Since late May the Russian backed rebels in Donbas (eastern Ukraine) have become more active but show no signs of making a major move. The Russian operations in Donbas and all along the borders of “free Europe” (former parts of Russia or Russian dominated until 1991) are more for show than substance. That is known because information flows out of Russia a lot more freely that before 1991. Daily details of life in Russia are common knowledge in Europe and to anyone who bothers to use the Internet to follow this news. That puts the threatening bluster coming out of Russia in perspective.
While this reality is ignored by state controlled media in Russia the rest of Europe pays close attention and has concluded that while Russia is a threat it is not the same threat that existed during the Cold War (1947-91). Back then Russia was twice its current size and population and its armed forces were five times larger than they are now. Russian troops occupied most of East Europe and half of Germany, nations that were run by pro-Russia communist governments. While Europe had a larger GDP than the “Soviet Bloc” Western Europe was outnumbered in most other respects. That has all changed since 1989 and now “free Europe” has three times as many people as Russia, twelve times the GDP and larger armed forces. The Russians still have nukes, but so do the Europeans (Britain and France). While Russia has tried to rebuild its post-Cold War armed forces there is clear evidence (especially along the border and in Donbas) that this is still a work-in-progress and not nearly as successful as Russian propaganda describes it.
But one thing Free Europe does fear is Russian efforts to use the old “we must aid our oppressed countrymen” excuse to attack neighboring nations. This is the justification for many major wars, including World War II and Korea (1950-53) and many others before and since. This is a highly respected (and frequently used) technique in Russia (and China). For most of Free Europe this is the main Russian threat in Ukraine (which wants to join NATO) and the Baltic States (which already have).
In Donbas Western and Ukrainian intel services regularly question defecting rebels, especially leaders to monitor and confirm the authenticity of what Russia is believed to be doing. While this is mainly to measure and monitor how Russia runs its “local rebellion” in Donbas it also provides useful details of the Russian armed forces as a whole. This is how it was confirmed that Russia is still using a lot of Cold War era weapons, equipment and ammunition. Russia has been sending the Donbas forces (many of them current or former Russian military) about 1,500 tons of munitions a month in the last year and most of that stuff is past its “use by date”. Russia is using Donbas to test a lot of things and one of them is more precise data on just how dangerous elderly munitions are. The rebels and Russian troops complain but are reminded that for training purposes it was always standard to use the oldest munitions and by the 1980s the troops were still firing some World War II era stuff that was over 40 years old. Most of the old ammo shipped to Donbas is from the 1980s. This is not reassuring when more mortar shells or rockets fail to fire or explode close to the people handling it. Some Ukrainian troops will joke about what “vintage” they are being hit with when the rebels open fire again. Intel analysts have collected some shell and rocket fragments and confirmed that most of the stuff being fired is old, some of it really old.
As a result of all this cooperation with NATO Ukraine is now participating in a growing number of NATO and EU (European Union) military training events. In effect Ukraine is becoming an unofficial member of the EU and NATO and the great Russian fear is that this will become official. That will be a major failure for the current Russian government, which tells Russians the Donbas operation is an effort to save Ukraine from the evil West.
One of the more embarrassing sources of Russian misbehavior is OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) whose observer teams continue circulating in Donbas, even though the OSCE personnel are often targets for rebel fire. The 600 OSCE staff (most of them roving 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.
In the three years that OSCE has been monitoring the Donbas violence they suffered more and more casualties. Their first combat fatality occurred in April. From the beginning of the OSCE monitoring operation Russia has regularly been accused of interfering. 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 teams. The Russians ignore or harass OSCE whenever they decide they need to, or simply feel like it. The pro-Russian rebels continue to block the movement of observers in their territory. OSCE has been less aggressive because of all this but because new team members constantly arrive there are still observers willing to do the job right. The OSCE has found that Russian backed rebels are responsible for most (sometimes 90 percent) of the violent incidents in eastern Ukraine.
Russia is playing peacemaker between U.S. backed Syrian rebels and Iran backed Syrian government forces. The Iranians say they will attack the Americans if they must (or have a chance) and the Americans warned Iran and everyone else that force will be met with more force. So far Iran has taken that as good reason to hold fire. This is easier if they can pretend the Russians are holding them back.
Meanwhile Russia is still providing lots of air support and material assistance (new weapons, help in maintaining existing ones) for the Assad forces but is concentrating its media coverage on the Russian efforts to pacify and rebuild Aleppo. The Russians supplied most of the air support that enabled the Assad forces to retake Aleppo, which used to be the second largest city in Syria but has been largely depopulated and destroyed by five years of fighting. Rebuilding Aleppo is a big deal for most Syrians and the Russians publicize their efforts, like the largely Moslem military police battalions they sent in to help maintain order, and the Russian explosives removal experts provided to deal with all the explosives still in the rubble or other areas as ISIL traps. What Russia can’t provide is the billions of dollars it will cost to actually rebuild much of the city. Iran is also strapped for cash and no one else wants to finance rebuilding what is now a city controlled by a government of war criminals.
Since Aleppo was taken earlier in the year Russian air power and ground forces (advisers and special operations troops) are helping the Assad forces deal with the remaining ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) fighters in western Syria and move some troops towards the ISIL capital, Raqqa, in eastern Syria.
Russian casualties in Syria remain low. In May several more Russian soldiers were killed in Syria while working with Syrian soldiers fighting rebels and ISIL. That makes 33 Russians killed in Syria since mid-2015. The Syrian war effort, despite the low number of Russian casualties, is not popular with most Russians who see Assad and most other Middle Eastern governments (especially former Soviet allies) as losers.
Despite ending four decades of generous economic aid to North Korea in 1991 (and triggering a famine that killed up to ten percent of the North Korean population) Russia has now become the only friend North Korea has in the world and is willing to do business with them. This annoys China, another Russian frenemy that is currently a “close ally” of Russia. But both North Korea and Russia are having economic problems and neither is willing to pass up an opportunity to help each other out. China sees it differently, especially when it comes to Korea. That’s because for over 500 years Koreans have been trying to establish and sustain a “united Korea.” But with aggressive and powerful neighbors like China, Japan and, for the last few centuries Russia, it has been a struggle. China has the most to lose if North Korea remains a problem and especially the Korea units under the leadership of democratic South Korea.
Meanwhile all non-Koreans have to deal with some unpleasant aspects of Korean history. There have been a few periods when all of modern Korea, and sometimes a bit more, was ruled by Koreans. Most of the time some foreigner is in charge or the ethnic Koreans are ruled by several independent states. Despite this the Koreans have proved to be tough and persistent despite their stronger and short tempered neighbors constantly coming in and destroying Korean unity. The last unified Korea state lasted 13 years and disappeared in 1910 in the aftermath of a war between Japan and Russia which Japan won. Japanese rule was harsh and lasted until 1945 when Korea was again divided because Russia would not comply with a post-World War II agreement to remove the Japanese occupation forces and then leave. The United States did so but the Russians refused and created the current North Korean police state and equipped it lavishly with modern weapons and in 1950 gave secret orders to invade and take over South Korea. The UN responded with uncharacteristic unity and resolve and authorized an international force to deal with the situation. Russia then persuaded the newly established communist government of China to invade and rescue the North Koreans from certain defeat three months after the initial invasion. Russia was technically not involved because Russia and the U.S. were the only ones with nuclear weapons and Russia knew it would come out second best in any nuclear war with the Americans because the Russian nuclear arsenal was more propaganda than reality. The secret deal Russia used to end the fighting involved assurances that they would continue financing a North Korean communist government and compensate communist China for its sacrifices in North Korea (where over half a million Chinese died). The Russian assurances expired with the Soviet Union dissolving in 1991.
Until 1991 Russia (as the Soviet Union) faithfully kept promises to North Korea but China felt it had been played by Russia and the two countries almost went to war with each other in the 1970s. China still considers Russia a longer-term problem. China has ancient claims on most of what is now the Russian Far East. Meanwhile China sees another mess in Korea as a more immediate problem. If the North Korean government collapses China takes it as a given that they will have to go in and maintain North Korea in order to avoid another united Korea with democracy and powerful allies in the West. While this is something most Koreans would prefer it is something China is willing to go to war over to prevent, or at least make some serious moves in that direction.
June 12, 2017: There were hundreds of anti-corruption demonstrations throughout Russia, some of them with more than 10,000 people attending. These were all illegal according to the government and over a thousand demonstrators were arrested. What was most disturbing to the government was that many, if not most in some cases, of the demonstrators were young (teenagers and early 20s) Russians. It was 1991 all over again because the government thought it had managed to gain the loyalty of most young Russians. That is true to some extent but one thing nearly all Russians can agree on is the persistence of corruption. The current government is run by former KGB officers (including leader Vladimir Putin) who gained power by promising to deliver “order” and a reduction in corruption. But because the government could not shut down the Internet the growing evidence of stolen cash and other assets being moved overseas by corrupt officials (including the Putin clan) has sustained the Russian reform movement (which Putin condemns of being disloyal and worse).
A growing number of Russians have given up believing in government assurances that the economy would turn around. Since 2008 a combination of corruption, sanctions (because of aggression in Ukraine) and low oil prices (because of American fracking) have caused persistent economic decline. The corruption is one thing that can be solved locally but the government seems more determined to shut down demonstrators than what they are demonstrating about. Meanwhile Russians are finding out that Russia has invested billions in Venezuela, which is run by an incompetent and corrupt socialist government that Russian leaders say they admire. Now that investment is about to be lost, mainly because of corruption. New allies Turkey and Iran are notorious for their corruption.
June 11, 2017: In Ukraine the new visa-free travel deal with the EU became operational. For many Ukrainians the visa deal marks a link with the rest of Europe that Russia has been trying to prevent. In the Donbas Russian backed rebels increased the number of ceasefire violations and the number of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians killed and wounded by these apparently random attacks with machine-guns, mortars and heavier artillery. Russia insists the rebels are firing in self-defense but journalists and neutral observers capture and pass on evidence about what is really going in.
June 10, 2017: Russian diplomats told their American counterparts that recent American airstrikes on Russian allies in Syria was unacceptable. Unlike some Russian politicians, the Russian diplomats did not threaten to order their troops to shoot at the Americans. Iran is fine with getting into a fight with the Americans although NATO member Turkey has mixed feelings. In Syria Russians are more concerned about not angering Israel, but then the Americans and Israelis work closely together and Syria is turning out to be less of an opportunity for Russia and more like a deadly trap. The American and Russian diplomats apparently spent a lot of time talking about how to handle the Qatar mess.
June 5, 2017: Russia suddenly has an unexpected Middle Easter crisis, one that could cripple its economy and result in a number of embarrassing side effects. It began earlier today with a surprising move by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and Bahrain to cut diplomatic, economic and military relations with tiny Saudi neighbor Qatar. Ambassadors were expelled, borders were closed and Qatar was made to feel very unwelcome. Yemen and several other Moslem nations followed suit. The expulsion comes after years of criticisms regarding Qatari support for Islamic terrorism and the perception among Arab states that Qatar could not be trusted. Cutting ties with Qatar is partly retaliation against the Qatar based and subsidized al Jazeera satellite news network which often reports on real or imagined (depending on who you ask) bad behavior by Sunni Arab governments and their security forces. Qatar also openly supports Palestinian terror group Hamas, although Qatar recently ordered some senior Hamas leaders to leave Qatar for another sanctuary. Al Jazeera reporters have a hard time avoiding arrest (or worse) in Egypt and other Moslem states but they are often abused by Islamic terror groups as well.
Qatar is also seen as siding with Iran in the current struggle between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia. This sort of behavior is not uncommon in the region and the small Arab Gulf states like Qatar, Kuwait and the member states of the UAE have survived for centuries using these methods. One could say Qatar has been too successful and the current unpleasantness is the price of that success. As is the local custom secret meetings will be held, demands discussed and agreements made. How long this takes will depend on how long Qatar can last without its usual providers of all the food and just about everything else. The expulsion cut off half of that immediately and a naval blockade would be disastrous. About 40 percent of imports came via Saudi Arabia.
Russia depends on good relations with the Arab oil states to help keep the price of oil from falling any further. Russia is technically allied with Turkey and Iran (both of whom sided with Qatar) but does not really trust either of them. The Gulf Arab oil states are another matter. Iran has offered to ship food and other emergency supplies to Qatar and Turkey has offered to send 3,000 more troops to the small base Turkey already has in Qatar, along with a few hundred troops. Turkey is a major customer (over $700 million a year) of Qatari natural gas and Qatar has invested some $20 billion in Turkey.
Qatar has assured the United States that the American bases and about 10,000 military personnel in Qatar were safe. Turning to Iran was obvious but Turkey is a more interesting case. Turkey is establishing a military base in Qatar to support Turkish peacekeeping and efforts in Africa and relations with the Arabian states. Turkey is less eager to get too close to Iran. Qatar is expected to get the message and make suitable apologies and reparations to its Arabian neighbors. Like everything else in this part of the world negotiations are necessary because the Arabian coastal states have a long tradition of working things out that way.
Meanwhile in eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) an American airstrike hit positions occupied by Iran backed Shia mercenaries moving too close to the Tanf border crossing. This was the second such attack since late May and carried out after repeated warning (to the Russians, mainly) to remove those forces from the area. The first airstrike (May 20) was carried out because a convoy had entered a “de-confliction” zone the U.S. and Russia had agreed would be controlled by U.S. backed rebels who operate out of training bases in Jordan and near the Iraq border. The Iranian militia did not try to advance again for a while. But recently some did move forward and establish a camp within the zone. Iran backed Syrian Army forces have advanced to within 20 kilometers of Tanf and the U.S. wants to keep Iran backed forces away from the Iraq border to prevent Iran from established a road link from Iran through Syria and into Lebanon. An American backed Sunni tribal militia (Maghawir a Thawra or MAT) controls the Tanf crossing and an Iraqi tribal militia controls the Iraqi side. By March these two tribal militias have opened and maintained the border crossing for all non-military traffic. Vehicles are searched for explosives and the MAT militia admit they have American air power on call if they encounter any problems. MAT charges a fee for most cargo passing through and does not care where the cargo is going (to Assad or ISIL controlled territory). Apparently MAT will contact the Americans if they encounter vehicles that are clean but may be Iranians. Naturally vehicles carrying cargoes of weapons are not allowed.
May 24, 2017:
In Syria the U.S. and Russia agreed to expand their “de-confliction” agreement regarding each other’s warplanes operating over Syria. Russia had cancelled this on April 8th to protest the American reaction to the Assads use of chemical weapons but agreed to restore in in early May. This agreement avoids accidental clashes and the U.S. observed the agreement by informing Russia shortly before the American cruise missiles were launched on April 7th. Russia did not cancel a similar agreement with Israel.
May 22, 2017: Russia lifted the last of the economic sanctions it had imposed on Turkey in retaliation for a Turkish F-16 shooting down a Russian fighter-bomber on the Syrian border in late November 2015. The sanctions hurt the Turkish economy, especially because of the ban on Russians visiting popular Turkish tourist resorts during the Winter months.
May 20, 2017: Russian officials revealed the United States told them recently that they were in Syria mainly to remove the Assads from power and destroying ISIL was a means to that end not the main reason they were there. The Americans also told the Russians that the U.S. would operate in Syria as it believed necessary to accomplish its mission and that American military commanders now had a lot more freedom to do what they through best without first waiting to have their decisions scrutinized, and sometimes modified or blocked officials and advisors back home. The U.S. Department of Defense (now led by a retired marine general) can set troop levels in Iraq and Syria. Officially there are currently 5,800 (nine percent in Syria) inside Syria and Iraq but the real number may be about 40 percent higher if you count contractors and allies. The Russians and Syrians are in Syria to keep the Assads in power and destroying ISIL is part of that. Fighting with the Americans is apparently not something Russia or Iran want do in Syria.
In the east (Deir Ezzor province) an American airstrike hit a convoy of Iran backed Shia mercenaries headed for the Tanf border crossing. After the American aircraft fired on them the convoy turned around and headed west. This was the first American airstrike on Iranian forces in Syria and was carried out because the convoy had entered a “de-confliction” zone the U.S. and Russia had agreed would be controlled by U.S. backed rebels who operate out of training bases in Jordan and near the Iraq border. The Iranian militia did not try to advance again. Iran backed Syrian Army forces have advanced to within 20 kilometers of Tanf and the U.S. wants to keep Iran backed forces away from the Iraq border to prevent Iran from established a road link from Iran through Syria and into Lebanon.
May 18, 2017: Russia and North Korea officially opened a new weekly ferry service between North Korea and Vladivostok, the major Russian port on the Pacific coast. A 1,500 ton North Korean ship will be used, a vessel that carries 193 passengers plus cargo. China and the West fear that Russia is taking over the lucrative North Korean smuggling operations that long went through China and made a lot of money for Chinese businesses and officials willing to take a bribe. China has cracked down on all trade with North Korea this year, especially the long-tolerated smuggling. Russia and North Korea are doing a lot more legal trade now that China has enforced the UN sanctions. Chinese imports from North Korea hit a record low (under $100 million) in April but Chinese exports to North Korea were three times that and North Korea has to pay for it using foreign currency. That means North Korea has to increase their illegal trade, which is where Russia comes in. The problem is that the Russian economy cannot deliver the quality and diversity of items North Korea regularly gets from China.