Opinion polls show that most Russians accept corruption as a basic element in Russian culture and unlikely to be eliminated any time soon. Most Russians also complain that the prevalence of corruption hurts the economy and is another unpleasant aspect of life in Russia. While the government makes a big deal (lots of publicity) about anti-corruption efforts it is widely understood that when some major government official (usually a former official) is arrested and charged with corruption there is more to the story than that. First, the official is probably guilty as charged and the details make interesting reading. The other part of the story is generally not published and involves the details of which other senior official the “corrupt” official offended. That is the usual reason for a senior politician or military officer getting prosecuted for corruption. While there may be no honor among thieves there is a code of conduct and those who misbehave are publically spanked, lose a lot of money and often spend some time in prison.
Another unique aspect of Russian corruption is that it is much less tolerated in the military, where it has also been rampant for centuries. This corruption is seen as a major factor in Russian combat disasters. Even military leaders accept that, but in peacetime, the opportunities are too abundant and the discipline too inadequate to prevent corruption. Government prosecutors estimate that military corruption costs the military over $500 million a year and disrupts the operation of units, major programs and everything else. Despite the frequent prosecutions it is believed corruption in the military is increasing. There were 2,800 officers and officials prosecuted in 2018, an increase over previous years despite so many of those prosecuted getting convicted and imprisoned.
There are a number of complications in Syria that have led to a frustrating and costly stalemate. Many of these revolve around what to do with the Syrian Kurds. In addition, Iran has problems with Israel in Syria, as well as its own allies. The Iranians want the Syrian government (controlled by the Assad clan) to accept Iranian domination (as Hezbollah does in Lebanon). Iran also agrees with Turkey that the Syrian Kurds should not get autonomy and should accept rule by the Iranian backed Syrian government as well as Turkish control of border areas. Iran has a major problem in that no one wants them in Syria much less acting as an occupying military force dedicated to starting a war with Israel.
The Russians would prefer that the Turks and Iranians got out of Syria and that the Assads and Kurds worked out a compromise (which the two seem willing to do). The Americans, Israelis and most other Middle Eastern nations agree with this approach. The Kurds have some additional problems. The SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), the Kurdish led rebel militia, wants some help in dealing with the 5,000 ISIL fighters (and 24,000 family members) they have captured so far this year. SDF has detained 72,000 people who left the last ISIL stronghold over the last year or so. These are held in a large refugee camp and various governments are being asked to verify who is a citizen of where. The UN has been asked to take custody of those found to be stateless. Iraq has agreed to take about 30 percent of the refugees and prosecute those who are suspected of ISIL crimes. Many of the ISIL wives are obviously still active ISIL members and many were caught smuggling weapons into the camp when they were searched before entering. These ISIL women are terrorizing other camp residents and seeking to intimidate the camp guards. The Kurds need help paying for the camp and want the nations these people came from, including Syria, to claim and take custody of them. All of the camp residents claim to be non-Syrian but for many of them, that is unclear.
A growing number of nations, including Russia, have agreed to take their citizens back although some nations are revoking the citizenship of camp residents and that keeps these stateless people in the camp longer. On the plus side, the existence of the refugee camp discourages Syria and Turkey from attacking the Kurdish controlled northeast because if they capture the camp they are then responsible for it. The refugee camp is not the main reason Syria or Turkey hesitates to attack the Kurds. The possibility of being repulsed is a real threat and heavy casualties are a certainty. The Kurds still have powerful allies, but it is uncertain how far the Americans, Britain and other NATO countries, as well as Israel and Russia, will go to help defend the Kurds against Turkish or Syrian/Iranian invasion. Then there is the fact that that just about everyone opposes the Turkish presence in Syria.
Russia has taken the lead in brokering agreements that would solve most of these disagreements regarding Turkey or Iran. So far there has been a limited success with only Israel willing to work with Russia. Israel and Russia have been cooperating in Syria for years but Turkey and Iran are determined to have their way despite the opposition they are encountering.
March 31, 2019: The U.S. has suspended Turkish participation in the F-35 fighter program because Turkey insists on buying the Russian S-400 air defense system. The F-35 was designed to defeat systems like the S-400 and Turkey is no longer trusted to honor its commitments to maintain secrecy about exactly how the F-35 operates. Turkish firms are also manufacturing some F-35 components but the U.S. Department of Defense is already arranging for secondary suppliers of these components to start production. Turkey has received two F-35A aircraft and Turkish pilots are training on the F-35 in the United States. The training will cease and if the Turkish ban becomes permanent the two F-35s in Turkey will have to be returned.
March 30, 2019: Recent Russian opinion polls show that more (now 68 percent) Russians believe there is an economic crisis in Russia. That’s up four percent over a year ago. Only eight percent of Russians believe the crisis will be over in the next year. A survey of members of parliament (the Duma) elicited even bleaker assessments with most Duma members believing the economy was slipping into a depression that would not recover until oil prices rose back to 2013 levels. That is unlikely to happen and the best option is to get the economic sanctions lifted. But Russians admit is not likely to happen with their current government.
March 29, 2019: In the south (Ingushetia) 19 members of a police battalion were fired and the battalion disbanded because so many members of the battalion refused to follow orders to use force to disperse a recent demonstration against the provincial government. Apparently, most residents of Ingushetia oppose a treaty signed with neighboring Chechnya in late 2018 to swap territory and settle a long-standing provincial border dispute. Anywhere else in Russia this would not be a big deal but in the Caucasus memories are long and grudges with neighbors are a major source of popular anger and even violence. Still, it is considered disturbing when police refuse to follow orders.
The U.S. government reminded Russia that the American “Monroe Doctrine” is still in effect and the United States will actively oppose Russian efforts to use the hundred military personnel it landed in Venezuela (on March 23) to assist in obtaining repayment of the billions of dollars Venezuela owes Russia. The Americans were told that the Russian troops were S-300 air defense system specialists sent in to make repairs as needed and help get the two batteries of S-300 equipment (especially the radars) working again after the recent power failures. The S-300s were delivered in 2013 and were operational by 2015 using Venezuelan crews. That is not much of an endorsement of the S-300 but for Russian gear, it is fairly common. Western equipment and operators are better prepared to deal with situations like a local power system failure. Russia implied that the 99 Russian troops were there to help with other equipment problems as well. Russia insists its troops are in Venezuela as part of a military assistance program. Brazil, the largest nation in South America and Venezuela’s southern neighbor, demanded that the Russians withdraw their troops.
The current, pro-Russian Venezuelan government is broke and the largest foreign financial victims are China and Russia. Large defaults on foreign debt have been a feature of South American finance, politics and diplomacy since the early 19th century. In response, the U.S. had established a policy of opposing foreign nations that wished to use force (“gunboat diplomacy”) to settle these debts. By 1850 that was called the Monroe Doctrine and generally enforced by the Americans in the Western Hemisphere ever since. The Monroe Doctrine evolved, especially as the United States became the world’s largest economy at the end of the 19th century. So while South American politicians still blame America for their financial mishaps they do so safe in the knowledge that everyone has quietly accepted the Monroe Doctrine and understands that these defaults get negotiated, not used as a cause of war. In 2013 the previous U.S. government said the Monroe Doctrine was dead. It had not been used for some time but the Monroe Doctrine was easily revived when it was needed and that was a relief to many nations near Venezuela.
Venezuela certainly needs technical help as the current socialist government has mismanaged the economy so badly that GDP has fallen by 50 percent and most of the population can no longer afford to get enough to eat. Medical care is largely non-existent and most people with tech or management skills have fled the country. That was the main cause of the three major power failures in March. The Venezuelan government blames the power failures on American Cyber Warfare but most Venezuelans openly agree that the power system has been in decline for years because of the departure of so many management and technical people.
More Russian personnel were already in Venezuela setting up a helicopter pilot training school for support the growing number of Russian made Mi-17V-5, Mi-35M and Mi-26T helicopters used in Venezuela by the military and commercial firms.
Ukraine announced that 2,956 Ukrainian military personnel had died so far defending eastern Ukraine (Donbas) from Russian aggression since early 2014. About 10,000 Ukrainian civilians have also died, including many in Russian occupied portions of Donbas.
March 28, 2019: The Russian Air Force has received its sixth T-50U AWACS aircraft. This is the upgraded model which first flew in 2011. Russian efforts to replace Cold War era equipment has slowed down but continues. Cold War vintage equipment that can no longer operate is simply retired. The military lacks the skilled personnel necessary to maintain older equipment so tolerates the air and naval forces shrinking because older equipment cannot be replaced on time. The Defense Ministry insists that the needed replacement gear is delayed, not canceled and deliveries do slowly continue.
March 27, 2019: In Syria, Israel launched another airstrike on Iranian facilities, this time outside Aleppo. Seven people were killed and at least one warehouse full of weapons and explosives blew up. Israel apparently coordinated this attack with Russia, which is according to an understanding Russia has with Israel.
March 26, 2019: In northwest Syria (Idlib province), Turkish and Russian military patrols began in northern Idlib province. This was according to an earlier agreement between Turkey and Russia to maintain the ceasefire in Idlib. To that end, Turkish and Russian troops will patrol the ceasefire line that defines the extent of rebel-controlled territory. The Russian and Turkish troops are enforcing a 12-15 kilometer wide neutral zone across northern Idlib. In return, the Islamic terror groups in Idlib are supposed to allow free use of two highways that connect northern Syria with the capital (Damascus) down south. To compel compliance Russia has resumed its airstrikes in Idlib this month and so far there have been about 140 deaths, half of them civilians, and 100,000 civilians driven from their homes. There are three million people in rebel-controlled portions of Idlib.
March 25, 2019: Russia revealed that it had recently lost three soldiers in eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) when their convoy was ambushed by about 30 Islamic terrorists in late February. After this ambush Russian and Syrian forces tracked down and killed the attackers. With these deaths, Russia has lost 115 military personnel since 2015 (plus perhaps twice as many military contractors). The military death toll includes 39 killed when a Russian transport crashed at Khmeimin (Hmeimim) airbase in March 2018.
March 20, 2019: Russia revealed that its 2015 program to offer para-military training to teenagers had so far gained 350,000 members (and has a goal of one million). The program provides various programs to keep the kids busy and more patriotic. Another reason for the program is to prepare young men for military service. Russia still uses conscription but popular pressure has forced the government to reduce conscript service to one year and because so much time has to be spent with training (to turn civilians into useful soldiers) the military gets little practical use out of conscripts.
March 19, 2019: The Russian Defense minister arrived in Damascus (the Syrian capital) to hold talks with Syrian officials and to personally deliver a message from the Russian leader (Putin) to the Syrian leader Basher Assad. Details of the written message were not revealed. Russia, Iran, Turkey and Assad are constantly negotiating the terms of who will control what once all of Syria is free of rebels or Islamic terrorists. Russia and the United States are in constant communication with Israel, which is considered an enemy by Assad, Iran and Turkey.
March 17, 2019: Russia and Turkey are setting up a joint coordination center to ensure smooth joint operations between Russian and Turkish military forces in and around the northeastern Syrian province of Idlib. Russia and Turkey are making plans to eliminate the Islamic terror group control over most of the province.
March 16, 2019: The United States, Canada and EU (European Union) have sanctioned over a hundred Russian officials and 15 organizations for their role in implementing and sustaining the Kerch Strait bridge and the subsequent blocking of some traffic through the Kerch Strait. What Russia is doing violates international law, which Russia insists does not apply in this situation.
March 15, 2019: Russia apparently supplied Iran with the “zero click” cell phone hacking tech which Iranians recently used to hack the phone of an Israeli politician. It’s unclear if this was an authorized transfer of technology to Iran or an illegal one. Both methods are used for Iran to get needed items from Russia.
March 14, 2019: In the south (Stavropol), two Russian Moslems from Volgograd (Stalingrad) were followed to a rural village where police tried to arrest them. The two ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) members resisted and were killed. Stavropol is adjacent to the Caucasus and often the scene of Islamic terrorist activity as it is the first part of Russia you enter when leaving the Caucasus. ISIL has been particularly active attacking local Moslem clergy who oppose Islamic terrorism.
March 13, 2019: In the northwest (Idlib province), Russia has resumed regular airstrikes against rebel targets in Idlib province. Turkey had earlier announced an agreement with Russia to maintain the ceasefire in Idlib. To that end, Turkish and Russian troops will patrol the ceasefire line that defines the extent of rebel-controlled territory.
March 12, 2019: Russia is apparently expecting a fight in Idlib province because at least four upgraded Su-25SM3 ground attack aircraft have arrived in western Syria and the only reason to bring these in is to use them under combat conditions. The only likely combat these days is in nearby Idlib province. Russia is also moving more warships to Syria and these often fire Kalibr cruise missiles at Syrian targets during major Russian operations.
March 11, 2019: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is apparently planning a visit to Russia, which is the only neighbor left that can help with smuggling. Russia may not be able to help because Russia is increasingly an obedient client of China rather a somewhat equal ally. Russia cannot afford to defy China in such an obvious way by doing for North Korea what China refuses to do. If Russia cannot help North Korea is faced with growing economic misery and popular unrest at home while the United States and its allies continue to hunt down and disable the many smuggling operations North Korea still uses. Many of these overseas money raising operations are risky to begin with and not as profitable to earlier efforts carried out with more cooperation from China and less scrutiny from the West.
March 10, 2019: Turkey has approached Russia and the United States to discuss Turkish plans to invade Kurdish controlled northeast Syria. Russia and the U.S. both advised against it. Turkey pointed out that Syrian refugees were willing to return to Syria is they were allowed to live in areas not controlled by the Assad government. This would include the Turkish controlled areas on the Syrian side of the border. This security zone only extends about 30 kilometers into Syria and only includes the half of the border not controlled by the Kurds.
March 9, 2019: Iran is trying to revive its maritime smuggling routes to Syria by obtaining port management agreements with Syria. Iran is running into resistance from Russia as well as Lebanon who fear that this will turn the local coasts into a combat zone as Israel and the Americans put intensive and heavily armed, scrutiny on the area. Although the Assad government will not openly defy Iranian requests it has learned how to quietly cooperate with other nations, especially Russia, that will be blunt with Iran in opposing Iranian proposals seen as too dangerous to work.
March 7, 2019: India has signed a $3 billion 10 year lease with Russia to obtain the use of another Akula class nuclear sub. The new sub will not arrive until 2025 and will replace another Akula (INS Chakra) that had earned the reputation of being something of a cursed boat. India had received this Akula II SSN (nuclear attack submarine), the K-152 Nerpa, in 2010 on a ten year lease. The Nerpa was built for this Indian deal and finally completed its sea trials and was accepted into Russian service in late 2009. India was supposed to take it in 2008 but there have been many delays. The Indian crew for the Nerpa had been ready since 2008. Most of the delays stemmed from an accident in late 2008 when, while undergoing sea trials, there was an accidental activation of the fire extinguisher system on the K-152. This killed 20 sailors and civilians and injured more than 20. There were 208 people aboard the sub at the time, most of them navy and shipyard personnel there to closely monitor all aspects of the sub as it made its first dives and other maneuvers. The source of the fatal accident was poor design and construction of the safety systems on the sub. This accident led to sailors and shipyard technicians being fearful of going to sea on the boat. So the sea trials were delayed, even after repairs were made. The post-accident modifications on the K-152 cost $65 million. Traditionally, when a new ship loses lots of people during sea trials it is regarded as "cursed" and unlucky. Sailors can be a bit superstitious, especially when there are dead bodies involved. So far India has not had any problems with this, until the sonar dome incident. When K-152 finally entered Indian service the name was changed from Nerpa to INS Chakra II. This was the same name used by the Charlie class Russian sub India leased from 1988-91. The lease arrangement had India paying $178,000 a day, for ten years, for use of the sub. The 7,000 ton Akula II requires a crew of 73 highly trained sailors.
It was Indian money that enabled Russia to complete construction on at least two Akulas. These boats were less than half finished at the end of the Cold War. This was another aftereffect of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Several major shipbuilding projects were basically put on hold (which still cost a lot of money), in the hopes that something would turn up. In this case it was Indians with lots of cash and seeking to lease a sub.
March 3, 2019: A Russian bulk carrier visited a North Korea port and began unloading 2,092 tons of wheat that has been donated to North Korea as emergency aid. That much wheat costs about $450,000 and will be a lifesaver if it goes to the most malnourished North Koreans. The Russians put no restrictions on what North Korea does with the wheat, so it will probably go to hungry, and increasingly angry, military personnel.
Israel revealed that a recent meeting, in Russia, between the Russian and Israeli leaders there was an agreement to carry out a joint effort to get all foreign forces out of Syria. Everybody wants the Turks and Iranians gone but the Syrian Kurds want some Americans to stay and Russia has treaty rights with Syria to operate an air base and a naval facility staffed with Russian personnel. This new agreement does not ban continued Israeli airstrikes against Iranian forces in Syria.
March 2, 2019: Venezuela announced a program to sell oil to Russia and to establish a branch of the Venezuelan state oil company in Russia to facilitate this and get around the economic sanctions the Americans have placed Venezuela and Russia. A Russian state-owned oil company (Rosneft) has invested seven billion dollars in Venezuelan oil development projects since 2010 and is owed several hundred million dollars by the Venezuelan government. Protecting this investment is a major economic goal of Russia.
Russian naval power analysts believe Russia is maintaining its relative naval strength with the U.S. Navy because the Russian navy continues to get some new ships while the larger American is having more problems modernizing its fleet. The Russian analysts believe the Russian navy is (in terms of overall effectiveness) 45 percent of the American fleet, down from 47 percent in 2017 and a low of 42 percent in 2012.
March 1, 2019: members of the Russian parliament were seeking to pass a law that would create a new Internet infrastructure that would restrict Internet use within Russia by confining most Internet users within Russia to web sites within Russia and also funnel all Internet traffic from Russian users through Russian censors who would screen traffic for forbidden activity, particularly soldiers of civilians posting pictures and video of military operations to social media. Parliament backers of this plan were told that such a scheme was technically impossible and would reduce Russian internet users to the sort of local “intranet” found in North Korea. The North Korean approach ensures that only a select few users have access to the worldwide Internet. But even in North Korea civilians found ways around that. Moreover, North Korea has a primitive and much less productive economy that can function without free access to the global Internet. The Russian economy could not function with such restricted Internet access, something China has discovered and is still trying to overcome. The Russian legislators are outraged at the inability of the military to halt these often embarrassing leaks of military information via the Internet despite numerous efforts to deal with the problem. As a solution, legislators proposed simply making it illegal to post military information on the Internet and prosecute those who violate these rules. Military experts responded by pointing out that this would be ignored or evaded by many military personnel and would make it even more difficult to recruit Russians for the military. Russian Internet officials point out that the technical aspects of this proposed law would be impossible to implement and passing a law would not change that. The “Russia only Intranet” law is still awaiting a vote and even then it could be vetoed by president Putin, is more knowledgeable when it comes to tech issues. But Putin is willing to sign other new laws that would make it possible to prosecute any Russian who posted material on the Internet that Russian censors (or prosecutors) deemed offensive or disrespectful of Russia or current Russian officials. That is a broad mandate and simply legalizes persecution that is currently carried out illegally by the government and its bureaucracy. Russia legislators are doing what legislators often do; pass a law, declare a problem solved and then try to ignore contrary evidence for as long as they can.