Russia: Not The Best Of Times

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December 24, 2019: It has not been a good year, although the government tries to put a positive spin on 2019. The economy is still stalled and, in many respects, still in decline. The one bright spot is that, despite sanctions, Russian maintained its volume of arms exports. This has always been a major source of foreign currency and because of the sanctions, creative ways have to be found for customers to pay for the weapons. India pays in rubles and exports to Russia. Venezuela pays in oil, although many of those payments are past-due. China can pay with barter and so on.

Nationwide family income and living standards continue to decline. The government plays this down in the state-controlled mass media but average Russians know better and are not happy with the situation. There are more protests and isible hostility toward the government. Not the best of times.

The government is not pleased with the way international organizations measure the effectiveness of governments and the societies they represent. For example, there is the Human Development Index the UN has compiled annually during the last 29 years. The index ranks all the world nations in terms of how well they do in terms of life expectancy, education and income. In 2019 Russia was 49th out of 189 nations while neighbors like Finland were 12, Poland 32, Ukraine 88, Latvia 39, Belarus 50, Georgia 70, Azerbaijan 87, Armenia 81 and Uzbekistan 108. The top ten nations are Norway, Switzerland, Ireland, Germany, Hong Kong, Australia, Iceland, Sweden, Singapore and Netherlands. The bottom ten are Mozambique at 180th place (there are a lot of ties) followed by Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Mali, Burundi, South Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic and in last place, Niger.

Other notable nations are the United States at 15 (tied with Britain), China 89, South Korea 22 (tied with Israel), Saudi Arabia 36, Iran 65, India 129, Pakistan 152, Bangladesh 135, Afghanistan 170, Venezuela 96, Colombia 79, Mexico 76, Egypt 116, Lebanon 93, Syria 154 and Jordan 103. North Korea is not ranked because not enough reliable data is available on the population or economy. Taiwan was not rated because China insisted Taiwan was part of China. But in previous years Taiwan had similar ratings to South Korea and Israel.

Middle East Muddle

Russia has a problem with Israeli airpower in Syria. Since early November Israel has launched multiple airstrikes on Syria five times and smaller one target missions much more frequently. The multiple airstrikes were different in that they went after the best defended Iranian targets and that meant attacking Syrian air defenses in a big way. Russia did not like this because Syrian air defense systems are almost entirely Russian and the apparent ease with which Israel destroyed these targets was an embarrassment for Russia. There were public protests from Russia but no threats as Russian and Israeli leaders remained in contact. Apparently Israel convinced Russia that the Iranian threat was still serious and required decisive and destructive action. Russia wants things to calm down in Syria so they can implement their planned reconstruction projects. These are rather modest (about $300 million, only a few percent of what is needed) and concentrate on rebuilding the port of Tartus, where there is a Russian naval base. Also planned is building a railroad from Tartus to Iraq where it would connect with an Iraqi railroad to Basra and the Persian Gulf.

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 and those attacks have recently become more intense.

Happy New Tank Year

The Russian army is receiving twelve T-14 tanks and four BREM tank recovery vehicles to tow damaged T-14 s, by the end of 2019. These are the first production models. There were doubts that these vehicles would appear given the dire financial condition of the manufacturer and reports of unresolved technical problems with this revolutionary tank design. The most serious problems are with the electronics, which are more extensive than any previous Russian tank. The crew size has been increased to three and there is now a toilet in the crew capsule. Because the crew is confined to the armored capsule where they have limited visibility, even if someone sticks their heads out of one of the two crew entry hatches. Visibility is normally dependent on the cameras installed outside the tank and the reliability of the power supply and electronics that keep those cameras operational. Despite all this the manufacturer is supposed to deliver about 40 T-14s by 2021. This slow production schedule allows time for developers to solve many of the remaining technical and design problems.

December 23, 2019: In the south the railway link across the new Kerch Strait to Crimea was opened for service. This enables the bridge to move 13 million tons of freight and 14 million passengers a year. The bridge cost $3.5 billion and is mainly a prestige and diplomatic project as it enables Russia to control the Sea of Azov. Back in April 2018, 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. The 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 reality. The Kerch Bridge opened in March 2018, at least the highway part, the sturdier railroad section took longer to complete. With that Russia declared the Sea of Azov under Russian control and no foreign ship could enter with Russian permission. The Russians seized 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. Ukraine accuses Russia of violating international law as well as a 1990s Russia-Ukrainian treaty by seizing Crimea, building the bridge and restricting access to the Sea of Azov.

The government reveled that it had recently successfully tested its ability to sever the Russian Internet from the rest of the world. To do this Russia had to establish local DNS servers equipped with information to direct Russian users only to sites inside Russia. This “Russia only” Internet is called RuNet and would be implemented in a national emergency to prevent Internet based attacks on Russia.

In the Far East (Khabarovsk Krai) a new Su-57 stealth fighter crashed while undergoing acceptance tests. The pilot survived.

December 22, 2019: Russia has sent home all the North Korean workers officially still in eastern Russia, where there is a labor shortage and cheap North Korean workers have been popular. Many of the departing North Koreas said they expected to return next year. Some North Korean workers remain in Russia but these have 90 day tourist visas. The UN economic sanctions on North Korea call for all North Korean workers employed in other countries (mainly China and Russia) to be sent home by today. That did not happen in China, which has long been North Koreas’ major trading partner. China has been allowing more North Korean workers to enter and work , many with no visa at all . Half of the workers’ pay goes to the North Korean government as “tax” but the North Korean workers are still making more than they could in North Korea and most of that pay supports family back in North Korea while the exported workers have more food and heat than they would back home. China and Russia are officially supporting the sanctions but are unofficially tolerating all manner of smuggling and sanctions evasion.

The U.S. approved another $300 million in military aid for Ukraine. The Russian operations in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) continue to be stalled and Russian forces continue violating the ceasefire nearly every day. The violations are usually just some artillery/mortar and machine-gun fire which causes no casualties. The Ukrainians return fire and because of all that action there are some dead and wounded each month on both sides. The new government in Ukraine has made progress dealing with corruption and getting Russia to negotiate an end to the Donbas fighting. As a result the economy is growing, and faster than expected.

December 21, 2019: In Libya the Turkey -backed GNA (Government of National Accord) is accusing the rival Russian-backed HoR (House of Representatives) government of using Russian mercenaries to lead the attack on the GNA (and Libyan) capital Tripoli. This city, and nearby Misrata, are the last two strongholds of the UN created GNA. But the HoR is the last elected government in Libya and controls most of the country. The GNA failed because it is dominated by Islamic militias in Tripoli and Misrata and was never able to create an effective military force. The HoR has the LNA (Libyan National Army) led by Khalifa Hiftar , an elderly former Kaddafi officer who fled Libya in the 1980s because he opposed Kaddafi. Hiftar has made one official and several unofficial visits to Russia in the last few years, where he met with diplomats and the Ministry of Defense officials to discuss the situation in Libya and arrange for illegal (because of the arms embargo) shipments of Russian weapons to the LNA. Hiftar has the support of most Libyans along with Russia, most Arab states, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and now the United States as well. The UN opposes Hiftar, as does ISIL, the Moslem Brotherhood and pro-brotherhood nations like Turkey, Qatar and Iran. The main argument against Hiftar is that he could turn into another dictator like Kaddafi, who was overthrown in 2011. Hiftar had been an early supporter of Kaddafi and was a colonel in the Libyan army when, in the late 1980s, he and Kaddafi became enemies and Hiftar was declared a traitor. Hiftar got support from the CIA to form an opposition force (the first LNA) but no African nations were willing to host it for long and by 1990 Hiftar was living in the U.S. and seeking citizenship. Hiftar became a U.S. citizen and spent 20 years living in the West before returning to Libya after Kaddafi was overthrown. By 2014 he realized that Islamic terror groups and independent militias were preventing the formation of a new government. His solution was to form the LNA in the east (Benghazi) and take on all the warring factions, especially the Islamic terror groups. Five years later the LNA, the only organized military force in Libya, is closing in on the last concentrations of militias in Tripoli and Misrata. At that point, the GNA found Turkey was willing to provide military aid and now the GNA and Turkey have a military alliance which includes the possibility of Turkey sending troops to prevent the LNA from taking Tripoli and ending GNA operations in Libya.

President Vladimir Putin already has nearly a thousand Russian PMCs (Private Military Company) into Libya. The PMC force is supplied by the Russian Wagner Group which has, since 2014, become Putin’s private army in Libya, Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere in Africa . Ukrainians identified Russian Special Operations colonel Dmytro Utkin as the founder of Wagner. The name “Wager” was originally the radio call sign for Utkin. The Ukrainians have a lot of experience with the Wagner Group , which was used to restore discipline in rebel controlled areas of Donbas by kidnapping or assassinating rebel leaders who were not following orders from Russia. Wagner is believed to have over 5,000 highly skilled (and paid) personnel on the payroll. Ukraine and foreign analysts documented that the Wagner firm is a major Russian military contractor with thousands of personnel overseas . What little is known about Wagner is collected from Internet posts (usually in social media) about the death of Wagner employees in Libya, Ukraine or Syria. There is so much data like that freely available that it is possible to get a good idea about the size and activities of Warner and other military contractors Russia uses.

Turkey says it might send troops to Libya but has not done so yet. The Wagner Group personnel are former Russian military, often experienced special operations or airborne veterans led by equally experienced former officers. The Turks could send some of their own special operations troops, but these are needed for current operations in Syria and against separatist PKK Kurds in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Moreover Turkish and Russian forces fighting each other in Libya would be embarrassing because Russia and Turkey are supposed to be allies, especially in Syria.

December 20, 2019: In northwest Syria (Idlib province), thousands of civilians have gathered at the Turkish border, trying to flee the continued Russian airstrikes against residential areas. These attacks are part of the offensive to destroy the last Islamic terrorist stronghold in Syria. There about 50,000 civilians waiting for a border crossings from Idlib to Turkey.

Russia again denied that they had provided tanks and other armored vehicles and heavy weapons to the pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine (Donbas). Russia admits such weapons are there but claims they were provided by other nations that have Russian weapons and back the rebels. Russia cannot explain how those Russian weapons got to the rebels because the rebels have no access to ports or major airports where large transports could land. Then there is the fact that some of the Russian weapons used by the rebels are not exported. Finally, there are the dozens of Russian soldiers captured in the Donbas who admit that they are Russian and were sent to Donbas with their armored vehicles, which first had Russian identifying symbols painted over. Some of these soldiers were later exchanged for captured Ukrainian troops and when back in Russia the former prisoners did not change their account of what they did in Donbas. The government had a similar response when it was pointed out that Syrian forces have been seen using Russian weapons, including Italian Lynx armored vehicles that were being exported to Russia until 2014. Some of those Lynx vehicles used by Syrian forces have been identified as vehicles exported to Russia.

December 19, 2019: In Syria, Russian anti-aircraft weapons opened fire on an Israeli UAV that was flying along the Syrian border and strayed into Syrian airspace for about 90 seconds. The UAV was not hit. In northwest Syria, Russia has been recruiting Syrian Kurds belonging to the Kurd rebels who, as part of the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) have worked with American forces. Turkey considers these Kurds as terrorists and enemies of Turkey. Russia disagrees and is hiring these Kurdish fighters to accompany Russian patrols that Turkey agreed to allow in an effort to reduce clashes between Turkish forces and armed Kurds. Most of the Turkish troops are also Syrians, former members of secular rebel groups who are now on the Turkish payroll.

In northern Russia (Murmansk shipyard) the navy’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetzov, caught fire while under repair. One worker was killed and ten injured before the fire was extinguished. The Kuznetzov was damaged last year when the floating dry-dock it was in sank. The carrier was and still is, being refurbished to enable it to continue in service for another decade or more.

December 18, 2019: In the north, off the coast near the Norwegian border, the newly commissioned Admiral Kasatonov, the second Gorshkov frigate to enter service, tested its electronic warfare equipment and nearby Norwegian military monitoring stations and bases noted some interference on many radio and radar frequencies. This did not interfere with navigation in aircraft and ships but was noticeable. The 5,400 ton Kasatonov is the second of four new, “stealth frigates.” These ships can operate in distant waters and are replacing Cold War era destroyers, few of which can still get to sea. There were seemingly endless delays getting the Gorshkov class or "Project 22350", into service. Construction on three Gorshkov class ships began in 2006 but by 2010 only one had been launched and it was still only half complete. The navy originally wanted twenty Gorshkovs to replace the Cold War era Sovremenny class destroyers and Burevestnik class frigates. The government only promised money for twelve Gorshkovs. The first Gorshkov took a long time to pass sea trials. Gorshkov was first commissioned in 2017 but could not enter service until it passed all the sea trials. By early 2018 Gorshkov had not done so. That was because the anti-aircraft missile system did function properly and resisted several attempts to fix it. There were also problems with the engines. The builder said all would be well by mid-2018 and succeeded at that. While the Gorshkov was able to cross the Atlantic it is unclear if all its weapon systems actually work. The Kasatonov was launched in 2014 and was ready for sea trials in 2018. Those trials only recently ended successfully and the Kasatonov entered service. A third Gorshkov is under construction but the launch date is unknown because another side effect of the Ukraine invasion was Ukraine refusing to supply any more naval turbines. Russia said it was having a Russian firm begin construction of replacement turbines but that is behind schedule and now it looks like no more Gorshkovs (aside from the first two) will be available for completion until the early 2020s. These ships cost about $400 million each and will replace larger ships like the 7,900 ton Sovremenny class destroyers. These older, larger, ships, were designed for high seas operations far from Russian shores. This new fleet will be a return to the traditional Russian navy job of defending coastal waters. Even accomplishing that mission is in doubt if Russian cannot get its shipyards up to speed. Russia has been able to build some new corvettes but these are smaller and much less capable ships than the Gorshkovs.

December 16, 2019: China and Russia are asking the UN to lift key sanctions on North Korea. These include North Korean exports of minerals, especially coal, as well as cheap labor for China and Russia. China and Russia have already allowed North Korean smuggling of coal and other raw materials to flourish and have unofficially allowed North Koreans to resume working in China and Russia. This comes after North Korea recently told the United States that it would never give up its nuclear weapons. This has always been the attitude inside North Korea, and the U.S. has been told it has to come up with some sort of compromise by the end of 2019 or the negotiations would be over. Actually, these negotiations were over months ago when news came out of North Korea that the state-controlled media was confirming that North Korea would never give up its nukes. That was when North Korea began “testing” missiles again. First, it was older, short-range ones but by now the ICBM type missiles are being tested, but only as satellite launchers. All ICBMs can double as satellite launchers and some obsolete ones do, rather than be scrapped. North Korea has launched 13 ballistic missiles since May, a violation of promises North Korea made to the U.S. as part of the negotiations to end the sanctions.

China and Russia say their request was made for humanitarian reasons. The people of North Korea are suffering and by lifting the sanctions the suffering will be reduced a bit. Russia and China are less concerned about North Korea obtaining workable nukes because the United States and Japan are the designated targets and that is fine with China and Russia. If North Korea should threaten China or Russia with its nukes, these two nations would either stage a coup or just launch their own ballistic missiles first, invade and replace the Kim dynasty. The United States does not have this “Balance of Terror” with North Korea although that may change.

The UN is unlikely to go along with China and Russia and lift sanctions because the major UN members have come to understand that North Korea is an outlaw state and with nukes North Korea is a major threat to everyone. In the past, reducing economic problems in North Korea tended to see more cash going to military than the suffering population.

December 11, 2019: The U.S. revealed that three months ago Russian aircraft had halted close encounters with American military aircraft and warships. Other NATO nations have noted a similar situation with their aircraft and ships, especially those operating in the Baltic Sea and off the northern coast of Norway (that borders Russia). Russia always denied that its jet fighters were buzzing (coming dangerously close to other aircraft or ships) anyone, despite ample video evidence. Russia began this dangerous behavior in 2014 and used it more frequently until 2018, when there was a reducing in this reckless behavior. The reckless behavior has not entirely ceased as the U.S. Coast Guard warned other ships to be careful if they encounter the Viktor Leonov, a Russian electronic surveillance ship that operates, in international waters, off east coast American naval bases late each year. This year there have been complaints that the Viktor Leonov has not been turning on its running lights as international law requires and has also been ignoring other ships that have the right of way. It is unclear what is going on here although it might have something to do with needing to follow a specific course for some time to better collect electronic data.

December 10, 2019: Turkey announced that its security agreement with the Libyan GNA, to prevent intervention by foreign forces. Currently, this is mainly about Russian Wagner Group military contractors who are present in Libya and supporting the LNA. Turkey also pointed out that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France were supporting the LNA and the HoR government it serves.

December 9, 2019: Russian and Iranian media claim that on December 6th Russian jet fighters, operating from the Russian airbase in northwest Syria, intercepted Israeli warplanes that appeared to be on their way to attack the T-4 airbase, and forced the Israelis to turn back. There was no comment from the Israelis. This airbase, in central Syria near Palmyra, has been hit by Israeli airstrikes several times in 2019 and many more times in earlier years. The T4 airbase is the largest in Syrian. This is where Iran moved its UAV operations in 2018 after its original UAV base in Syria was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. Russia later revealed that its electronic jammers, which were supposed to disrupt the guidance systems of missiles attacking Syrian bases failed to do so during the 2018 T-4 attack. Details were not given, only that the Russian jammers were “interfered with by external forces.” Russia is embarrassed by the apparent ineffectiveness of its air defenses when used against Israeli airstrikes. The Israelis don’t rub it in and generally respond with “no comment” when asked about it.

Russian troops did enter the Raqqa today, to distribute food and other aid to civilians trying to rebuild the place. This city, on the Euphrates in eastern Syria, was once the ISIL capital. ISIL was driven out in late 2017 by Kurdish ground forces assisted by American artillery and air support. The Kurds agreed to allow Syrian troops share control of Raqqa as a result of the October Turkish offensive into northeast Syria. This means Russian and Iranian forces could also enter Raqqa but until now only Syrian troops have been there.

December 8, 2019: The U.S. revealed that it now believes that an American surveillance UAV that disappeared over Tripoli on November 23rd was shot down by a Russian missile. The U.S. wants to recover the wreckage of their UAV but the Russian forces that took possession are refusing to cooperate. The Americans believe that the Russians fired on the UAV believing it was Turkish. The American UAV missions are counter-terror operations that both the GNA and HoR governments approve up so it’s unclear what is behind these sudden attacks on American UAVs.

December 7, 2019: In northwest Syria (Idlib province), Syrian and Russian forces carried out another offensive against Islamic terror groups still in control of most of the province. The fighting in Idlib has been more spasmodic. The new offensive is similar to a three day campaign in November. Like the new attack, the November effort was in southeast Idlib and left about 150 dead, most of them the Islamic terrorists blocking the advancing Syrian troops. Both times the attackers had the advantage of plentiful airstrikes and artillery fire. This also caused over a hundred civilian casualties, about a quarter of them dead. The airstrikes are often directed at residential areas to force the civilians to leave. Over 10,000 civilians a week do just that. The Syrian offensive is heavily dependent on Russian air support as well as a few hundred Russia special operations troops advising and assisting the Syrian forces. There are also over a thousand Russian technical advisors helping to maintain the growing number of aircraft, tanks, artillery and other equipment the Syrian forces use.

Russia continues to pressure Turkey to fight the Islamic terrorists in Idlib instead of trying to negotiate with them. The Turks want to negotiate the surrender of Idlib province to avoid more Syrian civilians from trying to cross the border into Turkey. Syria would prefer that the largely pro-rebel civilians in Idlib leave the country. Syria also wants the Turks out of Syria. Russia is OK with the Turkish presence in Syria. So is Iran, mainly because the Turks are also in Syria to ensure that the Syrian Kurds do not support the PKK separatist Turkish Kurds. Iran also has rebellious separatist Kurds. The main problem with the Turks remaining in northwestern Syria is that the Turks refuse to go after the Islamic terror groups in the area.

December 1, 2019: In Syria, Kurdish SDF and Russian commanders negotiated an arrangement that would enable Russian troops to get between SDF and Turkish forces. The largely Kurdish SDF agreed to withdraw as the Turks sought to establish their Safe Zone but wanted someone like the Russians to police the operation and maintain a presence along the line separating Turkish and SDF forces. The factions still fighting the Turkish advance are not under SDF control.

November 29, 2019: In northeast Syria (Hasaka province), a Turkish surveillance UAV was shot down near the border city of Qamishli. At first, it was thought the Russians downed the UAV, fearing it was an Islamic terrorist attempt to attack the Russian airbase outside the city. It turned out that the Turkish UAV was shot down by Syrian troops stationed in the vicinity.

November 27, 2019: In Turkey, the Libyan GNA (Government of National Accord) and Turkey signed defense and economic agreements. Apparently in return for surrendering offshore claims to Turkey in return for Turkey sending troops to help defend Tripoli from the LNA (Libyan National Army) that controls most of the country. The GNA agreements with Turkey also support overall Turkish offshore claims which overlap the Greek claims. Greece is threatening war with Turkey over this.

The Turkish Libya intervention is part of a larger conflict. Turkey is allied with Iran and Qatar against the rest of the Moslem world, especially Egypt and the Gulf Arab oil states. That is a major incentive for the Turks to get involved in Libya. 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) and are now delivering fewer, but more modern ones, like ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) and portable anti-aircraft missiles to bring down UAVs. 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 and see the Turks as more of a threat than the Russians or Arabs who are backing the LNA.

Escalating the Turkish presence in Libya is apparently not going to happen quickly. The Turkish leader also said he would discuss this matter with his Russian counterpart soon. Closer to home Turkey is threatening war with its neighbor Greece. Turkey is also at odds with the United States in Syria. All these foreign adventures are an effort to distract Turkish voters from the current economic recession they are suffering from as well as their government continuing suppression of internal criticism of the government.

November 22, 2019: Over Tripoli, an Italian Reaper UAV, on a surveillance mission, was shot down by LNA forces. The next day an American reconnaissance UAV was also shot down, apparently by Russian forces.

November 17, 2019: Russia criticized the Israeli airstrikes in Syria but that was it. Russia is an ally of Syria and Iran but has made it clear it is not willing to go to war with Israel in support of that alliance. Russia does not want to discuss the ineffectiveness of the Russian made air defense systems Syria uses. Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes against Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria over the last few years and the Syrian Air Defenses have not been able to shoot down any Israeli warplanes. One Israeli F-16 did get damaged and crash-landed in Israel but that was more about pilot error than effective air defenses.

November 14, 2019: In northeast Syria (Hasaka province), Russian troops have set up an airbase outside the border city of Qamishli. The base will mainly support Russian helicopters that are moving Russian troops around the vicinity as they act as neutral observers to prevent clashes between Turkish and SDF forces. Syrian troops will guard the new Russian base. There is also an American landing zone in the area.

 

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