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29 iulie 2019 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT Main Political and Military Developments WEEK 30 of 2019

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

I. UKRAINE. Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s party wins the parliamentary elections. II. REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. Defense Minister visits Moscow.III. UNITED KINGDOM. Boris Johnson is elected prime minister. IV. RUSSIA. Small problems with big implications. V. Developments to track this Week 31 of 2019.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. UKRAINE. Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s party wins the parliamentary elections.

As we already briefly announced in last week report, the parliamentary elections in Ukraine were won by a landslide by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s party. Having the majority in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament), Zelenskiy can appoint his government, can pass the bills he wants, can appoint his people in most important state offices. Zelenskiy has now the whole power, and he is to show what he’s got, as Ukraine badly needs the change he promised. This nation enters a new era, when the hope called Zelenskiy must deliver because, otherwise, Ukraine’s domestic and foreign political situation will worsen to the level of a new major crisis.

On July 26th, the Central Electoral Commission in Kyiv announced the results of Ukraine’s July 21st parliamentary elections. President Zelenskiy’s party, Sluha Narodu (Servant of the People) won 43.16% of the ballots, followed far by the pro-Russian opposition, Opposition Platform – For Life (!), with only 13.95%. Then, the two traditional nationalist-oligarchic parties: Yulia Tymoshenko’s, Fatherland, with 8.18%, and Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity (!) party, with 8.10%, then a rock star, Sviatoslav Vakarchuk’s party, the Voice (Holos), with 5.80%. The turnout was significant: 49.2%.

Considering the Ukrainian voting mixt system (on party lists combined with first-past-the-post constituency races), and also the redistribution of the votes for the parties which did not clear the threshold, the Parliament composition will be as follows: Servant of the People has 254 seats, pro-Russian Opposition Platform 43 seats, Yulia Tymoshenko’s party has 26 seats, Petro Poroshenko’s party 25, and the Voice has 20 seats. In addition, there are also 10 parliamentarians belonging to very small political formations, as well as 46 independent politicians.

Thus, Servant of the People has the majority in the 450 seat Parliament, where only 424 are eligible now, because the rest belong to Russian occupied territories, where elections cannot be safely organized. It is the first time in Ukraine’s history when a president has his own political party holding the absolute majority secured in the Parliament. With this huge power, Zelenskiy can appoint the government with no support needed from another political formation[i], can appoint even the General Prosecutor (crucial position for establishing a functional judicial system), and can push the legislation necessary to implement economic and social reforms.

The big question is what will Zelenskiy really do? Since he was inaugurated as president, he improvised, having the excuse of lacking a supportive parliament. Nevertheless, questions surfaced about his links to tycoon Ihor Kolomoysky, and about Kolomoysky’s influence on officials with president’s administration and on Zelenskiy himself.

However, the honeymoon with Ukrainian people is rather over. Now, Zelenskiy needs to move fast, and deliver more than symbolic gestures. He must implement a tough and systematic reform, because the situation demands this, but also realistic and viable, considering the very low living standard of Ukraine’s population. The fierce opposition of those who grabbed the country’s wealth and power – the oligarchs, as well as those in their service, the entire body of state institutions captured by oligarch networks promoting specific interests at the expense of national interests.

Of course, the first measure will be to appoint the prime minister, portrayed by Zelenskiy as an independent economist. Then a government will be appointed and approved by the parliament. The new government must be reformatory under circumstances where the foreign creditors expect concrete reform measures and hinge financial loans (vital for Ukraine, unable to survive in absence of foreign loans) on reform implementation. Even more, Zelenskiy will have to accept a certain degree of cooperation with foreign creditors when taking economic decisions, because the time for postponing reforms and decide populist measures is gone[ii]. This situation might be used by the pro-Russian and the nationalist-oligarchic opposition: “Zelenskiy is selling the country” (which we were supposed to continue plundering).

Then, the judicial reform should follow, and the fight against corruption, both set to be almost mission impossible: corruption is not only a way of life, but the only way of life to secure success in Ukraine. The appointment of an honest general prosecutor and establishing specialized institutions to fight corruption are an urgent task. But this enterprise is very difficult to accomplish, because the domestic and foreign pressure to end injustice is huge, but the whole justice hierarchy lives in deep injustice. The same as in the Republic of Moldova, it is easier for those in public service within judiciary to enrol in service of an oligarch than fulfilling the proper job descriptions.

Thirdly, there is Russia. Vladimir Putin will put Zelenskiy to the test, and the latter’s illusion that Russia seeks a peace solution for Donbass, not Kyiv’s capitulation, is already shuttered. The prisoner exchange and the release of Ukrainian sailors arrested during the Kerch Strait incident, although convened, did not happen. The truce negotiated in Donbass had no chance to come true. More, the arrest of a Russian tanker involved in the Kerch Strait incident, by Ukraine, in Danube port of Ismail, only tensed the situation further. Regardless she is right, Ukraine brought the Kerch problems to the mouths of Danube, as some strategists in Kyiv suggested. This afflicts Romania directly, and we are to see Moscow’s reaction.

Zelenskiy’s reign began on a wave of hope, but it is yet to be seen whether he succeeds to budge things, at least an inch. Although benefitting from a huge popular support, Zelenskiy has slim chances of success, due to domestic and foreign situation, as well as to his own team’s vulnerabilities (Kolomoysky’s people surround him). Western support will come only to the extent the Ukrainian leadership proves that such support will not leak into a black hole, as it happened before. Maybe Zelenskiy honestly believes he will not disappoint the Ukrainians, but is this enough to succeed in implementing a radical reform meant to save the country?


II. REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. Defense Minister visits Moscow.

On July 25 to 27, Republic of Moldova’s (RM) Defense Minister, Pavel Voicu, paid an official visit to Moscow, where he met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu. They discussed the regional security situation and the reform in RM’s defense sector.

Pavel Voicu informed Sergei Shoigu about “his priorities, in the context of reform process”: implementing the Moldovan military professionalization program, increasing the RM military’s participation in “peace-keeping operations and exercises under international mandate” (!), as well as intensified cooperation with “foreign organizations and defense institution partners”.

The two discussed the “Moldovan-Russian cooperation, highlighting the activities dedicated to commemorations of World War II victims and restauration of soldier memorials and graves”, as well as supporting the proper work of the combined contingent of Peace-keeping Forces in the Security Zone”. Also, the situation in Eastern RM was discussed, as well as the security regarding the ammunition dump in Colbasna. They stressed the need for a peaceful solution for the Transnistrian conflict and for identifying viable solutions for diminishing the danger of accidental explosions in the Colbasna dump. Pavel Voicu mentioned the need to relaunch the dialogue between the two parties.

We see a natural first after Igor Dodon’s Socialists took over the Ministry of Defense. Let’s understand what this communiqué is saying. First, the character Pavel Voicu, close to Igor Dodon, can be described as an “instrument of the instrument”, meaning that he implements Dodon’s policy, and Dodon, as Plahotniuc’s recordings already proved, implements Moscow’s policy, for which himself and the Socialists were (and probably still are) paid by Moscow with about 1 million dollars a month. Therefore, Pavel Voicu’s objective at the helm of the Defense Minister is not so much the reform and professionalization, as concrete actions aiming at Moscow’s goal to keep RM far from NATO.

This explains the reference to commemorations. Apparently insignificant, the historic and ideologic element is crucial: the RM Defense Minister should resume the idea that RM’s military is not the one born in the fights against Russian occupant forces for Transnistria, but it is continuing the Red Army of the former Soviet Socialist Moldovan Republic (!?), that which fought against “Romanian fascists to liberate” Bessarabia[iii]. Once the ideological direction is established, the cooperation between the two armies can proceed on new bases, and NATO is kept off. So, the RM military is offered the position of being considered among the victors against fascism, opposite to Romania, which is historically put among the losers, although Romania was the fourth country contributing to defeat Nazi Germany, considering the number of troops in operations.

There is a problem though, that explains Pavel Voicu’s restraint: RM’s military is sponsored by the West: firstly, by the United States (equipment and training), and by Romania (training), which suits the institution and its personnel very well. Russia only sponsored… the only potential enemy of RM’s army, the Transnistrian separatists. Thus, Pavel Voicu’s hard to solve problem is how to reorient this ministry to the East without losing western sponsorship. Perhaps he counts on US tolerance to such switchback, for being only a limited drift. This hope is supported by the fact that American officials having visited Chişinău showed that Washington’s priority  is now to restore the RM state institutions in order to keep this country away from becoming a “black hole” for financial crime. He might also count on Romania to continue its support by inertia (which might prove not too bad after all, as, in absence of something better, inertia might bring predictability and stability, thus proving to be healthy).  

However, Pavel Voicu already provided certain guarantees to Moscow. This is how one can interpret the reference to “peace-keeping operations and exercises under international mandate”, which means that RM’s army will no longer participate in NATO exercises, but will continue to participate in peace-keeping missions under UN mandate (which comes as a priority, since they are approved by Moscow and they bring… money).

Interesting, there was no word about the neutrality status that Igor Dodon insists talking about (aimed at limiting the cooperation with NATO, which was requested by Russia). Would that mean that new horizons are considered, like cooperation with the Collective Security Cooperation Treaty (CSTO), the Russian replica to NATO? We will see that when gloves are taken off, i.e. when the ACUM and the Socialists (PSRM) probably divorce after one year, as Maia Sandu predicted.

For the rest, same old, same old: of course, the RM army will continue to work in the peace-keeping mechanism, so necessary to Russia for justifying its military presence (read occupation) in Transnistria and supporting Transnistria’s de facto independence. Pavel Voicu played the Russian tune, not the traditional Moldovan approach: he talked only about the Russian peace-keeping forces in Transnistria and ignored the Russian troops illegally deployed on RM territory, the Operational Group of Russian Troops (OGRT), also deployed in Transnistria. The same about the ammo dump at Colbasna: the obsolete ammunition is not destroyed only because Russia refuses to give up its pretext for which it left troops in RM in the first place and keeps the troops there for “guarding this huge ammo dump”.  

Bottom line, the Socialists began the process of reorienting the RM military institution toward the East, taking care though, to preserve its sponsorship by the West. However, what is more dangerous, what Russia demanded (and probably asked P. Voicu to act quicker), we will not know too soon, but will understand from the measures Pavel Voicu will take in the RM Ministry of Defense. And this only to the extent he will be allowed to make, because there are enough soldiers who know very well what they serve: a sovereign and independent RM, not Moscow.


III. UNITED KINGDOM. Boris Johnson is elected prime minister. 

Boris Johnson’s election as UK Prime Minister ends the uncertainties regarding Britain’s leadership, but opens other uncertainties, this time linked to his intransigence. Boris Johnson brought clarifications regarding the Brexit: 1) UK will leave the European Union on October 31st, with or without an agreement; he wants the agreement renegotiated, and the claimed red line is the Irish border backstop, which must be deleted from the document; 3) there will be no early elections before Brexit. The problem is that these declarations lack necessary coherence, because Boris Johnson will bump into opposition by Brussels (the EU does not want the agreement renegotiated) and by the British Parliament (who does not want Brexit without agreement).

In his luggage, Boris Johnson brings determination and intentions to intimidate, a mixture which does not guarantee he will succeed in his risky enterprise proposed to the Britons. Maybe he does not even consider succeeding in full, but in core issue only: UK must quit the EU in its terms, without tight social, legal and political stings. As about the economy, the bill comes to be picked up, because the idea of getting closer to the United States in order to compensate the Brexit losses is not viable, at least immediately after the Brexit, but it speaks to the populism so much becoming Boris Johnson.

The July 23rd vote within the Conservative party, which brought Boris Johnson’s victory in internal party elections, shows the party division regarding the Brexit solution. Boris Johnson was later invested prime minister and proceeded to form the Cabinet and to send political messages reflecting his previously presented vision: leaving the EU quickly and without an agreement, with no strings attached (the backstop). His Cabinet is comprised, in majority by Euro-skeptics, and it seems (considering Boris Johnson’s bellicose attitude) to be shaped for one mission only – Brexit, and within a limited timeframe.

However, Boris Johnson has the quality to speak frankly about all issues, as he sees them: he set the date, outlined the conditions (renegotiation and shedding the backstop) and he assumed the risk of a Blind Brexit. He also specified there would be no elections before Brexit, which is where the problems emerge: Boris Johnson has two discussion partners: the EU abroad, and the Parliament at home. They are the interlocutors he needs to persuade in order to reach a common solution. But Boris Johnson’s strategy is to intimidate the European Union, being confident that Brussels will concede[iv]. What if it doesn’t? Boris Johnson says he will force a Blind Brexit. How about the Parliament, who advocates a Brexit with agreement? Boris Johnson claims he will not trigger a crisis and will not send the Britons to vote in early elections. Something does not fit. Somewhere, Boris Johnson will risk even more, but he would not explain now how much and when he would push to win. Same as Donald Trump, he is confident that populist promises to his followers and intimidating the adversary (mainly the EU) will work. And if it will not work, he will improvise, as he did before. But this seems a stake too high to be gambled at national level in public, in such a sensitive moment.

In addition, support in the Parliament for the new Cabinet is weak, and Boris Johnson needs the votes of Northern-Irish unionist party to achieve a comfortable majority. But the Northern-Irish want a Brexit with agreement, because their fate is at stake in the first place. Boris Johnson’s ace is that he can force early general elections, which  the Conservatives try to avoid, because they look bad in the polls (although Boris Johnson’s victory increased a bit the rating). He also takes advantage of the Labor party drifting under a leader stuck in the past. But the situation might change in the event of general elections. Additionally, early elections might occur as result of a political crisis and would completely blow up the Brexit process.

Th Europeans reacted with one voice at Boris Johnson’s warrying stance, and invited him to resume dialogue, yet specifying that renegotiating the agreement is out of question. Maybe, at a certain point, the EU will do renegotiate, but what will be the price? The Europeans do not want a conflict at all, but a solution, and therefore they do not respond to Boris Johnson’s intimidations. But the Europeans have their own problem: how can they preserve unity, and how can they identify a convenient solution and keep high level of economic and political relations with the UK? Theresa May attempted that and failed. Who will fail now? Maybe both parties a bit, but Boris Johnson is not interested in solutions, but in a victory (Brexit) at any cost.

The big picture shows that Boris Johnson’s arrival to power heralds a painful split of Britain from the European Union.  


IV. RUSSIA. Small problems with big implications.

Russia’s capital saw opposition street protests with a remarkably disproportionate reaction by the police. Considering that such protests do not pose an immediate threat to the power, the number of arrests was significant. The explanation should be that the power is afraid: knowing the poor economic and social situation of the country, the Kremlin seeks to put down any spark before it turns into fire on the backdrop of public discontent.

The July 27th protests in Moscow gathered several thousand participants. That is a success itself, as the law enforcement troops have previously clamped down on any limited public meeting, in order to prevent large masses of protesters to rally. Police used violence and arrested over one thousand protesters, an impressive number considering the somewhat limited size of the protest: just several thousands (down from 20000 in June, an indication that police brutality works). The participants / arrests ratio shows that the power is no longer open to tolerate opposition rallies, even small. In fact, had the western media ignored these protests, the public opinion abroad would have never learned about these protests, in a several million inhabitant Moscow. But the number of arrests changed everything and now we wonder why such violent reaction against an insignificant opposition?

The general framework looks favorable to the power: although the economic and social situation continues to worsen, President Vladimir Putin enjoys the support of 60% of the Russians (it is true, that number is dwindling) – a proof that the Russians do not consider a political alternative to the Putin regime. Perhaps this allows Putin to say that the time of liberalism is gone. In fact, behind the displayed confidence, the power is no longer sure of the trust the Russians bestowe in it, and takes measures to put down even the smallest signs of political alternative. This explains the situation in Moscow. Under various pretexts, opposition representatives were precluded from registering for the local elections to be held on August 8th. Why does that happen, when Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin controls the city, being highly popular? This is because the power does not admit the mere existence of opposition, albeit symbolic. At the latest local elections, the opposition had won a large number of votes, and such development cannot be tolerated by the Kremlin anymore. Therefore, the very participation with candidates... is forbidden.

This dictatorship attitude shows the beginning of a new phase, where the power does not allow any hesitation. But the fear of small protests might lead to large protests, which could undermine the authority and overcome the calculations that the social situation is under control.

Let’s not forget that blatantly anti-western attitude and hostility actions against the West (mainly against the United States) were initiated by Vladimir Putin, still marked by the large demonstrations of protest which unfolded against his regime almost a decade ago. Putin found guilty: the West, the US, and Hilary Clinton personally (against whom he took an exemplary revenge). We will see whether this attitude by the power, which reveals anger, if not weakness, will increase as the economic problems increase. A first indication will likely be the way Aleksei Navalny is treated, because opponent Navalny is a trickle which should not become a torrent. For the moment, he went from hospital to the prison, and there are suspicions that Navalny has been poisoned with an unknown substance which caused his acute allergy.

Meanwhile, in the Far East, Russia sent aircraft in combined patrolling with Chinese aircraft in an area where Moscow holds no direct interest: they traspassed the South Korean air space, which triggered South Korean Air Force kynetic reaction. Why does Russia involve in such military cooperation with China, beyond its immediate security interests? The Kremlin decided it is the time to step up Russia’s military cooperation with China in order to counterweigh the United States in the Pacific. How far is Moscow determined to go with this cooperation? Will it extend in other regions of the world? It is just symbolic, or it will become a frequent practice?

For Romania, small incidents at the Danube Mouths show that we are not clear from interaction with Russia, although we prefer to believe otherwise. The navigation on the Danube, and the Danube Mouths are no longer the strategically important point it used to be in the 19th Century, but they still hold an important local significance: for Russia, they represent the way to communicate with its closest ally in the Balkans – Serbia. Crimea – Danube Mouths – Danube – Serbia make an umbilical cord for Russia’s relations with the Balkans. The Russia – Serbia trade routes are partly on the Danube, the shortest and most handy itinerrary. Ukraine noticed that, and the Russian vessel recent arrest ocurred in Ismail, fitting this strategic context. Romania sits in this playground, controlling part of the route, with the historical heritage of Danube navigation convention, but also with responsibilities regarding the security of this main European river route. So, diplomatic and military caution is needed.


V. Developments to track this Week 31 of 2019.

NATO - RUSSIA. The INF treaty expires on August 2nd, and we will likely witness a eulogy followed by mutual accusations. Beyond the speech wrestling, NATO military planners should locate the four SSC-8 battalions and devise defense measures, if not even adequate response measures yet. Europe’s defense big picture gets more complicated, and the solution is no longer a simple “leave it to the Americans to defend us”.

TURKEY. Angry on the United States for being expelled from the F-35 program, although not also subjected to American sanctions yet, Turkish leadership questions the validity of the US established security zone in Syria along its border, to avoid a Turkish – Kurdish conflict in Syria. Washington did not progress either in finding somebody to replace the Pentagon troops in this security zone. Turkish reaction appears too unexpectedly to rule out a strategic connection, that of Ankara’s deteriorating relations with Washington. In fact, Turkey has a bigger problem in Idlib: Bashar al-Assad’s governmental forces, supported by Russia, reopened the conflict (also bombing civilians in the process, but who is looking at such details anymore?). It is now interesting to watch the level where the Turkish – American relations settle, after the S-400 / F-35 phase, as the regional impact of these relations is significant.

IRAN – UNITED STATES – EUROPEAN UNION. The problem gets more complicated, because Iran managed to internationalize the American sanction issue, and it also degraded the safety of navigation in the Persian Gulf. First, we will see the results of Iran’s meeting in Vienna with the Europeans (UK, Germany and France), Russia and China. In the eve of that meeting, Iran issued new threats (that it would resume the activities at the reactor in Arak). Remarkable results are not expected, but Iran hopes to find the way to by-bass the sanctions. The Europeans’ mission is more difficult as they are also preparing to deploy an escort operation meant to secure the freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf (the UK began to escort all its tankers, after one was already arrested). The United States puts pressure upon the other allies as well (Japan) for participating to the Gulf mission. The problem is that, although the US has issues with Iran, the oil transited through the Gulf is not going mainly to the US, but to Europe and Japan, so, they are the ones interested in the free navigation in the Gulf, in order to secure their oil supplies. The tensions between the US and Iran remain at high level, but at diplomatic level they only exchange statements and accusations, as neither of them is open to either compromise, or open conflict. However, the US scored in the downed drone competition, 2-1, and Iran got even at the arrested tanker competition with UK: 1-1.

Considering that President Donald Trump seems determined to score in important domestic issues (migration, economy), in view of being reelected, this attitude will likely reflect in the foreign policy as well. This is more likely because he did not show much success in foreign policy so far: he will not start a war with Iran but will not allow Tehran to escape the sanction claws either. Iran’s leadership does not hesitate at all to counter this strategy, as the very existence of the Islamic regime is at stake. Therefore, the tensions in the Gulf can only increase on multiple planes, but with none of the parties decisively engaging in an open conflict.

HUNGARY. This is the right time for political declarations by the leadership in Budapest reflecting its strategy regarding Romania. Until now, two elements appear in Viktor Orbán’s and other Hungarian leaders’ discourse: 1) a certain relaxation in encouraging the Hungarian minority towards claiming autonomy (would it be the visit to Washington part of the reasons for Hungary’s isolation in the EU and in the region?); 2) the toughest but realistic description of Hungary – Romania relations: Budapest cannot find a credible dialogue partner among those supposed to represent Romania. Would that reflect the disappointment because some easy cards to play having disappeared, after so many hopes were bestowed in them? Where is the time when the Hungarian Foreign Minister was declaring in Bucharest that Budapest is ready to defend Romania against Brussels? There is no need anymore! As a novelty, Viktor Orbán does not build the illiberal state anymore, but a Christian-Democrat state instead. However, this is only until he loses the elections, in a not too near future.

[i] Although initially, before knowing the final results, Zelenskiy was talking about a coalition with Sviatoslav Vakarchuk’s The Voice party, he did not resume that idea.

[ii] The best example is Poroshenko, who promised much and delivered nothing, the economic and social situation worsened more and more, and the General Prosecutor appointed by him was… the main hurdle in the efforts to establish a fair judiciary.

[iii] The term Bassarabia / Basarabia is no longer used by pro-Russians, being replaced with Moldova, because saying Bessarabia would contradict the Moldovenist theory: since Bassarabia’s inhabitants are Basarabians, this means they are Moldovan Romanians, precisely against the Soviet Moldovan liberated from… Romanians! Hard to understand, but old man Stalin had an evil imagination put in place, and this can be seen in RM’s borders as well.

[iv] The blackmail with refusing to pay the Britain’s agreed contribution to the EU has no chance, as the EU has solid legal arguments in that respect.