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30 iunie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 26 of 2020)

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

I. SERBIA. The power wins parliamentary elections. II. UNITED STATES / RUSSIA. Negotiations for extending the New START. III. RUSSIA. Victory Parade, in preparations for the referendum. IV. EUROPEAN UNION / CHINA. Reunion of EU and Chinese leaders. V. Developments to track this Week 27 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

English version by Mircea Mocanu

I. SERBIA. The power wins parliamentary elections[1].

In circumstances where the opposition boycotted the parliamentary elections, the power won with a landslide, and prepares to take total control of the country. With such popular support, President Aleksandar Vučić has the mandate from Serbian nations to reach an agreement regarding Kosovo and relaunch Serbia’s efforts for EU integration. However, such victory is dangerous because the power will continue to grab the state institutions. At the same time, Vučić already steers the country out of being a democracy, and his foreign gamble, between Russia, China, and the EU might prove costly. For the moment though, differences between the United States and Germany blocked the negotiations for a solution in Kosovo. Therefore, President Vučić must pay more attention to his friends, Russia, when appointing his future government. In Belgrade, the double discourse, one language at home and a different narrative abroad, is still working, but it is a matter of time until natural contradictions of such policy kick in. In Kosovo, justice is being done, Hashim Thaci’s indictment is not a surprise. What is spectacular is that it happens now, meaning right now, when he was just about to reach an understanding with Aleksandar Vučić, mediated by the United States: the solution of Kosovo recognition with exchange of territories, which is not convenient for Germany. 

The June 21st parliamentary elections in Serbia were clearly won by Aleksandar Vučić’s party, SNS, with 60.70% (in fact, his party, the Serbian Progressist Party / SNS had the coalition “For Our Children” around it). SNS was followed by the Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, led by Ivica Dačić, in coalition with other left-wing parties, with 10.35%. The opposition, represented only by the Serbian Patriotic Alliance / SPAS (right-wing populist party), won only 3.85%! These results were clearly shaped by the fact that most opposition parties boycotted the elections, and many small parties failed to cross the 3% threshold. In the 250-seat parliament , SNS will have 191 seats, SPS 32 seats, and the opposition, SPAS, only 11 seats. This political opposition has less than the 16  seats reserved for minorities[2]. SNS has 77% of parliament representation and will unchallengedly dominate the Serbian state and society. Highly likely, SPS will remain a governing party. Turnout was 47.99%, less than half of the population, which will allow the opposition to claim that the power has no legitimacy, especially in moments when the power takes crucial decisions for the country (in the Kosovo issue, for instance).

Vučić and his party, SNS, politically dominated the last decade. He was accused of capturing the state, abuse of power, and authoritarianism. As any former nationalist communist, Vučić rejects these accusations, based on support from a majority which is content with an increased living standard (regardless the costs, especially hidden costs, such as the expansion of Chinese capital). This majority considers they established Serbia’s national dignity and accepted Vučić’s double discourse (European integration, but, at the same time, friend with adversaries and competitors of the West). President Vučić benefits support from Serbian elite, but this is exactly where the problem rests, because its origins and economic foundation are the elements which will preclude Serbia from reforming and becoming a democracy. Vučić managed well the Coronavirus crisis (although not as well as it was presented by Serbian state-controlled media) and he used a discourse favorable to authoritarian regimes, especially a pro-Chinese discourse. He also attacked the EU (“EU solidarity does not exist, it is just a story”), although money came from Brussels. EU accepts the situation, at least until the Kosovo problem is solved. Despite this criticism, Vučić is the man of the day, as he presents himself, with “a strong government and parliament”, and his policy of “balance” between China, Russia (good political and economic friends) and the West (EU first) is working. However, although European integration is the power’s declared objective, reforms are only on paper, while the general political situation goes south.  

Boycott from opposition parties was partial, Serbian political opposition failed to remain united for these elections, it proved divided and eclectic. That was not important though, boycott or no boycott, SNS would have won the elections anyway. Low turnout provides grounds for the opposition to claim that elected power lacks legitimacy, but this claim can be challenged considering that fear of Coronavirus was as strong as population response to the call for boycott. Vučić will use this “historical” victory to present himself as “the voice of the people” and, under this banner, he will lead Serbia the same as he did hitherto. The question is what the outcome will be, because the moment of ripe contradictions is near both for domestic issues (claiming reform is one thing, implementing authoritarian regime is another thing) and foreign problems as well (a decision on Kosovo, solving the contradiction of Belgrade’s “balanced foreign policy”).

Vučić visited Moscow, where he attended the Victory Parade and talked to Vladimir Putin. As a first result that was announced, Serbia will receive a first batch of T-72B3 tanks of the military equipment assistance package offered by Russia. The Kosovo issue was touched, but that had already been discussed by Lavrov in Belgrade and… turned obsolete in current circumstances. In addition, it cannot be ruled out that Moscow expressed preferences for certain Serbian politicians, who are worth, in the Kremlin’s view, of being ministers. From Moscow, Vučić left for Brussels, being prepared to fly to Washington as well, which was no longer the case. During the meeting with Ursula von der Leyen, there were different approaches: while von der Leyen talked about the need for reforms in view of European integration, Vučić talked about the certainty of European integration (he even put an optimistic horizon on the table – 2026).

The meeting planned for the White House did not happen because Kosovar president Hashim Thaci, while flying to Washington, was forced to turn back for being accused of crimes. Thus, after a whole diplomatic saga, the White House meeting, meant to lead to a solution for Kosovo and Serbia, was thwarted in the last moment. On June 24th, a prosecutor of the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) in The Hague, announced that former UCK leader Hashim Thaci is suspicioned of being “criminally responsible for nearly 100 murders”, as well as the “enforced disappearance of persons, persecution, and torture” involving “hundreds of known victims of Kosovo Albanian, Serbian, Roma, and other ethnicities and include political opponents”[3]. A judge of Kosovo Specialist Chambers (KSC) in The Hague is examining the accusations for conformity. In these circumstances, there is the question whether the accusation was announced just now precisely for preventing the meeting in Washington. Highly likely, the White House raises this question, and this will not help transatlantic relations. Hashim Thaci’s refusal to negotiate with EU and his preference for the United States was visible: he declined traveling to Brussels, and he requested the termination of European EULEX mission. On the other hand, information on Thaci’s implication in heinous crimes (including organ trafficking) were circulating since 2008. Now, Kosovar new prime minister Avdullah Hoti is left to bring together the mediators, U.S., and EU (Germany). Hoti only visited Brussels, with only rumours about his would-be visit to Washington).

After having Aleksandar Vučić reconfirmed by elections, the negotiations are now blocked by Hashim Thaci’s indictment. Before seeing Vučić and Thaci agree on a solution, the two mediators, U.S., and EU (Germany) must agree on a solution, which must also be palatable to Russia. The positive element is that another individual suspicioned of crimes will appear before a court, although bringing Kosovar suspects to justice with a slow boat can become a topic of discussions too. The West stepped in to end the violent nightmare in Kosovo and created the Kosovo political entity. However, the process cannot go full circle because the two main players, U.S., and Germany, do not agree on a solution. Such situation is greeted by Russia (always interested in preserving frozen conflicts) and causes concerns in all countries in the region.


II. UNITED STATES / RUSSIA. Negotiations for extending the New START.

This reunion meant to begin negotiations for extending / renegotiating the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) resulted in the decision to continue discussions in expert group meetings. However, the conditions put by the United States i.e. an agreement to include China and the future accord extension to include all nuclear weapons (not only the strategic weapons) are issues providing little hopes for progress. These bad omens are supplemented by possible requirements raised by Russia.  

Following tradition, the June 23rd meeting between U.S. representative Marshall Billingslea and Russia’s Sergey Ryabkov took place in Vienna and resulted in planning the next phase at expert level. Technical discussions in expert groups is to occur soon, and, depending on their results, a next round of high-level meeting will be established for July or August. During this first round, the two parties presented their objectives and their block-start positions.

Although the meeting was initially kept discrete, the end declarations were eloquent. The U.S. special representative on arms control Marshall Billingslea has stated that Washington wants to extend this strategic nuclear arms control agreement to the entire arsenal of nuclear weapons:  “We, the United States, intend and believe ... that the next arms control agreement must cover all nuclear weapons, not just so-called strategic nuclear weapons”. Also, the United States believes that China should be part of this future agreement, as a rising global power, considering that this nation secretely accelerated efforts to increase its nuclear arsenal. Russia remains skeptical regarding Beijing’s participation, and offered the option of bringing France and the United Kingdom into the agreement as well. Nevertheless, Russia considers that U.S. proposal to bring China to negotiations is not realistic. China, whose arsenal is much smaller, rejected American efforts to include it into such agreement, and the two countries had an unpolite exchange of words (Billingslea posting of a Chinese flag on an empty seat was labeled by Beijing as an ”act of performance art”). Russian vice foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov declared that the accord of continuing negotiations is a “significant step forward”. Russia’s goal is to have New START extended for the next five years (as provisioned in the agreement), and Ryabkov declared it would be “correct and logical” to agree on such extension.

The two parties do not have much time to act, as the New START is due to expire in February 2021. The situation regarding strategic nuclear weapons, as well as the situation in sub-strategic / tactical nuclear weapons got more complicated, since Russia introduced new weapon systems under New START (the Avangard hypersonic glider) or it alters the strategic balance (the SSC-8 missiles, the underwater Poseidon system, hypersonic missiles, the nuclear-power cruise missile). The United States announcement it withdraws from the INF complicated the problem by accusations that Russia breached the INF when deploying “multiple batallions” of cruise missiles mounted on ground platforms, thus having “the ability to strike critical European targets”. Russia denied these accusations and stated that the range of SSC-8 missiles complies with INF stipulations. In its turn, Moscow accused the U.S. of modernizing its tactical nuclear bombs deployed to Europe, and requested their withdrawal, opposing the sharing of these bombs with NATO allies. This request, based on considerations of breaching the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, follows the Kremlin’s traditional line of sabotaging the transatlantic relation[4]. Russian position was revealed by Maria Zakharova, in her specific style: „Russia discussed the destabilising effects of  NATO’s military activity in Europe, stressing the importance of stopping 'nuclear sharing missions' and withdrawal of  U.S. nuclear weapons from European countries”. 

The New START limits to 1550 the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads, but these are only part (the most important part) of thousands of nuclear warheads the two countries possess. New START limits not only the number of deployed nuclear strategic warheads, but also the number of deployed launching installations, to a total of 700, plus another 800 non-deployed such launchers (including the ground-based intercontinental missile / ICBM launchers, those on submarines / SLBM, and the bombers, counting one bomber for one launcher, although several nuclear-warhead cruise missiles can be launched from a bomber). This agreement was hitherto observed by both parties. It is worth reminding that INF was referring only to launch systems (banning ground-based missiles with a range between 500 and 5500 kilometers), not to warheads (warheads were not specified at all in the INF, either conventional or nuclear). Therefore, the nuclear weapons (strategic, sub-strategic or tactical) are not limited by any agreement, and the American proposition is remarkable, but hard to negotiate (for being difficult to be implemented, especially considering the verification methods and procedures).   

The United States objective is difficult to achieve, both for slim chances to bring China to negotiations, and for the difficulties to negotiate the limitation of all nuclear warheads in such a short time. In addition, Russia has no interest in limiting its entire nuclear arsenal. It is worth mentioning that Moscow might bring forth its old idea of linking the defensive systems (the missile defense installations) to the offensive systems. However, such approach would only strengthen its position in negotiations, Russia’s objective being to extend the New START, and current conditions weigh in its advantage (Moscow took an early start in the arms race by renewing its nuclear arsenal, developing new niche systems, and operationalizing SSC-8 missiles). Although President Donald Trump showed openness to Russia and Vladimir Putin, he will find difficult to make further concessions, especially in this moment (information that Russian intelligence paid the Taliban and associated criminal gangs bounties to kill American and coalition soldiers are not good omen for negotiations). As mentioned before, we will likely witness a limited extension of New START, NATO response to SSC-8 deployment, as well as non-inclusion of missile defense systems into negotiations on strategic nuclear weapons.


III. RUSSIA. Victory Parade, in preparations for the referendum.

The Victory Parade had been postponed due to the Coronavirus crisis (which continues anyway). Besides the natural tribute to the victory against Nazism, as the Soviet Union contribution was undoubtfully decisive, this event provided an opportunity to advertise Moscow’s political goals, and to showcase Russia’s military capabilities. The effort and the risk the power made are remarkable, in pandemic conditions, but Victory Parade is a crucial element for Russians’ national ethos, at 75 years from this costly victory and crucial for the Kremlin’s ambitions too. Beside other political, propagandistic, and economic measures, this event contributed to preparing the constitutional referendum meant to eternalize Vladimir Putin in power. 

This year’s parade was, however, smaller, and the number of new weapon systems was smaller too. Nevertheless, Victory Parade presented Russian armed forces equipped with modernized weapon systems, many of them tested in battles. Regarding the army, the futuristic T-14 Armata tanks were presented, but the focus was on the T-90M tank (“Proryv-3”, modernized T-90 MS based on Syria experience, with reactive armor including for the turret, and a 125 mm caliber cannon, capable of launching Reflex missiles as well). The piece de resistance was artillery: the BM-30 Smyerch (‘Death’) reactive projectile systems were presented (with 90 kilometer-range 300mm reactive projectiles), the TOS-1, and the TOS-2 systems (on Armata tank chassis), described as a ‘heavy flamethrower vehicle’ armed with 24 rockets, which can have either incendiary or thermobaric warheads. In the self-propelled artillery domain, the 2S35 Koalitsiya-SV systems were showcased. The novelty was the 50-barreled ISDM remote minelayer (another short-range rocket launcher designed for minelaying, where the 122mm rockets each scatter several mines across a precise area, creating an instant minefield from up to nine miles away; Russia is not an Ottawa Convention on mines signatory). Among the ICBM systems, the RS-24 Yars system was presented, the novelty being its escort, the Listva microwave minesweeper system (driving ahead of the Yars launcher, this vehicle establishes a secure path for launcher advance). In tactical missile systems, the Iskander M was paraded (this might be the very SSC-8, “Kalibr-on-land”). In air-defense systems, along the known S-400, S-350, Buk-M3, TOR-M2, and the less advertised (after the failure in Libya) Pantsir-SM.S.SA system, the 2S28 air defense derivative was showcased. This has a single rapid-fire 57mm cannon on a BMP-3 chassis, big enough, and with sufficient range to take out large drones and aircraft; It fires rapidly enough to knock down swarms of smaller attackers. The 2S28 system fires a new guided projectile with pop-out wings claimed to have a kill-probability similar to surface-to-air missiles. The cannon is also effective against ground targets including armored vehicles. Drones and robots were absent.

For naval forces, the Bal system was presented. For air forces, there was the usual transport and attack helicopter parade, as well as Tu-160, Tu-95 and Tu-22M3M strategic bombers, transport and in-flight refueling tankers, ‘almost stealth’ Su-57 and the Su-30SM / Su-35 ‘workhorse’, as well as modernized Mig-29 MST, Su-24M, and the (‘Kinzhal-carrier’) MiG-31K. The novelty was the A-50U, modernized version of the A-50 (the Russian AWACS). 

From a political point of view, Victory Parade partly reached its goal by having in attendance leaders from nations allied or friendly to Russia (from India and China – ministers of defense). President Putin’s speech focused on historical memory, with a relative restraint towards the West, as the Kremlin seeks to reactivate the dialogue between the heavyweights, the UN Security Council permanent members. However, the speech context had been previously established by laundering Stalin (mum’s the word on Ribbentrop – Molotov pact, the West is guilty for everything). Victory Parade contributed to preparing the referendum meant to change Russia’s Constitution, in addition to economic measures promoted by the Kremlin (taxation of the haves, support for the disenfranchised, new economic programs). The referendum will likely pan out because the constitutional changes come wrapped in a package: political changes (strengthening the president role and resetting the number of Vladimir Putin’s mandates), as well as social and identity changes. Remarkably, prevalence of national laws over international laws is among the changes; this is necessary to the Kremlin in current circumstances, where accusations of war crimes, espionage, and other illegal deeds keep mounting (recently, German prosecutors officially accused Russian government of ordering a murder on German territory). 

Commemorating the past as it happened, with ups and downs[5] is used by the Kremlin for political purposes, as Moscow faces an uncertain future, caused by its own actions. A lesson from history is that forefathers’ sacrifice must be cherished, not used in politics, everybody ought to look with objectivity to the historical facts. But the Kremlin is isolated in the world (President Emmanuel Macron’s future visit does not change that), and the Putinist model faces serious domestic problems – economic, social, and political. Let us hope that stability will prevail, and Russia’s appetite for armed aggressions and undermining western democracies will diminish. This becomes more valid since, in fact, no Western nation has the least intention to offense or inflict upon Russia’s legal and legitimate interests. Thus, the whole Russian mobilization against the West, identified  as adversary, is pointless.


IV. EUROPEAN UNION / CHINA. Reunion of EU and Chinese leaders.

The June 22nd EU – China video-Summit was meant to reduce current tensions and identify a common ground. However, the lack of a common final declaration shows that too little progress was achieved. Decades of honeymoon seem to have ended: the EU does not accept failed promises, and China becomes more and more non-cooperant, as the Europeans point to the truth, while multiple divergences keep piling up.

In absence of a common declaration at the end of this summit, the European press declaration is eloquent, as it mentions: 1) cooperation with China is an opportunity and a necessity, although the two nations do not share the same values, political systems or approaches to multilateralism; 2) EU will approach realistically its relations with Beijing, defending its values and interests; 3) the need to implement the measures convened during the 2019 summit, and the need to reach progress in finalizing the comprehensive EU-China investment agreement; 4) cooperation in combatting the effects of global warming by fulfilling promises regarding reduction in gas emissions; 5) digitalization must not impact on human rights and liberties; 6) special problems in cyber-security and disinformation were raised; 7) EU requested China to take more responsibility in solving global problems, based on the international norm system; 8) cooperation in Coronavirus pandemic crisis; 9) situations in Afghanistan, Korean Peninsula, and Iran (the nuclear deal) were discussed; 10) concerns were expressed regarding the imposition of Chinese security law in Hong Kong, treatment of minorities in muslim Xinjiang- Uighur and Tibet, as well as protection of human rights in general (with the resumption of bilateral dialogue in that respect).

The European leaders attending the summit were Charles Michel, Ursula von der Leyen, and Josep Borrell, while Beijing was represented by Prime-Minster Li Keqiang, but Chinese President Xi Jinping also participated. The summit unfolded in the context of increasing divergencies on trade, investments, human rights, and national security (cyber-attacks, hostile propaganda, and disinformation on Covid-19 pandemic issues). The EU became more and more concerned regarding China’s aggressivity, and tensions were caused by the establishment of tariffs against Chinese companies (for the beginning, against Chinese production facilities located in Egypt). Also, the European Parliament had passed a resolution condemning the implementation of Beijing’s security law in Hong Kong and requested the European Commission and member nations to take adequate measures, including by accusing China at the International Criminal Court.

The summit offered poor results in reaching the objective of negotiating the trade and investment agreement, as the Europeans wanted to solve the problem of state subsidies granted by Beijing to Chinese companies, the technology transfer problem, and having China offer equal opportunities to European companies. This goal was not achieved, it becomes harder and harder to achieve, since Chinese government is consolidating its control upon economy, and becomes more and more assertive towards Western powers (as the Europeans quit the diplomatic approach and call things on their true name, they face a more and more visible adversity from Beijing). Chinese promises of creating equal opportunities for competition to European companies remained without any result, and political divergencies increased (repression against the Uighurs, security law in Hong Kong). Through Mike Pompeo’s voice, the U.S. advised EU that confrontation is the only effective approach to China. Although the EU will preserve a diplomatic approach and avoid the confrontation option suggested by Washington, relations between EU and China entered the phase of realism and distancing. Therefore, there are little chances to see Beijing change its behavior, and the Europeans are no longer in the position to tolerate such behavior. German presidency of EU will be the one to set these relations on their future path.


VI. Developments to track this Week 27 of 2020.

► UNITED STATES / NATO. The American Secretary of Defense visited Brussels to work on implementing the decisions taken during the recent NATO Defense Ministerial.  We will soon see concrete measures, from allied response to Russia’s SSC-8 deployment to withdrawal from Afghanistan.  

► UNITED STATES. A book as big as a crisis. In a country caught in the turmoil of social unrest, John Bolton’s book about the time he spent at the White House raises question marks regarding President Trump and his foreign policy. Although we leave room for doubts regarding John Bolton’s objectivity, there is still enough to think about, and true dangers are surfacing. The book must be read, albeit for understanding how top politics is being conducted these days.

► REUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. Maia Sandu refused to talk to Igor Dodon regarding a possible political cooperation. Returned from Moscow, President Igor Dodon brought back to debates the Russian loan that he needs so much both for complying with the Kremlin’s demands, and for gaining financial support in view of upcoming presidential and (early) parliamentary elections. Igor Dodon’s government is paralyzed and will likely remain so, until the elections. But there is no money, therefore extreme solutions (meant to get European money) cannot be ruled out.  

► BELARUS. Dictator Aleksandr Lukashenka has problems. Although he arrested his counter-candidates and accused Russia and Poland of meddling, the situation gets more complicated, and a victory in elections would be reached only wrapped into political destabilization. It is interesting that the West might tolerate the dictator, for geopolitical reasons, but it would not tolerate the dictatorship, while Russia loves dictatorship, but Moscow loathes the dictator.

► UKRAINE / HUNGARY. The two foreign ministers decided to hinge the upcoming meeting between Ukrainian and Hungarian leaders on progress in the issue of minority language education law in Ukraine. The intended summit is meant to solve the bilateral issues, and it would be good to see an improvement in bilateral relations of Romania’s two neighbors.

► LIBYA / EGYPT / UNITED STATES / FRANCE. On the brink of war. In Libya, both warrying parties consolidate their military disposition, but the red line has not been crossed: no military offensive at Sirte, where the frontline is (although Russian mercenaries already occupied an oil field). Egypt announced its decision to intervene if Turkey attacked and requested the withdrawal of all foreign troops. Germany, Italy, and France called for negotiations. The United States mediates, but does not get involved on the ground, regardless how much Turkey would insist on that, because Washington does not support Ankara in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) dispute. Tensions between France and Turkey increased to the level where Paris requested in the EU discussions on Turkey “without taboos”, and President Macron returned to the unfortunate expression “braindead NATO”, although the Alliance is investigating the Turco-French naval incident.  On the backdrop of Josep Borrell visit to the region, the EEZ problems between Turkey and Cyprus, respectively Greece, came in close-up, as Greek prime minister stated that his country was ready for any situation.

[1] Local elections in Serbia confirmed parliamentary election trends.

[2] The VMSZ (party of Hungarian minority in Vojvodina), has 10 seats, SSP-DPM (representing Boshniaks and Macedonians in Sandjak) has 2 seats, SDAS (Boshniaks in Sandjak) has 2 seats, and ADA (representing Albanians) has 2 seats.

[3] Together with Hashim Thaci, another UCK commander was indicted, Kadri Veseli, current leader of Kosovo Democrat Party. The two were also accused of attempting to undermine the investigation. The KSC and the SPO operate in the Hague, and the “State of Kosovo” agrees to that, with EU support.

[4] The U.S. support to NATO with American nuclear arsenal, and U.S. sharing tactical nuclear weapons with NATO allies in Europe make together the foundation of NATO defense and deterrence policy.

[5] The Soviet Union essentially contributed to defeat Nazism, but it did not bring liberty; on the contrary, it brought the toughest dictatorship in Eastern Europe history.