Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has established a credible reputation as a reliable and enduring member of the Russian government, largely owing to his close and long-standing friendship with President Vladimir Putin. Shoigu, the longest-serving defense minister since the establishment of the Russian Armed Forces, in 1992, has done more than his predecessor, Anatoly Serdyukov, to develop harmony between the defense ministry and the General Staff. Since his appointment in November 2012, Russia’s Armed Forces have witnessed considerable and consistent advances in modernization, training and structural reorganization, during which period the officer corps has also benefited by gaining combat experience in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. However, since the outbreak of the global COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Shoigu has proved keen to “talk up” his achievements as defense minister. This process confirms a number of indisputable advances as of 2012, but it also inadvertently highlights shortcomings and the deeper challenge presented by containing COVID-19 both within the Armed Forces and in providing assistance to the government efforts to protect the Russian population (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 25; see EDM, March 20).This effort surged on March 20, with Shoigu leading a meeting at the National Defense Management Center (Natsional’nogo Tsentra Upravleniya Oboronoy—NTsUO), in Moscow. He chaired defense ministry board discussions on a wide range of topics, with a focus on the gains in modernizing the Armed Forces and a passing reference to COVID-19 cases in Russia. Then, in significantly greater detail, he presented a speech to the Federation Council’s (upper chamber of the Russian parliament) “government hour” on March 25, comparing and contrasting the ongoing military modernization process with plans set out by Putin in 2012 (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 25).In May 2012, Putin decreed the following aims for military modernization in terms of personnel: By 2020, modern weapons and equipment would reach 70 percent; 50,000 contract personnel (kontraktniki) would be recruited annually, reaching 425,000; the social protection of service members in housing and pay would increase; and Russia’s youth would be educated and indoctrinated along military-patriotic lines, while boosting the overall prestige of military service. Shoigu stated that, in March 2020, the Armed Forces had 225,000 conscripts and 405,000 kontraktniki. Despite the shortfall compared to the original target, the defense minister noted that the military’s sergeant ranks, Spetsnaz (special forces), naval infantry, battalion tactical groups and staff operating “complex systems,” are all kontraktniki (Mil.ru, March 25).Regarding weapons and equipment modernization, Shoigu said “modern” systems now make up 68.2 percent of the total inventory, and the 70 percent target will be reached by the end of this year. Shoigu also claimed the Strategic Rocket Forces (Raketnye Voyska Strategicheskogo Naznacheniya—RVSN) are more than 87 percent modern, though he was clearly not counting the older delivery systems within this figure. While the modernization program has certainly made progress, Shoigu neglected to mention that instead of modern T-14 Armata tanks, the defense ministry has settled on upgrading older T-90s and T-72s. Moreover, the 2012 target to introduce 8 sub-surface ballistic nuclear submarines (SSBN) and 20 multi-purpose subs has not occurred (Mil.ru, March 25).However, portraying the United States’ missile-defense program as a potential threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrent, Shoigu noted a raft of measures in response. “First of all, the deterrence potential is increasing, including the most advanced weapons systems. Kinzhal high-precision hypersonic aviation missile systems have been put on pilot combat duty. Flight design tests of the Tsirkon marine hypersonic missile are underway. In December of last year, the first Avangard missile regiment and the Peresvet laser systems entered combat service. The modernization of industrial plants for the serial production of the Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missile was completed,” he asserted (Mil.ru, March 25).Turning to Russia’s military operations in Syria since September 2015, Shoigu highlighted that this had enhanced Moscow’s international reputation, boosted the development of the Armed Forces as well as provided a unique training opportunity. The Syrian operation provided combat experience for Russian commanders of all military districts, the commanders of combined-arms armies, as well as the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS), including 90 percent of flight crews, 56 percent of air-defense specialists, 61 percent of navy personnel and 98 percent of service members in the Military Police (Mil.ru, March 25).The Moscow-based defense expert Oleg Falichev assessed Shoigu’s “government hour” speech, noting numerous advances while also admitting that challenges remain in terms of education or housing for military personnel. Falichev concluded by referring to the COVID-19 crisis: “The work done to revive the Armed Forces, naturally, had a positive effect on the growth of the prestige and attractiveness of military service. Today, in Russian society, there is a steady increase in the approval of activities carried out by the Russian Armed Forces. About 90 percent of the country’s population trusts the Russian army, and negative ratings fell 4.5 times. It seems that people in uniform will adequately cope with the tasks assigned to them; they will also solve unexpected problems arising from the fight against the coronavirus danger” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, April 7).By April 7, however, Shoigu had toned down the statistical listing of achievements under his tenure and announced a number of measures in relation to the global pandemic impacting on Russia. He explained that an operational headquarters to counter COVID-19 has been formed within the defense ministry; it is tasked with overseeing the construction of new infectious-disease clinics across the country and operates under a budget of 8.8 billion rubles ($120 million). Construction is underway on 16 military hospitals and should be completed by May 15. In Russia’s Far East, less affected by the coronavirus to date (see EDM, March 17), a hospital ship has been placed on standby (Kp.ru, April 7). Moreover, the military needs to mitigate the risk of the outbreak spreading during the spring draft. On March 30, Putin signed a decree on commencing the drafting of 135,000 conscripts aged 18 to 27 (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 10). The most interesting feature of Shoigu’s recent statements, both on military modernization and the Armed Forces’ role in helping to contain the spread of COVID-19, undoubtedly lies in the absence of any comment on the potential economic impact not only on the Russian economy, but on Moscow’s long-term defense planning.
iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — President Donald Trump’s changes to U.S. policy on Cuba could have a chilling effect on some travel to the Caribbean nation, some experts say.Americans can no longer travel to Cuba with a simple “honor pledge,” Trump announced Friday. Instead, most Americans must now travel with a tour group and are required to keep all receipts and itemized itineraries from their stay for five years.U.S. travelers could also be forced to pay a fine if they are found to be in violation of the law.Previously, individuals could come up with their own itineraries and arrange their own accommodations rather than having to use a tour group or travel company to make the arrangements.Friday’s move essentially returns travel restrictions to what they were before President Obama eased relations in 2014.James Williams, the president of Engage Cuba, a coalition of private sector companies advocating for engagement in Cuba, told ABC News that Trump’s changes are “going to make travel more expensive” and therefore lead to “a major decrease in the number of travelers.”Now, “you have to now go by a government approved certified large group tour,” Williams said. “What this is going to do in practice is restrict the number of Americans who are going to Cuba.”Trump also restricted transactions with the Cuban military by expanding the definition of entities benefiting from payments. The government controls many of the hotels that operate in the country, so the policy change makes it illegal for all Americans to stay at many Cuban hotels.Peggy Goldman is the founder of Friendly Planet Travel and has been organizing tours to Cuba since 2011. She told ABC News that the restrictions relating to the military will make operating tours in the company particularly difficult.“The majority of the tour bus fleet vehicles are owned by the tourism arm of the army, and they also own hotels,” Goldman said.“In order to move people around, the ability to handle American visitors — the people that are coming on these people-to-people programs — you need buses and hotels,” she said.Goodman also believes the cost for Americans to travel to Cuba will go up. Her company charges between $3,500 and $4,500 for a week-long trip to Cuba.“There’s bureaucracy in every direction, especially in Cuba. It makes it almost impossible,” Goodman said. “It’s tough to do this.”According to Airbnb, it has hosted more than 560,000 visitors in Cuba since April 2015. There are 22,000 listings in the country, the company said.“Over the last two years, thousands of Airbnb guests from around the world have traveled to Cuba to share ideas, experiences, and cultures. Airbnb has helped individual Cuban people earn extra income and we have seen how travel can break down barriers and promote understanding,” Airbnb said in a statement.“Travel from the U.S. to Cuba is an important way to encourage people-to-people diplomacy. While we are reviewing what this policy could mean for this type of travel, we appreciate that the policy appears to allow us to continue to support Airbnb hosts in Cuba who have welcomed travelers from around the world,” the statement said.Airbnb also caters to non-Americans. The company said 65 percent of the people who booked Airbnb stays in Cuba were from outside the U.S. Airbnb is also available to tour groups.“We look forward to reviewing the details of the policy and speaking with the administration and Congress about this issue in the weeks and months ahead,” the Airbnb statement said.JetBlue launched service from New York to Havana in November 2016 and the airline said Friday it was “committed to continuing air service between the U.S. and Cuba.”“We plan to operate in full compliance of the new president’s new policy. We will review the policy and the specific regulations once they are available to determine any impact to our operations or to our customers,” the airline said in a statement.Certain travel will still be allowed, including cruises from the U.S. Carnival Cruises said it “will review the extent of the tightening of the travel rules, but our guests have already been traveling under the 12 approved forms of travel to Cuba since we undertook our historic first cruise to Cuba more than a year ago.”“Our experience in Cuba this past year has been extremely positive. We look forward to the new cruises being planned for Cuba with Carnival Cruise Line and Holland America Line. We also have requested approval for our other brands to travel to Cuba,” the cruise line said in a statement released Thursday ahead of Trump’s official announcement.Goodman said while she expects the changes will “make handling travelers more difficult,” her company’s tours will continue.“The takeaway is that this type of travel won’t stop and the only thing that [Trump] will accomplish is to cause a lot of damage to the nascent Cuban entrepreneur who has invested, in some cases, life savings to create a restaurant in his house, to create other types of businesses,” Goodman said.She added, “It’s so ironic and so paradoxical that this person who is the prince of private enterprise is squashing the aspirations of this burgeoning Cuban entrepreneur sector of society.”Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.Powered by WPeMatico Related