Russia: The Wars Come Closer To Home

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December 10, 2020: It has been a month since a Russian sponsored peace proposal ended 44 days of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia. For the first time, Azerbaijan won, thanks to Turkish intervention and lots of modern Turkish and Israeli military equipment. Israel publicly supported Azerbaijan.

Russia immediately supplied 2,000 troops to supervise and expedite both sides carrying out the terms of the peace deal. This includes both sides withdrawing or moving some of their troops. Russia convinced Armenia that they were losing the battle and risked losing all disputed territory inhabited by Armenians. There were some benefits for Armenia. Azerbaijan ended its economic blockade of Armenia that had been in force since 1991. Turkey was rewarded with direct land access between Turkey and Azerbaijan that does not require crossing Georgian or Iranian territory.

Russia used its good relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan to speed agreement on the ceasefire and a permanent peace deal. This was helped by the fact that Russian public opinion did not have a favorite. While Armenia has long been an ally of Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey were also seen as friends, not foes.

There had already been several short wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan over disputed territory and until now Armenia won them all. Another round of violence broke out in late September and this time Azerbaijani forces advanced into the long-disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Although Russia has a military assistance treaty with Armenia, Russian officials recently pointed out that the treaty does not cover the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area and Russia would not send troops to Nagorno-Karabakh to help the Armenians. Russia has several defense-related agreements with Armenia. The first is the 2002 CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) that included Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. All these nations were once components of the Soviet Union, which dissolved in 1991. The CSTO restored some of the economic and military relationships these nations had before 1991.

In 2016 Russia and Armenia agreed to a mutual defense pact that included a joint Russian-Armenian military force in Armenia. This joint force was for use against any military threat to either nation. This mainly benefits Armenia. The 2016 treaty allowed Russia to continue deliveries of weapons and ammo to Armenia in 2016 despite the fact that Armenian troops were fighting forces from neighboring Azerbaijan once more.

The Armenia-Azerbaijan violence has always been about Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting over since 1991. Back then Armenia went to war with Azerbaijan to defend the independence of an Armenian majority district (Nagorno-Karabakh) that was separated from Armenia by a strip of Azerbaijan territory (populated largely by Azeris). Although Azerbaijan is larger than Armenia, and has oil, the Armenians were better fighters, and the conflict festered, despite several ceasefire agreements.

When Armenia and Azerbaijan were both part of the Soviet Union, and before that Tsarist Russia, the ethnicity and location of Nagorno-Karabakh was not an issue. But Nagorno-Karabakh was technically part of Azerbaijan and the 1991 Soviet Union dissolution agreement was straightforward about who owned what in the breakup. The borders of the 14 regions that left the Soviet Union were a matter of record. There were several situations like Nagorno-Karabakh but none generated so much violence.

Russia considers both Armenia and Azerbaijan essential buffer states. This is what Russia calls the “near abroad” and sacrosanct. The Russian paranoia about NATO is mainly about near-abroad nations in Eastern Europe joining or wanting to join NATO. That was not a problem with Armenia, which wanted protection from Turkey and Azerbaijan fears of Iranian aggression. Russia did not appreciate Turkey getting involved with the near-abroad states. Russia was diplomatic about the unwelcome Turkish presence and the Turks knew that being in Azerbaijan was seen as a rare victory over ancient fore Russia.

Armenia has a population of about three million and a per-capita GDP of $4,500. Technically Nagorno-Karabakh is not part of Armenia but, since 1991, as the Republic of Artsakh it has survived because Armenia provides military aid to defend it from Azerbaijan attacks. Artsakh has a population of 145,000 and per-capita GDP of $4,700. Azerbaijan has a population of 10.2 million and per-capita GDP of $4,500. Armenians are better educated and more entrepreneurial but Azerbaijan has oil and Armenia does not. About a third of the Azerbaijani GDP is due to oil exports. Since the 1990s Azerbaijan has sought to close the education and entrepreneurial gap with Armenia and has made a lot of progress. That has contributed to confidence that the next invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh would succeed. The current effort did much better than previous ones but the Azerbaijani are still suffering higher losses and progress was steady but not as fast as desired.

The Armenian mutual defense pact with Russia does not include Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenians have adapted to that. In 2016 Armenia defeated an Azerbaijani April “offensive” and Russian brokered a new ceasefire deal. Russia and Iran cooperated to maintain the ceasefire. Iran has more influence over Azerbaijan and did what it could to persuade the Azerbaijanis to stop violating the ceasefires. That worked for a while, mainly because the previous Azerbaijani attacks were not successful. After 2016 Azerbaijan continued to purchase new weapons and improve the performance of its troops. There was little doubt that there would be another war.

Both Azerbaijan and Armenia were formerly part of the Soviet Union and quite different even though they were neighbors. Azerbaijan is majority Moslem while Armenia is Christian. Along with the smaller Georgia, these two are the only two nations in the Caucasus that are majority Christian. For over a thousand years Armenians and Georgians resisted efforts by Moslem neighbors to make them Moslem. Russia played a key role in that and considers itself the “protector” of Armenia. Despite that Russia has managed to maintain good relations with Azerbaijan as well. In doing that Russia established one of the more successful peacekeeping operations since the Cold War ended in 1991 by getting Armenia and Azerbaijan to agree to a ceasefire in 1994 after another round of heavy fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia became a military ally of Armenia as part of that arrangement. Iran has tried, and not always succeeded, to be on good terms with Azerbaijan, if only because about a quarter of the Iranian population are Azeris. At the same time Iran and Russia, traditional enemies, have become allies and those links are being used to deal with latest round of violence.

Iran has long harbored an intense interest in Azerbaijan. This is because most of the Turkic and Moslem Azeris live in Iran. Up until 1813, modern Azerbaijan was part of Iran. Then the Russians showed up. Armenia and Azerbaijan were the last Russian conquests as the Tsar’s soldiers and Cossacks advanced through the Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Russians stopped when they ran into the Turkish and Iranian empires, but not before taking a chunk of Azerbaijan from Iran. The Iranians have not forgotten. In effect, most of "Azerbaijan" is in Iran and Iran has long hoped to reunite all Azeris under their rule. Many Iranian Azeris have risen to senior positions in the government. Despite that, most Azeris would like all Azeris united in a single Azerbaijan. This is not a popular idea within Iran. The Russians, on the other hand, have come to accept the 1991 loss of Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Other Foreign Wars

Russia is heavily, considering the poor state of their economy, involved in two other foreign wars. Russian forces remain in Syria and Libya because Russia is willing to pay a high price to demonstrate that post-Soviet Union Russia. There is also a costly stalemate in Ukraine, where a 2014 effort to quickly detach part of eastern Ukraine called Donbas and merge it with Russian failed. Rather than admit failure and leave, Russian forces remain in the half of Donbas they were able to occupy.

Syria

For several years Russia has been trying to persuade or manipulate the various factions in Syria to preserve the rule of the Assad clan and its decades-old alliance with Russia. To that end Russia wants Turkey to withdraw its troops from Syria and the Turks refuse to leave. Russia also wants the Americans out of eastern Syria and the Americans won’t leave. In the south Russia wants the Iranians out of Syria. The Iranians won’t leave. The Assads want the last rebel stronghold in Idlib province eliminated and the surviving Islamic terrorist rebels pushed out of the country. Turkey, Iran and the Americans have other priorities.

Too many of these Russian, Turkish, Iranian, American and Syrian goals contradict each other. There are other parties that must be paid attention to, like ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Israel. ISIL is still a violent presence in eastern Syria and Israel continues to carry out airstrikes on Iranian forces as long as the Iranians are in Syria demanding that Israel be destroyed. In Syria, 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. Syrians fear Russia and Turkey will join forces to extract what they can from Syria.

There are also lots of secular rebels remaining in northern Syria. In the northwest there are the Syrian Kurds leading the SDF (Syrian Defense Forces rebels). The SDF also contains some Arabs and dominate the northeastern Hasaka province that borders Iraq as well as Tukey. The SDF has American support, which helps keep the Russians and Syrians out. The Kurds are trying to negotiate a peace deal with the Assads. Both SDF and Assads see Turkey as a common enemy.

Turkey has hired over 20,000 secular Syrian rebels to serve in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan. The only anti-Assad rebels left are those about 20,000 trapped in the northwest (Idlib Province) and several thousand ISIL diehards in the east.

Libya

There is also a stalemate in Libya were both Russia and Turkey have several thousand mercenaries and a few hundred of their own troops backing different factions in the civil war. That helped produce a deadlock which the UN and other regional nations are trying to untangle. While the Turkish mercenaries are relatively inexpensive Syrian Arabs, the Russian ones are ethnic Russian military contractors. These are much more expensive and more effective than the Turkish mercs. Russia also has some combat aircraft in Libya.

December 8, 2020: The Armenian president blames the recent defeat by Azerbaijan on Russian electronic warfare equipment purchased in 2017 for $42 million. This truck mounted Krasukha ELINT (Electronic Intelligence)/Jammer system was supposed to keep hostile aircraft away from Armenian troops. It didn’t work. In late October Russia sent an updated model, Krasukha-4, to Armenia, where it was apparently responsible for the loss of several Turkish Bayraktar UAVs. While Krasukha-4 was better, it wasn’t enough. 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.

December 4, 2020: In the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, police were called in by an aircraft maintenance firm to investigate the theft of 39 electronic items from one of the Russian Air Force “Doomsday Aircraft.” The high-tech plane was not well guarded and the thieves got in via a cargo hatch. Since Doomsday Planes are full of highly classified equipment, it was embarrassing to have one robbed like this. Police consulted with officials involved with the upgrade and determined that the thieves apparently didn’t know the nature of the aircraft they had broken into and just grabbed items small enough to be carried away and sold on the black market or simply for scrap. This customized Il-86 airliner is one of four developed in the 1980s and entered service in 1992. They are based outside Moscow. These airborne command posts would be used in the event of a nuclear war, so senior leaders could remain active and avoid getting killed by enemy nukes hitting any of their bunkers on the ground. One Doomsday aircraft was withdrawn from service and plans are under way to develop a new version based on the IL-96 airliner.

December 3, 2020: Azerbaijan revealed that 2,783 of its soldiers died during the six-week war with Armenia, which earlier revealed that it had lost 2,425 soldiers. Another 300 Turkish mercenaries died as well. These were Syrian Arabs who have been fighting for the Turks in Syria and Libya. They are paid well and, if killed, their families are allowed to settle in Turkey. Most of the mercenaries are from families that fled to Turkey during the Syrian civil war.

November 30, 2020: The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency criticized the UAE (United Arab Emirates) for providing air and logistics support for Russian military contractors in Libya. The UAE and Russia have been supporting the LNA (Libyan National Army) for years and have long provided lots of equipment and some troops for the LNA. It is unclear why the U.S. government would now make an issue of that support. While Turkey is seen as an invader, Russian forces, which have been supporting the LNA for over three years, is seen as an ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Russia and Turkey are allies in Syria but are actually fighting each other in Libya, where Turkey supports the other, weaker, faction. Neither side is fighting anymore because of a ceasefire. In addition to Russia the LNA is backed by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In Syria Russian airstrikes have killed Turkish troops while the Turks have killed Syrian troops. That has also stopped, for the moment. The Libya fighting resulted in NATO countries openly backing Greece in the maritime dispute with Turkey that led to the Libya invasion.

November 27, 2020: Russia and Turkey appear to have reached an agreement about the growing violence between Syrian troops and Turkish forces (usually Arab mercenaries.) In the last month the Turkish forces have suffered heavy casualties while fighting SDF (U.S. backed Kurds) and Assad (Syrian) forces. Russia actively supports the Assads against the Turks and the Turks now acknowledge that they do not want to go to war with Russia.

November 24, 2020: On the Pacific coast, near the port of Vladivostok, an American destroyer, conducting a FONOP (freedom of navigation operation), was intercepted by a Russian destroyer that threatened to ram the American ship if the U.S. destroyer did not immediately leave the area. The Americans did not leave but continued on their planned course. Russia interpreted this as their destroyer expelling the American ship. The U.S. later protested to Russia that according to international treaty covering free passage the American destroyer was permitted to pass through an area that Russia has declared coastal waters. This Russian declaration does not meet the requirements of the international treaty but the Russians ignore that and enforce their interpretation. Russia is doing the same thing in the Black Sea where they have built a bridge over the Kerch Strait, the only way into the Sea of Azov. Since the bridge was completed in 2018 Russia has been refusing free passage to the Sea of Azov and Ukrainian ports along the coast. Since 2018 Russians has blocked or seized over a hundred ships trying to reach the Ukrainian Sea of Azov ports of Berdiansk and Mariupol. Russia is putting these two ports out of business. Ukraine has sued Russia in an international court and Russia has a weak case. But the court will not make a decision until 2022 0r 2023.The EU and U.S. protested the Russian blockade but have not done anything to get that changed, like sending American warships to conduct a FONOP in the Sea of Azov. No NATO warships have sought to enter the Sea of Azov but more NATO warships are entering the Black Sea and visiting Ukraine.

November 23, 2020: The U.S. has sanctioned two firms (one Russian, the other North Korean) for violating sanctions. The Russian firm is using North Korean workers provided by the North Korean organization. All those workers were supposed have gone back to North Korea by the end of 2019. These sanctions won’t have much impact, other than symbolic, because there are many ways to evade them.

November 13, 2020: In northwest Syria (Idlib province) Russian warplanes carried out several airstrikes outside Idlib City, the rebel held provincial capital. The Syrian forces continue attacking the Islamic terrorist rebels who control nearly half the province. To the west, in neighboring Latakia province, Russian and the Syrian artillery fire is used against rebels from Idlib who are seeking to attack the Russian airbase. Latakia is the homeland of the Syrian Shia and the Shia Assads but it is Russian troops and bases that guarantee the security of Latakia province.

November 9, 2020: Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a Russian-brokered ceasefire.

November 6, 2020: Sudan agreed to let Russia build a naval supply depot and repair yard in Sudan on the Red Sea coast. The lease will run for 25 years, with an option to extend for another ten years. Russia expects to have 300 naval and civilian personnel at the facility. News of this was not released for another week. The base will have berths for four ships. This is the second overseas naval base for Russia since the Soviet Union, and all its overseas bases, disappeared in 1991. Russia already has a naval base in Syria.

 

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