Government efforts to project the image of a modern, professional and constantly improving armed forces is proving more difficult to sustain. During the decades of communist rule the state had complete control over the media, a massive internal security forces and, most important, no Internet or smartphones. Those last two items have crippled efforts to persuade Russians and foreigners that Russia was still a major developer and manufacturer of new weapons. The constant stream of press releases detailing new weapons the Russian forces will be equipped with is undermined by the reality, often documented vis-a-vi smartphone video spread via the Internet. The new weapons often do not work at all and even if they do there is never enough money to produce them in the quantities implied. Russian development and manufacturing efforts are still crippled by shortages of cash and talent. Arms exports are hurt by this, especially with competitors like China continuing to produce Russian designs more efficiently (more effective, reliable and less costly in the long run). New gear that does get produced in significant numbers is usually for export customers who have the cash for procurement that the Russian military still lacks.
This poverty of money and talent is very visible with the Russian military efforts in Ukraine (Donbas) and Syria. Both are being carried out on the cheap and with as much discretion as possible because these operations are unpopular with the Russian people. They see Russian money and Russian lives being wasted on expensive political games that do the average Russian no good at all. Thus the government efforts to mask just how much these operations cost in terms of resources and casualties. Hiding the spending is easier than concealing the number of dead.
But the government keeps trying. Some with morale in the military. That is not a new problem and that was why the government tried, in 2013, to revive the old communist era ideological training for troops and increased use of informants and opinion surveys to monitor morale and loyalty in the military. In effect, the government has returned to using the communist era "Zampolit" (political officer.) In Soviet times, every unit commander had a deputy (Zampolit) who represented the communist party and could veto any of the commanders’ decisions. The Zampolit was responsible for troop loyalty and political correctness. Sort of a communist chaplain. In 2010 the Russian Army reintroduced chaplains, something that the communists did away with in the 1920s. The new chaplains are, however, expected to report on the loyalty of the troops, to church and state. Now, additional officers are being added to handle ideological training and monitoring morale. Not exactly the return of the Zampolit, but a return of most of the Zampolits’ duties. Like their Cold War era counterparts the Zampolits proved better at reporting the bad news than dealing with it.
Morale did not improve but at least the regular use of opinion surveys did by showing the troops were well aware of deceptive press releases about nonexistent new equipment. The troops also knew what low budget charades the operations in Donbas and Syria were. While many details of the surveys could be kept secret the actual attitudes of the troops could not. No wonder why some Russians are nostalgic for the good old days of communist rule. If you want to see the future, look at China where newly (for the first time in history) modernized Chinese forces are a long-term threat to Russia. In China, there is lots of new gear and plenty to go around. China has a more effective economy and lots more money. But there many ways to weaponized wealth. Examples abound in far eastern Russia and that is most unwelcome with most Russians.
Chinese entrepreneurs have quietly taken control of the local economy in those parts of Russia that border China and North Korea. That explains why China has ignored North Korea using Russia and Chinese cargo ships to illegally export coal. North Korea moves the coal (illegally) into Russia via truck where it is exported on ships owned by Chinese companies. China is tolerating this because Chinese firms have been exploiting corruption in Russia (where it is worse than in China) to dominate the economy in the Russian Far East (the area between Mongolia and the Pacific coast). China has a historical claim on this area, claims which China revived after World War II when the communists took over China. Those revived claims led to border skirmishes during the 1970s that were halted when Russia made it clear it was prepared to risk nuclear war over the issue. That Russian policy still stands, although it is not publicized.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Russian economy went free market and open to foreign trade and investment China saw an opportunity to get back its lost lands in the Russian Far East. The plan is for China to slowly absorb the Russian Far East economically and demographically (with more Chinese settling in the Russian Far East, legally or otherwise.) Eventually, Russia finds that Chinese comprise most of the population in their far eastern provinces and control the economy as well. This approach takes longer but is less likely to trigger a nuclear war with Russia. Despite that threat, Russia has made itself more vulnerable by becoming more dependent on the Chinese currency (the yuan) as a way to deal with the growing list of Western (especially American) sanctions. By selling off euro and dollar-denominated assets (bonds, government debt) and switching to yuan-denominated equivalents Russia becomes more dependent on (and vulnerable to) China. Yes, all is going according to plan
Meanwhile, the most potent threat to Russia is internal. The corruption has been much more extensive than in China and, in comparison to China, Russia has been a much more difficult place to start and profitably run any kind of enterprise. That is one reason why Russian shipbuilding (both military and commercial) is considered below par while Chinese efforts are world class and a major part of the much larger Chinese economy. Same with most defense firms in China. The greater corruption in Russia not only drives more of the local talent out of the country but also a lot of new wealth. China created all of its new wealth with a rapidly developing and expanding local economy and that persuades many talented Chinese expatriates to return. Chinese who made money and preferred to invest it in China. In contrast, much more of the new wealth in Russia (largely because of oil exports) was stolen and illegally moved outside Russia.
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. Such alliances can be difficult to manage and the 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 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 that and the Assads would prefer Iranian forces to leave. So far Iran appears to be ignoring this advice.
Iranian leaders need a win against Israel and they are not having much luck in getting one. This is one reason Russia makes it clear that it sides with Israel when it comes to Syria and a long-term peace deal. Despite that Israel has concluded that Russian pressure will not persuade Iran to back off on their efforts to increase Iranian controlled military forces in Syria and then launch attacks on Israel. But Russia will cooperate with Israel.
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.
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.
Russia seems unconcerned that the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) observer teams who continue operating in Donbas keep reporting violations (of ceasefire and other agreements) and Russia simply denies it, calling the photos and witness accounts contrived. The OSCE personnel are still targets for rebel fire. The 600 OSCE staff (most of them roving monitors) in eastern Ukraine and Donbas, whose job is to oversee the ceasefire, have been complaining since 2015 that they are being restricted by rebels and, less frequently Ukrainian forces from carrying out inspections. There are satellite photos available as a backup and local sources on the ground. Russia believes that because the front lines have not moved much in years, they can do what they want with no consequences.
In the four years that OSCE has been monitoring the Donbas violence, they have suffered some casualties but these could be explained away as accidents. In general, the OSCE personnel have not been targets of assassination. From the beginning of the OSCE monitoring operation, Russia has regularly been accused of interfering. The OSCE presence is recognized by Russia and is supposed to be monitoring the situation in Donbas and verifying who is doing what. That has proved to be difficult because the Russian backed rebels (and sometimes Russian troops pretending to be rebels) regularly interfere with OSCE monitoring teams. The Russians ignore or harass OSCE whenever they decide they need to, or simply feel like it. The pro-Russian rebels continue to block the movement of observers in their territory. OSCE has been less aggressive because of all this but because new team members constantly arrive there are still observers willing to do the job right. The OSCE has found that Russian backed rebels are responsible for most (sometimes 90 percent) of the violent incidents in eastern Ukraine.
The UN estimates that 10,600 people have died in eastern Ukraine between April 2014 and August 2018. Nearly 30 percent of the dead were civilians. The violence continues but at a lower intensity. In the last few months, there has been more Russian armored vehicles operation in the Donbas but these have not been used much, even though their presence in Donbas is forbidden by the current ceasefire agreements. The most effective Russian moves have been economic, like the effort to block water access to Ukrainian coastal areas on the Sea of Azov (east of Crimea.)
August 8, 2018: The U.S. imposed the first round of new sanctions on Russia for its March 2018 use of nerve gas in Britain. The details of this use of Russian nerve gas has been confirmed. British investigators identified the Russians who 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 turned out to be an assassination attempt using a form of nerve gas (novichok) 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. Four months later the container (a small perfume bottle) the Russian assassin carried the liquid novichok in was found. This was because a couple had found the discarded novichok bottle nine days after the March attack and kept it. The assassin had tossed the bottle away in a park. Eventually, the couple opened the bottle and both ended up in the hospital, where the woman died. When her companion regained consciousness he provided information leading to the novichok container and further analysis of it. Worldwide, four different labs analyzed the samples and all agreed it was novichok, a chemical weapon never manufactured outside Russia.
In response to the March incident, 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 and after the June confirmation that it was Russian novichok, the U.S. ordered a series of additional sanctions on Russia into effect. These could be limited if Russia admitted it used novichok and provided assurances it would never do so again (with any banned weapons). Russia has said it will do neither and denied any involvement.
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.
August 6, 2018: Russia is expelling 13 Greek diplomats after Greece banned four Russian diplomats from Greece and accused Russia of attempting to interfere with internal Greek politics. Russia denied it and retaliated.
August 4, 2018: Ukrainian intelligence noted that Russia had replaced all the rebel faction leaders in Donbas with Russian officers. The rebel forces in rebel-held portions of the two provinces of Donbas (Luhansk and Donetsk) are organized (unofficially) into the 1st and 2nd corps of the Russian 8th army, which is based across the border in Novocherkassk. Russia. The 8th army provides supplies, replacements and all manner of support. A growing number of the rebels are actually Russian soldiers although many Russian volunteers are still around. While the Russians commanding rebel units pretend to be a rebel, not Russian army, old habits die hard and the rebels units are operating more and more like Russian army units and not improvised rebel groups. Russia is only sending career (non-conscript) troops or Russian speaking mercenaries to Donbas. Every rebel is now on the Russian payroll because Russian cash and economic aid are all that keeps the rebel-controlled half of Donbas going.
August 2, 2018: In southern Syria Russian military police are operating with UN peacekeepers so that, for the first time since 2014, the peacekeepers can patrol the 1974 UN demilitarized zone (extending 24 kilometers from the Israel-Syrian border). By the terms of the 1974 deal, any Syrian violation of that zone would be considered an act of war and would be met with force from Israel. Russia has also agreed to keep Iranian forces 85 kilometers from the Israeli border. This includes Hezbollah and other Iranian mercenaries. The Russian military police are also taking possession of the abandoned Syrian observation positions which, along with their Israeli counterparts, monitored the border and the actions of the UN peacekeepers. The Russians will soon turn over these observation posts to the Assad forces.
August 1, 2018: In Syria American forces operating there, especially on the ground, have to receive additional training before arriving in Syria so they know how to operate under constant attack by Russia EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment. The Americans have made the most of this and are sending new EW gear to their troops in Syria to not only deal with the Russian EW but to see how well the new EW equipment performs against the formidable inventory of new Russian designs. For many American troops in Syria, the most difficult aspect of being there is dealing with the Russian EW.
July 31, 2018: In southern Syria, on the Israeli border, Iranian forces appear to be pulling back. Russia says it has persuaded the Iranians to stay at least 85 kilometers from the Israeli border. The problem is constantly monitoring and verifying compliance. The Iranians regularly make peace deals like then and then devote a lot of effort to developing ways to violate the terms of their agreement and not get caught. Russia has also told Israel that Iran has rebuffed Russian suggestions that Iran withdraws its forces from Syria.
July 30, 2018: In the Central African Republic (CAR) three Russian journalists were murdered in an ambush 50 kilometers from the capital Bangui near the town of Sibut. The journalists were working on a documentary report about the Wagner Group, a Russian military contractor that has a “training and advisory” presence in the CAR. Apparently one or more of the Russians resisted what turned out to be a case of robbery, resulting in gunfire and the death of the three Russians. There is a suspicion that the deaths were part of a Russian effort to inhibit wealthy Russian exile (and critic of Vladimir Putin) Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who financed the project the dead journalists were working on. In 2017 the UN authorized Russia to provide training and some light infantry weapons to the CAR security forces.
July 29, 2018: The government announced an expansion of efforts to improve morale and patriotic attitudes among military personnel. The new move establishes a directorate within the military high command to increase efforts to ensure the loyalty of military personnel via more propaganda and “ideological education.” This is an old communist era technique that did not work out so well but the communist era Zampolit did prove useful, if only in a limited sense.
July 28, 2018: The Navy commissioned a new warship, the Admiral Gorshkov the first of four new, 5,400 ton “stealth frigates.” These ships can operate in distant waters and are replacing Cold War era destroyers, few of which can still get to sea.
July 25, 2018: In Moscow Sergei Lemeshevsky, the head of a Russian space satellite development firm, was arrested and charged with fraud and embezzlement which involved stealing $5.2 million in the last three years. The Russian space programmed has suffered from a growing number of very visible and very expensive failures, usually involving launch rocker or satellite failures.
July 20, 2018: Outside Moscow, FSB agents raided a space research center seeking evidence of who was providing the United States with details on Russian research into hypersonic spacecraft. At least ten Russian researchers are believed involved. Earlier a search was conducted in the offices of space equipment manufacturer Energia.
July 18, 2018: Russia is trying to delay or sidetrack American efforts to have the UN investigate well-documented incidents of Russians aiding North Korea to evade economic sanctions. Russians on the Pacific Coast are helping North Korea to obtain oil supplies and move illegal exports to pay for it
July 16, 2018: One of the Baltic States, Estonia complained to Russia of an incident in which two Russian commercial aircraft, an A319 and an Il-96 entered Estonian airspace without permission and refused to respond to air traffic controllers.
July 13, 2018: A senior Iranian official announced that Russia was going to invest up to $50 billion in Iranian oil and gas facilities. Russia quickly responded that there was no such commitment. This was a very public embarrassment for Iran, especially in the wake of recent (July 5th) Chinese warnings about Iranian threats to close the Straits of Hormuz.
South Korea complained to Russia after two Russian military aircraft violated South Koreas’ ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone). The Russians did this four times as they flew south off the east coast towards the Dokdo Islands. The Russian aircraft left the ADIZ quickly in each case. South Korea is seeing a lot more ADIZ violation activity west coast because of Chinese intrusions. In 2013 China announced a new ADIZ that overlapped South Korean, Philippine and Japanese airspace. China demanded that any foreign military or commercial aircraft request permission before flying into this zone. South Korea and Japan protested while the United States quickly flew some B-52s into the disputed zone without asking for Chinese permission. China protested and the United States ignored them.