Russia: Things That Are Not Discussed

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July 13, 2018: The government has managed to maintain its 2011-2020 military procurement plan to replace cold war era weapons and equipment. This plan required spending nearly $700 billion over a decade to equip the post-Cold War military with modern gear. The urgency of this program gave it priority over everything else. And for good reason. After the Cold War ended in 1991 Russian military manpower shrank to less than 20 percent of Cold War levels and that made it possible (actually it was mandatory) to scrap the oldest weapons and equipment simply because it was no longer needed and there was no one left to guard it, much less maintain it. It got worse during the 1990s when there was very little military procurement and after 2000 even the late model Cold War gear was showing its age. The oil price drop and sanctions that hit after 2014 caused economic growth to stall, so badly that GDP declined for a few years. Russia made lots of cuts in the government spending, mostly in social and infrastructure projects. In addition, there was borrowing (a larger public debt) and a lot spent on propaganda to convince Russians that it wasn’t so bad.

The military budget was hurt the least and the lower standard of living most Russians were subject to was blamed on NATO aggression. This appeal to nationalism and external enemies to avoid responsibility is working for the government, at least in the short term. Eventually, most Russians figure out what is really going on. But politicians operate in a shorter timeframe and expect to evade long-term consequences. Some of these consequences are arriving sooner than expected. The deficit spending and poor infrastructure have made Russia less attractive to economic partners (even China). The lower standard of living comes with higher unemployment and a growing number of younger and well educated Russians are unable to find work and emigrating. That brain-drain has immediate consequences if the economy recovers and firms seek qualified new hires to make the most of an expanding economy.

The economy continues to have problems. GDP growth is currently about one percent a year which, combined with many other negative economic indicators, confirms that despite optimistic government propaganda, living standards and employment opportunities continue to decline, along with manufacturing activity and so much more. The government made a big deal about the football (soccer) World Cup it hosted and how well things went. But while all the new or updated sports facilities look nice they cost a lot and that explains why Russia still has one of the worst road networks in the world and the railroad system is still awaiting delayed (for decades) maintenance and upgrades.

Some changes are particularly painful. The best example is the retirement age finally being raised to a more realistic (65 for men 63 for women) age. The retirement system is a lot more complicated than that and is one of those Soviet era “perks” that is more abused than used and long overdue for an update. But retirement age is a very unpopular reform made more urgent by growing economic problems (caused by sanctions, low oil prices and corruption.)

A Stealthy Death For Stealth

Some bad news is buried as quietly as possible. Case in point is the discreet cancellation of the much (and for so long) praised Su-57 fighter. In June the government announced that it been decided to begin production of the Su-57 and the contract for 12 of them was ready to sign. In early July it became obvious that this contract would not be signed, given that the factory that was to do the work was not hiring the workers or ordering the Su-57 components. When pressed, defense ministry officials admitted that mass production of the Su-57 was not going to happen as planned. That’s a common phrase for defense projects that are facing termination or long-term delays. The cancellation of the Su-57 comes as no surprise. In February India withdrew from the Su-57 joint development and manufacturing agreement because the Indians concluded (accurately) that there was no there there. 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. That loss of confidence was confirmed about the same time when two Su-57 stealth fighters sent to Syria conducted two days of testing their sensors and countermeasures over Syria and returned to Russia by the end of February. The reality was that all the Su-57s could do was land and take off. There were no sensors and countermeasures to test.

The Su-57 design was flawed and fixes were not available. This project was 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-35 squadron into service. That included flights into Lebanon and Syria. The American F-22 stealth fighter had been operating over Syria for years and Russia got a good idea of what they were up against and why the Su-57 was no match for the two American stealth aircraft and that Russia did not have the resources (technical and financial) to make the Su-57 competitive. But that is a subject that is not discussed out loud in Russia.

More Better Mercenaries

A second Russian private security company has shown up in Syria. This one, called Patriot, is apparently more elite (highly paid Russian combat vets for dangerous missions) than the existing Wagner Group. Although these companies are still illegal according to Russian law moves are being made to change the law. These contractors have been showing up in Africa, providing security for Russian commercial operations. Contractors are still doing a lot of the base security work in Syria. But Patriot appears to be supplying elite combat units for “special missions” that will avoid the February 2018 debacle in which over 200 Wagner mercs were killed after they were ordered to try and grab an American army base in eastern Syria. The Americans saw this coming and promptly called in artillery fire and air strikes that devastated the Wagner force before it got close enough to do any damage. Patriot combat units are apparently more careful and methodical to get caught in something like that.

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 in Syria. 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.

The Ukraine Front

While there have multiple ceasefires in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) and little movement of the front line for years the Russian backed forces are constantly firing on the Ukrainian troops and civilians. These attacks are sometimes particularly heavy but the Russian war in Ukraine has been on hold since Russia got involved in Syria. Ukraine expects that once the Syrian operation is over there may be a lot more action in Donbas. Meanwhile, the Russians are spending a lot of money to maintain its forces (and about a million civilians) in Donbas. Russia has spent billions of dollars in their effort to take Donbas and currently they control only half of it and Ukraine has upgraded its armed forces with the intention of getting the Russians out of Donbas. Ukraine is less optimistic about getting Crimea back.

While the fighting in Donbas is stalled, Russian economic warfare is not. Since April Russia has declared the Sea Of Azov, reached via the 4.5 kilometer wide Kerch Strait. The Crimean Peninsula, when it was part of Ukraine, was separated from Russia by the Kerch Strait. Maximum depth of the strait is 18 meters (59 feet) and there had long been talk of building a bridge between Crimea and the Kerch Peninsula (now and always part of Russia). Once Russia seized Crimea in 2014 proposals that a bridge be built actually turned into the construction of that bridge. The Kerch Bridge opened in March 2018 (at least the highway part, the sturdier railroad section is still under construction). With that Russia declared the Sea of Azov under Russian control and no foreign ship could enter with Russian permission. So far the Russians have seized over a hundred ships trying to reach the Ukrainian ports of Berdiansk and Mariupol that are on the shore of the Sea of Azov. Russia is putting these two ports out of business. The EU and U.S. protested the Russian blockade but have not done anything to get that changed, like sending American warships to conduct a FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) in the Sea of Azov.

The Southern Front

In Syria, the alliance between Russia, Iran and Turkey is coming apart because all three nations have different goals even though the three have been cooperating with the Assad government since 2015 to win and end the war. The Russian term for this triple alliance is troika, which also refers to the three horse team Russians used for large sleighs when there was snow everywhere. Troikas can be difficult to manage and the horseless one in Syria is in real danger of coming apart. With the rebels no longer a major threat to the Assad government each of these three allies are more interested in their own objectives in Syria. For Russia, it is to maintain its two bases there and that is only possible if the Assad government (which granted the use of an airbase and port facilities) survives. Iran is in Syria to keep the Assads in power so Iran can mass forces there to attack and destroy Israel. Turkey is mainly there to destroy Turkish and Syrian Kurdish separatist groups, as well as any Islamic terrorists that are seen as a threat to Turkey. To accomplish this Turkey wants to clear all Kurdish separatists and from the Syrian side of the border and turn that “security zone” over to the FSA (a Syrian rebel group that not works for the Turks). After that, there has been some vague talk of forming and leading an Arab alliance that would destroy Israel. At the moment there are few Arab states interested in that sort of thing (because of Iran) or doing anything under Turkish leadership (bad memories).

All three of these unlikely allies have run into different, although sometimes interrelated, problems with achieving their goals. The Russians want an end to the seven years of fighting and are now in conflict with Iranian plans to attack Israel. Russia and Israel have long been on good terms and the Russians want to keep it that way. Iran doesn’t really care much what the Turks do in the north and are more concerned with their growing (and so far failed) effort to do some damage to Israel. Russia is trying to convince Iran that the Israelis are really, really serious about getting Iranian forces out of Syria. Israel demands this. Turkey agrees with it and the Assads would prefer that. So far Iran appears to be ignoring this advice.

Russia has made it clear that it sides with Israel when it comes to Syria and a long-term peace deal. Russia backed this up by openly accepting Israeli use of Jerusalem as their capital and moving functions normally held in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This angers many Moslems, and especially Iran. This support for Israel is one the few things the United States and Russia agree on these days. The durability of this alliance is mainly a matter of paying attention to who can do what. For example, unclassified rankings of “the most powerful nations” tend to include tiny Israel in the top ten, as in; U.S., Russia, China, Germany, Britain, France, Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). These rankings combine economic, technical, military and diplomatic capabilities. Israel may be small in population but they are world class in many technology areas, have nukes and the most capable armed forces in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and UAE have much of the world oil reserves and armed forces they have built up over decades at great expense and, to the surprise of many (including Iran) made it work. Their combat pilots are competent and their anti-missile defenses work (as they have intercepted over a 100 ballistic missiles, many of them Iranian made, fired by Yemeni Shia rebels at targets in Saudi Arabia.) Iran and Turkey are not in the top ten and Russia notices that. Despite all that the Israeli alliance with Russia is unwritten and has limits. Yet it is real because 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. These terms were unacceptable to Iran.

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). The Americans have no interest in a permanent presence they just want to deal with some Islamic terrorists and then leave. The U.S. may stay to protect its Syrian Kurd allies.

Israel insists that Iran have no treaty rights and get out completely, along with their local affiliate Hezbollah. Russia initially called on Iran get its foreign mercenaries (including Hezbollah) out of Daraa province, which borders Israel and Jordan. The Russians did this by referring to all “foreign forces” in Daraa and those are all Iranian. In June Russia changed its policy and has since provided hundreds of airstrikes for Syrian and Iranian forces in Daraa. Russia knows that Iran has already made a big deal about being near the border and attacking Israel. But so far attempts to attack have only resulted in heavier Iranian losses from Israeli air and missile attacks. Russia is now telling Israel and the United States that it is unrealistic to expect Iran to withdraw all its forces from Syria because it is now obvious that Iranian leaders are committed to doing some damage to Israel. This is essential to burnish the Iranian reputation as a formidable military power. In the last year, Iran has suffered a succession of humiliating defeats because of the Israelis and this is causing political problems back home where increasingly angry Iranians are calling for a change of government and citing the failed efforts in Syria as a major reason.

Israel has told the Assads that if they stick with Iran they will be destroyed. The Assads realize that the Iranians are fanatics about destroying Israel and that the Israelis have demonstrated their ability to counter any move the Iranians make. Moreover, all the other Arab states consider the Assads traitors for aligning themselves with the Iranians, who are quite openly at war with Arab control of Arabia and much else. Worse, no one has much sympathy for the Assads, who have very few good qualities. Despite this, the Assads apparently try to side with Russia and Israel rather than Iran. What this comes down to is the fact that Iran is a foreign (Indo-European, not Arab) power that wants to increase its direct control over Syria. Russia and Israel do not. Many Iranians (but few of their leaders) note that the three most powerful Middle Eastern states (Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE) are now allies, mainly against Iran. While the Turks are now led by a nationalistic Islamic leader who also wants to destroy Israel the Turks also admit that Iran is a traditional rival and the Arabs are not as weak as they were during the centuries the Turks (the Ottoman Empire) ruled them. Many Turks are smitten with the nationalism thing, just as they once were when they had an empire. But the Turks didn’t get their empire and then transition to a modern, industrial age state when the empire collapsed a century ago by being stupid. The only dummies at this point are key factions of the religious dictatorship that rules Iran. The other members of the Troika note that the Iranian rulers are facing their second popular uprising in less than a year as well as growing dissent within the clerical leadership. Ask yourself, who would you side with?

July 12, 2018: Turkey affirmed that it going through with the purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems mainly because Western nations will not sell them similar equipment. Turkey did not want to discuss the issue of Turkey being a member of NATO and headed towards being the first NATO member to be expelled from the organization. Turkey has been an uncooperative and often hostile NATO partner for nearly a decade and most other NATO members openly admit they do not trust the Turks with NATO secrets or technology. That means that the F-35 fighters Turkey has on order are probably not going to be delivered. The Turks can no longer buy the Su-57 but there are some Chinese stealth fighters on the market.

July 9, 2018: In southern Syria (Daraa province) over a thousand rebels still hold part of Daraa city, the provincial capital. These rebels don’t trust the Russians to uphold surrender terms. But another reason for holding out is that Daraa City is where the rebellion began in 2011. Now it will most likely end in the northwest (Idlib province) which is where many peace deals have allowed rebels and civilians supporters to go to. Israel again warned that any attempt to bring military forces into the 1974 UN demilitarized zone (24 kilometers from the Israel-Syrian border) would be considered an act of war and would be met with force from Israel. That zone is filling up with civilian refugees from the recent rebel defeats in Daraa province.

July 6, 2018: In southern Syria Russian officers negotiated the surrender of rebel forces who had held most of Daraa province, including the Nassib border crossing to Jordan, since 2015. The Russians are more trusted by the rebels than the Assads or the Iranians. The Russians will provide security for rebels and civilians to move to other rebel controlled areas. The Russians have been seen using force to stop Syrian or Iranian mercenary forces from mistreating rebels who surrendered in return for free passage. This deal involves over 300,000 pro-rebel civilians being moved. The rebels were reluctant to surrender until the Russians increased the number and intensity of air strikes against the rebels, including pro-rebel civilians. Before the Daraa offensive began in mid-June the rebels held over half the province. By the end of the month, the rebels had been pushed out of over half of that and that and were facing total destruction. Since many of the rebels are veteran Islamic terrorists the Syrians knew a fight to the death would leave a lot of Assad troops dead as well and this is to be avoided because after seven years of war Assad supporters are demoralized by all their losses and not willing to suffer a lot more. So the Assads usually offer the rebels surrender terms. The Russians help make this work by frequently using their warplanes against civilian supporters of stubborn rebels. That was the case in Daraa and in the last few days, the rebels have agreed to the surrender terms in return for Russian protection, and no more Russian airstrikes. The Russians cooperated with Israel by not carrying out any airstrikes within 10 kilometers of 1974 cease-fire near the Golan Heights part of the Daraa border. Daraa province shares a long border with Jordan and a small one with Israel along the Golan Heights.

July 4, 2018: In southern (Daraa Province) Russian warplanes began an air offensive that would, in the next 24 hours carry out over 600 airstrikes against rebel targets in Daraa, including residential areas, hospitals and food supplies. This was meant to get the deadlocked peace negotiations going again and it worked. The airstrikes ceased three days later as the peace deal went into effect. Russia made it clear that it would be unrealistic to expect Iran to withdraw completely from Syria. However, Russia still willing to recognize Israeli demands that Iranian forces stay away from the Israel border and that the terms of the 1974 ceasefire on the Israeli border and whose forces can be near the border, be observed.

July 2, 2018: In western Syria (Homs province) a Russian air strike on a cave used as an ISIL refuge killed the teenage son of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and ten other ISIL personnel.

June 30, 2018: In northwest Syria, the Russian Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) airbase was again approached several unidentified UAVs. Russian forces shot them all down and are trying to figure out who the UAVs belong to. Islamic terror groups in the area are the main suspects.

Russia also confirmed that they were reducing forces in Syria again. This could be seen at, where a number of warplanes have departed for Russia in late June. The government confirmed that 13 fixed wing aircraft, 14 helicopters and 1,140 personnel had left. At the same time, more military contractors had arrived, but they don’t count as “military personnel.”

June 18, 2018: In eastern Syria, an Israeli airstrike hit an Iraqi pro-Iran PMF (Shia militia) unit assisting Hezbollah and other Iranian mercenaries fighting Syrian rebels. Over fifty Iraqis were killed in the air strike which Israel did not take credit for. Iraq had always maintained that it would not allow Iraqi forces to enter Syria but some pro-Iran PMF units have ignored that. The U.S. later denied any involvement in the air strike while Arab and Israeli media pointed out such an Israeli airstrike would have needed permission from the Russians and Americans. That permission would not have been difficult to obtain.

June 12, 2018: Syrian leader Bashar Assad was seen in a TV interview on an Iran-backed Arab language news channel. Assad confirmed that Russia was given basing rights because Russian air and technical support is crucial to his survival. He said he would consider an Iranian request for basing rights and that Saudi Arabia had offered to replace Iranian financial support of Assad would cut ties with Iran. Assad said he refused to abandon the decades old relationship (begun by his father) with Iran. Assad admitted that Syria did not have the means to strike back at Israel in response to Israeli air strikes but was silent about Iranian plans to destroy Israel any way they could. Assad also admitted that Russia had a long-term relationship with Israel that Syria had to respect. In short, Assad was keeping his options open even though the Iranians have the most powerful ground forces in Syria.

June 10, 2018: Two Russian destroyers and a support ship visited the Philippines for several days. There were two similar visits in 2017 and all of them are for diplomatic and goodwill reasons.

June 9, 2018: In southern Syria, Israel has discovered Iranian forces returning to the Israeli border wearing Syrian Army uniforms and pretending to be Syrian soldiers. Israel warned that it would attack any Iranian forces approaching their border and it doesn’t matter which uniforms the Iranian mercenaries are wearing. This is the Iranian response to the May 28 agreement between Russia and Israel in which Russia will keep Iranian forces away from the Israeli border and in return Israel will tolerate Syrian troops on that border. This puts Russian in an embarrassing situation as the Iranians are obviously willing to sabotage any deals the Russians and Israelis make about Syria, or anything else. The Russian response to this uniform subterfuge was to tell Iran to back away from this sort of thing. Since Russian troops man checkpoints on roads leading to the Israeli border, the Russian soldiers have been told to check IDs of suspicious Syrian soldiers and given a list of tips on how to spot a Hezbollah operative pretending to be a Syrian soldier by wearing a Syrian Army uniform. Russian military advisors have also been ordered to check Syrian bases they operate in to see if there is a sudden influx of Syrian soldiers who are not Syrian. Israel wants Russia to persuade Iran to get all its troops and mercenaries out of Syria but Russia does that see that as possible while it does believe Russia can help keep Iranian forces from the Israeli border.

June 7, 2018: The Russian leader made it clear that Russian forces would remain in Syria. Russia has treaties with the Assads providing Russian forces used of an airbase in northeastern Syria and port facilities at Tartus on the Mediterranean coast.

May 31, 2018: The defense ministers of Israel and Russia met in Russia. After that, there were rumors that Russia had agreed to not interfere with any Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria and continue pressuring Iran to withdraw its mercenaries from the Israeli border. Israel and Russia later stated that there was no Russian blanket pledge to not interfere. There was, however, no change in the existing policy of Russian forces not confronting Israeli attacks on Iranian targets. The Russians consider this a case-by-case decision. The Russians clearly do not want to fight the Israelis, especially when the Russians have growing evidence that Russian military equipment would not do well if there were a fight. At the same time, senior officials back in Israel let it be known that Israel would not object to Syrian troops at their border, especially if there were no Iranian forces in Syria.

May 28, 2018: In western Syria (Homs province) Israeli airstrikes hit a Hezbollah base near the Lebanon border. Among the Hezbollah losses was one of their senior leaders. Across the border, in Lebanon, two Israeli F-16s encountered two Russian Su-34s near Tripoli. There were reports that the Russian jets were confronting the Israelis but Russia and Israel later denied that and said it was simply a chance encounter.

 

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