There is one foreign threat that is real, and is continuing to do serious damage to the Russian government. This is all about the Internet and the inability of the government to control what appears on the Internet inside Russia. Currently the most damaging impact of this is the evidence of corruption the government insists it has under control. This evidence is even more compelling because of all those smart phone photos and videos documenting the unexplainable wealth of government officials at a time when most Russians are slipping into poverty (or a less comfortable lifestyle). The Internet also distributes images of documents (foreign and domestic) that provide even more details of enormous wealth owned by Russian officials who could not explain where it came from. In the state controlled media these revelations don’t exist (“more Western lies not worth repeating”) but these details get into Russia via the Internet and eventually reach just about everyone. The damage done is considerable because it makes Russians realize that since 2014 Russia has been making a lot of headlines but not much else. The economy is a mess, it has fewer allies and the future looks dim. Invading Ukraine and Syria has not helped solve any of the fundamental problems.
The government has been forced to admit that major adjustments had to be made because of these economic problems. For example, in 2014 the government announced a $70 billion ten year program to revive the moribund Russian space program. That has since been cut to $20 billion. What a lot of Russians noticed (and discuss on the Internet) is that the $70 billion spending plan was announced right after Russia had taken Crimea from Ukraine and while world oil prices were plunging. The government apparently did not consider either of these developments would do any long-term damage to Russia. So many Russians wonder what else their leaders have misinterpreted. This may account for the government being more open and accurate with public assessments of economic matters. For example the government recently admitted that the air force would have to make do with upgraded Su-27/30s rather than the new PAK-FA stealth fighter. A few will be used by the Russian Air Force but most will be built for export customers.
Amidst all the bad economic news few Russians notice the positive developments. The continued slow oil prices has forced the government to implement long-sought agricultural reforms and food production is booming. When the communists “reformed” agriculture in the 1920s they crippled what had been, for over a century, a very profitable and booming industry. In the 1990s many Russians sought to restore agriculture to its pre-communist economic glory but corruption and preference for increasing oil and gas production got in the way. That has all changed and if this keeps up Russia will once more become the breadbasket of Eurasia. Already revitalized industries like agriculture (farmers and all their suppliers) have made it possible to reduce inflation and reverse the fall in GDP.
For the less optimistic and more observant, the continued corruption in the senior bureaucracy has provided some useful opportunities. The government can more easily get rid of officials who become too popular, uncooperative or incompetent. It’s easier to use corruption as an excuse to dump officials rather than more embarrassing (and more pertinent) reasons that reflect poorly on how the government is run. Both Russia and China are using corruption prosecutions to purge officials whose loyalty is suspect.
Another bit of good economic news is arms exports. That’s largely because of the impressive combat performance of its new generation of armed helicopters and jet fighters and bombers in Iraq and Syria. The new helicopters are performing particularly well in Iraq, where they are not being flown by Russians but by Iraqis. This is a big deal because Russia needs export sales and evidence that locals can handle this new tech in combat is a big selling point. By mid-2016 Russia had delivered 17 Mi-28NE and 16 Mi-35M helicopter gunships to Iraq with about twenty more to come. Iraq has praised the performance of the gunships as well as the prompt delivery. All this began in mid-2014 when Iraq, under heavy attack by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), needed more helicopters and needed them fast. Russia stepped up and promised rapid delivery of military equipment. Russia delivered on that promise and by early November 2014 had delivered 12 of 28 Mi-35M armed transport helicopters and three of fifteen Mi-28NE helicopter gunships. Some self-propelled rocket launchers were also sent early. Less urgently needed, but delivered early anyway, were some twin launchers for SA-16/18 anti-aircraft missiles (which were also delivered) and several of the Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft vehicles. These real-life examples of how effective, economical and quickly delivered new Russian weapons has helped export sales a lot.
Despite having some common goals in Syria, cooperation between Russia and NATO (especially the United States) there is not likely. Russia propaganda is no longer pretending there is cooperation and is concentrating on “American war crimes in Syria”. The purpose of this is to prevent the West from supporting a significant portion of the rebels. Since 2013 most rebels have joined (or allied themselves) with al Nusra (the local al Qaeda franchise) or ISIL. Until early 2016 al Nusra was allied with ISIL but that alliance was always temporary because ISIL wanted to eventually absorb al Nusra. The two groups put that battle off to deal with the Assad government first. In the last few months al Nusra has tried to distance itself from ISIL and is now openly fighting ISIL in places like Aleppo. Al Nusra recently renounced any connection with al Qaeda and declared it was simply a Syrian rebel group which, like most Syrian rebel organizations, is full of devout Moslems. But the United States still considers al Nusra an ally of ISIL or, at the very least, still friendly with al Qaeda. Russia supports that flawed assessment because it leaves the Americans with only about a third of the rebels (mainly the Kurds and non-Moslem groups) and gives Russia and Iran a chance to defeat all the rebels eventually and restore the Assads to full control of whatever is left of Syria. Russia also uses the “all Islamic terrorists are targets” attitude to justify their warplanes bombing bases of Syrian rebels that work closely with American and British commandos operating inside Syria.
Russia also makes the most of the fact that its ally Iran insists it cannot cooperate with the Americans to the extent that Russia has. After all, the Iranian religious dictatorship justifies its power because of its vow to destroy America and Israel. Iran has its own plans, which it apparently does not share with Russia or anyone else. Meanwhile Russia is eager to make whatever deals it can to win the war in Syria and get out. Many American military leaders and intelligence officials are warning the U.S. government that closely cooperating with the Russians will not end well for the United States and the West because the Russian goal is keeping the Assad government in power. That is not and never will be popular in the United States, not as long as Iran’s official policy is “death to America and Israel.” But American leaders are attracted to the idea that cooperation with Russia and Iran in Syria would do more to destroy ISIL than any other strategy.
Fighting continues in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) but at a low level and usually instigated by pro-Russian rebels. Artillery (rockets, howitzers and mortars) is fired almost daily at Ukrainian forces. Just as in Syria, Russia sees ceasefire agreements as opportunities, not situations where Russian forces stop fighting. Russian efforts to grab a portion of eastern Ukraine appear to be on hold but they aren’t. In the last year Russia has basically annexed the chunk of eastern Ukraine where it staged a rebellion in early 2014. Russia tried to take possession of all Donbas, an area consisting of two Ukrainian provinces (Donetsk and Luhansk). Donbas comprises about nine percent of Ukrainian territory, 13 percent of the population and 15 percent of the GDP. Donbas was about 38 percent ethnic Russian. The two provinces comprise the Donets Basin (or “Donbas”) which was for a long time an economic powerhouse for Russia. But that began to decline in the 1980s and accelerated when the Soviet Union fell (and Ukraine became independent) in 1991.
Since 2014 over two million people have fled rebel controlled parts of the Donbas (most heading for Ukraine) and only about three million remain in rebel controlled areas. About half of those people are ethnic Russian pensioners. Russia held illegal elections in 2014 and created the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic in the portions of those two Ukrainian provinces they controlled. The Russian sponsored violence in Donbas has reduced economic activity to less than a third of what it was in 2013. Many businesses moved to Russia and Russia supplies cash to pay over 100,000 military and civilian employees of the new governments. Rebel occupied Donbas is sustained by cash and supplies trucked in from Russia. Where rebels control the border, the border has ceased to exist. The rebels control only about half of Donbas and that area has already become part of Russia. It is the Russian currency that is used and any foreign trade is with Russia. Some rebuilding is being financed by Russia. If the new Russian “ruler” of rebel Donbas can get the Ukrainians to agree on some kind of compromise Ukraine will manage to keep about half of Donbas while the rest will be part of Russia (legally or otherwise).
The violence in Donbas has increased during June and July. During that period about 70 civilians a month were killed or wounded in Donbas. That’s double the monthly losses earlier in the year. Military losses have also increased. The Russian backed rebels seem to ignore ceasefire deals as they please secure in the knowledge that the Ukrainians can’t do much about it and if they do Russia will have an excuse to carry out a more visible invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 had some benefits for the victim. It finally forced Ukraine to get serious about the corruption that had crippled its economy since it became independent in 1991. That led to long-overdue military reforms as well and more national unity than Ukraine has seen since the 1990s. That made it possible to quickly put together a large enough military force to halt the Russian advance by late 2015. Ukraine is learning from this, as are other nations that border (often quite nervously) the self-proclaimed “resurgent Russia.”
August 1, 2016: In Syria a Russian Mi-8 transport helicopter was shot down by Islamic terrorists near Aleppo killing the five Russian military personnel aboard. Russia was later told that to get the bodies of the dead Russians back they had to release some Islamic terrorists held Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
July 31, 2016: Russia made its first major sale to Iran since the July 2015 treaty. This one is for $1.3 billion and involves building a 1.4 gigawatt non-nuclear power plant and a desalination facility near the entrance to the Persian Gulf (outside port of Bandar Abbas).
July 28, 2016: The Defense Minister revealed that Russia had created four new divisions, nine brigades and 22 regiments since 2013 (mainly by reorganizing existing units, not by expanding army manpower). All these new units were deployed in the Southern Military District. In other words the new units are next to Ukraine and the Caucasus (where Russia has been fighting Islamic terrorists since the 1990s and Chechens since the 17th century). These new units are being equipped with the latest equipment and weapons designs and provided with enough money to hold frequent field training. All this makes Ukraine and the rest of East Europe nervous, which was apparently the reaction Russia was seeking.
July 27, 2016: In the south (Dagestan) police caught up with a killed Kamaldin Kazimagomedov, the leader of the local ISIL group. Kazimagomedov was one of the early members of ISIL in Syria and by the end of 2014 was back in Dagestan where he formed a small ISIL group that has been responsible for a series of murders and other crimes. Nothing major, but Kazimagomedov was becoming something of a local hero.