Russia: Dangerous, Absurd And Very Real

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August 24, 2015: Ukrainian military intelligence has been warning of another offensive in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) and it was supposed to start today, which is the Ukrainian Independence Day. While there were recent major movements of Russian armored vehicles and artillery into Donbas and an increase in ceasefire violations by pro-Russian forces there, the offensive has not happened. At the same time Ukraine is trying to get its constitution changed to offer Donbas a special status that might satisfy Russia and stop the war there. If the Ukrainian president can get the constitutional amendment enacted an offer can be made to Russia to call off their undeclared invasion in return for an autonomous Donbas and a lifting of sanctions. This is a long shot but Ukrainian leaders see the alternative as years (or decades) of this state of war, which has been very expensive for Russia and Ukraine. But the Russian leadership appears split on the idea of any sort of compromise. The Russians have justified this war by convincing the Russian people that NATO attacked Russia first by scheming to take control of Ukraine and make it part of NATO, as was already done in Poland and the Baltic States. Westerners are appalled at the absurdity of this idea but Russia’s East European neighbors have heard it many times in the past as it is the traditional Russia excuse for invading its neighbors. All in the name of self-defense of course. Most Western leaders and news editors don’t know enough about Russian history to appreciate what is going on here.  The new NATO members in East Europe are trying very hard to educate their Western friends but it is slow going because this Russian attitude seems so unbelievable. Many aspects of Russian history and culture seem absurd to Westerners, but these things are very real and very dangerous.

Ukraine believes over 6,800 have died since the Russian aggression in Donbas began in April 2014. In addition to the violence Ukrainian intelligence officials have found evidence of Russia funding Ukrainian opposition parties (which tend to be leftist one, including current or former communists) in order to gain more influence on the government.  

Meanwhile Russia has found other ways to fight back against NATO. For the first seven months of 2015 NATO warplanes had to go up 250 times to intercept Russian aircraft flying too close to NATO air space. That was a rate of Russian air activity not seen since the Cold War ended in 1991. Nearly half those interceptions were over the Baltic Sea where Russia insists NATO is making preparations for war. All this activity appears to be for domestic consumption because 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) is 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. 

Russian Eleron-3SV UAVs have shown up in Syria. One of these UAVs was recently shot down by Syrian al Nusra rebels. Russia long supported the beleaguered Syrian government and sending some Eleron-3SV UAVs was not unusual. It’s unknown whether the Eleron-3SV UAVs were operated by Syrian or Russian personnel, as Russia has kept technical, military and intelligence personnel in Syria before, both for its own ends, and as direct support to the Syrian government, which had problems with providing enough highly educated, well trained technical specialists to its military forces even before the civil war.  The $55,000 Eleron-3SV is a battery powered, 4.3 kg (7.49 pounds) UAV travelling at speeds of from 70 to 130 kilometers an hour. Flight endurance of up to 2 hours, and maximum altitude of 5,000 meters (16,000 feet). It is launched by throwing it and can land by flying close to the ground and shutting its engine off.

August 23, 2015: Relations with Japan are going nowhere because the Japanese believe Russia is seeking a huge (more that Japan will pay) “ransom” for the disputed Kuril Islands and an official end to World War II. In 2013 Russian and Japanese negotiators quit trying to agree on terms of a long delayed treaty to end the state of war existing between the two countries since 1945. The talks are also about the territorial dispute. In 2010 Russia renounced a 1956 deal to return two of the four Japanese Kuril islands. Japan had been pressuring Russia to make good on the 1956 promise (made at the time Japan and the Soviet Union resumed diplomatic relations). But Russia reneged, claiming Japan was plotting to get the other two islands back as well. The Japanese have been pressuring the Russians to return the Kurile Islands (off northern Japan) for decades, and this has caused a lot of tension recently. These four islands were seized at the end of World War II, and the Russians kept them. The Kurils had been occupied by Japanese for centuries, but when Russia reached the Pacific coast in the 17th century, they began to send ships down to the Kurils. In 1875, Japan and Russia signed a treaty settling claims in the area. Japan acknowledged Russia’s claim to the larger Shakalin Island to the north while Russia acknowledged that the Kurils belonged to Japan. After World War II, Russia expelled the 17,000 Japanese inhabitants of the four Kuril Islands. Russians were brought in, and about 15,000 of them (including many Ukrainians, Koreans and so on) currently inhabit the islands. There’s not much economic value to the Kurils, except for the good fishing. But it's believed there are oil and gas deposits off shore, and valuable mineral deposits on land. Meanwhile, the Russians are still hacked off at losing a war to Japan in 1905, and to Japanese soldiers occupying parts of eastern Russia after World War I. Japan and Russia had a non-aggression treaty for most of World War II. But Russia declared war on Japan on August 15th, 1945, and promptly invaded Japanese occupied northern China (Manchuria). Japanese surrendered to the United States a month later. You could say that Japan and Russia have a lot of unresolved issues.

The sanctions and persistent low oil prices have caused Russian GDP to contract for over a year and this led to a sharp fall in the value of the ruble against foreign currencies. In the past year the dollar has become twice as expensive to buy with rubles. This has had an impact on the value of the ruble against other currencies. This is not good for the economy and it is why Chinese investment (encouraged by both countries) in Russia is down 20 percent so far this year (versus 2014). China currently has investments in Russia worth about $4 billion. Russian GDP shrank 2.2 percent during the first three months of 2015 and 4.6 percent in the second quarter. This shrinkage shows no signs of slowing down. The government tries to mask the economic damage with positive propaganda but Russians closely involved with the military, the space program and major government projects know better. Budgets are being quietly cut and managers warned that government promises of future funding is subject to “special circumstances” (the sanctions and the price of oil).

August 21, 2015:  Russia denied that six Mig-31M fighters had been delivered to an airbase outside Damascus, Syria on the 16th. Russia has lied about arms deliveries before, according to the Israelis who keep close tabs on Russian weapons deliveries to Syria and have bombed the more advanced stuff. Russia sold these MiG-31Ms to Syria back in 2007 thus Russia considers delivery legal. Russia has shipped over a billion dollars’ worth of weapons to Syria since the civil war there began in 2011. Russia insists that this is not in violation of arms embargoes against Syria and are simply deliveries of weapons ordered before 2011. Syria delivers cash to Russian banks to keep these weapons coming and their warranties operational. These purchases are being paid for by Iran, which flies in the cash to a Syrian financial operation in Moscow. The cash is then delivered to Russian government accounts via a Moscow bank. The Syrian Moscow operation is run by an uncle of Syrian dictator Basher Assad. While Russia has ideological and political reasons for supporting the Assads, there’s also the money angle. These Russian shipments are not challenged by the international community because they are, technically, defensive weapons and cannot be used to attack the rebels (the MiG-31s are used as interceptors and recon aircraft). Meanwhile Russian cargo ships continue to arrive and unload in Syria, plus numerous air freight flights. Russia quietly approved new shipments of small arms and electronic equipment, which is forbidden but can be flown in and join similar weapons Syria had before 2011. Russia appears to believe that no one will challenge this either.

August 17, 2015: Ukrainian troops near Mariupol clashed with pro-Russian rebels who opened fire and seemed ready to advance. This resulted in the worst fighting in over a month which left ten soldiers and civilians dead in Donbas as the result of 127 different attacks by pro-Russian forces. This was the highest one day death toll since June.  The fierce Ukrainian resistance persuaded the rebels to back off in places where they seemed ready to move forward. The rebels appear to be bringing in more troops and weapons in preparation for another effort to take Mariupol. This is in violation of the truce and is nothing new as far as the Russians and rebels are concerned. Pro-Russian forces have been threatening the port city of Mariupol since early 2014.  

August 14, 2015: Russia insisted that a July 24th visit by Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani to Moscow did not happen. Soleimani was said to have met with Russian defense officials and left two days later. Since 2007 Soleimani has been under numerous sanctions, including ones that are not being lifted by the July 14th deal. Soleimani was not supposed to be able to travel to Russia and Russia knows it. But Russia and Iran deny the visit actually happened, the same way Iran denies that Soleimani has spent time in Iraq supervising the creation and use of pro-Iran Shia militias.

August 13, 2015: Ukrainian troops near Mariupol suffered four casualties when pro-Russian rebels opened fire. Movements by rebel forces in the area give the appearance that the pro-Russian forces are preparing for another attempt to take the port city.

August 12, 2015:  Ukraine allowed journalists to talk to a Russian officer (a major) they captured July 26th in Donbas. This happened when 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 the Russian officer. Both men wore uniforms with no insignia and carried no ID. The Russian 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. The major has now admitted that about 2,000 Russian troops were in Donbas as of July and most were not volunteers. Their superiors would encourage career troops to “volunteer” while conscripts were usually tricked into going and not allowed to leave once they realized they were in a combat zone. There is evidence of this in official (public) records of a Russian military court (tribunal) showing that there were 62 prosecutions of soldiers for refusing to serve in a combat zone (in this case Ukraine) in the last year compared with 35 cases for the previous five years (2010 to 2014). Before Russia went into Ukraine in early 2014 most prosecutions of soldiers for not going to a combat zone involved service in the Caucasus. That is still a dangerous place, but now largely handled by locals or paramilitary units of Interior Ministry. The Russian Army is largely responsible for keeping the undeclared war in Donbas going and a growing number of Russian troops refuse to cooperate.

August 10, 2015: Another bad day in Donbas with pro-Russian rebels opening fire in several areas and leaving seven dead and eleven wounded. Ukraine has moved artillery back into Donbas. This violates the February ceasefire but Ukraine justifies it because of the many and continuing ceasefire violations by the pro-Russian rebels, often using artillery.

August 9, 2015: Because of its undeclared war with Ukraine Russia has been forced to halt manufacture of its new An-140 twin turboprop military transports. This is because essential components are made in Ukraine and now, because of the war, unavailable. In 2012 Russia ordered twenty more military versions of the An-140, to be built in Russia using a lot of Ukrainian made components. In 2011 the Russian Air Force ordered seven An-140s from Ukraine and liked what they got. Russia bought An-140s, in part, to improve diplomatic and economic relations with Ukraine. Since Russia went to war with Ukraine in early 2014 a growing number of Russian manufacturing operations have had to shut down because they can no longer import components from Ukraine. This is an aftereffect of the 70 years of communist rule in Russia and Ukraine. During this time the economies of Ukraine and Russia became closely intertwined. Russia seized control of Ukraine in the 17th century and Ukrainians considered that conquest, not a merger.

August 8, 2015: In the south (Chechnya) a Russian patrol searching a wooded area were hit by a remote controlled Islamic terrorist bomb which killed one soldier and wounded two. This is a rare case of Islamic terrorist activity in Chechnya and the constant Russian patrols (and cooperative local security forces) keeps it that way.

August 6, 2015: American Department of Defense officials believe that a major hacker attack on their military email systems in July came from Russia. This attack apparently got to at least 4,000 email accounts. While small, Department of Defense Internet security experts were impressed with the skill and resources of the hackers.

August 5, 2015: Iran announced that it is preparing a new peace proposal for Syria. This will apparently incorporate Russian suggestions that the Assads be eased out (and into comfortable exile) and the growing anti-ISIL forces in Syria unite, if only temporarily, to deal with the common threat of ISIL. This will be a hard sell because many rebel factions in Syria hate Iran in particular and Shia in general. At the same time the U.S. announced that it generally agreed with the Russo-Iranian plan and welcomes an opportunity to end the violence in Syria. 

 

 

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