Russia: How To Make A Mess Worse

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February 16, 2016: The government controls the mass media and that is why most coverage is about the “war” with NATO and the effort to destroy ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Syria (as well as rescue the Assad government). Russian leaders now accuse the West of reviving the Cold War. This all began when Russian leaders decided to use nationalism to solve several problems. Back in 2012 Vladimir Putin, who has been in power since 2000 (as president, prime minister and now president again) was seeking to deal with several years of declining popularity. People were upset about the continued corruption and sluggish economic performance. Putin decided to employ an ancient trick; blame all the problems on evil foreigners. It worked, even though in 2012 the urban middle class was largely against him and many rural groups were turning hostile as well. The government had tried taking more action against corruption and more repression of public protests. But what seemed to work best was more propaganda against "foreign threats" (like the NATO anti-missile system). All this did not work out as planned.

In 2012 the government felt confident that the new “blame foreigners” strategy would work. After all Russia was producing 10 million barrels of oil a day, most for export. In 2012 oil was selling for over $100 a barrel. This gave the government a lot of money to play with and time to come up with a solution for the pervasive corruption. Then, unexpectedly, the oil price began a rapid fall in 2014. This was the result of Saudi Arabia and other Arab producers trying to use low prices to weaken Iran and destroy the American fracking industry. Then Russia was hit with sanctions because of its aggression against Ukraine.

By 2016 Russia was still playing the “evil foreigner” angle. Little is said about the economy because that mess is obvious to anyone living in Russia, Putin wants to publicize Russian success and play down the failures. The combination of low oil prices, sanctions and corruption make the economic mess a growing problem that can be ignored but won’t go away. As a result most Russians now want economic and personal security and are willing to tolerate a police state to get it. That atmosphere, plus the anxiety generated by the military operations in Ukraine and Syria has scared away a lot of foreign investors and many Russian ones as well. Russia can downplay this in the state controlled media but without all that foreign and Russian capital the economy cannot grow. Inflation and unemployment remain high and there is not much the government can do about it. Eventually the growing economic problems will overwhelm the nationalistic mass media campaign.

For the average Russian the inflation rate seems to have stopped growing and has been stuck at about 15 percent for over a year. In other words inflation is now a known and reliable (not growing) problem. The ruble, however, is again getting weaker (against foreign currencies). In October 2015 it was 65 rubles per dollar but is currently at 80 rubles and still falling. In 2014 it only cost 39 rubles to buy a dollar. The more expensive dollar makes it difficult to pay for imported goods.

The economy, and GDP, is still shrinking just more slowly. Managers concentrate on survival not expansion plans. GDP is expected to decline nearly one percent in 2016, a year in which the world GDP is expected to grow nearly three percent. China, despite an unprecedented (by recent Chinese standards) recession is expected to see GDP growth of over six percent in 2016. China is still investing heavily in countries adjacent to Russia, as well as Russia itself and that reminds Russians (and Chinese) who has the economic upper hand these days.

A problem both China and Russia share is the flight of capital. In China over a trillion dollars has left the country in the last year, most of it illegally. Russia has a GDP one tenth the size of Chinas but has suffered proportionally more capital flight. Worse, the sanctions and corruption have kept foreign investors away just when Russia needed them most. Even Chinese investors are reluctant (without guarantees from the Chinese government) to put capital into Russia.

The biggest problem the government faces are those it created itself. For the moment most Russians back the government assertions that the economic mess has been caused by the West which, the government insists, is continuing the Cold War and trying to destroy Russia. Foreigners who point out that Russians do that better than anyone are dismissed as part of the problem. It’s a circular argument that worked for the Soviet government during the Cold War until, by the late 1980s, it didn’t. This time around it is expected to take a few years and not a few decades before the disillusionment sets in.

The Mess In Ukraine

In Ukraine about 2,300 Ukrainian military personnel have died since the Russian aggression began in early 2014. More than 6,000 civilians and rebels have also died, along with several hundred Russian troops. In Syria at least 110 Russians have died since August 2015 but Syria is now the main concern of the Russian military.

The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) reports that Russian backed rebels are responsible for 90 percent of the violent incidents in eastern Ukraine since January 31st. The 700 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. Since January 31st the rebels have been violating the ceasefire on a daily basis. 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. For three weeks before that the area was quiet but for whatever reason the Russian backed rebels have been breaking the ceasefire daily since the end of January. 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.

Russia apparently believes it can delay any real peace deal until the Ukrainian government basically surrenders and gives Russia all it wants.

The Mess In Syria

The current UN sponsored peace talks achieved an apparent success on February 12th when the Russians, Syrians, Iranians and most Western nations agreed to a ceasefire, to begin by the 19th. Joy quickly turned to dismay when Russia and Syria pointed out that they would continue attacking ISIL and al Qaeda affiliates (mainly al Nusra) because these groups had not agreed to any ceasefire. The main purpose of the ceasefire was to allow supply trucks to reach civilians surrounded and cut off by aid. That may still happen but the ceasefire deal is dead-on-arrival largely because Russia has been lying about why it is really in Syria and that lie is both obvious and a major factor in preventing the peace talks from achieving anything.

The problem is that Russia is concentrating most of its considerable firepower on rebel groups that are hurting the Syrian Assad government forces the most. By American count only about ten percent of Russian air strikes have been against ISIL and those targets were usually hit to protect Assad forces. Russia justifies (to the UN and the world in general) its military presence in Syria because it is part of the effort to destroy the ISIL threat. While Russia does not hide its support for the Assad government (which the UN and most of the world accuse of war crimes and want gone) it insists that its presence in Syria is not primarily to keep the Assads in power. Yet thousands of Russian troops are working with the Assad forces, the Russian troops are all based in Assad controlled territory and the majority of rebels, who are not ISIL or the local al Qaeda franchise al Nusra, are the main targets of Russian firepower. Not surprisingly these rebels refuse to participate in peace talks as long as the UN allows Russia to get away with their lies. By late January this Russian support has enabled Assad forces to cut rebels in Aleppo off from Turkey (a primary source if reinforcements and supplies). This is a major defeat for the rebels.

Meanwhile the rebels willing to negotiate demand a lot of pre-conditions aimed at the Russians. At the very least the rebels wanted the Russians to halt their Assad support while peace talks go on. The rebels are asking for other concessions, like release of captured leaders and lifting of sieges of some pro-rebel civilian areas. Russia refused to consider any of these demands.

Another issue the rebels are angry about was the UN agreeing to keep the Syrian Kurds out of the peace talks. This was something Turkey insisted on. There were other problems, like the tensions between Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran which have also helped cripple UN efforts obtain a meaningful Syria peace deal. The growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran has made cooperation over brokering a Syria peace deal less likely. Russian efforts to mediate are also compromised because of tensions with Iran and the Saudis.

Russia further complicates the situation by getting involved with increasingly strident disagreements with Turkey. The Turks are angry at Russia for flying its aircraft too close to the Turkish border and for bombing Turkish backed rebels. A particular sore point has been Russian attacks on Syrian Turkmen rebels. As these people are fellow Turks, Turkey has long felt obliged to help them. Now Russia and Turkey are threatening to go to war with each other over this. NATO is debating whether or not this would trigger the mutual-self-defense clause of the NATO treaty.

So far Russian bombers and attack helicopters have killed over 3,000 people in Syria. Russia claims that about a third of these dead have been ISIL with the rest being other rebels and civilians. These Russian air attacks are now frequently hitting over a hundred targets a day. Western critics accuse Russia of ignoring civilian losses. That is true but because of that the Russian air attacks have been more effective and have been of great assistance to the Western war against ISIL. Russia calls Western criticism hypocrisy especially since Western and Arab leaders backing the fight against ISIL are not pressuring Russia to change its ROE (Rules of Engagement) over this because everyone admits that this would just encourage ISIL to use civilians as human shields even more.

The Solution In The Caucasus

In the southern Moslem areas (Caucasus) Islamic terrorist activity continues to decline despite ISIL efforts to capitalize on the rampant corruption and bad government down there. Chechnya, which used to be the most violent area in the Caucasus is now the most peaceful. In 2015 Chechnya suffered 14 Islamic terror related deaths, down from nearly a hundred in 2011. This is largely the result of constant Russian patrols and cooperative local security forces. Over a thousand Chechens have gone off the Syria to fight for ISIL but those who return realize that Chechnya has become the most difficult part of Russia for Islamic terrorists to operate in. So the government has to worry about Chechen ISIL members planning attacks in other parts of the country. This gives police nationwide permission to harass any Chechens they encounter. As a result ISIL tends to concentrate on the Caucasus (except Chechnya). Even so there have been little ISIL violence in Russia, despite repeated threats by ISIL via the Internet.

February 15, 2016: In the south (Dagestan) a suicide car bomb at a checkpoint killed two policemen and wounded 13 other police and civilians. Both ISIL and a local gang claimed to have carried out the attack.

In northern Syria Russian warplanes were blamed for attacks on hospitals and schools that left at least fifty dead and several hundred wounded. The UN called for a war crimes investigation.

February 5, 2016: Saudi Arabia announced that it was ready to send ground troops into Syria to fight ISIL. In response Syria, Russia and Syria (the Assads) went public with their belief that Saudi ground troops could not handle ISIL or Syrian soldiers. Iran and Russia have long felt that the Saudi armed forces were second rate. There is some truth to this and it has long been an open secret even among Gulf Arabs. But after decades of efforts (including a lot of blunt criticism) by foreign (mainly American and British) military advisors and trainers change did occur. The Gulf Arab ground forces proved quite capable (or at least more so than Iran expected) in Yemen. Foreign Arabs have been fighting there since early 2015. Iran was also dismayed to see the skill of Saudi and other Arab pilots in Yemen (and earlier in Iraq and Syria). In this part of the world publically demeaning a neighbor’s troops after those forces have recently displayed competence is a form of compliment. It also sends a message to Iranian commanders and troops to try harder because the Arabs may not be as easy to beat as would they expect them to be. The fact that Iran went public with disparaging remarks about Saudi troops ensured that the war of words stayed in the media and more recently Iran has threatened Saudi troops with Iranian supplied violence if the Saudis dared to send troops into Syria. Iran knows that such an “invasion” would be as much against the Assads and their Iranian backers as against ISIL. The Saudis have warned Russia to stand aside if the Saudis and Iranians get violent with each other inside Syria. Turkey then warned Russia that an attack on Saudi forces would compel the Turks to enter Syria to assist their Arab ally. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have had good relations for a long time so this Turkish pledge should come as no surprise.

February 3, 2016: In Ukraine the economy minister resigned because too many senior officials were blocking his efforts to eliminate government corruption. This resignation was embarrassing for the government which is dependent on foreign aid. It got worse by the 15th when a senior anti-corruption prosecutor also resigned. The donor countries have threatened to reduce or even halt all aid if the government does not reduce the corruption that sees so much foreign aid stolen. These resignations come at a critical time because the government has been having problems with low morale among troops facing the Russians and rebels in the east. The troops personally experience the effects of corruption because of shortages of supplies and poor treatment of the families of combat soldiers. Worse, some 40,000 troops will be eligible to leave the military in March and the government has been trying to persuade most of them to stay in the military.

February 2, 2016: Because of the latest North Korean nuclear test and announced ballistic missile tests South Korea has sped up its efforts to obtain and put into service the American THAAD anti-missile system. China and Russia joined North Korea in opposing THAAD. South Korea wants THAAD for protection from North Korean missile attack. The Chinese would not come right out and say it but they object mainly because THAAD would also make South Korea less vulnerable to intimidation by Chinese ballistic missiles. South Korea openly refused to comply with the Chinese threats in 2015 and South Korean public opinion became even more enthusiastic about the high tech and very expensive (over $100 million per launcher and associated equipment) THAAD system. China sees South Korea more of an ally of the United States and a potential wartime foe than as an ally in attempts to keep North Korea from doing anything that would cause major economic and diplomatic problems (like starting a war). South Korea ignores the Chinese threat noting that China has done nothing to interfere with the profitable trade between the two countries. Russia opposes THAAD for the same reasons China does.

January 31, 2016: In eastern Ukraine Russian backed rebels began breaking the ceasefire in a big way. Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed, the first Ukrainian casualties in three weeks. This was just the beginning as over the next week there were nearly a hundred incidents of rebels firing on Ukrainian troops.

January 28, 2016: North Korea and Russia have agreed to speed up implementation of the extradition treaty they signed in November 2015. This makes it easier, and quicker, for each nation to get back fugitives. This is most useful for North Korea, because many North Koreans flee (illegally) to Russia while there is little such traffic from Russia to North Korea.

Meanwhile Japan gave Russia more to worry about the Japanese displayed, for the first time, its X-2 experimental stealth fighter. This aircraft is to make its first flight by the end of February so there was no point in trying to keep it hidden from public view anymore. Japan admits that it will take about a decade to get the X-2 into service, assuming all the technical and fiscal obstacles can be overcome. China and Russia are also trying to develop similar aircraft while the U.S. has already done so, several times, since the 1980s (when the F-117 appeared).

January 27, 2016: Russia recently announced that it was moving ten more brigades to its western borders. While this is seen as a threatening move by East European nations it is much less of a threat than in the past. That’s because the Russian army has been falling apart since the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. After that came fifteen years of practically no new equipment and a vast downsizing. The Cold War force of 175 divisions dwindled to 25, plus 21 independent brigades (equivalent to another 5 divisions). These divisions were, for the most part, very under strength and poorly equipped. By 2006, the Russian army was smaller than the American army and much less capable. The much diminished Russian ground forces can still be a threat, but it is noted that when Russia wants to make a threat that gets attention they talk of using ICBMs, not masses of Russian armored vehicles.

 

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