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29 mai 2019 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT- Main Political and Military Developments - WEEK 21 of 2019

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

I. UKRAINE. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy dissolved the parliament.II. AUSTRIA. The political scandal triggered a governmental crisis.III. UNITED KINGDOM. Theresa May resigned. IV. RUSSIA. Military activities.V. Developments to track this Week 22 of 2019.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. UKRAINE. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy dissolved the parliament.

On May 21th, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy dissolved the Parliament (Verkhovna Rada) and made his first appointments in high official positions. Zelenskiy needed to dissolve the Rada to secure a loyal legislative body after snap elections. On the other hand, the appointments, mostly stemming from Zelenskiy’s entourage, are controversial, to say the least. In his May 20th inauguration speech, President Zelenskiy presented his objectives, which include solving the Donbass conflict as priority, but he offered no road map to that end.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed a decree dissolving the parliament, and the snap elections are to be held in June. His chances to beef up loyal forces in the future Rada are best now, four months before the sceduled elections. However, this action will be challenged in court, due to the maneuver performed by a parliamentary party last week: it announced its departure from the governing coalition, which, in fact... ceased to exist long ago. The speaker of the Rada, Andriy Parubiy, declared that, by dissolving the parliament, V. Zelenskiy started a constitutional crisis to be solved by judges. The parliamentarians also refused to acquiesce to the President’s requests for changing the electoral law and renounce immunity.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy requested and obtained the resignation of Ukraine’s government. The head of Ukraine’s intelligence agency also resigned, and Zelenskiy appointed a friend to govern that institution. Nevertheless, the controversial General Prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, is still in office. V. Zelenskiy also apporinted a new Chief of Defense, General Ruslan Komchak[1], former Chief of the Army Staff.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s appointments for the Presidential Admninistration staff caused controversies because the appointees are members of his inner circle of friends and businessmen, with no competencies in high politics. The most controversial newcomer is Andriy Bohdan, oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy’s attorney, as head of the Presidential Administration.  

President Zelenskiy’s first decisions show determination, but also his political isolation. As expected, this political crisis started with the president’s first decree, and, very likely, the controversy regarding the dissolution of Verkhovna Rada will be transfered to justice. Thus, Ukraine enters in electoral campaign for the parliament, regardless the timeline: the elections will occur either in June or in October. Volodymyr Zelenskiy does not possess yet a strong structured political force, as his party, “Servant of the People” (named after his TV show), lacks the necessary parliamentary effectiveness, even if it wins the elections using the president’s image.

Although he loathes the current political forces, Zelenskiy will have to find a way to cooperate with the existing parties, and this will water down his radical agenda meant to renew the society starting with the political class. In the contrary case, he has to assume the risk of facing a deeper political crisis.

Zelenskiy presented the Donbass conflict resolution as his priority, but, for the moment, he excluded a resumption of negotiations. This situation requires caution, which Andriy Bohdan noticed as well; he mentioned that any political arrangement ought to be approved by referendum. In fact, Zelenskiy’s priorities will be established by the economic and social situation in Ukraine, and by... Russia. The Kremlin will decide when and where the Donbass conflict negotiations will resume, if at all[2].

For the moment, Russia might wait for Ukraine’s vulnerabilization, as the economic situation becomes worse, which is favored by a political blockage. However, if he has quiet in Donbass, Zelenskiy has chances to settle the domestic situation, and such development would reduce the Kremlin’s margin of maneuver. Let us not forget, Vladimir Putin wants to control Ukraine, and the Donbass conflict is only a mean, not a goal itself. On the other hand, Russia needs the western sanctions lifted and needs to display a constructive attitude. Russia will likely watch and try to exploit any mistake Zelenskiy make. For the moment, the Kremlin must found an answer to the May 25th decision by the International Tribunal on the Law of Sea, which ruled that the Ukrainian sailors captured by Moscow following the Kerch Strait incident should be freed.

In Kyiv, the situation remains fluid, as President Zelenskiy knows he must act decisevely to stabilize the political and economic situation although he has the Donbass conflict as a Damocles sword above his head. The question is whether he has the capacity to do it.  


II.AUSTRIA. The political scandal triggered a governmental crisis.

The recently broadcast compromising video footage forced the Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, the president of far-right party FPÖ to resign. Then, the Austrian Chancellor and right-wing party president, Sebastian Kurz, requested the resignation of internal affairs minister and FPÖ member Herbert Kickl. After the Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen dismissed Herbert Kickl, all FPÖ ministers resigned, and they were replaced by technocrats. The interim government faces a vote of confidence in the Parliament, on May 27th. For this trial, the decisive factors will be the FPÖ position, divided as result of the scandal, as well as the position of the Social-Democrats (SPÖ), now in opposition. Regardless the result, Austria will have early parliamentary elections in September.

The trigger factor for the scandal was the compromising video published by two important German media outlets. The footage was captured on May 18th, 2017 in Ibiza and shows two top Austrian far-right politicians, Heinz-Christian Strache and Johann Gudenus, negotiating with a person presenting herself as the niece of a Russian oligarch. Although not yet in power, H-C Strache was offering Austrian government contracts in exchange for illegal political support. More precisely, the control over an important newspaper by “Russian representatives” was offered for promoting his party. He was recorded stating that such takeover of the newspaper by Russian representatives would lead to a quick surge of his party in polls. Strache described his intention to create in Austria a media situation like in Hungary, i.e. controlling the media in view of manipulating the electorate (it seems that Viktor Orbán became a role model in controlling mass-media!).

As result of the pressure exerted by the public opinion, but also by the right-wing chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, H-C Strache resigned  from the office of vice-chancellor. Wide cracks between the two governing parties surfaced, as the Popular Party’s chancellor Kurz also requested the resignation of internal affairs minister Herbert Kickl, who was not involved in the scandal. Sebastian Kurz considered that an objective investigation in this case cannot be conducted within a Ministry of Interior led by H. Kickl. The other FPÖ ministers were solidary with the minister of interior, and they resigned immediately after Kickl was dismissed by the Austrian President.

How did they get there? By using a nasty piece of evidence, which is nothing else but a “kompromat” (compromising material), remarkably exploited, which revealed publicly an even uglier and illegal fact: the Austrian far-right is indeed acting and thinking as it was always accused. Thus, disdaining the citizen, the far-right leader was ready to betray his country by colluding with Moscow for controlling the mass media, with the final aim to manipulate the electorate in order to gain political power. However, Austria’s high democratic standard obliged the far-right leader to resign.

Chancellor Kurz’ position seems exaggerated in his request to have the interior minister ousted. It is not though, considering Herbert Kickl’s record: under his leadership, the Austrian police previously searched the compound of the Austrian intelligence agency. They were likely looking for certain files regarding the Austrian far-right party collaboration with Russia. This behavior is not a surprise, knowing that both the far-right, and the far-left used police to illegally exert power. The cause of this situation is far deeper: the Austrian far-right prospered because Austria’s denazification did not reach the exemplary level achieved in Germany, and the roots of FPÖ are in the Austrian Nazis.

This scandal and FPÖ’s departure from power will afflict, although limited, the European elections in Austria. Most important though, is the evidence that FPÖ is by definition an extremist party. It is unlikely that FPÖ will get to power again after the elections in September. Although FPÖ is the first Western Europe far-right party to get to power, it is also the first to leave power. It is an alarm signal especially for Italy, but also for Hungary[3].

III.UNITED KINGDOM. Theresa May resigned.

As expected, Theresa May resigned from her position of UK Prime-Minister after failing the mission she had assumed (passing the agreement with the EU in the Parliament, albeit in a new presentation). The situation gets more complicated, as now a new Conservatory prime-minister is to be elected, and he will have to yank the country from the EU without any additional time to negotiate a new agreement, because the European Union holds solid the agreement signed with Theresa May.  

In a language revealing the pain of an honest politician stubborn to believe it found the solution, although nobody accepted that, Theresa May announced her resignation. The announcement was not a surprise, as Theresa May was subjected to a huge pressure by her own Conservative party after failing in her attempt to pass in the Parliament her agreement with the EU (her fourth attempt!). The new package of measures proposed by Theresa May was not even put to a vote, being obvious it would have been rejected. Theresa May tried to build a compromise by throwing bones both to the pro-Brexiters, which angered the anti-Brexiters, and to the anti-Brexiters, which angered the pro-Brexiters, who hold majority in the Conservative camp. Theresa May fell between the chairs and lost support of both camps.

Theresa May’s mistake was her ambition in promoting her agreement and forgetting that not the logic of compromise would steer the process, but the political will, and her own party supported in majority the Brexit without any compromise. She had no chance, as her close coworkers and important Conservative leaders pointed put. Later, they turned their back to her, and her resignation was an “announced execution”. The discussions with Labor were doomed upfront, because this party did not have a unitary view on the Brexit, let alone the very Labor leader, hard to read himself, beyond his radical lefty views and his desire to get to power.

The situation got more complicated, as one problem was replaced by two. Firstly, who will be prime minister? The Conservative Party will have to find a leader to steer the country out of the European Union having only the “May agreement” as a tool to do that, and the majority in the Parliament rejects that document, plus it has only limited time to solve this conundrum. Selecting a prime minister will bring along part of the answer to the second question: how will this future prime minister take the country out of the EU? Boris Johnson, one of the top candidates for the job, does not have, except for his eccentric behaviour, the qualities of a statesman to match the challenge.

The second problem: how will the future prime minister steer the Brexit process? He will have limited solutions, either a Blind Brexit or an intermediate solution between Blind Brexit and the “May Agreement” signed with the EU. This means that a new prime minister must ask the European Commission (EC) to renegotiate the divorce and obtain concessions according to the sovereign-minded majority among the Conservatives. Of course, there is a question here too: should such solution be found, will it pass in the Parliament?

In addition, the pointless European elections in the United Kingdom, but with great significance though, have puzzled the British political stage. Therefore, the vote was in protest to the stalemate, and an extremist like Nigel Farage became able to influence political decisions in Britain.    

Even the internal race within the Conservative Party itself might generate jams and will show cracks within this party. Considering that the future Tory prime minister will have one mission only, the Brexit, the whole process of electing a new prime minister  will orbit around the path desired for this departure… and that choice is not known yet! Perhaps London will continue to ask postponements from Brussels, and the EC will accept them, because the Europeans seem to adhere to the German position (Brexit must unfold smoothly, with no shocks), rather than the French position (just finish it at once!). Anyway, the option of a new referendum to keep Britain in is quite remote now.

From this never-ending saga, the European leaders with an anti-European agenda already learned two lessons: one is that leaving the EU is not travel but surgery, and the other is that anti-EU politics can be financed by the EC when Brussels gets bossy and refuses to bail out countries (like for Italy), or opposes attacks on the rule of law (the case of Hungary).   


IV. RUSSIA. Military activities.

Two Russian military activities caught attention this past week, although they are routine low level activities in separate Theaters of Operations (TO). In the Pacific TO, the Russian strategic bombers flew close to Alaska; and in the Black Sea TO, a short naval exercise was conducted. These two activities send political-military messages on separate platforms. The first signal is toward the United States, in the context of future negotiations regarding the strategic nuclear armament, while the second signal is a confirmation of Russian naval supremacy in the Black Sea.

On May 20th, the Russian strategic bombers conducted flights IVO Alaska. Their mission was complex: two formations entered the US air control area (Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone) with the transponders off, one flying North to South, and the second flying South to North. The first formation included two strategic bombers Tu 95, and the second formation included other two Tu 95s escorted by two Su 35 fighter aircraft. Both formations were intercepted by American F 22 fighter aircraft.

This kind of complex mission is no novelty, such flights occurred before, although escorting the bombers happened not often, given the problems raised by the fighter range: they would need enough kerosene to support an hypothetical dogfight with intercepting enemy aircraft. Very likely, the Su 35 fighter flights complicated the mission. On the other hand, in a real combat, the Tu 95 subsonic bombers, even escorted by Su 35 fighters, do not have chances to survive against the stealth F 22s. However, the point is that the bombers only need to launch their cruise missiles before being intercepted.

What did Moscow want to prove by these flights? It pointed put that this third component of Russia’s strategic triad, the strategic aviation, maintains its strike capability. Let’s remember that the strategic aviation is the weakest link of Russia’s strategic triad, with only old aircraft. Moscow has repeatedly announced that strategic aviation is a priority, and that it will modernize these aircraft, but the available funds were never enough. So, mum’s the word about building new bombers, it’s only about modernizing some of the old ones. And accidents happen, with problems especially for the Tu 22 M3s. Therefore, the Kremlin can only send the old but still operational Tu 95 subsonic strategic bombers to show it is still a threat which must be considered by Washington.

These flights come on the backdrop of perspectives to begin discussions with the U.S. regarding the strategic armament control, but they can also be perceived as an answer to the “visit” paid by American B 52 strategic bombers to Europe.    

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Regarding the other Russian military activity, on May 22rd, Moscow announced a naval exercise in the Black Sea. Almost all important warships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet took part in this drill: two new Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates (Admiral Makarov and Admiral Essen), as well as the old Krivak-2 class frigate Pitliviy and destroyer Smetliviy. Battleship Moskva did not take part, it was detected in the harbor, with no missile on board. The notified exercise goal was ship-to-ship combat training.

The drills ended as suddenly as they began, with the ships returning to home-ports on May 23rd. The Russians announced that artillery fire and anti-ship missile / Kalibr cruise missile launches were conducted. The notified scenario described the Admiral Makarov and Admiral Essen frigates forming a strike naval group which attacked with Kalibr missiles an escort naval grouping. The warships in the escort group exercised defense against the strike group attack.

The way this exercise was conducted does not follow the pattern of usual Russian naval exercises – modular, long-duration and gradually increasing in size and complexity. It rather resembled the reaction exercises to NATO warship presence in the Black Sea, especially in the northwest waters (Ukraine and Romania’s Exclusive Economic Zones – EEZ), or the NATO exercises conducted in the Black Sea, especially those organized by Romania and those in cooperation with Ukraine.

The situation clears up when considering that Ukraine had announced experimental launches of its Neptune anti-ship missiles between May 22 and 24, in a maritime area in northwestern Black Sea, northeast of the Danube Delta, starting from the littoral of Bugeac (the southwesternmost panhandle of Ukraine, to the Danube), and stretching for 100 nm in the Ukrainian EEZ. Normally, Russia should have sent only an ELINT vessel in the area, to collect intelligence on the Neptune missile.

The most likely explanation is a Russian reaction to these experimantal launching procedures. Thus, we have a confirmation that Russia reacts by organizing its own exercises in response to each naval activity conducted by adjacent nations – Ukraine and Romania, respectively to any NATO naval presence in the Black Sea. This manner of reacting shows that Russia does not accept its naval supremacy challenged in any way in the Black Sea. 

Russian naval provocations in the Black Sea are highly unlikely in the current conditions, when the Russia – Ukraine conflictual situation is stabilized, and an escalation of that confrontation at sea is also unlikely. Russia’s attention to Romania is also reduced now, because there is no direct competition in the Republic of Moldova, and the missile shield will be taken to the Russia – U.S. direct negotiations table. In exchange, there is an increase in naval and air pressure in the form of a Russian immediate response at exercise level to any Ukrainian or Romanian air or naval activity. Also, the Russian warships extended their area of maritime action to the limits of Ukrainian and Romanian territorial waters: now, the presence of Russian aircraft and warships following third party warships during NATO exercises became normal, although... it is not.


V. Developments to track this Week 22 of 2019.

  • EUROPEAN UNION. European elections. The campaign for the European Parliament elections reflected the big concern that the anti-European forces (extreme right and the populists) would obtain enough seats in the European Parliament to provide them with the capability to influence the decisions, in fact to disturb the European integration and development. Their agenda does not offer solutions, but only accusations, mostly baseless. The anti-European forces had another problem though: how to ask a European vote with an anti-European agenda, because, after Brexit, they cannot threaten with leaving the Union anymore.

These elections were previsioned as being crucial for the future of the EU, considering that the traditional political forces were under siege by the extreme right and the populists. In the future parliament, there will be the three large mainstream political groups (Populars, Central-Liberals, and Socialists), supplemented with Ecologists and Conservatories. The anti-Europeans have gained a number of seats which might be considered alarming by some, not alarming by others. However, the results of these elections do not crucially change the state of play yet: the anti-European forces became an important presence in the European Parliament but will not become a relevant component for important political decisions; the results were not as bad as feared. However, their success is enough to send a shock wave across Europe. The European elections though, will have an immediate effect at national level, by influencing the immediate decisions in domestic policy. The mainstream political spectrum, championing the European values, but having made mistakes and having failed to find solutions, faces those who question the European values, while pursuing specific interests. Last Sunday’s elections offer an opportunity to the extremists to capitalize on the mistakes the traditional politicians made, from lack of realism in approaching the issues to tolerating corruption and failing to assume solutions.

We should take into consideration that this odd political situation occurs when no real threat to Europe became a crisis: migration, trade war with the U.S. or China. Now, the only problem is the one that we, the Europeans ourselves, build for us, blinded by today’s selfishness and by good decades of peace and prosperity[4]. We face now the end of history, as Fukuyama put it.

During the whole current week, we will enjoy reactions and comments at European level on the election result: in France, Emmanuel Macron was slightly defeated by Marine Le Pen’s extreme right; expected results in Germany, with the Greens above the Socialists; in Italy la Lega wins more than a third of the ballots, more does FIDESZ in Hungary (52%); the Polish conservatives discover their opposition; in Bulgaria, Borissov wins comfortably despite scandals, and so on. The European elections turned from a mundane event into an important test at continental and national level.

  •  UNITED STATES – IRAN. The tensions continue. The situation gets more complicated although both camps voice about diminishing the tensions. The U.S. deploys a new military contingent in the Middle East, which will increase the tensions. Iran continues with defying statements, although Tehran rules out war and puts pressure on the Europeans to find a way to pass the sanctions by. The game of dodging the nuclear deal wording might blow back as a boomerang, although Tehran’s strategy is visible: obtaining concessions in order to widen the noose put by the U.S. around its neck to the width where it can breathe, speaking in economic terms. The Iranian warnings sent to the U.S. and America’s allies, by sabotaging the four ships, can backfire. President Trump does not want war, he prefers intimidation, “strategic bullying”, but should the escalation continue, will there be any path back to de-escalation?   

[1] He has fought in Donbass, in the battle of Ilovaysk.

[2] President Vladimir Putin already had a telephone conversation with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Interestingly, there are rumors that President Putin’s adviser Vladislav Surkov (the mastermind responsible with the New Russia project) has resigned. We will see whether this is a tactical change regarding Donbass, or it is just another disinformation maneuver.

[3] For Eastern Europe, the problem is more complex, because the authoritarianism “dances with the power”  in many of these countries, and the problem also includes the disdain regarding the law, and the visible corruption. In the same time, the public opinion and the judicial system lack the capacity to defend themselves, and the manipulation is easy to succeed in societies affected by totalitarian mentality residua.

[4] For us, the Europeans, the problem is simple: we must answer, not necessarily after these elections, to the question whether, after decades of communism and post-communism, we are still Europeans, accepting all European values, especially the “burden” of economic and political individual liberties.