Russia: We'd Rather Not Talk About It

July 21, 2010: Russian military commanders admit that, over the last decade, most of their Cold War era military equipment has slipped into obsolescence and fallen far behind more recent Western equipment. But the generals and admirals insist that, during the next decade, large quantities of new Russian gear will be purchased and put in service. The new Russian designs are being produced, but largely for export customers. It's up to the government to provide the cash to make these purchases, something the government has not been able to do since the early 1990s. But future military spending will be made at the expense of popular non-military programs (infrastructure, pensions, medical care). Despite the growing authoritarian style of the government, the popular will still has more power than it did during the Soviet period.

Opinion polls show the majority of Russians oppose nuclear disarmament. This is part of a trend. In the early 1990s, a lot more Russians were in favor of getting rid of a lot of nuclear weapons. In 1991, 48 percent of Russians favored nuclear disarmament (and 48 percent opposed it), now it's 19 percent (with 60 percent opposing it). The Russian people are aware of their much diminished armed forces (compared to 1991), and believe that only nukes keep potential invaders out.

The Moscow government will build 5,000 additional bomb shelters over the next two years, so that nearly all civilians will have access to a shelter. Currently, Cold War era bomb shelters can only hold about half the city's population. In the last two decades, many Cold War era shelters were dismantled so that new buildings could be put up. While Russians are normally paranoid about foreign attack, the government is playing on these fears, to distract people from the growing authoritarian nature of the government. The federal (or "secret") police (the FSB, which replaced the KGB), in particular, are getting back a lot of their Soviet era powers.

The economy is recovering from the global recession. For the first six months of the year, the economy grew 4.2 percent, compared to the economy contracting eight percent last year. Over the last two decades, the Russian economy has been catching up with the West. During the Soviet period, Russian firms were not able to get the most modern technology, nor sufficient money to keep facilities or infrastructure (roads, power plants) up to date. The building boom has made Russian industry more competitive, and led to the greatest period of economy growth in over half a century. But Russia is still hobbled by widespread corruption, especially at the senior-most levels of government. Foreign investors are reluctant to do business in Russia, because of the risk of some senior politician arbitrarily changing the rules down the road.

At dawn, terrorists attacked a power plant in the Caucasus (Kabardino-Balkaria, north of Georgia, west of Ingushetia). Two guards were killed and some damage done to the plant.  This is the second terror attack in Kabardino-Balkaria during the last week. This is an area that has rarely seen terrorist violence in the last decade. Apparently a terrorist cell has moved in, taking advantage of the lower level of alertness among the security personnel.

Despite allowing currently enacted UN economic sanctions against Iran to come into force (Russia has a veto over UN actions), officials for Russian nuclear energy and weapons manufacturing firms talk like the sanctions don't apply to them. While these firms have not actually broken the sanctions yet, their open discussions of doing so are disturbing.

July 19, 2010: Russia has delivered fifty wheeled armored vehicles to Jordan, where they will eventually be delivered to the Palestinian government in the West Bank. Israel has agreed to allow these vehicles into the West Bank, but that has not happened yet.

July 16, 2010: A roadside bomb went off in the Caucasus (Kabardino-Balkaria), wounding five people.

July 15, 2010: In Dagestan, police cornered and killed two wanted Islamic terrorists.

July 11, 2010:  In Dagestan, a bomb went off in the capital, wounding two policemen.

July 10, 2010: In Dagestan, a judge was shot dead. This was believed to be an effort by criminals to intimidate the judicial system.

July 9, 2010:  American and Russian officials conducted a spy swap in Vienna, Austria. This was the largest such swap since the Cold War. Russia pardoned and freed four Russians, including two former intel officers who revealed the identities of numerous Russian agents in the West. These two were never debriefed by their American handlers, and are believed to have more information and insights of value. The U.S. released ten Russians who had, for the last decade, been trying to pass themselves off as Americans, and operate as "illegals" (spies without diplomatic cover and protection). As part of the deal, the ten Russians had to admit their guilt. The FBI caught on to this bunch early on, and have been watching them for years, trying to obtain more information on how Russian espionage operate in the United States. The FBI finally arrested these ten when it became apparent that the Russians had detected that they were being watched.

The FBI was puzzled by how little useful information these ten were able to obtain. As far as the FBI could tell, these ten spies never obtained anything important. But the Russians were eager to get them back, and avoid a trial in the United States.  Russian state media said very little about the spy swap. The spy exchange was organized in less than a month, with the U.S. eager to get four valuable people back, and Russia equally intent on getting its ten embarrassing spies out of the news.

It's unclear why Russia undertook such an inept operation. There are indications that many other Russian espionage operations are similarly sloppy (and will be revealed when arrested are made). This is in sharp contrast to the Cold War when, after it was over, it was revealed that the Russians were much better at the spy game than their Western opponents. But those super spies appear to have moved on to more lucrative work in the civilian sector, or the government. In any event, the past masters are no longer running the show. It's amateur hour now, and the Russians would rather not talk about it.

 

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