Russia admits that about a third of its population is living in poverty. Many Russians, and foreign economists, believe the real rate is nearly 70 percent. Russian living standards have suffered continuous disasters since 2013 when the price of the major export (oil and has) fell by more than half and has not recovered. In 2014 Russia declared it was at war with NATO and Ukraine. That resulted in economic sanctions that have gotten worse since then. When the current Russian government took power in 2000 it became very popular by keeping a key campaign promise; to reduce the poverty rate. The poverty rate fell from 29 percent of the population in 2000 to just under 12 percent in 2012. Then came economic disasters, some of them self-inflicted. By 2018 the poverty rate was 14 percent and 33 percent in 2019. In 2020 there was a local and international economic recession caused by covid19. That’s why the government's claim that the poverty rate is still a third of the population in 2021 was met with disbelief and derision. Many Russians compared that claim to something not heard since the days of the Soviet Union where official lies were the norm and denying them was a criminal offense.
Foreign Forever Wars
Russia is now a more active neighbor of Afghanistan than it was before 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved and Russia no longer shared a border with Afghanistan. Russia continues to maintain political, diplomatic and military ties with the four new nations that once were Russian Central Asia and had a border with Afghanistan. Despite nearly a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, in an effort to prop up an unpopular communist government, Russia began rebuilding relations with northern Afghanistan, a more accommodating region during the 1980s than the fanatic Pushtuns down south. Now the Pushtuns are trying to take over again. That did not work in the 1990s and a key reason for that was the support the Northern Alliance (NA) received from Russia and eventually America as well in 2001. Meanwhile the Pushtun Taliban succeeded in the 1990s because it had a major foreign backer in Pakistan. That changed in late 2001 when the U.S. agreed to back the NA in its effort to liberate Afghanistan from Taliban control. In 2021 Russia is more willing to provide the NA with support than in the 1990s. Back then the Soviet Union had just dissolved (in 1991) and the much-reduced Russia was broke. Now Russia is less broke and interested in buying more influence in Afghanistan through the NA. Iran and India are also willing and able to back the NA if the Taliban take Kabul or just most of the south. With or without foreign support, the NA is still openly hostile to accepting Taliban rule. One possible outcome of a civil war is a temporary partition of Afghanistan, with the Taliban getting the Pushtun south and possibly even Kabul while the NA controls the north and most of the Iran border region if the NA makes a deal with Iran.
Since 2014 Russia has gotten itself involved in a growing number of foreign wars. The first was in 2014 and directed against the West, when NATO was accused of seeking to take over Russia, or at least take Russian territory. This came as a surprise to most Westerners, but not to East European nations that had lived under Russian occupation and control for decades. These East European nations were eager to join NATO for the same reason the original NATO members did; for mutual defense against Russian aggression. The new semi-democratic Russia interpreted this as an act of aggression. Russians have long thought that way.
Meanwhile more Russians were noting that China, for the first time, had a larger and more modern military than Russia. The mighty Soviet era Red Army had lost 80 percent of its manpower in the 1990s and nearly as much of its budget. That meant the 1990s Russian army was also smaller than the peacetime American army for the first time. This came at a time when China is quietly taking over the Russian Far east. The official lie is that the Russian Far East is prospering because of massive investments in infrastructure and local businesses. What the government plays down is that all of that is for turning the Russian Far East economy into something that serves and benefits only China. The new roads, pipelines, electric power production and railways are mainly to supply China. The Far East is still unable to attract Russians and more and more of the workforce consists of Chinese and North Koreans, including many there illegally or, in the case of North Koreans, as slave-labor. Chinese merchants and suppliers dominate the local economy and Russians fear that eventually the Chinese will act on the century’s old claims to the Far East and simply tell the Russian government; “it is ours” and Russian will not be able to do anything about it.
Russia continues to face more violence and aggression in the south from radical Moslems and nations, like Iran and Turkey, eager to reclaim territory or influence seized by Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries.
It’s not just the Russian Far east that is dependent on the Chinese economy for survival. All of Russia does now and that is not a popular situation. It’s not a new problem either. Back in the 1960s Russia seriously considered nuking China before it became a major threat. The American warned Russia to not ever try that. Russia fears China, just as World War II Japan feared Russia. In both cases Russia agreed to be a bystander, at least until it was clear who was losing.
The Syrian War With Iran
In Syria Russian forces have been in action for nearly seven years and the objective is to keep an old Cold War era ally, the Assad Clan, in power. The Assads and Russia share a common threat from ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), Iran and the Turks. A major problem is that everyone (Iran, Turkey, ISIL, the Assads and Russia) are broke. Russia kept rebuilding Syrian security forces, which now get budget priority from the Assads for protection from any who would support organized opposition. The army has been downsized and the Assads depend on Russian airstrikes and local anti-terrorist tribal militias to keep remaining ISIL terrorists under control in eastern Syria. Iranian mercenaries still provide some security, but only in areas of interest to Iran, like the Israeli border and the network of roads and storage areas for weapons moving by truck from Iran to Syria and Lebanon. Sometimes Iranian mercs share bases with Assad troops. This is dangerous for the Syrians because any area with Iranian forces or equipment is subject to frequent Israeli airstrikes. Russia helps the Assads with the massive air support and also by hiring Syrians who have joined Iran-backed militias. Russia offers about $200 a month compared to $100 a month the Iranians pay. Both sums are attractive to unemployed Syrians.
Turkey is a more troublesome opponent. For example Turkey is providing Ukraine with needed weapons, like missile armed UAVs, while Ukraine has become a major supplier to Turkey for other military equipment. Turkey could support Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. Ukraine has become an expensive problem for Russia and there has not been a lot of activity down there lately. Russian cannot afford the financial cost.
June 5, 2021: In 2021 Ukraine began building American UH-1 (Huey) helicopters, under license, in the state-owned Odessa Aviation Plant. This plant is one of the largest MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) operations for Russian Cold War era jet fighters, transports and trainers. This includes engine overhaul. Since its founding in 2011 the Odessa Aviation Plant has specialized in MRO rather than building aircraft but it is currently the facility with room, equipment and skilled personnel to build the UH-1. The first Ukrainian UH-1 will be completed in late August, in time for the 30th Anniversary of independence from Russia (Soviet Union). Russia is not amused but cannot do anything about it.
June 4, 2021: India has sent its leased Russian SSN (nuclear attack submarine) back ten months before the ten-year lease is up and declined to extend that lease until a new Russian sub could arrive in 2025. In early 2019 India signed a $3 billion 10-year lease with Russia to obtain the use of another Akula class nuclear sub. The new sub will not arrive until 2025 and will replace the unpopular INS Chakra, an earlier Akula class sub that earned the reputation of being something of a cursed boat. India received this Akula II SSN, originally the K-152 Nerpa, in 2010 on a ten-year lease. The Nerpa was renamed Chakra and was built specifically for the Indian lease deal. Neroa finally completed its sea trials and was accepted into Russian service in late 2009. India was supposed to take it in 2008 but there have been many delays. The Indian crew for the Nerpa had been ready since 2008. Most of the delays stemmed from an accident in late 2008 when, while undergoing sea trials, there was an accidental activation of the fire extinguisher system on the Nerpa. This killed 20 sailors and civilians and injured more than 20. There were 208 people aboard the sub at the time, most of them navy and shipyard personnel there to closely monitor all aspects of the sub as it made its first dives and other maneuvers. The source of the fatal accident was poor design and construction of the safety systems on the sub. This accident led to sailors and shipyard technicians being fearful of going to sea on the boat. The sea trials were delayed, even after repairs were made. The post-accident modifications on the Nerpa cost $65 million. Traditionally, when a new ship loses lots of people during sea trials it is regarded as "cursed" and unlucky. Sailors can be a bit superstitious, especially when there are dead bodies involved. So far India has not had any problems with this, until the sonar dome incident. When Nerpa finally entered Indian service, the name was changed to Chakra II, because it was the same name used by the Charlie class Russian SSN India leased from 1988-91. The Chakra lease arrangement had India paying $178,000 a day, for ten years, for use of the sub. The 7,000-ton Akula II requires a crew of 73 highly trained sailors.
It was Indian money that enabled Russia to complete construction on at least two Akulas. These boats were less than half finished at the end of the Cold War. This was another aftereffect of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Several major shipbuilding projects were basically put on hold (which still cost a lot of money), in the hopes that something would turn up. In this case it was Indians with lots of cash and seeking to lease a sub.
June 1, 2021: Myanmar (Burma), a neighbor of China and India and formerly part of the British colonial holdings in South Asia, has a new military government that is continuing to buy Russian weapons. The Burmese generals are seeking to maintain its close ties with China and Russia while it struggles to establish control of the country four months after a February 1st coup. The Chinese ambassador there has warned the Burmese generals that their country is drifting towards civil war. China will continue to use their veto powers in the UN to block UN actions against the Burmese military and continue to do business with Burma. The ambassador warned that may not be enough because the Burmese army has not been able to suppress the popular uprising that appeared right after the takeover. China advises that if there is a civil war, Chinese support will be limited. Even before the coup Burmese generals maintained their connections with China and that 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. In 2011 the Burmese generals were forced to end nearly half a century of military government and allow elections. Russia has indicated that its support, at least as an arms supplier, would continue if a civil war developed and the generals could still pay for Russian arms, in advance if necessary.
The 2021 coup encountered an economic crisis and popular opposition that is moving towards civil war. Anti-government demonstrations continue despite troops and police being ordered to open fire. Some of the demonstrators are shooting back. So far over a thousand demonstrators have been killed by the security forces and ten times that number wounded or arrested. The Burmese military is comfortable with a cozy relationship with China and Russia but most Burmese are not. This has led to Chinese businesses being attacked and some have been set on fire. The alliance of separatist northern tribes, which reached a peace agreement with the elected government in 2016 but refused to recognize or cooperate with the military government. Many of those tribal militias have taken advantage of the situation, which has many army units in the north sent south to deal with the protests. Burmese military leaders were surprised at the extent and duration of mass protests since February. By popular agreement the economy has been shut down by the protestors and the generals have to worry about the morale and loyalty of their troops because of the months of popular protests and being ordered to open fire on fellow Burmese. The many foreign companies that manufacture in Burma have been evacuating their employees and that means getting those closed facilities operational again will take time.
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 they can protect Chinese operations from protestor anger. The Chinese operations in Burma now face international sanctions. 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 but is one of the few nations supporting the military government. China and Russia are offering advice but the major problem is the weakening morale and resolve of the troops and police. China has a border with Myanmar but so far there is no talk of Chinese military intervention, even some heavily armed “peacekeepers.”
May 31, 2021: In the north (St Petersburg) Russian police were alerted by airport security that Andrei Pivovarov, one of the people on the FSB watchlist, was about to board a flight to Poland. The plane was prevented from taking off until Pivovarov could be detained. This came as a surprise to Pivovarov, who was never told he was on a watchlist. Pivovarov has long been an open critic of government corruption and misrule. Pivovarov used to run Open Russia, an organization that gathered evidence of corruption and publicized it. Pivovarov recently shut down Open Russia because of the growing government attacks and threats. Apparently, the FSB thought Pivovarov was going to leave the country and become a foreign-based critic. That was not part of Pivovarov’s travel plans and several of his associates and followers announced that they would continue Pivovarov’s work from inside Russia and overseas.
May 30, 2021: Turkey rejected Russian efforts to cancel the recent Turkish sales of armed UAVs to Ukraine. The Turks pointed out that Russia supplies weapons to many countries, including some, like Libya and Armenia, that use those weapons against Turkish forces. In the last few years Ukraine has provided Turkey with key tech for tanks and helicopters. Turkey has already exported UAVs to Ukraine and is now also providing armed UAVs. Most of these previous exchanges between Turkey and Ukraine were done quietly, but now the Turkish military aid to Ukraine has been receiving more publicity and Russia is not happy. After all Russian and Turkish forces are facing each other in the Caucasus (Armenia) and Africa (Libya) as well as Syria. Turkey and Russia are technically allies in Syria but that alliance is falling apart.
May 27, 2021: In Central Africa (Central African Republic or CAR) three Russian military contractors and two local policemen were killed by a roadside bomb. Five people were wounded. Since 2018 Russia has allowed several Russian military contractor firms to operate in CAR, mainly to protect economic interests considered vital to the local government and foreign investors. The contractors are highly paid veterans of elite Russian army units.
May 26, 2021: In North Africa (Libya) The Russian National Oil Company (Gazprom) and a German firm (Wintershall) revealed that they had quietly resumed (in late 2020) oil exploration and extraction efforts in Libya. Several other foreign firms have done the same because they believe the late 2020 ceasefire will continue and that the Turks have shown no enthusiasm for resuming combat. Turkey’s main motivation is to not misbehave as that might persuade NATO or Arab nations to intervene, and do it with UN approval. Turkey also seeks to invest in Libya. But while the Russians are welcomed, the Turks, as former Imperial rulers of Libya, are not.
In southeast Africa (Mozambique) Russian military contractors are also active, helping to protect the largest natural gas operation in Africa from local Islamic terrorists. The local government also asked Portugal, the EU (European Union) and the American Africom to send help. The Russian Wagner Group arrived first, followed by some South African mercenaries.
May 23, 2021: To the west, neighboring Belarus caused more problems for Russia when several Belarus jet fighters intercepted an Irish airliner on its way from Athens to Lithuania. The Belarus fighters ordered the airliner to land in Belarus immediately for unspecified security reasons. That was a lie because after landing police boarded the airliner and arrested one of the passengers, Belarusian web-site operator and journalist Roman Protasevich, who had become a major problem for Belarussian ruler Alexander Lukashenko. Protasevich was operating the news website Nexta from Poland. Nexta specialized in news from and about Belarus, especially the growing unrest against Lukashenko for rigging the August 2020 presidential election so that he could continue being president. While Belarus could block access to Nexta from Belarus, Protasevich has set up a Nexta account on the encrypted messaging app “Telegram”, which both Russian and Belarus had tried (unsuccessfully) to ban locally. Telegram was founded by a Russian entrepreneur after he fled Russia in 2014 because of disagreements with the government over censorship and corruption. By 2018 Telegram users in Russia comprised some seven percent of Telegram users worldwide, which is now half a billion users. After the August protests began Belarus found it was unable to block Telegram use, which is now used by most Belarus cell phone owners. The Nexta Telegram channels enabled protestors to plan and organize demonstrations while Protasevich collected reports from protestors about what was going on in Belarus and getting that information back to all users of the Nexta website and its Telegram channels.
Protasevich is accused of terrorism and numerous other charges. The death penalty is likely. Belarus had some help from Russia in putting together disinformation about Protasevich and seeking to connect him and Nexta with Ukrainian neo-Nazi groups. Few people in or outside Belarus believed those accusations but now Protasevich is in Belarussian custody. Most of the world caused the seizure of Protasevich as an aerial kidnapping and the U.S. and EU promptly banned any commercial aircraft from using Belarussian airspace until further notice. Russia tried to support Belarus but quickly backed down when told that the ban would be applied to Russia as well if Russian aircraft used Belarus airspace or tried anything else to interfere with the growing list of sanctions against Belarus to get Protasevich released and out of Belarus.
Arresting Protasevich has not stopped the anti-government demonstrations because Protasevich was not the only one running Nexta and the Telegram channels. There have been ten months of protests and the government is getting more desperate. The unrest is directed against decades of corrupt rule by a 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. So far over 32,000 protesters have been arrested while security forces violence against protests has left about 1,500 people injured, 93 percent of them protestors. At least four protestors have died, but no government or security forces personnel have been killed and most of those injured were hurt while using force against protesters.
The current unrest was triggered by the blatant rigging of the August 2020 elections. Tampering with the vote has been common since the 1990s but it gets 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, as well as an incompetent response to covid19.
The current crisis came right after August 9th 2020 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, like the majority of Belarussians, oppose being annexed by Russia. At this point Russia is not seeking to annex Belarus or send in security forces to help suppress what has turned into a rebellion against Lukashenko.
Lukashenko is becoming a liability for Russia but is currently still a “favored ally.” Russia would like to be rid of Lukashenko but there is no one in Belarus with his skills and experience. Russia has created a major problem for itself in Belarus. Not as bad as the mess in Ukraine, but still another setback in the Russian effort to rebuild Soviet-era Russian empire.
May 21, 2021: In the East Pacific the Russian Navy ship Kareliya, one of seven AGI (auxiliary general intelligence) vessels in Russian service, arrived off the U.S. Hawaiian Island of Kauai. The Kareliya is based in the Russian Far East (Vladivostok) and quickly moved to Hawaii when the U.S. released notices to ships and aircraft to stay out of areas off Hawaii because of hazardous military testing. The Russians deduced that this meant another ABM (Anti-ballistic Missile) test and that was conducted on the 2oth and the Kareliya sensors recorded a lot of the details as two Aegis ABMs were launched from two American destroyers to intercept a ballistic missile warhead. Unlike most Aegis ABM tests, Aegis failed this one.
May 16, 2021: In eastern Syria (Homs and Raqqa provinces) Russia increased its air operations against ISIL groups in the Badia Desert south of the Euphrates River Valley. Over the last two days Russian has carried out about 180 airstrikes in this desert area that extends into nearby Jordan. Baida covers 500,000 square kilometers (200,000 square miles) and represents about half of Syria and 85 percent of Jordan and smaller portions of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Russia devotes even more air effort to surveillance and reconnaissance to find and track ISIL groups out there. The Baida desert has long been the scene of ISIL activity and fighting against and between Islamic terrorists. All these desert areas are 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. In response ISIL has been waging an assassination campaign against Islamic clergy and staffs of religious schools who teach that Islamic terrorism is wrong.
Further west (Latakia and Idlib provinces) Russian warplanes struck ten suspected Islamic terrorists camps of groups suspected of threatening Russian bases in Latakia province.
May 14, 2021: In the Baltic Sea, Russian military pilots got their first look at an F-35 fighter because the Italian fighters assigned to the NATO BAP (Baltic Air Policing) force included Italian F-35s. When the three Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) joined NATO in 2004 it meant the NATO air defense system now extended to the eastern Baltic and air space the Russians long considered their own. Since the Baltic States had tiny air forces and were new to the joint NATO air defense network, NATO states began sending small (four aircraft) detachments of their fighters to spend a month or so providing air patrols and interception of Russian military aircraft that got too close to NATO (Baltic State) air space. After 2014, when Russia declared itself at war with NATO, the number of NATO fighters was often increased to eight or ten because the Russians increased their aerial activity, including deliberately flying into NATO air space and harassing NATO and non-NATO (like Swedish and Finnish) aircraft. Russian air force pilots were amazed at the wide variety of fighters used by NATO countries, including upgraded MiG-29s.
May 13, 2021: In northeast Syria (Hasaka province) Russian military police halted an American convoy (eight MRAP wheeled armored vehicles) and forced them to turn around. Russia said the American vehicles were travelling on a route that the U.S. and Russia agreed would only be used with the agreement of both countries.
May 12, 2021: Israel received (via Russia) the first unofficial Hamas offer to negotiate a ceasefire. Israel turned it down, citing past Hamas unreliability and deceit in such matters.
May 11, 2021: In eastern Syria (the border between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces) Russia carried out nearly fifty airstrikes on suspected ISIL hideouts, including caves as well as buildings. Targets were selected during the last few weeks by UAVs, ground patrols and tips from local civilians.
Elsewhere in eastern Syria (eastern Deir Ezzor province) SDF (Syrian Kurdish militia) began a three-day search of the town of al Shuhay, where many ISIL members or sympathizers were believed to reside among the other 14,000 residents. Since 2018 Deir Ezzor has been the scene of a multi-sided battle between ISIL, SDF, Syrian army, Iranian and Russian mercenaries as well as smaller numbers of Russian special operations troops and lots of Russian warplanes overhead. Since 2020 the Russians have been using a combination of special operations troops, military contractors and Syrian mercenaries. The Syrian mercs on the Russian payroll include at least one unit comprised of Palestinian refugees, who have lived in Syria for decades. When the civil War began in 2011 most of the Palestinians sided with the rebels, a betrayal the Assads, their long-time host and protector, were understandably bitter about. Signing up as Russian mercs was a way for Syria based refugees to win back the trust of the Assads.
The Islamic terrorists suffer most from American and Russian airstrikes. The Russians supply the most airstrikes, as many as seventy or more a day for days at a time. The Syrian air force is still active but delivers about a tenth as many airstrikes compared to the Russians. The American airstrikes are more selective, concentrating on key ISIL leaders and technical specialists. There is some cooperation between the Americans and Russians in eastern Syria, but no one will admit to how much.
May 9, 2021: In northern Syria (Idlib province) Assad forces fired over a hundred mortar and artillery shells at Islamic terrorists who have been violating the “de-escalation zone” that is supposed to keep the Assad/Russian and Islamic terrorists forces separated. The attacks sometimes employ Russian ATGMs (Anti-tank missiles) at visible targets.