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Weekly review NATO - UE LEVANT Western Balkans Black Sea Region

14 mai 2019 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments - WEEK 19 of 2019

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

Sursă foto: Mediafax


I. EUROPEAN UNION. The European Council Summit in Sibiu, Romania.


III. WESTERN BALKANS. Presidential elections in Northern Macedonia. Coup d’état trial in Montenegro.

IV. TURKEY. The situation goes south.

V. Developments to track this Week 20 of 2019.


I. EUROPEAN UNION. The European Council Summit in Sibiu, Romania.

The Sibiu Declaration at the end of European Council summit of May 9th was generous, but it lacks visible effects, at least for the near future. Reaffirming the unity based on European Union fundamental values is a common denominator easy for all member state leaders to support, it is what is called a low hanging fruit. However, the devil is in detail, respectively in what each leader means by unity, especially since short-lived interests are in play, and they are so important and urgent for the politicians. Complicated problems, ranging from the future EU budget to migration, were left to be debated after the European elections[1].

The Summmit held in Sibiu / Romania was designed to draw the EU future after the UK departure. Nevertheless, in absence of Brexit as a valis topic, the Europeans resorted to this elegant and non-binding reaffirmation of unity. Stunningly, unity is in fact, the most necessary asset for the EU right now, but only provided that the leaders, the elites, and the electorate really take this seriously. It is obvious that unity doesn’t happen, and this is dangerous for both the EU and the nations playing the anti-European card.

The Sibiu Declaration includes essential elements for the Europeans’ future, especially for the caboose (now that would be Romania, in the European race), and it is a guarantee that EU membership will defend both individual interests, as citizens, and collective interests, as country.

Since the Sibiu Declaration is so important, here it is in full, for your convenience:  

”We, the Leaders of the European Union, have gathered in Sibiu to discuss and look ahead to our common future.

In a few weeks, Europeans will elect their representatives in the European Parliament, forty years after they first exercised this fundamental right. A Europe re-united in peace and democracy is but one of many achievements. Since its inception, the European Union, driven by its values and freedoms, has provided stability and prosperity across Europe, within and beyond its borders. Over the years, it has grown into a major player on the international scene. Gathering around half a billion citizens, with a competitive single market, it is a leader in worldwide trade, and shapes global politics.

We reaffirm our belief that united, we are stronger in this increasingly unsettled and challenging world. We recognise our responsibility as Leaders to make our Union stronger and our future brighter, while recognising the European perspective of other European States. That is why today we unanimously agree on 10 commitments that will help us live up to that responsibility:

We will defend one Europe – from East to West, from North to South. Thirty years ago, millions of people fought for their freedom and for unity and brought down the Iron Curtain, which had divided Europe for decades. There is no place for divisions that work against our collective interest.

We will stay united, through thick and thin. We will show each other solidarity in times of need, and we will always stand together. We can and we will speak with one voice.

We will always look for joint solutions, listening to each other in a spirit of understanding and respect.

We will continue to protect our way of life, democracy and the rule of law. The unalienable rights and the fundamental freedoms of all Europeans were hard fought and will never be taken for granted. We will uphold our shared values and principles enshrined in the Treaties.

We will deliver where it matters most. Europe will continue to be big on big matters. We will continue to listen to the concerns and hopes of all Europeans, bringing the Union closer to our citizens, and we will act accordingly, with ambition and determination.

We will always uphold the principle of fairness, whether it be in the labor market, in welfare, in the economy or in the digital transformation. We will further reduce disparities between us, and we will always help the most vulnerable in Europe, putting people before politics.

We will give ourselves the means to match our ambitions. We will provide the Union with the means necessary to attain its objectives and carry through its policies.

We will safeguard the future for the next generations of Europeans. We will invest in young people and build a Union fit for the future, able to cope with the most pressing challenges of the 21st century.

We will protect our citizens and keep them safe by investing in our soft and hard power and by working with our international partners.

Europe will be a responsible global leader. The challenges we face today affect us all. We will continue working with our partners in the world to uphold and develop the rules-based international order, to make the most of new trading opportunities and to jointly tackle global issues such as preserving our environment and fighting climate change.

The decisions we take will follow the spirit and letter of these 10 commitments. The Union of today is stronger than that of yesterday and we want to continue to build its strength for tomorrow. This is our commitment for the future generations. This is the spirit of Sibiu and of a new Union at 27 ready to embrace its future as one.”

Although reaffirming the Union fundamental is important, avoiding or postponing the debates on concrete problems that EU faces shows large inside gaps and Europeans’ reluctance to discuss issues before they are forced to do it when problems turn into crises. Nevertheless, individual statements by European leaders welcomed in Sibiu revealed these differences, as well as conflicting views on pressing EU problems: North-South differences (before the Italian economic time-bomb blows-up), West-East differences (on rule of law), migration differences, as well as the global economic conundrum (the storm clouds of a trade war with the US, or the German – French differences regarding giant IT company taxation).  

Anyway, the European Parliament elections are less than two weeks away, and negotiations on future European Commission positions alreadt started. The elections are crucial, and they can put down the populist / far-right grouping upsurge, or they can open a path to its confirmation as a relevant power in the EU Parliament, i.e. in the European politics. We will likely witness this grouping’s influence on European decisions, but not a significant dominance. Austria can be an example in this regard, as the Austrian right wing diminishes the far-right exaggerations.

For Romania, the Sibiu Summit went well, and this is the best we could have hoped for in current circumstances, when Bucharest lacks a clear-cut opinion on its posture as a EU member state, that is what common national interests we want to promote. This was also put forth by European leaders present in Sibiu: from Macron to Juncker, they were critical on the current leadership of Romania. Anyway, the Declaration itself underlines that Romania has a certain future as long as the EU survives, and the EU will likely endure.



Russo-American relations continued to worsen, with upcoming crises shaping the antagonism. Fortunately for our neighborhood, the latest is as far as Venezuela.

While the Kremlin’s position is predictable (opposition to US interests, wherever it is possible), Washington’s position is, in the same time, clear and unclear: it is clear considering America’s general institutional functionality, but unclear considering President Trump’s stance towards Russia. The Venezuelan crisis generated a top tension in the bilateral relations, with irreconcilable interests: the US wants Maduro to leave at any cost, while the Kremlin is decided to continue supporting him. To any move by Washington, Moscow responded timely and effectively, by extended the life of a regime that no longer has anything but the absolute power in a bankrupt country. Maybe the future meeting in Sochi between the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Russian President Vladimir Putin will bring necessary clarifications.

Hopeful and confusing in the same time, the May 3rd telephone conversation between V. Putin and D. Trump seems to have brought nothing new to the table, although the US president has described it as “very productive”. The two leaders had an exchange of views on important problems – arms control, Venezuela, Ukraine, North Korea, and the Mueller Report. The same Donald Trump who stated that “Russia must leave Venezuela” found now an appeasing tone regarding Moscow’s behavior. It looks positive that the perspective agreement on strategic nuclear armament was discussed, although nothing clear was established here either. Some of Trump’s optimistic statements were disproved: the statements regarding a wider and more comprehensive agreement on nuclear weapons to include China were declined by Chinese officials.

As most discussions between D. Trump and V. Putin, nothing is clear until the Trump Administration acts along the traditional American policy lines, by countering the statements, even President Trump’s promises. Thus, D. Trump’s declaration that Russian President Vladimir Putin "is not looking to get involved in Venezuela other than he'd like to see something positive happen for Venezuela" is as encripted as quickly rejected by the events in that country. This statement is also denied by declarations of the very White House spokesman: "all options continue to be on the table" regarding Venezuela, which blatantly opposes the Russian Foreign Minister warnings that the US should refrain from military actions against the Maduro regime.

However, the most clear American positions regarding Russia were voiced by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, before and after the meeting in Helsinki with Sergei Lavrov, and in view of Pompeo’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Sochi. He stated that he would talk to the Russian leader about the "aggressive and destabilizing actions" Moscow has taken around the world.

In all this confusion there are some bedrock facts. Both the US and Russia’s actions, as well as the declarations by officials responsible for the implementation of foreign policy in both countries point to an obvious worsening of bilateral relations. This is short of a direct confrontation, but conducted through indirect clashes by proxies, in various theaters. President Trump’s attitude, suspiciously friendly toward V. Putin, still offers an advantage: it is a communication channel and a personal relation, which is important in calming the tensions. It is worth mentioning that President Trump exacerbated more problems, bringing them to the brink of crucial decisions. However he did not offer a solution to these problems other than the adversary’s capitulation, which is hard to achieve: this week, Iran joined North Korea and Venezuela in this string of ongoing crises. A tactic of overstating turned into a strategy with uncertain results. In this environment of uncertainty, it is worth noticing that the US attitude towards NATO and towards Romania remained unchanged, and the deployment of an air force detachment to Romania is the most recent proof of that[2].

In Russia, the Victory Day parade in the Red Square brought nothing special. As usual, President Vladimir Putin reminded the important role the Soviet Union had in defeating the nazism. He mentioned only 1945 as consequence, not the 1989, which provides him with legitimacy for all actions in the post-Soviet area, respectively in Europe writ large. Russia’s political isolation did not pass unnoticed during the parade, the only high-ranking official being the former president of Kazakhstan.

In the military field, no news: the same symbol Russian units with modern equipment and the same smile on the face of soldiers, meant to display a high morale (the smile seemed a bit fake this year, since the enthusiasm after so many Pyrrhic victories is rather gone, and day by day realities remain, not very generous in providing optimism). The Air Force was not showcased, allegedly for weather reasons, but there are questions. As for the Russian Navy, recent changes at high level suggest that things are not going well, but not too bad either, since the promotion mechanism went business as usual (There is also a new commander of the Black Sea Fleet).

There were also clarifications regarding the relations with Ukraine. Moscow’s threat about extending Russian citizenship to all Ukrainians did not come true (with limited exceptions). However, it provided the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the opportunity to clarify his position: Russia and Ukraine do not have, in current conditions, nothing in common but the border, while the “brothership” issue is not today’s interest. For the moment, Moscow did not escalate the tensions, and this is the most important fact. Letting the Donbass conflict simmer would lead to stabilizing Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, which is little likely, although, for the moment, it is calm and silence in the field. The Kremlin will likely transfer the center of gravity of its actions first to diplomaticy, counting on the weaknesses of a newcomer president now leading a nation in economic crisis, and then, in perspective, in a political plane.   


III. WESTERN BALKANS. Presidential elections in Northern Macedonia.  Coup d’état trial in Montenegro.

This past week, two apparently minor events sealed the trans-Atlantic path for two tiny nations in the Balkans. In Northern Macedonia, a new president supported by the governing Socialists was elected, and this offers the guarantee that this country got over the name-change moment and steps firmly on its trans-Atlantic path. In Montenegro, the coup d’état culprits were convicted, and this nation’s trans-Atlantic path is no longer hindered by foreign intervention – Russia’s. Of course, the difficult part is still ahead, and this is to implement reforms meant to integrate these countries into NATO and provide them with a European Union perspective.

The presidential elections in Northern Macedonia were won, on May 6th, by Stevo Pendarovski, the representative of the Socialists now in power. In the second tour of elections, he defeated Gordana Siljanovska-Dankova, who represented the nationalists – VRMO. Besides the economic problems (20% unemployment), the main issue was Northern Macedonia’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic structures.

Although the president has no executive powers in Northern Macedonia, he holds responsibilities that can hamper the government and the legislative in implementing decisions. This was highlighted recently, when the Socialists reached the necessary votes in the parliament to change the name of the country, but the nationalist president was able to temporary block the procedures. Important as well, the voting turnout was 46.6%, which is above the required 40%. A turnout below that threshold would have triggered a destabilizing political process.

Now, the path is open for Northern Macedonia’s integration into NATO and the European Union, provided the Socialists pursue necessary reforms. They should also avoid any authoritarian trends, which are so widespread in the Balkans.

The trial of Montenegro coup d’état. On May 9th, the Montenegrin High Court of Justice convicted a group of fourteen individuals (Russian, Serbian and Montenegrin nationals) for establishing a criminal group aimed at organizing a coup in October 2016. That action was intended to change the country’s leadership and prevent this nation from joining NATO.

The two Russian citizens, probably GRU agents, were convicted in absentia, as they managed to flee to Serbia. Nine Serbian citizens were also convicted and three Montenegrins, whence two of the latter were leaders of opposition political parties.

So, a transnational criminal group organized a coup d’état under Moscow’s supervision in view of achieving a Russian foreign policy objective by illegal use of force, and such group was brought to justice. This failure to prevent a nation’s integration into NATO is certainly an important failure for the Kremlin: for the first time since 1989, after having conducted numerous illegal actions, elegantly called “hybrid”, from coup d’états to unclaimed wars, Russia faces the situation to see its actions chastised in a legal framework.

In its turn, Serbia will have a hard time to shed the image caused by the role given by Russia - that of a platform to launch subversive actions in Montenegro. This role did not bring Belgrade any advantage, as Serbia’s interest is not to uselessly strain its relations with a country which is probably most closely linked to.

At intelligence / subversion activity level, GRU suffered an important blow, larger than the Skripal case, because in Montenegro and Northern Macedonia we have large scale operations with strategic outcomes: both nations now become NATO nations.    

For Montenegro, this is no celebration time yet. If Milo Djukanović, the authoritarian and corrupt leader of this country, does not implement necessary reforms to democratize Montenegro, everything is futile. Anyway, NATO and the EU will take care to keep Montenegro on the strait and narrow, difficult but safely, towards a functional democraticy. The process is obvious for all Eastern Europe, although the reactions against this process are more visible than the process itself. The West knows that integrating and democratizing Eastern Europe, respectively the Balkans, is a prerequisite to stabilize the whole continent, and it will not let go. This was obvious in Montenegro, where a battle has been won by the West, at the expense of the aggressive Russia.

The “sanitary corridor” around Serbia / Kosovo problems and Bosnia and Hezegovina just tightened up, as all their neighboring countries gradually become NATO member nations, with a EU perspective as well. Although these countries face significant political and economic problems, the security issues are clear now, with the West winning a geopolitical victory. The remaining problems, the future of Serbia and Kosovo, as well as stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina, are much larger than the two already solved security issues, Northern Macedonia and Montenegro.  


IV. TURKEY. The situation goes south.

Three events marked Turkey’s evolution towards autocracy, cut-off from the West and generating actions that destabilize the region: 1) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime “obtained” a re-do of local elections in Istanbul, thus kidnapping the opposition’s victory; 2) Ankara’s relations with the United States saw a new setback, as the US Congress is now preparing the bill that expels Turkey from the F-35 program; 3) Turkey began drilling for oil / gas in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Cyprus.

On May 9th, Turkish electoral authorities announced that the result of local elections in Istanbul, won by the opposition, is voided, and new elections are to be organized. By this decision, they responded to President Erdoğan’s AKP party request, as AKP challenged the initial result of Istanbul elections, which it lost with a small margin.

The opposition described the decision as a product of the “dictatorship regime” established in Turkey. The European Parliament rapporteur for Turkey, Kati Piri, declared that this decision “ends the credibility of democratic transition of power through elections” in Turkey.

AKP’s defeat in Istanbul for the first time in 25 years was a too hard blow for President Erdoğan, who was not able to refrain from crushing the last democratic element still valid in Turkey – fair elections. The future elections in Turkey’s largest city will likely be not fair and correct because AKP will use all available means, including governmental institutions which this party controls in full, to win the re-done elections in Istanbul.

President Erdoğan’s regime transition period ended and now another period begins, with elections more or less controled by the power. Gradually, elections will become an ornamental element of a democracy only claimed, not real.

Looking abroad, Ankara’s relations with Washington near the crucial moment when Turkey is expelled from the F-35 purchase and production program. Given that President Erdoğan is determined to continue the contract for purchasing the Russian S-400 air-defense system, the US Congress is set to pass a bill which expels Turkey from the F-35 program. It becomes more and more likely that the three aircraft already formally transfered to Turkey, but still in US for training, will never cross the  ocean. Turkish official statements that F-35 program will colapse if Turkey is expelled does not prove true, the same those claiming that Turkey has alternatives to F-35 aircraft: the Russian Su-57 suggested alternative is something totally different than a multifunctional stealth aircraft, but a mere attempt, so far failed, to find an answer to the American F-22 and F-35 stealth aircraft. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg paid a visit to Ankara, probably attempting to mediate the problem, but it was likely a failure.

On top of these, Turkey began drilling in Cyprus EEZ[3]. Such step opens the path to a confrontation with Cyprus, respectively Greece. The Greek Prime-Minister, Alexis Tsipras, came hat in hand to Sibiu to seek support, and the Europeans are ready to offer political support in this respect, because Turkey has no legal right for its action: Ankara claims access to resources of Cyprus in the name of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, an entity it created by slicing from Cyprus. To make it even more complicated, Turkey has no ally in the area. Since long ago, Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus prepare themselves to face more aggressive actions by Turkey. The US and NATO face a bleak perspective: not only that Turkey slides away from the Alliance, but the picture of having two NATO member nations, Turkey and Greece in conflict with each-other is no longer a distant hypothesis.

President R.T. Erdoğan has no more time to change his mind in the S-400 / F-35 case, as the issue is purely political, although it looks military – purchasing military equipment. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad, supported by Russia, resumed air and ground attacks on Idlib. These signals show President Erdoğan that the West, so much disparaged, yet principled and predictible, is preferable to contextual temporary allies which are not really allies. But, as in any autoritarian regime, the current Turkish establishment already has its own logic, based on protecting the group interests, respectively personal interests, elevated at national level.


V. Developments to track this Week 20 of 2019.

EUROPEAN UNION. The next two weeks will be dominated by the European Parliament elections, that are crucial for the EU future. A European Parliament controlled by the classic / mainstream spectrum (right wing Populars, Liberals, and left-wing Socialists) would preserve the EU path as we know it, while an EU parliament undermined by a far-right – populist coalition, would bring instability instead of renewal. Clarifications on specific positions appear now: Hungarian Prime-Minister Viktor Orbán already considers it is time to play tough, and he announces he will not support the Popular candidate Manfred Weber for the office of President of the European Commission. Obviously, not the western countries will be the ones to face the shock of a possible change imposed by the far-right, but the weak and poor in the East. So, for those who overnight became anti-European, beware what you wish for, it might come true!  

UNITED STATES - CHINA. At a certain point, the bilateral trade negotiations seemed to steer towards a solution. But they failed. The US increased the tariffs to 25% for almost all products imported from China. The cause is the step back made by China: after having agreed on shedding its illegal practices, from technology theft to subventions and artificial downrating of national currency, Beijing altered the proposed agreement by diluting the commitments to nil. China wants its commitments implemented through domestic regulations, not by law, and the US did not accept to be lured with a carrot, as it was treated for decades. The Trump Administration can be accused for many aggressive activities, but, in this case, Washington is accused for… defending itself against an economic aggression, a quite crucial issue for America’s future. On the other hand, China’s communist regime cannot give up its traditional practices, because it lacks an alternative: it did not develop its domestic market or an economy based on competition and was not able to launch an autonomous technological leap with the assets it “acquired” so far. The trade agreement with the US is crucial for China as well. Therefore, things will not unfold smoothly. On short-term, the new tariffs established by the US will hit the American industry as well, but only until the supply chains adjust, and the huge supply from China (now with expensive products) transfers to other providers. The Europeans, apparently not involved, continue to attack the American mercantile practices, but they are, in fact, very much interested in benefiting from an American victory, respectively bringing China into the internationally regulated economic framework, the Europeans being themselves directly afflicted by the illegal Chinese practices. The most important war of the XXI Century, the China – US trade war, is in full swing.

Tensions between IRAN and the UNITED STATES. By the decision to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group (later supplemented with USS Arlington - a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock, and a Patriot missile defense battery) and an air force task force near Iran, the US made another step towards starting a conflict with Iran. President Donald Trump probably wants to push Tehran towards a negotiated capitulation (he attempts to meet Iranian President Rohani). However, the events might make the two parties refrain from triggering a conflict, albeit limited.

The deployment of the carrier strike group and bombers task force followed information regarding Iranian threats against American forces in the region. The information published in Israeli press, allegedly stemming from the Israeli intelligence agencies, enhance even more the impression that Trump Administration’s policy in the Middle East serves Israel’s specific interests.

On the other hand, Iran faces inevitable consequences of its destabilizing policy in the region. Economic sanctions strike again, and Iran is not, in fact, military prepared for a confrontation with the US. Iran is a country too big to engage in a conflict: the Iranian military is poorly equipped and trained, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as any “security” corps, is more concerned of specific problems (domestic terror – establishing regime security, implication in politics, economy grab, destabilizing actions abroad) than developing armed forces capable to substitute the regular military forces, being specialized on non-conventional actions (the US forces very likely found the answer to the IRGC warfare). Therefore, Tehran will likely have a sustained rhetoric but will avoid direct confrontation.

Iran announced measures to resume nuclear activities, yet short of breaching the nuclear agreement, and sent an ultimatum to the Europeans. That was rejected by the Europeans; although, theoretically, the EU is on Iran’s side, arguing that Tehran did not breach the agreement, the Europeans know what the ayatollah regime means, and will not go along Tehran the whole nine yards). However, these Iranian measures are nothing but blackmail attempts aiming at escaping the American economic embargo claws. Instead of choosing a conflict that might threaten the regime itself, Tehran will rather seek a way to save its economy and strike the American interests in an indirect way, through proxies (the recent escalation in Gaza include an Iranian incentive).

Anyway, the perspective of a conflict between US and Iran increased, and this has effects for the whole region and for the adjacent regions as well.

[1] A first step will be the May 28th summit, when negotiations regarding the future European Commission seats begin.

[2] Beside the deployment of Italian aircraft, there is the adequate protection against the threats in the Black Sea region. The deployment of the US aircraft and the THAAD system to Romania must be looked upon from the wider perspective of Americano-Iranian tensions as well.

[3] Ankara promotes the argument that EEZ of Cyprus has not been defined, because Turkey does not recognize the UN convention establishing this geographic limit in international waters. The reason: The Greek islands in eastern Aegean Sea, close to the Turkish coast.