Ukraine and Russia agreed to move back more of their forces from the current front line in eastern Ukraine (D0nbas). In early December there was an agreement to exchange prisoners and continue discussing measures to reduce the violence, most of it instigated by Russian-backed Donbas separatists. Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany have agreed to meet in Germany during April to continue negotiations to end the Donbas stalemate and resolve the problems there.
Apparently Russia has lost its appetite for further confrontation in Ukraine. There have always been some Russian leaders who backed leaving Donbas, and maybe even Crimea, to get the sanctions lifted. Ukraine wants all its territory back. That is a hard sell for Russian leaders, who spent a lot of money seizing and later subsidizing Crimea and Donbas, in addition to the even larger economic costs of the sanctions. Crimea was seized quickly in early 2014 but the subsequent mid-2014 effort to repeat the process in Donbas backfired when Ukraine mobilized its decrepit armed forces and resisted the Russian attempt to take the two east Ukraine provinces that comprise Donbas. The best the Russians could do was grab about half of Donbas and by 2015 the front line had become a stalemate line. Nothing the Russians could do made much difference and now the “get out” faction in Russia is dominant. These peace efforts may eventually fail for any number of reasons but as long as the discussions make progress, no matter how small, there is reasonable hope for a solution ending this expensive mess.
Russia and Turkey are enemies in Libya, where each backs a different faction in a civil war. Russia backs the better organized, more united and more successful HoR (House of Representatives) government based in eastern Libya. Turkey backs the more recent, UN approved GNA (government of national accord) which is more tolerant of Islamic groups, including some radicals. The GNA was also dependent on many militias for military and police operations. The HoR rebuilt the armed forces as the LNA (Libyan National Army) and since 2014 have gained control over most of the country. The GNA now only controls two large cities (Tripoli and Misrata) on the northwest coast. Recently Russians and Turks have been killing each other near Tripoli and neither will back down.
The confrontation in northwest Syria (Idlib province) is closer to home for Turkey because Russian support for the Syrian (Assad) government offensive to eliminate the last rebel (and Islamic terrorist) stronghold in Syria is driving hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees, along with many Islamic terrorists disguised as refugees trying to get into Turkey. The Turks are on good terms with some of the Islamic terror groups in Idlib, as they are with Islamic groups in Libya. The Russians are generally hostile to all Islamic terrorist and Islamic political groups.
For that reason, the Turks are openly calling on the Russians to decide if they are a friend of Turkey or not. The Russians don’t want to make an open declaration, at least not yet. Turkey is a new customer for Russian weapons and helpful against the sanctions Russia is operating under.
In Libya, there are hundreds of Russian combat advisors and trainers. Most of them have been there since 2018. These troops are civilian contractors working for the Wagner Group, which also has several hundred Russian technical advisors in Libya to keep LNA heavy weapons operational. Earlier in 2019 Russia revealed that it had increased its logistic and maintenance support for
the LNA. This support had been going on since late 2018 and returned hundreds of Cold War era Russian armored vehicles and artillery to working order. This work was done with the battle for the Libyan capital Tripoli in mind. The LNA expected to begin this campaign in early 2019.
While Russia has been backing the LNA since 2016, the Turks only recently (mid-2019) came to the rescue of the GNA, which is trying to defend the city of Tripoli, its last stronghold. The Turks favor the GNA because it is largely a collection of militias, several of them described as “Islamic” although not Islamic terrorists. Turkey is apparently also receiving financial backing from Qatar for this Libyan effort.
The Turkish intervention is part of a larger conflict. Turkey is allied with Iran and Qatar against the rest of the Moslem world, especially Egypt and the Gulf Arab oil states.
That is a major incentive for the Turks to get involved in Libya. One reason for Russia not publicizing their Libyan efforts is because Russia and Turkey are allies in Syria. Turks don’t have any military or contractor personnel at the front lines but some have been killed or wounded by LNA airstrikes.
The Russians are seen as reliable allies of Libya, even though it was Russia which supplied Libya with most of its weapons throughout the Kaddafi era (1960s to 2011) and is now delivering fewer but more modern ones, like ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) and portable anti-aircraft missiles to bring down UAVs. The Turks are seen as a former imperial overlord trying to make a comeback. The Turks also ignore the fact that most Libyans oppose the Islamic conservative militias that the Turks support and see the Turks as more of a threat than the Russians or Arabs who are backing the LNA.
The Eastern Threat
Many Chinese neighbors are actively resisting Chinese offers of more trade, large investments and loans for building transportation and other economic infrastructure because these nations know what it means; eventual annexation of some or all their territory because after all that Chinese investment there are a lot more Chinese living, working and investing in the area. Even Russia and North Korea are threatened by this. Former Soviet Union provinces in Central Asia, independent since 1991, are seeking closer ties with nuclear-armed Russia for defense against these Chinese moves. China would be all over North Korea if it weren’t for the fiercely nationalistic North Korean dictatorship. All Koreans know that the historical “Greater Korea” used to include large portions of northeast China that once had majority Korean populations. These areas now have a large Korean minority populations but are indisputably Chinese.
The same thing is happening in northwest China where Xinjiang province was once known as East Turkestan with a majority Uighur Moslem population. Centuries of Chinese efforts to turn Xinjiang from a conquered province into a Han (ethnic Chinese) majority region have succeeded in many respects. A similar effort is underway in Tibet, where the local population are distant cousins to the Han but have for over a thousand years resisted Chinese occupation and domination. Tibet is losing that battle.
There is a similar situation in Chinese “Inner Mongolia”, a portion of neighboring Mongolia, where centuries of Chinese trade and Han migration turned a large portion of Mongolia into what is now the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. China started its Hanification of the area in the 14th century, after the Mongol dynasty in China was overthrown and China sought to eliminate any future Mongol threats by gradually absorbing Mongolia. Currently, the rest of Mongolia is called Outer Mongolia by the Chinese and is independent only because of alliances with Russia. In time the Chinese will make all of Mongolia Chinese.
Russia faces the loss of its far eastern (Pacific coast) territories. Communist China never renounced Chinese claims on these territories and there was some fighting on the border over that in the 1970s.
January 29, 2020: China has apparently become the second-largest weapons producer on the planet, ousting Russia from that position. Despite secrecy about such matters in both countries, SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), an independent defense research organization tracks such things and has a good track record for accuracy. A year ago SIPRI declared that as of 2017 Russia had become the second-largest arms manufacturer in the world. Russia passed Britain for the first time since the Cold War ended in 1991. The United States remains in first place, with $227 billion in sales by 42 major firms. Russia was second with $38 billion and Britain third $36 billion. Taken together Western European nations had total sales of $94 billion which is about the same as Chinese arms firms, whose published data shows about $95 billion for 2017. SPIRI notes that it leaves China out because it has not got comparable data for China going back to 2002, which is when the current data begins for the “Top 100 Defense firms”. During the Cold War SIPRI did not include Russia or other communist nations with command economies (most of East Europe, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam and China) for the same reason. But unofficial (and eventually verified) estimates put Russia in second place during most of the Cold War.
SIPRI was founded in 1966 with the help of the Swedish government to compile and publish, among other things, unclassified (“open source”) data on weapons production and exports to be used as a basis for negotiation arms control agreements. SIPRI has been pretty strict about using only reliable sources and that was a problem with the larger communist nations which produced a lot of weapons. These communist nations tended to sell to anyone who can pay and that practice did not end with the collapse of most communist nations in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
January 28, 2020: The U.S., in cooperation with Canada, imposed sanctions on six Russian individuals and one transportation company for illegal activities in Crimea and the use of the Kerch Bridge across the Kerch Straits. These sanctions were developed in cooperation with Ukraine which is being economically harmed by Russian activities in Crimea, especially their use of the new Kerch Bridge to restrict access to the Sea of Azov and Ukrainian ports there.
January 27, 2020: The government confirmed that Russia would provide the American space program six RD-180 rocket engines in 2020. So far Russia has supplied the United States with 116 RD-180s. That’s over $1.2 billion for Russian manufacturers. Since 2014 Russia has refused to allow American sanctions to halt shipments of RD-180 rocket engines to the United States. Russia did threaten to halt RD-180 shipments. The U.S. protested to Russia, without much effect, that halting the RD-180 shipments was breach of contract and that breaching this particular contract would do enormous damage to Russian exports in the future because now many countries and firms would assume that a contract with a Russian firm could be canceled by the Russian government for any reason. This was always seen as a risk when doing business with Russia and many Western firms declined to do so or have pulled out of Russia since 2000 because of the growing unreliability of Russia as a business partner. The RD-180 affair got a lot of publicity, all of it bad with regard to future Russian exports of manufactured goods. Europe, which gets about a third of its natural gas from Russia, is already looking for alternate sources and investors are fleeing Russia (and taking their money with them). After a few months, Russia admitted that it was going to continue shipping the RD-180s because it needed the money. It was no secret that the profits from the RD-180 sales were keeping several Russian firms (rocket engine design firms and the engine manufacturer) in business. Unofficially Russian trade officials had warned their bosses about the problem with the loss of future export business and this was apparently listened to, but could not be mentioned officially. The corruption in Russia and the problems foreign firms are having with that, and the eternally difficult Russian bureaucracy are all known problems inside Russia but have proved impossible to fix so far. Russia needs the exports, even though the official line is that the sanctions are not hurting.
January 26, 2020: In eastern Syria (Hasaka province) a Russian convoy was stopped at an American checkpoint and turned away. The road led to a Kurdish controlled oilfield. This is the fourth time since the 18th that American troops have blocked Russian efforts to drive past Kurdish oil facilities in Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces.
January 25, 2020: The UN reports that at least seven nations are violating the Libyan arms embargo and supplying weapons and other military aid. The biggest offenders currently are Turkey and Russia.
January 24, 2020: Bulgaria expelled two Russian diplomats who had been accused of involvement in illegal espionage. Bulgaria has long been subject to Russian pressure for all sorts of things. Since 2004 Bulgaria has been a member of NATO, in the hope that getting rid of its Russian-backed communist government in 1990 and joining NATO would get Russia to back off. That strategy has limited success.
January 23, 2020: In northwest Syria (Idlib province), rebels launched an offensive against Syrian troops and drove them back enough so the rebels could again occupy two villages. This was a rare setback because for the last few months the government forces have been slowly but relentlessly pushing the Islamic terrorist rebels back. This is with the assistance of Russian and Syrian airstrikes, often over a hundred a day. As a result, many rebels who do not retreat are killed by the many airstrikes. The rebel advance was followed the next day but massive airstrikes and attacks by Syrian and Russian ground forces. Turkey accuses Russia of responsibility for the current Syrian offensive against the Idlib rebels, which has sent about 400,000 Idlib civilians towards the Turkish border. Without Russian support, Syria could not have carried out such an effective offensive, which began in May 2019. Turkey thought they had Russian agreement to a ceasefire in Idlib but that never worked and the Syrians keep advancing.
January 22, 2020: The government has announced bonuses for security forces who must deal with the growing number of public protests. The bonuses will be up to an additional month's pay for months in which security personnel deal with protesters. Apparently there have been morale and motivation problems among security personnel as they continued to face civilians who were complaining about the same government corruption and mismanagement that hurt the families of security personnel. The government also noted that there were 155 illegal (without a permit) protests took place in Moscow during 2019. These illegal protests led to over 3,000 arrests. The protest activity was up 50 percent compared to 2018.
More economic data became public. GDP growth in 2019 was only one percent and few Russians have seen their living standards improve. Per capita, GPD has increased since 2018 but most of that went to the wealthiest men in the country. For most Russians, the economy is still in trouble. Sanctions brought on by invading Ukraine and lower oil prices caused by increased North American production are the main culprits but the high levels of corruption are also a major factor. Exports are way down as a result, although there are exceptions. Exports to North Korea increased in 2019, from $32 million in 2018 to $42 million in 2019. Imports from North Korea were also up, to $2.31 million from $1.98 million in 2018. North Korea is under more extensive sanctions than Russia but some legal trade is allowed. Russia is also accused of a lot of illegal trade with North Korea.
January 21, 2020: Russia has shipped 120 S-400 missiles to Turkey, which received two battalions of S-400 systems in mid-2019. Turkey expects to have these two battalions operational by mid-2020. The new S-400 equipment cost the Turks $2.5 billion, which included training, technical assistance and a 20 month warranty.
Russia revealed that it had moved one of its own S-400 batteries to eastern Syria’s Hasaka province. The battery is stationed outside the
border city of Qamishli, which is controlled by Kurds, but also has Syrian troops present to prevent an attack by the Turks. This S-400 battery is now 100 kilometers from the Iraq border and the S-400 search radar has a range of 600 kilometers, meaning it now covers most of the Iraqi border with Syria.
Russia claims that it tracked six American F-35s flying along the Iran-Iraq border on the 7th. This was when Iran fired 16 ballistic missiles at American bases in Iraq. The U.S. had no comment on the F-35s.
January 20, 2020: Belarus has rebuffed Russian demands that the two nations merge. Since the late 1990s, Russia has been trying to persuade Belarus to rejoin “Mother Russia”. Two decades of persuasion has not worked. Belarus had good reason leave the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991 and Russia, viewed from Belarus, has not changed much since the Soviet Union shed nearly all its non-Russian citizens and became a majority ethnic Russian state with a lot of territory but half the population of the Soviet Union. In 2014 Russia persuaded Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia to join a new economic union with Russia. This Eurasian Economic Union became effective in January 2015 and allowed goods to move freely member countries without customs levies. Kyrgyzstan considering joining but never did so. Nor did anyone else. Kazakhstan did agree to become part of a unified multi-national air defense system sponsored by Russia and other nations showed interest. These Russian led organizations never caught on because the non-Russian nations know what is going on. All this is more than helping out a neighbor with their defense or economic needs. This is the less violent Russian approach to rebuilding their empire. For over a decade Russia has been proposing things like customs unions, military cooperation and rebuilding the old Soviet air defense system that used to defend everyone in the empire. Ukraine refused to consider joining the union or air defense system and made it clear it preferred closer ties with the West. Russia took violent exception to that attitude but that has led to more complications. Now Belarus is looking towards the West for help in avoiding Russian entanglement and assimilation. Central Asian nations that were once part of the Soviet Union are more willing to cooperate to avoid economic and political domination by China. But none of the Central Asian states or any former parts of the Soviet Union want to rejoin a Russian empire.
January 19, 2020: In northern Syria, near the Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) Russian airbase Syrian troops activated at least one battery of their new Russian S-300 air defense systems. It has taken nearly a year for the Syrian crews to be trained. Russia is believed to still have a veto over when the Syrian S-300s can be used.
In Germany, an international conference assembled to deal with the stalemate in Libya. Those invited included the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Italy, the EU, UN, AU (African Union), Arab League, Republic of Congo, Algeria, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. GNA and HoR representatives also showed up but would not meet with each other. GNA and HoR representatives attended and agreed to discuss a peace deal, which is supposed to include the dissolution of the militias in Tripoli and Misrata that are the remaining obstacle to peace in the country. The LNA has suppressed Islamic terrorists and tribal rebels in most of the country and has been trying to take Tripoli since April.
January 18, 2020: In eastern Syria (Hasaka province) a Russian convoy taking a Russian general to the Turkish border was stopped and rerouted when the convoy sought to drive near Kurdish controlled oil fields. This was apparently the result of poor planning because the Kurdish held oilfields have been off-limits to Russians since 2018 when Russian military contractors tried and failed, to take control of the oilfields in neighboring Deir Ezzor province.
January 16, 2020:
Corruption remains a major problem for Russia and years of well-publicized efforts to deal with it have failed and Russia is stuck near the bottom of the list when it comes to clean government. For 2019 Russia ranked 137th out of 180 nations compared with 135 in 2017 in international rankings. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Yemen/15, Syria/13, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (Finland, New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.
The current Russian score is 28 (versus 29 in 2017) compared to 30 (30) for Ukraine, 45 (44) for Belarus, 58 (60) for Poland, 80 (81) Germany, 65 (61) for Taiwan, 39 (40) for Turkey, 41 (40) for India, 39 (41) for China, 57 (54) for South Korea, 14 (17) for North Korea, 37 (35) for Vietnam, 85 (84) for Singapore, 73 (73) for Japan, 40 (37) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 29 (33) for the Maldives, 34 (34) for the Philippines, 32 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (28) for Bangladesh, 26 (30) for Iran, 16 (15) for Afghanistan, 29 (30) for Burma, 71 (71) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 60 (64) for Israel, 69 (75) for the United States, 26 (27) for Nigeria, 44 (43) for South Africa, 20 (18) for Iraq, 39 (40) for Turkey, 53 (49) for Saudi Arabia and 28 (28) for Lebanon.
The Russian corruption score has not changed much since 2012 when it was 28.
January 15, 2020: The Russian government (the ministers of major departments) resigned to allow president Putin to carry out his recently announced constitutional reforms. As the law currently stands Putin will not be able to run for a president again after 2024. Putin has made a lot of enemies during his 21 years in power and he does not see peaceful retirement as an option. So he wants to reorganize the government, via constitutional changes, that will give him options to disperse power away from the presidency to posts that can be held indefinitely, like parliament leader or head of the State Council. Putin does not want to do away with democracy, but he does want to establish tighter control over it by making it easier to manipulate elections and ensure that only his party regularly wins them. Prime minister Medvedev, a longtime Putin henchman, also resigned and agreed to take a lesser post in the Defense Ministry. Medvedev has been identified in too many corruption investigations and is considered a political liability for Putin.
January 14, 2020: In Syria, Israeli airstrikes again hit the T4 airbase in Homs province, killing at least three pro-Iran soldiers and destroying a lot of structures and equipment. This airbase, in central Syria near Palmyra has been hit by Israeli airstrikes several times in 2019 and many more times in earlier years. The T4 airbase is the largest in Syria. This is where Iran moved its UAV operations in 2018 after its original UAV base in Syria was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. Russia later revealed that its electronic jammers, which were supposed to disrupt the guidance systems of missiles attacking Syrian bases failed to do so during the 2018 T-4 attack. Details were not given, only that the Russian jammers were “interfered with by external forces.” Russia is embarrassed by the apparent ineffectiveness of its air defenses when used against Israeli airstrikes. The Israelis don’t rub it in and generally respond with “no comment” when asked about it.
January 12, 2020: In Libya Russia and Turkey got both the GNA and HoR to agree to and implement a ceasefire. LNA supreme leader general Hiftar went to Russia to discuss the matter with his largest foreign supplier of military assistance. Hiftar agreed to the ceasefire but refused to sign the agreement. Turkey and Russia are allies, sort of, in Syria but Turkey, like the GNA, is tolerant of Islamic militias. Actually Turkey regularly supports “cooperative” Islamic terrorist groups but has not sent any of those to Libya to reinforce the defense of Tripoli. Instead, Turkey has sent about 2,000 trusted members of its FSA (Free Syrian Army) mercenary force. The FSA has been doing most of the fighting for the Turks in Syria, in return for good pay and eventual Turkish citizenship. Some of these Turkish mercenaries in Libya already received their citizenship, plus about $2,000 a month for serving in Libya plus a large payout to next of kin if they are killed.
Russia hopes to do business with Libya after the war but is also dependent on Turkey financially. Turkey has become a major customer for Russian weapons and Russia, under heavy sanctions for invading Ukraine, needs the money. At the same time Russia recognizes that Hiftar and his LNA are the most effective military force in Libya and also the most effective at dealing with Islamic radical groups.
January 9, 2020: In the Persian Gulf a Russian electronic intelligence ship came dangerously close to an American destroyer. The Russians later denied that the incident occurred but the Americans had captured it all on video.