MAS Special ReportWeekly review

Weekly review NATO - UE LEVANT Western Balkans Black Sea Region

16 aprilie 2019 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments - WEEK 15 of 2019

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

Sursă foto: Mediafax
I. RUSSIA warns Ukraine and NATO.
II. UNITED KINGDOM. A new postponement of Brexit.
III. EUROPEAN UNION. An important step in Europe’s relations with China.
IV. TURKEY. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visits Moscow.
V. ISRAEL. Benjamin Netanyahu won the general elections.
VI. Developments to track this Week 16 of 2019.
  1.  RUSSIA warns Ukraine and NATO.

On April 10th, the Federation Council, Russian parliament’s upper chamber, issued a declaration affirming that breaching the navigation rules in the Kerch Strait by Ukrainian vessels would lead to a military conflict with Russia, where NATO might get involved: "The passing of Ukrainian ships through the Kerch Strait is not a question of the balance of force or of NATO’s presence in the Black Sea region. It is exclusively a problem of Ukraine’s compliance with the established procedures that are well-known to it and had been successfully used by it up to November 2018. Ukraine’s attempts to bypass these procedures are fraught with the risk of a military conflict between Ukraine and Russia in which NATO may be involved".

The declaration underlines that, after increasing its activity in the Baltic Sea region, NATO is now strengthening its military presence in the Black Sea region as well. It also reminds that "NATO’s support for Georgia during the tragic events in August 2008 and now for Ukraine, in particular, on November 25, 2018 when Ukrainian naval ships illegally crossed the state border of Russia in the Kerch Strait area incites the leaders of these two countries, certain about their impunity, to carry out more adventures".

This declaration responds to NATO’s decision taken at the Foreign Ministerial in Washington regarding the Alliance’s commitment in the Black Sea region. It is a warning to the decision-makers in Ukraine and Georgia, but to NATO as well. It is important to note the distinction made between NATO’s presence in the Black Sea region and NATO’s actions common with Ukraine for “forcing” the Kerch Strait: to Russia this means war[1].

By this declaration, Russia takes precaution measures by setting the red line for NATO’s presence in the Black Sea: The Alliance should not directly interfere into Russia’s hybrid war with Ukraine, although, after the Kerch Strait incident, this war is de facto open and admitted by Moscow. That is, NATO’s warships should not escort Ukrainian vessels in a new attempt to sail through the Kerch Strait. Such situation is not hypothetical, as Vice President Mike Pence has sent the message in that respect to Germany and France, which those rejected. On the other hand, neither the US, nor the Europeans have the slightest intention to get directly involved in such enterprise, which might lead not only to escalating the Ukrainian conflict, but to an incident involving NATO warships as well. However, worried by such course of action, the Kremlin is now sending this undoubtful message through the Federation Council declaration.

This political message comes on the backdrop of NATO naval activities in the Black Sea and Russia’s large-scale military response. NATO took part with a naval formation in a limited size and objective naval exercise organized by a NATO nation, Romania. NATO also conducted naval activities with warships belonging to Ukraine and Georgia. Russia responded with air, air defense and naval exercises[2] which peaked with a strategic bomber Tu 160 flight, escorted by Su 30 fighters which took off from Crimea[3]. This is a first in the Black Sea, as previously only Tu 22 and Tu 95 bombers flew here.

NATO’s announcement of a consolidated presence in the Black Sea, although limited, will generate a significant Russian reaction. Finally, the most important NATO presence in the Black Sea will be that provided by littoral nations, as much as they are capable to project force for achieving their security. As for Ukraine and Georgia, Moscow’s declaration reiterates that NATO cannot risk a conflict with Russia in their support. Therefore, Ukraine and Georgia should cautiously get out of the woods by themselves but benefitting from indirect support provided by NATO nations.


II. UNITED KINGDOM. A new postponement of Brexit.
On April 11th, the European leaders decided to grant the UK a new extension of Brexit deadline until October 31st, thus answering the British Prime-Minister Theresa May’s request. This is the second extension requested and achieved by Theresa May, the first being April 12th, but not honored by UK in absence of British Parliament’s acceptance of the agreement negotiated by Theresa May with the EU, but also in absence of any alternative course of action.
However, there is a “but”: should Britain fail to leave the EU until the end of May, the UK will organize the European elections on May 26th, otherwise having to leave the EU automatically on June 1st. Although generous regarding the delay, the Europeans force the Brits to take a decision. In fact, the European elections became a decisive element for the Brexit date, because the Brits must decide to participate or not in the elections and, depending on this decision, they will either leave on June 1st, no matter an agreement or not with the EU, or they will remain until October 31st.
Exactly for avoiding this situation, Theresa May had initially requested a new postponement until the end of June, because a Great Britain remaining in the EU would be obliged to send its representatives to the new European Parliament to be summoned on July 1st. But what is one month in this festival of uncertainty? And who in Britain would run for the glory of being a member of the European Parliament now? And saying what in the campaign?
Although they identified a common solution, the European nations did not react on the same sheet to Britain’s new request. France vividly opposed a more generous term for Brexit, revealing that the Gaulois patience and pride cannot tolerate Britain anymore, as Britain seriously blew the EU by voting the Brexit, yet showing unable to find a national agreement on the way to make Brexit happen. The British press reacted kind of in the same way, writing that the country has been humiliated by such behaviour. In fact, the UK discovers what being outside the EU really means: now Britain is just a topic of discussion within the EU and the object of EU decisions. Eventually, the German pragmatism gained momentum in the EU, and so did the need for a tidy Brexit, with an agreement between UK and EU.
The ball is again in the British court, as London must again find a solution to leave the EU adequately. Unable to persuade a majority among her party colleagues, Theresa May opened negotiations with the Labour Party, but these came with their own requests… and their own lack of unity around a practical solution.
At the end of the day, almost all options are on the table, from voting Theresa May’s agreement following an accord between the prime-minister and the labour leader (little probable, at least in the current wording), to a new referendum or snap elections. Let us not forget the Blind Brexit bogeyman, because the Brits do not seem to get busy organizing the European elections, and the June 1st deadline is not far.
On April 12th, a key member of the British Cabinet, finance minister Phillip Hammond declared that an interparty agreement regarding Brexit is possible before the deadline. However, he did not rule out that a second referendum is also possible, and he specified that such proposal will get to be debated in the Parliament, although it has little chances to pass. Under such circumstances, the final solution seems to be more and more likely to be identified by excluding the others from the list of possible courses of action. Then, the lesser bad will surface, not the best solution, and this only because the Brits cannot agree on what all this means for them, not even whether leaving EU is good, although the referendum was won by the Brexit supporters.
The European Union will likely remain open to negotiations on timeline, but firm on the departure conditions, considering that Brussels still sees that UK staying in EU is still possible. Or, at least, an arrangement close-enough to membership. This hope is alive because Britain is a strong democracy that provides stability to the EU, at least by the money Britain provides to the EU budget (after a would-be Brexit, a nation like the Czech Republic would lose 15% of the EU funds).
III. EUROPEAN UNION. An important step in Europe’s relations with China.
The annual EU – China summit held in Brussels seems to have been a success: they quit the usual nice but sterile talks, and Donald Tusk even spoke about a crucial result. On April 9th, the EU announced it reached an agreement with China regarding industrial subsidies. The Chinese Prime-Minister Li Keqiang promised that his country would no longer force foreign companies operating in China to share “sensitive know-how” when operating in China, and that he is prepared to discuss new global trading rules regarding industrial subsidies. In 2020, the EU and China will sign an agreement regarding investments, and China committed to cooperate with the EU in the process of reforming the World Trade Organization (WTO).  
Before the summit, there were rumours about slim chances of reaching a common declaration, due to disagreements between the two parties. The promise Li Keqiang made during the meeting with European leaders marks a radical departure from the previous Chinese position: Beijing yielded to consistent European requests, although this change is, very likely, also a consequence of the negotiations China is conducting with the US (China made a similar offer to the Americans).
In the common declaration, Brussels and Beijing state their commitment to lead by example the efforts to build a global economy based on multilateral rules. This comes in contrast with Trump Administration approach, because the US is in a trade war with China and belittles the WTO role.
China faces an ever firmer European Union, but one that still prefers dialogue at the expense of commercial stand-off. It is relevant here to remember the French President’s warning on the need to shed the naiveté regarding the strength of China’s economy. The Europeans began to feel frustration about China’s behaviour (promising and failing to deliver), and the last month EU member nation leaders summit focused precisely on the relations with China.
Later, on April 12th, Prime-Minister Li took part in the China – Central and Eastern European Countries summit, where eleven of the latter are EU members. During that summit, new Chinese investments in these countries were discussed, like infrastructure in Croatia and nuclear energy in Bulgaria.
For the first time, China faces a coherent opposition to its illegal trade practices, technology theft by pressure on foreign companies investing in China, as well as unfair industrial subsidies for Chinese manufacturers. Within the large economic powers US – China - EU triangle, and being under pressure from its main trade  partner - the US, Beijing uses the divide-and-rule principle: While benefitting from America’s unilateral approach, China drives a wedge between two ideologic partners – EU and US by showing understanding towards the European concerns. In the US, it is the Democrats who take China as a communist dictatorship, regardless the changes in its economy. This approach is the key to understanding China’s spectacular concession in Brussels: since Beijing is about to yield to the US, why not do it with the EU as well, thus gaining an important ally in negotiating global economic and political issues, ranging from the WTO reform to multilateral approach. However, it is still to check whether Beijing keeps its promises.
China plays the same game inside Europe, EÙ respectively, benefitting from the differences between the West – strong economies and functional democracies, and the East – countries in process of economic development that offer outstanding opportunities in infrastructure investments, energy production and industry writ large. Nevertheless, these Eastern European countries also display a “recent cultural specific”, that is usually an easy corruptible post-communist elite, open to an immediate illegal profit, for which the debts are to be paid later, on the long-run, by somebody else. These tactics has worked in Africa and other developing nations, with negative economic effects. Already, in the Balkans, the EU fears that the problems raised by the Chinese economic influence are larger than those generated by the Russian political influence.
Looking like increasing on purpose the drift from the EU, the US announced new additional tariffs against European products, especially on Airbus airplanes, and the Europeans answered they would respond adequately. Eventually, the US and EU will likely realize the consequences of playing China’s game and driving each-other   apart, including regarding their relations with China. But that will come later, because immediate results are more important for politicians in democratic nations, not strategic long-term results. Only the leaders of the communist China can afford to think long-term, although China’s already rather capitalist economy forces Beijing to adjust the perspective to closer objectives.
IV. TURKEY. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visits Moscow.

The April 8th visit paid by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Moscow focused on the purchase of Russian S-400 air defense system by Turkey, the very problem that produced the tensions between Ankara and Washington. Another topic of discussion was the situation in Syria. From the two nations’ perspective, the visit was a success. President Erdoğan declared that Turkey would continue the procedures of purchasing the S-400 system and mentioned that first deliveries would occur in July, if not earlier. During the discussions, the issue of defense industry cooperation was raised, but no further details were offered.

Facing the US threats that Turkey has to choose between the S-400 system and two American products – the F-35 fighter and the Patriot air defense system, President R.T. Erdoğan’s answer was that Turkey intends to buy a second S-400 system, and the Russians declared they were ready for this second contract. Furthermore, the Turkish Foreign Minister stated that, should the US stop delivering the F-35s, Turkey will steer towards other producers, and mentioned the Su-34 and Su-57 aircraft.

Coming immediately after the Turkish – American diplomatic stand-off during the NATO Foreign Ministerial in Washington, Erdoğan’s visit to Moscow provided a clear answer regarding the purchase of Russian S-400 systems. In these circumstances, Ankara takes the decision to admit that US will stop the delivery of the three F-35 already contracted by Turkey, as well as any Patriot air defense system from the US.

The decision is based on political and military reasons. Ankara does not trust the West anymore, respectively the US, considering that the moment has come to purchase high-tech armament from manufacturers other than American, respectively from countries displaying similar anti-western political views. These countries are more trustworthy for President Erdoğan than the western leaders. In perspective, Turkey wants to produce itself as much military equipment as possible.

From the new point of view, the Russo-Turkish warfare cooperation looks interesting. Previously, there were discussions on Turkey’s intention to access the blueprints of S-400 systems in order to later independently produce such equipment. It is difficult to believe that Russia will accept that. On the other hand, mentioning the Su-34 and Su-57 aircraft seems to be not by chance. Su-34 is a fighter-bomber supposed to replace Su-24, but the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) itself has purchased a limited number of this aircraft. The Su-57 is the Russian stealth aircraft. In this case, the Russian MoD only purchased a few aircraft of the kind, the operationalization of Su-57 is delayed, and a foreign cooperation with India failed. Russia seeks buyers both for Su-34 and for Su-57, and wishes, for the latter, a foreign cooperation meant to cover the development costs and to secure the purchase of many aircraft, which makes the program viable for the Russian Air Force as well. It cannot be ruled out that such technological and military cooperation will come true between Russia and Turkey, while Turkey gradually drifts away from the West.

Regarding Syria, an agreement has been reached. President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia and Turkey would commence common patrolling in Idlib: “We are basically entering joint patrolling, at least patrolling from two sides” (of the demarcation line). He stated that Russia and Turkey would continue the efforts to stabilize peace in Syria. Although the way this common patrolling would be conducted is yet unclear, it seems like a concession from Turkey, and establishing such combined Russo-Turkish patrolling in Idlib looks like a first step towards returning the Idlib Province to Bashar al-Assad control.

Although it did not bring anything new, and Turkey’s trajectory under Predisent Erdoğan is predictible, the visit to Moscow might mark the final cut in the S-400 / F-35 saga. The next would be to witness the US announcing the expulsion of Turkey from the F-35 program. Henceforth, Turkey’s process of drifting away from the US and other NATO nations will speed up.


V. ISRAEL. Benjamin Netanyahu won the general elections.

The parliamentary elections in Israel were clearly won by Benjamin Netanyahu, who secured his position as prime-minister by holding the necessary majority with right-wing and religious parties in a governing alliance. Likud came first, with 36 seats in the Knesset, versus the center Blue and White alliance, who got 35 seats. Although this Blue and White alliance announced it would put up an active opposition, a national union government cannot be ruled out, but one thing is sure: Benjamin Netanyahu will be the “King of Israel”.

What can explain this success? First, Netanyahu himself. Although he divided the Israeli society, he comes with an ongoing wave of achievements, from the most important, in security, to the economic achievements. Accused of being populist and corrupt, Netanyahu has the quality to have governed Israel during a period of prosperity. Additionally, Netanyahu can boast about the relations he established with world leaders, from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin. He was the right populist at the right time, the time of cynicism in politics. Being a complex and contested personality, B. Netanyahu was not shunned by the electorate for the simple reason that, regardless the circumstances, he led his nation to success.

The second explanation is that the Israeli society changed and slid much to the right. Israel founded by Jews coming from Europe with left-wing views disappeared, and the collapse of Labor Party stands to prove it. A different Israel surfaced, and it belongs to Jews born in Israel, more religious and with right-wing views.

What is going to happen? Benjamin Netanyahu will strengthen his alliance and his government with no problem, as he has more freedom of maneuver than he expected. He will likely deliver his promise to annex the West Bank colonies only partly, but he will start the process. In this respect, he is encouraged by the message sent by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who stated that such measure would not hamper the American peace plan. On the other hand, Netanyahu will need to accept the peace plan proposed by President Trump’s son-in-law, at least in the first stage, until the Palestinians reject it in full. Iran will likely remain in the center of Netanyahu’s security policy, and he is encouraged in this respect by the Trump Administration’s decision to declare Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, exactly during the election campaign in Israel[4]. In general, Israel will follow a hardline both facing the Iranian threat, respectively Hezbollah, and facing the Palestinians. But how much can the domestic policy shift to the right before it triggers adverse reaction?


VI. Developments to track this Week 16 of 2019.

  • UKRAINE. Scheduled for April 21st, the second round of presidential elections will decide the future president of Ukraine. In the polls, Vladimir Zelenski leads by far, but the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko has not said his last word. Both candidates had meetings with western leaders in the Normandy format, which reminds us that Ukraine’s most important problem is how to remain a sovereign and independent state while facing the Russian aggression. Vladimir Zelenski started to offer solutions (like the US within the Normandy format; Will Russia accept that?), and new names for official positions. The direct debate was repeatedly postponed, and the Ukrainians might get to vote, in fact, a symbol rather than the real man, who remains unknown behind the name.
  • REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. The negotiations for the new government continue, with Igor Dodon intensively consulting the Kremlin, but without getting a compromise solution, an alliance with Vladimir Plahotniuc. The Socialists presented their requests, that are oriented towards privileges for the Russian minority and increased powers for President Igor Dodon. All these appear more as being written in an office in Moscow rather than in Chişinău, because the real problems – justice, the captured state, the theft of the billion, are elegantly avoided. The offer recently made to the ACUM cannot be accepted by this democratic alliance: it would vouch the rise of anti-democratic forces (Dodon’s), without diminishing the power of other non-democratic forces, but at least sovereign, those of Plahotniuc’s. Igor Dodon speaks about snap elections, but V. Plahotniuc has not had his last word yet.
  • ITALY. The extreme-right attempts to form a European axis. Mario Salvini invited his far-right colleagues in Austria, Finland and Denmark to launch the call to a joint European far-right. Albeit on the current wave of populism and anti-migration policy, it is hard to believe that such alliance will have success. The only thing uniting  them is the fight against migration, and this does not make a political platform, being far from the European values, but it is only a radical solution to a temporary problem. The question is whether this alliance will expand, will gain momentum, and will gain weight after the European parliamentarian elections. Then, there will be a problem. Notably, this far-right alliance is an alliance of far-right parties from western Europe, while the easterners (anti-migration with… no immigrants) are not summoned; the Polish conservatives did not respond yet to Salvini’s call.      
  • BELARUS. The Russian economic pressure on Belarus increased when Moscow blocked the import of some Belarussian food products. President Aleksandr Lukashenko reacted by threatening to block the Russian oil transit through his country. It looks like the Kremlin wants the dictator in Minsk to renounce quicker its independence and to complete the state union project, in fact integrating Belarus into Russia. For the moment, there is just a beginning and Lukashenko’s typical reaction, but if the Russian streak of sanctions continues, there will be something entirely different. We would reach the situation where Belarus becomes the next crisis, and Lukashenko tries to escape Moscow’s embrace through better economic and political relations with the West, while the Kremlin will chastise this interference, a good pretext for an action in force.

[1] Although after the previous incident, when Russia’s actions were an act of war, Moscow behaved as having arrested a bunch of smugglers trespassing its border, rather than Ukrainian vessels and sailors whom Russian military fired upon, although, according to the international laws, the Ukrainians were sailing in Crimea’s territorial waters, Ukrainian territory.

[2] The Russian warships and reconnaissance aircraft were present in the NATO exercise area.

[3] The Russian strategic aviation flight over the Back Sea was later announced by Russia, and there was no confirmation by NATO regarding the detection or interception thereof.

[4] Declaring the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization makes the US position in the Middle East more complicated. It is a reality that IRGC created and supported terrorist organizations, but it is, however, an Iranian state institution. Although it launched numerous threats, Iran will never act openly, it has enough problems already and it fears to provide any casus belli to a US administration determined to confront the Tehran regime. After the Iranian answer regarding the US military, we have the question whether the international law framework is still valid, since, given a conflict situation, each side would consider the opponent as being a terrorist organization. Practically, this measure will have economic consequences, as the IRGC took over a large portion of Iranian economy and became more than the second Iran’s military and the state’s main repressive institution serving the autocratic regime in Tehran.