Russia: The Untouchables

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July 18, 2013: Russia is currently holding its largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Near the Pacific coast the military has assembled nearly 100,000 troops, over a thousand armored vehicles, 130 warplanes, and 70 warships to practice repelling a hypothetical invasion by Japanese and American forces. A Chinese naval task force (19 ships, including detachments of special operations troops) came north to join in. Many of the Russian ground force units were called in on short notice, to test their ability to respond in an emergency. Exercises (especially the surprise or “snap” ones) like this do provide some military training but are also there for propaganda purposes, to reinforce the popular belief that the armed forces are making a comeback from their rapid decline in the 1990s. These particular exercises also reinforce the government claims that America is threatening Russia.

Russia keeps making new announcements about developments in its military aircraft industry, in part to show Russians that this is one aspect of Soviet era economic prowess that survives. Throughout the 1990s, when the Russians military could no longer afford to buy Russian aircraft, the Russian manufacturers survived by producing for export. For a while, over half of Russian military export income was from aircraft sales. In the last decade this has declined to 40 percent. But with Russia selling $15 billion in weapons a year, that’s a big chunk of change. But it’s not been enough to keep Russia competitive. Russia has been playing catch-up in the aircraft department since the Soviet period. The end of the Cold War brought with it the opportunity to acquire Western technology, and Russia is still seeking that via the purchase of American aircraft and jet engines for locally built commercial aircraft and Russian airlines. While Russia is competitive in building airframes, it still cannot yet match Western jet engine quality. This is critical because Western engines use less fuel and are cheaper to maintain. These are decisive factors in the airline business. Russia continues to work at catching up in the high-end jet engine business. For military engines, you can sacrifice some fuel efficiency and reliability to achieve equal performance. But this still makes your air force inferior (aircraft are unavailable more often for engine changes and maintenance and have shorter ranges because of poor fuel economy). China is in a similar position but is a decade or more behind Russia. These qualitative factors extend to include many other areas of military technology. This has long been the case, which is why Russian military planners like to point out that "Quantity has a quality all its own." But Russia can no longer afford larger quantities of lower quality weapons and troops. The West has not been eager to help the Russians modernize, but the Russian purchases and some co-production deals are slowly closing the gap, especially in the commercial side of things.

July 13, 2013: In the south (Kabardino-Balkaria) unidentified gunmen attacked a police vehicle, killing one policeman and wounding two others before speeding off themselves.

July 10, 2013: A Russian court convicted Sergei Magnitsky of tax evasion. But Magnitsky died (under suspicious circumstances) in 2009, while in prison. Magnitsky’s real offence was accusing senior officials of carrying out a $230 million tax fraud. To defend these officials Magnitsky was arrested, charged with tax evasion, and, many Russians believe, killed in prison to keep him quiet. Convicting a dead man of tax evasion is seen as another government attempt to protect corrupt senior officials. Despite widely publicized anti-corruption efforts, most Russians get the impression that corruption at the very top is unassailable.

July 8, 2013: In the south (Chechnya) police cornered and killed a wanted Islamic terrorist leader (Rustam Saliev).

In Central Russia (Pugachyov) an ethnic Chechen teenager killed an ethnic (Slav) Russian in a pre-dawn fight over a girl. This triggered large protests by Russians demanding that the Chechen minority be expelled from Pugachyov (population 40,000). How this town got to have a Chechen minority is an interesting story. Most of the 4.2 million people in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan are Moslem and never much liked Russians. Although the Russians have reduced the violence over the last decade, it persists, much to the embarrassment of the Russian government. This volatile mixing of organized Russians and unruly Caucasus minorities has been a problem for centuries (ever since the Russian empire reached the Caucasus two centuries ago). Many of the largely Moslem Caucasian tribes saw it as their right to raid the Christian Russians (who had lots of stuff to steal). The Russians fought back, escalating to Cossacks and eventually the army and violence has persisted ever since. During World War II the Russians mistrusted the Chechens so much that they moved most of the Chechen population to Central Asia in 1944 (killing many in the process). Over the next two decades those exiles were allowed back to the Caucasus but many stayed behind in Russia, in places like Pugachyov. Both Russians and Chechens have not forgotten all this unpleasantness. Violence by Chechens (be it in Boston or Pugachyov) does not surprise a lot of Russians and disturbs a lot of Chechens who would like to move away from their outlaw reputation.

July 6, 2013: In the south (Dagestan) police killed two Islamic terrorists after the pair fled a checkpoint, were cornered, and killed in a gun battle. Two AK-47s were recovered.  

July 5, 2013: There was a large explosion at the Syrian naval base at Latakia. Syrian rebels said this was probably an Israeli attack on the warehouse holding recently delivered Russian anti-ship missiles. These high-speed P-800/Yakhont missiles have a range of about 300 kilometers and a 200 kg (440 pound) warhead and are seen as a major threat to Israeli naval superiority in the area. Russia has made two deliveries of its Yakhont (officially 3M55E, NATO ID is SSN-26) anti-ship missiles. The first was two years ago and the latest was in May. The latest delivery, of about two dozen missiles, was a new version with a much improved guidance system that the Israelis apparently had not yet figured out how to jam. All these new missiles were apparently destroyed in the recent attack. Israel fears that some of these missiles would be sent to Hezbollah, who might use them against Israeli ships or offshore natural gas field platform facilities. Israel has been trying to persuade Russia to stop delivering the missiles but without success. Iran appears to be paying for this, so the loss of income would be felt in Russia. Two years ago Russia delivered 72 Yakhonts and 18 of the mobile ground launchers (each carrying two missiles) to Syria. Also included were five battery command vehicles. Typically, a Yakhont battery consists of one of these vehicles, four launchers, and several more trucks carrying security and maintenance personnel and equipment. The 2011 shipment cost $300 million dollars. The missiles can be stored in their launch containers for seven years before they require major component replacements and refurbishment to stay operational. Yakhonts are very hard to stop. Syria accounted for seven percent of Russian arms exports in 2011, and Russia wanted to show that they always deliver. Russia was also building a naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus.  At this point Russia says it is simply delivering weapons ordered before the civil war began two years ago. The shipment of Yakhont missiles to Syria two years ago came after four years of haggling and efforts by Israel and the United States to block the sale. Apparently the missiles were already paid for before delivery. Russia was happy for any sale and seemed particularly anxious for Yakhont to get some combat experience. Apparently Russia did listen to the Israeli pleas because the destruction of the latest shipment did not result in any Russian complaints about Israeli bad behavior. Russia got paid for the latest shipment and what happened to them later was of little concern to the seller. It was the U.S. that came out and openly identified Israel as the attacker, but the Israelis denied any involvement.

 

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