Russia: This Is No Joke


April 1, 2021: Russia is once more conducting military exercises near its border with eastern Ukraine and the Ukrainian territory it has occupied since 2014. This time the “training exercises” are more threatening because they involve the equivalent of six combat brigades, accompanied by additional artillery (gun and rocket) units moving to the border as well as a buildup of combat aircraft and warships in the Crimean Peninsula, the one Ukrainian province Russia was able take in 2014 and annex. Russia then sought to take two provinces in eastern Ukraine, which comprise the economically important Donbas (Don River Basin) region. Surprisingly, for the Russians, Ukrainian forces quickly responded to the 2014 Donbas seizure effort and after months of intense combat there was a stalemate, with Russian holding half the territory it sought. The equivalent of half a dozen Ukrainian combat brigades now hold the line against a slightly smaller force of ethnic Russian residents of Donbas, plus volunteers (mercenaries) from Russia and thousands of Russian soldiers pretending to be volunteers. What has worried the Ukrainians is the Russian buildup of forces stationed near the Ukraine border. This force now consists of about seven combat brigades. This time Russia also brought warships to the Donbas Black Sea coast and in position to attack the two main port cities there. The air force buildup in Crimea and increased EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment along the border is either another training exercise or Russia seeking to take Donbas, and maybe more, by force and then declare peace. This would increase the costs of occupying Donbas and incur additional sanctions. This is already costing Russia several billion dollars a year.

Another complication is the fact that the Russian army has, since the 1990s, been smaller than the American army. That’s a first. The Russian army is also much smaller than the better equipped Chinese army, something Russia does not wish to dwell on with foreigners. Currently the Russian Army has about 20 combat brigades that are combat ready, plus a smaller number that are not. The current concentration of brigades on the Ukrainian border is the majority of such brigades the Russians possess. The Ukrainian ground forces have 170,000 active-duty troops versus 350,000 for Russia (and over 500,000 in the U.S.). Since 2014 Ukraine has reorganized and upgraded its ground forces and currently has as many combat ready brigades as Russia. Ukraine also has more reserve troops, who are better trained and dedicated than their Russian equivalents. In other words, Ukraine is not exactly helpless against a Russian invasion but most of the fighting would take place in Ukraine and civilian casualties would mostly be Ukrainian, as would the property damage. If the Russians did not sense a quick victory, they would probably propose peace and Ukraine would accept. As much as Ukrainians would like to humiliate their ancient Russian oppressors militarily, practical considerations take precedence.

Other Costs

Since 2015 the relative peace on the Donbas front has been an expensive irritant for Russia. The 2014 crises started because of a popular revolution in Ukraine against a blatant Russian effort to bribe Ukrainian politicians to block popular efforts to establish more economic and other links with the West, often at the expense of Russia. Officially the Crimean and Donbas Russians were responsible for spontaneous local uprisings. That was not the case. Russia sought to use special operations troops and subversion techniques that had worked in the past and that was the case in Crimea, but not in Donbas because the Ukrainians saw through the Russian tactics and responded with more patriotic fervor that the Russians thought possible.

Since 2015 Russia has gone through the motions of an actual invasion several times, but always backed off because of apparent Ukrainians resolve and an increase in Western hostility and threats of more sanctions. America has a new government since January 2021 and that always provides an opportunity to test the resolve of the new team. Despite that Ukraine is a situation where Russia loses no matter what they do. Ukraine and the West (including the post-1991 East European members of NATO) come out ahead it they oppose an actual Russian invasion with more military assistance and more sanctions on Russia.

The economic sanctions have cost Russia hundreds of billion dollars in losses so far. 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 half and continues to shrink.

The sanctions have made existing economic problems worse. For example, during 2020 Russian disposable income fell 3.5 percent. The covid19 lockdowns were largely responsible for this high (compared to other European countries) fall in disposable income. For Russia this decline is part of an eight-year trend because the Russian consumer is still suffering from the economic impact of post-2014 sanctions and permanently lower oil prices. Since 2013 disposable income has declined over ten percent. While the government issues press releases about how well Russia is dealing with the economic problems, the reality is different. Most Russians personally experience the decline each year in their incomes and standard of living. Russian GDP is down over 30 percent since 2013.

March 30, 2021: The French Rafale jet fighter is being offered as a candidate for the new fighter Ukraine is seeking as replacements for its elderly MiG-29s and Su-27s. Previous to the French announcement, the main contenders were the latest versions of the American F-16 and F-18. All three aircraft are competitive with each other and the latest Russian designs. The French are more willing to make concessions, like allowing some of the manufacturing to take place in the purchasing nation. This would be easy and very beneficial for Ukraine which still has a modern military aircraft industry. Since the 1990s the Ukrainian aviation firms have concentrated on maintenance services and upgrades and are ready to deal with Rafale manufacturing and assembly. In the last few years Rafale finally achieved the export sales it had long sought. Rafale has considerable combat experience and has been regularly updated.

March 28, 2021: The Russian parliament approved a law that allows Vladimir Putin, who has ruled Russia for two decades as president or prime minister, to run for reelection again in 2024. The Russian constitution still stipulates that no one can serve more than two terms as president. Putin always maintained control of parliament, which enabled him to implement legal loopholes in the law that enabled to stay in power.

March 27, 2021: In Southeast Asia Myanmar (Burma) the new military government welcomed a visit by a Russian Deputy Defense minister. Since February 1st Burma is once again controlled by a military government. China promptly used their veto powers in the UN to block UN actions against the new military rulers of Burma. Within two weeks Russia also proclaimed support for the military government. The response of the military was not unexpected, because the civilian government knew that the Burmese generals maintained their connections in China and was the main reason China has sold $1.4 billion worth of military equipment to Burma since 2010. Russia sold $800 million worth. Together China and Russia accounted for over 90 percent Burmese spending on imports of military gear. Russia was one of the six nations that accepted the invitation to attend the Burmese Armed Forces Day parade today.

The coup has not worked out as planned because the country is now sliding towards economic crisis and civil war. Anti-government demonstrations continue despite troops and police being ordered to open fire. Hundreds have been killed and many more wounded while thousands have been arrested so far. The Burmese military is comfortable with the cozy relationship with China and Russia but most Burmese are not. The alliance of separatist northern tribes, which reached a peace agree with the elected government in 2016 refused to recognize or cooperate with the military government. Burmese military leaders were surprised at the extent and duration of mass protests during the last two months. By popular agreement the economy is shut down and the generals have to worry about the morale and loyalty of their troops because of the weeks of popular protests and being ordered to open fire on fellow Burmese. The military still has income because during their decades of rule (from 1962 to 2010) they came to control many businesses and some of those were joint ventures with China. A lot of Chinese firms pay the Burmese military directly for joint ventures. This provides the military with at least a billion dollars a year, assuming the Chinese operations can keep functioning. Burmese army officers made a lot of money allowing China to do business in the tribal north, often at the expense of local civilians, most of them tribal people. After the return of democracy in 2011, China no longer had as much freedom in the north. Russia is of little help economically bit is one of the few nations supporting the military government.

March 26, 2021: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) the Russian-backed rebels broke the July 2020 ceasefire agreement big time and fired machine-guns, automatic grenade launchers and mortars at Ukrainian troops. This was done numerous times today, killing four Ukrainian troops and wounding two. So far in 2021 incidents like this have left 16 Ukrainian soldiers dead and many more wounded. Since 2014 over 13,000 soldiers, rebels and civilians have died in the Donbas.

March 19, 2021: Algeria has ordered 300 Russian BMPT-72 Terminator 2 fire support armored vehicles. This is a customized BMP IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle) optimized for urban warfare. Since 2007 Algeria has become the second largest (after India) customer for Russian arms exports. In 2006 forgave the $5.6 billion Algeria still owed for weapons bought from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. During that period Russian weapons were often sold on very attractive terms with low or no down payments and extended repayment schedules that amounted to giving away the weapons to gain diplomatic support. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, many of those countries owing billions for weapons delivered, refused to pay. Eventually Russia decided it was better to forgive debt in order to seek new orders on stricter terms. This worked with Algeria which has, since 2006 ordered nearly twice the value of the forgiven debt in new orders. Algeria pays on time and gets good tech support from Russia, at least better than what the Soviets often did not supply.

March 17, 2021: Russia is recalling its ambassador to the United States for unspecified reason. Russia and China are united in calling the new (since January) American government weak and vulnerable. Both are demanding that the U.S. lift its sanctions and treat Russia and China with more respect.

March 15, 2021 : NATO’s secretary-general once again expressed concern over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense missile system. The NATO alliance is also prepared to help Greece and Turkey peacefully resolve their maritime territorial disputes in the eastern Mediterranean. In late 2020 NATO created a “de-confliction mechanism” (communication regimen) designed to help Greece and Turkey avoid military clashes and ship collisions in the eastern Mediterranean

March 14, 2021: In Syria, this month marks the 66th month Russian forces have been Syria. Russian intervention, added to the earlier Iranian assistance, enabled the Assad government to survive what at first appeared to be almost certain defeat. In those 66 months Russia also negotiated treaters with the Assad government to obtain Russia use of a major airbase and part of one of Syria’s Mediterranean ports. Russia pays modest rent for these bases, because the Assads want Russian forces present in the long term to keep the Assads in power. Russia is also assisting the Assads in persuading the Turks, Iranians and Americans to pull their forces out of Syria and for a long-term peace deal with Israel. That last bit depends on getting the Iranians to leave. Once, and if, that happens it becomes a lot easier to negotiate the departure of Turks and Americans, leaving the Russians as the only legal foreign troops in Syria. Until then the civil war is not really over and currently Russia carries out lots of airstrikes on the remaining ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and al Qaeda forces in the country and operates joint patrols with Turkish, American and Syrian forces, especially in eastern Syria where ISIL is still active.

Russian forces are also active in Libya, Armenia and, as military contractors, in Africa. The Armenian deployment proved effective recently when it played a role is halting the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan and working out a peace deal acceptable to both combatants.

March 13, 2021: In eastern Syria (Raqqa province) Russian troops forced Iran-backed militias out of two small oil/natural gas fields. These two fields have been largely shut down since 2011 and are being brought back into production. Together the two locations produce about 6,000 barrels of oil a day and similar amounts of natural gas. The Kurds control most of the active oil/natural gas fields in eastern Syria. The Kurds depend on the U.S. to supply air support and other assistance to hold on to their oil/natural gas resources.

March 11, 2021: Ukraine has decided to end Chinese majority ownership of Motor Sich, a major and profitable Ukrainian defense manufacturer. The government will, in effect, nationalize Motor Sich. While this will annoy China, it will also please the United States, a major ally and supporter of Ukraine in its fight against Russian invaders. The Americans had recently sanctioned the Chinese firms that were buying a majority interest in Motor Sich. The Americans fear that control of Motor Sich would enable China to solve its problems with developing and manufacturing high-performance jet engines. Back in 2019 China went forward with its efforts to buy this majority stake. Many Ukrainians felt China would take advantage of the corrupt government and industry officials associated with firms like Motor Sich to get better deals. These were often at the expense of Ukraine but very lucrative for the corrupt Ukrainians involved. Many Ukrainians, and Americans, realized how China operated in deals like this. If China obtained a major, or majority, stake in Motor Sich they could, and probably would, steal all the technology and manufacturing secrets and eventually move Motor Sich production to China. Initially they would hire some Ukrainian tech experts to help the Chinese manufacturing operation to get up to speed, but eventually Motor Sich in Ukraine would become a branch of the main operation in China. Eventually the Ukrainian branch of the renamed to something Chinese and “Motor Sich” would disappear. Most Ukrainians want to keep Motor Sich Ukrainian and not plundered of all its tech by the Chinese.

March 10, 2021: There was some good news about the Russian military in 2020; incidents of Dedovshchina (conscripts with more time in the military abusing new ones) were down over 15 percent since 2019. This continues a decade long trend as the military tries to eliminate the Cold War era custom of first-year conscripts being abused, and often beaten and killed, by conscripts that had been in the army longer, even if by only a year or six months. Until very recently Russia inducted new recruits twice a year, rather than continually as in the West. That, plus the fact that the communists eliminated veteran NCOs from the military before World War II. NCO duties were carried out, if at all, by junior officers, often men new to the military themselves. The appearance of Dedovshchina was understandable because no one was maintaining order in the barracks. While Dedovshchina is fading away, the corruption is getting worse, with 30 percent more cases of it in 2020. Crime (both Dedovshchina and corruption) in the armed forces has been tracked since the late 1990s and it keeps getting worse, but in different ways. While much of the crime involves illegal sale of government property for private gain, the most common source of corruption is among officers responsible for inducting conscripts. Parents are eager to pay bribes to keep their kids out of the military. That has kept a lot of needed young men out of the military, which has, unofficially, been unable to maintain authorized strength (about a million personnel) for over a decade.

March 9, 2021: A Turkish national court sentenced five individuals to life in prison for the 2016 assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey. The court determined that a police officer, Mevlut Mert Altintas, shot and killed Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara on December 19, 2016. Alintas was later killed by Turkish security personnel. A police investigation revealed that Altintas had been angered by the 2015 arrival of Russian military forces in neighboring Syria to support the Assad government. The Assads were also backed by Iran which, like Russia, are traditional enemies of Turkey.

March 5, 2021: In eastern Syria (desert areas between Hama, Homs and Raqqah), Russian warplanes returned to the air after a three day pause and carried out sixty air strikes against ISIL targets. This campaign against ISIL in eastern Syria has been going on for two years and killed over a thousand ISIL fighters. This reduced the number of areas where ISIL is able to base themselves and plan attacks.

March 3, 2021: In northern Syria (Aleppo province) Russian and Assad forces fired four missiles at an improvised oil refinery in Turkish control territory, causing a massive fire that killed four and wounded over twenty. Nearly 200 fuel tanker trucks were destroyed or damaged by the large fire. This is the third such attack on these refineries in 2021 and no one will take credit. To do so would force Turkey to respond to protect its Syrian mercenary groups that operate the refineries to earn money. Syria considers such activity illegal and harmful to Syrian interests. The oil comes from Kurdish controlled Syrian oil fields.

February 28, 2021: In early 2021, when Russia announced its planned warship deliveries, there was one delivery considered doubtful. This involved actually putting a second Lada class diesel-electric boat into service by the end of 2021. The first one was finally accepted by the navy in 2020, but only as a test vessel for experiments with new equipment. Russia has been sending mixed signals about the Lada Class boats for two decades and the second Lada was to be the first “production model” fit for active service in the navy.

In early 2019 Russia stated that the second Lada class submarine would be completed and ready for sea trials by the end of 2019. That turned out to be just another overly-optimistic announcement. The first Lada was “accepted” by the navy in 2010 but the second two were canceled in 2011. That was because the Navy had conducted years of sea trials after the first Lada was completed in 2005 and those extensive trials demonstrated that the performance of this design did not meet Navy requirements. The problems were so severe that the navy demanded that work be halted on the second and third ones.

All this was surprising because the second Lada was nearly ready for launch. Because of that the unfinished Lada was not scrapped and the sub was preserved in case some solution to all the problems could be found and it would be possible to resume work quickly. That eventually happened and the second Lada was launched in September 2018. Construction of the third Lada in 2015 but was also halted before it was ready for launch.

There were many problems with the Lada design but the main one appears to be the failure of the long promised Russian AIP (air independent propulsion) system. This was supposed to be a key feature of the new sub. That AIP and several other upgrades later added to new Kilo class models were supposed to justify calling the Ladas a new class of sub, not just another improved Kilo.

Desperate form a solution to all the design and construction problems, at one point Russia turned to an Italian ship builder to jointly develop and build the Lada export models, called Amur class subs, which would use Western AIP tech. Russia was never able to obtain any export sales for Amur and the project was canceled in 2013. Amur would have been dead soon anyway because of the sanctions imposed on Russia because of the 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

Lada was developed in the 1990s as the successor to the Kilo class, but the promised improvements that made Lada unique, especially the AIP, were never ready so there was not enough difference between the Lada and the improved Kilos being built to justify continuing work on the Kilo successor.

The 2,700-ton Lada is 72 meters (236 feet) long, and carries a crew of 35. Each crew member has their own cabin. Although individual quarters were very small for the junior crew, this feature was a big morale boost. When submerged the submarine moved at up to 39 kilometers an hour but only half that on the surface. Maximum depth is about 400 meters (984 feet). The Lada can stay at sea for as long as 45 days and can travel submerged indefinitely using its diesel engine while at periscope depth, via the snorkel device that brings in fresh air and vent the diesel exhaust. Submerged at any depth, using battery power alone, Lada can travel about 450 kilometers. There is also an electronic periscope, which goes to the surface via a cable, that includes a night vision capability and a laser range finder. From the beginning Lada was designed to accept an AIP system.

Lada was designed for anti-surface and anti-submarine operations as well as reconnaissance. It has six 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tubes, with 18 torpedoes and/or missiles carried. As many as 44 mines can be carried instead of torpedoes and missiles and deployed via the torpedo tubes. Ladas were described as eight times quieter than the Kilos. This was accomplished by using anechoic (sound absorbing) tile coatings on the exterior and a very quiet (skewed) propeller. All interior machinery was designed with silence in mind. The sensors include active and passive sonars, including towed passive sonar. Russian submarine designers apparently believe they can install most of these quieting features into improved Kilos, along with many other Lada features. But the main distinction between Lada and late-model Kilos is the AIP and the first two Ladas do not have it. The 2019 announcement confirmed this. The current plan is to see if the accumulated Kilo upgrades applied to the Lada work, and then install the AIP in the third Lada.

February 26, 2021: In Syria Iran suspects Russia of working with Israel to broker a peace deal between the Assads and Israel. These suspicions increased in mid-February when Russia brokered a deal with Syria to participate in an exchange with Israel that saw the return of two Syrians and one Israeli civilian who had crossed the border. Iran was not consulted and Russia refused to reveal details. The Assads deny there were any hidden objectives. Iran did note that the deal also involved Israel reducing the prison sentence for a pro-Syrian Arab. And there were rumors that Israel would also help Syria obtain covid19 vaccine and so on. Rumors are rumors but the strains in Iran-Syria relations is real.

To make matters worse for Iran, Turkey and Israel are negotiating a deal to improve diplomatic and economic relations. The Turks have been increasingly hostile to Iran lately and that includes ignoring Iranian requests during the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Turkey sent advisors, armed UAVs and Syrian mercenaries to help the Azeris score their first victory over Armenia in a three-decade long territorial feud. Iran was also unhappy with the fact that the Azeris gave credit to the many Israeli weapons that had purchased over the last decade. This included the Israeli Barak 8 anti-aircraft system which intercepted a number of Russia made ballistic missiles fired at Azerbaijan by the Armenians. One of those ballistic missiles was an Iskander, a recent Russian design that was supposed to more difficult to detect and intercept. In short, Iran has reasons to be displeased at how its campaign in Syria is proceeding and how unhelpful, or even hostile, their allies have been.

This is not a new development. As far back as 2018 there were signs that Iranian allies in Syria were something of an unnatural act. Israel had made it clear that they would fight if Iran tried to establish a military presence in Syria. That was complicated by the fact that Iran had allies in Syria; Russia and Turkey, who were traditional enemies. In contrast Israel and the Gulf Arabs are not. What to do? Israel and Russia began trying to negotiate a deal to prevent a war between Iran and Israel over Iranian plans, already announced and underway, to establish bases in Syria and organize direct attacks on Israel. For Israel any long-term Iranian presence in Syria was intolerable. Russia believed it could work out such a deal but many Israelis were skeptical and Iran declared that such a deal was not possible. When it comes to opposing Iran, Israel always had some very public backing from Russia despite the fact that this put Russia at odds with their two other allies in Syria. The Russians see the Israelis as a more powerful and reliable ally than the Turks or Iranians. Russia is also backing the Kurds in Syria and that is causing problems with Turkey. Recently Turkey had come to agree with Russia and is seeking to improve relations with Israel, even that is at the expense of Iran.




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