Russia is hustling to carry out some damage control in Syria after two embarrassing defeats. First, there was the loss of several hundred Russian military contractors during a failed February attack on American and Kurdish forces in eastern Syria. In April there was the U.S., British and French attack on Assad chemical weapons facilities with 105 smart bombs and missiles. The Syrian air defense system, using recently updated equipment, failed to stop any of the incoming missiles, all of which apparently hit their targets and did so nearly simultaneously. Russia later admitted it did not use its S-400 air defense system in Syria because the incoming missiles, as per previous agreements, avoided all Russian facilities. Russia still insists that the Syrian air defense system shot down a lot of the incoming missiles but has not provided any proof. Such proof would be easy to locate and display if it existed, but it doesn’t and Russia is left insisting that its S-400 system, which it recently sold to Turkey, could have shot down the incoming missiles. Meanwhile, Russia says it is sending some S-300 batteries to Syria to upgrade the Syrian air defenses and that these would also knock down incoming missiles. It is uncertain when the S-300 systems will arrive in Syria, or whether they will be sent at all.
The fact remains that Russia had a chance to demonstrate the effectiveness of the S-400 and refused to engage. Finally, there was the event that triggered the American led missile attack and that was the frequent recent use of nerve gas by the Assad government. Russia denies this is happening but the UN investigators are convinced and this puts a bad light on the Russian effort in 2013 to avoid Western air attacks on Assad by guaranteeing that the Assads would dismantle their chemical weapons facilities and account for all their chemical weapons so they could be destroyed. The continued use of nerve gas and other chemical weapons by the Assads shows the 2013 Russian guarantee to be worthless. Russia says it is all part of a NATO plot to discredit Russia. Despite the confrontational situation leading up to the missile attack and its aftermath (Russia insisting the gas attack was staged by Britain) the Russians and Americans kept their liaison channels open and active. Some with Russia and Israel.
There is a growing list of failures outside of Syria. Russia recently told Angola it would build them to new communications satellite to replace the one lost during a late 2017 effort to get it into orbit. There have been a number of embarrassing failures in their space program and Russia admits it is losing satellite launch business to China and the United States (with their cheaper SpaceX tech). Russia has also been canceling ICBM programs for lack of cash and qualified technical personnel. Same thing with their warship construction efforts. Aircraft development is doing no better. India recently withdrew from the joint development agreement for the Su-57 stealth fighters. This project is way behind schedule while the Chinese already have one stealth fighter in service and others about to be. The American F-35 is getting good reviews and Russia is getting a close up view because Israel recently put its first F-35s into service. Meanwhile, the Russian GDP ($1.3 trillion) is stagnant and the population continues to shrink because more people are leaving and not enough children are being born. Few want to move to Russia, at least not for economic opportunities. Russia projects a more powerful image than it can sustain. Russia needs a win but so far can only manage some feeble spin.
Russia is trying to dissuade Israel and its Western allies from attacking more Syrian targets, especially those that harm the many Iranians and Iranian mercenaries supporting the Syrian forces. Russia also does not want to put its high tech weapons to the test because so far these electronic and anti-aircraft systems have proved ineffective against Israeli attacks and probably won’t do much better against the Americans. This is bad for business, as Russia has been touting the combat experience in Syria to get more sales for their new stuff. It would also be disastrous for Russian diplomacy which has presented Russia as a powerful and technically advanced ally for Syria, Iran and Turkey. Although Russia talks tough against Israel and the Americans it does not want to take this any further, nor does it want to appear like Russia is backing off. Russia is in an embarrassing situation and not getting much sympathy from anyone, not even Russians.
The Invisible War
In March 2018 a cell phone photo of a Russian Mi-8 helicopter equipped with the new Rychag-AV appeared on the Internet. This Mi-8 was operating in northwestern Syria, where it would be used to jam enemy aircraft and missiles that depend on wireless communications. Russia first announced the Rychag-AV jammer in 2015 and in 2016 Russia announced that a custom version of the M-8 transport helicopter (Mi-8MTPR-1) equipped with Rychag-AV was delivered to army units operating near Ukraine. In 2017 Mi-8MTPR-1 was seen operating over Crimea and local Ukrainian hackers, using custom hardware and software they had built, reported details of Rychag-AV in operation over Crimea. Russia claims Rychag-AV can automatically detect and jam enemy radar and other electronic signals up to 400 kilometers away.
Rychag-AV is designed to be operated from aircraft, trucks and ships but it can detect more signals and farther away if airborne or having its sensors and jammers mounted on a high portion of a ship (where radars have long been mounted). In addition to the Ukrainian hackers, NATO has had EW (Electronic Warfare) personnel in Ukraine for several years to monitor local Russian EW efforts. Not many details of what these monitors detected is made public since EW works best if its capabilities are a surprise. It is unknown if Russia has actually used Rychag-AV in Syria or Ukraine. Or if they did use it was it on a sustained basis (required to disrupt a large scale air operation, like the April 13 attack on Syrian chemical warfare facilities) or for short periods, just to test the equipment.
Because EW is largely invisible it doesn’t get much media attention. Yet the most active form of combat the Russians engage is EW and it is an area where they feel they are competitive. Problem is, the more you use it the more you erode your opportunities to surprise your opponent. The opportunity to test new EW gear and tactics was too great to pass up and, as the Russians have discovered, it may be the only military edge they have in Syria (and the world). Moreover, Syria is the only place where Russia can confront their two most powerful potential EW opponents (the United States and Israel). Syria is second to Donbas as an area where Russia is honing its new EW hardware and how best to use it. Russia could still turn an EW edge into a more visible victory but at the moment EW is the only edge they have and these invisible battles continue.
Iraq The New Customer
Iraq ordered 73 Russian T-90 tanks in mid-2017 and 36 arrived in February. The rest were to arrive by the end of April. The T-90 is one of many upgraded T-72s available on the market. Until 2003 the Iraqi Army operated hundreds of older T-72s, which proved no competition for the American M-1. The T-90 has been produced in large quantities since the 1990s but not for Russia. It is mostly an export item. The T-90 was a late 1980s project that was to incorporate T-80 features into many upgrades of the T-72. Originally it was designated the T-72BU but when Russia finally began production in 1993 it was renamed the T-90. That succeeded in making the tank an export success with most (84 percent) of those produced going to export customers. In fact, India and Algeria each have more T-90s in service than Russia. Worse Russia has quietly put over a third of its 550 newly built T-90s into reserve. While the T-90 was loudly proclaimed to be the next big thing the Russian army preferred the refurbished T-72s in the form of the T-72B3. These proved to be cheaper and more reliable than T-90s, something that got little publicity. While all the upgrades (new engine, gun, fire control and protection) made it nearly as expensive as the T-90 it was preferred by the troops and the older officers quietly agreed that it was a better tank than the new T-90/T-72BUs.
This apparently has something to do with the design of the T-72BU (trying to merge T-80 elements into the T-72 design) and the decline in manufacturing quality in Russian the defense industry after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Since the T-72B3 was introduced in 2013 it has been produced in far greater numbers than any other tank and that continues. Especially telling was how T-90s began to be taken out of service (and put in reserve) as soon as enough T-72B3s became available. At the same time, the most popular Russian tank for export customers is the T-72B (a B3 with fewer of the upgrades) and these cost nearly two million each but can be delivered in a few months after the contract is signed. The T-72B3 has been so popular with Russian troops that the government is giving it more publicity in the state-controlled mass media.
India The Former Customer
India has, in turn, bought less from Russia, long the main supplier, and depended more on Western nations (mainly the U.S. and Israel). China has become a major threat to customers Russia long believed they had a lock on. China can offer a wider range of inexpensive weapons similar to what Russia has long offered but deliver stuff of higher quality, higher quantity and customized to customer requirements. Moreover, China turns around these orders more quickly. There are still some Chinese weapons suppliers who have acquired some of the bad Russian habits but these are usually bottom feeders supplying the lowest cost stuff to the most desperate customers. China encourages its arms manufacturers to take the high road, except when it comes to practical measures like paying bribes to get the sale and get it delivered. If India and China did not have some many border disputes India would be buying Chinese weapons in place of the increasingly shoddy ones Russia is offering.
The war in Donbas drags on without much result. The Russians are keeping the conflict going but holding back on any decisive moves because of the more volatile situation in Syria and the fact that the Ukraine related sanctions are a continuing headache that cannot be easily solved. Russia says the government has managed to overcome the ill-effects of the sanctions but the government knows better. Efforts to impose more control over the Internet and electronic communications has had some impact but has largely failed. One benefit of all this is steady intel reports (from the FSB and the censors) about what Russians really think in this neo-Soviet police state. Most Russians are not happy. They know they are suffering from lower living standards because of the sanctions and persistent corruption. Government efforts to mask economic failures with claims of foreign victories are not working. Most Russians are against “foreign military adventures” and the government already acknowledges that by minimizing the number of Russian troops sent to Syria or Donbas and keeping military casualties low. The recent death of over 200 Russian military contractors in Syria did not trigger calls for revenge among Russians. Instead, the attitude was that these guys took a chance to make a lot of money and it didn’t w0rk out. There are a lot of dangerous jobs in Russia that pay well to compensate for the risk. Those who do that work are opportunists, not patriots. So the government has to go easy in Ukraine and Syria. Russians can take some comfort that the corruption in Ukraine is worse, even though the country is under attack. The extent of the damage can be seen in the higher rate of population loss in Ukraine than in Russia. Both countries are losing many of the young people, especially those with skills that are needed elsewhere and provide the migrants with jobs, higher living standards and more personal safety than back home. It’s mostly about the corruption, which most former parts of the Soviet Union have been unable to control. There are exceptions. The Baltic States have coped, as have most East European nations. But the Soviet Union collapsed mainly because of uncontrollable corruption. The problem is still with the post-Soviet states.
April 24, 2018: Israeli leaders again publicly warned Russia not use their air defense systems against Israel because if that happened Israel would retaliate (go after those air defense systems). The Israelis have developed SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) techniques for the latest Russian air defense systems (S-400) but would rather not use them because that would reveal surprises that the Russians could develop countermeasures for. That would be a consolation prize because if the Israel SEAD worked it would make the S-400 a difficult export sale. Israel makes these threats to make sure potential export customers are reminded of what is at stake here.
April 23, 2018: There was a massive and unexpected disruption of Google services in Russia. This was related to Russian attempts to shut down the encrypted messaging app “Telegram” in Russia. The company that runs Telegram refused to provide the Russian government with a way to read encrypted Telegram messages. The government ordered hundreds of IP addresses blocked, believing that would block Telegram. It did, but not for everyone. An unexpected side effect of this censorship campaign was to disrupt a lot of vital (for many Russian users) Google services. Telegram was founded by a Russian entrepreneur after he fled Russia in 2014 because of disagreements with the government over censorship and corruption.
April 22, 2018: Using security system video and records of Russians entering and leaving the country British investigators believe they can identify which Russians were involved with the use of nerve gas to try and murder Sergei Skripal on March 4th. Skripal was a former Soviet intelligence officer, who worked for Britain as a double agent. He was found unconscious on March 4th, with his adult daughter, on a park bench near a British 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. Everyone recovered and provided information on what happened. 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 diplomats. 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. Russia insists that it does not do this and have been saying that since the Soviets started hunting down and killing “traitors” overseas back in the 1930s.
British police and intelligence officials continue to compile proof that senior officials of the Russian government are responsible for death squads operating in the West, in order to kill defecting Russian officials and businessmen with intimate knowledge of corruption in Russia. Several victims who survived these assassination attempts in Britain (a favorite refuge for exiles) have provided British police with details of how government tolerated (or sponsored) corruption works in Russia.
April 21, 2018: In the south (Dagestan) police, acting on a tip, raided two locations where Islamic terrorists were said to be planning major attacks. The information was correct but the Islamic terrorists refused to surrender and after gun battles, nine of them were killed. Weapons, documents and bomb components were seized.
India revealed that it had, in February, withdrawn from the joint development and manufacturing agreement with Russia regarding their Su-57 stealth fighter. That agreement committed India to eventually contribute over $8 billion to developing and building Su-57s. India said they might still purchase the Su-57 once it is ready for sale and might even rejoin joint development efforts. But for now, India is writing off nearly $300 million it has already invested but is no longer obligated to spend over $8 billion to develop and manufacture an aircraft they have lost confidence in.
April 20, 2018: In a continuing effort to discredit claims that Russian air defense systems failed in Syria a Russian official revealed that Russia had told the Americans where Russian forces were in the area where the missile attack was aimed and the American, British and French missiles avoided the Russian forces. This has been the agreement with Russia in Syria for years. The Americans have observed this protocol although the Russians have violated it a few times. Meanwhile, American military analysts are openly claiming that the Russian air defense systems did not perform and the Russians want to counter this any way they can.
April 19, 2018: So far in 2018, the Russian navy has received a refurbished Delta IV class SSBNs (ballistic missile nuclear subs, or “boomer”) and many other new ships. The Delta IVs are getting old, and the six ones remaining in service were not expected to last much beyond the early 2020s. The two year refurbishment and upgrade of this Delta IV will keep it in service at least until 2030. A new class of Borei SSBNs is under construction but are having reliability problems. There are also problems with the new Bulava SLBM (sea launched ballistic missile) for the Boreis. So refurbishing the remaining Delta IVs makes sense.
The navy also received 46 new Kalibur submarine launched cruise missiles so far this year. The Kalibur has proved particularly effective and has been used frequently against targets in Syria. So far this all of the other new ships the Russian navy has received are small coastal patrol types.
April 18, 2018: The Ukrainian government released the results of their investigation of Russian military contractor firm the Wagner Group. Ukraine has captured a number of Wagner Group contractors operating in eastern Ukraine and some have been forthcoming with details of how Wagner operates. For example, Russia transported a number of Wagner Group men via the Russian missile cruiser Varyag. This is a large ship (11,000 tons) with a crew of 480. The Russian navy has been short of sailors and many ships go to sea short 10-20 percent of their crew. So it made sense that the government could fill some of those empty berths with Wagner men which Russia wanted to keep quiet about. Many more Wagner men were flown to Syria via a Syrian airline that operated a flight to Rostov-on-Don, an out of the way city where it is easier to hide things.
April 17, 2018: Russia has launched an effort to persuade Russians studying overseas to return to Russia to complete their education. At its peak, in 2014, some 60,000 Russians were studying abroad. Some are believed to work part time for Russian intelligence. Because of economic problems, the number of Russians studying abroad has declined since 2014.
April 16, 2018: South Korean officials meeting regularly with their North Korean counterparts report that North Korea leaders were impressed with how the Americans and their European allies launched a missile attack on Syrian chemical warfare facilities and blew right past Russian and Iranian defenses. It was also noted that the Americans were abandoning the 2015 treaty that lifted sanctions on Iran in return for abandoning their nuclear and missile programs. The Iranians cheated, as far as the Americans are concerned, and that means the 2015 deal is history. The North Koreans take this as an example of how the Americans will deal with similar behavior on the part of North Korea.
April 15, 2018: A Russian Alligator class amphibious ship as well as a Ro/Ro cargo ship were seen headed for Tartus with a cargo of armored vehicles (mostly various wheeled armored vehicles), heavy trucks, at least one coastal patrol boat, electronic gear, engineering equipment and much more.
Israel has told Russia that the proposed sale of S-300 systems to Syria was unacceptable for Israel and would not be allowed.
April 14, 2018: The United States, Britain and France launched 105 cruise missiles and glide bombs at three Syrian facilities that developed, produced and stored Syrian chemical weapons. Satellite photos later showed that all of the missiles and smart bombs apparently hit their targets. This was backed up by cell phone photos that got out of Syria showing the damage in great detail. Russia had immediately announced that the Russian supplied Syrian air defense system had performed as designed and shot down 71 of the missiles. This was an attempt to protect the reputation of the Russian air defense systems and even though there will be no wreckage of the 71 missiles Russian insists their systems shot down they will continue with the invented story. The Americans revealed that the Syrian air defense system went into action after the missiles hit and the coordinated attack had all the missiles hitting their targets with a few minutes of each other. French, British and American aircraft delivered some of the missiles and they all returned safely. There was no response from Russian naval forces against the American and British warships that launched most of the missiles. The attack used a clever deception by pretending an attack would be launched by American and allied warships in the Mediterranean. The Russians fell for this and tried to harass these ships. But in the meantime, another force of warships was moved into the Red Sea and launched most of the missiles from there or from warplanes flying in from outside the region.
The only one to keep believing the Russian version are many Russians who depend on state controlled media for all their news. There Russians are also told that the Syrian use of chemical weapons in Douma was a hoax perpetuated by the British, as was the earlier incident in Britain where someone (apparently a Russian agent) tried and nearly succeeded in killing a former Russian intelligence agent who had defected to the British. The failure of Russian air defense systems in Syria is going to cost Russia export sales as well as much embarrassment. All Russian claims about the success of their new weapons in Syria will be devalued. This is something Russia can’t even discuss publicly because the official Russian position is that none of their systems have failed. Iran has been a big customer for Russian air defense systems and Turkey has indicated interest in buying the S-400 system. Turkey and Iran have to reconsider in light of recent experience. So far Iran and Turkey are officially believing the Russian version of what happened.
The Syrian government considers the loss of their chemical weapons facilities a minor setback. Russia or Iran will pay to have the facilities replaced. Meanwhile, the April 7th chemical weapon attack on Douma caused rebel resistance in the area to collapse and within a few days, Syrian troops were able to move in, even though that violated terms of a peace deal the Russians had worked out. That was nothing new, Syria had regularly violated the Russian peace deals and it was no secret that the Russians created these “ceasefires” and “safe zones” mainly as propaganda and never as something that would prohibit Syrian forces from advancing. The civil war is not over but there is little to stop Assad from regaining control over most of Syria.
Russia continues pushing the accusation that the “Syrian chemical attack on Douma” was actually a fake. Syria has joined in and made a film about this fraud. But the Syrian video was quickly exposed as providing fake evidence of the staged attack when it was pointed out that the video proof the Syrians broadcast was from an earlier Syrian propaganda film that was presented as staged. The Russians were somewhat more successful as they unleashed an enormous “bot campaign” in support of its conspiracy theory. This bot campaign could be seen throughout the English language web as robotic accounts quickly provided scripted messages in support of the conspiracy theory in any public site where people were discussing the Syrian chemical attacks and using certain words and phrases that the Russian Internet monitoring system was set to seek out so the bots (programs pretending to be people posting messages) could be sent to support the claim that the chemical attack was faked to justify illegal air strikes on Syrian. It was an impressive disinformation campaign and part of a larger Russian effort to distract those asking why Russian air defense systems failed to perform when the air strikes hit and have been similarly ineffective against Israeli attacks.
April 12, 2018: in the east (Yekaterinburg) a Russian journalist, Maksim Borodin, died after he fell, or was pushed, from his fifth floor balcony. He was found unconscious and died, without regaining consciousness, three days later. The government ruled it a suicide but a friend of Borodin got a call from him the night before the fall. Borodin said it appeared his apartment building was surrounded by masked military men and feared he was going to be arrested, or worse. That’s because Borodin had investigated Russian government use of military contractors, especially the Wagner group. Borodin knew this was dangerous because several other journalists had, since the 1990s, investigated and reported on matters the government found embarrassing. These journalists tended to have fatal accidents. This discouraged many Russian journalists from doing similar investigations and Borodin was reminded by friends and associates that his work was probably still dangerous.
April 11, 2018: The Turkish foreign minister accused the Assad government of having killed over a million Syrians since 2011 and that it had no legitimate claim on being the government of Syria. Turkey has never had good relations with the Assads but was thought to have eased up a bit to get along with their Russian and Iranian allies, who are strong supporters of the Assads. But now Turkey has reverted to its normal attitude, that the Assads are a bunch of opportunistic, unreliable and murderous thugs. The current Turkish government has been unpredictable but the distrust of the Assads is a lot older than the Erdogan government, which took power in 2003. The Turks later elaborated that they are still Russian allies, aside from the support for Assad issue. The Turks would be pleased if the Russians arranged some other group to take control of the Syrian government. Russia has to proceed with care here because the Iranians are big fans of the Assads which may play a role in Turkish attitudes. Turkey and Iran have been foes for centuries and most of the time Iran got the worst of it. That sort of thing is not forgotten, especially in this part of the world. At the moment Turkish and Iranian troops are stalemated in northwest Syria where Iran is backing Assad efforts to take control of the area. The Turks refuse and, as it has for centuries, that causes mighty Iran to pause.
Russia resumed commercial flights to and from Egypt after a two year suspension because of ISIL getting a bomb aboard a Russian airliner in 2015. That brought down the aircraft and killed 224 Russians returning from vacations. Egypt has handled ISIL and improved security since 2015
April 10, 2018: In Syria, Russian ships have left the Russian naval base at Tartus. This is considered a standard move if major attacks are expected. European air control warned airlines to be careful over the eastern Mediterranean for the next 72 hours because there might be more air or missile strikes that would result in electronic countermeasures that could disrupt commercial navigations systems on airliners. Russia admitted that its electronic countermeasures were unable to stop the missiles, which they say were launched over Lebanon by Israeli F-15Is, during an earlier attack.
April 9, 2018: In central Syria, several missiles hit the Iranian T4 airbase near Palmyra. Four Iranian IRGC personnel were killed, including a colonel known for his work with Iranian UAVs. There were at least ten other dead, all believed to be Iranian mercenaries. This is where Iran moved its UAV operations after its original UAV base in Syria was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on February 10th. The Americans said they had advance warning of today’s attack while Russia complained that it was not advised even though it has some personnel at the T-4 base. Israel did not take credit for the attack, which is how Israel handles most of its airstrikes in Syria. Russia later revealed that its electronic jammers, which were supposed to disrupt the guidance systems of missiles attacking Syrian bases failed to do so during the T-4 attack. Details were not given, only that the Russian jammers were “interfered with by external forces.”
April 7, 2018: In Syria, an airstrike against Douma, a rebel held town east of Damascus, apparently involved some type of chemical weapon. Medical aid workers report at least 70 dead, including many civilians. The airstrike, like many Syria, carries out against pro-rebel civilians, involved a barrel bomb (an empty oil barrel filled with explosives and whatever else was available). These are pushed out of helicopters or transports and are equipped with a contact fuze so they explode on impact. Russian and Iranian military personnel work closely with the Syrian air force and know what goes on (and into barrel bombs). Iran has military advisors assigned to all the senior Syrian military commands and many of the lower level ones. Syria has been accused of using primitive (World War I type) chemical weapons that attack the respiratory system. These older chemical weapons are often nothing more than industrial chemicals (like chlorine) in large (and dangerous) doses. But this new attack and one before it apparently also included some nerve gas. Russia believes that industrial chemicals (like chlorine) don’t count as chemical weapons (according to the 2013 Russian brokered deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons) and the Iranians apparently don’t care. When prodded Iran will blame Israel or the Americans. In response, the United States said it would retaliate if the Douma attack did involve any kind of chemical weapon. The evidence indicates that the Douma attack involved a combination of chlorine and a nerve gas. Israel fears Iran is permitting Syria to use these chemical weapons to test their effectiveness and the degree of international outrage. Israel has always believed Iran planned to provide Syria and Hezbollah with chemical weapons for use in a major attack on Israel.
April 5, 2018: In Syria Turkey, Russia and Iran again agreed to put aside their differences and help each other in order to defeat the remaining rebels while also preventing Syrian Kurds from controlling any part of the country. The three agreed to tolerate Turkish operations (to build a Turkish controlled buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border) and cooperate to force American forces out of Syria. While this session was held in Turkey this is an extension of the talks that began in late 2017 in the Central Asian city of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan). There the pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government began their negotiations (also called “peace talks”) with each other about how to achieve everyone’s goals. From the beginning, Iran wanted access to the Israeli border and suppression of the Syrian Kurds. Turkey wanted an end to Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. Russia wants to get whatever it can at the least cost. The public sessions were propaganda and details of the private meetings, the ones that mattered, were largely kept secret but it has always been clear that the Astana talks are about how to restore Assad rule to Syria, or at least most of it.
March 30, 2018: Ukrainian officials revealed that they had earlier arrested several Iranians, including at least one diplomat, after catching them trying to smuggle Kh-31 missile components and technical documents back to Iran. The Kh-31 was originally developed in the 1980s as an anti-ship missile. The Russians quickly realized that, with a different seeker, the missile would also work well as an ARM (anti-radiation) weapon. The anti-ship version has a range of 50 kilometers, while the ARM version is good for 110 kilometers. The 600 kg missile has an 87 kilogram (191 pounds) warhead and is used by Russia, China, Serbia and India. Ukraine inherited some Kh-31s when the Cold War ended but never put them into service. In the Persian, Gulf Kh-31s would make Iran even more of a threat to commercial and military shipping.