Russia: Dead Man Talking

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April 5, 2022: President Vladimir Putin finds himself facing major economic, political, diplomatic crises he never expected at the beginning of the year. Explanations for the decision to invade Ukraine are still absent. There is general agreement that it was the decision of one man, Vladimir Putin, that made it happen. That led to several senior Putin associates quitting the government and some even leaving the country. These Russians report that Putin was shocked at the poor performance of his troops and the rapid and widespread mobilization of the Ukrainian population to resist what Putin described as liberation of Ukrainians that were suffering under the neo-Nazi rule of their unpopular government. You would not expect such delusional behavior from a man who managed to turn Russia back into a centralized state ruled by a man who can ignore elections and rule for life. One plausible, or at least popular explanation refers back to rumors of his health problems. These have been getting more attention, especially from Russian reporters with better access to Putin’s activities and appearance over the last few years. It’s no surprise that the 69-year-old Putin is often accompanied by doctors as he moves around. But one particular doctor who is often present is a thyroid cancer specialist. Putin has disappeared from public appearances several times in the last two years, sometimes for up to six weeks. Some Russians speculated that he had plastic surgery since a comparison of photos show differences, which are described as bloated. The state of Putin’s health and mental clarity is still unclear but even many Russians are embracing these rumors to explain the problems Russia is having internally and externally.

A Change Of Plan

The initial invasion plan failed. It was not over in 15 days with a new pro-Russian government in Ukraine and minimal losses to the 150,000 Russian troops who invaded. Instead, most of the Russian forces have retreated from the outskirts of Kyiv leaving behind a hellish landscape featuring hundreds of burned-out armored vehicles and the bodies of some Russian troops. There were bodies of hundreds of Ukrainian civilians, many of them obviously executed and some of the victims well-known. Russia denied it all but there were all those satellite photos saying otherwise. Russians were less vocal in talking about the low morale of Russian troops and growing incidents of troops and officers refusing to go back into Ukraine, even after a few weeks of rebuilding shattered battalions. Russian troops feel betrayed because many were told there would be no resistance and not even told they were crossing the border. The battalions retuning to Russian in the last two weeks enabled troops from different units to compare experienced and all remembered the same thing; massive and effective Ukrainian resistance and incompetence by their military and civilian leaders. They learned that the families of many of their dead comrades had been contacted by the Ukrainians about what happened to sons and husbands. The Russian government refused to do the same. Soldiers and officers are inclined to believe the Ukrainian claims of a third of the Russian troops becoming casualties (dead, wounded, captured or missing). Officers asked around once back in Russia and discovered that some of the battalions that went in had apparently ceased to exist. Russia hasn’t suffered losses like that since World War II. The troops, and a growing number of their officers are angry. So are young men being conscripted. A larger than usual percentage are evading the draft, some by just “disappearing” for a while until the military situation becomes less potentially lethal for them.

The Russian strategy has obviously changed, with most of the troops pulled out of northern Ukraine and those still capable being sent to the Donbas, where another offensive is being planned. The new Russian troops arriving there are not confident or eager to take on the numerous, determined and effective Ukrainian defenders. Russia launched an offensive in Donbas at the same time troops were moving towards Kyiv and hit a solid wall of defenses. The Ukrainians have been preparing since 2014 to stop another Russian advance. When that came in 2022, Russian gains were minimal and the Ukrainians often regained lost ground. One area where the Russians were more successful was the advance from Crimea, where the Russians had stationed a lot of troops. The Russian plan was to quickly take control of the entire Ukrainian Black Sea coast, cutting Ukraine off from access to the sea. That failed but Russia sees reinforcing and reviving this offensive ss their best chance at salvaging some kind of victory from their looming defeat. Ukrainian leaders have made it clear that nothing less than the expulsion of all Russian troops from Ukraine, including Crimea and Donbas, will do. Most NATO nations, especially those closer to Russia, agree because if Ukraine does not win, the east European nations are next.

One Man Blunder

Putin has spent two decades achieving a form of one-man rule that was supposed to have disappeared as Russia turned to democracy after the Soviet Union went bankrupt and dissolved in 1991. The Russian democracy was messy and corrupt and Putin got elected to fix that. He did, but in the process, he made the central government and the presidency more powerful. Senior officials, civilian and military, who disagreed, for whatever reason, were replaced. The Ukrainian invasion was generally believed to be too risky, even by Russian generals, diplomats and economists. Many civilian advisors quit after the invasion began and some openly or quietly left Russia, along with several hundred thousand other Russians, many of whom were well educated and better able to find a good job in the West. This talent exodus took place right after 1991 and again after the 2014 attack on Ukraine. Putin still has high approval ratings because he revived the Soviet era “Russia is surrounded by dangerous enemies” propaganda. Most recent Russian exiles see China as the only winner here with the West surviving the loss of many Russian exports, especially natural gas. Even the Chinese see the Ukrainian invasion as a foolish move and more Russians are coming around as well, as many did in the 1980s when the Soviet Union came undone. Most Russians today were not around in the 1980s. In the last decade the “post-Soviet” generation became the majority and generally approved of Putin. This generation has access to a somewhat censored Internet that their Soviet era counterparts lacked. But even during the Soviet era the bad news eventually got through to the majority. That process takes less time today and the reality of the situation in Ukraine and Putin’s mismanagement of the economy is becoming more widely understood.

Several Putin comments about using nuclear weapons in Ukraine caused a commotion in the military high-command and Putin’s senior advisors. Apparently, Putin’s ability to order the use of nukes has been diminished. There is still a lot of popular opposition to Russian forces losing in Ukraine. The attitude of returning soldiers is difficult to control or censor because these young guys regularly use encrypted apps that have not been cracked by the government. The most popular one is Telegram, which was developed by the Russian Durov brothers in 2013 and was so successful that the Durovs had to flee Russia to avoid punishment. Telegram is also popular with gangsters and Islamic terrorists as well as young Russians. That last audience is passing on the comments of Russian soldiers who have fought in Ukraine.

Disaster In Ukraine

Ukraine is winning the battles against the Russian invaders but has not yet won the information war. This is about changing the minds of many Russians who still see the invasion as justified and the Western economic sanctions as unwarranted. As of early March, polls in Russia showed 58 percent of Russians back the invasion of Ukraine while only 23 percent oppose it. The number of Russians opposing the war has increased since then, and the government is considering a secret poll to find out how large the opposition has become. It may not be that great because a recent poll of support for Putin gave him 93 percent approval compared to 69 percent in January.

Ukraine believes more Russians back home would oppose the invasion if they knew what was going on with invading forces and the determined resistance of the Ukrainian population. Westerners do not realize how little most Russians know about the “Ukrainian operation”, as the invasion is called by the Russian government. The fact that 23 percent of Russians oppose the war and that over 10,000 were arrested for demonstrating their opposition in public is unusual.

Ukrainian forces have captured a lot of modern Russian weapons and military equipment and made these discoveries available to Western countries that are supplying Ukraine with modern weapons and economic and diplomatic pressure on Russia.

This loot includes largely intact components of the Iskander short range ballistic missiles, new EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment that had proven effective in Syria and Ukraine, and new Azart combat radios and associated equipment. At least one defective Islander missile was recovered largely intact, which allowed close inspection of the missile design and the countermeasures Russia often spoke of but never provided details of. The countermeasures were, as expected, small decoys deployed as the Iskander came within range of the targets, as well as Western ABM (anti-ballistic missile) systems like Patriot, Thaad or the naval Standard missile defense system. Now that there were undamaged examples of these decoys available, Western ABM systems can be modified to defeat them.

NATO intel specialists were surprised at the poor performance of Russian commanders, troops and equipment. Part of this is due to overestimating the value of combat experience Russian pilots and commanders gained in Syria and Libya against Ukrainian forces. Before the invasion (2021) Russian openly boasted of the experience gained in Syria. Russia believed time spent in the Syrian fighting would prove invaluable in any future war. That was because 90 percent of Russian military pilots now had combat experience. Since 2015 many pilots have flown over a hundred combat sorties in Syria and a few of them over 400. This would account for so many Russian aircraft types showing up in Syria, sometimes in small numbers for short periods. Russia had earlier revealed that they combat tested a lot of new equipment and weapons in Syria, enabling the new gear to use a sales inducement of “combat tested”.

Russian aircraft have flown over 40,000 sorties in Syria so far, providing lots of opportunities for Russian pilots to get some combat experience. There was one catch, most of the sorties did not involve engaging the enemy. In Syria that meant lots of reconnaissance sorties and combat sorties where there was no combat, as in nothing to bomb or weather that prevented such attacks. The combat experience of the pilots wasn’t all that dangerous because there were no enemy aircraft while the Islamic terrorists and irregulars below only had short range anti-aircraft weapons like heavy machine-guns and some portable heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles that were out of date compared to the missile defenses in Russian helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. Many of the targets in Syria consisted of pro-rebel civilians Russia was trying to force out of Syria. Most of the combat experience came in the form of finding designated targets and bombing them, often with unguided bombs that had to be dropped from low altitudes.

As of late 2021, nearly 70,000 Russian troops had served in Syria, many more than once. Both pilots and ground troops served in Syria for short periods, like three to six months at a time. Since Russia had been in Syria for six years, a growing number of Russian pilots and ground forces officers have served more than one tour.

Russia also confirmed that promising ground forces officers were also sent to Syria for some combat experience and currently most of the commanders and chiefs of staff of units from battalion size up to the divisions, armies and military districts have had some experience in Syria. For the ground force officers the experience often meant going into action as advisors to Syrian officers. This was often in the form of Russian officers leading by example because most Syrian officers had become reluctant to lead their troops into combat due to heavy casualties the Syrian army has suffered since 2011. Russia special operations officers got the most combat experience because they led Russia spetsnaz commandos on combat missions and took a few casualties.

This combat experience was either wasted or irrelevant or not passed on to Russians troops sent into Ukraine. Russians captured by the Ukrainians, as well as email and social media postings of Russian troops, revealed that most of the Russian troops were either told they were going on a training exercise near the Ukrainian border or were going into Ukraine where most of the population supported Russia replacing recently (2019) elected president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Russian media portrayed as a popular comic and actor who was not qualified to run a country. The Russian troops were supposed to meet little or no resistance. There were some Ukrainians that shared the official Russian assessment of Zelenskyy but that disappeared the moment Russian troops entered Ukraine. Zelenskyy also turned out to be a charismatic and resourceful leader. Before 2022 Russian media played down the fact that Zelenskyy was also a lawyer and producer of successful TV shows. Zelenskyy knew how to use the media to rally the nation and understood the need to delegate authority to local military commanders. Zelenskyy concentrated on convincing foreign nations to aid Ukraine and made the case that, if Ukraine fell, the rest of eastern Europe was next. Many European analysts had already come to that conclusion so support from the west was massive and quick in arriving. Zelenskyy also outsmarted and outmaneuvered Russian propaganda efforts to demoralize Ukrainians. Zelenskyy was very media savvy and had recruited many like-minded Ukrainians into his government after he became president. Ukrainian claims that Russia quickly grasped the importance of Zelenskyy and made several attempts to assassinate him were largely true. So far, those Russian efforts have failed but they continue because Russia established a lot of intelligence operatives inside Ukraine. Many of these operatives have been arrested or killed since the invasion but many remain active.

Another advantage Ukraine had was efforts since 2014 to expand the military and prepare for a Russian invasion. Ukraine increased its ground forces to 250,000, with 20 percent of them civilian support staff. The government also ordered the formation of territorial defense units in each of the 22 provinces. By the end of 2014 these amounted to 32 battalions and were part of the armed forces. While the military supplied weapons, the 10,000 volunteers for the 32 battalions depended on themselves or donations for other equipment. This was a mistake because other nations threatened by Russia spent money on organizing and equipping local defense units. The Ukrainian territorial defense battalions varied in terms of quality and leadership. By the time Russia invaded in 2022 many of the local defense units had already attracted more volunteers and when the fighting began on February 24th, the local defense battalions continued to be a rallying point for civilian volunteers. While there were not as many volunteers for the local defense units before the invasion, the existence of these defense units made it easier to quickly absorb over 100,000 volunteers, train them quickly and arm them with modern weapons that proved to be much more effective against Russian tanks and armored vehicles than expected.

Zelenskyy became president because of his promises to enact reforms in the government, especially efforts to curb the chronic corruption. These reforms included leaving the local defense units and the military alone as there was already a lot of enthusiasm and less corruption there. That came in handy in early 2022, when Ukrainian intel officials warned that the Russians were going to invade and provided an accurate assessment of how they would do it.

The local defense battalions were considered adequate after 2014 and volunteers also played a crucial role in halting the Russian advance in eastern Ukraine. Establishing a Swiss style force would cost more than Ukraine could afford but would have made a big difference deterring the Russians or containing Russian forces when the invasion did come.

The Russian invaders turned out to be much less effective than expected and that was an unexpected asset for the Ukrainians. Captured documents revealed that the Russians expected little resistance from the Ukrainian population and troops were under orders to avoid civilian casualties. The Russians expected to capture the capital Kyiv and find enough qualified Ukrainians to form a new, pro-Russian government. That was a major miscalculation because most Ukrainians opposed the Russians and many did it with weapons passed out by the Ukrainian government or captured from the Russian troops. Many of the Russian troops were conscripts who were told they were going on a training exercise, not invading Ukraine. For their families back in Russia, the international response to the invasion was quickly felt as an unprecedented number of economic sanctions were imposed on Russia which quickly reduced the standard of living for most Russians.

Initially the Russian invasion was described as using “shock and awe” to achieve a quick win. There was a lot of shock and awe, but most of it was felt by the invaders and Russians in general. President Putin was the main proponent of the invasion and he insists he will persist, no matter how much shock and awe hits him, his troops and the Russian economy.

So far Putin has made several serious mistakes which have left him with few options. Half of Russia’s combat troops and most of the best ones were sent into Ukraine and losses have been huge. Ukraine claims that at least a third of the invaders have been killed, wounded or captured. Russia insists its actual losses are a third of what Ukraine claims, but that would still be ten percent of the invasion force. The Ukrainian claims appear to be closer to the truth because Russia admits they are withdrawing many of their BTGs (Battalion Task Groups) to Russia for rebuilding. Ukraine claims to have destroyed or crippled more than half the 60 plus BTGs in the initial invasion force. Most Russian troops have been ordered to dig in and defend. Ukraine has responded by continuing attacks on Russian supply efforts. This has caused some Russian units to halt because they lacked fuel while lack of food and medical supplies has destroyed troop morale

Several recent rounds of peace negotiations have failed because Russia insists on holding on to Crimea and, if possible, parts of eastern Ukraine they took in 2014. Pulling Russian troops out of the rest of Ukraine is less of a problem because those soldiers become less effective, and numerous, as the war continues.

Vladimir Putin, a self-made Russian president-for-life, cannot afford to lose. He has been declared a war-criminal and, if deposed as leader of Russia, he has few options because there are few good places to seek refuge. These include Iran, North Korea and possibly China. The Chinese have been lukewarm in their support of Putin’s war and need to remain on good terms with their Western trading partners.

Western sanctions have devastated the Russian economy and Putin must tend to that as well as the disastrous war in Ukraine. This spotlights another problem Russia has had in Ukraine and in general. Over the last two decades Putin has centralized power and decision making, making it essential that all key decisions went through Putin or close (in Moscow) associates. That was another reason for the military disaster in Ukraine. The Russian forces did not have a local commander with the authority to quickly make decisions. That was all done back in Moscow, where Putin and his associates seem to be chronically out of touch with battlefield realities.

The war is causing long term damage and changes in the Russian economy as well as European attitudes towards Russia. Sweden and Finland are now considering joining NATO, something they were able to avoid, to placate Russia, throughout the Cold War. Putin had built up a lot of goodwill and trade connections with Germany, but that is all gone because of the Ukraine war.

Russia’s aggression motivated Germany to respond to three decades of complaints that it was not fulfilling its military obligations as a NATO member. In early 2022 Germany decided to increase defense spending in each of the next five years. The 2022 defense budget will be nearly $60 billion. The 2021 defense budget was $51 billion, which was only 1.4 percent of GDP. It would have to be $72 billion to meet the NATO standard of two percent. Germany will reach that in 2023 or 2024 and keep it there at last as long as the Russian threat remains. Germany has also made some radical, for them, procurement decisions including purchasing over thirty F-35 stealth fighters to replace its remaining elderly Eurofighter Tornado jets. Germany was going to replace all the retiring Tornados with the new Typhoon but is responding to reports from other NATO members who have purchased and received F-35s and report that it is much more capable than the new Typhoon. Germany has a lot of other defense weaknesses that need tending to. Germany has also accepted short term economic problems because of the loss of natural resources supplied by Russia. In turn many Russian manufacturing operations, including those that produce weapons, have been disrupted by the inability to get key components from the West. It will take years to deal with that.

Many Russians have rallied behind Putin to fight this economic war being waged by NATO nations. That support won’t fix the problem, while removing Putin and his policies will. Russians have to sort this out as best they can. In 1991 this meant dumping communism and dissolving the Soviet Union. Life improved after that, until Putin decided to rebuild the Russian police state and empire. He has been working on this for nearly twenty years and Russians have to decide, as they did in 1991, what to do.

War Reserves Depleted

After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 the Russian military budget was sharply reduced so for over a decade few new weapons could be purchased and “War Reserve” stockpiles of weapons and munitions were not maintained. That became evident when Russian forces entered Syria in 2015 and began providing air support for the Syrian forces. Russia was known to have developed GPS and laser guided “smart bombs” for their air force. Less well known was how miniscule their war reserve of these weapons was. After a year Russia ran out of these weapons in Syria and depended on old-school “dumb bombs. Russia did build up a war reserve of cruise missiles and other air and ship launched missiles. The war reserve of these weapons was larger and has apparently been exhausted after about 1,500 of these missiles were used and demonstrated they were effective, but nearly half did not work because of manufacturing defects or poor design. Those problems have been rampant since 1991 because so many of the skilled engineers and technicians forced to work in Soviet era defense industries could search for better jobs after 1991. The government could no longer subsidize the defense industries and these have been plagued with management and quality control problems ever since. In Ukraine that means Russia has few missiles left and must rely on artillery firing unguided projectiles.

China Disappointed

Officially, China supports Russian efforts to deal with “Ukrainian aggression.” Unofficially, China is critical of the Russian war on Ukraine, if only because of the negative impact on Chinese trade and diplomacy. China was a major customer for Ukrainian military tech and wheat. That trade is disrupted and will take a while to recover, no matter who wins.

There were other problems. China was not happy with the poor performance of Russian troops in Ukraine. China was kept informed about the preparations for the invasion and asked Russia to wait until the Winter Olympics in China were over on February 23rd before invading. The invasion began before dawn on the 24th and was, according to Russia, supposed to be over in fifteen days. After about a week, China concluded that the Russian plan and the Russian military had failed. Russian troops quickly ran into trouble because of the unexpected stiff resistance by Ukrainian troops and armed civilians. China initially remained silent about the invasion and as the Ukrainian resistance increased, along with unprecedented sanctions imposed by Russia’s Western trading partners, China refused to openly support the Russian operation. China was also dismayed at the degree of European military support for the Ukrainians, despite Russian threats of nuclear retaliation. That did not dissuade the Europeans or Americans, just as it had not worked on China during their 1969 border war between Russia and China. In 1969 China had recently tested its first nuclear weapon but did not have a nuclear retaliation capability. Russia approached the Americans about joining in a nuclear attack on China. The Americans refused and criticized the Russian threats to use nukes. When China found out about that, there was a warming in the long-frosty relations with the Americans which soon (1972) led to the U.S. recognizing the Chinese communist government.

The Chinese consider themselves more astute students of history than Russians and now believe that the invasion was poorly planned and carried out. China is more willing to acknowledge problems with readiness and training in their own military, lessons that Russia appears to have forgotten. Any perceived Chinese support of this Russian disaster causes problems for China, as well as inspiring the Chinese military to pay more attention to avoiding the Russian approach.

China is not assisting Russia economically, unless it benefits China. To do otherwise would be expensive, reward Russian bad judgment and imply Chinese approval of the Ukrainian operation. With no Chinese economic lifeline available, Russia is under more pressure to end the Ukraine operation as soon as possible. The Russian plan was to rush in and occupy key areas, like the capital Kyiv and all Ukrainian ports, and then declare the war ended and call for negotiations. That didn’t work but opposition inside Russia did appear. Many prominent Russians have risked arrest by openly criticizing the invasion. China has less openly agreed with these critics by refusing to rescue Putin and the Russian economy. China has also been investing more money in its “lost territories” in Pacific Coast Russia. More Chinese are coming into these territories to live and do business while, since the 1990s, more Russians left. China expected to eventually take control of the lost territories economically and with a lot of Chinese residents. The Ukraine-related sanctions have sped up this process.

The Russian invasion is something China warned against because it was reckless, something China avoids at all costs. Now that the Russian invasion has failed and produced unprecedented economic sanctions, China is making the most of that and forcing Russia to be even more dependent on China. For example, Russia was able to use the Chinese credit card network and a new China controlled international banking system. This system is still small and new members tend to be outlaw states, but it’s a start. Ukraine, which has done a lot of business with China over the last decade, is aware that China could order Russia to halt their invasion and deal with the aftermath via negotiations. It suits China to allow Russia to weaken itself further and become more dependent on China. This is their long-range strategy to defeat Russia and retrieve the Pacific coast territory lost to the Russian monarchy centuries ago. For the moment China goes along with the Russian version of the war, in which Russia is simply defending itself from NATO aggression. China intends to be the only winner in this war and so far, that is happening.

April 2, 2022: Outside of Kyiv more Russian units hastily retreated, abandoning equipment and some dead Russian soldiers behind. The troops were eager to go since few of the Russian combat units operating near Kyiv for more than a week have escaped heavy losses and shortages of supplies. Some of these units had gone on the defensive and planted landmines to make it more difficult for the attacking Ukrainians to get close enough to use their anti-tank weapons. These mines were left behind as the Russians left. Some of the retreating units arrived in Belarus, where the media is free to report on them, and brought civilian goods looted from homes and businesses. Byelorussians also noted that new combat units arriving appeared, by their accents and manners, to be from Siberia and the Far Eastern parts of Russia. These troops had Russian propaganda leaflets describing the war in Ukraine as a struggle against Ukrainian nationalists (previously described as Nazis) who wanted to turn Ukraine into a Western military outpost. The new troops were also aware of the truckloads of dead or wounded Russian soldiers returning and Belarus hospitals crowded with Russian wounded. Returning Russian soldiers told the new troops that the Ukrainians were putting up quite a fight and Russian units were taking heavy losses, especially in terms of armored vehicles, including tanks, destroyed by Ukrainians using portable weapons. It was less obvious what returning Russian commanders were telling officers in the newly arrived units. Most officers are circumspect in their comments but some are clearly fed up with how the Russian efforts are being mismanaged after only six weeks of fighting.

April 1, 2022: In the south, two Ukrainian MI-24 helicopters carrying unguided rockets and apparently additional fuel tanks, came in low across the border and set fire to a fuel depot Russian force in Ukraine depended on. These helicopters had to travel a long distance from the nearest Ukrainian air base, thus the need for additional fuel tanks and skillful flying to remain low and undetected by Russian radar. President Zelensky would not comment on the attack but pointed out that, as commander in chief of the military he cannot comment on operations.

Older Russians will remember the 1987 incident where a West German teenager flew a single engine aircraft from Finland to Moscow and landed in Red Square (in front of the Kremlin). This aircraft flew low and slow and evaded Russians air defenses described as formidable. The kid spent 14 months in jail and many senior officers in the Soviet air defense forces promptly lost their jobs, followed by a lot of other hardline generals who opposed current reform efforts that led to the fall of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

March 31, 2022: The Ukrainian army still has about a dozen combat brigades and over a hundred thousand troops. This is augmented by more than twice as many reservists and armed civilians who are organized into hundreds of smaller units and have inflicted most of the vehicle losses and personnel casualties on the Russians. The Ukrainian army brigades have to be used carefully because Russia has more combat aircraft and long-range missiles and guided rockets that could attack them. The Ukrainian brigades act as a threat to Russian units and tie down many Russian troops. The brigades are employed whenever the Russians get an advance going, as they have in east and south. But most of the damage is done by the irregulars, which includes many of the army special forces troops.

March 29, 2022: There were several large explosions at a Russian ammunition depot near the Ukrainian border. It is unclear if this was a result of Ukrainian attacks or mishandling of munitions as they are sent to Russian units in Ukraine or issued to units headed for the border. Such accidents have been common since the 1990s because the fall of the Soviet Union left behind large quantities of ammo, much of it elderly and unstable, in depots often staffed by soldiers unfamiliar with handling ammo. This is how Russia described this explosion. The depot is seeing more activity lately and that means more opportunities to mishandle explosives.

March 24, 2022: Two Turkish Air Force A-400 four-engine turboprop transports are still stranded in Ukraine, where they arrived a few hours before the Russian invasion began a month earlier. The Turkish transports were stranded as were all other commercial aircraft or foreign military transports. Ukrainian air space will probably remain closed to non-combat aircraft as long as Russian forces are attacking Ukraine. The flight crews of the two transports were soon instructed to return to Turkey. The A-400s will be looked after by the Ukrainians, who are still receiving TB2 UAVs from Turkey, which now uses a Polish airport for these deliveries.

March 23, 2022: In western Ukraine, 15 kilometers from the Polish border and near the city of Lviv, a $6.5 million Israeli field hospital opened, staffed by a hundred Israeli volunteers, most of them doctors and nurses. The hospital has 150 beds, operating rooms and uses ten large tents and classrooms in an adjacent school for treating patients. The Israeli staff sleep in nearby dormitories. The hospital is there mainly to treat refugees from other parts of Ukraine where Russian artillery and missiles have destroyed many homes and businesses. The field hospital also has some Ukrainian doctors and nurses and is establishing relationships with other Ukrainian hospitals. Some of the Israeli staff are Ukrainian or the children of Ukrainians who moved to Israel years ago.

The field hospital and other non-lethal aid is appreciated but Ukrainians want Israeli weapons. Ukraine tried to purchase Iron Dome rocket defense systems from Israel in 2019 and Israel refused. Israel would not sell weapons to Ukraine before the Russian 2022 invasion because of Russian cooperation in Syria where Israel regularly attacks Iranian forces trying to get close enough to the Israeli border to launch attacks. Israel carries out these air strikes without interference from Russian air defense systems or jet fighters in Syria to support the Assad government against rebels, including a large number of ISIL Islamic terrorists.

Israel still will not sell any weapons to Ukraine. You won’t see Russian troops using any Israeli weapons either and that is part of the price Israel has to pay to keep its population safe from Iranian attacks and decades of pledges to destroy Israel completely. Iran will use nuclear weapons for this, once it completes development of a workable nuke that is rugged enough to work in a ballistic missile warhead. Israel did send a field hospital to Ukraine and other non-lethal assistance without visibly angering Russia.

March 21, 2022: Turkey estimated that 50,000 Ukrainian refugees had entered Turkey so far. The Turks expect that number to increase dramatically by the end of March. Turkey already hosts around 3.7 million refugees from the Syrian civil war. Ironically, anti-war Russians have also fled to Turkey, with at least 14,000 Russians entering Turkey since the end of February.

March 20, 2022: Turkey is scrambling to find another 200,000 tons of wheat. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has disrupted expected supplies of Ukrainian and Russian wheat. Turkey is a major importer of milling wheat that is processed into flour.

March 17, 2022: In Central Asia, Turkmenistan, a northern neighbor of Afghanistan, has become the first Central Asian nation to establish diplomatic relations with the Taliban IEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) government. This was no accident. Russia has cultivated good relationships with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. All three of these nations were part of the Soviet Union until 1991 and now border Afghanistan. Russia maintained close military, economic and diplomatic ties with the “stans”, who have long suffered from the Afghan drug cartels that used the neighboring stans as markets for the drugs as well as a smuggling route to other parts of Eurasia. Now more Islamic terrorists from IEA Afghanistan will be added. Russia and the stans also stand ready to support the armed opposition to the Taliban, just like before. That cooperation has apparently evolved without any official announcements or consultation with China. Tajikistan allowed the previous IRA (Islamic Republic of Afghanistan government in exile to base itself in the Tajik capital. Turkmenistan has more economic potential for Afghanistan. In 2016 the first direct rail link from Afghanistan to northern neighbor Turkmenistan was completed and that connection will eventually become part of an Afghan national rail network

March 16, 2022: The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a major cause of accelerating inflation in Iraq and many other Middle Eastern countries that depend on grain imports. It’s all about world wheat exports. Some 30 percent of this comes from Russia and Ukraine and most of that may be unavailable or difficult to obtain for a while. Middle Eastern countries are hardest hit because they have the greatest dependence on food imports. At the start of the year the Iraqi inflation rate was 5.6 percent and that is expected to double in 2022.

March 15, 2022: The Ukraine invasion has put Turkish leader Recep Erdogan in a bind. He had been playing Russia off against the U.S. and the EU (European Union) off against Russia. It was part of his “neo-Ottoman (empire)” policy – Turkey carving its own path, with Erdogan as the master politician and Turkey no longer defined as a loyal member of NATO. However, the Ukrainian invasion has ended the illusion of Erdogan following a separate path or “foreign policy independence”. Overt Russian aggression and targeting of Ukrainian cities made the choice obvious. Turkey called the invasion “unprovoked and unjustified” and finally “an unlawful act.” Language like that means Turkey is firmly aligned with NATO, and the Erdogan-Putin bromance is kaput. Still, Erdogan has tried to act as a mediator. Ukraine’s and Russia’s foreign minister have met in Turkey, though the talks did not produce a ceasefire. After one meeting failed, Erdogan sent his Foreign Minister to Moscow on March 15th. That meeting made no difference. As Ukraine burns, Turkey is mending fences. Israel is on the fence-mending agenda. In March Erdogan hosted the Israeli head-of-state in Turkey to discuss diplomatic normalization. Turkey has also opened new discussions with Greece aimed at ending maritime territorial disputes. It’s not quite rapprochement, but it’s very different from the tough talk Erdogan has favored for the last decade. Talking tough is one thing, actually shooting at a neighbor is something entirely different. Destroying a neighbor’s cities is very bad for business.

March 13, 2022: The Ukraine war has been influenced by Turkish UAV manufacturer Baykar, and vice versa. In November 2021 Baykar agreed to a contract with Ukraine’s Ivchenko-Progress company to build AI-322F Turbofan jet engines for its new VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) Kizilelma UAV, which is supposed to have its first flight in 2023 and become the successor to the TB2 as well as operate from the flight deck of Turkish amphibious ships. The ability of the Ukrainians to deliver the new engine on time is uncertain because of the Russian invasion but the Ukrainians have told Turkey that they consider this engine agreement a national priority but cannot predict what the Russians will do to hinder the project.

March 12, 2022: Russian troops are now patrolling the Syria-Israel border along the Golan Heights. Russia says it has expelled all Iran forces from the border region and will keep them out. This is part of an effort to reduce the need for Israeli attacks on Iranian forces operating in Syria. This also plays a role in supporting the Syrian government, still a dictatorship run by a Syrian Shia Arab Assad group, as it tries to abandon decades of dependence on Iranian military and diplomatic support. The Assads are seeking to join an Arab alliance that is cooperating with Israel against Iran. Israel does not want to ruin its relationship with Russia, which is an unofficial ally of Israel against Iran. Russia pulled most of its troops and aircraft out of Syria as well as hiring several hundred Syrian mercenaries to come to Russia and serve as occupation troops in Ukraine.

March 8, 2022: Ukraine ordered all Ukrainian peacekeeping forces to return home to fight the Russians. Ukraine has around 300 soldiers, police officers and senior staff serving on six UN peacekeeping operations. The largest (264 personnel) Ukrainian contingent serves with the UN peacekeeper force in Congo. All but 14 of these Ukrainian troops are with a Ukrainian aviation unit that operates and maintains eight helicopters. They will be missed because African peacekeeping operations are much more effective when they have helicopters available.

March 7, 2022: While the Russian currency (the ruble) lost 36 percent of its value right after the invasion of Ukraine, within a week the value of the ruble returned to pre-invasion levels. The cause was Russia switching to the gold standard, something the U.S. successfully abandoned in 1971. Currently a gram of gold is worth $62, or $1,928 an ounce. This is near the 1980 high of $2069, a price that is even higher if inflation is taken into account. During the last few decades there has been more enthusiasm for returning to the gold standard. Russia has substantial gold reserves and now offers one gram of gold for 5,000 rubles. China is helping by rapidly replacing the lost access to the Western economies and banks. China quickly stepped in and Chinese banks replaced Western banks in handing Russian credit card transactions. The Chinese banks charged more than the Western banks for these services but the Russians were not complaining. Chinese firms also provided many of the Western components for Russian manufactured goods. A temporary shortage of these components shut down many Russian factories. The Chinese assistance has not gone unnoticed in the West where sanctions are being applied to Chinese firms assisting Russian in dealing with shortages. Some major Chinese firms have already been hit by these sanctions for illegal dealings with Iran or North Korea and their sales and profits have suffered. China is not forcing local firms from dealing with Russia but they do so and risk lower sales and profits. Many Chinese firms see an opportunity here, despite the risks. Russia is seen as vulnerable and Chinese leaders sense a financial and political opportunity. China cannot afford to cut all economic ties with the West because too many Chinese firms are dependents on Western imports or orders for Chinese products. The Russian economy is miniscule compared to that of the Western countries. As of 2021 Russia had been pushed out of the top ten economies (in GDP) by South Korea and the after effects of the war are likely to push Russia further down the list.

March 6, 2022: China is being blamed for the many Russian army truck breakdowns in Ukraine. The Russian army saved money by buying cheaper Chinese copies of American and European truck tires. This worked as long as the trucks stayed on roads, but when the Russians trucks went off the road, or had to travel on a dirt road mired in springtime mud. The Russian army also Chinese truck spare parts and commercial radios for use by the military. Many of these items also failed in the mud and rain. This is one reason why a 69-kilometer-long column of Russian military vehicles headed for the Ukrainian capital slowed and halted. Cell phone videos of abandoned vehicles taken by Ukrainian soldiers and civilians made it clear why the massive convoy, and others like it, were moving so slowly, if at all, inside Ukraine.

March 5, 2022: In Africa (Central African Republic) a hundred protestors held a demonstration in the capital Bangui to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They waved Russian and CAR flags. Russia provides the CAR with weapons and Wagner Group military contractors. The Wagner Group, which reports directly to Russian president Vladimir Putin, is active in several African countries.

March 4, 2022: Not unexpectedly, Pakistan has refused to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia, second to China, is a major supplier of weapons to Pakistan while also being a supplier to India. Pakistan also gets some cash aid from the United States and that may be halted because the Western powers are coming down hard on Russia for what most UN members agree is a major violation of the UN charter. India and Israel have not condemned Russia, but have criticized Russia over Ukraine, just not as sternly as most other industrialized countries.

Pakistan and India are having problems paying Russia for new shipments because of the extent of the new sanctions on Russia. Even with some help from China, the Russian financial and banking systems are broken for now and orders for Russian goods, especially weapons, are being canceled. Some major customers for Russian weapons, like India and Pakistan as well as recent ones like Turkey and some Southeast Asian countries. These arms buyers see the dismal Russian weapons in Ukraine as proof that Russian weapons are inferior. The U.S., China and Israel are likely to pick up most of the Russian customers. Two American portable systems; the Stinger antiaircraft and the Javelin anti-tank missiles played a major role in the heavy losses the Russians suffered. Russia has tried hard to rebuild the credibility of its modern weapons since the end of the Cold War in 1991. The Ukraine misadventure destroyed much of that, especially among major customers who had kept buying Russian in the 1990s. China will pick up a lot of this business, especially for Pakistan and other buyers looking for bargains, simplicity and reliability.

March 3, 2022: Turkey declared that Turkey's UAV shipments to Ukraine are not military aid but are private commercial sales. Turkish officials said that Russia needs to understand that Turkey is not providing Ukraine with military aid. Before the Russian invasion on February 24th Ukraine had over twenty armed (with laser guided missiles) TB2 UAVs purchased from Turkey before the invasion. More were on order and some were delivered, via Poland, in early March. Initially Ukraine agreed to only use the TB2s for reconnaissance but that changed in eastern Ukraine even before the 2022 invasion.

The continuing inability of Russian troops to deal with the TB2 is another mystery. Russia has encountered hostile TB2s in Libya and Armenia. In Libya Turkish forces were backing one faction in 2020-21 while Russian forces were supporting another. The TB2s inflicted a lot of damage on the Libyan forces Russia supported. This included destroying the new mobile Pantsir anti-aircraft system Russia had brought to Libya to deal with UAVs like the TB2. In 2021 Russian supported Armenian forces who were defeated by Turkish supported Azerbaijani forces. Ukrainians assumed that by early 2022 Russia had finally responded to the TB2 threat. For reasons still unexplained, that was not the case.

One of the more embarrassing failures was the Russian inability to deal with the TB 2 armed UAVs in Ukraine purchased. When Russia found out that Ukraine had ordered and received more TB2s after the invasion began, they complained to Turkey that it was taking sides in the war. President Erdogan responded that the firm that developed and manufactured the TB2 was a private company and encouraged to sell as many TB2s as possible, especially to export customers. It was also known that the firm making the TB2 has Erdogan’s MIT-trained and entrepreneurial son-in-law as their technical director.

March 2, 2022: At the UN 141 members voted to condemn the Russian attack on Ukraine. There are 193 member nations and 35 abstained while five, including Russia, voted against the resolution. There were some surprises. Egypt voted against Russia even though the state-owned Russian atomic energy corporation Rostom is supposed to begin construction of a nuclear power plant in Egypt that will contain four reactors and solve Egypt’s energy shortage problems once all four reactors are operational in 2031. The first one will be producing 1,200 megawatts of electricity by 2028, if construction starts on time. The massive economic sanctions on Russia appear to stall the Egyptian power plant projects. Russia is still reassuring Egypt that the Ukrainian matter will be resolved and the nuclear plant work would not be disrupted. Russia did not reveal how it was going to take care of this. That is an issue because two weeks after the UN resolution it was clear that the Russian invasion had failed and a week after that the Ukrainians were counterattacking and regaining ground while Russia scrambled to replace losses and avoid an embarrassing defeat. Ukraine was demanding the Russia withdraw from Ukraine, including Crimea and portions of eastern Ukraine Russia has occupied since 2014. To preserve the $29 billion Rostom deal in Egypt Russia has to get out from under the Western sanctions. This calls for Russia to get out of Ukraine and possibly agree to pay billions in reparations for the deaths and damage their invasion caused.

March 1, 2022: Turkey said it will close its Black Sea straits to warships as long as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine. The closure is for all naval vessels but the obvious target is Russia. Turkey indicated it will limit the passage of some other Russian ships from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Turkey has now officially declared the Ukraine invasion to be a war. This decision means that Turkey could invoke Article 19 of the 1936 Montreux Convention. That article says Turkey can allow passage through the Dardanelles and Bosporus to the warships of “belligerent parties” only if belligerent warships are returning to their home ports. Otherwise, Turkey can deny passage.

February 28, 2022: In northwest Syria (Idlib province) Russia is still involved as Turkish and Syrian Assad forces have the remaining rebels and their supporters trapped. Syria continues their campaign to liberate and take control of the rebel-held portions of the province. This is being done with a lot of material assistance from Russia in the form of airstrikes and resupply of artillery shells and rockets fired by the Syrians into Idlib. Taking Idlib has to be done with the cooperation of the Turks, who do not want the 30,000 or 40,000 armed rebels trapped in Idlib and parts of adjacent Aleppo province, along with over a million pro-rebel civilians, forcing their way into Turkey. Why risk death from Turkish border guards and defenses? Because if the Assads get control of Idlib and its current population, the justifiably feared Assad secret police will arrive and interrogate (torture) those with a record of rebel activity. In other pro-rebel areas where the Assads took control, the secret police did their work and a lot of local civilians disappeared. This is not an issue with the Arab League, Turkey, Russia or Iran because all use similar techniques. The Assads simply do it more often.

February 27, 2022: Russia believes that about 6,000 Islamic terrorists are based in northern Afghanistan and often used for attacks across the borders of nations that Russia is on good terms and sometimes (as with Tajikistan) provides troops to help with border security.

February 26, 2022: The Shia dominated government of Iraq protested the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Across the border in Shia dominated Iran only a minority of Iranians protested the Russian invasion of Ukraine and did so outside the Russian embassy. This protest was technically illegal but more accurately represented the attitudes of most Iranians. Enthusiastic Iranian media support for the Russian invasion was criticized by many senior Iranian officials because the media sounded like it was just repeating the Russian justification for the invasion as self-defense against NATO expansion. Some Iranian government officials point out that Russia has claims on portions of Iran and Iran could be next on the Russian list of self-defense invasions. Both Iraq and Iran have long been customers for Russian weapons.

February 25, 2022: Ukrainian intel officials were already explaining why and how Russia was serious about completing their takeover of Ukraine. The initial 2014 effort was partially successful but has been stalled since late 2014 in Donbas. Ukrainians have long warned that the Russians were not giving up on their plans to reincorporate Ukraine into Russia and rebuild the Russian empire that communist misrule destroyed in 1991. Russia spins their rebuilding of the Russian empire as necessary for peace in the region because the current official Russian version of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was that this event was a tragedy that must be fixed. At the end if 2021 the U.S. and other Western states sent various electronic monitoring aircraft to Ukraine where they monitored was going on across the border in Russia. The Ukrainians were apparently correct and Russia was preparing to invade. By January 2022 a growing number of Western military and commercial aircraft were bring in modern weapons for the Ukrainians.

As the Ukrainians saw it the new Russia offensive would use a collection of older tactics to create a plan, and a force currently gathered on the Ukrainian borders, to destroy Ukrainian independence. The offensive, if it happened, would take place in early 2022. Ukraine deduced from Russian media and past experience that Russia believed it has persuaded enough NATO, especially German, politicians that Ukraine was not worth going to war over, and that the Americans would not be reliable allies in any efforts to prevent or assist Ukraine against a Russian invasion.

The key to the Russian strategy was demoralization and multiple armed incursions that would overwhelm Ukrainian ability to handle the situation and further demoralize Ukrainians. Russia currently had enough troops deployed on the Ukraine borders to form and carry out fifty or more simultaneous attacks using their BTGs (Battalion Task Groups), advancing into Ukraine from different locations along the northern border as well as from the larger garrison now stationed in Russian occupied Crimea. Each BTG had about 800 troops and the ones advancing into Ukraine were composed of volunteer troops. Most of the 170 Russian BTGs in the Russian ground forces have some conscripts, which by law there are not allowed to be used in a combat zone except in defense of Russia.

Reformers in the Russian military had proposed the use of BTGs as far back as World War II and experimented with the concept frequently since then. This included implementing a form of BTG to lead an advance of their forces into western Europe. The Cold War version was called a ROD or Route Opening Detachment and could be as large as a battalion. The ROD was used during training but never in action.

BTGs were used with some success in Afghanistan during the 1980s, especially if the BTG contained a lot of veteran or elite (airborne or special operations) troops. Some BTGs were used during the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia in the Caucasus. The BTGs proved more effective than larger units and a series of reforms for the Russian military after 2008 included forming many BTGs. Russia did not use many regular combat units to take over Crimea and Donbas in 2014. Despite that, dozens of BTGs were available in case they were needed. Russia expanded their available BTGs from 96 in 2014 to 125 by 2018 and 170 by 2021. By late 2021 Ukraine estimated that there were at least 56 BTGs on their borders, all of them “combat ready”, meaning no conscripts and led by officers with experience in Syria.

The mass use of BTGs in Ukraine failed, and not just because the Ukrainians were well aware of BTGs, but because the Russians had not taken into account Ukrainian preparations to deal with an offensive composed of those. Ukraine reported that 15 days after the invasion (March 10th) they had destroyed or rendered useless for combat 31 BTGs. The remaining BTGs were outnumbered by Ukrainian defenders using tactics designed to destroy or neutralize BTGs.

 

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