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21 ianuarie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 3 of 2020)

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

I. RUSSIA. Vladimir Putin proposed constitutional changes and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned. II. UKRAINE. Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk resignation was rejected by President Zelenskiy. III. IRAN – UNITED STATES / EUROPEAN UNION. The crisis continues, and the denuclearization treaty faces new problems. IV. LIBYA. Berlin conference after the Moscow failure. V. Developments to track this Week 4 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

We continue to present the two crises outside Romania’s area of interest because, although their effects did not reach our shores yet, there are chances we go to meet them, respectively our soldiers might get to participate in missions in these conflict areas. So, after Washington’s invite to European nations to get involved militarily in the Middle East, we have now perspectives that European Union nations get involved in a peace solution in Libya. Such perspective is not soothing at all, since President Rohani warned the Europeans that their troops, should they deploy to the Middle East, might be in danger. The threat arrives against the backdrop of the recent decision by the European heavyweights regarding the denuclearization treaty. On the Libyan issue, President Erdoğan warned the EU that Europe might become the target of terrorist attacks originating from Libya, if an acceptable solution for the Islamist power in Tripoli is not identified[1]. The presence of EU nation troops in Libya would mean a much deeper engagement than the missions supporting France in Mali[2].

I. RUSSIA. Vladimir Putin proposed constitutional changes and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned.

In his January 14th annual speech, Vladimir Putin proposed constitutional changes meant to alter the relations among Russian institutions to prop the parliament (would appoint the prime minister) and the National Security Council (NSC), at the expense of Russian president, who would remain a strong institution. Dmitry Medvedev’s resignation’s followed, and he was appointed V. Putin’s right hand in the NSC. Russian parliament lower chamber, the State Duma, accepted Putin’s nomination for prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, the incumbent director of Moscow’s tax collection federal service. Many analysts stated that Putin initiated a plan to extend his leading role in Russia on a legal basis, not a plan to isolate Russia in order to dodge judicial accusations by the West.

However, there is the chance that Putin seeks something deeper. He announced his decision to change the Russian Constitution in a construction conceived to secure more than a legal way to continue his leadership from a public position other than Russia’s president. He seeks to keep control on the autocratic system he created but he also envisages the continuity and sustainability of the “putinist” system after Putin, by building a system of institution designed to that end. Such idea would mean a presidency with limited power, larger powers granted to the parliament, which would appoint the prime minister, and an NSC with increased power. Such architecture would distribute power and balance the power centers.

This institution architecture is meant to preserve the power in the hands of current elite, the Chekist-oligarch alliance, and preserve the essence of current putinist political establishment as well. This institution architecture would appear by adapting the current Constitution to the realities of Russian autocracy, consolidated by Vladimir Putin through manipulating the Constitution. The big question is whether this would-be system of institutions will work and secure Russia’s power and stability during a post-Putin transition. The answer is more difficult since Putin will be not only its creator, but the force which, in its first phase, will make it work: will this system be able to survive its creator, this “deus ex machina”?

The referendum meant to approve the Constitution changes might be conducted in the same time with the upcoming parliamentary elections. Thus, Putin might shoot two birds with one shot by using his popularity, which never fell under 50%, although it is now at its lowest level in thirteen years. He might also start to establish the new system long before 2024, in order to leave it enough time to become functional. Vladimir Putin counts on balancing the interactions among various power centers (not necessarily the institutions per se) and on indoctrinating the Russian autocracy, who will eventually have to rule without… Putin.

The question “What would Putin do to stay in power?” comes together with the question “Will the putinist system survive without Putin?” Vladimir Putin decided to take a calculated risk now, when he holds the country tight, to prepare an institutional answer to this second question, while preserving the social structure (putinist aristocracy’s dominant position). Currently, his power is not threatened, as in today’s Russia any form of organized political opposition is eliminated.

This project has the merit of trying to make responsible the aristocracy dominating “the power vertical”, the Chekists, the oligarchs and those close to them. The major risk is that this aristocracy lacks the economic and social effectiveness to make the system work: the “power vertical” worked by Chekist loyalty, in exchange for having its protection secured after the thefts committed by its members. This is the true cohesion source of the putinist system, but also the main hurdle in its economic and administrative effectiveness.

In order to succeed in this endeavor, Putin also took other measures meant to make the aristocracy responsible: prohibiting the parliamentarians and many other officials from having double citizenship. Such measures will bear a political-economic dimension: Russia will be “watertight”, and foreign investments, which hardly arrive anyway and might unbalance the system stability (by diminishing the state control over Russian economy), would be replaced by putinist aristocracy money. This will be possible because putinist aristocracy will be forced to reinvest its money in Russia, and renounce exporting. So, the money would be laundered and protected… by the very system which produced it.

This explains why, according to the future establishment, Russian laws will prevail over international laws. The purpose is dual. First, Russian aristocracy cannot escape the system which made their wealth possible, and their wealth will become national, both financially and judicially. Secondly, the arm of international justice, regulations and institutions will not reach inside Russia anymore, and Russian citizens involved in illegal actions abroad will no longer be threatened. The range of such individuals is quite wide, from mafioso oligarchs involved in illegal financial schemes and Wagner mercenaries, to Russian pilots involved in war crimes and Kremlin leaders involved in criminal decisions (in many murders by Russian “death commandos”, the leads reach… Putin).

It is remarkable that Putin is working only to make Russia watertight, not to isolate it: Russia will continue to seek cooperation with the West, it needs that, but he wants to do it as a monolithic block where the West has no access other than to sell its technology, to do business under control by the power in Moscow, and to be a lesser investor, far from being able to disturb Russia’s political and economic system. Vladimir Putin wants to lead Russia where it was during the czars and the U.S.S.R.: having a say in Europe and in the world, but not allowing anything from abroad to penetrate and tweak its autocratic / totalitarian system.

A first step was made not as much by appointing the Constitution reform commission, but by Dmitry Medvedev’s resignation. He is loyal to Putin, and his appointment as Putin’s lieutenant in the NSC shows that Vladimir Putin will grant him new governing responsibilities. Will the government become just an administration component, while decisions will be made in the NSC? That would remind us of China. The way  NSC will work with Medvedev as second in command to Putin in NSC presidency, and with Nikolay Patrushev, its current director, will be the first test of Putin’s new contraption. Medvedev had to leave the government also for having accomplished the scapegoat role (his popularity plummeted, he and the United Russia party are identified with all unpopular measures taken by the power, especially the increase of retirement age, and Putin manages to stay clear of all the governing shortcomings).

The new prime minster, Mikhail Mishustin, is not just a bureaucrat, he is much more: 1) he is a “system technocrat”, with all pertaining qualities: it was noticed that his wife, who has no income, made millions when her husband acceded the “technocrat” position; 2) he is an ogre, very effective in tax collection, therefore he will be able to implement the necessary economic and social programs (the new investment plan, worth hundreds million dollars, is the main relaunch tool conceived by the Kremlin); 3) he holds the best tool to control aristocracy, their “financial dossiers”, more dangerous than the files that FSB controls, since the FSB files contain, as main component, the information on illegally obtained and exported money (laundered through the Republic of Moldova and the Baltic States, then westernized and invested in western banks). Mishustin knows what skeletons hides in the closet each of the political decision-makers Putin wants to enlist in the new system, and this leverage is crucial.

Basically, we witness a power distribution meant to make the putinist political system work. Its main problem is that, from an economic and social point of view, this system is rather non-functional. Nothing was mentioned about… the people, electorate, meritocracy and social effectiveness, social permeability, economic efficiency and social justice. Vladimir Putin uses the assumption (correct, for the moment), that the people will obey, since there is no political alternative. The first test will be this year’s parliamentary elections. The power will likely select the candidates as either “independents” or representatives of parties with “official recognition”, not only from the ranks of United Russia (the current governing party, whose level of trust within the population collapsed, and, again, Putin cannot accept to be identified with it).

Putin decided to cast the dice well in time, by this radical reform, and “Putin’s autocrats” are to assume responsibility to rule the country through a better system than the system they generated. This might prove to be difficult, since the post-communist experience  showed how hard the kleptomaniac elite finds it to turn itself into a productive bourgeoisie. But Putin has chosen: instead of a belated “Russian roulette”, it is worth taking the risk of making this aristocracy responsible for ruling the country, within a system designed to balance all interests. There are good chances that Putin’s reform succeeds, but the moment of truth will come when the umbilical cord is cut, which is when Putin decides or is forced to leave the stage. In that moment, the factor supervising the new system function of power and responsibility distribution among institutions will disappear, in fact, among aristocracy groups of interests – Putin himself. But there is still time until then.

By this move, Putin not only secures the framework to remain in power as long as he wants, but also secures the framework where the putinist political system has best chances to survive, and along this system, Russia’s stability after Putin would have left the position of sole leader.


II. UKRAINE. Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk resignation was rejected by President Zelenskiy.

On January 17th, Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk submitted his resignation to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who rejected it. This came against the backdrop of an aired video where Honcharuk was ironically commenting Zelenskiy’s lack of economic knowledge.

Prime minister’s gesture is a sensitive moment for the power in Kyiv, in the moment when first economic and social results should start to show, since the electorate bestowed all political power to Zelenskiy’s team. The power crosses a credibility crisis linked not only to this incompetence accusation against the president, but to the governing team cohesion as well. Apparently, it was just a minor issue, since the resignation was not accepted, but this moment is relevant for the power because it marks the turn towards either more responsibility or more internal crises. Zelenskiy passed this exam and proved his strength to see beyond his personal vanity and prime minister’s immaturity. At the end of the day, the “comedian” was not elected for outstanding competence or for his charisma, but for representing, for the electorate, a solution to have a more responsible man in power than Poroshenko’s oligarchs or Yanukovych’s “hazaynikis” (which would mean kind of “jack of all trades activists”).

Zelenskiy showed that, although determined to seek peace, he would not make big concessions to Putin (encouraged by… Angela Merkel, he requested a renegotiation of Minsk Agreement). Also, although he has limits and his own links to some oligarchs, Zelenskiy did not stray and, in the legislative field, the Ukrainian Rada voted to eliminate the legal immunity for members of parliament, and reform began in the economic domain, under IMF supervision[3]. Zelenskiy must be more careful though, as the context is sensitive (the U.S. president impeachment process involves Ukraine!).

A simple rejected resignation represents, in fact, an alarm signal regarding the Kyiv power ability to govern the country on the difficult path toward political and socio-economic stability. Not only the West, but especially the Kremlin acknowledged this hiatus with concern, respectively with satisfaction.


III. IRAN – UNITED STATES / EUROPEAN UNION. The crisis continues, and the denuclearization treaty faces new problems.

Although a plethora of other events and declarations occurred, two events have recently marked this crisis, and they will be addressed below: 1) On January 14th, the United Kingdom, France and Germany formally accused Iran for breaching the 2015 nuclear deal (JPCOA), and this is the first step toward resuming the United Nations sanctions against the Islamic Republic; 2) On January 17th, in a rare public show-up for the Friday prayer, Ayatollah Khamenei reiterated the regime position and recapped the main elements, implicitly indicated that Iran would continue its nuclear program[4]. After this stance, if a diplomatic solution is not identified, a development towards conflict is taking shape, as Tehran continues the nuclear program, while the United States and Israel warn that “Iran cannot have the nuclear bomb”.   

Just out of the woods about an imminent war, for the moment, the situation settled to a crisis that can lead only to an open conflict, on mid-term[5], if a solution is not found on the denuclearization issue. The rhetoric by main decision-makers, Ayatollah Khamenei and President Donald Trump spiraled up, and the two countries are stuck on known positions, which leads them towards confrontation. Trump set the red line[6] “Iran will not have the bomb”, and the alternative is a new denuclearization agreement. Khamenei responded with a dogged position, reiterating tough statements pointing that the U.S. is the aggressor who should leave the region and take the “Zionists” along; General Soleimani is still a martyr and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) remain the spearhead of anti-terrorist fight, themselves having nothing in common with terrorism; Iran will resist and will not concede. Implicitly, Khamenei said that Tehran would not yield on renegotiating a nuclear deal. The hourglass has been flipped over, and the time certainly flows with conflict at the horizon.

However, Tehran previously proved a remarkable flexibility in negotiations, from perfidy to dialogue. Will Iran find a solution this time too? One should consider that its adversaries show limits in their actions: the Europeans are stuck in the “soft power” mantra and the White House cannot implement the war threat, albeit for lacking full legislative support. This does not mean that the United States would refrain from limited strikes though…

The situation broken down on issues:

1) Iran admitted it has downed the Ukrainian airliner. In Tehran, the moderates, i.e. President Rohani received the task of dealing with this hot potato of admitting that the Ukrainian airplane was downed by a Tor-1M air defense battery belonging to the IRGC. Rohani announced the establishment of a special court to try this case and Iranian diplomacy took measures to close the case by directly talking to the nations whose citizens were killed in this tragic incident. The case will likely be transferred from the political to the technical domain, being trivialized as a simple human error at the lowest the chain of command level. Thus, the military problem that IRGC brass are guilty will likely be dodged. The urgency is demanded by the domestic impact and by foreign requests to clear this case. In Iran, the social groups most discontent with the regime use this case to show not only that the government has lied, but that the regime is based on lies. Very likely, the investigation will prove already known elements: two missiles were launched by a Tor-1M system operated by the IRGC. In addition, the true culprits should be exposed, the IRGC leaders, holding the real power in Iran and holding Ayatollah Khamenei’s protection too, as his latest public speech highlighted.

2) Student protests. Although having a significant size, the protests did not reach the critical level to threaten the power stability. Very likely, repression is done quietly, by arresting protesters and putting them to trial, the terror is no longer visible. Khamenei belittled the protest size, in comparison with the “millions” having participated in General Soleimani’s funerals. However, the power is worried, because President Donald Trump sent the threatening message “do not shoot the protesters, we are watching you” (realistically speaking, the United States cannot do anything for the protesters, and they know it). A small detail shows that the power feels seriously threatened: information surfaced that the son of one of the most important dissidents within the system, the Shia leader Mehdi Karroubi, was arrested.

3) The European heavyweights decided to denounce Iran for breaching the denuclearization agreement. On January 14th, the United Kingdom, France and Germany formally accused Iran for breaching the 2015 denuclearization agreement. This makes the first step towards resuming the United Nations sanctions against Iran. The three nations insisted that Iran still had time to review its decisions and return to abiding by the nuclear deal again. The European heavyweights reacted to Tehran’s decision to depart from observing the limits established in the nuclear deal. Although Iran accused them of complicity with the United States, they made this step not only for being necessary, but also hoping that Iran would return inside this agreement. Although it looks a decisive step not only from a political point of view, but also from an economic perspective, there is still a long way until the UN sanctions can be reintroduced, if they are introduced, because the process is sprinkled with hurdles (especially since Russia and China were not happy with the European decision).

4) Speaking for the first time at the Friday prayers, Ayatollah Khamenei recapped the regime position: the United States is the aggressor who should leave the region, the unquestionable IRGC are performing their duty, General Soleimani was a martyr having fought terrorism, the Europeans are duplicitous and always acted against Iran: “These European countries cannot be trusted. Even their negotiations with Iran are full of deceit. France, Germany and United Kingdom serve the U.S. interests”. In a nutshell, Iran will continue its policy, without considering the American warnings, and now, the European warnings linked to the nuclear program.

President Trump’s response was shorter than usual and, therefore, more dangerous: “The so-called ’Supreme Leader’ of Iran, who has not been so Supreme lately, had some nasty things to say about the United States and Europe. Their economy is crashing, and their people are suffering. He should be very careful with his words!” The Israeli prime minister’s threats were more explicit: “Israel will not allow Iran to achieve nuclear weapons”.

We are again in an impasse, with only a matter of time (one year, maybe two) before the dispute regarding Iran’s nuclear program bursts into an open conflict. Both camps know this, therefore, beyond bellicose statements, a diplomatic merry-go-round is spinning. The Europeans, although slimed by Tehran, took the initiative and do whatever they can to bring the parties to the negotiating table, albeit for a “Trump agreement” upfront rejected by Tehran, at least publicly!


IV. LIBYA. Berlin conference after the Moscow failure.

On January 14th, the two warrying parties in Libya, the Islamist government in Tripoli, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, recognized by the United Nations, and the rebel forces in the east / Benghazi, led by general Khalifa Haftar failed to sign an agreement in Moscow. They had almost reached an accord mediated by Turkey (for the Islamists) and Russia (for General Haftar), but the rebel leader changed his mind, despite Turkish and Russian pressure. General Haftar has likely considered he has more important sponsors he should obey, than Russia. 

In such circumstances, the Berlin conference, organized by Germany on January 19th, remained the last chance for an agreement under U.N. aegis, as both the warrying parties and their sponsors have accepted the invitation. Worth mentioning, the conference is also attended by the United States. Beyond the Libyan predicament, the conference offered the oportunity to important leaders to meet and talk, although what they have to say is hard to swallow!

Let’s recap, in a nutshell, who is supporting who. The conflict, surfaced after the colapse of dictator Muammar al-Ghaddafi, has tribal, regional and ethnic roots. Bottom line though, the domestic conflicts streamlined to a fight for resources and recognition between the Islamist forces in Tripoli and the rebels in Benghazi. The conflict reveals a typical case of vacuum created when the United States does not work on a settlement, and also caused by the European inability to solve such conflict where regional powers interfered. The western European companies rushed to exploit Libyan oil, where Russia has interests too, and regional powers meddled according to specific interests: first, ideologically, Qatar and Turkey supported the Islamists in Tripoli with armament and money, and the Emirates and Egypt supported the rebels in Benghazi. Then, Russia jumped in to support general Haftar, although Moscow would not admit (Wagner mercanaries were already involved in fights). Although Turkey generated an escalation, when President Erdoğan obtained from the Tripoli government an agreement of maritime zone delimitation in the Mediterranean Sea. This aggreement triggered a negative reaction by Greece and Egypt. Ankara sent troops to support the Islamists when Tripoli was threatened by general Haftar’s troops. Then, Russia and Turkey fostered an armistice, although the two parties initially refused to implement it.

Monday, January 20th, the Berlin conference ended with a 57-point final document which will be referred to the United Nations Security Council for being adopted and supported. The conference has indicated that a military solution is not acceptable and formed a 5+5 committee of representatives by the two warrying sides. It also called for the equal distribution of wealth to remove grievances, the monopoly of Libyan state on the legitimate use of force and the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration of the Militias. The document has provisions for a cease-fire, arms embargo and the return to political process. Economic and financial reforms, as well as the respect for international humanitarian law and human rights are also included in the Conference Conclusions. The Follow-up section mentions that  all participants of the Conference declare that they will refrain from any further military deployments or operations as long as the truce is respected. The document also established an International Follow-Up Committee (IFC) consisting of all countries and International Organisations that participated in the January 20th Berlin Conference on Libya.  

Later results of this conference will be of more interests for Romania if a future peace solution includes European military to be deployed for separating the two warrying parties. Of course, later, the consequences of this document will be deeper analyzed.


V. Developments to track this Week 4 of 2020.

► UNITED STATES. President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate begins after the Democrats initiated and passed the first phase of impeachment process in the House of Representatives, which they dominate. President Trump changed his mind and wants a swift process, against the backdrop of information sinking him deeper in the scandal. The question is not whether Donald Trump loses his position, because Republicans hold majority in the Senate, but whether American democracy will honorably survive this process.

► UNITED STATES - CHINA. The two countries signed a first phase agreement on their trade competition. Although it does not solve the core problem and is just a palliative, this document was presented as a great success. In fact, an imminent economic conflict was turned into an attrition competition, somewhat regulated. However, the two major problems, vital for the very existence of Chinese economic system, were not solved: Beijing technology theft habit, respectively opening the Chinese market and controlling the state company subsidies. Meanwhile, EU officials declare that “China seeks economic hegemony through trade and investment”.  

BULGARIA. The Environment Minister arrest represents only the tip of the iceberg in a system where corruption reached such a high level that people were prohibited the right to running water, and oligarch businesses were favored for that utility. As Der Spiegel recently commented, Bulgaria has little in common with the rule of law and independent justice, and the press is not free, being controlled by oligarchs.

► REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. The power grab process continues. President Igor Dodon visits Moscow again, and Plahotniuc’s prosecutors are arrested and will be replaced by Dodon’s cronies. Stunned by Bucharest’s realism, who does not admit being fooled again and limits its support to projects directly targeting citizens, the power in Chişinău responds in metaphors: R. of Moldova’s prime minister responded to the explanation provided by the Romanian ambassador for the situation by declaring that “he sweeps”… the dust caused by others. Wrong, current administration sweeps the money, not the dust, but money will stop coming if reforms are not implemented! 

► GERMANY - TURKEY. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Ankara against the backdrop of two issues: the reduction of EU “European integration” funds to Turkey (what European integration?), and Recep Erdoğan’s hardly veiled threats that, in absence of that money, Ankara will release again the wave of refugees towards Europe, especially since the Syrian-Russian offensive in Idlib was resumed.

► VISEGRAD GROUP and AUSTRIA. The prime ministers of Visegrad nations (V4) met in Prague with their Austrian counterpart, in the latter’s attempt to build a bridge between the V4 and the western Europeans[7]. It is not much to mediate about, considering that the recoil of those in power begins in V4: Polish Conservatives were not able to pass a law on justice in the upper chamber of the parliament, where they do not hold majority; Viktor Orbán announces that FIDESZ was about to leave the European Popular Party (EPP), although, in fact, FIDESZ obtained just a postponement of its ousting, meanwhile being more and more isolated in Europe (Salvini has switched towards center-right, thus leaving the far right); in Slovakia, the process regarding the killing of a journalist gets closer to incriminating a businessman linked to the power; in the Czech Republic, Babič is waiting the end of the investigation regarding the embezzlement of European funds. Due to its leaders, V4 lost credibility. 

[1] What additional information holds President Erdoğan, who knows that some of the warriors sent by Ankara to Libya are “recycled” Syrian jihadists?

[2] On Mali, President Macron failed to build a decisive European mobilization: even the German defense minister had to slow down after domestic political and military reactions cut back his enthusiasm. This adds to Paris’s policy failure to rally a consistent support even from Sahel region nations (France attempted to correct this during a recent meeting). Even more, by irritating the United States with the “NATO brain death” idea, France risks to lose the crucial American support (especially in ISR) in the fight against terrorism in West Africa. His comes against the background of Washington’s intention to withdraw from West Africa, in order to focus on China. However, Romanian soldiers are present in Mali, and this is remarkable.

[3] An important element: by comparison, in the Republic of Moldova, the big financial schemes that the power is preparing are corelated with two financial measures: divorcing IMF and by bringing the gold reserve at home, both measures being probably suggested by Moscow, which is interested in both.

[4] Even facing doubtless proofs, Iran never admitted it had a nuclear weapon development program.

[5] Between one and two years, this is the term assessed for Iran to finish developing the nuclear bomb, according to Israeli and French intelligence agencies.

[6] Donald Trump also made a statement in support of the Iranian protesters, and the U.S. State Department has warned Iranian authorities that Washington was not going to "tolerate" violence against the protesters: "We want the regime to know that the United States is watching, that the world is watching, and that we are going to shine a very, very big light on any abuse by the regime to their own people". These declarations worried the Tehran regime, although Washington cannot directly meddle in support of the protesters. The Iranian regime only changed the way to repress them: instead of shooting protesters in the street, the repression is conducted quietly, they are arrested and then convicted. The United States and the Europeans, who aplly “soft power”, are only left to wait until they know how many, perhaps hundreds of the protesters are executed or convicted to harsh prison time.

[7] In fact, there is no East - West conflict at population thinking level, everybody wants freedom and prosperity, but there is a conflict between a too unrealistic western elite and a too… lawless eastern elite.