Russia: Choosing A Side In Syria


May 25, 2018: The government has made it clear that it sides with Israel when it comes to Syria and a long-term peace deal. Israel has not attacked any Russian targets with its growing air offensive against Iranian forces. During May the Russian president met separately with the Israeli and Syrian leaders and apparently worked out terms of a peace deal that Israel and the Assads can live with. Turkey is willing to follow as long as Turkish border security measures (a security zone on the Syrian side of the border patrolled by Turk supported Syrian militias) are left alone. In the northeast the Syrian Kurds could have their autonomy as long as they kept the peace. Basically the Russian proposal is that “all foreign troops” leave Syria. That will include the Americans but not those that now have treaty rights (Russia has an airbase and part of a port). Israel insists that Iran have no treaty rights and get out completely, along with their local affiliate Hezbollah. The Americans have no interest in a permanent presence they just want to deal with some Islamic terrorists and then leave.

To achieve such a deal the remaining rebel groups have to be destroyed. These holdouts are mainly Islamic terrorist groups aligned with al Qaeda or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Kurds and Americans, with some help from Iraqi forces, are going after the remaining ISIL personnel in eastern and northeastern Syria. The Assads, with the help of Iranian mercenaries and Hezbollah, are clearing areas along the northern and southern borders of remaining rebels. The only problem with this plan is that Iran refuses to leave. The Russians have no certain fix for this although the Israelis are trying their best to destroy all Iranian bases in Syria. This approach, which not perfect, is having a noticeable impact on Iran.

Russia reported (thanks to their extensive air defense radar coverage of western Syria) that Israel appeared to have used 23 fighter-bombers to launch 60 air-to-ground missiles or smart bombs against Iranian targets after Iran launched an unsuccessful May 10 rocket attack on Israeli bases in the Golan Heights. Russia also reported that Israel appears to have used ten ground launched missiles (probably the Delilah missile, which is usually launched from aircraft). Delilah is one of several loitering missiles Israel has developed. Spike NLOS is one of those in wide use. These can search for a target, with a human controller approving a target via a datalink, which also provides video of hits on targets, which Israel sometimes releases to the media. This was the case with the latest airstrikes, which destroyed many Syrian air defense systems (S-200 and Pantsir). Russia explained away the Pantsir loss by asserting that the vehicle was resting.

Russia has other problems with the Assad government and Iranian mercenaries, especially when it comes to handling peace deals with rebels. Russia insists on honoring these deals while the Assads and Iranians prefer to modify these “safe passage” deals. These terms include civilians and disarmed fighters (from a surrendered rebel area, like the ones around Damascus moving to other rebel held territory in the north). Often Russian security forces are in charge of security for the assembly and movement of the surrendered rebels and the Russians see that job as including protecting the surrendered rebels (most of them civilians) until they reach their destination. The Assads and Iranians have a different approach which includes interrogating many of the surrendered rebels and seizing those who are thought to contain useful information or are believed to have been too successful at killing Assad and Iranian personnel. During these “purges” of the surrendered rebels there is also a lot of theft as those doing the purging steal portable valuables. The Assads and Iranians also believe that civilians who stay behind can be “purged” as well even though the peace agreements forbid that. Russia believes these practices are counterproductive as it makes rebels less willing to accept a surrender dead. The Assads and Iranians are not bothered much by that and are willing to slaughter pro-rebel civilians as well as the armed rebels when there is no willingness to surrender. There have been some armed confrontations between Assad or Iranian forces and Russians over this. The Russians tend to prevail. As a result a growing number of surrender negotiations include rebels insisting that Russian forces handle the evacuation, movement and protection of the civilians and disarmed rebels. This sort of thing is another reason why the Russians maintain good relations with the Israelis and are have a difficult time doing the same with Iran.

The Assads need the Russians and Iranians to defeat the remaining rebels. The Russians provide air support that Iran cannot. Since mid-2015 Russian warplanes have accounted for most of the airstrikes supporting the Assad forces. So far that comes to about 6,900 air strikes in total and only 14 percent (nearly all of them Russian) against ISIL targets. The air strikes by Assad aircraft were made possible by Russian logistical and technical support. Again, Iran could do little to help with this. The Assads won’t say it, but they, and most Syrians (pro and anti-Assad) would like the Iranians gone. The Assads now control about half of Syria and the Kurds and Turks about a third. The 50,000 or so Iranian mercenaries are technically part of the Syrian armed forced but in fact report to Iranian officers. Iran could take control of territory but that would make it more of a target for Israeli airstrikes and less able to assert that it is only there to help the Assads put down the rebellion.

Other Problems In Syria

For a while (before making deals with Israel) Russia tried to dissuade Israel and its Western allies from attacking more Syrian targets, especially those that 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 portrayed 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 that 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 back in Russia.

There have been some major embarrassments. The February incident where over 200 Russian military contractors died when they tried to seize a small base in eastern Syria containing American troops 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. Israel seems more aware of this than most Middle Eastern powers. That is partly because Israel has a large Russian minority, courtesy of a lot of Russian Jews coming to Israel since the 1980s and keeping in touch with folks back home.

Another aftereffect of the 200 contractor deaths was Russia revealing how many Russian military personnel have served in Syria since mid-2015. It was 48,000, and that includes army, navy and air force. Not included are contractors, who are civilians, even if they took on some of the most dangerous jobs and suffered more casualties than the military personnel. Out of those 48,000 Russian military personnel who have been in Syria (some for less than a day, few for more than six months) only about 60 have died in combat so far. There have been half as many military contractors serving in Syria and they have suffered nearly 500 dead. No official numbers of military contractor fatalities have been released but Russian volunteer organizations have tried to keep track of the funerals or other indications of young men dying in Syria and it is clear that being a military contractor is a lot more dangerous. The point here is that there are still some Russians willing to take dangerous combat jobs but there are not enough them to maintain the million man military Russian leaders want.

Corruption Cures

The government may not have a lot of success reducing corruption but the extent of the corruption is documented. The government reported that in 2017 the number of corrupt incidents in the government reached 6,500 and involved $30 billion in spending. The figures for 2016 were 3,800 incidents and $15 billion. Most of the corruption was in the defense and space program budgets. This makes sense because these two areas, especially ship building and development and construction of satellite launcher rockets and ballistic missiles, have, since the 1990s, been noted for their corruption and competence problems.

The corruption angle was made clear when the government openly sought solutions to the seemingly intractable problems with building warships on time, on budget and without serious defects. While many other nations with large navies, like the United States, have similar (although less catastrophic) problems what is most embarrassing is how China is proving to be the most competent builder of warships. China can turn out carriers, large destroyers and submarines faster than anyone else and do so on time, on budget and apparently without a large number of defects. A Russian study of the problem concluded that the main differences between Russia and China was that corruption in warship construction was always more of a problem in Russia and it got worse after the Soviet Union collapsed and key managers and technical people were free to find better jobs elsewhere. That loss of talent left Russian shipyards with an older, less capable and more corrupt workforce and management. The other difference is that China, starting in the late 1970s, created a market economy while maintaining a communist police state government. This included creating from scratch a world class commercial ship building industry. The Russian communists were too late and too inept in trying to establish a market economy and that led to the collapse of the communist police state in Russia. All this is very embarrassing for most Russians, especially those running the country today.

Getting Competitive

Years of curbing oil production have finally worked and the world oil price is now headed for $80 a barrel. Unfortunately for the traditional major producers (who have cut production to get the price up) the rising oil price mainly benefits non-OPEC (oil cartel) nations like the United States and Canada that are doing a lot of fracking. Five years of low oil prices forced the frackers to become more efficient to remain profitable. Thus there is more profit, and incentive to increase production as the world oil price increases. Because of this traditional major producers, like Russia, are not seeing enough increased oil income to recover from the damage five years of lower oil prices have caused. Thus Russian estimates of GDP growth continue to be low (about two percent a year) and now the Americans are imposing more sanctions and these are expected to make economic growth in Russia even more difficult. Russia tried to adapt to the four years of sanctions but only had limited success because of the more fundamental problems with the Russian economy (corruption, shortages of skilled personnel and a persistent inability to compete with foreign nations (especially China and Europe).

May 23, 2018: There were more revelations from the official Dutch government investigation into the destruction of Malaysian B-777 airliner (flight MH17) over eastern Ukraine in 2014. The latest findings identify the Russian aid defense unit (53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade) the missile came from. As with previous Dutch investigative reports about the MH17 Russia denied any involvement. A late 2016 report concluded that the missile used was owned by Russia, not Ukraine. The UN has been unable, because of Russian opposition, to conduct such an inquiry but that has not stopped similar investigations by nations whose citizens were passengers on the aircraft. In July 2015 eleven of the fifteen members of the UN Security Council voted to establish a tribunal to investigate who was responsible for shooting down flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014. Russia used its veto to block the resolution. Russia and Russian backed Ukrainian rebels were always the main suspects in the destruction of MH17 and the deaths of all 298 aboard. Russia blames the loss of MH17 on the Ukrainians but offered no convincing proof. The Russian manufacturer of the missile believed responsible admitted that it was their missile. At a press conference a company rep showed how the pattern of fragments found in the aircraft hull could only have been made by one version (now out of production) of the missile used by their BUK M1 system. Less convincing was the company theory that the missile was not fired from territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels. The aircraft was shot down as it passed over territory controlled by pro-Russian separatist rebels in Donbas. The airliner was at an altitude of 10,000 meters and the rebels were known to have some captured or Russian supplied systems BUK M1s systems that can hit targets as high as 14,000 meters. For three days the rebels allowed only limited access to the site for international airline accident investigators. Russia will never admit that the missile was fired with their assistance by rebels under their orders but that’s that the evidence continues to show. .

May 22, 2018: Off the north coast one of the new Borei class SSBNs (ballistic missile nuclear subs, or "boomers") successfully fired four Bulava SLBMs (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) at once as part of a continuing testing program. This was the first time a Borei had launched a salvo of SLBMs and all these were reported to have hit their targets 5,600 Japanese downrange (off the Pacific coast. A June 2017 test, launching a single Bulava, was also a success. The tests since 2017 were an improvement over the previous two test launches in late 2016. One of these two launches failed. The latest Russian SLBM design, the Bulava (also known as R-30 3M30 and SS-NX-30) had been an embarrassing disappointment with over a third of the test launches failing. Bulava was almost cancelled several time because of the test flight failures. But the government believed there is no better option than to keep trying to make Bulava work.

May 21, 2018: In northwest Syria the Russian Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) a irbase was again approached by at least one unidentified UAV. Russian forces shot it down and are trying to figure out who it belongs to. Islamic terror groups in the area are the main suspects.

May 20, 2018: Ukraine revealed that Russia was now sending ammunition to its forces in Donbas via the refurbished rail links between Russia and Donbas. The Ukrainians have discovered the destinations of these ammo trains and the warehouses where the rockets, shells and other ammo are stored before being distributed to Russian backed rebels. While there has been a ceasefire, and little movement of the front line, for years the Russian backed forces are constantly firing on the Ukrainian troops and civilians. These attacks have been particularly heavy in the last week, leaving at least twelve Ukrainian civilians and military personnel dead and many more wounded.

May 19, 2018: In the south (Chechnya) four Islamic terrorists attacked a church, leaving the four attackers dead as well as a civilian and two policemen. Four more police were wounded. Investigators later found that the four Islamic terrorists were seeking to take Christians hostage.

May 13, 2018: There was yet another demonstration in Moscow protesting the government censorship of the Internet and how the recent (April) government decision to block one application (“Telegram”) had some unpopular side effects. The initial April blocking effort caused 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. Maintaining the ban has led to disruption of other Internet services most Russians use. The company that runs Telegram refused to provide the Russian government with a way to read encrypted Telegram messages and the government responded with an effort to shut down Telegram use in Russia. 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. Before the ban users in Russia comprised some seven percent of Telegram users worldwide.

May 12, 2018: Algeria showed off another recently purchased Russian weapon system; the TOS-1A multiple rocket launcher. The rocket tubes are mounted on a T-72 tank chassis and uses 220mm rockets equipped with thermobaric warheads. These used a fuel-air explosive system that first disperses a combustible mist, which is then ignited, producing an enormous explosion. Russia classifies the TOS-1A as a “flame thrower” because the warhead creates a huge fireball. Some of the 54 Algerian TOS-1A vehicles have been seen stationed near the Libyan border. Algeria is the latest of many export customers for this system, which appeared at the end of Cold War (1980s) and the Russian military could not really afford it in the 1990s but export customers could.

May 11, 2018: A Russian official quietly let it be known that Russia was not going to deliver S-300 Air Defense systems to anyone in Syria. Israel has been publicly and privately urging Russia to institute such a ban and now the ban is official. Israel has apparently made it clear, during the recent exchange of fire with Iranian forces in Syria, that the Israelis have the upper hand in terms of tech and military capabilities. Russia needed that demonstration so they could maintain their good relationship with Iran while also refusing to deliver S-300 systems to the Assads. This was something the Iranians wanted and were willing to pay for. But the Russians were not willing to lose the good relationship they had long (actually since the beginning in 1948) had with Israel. Nor were the Russians willing to risk having the S-300 defeated by Israeli SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) tactics and equipment. The Iranians may be willing to underestimate the Israelis, but the Russians prefer to be more realistic.

May 1, 2018: Over the Baltic Sea a Russian Su-27 came within six meters (20 feet) of an American P-8 maritime patrol aircraft flying in international air space. This sort of thing has become common, especially over the Baltic and Black Seas. Since 2014 these incidents in the Baltic has been a growing problem. It’s not just unsafe distances. NATO interceptors based in Poland and the Baltic States have been sent up more frequently because of Russian military aircraft making unsafe flights over the Baltic Sea. These Russian warplanes were detected by NATO military radar, but had their transponders turned off and had not filed a flight plan with the air controllers who regulate air traffic over the Baltic. With no flight plan and transponders turned off these warplanes were inviable to flight controllers. This sort of thing risks collision with commercial aircraft and Russia has ignored criticism of this dangerous practice. NATO has responded by sending up interceptors, which do have their transponders on, to escort the Russian aircraft and give air traffic control radars something to identify and track.

April 28, 2018: One of two Indian IL-38s maritime recon aircraft in Russia was grounded when its landing gear failed to operate properly and further damage was suffered as the Russian crew landed the aircraft. The IL-38 had undergone an upgrade and was being flown to where the Indian flight crew could fly it back to India. The Russian manufacturer promised to fix the damage within 30 days and then the Indian flight crew could return to Russia to pick up the aircraft. There is a second Indian IL-38 undergoing upgrades as well. India is not happy with the IL-38s and is in the process of replacing all them with American P-8s. Meanwhile the Russians still operate the IL-38, being unable to afford a new aircraft. In 2013 the Russia ordered more of its 18 elderly IL-38s to be upgraded to the IL-38N standard. The Russian Navy only has about 18 IL-38s operational, which are roughly equivalent to the American P-3s, but have not had their sensors and communications equipment updated since the Cold War. Only 59 were built between 1967 and 1972. This upgrade has already been installed on five Indian IL-38s a decade ago, and one Russian aircraft, to assist development. Getting the upgrade for more Russian aircraft was mainly a matter of getting the money.

April 26, 2018: The government finally signed the contract to carry out essential upgrades to Russia’s only aircraft carrier; Admiral Kuznetzov. The upgrade has been postponed several times but now the much-needed refurbishment is going forward. Kuznetzov is getting nearly $900 million in upgrades and repairs thatwill keep the carrier out of service from 2018 to 2021. Actually it might take longer because Russia has to use locally produced maritime engines rather than the ones it used to get from Ukraine. The Russian Defense Ministry insists that the Russian manufacturer has been able to produce the same type of engines Ukraine produced but that remains to be see. There is more bad news with plans to upgrade ship electronics because Russian officials admit that the sanctions have made it difficult to get key electronic components from Western firms. Without the upgrade the carrier will continue to be incapable to going far from port. In 2016 when Kuznetzov visited the Mediterranean foreign military pilots flying close by could not help but notice that there was a lot of rust on the deck of the carrier and the vessel looked unwell. This was not a good sign. The only other ship of the Kuznetzov class was purchased by the Chinese in 1998 and completely refurbished by 2012 to become the Chinese Liaoning. It is now in service and looks a lot better than the Kuznetzov, which has had some updates since the 1990s but a lot of this work is suspect.

Back in 2012 a military procurement official was prosecuted for substituting cheaper, substandard parts for new ones meant for the Kuznetzov. The corrupt official used forged documents to get away with this but members of the crew noticed the substandard parts and reported it. The Kuznetsov has been sent back to the shipyard several times since 2005 to fix problems and update equipment. Much was wrong with the ship, due to poor design, sloppy workmanship, or corruption. It’s gotten so bad that lackadaisical sailors are threatened with being sent to serve on the Kuznetsov as a way of motivating them. These cruises south were mainly for publicity purposes and without an extensive refurbishment Kuznetsov cannot go to sea regularly. The current upgrades will concentrate on keeping the carrier operational but not much more. Currently the ship has serious problems with its engines and many other mechanical and electrical systems. These must be fixed for the ship to remain mobile and habitable. This is important not for military purposes but because Kuznetsov is the flagship of the fleet and a symbol of Russian naval power. So enough must be done to at least keep up appearances. The government made a point of how there would be much scrutiny of the upgrades to avoid any corrupt practices.

April 25, 2018: In mid-April Russia confirmed the obvious and admitted they had lost their huge market share of commercial satellite launches. As recently as 2013 Russia had half that market. Five years later their market share had fallen to about ten percent and Russian showed no signs of regaining their dominance and expected their share of the commercial market to sink to as low as four percent. After 2013 Russia faced growing competition from cheaper, more reliable Chinese satellite launch services. But what really accelerated the Russian decline was the surprising emergence of new American launch technology, mainly the SpaceX reusable launchers (that can regularly return and land intact). This is particularly annoying because it was another unexpected new American technology (fracking) that drove down and world price of Russia’s main export; oil and natural gas. Fracking also made the United States the major producer of oil and gas and a new competitor for Russia in export markets. Meanwhile Russian space industry officials said they would put more emphasis on satellite design and manufacturing, which is a much larger (by about three times) market than launch services. But even there Russia is having problems competing, mainly because of a shortage of skilled engineers and reliable manufacturing capabilities. So while Russia has lost about $2 billion a year in launch business they will probably lose ground on the satellite side of the business as well.




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