but did not. The Russian aircraft ignored the threat and bombed the rebels.
Elsewhere in Syria another Russia soldier was killed. Actually the fatality involved a marine who was killed by a suicide car bomb while escorting an aid convoy. This was the eleventh Russian fatality since Russian troops entered Syria nine months ago (October 2015) and the fifth in the last three months. .
June 15, 2016: In Syria Russia announced a 48 hour ceasefire around the northern city of Aleppo. This was the Russian response to Western calls for Russia, Iran and the Syrian government to respect the February ceasefire. That deal allowed everyone to continue attacking ISIL and al Nusra (an al Qaeda affiliate) 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 that must 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. Russia apparently took the lead in interpreting the ceasefire deal differently. Since May Russian air attacks are increasingly hit rebel groups that have nothing to do with ISIL or al Nusra but are occupying territory that threatens the Assad government. Russia believes the United States will not use force to halt these ceasefire violations and that much of the global (or at least Western) media will support (if not necessarily believe) Russian claims that it is only bombing ISIL and al Nusra targets. In any event Russia has a veto in the UN and that can block any serious opposition from that direction.
June 14, 2016: Over the Baltic NATO F-16s escorted two Russian Su-27 fighters which were flying with no flight plan, transponders turned off and ignoring radio requests from air-traffic control.
June 9, 2016: Iranian, Russian and Syrian military leaders met in Iran to discuss Syrian strategy. It is unclear all that was agreed to. The official announcement mentioned agreement on the need to defeat all terrorist groups. Unmentioned was the fact that while most of the terrorists in Syria are Sunni, one of the largest contingents is from Hezbollah, Lebanese group internationally recognized as Islamic terrorists and now fighting for the Assad government. Iran disputes this designations in large part because Iran helped create Hezbollah in the 1980s and has bankrolled them ever since as part of an effort to destroy Israel. One of the few things Sunnis and Shia can agree on is the need to destroy Israel and ISIL. Iranian, Russian and Syrian diplomats are also calling for a ceasefire in Syria and eventually a peace deal that leaves the Shia Assad government in control of at least some of Syria. Sunnis and Shia do not agree on the Assads surviving the war in Syria.
Russia grounded over 300 of its Su-27 jet fighters until the reason behind the recent crash of one can be discovered. This crash was another involving a Su-27 used by the Russian Knights (the Russian air force acrobatics team). This happened before, in 2009 when two Russian Knights Su-27s collided while practicing for an air show. One of the fatalities, the leader of the acrobatics team, had earlier complained about the low quality of the aircraft his team was given. The Su-27 entered service in mid-1980s nearly half of the 800 or so built so far have been retired or refurbished because of age related issues.