The aggressive foreign policy (in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, Syria) of the government is increasingly unpopular in large part because most Russians are suffering from it. While unemployment has remained at about five percent underemployment is growing. Thus while GDP is shrinking at about four percent a year, average family income has fallen ten percent and inflation (over ten percent a year) is reducing consumer purchasing power further. A lot of this increase has been caused by escalating food prices. The official poverty rate is up to 15 percent and the actual rate could be nearly twice that. Some parts of the country have an official poverty rate of close to 40 percent. Foreign and local economists do not see this decline halting for another two or three years. That assumes that the price of oil will remain low, Western sanctions remain in force and foreign investors will continue to stay away. The economic damage has been so great that Russia has fallen out of the top ten of world economies. The government budget is shrinking as well but some government spending has not been cut much, if at all (like the military, intelligence services and police). There are big cuts in construction and maintenance of infrastructure (housing, transportation, utilities) and cost-of-living increases for millions of elderly pensioners. The fall in the value of the ruble (against foreign currencies) had led a growing number of foreign airlines halting all service to Russia and a growing number of foreign companies are shutting down their Russian operations.
There is some good news (aside from the government propaganda). The Russian intervention in Syria is in part an effort to curb Islamic terrorism inside Russia and appears to have helped. Some 2,000 radicalized Russian Moslems have gone to Syria to join ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) but local officials in areas where most of these recruits come from (the Caucasus, especially Chechnya) point out that Islamic terrorist activity in the Caucasus has declined this year and reports they have received from local informants indicates that most of those who went off to join ISIL have been killed. Meanwhile four weeks of Russian air strikes in Syria are believed to have left nearly 400 dead so far most (about 70 percent) of them Syrian rebels. Russia officially says it is there to fight ISIL but most of the targets are non-ISIL rebels who have been taking a lot of territory from the Assad government this year. The Russian air strikes have killed at least one senior al Qaeda leader and a senior commander of the FSA (the largest secular rebel group). Both FSA and al Qaeda are hostile to ISIL but for Russia these two groups are a major threat to the Syrian government, which has long been a Russian ally. Russian warplanes are carrying out 50-60 air strikes a day. That is far more than the U.S. led air coalition.
Cuban troops have been reported in Syria, brought in to help train and assist Syrian troops. Some of the Cubans are believed to be special operations (commando) forces. Cuba, Russia and Syria deny the presence of Cuban troops in Syria.
Russian troops began arriving in late August and by mid-September began launching air operations (mainly reconnaissance). Meanwhile more Russian cargo ships arrived with weapons, troops, ammunition and equipment. This increase in Russian military aid to Syria solves several problems for Russia. For one, it prevents the looming collapse of the Assad government, which has been losing territory at an accelerating rate in 2015 and is facing a collapse in morale among its forces and civilian supporters. Russia has been a staunch ally of the Assad dynasty since the 1970s. Iran cannot provide more aid, mainly because despite the July agreement to lift sanctions on Iran that does not go into effect until early 2016 and until then Iran is as broke as ever. But the arrival of the Russian troops does boost Iranian morale and willingness to send in more troops to act as advisors and trainers.
Russia is only sending a few thousand ground troops but these are some of the best troops Russia has and ISIL and the other Islamic terrorist rebels will suffer much heavier casualties if they clash with these Russians. That will not prevent ISIL from trying to attack the Russian personnel, but so far these efforts have caused less than ten casualties. All this Russia aid has boosted morale among Syrian troops and pro-government civilians in Assad controlled territory and make it more likely that a Russian successful effort to keep the Assads in power will make it possible for Russia to arrange a peace deal, even if it means a partition of Syria. While the Russian force is not large (because Russia cannot afford a larger force) they are depending on terror to help out. Russians make no secret of their indifference to civilian casualties and the use of terror against their enemies. ISIL sees this as more of a threat than the more high-tech and civilized Americans.
By mid-September Russia had brought in enough warplanes and troops to support and protect the airbase near the coast in Latakia province. On September 30 the air strikes began on a large scale and sustained basis.
Russia has also made a major effort to help rebuild what is left of the Syrian Air Force, which has suffered enormous (over 70 percent) losses since 2011. Russia has always provided tech and material (spare parts) support for this largely Russian fleet of warplanes and helicopters but not enough for the Syrians to keep more than 30 percent of the 370 aircraft and helicopters operational. The surge of Russian support will mean the Syrian Air Force can be rebuilt and be even more active. The 50 or so Russian aircraft in Syria consist of Su-34 and Su-30 fighter-bombers, Su-24M bombers and Su-25 ground attack aircraft as well as about a dozen armed helicopters. There are also many transport helicopters.
Many observers were surprised when Russia moved several dozen warplanes to Syria in August and began bombing Syrian rebels with lots of unguided bombs. Since the 1990s the United States has increasingly used smart (laser or GPS) guided bombs and now over 99 percent of American air strikes use such weapons. Other Western nations also adopted smart bombs. Russia is known to have had such weapons since the 1970s, many of them based on American smart bombs (or fragments) captured in Vietnam. The problem was that Russia never built or used a lot of these weapons. For a long time Russia considered these special weapons for rare special occasions. Thus Russia has few smart bombs available and even fewer aircraft that can use them or pilots trained to do so. Despite the heavy use of unguided bombs the Russian warplanes seem to be having more success, at least on a per-sortie basis. In part that’s because the Russians have people on the ground (often Russian speaking Syrian troops who know how to call in air strikes the Russian way) and not much of an approval bureaucracy to deal with. A bonus in all this is the fact that 99 percent of the bombs used by the American led coalition are guided but the Russians are overcoming that with air controllers on the ground and a less restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement).
Meanwhile Iraq has backed away from recent anti-American (and pro-Russian) statements. The Russian intervention in Syria initially led Iraq to openly accuse the United States of being ineffective and unwilling to do what it takes to defeat ISIL. Iraqi leaders pointed out that over a year ago the U.S. and its Arab allies promised sufficient air support and other military assistance to defeat ISIL. That has not worked. Iraq believes the United States lacks the will to get the job done while Iran and Russia do have what it takes. Iraq also announced that it had established an intelligence sharing arrangement with Iran, Syria and Russia and invited the United States to join. So far the U.S. has declined. Finally Iraq is considering asking Russia to extend its bombing campaign to attacks on ISIL in western Iraq and Mosul. This would involve allowing Russia to operate from Iraqi air bases. What is meant here but not being said is that Iraq disagrees with the American ROE which puts more emphasis on protecting civilians than in destroying the enemy. ISIL uses lots of human shields to protect its men and facilities from air attack. Russia and Arab air forces will bomb a target even if there are human shields present. Another unspoken issue here is the high level of corruption in Iraq. The Russians, Iranians and other Arab states tolerate that while the West, and especially the Americans, do not. The Western experience is that, in the long term killing your own people and tolerating corruption does a nation more harm than good. Thus it is a cultural thing, with the leaders of Iraq, Iran, Russia and most other Arab states more concerned with the short term and thus more tolerant of what the West sees as self-destructive behavior. Soon Iraq realized that the Russians were in Syria mainly to keep the Assads in power and were doing little or nothing to hurt the Assads.
October 20, 2015: American and Russian officials met and signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” on procedures to avoid conflicts between coalition (U.S., France, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) and Russian aircraft. Most (over 90 percent) of the coalition air strikes in Syria are American. The U.S. refused to consider coordinating air operations with the Russians or sharing target information. Currently the U.S. led coalition is concentrating on ISIL while the Russians are concentrating on all other rebel groups except ISIL. Russia makes no secret of the fact that it is there to ensure the survival of the Assad government. To that end Russian air strikes, and logistic support on the ground, are proving decisive in making it possible for the Syrian forces to push back the rebels. Despite what Russian forces are actually doing the official Russian position is that they are trying to attack ISIL exclusively.
Russia announced the completion of a new military base off its northern (Arctic) coast. This one is in the Franz Josef Land archipelago. This collection of 191 ice and snow covered Russian islands lies astride the new ice free “Northeast Passage” that has formed off the north coast. Other countries are depending on Russia to provide accurate information about the new shipping channels off the north coast. Russia says the new base is stocked with enough supplies to allow its 150 personnel to survive 18 months without resupply. Russia has long maintained some small bases up there but had closed all of them in the 1990s.
October 19, 2015: Turkey said its warplanes had shot down a Russian UAV that had crossed the border into Turkish air space. Russia denied it had lost a UAV. The Turks reminded Russia that piloted Russian aircraft would be shot down as well.
In Syria Russian warplanes bombed a group of FSA rebels, apparently because this group was equipped with American TOW anti-tank missiles, which had been causing a lot of damage to Syrian armored vehicles. The air strikes also killed a senior FSA leader.
Artillery fire against the Russian base at Latakia left three Russians dead and several other wounded. It is unclear if the fire was mortars, artillery or rockets.
October 14, 2015: In eastern Ukraine the ceasefire was broken for the first time this month as pro-Russian rebels fired on Ukrainian troops, killing one and wounding two others. Until today the September 1 ceasefire agreement had been working despite a few violent incidents in September. Both sides were withdrawing heavy weapons from a 30 kilometers wide “neutral zone” along the 500 kilometers long front line. This violence appears to have been against Russian orders. That demonstrates that the pro-Russian rebels continue to have problems following orders.
October 13, 2015: The head of Islamic terrorist Syrian rebel group al Nusra called on Russian Moslems in the Caucasus to rise up and attack government targets. So far that has not been happening and local (Moslem) officials in Russia (especially Chechnya) say that not much is happening with the few Islamic terrorists left in the Caucasus. Al Nusra also offered a $3.4 million reward for anyone who could kill Syrian government leader Basher Assad. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia is rumored to have offered Russia $300 billion to withdraw its forces from Syria. Russia allegedly refused. Russia and Iran are interested in putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to pump less oil so the world oil price will rise. The Saudis want the Assad government gone and so far Iran and Russia have prevented that from happening.
October 10, 2015: American and Russian officials met (via video conference) to work out procedures to avoid conflicts between NATO and Russian aircraft over Syria. These were described as “flight safety” discussions.
October 9, 2015: There appeared rumors about a Russian MiG-29 being shot down by Turkish F-16s in northwest Syria after the MiG-29 violated Turkish air space. The rumors persisted over the weekend because no one would confirm or deny them. NATO did say they knew nothing about the incident and there were no pictures of the wreckage. Meanwhile Russia said it had launched 67 air strikes in the last 24 hours, the most in any one day since its forces first arrived in August. Previous to this Russia had been launching about ten air strikes a day. The surge today was mainly directed at targets in central Syria and the northwest (Hama, Latakia and Idlib provinces) as well as Raqqa province in the east.
October 8, 2015: American intelligence analysts believe that at least four of the 26 cruise missiles fired by Russian warships in the landlocked Caspian Sea at targets in Syria crashed in Iran. Both Russia and Iran deny this and insisted that all 26 missiles fired on the 7th hit their targets in Syria and that there were no civilian casualties. If only 15 percent of the Russian cruise missiles failed to reach their targets that would be acceptable because even American cruise missiles, in use since the 1980s, have a failure rate of about 15 percent and the Russian rate is probably higher especially when you count the missiles that reached the general vicinity of the target but did not actually hit the intended target.
October 7, 2015: Russian troops, operating about a hundred kilometers east of their main base at Latakia, used howitzers and rocket launchers to hit rebel targets outside the rebel held city of Hama. This was the first use of Russian controlled and operated artillery in Syria. About the same time Russian warships in the Caspian Sea launched 26 Klub (Kalibr) cruise missiles at rebel targets in Syria.
A Russian delegation has arrived in Israel for more talks about cooperation and coordination between Russian and Israeli military forces now that Russian troops and warplanes are operating inside Syria. An initial agreement was made on September 21st.
October 6, 2015: The U.S. has asked Russia why a Russian military satellite launched on September 2014 is maneuvering so close to American communications satellites. Russia denies that anything sinister is going on.