Russia: Bad Company

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January 19, 2018: The United States accuses Russia of ignoring some of the economic sanctions against North Korea. This is apparently mostly about fuel exports to North Korea and ignoring North Korean workers who are still working in Russia near the North Korean border (where there has been a growing labor shortage since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991). This sort of bad behavior is not new. Recently some retired Russian scientists and managers confirmed that old rumors of Russian ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tech being sold to North Korea during the 1990s were true. At the time the Russian government stopped some of the exports (mainly Russian scientists and engineers lured by a big payday to work temporarily in North Korea). In the 1990s there developed a general consensus (among Russia, China and the U.S.) that Russian missile and nuclear tech should not be acquired by North Korea. That stopped some, but not all, such exports. Russia has now become the favorite conduit for North Korean smugglers of essential (technological and weapons related) items. China cracked down on that sort of thing, in part because the North Korean smuggling operations were becoming too visible, and often embarrassing. Russia was the last chance for North Korea so the North Koreans behaved, at least so far.

Blame Canada

In early 2018 oil prices were at $69 a barrel and that was good news for Russia because they had earlier calculated they could balance their government budget it oil rose to $68 a barrel. The problem here is that the price is destined to decline because OPEC nations are not adhering to their own production limits. It was an exceptionally cold Winter this year and that ends soon. Worse, the use of fracking in the United States and Canada has put North America on track to be biggest oil producer on the planet in the next few years. Most of that new oil can be profitable with prices under $60 a barrel.

Until 2017 the government predicted that the economy would “stabilize” once oil was over $60 a barrel but despite a late 2016 production reduction agreement by the OPEC cartel (that the U.S. does not belong to) that did not happen. The price of oil rose briefly and not by much and then declined again and continues to stay low. The government blames the Americans for this and in this case the government is right. The renewed decline in the price of oil is clearly because of the development of effective fracking technology in the United States. This created a sharp increase in oil and natural gas production in North America and that was a major factor in the 2013 collapse in world oil prices. But fracking is expensive and as the oil price declines a growing number of oil and natural gas operations dependent on fracking have to be shut down until the price increases again. The Saudis and Russia hoped the lower oil prices would kill off fracking, but that didn’t happen. Rising oil prices have always made it feasible to go after expensive to extract (like very deep or off-shore) oil and natural gas. As prices decline, these high cost operations have to be temporarily shut down, not eliminated entirely and forever. When some firms go bankrupt other firms buy up the assets cheaply and resume production when prices rise again. In 2016 it was believed that if the Saudis eased their current overproduction of oil the price would soon rise to over $60 a barrel. This is still half the previous (pre-fracking, pre-Saudi overproduction) high price of $132 (mid-2008). After that fracking and the Saudis drove down the price of oil and have kept it down. Now the Saudis cannot afford to voluntarily keep the price down and the fracking keeps producing more oil and gas. Russian production is largely in cold, remote regions and expensive to maintain. This has hurt Iran, Russia and most other nations that have become too dependent on oil export income. By early 2017 it became clear that fracking, something that OPEC cannot control, was the real culprit and that the American frackers had not only survived the extremely low prices but further improved their technology so that it now costs considerably less to produce oil via fracking that it did before 2013.

Oil income is not the only problems. Russia has problems with population decline, corruption, an increasingly inefficient police state and an exodus of its best educated and most entrepreneurial citizens. Russia is no longer a great power and as much as Russians would talk about regaining their superpower economic status, that is not going to happen. To put it into perspective consider how smaller (especially in terms of population) countries like Australia are on track to surpass Russia in GDP. Russia still has six times as many people as Australia but Australia has far less corruption and a much more efficient government. The Australian population is growing and its GDP (currently $1.2 trillion) is right behind Russia ($1.3 billion) and growing at least twice as fast. The Russian economic situation looks a bit better when you use, "purchasing power parity" (PPP). This is a concept that recognizes, and calculates the different costs, for the same things, in each country. Most people know this by the more familiar term, "cost of living adjustment." It's more expensive to live in Moscow than in some of the more remote parts of Australia. But Australia is largely urban as far as its better educated and paid population is concerned. It's much less expensive to recruit, equip and maintain armed forces in Russia than it is in Australia. But in international terms (ignoring PPP and just counting everything in dollars, which is the standard for international trade and especially for the oil market) Australia will pass Russia in GDP over the next decade.

Syria

The defeat of ISIL changed the outcome of the rebellion, or did it? Until late 2017 everyone more (the West and their Arab allies) or less (Assads, Russia, Iran, Turkey) concentrated on fighting ISIL. This effort appeared to have destroyed the rebel advantage because early on most Syrian rebels embraced Islamic radicalism. This was because most of the population was Sunni Moslems who the Shia Assads suppressed and exploited for decades. That meant that after 2012 Islamic radical rebels spent most of their time fighting other rebels. With the defeat of ISIL the rebels are much weakened but more willing to cooperate with each other. Meanwhile the coalition that saved the Assads is falling apart and that process is getting messier. It goes like this. Russia, Iran and the Assads find themselves facing (and often fighting) and informal coalition of Turkish and American troops along with SDF (predominately Kurdish rebels) and some Sunni Islamic terror groups that appear to be cooperating with the Turks. To further complicate matter the Turks want to eliminate all armed Kurdish groups west of the Euphrates River. Actually, the Turks don’t want any autonomous Kurds in northern Syria and neither does the Iran backed Syrian government. Then there is the problem of who is in charge. Technically the Assads are still the legal (internationally recognized) government of Syria and control the UN seat and the Syrian embassies. The Assads invited Iranian and Russian forces into the country, but not the American or Turkish forces. At the same time Turkey has made it clear that it does not want any peace deal that left the Assads in power. The Turks have never got on well with the Assads, especially since the 1980s when the Assads became allies with Iran (because both Iran and the Assads were Shia and both were enemies of the Sunni minority dictatorship in Iraq that was then led by Saddam Hussein). The Turks are not getting on with their Russian allies either. Russia accuses the Turks of collaborating with Islamic terror groups and assisting some of these groups in making attacks on Russian bases in Syria. Turkey does not want to see Russian and Iranian bases in Syria. Russia is also pressuring the Assads about any Shia groups that might be attacking Russian bases with assistance from the Assads or Iran. Meanwhile the Syrian Kurds have the military and diplomatic backing of the Americans and diplomatic support from the Russians. The Assads are trying to back out of their long (since the 1980s) alliance with Iran and have the backing of Russia for that. Wanting Iran gone from Syria is a common goal for Turkey, Iraq, Kurds and Israel. Most Lebanese also agree with that (but Hezbollah does not). Israel believes the Assads are hostile to a permanent Iranian presence because that might lead to an Israeli invasion, which would give the Syrian rebels a boost. And the rebels are still the rebels (although the Kurds have always been flexible when it comes to the Assads). The Syrian government forces by themselves are still very weak and depend on Iranian mercenaries (mainly Afghans, Pakistanis and Iraqis led by Iranians) and Russian air support (and technical assistance of all sorts). The Syrian rebellion is not over and the end is still in doubt. Russia is not sure where it stands in Syria but has made it clear it wants to maintain its airbase and nearby port facilities.

Ukraine

A series of ceasefire agreements has not stopped the shooting (especially from the rebels) in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) but has managed to keep the front lines stable since 2016. The latest ceasefire agreement was worked out on December 19th 2017 and began on the 23rd. The shooting was reduced somewhat but it was pretty much the same nonsense. Russia has a stalemate in Ukraine and no indications that Russia is willing or able to revive the offensive. American advisors admit that they are learning a lot from the Ukrainians who quickly mobilized in 2014 and halted the Russian advance. Both Russia and the Americans are trying out new weapons, equipment and concepts in Donbas and U.S. believes they are learning much from the experience. The Ukrainians believe the Americans will show their appreciation by not suddenly abandoning Ukraine. All non-Russians in Eastern Europe remember what has happened in the last century as people like the Ukrainians got free of Russian rule several times only to be brutally reconquered because the West was not willing to help. The current American government seems determined to support the pro-West nations of East Europe.

January 16, 2018: The Levada Institute, one of the largest and reliable national polling organizations in Russia, said it would no longer make public the results of its surveys. This was apparently done at the suggestion of the government which, in 2016, forced Levada to register as “foreign agent” because it accepted some foreign money to remain in business. The government wants to shut Levada down but wants it to appear legal and not another effort to control public opinion in Russia.

January 15, 2018: Russia is being asked to take sides in northern Syria where Turkey wants to attack Syrian Kurds west of the Euphrates River, an area dominated by Russian warplanes and air defense systems. Turkey is asking Russia to allow Turkish warplanes to enter that airspace to support Turkish ground troops seeking to drive Syrian Kurds out of territory (especially the town of Afrin) they control near the Turkish border. After that the Turks want the Americans to get out of northeast Syria. The Americans don’t want to leave. The United States recently announced that it is assisting in the creation of a 30,000 strong BSF (“border security force”) in northeast Syria. This appears to be a repeat of what the U.S. and Britain did in Kurdish northern Iraq in the early 1990s. Neither Turkey, Iran nor Syria (the Assads) support this autonomous Kurdish portion of Syria. But the Americans insist it is essential to ensure that Islamic terrorists do not again have an opportunity to operate in this area. Russia noted with approval how the autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq kept things quiet in their territory since the early 1990s. Turkey and Syria are demanding that Russia take sides and so far that is not happening. This is not a new development. In September 2017 the U.S. backed SDF (Kurdish led secular rebel coalition) announced that they would not allow Assad forces to cross the Euphrates River in order to regain control of northeastern Syria that was now largely held by the SDF. The SDF is being converted to the BSF and, unlike Kurdish northern Iraq, the SDF controlled territory will have a defense force (the BSF), that will be about a third non-Kurds and border security will be handled by whichever ethnic group dominates in that area. Most of the Turkish border will be patrolled by Kurds while the Iraq border will have a lot more Arab participation. The United States already has 2,000 troops in northeast Syria and will increase that is needed.

January 13, 2018: In the south (eastern Ukraine) another Russian UAV (an Orlan-10) was shot down by Ukrainian forces. This is the third Russian Orlan-10 shot down over Ukrainian controlled territory in Donbas since the latest ceasefire began on December 23rd.

January 12, 2018: In northern Syria (Idlib province) Russia used a laser guided Krasnopol 152mm shell to destroy the Syrian rebel workshop where the 13 UAVs were modified and armed for a January 5th swarm attack on the Russian Hmeimim air base. That attack failed and Russia said it used its EW (electronic warfare) troops to locate where the UAVs came from and then sent UAVs to monitor the location and collect information on who was operating the workshop and when the most people were there. Meanwhile Russia moved a self-propelled 152mm howitzer to within 20 kilometers (max range of Krasnopol) of the workshop and got some of their commandos, carrying the laser designator to within five kilometers (max range of laser) to mark the target with the laser so the shell could find and hit it. Russian UAVs captured the attack on video. Russia said they knew which rebel group carried out the January 5th attack and who their foreign backer was but would not release that information.

Russia said that it was not Turkey and seemed to imply it was the United States but the Americans denied any involvement. ISIL has been using such UAVs for surveillance and attacks for several years. Moreover the Russian use of Krasnopol for retaliation was odd. It would have been easier to use Russian aircraft (or UAVs) armed with laser designators and laser guided missiles for this attack. The Americans and their allies do this all the time, usually employing Hellfire missiles. China sells clones of the American UAVs and missiles (and builds the Krasnopol shell under license).

The sad reality is that Russia has apparently run out of smart bombs and missiles. Lately their air attacks have only used unguided (“dumb”) bombs and rockets. But they still had Krasnopol shells, which they have been using in Syria since 2016. Krasnopol was first used in combat during a 1999 border war between India (which has bought some of the 155mm version of Krasnopol) and Pakistan in the Himalayan Mountains. India found Krasnopol worked, most of the time, but had problems when used at high altitudes in cold weather. The United States had earlier developed a similar system (Copperhead) which was used successfully in the 1991 Gulf War. But Copperhead was found to be too expensive and limited and cheaper and more effective guided weapons were already available in the 1990s. The U.S. also developed several GPS guided shells that saw service shortly after 2001. Russia is broke and cannot afford to restore its small stockpile of smart bombs much less expand it. So Russia improvises.

January 10, 2018: The U.S. warned its citizens to reconsider visits to Russia, especially the Caucasus or Crimea. The State Department warning pointed out that Russia was often the scene of harassment of foreigners the government is on bad terms with. Then there is the terrorism threat in places like the Caucasus and kidnapping and increased crime nationwide.

January 8, 2018: In the northwest (Latakia province) the Russian controlled Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) airbase has been under constant attack by rebels for the last two weeks. Some of these attacks caused Russian casualties, including at least seven aircraft. Russian and Syrian troops have apparently chased away rebels using 82mm mortars (which have a range of about four kilometers) and admit that they could use anti-mortar systems similar to those the Americans and Israelis have developed. Russia blames Turkey for allowing the rebels to obtain weapons and other supplies via Turkish dealers and smugglers. Turkey denies this and accuses Russia and Iran of allowing the Assad forces to cooperate with the Syrian Kurd rebels (especially the leftist PYD group) in Aleppo. According to Turkey anyone who works with the PYD (Syrian Kurdish separatists) is also supporting the PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) which the Turks are now at war with and have been fighting since the 1980s. The Turkish leader is now calling the Assads and Russians terrorists and insists there can be no Syrian peace deal if it means the Assads are considered the legitimate rulers of Syria. The Hmeimim airbase was built by Russia in 2015 near the port city of Latakia, which is 85 kilometers north of Tartus and 50 kilometers from the Turkish border. Part of the Tartus port has become a long-term foreign base for Russia, along with Hmeimim. Before 2011 Russia was building a small, but technically permanent naval support facility in Tartus.

In Ukraine an American destroyer visited Odessa. U.S. destroyers have been visiting Ukraine (and patrolling the Black Sea for a while) about once every two months.

January 6, 2018: In the northwest (Latakia province) someone sent 13 small UAVs equipped as cruise missiles (explosives, GPS guidance and a crude triggering mechanism that detonated the explosives when the UAV was close to the ground) to attack the Russian airbase at Hmeimim and the nearby Russian naval base. The UAVs were detected by radar and seven were shot down while EW (Electronic Warfare) troops forced six to land. Three exploded when they touched down but three did not and are being examined to determine who put them together and launched them (from up to 100 kilometers away according to the Russians). Pictures of the UAVs released by Russia show a modified commercial UAV similar to what ISIL has been using elsewhere in Syria. It was later discovered that similar UAVs were being offered on the Internet.

January 5, 2018: In Ukraine troops began receiving American made M4WAC47 assault rifles. These operate like the American M4 5.56mm assault rifle but are modified to use the same ammo as the AK-47. These rifles can be quickly modified to use the American standard 5.56mm ammo but at the moment Ukraine has lots of the AK-47 7.62x39 ammo they do not want to waste.

January 4, 2018: The Russian Defense Ministry revealed that it had received 43 new warplanes in 2017 (16 Su-34s, 10 Su-35s, 17 Su-30SMs and six Yak-130s advanced jet trainers). It was also revealed that Russian manufacturers could produce three times as many warplanes a year but Russian cannot afford that many. China apparently can, with their forces receiving at least a hundred new warplanes in 2017.

December 31, 2017: In the northwest (Latakia province) rebels fired numerous 82mm mortar shells at the Russian controlled Hmeimim airbase, killing two Russians and destroying (or severely damaging) seven aircraft (four Su-24 bombers, two Su-35S fighters and one An-72 transport). An ammunition bunker also exploded.

December 28, 2017: The Russian Space Agency (RSA) has recovered control of a communications satellite it put into orbit two days earlier. RSA said the problem was electrical and it was apparently solved once the Angolan satellite deployed its solar panels and began charging batteries. The development is good news for the RSA which has suffered a string of expensive and often embarrassing failures in the last few years.

December 27, 2017: Rebels fired three large rockets at the Russian controlled Hmeimim airbase, but the Russian Pantsir-S1 air defense system shot down two of the rockets while a third rocket landed just outside the base.

December 26, 2017: In southern Syria (Golan Heights) Syrian officials, with the backing of Iranian mercenaries, negotiated a deal with the rebels who control the area where the borders of Syria, Lebanon and Israel meet. The rebels agreed to leave the area (mostly on the slopes of Mount Hermon) and this was carried out by the 31st. The rebels were replaced by what appeared to be Syrian soldiers. Israel has said it will attack any efforts to put Iranian forces on the border and Iran is probably testing that threat. Iranian sponsored forces in Syria have already been hit with over a hundred airstrikes in the last few years, usually while trying to move weapons to Lebanon. But now Israel is targeting Iranian mercenaries (often led by Iranian officers from the Quds).

December 24, 2017: At the UN China and Russia blocked efforts to punish Burma because of the mistreatment of the Burmese Rohingya Moslems. There are reasons for the Chinese support. Three days earlier, in northern Burma (Shan State) about fifty tribal rebels attacked an area through which the Chinese oil and natural gas pipelines passed and were repulsed by the army before any damage could be done to the pipelines.

December 22, 2017: The U.S. issued an export license for the delivery of weapons (as sales or aid) to Ukraine. One of the first shipments will be military aid in the form of 210 Javelin missiles and 35 CLUs (command launcher units) with which to launch them. This is valued at $47 million. Ukraine had first requested Javelin in 2014. Although Ukraine designs and manufactures similar systems Javelin is an older, more sophisticated and with more combat experience than anything Ukraine has. Moreover Javelin shipments would demonstrate more Western support for Ukraine and annoy the Russians a great deal. Better late than never.

December 20, 2017: Russia announced that three more Voronezh early warning radars had entered service in Barnaul and Orsk (both north of Kazakhstan) and Yeniseysk (north of Mongolia). The media played this up, as part of Russia rebuilding its armed forces. This Voronezh-DM type radar has a range of 6,000 kilometers and replaces older, and worn-out Soviet era radars. Some of those older systems were also in countries that were created out of the dissolved Soviet Union, and no longer owned by Russia. The new owners kept increasing the rent, so new radars were built and old ones abandoned. The new Voronezh-DM radars are all on Russian territory. Sources outside Russia noted that the Voronezh radar appeared to have some limitations because Russia had announced in July 2017 that its Voronezh radar system had spotted North Korea launching a Hwasong-14 missile and described it as an IRBM instead of a much longer range ICBM (as other nations with such radars, like the United States did). This made it appear that Voronezh was optimized to detect launches much farther away (as in North America) and was not as accurate when detecting a much closer missile launch.

 

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