Leader Vladimir Putin is not pleased that Russian forces are losing in Ukraine and blames the generals and military staffs for not identifying and dealing with the problems. The generals are reluctant to tell Putin that he is the problem. Putin refuses to believe that Russian forces cannot defeat the Ukrainians. Putin also refuses to believe it is the Ukrainian willingness to fight the Russian invaders, and not just all the military aid sent by NATO nations, that causes this. Putin also doesn’t want to hear about Russian soldiers avoiding service in Ukraine, refusing to fight once they got there, and often deserting if compelled to fight. Most junior officers agree with their troops but are much less likely to desert or remind their superiors that the Russian situation in Ukraine has become increasingly difficult.
The Ukrainians have destroyed and disabled Russian forces in Ukraine by successfully blocking or destroying supplies and reinforcements sent to Ukraine. Russian troops complain that they are not able to replace losses or obtain supplies needed to maintain morale and prevent desertion or soldiers refusing to fight. Even the elite Russian units, which comprise about ten percent of Russian forces, are taking a beating and not able to persuade their superiors that the situation is very bad and that most Russian forces are on the defensive and too demoralized by troop losses and lack of supplies to change the situation.
On the other hand, Ukraine presently does not have sufficient forces and artillery munitions to force the Russians out of Ukraine. It’s a stalemate that favors Russia, which is content to keep Ukraine in a permanent state of war and thus unable to join NATO. That is no longer the case as most, if not all, NATO members are willing to allow Ukraine to join even though the war with Russia continues. Since Russia invaded in early 2022, NATO countries have sent Ukraine nearly $100 billion in military and economic assistance. This was crucial to enable Ukrainian forces to halt the Russian invasion and organize a counteroffensive.
By remaining in Ukraine, Russia continues to suffer high economic costs caused by the economic sanctions imposed by most Western nations. Russian leaders realize even now that, if the cost of continuing the war against Ukraine reaches the point where more and more Russians experience declining living standards, they might lose. A growing number of Russians see the Ukraine War as something they can’t afford and can justify getting out of. This is not a case of defending Mother Russia, which is what happened during World War 2 when Russians were proud of their successful effort to halt the German invaders and then defeat Germany with some help from Western nations. Ukraine is different as Russia is the invader. Many Russians are not comfortable with that and don’t understand why their government would invade a neighbor. The invasion failed and the Russian people are paying for in terms of Russian lives lost and growing hardship from sanctions and the war’s cost.
November 5, 2023: The government wishes it were otherwise, but the biggest priority right now is improving the economy and that means doing something about the harsh economic sanctions imposed by Western nations. That left Russia with only two trading partners: Iran and North Korea. These two are also outcast nations suffering from sanctions. To make matters worse, Ukraine continues to receive billions in economic and military aid from NATO nations. This leads more Russians to wonder what they are being impoverished for. A growing number of Russian leaders have noticed that, but Vladimir Putin is still in charge, and he wants peace and prosperity for Russia a lot less than he wants to punish Ukraine and the West. That is not working, and Putin is running out of excuses to justify the cost for Russia to so many Russians who are suffering from the sanctions.
Russia has managed to adjust to many of the sanctions and convinced the Russian population that the war effort is for the defense of Russia against NATO aggression. Russia has developed ways to produce more cruise missiles despite the severe economic sanctions imposed after they invaded Ukraine. Russia has found new sources for components, some of them obtained by smuggling or purchases of components that can be adapted for use in missile production. Most of the smuggling is done via Armenia and Turkey, two countries that are hospitable to smuggling if it has some benefits for locals. Although Turkey is a NATO member, smuggling is tolerated if the smugglers will pay the right people for access. Such corrupt behavior has long prevented Turkey from joining the European Union.
Russia has expended most of its missile stockpiles and the sanctions had, for a while, prevented Russia from replacing those missiles. Restoring Russian missile production is going to hurt Ukraine because the missiles are difficult to intercept and cause a lot of damage to Ukrainian infrastructure and armed forces. NATO is seeking to disrupt the smuggling while it provides Ukraine with more air defense systems that can deal with incoming missiles. The problem is that NATO cannot supply Ukraine with enough defensive systems to protect all the economic targets Russia wants to attack. NATO considers sanctions the best way to prevent increased Russian missile production but it appears that current efforts will not be sufficient.
The solution is more effective sanctions, and that effort is underway. For sanctions to work they must constantly evolve as the sanctioned nations seek ways to evade the sanctions. This is an economic conflict. Russia can afford it, so far, because they have an annual GDP of over two trillion dollars and the ability to increase annual defense spending to over $100 billion. That’s up from $86 billion in 2022 and $66 billion in 2021. A decade ago, annual defense spending was $20 billion. This is tolerated by Russian taxpayers because, before 2022, the military threat was hypothetical. That changed in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine as part of an effort to protect Russia from purported inevitable NATO aggression. All that makes no sense to most Westerners, but Ukrainians understood as did NATO’s East European members, especially Poland and the Baltic States.
Russia does not have a blank check for defense spending. The invasion of Ukraine triggered massive Western sanctions. These did not stop Russian aggression but did impose limits to what Russia could do even with a larger defense budget. A wartime defense budget has very different priorities than it does in peacetime. For Russia, this is a major problem in Ukraine, where their faltering invasion effort turned out to be a lot more expensive than expected. While the salaries of the troops and operating costs of the military came to $85 billion, the additional wartime expenses include $34 billion for lost weapons and equipment as well as $21 billion for medical care of those wounded and $26 billion for compensating the families of those killed in combat. The latter is also a good way for foreign intelligence agencies to estimate Russian casualties. Those families, especially if they consist of a wife and children, need continued support. Without this compensation you cannot obtain volunteers who join to be career officers and NCOs. For these men the military is a job that they will normally hold for about twenty years before they are eligible to retire with lifetime monthly pay. Another of Russia’s problems is simple inability to produce many high-tech weapons, or even repair existing ones, because of sanctions. Smuggling is only a partial solution.
November 4, 2023: Russia needs more armored vehicles, especially tanks. Most of Russia’s best and most modern tanks were destroyed during the first few months of the invasion. Ukrainian forces were armed with Western anti-tank missiles that were extremely effective against Russian tanks. The number of Russian tanks available is shrinking faster than the Ukrainian tank force. The key factor here is the inability of Russia to manufacture enough tanks to cover losses, much less increase their tank force. Russian manufacturing in general is suffering from Western sanctions which Russia tries to mitigate with substitution or smuggling. This is an imperfect solution and is not w0rking. Another problem is that their one tank manufacturing plant, Uralvagonzavod, can only produce about 300 tanks a year. This assumes they have access to the needed components, which is currently not the case. Fixing crippled but repairable tanks is also disrupted by not having enough tank transporters to carry damaged tanks to a railroad that will take them to a repair facility. These facilities are still busy refurbishing elderly (1960s) T-62s for infantry support duties.
Production of the 115mm main gun of the T-62 ceased production decades ago while many of the stored T-62s have 115mm guns that already have a lot of use and cannot fire many more shells before the barrels need replacement. Howitzer and cannon barrels too can only fire a certain number of shells before worn barrels become unreliable and inaccurate. Eventually these barrels fail and are torn apart by a shell. The 120mm and 125mm tank guns fire higher velocity shells than the shorter barreled field artillery and so become unreliable much faster.
At the same time Ukraine is receiving modern Western tanks like the German Leopard and American M1 whose main gun ammunition is still in production. Ukraine has received even more light armored vehicles used for carrying troops or reconnaissance. Western nations are sending a lot of light armor because they put a lot of retired vehicles in storage as an emergency war reserve. Now there is a war with Russia, but Ukrainians are doing all the fighting and need armored vehicles. They are getting them. This makes Ukrainian troops more effective and reduces their casualties. That means Russian is taking more casualties because they have fewer, and less capable armored vehicles for their infantry and support troops.
November 3, 2023: Russia is experiencing growing problems with obtaining men for the military and then holding on to them. The heavy losses in Ukraine are a state secret in Russia. In Ukraine there are regular updates on Ukrainian and Russian combat deaths. So far Russia has lost 300,000 men, about four times as many as Ukraine. Russian personnel losses are growing every day, and on some days nearly a thousand Russians are killed. These high casualty rates resulted in Russian men conscripted or otherwise called up for military service are increasingly reluctant to serve. There are more men refusing to serve or deserting once in the military. Threats of imprisonment don’t deter those who avoid military service because you are more likely to survive a prison term than a short time in the military.
November 2, 2023: Russian equipment losses have been huge, with over 15,000 armored vehicles gone, a third of them tanks. UralVagonZavod, Russia ‘s only tank production facility, can only produce 20 new tanks a month. UralVagonZavod can also repair, refurbish and restore to service ten times as many damaged tanks each month. Most Russian tanks destroyed in combat suffer such massive damage that they cannot be restored. Repairable Russian tanks are often overrun by Ukrainian forces, who not only take possession of the damaged Russian tank but use their own repair and restoration facilities to restore captured Russian tanks. Most Ukrainian tanks are Russian designs that Ukraine has been repairing and upgrading since the 1990s. Currently the Ukrainians have an edge in repairing tanks because Ukraine can obtain any Western components they need while Russian access is restricted by economic sanctions.
Before 1991, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and a center for repairing and upgrading tanks. In part, that was because many Russian tanks were stored in Ukraine so that during a potential Cold War era war with NATO, Soviet tank losses could be quickly replaced with the reserve tanks in Ukraine. That war never happened and when Ukraine became independent in 1991, they inherited all these Russian tanks. Ukraine used its tank repair and upgrade facilities to customize Russian tanks sold to other nations. These Russian tanks were inexpensive, and many nations needed them. When Russia invaded in 2022, many Russian tank losses were inflicted by similar Ukrainian tanks. Ukraine wanted Western tanks from NATO because they knew how superior these tanks were to the Russian designs Ukraine and Russia were using. Ukraine had no repair facilities for the Western tanks, so NATO set up one up in Poland that was staffed by Western and Ukrainian technicians. The Ukrainians were there to learn and eventually do all the work themselves.
November 1, 2023: Russia has outlawed release of information on Russian losses in Ukraine. The information is still available from Western sources. In response to that Russia has imposed more restrictions on access to internet services. Russian companies that provide these services must cooperate or be shut down. For over a decade Russia has been seeking to gain more control over the internet in Russia. With the war in Ukraine, this has become even more crucial.
October 31, 2023: Russian forces in Ukraine were perplexed when they found they were destroying more enemy aircraft and tanks than the enemy had. Reviewing recent attacks on Ukrainian forces revealed that the Ukrainians were using decoys to attract Russian attacks that would use an expensive missile or airstrike to destroy a Ukrainian fake target. Russians familiar with their own military history could point out that Russian forces used similar techniques during World War 2. During that conflict Ukraine was still part of Russia and the Ukrainians may have been referencing the same incidents. The most recent incident of decoy tactics took place in Ukraine when Russia announced their forces had destroyed 70 Ukrainian Su-25 ground attack aircraft. That claim was quickly amended when Russian intelligence personnel pointed out that Ukraine had 16 Su-25s before the 2022 invasion. What Russia destroyed were a lot of fake Su-25s that Ukraine had deployed on several military airfields. The Russian pilots carrying out these attacks on Su-25s parked at airfields noted that none of them exploded in flames, which is normally the case. This was attributed to the Ukrainians not bothering to fill the fuel tanks of Su-25s parked at an airbase. Pilots get credit for destroying enemy aircraft on the ground and a number of Russian pilots found their scores reduced when the proliferation of Ukrainian Su-25 decoys was discovered. Ukraine later admitted that they build many other types of decoys for prime targets like HIMARS missile launchers, several models of artillery howitzers and mobile radar air search radars and electronic warfare equipment.
October 30, 2023: Russia is reorganizing its combat units as it abandons the novel BTG (Battalion Task Group) concept that looked good on paper but consistently failed in combat and was seen as more trouble than it's worth. The infantry and many specialist troops are transferred to traditional battalion and brigade organizations. Forming new divisions is impractical right now because of the extraordinary heavy casualties in Ukraine. About 300,000 Russians have been killed so far and played a significant role in depressing morale to the point where many troops refuse to fight and if they do advance it is vert reluctantly and ineffectively. About ten percent of the Russian army consists of more effective troops like paratroopers. Marines or special operations (Spetsnaz) forces. These specialists are volunteers who are screened carefully, take longer to train and are better paid. Normally their troops are not used for suicidal frontal attacks. Now they sometimes are and often prevail where regular troops cannot. This comes at a high cost. The heavy casualties cannot be quickly replaced unless you want to turn an elite units into an ordinary one. That is what is happening to many of these elite units as misuse and overuse reduce their strength and diminish their extraordinary combat abilities. It’s reached the point where the army cannot comply when president Vladimir Putin demands some form of success, no matter how insignificant.
October 29, 2023: In southeast Ukraine (Donetsk province) Russia is suffering heavy casualties in a battle for control of the town of Avdiivka. This was seen by the Ukrainians as a pointless operation for the Russians. Apparently, Russia wants to achieve some success in Ukraine to justify the heavy losses Russian forces have taken since early 2022. The heavy losses suffered at Avdiivka have further depressed Russian troop morale, often to the point where soldiers will refuse to carry out an attack.
October 28, 2023: Russian forces in Ukraine have a lot of internal problems that weaken their ability to fight the Ukrainians. Internal fighting between Russian troops belonging to different ethnic groups sometimes turns deadly. These animosities often interfere with combat operations because the two groups don’t trust each other. There are similar problems between regular troops and irregulars. Both are supposed to cooperate in combat but that often does not happen. Commanders with these irregular or non-Russian troops often have problems using these different types of soldiers to cooperate in combat. These off-duty differences don’t disappear when the fighting starts. Another problem with maintaining troop morale is providing the troops with adequate combat equipment, this includes helmets, protective vests and combat glasses to protect eyes from the tiny but injurious debris created during combat. Economic sanctions have prevented Russia from manufacturing all this essential equipment for its soldiers. To deal with that Russia smuggles in the equipment from China via Turkish companies that handle such things through a variety of misdirection and deceptions they have developed over the years.
October 27, 2023: Russia knows who its friends are and one of those friends is the Palestinian Hamas. Russia recently asked Hamas to check their prisoners for eight people who have dual citizenship. Russia wants these people released to them and Hamas replied that it would be done because Hamas considers Russian friendship a major asset.
Ukraine is not a friend of Russia, which was demonstrated recently when Ukrainian computer hackers temporarily shut down three Russian internet providers in Russian occupied portions of Ukraine.
October 26, 2023: The United States revealed intelligence reports of Russian officers shooting any of their troops who refuse or hesitate to fight. This was a standard practice with the Wagner Group mercenaries. For the Russian army during World War 2, killing a few soldiers to encourage the others was a common practice. Sometimes NKVD (secret police) troops would be used as barrier forces behind a major attack. The NKVD men had machine-guns that were used on any Russian troops moving away from the fighting. This told the Russian soldiers that they could take their chances fighting the Germans or face certain death from the NKVD machine-gunners. In Ukraine there have been a growing number of cases where Russian troops were reluctant or refused to fight. The are some battles in Ukraine recently that saw thousands of Russian troops killed in poorly planned and supported attacks. Support was supposed to be in the form of artillery fire or tanks. Russia is running out of artillery ammunition and Russia cannot produce enough shells. North Korea sold Russia small quantities of shells, and these had to be delivered via the Trans-Siberian railroad. Transit time from North Korea to the Ukraine combat zone is about eight days.
October 25, 2023: Russia is having a different set of problems in the part of Ukraine they still occupy. There Russia is seeking to Russianize the Ukrainians. This is a difficult process and often takes a generation or two of effort to make it work. Ultimately Russia wants to do this throughout Ukraine, but the Ukrainians are resisting. To speed up the process the Russians are concentrating on the children in Russian occupied Ukraine, in some cases the children are sent to Russia for medical care or to somehow protect them. Ukraine complained to the UN, which agreed it was wrong and declared Russian leader Vladimir Putin a war criminal because of this policy. Putin continued with his Russification program and only the expulsion of Russian troops from Ukraine will stop it. Ukraine is in the process of pushing the Russians out. Putin is resisting despite the damage economic sanctions have done to the Russian economy.
October 24, 2023: The growing number of Ukrainian attacks on Crimea have forced most of the Russian Black Sea Fleet to move. The Ukrainians use various types of missiles as well as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and USVs (Unmanned Surface Vessels) carrying explosive warheads to destroy military targets, including bases, ports, headquarters and airfields. While civilian targets are spared, the military facilities are a major source of employment. When these facilities are damaged, destroyed and shut down, the civilians leave. Now Ukrainian forces are getting close to the narrow isthmus that connects Crimean to the mainland and the other access point, the Kerch Strait bridge in southeastern Crimea is also under constant attack. The civilians are leaving and not many civilian visitors are arriving. As the situation in Crimea deteriorates, corruption by local officials makes matters worse.
October 23, 2023: The four-month-old Ukrainian offensive in southern Ukraine recently achieved a major objective. Ukrainian forces advanced to within GMLRS missile range of the only Russian rail line that carried supplies to occupied Crimea. Ukraine had already disabled the other rail supply route to Crimea, which used the Kerch Strait bridge. Ukraine used various types of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), USVs (unmanned surface vessels) and UUVs (unmanned underwater vessels) to do this, as well as destroy Russian air defenses in Crimea and drive the remaining ships of the Black Sea fleet to port on the east coast of the Black Sea. The largest of these is Novorossiysk, which had a small naval base facility added in 2012. Now it is being used to host the surviving remnants of the Black Sea Fleet. While Novorossiysk is mainly a commercial port, exporting oil and other goods produced in the area and handling most of the imports, most of that has been halted because of the Ukrainian unmanned weapons that now make the Black Sea a dangerous place for Russian ships of any type.
October 22, 2023: Most of the Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine come from rural areas. In the cities, military age men have more opportunities to get assigned to non-combat jobs or avoid military service altogether. In rural Russia military service is honored as are those who die in combat. Many of these rural areas are the home base for specific combat units. Local men join these units and, if they are killed in combat, are remembered and honored. One such unit is the 37th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade, which is based near the Mongolian border and is part of the defense forces in the Russian Far East. This unit has a history stretching back to World War II, when in 1942 it was the 5th Guards Cavalry Corps. In 1965 this unit became the 5th Guards Tank division. In 2008 a large-scale reform of the army made this division into the 37th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade. In the Russian army a unit is designated a Guards unit after performing exceptionally well in combat. Thereafter, successors to that unit keep the Guards designation.
Units of the brigade served in eastern Ukraine (Donetsk Province) from 2014 to 2022.During this period the brigade suffered internal problems such as abuse of conscripts, including murder and accidental shootings by poorly trained troops. The low morale led to some suicides and accusations of soldiers being severely beaten by superiors and receiving inadequate clothing, food and medical attention. Some soldiers were forced to pay cash bribes to their superiors before they were officially discharged, though conscripts were supposed to serve only one year. This made conscript morale very low by Russian standards. Career officers and soldiers were generally free to abuse conscripts as much as they wished but had to be careful not to seriously injure or kill these soldiers because that might lead to an investigation and punishment of the guilty. This often happens when families of soldiers complain about their sons being badly injured or killed by their superiors. These complaints often led to bad publicity for the military even though this misbehavior had been common since the end of World War II. It was newsworthy that the number of soldiers abused in Ukraine was far higher than the number reported during the Chechen or Afghan wars.
October 21, 2023: Russia is much larger than Ukraine and has nearly four times as many people and a larger economy and military. Before deciding to invade, Russia calculated, based on what turned out to be flawed information, that they would invade Ukraine from the north, where the border is closest to the capital Kyiv, and win a quick and cheap victory. It didn’t work out as planned. Part of the reason was that Russian leader Vladimir Putin did not tolerate bad news very well and the messenger often suffered as well. When Putin asked for intel on the situation inside Ukraine, he was told that morale was low, loyalty to the government equally weak and the military disorganized and demoralized.
All that was quite untrue, but it was what Putin was looking for and he ordered the Stavka (the military general staff) to plan and carry out an invasion of Ukraine that would take advantage of the intel Putin received. Some Stavka members suspected or realized that the Intel Putin received was overly optimistic, but their job was to do what the boss wanted. They did it quickly and competently and Putin approved the attack plan.
The Russian attack was an expensive disaster, with heavy losses among junior combat officers and even heavier losses for the most modern and effective tanks. There were heavy losses among the troops, but they were easier to replace than those officers. The tank losses were difficult to replace; nearly two years later they still haven’t been replaced and it will take another five to ten years to do that assuming Russia does not lose a lot more tanks in combat. Russia continues to lose tanks and tries to deal with this by bringing hundreds of 50–60-year-old T-62s out of storage, getting them running again and sending them to provide cheaper tanks for the Ukrainians to destroy.
At this point it seems like a good idea to call off the Russian invasion and halt the heavy personnel, armored vehicle, munitions and usage and take care of the Russian people. While most Russians seemed to approve of the invasion, they did so because Putin did it to prevent NATO from doing something bad to Russia. That was never going to happen since NATO was a defensive alliance, founded in 1949, and its objective was to protect Western Europe from Russian aggression. The NATO mandate has not changed, nor have Russian aggressive tendencies. Ukraine realized this and was seeking NATO membership. The Russian invasion was, in part, to keep Ukraine out of NATO. Putin knew that the NATO charter obliged all members to join in defending a member who was attacked. While Ukraine has not yet been able to join NATO, their admission has only been delayed by the war with Russia. Many Russians began to realize this and that did not improve Putin’s declining popularity. The invasion had resulted in heavy economic sanctions for Russia to deal with. To prevent too many more Russians from going into poverty or not having enough to eat, the government spent heavily to keep the cost of living from plunging too far too quickly. This was expensive as was the continued fighting in Ukraine.
October 18, 2023: While the United States accounts for about 40 percent of worldwide defense spending, China and Russia together only account for about 17 percent. The rest of the top ten are either allies of the Americans or friendly. Ukraine is, in terms of total defense spending that includes donations from NATO countries, figuratively in the top five when it comes to defense acquisitions. This is a dubious distinction for Ukraine, which is using it all to repel a Russian invasion. South Korea has profited from this because NATO nations bordering Ukraine or Russia have increased defense spending and purchased nearly $15 billion worth of South Korea weapons and munitions. South Korea produces a lot more military gear than the north and this is top grade stuff. One side effect is that once Poland receives all the South Korean tanks, mobile artillery and rocket (guided and unguided) launchers from South Korea, they will have the most powerful army in NATO Europe. This is to discourage any Russian attacks on Poland or any other NATO nation in the area.
NATO was created as a mutual defense organization to deal with any Russian attack. That never came during the Cold War, but Russia returned to its aggressive ways in 2022 when it invaded Ukraine. NATO is a major support of Ukraine and has agreed to admit Ukraine as a member once the Russian invaders have been dealt with. One reason Russia invaded Ukraine was to prevent them from joining NATO and the EU (European Union). The EU is mainly an economic alliance and Ukraine wants to join it and NATO rather than remaining neutral and threatened again with Russian aggression.
October 10, 2023: Russia is having problems with its secret agents and spies. By invading Ukraine, NATO nations heeded the advice of Ukrainian intelligence that Russia was expanding its espionage operations in Ukraine and elsewhere. These warnings included some information on the expansion of Russian espionage and assassination efforts in Russia, Ukraine and the rest of Europe. For example, in late 2022 Germany arrested a former soldier who held a senior position in the BND (Federal Intelligence Service). The interrogation of the prisoner has confirmed he was spying for Russia, and this led to the arrest of the Russian courier who took classified information to Russia while bringing the BND mole, as in a spy working for a foreign intelligence agency, his cash compensation. The Germans feared there were more such moles. There were a lot of them during the Cold War but most of those were arrested after 1991 or surrendered voluntarily. Not all the cold war era moles were identified, and Russia revived its espionage program in the 1990s, even before former KGB officer Vladimir Putin took power in Russia. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Putin was a KGB officer in communist East Germany. He spoke German and apparently knew about the West German mole network and sleeper agents operating in the West.
Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there were problems with Russian sleeper agents, also known as “illegals”. During the last decade Russia has activated more of these sleeper agents and used them for a variety of tasks besides espionage. Since the Russians invaded Ukraine, more sleepers have been activated to gather information on NATO efforts to supply the Ukrainian war effort. These sleepers are trained to do this discreetly, but some used commercial quadcopters too frequently and attracted unwanted attention. European counter-intelligence agencies have prepared profiles of likely sleepers and that has made it easier to detect and arrest sleepers even if they have not been activated.
As a result of all this activity NATO governments, often the post-Cold War ones in East Europe have increasingly gone public with details of Russian espionage operations, especially the use of assassination of those Russia considers traitors or simply enemies of the state. There has been more of that since the Ukraine invasion and more Russians have fled their homeland.
In 2019 French journalists uncovered evidence of a Russian GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) “Unit 29155” that operated from a secret logistics base in France near the Swiss border. From there at least fifteen GRU undercover agents engaged in espionage, sabotage and assassination operations. Also described was a joint British, Swiss, French and American intelligence operation to track down details of Unit 29155 and what it was doing between 2014 and 2018. The Unit 29155 base was apparently moved around Western Europe frequently to avoid detection and concentrate efforts on specific tasks.
One of these was assassination, including attempts on the life of Sergei Skripal in Britain early in 2018. This incident did make the news, mainly because the GRU agents used a form of nerve gas called novichok. That incident caused an international uproar. In mid-August 2018 the U.S. imposed its first round of new sanctions on Russia for its March 2018 use of nerve gas in Britain. The details of this use of Russian nerve gas had been confirmed. British investigators identified the Russians who were involved with the use of nerve gas to try and attempt to murder Sergei Skripal, a former Soviet intelligence officer who worked for Britain as a double agent.
In response to the March 2018 incident, Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats suspected of being intelligence agents and Russia responded by expelling 23 British diplomats. More nations said they would expel Russian diplomats and after the June confirmation that it was Russian novichok, the U.S. ordered into effect a series of additional sanctions on Russia. These could be limited if Russia admitted it used novichok and provided assurances it would never do so again with any banned weapons. Russia said it will do neither and denied any involvement.
This assassination effort was nothing new for Russia. Skripal was still working for British intelligence when he was arrested in Russia at the end of 2004 and prosecuted for espionage. He was sent to prison in 2006 but got out in 2010 when Russia agreed to use him as one of the three imprisoned spies exchanged to get back several Russian illegals who were caught in the United States. Russia was reluctant to part with Skripal, who had apparently done enormous damage to Russian overseas spying efforts. But they wanted their imprisoned agents in the U.S. back. This was not the first time Russia had gone after people like Skripal in Britain. This sort of thing happened elsewhere in Europe before and after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Russia insists that it does not do this and has been saying that since the Soviets started hunting down and killing “traitors” overseas back in the 1930s.
What was not revealed at that time was the joint investigation of Unit 29155 and how many of the growing number of Russian espionage efforts in Europe could be traced to it and similar GRU or KGB operations in East Europe. The Russians have been quite active in Serbia and Bulgaria where local intel agencies have more experience with Russian methods. That’s because until the 1980s Bulgaria was ruled by a Russia-backed communist government that had close ties to the KGB and GRU. It was these former communist states in East Europe that were the first to detect and warn their NATO allies of the resumption of major Russian espionage efforts. Even journalists in East Europe were able to identify some Russian agents on their own.
Decades of Russian-imposed communist rule in East Europe left bitter memories of how ruthless the Russian espionage services could be, and many victims are still alive to provide personal testimony. Western Europeans, except those in East Germany, did not experience this and were slow to accept the fact that the Russians were back, since the late 1990s, at their Cold War espionage efforts. That attitude is changing as more details of recent Russian efforts are made public.
For example, in late 2012 Germany revealed it was prosecuting a Russian married couple who were arrested in 2011 on suspicion of espionage. Russia insisted that the two Russians were not active Russian agents but retired Cold War era spies. Germany accused the couple of recruiting and using a local spy three times between 2008 and 2011. When the police came to arrest the couple, the woman was found listening to coded messages. There was apparently much more evidence as well that the couple was spying.
The two 51-year-old Russians were sent to Germany via Austria using false Austrian IDs in 1988, to serve as "sleepers", agents that spend most of their time doing nothing until activated from time-to-time for some simple, but essential, mission. While Germany let a lot of its own Soviet era spies off easy, there is still a lot of animosity towards Russian spies. That's because Russia is still very much involved with espionage. In Germany that means stealing economic secrets, which hurts the German economy. The Germans are not in a forgiving mood because of this Russian aggression.
Germany believes that this couple are but two of many other Cold War sleeper agents that Russia, or someone, is reactivating. Prosecuting these two included attempts to get them to reveal details of how the sleeper program operates. This would help the Germans track down other sleepers and get an idea of how many of them are out there. These two sleepers were apparently not very cooperative.
Some details of the sleeper operation were gathered from the investigation of so many sleepers. Many, if not all, the sleepers were cut loose in the 1990s, as the KGB back home was reorganized and had its budget cut sharply. But after 2000 the FSB, the rebranded and reorganized domestic operations branch of the KGB, and SVR, foreign operations of the KGB, revived a lot of Cold War era operations. In large part that's because KGB men hold many senior jobs in the Russian government. The leader of Russia since 2000, Vladimir Putin, was a career KGB man. The SVR and GRU got more money to operate in foreign lands.
There are two foreign intelligence services: SVR and GRU. The first one is the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. It is the former First Chief Directorate of the Soviet era KGB, which has managed most foreign intelligence operations for decades. Its activities are well known throughout the world.
The second one is the GRU, Russian military intelligence. It is a part of the Defense Ministry. Its full name is much longer, as in “The Chief Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Army”. GRU has retained its Soviet era name and just about everything else. GRU is seen as a living relic of Soviet times. That is why GRU is so much more secretive than the "Westernized" SVR. GRU officers are considered more patriotic and old school than those of the SVR. During the Cold War there were fewer GRU defectors, which is still a point of pride in Russia. GRU prefers to stay in the shadows, which makes the exposure of Unit 29155 activities all the more unusual. Westerners have not written many books about the GRU, compared to the KGB. This is largely because GRU keeps its secrets better and, in the West, is considered an obscure part of Russian intelligence. It's possible that the GRU activated sleepers in Germany but the Germans did not go public with a lot of information. The Germans shared their information with the clandestine investigation of Unit 29155 only with other Western intelligence agencies.
Both GRU and SVR perform the same functions: Political Intelligence, Scientific and Technical Intelligence (industrial espionage), and Illegal Intelligence. Because of this the two agencies have a very real rivalry going on.
There was, and remains, one area where only the SVR (and its predecessor, the KGB) participates, running counterintelligence abroad. This was long a KGB monopoly because it was the KGB's job to make sure the armed forces remained loyal, while GRU was and is very much a part of the armed forces.
When GRU officers are working abroad, they are monitored by Directorate “K” (counterintelligence) of the SVR. Those who serve inside Russia are watched by the Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (The Third Directorate) of the FSB (Federal Security Service, inheritor to the KGB). Interestingly, in the Soviet period, it was also called the Third Directorate. It is not a coincidence but a continuation of the Soviet tradition. The Third Directorate of the FSB is still assigned to monitor the Defense Ministry, of which the GRU is a part. The head of GRU does not even report directly to the Russian president. GRU reports have to go through the Head of the General Staff and the defense minister before reaching the top man. GRU is very much number two in the Russian foreign intelligence business. As such they tend to try harder and consider themselves more elite than those pampered wimps over at SVR.
On the other hand, there also is one function monopolized by the GRU: battlefield intelligence and NATO countries are, and always have been, considered potential battlefields. Battlefield intelligence is run in peacetime as well. For example, in preparation for future wars, the GRU sets up illegal weapons and ammunition dumps in the territory of many foreign countries. This is a risky operation. It usually involves groups of junior Russian diplomats secretly going into rural areas to bury rifles, machine-guns, and other weapons. They have to do this discreetly and, in a hurry, to avoid detection by the local counterintelligence service. It is considered a hard job.
Western analysts regard the GRU as the most closed Russian intelligence service partly because it does not even manage its own press relations. That's because GRU is one of many components of the Defense Ministry and is not eligible to have its own press relations staff. The FSB and SVR are higher up in the government pecking order and entitled to their own press relations operations. Formally, GRU is nothing but one of the numerous Chief Directorates of the General Staff of the Defense Ministry. It does not even report directly to the Minister of Defense. That is why those foreign journalists who have questions about GRU must address them to the Press Service of the Russian Defense Ministry. The questions are often handled by some press aide who knows little about intelligence work, while FSB and SVR press people are very well informed. Foreign journalists tend to seek out the SVR press department when seeking information on Russian intel operations.
During the Second World War GRU worked in close contact with the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB. For example, in March 1941, both intelligence services jointly carried out a successful operation aimed at overthrowing the pro-German government of Yugoslavia. During the entire war, GRU and NKVD managed a joint network of foreign agents in Europe. The current system of two separate intelligence services competing with each other only came about in the 1950s, after Stalin’s death. It was done by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in order to protect itself from a coup inspired by either intelligence service. As a result, the GRU not only competes with the SVR, but it is also supposed to keep an eye on the SVR for signs of disloyalty.
In Soviet times, although the GRU was monitored by the KGB, both organizations reported to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In case of emergency, the Central Committee could control the KGB using the GRU. The communists believed it best that someone guards the guards. Nowadays, GRU does not monitor the SVR anymore. GRU, the military, and the rest of Russia are all subordinate to the FSB/SVR.
SVR has more money and resources. It's long been like that, and the GRU has developed a tradition of getting by on very little. GRU methods are considered more aggressive and cruder than those of the SVR. GRU operatives tend to think they are at war even during peacetime. The SVR assigns its officers to do some jobs in the form of tasks, not detailed orders. The task is not supposed to be necessarily accomplished, while the order is to be carried out by all means. The GRU prefers ordering and expects results no matter what.
In the GRU nobody cares how their officers obtain secret information, like parts of missiles and other weapons. They may buy it legally or semi-legally or even steal it. One enterprising GRU agent in the 1970’s shipped a stolen Sidewinder air-to-air missile from West Germany to Moscow via United Airlines air freight. The SVR officers are not allowed to do so. They are supposed to use foreign collaborators for it. In the GRU you just go get it. That’s why tracking Unit 29155 was such a big deal. These are all reasons why Unit 29155 is still active.
October 9, 2023: The recent Hamas attack did not involve any support by Russia, other than cheerleading. Hamas leaders have had several meetings with Russian officials in the last few years. Some of these meetings took place in Russia while others took place in Iran. While Israel visibly refrained from any involvement with the Ukraine War, Russia is losing that war and needs a distraction that Hamas was eager to provide. Western nations voiced support for Israel against Hamas but continue sending their military aid to Ukraine. Israel is not short on weapons or military capabilities. The Israeli military is one of the best in the world and not in need of the kind of aid sent to Ukraine. Israel needs more cooperation from its Arab neighbors and further Israeli economic cooperation depends on some Arab diplomatic and intelligence support. The Hamas attack was a major intelligence failure for Israel and the Arab neighbors realize that this was an Iranian intelligence victory. If Iran could do this again it would most likely be used against one the Arab states that oppose the expansion of Iranian influence in the region. Expending Hamas to accomplish this attack on Israel reminds Arab states that it could happen to them. Iran is a common enemy or threat to Israel, Arabs and Turks.
October 8, 2023: History regularly repeats the fact that going to war brings with it unexpected costs. Russia didn’t expect its invasion of Ukraine to cost so much. This began with Russian leaders convincing themselves that Ukrainian resistance would not be a problem and would be over quickly. Many Russian government and military officials knew otherwise but the senior decision makers dismissed such pessimistic assessments. To make matters worse, Russian leader Vladimir Putin is determined to wear down Ukrainian resistance, despite heavy Russian losses. The Russian plan includes reducing Russian casualties by continuing to spend heavily on weapons, munitions and missile attacks on Ukrainian economic targets.
Russia has coped a fair amount with Western economic sanctions and convinced the Russian population that the war effort is for the defense of Russia against NATO aggression. Russia can afford this because they have an annual GDP of over two trillion dollars and the ability to increase annual defense spending to over $100 billion. That’s up from $86 billion in 2022 and $66 billion in 2021. A decade ago, annual defense spending was $20 billion. This is tolerated by Russian taxpayers because, before 2022, the military threat was hypothetical. That changed in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine as part of an effort to protect Russia from purported inevitable NATO aggression. All that makes no sense to most Westerners, but Ukrainians understood as did NATO’s East European members, especially Poland and the Baltic States.
Russia does not have a blank check for defense spending. The invasion of Ukraine triggered massive Western sanctions. These did not stop Russian aggression but did impose limits to what Russia could do with a larger defense budget,
A wartime defense budget has very different priorities than it does in peacetime. For Russia, this is a major problem in Ukraine, where their faltering invasion effort turned out to be a lot more expensive than expected. While the salaries of the troops and operating costs of the military came to $85 billion, the additional wartime expenses included $34 billion for lost weapons and equipment as well as $21 billion for medical care of those wounded and $26 billion for compensating the families of those killed in combat. The latter is also a good way for foreign intelligence agencies to estimate Russian casualties. Those families, especially if they consist of a wife and children, need continued support. Without this compensation you cannot obtain volunteers who join to be career officers and NCOs. For these men the military is a job that they will normally hold for about twenty years before they are eligible to retire with lifetime monthly pay. This compensation is 2.5 percent of monthly pay for every year served. Retire after 20 years and you get half your active duty pay. Retire after 40 years and you continue getting the same monthly pay received while on active service. There are large one-time payments for those badly wounded and even higher payments to families of soldiers killed. These payments go only to career officers and soldiers because conscripts only serve one year and are prohibited from being sent to a foreign war. Families of conscripts get lesser death benefits.
October 6, 2023: In 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, over half of Russian military personnel were either volunteers serving on contracts or career officers. The ability of the military to hold onto those contract (“contrakti”) soldiers is always weakened if there are a lot of casualties or too much chance of being sent to a combat zone. This manifested itself in 2022 when contract troops refused to renew contracts. Most of the combat units sent into Ukraine were composed of contract troops who were killed in large numbers. When the survivors got back to Russia, either because of wounds or because many combat battalions returned because of heavy losses, there was a sudden shortage of contract soldiers. That was because most contract troops were near the end of their two-to-three-year contracts and refused to renew. The army had signed up many soldiers for the new (since 2016) short term (six to twelve month) contracts for former soldiers or conscripts willing to try it and found that there were far fewer vets willing to sign these short contracts because so few recent short-term contract soldiers had survived service in Ukraine.
Soldiers with time left on their contracts were a liability because they told anyone who would listen that the Ukraine “operation” had been a disaster for Russian troops because of determined and well-armed Ukrainians regularly ambushing columns of Russian armored vehicles and quickly destroying most of them. While Russian troops were forbidden to take cell phones with them into Ukraine, the Ukrainians still had them to take photos and videos of the aftermath of these battles, and these were getting back to Russia where Russian veterans of the fighting confirmed they had seen the same grisly evidence of Russian losses or even survived one of these battles.
Russia played down these losses, but the Ukrainian military published daily updates of Russian losses in terms of soldiers killed, wounded or captured as well as equipment losses. After thirty days of fighting the Ukrainians were claiming that over a third of Russian troops sent into Ukraine had been killed, wounded or captured with even larger quantities of vehicles and weapons lost. After six weeks the Russian military admitted that losses were heavier than previously acknowledged but would not give exact figures.
Without a lot of contract soldiers Russia could not replace initial losses. Replacing lost tanks and other vehicles also proved to be more difficult than expected. On paper Russia had thousands of fully armed and equipped tanks and other armored vehicles in reserve for quickly replacing combat losses. Not surprisingly those reserve vehicles were often in bad shape, having been poorly maintained by conscripts and larcenous civilians who made a lot of money by taking key items from these vehicles and selling them on the black market. These missing items were usually not reported missing until troops received these vehicles, which were generally mobile enough to be driven onto a railroad flatcar for transportation to units needing them. Once received these reserve vehicles were found missing equipment and in need of extensive repairs to make the vehicles combat ready. This was nothing new and has been common since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and the mighty Red Army lost 80 percent of its personnel strength but few of its ships, aircraft, vehicles and heavy weapons. Most of these were “in reserve” even though many were found abandoned throughout Russia, and new groups of these abandoned vehicles are still being found in forests while known concentrations of these vehicles or aircraft have been picked clean of useful parts.
October 5, 2023: Russia is running out of men suitable for military service due mostly to opposition to conscription and voluntary enlistment. This has led to lowering of standards of those mobilized into the military. The standards can only be lowered so far before the number of “partially fit” men now subject to conscription or mobilization into the military reaches the point where the unfit outnumber the fit and the medical expenses for the partially fit men becomes more than Russia can afford. Normally, men with HIV, Covid19, poor vision, diabetes, cancer and susceptibility to strokes were not taken into the military. Now they are and that means more medical expenses for the military and problems finding useful work for the partially fit in the armed forces.
Many healthy Russian military age men have found ways to avoid military service, including obtaining false documents about their medical condition, bribes to conscription or mobilization authorities or simply illegally leaving the country. With partially fit men now eligible the bribes and illegal migration will continue as will popular opposition by families of men being taken into the military. This widespread opposition is something the government cannot ignore indefinitely.
The government insists that there is no war for these men to be sent into and that excuse has lost its credibility as the number of Russians killed in Ukraine approaches 300,000. Taking partially fit men is not only more expensive in terms of medical costs, but it means more families of partially fit men will openly oppose these changes. Even if most of the partially fit men are not sent into combat, non-combat military jobs can be strenuous, and many partially fit recruits will not be able to handle it. The government has a hard time justifying this and, as more of the partially fit escalate to totally unfit while in the military, their families will grow angrier at the government. This cannot be ignored because Russia ceased being a dictatorship in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. The new, somewhat democratic, Russian government learned to pay more attention to public opinion. This resulted in long-demanded changes to conscription and the conditions of military service. Conscripts now serve only one year, and the new laws prohibit them from being sent to fight in a foreign war.
Russia then proclaimed that Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine were not involved in a war but a necessary effort to fight NATO aggression. This explanation was not popular but tolerated. That has changed as more Russian soldiers die in Ukraine, a country Russia invaded while insisting it was actually a domestic conflict because Russia did not recognize Ukraine as an independent country. The invasion failed, the Russian losses in weapons and manpower were larger than expected and continue to get worse. Dealing with that problem by taking “partially fit” men into the military is seen as a desperate measure that will only increase Russian losses in personnel and money spent on death benefits for the families of soldiers allegedly killed as well as a growing increase in medical costs for wounded or disabled soldiers. Taking the partially fit make it worse. Russian popular opposition to the war and the government are also increasing, something that Russian politicians are forced to deal with and are having a difficult time handling.
October 4, 2023: Russia has developed ways to produce more cruise missiles despite the severe economic sanctions imposed after they invaded Ukraine. Russia has found new sources for components, some of them obtained by smuggling or purchases of components that can be adapted for use in missile production. Most of the smuggling is done via Armenia and Turkey, two countries that are hospitable to smuggling if it has some benefits for locals. Although Turkey is a NATO member, smuggling is tolerated if the smugglers will pay the right people for access. Such corrupt behavior has long prevented Turkey from joining the European Union. Russia has expended most of its missile stockpiles and the sanctions had, for a while, prevented Russia from replacing those missiles. Restoring Russian missile production is going to hurt Ukraine because the missiles are difficult to intercept and cause a lot of damage to Ukrainian infrastructure and armed forces. NATO is seeking to disrupt the smuggling while it provides Ukraine with more air defense systems that can deal with incoming missiles. The problem is that NATO cannot supply Ukraine with enough defensive systems to protect all the economic targets Russia wants to attack. NATO considers sanctions the best way to prevent increased Russian missile production but appears that current efforts will not be sufficient. The solution is more effective sanctions, and that effort is underway.
For sanctions to work they must constantly evolve as the sanctioned nations seek ways to evade the sanctions. This is an economic conflict as harsher sanctions are easier to impose than they are to evade. Russia is already spending more of its national budget on weapons production than it is on social services for the Russian population. The Russian government is taking a risk here because, if too much more privation is imposed on its civilian population, there will be more internal opposition to the war effort. This cannot be ignored but Russia feels they can endure this until they can’t. It is difficult to determine how much privation Russians will tolerate before they actively protest the situation. Russia has been able to limit popular protests to the war effort, but the protests can increase to the point where the Russian government cannot ignore the welfare of its own people.