The Russian war in eastern Ukraine quietly but expensively,
continues. Ukraine revealed that in 2020 its forces had lost fifty troops killed and 339 wounded in Donbas.
That means about
3,200 Ukrainian troops have died fighting the Russians there since 2014. Nearly all these deaths occurred in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) where Russian forces have been stalled in their efforts to seize all the territory of the two provinces that comprise the Donbas region. Earlier in 2014 the Russians were successful in grabbing all of Crimea and that area is considered by most of the world as illegally “under occupation” by Russian forces. Crimea has also proved to be a financ8ial burden and the latest complication is Ukraine cutting fresh water supplies to Crimea.
Despite all this Russia recently reaffirmed its decision to remain in Donbas. The details of Russian Donbas policy have shifted. At the end of 2020 Russia said it was not seeking to annex the portion of Donbas it has controlled since 2014.
The two Ukrainian provinces (Donetsk and Luhansk) which comprise the Donbas contained about nine percent of Ukrainian territory, 13 percent of the population and 15 percent of the GDP in 2014. At the time Donbas was about 38 percent ethnic Russian. For Ukraine, the Donbas is worth fighting for while Crimea was not. The two provinces comprising the Donets Basin (or “Donbas”) were, for a long time, an economic powerhouse for Soviet Russia. But that began to decline in the 1980s and accelerated when the Soviet Union dissolved and Ukraine became independent in 1991. At this point Donbas is mainly about national pride and Russian politicians who face severe consequences if they cannot come out of this looking like a winner.
Russia is also trying to use economic warfare to defeat Ukraine but that is not working out either. China continues to improve its economic relations with Ukraine, as do many other countries, like India, that have long imported a lot of Russian weapons and industrial goods.
Russia does not disclose casualties in Ukraine but the losses do occur and evidence can usually be found on the Internet, where it’s something that Russians will discuss despite government efforts to censor such revealing discussions. The Donbas operation costs Russia several billion dollars a year in pay for Russian and ethnic-Russian Ukrainians who serve as mercenaries portraying the “armed separatists” as well as economic aid for the civilians still living in the area. The 2014 population in Russian controlled areas has shrunk as many civilians moved to Ukraine or Russia. That resulted in a collapse of the economy there. It does not help that the standard of living is higher on the Ukrainian side of the front line and there is more economic activity.
Syria has become the most expensive foreign effort Russia has undertaken since 2014. Part of the problem in Syria is that Russia has had to deal with some ancient enemies (Turkey and Iran) who are now needed allies. Turkey, Iran and Russia entered Syria for different reasons and generally supported the Iran backed Assad governments. The Americans supported the Kurds as part of a campaign to destroy ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Israel opposed the Iranian presence, whose stated objective was to attack Israel.
Most of the remaining Sunni Islamic terror groups are trapped in the northwest (Idlib province) while ISIL battles on in eastern Syria. The Kurds, with American support, hang on to the northwest.
Russia, Turkey and America cooperate to try and maintain ceasefires. Currently joint Russia/American patrols try to prevent more fighting between Turks and Kurds. A similar and less successful effort sought to keep Iranians from going after Israel and Idlib Islamic terror groups from going anywhere.
The Russians and Americans both provide lots (hundreds a week if needed) air strikes to the people on the ground they support. The Americans take care to avoid injuring civilians while the Russians find “collateral damage” (civilian casualties) a feature not a flaw. The Assads want to drive pro-rebel civilians, especially Sunnis, out of the country. Americans are sensitive to international criticism; the Russians are not. Both countries find all those airstrikes expensive to carry out. Your average airstrike costs the American at least $100,000 and 20-30 percent less for the Russians. The Americans are doing all this as a public service while Russia sees it as a way to perfect its latest warplanes as well as the weapons and equipment carried.
The cost of fighting in Syria is also a burden for Turkey but has been something that Iran couldn't sustain and Iran has sharply cut its expenses in Syria. This hurt the Assad government which likewise had to cut costs. In early 20201 the Assad government ordered its military to reduce costs by having most military units return to lower peacetime (pre-2011) levels of readiness. Syria is not at peace but the Assads cannot afford to keep most of the military combat ready. The cutbacks were dictated by the sharp reduction in financial support from Iran. American economic sanctions have, in the last three years, greatly reduced the amount of money Iran could spend on its foreign wars. Iran-backed groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen are all feeling the impact. Iran is hoping the new American government will relax the sanctions. While the Americans are now saying nice things about Iran, the sanctions are still in place and enforced. In Syria that means the troops have less ammo and fuel for patrols and combat. As was the case in peacetime, more soldiers and officers were given leave, to spend a few weeks visiting families or even taking a vacation.
February 19, 2021: Diplomats from Russia, Turkey and Iran met and agreed to back Syrian claims that continued Israeli air strikes violate the 1974 UN brokered ceasefire that halted the Israeli advance on Damascus after defeating the Syrian surprise attack to retake the Golan Heights during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. In 1973 the Arabs believed their simultaneous attacks against Israeli forces in the north and south would push the Israelis out of the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan heights and possibly other Israeli territory as well. After some initial success the Israeli defenses held and counterattacks forced the Egyptians and Syrians to retreat in an effort to defend their capitals. The ceasefire agreements that halted the fighting on both fronts included Egyptian and Syrian pledges to not back covert terror attacks on Israel. As far as Israel is concerned the Iranian military buildup in Syria is a violation of the 1974 agreement and justifies the continued airstrikes against the Iranians. Syria protests that the airstrikes endanger commercial air traffic and Syrian civilians living near Iranian military facilities. Russia and Turkey are unlikely to do anything to block Israeli airstrikes because Israel, Turkey and Russia all want Iran to get out of Syria but only Israel can admit it openly.
February 18, 2021: Russia quietly brokered a prisoner exchange between Syria and Israel. The exchange did not involve terrorists, spies or soldiers but rather civilians who had crossed the border by accident or derangement. Israel got back a young woman who crossed over in early February for unspecified reasons. Israel released two shepherds who accidently crossed in to Israel. The deal also involved Israel the reduction of a prison sentence for a pro-Syrian Arab.
February 17, 2021: China and Russia have agreed, after more than a year of negotiations, to develop a joint BMEW (Ballistic Missile Early Warning) system. This involves Russia providing the tech needed to bring Chinese BMEW equipment up to Russian standards. As an incentive for Russia to cooperate, and provide the needed tech, Chinese Internet censors were ordered to allow open discussion about Chinese claims on a quarter of the Russian Far East and most of the prime coastal areas. China never cancelled these claims, even in the 1940s and 50s when China was very dependent on Russia. These claims amount to about nine percent of Russian territory.
The Russian Far East contains part of Siberia as well as the large Pacific Ocean coastline and the port of Vladivostok. The coastal areas are the most densely populated. The Russian Far East is huge, at 6.9 million square kilometers. That is nearly the size (eight million square kilometers) of the continental United States. While these 48 states have 310 million people, the Russian Far East only has a population of 8.3 million. The Far East region contains 40 percent of Russian territory and less than six percent of Russia’s population. The region contains many naval and ballistic missile bases as well as ports that provide the cheapest way to get goods from the rest of Russia to the Far East. The Trans-Siberian Railroad alone cannot support the population and economy of the Far East region.
February 16, 2021: Russia confirmed that one of the
two Kirov class battlecruisers (completed in 1988 and 1998) was being scrapped because these is no money for maintenance and needed refurbishment on the older ship. The second retired Kirov is expected to be sent to the breakers eventually for the same reason. It’s quite expensive to scrap a Kirov class cruiser because these ships are nuclear powered. The two younger Kirovs were refurbished and are expected to serve into the 2030s before they are also scrapped. The two surviving Kirovs are used mainly for ceremonial “show the flag” cruises to distant ports.
February 15, 2021: In late January Ukrainian casualties in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) unexpectedly increased. Nearly all the additional losses were because troops were hit by rifle fire. Normally most casualties are inflicted by mortar and artillery shells as well as rockets. But this recent spike, involving 13 soldiers killed and at least twenty wounded, led to an investigation about the cause and it was discovered the Russian Army Sniper School has decided to use Donbas as part of the advanced curriculum. Sniper school students get to try out their new skills on real people. As an added feature, most of the targets are armed and can fire back. Ukrainian troops have killed or wounded some of the Russian sniper trainees but the exact numbers are not available.
February 13, 2021: The Ukrainian Federal Security Service arrested another two Ukrainians recruited by the Russians to collect information on the Ukrainian military. The two were caught with classified documents and had been under observation for some time. Russia pays well for Ukrainians willing to collect information for Russia as this is seen as less harmful to Ukraine than engaging in sabotage, kidnapping or assassination. For those tasks Russia often has to send in highly trained agents who can pass as Ukrainian and are skilled at avoiding detection.
February 10, 2021: Russian news agency TASS claims that mid-June 2020 fighting in southwest China (Tibet border with India) were more damaging to the Chinese than to the Indians. TASS reports 45 Chinese troops dead versus twenty Indian. The fighting took place on the shores of Pangong Lake. A 1996 agreement stipulates that troops from both sides entering disputed areas without firearms or explosives. The Chinese have taken to sending in their troops armed with wooden clubs and iron bars. This led to a battle on a ridge overlooking the Galvan River that was initially believed to have left at least twenty dead on both sides. Total casualties (dead, wounded, prisoners) were reported as at least fifty on each side. Currently both Indian and Chinese troops are moving back from the border Ladakh (India) area where they have been confronting, and occasionally fighting each other since May, 2020. China is still in close contact with Indian forces in other parts of their long mutual border. Russia fears that eventually China will be using these tactics against Russia.
February 9, 2021: The Russian FSB secret police reported that it had found and shut down seven illegal gun manufacturing operations in 2020. Over the last few years 28 of these black-market weapons manufacturers have been eliminated. These operations don’t actually manufacture as much as they assemble weapons from components obtained from foreign or local sources. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia was unable to control gun ownership as tightly as the Soviets did. Russia responded by liberalizing gun ownership laws so that there are now 25 million rifles, shotgun and pistols legally owned by civilians. These weapons are for hunting, sport (shooting is an Olympic event) and protection in areas acknowledged as dangerous. Despite the looser gun ownership rules there is still a lot of demand for illegal weapons. Not just from criminals, including Islamic terrorists and historically well-armed groups like Cossacks, but by a lot of civilians who believe the government overestimates the degree of state supplied security in many parts of the country. As a result, it is believed that there are more than fifty million weapons in circulation and that many weapons need a lot of replacement weapons each year for those lost, damaged or simply worn out. Some of the illegal manufacturers also do legal, and illegal repairs.
February 8, 2021: Russia reported that another of their Syrian Arab mercenaries had died in Libya, bringing the total dead to eight, with over 30 wounded or injured. In Libya, Russian Syrian Arab mercenaries are not seeing much actions even though they have been in Libya since mid-2020, shortly after Russia began hiring Syrian mercenaries for service in Syria. So far at least 3,000 of these Syrian mercenaries have been sent to Libya while an equal number serve in Syria. Russia had an edge in recruiting the best and most reliable Syrian Arabs. This was because the Turks, who had been using Syrian Arab mercenaries since 2016, were detested by most Syrians as an old nemesis once more invading Arab territory. The Russians were seen as true allies because the Russians did not want to control any territory, but did rent a few bases and sell military equipment to Arabs. The Russians had been doing this in Syria for over half a century. In contrast the Turks had occupied and ruled most Arab territory for centuries, and were often quite brutal about it. That imperial rule only a century ago and is still remembered. The Russian offer the same pay as the Turks, but not the incentive of a residency permit in Turkey. The Iranians are also hiring again, but they, like the Turks, are seen as foreign invaders and don’t get the most reliable recruits.
February 7, 2021: In Syria Turkish Arab mercenaries are regularly skirmishing with Russian and SDF forces, and winning. The stakes are not large, usually the possession of a checkpoint that both sides claim. Turkey does not want to escalate when that might involve Russian or American airpower being called in. Turkey can get away with using the Predator-like UAVs for recon and surveillance as long as Russian and American warplanes do not use those UAVs for target practice.
February 1, 2021: In Southeast Asia
Myanmar (Burma) is again controlled by a military government. China promptly used their veto powers in the UN to block UN actions against the new military rulers of Burma. Within two weeks Russia also proclaimed support for the military government. The Burmese coup was a reaction to recent parliamentary elections that put into power a political party that pledged to reorganize the military to prevent another military takeover. The response of the military was not unexpected, because the civilian government knew that the Burmese generals maintained their connections in China and was the main reason China has sold $1.4 billion worth of military equipment to Burma since 2010. Russia sold $800 million worth. Together China and Russia accounted for over 90 percent Burmese spending on imports of military gear.
January 30, 2021: Iran has purchased large quantities of the Russian Sputnik covid19 vaccine. How many doses and how fast it can be available in Iran won’t be known until mid-February. The religious dictatorship had recently banned the use of Western covid19 vaccines, fearing that these might be sabotaged by the Americans in order to hurt Iran. This sort of thinking is not new, but most Iranians have learned to expect it from their dysfunctional rulers. There are millions of Iranians living outside the country who quietly report that there is no Western conspiracy against Iran.
January 27, 2021:
Corruption remains a major problem for Russia and years of well-publicized efforts to deal with it have failed and Russia is stuck near the bottom of the list when it comes to clean government.
For 2020 China ranked 129th out of 180 nations in international rankings compared with 137th in 2019.
These ratings and ranking are updated each year for the annual
Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. Corruption is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Yemen/15, Syria/14, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/12) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are both 88.
The Russian current score is 30 (versus 28 in 2019) compared to 33 (30) for Ukraine, 47 (45) for Belarus, 56 (58) for Poland, 80 (80) Germany, 65 (65) for Taiwan, 40 (39) for Turkey, 40 (41) for India, 30 (28) for Russia, 61 (57) for South Korea, 42 (41) for China, 18 (14) for North Korea, 36 (37) for Vietnam, 85 (85) for Singapore, 74 (73) for Japan, 37 (40) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 34 (34) for the Philippines, 31 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (26) for Bangladesh, 25 (26) for Iran, 19 (16) for Afghanistan, 28 (29) for Burma, 71 (71) for the UAE, 61 (61) for Israel, 15 (15) for Yemen, 67 (69) for the United States, 33 (35) for Egypt, 25 (26) for Nigeria, 44 (44) for South Africa, 21 (20) for Iraq, 40 (39) for Turkey, 53 (53) for Saudi Arabia, and 25 (28) for Lebanon.
The Russian corruption score has not changed much since 2012 when it was 28.
January 26, 2021: Several Israeli F-35s flew over Lebanon in daylight. The F-35s were not carrying out an attack but there were demonstrating to Lebanese and Iran-backed Hezbollah that Israel still rules the skies. The F-35 usually fly at night where neither eyes nor radar can spot them, much less stop them. Operations over Lebanon and Syria are common for the F-35, which regularly carried out missile attacks on Iranian targets throughout Syria. Most of the missiles are launched from Israeli aircraft inside Lebanon, Israel or Jordan and, rarely, from inside Syria. Syrian and Russian air defense system keep trying to bring down an Israeli aircraft and keep failing. Russia has its latest S400 air defense systems guarding its bases in northwest Syria. The S400 radar can see almost all of Syria and into adjacent nations. The Russians have had a hard time detecting Israeli bombers, especially the F-35s. Syria is armed with the older S300 systems and they regularly fire lots of missiles at the Israelis and have yet to bring down an aircraft. The Syrians have shot down some Russian aircraft by accident. Syria urges Russia to at least try but the Russians know that if they try and fail it will a lot more difficult to get export orders for the S400. Russia watches and continues seeking a way to defeat Israeli aircraft,
January 23, 2021: In Libya, today is the UN brokered deadline, agreed to in October 2020 by all parties fighting in Libya, for foreign troops to leave the country. None of them have. It’s estimated that there are over 20,000 armed foreigners in Libya. Over a third are Islamic terrorists. About half the armed men in the country are Syrian Arab mercenaries working for Turkey and the rest are Syrian Arab mercenaries hired by Russia to assist the LNA (Libyan National Army). There are also about a thousand Russian military contractors, special operations troops, technicians, pilots and advisors. Matching that are nearly as many troops from Arab allies of the LNA. Lastly there are another hundred or so special operations troops from various nations who mainly act as observers for their governments.
January 22, 2021: In January 2021 satellite photos revealed that all three of the Iranian Russian built Kilo class submarines were still out of the water, apparently undergoing repairs or refurbishment. Previous photos indicated the three subs had been out of the water since late 2020. It is not normal practice to have all of a warship class out of action at the same time. These three subs are not only out of action in a shipyard, but they are out of the water in a drydock. That means some serious work is being done, work that cannot wait. This usually means a common flaw with all the ships. Since no other Kilo users report or indicate a similar problem than this situation is unique. The major difference between Iranian Kilos and those of other export customers is that Iran refuses to send their Kilos back to Russia for major maintenance and insisted on doing it themselves. This is risky if you have no experience building similar subs or maintaining them with local parts rather original parts from Russia. Iran is not commenting on their Kilo crisis. Another problem is that Iran has been refurbishing its Kilos in Iran and refurbishment is required ever decade or so to keep the subs seaworthy. This angered Russia, which insists refurbishment of its subs take place in Russia. Iran thought the cost was too high and that Russia might bow to Western pressure and not return the sub. Russia did not provide any technical assistance or components to the Iranians for those local refurbishments but may have changed the policy since 2014 when Russia joined Iran in declaring the West a military threat to them.
January 20, 2021: Russia now has an armed Predator-type UAV called Orion. This is a one-ton remotely controlled aircraft with a 200 kg payload and 24-hour endurance. Orion was revealed in 2017 but did not officially enter service until late 2019 and did not actually combat zones until early 2020. The main reason for the delays was unreliable engines. That delayed availability for several years and apparently that engine problem is not entirely solved yet.
In 2018 an armed version (Orion-E) was revealed but it did not actually fire a Hellfire-type missile until the end of 2020. The Russian missile is the S-5Kor, which is similar to the American APKWS, a smaller laser guided missile that replaces of supplements Hellfire on many helicopters and fighter-bombers. APKWS is a 70mm laser guided missile that entered service in 2012. APKWS weighs 13.6 kg (30 pounds) with a 2.7 kg (six pound) warhead and a range of about six kilometers. Helicopters carry APKWS 70mm rockets in seven rocket pods already used for unguided rockets. That pod can be rewired to fire the APKWS, which are preferable to the larger (45 kg) Hellfire because the smaller warhead allows the APKWS to be fired against targets that are very close to civilians or friendly troops. Since APKWS are smaller and lighter, more can be carried. Hellfire has been around since 1984 with over 130,000 produced so far and most of them used in combat or training.
The Russian version of APKWS is a guided version of their 5 kg (11 pound) S-5 unguided rocket. The guided version, S-5Kor, first appeared in 2000 but was not very reliable and it took more than a decade to fix that. The range of the laser guided S-5Kor is up to 7 kilometers.
January 19, 2021: Japan decided to proceed with a two-decade old plan to design and build its own stealth fighter. Since the 1990s Japan has been concerned with the growing belligerence of China and North Korea, plus a simmering territorial dispute with Russia. More warplanes, and the modern ones at that were needed, just in case. The rapid Chinese development of its new stealth fighter, the J-20, also alarmed the Japanese. The delays in the F-35 program proved to be minor compared to the problems the Chinese and Russians encountered with their first stealth fighters. South Korea had the same idea, having also obtained nearly as many F-35s as Japan and also planning to develop their own stealth fighters.
All this is bad news for China, Russia and North Korea because if you do the math it is clear that the modern warplanes available and planned for the local anti-China coalition (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia and a growing number of South-East Asian nations) matches what China has and once you add American forces deployed in the Western Pacific, China is at a disadvantage. This coalition developed because China has been making territorial claims on many of the coalition members or otherwise threatening them. Absent that aggression there would be no coalition or arms race. Russia may eventually join this coalition if China revives it territorial claims against Russia.