Airborne Brigade guarding a storage site for rebel heavy weapons. The 400 OSCE monitors in eastern Ukraine and Donbas, whose job is to oversee the ceasefire, have been complaining for months that they are being restricted by rebels and, less frequently Ukrainian forces from carrying out inspections. Anyone in or near Donbas (as a lot of foreign journalists are) can hear or see the daily machine-gun, mortar, rocket and artillery fire by Russian and rebel units. Russia denies everything and insists that any evidence is fabricated. Meanwhile OCSE observers back Ukrainian complaints that Russian backed rebels continue to fire on Ukrainian troops, often using heavy weapons that, according to the terms of the ceasefire, should have been pulled back. Some OSCE observer teams report coming under rebel fire which, in some cases, is believed to be deliberately directed at the OSCE teams.
The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) report finding more evidence that Russia is clearly violating the February ceasefire agreement with Ukraine. The latest evidence is the presence of Russian soldiers from the 16
Ukraine recently held strategy meeting between the president and the top generals to come up with a plan to deal with the increasingly unstable situation with Russia. Peace talks with the Russian backed rebels are going nowhere and the Ukrainians feel they have to prepare for another Russian ordered rebel offensive. The European countries backing Ukraine are still negotiating with Ukraine over the terms of financial aid. Ukraine needs that financial aid desperately but the European lenders are demanding reforms, especially a notable reduction in corruption. Many Ukrainian leaders are having a tough time with that. But for most Ukrainians outright invasion by Russia is seen as a larger and increasingly more likely threat.
Russia continues to back its long-time ally Syria and is currently pushing a peace deal that has the ruling Assad clan going into exile (in Russia or China) and the Assad followers (mainly the Shia and other non-Sunni minorities) allying with anti-ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups (Islamic terrorists, especially al Qaeda and Kurds) to drive ISIL out of the country. But after that the war would probably continue because the Assad followers and Kurds want no part of any Islamic radicals and in many respects (strict lifestyle rules, violence against all non-Moslems) al Qaeda is considered as bad as ISIL. Thus the Russian proposal is not gaining much traction.
And then there is Libya. China and Russia are being accused of blocking UN actions to achieve peace in Libya. The reason for this strategy is because it causes more problems for the Western nations that are most hurt by the continuing chaos in Libya and flood of illegal migrants. This is right out of the Russian Cold War playbook and is discussed freely and proudly on the streets of Moscow. That Chinese also recognize the usefulness of this tactic.
The continuing Russian economic crises caused by low oil prices and Western economic sanctions has led to the government ordering a ten percent cut in the Ministry of Interior personnel. This means some 110,000 people are losing their jobs. The government had earlier announced that the economy shrank by 2.2 percent in the first three months of 2015. Foreign economists expect the Russian economy (as measured by GDP) to shrink by nearly four percent in 2015. Unemployment and inflation are on the rise and the government does not appear to have a clear strategy for getting the oil price to increase or the sanctions lifted. The absence of any clear strategy makes anything possible and that worries a lot of Russians and neighboring countries.
Even the military are suffering. Russian admirals recently received some bad news about their future. The persistent low oil prices and continued economic sanctions has caused a reassessment of Russian military procurement policy. GDP is shrinking and the government is having a hard time maintaining the high levels of spending planned to replace a lot of Cold War era equipment. Operations in Ukraine and the perceived threat from NATO and Eastern Europe means that the army and air force have priority when it comes to the budget. The navy leaders were assured that current spending plans would be supported, but the sanctions meant that importing ships and ship building technology have to be put on hold. This is very bad news for the navy because Russian ship yards are mostly mired in Cold War era practices (largely inefficient) and technology (obsolete in the rest of the world.) Admirals fear that the navy was being left to fade away. Russian industry cannot produce a lot of the electronics and special equipment modern ships (commercial and military) require. This makes upgrades difficult as long as the new Cold War with the West continues. The only alternative source available to Russia is China and that means second rate substitutes for Western gear. Despite lots of effort (fiscal and otherwise) the Russian Navy is not being rebuilt and that means it is fading away. No amount of media razzle dazzle or government promises will replace the actual presence of your warships in distant waters. In the last few years the only such appearances have been mainly for show and the few that occurred were heavily covered by the Russian media. On paper the Russian Navy currently has 270 combat ships (including amphibious and combat support vessels). But only about half of these are in any shape to go to sea. The rest are too old, and usually too poorly maintained for too many years, to leave port. Russian shipyards are terrible at building or repairing ships and efforts to remedy this have so far failed. Thus only about 15 percent of Russian naval vessels are major surface warships or submarines. In comparison the U.S. Navy has 290 warships and about 85 percent can go to sea (the others are being upgraded or repaired.) The current economic sanctions on Russia and plunging oil prices prevent any progress on halting the further decline of the navy and that is not expected to change for years. It is unclear how the Russian Navy is going to remain competitive. It is this vagueness that upsets the admirals the most. That and the fact that the Russian Navy is now being reassigned to its traditional role, as a supporting force for the army.
In 2014 Russia exported nearly $15 billion worth of weapons. Some 88 percent was financed by the government owned Rosboronexport. Nearly 70 percent of those sales were to three countries; India (25 percent), China (22 percent) and Iraq (22 percent). Several billion dollars of payments for 2014 sales are being held up by the sanctions. These payments will finally arrive once the sanctions are lifted.
As if the government didn’t have enough problems with the economy there is growing publicity about the corruption of senior officials. It’s not just Russian critics but foreigners (and Russians living outside Russia) who are using freely available data in the West to document the huge wealth Russian officials have illegally obtained and moved out of the country. This is often in the form of foreign real estate and other expensive items that can be identified and linked to a specific price. Russian officials are supposed to declare their income and assets, as an anti-corruption measure, but these growing revelations make all those declarations appear to be another government scam.
August 4, 2015: The head of the Russian airborne forces announced that if ordered to do so his troops were ready to go to Syria to fight Islamic terrorists in support of the Syrian government. The general noted that many Syrian soldiers had trained in Russia. The airborne forces, along with commandos and airmobile troops comprise about 100,000 military personnel the government can really rely on. These elite forces have to be ready to deal with emergencies across the vastness (11 time zones) of Russia. Some of those hundred thousand troops are regularly operating against Islamic terrorists in the Caucasus and some are in Ukraine or just across the border ready to move in. Some are available for deployment to Syria.
August 3, 2015: In the south (Kabardino-Balkaria) police clashed with Islamic terrorists and killed six of them. The dead men belonged to ISIL, which has been increasingly active in the Moslem south. It is believed that at least 2,000 Russian Moslems have gone to Syria to fight for ISIL. According to Moslem leaders in Syria that number could be as high as 7,000. Officials in southern Russia a growing number of these Islamic terrorists are returning home to the Caucasus and account for the increase in ISIL activity there.
Sweden revealed that Russia had expelled a Swedish diplomat in retaliation for Sweden expelling a Russian diplomat for unspecified illegal activities.
A Russian made Syrian Air Force warplane crashed in northwestern Syria (Ariha) killing nearly 40 people and destroying half a dozen buildings around a crowded marketplace. Thanks to continued Russian logistical (spare parts) and technical (maintenance technicians and experts) help the Syrian Air Force continues to send up warplanes and armed helicopters every day to hit rebel targets. But the Russians have not provided new aircraft and the old MiGs and other Russian fighter-bombers are wearing out and becoming more dangerous to fly. The Syrians use unguided bombs and usually stay high enough to avoid ground fire. Some observers described the crash fragments as belonging to MiG-29. These are the most modern warplanes Syria has but even they have been assigned to bombing missions.
August 2, 2015: In the south (Ingushetia) police clashed with Islamic terrorists and killed eight of them. The dead men belonged to ISIL. One of the dead was a much wanted Islamic terrorist leader; Adam Tagilov.
A Mi-28N helicopter gunship crashed at an air show being held 200 kilometers west of Moscow. One of the two crew survived (by ejecting) and reported that the cause was a hydraulics failure. This is the sixth crash of a Russian military aircraft in the last month. The other five aircraft could claim advanced age as a major factor. Russia is replacing its 250 Mi-24 helicopter gunships with 300 new Mi-28s. The Mi-28N is a much more complex aircraft than the Mi-24 and requires more skillful and better trained pilots. Russia has sold 14 Mi-28s to Iraq and 30 to Algeria. The first Mi-28s arrived in Iraq in earlier this year and some are believed to have seen combat. But because of this accident Russia has ordered all its Mi-28s grounded until the exact cause of the accident was. This grounding will probably also be recommended for export models.
July 31, 2015: A state owned newspaper reported that the average cost of a bribe to a government official had doubled in the last year to $3,500. This was largely the result of the falling oil prices and Western economic sanctions. The government has been very public about various efforts to improve economic performance but so far there has been little action on dealing with the corruption, which the economists (and most Russians) agree is the major obstacle to growth and prosperity. The data on the growth of bribes demanded comes from Interior Ministry records of corruption prosecutions. These are frequent, but not numerous enough to significantly reduce the number of officials demanding bribes.
July 30, 2015: The UN is under pressure to replace a private Russian company (Utair) that supplies aviation services for UN Congo peacekeeping operations. The pressure stems from the fact that company workers drugged and raped a Congolese teenage girl. The company has been paid several hundred million dollars since the crime occurred in 2010. Utair is the UN’s major contract air transport service in Congo and not easy to replace. The mass rapes committed by militias and Congolese Army troops led the UN to formulate a “no tolerance” policy towards this sort of thing. The rape by Utair personnel was no secret. However, continuing to use the company as a contractor has become something of a political embarrassment. Utair also provides helicopter support for UN operations in other countries. The Russians get the job done at a reasonable price which no Western competitors have been able to match.
July 29, 2015: At the UN eleven of the fifteen members of the Security Council voted to establish a tribunal to investigate who was responsible for the shooting down of a Malaysian B-777 airliner (flight MH17) over eastern Ukraine in 2014. Russia used its veto to block the resolution. Russia and Russian backed Ukrainian rebels are the main suspects in the destruction of MH17 and the deaths of all 298 aboard. Russia blames the loss of MH17 on the Ukrainians but offers no convincing proof. In June the Russian manufacturer of the missile believed responsible admitted that it was their missile. At a press conference a company rep showed how the pattern of fragments found in the aircraft hull could only have been made by one version (now out of production) of the missile used by their BUK M1 system. Less convincing was the company theory that the missile was not fired from territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels. The aircraft was shot down as it passed over territory controlled by pro-Russian separatist rebels in Donbas. The airliner was at an altitude of 10,000 meters and the rebels were known to have some captured anti-aircraft systems (BUK M1s) that can hit targets as high as 14,000 meters. For three days the rebels allowed only limited access to the site for international airline accident investigators. For a year Russia had officially denied responsibility and blamed the incident on a Ukrainian combat jet or, as the evidence from the reassembled aircraft fragments grew, that it was an ground launched missile but not Russian. The latest admission by the missile manufacturer was part of this media campaign to shift blame but appears to have backfired. Russia will never admit that the missile was fired with their assistance by rebels under their orders.
July 26, 2015: In eastern Ukraine a truck loaded with Russian ammunition took a wrong turn and was seized by Ukrainian troops. The two men in the truck were identified as a Ukrainian rebel and a Russian officer. Both men wore uniforms with no insignia and carried no ID. The Russian man admitted he was a supply officer in a Russian artillery unit and was in charge of delivering the 200 cases of ammo on the truck. Russia denied everything.
July 17, 2015: Ukraine expelled a Russian diplomat (the head of the consulate in Odessa) for illegal acts. Russia protested but did not address the accusations.
Today is the first anniversary of the destruction of a Malaysian B-777 airliner over eastern Ukraine. The rebels there and Russia continue to block investigations of the incident.
July 16, 2015: Russia ordered formation of a Western style reserve force. This has been in the planning stages for several years and given the current financial problems this order will apparently mean hiring a few thousand former active duty soldiers to be professional reservists. These men and women will train regularly and be called up for civil and military emergencies, like their Western counterparts. Russia has also admitted this year that the actual number of military personnel on active duty is less than 800,000. For over a decade the government had insisted it was actually a million or more. But draft dodging and a lack of volunteers (to be higher paid “contract soldiers”) has led the personnel strength to keep shrinking. Neighboring countries (especially Japan and NATO) have also noted a sharp decline in Russian air operations (which often require the neighbors to send fighters aloft when the Russians get too close). The military is feeling the strain from the financial crises and the demands of supporting operations in Ukraine, continued counter-terror efforts in the Caucasus and putting more aircraft in the air and ships to sea in order to intimidate foreigners.
July 14, 2015: After twenty months of negotiations between Iran and a UN backed coalition (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, United States) a treaty was agreed on. This came because of a growing willingness among many coalition members to trust Iranian pledges to abide by any treaty. But there was an unexpected downside for Russia in that Iranian oil coming back into the market will keep oil prices down. Earlier this year Russia thought oil prices would rise. They did for a while but have since gone into decline and Iranian oil exports won’t help. Reaching agreement on this treaty was encouraged by Russia, which expects Iran to be a major export customer once sanctions are lifted. Many in the West (and the Arab world) don’t trust Iran and demand a deal with strict monitoring. Iran rules this out as a violation of their sovereignty, an affront to their honor and so on. Israel and many Arab states immediately denounced the deal and are pressuring the Western nations involved to not ratify the deal. Many Russian economists see the failure of this deal as the best Russia can hope for because higher oil prices are far more important to the Russian economy than more export sales to Iran.