In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) Russia is pulling a lot of its best troops out and sending them to Syria. At the same time more Russian troops are refusing to serve in Donbas. This is a tricky situation because officially Russia denies having any troops in Donbas. In fact (and Ukraine has plenty of evidence) there are thousands of Russian troops in Donbas and without them the rebellion there would collapse. A growing number of Russian soldiers are opening defying their government and refusing orders to “volunteer” for service in Donbas. Over a hundred are being prosecuted. The reason for all this is unexpected Ukrainian resistance and massive international outrage (and sanctions). Ukraine tripled its defense spending since early 2014, greatly reduced the corruption in defense procurement and within a year had 500 operational tanks and were building 40 new ones a year. When Russia invaded in early 2014 Ukraine officially had over 2,000 modern tanks (T-72 types) but none were operational. That was because the money for maintaining them had regularly been stolen. Ukraine still has major problems with corruption and foreign donors insist that aid will be limited until more progress is made eliminating corrupt practices.
Since the Donbas fighting began nearly two years ago nearly 8,000 have died. The local rebels (largely ethnic Russians) believed Russian military might would quickly make Donbas part of Russia and that would be the end of it. It did not work out that way and now the rebels are spending a second Winter in a bombed out and shot up Donbas. The rebels in Donbas have lost a lot. The economy is a shambles and many have seen their families flee to exile in Russia or Ukraine.
The Russian supported Syrian government forces went on the offensive in October and for a week or so seemed to make some progress but then stalled. Russians in Syria noted that the rebels quickly responded to the Russian air power and become less aggressive and mobile. Instead the rebels concentrated on defense. Thus the Russian intervention appears to have stopped most rebel advances. Russia has largely left ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces alone and ISIL has taken advantage of this and increased its attacks on Syrian rebels who oppose ISIL (who believes it should command all rebels). The Russians are willing to leave ISIL alone as it attacks other rebels but everyone understands that once ISIL becomes the primary rebel threat to the Assad government ISIL will be the main target of Russian air attacks.
The Russian air strikes, guided by Syrian ground controllers has killed about 600 people so far, 70 percent of them rebels. The rest were civilians. Over a year of American and allied air strikes have killed about 3,700 and 94 percent of them have been rebels. The American have more restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) that seek to keep civilian deaths to a minimum. Thus ISIL (and some other Islamic terrorist groups) use a lot of human shields, often quite blatantly (like putting them in metal cages and posting pictures on the Internet). The Russians ignore human shields and that means the rebels are more cautious when Russian warplanes are about.
Russia has sent hundreds of special operations personnel to Syria. Iran has some special operations troops in Syria and they appear to serve mainly for collecting intelligence and attacking key rebel leaders (not always successfully). Iran is providing a lot of trainers, combat advisors and, judging from the number of dead Iranian officers (whose families back in Iran do not hide their grief or keep it out of the media) the Iranians are deeply involved in supervising these offensive operations. Russia would like Iran to be more secretive about Iranian generals getting killed in Syria. Ten have died there since 2013 and most of those deaths were recent. Syria is a much more dangerous place for Iranian military advisors as only one Iranian general has been killed in Iraq so far.
Russia is also learning the hard way how difficult it is to maintain modern warplanes in the sand and dust of the Middle East. Russia knew about this problem because for decades it had sold military aircraft to countries (including Syria) in the region. But it turned out that there were a lot of (often minor) modifications Syrian maintainers made to their Russian aircraft to keep them operational in this environment. Russian maintainers are working overtime to adapt to all this. Despite that Russia is still getting several sorties a day out of many of the fifty or so warplanes it has in Syria. On some days there are nearly a hundred air strikes. 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. The Russians have also brought in UAVs and electronic monitoring equipment and have a lot better sense of where the best targets are. This has caused a lot of damage to the rebels who find their supply facilities and other support operations being bombed.
November 9, 2015: A Russian official revealed that the long delayed (since 2007) S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems Iran had purchased were now being prepared for shipment. The new contract was recently signed and Russia now expects to be the major supplier of weapons to Iran once the sanctions are lifted. Russia and Iran have already settled disputes over the 2007 S-300 contracts. After the 2007 S-300 purchase was stalled Iran said it would create its own clone (Bavar-373) of the Russian S-300. Iran began work on the Bavar-373 in 2010, after Russia refused to deliver S-300 systems Iran had ordered. International sanctions, plus pressure from the United States and Israel led Russia to cancel the Iranian order. Iran has issued progress reports ever since and Bavar-373 is supposed to be ready for final testing in 2016. The actual Iranian missile for the Bavar-373 is called the Sayyad 3 and it appears to be the same size and shape as the S-300 missile and carried in similar canisters. Iran insists that Bavar-373 is superior to the S-300. Now that Russia has agreed to deliver S-300s Iran will have to reveal if it believes its own propaganda about which system is superior. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil states have ordered nearly $20 billion worth of American weapons so far this year.
In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) Russian supported rebels fired on Ukrainian troops near the Donetsk airport. The 90 minutes of cannon and machine-gun fire produced no casualties nor did three other firing incidents in Donbas in the last 24 hours, wounding at least five Ukrainian soldiers. It is unclear why the rebels broke the ceasefire. Today is when both sides announced they had withdrawn heavy weapons from a 30 kilometers wide buffer zone in Donbas. This had been agreed to in the September ceasefire document but the rebels delayed for a long time.
A UN report on performance enhancing drugs in international sports (particularly the Olympics) was finally issued and it was very bad news for Russia. The report documented many cases of Russian athletes using performance enhancing drugs and the Russia secret police (FSB) threatening Russian lab personnel processing drug tests for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. The illegal activity was so widespread that there is talk of banning Russian athletes from international (including the next Olympics) competition. Russia denies everything but the sheer mass of evidence in the report is going to be hard to suppress.
November 1, 2015: In the south (Ingushetia) police spotted two wanted Islamic terrorist leaders, who had switched to ISIL earlier this year, in a market and after a gun battle killed both men. In addition to firearms police seized five kg (11 pounds) of explosives. So far this year counter-terror operations in the Caucasus (which includes Ingushetia) have led to some 450 Islamic terrorists being killed or arrested. To do this the security forces down there carried out over 1,300 counter-terror operations (raids, patrols, stakeouts).
October 31, 2015: A Russian airliner carrying 224 people (mostly Russian tourists returning home from Egypt) blew up over the Sinai Peninsula. There were no survivors. It soon became obvious that a bomb brought down the aircraft and many foreign airlines halted or restricted their flights to the Sinai (especially the Egyptian airport at the Red Sea resort complex). Russia resisted admitting that it was a terror attack because ISIL had quickly taken credit for the downed aircraft and said it was payback to Russian intervention in Syria. Egypt also resisted the ISIL claims but within ten days both Russia and Egypt acknowledged it was ISIL and took action. One local ISIL leader was then killed in Sinai and another identified. Egypt is a popular vacation spot for Russians and there were 80,000 Russians in the Red Sea resorts when the aircraft went down.
October 30, 2015: For the first time Iran was invited to meet with American and EU (European Union) diplomats for ongoing discussions in Europe about how to deal with the mess in Syria. Also attending are officials from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. Iran has long complained loudly openly about being excluded from these talks and got an invite because of intense Russian pressure and by promising to make a useful contribution. Few of these negotiators expect a deal to be made. The Arab Sunnis want no part of Assad but the Iranians need to maintain Shia (as in Assad or a Shia replacement) rule in Syria. The racial and religious animosities between Arabs and Iranians is a major obstacle. This is made worse by the popular belief in the Moslem world that ISIL and al Qaeda are inventions of Israel and the West to damage Islam. The West (and a growing number of Moslems) see the main problem as the Arab refusal to take responsibility for their actions. ISIL comes out of the Sunni radicalism tolerated (and subsidized) in Saudi Arabia for decades. Iran, Syria and Russia all have a history of supporting and promoting terrorist groups. Getting past all these bad habits, many of them not the sort of thing the perpetrators are willing to even acknowledge publicly, makes negotiating a peace deal in Syria extremely difficult.
October 28, 2015: Russia denied that it is illegally flying Iranian weapons and ammo to Syria using Russian transports. This would be in violation of international sanctions against Iran. The flights apparently are taking place and Iraqi officials are looking the other way.
October 26, 2015: Russia is now accused of preparing for war in space. An American firm, Intelsat, is the largest operator of communications satellites (75 at the moment) in the world and fears some of its satellites are being targeted by the Russians for a possible attack on Western communications satellites. All this came about in early 2015 when it was noted that a Russian military satellite was being moved into orbits very close (as in ten kilometers) of two Intelsat satellites. These incidents, which took place over a period of five months were reported to the U.S. Department of Defense which revealed that it had noted two other Russian military satellites carrying out similar maneuvers, but not as close to American satellites. All of these maneuvers were representative of what an attack satellite would do when preparing to damage or destroy other satellites. When the Department of Defense asked the Russians what was going on they received no answer. This is ironic because a lot of Intelsat satellites were placed in orbit by Russian rockets.
October 25, 2015: Ukraine cut direct commercial air traffic with Russia. That means airlines in both countries can no longer sell direct flight tickets to about 1.2 million passengers a year. Now passengers will have to fly to a third country before continuing on to Russia or Ukraine. This is another aspect of the continued deadlock in Donbas where Russian backed rebels still have control over most of one province.
October 21, 2015: Russian intervention in Syria is portrayed to Russians as part of 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 but local officials in areas where most of these Russian 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.