Reviving the Cold War has cost Russia a lot. Mainly because of operations in Syria Russian defense spending rose to $48 billion (4.2 percent of GDP) in 2015. That fell (to $45 billion, four percent of GDP) in 2016. But the government has been forced to cut defense spending sharply in 2017 and 2018 because of continued low oil prices and sanctions. In 2017 spending will be down to about $38 billion (3.2 percent of GDP) and $34 billion in 2018 (2.9 percent of GDP). After that, it is uncertain how the situation change.
The low oil prices since 2014 has done serious damage to the Russian economy and the Ukraine related sanctions have made it more difficult to cope. To put it all in perspective note that the lost income means that GDP dropped from $2.1 trillion to $1.1 trillion. This was a combination of low oil prices (for the major Russian export) and the ruble losing about half its value compared to the dollar (the currency of international trade) as a result of that and the sanctions. The impact of all this meant Russia dropped from being the sixth largest economy in the world to the 14th. Because the current government has revived the police state over the last decade, the average Russian does not feel free to openly protest. The senior bureaucracy is another matter and the economic experts and heads of the security services are obviously unhappy with the situation and generally safe from a wide scale purge because these senior officials are keeping the economy and government viable, something their Soviet predecessors could not do. This means that the government is running out of economic options. The current mess began back in 2012 when Vladimir Putin, who has been in power since 2000 (as president, prime minister and now president again) was seeking to deal with several years of declining popularity. People were upset about the continued corruption and sluggish economic performance. Putin decided to employ an ancient trick; blame all the problems on evil foreigners. It worked, even though in 2012 the urban middle class was largely against him and many rural groups were turning hostile as well. The government had tried taking more action against corruption and more repression of public protests. But what seemed to work best was more propaganda against "foreign threats" (like the NATO anti-missile system).
All this did not work out as planned. A recent survey Russians ranked the major problems; the economy, health care, corruption, education, unemployment, crime. In addition most Russians indicated it was dangerous for an individual to openly discuss corruption. A third of Russians said they had paid a bribe at least once. Putin can blame whoever he wants but most Russians just want the economy fixed and that requires cleaning up the corruption. The new Cold War does not seem very relevant to all this.
In Aleppo Russian and Syrian aircraft and artillery continue to provide support for Syrian Army (and militia forces) plus Kurdish fighters advancing into eastern parts of the city long held by rebels. The Kurds are actually operating independently of the government forces but coordinate to avoid firing on each other (especially with artillery or from the air). This offensive has been going on for two weeks and was declared a victory now that the rebels have lost over 40 percent of the territory they long held in Aleppo. Over 20,000 civilians have fled the advance, most of them heading for nearby areas held by the Kurds, most of the rest going to government controlled areas.
The Assads are trying to convince everyone that this is a turning point in the rebellion and that the rebels are now doomed. The rebels are dismayed at this setback and feel abandoned by their Arab (mainly Sunnis from the Persian Gulf) and Western (especially American) allies. Yet not everyone fighting in Syria is there to support, or remove, the Assad government. Many outsiders are mainly concerned with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Islamic terrorism in general. Had Islamic terrorists like al Qaeda and ISIL not gotten involved the Assads would probably have been defeated by 2015 But the Islamic terrorists had made so many enemies in the region and internationally that the rebels got distracted and the Assads took advantage of the situation.
The Assads had something else going for them. They are ruthless and don’t care what the rest of the world thinks. An example could be seen once “Battle for Aleppo” began in late September. This effort has cost about 3,000 casualties in October, about 20 percent of them dead. About half of the casualties have been civilians. Losses were heavier in November but now the fighting is ending in the northwestern part of the city, with the Syrian government in control. The army troops and their allies continue to advance and Russian warplanes continue providing support (surveillance and bombs). Aid groups, which supply food and other assistance and maintain operations within the rebel controlled areas of Aleppo report that the weeks of fighting have left many residential areas cut off from regular food supplies and since the end of October and obvious malnutrition and starvation among the trapped populations became increasingly common.
The Assads deliberately use starvation by cutting road access to pro-rebel areas. This is why nearly a million civilians nationwide are currently cut off from food and other supplies. Since 2011 nearly two-thirds of the dead in Syria have been civilians largely because of a deliberate Assad policy of attacking pro-rebel civilians to force them out of the country (or at least the combat zone). This has worked because now over half of all Syrians have been forced to flee their homes to escape the fighting, especially the government air and artillery attacks on civilians. Thus the Assads have been responsible for nearly 80 percent of the civilian deaths since 2011. The Russians still use the same tactics and since the Russian forces arrived in mid-2015 the air attacks on rebel civilians have increased. This includes attacks on hospitals and aid facilities (including some run by the UN and thus illegal to attack). Russia says these targets were actually being used by rebels, which in some cases is true. Technically if armed men are in any of these “neutral facilities” they lose their legal immunity from air or artillery attack.
Russia has refused to back off from using what the West considers barbaric and inhumane tactics. Russia is determined to see the Assad government regain control of the country no matter what. That goal is shared by Iran. Russia does not deny its air strikes since September 2015 have killed a lot of people (estimates go as high as 10,000) and that many of the victims might have been civilians. The Russians point out that their approach defeats the rebels while the more acceptable (to the rest of the world) methods merely prolong the fighting and enable Islamic terrorists, especially ISIL, to expand. Russia has said any American effort to interfere with Russian military operations in Syria would be opposed forcefully. Russia has admitted that this might escalate to nuclear war and that they are ready for that.
In northern Syria Turkish troops are seeking to avoid conflict with the Russians while attempting to intimidate some of the Kurds who have long controlled much of northern Syria. What complicates this is that the Syrian rebels and their Western allies (especially the United States) consider the Syrian Kurds the most effective rebel force and key to driving ISIL out of Raqqa city and the rest of eastern Syria. The Turks are, on paper, the strongest military force in the area. But all Syrians, both the government and the rebels oppose the Turkish intervention. The Turks are mainly doing this because of domestic politics. The Kurdish separatists in Turkey (the PKK) are again openly fighting the government and often use bases in Syria. While the Kurds of northern Iraq will cooperate with the Turks in controlling the PKK, some of the Syrian Kurds (the YPG) have worked closely with the PKK before and the Turks do not trust them to behave like the Iraqi Kurds. Meanwhile Turkey is willing to work with Kurdish militias not associated with the YPG.
It gets worse. The current (since 2000) Turkish government is pro-Islam and generally tolerant of Islamic terrorists who do not attack Turks. At the same time the Turks never got along well with the Assad government. The Turks also have a hostile relationship with Assad allies Russia and Iran. Because of the Russians the Turks have to be careful how (when and where) they use their warplanes in Syria for fear of attack by Russian warplanes or SAM (surface-to-air missile) systems Russia recently installed. Russia is using this opportunity to improve relationships with Turkey and has offered to back Turkey in joining the Russo-Chinese trade and security they are forming with Central Asia and throughout eastern Eurasia.
Russia is maintaining its military positions in eastern Ukraine but the Ukrainians believe that Russia will go on the offensive again once they can declare victory in Syria. To that end the Russians have unofficially (they deny it) sent at least 5,000 troops into eastern Ukraine and moved another 50,000 into areas near Eastern Ukraine. These units are considered dangerous because they are at nearly full strength and are mostly volunteer troops, meaning Russian can legally send them into combat. There are 29,000 Russian troops in Crimea with 31 percent of them guarding the border with Ukraine.
The Russian backed violence so far (since early 2014) left nearly 10,000 (mostly Ukrainians) dead. The pro-Russian rebels continue to block the movement of observers in their territory. The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) reports that Russian backed rebels are responsible for most (sometimes 90 percent) of the violent incidents in eastern Ukraine. The hundreds of OSCE monitors in eastern Ukraine and Donbas, whose job is to oversee the ceasefire, have been complaining for months that they are being restricted by rebels and, less frequently Ukrainian forces from carrying out inspections. Since early 2016 the rebels have been violating the ceasefire on a daily basis. Anyone in or near Donbas (as a lot of foreign journalists are) can hear or see the daily machine-gun, mortar, rocket and artillery fire by Russian and rebel units. In early January the area was quiet but for whatever reason the Russian backed rebels have been breaking the ceasefire daily since the end of January. Russia denies everything and insists that any evidence is fabricated. Some OSCE observer teams report coming under rebel fire which, in some cases, is believed to be deliberately directed at the OSCE teams.
Russia continues to regularly (30-40 times a day) violate the September 2014 ceasefire on the ground although during November rebel attacks (mortars, artillery, machine-guns) were down about 20 percent from October. In that month these attacks had doubled from September. Many of these incidents consist of a few hundred rounds of machine-gun fire or a few mortar shells. Both sides tend to avoid inflicting casualties, so there is often a warning shot (or shell) to give everyone a chance to take shelter, followed by the rest of the “attack”. There are a lot more attacks on the Black Sea coast, near the port of Mariupol. On some days there are hardly any attacks but these are increasingly rare.
Meanwhile opinion polls show that that the Russian government has yet to gain much domestic support for the war in Ukraine. While 64 percent of Russians agreed that annexing Crimea was a good idea, 63 percent believe it was better if Ukraine remained an independent country. Only about a quarter of Russians follow the new in Ukraine regularly. The poor economic conditions in Russia, as well as the continuing corruption, are of more interest to most Russians. Most Russians are not happy with the expense (in lives and money) to support the fighting in Donbas (eastern Ukraine. Russia has admitted to shipping in nearly 70,000 tons of “humanitarian supplies” to Donbas since mid-2014 to sustain the rebels and civilians still in the area.
December 4, 2016: The United States is halting military cooperation with Russia and increasing such activities with Ukraine.
December 3, 2016: In the south (Dagestan) soldiers cornered and killed five local Islamic terrorists who refused to surrender. Among the dead was Rustam Aselderov, the leader of the local (for the Caucasus) branch of ISIL and sought because of his role in planning and carrying out several terror attacks in Russia.
Russian military engineers, specialists in removing landmines and booby-traps, have arrived in Syria and will handle clearing explosive devices left behind by rebels recently driven out of northern Aleppo by Syrian and Russian troops.
December 2, 2016: In the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan Russian troops began training Tajik troops as part of a Russian effort to upgrade the skills of the Tajik army. In 2013 the Tajik parliament approved an extension of the military cooperation treaty with Russia to 2042. This included Russia continuing to station 6,000 troops there, mainly on the Afghan border to help keep out drugs and Islamic terrorists. All this required operating three Russian bases in Tajikistan. Russia also continues to train Tajik military personnel (mainly officers) and supply weapons and ammo at low cost or for free. The Russians also agreed to provide trainers to improve the skills of all Tajik soldiers. Tajikistan was part of the Soviet Union until 1991 and borders Afghanistan.
December 1, 2016: Turkish and Russian diplomats met in Turkey and agreed that the two nations would cooperate with each other in Syria.
For the second time in two years the launch of a Russian supply vehicle, for the International Space Station, failed and the 2.5 tons of supplies were lost. Such poor performance has been increasingly common in the Russian space program. A Japanese rocket is scheduled to launch another supply vehicle on December 9th. Meanwhile 2016 will be the first year where China launched more rockets (19) than Russia (18). The U.S. was barely in the lead with 20 launches.
November 30, 2016: China and Russia are apparently working to jointly build a better “Internet filtration (censorship)” system. China has succeeded in this more than Russia but both have similar needs and Russia has a lot of experience on the outlaw side of Internet technology. This deal has been negotiated in secret since 2015 but a public announcement is coming soon.
November 28, 2016: Turkey accepted Russian denials that any of its aircraft were responsible for an airstrike that killed several Turkish troops outside al Bab on the 24th. The warplane was apparently Syrian.
November 26, 2016: Iran has confirmed that it will allow Russian warplanes to again use its Hamadan (in northwest Iran) airbase. Iraq does not object to Russian warplanes flying overhead to and from targets in Syria. Russian bombers used Hamadan briefly in August but then stopped. It was later revealed that Iran withdrew permission after senior Russian officials told the media that Russian now had a base in Iran. That was incorrect and very unpopular inside Iran. Russia apologized and Iran let them know permission to use Hamadan could be resumed sometime in the future. Use of this base by Russian warplanes is safer and cheaper than operating from a base in Syria, where attacks from Islamic terrorists and rebels in general are much more likely. Russia can get a lot of supplies locally and easily ship in stuff from Russia via ship (the Caspian Sea) and Iranian railroads.
November 25, 2016: In Syria, outside al Bab (northeast of Aleppo) ISIL forces inside the city fired a mortar shell at FSA rebels and 22 of the rebels came down with symptoms of mustard gas exposure. The Turk-backed rebels were moved to a Turkish military hospital for treatment. Russia recently revealed that its chemical warfare experts collected mustard gas samples from a dud shell fired in September by ISIL forces in Aleppo. The Russians also found evidence of ISIL shells filled with chlorine. ISIL is believed to have used chlorine and mustard gas bombs and shells at least 52 times in Iraq and Syria since 2014.
China agreed to work with the United States to impose more sanctions on North Korea. China agreed to try and persuade Russia to cooperate. Russia indicated it was willing to follow China’s lead in this. That is important because China and Russia are the only two nations with a land border with Korea. The new sanctions are believed to include halting North Korea coal exports to China, or anyone else. Coal has been a major export item for North Korea.
November 24, 2016: In the south (Ingushetia) FSB agents cornered two Islamic terrorists in a house. There was a gun battle and the two Islamic terrorists were killed as were two FSB agents.
The United States has been unsuccessful in getting its European allies to cooperate in blocking Russian shipments of aviation fuel to Syria. Technically this is a violation of the economic sanctions against Russia but the Russians insist that those sanctions do not apply to the Russian military while it is conducting counter-terrorist operations. The U.S. insists that is just a pretense to keep the Syrian military and civil aviation supplied with aviation fuel. No one wants to cooperate with the Americans on this.
November 20, 2016: Two former Ukrainian soldiers were arrested at the Crimean border as the two were caught trying to bribe Ukrainian officials for false education documents so the two could qualify for promotion to officer in the Russian army. The two had been stationed in Crimea in 2014 and accepted the Russian offer after Russia took over to desert the Ukrainian forces in Crimea and join the Russian army. Russia considers that legal, Ukraine considers it desertion and treason.
November 17, 2016: The government confirmed that the air force had again used long range bombers armed with cruise missiles to launch recent attacks on Islamic terrorists in Syria. The bombers travelled 11,000 kilometers to and from a base in Russia to launch the missiles over the Mediterranean. The bombers underwent aerial refueling twice and were escorted by some Su-30 fighters that also refueled in the air.
November 16, 2016: Israel has told Russia that Israel will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from having nukes or establishing any military bases in Syria. Russian officials continue to be friendly towards Israel despite that is going on in Syria and the Russian cooperation with Iran. At the same time Israel and Russia have maintained good diplomatic relations, in part because nearly 20 percent of Israelis have Russian ancestors. Russia is still a major source of Jews immigrating to Israel. Russians in general admire Israel for being resourceful and able to defend themselves in a rough neighborhood. Thus while Russia is currently an active ally of Iran, Russia and Israel continue to have good diplomatic and trade relations. Israel has become a tourist attraction for Russians who can still afford to travel to the Middle East but want to go somewhere that is not threatened by Islamic terror attacks and is hospitable to Russians. Since 2015, when most Russians stopped going to inexpensive Egyptian resorts because of the terror threat a growing number have trying out the more expensive Israeli resorts. Most of these Russians go home and report that the higher cost of vacationing in Israel is worth it because so many Israelis speak Russian and are nostalgic for Russian culture.
November 15, 2016: In the south (Ingushetia) FSB agents arrested five locals with links to ISIL and found the five were planning terror attacks in Moscow and other cities. Weapons, bomb components and documents were seized.
In Crimea Russian FSB agents arrested a retired Russian navy captain and accused him of spying for Ukraine.
November 14, 2016: Off the coast of Syria one of three Russian MiG-29 fighters from the carrier Kuznetsov crashed into sea while flying between the carrier and the coast. It is unclear why the MiG-29 crashed although it appeared to be engine failure. The MiG-29s and Su-33s are not operating from the carrier but flying to a Syrian airbase and getting armed and refueled there before going out and hitting targets. .
November 11, 2016: Russia recently revealed that it had created a separate, encrypted Internet for its military. They call it CTDT (Closed Data Transfer Segment) and it was tested in combat for the first time this year in Syria. This is similar to the classified Internet used by the American military. The U.S. Department of Defense has two private Internets (using Internet technology, but not directly connected to the public Internet). NIPRNET (Non-classified Internet Protocol Router Network) is unclassified, and the primary network for American military personnel. SIPRNET (Secure Internet Protocol Router Network) is classified, and all traffic is encrypted so you can use it to send top secret stuff. NIPRNET is the largest private network on the planet, with over four million authorized users and over three times as many devices (PCs, and other electronic equipment) connected.
November 9, 2016: Russia and Armenia agreed to a mutual defense pact that includes a joint Russian-Armenian military force in Armenia. This joint force will be used to deal with any military threat to either nation. This mainly benefits Armenia. Russia continued deliveries of weapons and ammo to Armenia this year despite the fact that Armenian troops were fighting forces from neighboring Azerbaijan. This is mainly about Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting over since 1992. The mutual defense pact with Russia does not include Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia defeated an Azerbaijani April “offensive” and Russian brokered a new ceasefire deal. Russia and Iran are cooperating to maintain the ceasefire. Iran has more influence over Azerbaijan and is doing what it can to persuade the Azerbaijanis to stop violating the ceasefires. That appears to be working although mainly because the Azerbaijani attacks have not been successful. Both these countries were formerly part of the Soviet Union. 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 after another round of heaving fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. 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 through the Caucasus (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.