The economic problems continue, mainly as a result of low oil prices since 2014. The Ukraine related sanctions have made it worse, to the extent that GDP dropped from $2.1 trillion to $1.1 trillion because 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. 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 and returning to Cold War conditions where the country was proud, patriotic and increasingly poor.
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 and eastern neighbors joining NATO for protection from Russian aggression).
Despite the government emphasis on patriotism and order at any cost recent opinion surveys show Russians consider their major problems (in this order); the economy, health care, corruption, education, unemployment and crime. Syria, Ukraine and NATO do not matter much to the average Russian. 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.
A Diplomatic Victory
The pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government agreed that peace talks with the Syrian rebels could be held in Central Asia (the capital of Kazakhstan). The problem is finding a rebel coalition large enough and agreeable enough to join the talks. That may not be necessary as discussions between Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government apparently agreed to some general terms for such a deal. It would consist of a ceasefire with groups now in control of parts of Syria recognized as the temporary ruler of those areas. If the ceasefire held, there would be new elections. The Assads would not participate, but only if they were granted immunity to prosecution so the Assads could go into comfortable exile. All this assumes that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) control of any territory in Syria is eliminated. This is an old proposal, but it always depended on ISIL not being part of the mix. That is now a possibility. Meanwhile on the 29th a ceasefire agreement between Assad forces and some rebel groups, like the FSA and some other non-Islamic radical groups, began. It generally held but does not include most of the rebels, especially the al Qaeda and ISIL affiliated ones. A complication in all this the Iranian demand that the Shia minority remain in charge of the government. Since the Sunnis are still a majority, that does not seem likely.
Although all the foreign powers are supposed to be in Syria to defeat ISIL, that is clearly not the case. The core of ISIL power is in the east, in Raqqa. The only ones concentrating on Raqqa are a coalition of Syrian Kurd and local Arab groups supported by Western and Arab nations. The pro-Assad coalition will turn its attention to Raqqa once the rest of the country has been brought back under Assad control. At that point the Assads seek to regain Raqqa. For the Assads it would be best for the Syrian Kurd and Arab groups advancing on Raqqa to take the city. This would be a costly (in lives) process. The Assads could then claim Raqqa as theirs and the pro-Assad coalition would back them as that coalition has always backed a peace deal with the Assads still in charge. Thus it is no surprise that with Aleppo back in hands of the Assads the war is going in two directions. The Assad government, backed by Iran, Russia and Turkey are concentrating on clearing remaining rebels out of the northwest. That means Hama, Latakia and Idlib provinces, the areas where the Assads always had the most support. Turkey is intent on getting any anti-Turk (pro-PKK) Syrian Kurds out of there as well. Idlib province, west of Aleppo and bordering Turkey, is the main target and is now receiving most of the Russian airstrikes. There are still lots of rebels (few of them ISIL) west of Aleppo.
Ukraine is recovering from the economic damage suffered because of the war with Russia. In 2016 GDP grew 1.5 percent and is expected to be three percent in 2017. In contrast 2015 GDP declined 10 percent. There has also been more progress in battling the chronic corruption that crippled Ukraine even before it became independent again in 1991. The threat of losing independence and once more becoming part of Russia has caused some other changes, like eliminating any lingering nostalgia for decades of communist rule. Thus in the last year the government removed 1,320 statues of Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin (who remains something of a folk hero to most Russians) and renamed 51,500 streets that had names associated with Lenin or any other Soviet era notable.
Recent opinion polls show that the majority of Ukrainians would now vote to join NATO. For the last decade Russia has threated to declare war if Ukraine joined NATO. Because of this by 2009 the U.S. lost its enthusiasm for letting Ukraine join NATO, thus leaving Ukraine on its own to deal with Russian aggression. That led to a popular uprising in 2014 that ousted a pro-Russian (and very corrupt) president of Ukraine and triggered an undeclared Russian war against Ukraine.
In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) the latest indefinite ceasefire, which began on the 24th, has ended over the past few days as the number of unprovoked attacks by the Russian backed rebels keeps increasing.
December 29, 2016: The U.S. government released the proof that Russia was behind the hacking of networks of the Democratic Party in 2016 and the subsequent release of documents showing bad behavior by Democrat politicians and party officials. The U.S. proof consisted of a 13 page NCCIC document that did not deliver. There was a summary and disclaimer page that contained assertions but no proof of Russian involvement. This was followed by nine pages of useful but standard advice on how to protect yourself from the kind of hack (spearfishing) that caused most of the damage. There was a page diagraming the Russian groups believed responsible but not with any evidence that would stand up in court. Finally there were two pages of diagrams and a some computer code showing how the attack was carried but again, no evidence of who did it much less any links to Russia. Worse, the report makes no mention of Wikileaks, which admitted releasing the documents in question and denying that Russia was the source. There was nothing like what recently leaked NSA documents presented. These described American hacks used against foreign governments and Americans at home. No matter, the outgoing U.S. government had promised retaliation and this was it. The Russian government protested the American actions, based on the NCCIC document that included the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomatic personnel and closing two country retreat compounds used by Russian diplomats. The Russian protest was accompanied by the order to close the Anglo-American School in Moscow, which is used by English speaking children of diplomats (especially American and Canadian). The school has over 1,200 students and its closure will be a major problem for the diplomats involved. Russia also ordered the closure of an American diplomatic compound outside Moscow. More Russian retaliation is expected. The basic problem here is an old one; attacks via the Internet are not easy to trace back to the source if the attackers are careful. Russian and Chinese hackers have been very careful and very successful as have been their American (mainly NSA) and Israeli counterparts. The fundamental problem here is what criteria for “proof” do you use before declaring a particularly damaging (as in loss of life and military equipment) attack an act of war and counterattack in a meaningful sense. This is a question that has yet to be answered.
December 28, 2016: In Syria mortar shells were again fired at the Russian embassy in Damascus. One such shell fell within the embassy compound but was a dud (did not explode) while another shell did explode, but nearby and outside the embassy compound. This has happened several times since 2011. The Syrian government is believed to be responsible for some of these attacks, at least the ones that took place when there were no rebels reported close enough to have done so.
In Ukraine the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) confirmed that its offices in Ukraine were also hit with a hacker attack in November, similar to the one carried out against government networks throughout Ukraine. The OSCE is recognized by Russia and is supposed to be monitoring the situation in Donbas. The reality is that the Russians ignore or harass OSCE whenever they feel the need to, or simply feel like it.
December 27, 2016: Russia criticized a recent American decision to loosen up their restrictions on what kinds of weapons are sent to Syrian rebel groups the U.S. still backs (mainly the ones that do not openly call for attacks on the West). This means that the Americans will send new anti-aircraft weapons (most likely Stingers.) This has been threatened, as in 2008 when the U.S. was seeking a suitable response to Russian sales of air defense systems to Syria and Iran. Missiles like the Stinger would be a serious threat to Russian aircraft (especially helicopters and ground attack aircraft) in Syria.
Pakistan, Russia and China officials met in Russia to discuss the security situation in Afghanistan. China and Russia agreed to try and get UN sanctions against the Taliban lifted in order to encourage the Taliban to enter peace talks with Afghanistan. The U.S. had earlier revealed evidence of the Taliban getting some help (sanctuary, diplomatic support and information) from Iran and Russia in return for assistance in keeping ISIL out of Iran and Russia. Afghanistan accuses Russia and China of cooperating with Pakistan is trying to control Afghanistan via the Taliban (which was created by Pakistan in the 1990s for just that purpose). Afghanistan accuses Iran of secretly working with the Taliban when it will help keep Islamic terrorists out of Iran. Russia has also come out in support of the Chinese financed rail link between China and the Indian Ocean via Pakistan and new port facilities (and a Chinese naval base) on the Pakistani coast.
December 25, 2016: Russia delivered the first four of 24 Su-35 fighters China ordered in late 2015 for delivery by 2018. These cost about $84 million each. The deal took several years to negotiate because of Russian fears that China would steal the new tech in the Su-35 and make their own clone, as China has already done with the Su-27 and Su-30. Apparently the technology transfer and security aspects of the deal are still being negotiated. Some Su-35s were sent to Syria in 2015 and have performed well there. The Su-35 is another extension of the Su-27 design, using a much more powerful engine and stealth features. Development has been expensive and difficult. The Su-35 has been called the F-22ski, but it's more analogous to a proposed advanced F-15 fighter but with stealth features. Russia has, since the 1990s, been forced to deliver new weapons to export customers (mainly India and China) first because Russia was too broke to buy this stuff for the Russian military. More Su-35s are on order for the Russian Air Force but the more recent Chinese order received priority.
December 24, 2016: The government revealed a recent agreement with Syria (the Assad government) to expand the current Russian navy base at Tartus. Before 2011 Russia was building a small, but technically permanent naval support facility in Tartus. By 2012 the several hundred Russians who there working on the project were largely gone from Syria and the Tartus project suspended until the war was over. That changed in mid-2015 when Russia intervened with several thousand air force, special operations and support troops. Work on Tartus has resumed. The current Russian Tartus facility can handle only four medium-sized (under 100 meters long) vessels. That’s because the Russian base only has two 100 meter (325 foot) long floating piers inside of the northern breakwater of the Tartus port. The non-military port activities have been very busy since Russian troops arrived in mid-2015 and had to be regularly supplied. A lot of those “supplies” were actually for Syrian military and Iranian mercenaries in Syria.
December 23, 2016: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) the Russian-backed rebels agreed to another indefinite ceasefire. This ceasefire was worked out by Ukraine and Russia (which, technically, is not involved in the Donbas violence) at the instigation of the OSCE. This truce begins tomorrow. The last truce began on September 1st and largely held until December, when the rebel violence increased considerably.
In Syria a battalion of Russian military police arrived in Aleppo to help protect aid workers, vital facilities (like hospitals) and restore order.
December 22, 2016: Ukraine accuses Russia of employing hackers to insert trackers into cell phones used by Ukrainian military personnel fighting in Donbas. Ukraine has also found evidence of the same or similar hackers (usually civilian groups working as contractors for the Russian government) going after numerous government and commercial networks in Ukraine. Some of these hackers were also identified as going after targets in the United States. The hacking of military personnel cell phones is believed to be the cause of several recent accurate and fatal attacks on Ukrainian troops in Donbas. The hackers made it possible to track the location of the phone owners and accurately fire shells at them.
December 20, 2016: The Russian navy received its first upgraded Ka-27M ASW (anti-submarine warfare) helicopter. The navy still has a lot of Cold War era ships and aircraft in need of replacement or upgrades. The most urgently needed new ships are nuclear subs and coastal and harbor patrol craft. These are being delivered in greater numbers but the need remains urgent. Many coastal areas and naval bases are poorly guarded because of the shortage of modern (or just functioning) patrol ships.
December 19, 2016: the assassination of the Russian ambassador in the Turkish capital yesterday caused Russia to pledge closer cooperation with Turkey against Islamic terrorism. The killer was an off-duty policeman who shouted “remember Aleppo” before he was shot and killed by security personnel. Since Aleppo fell to Syrian government control over the last two weeks many anti-Assad Turks have demonstrated outside the Turkish and Iranian embassies and criticized Turkish cooperation with Iran, Russia and the Assad government of Syria. All three of these groups have long been seen as enemies of Turkey.
December 16, 2016: The fifth test of the new A-235 anti-ballistic missile system was a success. Also called Nudol, this is basically an upgrade of the A-135 system which entered service protecting Moscow just as the Cold War ended. Only 68 of the silo-based A-135 missiles were produced and they are only deployed around Moscow. One interesting feature of Nudol is that it can, like the American SM-3 anti-missile missiles also shoot down low orbit satellites. The U.S. did this in 2008, to destroy an American spy satellite that had stopped functioning. The SM-3 was fired from an Aegis equipped American warship. That sort of thing upset Russian military leaders a great deal. U.S. military technology has been the bane of Russian military planning since World War II. Back then, billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. military equipment was shipped to Russia between 1942 and 1945 and a generation of Russian officers came away impressed at the casual (technical) competence of the Americans. During the Cold War, Russian planners were constantly in fear of new U.S. technology breakthroughs. These happened frequently enough to remain real to the current Russian generals. The 2008 satellite shoot down just reinforced the feeling of technological inferiority. The Russians passed this attitude on to the Chinese, who tend to see the U.S. lead as more of an opportunity than as an obstacle.
December 14, 2016:
Russia believes that at least 2,000 of ISIL dead are Moslems from Russia and other nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union.
December 13, 2016: Russia declared that the rebel resistance in nearly all of Aleppo was over and that government (pro-Assad) forces were moving in. As Syrian army troops and pro-Assad militias enter Aleppo there are reports of civilians being murdered.
December 12, 2016: In the south (Chechnya) 20 to 30 local Islamic terrorists tried to launch several attacks in the provincial capital (Grozny). All the attacks failed with eleven of the attackers were killed and six captured. One policeman was wounded in all this. The leader of the Islamic terrorists, Said Ibragim Ismailov, died and was known to police and had connections with ISIL. The last time the local Islamic terrorists tried to carry out such an attack was in 2014, when 14 policemen were killed.
In Syria the commander of a Russian air assault brigade was killed in action near Aleppo.
December 11, 2016: In the south (Chechnya) twelve Chechen contract soldiers were dismissed from the military for refusing to obey orders and serve in Syria. The provincial government of Chechnya is in the midst of recruiting 1,200 local men for two security battalions being sent to Syria. The recruits already have jobs in local security services and are being offered large cash bonuses to serve in Syria for six months or so.
December 9, 2016: Japan successfully launched a supply vehicle for the ISS (International Space Station) to replace the one lost on December 1st when, for the second time in two years the launch of a Russian supply vehicle failed. That destroyed 2.5 tons of supplies for the ISS crew. Such poor performance has been increasingly common in the Russian space program. 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.
December 7, 2016: Russia lost several military personnel during the battle for Aleppo and at least three were awarded medals for valor. Two female military nurses were killed today, as they worked in a military hospital in Aleppo. Elsewhere a Russian colonel, serving as a military adviser in Aleppo was badly wounded by rebel shelling and died later from those wounds.
December 5, 2016: Off the coast of Syria Russia’s only aircraft carrier (the Admiral Kuznetzov) lost a second aircraft (a Su-33) because of problems with the arresting gear (the cable the landing aircraft connects with as it lands to end the landing sequence). On November 14th Kuznetzov lost an MiG-29KR in a similar incident. Russia has had problems with arresting cables before. In 2005 a Su-33 was lost due to an arresting cable snapping. This occurred when on the Kuznetzov while it was operating in the Baltic. By 2016 it is believed money shortages led to Russia buying fewer cables and not replacing them as frequently as their American counterparts. The money shortage also meant that Russian naval aviators got to spend a lot less time landing and taking off from their carrier. As was observed after the 2005 incident, the Russian aviator involved had spent a lot of years flying, but not much time operating off a carrier. It’s all about experience and the lessons learned.