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14 ianuarie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 2 of 2020)

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

I. UNITED STATES - IRAN. After Iran’s non-lethal military response, a conditioned de-escalation is now in view. II. RUSSIA. Naval and air exercise on the Black Sea. III. RUSSIA – TURKEY. President Vladimir Putin visits Ankara. IV. GERMANY - RUSSIA. Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Moscow. V. Developments to track this Week 3 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

This past week’s events were shaded by the crisis in the Persian Gulf triggered after the United States eliminated General Qassem Soleimani. We will remain faithful to the principle that “our interest in events follows the measure they affect us”. Therefore, we will look into the fallout of this conflict which, although rather far from Romania, will influence Bucharest’s foreign and military policy. Washington’s request to NATO regarding a deeper involvement in the Middle East opens a new chapter, with associated new risks for the Allies. The conflict is quite different from that in Afghanistan, where Romanian soldiers fought and still fight shoulder to shoulder with the American GIs. A would-be participation of European members of NATO into a military solution of the Iranian predicament will be possible only at the extent the United States provides a significant presence. The lack of a European capability to project a political and economic force, let alone military, casts a negative light to any such endeavor in absence of an American backbone. However, a compromise solution will likely be found, where the United States only reduces its military footprint in order to focus on China, since Washington’s interests in the Gulf are no longer of essence. Meanwhile, the Europeans will likely take over a number of responsibilities, in exchange for an American security policy in the form of deterring Russia and fight against terrorism. Concealed under the dramatic developments in Iran and Iraq, the diplomatic negotiations regarding a future NATO involvement in the Middle East, outside of the Alliance traditional Area of Responsibility, will likely rise to the level of a historical military change of paradigm for all Europeans, including Romania


I. UNITED STATES - IRAN. After Iran’s non-lethal military response, a conditioned de-escalation is now in view.

Events unfolded quickly, and the situation is still fluid. However, the result seems to include a conditioned de-escalation, and new domestic tensions in Iran. Following a tragedy which Iran eventually admitted, these tensions must be cautiously negotiated because the moderates in Tehran must keep a balance if peace is wanted. Although decision still rests with Ayatollah Khamenei, Iranian moderates are back in the game, and their strength is as necessary as the United States’ balanced approach, if peace and de-nuclearization are the goals, not a regime change (temptation is there, though[1]).

As expected, Tehran conducted the response attack (on January 8th), hitting with ballistic missiles two U.S. bases in Iraq, Ain al-Assad in Anbar province, and the base near Erbil. However, the detail that no victim resulted allows de-escalation. The non-lethal attack, an ineffective military measure, has the political merit of sending the positive message “we stop here”. Previously, Tehran had taken preventive legislative steps to cover such action by declaring the Pentagon and CENTCOM (practically, all the American military involved in the Middle East) as terrorist organizations, mirroring Washington’s similar measures. Thus, on the backdrop of an adequate rhetoric, there was the atmospherics that “we are not only entitled to, but even obliged to do it”.

The United States responded the same way: President Donald Trump also sent a de-escalation message, yet conditioned. He requested Tehran to renounce its recent decision to ignore the de-nuclearization agreement (but further accepting the IAEA inspections) and give up efforts to build the nuclear bomb. More precisely, Trump requested Iran to engage in negotiations leading to a fairer agreement, from U.S. perspective, than the previous Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Trump called on the European heavyweights, and to Russia and China to assume a role in that respect. On January 10th, at the EU foreign minister reunion, the Europeans showed they would accomplish such role. They opened many avenues in that direction, the first round being planned to occur in Oman, on the margin of late Sultan Qaboos funerals. On Omani territory, friends and foes will meet, and this sultanate becomes the main mediator between United States and Iran. On the other hand, in order to punish Iran for its latest attack, Trump introduced new sanctions, which would inflict significant economic consequences upon Iran’s economy, already in dire straits. Trump also hinged de-escalation on Iran’s change of behavior in the region. The U.S. president referred to Tehran’s denied aggressions against Iran’s neighbors and the open confrontations (Syria, the aggressions against Israel started from Syria), as well as its aggressions by proxies (in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine)[2]. After having barely avoided a war with Iran, Trump continues to count on maximal economic sanctions and on offering an agreement, but on Washington’s terms, and mediated by interested parties. Although Tehran is in a difficult situation right now, such solution, albeit with significant chances, includes the danger of leading again into a deadlock.

Donald Trump requested NATO nations to get more involved in the Middle East, which bears a large significance for Romania. So, Washington follows the known strategic direction of leaving the Middle East, a not quite implementable task (perhaps for being unimplementable). In this view, the United States reacts to the Iraqi parliament non-binding decision to request the departure of American troops. The final word will rest with the Iraqi government though, as the decision is moderated by the stipulation about the Iraqi state control on all armed formations in the country. In fact, as Ayatollah Sistani and the population made clear, the Iraqis are fed up with the United States as well, not only with Iran. Washington rushed to send a letter to the Iraqi prime minister, announcing an upcoming withdrawal, but this message… was withdrawn instead. After this hasty reaction, the United States decided to initiate discussions regarding troop withdrawal (meanwhile, several large C 17 and C 130 Hercules transport airplanes flew towards the Middle East). Before the air attack, NATO nations had taken a solidary position in support of the United States in the Iran issue. However, NATO nations also began to relocate military personnel manning the NATO Training Mission in Iraq.

Having the ISIS still operational, NATO presence in Iraq is still necessary even if the U.S. leaves, and this means taking hard decisions: declaring support is one thing, but sending boots on the ground is quite different, especially in absence of a so comforting American military presence. The problem is complicated also because Iran’s policy in Iraq is not clear: although Iraq does not represent a top threat to Iran, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did, Tehran’s temptation to turn this Arab country into a vassal, although Iraq is mostly Shia, is quite big. In fact, this will also be negotiated between Iran and the United States: when talking Iran’s change of behavior in the region and the departure from its bid to get the nuclear bomb, the two adversaries will also negotiate the conditions of U.S. military departure from the region!

The problem got even more complicated after the downing of a Ukrainian airliner on January 8th, a few minutes after its take-off from the Tehran International Airport. The accident, which occurred only hours after the Iranian missile attack on U.S. bases in Iraq, immediately raised suspicions. Gradually, public evidence mounted to indicate the airplane was downed by Iranian air defense fire. At first, Tehran denied and pointed that all accusations and indications were just the West "lying and engaging in psychological warfare". Then, confronted with the public accusation made by Canadian prime minister (Canadian citizens were among victims and Canada hosts an important Ukrainian community) and the proofs brought by the Ukrainian investigation team accepted by Iran in the field, Tehran had to admit it brough down the Ukrainian airplane by mistake (nobody claimed otherwise). This tragedy had an immediate domestic negative impact, with student protests in Tehran. Combined with admitting guilt, this tragic event paves the way for opening dialogue and restoring Tehran’s credibility (Iranian president Rohani talked to Canadian prime minister, although the two nations do not have diplomatic relations!).

On the backdrop of nuclear deal failure and the demise of General Soleimani, Iranian moderates (President Rohani and the Foreign Minister Zafari) were previously in the shadow. But now, within the power in Tehran, the moderates came back in the front stage. The hardliners with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are now forced to step back, being militarily humiliated by… themselves: the Ukrainian airliner was downed by a TOR-M1 air defense battery of their own forces, although, at least officially, the IRGC does not possess an air defense component![3]

Of course, there are two faces of the same power, with Khamenei’s ayatollahs in the center, but short-term decisions taken by moderate officials will define the regime’s long-term strategy especially since the increasing protests in Tehran spread messages showing that the regime’s narrative no longer works (“Death to America” was replaced by “hey, dictator! The enemy is here, in Tehran, not in Washington!”). An indication that the situation is changing in Tehran is the fact that student protests, still limited in size, were presented by the Fars semi-official agency, which showed protesters burning pictures of General Soleimani (of course, aiming to mobilize the regime’s political basis). For years, the Tehran regime spent money for military programs and support for foreign protegees, which resulted in generating more enemies than friends. Certainly, after such strategy, the ayatollah regime must rewrite its own social contract with the Iranian people! For the sake of peace and prosperity for the Iranian people, as well as that of everybody else in the region, let’s hope that moderate high officials in Tehran will find a peaceful way to do it and succeed in implementing a new national arrangement. So far, the regime reacted by organizing counterdemonstrations of its supporters, seeking to identify a scapegoat abroad, this time the United Kingdom. This current week is be decisive both for the dynamics of protests and counterdemonstrations, and for the power’s reaction. Worth mentioning, Tehran received a good signal from Washington[4]: President Trump is ready to begin discussions with Iran, without preconditions.


II. RUSSIA. Naval and air exercise on the Black Sea.

On January 9th, most warships of Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF), plus two large warships of the Northern Fleet (NF) conducted a complex exercise in the Black Sea, involving over 30 warships, one submarine and 40 aircraft. This exercise included launches of cruise missiles from warships and hypersonic missiles from the air, as well as ship-to-ship missiles from surface warships. The two NF warships were the Slava class battleship “Marshall Ustinov” and the Udaloy class destroyer “Vice-Admiral Kulakov”. They were temporarily deployed to the Black Sea after having conducted missions in the Mediterranean Sea and other maritime areas, and they left the Black Sea after the exercise. This event was presented as a common BSF – NF activity, but it was, in fact, a final exercise of the BSF training year with participation of NF warships.

President Vladimir Putin witnessed the exercise from the deck of battleship “Marshall Ustinov”, joined by Admiral Nikolay Yevmenov. This event offered the opportunity to check the good integration of NF warships into BSF naval actions. Cooperation between Russian fleets of different seas is a big strategic problem that Moscow faces. For Romania, it is no good news that such successful verification took place in the Black Sea!

During the exercise, two MIG 31 K aircraft belonging to a regiment based in the Caucasus launched Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles. It is interesting that a Russian communiqué called these missiles “Kinzhal ballistic missiles”, reminding that Kinzhal is, in fact, an Iskander ballistic missile launched from the air, an ingenious and simple solution to build a hypersonic missile.

The Admiral Grigorovich class “Admiral Grigorovich” frigate, the Buyan M class “Orekhovo-Zuyevo” corvette, and the Kilo II class “Kolpino” submarine launched Kalibr cruise missiles, and Tarantul class “Naberejnyie Chelny” and “Ivanovets” guided missile warships launched SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship missiles.

From a military point of view, besides marking the end of a naval training year, this exercise also represented the official inauguration of Russia’s “Bastion” in the Black Sea, centred on the Crimean Peninsula. Very likely, the exercise scenario aimed at practicing strikes against strategic targets in NATO countries with Kalibr cruise missiles after having previously neutralized the Ballistic Missile System installations at Deveselu / Romania with Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, while BSF warships and aircraft were defending the “Bastion” from NATO forces actions (this would explain the launch of old but effective anti-ship SS-N-22 Sunburn missiles). 

From a political point of view, Vladimir Putin reminded the United States and NATO that Russia has the capability to conduct strikes against strategic infrastructure located in NATO’s weak Southern flank. These strikes would originate from Russia’s “Bastion” in Crimea, defended by BSF warships, submarines and aircraft supplemented by those of Air and Air Defense Army 4 and Joint Strategic Command South. In Moscow’s view, such attack would not meet an effective defense against cruise missiles. The message is sent in the context where Russia wants to persuade the United States to extend the New START agreement, and in the post-INF circumstances, when NATO is to take a major decision regarding a response to Russia’s deployment of SSC-8 ground-based intermediate range missiles.

In a nutshell, this exercise was a successful power play, a large exercise to which NATO would not be able to oppose, in the first instance, more than a C4ISR system. More components were likely part of the exercise, but time is needed before appropriate information is made public.


III. RUSSIA – TURKEY. President Vladimir Putin visits Ankara.

On January 8th, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin officially inaugurated the TurkStream gas pipeline which will bring Russian natural gas to western Europe crossing the Black Sea and Turkey, but by-passing Ukraine, Romania and the Republic of Moldova. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov also participated to the ceremony.   

TurkStream has a transit capacity of 31.5 billion cubic meters and its construction cost $8 billion and lasted almost three years. Half of the gas will be bought by Turkey, and the other half will be exported towards the Balkans and Central Europe through the pipeline in Bulgaria and Serbia, towards Hungary.

This appears to be an important victory for Vladimir Putin in securing Russia’s gas exports to Western Europe while by-passing Ukraine, but this victory has some Pyrrhic features. Here, we will only focus on strategic aspects of this deal.

First, TurkStream does not bring any additional fizz of gas to Western Europe yet, because, although the pipeline segment in Serbia is finished, (it is Russian property), the segment in Bulgaria is far from being finished because American sanctions were imposed, and Sofia stunningly found out that U.S. sanctions apply not only to Nord Stream 2 in the Baltic Sea, but also to TurkStream. It is true, Bulgaria started to be supplied with Russian gas through TurkStream, but the gas transits Bulgarian national network, not the Bulgarian segment of TurkStream (which is under construction, but in delay). In fact, Bulgaria secured its Russian gas supply through TurkStream, shedding the imports transiting Ukraine, Romania and Republic of Moldova (resulting in a financial loss for these countries, in transit fees). Prime Minister Boyko Borisov is in limbo between Russian request to speed-up construction, and the American request to halt the construction works. Therefore, on the eve of inauguration together with Putin and Erdoğan, Borisov has attempted to prove he holds his commitments and the pipeline construction continues as planned. As about the American sanctions, Sofia let known that Bulgaria did not understand the U.S. sanctions would apply to the segment on its territory and preferred to rename it “Bulgar Stream”! On the eve of TurkStream inauguration, an American delegation visiting Sofia to discuss the bilateral “strategic partnership” very likely had to explain the U.S. sanctions to Bulgarian authorities, as well as the obvious fact that a name change would not change the problem.

Putin and Erdoğan also discussed the situation in Syria and Libya, as well as the tensions between Iran and the United States. Very likely, Idlib province remains the main topic, as Bashar al-Assad wants to recover it in full (while the Sunni refugees remain Erdoğan’s problem). On the eve of this meeting, Putin had paid a surprise visit to Syria, where he met Bashar al-Assad in a command center in Damascus, perhaps for demonstrating the military victory, but also for security reasons. The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared that "the leaders heard military reports on development in various regions of the country". Regarding Libya, the two presidents called upon the two warrying sides to reach a cease-fire agreement. Although initially rejected such agreement, those parties later announced that an agreement had been reached.   


IV. GERMANY - RUSSIA. Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Moscow.

The visit paid by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Moscow, on January 11th, is best described by her words: “talking to each other is better than taking about each other”. The element triggering this visit was the crisis between Iran and the United States. Although the crisis is already downhill, the problem is still there: implementing the denuclearization agreement JCPOA (or negotiating a new agreement, which the United States rejects). Iran, Libya, Syria and bilateral issues were also discussed, and although not brought in close-up, Ukraine was discussed too.

On bilateral relations, resuming construction of Nord Stream 2 (NS2) pipeline was discussed, considering that works were halted as result of American sanctions. The killing of a Chechen with Georgian passport by Russian intelligence agencies (by a hitman recycled by Russian intelligence for commiting this murder on German territory). Regarding the NS2, Putin declared that Russia will "certainly" be able to complete Nord Stream 2 without foreign assistance. He expressed his hope that NS2 would be finished during the first quarter of 2021. Merkel added that Germany does not agree with the sanctions the United States applies for NS2.

Regading the denuclearization agreement, Chancellor Merkel declared that JCPOA is "certainly not perfect" but added she and Putin "agreed to do anything to preserve the deal" (rather difficult, considering that the United States has stopped observing it for a while, and, recently, Iran announced it would not observe it anymore either).

Regarding Libya, the two leaders announced their support for organizing a conference under United Nations aegis, in Berlin. Maybe both General Haftar and the Islamists in power in Tripoli (recognized by the UN as the legal government) would agree, but what would the most active actor recently, which is Turkey, do?

On Syria, the focus was on reconstruction: the West would not pay for rebuilding Syria led by Bashar al-Assad propped by Russia and Iran. Although Bashar achieved military success now, the absence of a fair and enduring political solution which would also secure the return of refugees seems to keep the problem fluid.

In fact, the two just explored the issues of common interest, without crucial decisions. Stunningly, this is not important, but the mere fact that the two leaders talked, which brought Putin back to the table. The Kremlin knows very well how imprtant this success is, considering that older and more recent aggressions cast a shadow on Moscow’s relations with Berlin, and the two nations share a common view only on the NS2 issue. This is most important, since, under Moscow’s usual rhetoric, a strategy of resuming relations with the West is hiding, especially with the European heavyweights, in order to escape isolation and relaunch bilateral relations, in the Kremlin’s terms, of course.


V. Developments to track this Week 3 of 2020.

► NATO. The Alliance decision fora must take two big decisions: an older issue, the course of action for a NATO military response to Russia’s deployment of SSC-8 missiles, and a new issue, how would the European NATO nations involve into the Middle East, as President Donald Trump has requested.

CROATIA.  The election of a Social-Democrat president is a blow to the nationalists in power. Although the position of president is mostly representative, it is interesting to watch how much this defeat will affect the nationalists, especially that the election campaign main theme was corruption in the nationalist ranks.

► SPAIN. Finally, there is a new government, with the tacit blessing of Catalan separatists. The option chosen by the Socialists seems justified, since they won the elections, but this option will bring not only a couple of news, but also a big question. The fact that Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez brought the left-wing populists Podemos to power is understandable: the electorate sent a message in this respect, and arithmetic provides no other option. What is bad is that the Socialists breached an agreement they had with the right-wing Populars. That agreement stipulated that, whoever reached power, there would be a common approach of the big national projects. Even worse, Sánchez had to make a trade-off with the Catalan separatists, as the government was approved in the parliament only when the Catalans abstained (as also did the Basque representatives). The trade-off means resuming negotiations with the Catalan separatists regarding the Catalan predicament. What did Sánchez promise? The declared objective of upcoming negotiations will show how serious the compromise is: will it be just a beginning of dialogue leading to a compromise solution  (stating upfront that Catalonia remains within the Kingdom of Spain, no matter what Madrid concedes) or it will be separation, respectively organizing a referendum regarding the independence of this region? 

[1] Contemplating a regime change in Iran, make no mistake, beyond wide-spreading popular discontent, the regime in Tehran created its own high and middle class, which depends in wealth and social status on maintaining this regime in power. This class ranges from the hardliners in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to the religious ideologists, whose control stretches to the remotest mosque in Iran. Three social forces have separately burst out so far:  the youth, spearheaded by students; the middle class non-dependent from the regime; and, recently, the working class. Should these masses unite their forces, the regime still has enough strength and domestic support to effectively repress a large rebellion, eventually leading to a civil war. Recent lessons from Syria show that such civil war benefits the extremists, either Sunni or Shia (considering the Allawi as being Shia, which is not accurate). In addition, a foreign implication complicates the political conflict to a dead-end. That is not the solution tough, but a domestic and foreign modus vivendi, a political solution where the regime makes concessions regarding the political monopoly by significant changes to the Velayat-e faqih (the ideological foundation which justifies the political dictatorship of Shia religious leaders in Iran). The power in Tehran will ask itself whether it is not preparing its fall own by making concessions. On the other hand, Iran’s adversaries should hold back coping with this conflict, because the temptation for directly or indirectly meddling into a regime change is big,  considering all the evil the Ayatollah regime caused in the region. At least from the point of view of maintaining peace on short and medium term, a more assertive approach would probably be a mistake. However, the power in Tehran will be tempted to blame foreign forces for what is going to happen. Therefore, two indicators should be watched: the union of the three social groups in common protests and organization; and the government decision (would it be repression, dialogue, or a combination thereof).

[2] Nevertheless, the United States should pay attention there are other culprits too, not only Iran. So, in Yemen, there is also the dimension of a purely territorial conflict between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, besides the Shia / Sunni conflict, each side with its followers, let alone the secession phenomenon, and the presence of al-Qaida. Not all Gordian Knots are to be cut by sword, if a fair and enduring solution is wanted!

[3] In the twelfth  hour, the IRGC brass admitted responsibility. However, they blamed the battery commander for the mistake. The fall guy had to decide in a very short time (a couple dozen seconds) to launch the missiles, as the chain of command communications with commanders who were supposed to make decisions of that level were temporarily… cut off! The power also claimed that the fall guy mistook the airplane with a cruise missile. That is hard to believe, considering the quite different radar image (different Radar Cross-Section) between a cruise missile and a civilian Boeing airplane: keeping the proportion, is like mistaking a truck with a motorbike with the naked eye from a two-kilometer distance! Very likely, these are cheap lies in the attempt to hide the fact that decision was taken at higher level within the IRGC, or that the scapegoat battery commander had the liberty to take such decision, which is equally bad. In fact, this accident reveals serious structural problems inside the Iranian defense system. Iran possesses two military institutions, the regular armed forces and the ideological armed forces, the IRGC, which is militarily and politically privileged. On this  background, the elementary principle of unity of command was breached. In air defense, this principle is sacred because three functions must be simultaneously performed: air space surveillance; air traffic control; and air defense, from the ground and from the air. Thus, in a very short time, crucial decisions must be taken: detecting the flying object, identifying the flying object and engaging the flying object (attacking with missiles) only after redundantly classifying the flying object as a legitimate target for posing a threat. Therefore, these air defense systems integrate all sensors (primary and secondary radars) and the air defense systems into a single air space picture, and the decision is taken at high operational level, in unity of command. This process was altered to the point of denying the basic principles by the measure of transferring to IRGC the air defense responsibility for strategic objectives. This was decided for TOR 1M modern short-range air systems, relatively recently purchased from Russia, but not integrated into the Iranian air defense network, and without any target identification possibility: no associated Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) equipment. Painfully, as there are 176 casualties, Ukrainians, Canadians and Iranians (“Iran’s geniuses” - students at universities in  Canada) executed as result of IRGC leader arrogance and adjacent contribution of some IRGC officers.  

[4] This is a good sign indeed, considering that Tehran knows it is rather alone to face the United States; the only military gesture made by Russia (whose warships were conducting combined exercises with China and Iran a couple of weeks ago) was to threaten an American destroyer with boarding by a small Russian warship in the Arabian Sea.