American officials confirmed reports that Russia had greatly increased the military forces it has on or near the Ukrainian border. It was also pointed out that Russia has been working on this buildup for years and part of it is a reorganization of its army to form reserve units and station them (or at least their equipment) in border areas, as was done during the Cold War. Back then much of that equipment was stored in Ukraine because Ukraine was a major “frontier zone.” Ukraine never liked being part of Russia and eagerly joined the uprising in 1991 that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and freedom for Ukraine after centuries of Russian occupation.
Russia sees all this differently and for more than a decade the Russian government has been backing an alternate version of history in which NATO conspired to destroy the Soviet Union and gullible Soviet citizens like those in Ukraine went along and destroyed the Soviet Union from within. Opinion surveys show this version of history has become increasingly accepted by Russians. At the end of 2018, some 66 percent of Russians regretted the dissolution of the Soviet Union. A year ago it was 58 percent but back in 1991 more than half the Soviet population backed dissolution of the “union” and the population of the centuries old Russian empire declined by about 50 percent. At the time many ethnic Russians were glad to see all these non-Russian parts of the empire become independent because by then it was known that most of these areas cost the more prosperous parts of the Soviet Union (mainly what is now Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) a lot of money to support. But over the decades such details have been suppressed by the state-controlled media and a Russian government that is trying to rebuild the empire. Belarus and Ukraine also had majority Slav populations but always considered Russian conquests and not part of Russia.
While the empire rebuilding may be increasingly popular Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer who started the effort and has been ruling Russian since 1999, is experiencing declining approval and popularity. Since early 2018 the percentage of Russians who hold Putin responsible for the continuing weak economy has gone from 50 percent to 61 percent. In the last year, the percentage of Russians who would reelect Putin has gone from 66 percent to 56 percent. Now Putin is escalating Russian aggression in Ukraine by challenging international treaties that guarantee free access to the Sea of Azov. Aside from China (which is guilty of the same thing in the South China Sea) Russia is not getting much diplomatic support for this and several NATO nations are moving warships to the Black Sea and increasing their military aid for Ukraine.
While the unexpected boom in American natural gas and oil production is partially responsible for Russias’ economic problems the aggressive attitude towards NATO and former Soviet possessions (like Ukraine and Soviet-occupied East European nations) are the reason for the sanctions and increasing unwillingness of European nations to do business with Russia. This is a major problem because Europe is a major customer for Russian natural gas. Russia and Germany are building a new natural gas pipeline that will bypass Ukraine (and make it easier for Russia to cut natural gas supplies to Ukraine) and Europeans are looking for other suppliers. The Germans are under growing pressure to drop out of the new pipeline deal because it makes Europe more vulnerable to Russian coercion. The Americans are offering cheaper and more reliable supplies of liquefied natural gas and Poland recently signed a long-term contract for that. Israel is offering natural gas via an underwater pipeline from its new offshore gas fields. Russia is making deals with China to ship natural gas east instead of west it will take time (over a decade) and a lot of money (which Russia does not have) to make the switch. As more Russians realize that this natural gas problem was self-inflicted by the Putin “war on NATO” his approval ratings are going to suffer some more. Putin, or a surrogate, is up for reelection in 2024. Tick Tok.
Israeli military leaders believe they are winning their battle to keep Iran from establishing a permanent presence in Syria. This has been achieved via a combination of force (air and artillery strikes on Iranian forces in Syria) and diplomacy (convincing Russia to persuade Iran to keep their forces away from the Israel border or suffer Israeli attacks the Russians will not interfere with). Other diplomatic activities involved the Americans and Arab nations. There is general agreement by Israel and their Arab allies that the forces Iran has assembled in Syria and Lebanon are a far greater threat than Hamas in Gaza. But this war is not yet won and whether it is depends more on what happens in Iran. As a practical matter, no one is really winning in Syria. The Turks are thwarted (by the U.S.) in their effort to destroy the military power of the Syrian Kurds. Turkey still has a problem with over a million potential refugees in Idlib province trying to get into Turkey if the Idlib showdown cannot be settled peacefully). Syria and Iran don’t care if there is a bloodbath in Idlib they just want to get it over with. No wonder Turkey doesn’t get along with Iran and their sidekick Syria. Russia is in Syria mainly to sell its new and expensive weapons and create some positive propaganda for the folks back home. That is done by not doing anything that makes Russia look foolish or gets Russian troops killed. That is difficult to do with allies like Iran, Syria and the current Turkish government. Russia does not want to fight anyone who can fight back; especially Israel or the Americans. At the same time Russia wants to appear unafraid of the Israelis and Americans. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is still around as are many less fanatic Islamic terrorists. The Americans are preparing to pull their 2,000 troops out of Syria but not their support for the large force of Syrian Kurds who did most of the fighting to destroy the ISIL presence in eastern Syria.
December 19, 2018: Ukraine is going to send more warships to the Kerch Strait, this time with OSCE and other international observers on board. Russia is illegally blocking access to the Sea of Azov. The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) observer teams continue operating in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) and keep reporting violations (of ceasefire and other agreements). There are often thousands of violations a week. Russia simply denies it, calling the photos and witness accounts contrived. The OSCE personnel are still 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. There are satellite photos available as a backup and local sources on the ground. Russia believes that because the front lines have not moved much in years, they can do what they want with no consequences. Despite that attitude, the Russian operation in Donbas is falling apart. Morale among the Ukrainians who agreed to keep the rebellion going is bad and getting worse. More and more of the “rebel activity” in Donbas is carried out by Russians pretending to be Ukrainian rebels. The Russian government apparently believes it will ultimately win but does not have a clear idea of when or how.
Ukraine also reported that 2,914 have died fighting the Russians since 2014. Nearly all these deaths occurred in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) where Russian forces have been stalled in their efforts to seize all the territory of the two provinces that comprise the Donbas region. Earlier in 2014 the Russians were successful in grabbing all of Crimea and that area is considered, by most of the world as illegally “under occupation” by Russian forces.
December 18, 2018: Diplomats from Russia, Iran and Turkey decided they were stalemated at a meeting in Switzerland. This is a UN sponsored conference to decide who shall be on the Constitutional Committee that will create a new constitution for Syria. The three nations could not agree on several dozen of the 150 committee members. The three nations will try again in early 2019. This committee is the result of a UN proposed compromise that includes a new constitution and monitored elections in Syria to form a new government. Iran wants to ensure that the Assads retain power, Turkey wants someone elected who has popular support and Russia will back whoever seems to have the best chance of getting on the committee.
December 17, 2018: A British Royal Navy ship, HMS Echo, has entered the Black Sea as part of a British effort to assist Ukraine in resisting Russian efforts to control access to the Sea of Azov. HMS Echo is a combat support survey ship that provides submarines and amphibious ships data on underwater topography. This can be done in real time and relayed to other ships and surfaced submarines. Echo is only armed with a 20mm autocannon and 7.62mm machine-guns. In the next month or so British warships will arrive along with a contingent of Royal Marines and soldiers to train their Ukrainian counterparts. American warships are also on the way.
December 15, 2018: Russia reported that the new Yars ICBM regiment is complete and all ten missiles are in their silos at Kozelsk. While Russian media reported that as good news it did mention that the Yars deployment was apparently delayed a year for unexplained reasons. A year ago, in late 2017, another test of the RS-24 “Yars” ICBM was conducted. The missile was fired from Plesetsk in northern Russia to a target area 6,000 kilometers (half the max range) away in the Kamchatka peninsula on the Pacific coast. The test was considered a success but foreign observers were not so sure. Russia is in the midst of replacing Cold War era RS-18 (SS-19) missiles with the new solid fuel RS-24 but it still occasionally test fires one of all types of ICBMs, including the remaining RS-18s. The RS-24 is fired from silos and mobile (rail or truck) transporters. Russia began replacing RS-18 in 2010 but just in case they were needed later, dozens of the RS-18s (which first entered service in 1974) were put in storage and only 30 remain in service.
December 10, 2018: For the third time, Russia has sent two of its Tu-160 bombers to Venezuela. Getting there involves 13 hours of flying to travel over 12,000 kilometers. Following the arrival, the Tu-160s carried out a ten-hour tour of the Caribbean escorted by some Venezuelan F-16s. This sort of thing is basically a training exercise. This flight was accompanied by an Il-62 airliner (with additional crews, maintenance personnel, media reps and diplomats) and an An-124 heavy transport, carrying maintenance gear the Tu-160 needs on the ground. Russian Tu-160s did this in 2013 and in 2008, flying the name route from northern Russia to northern Venezuela. These flights are publicity stunts that serve little military purpose (except to give Norwegian and British fighters some practice intercepting Cold War vintage aircraft as they head for the high seas.) The Cold War era Russian maritime air patrols were marginally useful back then, but are pure PR these days. The Tu-160 flights are basically the same, although Tu-160s can carry more weapons, including cruise missiles. Back in 2009, there were discussions about basing long-range maritime recon aircraft (Tu-142) and bombers (Tu-160) in Cuba and Venezuela. This caused an uproar in the Western hemisphere. Cuba and Venezuela expressed interest while there was a less friendly reaction in the United States. The Russian government soon announced that there was never any intention to build bases in South America. Instead, the plan was simply to land there and refuel before flying back to northern Russia. Cuba was such a base during the Cold War, but the maritime recon missions were of limited use because space satellites did the job more efficiently.
December 8, 2018: The Philippines has canceled plans to buy Russian helicopters because of the sanctions. Earlier this year Canada also ceased to be a supplier of transport helicopters because many Canadians opposed the way the Filipinos were dealing with their rebels and drug gangs. The Russians were going to replace Canada as the main helicopter supplier. Instead, the new transport helicopters (16 UH-60s) are now being obtained from the United States and ten helicopter gunships (T129s) from Turkey.
December 5, 2018: Off the Pacific coast of Russia an American destroyer conducted a FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) in a portion of Peter the Great Bay (off the Sea of Japan) that Russia claims as territorial waters. Portions of the bay that are farther than 22 kilometers from Russian territory (the accepted definition of “territorial waters”) are considered illegal claims. The United States conducted FONOPS here during the Cold War but that last time that was done was in 1987.
Russia backed the Israeli anti-tunnel operation on the Lebanon border, which Iran did not appreciate. Russia, as always, is caught between its desire to maintain good relations with Israel while also maintaining a working relationship the Iran, Turkey and the Assad government of Syria.
December 3, 2018: On schedule, another manned Soyuz launch, carrying three personnel, reached the ISS (International Space Station). This was a big relief for the ISS crew and came after a November 18th Soyuz success in getting an unmanned supply craft (with 2.5 tons of cargo) to the ISS. All this angst was because on October 11 a Soyuz rocket failed as it was attempting to take two men (a Russian and an American) to the ISS. The two passengers survived because of the emergency recovery system that is part of the manned rocket. But the failed Soyuz rocket was another example of the continued management and quality control problems in the Russian space program. Several American projects to get other manned spacecraft into service have been accelerated. The successful Soyuz launch today allowed three veteran ISS crew to return to earth on the 19th.
November 29, 2018: Ukraine released an audio recording of the radio conversations between pilots of two Russian combat aircraft (a fighter and a helicopter) and their ground controllers as the aircraft were guided to the location of three Ukrainian ships approaching the Kerch Strait. The controller ordered the two aircraft to fire rockets at the Ukrainian ships.
November 27, 2018: Finland and Norway went public with their accusations that Russia deliberately jammed GPS signals in northern Finland and Norway from a location near the Russian military bases in the Kola Peninsula on the Barents Sea. The jamming took place between October 25th and November 7th as NATO held its largest training exercise since the Cold War ended in 1991. Russia denied any responsibility even though they are known to possess long-range jammers, for GPS and other signals. Norway said they had tracked the jammer to a specific location but when Russia refused to admit any involvement Norway refused to explain how they tracked the signal because that would provide Russia with information on Norwegian EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment that might be useful to them.
November 25, 2018: In the south (Crimea), three Ukrainian ships (a tug and two patrol boats) were traveling from the port of Odessa to the port of Mariupol. As the Ukrainian ships approached the Kerch Strait they were fired on by a Su-30 fighter and Ka-52 helicopter gunships. Both aircraft fired two unguided rockets, which were apparently meant as warning shots to stop the Ukrainian ships from going under the Kerch Strait Bridge and into the Sea of Azov. Some the rockets hit the Ukrainian ships, causing damage. That was followed by a Russian attack using armed ships and boarding parties of commandos which resulted in 24 Ukrainian sailors being taken prisoner. After that Russia anchored a large tanker under the Kerch Strait Bridge to block any unwanted traffic. The tanker was later removed but the strait continues to be guarded by Russian warships (usually two gunboats).
The week before Russia announced that it was moving warships from the Northern Fleet (Barents Sea) and the Pacific fleet to the Black Sea to reinforce ships already there in case there is a confrontation with NATO over Russian threats to restrict access to the Sea of Azov. Those restrictions were imposed today. Since September Ukraine has been insisting it had the military means to defeat Russian efforts to take control of the Sea of Azov. It was pointed out that Ukraine has a large supply of modern anti-ship missiles and naval mines and could deploy them to quickly cripple any Russian naval forces in the area. This dispute went critical back in April 2018 when Russia declared the Sea Of Azov, reached from the Black Sea via the 4.5 kilometer wide Kerch Strait, was now under Russian control. The Crimean Peninsula, when it was part of Ukraine, was separated from Russia by the Kerch Strait. Maximum depth of the strait is 18 meters (59 feet) and there had long been talk of building a bridge between Crimea and the Kerch Peninsula (now and always part of Russia). Once Russia seized Crimea in 2014 proposals that a bridge be built actually turned into construction of that bridge. The Kerch Bridge opened in March 2018 (at least the highway part, the sturdier railroad section is still under construction). With that Russia declared the Sea of Azov under Russian control and no foreign ship could enter with Russian permission. So far the Russians have seized over a hundred ships trying to reach the Ukrainian ports of Berdiansk and Mariupol that are on the shore of the Sea of Azov. Russia is putting these two ports out of business. The EU and U.S. protested the Russian blockade but have not done anything to get that changed, like sending American warships to conduct a FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) in the Sea of Azov.
November 24, 2018: In northern Syria (Aleppo), fighting between government and rebel forces included a government held residential area being hit by what appeared to be rockets with warheads containing poisonous gas which many in the target area suspected was a noxious industrial chemical, probably chlorine. At least fifty people in the area fell ill and received medical treatment but none have died. Chemical tests are being carried out to find out what happened. The government blamed the rebels and the rebels blamed the government. This is the second incidence of chemical weapons use this year. The last one was in April outside Damascus as government forces sought to drive rebels out of a suburban area. Syria has often been accused of using primitive (World War I type) chemical weapons that attack the respiratory system. These older chemical weapons are often nothing more than industrial chemicals (like chlorine) in large (and dangerous) doses. But the April attack and one before it apparently also included some nerve gas. In the last two years, the U.S. has twice bombed Syrian forces in retaliation for Syrians using chemical weapons and threatens to do so again if the Syrians use chemical weapons in Idlib or anywhere else. Syria apparently plans to do so in order to reduce casualties among their own troops. Thus the belief that the Aleppo incident was the work of government forces, not rebels and done in such a way as to avoid retribution (as was the case in April). Russia believes that industrial chemicals (like chlorine) don’t count as chemical weapons (according the 2013 Russian brokered deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons) and the Iranians apparently don’t care. The evidence indicated that the April attack involved a combination of chlorine and a nerve gas. Israel fears Iran is permitting Syria to use these chemical weapons to test their effectiveness and the degree of international outrage. The Aleppo attack will not be investigated as thoroughly as the April one because there are no outside observers and the Syrians can control what information gets out. Russia believed the Syrian version of what happened in Aleppo and broke the truce and launched several airstrikes on rebel positions in Aleppo and nearby Idlib province.