Russia: Dancing With Wolves

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June 18, 2020: Russia is currently consorting with Turkey and Iran, two ancient enemies, in order to maintain a position of power in the Middle East. This region has long been fought over and occupied by Turks and Iranians and it was a major achievement for Russia, which lost its own empire in 1991, to take on the former (until 1918 ) Ottoman Empire and the former (until the Ottomans and Mongols showed up several times) Persian Empire. A century ago the growing economic importance of oil began changing the Middle Eastern political landscape. The Ottomans lost access to oil and the Iranians got a minority share of it. Most of the oil is now owned by Arabs, former subjects of the Ottomans and Persians. To defend their new wealth the Arabs made alliances with their biggest customers, the new superpowers in Europe, the United States and now China. Despite all that Russia, Turkey and Iran still want to play empire builders. This led to the three former foes becoming allies. It has been an unstable and unpredictable partnership but Russia still sees itself as the key player. Turkey and Iran quietly oppose these Russian plans.

Turkey also wants to avoid war with Israel, yet portrays Israel an “enemy of Islam” and tried to ignore the fact that Russia and Israel have long been friends. Turkey and Russia agree with Israel when it comes to Iran in Syria. Turkey would prefer that Iran go home. Many Iranians and Syrians openly agree with Russia and Turkey on this point. The Iranian government responds with “Israeli airstrikes are killing people in Syria.” Syrians note that most of the dead are Iranians or mercenaries (Arabs and Afghans) on the Iranian payroll. The Iranian government deliberately keeps as few Iranians as possible in bases likely to be hit. Iranians getting killed in Syria, even if they are IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) Iranians is very unpopular back in Iran. Syrians just don’t like all these Syrians who are working for Iran or Turkey as mercenaries and getting killed by whoever.

Turkey and Syria are also angry at Russia over the poor performance of Russian air defense systems. The Syrians frequently claim to have intercepted Israeli air-launched, often from inside Lebanon or Israel, missiles but the reality is that few of the Israeli missiles fail to hit their targets. Commercial satellite photos are available to determine damage and there is always a lot of it. Iran and Syria complain that the formidable Russian air defense system in Syria is not used to stop the Israelis. The Russians don’t want a fight with the Israelis, if only because the Israelis might publicly demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defense systems. These systems are a major export item for Russia and the Israelis could reduce those export sales with demonstrations of how to get past the Russian air defenses.

Russia and Turkey are actually fighting each other in Libya, where Turkey recently (late 2019) intervened on the side of the UN backed government there. That government is weak and backs Islamic rule, which is why it was about to be eliminated by the Russian-backed Libyan government and its more capable army. This force was also backed by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Turkey intervened in return for a signed agreement giving Turkey the right to drill for oil in disputed waters between Libya and Turkey. In Syria Russian airstrikes have killed Turkish troops while the Turks have killed Syrian troops. Turkey, Russia and Iran continue to pretend they are all friends and allies of Syria but the reality is different and becoming more visible and violent.

American intel in Libya estimate that Russia still has 2,000 troops (mostly military contractors) there while the Turks have at least 10,000 Syrian Arab mercenaries, fighting for the good pay and the promise of permanent resident status in Turkey for their families.

The War At Home

Russia continues to have the third highest number of confirmed covid18 cases in absolute terms. In relative terms, Russia has 3,800 cases per million population (up from 1,700 a month ago) and 51 deaths per million (up from 15). In relative terms, Russia is way down the list in cases, at about the same level as Italy. In terms of deaths, Russia is even farther down in the rankings. Russia attributes the relatively low number of cases to the fact that it is a big country and much of the population is normally isolated. The lower death rate is another matter and Russia explains that it does not automatically classify each death in which the deceased had covid19 as a covid19 death. Most covid19 deaths are people who already have other serious health problems and covid19 comes along and becomes one too many. Russian medical statistics rank the medical problems that cause a death and give the main one as the “cause.” Often there are multiple causes of death, especially among the most common covid19 victims; the elderly and chronically ill.

Russia also recognizes that, overall, covid19 is not a major (in the top three) cause of death. In the United States this can be seen in the government (CDC) weekly total of deaths. These numbers are remarkably stable in the short term (the last decade) and you can see those years where there is a larger number of deaths. This is normal and unusual increases in weekly deaths are usually caused by a bad strain of influenza, which is another covid type disease. Influenza appears every year and is considered a major cause of death. Some years, like 2018 and 2020, these covid type flu strains are particularly bad and there are a larger number of weekly deaths during the “flu season” (October through May). So far covid19 has caused fewer deaths per million population in the U.S. than the annual flu did in 1957-58 and 1968-69. Covid19 has caused twice as many deaths as the last “dangerous” flu strain that hit in 2017-18.

Russia experienced a similar pattern and medical statisticians did not see covid19 as anything exceptional. But some suspected covid19 could be something similar to the 1918-19 “Spanish Flu” that killed 18 times as many people in the U.S. than covid19. In other nations, politicians sought to highlight the covid19 threat by attributing more deaths to covid19 that was warranted by the medical facts. In the future, most medical historians will side with Russia in assessing the impact of covid19, as was done with all other covid type viruses.

In late March Russia shut down most businesses to deal with the epidemic and that reduced economic activity to crises levels. In response, throughout May Russia reduced the quarantine restrictions and in early June began ending the quarantine altogether. Throughout May and into June weekly covid19 deaths remained about the same and are now declining each week. The quarantine related financial losses, plus the much-reduced oil income created problems that could not be ignored. Given the current poor economic condition of Russia, that added expense threatened to do permanent damage. For example, Russia has about $22o billion in reserves but by law, this reserve cannot be drawn on freely when the price of oil falls below $42 a barrel. Changing the law would be difficult and the government has to consider painful cuts to government spending. But with oil now at under $30 a barrel, the Russian cash reserve can be used. The population has responded to the quarantine by reducing their spending by about a third. This is expected to reduce annual GDP by at least five percent for 2020. To remedy this the government has abandoned the quarantine and most Russians went along with that. After all, during World War II Russia lost 14 percent of its population while the U.S. lost 0.3 percent.

June 16, 2020: The U.S. has agreed to sell Ukraine sixteen Mk VI patrol boats. When Russia seized Crimea in 2014 they got most of the Ukrainian fleet with it. All Ukraine had left was armed patrol boats, most of them smaller and much older than the Mk IV, which comes armed with two 30mm autocannon RWS (remote weapons system) operated from inside the boat. There is also an extensive array of electronics. Ukraine would pay about $38 million per boat. The Mk VI can also have anti-ship missiles added as well as operating small UAVs from it.

June 15, 2020: Russia is speeding up its issuance of passports to nearly all the million people living in the half of eastern Ukraine (Donbas) occupied by Russian forces. In early 2019 Russia changed the rules and made it easier for residents of rebel-controlled Donbas to receive Russian passports and in effect become dual citizens. This is a step Russia takes when it is about to annex part of a neighboring country, as it earlier did with Crimea in 2014 and portions of Georgia after the 2008 invasion. The 2019 Donbas passport deal was later expanded to include Ukrainians living in the portion of Donbas that the Russians were not able to take because of the unexpectedly quick and determined resistance by Ukrainian troops and armed civilians. Back then the newly elected Ukrainian president remarked that a Russian passport provides, “the right to be arrested for a peaceful protest” and “the right not to have free and competitive elections”. Few people in Ukrainian controlled Donbas took advantage of the Russian offer. The EU responded by making it difficult, if not impossible, for Donbas residents to use their Russian passports in Europe.

Russia forces in Donbas continue violating the ceasefire with machine-gun, mortar and artillery fire. Not every day but often enough to cause casualties on both sides because the Ukrainians fire back. Neither side escalates. The Ukrainians expect to eventually push the Russians out while the Russians are moving along with absorbing their half of Donbas into Russia. This is recognized as illegal by most of the world and economic sanctions will remain in place and be increased, as long as Russia is in Ukraine.

June 13, 2020: Israel is being asked to openly take sides in the Libyan civil war. An official of the Egypt-backed LNA (Libyan National Army) made the announcement asking Israel for help. Since 2014 the LNA has been fighting Islamic terrorist groups and later the UN backed GNA (Government of National Accord) in Tripoli. There are two Libyan governments and the other one is the HoR (House of Representatives) government based in eastern Libya. The HoR has effective military capabilities in the LNA, which has been fighting since April 2019 to take the last GNA stronghold of Tripoli. This is the largest city in Libya and the traditional capital. Egypt has long backed the HoR because the LNA had taken control of the Egyptian border and helped keep Islamic terrorists out of Egypt. By 2018 Egypt was certain that the LNA had pacified eastern Libya up to and including the Egyptian border. That was always the main Egyptian concern. Egypt worked with the UAE to support the LNA and while Egypt is less active but the UAE and Saudi Arabia are still major supporters of the LNA, as is Russia.

June 12, 2020: The first Borei A class SSBN (ballistic missile nuclear sub) submarine, Knyaz Vladimir (Prince Vladimir) entered service. This a design upgrade of the original Borei and is t he fourth Borei. Knyaz Vladimir completed its sea trials in early November 2019 and was supposed to enter service in January 2020. Once more the “final” sea trials revealed more problems that took months to deal with before another final round of trials took place in May. All these problems were not unexpected because Knyaz Vladimir was actually the first of an “improved Borei”, or “Borei A” design and construction took longer, and cost more than planned. One feature, adding four more SLBM launch tubes, was deleted. Borei A includes improved electronics and changes to the hull and propulsion system to make the boat quieter and more maneuverable. There are now additional sonar arrays on the sides of the boat in addition to the usual one in the bow (front). There were significant changes to the propulsion system to improve maneuverability at low speeds. The hull now has a sleeker form without the noticeable bump behind the sail (small superstructure on top of subs). One morale-enhancing new feature is a small (four-seater) sauna. There are also larger and more comfortable crew quarters. These changes made the Borei-A look more like Western SSBN as well as perform like one. These changes made the Borei A so expensive that the navy can only afford to build eight Boreis instead of ten originally planned. The four Boreis currently under construction are all Borei A boats which incorporate all the changes made to Knyaz Vladimir during over a year of sea trials and subsequent modifications. Russia managed to get the first Borei class SSBN into service in 2013 with four now operational and four more under construction. This is another example of how limited post-Cold War Russian development resources have been. The first Borei began construction in 1996 and got more resources than any other shipbuilding effort.

June 10, 2020: In Libya, a Russian MiG-29 was spotted over the coastal city of Sirte. That is the city held by the Russian backed LNA while Turkish backed GNA forces are trying to take Sirte.

June 9, 2020: In northern Syria (Idlib province), for the first time since March there were Russian airstrikes, against fifteen different targets. In one of those airstrikes a civilian was killed. There have been a lot fewer Russian and Syrian airstrikes since the covid19 virus showed up in March, along with a temporary ceasefire between Syrian troops, Islamic terrorist groups and Turks. What few airstrikes there were hit ISIL or similar targets outside the ceasefire area. The airstrikes today were in retaliation for a recent Islamic terrorist offensive against Syrian troops. The Turks want to maintain the ceasefire indefinitely but Syrian plans to resume its offensive by the end of 2020

June 8, 2020: In western Egypt, the government sent combat units, including several dozen M1 tanks and about ten AH-64 gunships, to the Libyan border. This is in response to the retreat of the LNA , an Egyptian ally, from western Libya. Egypt supported LNA efforts to gain control over western Libya which had nearly succeeded. Then Turkey intervened. After that Russia reduced support for the LNA and called for discussions with Turkey, if only because Turkey and Russia are sort-of allies in Syria just as they are now sort-of enemies in Libya. Egypt is not “sort-of” about wanting Turkey out of Libya. The Turks apparently don’t care what Russia, Egypt or anyone else wants. Turkey has come to stay in Libya and probably Syria as well.

June 7, 2020: In eastern Syria ( Deir Ezzor province), the Assad government has proposed giving Russia control of the Palmyra airbase. The nearby town of Palmyra is astride the main road from Deir Ezzor province to Damascus, the national capital and Assad stronghold. Russian air support was crucial in making it possible for Assad forces to retake Palmyra in 2016. The airbase had been fought over for years and occupied by ISIL in 2015. After 2016 Syrian engineers repaired some of the damage but now Assad offers to pull all Syrian forces out of the airbase, which would then become, like the Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) airbase in western Syria (Latakia province) Russia. The Palmyra airbase would also handle some civilian traffic, but probably only Russian. As long as Iranians stay out of the Palmyra airbase, as is the policy in Hmeimim, both bases will be immune to Israeli airstrikes. Russia would like to later use Palmyra more of a civilian airport because Palmyra remains a primary tourist destination in Syria. Thus the Russian occupation of the Palmyra airbase would be part of the Russian effort to revive the Syrian economy. Russia plans to take over other Syrian military bases and rebuild them as part of Syrian reconstruction and reducing the key areas that Iranian forces can operate from. The main obstacles to this plan are the current Russian financial difficulties (because of low oil prices and sanctions) as well as opposition from Iran.

June 6, 2020: Russian officials are publicly admitting that Russian air defense systems in Syria do not fire on Israeli aircraft because Russia considers Israel (as well as Syria) allies. Russia still insists that its S-400 batteries in Syria could hit Israeli aircraft but that has never been put to the test.

June 4, 2020: Turkey announced that it might not activate the S-400 air defense systems it bought from Russia. These were to have been activated in April but that was delayed by the covid19 crises. Russia replied that it did not care what Turkey did with the S-400 system it had bought, paid for and had troops trained to use.

June 2, 2020: In eastern Syria (Hasaka province), a Russian convoy was stopped by an American checkpoint and turned away. The road led to a Kurdish border town of Derik and the Americans believed the Russians intended to establish a base there. This is the sixth time so far this year that American troops have blocked Russian efforts to move into Kurdish controlled parts of Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces. The Russians are having more success with their joint patrols with Turkish troops in Idlib province, to prevent fighting between Islamic terrorist forces and Turkish or Syrian forces.

June 1, 2020: The national vote to change the Russian constitution, delayed because of covid19 since its original April 22 date, has not been rescheduled for July 1st. President Putin backed this vote and in mid-March signed a law that approved the constitutional change that would allow a president who has served two consecutive terms to keep running for office. Putin’s current term ends in 2024. If this constitutional change is approved in a national referendum Putin could be elected president as often as he could get away with it. Putin has already bent some of these rules when he had his crony (current president Dmitry Medvedev) elected president in 2008 because the constitution limited presidents to two consecutive terms at a time. Putin and his cronies are taking advantage of the fact that Russians have never had a functioning democracy, except for a short period in the 1990s and are more interested in order and prosperity. Putin has provided more of that, and as long as he continues to do so, there won't be any massive opposition. To ensure this, Putin has rebuilt many aspects of the Soviet police state. Yet, there are still a lot of democrats among senior government officials. If Putin cannot work out deals with these democrats, he freezes them out of government service. The biggest threat to Putin and his constitutional amendment is the economic damage done by covid19 and the popular perception that Putin has mishandled the covid19 crises. Popular approval of Putin, supplied by opinion polls, shows that support fell from 63 percent in March to 59 percent in April and continues to slide. During his decade of rule his approval has usually been over 70 percent.

May 30, 2020: In Syria, the second batch of Syrian MiG-29s returned from Russia after refurbishment. In 2011 the Russian company that makes the MiG-29 fighter upgraded four Syrian MiG-29s to the MiG-20SM standard. The Russian firm did not reveal this until 2014, about the same time Russia was negotiating with Syria about expanding the undeclared assistance being provided. At that time it was an open secret that Russia was providing a lot more military aid to Syria than it will publicly admit.

May 27, 2020: Russian media reported that a Russian Peresvet mobile (truck mounted) laser system had downed an Israeli UAV in southern Syria. Israel denied it and no one produced wreckage indicating otherwise.

May 20, 2020: UN inspectors of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) report that Iran has stockpiled eight times more enriched uranium than allowed by the 2015 treaty to lift sanctions. The IAEA also reports another violation of the 2015 deal is Iran blocking IAEA inspectors from two sites where nuclear weapons research may be taking place. In 2017 the U.S. accused Iran of violating the 2015 treaty and renewed its sanctions. Russia and other European nations that signed the treaty disagreed with the American assessment and did not renew sanctions. Germany, France, Russia, China and the European Union are still observing the 2015 treaty. Now Iran is obviously in violation and the U.S. is urging the UN to impose stricter sanctions and enforce them. Germany and France, the main European participants in the 2015 deal, are angry at Iran for continuing to sponsor terrorist activities in Europe, including assassinations of exiled Iranians who criticize the Iranian government. Russia and China continue to support Iran because Iran causes more problems for the West than for China and Russia.

May 19, 2020: Satellite photos showed at least one Russian MiG-29 fighter at an LNA airbase in Libya. The GNA accused Russia of supplying the LNA with six MiG-29s and two Su-24 light bombers.

May 18, 2020: In Libya Turkish, GNA forces captured the LNA al Watiya airbase. This operation was supported by over fifty airstrikes carried out by Turkish UAVs. Several warplanes and one Russian Pantsir air defense vehicle were captured at the airbase. The Russian Pantsir systems have been remarkably ineffective against the many Turkish UAVs used in Libya.

 

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