Three days ago the United States announced it was withdrawing from the 1987 INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) in which the U.S. and Russia (Soviet Union) agreed to ban the production and use of land-based missiles, especially ones with nuclear warheads, with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers. By 1991 2,700 missiles had been withdrawn from service and the agreed upon ten years verification continued into the 1990s even though the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
The American withdrawal announcement was in reaction of Russian violations of the treaty (like some versions of the new Iskander and RS-26 ballistic missiles) and violations of other important nuclear disarmament deals (like the 1994 one that got Ukraine to surrender its nukes in return for a Russian guarantee that it would never seek to annex all or part of the Ukraine). In addition, China is not bound by the INF and producing weapons that violate it. Russia immediately denounced the Americans, who are sending senior negotiators to Russia to discuss the matter.
Russia sees the Americans leaving INF as a major setback because until now Russia has been able to violate several Cold War era arms reductions treaties with impunity as Russia sought to rebuild its empire using the excuse that NATO was conspiring to conquer or contain, Russia. On a more practical level, the poor condition of the Russian economy plus the sanctions imposed for the annexation of Ukrainian territory has reduced Russian military capabilities. This is particularly true when it comes to producing new weapons systems. Russia has become like Iran, announcing new weapons that are little more than a press release and some unworkable prototypes.
The Russians also know this American decision is really aimed at China which, and the Americans know and the Russians refuse to admit, has a more powerful military than Russia (for the first time in centuries). The Chinese lead is growing and unlike the United States or NATO, has very real and recently (1970s) fought over claims on Russian territory (the Far East and parts of eastern Siberia). China has very deliberately never renounced these claims, not after the Chinese communists took over China in 1949 and not since. Now Russia is increasingly economically dependent on China, a condition that is getting worse for Russia and appears headed for China getting its disputed territories back via economic not military conquest. For the moment Russia plays down the Chinese threat and makes much of the imaginary one posed by NATO.
The Russian fuss over the INF also serves to help the Russian government divert public attention from the worsening economic conditions. Over two-thirds of Russians are very concerned about constantly rising prices (up 11 percent since 2017), growing poverty and inflation. In addition to increasing unemployment, many who still have jobs are not getting raises. With an inflation rate of over five percent that means those with static pay are getting pay cuts (less purchasing power). For ethnic Russians, there’s another sense of loss. Since 1991 the number of ethnic Russians in Russia and former parts of the Soviet Union has declined by 17 million. This is largely the result of higher death rates and sharply lower birth rates. The main reason the population of Russia is stabilizing and rising once more is that more non-Russians are coming to Russia looking for work.
China And North Korea
China has triggered a regional arms race and the formation of a large anti-China coalition because of aggressive Chinese territorial claims. Anything North Korea can do to distract the Americans would be useful for China and Russia. But North Korean negotiations with the Americans over denuclearization are not a major distraction for the United States. China is and China is not accustomed to that much attention and scrutiny.
Even though China has also complied with imposing many (but not all) of the sanctions on North Korea the North Koreans still believe China is an ally. That’s because China still allows smugglers to operate. North Koreans know the Chinese can shut down smuggling if they want to and have done so in the past so the fact that China is willing to cooperate with North Korea in evading the sanctions is seen as a positive thing. Then again, China is the only powerful and prosperous friend North Korea has. Russia tries but really is too broke and weak to be much help. North Korea also believes that China is willing to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea as long as North Korea is stable and not in danger of falling apart and leaving the expensive cleanup to China. South Korea is a democracy and most of the voters are not willing to provide billions of aid in return for vague assurances that denuclearization will happen eventually, maybe.
As of late-2018 North Korea is still exporting weapons (rockets, small arms and ammo are showing up in Yemen, Libya and Syria). With the help of Russian and Chines partners, North Korea is exporting its coal and importing oil. North Korea is also exporting more drugs like opium, heroin and methamphetamine (“meth”). These drugs have long been manufactured by the North Korean government for export to obtain foreign currency. The United States is organizing an international anti-smuggling patrol to counter North Korean smuggling at sea, particularly oil. The new joint patrol effort will include ships, satellites and aircraft from the U.S., Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, South Korea and France.
North Korea has also been caught selling software illegally by establishing companies in China and Russia that pretend to be local but are actually staffed and run by North Koreans. These two companies quietly offer semi-legal or obviously illegal software services as well and advertise on social media. The U.S. has imposed sanctions on these firms and their key personnel (who are largely North Korean). A group of North Korea hackers has also been identified as the ones responsible for a series of international bank hacks that made off with over a billion dollars.
Turkey is increasingly unsure about its alliance with Russia in Syria. Turkeys’ decades of membership in NATO has given Turks a different, and more professional, military experience than their Russian and Iranian counterparts. For that reason, the Turks have attempted to run their own operation along the Syrian border and most of their disputes were with fellow NATO members, mainly the Americans. With the Russians, the Turks are concerned about the Russian tendency to fantasize, especially when it comes to tech. The Russians and the Iranians have a tendency to announce military tech that does not perform as advertised. This is particularly the case with weapons sold to Arab nations. The Russians have been doing this since the 1950s and found the Arabs are even more into self-serving fantasy than the Russians. The latest example is the recent delivery of S-300 air defense systems to Syria. The recent delivery of these S-300s was officially prompted by a September incident when, in the immediate aftermath of an Israeli airstrike, a Syrian S-200 SAM (Surface to Air missile) shot down a Russian four-engine Il-20 maritime patrol aircraft off the coast. Russia blamed Israel and Turkey kept quiet because the Turks knew what happened and were appalled that the Russians would not recognize the problems and try to fix them. There were three issues the Russians ignored. First, the Israeli warplanes were back in Israel when the Il-20 was shot down. Second, the Syrians frequently launch lots of SAMs right after an Israeli airstrike even through Syrian radars provide no evidence of where any Israeli warplanes are. The Syrian air defense commanders fire lots of missiles to show that they are “doing something” even though they never manage to shoot down any Israeli warplanes. Third, the Syrians and Russians are supposed to have an IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) system whereby Russian aircraft carry an IFF transmitter that will tell Syrian SAMs (or SAM unit commanders) that the Russian aircraft is “friendly” and not to be fired on.
Russia and Syria imply that the Israelis somehow deceived Russian and Syrian equipment and were at fault for the Il-20 loss. The Turks know better, and so do many Russian and Syrian officers. But the official line for Russians and Syrians is that the Israelis are somehow responsible and don’t bother us with reality because that’s not how we roll. By bringing in the more advanced and powerful S-300 systems and giving them to the same Syrians who cannot handle S-200s correctly what can one expect? Nothing good, especially since the Russians are also bringing in more of their EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment and promise to use it. This bothers the Turks because the Russian EW gear is often quite powerful but also tends to produce unexpected (and unfavorable) results in a combat zone. This puts Turkish aircraft and troops at greater risk and also sets the Russians and Syrians up for even more embarrassment. That also makes Russian assurances of how they will aid the Turks in dealing with the last rebel stronghold in Syria (Idlib province) more of a risk. The Turks have always considered the Syrians as unreliable and unpredictable and were hoping the Russians would be an improvement. Improving is not what Russia does these days. Mostly it is improvising and that is a riskier and more uncertain approach to anything.
Iran is finding less consideration and cooperation from its allies in Syria. Russia, Turkey and the Assad government see the continuing Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria as a matter between Israel and Iran. The obsession with destroying Israel is seen as an Iranian weakness. Although Russia, Turkey and Iraq are technically allies with Iran in Syria the historical record shows Iran is usually the enemy of these three nations and that has been the case for centuries, long before Israel came along in 1948. One thing everyone can agree on is the need to get rid of the remaining Islamic terrorists in Syria. Most of these Islamic terrorists are currently surrounded in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib. There are some ISIL groups hiding out in eastern Syria but these are seen as much less of a threat than the tens of thousands of Islamic terrorists in Idlib. Everyone in and bordering Syria would like to see the Iranians go back to Iran and stay there. The few hundred Iranian troops and over 50,000 Iranian mercenaries in Syria are seen as a constant source of trouble. Iran realizes that their allies in Syria have, and will probably continue, to collaborate with Israel if an opportunity presents itself. Yet Iranian leaders fail to see the absurdity of this situation and despite widespread popular protest against the Syrian operations continues to operate like its forces in Syria are on the verge of destroying Israel.
Discussions continue on how Russia, Iran and Turkey will operate in Syria once the civil war is officially over. Iran insists that it will still be in Syria at that point. Syria is negotiating peace deals with Kurds (who control the northeast), Druze (wh0 occupy much of the Israeli-Jordan border) and Sunni groups (tribal leaders and local leaders who have not been hostile). Syria wants to attract a lot of foreign aid for reconstruction but that is complicated by Iranian plans to establish a permanent military presence and continue threatening Israel. Several members of the Assad clan are facing war crimes charges and Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan want to send back several million Sunni Arab refugees (which the Assads do not want). The war will not end quickly or in a tidy fashion.
In mid-2018 Russia revealed that they had sent 63,012 troops to Syria since mid-2015. That includes army, navy and air force personnel, many having been there multiple times (but are only counted as one of the 63,012). 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. However many of the contractors were never near combat and were there mainly to help the Syrians refurbish and revive their rundown military equipment and infrastructure.
Out of those 63,000 Russian military personnel who have been in Syria (some for less than a day, few for more than six months) only about a hundred have died in combat so far. There have been half as many military contractors serving in Syria and they have suffered several hundred 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. Russia knew going in that Russian troops getting killed overseas, even if they were not conscripts (who were kept out of Syria from the start), was politically unpopular with most Russians. Even volunteer troops getting killed overseas was unpopular although opinion surveys showed that the average Russian was not upset if a contractor (or “mercenary”) was killed because they were paid a lot more and were professionals who knew what they were getting into.
Russia also revealed that 41 percent of the Russian troops in Syria were officers and that seven percent of the troops sent were “artillery specialists”. That’s because Russia did have some artillery (tube and rocket) and anti-aircraft units in Syria as well as a lot of artillery officers and technicians to help rebuild the Syrian army artillery and air defense equipment and train personnel. Next to “artillery” troops, there were nearly as many special operations troops. These were there both for training Syrians and carrying out, well, special operations.” Most of these were eventually replaced with contractors, some of whom had earlier served in Syria as a soldier.
Most of the Russian troops in Syria were there to provide training, combat advisors and, most importantly, technical help in rebuilding the Syrian inventory of weapons and equipment. These support personnel were also hard at work maintaining Russian aircraft and military equipment in general. The Russian aircraft maintainers made it possible for Russian warplanes to fly 39,000 sorties (an average of 36 a day) that, according to Russian estimates, killed at least 86,000 enemy personnel. This air support was a key factor in Syrian forces being able to regain control of most of the country by 2017.
October 20, 2018: Turkey will host an October 27 meeting with leaders from Russia, Germany and France to seek a solution for the problem in northwest Syria where Idlib province holds that last concentration of Islamic terrorist rebels and although a peace deal had been worked out a few thousand of the most radical Islamic terrorists refuse to cooperate. Meanwhile, countries must be found that will accept the less radical Islamic terrorists who have agreed to leave peacefully. It goes without saying that there are few (actually no) countries willing to accept these Islamic radicals.
October 18, 2018: Russia announced that five days earlier ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) had kidnapped 700 civilians in northeast Syria, an area controlled by the U.S. backed Syrian Kurds. The Kurds and their American advisors could find no evidence of this.
October 17, 2018: A Russian container ship is stranded in a Chinese shipyard (where it has been undergoing repairs) because the shipyard owner fears getting hit with American sanctions against Gudzon Shipping, the company that owns the Russian ship. Gudzon was hit with sanctions in August because its ships were caught violating North Korean sanctions by transferring oil to North Korea tankers at sea. Normally that activity is not detected but increasingly it is because American, Japanese and South Korean intelligence agencies have been tracking North Korea’s small merchant ship fleet. Another Gudzon ship is being held in a South Korean port.
October 16, 2018: Twitter has released a 350 GB file containing over 10 million tweets from 3,800 accounts belonging to Russian organizations that engage in media manipulation. These tweets date from 2013. Actually, Russia has been using information war techniques like this for over a decade. The term for these paid posters was the “50 rubles” or “50 cents” army and they were a known problem on Internet newsgroups and message boards for a long time. The mass media in the United States only discovered their presence in 2016. Twitter released this archive for researchers, as well as a one million tweet archive of efforts by Iranian trolls to influence public opinion.
In two separate incidents, Burmese Air Force F-7/MiG-21 fighters crashed today. One was weather-related while the other was equipment-related. One pilot died as did a civilian on the ground. The Burmese still operates their aging F-7s because the more modern alternative is too expensive. In late 2009 the air force ordered more MiG-29s from Russia, as part of a plan to retire its fifty or so F-7s. Nine years later there are only 16 (of 31) MiG-29s flyable and the effort to obtain the more MiG-29s, train the pilots for them and to replace all the F-7s have stalled. There are still about twenty F-7s in service. They are cheaper to operate than the MiG-29s but more dangerous. The F-7 is a Chinese copy of the 1950s era Russian MiG-21. The more capable and expensive MiG-29 (a 1980s design) never did replace all the Mig-21s and F-7s still in service. This is particularly the case in nations like Burma who do not face a real aerial threat.
October 13, 2018: In the south (Dagestan), counter-terrorism forces killed two armed men who refused to surrender. The two were suspected of being ISIL members. Local security officials report that so far in 2018 six terror attacks were prevented and 52 Islamic terrorists killed.
October 11, 2018: A Russian Soyuz rocket failed as it was attempting to take two men (a Russian and an American) to the International Space Station. The two passengers survived because of the emergency recovery system that is part of the manned rocket. But the failed Soyuz rocket was another example of the continued management and quality control problems in the Russian space program.
October 10, 2018: In eastern Libya, several dozen Russian special operations and intel officers are now stationed at bases in Tobruk and Benghazi. Some these personnel have been there for over a year but the numbers have recently increased. There are a lot more armed Russians at these two bases but most of them are contractors from the Russian Wagner Group. The contractors concentrate on providing training for LNA (Libyan National Army) men. Russia is also believed to have brought some modern weapons with them, like air defense systems and cruise missiles. The LNA, and its commander Khalifa Hiftar, have a long relationship with Russia. Hiftar has visited Russia several times seeking more than diplomatic support from Russia. Now Russia is delivering and in return, Hiftar has helped Russia get oilfield exploration, development and management contracts. Russia has also become a major supplier of wheat to Libya, but that probably would have happened anyway because since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Russia has resumed its pre-communist status as a major grain exporter. Russian wheat is also cheaper given lower production costs and the poor exchange rate for the Russian currency.
October 8, 2018: North Korea, Russia and China all asked the UN to ease up on the North Korea sanctions and to consider gradual lifting of all sanctions during the implementation of a North Korea denuclearization effort. North Korea is still negotiating with the U.S. and South Korea over that nuclear weapons deal. So far China has not interfered although Russian smugglers have been more obvious in their efforts to get whatever North Korea wants, for a price. China and Russia have not cracked down some of the more blatant smuggling going on with the help of Chinese and Russian firms. Legal trade between North Korea and China is down 58 percent through the end of August compared to 2017. Russian legal trade with North Korea is much smaller but the Russian smugglers are doing a lot more business.
October 3, 2018: In northwest Syria (Latakia province) S-300 SAM equipment for the Syrian military began arriving by air. This equipment is from the Russian 583rd Air Defense Regiment based near Murmansk on the Russian northern coast (Arctic Ocean). Russia said this unit had recently upgraded to the S-400 and that their former S-300PM equipment was checked over and any problems were fixed. Russia often sells or gives away these used S-300 systems. Flying 39 vehicles (launchers, radars, control vans) to Syria via An-124 transports included some of their Russian operators and maintainers. Russia says Syrian crews will be trained by the end of October but that seems unlikely. It is quite possible that Russia is sending enough S-300 operators to get at least one of the batteries operational by the end of October. Russia wants the S-300s capable of confronting the Israeli air threat to Iranian and Syrian forces as soon as possible and is actually sending experienced crews along. Russia said it is providing the three S-300 batteries (24 launchers plus associated search radars and control centers) free of charge.
Senior Israeli officials have said the S-300 won’t make any difference in Syria and that Israeli forces can deal with the S-300s as effectively as they did the S-200s. Israel already has lots of experience with the S-400 batteries Russia has brought in to protect its bases near the Mediterranean coast and Israel sees the Russian S-300s for the Syrians as an unfriendly gesture as well as a potentially embarrassing one. If the Israelis go ahead, as they say they will, and keep attacking Iranian targets and the Syrians use their S-300 systems to try and stop them and get the same dismal results as they did with their S-200 systems it is bad news for Russian military tech. Maybe Russia felt it had no choice after the recent embarrassing incident (a Syrian S-200 missile destroyed an Il-20 maritime surveillance aircraft operating off the coast). But Russia is doing more than deliver S-300 missiles, it is also assigning Russian troops to operate with Iranian forces, making it more likely that Russians will get hurt if the Iranians get hit by an Israeli airstrike. The Israelis have made it clear they will not tolerate an Iranian presence in Syria and if the Russians want to take more losses because of that, it is a Russian decision.
October 2, 2018: In eastern Ukraine OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) observer teams continue operating in Donbas and keep reporting violations (of ceasefire and other agreements). There are often thousands of violations a week. 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. Despite that attitude, the Russian operation in Donbas is falling apart. Morale among the Ukrainians who agreed to keep the rebellion going is bad and getting worse. More and more of the “rebel activity” in Donbas is carried out by Russians pretending to be Ukrainian rebels. The Russian government apparently believes it will ultimately win but does not have a clear idea of when or how.
September 27, 2018: In Iran, government-controlled media reported that Russia refused to defend Iranian facilities in Syria being attacked by Israel. Russia has asked for Israel to not attack Iranian targets close to Russian bases. That won’t work either because if Iran tries to use proximity to a Russian base as a sanctuary Israel will attack the Iranians anyway and warn the Russians to keep Iranians away from Russian bases.
September 24, 2018: Russia announced that it would begin upgrading Syrian air defenses by delivering S-300 SAM batteries. First deliveries will arrive by mid-October. In addition, Russia said it would try to jam electronics of aircraft making attacks in Syria. In other words, Russia is threatening to stop Israeli air operations in Syria. Unless Israel could get around this jamming electronically (possible, but difficult) the usual response is to destroy the jamming equipment. In most cases, the jammers will be operated by Russians and that would be a problem for Israel and disastrous for the Russians, who are trying to hide the fact that a lot of their military equipment is not as effective as the Russians claim it is. This is all about the recent loss of a Russian four engine Il-20 maritime patrol aircraft off the coast to Syrian S-200 SAMs. This sort of “friendly fire” is not supposed to happen, at least if your IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) equipment works. Something failed and it was apparently Russian and Russia does not want to dwell on that with existing or potential customers. One of those potential customers, Saudi Arabia, is not happy about the Syrians getting S-300 systems, because the S-300 surveillance radars have sufficient range (over 300 kilometers) to monitor air traffic in much of Saudi Arabia. Israel has repeatedly made it clear that it will not stop attacking Iranian targets in Syria. This sort of threat is usually the Russian way of saying (to Israel); we have to talk about how Israel is going to help get Russia out of this mess.
September 23, 2018: China threatened the United States with unspecified retaliation if the Americans did not back off on applying sanctions on Russian arms exports to China. After 2016 the Americans imposed additional sanctions against Russian weapons exports. This came in the form a new American approach to sanctions. In 2017 the United States created CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act) which made it difficult, and in some cases impossible, for Russia to get paid for weapons exports. China has run afoul of CAATSA because of Su-35 fighters China is buying from Russia and an even larger purchase of S-400 air defense systems. India, which has been improving diplomatic and military relations with the United States is potentially subject to the full force of CAATSA as it tries to carry out these ship and air defense purchases. India hopes to get an exemption on all or some of these purchases. India and Russia have already agreed to pay for the ships and air defense purchases without using dollars. India would pay in its currency (the rupee) and Russia could use the rupee to buy goods from India. However, full use of CAATSA seeks to prohibit even that and given the control the Americans exercise on the global banking system going full CAATSA would be a major problem for Russia and India. China may be forced to enter into a barter deal with Russia to pay for the Su-35s and S-400 gear but sees that as a major insult.
China isn’t only one having a hard time buying Russian weapons. India is in the process of trying to buy four more Talwar frigates from Russia (for $2.2 billion) and five batteries of S-400 SAM systems (for $5.4 billion). These transactions reflect two problems India is having with military procurement. The first is that India felt it could be capable of building all its own warships by now, as well as modern air defense systems. That turned out not to be the case. While two of these Talwars will be built in India the first two will come from Russia and there will be substantial purchases of Russian shipbuilding technology to enable India to build the other two Talwars. The two Russian built Talwars already exist as Admiral Grigorivich class frigates. These are the Russian versions of the Talwars with some differences in weapons and electronics (that can easily be changed). Russia has not put these two ships into service because they do not have their turbine engines, which are manufactured in Ukraine. After Russian invaded Ukraine in 2014 Russia was unable to get the military equipment it had on order with Ukraine. But India can buy the turbines and has made arrangements to do so and have them installed. There is already a problem with building more nuclear subs in India. India discovered with its first locally built nuclear sub (Arihant) that Indian shipbuilders were not really ready to build more nuclear subs without substantial technology transfer. Details of these deals are still being worked out. Meanwhile, India has twelve more nuclear submarines it is ready to build in India, but not with the current state of Indian nuclear sub construction capabilities.
September 21, 2018: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) Ukrainian forces recaptured another village and its 150 or so inhabitants were no longer prisoners of, and human shields for, the rebels. Russian backed rebels are withdrawing from more and more rural villages that Ukrainian forces are slowly surrounding or at least making difficult to reach and resupply.
September 18, 2018: Russia denied it had been aiding North Korea to evade the sanctions and import oil (via transfers at sea from Russian tankers) and export coal. Russia has been seen importing North Korean coal and then shipping it to South Korea as Russian coal.
September 17, 2018: An Israeli airstrike in northwestern Syria (Latakia) destroyed a large warehouse used to store Iranian weapons as well as a nearby facility for assembling large rockets and ballistic missiles. During the airstrike Syrian SAMs (surface to air missiles) hit a Russian Il-20 maritime patrol aircraft, killing the crew of 15. Russia automatically blamed Israel but soon even Russian news commentators pointed out that the fault lies with Syrian and Russian procedures for preventing this sort of thing. Russia promptly said it would deliver S-300 SAM systems to Syria and Israel pointed out it could destroy them. Syria currently has older S-200 SAMs but uses them in a careless and reckless fashion, apparently frustrated at being unable to hit anything.
Russian, Turkish and Iranian official worked out a way to deal with the remaining Islamic terrorists in northwest Syria (Idlib province) without triggering a large movement of refugees trying to get into Turkey. This deal calls for the establishment (by October 15th) of a demilitarized zone 15-25 kilometers wide that would separate government and rebel forces. Russia and Turkey would then deal with the Islamic terrorists in some undefined manner that apparently involves Turkey persuading most of the Islamic terrorist rebels that are Syrian to join an FSA, secular rebel group that Turkey backs. Those who refuse this offer would be attacked in such a way (a few small groups hit at a time) that a lot of civilians would not be compelled to flee. This compromise is vague on critical details but has delayed the offensive to take Idlib from the Islamic terrorists by force. Iran goes along with whatever Russia and Turkey want because Iran is more concerned with their efforts to destroy Israel.