Over the weekend Russia made a point of revealing another of their post-Cold War EW (electronic warfare) aircraft. This one is called the Il-22PP and described as an airborne electronic jammer that can block all manner of signals but particularly the digital ones (like Link 16) favored by Western warplanes. The Il-22PP was also described as being able to protect itself from anti-radiation missiles, like the American AGM-88. Since late 2015 Russia has revealed (to the public) the existence of other post-Cold War electronic warfare aircraft by using them in Syria or over Ukraine. Not so the Il-22PP, at least not yet.
An even more interesting tech mystery surfaced nearby as Ukraine denied that it had ever exported to North Korea ICBM rocket engines or the plans to build them. This comes after technical experts noted that the new North Korean ICBM was using engines very similar to those built at the Ukrainian Yuzhmash factory. During the Cold War Yuzhmash produced RD-250 engines for the Soviet 1970s era R-36M (SS-18 or "Satan" in the West) ICBM. The RS-18 was developed as a "light" ICBM, in effect, a competitor for the U.S. Minuteman series. The R-36M was designed in 1969, first tested in 1972 and entered service in 1975. It's the largest ICBM the Russians ever built, with a liftoff weight of 210 tons and a warhead weighing eight tons. While it's a liquid fuel rocket, storable liquid fuel is used. This avoids lengthily fueling procedures common with earlier Russian ICBMs. Modifications and upgrades for the missile produced six separate models, the last one entering service in 1990. After 2000 Russia wanted to refurbish a hundred of the most recently built (in the 1980s, for the most part) R-36Ms. Shortages of cash and resources reduced the number refurbished and as of 2016 only about fifty were operational. By 2018 only about 30 will be working and by 2020 none will. Work on SS-18 components in the Yuzhmash plant ceased after Ukraine split from the Soviet Union in 1991 and Yuzhmash converted to building satellite launchers, which it still does. Russia was a customer but since 2014 Yuzhmash has put more emphasis on non-Russian customers. Yuzhmash executives point out that the RD-250 engines showed up in North Korea recently and Yuzhmash has had nothing to do with the RD-250 for over two decades while Russia still had RD-250s and maintains some ICBMs that use them. That means Russia has the people still familiar with the RD-250 and up-to-date plans on how the RD-250 is built. If anyone has spare RD-250s (to keep existing SS-18s operational) it is Russia. Ukrainians point out that Russia has more often been a source of illegally obtained military tech than Ukraine. Both Russia and Ukraine were sources of stolen military technology after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and it was easier to get Russian stuff to North Korea because the two share a common border. Meanwhile Ukraine sold a lot of Soviet era military tech to China, often legally (although the Russians didn’t always agree). Ukraine blames these accusations on Russian “Information War” efforts against Ukraine to try and distract media attention from the continued Russian determination to seize and hold Ukrainian territory.
Speaking of corruption (which Ukraine suffers from a bit more than Russia) there has been more publicity about prosecutions of Russian managers in space program related industries. These investigations were known long before North Korea made its “sudden advances” in ICBM tech over the last year. The corruption in the Russian space program has been widespread and became a public matter (the government prefers to deal with corruption problems quietly) when it became obvious more than a decade ago that Russia was having problems building new ICBMs or satellite launchers. Recently the state controlled Russian media has had several stories of prosecutions for embezzlement and other misbehavior explain a lot of the financial and quality control issues in firms that design and build ICBMs and satellite launchers.
Russia, Iran and Turkey want to keep the Assads in power and develop better relations with the each other. Evidence of this strategy can be seen in the Russian monitored “neutral (ceasefire or de-escalation) zones” in southern Syria, along the Jordanian and Israeli borders. Since agree to on July 7th this zone is apparently working and was initially monitored by 400 Russian military police. Russia has since moved in more (now four) battalions of military police, many of them within sight of people on both sides of the Syrian border with Israel and Jordan. These police are also being used in the other neutral zones established in August. The problem is Iran and most Islamic terrorists, especially al Qaeda and ISIL have not agreed to observe the neutral zone. That results in some violence, mostly from ISIL. The other Islamic terror groups are willing to unofficially observe the ceasefire.
To deal with the remaining ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) threat (and any new Iranian ones) Israel made it clear that it was not bound by the neutral zone rules either. Yet since this neutral zone was declared Iran has behaved. This has something to do with Russian refusal to act against the increasingly loud and frequent Israeli reminders that their air force will attack any Iranian attempt to set up operations near the Israeli border. This is just the beginning of a long-term struggle for who will control what in Syria. Meanwhile further west in Lebanon Iranian controlled Hezbollah is more active on the Israeli border, even if some of these moves violate the UN agreement that ended the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.
Once ISIL is gone as a major threat, perhaps by the end of 2017, the only thing left to fight over is how much of Syria will a post-war Syrian government control. Turkey wants to control most of the northern border, as least the parts that border Turkey and have Kurds on either side of the border. The Turkish plan is currently disputed by the Syrian Kurds, who want to control northeastern Syria (their ancestral homeland) and at least have access to the rest of the northern border, if not control of smaller border areas that were traditionally mostly Kurdish. Iran wants free access to southern Syria, especially the main roads from Iraq to southern Lebanon and areas along the Israeli border. Russia has a lease on a naval base on the Syrian coast (plus a nearby airbase) and wants to hold onto that. Some of these demands contradict others.
Israel is openly hostile to a permanent Iranian presence in Syria and Turkey quietly agrees. Russia supports that more openly and Israel keeps trying to improve relations with the unstable Turkish Islamic government. Recently American officials openly confirmed this “understanding” which was apparently worked out in at least one secret meeting between Israeli, American and Russian officials. The only thing that makes Russia, Iran and Turkey allies is their desire for the Assads to stay in power and keep Syria free of Sunni Islamic terrorists and Kurdish separatists. Turkey, Iran and Russia back the Assads directly (with cash, personnel and weapons) and coordinate their military operations to help the Assads survive. The Sunni Arab states want the Assads gone and are more open in opposing Iranian plans for post-war Syria. Despite opposition from Israel, the Arabs, the Americans and even some Iranian allies Iran is determined to have a land route from Iran to Lebanon and military installations in post-war Syria. Israel has made it clear that it will, and can, make sure that does not happen. Turkey and Russia recognize that Israel is not only the stronger military power here but also has the most at stake. For decades Iran has called for the destruction of Israel and that does not sit well with Turkey and Russia because both nations have had clashes with aggressive Iranian ambitions over the past few centuries.
Meanwhile the other ceasefire zones in central Syria (Homs) and elsewhere became active in early August. The violence declined but was not eliminated. As with the southern neutral zones (near Damascus and along the southern borders) not every armed group in or near the ceasefire zones has agreed to the ceasefire and even some who have are unable to prevent some of their factions or subordinate units from getting involved in unauthorized violence. Russia considers this a success because it reduces violence and can be used as a model to bring peace to the entire country. That implies defeat by the rebels, something none of the rebels see as a viable option.
Among the many problems have with its population, one that gets little notice outside Russia is the sharp decline in the working age (15-64) population. The drop began in 2010 when there were about 103 million working age Russians. Unless something drastic happens to reverse the situation the working age population will continue to decline by at least half a million people a year until the 2050s.
The current sanctions and police state government have made it worse. Since the Ukraine related sanctions hit in 2015 Russia has lost over two million more workers it cannot afford to lose. About a million of those were actually foreigners who came to fill jobs there were no Russians for as the economy still showed promise. But the decline of oil prices after 2013 followed by sanctions and more official hostility to outsiders sent these skilled foreigners home. At the same time many skilled Russians left and that continues. The reduced economic opportunities, corruption and police state policies discourage many Russians, especially skilled and educated ones, from having children. This makes the decline much worse, because the loss of skills is steeper than the loss of individual workers. This is particularly noticeable with the Slav (especially ethnic Russian) population, who are not only leaving but those who remain are most frequently not having children. 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 2014 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) declined than 40 percent in a year.
The U.S. and Afghanistan keep finding evidence that Russia is supplying weapons to the Taliban. When pressed Russian officials will talk about the Taliban are the only ones fighting ISIL in Afghanistan and need more weapons for that. This is absurd because Russia considers the Afghan heroin coming into Russia as a bigger threat than ISIL. The latest evidence of Russian arms getting to the Taliban comes from northern Afghanistan, where there is little ISIL activity but major heroin export routes to Central Asia and Russia. The Taliban has always been active up there when it comes to protecting those smuggling routes. .
Earlier in 2017 the American accused Russia of colluding with Iran, or Iranian arms smugglers, to supply the Taliban with weapons. Apparently Russia is again trying to destabilize the Afghan government so that they, and their ally Iran, will have more influence. This has been going on since the 1800s. But for over a thousand years before that warlords in Iran and northern India fought to control parts of Afghanistan, especially those areas that were part of the “Silk Road” between the Middle East (and Europe) and China (as well as stops along the way, like India and Iran.) Russia and Iran are concerned about the damage Afghan opium and heroin are doing (by creating millions of Russian and Iranian addicts) but are willing to tolerate the Afghan drug gangs if the export of the drugs can be better regulated to avoid Russia and Iran. That rarely works well but Russia, Iran and Pakistan are willing to try but understand that the American in particular and the West in general would never go along. Meanwhile Western nations are the main source of foreign aid that keeps the Afghan government going. Thus the Russians supplying weapons to the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.
Because of the Ukraine related sanctions on Russia it has proved difficult to keep the Afghan Air Force Russian helicopters operational. Two of the four Russian made Mi-35 helicopter gunships are grounded because of this and there are problems getting technical support for the 26 Mi-17 transport helicopters. The solution for this problem is to replace the Russian helicopters with American UH-60s. Some Afghan Mi-17 pilots have already had training for this and report that the “conversion training” is not a problem and for experienced pilots is quite easy. The Afghan Air Force expects to be receiving at least 18 UH-60s by the end of 2018. The U.S. has already supplied twenty MD-530F helicopters armed with machine-guns, missiles and rockets and the U.S. has agreed to supply 30 more. These are easier to operate and maintain than the Mi-35s and cheaper as well. Since UH-60s can be armed as well that will be the solution to the grounded Mi-35 problem. The Afghan Air Force plans to increase its helicopter force from 71 now to 214 by 2024 and replace all the Russian helicopters with American ones in the process.
August 12, 2017: The Defense Ministry announced that for the first time since World War II (or the “Great Patriotic War” to Russians) the air force will train women to be combat pilots. There were several hundred female combat pilots during World War II, many of them learning to fly before the war. Most of the female pilots flew small, slow night bombers that were so effective the Germans called all Russian night bombers “night witches” because they were difficult to shoot down at night and the female pilots were skilled at bringing damaged aircraft back to base, or at least away from the Germans. There were some female fighter pilots and a few became aces. But now, like so many other nations (even Moslem ones) the shortage of technically trained and mentally capable male pilots for warplanes has led one nation after another to recruit qualified women for the job.
The man responsible for rebuilding the Libyan Armed Forces and its current leader general Khalifa Belgacem Hiftar visited Russia once more. He has made several (since 2016) such visits and established good relationships with Russian political and military officials. Most of what was left of the pre-2011 Libyan armed forces was rebuilt by Hiftar, who was a Libyan Army officer who turned against Kaddafi in the 1980s and received asylum in the United States. But Hiftar was unacceptable to some of the factions the UN had united to form the GNA national government in 2016 and that turned out to be a bad decision. The rival HoR (House of Representatives) government in eastern Libya asked Russia for economic assistance and state controlled Russian oil company agreed to work with the Libyan NOC (National Oil Company) to repair, upgrade and expand Libyan oil facilities. Hiftar visits Egypt regularly and has managed to keep Egypt and a few other Arab states providing support. Egypt allows banned goods (like weapons and ammo) cross the border unhindered. Russia and many Arab states have pressured the UN to rethink its Libyan strategy and its support for the GNA. That eventually worked because in late July the two rival governments agreed to merge and Hiftar was a major player in making that happen. In addition to visiting Russia, in January 2017 Russia visited him when the Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov and its escorts arrived off the coast of eastern Libya. The carrier sent a helicopter to nearby Tobruk and picked up Hiftar and two other senior officers (all in uniform) and took them to the carrier. The visit to the Kuznetsov was captured on video and broadcast. The video showed the event treated as an official visit with sailors in dress uniforms lined up and a band playing the Libyan national anthem. Hiftar was given a tour of the ship and then held a video conference (not shown) with the Russian defense minister back in Moscow.
In the central Syria (Homs province) the Assad forces took advantage of their air power (mostly Russian) and the fact that most of Homs is thinly populated desert to raid an isolated ISIL position. The raid involved air strikes quickly followed by Syrian troops landing by helicopter. At least 31 died (25 Islamic terrorists and six soldiers). Many more ISIL men were captured (often because they were wounded). This raid was apparently for the purpose of taking prisoners and capture documents. It also boosts morale among the Assad forces and further demoralizes the rebels in general and ISIL in particular. This was the first such raid carried out deep in enemy territory and Russian media pointed out that Russian military advisors helped plan it but made no mention of Russian troops taking part in the fighting on the ground. It was mentioned that the new Russian Ka-52 helicopter gunship was involved and performed as expected. The Kamov Ka-52 is a two-seat version of the earlier Ka-50 gunship. It is a reconnaissance and attack helicopter whose development started in 1994 and the first flight took place in 1997. Until recently only Russia had been using it and in small number due budget restrictions. But now Russia is seeking export customers and deliberately uses new weapons in Syria in order to attract foreign buyers.
August 11, 2017: The Air Force announced that its new (and still not ready) stealth fighter had an official designation; Su-57. Formerly known as the T-50 (or PAK-FA) Russia still has India as a development partner and export customer for the new “5th generation” stealth fighter. To do that Russia agreed in 2016 to cut the development cost by a third (to $8 billion) with India providing half that and Russia being responsible for any additional costs. In addition three of the eleven prototypes will be built to Indian specifications and the first of these will be flown to India by 2019. In return India will buy up to 250 Su-57s. Russia already has nine Su-57 prototypes flying, although one was damaged in a fire. Indian Air Force officials have been criticizing the progress of the Su-57 program for several years. This aircraft is the Russian answer to the U.S. F-22 and according to the Indians, who have contributed nearly a billion dollars (so far) to development of the Su-57, they are entitled by the 2007 agreement with Russian to have access to technical details. The Russians tried to withhold detailed development updates from their Indian partners. The Indians know from experience that when the Russians clam up about a military project it is usually because the news is bad and the Russians would rather not share. There are growing doubts about the Russian ability to develop the needed tech and pay for it, even with the Indian assistance. India and Russia play down the fact that the main reason for the Su-57 is to deal with Chinese efforts to get stealth fighters into service. Russia now says the Su-57 will enter service in 2019, or at least that’s the current plan. The American F-22 entered service in 2006 and the F-35 ten years later. One of the Chinese stealth fighter designs (the J-20) is said to have entered service in early 2016 but it hasn’t been seen much. About a dozen J-20s have been built. The Su-57 looks a lot like the F-22. The 37 ton Su-57 about the same weight as the F-22, and has a similar shape but lacks reliable engines and competitive electronics.
August 10, 2017: In Russia, the Indian Army was embarrassed when both the T-90S tanks it bought for the annual military competition broke down during the finals of one of the competitions the 19 participating nations engage in. To make matters worse the two T-90S vehicles were among those built under licenses in India. Russia has long blamed Indian manufacturing errors for Russian weapons built under license by the Indians having problems. The competition was part of the International Army Games which Russia has hosted every year since 2013 at their Alabino Ranges facility. While the Russians blame India for the embarrassing failure (via a broken fan belt and an oil leak) of Russia’s most modern tank designs India and Russia have other disputes about the quality of Russian work. One involves the carrier version of the MiG-29 Russia developed (and India paid) and sold to India. Now Russia is using this MiG-29K itself but Russia is accused of not helping much with the reliability problems India is having with their MiG-29Ks. There’s a similar problem with the new Su-57 stealth fighter, which India supplied much of the development money for. India has complained of numerous broken promises by the Russians but decades of buying Russian has made many Indian politicians reluctant to drop India as a supplier, at least not yet.
In Ukraine the government terminated a 2004 agreement with Russia to cooperate in exporting military systems that both nations contributed technology or manufacturing for. Since 2014 a lot of these systems have been withdrawn from production because of the Russian aggression.
August 3, 2017: The Russian government has gone public with denials that more Russian military personnel have been killed in Syria than have been reported. Currently the government official count is ten killed so far this year and 32 Russians killed in Syria since mid-2015. The actual number is believed to be 30-80 percent (or more) higher because of the growing use of Russian military contractors, who are not, for record keeping purposes, members of the Russian military. Recent reports in the West, backed up by data supplied by Russian families who have lost someone recently in Syria, put the total so far this year at 40. The government finally admitted that there are Russian “volunteers” in Syria but they are not military personnel (even if they are being used as such and serving alongside military personnel).
To make their Syria intervention work Russia had had to resort to Russian private security companies. About half these private security firms are believed to have organized combat units that are reliable enough to be used in place of scarce army special operations troops. By monitoring Russian language social media activity (which anyone can do) it has been noted that recent military veterans working for several of these private security companies have been in Syria and Ukraine. Casualties were suffered in both places although the duties of the contractors were different. In Syria the security contractors mainly guarded Russian bases but were also used in combat when they provided security for Russian artillery units supporting Syrian Army troops. In a few cases the contractors were sent in to assist Syrian troops who got themselves in trouble. Russia described these men as special operations troops, because outside Russia the security contractors often wear Russian military uniforms. But social media revealed that many of these dead Russians in Syria were actually contractors. In Ukraine at least one private security company has been used as “enforcers” to punish troublesome pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels. Often this just meant arranging an accidental death for a disobedient rebel leader but in a few cases a larger number of rebels had to disappear. The Russian supported rebels came to call these contractors “cleaners” and were justifiably terrorized and impressed.
The most reliable source of data on Russian casualties in Donbas or Syria are groups representing the families of the Russian dead. These are active on the Internet and use the net to share and compile casualty data. These groups believe about 1,500 Russians have died in Donbas since 2014 and many of those were contractors rather than conscripts or career military.
Most Russians see though this government scam but Russia is once more a place where it isn’t safe to openly criticize the government. The difference now is that the Internet makes it much more difficult for the government to keep the truth out. The government and China are openly cooperating to develop ways to deal with that Internet problems. Meanwhile 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.
August 2, 2017: The U.S. imposed new sanctions on Russia by making it more difficult for EU (European Union) firms to business with Russia. This is important because Russia is dependent on many EU firms for key services or tech items.
In Syria four mortar shells were fired at the Russian embassy compound in Damascus. Two shells fell within the embassy compound and exploded causing some material damage. The other two shells landed outside the compound. No one was injured. These embassy attacks have happened regularly, sometimes monthly, since 2011. At this time there are still some rebels within mortar range of this part of Damascus and that apparently accounts for the continued attacks.
July 28, 2017: Russia is trying to improve its relationship with North Korea but most of what the Russians do is more publicity stunt than economic boost. The latest example is the failed ferry. In June 2017 Russia and North Korea 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 was used, a vessel that carries 193 passengers plus cargo. Because Russia is checking cargo (for sanctioned items) and IDs the ferry is not getting much business. Russia continues to observe European rules on who and what can legally go to North Korea. This is done so as not to threaten trade Russia still has with European nations. Russia has also increased its exports to North Korea in 2017 but that does not amount to much as Russian trade always accounted for only a few percent of North Korean foreign trade.
July 26, 2017:
Satellite photos show Russia has replaced a dozen of the older warplanes at its Syrian Hmeymin airbase. Most of the 20 or so aircraft there are now Su-34, Su-35 and Su-30SM, which are built to mainly deliver smart bombs and guided missiles. For over a year Russia was using older warplanes that could only deliver unguided bombs because Russia had quickly exhausted its supply of smart bombs by early 2016. The more modern warplanes are also more effective at air-to-air combat. Hmeymin is outside the port city of Latakia and defended by Russia’s most modern air defense system (the S-400). Russia recently signed a 49 year lease with the Assads for the use of Hmeymin airbase. The lease can be extended for 25 years at a time after the initial 49 years. Russia is also upgrading its military port facilities in the Syrian port of Tartus to that of a permanent naval base.
July 20, 2017: In eastern Ukraine attacks by Russian backed rebels left nine Ukrainian soldiers dead, the most killed during one day so far this year. The 2015 Donbas ceasefire has meant there are no major combat operations but the violence (usually initiated by the Russian-backed rebels) is a daily event and some days are worse than others.