After a year of haggling over terms, Russia has agreed to remain in the Soviet era Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan. Russia had threatened to cut launches at Balkinor from 75 percent to ten percent by the end of the decade. Russia was responding to Kazakh demands for more money and threats to shut down Balkinor if the Russians did not pay what was demanded. Currently Russia pays Kazakhstan $115 million a year for the use of Balkinor (which costs $50 million a year to maintain). Many Kazakhs saw Balkinor as an ATM and anytime there was a cash shortage, they could make a withdrawal and the Russians would be forced to pay. The Russians convinced the Kazakhs that plans to leave Balkinor were real. Russia has already moved all military launches to the smaller space center at Plesetsk. Russia can turn Baikonur into a big cash cow via commercial launches but the Kazakhs have been told that this could change, even if it costs Russia. For the moment Russia's largest satellite launch site is still in Kazakhstan.
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, Baikonur 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 (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 are building a replacement site to the east, in Russian territory. The new launch center in Amur, Vostochny, will 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. Once Vostochny is operating it will 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.
Despite growing international pressure, the government is not backing off on enforcing its new laws meant to shut down or curb the activities of foreign NGOs (Non-Government Organizations, like the Red Cross, pro-democracy, and anti-corruption groups). Over the last month the government has carried out raids (inspections) on hundreds of the 2,000 NGOs in Russia to check their financial records and remind these organizations that they are not welcome. The government is angry at the NGOs and Russian pro-reform groups for publicizing corruption among pro-government politicians and senior officials. Last year new laws were enacted that declared foreigners working for NGOs as "foreign agents," who must register with the government and be subject to taxation and constant supervision. The FSB (the Russian FBI/CIA) has long accused Western nations of working with pro-democracy Russian NGOs to spy on Russia. Western states deny it. The government has been campaigning against NGOs and foreign influences in general over the last seven years. Now many NGOs are not being allowed to register and are being ordered out. Western countries see this as part of an effort to turn Russia back into a paranoid police state, as it was during the Soviet and Czarist periods (as in the last thousand years). China is fine with this and would prefer Russia be more like the Soviet Union than a Western democracy.
April 11, 2013: A new Stereguschy class corvette has completed sea trials and is ready to join the Baltic Fleet. These are small ships (2,200 tons displacement), costing about $125 million each. Like the American LCS, the more heavily armed Stereguschy class ships are meant for coastal operations. These ships are also a popular export item.
April 10, 2013: The government has ordered five more high-resolution spy satellites, to cost $440 million each. Many of the electronic components of the satellites will be obtained from European or Israeli suppliers.
April 9, 2013: Russia and its European neighbors agree on one thing, North Korea should stop all the warlike statements. Russia shares a short border with North Korea and since 1991 (when Cold War era subsidies stopped), has deferred to China on what to do with North Korea. Even the Chinese are fed up with the inept and bellicose communist-style police state in North Korea.
April 8, 2013: In the Caucasus (Ingushetia) four Islamic terrorists and one soldier were killed in a gun battle.
April 6, 2013: Russia admitted that recent negotiations with Iran to persuade the Iranians to halt their nuclear weapons program failed.
April 2, 2013: China has offered to help Russia rebuild its armed forces. This is mainly all about self-interest. China needs a strong ally and Russia needs help to become that kind of mighty ally. China really misses the old Soviet Union which, with China, was a powerful military alliance. Currently China is more of a superpower than Russia. Chinese GDP is more than three times Russia’s and China is spending more than three times as much on defense as Russia (which is trying to maintain defense spending at 2.8 percent of GDP). China has twice as many troops and most of them have better weapons. But the cost of fixing this appears to be more than the Russians can afford. China is offering to help by spending billions more on Russian weapons (despite the flagrant Chinese theft of Russian military tech). As distasteful as the situation is, the Russians really do need some help. While this offer might appear generous to some Russians, many of them fear that the rapidly growing Chinese economy is gradually making thinly populated eastern Russia (Siberia and the Far East) more Chinese than Russian. But while China is being aggressive about its historical claims on India and the South China Sea, it is very quiet about the even older claims on Russian territory on the Pacific.
April 1, 2013: A new anti-corruption effort has banned government officials from having foreign bank accounts and they have three months to comply.
March 31, 2013: In the Caucasus (Ingushetia) a captured Islamic terrorist claimed that the head of the Ingushetia government pays a million dollars a month to the local Islamic terrorists to ensure that he is not attacked or assassinated. The amount sounds large but the basic idea is common in the Caucasus.
March 29, 2013: Russia has reinstated the Soviet era “Hero of Labor” award. Russia has also implemented new restrictions on the Internet and is continuing to arrest and intimidate those who demonstrate against the return of police-state methods.
March 28, 2013: In the Caucasus police revealed that one of five Islamic terrorists killed in Dagestan last week was a local politician, who as recently as 2010 had been a member of the provincial legislature. It’s not uncommon for local leader to play both sides. Identification of the man took a while because he and his four fellow terrorists were badly burned during the siege that got them killed.