Russia: The Old Tricks Still Work


July 14, 2016: Government efforts to control what appears on the Internet (inside Russia) and in domestic mass media are not sufficient to keep out damaging evidence of corruption among the Russian leadership. This got a lot worse after the April 2016 release of 11 million documents stolen (via hacking) from a Panama based international law firm (Mossack Fonseca). Data from these documents showed many prominent Russian officials did business with Mossack Fonseca, a firm that assists wealthy people who want to set up overseas bank accounts and corporations whose owners are very difficult for most people (or even other governments) to identify. The Mossack Fonseca records provided details of enormous wealth owned by Russian officials who could not explain where it came from. In the state controlled media these revelations don’t exist (“more Western lies not worth repeating”) but these details get into Russia via the Internet and eventually reach just about everyone. The damage done is considerable because it makes Russians realize that since 2014 Russia has been making a lot of headlines but not much else. The economy is a mess, it has fewer allies and the future looks dim. Invading Ukraine and Syria has not helped solve any of the fundamental problems. What passes for “good news” is things like foreign economists recently agreeing that the Russian economy is shrinking less than expected this year (1.2 percent smaller GDP rather than 1.5 percent). “Victories” in Syria and Ukraine don’t pay the rent or put food on the table. More and more Russians are just getting by and the appeal of the new nationalism is fading.

What went wrong? 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 are turning Russia into a police state with less political and economic freedom. A growing number of Russians opposed this and the government responded by appealing to nationalism. Russia has returned to police state ways and the traditional threatening attitude towards neighbors. Rather than being run by corrupt communist bureaucrats, the country is now dominated by corrupt businessmen, gangsters and self-serving government officials. The semi-free economy is more productive than the centrally controlled communist one but that just provides more money to steal. A rebellion against the new dictatorship has been derailed by astute propaganda depicting Russia as under siege by the West. Yet opinion polls that show wide popular support for this paranoid fantasy has left enough Russians with democratic impulses to continue demanding better government and needed reforms. But for now most Russians want economic and personal security and are willing to tolerate a police state to get it. 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 only major economic power Russia can still do business with is China and the Chinese recognize the economic weakness of Russia and refuse to get too involved.


While there are common goals in Syria and Russia is willing to work with the Americans Iran has made it very clear that it cannot cooperate with the Americans to the extent that Russia has. After all, the Iranian religious dictatorship justifies its power because of its vow to destroy America and Israel. Iran has its own plans, which it apparently does not share with Russia or anyone else. Meanwhile Russia is eager to make whatever deals it can to end the war in Syria, declare victory and get out. The stalemate in Ukraine and the resulting sanctions have proved more damaging to the Russian economy and leaders than the government will admit. A clear victory in Syria would pave the way for an acceptable end to the Ukrainian mess. Many American military leaders and intelligence officials are warning the U.S. government that closely cooperating with the Russians will not end well for the United States and the West because the Russian goal is keeping the Assad government in power. That is not and never will be popular in the United States, not as long as Iran’s official policy is “death to America and Israel.” But American leaders are attracted to the idea that cooperation with Russia and Iran in Syria would do more to destroy ISIL than any other strategy.

Meanwhile Russia needs Iranian help in Syria and elsewhere. Iran has expanded its Syrian mercenary force of Afghan, Iraqi and other Shia volunteers it has recruited, trained, armed and paid for. The largest and most effective Shia paramilitary force is from Lebanon, where Iran has supported the Hezbollah militia since the 1980s. Thus Syrian government forces carrying out offensive operations around Aleppo or in the east (against Raqqa) are usually about half Syrian while the rest are largely controlled by Iran while air support and logistics largely supplied by Russia. While Iran is very loud about its refusal to cooperate with Americans it has no problem letting Russia handle that for both of them. On the ground Russian and Iranian forces are tightly integrated with Syrian forces. That is the main reason for the recent Syrian government successes in fighting the rebels and especially ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Another unsung factor is Russian diplomacy, which manages to deal with the blowback from series of Russian brokered ceasefires that were promptly broken by Russian supported Syrian forces. Meanwhile Iran apparently expects ISIL to be gone from western Iraq soon and from Mosul by the end of the year. ISIL is expected to concentrate in eastern Syria for a last stand and Iran wants to get some credit for the defeat of ISIL in that finale.

In most of Assad controlled territory (about 20 percent of Syria) the forces are Syrian (military, police or local militia) aided by some Iranian and Russian advisors. 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.


Fighting continues in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) but at a low level and usually instigated by pro-Russian rebels. Artillery (rockets, howitzers and mortars) is fired almost daily at Ukrainian forces. Just as in Syria, Russia sees ceasefire agreements as opportunities, not situations where Russian forces stop fighting. Russian efforts to grab a portion of eastern Ukraine appear to be on hold and they are. But keeping the pressure on Ukraine, and giving its forces in Donbas (largely Russian troops and mercenaries plus a few Ukrainian rebels) busy. The Russian government apparently accepts the fact that their bold effort to grab Donbas has failed but can’t admit that and have not yet come up with a politically acceptable way to admit defeat and get out. Meanwhile Russia has brought more of its troops to the Ukrainian border, making it look like preparations for a major offensive. A closer look reveals that these troops are neither trained, equipped nor otherwise ready for a major offensive and neither is Russia. But putting on a show of possible major misbehavior keeps Ukraine and other East European nations bordering Russia in a properly intimidated state of mind. Russia has been doing this for centuries and it still works.

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 resulting videos of Russian soldiers captured in Donbas are convincing but have no effect on Russia which dismisses it as part of a vast Western conspiracy. The original pro-Russian Donbas 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.

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.”

July 11, 2016: In the south (Dagestan) police cornered a wanted Islamic terrorists (Admir Talibov) in a house and when he refused to surrender killed him. Talibov was believed involved in a February suicide car bombing (he provided the car) that left two policemen dead and 18 civilians wounded.

July 8, 2016: In the south (Dagestan) Russian commandos searching for Islamic terrorists outside the city of Makhachkala clashed with armed men, killing eight of them while suffering one dead. Some of the dead Islamic terrorists were apparently responsible for recent attacks on police. In another clash in the same area three soldiers were wounded. Since 2013 Dagestan has become the main terrorist battleground in the Caucasus and the national government has kept trying to suppress the Islamic terrorist activity down there. While not a complete success, there are still some active Islamic terrorists who refuse to surrender or go elsewhere. Some of these diehards had gone to fight overseas (mainly Syria and Pakistan) and returned to continue the fight.

In central Syria (Palymyra) a Russian Mi-35M armed transport helicopter went down because of (according to the government) ISIL ground fire in the form of an American TOW anti-tank missile. In theory a TOW missile could hit a slow moving helicopter at low altitude. But ISIL has never been seen using American TOW missiles (which were given to some anti-ISIL rebel groups) and several of the videos that later showed up, of the Mi-35M going down, indicates that the cause may have been friendly fire (an unguided rocket from another nearby Russian armed helicopter). In any event the two man crew of the downed Mi-35M were killed in the crash and there has been no word on anyone getting to the wreckage and examining it for signs of what sort of weapon brought it down.

July 2, 2016: A North Korean diplomat in Russia has defected, via Belarus, to somewhere in Europe. The diplomat got out with his wife and son. This was made possible by Russia agreeing to help China put pressure on North Korea to enact needed economic reforms. China and Russia have joined South Korea, the United States and Japan in an effort to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. North Korea is not cooperating even though China is apparently prepared to do the unthinkable and cut off all trade with North Korea. While the UN sanctions do not prohibit imports of essentials, like food and these continue, China can simply close its North Korea border to any trade. Because of the legal market economy in North Korea that means some food would be still available but at higher (market) prices. The government continues to import enough Chinese food to avoid another famine like the one that killed over a million people in the 1990s. The North Korean government has also refused to do what China has done and let the market economy legally spread to larger enterprises (like manufacturing or farming and mining). That means the North Korean government can no longer pay workers in food as it was able to do since the 1950s because of food and other aid coming in from Russia (mostly) and China. Most of that disappeared after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. For the growing number of North Koreans who have seen how the Chinese economy works they know that if China cut all trade with North Korea the shortages, especially of food, in North Korea would have catastrophic consequences within weeks or months. This year North Korea got a very visible and painful reminder of its dependence on China when, in March China began enforcing all the UN trade sanctions against North Korea. Now China promises more pain if North Korean rulers do not become more cooperative. So far the North Korean leadership remains defiant. Russia is helping out when asked.

June 30, 2016: In the eastern Mediterranean a Russian frigate apparently came too close (for safety) to an American destroyer. The United States complained to Russia which refused to admit there was a problem. While some American naval officers believe the incident was deliberate others point out that most Russian warships don’t get out to sea much and their commanders and crews are relatively inexperienced compared to their Western (especially American) counterparts.

June 29, 2016: The government announced that differences with Turkey had been cleared up and the two countries would resume normal economic and diplomatic relations, in addition to cooperating more closely in counter-terrorism matters and dealing with the civil war in Syria. This reconciliation had been in the works for a while but got a major boost because of yesterday’s Islamic terrorist attack at the largest airport in Turkey. This was carried out by Islamic terrorists based in Syria and killed 45. Despite this many Turks believe Russia, Iran and the United States have formed 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.

June 28, 2016: The government announced that fifty of the most senior officers of the Baltic Fleet had been fired and replaced with newly promoted officers or commanders who had proven track records in other parts of the navy. This was not surprising to those living near Russian Navy bases in the Baltic because the true capabilities of the Baltic Fleet have been an issue for some time. In May the government ordered a thorough investigation of the state of the Baltic Fleet and its fifty or so ships. The results of the report were delivered on June 10th and apparently confirmed suspicions that the current fleet leadership had failed to improve the capabilities of the Baltic Fleet. Since the 1990s Russia has (especially in the last decade) replaced most of the older Cold War era warships it had to retire because of old age. In 2008 the Baltic Fleet had 75 ships and at this point retirements (because of age or years of little or no maintenance) had reduced that to fifty ships that are mostly new. Much more money was given to the Baltic Fleet since 2010 for maintenance and training but that seemed to have little impact on the effectiveness of the fleet. The May investigation confirmed that in detail and that resulted in a typically Russian solution.




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