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02 aprilie 2019 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments - WEEK 13 of 2019

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. RUSSIA. Moscow confronts Washington in the Venezuelan crisis.

II. UNITED STATES. The Mueller Report smiles to President Trump.

III. UNITED KINGDOM. Theresa May’s agreement is rejected for the third time.

IV. POLAND. The Pentagon prepositions the equipment of a US brigade.

V. Developments to track this Week 14 of 2019.

  1. RUSSIA.

Moscow confronts Washington in the Venezuelan crisis. The crisis in Venezuela offers the stage for new frictions between the US and Russia. After Moscow moved spectacularly by sending troops to Caracas, the US reacted by threatening with new sanctions. Although happening on the other side on the world, this crisis will show the real force ratio, and will tell whether the US is prepared to tolerate Russia’s great power behavior on its very doorstep. The result of this confrontation will impact both on the Ukrainian crisis and on Russia’s aggressivity in Europe, respectively in the Black Sea region, eventually with concrete effects on Romania’s security.

Moscow sent to Venezuela a quite limited military contingent, mostly symbolic, but enough to worry the US, who reacted. On March 24th, a Venezuelan official confirmed that two Russian airplanes which had landed in Caracas on March 23rd brought 100 Russian soldiers and military equipment. Russian military officials (the head of Russian Army was mentioned as being present) came to discuss future strategy, troop training and military equipment maintenance. US sources stated that deployed Russian troops include Special Operation Forces and experts in cyber-security. It is also assessed that air defense experts will be considered, in view of training Venezuelan military operating S-300 air defense systems.

The first warning came on March 25th from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has told the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, during a phone discussion, that "the United States and regional countries will not stand idly by as Russia exacerbates tensions in Venezuela". S. Lavrov responded by accusing "attempts by Washington to organize a coup d'etat in Venezuela".   

On March 27th, President Donald Trump asked Russia to withdraw its troops from Venezuela and warned that all options were on the table: "Russia has to get out" of Venezuela. Vice-President Mike Pence described Moscow’s action as an "unwelcome provocation", and asked Russia to stop any support to the Nicolás Maduro regime.  

Moscow answered on March 28th, only through the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, who declared that Russian soldiers were not a threat to anybody: "Russia is not changing the balance of power in the region, Russia is not threatening anyone, unlike [officials] in Washington". She stated that Russian experts were sent to Venezuela based on a military cooperation agreement (what agreement?), and these experts would remain there ”as long as necessary”. Notably, on March 28th, the Venezuelan defense attache to Moscow declared that the Russian soldiers would not participate in military operations.

On March 29th, the US national security adviser, John Bolton, has mentioned: "We strongly caution actors external to the Western hemisphere against deploying military assets to Venezuela, or elsewhere in the hemisphere, with the intent of establishing or expanding military operations". Sanctions on companies working with Venezuela is one of the tools US has in store against Russia. In the attempt to calm the situation, on March 29th, Russia explained that the real issue is about opening a training center for military helicopter crews.

On March 29th, on a moderate tone, President Trump has declared: "We will probably be talking at some point... I'll be talking to a lot of people - perhaps President Putin, perhaps President Xi of China", on this issue.

Without committing decisevely, for not risking a humiliating defeat, Russia tries to interfere gradually, testing how far it can push in benefiting from Washington hesitations, same as it did in Syria. The same as in Syria, the regime does not enjoy support from the majority of the population, but is decided to not yield. Russia has political and economic interests. The political interests mean that Russia befriends autoritarian regimes, either radical left or radical right, but non-democratic and anti-West. The economic interests mean that Russia made several billion dollar investments in Venezuela, some of them ineffective, and a possible change of power would endanger those investments. This explains the secret deployment of Russian soldiers and the discrete and pseudo-legal way the US warnings were answered[i].  

For Russia though, Venezuela is ”a bridge too far”, because Moscow lacks the economic and military capability to support such regime, provided it is stopped in time. This makes the US react in a rough way, reminding the Monroe doctrine. On the other hand, China has the economic capacity to step in to support the Venezuelan regime, but it has never sought to challenge the US in Washington’s backyard so far, in no domain at all, let alone economic.

The US has a strategy to support the Venezuelan opposition by sanctions on Venezuela’s oil exports, and other pressures, ranging from diplomatic to humanitarian measures, all aiming to generate an internal reaction leading to the fall of Maduro’s regime. The main argument for such strategy is... Nicolás Maduro’s regime itself: it proves unable to govern its country, and is the one to have led the nation to this desperate economic and humanitarian situation. Another argument is the position of countries in the region, that oppose in their majority, Maduro’s regime.  

The unknown is still President Trump, and the way he will negotiate with ”friend Putin”. However, in this case, a sturdy stance, not open to compromise, is quite predictible. The current crisis in Venezuela will show how much Russia has the capability to act in a hybrid way, because Moscow has not the power to do it openly. It will also show how much Russia can risk, and how much this will affect its relation with the US, Romania’s strategic ally. The risk management limits include the strategic bomber deployment, which brings the issue closer to a serious crisis.    

In the Black Sea area, Russia persists with its previous behavior, with large and complex military exercises (compared to NATO exercises) as well as closely monitoring NATO vessels navigating in the Black Sea, for affirming Russia’s air and naval supremacy in the region. Notably, in Ukraine, Russia did not escalate yet the conflict in Donbass, but acted only through political measures – discussions with pro-Russian opposition leaders in Ukraine.   

Russia conducted one of the largest airborne troop exercises in Crimea, with 1,500 soldiers. The main participating unit was the Airborne Division 7 Novorossiysk, including the battalion level unit in Dzhankoi (the exercise was brigade level). Air and naval landing procedures were practiced.

Considering that Airborne Division 7 was the spearhead of Russia’s aggressions in Georgia and Crimea, the exercise must be granted full attention, because it displays the modus operandi for any kinetic action, from provocation to open aggression. It is not only the threat against the missile defense installations at Deveselu / Romania that should worry us, because they pertain to a deterrence logic at strategic level with the US. At the end of the day, those installations would be targeted only when ballistic missiles are launched, and that is during an all-out war. Rather the hybrid aggression or conventional threat should worry us, precisely of the level that recent exercises display.

II. UNITED STATES. The Mueller Report smiles to President Trump.

The investigation conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller ended on March 24th with no proof that President Donald Trump had ever colluded with Russia during the electoral campaign of 2016. President Trump declared: “After three years of lies and smears and slander, the Russia hoax is finally dead... The collusion delusion is over”. Regarding a possible obstruction of justice by the president, the results are not relevant. According to General Attorney William Barr, who published a summary of the Mueller Report, the latter did not find clear-cut evidence to build such accusation against the president, although the report does not exonerate Donald Trump either.

The Kremlin reacted cautiously, by announcing that President Putin is ready to improve Russia’s relations with the US, but the first step depends on Washington. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, declared that, “in this case, the ball is absolutely in their court. It was given to Trump in Helsinki”.

The end of Robert Mueller’s investigation regarding a possible collusion of President Trump’s campaign staff with Russia during the 2016 electoral campaign means turning the page to a new era in the Trump Administration tenure. It is like President Trump is finally president in full, with no shade of doubt regarding any collaboration with a foreign power. This does not mean though, that there is another Donald Trump in office, the person is the same, for good or for bad.

An enforcement of presidential powers is expected to follow, both in the way it works, free of any accusations looming above him, and in reconciliation with fellow Republicans, who will shed any objections to the president, as it happened many times hitherto, although most of them remained at the president’s side.

The Democrats must accept this reality and think not about the way Donald Trump can lose the office, but about the way they can win the presidency. However, the Democrats have serious problems themselves, because the party is drifting to the left, which is little probable to attract the center – a strong prerequisite if they wish to defeat Trump at the next elections. The previous victory at congressional elections lost glamour: The Democrats can block certain measures promoted by the president, but they cannot decisively hamper the effective work of the Trump Administration.

The first effect is immediate: President Trump will forcibly push the plans he promised since he took office at the White House: canceling the Obamacare and forestalling illegal immigration by building his famous wall along the border with Mexico. He already secured part of the necessary moneys including from the Pentagon, by canceling certain infrastructure investments (in Romania included). The threat of a new caravan of refugees en-route to the US border is an opportunity for Donald Trump, not a challenge. He announced that firm measures would be taken, as far as closing the border with Mexico, decision with a huge impact on the Mexican economy, and this nation would have to react. The president already cut the financial aid to Central American countries whence migrants came from. In this respect, the president has the support of the Congress majority, not just the support of his basis. And this gives President Trump the momentum to decisively address the issue.  

Overseas, there are some knowns and some unknowns. Regarding China, the negotiations will continue, as the Administration is about to reach an agreement with Beijing, in Washington’s intended terms: opening the Chinese markets and protecting the intellectual property. Regarding Russia though, there is a big question: will the rapprochement be relaunched, considering President Trump’s appeasement attitude towards V. Putin? The current situation only allows a slow rapprochement, because the two countries are in conflict in many areas: INF, Ukraine, Syria, Iran. As usual, the current crisis will provide the best indication: Venezuela will either establish the first step towards rapprochement or show that confrontation will continue.

At the end of the day, regardless President Trump’s behavior, it is better to see the US with a president who acts free of an investigation hanging as a Damocles sword above his head. Let us hope that his solutions will be as close as possible to the traditional streamline, at least as far as Romania is concerned (NATO and the bilateral strategic partnership). As for the US relations with Russia, the better they are, the more possible a peaceful solution is for conflicts too close to Romania’s borders. And let’s also hope that such rapprochement will be both principled and enduring.

III. UNITED KINGDOM. Theresa May’s agreement is rejected for the third time.

On March 29th, the British Parliament rejected for the third time the agreement negotiated on Brexit by Prime-Minister Theresa May. This casts the UK and the EU into uncertainty now resembling a real crisis. By some coments, it is the most dificult hurdle Britain faces since World War II.

Previous to this rejection, the Parliament had voted to take control of Britain’s withdrawal from EU process, but was not able to build a majority to support any alternative plan to that proposed by Theresa May. The prime-minister hoped to get a majority in support of her plan after promising to resign thereafter, with another Cabinet to continue the negotiations. She lost though, with only a 58 ballot margin.

What comes next? The UK missed the May 22nd departure day, valid only if Theresa May’s plan was voted. Now there is the April 12th deadline, the last day when Britain may choose between a longer extension and a short-term delay. The first choice opens many options, including a new referendum (so much hated by Brexit supporters), but UK must organize the European Parliament elections. The majority in the UK Parliamant prefers the second choice – short extension of the process.

During this week, the British Parliament must identify an alternative plan for Brexit, but none of the drafts is getting enough support. In addition, the Cabinet does not back any of these alternative options. In these conditions, a rough Brexit seems more and more likely, although the Parliament had ruled out such course of action. However, that decision is not binding.

According to available information, Theresa May intends to bring her plan to the Parliament for the fourth time. It looks incredible, but this is where it got to. And she has no guarantee at all that she will get the necessary majority this time either!

In the same time, the Conservative MPs requested the prime-minister to reach a short extension – a couple of months, like “we want to leave the EU on April 12th or very soon thereafter”. Thus, the Conservatives wish to avoid a long-term extension, which would mean accepting to organize European Parliament elections and might lead to raising the question whether Brexit should happen at all.

Had Theresa May wanted to blackmail the Parliament with the imminence of withdrawal deadline, she only managed to blackmail... herself. Right now, she has only two weeks to find a solution... other than the agreement she had negotiated. And while the Parliament wanted to take control on the Brexit, it only managed to reveal it has no alternative plan... to control the process it wanted to control.

Although dramatic, there is something consistent: a majority in the Parliament wants the Brexit, otherwise they wouldn’t have rejected a new referendum. Therefore, we will not have a request for a long extension, but for a short-term postponement, with three options: Theresa May’s agreement (subjected for the fourth time to a vote in the Parliament!); a rough Brexit – Blind Brexit / No Deal Brexit; or something close to that, since there is no time for new negotiations with the EU for identifying solid alternatives. Beyond the sadness of this situation, the next two weeks will offer an unforgettable entertainment, although the hitherto past events were not dull either.

IV. POLAND. The Pentagon prepositions the equipment of a US brigade.

On March 24th, NATO confirmed that equipment for a brigade will be positioned in Poland, including armored personell carriers, with the necessary armament and ammunition. The storage facility will be located at Powidz, 200 km west of Warsaw.

According to NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, the construction works will begin this summer and will last two years. He also mentioned that such equipment prepositioning will help increasing the US military presence in Poland. J. Stoltenberg added that NATO is working on about 250 infrastructure projects across Europe.

Very likely, this storage facility makes a first response, a moderate US response to Poland’s request for a standing deployment of American troops on its territory – the so-called Fort Trump. So, without being obliged to “block” a whole brigade in Poland, the US identified the practical and economic solution to preposition its equipment. Then, the deployment of personell and the brigade operationalization will require only a short time. The US has used this procedure before, during the “first” Cold War, in Norway, a country situated on NATO’s eastern border as well, in the northern flank.

This military measure completes Poland’s defense disposition and NATO’s supplementary military disposition in this country. Poland’s security is certainly assured both by its own efforts to develop capable armed forces and by a substantial military aid, wisely organized with command elements and deployed troops. Maybe the only thing Poland must do is not to exaggerate, meaning that consolidating its own security should not entail a Russian rough reaction, and hence an escalation of tensions in Eastern Europe.

Generally, after the Ukrainian crisis, NATO has consolidated its military presence in its eastern border by deploying rotational troops in this region, in Romania included. This enforcement is assymetric though, with the center being favored for two reasons: Russia is right there at the border, and the area is more vulnerable due to the Russian minority in the Baltic States, and the Russian military build-up in the Kaliningrad district, in the very middle of the NATO group of nations located in the center of NATO’s eastern front. On the other hand, the Baltic States and Poland are internally consolidated, they completed the transition to democracy, they possess modernized armed forces and benefit from the guarantees offered by an ally military support already present in the filed by deployed military units and adequate command structures. The situation is quite different in the southern flank of the eastern border, and, if the center is the place for tests and stand-off, the southern flank is the place where wars actually occur, the most recent being the conflict in Ukraine.

Recently, Poland has signed the offset contract for purchasing the Patriot American air-defense systems. Thus, Poland continues the strategy to revitalize its defense industry, not only to provide high-tech equipment to its military.

The gap between the center and the southern flank of NATO’s military disposition on its eastern border cannot escape to Russian strategists’ attention: NATO has consolidated national and Alliance military capabilities, while in the south, at least so far, there are just declarations of good intentions and national armed forces in process of puchasing and modernization, only to the extent the earmarked money will become operationalized armament systems. Turkey is not to be considered, as it used to be, the most recent proof being the continuation of S-400 air defense system contract, which raises many question marks in Washington and Brussels.

V. Developments to track this Week 14 of 2019.

  • UKRAINE. This past weekend elections are crucial for the future of Ukraine. Now we know that Volodymyr Zelenski, the surprise candidate, goes forth to the second round, after winning more than 30% of the ballots in the first round. Petro Poroshenko got about 17% at the exit polls, and Yulia Timoshenko only a bit more than 14%. The incumbent president declared he was happy that the Ukrainians wanted him in the second round, and Y. Timoshenko protested the exit polls, as expected, and stated that the proper ballot count would give her about 20%. For Petro Poroshenko, the hard part is beginning now, because he must explain to his people why he did not change anything, and the same Yanukovych era officials, with the same practices, rule today the Ukrainian society and state. Volodymyr Zelenski will also have difficulties to prove he is a genuine presidential candidate, not just a comedian. It worked in the first round, when he dodged the question about the way he would solve the problems Ukraine faces. In the second round though, he will have to provide proper answers, and we might see a simple citizen improvising when facing real questions, because Ukraine did not overcome many problems which had triggered the 2014 crisis. Petro Poroshenko cannot offer reruns either: it is not what he did, but what he did not do. These elections in Ukraine are very important for Romania’s security, because a weak Ukraine will certainly become a sitting duck for Russia, and then the whole security paradigm in the region will change.
  • ISRAEL. Elections are upcoming, and this week’s events will be decisive.  The gift received from President Donald Trump, the declaration on Israel sovereignty over the Golan Heights, brought Benjamin Netanyahu an important thrust in his election campaign. The Hamas attacks did not degenerate into a conflict, and the prime-minister displayed determination in this respect. In addition, the Israeli air force attacked Iranian targets in Aleppo, thus sending the message that Iranians cannot remain in Syria, although they moved their bases far north from the Israeli – Syrian border. As the sanctions kick in, Iran is forced to reduce financing for its military and paramilitary actions – yet another success for Netanyahu. However, the Israeli electorate might become pragmatic: after capitalizing on Netanyahu’s achievements, it is perhaps the time for a new prime-minister, an honest soldier, to find solutions for the future. This may become a valid option if the voters think that Netanyahu’s plan to annex the West Bank is not a good idea. This week will show us new low blows, but also various views on Israel’s future, especially in domestic issues.  
  • UNITED KINGDOM. Yes, it is true, everybody is fed up with this story. And it is right now that crucial decisions are needed, and they will not be nice. Eventually, the Britons will leave, and will likely leave ugly, not the way the Europeans and themselves wanted. The effects will be visible, the lessons will be tough, and will come too late.  
  • TURKEY. The local elections were won by the governing party, AKP, but it lost big in large cities. These results will not impact immediately on the political stage in Turkey, but their significance might prove decisive: President Erdoğan’s star established an autocratic regime with Islamist basis, and this star might begin to fade. The simple fact that the opposition found the power to unite in the local elections speaks volumes. And the final vote will be cast by the… Kurds.
  • REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. President Igor Dodon’s meeting with the parties represented in the Parliament did not pan out. The ACUM alliance denied having been pushed by the Europeans towards a governing arrangement. An alliance Igor Dodon - Vladimir Plahotniuc is still possible, provided Moscow’s blessing comes… but it is not coming yet. This is the explanation for Russian protests regarding an alleged implication by the US ambassador to Chişinău, Derek Hogan, in the political stage of R. of Moldova. Is Russia afraid that the Voronin experience might repeat in Igor Dodon’s case? It is too early to see Dodon-the-tool turn into a sovereign president of this country. The same, it is too early to see V. Plahotniuc open to compromise. First, Plahotniuc must realise that the usual maneuvers of recruiting politicians by force or money, and numbing the EU and US in the same time, with stories about the European road he is working on. The way a new government is forged in Chişinău will secure our peace or not for the next years. Of course, it will be us to pick up the bill, although there is no guarantee where our money will go, if that money will reach those who really need it.   

[i] The story about a helicopter crew training center looks like a textbook disinformation, invented exactly when needed.