Russia: Mostly Quiet On The Donbas Front

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December 12, 2014: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) the cold weather has slowed down operations and both sides are making preparations for the return of warm weather and more lively military activity. Ukraine is trying to get NATO nations to supply more weapons as well as more pressure on Russia to get out of Donbas. It is unclear what Russia is planning because at the moment what concerns Russians most is the falling (now under $60 a barrel) price of oil and its devastating impact on the Russian economy. The falling oil price has nothing to do with Ukraine and is mainly about the development of effective fracking technology in the United States. This has created a sharp increase in oil and natural gas production in North America. But fracking is expensive and as the oil price declines a growing number of oil and natural gas operations dependent on fracking have to be shut down until the price increases again. Russia is hoping the lower oil prices will kill off fracking, but that won’t happen. Rising oil prices have always made it feasible to go after expensive to extract (like very deep or off-shore) oil and natural gas. As prices decline, these high cost operations have to be temporarily shut down, not eliminated entirely and forever.

In eastern Ukraine the new December 9th truce appears to be holding. Ukrainian forces are under orders not to fire back at the frequent harassing (machine-gun and other light weapons) fire from the rebels. This appeared to cause many instances of rebels firing to quickly cease. There have been a few dozen casualties, mostly on the Ukrainian side, since the truce began.

Meanwhile Russian warplanes continue to be very active over the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. All this activity appears to be for domestic consumption in Russia, where the pro-Russian “rebellion” in eastern Ukraine is stalled but the Western counterattack (sanctions, plunging oil prices and growing anti-Russian sentiment in the West) has not. As a practical matter, these flights give aircrew valuable training the military could not afford before. On the down side there are growing complaints that many of these Russian military aircraft are turning off their transponders (which air traffic control systems use to identify and precisely locate aircraft in commercial air space) and not filing flight plans and then flying into controlled (by the air traffic control system) air space. Russia is ignoring these complaints, apparently allowing their aircrews to use their eyes and onboard radar to avoid collisions. This is also good combat training but not the sort of thing you would openly acknowledge.  

The new Donbas truce is in contrast to the ceasefire agreement which saw over 200 people been killed in Donbas since September. Nearly 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died in Donbas during eight months of armed conflict, along with over 4,000 civilians. Russia began military operations (via pro-Russian rebels or Russian soldiers) in April. Ukraine believes that there are currently over 7,000 Russian soldiers in Donbas. Russia was warned by the West that if the pro-Russian rebels held their election on November 2nd (to establish a separate state) and Russia recognized it, this would be a violation of international law and would bring more sanctions. Russia used the same tactics to annex Crimea from Ukraine earlier this year and parts of Georgia in 2008. Russia did not follow through after the Donbas elections as they did in Crimea and have told Ukraine that more autonomy for Donbas would be satisfactory. The Donbas rebels demand independence for the five million people in Donbas areas that the rebels control. The Ukraine government refuses to accept that but 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. There’s a lot more popular support in Ukraine for resisting the Russian aggression than there is inside Russia for keeping it up. In fact most of the eight million ethnic Russians in Ukraine are hostile to the Russian aggression and Russia has managed to unite Ukrainians like nothing else before. The Ukrainian anger towards Russia is real and Putin has reason to be worried about it.

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 paranoid attitudes 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 and the plunging price of oil. An obvious sign of this is the value of the ruble against Western currencies. So far this year the ruble has lost over 30 percent of its value versus those currencies, making most imported goods noticeably more expensive. Russians are less able to afford overseas vacations and those that do go find that Russians are not as welcome as they used to be. Russian airlines are seeing foreign traffic decline as foreign passengers switching to non-Russian airlines when travelling into and out of Russia.

The fiscal damage (sanctions cutting off loans and the falling price of oil reducing government income and access to foreign currency) of the Ukraine (and similar future efforts) is not all that apparent to most Russians. The many imported goods Russians have become accustomed to since the 1990s are suddenly more expensive, forcing some to switch to cheaper, but often lower quality, Russian alternatives. Many of the sanctions are against wealthy individuals and senior officials. But the banking barriers and much reduced oil income is forcing the government to cut much needed (or just much wanted) projects. The massive effort to reform and rebuild the military is a major casualty of the cuts. This means fewer new weapons. There will also be cuts in the even larger effort to reform the health care system. This was never very great during the Soviet period but now Russians are comparing their state supported health care system with the many that are found in other European countries. Even some of the former communist countries (until 1989) of Eastern Europe now have better public health care than Russian. This annoys Russians a great deal and this is something Russians will come out and demonstrate about.

One of the major losses here is the Russian plan to buy Western weapons (and manufacturing technology) to improve the capabilities of the Russian arms manufacturers. One example of this loss is the two French amphibious ships Russia has bought. France has stood up to Russian threats and is sticking by its decision to not deliver the first of two Mistral class amphibious ships. This is all about NATO opposition to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Back in June France was willing to defy its NATO allies and deliver the first Mistral, as promised, before the end of 2014. But continued Russian aggression in Ukraine, including the shooting down of an airliner in July, persuaded France to halt delivery. Russia now threatens to sue in court, but the Russians may find themselves in court for war crimes over Ukraine, which would have an impact on the Mistral contract suit. Russia has not bought foreign warships for a long time, but the Mistral purchase was largely because of an eagerness to acquire Western shipbuilding technology and construction skills. This has already paid off, although not exactly how the Russians had planned. This became evident when a Russian official announced that the first Mistral would be built entirely in France. It had earlier been decided to have Russian shipyards build some sections of the first Mistral. It was quickly discovered that the Russian shipyard was not capable of building to the French specifications or do it according to the French timetable. The Russians expected to learn some valuable lessons from the French and, while embarrassing, this was one very valuable lesson. Russian shipyard officials have had their faces rubbed in the embarrassment of not being able to compete while using their current practices. Russian experts on Western production methods and techniques have long complained of the antiquated and inefficient methods still favored by Russian shipbuilders. Navy leaders have been complaining for decades about the poor quality of work coming out of Russian shipyards. The Mistral purchase was to put this to the test because the second Mistral is to be built in Russia, with plenty of French supervision and technical assistance. That is also being withheld because of the Ukraine situation.

The Russian effort to reform and rebuild its military continues to stumble forward, with plans and objectives constantly revised to deal with unexpected developments. The main problems have been money shortages and resistance to change within the military. The expansion strategy seen in Ukraine has again changed the reform and rebuilding process. The Russian Army is on the verge of annexing about half of Donbas, which is being touted in Russia as a great victory. This is good news and bad news for the Russian military. The good news is that the professional (volunteer “contract” troops) are staying in the military more frequently and more qualified civilians are joining up. The bad news is that parents of conscript soldiers killed in Ukraine are making a lot of media noise (despite government control of most mass media) about casualties and this makes even more potential conscripts willing to do whatever they can (bribery, fraud, leaving the country) to avoid serving. The international sanctions  and the falling price of oil have made it impossible to drop conscription completely just now.  For centuries the Russian Army was rightly feared because of its huge size and the determination of its leaders to win at any cost. That army died out in the 1990s and was replaced by not much. This meant that during recent Russian efforts to annex parts of Ukraine the Russians had to send in about twenty percent of their combat brigades. This included many of the most effective (Spetsnaz and airborne) and experienced (ones recently in the Caucasus) units. These brigades represent the best Russia has, as the rest of the army is crippled by inexperience and shortages of personnel and equipment. Russia is still trying to replace obsolete and worn out Cold War era weapons and equipment and it has been very slow going.

Ukraine is also suffering heavy economic damage because of the Donbas conflict, but the much larger economies of the West are feeling much less pain while providing Ukraine with billions in aid. This has enabled Ukraine to pay Russia nearly $400 million to get natural gas supplies turned back on. This, and coal from Donbas and Russia is what keeps Ukrainians warn during the months of very cold weather.

The Russian government has announced that it expects the economy to contract about one percent in 2014, after five years of GDP growth (of four percent a year or more). This will mean more unemployment and the first recession since 2009. According to Russian economists the sanctions have cost the economy about $40 billion while the falling price of oil has cost $100 billion or more.

December 11, 2014: For the ninth time this year a large convoy of aid supplies (food, medical, equipment and some military stuff) entered the rebel held portions of Donbas. This convoy carried about 1,200 tons of material. So far this year these convoys have brought in nearly 11,000 tons.

December 9, 2014: In Ukraine a new truce agreement went into effect. This replaced a September ceasefire that was often anything but as the rebels constantly violated it. In the next 24 hours there were twelve incidents of the pro-Russian rebels firing on Ukrainian troops, but usually with small arms and without causing many casualties. It got quieter after that.

December 7, 2014: Israeli warplanes bombed warehouses outside Damascus in an effort to destroy components of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems Syria is trying to set up. Russia had apparently shipped more S-300 components to Syria despite an August pledge to respect the UN sanctions and not do so. The last Israeli air attack was in February when Israeli aircraft came in low over the Lebanese-Syrian border and fired missiles that destroyed two trucks and killed four Hezbollah men. One of the trucks was carrying longer range rockets while the other truck contained a launcher for the rockets. On January 27th there was an Israeli air strike near the Syrian naval base at Latakia. This attack was said to be against some S-300 anti-aircraft missile components recently received from Russia. Before that an October 2013 raid destroyed a shipment of Russian SA-125 missiles being shipped to Hezbollah in Lebanon. There were two similar attacks earlier in 2013 and a total of five air strikes in Syria in 2013. Syria calls this illegal and accuses Israel of supporting the Islamic terrorist rebels and being largely responsible for the rebellion in Syria. This is part of a widespread belief that the rise of violent Islamic terrorist groups was not because of anything Moslems have done but a plot by Israel and the West. Iran also blames the West for “creating” ISIL. All these conspiracy theories ignore the fact that the growing Sunni/Shia conflict that Iran sponsors heavily has more to do with ISIL than anything the West does.  Russia has fewer problems with Islamic terrorists because they continues centuries old customs of coming down hard on this sort of thing. This appears to discourage a lot of potential recruits for Islamic terrorist organizations in Russia and makes it easier to find and kill the few who do continue to operate. Continuing with these policies the Russians feel they can keep the Islamic terrorist threat under control.

December 4, 2014: In the south (Chechnya) ten gunmen in three cars entered the capital (Grozny) killed three policemen who tried to stop them and then took refuge in a three story school and a taller officer building. Troops and more police soon responded and in twelve hours of pre-dawn-to-midday fighting killed all ten attackers. Ten soldiers and police died as well. The local Islamic terrorist group took responsibility.

Later in the day president Vladimir Putin addressed the nation via national (state controlled) TV and downplayed the role his aggressive foreign policy is having in the growing economic problems and criticism from the West. Putin blames it all on a Western (especially American) conspiracy against Russia. In the last decade, as the Putin controlled government restored Soviet era state control over all the national media the government used that media to depict Putin as a dynamic hero dedicated to making life better for all Russians. Limited efforts against corruption (the kind that was extremely destructive to the economy) and the rising price of oil (and lots of money spent on upgrading the shabby Cold War era oil industry) worked and life got better. But now a growing number of Russians see all that threatened and Putin is determined to make Russians believe that it is not his fault, but rather that of the evil West. Putin has put a lot of restrictions on Internet use in Russia, but a lot of outside news and ideas still gets in. This is causing many Russians to doubt the policies of their government and Putin is under pressure to shift the blame successfully. The fighting in Grozny was still going on when Putin began his address and he made a brief reference to it and that it was being taken care of. It was. The Putin media strategy is working so far. For example a recent opinion poll showed that 58 percent of Russians believe (as their government does) that the violence in Donbas is all the fault of the evil pro-Western Ukrainian government and not innocent Russia. Tell a lie often enough and a lot of people will believe it.

In Ukraine the government surprised everyone when they announced the successful negotiation of a new truce with the pro-Russian rebels in Donbas. The negotiations were carried out quietly. Russian media seemed surprised but when they contacted the Donbas rebels they were told that the truce deal was real. It’s unclear if Russia agreed to the truce. That sort of situation is nothing new as the pro-Russian Donbas rebels are still not united and many factions are not willing to do whatever the Russians want.

December 1, 2014: A new Arctic Military Command began operations using bases (near Norway) of the Northern Fleet and new bases being built east (all the way to Alaska) along Russia’s Arctic coast. This new command will impose active Russian control on the Arctic waters off northern Russia.

November 29, 2014: Pakistan and Russia signed economic agreements in which Russian banks provide a billion dollars in loans to Pakistan while both countries will cooperate in oil and natural gas exploration and production in Pakistan as well as plans to build pipelines north to Russia via Central Asia.

November 26, 2014: North Korea has reached out to Russia for protection from UN war crimes prosecution. China, unhappy with North Korean refusal to give up their nuclear weapons, can no longer be depended on to protect North Korea from UN war crimes investigations. Russia is desperate for allies, any allies, and has long worked to develop closer economic relations with North Korea. Now, in exchange for more economic opportunities in North Korea Russia will use its UN veto to try and protect North Korea from still more diplomatic problems (war crimes charges and more sanctions from the UN). North Korea was disappointed in its other efforts to gather more support to oppose the UN war crimes prosecutions. These efforts included releasing three American citizens they were holding, but aside from a “thank you” the U.S. did not take the hint and do anything for North Korea in the UN. Nice gestures were made to several other Western nations, all without benefit. China apparently promised to be useful in the UN if North Korea resumed the six nation talks over North Korean nuclear weapons. At the same time Chinese diplomats and spies inside North Korea report that Kim Jong Un was not willing to halt his nuclear program under any circumstances. Kim Jong Un sees the nukes as his ultimate defense against all his diplomatic, economic and internal (as the result of poverty, corruption and greater knowledge of the outside world) problems.

November 25, 2014: Although Russia and China are allies, Russia has no compunctions about selling major weapons systems to countries who need them for fighting China. This got into the news when today, for the first time ever, two Vietnamese warships visited the Philippines. The two Russian built frigates were obtained by Vietnam from Russia, along with six modern submarines, to provide some deterrence against growing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. Vietnam has joined forces with the Philippines and other Chinese neighbors to discourage China. So far it does not seem to be working. Meanwhile China and Russia talk of their military alliance becoming stronger and including more sales of Russian weapons (and military technology) to China. Both Russia and China have adopted the attitude that there is a Western conspiracy against them.

November 21, 2014:  Ukraine accused Russia of ordering its artillery inside Russia firing across the border at Ukrainian troops stationed near the Donbas.

Pakistan and Russia signed military cooperation agreements. Russia is seeking allies to offset the international sanctions imposed because of Russian aggression against its neighbors, specifically Ukraine. So far Russia has the support of Belarus, China, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela and now Pakistan. The agreement was signed in Pakistan where, for the first time since 1969 a Russian defense minister had visited. Since the 1980s relations with Russia were frosty because of the 1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the decade of fighting that followed. Since 2009 Russia and Pakistan have been discussing improving relations. As part of this closer relationship Russia recently agreed to sell Pakistan twenty Mi-35 helicopter gunships.

November 20, 2014:  In the UN Russia spoke out against moves to prosecute North Korean leaders for war crimes.

 

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