The fighting in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) has killed over 6,000 since April 2014. Most of those dead have been civilians and over a million people have been driven from their homes. Russia is causing itself lots of additional problems by continuing to pretend that Russia is not supplying the Ukrainian rebels with weapons, supplies (especially ammunition) and Russian troops to do most of the fighting. In Ukraine the Russian backed rebels are actually disorganized, discouraged and not all that effective. Interrogations of captured rebels indicate that there are many different factions, some of them not even from Ukraine (like the “Cossack” units from southern Russia). The Cossacks are very nationalist and really keen on rebuilding the Russian empire (which is what Cossacks were invented for centuries ago). The Cossacks were welcome arrivals when they showed up in 2014, because the original local Donbas rebels quickly lost their enthusiasm when their uprising triggered a nationalistic fervor throughout Ukraine and inspired Ukrainian troops and armed volunteers to fight a lot harder than the rebels expected. Russia, which sponsored and encouraged the rebels from the start soon found that the only way they could take territory was to send in Russian troops and heavy weapons (tanks, artillery, rocket launchers, missiles). The special operations units (Spetsnaz) were the best for this because these guys knew how to pretend (that they were Ukrainian rebels) and were very effective fighters. But there not enough of them available and regular Russian troops (which are mainly conscripts) had to be sent in as well, especially for support (transport and supply) functions. As more and more of these non-elite troops were killed a growing number of parents were not accepting the cover stories created to cover up the fact that their conscript son died in combat, not because of some accident. While the government controls nearly all the mass media they have not managed to keep unwanted discussions from appearing via the Internet. Thus the parents and friends of soldiers who died in Donbas, but were reported as dying in Russia, are increasingly on the Internet comparing data and organizing demonstrations against the government lies, deceptions and getting soldiers killed in a clandestine war. The Russian secret police are not as scary as they used to be and the government is having a hard time keeping the angry parents quiet. Worse, news of this unrest gets to the outside world where it makes more trouble for the Russian government and its cover story about what it is (or is not) doing in Donbas. The Russian government denies they have troops in Donbas but it is an open secret in Russia that they do and too many parents of Russian soldiers killed in Donbas are demonstrating their anger at government efforts to keep them quiet about where their sons died and how. In addition to the parents there is also the problem of Russian soldiers ignoring orders and posting their exploits in Ukraine on Facebook and other social networking sites. There aren’t many secrets in this secret war.
While the angry and Internet savvy parents are annoying the economic problems accompanying the secret war are very public and increasingly terrifying. The government is desperate to deal with the economic problems. For example the government is coercing Russian companies and wealthy individuals to move foreign cash back to Russia. Hundreds of billions of dollars were moved out of Russia by Russian citizens once the Western sanctions began a year ago and that hurt the economy (by depriving Russian businesses of capital). While the state-controlled Russian media is ignoring the impact of the sanctions and the declining oil price most Russians can’t help but notice (and personally suffer from) the high inflation, shortage of foreign goods and rising unemployment. The government has already admitted that government spending for 2015 will be cut by at least 10 percent. Unofficially officials talking about a 20 percent, or greater, cut. The government wants to maintain military spending, but those who study the government budget know that won’t work if the cuts get to 20 percent or more. Foreign, and even some Russian, economists also warn that the growing government intervention in the economy, and the management of major companies, is doing permanent damage. That government interference was what cause the economic collapse that destroyed the Soviet Union in the 1980s. It’s happening again, despite two decades of evidence that a market economy is much more productive, even in Russia (which the government insists is “different”).
China has been a big help to Russia in dealing with its diplomatic, sanctions and economic problems resulting from the Ukrainian invasion. For example China bought 36 percent more oil (665,000 barrels a day) from Russia and less from Saudi Arabia (but still 997,000 barrels a day) in the last year. Other countries have also helped Russia but they, like China, did it out of self-interest. Thus India, Russia and Iran have created an unofficial currency union and barter network to facilitate trade that gets around the sanctions on Russia and Iran. India wants peace with Iran because Iran is often on bad terms with Pakistan. Russia is still a major supplier of weapons to India and India has many leftists who are still nostalgic about the old Soviet Union.
The renewed Russian offensive in Donbas has brought forth more (and stronger) Western protests and more sanctions. Russia pretends to ignore the impact of the mess it has gotten into over Donbas and Crimea. Most of the world disapproves of such aggression. The UN charter explicitly forbids that sort of thing. No one, including most UN members, believes the Russian fiction that they are not involved. The Russian leadership, especially president-for-life Vladimir Putin, is making a major gamble here as he has made nationalism and “rebuilding Russian glory (and the empire)” a core part of his justification for turning Russia back into a police state. While the majority of Russians go for the glory part they are not happy with the economic problems and worldwide condemnation. Unlike back in Soviet (pre-1991) days the government cannot keep out all the bad news from the rest of the world. In this case the bad news is that the rest of the world sees Russia as the bad guy here and this angers some Russians but dismays and demoralizes many more. Russians know their history and they know what a disaster power mad and power hungry leaders have been in the past. More Russians are doing the math and most are concluding that Donbas is not worth the price the country is being forced to pay. Putin risks a backlash that could cost him his power and reputation. At the moment Putin believes his own press releases, that he is stronger and more determined than the leaders in Ukraine and their Western supporters. Thus Putin sees himself eventually prevailing at a political price he can afford. A lot of Russians disagree with this math, including senior officials and long-time Putin allies. Many economists and business managers see long term damage to the Russian economy, which has still not recovered from the 70 years of communist mismanagement. In many ways the Ukraine blowback and the Putin centralization of government power has prevented the economy from growing and becoming competitive. The cost of grabbing Donbas is rising and if too many Russians decide it is not worth it, even the newly rebuilt Russian police state will be in danger. It happened to the czars, then to the communists and it can happen to the next lot of delusional megalomaniacs.
January 25, 2015: Ukrainian officials supplied recordings of rebel cell phone and radio messages confirming that it was the rebels who recently fired rockets into residential neighborhoods of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. The rebels and Russians accused the Ukrainians of doing this. It’s not the first time recordings have been used to unmask Russian misbehavior. This is another problem the Russians have by relying on amateurs and conscript soldiers in Donbas. OPSEC (Operational Security) is something professional soldiers understand and employ. That means not posting military information on the Internet or discussing military matters via communications systems the enemy can overhear.
January 24, 2015: In eastern Ukraine the pro-Russian rebels, reinforced by thousands of Russian troops and hundreds of military vehicles (including artillery and rocket launchers) launched a major offensive. The Russian troops are leading the way, with the local rebels and other volunteers (like the Cossacks and such from Russia) handling occupation of newly conquered territory.
The UN (and many Western and East European leaders) condemned Russia and the Ukrainian rebels for the death of 29 civilians in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol when residential areas were hit by a barrage of rockets. Russia, using its seat on the Security Council, blocked an official UN condemnation. The rebels, who had earlier bragged about their new offensive to take Mariupol backtracked when the deaths of the civilians became known and blamed it on the Ukrainian Army.
January 23, 2015: The rebels in eastern Ukraine announced they were no longer abiding by the September ceasefire and were on the attack again. Apparently the rebels and their Russian sponsors want to take possession of all Donbas, an area consisting of two Ukrainian provinces (Donetsk and Luhansk). Donbas comprise 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 Russia. But that began to decline in the 1980s and accelerated when the Soviet Union fell (and Ukraine became independent) in 1991.
January 22, 2015: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) rebels drove Ukrainian forces from the Donetsk airport with a major offensive that gave the rebels possession of the airport that has been fought over since last June (when the Ukrainians took possession). Russia denied it had anything to do with the battle for the airport but Russian TV showed rebels at the airport and in the corner of one video clip you could clearly see some soldiers with Russian insignia on their uniforms. Ukrainian leaders accuse Russia of having 9,000 of their soldiers in Donbas and that the Russians are doing most of the fighting.
In the nearby rebel occupied city of Donetsk shells or rockets exploded in a residential area killing 13 civilians. The rebels and Ukrainians blamed each other.
January 21, 2015: A Russian electronic intelligence ship arrived in Cuba for a visit, the day before American diplomats are to arrive to discuss resuming diplomatic relations.
January 19, 2015: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) rebels attacked Ukrainian forces defending the Donetsk airport with a major offensive after several days of growing violence in the area.
January 16, 2015: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) heavy fighting resumed at the Donetsk airport.
January 15, 2015: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) rebels claimed to have taken control of Donetsk airport. The government denied this and provided evidence of that. Fighting at the airport has been getting more frequent and deadly over the last five weeks.
January 14, 2015: NATO announced that the first brigade (using German, Norwegian and Dutch troops) of a new rapid reaction force would be formed before the end of 2015. This brigade is mainly to assure East European members (especially Poland and the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) that NATO will react quickly and effectively to any Russian actions against NATO members. These rapid reaction brigades would initially be based in threatened NATO member countries (like Poland and the Baltic States).
OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) withdrew some of its observers from Donbas because of the growing violence there.
In Ukraine Parliament approved the resumption of conscription and the mobilization of another 100,000 reservists (men who have been discharged from active service). Ukraine had stopped using conscription in 2013, responding to growing public pressure to do so. There was not much resistance to this partial resumption of conscription, at least as long as Russia is trying to seize parts of Ukraine. The activation of veterans is meant to provide experienced men to improve training of new recruits as well as provide more experienced soldiers for units fighting the rebels. Many veterans have already volunteered, either for the army or volunteer units that are fighting the rebels and Russians in Donbas.
January 13, 2015: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) a rebel rocket his a bus in Ukrainian controlled territory, killing 13 civilians.
Iran announced that work has begun in the southwest (Bushehr Province) on building two new nuclear power plants. These will be near the first nuclear power plant that went online in 2012. Russia is supplying supervision and equipment for all three plants.
January 12, 2015: Interpol issued an international arrest warrant for ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. He is accused of corruption and many other crimes. He was driven from office in early 2014 by angry Ukrainians after the extent of his corruption (including taking bribes from Russia). Yanukovych fled to Russia, where he remains. Russia does not respect Interpol warrants and considers Yanukovych the victim of an American orchestrated coup. That is widely believed in Russia because it’s all you hear on state controlled radio and TV.
Russia revealed that it had sold Iraq a billion dollars’ worth of weapons in 2014. Not all of this has been delivered yet.
January 9, 2015: International ratings agency (which measure the worthiness of government bonds and other debt) again reduced Russia’s ratings and warned of further cuts unless the situations (the sanctions and lower oil price) change. The lower ratings means it Russia must pay more (a higher interest rate) to borrow money on international markets.
January 4, 2015: Russian oil production hit a post-Soviet record production record in December, with 10.67 million barrels a day. That is not a big jump. In 2011 production hit record levels of 10.27 million barrels a day. Both these are record highs since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. During the 1980s, Russian oil production hit 12 million barrels a day, but this was accomplished by temporarily increasing output using destructive (to underground oil deposits) techniques, and production sharply declined (to about 8 million barrels a day) by the late 1980s. This was one of the reasons the Soviet Union collapsed, as oil exports were a major source of government income. The sanctions include cutting the Russian oil industry off from Western firms that are essential for modernizing Russian oil fields.