March 29, 2023:
Russia continues to have problems replacing the troops and tanks it lost during the first months of the fighting in Ukraine. Russian active duty forces were shattered by heavy personnel losses and most of their modern tanks were destroyed as well. These were replaced by older models and hastily mobilized troops who did not want to be in the army and were particularly reluctant to be sent to Ukraine. Russian forces in Ukraine are now outnumbered by better armed, trained and motivated Ukrainian forces that are planning another major offensive to drive all Russians out of Ukraine. Russian replacement troops sent to Ukraine are given little training and are poorly equipped. Some have been seen wearing World War II style steel helmets that Russia had kept in storage just in case of another military disaster. That was what Ukraine has turned out to be for Russia, which is also bringing ancient (1950s) T-55 tanks into Ukraine, where the Ukrainians have already received German Leopard 2 tanks and American M-1s are on the way. The Russian situation in Ukraine is desperate and Russian plans to rebuild its military are equally desperate.
Russia plans to rebuild and expand its army. Planners ran into a major problem upon discovering that, somehow, wartime losses and emigration had greatly reduced the number of men able to serve in the military. Another problem is the cost of this rebuilding. Russia hasn’t got the cash to pay for recruiting, equipping and training the new troops. The Russian plan calls for a force containing 600,000 volunteer (contract career) soldiers and several hundred thousand conscripts.
This latest and greatest new plan ignores past experience with contract soldiers. These men were willing to serve in a peacetime force that would defend the motherland. Invading a neighbor and running into very hostile and lethal locals was unexpected and unacceptable. Many of the contract soldiers who survived the initial weeks of the invasion quit the military, with many justifying this on the ground that their contracts had been violated. This was technically illegal but there were so many departing contract soldiers that the government just let them go. The government planners seem to have forgotten this but many of the military-age men they plan to recruit remember and are not interested. The government response to this is chiefly more attempts to deceive potential recruits into signing up.
Western harsh and aggressively enforced economic sanctions have greatly reduced the Russian ability to build new armored vehicles, military aircraft, as well as missiles and much else. It’s just as well because obtaining new soldiers is not working either. The current Russian strategy appears to consist of trying to maintain control over as much Ukrainian territory as possible for a few years in the hope that the NATO nations supplying Ukraine with weapons will tire of the expense and reduce that aid. While NATO nations are feeling the strain, they have not reduced their support and have recently been increasing it. That includes sending the last of their artillery ammunition (mostly 155mm shells) to Ukraine and increasing production of those munitions to replenish their own stockpiles while also keeping the Ukrainians supplied. Ukrainian troops now have more artillery ammunition than the Russians, which makes Russian troops even less willing to attack or even defend.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin seems to believe that defeat in Ukraine will also mean the end of his two decades of ruling Russia. Putin was recently indicted by the ICC (International Criminal Court) for war crimes in Ukraine and an international arrest warrant issued. The immediate response of Russia was that any effort to arrest Putin while he was outside Russia would be considered an act of war against Russia. If and when Putin is no longer head of state in Russia, he is more vulnerable to the ICC arrest warrant. Those warrants never expire and the ICC has brought former senior government officials to trial eventually. Russia has relieved a lot of generals in the past year for failure to achieve much success against the Ukrainians. The Ministry of Defense and the government is also criticized for not undertaking some major reforms of Russian forces. In Ukraine these consist largely of recently mobilized men who were given little training and inadequate weapons and equipment to continue the war.
Currently, the most likely outcome is that Ukraine does defeat and expel all Russian forces in Ukraine. That will reveal more Russian atrocities against Ukrainian civilians. Russia will be considered a pariah state for some time to come, especially as it is unlikely to release more than a million kidnapped Ukrainian civilians, many of them children. This is disappointing to many nations, especially former European trading partners who believed, until 2022, that Russia would continue being the peaceful and reliable trading partner it had been since the 1990s. Peace may return, but any hopes for an unthreatening Russia will take a lot longer. Vladimir Putin apparently hopes to keep the war going for a few more years, until NATO nations supplying Ukraine grow weary of the huge expense of this effort and reduce their support. The Ukrainian offensives planned for 2023 will see relatively superior Ukrainian forces fighting less prepared and very unmotivated Russian troops. The Ukrainians are also receiving British Challenger 2, German Leopard 2 and American M1 tanks along with several countries contributing IFVs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) and other light armored vehicles that typically accompany tanks. Russia has little to oppose such a force except some elderly T-55 tanks brought out of their few remaining armored vehicle reserves. To make matters worse, Ukrainians in Russian occupied territory are increasing their sabotage armed resistance again the occupying forces.
March 28, 2023: To keep their economy going in spite of the economic sanctions, Russia is depending a lot on its most loyal trading partners; China and India. These two nations assist Russia in exporting its oil despite the sanctions. They can also obtain some items Russian can no longer obtain from Western suppliers. Care must be taken because many of these components can easily be identified and traced back to the last legal purchaser. Ukraine has been diligent about collecting debris from Russians weapons that are not supposed to exist because of the ban on selling Russian essential components. This has led to the discovery and elimination of several smuggling operations. This often involves sanctioning Chinese or Indian businesses and some of their key personnel. China, more than India, has to be careful about this because Western sanctions on Chinese firms means China can no longer obtain key components from Western suppliers. This sort of thing didn’t start with Russian operations in Ukraine and has been encountered for decades as Iran copes with similar sanctions.
March 27, 2023: Apparently Colonel General Rustam Muradov, the commander responsible for the failed offensives in Donetsk province, is being replaced. These attacks sustained heavy losses while the defending Ukrainians suffered far fewer casualties. Colonel General Yevgeny Nikiforov, the Western Military District Commander, is also believed to be on his way out for similar failures in offensives north of Donetsk province.
March 26, 2023: Near the Ukrainian port of Odessa, a Russian naval contact mine drifted to shore near an inhabited area and detonated. A nearby building was damaged but no one was hurt. Russia had deployed these mines in shallow waters off the Crimea coast. These mines float near the surface and are kept in place by a chain attached to weigh on the sea bottom. Sometimes the chain breaks and the mine floats free. These mines are a danger to any ships they encounter and the Ukrainians maintain patrols to spot and destroy free-floating mines.
March 25, 2023: Britain is being criticized by Russia for sending depleted uranium tank gun shells along with the Challenger 2 tanks sent to Ukraine. Apparently the people running Russian propaganda operations are now aware of what is going on with the ammunition used in Russian tanks. The Russians also supply depleted uranium shells for their tanks, as does Germany and the United States. So why is depleted uranium coitized? The reason is simple: anything associated with uranium, depleted or otherwise, will make for effective headlines, just as depleted uranium shells are the most effective ammunition for destroying enemy tanks. Despite all that, there is this persistent myth that depleted uranium is somehow toxic. This has become a myth too popular to stop using.
For example, some American soldiers returning from Iraq with undiagnosed health problems blamed it on depleted uranium metal, which is used in the 30mm cannon carried by the A-10 aircraft, 25mm shells used by the M-2 infantry vehicle and 120mm shells used by the M-1 tank.
Depleted uranium is a very dense metal that has had the radioactive material removed in order to manufacture nuclear fuel or material for atomic bombs, leaving it about as radioactive as some common building materials (like granite.) In other words, not very radioactive at all. Depleted Uranium is denser, and heavier, than any other metal and penetrates thicker armor. It has proved a very effective anti-tank weapon. Not only does it go through armor, but it also burns when it hits armor at high speed (1,600 meters or 5.200 feet a second.) This increases the damage within the tank. But when the depleted uranium burns, it also creates many tiny fragments. At one point scientists believed that these fragments, emitting alpha rays, were causing otherwise unidentifiable diseases among troops who had operated in areas where depleted uranium ammunition was used.
Another factor was that depleted uranium particles are still a heavy metal and are in the air only for a short time after the depleted uranium shell has hit something. After that, the particles fall to the ground, and tend to stay there. Depleted uranium replaced tungsten, another (non-radioactive) heavy metal for armor piercing work. Tungsten can also cause health problems if it gets inside of you, as does another, more familiar heavy metal; lead.
Depleted uranium is what is left over when uranium has the highly radioactive U-235 removed for use as nuclear fuel or for atomic bombs. What is left is U-238, which, while still radioactive, emits much less dangerous alpha rays. U-235 emits the much more dangerous gamma (and other) radiation. Depleted uranium is thus less radioactive than the original uranium, and not much more radioactive than many other rocks. Thousands of American soldiers and civilians have handled depleted uranium in the last half century, with no noticeable increase in health problems. Moreover, there has been no increase in cancer cases among the civilian population of areas where depleted uranium shells have been used. Cancer specialists also point out that it takes five to ten years for Leukemia to develop from a radiation exposure. Nuclear medicine specialists also point out that depleted uranium's alpha rays are stopped by just about anything, including skin. Leukemia is a cancer of the bone marrow and the depleted uranium's alpha rays cannot reach the bone marrow.
There has, however, been an increase in cancers in Kuwait and southern Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. But this region underwent far more than just the firing of many depleted uranium shells. The area was subjected to several weeks of burning oil fields. These fumes are also a known carcinogen and were far more abundant than the remains of depleted uranium shells. Moreover, the thousands of armored vehicles that tore up the pristine desert created an unprecedented (even for Arabia) dust cloud containing a very fine, talc like, sand and a lot of other nasty stuff. Local doctors were not surprised at the increase in illness because they knew, from long experience, what oil fumes and the crud in the sand could do.
Accusations of depleted uranium causing health problems have been made before, and have never withstood scientific scrutiny. But throw the words "uranium" and "radioactive" in front of the media and you send reporters and politicians into a feeding frenzy. Meanwhile, this detracts from the very real health problems soldiers are encountering in places like Iraq. As far back as the 1970s, Department of Defense medical experts warned of the large number of diseases native to the Persian Gulf. Many of these exotic afflictions are tolerated by the locals, but can be debilitating, or fatal, to outsiders. There are also a number of medical conditions in the area which are either unidentified, or not well understood, even by the natives. No one from the West took a close look at the diseases of the Persian Gulf area until large numbers of outsiders moved into the area during and after World War II. Currently, identifying and treating all the diseases of the region is still a work in process. Grandstanding over non-existent "depleted uranium" illness detracts from work on the real diseases injuring American troops. What made all of this a credible news story in so many places? Mostly it was the eagerness of the media to fall all over a scary story.
March 24, 2023: In Ukraine, Russian Su-35 fighter-bombers launched several of the Russian version of JDAM (GPS guided bombs) at targets near the Russian border. The Russian aircraft stayed on the Russian side of the border to avoid Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles. JDAM was first used in the 1990s by American forces. JDAM was a guidance kit that was attached to an unguided (“dumb”) bomb and turned into a guided bomb that could glide for over 20 kilometers to its target and land at the GPS coordinates entered into the JSAM guidance system. Since the 1990s nearly half a million JDAM kits have been manufactured. The kits cost about $26,000 each and made unguided bombs obsolete. Normally it requires several hundred unguided bombs to destroy a target. A JDAM bomb was a lot cheaper because fewer aircraft and a lot fewer unguided bombs (which cost up to a thousand dollars each. Until recently Russia did not have a bomb kit, but instead used more-expensive guided missiles. The new Russian JDAM works, but suffers more failures than JDAM. Ukraine has been receiving JDAM and the new, longer (70 kilometers) range JDAM-ER. Ukrainians modified their Russian designed warplanes to use JDAM bombs. Ukraine began using JDAM-ER earlier this month.
March 23, 2023: The government announced a new approach to defense firms found to be doing poor work or engaging in corrupt practices. These firms would come under government control to ensure proper and timely completion of their military contracts. Since many of the problems have to do with sanctions-related component shortages, government appointed managers will still be stuck with impossible production goals.
March 22, 2023: Ukraine launched another attack on Russian ships in Sevastopol harbor using a new version of their ASV (autonomous surface vessel). This follows an October 2022 attack that used a combined force of explosives-carrying UAVs and ASV bomb boats against three Russian frigates and several other ships docked at the Sevastopol naval base in Crimea. The night attack was detected and machine-guns and autocannon were seen firing on the attackers. One of the frigates and an amphibious ship were hit by the ASVs and damaged. Today’s attack used improved ASVs that can sense and leap over boom defenses the Russians deployed. This time the Russian ships were also prepared to quickly use the various machine-guns and autocannon on board to fire at and destroy the ASVs. This attack appears to have been a test of the new ASV design and the ASV passed. That means there will be another, much larger attack using ASVs and UAVs. If the next attack does succeed, Russia may be forced to move its Black Sea war ships to a smaller port on the east coast of the Black Sea.
March 21, 2023: The Wagner Group is shutting down operations in Ukraine and concentrating on its Africa operations. This came about because Vladimir Putin had to settle a dispute between the Russian generals in Ukraine and Wagner boss Prigozhin over who deserved credit for some minor victories in Ukraine. Putin sided with the generals and ordered the Wagner Group to concentrate on Africa. Wagner Group is a profitable international operation that reports directly to Putin. The Wagner Group was sent to Ukraine because the Russian army needed help, not competition and criticism.
Meanwhile the United States began imposing sanctions on members of the Russian Wagner Group and those affiliated with Wagner Group. The United States defines much of what Wagner Group does as a form of terrorism. Some of it definitely is. Most of the criminal offenses were committed by Wagner Group personnel sent to Africa, where the profits from legal and illegal activities were abundant. More recently, a Chinese space satellite manufacturer and satellite operator was sanctioned for selling the Wagner Group satellite imagery of Ukrainian military units and facilities. These imagery services aided Wagner Group in its recent offensive against Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine. During these operations Wagner Group members committed numerous atrocities and war crimes. Then there was the Wagner Group activity in Ukraine, which received far more publicity than the more lucrative dirty deeds Wagner was guilty of in many parts of Africa. For Ukraine the Wagner Group recruited convicts with the promise of a pardon if they served six months. This backfired when it became known that only about 20 percent of the first convicts recruited survived their six months and received their pardons. Recent recruiting efforts show that far fewer convicts are willing to volunteer and, justifiably, feel safer serving out their sentences. Russia then banned Wagner from recruiting prison inmates. Instead, the Russian military does the recruiting and offers more survivable terms of service as well as the pardon after the term of service is completed.
March 20, 2023: Chinese leader Xi Jinping traveled to Russia to meet with Russian leader Vladimir. The two announced efforts to replace the American dollar with the Chinese yuan as an international currency. For years China has been trying to make this happen. The biggest obstacle is the refusal to allow the yuan to be traded on financial markets. Instead, China simply pegs the value of the yuan to the American dollar. The heavy use of yuan by Russia in 2022 boosted the yuan to fifth place in international currencies with about seven percent of the market. The American dollar and the European euro continue to be the most commonly used currencies for international trade. China has achieved a reputation for making the yuan useful for outlaw states or firms that have problems gaining access to dollars or euros.
March 19, 2023: Russia has been moving ancient T-54 and T-55 tanks out of storage for use in Ukraine. The 36-ton T-54 was the first post-1945 tank. It used a 100mm gun and a four man crew. Introduced slowly in the late 1940s, it became more numerous during the 1950s. A major upgrade, the T-55 was introduced in 1958. About 100,000 T-54/55 tanks were built from 1048 to 1981. Two-thirds of these were T-55s. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia inherited over 10,000 operational T-55s, and few T-54s. The best of these were put into storage and there are believed to be over a thousand of these tanks available. Nearly all modern T-72/80/90 Russian tanks were destroyed or worn out in Ukraine. Russia brought 600 T-62s (from the early 1960s) out of storage to meet the needs of troops in combat, and suffered heavy losses. T-55s are easy to use and robust. They are adequate for supporting infantry although there is a shortage of 100 mm tank gun ammo. The T-55 also has a 7.62mm and a 12.7mm machine-guns, for which there is plenty of ammunition. The T-55 is vulnerable to the simplest anti-tank weapons like the RPG anti-tank rocket.
March 18, 2023: Despite the suffering of ill-equipped Russian troops in Ukraine, Russian generals and contractors are still being caught supplying sub-standard equipment, services and other supplies to Russian troops. This sort of thing was common before the war and even when the communists ran the country and before that under the rules of tsars and an aristocracy. The scams that leave new Russian troops with shoddy equipment became embarrassing news on the Internet, where soldiers often go to describe how they were screwed by some corrupt supplier. Corruption in state-owned defense firms and the space program get a lot of publicity but the delivery of shoddy or defective material to the troops in Ukraine is particularly embarrassing. Unfortunately, corruption is immune to embarrassment.
March 17, 2023: Despite the sanctions and need to spend heavily on Ukraine operations, the Russian navy has been able to keep work going on the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov. This vessel is the pride of the fleet but cursed with accidents and other delays during an earlier upgrade of the carrier so it can remain in service. Originally the plan was to have the carrier undergo a two year period of repairs, upgrades and modernization in a drydock belonging to the Russian navy. This was to begin in 2018 and shortly after that process began, the largest floating dry dock in Russia, PD-50, had an accident and sank. The Kuznetsov was afloat in the PD-50 at the time and survived with some damage from a collapsing crane. The PD-50 sank in deep water and most salvage experts agreed that it would be too expensive to raise the dry dock and repair it. The navy could not afford to buy a new one and admitted that this might be the end of the line for the Kuznetsov, which is overdue for some major maintenance and refurbishment and the PD-50 was the only Russian dry dock that could hold the Kuznetsov. Many Russians saw this as just another example of the sloppiness and poor management that have crippled the military industries and the space program. An affordable solution was found for the Kuznetsov when two separate drydocks built parallel to each other could, if combined into one drydock, accommodate the carriers. In 2019 work began on the new drydock and getting the carrier back to the fleet was delayed two years, to 2022. That was optimistic because an expensive engine room fire did so much damage that it delayed the completion of work on the carrier until 2024. Last month Kuznetsov left the drydock and must now spend a year having new equipment, including a lot of new electronics. Installed. Then will come sea-trials. Problems will be found and repaired until there are none and the carrier can be turned over to the fleet. That might not be until 2026, because that’s been the pattern for the last few large ships Russia has overhauled and modernized.
March 16, 2023: The government is bringing in dredging equipment for a major, and overdue, dredging of the heavily used Volga-Don Canal that enables ships to get from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. Because of the war in Ukraine and Iran supplying weapons and equipment to Russia, canal traffic was up 15 percent in 2022 over the previous year. Since 1952, a 101 kilometers long canal, linking the Don and Volga rivers, gave the Caspian Sea access to the Black Sea and the world's oceans. However, the largest ships that can use the canal cannot displace more than 5,000 tons and be no more than 140 meters (434 feet) long, 17 meters (52 feet) wide, and have a draft of no more than 3.5 meters (10.8 feet). Normally the canal moves over 12 million tons of cargo a year. About half of that is oil or oil products. In 2021 Russia agreed to allow Iran to use the Volga-Don Canal so that Iranian ships can reach the Black Sea from the landlocked Caspian Sea. This is the first time Russia has ever given a foreign nation free access to the canal. Russia and Iran are now using each other’s Caspian Sea ports heavily for trade and getting Iranian weapons to Russia. Both nations have agreed to establish a joint-shipbuilding operation in the Caspian Sea and cooperate in dredging the canal, something that has not been done since 1991. The prolonged lack of dredging has made portions of the canal shallower and forced ships to carry less cargo. The 13 locks on the canal connect the Volga River, the longest in Russia that empties into the Caspian, and the Don River which empties into the Sea of Azov, which is connected to the Black Sea via the Kerch Strait. The Caspian is the world's largest lake and it is huge, at 371,000 square kilometers (about the same size as Poland). It is about a thousand kilometers long and 430 kilometers wide. It's saline but is only about a third as salty as ocean water. The Caspian has a 7,000-kilometer-long coastline, with the largest chunk (1,900 kilometers) belonging to Kazakhstan.
March 15, 2023: Russia handles lucrative commercial satellite launches at the old Soviet Baikonur launch center in Kazakhstan. Russia rents this site from Kazakhstan and has fallen behind in rent payments. In response Kazakhstan seized $26 million of Roscosmos assets at Baikonur. Russia is not getting foreign commercial launch business because of the sanctions. Because of the Ukraine war sanction, Russia has less cash in general and can’t even muster enough troops to threaten Kazakhstan. There is also a problem with Russia referring to Kazakhstan as one of many areas, like Ukraine, that should be absorbed back into Russia. Kazakhstan agrees with Ukraine on that issue and is standing up to Russia to show its determination.