Russia: Eastern Promises Fall Short


March 30, 2018: Russian military experts, and those of European neighbors, agree that the American and NATO military superiority over Russia is greater than it was during the Cold War. That explains why many Russians support Russia threatening to use its nuclear weapons (especially the hundreds of ICBMs) and special operations (irregular warfare and lots of subterfuge and deception) to achieve anything against foreign enemies. While this has proved to be useful in explaining how the current Russian government will somehow do the impossible and rebuild the ancient Russian empire. It has not worked in practice. Despite that the current Russian leadership has kept trying.

In 2014 Russian leaders began using a new term, “New Russia” to describe what they were doing in Ukraine and, without saying so, planned to do elsewhere. The objective was to restore the old Russian Empire. That was built by the czars over several centuries, taken over by the communists in the 1920s and then lost by the communists in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. This caused half the Soviet population to leave for newly formed nations. Current Russian leaders, especially Vladimir Putin, are quite explicit in describing this loss of empire as “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.” Many Russians agree, although most of the people in the 14 new nations created from the wreckage of that empire do not. Nor do most Russian neighbors.

Officially Russia denies all this ill will but the restoration of the centuries old Russian Empire remains a popular goal among Russians, whether the state controlled media puts a spotlight on that or not. Ukraine was always a key component of that empire and Russians wants it back. To do that the cost, in political, financial and military terms would be high. While rebuilding the empire is popular inside Russia it has terrified and united the rest of Europe and led to a growing militarization effort. Russia’s economy cannot match the rest of Europe and as Europe revives its military power Russia will be at a disadvantage there as well. While Russia has nukes so does France and Britain. Then there is the United States.

Russia has one major, and very embarrassing problem in the former parts of the Soviet Union that were not mainly Slavs. This means Central Asia where the locals (mainly Turkic and other non-Slavs) always resented Russian domination. The ethnic Russian minority soon left and now the number of locals who can speak Russian is rapidly shrinking. Since the early 1990s, these unwilling provinces of the Russian empire have lost between a third and half of their Russian speakers. In the West (the Baltic States) the favorite second language is now English while in the east it is Chinese (mainly) and English. During the Soviet years the majority of the locals could speak or at least understand some Russian. The speed with which that disappeared was amazing, and demoralizing for Russians.

Russia still has a lot of non-Slav minorities and these minorities have higher birth-rates than the ethnic Russians. For centuries Russia (rebranded as the Soviet Union in the early 1920s) was considered a threat to its neighbors in part because of its larger population. But since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 the remaining Russian population has been in decline. Twenty years after the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian population implosion was getting worse. Currently Russia has the 11th largest economy in the world but without more investments (local or foreign) and fewer sanctions the economy will shrink (like the workforce, because couples are not having enough children). Poverty rates fell from 29 percent of the population in 2000 to just under 12 percent in 2012. That was four years after Russia got into rebuilding the empire and now the poverty rate is about 14 percent and rising. A major reason for the change was the collapse of world oil prices in 2013 but that spotlights another economic problem; expanding non-oil and gas industries so Russia is not so vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of oil and gas. That diversification requires a lot of foreign investment and access to foreign technology. The growing sanctions throttle access to those key items.

Follow The Money

The government insists that the growing international sanction imposed because of Russian aggression and dirty deeds (like poisoning Russian officials who defected and found sanctuary in Britain) is manageable. But many of the economic experts on the government payroll disagree and as long as they disagree only with their bosses (the handful of officials who make the final decisions) they keep their jobs. Details of these disagreements eventually leak out and disclose the obvious problem with the government (especially before the recent presidential election) promising more stuff than the current economy can provide. More taxes is difficult because it creates unpopular increases in the cost of living at a time when more people have less to spend. Another contentious issue is popular demand that the government go after the many businesses that evade taxes, often on a massive scale. This is possible because there are so many corrupt officials and a tolerance for the use of gangster-style violence to intimidate officials into going along with criminal scams. The government prefers short term fixes that create long term problems. Most of the Russians this policy hurts have not been born yet so this approach tends to be favored by rulers who are willing to sacrifice the future to preserve the current power. For Russia this policy could lead to Russia falling apart rather than rebuilding the old empire. The core problems for Russia are the widespread corruption which limits the formation of new businesses as well as discouraging investments in current or new businesses (by both foreign and Russian investors). In addition Russia is becoming more dependent on oil and gas exports. These commodities are suffering from falling prices and increased foreign competition (especially from the resurgent, thanks to fracking, United States). Unlike Western politicians, who have less corruption and vigorous growing economies, Russia lacks the potential for turning its current dilemma around. As more Russians become aware of that they will, as they did in the late 1980s, seek other solutions.

Syrian Aftermath

In northeastern Syria American and SDF forces expand and improve their fortifications in Deir Zor province, specifically the new U.S. base at the al Omar oilfield. The Russia and the Assads want this but the Americans are backing Kurdish efforts to hold on to al Omar and the valuable oil it can produce. For a while in March Assad, Russian and Iranian forces were gathering five kilometers from the new American base. This was the same areas where the February 7th battle took place. By the end of March this force had pulled back and apparently dispersed. The February advance by Russian and Syrian forces was quickly repulsed by American firepower and for a while it was unclear what Russia would do. The February Russian force had no air support or anti-aircraft weapons and no backup plan other than for the survivors to retreat as quickly as possible. The Russians were hoping to push American troops out of al Omar, which is east of the Euphrates. The Americans refused to pull out and the Russian force suffered heavy losses (over 300 dead) most of them Russian military contractors.

The American did not publicize this but the Russians did because it was a great embarrassment. The Russian government continues to play down the casualties and the obvious defeat but it was big news back in Russia where in late February there were more ads for experienced combat veterans to work as contractors in Syria. Internet chatter in Russia is mostly about getting revenge against the Americans rather than questioning government policy in Syria. There was criticism inside Russia about the war effort in Syria but the government has always discouraged it and stressed that so few Russian military personnel (about fifty so far) had been killed in Syria. It was an open secret that the losses were much higher if you counted the Russian military contractors. Now that fiction is shredded even though the Russian government does not seem to have a plan to deal with the public anger and the reality that open war between Russian military personnel (as in air support) would be extremely risky because the Americans have far more air power in the area as well as more ground forces in addition to powerful allies like Israel. Eventually the Russian led force pulled back.

The February battle led to more veterans of the contractor forces speaking out and making public details that were long known to many in Syria as well as foreign intel agencies. It now appears that over 400 contractors have died since 2015, most of them in the recent battle. The Russian contractors are not often used as assault troops but as trusted and capable security forces for Russian bases and key locations controlled by the Assads as well as senior Assad government officials. The contractor units often have some Russian soldiers attached, to deal with calling in artillery or air strikes and maintaining communications with the Russian military headquarters in Syria. In light of all this the February battle appears to have been based on someone assuming that the American and SDF forces based around the nearby oil field would fall back with the approach of the largely Russian contractor force. This was a major mistake and it is still unclear who on the Russian side allowed it to happen.

Meanwhile the Americans are building smaller bases in the nearby Koniko and al Jafreh oilfields. These three oil fields produced over 300,000 barrels a day before the civil war began in 2011 and was a major source of foreign currency for buying foreign goods. Syrian oil is known as “light crude” and can be burned for heating or cooking as it comes out of the ground. These oilfields were operated (before 2011) by Alawites (the minority the Assads belong to). The Assads want the oil fields back. So do the Russians, who have the contract (from the Assads) to rehabilitate the oil fields and operate them. That translates to over $30 billion and a large chunk of that goes back to Russia. After seven years of fighting the oil fields only produce about 20,000 barrels a day and control of these oil fields puts the Syrian Kurds in a strong bargaining position.

Russia also wants to get Turkey out of NATO, keep the Iranians from starting a war with Israel and make the Americans look bad. At the same time Russia needs to do this on the cheap and make Russia look good, especially to Russians back home. That is proving difficult as most Russians were not enthusiastic about the Syrian operation in the first place and popular support has been declining. Israel sees Russia as being of limited use because of the Russian strategy. Moreover Russia is not as militarily powerful as it pretends to be. Privately the Russians agree with Israel on that and appreciate any help the Israelis can provide in this area.

All this can get confusing. For example Israel has persuaded Russia to do what it can to prevent Iran from assembling, arming and positioning a large force of non-Iranian forces to attack Israel. Russia has limited ability to block Iranian efforts but does what it can. Iran is building bases to support a large force of Lebanese (Hezbollah), Syrians (whichever Shia Syrians it can recruit) and lots of foreign Shia mercenaries (mainly Afghans, Iraqis other non-Iranian Shia) in parts of Syria where Russia does not have much military power on the ground and Russian air power cannot occupy ground or otherwise interfere with what Iran is doing. Russia does not want Iran starting a war with Israel but as a practical matter Iran is pretty irrational when it comes to Israel and cannot be stopped by Russian, Turkish or American threats. Russia has 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. Currently Turley, Russia and Iran all say they are working out their differences and continuing to cooperate in Syria.

North Korea

Russia is less boastful of what it is doing with North Korea. The ship-to-ship transfers at sea near North Korea are a form of North Korean smuggling that can be crippled and the United States, Japan and South Korea are cooperating to do just that. U.S. intelligence is monitoring over 200 ships, most of them North Korean, for these high seas smuggling operations and the operators of the foreign delivery ships is being tracked down. Most appear to be controlled by Chinese or Russian firms. These at-sea transfers are a major source of smuggled goods and are the most vulnerable illegal channel the North Koreans have. North Korea insists it is coping with the increased sanctions but all the non-government reports coming out of North Korea indicate otherwise. Because of that the April and May talks involving North Korean, South Korean and American leaders are expected to feature North Korea trying to obtain whatever it needs to stay in business. That will not only involve some imaginative deal making but also the ability to survive implementation. In the past North Korea has always cheated, sooner or later. The Americans and South Koreans know this and are under a lot of pressure to not be deceived again and even China is playing hardball. Only Russia still stands ready to assist and will provide as much help as North Korea can afford to pay for.


An Easter Ceasefire began today in eastern Ukraine (Donbas). It didn’t last long with at least two incidents of rebels/Russians firing on Ukrainian troops. There were no casualties and no return fire.

Ukrainians and NATO observers believe Russia is now using the Donbas war as an opportunity to test new weapons and tactics rather than a serious effort to take Donbas. Russia would still like to get Donbas but that is less likely because the West (especially the Americans) are getting more involved. Worse, not only has the Russian Army learned many useful lessons in Donbas, so has the Ukrainian military. The Ukrainians were more in need of military reform than the Russians and have become a much more formidable force. Worse, Ukraine is now closer to the West, and joining NATO, than they were in 2014 when Russia decided to attack to prevent that sort of thing.

March 29, 2018: Ukraine reports that Russia employed a blinking laser to blind Ukrainian troops and border guards. One border guard was recently a victim of this device, which is banned by international agreement. The injured border guard suffered retinal damage.

March 28, 2018: The U.S. expelled 60 Russian diplomats and closed the Seattle consulate because of the Russian use of nerve gas to assassinate a Russian living in Britain. Other NATO countries also expelled Russian diplomats and the total is now over 140 including the 23 Britain initially expelled. This is about four percent of Russian diplomatic personnel worldwide. Russia is believed to have built up a large force of “legal” (posing as diplomats with diplomatic immunity) and illegal (they can be arrested and prosecuted) intelligence operatives in the West since the late 1990s. With this large number of expulsions there will be increased efforts to find and arrest the illegals. Russia has ordered 150 foreign diplomats expelled and this accounts for about two percent of the diplomats the nations involved have overseas. Russia also closed the American consulate in St Petersburg. The real damage to Russia is the rest of the world uniting in condemning them for this assassination and linking that misbehavior to Russian aggression against Ukraine and support for the Assads in Syria. Russian airstrikes in Syria carry out the Assad policy of attacking pro-rebel civilians in an effort to drive the civilians out of the country. In the UN Russia still has its veto but a growing majority of UN members see Russia as an outlaw state. China, as a close Russian ally, is seen in the same light because of its aggressive claims on the South China Sea and parts of India.

March 26, 2018: In northeastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) the American commander for Syria spoke with his Russian counterpart and that led to the withdrawal of Russian, Syrian and Iranian forces that had gathered near the new American base that had been attacked unsuccessfully on February 7tth. Further south, outside Damascus, Russia reports that their aerial bombing effort against a rebel controlled (for over five years) area east of the city was largely back under government control. Russia was criticized for its ruthless bombing of residential areas but the Russians agreed with the Assad strategy of going after pro-rebel civilians to weaken the resolve of the rebels there to keep fighting. It worked again in Ghouta, where many of the civilians and most of the surviving rebels have agreed to leave for northwest Syria where Idlib province, on the Turkish border. Idlib is the last major stronghold for rebels. About ten percent of the Ghouta suburb is still held by rebels who refuse to leave but are still negotiating.

March 24, 2018: In the south (Dagestan) police surrounded an ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) member in a house. The Islamic terrorist refused to surrender. After a gun battle the ISIL man was killed and was found to own a sniper rifle, lots of ammo and grenades.

The U.S. and about twenty European countries are going to join Britain and expel Russian diplomats in retaliation for the recent use of Russian chemical weapons to poison Russians living in Britain.

March 21, 2018: Ukraine cancelled its 2011 economic cooperation agreement with Russia. This agreement was set to expire in 2020 but since Russia invaded in 2014 and seized Crimea and sought to grab a large chunk of eastern Ukraine (Donbas, where fighting continues) the 2011 agreement has gradually fallen apart. The cancellation of the deal makes that official and terminates any remaining economic links.

March 20, 2018: In the south (Chechnya) an ISIL gunman attacked a police station in Grozny (the provincial capital) and was killed but not before he wounded one policeman.

March 18, 2018: The presidential elections were held. Some 67 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot and Vladimir Putin received 77 percent of those votes. The state controlled media supported Putin and worked with the police and courts to make sure candidates who could take a lot of votes from Putin were barred from running. There was also some vote rigging.

March 16, 2018: Britain will demand more financial disclosure from the growing number of wealthy Russians who establish second homes in Britain and often spend a lot of time and money there. Many of these Russians got rich via corrupt practices and are believed to cooperate with Russian intelligence and assassination efforts in Britain.

March 8, 2018: In the south (Ukraine) a Ukrainian soldier was killed by Russian shelling. This comes after a new ceasefire went into effect on the 5th. Since the war in Donbas began in April 2014 2,379 Ukrainian soldiers (including todays’) have died in the Donbas. That’s almost four years of fighting.

March 5, 2018: Russians with guns are everywhere. In northeast Sudan (River Nile state) a series of clashes in a gold-producing area left one miner dead and five others injured. The most serious incident involved local Sudanese miners and a Russian mining company. The Sudanese claimed they owned the area and the security guards employed by the Russians disagreed. Russia is not as involved in Africa as China but are constantly seeking opportunities.

March 4, 2018: In Britain, Sergei Skripal, a former Soviet intelligence officer, who worked for Britain as a double agent, was found unconscious, with his adult daughter, on a park bench near a pub they had visited. The two were hospitalized and survived what was apparently an assassination attempt using a form of nerve gas developed in Russia and, as far as anyone knows, not possessed by anyone but Russia. Three of the police officers who responded to the call about the unconscious people on the park bench also fell ill, one of them seriously. Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats suspected of being intelligence agents and Russia responded by expelling 23 British diplomats. More nations said they would expel Russian diplomates. This assassination effort was nothing new for Russia. Skripal was still working for British intelligence when he was arrested in Russia at the end of 2004 and prosecuted for espionage. He was sent to prison in 2006 but got out in 2010 when Russia agreed to use him as one of the three imprisoned spies to get back several Russian illegals who were caught in the United States. Russia was reluctant to part with Skripal, who had apparently done enormous damage to Russian overseas spying efforts. But they wanted their imprisoned agents in the U.S. back. This was not the first time Russia had gone after people like Skripal in Britain. This sort of thing has happened elsewhere in Europe before and after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

March 3, 2018: Responding to Israeli requests Russia blocked Iranian efforts to set up a naval support facility at the Syrian port of Tartus. This is where Russia has already built a facility (and has a long-term lease) to handle the needs of its warships operating off the coast and in the Mediterranean. Tartus is also where Russian military cargo for Russian and Syrian forces is unloaded.

March 2, 2018: The government confirmed that the two Su-57 stealth fighters sent to Syria in early February had conducted two days of testing the i r sensors and countermeasures over Syria and returned to Russia by the end of February.

February 27, 2018: Russia blocked a UN effort to renew arms sanctions on Yemen. Russia also blocks UN efforts to criticize Iran of supplying weapons to the Shia rebels in Yemen as well as any effort by anyone to criticize Iran. Russia and China have become increasingly unpopular at the UN for this frequent use of vetoes to block peacekeeping efforts.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close