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Weekly review NATO - UE LEVANT Western Balkans Black Sea Region

12 mai 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 19 of 2020)

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

I. EUROPE. Coronavirus pandemic. II. UNITED STATES / RUSSIA. American naval response in the Barents Sea. III. EUROPEAN UNION - WESTERN BALKANS reunion in Zagreb. IV. REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. Constitutional Court resists pressure by Igor Dodon.V. Developments to track this Week 20 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

English version by Mircea Mocanu

I. EUROPE. Coronavirus pandemic.

European countries began, or they prepare to begin the second round of the crisis, which is exiting isolation. From many points of view, this is more difficult than the first round, dedicated to fiercely limit mobility. The reason is that, now, countries will try to relaunch the economy and take health risks, at the same time. During this second phase, the level of civilization and functional democracy is crucial, that is the way each citizen respects the individual next to him, and how much trust each of us has in the measures recommended by national authorities.

The pandemic still surges in two Eastern Europe countries, which see a high rate of contamination: Russia has a doubling rate of only 12 days, and Belarus has 16.5 days. In Russia, although the number of contaminations reaches a high level (137.5 cases in 100,000 inhabitants), and stabilization is far away: Russian responsible on the matter, Sergey Sobyanin, declared that the number of contaminations in Moscow (where half of the total number is recorded) would be three times bigger than the official figures. The number of deaths announced by Russia and Belarus remains surprisingly (or not!) low, and Belarus President Lukashenka still denies that epidemic even exists.

Countries with a still not stabilized growth are Ukraine (21.5 days) and Bulgaria (25.5 days). For the rest, the situation is somewhat settled, and everybody is eager to witness a systematic decrease in daily contaminations: Republic of Moldova has 27.5 days, while Romania, Hungary and Serbia show a high enough doubling rate, that makes this parameter irrelevant. In the West, only the UK is still in a similar phase, with 31 day doubling rate, but with a horrendous price: 323.8 contaminations and 47.5 deaths in 100,000 inhabitants. Romania succeeded stabilization at 77.7 contamination and 4.8 deaths in 100,000 inhabitants, R. Moldova at 137.3 / 4.5; Hungary 32.9 / 4.1; Serbia 143.7 / 3.1; and Bulgaria at 27.3 / 1.3. Although with a still not stabilized pace, Ukraine reached 33 / 0.8. The pandemic is no longer a national security problem for European countries, except Russia and Belarus. Now, the entire Europe focuses on economy and social life relaunching measures. The other problems will likely return stronger, due to the Covid 19 pandemic, as we are to continue living with this health threat around.

The Covid 19 crisis effects will include: 1) Short-term economic impact, with main efforts driven against the economic crisis caused by measures to reduce mobility; 2) Medium-term economic impact, bringing back large parts of American and European industry from China; 3) Increasing tensions between the West and China, especially those between the United States and China, which display features of a Cold War. These tensions will extend if the two nations sever their economic ties, and proceed to political and military confrontation in South-East Asia[1]; 4)  Maintaining a relatively low oil price; 5) The economic crisis settlement in countries with authoritarian regimes, Russia amongst them, with political and military effects[2]; 6) Increasing political tensions, both domestic and international, in many regions, including Europe; 7) Opposite to these, there are quests for recovering the international order, using whatever is left from the post-WW2 institutional architecture. During these hard times, too many politicians showed their true colors, especially China’s leaders, to think that the West, especially the United States, would not react (as usual, the West will be divided).

For Romania, a period of opportunities and economic dangers begins, on the backdrop of the European recovery plan, with funds earmarked in the multi-annual budget. The EU is determined to bring back part of the supply chains, but short of confronting China (as the U.S. does), because, living out of exports (especially Germany), the EU needs the Chinese market. Romania has a new perspective of relaunching the economy and we hope we would not to miss it, as we are rather well placed to benefit: with an almost functional democracy and enough resources, especially people, a working force with European experience.


II. UNITED STATES / RUSSIA. American naval response in the Barents Sea.

This past week, the United States spectacularly responded to Moscow by naval actions in the Baltic Sea and the Barents Sea. In response to Russia’s recent actions with strategic bombers, the Pentagon sent B1 strategic bombers over the Baltic Sea. They flew close to Russian shores, and NATO provided details of this mission. But the major response was conducted in the High North, where a U.S.-U.K. naval group entered Russia’s “Northern Bastion” east of Bear Island. This is the first time since the ‘80s, after a long period when NATO, respectively the United States idly witnessed a plethora of Russian submarine and combined air-naval actions far outside the “Northern Bastion”, from the Sea of Norway to northern Atlantic, through the “GIUK gap” [3]. Moscow offered a moderate military reaction to this allied naval exercise and no incident occurred, perhaps because, in an unusual attitude, the Pentagon notified Russia in advance. While this recent naval action was an escalation from a military point of view, it had no political consequence. It seems that Russia is overly cautious regarding the United States, for having a larger interest in renewing the New START agreement. Benefitting the Victory Day context, President Vladimir Putin had telephone discussions with his American and British counterparts, and he expressed readiness for relaunching relations with the West. He received polite diplomatic answers of acceptance, but nothing concrete. Worse, Washington remained faithful to the position that any agreement on strategic arms control, New START included, should also bear the signature of China.

The first U.S. response, the air action, was expected, yet spectacular: on May 5th, the Pentagon sent two B1 Lancer strategic bombers directly from the U.S., with no stop, to the Baltic Sea, where they conducted air exercises with escort of Danish F16 aircraft. The mission might have simulated either cruise missile or long/medium range precision ammunition attacks on targets in Russia. Washington communicated that the mission was coordinated with NATO ground installations in Estonia, which suggests a tactical component of this mission (perhaps simulated attacks on Russian targets IVO NATO frontiers). Russia raised fighter aircraft for interception, and they were intercepted themselves by NATO escort aircraft. This time, it was NATO’s turn to check the alert readiness of Russian aviation when a strategic bomber flight is conducted close to Russian territory.

The second response is ample and answers to intensified Russian submarine, surface warship and air activities in the Sea of Norway and northern Atlantic, far west from the Russian “bastion” in the Barents Sea. Most recently, two Tu 142 reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft (naval version of Tu 95 strategic bomber) conducted flights through the “GIUK Gap” far into the Atlantic, interfering with NATO naval exercises.

On May 1st, the United States announced that a naval group[4] of three Arleigh Burke class destroyers, a support vessel, and a British Duke class (type 23) frigate entered the Barents Sea, and that Moscow was duly notified. The mission also included a U.S. nuclear submarine and a P-8 reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft. It seems that, in that area, a Russian nuclear submarine was conducting commissioning tests in view of operationalization. Therefore, the American warship mission might have intended to deny the essential role of Russian “Bastion”: in its very body of water, the American naval group simulated hunting a Russian nuclear submarine. Thus, the myth of Russian submarine stealth was challenged. More, considering the Aegis anti-aircraft system and the anti-ship systems on board the American warships, the naval group created its own multipronged A2AD bubble: anti-aircraft, anti-ship, and anti-submarine. This way, the U.S.-U.K. naval group challenged to annihilate, in its entirety, the Bastion function (the attack submarines, surface warships, aircraft, and ground-bases combat systems are supposed to secure blue-force submarine protection with Russian ballistic missiles deployed within the Bastion). Remarkably, considering that warships in the naval group use Aegis BMD systems, the simulated threat had operational- strategic level. To counter this simulated threat, Russian Ministry of Defense announced the deployment of warships in the area, to monitor the NATO naval group activities. Moscow announced anti-submarine combat exercises with participation of small anti-submarine warships, as well as search and rescue exercises. Available information has it that Marshall Ustinov heavy cruiser was supposed to join the Russian naval response. The whole stand-off unfolded without incidents, and the naval group left the Barents Sea by the week-end. 

This recent exercise was a spectacular military escalation, being for the first time since the ‘80s when a NATO naval group entered the Barents Sea. However, it did not generate any echo at political level; Presidents Putin and Trump discussed over the phone about the issue of extending the New START (despite all Trump’s openness to Russia, no outcome resulted, and Washington reiterated the need to involve China in any such agreement). Nevertheless, the American-British action represents an outstanding military warning, with effects upon the strategic situation, as well as upon Russia’s efforts to militarize the Arctic. There are lessons to be learned for Romania, with analogies (keeping proportions, of course) between the two Russian “bastions”, northern and southern – in the Black Sea. Remarkably, the balance is tilted in favor of Russia in the Black Sea, not in the North, across the board, from air to naval and ground system supremacy.  



The reunion opened the new phase of direct messaging, with the European Union communicating its expectations from Western Balkan (WB) nations, in exchange for its generous financial support. So, without explicitly mentioning the end state, EU membership, integration remains a process of continued verification of the way WB countries implement EU standards. This will no longer occur as hitherto, with slow progress on the paper and with real setbacks, just waiting for the “formal jump into the club”. Also, the EU no longer tolerates duplicity of certain WB countries, who play to Russian and Chinese tunes on European money.

“Zagreb Declaration” is relevant for redefining the integration issue for WB countries: the EU requests action, not words, it requests accomplishments, not promises. By this declaration, the EU “turns the page”: 1) the EU reaffirms the European perspective of WB nations, and reaffirms this strategic option, where credibility is to be proved by implementing reforms, plus publicly and clearly communicating them; 2) the EU reaffirms its support in the context of Coronavirus crisis and the economic fallout thereof. Thus, the EU offers a 3.3 billion Euro worth package, and expects from the WB nations an adequate reaction; 3) on the backdrop of continuous cooperation exceeding the level of similar cooperation that EU conducts with any other partner, the EU support is expected to be met with actions by these countries meaning commitment, reform implementation and adherence to European rules and standards; 4) WB nations should walk the walk now, and become democracies establishing the rule of law, and societies determined to fight corruption, organized crime and illegal migration; 5) strategic partnership means… partnership, and the EU requests WB leaders to stop playing duplicitous games and become true European partners.    

The EU pointed that the double play of some WB leaders, apparently teaming with the EU, but, in fact, linking with Russia and China, should stop; it cannot continue while receiving European money. The message was directed especially to Belgrade, and the good neighborhood message was meant for Skopje, which troubles Sofia. Although using a diplomatic tone, the EU does not beg now, it demands! Henceforth, not only money will come from Brussels, but also the music sheet, that is the whole paradigm, from the behavior requested to WB leaders to criteria for assessing the domestic policy.

Both in implementing domestic reforms, and in foreign policy actions and declarations, WB leaders will have to pay attention to EU: absent the construction of functional democracies and economies, and without a political vision in sync with the EU, nobody can talk about a real integration into the Union. EU patience ended, and “little Putins” in the WB should think about it. Not only their anti-western declarations reveal who they are, but factual reports by NGOs like Freedom House: Serbia’s sovereign leadership and Montenegro’s pro-western declared leaderships led these countries to “non-democratic regimes”. There are non-democratic behaviors in the whole region, but, more specific, Serbia and Montenegro show constant democratic setbacks. The EU demands “little Putins” not a shallow gratitude, but the end of duplicity, both in domestic and foreign policy. A period of reflection will likely follow, then each country will continue to do what it knows better, that is to continue what they were doing anyway. This is where tensions will appear, with the EU unable to pursue a Balkan vaudeville, and Brussels will have to act. Until then, the EU must do something with the non-democratic regime in its own backyard, the one in Hungary. 


IV. REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. Constitutional Court resists pressure by Igor Dodon.

Two events  marked the political life of Republic of Moldova (RM), and both are part of the reaction against President Igor Dodon, who turned to implement his plans of delivering the country to Russia, after having grabbed the whole power. First, RM Constitutional Court (CC) ruled to declare the agreement signed by Chicu government with Moscow as being non-constitutional. This ruling was taken in circumstances where CC members were subjected to pressure by the power. Secondly, tensions within the Democrat Party (PDM) burst out, and four PDM deputies left to the Pro Moldova / PM group (part of the PDM still loyal to Vladimir Plahotniuc). Therefore, the possibility that the Socialists (PSRM) lose the majority in the Parliament became real. Igor Dodon threatens with early elections, angry for not getting the Russian money for which he was ready to yield part of RM sovereignty to the Kremlin.

On May 7th, RM Constitutional Court ruled that the agreement signed by Igor Dodon’s government with Russia, regarding a 200 million Euro loan, was not constitutional. The opposition criticized the agreement because it represented a danger, especially on the long run, because it was unclear and left loopholes favoring Russian companies and offering Moscow the possibility to hold RM in debt by transferring private RM debts to the government in Chişinău.

Constitutional Court ruling is remarkable as its judges were subjected to multipronged pressure by Dodon regime: 1) the President and his Socialists presented the CC as being under political control (we’ve seen this movie); 2) the power unsuccessfully attempted to challenge the legitimacy of some of the CC judges (that too); 3) the power attempted to remove some of the CC judges, under various pretexts; 4) CC judges and family members were subjected to operative surveillance (elements of political police by Dodon regime), which was admitted by themselves in a statement.

CC ruling is the first significant response that Dodon regime gets since it grabbed the power in RM. CC has demonstrated it represents the last redoubt for defending the RM fundamental interests against the agent of a foreign power and his Socialist party, supported by an interest grouping called PDM. RM was able to benefit CC as a last-ditch rescue asset, because the ACUM pro-western coalition has established moral and professional standards and were successful in bestowing a minimum of honesty in this institution, aiming to keep the country afloat. The only trade-off ACUM made with Dodon was accepting Moscow’s henchman, Vladimir Ţurcan, but that compromise was corrected by the very CC judges, who removed Ţurcan from the Court.

The second development is equally dangerous for Dodon: PDM disintegration process intensified, with four deputies leaving PDM for the Pro Moldova group, the group loyal to Plahotniuc, which previously split for PDM (the Pro Moldova is led by Plahotniuc’s godson, Adrian Candu). PDM entered a serious crisis after the secret meeting of Democrat and Socialist leaders, where they set the collaboration bases: sharing the administration positions and economic turf (control on questionable businesses resumed after removing the pro-western ACUM from government). PDM is divided into two large groupings, those looking for dough and clinging to the administration, and those seeking easy money in hustles, being connected to “business”, not to the administration. The former want the Socialists to offer them offices, while the latter are interested to continue their business collaboration with PSRM. It seems that the former rallied around Pavel Filip, and the second around Eugeniu Nichiforciuc and Vladimir Andronache, while Dumitru Diacov acts as referee. The struggle nears its peak, and other defections might follow. In these circumstances, Adrian Candu gains courage and proclaimed himself the saviour of the country: he calls for forming an opposition bloc whence the Shor Party immediately joined (that was created by Plahotniuc thorough Illan Shor, the main individual who instrumented “the theft of the billion”).  

In the Parliament, the PSRM-PDM still holds majority, but this is so fragile, that losing majority soon looks quite likely. Facing this danger, Igor Dodon threatened with early elections, being encouraged by polls where PSRM still leads. Once the majority is lost, Chicu government would immediately fall, and Dodon’s control on the country would diminish. Thus, he would be prevented from implementing what Moscow demands him. The EU sent again the message that European money are hinged on implementing reforms (except for the emergency funds already offered for fighting Coronavirus), but PSRM and PDM cannot proceed to reforms that would spell political suicide for them. Dodon’s PSRM-PDM grouping desperately needs money. Plahotniuc’s people, Pro Moldova, regrouped and now raise themselves as patriotic opposition. It is a trap which ACUM will hopefully avoid, as the two opposition groups can cooperate only to block Igor Dodon’s anti-national actions.


V. Developments to track this Week 20 of 2020.

► HUNGARY / ROMANIA. The second round of the game of “they want to give Transylvania to Hungary” ended as quickly as it started: it was solved by Viktor Orbán, who showed his true colors by publishing what his subordinates denied they were dreaming: a map of Austro-Hungarian Empire, with “Greater Hungary“ borders (which, in fact, never existed in modern times, being just part of the empire, not a separate independent entity). Reactions from Croatia and Slovakia were enough for Bucharest to consider that we have a clear-cut quot erat demonstrandum. Worth mentioning, in the Freedom House report, Hungary is no longer considered a democratic nation. So, Hungarians in Hungary should pay attention to the fact that they lived only for a short time in a democratic Hungary (only between 1989 and Viktor Orbán’s power grab), in contrast to the Romanians and ethnic Hungarians in Romania. Meanwhile, Romania always had a democracy, with ups and downs, during the constitutional monarchy and after the fall of communism. For Romania, there is only the task of building a functional and prosperous democracy for all citizens: to support the ethnic Hungarians in Romania by al democratic means and in good faith, so they be not forced to choose “either with Romania, or with Hungary”, as Viktor Orbán wishes, instead of the natural “within Romania and close to Hungary”. The rest is a huge problem for the EU: a non-democratic regime in Hungary, which might bring domestic and foreign political instability. The political post-pandemic developments in the EU will be marked by the attitude towards Viktor Orbán regime, the “dictatorship within the European Union”. 

► UNITED STATES / CHINA. Political tensions surge, and they are amplified mainly by accusations brought by the White House against China’s leaders for non-disclosing the outburst of Coronavirus epidemic early enough. The European Union, dependent on Chinese market, shows more flexibility and accepts to alter its report criticizing China’s actions, as result of diplomatic pressure. Brussels also accepted to censor the message of his ambassadors published in Chinese media. Although the White House focuses on minor issues, difficult to demonstrate (the virus origin is either the lab or the wet market), the main accusation, that Chinese leaders willingly withheld essential information on the outburst for weeks, finds evidence in support. The United States sturdiness in accusing China, and the tough way Beijing responds are nothing but the veil raising that truly opens a new Cold War, with effects on the EU as well, and on Romania too. For the moment, let us watch the way this “opening” unfolds, as the U.S. has all reasons to accuse China of the pandemic and does not hesitate to do it.

► EUROPEAN UNION / NATO. The EU defense minister reunion is upcoming, with participation of NATO Secretary General. At this forum, the issues of European defense will be discussed again, featuring the French propositions, watered down by German propositions. All Europeans, save France, and especially the easterners, are for “NATO first” in defending Europe. The main glue between NATO and the EU is Germany, but in this very nation, the Social-Democrats bring back on the table the issue of American tactical nuclear weapons deployed on German territory. The problem started from the issue of replacing the Tornado aircraft in German Air Forces, where the German Ministry of Defense chose the American F18 aircraft. This decision followed the prerequisite that the next fighter aircraft in German Air Forces should be able to carry nuclear tactical bombs (within NATO, Germany is part of the Alliance nuclear response, and its aircraft practice the transport to target of nuclear bombs, which are currently deployed on German territory). Interestingly, most German experts voiced in favor of maintaining the American nuclear armament on German territory.  

► “RUSSOPHOBIA”. This past week, information on the 2015 cyber-attack on German Parliament was published in Germany, and German Prosecutor Office issued an arrest mandate on the name of a Russian hacker known for working for the GRU. Very gravely, the Angela Merkel Chancellor Cabinet e-mail box was attacked, and 2013 – 2015 e-mails were compromised. Although the Germans were discrete, according to the strategy of cooperating with Russia, this does not mean that German-Russian relations would not be damaged, as Berlin is forced to notice that Moscow regards it as an adversary. Given that the series of the Kremlin’s illegal actions continues, we will refer to them by the term “Russophobia”, which Moscow uses each time new information and evidence are published about its illegal activities. The Kremlin’s problem is that it fears the day when most Russians will suffer from “Russophobia”, respectively they will show they had enough of the Kremlin’s illegal domestic actions.

[1] Military measures recently announced by the United States are meant to counter China.

[2] Before 2025, Russian niche arsenal, whence Vladimir Putin invested a lot (Kalibr, Zyrkon, Kinzhal and Avangard) will be topped by the United States arsenal in quantity and quality, as Washington launched its own high-tech rearming race (in response to China’s rearming). Prioritizing the arms race cannot continue in Russia, in circumstances where its economic situation, with immediate social effects, will be worse and worse. In addition to Coronavirus crisis immediate effects (which will partly drain Moscow’s reserve funds), in a non-competitive economy, isolated through sanctions, Russia will face the low oil price, technological backwardness and depletion of other income sources: its air industry is no longer competitive; its space industry already has competition in American private space industry; its gas exports are more and more challenged by the LNG; Russian weapon industry loses customers as follows: to American manufacturers (India, for example), following its own development (in case of China), of for bankruptcy (Venezuela and Iran). Russia’s policy and economy will need to be reformed, and Vladimir Putin has showed he is not ready to risk such reform, which would jeopardize the future of his regime. The Coronavirus crisis is only the beginning of a stalemate period, although the regime still holds several aces in its sleeve (agriculture, raw materials, foreign investments), and some hopes can appear when the oil price rises above $40/barrel. Anyway, henceforth, the Kremlin will think twice before starting aggressions like the conflict in Ukraine.

[3] The “GIUK Gap” is the maritime bottleneck between Greenland, Iceland and the U.K., the gateway from the Sea of Norway to northern Atlantic.

[4] USS Donald Cook, USS Porter, USS Roosevelt, and HMS Kent.