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July 23, 2020: Most Russians are currently focused on their declining economic conditions and the major reason why; covid19. Russia continues to have one of the highest totals of confirmed covid18 cases in absolute terms. In relative terms Russia has 5,400 cases per million population (up from 1,700 two month s ago) and 87 deaths per million (up from 15 two months ago ). In relative terms Russia is way down the list in cases, at about the same level as Italy. In terms of deaths Russia is even farther down in the rankings. Russia attributes the relatively low number of cases to the fact that it is a big country and much of the population is normally isolated. The lower death rate is another matter and Russia explains that it does not automatically classify each death in which the deceased had covid19 as a covid19 death. Most covid19 deaths are people who already have other serious health problems and covid19 comes along and becomes one too many. Russian medical statistics rank the medical problems that contribute to a death and give the main one as the “cause.” Often there are multiple causes of death, especially among the most common covid19 victims; the elderly and chronically ill.

Meanwhile Russian media are full of news about the foreign wars Russia is participating in. Even more troublesome are the allies Russia has in their foreign wars. The worse of these is Turkey. Turkey seems to be at war with everyone, officially or unofficially. The reality is that Turkey has some priorities in this area. Turkey wants to avoid war with Israel yet portrays Israel an “enemy of Islam” and tried to ignore the fact that Russia and Israel have long been friends and that relationship continues. Turkey and Russia agree with Israel when it comes to Iran in Syria. Turkey would prefer that Iran go home. Many Iranians and Syrians openly agree with Russia and Turkey on this point. The Iranian government responds with “Israeli airstrikes are killing people in Syria.” Syrians note that most of the dead are Iranians or mercenaries (Arabs or Afghans) on the Iranian payroll. The Iranian government deliberately keeps as few Iranians as possible in Syrian bases likely to be hit. Iranians getting killed in Syria, even if they are IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) Iranians, is very unpopular back in Iran. Russia also keeps its military personnel as far away from the actual fighting as possible.

Syrians just don’t like all these Syrians who are working for Iran or Turkey as mercenaries and getting killed by whoever. Similar situation with Russia and Turkey. Both nations keep as few of their own troops in Syria as possible. Russia and Turkey both have the majority of voters back home hostile to their soldiers getting killed in Syria. Russia uses a lot of Russian military contractors; whose deaths are less of an issue in Russia. The Turks, as they have done for centuries, use Arab mercenaries to fight other Arabs. There are lots of Turkish troops in Syria providing support, and ensuring that Turkish mercs do what they are paid for.

Turkey and Syria are also angry at Russia over the poor performance of Russian air defense systems. The Syrians frequently claim to have intercepted Israeli air-launched, often from inside Lebanon or Israel, missiles but the reality is that few of the Israeli missiles fail to hit their targets. Commercial satellite photos are available to determine damage and there is always a lot of it. Iran and Syria complain that the formidable Russian air defense system in Syria is not used to stop the Israelis. The Russians don’t want a fight with the Israelis, if only because the Israelis might publicly demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defense systems. These systems are a major export item for Russia and the Israelis could reduce those export sales with demonstrations of how Israelis get past the Russian air defenses.

Russia and Turkey are actually fighting each other in Libya, where Turkey recently (late 2019) intervened on the side of the UN backed government there. That government is weak and backs Islamic rule, which is why it was about to be eliminated by the Russian backed Libyan government and its more capable LNA (Libyan National Army). This force was backed by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Turkey intervened in return for a signed agreement giving it the right to drill for oil in disputed waters between Libya and Turkey. In Syria Russian airstrikes have killed Turkish troops while the Turks have killed Syrian troops. Turkey, Russia and Iran continue to pretend they are all friends and allies of Syria but the reality is different and becoming more visible and violent.

There are still tensions between Turkey and Russia. For example, Russia has refused to explain why they have been sending daily air patrols along the Turkish border for over a week. The Russian jets stay inside Syria but if those jets are equipped for aerial recon they could be taking detailed photos of any Turkish forces on both sides of the border.

Russia and Turkey are more interested in avoiding a larger war and more damage to Libya. Turkey, Russia and Iran continue to pretend they are all friends and allies of Syria but the reality is different and becoming more visible and violent. To further complicate matter the Assad government of Syria has declared itself an ally of the LNA. The Syrians have sent, with Russian assistance, some equipment and weapons to the LNA. This was all a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

July 22, 2020: The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) brokered a new ceasefire agreement between Ukraine and Russia. Germany and France have always taken the lead in these negotiations because they represent the largest economies in Europe. Russia wants the sanctions lifted but first it has to convince France and Germany that the Russian aggression against Ukraine is over. The new ceasefire goes into effect on July 27th. OSCE observer teams have been operating in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and keep reporting violations (of ceasefire and other agreements). There are often thousands of violations a week. Russia simply denies it, calling the photos and witness accounts contrived. The OSCE personnel are still targets for rebel fire. The 600 OSCE staff (most of them roving monitors) in eastern Ukraine and Donbas, whose job is to oversee the 0riginal 2015 Minsk (where it was negotiated and signed) Ceasefire have seen that ceasefire agreement renegotiated several times since 2015. OSCE staff have been complaining since 2015 that they are being restricted by Russian-backed rebels and, less frequently Ukrainian forces from carrying out inspections. There are satellite photos available as a backup as well as local sources on the ground. Russia believes that because the front lines have not moved much since late 2014, they can do what they want with no consequences. Despite that attitude the Russian operation in Donbas is falling apart. Morale among the Ukrainians who agreed to keep the rebellion going is bad and getting worse. More and more of the “rebel activity” in Donbas is carried out by Russians pretending to be Ukrainian rebels. The Russian government apparently believes it will ultimately win but does not have a clear idea of when or how.

Ukraine also reported that over 3,100 of their troops have died fighting the Russians since 2014. Nearly all these deaths occurred in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) where Russian forces have been stalled in their efforts to seize all the territory of the two provinces that comprise the Donbas region. Earlier in 2014 the Russians were successful in grabbing all of Crimea and that area is considered, by most of the world as illegally “under occupation” by Russian forces.

In southern Syria Israel launched another series of airstrikes on Damascus as well as in central Syria. This time more of the targets were Syrian air defense facilities (radars and missile launchers). Israel is doing this in preparation for Iranian efforts to bring in and use air defense systems similar to the ones Syria already has. Up to a point Israeli air strikes can evade Syrian air defenses but if there are too many air defense systems operational there is more risk of Israeli aircraft being shot down or forced to abort their attack. To deal with that Israel has to carry out a sustained (weeks or longer) SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) operations and repeat that as needed if Iran and Syrian keep bringing in replacement air defense systems. Another new complication was Russia sending a jet fighter to intercept, but not interfere with an incoming Israeli strike force. This was to make the point that Russian radars can track Israeli air operations and intercept them. The Israel strike force did not include any F-35s.

July 18, 2020: The covid19 crises has accelerated the Russian population decline. Since 2014 that decline had been half a percent per year. Covid19 not only disrupted the economy and lowered the average standard of living but it also discouraged more women from having children. Population decline means that the population of Russia, which was nearly 148 million when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, shrank to 143 million in 2010 after which the decline was reversed until 2014 when lower oil prices and sanctions over the Ukraine invasion brought back the decline. Since then the decline has been steady until 2020 and possibly 2021 as well. The longer-range trend has Russian population shrinking to about 110 million in 2050. That’s a 26 percent decline since 1991.

All this accelerated population decline is not just about birthrates but also migration. Since 2018 the number of people moving to Russia declined by nearly half and the number who left went up over 25 percent. More people are leaving than arriving. Add that to more people dying than being born and the shrinking population becomes more visible. Even expatriate Russians who send money to kin still in Russia are less active. Before the 2014 sanctions expats sent nearly $20 billion a year back to Russia. Those amounts have since declined by nearly half and continues to shrink.

Russia has another major, and very embarrassing, population problem. This begins in the former parts of the Soviet Union that were not mainly Slavs. This means Central Asia where the locals (mainly Turkic and other non-Slavs) always resented Russian domination. The ethnic Russian minority soon left and now the number of locals who can speak Russian is rapidly shrinking. Since the early 1990s, these unwilling areas of the Russian empire have lost between a third and half of their Russian speakers. In the West (the Baltic States) the favorite second language is now English while in the east it is Chinese (mainly) and English. During the Soviet years the majority of the locals could speak or at least understand some Russian. The speed with which that disappeared was amazing, and demoralizing for Russians.

Russia still has a lot of non-Slav minorities and these minorities have higher birth-rates than the ethnic Russians. For centuries Russia (rebranded as the Soviet Union in the early 1920s) was considered a threat to its neighbors in part because of its larger population. But since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 and half the population broke away to form 14 new nations, the remaining Russian population has been in decline. Twenty years after the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian population implosion was getting worse. While in the 1990s the population was shrinking at a rate of .1 percent a year, in the first decade of the 21st century that increased to .2 percent a year. This was because the non-Slav Russians are having fewer children, just as the Slavs have been doing (or, rather, not doing) for decades. The Russian population had declined three percent since 1989, from 147 to 142.9 million in 2017. The proportion of the population that is ethnic Russian (Slav) declined from 81.5 percent to 77 percent in that same period. The Russian slide could have been worse had it not been for the fact that millions of ethnic Russians in the 14 new states felt unwelcome with government controlled by the locals, not Russians in far off Moscow. Often the locals wanted the ethnic locals in their midst gone and Russia made it easy for ethnic Russians to return to the motherland. This prevented the Russian population decline from being closer to ten percent.

Until the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, sanctions and lower oil prices, the Russian birth rate was growing again. That has stopped since the invasion of Ukraine and more Russians are seeking to emigrate as are many foreigners working in Russia. The extent of this can be seen in Moscow where rents for high-end (“Western”) apartments (for wealthy Russians and foreign professionals) have declined by nearly half since 2014

Russian leaders admit that the sanctions plus the covid19 recession are forcing the government to adjust its economic goals. In 2018 the government announced an economic recovery plan that would move Russia to fifth place (from sixth) in the world economic rankings bb 2024. This would be measured using the "purchasing power parity" (PPP) method. This is a concept that recognizes, and calculates the different costs, for the same things, in each country. Most people know this by the more familiar term, "cost of living adjustment." It's more expensive to live in Moscow. GDPs are also measured in “nominal” (dollar) terms. In nominal terms the Russian GDP is 11th worldwide. Russian leaders now say it will take until 2030 to improve GDP so that in PPP terms it is number five worldwide.

That may be too optimistic because the rest of the world is not standing still. In nominal terms (ignoring PPP and just counting everything in dollars, which is the standard for international trade and especially for the oil market) smaller nations like Australia will pass Russia in GDP over the next decade, if not over the next few years. Currently the Russian nominal GDP is slightly larger than Australia’s, a nation with a much smaller (25 million) population. Australia is handling the covid19 crises more effectively than Russia which means Australian economic prospects are much brighter than Russian ones.

July 17, 2020: In eastern Syria (Hasaka province) a Russian convoy was stopped by American forces. This is the eighth time so far this year that American troops have blocked Russian efforts to move into Kurdish controlled parts of Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces. Russian and American forces interact regularly in Hasaka and most of the time there are no problems. Russians have even fewer problems with the Turks. Joint patrols with Turkish troops in Idlib province, to prevent fighting between Islamic terrorist forces and Turkish or Syrian forces, have been a success. American-backed Kurdish forces control most of Hasaka province, where the local population is largely Kurdish. Russian. Turkish and Syrian forces are trying to move troops into Hasaka and gradually displace the Kurdish forces. In some cases the Syrians, Russians or Turks are, via negotiation with the Kurds , allowed to base troops or patrol certain areas. The Americans have more surveillance capabilities than the Kurds and more frequently spot Russian troops moving into areas they are supposed to stay away from.

July 16, 2020: American media revealed that the U.S. president had secretly given the CIA permission to take more aggressive action against hacker groups that have been responsible for attacks on the United States. This seems to explain a number of unexplained incidents were hacker groups had identities of members revealed or their operations sabotaged or disrupted. The CIA, NSA and Department of Defense had long been asking for this authority. Granting it to the CIA allowed the CIA to bring in NSA and Department of Defense experts for joint operations. Russian hackers have been responsible for a lot of the successful hacking operations inside the United States. Chinese, North Korean and Iranian hackers have also been active and they are also on the CIA target list.

July 15, 2020: In northwest Syria (Idlib province) Russian airstrikes supported Syrian ground forces attacking Islamic terror groups that were believed responsible for a failed attack on the main Russian Hmeimim airbase, which is not far from Idlib province. Syrian forces used artillery against Islamic terrorist bases identified Russian aerial reconnaissance.

July 14, 2020: For the third time since 2016 Russia has revised its loan terms for Venezuela. In 2011 Russian lent Venezuela $4 million for the purchase of Russian commercial and military items. By 2016 Venezuela had paid off nearly half the loan but was unable to continue making payments. Since 2016 the Russian loan has been kept out of default via changing the terms. Accrued interest increased the debt to $3.2 billion. Russia appears ready to continue this “renegotiation” until Venezuela gets its economy working again. So far there has not been a lot of progress and Russia remains a “friend of Venezuela” if only to look after its overdue loans.

July 12, 2020: Syria is not getting along with its patrons Russia and Iran. This tension does not express itself violently but there have been confrontations. Iran has been hiring Syrian militiamen by offering higher pay. While Iran is having financial problems, Syria is in even worse shape. Syria still cooperates with Iran. For example, Syria, with Russian help, discovered that three senior intel officers (two generals and a colonel) were selling information to a foreign power (apparently the CIA). Some of this intel was apparently used to track the movements of IRGC general (and Quds Force commander) Qassem Soleimani just before he was killed by an American Hellfire missile attack in January 2020. Soleimani was also in charge of the Iranian military buildup in Syria and Iraq. Iran has declared the death of Soleimani a “crime against humanity” and is seeking international cooperation to arrest senior American civilian and military personnel involved with killing Soleimani. This allows the Syrians to score some points with the Iranians by agreeing with this effort to avenge Soleimani.

July 11, 2020: In western Syria (Latakia province) Islamic terror groups based in neighboring Idlib province once more tried to carry attacks on the Russian Hmeimim airbase using explosive armed UAVs. The attack failed. This airbase was built by Russia in 2015 near the port city of Latakia, which is 85 kilometers north of the main port 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. As long as the rebels are active in Idlib they will try attacking the Russian bases.

July 10, 2020: Russia and China both vetoed UN efforts to extend aid shipments to Islamic terrorist held Idlib province in northwest Syria via Turkey. Russia, Syria and Iran want the Islamic terror groups in Idlib destroyed. Turkey opposes this because many of those Islamic terrorists as well as civilians seen by Syria as supporters (and subject to punishment or death) will seek asylum in Turkey. Russia is willing to allow aid to come in via Syria but that would enable the Syrians to manipulate aid deliveries to favored factions and make it easier for Syria to shut down all rebel/Islamic terrorist activity in Idlib. Russia already got the Idlib aid coming in via Iraq and Jordan halted. Shutting down the aid via Turkey means air groups have to deal with the Syrian government, which is considered an outlaw operation and guilty of war crimes. Russia believes that if it becomes the most useful foreign supporter of the Assad government Russia will have a reliable foothold in the Middle East for a long time. That only happens if Russia can work things out with Turkey and maintain their traditional good relations with Israel.

The UN is not pleased with this Russian strategy and reported that people in refugee camps are dying from a lack of food and medicine. The UN refuses to give detailed data on losses. Syria prefers that pro-rebel civilians leave the country. The Shia Assads are suspicious of any non-Shia Syrian civilians. These potential enemies than prove their loyalty in various ways. For example, in the northeast (Hasaka province) Arab residents of the Kurd dominated province can prove their loyalty to the Assads by staging demonstrations against American patrols or convoys in the areas like Tell Tamer near the Turkish border. In the last week these civilians have cooperated with Syrian troops to block two American convoys. The U.S. has about a dozen small bases in Hasaka province. There are a growing number of Syrian troops in Hasaka as the Assads negotiate a peace deal with the SDF (Kurdish led rebels) and some autonomy for Syrian Kurds. As usual the Kurds are not as united as they should be. There have always been factions within the Syrian Kurdish community and now Russia, Syria and the Americans are all trying to sort out which Kurds they can trust the most.

Sporadic fighting continues in southern Idlib where Syrian troops and rebels confront each other. Russian UAVs continually patrol the front line and are occasionally shot down. Russian artillery and airstrikes are used when Syrian forces are trying to advance, or to disrupt another Islamic terrorist effort to launch rockets or armed UAVs at nearby Russian bases near the Mediterranean coast.

July 9, 2020: In the Far East (Khabarovsk region) Sergei Furgal the popular region governor was arrested on orders of the national government and flown to Moscow where was ordered held in prison for two months as murder and other charges against him were investigated, Meanwhile, back in Khabarovsk there were large and repeated public demonstrations to protest the arrest of the popular governor. Locals believe the national government was angry at the fact that Frugal defeated the Moscow-backed candidate in the 2018 governor election and has since done what the locals, and not what the national government demands. The Russian Far East was always full of independent minded people who live in a sparsely populated and rich (in raw materials) territory. Furgal was a popular and successful local businessman who was equally popular and successful as governor. The national government was not pleased and arresting Furgal has triggered more popular unrest than expected. Khabarovsk region includes about half of the Russian Pacific coast but the region contains only 1.3 million people.

July 8, 2020: Iran signed a deal with Syria to upgrade Syrian air defense capabilities. Iran has not got access to the latest air defense tech and this deal appears to be an effort to test new Iranian air defense gear in Syria and make improvements based on the results. Syria is desperate to obtain air defense capabilities that can stop Israeli airstrikes. Older Russian weapons (S-200 and S-300) are all that Syria has and not very effective at all. Russia refuses to use its S-400 system, used to defend Russian bases in western Syria, for fear of discovering that Israel can defeat the S-400 as well.

July 5, 2020: In Libya Russia suggested that Turkey allow the two Libyan factions, the Turk backed GNA and Russia-backed LNA/HoR, work out a ceasefire and eventually a peace deal. Turley is under a lot of pressure from NATO (which threatens to expel Turkey) and the EU (which is angry at the Turks for a growing number of reasons). A further incentive for the Turks to leave is the Egyptian threat to send troops into Libya to help its old friend the LNA. Other North African nations are angry at Turkey for “invading Libya.” The huge expense of the Libya operations has already caused Turkey to send several thousand of its Syrian mercenaries back to Syria and lower paying jobs.

July 4, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) near the Iraq border and the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq, Russian troops took control of a Syrian oilfield by surrounding it with combat vehicles and demanding that the Syrian security force leave. The Syrians did so and the Russians later brought in their own Syrian mercenaries to guard the oilfield.

In Libya unidentified jets attacked the al Watiya airbase, which had been a major LNA base south of Tripoli. The Russian-backed LNA lost a lot of Russian equipment when the Turkish mercenaries led the attacks that captured the al Watiya airbase on May 18. Now there is this mysterious counterattack. At first Turkey accused Egypt or the UAE of carrying out the attack. That soon changed as Turkey declared Russia was the prime suspect because no Turkish or captured Russian equipment at al Watiya was hit. Russia has brought in several MiG-29 fighters and Su-24 fighter-bombers since al Watiya was lost. In mid-July the Russian fighters and bombers were still at a LNA airbase in central Libya.

July 2, 2020: India has ordered 21 more MiG-29s and twelve more Su-30 jet fighters from Russia. This will increase the Indian fighter force to 80 MiG-29s and 284 Su-30s. The Su-30s will be built under license in India while the MiG-29s are cheaper used aircraft that will be refurbished in Russia.

June 29, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province) there are growing incidents of violence between HTS (Hayat Tahrir al Sham) group and smaller Islamic terror groups that refuse to obey. HTS was once an al Qaeda supporter but renounced its al Qaeda connection in 2016. At the time this was seen as a political move to make HTS more acceptable to the Turks. Back then HTS was already a coalition of coalitions and many of the factions still did not trust each other. The major fear is that another faction, or even HTS leadership, has made a better deal with Turkey which, so the story goes, wants to control HTS as a sort of Sunni Hezbollah and use it to drive Shia Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah out of Syria. Many HTS leaders do have a history of working with the Turks. Russia and Syria have reason to believe the Turks are actually supporting some of the HTS factions in Idlib. The Turks do support “moderate” Islamic terror groups but refuse to outright admit it. This policy is unpopular with Israel and Western nations as well as Syria, Iran and Russia. Many Turks also oppose any pro-terrorist policy but the current Turkish government is controlled by an Islamic party that favors “cooperation” with some Islamic terror groups to protect Turks from the more rabid Islamic terrorists. Syria used to play that game and it did not work out well. It rarely does but for many shortsighted politicians it is still an attractive option. Since 2016 HTS has frequently had to crack down on uncooperative Islamic terrorist factions in Idlib. This is difficult and not completely successful. HTS wants to do this without triggering a major armed resistance. In the last few years, the worst resistance has been a few bombings. This is a favorite tactic for Islamic terror groups who are feuding. That and assassination of each other’s leaders.

June 24, 2020: In Moscow a delayed and somewhat reduced World War II Victory Parade was held. There were fewer troops and spectators that originally (before 2020) planned. One feature of the original parade that remained intact was the prominent display of new and improved Russian weapons.

One system that had failed numerous times in Syria and Libya was displayed. This was the new Pantsir Air Defense System version. Pantsir S1M was shown in public for the first time at the parade. S1M was announced over a year ag0 at the Dubai (UAE) IDEX 2019 trade show. S1M systems won’t be delivered to customers until 2021.

It was specifically noted that the S1M model had changes based on combat experience in Syria and Libya. That combat experience was disastrous with over twenty Pantsir S1 vehicles destroyed by Turkish and Israeli aircraft and electronic countermeasures. Most of the losses were incurred in Libya where Russia supplied one of the two factions (the LNA or Libyan National Army) fighting a civil war there with over 20 Pantsir S1 vehicles. Most were lost to Turkish Bayraker TB2 UAVs firing laser guided missiles after the Pantsir S1 had been blinded by Turkish Koral jammer. Israel used similar tactics in Syria.

The Pantsir S1M is equipped with a new, 75-kilometer range, radar plus an “advanced” electro-optical target tracking system. Electro-optical systems cannot be blinded easily and certainly not by electronic jammers. The S1M is now equipped to detect and take down all manner of UAVs, no matter what their size or operating capabilities. S1M now uses a new missile with a range of 30 kilometers and an improved internal guidance system. At the same time there has been a less publicized effort by the Russian army and navy to obtain a new system to replace Pantsir, which they have lost confidence in. Given the dismal state of the defense budget it may be a while before a Pantsir replacement can be developed and delivered. Meanwhile Russia is apparently going to put the S1M model to the test in actual combat. While Turkey and Russia are allies, they avoid killing each other’s personnel in Syria and Libya and the new Pantsir S1M would be out to destroy Turkish UAVs. That will cost Turkey some hardware and reputation if S1M works but won’t do the kind of diplomatic damage Russians killing Turkish troops does.

All Pantsirs are mobile, truck-mounted, systems. Each Pantsir vehicle carries a radar, two 30mm cannon and twelve Tunguska missiles. The original 90 kg (198 pound) missile had a twenty-kilometer range and the radar a 30-40-kilometer range. The missile can hit targets at up to 8,400 meters (26,000 feet). The new Tunguska is heavier, has a longer (30 kilometers) range and presumably can hit targets at higher altitudes.

The 30mm cannon is effective up to 3,200 meters (10,000 feet). The vehicle can vary, but the most common one carrying all this weighs 20 tons and has a crew of three. Each Pantsir-S1 vehicle-mounted system costs about $15 million, the S1M costs about a third more.

June 19, 2020: A 57E6 missile, fired from a Russian Pantsir air defense vehicle in Syria, landed largely intact in the Israeli Golan Heights. Syria has over two dozen Pantsir vehicles and says this missile had been fired at an incoming Israeli cruise missile. The 57E6 missile is supposed to self-destruct, using its 20 kg warhead, if no target is found. The one that fell in Israel was seen being examined, apparently disarmed, for further examination. Pantsir has been an embarrassing failure in Syria and Libya although Russia revealed a new version of Pantsir at the end of June.

 

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