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Russia’s military is proving just how dangerous it really is (and testing new weapons)

While some improvements are certainly significant, the Russian military has yet to shed nor improve upon some of its older habits from past conflicts

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(The National Interest) – Russia this month announced another draw-down from its combat operations in Syria, which began on Sept. 30, 2015. The Russian military will retain troops in the country, likely indefinitely, where it has demonstrated the capabilities of new weapons and tactics — which together show it has learned from its shortcomings in past operations.

Nevertheless, as experts told War Is Boring, many of the Russian military’s old habits were also on display throughout this campaign.

It’s no secret that Russia used its military campaign to both demonstrate and test hardware, and furnish its forces with some actual combat experience. In March 2016, Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin said that combat operations in Syria are the best form of training for his country’s armed forces.

“The Russians quickly began to see Syria as a testing ground for various weapon systems that hadn’t been used in combat before as well as an opportunity to give various branches of the military experience in an actual war zone,” Michael Kofman, a specialist on the Russian military at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, told War Is Boring.

This included Russia firing its ship and submarine-launched Kalibr cruise missiles into Syria, all the way from the Caspian and Mediterranean Sea, and long-range Russian Tu-95MS and Tu-160 strategic bombers — flying from Russia itself — striking targets with Kh-555 and new Kh-101 air-launched cruise missiles.

Russian combat aircraft in Syria averaged 40-50 sorties per day, with peaks as high as 100 such as which occurred in January 2016. Russia achieved this without deploying more than 30-50 combat aircraft and 16-40 helicopters to Syria throughout the campaign, which Kofman notes is a much smaller deployment than the Soviets had in Afghanistan. Mechanical failures and combat losses in the air been “magnitudes less than previous Russian or Soviet air operations,” Kofman added.

Russia only lost a small number of aircraft, largely due to the success of Russian technicians who kept both new Russian aircraft and Soviet-era aircraft based in Syria airborne — an exception being the recent loss of a single Su-24M2 to mechanical failure on Oct. 10. The most well-known loss of a Russian plane during the war was the 2015 shootdown of an Su-24M by a Turkish F-16.

This is illustrative of improved flexibility in the Russian military, which has demonstrated it can achieve more with fewer forces than past in past wars.

Neil Hauer, an expert on Russia-Syria relations who has followed the conflict closely, also pointed out some of the improvements the Russian military has demonstrated in Syria compared to past conflicts.

“I think there’s been an implicit focus on using fewer frontline units than in the Donbass conflict,” Hauer told War Is Boring. “While Russian army units were engaged in full frontline battles there, there’s been nothing of the sort in Syria. Instead, Russian forces have acted in support roles in the guise of advisers, light infantry (reconnaissance and artillery spotting), and air support. The only real combat roles to date have been played by Wagner [Group, private Russian] mercenaries.”

Hauer points out that Russia quickly adapted early on in Syria, re-scaling “their ambitions after realizing just how little offensive action pro-regime forces were capable of.”

“The first months of the Russian intervention saw broad attempts to advance on a number of fronts, but many of the results were disastrous — especially in north Hama, where the regime lost dozens of tanks in a few weeks for zero gain, despite heavy Russian strikes,” he noted. “Since then, Russia has largely focused on supporting one regime offensive at a time, while suppressing rebel and Islamic State forces elsewhere.”

Kofman pointed out that when Russia first intervened in Syria it worked to help the regime secure key roads, infrastructure and isolated Syrian bases – while destroying every piece of heavy military hardware they could find in opposition hands. Most of that hardware had been captured from the Syrian army.

While Russian initial airstrikes in late 2015 and early 2016 reportedly helped the Syrian regime recapture a mere two percent of its territory, air strikes were already having a decisive effect on the battlefield.

Kofman argues that the two percent figure proved misleading since control over territory in Syria has proven “elusive,” largely because local leaders sided with whoever seemed likely to win. Therefore, Russia helped “swing the balance in favour of Damascus” through its bombing campaign across Syria, along with its subsequent sponsorship of ceasefire arrangements between regime forces and the opposition.

Furthermore, the regime’s grip on most of the population centers in Syria and the depopulation of opposition-held areas explained how Russia went from helping Damascus regain a mere two percent of Syrian territory to “appearing the victor in the conflict in less than two years.”

More broadly Russia’s showcasing of hitherto unused hardware in Syria, particularly its long-range bombers and cruise missiles, demonstrated to NATO its long reach and potential to target the alliance’s military assets in Europe were war to break out between the two.

Dumb bombs

While these improvements are certainly significant, the Russian military has yet to shed nor improve upon some of its older habits from past conflicts.

Even though the Russian air campaign was certainly effective, it may have resulted in between 8,324 and 11,282 civilian deaths through February 2017, according to the conflict monitoring group Airwars.

“As well as inflicting excessive civilian casualties, Russia is credibly reported to have extensively targeted civilian infrastructure in Syria — with water treatment plants, bakeries, food distribution depots and aid convoys all struck,” Airwars noted. “Civilian areas were also systematically targeted across rebel-held territories, often on consecutive days.”

Many of Russia’s bombs had far greater payloads than necessary for their targets, Kofman noted. This indicates that Russia still, more-or-less, fights the same way it did in the early 1990s. The proportion of precision-guided weapons used by Russia in Syria amounts to “perhaps less than five percent” of the total, Kaufman said.

While its campaign in Syria proved that Russia is capable of using long-range guided weapons and also demonstrated other improvements in the air since its 2008 war with Georgia, it also revealed serious limitations.

For instance, Russia carried out most of its bombings in Syria with older Su-24M2 and Su-25SM aircraft, which lack targeting pods needed to drop precision-guided bombs. The use of newer Russian Su-34 Fullback multi-role fighters were the only exception to this general trend since they are capable of dropping KAB-500S satellite-guided bombs.

Furthermore, the ability of Russian warplanes to hit small, moving targets with precision-guided munitions has proven extremely limited. Instead, these aircraft relied on unguided weapons and bombs far too big for their intended targets, which Kofman describes as “overkill.”

As with its Soviet predecessor, the Russian military can maul its enemies “in close quarters, but continues to struggle when it comes to actually finding and seeing its intended targets,” Kaufman said.

Russia lagging in the production of drones also haven’t helped. While the Russian military does possess domestically-produced reconaissance and surveillance drones, along with some license-built Israeli models, it has no armed drones to speak of therefore lacks a “recon-strike capability,” Kaufman added.

Also Moscow’s use of naval aircraft in Syria failed to impress given the abysmal deployment of the aging Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier in late 2016, which lost an Su-33 and a MiG-29K in accidents.

Overall, Russia’s campaign in Syria has been a mixed bag. It certainly showed improvements in tactics, strategy and capability. At the same time it demonstrated that Moscow has plenty of room for improvement when it comes to conducting conventional military operations beyond its vast frontiers.

This first appeared in WarIsBoring here

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Multipolar World Order in the Making: Qatar Dumps OPEC

Russia and Qatar’s global strategy also brings together and includes partners like Turkey.

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Authored by Federico Pieraccini via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


The decision by Qatar to abandon OPEC threatens to redefine the global energy market, especially in light of Saudi Arabia’s growing difficulties and the growing influence of the Russian Federation in the OPEC+ mechanism.

In a surprising statement, Qatari energy minister Saad al-Kaabi warned OPEC on Monday December 3 that his country had sent all the necessary documentation to start the country’s withdrawal from the oil organization in January 2019. Al-Kaabi stressed that the decision had nothing to do with recent conflicts with Riyadh but was rather a strategic choice by Doha to focus on the production of LNG, which Qatar, together with the Russian Federation, is one of the largest global exporters of. Despite an annual oil extraction rate of only 1.8% of the total of OPEC countries (about 600,000 barrels a day), Qatar is one of the founding members of the organization and has always had a strong political influence on the governance of the organization. In a global context where international relations are entering a multipolar phase, things like cooperation and development become fundamental; so it should not surprise that Doha has decide to abandon OPEC. OPEC is one of the few unipolar organizations that no longer has a meaningful purpose in 2018, given the new realities governing international relations and the importance of the Russian Federation in the oil market.

Besides that, Saudi Arabia requires the organization to maintain a high level of oil production due to pressure coming from Washington to achieve a very low cost per barrel of oil. The US energy strategy targets Iranian and Russian revenue from oil exports, but it also aims to give the US a speedy economic boost. Trump often talks about the price of oil falling as his personal victory. The US imports about 10 million barrels of oil a day, which is why Trump wrongly believes that a decrease in the cost per barrel could favor a boost to the US economy. The economic reality shows a strong correlation between the price of oil and the financial growth of a country, with low prices of crude oil often synonymous of a slowing down in the economy.

It must be remembered that to keep oil prices low, OPEC countries are required to maintain a high rate of production, doubling the damage to themselves. Firstly, they take less income than expected and, secondly, they deplete their oil reserves to favor the strategy imposed by Saudi Arabia on OPEC to please the White House. It is clearly a strategy that for a country like Qatar (and perhaps Venezuela and Iran in the near future) makes little sense, given the diplomatic and commercial rupture with Riyadh stemming from tensions between the Gulf countries.

In contrast, the OPEC+ organization, which also includes other countries like the Russian Federation, Mexico and Kazakhstan, seems to now to determine oil and its cost per barrel. At the moment, OPEC and Russia have agreed to cut production by 1.2 million barrels per day, contradicting Trump’s desire for high oil output.

With this last choice Qatar sends a clear signal to the region and to traditional allies, moving to the side of OPEC+ and bringing its interests closer in line with those of the Russian Federation and its all-encompassing oil and gas strategy, two sectors in which Qatar and Russia dominate market share.

In addition, Russia and Qatar’s global strategy also brings together and includes partners like Turkey (a future energy hub connecting east and west as well as north and south) and Venezuela. In this sense, the meeting between Maduro and Erdogan seems to be a prelude to further reorganization of OPEC and its members.

The declining leadership role of Saudi Arabia in the oil and financial market goes hand in hand with the increase of power that countries like Qatar and Russia in the energy sectors are enjoying. The realignment of energy and finance signals the evident decline of the Israel-US-Saudi Arabia partnership. Not a day goes by without corruption scandals in Israel, accusations against the Saudis over Khashoggi or Yemen, and Trump’s unsuccessful strategies in the commercial, financial or energy arenas. The path this doomed

trio is taking will only procure less influence and power, isolating them more and more from their opponents and even historical allies.

Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi, the Eurasian powerhouses, seem to have every intention, as seen at the trilateral summit in Buenos Aires, of developing the ideal multipolar frameworks to avoid continued US dominance of the oil market through shale revenues or submissive allies as Saudi Arabia, even though the latest spike in production is a clear signal from Riyadh to the USA. In this sense, Qatar’s decision to abandon OPEC and start a complex and historical discussion with Moscow on LNG in the format of an enlarged OPEC marks the definitive decline of Saudi Arabia as a global energy power, to be replaced by Moscow and Doha as the main players in the energy market.

Qatar’s decision is, officially speaking, unconnected to the feud triggered by Saudi Arabia against the small emirate. However, it is evident that a host of factors has led to this historic decision. The unsuccessful military campaign in Yemen has weakened Saudi Arabia on all fronts, especially militarily and economically. The self-inflicted fall in the price of oil is rapidly consuming Saudi currency reserves, now at a new low of less than 500 billion dollars. Events related to Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) have de-legitimized the role of Riyadh in the world as a reliable diplomatic interlocutor. The internal and external repression by the Kingdom has provoked NGOs and governments like Canada’s to issue public rebukes that have done little to help MBS’s precarious position.

In Syria, the victory of Damascus and her allies has consolidated the role of Moscow in the region, increased Iranian influence, and brought Turkey and Qatar to the multipolar side, with Tehran and Moscow now the main players in the Middle East. In terms of military dominance, there has been a clear regional shift from Washington to Moscow; and from an energy perspective, Doha and Moscow are turning out to be the winners, with Riyadh once again on the losing side.

As long as the Saudi royal family continues to please Donald Trump, who is prone to catering to Israeli interests in the region, the situation of the Kingdom will only get worse. The latest agreement on oil production between Moscow and Riyad signals that someone in the Saudi royal family has probably figured this out.

Countries like Turkey, India, China, Russia and Iran understand the advantages of belonging to a multipolar world, thereby providing a collective geopolitical ballast that is mutually beneficial. The energy alignment between Qatar and the Russian Federation seems to support this general direction, a sort of G2 of LNG gas that will only strengthen the position of Moscow on the global chessboard, while guaranteeing a formidable military umbrella for Doha in case of a further worsening of relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

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Constantinople: Ukrainian Church leader is now uncanonical

October 12 letter proclaims Metropolitan Onuphry as uncanonical and tries to strong-arm him into acquiescing through bribery and force.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The pressure in Ukraine kept ratcheting up over the last few days, with a big revelation today that Patriarch Bartholomew now considers Metropolitan Onuphy “uncanonical.” This news was published on 6 December by a hierarch of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church (running under the Moscow Patriarchate).

This assessment marks a complete 180-degree turn by the leader of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople, and it further embitters the split that has developed to quite a major row between this church’s leadership and the Moscow Patriarchate.

OrthoChristian reported this today (we have added emphasis):

A letter of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine was published yesterday by a hierarch of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in which the Patriarch informed the Metropolitan that his title and position is, in fact, uncanonical.

This assertion represents a negation of the position held by Pat. Bartholomew himself until April of this year, when the latest stage in the Ukrainian crisis began…

The same letter was independently published by the Greek news agency Romfea today as well.

It is dated October 12, meaning it was written just one day after Constantinople made its historic decision to rehabilitate the Ukrainian schismatics and rescind the 1686 document whereby the Kiev Metropolitanate was transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church, thereby, in Constantinople’s view, taking full control of Ukraine.

In the letter, Pat. Bartholomew informs Met. Onuphry that after the council, currently scheduled for December 15, he will no longer be able to carry his current title of “Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine.”

The Patriarch immediately opens his letter with Constantinople’s newly-developed historical claim about the jurisdictional alignment of Kiev: “You know from history and from indisputable archival documents that the holy Metropolitanate of Kiev has always belonged to the jurisdiction of the Mother Church of Constantinople…”

Constantinople has done an about-face on its position regarding Ukraine in recent months, given that it had previously always recognized the Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate as the sole canonical primate in Ukraine.

…The bulk of the Patriarch’s letter is a rehash of Constantinople’s historical and canonical arguments, which have already been laid out and discussed elsewhere. (See also here and here). Pat. Bartholomew also writes that Constantinople stepped into the Ukrainian ecclesiastical sphere as the Russian Church had not managed to overcome the schisms that have persisted for 30 years.

It should be noted that the schisms began and have persisted precisely as anti-Russian movements and thus the relevant groups refused to accept union with the Russian Church.

Continuing, Pat. Bartholomew informs Met. Onuphry that his position and title are uncanonical:

Addressing you as ‘Your Eminence the Metropolitan of Kiev’ as a form of economia [indulgence/condescension—OC] and mercy, we inform you that after the elections for the primate of the Ukrainian Church by a body that will consist of clergy and laity, you will not be able ecclesiologically and canonically to bear the title of Metropolitan of Kiev, which, in any case, you now bear in violation of the described conditions of the official documents of 1686.

He also entreats Met. Onuphry to “promptly and in a spirit of harmony and unity” participate, with the other hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in the founding council of the new Ukrainian church that Constantinople is planning to create, and in the election of its primate.

The Constantinople head also writes that he “allows” Met. Onuphry to be a candidate for the position of primate.

He further implores Met. Onuphry and the UOC hierarchy to communicate with Philaret Denisenko, the former Metropolitan of Kiev, and Makary Maletich, the heads of the schismatic “Kiev Patriarchate” and the schismatic “Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church” respectively—both of which have been subsumed into Constantinople—but whose canonical condemnations remain in force for the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The hierarchs of the Serbian and Polish Churches have also officially rejected the rehabilitation of the Ukrainian schismatics.

Pat. Bartholomew concludes expressing his confidence that Met. Onuphry will decide to heal the schism through the creation of a new church in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Metropolitan Onuphry’s leadership is recognized as the sole canonical Orthodox jurisdiction in Ukraine by just about every other canonical Orthodox Jurisdiction besides Constantinople. Even NATO member Albania, whose expressed reaction was “both sides are wrong for recent actions” still does not accept the canonicity of the “restored hierarchs.”

In fact, about the only people in this dispute that seem to be in support of the “restored” hierarchs, Filaret and Makary, are President Poroshenko, Patriarch Bartholomew, Filaret and Makary… and NATO.

While this letter was released to the public eye yesterday, the nearly two months that Metropolitan Onuphry has had to comply with it have not been helped in any way by the actions of both the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Ukrainian government.

Priests of the Canonical Church in Ukraine awaiting interrogation by the State authorities

For example, in parallel reports released on December 6th, the government is reportedly accusing canonical priests in Ukraine of treason because they are carrying and distributing a brochure entitled (in English): The Ukrainian Orthodox Church: Relations with the State. The Attitude Towards the Conflict in Donbass and to the Church Schism. Questions and Answers.

In a manner that would do any American liberal proud, these priests are being accused of inciting religious hatred, though really all they are doing is offering an explanation for the situation in Ukraine as it exists.

A further piece also released yesterday notes that the Ukrainian government rehabilitated an old Soviet-style technique of performing “inspections of church artifacts” at the Pochaev Lavra. This move appears to be both intended to intimidate the monastics who are living there now, who are members of the canonical Church, as well as preparation for an expected forcible takeover by the new “united Church” that is under creation. The brotherhood characterized the inspections in this way:

The brotherhood of the Pochaev Lavra previously characterized the state’s actions as communist methods of putting pressure on the monastery and aimed at destroying monasticism.

Commenting on the situation with the Pochaev Lavra, His Eminence Archbishop Clement of Nizhyn and Prilusk, the head of the Ukrainian Church’s Information-Education Department, noted:

This is a formal raiding, because no reserve ever built the Pochaev Lavra, and no Ministry of Culture ever invested a single penny to restoring the Lavra, and the state has done nothing to preserve the Lavra in its modern form. The state destroyed the Lavra, turned it into a psychiatric hospital, a hospital for infectious diseases, and so on—the state has done nothing more. And now it just declares that it all belongs to the state. No one asked the Church, the people that built it. When did the Lavra and the land become state property? They belonged to the Church from time immemorial.

With the massive pressure both geopolitically and ecclesiastically building in Ukraine almost by the day, it is anyone’s guess what will happen next.

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Ukrainian leadership is a party of war, and it will continue as long as they’re in power – Putin

“We care about Ukraine because Ukraine is our neighbor,” Putin said.

RT

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Via RT…


Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has branded the Ukrainian leadership a “party of war” which would continue fueling conflicts while they stay in power, giving the recent Kerch Strait incident as an example.

“When I look at this latest incident in the Black Sea, all what’s happening in Donbass – everything indicates that the current Ukrainian leadership is not interested in resolving this situation at all, especially in a peaceful way,” Putin told reporters during a media conference in the aftermath of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

This is a party of war and as long as they stay in power, all such tragedies, all this war will go on.

The Kiev authorities are craving war primarily for two reasons – to rip profits from it, and to blame all their own domestic failures on it and actions of some sort of “aggressors.”

“As they say, for one it’s war, for other – it’s mother. That’s reason number one why the Ukrainian government is not interested in a peaceful resolution of the conflict,” Putin stated.

Second, you can always use war to justify your failures in economy, social policy. You can always blame things on an aggressor.

This approach to statecraft by the Ukrainian authorities deeply concerns Russia’s President. “We care about Ukraine because Ukraine is our neighbor,” Putin said.

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been soaring after the incident in the Kerch Strait. Last weekend three Ukrainian Navy ships tried to break through the strait without seeking the proper permission from Russia. Following a tense stand-off and altercation with Russia’s border guard, the vessels were seized and their crews detained over their violation of the country’s border.

While Kiev branded the incident an act of “aggression” on Moscow’s part, Russia believes the whole Kerch affair to be a deliberate “provocation” which allowed Kiev to declare a so-called “partial” martial law ahead of Ukraine’s presidential election.

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