Russia: Trying A Little Tenderness

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January 19, 2021: Russia continued its post-Cold War decline in 2020 and covid19 played a minor role. The space program continued to shrink with fewer satellites put into orbit. Defense production is still unable to replace older Cold War systems before those pre-19911 ships, tanks and warplanes wore out. The economy continues to be crippled by low oil prices and economic sanctions imposed for the war against Ukraine. That conflict began in 2014 and has been stalemated since 2015. The ceasefire down there is regularly broken by Russian forces whose artillery and machine-gun fire causes dozens of casualties a month on both sides because the Ukrainians usually fire back. The foreign military efforts in Syria and Libya are done on the cheap but still cost Russian more than it can afford. One foreign intervention, playing a major role in restoring peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, was costly because Armenia desperately needed some foreign aid. Russia donated $12 million in cash and even more in the form of medical and military aid. That was necessary to get Armenia to calm down. Another intervention, in neighboring Belarus, was much cheaper and attracted less media attention. Belarus is ruled by a pro-Russian dictator who is facing a robust popular uprising seeking to replace him with free elections. Russia is tempted to just annex Belarus but given how the Ukrainian effort went sideways, the risk of another mess like that in Belarus discourages aggressive action, for now. At the moment Russia would rather play the role of healer and benefactor, at least until the world situation is more conducive to aggressive operations. The current atmosphere is conducive to finding buyers for the new Russian Sputnik V covid19 vaccine. This was the first vaccine to be made available for widespread use and export. So far it appears to be effective with no harmful side effects. Russia enjoys playing the good guy, for a while at least.

Armenia Peacemaking

Iran is upset at how Turkey and Russia blocked Iran from playing a major role in ending the recent battles between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Both adversaries were formerly part of the Soviet Union and quite different even though they were neighbors. Azerbaijan is majority Moslem while Armenia is Christian. Along with northern neighbor Georgia, these two are the only two Christian nations in the Caucasus. For over a thousand years Armenians and Georgians resisted efforts by local Moslems to make them Moslem. Russia played a key role in that and considers itself the “protector” of Armenia. Despite this, Russia managed to maintain good relations with Azerbaijan as well. In doing that Russia established one of the more successful peacekeeping operations since the Cold War ended in 1991 by getting Armenia and Azerbaijan to agree to a ceasefire in 1994 after an earlier round of heavy fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia became a military ally of Armenia as part of that arrangement. Iran has tried, and not always succeeded, to be on good terms with Azerbaijan, if only because about a quarter of the Iranian population are Azeris. At the same time Iran and Russia, traditional enemies, have become allies and those links are being used to deal with latest round of violence.

Iran has long harbored an intense interest in Azerbaijan. This is because most of the Turkic and Moslem Azeris live in Iran. Up until 1813, modern Azerbaijan was part of Iran. Then the Russians showed up. Armenia and Azerbaijan were the last Russian conquests as the tsar’s soldiers and Cossacks advanced through the Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Russians stopped when they ran into the Turkish and Iranian empires, but not before taking a chunk of Azerbaijan from Iran. The Iranians did not forget. In effect, most of "Azerbaijan" is in Iran and Iran has long hoped to reunite all Azeris under their rule. Many Iranian Azeris have risen to senior positions in the government. Despite that, most Azeris would like all Azeris united in a single Azerbaijan. This is not a popular idea within Iran. The Russians, on the other hand, have come to accept the 1991 loss of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Iran is less accepting of such losses.

January 17, 2021: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) ten members of Russian-backed militias were killed by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) landmines. The militias are following up on the numerous recent Russian airstrikes on ISIL targets. In some cases, ISIL camps were destroyed from the air but not mines that ISIL often plants around its camps to hinder hostile ground forces. Russian training operations for the Syrian Army are also a major presence in southern Syria. Russians have been training Syrian troops who require technical training, like mechanics and operators of electronic equipment. In some cases, Russia trains entire units, like artillery battalions who are going to use Russian artillery or rocket launchers. Russia also trains combat medics and emergency room personnel.

January 11, 2021: In northern Syria (Hama province) Russian commandos attacked a group of pro-Syrian militia and killed eleven of them.

January 10, 2021: In the eastern Syria (Homs and Raqqa provinces) ISIL gunmen and Syrian security (army and militia) forces clashed numerous times over the last ten days. This turned into a major operation to clear ISIL from the Sukhnah desert in eastern Homs and the adjacent Rasafah desert in Raqqa province as well as the larger Baida desert to the south. The fighting produced several hundred casualties and over a hundred dead, most of them Islamic terrorists. These clashes began with a growing number of ISIL attacks along the main east-west highways running through these desert areas. ISIL was also active with raids and assassinations. Russia and Syria had been planning major operation against ISIL and this is what the last few days of fighting consisted of. The final stages of this operation were particularly effective at finding and destroying ISIL camps and safe houses. That was due to Russian air support which included nearly 200 air strikes and equally numerous surveillance missions by UAVs and manned aircraft. If an ISIL group was detected it had fewer places to hide because of the scope of this operation. ISIL raids continue to threaten traffic on the main road that goes to the Euphrates River Valley and Homs province. This is all in the desert areas of eastern Syria. In addition to the Sukhnah and adjacent Rasafah deserts, there is the larger Badia Desert to the south, which extends into nearby Jordan. Baida covers 500,000 square kilometers (200,000 square miles) and represents about half of Syria and 85 percent of Jordan and smaller portions of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Baida desert was long been the scene of ISIL activity and fighting against the Islamic terrorists. All these desert areas are thinly populated by Sunni Arabs who are inclined to tolerate or support ISIL as long as ISIL attacks were directed at military targets and not local civilians. The main job of the security forces is to keep the main road open. This vital route passes through Homs province from the Euphrates to more populated (and pro-government) areas to the west. ISIL has grown weaker in their desert refuge because of constant clashes with Syrian troops and airstrikes by Russian and Syrian aircraft.

January 9, 2021: In the northwest Syria (Latakia province) Russian aircraft carried out airstrikes on Islamic terrorist targets in the northern portion of the province near the border with Idlib province. The Syrian Army is trying to clear the area of Islamic terrorists if only because these rebels often try to attack the main Russian airbase in Latakia province.

January 6, 2021: In Libya an October 2020 ceasefire is failing because it called for all foreign troops to leave and there is little chance of that happening. To date none of the ceasefire terms have been fully met although some progress has been made on a few of the less important items. The biggest problem is that none of the ceasefire participants is willing to meet the January 23rd deadline for foreign troops leaving the country. It’s estimated that there are over 20,000 armed foreigners in Libya. Over a third are Islamic terrorists. About half the armed men in the country are Syrian Arab mercenaries working for Turkey and the rest are Syrian Arab mercenaries hired by Russia to assist the LNA (Libyan National Army). There are also several hundred Russian special operations troops, technicians, pilots and advisors. Matching that are nearly as many troops from Arab allies of the LNA. Lastly there are another hundred or so special operations troops from various nations who mainly act as observers for their governments.

While Turkey is seen as an invader, Russian forces, which have been supporting the LNA for over three years, is seen as an ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Russia and Turkey are allies in Syria but are actually fighting each other in Libya. Well, not exactly fighting anymore but maintaining armed forces and confronting each other in anticipation of a peaceful settlement. In addition to Russia the LNA was backed by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In Syria Russian airstrikes have killed Turkish troops while the Turks have killed Syrian troops. That has also stopped, for the moment. The Libya fighting resulted in NATO countries openly backing Greece in the maritime dispute with Turkey that led to the Libya invasion.

When Russia began hiring Syrian mercenaries, most for service in Syria and later at least 2,000 for use in Libya, they had an edge in recruiting the best and most reliable Syrian Arabs. This was because the Turks were detested as an old nemesis once more invading Arab territory. The Russians were seen as true allies because the Russians did not want to control any territory, but did rent a few bases and sell military equipment to Arabs. The Russians had been doing this in Syria for over half a century. In contrast the Turks had occupied and ruled most Arab territory for centuries, and were often quite brutal about it. That imperial rule only a century ago and is still remembered. The Russian offer the same pay as the Turks, but not the incentive of a residency permit in Turkey. The Iranians are also hiring again, but they, like the Turks, are seen as foreign invaders and don’t get the most reliable recruits.

January 4, 2021: The Russian navy continued its “Cold War Replacement” building program in 2020 with eight surface ships and two subs, one of them nuclear, entering service. Six of the surface ships were corvettes and frigates. There was also an amphibious assault ship and a minesweeper. Russia does not report all of the older Cold War (pre-1991) warships that are out of service. Some are revealed to be headed for the breakers (sold for scrap). Russia has lost the ability to build larger warships and has a difficult time refurbishing some of the older ones the navy would like to retain for a while longer. The new ships are for a costal defense navy that does not go to sea often nor does it travel far from Russia. Meanwhile China puts about three times as many new ships into service and most of them are larger and designed to stay at sea a lot.

January 3, 2021: In Syria Russia announced that it had negotiated the reopening of the M4 highway for commercial traffic after being closed for a month while Turkish forces cleared some Islamic terrorist rebels who were periodically attacking traffic. T he M4 is the main east-west highway from Aleppo to the Assad stronghold Latakia province and its Mediterranean ports. The Turks have also been fighting the Kurdish led SDF coalition.

December 28, 2020: In the south (Caucasus) two Islamic terrorists used knives to attack and kill a policeman in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. Other police shot and killed the attackers who were trying to escape with their victim’s weapons.

December 26, 2020: Russian forces are also active in African. In the Central African Republic (CAR) three Burundian peacekeepers were killed and two wounded today when attacked by militia loyal to former president Francois Bozize. In 2019 Bozize returned from exile. He is prohibited from running in the December 27 presidential election. Some rebels loyal to Bozize claim they are advancing to the capital, Bangui. A rebel force seized the town of Bambari on December 22 but the town was quickly liberated by peacekeepers. Several hundred Rwandan peacekeepers were positioned to block further rebel advances. A contingent of Russian forces was also made available.

December 25, 2020: Russia is trying to make the best of a bad situation in Syria by encouraging peace talks between Israel and the Syrian Assad government. This is referred to as the Russian Plan B, a desperate but plausible ploy to avoid the unwelcome presence of Iran and Turkey in Syria and take advantage of the Israelis eagerness to make peace, even with the Assads, if that got Iran out of Syria. That is something Israel and Syrians (and everyone else) can agree on. The war in Syria should be over by now but it isn’t because the foreign factions, especially the Iranians and the Turks, have unresolved issues. Iran is obsessed with destroying Israel and is not having much success at all. Turkey wants to eliminate Kurdish separatists (both Turkish and Syrian) from Syria and that is proving very difficult. The Americans want to keep ISIL down and support their Kurdish allies while Russia wants to prop up the Assad government in order to preserve the airbase and port facilities treaties, they have obtained from the Assads.

December 23, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) thirteen members of an Iran-backed Syrian militia deserted and fled to Kurdish (SDF) territory with the assistance of smugglers. The deserters are not fans of Iran and only joined the militia because it paid better and Iran said it would protect them and their families from retaliation by Syria for not being available for conscription into the Syrian military. Iranian promises turned out to be false and the work more dangerous than implied. Russia and Syria backed militias have been ordered to confront Iran-backed militias and threaten to open fire if the Iranian mercenaries don’t back down. As a resulting Iran is having a harder time finding recruits in eastern Syria and more problems keeping them on the payroll.

December 22, 2020: The U.S. revealed that recent sanctions on Russian and Chinese companies was in response to their covert support for the Iranian missile programs.

December 19, 2020: In northwest Syria (Idlib province) a Russian Su-25 ground attack aircraft was shot down by Islamic terrorist rebels who used a shoulder-fired missile. The pilot ejected safely but once on the ground found himself trapped by rebels and died trying to avoid getting captured.

December 18, 2020: Russia is returning to its Libyan oil and gas production and exploration projects, after a decade-long suspension of operations because of the civil war that began in 2011. The return was negotiated with the Libyan NOC (National Oil Corporation0, which cooperates with the Turkey backed GNA and Russia/Arab backed HoR governments so NOC can produce and sell oil, which is the mainstay of the national budget and economy.

December 13, 2020: Turkey has a second export customer for its locally developed and built Ada class corvettes. At the end of 2020 Ukraine ordered four of these 2,400-ton ships with two built in Turkey and two built under license in Ukraine. This is a billion-dollar sale for Turkey. The first export customer was Pakistan, who ordered four of these corvettes in mid-2018. Two are built in Turkey with the others built in Pakistan. Designed in Turkey for the Turkish Navy, four of these ships entered service with the Turkish navy between 2011 and 2019. These ships are designed for coastal patrol and ASW (anti-submarine warfare). Electronics are largely Turkish, including a hull-mounted sonar plus search and fire control radars. Other electronic systems include jammers and counter measures to deal with missiles and torpedoes.

Ukraine is at war with Russia and no longer supplies Russia with military items. Ukraine will trade with other nations that have Russian military equipment in need of Ukrainian components or equipment. Turkey recently bought a Ukrainian ADS (Active Defense System) for its tanks and now manufactures it under license. India recently bought Ukrainian gas turbines for Russia designed frigates that require such engines which Russia can no longer obtain from Russia.

December 11, 2020: In Sudan, civilian members of the SNC (temporary, post-revolution) government complained that they were blindsided by the government’s decision to allow Russia to build a naval facility in Sudan. The civilians accused the military members of making the foreign policy move with consultation. A senior member of the pro-democracy Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) accused the military of “hijacking” foreign policy. The FFC supports the civilian members of the SNC. Another FFC member added that the decision to alter “Sudan’s relationship with Israel” was also made without consultation. Russia recently received a 25-year lease for a naval installation on the Red Sea.

December 10, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) Russian troops and their local 5th Corps Syrian militia set up a headquarters on the Syrian side near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. This is part of an agreement with Iran to reduce the Iranian presence here and give Israel reason to halt its air attacks. The 5th Corps Syrian mercenaries began replacing Iraqi, Lebanese, Syrian and Afghan mercenaries working for Iran.

 

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