The government has an awkward situation in Syria. Immediately after the April 7 American cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base (in retaliation of earlier Syrian use of nerve gas) the Russian Internet lit up with embarrassing discussions about that happened to Russian boasts in late 2016 that the Russian air defense system in Syria was operational. Using these very current and high-tech air defense weapons (Tor 2, S-400 and so on) Russia controlled who could use Syrian air space. Thus the American use of 59 cruise missiles to hit that Syrian air base, destroy about 20 percent of the Syrian air force and not touch the Russian aircraft and troops there, was either done with Russian permission or these expensive new air defense systems were vulnerable to American countermeasures. That was a common source of humiliation during the Cold War when, time and time again, the West, usually the Americans, came up with some unexpected tech to neutralize Russian systems, especially air defense and aircraft electronics. The government was forced to note these embarrassing comments on Russian language Internet message boards and announced that Russian policy was not to use the air defense system against external air threats in Syria, or at least not the ones that were no threat to Russian troops. Other government officials commented that the Russian air defense systems could detect low-flying cruise missiles but not everywhere as these cruise missiles could be programmed to deliberately take advantage of terrain (hills) and also detect and avoid Russian radars. Older Russians then recalled hearing the same excuses during the Cold War. The people running Russia remember it as well and that seemed to account for the public displays (in the UN and to the international media) of anger at the Americans. It wasn’t just what the Americans did but how they did it.
Russia has more to dislike about what the U.S. is doing in Syria. For example there are the bases the Americans are building in northern (Kurd controlled) Syria. Turkey and the Assads oppose these American bases but the bases remain because the Americans, and most of the world, no longer consider the Assads legitimate rulers of Syria. The Assads and their allies Iran and Russia disagree. As long as the American bases were there to support the fight against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) Iran and Russia did not make an issue of these bases or the thousand or so U.S. troops in Syria. But now that the U.S. has, for the first time, carried out a major military attack on the Assad forces and may continue to do so, a suitable response is necessary. There is not much the Assads can do. They have not been able to prevent regular Israeli air attacks (to prevent Iranian advanced weapons from being moved to Lebanon) and it is no secret that the U.S. and Israel are close allies. The Russians have already made it clear that they will side with the Israelis if forced to decide between the Assads and Israel. This has put Iran in a difficult position and the latest American move makes that worse. All foreign forces operating in Syria are supposed to be there to deal with ISIL but Iran and Russia only pretended and were often criticized because most of the military activity in Syria was to weaken rebels (mainly non-ISIL) fighting to overthrow the Assads.
While Russia is officially in Syria to defeat ISIL and keep the Assads in power they (semi-officially) also want to maintain good relations with Israel and Sunni Arab countries while doing it. This annoys Iran. Israel has made it clear that there can never be peace in Syria if Iran tries to establish a permanent presence there. The Iranians say they are in Syria to stay and the Russians (so far) have said they oppose that. Iran wants to stay in Syria as part of its decades old effort to destroy Israel and a centuries old effort to make the Shia form of Islam dominant in the Islamic world (that is over 80 percent non-Shia). Meanwhile Israel says it can live with the Assads as long as Iran is not maintaining a military presence in Syria. Many Turks agree with Israel on that point and newly elected U.S. government has come out strongly against any permanent Iranian presence in Syria. The Americans still want the Assads gone but despite that the U.S., Israel and Turkey agree on some key goals.
The Russian intervention appears to be permanent (as far as the Russians are concerned) and the Assads are OK with that. Turkey and Iran are not so sure and Iran is openly opposed to Turkish troops being in Syria at all. At the same time Iran is demanding the right to establish a naval base in Syria. This is not a new idea. In 2011 Iran pledged to pay for the construction of a naval base on the Syrian Mediterranean coast. That proposal was put aside as the rebellion against the Assads grew but now Iran wants some payback for playing a key role in maintaining the Assads in power. All these overlapping and often contradictory goals and alliances may seem odd to an outsider but this is the Middle East, where such complex arrangements are the old normal.
The Economic Front
Russian economic problems continue, mainly as a result of low oil prices since 2014. The government keeps announcing that the economy is getting better but for most Russians it is very obvious that this is not the case. The most obvious indicator is the number of people living in extreme poverty (income of under $172 a month). Before the current Putin crew took control in 2000 when nearly 30 percent of the population was that poor and it was pretty obvious that many more Russians were vulnerable. Putin turned that around and by 2006 fewer than 15 percent were in extreme poverty and by 2014 it was under 11 percent. Since then poverty has increased to 13 percent and the government has managed to slow the increase but not reverse it.
In addition to the plummeting oil prices the Ukraine related sanctions 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. Yet despite that his approval ratings are still about 80 percent. This is mainly because one of the first things Putin did when he came to power in 1999 was to fix the pensions for elderly Russians so they could survive. This made a positive impression on the majority of Russians. That plus Putin’s PR skills enabled him to maintain high personal approval. Yet more Russians are upset about the continued corruption and sluggish economic performance. This is especially true with the youngest Russians (those born after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Meanwhile the drop in oil income forced Putin to try something drastic and he decided to employ an ancient trick; blame all the problems on evil foreigners. It worked, even though in 2012 opposition was growing among the urban middle class 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.
Although recent nationwide anti-corruption demonstrations were peaceful and scrupulously legal government officials in some areas responded by trying to prosecute protest organizers. This often involved deploying the new (since 2016) “National Guard”. This paramilitary organization of some 400,000 soldiers and police is officially a “rapid reaction” force for dealing with terrorism or any other threat to Russia that requires quick and decisive action. There is growing resistance in parliament to a recent Putin request for new laws that allow the National Guard to fire on Russian citizens whenever the government wants to without warning. In addition National Guard leaders are to be immune to any prosecution for anything they are ordered to do. This reminds too many people of the kind of power the Soviet era KGB had. The new National Guard is suspected of being the new KGB army. As organized the new National Guard is taking nearly all of the best trained and most effective units from the Interior Ministry. That is seen as weakening an existing force that could prevent a new KGB from misbehaving. Putin, a former KGB officer, also made the National Guard immune to FSB (the post-Soviet KGB) oversight. Another interesting aspect of the National Guard is that the many para-military groups formed by the pro-Putin government of Chechnya are now considered part of the National Guard. A growing number of Russians are calling the National Guard “Putin’s Private Army.” This sort of thing is an ancient practice. Thus in pre-2003 Iraq Saddam Hussein had his Republican Guard, a force that was filled with the best paid, best armed men in the armed forces who were, above all, loyal to Saddam. All other successful dictatorships have similar forces. In Soviet Russia the secret police (KGB) employed over a million domestic spies and informers backed by several divisions of troops trained and equipped to deal with rebellions by the population, or the armed forces. Iran has a similar force, the Revolutionary Guard that serves a similar role as the old KGB. The Saudi monarchy has its National Guard and surviving monarchies usually have a least a ceremonial remnant of the once powerful “guards.” Even the pope still has a Swiss Guard. In 2016 ISIL formed a 4,000 man “Shield of Islam” force which is composed of the most skilled and resourceful ISIL fighters, including many foreigners (especially hundreds of the much feared Chechens). During World War II, Adolf Hitler had the SS, Gestapo and his private army, the Waffen SS, all of which kept Germany fighting until the very end. The new Putin version of the KGB army is being created by taking most of the armed forces available to the Interior Ministry (the national police and various riot control, SWAT and special operations forces) as well as investigators and intelligence experts and assigning them to the new National Guard which swears to protect the president of Russia (currently Putin), not the Russian people.
Despite the sanctions and low oil prices Russia continues to maintain high military spending. Usually details of how this works is hidden from the Russian public by increasing the size of the classified (“black”) budget. This doubled from 2010 to 2015 to $60 billion a year. Much of this is believed for defense related items. But in early 2017 the Russians admitted what was becoming obvious; that since 2015 the defense spending has gone down. It declined 3.8 percent in 2015, five percent in 2016 and is expected to decline 7 percent in 2017 and keep declining at least until 2020. The black budget shrank as well.
The Western Front
The growing aggressiveness of Russia towards its East European neighbors (especially ones that used to be part of Russia) has led these countries to revive military practices they thought they were done with. This includes civil defense and training citizens on how to resist and survive if again occupied by Russia. The East European NATO members and Ukraine agree that the Russians are acting like they are preparing for an offensive, probably a quick one to grab as much territory as they can before declaring a ceasefire and calling for peace negotiations. This is Russia’s most likely move because they cannot afford a large scale or long-term war.
The daily reality is that Russia is doing very little. The only active violence is in Ukraine where it is costing Russia about $2 billion a year to support the rebel controlled half of Donbas. Russian currency circulates there as do about 5,000 Russian soldiers, most of them dressed as local rebels (most of whom are ethnic Russians). Ukraine has become a holding action. The diplomatic tension created by the Donbas stalemate prevents Ukraine from joining NATO or the EU (European Union). However Ukraine is building strong economic and political ties with Europe and the West and eventually Russia will have to decide if Ukraine is worth the risks of more hostility with the West.
Since 2015 Ukraine has become a secondary operation for Russia with Syria, the rest of the Middle East plus North Korea demanding more attention. This has made it easier for Ukrainians to document the presence of Russian troops inside Donbas. This is possible because Donbas has cell phone service and a lot of people there like to take pictures and share them. Although the Russian soldiers in Donbas are supposed to remove all identifying items from their uniforms, not all the troops do that completely. The Russian troops are not supposed to spend too much time socializing with the locals but they do and often share those experiences on Internet based social networks. Russia denies everything and since Russia has state controlled mass media most Russians see the official version of who is in Donbas, not the reality. The veto in the UN limits international blowback because of Donbas and the fact that Russia has ignored nearly all the things it agreed to in several recent Donbas ceasefire agreements.
Russia has lost a lot of support in the rest of Europe because of the way they treat OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) personnel in Donbas. The OSCE presence is recognized by Russia and is supposed to be monitoring the situation in Donbas and verifying who is doing what. That has proved to be difficult because the Russian backed rebels (and sometimes Russian troops pretending to be rebels) regularly interfere with OSCE monitoring team. In 2017 a lot of that harassment has concentrated on the commercial UAVs (usually quad-copters) the monitors increasingly use for their inspections. The rebels will often “arrest” the monitors at gunpoint and confiscate or destroy their UAV. Rebels will usually shoot down OSCE UAVs and claim it was an accident. Russia has apparently been closely monitoring OSCE in Ukraine. This became clear after a hacker attack in late 2016 that hit OSCE personnel in Ukraine. This hack was similar to the one carried out against government networks throughout Ukraine. The Russians ignore or harass OSCE whenever they feel the need to, or simply feel like it. The pro-Russian rebels continue to block the movement of observers in their territory. The OSCE has found 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 since 2015 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. 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 personnel. The treatment of the OSCE is regularly reported back in the various West European nations they come from and that has eroded European confidence in Russia telling the truth about anything.
In 2017 Ukraine has recognized the increased Russian use of these aggressive tactics and is accusing Russia of using this approach as yet another new tactic to seize more of eastern Ukraine and absorb it back into the Russian Empire. Officially Russia denies this but the restoration of the centuries old Russian Empire remains a popular goal among Russians, whether the state controlled media puts a spotlight on that or not. Ukraine was always a key component of that empire and Russians want it back. To do that the cost, in political, financial and military terms would be high. While rebuilding the empire is popular inside Russia it has terrified and united the rest of Europe and led to a growing militarization effort. Russia’s economy cannot match the rest of Europe and as Europe revives its military power Russia will be at a disadvantage there as well. While Russia has nukes so does France and Britain. Then there is the United States.
Ukraine is recovering from the economic damage suffered because of the war with Russia and is coming to realize that the biggest problems Ukraine is facing are internal. Yet despite the continued widespread corruption the government made progress with reforms. That progress was sufficient to keep foreign financial aid coming. Thus in 2016 Ukrainian GDP grew 1.5 percent and is expected to be three percent in 2017. In large part this is because they are not dependent on oil exports or suffering from sanctions. In contrast 2015 GDP declined 10 percent. But the corruption is still in play and most obvious when it comes to the growing defense budget. The U.S. is not happy with all the continued plundering of the Ukrainian defense budget and threatens to cut support unless the Ukrainian officials stop the stealing and cooperate with each other for the common good. Recent opinion polls show that the majority of Ukrainians would now vote to join NATO and move closer to the less corrupt and more prosperous West. 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. Now there is a new government in the United States but it is unclear if this will mean a more determined opposition to Russia over the Ukraine aggression or not.
The Eastern Front
Russia has one major, and very embarrassing problem in the former parts of the Soviet Union that were not mainly Slavs. This means Central Asia where the locals (mainly Turkic and other non-Slavs) always resented Russian domination. The ethnic Russian minority soon left and now the number of locals who can speak Russian is rapidly shrinking. Since the early 1990s, these unwilling areas of the Russian empire have lost between a third and half of their Russian speakers. In the West (the Baltic States) the favorite second language is now English while in the east it is Chinese (mainly) and English. During the Soviet years the majority of the locals could speak or at least understand some Russian. The speed with which that disappeared was amazing, and demoralizing for Russians.
Russia still has a lot of non-Slav minorities and these minorities have higher birth-rates than the ethnic Russians. For centuries Russia (rebranded as the Soviet Union in the early 1920s) was considered a threat to its neighbors in part because of its larger population. But since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 (and half the population broke away to form 14 new nations) the remaining Russian population has been in decline. Twenty years after the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian population implosion was getting worse. While in the 1990s the population was shrinking at a rate of .1 percent a year, in the first decade of the 21st century that increased to .2 percent a year. This was because the non-Slav Russians are having fewer children, just as the Slavs have been doing (or, rather, not doing) for decades. The Russian population had declined three percent since 1989, from 147 to 142.9 million. The proportion of the population that is ethnic Russian (Slav) declined from 81.5 percent to 77 percent in that same period. The Russian slide could have been worse had it not been for the fact that millions of ethnic Russians in the 14 new states felt unwelcome with government controlled by the locals, not Russians in far off Moscow. Often the locals wanted the ethnic locals in their midst gone and Russia made it easy for ethnic Russians to return to the motherland. This prevented the Russian population decline from being closer to ten percent. Until the recent invasion of Ukraine, sanctions and lower oil prices, the Russian birth rate was growing again. That has stopped since the invasion of Ukraine and more Russians are seeking to emigrate as are many foreigners working in Russia. The extent of this can be seen in Moscow where rents for high-end (“Western”) apartments (for wealthy Russians and foreign professionals) have declined over 40 percent in the last year.
April 17, 2017: Russia and the United States have agreed to meet with UN officials in Switzerland by the 25th to discuss what to do in Syria.
April 16, 2017: China joined Russia is sending intelligence collecting ships to shadow the American carrier task force approaching Korea.
April 12, 2017: For the first time China refused to join Russia in blocking a UN resolution criticizing the Syrian government. This time it was about the recent use of nerve gas, which Russian insists did not happen. China was never an active participant in the Syria war and went along with Russia because the two nations see themselves as united to oppose American domination. But now the U.S. and China are negotiating a new relationship and Russia fears that means less support from China. While China is backing away from supporting Russia in Syria the same cannot be said for other common problems, like North Korea. China and Russia are still coordinating moves when it comes to North Korea.
April 11, 2017: The government suggested that the Americans were behind the recent use of nerve gas in Syria and that it was part of an American effort to justify going to war with Syria (or at least the Assad government Russia backs). The Russian accusations were not backed by any evidence and soon faded from the news.
In Syria two more Russian soldiers died (from mortar fire) and another was wounded. Since mid-2015 29 Russian soldiers have died in Syria.
April 10, 2017: The government announced that its forces in Syria would not attempt to intercept American missiles (cruise or otherwise) if they are used again in Syria to attack Syrian military forces. The government reminded everyone that Russian forces were in Syria to fight Islamic terrorists.
April 8, 2017: In the south (Ingushetia) unidentified gunmen shot dead two policemen.
In Syria Russia canceled the “deconfliction” agreement they with the United States regarding each other’s warplanes operating over Syria. This agreement avoids accidental clashes and the U.S. observed the agreement by informing Russia shortly before the American cruise missiles were launched yesterday. The Russians are expressing their anger at the American attack on Syrian forces and the implied criticism of Russia for not enforcing the 2013 agreement that was supposed to eliminate all Syrian chemical weapons. Russia has a similar deconfliction deal with Israel which is apparently still in force. The day before The United States retaliated for the recent Syrian use of nerve gas by launching 59 cruise missiles (from two warships in the Mediterranean) at the Syrian Shayrat air base in Homs province. Most of the Syrian air strikes in northern Syria are flown out of Shayat, which was inoperable for a day or two because all but one of the Tomahawks hit their targets. This was all about t
he Syrian government being held responsible for using nerve gas in a recent attacks on a rebel village in Idlib province. This would be a clear violation of the 2013 Russian brokered deal where Syria surrendered all its chemical weapons in return for no foreign intervention (as the U.S. has promised) because chemical weapons were used. An August 21 2013 attack used nerve gas to kill over 1,400 people in a rebel controlled village outside Damascus. The evidence was overwhelming for the 2013 attack and this latest one in Idlib is equally incriminating. The Syrian government, Russia, Iran and Iraq condemned the American attack and supported the Syrian Assad government denials that they had anything to do with the use of nerve gas. But the rest of the world either openly supported the attack or were undecided. Most Western nations openly supported the attack as did Middle Eastern nations Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). This American action was a big deal in Israel which had hoped the newly elected American government would be more supportive of Israeli efforts to deal with Islamic terrorism (both Sunni and Shia) in the region. Israel and its new Sunni Arab allies are particularly concerned about the growing threat from Iran, which the previous U.S. government did not take as seriously as the Middle Eastern nations (particularly Israel) that Iran openly threatened.
April 6, 2017: In the south (Astrakhan) three soldiers were wounded during a gun battle that killed four ISIL gunmen believed responsible for an attack on police two days ago.
April 4, 2017: In the south (Astrakhan) ISIL gunmen shot dead two policemen.
In northwest Syria warplanes belonging to the Assad forces apparently used chemical bombs to attack a rebel controlled village. The attack killed 85 people, most of them civilians, including 20 children. The victims showed symptoms of nerve gas being used. The Syrian government accused the rebels of making the attack or having stored chemical weapons in one the buildings the bombs hit. But the U.S., NATO and Israel soon confirmed that it was the Assad forces who delivered the nerve gas.
April 3, 2017: In the northwest (St Petersburg) an Islamic terrorist suicide bomber attacked inside a subway car, killing eleven and wounding nearly fifty.
March 31, 2017: In eastern Ukraine (the Black Sea port of Mariupol) a senior Ukrainian intelligence officer was killed by a bomb planted in his car.
March 26, 2017: Throughout Russia there were large scale demonstrations protesting corruption and the resulting problems (growing poverty and economic problems). To the surprise of many the demonstrations, although largely ignored by the state controlled mass media, had an impact on public opinion. Polls following the demonstrations revealed that 38 percent of Russians approved of the demonstrations and support for senior Russian politicians fell substantially. Nearly half the population fear for their future prospects and corruption is seen at the root of problems afflicting post-Soviet Union Russia. But a growing number of Russians believe that returning to the tyranny of the past would make things better. In 1990 only eight percent of Russians supported brutal and paranoid Russian dictator Josef Stalin. But now 24 percent do and only six percent of Russians believe the Bolshevik takeover of the government after 1917 was bad thing. In the 1990s many Russians believed that the seven decades of communist rule were a disaster but that assessment has mellowed as democracy has not delivered everything the politicians promised.
March 24, 2017: In the south (Chechnya) ISIL gunmen attacked a small military base outside the capital. The fighting went on for several hours before the attackers fled, having lost six dead. The soldiers lost six dead and several wounded.
March 21, 2017: Iranian military officials accuse Russia of providing Israel with technical information about Russian made air defense radars and air defense control systems used by Syria and Iran. Iranian experts say that this explains how Israeli aircraft always manage to avoid being spotted or effectively fired on by Russian made Syrian air defense systems. Specifically Iran accuses the Russians of providing IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) codes to the Israelis. The IFF beacon every combat aircraft carries broadcasts a coded message to friendly aircraft and anti-aircraft systems. The Iranians say they can prove this because they secretly helped the Syrians change some of their IFF codes without the Russians knowing and suddenly the Israeli aircraft were being spotted. Russia denies the accusation and Israel has no comment.