Afghanistan is seen as a new opportunity, but a risky one. Russia still maintains an embassy in Kabul, the Afghan capital but recently confirmed that it has been reducing the number of Russians in the embassy to the bare minimum. Pakistan, China and Russia are still maintaining their embassies in Afghanistan. All the Afghan ambassadors, including the one in the UN, remain loyal to the deposed IRA (Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) government. Pakistan is counting on China and Russia to use their influence to change minds, but so far there is not much good news from Russia or China about the new Taliban IEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan).
Russia has a long and painful history with Afghanistan. A particularly painful period took place in the 1970s and 80s when they tried to support a communist government in Afghanistan that triggered a massive backlash from most Afghans. China sees economic potential in Afghanistan but has had a hard time doing business in Pakistan, where most of the hostile Islamic terrorists and rebel groups are kept under control. Afghanistan has no history of doing that but China sees a potential opportunity to pursue until it becomes obvious that won’t work. At that point China will declare the Taliban hostile and concentrate on keeping their influence out of China and nations with heavy Chinese investments.
Russia reacted by organizing and announcing joint military exercises between Russian forces and those of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, new nations that were part of the Soviet Union until 1991 and now border Afghanistan. There is also Kyrgyzstan, which borders China and Tajikistan. Russia has maintained close military, economic and diplomatic ties with the “stans”, who are suffering from Afghan drug cartels using their countries as markets for the drugs as well as smuggling routes to other parts of Eurasia. Now more Islamic terrorists from Taliban Afghanistan will be added. Russia and the stans also stand ready to support the armed opposition to the Taliban, just like before.
Russia has been involved in the Libyan civil war since 2015. Russia joined Egypt and some other Arab states in backing the LNA (Libyan National Army) that had the support of most Libyans because of LNA efforts to suppress Islamic terrorism and restore order to the country. That worked until Turkey intervened in 2019 to support the opposition. Now the major obstacles to peace in Libya are the continued presence of Turkish and Russian troops. The Russians see a unified Libyan government as a potential customer for Russian exports, including Russian participation in expanding Libyan oil production. Before the Turks arrived in 2019, Russia planned to withdraw most of its forces once the HOR (House of Representatives) LNA forces had taken Tripoli, the last stronghold of the unpopular, but UN-backed GNA (Government of National Accord). The Turkish presence in Libya has been a major source of Arab, European and Russian hostility towards Turkey.
Russia believes expensive foreign military operations, like the ones in Syria and Libya will eventually pay for themselves by generating more exports and lucrative foreign deals. So far, this strategy has been running at a loss and the situations in Syria and Libya still have uncertain outcomes for Russia. In many respects foreign military interventions in Syria and Libya have also caused more problems with existing allies.
In Syria, Russia and Turkey are supposed to be Iranian allies but are less frequently acting the part. Russia sent forces to Syria in 2015 to help preserve its old Cold War era ally the Assads. This was done for the benefit of Russia, not Syria, Iran or Turkey. Russia was the second foreign power to come to the aid of the Assads. Since 2012 Iran has been helping keep their old Shia ally, the Assads, in power. Iran had more ambitious goals, as in increasing its threat against Israel once the rebels were defeated. A year after the Russians showed up, the Turks sent in troops, but used locally recruited Syrian mercenaries to do most of the fighting and dying. The Turks used the same mercenaries in Libya, where the Russians are the enemy rather than an ally.
In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) the Russian-backed rebels are still active, even if most of the three million Ukrainians living in Russian controlled areas would prefer that the Russians left. That is apparently not happening as Russia announced it would nearly double the annual spending on occupied Ukraine to about $4 billion a year. That does not include all the military expenses, which include regular aerial and electronic surveillance as well as the presence of Russian military units on the Ukraine border. Some of these troops put on uniforms that the Donbas rebels use and serve alongside locals who do it for a living. Ethnic Russians are a large minority in eastern Ukraine but most of them prefer living in Ukraine.
The Donbas “rebels” get to use their weapons against armed opponents. The July 2020 ceasefire agreement is regularly violated by the Russians, usually with machine-guns, automatic grenade launchers and mortars fired at Ukrainian troops. Sometimes artillery is used. Russia does this despite the presence of OSCE
(Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe)
monitors in Russian occupied Donbas. The monitors also note that more artillery and armored vehicles were being brought close to the ceasefire line, as if it were preparation for a major offensive. Russia has also brought in more new weapons and systems, apparently to continue their practice of testing this stuff under combat conditions against the Ukrainians.
Since the latest 2020 ceasefire agreement went into effect, Ukraine has had over fifty troops killed and nearly 200 wounded by the ceasefire violations. Since 2014 over 13,000 soldiers, rebels and civilians have died in the Donbas.
In mid-2020 OSCE brokered a new ceasefire agreement between Ukraine and Russia. Germany and France have always taken the lead in these negotiations because they represent the largest economies in Europe. Russia wants the sanctions lifted but first it must convince France and Germany that the Russian aggression against Ukraine is over. OSCE observer teams have been operating in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and keep reporting violations of ceasefires and other agreements. There are often thousands of violations a week. Russia simply denies it, calling the photos and witness accounts contrived. OSCE personnel are still targets for rebel fire. The 600 OSCE personnel, most of them roving monitors, in eastern Ukraine and Donbas, job is to oversee the 0riginal 2015 Minsk (where it was negotiated and signed) Ceasefire. That ceasefire agreement has been renegotiated several times since 2015. OSCE staff have complained since 2015 that they are being restricted by Russian-backed rebels and, less frequently, Ukrainian forces from carrying out inspections. Russia believes that because the front lines have not moved much since late 2014, they can do what they want with no consequences. Russia believes it will ultimately win in Donbas but is unclear about when or how. Threats to invade all of Ukraine are not practical because the current Russian military is tiny compared to that of the Soviet Union. That force disappeared with the Soviet Union and Russia cannot replace it. Currently Russia does not have enough ground and air forces to invade Ukraine and win. Ukraine has a lot of problems but lack of determination to fight the Russians is not one of them. Ukraine can muster more defensive forces that Russia can overcome.
Russian combat forces massed on the Ukrainian border in mid-2021 have since been moved to Belarus, where the pro-Russian dictator is facing growing opposition from the Belarus people to bad government, corruption and Russian influence. Nothing says “shut up and obey” better than a large force of Russian troops entering your country for “joint-training” with the local forces. That worked well after World War II until it didn’t in 1989. Efforts to restore Russian domination since 2014 have not worked as well as hoped.
October 6, 2021: In the landlocked African nation of Mali, the current military government is trying to obtain foreign aid from Russia that could replace embargoes Western support. Russia cannot and will not do so because the Cold War Soviet Union is gone and Mali is dealing with a Russia that is much different than it was before 1991. One of the things that caused the Soviet Union to go bankrupt and disappear in 1991 was all the cheap or free weapons they provided to African dictatorships in order to get their support in the UN and against the West. The Russians are back but looking for profitable sales opportunities. Russia offers cheap weapons as well as contractors who, for a price, will maintain and even operate aircraft and other weapons. Russia also offers armed contractors, who work for several Russian firms like the Wagner Group, the largest one. The military government in Mali wants to spend $10.8 million a month to hire a thousand Wagner Group military trainers. Russia is willing to provide trainers if they are paid. That will become difficult if Western aid donor nations impose sanctions on the military government. These trainers will not operate as combat units unless paid extra for that and the combat surcharge would be considerably more than what Mali is paying for training. Wagner Group had been busy during the last decade and still has, or recently had contingents in Libya, Syria, Central African Republic and Mozambique. Against poorly armed and trained local irregulars the Wagner personnel are effective, but against professionals. like Turks in Libya and Americans in Syria, they take heavy losses and back off. They took casualties in Mozambique because the government refused to use its own troops and sought to suppress an Islamic terrorist uprising using a small number of Russian and South African military contractors. That worked for a while but at the cost of heavy casualties among the contractors. This sort of thing is bad for business and recruiting and the contractors pulled back from Mozambique, which has brought in Rwandan troops.
October 5, 2021: Russia is a
major supplier of natural gas to Ukraine, Belarus, Western Europe, Turkey and China. The largest customer is Western Europe, especially Germany. China will eventually become one of the, if not the largest customers. There is a major problem in that Russia does not have enough natural gas to supply all the export demands, Natural gas sales contracts specify a minimum amount to be delivered each year. Beyond that it is a matter of who can pay the most or has the least current disagreements with Russia. Germany has seen natural gas deliveries drop sharply in September. Russia denies this has anything to do with the unresolved dispute over ownership of the new Nordstream pipeline from Russia to Germany, which paid for most of it. The new pipeline makes Ukraine more vulnerable to reduced natural gas deliveries because most of the gas moving through Ukraine was headed for other customers in Europe.
October 3, 2021:
In eastern and central Syria (Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces), Russian warplanes carried out over a hundred air strikes against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) targets over the weekend. Over fifty Islamic terrorists were killed or wounded and secondary explosions indicated that a lot of ammo and fuel supplies were destroyed. There were probably also civilian casualties as Russia ignores their presence even if ISIL is deliberately using the civilians as human shields. Russia also bombed some al Qaeda affiliated Islamic terrorists in northwest Syria, ignoring the neutral zone Russia and Turkey had agreed not to attack if the Islamic terrorists did not enter the zone. Russia says the Islamic terrorists have violated the neutral zone while Turkey considers those violations either minor or accidental. Russia is more inclined to agree with the Syrian (Assad) government, which has never been on good terms with Turkey.
October 1, 2021: Russian GDP is growing faster than expected in 2021, at about five percent, compared to a three percent decline in 2020. While unemployment has also declined the percentage of the population officially living in poverty has not visibly declined much. That’s because of a high inflation rate.
The poverty rate is a key indicator about how well the population is actually doing. It 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 went to 33 percent in 2019. In 2020 there was a local and international economic recession caused by covid19. Government claims that the poverty rate was 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.
September 30, 2021: Russia delivered four Mi-8-type transport helicopters the local military government had ordered in early 2020. The Russians donated some smaller weapons and ammunition as part of the deal. The U.S. and EU (European Union) cut off military aid after the August 2020 coup. The military already received two Mi-35 helicopter gunships and two more are on order. Russia supplied most of the military aircraft Mali purchased since independence in 1961. Low-c0st military aircraft from the Soviet Union ceased after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. By 2011 the Mali Air Force lacked any combat aircraft and it was French aircraft along with American and AU peacekeeper UAVs that provided air support for the last decade.
September 29, 2021: The Russian and Turkish leaders met in Russia to discuss economic and military matters. Russia and Turkey have ongoing disputes in Syria, Libya, Ukraine and the Caucasus. The two also disagree on Islamic terrorism in general. Russia described the talks as useful but did mention that the Russian leader remined his Turkish counterpart that Turkish troops were in Syria illegally and should leave, along with the Americans. Only Russia and Iran have Syrian permission to be there. Less was said about Libya. Russia and Turkey both have forces in Libya illegally and Russian and Turkish forces have clashed because they are backing different factions.
Back in Russia economic specialists observed that Russia has become the largest debtor of China. Foreign countries owe Chinese banks and other investors about $385 billion. Most of the Chinese lenders are state-owned or majority state-owned firms. Russia is responsible for about a third of that debt. While Russia is better able to handle that amount of debt than other nations owing China money, Russian economists point out that this debt is a sign of how large a portion of the Russian economy China controls. This is especially true in the Russian Far East, which largely consists of territory taken from China in the mid-19th century by a Czarist government using military threats. China has never renounced their claims on these lost territories and massive Chinese investments in these disputed territories is turning this part of Russia into a Chinese colony.
September 17, 2021: In the northwest (Latakia and Idlib provinces) there has been another round of Russian airstrikes on Islamic terrorist rebels trapped in Idlib and ignoring the 2020 ceasefire agreement with Turkey, Russia and Syria that only worked if everyone stopped attacking each other and not enter territory they did not already control. The key weapon of reprisal for Syria has been Russian airpower. This time some of the Russian airstrikes were on rebels who were very close to Turkish positions, risking Turkish casualties. Russia blames Turkey’s more accommodating attitude towards Islamic terror groups that were willing to work with Sunni Moslem governments, which Russia is not. Everyone in Syria agrees that ISIL is bad and most everyone is hostile towards Iran. While Turkey and Russia try to maintain some kind of military alliance, the two governments still have fundamental differences about how to handle Islamic terrorism. Increasingly those differences get Turkish forces killed or wounded by Russian airstrikes and artillery fire.
September 12, 2021: In the northwest (Idlib province) the March 2020 agreement with Russia to establish de-escalation zones has failed. No one has officially called the agreement a failure but the increased Russian airstrikes in Idlib and the inability of the Islamic terror groups to control their more radical factions justifies increased Russian airstrikes. Turkey is less tolerant of Syrian troops resuming their efforts to push the rebels back after Russian airstrikes and artillery fire have weakened the Islamic terrorist defenders. Turkey overestimated its ability to negotiate deals with the Idlib Islamic terrorist rebels that control half the province and have nowhere to go, except Turkey.
September 10, 2021: Russia warplanes carried out over a hundred airstrikes in the last week against Islamic terrorist targets in northwest Syria (Latakia, Idlib and Homs provinces) plus ISIL targets in eastern Syria. Russian warplanes are based in Latakia, where Russia has built a large airbase on land provided by the Syrian government on a long-term lease. Russian military aircraft have been active in Syria since 2015 and by 2021 had flown over 40,000 sorties. Most of these sorties were non-combat operations by helicopters, military transports and combat support aircraft carrying out reconnaissance missions seeking out targets and keeping track of enemy, and friendly activity on the ground. Russia does not have many UAVs for recon or ground attack. Using manned aircraft for any sorties is expensive, the combat sorties are just more expensive because they deliberately expend most of their cargo.
The Assad government wants the Russians to stick around to deal with the long-term threat from Islamic terrorists and secular rebels. The airstrikes and maintaining an airbase and nearby port facility are expensive but easier to hide in the budget than Russians getting killed in Syria. Nearly all the Russian military personnel in Syria are volunteers or military contractors, who are also more expensive than sending conscripts, which still comprise over half the armed forces. Families of conscripts are unhappy with conscription in general and get agitated if their sons are sent overseas and even more angry, and outspoken locally and on the Internet, if their conscript son is wounded or killed overseas.