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21 mai 2019 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments - WEEK 20 of 2019

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

I.RUSSIA – UNITED STATES relaunch their bilateral relations.II.HUNGARY. Viktor Orbán visits Washington.III. RUSSIA comes back into the Council of Europe. IV. UKRAINE. The political crisis.V. Developments to track this Week 21 of 2019.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. RUSSIA – UNITED STATES relaunch their bilateral relations after the meeting between the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

The Pompeo – Putin meeting in Sochi marks the relaunching of US – Russia bilateral relations. This inflection point is generated by President Trump’s intention to have good relations with Moscow. His freedom of maneuver just widened after he got rid of the accusations for having cooperated with Russia during the presidential electoral campaign. On short-term, there are slim chances to put this rapprochement at work, as the two nations stand on opposite positions in almost all problems / crises in discussion. However, the path to work on easing the bilateral relations is now open, because these very crises provide the opportunity for dialogue. As for the most important problem, the would-be agreement on strategic nuclear and substrategic armament control, after the demise of INF, this détente is a good omen, despite many questions linked to the Russian approach and the solutions to be found.

On May 14th, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held talks in Sochi with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and later with Russian President Valdimir Putin. Mike Pompeo’s mission was to seek a relaunch of bilateral relations, although the two parties have agreed they disagree in most issues.

Mike Pompeo explicitly presented the message of rapprochement at the very begining of the meeting, when he declared that “there are places that our two countries can find where we can be cooperative, we can be productive, we can be accumulative, we can work together to make each of our two peoples more successful and frankly the world more successful, too... President Trump wants to do everything we can”. M. Pompeo boasted the cooperation in dossiers like North Korea, Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism, and he presented these issues as a foundation to build upon.

The Pompeo – Lavrov press conference revealed differences in issues like Iran, Venezuela, and the implications in American elections. M. Pompeo mentioned that the Mueller Report confirmed the non-existence of any collusion between Moscow and Trump’s election staff, therefeore one of the reasons of worsening the bilateral relations disappeared. However, M. Pompeo raised the problem of Russia’s meddling in American elections, which was denied by President V. Putin. Pompeo threatened that, if Russia were to interfere again in the 2020 US election, “it would put us in an even worse place”. Regarding Iran, where the tensions increasedas well, S. Lavrov stated that Russia is prepared to do everything in its power to avoid “a war scenario”, considering that M. Pompeo declared: “We fundamentally do not seek war with Iran... We have also made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked we will most certainly respond in the appropriate fashion”. On Venezuela, a visible disagreement was clearly expressed by both parties.

Through the Kremlin aide Iuriy Ushakov, the Russians provided information on the Pompeo – Putin meeting: he declared that it was a “not bad, concrete conversation”, which had not yielded any breakthrough, but had been held in a business-like atmosphere. The US would have joined Russia in showing interest towards “starting to correct the relationship and gradually restoring communication channels”. According to Ushakov, Syria was discussed, as well as North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and the strategic armament agreement, New START. However, Ukraine was not discussed, but Mike Pompeo has declared, after meeting Lavrov, that the US would not recognize Crimea’s annexation.

President Putin declared: “I had the impression that the President intends to rebuild US - Russian relations and contacts in order to solve issues of mutual interest”. Generally, the Russians displayed a constructive, yet reserved attitude, in stand-by, regarding the American opening. A future meeting between the two presidents will take place in June, during the G-20 Summit in Japan. Here it is worth mentioning that President Putin had a previous meeting, on May 13th, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

What is going on? Relieved from the “Mueller Report problem”, President Trump consolidated his position at home and abroad, and he starts now to implement the policy he announced when took office at the White House: friendship with President Putin’s Russia. Although relaunching bilateral relations began, we are far from such friendship, both because the divergencies in disputed problems are big, and because the Republicans and the Democrats are against Russia’s policy.

Moscow starts from an advantageous position. The Kremlin benefits from President Trump’s declared friendship, difficult to explain, but wisely to be accepted as an undoubtful reality. Then, the current administration policies slipped away, in many respects, from the traditional American policy: not the traditional principles make the basis for current administration’s actions, but rather decisions pertaining to the president’s own vision, combined, if not sometimes opposed to the vison supported by a grup of conservative advisers and balanced by the traditional vision generated in the Congress. This hiatus adds to the overstating tactics so dear to the US president, tactics which led most of the problems to crisis level. This superposition creates the favorable framework for a Russia which expected this moment ever since President Trump’s victory. On the other hand, Russia is stucturally in economic and military disadvantage. Thus, the Russian announcement about the purchase of 76 pieces of Su-57 aircraft (now on promotional sale!) is more a marketing operation (benefiting Turkey) and a make-shift argument (in competition with the US) than a solid deal.

Nevertheless, another element puts Russia in advantage, and that is the major divergencies between the US and the Europeans. Some of these refer to temporary crises, such as Iran, others are economic, political, or military crises. The economic crises occur although the US  postponed by six months the decision to apply tariffs on European cars; the political crises speak to President Trump’s initially strong view that EU is a competitor who should go away, and NATO is an obsolete organization; current military crises point to the recent warning sent to the Europeans regarding the defense industry. Russia sees that the desired scenario – a divided West, has chances to come true. This perspective is in Moscow’s advantage, because Moscow has the capability to impose its point of view if the trans-Atlantic link fails.

On the other hand, even with Donald Trump at the White House, the Russo-American relations have little chances to improve, unless one of the parties yields big, which is not the case now. These relations worsened for profound causes, not just for temporary circumstances: Russia arogantly acted as great power and claimed a sphere of influence, while the US opposed such actions, although it is withdrawing from its traditional role of world order guardian and it leaves enough void where regional powers, spearheaded by Russia and China, act unhindered.

Regarding the nuclear strategic armament agreement, President Trump wants its coverage extended in both area and signatories, to include China (which already declined). Russia will likely include the issue of its constantly trumpeted would-be hypersonic weapons into the negotiations, in counterbalance to the American missile defense systems, which seriously worry Moscow. As the New START expires in 2021, the negotiations will unfold under time pressure, and the most likely solution, most handy but not likely, will be the current agreement prolongation. Mike Pompeo showed optimism when stating that discussions are to begin between expert teams for working not only the New START and its possible extension, but on a wide range of initiatives regarding arms control.

What does this relaunching mean for Romania? Regardless the inherent dangers of Russia’s return with this current behavior, such US – Russia relation relaunch is, per se, something good: constructive relations between the two countries bring additional security to Romania and to similar nations. We will be indirectly affected by the result of aforementioned discussions regarding the nuclear strategic and substrategic armament, especially if the US accepts to include the anti-ballistic missiles in the balance (little likely event). Ukraine is a problem of utmost importance for Romania, and it becomes dangerous precisely for not being discussed during the meeting in Sochi. For Russia, Ukraine is the problem where it will attempt to obtain concessions and the acceptance of status quo.

II.HUNGARY. Viktor Orbán visits Washington.

The visit paid by Hungarian Prime-Minister Viktor Orbán to the White House, on May 13th, was a major success for him and for his policy. He benefits from President Trump’s recognition, and he obtained what he wanted – the consolidation of Hungary’s strategic alliance with the US, as well as support for the Hungarian policy, including regarding energy.

Among others, the Hungarian prime-minister discussed energy and military issues in Washington. Viktor Orbán asked President Trump for support regarding the start of natural gas exploitation in Romania’s Black Sea perimeters. V. Orbán took into consideration the participation of American investors in the Black Sea gas and presented Romanian gas as the only alternative to Russian gas. In addition, Hungary will purchase mid-range air defense missiles from the US. Both measures speak perfectly to President Trump’s mercantile vision.

The meeting offered the US President the opportunity to commend Viktor Orbán for his anti-migration policies, while ignoring the repeated breaching of rule of law, and other anti-democratic abuses in Hungary. Donald Trump stated it was a great honor to welcome at the White House this leader “respected all over Europe”, although, "probably like me, a little bit controversial, but that's OK. You've done a good job and you've kept your country safe".

V. Orbán declared that he came to Washington to "strengthen our strategic alliance". He stated he was "proud to stand with the US on fighting illegal migration, on terrorism and to protect Christian communities around the world" – an idea echoed from D. Trump, who highlighted: "You have been great with respect to Christian communities, and you have really put a block up and we appreciate that very much". Thus, Hungary embarked overnight on the role of world Christendom guardian![1]

Certainly, the White House meeting provides legitimacy to Orbán’s illiberal agenda. So, a letter signed by four members of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 10th asking President Trump to emphasize the "democratic values in our bilateral relationship with Budapest" did not have any effect upon the US president.

In Washington, Viktor Orbán achieved not only recognition, but also a declared support to his regime, and for Hungary’s current policy. The merit goes not only to circumstances (President Trump’s and Prime-Minister Orbán’s similar visions), but also to the fact that Hungary is a strong country despite V. Orbán’s regime abuses. The US can count on Hungary although it has a rather too independent foreign policy, and effectively collaborates with Russia and China from under the NATO protective shield. In this new position, it can be expected that Viktor Orbán will likely act to maximize his political and economic influence in the region.

As about Romania, the issue of sovereignty comes up, and this not only because Viktor Orbán defends the Hungarian interests in energy, but because a weakened state cannot defend its interests. In a majestic way, V. Orbán used Hungary’s cooperation with Russia in energy as argument for his request. In the same time, a Hungarian official told Romania that, in absence a gas-based manufacturing industry and of a gas distribution system for household consumption in Romania, Bucharest has the only option to export its gas to Hungary, and Hungary will sell this gas to buyers in Western and Central Europe. Certainly, inertia and stereotypical messages are obsolete when facing economic, political and security realities; in a competitional relation, it is the achievements that count, not the words.   

III.RUSSIA comes back into the Council of Europe.

On May 17th, in Helsinki, the foreign ministers of Council of Europe 47 member states adopted a common declaration allowing Russia to return with full rights into this pan-European organization, after the relations were disrupted as result of Russia’s annexation of Crimean Peninsula, in 2014.

The member state representatives voted with clear majority the compromise proposal drafted by Germany and France: "All member states should be entitled to participate on an equal basis" in the organization, the joint declaration said, adding that its members "would welcome that delegations of all member states be able to take part" in the Council's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) in June.

Moscow hailed the common declaration and responsed it had no intention to leave the Council of Europe. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the declaration sets the path to use for solving the current crisis. Russia was sanctioned in 2014 by having its right of vote suspended in the Council of Europe. Back then, Moscow responded by boycotting the plenary sessions and stopping its financial contribution. In these circumstances, Russia’s membership was to be suspended in June, for failing to pay its contribution.

As it previously threatened, Ukraine, unhappy about this decision, downsized its level of participation in the Council of Europe reunion, with Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Pavlo Klimkin renouncing to travel to Helsinki (before... resigning). Pavlo Klimkin communicated that ending the sanctions on Russia means “normalization”, i.e. accepting everything Moscow did (Russia’s aggression against Ukraine).

Thus, Russia returns to the Council of Europe without having changed its position neither regarding the annexation of Crimea, nor regarding the Donbass aggression against Ukraine, still ongoing. The Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Atanas Linkevičius highlighted that Russia continues its aggression against Ukraine, and the European values mean too little if they are not defended. In his turn, the Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini stressed that it was the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014" which triggered everything, "and that cannot be forgotten."

On the other hand, this solution allows maintaining a functional relation with Russia within this organization. Germany and France acted pragmatically, as a dialogue with Moscow, at least in the Council of Europe, is of utmost importance. Isolating Russia does not serve anybody when Moscow shows it can continue business as usual under current pressures. Germany and France initiate a realistic policy (Realpolitik, if not Cynicalpolitik) towards Russia, but it seems there is no alternative.

Slowly but surely, Moscow escapes the noose, but lifting the European Union sanctions is not yet in sight. However, considering the sanctions, there are two issues: 1) If for some European nations, keeping the sanctions only means political engagement, for others, especially Germany and France, sanctions mean financial losses following the end of profitable businesses; 2) Why would these countries pay this price, when the Ukrainian leaders who beg for support did not risk anything of their money or power, while Ukraine remains a politically fragile bankrupt state? As for the European values, while Moscow makes no effort to hide its disrespect thereof, the problem is that not even all Europeans abide by the European values either.

The inevitable already happened: Russia is accepted, slowly but surely, in its terms (although not ending its aggression against Ukraine) by the United States and by the European powers. Moscow’s behavior follows the traditional pattern: grab territory through aggression, then achieve appeasement, but keep the grab. Ukraine is left only to accept the situation, and the smaller European nations bordering Russia or close enough, Romania included, are left to learn the lesson and act accordingly. On Ukraine, the danger increases, especially since the domestic situation gets more and more complicated. See below.

IV. UKRAINE. The political crisis.

Even before President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was sworn in office, Monday, May 20th, in the Ukrainian Parliament (Rada), he was facing a political crisis in the making. The power transition in Kyiv became something totally different, a stampede of last minute resignations and dismissals. The current political parliamentary forces announce a fierce fight with the new now sworn in president, and establishing snap elections is arguably jeopardized by a political trick performed by a parliamentary party.

During the swearing in ceremony, V. Zelenskiy stated: "I dissolve the Verkhovna Rada of the eighth assembly". However, he did not sign the necessary decree right away.

While representatives of the Zelenskiy camp were talking about disbanding the Rada, the politicians in the Rada worked to prevent that from happening. On May 5th, the People’s Front parliamentary group decided to withdraw from the governing coalition, the European Ukraine. Consequently, the parliament has one month to form a new coalition and a new government. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians entered the last six months to the scheduled parliamentary elections (October 27th), when the Rada cannot be disbanded. However, Zelenskiy supporters claim that such rationale is not valid, because the governing coalition in fact ceased to exist years ago. The coalition that was established in November 2014 consisted of Petro Poroshenko's Bloc, the People's Front, Samopomich (Self-Reliance), Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), and the Radical Party. The latter three political parties quit the coalition in 2015 - 2016. Therefore, there is a constitutional entanglement in Kyiv, and the effects complicate the political situation in Ukraine.

Should the elections be held as scheduled, it seems that all bad leads to good, and the new president has time to organize his own political party. It is true: in time, the electorate support might decrease, but there will be Zelenskiy’s actions to matter, and his performance will make the electorate either stay faithful or leave. Zelenskiy will have almost six months to prove what he can deliver of the promises he made. Should he convince the electorate, he will also have the necessary political support to form a parliamentary majority. However, it is hard to believe that Zelenskiy will succeed, considering the huge pressure he will be subjected to.

After taking the oath of office at the Verkhovna Rada on May 20th, Zelenskiy said that lawmakers must dismiss the security officials and pass several key pieces of legislation, including bills to cancel lawmakers' immunity and to prosecute officials or illegal enrichment. These should happen within two months, which is, according to the Constitution, the maximum period between a published legal decision dissolving the Rada and the election of a new parliament. V. Zelenskiy also called for the dismissal of top security officials including controversial Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko, the Defense Minister, Stepan Poltorak, and the head of the state security service Vasyl Hrytsak, all seen as Petro Poroshenko loyalists. Only the latter two offered their resignations right away, on May 20th, but there was no such public offer from Lutsenko, who is at the center of concerns about persistent corruption in Ukraine. Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin also resigned, and this might make the transition more difficult, while the resignation of Oleksandr Turchinov, the National Security Council secretary, will make it easier. Anyway, the image of chaos, not only among the former power officials, but spread out across the whole state leadership, is more and more visible.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy also mentioned that he would do everything in his power to ensure "Ukrainians do not cry" and declared: "I'm ready to do all I can so that our heroes don't die there, and if necessary I am ready to lose my post to bring peace there," meaning the Donbas, where Russia-backed separatists hold two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk.

In his inauguration speech, V. Zelenskiy delivered two short passages in Russian.
In one of those, he said the first steps toward peace in the Donbas must include an exchange of captives. In the second, President Zelenskiy assured Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Russia-held Crimea and the separatist-held parts of Donbass that he would always consider them Ukrainian citizens. It is worth mentioning here that Russian President Putin has not congratulated Volodymyr Zelenskiy on his election.

In addition, the ”Trump effects” are flooding Ukraine: in the US, an investigation started on elements who triggered the investigation against the president, and some of the leads send to Kyiv (the Paul Manafort case). It will be more difficult for the new president to identify a swift solution to preserve the Trump Administration support.

Former president P. Poroshenko has warned V. Zelenskiy on the oligarchs’ raise danger (of course, other than Poroshenko’s oligarchs), but from this communication to a fair cooperation between the two there is a long way. Very likely, the West will act decisively to unite the political forces close to Zelenskiy with the reformist forces within the current parliament. Considering that they are not even clear on what Zelenskiy wants and what he can do, will they be able to achieve this unity?

Ukraine will cross the desert of serious political and economic instability, and Russia will likely seek to profit from such vulnerability. Support from the West is expected to compensate this vulnerability, albeit more and more tweaked itself. Only the high price of sanctions is probably able to balance Russia’s diplomatic and economic aggressivity (the military aggressivity is slow, for the moment). Let’s not forget though, the IMF, who will show up to hold Kyiv accountable for not implementing the reforms Ukraine promised when it received the bailing loans.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy promised the Ukrainians not to disappoint them, but will he be able to deliver? 

V. Developments to track this Week 21 of 2019.

  • EUROPEAN UNION. The race to the European Parliament elections is on its last leg, and last-minute reconfigurations of the political stage are conducted. Emmanuel Macron’s forming of a centrist liberal group was expected, as well as the far-right thrust. Matteo Salvini is the one to take the lead on this and he was encouraged by the domestic success (although each of his anti-European declarations pushes down the value of Italian bonds in relation to the German bonds). M. Salvini will invite the important European right-wing leaders to Milano, where V. Orbán chose not to participate. But the anti-Europeans have a big problem: they are linked by their common hatred of Brussels, each of them has his own requests, many times even against each-other[2]. In fact, everybody has problems, from British Conservatives (collapsed facing the… Brexit party) to the Socialists and Populars. However, the biggest problems burden those who do not belong to any European family, not even the extremist or populists. The “Austrian accident” is worth mentioning: the Austrian Vice-prime-minister Heinz-Christian Strache offered contracts to a Russian company in exchange for political support. This confirms that the European far-right is corrupt and seeks Russia’s political support.  
  •  UNITED STATES – IRAN. Although, at high level, their leaders state they do not wish to wage war, the reality suggests otherwise. The US holds significant forces in the Golf area, and they warned Iran to refrain from acting against American interests. Planning for deploying an important US military contingent in the Golf seems to be a reality. Important Iranian leaders maintained that Tehran does not want war (of course not, they would lose it), but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps keeps threatening, and sabotages against American ships in the Gulf, and against Saudi oil installations bear the signature of paramilitary forces close to Iran (although the false flag hypothesis cannot be ruled out yet). Iran threatens to withdraw from the nuclear agreement, but this would mean simply starting the countdown to an attack by the US. President Donald Trump does not want war either, but simply Iran’s surrender. Is such surrender possible? Hard to believe. The Iranians want nothing but finding a way to delay and by-pass the American embargo, hoping that President Trump will not be reelected. For how long can this neither-peace-nor-war situation last?  
  • UNITED STATES - CHINA. China answered to the US-imposed tariffs by establishing its own tariffs on American products. Trump Administration responded by sanctions against the Chinese colossus Huawei. What was expected, now occurs indeed: a long trade war between the two nations. Many such moves will likely follow, with some decisions to be known after the bilateral meeting between the two presidents during the June G-20 reunion in Japan.

[1] Although President Trump referred only to protecting the Christians in Hungary from Muslim immigrants by building the fence at the border with Serbia, the idea was snatched in mid volley by the Hungarian leadership. It went as far as ridiculous in the interview offered by the Hungarian Foreign Minister to CNN, where he had to be stopped by the moderator during his diatribe overstating Hungary’s role as protector of world Christianity. The CNN moderator had to explain the Hungarian official what President Trump really meant.

[2] While visiting Slovakia, French far-right leader Marine Le Pen had to consider the Slovakian extremist party request that Slovak workers enjoy the same rights as the western European workers, a request blatantly against the French far-right policy.