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05 mai 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 18 of 2020)

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

I. EUROPE. Coronavirus pandemic. II. RUSSIA. Power play on the background of domestic crisis signals. III. RUSSIA / UKRAINE. Foreign ministers meet in Normandy format. IV. KOSOVO. Constitutional Court blocks the appointment of a new prime minister. V. Developments to track this Week 19 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

English version by Mircea Mocanu

I. EUROPE. Coronavirus pandemic.

Worldwide, the pandemic settled, meaning that the number of daily contaminations remained rather stable. However, we are not out of the woods yet: although there is no exponential growth anymore, there is still a growth. Romania does not stand out, it has a stable growth, yet somewhat high (300 cases a day, average). Although Romanian heath system is no longer threatened to be highly stressed, we cannot speak about relaxation yet. Remarkably is that we can already help the Republic of Moldova citizens.

While part of western Europe experiences exiting isolation in order to limit the economic crisis, many nations in Central Europe show a stable situation and cautiously  prepare for normalization. Britain makes an exception here; it applied a risky approach and now pays the price. The East remained with a high growth, especially Belarus and Russia.  In these countries, the contamination rate is high, and the doubling period remains low: Russia has 10.5 days, and Belarus 11 days. Surprisingly, Serbia adds to that group, with 11 days (something went wrong in Belgrade, which appeared to have crossed the bridge, but it turned back to the danger zone), and Kosovo with 7.5 days (another unexpected negative development).

In Central Europe, there are two groups of countries: 1) countries with a still significant doubling rate: Ukraine (16 days), Bulgaria (22.5 days), Bosnia and Herzegovina (23 days), Sweden (25.5 days), Republic of Moldova (25.5 days) and Hungary (28.5 days);  2) countries with a stable growth rate, where the doubling rate is no longer relevant: Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, Greece and Turkey. Notably, some countries returned to the worse category after having apparently passed the peak (Kosovo, Serbia, even Bulgaria). Probably the cause is the number and quality of tests and the way this process was conducted (which prevented quick identification of contamination hotbeds).

For Romania’s neighbors, but also for other countries with a stable growth pace, we have now new indicators: the pressure on the health system (number of contaminations in 100,000 inhabitants) and the social trauma (number of deaths in 100,000 inhabitants): 1) the neighbors, where the growth rate is still significant: Serbia (134.1; 2.7), Republic of Moldova (114.3; 3.5), Hungary (30.1; 3.4), Ukraine (25.6; 0.6) and Bulgaria (22.7; 1); 2) countries where the growth rate no longer shows a significant rate: Turkey (151.1; 4.1), Czech Republic (73; 2.3), Romania (65.4; 4), Poland (35.2; 1.7), Slovakia (25.8; 0.4) and Greece (24.4; 1.3). Let us notice that in Sweden, where no mobility limitation measures were taken, there are concerning values (216.8; 26.2), which indicates that the “open strategy” has a high price, perhaps too high.

One can say that, in our neck of the woods, only Hungary and Romania see the light at the end of the tunnel, with a settling contamination rate, hoping that the two parameters, number of contaminations and number of deaths, will no longer grow significantly. But there is danger in Serbia and Ukraine. After beginning to help in the Republic of Moldova, Romania should probably do that also in these two other neighbors, of course with no ethnical conditions, and following the approval and coordination by the authorities.


II. RUSSIA. Power play on the background of domestic crisis signals.

The pandemic is rapidly spreading in Russia, although several response measures were taken[1]: the growth rate is high (low doubling rate, only 10.5 days), contamination rate is rather high (85.9 in 100,000 inhabitants), but the number of deaths is low: 0.8 (compared to Romania, where the number of contaminated people in 100,000 inhabitants is about the same, in Russia, the number of deaths in 100,000 inhabitants is five times lower). Specific to Russia, is that political and economic effects are significant and seem to be long-standing, and they overlap upon a complicated economic situation and a peculiar political situation. With persisting problems (a non-competitive economy subjected to sanctions, and the plummeting oil price), the Kremlin lacks financial means to cope with the economic crisis. Moscow’s programs show low value – the economic recovery programs benefit only 0.3% of the GDP (which is peanuts, compared with the “communist” programs launched in the EU and the United States). Social effects are immediate, and protests began and might increase (however, short of threatening the power). Nevertheless, these protests partly void the social contract where, in exchange for a minimal living standard, the Russians accepted to see the political and economic power usurped by the Chekist-oligarch regime in Moscow.

Against this backdrop, Vladimir Putin warned the population, already concerned about the pandemic fallout, that “other dangers linger about”. Therefore, the Kremlin decided military actions in form of several provocative flights by strategic bombers in NATO nations’ air responsibility zones. Remarkably, NATO avoided to continue military exercises close to Russia[2] and it seemed Russia was going to do the same, but Moscow failed to replicate such attitude. So, Russian strategic bombers conducted a complex mission in April 28 and 29. This mission, probably simulating air-launched cruise missile attacks, generated an adequate response by NATO, as well as by Finland and Sweden.

On April 29th, Russian strategic bombers with nuclear warhead cruise missile capability conducted flights over the Baltic Sea and the Arctic Ocean.

Two Russian Tu 160 strategic bombers flew over the Baltic Sea in areas of air responsibility of Finland, Poland, Sweden and Denmark, which led to emergency take-off by aircraft of these countries. These aircraft intercepted and escorted the Russian bombers. Russian Defense Ministry announced that “Russia has flown two nuclear-capable Tu-160 strategic bombers over the neutral waters of the Baltic Sea... The flight was routine in nature and strictly adhered to international airspace regulations. Russia carries out similar training flights over the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as over the Black and Baltic Seas on a regular basis, a policy some NATO members regard as unhelpful sabre-rattling”. 

Previously, on April 28th, two Russian Tu 22M3 strategic bombers conducted four-hour flights above Barents Sea and Sea of Norway waters (in the Arctic), and they were intercepted by Norwegian aircraft. Also, Russian fighters conducted missions over the Baltic Sea, where it simulated attacks against naval targets. Although Moscow did not announce, the mission in the Baltic Sea also included, very likely, an A 50 aircraft deployed a couple of days before from a Russian base in the area.

The chronology displays the following sequence: 1) An A 50 aircraft is present in the Baltic Sea area (this is the Russian AWACS); 2) on April 28th, two Russian Tu 22M3 aircraft fly over the Barents Sea and Sea of Norway; 3) on April 29th, two Russian Tu 160 strategic bombers fly over the Baltic Sea.

Beyond the political signal that Russian strategic aviation can conduct attacks with strategic missiles against NATO targets, even during the pandemic, there are several strategic and tactical details. At operational-strategic level, the same double attack was exercised: flanking by the Baltic Sea (direction West) and by the Arctic (direction North-West), which was rehearsed during the Zapad 2017 strategic exercise. At tactical level, generating surprise was exercised: usually, Tu 22M3 flew over the Baltic Sea and Tu 160, with a larger range, flew over the Arctic. The latest swap, conducted in presence of Russian fighters above the Baltic Sea, as well as chronology, show that tactical surprise was exercised, and adversary reaction was studied, including the coordination between NATO nations and NATO-friendly countries in the area (Finland and Sweden). It happened that NATO sent an AWACS on April 28th in the Scandinavian area, and aircraft of several NATO and non-NATO nation scrambled to intercept.

From a political point of view, the question is why did the Kremlin make this provocative decision? Perhaps Putin must continue the narrative that “The West threatens Russia”, especially now, when Russia, in full Coronavirus crisis, is, quite visibly, not threatened by anybody! This narrative is an essential part of the ideological scaffolding allowing power usurpation by the Chekists (in Russia, there are no free and fair elections since Putin acceded to power). Concretely, if the Kremlin stops creating problems (aggressions, occupations, hybrid wars, military provocations or political assassinations), nobody notices Russia, a relatively non-important economic and technologic nation, at global scale. Therefore, Putin decided to resume provocative military activities. This political need will be beefed up if the economic crisis in Russia produces negative political and social reactions against the power (of course, the West would be to blame again). An additional element will likely cause such provocative attitude in the short run: Russia’s military spending can no longer maintain current rates, considering that the economic crisis might strike hard[3]. Russia spends $65.1 billions for defense, compared to United States’ $732 billion spending. This comparison is necessary since Russia presents itself as a “great power”. Such spending is a huge burden for Russian economy, that is 3.9% of Russia’s GDP. It is worth mentioning that Russia has a low GDP per capita: 11,610 USD/capita (lower than Romania’s 13,900 USD/capita), and that oil price will remain low for a while. How will the Kremlin react to this situation? A less aggressive attitude would be nice, but, unfortunately, the above presented power play does not support such course of action.


III. RUSSIA / UKRAINE. Foreign ministers meet in Normandy format.

The reunion did not pan out, because no steps in implementing decisions were made. Decisions of the latest reunion in Paris were supposed to be reviewed, but, in fact, there were more setbacks instead, except for the symbolic prisoner exchange.

Before this reunion, on April 22nd, in Minsk, Ukrainian representatives firmly rejected the proposition of introducing, in Ukrainian Constitution, stipulations about a special status for the separatist region in Donbass. Instead, Ukrainian representatives requested the implementation of Paris Summit stipulations, firstly, cease-fire on the contact line. On April 30th, the (video-) reunion of Normandy Format nations’ foreign ministers took place. It unfolded soon after events on the contact line in Donbass, where both sides (Russia’s separatists and the Ukrainians) opened fire, which resulted in victims (on April 28th). Worth noting, the Ukrainians are interested in maintaining a transparent and permanent dialogue conducted, as often as possible, in Normandy format meetings. The reason is that this forum forces Russia into restraint, since Moscow needs to save face when at the table with Berlin and Paris, and refrain from increasing military aggression at the contact line when such reunions are upcoming.

The reunion agenda was presented by the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba: 1) reviewing the implementation of decisions taken in Paris (just an exchange of prisoners occurred); 2) identifying causes for failing to implement those decisions;        3) identifying solutions for current problems, including by intensifying discussions in the framework of Trilateral Working Group / TWG, which will directly involve in finding and implementing newly found solutions. It is worth mentioning that, after the new discussion format was established (with representatives of Ukraine, separatists and the OSCE) in the TWG framework, nothing budged because the separatists rushed to request recognition as legal representatives of Luhansk and Donetsk regions. This way, they promoted the idea of a special status, while Ukraine refused this approach and promoted debates on concrete problems, such as contact line disengagement.

After the conference, Sergey Lavrov announced that, "out of nine points of the Paris summit, only one was implemented, and even that one - only partially" (the prisoner exchange), and blamed Kyiv for not implementing the agreement. Lavrov also announced that a new prisoner exchange was discussed (Kuleba highlighted that we are “still far from 'all for all' prisoner swaps with Russia”, which is what Ukraine wants).        Lavrov reiterated the importance of Minsk Agreement key stipulations regarding the need for granting a special status to separatist regions. He accused Kyiv of refusing to open direct dialogue with separatist leaders, which would legitimize them and would degrade Ukraine to the level of equal footing with the separatists. Should that happen, Russia would certainly provide “guarantor and mediator” services, dodging the role of part of the conflict, as it truly acts. We have seen this movie in all frozen conflicts that Russia preserves in the former Soviet space. Lavrov pointed that no progress was made in implementing the “Steinmeier formula”, mentioning that such approach would establish a direct link between granting the special status and organizing elections in separatist regions. Of course, the Ukrainians want the opposite: first, Kyiv wants the Russians out from Donbass and Kyiv take full control of its territory, then elections, and only after that establishing a special status in the region. Lavrov defended the separatists, affirming that accusations that separatists have ended OSCE Mission observers’ access  to the region are “politicized accusations”, as the separatists only took the measures requested for fighting the Coronavirus.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was firm and eyed the developments on the ground: “The coronavirus epidemic must not be used as an excuse to hinder the work of international observers monitoring the ceasefire in force in Eastern Ukraine”. Heiko Maas requested unlimited access of OSCE Mission observers in the area. He stated that the four parties decided: the need to continue prisoner exchanges; measures to make sure Ukraine can pay retirement pensions for seniors in the separatist region; opening new border-crossing points (currently, only five for the whole 500-kilometer-long contact line). It seems that Lavrov’s problems is that the time of Steinmeier diplomacy is gone. That approach was at least tolerant to Moscow, and the Merkel – Maas tandem is driven by facts, not by Lavrov’s diplomatic promises. 

Practically, the reunion had no important steps to review, Kyiv was not prepared to accept the political concessions requested by Moscow, and the Kremlin was not able to reduce military pressure, as Paris and Berlin request. The reason for the latter is that Russia would lose its sole argument that Moscow can use to reach its goal against Kyiv[4]: bringing Ukraine back into its sphere of influence by controlling Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policy through the separatists in Donbass (who should be granted a special status stipulated in Ukraine’s Constitution, by which separatists would control Kyiv without being controlled by Kyiv: the old story in Transnistria, the whole is controlled by the part, that part being, already, de facto, Russia’s, or, in the plastic expression ‘the tail wagging its dog’).

The question is not whether progress can be made, there is nowhere such progress can come from, but the question is what path will the Kremlin chose, being submitted to domestic economic and social pressure? Will the Kremlin continue its hitherto policy, or it would make concessions? Anyway, concessions in Ukraine will be the last, because, opposite to Libya or Syria, the aggression in Donbass is strictly necessary to Putin’s regime for justifying its very existence, its current policy and ideology.


IV. KOSOVO. Constitutional Court blocks the appointment of a new prime minister.

Kosovar Constitutional Court admitted discussing the request submitted by Vetëvendosje party and its interim prime minister Albin Kurti, against president Hashim Thaci’s decree appointing a new prime minister Avdullah Hoti (from the Democratic League of Kosovo / LDK). Had the vote been conducted today, Avdullah Hoti would have obtained the office, benefitting a majority formed by his party, LDK, which was joined by other parties, ranging from some of the “UCK old guard” to the Serbian party. Thus, the presidential decree ending the political crisis in Kosovo is suspended until the Constitutional Court discusses and decides upon it.

After March 25th, when Kurti government fell as result of a non-confidence vote initiated by its old ally, the LDK, Hashim Thaci announced he would appoint as prime minister the politician proving to be able of forming a majority. And this was Avdullah Hoti of LDK, a politician with economic education. The decision was taken after April 30th, when his party, LDK, had submitted to president Thaci a letter where LDK leader Isa Mustafa announced that LDK was able to form a parliamentary majority, and proposed Avdullah Hoti for prime minister. LDK specified the parties ready to form the new majority: The Alliance for Future Kosovo (of the “UCK old guard”), Kosovo Social Democratic Initiative, New Kosovo Alliance and the Serbian List (the Serbs’ party, supported by Belgrade). What glues these parties together? Nothing, except for agreeing about discussions between presidents Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vučić regarding a solution leading to Kosovo recognition by Serbia after an exchange of territories (those inhabited by Serbs living north of Ibar River in exchange for Serbia’s Preševo Valley, inhabited by ethnic Albanians).

The political struggle between president Hashim Thaci and Albin Kurti continues, the latter supporting new elections with the hope that Vetëvendosje will be again the dominant party. However, Vetëvendosje has no chance to form a majority in the parliament, in absence of its only possible ally, LDK, which is now forced to ditch the alliance with Vetëvendosje.

In fact, there is not only a political dispute among political groups in Kosovo, divided by the U.S.-proposed solution, which is already agreed by presidents of Kosovo and Serbia. It is also a dispute between the two Priština’s sponsors, the United States and Germany. Berlin (not most Europeans) oppose a solution with territory exchange between Serbia and Kosovo, although this seems to be an enduring solution, realistic and fair enough, although of questionable ethics. The Constitutional Court solution will come on May 29th and will likely reflect who has the upper hand on it, both domestic and from abroad (naturally, Vetëvendosje would lose, Albin Kurti resorted to a purely formal ruse). Thus, in the dispute between the two western sponsors, the United States and Germany, both Serbia and Kosovo lose, and Russia wins, because Moscow has the possibility to continue its policy in the Western Balkans by supporting Serbia “against the West”, in fact, by strengthening its control on Belgrade.


V. Developments to track this Week 19 of 2020.

► HUNGARY / ROMANIA. A series of rough accusations on the political stage in Romania caused a reaction by Budapest. This was surprisingly restrained, especially since, in the grave accusations made in Bucharest, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s name was explicitly stated. Used to see tough stances by Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and by Viktor Orbán, with exaggerated declarations, their reactions were oddly moderate: both of them called for restraint and respect (probably suggesting that the ethnic Hungarian minority would not benefit respect, and Budapest raises as protector). Remarkably, although Viktor Orbán was accused of being directly involved, he stated he would not “raise the glove”. Especially since he “was not well aware what was going on” (this is odd too, knowing that the best-informed people in Hungary and Romania are the two leaders). This behavior might find an explanation using the metaphor of “he who is without sin cast the first stone”. Another explanation might be in form of appeasement coming from elsewhere. Anyway, hoping that an escalation of tensions between the two nations is not intended, but good relations and mutual respect are fostered instead, let us continue to watch was happens.

► EUROPEAN UNION / WESTERN BALKANS. During the upcoming meeting with representatives of Western Balkan nations, the EU is to announce the allotment of funds for mitigating the economic crisis, after having provided fonds for fighting Coronavirus. It is interesting to watch the reaction by Aleksandar Vučić, who had criticized the EU, forgetting about the hundreds of millions Euros previously granted by Brussels for modernizing Serbia’s health system. Also, one should see the reaction by Milorad Dodik, who has ditched the threat with Republika Srpska secession when the EU is busy with fighting Coronavirus. He now settled for a large autonomy instead. 

► CZECH REPUBLIC / RUSSIA. Russian “death commandos” are suspicioned of reaching Prague. Czech authorities have announced they provide protection for three Czech citizens, whence the Mayor of Prague and the Mayor of a district in Prague. These local officials are supposed to be in danger after taking administrative decisions disturbing the Kremlin: removing a statue and renaming a public square. Czech authorities announced that a Russian operative armed with poison (ricin) arrived in Prague with diplomatic passport and is assigned to attack the two mayors. The Kremlin might be accused of state terrorism, considering that the Czech authorities have evidence that Moscow intended to execute ordinary western citizens in their homes, precisely for taking administrative decisions - true, with political touch. The relations between the two countries will quickly go south. Also, Moscow’s rection toward the Netherlands is worth watching, after new evidence was produced in the MH17 airplane downing case: the name of a Russian KGB officer was mentioned, and he was three steps far from Putin in the chain of command. 

[1] Russia is severely impacted by the Coronavirus crisis, despite (limited and late) measures to restrict mobility. Politically, the authoritarian regime unity of command was breached in order to protect President Putin, the regime symbolic figure. He monitors the situation, gives directions, makes announcements, but does not assume concrete measures. The struggle against Coronavirus is coordinated, at national level, by Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, and the economic measures are decided by the government. In the nick of time, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin got the virus, and the reins were taken by Putin’s man in the government, Andrey Belousov. He is now the one to draft the economic recovery plan, and he is supportive to state intervention in economy, in favor of state  capitalism. Militarily, there is an apparent surprise: Russian military does not interfere in solving the Coronavirus crisis. This reality is covered by an effective propaganda: Russian military doctors working in… Serbia and Italy are displayed! However, opposite to the westerners, Russian military are not massively involved in fighting Coronavirus. Russian Defense Ministry keeps announcing they are building new hospitals for the… military, but those are filmed empty, while ambulances continue to cue in front of overcrowded civilian hospitals, and senior medical college students were mobilized in hospitals. Perhaps a high number of contaminated soldiers caused such decision, which also reveals lack of solidarity with civilian population.

[2] Elements in the exercise which intended to check the trans-Atlantic response to an aggression from the East were downgraded and conducted far from Russia. In such exercise, six Canadian soldiers lost their lives, during a recent helicopter accident above the Mediterranean Sea.

[3] Beyond the fall in oil price and other structural problems, economic failure in Russia has a managerial component, and Igor Sechin is a good example for the way a poker player leads the country, when a chess player set of skills is required. The arrogance of Chekists, who completely control Russian economy, has ideological roots common with Communist activists, who believed they knew every trade without substantial studies. Instead, they had, in fact, no solid education, only the ill faith of manipulating, imposture and taking arbitrary decisions.

[4] The narrative with “Russians oppressed in Donbass”, “Ukrainian fascists”, “tractor drivers” in “Novaya Rossiya” who build tanks and even use tanks for fighting, “NATO military aggression” and “Poroshenko starting a war he knows he will lose” are just bed time stories for whoever is ready to believe them.