The government has suffered a major loss of public trust because they allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to build new churches inside major city parks. There is a shortage of urban parks in many cities and this construction effort caused large public demonstrations in several major cities. The government was forced to back down. This was not a new problem but it is largely self-inflicted because the church is state-supported and gets away with a lot of bad behavior. For example, back in 2012 senior government officials were openly feuding with leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church over a church campaign to shut down a Russian production of the Western musical "Jesus Christ Superstar." Russian church officials called the show blasphemous, but Russians who had seen the show in the West pointed out that the charges are false.
The Russian Orthodox Church got a lot of its power, property and influence back after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. But now church leaders are seen as becoming too disruptive in their efforts to control media and public activities they consider inappropriate. This is a return to pre-communism days. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the Russian Orthodox Church was “set free” and received government subsidies to build new churches and rebuild historical churches and cathedrals that the communists had destroyed. The church was able to build more seminaries to train a lot more priests. After the 1990s the government decided that the church should, as during czarist times, serve the state. The communists had not eliminated the church but greatly reduced its size and capabilities. There were few priests and churches. The KGB built a network of informers among the clergy and believers. During czarist times the church was a major national institution and not as dependent on state support as is now the case. These days clergy are punished if they criticize the government and the massive church building effort (“three new churches a day” as church officials describe it). All those new churches have fewer believers attending because as church construction surges the number of worshipers declines. The government was not amused about the park protests and were able to get Western Internet sites like YouTube to remove videos of the demonstrations and visible anger towards the new construction and the Orthodox Church itself. That bit of censorship was nothing unique as the government is placing more restrictions (arrests, economic threats) on the remaining media outlets the government does not own or control via wealthy owners, who are in turn “owned” by the government. More data that are considered public records (and accessible to all) in the West are being declared state secrets in Russia.
There are other problems that the government tried and fails, to hide. Government economists admit that in 2019, for the sixth year in a row, real (adjusted for inflation) income for Russians will decline. The Russian stock market continues to improve and has hit record highs in the last year. Except for a dip in 2017 the ruble dominated stock index has constantly risen since 2014. But, adjusted for inflation and denominated in dollars, the index has been flat and only represents the largest, largely state-owned firms. As a whole, the Russian economy, like the average income, has been declining for the last six years.
The government earlier reported that GDP grew by only half a percent during the first quarter. Half of Russia saw no growth at all during that period and are considered experiencing an economic recession. For those who do have jobs, wages increased in April by about one percent over inflation. The economy has been in decline for five years now because of lower oil prices, sanctions and corruption. That last problem is something the government can control and there have been more arrests of senior civil and police officials for major corruption. One recent case had a retired FSB (secret police) colonel under arrest after a police raid on his home found $185 million in cash. It took the police quite a while to remove it all, along with documents detailing how the colonel (a senior counterintelligence officer) got so many bribes. The colonel was already under investigation because he had found to be the owner of millions of dollars’ worth of property in the West.
Some major industries are suffering greatly from corruption and mismanagement. The space program and related industries are a vivid example. In 2018 government auditors and prosecutors found a billion dollars’ worth of corruption. Nearly as bad as corruption has been the losses due to launch failures. Even with insurance, the Space Agency suffered nearly $200 million in losses from uninsured launch failures since 2010. Insurance took care of most commercial launch failures but these also required the Space Program to refund over $300 million to customers who had lost satellites. Russian Space has a harder time finding customers and is paying more for launch insurance. Meanwhile, the American SpaceX technology (with first stage rockets and that return and land for reuse) is going to cost the Russians even more business.
State-controlled media does not give a lot of attention to the declining standard of living. In fact, one of the most covered items (found in over a quarter of news stories and items) is Ukraine and how evil the Ukrainian government is. There is praise for the brave “rebels” in eastern Ukraine (Donbas). Outside of Russia, those rebels are identified more accurately as Russian soldiers or Russian backed armed groups pretending to be rebels. The Russian government is furious and frustrated at the stalemate in Donbas because instead of collapsing in 2014 the Ukrainians mobilized nationwide to confront the Russian threat. Russia has no easy solution for this problem and it just seems to get worse. Russian opinion polls (which remain relatively free of corruption and manipulation) show declining popular support for the Ukrainian “operation.” The government tried to hide the extent of its involvement in Donbas and the number of Russian casualties. While the Syrian War still has popular support Ukraine is seen as a disaster and embarrassment.
In Ukraine, Russia is accused of a waging a massive media and Internet-based influence campaign during the recent presidential elections. Russia wanted to get rid of the incumbent president (Petro Poroshenko) because he was not only pro-West but had managed to organize a coalition of Western nations willing to actively support Ukraine. The Russians were initially satisfied when a political newcomer, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected president with 73 percent of the vote. Zelensky was indeed a newcomer but proved a lot more capable than the Russians expected, and in a short time proved to be more of a threat than the guy he replaced. The new president is the son of two Ukrainian engineers, is an ethnic Russian (from east Ukraine) and Jewish. Born in 1978 he got a law degree but rather than becoming a lawyer he got into the entertainment business as a writer, director, producer and performer. His most recent (early 2018) production was a popular TV comedy in which he played a comedian who gets elected as an anti-corruption president of Ukraine. Noticing how popular his TV show was and how many Ukrainians saw it as an alternative to the endlessly corrupt leaders (including Poroshenko) who kept getting elected, he decided to run for president. He was overwhelmingly popular and made no specific promises other than to bring in honest and competent people to run the government. Zelensky is willing to negotiate an end to the Donbas war and is pro-West and wary of Russia. He ignored the mass media during his short (he declared he was running on January 1, 2019) campaign, considering the mass media corrupt and basically serving as compliant PR for whoever (including the Russians) was willing to pay. He took power on May 28th. Zelensky understands that presidential power is limited and that parliament must cooperate to get a lot of important things done. There are parliamentary elections in October, which provides an opportunity to back authentic pro-reform candidates. Zelensky appears to understand that he could be part of the solution to a lot of problems but by himself cannot do it.
Zelensky and most Ukrainians noted how Russia sought to influence the presidential elections and any similar effort during the October elections will backfire even more than the presidential election propaganda campaign did. Russia thought Zelensky too inexperienced to handle Russian leaders but Zelensky understands that as well, and is assembling experienced advisors to guide him through any negotiations. Zelensky still has opponents inside Ukraine, ranging from pro-Russian groups to fans of the old way of doing things. Ukrainians voted for change, except the 27 percent that opposed Zelensky. Many of those opponents have vested interests in the corrupt way of doing things and are not going to remain quiet about their hostility to whatever the new government does or how it does it.
If Zelensky succeeds it will be a disaster for the Russian government because more and more Russians are noting that the democracy in Ukraine is more popular among Ukrainians because the national government is not dominated by former Soviet Union era KGB secret policemen along with billionaires who got, and remained rich by cooperating with the KGB cartel that has been in power since 1999. That is a major reason why the Russian government wants Ukraine to fail so it can be “rescued” by Russia. That scam has been used many times over the last five centuries and Ukrainians do not want to suffer another such rescue.
In Donbas, the war continues to simmer. The latest (
December 29th) ceasefire was violated days after it was signed and the violations continue with heavy attacks on Ukrainian troops. The attackers, many of them Russian, suffer casualties as well but the Ukrainians hold their positions and have even managed to regain some ground against the less enthusiastic “rebels.”
Ukraine points out that 32 percent of their military dead in Donbas were suffered after the original 2015 ceasefire was signed. This ceasefire has been continually violated with numerous small attacks and renewed, only to be violated once more. The front lines have remained stable but the casualties have continued to occur, to local civilians as well as armed forces on both sides of the ceasefire line.
In northwest Syria (Idlib province) Russian and Syrian warplanes continue attacking Islamic terrorist targets. Turkey objects because these airstrikes violate the ceasefire agreement worked out between Turkey, Russia, Syria and the remaining Islamic terrorists in Idlib. Syria and Russia point out that the Islamic terrorists violate the agreement by attacking Syrian and Russian forces. Syrian troops and Iranian mercenaries are slowly taking back Idlib, one village at a time. Some of these micro-offenses are triggered by an Islamic terrorist attack on government forces. The Islamic terrorists have one major disadvantage; no air support. The government uses airstrikes frequently and to good effect, even when it results in civilian casualties and homelessness. The airstrikes, which have increased in number and intensity throughout May, are mainly directed at civilians in Idlib, many of them related to the Islamic terrorists there. Making life miserable for pro-rebel civilians has been a favorite, ruthless, successful and illegal tactic of the Syrian government. It is also a war crime but the Assads have been using this sort of violence for decades and never paid much attention to foreign critics. Since the offensive began in early May over 300,000 Idlib civilians have been forced from their homes and over a thousand of them killed or wounded.
Most of the air support comes from the Russians. Turkey opposes this violence because it threatens to trigger a panic that could send several hundred thousand civilians towards the Turkish border. That border has been fortified and is guarded by Turkish troops with orders to fire on anyone trying to force their way into Turkey. In other words, shoot to kill. More war crimes, but at least the Turks would prefer to avoid that sort of thing.
Turkey would prefer to negotiate a surrender with the Idlib Islamic terrorists, who are largely al Qaeda affiliated and not ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Turkey is not trusted to do that because the current Islamic government in Turkey has a history of providing sanctuary for some Islamic terror groups. In return, the hosted Islamic terrorists direct some of their attacks (all outside Turkey) at nations Turkey is not on good terms with. Everyone in the region does not want Turkey hosting more Islamic terrorists.
Russia is becoming the most reliable ally of the Syrian government. Turkey is seen as a foreign invader by the Syrians while Iran is appreciated for all its help in defeating the rebels, though it is also resented for trying to turn Syria into an extension of Iran rather than treating Syria as a sovereign nation and ally. Syria cannot ignore Iran because the Iranians still have a large force of mercenaries in the country and these are useful in dealing with the remaining Islamic terrorists.
Russia and Iran oppose Turkish plans for Idlib and Kurdish held areas to the east (all the way to the Iraq border). The Turks want permanent control over the Syrian side of the border to improve their own border security and, more importantly, cripple Syrian Kurdish efforts to establish an autonomous Kurdish region in the northeast. This puts the Turks at odds with Syrians in general and especially the Iran-backed Assad dictatorship in Syria. Now into its second generation, the Assad clan feels it has won a major victory that will not be complete until all foreigners (Turks in the north, Americans in the east and Israelis in the Golan Heights) are out of Syria. None of those foreigners want to cooperate because they feel the Turks, at least the current Islamic government, cannot be trusted.
Russia continues encountering development problems with its post-Cold War Yasen class SSN (nuclear attack submarine) that was meant to compete with the American Virginia class boats. Only one Yasen has entered service, and that was in 2013 after 20 years of construction and efforts to deal with a growing list of defects and shortcomings. Russia has managed to get a new Borei class SSBN (ballistic missile nuclear sub) into service in 2013 with three now operational and one undergoing trials with four more under construction. This is another example of how limited post-Cold War Russian development resources have been. The first Borei began construction in 1996 and got more resources than the Yasen.
There are other examples of why the Russian navy is in such big trouble.
In the north (Murmansk) two retired Russian warships (a destroyer and an amphibious ship) caught fire
on May 26th
while being dismantled and are apparently still burning. These ships entered service in 1989 and 1991 but were decommissioned in 2006-7
seven years later scheduled for scrapping rather than refurbishment and return to service. At that point, Russia decided that it only had resources to get new nuclear subs into service and has largely given up on building larger surface ships like the two that are now on fire.
The cause seems to be a metal cutting torch igniting fuel sometimes found at the bottom of tanks in decommissioned ships.
May 29, 2019: The Syrian War has been difficult for Russia because of their need to maintain good relations with Israel. There are very practical reasons for that/ So far Israel has regularly demonstrated it can shut down (permanently with bombs or temporarily with countermeasures) Syrian air defense systems. The Israelis don’t destroy all the Syrian air defense systems because that would be expensive and Israel only needs to shut down systems that attempt to interfere with Israeli airstrikes or surveillance missions. This approach also intimidates the Syrians and Russians (and anyone else using Russian air defense systems). The Israeli policy is to avoid damaging Russian air defense systems as long as Russia does not try to interfere with Israeli air operations. One reason Russia is exasperated with Iran is that the Iranians fail to appreciate the technical and military superiority the Israelis have when it comes to air defenses and how to defeat them. The Russians are being practical while the Iranians are believing their own press releases.
May 25, 2019: The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ordered Russia to release 24 Ukrainian sailors and the three patrol boats they were on when they tried to use the Kerch Strait to enter the Sea of Azov in November 2018. The court ruled that Russian had violated international law by attacking and seizing the three Ukrainian patrol boats that were not violating any law. Russia refused to accept the ruling. Outlaws gotta outlaw.
Russia launched the first of three nuclear-powered icebreakers, which will all be in service in the early 2020s, to replace the elderly Cold War era nuclear icebreakers. Russia has always taken the lead in maintaining a force of heavy (and often nuclear powered) icebreakers in order to keep northern ports, rivers and coastal waters navigable during the several months a year they are otherwise frozen shut. This provides commercial and military advantages that Russia is willing to pay to maintain.
May 24, 2019: A month ago the Czech Republic, Germany and Poland refused to accept Russian oil (delivered via pipeline) because it now has excessive levels of chlorine contamination. The chlorine damages refineries and Russia insisted the high chlorine levels were not a problem. Yet the sales contract prohibits shipment of contaminated oil and most other Russian customers are expected to refuse the defective oil, which accounts for about 13 percent of Russian production. This will interrupt Russian sales for a while but there are enough other suppliers (especially the U.S. and Canada) to replace the unsuitable Russian oil. Within a week Russia found and began fixing the contamination problem. Some oil deliveries have since resumed but several German customers are still not receiving clean oil. Russia is moving to resume shipments to all customers before Germany orders refineries to use some of the emergency oil reserves (60-90 days of consumption stored to deal with disrupted deliveries). Russia says it will have all normal deliveries resuming by mid-June.
May 23, 2019: In Syria
(Idlib province), Russian forces are working with the Syrian military to offer civilians trapped in Idlib province with Islamic terror groups an opportunity to leave. The two exit checkpoints will screen travelers to ensure none are Islamic terrorists seeking to escape Idlib. Russia and Syria eased up on its airstrikes and artillery fire into Idlib to enable civilians to reach the exit points.
The Syrians have been using them to “terrorize the civilians” with airstrikes tactics, including the use of chemical weapons (chlorine). Russia went along with this because the Idlib Islamic terrorists continue to attack the nearby Russian controlled Hmeimim airbase. Iran is unwilling (and increasingly unable because of Israeli air attacks and financial problems) to fully get behind a Syrian offensive to retake Idlib. This is the last major combat zone in Syria and like much else in the Syrian War, offers no straightforward options for anyone involved in this final battle for Idlib.
May 22, 2019: Near Moscow (180 kilometers to the east) police surrounded a house where two Islamic terrorists were hiding out. The two would not surrender and were killed during a gun battle. Police found many weapons, bomb components and plans for terror attacks as well as messages from foreign allies.
May 21, 2019: Russia is sending 16,000 individual combat rations to Venezuela. The government there paid $223,000 for this shipment and plans to order more be flown in if these items keep Venezuelan troops loyal.
May 19, 2019:
In the northwest (Idlib province) the United States is trying to determine if Syria has again used chlorine gas to attack Islamic terrorist targets. This is the second time in the last six months that Syria has been accused of using chemical weapons. Back in November 2018
fighting between government and rebel forces lead to a government held residential area being hit by what appeared to be rockets with warheads containing poisonous gas which many in the target area suspected was a noxious industrial chemical, probably chlorine. At least fifty people in the area fell ill and received medical treatment but none died. Chemical tests were carried out to discover out what happened but the results were not conclusive. The government blamed the rebels and the rebels blamed the government. This was the second incidence of chemical weapons use in 2018. Syria has often been accused of using primitive (World War I type) chemical weapons that attack the respiratory system. These older chemical weapons are often nothing more than industrial chemicals (like chlorine) in large (and dangerous) doses. But the April 2018 attack and one before it apparently also included some nerve gas. Since 2016 the U.S. has twice bombed Syrian forces in retaliation for Syrians using chemical weapons and threatens to do so again if the Syrians use chemical weapons in Idlib or anywhere else. Syria apparently plans to do so in order to reduce casualties among their own troops. Russia believes that industrial chemicals (like chlorine) don’t count as chemical weapons (according to the 2013 Russian brokered deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons) and the Iranians apparently don’t care.
May 18, 2019: In Syria (Aleppo), Russian troops again clashed with an Iran backed militia. This time the Russians were Iranian efforts to control operations at the Aleppo airport and using these “proxy forces” to do it. Russia has sent military police battalions, composed of Russian Moslems, to Syria to deal with troublesome pro-government militias. The most bothersome militias tend to be the ones created by Iran using foreign mercenaries and the Russian military police have orders to arrest or open fire on any of these militias that misbehave. Syria cannot do this without offending Iran while the Russians can and everyone understands that the Russians are performing a needed service. This time the Russian military police made arrests to make their point. Last month they had to open fire and that made an impression on the pro-Iran forces.
May 17, 2019: In coastal Syria (Latakia province), the Russian controlled Hmeimim airbase came under attack by Islamic terrorists using armed UAVs and mortars. Most of the attacks were blocked or shot down by base defenses but one person on the base was killed and another wounded.
May 16, 2019: Russia is apparently defying the sanctions and not only keeping its Korean workers but accepting more of them. Many Chinese cross the border to work in the Russian Far East province and while Russia needs the workers (few Russians want to live there) Korean workers are cheaper and less of a political threat. China has claims on the Russian Far East while North Korea does not.
May 15, 2019: The government approved a plan to increase orders for the new Su-57 stealth fighter from 16 (for delivery by 2027) to 76 (for delivery by 2028). The increase was necessary to maintain the interest of export buyers and to put the Su-57 into service as early as possible. The government said the Su-57 cost had been reduced by 20 percent but no details on that were given. The new order is enough to equip three fighter squadrons. This order is more about propaganda than reality as Su-57 development is still incomplete with the engines being a particular problem. A decade ago the government planned to order over 400 Su-57s with most of these delivered between 2020 and 2040.
May 12, 2019: Ukraine reports that despite Russian assurances three weeks ago, Russian warships still guard and restrict access to the Sea of Azov. Earlier Russia had announced an easing of restrictions on access to the Sea of Azov for Ukrainian military and commercial ships traveling via the Kerch straight. The big problem with the Kerch Straight access is that the new Russian bridge and access restrictions have caused the shipping channel to silt up and many larger ships can no longer get into the Sea of Azov and key Ukrainian ports there. This has hurt the economy of eastern Ukraine because the main port of Mariupol can only operate at about a third of its usual capacity. In recognition of that a month ago most Western nations sanctioned over a hundred Russian officials and fifteen organizations for their role in implementing and sustaining the Kerch Strait bridge and the subsequent blocking of some traffic through the Kerch Strait. What Russia is doing violates international law, which Russia insists does not apply in this situation. The new access rules do nothing to eliminate these violations.
May 3, 2019: In Venezuela Russia and China are becoming a problem. The United States reminded Russia that foreign military intervention in the Western Hemisphere is not allowed and that the U.S. is continuing its two centuries of supporting that, with military force if necessary. This warning came after the Americans discovered that Russian special operations troops and security advisors in Venezuela had persuaded embattled dictator Maduro to stay in Venezuela rather than flee to Cuba. American officials told their Russian counterparts that the U.S. would use force to remove the Russian interference from Venezuela. Russia remains defiant.
In contrast, China is also supporting Maduro, but in economic, not military terms. That does not violate the 19th century American Monroe Doctrine. China is willing to do business with the opposition, which is considered (by over fifty nations, including most of those in the Americas) as the legitimate ruler of Venezuela. China has no military forces in Venezuela but is working to revive the local oil industry, which Maduro has wrecked through corruption and mismanagement. Using this approach China stands to profit no matter which way the current revolution in Venezuela goes. Russia wants a piece of this and is willing to supply the muscle while China supplies the money and oil field repair tech.