Russia: Grand Illusions

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June 21, 2015: Government efforts to rehabilitate the reputation of World War II era ruler Josef Stalin is getting mixed review inside Russia. Stalin is seen by most Russians as a strong and effective wartime leader, but otherwise a brutal tyrant who killed millions of Russians, often on a whim or because of his notorious paranoia. The government wants to imply that Russia needs another Stalin to defend the motherland against Western aggression. That is a hard sell, even in Russia. Within a few years of Stalin’s death in 1953 Communist Party officials were openly (in closed meetings) denouncing Stalin for the brutality and ineptness of his 29 year rule. Those secret speeches soon leaked and most Russians agreed with these denunciations.

Over 6,500 people have died in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) since early 2014 and more than 16,000 wounded. More than a million people have been driven from their homes. Worse, the UN openly agrees with the growing evidence that Russia is responsible for all this, not a spontaneous uprising by disaffected Ukrainians. Russia, as a founding member, has a lot of clout in the UN but not enough to reverse the UN accusations regarding Ukraine. The UN blames Russia and the Russian backed rebels for continued violations of ceasefire agreements and firing on civilians. NATO analysts note a buildup of Russian forces on the eastern borders of Ukraine and other indications that the February ceasefire will eventually be broken (as the one before it was) by another major attack in Donbas, led by Russian troops who, officially, are not there. Violations of the ceasefire are increasing, another indicator of a new offensive.

Ukraine and the West complain about the growing number of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) and the growing number of attacks by the Donbas “rebels” (often Russian soldiers wearing uniforms with national insignia removed) that are ignored by the Russian government. The official Russian line is that there are no Russian troops in Donbas (maybe some Russian volunteers) and all those aerial and satellite photos of Russian weapons (especially stuff Ukraine never had) in Donbas are Ukrainian and Western fabrications. Opinion surveys show that Russians, exposed to more and more pro-war propaganda are still supporting their government but that majority is shrinking. The government needs an economic victory or they will be undone by privation, not military conquest (which is put forward as the NATO goal in East Europe, to succeed where Napoleon and Hitler did not). Meanwhile more Russian troops and heavy weapons arrive on the Ukrainian border and, in small number, drive into Donbas.

The government has the air force spending more time in the air near the borders of Western nations. These flights (which often have to be met with a fighter escort when the Russian aircraft get too close to NATO air space) have doubled in the last year. These flights include Russian warplanes buzzing NATO aircraft and warships in the Baltic and Black Seas. The heavy use of these largely Cold War era aircraft is taking a toll and so far this month there have been three crashes (a Tu-95, a Su-34 and a MiG-29). As a result Tu-95s have been grounded until the causes of these crashes can be confirmed and addressed.

These more frequent flights of Russian warplanes is all raw material for the pro-war propaganda campaign the government is running to maintain popular support for the aggression in Ukraine. The occupation of Crimea and the fighting in Donbas is more expensive than the government expected. For example the Donbas rebels recently began paying pensioners in dollars. The rebels have blocked such payments from Ukraine but the dollars apparently came from Russia, which has far fewer dollars available than in the past because of the low oil price and the sanctions. But illusions must be maintained in Donbas so dollars are scrounged up.

The government dismisses Western sanctions as “blackmail” and frequently deny that these sanctions are having any impact. But the Central Bank officials speak openly of economic recession (which is hard to ignore) and that at present it appears the recession will get worse. Some Russian economists see GDP increasing a bit (about one percent in 2016) but many disagree (quietly). Nearly all economists agree that inflation and unemployment will remain high and shortages will get worse. This is what most Russians notice every day. The war is hurting the Russian economy in unexpected ways. For example long time customers for Russian military equipment (weapons, spare parts and services) are becoming more reluctant to buy Russian. The reason is simple, Russia is now seen as unpredictable and unreliable when it comes to supplying support and spare parts for their weapons and equipment. This became obvious when Russia was hit with economic sanctions in 2014 for its aggression against Ukraine. Russia then threatened to halt shipments and support for weapons to any country that supported the sanctions. Soon Russia got the message and tried to back down, but it was too late. The message was sent and the damage was done.

Russia and Iran are both reconsidering their support for the Assad government. Despite the mess Russia has got itself into with Ukraine, Russian diplomats still have better contacts in the West and the Middle East and are now trying to negotiate a Russian-Iranian supervised peaceful political settlement of the Syrian civil war. The goal here is to prevent ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) from conquering the country. This is the goal few in the West want to admit is even under negotiation. Russia and Iran are both having financial problems (because of low oil prices and international sanctions) at home and support for the Assads is increasingly unpopular. Russia and Iran now appear willing to take the political hit at home for abandoning the Assads because less cash for the Assads means more money spent on the needs of Russian and Iranian civilians. Already Russia has pulled over a hundred technical advisors out of Syria although Iran has brought more people in. However Russia and Iran are not exactly in agreement how to carry out this removal of the Assads. All everyone can agree on is the need to stop ISIL and doing that as soon as possible. The longer ISIL exists in Syria the greater the chance that ISIL plans for terror attacks elsewhere (the West, Russia, Iran and the Middle East in general) are likely to become reality. The basic Russian plan is to make the Assads an offer they can’t refuse (immunity from prosecution and comfortable exile). If the Assads refuse the Russians can make all manner of nasty threats. Not just an end to weapons shipments and support but also active efforts to harm Assad assets and close associates overseas. Making this happen without the cooperation of the Assads and Iran is impossible. Moreover the fact that few nations want to make deals with the Assads at this point is another deal killer. Not after years of war crimes and decades of bad behavior by the Assads. As long as there is hope that ISIL can be stopped without such a deal with the devil nothing is likely to come of this Russian effort. But this is the Middle East, where the unthinkable often becomes reality. Russia has backup plans for cutting their losses (and expenses) in Syria but all of them mean admitting that Russia is not as strong as the government propaganda implies.

Yet another casualty of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is supply lines for Western troops in Afghanistan. In response to sanctions Russia has shut down railroad access to Afghanistan via Central Asia and Russia. This move is not popular with the other nations involved because everyone along the route, including Russia, got paid. But Russia has few options as it seeks to fight back against Western economic sanctions (in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine).

Ukraine continues to press NATO and the United States for more, and better, weapons. The Ukrainians point out that the Russians are using their latest stuff in eastern Ukraine. This is more for marketing (“combat proven” weapons are easier to sell for export) than military necessity, but as the old saying goes, “it’s the only war we got.” What the Ukrainian leaders do not say publicly is that eastern Ukraine is an ideal place for NATO specialists to examine these new Russian weapons up close and often while being used by Russian troops. Ukraine provides this access and expects some more and better weapons from NATO to help keep Ukrainian troops alive.

June 17, 2015: Russian announced it is building more ICBMs in the next year. The announced number was 40, but in the past the announced number has turned out to be a goal that was rarely achieved. There may be 30 or more new ICBMs in the next year. Most of these will be based on the Topol design. Topol M (RS-12M) was Russia's first solid fuel ICBM, and the first (and so far only) mobile (via truck or railroad) ICBM. Russia is in the midst of replacing Cold War era RS-18 (SS-19) missiles with the new RS-24 “Yars”. Russia believes the heavier (than RS-12) Yars is a worthy successor to the venerable, reliable and aging RS-18 “heavy” ICBM. Russia began deploying RS-24s in 2010. Replacing functional (if elderly) RS-18s with RS-24s indicates a high degree of confidence in the RS-24 and enough cash to retire the RS-18s and build RS-24s to replace them. But just in case, many of the RS-18s are being put in storage.

June 10, 2015: Kapersky, a respected Russian Internet security firm revealed that it had found new spyware software in three hotels used by delegates to negotiations with Iran over sanctions and the Iranian nuclear weapons program. The spyware was described as a much improved version of Duqu and that Israel was probably behind this. Israel denied any involvement. In 2012 Internet security researchers accused Israel of a similar stunt when new spyware was found throughout the Middle East. Similar to Stuxnet and Duqu (both created by a joint U.S.-Israeli effort for use against Iran), the new spyware was called Gauss, and it was used to monitor Hezbollah financial activity. Gauss was apparently unleashed in 2011, and had already done its job by the time it was discovered.

June 3, 2015: In Donbas rebels launched a major artillery attack. Ukrainian artillery returned fire and then went on for twelve hours before the rebels stopped. About a thousand rebel troops, accompanied by tanks, tried to advance but were repulsed.

 

 

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