Russia: Big Brother Blues

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November 5, 2020: Turkey has become a very active enemy of Russia in Syria, Libya and Armenia. Russia has military forces in all three of these hot spots but does not want to escalate. The Turks are more eager to fight, as the current Turkish leader needs foreign distractions to quiet a growing number of angry voters at home. No such problem in Russia where the foreign adventures are carried out on the cheap as economic investments first and political maneuvers second. Now Russia finds itself confronting Turkey, a traditional enemy for centuries, in three of these areas. In Syria the Russians have the Turks on the defensive. There is a similar situation in Libya. Both of these conflict zones involve Moslem majority areas that were once part of the Ottoman Turk empire for centuries. These Arabs have bad memories of Turkish imperial rule and are hostile towards the returning democratic Turks.

Armenia is different because Russia backs Armenia, the largest Christian state in the Caucasus. Russia has troops stationed in Armenia, mainly to keep neighboring Turkey from attacking. That was enough to keep the Turks quiet but a recent revival of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over a 30-year-old territorial dispute has been prolonged by Turkish military aid for the Azeris, who are fellow Turks as well as Moslem. While some Turkish military personnel are in Azerbaijan, the fighting muscle is provided by Turkish-led Syrian mercenaries. These are being used in Libya as well as Syria to do most of the Turks fighting. Dead Turkish soldiers are political poison back home while having Arab mercenaries do the dirty work is seen as a useful Ottoman tradition.

Russia is trying to be a peacemaker in the Caucasus and to a lesser extent in Libya. While Turks are seen as unwelcome foreign invaders in Libya, the Azeris admire Turkish willingness to help out fellow Turks. Armenia expects the same degree of ethnic-religious enthusiasm from Big Brother Russia. Yet Russia is also on good terms with the Azeris, who depend on Russia to protect Azerbaijan from Iranian aggression.

Russia faces an expensive stalemate in Ukraine, where a bold Russian para-military operation against Ukraine in 2014 seized Crimea but got bogged down in eastern Ukraine where Russia tried to grab the Donbas region. Ukraine unexpectedly rallied its forces and blocked the Donbas seizure. There has been a stalemate and nominal ceasefire every since. This stalemate is costing Russian billions of dollars a year and but all they can do is continually violate the ceasefire and seek to subvert the Ukrainian government. That has not worked either and Ukraine appears to be a temporary setback turning into a lasting defeat.

Chinese Grievances

Russia has become economically dependent on China because of low oil prices and post-2014 Ukraine related economic sanctions. Russia and China often cooperate when dealing with their mutual enemies, which currently includes just about every other country on the planet. Yet Russia and China are unnatural allies because Russia has taken much from China in the past and China never stopped wanting it back. This is not just about territorial disputes in the Russian Far East but also past Russian wrongs. One of the most prominent of these was how the 1950-53 Korean War included China because Russia (Josef Stalin) insisted. In 1950 Russia was an essential military, economic and political ally of China. Despite many misgivings, China complied, sending over two million troops to North Korea over three years. About a third of these soldiers were casualties. Some ten percent of the Chinese troops were killed and other 20 percent were wounded or disabled by disease, accidents or exposure. Chinese troops often froze to death during their first Winter in North Korea. Disease was a problem, especially during the first year. Russia provided over 70,000 military specialists and technical advisors as well large quantities of material support. But only about one percent of the Russians involved were casualties. Since the 1950s Chinese have regarded their participation in the Korean War as a mistake. There was no victory. Over 200,000 Chinese died, including the sons of many prominent leaders. In return China got two Koreas to deal with. The one bordering China is a dysfunctional police state run by a local dynasty that cannot be trusted. Then there is South Korea, a prosperous democracy that, in contrast to North Korea, is a profitable trading partner of China. North Korea is a bottomless pit for Chinese money and an unrelenting headache for Chinese diplomats and leaders.

There are other unresolved disputes. In 1969 there was a bloody but undeclared border war with Russia that lasted seven months. Russia mobilized a force of about 600,000 well-armed and equipped troops. In contrast China countered with about 800,000 less well-equipped soldiers. There were a few skirmishes, causing about 500 casualties (40 percent fatal). Russia won these skirmishes and sought to make peace, which China was forced to accept. China was still paralyzed by the “Cultural Revolution” that began in 1966 and was soon out of control. The Chinese radicals were disgraced and lost power to a more pragmatic leadership that tuned away from Russia, and towards the West and more economic freedom. In 1969 the fighting with Russian forces also reminded China of the old saying, “don’t get into a war you can’t win.” By the 21st century China had turned into a major military power and now has a major conventional edge over Russia. Both are nuclear powers and in the 1970s Russia seriously considered using its nukes against China before the Chinese became too powerful. Russian leaders found that going nuclear would make Russia a global pariah while Russian scientists pointed out that such a large-scale use of nukes on a neighbor would have adverse effects on Russia and everyone else in the northern hemisphere. That outcome still prevails but a weaker Russia invaded by superior Chinese forces might lead to rash decisions.

The Chinese assessment of the situation is even more troubling for Russia. The Chinese believe they won’t have to use their military superiority to take back portions of the Russian Far East. This is being done economically and Russia knows it can’t do much to stop this. China has the edge economically and militarily. Russians are big fans of chess and see this situation as an inevitable Chinese victory. The only question is how many more moves before Russia suffers mate in the far east.

Bombing ISIL In Syria

Russia is directing more of its airstrikes to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) targets in eastern Syria. This is in support of Syrian forces and the few Russian troops out there confronting American and Turkish forces. This is all about how ISIL raids continue to threaten traffic on the main road that goes through the Badia Desert. This area, which extends into nearby Jordan, is thinly populated by Sunni Arabs who are inclined to tolerate or support ISIL as long as ISIL attacks were directed at military targets and not local civilians. The main job of the Syrian security forces was to keep the main road open. This vital route passes through Homs province from the Euphrates to more populated (and pro-government) areas to the west. It was believed that ISIL was growing weaker in their Badia Desert refuge because of constant clashes with Syrian troops plus Russian and Syrian airstrikes. That was not the case. ISIL still had plenty of experienced leaders, fighters and new recruits as well as lots of cash to buy more weapons and loyalty from Badia tribes. As their opponents were weakened by fighting each other and the remaining rebels in Idlib province, ISIL began taking key territory held by the Syrian Army, whose troops were the most vulnerable. The Kurds were dangerous, but many of them had been withdrawn from the Badia area to confront the aggressive Turks in the north. Many Syrian Army units were sent to Idlib where a major offensive against the rebels was underway. The Iranians had far fewer mercenaries in Syria since the economic crisis back home grew worse. What forces Iran did have were stationed near the Israeli and Lebanese borders.

Since mid-2020 ISIL raids in the east have become larger and more effective. The Turks have cooperated by putting more pressure on Kurdish forces near the Turkish border. Russia has a small but growing number of troops in the east and these are capable of calling in Russian airstrikes. These Russians are now directing more airstrikes against ISIL combat groups in the east. That is not having the desired effect as ISIL has adapted to the constant threat of American, Russian or Syrian air strikes and provide no easy targets, only elusive ones. ISIL sees the squabbling between Turkey, Iran, the Assads and Kurds as an opportunity.

November 3, 2020: In the south (Caucasus) the federal government has taken control of government finances in Ingushetia, a province adjacent to Chechnya. The Ingushetia government was unable to control its budget and the province is bankrupt. By taking over financial matters, the federal government is running the province. That is a thankless task. In addition to corruption and bankruptcy, Ingushetia is still angry with neighbor Chechnya because of a 2018 treaty that had the two provinces swap territory and settle a long-standing border dispute. Anywhere else in Russia this would not be a big deal but in the Caucasus memories are long and grudges with neighbors are a major source of popular anger and even violence.

The three main Russian provinces of the Caucasus are Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. All are still full of nationalist and Islamic radical gangs that pursue criminal activities like theft, kidnapping and extortion as well as frequent attacks on government officials. Local resentment of Russian rule goes back to the 19th century, when Russia conquered the Caucasus, in part to halt the raids by Moslem gangs into Russia. It's an old problem made worse by the current popularity of Islamic terrorism among young Moslem men. The violence emanating from the Caucasus has long generated an animosity towards Caucasians (especially the Moslem ones) by most Russians. Refugees from the Caucasus violence often face violence and discrimination when they settle in other parts of Russia.

The current situation developed when the Chechens tried, throughout the 1990s, to maintain their independence from Russia in the aftermath of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The Chechens could not govern themselves, and Chechnya became a hideout for numerous criminal gangs who did whatever they wanted. This involved starting a kidnapping, robbery and extortion crime wave all over southern Russia. In 1999, Russia, now led by Vladimir Putin, invaded, to reassert its authority and reduce the Chechen criminality in southern Russia and the Caucasus. Several years of bloody fighting followed, until a majority of the population agreed to shut down the gangsters. Since then Chechnya has been at peace, at least by local standards.

Many of the criminals and Islamic militants fled to neighboring "republics" (as the semi-autonomous ethnic provinces in Russia are called); mainly Ingushetia to the west, and Dagestan to the east. Dagestan was able to handle the influx of Chechen gunmen, at least at first. But in Ingushetia, the violence kept getting worse. Some of the violence was just criminal activity, because tiny (population half a million) Ingushetia has an unemployment rate of over 50 percent. But there are also Islamic radicals who used to operate in Chechnya. And then there are a lot of guns in the hands of the population, so it's often difficult to tell who shot who and why.

The Russian government blames a lot of the unrest on local officials who, while pro-Russian and dominated by former KGB officials, are generally inept and corrupt. As these things go, the federal government won't intervene unless the gangs based in Ingushetia began raiding into southern Russia. Corruption and feuds (between clans and ethnic groups) causes a lot of the violence, which is organized and focused via gangs of Islamic radicals. Most of the 4.4 million people in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan are Moslem, and never much liked Russians. Although the Russians have reduced the violence over the last 20 years, it persists, much to the embarrassment of the national government. This volatile mixing of organized Russians and unruly Caucasus minorities has been a problem for centuries, ever since the Russian empire reached the Caucasus two centuries ago. Many of the largely Moslem Caucasian tribes saw it as their right to raid the wealthier Christian Russians. The Russians fought back, escalating to Cossacks and eventually the army and violence has persisted ever since. During World War II the Russians mistrusted the Chechens so much that they moved most of the Chechen population to Central Asia in 1944, killing many in the process. Over the next two decades those exiles were allowed back to the Caucasus but both Russians and Chechens have not forgotten.

What's surprising is that there aren't more Islamic terrorist attacks by Russian Moslems. Some 14 percent of Russians are Moslem, but only some of those in the Caucasus, where a few percent of the Russian population lives, are really into Islamic radicalism and terrorism. Relations between Slav Russians and the various ancient peoples of the Caucasus, which includes Christians Georgians and Armenians, as well as Moslem Chechens and dozens of other distinct ethnic groups, have been bad for centuries. But as the Russians discovered in the 1990s, even allowing Chechens to be independent did not solve the problem. Letting the Ingush government run its own finances also proved overly optimistic.

November 1, 2020: To the west, in neighboring Belarus, there was another day of nationwide anti-government demonstrations. This was the 12th straight week of such unrest against decades of corrupt rule by pro-Russia ruler. This time about 200 demonstrators were arrested. The government also responded by closing western borders, because the West is blamed for stirring up all this unrest. The Interior Minister was fired for not being able to suppress the demonstrations.

The current unrest was triggered by the blatant rigging of the August elections. Tampering with the vote has been common since the 1990s but it get worse and worse as more voters turn against the government with larger and larger pro-democracy demonstrations. For 26 years Belarus president-for-life Alexander Lukashenko has ruled as a loyal ally of Russia. That has not revived the Belarussian economy or improved the lives of Belarus voters. A new post-Soviet Union generation of voters has seen how life is better in democracies, especially other former victims of Russian rule like neighboring Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine. They blame Lukashenko for the poverty and mismanaged economy in Belarus.

The current crisis came right after August 9th when Lukashenko was elected to another term. Unlike past rigged elections, this time there were major and sustained public protests against his decades of rigged elections, corrupt rule and inability to rule effectively. Since the late 1990s Lukashenko has won reelection with 80-90 percent of the vote in visibly fraudulent voting. Lukashenko has been in charge since 1994, when he consolidated power in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the creation of Belarus. Lukashenko is a Soviet era official, who runs Belarus like the Soviet Union still existed. Belarus is a police state, where elections, and everything else, is manipulated to keep the politicians in power. It's a tricky business, but so far Lukashenko has kept the security forces up to snuff, and on his side. He bribes or bullies key officials to keep the country running. Lukashenko has maintained good relations with Russia, getting him cheap fuel supplies and other aid. Belarus is small (9.5 million people) compared to neighbors Russia (146 million) and Ukraine (42 million) and Russia wants to absorb Belarus and Ukraine to rebuild the centuries old Russian empire that the czars built and the communists lost.

Lukashenko initially won clean elections as a reformer and clean-government candidate. But he soon went bad. Lukashenko is openly nostalgic for the Soviet Union days, and he complained of the poor treatment given to fellow dictators in Iraq and Yugoslavia. Lukashenko is widely considered the last dictator in Europe, presiding over a corrupt, neo-Soviet government. Such sentiment survives throughout the former Soviet Union. In Russia, opinion surveys indicate people more concerned with "strong leadership" (Stalin is often mentioned) than democracy (which is associated with chaos and corruption.) Belarus is, like Ukraine, one of the two ethnic Slav portions of ancient “Russia” that preferred to regain independence from Russia. Ukraine managed to establish a working, if corrupt, democracy. Belarus became a compliant ally of Russia but continued to resist Russian suggestions that Belarus again become part of Russia. The current unrest has Russia offering to send troops to help restore order. No one, including Lukashenko, wants that because it would risk pushing Belarus into civil war. There are fears Russia will give Lukashenko an offer he can’t refuse and obtain more direct control of Belarus, with an option to annex. EU nations have condemned Lukashenko and enacted economic sanctions and now warned Russia than another annexation effort would bring more sanction and reluctance to do business with Russia.

Rigged elections were a standard feature of communist rule from the 1920s to 1991 and voter resentment was one of many reasons the Soviet Union collapsed. Now those phony elections are returning in Russia and survive in some other former members of the Soviet Union, especially those in Central Asia. While the Soviet Union eventually collapsed the culture of corrupt and dictatorial rule survived and made a comeback. That’s not unusual, all functioning democracies have work at keeping the corruption under control, because too much of it destroys democracies and much else.

October 30, 2020: In the east (Tatarstan) police killed a teenage Islamic terrorist who tried to firebomb a police facility and then stabbed one of the officers who tried to arrest him. While a Moslem majority part of Russia, Tatarstan has had much less Islamic terrorist activity than the Caucasus.

October 28, 2020: IMF (International Monetary Fund) economists see Russian GDP continuing to fall as long as low oil prices and sanctions remain as they are. In 2013 Russian GDP per capita (person) was $16,000 compared to $7,000 for China. By 2019 it was $11,500 compared to $10,200 for China. These trends are expected to continue for the next few years and by 2021 or 2022 China will have a higher GDP per capita than Russia. In the U.S. GDP per capita is currently $65,000. In the EU (European Union) the average is $35,000, in the Arab countries it is $6,600 and the global average is $11,400. The average Russian is well aware of the falling living standards since 2013 and that fuels growing unrest against the government.

October 26, 2020: In northwest Syria (Idlib province) a major Russian airstrike caused over 200 casualties among Faylaq al-Sham personnel. This group is an al Qaeda affiliate that has been very cooperative with Turkey. The airstrike took place while the Islamic terrorists were assembled for some kind of ceremony and thus very vulnerable. This sort of thing is how Russia shows its displeasure with Turkish operations in Syria and elsewhere (Libya and Azerbaijan). Russia is backing Syrian efforts to regain control of Idlib. Syrian leader Assad recently appointed a governor for Idlib, which had been without one for years. Syria controls about half of Idlib and Islamic terrorist rebels hold the rest with the support of Turkey. The Turks do not want over a million pro-rebel civilians and many rebels trying to get into Turkey to escape Assad and his policy of bloody retribution against stubborn rebels. In the week after this air strike Turkey became a lot more belligerent towards Russia because the airstrike made Turkey appear weak and unable to influence Russian actions in Syria.

October 25, 2020: Russia revealed that it had sent its truck mounted Krasukha-4 ELINT (Electronic Intelligence)/Jammer system to Armenia, where it was apparently responsible for the loss of as many as nine Turkish Bayraktar UAVs. Russia sent Krasukha-4 to Syria in 2017, where it was used mainly for ELINT. The Turkish UAV is similar to the American Predator and has been very successful in Syria, northern Iraq and Libya. The Krasukha-4 passive monitoring systems were apparently used in Syria but not the jammer, which has a range of 250 kilometers and ability to disrupt most electronic signals, including datalinks between Bayraktar UAV and their controllers. Unlike many UAVs, the Bayraktar flight control software is not capable of automatically having the UAV return to base if the control signal is lost. Krasukha-4 capabilities are also carried by the Russian Il-22PP EW (Electronic Warfare) aircraft that was also used in Syria.

In neighboring Belarus police arrested 523 people in an effort to disrupt nation-wide anti-government protests.

October 15, 2020: The CAR (Central African Republic) the military took delivery of ten BRDM-2 armored personnel carriers provided by Russia. The BRDMs arrived in the CAR capital, Bangui, aboard Russian transport planes. Another ten will arrive later this month. The UN peacekeepers thanked Russia for delivering the equipment, which will speed up operations and reduce casualties among peacekeepers and CAR soldiers.

October 14, 2020: An Iranian tanker entering the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal was met by a Russian warship, which escorted the tanker to the Syrian coast to deliver its cargo or oil. There are sanctions against such oil deliveries and Britain and the United States have been intercepting some of these deliveries. The Russian military escort is apparently an effort to discourage this much sanctions enforcement.

October 13, 2020: In the south (Caucasus) police in Chechnya surrounded four suspected Islamic terrorists in a building and when the four refused to surrender they were killed in a gun battle that also left two policemen dead. Russia has had more problems with the Caucasus (between the Black and Caspian Seas) region than anywhere else in Post-Cold War Russia. During the 1990s Chechnya was a constant problem that was not really taken care of until 2010. Meanwhile Russia fought a brief war with Georgia in 2008. Since the 1990s the Caucasus has been the main source of Islamic terrorism in Russia, a problem that has been reduced but not eliminated.

 

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