The federal budget for 2017 was quietly made public in late October and included a 30 percent cut in defense spending. Even with that Russia is spending $45 billion on defense, which is 3.3 percent of a shrinking GDP. Russia expects oil prices to remain low and forecasts defense spending declining to three percent of GDP in 2018 and 2.8 percent in 2018. The lower oil prices plus the corrosive corruption and Ukraine related sanctions have cut the GDP (in dollars) from a peak of $2.2 trillion in 2013 to $1.5 trillion in 2016.
Until this year Russia continued to maintain high military spending by making cuts elsewhere. That was causing long-term problems because it meant eliminating a lot of needed infrastructure repairs and new construction. That sort of thing is essential for economic growth and continued popular support for the government. So far the government has managed to maintain high approval ratings by successfully blaming it all on a NATO plot to destroy or weaken Russia. This fantasy doesn’t age well and a clear-cut win is needed to make all the suffering seem worthwhile. Victory in Syria or Ukraine would do, as would getting sanctions lifted or NATO abandoning its new East European members.
There are other problems. The sanctions crippled defense industries because it cut supplies of components for new weapons and finding substitutes has taken time and meant higher costs. Sanctions and corruption have cut foreign investment and weakened the local currency (the ruble). Because of all this Russia no longer has the third highest defense budget in the world (after the U.S. and China). As a percentage of GDP the Russian defense budget is still a larger share of GDP than the two percent for China, which spend more than three times more in dollars. Russia is spending less than the four percent for the United States. Despite all this Russia is still below previous peak defense spending levels. For example, World War II cost the U.S. over 33 percent of U.S. GDP per year but cost Russia more than half its wartime GDP. After World War II Russia continued spending over 20 percent of GDP until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. During all that the U.S. was able to spend much less of the national wealth on military matters. As a percentage of GDP American military spending continues a decline that has been going on since the 1960s. Back then because of the Vietnam War defense spending was 10.7 percent of GDP. That went down to 5.9 percent of GDP in the 1970s and, despite a much heralded defense buildup in the 1980s, still declined in the 1980s (to 5.8 percent.) With the end of the Cold War, spending dropped sharply again in the 1990s, to 4.1 percent. For the first decade of the 21st century, defense spending has stayed below four percent of GDP.
Russia has managed to get about half its Cold War era military equipment updated or replaced but the Russian defense industries are still dependent on export sales to survive. That means the Russian military have access to high-tech weapons (like smart bombs and modern electronics) but only if the defense budget can afford to buy the stuff. As operations in Syria demonstrated, Russia has no war reserves of high tech weapons and has few to use in Syria, or anywhere else. Most of the Russian armed forces are equipped with decades old equipment and get little money for training and maintenance. Russia spends a lot of available defense funds on maintaining its nuclear weapons. Even then there are quality and reliability problems with delivery vehicles (ICBMs and the nukes themselves).
Economy is destiny, as the Russians have learned from what happened to China, which is now more of a superpower than Russia. Chinese GDP is more than seven times Russia’s and China is spending more than three times as much on defense as Russia. The Russians see the possibility of China regaining its status as a major military power. That was lost several centuries ago but at the moment China has twice as many troops and most of them have better weapons. But the cost of competing with a hostile China appears to be more than the Russia can afford. Meanwhile as an ally China is offering to help by spending billions more on Russian weapons (despite the flagrant Chinese theft of Russian military tech). As distasteful as the situation is, the Russians really do need some help. The Russians are also becoming aware that they were not much of a superpower back in the Soviet days. In Central Asia, where Russia is trying to reestablish dominance over the nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union, China is displacing Russia as the dominant economic power. That means stronger military and diplomatic ties with China as well.
In Syria the UN is threatening everyone with war crimes prosecutions because of the growing number of civilian deaths. The big problem here is deliberate airstrikes on civilians. This has been the policy of the Assads for decades and has continued since the rebellion began in 2011. Russia has long used the same strategy successfully. The UN and the West call Russian and Syrian use of airpower a war crime and threaten prosecutions eventually. These threats are ignored for the moment and Russia accuses its critics of supporting Islamic terrorism. Russia is confident they (with the help of China) can block UN efforts to interfere in Syria. Russia believes any American or NATO threats to use force in Syria are just that, threats not backed up by any willingness to act. Ultimately Russia believes that with the help of Iran they can help the Assads outlast the rebels and Islamic terrorists and regain control of the country. Killing or driving into exile most of the anti-Assad Syrians is seen as a bonus.
In Aleppo Russian and Syrian aircraft and artillery continue to bombard rebel held neighborhoods. The Assads offered to allow the 300,000 civilians trapped in rebel held neighborhoods to safely get out of the city if they agreed to leave the country or move to government controlled territory and stop supporting the rebels. So far the rebels have not agreed, in part because many want to fight on no matter what and mainly because rebels don’t trust Russia or the Assads. There were several of these “safe passage” offers made, the last one on November 4th and none had the desired effect. So Russian and Syrian warplanes keep bombing residential neighborhoods. Treating enemy civilians this way has long been common practice in this part of the world and the Assads continue to employ methods that are now generally considered war crimes. Since 2011 nearly two-thirds of the dead have been civilians largely because of a deliberate Assad policy of attacking pro-rebel civilians to force them out of the country (or at least the combat zone). This has worked because now over half of all Syrians have been forced to flee their homes to escape the fighting, especially the government air and artillery attacks on civilians. Thus the Assads have been responsible for nearly 80 percent of the civilian deaths since 2011. The Russians still use the same tactics and since the Russian forces arrived in mid-2015 the air attacks on rebel civilians have increased. This includes attacks on hospitals, schools and aid facilities (including some run by the UN and thus illegal to attack). Russia says these targets were actually being used by rebels, which in some cases is true. Technically if armed men are in any of these “neutral facilities” they lose their legal immunity from air or artillery attack.
Russia does not deny its air strikes since September 2015 have killed a lot of people (estimates go as high as 10,000) and that many of the victims might have been civilians. The Russians point out that their approach defeats the rebels while the more acceptable (to the rest of the world) American methods merely prolong the fighting and enable Islamic terrorists, especially ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), to expand. Russia has said any American effort to interfere with Russian military operations in Syria would be opposed forcefully. Russia has admitted that this might escalate to nuclear war and that they are ready for that.
Thus the Syrian army offensive to retake Aleppo that began on September 23rd is succeeding mainly because of Russian air support, Iranian mercenaries on the ground and divisions among the rebels. Russian political and diplomatic efforts have also prevented any foreign intervention, unless it helps the Assads. Russia considers Syria a source of favorable (for the Russian government) media events and believes all these small victories will lead to a larger one.
Russia has regularly violated the September 2014 ceasefire on the ground and during October rebel attacks (mortars, artillery, machine-guns) have doubled from the previous month. While some days see up to fifty such attacks, many consists of a few hundred rounds of machine-gun fire or a few mortar shells. Both sides tend to avoid inflicting casualties, so there is a warning shot (or shell) to give everyone a chance to take shelter, followed by the rest of the “attack”. There are a lot more attacks on the Black Sea coast, near the port of Mariupol. Attacks have been somewhat less in November but that could change. On some days there are hardly any attacks.
Meanwhile in the air Russia is vigorously enforcing the ceasefire by sending in more anti-aircraft missile systems and supplying them regularly. This has turned the airspace over rebel held areas of Donbas into a no-fly zone. The ceasefire banned Ukrainian aircraft from operating over rebel territory. Before the ceasefire the Ukrainian military had lost seven fighters and ground attack aircraft, nine helicopters and three transports to Russian supplied anti-aircraft weapons used by the rebels. These weapons downed a Malaysian airliner (flight MH17).
Russia is maintaining its military positions in eastern Ukraine but the Ukrainians believe that Russia will go on the offensive again once they can declare victory in Syria. The Russian backed rebels continue to fire on Ukrainian troops almost daily and the fighting has so far (since early 2014) left nearly 10,000 (mostly Ukrainians) dead.
One of the few clear Ukrainian victories was carried out by anonymous Ukrainian hackers (“Ukrainian Cyber Alliance “) who have managed to penetrate Russian government networks and take away lots of embarrassing documents. This includes emails confirming Russian efforts to take over more of Ukraine and why they failed. The emails also expose how Russia used corrupt Ukrainian politicians and businessmen to help with their schemes. There were some new revelations but generally the emails confirmed (and provided details) about what was already generally known. Even before these documents began appearing in October there had been arrests of some Ukrainian politicians and government officials who had been caught working for the Russians. Some of those who arrested provided details that were confirmed (and elaborated on) in the emails. A lot more of this is on the way because the hackers admit that they have many terabytes of files and it takes a while to find stuff worth releasing.
November 4, 2016: In the south (Dagestan) four local Islamic terrorists were killed in a gun battle near the Chechen border.
For the third time since 2011 Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetzov came south, via the English Channel on its way to the Mediterranean. Leaving northern Russia on October 15th the Kuznetzov task force arrived off Syria today. The carrier had seven escorts (three warships and four support vessels) and is carrying fifteen Su-33 and MiG-29K jet fighters plus at least ten Ka-52K, Ka-27 and Ka-31 helicopters. Foreign military pilots flying close by could not help but notice that there was a lot of rust on the deck of the carrier. This was not a good sign. The only other ship of the Kuznetzov class was purchased by the Chinese in 1998 and completely refurbished by 2012 to become the Chinese Liaoning. It is now in service and looks a lot better than the original that serves as flagship of the Russian Navy. The Kuznetzov has had some updates since the 1990s but a lot of this work is suspect. Back in 2012 a military procurement official was prosecuted for substituting cheaper, substandard parts for new ones meant for the Kuznetzov. The corrupt official used forged documents to get away with this but members of the crew noticed the substandard parts and reported it. The Kuznetsov has been sent back to the shipyard several times during the last decade to fix problems and update equipment. Much was wrong with the ship, due to poor design, sloppy workmanship, or corruption. It’s gotten so bad that lackadaisical sailors are threatened with being sent to serve on the Kuznetsov as a way of motivating them. These cruises south are mainly for publicity purposes.
November 3, 2016: In central Syria (Homs) a Russian transport helicopter crashed. The crew survived and was soon picked up by another helicopter. ISIL claims to have shot down the helicopter. Since late 2015 Russia has lost four helicopters in Syria.
October 29, 2016: Russia resumed its airstrikes in Aleppo, thereby abandoning the October 18th ceasefire it had negotiated with the United States. Meanwhile Turkey begun working with Russia to ensure that new Russian air defense systems supplied to the Assad government would not be used against Turkish warplanes attacking targets in Syria. The Assads recently (October 22nd) threatened to use their air defense systems (mainly missile systems) against Turkish warplanes. Turkey and the Assads have never gotten along well.
October 27, 2016: Neighboring
Lithuania issued a 75 page “how to survive another Russian occupation” manual entitled; "Prepare to survive emergencies and war." Tiny (population 2.9 million) Lithuania has plenty of experience with being invaded and occupied by Russia and wants to remind its citizens about what works, especially now that Lithuania has a mutual defense treaty with the United States and all other NATO members. The “prepare to survive” guide provides tips on how to behave when dealing with the invader while also spying on the occupation force. The manual provides illustrations and description of most Russian weapons and details of how the Russians use secret police, local informants and special operations troops to try and control an occupied population. The manual also points out that Russia will send in agents (or activate ones it has already recruited) before an invasion and provides tips on how to detect the presence of these agents, especially in preparation for an imminent invasion.
October 26, 2016: India has ordered $5 billion worth of S-400 air defense systems from Russia. This order consists of five battalions. In 2014 China bought six S-400 battalions for $500 million each. An S-400 battalion has eight launchers, each with two missiles, plus a control center and radar and 16 missiles available as reloads. All equipment is mobile. S-400 is also known as the S-300PMU-3, SA-21 or Triumf and was renamed S-400 because it turned out to be far more than just another upgrade of the S-300 and was considered sufficiently different to warrant a name upgrade. The S-400 entered service in 2007 when the first units were deployed around Moscow. Russia claimed the S-400 could detect stealth aircraft, implying that the hypothetical enemy was the United States. Russia also claims the S-400 can knock down short range ballistic missiles (those with a reentry speed of up to 5,000 meters a second, in the same way the similar U.S. Patriot system does.) Russia immediately offered the S-400 for export, an effort that is hampered by a lack of combat experience for the system. Patriot has knocked down aircraft and ballistic missiles, S-400 has not. Moreover, Russia anti-aircraft missile systems have a spotty history (especially when confronted by Western electronic countermeasures.) The S-400s based around Moscow are part of a project to rebuild the Soviet era air defense system, which has fallen apart since the early 1990s. The Indian purchase is seen as showing China that their Russian ally does not always support Chinese goals.
October 25, 2016: Although Russia is in the midst of replacing Cold War era RS-18 (SS-19) missiles with the new solid fuel RS-24 it test fired one of the remaining RS-18s today. There were rumors (unconfirmed) that this was actually a test of the of the hypersonic glide vehicle project Russia announced in 2013 but was thought to have been suspended because of budget cuts. Russia had worked on hypersonic glide vehicles during the Cold War but never got anything into service. Russia began replacing RS-18 in 2010 but just in case they were needed later, dozens of the RS-18s (which first entered service in 1974) are being put in storage and only 30 remain in service.
October 23, 2016: In the city of Nizhny Novgorod (400 kilometers east of Moscow) police killed two Islamic terrorists and captured a third after a roadside gun battle. There were explosives in the car as well as documents identifying the three as members of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).
October 18, 2016: Russia agreed to halt its air strikes in Aleppo to allow civilians, especially the sick and wounded, to leave. The ceasefire made it easier for emergency food and medical supplies to get into trapped communities in rebel held neighborhoods. The ceasefire also helped the United States reach out to rebel groups thought to be anti-ISIL and confirm that so the Turks and Russians would stop bombing them. The ceasefire failed.
October 17, 2016: Near Aleppo a Russian Su-35 fighter-bomber came close (less than 500 meters) to an American E-3 AWACS aircraft. This was too close for safety and the U.S. and Russia agreed to discuss improving their procedures for avoiding aerial collisions over Syria. Both sides accused the other of causing the near collision.
October 16, 2016: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) another pro-Russian rebel leader (Arsen Pavlov) was killed, this time by a bomb rigged to an elevator. Pavlov is the latest of several Russian backed rebel leaders who have been assassinated. The rebels blame this on Ukraine but people in rebel held areas believe this is how Russia is trying to maintain discipline among the rebels, many of whom (like Pavlov) are Russians who came to join the rebels seeking fame and fortune. Many of them refused to follow orders from their Russian patrons and despite these assassinations, continue to be unreliable. Ukraine believes some of these rebel leaders are being killed by Russia to prevent unreliable rebel leaders from confirming to war crimes investigators the extent of Russian involvement in the Donbas. Russia denies arming, training or financing the rebels.
October 14, 2016: In the northeast, off the Russian coast, a Russian patrol boat stopped a North Korea fishing ship and sent a boarding party to inspect. Members of the 48 man crew of the North Korean ship attacked the boarding party, injuring two Russians. In response the Russians opened fire, killing one North Korean and wounding six. The North Korean ship was seized and the crew arrested.
October 13, 2016: Russia reported that it had completed deliveries of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran. After years of delays S-300 deliveries finally got going in late 2015. Iran was to have five S-300 batteries operational by 2017. The S-300 version Iran is receiving can use the latest S-300 missiles with a range of 200 kilometers. Each S-300 battery has a fire control radar and 6-8 launcher vehicles (each carrying four or two missiles). It is unclear if any of the S-300 batteries are actually operational yet. One reason Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs are openly collaborating with Israel is because of the S-300s. If anyone in the region has electronic (and other) countermeasures to the S-300 it is Israel. The Israelis are willing to make a deal on that point, depending on how much the Arabs are willing (or able) to tone down their traditional anti-Semitic policies.
October 12, 2016: A RS-25/SS-25/Topol missile test was carried out at the Plesetsk space center (some 800 kilometers north of the capital, near the port of Archangel). The RS-25 was the first successful Russian solid fuel ICBM. It is comparable to the 1960s era U.S. Minuteman ICBMs. Solid fuel is tricky to manufacture, and after many failed attempts to develop it, the Russians stuck with liquid fuel until the 1980s. They finally perfected their solid fuel technology, with the first successful test launch of the 45 ton RS-25 in 1985.
October 11, 2016: Off the east coast Delta III SSBNs test fired an R-29RM SLBM (sea launched ballistic missile) as well as an older R-29R (SS-N-18). The 40 ton R-29RM, or Sineva/SS-N-23, is the last liquid fuel Russian SLBM in service. The R-29RM is an update of the original 36 ton R-29R, which entered service in 1986. The R-29RM entered service in 2007, and has proven very reliable. The R-29RM has a range of 8,300 kilometers (300 more than the R-29R) and a payload of 2.8 tons (compared to 1.65 tons for the R-29R).
October 10, 2016: Saudi Arabia told Egypt that shipments of free oil would be halted. This was because on October 8th Egypt refused to vote against a Russian peace proposal in the UN that was favored by Iran and the Iran backed Syrian government. All other Arab states opposed this Russian move, in large part because the Gulf Arabs and Iran are at war with each other. Not a shooting war, not yet, and the Saudis expect Moslem states they support financially to reciprocate by backing Saudi diplomacy and, in effect, recognize Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab world. Egypt long held that position because of its long history of regional leadership, even before Islam appeared in the 7th century. Egypt is broke and still dealing with Islamic terrorist violence. The Saudis are rich and have far fewer problems internally with Islamic terrorism. But for many Egyptians it is humiliating to follow the lead of Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile one thing that the Egyptians and Saudis do agree on is better relationships with Israel. Along those lines Saudi Arabia has quietly stopped blocking access to Israeli news sites for its citizens.