Russia: Blast From The Past


November 21, 2009:  The government has decided to undertake a major replacement of aging military equipment. In many cases, this is essential, because buying new gear basically halted (with a few exceptions, like ballistic missiles) during the 1990s. So most of the armed forces are using Cold War era gear manufactured in the 1970s and 80s. Fortunately, even older equipment was junked as the armed forces shrank 80 percent in the 1990s. According to the new government plan, in the next decade, at least a third of current gear will be replaced, and in some categories (usually high tech), over 80 percent. President Dmitry Medvedev is going around giving speeches to the troops, featuring these promises. If the government does not deliver, morale will take a big hit. This will happen quickly in the navy, for they have been told that more ships, will spend more time at sea, and very soon. There is some grounds for optimism in the fleet, for in the last five years, the air force has resumed long range air patrols over areas off the Russian coast, which have not seen Russian navy or air force activity in over a decade. Since 1991, Russian warships have spent most of their time tied up at dock, meaning an entire generation of sailors have little experience at sea. This spells defeat in wartime, and the sailors, especially the senior commanders, know it.

The global recession is over for Russia. GDP was down nearly nine percent for this year, but next year looks like growth of at least three percent. In response, the government is keeping defense spending up (to about $50 billion, or 3.6 percent of GDP, a rate similar to that of the U.S., which has a GDP about ten times larger).

A recent international survey showed that Russia is considered one of the most lawless nations on the planet. Corruption was always a problem in Russia, even before the communists took over in the early 1920s (and promised to clean everything up.) The communists weren't clean for long, and presided over a more pervasive and intense corruption than ever experienced under the monarchy. Worse yet, the communist government went to great lengths to hide the corruption. That carried over into the post-communist government. But press freedom since 1991, and the Internet (in the last decade) has made the corruption harder to hide. Not only has this caused morale (and efficiency) problems in the military and the business community, but it has made it difficult for Russian firms to make deals (for investment or joint ventures) with foreign firms. This has hurt economic growth, and efforts to upgrade the methods and technology used in Russia. The latter item is seen, by the government, as a serious problem. This has led to vigorous anti-corruption efforts in the last few years. Some progress has been made, but there is so much to clean up, that, for most Russians, nothing seems to have changed.

November 20, 2009: Increasingly unhappy with Iran's nuclear weapons program, it was announced that the Russian supplied (with critical technology and supervision) Bushehr nuclear power plant, in southern Iran, would not go online at the end of this year, as long planned. Russia is also delaying the delivery of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems, which Iran bought two years ago, and is openly complaining about the non-delivery.

November 13, 2009: In the city of Ulyanovsk (720 kilometers southeast of Moscow), a military ammunition depot blew up. Up to ten died, and many more were injured (including firefighters). Fortunately, some 40 people in the immediate vicinity of the fire, escaped to a bomb shelter before ammo began blowing up. Hours later, cell phone photos showed the night sky lit up by ammo continuing to explode, and throw flaming debris into the air. There have been several of these spectacular explosions since the end of the Cold War. Russia has historically kept ammunition, particularly artillery shells, long after other nations would have disposed of the stuff because it had degraded and become unreliable. These depots were also frequently poorly run, which leads to accidents. Finally, it has become known that the locations of dozens of these depots has long been a state secret (although an open secret to many locals). As details of these depot locations has spread (via the Internet), it became obvious that nearly twenty (out of over 70) of these depots were located in urban areas. Not downtown, but often in compounds surrounded by residential housing. The Ulyanovsk explosion required the evacuation of several thousand local civilians. The military has resisted shutting down many of these ammo dumps, or moving the ones surrounded by civilian housing. However, the explosion at Ulyanovsk occurred while old ammo was being destroyed. This is considered safer, in some cases, than trying to move decades old stuff.

In Chechnya, there was a major battle between security forces and rebels, which left at least twenty rebels dead. Police and troops have been searching for rebel camps, and apparently found one the enemy was not able to flee from. The rebels consist of Islamic terrorists, nationalists (who want an independent Chechnya) and gangsters.

November 10, 2009: A young police commander in the south, risked his life by releasing a series of YouTube videos, exposing what every Russian knows; the police are corrupt. Police major Alexei Dymovsky detailed how police are ordered to arrest innocent people, in order to meet monthly quotas, and bribe taking is tolerated, because the government refuses to pay the police a living wage. Dymovsky admitted that he was risking his life by releasing these videos, but was fed up with the corruption. The police reacted as expected, firing Dymovsky and investigating him for criminal behavior. However, the widespread attention the videos got (the government does not have as much control over the Internet as they would like), forced the government into a defensive posture. This story is far from over. Dymovsky, and most Russians, want some fundamental reforms of the police, while the government, and many cops, are OK with the way things are. But at least reform is in play, a rare event in itself.


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