Russia: A Lose-Lose Situation

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January 19, 2022: Russian and NATO discussions over Russian demands that NATO sign an agreement to never let Ukraine join NATO, or to station NATO forces in Ukraine, ended in a deadlock. This is a loss for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who revived the Cold War in 2014 to distract Russians from his failure to deal with corruption and improve the economy.

Putin also declared the collapse of the Soviet Union a historical tragedy and sought to rebuild the empire the tsars created over several centuries and the communists lost. Putin began by seizing portions of the Ukraine that many Russians believed should never have been part of Ukraine. There were some other problems with this. Russian troops in Ukraine or an invasion is a blatant violation of a 1994 agreement in which Ukraine allowed the ICBMs and other nuclear weapons based in its territory to be removed and destroyed. Ukraine inherited the nukes when the Soviet Union dissolved, with all the new nations gaining ownership of Soviet weapons on their territory. Russia saw that as preferable to a civil war with the half of the Soviet Union population that was leaving. Most Russians were fed up with the communists and wanted to be sure they were gone. Leaving nukes in Ukraine would help with that. But the communists, or at least the Soviets were not gone.

The KGB, the elite intel and internal security force of the Soviet Union was still around in the form of many former KGB officers who were dubious about this peace and democracy approach and by 2000 the KGB regained power when one of their own became the Russian leader. Putin kept that job Russia still being a democracy with term-limits on how long the president could serve. Bending and breaking constitutions and treaties with foreigners was a KGB specialty. President Putin used that to explain his tendency to ignore past agreements. His argument was that this was sure to make Russia stronger and wealthier. That did not work and became obvious after Russia seized Crimea in 2014 but failed in an attempt to seize the Donbas, a portion of eastern Ukraine that had a majority of ethnic Russians, some of them fans of Donbas again being part of Russia. Those Ukrainian Russians have changed their minds but their Russian occupiers have not.

Russia says it will not enter Ukraine unless provoked and pronounced the increased NATO presence in the Black Sea and threats of more sanctions against Belarus as provocative. Ukraine fears Russia may grab a small bit of Ukrainian territory, like all of Donbas, and then declare a ceasefire that would be accepted because Russia has nukes and threatened to use them in self-defense if provoked. In East Europe this is seen as more political theater than a realistic threat. Yet Russia blundered into World War I and II poorly prepared and ineptly led for similar reasons and suffered enormous losses. The current Russian government has ordered that the history of those two wars be revised to portray Russia as the heroic victim of deceptions and provocations by the West. Put another way, Russia has a history of bad judgment, ignoring the lessons of their own history and self-destructive military decisions. That’s why all those East European nations joined NATO once the Soviet Union was gone. Ukraine also expressed interest in joining, which Russia declared provocative and a threat. This was one of the justifications for seizing Crimea and portions of eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The Russian military, three decades after the Soviet Union collapsed, still has less than 20 percent of the manpower the Soviets maintained and a population willing to tolerate some foreign military adventures as long as few, if any, Russian soldiers are killed. Putin came up with a solution for this in 2014 when he had the Wagner Group military contractors formed. He put a trusted former spetsnaz (Russian commandos) officer in charge and personally approved each overseas contract. Far more Wagner men, usually veterans, have died in places like Syria and Africa than Russian soldiers. The successful 2014 operations in Ukraine were planned and supervised by spetsnaz. That led to the creation of Putin’s “personal spetsnaz” in the form of the Wagner Group. While the Russian people accept high losses among the highly paid Wagner contractors overseas, there are not enough spetsnaz or Wagner Group contractors to carry out another operation in Ukraine, especially one that would involve the use of more than half the effective combat forces in the Russian army. Most of those troops are conscripts, as are a lot of the spetsnaz.

Up until 2014 Ukraine trusted Russia and the 1994 treaty. That is all gone and NATO nations, especially the new East European NATO members, will support Ukrainians against any Russian invasion, including support of Ukrainian resistance fighters in newly occupied areas. Putin could make a case for seizing Crimea but not so much Donbas and none at all for the rest of Ukraine. Were another Russian operation in Ukraine fail, Putin would lose much credibility inside Russia. He has already lost a lot of that because after 2014 Western economic sanctions pushed more and more Russians into poverty and convinced many Russians with exportable skills to move to the West.

East European NATO members, especially the three Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Poland, Denmark and Germany have another reason to stand firm against Russia. They want to keep Russia from disrupting commerce in the Baltic, something the Soviets long threatened to do. Neutral Sweden leans towards doing all it can to curb the current threats of Russian aggression, something the Swedes have dealt with for centuries. It began over a thousand years ago when Swedish Vikings traded and raided into what is now Russia via major rivers like the Neva and Vistula, both of which allowed Viking longboats to travel deep into Russia. The earliest of these Nordic raiders were known back then as the Rus (old Norse for “rowers”), who eventually became Russia because in the 800s they captured Kiev and used it as the center of a Rus kingdom that came to include Kiev, portions of modern Belarus and Russia. This was the first Russian state and by the 1200s the locals were back in charge although they maintained some Nordic words and customs for centuries after that.

By the 1700s the Russians were strong enough to fight a series of wars for control of territories bordering the Baltic up until Sweden went neutral in 1815 and made it stick. The Swedes are not so sure the current Russian government is willing to respect Swedish neutrality and are preparing for the worst. While Sweden does not believe Russia is actively planning on invading Sweden, they believe Russians are serious about trying to take back the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine and Polish territory on the east bank of the Vistula River. That part of Poland currently borders the isolated Russian Kaliningrad territory, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. Such an operation against NATO members would bring NATO into a major war and Sweden knows, and openly admits, which side it is on.

January 18, 2022: Russian combat troops arrived in Belarus for scheduled joint training with Belarussian forces. Those joint exercises don’t begin until February 10th.

January 15, 2022: In northwest Syria (Idlib province) Russia carried out numerous airstrikes on Islamic terrorist targets over the last two days. This was in support of Turkey, which is trying to deal with Islamic terror groups in Idlib that have been firing rockets are Turkish bases.

January 14, 2022: Russia began a Cyber War campaign against Ukraine. The initial actions were more like a warning of how vulnerable Ukraine is. Russia also announced the arrest of 14 Russians associated with the hacker group REvil.

Back in July 2021 REvil carried out the largest ransom attack ever when they claimed to have crippled the VSA network management software developed by a U.S. firm Kaseya and used by thousands of businesses worldwide. One of those businesses was Colonial Pipeline, which managed key fuel pipelines in the eastern United States. The U.S. considers Colonial “key infrastructure” and the Russians had been warned a month earlier that an attack like this was considered an act of war and would result in the U.S. making similar attacks on Russia. After it became known that Colonial Pipeline was a key infrastructure target, Russia quietly informed the U.S. that the REvil hack was not aimed at infrastructure targets but because the main victim, Kasea, had so many clients REvil did not realize one of them was key infrastructure. Russia said such attacks would not happen again. This assurance was prompted by the Americans carrying out some retaliation, but not against Russian infrastructure but against REvil, which led to much of the ransoms, paid in bitcoin, seized or rendered unusable to REvil. This led to Russia keeping its promise to halt any further infrastructure groups. But most of the Russian hackers involved were allowed to remain in business, until today, when Russia sent a message by arresting many key REvil members. This implied Russia could do more to help the Americans with cybersecurity if the U.S. did not help Ukraine deal with the Russian infrastructure hacks it now faced.

It was already known that in mid-2020 the U.S. president secretly gave the CIA permission to take more aggressive action against hacker groups responsible for attacks on the United States. This seems to explain a number of unexplained incidents where hacker groups had identities of members revealed or their operations sabotaged or disrupted. The CIA, NSA and Department of Defense had long been asking for this authority. Granting it to the CIA allowed the CIA to bring in NSA and Department of Defense experts for joint operations. Russian hackers have been responsible for a lot of the successful hacking operations inside the United States. Chinese, North Korean and Iranian hackers have also been active and they are also on the CIA target list.

Russia believes the new American president is weak compared to his predecessor and while that may be true, a weak president is often heavily influenced by advisors with more realistic assessments and decisiveness in telling their boss what to do. Germany also has a new leader who is less cooperative with Russia and is threatening to cancel work on a second natural gas pipeline from Russia and switch to other suppliers, even if that is more expensive. The Russian threat also has a lot of Germans rethinking their plan to abandon all use of nuclear energy. Neighbors, like France, could provide some emergency supplies, mainly because most French electricity comes from nuclear power plants.

The Russian leader was gambling that American and NATO countries would not take a stand to support Ukraine. There are still many in the West who are willing to abandon Ukraine to keep the peace but that group is also on the defensive. The Americans and NATO nations have been quietly flying modern weapons into Ukraine. American Special Forces are training Ukrainian counter-terrorism forces and implying (or quietly telling) Ukrainians that the U.S. plans continued support if Russians do move into Ukraine. Ukrainians have been joining local army reserve units whose main function is to get an armed resistance to Russian occupiers going. Eastern Europe NATO nations have been sending Ukraine the same message. The Russian threats appear to make it more likely that Ukraine will join NATO. Keeping Ukraine out of NATO is the main objective of the current Russian confrontation.

January 4, 2022: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) the U.S. led coalition carried out several airstrikes against suspected rocket launching sites near the American Green Village base. This base east of the Euphrates River keeps Russian and Syrian forces away from the Omar Oilfield, which is controlled by the Kurd-led SDF forces. Pro-Iran militias are a threat as well because Iran is still seeking revenge for a growing list of setbacks blamed on the Americans, Israel or both. Israelis are even harder to reach but there are plenty of Americans around.

January 2, 2022: In northwest Syria (Idlib province) Russia increased its airstrikes on Islamic terrorist targets in or near Idlib city, the provincial capital. Several bombs damaged water supply facilities and Russia and Syria pointed out that they use air strikes and artillery to attack rebel forces wherever they are. The rebels often hide in residential areas or near hospitals and key water, sewage and power supply facilities.

In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) rockets hit a military bus, leaving five Syrian soldiers dead and twenty wounded. Russian air power is periodically unleashed on ISIL targets in eastern Syria, but it takes weeks or months of aerial reconnaissance and collecting tips from locals to compile a list of targets. These airstrikes are expensive but the Russians justify it because it gives Russian pilots valuable combat experience in a combat zone where aircraft losses from enemy air defense forces is negligible.

The ISIL attacks in eastern Syria are not a major threat and have occurred about twice a week for the last few months. In some weeks there are three or four attacks. Going after ISIL forces in eastern Syria is one activity that everyone participates in. There are dozens of American, Russian and Syrian airstrikes against ISIL targets each month and a lesser number of ground operations by American, Kurd, Russian and Syrian forces. ISIL remains a threat to traffic on the main roads as well as villages in remote areas, which ISIL raids for supplies and to persuade civilians to not

January 1, 2022: Eastern neighbor Kazakhstan experienced major protests over economic issues, especially the doubling of the price for diesel and gasoline. Kazakhstan is a major producer of oil and natural gas but most of what the government makes from that is stolen by the corrupt politicians who have run the country since 1991. The first such Kazakhstan dictator was Nursultan Nazarbayev. He was a former Soviet era official who maintained the Soviet era political controls. That included keeping Kazaks from enjoying much benefit from the booming post 1991 economy. After more than a decade poor economic performance and growing privation for most Kazaks, public protests became a common occurrence, increasing in size and frequency each year. Between 2018 and 2021 the number of protest demonstrations went from less than fifty a year to over a thousand in 2021.

In 2019 Nazarbayev resigned, and was replaced by a trusted associate (Kassym-Jomart Tokayev) who was actually a reformer and sought to change the laws and operation of the government to increase living standards for most Kazaks. This plan was disrupted by the arrival of covid19 at the end of 2019. Without covid19, and the global economic recession it produced, the Tokayev reforms might have worked. Instead, the number of protests kept increasing and by 2021 threatened to bring down the government. Nazarbayev saw this possibility early on and sought to avoid a successful popular uprising by having Kazakhstan join several economic and security agreements with Russia, and a few with China. Tokayev invoked the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) agreement. CSTO was formed in 2002 with Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia agreeing to support each other in security emergencies. Within a week a CSTO peacekeeping force of 2,500 troops began arriving in Kazakhstan. Most of the CTTO forces were Russian and all of them were used to replace Kazak troops who were protecting economic and military installations.

The Kazak forces were sent to help suppress the increasingly violent protests. That appeared to work and a week after arriving the CATO forces began to leave with all of them to be gone by the 19th. Meanwhile, more Kazak security forces confronting the demonstrators were ordered to open fire if necessary to suppress the most violent demonstrators. That apparently worked, as did Tokayev removing some Nazarbayev loyalists from senior government positions and taking control of organizations that Nazarbayev controlled via men he controlled. Nazarbayev was now completely replaced and vulnerable to being prosecuted for all the economic and political crimes committed between 1991 and 2019. One of the protestor demands was that Nazarbayev be punished. Tokayev still has to deal with the fact that over 200 protestors were killed. Nearly 3,000 are in jail and most of the protests have ceased as Kazaks wait to see what Tokayev does next.

The five new nations of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) are generally run by Soviet era officials who are happy to see Russia returning to its traditional police state ways. Nazarbayev played both Russia and the United States off each other for various types of support. All three countries have one thing in common and that is opposition to Islamic terrorism. Thus in 2011 Kazakhstan sent some counter-terrorism troops to Afghanistan. So far, Kazakhstan has kept Islamic radical groups under control (as in chased them out of Kazakhstan), and wants to keep it that way. Nazarbayev, like the other Central Asian dictators, expected to eventually face rebellion fueled, not by Islamic conservatism, but anger at corruption and a lack of jobs. Russia stands by to help out, in return for loyalty. Tokayev now owns that debt.

The five “stans” of Central Asia have another option; China. The stans have been very receptive to Chinese diplomatic and economic cooperation. This bothers Russia, but not to the extent that threats are being made, as was the case with the former imperial provinces to the west. The stans also have a problem with never having been democracies. When the Russians conquered them in the 19th century, the local governments were monarchies or tribes. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, locals who were former Soviet officials held elections and manipulated the vote to get themselves elected "president for life." But many people in the stans want clean government and democracy, as well as continued independence from Russia. China is no help with that because the Chinese prefer dictators.

December 28, 2021: In coastal Syria an Israeli airstrike hit a target very close to Russian forces. The target was a storage area in the port of Latakia. Israeli airstrikes in this area used to be rare because Russia uses the port for bringing in cargo. This is the second Israeli airstrike here in December and Israel said that it would attack Iranian weapons shipments wherever they were found. Two Syrian soldiers were killed and there was a fire and secondary explosions in a cargo container storage area. It was later revealed that Israel had alerted Russia shortly before the attack to confirm that no Russians were in the target area. Russian air defenses did not act against the Israeli strike, which annoyed the Syrians and Iranians for different reasons. Iran was angry because the target was ballistic missiles for Hezbollah. Syria was annoyed because Syrian port storage facilities were damaged. Russia reminded the Syrians that the Israelis were going after any Iranian target seen as a threat to Israel. This was the 27th Israeli airstrike against targets in Syria in the last year.

December 24, 2021: In Libya the December 24 elections that are supposed to unite the country under one government did not take place. Libya is still divided by multiple factions, foreign intervention and interference, as well as a major problem with corruption. The situation is further complicated by Russia, one of the few nations with a UN veto, that is blocking the appointment of UN officials to lead the UN Libya operations, if the proposed candidate is seen as a threat to Russian interests in Libya. Several senior UN officials in Libya have resigned, citing the difficulties dealing with the factions and their foreign backers, like Russia. The UN is also unwilling or unable to sanction Turkey for intervening in 2019, and breaking a number of international treaties and UN sanctions, to rescue the UN backed GNA in Tripoli. The result is that the UN insists the December 24 national vote will go ahead eventually while foreigners and locals in Libya doubt the election will work and the fighting will resume.

December 20, 2021: The EU (European Union) temporarily suspended its training mission for the Central African Republic’s (CAR) military forces. The EU objects to the degree of "control” exercised by mercenaries from the (Russian) Wagner Group over the CAR Armed Forces. The EU is also concerned that Wagner mercenaries working with the CAR military may try to hire CAR soldiers. The EU’s training director recently claimed that Wagner mercenaries do not respect international humanitarian law. Russia claims that it has only 1,135 “unarmed” trainers and instructors in the CAR. France, the UN and the EU, however, claim that a substantial number of those instructors are armed Wagner mercenaries.

 

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