After initially reverting to the traditional secrecy regarding information on the covid19 virus epidemic, Russia has now become more open. Russia usually tries to prevent foreigners from easily obtaining accurate data on “sensitive” matters like public health disasters. In early 2020 Russia claimed little or no covid19 virus impact, despite the fact that a lot of data was getting out via the Internet and phone calls. In the last month Russia has become more open about sharing data, if only because people want to know and such sharing makes it easier to track the progress of the virus worldwide and estimate when it will peak and decline.
Currently Russia has the third highest number of confirmed cases in absolute terms. In relative terms Russia has 1,700 cases per million population and 15 deaths per million. Thus in relative terms Russia is way down the list in cases, along with Turkey and Norway. In terms of deaths Russia is even farther down in the rankings. Russia attributes the relatively low number of cases to the fact that it is a big country and much of the population is normally isolated. The lower death rate is another matter and Russia explains that it does not automatically classify each death in which the deceased had covid18 as a covid19 death. Most covid19 deaths are people who already have other serious health problems and covid19 comes along and becomes one too many. Russian medical statistics rank the medical problems that cause a death and give the main one as the “cause.” Often there are multiple causes of death, especially among the most common covid19 victims; the elderly and chronically ill.
Russia also recognizes that, overall, covid19 is not a major (in the top three) cause of death. In the United States this can be seen in the government (CDC) weekly total of deaths. These numbers are remarkably stable in the short term (the last decade) and you can see those years where there is a larger number of deaths. This is normal the usually caused by a bad strain of influenza, which is another covid type disease that appears every year and is considered a major cause of deaths. Some years, like 2018 and 2020, the covid diseases are particularly bad and there are a larger number of weekly deaths during the “flu season” (October through May). With covid19 and the usual flu virus, 2020 had a higher number of “excess deaths” than in 2018 but not by much and the covid19 deaths peaked in April, as an exceptionally deadly strain of annual flu does. For the first three months of 2020 U.S. weekly deaths were normal, and a bit below average, in some weeks. Russia experienced the same pattern and medical statisticians did not see covid19 as anything exceptional. In other nations politicians sought to highlight the covid19 threat by attributing more deaths to covid19 that was warranted by the medical facts. In the future, most medical historians will side with Russia in assessing the impact of covid19, as was done with all other covid type viruses.
Russia has shut down most businesses to deal with the epidemic and that has reduced economic activity. That loss, plus the much reduced oil income have created some problems. Given the current poor economic condition of Russia, that added expense hurts. Russia has $234 billion in reserves but by law this reserve cannot be drawn on freely when the price of oil falls below $42 a barrel. Changing the law would be difficult and the government has to consider painful cuts to government spending. But with oil now at under $30 a barrel the Russian cash reserve can be used. The population has responded to the quarantine by reducing their spending by about a third. This is expected to reduce annual GDP by at least five percent for 2020.
The unusual (in historical terms) Russian alliance with traditional foes Turkey and Iran in Syria is becoming a losing situation for Russia. The initial objective was to defeat the rebels, particularly the many Islamic terror groups that had come to dominate the rebels cause. The rebels lost and that was obvious by 2018. Now the fighting is about Iran seeking to militarize Syria for a war against Israel while the Turks are literally at war with Syria over the Assad battles with the last concentration of rebels in Idlib province. This battle zone is on the Turkish border. The Assads don’t care if most of the several million civilians in Idlib flee into Turkey. Most of those civilians are pro-rebel Sunnis and the Shia Assads prefer that they leave. The Turks prefer that they stay and that when things calm down in Syria it can persuade the three million Syrian refugees it already has to go home. With the Assads back in power, Syria is not a safe place for Sunni refugees. Iran supports the Assad approach. An Iran dominated Syria hostile to Turkey is not a good place for Russian to have troops and bases.
Israel also wants the Iranians gone, as does Turkey. The Iranians are backing off because of economic problems back home and relentless air attacks by Israel. But the Iranians are not giving up. They have dominated Syria since the 1980s and finally have an opportunity to turn Syria into a base of operations against Israel. In reality, most Syrians don’t want that. War with Israel never turns out well for Syria or many Syrians. Now most Iranians agree with this attitude as well.
Russia is threatening to cut much, or all, if its support for the Assad government if the Assads do not cooperate and back off on their attacks in Idlib province. Al Qaeda groups hold about half of Idlib province in the northwest and small portions of adjacent Aleppo and Hama provinces. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) still has scattered, but active, factions in the east (Deir Ezzor province).
Iran still backs the Assads but is not willing or able to force the Russians to remain in Syria. What also annoys the Russians is the extent of the corruption by the Assads, who have been stealing Russian and Iranian aid as well as portions of the government budget. The Assad clan seems more concerned about their own survival than they do of Syria’s. Iran has been the powerful patron of the Assads since the 1980s and now have more influence over Syrian affairs than the Russians. The Iranians are not willing to do anything about the Assad Clan misconduct, at least not right now.
The Russian alliance with Turkey is coming apart over differences in how to deal with the war in Syria. For Russia it is a foreign affairs sort of problem. For Turkey it is very much a domestic issue. The major issue is refugees from Syria. These refugees are not a problem for Russia but for the Turks it is very different. Turkish public opinion is hostile to the Syrian refugees they host, as well as the smaller number of Afghan, Iraqi and other Moslem refugees. Many of these are not refugees but economic migrants willing to do whatever it takes to get into a wealthier Western nation. Europe no longer tolerates these refugees and Turks are not happy about getting stuck with them. This problem gets worse, especially for the Islamic government Turkey has had for the last two decades. This government became allies with Russia and Iran, two traditional enemies. To no one’s surprise these alliances did not work out. In order to please these new friends Turkey risked being expelled from NATO. Worst of all, expulsion from NATO would mean the West would regard Turkey as just another poorly managed, Islamic terrorists tolerating and unreliable Middle Eastern nation. One thing most Turks can agree on is NOT wanting to turn away from the West. The policy of being closer to Arab nations and tolerant of some Islamic terrorist or radical groups has also lost any popularity it once held.
Turks have long (since World War I) been hostile to getting involved in foreign wars, especially when it involved Turkish troops getting killed. So far in 2020 Turkey has sent a lot more Turkish troops to Syria and more of them are getting killed, often by Russian airstrikes. The Turkish voters have made it clear that the current government is likely to lose the next elections if the Syrian involvement continues. With Syria, Turkey cannot just walk away. Syria is a neighbor and over three million Syrian refugees are in Turkey and Syria itself is still a mess. Turkish and Russian forces have been shooting at each other and the Iranians are not much better. Russia does not have much they can afford to offer Turkey as a solution. That makes this a more difficult situation for Russian diplomats, who are under orders to maintain good relations with Syria and Israel first and everyone else after that.
In March Turkey and Russia forced Syria to agree to a ceasefire in Idlib province. That agreement has been increasingly violated by uncooperative Islamic terror groups in Idlib. Turkey is held responsible for this as it is the Turks who support trying to negotiate with the disunited Islamic terror groups trapped in Idlib. Technically all Islamic terrorists in Idlib belong to the HTS (Hayat Tahrir al Sham), which al Qaeda supports but does not entirely trust. HTS is a coalition of coalitions and many of the factions still do not trust each other. The major fear is that another faction, or even HTS leadership, has made a deal with Turkey which, so the story goes, wants to control HTS as a sort of Sunni Hezbollah and use it to drive Shia Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah out of Syria. Many HTS leaders do have a history of working with the Turks. Russia and Syria has reason to believe the Turks are actually supporting some of the HTS factions in Idlib. The Turks do support “moderate” Islamic terror groups but refuse to outright admit it. This policy is unpopular with Israel and Western nations as well as Syria, Iran and Russia. Many Turks also oppose any pro-terrorist policy but the current Turkish government is controlled by an Islamic party that favors “cooperation” with some Islamic terror groups to protect Turks from the more rabid Islamic terrorists. Syria used to play this game and it did not work out well. It rarely does but for many shortsighted politicians it is still an attractive option. Currently HTS is trying to crack down on uncooperative Islamic terrorist factions in Idlib. This is difficult and so far not completely successful. HTS wants to do this without triggering a major armed resistance. So far the worst resistance has been a few bombings. This is a favorite for Islamic terror groups who are feuding. That and assassination of each other’s leaders.
South American Shambles
Many Russians see Venezuela as another losing proposition similar to Syria. There an unstable, corrupt and very inept pro-Russian government presents growing risks and diminishing benefits for Russia. For example, i n March Roseneft, the Russian state owned oil company, sold its $4 billion Venezuelan oil assets to a smaller Russian company. This was done in an effort to eliminate American sanctions imposed on Roseneft five weeks earlier. These sanctions threatened to cripple major Roseneft oil operations worldwide. The February sanctions were because Roseneft was assisting Venezuela to export its oil despite sanctions on such exports. Roseneft used its distribution network to sell Venezuelan oil and the new sanctions on Roseneft and any companies doing business with them, made it more difficult, and expensive to move Venezuelan oil. These American sanctions are usually pretty effective because the U.S. has learned to specify sanctions that do maximum damage to those they are aimed at while causing minimal, or no problems for anyone else. Russia depends on their sale of Venezuelan oil to get some repayments on loans to Venezuela as well as paying for current Venezuelan purchases of Russian goods.
The government tries to portray the operations in Syria and Venezuela as profitable but that is largely creative accounting. Syria does allow for new military gear to be “combat tested” and that helps with military exports. But Russia continues to face formidable competition from Western (especially American and Israeli) suppliers as well as China. Venezuela is a low cost gamble that the current Venezuelan government will remain in power long enough to recover economically and pay back the billions owed to Russia.
May 8, 2020: The United States accused Russia and Syria of organizing an Arab mercenary force to use in Libya to reinforce Russian military contractors already there to oppose Turkey supplied Arab mercenaries. In Libya the Russian-backed LNA (Libyan National Army) is facing a growing Turkish military force. Russia agrees with the LNA that as long as the Turks are in Libya there can be no peace. The LNA also pointed out that the Turks are not the invincible imperial conquerors of old. The LNA claims to have killed dozens of Turks and hundreds of their Syrian Arab (FSA) mercenaries. Dozens of Turkish UAVs have been shot down. The Turks deny these claims but back in Turkey the government is doing its best to suppress news of Turkish military personnel who have died in Libya and buried back in Turkey without any admission of where they died and how.
Most Libyans oppose the Turks and welcome assistance from other Arab states as well as the Russians, who got on well with Libyans on a personnel level. Russian support for the Kaddafi dictatorship came from the Soviet Union, which itself disappeared in 1991. After that the Russians were no longer as eager to back Kaddafi who seemed to be following the same self-destructive trajectory as the Soviet Union. The GNA is being propped up by the Turks and still depends on independent minded Islamic militias as well as some militias that are basically criminal gangs with heavy weapons.
May 7, 2020: Another government decree was issued trying to stop military personnel from posting information on the Islamic terrorists that reveals what is going on inside the military, especially in foreign combat zones like Ukraine, Syria, Libya and elsewhere in Africa. The ban also prohibits troops and veterans from ever mentioning on the Internet that they were in the Russian military. This is not the first effort to ban the leaking of information via the Internet and won’t be the last. In early 2018 Russian military personnel in Syria were ordered to stop using smart phone and to replace them as soon as possible with older models that lack GPS, high speeds and other features that are used by many commercial UAVs and quad copters. The frequencies used by smart phones were being jammed around Russian bases in Syria as part of defensive measures against Islamic terrorist quad copters carrying explosives to be used for mass attacks. It was believed that this would also prevent Russian personnel from posting military information on the Internet. It didn’t. The jamming couldn’t be maintained all the time because it interfered with other military and commercial electronics. Earlier bans on military personnel posting anything on social media did not work either because friends and family would post items sent to them via email.
May 6, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) Russian troops are replacing Iranian mercenaries in key areas. Iran appears to have withdrawn some forces from Deir Ezzor province, either to move them closer to the Israeli border or disband mercenary units it can no longer afford to pay and support. Many of these mercenaries are local civilians who go back to lower-paying jobs for local warlords. The Russian presence consists of a few checkpoints and some patrols backed by Russian air power. The Syrian government is technically in control of Deir Ezzor province but the lack of security forces has enabled some of the ISIL groups hiding out there to assert themselves and terrorize civilians with kidnappings and murder. ISIL wants civilians to provide support and not cooperate with police or soldiers who come after the Islamic terrorists. In the last week at least nine civilians have been murdered and in over a dozen rural towns and villages
May 3, 2020: In Syria Rami Makhlouf, the wealthy cousin of Syrian dictator Basher Assad, released a video on Facebook in which he pleaded with his cousin Basher to work with him to resolve financial problems Makhlouf is having. This is more than a family feud because Makhlouf was once, and may still be, the wealthiest man in Syria. Much of that wealth is now outside Syria, some of it in Russia. Basher had Makhlouf detained on corruption charges and is demanding $250 million in cash to release Makhlouf from house arrest. Makhlouf still has Internet access, the better to authorize his foreign bankers and partners to provide the money. Makhlouf says he is broke, having spent most of his fortune to support the fight against the rebels. Basher, or at least his British wife, believe Makhlouf is corrupt as ever and still has considerable assets. Makhlouf is offering to pay the cash to Basher, and not anyone else, especially the British wife, to convince the Syrian leader of his sincerity. This video was very embarrassing for Basher and verified reports that he was losing control of his local allies. A recent opinion poll, conducted in areas where Russia has troops (and could safeguard the pollsters) found that Basher had little support among Syrians, who also blame Assad for the growing corruption and lawlessness in areas under Assad control. Before the 2011 civil war Basher, his brother and Maher and Makhlouf were considered the three most powerful men in Syria and because they were all related, proof that the Assads were still in charge. Maher is still loyal to his brother but serves as a military commander, not a financier and economic expert. Basher also had several Makhlouf allies and subordinates in Syria arrested and Makhlouf wants to get these men freed as well. Makhlouf was supposed to find ways to pay off the nearly $5 billion debt to Russia. While the Russians have provided a lot of free assistance, a lot more of it was provided with the understanding that it would be paid for. Iran was supposed to help with that but Iran is in worse economic shape that Russian and has sharply cut its economic aid to Syria.
April 28, 2020: In eastern Ukraine (Donbas) Russian backed separatists and mercenaries continue to violate the ceasefire. Some days, like today, the fire is particularly heavy, involving 152mm and 122mm artillery as well as larger rockets. These heavy barrages are more likely to cause Ukrainian casualties and that is what happened today with one Ukrainian soldier killed. These ceasefire are such a regular occurrence that both sides have prepared for it with lots of bunkers and drills to practice getting into the bunkers quickly.
April 21, 2020: India became the third largest defense spender in 2019 with its $71.1 annual defense budget. That was notable for several reasons. For the first time India had a larger defense budget than Russia, which had usually been in the top three for nearly a century, often in 2nd place. But after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 China was able to eventually move into second place. In 2019 China spent nearly $300 billion on defense, still far behind the American $732 billion. India’s most aggressive neighbor, Pakistan, spent $10.3 billion.
April 20, 2020: The U.S. accused Russia of ordering its Su-35 fighters to threaten American P-8A maritime patrol aircraft in international airspace near the Syrian coast. Today and yesterday Russian fighters flew closer than ten meters (32 feet) to the P-8As in an effort to intimidate them. Despite video evidence Russia insists it was just making sure the P-8A did not move into Syrian airspace (anything within 22 kilometers of the coast).