Russia: Just A Little Unfriendly Reminder

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August 23, 2016: Families of soldiers killed in Syria and Donbas are complaining that they are not getting the $30,000 death benefit the government insists is paid to the families of troops killed in combat. The government admits to 19 soldiers killed in Syria so far but is less forthcoming about deaths in Ukraine. Because Russia has declared data about combat casualties a state secret, families risk prosecution if they go public, or too public, with their complaints. The news does get out via the Internet, which the government is trying to censor, especially inside Russia. That effort has been only partially successful so far. The government also tries to interfere with bad news getting out via the Internet by employing a growing force of Internet disinformation specialists. These people are popularly known on the Internet as trolls but the professional ones working for a government can be pretty effective. It does it make it more difficult to figure out what is news and what is propaganda or trolling (disinformation). But the stories of soldiers getting killed in Ukraine and Syria and the government trying to hide the details is something that has happened before and proved to be true.

The problem is that it takes months or years for enough evidence to surface to prove or disprove something. Meanwhile the only recourse families have is to report the problem to the Military Prosecutor. The government still plays it pretty straight in going after corruption in the military) because it is generally agreed (based on past experience) that corruption in the military is one of the major problems in maintaining actual (as opposed to pretend) effectivel military power. While the military prosecutor will usually go after the corrupt official who stole the death benefit (not a new problem in Russia) this gets those who complained on a blacklist (of “troublesome citizens”) that can lead to later problems.

Among the not-yet-proven stories are the ones about Russia hiring experienced army veterans as civilian contractors to fight in Syria. These are paid several thousand dollars a month on short term contracts. Some former contractors complain that they get cheated out of some of their pay and are often used for high-risk combat missions in Syria and that hundreds of these contractors have been killed so far. Those claims won’t be proven true or false until more evidence comes out of Syria (usually via refugee aid worker reports).

Meanwhile there has been a lot of heavy fighting in Syria during August that Russian forces have been involved with. This is particularly true in the northern city of Aleppo. Russian military assistance, especially the use of modern warplanes and air-to-ground (satellite and laser guided) munitions has made the Syrian government forces a formidable force and put the rebels at real risk of being defeated. Russia has some troops on the front lines, most of them commandos and specialists for calling in air strikes. In general Russian warplanes attack rebel positions quickly, ruthlessly and often on a hunch, not a certainty, that the enemy is there. This has proved devastating for the rebels despite the usual Islamic terrorist tactic of using civilians for human shields. That does not work against the Russians. Any suspicion of civilians being rebels in disguise will often trigger an aerial attack. Thus it was no surprise that a recent UN sponsored casualty survey in Syria concluded that in ten months Russian forces, mainly with air and artillery attacks, killed more civilians (over 2,700) than the nearly 2,700 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has killed in nearly 40 months. From the beginning (late 2015) Russia has received 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.

Turning Turkey

Another reason for optimism in Syria is China, which supports the Russian effort there and recently offered to provide military training for the Syrian government forces as well as emergency aid for civilians in Syrian government controlled territory. This offer may be in response to efforts by Russia and Iran to create a new military-diplomatic coalition with Turkey to end the war in Syria. While China, Russia and Iran have been allies (often of convenience) for years, Turkey is another matter. Turkey a member of NATO and currently ruled by an increasingly corrupt and undemocratic Islamic political party that is in the process of purging members of rival political parties (religious and secular) from the government and major institutions. However Iran and Turkey reaffirmed, in June that both nations were dedicated to dealing with Sunni Islamic terrorism, especially in Syria. Turkey is largely Sunni but has been threatened by Sunni Islamic terrorist groups for years. Turkey and Iran are also traditional enemies but that rivalry has been on the back burner for centuries. The two nations have become major trading partners and both tend to accentuate the positive these days, especially in the face of the ISIL threat. In particular Iran wants to partner with Turkey and Russia to put down the rebellion in Syria and restore the Shia Assad dictatorship to full control of the country. Turkey wants peace in Syria, if only to shut down a base for Islamic terrorists and separatist minded Kurds. But there is the Shia angle. Russia just wants something resembling an end to the fighting in Syria so it can declare victory and go home. This temporary Iran-Turkey-Russia-China alliance could impose peace on Syria, mainly in the name of destroying ISIL and related Sunni Islamic terror groups in Syria. But Islamic terrorism, both Sunni and Shia, would remain. Iran is quite open about how it still supports Shia militancy and the Sunni Moslems that dominate the Arab world have still not agreed, much less acted on, a permanent solution to the recurring (for over a thousand years) Sunni Islamic terrorism. The proposed triple alliance might work in the short term, but not for any longer than that.

Bombing Americans

Despite having some common goals in Syria, cooperation between Russia and NATO (especially the United States) is not happening. 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 forces also led the recent effort in Aleppo where rebels broke through the government siege in the eastern part of the city and now seek to regain control of the entire city.

In mid-2016 Al Nusra 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. Al Nusra is now known as Jabhat Fatah and wants to become recognized by the United States as “cooperative” (and not to be bombed). But the Americans still considers al Nusra an ally of ISIL or, at the very least, still friendly with al Qaeda. Some al Qaeda leaders have admitted publicly that the al Nusra split is temporary. Russia, Iran and the Assads find comfort in all this 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. This puts the West in a difficult position because groups like al Nusra/Jabhat Fatah have the support of most Syrian Sunnis, and 70 percent of Syrians are Sunnis and these Sunnis are the backbone of the rebel forces.

Meanwhile Russia is daring the Americans to try and stop Russian and Syrian warplanes from bombing pro-American rebels. The U.S. led air coalition over Iraq and Syria has been averaging about a hundred attacks (using either a guided missile or smart bomb) a day since June. About a third of that is in Syria, where Russian and Syrian government warplanes average several dozen attacks a day. These include helicopter strikes that often include heavy machine-gun fire and unguided rockets. There are also attacks with improvised “barrel bombs” dropped from transports or helicopters , usually against civilians . The U.S. and Russia disagree on some strikes, especially when non-ISIL rebels are involved. The Americans consider non-ISIL rebels to be “friendlies” whereas the Russians consider nearly all rebels (the main exception being Kurds) as “hostile” and legitimate targets. In August there were several incidents where Russian or Syrian warplanes attacked, or sought to attack rebels that were working with Western commandos. The U.S. told Russia and Syria to back off and that there would be violence and even a, for all intents and purposes, “no-fly zone” over parts of Syria. American officials insisted that this would not turn into a true no-fly zone but would result in lost Syrian or Russian warplanes if Western troops were harmed. So far it has been all threats and no action.

Ukraine

Fighting continues in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) and has become more intense lately. Since late July the pro-Russian rebels in Donbas have been a lot more active and the Ukrainian forces shoot back. There have been hundreds of casualties on both sides in the last month and Russia has deliberately made moves indicating it might invade Ukraine or even Eastern Europe. For example Russia accused Ukraine of trying to instigate an uprising in Crimea. This is an old tactic, especially with the Russians, of creating an “incident” they could justify going to war over. So far the Russians have held back but it made Ukrainians and many of the East European neighbors nervous, which may have been the Russian intent all along. For centuries Russia has made or implied threats to its neighbors just to remind them who was top dog in the neighborhood and Russia was not the “all bark and no bite” type of threat.

Until late July the violence was a low level and usually instigated by pro-Russian rebels. Artillery (rockets, howitzers and mortars) were fired almost daily at Ukrainian forces. There has been a ceasefire since 2015 and that included a 30 kilometer wide buffer zone and withdrawal of heavy weapons (like those that could shoot across the buffer zone). The pro-Russian rebels did not withdraw all their long range artillery and Russian forces sometimes fired into Ukraine from inside Russia. The pro-Russian rebels would also enter the buffer zone to attack Ukrainian forces. Whenever the Ukrainians fought back Russia declared that proof that the Ukrainians violated the ceasefire and the rebels were only defending themselves. 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. The 700 OSCE monitors in eastern Ukraine and Donbas, whose job is to oversee the ceasefire, have been complaining since late 2015 that they are being restricted by rebels and, less frequently Ukrainian forces from carrying out inspections. 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. Russia denies everything and insists that any evidence is fabricated.

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. Since 2014 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 as about 70 civilians a month were killed or wounded. 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.”

Economic Solutions

The Russian economy is still in decline but one reason the government gets credit for coping is that common sense was used to limit the impact of low oil prices and Western economic sanctions because of invading Ukraine. The government kept the unemployment rate low by cancelling employment permits for most foreign workers. These included highly skilled (and well paid) foreign experts from the West but were mostly for lower skilled jobs filled by non-citizens from Central and East Asia. Some parts of Siberia and the Far East have banned firms from hiring any more foreigners in order to keep the unemployment rate low for Russian citizens.

August 22, 2016: Iran reported that Russian warplanes had stopped using its Hamadan air base for attacks on Islamic terrorists in Syria. It is unclear if this is temporary or permanent and if it has anything to do with Iran asking for more than Russian was willing to pay for the use of the base.

August 17, 2016: In the north (St. Petersburg) counter-terrorism forces found and killed three known Caucasus gangsters who were wanted for supporting Islamic terrorist activities in St. Petersburg. The police wanted to take the four alive but the four refused and fought back. Weapons, ammo and bomb components were found in the apartment. ISIL has been desperate to carry out attacks inside Russia as that would make Russia appear a less formidable opponent. So far ISIL has had little success.

August 16, 2016: Russia Tu-22M3 bombers began operating from an Iranian airbase at Hamadan (in northwest Iran). Iraq does not object to Russian warplanes flying overhead to and from targets in Syria. Russian bombers are hitting ISIL as well as other rebel groups in Syria. Use of this base is safer and cheaper than operating from a base in Syria, where attacks from Islamic terrorists and rebels in general are much more likely. Russia can get a lot of supplies locally and easily ship in stuff from Russia via ship (the Caspian Sea) and Iranian railroads. Iran is doing this because Russia is about to complete delivery of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems and help get them operational. Russia has been working its Tu-22M3M long-range bombers hard over Syria lately. Between July 12th and August 8th Tu-22s flew at least 20 sorties from Russian bases to hit targets in Syria. That’s a lot of work for the ten or so Tu-22M3Ms in service that have to fly all the way from southern Russia to Syria and back to deliver a few tons of smart bombs. But the Tu-22M3M proved to be very good at it and these is the first sustained combat experience the Tu-22 has had since Afghanistan in the 1980s.

August 11, 2016: In the south (Dagestan) police killed four suspected Islamic terrorists. The next day two policemen were ambushed nearby, killed and their weapons stolen. It is unclear if the two incidents were related. There has always been a lot of violence in Dagestan, even before Islamic radicalism became a justification for some of it.

August 10, 2016: Russia accused Ukraine of attempting to launch a commando raid into Crimea to sabotage public services. Russia said two of its border guards died during the incident and several Ukrainian troops were captured. Ukraine denied the charge and said Russia made it up to explain the poor economic conditions in Crimea and to provide an excuse to invade Ukraine officially, using the thousands of additional troops moved to the Ukraine border this year.

August 8, 2016: The government revealed that a July 17 incident in Syria, where an unidentified UAV crossed the border into Israel briefly, was actually a Russian UAV accidently straying into Israeli airspace. Israeli radar had been watching this UAV before it entered Israeli air space and once it crossed the border two Patriot anti-aircraft missiles were fired, unsuccessfully, at the UAV. Then an F-16 got close enough to fire an air-to-air missile, which also missed. At this point the UAV was headed back for Syria. Until now it was unclear if this was a Russian or Iranian made UAV and Hezbollah was suspected as the UAV operator. Israeli intelligence eventually identified the UAV as Russian and that led to discussions with Russia and the admission that it was indeed Russian. The Israelis are still trying to figure out why three of their usually very effective missiles failed.

 

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