Russia: Rebuilding The Empire Has Not Been Easy


December 22, 2013: Russian efforts to gain more control over the Ukrainian government are running into growing popular opposition. Over the last four weeks huge demonstrations in the Ukrainian capital have stalled government efforts to replace a popular economic deal with the EU (European Union) and instead adopt a less favorable arrangement with Russia. This year has been difficult for Russian efforts to keep Ukraine from getting closer to Europe. Most Russians feel Ukraine should be a part of Russia, while most Ukrainians disagree. Ukraine got free in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and want closer economic and political ties with Europe. To that end Ukraine began 2013 by signing a $10 billion contract with a major oil company to develop shale gas fields in Ukraine. Within a decade this could eliminate the need to import natural gas from Russia. This would free Ukraine from Russian threats to halt gas shipments if Ukraine did not do as it was told. This sort of thing has gotten nasty in the past.

In 2009 a natural gas price dispute between Russia and Ukraine led to a cutoff of some 20 percent of the gas used in Western Europe (arriving via pipelines going through Ukraine). This was not supposed to happen, and Ukraine and Russia blamed each other for it. After two weeks of threats and negotiations Russian natural gas shipments, via the pipeline the transits Ukraine, resumed to Western Europe. The West European nations now had an agreement with Ukraine and Russia to station monitors at the natural gas pumping station, to settle disputes over whether Russia was sending the proper amount of gas, or Ukraine was diverting it. Ukraine agreed to pay more for the natural gas it got from Russia, but not as much as Russia was originally asking.  Western Europe, in general, is losing patience with the unreliable, and often criminal, manner in which Russian firms do business. Many of these firms are state owned, and the Russian government is being told to shape up, or lose a lot of business with Western Europe. Thus it was not surprise that days after Ukraine announced its new shale gas effort, Russia demanded another $7 billion for gas delivered last year. Ukraine accused Russia of fraud and intimidation. The tensions between Russia and Ukraine grew worse until the current crises was reached. The trigger was a trade deal with the EU deal Ukrainian president Yanukovych promised to negotiate when he came to power in 2010. But once the deal came close to signing Russia responded with overt and secret deals that persuaded Yanukovych to change his mind. This enraged most Ukrainians who saw this as another example of the dirty dealing from the Russians that they wanted to get away from. Yanukovych has lost a lot of support in the security forces and has been unable to shut down the protests, which persist and get larger. The outcome is still in doubt.

The Russian government can still count its backing of the Syrian government (against a popular uprising) as successful. Russian arranged a chemical weapons disarmament deal in Syria that crippled Western aid for the rebels and, along with thousands of Iranian supplied mercenaries, has the Syrian government on the offensive. On the downside there are the hundreds of Russian Moslems who have gone to Syria to fight for the rebels. In response Russia recently announced that it was making plans to deal with the Syrian Islamic terrorists who did return to their homes in Russia (largely in the Caucasus, but some are from other Moslem communities in Central Asia, the Crimea and some major urban areas). Some have already returned, not all of them with lethal intent. But the government insists it has everything under control.

Meanwhile the Russian government is defending its own borders more vigorously against all sorts of threats. It was recently reported that so far in 2013 427,000 people have been told they could not migrate to Russia. This is six times more than were kept out in 2012 and the result of simply enforcing more vigorously existing migration regulations. So people are turned away for not being able to speak enough Russian or because they had been expelled before as illegal migrants. The government believes that there are nearly four million illegal migrants in Russia and however many there are they are not popular, especially the Moslem ones.  Russia estimates that there are 11 million foreign workers in the country (legal and illegal) and that only six million of them are needed. Too many foreign workers means that some native-born Russians will not be able to get work.

Another troublesome issue is the sad state of the military. More than a decade of reform attempts have left the Russian military not much better off. This effort did reveal that the corrupt practices that were created during the Soviet era (including some inherited from the czars) were surviving and thriving in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Russia is having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that the corruption that helped bring down the czarist government in 1918 survived that revolution and grew to bring down the Soviet Union. Now it threatens the quasi-democratic Russia that could, if there were enough will, actually do something about it.

Although the Cold War ended in 1991 with a Russian loss, many Russians refuse to accept that outcome, nor the loss of half the Russian empire that the czars (mainly) and the communists spent several centuries putting together. Thus we have senior Russian officials still accusing the United States of planning to destroy Russia in various imaginative ways. This is supposed to distract Russians from the corruption that causes most of the problems in the country. It works, but not well enough to quell the popular anger at the incompetent way the country is run.

One of the major irritations is the persistence of conscription. Over the last decade the Russian government has been under growing pressure to get rid of conscription. Unable to do that because so few people are willing to join the military (even at competitive pay rates), the government has improved living conditions (a lot). Russia has tried to change public attitudes towards the armed forces by publicizing all the new changes and programs. But word got around that most of these efforts failed. Blame that on the Internet. Polls constantly show that most military age men do not want to serve in the military, and the knowledge (from recently discharged conscripts telling their stories over the Internet) that the hazing and prison-like conditions in the barracks still exists. Coming in 2014 is another year of the same old military mess.

Russia is forming a new major command, the VDV (Rapid Reaction Force) which will consist of the current airborne, special operations and marine troops. All these will operate under one VDV commander and VDV staff. The air force and navy will supply transportation in addition to vehicles each unit has and access to the national railroads. The air force and navy will also provide fire support as needed. The VDV staff will prepare and maintain lists of potential trouble spots and come up with a plan for which VDV units can most quickly respond and exactly how they will do that. Thus while the military in general declines, the government wants some of the better run portions (the nuclear weapons units and special operations forces) taken care of as these are the main defense for the nation.

Japanese complaints about growing incidents of Russian warplanes flying close to Japanese air space have left Russian officials perplexed. The Russian aircraft are flying more training missions in the Pacific and there is a lot of Japanese airspace off the east coast of Eurasia, so Russian warplanes out there cannot avoid passing close to Japanese air defense radars. Russia is actually trying to negotiate closer military ties with Japan, as part of an effort to give both countries more security from any craziness coming out of North Korea. But there has been so much bad blood between Russia and Japan for over a century that it’s difficult to really change things.

December 16, 2013: The government admitted (after satellite photos showed up in the media) that it had moved Iskander ballistic missiles to its western borders. Back in 2009 the U.S. bowed to Russian pressure and agreed to scrap its plan for an anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic (to defend Europe against Iranian missiles.) This greatly demoralized East European nations, who had been looking to the U.S. for help in keeping the Russians away. In response Russia said it would not install 60 Iskander ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad where they could destroy the American anti-missile missiles. Russia feared that the anti-missile system would interfere with Russian ballistic missiles aimed at Europe. The cancellation of the American anti-missile effort was popular in Russia but the paranoia about the West continued and this led to the recent secret movement of the Iskanders (with a 500 kilometer range) to the border area where they can threaten Eastern Europe. Russia also announced that it was developing a new ICBM to replace the Cold War era RS-20B. This missile is meant for targets in North America. Russia responds to Western criticism about Iskander by repeating that this deployment does not violate any international agreements.  

In the Caucasus (Kabardino-Balkaria) police cornered and killed four Islamic terrorists wanted for attacking tourists (and killing two) and a ski resort.

December 14, 2013: A man in the Urals (Orenburg) found 1,200 hand grenades in a forest and brought them to the police. For this he received a $36,500 reward, and possible retaliation from any owner of the grenades (as in an illegal arms dealer) who was still around. The government offers these rewards to encourage people to turn in finds like this. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 a lot of Soviet era weapons simply disappeared.

December 12, 2013: President Putin admitted (for the first time) that Russia’s economic problems were self-inflicted. Recently government economists lowered growth prospects (from 4 percent between now and 2030 to 2.5 percent and similar reductions for near-term growth). That was seen as largely the result of world oil and gas prices declining because of the American fraking revolution. This has eliminated the fear of declining oil and gas supplies. Since oil and gas are the principal Russian exports and source of foreign currency, that is very bad for Russia. Corruption and lack of a reliable legal system has scared off foreign investment and made it difficult for Russian entrepreneurs to create new businesses and expand existing ones. More painful is the comparison with Western Europe, which lacks much oil but has a much better business climate. Britain, for example, has half the population of Russia but a GDP that is 25 percent larger than Russia’s. Putin insisted that the government will keep trying to come up with solutions that work.

December 4, 2013: Afghanistan signed a deal to import 500,000 tons of petroleum products from Russia. The Afghans are more and more intent on freeing themselves from dependence on Pakistani roads and the Pakistani port of Karachi for exports and imports. The new petroleum deal involves government purchases as well as private companies that will sell to the general public. Russia and many Central Asian countries see economic opportunities in Afghanistan. These nations also want to be involved in Afghanistan as a means to helping stem the flow of opium and heroin into Central Asia and Russia (and now China as well).

December 2, 2013: In November the security forces killed 30 Islamic terrorists in the Caucasus and arrested fifty. Six of the dead were identified as leaders. In November there were 24 terrorist attacks in the Caucasus, including four bombings.

December 1, 2013: The latest Russian SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) design, the Bulava (also known as R-30 3M30 and SS-NX-30), was almost cancelled because test flights kept failing. But the government believes there is no better option than to keep trying to make Bulava work. It was recently revealed that the September 6th Bulava test launch failed because one of the engine nozzles was incorrectly manufactured. The nozzles have been replaced in the three remaining Bulava’s from that batch. The investigation into the September 6th failure concluded that the Bulava design was sound but that there continued to be problems with manufacturing components and that current quality control measures are not catching the flaws. So five more test launches are scheduled for 2014 and as many more as needed after that.





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