The economic damage done by sanctions and, to a lesser extent, low oil prices have cost the Russian economy 10 percent of its GDP since 2013. Further scrutiny of the Russian economy since 2013 indicates that corruption and government mismanagement played a larger role in the decline than is generally acknowledged. Russian businesses can attest to this because it has become even more difficult to do business in Russia since the sanctions and low oil prices hit. The Russian government is more interested in its “war with NATO” than in dealing with social and economic problems. The government plays down the economic losses but most Russians live with the growing privation up close and on a daily basis. All the bad news about the wars (against NATO or whatever) and the decline of the Russian military and defense industries adds to the growing sense of unease (or worse).
Earlier in November, a Russian military journal (“Military Review”) ran an article in which the Russian author admitted that Russia was indeed controlling the Donbas Ukrainian “rebels.” This has been an open secret since Russia instigated the Donbas fighting in 2014. The main theme of the article was the difficulty in controlling the paramilitary forces Russia has organized to play the role of “rebels” in Donbas.
“Military Review” tends to reflect the views of the Ministry of Defense and often criticizes GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) an organization somewhat independent of Defense Ministry control so that it can serve to provide alternatives to Defense Ministry plans. GRU is more into special operations techniques, which were heavily used in Donbas. The Defense Ministry prefers a more traditional approach. A conventional military invasion of Ukraine is still a possibility but less so because of the declining morale and capabilities of the military.
Another problem is that the Donbas operation is very unpopular in Russia and many Russian troops, including professionals and not just conscripts, refuse to serve in Donbas. Since the Russian military is technically not involved in the Donbas even a career Russian soldier can get away with refusing to service in Donbas, mainly because the military wants to avoid any more information leaks from troops sent to Donbas against their will. Refusal does not help promotion prospects of career soldiers, but that shows how unpopular the Donbas operation is. At the same time, the Donbas truce is more or less holding. There is no major combat and the Russian troops and paramilitaries there are wondering what is going to happen to the half of Donbas rebels control. Russia speaks of annexing that part of Donbas but Ukraine could gather a lot of international support, especially in the UN, to oppose that. Another problem for Russia that it is no secret that the government is spending $2 billion a year on the Donbas operation at a time when most of Russia is suffering economic problems. Ukraine is also suffering economic problems because of the war costs. At the same time, Ukraine is criticized by foreign donors and most Ukrainians for its inability to curb the endemic corruption that continues to cripple the economy.
The Scams In North Korea
Russia continues to cooperate with North Korea in evading economic sanctions. One reason for that is the fact that Russia also has a corrupt and failing economy as well as international sanctions. North Korea is worse off than Russia and Russia has little to offer but the Russians do what they can. Russia continues to hire North Koreans to work in Russia and assist North Korea in smuggling coal out and oil in.
November 20, 2018: Ukraine has been offered two recently (2013-15) retired American Perry-class frigates. The ships would be free but Ukraine is calculating what the cost of manning and maintaining the frigates would do to their naval budget. There is also the cost of customizing the frigates for Ukrainian use. Second-hand American warships are popular with nations unable to afford purchasing newly built vessels. Ukraine is spending a lot of money on new military equipment, most of it built in Ukraine. The government does not want to disrupt any current procurement programs because of the American frigate offer. That said the Ukrainian Navy would like to have two frigates, especially ones that recently served in the U.S. Navy.
November 19, 2018: Israeli officials revealed that the Russians had recently proposed to the Americans and Israelis that Iran was willing to withdraw its troops and mercenaries from Syria in return for the United States lifting some of the sanctions it just re-imposed. Such a deal would be difficult to implement. Israel and the U.S. do not trust Iran to observe the terms of any such deal and it is unclear just how many sanctions Iran wants lifted. The Syrian government and the Turks have a say in this but the big problem is trust and the fact that Iran is in big economic and political trouble back home because of how the corrupt religious dictatorship has mismanaged the economy for decades.
The U.S. imposed sanctions on Vladlen Amtchentsev, a Russian born South African who runs a Singapore based oil brokerage that has a reputation for advising clients how to move oil illegally. Amtchentsev is accused of being a key advisor to North Korea on how to avoid oil sanctions. The Americans have also sanctioned companies and individuals involved in smuggling Iranian oil to Syria.
In the south (eastern Ukraine) another Russian UAV (an Orlan-10) was shot down by Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainians have found ways to detect the Orlan 10s electronically and then destroy them with surface to air missiles. This is the sixth Orlan-10 shot down over Ukrainian controlled territory in Donbas since the latest ceasefire began in December 2017. Orlan 10 is small, weighing only 16 kg (36 pounds) and with a wingspan of only 3.1 meters (10 feet). Orlan 10 uses a gasoline engine and has a 16 hour endurance. It can fly preprogrammed flight paths, making it immune to jamming. The Orlan 10s operate from Russian bases in Crimea or just across the Russian border in Donbas. Since 2012 the Russian military has purchased over 1,800 UAVs of modern design. Russia purchased UAV design and production technology from Israel and that made it possible to transform the UAV design and production capabilities of Russia, which had long been stuck with obsolete Cold War UAV designs.
November 18, 2018: Russia revealed (in the government-controlled mass media) that it is moving warships from the Northern Fleet (Barents Sea) and the Pacific fleet to the Black Sea to reinforce ships already there in case there is a confrontation with NATO over Russian threats to restrict access to the Sea of Azov. Since September Ukraine has been insisting it had the military means to defeat Russian efforts to take control of the Sea of Azov. It was pointed out that Ukraine has a large supply of modern anti-ship missiles and naval mines and could deploy them to quickly cripple any Russian naval forces in the area. This dispute went critical back in April 2018 when Russia declared the Sea Of Azov, reached from the Black Sea via the 4.5 kilometer wide Kerch Strait, was now under Russian control. 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.
A Russian Soyuz rocket succeeded in getting an unmanned supply craft (with 2.5 tons of cargo) to the ISS (International Space Station). This is a big relief for the crew, as is news that another manned Soyuz launch is planned for December 3rd. All this angst is because on October 11 a Soyuz rocket failed as it was attempting to take two men (a Russian and an American) to the ISS. 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. Several American projects to get other manned spacecraft into service have been accelerated.
November 17, 2018: In the south (Chechnya), a female suicide bomber detonated her explosive vest at a checkpoint as police prepared to shoot her. Only the bomber died. No Islamic terror group has claimed responsibility.
November 15, 2018: Finland and Norway are again accusing Russia of using its long-range GPS jammers against large-scale NATO military training exercises. The Finns and Norwegians are particularly angry because the jammers caused problems for commercial aviation in the north. Russia denies everything, as they usually do in such situations.
November 14, 2018: Israeli commercial satellite photos show that the Russian S-300 air defense systems delivered to Syria six weeks ago are still not operational.
November 9, 2018: A Russian hosted Afghan peace conference began in Moscow. In addition to the Taliban (which prefer to be called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan at these talks), eleven countries were invited (including Afghanistan and the United States). The Taliban do not consider the elected government of Afghanistan as legitimate and insist on negotiating the United States first to ensure that all foreign troops are withdrawn. The Taliban also want all military aid for the Afghan government halted.
Meanwhile, Iranian ally Qatar hosts a Taliban headquarters where the Taliban can, in effect, meet with anyone to discuss anything. The Russian peace talks attracted delegations from Russia, India, Iran, China, Pakistan and five former Soviet republics in Central Asia as well as non-government groups from Afghanistan and some Americans as observers. Technically the Taliban cannot be in Russia because Russia recognizes the international designation of the Taliban as a terrorist organization. Nevertheless, the Taliban insisted they would make peace only if all foreign troops left and there were international guarantees to keep the Americans from returning or aiding Afghans fighting the Taliban.
These negotiations are opposed by the Afghan government (which sees the Russians as Taliban supporters) although the Americans have had contact with the Taliban office in Qatar. What the Taliban have always wanted is all foreign troops out of Afghanistan. When making these demands in Russia the Taliban referred to themselves as “the Emirate of Afghanistan” and making it clear where they see all this going.
November 7, 2018: LNA (Libyan National Army) commander Khalifa Hiftar once more visited Russia, to hold discussions with the Defense Minister and other officials. Hiftar, as well as some Russian observers, are attending the “Libya Stabilization Conference” in Italy on the 12th. Hiftar has visited Russia several times in the last few years and has a good relationship with the Russians. Because of that Italy had discussed plans for the conference with the Russians and invited them to send observers. Since early October it has been no secret that several dozen Russian special operations and intel officers are now stationed at bases in eastern Libya (Tobruk and Benghazi). Some of 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 men. Russia is also believed to have brought some modern weapons with them, like air defense systems and cruise missiles. Russia is also apparently using Egyptian cooperation to transport weapons and military equipment to the LNA. Hiftar has long asked for such aid, specifically about two billion dollars’ worth. Russia does not want to officially violate the UN arms sanctions on Libya so they move what they can via the Egyptian connection (which has long moved Egyptian and UAE military aid into Libya.
The LNA and 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.
Russia is having less success in sub-Saharan Africa, where China is a major, and much wealthier, competitor. But in many nations run by corrupt despots the presence of Russia and China is welcome.
November 4, 2018: In eastern Syria, six Russian Wagner Group military contractors were killed when a bomb went off in a police facility. Five Syrians were also killed.
November 3, 2018: The U.S. Department of Defense revealed that in the last two years there have been 18 “unprofessional and often unsafe” encounters between Chinese and American warships and aircraft. In the same peri,od there was only one such incident with the Russians. These encounters are nothing new but they have increased considerably in the last two years. Since the 1990s China has continued to aggressively confront American ships and aircraft that come close to Chinese ships in international waters or disputed areas like the South China Sea. For example in late 2013 a Chinese destroyer cut in front of an American cruiser (the USS Cowpens) which was observing the new Chinese aircraft carrier. The Chinese ship risked a collision as it moved to within a hundred meters of the 10,000 ton U.S. cruiser. This sort of aggressiveness has not been experienced by American warships since the Cold War when Russian warships would risk collision in what American sailors came to call "Chicken Of The Sea." The Chinese are also harassing American intelligence operations off the Chinese coast. For over a decade now the Chinese have been aggressively interfering with American intelligence gathering aircraft and ships. U.S. Navy survey ship operating in international waters often find themselves approached, especially at night, by Chinese fishing boats that deliberately get in the way. In some cases, the harassment includes Chinese warships and naval patrol aircraft as well. All this is reminiscent of Cold War incidents, usually involving Russian ships harassing American ships by moving very close, or even on a collision course. This was all for the purpose of interfering with U.S. intelligence operations, especially those off the Russian coast. Earlier in the Cold War Russian warplanes would fire on American intelligence gathering aircraft, shooting some of them down. This sort of thing declined when the U.S. quietly informed the Russians that American warships and combat aircraft would aggressively return fire. By the end of the 1960s, this aggressive activity diminished to the point where it was considered a minor nuisance and even that was eliminated by a 1972 treaty. The same pattern is playing out with the Chinese but for the last few years, the Chinese have continued to protest this intelligence gathering activity so close (up to 22 kilometers from Chinese territory, an area that is considered “territorial waters”). The Chinese claims in the South China Sea made these encounters even more frequent.
October 31, 2018: In northern Russia, a man walked into a local FSB (the successor to the KGB) office and set off a bomb he had in a package he was carrying. The bomber was killed and three FSB personnel wounded. No one took credit for the bombing.
October 29, 2018: In the north, near the Northern Fleet bases at Murmansk, the largest floating dry dock in Russia, PD-50, had an accident and sank. The Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, was afloat in the PD-50 at the time and survived with some damage from a collapsing crane. The PD-50 sank in deep water and most salvage experts agreed that it would be too expensive to raise the dry dock and repair it. The navy cannot afford to buy a new one and admitted that this is the end of the line for the Kuznetsov, which is overdue for some major maintenance and refurbishment and the PD-50 was the only Russian dry dock that could hold the Kuznetsov. Many Russians saw this as just another example of the sloppiness and poor management that have crippled the military industries and the space program.
Israel admitted that it continues to carry out airstrikes in Syria against Iranian and Hezbollah targets. Since Septembers 17 (when a Syrian SAM shot down a Russian recon plane off the coast in the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike) most of the news has been about Russia sending Syria free S-300 SAM batteries (which are still not operational) and openly blaming Israel for the loss of the recon aircraft and its 15 member crew. Israel rarely comments on these airstrikes, at least not soon after they occur or not until someone else (Syria, Iran or Russia) complains. None of these nations mentioned (much less complained of) recent Israeli airstrikes but the news eventually gets out as the aftermath of these airstrikes is very visible and not hidden.
October 28, 2018: Sudan confirmed that Russian PMCs (private military contractors) have a long-term contract to support the Sudanese armed forces. And are training security forces in Sudan. In July the Russian foreign ministry said Russian contractors are working with local security forces.
October 27, 2018: Turkey hosted a 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. This meeting confirmed that the Assads had defeated the rebels and now everyone could turn towards what to do with the wreckage of post-war Syria.
After the meeting, Russia revealed that its forces at the Russian controlled Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) airbase had shot down at least fifty small UAVs that had approached the base and accused (without evidence) that the Americans were behind some of those attacks (which Islamic terror groups in Idlib take credit for). The Hmeimim airbase was built by Russia in 2015 near the port city of Latakia, which is 85 kilometers north of Tartus and 50 kilometers from the Turkish border. Part of the Tartus port has become a long-term foreign base for Russia, along with Hmeimim. Russia does not consider these “defensive airstrikes” part of preparations for retaking Idlib but if those airstrikes are increased and Syrian troops are nearby it is an offensive because the Syrians or Iranian mercenaries will advance.
October 25, 2018: Aircraft transponder data revealed that Russian Il-76 and Tu-154 transports are regularly operating from the LNA controlled (and UAE managed) al Kharouba airbase in eastern Libya. These Russian flights often connect with airports in Sudan and the Russian airbase in Syria. The Russian aircraft are moving personnel and cargo.
October 24, 2018: Israel revealed that it had refused Russian demands that Russia be notified about all Israeli airstrikes in Syria.