Peace talks in Germany between German, Russian, Ukrainian and French officials failed to reach an agreement on how to achieve an end to the war in eastern Ukraine (Donbas). The main stumbling point was how local elections would be run in Donbas. Russia knows it would probably lose in a fair vote. The Russian tactic (pioneered by them in East Europe after World War II) is to use rigged elections to get a new (in this case local) government that will approve a Russian military takeover. That worked most recently in Crimea but Ukraine and its Western allies are determined to stop it from happening again. Meanwhile even the Russian government (members of parliament) are complaining about how rampant corruption in Crimea is crippling rebuilding efforts and causing local unrest. In the rest of Russia things are a little better but the economy is still in recession, mainly because of the low oil price and the continued international sanctions over the Ukraine aggression. This gives Russia some incentive to settle the Ukraine conflict. So far, however, Russia is not willing to just walk away from Donbas and, in effect, admit defeat.
Russia and Iran continues to work closely together to support their mutual friend the Assad government in Syria. This includes supporting a ceasefire there which the Assads are able to violate in part because of Russian support (particularly in the UN, which oversees the ceasefire) and less public Iranian support. Although Russia and Iran don’t agree completely on how to keep the widely hated (especially inside Syria) Assads in power both agree that the Assads need all the help they can get to survive and prevail. Iran and Russia, who have often been hostile (even at war) with each other in the past, exemplify the concept of “frenemy” (and friend who is also an enemy.) The current situation is made worse because the presidents of Russia and Iran apparently don’t like each other personally.
Russian media make much of the Russian anti-terrorist effort in Syria while playing down the fact that Russian support for the Assads is making possible the considerable expansion of government controlled territory. The current ceasefire does not apply to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) or Al Nusra (the local al Qaeda franchise) and Syrian forces, with lots of Russian support (air strikes, artillery, commandos, intelligence, logistics) are making major gains. The rebels who have agreed to the ceasefire are complaining because the government is frequently seizing territory that was adjacent to ISIL or al Nusra held areas and blaming it on battlefield confusion. No territory is being handed back because of these “errors”.
Despite the mid-March Russian announcement that it was withdrawing troops from Syria Russian warplanes are still supporting Syrian government forces on a daily basis. It was recently confirmed that all Su-25 ground attack aircraft had been withdrawn but it is known that more helicopter gunships are operating in Syria as well many transport helicopters. One of the newest Russian combat aircraft, the Su-34, is still in Syria. These aircraft are being modified, based on combat experience, to correct problems encountered. Russia claims that its aircraft in Syria are carrying out 20-30 combat sorties a day. Russia claims carrying out 10,000 combat sorties since September 2015 and that these sorties hit over 30,000 targets. This high sortie/target count is partly the result of using a lot of helicopter gunships, which can fly over a half a dozen sorties a day and hit several targets per sortie. In addition Russia has used 115 cruise missiles, launched from warships or heavy bombers. Russia has received a lot of criticism for killing civilians with all this firepower support. Russia ignores the condemnation and points out that much of the fighting takes place in urban areas and that ISIL and al Nusra regularly use human shields to protect themselves from air strikes by Western (especially American) warplanes, which have a much more restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) that reduces civilian casualties but also the damage done to the enemy.
Russia made it clear that it is only withdrawing some of its air power and military personnel. The departing forces can be returned quickly if needed. Russia will maintain control of port facilities on the Syrian coast and nearby airbases. Russia is using helicopters and artillery more for fire support. Some of the artillery (especially the new truck mounted rocket systems) are operated by Russians. Much of the older Russian artillery the Syrian Army owns has been refurbished with the help of Russian supplied spare parts and technical advisors. Same deal with Syrian Air Force equipment which is almost entirely from Russia. The Syrian pilots are good, mainly because they have lots of combat experience now.
Helping Armenia Without Angering Iran
Russia is continuing deliveries of weapons and ammo to Armenia despite the fact that Armenian troops are still fighting forces from neighboring Azerbaijan. Armenia insists that the Azerbaijani April “offensive” has been halted and that Azerbaijani forces are now on the defensive. Russia and Iran are cooperating to maintain the ceasefire they arranged to end nearly a week of fighting. Iran has more influence over Azerbaijan and is doing what it can to persuade the Azerbaijanis to stop violating the ceasefires. That appears to be working although mainly because the Azerbaijani attacks have not been successful. Both these countries were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Forces from the two nations began firing at each other on April 2nd and a ceasefire was negotiated and implemented on the 5th. Since then that deal has been in danger because not everyone has been persuaded to stop shooting. Since April over 110 have died and many more wounded. Nevertheless the peacemaking effort is succeeding as the violence is declining. Russia considers itself the “protector” of Armenia but has managed to maintain good relations with Azerbaijan as well. In doing that Russia established one of the more successful peacekeeping operations since the Cold War ended in 1991 by getting Armenia and Azerbaijan to agree to a ceasefire in 1994 after another round of fighting over a territorial dispute. Russia became a military ally of Armenia as part of that arrangement. Iran has tried, and not always succeeded, to be on good terms with Azerbaijan, if only because about a quarter of the Iranian population are Azeris. At the same time Iran and Russia, traditional enemies, have become allies and those links are being used to deal with latest round of violence. Iran has long harbored an intense interest in Azerbaijan. This is because most of the Turkic and Moslem Azeris live in Iran. Up until 1813, modern Azerbaijan was part of Iran. Then the Russians showed up. Armenia and Azerbaijan were the last Russian conquests as the tsar’s soldiers and Cossacks advanced through the Caucasus (between the Black and Caspian Seas) in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Russians stopped when they ran into the Turkish and Iranian empires, but not before taking a chunk of Azerbaijan from Iran. The Iranians have not forgotten. In effect, most of "Azerbaijan" is in Iran and Iran has long hoped to reunite all Azeris under their rule. Many Iranian Azeris have risen to senior positions in the government. Despite that, most Azeris would like all Azeris united in a single Azerbaijan. This is not a popular idea within Iran. The Russians, on the other hand, have come to accept the 1991 loss of Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The KGB Comeback
President Putin’s new “National Guard” is officially a “rapid reaction” force for dealing with terrorism or any other threat to Russia that requires quick and decisive action. There is growing resistance in parliament to a recent Putin request for new laws that allow the National Guard to fire on Russian citizens whenever the government wants to without warning. In addition National Guard leaders are to be immune to any prosecution for anything they are ordered to do. This reminds too many people of the kind of power the Soviet era KGB had. The new National Guard is suspected of being the new KGB army. As organized the new National Guard is taking nearly all of the best trained and most effective units from the Interior Ministry. That is seen as weakening an existing force that could prevent a new KGB from misbehaving. Putin, a former KGB officer, also made the National Guard immune to FSB (the post-Soviet KGB) oversight. Another interesting aspect of the National Guard is that the many para-military groups formed by the pro-Putin government of Chechnya are now considered part of the National Guard. A growing number of Russians are calling the National Guard “Putin’s Private Army.”
This sort of thing is an ancient practice. Thus in pre-2003 Iraq Saddam Hussein had his Republican Guard, a force that was filled with the best paid, best armed men in the armed forces who were, above all, loyal to Saddam. All other successful dictatorships have similar forces. In Soviet Russia the secret police (KGB) employed over a million domestic spies and informers
several divisions of troops trained and equipped to deal with rebellions by the population, or the armed forces. Iran has a similar force, the Revolutionary Guard that serves a similar role as the old KGB. The Saudi monarchy has its National Guard and surviving monarchies usually have a least a ceremonial remnant of the once powerful “guards.” Even the pope still has a Swiss Guard. Currently ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has its 4,000 man “Shield of Islam” force which is composed of the most skilled and resourceful ISIL fighters, including many foreigners (especially hundreds of the much feared Chechens). During World War II, Adolf Hitler had the SS, Gestapo and his private army, the Waffen SS, all of which kept Germany fighting until the very end. The new Putin version of the KGB army is being created by taking most of the armed forces available to the Interior Ministry (the national police and various riot control, SWAT and special operations forces) as well as investigators and intelligence experts and assigning them to the new National Guard which swears to protect the president of Russia (currently Putin), not the Russian people.
The new (since mid-April) government in Ukraine is having a positive impact at home and with foreign allies and aid providers. In that respect Ukraine is pulling ahead of Russia which is still mired in an economic recession and persistent corruption. The situation in Ukraine is more desperate which has played a role in getting more capable and honest politicians into the senior jobs. But there are still plenty of corrupt people in the government and the commercial sector. Dealing with that is a work in progress.
Fighting continues in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) but at a low level and usually instigated by pro-Russian rebels. Ukraine continues to gather evidence that many of the “rebels” are actually Russia troops. The original pro-Russian Ukrainians (most of them ethnic Russians) have become discouraged because the fighting has dragged on. The Ukrainians refuse to give in. This war is two years old and has left over 9,200 dead at least 20,000 wounded. Most of the casualties have been civilians. There is a ceasefire in place but no progress on working out an end to the Russian effort to grab a chunk of eastern Ukraine. Given all the domestic economic problems Russia has plus the military operation in Syria and peacemaking in Armenia the aggression in Ukraine (which began in late 2014) appears to be on hold.
Peace talks between Russia and NATO nations over Ukraine have made it clear that the price of peace is a NATO agreement to back away from Russian borders. Russia has been demanding this since 2000. Then in 2008 Russia went ahead and, in effect, annexed the Georgian separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. No one was willing to face down the Russians on this issue, which many of Russia’s neighbors saw as the first of many such annexations. There is a precedent for this sort of thing, and it all began on the French-German border in 1936.
Some historians see the German reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 as the real beginning of World War II. As part of the treaty that ended World War I, Germany agreed to keep troops out of the Rhineland (a German region on the French border). Going back in was a huge gamble for the Germans, who were in the midst of rebuilding their military, and, in 1936, much weaker than France or Britain. But neither of these countries were willing to risk the violence that might occur if they went after the 32,000 troops and police Germany sent into the Rhineland. This convinced Hitler that he could bully the Western allies, and grab neighboring countries with impunity. This worked for Austria and Czechoslovakia, but triggered World War II when Germany and Russia (by prior agreement) carved up Poland in 1939.
Russia may not have its sights on Poland this time around, but Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic States and a few of the Central Asian "stans" would be nice. In 2014 Russian confirmed this by moving on Ukraine, seizing (and annexing) Crimea and getting stuck trying to do the same in eastern Ukraine (Donbas). The question remains as to whether would, or could, anyone stop Russia from continuing to do this Hitler didn't have nuclear weapons, nor was Germany the supplier of a quarter of Europe's energy needs. Hitler also didn't have the support of the German people for such military adventures, the current Russian government does but only if there are few Russian casualties. Russia also still has its secret police apparatus. Perhaps not as large as when the Soviet Union was still around, but it's still there. Credit Cards, the Internet and cell phones make it easier to keep track of people. There are still KGB old timers around who remember how to run a prison camps. Absorbing the nations of the "near abroad" (as Russia calls its neighbors), would mean having to deal with a lot of dissidents. That's what the Gulag (the Russian acronym for the prison camp system, or "The Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies") was created for. It gets the troublemakers off the streets, permanently, as needed. Puts the fear of Moscow into the newly acquired citizens of the Russian State. It worked before, it can work again. So did taking over the Rhineland. No wonder there is so much fear in East Europe, not just about Russia but about how the rest of Europe doesn’t seem to care.
May 10, 2016: Russia has resumed work in a Crimean shipyard by starting to build a new warship (corvette) there. The shipyard shut down when Russia seized control of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
May 9, 2016: In the south (Chechnya) an Islamic terrorist suicide bomber attacked a checkpoint and wounded six policemen.
Russia agreed to meet, on May 17th, with 16 other nations and attempt to work out a more comprehensive ceasefire in Syria. The February 27 ceasefire agreement is ten weeks old but does not include the entire country and Russia is seen helping the Assads exploit the ceasefire to regain territory. Russia and Iran are trying to get international support for a peace deal that would keep the Assads in power. That is slow going but making progress. Many countries are fed up with the seemingly endless war in Syria and the growing flood of refugees headed for Europe.
In Syria another (the eighth) Russian soldier was killed in combat.
May 6, 2016: In the south (Dagestan) a police captain was shot dead by an unknown attacker. Could have been Islamic terrorists or gangsters. In Dagestan it’s often hard to tell unless someone takes credit.
Russia announced that it was expanding its earlier (announced in January) plan to reorganize combat brigades and redeploy them to defend against Western aggression. The revised plan will involve using several more combat brigades to form four combat divisions. Two will be on the western borders and two in the south (Ukraine) All this will involve moving at least twelve brigades to border areas and building new bases to house them. The Russian army is not getting any more troops, just reorganizing and moving some of those it already has. 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 even though the Russians had adopted the American practice of organizing their ground forces in independent brigades rather than the usual divisions. 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.
May 5, 2016: Russia persuaded its Syrian ally to abide by a 48 hour ceasefire in Aleppo. This is to allow safe passage of relief supplies to civilians trapped by the fighting. The Assads go along with this because it will help their effort to get a peace deal that keeps them in power. Then there is the fact that the Assads have to do whatever Russia and Iran tell them if they want to survive.
In eastern Ukraine a pro-Russian rebel mine killed one Ukrainian soldier and wounded to others.
May 4, 2016: The government has ordered everyone in the Russian Federal Space Agency to prepare for a round of inspections. All suppliers must also be recertified. What triggered this was persistent problems with poor quality components and human error in the space program. The latest incident occurred in late April when the launch of a Soyuz rocket was delayed because of a faulty cable. This comes after several years of vigorous and often very public efforts to eliminate the flawed components and poor workmanship. For example in in 2013 the government revealed that the cause of a recent satellite launch failure was criminal negligence by space program workers and managers. The failure occurred at the Soviet era Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan when a Russian Proton-M rocket exploded ten seconds after launch, destroying three Glonass satellites it was carrying. This disaster cost Russia over $200 million and further blemished the reliability of Russian satellite launch services. The satellites, being state property, were not insured so the total loss comes out of the government budget. An investigation of the wreckage soon revealed that the cause of the Proton-M failure was the installation of a sensor upside down, which caused the rocket control system to believe the rocket was going in the wrong direction. The rocket them tried to adjust for the incorrect sensor signal and began behaving erratically and crashed. There were supposed to be visual inspections of all installed equipment and the government is seeking to discover who did not do their job. This is supposed to lead to prosecution of whoever was responsible. During the Soviet period (1921-1991) those responsible for disasters like would often be executed or imprisoned. But now the government corruption and inefficiency makes it difficult to get competent people to run operations like the Space Agency. That has been partially successful but the quality control and competence problems persist.
May 3, 2016: In the south (Dagestan) police clashed with Islamic terrorists and killed three of them. One of the three dead men was a much wanted Islamic terrorist leader. The three were in a car stopped by police. The three then began shooting fire and were killed by return fire. So far this year five police and eleven Islamic terrorists have died in Dagestan.
May 1, 2016: In eastern Ukraine pro-Russian rebels again (for the third time since mid-April) broke the ceasefire and their firing left two Ukrainian soldiers dead and four wounded.
April 28, 2016: Russia and Algeria signed an agreement to study building one or more nuclear power plants in Algeria. Russia has done the same for Iran, China, India, Turkey and Belarus. Russia is in the midst of a program that will nearly double (to 61) its own nuclear power plants by 2030 and increase from 17 percent to 25 percent the portion of electrical power produced by nuclear plants. Russia has to overcome a Cold War era reputation of building unsafe nuclear facilities and using tech that was inferior to what was available in the West.
April 26, 2016: Russian officials do not expect any major changes in North Korea and do not believe that North Korea will act on any of its recent threats to attack South Korea and the United States with nuclear weapons. These Russian opinions count for a lot as Russia is currently North Korea’s only reliable ally. China has turned on North Korea and is promising to fully enforce all economic sanctions. While Russia cannot supply as much economic assistance as China, Russian diplomats are able to move about more freely than their Chinese counterparts and have access to more senior North Korean officials.
April 24, 2016: In eastern Ukraine pro-Russian rebels again (for the second time in a week) broke the ceasefire. Using mortars and heavy machine-guns the rebels killed three Ukrainian soldiers and wounded six. These two incidents were the worst in two months of relative calm. The rebels claim this is in retaliation for Ukrainian artillery fire on civilians but there is no evidence of this.