Since late November 2013 Russian efforts to gain more control over the Ukrainian government have been running into growing popular opposition. Now the pro-Russian government has surrendered to the protestors and if Russia wants to turn this around they will have to move fast and in violation of international law. Over a hundred died, mostly in the last week, as the government ordered the soldiers and police to open fire and not enough of the Ukrainian security personnel would do so. If the Russians invaded the Ukrainian armed forces would probably resist in an organized fashion. In 2008 Russia had a hard time scrounging up enough troops to invade Georgia. But Ukraine has more ten times the population of Georgia and Russia still has a largely dysfunctional armed forces with fewer than 100,000 troops (paratroopers and special forces) that they can really rely on. Russian military staffs are quite good at calculating the “correlation of forces” for an operation and predicting the probability of success and that math does not look good when it comes to invading Ukraine. The Russians Stavka (general staff) famously warned against going into Afghanistan in 1979 on the grounds that the lack of roads and railroads there prevented Russia from putting enough troops (the “correlation of forces”) into Afghanistan to quickly crush opposition. Russian political leaders ignored this and less than a decade later withdrew from Afghanistan because the general staff had been right.
Russia is still angry over losing Ukraine in 1991 and is using the fact that 17 percent of Ukrainians (mainly in the southeast) are ethnic Russians and another five percent are various minorities (mainly Turkic Tatars) to create a pro-Russian political block in Ukraine. Southeastern Ukraine is where most of the industry and Soviet era economic development was. Since the 1990s Russia has been using economic pressure and ethnic animosities to gain more influence over Ukrainian politics. The basic problem for Russia in Ukraine is the feeling among most Ukrainians that economic salvation will come from the West, not Russia. Consider that when the Cold War ended in 1991 Ukraine and neighboring (both, until then, subjects of Russia) had the same (low) per-capita GDP. Since then Ukrainian per-capita GDP has declined 22 percent while Poland, which quickly developed economic and political ties with the West after 1990, has soared to the point where Polish per capita GDP is three times that of Ukraine. Put simply, most Ukrainians see links to the West as the key to economic growth and protection from Russian domination. The question now is how far Russia will go to deal with its Ukraine problem. Many Russians are all for putting the old Tsarist/Soviet Empire back together. Until now it was accepted that Russia could do this using economic and political pressure.
That has backfired in Ukraine and there was a massive uprising against the pro-Russian Ukrainian government. This was because that government got elected by promising to form alliances with the West but instead accepted a more favorable deal, for the politicians, from Russia. The unrest that began last November did not bother the Russians at first because Russia has dealt with rebellious Ukrainians before. After the two World Wars Russia had to spend years crushing rebel movements. After World War II the fighting in the Ukraine lasted into the 1950s. What gives Russians pause is the fact that despite all these defeats the Ukrainians are still willing to fight and this time around you cannot keep the barbaric tactics used to suppress the rebellion out of the news. While many Russians want their empire back they don’t want the ruthless terror of the Soviet era police state back.
Stalinism has gone out of style, but that sort of ruthlessness appears to some Russian leaders as the only thing that will work right now. These hard liners point out that Western Europe and America are unlikely to intervene but will instead just call Russia all manner of nasty names. What the West can do is impose sanctions, which will hurt the Russian economy and the popularity of the current Russian government. Such sanctions are possible largely because of the development of fracking in the United States, which has enormously increased oil and gas production in North America and made Russian oil and gas less of a necessity to the West. It comes down to how much empire can Russia afford. Not much, especially when you own general staff tells you that there are not enough reliable troops to successfully invade Ukraine.
Since November there have been massive and persistent anti-Russian demonstrations all over the country, but particularly in areas where ethnic Ukrainians (77 percent of the population) were dominant. This put the pro-Russian government on the defensive. The largest demonstrations were in the Ukrainian capital (Kiev) and stalled government efforts to replace a popular economic deal with the EU (European Union) with a less favorable arrangement with Russia. This represents a major defeat for Russian efforts to keep Ukraine from getting closer to Europe. Most Russians feel Ukraine should be a part of Russia, while most Ukrainians disagree. Still, for economic reasons many ethnic Ukrainians in the east back stronger ties with Russia. Ukraine got free in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and want closer economic and political ties with Europe. To that end Ukraine began 2013 by signing a $10 billion contract with a major oil company to develop shale gas fields in Ukraine.
Within a decade this could eliminate the need to import natural gas from Russia. This would free Ukraine from Russian threats to halt gas shipments if Ukraine did not do as it was told. This sort of thing has gotten nasty in the past. In 2009 a natural gas price dispute between Russia and Ukraine led to a compromise, but one aftereffect was growing anti-Russian sentiment among most Ukrainians. Ukraine accused Russia of fraud and intimidation. The tensions between Russia and Ukraine grew worse until the 2013 crises was reached. The trigger was a trade deal with the EU deal Ukrainian president Yanukovych promised to negotiate when he came to power in 2010. But once the deal came close to signing Russia responded with overt and secret deals that persuaded Yanukovych to change his mind. This enraged most Ukrainians (including many Russian speakers) who saw this as another example of the dirty dealing from the Russians that they wanted to get away from. Yanukovych has lost a lot of support in the security forces and has been unable to shut down the protests, which persist and get larger. Yanukovych and his supporters were seen as corrupt and willing to sell out Ukraine for personal gain. No wonder the demonstrations were so large and persistent, even in the midst of the cold weather.
Senior Russian officials openly advocate sending Russian troops into Ukraine, as it did in Georgia in 2008, if Russia feels its interests are threatened. In particular Russia is concerned with the naval base it rents from Ukraine in the Crimea. Russia claims ownership of the port of Sevastopol (the home of the Black Sea fleet) on the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine. The Russians currently lease the land for the naval base and provide jobs for some 20,000 Ukrainians. Prominent Russians keep demanding that Sevastopol become a part of Russia. The Ukrainians have resisted this but regard Russia as a bully for their attitude towards Ukraine. Many senior Russians (including president Putin) openly claim that munch of Ukraine actually is Russian territory. This includes Crimea and much of eastern Ukraine (where most of the industry and Russian speaking population is). The Russians make the case that these areas were conquered by Russia after Russia took control of Ukraine and were only incorporated into Ukraine during the Soviet period for convenience, not to recognize what territory an independent Ukraine would have. Most of the Russian speaking Ukrainians want to remain part of Ukraine, but with a little more respect shown for ethnic minorities, like Russians and the Turkic Tatars in Crimea. The official Russian line is that Western agitators and agents are behind all the unrest in Ukraine. But the Russians have been saying that for over a century and still the Ukrainians resist.
In the UN there is massive support for a resolution calling for free access to all parts of Syria so that UN sponsored aid can reach Syrians in need. The main obstacle to this resolution being adopted is the possibility of a Russian veto. China usually vetoes the same Syrian resolutions Russia does but is believed to be following the Russian lead here. So the UN awaits the Russian decision. In Syria continued Russian support for the Assads has prevented the UN from passing resolutions condemning the ongoing government attacks on civilians. These attacks have been more blatant since last December, as have Syrian efforts to prevent foreign aid from reaching the cold, hungry and often wounded civilians. The Russian government openly boasts (at least inside Russia) of how its backing of the Syrian government against a popular uprising has been successful. Recently Russian arms shipments (via air and sea) have increased and have included armored vehicles and UAVs. But the biggest boost for the Assads was Russia arranging a chemical weapons disarmament deal in Syria that crippled Western aid for the rebels and, along with thousands of Iranian supplied mercenaries, has the Syrian government saved from gradual dismemberment . The Assads continue to keep the economy going in areas they control with the help of Iran and Russia. Iran supplies the foreign currency and Russia helps get it into the international banking system so the Assads can still buy foreign goods.
The Winter Olympics end in Sochi tomorrow and the Russian government is calling it a success. The Islamic terrorists were not able to attack and all of the Olympic events took place with minimal (by Russian standards) hassle. It was the most expensive (at over $50 billion) Olympics (Winter or Summer) in history.
February 21, 2014: The Ukrainian government has agreed to cede power to a transitional government pending new elections. Over a hundred died in three months of demonstrations and anti-protestor violence. In the end, the pro-Russian government could not persuade its security services to kill thousands of Ukrainians in an attempt to keep the government, and its pro-Russian policies, in power. Some extremist protest groups want to replace the government immediately and it is up to the protest groups in general to manage the transition on their end.
February 20, 2014: Over 60 people died in Kiev, most of them civilian protestors. But many other protestors came out and crowds seized control of police stations throughout Ukraine. At least 75 have died in the last three days and police morale has been shattered. Those deaths triggered more unrest throughout Ukraine and local police generally refused to crack down.
February 17, 2014: In Ukraine the police in Kiev launched a major offensive on the protestors, using weapons and reinforcements to push protestors back. The police were ordered to fire on the protestors and that’s when the police began to suffer a lot of desertions. Worse, many police would go through the motions but would not actually shoot fellow Ukrainians. By the 20th the police has to pull back to areas they could hold with the manpower they had left.
February 14, 2014: Russian backed and organized Syrian peace talks are, as expected, making no progress. Russia is insisting that any deal must keep the Assads in power and the rebels refuse t0 go along because the rebels are fighting mainly to drive out the Assads.
February 10, 2014: The American threats about enforcing Iranian sanctions worked and Russia backed off from a barter deal it had proposed to Iran to sell Iranian oil despite the sanctions.
February 9, 2014: Russia is delivering five S-300 anti-aircraft missile batteries (“divisions” in Russian) to Kazakhstan in 2014 and four batteries to Belarus. This is more than helping out a neighbor with their defense needs. Russia wants to rebuild the old Tsarist Empire that the communists managed to lose in 1991 when the Soviet Union came apart and half the population of that empire went off and formed 14 new countries (or reconstituted old ones the Russians had conquered). Russia is proposing things like customs unions, military cooperation and rebuilding the old Soviet air defense system that used to defend everyone in the empire. The first step in getting everyone to cooperate with the expanded Russian air defense system is to ensure that everyone has the latest fire control equipment. While the S-300’s may be Cold War era weapons, their fire control and communications systems have been upgraded and can be easily linked with the Russian air defense control system.
February 8, 2014: In the south (Dagestan) police commandos tracked six Islamic terrorists to a house in the provincial capital. The terrorists refused to surrender and five were killed in the subsequent battle while one was arrested. One of the dead was a wanted Islamic terrorist leader.
February 5, 2014: In the south (Dagestan) police killed an Islamic terrorist leader (Dzamaltin Mirzayev) responsible for two suicide bombings in Volgograd last December. Mirzayev was tracked to a house where he was killed in a gun battle.
February 3, 2014: As a security measure Russia put dozens of widows of Islamic terrorists (largely from the Caucasus, especially Chechnya) under house arrest until the Winter Olympics are over. In the last few weeks there has been a search around Sochi and in other parts of Russia for several widows of Islamic terrorists believed to have been recruited for suicide bomber attacks. None have been found but the search continues. In the end, there were no “Black Widow” suicide bomber attacks at the Olympics.
February 2, 2014: In 2013 sales by Russian defense industries were up 28 percent. Those in the West were down and China, which keeps secret a lot of financial data about defense firms, was apparently up, but not as much as Russian firms. That’s because Russia is in the midst of spending about a trillion dollars this decade to restock its military with post-Cold War weapons and equipment. Russia had a record year for arms exports in 2013, moving $13.2 billion worth of weapons, military equipment and defense services. Russian officials admitted that they did not expect to increase weapons sales over the next few years, largely because arms sales worldwide, both for export and domestic consumption are shrinking. Currently about half of Russian sales are aircraft (jets and helicopters) and 25 percent are anti-aircraft systems. Russia still gets orders because they are cheaper than Western stuff, and nearly as good.
From 2008 to 2012 China exported $11.2 billion (in 2012 dollars) worth of weapons. Pakistan was the major customer (getting 55 percent of this stuff). China, like Russia before it, got sales by selling to outcast nations (Pakistan for developing nukes and supporting terrorism, Burma for being a brutal dictatorship for decades). Russia still does that but with higher quality second-rate stuff. Plus, Russia has had India as a major customer for decades. Both Russia and China will tolerate bribe requests and all manner of bad behavior to get a sale. That often makes a difference in many countries.