Russia: Deceptive Accounting

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November 6, 2019: The early October American decision to pull its troops out of northwest Syria was seen as a disaster for the Russians and Iranians. The official American withdrawal from Syria meant the Americans were not going to help finance the reconstruction of Syria. That is expected to cost over $400 billion. Russia and Iran have treaties with the Assad government and both have invested billions to ensure the survival of the Assad dictatorship. Most Western nations believe the Assads are war criminals because of their atrocities against Syrian civilians since 2011. Technically the Americans and most Western nations still support the Syrian rebels. The U.S. withdrawal should not have been a surprise because the American president had announced this plan in early 2019. Russia, Iran and many American politicians thought the U.S. would never take the American troops out of Syria despite the fact that this was the announced intention. But first, a deal had to be reached with the Turks on how the Kurds would be treated in the 30 kilometer deep security zone the Turks had long planned to establish on the Syrian side of the border. The Kurds were defiant about that as long as they had the thousand American troops with them. But with those U.S. troops leaving they were forced to fall back on discussions they had with the Assads and the Russians about post-war operations. The Turks and Russians have major potential problems with the remaining ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces in Syria and the Syrian Kurds are the most effective force to use against ISIL. So the Kurds have some leverage with the Assads, the Turks and Russia. Iran is another matter as everyone would rather see Iranian forces withdrawn from Syria. This puts the Assad government in a difficult position because it is in their interest to work out a mutually acceptable deal on how to run the Kurdish northeast.

Russia cannot afford any large investments in Syria because the Russian economy remains crippled by low oil prices, corruption and Western sanctions. GDP growth in 2019 was only one percent and few Russians have seen their living standards improve. More Russians continue to slip into poverty and the government has to deal with that before financing Syrian reconstruction.

The declining Russian standard of living has caused many small businesses to officially cease operations while actually continuing to operate informally. In other words, these small enterprises pay no taxes and ignore most of the growing number of government rules and regulations. In the last four years, about five percent of small and medium size firms have disappeared like this, although many were no longer operating. The government tries to portray the operations in Syria and Venezuela as profitable but that is largely creative accounting. Syria does allow for new military gear to be “combat-tested” and that helps with military exports. But Russia continues to face formidable competition from Western (especially American and Israeli) suppliers as well as China. Venezuela is a low-cost gamble that the current Venezuelan government will remain in power long enough to recover economically and pay back the billions owed to Russia.

Israel

Israel is closely monitoring what Iran is doing in Syria now that Iran and Russia are backing Syrian forces coming to the aid of the Kurds. Russia needs to remain on good terms with Israel despite the fact the Russian allies (or “partners”) in Syria (Turkey, Iran and Assads) all want Israel destroyed. Israel will continue to attack any Iranian moves towards Israel, especially the Israeli border. Iran was surprised by the Americans withdrawing their troops from Syria and leaving the Kurds without American air support and the presence of U.S. troops. That was not entirely true as the Americans are keeping some troops, and air support, to protect the Kurdish run oil fields in eastern Syria. The Americans moved their withdrawing troops to the Iraq border. The Iranians have more than Turkey and Israel to worry about. The Syrian effort is costing Iran a lot of money, which they cannot afford. This has led to a major reduction in Iranian mercenary forces in Syria and the Quds and IRGC forces there are mainly concerned with carrying out an attack on Israel. The humiliation of constant defeats in the form of Israeli airstrikes and loss of Iranian lives has enraged the Iranians. But it has not empowered them to do any better. So far Iran has tolerated the losses and continues to pour resources into permanently establishing itself in Syria. Iran is determined to finally achieve a victory over Israel  but is encountering resistance from Russia, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and most NATO nations. Now there is the Turkish invasion that has made the Iranians a potential battlefield opponent of the Turks. Iran made it clear it was not willing to do much about halting the invading Turks. Over the last four centuries, Iran has fought the Turks many times, and usually lost. The same pattern with Israel and over the last two centuries Russia has also been a difficult foe. Back in Iran most Iranians are more willing to recognize what a bad place Syria is for Iran and since 2017 there have been more and more public protests about that, and other shortcomings of the Iranian government.

Libya

In Libya, there has been considerable evidence that hundreds, if not more, Russian combat advisors and trainers entered the country in or before September. These troops are apparently civilian contractors working for the Wagner Group. Earlier in 2019 Russia revealed that it had increased its logistic and maintenance support for LNA (Libyan National Army) forces. This support had been going on since late 2018 and returned hundreds of Cold War era Russian armored vehicles and artillery to working order. This work was done with the battle for the Libyan capital Tripoli in mind. The LNA expected to begin this campaign in early 2019. The Russian techs were civilian contractors who identified themselves as working for the Wagner Group, a large Russian military contractor organization that is operating in several other African countries at the behest of the Russian government. Russia was known to be providing this sort of support for the LNA and recently leaked documents detailed the extent of that effort. The LNA equipment refurbished by the Russians was all of the type supplied to the Libyan government before 2011.

Dozens of Wagner Group personnel have been killed in combat, many of them because of airstrikes by GNA (the weaker UN backed Government of National Accord) warplanes or Turkish missile armed UAVs. While Russia has been backing the LNA for over three years the Turks only recently came to the rescue of the GNA, which is trying to defend the city of Tripoli, its last stronghold. The Turks favor he GNA because it is largely a collection of militias, several of them described as “Islamic” although not Islamic terrorists. One reason for Russia not publicizing their Libyan efforts is because Russia and Turkey are allies in Syria. Turks don’t have any military or contractor personnel at the front lines but some have been killed or wounded by LNA airstrikes.

The Russians are seen as reliable allies of Libya, even though it was Russia which supplied Libya with most of its weapons throughout the Kaddafi era (1960s to 2011). The Turks are seen as a former imperial overlord trying to make a comeback. The Turks also ignore the fact that most Libyans oppose the Islamic conservative militias that the Turks support.

November 5, 2019: In Syria, the second joint Turkish-Russian patrol began and while the patrol was not fired on, local civilians were seen throwing rocks at the patrol vehicles as they passed. Kurdish forces appear to have withdrawn, ahead of schedule, from the 30 kilometer Turkish security zone. But there are still some armed Kurds in that zone and these appear to be rogue YPG (Syrian Kurdish separatists) factions that are determined to fight on.

November 2, 2019: In Ukraine, newly elected president Zelensky seeks to deliver on his campaign promise to end the war with Russian in eastern Ukraine (Donbas). That effort has not made much progress because Russia refuses to just withdraw and most Ukrainian members of parliament (which most approve any peace deal) don’t want to surrender any territory to Russia and are still clamoring for the return of Crimea (which the Russians took in 2014). Opinion surveys of residents living in the Russian controlled half of Donbas show most of them would prefer to rejoin Ukraine rather than be permanently under Russian control. This survey was conducted by telephone, a form of communication that is not restricted by the Russians in their half of Donbas. There is growing criticism in the Russian parliament over the cost of maintaining Russian control of Crimea. The people there are also unhappy with Russian rule. Donbas is known to be expensive for Russia to maintain but many Russians thought that Crimea was not an economic burden.

November 1, 2019: In eastern Syria, Russian and Turkish troops began joint patrols to verify that Kurdish forces had withdrawn from the 30 kilometer deep security zone Turkey is establishing on the Syrian side of the border.

October 31, 2019: Russian customs records revealed that Russia had sent Venezuela $315 million in cash (dollars and euros) in six shipments between early 2018 and early 2019. Venezuela has apparently shipped even larger sums, in the form of gold bars, to Russia. All this is part of an effort to keep the Maduro government in business despite a collapsing economy and economic sanctions.

October 30, 2019: In Ukraine, senior NATO officials arrived for a two day visit and gave public speeches where they confirmed that the 2008 NATO decision to accept Ukraine as a member was still valid and could be acted on. In 2008 no action was taken because of protests and threats from Russia. The NATO officials pointed that while Russia can protest and threaten all they want, Russia has no vote in the matter, only other NATO members approve or disapprove Ukraine joining.

October 29, 2019: In eastern Ukraine, troop withdrawals by both sides began. This will create a buffer zone between Ukrainian and Russian/Rebel forces who control about half of Donbas.

October 27, 2019: Russia and Iran were not pleased as the U.S. returned some troops to eastern Syria to help the Kurds protect, and operate, the Syrian oil fields. These oil facilities do not produce a lot of oil but they are all Syria has got and the Americans are mainly concerned that ISIL does not disrupt or regain control of the oil fields. Selling this oil to Turkish smugglers was a major source of income for ISIL after 2014. By 2017 the Kurds had taken control of the oil fields and spent over a year repairing the damage ISIL did before departing. For the last year that oil has been an important source of income for the Syrian Kurdish forces (the SDF). Russia and Iran wanted the Assad government to take control of these oil fields and generate cash that would reduce the need for Iran and Russia to supply cash and services to keep the Assads going.

October 25, 2019: In Africa, Rwanda signed a nuclear energy production deal with Russian firm Rosatom. Uganda has agreed to a similar deal. The CAR (Central African Republic) president confirmed that his nation is considering a Russian request that it hosts a Russian military base. The CAR leader also said the CAR is asking Russia to supply its military with new weapons. To the south, the Wagner Group's troops are also in Mozambique where they have suffered some fatalities during clashes with Islamic terrorist rebels there.

October 24, 2019: Nigerian president Buhari visited Russia to sign a military and economic cooperation deal. Russia receives contracts to build a railroad and develop new oil and gas deposits. In return, Russia sells Nigeria weapons (like a dozen Mi-35 helicopter gunships) that could not be obtained from the West because of the crippling corruption in the Nigerian military. Russia sells to anyone who can pay and will often accept barter deals.

October 22, 2019: Russian and Turkish leaders met and agreed that Turkish forces would halt their advance in northeast Syria and allow Russian to supervise the retreat of Kurdish and Syrian forces from the 30 kilometer security zone the Turks want to establish south of the Turkish border. The next day Iran agreed that this was a good solution. Iran does oppose Turkey establishing a permanent military presence in northern Syria. That is subject to future negotiations.

Russia and Turkey agreed to jointly patrol the 30 kilometers deep security zone Turkey has established inside Syria along the entire Syrian border. Turkish forces entered this area on the 9th after American troops withdrew. The Syrian government has agreed to go along with this for now.

October 14, 2019: The U.S. imposed sanctions on Turkish officials it believes are involved with the Turkish invasion of Syria. This will make it difficult for these individuals to travel or do business internationally. The Turks announced that 18 Turkish soldiers had died so far in the invasion of northeast Syria. About 200 civilians had been killed or wounded and 500 enemy (Kurd) fighters had been killed, captured or surrendered so far. Those numbers are going to get much larger now that the Turks face Syrian troops as well as Kurds. The Russians have declared a “no-fly zone” in northern Syria.

October 12, 2019: Iran offered to mediate the dispute between Turkey, the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian government. The offer was ignored and became less relevant when the Kurds agreed to subordinate themselves to the Assads and Russian backed that decision.

 

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