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22 octombrie 2019 - Special reports - Wider Black Sea Region

D.S.M Special Report – THE WIDER BLACK SEA REGION (July 2019)

Cristian Eremia

I. Ukraine immediately after the end of the 2019 electoral season. II. Can Belarus temper its integration into the Russia-Belarus union? III. President Putin at the great parade of the Navy in Sankt-Petersburg. IV. Armenia – the current foreign policy and security agenda. V. Ukraine’s army is starting to deal with serious personnel issues.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. Ukraine immediately after the end of the 2019 electoral season

Following the presidential and parliamentary elections, it is certain that Ukrainians have granted Volodymyr Zelensky the legitimacy to take over the state’s entire political power. From now on, it is up to him and his future government team on how to use this term and the huge opportunity to lead Ukraine on a road towards European standards, to consolidates its statehood and independence, economy and national security, with the support of Western partners. At the same time, Zelensky hold a sufficiently serious potential to move towards normalizing relations with Russia.

All these seem to be difficult tasks, and Zelensky will to make the difference between the realities of a political field with many critical problems of various forms and a comedy show which can be easily mastered by using talent. The Ukrainians’ main expectations from the Zelensky leadership regard, in the first place, consolidating the economy and improving the standard of living within a reasonable time, but short timeframe. Ukrainian citizens are low on patience, and need solid evidence to justify the trust they have granted. Delaying action in these areas can generate dissatisfaction at the same intensity with which support developed in the recent elections. And from there to losing the people’s trust is only a matter of time.

The Ukrainian society wants solid results from reforms and the fight against corruption and the influence of oligarchs. Zelensky took the mantle of a democratic president. So he will not be able to have the courage of requesting similar prerogatives to a pro-oligarch president, nor exert leadership of a repressive state apparatus, such as that of President Putin, which would allow him to deal with oligarchs’ multiple and arrogant demands by force and take control of their activity, thus shielding the state’s economy from their games.

It will be, therefore, interesting to see how he will tackle this matter. Especially since Ukraine’s Man of the Year 2019, Zelensky, was supported by the oligarch Kolomoinsky. It also known that the latter managed to successfully test a new electoral technology (probably of Italian inspiration), by opposing the candidates from the old “post-Maidan” political elite, of which the electorate had already grown tired, with a TV star presented as a great friend of the people, with a party just as young and ambitious. Actually, the first criticism of some Ukrainian pundits for the new leadership in Kiev is that Igor Kolomoinsky will be behind Zelensky’s decision-making. But there are also other oligarchs who are dissatisfied with their electoral investments. The most illustrating case is that of Rinat Akhmetov, who is not content with what he obtained in the elections. It is also known that, if Ukrainian oligarchs see their interests endangered, they will violently retort with no scruples.

A good signal came (July 29) from the new secretary of Ukraine’s Defence and Security Council, A. Danilyuk, who said that urgent reforms of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) are needed. The reasons are to consolidated the SBU’s functions, to counteract foreign espionage efforts, but also to consolidate the agency in the areas of economic security and the fight against corruption. The president’s team is now finishing a bill package which will soon be adopted in Ukraine’s Supreme Rada (the country’s parliament).

The most difficult undertaking for Zelensky will be how to approach Russia, while the experienced President Putin will attempt to exploit his young counterpart’s lack of experience in order to bring Ukraine closer to Russia. Ukrainian analytical circles consider that Zelensky will have to switch to direct negotiations with Moscow regarding the situation in Donbass.

Rumours in Kiev even speculate that, after Zelensky will start direct negotiations with Moscow, the opposition will accuse him of “betrayal”, and then try to create a new Euromaidan against him. The Ukrainian leader is up to date with the dangerous traps which can be laid for him, but will have to make the first step towards “normal negotiations with Moscow”. It should be expected for him to act with maximum caution and use the West, the Normandy format or a new extended format as a “responsible shield”.

At least theoretically, Zelensky is favoured by the Supreme Rada’s new structure, because if we wants to make pro-Russian decisions, he will have a constitutional majority with his Opposition Platform party, and he wants to make pro-West political decision, he can count on a constitutional majority supported by MPs controlled by Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.

In the West, opinions are again split regarding what to expect from Zelensky. Some more pessimistic voices consider that many of the citizens who voted in favour of him are pro-Russian, who want Kiev to make a compromise with Moscow, which will encourage Putin to increase pressures in order irreversibly attract Ukraine in Russia’s sphere of influence. And this despite the fact that Zelensky is frequently using expressions such as “the occupation of Crimea” and “military aggression” when he refers to Moscow’s actions. Regardless of these small details, it will be essential for the west to mobilize again in order to assist the actions of the new authorities in Kiev, in order to avoid any possibility for Ukraine to be taken over, again, by Russia.

II. Can Belarus temper its integration into the Russia-Belarus union?

The problem of finishing the Russia-Belarus Union project, which according to Russia’s vision can only be achieved through a full integration of Belarus into the Russian space, continues to generate tensions between the two capitals. Moscow’s pressures have been visibly reduced, however, at least with regards to its rhetoric and the personal insistence of President Putin towards his Byelorussian counterpart Lukashenko. Especially as Lukashenko is currently in an electoral year, and must be let to increase pensions and salaries for a new victory. Which obviously undermines the inflation target convened with Russia.

On this background, Lukashenko’s speech about the “inevitable and imminent” loss of state sovereignty actually creates less emotions compared to several months ago. Which suggest that the problem has been decided: Russia is a way bigger and more powerful state compared to Belarus and, therefore, cannot accept the equal division of prerogatives and instruments of power with Minsk when it comes to the union’s leadership. Moscow’s upsides and geopolitical stakes are incomparably higher than those of the small Byelorussian state, so there cannot be any discussion of the two chiefs of state equally sharing power within the union. As a result, the wishes of the Byelorussian leader, who is also an autocrat, can only remain at the state of false illusions.

On the other hand, it is clear that Kremlin leader was not joking when he requested the urgent and unconditional integration of the Byelorussian state into the Union. In other words, the project must go on, even at a lower speed. And regardless of whether Minsk will work towards it without any inclination and, in some case, even with the brakes on, evidently trying to temperate evolutions without upsetting Moscow.

What is certain is that, in the last period, the bilateral agenda has maintained the issues of integration as a priority. Public transparency on the negotiations and actual steps taken in the process was scaled back. However, the public was informed only on partial successes, reported in percentages. Several months ago, there was talk about “stances becoming closer” in about 70% of integration issues and, presently, that indicator would be at about 90%. To be clear, it only about “stances becoming closer” and, at the most, the adoption of roadmaps or plans for a series of directions of integration, and not about their adoption or actual implementation.

In any case, in July, the Byelorussian co-president of the Bilateral Work Group for Integration, Economy Minister D. Krutoy, was talking about a 2022-2023 timeframe to begin implementing the sectorial integration plans. Plans which have not yet been drafted, with the group promising that they should be presented to the two heads of state in November 2019. As for solid achievement reported last months, there was the “Map of integrating road networks” and achieving common stances on social problems, industry and, partially, a common monetary market. For Minsk, the most sensible integration chapters are the banking sector and energy.

Belarus’ fundamental problem is that it continues to wish an equal status with Russia, in order to maintain national sovereignty in vital areas. And Russia cannot grant veto rights to a state which is significantly smaller in some key sectors of the union. After all, this is the final result of the rhetoric Minsk has been facing for the past 15 years. That is why the maximum limit the two countries can force, for the moment, seems to be the switch to closer ties on applied policies for different areas of the economy. Lukashenko also seems resigned to the idea of integrating with Russia, and Minsk tends to accept the situation created by Moscow, being morally prepared for a failure of its attempts to obtain what Russia does not want to grant.

III. President Putin at the great parade of the Navy in Sankt-Petersburg

An event fully savoured by President Putin took place last week: the grand parade organized for the Russian Navy Day. Russia’s supreme commander arrived at the ample military festivity, held in Sankt Petersburg on July 28, aboard a Raptor light ship for special ops, which has become a presidential ship with serial number 001.

The Navy’s entire parade was also meant as a demonstration of the global naval power that Russia would have recaptured. The Russian president considers that the fleet reached the level in which it can resist and even make a decisive military riposte to any foreign adversary.

This shows that Putin is content with the partial success of his project, which began some years ago, to rebuilt, reconsolidate, modernize and re-equip the fleet with new types of military technique and cutting-edge weaponry. It was also announced that the process of re-consolidating the Navy – unprecedented in the past 30 years – will continue, and was made a state priority for Moscow.

This reason of state was explained by the president: “Russia has the world’s longest sea border, with access to three different oceans. We have a powerful fleet, with an exceptional history… Our duty is to multiply the power of the Navy, surface forces, submarines, naval aviation, coast guard… Their successful development is necessary in order to consolidate the security of both Russia and its citizens”. Another result is that, currently, the defence industry’s shipyards are in different phases of building around 180 combat and support ships, of which 35 will be deployed until the end of 2019. The level of endowment with new or modernized naval military technique has currently reached 62%.

The Navy’s parade included elite ships, starting with light missile-carrier ships such as the Mythischi, Serpukhov or Sovetsk (currently in an experimental phase). They were followed by the Kronshtadt submarine – which is nicknamed “the fleet’s second heart -, the new Gremyashchy corvette and the new Admiral Kasatonov frigate, all three carrying Kalibr and Redut missiles. Other heavy ships were also paraded, such as the Smolensk nuclear submarine, carrying winged missiles with high range, or the newest Elbrus logistical ship, which was shown for the first time. Or another pride of the Navy, the Vasiliy Bykov patrol ship, equipped for the first time with modular conventional weaponry, and capable of carrying out a wide range of weapons, from border defence to search-rescue missions.

The fleet’s “giants” were also not absent from the parade, such as the Minsk heavy landing craft – the base platform for naval landing operations – and electric-diesel Vladikavkaz submarine, which is very silent despite its large dimensions. The new “pearls” constructed in Sankt Petersbrug also joined the parade, such as the Stoykiy and Steregushchy corvettes and the new Admiral Gorshkov frigate.

The Naval Aviation was represented by naval helicopters Ka-27 (transport), Ka-29 (transport, strike and fighting), Ka-31 (research), and by Su 25 fighter jets, Su-30CM multi-role aircraft and the Su-33 model, based on aircraft carriers. The Navy’s “air giants” were represented by the Tu-142M3 strategic bomber – a legend of naval aviation, the anti-submarine Il-38N aircraft, the refuelling aircraft Il-78M, amphibian aircraft Be-200 and the A-50 airplane for transporting high officials and members of the general staff. The parade was closed by the China and India, which each showed one surface vessel.

The event saw unreserved praises for the navy – “every Russian has heard at least once of the Kalibr rockets with which our ships defeated the terrorists in Syria, or about the Bastion missiles which covered Crimea in 2014 and today guard our north”. At the same time, the glorification of the Russian military Navy was marked with naval military parades in all the four fleets and the Caspian Sea Flotilla. Including Sevastopol, where the general staff of the Black Sea Fleet is station.

IV. Armenia – the current foreign policy and security agenda

The new Pashinyan government considers that its first foreign policy objective regarding the main foreign partners was achieved. That was to demonstrate that last year’s Velvet Revolution was an extremely important achievement and a matter of internal affairs strictly related to the will of the Armenian people to consolidate the country’s internal democracy, in order to sustain Armenia’s stability and security on all sides and develop its economy and statehood.

The subtext here is that there was no foreign interference in the internal processes associated to the actual revolutionary movement. From recent statements made by Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatskanyan, we can reach the conclusion that the Pashinyan Government’s foreign policy after this step will be carried out in two main directions.

The first refers to extending strategic partnerships, which means balancing contacts and relations with Russia, the US and the EU as much as possible. This is a rather new and courageous approach from Yerevan, as there is no guarantee of the fact that PM Pashinyan expressed a favourable position for Armenia’s accelerating ties with the West during his contacts with President Putin.

Especially when it comes to the US. In any case, the Armenian Foreign Ministry currently claims that the new Armenia became a catalyst for the cooperation between Russia, the US and other Western states such as France in the OSCE’s Minsk Group for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, any observer who knows the Nagorno-Karabakh case knows too well that solid results from this cooperation are hard to identify in the past couple of years, maybe with the exception of the two-three small scale actions from Minsk Group in the past months. Yerevan’s base idea is that it is possible to build simultaneous relations with partners who are under the pressure of turbulent bilateral relations between them. The reference is direct to Russia, the US and the EU.

With regards to its relations with the EU, Yerevan is currently reaping the first advantages of developing the new political and economic dialogue with Brussels. Armenia considers that the Comprehensive and Advanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) signed with the Union is an important instrument for furthering Armenian ties with the EU. The agreement was ratified by the European Parliament, Yerevan and ten of the EU’s member states, with other member states set to finish national ratification procedures soon. Through CEPA, Armenia becomes engaged politically and will also be helped constantly and solidly in the development of the new state and economical democratic institutions, as the partnership concerns, at the same time, the political, internal affairs, justice and liberties, economic-trade, transports and energy fields, but also issues related to the environment, culture or education.

The second foreign policy direction refers to building a national security architecture which is as solid as possible. This does not presume, for the moment, promoting a policy which is independent from foreign factors, such as Moscow, because there are some factors still obstructing Yerevan’s total freedom of movement (such as the existence of a Russian military base on its national territory). Aside from this, it seems that at least in the first part of 2019 Armenia became way more interested in the stability of its region and positive about diminishing tensions with Azerbaijan. The Armenian foreign minister claims that his country can bring a solid contribution to stopping and preventing new clashes. It remains to be seen how this will reflect into peace negotiations with Azerbaijan.

V. Ukraine’s army is starting to deal with serious personnel issues

Several documents of the Ukrainian Army’s General Staff have been published recently, which show that the Army is facing increasingly more serious personnel issues. The fact that there have been more difficult times for contract-based military service, but also information on the state of military discipline and the morale of the troops were previously reported in Ukrainian or Russian media, but those reports did not quote numbers or assessments made by Ukrainian military authorities. Even more so as now we appear to see a growing concern from Ukrainian generals, who do not know on which of the contract-based troops they could count anymore, especially for ongoing operations in the Donbass area.

But let’s see what this is about in a statistical report for the end of the second semester of 2019, quoted in a letter penned by interim chief of Ukrainian Army General Staff’s Main Personnel Directorate, Gen. V. Dumenko. These statistics mentions that the number of troops which are giving up contract-based military service is increasing. From the beginning of 2019 until now, 9.386 members of the military have withdrawn from the Ukrainian army – both ranked and non-commissioned officers on contracts. Most of them served in the Ground Forces – 6,227, followed by the Air Forces – 1,049, the Navy – 630, the Landing Forces – 522 and Special Operations Forces – 147.

Most of them took part in operations in Donbass. More than 80% of those who withdrew did not wish to extend their stay with a new contract and were laid off. What is alarming for the Army’s leadership is the conclusion that this issue is growing, as significantly fewer contract-based troops withdrew from the Army in 2018 – 6,316.

The withdrawal of personnel from the military is continuing, because measures which could motivate the personnel (new bonuses for military personnel, financial compensation for housing or bonuses for serving in the Unified Forces Operation or in the Donbass region) have been undermined by the growth of inflation and the deterioration of Ukrainian economy. The General Staff has already proposed for the pay of basic contract-based troops to be multiplied for later contracts (1.5 times for the second contract they sign with the Army and two times for the third). The generals did not receive any answer from the Poroshenko Administration, and are now waiting for the new government to at least take the difficult personnel situation into consideration.

It also seems that the situation is more serious than initially thought. Besides the financial situation, there are other factors which decreased the fighting morale of the troops and made a military career less attractive. There are increasingly more often reports that the volunteer troops have recruited individuals with at least a problematic profile, which have just degraded the level of military discipline and morale within the troops, especially those deployed for armed clashes in the Donbass. This is an additional reason for which military personnel choose to leave the army in the thousands.

Recently, the Popular Militia of the self-proclaimed Luhansk Popular Republic stated that the Ukrainian General Staff decided to urgently withdraw its 25th Air Landing Brigade from deployment in the Donbass region. According to this source, the main reason was “numerous cases of theft of weapons and munitions from the unit, as well as from part of the inventory provided by foreign military assistance,” perpetrated by unknown individuals among the troops.

And this is not the first case in which Ukrainian officers or commanders are suspected or guilty of serious acts of embezzling their own army and of strange business which actually enriched many Ukrainian soldiers. There are thought to be many situations in which the Donbass conflict was a “source of super-profit for Ukrainian troops”. There are also many other situations signalled by the mass-media regarding increasing discontent among the troops due to the refusal of Ukrainian authorities to ensure adequate financial income, as well as cases in which military personnel took to actions of protests and insubordination.

All these affect the military reform’s evolution and make the changes in the military organism, as is the case in all structures of force, remain incomplete as processes. Some Ukrainian pundits consider that this drama the Ukrainian Army is facing speaks about new cracks in the “Ukrainian ship” which, while receiving powerful blows from the storm it is traversing, cannot be easily repaired, and even its Euro-Atlantic partners are almost in the impossibility of helping with anything.

Translated by Ionut Preda