September 3, 2019:
Turkey threatened to attack Russian and Syrian warplanes after the mid-August Syrian airstrike on a Turkish supply convoy in Idlib. The Syrians believed the weapons and supplies were intended for HTS rebels who were fighting Syria troops for control of the nearby town of Khan Shaikhun and the M5 highway that goes from Turkey to Jordan via Damascus. Russia is in a difficult position where it wants to keep Turkey as an ally but cannot afford to go along with the Turkish plan to tolerate Islamic terrorists in Idlib for months more or longer.
Russia quickly sought to repair its relations with the Turks as it is the Russians who are supporting the Syrian offensive in Idlib. Shutting down the Islamic terrorist rebels in Idlib is seen as essential for the safety of nearby Russian basis in Latakia province.
The Hmeimim airbase there 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. As long as the rebels are active in Idlib they will attack the Russian bases. The situation is quite different for the Turks who seek to negotiate the surrender of Idlib province to avoid more Syrian civilians fleeing into Turkey to avoid the fighting. Syria would prefer that the largely pro-rebel Sunni Arab civilians in Idlib leave the country. Syria also wants the Turks out of Syria. Russia is OK with the Turkish presence in Syria. So is Iran, mainly because the Turks are also in Syria to ensure that the Syrian Kurds do not support the PKK separatist Turkish Kurds. Iran also has rebellious separatist Kurds.
The Turks still support the main Islamic terror group in Idlib.
Technically all Islamic terrorists in Idlib belong to the HTS
(Hayat Tahrir al Sham), which al Qaeda supports but does not entirely trust. HTS is a coalition of coalitions and many of the factions never did trust each other. The major fear is that another faction, or even HTS leadership, has made a deal with Turkey which, so the story goes, wants to control HTS as a sort of Sunni Hezbollah and use it to drive Shia Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah out of Syria. Many HTS leaders do have a history of working with the Turkish government. The August attack on the Turk convoy indicates Russia and Syria believe the Turks are actually supporting some of the HTS factions in Idlib. The Turks do support “moderate” Sunni Islamic terror groups but refuse to outright admit it. This policy is unpopular with Israel and Western nations as well as Syria, Iran and Russia. Many Turks also oppose any pro-terrorist policy but the current Turkish government is controlled by an Islamic party that favors “cooperation” with some Islamic terror groups to protect Turks from the more rabid Sunni Islamic terrorists. Syria used to play this game and it did not work out well. It rarely does but for many shortsighted politicians, it is still an attractive option.
Turkey feels this is the best choice in a bad situation. There are over 20,000 heavily armed and desperate Islamic terrorists in Idlib and Turkey believes the Syrian offensive, supported by Russian airstrikes and some ground support, will result in more civilian deaths and a mass exodus of a million or more Idlib civilians, in addition to many Islamic terrorists pretending to be civilians, for the nearby Turkish border. While border defenses have been improved that border is not impregnable. Turkey also has to worry about more than three million Syrian refugees inside Turkey. Turkey wants to persuade or force all these refugees back across the border. The refugees are reluctant because, among other things, Syria believes in killing all the Idlib Islamic terrorists and any civilians that get in the way. Russia and Iran go along with that. This disagreement over strategy and tactics has been present ever since all those refugees and Islamic terrorists were trapped in Idlib and now that disagreement is coming to a potentially messy resolution.
Russian forces in Syria have been reinforced this year because Russians are once more fighting in Syria. Since May the major fighting has taken place in northwest Syria (Idlib province). The last large concentration of Islamic terrorist rebels is trapped there along with over a million pro-rebel civilians. The Turks have militarized their zone to eliminate Islamic terrorist activity and prevent refugees from getting to and across the Turkish border. Most of the Idlib borders (east, south and some of the west) are controlled by Syrian forces (army and militias). The Syrian Assad government wants to regain control over Idlib but lacks the military power to do it, at least not quickly. Syrian troops are largely demoralized by eight years of fighting. Until 2018 Iranian mercenaries provided the offensive ground forces for the Syrian army. Since early 2018 most of those Iranian funded mercenary units have been disbanded because of cash shortages, or reassigned to operations against Israel. That means remaining Iranian forces are largely in the south, around Damascus and the southeastern borders (Jordan and Iraq). The Syrian Kurds are still handling ISIL remnants in eastern Syria. That means the Syrian army can concentrate its best forces regain control of Idlib. That requires a lot of help from Russian troops. The fighting is going slowly because the Syrian commanders accept that they have to keep Syrian casualties low to maintain morale and prevent massive desertions, as have occurred in the past.
The Russians have provided about a thousand ground troops (special operations, ground controllers and military contractors) to help with calling in airstrikes and putting in teams of Russian troops to handle difficult and dangerous (especially for the Syrian troops) situations. This is similar to what a few hundred American Special Forces troops and CIA field agents did in Afghanistan in late 2001. Back then a small number of Americans provided specialized services to the Afghan anti-Taliban forces and that made an enormous difference.
The fighting in Idlib is leaving about a thousand dead a month. Most of these are civilians or armed rebels. The Russian and Syrian aircraft attack the enemy wherever they believe they are. That includes residential neighborhoods, mosques and hospitals. Current airstrikes and ground operations are as intense as ever. Turkey is angry about that and the possibility of a massive surge of Idlib refugees into Turkey. So far about 400,000 civilians have been driven from their homes and more of them are trying to move towards the Turkish border. The Turks have been unable to persuade anyone to help with halting the Idlib violence and potential refugee crisis. Despite that, the Turks keep trying and the latest gambit is a threat to attack Kurdish controlled northeast Syria (Hasaka province) if something is not done about the Idlib mess. The problem is there no solution to the Idlib problem that will satisfy everyone. For Russia and Syria the priority is shutting down the Islamic terrorist threat there, something Turkey is less concerned about because the current Turkish government is more “Islamic terrorist friendly” than anyone else in the region.
Leaderless Protests Persist
In Moscow, the weekly protests against government corruption and manipulation of elections continue. This has been going on since June and shows no sign of fading away. The government is unsure if more violent suppression of the protests will work, or increase the number of angry Russians joining the public demonstrations. So far the protests have continued to attract about 50,000 people each week. There have been smaller protests in other cities, encouraged by what is happening in the capital.
People are angry over the federal government’s blatant efforts to rig the September Moscow city council election. The 45-member council has long been dominated by pro-Putin members but this time the polls show most voter support is going to opposition politicians. The current government, run by Vladimir Putin and his KGB cronies, is visibly losing popular support and the Moscow unrest is the latest manifestation of this. Despite the restoration of many police state aspects of the old Soviet Union, and a constant diet of “we are at war with NATO” propaganda, a growing number of Russians are visibly blaming Putin and his policies for decreasing living standards, increasing unemployment and more bad things on the way. Worse are the Russians who are defying new laws against public demonstrations. The government thought it could identify and arrest protest leaders and that would halt the protests. That did not work, even though in July police arrested about 30 percent of the demonstrators as well as hunting down and arresting the anti-Putin politicians the government believed were encouraging the protestors. Police also raided a TV network that was live broadcasting the protests. News of the protests gets out eventually but TV coverage makes it happen faster and more vividly. Police also shut down at least one Russian YouTube user uploading live coverage of the protests. The government has taken over most electronic media in the last decade and makes it difficult for any remaining independents to operate. Police also arrested five protests leaders. That was a futile gesture because the demonstrations are largely self-organized. The Russian government finds itself facing the same sort of public opposition that the Chinese are facing in Hong Kong.
New In Ukraine
Russia was initially pleased when a political newcomer, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected president of Ukraine by a large margin. Zelensky was indeed a newcomer but proved a lot more capable than the Russians expected and in a short time proved to be more of a threat than the guy he replaced. Since taking power at the end of May, Zelensky has quickly replaced the notoriously corrupt or incompetent government and military officials. He also created the new Veterans Ministry, a service long-sought because there are more than a million military veterans in Ukraine and many of them need help. In particular, there are the elderly World War II vets and few remaining members of Ukrainian independence groups who fought on into the 1950s. Now there are a growing number of veterans of the fighting in Donbas. Previous presidents had not acted on the veterans issues because that would have displeased Russia. Zelensky also appointed capable people to help him find qualified candidates to replace all the officials who were being fired. Zelensky feels that if the Russians are not angry with him he is not doing his job.
The new president is 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 played a comedian who got 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 (including the then current president Poroshenko) 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 declared he was willing to negotiate an end to the Donbas war and was 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 (including the Russians) was willing to pay. He took 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 do it.
September 2, 2019: A senior government official openly complained about the corruption and incompetence that is crippling the Russian Space program. Special notice was taken about the cost overruns and delays in building the new Vostochny space center. Back in 2012, Russia decided to scale back the use of the Balkinor space center in Central Asia. Russia had already moved all military launches to the smaller space center at Plesetsk. Russia could turn Baikonur into a big cash cow via commercial launches but the Kazakh landlords were told that this could change, even if it costs Russia lost commercial launch business. Since then Russia's largest satellite launch site has remained at Balkinor in Kazakhstan. The main reason was the inability to complete the new one at Vostochny plus the unexpected appearance of more efficient, and much cheaper, American SpaceX launcher technology. Russia no longer has as many commercial launch customers as it had before SpaceX.
Founded in 1955, by the Soviet Union, Baikonur was long the main satellite launch facility for the Russians. But after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Baiknor found itself in the newly minted Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan. There, it has become more expensive and difficult for the Russians to use. Russia has leased the Baikonur complex from Kazakhstan since 1991, but this has led to periodic disputes over lease terms and the danger to locals from launch accidents. These disputes have been settled, for the moment. The Russians value the Baikonur launch site, as it is very efficient for some types of launchers, like geostationary, lunar, planetary, and ocean surveillance missions, as well as all manned missions. But having your main launch site in a foreign country was seen as untenable. So the Russians have been building a replacement site to the east, in Russian territory. The new launch center in Amur, Vostochny was supposed to be operational by 2015, and all manned space programs will be moved to there by 2020. At that point, the Russians will be able to abandon Baikonur, even though they have a lease that lasts until 2050. Corruption and incompetence delayed completion of Vostochny and it is only partially operational. A larger investigation found the Space Agency had over $11 billion to theft, corruption and incompetence.
The problem with Vostochny was that once it was fully operational it would be up to the Kazakhs to offer attractive terms to keep the Russians at Baikonur. If the Russians left, they would take or destroy all their gear with them. No point in leaving anything to help a competitor launch satellites. For now, Russia still needs Balkinor and is suffering major loses trying to complete Vostochny.
September 1, 2019: So far this year, Ukraine has lost 72 soldiers to the continuing low-level violence and ceasefire violations in Donbas. Since 2014, when the Donbas fighting began, Ukraine has lost 3,009 soldiers there. Russia started the violence in 2014 believing it would be over quickly but that did not happen and Russia cannot figure out an acceptable way t0 get out of the mess it created.
August 31, 2019: In northwest Syria, a Russian sponsored unilateral ceasefire in Idlib province began at 6 AM. Russian sponsored ceasefires and truces have a poor track record because few of them actually take place on the appointed date. This one did, with no Russian or Syrian airstrikes. Later in the day, there was an American airstrike against an al Qaeda headquarters in Idlib. Russia complained that they were not notified in advance, as per an agreement with the Americans and that this attack could be seen as a violation of the ceasefire. The Americans were not part of this ceasefire and the airstrike was kept secret because the targets were some al Qaeda leaders who were planning attacks against American targets. These airstrikes killed at least 40 people, including several terror group leaders. It was unclear if the dead included any or all of the people the Americans were after. Over the next few days there were several artillery strikes in Idlib but no other airstrikes. A similar truce a month ago collapsed after three days.
August 30, 2019: After more than a decade of discussions and negotiations Russia and China signed a deal to cooperate on designing and building (in China) a successor to the Russian Mi-26 heavy-lift helicopter. In 2010 Chinese and Russian helicopter manufacturers established a joint venture to perform maintenance and refurbishment on helicopters, especially those of Russian design. This was part of a larger plan, which also included the factory in China building Mi-171s. This came in the wake of a 2008 China deal that allowed China to legally manufacture the Mi-171 at the Sichuan Lantian Helicopter Company Limited (SLHCL). There was also a proposal for China and Russia to jointly develop a large transport helicopter, based on the existing Mi-26T (a 20 ton aircraft that can carry 80 passengers). The Mi-26T model was modified to suit Chinese needs and the Chinese military and commercial firms continue to buy it from Russia. There may be other joint development deals to produce updated versions of existing Russian helicopter designs. This sort of thing could be mutually beneficial. China now has a domestic source for inexpensive transport helicopters which its civilian and military users are demanding many of. China has had problems designing helicopters and building key components (engines and transmissions). This is similar to the problems China has with building large commercial jet engines and high-performance military jet engines. Obtaining this tech is easier if China does it legally, which they are doing in this case. China has stolen a lot of Russian military tech in the past and now finds Russia more willing to sell the tech along with the manufacturing methods at a price the Chinese are willing to pay.
The export version of the Su-57 stealth fighter was presented at a Russian air show. China, India and Turkey expressed interest. To encourage potential buyers it was announced that two Su-57s were being sent to Syria where the usefulness of the Su-57 as a fighter-bomber could be tested. Su-57s were in Syria during 2018 but just to see how they would operate in a combat zone.
August 29, 2019: In northern Syria, Russia provided more ground forces (special operations, artillery, advisors) and air support to the Syrian effort to advance into Idlib province. This has succeeded and in the last week, Islamic terrorist rebels have been forced out of several towns and villages. The increased bombing of civilian targets is part of a strategy to demoralize the defenders. A week earlier Syria announced that they had finally cleared all rebels out of Hama province, which is south of Idlib.
August 28, 2019: Russia and Ukraine agreed to carry out a major exchange of prisoners. This included the 24 Ukrainian sailors seized in late 2018. Despite this revelation, no date has been set for the actual exchange. This seems to indicate the haggling over who gets included in the deal is still underway. The haggling continued into September.
August 27, 2019: In Russia, the Turkish leader met with his Russian counterpart. At one point the Turkish leader was shown the Russian Su-57 stealth fighter, which the Turks have expressed interest in after the Americans expelled Turkey from the F-35 program. The United States would not allow Turkey to buy the F-35 if the Turks were using the Russian S-400 air defense system.
August 26, 2019: The European Space Agency’s (ESA) informed Russia that they would no longer be using Russian Soyuz rockets to send ESA personnel to the International Space Station (ISS). Two American systems (Dragon 2 and Starliner) are completing test flights and will be available in 2020. The last ESA use of Soyuz for ISS staff transport was in July.
August 25, 2019: Russia has replaced China as the largest customer for Venezuelan oil. Earlier this month China stopped importing Venezuelan oil because of the American sanctions. For most of 2019, China was importing 350,000 BPD (barrels per day). Now Russia is buying about 70 percent of Venezuelan oil exports. This violates the sanctions but Russia is already under a lot of sanctions and feels it can get away with ignoring the U.S. sanctions on Venezuela. Russia gets the Venezuelan oil at a discount because it is one of the few nations willing to handle the stuff. Russian then arranges resale to China, India and other buyers who are willing to handle Venezuelan crude as long as they don’t have to do it directly and violate the sanctions. This arrangement won’t last much longer because much of the Venezuelan oil goes to reduce Venezuelan debts to Russia (currently several billion dollars are still outstanding)
August 24, 2019: In Lebanon, Israeli warplanes, including F-35s, hit several Hezbollah targets. There was to be a second wave of attacks but the Israelis noted that after the first attacks the Russians put several of their Su-35 fighters into the air off the Lebanese coast as if to confront any second wave of Israeli airstrikes. Those missions were canceled until the situation with Russian could be sorted out. The Su-35 is no match for the F-35 but it is the best Russian fighter in service. The Su-35s would be a threat to F-35s but in this case, a Su-35/F-35 confrontation could damage the cozy relationship Israel has with Russia, especially when it comes to Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Lebanon and Syria.
August 19, 2019: In Syria, a Turkish military convoy traveled from Turkey to southern Idlib province. Russia warned the Turks not to enter Idlib when the Turks ignored the warning the convoy was halted when the lead vehicle was destroyed by a Syrian airstrike. The convoy remains halted as Russia, Turkey and Syria try to sort out their differences.
August 15, 2019: Russia and Venezuela signed an agreement that enabled warships from each country to easily visit each other’s ports. This favors Russia, which can now use Cuban and Venezuelan ports for its naval operations in the Western Hemisphere.
Russia also making some extra cash via illicit dealings with North Korea. Russia largely ignores the sanctions against North Korea and tolerates all manner of schemes to evade the sanctions. One obvious measure is to issue student visas to North Korean workers who then attend “on the job” training at worksites throughout the Russian Far East. This is another source of foreign currency for North Korea because most of the pay these North Korean “students” receive goes to the North Korean government.
August 14, 2019: In northwest Syria (Hama province), another Israeli airstrike took place outside the city of Masyaf. It is unclear which of the many Syrian military targets in this area were hit. Syria complained that its new Russian S-300 air defense system cannot detect Israeli F-35 fighters.
August 12, 2019: In the northwest, Syria Idlib based Islamic terrorists tried, three times in the last week, to use explosives equipped UAVs to attack t
he Russian controlled Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) airbase in neighboring
Latakia province. These were the first attacks since early July. Earlier attacks this year used unguided rockets but the most the recent attacks employed UAVs again and failed.
August 8, 2019: Off the northern coast there was an explosion aboard a ship the resulted in the release of a lot of radioactivity. The cause was a new, experimental Skyfall cruise missile that had a nuclear-powered engine. The explosion occurred as Russian was trying to recover and make safe one of these Skyfall missiles that had gone down in coastal waters during an earlier flight test. Russia had conducted five test flights of Skyfall since 2017 and all failed, with the missile plunging into the shallow waters off the northern coast of Russia. Today the missile exploded after it had been found and taken out of the water and onto a salvage ship where technical personnel were seeking to safely remove and store the nuclear power supply. This type of nuclear power is often used in space satellites and, while dangerous, the radiation released is not long-lasting or plentiful. But the spike in radioactivity was noted next door in Norway and Russia was once more accused of trying to cover up the details of the accident, as they had so infamously done in 1986. The cruise missile explosion killed five and wounded at least six, but it later it was revealed that dozens of people nearby were treated for low-level radiation exposure. Some civilians were evacuated and it may take a while for all the details to emerge because the nuclear propulsion tech in the missile is top secret even though the basic tech is decades old. The Russians were the heaviest users of this tech, often using it to power remote, unmanned communications facilities in areas like Siberia, the Far East and Central Asia. After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the location of many of these remote nuclear-powered facilities was lost (or simply forgotten). Some were later stumbled upon by locals who were unaware of the danger and came down with radioactivity sickness which caused a local panic and investigations that revealed the existence of the “lost” nuclear power sources. Some of these were in new nations that were created when the Soviet Union came apart so it was an embarrassing international incident for the Russians. Earlier
August 6, 2019: Russian media are describing successful Israeli efforts to defeat the S-300 air defense system. The Russians are less certain about the S-400, which the Russians tend to turn off when warned by Israel of an impending airstrike.
August 5, 2019: In Siberia, explosions took place in an ammo storage and disposal facility. The initial explosion killed one worker and wounded several others. The cause was human error while removing elderly, and unstable, artillery ammunition for disposal. Several days later a lightning strike caused another fire and explosion at the damaged depot. The first explosion had damaged the lightning protection system. Lightning strikes are common during the warm weather and a common cause of forest fires in this heavily forested region. While the cleanup was going on lightning struck a few days later causing a second fire and more explosions.
August 4, 2019: In in central Syria (Homs province), there were several large explosions at an ammo storage area in the Shayrat Airbase. Syria said it was an accident, which left 31 soldiers and Shia militiamen dead because they were removing older and defective shells for disposal. Shayrat Airbase is also used to store Iranian missiles and other weapons headed for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The U.S. attacked the base in 2017 because it was believed to be where chemical weapons were stored. The UN threatens more sanctions against the Russians and Assads if the civilian casualties continue to rise. At the same time, Syria and Russia do not want a permanent Islamic terrorist sanctuary in Idlib and at the moment the only way to eliminate the Idlib problem is unrestricted airstrikes against the rebels. At the moment it’s a stalemate.