Russia: Blinking, Bombing, Blockading And Burma


May 6, 2021: Russians are dismayed at the performance of their economy compared to the East European countries that also lost their communist government (and Russian occupation forces) after 1990. Those nations quickly established economic, diplomatic and military links with Western Europe and the rest of the developed nations. Russia tried to do the same but was hampered by more corruption and less experience with free market economies. In 1991 Russia had been without a free market economy for 70 years. There were was no tradition of free market economics. East European countries (as well as China) were different. They had not lost their free market economies until the late 1940s, meaning it was only 45 years since communism replaced free markets. These nations also had a lot of expatriates in the West who had prospered in the free market and still had ties with family back in the communist homeland. A lot of those expatriate kin were welcomed back even if they talked the local language with an odd accent. This made a big difference but Russian politicians chose to ignore this and blame the poor Russian economic performance on outsiders, namely the West. In 2014 the blame game turned violent when Russian invaded Ukraine, partly because Ukrainians wanted to emulate the East European nations. The invasion triggered economic sanctions from the West. Then there was a technical revolution in extracting oil (fracking) that turned the U.S. and Canada into major oil producers and exporters. This cut the world prince of Russia’s main export, oil and natural gas, by more than half. Over the next five years the major East European nations (Poland, Romania and Hungary) grew about 4 percent a year while Russian GDP grew by less than one percent a year. By 2019 most East European nations, including Turkey had higher per-capital income than Russians. This loss was widely felt, and experienced in Russia.

One thing most Russians have vivid memories of is that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was not a sudden event. The emerging economic collapse was felt personally by most Russians who lived through the 1980s. In the 1990s the details of how this collapse happened became public knowledge. This revealed many surprising facts for everyone, inside and outside the Soviet Union. During the 1947-1991 Cold War figuring out how much the Soviet Union (communist Russian empire) was actually spending on defense was difficult for Russians as well as foreigners. Until near the end of the Soviet Union, the Russians never published an accurate defense budget. For most of the Cold War the official budget, the one available to most Russians and all foreigners, showed a number that was less than 25 percent of what the U.S. spent.

In the last few years of the Cold War a reform minded Russian leader published more accurate defense spending data. This showed annual defense spending that was about 70 percent of what the Americans spent. It was worse than that, something most Russians were unaware of. Russia was actually spending about 20 percent of GDP on the military, a percentage more than three times what the U.S. spent. The government went public with the actual defense spending to explain why the Soviet Union had such a low standard-of-living than the West. As long as the defense spending remained so high, poverty would increase each year. By the 1980s this was visible with growing food shortages and less spending on infrastructure, housing and things that mattered most to the majority of Russians. The Soviet Union was not defeated militarily but economically. The Soviet Union literally fell apart in 1991, with half the population forming themselves into 14 new nations. At the end, Soviet leaders didn’t fight this because it couldn’t rely on the security forces. Most of them were conscripts who knew how bad life was. Even many career officers, especially the younger ones, were not willing to fight to preserve the Soviet Union.

Russians are not enthusiastic about this renewed Cold War, especially since they appear to be losing it the same way they lost the first one. The current Russian leader, former Cold War KGB officer Vladimir Putin, has spent two decades ruling Russia by subverting the constitution that limits national leaders to two terms. Making yourself president-for-life didn’t work during the Cold War and isn’t working now.

May 5, 2021: In northwest Syria (Latakia and Hama provinces) Israeli air strikes destroyed several Iranian targets, most of them warehouses for storing newly arrived weapons. Latakia, which includes the Syrian Mediterranean coast, a large pro-Assad population and two Russian bases (one air and the other naval), is rarely hit with Israeli airstrikes. Russian warships have been seen escorting Iranian ships illegally delivering petroleum and weapons to Syria and that means Iran has more targets in the province that the Israelis go after.

May 3, 2021: In northeastern Syria (Hasaka province) Russian and Turkish troops have been conduction more joint patrols along the border with Turkey to keep Islamic terrorists out of Turkey and preventing more fighting between Turks (or their mercenaries) and the Kurdish forces that control Hasaka. The latest joint patrol was the longest yet, covering over a hundred kilometers. Russian troops also seek to keep the peace between the Kurds and aggressive Syrian Army soldiers.

May 2, 2021: Myanmar (Burma), formerly part of the British colonial holdings in South Asia, has a new military government seeking to maintain its close ties with China and Russia while it struggles to establish control of the country three months after a February 1st coup. China promptly used their veto powers in the UN to block UN actions against the new military rulers of Burma. Within two weeks Russia also proclaimed support for the military government. The response of the military was not unexpected, because the elected civilian government knew that the Burmese generals maintained their connections in China and was the main reason China has sold $1.4 billion worth of military equipment to Burma since 2010. Russia sold $800 million worth. Together China and Russia accounted for over 90 percent Burmese spending on imports of military gear. Russia also has a veto at the UN and uses it to protect the Burmese military government.

The coup has not worked out as planned because the country is now sliding towards economic crisis and civil war. Anti-government demonstrations continue despite troops and police being ordered to open fire. Some of the demonstrators are shooting back. So far over a thousand demonstrators have been killed by the security forces and ten times that number wounded or arrested. The Burmese military is comfortable with a cozy relationship with China and Russia but most Burmese are not. This has led to Chinese businesses being attacked and some have been set on fire. The alliance of separatist northern tribes, which reached a peace agree with the elected government in 2016 refused to recognize or cooperate with the military government. Burmese military leaders were surprised at the extent and duration of mass protests during the last three months. By popular agreement the economy is shut down and the generals have to worry about the morale and loyalty of their troops because of the months of popular protests and being ordered to open fire on fellow Burmese. The many foreign companies that manufacture in Burma have been evacuating their employees and that means getting those closed facilities operational again will take time.

The military still has income because during their decades of rule (from 1962 to 2010) they came to control many businesses and some of those were joint ventures with China. A lot of Chinese firms pay the Burmese military directly for joint ventures. This provides the military with at least a billion dollars a year, assuming the Chinese operations can keep functioning. The Chinese operations in Burma now face sanctions. Burmese army officers made a lot of money allowing China to do business in the tribal north, often at the expense of local civilians, most of them tribal people. After the return of democracy in 2011, China no longer had as much freedom in the north. Russia is of little help economically but is one of the few nations supporting the military government. Chin and Russia are offering advice but the major problem is the weakening morale and resolve of the troops and police. China has a border with Myanmar but so far there is no talk of Chinese military intervention, probably with heavily armed “peacekeepers.” A token number of Russians could be added to that force.

May 1, 2021: Russia concluded over a month of training near the Ukrainian border and inside Donbas areas it controls. Russia tried to portray this as the buildup for a possible invasion of Ukraine. At the same time the Russians were not willing to negotiate with the Ukrainian president, who has been trying, for two years to get some direct peace negotiations going with Russia. That has not happened because Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected president of Ukraine by a large margin in early 2019 was not a politician but proved a lot more capable than the Russians expected. Worse, Zelensky quickly demonstrated that he was more of a threat than the professional politician he replaced. Since taking power in 2019 Zelensky quickly replaced notoriously corrupt or incompetent government and military officials. Zelensky then tried to get negotiations going between himself and Russian leader Putin. The Russians did not want that, and their response has been stunts like the current “invasion threat.” Zelensky didn’t flinch because he could do the math. The Russians had sent the equivalent of six combat brigades, accompanied by additional artillery (gun and rocket) units moving to the border as well as a buildup of combat aircraft and warships in the Crimean Peninsula, the one Ukrainian province Russia was able take in 2014 and annex. While the Crimean operations was winding down Russia tried to use the same tactics to seize two provinces in eastern Ukraine. This area was also known as the economically important Donbas (Don River Basin) region. Surprisingly, for the Russians, Ukrainian forces quickly responded to the 2014 Donbas seizure effort and after months of intense combat there was a stalemate, with Russian holding half the territory it sought. Since 2015 the equivalent of half a dozen Ukrainian combat brigades face a slightly smaller force of ethnic Russian residents of Donbas, plus volunteers (mercenaries) from Russia and thousands of Russian soldiers pretending to be volunteers. In the last few months, a Russian buildup of forces stationed near the Ukraine border suddenly consisted of about seven combat brigades. Russia also brought warships to the Donbas Black Sea coast and in position to attack the two main port cities there. The air force buildup in Crimea and increased EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment along the border is either another training exercise or Russia seeking to take Donbas, and maybe more, by force and then declare peace. This would increase the costs of occupying Donbas and incur additional sanctions. This is already costing Russia several billion dollars a year. Moreover, most of the Russian troops assembled near the border were newly inducted conscripts getting their first extended exposure to operating in a simulated combat zone. These conscripts were not ready for a fight, but to learn out to fight.

The Ukrainians also know that the Russian army has, since the 1990s, become smaller than the American army. That’s a first. The Russian army is also much smaller than the better equipped Chinese army, something Russia does not wish to dwell on with foreigners. Currently the Russian Army has about 20 combat brigades that are potentially combat ready, depending on how much training the annual influx of new conscripts received. That means many “combat ready” Russian brigades are always in the process of actually becoming combat ready. The current concentration of brigades on the Ukrainian border is the majority of combat brigades the Russians have available in western Russia. In such a large country, the Russian army has always been spread thin in peacetime and always training lots of new conscripts.

The Ukrainian ground forces have 170,000 active-duty troops versus 350,000 for Russia (and over 500,000 in the U.S.). Since 2014 Ukraine has reorganized and upgraded its ground forces and currently has as many combat ready brigades as Russia. Ukraine also has more reserve troops, who are better trained and dedicated than their Russian equivalents. In other words, Ukraine is not exactly helpless against a Russian invasion but most of the fighting would take place in Ukraine and civilian casualties would mostly be Ukrainian, as would the property damage. Worst case is the Russians would not achieve a quick victory, and would have to propose a peace deal Ukraine would accept. As much as Ukrainians would like to humiliate their ancient Russian oppressors militarily, no Ukrainian leader wants a war with Russia. But it is up to Russia to start such a war and this time Russian blinked.

Nearby, Russian warships in the Black Sea were not blinking and had once again closed the Kerch Strait to Ukrainian ships. This is illegal according to international law and agreements Russia has long recognized. The only potential hazard in the Black Sea is the appearance of American warships to challenge the illegal blockade of the two major ports in eastern Ukraine. This will earn Russia some more Western sanctions but nothing worth backing off in the Black Sea. Besides, there is a new government in the United States and this is what Russian does when testing the new president to see what Russia can get away with.

April 25, 2021: Over the last few years India has cut military imports by a third, mainly by making major reduction in what it buys from Russia. While India still imports Russian combat aircraft, that policy is in trouble because of the relatively poor Russian aircraft performance, compared to Western aircraft, when it comes to reliability and combat effectiveness. Russia has not been able to fix these problems. In response to the loss of Indian arms purchases in general, Russia has offered Pakistan weapons similar to what China delivers and Russia points out that having two main suppliers creates competition that great for the customer. Pakistan is not jumping at the Russian offer.

India wants to continue reducing its dependence on imports, even it means accepting clearly inferior (to Western and Chinese alternatives) weapons. During the Cold War India declared itself neutral but became a major importer of Russian weapons because they were cheaper and Russia more willing to transfer manufacturing technology so India could build many of the Russian weapons under license. Pakistan obtained most of its imported weapons from European and American manufacturers.

After the Cold War both Pakistan and India made major efforts to develop and produce major weapons systems and both largely failed. Except for nuclear weapons, which both nations developed internally by the late 1990s, and ballistic missile tech based on what they could obtain from China and Russia respectively, Pakistan and India have handled their failures to develop and build their own conventional weapons differently. India believes its nuclear weapons aimed at China will prevent major losses on the border while Pakistan, even with superior Chinese weapons, is not a major threat.

With China the major threat India has to obtain the best weapons possible to deal with that. As a result, the remaining imports, which are still substantial, concentrate on systems India cannot produce at all. This includes first-line jet fighters like the Russian Su-30, and the French Rafale. India still buys air defense and electronic items from Israel and specialized UAVs from the United States. Russia has more modern and recent fleet of the latest Russian tank models. In fact, India has more of these T-90 tanks than Russia. India is trying to eliminate its dependence on Russia for modern warships but continues to encounter problems with Indian built nuclear submarines. Indian ballistic missiles appear to be competitive, as are their nuclear weapons. The new restrictions on military imports are forcing the armed forces and Indian manufacturers to catch up in the areas of developing and manufacturing competitive modern weapons. This isn’t easy because India has a long, and growing, list of locally developed systems that failed, even after several generations of “improved” models.

Russia tried to obtain and absorb Western weapons development and manufacturing tech, and was making progress when all those efforts disappeared with the 2014 sanctions.

April 19, 2021: Russia now has another reason to be angry at Turkey. Ukraine and Turkey are openly and enthusiastically working on ways to increase the economic and military links the two have established over the last decade. Recently Ukrainian and Turkish leaders held the ninth meeting of the Turkish-Ukrainian High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council. Both countries emphasized the importance of protecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the need to reduce tension in the Black Sea region. The Cooperation Council discussions focused on eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatist forces have been fighting since 2014. At the end of the conference Ukraine referred to Crimea and the Donbass region as “temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine” and praised Turkey’s support for the “restoration” of Ukraine’s territories. Turkey does not recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and Turkey announced it was ready to provide "necessary support" to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine peacefully. Doing that involves offering Ukraine Turkish armed UAVs to. Turkey would not say it would become directly involved with Russian forces. Ukraine considers Turkey the only other nation besides the United States to offer direct aid versus the current Russian invasion threat to invade the rest of Ukraine.

Economically, Turkey and Ukraine are increasingly active, with military tech flowing both ways. This comes as the world the world has learned just how important Ukraine is to Russia, and many other countries, as a source for key military items. After 2014 Russia had to revise its warships and helicopter production plans because Ukraine was the only source for key components. China, then Turkey, turned to Ukraine for some of these items because sanctions had made it impossible to obtain the items from the West. Most recently Ukraine has provided Turkey with key tech for tanks and helicopters. Turkey has already exported UAVs to Ukraine. These previous exchanges between Turkey and Ukraine were done quietly, but now the Turkish military aid to Ukraine are receiving more publicity and Russia is not happy. After all Russian and Turkish forces are facing each other in the Caucasus (Armenia) and Africa (Libya) as well as Syria. Turkey and Russia are technically allies in Syria but that alliance is falling apart.

April 16, 2021: In southeast Africa (Mozambique) Russian military intervention hit another setback. In Mozambique Islamic terrorist violence has been growing since 2017 and in 2019 Russia offered discreet help with that. In late 2019 about 200 Wager Company “military contractors” showed up in northeastern Mozambique where the Islamic terrorists were threatening a $20 billion natural gas production facility built by French firm Total and the key to future Mozambique prosperity. This is not the first appearance Wagner in Africa. For several years Wagner military contractors, who were mostly veterans, have been working in Libya and several locations in Central Africa. Russia is also on good terms with South Africa, which also provides mercs to African nations. Most of the Russian and South African mercs have combat experience and have proved effective at safeguarding economic assets like mines and natural gas facilities. After a major clash with the Islamic terrorists in early 2021, Wagner suffered over a dozen casualties and suddenly disappeared. It is unclear if these Russians have left the country of are keeping out sight while the Russian government decides to pull them out or reinforces them.

Mozambique needs foreign military help because the local military forces are small and not well trained, armed or led. The military only has 15,000 personnel, 80 percent of them in the army which is organized into ten light infantry battalions and some support units. Three of the infantry battalion are designated special forces, but lack sufficient training and equipment to qualify as special. The air force and navy are much smaller and have few operational aircraft and ships. The army received a lot of weapons from Russia from 1975 until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. China has since been selling Mozambique some weapons and ammo but most of the military gear is elderly and often not operational.

The air force has a handful of Russian and French helicopters and about a dozen Tucano armed trainer aircraft. The navy includes patrol boats and a small contingent of marines. These forces were supplemented after 2019 by Russian mercenaries, followed by South African military contractors belonging to DAG (Dyck Advisory Group), which brought some helicopter gunships with. Both these military contractors went to Mozambique with the approval of their respective governments.

April 11, 2021: Turkey openly called Ukraine and Russia to peacefully end their confrontation over Russian efforts to seize and absorb Ukrainian territory. Turkey indicated it would help resolve the Russia-Ukraine dispute but did not specify how Turkey. This statement came the day after Turkish leader Erdogan met with his Ukrainian counterpart Zelensky.

April 5, 2021: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province), Russian airstrikes and aerial recon missions continue, especially in the Mayadeen Desert, a thinly populated region near the more populous Euphrates River Valley. Russia is starting a month-long campaign to inflict some major damage on the local ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces.

The largest town in the area is called Mayadeen as is the largest military base. Since 2018 Deir Ezzor province has been the scene of a multi-sided battle between ISIL, SDF (Syrian Kurds), Syrian army, Iranian and Russian mercenaries as well as smaller numbers of Russian special operations troops and lots of Russian warplanes overhead. For about a year now the Russians have been are using a combination of special operations troops, military contractors and Syrian mercenaries. The Syrian mercs on the Russian payroll include at least one unit comprised of Palestinian refugees, who have lived in Syria for decades. When the civil War began in 2011 most of the Palestinians sided with the rebels, a betrayal the Assads, their long-time host and protector, was understandably bitter about. Signing up as Russian mercs was a way for Syria based refugees to win back the trust of the Assads. The current operation is part of a much larger and longer effort, lasting into May, to find and destroy the ISIL hideouts known to be in the desert but difficult to pinpoint and bomb. By the end of the month several hundred 200 ISIL men had been killed and over a dozen hideouts and hidden storage had been found and hit with airstrikes and followed up with the mercs coming in to search for bodies and anything useful in finding out details of more ISIL operations and locations. One of the more significant air operations came about two weeks after the campaign began. Several ISIL training and assembly area were found near Palmyra. This the town is astride the main road from Deir Ezzor province to Damascus and long fought over because of its strategic importance. ISIL was apparently planning some major operations in the area because over 200 ISIL men died when the unexpected Russian airstrikes began. The camps were carefully camouflaged to make aerial reconnaissance less likely to spot anything. That worked until it didn’t. Emergency escape plans failed because of the large number of aircraft and UAVs assigned to the attack and the presence of the Russian mercenaries in the area.

April 3, 2021: In northwest Syria (Idlib province) there continues to be a lot of rocket and artillery fire in the southern Idlib “de-escalation zone” where such attacks are technically forbidden. This zone is near the main Russian Hmeimim airbase in neighboring Latakia province. Latakia is vital to the Assad government because it is the most loyal province and contains the Mediterranean ports and the Russian airbase. Most of the Latakia population is Shia, as is the Assad clan. For years Syrian forces used artillery against Idlib Islamic terrorist bases identified Russian aerial reconnaissance. Recently Russia has reinforced the security around Hmeimim airbase by bringing in an FSB (former KGB) border surveillance aircraft and a detachment of Hezbollah gunmen to increase ground patrol around the base.

The Islamic terrorist rebels in Idlib are losing control of their half of Idlib province. This bothers the Turks the most because that means there is no one group to negotiate with. It also means Idlib will become so chaotic that it can no longer defend itself. Turks, Syrians and Russians can move in a take possession of an area populated by thousands of Islamic terrorists. their families and remaining supporters. Not what you would describe as a victory, but then nothing in Syria is.

April 2, 2021: Syria and Russia signed a long-promised deal for two Russian companies to explore offshore Syrian waters for oil and natural gas. There are already large natural gas deposits being extracted by Israel in an offshore region near the Lebanese border. It turns out that these large deposits of natural gas, because of new exploration tech, can be found offshore (and a few on shore) throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, especially coastal areas from Egypt to Greece. This has caused a growing number of disputes about exactly where the maritime borders are and who actually owns which offshore area. The two Russian exploration firms were assigned areas near the Lebanese border and Lebanon has already disputed the Syrian interpretation of the maritime border. Russia and Syria signed the original offshore exploration agreement in 2013 based on the huge proven (with exploratory drilling) fields found and being developed off northern Israel. One reason Russia intervened militarily in Syria during 2015 was to protect their exploration rights off Syria. Israel has confirmed that its offshore natural gas wealth off the coast was enormous and keeps getting better.

In late 2014 Israel announced a third major natural gas discovery off their coast. This one was worth over $100 billion dollars. The two previous ones were worth over a trillion dollars. By 2o18 Israel found that their natural gas fields were actually 14 percent larger than earlier estimated. These discoveries make Israel largely energy independent and a major exporter of natural gas. This is a recent development as serious exploration for natural gas off the Israeli coast only got started in the late 90s and since then more and more natural gas has been found offshore in the eastern Mediterranean, from Lebanon to Egypt. Israeli commercial production began in 2013 with the completion of pipelines extending 150 kilometers offshore. Israeli GDP was continuing to grow without the natural gas discoveries but with the natural Israel becomes largely energy independent and an energy exporter as well. Israel went on to signs long-term natural gas export deals with Jordan and Egypt worth nearly $20 billion.

Syria is hoping for a trillion-dollar natural gas bonanza offshore. The Russians firms will earn billions if they find that gas and supervise the drilling and construction of infrastructure to extract, store and distribute, inside Syria and to export customers, the natural gas. Having Russia as a partner in this means Russia has something worth fighting for in the eastern Mediterranean and Syria. This offshore natural gas wealth is another reason why Russia maintains good relations with Israel, even if that angers Iran and Turkey.




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