Russia is supporting the Syrian government offensive in northwestern Syria against the last bit of rebel-controlled territory (Idlib province). Russian warplanes are flying a lot more bombing missions and, for the first time since 2018, Syria is again concentrating its airstrikes on pro-rebel civilians using barrel bombs (an empty oil barrel filled with explosives and whatever else was available). These barrel bombs are pushed out of helicopters or transports and are equipped with a contact fuze so they explode on impact. These attacks are mainly to force civilians to flee their homes and, eventually Syria. Turkey is opposed to that since they are the nearest foreign country and have upgraded their border security to keep Syrian refugees out. Turkey would prefer to negotiate a surrender with the Idlib Islamic terrorists, who are largely al Qaeda affiliated and not ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Turkey is not trusted to do that because the current Islamic government in Turkey has a history of providing sanctuary for some Islamic terror groups. In return, the hosted Islamic terrorists direct some of their attacks (all outside Turkey) at nations Turkey is not on good terms with. Everyone in the region does not want Turkey hosting more Islamic terrorists.
Russia is becoming the most reliable ally of the Syrian government. Turkey is seen as a foreign invader by the Syrians while Iran is appreciated for all its help in defeating the rebels but resented for trying to turn Syria into an extension of Iran rather than treating Syria as a sovereign nation and ally. Syria cannot ignore Iran because the Iranians still have a large force of mercenaries in the country and these are useful in dealing with the remaining Islamic terrorists. Syrian army troops are not as enthusiastic about fighting as are the Iranian mercenaries (most of whom are not Iranian but Shia from other nations. Iran has been spending a lot less on Syrian operations because Iran has less cash to operate with. Even at that, the cash and material Iran is still sending are essential for the Syrians. The IRGC
(Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps)
budget for foreign operations (especially Syria and Lebanon) has been cut, apparently in a big way. The Iranian mercenary force in Syria is undergoing a reorganization and downsizing. The IRGC explains this away by describing it as a “redeployment for the attack on Israel.” The reality is that there is a lot less cash to pursue that goal and the IRGC is actually trying to avoid more Israeli airstrikes, if only because this implies that Israel continues to win this war with Iran. In Lebanon the well-established (since the 1980s when founded by the IRGC) Hezbollah has done the unthinkable and is asking the public for donations because Iranian subsidies have been cut in Lebanon as well. The Iran government is spending more money to relieve the economic problems most Iranian face back in Iran. Beyond that, the American revival of economic sanctions has left the Iranian government with less cash, a lot less. Iran has a major problem in that no one wants them in Syria much less acting as an occupying military force dedicated to starting a war with Israel.
Syria still has a major problem with the Syrian Kurds wanting autonomy. That is opposed by Iran and Turkey but not so much by Syria or Russia (or Israel for that matter). Russia would prefer that the Turks and Iranians got out of Syria and that the Assads and Kurds worked out a compromise, which the two seem willing to do. Iran is a major impediment to such a deal. The Americans, Israelis and most other Middle Eastern nations agree with this approach and are pressuring Iran to get smart and get out.
May 2, 2019: Since March Russia has been using a new EW (Electronic Warfare) system in eastern Ukraine (Donbas). The Tirada-2 is a truck mounted system that can jam satellite signals, including the satellite links used by American UAVs. The existence of Tirada-2 has been known since 2013 but this is the first time it has been used in a combat zone.
The U.S. continues to provide American troops to help train Ukrainian forces. The JMTG-U (Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine) brings in about 150 American troops for nine months at a time to assist at a Ukrainian training facility that trains about five infantry battalions a year. The latest contingent to arrive is from the 101st Airborne Division, a unit with a lot of combat veterans. The American troops demonstrate U.S. tactics, many of them recently developed or modified based on combat experience.
May 1, 2019: In Venezuela, Russia is becoming a problem. The United States reminded Russia that foreign military intervention in the Western Hemisphere is not allowed and that the U.S. is continuing its two centuries of supporting that, with military force if necessary. This warning came after the Americans discovered that Russian special operations troops and security advisors in Venezuela had persuaded embattled dictator Maduro to stay in Venezuela rather than flee to Cuba. American officials told their Russian counterparts that the U.S. would use force to remove the Russian interference from Venezuela. Russia remains defiant. In contrast, China is also supporting Maduro, but in economic, not military terms. China is willing to do business with the opposition, which is considered (by over fifty nations, including most of those in the Americas) as the legitimate ruler of Venezuela. China has no military forces in Venezuela but is working to revive the local oil industry, which Maduro has wrecked through corruption and mismanagement.
Back in Russia police arrested more than a hundred anti-Putin protestors in Moscow and St Petersburg.
April 30, 2019: In eastern Ukraine, the government forces continue to rehabilitate areas near the ceasefire line, and sometimes take back lightly defended terrain from the rebels. In the last year, this JFO (Joint Forces Operation) has liberated 24 square kilometers of rebel-held territory, including three villages. JFO also cleared nearly 4,600 hectares (11,500 acres) of leftover explosives, destroying some 53,000 of these munitions in place. Over 20 percent of this cleared area was declared available for farming or other commercial use. JFO also seizes lots of weapons including 374 rifles, pistols and RPGs, 300,000 rounds of ammo and 252 kg (554 pounds) of explosives. Some of this stuff was being moved by smugglers but most of it was stashed or just abandoned.
April 28, 2019: In coastal Syria (Latakia province), the Russian controlled Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) airbase came under attack by Islamic terrorist UAVs (carrying explosives) twice in the last two days. The attacks failed, as did the last such attacks back in January. These attacks have been going on since 2017 and despite about 24 attempts, have had little impact. The first such attacks did some damage but after that Russia developed the ability to detect and defeat these efforts. These attacks are the work of Islamic terror groups in Idlib, which take credit for them. The Hmeimim airbase was built by Russia in 2015 near the port city of Latakia, which is 85 kilometers north of Tartus and 50 kilometers from the Turkish border. Part of the Tartus port has become a long-term foreign base for Russia, along with Hmeimim.
April 26, 2019: In Siberia, large portions of the KrasMash manufacturing complex exploded and burned. It was feared this might delay production of liquid-fueled ballistic missiles and satellite launchers. The most notable missile built at KrasMash is the RS-28 (SS-x-30 or Satan 2) heavy ICBM which has passed recent test firings and is on schedule to enter service in 2021. It was later revealed that the explosion and fires were at the portion of the complex that manufactures consumer goods (refrigerators). The missile production areas were unaffected.
April 25, 2019: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with the Russian leader in the Russian Pacific coast city of Vladivostok. They talked longer than planned but nothing was accomplished.
The Czech Republic, Germany and Poland have refused to accept Russian oil (delivered via pipeline) because it now has excessive levels of chlorine contamination. The chlorine damages refineries and Russia is insisting the high chlorine levels are not a problem. Yet the sales contract prohibits shipment of contaminated oil and most other Russian customers are expected to refuse the defective oil, which accounts for about 13 percent of Russian production. This will interrupt Russian sales for a while but there are enough other suppliers (especially the U.S. and Canada) to replace the unsuitable Russian oil. Within a week Russia found and fixed the contamination problem.
April 24, 2019: The government made it easier for residents of rebel-controlled Donbas to receive Russian passports and in effect become dual citizens. This is a step Russia takes when it is about to annex part of a neighboring country (as it earlier did with Crimea and portions of Georgia). Three days late Russia announced that all Ukrainians would be eligible to receive Russian passports. The newly elected Ukrainian president remarked that a Russian passport provides, “the right to be arrested for a peaceful protest” and “the right not to have free and competitive elections”. The new Ukrainian president is, among other accomplishments, a professional comedian and demonstrated that when he offered asylum and Ukrainian citizenship to all Russians who want to join the fight for freedom from Russian oppression. Since the Russia leader, Vladimir Putin, is noted for his aversion to personal criticism and humor in general, relations with the new Ukrainian leader will be, at the very least, interesting.
April 23, 2019: In northwest Syria (Idlib province), Russian and Syrian forces carried out over a dozen airstrikes, plus artillery fire on suspected Islamic terrorist targets throughout the province. This caused hundreds of casualties, many of them civilians. One reason for these attacks is to remind the thousands of Islamic terrorists trapped in Idlib that they will survive only if they refrain from large scale violence. Negotiations between the Islamic terror groups, Turkey and Syria are still a stalemate. This can go on for a long time, but not forever. All those Islamic terror groups are volatile and prone to getting real violence real fast with little advance notice.
April 22, 2019: In Ukraine, a political newcomer, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected president with 73 percent of the vote. Zelensky, the son of two Ukrainian engineers, is an ethnic Russian (from east Ukraine) and Jewish. Born in 1978 he got a law degree but rather than becoming a lawyer he got into the entertainment business as a writer, director, producer and performer. His most recent (early 2018) production was a popular TV comedy in which he plays a comedian who gets elected as an anti-corruption president of Ukraine. Noticing how popular his TV show was and how many Ukrainians saw it as an alternative to the endlessly corrupt leaders who keep getting elected, he decided to run for president. He was overwhelmingly popular and made no specific promises other than to bring in honest and competent people to run the government. Zelensky is willing to negotiate an end to the Donbas war and is pro-West and wary of Russia. He ignored the mass media during his short (he declared he was running on January 1, 2019) campaign, considering the mass media corrupt and basically serving as compliant PR for whoever was willing to pay. He takes power on May 28th. Zelensky understands that presidential power is limited and that parliament must cooperate to get a lot of important things done. There are parliamentary elections in October, which provides an opportunity to back authentic pro-reform candidates. Zelensky appears to understand that he could be part of the solution to a lot of problems but by himself cannot be the solution.
Meanwhile, his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, is increasingly criticized and mocked inside Russia. Despite a new law meant to outlaw public criticism (“fake news”) of Putin or his associates, Russians have found ways to violate the new law and get away with it. Putin is rapidly losing the popularity he long enjoyed because of continued corruption and the economic crisis caused by low oil prices and sanctions imposed for the 2014 invasion of Ukraine.
April 21, 2019: Russia announced an easing of restrictions on access to the Sea Of Azov for Ukrainian military and commercial ships traveling via the Kerch straight. The big problem with the Kerch Straight access is that the new Russian bridge and access restrictions have caused the shipping channel to silt up and many larger ships can no longer get into the Sea of Azov and key Ukrainian ports there. This has hurt the economy of eastern Ukraine because the main port of Mariupol can only operate at about a third of its usual capacity. In recognition of that a month ago most Western nations sanctioned over a hundred Russian officials and fifteen organizations for their role in implementing and sustaining the Kerch Strait bridge and the subsequent blocking of some traffic through the Kerch Strait. What Russia is doing violates international law, which Russia insists does not apply in this situation. The new access rules do nothing to eliminate these violations.
April 19, 2019: Venezuela is evading American sanctions by passing off its oil exports as Russian and allowing a Russian oil company to collect payments for the Venezuelan oil. That income is used to purchase items in Russia that Venezuela needs.
April 17, 2019: Commercial satellite photos have revealed that Russia has brought several Iskander launcher vehicles to Syria and stationed them at a Russian controlled airbase near the coast. The Iskander is a 3.8 ton, single stage, short range (500 kilometers) ballistic missile that normally uses conventional warheads. Iskander is extremely accurate (landing within five meters of the aiming point). Iskander is transported and launched from an 8x8 40 ton truck that carries two of the missiles. Iskander was first used against Georgia during the brief 2008 war (to annex two portions of Georgia). Iskander has been exported to Algeria and Armenia. Exports are modified to their range is 400 kilometers. The Russian military has 136 launcher vehicles in service. Iskander is probably going to be used against the least Islamic terrorist held area in nearby Idlib province.
April 16, 2019: In Syria (Aleppo), eleven people were killed when Russian troops clashed with an Iran backed local militia. Three of the dead were civilians while the rest were militia (nationality not mentioned). Russia has sent military police battalions, composed of Russian Moslems, to Syria to deal with troublesome pro-government militias. The most bothersome militias tend to be the ones created by Iran using foreign mercenaries and the Russian military police have orders to arrest or open fire on any of these militias that misbehave. Syria cannot do this without offending Iran while the Russians can and everyone understands that the Russians are performing a needed service.
April 15, 2019: Russian media revealed that Pakistan is negotiating to make some major (about $9 billion worth) defense purchases from Russia. Currently, China is the largest supplier of military equipment to Pakistan but the Russians are offering better prices for competitive gear including some items where China is not the best source (like military helicopters). Russia has been increasingly willing to make such deals with Pakistan, despite still being a major supplier of weapons to India. That market is slipping away as India increasingly turns to Western suppliers. Pakistan cannot afford the Western stuff and is often facing trouble making purchases because of accusations that Pakistan supports Islamic terrorists. Russia is less concerned about such matters and is willing to be very flexible in order to make a sale.
April 13, 2019: In western Syria (Hama province), Israel launched another airstrike, from Lebanese airspace, on Iranian guided missile facilities. This site is rumored to be where Iran is carrying out nuclear weapons research. Foreign technical experts have been seen at the site, including some North Koreans and “Russian speakers.” Several people were killed, including two Iranians, and possibly other foreigners. Numerous structures were destroyed. Israel apparently coordinated this attack with Russia, as has become the standard procedures between the two nations. This attack apparently used the new Rampage air-to-ground missile, which arrives at the target at very high speed (similar to ballistic missile) and is very difficult to intercept. Syria had an S-300 air defense battery in the area. The S-300 could, in theory, intercept a Rampage missile but apparently, the Syrian S-300 batteries, although manned by Syrian troops, cannot be used without Russian permission. The Israelis are said to provide Russia with 15 minutes advance warning of attacks so the Russians can ensure there troops are out of the target area and S-300 systems are not used. Although Russia has tested S-300 and S-400 systems against ballistic missiles they do not want to be tested against Israeli high-speed missiles. S-300 would likely do poorly and that would be bad for export sales.
April 12, 2019: In central Russia (Tyumen), a police raid caught two ISIL members, who refused to surrender and were shot to death. In their hideout police found two assembled bombs and bomb-making equipment to build more. Other evidence indicated the two were planning several attacks in the area.
April 9, 2019: In the northwest Syria (Idlib province), Russian airstrikes supported Syrian troops engaged in a large operation to find out where a group of ISIL members were hiding. This was in response to a night attack by ISIL yesterday that left six soldiers, and the three suicide bombers (also armed with guns) dead. In the last few days, there have been several ISIL attacks in the northeast (Kurdish controlled) and the northwest (in and around Idlib province). The Kurdish led SDF captured the last ISIL controlled territory on March 23rd but interrogations of the many ISIL fighters along with wives and widows taken earlier, it was known that ISIL had long been trying to set up smaller, clandestine, operations elsewhere in Syria. Those secretive groups were apparently responsible for the recent attacks and both Syrian and SDF forces are out searching for ISIL hideouts. Russians air and missile strikes are supporting the Syrian army while the U.S. led air coalition is supplying air support for the SDF. Most of the remaining Syrian ISIL appears to be in eastern Syria. That is where many actual or potential supporters (Sunni Arabs) live and where a lot of territory has never been heavily policed and there are a lot of places to hide.