The sanctions and lower oil price are having an impact. Russia reported that imports in the first two months of 2015 were down 37 percent compared to 2014. Russian tourism spending is down by half. The economic problems have caused the ruble to lose half its value against the dollar, doubling the cost of many import items. Inflation is increasing at a rate not seen since 2002. In the last year prices have increased nearly 17 percent and that is accelerating. In the last few years over $120 billion in cash (belonging to foreign companies and Russians) has been moved out of Russia because it is seen as a very risky place to invest or keep your money in. In February Western ratings agencies reduced Russian bonds and other forms of government debt to junk status. That means these assets are considered very high risk and now fetch a much lower price if you want to sell (or buy) them. This makes it much more expensive for the Russian government to raise money in the financial markets. So far the government has most Russians convinced that all this economic misery is the result of a NATO plot to destroy Russia. However a growing number of Russians are agreeing with the rest of Europe (with the possible exception of Greece) that this is a cruel fantasy meant to keep the current rulers of Russia in power no matter what the cost to the Russian people.
Russia has moved large quantities of advanced weaponry into Crimea. There are new S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems that cover nearly half the Black Sea. There are more warships, more warplanes, more armor, more artillery and rockers and more troops. These Russian aircraft based in Crimea have been seen using NATO ships training in the Black Sea as “targets” for practice approaching these ships to launch anti-ship missiles. The Western ships noted these actions and are said to be practicing their detection and activation (of anti-missile defense) procedures.
Throughout March Russia is holding numerous training exercises with its 2,000 air defense troops based along the Ukrainian border.
Although Russia announced in late 2012 that it was giving Kyrgyzstan $1.1 billion worth of (largely secondhand) weapons. But Russia has refused to provide details, calling such information a military secret. It is known that Kyrgyzstan has been getting Russian anti-aircraft systems, armored vehicles and aircraft and this billion dollar gift appears to have been more of a bribe than a military necessity. That’s because in 2014 Russia also agreed to provide Kyrgyzstan with half a billion dollars in economic aid in order to get Kyrgyzstan to join the Eurasian Economic Union. Earlier in 2014 Belarus and Kazakhstan were persuaded to join this new economic union with Russia. Armenia later joined as well. The Eurasian Economic Union became effective in 2015 and allows goods to move freely in all member countries (containing 176 million people and $4 trillion in GDP) without customs levies. Several other nations are also considering joining.
Kazakhstan has also agreed to become part of a unified multi-national air defense system sponsored by Russia. Belarus has also agreed to join and Armenia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are also expected to sign on as well. All this is more than helping out a neighbor with their defense needs. This is the less violent Russian approach to rebuilding their empire. For over a decade Russia has been proposing things like customs unions, military cooperation and rebuilding the old Soviet air defense system that used to defend everyone in the empire. Ukraine refused to consider joining the union or air defense system and made it clear it preferred closer ties with the West. Russia took violent exception to that attitude.
Russia has signed a deal to $14 billion deal to supply two nuclear reactors (for power plants) to Hungary. A condition of the deal (which will largely be financed with Russian loans) was that Hungary pass a law keeping details of the deal secret for 30 years. Hungary enacted the law although opposition politicians insist the secrecy law will eventually be overturned in the courts.
The United States is moving 3,000 troops to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia (the “Baltic States” that were long unwillingly part of the Russian Empire) for three months of military exercises. Russia considers this an unnecessary provocation and a threat. The Baltic States joined NATO and the European Union in 2004 and this is something the Russians have never gotten over.
Opinion polls show a trend in a growing number of Ukrainians willing to submit to Russian demands that Ukraine stop trying to build diplomatic and military ties with the West. The Russians also want Ukraine to back away from greater economic ties with the West but Ukrainians are less eager for that. Those in the east, near the fighting in Donbas are, not surprisingly more willing to accept Russian domination in exchange for peace. The majority of Ukrainians still oppose being absorbed back into Russia and are willing to fight to keep their independence.
All the agitation over
Russian aggression in Ukraine
has been overshadowed (in Western media at least) by events in the Middle East. Despite the declining ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) prospects a recent opinion poll in the United States showed that 84 percent of Americans believe ISIL is the most serious threat over the next decade. International terrorism also has 84 percent of Americans concerned. Iranian nukes frighten 77 percent followed by North Korea (64 percent) and Russia (49 percent, actually a tie with the Islamic effort to destroy Israel).
The Indian Air Force is openly accusing Russia of not sharing with India technical details of what is going on with the development of the new Russian “5th generation” T-50 (or PAK-FA) stealth fighter. This is the Russian answer to the U.S. F-22 and according to the Indians, who have contributed $300 million (so far) to development of the T-50, they are entitled by the 2007 agreement with Russian to have access to technical details of the aircraft. In 2014 Indian air force officials accused Russia of trying to conceal development problems. The Russians were accused to refusing to provide development updates as often and in as much detail the Indians expected. The Indians know from experience that when the Russians clam up about a military project it is usually because the news is bad and the Russians would rather not share. All this began in late 2013 when Indian pilots and aviation experts who had examined Russian progress noted that the T-50 as it was then put together was unreliable. The Russian radar, which promised so much has delivered, according to the Indians, insufficient performance. The Indians also noted that the T-50s stealth features were unsatisfactory. Instead of answers to these criticisms are the Indians are getting in 2014 are excuses and promises. Russia insists this is all a misunderstanding.
NATO, concerned about growing Russian military aggression, has sped up efforts to create a rapid reaction force to help out new NATO members in East Europe. This new organization is called Spearhead Force and current plans call for a division size organization with air, naval and special operations contingents backing three Spearhead Force brigades. Each of these brigades would have about 5,000 troops and one would have units ready to move within 48 hours with the rest of the brigade moving within a week. At that point portions of the other two brigades would be on the move. The major contributors to the Spearhead force will be the United States France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and Britain. Nearly all the ground troops will be from European NATO members while the U.S. will provide a lot of specialized electronic and naval forces only they have. The Spearhead Force could be used to slow down disrupt Russian aggression with ground and air forces (and naval ones if needed) until more forces can be mobilized. NATO members are reviving Cold War era defense plans because Russia has again become a threat in the east. It’s a different threat this time because during the Cold War NATO was looking at an initial Russian invasion force of over 30 divisions followed by two or three times that number once they these reserve units were mobilized and deployed. These days Russia can’t even muster that many brigades. In the past there were few NATO members (like Norway and Turkey) that even bordered the old Soviet Union. Now there are many more, including the major Russian Cold War “allies” in East Europe who are now members of NATO. The Baltic States are particularly vulnerable and the Spearhead Force is being created in large part to reassure these neighbors of Russia that NATO membership can deliver the promised security.
The U.S. is sending ten military personnel to provide combat medic training for Ukrainian troops.
March 9, 2015: Ukraine accused pro-Russian rebels in the east of firing on Ukrainian troops outside the port city of Mariupol. The firing went on for several hours and then stopped. This was a clear violation of the ceasefire agreement. Ukraine pointed out that 64 Ukrainian soldiers have died since the February 12 peace deal took effect and that 1,549 Ukrainian soldiers had died since the fighting began in Donbas eleven months ago. It is estimated that over 6,000 people (including rebels, Russians and civilians) have died in Donbas so far.
Ukrainian troops near Mariupol report that the Russians and rebels appear to be bringing in more troops and weapons in preparation for another effort to take Mariupol.
March 8, 2015: Pro-Russian rebels in Donbas claim they have pulled back heavy weapons as called for by the February 12 ceasefire.
Russian TV broadcast video of president Putin describing how he decided to take back Crimea in February 2014. Four days before that operation began and frustrated the Ukrainians had chased their pro-Russian president out of the country and exposed him as corrupt and a paid collaborator with Russia, Putin decided that the best response would be to simply take Crimea. Russia still insists that the violence in Donbas is all the fault of NATO.
March 7, 2015: Today, for the first time in months, Ukraine did not have any soldiers die as a result of the fighting in Donbas. That only lasted one day as the rebels began firing, and killing again on the 8th.
March 4, 2015: Russia signed a deal with Cyprus to allow Russian warships to dock in Cyprus. This deal, in effect, gives the Russian Navy a support base in the eastern Mediterranean.
February 28, 2015: Russia put its first photo satellite using digital photography into orbit. The U.S. pioneered this technology in the 1970s and replaced the older tech (which Russia still uses) of using film photography. This requires satellites to eject canisters to send film back to earth. This limits the number of photos a satellite can take and how long it will be useful.
Russia has offered to supply Egypt with MiG-29M jet fighters, Mi-35M helicopter gunships, S-300VM and Tor ME2 anti-aircraft missile systems, Bastion anti-ship missiles, Kornet anti-tank missiles and Mi-17 transport helicopters. Egypt is broke and dependent on gifts of cash and oil from the Arab oil states just to keep going. So as much as Egypt wants these weapons, financing them will be difficult.
February 23, 2015:
Russia has offered to sell Iran the S-300VM system. This is the latest (2013) version of its S-300 anti-aircraft missile system. The problem is money. Russia has also been badly hurt by the plunging world oil price and recently cut its current defense budget ten percent. By early March Iran had not yet responded to the Russian offer. Iran is still demanding that Russia pay a billion dollars compensation for cash paid for older model S-300s in 2007 that were never delivered. That sale was halted by the sanctions and deals with Israel and the United States. But now Russia is under sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine and not concerned with any sanctions
February 27, 2015: In Moscow, near a secret police headquarters, Boris Nemtsov, a prominent critic of the government was shot to death. Nemtsov was a former (late 1990s) deputy prime minister and the most prominent of dozens of government opponents murdered in the last few years. For months the government had been calling Nemtsov a traitor (for his criticism of the increasingly authoritarian Russian government) and his friends were warning him that he could be murdered. Two days later nearly 40,000 people demonstrated in Moscow to protest the death of Nemtsov, who was scheduled to lead this demonstration. President Putin said he would find the killers and some Chechens, including former policemen, were arrested. But to most Russians it was clear who was ultimately responsible for the death of Nemtsov.
February 22, 2015: In the eastern Ukraine city of Kharkiv a bomb went off during a parade celebrating the anniversary of the 2014 ousting of pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. The explosion left two dead and eleven wounded.
February 21, 2015: In eastern Ukraine rebels and soldiers held another prisoner exchange. The rebels released 139 prisoners and the Ukrainians 52. In the United States more sanctions were enacted against Russia for its aggression against Ukraine.
February 20, 2015: Russian intelligence officials believe that about 1,700 Russian citizens (mainly Moslems from the Caucasus and Central Asia) are fighting for ISIL in Syria and Iraq. Russia believes this is about ten percent of ISIL strength. In 2009 Russia ended a decade long campaign against Islamic terrorists and Chechen nationalists. This left about 16,000 Caucasus Moslems dead. Resentment, and some mayhem, still linger in the Caucasus.
February 17, 2015: In Yemen three Russian ground attack jet aircraft were delivered to the Iran backed Shia rebel controlled port of Al Hudaydah. These used aircraft were bought from Belarus.