Russia: Why The Neighbors Are Nervous

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October 31, 2014: In eastern Ukraine over 160 people have been killed in Donbas since the September ceasefire. Over 3,700 have died in Donbas since Russia began military operations (via pro-Russian rebels or Russian soldiers) in April. Russia has been warned by the West that if the pro-Russian rebels hold their election on November 2 nd (to establish a separate state) and Russia recognizes it, this will be a violation of international law and will bring more sanctions. Russia used the same tactics to annex Crimea from Ukraine earlier this year and parts of Georgia in 2008. Russia blames the United States for all the anti-Russian attitudes among its neighbors. President Putin and many Russians see America as continuing the Cold War by conspiring to weaken Russia. Many Russians, however, note that their neighbors don’t agree and see Russia returning to its traditional paranoia about all foreigners. These Russians realize that there are bad habits in Russia (aside from tolerance for corruption and outlaw behavior) that need to be changed before Russia can move forward. But at the moment the traditionalists are in charge and it’s paranoia as usual. The average Russian feels the impact of all this with shortages and high inflation, all brought on by the sanctions.

The Donbas rebels demand independence for the five million people in Donbas areas that the rebels control. The Ukraine government refuses to allow that and is willing to negotiate some autonomy. Most Ukrainians, and many Russians believe the Russian government wants to annex Donbas and nothing less will do. Russia quickly discovered that seizing Donbas was going to be a lot more difficult than anticipated. Part of the problem was the unexpectedly robust resistance by Ukrainian forces. In particular the Ukrainian volunteer forces fighting in eastern Ukraine were particularly effective against Russian sponsored troops and Russian regular forces. These volunteer units comprise about 20 percent of the 50,000 armed personnel Ukraine has sent to the Donbas.

While Israel has expressed sympathy for Ukraine in their confrontation with Russia, when Ukraine asked to purchase some Israeli UAVs, the Israeli government intervened and blocked the sale (which Israeli manufacturers were willing to make). The reason was because Israel needed good relations with Russia, especially when it came to persuading the Russians to refrain from selling Iran modern weapons or the technology that would enable Iran to do so. This was a rare win for Russia in its diplomatic and media campaign to justify their Ukraine aggression. With Israel the Russians have not won over Israeli public opinion (which sees Russia as the bad guys) but they have managed to use their diplomatic muscle to foil Ukrainian efforts to get needed military equipment.

While Russian aggression in Ukraine gets most of the headlines, there’s plenty of Russian misbehavior against other neighbors as well. Finland reports growing Russian military activity on the border and against Finnish ships in the Baltic. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (the “Baltic States” that were long part of Russia) are receiving similar harassment, as well as Russian offers of a large discount on what they pay for Russian natural gas if they will leave NATO. None of the Baltic States sees this as a good deal and consider NATO their only real protection from Russian aggression.

Russia’s neighbors also agree that there has been a lot more activity by Russian “diplomats” posing as spies since the Ukrainian crises began in late 2013.  East Europeans have been openly comparing Putin’s aggression to that of Stalin and Hitler before World War II. Russians get very upset at these comparisons, insisting that they are only seeking to regain territory that is really theirs’ and lost due to foreign conspiracies. At that point Russian logic introduces imaginary plots by NATO and the United States which strike Westerners as absurd but appeal to a lot of Russians. That’s what makes Russia’s neighbors nervous because it is a repeat of previous instances of Russian aggression. Russian neighbors, particularly Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are increasing defense spending and getting their military forces ready for Russian aggression.

Russia is being forced to depend on China for tech and cash it can no longer get from the West because of the growing sanctions. As much as Russian leaders loathe and fear NATO, many also resent being forced to grant China access to Russian markets, raw materials and military technology in payment for help coping with the sanctions. Russian leaders believe they can handle China and Chinese leaders believe their economic power will give them unprecedented control over Russia. Someone has miscalculated here and it is as yet unclear who. While China gains more raw materials and export markets along with improvements to its locally developed weapons, Russia is forced to halt its efforts to diversify its economy away from dependence on raw materials exports. The diversification depended on Western tech and investment. That has been halted for the moment and the Chinese can’t replace it. Many Russians see this as a bad decision and that helps fuel the growing popular opposition to the government.

The Russian leadership is divided about the ultimate cost of these border wars. The nationalists, led by president Putin, are willing to sacrifice to rebuild the empire. But many in the leadership see the cost as too high and the rebuilding of the empire as impractical in the face of Western opposition. Because of the sanctions the economy is being weakened, leading to a recession and lots of Russians, rich and poor, are going to feel the loss. Economic experts warn of long-term damage as Western governments and firms decide that Russia cannot be trusted and, even after the current crises, charge extra because of the perceived risks of dealing with Russians. This surcharge, and the distrust underlying it, will hurt the Russian economy for decades to come. Also damaging is the growing Chinese economic power inside Russia. Even many Russian nationalists fear this while other pro-empire Russians believe the Chinese are intrinsically weak and will fold under pressure. That’s not what the Chinese think and some Russians are well aware of that. A growing number of Russians believe they are being ruled by a dictator, who only pretends to respect democracy and will, if cornered, use force to remain in power. President Putin dismisses such accusations, while continuing to operate like they are all too true.

The aggressive Russian response to the sanctions is being expressed in the east as well as the west. Thus in the last six months Chinese aircraft fell from first to second place as the most common threat Japanese air defense forces have to deal with. Now, again, it’s Russian aircraft that are most frequently triggering a response. From April to September this year Japanese aircraft went up over 531 times to confront intruders. Russian aircraft (often recon aircraft) coming too close to Japanese air space accounted for 61 percent of these incidents while Chinese intrusions (mostly warplanes) accounted for 39 percent. While 2013 was the first year Chinese intrusions exceeded Russian ones, this did not become a trend. But Chinese intrusions have become more common. This has been coming for several years. In 2011 nearly 43 percent of the sorties were for Chinese aircraft. That was nearly three times as many Chinese intrusions as in 2010. Meanwhile Russian intrusions have been declining. In 2011, Russia still accounted for 52 percent of the intrusions and now they are back on top again.

October 30, 2014: The EU (European Union) and the United States agreed to provide the cash to ensure that Ukraine pays for its Russian natural gas supplies. The deal includes Ukraine getting a 20 percent discount on Russian gas and the EU assured of Russian gas imports continuing without interruption. The EU gets a third of its natural gas from Russia and half of that is delivered via a pipeline passing through Ukraine. The EU and America now have a large financial interest in curbing the corruption that has hobbled Ukraine since it became independent again in 1991.

In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) pro-Russian rebels killed seven Ukrainian soldiers. This was the most violent incident in the Donbas in two weeks.

October 29, 2014: In the last two days NATO nations experienced more than a hundred intercepts of Russian military aircraft flying close enough to their air space to warrant sending up fighters to check out the intrusion.  These incidents occurred in the Baltic Sea, North Sea, Atlantic Ocean and the Black Sea.

October 28, 2014: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) a deal was worked out that allows a hundred Ukrainian paratroopers, trapped by pro-Russian rebels at a checkpoint since September, to retreat. The paratroopers had lost ten dead and even more wounded during resupply operations in the last month.

October 27, 2014:  The government is passing laws making it more difficult for Russian individuals and businesses to move large sums of money out of the country. This has always been a problem, first as corrupt politicians and businessmen moved dirty (illegally obtained) money out of the country for safekeeping. Now you also have a lot of money moved out because corruption (and now sanctions) made investing overseas more attractive than doing so inside Russia. This is what is causing over $100 billion to be moved out of the country in 2014 and because of that there is one more problem (shortage of cash) operating within the Russian economy.

October 26, 2014: Parliamentary elections were held in Ukraine. While only 52 percent of voters turned out anti-Russian and pro-West candidates won a majority.

October 24, 2014: Sweden called off a six day hunt for an unidentified submarine. The mystery sub was spotted several times off the coast, within Swedish territorial waters. Swedish radio monitoring units picked what appeared to be a distress call from the sub that appeared directed to a Russian cargo ship that lingered just outside Swedish territorial waters for several days. This was believed to be the mother ship for a Russian mini-sub. During the Cold War Russian subs often entered Swedish territorial waters on training or espionage missions. Some were spotted and a few were caught at it. At most, Russia would apologize. The intrusions stopped with the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 but now they are back. In this incident it was thought that a Russian mini-sub was sent in to observe a joint naval exercise involving Swedish, Dutch, Danish and Polish ships. The mini-sub encountered some sort of problem and apparently overcame it and got away. This incident is expected to cause local navies to improve their anti-submarine capabilities with new equipment and more training.

October 20, 2014: A former Polish foreign minister revealed that during discussions with Vladimir Putin in 2008 the Russian leader suggested that Russia and Poland partition Ukraine. Putin commented that Ukraine was an “artificial country.” This is something many Russians agree with and most Ukrainians denounce as more Russian propaganda.

October 17, 2014: Discussions among Ukrainian, Russian and EU officials to peacefully settle the situation in eastern Ukraine failed. In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and three wounded by pro-Russian rebels using sniper fire and mortars to attack Ukrainian Army positions.

October 16, 2014: France denied a Russian claim that a French shipbuilder was going to deliver the first of two Mistral class amphibious ships in November. In September France suspended delivery of the Mistrals. At first (back in June) the French said they would fulfill the 2011 contract that sold two French Mistrals, for $1.7 billion, to Russia. This was the largest Russian purchase of Western weapons since World War II. The deal was delayed for a long time because the Russians demanded the transfer of shipbuilding and electronics technology (which was eventually agreed to). At the time the dispute over Donbas, in which the European Union and NATO support Ukraine, was still relatively low key. But as the situation escalated to outright war France had second thoughts.

In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) pro-Russian rebels again attacked the airport outside Donetsk, killing three Ukrainian soldiers with mortar fire.

The U.S. has agreed to sell Poland 40 AGM-158A JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles), plus training missiles, test and maintenance equipment and special equipment for the Polish F-16s that will use JASSM. Poland needs JASSM to deal with modern air defenses Russia is building. Russia is the only real enemy Poland has in the region and Poland wants to be prepared for the worst. As a member of NATO Poland expects back up if the Russians come after them and JASSM provides a way to discourage or at least slow down Russian aggression. The Russians responded by moving some military assets farther away from Poland.

October 14, 2014: The U.S. and Russia agreed to renew the exchange of intelligence data on Islamic terrorist groups. This sharing had been interrupted because of the Russian aggression in Ukraine.

In Ukraine the parliament passed new anti-corruption laws. This is in response to popular anger over the failure of the new government to do much about obviously corrupt officials. The new laws are not expected to have much impact.

October 13, 2014: Russia and China signed 40 new business agreements that provide China with more access to Russian markets and raw materials and provide Russia with credit from Chinese banks. This credit replaces, at least partially, access to credit that was cut by the sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine situation.

Internet security firms and Microsoft (the publisher of the most widely used PC operating system in the world) report that they have identified another Russia based hacker group that has been responsible for another surge in attacks on PCs and networks in the West. 

 

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