Russia: A Lack Of Trust


September 21, 2014: In Ukraine (Donbas) the Russian backed rebels are still very active, as are over 3,000 Russian troops who have quietly entered Ukraine in the last month. The Russians deny they have troops in Donbas but it is an open secret in Russia where many parents of Russian soldiers killed in Donbas are demonstrating their anger at government efforts to keep them quiet about where their sons died and how. So far the Donbas fighting has left over 3,000 dead (including civilians). There ae another 25,000 Russian troops on the Donbas border, apparently ready to move in on short notice. Ukrainian leaders are openly accusing Russia of planning to annex all of Ukraine. Russia is apparently not moving fast so as to avoid triggering a violent response from NATO. The Russians have already threatened to use their nuclear weapons if NATO interferes with “legitimate” Russian moves in Ukraine. That is all purposely vague but many (Ukrainians, Russians. Westerners) believe Russia is intent on grabbing all of Ukraine, even at the risk of starting a major war or even at the risk triggering use of nuclear weapons.

In late August the Russian government (in the form of leader Vladimir Putin) warned the West to not get involved in Ukraine otherwise Russia would consider using its nuclear weapons to protect Russian interests. This was a frightening development because Russia had, since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 cooperated in dismantling most of its nuclear weapons. The West provided billions in aid and technical assistance to help with this effort. Ukraine agreed to give up the Soviet nukes it inherited in return for cash and a promise from Russia that Russia would never take advantage of the surrendered Ukrainian nukes to try and regain control of Ukraine. Now Russia ignores all the evidence, from inside Russia and Ukraine, that its officials are lying about Russian efforts to grab more Ukrainian territory (Crimea and Donbas). The rest of the world fears this might lead to a nuclear war. At the very least it has become clear that Russian feels it has a right to grab territory from its neighbors and is willing to see itself destroyed in a nuclear exchange if the rest of the world does not give in. 

The Russian supported Donbas rebels have still not recovered from the beating they took from Ukrainian forces before Russian troops entered in force on at the end of August. These Russian troops appear to have done most of the fighting since then, and taken most of the rebel casualties. This has become a lie Russia is having increasing difficulty telling with a straight face, at least to non-Russians.

The impact of the UN sanctions have been made worse by the falling price of oil. Russia is economically very dependent on oil revenue and the falling oil price is a major, and growing, problem. This oil price decrease is caused largely by American innovations (fracking) that have unlocked huge quantities of oil and natural gas. For example, in 2010 foreign oil accounted for half the oil consumed in the United States. That is now 20 percent and falling rapidly. The U.S. expects to be a major oil and natural gas exporter soon and that hurts the economy of Russia a great deal. 

One of the generally unmentioned side effects of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine is the damage done to Russian weapons production because of their dependence on Ukraine. Although only 4.4 percent of Russian imports are from Ukraine many of those imports are crucial for the Russian weapons production.  These industrial links date back to Soviet times and many remained active after the USRR collapsed in 1991.  As a result Russian arms producers, and users, are highly dependent on Ukrainian industry and most of these items cannot be quickly or cheaply replaced by Russian made substitutes. This is mainly due to insufficient production capacity of Russian industries. The most severe shortages occur in key areas. Prominent examples include IBCMs, air-to-air missiles, aviation and engines for warships.

It turns out that very detailed, and workable, “how to” instructions on how to operate a Russian Buk anti-aircraft missile system was available on the Internet. This discovery came about because on July 17th pro-Russian rebels shot down a Malaysian airliner that was passing over Ukraine. The official Russian line was that the destruction of the Malaysian airliner was all a CIA plot to discredit Russia and justify NATO expansion and that the rebels did not have people competent to operate the Buk. But satellite photos showed a BUK vehicle hastily moving towards the Russian border after the 17th, with two of its four missiles missing. Ukraine also captured radio traffic featuring rebels talking about shooting down a Ukrainian transport on the 17th. Russia continues to claim it was innocent, but it is telling that Russian commanders are now calling most of the shots on the ground in rebels held parts of eastern Ukraine. The rebel leaders have, since the July 17 incident, either quit or gone very quiet.

As Russia strives to reassemble its empire, first with bits of Georgia in 2008 and now with larger bits of Ukraine, several even larger bits of Russia want to secede, or at least become more independent. Several parts of Siberia have expressed an interest, often in the form of large street demonstrations, for this. Siberia (the Siberian Federal District) is a huge area (5.1 million square kilometers, about two thirds the size of the continental United States) with a population of only 20 million. But it has lots of natural resources and a coastline on the Arctic Ocean. The other area with separatist tendencies is Kaliningrad. This used to be part of the ancient German province of East Prussia, which disappeared after World War II. Most of it went to Poland, but Russia retained the city of Konigsberg and its environs (15,100 square kilometers, about the size of Northern Ireland.) They renamed the city Kaliningrad and made it a major naval base.

In the Crimea Russia threatening to use force to get the local Tatars to cooperate with the new Russian government. The Tatars opposed the Russian takeover. The two million people living in Crimea are 12 percent Crimean Tatars. These are descendants of Mongol and Turk troops that invaded the region in the 13th century. The invaders blended in with the existing inhabitants, who were a mélange of Greeks and even more ancient peoples who had been there for thousands of years. The Tatars became Moslem in the 14th century. Eventually the Ottoman Turkish Empire took control of Crimea but that was lost in 1775 when the Russian Empire drove the Turks out. Most Tatars fled to Turkey and elsewhere. Ukrainians and Russians moved in. When the communists took over in the 1920s they proceeded to kill or deport half the Tatars remaining in Crimea. The communists didn’t trust the Tatars. In 1944 all remaining Tatars were moved to Central Asia and while that expulsion was revoked in the late 1960s Tatars only began returning after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The communists believed that the Tatars had collaborated with the invading Germans, and some did, but no more than other non-Russians. Today 24 percent of Crimeans are Ukrainian and 58 percent are Russian.

In Ukraine (Donbas) there was more artillery fire and dozens of casualties, despite the cease fire and general agreement on a new buffer zone.

Meanwhile Russian military operations in Syria are have more success. Thanks to continued Russian logistical (spare parts) and technical (maintenance technicians and experts) help the Syrian Air Force continues to send up warplanes and armed helicopters every day to hit rebel targets. Currently the air force is concentrating on ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Assad forces are not bothered by civilian casualties, so the ISIL custom of using local women and children as human shields does not work in Syria. In any event the Assads want to kill pro-rebel civilians both to lessen their resolve and persuade some of them to leave the country.

September 20, 2014: In Ukraine (Donbas) a rebel held ammunition factory in Donetsk blew up and government forces took credit. Meanwhile government forces at the Donetsk airport remain under fire from rebels despite the ceasefire. This ceasefire is, in fact, a ceasefire in name only. In response both sides have agreed to establish a 30 kilometer buffer zone that would reduce the problems with continued clashes. But before this can happen there has to be agreement on exactly where the buffer zone will be. That has not been easy to agree on.

September 19, 2014:  Six Russian fighters flew close enough to Alaska to trigger American and Canadian fighters going to intercept and make sure the Russians did not enter U.S. or Canadian air space. Russian warplanes had not come this close for a long time.

September 17, 2014: The Russian currency (the ruble) fell to a record low (38.8 rubles per dollar) in response to the new Western economic sanctions against Russia. Russian, and foreign, investors are alarmed at the impact of the sanctions on the Russian economy and the ruble/dollar exchange rate is a major indicator.

September 16, 2014:  In Ukraine parliament approved the EU (European Union) cooperation deal that caused the crisis with Russia back in 2013. Late in 2013 a popular uprising ousted the Ukrainian president (Viktor Yanukovich) who had been elected on the promise that he would make the EU deal happen. But in mid-2013 Yanukovich mysteriously changed his mind and proposed a similar alliance with Russia. Yanukovich was known to be corrupt and it was widely believed that he had been bribed by the Russians (a tactic the Russians use a lot). The Russians were not pleased that, despite the bribe, the Ukrainians resisted complying with what Russian wanted (minimal Ukrainian involvement with the EU).

September 15, 2014: In Ukraine (Donbas) government and rebel troops fought near Donetsk, leaving dozens dead or wounded. This is the worst flare up of violence since the ceasefire began 10 ten days ago.

Russia has offered to join the international coalition against ISIL. This comes after Russian condemned (as illegal) the initial American bombing efforts against ISIL in Iraq. Russia has since been directly threatened by ISIL and apparently believes there is a real threat.

September 14, 2014: In Ukraine (Donbas) rebels release 73 soldiers they had captured. This was part of the ceasefire deal. The Ukrainian government announced that the promised NATO weapons deliveries had begun to arrive.

September 13, 2014: In Ukraine (Donbas) a major rebel attack on the Donetsk airport was repulsed by government forces.

September 12, 2014: The U.S. and EU enacted more sanctions against Russia. These involved Russian energy, finance and defense companies. There’s panic and alarm in the Russian business and finance communities because of all the economic harm these sanctions are doing. Russian leaders have been told, but apparently believe they can gain control over Ukraine, or at least Donbas, before economy pressure forces them to back off.

September 11, 2014:  Ukraine reported that some Russian troops had withdrawn from Donbas. The rebels also agreed to a long term peace deal. All this was apparently intended to halt the imposition of more sanctions on Russia. The problem is that no one involved trusts the Russians anymore.

September 7, 2014: In the Black Sea a NATO naval exercise was interrupted when two Russian fighters, accompanying a Russian maritime patrol aircraft, decided to fly low over a Canadian frigate. This is in violation of the rules of the sea, but the Russians apparently wanted to show their displeasure at NATO forces being so close to Russian territory.

September 6, 2014: In eastern Ukraine (port of Mariupol) rebel (Russian) forces fired shells into the city. Mariupol is largely ethnic Russian, but most of those Russians do not want to be ruled by Russia.

September 5, 2014: In Donbas government and rebel forces agreed to a ceasefire.

September 4, 2014: ISIL released a video threatening to send men to the Russian Caucasus, especially Chechnya, where there are still some Islamic terrorists operating. Russian efforts to stamp out terrorism in the Caucasus have, over two decades reduced the terrorist activity a lot, but have not been able to eliminate it. Now many of the elite troops assigned to the Caucasus have been moved to the Ukrainian border. The Caucasus is vulnerable and Russian leaders are visibly concerned about it.  The official response was that Russia would destroy ISIL as they had many other terrorist groups.

September 3, 2014: France is suspending delivery of an amphibious ship to Russia. Back in June the French decided to fulfill its 2011 contract that sold two French Mistral class amphibious ships, for $1.7 billion, to Russia. This was the largest Russian purchase of Western weapons since World War II. The deal was delayed for a long time because the Russians demanded the transfer of shipbuilding and electronics technology (which was eventually agreed to). At the time the dispute over Donbas, in which the European Union and NATO support Ukraine, was still relatively low key. But as the situation escalated to outright war France had second thoughts.

September 2, 2014:  The Russian president quipped that, if need be, Russian troops could be in Kiev (the capital and largest city in Ukraine) within two weeks. This comment was not appreciated in Ukraine.

A Russian spy satellite entered the atmosphere and visibly burned up over the western United States.



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