Russia: A Nuclear License To Steal

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September 1, 2014: In southeastern Ukraine several thousand Russian troops have invaded and are moving along the coast (on the Sea of Azov) towards Crimea. The Russian government (in the form of leader Vladimir Putin) has warned the West to not get involved in Ukraine otherwise Russia would consider using its nuclear weapons to protect Russian interests. This was a frightening development because Russia had, since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 cooperated in dismantling most of its nuclear weapons. The West provided billions in aid and technical assistance to help with this effort. Ukraine also agreed to give up the Soviet nukes it inherited in return for cash and a promise from Russia that Russia would never take advantage of the surrendered Ukrainian nukes to try and regain control of Ukraine. Now Russia ignores all the evidence, from inside Russia and Ukraine, that its officials are lying about Russian efforts to grab more Ukrainian territory (Crimea and Donbas). The rest of the world fears this might lead to a nuclear war. At the very least it has become clear that Russian feels it has a right to grab territory from its neighbors and is willing to see itself destroyed in a nuclear exchange if the rest of the world does not give in.  

So far the fighting in Donbas has left nearly 3,000 dead and over 300,000 Ukrainians driven from their homes, many of them ending up in refugee camps. The Ukrainian military is trying to get organized. Since Ukraine became independent in 1991 the military has been crippled by small budgets, corruption and a general attitude that military effectiveness was not important. Until recently if was believed that the 1990s “nukes for peace with Russia” agreement would be honored. When it became obvious earlier this year that Russia was reneging on that deal it was too late to quickly undo two decades of military mismanagement. There are too few officers who are honest and competent enough to get things done, like buying ammo, recruiting and training troops and leading them into combat effectively. Despite that Ukraine has been training troops for combat and organizing special counter-terror and urban combat units as quickly as it can and sending them off to Donbas. The United States and NATO have provided help unofficially since there is not yet a formal military alliance with Ukraine. The main problem here is that Russia has about ten times as many troops as Ukraine and for over a decade has been concentrating on getting theirs trained, equipped and into shape for combat. Ukraine has been at it for less than a year. Thus when Russia sends in troops, which it has done recently, the less competent Ukrainian forces have a hard time dealing with that. Russia is still reluctant to send in a larger force (over five or ten thousand troops, as in one or two combat brigades) and is still pretending that the Donbas rebels are locals. Most of them are in fact Russians, and most of them are trained soldiers, including a number of special operations troops to keep the rebels organized and functioning. That has been difficult with the Ukrainian August offensive which has caused many of the local separatists to desert. This apparently caused Russia to send in troops rather than risk seeing the pro-Russian rebels crushed.

Russia is feeling a lot more internal opposition as families of Russian soldiers killed or captured inside Ukraine demand information and explanations from the government. The state controlled media can keep this out of their news coverage but Russians can send videos of the anguished families, and even Russian soldiers, contradicting the official government line that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine. This is happening despite the families of dead or missing soldiers being warned to keep quiet (especially to foreign media) about their loss or what they have learned. Some of the few remaining independent TV and radio stations are also going public with what is really happening in eastern Ukraine. Hundreds of Russian troops have been killed, wounded or captured in eastern Ukraine so far and efforts to keep the troops and their families quiet are not working. Among Russians there is a lot of unhappiness with what their government is doing. Even some of the major Russian businessmen are urging the government to reconsider. The businessmen, along with government and non-government economists, are warning that the sanctions and loss of trust (from the rest of the world) will do an enormous amount of damage to the Russian economy. But the senior government officials insist that the West will back down and leave Ukraine with no choice but to let go of whatever territory Russia wants. Most Russians are also appalled at their governments threat to use nuclear weapons if the West and Ukraine do not give in to Russian demands. Nevertheless the idea of rebuilding the Russian Empire is popular with most Russians, especially older ones.

The 28 nations of the EU (European Union) are divided on how far to go with EU wide economic sanctions. Some of the smaller nations do not want to suffer the economic pain the trade sanctions will cause them. The major trading nations (especially the U.S. and Germany) are imposing their own sanctions and these are hurting Russia the most. Moreover the major banking countries (America, Britain and Germany) are also making it more difficult for Russian banks to get desperately needed credit. Russia is increasingly turning to China for help. But this makes many Russian leaders nervous as China could make demands as payback for such aid and do it sooner rather than later. China has long-held territorial claims and much of the Russian Far East and wants more access to Russian markets and technology. Chinese help here could cost more than Russia can afford in the long run.

August 23rd was the 75th anniversary of the secret (for a while) Nazi-Soviet treaty in which the two dictatorships agreed to divide up East Europe. Thus when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, so did the Russians and each side knew where to stop and who would have what. Russia then seized the Baltic States and tried to take Finland (which defeated that invasion). This treaty ended in 1941 when Germany reneged and invaded Russia. Europeans don’t like to dwell on the fact that they tried to negotiate with the Nazis and that allowed Germany to take a lot of territory without any interference from the major powers (France and Britain). But what happened in the late 1930s is happening again. Not the exact same situation. This time around Germany is one of the good guys and Russia is not as powerful, relatively, as the Soviet Union was back then. But the fundamentals are the same with a dictatorship (pretending to be a democracy) using all manner of subterfuge and deceit to justify aggression against a neighbor (Ukraine this time, Georgia in 2008). Then as now European nations are reluctant to confront the aggressor. The Russian threat to use their nukes is real, if remote. The fear of economic damage at home (even if it hurts Russia more) from the use of sanctions against Russia is a more immediate excuse to do nothing. Some EU members want to do as little as possible for Ukraine to avoid Russian economic retaliation. Russia is a major trading partner with Western Europe and imposing sanctions causes lots of lost business and unemployment in Europe. For European politicians the memory of what happened in the 1930s is not as important as getting reelected. Moreover, many European leaders believe their Russian counterparts are desperate and not willing to take the public backlash in Russia if they back off on the Ukrainian aggression and allow Ukraine to keep its territory intact. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has not hidden his contempt for Western leaders and his belief that in a test of wills Russia will win and the West will back off, just as they did 75 years ago.  

Russian hackers, believed to be from a Russian government Cyber War organization, have attacked some major American banks, apparently to steal data needed to carry out even more dangerous attacks later. This is what Russia did during past aggression with its neighbors, but taking on the United States is rather more dangerous and things on the Internet front could get downright nasty.

Germany recently cancelled a signed $134 million contract to build a modern military training facility for Russia. This cancellation was the result of the growing list of economic sanctions on Russia as a result of the Ukraine crisis. Many Russians fear the Ukrainian land-grab will cause major economic damage, but in the case of this German contract, the loss will mainly be to Russian efforts to modernize and upgrade their armed forces. This training center contract was to enable Russia to join the United States, Germany, China, Israel, and many other major military powers who are benefitting from the use of instrumented combat training centers. Russia had hired the German firm (Rheinmetall), which built such a training range in 2008 for Germany to basically build a very similar one in Russia. : In the case of this German contract the loss will mainly be to Russian efforts to modernize and upgrade their armed forces. Russia may turn to China to get this training center built as China has obtained the tech (apparently not always legally) and built their own.

The growing list of sanctions against Russia have hit the Russian arms industry particularly hard because new Russian weapons depend on Western suppliers for some of the high tech components needed. China is taking advantage of this by pointing out that China has become a major producer of high end electronic and mechanical components and can probably replace Western suppliers now unavailable because of the sanctions. While Russia does not buy a lot of foreign weapons it does buy a lot of high-tech components (especially electronic ones) from the West. A lot of these items are dual use items that China (and other East Asian countries) also manufacture a lot of. China backs Russian efforts to annex parts of Ukraine and is hostile to sanctions (which it has been under for several decades). China believes they can replace enough Western suppliers to Russia to create about a billion dollars a year in additional business for Chinese firms.

The EU has given Russia one week to pull their troops out of Ukraine, otherwise more sanctions will be applied.

August 31, 2014: The Ukrainian army has sent more troops to Donbas to keep offensive operations going. Ukraine also carried out a prisoner swap with Russia, sending back nine Russian paratroopers in return 63 captured Ukrainian soldiers. In the Sea of Azov Donbas rebels opened fire on a coast guard patrol boat, causing several casualties.

August 30, 2014:  In eastern Ukraine government forces are pulling out of Ilovaisk, Novosvitlivka and Khryashchuvate.  All these towns are near the Russian border and Luhansk (the second-largest rebel-held city). Ukraine taken the three towns in the last month and was closing in on Luhansk when the Russian troops suddenly invaded.

August 29, 2014: Russian leaders are using a new term, “New Russia” to describe what they are doing in Ukraine and, without saying so, plan to do elsewhere. The objective is to restore the old Russian Empire. It was built by the czars over several centuries, taken over by the communists in the 1920s and then lost by the communists in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. This caused have to Soviet population to leave for newly formed nations. Current Russian leaders, especially Vladimir Putin, are quite explicit in describing this loss of empire as “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.” Many Russians agree, although most of the people in the 14 new nations created from the wreckage of that empire do not agree. Putin now calls for Ukraine to negotiate autonomy (and eventually statehood) for Donbas. That would be followed by Donbas asking to join the New Russia.

In eastern Ukraine a Su-25 ground attack jet was shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft missile.

Ukraine is reviving conscription. It was only in 2013 that the always unpopular conscription was eliminated and the military went over to an all-volunteer force. Then came the Russian invasion. Before the end of the year is over 100,000 young men will be conscripted. It will take time to train the new recruits and Ukraine is asking NATO to supply trainers because many of the Ukrainian soldiers who would normally handle that are off fighting the Russians. Ukrainians are also discussing joining NATO, something many Ukrainians opposed in the past because there was fear it would make Russia very angry. That anger is no longer an issue but a reality and belonging to NATO seems one way, although a risky one, to keep the Russians out.

August 28, 2014: Another three Russian Mi-28N helicopter gunships arrived in Iraq. These were delivered via air transports after the helicopters were broken down to fit inside the aircraft. This is the second part of an Iraqi order for fifteen Mi-28Ns. Delivery is being accelerated. The first three arrived in early July. This speed is in the best interests of the manufacturer as well as Iraq as the Mi-28Ns would be soon (after a week or more for reassembly and checkout) sent into combat against Islamic terrorists in northern and western Iraq. This would make the Mi-28N “combat tested” in a region where more export sales of the Mi-28N have been sought. Combat tested aircraft are always easier to sell. Russian pilots and maintainers were apparently sent as well.

August 27, 2014: In southeast Ukraine several thousand Russian troops, with over a hundred tanks and other armored vehicles continued their advance into the Donbas along the Sea of Azov coast. This has been going on since the 25th and these invaders join the 3,000 or so Russian “volunteers” already serving with the rebels. The surprise Russian invasion, accompanied by artillery fire from inside Russia and several Russian helicopters, soon captured the Ukrainian coastal town of Novoazovsk. The initial advance was about 50 kilometers and apparently the Russians plan to seize the entire Ukrainian Sea of Azov coastline. This includes the port city of Mariupol and would establish a land link with Crimea.

August 26, 2014: Russian supreme leader Vladimir Putin and the president of Ukraine spoke with each other for about two hours in Belarus. This was the first such discussion since June. Apparently nothing came of this talk. Later Putin told Russia and the world that Russia was not involved in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Putin insisted this was all an internal Ukrainian matter and Russia was not involved. Other Russian officials met with EU counterparts and these talks also produced no useful result.

August 25, 2014: In eastern Ukraine ten Russian paratroopers were captured ten kilometers inside Ukraine. Russia later said the troops simply got lost. Russian artillery and rocket launchers on the Russian side of the border in the southeast (on the Sea of Azov coast) began firing on Ukrainian troops inside Ukraine. Russia denied this was happening. Ukraine reported that their artillery had fired on a column of armored vehicles that moved across the border today.

August 22, 2014: Over 200 Russian trucks, which the Russians claim only contain humanitarian supplies, illegally crossed into Ukraine.  

August 20, 2014: A Russian air transport delivered two RD-180 rocket engines to the United States. In July 2014 Russia announced that despite their aggression against Ukraine and subsequent U.S. sanctions on some Russian officials and firms, Russia was not going to retaliate by halting shipments of RD-180 rocket engines. Back in May, after Russia announced it was going to halt RD-180 shipments the U.S. did two things. First it protested to Russia, without much effect, that halting the RD-180 shipments was breach of contract and that breaching this particular contract would do enormous damage to Russian exports in the future because now many countries and firms realize that a contract with a Russian firm can be cancelled by the Russian government for any reason. This was always seen as a risk when doing business with Russia and many Western firms declined to do so or have pulled out of Russia in the last decade because of the growing unreliability of Russia as a business partner. The RD-180 affair got a lot of publicity, all of it bad with regard to future Russian exports of manufactured goods. Europe, which gets about a third of its natural gas from Russia, is already looking for alternate sources and investors are fleeing Russia (and taking their money with them).  In July Russia admitted that it was going to continue shipping the RD-180s because it needed the money. It was no secret that the profits from the RD-180 sales was keeping several Russian firms (rocket engine design firms and the engine manufacturer) in business. Unofficially Russian trade officials had warned their bosses about the problem with the loss of future export business and this was apparently listened to, but could not be mentioned officially. The corruption in Russia and the problems foreign firms are having with that, and the eternally difficult Russian bureaucracy are all known problems inside Russia but have proved impossible to fix so far. Russia needs the exports, even though the official line is that the sanctions are not hurting.

August 19, 2014: In eastern Ukraine government forces continue to push back separatist rebels. Fighting continues in the rebel held city of Luhansk. Large explosions from the fighting in the city can be heard across the border in Russia. Luhansk has been without electricity, running water or phone service for nearly three weeks and is expected to fall to Ukrainian troops soon. To the south, Donetsk, the other large city in Donbas is also under pressure and is expected to fall more quickly once Luhansk is taken.

August 16, 2014: In eastern Ukraine a rebel leader said Russia was sending 150 armored vehicles and 1,200 troops to assist the rebels in halting a government advance into Donbas. Russia denies any such aid. Meanwhile Ukraine approved the entry of nearly 300 Russian trucks carrying aid for Luhansk, but only if the UN verified that it was indeed humanitarian aid. The UN blessing was delayed over disputes about security for the trucks once they entered Ukraine. The UN also insisted that its personnel would supervise disbursement of the aid. There was never any agreement on this either. The convoy has been stuck on the Russian side of the border since the 12th.

Iran ordered all its Russian made An-74 transports grounded. Some of these have been involved in accidents in the past. The An-74 is a 19 ton, twin engine military transport made in Russia. This grounding order is a result of the recent grounding of An-140s. The main cause of these crashes are the economic sanctions which have produced a shortage of aircraft replacement parts in Iran. Rather than ground a lot of aircraft the government allowed a bad maintenance situation to develop. That resulted in a sloppy attitude towards aircraft safety. In some cases nearly two percent of large aircraft (especially transports) have been lost in one year. That is an incredibly bad safety record. As recently as the 1980s Iranian civil aviation was one of the safest in the world. The clerics running the country as a religious dictatorship blame the aviation disasters on the United States and Israel. Secret agents and all that. Some Iranians believe that, but by now most do not. On the 11th Iran ordered all of its An-140 aircraft grounded because another one of them crashed on the 10th killing 39 people (another nine survived). The 19 ton An-140 is a twin turboprop aircraft designed in Ukraine and usually built in Russia. Since introduced in 2007 it has been used mainly as a civilian aircraft (it can carry 52 passengers). The An-140s sold to Russia are modified for military use. The civilian version sells for about $9 million each, but the militarized version (sturdier landing gear, more electronics, configured to carry five tons of cargo) increases the price to about $12 million. This is about half the price of a similar Western aircraft. That economy comes at a cost, as six of the 40 An-140s delivered so far have crashed. However, three of those were An-140s built under license in Iran. Thus Iran suspects there are not only problems with the basic design of the An-140 but also with how they were built in Iran.

August 15, 2014: Ukraine offered the Donbas rebels more autonomy but the rebels refused this offer as inadequate and insist that they will settle only for independence. Ukraine reported that their forces fired on a column of Russian armored vehicles that moved across the border today. Russia denied that this happened.

August 14, 2014: In eastern Ukraine two senior rebel leaders resigned. The rebels have been suffering a lot of battle losses and desertions in the last month as government troops steadily regain rebel held territory.

 

 

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