Postage Stamps and Gunpowder: Syria and the Russian Economy

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Postage Stamps and Gunpowder: How Important Is Syria to the Russian Economy?
The Kremlin has been trying—unconvincingly—to repackage its military campaign in this devastated country as a long-term investment project. 
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
February 27, 2019

The economy was probably the last thing on the Kremlin’s mind when it decided to get involved in a civil war in the heart of the Arab world. But now that Russian military forces have been in the region for several years, the Kremlin has been increasingly trying to spin its support for Bashar Assad’s regime as a sound investment, a contribution to a prosperous trading future between the two countries.

Russia has claimed it is willing to export to Syria anything it can offer in addition to weapons, from wheat to know-how for preventing extremism on the internet. Along with Iran, the country has big plans for taking part in the postwar restoration of Syrian cities and Syrian industry, including the energy sector. Russia’s governors speak touchingly of their readiness to go to Damascus at the drop of a hat to negotiate with the Syrian government.

“When the talk turns to Syria, I immediately catch myself thinking I need these meetings,  I need to see those people again and again, and I need to be useful,” Natalya Komarova, head of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District said at the Russian Investment Forum in Sochi two weeks ago.

The expenses Russia has incurred during the Syrian campaign are shrouded in mystery. Analysts at IHS Jane’s calculated in October 2015 that Russia could have been spending as much as $4 million a day.  In July 2017, the opposition Yabloko Democratic Party published its estimate of the overall bill: as much as 140 billion rubles [approx. 1.87 billion euros], but this total did not include associated costs, including humanitarian aid. In 2017, according to RANEPA, 84% of Russia’s official total of disbursed humanitarian aid ($19.6 million) went to Syria. What kind of economic cooperation could justify such figures?

It would be pointless even to try and find an answer in recent trade trends between the two countries. Its volumes are negligible. During the first nine months of 2018, Syria’s share of Russia’s exports was 0.09%, while Syria accounted for 0.002% of imports to Russia during the same period. This has always been more or less the case.

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“Trends in Russia’s trade with Syria (in billions of US dollars).” The pale violet line indicates Russia’s exports to Syria, while the blue line indicates Russia’s imports from Syria. The data for 2018 is only for the first nine months of the year. Source: Russian Federal Customs Service. Diagram courtesy of Republic

The largest transaction in the history of the economic partnership between the two countries was Moscow’s cancellation of $9.8 billion dollars in debt, 73% of what Syria had owed the Soviet Union. At the end of the 2005 meeting at which this matter was decided, Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin also spoke publicly of the idea of establishing a free trade zone. Subsequently forgotten, the undertaking was mere camouflage for the political bargain reached by the two men, which was and remains support for the Syrian dictator’s regime in exchange for the dubious dividends the Kremlin has received by increasing its influence in the region. It is believed Russian strategic bomber saved Assad, who had already been written off by the west. But explanations of what Russia has ultimately won for its efforts and what its economic strategy might look like have been more muddled and contradictory than before.

In an October 2018 interview with Euronews, Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov avoided directly answering a question about joint economic projects. During his tenure as head of the Russian Export Center, Pyotr Fradkov (not to be confused with his father former PM Mikhail Fradkov, the current head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR) talked about Russia’s potential involvement in developing the “high-tech segments of Syria’s economy.” A month ago, however, the selfsame Russian Export Center placed Syria at the bottom of its ranking of 189 countries in terms of their favorability for foreign trade.

The Syrian economy, in turn, can currently offer Russia even less. Mainly, its exports boil down to fruit, but in such small and unstable quantities that they cannot seriously compete with deliveries from Turkey. Russia has been promised priority access to the development of natural resource deposits in Syria, which are teeming with oil, natural gas, and phosphates. But the smoldering war and the lack of security guarantees for investments have hampered implementing these plans.

Russian experts pin their hopes on the surviving remnants of industry in the government-controlled areas of Latakia, Tartus, and Damascus. Based on the fact that “the level of production that survived has enabled Assad to almost fully provide himself [sic] with food during five years of war,” Grigory Lukyanov, a political scientist at the Higher School of Economics has concluded the Syrian government “depends on a well-developed business community.”

Syria, however, seemed like a nightmare for investors well before the country was turned into an open wound. “Only a crazy person would go into Syria at his own behest,” Vedomosti quoted a source at a major company that was involved in negotiations with the Syrian government in the summer of 2012. Suffering from international sanctions, Syria proposed that Russian companies take part in construction of a thermoelectric power station in Aleppo. Four years later, one of Syria’s largest cities had been turned into ruins by heavy bombardment.

The Rothschilds [sic], who made fortunes on wars, thought the best time to invest was when blood was flowing in the streets. Their approach might seem to resemble the Kremlin’s strategy. But let’s not kid ourselves: unlike the famed financiers, President Putin is completely devoid of insight when it comes to the economic consequences of his military escapades. Business plans are not his strong suit.

Photo courtesy of Mikhail Klementyev/AP and the Washington Post. Translated by the Russian Reader

Never Think of It, Never Speak of It

DSCN4763“Enigma.” Photo by the Russian Reader

“In the last two weeks, one thousand and forty-two people, including about a hundred and fifty-six children, have been killed in eastern Ghouta, in what human-rights groups fear is a final, all-out offensive to retake one of the few remaining rebel-held enclaves in the country. Bombings by Syrian and Russian planes have been indiscriminate, killing civilians, levelling homes, and destroying medical facilities. Bashar al-Assad’s regime—with the full support of Vladimir Putin and the Russian military—have flouted calls for a complete ceasefire.”
Rozina Ali, ‘It’s Raining Rockets’: Deadly New Syrian-Russian Assault Kills Hundreds in Eastern Ghouta, New Yorker, March 8, 2018

What I really don’t understand is why there isn’t an enterprising Russian or group of Russians who would set up a WordPress blog or a special page on Facebook or VK where they could post translations of foreign press articles about the war in Syria like the article quoted, above. If the Russian media either wants to ignore what is happening there or constantly lie about it, that does not mean the war should be of no interest to Russians opposed to dropping Russian bombs on non-Russia men, women, children, residential buildings, and hospitals that have never done any harm to any Russian men, women, children, residential buildings, and hospitals, and that never thought of doing them any harm.

At this point, I really just don’t get it. The collective silence in Russia when it comes to the Kremlin’s and the Russian military’s crimes in Syria is on the verge of the pathological.

There is not much to be said for the efficacy and vociferousness of antiwar movements in the US, UK, Australia, and the other countries that sent soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan, but it certainly cannot be said that there have not been a relatively large number of people in those same countries engaged either in some kind of peacemaking or awareness raising about what trouble their leaders and armies have caused there and the enormities they have committed.

It’s practically a cottage industry, for what it’s worth.

In Russia, on the contrary, it is as if Syria exists literally in a parallel universe with no connection whatsoever to Russians and their daily lives.

Never think of it, never speak of it. TRR

No. 1003: I Predict the Future

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I wouldn’t be surprised if, fifteen or twenty years from now, when the dust has long settled in Syria, the names of the dead have been forgotten by the entire world except the people still alive who knew them personally, and Russia has once again become a “newly emergent” democracy with a free press and free elections, an enterprising middle-aged Russian scholar sat down to write the history of our darker, troubled times and, if only in a longish footnote, made the patently false claim that most Russians had been vehemently opposed to the deposed dictator Putin’s barbarous bombings in Syria, and there even had been a broad-based albeit mostly low-key anti-war movement in Russia at the time. TRR

 
Photo: 23 February. Happy Fatherland Defenders Day! 24 February 2018, Central Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

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Monument to Emperor Nicholas I, the so-called gendarme of Europe, on St. Isaac’s Square in Petersburg, 13 October 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

Below the fold you’ll find an angry screed I wrote on Facebook a year ago. Since nothing has changed for the better since then, it’s as relevant today as it was then. Thanks to Comrade RA for the reminder. TRR

*****

Here’s the kicker. You literally cannot see almost any reaction on the part of almost any Russians to this mayhem in Syria caused by their government, none at all. Middle-class Russians and Russian intellectuals continue to lead their lives as they have before, chockablock with business and leisure trips to other parts of the “civilized world,” and other, more important activities. They don’t give a second’s thought to what is happening in Syria for one simple reason: because Islamophobia, if this is possible, is even more widespread in Russia than in Europe and the US. The Syrians blown to bits on a daily basis by Russian bombs are not just abstractions to Russians; they’re hateful abstractions, “terrorists.”

Most importantly, it would be news to 99.999% of Russians that the war in Syria started as a grassroots, non-violent, non-sectarian, extraordinarily popular, and extraordinarily determined revolution against the vicious, monstrous regime of Bashar Assad. A revolution that Assad has drowned in blood and used foreign allies (Hezbollah, the Iranians, and now the Russians) to put down.

The reason this would be news to most Russians is not only that their Goebbelsesque TV channels have been lying to them about what is happening in Syria (when they bother to talk about it at all, which is not always the case) but that they don’t want to hear news about more determined, more popular grassrooots revolutions against corrupt tyrants in other countries, because their own “snow revolution” of 2011–2012 was such an abortive miserable failure.

That is the other kicker. Since Putin faced popular discontent in 2011–2012 in a more or less visible form, he has become even more keen on the half-baked notion that all such popular uprisings are instigated by outside forces and powers. So now, echoing Emperor Nicholas I in the nineteenth century, he has dedicated himself to restoring Russia’s great power status by acting as a reactionary, anti-revolutionary gendarme in countries like Ukraine and Syria.

But this discussion is utterly moot in Russia itself, where way too many people are way too fond of their being “civilized” (i.e., being “white”) to give a thought to the untermenschen their bombs are obliterating in a “non-white,” “uncivilized” country like Syria.

Since they are not forced to think about it, they’d rather not think about it all. And they don’t.

Live Target Practice in Syria

Defense Ministry to Take Delivery of 24 “Flying Tanks” for Testing in Syria
Inna Sidorkova
RBC
October 19, 2017

In November, the Russian Defense Ministry will receive the first batch of improved Night Hunter helicopters from Russian Helicopters. The new choppers will cost the Defense Ministry at least 400 million USD. The helicopters should alter aviation tactics in Syria. 

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Russian Night Hunter combat helicopter. Photo courtesy of Russian Helicopters/RBC

For Syria
By 2020, the Defense Ministry will take delivery of twenty-four modernized Night Hunter Mi-28UB combat training helicopters, Andrei Boginsky, general director of Russian Helicopters, a subsidiary of state corporation Rostek, told RBC. He stressed the Mi-28UB was designed with its future use in Syria in mind.

The first batch of helicopters—up to ten units—will be delivered to the Defense Ministry in November of this year. Two choppers will be delivered to the 334th Center for Combat Training and Army Flight Crew Retraining in Torzhok, Vadim Barannikov, deputy manager of Russian Helicopters Rosvertol plant, told journalists on October 19.

“Currently, the Defense Ministry is the Mi-28UB’s only buyer. However, similarly configured Mi-28-like helicopters will be delivered to foreign customers,” said Boginsky.

He added that the coming online of the chopper’s combat training version opened up “practically unlimited” opportunities for improving the training of Mi-28N pilots.

“The chance to train on a real combat helicopter, rather than on a simulator, is a huge advantage for our combat pilots in comparison with their counterparts from other countries,” said Boginsky.

Boginsky declined to tell RBC the cost of the contract with the Defense Ministry and the price of a single helicopter. However, as two of RBC’s sources in the aviation industry noted, the cost of the Mi-28UB would be a “little higher” than the basic model due to the improved design and other features. According to AircraftCompare.com, a website specializing in collecting and analyzing information on aviation equipment, the cost of the Mi-28N ranges from 16.8 million USD to 18 million USD. The sum of the contract with the Defense Ministry for delivery of the helicopters should be at least 400 million USD.

The delivery of twenty-four Mi-28 combat training helicopters is Russian Helicopters biggest contract with the Defense Ministry since 2015, the company’s press service told RBC. For the first time in history, the Russian army will get its hands on combat training helicopters with dual piloting systems.

The Mi-28UB
The design of the Mi-28 combat training helicopter, the improved Night Hunter, is based on the Mi-28N night attack helicopter, which was added to the army’s arsenal by presidential decree in 2009. Its maximum speed is 300 kilometers/hour, its dynamic ceiling, 5.6 kilometers, and its takeoff weight, nearly 11,000 kilograms. The Mi-28UB is armed with Ataka-V air-to-surface and Strelets air-to-air guided missile systems, a nonremovable mobile 30mm automatic cannon, and B-8V20A mounts for C-98 80mm caliber rockets and C-13 130mm caliber rockets.

The main difference between the Mi-28UB and the Mi-28N is the dual piloting system, as RBC was informed by Russian Helicopters press service. The chopper can be piloted both from the commander’s cockpit and the system operator pilot’s cockpit, which expands its capacity for training combat pilots. In addition, during emergency combat circumstances, control of the helicopter can be assumed by the second crew member. The helicopter is also outfitted with a simulator for training student pilots to deal with in-flight equipment failure.

The Mi-28UB is outfitted with modernized integrated onboard radioelectronic equipment. The cockpit has been expanded, the area covered by armored glass has been increased, and visibility from the system operator pilot’s cockpit has been improved. The Mi-28UB has an automatic landing system. A state-of-the-art laser defense station has been installed onboard to defend the helicopter from heat-seeking missiles.

Why a “Flying Tank” Is Needed
The Mi-28UB has been added to the arsenal to adjust the tactics used by Russian aviation in Syria and other hotspots in the future, said the military experts interviewed by RBC.

The army lacks combat pilots, noted Colonel Viktor Murakhovsky (Reserves), chief editor of the magazine Arsenal of the Fatherland. During a speech in the State Duma in February, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that, as of 2016, the Aerospace Forces (VKS) lacked 1,300 pilots.

When the VKS launched its Syrian campaign, the Defense Ministry called up officers from the reserves and even introduced accelerated pilot courses for servicemen working in different jobs, such as aircraft technicians, Murakhovsky recalled.

“In this sense, it means a lot to train pilots on helicopters with dual piloting systems,” said Murakhovsky. “Thanks to the system, an experienced pilot will be able to prompt the trainee and take over the helicopter in emergencies. Pilots will be trained twice as quickly.”

The combat training version of the helicopter was initially designed to train cadets to fly the Mi-28. Previously, rookie pilots had to undergo initial training on stimulators or other helicopters, and then retrain on the Mi-28. This took time, argued Colonel Andrei Payusov (Reserves). The modernized Mi-28 will be used to train graduating cadets and retrain serving pilots, he believes.

The Mi-28 combat training helicopter will facilitate running young flight crews through their paces and nurture combat pilots, Colonel Sergei Yefimov (Reserves), a combat sniper pilot, told RBC. The Mi-28 gives the army the chance to change combat tactics, and the improved visibility and armored glass will help crews feel more confident in the cockpit.

“The modernized integrated onboard radioelectronic equipment will make searching, detecting, identifying, and eliminating targets more effective,” said Yefimov.

But in addition to accelerated training of combat pilots, the Mi-28 faces yet another task, said Colonel Sergei Gorshunov, senior navigation inspector in the Fourth Army’s aviation wing and the Southern Federal District Air Defense. In modern combat, it is hard for a single member of the crew to pilot a helicopter properly while tracking the enemy and aiming at a target, stressed Gorshunov.

“So the Defense Ministry asked for a helicopter with a dual piloting system,” said Gorshunov.

According to Gorshunov, the Mi-28UB can be used not only to support infantry but also to cause tangible damage to the enemy’s armored units.

“We might say it’s a flying tank. If the guided missiles are deployed, a couple of helicopters can disable from four to eight tanks,” concluded Gorshunov.

The first prototype of the Mi-28UB was manufactured by Rosvertol in 2013. The helicopter was put into mass production in late 2015, RBC’s source in the aviation industry said.

“The helicopter was tested for a very long time. All the tests have been passed, including tests in Syria. Now it is a matter of delivering the first batch,” he explained.

Translated by the Russian Reader

UPDATE. Russian Helicopters was listed in a White House document of Russian companies and entities that may be considered for further sanctions. The New York Times published the unclassified document on October 26, 2017.

Idrees Ahmad: Russia Today and the Post-Truth Virus

a10Russia Today and the Post-Truth Virus
Idrees Ahmad
Pulse
December 15, 2016

A video is circulating of a woman revealing “the truth” on Syria that is being withheld from us by “the mainstream media”. The woman is introduced as an “independent Canadian journalist”. She is said to be speaking  “at the UN”. The date is December 9, 2016. The video has become viral.

Eva Bartlett, the woman in the video, writes for various conspiracy sites including SOTT.net, The Duran, MintPress and Globalresearch.ca. But more recently she has emerged as a contributor to Russia Today. And though her wordpress blog is called “In Gaza”, and though she has a past in Palestine solidarity work, unlike the people of Gaza, she is a strong supporter of Assad and she uses language to describe Assad’s opponents that is a virtual echo of the language Israeli propagandists use against Gazans.

Bartlett was recently a guest of the Assad regime, attending a regime sponsored PR conference and going on a tour of regime-controlled areas herded no doubt by the ubiquitous minders (the regime only issues visas to trusted journalists and no visitor is allowed to travel without a regime minder). On her return, the regime mission at the UN organised a press conference for her and three members of the pro-regime US “Peace Council” (The organisation has the same relationship to peace as Kentucky Fried Chicken has to chicken). In the press conference they all repeated the claims usually made by the regime’s official media SANA and by Russia Today: all rebels are terrorists; there is no siege; civilians are being held hostage; the regime is a “liberator” etc.

So a conspiracy theorist with a blog who briefly visited Syria as a guest of the regime is declaring that everything you know about Syria is wrong. That you have been misled by everyone in the “MSM” from the New York Times to Der Spiegel, from the Guardian to the Telegraph, from CNN to Channel 4, from ABC to BBC, from CBS to CBC; that human rights organisations like Physicians for Human Rights, Medicins Sans Frontiers, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch; that international agencies like the UN and ICRC—they are all part of a vast conspiracy to malign Bashar al Assad. And the truth is only revealed on “alternative” media like the Kremlin’s own Russia Today! (watched by 70 million people a week according to its own claims)

In normal times something like this would provoke derision and dismay—or at least the person would be asked to provide verifiable facts instead of anecdotes (virtually everything she said is verifiably false). But these are not normal times. Supporters of the regime, admirers of Putin, and sectarian propagandists have latched on to this video. Kremlin broadcaster Russia Today has promoted the video heavily. And, in the game of Chinese whispers, the story has morphed into “a UN press conference”.

There is of course a deep racism at play here. Besides great international journalists like Christoph Reuter, Janine di Giovanni, and Martin Chulov, there are also many excellent Syrian reporters on the ground. But we are supposed to dismiss them because the truths that eluded all of them were vouchsafed to a Canadian blogger with a column on Russia Today!

What is happening in Syria is not a mystery. The facts are crystal clear. They are corroborated by multiple independent organisations. People who deny these facts only do so because of a will to disbelieve. It’s willed ignorance in the service of an ideology. This ignorance has been reinforced by Kremlin’s premier disinformation service: Russia Today. The broadcaster has rebranded itself “RT” to conceal its origins and agenda. It has even spawned a neutral-sounding viral video outlet like “In the Now.” Their aim is to sow doubt, feed cynicism, and confound knowledge. They are pressing a narrative—Kremlin’s narrative. And as the major perpetrator of violence in Syria, Kremlin has every intention to muddy the waters. (And no Russia Today is not “just like the BBC”. Have you ever seen a Russian government official questioned on Russia Today the way Tony Blair is questioned on the BBC by Jeremy Paxman; let alone the way Jon Snow on Channel 4 questions David Cameron?)

So next time someone shares a stupid video like this, hit them with facts. If they want to challenge them, then they should bring something more substantial than rambling nonsense from a conspiracy nut.

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There is an old joke. A wife returns home to find her husband in bed with another woman.

“What are you doing in bed with another woman?” she screams.

“What woman?” the husband replies.

“The woman I just saw in bed with you,” says the wife.

“Who are you going to believe,” the husband replies, “Me or your lying eyes?”

There is no doubt that the Western media has often failed in its coverage. Its reporting on Gaza and the journalism leading up to the Iraq war was abysmal. But western media isn’t devoted to obfuscating truth with the kind of single-minded determination that Russia Today is. It is deeply ironic that many people’s often justified disdain for western journalists has led the into the embrace of a channel that has no commitment to truth at all. And it becomes most pernicious when pro-Kremlin propaganda is dressed up as criticism of “the mainstream media”, “the establishment”, or “Washington”. As I wrote elsewhere:

“There are few things more commonplace than an Oedipal disdain for one’s own government. In this solipsistic worldview, one need not have to understand the dynamics of a foreign crisis; they can be deduced remotely. If you hate your own government then, by virtue of being in its bad books, a Putin or an Assad becomes an ally.

“Conversely, if people elsewhere are rising up against their far more repressive states, their cause is tainted because of a sympathetic word they might have received from your government. And all the images of agony do not add up to a tear of sorrow as long as they are relayed by a hated “mainstream media”. Indeed, victims are reproached for eroding ideological certainties by intruding into our consciousness through their spectacular suffering.”

My heartfelt thanks to Idrees Ahmad for his kind permission to let me reprint his essay here. TRR