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07 aprilie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 14 of 2020)

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

I. ROMANIA / EUROPE / GLOBAL. Coronavirus pandemic. II. NATO. North-Atlantic Council in Foreign Minister format. III. HUNGARY. The parliament passes a law securing sweeping powers to the government. IV. UKRAINE. The parliament passes the IMF requested laws.V. Developments to track this Week 15 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

English version by Mircea Mocanu

We must cope with the pandemic for a while yet, before being out of the woods just to… face its economic and political fallout. Although stating such opinion is cautiously avoided, it seems we are past the initial shock, and now the attrition war follows. All crisis phases will be water under the bridge, except the trauma of losing dear ones. We will summarize below the pandemic development and its impact, then the main developments with effect on Romania’s security: the NATO Foreign Ministerial NAC, and the events at our doorsteps, where Covid 19 crisis provides Viktor Orbán the opportunity to draw Hungary closer to an authoritarian regime, and forces Volodymyr Zelenskiy to yield to IMF requests and change his domestic allies in the process.

I. ROMANIA / EUROPE / GLOBAL. Coronavirus pandemic. The largest post WW2 crisis passed the initial shock phase and the World struggles to contain virus spread in view of limiting the number of contamination cases. The national health systems are strongly strained and the trauma of seeing increased number of victims is stressing societies. In security, this Coronavirus crisis became a quite different stage to play old strategic plans, which is rather cynical indeed.

· Pandemic development. We are not far from the pandemic peak, and, in Europe, a decrease trend appeared in number of contaminations, especially in Italy and Spain, which still live the trauma of high number of deaths. It does not happen in the United States yet though, where two dreadful weeks follow, and then the hurricane season, and probably the same will happen in Britain. At global level, the number of Covid 19 cases reached one million (hinging on number of tests), and the number of deaths still rises. The danger is general, but the trauma is local, meaning what is going on with each of us and around us.

·Romania. The most important parameter, the number of contaminations is rising slowly and remains within manageable margins. The number of deaths, while tragic, remains close to 2% of the number of contamination cases. The important element in describing the true situation – the number of conducted tests, starts to grow. We did not reach the peak of pandemic in Romania, but resources to overcome the crisis seem to be there, having the whole health system mobilized (with increasingly enough supplies and solutions for the “hiatuses” which occurred). Both in general responsibility and in incidental glitches, we can only say they are inevitable occurrences: we are at war, and we make war as we live the peace, and we know very well our habits. It is important to find the necessary solidarity in order to withstand hardships while complying with the rules and respecting the others. No wonder, there were desertions, and conscientious people take over responsibilities, while weak individuals collapse. But, in the health system, it is not the few desertions that matter, but the contamination of medical staff is the biggest concern. Another problem is that we already have several Covid 19 hotbeds, cities in quarantine, but things are going to settle there too, since population is rather cooperant. A decisive week is to follow, when the number of contaminations will still rise, as the authorities have warned, but the general feeling is that we can cope with what’s coming. Perhaps, after a week or two, with little luck, we can see the number of contaminations plateau (and then decrease) and we will see less and less deaths – the price we must pay. 

·Europe, United States and global. Mostly Italy, but Spain too, start to see a stabilization in number of contaminations. However, the number of victims is so high that trauma is blinding the population and prevents it from realizing the cross over the hilltop. In the same time, negative effects, especially the economic problems, give no room to breathe.

·Economic and political issues. The general mood is about planning to prevent recession. In politics, the novel Coronavirus crisis creates situations where all political regimes are tested. The authoritarian regimes attempt to exploit stress situations, although themselves face the danger of Covid 19 - generated instability (when facing death combined with indifference and sheer lie, people speak the truth). 

In economy, from political responsible officials and well-known analysts to IMF representatives, the conclusion is broadcast: certainly, we will have recession. This will likely be hard and quick, with the hope of passing it quickly, considering measures taken by the governments. The problem is that any economic crisis, as the virus which generated it, does not afflict only through its direct doings, but especially through chronical deceases of each national economy, revived and swollen. At European level, the European economic relief plan is gaining momentum, and the option of “Coronavirus Bonds” controversy will be overcome by a “mini - Marshall Plan”. The European Commission started to offer support and leeway not only to EU member nations, but to EU partners in the East and the Western Balkans as well. That includes Republic of Moldova, where the government is busy to include leeway for… cigarette smugglers into the package of bills meant to fight the Coronavirus. It also includes Serbia, where the EU support will be much larger than EU support to Russia, although Serbian population might only see the eleven Russian airplanes arrived in support.

In politics, the crisis is testing the democracies and allows the opportunists to fish in murky waters: 1) by invoking the crisis, Russia and Iran claim sanction lifting; 2) fearing social uprising, dictatorships go as far as denying realities (Turkmenistan, Belarus); 3) authoritarian-prone systems squabble with domestic adversaries (Serbian journalists); 4) within the EU, Viktor Orbán used this opportunity to better establish himself in power by further diminishing parliamentary control, sine die; 5) disinformation, ranging from Russian information war to Chinese propaganda, is soaring, and western leaders react; 6) political populism profits in this economic environment where they “must throw money”. In full crisis, traditional foreign policy objectives are sturdily pursued: Paris warned Beijing and Moscow that solidarity facing the Coronavirus cannot be used as political instrument, which is an indication that such approach is already being attempted; Something like “facing dire straits, we are together: you give up previous reactions against our aggressions, and we… continue them”.  

·Security and military issues.  Overall, wars and other military activities did not stop at all. The NATO Foreign Ministerial concluded that, even in full crisis, Russia’s military problems remain in close-up. In Romania’s area of interest, military activities continue: 1) in Ukraine, separatists renewed their attacks (casualties appeared again, one soldier was “executed” by a sniper, indication that the order came from high above), and OSCE observers no longer benefit from freedom of movement necessary to check out the situation along the contact line; 2) Russia continued military actions in the European Theater of Operation; 3) in Libya, the war sees the new phase of direct involvement: a Turkish frigate launched an Evolved Sea Sparrow missile against a UAE drone, and Turkish drones continued attacks against General Haftar forces, which were in offensive; 4) Iraqi militias continue attacks against Coalition bases, and the U.S. threatened Tehran that it would respond; 5) Israel began again attacks against Iranian and Hezbollah objectives in Syria, IVO Homs. The United States and Israel conducted an exercise with F-35 aircraft, which is an undoubtful signal to Tehran; 6) in the Yemeni calvary, the Saudis resumed air attacks after the Houthi rebels conducted balistic missile attacks; 7) in Afghanistan, the Taliban also resumed their attacks, although there are hopes for starting a prisoner exchange between the Kabul government (with two presidents) and the Taliban.

II. NATO. North-Atlantic Council in Foreign Minister format.

The April 4th NAC (video) reunion focused on the Alliance actions during the Coronavirus crisis, and Alliance direct involvement in containing the pandemic and its effects, as well as on reaffirming NATO defense capabilities. A clear picture of the situation was also outlined, as the Alliance and EU actions were significant, but they were shaded by Russia’s information operations (with a few symbolic actions, Moscow sought to shape an impression of solidarity). The truth is that Russia did not reduce its military actions IVO Alliance territory, which raised concerns within NATO.

The announced objective of this NATO Foreign Ministerial was the Coronavirus pandemic response, and highlighting that the Alliance is prepared, even during (or especially during!) this period, to respond to any threat. NATO had already got involved in supporting its most impacted member nations (Italy and Spain) with emergency relief, while the military in all Allied countries are busy with response measures decided by their respective governments.

On April 1st, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg underlined that "Our primary objective is to ensure that this health crisis does not become a security crisis". The Allies "continue to patrol the skies and to defend our borders and we continue our missions and operations not least in the fight against terrorism, because these threats continue to exist". Stoltenberg specified that Russia increased military activities (while NATO reduced its activities) make the Alliance remain vigilent during the pandemic: "We see significant military activities close to NATO borders with a new exercise in the western military districts of Russia... and we have seen significant Russian presence in the North Sea". Thus, worrisomely, Russia conducted large scale military exercises, last week, in two military regions (MR) close to NATO territory (MR West and MR South). Their declared objective was to check troop readiness in pandemic context[1], where Russian strategic nuclear forces were involved. Also, British military reported "unusually high levels of activity" in the English Channel and North Sea, and Lithuania reported that NATO air police had intercepted five Russian military overflights.

In the April 2nd Final Declaration of NATO Foreign Ministerial, it is pointed that: in current circumstances of efforts to contain the pandemic, NATO fulfils its mission (specific actions are detailed), and the Allies support each other; the Allies act for correct information and for neutralizing disinformation operations[2]. NATO remains prepared to fulfil its main mission – collective defense, crisis management and security through cooperation, as the Alliance defense and deterrence capacity is not diminished. Allied foreign ministers took decisions on NATO missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the backdrop of current dynamics, and they congratulated the new member nation, Northern Macedonia (which officially became the 30th member nation on March 27th). They also expressed support for Ukraine and Georgia.

On April 2nd, Jens Stoltenberg announced that the NAC in foreign minister format decided measures meant to streamline the Alliance response to Coronavirus crisis, considering that “NATO was created to deal with crises”, and the Alliance is already involved in coordinating efforts in support of national measures to contain the pandemic: air transport of medical supplies, and provision of medical personell. SACEUR General Wolters will be responsible for coordinating Alliance support in containig the pandemic, mainly by facilitating flights with medical supplies in European air space. Now, the foreign ministers are to convene in a session later this month, for detailed decisons regarding NATO coordinated actions in this Covid 19 crisis.

NATO reacted adequately to pandemic crisis, both by measures taken before this reunion and by changing the reunion agenda. Unfortunately, Russia’s behavior raised concerns to the Alliance, especially to certain member nations in the East, and the reunion had to pay attention to this issue. Notably, Russia’s activities in the southern flank of NATO’s eastern borders persisted: Moscow’s Joint Strategic Command South and Russian Black Sea Fleet continued their exercises with participating twenty aircraft and S-400 anti-aircraft defense systems[3].

In current circumstances, the problems of Turkey generated squabble within the Alliance were fortunately almost forgotten, if not partially solved. So, U.S. ambassador to NATO, Bailey Hutchinson, announced that Washington is ready to support Turkey with an “assistance package” for its campaign against Russia in northern Syria, provided that Ankara scraps its S-400 missile defense system.

Hopefully, itself facing the pandemic, Russia will focus on this problem and suspend military activities which now raise concerns to NATO. The Kremlin already shows that, beyond foreign exploitation of current conditions (by seeking to get the sanctions lifted), will start to approach real problems (rapid Coronavirus spread, economic hardships, crude price war). Notably, in the Putinist political regime, leader attention turns firstly to the political price, and a Kremlin strategy of securing Putin a clean exit, regardless the price Russian population will have to pay (all of a sudden, the Kremlin discovered that Russia is a federation, and responsibility rests… at local level, with the governors!).

III. HUNGARY. The parliament passes a law securing sweeping powers to the government.

Despite warnings from abroad and from Hungarian opposition, prime Minister Viktor Orbán made the parliament (controlled by his party FIDESZ) pass a package of bills which provides him extensive governing powers in Covid 19 pandemic circumstances, free of any parliament control and without any time limit. Foreign reaction was immediate and strong, both at European Union level, and from the European popular parties, all demanding measures up to expelling FIDESZ from the European Popular Party (EPP) family. The general feeling is that Viktor Orbán crossed the Rubicon and blatantly abused the Coronavirus situation to consolidate his authoritarian regime. Perhaps we will see a stronger foreign reaction this time, even his Bavarian friends reached the conclusion that Orbáns policy is nothing else than authoritarian nationalism, although it camouflages itself in a Catholic-Calvinist conservatism. The problem is that such regime needs enemies to disguise its machinations and, after liberals and immigrants, the time might come for the original enemy of Hungarian nationalism-revisionism, which is Hungary’s neighbors, to fill that position. 

On March 30th, the Parliament in Budapest  passed with 137 ayes and 53 nays the law granting Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sweeping powers during the established (on March 11th) state of emergency, in order to cope with the Coronavirus crisis. Most dangerous, this law stipulates the indefinite extension of state of emergency, thus excluding the Parliament from further extension process. Hungarian Parliament is practically closed, elections are postponed indefinitely, and the prime minister can rule through governmental decrees. So, Viktor Orbán will have a mandate without any restriction, he benefits a white check he will know how to fill in for securing him in power forever. Among the stipulations, one can find punishments with up to five years for those who spread… fake news about Coronavirus.

The law was criticized by Hungarian opposition and by human rights groups (Helsinki Committee included) and abroad, by the EU and United Nations. The Hungarian minister of justice Judit Varga minimized the situation, especially the danger of unprecedented power obtained by Orbán, by stating that critics opposing the bill were "fighting imaginary demons and not dealing with reality".  

European reaction was immediate, with members of European Parliament demanding the new law be investigated. European Council Secretary General (Croat) Marja Pejčinović Burić sent a letter to Viktor Orbán warning against an "indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency". Ursula von der Leyen warned against the fact that measures taken to control Covid 19 must be only limited and proportional. However, European leaders moderated their reaction and refrained to ask Orbán to provide explanations. The strongest reactions come from European popular parties: leaders of popular parties from thirteen European countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, sent to EPP leader Donald Tusk a common letter showing deep concerns about the risks regarding violations of the rule of law in Hungary, and demanding EPP to expel FIDESZ. It is crucial to see what the Germans will do, as the Bavarian Christian-Democrats / CSU pointed they are no longer open to tolerate Viktor Orbán. Orbán’s answer to the letter of thirteen European leaders is eloquent: “With all due respect, I do not have time for that! I will be prepared to discuss when pandemic is over”. Notably, Orbán put in place an economic program which includes taxation of banks and transnational companies, and this move has a political basis: he financially helps his constituency (small businessmen) with money taken from ‘foreigners’. Orbán went well with this (economically ineffective!) policy because (among other reasons) other countries in the East practiced a policy of... not attracting investments. Now, these times are gone though, and Orbán might face some surprises.

The general opinion is that the SARS CoV 2 caused a first victim: democracy in this Eastern Europe country – Hungary. In fact, the culprit is Viktor Orbán, FIDESZ, and those who tolerated this autoritarian regime, for years. Orbán had already undermined the Hungarian democracy system of checks and balances, and now he profits the novel Coronavirus crisis to make another step further. Of course, Orbán will have to shed the dictatorship law stipulations when the Covid 19 crisis ends, but he will take care to do it when, after having abused the situation, many things will be irreversible. We believe Viktor Orbán did not cross the Rubicon for the first time, but really jumped the gun this time. If Europe does not intervene now, it will not have the oportunity to do it without big problems of internal stability. Certainly, the EU knows what will the first crisis be after the Coronavirus, and that is Orbán’s autoritarian – nationalist deviation crisis.  

Perhaps the European leaders will cross their own Rubicon by jointly and coordinately beginning to bring Hungary back into democracy fold, although that mission will be difficult, after having allowed Orbán to reach the level of a “dictatorship within the EU”, because Orbán has built himself a strong constituency. While consolidating his autocratic regime, Viktor Orbán makes Hungarian nationalism more and more revisionist. However, this does not make a threat to Romania, as long as we remain a functional democracy respecting the rights and liberty of its citizens. This includes the Romanian citizens of other ethnicity than Romanian[4], as Romania always kept the correct view that ethnic Hungarians in Romania are “ours” with everything that means, at the level of responsibility and good cohabitation.

IV. UKRAINE. The parliament passes the IMF requested laws.

In Kyiv, we witnessed not just an evolution, but rather a beginning of a revolution. The fact that Verkhovna Rada (the parliament) passed the laws requested by the IMF, the one regarding financial responsibility and the one regarding farmland trading, make a remarkable development (The former law blocks the path of returning the nationalized banks to the hands of previous ownership, which afflicts the interests of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky). The true revolution is that deputies of President Zelenskiy party (less a group of 30 deputies controlled by Kolomoisky) were helped by the votes of deputies from Poroshenko’s political grouping. Also, an apparatchik finance minister appointed one month ago, when a small restauration took place, was replaced with a competent professional trusted by international financial institutions and by… Poroshenko. We might witness the beginning of an “alliance of necessity” between Zelenskiy and Poroshenko groupings, which will press on the path of modernizing Ukraine and bring this country closer to the West. Such alliance would have some limitations though: it is ideologically unclear, it lacks political experience, and it has its own oligarchs, being rather a nationalist-oligarch arrangement. These events, which the West seems to be not alien of, might open the way to relaunch moderate domestic reforms and open a rebalanced approach to Russia for negotiations regarding the Donbass conflict.

On March 30th-31st, Ukrainian Parliament voted the IMF requested bill regarding the banks, in first reading, which opens the path to granting a vital $8 billion loan for Ukraine, especially in current circumstances. The bill includes several stipulations on banking system consolidation, but the wording with strongest political impact is that preventing the return of nationalized banks, which mainly denies the repossession of PrivatBank to oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. The appointment of Serhiy Marchenko as finance minister was also voted. He was vice minister of finance and former deputy head of Petro Poroshenko’s presidential administration, and he replaced Ihor Umansky, who leaves this position after only one month. Umansky leaves as surprisingly as he came, which reveals President Zelenskiy’s hesitation: he listened his oligarch one month ago, for turning to listen to the West now, and cooperate with Poroshenko at expense of Kolomoisky.

The parliamentarians also passed the law on real estate trading, in a shrunken form. It is of essence that this law passed, after being forgotten in the drawer for months, and this opens the farmland market starting July 2021. However, its implementation has limitations and due dangers, as it strongly limits the plot purchase rights for foreigners, and Ukrainian oligarchs might take advantage of this detail. President Zelenskiy promised a referendum on this issue. It is obvious that IMF pressure was the main factor making the power in Kyiv exceptionally mobilize to pass this law. The power lost a group of thirty deputies in the process, those controlled by Kolomoisky, but this loss was compensated by the votes from Poroshenko’s group.  

There is a beginning of Kyiv forces regrouping, which, should it continue, will provide more coherence  to the power, which will cooperate with part of the opposition, at least in some issues. This fact offers an additional advantage: the opposition became an eclectic crowd lacking the capacity to unitedly and coherently oppose reforms: nothing brings together Tymoshenko and Kolomoisky anymore, and between the two and the  pro-Russians (the third opposition grouping), there are no common interests. This development must be regarded with certain caution though, as it is just a step for now, not a process. Maybe the time was ripe for a Zelenskiy – Poroshenko cooperation, as the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed discontent for the lack of progress in Minsk with the proposed Consultative Council (which in Moscow’s view has the role of legitimating the separatists). Notably, Kyiv reacted quickly to Russia’s new aggressions in western Black Sea waters: Ukrainian military conducted tests with shore-launched anti-ship missiles in the same area.

V. Developments to track this Week 15 of 2020.

► EUROPEAN UNION. The EU foreign minister reunion regarding the economic solution for exiting the Coronavirus crisis is not so much economic as it is political. Italy’s much debated proposition to print and sell “Corona Bonds” received certain support from Paris but met a counter proposition from Berlin: Germany put generous financing on the table, a kind of a “mini Marshall Plan” in Ursula von der Leyen’s generic description. Finally, it seems that Paris and Berlin work together on a package of common proposals. The decision in the making will have political importance for clarifying the North – South relations on financial – economic trust, which is the biggest problem not only for the Eurozone, but for the whole European Union.

► UNITED STATES / RUSSIA. The phone conversation between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin announced a symbolic cooperation on Coronavirus crisis[5] and Washington’s involvement in discussions regarding the crude price (the war on reduced oil price between Russia and Saudi Arabia). Although sanctions were supposed to be also a subject, they were not mentioned. In exchange, there is rumor about a (video)reunion of the five UN Security Council permanent members, so dear to the Kremlin, as any setting where Moscow can say ‘no’. The United States entered the Russia – Saudi Arabia conflict and it is interesting to see whether a reduction in oil production is agreed, in order to reach an increase in crude price. Suddenly, Vladimir Putin showed readiness to reopen discussions with Saudi Arabia on this issue, indication that Moscow has realistically reviewed its capacity to endure, respectively its financial situation. However, a solution is not easy to find, and the dispute was initiated by Russia and Saudi Arabia in view of removing the American oil producers from the market (as the U.S. has higher production costs); but later, the two nations broke apart and started the bilateral dispute. The United States has a strong argument: it is also a consumer; thus, American producers prepare to put up a cartel of their own (as the OPEC+ in fact is), and the word circulates in Washington about imposing tariffs on oil imports. On a different dossier, the U.S. escalated Venezuela predicament by officially accusing the Venezuelan president of drug trafficking. Such measure was expected, as the U.S. justice has systematically worked on this dossier, knowing that only solid evidence can provide truthfulness to a penal case with huge political impact. So, other important indictees accepted to cooperate with American justice. The Kremlin reacted by transferring Rosneft properties and shares in Venezuela to… Russian government! Notably, Igor Sechin, the Chekist king of Russian oil, receives a lesson for the cards he played in the oil conflict with Saudi Arabia, but in Venezuela too. Anyway, Russian citizen will pay, not the Rosneft Chekist administrator.

► ISRAEL. We are about to see how the new government looks like. It becomes certain that Benny Gantz will have key ministries, defense, justice and communications. Although Netanyahu seemed to have defeated Gantz, at the end of the day, things look different: while Gantz “saves Israel”, Netanyahu saved himself. The right wing and religious far right bring the strongest accusations to this arrangement, as they see themselves losing essential ministries (although Netanyahu generated a volley of unimportant ministries to please them). In the process, they also lost their capacity to decisively influence the way State of Israel will look like.

► KOSOVO. The interim prime minister Albin Kurti made another false attempt to lift the tariffs on merchandise imported through Serbia, since the conditions he sets (“product documentation”) practically voids their lifting. Nevertheless, Belgrade received the news of lifting the tariffs as fake news. Hoping that the sponsors reached an agreement, we are now to see how the future Kosovo government will look like.

[1] During these exercises, Covid 19 pandemic was impacting on the West, not Russia. As a high-ranking official slipped, Russian elite thought that current Coronavirus pandemic was a curse from God against the West. No wonder this is the Russian elite real attitude, after decades of anti-western propaganda. Thus, Moscow checked its troop capabilities while its adversary is under the impact of pandemic, which raised concerns in NATO. The Kremlin not only showed its true colors and intentions, under the veil of symbolic gestures, but it lost the opportunity to take measures for Russia’s own safety. Now, Russia faces one of the highest contamination rates, and this is just a matter of time until SARS CoV 2 spreads within Russian military, especially since the preparations for May 9th parade continue. Perhaps they count on the fact that most soldiers do not belong to risk groups, and on the details that tests will not be conducted (no tests, no reported contamination!) to show the true level of Covid 19 problem. But these are just subterfuges of the power, not real measures against the pandemic.

[2] NATO voiced for preventing disinformation spread, most of such aggressive actions being detected as originating from Russia and China.

[3] On April 2nd, a Kilo class submarine left its home port Sevastopol. Worth mentioning, the United States maintained surveillance of the Black Sea area, close to Crimea, with ELINT aircraft and UASs.

[4] Ethnic Hungarian citizens in Romania benefit more liberty than Hungarians in Hungary. Thus, a critic of the prime minister (as well as a supporter) cannot possibly be arrested for this in Romania, while this is no guarantee in Hungary.

[5] Russia sent the ‘airplane with humanitarian aid’, and discussions began whether these were real aids, or they were paid for.