Russia: Ceasefires And Other Deceptions

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September 11, 2016: Russia persuaded the United States to sign a new military cooperation agreement to cover joint operations in Syria. This one supposed to deal with differences among nations carrying out counter-terrorism efforts in Syria. In theory all this foreign intervention in Syria is supposed to be mainly about ISIL but it isn’t. Russia and Iran are in Syria mainly to keep the Assad dictatorship in power. Turkey recently sent troops into Syrian mainly to prevent the Syrian Kurds from taking control of more territory and supporting powerful Kurdish separatists (the PKK) inside Turkey. The United States, other European and Arab nations are there to overthrow Assad and destroy ISIL. The problem is that while everyone agrees that ISIL has to go, most of the Syrian rebels belong to other Islamic terror groups (some affiliated with al Qaeda). Russia and Iran want to attack all Sunni Islamic terrorist groups in Syria, mainly because they are the major threat to Assad rule. The new agreement is supposed to deal with this but it is uncertain that it will because a similar February agreement failed because the Syrians and Russians continued to bomb pro-American rebels. 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. That has caused other problems. 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. The new agreement will, in theory, take care of that problem but is vague on some key points, like Russian responses to air attacks on Assad forces and the Russian goal of a peace deal that includes the Assads. The rebels and most of their supporters are against this but Russia has always insisted that negotiating with the Assads is essential to achieve an end to the war. As with the February agreement this one seems destined to fail. In the last two days Assad forces have continued attacking civilians, which interferes with aid deliveries. The September 9 th agreement was supposed to prohibit the Assads from doing this. Technically these new attacks were not violations since the new agreement doesn’t take effect until the 12 th but it is already following the same pattern as the last one.

Back in Russia the government hailed the new agreement as a great victory for Russia. But that was also how Russian described the failed February deal. That’s not the point. Russia needs victories like this because the Russian government has mismanaged its economy and failed to cope with corruption. President Putin is relying on the traditional Russian solution of concentrating on effective pro-government propaganda while rewarding the small percentage of the population you depend on to suppress popular opposition. This worked for the czars, the commissars (communists who took over in 1918) and, since the 1990s, the new elected dictators. It’s probably not a coincidence that many members of the czarist secret police (the Cheka) survived the revolution by helping organize the communist KGB. What communist rule collapsed in 1991 the more capable KGB officers helped create the current FSB and provide many key government officials, like the current president.

Meanwhile Israel has become a tourist attraction for Russians who can still afford to travel to the Middle East but want to go somewhere that is not threatened by Islamic terror attacks and is hospitable to Russians. Then there is the fact that nearly 20 percent of Israelis have Russian ancestors. Russia is still a major source of Jews emigrating to Israel. Russians in general admire Israel for being resourceful and able to defend themselves in a rough neighborhood. Thus while Russia is currently an active ally of Iran, Russia and Israel continue to have good diplomatic and trade relations. Since 2015, when most Russians stopped going to inexpensive Egyptian resorts because of the terror threat a growing number have trying out the more expensive Israeli resorts. Most of these Russians go home and report that the higher cost of vacationing in Israel is worth it because so many Israelis speak Russian and are nostalgic for, and still fans of, Russian culture. You get what you pay for.

Ukraine

Fighting continues in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) and has become more intense since late July. Russia has deliberately made moves (like massing 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders) indicating it might invade Ukraine or even Eastern Europe. Russia refuses to get directly involved with more peace talks involving Ukraine. They did that for the 2015 failed 2015 ceasefire. That one 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.

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 military 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.”

Ukraine recently revealed that that exports to Russia, its largest export customer, have cost the Ukraine economy over $15 billion since 2014. While that has cost jobs in the short run it has forced Ukraine to develop new customers in Europe and worldwide. For example in August China signed a contract with Ukraine to revive production of the An-225 transport and have the first new one in service by 2019. That first new An-225 is the one that that was about 60 percent finished when work was halted in 1991. Ukraine has granted a license to resume production of the An-225 in China. More details will be made public in the future including any plans to resume An-124 production. The An-225 is the largest air transport in the world and the holder of a growing number of air transport records. A Ukrainian firm owns and operates the only operational An-225. Reviving production is a big deal because the only An-225 built entered service in 1988 and has been very busy. The six engine, 640 ton An-225 is a scaled up version of the earlier four engine, 405 ton An-124. Until 2014 the Antonov Aircraft Company was in the midst of supplying the Russian Air Force with more An-124s and there was even discussion of reviving the An-225. Russia and Ukraine are still at war but despite that China has continued to buy military equipment made in Ukraine. Russia does not complain openly because China has become a valued and indispensable ally of Russia.

Iran

Since late 2015 Russia has regularly announced sales, and now deliveries of new military and non-military equipment to Iran. The 2015 treaty that lifted most sanctions on Iran was, as expected, a big deal for Russian manufacturers of everything from consumer good to industrial products. The latest announcements detail shipments of railroad cars and equipment needed to carry out much delayed (by sanctions) repairs and upgrades to the Iranian railroad system.

September 9, 2016: North Korea conducted another underground nuclear weapons test, the second this year. This was the fifth such test and this bomb was the most powerful yet. The first two tests were failures. Both 2016 nukes appeared to be the same design as the 2013 one. So there appears to be a stable design. Russia joined the rest of the neighboring nations in condemning the test and threatening serious repercussions. This threat is something North Korea will pay attention to because Russia has been helpful in the past. But with the recent defection of another North Korean diplomat (along with his family) from the consulate in eastern Russia (Vladivostok) North Korea needs Russian help even more. The recent defection comes after a North Korean diplomat got out in July, via Belarus, and a month later was in South Korea. This makes three North Korean diplomats who have made it out since mid-2015.

Russia and the United States announced a new cooperation agreement for their operations in Syria that will take effect in three days. .

September 7, 2016: In the south (Dagestan) police killed six suspected Islamic terrorists in two separate clashes in and around the provincial capital.

The Russian Navy ordered six new Kilo class diesel-electric subs for its Pacific fleet. New Kilos are already being built and delivered to the Black Sea fleet. The Kilos weigh 2,300 tons (surface displacement), have six torpedo tubes and a crew of 57. China, India, Vietnam and Iran have also bought Kilos. Nearly 70 Kilos have been built or are under construction. During the 1990s export orders kept the Kilo production going and that made possible continued upgrades. The Russian navy only got two new Kilos in the 1990s as these were ordered in the 1980s and were nearly complete when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 along with the Russian defense budget. The Russian Navy didn’t begin receiving new Kilos until 2010. But this new Kilo was a failure. That sub was a major disappointment because it was so new and improved that Russia called it a new class (Lada) instead of an “improved Kilo”. The new concepts that did work in the Lada were incorporated in a new “Kilo II” and the Russian navy began receiving them in 2014.

In the Black Sea a Russian Su-27 fighter buzzed (came dangerously close) to an American P-8 maritime patrol aircraft operating over international waters. Russia has been doing a lot more of this in the last few years. Earlier this year an American destroyer in the Baltic was subjected to more than 30 acts of harassment by Russian Su-24 bombers. The Russian aircraft flew very low (less than a hundred meters) over the American warship. This was more about publicity (for the Russian government at home and abroad) than a demonstration of military capabilities. It is also a replay of what occurred half a century ago. During the Cold War (1947-91) there were numerous incidents, usually involving Russian ships or aircraft playing "Chicken-Of-The-Sea" with American warships by moving close or even on a collision course. This was all for the purpose of interfering with U.S. intelligence operations, especially those off the Russian coast. For that reason Russian fighters are again confronting American electronic reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace and trying to persuade them to leave. Earlier in the Cold War, Russian warplanes would fire on American intelligence gathering aircraft, shooting some of them down. This sort of thing declined when the U.S. quietly informed the Russians that American warships and combat aircraft would return fire. By the end of the 1960s this aggressive activity diminished to the point where it was considered a minor nuisance and even that was eliminated by a 1972 treaty. The recent incidents are violations of that treaty but the current Russian government has shown scant regard for treaties (recent or otherwise).

September 5, 2016: In the south (Dagestan) police killed two wanted Islamic terrorists. One policeman died and another was wounded during the gun battle.

September 4, 2016: In eastern Ukraine soldiers at a checkpoint near Donbas searched a car driven by a Ukrainian man and found nearly $20,000 in cash. About 20 percent of the money was in U.S. dollars the rest was Russian rubles. The driver said he was headed for a rebel held area of Donbas and police are trying to find if the man, and the cash, had any criminal or Russian connections.

The U.S. lifted sanctions on the Russian company that supplies spare parts for the 50 or so Afghan Air Force Mi-17 helicopters. In 2011 these helicopters were purchased for Afghanistan from Russia by the United States. The sanctions were imposed after the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine.

August 31, 2016: Poland has started to refuse Chechens from entering the country and several hundred Chechens have already been turned back. This new policy was triggered by the growing number of Chechens, who were already in Poland, some of them illegally, who were actively supporting Islamic terrorist groups, usually via fund raising and recruiting. Poles knew of the long history of Chechen anti-Russian behavior and that used to make it easier for Chechens to get into other East European nations. The Chechens thought they had an unspoken arrangement; they would not carry out any terrorist attacks in their new home and the local police would not interfere with their anti-Russian activities. That doesn’t really work when it comes to Islamic terrorists because they ultimately want to attack all non-Moslem states. Chechens first got into Islamic terrorism back in the 1990s as they tried to leave the new Russian Federation. The new Chechen Islamic terrorists made Christian Russia their primary target. But so many Chechen Islamic terrorists switched to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in the last few years that Chechens in general can to be regarded as a potential threat by most European countries.

August 30, 2016: In Syria an airstrike near Aleppo killed ISIL second-in-command and official spokesman Abu Mohammad al Adnani. ISIL admitted that Adnani was dead and vowed revenge, but did not say against who. That’s because Russia and the United States warplanes both carried out air strikes in the area where Adnani was killed and are trying to figure out whose airstrike was responsible. At the moment Russia is insisting it should get credit. The U.S. does not agree and says it has proof because ones of its UAVs was tracking Adnani and used missiles to kill him. The United States does not like to disclose details of how its intelligence collecting and analysis systems work, and neither do the Russians. So this dispute will linger for a while. The good news is that Adnani is definitely dead and someone may have quietly collected the $5 million reward the U.S. offered in 2015. The U.S. definitely does not want to discuss those informants as keeping their identities secret is the key to the success of the program.

August 26, 2016: Ukraine and Russian supported Donbas rebel leaders met in Minsk and agreed to a new ceasefire, to begin on September first. This one lasted about a week before the rebels began firing again.

In Syria Russia, Turkey, Iran, the Assad government and finally the Americans agreed that Turkish ground troops would enter northwestern Syria to destroy or drive ISIL forces away from the border area. The Americans would also drop support to Kurdish forces operating west of the Euphrates River. The Kurds reluctantly agreed with the U.S. decision and pulled back from Manbij, a town they recently captured from ISIL. The Kurds in the northwest corner of Syria were more difficult to persuade. Turkey, Russia, Iran, the Assad government and the Americans all had to agree because together they controlled most of the airpower and pro-government foreign ground forces in the area. The Turks had made areas west of the Euphrates too hostile for the Kurds to deal with, especially with the withdrawal of American air support and Kurds becoming targets for Turkish, Russian and Syrian warplanes. Turkey wants to prevent the Kurds in Syria from establishing an autonomous area similar to what exists in northern Iraq. The Assads, Iran and the Iraqi government (dominated by Shia Arabs) agree on this. Up until now the Syrian Kurds ignored Turkish demands that Kurdish forces not advance west of the Euphrates River. The Turks (and the Assads) object to this because it would enable the Kurds to complete their plan to control the entire Turkish-Syrian border. The Syrian Kurds had declared autonomy in late 2013 and published maps showing their claims stretching from their traditional Kurdish majority areas of northeast Syria east of the Euphrates as well as everything to the east. The claimed areas west of the river did not extend more than a hundred kilometers into Syria but claiming the entire Syrian border was not acceptable to Turkey or most Syrians. By late 2015 the Syrian Kurds were fighting ISIL west of the river and dealing with occasional air attacks by the Turks. Now that has all changed and by early September Turkish troops controlled most of the Syrian side of the border west of the Euphrates.

 

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