Syria has become more of a problem than an opportunity for Russia. Despite that Russia still sees itself as the more effective playmaker in Syria. That, however, is always a work-in-progress and every week there are new challenges. Israel has suggested that Russia work out some sort of truce between Iran and Israel and solve a major problem in Syria. That is a great idea in theory but in practice Iran is pretty irrational when it comes to Israel. Russia has recently publicly criticized Iran for regularly calling for the destruction of Israel. Russia has also sided with Turkey in disagreements with Iran over strategy and tactics in Syria. Russia still considers Iran an ally, but a flawed one that really should work on their bad habits. Meanwhile Turkey is becoming troublesome with its offensive into northwest Syria. Then there are the Kurds and their American allies in the northeast. That has become particularly nasty and embarrassing.
Many of the problems Russia has in Syria are self-inflicted. , For example Russia declared victory there in December 2017 to bolster morale back home. With that came the announcement that a gradual withdrawal of most Russian forces was to occur in 2018. That meant the only Russian ground forces left in Syria were to be contractors who are, of course, not members of the military. That victory claim and withdrawal plans are now on hold as Russia has to deal with heavy losses of Russians in northeast Syria (because of the Americans) and heavy losses to their Iranian allies in the south (because of Israel). Russia had always positioned itself as the deal maker in Syria. That was largely because Russia alone was on reasonably good terms with most of the players (Israel, Americans, Iran, Turkey, Iraq and the Assad government of Syria).
There were other complications. Russia had supported and used Islamic terror groups in the past but no more, not after the Cold War ended in 1991. That gave Russians some good insights into Islamic terrorism, especially because of their recent campaign to crush Chechen Islamic terrorists. Many of the most effective ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) members and leaders in Syria were Russians, especially Chechens from the Caucasus. Russia was eager to kill as many of these troublesome Chechens as it could, wherever it could get to them. Syria proved to be a good place to kill Chechens and Russia had a lot of help in doing that. The helpers included the United States and Israel. Keeping all those alliances stable and productive (rather than unpredictable and unproductive) has proved to be more difficult than Russia anticipated. The American continue to support the Kurds in northeast Syria (and northern Iraq) and Israel wants Iran out of Syria and Lebanon for the very simple reason that Iran has been openly seeking to destroy Israel since the 1980s.
Troubles With Turkey
The Turkish actions towards U.S. backed Kurds in Syria is but one of several actions Turkey has taken to cut its ties with Western nations since World War II. For Russia that is a major opportunity. Turkey is a member of NATO because of that but NATO is edging closer to expelling Turkey. Not so much for Turkish moves in Syria, but because Turkey is becoming an ally of Russia. More to the point Turkey has ordered two Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems but is also in line to get over a hundred new F-35 fighters. The S-400 is not compatible with the NATO air defense system and the F-35s contain a lot of technical secrets the Russians would like to get a close look at. Worse the current Russian government has accused NATO of plotting to destroy Russia. This fantasy is a ploy by the current (since 1999) Russian leaders to justify reviving police state rule. To get away with this Russia needs a scary foe that will not actually become a threat. China won’t do because China has claims on much of the Russian Far East while there is no such claims by any Western nation. Russia appears to be playing with both Turkey and Iran in Syria, but that’s another story.
Iran opposes Turkish operations along the Syrian border and there have been clashes between Assad and Turkish forces in Aleppo and Idlib provinces. The Assads do not want to fight Turkey but the Assads have been kept in power throughout the civil war by Iran, or at least mainly Iran. Russia arrived in 2015 and plays a secondary role. Neither Iran nor the Assads want to go to war with the Turks, but they are not cooperating with them either. Most European countries see Turkish and Iranian operations in Syria as a violation of international law, despite the fact that Iran was officially “invited” to enter Syria. Turkey and the United States did not get an invitation but for Europe the Americans in Syria are seen as helpful, not a threat to regional stability.
Iran appears to control most of the military forces available to the Assads. This force is better armed, trained and led than the Syrian military. The Iranian forces includes 3,000 Iranian personnel, 8,000 Hezbollah fighters (with more on call in Lebanon) and some 70,000 pro-Iran militias. About a fifth of these are foreign Shia mercenaries recruited, armed and led by Iranians. The rest are local pro-Assad militias that are equipped (and often paid) by Iran. Russia is the main source of logistic, technical, air and diplomatic (via a UN veto) support. But Iran has the most armed people on the ground. To make matters worse the main function of the Iranian ground forces is to prepare for a war with Israel.
Russia is being asked to take sides in northern Syria where Turkey has begun attacking Syrian Kurds west of the Euphrates River, an area dominated by Russian warplanes and air defense systems. The Russians did not interfere with Turkish air strikes used to support Turkish ground troops seeking to drive Syrian Kurds out of territory (especially the town of Afrin) they control near the Turkish border. After that the Turks want the Americans to get out of northeast Syria. The Americans don’t want to leave but have heeded Turkish concerns and agreed that the Syrian Kurds would not control security along the Turkish border (from Iraq to the Euphrates River). In mid-January the United States announced that it is assisting in the creation of a 30,000 strong BSF (“border security force”) in northeast Syria. This appears to be a repeat of what the U.S. and Britain did in Kurdish northern Iraq in the early 1990s. Neither Turkey, Iran nor Syria (the Assads) support this autonomous Kurdish portion of Syria. But the Americans insist it is essential to ensure that Islamic terrorists do not again have an opportunity to operate in this area. Russia noted with approval how the autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq kept things quiet in their territory since the early 1990s. The U.S. backed SDF (Syrian Defense Forces, predominately Kurdish rebels) have already said they would not allow Assad forces to cross the Euphrates River in order to regain control of northeastern Syria that was now largely held by the SDF. The SDF is being converted to the BSF and, unlike Kurdish northern Iraq, the SDF controlled territory will have a defense force (the BSF), that will be about a third non-Kurds and border security will be handled by whichever ethnic group dominates in that area. Most of the Turkish border will be patrolled by Kurds while the Iraq border will have a lot more Arab participation. There will be two American bases in this SDF controlled territory. One will be on the Iraq border at the al Tanf border crossing. The other American base in Syria will be at the airbase outside Raqqa. This American controlled area will block Iran from having a land route from Iran to Damascus (and Lebanon).
Russia brought in several thousand of their Spetsnaz (special operations) troops both as active duty Russian army operators and former Spetsnaz serving as contractors. Unlike the popular image of special operations troops these Spetsnaz were rarely used for raids. Like their Western counterparts Spetsnaz are also trained to do reconnaissance (often deep into enemy territory), provide security for very valuable people or equipment and carry out “direct action” (raids) as needed. Spetsnaz did a lot of direct action in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in the Caucasus since the late 1990s but not in Syria. That’s because Russia wanted to avoid casualties in Syria as any troop losses here were very unpopular in Russia. Spectacular victories, on the other hand, are still popular. Russian Spetsnaz commandos had been in Syria officially since October 2015 and unofficially up to a year earlier. Russia did not say much about what Spetsnaz was doing in Syria, which is standard for special operations forces. Initially Spetsnaz were there to train their Syrian counterparts and help hunt down and kill key ISIL leaders. Any successes there were not publicized, which is, again, pretty standard for secretive commando operations. It was more difficult to hide the role Spetsnaz (especially the contractors) played in helping improve the security around senior government officials in Damascus. That operation was also a success. Russia also sent expert snipers, many of them Spetsnaz, who mainly served as instructors for Syrian Army snipers and to set up a program to select troops who could be good snipers and train them. New Russian sniping rifles were seen in Syria after 2015. Despite all this help, the Assad forces still needed Russian special operations troops for key operations. The Assads preferred to depend on the Russians for this than the Iranians.
To make their Syria intervention work Russia had to quietly resort to employing Russian private security companies. By the end of 2017 there were about 1,200 military contractors from the Wagner Group. About half these private security troops were believed to have been organized combat units that were reliable enough to be used in place of scarce army special operations troops. By monitoring Russian language social media activity (which anyone can do) it was noted how many recent military veterans were working for several of these private security companies. These fellows would often post pictures from Syria and Ukraine. Casualties were suffered in both places although the duties of the contractors were different. In Syria the security contractors mainly guarded Russian bases but were also used in combat when they provided security for Russian artillery units supporting Syrian Army troops. In a few cases the contractors were sent in to assist Syrian troops who got themselves in trouble. Russia described these men as special operations troops, because outside Russia the security contractors often wear Russian military uniforms. But social media revealed that many of these dead Russians in Syria were actually contractors. In Ukraine at least one private security company was used as “enforcers” to punish troublesome pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels. Often this just meant arranging an accidental death for a disobedient rebel leader but in a few cases a larger number of rebels had to disappear. The Russian supported rebels came to call these contractors “cleaners” and were justifiably terrorized and impressed. Cuban troops were also reported in Syria, brought in to help train and assist Syrian troops. Some of the Cubans are believed to be special operations (commando) forces. Cuba, Russia and Syria deny the presence of Cuban troops in Syria.
As of the end of 2017 Russia admitted to 45 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. Because of the disastrous February encounter with the SDF and Americans the Russian dead have gone way up. 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. More Russian casualties mean lots more unrest back home.
Russia has been trying to act like it is still a superpower because the current Russian president realizes that nostalgia and nationalism is a large part of what keeps him in power despite poor performance and successful efforts to revive the traditional Russian police state. A recent opinion poll showed that since 2015 Russian attitudes towards what government priorities should be have changed. In 2015 29 percent believed the government should concentrate on improving living standards but now that is 41 percent. In 2015 21 percent believed the government should concentrate on improving Russian prestige internationally but now that is 15 percent. In general Russians want more emphasis on conditions at home, not what is going on elsewhere in the world.
And then there is the Enemy Within. The 2017 international corruption ratings show the world that Russia is not making much progress dealing with corruption and is stuck near the bottom (135 out of 180 nations compared with 131 out of 176 nations in 2016). Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Syria, South Sudan and Somalia) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. The current Russian score is 29 compared to 30 for Ukraine, 41 for China, 73 for Japan, 6o for Poland and 75 for the United States. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. Russia had the same score as Ukraine in 2016 but it 2017 Russia stayed the same (and became the most corrupt nation in Europe) while Ukraine improved a little. Most of the other nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union have scores similar to Russia. Do you see a pattern here? A growing number of Russians (and others who used to be ruled by Russians) certainly do. Ukraine is particular is keen to make more progress in dealing with corruption because its current war with Russia and efforts to build more political and economic links with the West. That is what triggered the Russian invasion in the first place and the enemy within is proving more intractable than the Russian threat.
February 22, 2018: Two Russian Su-57 stealth fighter prototypes appear to have been flown to the Russian air base in Syria. The Russians apparently plan to test some Su-57 features in a combat environment. The Su-57 is nowhere near ready for combat but it can fly and some of its features (limited stealth, some electronics) are operational. Besides, it is great publicity for an aircraft Russia hopes to export someday. The two American stealth fighters are operational in Syria. F-22s have flown some missions and Israel has declared its F-35I operational, the first non-U.S. user of that new aircraft to do so.
Ukraine has banned the export of locally made D-436 aircraft engines to Russia. Those engines are needed in Russia for An-148 commercial transports. The An-148 is a twin jet commercial transport that normally carries up to 80 passengers or nine tons of cargo and is built in Russia. The engine is also used in the new Russian Be-200 amphibious aircraft.
February 21, 2018: Russia has come to the defense of its ally (and arms customer) Pakistan as Russia and Pakistan are accused of supporting Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan. Russia denies the allegations and charges the United States with using unmarked helicopters to supply ISIL and other Islamic terror groups in Afghanistan. There is no evidence of this but Russia has learned in the past conspiracy theories like this are a popular distraction and had worked often during the Cold War.
In Ukraine military intelligence reported that the latest convoy of Russian trucks, which the Russians claim only contain humanitarian supplies, illegally crossed into Ukraine. This one also contained some 200 Russian Army officers, who are apparently being sent in to try and instill some order and discipline among the many Russian backed local and mercenary units that comprise the Russia supported rebellion in Donbas. This convoy also carried about 430 tons of supplies that apparently consisted of medical supplies and food for children.
February 20, 2018: Responding to criticism that Russian airstrikes in Syria (
the Ghouta suburbs 15 kilometers east of Damascus) have killed over 200 civilians in the last week, Russia pointed out that the Russian airstrikes are directed at Islamic terror groups among the rebels and that Russia has a less restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) and that is not going to change. The Ghouta fighting has been particularly intense so far in 2018 and has left the Assads frustrated in their effort to capture what is one of the last rebel strongholds around Damascus. This 100 square kilometer (40 square miles) enclave still holds over 300,000 people and was the scene of a major chemical weapons attack in 2013. In mid-2017 the Ghouta area was controlled by over 10,000 armed rebels and at the end of the year that had not changed much. There are about six rebel factions, most of them Islamic terror groups divided between those associated with al Qaeada and the rest supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil states. These factions have spent a lot of time fighting, or feuding, with each other. Despite that the Ghouta rebels have tied down a lot of Assad forces to keep an eye on them and the rebels will cooperate in defending the area if attacked. In July 2017 Russian military police established about a dozen checkpoints in the Ghouta area and that was as much to reassure the people in the area that Russian and Syrian air strikes would not return but to also monitor movements of known rebels. But the rebels kept shooting, despite ceasefires and more pro-government forces set up patrols around the rebel controlled area. By late 2017 nearly all the smuggling routes were no longer safe (or reliable for regular use) and since early November airstrikes and artillery fire intensified, against both military and civilian targets. But the government forces could not make significant gains and the government tightened the blockade in an effort to literally starve the rebels out. This works better during the cold weather, but this has not happened as food and other supplies continue to get into Ghouta and as long as that rebel presence exists outside the capital Assad claims of having taken back control of Syria are suspect. In February Russia has contributed more airstrikes to targets in Ghouta and done a lot of damage. In part this is because some Islamic terror groups (like the al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra) in Ghouta have been responsible for recent attacks on Russian targets (including the embassy) in Damascus. Russia is using airstrikes tactics it developed to break rebel resistance in Aleppo a year ago. What worked in Aleppo was massive airstrikes against rebel held areas, without regard to civilian losses.
The UN had support (mainly because of Ghouta) for a Syria ceasefire resolution but Russia said it would use its veto and the proposal was dropped. Taking Ghouta and inflicting some kind of defeat on American forces in Syria seems to be a major priority for Russia. Ghouta is the largest remaining rebel held areas and it is right outside the Syrian capital. Then there are the Americans, who have two thousand troops in northeast Syria to bolster Kurd efforts to establish an autonomous Kurdish dominated region. The Turks are particularly eager to block the Kurds in the northeast but the Assads have always been able to make a deal with the Kurds and agree with the Kurds that the Turks should not be in Syria.
The U.S. government reported that sanctions on Russia had blocked $3 billion in Russian arms exports since 2015.
February 19, 2018: Russian officials admitted that the “dozens” of foreign troops killed in eastern Syria during a February 7th battle were not Russian military personnel but were working for Russia. Many of the dead were Russian and the rest were from nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union. The official admitted that the many wounded Russian military contractors were being treated in Russian military medical facilities in Syria. By now the extent of Russian participation, and loss, in the attack became known. Initially Russia would admit that only five Russians were killed. But it turned out all the “Russian” casualties were military contractors from the Wagner Group, the largest military contractor in Russia and active in several areas, mainly Ukraine (Donbas) and Syria. The contractors handle security and, in the case of the Deir Ezzor attack, form special combat units normally used to go after ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) or other difficult foes on the ground. Working for Wagner is not a military secret in Russia and death benefits (up to $88,000 depending on rank and job) are paid promptly and in most cases the body is quietly returned to the family. Friends and family of the Wagner casualties will usually discuss the loss on the Internet and after a while an accurate estimate of contractor casualties is known. The contractors themselves sign a non-disclosure agreement but that does not apply to family and friends. Posts to the Internet or other communications with family tend to become public after a while. It appears that at least fifty contractors were killed in this incident and about 70 wounded. There was also confusion about what the Russians were up to. It was believed that the Russians were supporting to take control, as promised, of territory ISIL once controlled. By in the northeast the Kurds had done most of the fighting to defeat ISIL and had told the Assads that Kurds were autonomous now and were willing to either negotiate that, or defend themselves if attacked. The Russians knew the Americans were working with the Syrian Kurds and knew what the American forces were capable of and that loss of a lot of Russians in combat, even if they were contractors (former soldiers) and not active duty troops. On the face of it there is no obvious way putting Russian troops in danger like this does Russian any good. Meanwhile Ukraine reports that it has lost 21 soldiers so far this year in eastern Ukraine. Wagner losses in Ukraine this year were unclear because there are a lot of other armed groups fighting for Russia in eastern Ukraine.
Russian military personnel in Syria are paid nearly as well as the Wagner personnel and receive bonuses in addition to their regular pay. But deaths among Russian military personnel in Syria, even though all of them are volunteers, is a much bigger deal back in Russia than the death of a Russian mercenary.
February 18, 2018: Russian diplomats told Israel that Russia would support Israel if Iran attacked. However Russia was not convinced that Israel shooting down an Iranian UAV over Israel on the 10th was an Iranian attack. After all, Syria or Hezbollah (which Russia considers a “Lebanese” not an Iranian force) have been using Iranian UAVs for a long time. This was an example of how unreliable Russian “support” is. Other Middle Eastern allies of Russia, like Iran and Turkey, have noticed the same thing. Russia apparently also persuaded Israel to not destroy Iranian weapons (missile and rocket) factories in Syria and Lebanon after the February 10th incident where they destroyed an Iranian UAV that had entered Israeli air space. Israel and Russia are continually making deals involving decisions like this but in the end Israel will do what it has to do to defend itself and Russia openly acknowledges that.
In the south (Dagestan) a local Moslem man used a hunting rifle to kill five Christians coming out of a church and wound another five. Police soon arrived and killed the shooter and after an investigation found that the 22 year old killer had taken an interest in ISIL and ISIL took credit for the attack. Most of the victims were women. Some 80 percent of the Dagestan population is Moslem and the incident took place near the Chechen border. The government is afraid that the ISIL connection Russian Moslems will be even more disliked and avoided.
Video appeared on the Internet showing what appears to be a large fire in or very near a Kilo class submarine docked at a Russian naval base near the Pacific port of Vladivostok. Russia said this was actually part of a “damage control exercise.” But the diesel-electric Kilo has a history of catastrophic accidents like that.
February 17, 2018: Russian military personnel in Syria have been ordered to stop using smart phone and to replace them as soon as possible with older models that lack GPS, high speeds and other features that are used by many commercial UAVs and quad copters. The frequencies used smart phones will be jammed around Russian bases in Syria not only to make it more difficult for quad copters to be used for mass attacks but to prevent Russian personnel from posting military information on the Internet.
Over the last two days two Burke class American destroyers have entered the Black Sea to show support for American allies bordering the Black Sea and annoy Russia.
February 16, 2018: After six more months of haggling (and two years of negotiations before that) Indonesia has signed the contracts to buy eleven Russian Su-35 aircraft to replace its aging (and grounded) American made F-5s. The first two Su-35s will be delivered by October. Indonesia originally discussed obtaining 16 Su-35s and that is still a possibility if the current deal works. Indonesia drove a hard bargain and while it is paying $104 million per aircraft (including maintenance, spare parts and tech support) only 15 percent of that is being paid in cash. Half the price is being paid in Indonesian goods. This would mainly consist of items Russia has to import and that Indonesia produces like palm oil, rubber, coffee, cocoa, tea, processed fish, copra, and spices. Indonesia also has some manufactured goods Russia could use like footwear, furniture, paper, textiles and several kinds of machinery. Indonesia also produces some defense related goods. Then there is the 35 percent of the aircraft price that will be offset. This will include technology transfer for components and service (maintenance, assembly) to be done in Indonesia. The 35 percent offset for defense related purchases is standard with Indonesia. Details of the offset and exports to Russia have still to be worked out.
Russia was eager to make this sale as it would be the second export sale for the Su-35. The first export sale was to China, which received the first of these Su-35s in 2016. Because of frequent illegal copying of Russian technology this is expected to be the last Russian warplane exported to China. The Indonesia sale is important because it may help convince other potential customers (UAE, Pakistan, Vietnam, Algeria, Kazakhstan and Egypt) that Russia has been negotiating with. Brazil and South Korea rejected the Su-35 and Venezuela and Libya were interested but both have run into political and financial problems. Currently Russia has about 70 Su-35s and China has twelve (out of 24 ordered). Russia received its first Su-35s in 2013 and four were sent to Syria in early 2016 for some combat experience. These were apparently successful, especially when delivering Russian built smart bombs.
February 15, 2018: Russia delivered the first batch of nine T-90S tanks to Iraq. Another 27 will be arriving over the next week or so. This is half of what Iraq ordered and those will arrive by April. The T-90S is a popular Russian export, with 64 of them delivered to Vietnam in late 2017. The T-90S usually cost about $4 million each and are similar to the T-90 model India uses. Russia also offers a T-90SK “command tank” for export (without the latest Russian communications and security systems installed). Older equipment is included or none at all so the buyer can purchase such gear from other (usually Western) suppliers.
February 10, 2018: In southern Syria (Golan Heights and Israel border) an Israeli F-16I was shot down by a Russian built S-200 (SA-5) surface to air missile. This was but part of a very complex day. It began when an Iranian UAV (launched from an Iranian base in central Syria) entered Israeli air space and was shot down 90 seconds later. In retaliation Israel sent eight F-16Is to hit the Iranian base, especially the operations center for the larger Iranian UAVs operating over Syria. This facility was destroyed and some Iranians were killed. Israeli warplanes had dealt with the SA-5 for years and could destroy all the Syrian SA-5 launchers and radars. But Israel had an understanding with Russia, a nation that was something of a frenemy in Syria and the Russians wanted the SA-5s left alone. Even though the SA-5s were older tech they still posed some risk to Israeli (and American) warplanes and that is what happened to the F-16I today. The aircraft crashed on the Israeli side of the border and the crew of two safely ejected. Israel then prepared to carry out their plan to destroy the Syrian air defense system when the Russian leader called the Israeli leader and asked that the Israeli attack be put on hold. Given the relationship Israel and Russia had developed over many decades, Israel agreed. But now the Russians owed Israel a favor and the Israelis consider that another weapon to use against the Iranian threat in Syria.
The Syrians know their Russian made SA-5s missiles are not very effective against Western fighters and have adopted tactics involve firing a lot of these missiles a at Israeli jets and hope they get lucky. Today it did. The SA-5 is a 1960s design that Russia has updated and Syria received the latest S-200 version of the missile in 2010. This seven ton missile has a range of 300 kilometers but Israel has apparently developed effective countermeasures but in this case the F-16I had an equipment failure that prevented it from carrying out a tight turn to evade the S-200 warhead entirely.
In southern Russia (Chechnya) a military police battalion composed of Chechen about 400 personnel returned from 18 months providing or supervising security, particularly in Aleppo and Russian bases along the coast.
February 9, 2018: Reaction to the resent successful launch of the American SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket elicited interesting comments from Russian space program officials. The state owned space flight company Roscosmos described the SpaceX launch as a “nice trick.” This was in reference to the SpaceX Falcon Heavy using 27 rockets operating in unison to launch very heavy loads into orbit. Also notable was two of the three booster rockets returning and landing for reuse. This, and many other innovations made SpaceX Falcon Heavy much (by over 70 percent) cheaper than competing American designs. Finally because the first SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch was a test the SpaceX owner used, for a payload, an electric car (a convertible) with a crash test dummy in a space suit in the drivers seat and the dash board having an iconic “Don’t Panic” sign on it as well as two high tech storage devices with massive data about earth and its inhabitants (in the event that extraterrestrials find the car in the future). Most Russians appreciated the humor in all this and the reality that it meant Roscosmos was in a hopeless position because Roscosmos lacked the cash and talent to do operate as effectively as SpaceX.
February 8, 2018: In the east, North Korea held a military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the North Korean military. That event so long ago was organized and paid for by Russia and this anniversary parade has always been a big deal. But this year it was smaller than expected and only displayed one new missile system. This one was a SRBM (Short Range Ballistic Missile) that seemed similar to the Russian Iskander or South Korean Hyunmoo-2. The Iskander is an export item while the South Korean missile is not. South Korea developed a 180 kilometer range ballistic missile (Hyunmoo 1) and a 300 kilometer one (Hyunmoo 2) in the 1980s. Both are about 13 meters (40 feet) long and weigh 4-5 tons. Both of these were based on the design of the U.S. Nike-Hercules anti-aircraft missile, which South Korea used for many years. Recently it was announced there was now a longer range (500 kilometer) version; Hyunmoo 2C. North Korea hackers have stolen a lot of South Korean defense secrets in the last decade and that might have included details of the Hyunmoo 2. This is a missile North Korea is more likely to build than the more modern and complex Iskander.
Sudan announced an agreement with Russia to help modernize Sudan's military. No details about the agreement were released. Most of Sudan's military aircraft are Russian-made and out of date. The thinking is that Sudan wants to acquire new aircraft and air defense systems. Sudan also needs airplane and vehicle parts. Modernization discussions between Sudan and Russia occurred in November 2017 when Sudanese leader Bashir visited Moscow. During that visit, Bashir allegedly told Russian president Putin that he wanted to be able to defend his country "against the United States."
February 7, 2018: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) over 300 pro-Assad troops attacked SDF positions near the Khusham oilfields (which once supplied ISIL with a lot of cash). The attack was defeated with the help of American air power (F-15Es, AH-64s and an AC-130) and artillery. At least a hundred of the attackers were killed and that included many Russians, most or all of them Russian contractors. The attackers also lost two tanks and several artillery systems. The SDF suffered a few wounded even though the attackers had tanks and artillery with them. The U.S. was in touch with the Russians to ensure there no problems in the air (Russian and American warplanes operating too close together). There were some American troops among the SDF defenders.
Under increasing pressure from the UN and neighbors along the Pacific Coast, Russia has agreed to enforce the UN sanctions and send 12,000 North Korean workers back to their homeland. China has already sent back most of its North Korean workers but Russia has a labor shortage in its Far East territories and losing the 12,000 North Koreans will be felt. Russia always had a hard time getting its citizens to move to areas east of the Ural Mountains (that mark the divide between Europe and Asia) and the Far East saw its economic potential crippled by this. Russia says it will take until 2019 for all the North Korean workers to leave because the sanctions allow the workers to stay until their contracts are completed. Meanwhile Russia has to deal with accusations that it is participating in a North Korean sanctions scam where North Korean coal is shipped to the Russian Far East and then exported from Russia as Russian coal.
In the last week the UN issued a report on North Korean efforts to violate economic sanctions. The UN investigators detailed how North Korea managed to earn nearly $200 million in 2017 by evading export sanctions. This was facilitated by a network of over 30 North Korea agents (usually identified as bankers) in foreign countries to organize smuggling operations. Most of the illegal export income came from selling at least 39 shipments of coal mainly to Russia and China (as well as South Korea, Malaysia, and Vietnam)
February 6, 2018: In Vietnam the navy put two more (of six) 1,900 ton Gepard class frigates into service. The first two arrived in 2011. This largely completes a major arms deal negotiated in 2009 by which Vietnam agreed to purchase six Kilo class submarines, for $300 million each, four (later six) Gepard class frigates, over a dozen patrol boats and 36 Su-30MK2 jet fighters (for over $46 million each). In effect, Russia was supplying the weapons to modernize Vietnam's armed forces. Until Vietnam enacted market economy reforms over the previous two decades, the country was broke. But that has changed, and Russia offered attractive prices. This annoyed China, which considers Vietnam part of southern China. But despite centuries of military efforts, the Chinese could never keep Vietnam under control. Now Russia is arming this wayward part of the motherland. China has not made open claims on Vietnam for over a century, but the animosity, and memories, are still there.
February 5, 2018: Russia ordered its aircraft in Syria to not operate lower than 5,000 meters (16,000 feet), which will protect aircraft from ground fire (including shoulder fired missiles kike the Igla-S that brought down an Su-25 on the 3rd). This will make ground support by the Su-25 and other aircraft less effective because the Russians don’t have many smart bombs or guided missiles for ground targets.
February 4, 2018: In Syria, because of the introduction of a new Russian air defense system, Russia told the Turks to keep their aircraft out of Syrian airspace until further notice. This has made it more difficult, and dangerous, for Turkish forces fighting the SDF around Afrin. Turkish aircraft resumed operations over Syria on the 9th.
February 3, 2018: In nearby Idlib province al Qaeda forces used a shoulder fired anti-aircraft missile to bring down a Russia Su-25 ground attack aircraft that was providing support for attacking Syrian troops. The pilot ejected but was killed on the ground. Russia says it launched more airstrikes and cruise missile attacks (via ships off shore) and killed 30 of the al Qaeda gunmen. Russia later revealed that they believe the Su-25 was brought down by a Russian made Igla-S (SA-18) missile. There are many of these in use by rebels as well as Assad and Russian forces in Syria.
February 1, 2018: The Russian space program successfully carried out its third launch at the new Vostochny space center. The Soyuz rocket put 11 satellites into orbit. This was in contrast to the second launch back in November. That one was a major setback when the Soyuz 2.1 satellite launcher again failed to put its valuable cargo into orbit. This failure was traced to a software error in the “fregat” third stage. The control software for fregat was programmed for launch from the Balkinor launch facility but the failed launch was from the new Vostochny space center. If fact, this was only second launch from Vostochny, which became operational in 2016 and is now the center of another embarrassing and expensive failure. The government is conducting an investigation but the basic problem is well known; too little money and not enough available talent to make the space program work as well as it did in the past.
January 30, 2018: Japan’s first F-35A stealth fighter became operational this month. Nine more will arrive in 2018 and eventually Japan will have at least 42 F-35s. This means the Japanese F-35 may soon go up to intercept the growing number of Chinese and Russian warplanes that enter the Japanese ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone). South Korea is also seeing more ADIZ activity. Japan is also looking to purchase some F-35B aircraft. This is the version that can land and take off like a helicopter and could operate from Japanese helicopter carriers (which are described as destroyers but look like light carriers.) These carriers could carry six F-35Bs as well as come helicopters.
January 29, 2018: In the south (Crimea) a Russian Su-27 harassed an American EP-3E electronic intelligence aircraft operating in international airspace near Crimea. The EP-3E crew took video and photos of the Russian aircraft flying dangerously close (less than two meters) to the four engine turboprop aircraft. The EP-3E was ordered back to base before its mission was over to avoid an accident. Russia said it was justified in doing this because NATO fighters did this to Russian aircraft. The U.S. pointed out that this was not true and Russia had no video evidence. Russia ignored that point. Meanwhile Russian electronic intelligence ships have resumed operating off American coasts with one recently spotted off the coast of Virginia, an area that contains several major naval bases.
Russia hosted another round of Syrian peace talks in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. Russia invited 1,600 Syrians from a large number of Syrian factions (both rebel and pro-Assad or neutral) to work out a peace deal. Only about 22 percent of those invited agreed to attend which shows that the rebellion is still active.
January 28, 2018: There were nationwide protests against corruption and government efforts to prevent fair elections. Some 350 of the protestors were arrested but soon released.