Ukraine and the “war against NATO” is becoming an expensive distraction for Russia. While Russian backed rebels still hold parts of eastern Ukraine (the Donbas) it is costing Russia a lot of money to support the civilians there and the heavy-handed discipline (assassination and so on) required to keep rebel leaders in line also requires more efforts to keep foreign journalists out. Too many people in Russian occupied Donbas are willing to talk with foreign reporters. In the rest of Ukraine security measures and increasing popular hostility towards Russia has made it more difficult and expensive to carry out covert operations. Making matters worse is the fact that no matter how much Russia threatens Ukraine the Ukrainians become more determined to develop stronger economic, cultural and military ties with nations to the west, especially NATO and the EU (European Union). Every month Ukrainians are reminded that Ukrainian soldiers are still dying while confronting the Russian aggression in Donbas. In June 28 Ukrainian troops died in the east and over 170 were wounded. Since the Russian invasion began in 2014 about 10,000 Ukrainians have died, 70 percent of them civilians.
Ukraine has also suffered from more Russian Cyber War attacks, particularly the recent WannaCry and NotPetya attacks. This has generated a lot of sympathy from hackers for Ukraine, in part because Ukraine has long been home to lots of criminal hackers. Now this hacker underground is quietly providing evidence of how Russian Cyber War operations work and who is involved (along with lots of incriminating details). This is a cost of the Donbas operation that Russia will not admit even exists, yet it surely does and is getting worse. There is no easy way out of this mess for Russia and it seems to keep getting worse.
Further west a new American government has pledged more support for East Europe against Russian aggression and this has led to more orders for American anti-missile systems and all manner of military upgrades for the countries on Russia’s western border. Even Sweden and Finland, which remained neutral during the Cold War, are now joining military alliances with the rest of Europe to better deal with the Russian threat.
The U.S. has long sought to put anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe to protect against ballistic missile attacks from Iran. Russia has opposed this and sees it as a subterfuge to weaken the effect of Russian ballistic missiles attacking European targets. Most Europeans don’t know what to make of that, but East European countries (like Romania) that spent 1945-89 as involuntary Russian vassal (or “satellite”) states, do see a need for protection from Russian missiles.
The Painful Cure
Western efforts to assist Ukraine are finding that the major obstacle is the pervasive corruption. That problem makes any change in Ukraine more difficult. This includes Western (and Ukrainian) efforts improve the Ukrainian military. It gets worse when dealing with economic problems. It makes everyone realize that the biggest problems Ukraine is facing are internal, not threats from Russia. Despite the continued widespread corruption the government made progress with reforms, but it is slow because the rot is so deep. This is particularly obvious when you deal with the courts. Too many judges and other court staff are for sale. What keeps anti-corruption efforts going is the use of the one tool foreigners can employ; cutting aid if there is no progress against corruption. This not an all-powerful instant cure, but it does promote progress. Fixing a corrupt culture is a marathon not a sprint.
That progress was sufficient to keep foreign financial aid coming. Thus in 2016 Ukrainian GDP grew 1.5 percent and is expected to be three percent in 2017. This is in sharp contrast to Russia. That is largely because Ukraine is not dependent on oil exports for income or suffering from sanctions. But the corruption is still in play and most obvious when it comes to the growing defense budget. The U.S. is not happy with all the continued plundering of the Ukrainian defense budget and threatens to cut support unless Ukrainian officials stop the stealing and cooperate with each other for the common good. Recent opinion polls show that the majority of Ukrainians would now vote to join NATO and move closer to the less corrupt and more prosperous West. For the last decade Russia has threated to declare war if Ukraine joined NATO. Because of this by 2009 the U.S. lost its enthusiasm for letting Ukraine join NATO, thus leaving Ukraine on its own to deal with Russian aggression. That led to a popular uprising in 2014 that ousted a pro-Russian (and very corrupt) president of Ukraine and triggered an undeclared Russian war against Ukraine. Now there is a new government in the United States that is more supportive of those who put up determined opposition to Russian aggression.
The Eastern Front
China, the only real threat to Russia, quietly makes progress advancing from the east. China has claims on much of the Russian Far East and is openly replacing Russia as the primary economic, military and political force in Central Asia. This area, which used to be part of the Soviet Union, has become an economic and diplomatic battleground for Russia and China and China is winning. This is something Russia doesn’t like to discuss, but among Russians the real threat is from the east, not the west. According to recent reports from the Russian government China has already become the dominant supplier and trading partner with the Central Asian states and is having the same impact on other nations that were part of the Soviet Union until 1991. Russia will allow open discussion of the Chinese economic impact but is rather more sensitive when it comes to the diplomatic implications. China is replacing Russia as the dominant foreign power east of Moscow.
For several centuries Russia was dominant in the east but now that is all over and Russia seems unlikely to regain the economic and diplomatic dominance it long enjoyed. Actually Russia began losing in 1904 when they went to war with Japan and lost. These days Russia is minor power in purely economic terms, with a $1.2 trillion GDP compared to $11 trillion for China and nearly $19 trillion for the United States. For Russia, the economic news is even worse. Because of overdependence on oil and gas exports (and the sharp drop in oil and gas prices since 2013) plus sanctions (because of aggression against Ukraine and other neighbors) Russian GDP is still shrinking. In 2016 the decline was .2 percent of GDP and that may turn positive in 2017 as Russia adapts to the lower export income and sanction related difficulties. The sanctions and corruption caused another serious problem that the Russian government would rather not discuss (but are well aware of); the flight of investors and talented people from Russia. The investors and talent are mainly seeking better opportunities. The corruption makes investors (be they Russian or foreign) uneasy because the lack or legal protections makes for a very unpredictable economic environment. The same incentives drive talent away. Since 2013 over a million such people (most of them Russian citizens the rest disillusioned foreigners) have gone and the exodus continues.
Even before the 2013 economic collapse Russian leaders were trying to adapt to their diminished circumstances. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Russians in general came to realize that with much less economic and military power (which Russia had in abundance for centuries) Russia had much less impact on regional and world affairs. But since the late 1990s the government had been increasingly dominated by former KGB (secret police) officers who were smart (getting into the KGB was a major achievement in the Soviet days) and skilled at using deception and media manipulation to achieve their goals, especially outside Russia. Yet many former-KGB officers realize that these methods involve exploiting corrupt societies and one thing nearly all Russians can agree on is that corruption is a bad thing and the ultimate cause of so many other problems. In other words the “KGB State” is not sustainable and that has a lot of Russians wondering what comes next?
Far East Gets Heavy
In the Far East Russian air activity has grown enormously in 2017 after two years of declining sightings by Pacific coast neighbors. This is largely the result of more heavy bombers and maritime patrol aircraft moved to bases on the Pacific Coast. Increased activity by American carrier task forces as well as South Korean and Japanese warships gave the Russian warplanes something to keep an eye on and they did. Russian aircraft incursions (that trigger sending up jet fighters because foreign warplanes are coming too close to your air space) were way up in this region this year. Japan is the most common target and this year Russian incursions surpassed China for the first time in several years. The formation of a new heavy bomber division on the Pacific coast saw far more activity all over the western pacific by Tu-95MS and Tu-22M3 long-range bombers.
July 17, 2017: Russia and the United States made it clear that they agreed with Israeli concerns about Iran setting up bases in Syria and Lebanon. This is another way of saying Russia and the U.S. will not try to block Israeli attacks against Iranian forces getting too close to the Israeli border or Iranian efforts to establish new facilities in Syria and Lebanon. In other words, nothing has changed and Iran has been officially reminded that they are on their own when they threaten Israel. Meanwhile Russia reminds the Syrian government that Iran intends to control a post-war Syria and attempt to turn it into a Shia majority nation (via forced conversions and expulsions of stubborn Sunnis). That would make the Assads totally dependent on and subservient to Iran, something that most Assad supporters are not in favor of. But defying Iran does not appear to be a practical option because the most effective troops the Assads have are the 20,000 or so Iranian supplied Shia mercenaries.
July 16, 2017: In Syria two mortar shells were fired at the Russian embassy compound in Damascus. One shell fell within the embassy compound and exploded causing some material damage. The other shell landed outside the compound, as did several others apparently aimed at nearby residential neighborhoods. At least seven civilians were wounded by this. These embassy attacks have happened several times since 2011. The Syrian government is believed to be responsible for some of these attacks, at least the ones that took place when there were no rebels reported close enough to have done so. At this time there are still some rebels within mortar range of this part of Damascus.
July 11, 2017: Another Russian soldier was killed in Syria. An army officer, advising Assad forces, died of wounds received from a mortar shell. Russian casualties in Syria remain low with nearly all the fatalities suffered by highly trained troops advising the Syrians or special operations personnel carrying out recon or other intel gathering missions. By the Russian official count the latest death makes 32 Russians killed in Syria since mid-2015. The actual number is believed to be 30-80 percent higher because of the growing use of Russian military contractors, who are not, for record keeping purposes, members of the Russian military. The Syrian war effort, despite the low number of Russian casualties, is not popular with most Russians who see Assad and most other Middle Eastern governments (especially former Soviet allies) as losers.
July 5, 2017: In the south three Tu-95 heavy bombers took off from a base (Engels) on the Volga River and flew southwest until the bombers were within about 900 kilometers of central Syria and launched at least six Kh-101 cruise missiles (are similar to the U.S. Tomahawk) at rebel targets near Hama.
July 4, 2017: Russia and China have come up with a new plan to deal with the North Korean crises. This one involves North Korea agreeing to temporarily halt its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs and in return South Korea, the United States and Japan would temporarily halt joint training exercises. At that point all parties would enter negotiations to develop a permanent solution. Russia and China also want South Korea to consider getting rid of its anti-missile defenses, especially THAAD, as it is seen by China and Russia as a threat to the effectiveness of Chinese and Russian ballistic missiles. These proposals did not gain much, if any, acceptance from anyone they were directed at.
July 3, 2017: The Syrian Army declared a temporary truce along its southern border, to try and persuade rebels fighting down there to participate in the peace talks being held in Kazakhstan. None of the rebels are willing to attend and only Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Assad government show up and make deals no one pays much attention to. Currently the Assad government controls about 70 percent of the remaining Syrian population. About a quarter of the 2011 population, almost all of them anti-Assad Sunnis, have fled the country and probably will not return to an Iran dominated Syria. The Sunnis are still a majority, just a much smaller one. The rebels, (mostly the Kurd led SDF) control about a quarter of the population and ISIL controls about a quarter of the land areas (mostly in the largely desert eastern Syria) but only about five percent of the population. The Assads control only about a third of the country, making it easier for them to protect and patrol the population they control. The Assads have the coast and the two largest cities (Damascus and Aleppo). The only thing left to fight over is how much access Iran gets to Syria. Israel is openly hostile to a permanent Iranian presence in Syria and Turkey has a similar attitude. Russia agrees with Turkey and Israel on this but does not say so (much) in public. The Sunni Arab states are more open in opposing Iranian plans here. Despite all that Iran is determined to have a land route from Iran to Lebanon and military installations in post-war Syria.
June 30, 2017: Despite UN chemical weapons investigators confirming (in a recently completed study) Syrian use of nerve gas against civilians on April 4th, Russia continues to deny that Syria had any chemical weapons and these accusations are lies designed to embarrass Russia (which proposed the 2013 deal that was to eliminate all the Assad chemical weapons.) Russia again insisted someone else provided the nerve gas and made the attack that killed 90 civilians. The immediate American response to the April 4 nerve gas attack was to launch an April 7th cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base. This proved very embarrassing to the Russians because after that cruise missile attack the Russian Internet lit up with embarrassing discussions about that happened to Russian boasts in late 2016 that the Russian air defense system in Syria was operational. Using these very current and high-tech air defense weapons (Tor 2, S-400 and so on) Russia controlled who could use Syrian air space. Thus the American use of 59 cruise missiles to hit that Syrian air base, destroy about 20 percent of the Syrian air force and not touch the Russian aircraft and troops there, was either done with Russian permission or these expensive new air defense systems were vulnerable to American countermeasures. That was a common source of humiliation during the Cold War when, time and time again, the West, usually the Americans, came up with some unexpected tech to neutralize Russian systems, especially air defense and aircraft electronics. The government was forced to note these embarrassing comments on Russian language Internet message boards and announced that Russian policy was not to use the air defense system against external air threats in Syria, or at least not the ones that were no threat to Russian troops. Other government officials commented that the Russian air defense systems could detect low-flying cruise missiles but not everywhere as these cruise missiles could be programmed to deliberately take advantage of terrain (hills) and also detect and avoid Russian radars. Older Russians then recalled hearing the same excuses during the Cold War. The people running Russia remember it as well and that seemed to account for the public displays (in the UN and to the international media) of anger at the Americans. It wasn’t just what the Americans did but how they did it. So the Russian government is returning to traditional ways to deal with these problems and simply denying they exist. The works with many Russians but not with many people outside Russia.
June 27, 2017: In Ukraine (Kiev) an army colonel died when a bomb planted in his car exploded, killing him and wounding two nearby civilians. The victim was an intelligence officer involved with monitoring Russian involvement in Donbas. The colonel was responsible for collecting evidence (weapons and equipment traced back to the Russia as well as dead, captured or surrendered Russian soldiers) of Russian involvement in sustaining and managing the “rebellion” in eastern Ukraine. There has been growing evidence that Russian secret operations are increasingly active in the rest of Ukraine. This involves Russian agents (or local gangsters doing contract work for the Russians) assassinating Ukrainian officials who were becoming a problem.
June 26, 2017: Off the north coast one of the new Borei class SSBNs (ballistic missile nuclear subs, or "boomers") successfully fired a Bulava SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) as part of a continuing testing program. The test today is an improvement over the last test launches in late 2016. One of these two launches failed. The latest Russian SLBM design, the Bulava (also known as R-30 3M30 and SS-NX-30) has been an embarrassing disappointment with over a third of the test launches failing. This was not encouraging and Bulava was almost cancelled several time because of the test flight failures. But the government believes there is no better option than to keep trying to make Bulava work. The investigation into earlier test failures concluded that the Bulava design was sound but that there continued to be problems with manufacturing components and that current quality control measures were not catching the flaws. This was ultimately tied to continued corruption in state controlled defense industries. So far a third of the test launches have failed. This is ten times the failure rate of the comparable American Trident SLBM and is indicative of the increased problems Russia has developing and manufacturing complex military systems. The problems with Bulava meant the new Borei class SSBNs could not really enter service until they had a reliable SLBM and that could only be the Bulava. That was because going back to older, but still reliable, SLBMs was too expensive. Russia did not have the time or money to redesign and rebuild existing Boreis. The first of these new SSBNs could have entered service in 2010 but that was delayed until 2013 when Bulava, still experiencing high failure rates, was declared fit for duty. Now three Boreis are in service and five under construction. Russia is in a hurry to have the eight Boreis replace the eight remaining Delta class subs from the 1980s. These Deltas should have been retired by now and rarely go to sea because of that. Most of the time Deltas go to sea (like one did last October) is to test fire an R-29RM SLBM 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).
June 23, 2017: In Syria Russia again used the hotline it maintains with the United States to notify the Americans that a surprise cruise missile attack on ISIL targets was being launched from Russian warships (six missiles from two frigates and a sub) in the Mediterranean. This use of the hotline prevents the Americans from misinterpreting the incoming missiles. Russia has threatened to shut down the hotline several times but never has.
June 20, 2017: In Syria the U.S., Russia and Jordan agreed that Iranian backed (and often led) forces would not be allowed within 30 kilometers of the Jordanian border. This includes the Syrian city of Daraa. This would prevent the Hezbollah and Iran supported Shia mercenaries from interfering with American and Jordanian operations on the Syrian side of the border. The Jordanians are mainly concerned with the many Syrian refugees that continue to head for refuge in Jordan. The American backed secular Syrian rebels who operate from bases in Jordan and now on the Syrian side of the border can also use this safe zone. These rebels are often accompanied by American advisors and air controllers. This area has seen a lot of fighting since 2011. In late 2016 it was estimated that about eight percent of the casualties since 2011 occurred down south (Daraa Province and along the Israeli and Jordan borders).
June 19, 2017: Russia ignored American complaints (and video proof) that a Russian Su-27 came dangerously close (less than 10 meters/32 feet) to a U.S. RC-135 electronic reconnaissance aircraft flying over the Baltic in international air space. Several times in the past few years the Russians have denied similar incidents occurred despite video proof.
June 18, 2017: In the east (near Raqqa) a Syria Su-22 light bomber was shot down by an American F-18E. The Su-22 was attacking Syrian rebels (Kurdish led SDF) closing in on Raqqa. The U.S. had warned Russia and Syria not to direct airstrikes at the SDF or there would be consequences. Russia responded with threats to attack American aircraft in eastern Syria (where Raqqa and the Iraq border are). Some members of the American led air coalition suspended operations over Syria for a few days.
June 16, 2017: Russia revealed that it is in the process of verifying that one of their airstrikes in late May killed ISIL founder Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in Syria, along with several other ISIL leaders. Back in April Iraqi intel revealed that it had evidence Baghdadi had left Mosul for Syria in January or February and had not returned to Iraq since. The most recent (mid-July) information from Kurdish intelligence officials in Iraq and Syria is that al-Baghdadi is apparently still alive and probably operating out of a new ISIL headquarters south of Raqqa (Syria). The Kurds, who have decades of experience dealing with Islamic terrorist leaders like Baghdadi have one of the best informant networks in both Iraq and Syria and U.S. intel analysts consider the Kurds a very reliable source.
June 15, 2017: In the Far East a North Korean warship seized a Russian yacht that was 80 kilometers off the coast. The yacht and the vessel towing it to Vladivostok were definitely in international waters and the Russian ambassador has demanded the release of the yacht and three man crew. This is similar to a May 2016 incident where North Korean warship seized a Russian sailing yacht some 160 kilometers from the east coast of North Korea (very much in international waters). The yacht and crew of five were taken to a North Korean port. The yacht was released two days later and continued on its way to its original destination (Vladivostok) for a sailboat race. North Korea would not say why they took the yacht and then released it.