Russia: Surviving In The Shadow Of China


September 22, 2013: There are believed to be several thousand Russian Moslems (most from the Caucasus, particularly Chechnya) fighting for the rebels in Syria. While effective fighters, the Russians don’t get along well with some of the Islamic terrorists groups or even the more numerous secular rebel organizations. Some Islamic radical rebels have openly suggested that the Russians go home and do their fighting and arguing with allies there. At the same time the official Russian line is that foreign terrorists are responsible for much of the terrorist violence in the Caucasus. There are some foreign terrorists in the Caucasus but they are usually there to follow and learn, not lead.

Many in the West see the Russian effort to get Syria to voluntarily surrender its chemical weapons as a scam that is really meant to halt any American or NATO air strikes against the Assad forces. Discussions about this deal in the last few weeks have halted any air strikes and it is believed that the discussions will be dragged out indefinitely as the fighting in Syria continues. Without those air strikes the rebels will suffer more losses (mainly civilians) and the Assad government will be able to hang on longer. Assad believes with enough time (free of air attacks) and enough aid from Iran he can beat the rebels into submission. Israel is especially keen to see the Syrian chemical weapons (intended mainly for Israel) gone but doubts that this will ever happen, especially with the Assads in power. Even if current stocks were destroyed, the Assads could easily replace them.

While Russia still refuses (because of the tight sanctions) to sell Iran weapons, the Russians have shipped a billion dollars’ worth of weapons to Syria since the civil war began in 2011. Russia insists that this is not in violation of arms embargoes against Syria and are simply deliveries of weapons ordered before 2011. In the last year Syria has delivered over $200 million in cash to Russian banks to keep these weapons coming (mainly S-300 anti-aircraft systems and anti-ship missiles) and their warranties operational. These purchases are being paid for by Iran and delivered to Russian government accounts via a Moscow bank. While Russia has ideological and political reasons for supporting the Assads, there’s also the money angle. Arms sales are a vital Russian export, especially when it comes to keeping Russian arms firms in business. These Russian shipments to Syria are not challenged by the international community because they are, technically, defensive weapons and cannot be used to attack the rebels. Another problem that is less clear is whether the weapons are being sent to Iran. That is illegal, but without any clear evidence of such transfers there’s nothing anyone can do. The cash transfers are also illegal, since Iran is banned from the international banking system for anything involving weapons, oil sales, and military equipment in general. But no one is going to shut down air traffic between Iran and Russia. Meanwhile, at least 14 Russian cargo ships arrived in Syria since 2011, plus numerous air freight flights. Recently Russia quietly approved new shipments of small arms, which is forbidden but can be flown in and join similar weapons Syria had before 2011. Russia appears to believe that no one will challenge this either.

Part of the Russian support for Syria has been an international media campaign to portray the United States as a troublemaker for threatening to bomb Syria for using nerve gas against its own people. This has backfired. For example, Russian president Putin accused the U.S. of being a more violent nation, yet government statistics (from both countries) shows that Russia has a murder rate of over 14 per 100,000 people a year while the American rate is under 5. Russia also tried to make a case for the rebels being behind the nerve gas attacks. Yet when the UN inspectors issued their report they provided compelling evidence that it was Syrian Army forces that carried out the attack and they did it with Russian made rockets designed to deliver chemical weapons. The Russian support for the Assad government in Syria has cost Russia a lot of international good will, especially in the Arab world. In the last few years Arabs have gone from viewing Russia positively to negatively. This is tracked in annual opinion surveys and in most Moslem nations the majority of people see Russia negatively. It was never that way before.

It should be no surprise that Afghanistan is now getting a lot more military aid and cooperation from Russia. Despite the brutal Russian invasion (in 1979) and occupation (until 1989), Russians are no longer hated by many Afghans. That’s because the Russian occupation was but one part of a civil war (still going on) that began in the late 1970s, when the Afghan Communist Party sought to upset the tribal alliances that had defined Afghan politics for centuries and replace it with a communist dictatorship. The tribes saw this as an assault on their religion (communists were openly anti-religion) as well as their tribal independence and power. The tribes promptly took control of the countryside and began marching on the cities (where the communists had most of their supporters). Russia, which backed the new communist government, sent in troops in 1979, rather than see the tribes regain control. The Russians entered Afghanistan for political, not economic, reasons and departed a decade later, leaving a communist government behind. Most previous conquerors of Afghanistan had come for economic reasons and had the means and incentive to stay for long periods. But the Soviet Union was in terrible economic shape in 1979 and dissolved in 1991, which was a major reason they left in 1989, because it was an expense they could no longer afford. The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union cut off subsidies for the pro-Russian Afghan government, and that government was overthrown in three years. The usual ethnic and tribal factions then continued the civil war, mostly over control of the traditional capital (Kabul). The Russian departure led to more than two decades of still more violence and oppression (by Taliban, warlords, and wealthy drug gang leaders). The Russians have been neighbors since the 19th century and despite losing their Central Asian provinces in 1991 (when the Soviet Union dissolved), the Russians maintained close relations with the new Central Asian states that are now Afghanistan’s northern border. The Russians are still there and over time have come to be seen as more of a potential friend than a former foe. After September 11, 2001, Russia initially declined to provide much assistance for the NATO and U.S. effort in Afghanistan. Russia soon noted that Russian customs (more tolerant of bribes and shady behavior in general) was more in tune with Afghan culture than the American approach (bribes or stealing aid were discouraged). Russian businessmen and diplomats began to arrive in Afghanistan in 2002. Many Afghans were glad to see this happen and welcomed more cooperation with their northern neighbor. That’s because the northern Afghan tribes remember that in September 11, 2001, they were still fighting (with some Russian support) the Taliban government that had not yet gained control over all of Afghanistan. The "Northern Alliance" of non-Pushtun tribes was holding out against what they saw as Pushtun aggression. The United States sent in a few hundred Special Forces and CIA operators, a hundred million dollars in cash and a few thousand smart bombs to help the Northern Alliance out and the Taliban were broken and fleeing the country within two months. The northern tribes didn't mind Pushtuns getting the top jobs in the new government but were no longer willing to meekly follow the Pushtun lead blindly. The Pushtun see it differently, claiming (with some truth) that they did most of the fighting against the Russians in the 1980s, and that many of the northern tribes cut deals with the Russians (as did some Pushtun tribes, something the Pushtuns don't like to talk about). That had more to do with Afghan politics (the northern and southern tribes disagreed on how to deal with Russia and modernization) than with anything else. Then came the Taliban (a cynical invention of the Pakistanis, created from Pushtun refugees convinced that a Holy War would bring peace and unity to Afghanistan). Meanwhile, the heroin trade (growing poppies and using a chemical process to turn the sap from these plants into opium and heroin) moved from Pakistan (where the government saw it as a curse) to Afghanistan. Many of the same tribes that produced the refugees who became the Taliban also produced the most successful drug lords. The Pushtun are many things, including well organized and ambitious, and Russia has always been a willing ally of the northern tribes who have always resisted Pufhtun domination. The Taliban today are basically a faction of the Pushtun tribes and the drug trade is basically run by Pushtuns. For most Afghans, the Pushtuns (40 percent of the population) are the enemy and Russia is a neighbor that has more often than not been a useful friend. The Russians are also interested in stopping the Pushtun drug trade and this gives the northern tribes and Russia a common goal to work towards. Expect to see more of Russia in Afghanistan after NATO forces depart next year.

Russia has now joined China and European firms in developing UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle). These are replacements for current light bombers (or fighters operating as light bombers) and combat reconnaissance aircraft. The Russian entry is a further development of its Skat UAV, a ten ton aircraft with a two ton payload and a design that looks very similar to the American X-47 series. The MiG Aircraft Corporation developed Skat and the new UCAV as well.

Russia is replacing its 250 Mi-24 helicopter gunships with 300 Mi-28s. The Mi-28N is a much more complex aircraft than the Mi-24 and requires more skillful and better trained pilots. To deal with this problem the Russian Air Force recently ordered 60 Mi-28UB helicopter trainers. The UB model has dual controls that enable an instructor to also control the helicopter (from the weapons systems operator’s seat). Each squadron will receive 4-6 of the UB model to help build and maintain pilot skills. Russia plans to replace all its Mi-24s with the more modern Mi-28s by 2015.

The government is uncomfortable that more foreigners are making an issue over the fact that most hacker marketplaces are based in Russia and the most interesting pages on these sites use Russian, not English. That’s because most of the sellers, and many of the buyers, are from Russia or the 14 new nations that were created from portions of the old Soviet Union. The Russian government tolerates these hacker markets because the market operators, and most of the customers, observe an unwritten agreement wherein they do not misbehave in Russia and the Russian hackers are available to the Russian government for special operations that require a high degree of hacking skill. That last bit is very unofficial but very real. So is the certainty of quick and severe punishment if you break the rules and are still in Russia when that happens. There are English language areas where you can go shopping, but the best stuff is available to those who speak (or at least read and write) Russian.

Another aspect of this is the growing use of Russian Internet users paid to post pro-Russian messages on the Internet wherever Russia is being criticized. Posters who can effectively handle foreign languages are in high demand by various ministries and can earn nearly $10,000 a year doing this message control work. Contractors are used to find, hire, and supervise these members of the “50 Ruble Army.” This practice was adopted from the Chinese who perfected it over the last decade. In Russia the practice is an open secret and a good way for heavy Internet users to make some extra money and be patriotic at the same time.

Russia recently revealed that it is organizing a Cyber War organization within the Defense Ministry. This would be a separate branch of the army, joining more traditional branches like infantry, armor, artillery, and signal (where Cyber War operations already exist in most countries). Noting what’s going on in China and the United States, the Russians have decided to catch up.

Vietnam has bought another 12 Russian Su-30MK2 jet fighters, for over $46 million each. This will make 36 of this type aircraft Vietnam has bought in the last 8 years.

Russia recently revealed that two years ago Sudan had secretly bought 24 Mi-24 helicopter gunships and 14 MI-8 transport helicopters. Some have already been delivered. Russia told the UN that Sudan agreed not to use these helicopters in Darfur (western Sudan) where the UN has embargoed (since 2004) the introduction of new weapons. These sanctions have been strengthened year by year and now prohibit selling a lot of “dual use” equipment to Sudan. Despite that, Sudan is currently negotiating to buy 18 former Indian Su-30K fighters that Belarus had bought cheap to upgrade and resell. Sudan is a likely customer and Belarus has long been a notorious exporters of weapons to whoever can pay, regardless of embargoes. So is Russia, which also makes more of an effort to justify its actions.

While Russia likes to describe China as its “strategic partner,” that is not an entirely accurate description. Russia is increasingly seen as the junior partner. 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). Current Russian GDP is nearly $2 trillion, and 2.8 percent of that is $50 billion. The U.S. spends over three percent of a $15 trillion GDP on defense but is reducing that a bit. Economy is destiny, as the Russians have learned. With recent spectacular economic growth in China, the Russians see the possibility of a return to the status of a major military power. At the moment China has twice as many troops and most of them have better weapons. But the cost 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. The Russians are also becoming aware that they were not much of a superpower back in the Soviet days. In Central Asia, where Russia is trying to reestablish dominance over the nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union, China is displacing Russia as the dominant economic power. That means stronger military and diplomatic ties with China as well.

September 21, 2013: Russia demanded that North Korea explain why one of its patrol boats fired on a Russian fishing boat in international waters (the Sea of Japan). There were no injuries. North Korean coast guardsmen boarded the Russian ship, questioned the captain, and left. This was a violation of international law, something the North Koreans frequently do.

September 19, 2013: Russia has ordered two icebreakers from a German shipyard. This is part of an expansion of naval forces off the northern coast, which is now ice free several months of the year and foreign shipping firms are planning to use this route regularly. This ice-free situation also allows Russian firms to more easily drill for offshore oil and gas up there. The icebreakers are needed to help get ships out of the area when the annual freeze appears suddenly. This often happens.

September 18, 2013: Russia has received certification of a model of its Mi-17 military helicopter equipped as a corporate and VIP (Very Important Person) transport. This Mi-17 version has additional navigation electronics, soundproofing, and safety systems, as well as a luxury interior for its passengers. The aircraft has three compartments. The forward one is for the pilots, the central one for 8 passengers and a flight attendant and the rear one for baggage. The certification guarantees that this model meets international standards for passenger helicopters. This is part of a continuing effort to make Russian commercial aircraft competitive in the international market. The Russian commercial aircraft industry fell apart and shrunk dramatically after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. For decades Russian commercial aircraft manufacturers had a monopoly selling airliners and helicopters to the civilian market in Russia and most communist ruled countries. The Russian stuff was serviceable but second rate compared to American or European aircraft. After 1991, the former Soviet airlines began replacing their Russian made aircraft with more efficient Western planes. The Russian aviation industry has been struggling to survive ever since. Russian military helicopters remained popular export items after 1991, because they were rugged and cheap. Now Russia has made them comfortable as well and seeks to expand its share of the helicopter market. 

September 17, 2013: Off the coast of Syria Russia has two destroyers, a frigate and two amphibious ships, with up to a thousand troops aboard. There are also several support ships, including an electronic surveillance vessel. The Russians have been maintaining a force this size off Syria for most of this year and relieves ships after a few months with ships from various parts of their fleet (Black Sea, Baltic, far north). Technically the ships are there to rescue Russian citizens if the rebels overrun most of the country. In fact, the ships are there to intimidate the more numerous foreign warships in the area, in case the West decides to intervene in favor of the rebels.

September 16, 2013: In the south (Chechnya) a suicide car bomber killed 3 soldiers and wounded 4 others.

September 11, 2013: The Russian military has agreed to adopt the new AK-12 assault rifle as part of its new “future soldier” (Ratnik) set of gear for its infantry. The U.S. pioneered this concept in the 1980s ("Land Warrior") and has since introduced new body armor, personal communications, wearable computers, night vision devices, and personal medical equipment. Several European countries have followed, especially the German Infanterist der Zukunft (“Infantryman Of The Future”), and now Russia has done the same. Unlike the United States, Russia has agreed to include a new rifle design (AK-12) as part of its Ratnik gear. There was a lot of opposition to the AK-12 within the Russian high command, but at the troop level there was an even more vigorous and louder call for something to replace the Cold War era AK-74. The entire Ratnik collection will undergo final acceptance tests before the end of the year. All the individual items of Ratnik (firearms, body armor, optic, communication and navigation devices, medical, and power supply systems, plus uniform items including knee and elbow pads) have been tested and accepted. A new rifle has been more of a problem, but it’s what the troops want, despite opposition from many generals.

September 8, 2013: Russia sent another air transport to the Syrian coastal town of Latakia to evacuate Russians civilians (and those from countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union) who want to get out of an increasingly dangerous war zone.

September 7, 2013: In the south (Dagestan) a policeman was killed when a terrorist bomb went off in his car.

September 6, 2013: Russia tested another of its Bulava (also known as R-30 3M30 and SS-NX-30) SLBMs (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile), and after about a minute of flight the Bulava failed and had to be destroyed. This was supposed to be a final test for Bulava, as well as for the second and third of the new Borei class SSBNs (ballistic missile nuclear subs or "boomers"). The Defense Ministry promptly ordered 5 more Bulava tests and delayed commissioning of the 2 new Boreis. This is but the latest in a decade of failures in developing a new SLBM for a new generation of SSBNs.

September 4, 2013: Russia has gone public with fears that their ambitious new warship building program may take up to 5 years longer. The Navy modernization plans are underway and include new equipment and facilities. New base construction is continuing in the Black Sea (at Novorossiisk, as an alternative to the old Soviet base of Sevastopol that is rented from Ukraine), the north coast (for the new Borei and Yasen class nuclear subs), and the Pacific (for the two new Mistral class amphibious ships). Dozens of new ships are on order and the navy is on schedule to complete the current modernization plans after another decade of effort if the promised money keeps coming. Money is not the big problem. The inability of the Russian defense industry, especially the shipyards, is. This problem is not a secret, the extent of it, however, is generally unknown. The public got a hint 3 years ago that something was very wrong. In 2010 the government announced its decision to buy 4 Mistral amphibious assault ships from France. This was just the beginning, as the Russian Defense Minister made it clear that Russia would seek more Western weapons and military equipment. Russia was planning to spend over $600 billion in the next decade to replace aging Cold War gear. The Defense Ministry insisted that the Mistral deal was but the first of many foreign purchases. Russia already had a deal with Israel to build a factory in Russia to build Israeli UAVs under license. Similar deals were made with other Western suppliers for armored vehicles from Italy and various bits of technology from other Western nations. The problems with the Russian defense industry are many. They include a shortage of skilled workers and competent managers, as well as corruption, very poor quality control, and a tradition of ignoring complaints from users. Changing these Soviet era habits has proved extremely difficult. There are simply too few competent Russian managers (in general) and fewer still willing to work in the defense industries. Same deal with skilled workers. Even during the late Soviet era the defense industry was regarded as a refuge for over-paid and corrupt incompetents. Imposing Western ideas like warranties and financial controls didn't work. The warranties were not honored and the financial controls were seen as an interesting challenge, not a new tool to aid management.

September 2, 2013: Russia recently announced that it would not, as earlier revealed, order 37 of its new (and still in development) MiG-35D fighters. Because of development problems, this order will now be delayed until 2016. The original price was to be about $29 million per aircraft. 




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