As Europe commemorates the hundredth anniversary of World War I starting Russia is displaying some of the same attitude that led to World War I. That conflict triggered a series of wars and revolutions that killed over 120 million people and everyone thought it had finally ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But in Russia nostalgia for empire and leaders who believe they can bully and deceive their way to victory has led to policies that threatened to drag the country into an economic catastrophe. It’s not exactly World War I but European nations are again facing Russian leaders who seem out of touch with reality. The Russian leadership is unwilling to halt its effort to annex part of eastern Ukraine via an ancient Russian technique of staging a rebellion and then trying to “help” by seizing the area in distress. Communists and Czars used this technique, as did many others. But Russia is no longer the scary Soviet empire but rather the wretched wreckage of that catastrophic colossus. Russia bravely dismiss American and European sanctions and threatens retaliation. The reality is different. Russian economists tell their bosses that encouraging sanctions is madness. It is also politically foolish because the government is so dependent on energy (natural gas and oil) exports and any interruption of that cash flow triggers a series of events (GDP shrinkage, unemployment and essential imports blocked by sanctions) which make the current government very unpopular. The Russian leaders are gambling, much like their czarist predecessors did in 1914, that things will somehow work out in their favor. Misplaced confidence and miscalculation is an ancient problem and not just in Russia. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does constantly paraphrase itself. At this point in time Russia does not need a paraphrase of its World War I experience.
The Ukraine situation got a lot worse a week ago when pro-Russian rebels shot down a Malaysian airliner that was passing through. The official Russian line is that the destruction of the Malaysian airliner was all a CIA plot to discredit Russia and justify NATO expansion. Russia claims a Ukrainian fighter shot down the airliner, which may be why the rebels kept international investigators away from the crash site for so long. Russian aviation experts know that when the wreckage is carefully examined parts of the missile that brought down the airliner will probably be found and identified. Photos of the wreckage already show damage characteristic of what a BUK (SA-11) missile warhead would inflict. The missile has a 70 kg (154 pound) warhead and a proximity fuze that detonates the warhead close to the target and sprays the target with a unique form of metal fragments.
This sort of anti-Western paranoia has been a Russian theme since the late 1990s and state controlled media (and hired Internet trolls) hammer away in support of it round the clock. Russia is now calling for more money to be spent on expanding the military, to counter the growing NATO threat. The Russian leadership portrays any real or imagined American moves as part of a plot to destroy Russia. All this still resonates in Russia, especially among older Russians. But the old, Soviet era, generation is dying out, and younger Russians consider this "NATO is the enemy" line as absurd. Russia has many real problems, like drugs, corruption and economic stagnation. Potential invasion by NATO is not a real problem, but the political leadership believes that talk of the "NATO threat" works with Russian voters. It does, but less and less.
The average Russian was horrified at the loss of the Malaysian airliner and 298 people (half of them Dutch). Russians are confused about their government’s media campaign to blame someone else for the tragedy. Since the government regained control of mass media over the last decade, Russians have come to distrust the broadcast news and rely more on the Internet for issues the government is obviously putting a lot of deceptive spin on.
Meanwhile Russian bankers and economists face some very real threats created by the current crises in Ukraine. The sanctions, especially those involving Russian access to credit in the West could trigger a major default and serious problems for some of the largest employers. Russian companies, including many in the oil industry, have to refinance $112 billion in corporate debt over the next four years. While Russian leaders think they can turn to China if cut off from Western financing the Chinese have displayed a pragmatic wariness of getting too involved in the Russian economy. This is largely because of the corruption and lack of a dependable legal system to settle disputes. Russian financial advisors to the government are urging caution, but so far no one at the top seems to be paying attention.
Western intelligence services believe the Buk M1 anti-aircraft vehicle that fired the two missiles that brought down the Malaysian airliner on July 17th was one of the 60 BUK self-propelled systems Ukraine was known to own. Some of these were captured by the rebels in Donbas and put to use with the help of Russian experts. Satellite photos show a BUK vehicle hastily moving to the Russian border after the 17th, with two of its four missiles missing. Ukraine also captured radio traffic featuring rebels talking about shooting down a Ukrainian transport on the 17th. There is no evidence that Russia ordered the airliner shot down. The rebels who fired the missiles appear to have believed they were firing at another Ukrainian military aircraft. One of those (an AN-26) had been shot down in June by the rebels. Ukraine did later record some rebel radio chatter of the “oops” variety when the rebels realized that an airliner carrying 298 people had been brought down rather than another AN-26. That was obvious when the wreckage, which was in a rebel controlled area of Donbas, was examined by rebel gunmen.
All this is about Ukrainian security forces striking back at rebel held areas and basically crippling Russian efforts to annex the Donbas. The two Ukrainian provinces (Donetsk and Luhansk) which comprise the Donbas are now mostly under government control and rebels are getting ready to defend what they have left. Donbas contains about nine percent of Ukrainian territory, 13 percent of the population and 15 percent of the GDP. Donbas is about 38 percent ethnic Russian. The two provinces comprise the Donets Basin (or “Donbas”) which was for a long time an economic powerhouse for Soviet Russia. But that began to decline in the 1980s and accelerated when the Soviet Union fell and Ukraine became independent in 1991. Ukraine wants to hold onto Donbas but needs foreign help to do so. With airliner incident, more foreign help appears to be coming.
July 22, 2014: The U.S. accused Russia of continuing to finance the pro-Russian separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine (Donbas). The U.S. also believes, based on satellite photos and electronic surveillance, that Russia is still supplying the rebels with cash, advisors and weapons.
July 21, 2014: After days of escalating pressure on Russia, the Ukrainian rebels turned over the two flight recorders (“black boxes”) from the downed airliner. The rebels also released the bodies they had collected, which had been loaded into four refrigerated railroad cars and allowed crash investigators (international and Ukrainian) access to the crash site.
In eastern Ukraine (Donetsk) four people were killed when rebels clashed with local Ukrainian militiamen near the airport. The Ukrainian Army has halted operations until the airliner situation can be taken care of, but there are pro-Ukraine militias operating in the Donbas that often do not follow orders from the army.
July 18, 2014: Ukraine reports that in the last week 52 of their soldiers have died fighting the Donbas rebels. Over two months of fighting have left at least 270 soldiers and over a hundred pro-Ukraine militia men dead in the fighting. Rebel losses are believed to be a bit higher.
In Donbas a growing number of pro-Russian residents are leaving for Russia. The loss of the airliner is interpreted by the locals as a bad sign and certain to bring even more attacks by the Ukrainian armed forces. Moreover the rebels have lost control of much of the Donbas meaning that rebel held areas have problems with electricity and water supplies. Although Russia has sent over a hundred truckloads of weapons, munitions and other supplies in the last week, morale among many of the rebels is low and more non-Ukrainians are seen in the rebel units.
July 17, 2014: A Malaysian airliner (flight MH17) flying over eastern Ukraine was shot down as it passed over territory controlled by pro-Russian separatist rebels in Donbas. The airliner was at an altitude of 10,000 meters and the rebels were known to have some captured anti-aircraft systems (BUK M1s) that can hit targets as high as 14,000 meters. For three days the rebels allowed only limited access to the site for international airline accident investigators. Before MH17 was shot down most airlines rerouted their flights between West Europe and points east away from eastern Ukraine. This increased flight time and cost, but was considered prudent. After today, all airlines are staying away from eastern Ukraine and nearby Russian territory.
July 16, 2014: Russia and Cuba signed a new military cooperation agreement that lays out the terms for Russia resuming the use of the Cold War era Lourdes intelligence monitoring complex. Built in the late 1960s, it was shut down in 2001 because of the cost ($200 million a year for rent alone) was too high for Russia. The new deal supersedes a similar agreement signed in 2006 that was never implemented. The Lourdes facility is 250 kilometers from the U.S. mainland.
July 15, 2014: Russian and Indian warships began joint exercises off the east coast of Russia in the Sea of Japan.
Russia continues to call for negotiations over the continued fighting in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian rebels who want the Donbas are to be part of Russia. Ukraine notes that Russia is still sending in aid for the rebels and does not seem to be sincere about negotiating.
July 13, 2014: In eastern Ukraine fighting flared up again and left nearly fifty soldiers, rebels and civilians dead in the Donbas. The Ukrainians are believed to be preparing for another bug push against the remaining Donbas rebels. Russia complained that an artillery shell landed on their side of the border and blamed Ukrainian forces fighting rebels in the Donbas. The Ukrainian air force is also regularly hitting rebel positions and the rebels are seen hustling to get more captured (or imported from Russia) anti-aircraft systems operational.