Since late December the major Western intelligence agencies have been hard at work trying to get an accurate idea of the covid19 virus epidemic impact. Some nations are difficult to collect data about and Russia is still one of them. Russia still tries to prevent foreigners from easily obtaining accurate data on “sensitive” matters like covid19. In early 2020 Russia claimed little or no virus impact. Russians censors were not as effective as the Chinese but virus impact data was already difficult to get out of Russia. There are Internet based reports of more virus activity than the Russian government will admit. North Korea is even more difficult than China to get accurate virus impact data. North Korea claims they have no virus infections but are also asking China, Russia and South Korea for medical assistance. Little can be had from China or Russia because both these neighbors are overwhelmed with covid19 infections that officially don’t exist.
Despite the secrecy, the most immediate crises in Russia is mainly about the coronavirus (covid19). So far there have been 8,672 confirmed cases in Russia and 63 deaths. There are believed to be far more undetected cases and deaths. Russia has shut down most businesses to deal with the epidemic and that has reduced economic activity. That loss, plus much reduced oil income have created some problems.
Given the current poor economic condition of Russia, that added expense hurts. Russia has $234 billion in reserves but by law, this reserve cannot be drawn on freely when the price of oil falls below $42 a barrel. Changing the law would be difficult and the government has to consider painful cuts to government spending. This will hurt because it will take more government spending to get the economy going again once the current one month (begun March 28) quarantine (shutdown of most businesses) is over. The population has responded by reducing their spending by about a third.
Ever since last year Russia and Saudi Arabia have been arguing about how to best deal with the inability of OPEC (the oil cartel Russia and Saudi Arabia dominates) to control the world oil price. Over the last decade, new oil production technologies (fracking) in the U.S. and Canada have greatly increased U.S. production. The U.S. is again an oil exporter and no longer the largest importer. America does not belong to OPEC and refuses to join because of U.S. laws against such cartels. By late 2019 Russia and Saudi Arabia stopped cooperating because they could not find a compromise solution on how to deal with low oil prices. Both nations began shipping all they could produce to determine which nation was the true leader of OPEC and whose strategies would dominate. The result of this feud is low (headed for $20 a barrel) oil prices not seen in decades. Currently, oil sells for $26 a barrel and that is half the price used to draw up this year’s government budget. It is unclear how long the Saudis and Russians will maintain the high production that creates low prices. The goal is to eliminate the North American fracking industry but the Saudis and Russians don’t seem to understand that bankrupting current fracking firms won’t eliminate them. If all else fails, so will economic myths.
The Russian alliance with Turkey is coming apart over differences in how to deal with the war in Syria. For Russia, it is a foreign affairs sort of problem. For Turkey, it is very much a domestic issue. The major issue is refugees from Syria. These refugees are not a problem for Russia, but for the Turks, it is very different. Turkish public opinion is hostile to the Syrian refugees they host, as well as the smaller number of Afghan, Iraqi and other Moslem refugees. Many of these are not refugees but economic migrants willing to do whatever it takes to get into a wealthier Western nation. Europe no longer tolerates these refugees and Turks are not happy about getting stuck with them. This problem gets worse, especially for the Islamic government Turkey has had for the last two decades. This government became allies with Russia and Iran, two traditional enemies. To no one’s surprise, these alliances did not work out. In order to please these new friends, Turkey risked being expelled from NATO. Worst of all, expulsion from NATO means the West would regard Turkey as just another poorly managed, Islamic terrorist-tolerating and unreliable Middle Eastern nation. One thing most Turks can agree on is NOT wanting to turn away from the West. The policy of being closer to Arab nations and tolerant of some Islamic terrorist or radical groups has also lost any popularity it once held. Turks have long (since World War I) been hostile to getting involved in foreign wars, especially when it involved Turkish troops getting killed. So far in 2020, Turkey has sent a lot more Turkish troops to Syria and more of them are getting killed, often by Russian airstrikes. The Turkish voters have made it clear that the current government is likely to lose the next elections if the Syrian involvement continues. With Syria, Turkey cannot just walk away. Syria is a neighbor and over three million Syrian refugees are in Turkey and Syria itself is still a mess. Turkish and Russian forces have been shooting at each other and the Iranians are not much better. Russia does not have much they can afford to offer Turkey as a solution. That makes this a more difficult situation for Russian diplomats, who are under orders to maintain good relations with Syria and Israel first and everyone else after that.
The low-level war in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) continues despite the threat of a covid19 epidemic. So far Ukraine has had 1,892
confirmed cases and 57 deaths. There are more undetected infections and deaths out there and the country is imposing a quarantine period to deal with it. Meanwhile, eastern Ukraine still has a war going on.
Ukraine fears that chronic disorder in Russian occupied Donbas will prevent elimination of the covid19 virus in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the primary health problem in eastern Ukraine is military, not medical. Pro-Russian forces suffered about 80 casualties in February and somewhat fewer in March. The rebels continue to be more aggressive and frequently violate the ceasefire using machine-guns and mortars against Ukrainian troops, who managed to suffer somewhat lower casualties. The new Ukrainian president made several attempts to negotiate a peace deal with his Russian counterpart but to no avail. As a result, there will be no more attempts unless Russia makes a convincing offer. The Ukrainians are paying more attention to their economy and the continuing corruption problems. Meanwhile, Donbas continues to fester, costing Russia billions a year to support. Ukraine spends less cash to maintain its defenses in Donbas and the Russian presence continues to be a major political issue in Ukraine.
April 3, 2020: While Russia claims it has had fewer than 5,000 covid19 cases and only 39 deaths, it announced that in a few days there would be a ban on all incoming commercial passenger flights, even those carrying Russian citizens. About 25,000 Russian citizens are outside Russia and trying to get back. The government has already imposed a stringent nationwide lockdown which shuts down many businesses and discourages gatherings of any sort. This lockdown will last at least until the end of April.
In the south (Caucasus) the provincial governor of Chechnya became the first region to order a nightly curfew to curb the spread of covid19. Other parts of the country soon followed.
April 2, 2020: Despite protests from medical experts, the Defense Ministry decided to delay the Spring Draft of conscripts one month (from April to May), rather than canceling it and taking these 130,000 conscripts in the Autumn Draft. Russia has long taken in new recruits twice a year rather than all year. Medical experts warned that the military was not equipped to screen all these conscripts for covid19 and estimated that over a hundred of these conscripts would enter training already infected and spread the virus again throughout the army. The army is currently quarantining all troops until late April so that infected soldiers could be identified and isolated for treatment. By going through with the April Draft in May there would be another covid19 outbreak. The senior generals considered it more important not to disrupt the infusion of fresh manpower. Since the 1990s the military has been chronically short of manpower and canceling the April Draft is seen as more destructive than the risk of another outbreak of covid19 in the military.
March 31, 2020: Russia revealed that it had moved several batteries of RS30 MRL (multiple rocket launchers) into Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave bordering Poland, and Lithuania. RS30 is a truck-mounted 300mm unguided rocket with a 90 kilometers range. Each truck carried 12 rockets that are fired from their storage containers. These MRLs were brought in because the 300mm rockets could not be intercepted by new Polish anti-missiles systems. The Polish missile defense systems are meant to block Russian ballistic missiles, including the several Iskander ballistic missile launchers moved to Kaliningrad in 2018. Russia has also moved more air defense batteries into Kaliningrad. Poland has purchased eight Patriot air defense batteries from the United States.
Russia opposes such missile defense systems in East Europe. In the past, Russia has threatened to start a nuclear war over the issue. In 2009 the U.S. dropped plans to install anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic in part because of the Russian opposition. The Russians feared that the anti-missile system would interfere with Russian ballistic missiles aimed at Europe. This decision demoralized East European nations, who had been looking to the U.S. for help in keeping the Russians away. In response to the 2009 American decision, Russia said it would not station five brigades (60 launchers, each with two missiles) of Iskander ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad. Iskander (also known as SS-26 and 9M723K1) has a 500 kilometer range and was designed to destroy anti-missile missiles. It is not a traditional ballistic missile. That is, it does not fire straight up, leave the atmosphere, then come back down, following a ballistic trajectory. Instead, Iskander stays in the atmosphere and follows a rather flat trajectory. It is capable of evasive maneuvers and deploying decoys. This makes it more difficult for anti-missile systems to take it down. After 2016 the U.S. agreed to sell the anti-missile systems to East European NATO members. Russia continued making threats and moving additional weapons into Kaliningrad.
The RS30 was introduced in 1989, at the end of the Cold War and is an update of a World War II era system. Iskander began development near the end of the Cold War. The first successful launch took place in 1996. The 4.6 ton Iskander M has a solid-fuel rocket motor and a range of up to 700 kilometers normally carries a 710 kg (1,500 pound) warhead. The missile can be stored for up to ten years. Russia offered several different types of warheads, mainly for, including cluster munitions, thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) and electromagnetic pulse (anti-radar, and destructive to electronics in general.) There is also a nuclear warhead, which is not exported. Guidance is very accurate, using GPS, plus infrared homing for terminal guidance. The warhead will land within 10 meters (31 feet) of the aim point. Iskanders are carried in a 40 ton 8x8 truck, which also provides a launch platform. There is an optional reload truck that carries two missiles. Russia ended up only producing the Iskander-M for its own military because no one wanted the export mode. The M version has a longer range (at least 500 kilometers) and more countermeasures (to interception). Russia has admitted that it could use Iskander to destroy the U.S. anti-missile systems in a pre-emptive attack. Just in case Russia wanted to start World War 3 for some reason or another. Entering service in 2005, Russia found there were no export customers for the innovative and expensive Iskander. A few were used against Georgia in 2008 but that did not impress anyone. The 2009 threats to send Iskander to Kaliningrad turned out to be a publicity stunt but the 2018 deployment was real as Iskander missiles and launch vehicles have arrived at bases near the Polish border in 2018.
The Russian city of Kaliningrad itself is not a publicity stunt, especially for its neighbors. Kaliningrad and the area around it used to be part of the ancient German province of East Prussia, which disappeared after World War II. Most of East Prussia went to Poland, but Russia retained the city of Konigsberg and its environs (15,100 square kilometers, about the size of Northern Ireland.) Konigsberg became Kaliningrad and was turned into a major naval base. After 1991 Kaliningrad continued as the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet and was guarded by a large force of troops and warplanes. In 2012 Russia activated a new early warning radar in Kaliningrad. Most Russians see bolstering the defenses of Kaliningrad as quite reasonable. You never know when those Western Europeans will invade again. The population of Kaliningrad is 400,000, nearly all of them Russians as the Germans were expelled at the end of World War II. When the Soviet Union fell apart Russia kept Kaliningrad, in part because Kaliningrad is a special place, a reminder of the great (and costly) World War II victory over ancient foe Germany and decades of Russian domination of East Europe that followed. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 Kaliningrad found itself nestled between newly independent (and very anti-Russian) Poland and Lithuania and an ideal place to station a new missile like Iskander.
March 30, 2020: In eastern Syria (Hasaka province), a Russian convoy was stopped by an American checkpoint consisting of armored vehicles blocking the way. Instead of turning around, the Russians tried to move off the road and around the American roadblock. This did not work because the Russian vehicles got stuck in the mud and had to be towed free. The road led to a Kurdish controlled oilfield. This is the seventh time this year, and the second time this month, that American troops have blocked Russian efforts to drive past Kurdish oil facilities in Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces.
March 28, 2020: The government announced that Rosneft the Russian state-owned oil company was selling its $4 billion Venezuelan oil assets to a smaller Russian company. This was done in an effort to eliminate American sanctions imposed on Rosneft five weeks ago. These sanctions threatened to cripple major Rosneft oil operations worldwide. The February sanctions were because Rosneft was assisting Venezuela to export its oil despite sanctions on such exports. Rosneft used its distribution network to sell Venezuelan oil and the new sanctions on Rosneft and any companies doing business with them, made it more difficult, and expensive to move Venezuelan oil. These American sanctions are usually pretty effective because the U.S. has learned to specify sanctions that do maximum damage to those they are aimed at while causing minimal or no problems for anyone else. Russia depends on its sale of Venezuelan oil to get some repayments on loans to Venezuela as well as paying for current Venezuelan purchases of Russian goods.
March 23, 2020: The Russian Defense Minister visited Damascus to meet with the Syrian president Hafez Assad and work out the details of Russian-Syrian cooperation in Idlib province and future Russian economic projects in Syria. Assad wants to resume his offensive to clear the M4 highway between Aleppo and the Mediterranean coast. Assad also wants on understanding with Russia and what kind of peace terms Syrian will offer the Kurds.
March 20, 2020: In China, Sohu the largest web search and online news company published an article discussing how Russia was falling apart and that China would have to reclaim its lost (to Russia centuries ago) territories north of Manchuria and Korea. Since the Cold War ended a growing number of Russians became openly concerned about this because of Chinese claims on much of eastern Russia. China never renounced these claims, even after Russia helped the Chinese communists win the post-World War II civil war that put the current Chinese government in power. At the time Chinese leaders mentioned those claims and did not abandon them. Since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991
Chinese entrepreneurs have quietly taken control of the local economy in those parts of Russia that border China and North Korea. That explains why China has ignored North Korea using Russia and Chinese cargo ships to illegally export coal. North Korea moves the coal (illegally) into Russia via truck where it is exported on ships owned by Chinese companies. China is tolerating this because Chinese firms have been exploiting corruption in Russia, where it is worse than in China, to dominate the economy in the Russian Far East. This is the area between Mongolia and the Pacific coast. China has a historical claim on this area, claims which China revived after World War II and again in the late 1960s. Those revived claims led to border skirmishes during the 1970s that were halted when Russia made it clear it was prepared to risk nuclear war over the issue. That Russian policy still stands, although it is not publicized.
At the moment Russian leaders are more concerned with the imaginary threat from the West rather than the very real one from the east.
March 14, 2020: President Putin signed a law that approved of a constitutional change that would allow a president who has served two consecutive terms to keep running for office. Putin’s current term ends in 2024. If this constitutional change is approved in a national referendum Putin could be elected president as often as he could get away with it. Putin has already bent some of these rules when he had his crony (current president Dmitry Medvedev) elected president in 2008 because the constitution limited presidents to two consecutive terms at a time. But now Putin says he will run for president again next year. Medvedev is currently the heir apparent. Putin and his cronies are taking advantage of the fact that Russians have never had a functioning democracy, except for a short period in the 1990s and are more interested in order and prosperity. Putin has provided more of that, and as long as he continues to do so, there won't be any massive opposition. To ensure this, Putin has rebuilt many aspects of the Soviet police state. Yet, there are still a lot of democrats among senior government officials. If Putin cannot work out deals with these democrats, he freezes them out of government service.
March 11, 2020: In eastern Ukraine, three soldiers died in on the Donbas ceasefire line. This was the largest number of Ukrainian military deaths on one day so far this year. The Russians forces used an ATGM (anti-tank guided missile) against a Ukrainian army vehicle moving near the front line.
March 9, 2020: In eastern Syria (Hasaka province) a Russian convoy was stopped by an American checkpoint and turned away. The road led to a Kurdish controlled oilfield. This is the sixth time this year that American troops have blocked Russian efforts to drive past Kurdish oil facilities in Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces. The last incident was a month ago.
March 6, 2020: Russia imposed border restrictions on people seeking to enter from Iran. This was done to keep people with covid19 out of the country.
March 5, 2020: In northwest Syria, the last concentration of Islamic terrorists is making a last stand in Idlib province. The Syrian Army, with Russian support, has been slowly clearing the province of Islamic terrorists, despite resistance by the Islamic terrorists and Turkish forces. Suddenly there are a lot more dead terrorists and efforts are made to identify them, or see if families or countries want the bodies back. So far about fifty of the dead Islamic terrorists have been identified as Pakistani. But Pakistan refuses to comment or take any action to deal with the situation.