Since 2014 Russia has been making a lot of headlines but not much else. The economy is a mess and despite government predictions that the economy can “stabilize” if oil is over $50 a barrel (where it seems to be headed) and there would be two percent GDP growth in 2017 (versus a decline of .6 percent in 2016). The reality is that the real average income of Russians has, as of the end of 2016, been declining 25 months in a row and the decline continues. With so many people seeing their income decline corruption is getting worse, despite vigorous efforts to curb it. The number of best educated and capable Russians who have left the country since 2014 has now reached 1.5 million. The poor are getting poorer and more Russians are slipping into poverty. The military is telling its veteran officers and NCOs that a new benefit for ex-military personnel is preferential treatment when it comes to getting unemployment benefits. There is still the implied promise of a government job for retired officers but, well, you know hard times and all that. And then there are the foreign cash reserves, essential for buying imports. Those reserves will be exhausted later in 2017 or in 2018. So no, the economic news is not good.
The 2016 international corruption ratings show the world that Russia is not making much progress dealing with corruption and is stuck near the bottom (131 out of 176 nations rated). Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea and Somalia) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (usually Denmark) is often 90 or higher. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. The current Russian score is 29 compared to 40 for China, 72 for Japan, 62 for Poland and 74 for the United States. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. Russia has the same score as Ukraine and most of the other nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union. Do you see a pattern here? A growing number of Russians (and others who used to be ruled by Russians) certainly do.
Invading Ukraine and Syria has not helped solve any of the fundamental problems but have made for great propaganda that sort of distracts Russians from how much life sucks at home. What went wrong? Russia entered the 21st century with a new elected government dominated by former secret police (KGB) officers who promised to restore economic and civil order. They did so but in the process are turning Russia into a police state with less political and economic freedom. A growing number of Russians opposed this and the government responded by appealing to nationalism. Russia has returned to police state ways and the traditional threatening attitude towards neighbors. Rather than being run by corrupt communist bureaucrats, the country is now dominated by corrupt businessmen, gangsters and self-serving government officials. The semi-free economy is more productive than the centrally controlled communist one but that just provides more money to steal. A rebellion against the new dictatorship has been derailed by astute propaganda depicting Russia as under siege by the West. Yet opinion polls that show wide popular support for this paranoid fantasy has left enough Russians with democratic impulses to continue leading the struggle for better government and needed reforms. For now most Russians want economic and personal security and are willing to tolerate a police state to get it. That atmosphere, plus the anxiety generated by having troops fighting in Syria and Ukraine has scared away a lot of foreign investors and many Russian ones as well. Russia can downplay this in the state controlled media but without all that foreign and Russian capital the economy cannot grow. Meanwhile China, the only real threat to Russia, quietly makes progress in the east. There China has claims on much of the Russian Far East and is openly replacing Russia as the primary economic, military and political force in Central Asia.
Non-News And The Thought Police
Since the late 1990s the government has gradually returned the Cold War practices of declaring all bad news a state secret, especially if it involves the military or security services. But now there is the Internet and the government has not been able to suppress the rumors from spreading and, worse, being compiled, analyzed and revealing a pretty accurate picture of what is really going on. Corruption is again becoming a major problem in the military, just as it was before Vladimir Putin and his KGB whiz kids got elected with the promise to fix things. The fixes worked for a while but now they are failing. Again there are reports of bases having their heat and power cut off because someone stole the money to pay for that. Worse, more troops are reporting food shortages on bases and the old-timers remember that was common in the 1990s. Troops also report that many of the new weapons, especially ships, are accepted into service even though they have numerous deficiencies. Someone got paid off and the users are not happy that they may have to pay, with their lives, using defective ships and aircraft or weapons that malfunction with a bang. Reporting any of this openly gets you arrested for treason, thanks to new laws. The government knows all about these bad attitude problems, in part because in 2013 Russia brought back the old communist era ideological training for troops and increased use of informants and opinion surveys to monitor morale and loyalty in the military. In effect government has returned to using the communist era "Zampolit" (political officer.) In Soviet times, every unit commander had a deputy (Zampolit) who represented the communist party and could veto any of the commanders’ decisions. The Zampolit was responsible for troop loyalty and political correctness. Sort of a communist chaplain. In 2010 the Russian Army reintroduced chaplains, something that the communists did away with in the 1920s. The new chaplains are, however, expected to report on the loyalty of the troops, to church and state. Now additional officers are being added to handle ideological training and monitoring morale. Not exactly the return of the Zampolit, but a return of most of the Zampolits’ duties. Like their Cold War era counterparts the Zampolits proved better at reporting the bad news than dealing with it.
Big news in Russia recently were revelations that China had moved some of their ICBMs to the Russian border. The state controlled Russia media insisted there was nothing to worry about because these missiles were obviously meant to evade American ballistic missile defense systems and, besides, the minimum range for those DF-41 missiles is 3,000 kilometers, which means they could not be used against targets in the Russian Far East. More astute Russians observed that China could not win a nuclear exchange with the U.S. but could against Russia. And China would not want to nuke the Far East, they want to take control and fill the place with Chinese. Those DF-41s are well placed to blast Russian nukes and ICBMs far to the west. For many Russians China is seen as the only real threat to Russia and any Chinese move out there is nervously discussed in the Russian media (to calm people down) and privately (to discuss what is really happening on the Pacific coast).
China has ancient claims on much of the Russian Far East and is openly replacing Russia as the primary economic, military and political force in Central Asia. This is made worse by the post-Cold War decline of the Russian economy. In 1991 the U.S. and EU (European Union) had over half the world GDP. The Soviet Union had about ten percent and China two percent. The Soviet Union and its economy was falling apart (hence the dissolution of the Soviet Union) and had been for decades. By the end of the 1990s Russia (now with half the population of the Soviet Union) had three percent of world GDP, China seven percent, the EU 24 percent and the U.S. 21 percent. China began growing at ten percent a year in the 1980s and kept going. China was still ruled by communists but had made the bold decision to allow and sustain a free market economy. The compounded growth really adds up if you can sustain it over several decades, which China did. By 2015 China was 17 percent of world GDP, Russia three percent, the EU 17 percent and the U.S. 16 percent. Projections for 2020, even taking into account showed down Chinese growth, have China with 19 percent of world GDP, Russia three percent, the EU 15 percent and the U.S. 15 percent. One important factor in the Chinese GDP growth was the fact that China has more people than the EU, the U.S. and Russia combined.
Since 2012 China increased spending on infrastructure in border areas of the Russian Far East (areas near the Pacific Ocean) to make it easier for Chinese businessmen to operate. This supports the rapid growth of Chinese trade in the thinly populated Far East and stirs (or confirms) Russian fears that Chinese businesses will take over the economy out there. The Chinese have done this before, over the centuries, with other neighbors. Chinese today are well aware of that and know that once you control the economy it’s a lot easier to annex the area to China. Meanwhile Russia continues to have problems getting Russians to move to the Far East and stay there. Communist and czarist governments also had this problem and the inability to solve it makes it easier for the Chinese to take over.
Another aspects of this is China is backing Russia over the Ukraine matter. Makes sense, as China is also an empire trying to reclaim lost territories. That some of those territories are currently Russia’s Far East although these claims are not officially discussed in Russia or China. That is a problem for another day and currently Russia and China support each other’s imperial ambitions (as in Ukraine and the South China Sea) and help each other out to deal with any associated problems, especially the UN or economic sanctions.
With Aleppo back in hands of the Assads the war is going in two directions. The Assad government, backed by Iran, Russia and Turkey are concentrating on clearing remaining rebels out of the northwest. That means Hama, Latakia and Idlib provinces, the areas where the Assads always had the most support. Turkey is intent on getting any anti-Turk (pro-PKK) Syrian Kurds out of there as well. Idlib province, west of Aleppo and bordering Turkey, is the main target and is now receiving most of the Russian airstrikes. There are still lots of rebels (few of them ISIL) west of Aleppo. Meanwhile the Kurds, Iraq, the West and the Gulf Arab states want to eliminate the ISIL presence in Iraq and eastern Syria (namely Raqqa). Russia sees all this as an opportunity to get start negotiations on a long-term peace deal. In part this is motivated by the Russian realization that its alliance with Turkey and Iran is not normal for any of the nations involved and not likely to last. There have been signs.
Many Turks have demonstrated against and criticized Turkish cooperation with Iran, Russia and the Assad government of Syria. All three of these groups have long been seen as enemies of Turkey. In early January Turkey threatened to withdraw from the temporary alliance with Russia and Iran in Syria. Turkey was angry at Iran for tolerating repeated violations of the recent ceasefire deal by Iranian mercenaries (mainly Hezbollah) in Syria. The Turkish government justifies the alliance with Iran and Russia in Syria by referring to increased cooperation with Russia and Iran since the 1990s. But in Syria the Turks have to deal with the fact that Iran is run by a religious dictatorship and Turkey and Russia are not. Iran justifies breaking agreements by blaming it on the many religious fanatics in its government and military. Russia is willing to ignore that sort of thing, Turkey isn’t. At same time a growing number of Iranians openly demonstrate against the alliance with Russia. For decades Russia was depicted (by Iranian media, governments and personal experience) as a dangerous enemy of Iran. Russia and Iran also openly disagree over some key items. Russia openly supports Israel’s efforts to defend itself from Hezbollah or Iranian missile attacks. Russia is also willing to have the Americans join in the effort to craft a peace deal at the conference going on now in Kazakhstan. Iran insisted that the Americans not show and the new U.S. government was OK with that.
The unusual alliance of Iran, Turkey and Russia is seen by all three countries as historically unnatural and unsustainable. Iran has long been fighting the Russians and Turks over who had the most power, control and influence in the areas where they were neighbors. Each of the three still have fundamental differences with the other two and popular opinion in all three nations shows widespread distrust of these “unnatural” allies. But most Iranians also remember that many times in the past Iran has made such unstable alliances work, for a while at least.
Ukraine is recovering from the economic damage suffered because of the war with Russia and is coming to realize that the biggest problems Ukraine is facing are internal. Yet despite the continued widespread corruption in 2016 Ukrainian GDP grew 1.5 percent and is expected to be three percent in 2017. In contrast 2015 GDP declined 10 percent. But the corruption is still in play and most obvious when it comes to the growing defense budget. The U.S. is not happy with all the continued plundering of the Ukrainian defense budget and threatens to cut support unless the Ukrainian officials stop the stealing and cooperate with each other for the common good.
Recent opinion polls show that the majority of Ukrainians would now vote to join NATO and move closer to the less corrupt and more prosperous West. For the last decade Russia has threated to declare war if Ukraine joined NATO. Because of this by 2009 the U.S. lost its enthusiasm for letting Ukraine join NATO, thus leaving Ukraine on its own to deal with Russian aggression. That led to a popular uprising in 2014 that ousted a pro-Russian (and very corrupt) president of Ukraine and triggered an undeclared Russian war against Ukraine.
In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) the latest indefinite ceasefire, which began in late December ended after a few days as the number of unprovoked attacks by the Russian backed rebels keeps increasing. Despite that Russia says it is withdrawing forces from in and around Donbas. This is interesting because Russia is also withdrawing forces from Syria. Yet the permanent Russian increase of its bases near the Ukrainian border and near East Europe continues.
January 24, 2017: Russia sent six Tu-22M3 bombers, escorted by four Su-30SMs, from an airbase in the Caucasus to hit ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) targets in eastern Syria. Russia has been working its Tu-22M3M long-range bombers hard over Syria since mid-2016, flying several dozen sorties from Russian bases to hit targets in Syria. That’s a lot of work for the ten or so Tu-22M3Ms in service that have to fly all the way from southern Russia to Syria and back to deliver a few tons of bombs. While smart bombs were used in some of the 2016 missions the recent attacks involved unguided (dumb) bombs. But the Tu-22M3M proved to be effective during its first sustained combat experience since Afghanistan in the 1980s.
January 23, 2017: The pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government held peace talks with the Syrian rebels beginning today in the Central Asian city of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan). Nothing was achieved after two days but the major powers congratulated each other for getting this far. The U.S. was not invited when these talks were announced in December but Russia later asked that someone from the new (after January 20th) U.S. government attend. In the end the U.S. declined to send anyone. Most of the rebels were not invited either. Only the FSA rebel coalition was, because it does not support Islamic terrorism. Three rebel larger groups (Ahrar al Sham, Fatah al Sham Front and the Kurds) were not invited, nor was ISIL, the group everyone hates. At the end of 2016 discussions between Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government apparently agreed to some general terms for such a deal. It would consist of a ceasefire with groups now in control of parts of Syria recognized as the temporary ruler of those areas. If the ceasefire held, there would be new elections. The Assads would not participate, but only if they were granted immunity to prosecution so the Assads could go into comfortable exile. All this assumes that ISIL control of any territory in Syria is eliminated. This is an old proposal, but it always depended on ISIL not being part of the mix. That is now a possibility that still doesn’t have enough support within Syria to work. So far it looks like the Astana talks will produce nothing of value.
January 19, 2017: In Ukraine police seized several crates marked “aircraft parts” headed for Iran via air freight. On closer inspection the aircraft parts turned out to be components for older Russian ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles). Iran needs these parts to keep many of their older weapons operational. Iran is still subject to many restrictions on the importation of weapons. Ukraine used to be a good source of such forbidden spare parts but since Russia began trying to annex portions of Ukraine in 2014 (with some success) Ukraine has been more dependent on Western support. In return they are supposed to abide by the many arms export sanctions they used to ignore.
January 16, 2017: In the south (Chechnya) police carried out a series of raids against an ISIL network and arrested 60 ISIL members and key supporters. There was some armed opposition and four Islamic terrorists were killed.
January 14, 2017: In Yemen captured rebel commanders admit (some say boast) that Hezbollah and Iranian personnel run military training camps in the north (Saada province) where the Shia rebel tribes have their ancient homeland. Despite overwhelming evidence of Iranian weapons being supplied to the Shia rebels the Russian and Chinese support in the UN blocks any international action against Iran.
January 13, 2017: In Syria the government accused Israel of firing missiles from northern Israel at the Mezzah airbase outside Damascus. The explosions were heard in the city and a large fire broke out. Israel refused to comment but local reports indicate that the target was recently delivered (by air) long range, satellite guided Iranian missiles. Several days later Russia broadcast a statement approving of the Israeli action, pointing out that these missiles are an obvious threat to Israel and are meant for no one else.
January 11, 2017: The Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov and its escorts arrived off the coast of eastern Libya. The carrier sent a helicopter to nearby Tobruk and picked up Khalifa Hiftar and two other senior officers (all in uniform) and took them to the carrier. The visit to the Kuznetsov was captured on video and broadcast. The video showed the event treated as an official visit with sailors in dress uniforms lined up and a band playing the Libyan national anthem. Hiftar was given a tour of the ship and then held a video conference (not shown) with the Russian defense minister back in Moscow. Hiftar has been trying to get Russia to defy the UN arms embargo and provide pro-Hiftar forces with weapons. Apparently this “official visit” signaled that Russia was willing to deal and later reports from Libya indicated that Russia will now supply the Hiftar forces with over a billion dollars’ worth of weapons. Hiftar is the head of the armed forces for one of the two rival governments Hiftar is the most powerful man in eastern Libya. He has cultivated contacts in Russia, which believes Hiftar is someone who will still wield power when peace returns to Libya and will be able to help Russia to once more become the major arms supplier to Libya. Hiftar made two trips to Moscow in 2016. (June and November). Hiftar visits Egypt regularly and visited Russia in late June 2016. Hiftar has managed to keep Egypt, a few other Arab states and Russia providing support. Egypt allows banned goods (like weapons and ammo) cross the border unhindered. Russia is known to have printed new currency for HoR earlier in 2016 and has provided unspecified military support. Russia also provides HoR with some support inside the UN as one of the few countries that can veto proposed UN resolutions. Hiftar has recently visited Egypt and Jordan. Egypt is particularly important because it is again run by a former general and feels Libya needs the same kind of leader. But Egypt is under a lot of pressure from the UN to get behind the GNA, which Egypt sees as too cozy with Islamic conservative groups. Algeria feels the same way as do many Tunisians.
January 6, 2017: Russia announced it was reducing its military forces in Syria. By exactly how much is unclear. The Russian aircraft carrier task force off the coast departed for its home base in northern Russia. A dozen (or more) Russian warplanes are heading back to Russia. It is unclear how many (if any) Russian ground troops are leaving. The Russian air operations in Syria are expensive (in terms of spare parts and missiles and smart bombs). While it’s great for these new warplanes and their weapons to get some combat experience, Russia is still experiencing severe budget problems at home and still has to deal with their effort to seize eastern Ukraine.
Israel released spy satellite photos taken on December 28 that showed two Russian Iskander (also known as SS-26 and 9M723K1) ballistic missile launcher vehicles in Syria (at the base Russia shares with Syria). These are probably in Syria to be “tested in combat” by firing a non-nuclear warhead at a high profile target, like the ISIL capital of Raqqa. Iskander has a 500 kilometer range and is not a traditional ballistic missile. That is, it does not fire straight up, leave the atmosphere, then come back down, following a ballistic trajectory. Instead, Iskander stays in the atmosphere and follows a rather flat trajectory. It is capable of evasive maneuvers and deploying decoys. This makes it more difficult for anti-missile systems to take it down. Iskander began development near the end of the Cold War and the first successful launch took place in 1996. The 4.6 ton Iskander M has a solid fuel rocket motor and a range of up to 700 kilometers normally carries a 710 kg (1,500 pound) warhead. The missile can be stored for up to ten years. Russia developed several different types of warheads, mainly for, including cluster munitions, thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) and electro-magnetic pulse (anti-radar, and destructive to electronics in general.) There is also a nuclear warhead, which is not exported. Guidance is very accurate, using GPS, plus infrared homing for terminal guidance. The warhead will land within 10 meters (31 feet) of the aim point. Iskanders are carried in a 40 ton 8x8 truck, which also provides a launch platform. There is an optional reload truck that carries two missiles. Russia ended up only producing the Iskander-M for its own military. Entering service in 2005, Russia found there were no export customers for the innovative and expensive Iskander but free publicity from actual use in Syria might change that.
January 4, 2017: As expected 2016 was the first year where China launched more orbital missions (22) than Russia (17). The U.S. was tied with China for the first time with 22 launches. Since 2004 Russia has launched the most orbital missions but Russia has been having personnel and equipment problems keeping up. In 2015 Russia was first with 26 and in 2014 it was 32.
December 30, 2016: In Syria
The pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government agreed that peace talks with the Syrian rebels could be held in Central Asia (the capital of Kazakhstan).