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Weekly review NATO - UE LEVANT Western Balkans Black Sea Region

04 august 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 31 of 2020)

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

I. UNITED STATES / EUROPE. American troops redeploy from Germany.II. RUSSIA. The Black Sea Fleet conducts an air-naval exercise.III. POLAND / UKRAINE / LITHUANIA. The ‘Lublin Triangle’ is born. IV. TURKEY / GREECE. Limited détente.V. Developments to track this Week 32 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

English version by Mircea Mocanu

I. UNITED STATES / EUROPE. American troops redeploy from Germany.

For political reasons, U.S. President Donald Trump decided to withdraw part of the American troops from Germany and redeploy them elsewhere. The Pentagon turned this decision into a plan which does not dent Europe’s defense, especially given that this withdrawal will be compensated by rotational deployments to the East, which will enforce Romania’s security. At political level, however, the harm has been done, as German – American relations show a setback. Let us hope that the negative impact of this political disagreement will not impact on Europe’s defense by stressing the transatlantic relations.

On July 21st, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced that the United States would operate changes in the disposition of its troops stationed in Europe by optimizing the forward presence[1] through a more vigorous rotational presence. This will be done in view of increasing “strategic flexibility and operational unpredictability” in order to implement Washington’s National Defense Strategy (NDS). In this respect, the U.S. Department of Defense implemented President Trump’s decision of reducing the American military presence in Germany and reposition American troops stationed in Europe for better responding to the competition between the great powers. The Pentagon’s plan to accomplish that goal has the following objectives: a stronger deterrence to Russia, NATO consolidation, Ally reassurance, a larger strategic flexibility and unpredictability at operational level for EUCOM, as well as offering more attention to American soldiers and their families, in the process.   

EUCOM plan was approved in June by President Trump, after the Pentagon had consulted with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and with the allies affected by these changes. According to this plan, of the 36,000 American soldiers stationed in Germany, 11,900 will be redeployed, which means one third less left on German territory. Of the 11,900 redeployed G.I.s, 5,600 will transfer to other European NATO countries, and 6,400 will return to the United States. However, of those 5,600 soldiers (or soldiers from similar units), many will come back to Europe in rotational deployments. 4,500 of the 6,400 soldiers make the 2nd Cavalry regiment, which will be withdrawn from Europe, but other mechanized infantry units[2] “will begin continuous rotations farther east in the Black Sea region to enhance deterrence and reassure allies along NATO’s southeastern flank”. Also, 2,500 American airmen from Mildenhall AFB in the UK, responsible for refueling and special operations, who were supposed to redeploy to Germany, will remain in Britain. A fighter squadron and other elements of a fighter wing[3] will be repositioned to Italy, thus “moving them closer to the Black Sea region and better capable of conducting dynamic force employments and rotational deployments to NATO’s southeastern flank”. In addition, according to the announcement made by presidents Trump and Duda, elements of the newly established U.S. Army Corps V will be deployed to Poland, after a Defense Cooperation Agreement is signed with Warsaw to include spending sharing. These changes will be implemented “as expeditiously as possible... The repositioning of our forces in Europe constitutes a major strategic and positive shift, wholly in line with the NDS, and consistent with other adjustments the U.S. has made within NATO in previous times”. The Pentagon specified that most troops to be redeployed from Germany, including two American regional commands, EUCOM and AFRICOM will move to Belgium, respectively to Italy.

On june 30th, President Donald Trump wrote: “Germany pays Russia billions of dollars a year for energy, and we are supposed to protect Germany from Russia. What’s that all about?... Also, Germany is very delinquent in their 2% fee to NATO. We are therefore moving some troops out of Germany!” Later, on July 29th, Jens Stoltenberg declared that “today’s announcement by Secretary Esper on U.S. forces in Europe underlines the continued commitment by the United States to NATO and to European security. Peace and security in Europe is important for the security and prosperity of North America, and as we face a more unpredictable world, we are stronger and safer when we stand together. The U.S. has consulted closely with all NATO Allies ahead of today’s announcement”. Then, on July 31st, Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak stated that "at least 1,000 new soldiers will be deployed in our country,... We will have an American command in Poland. This command will manage the troops deployed along NATO's eastern border... It will be the most important centre for ground forces in our region... We will soon sign the final pact with the Americans".  

Most recently, on August 1st, American ambassador to Bucharest Adrian Zuckerman declared “I am sure you heard… that Romania would host a significant number of supplementary American troops as result of our strategic defense policy. Romania is a key ally in this strategic policy. Europe’s south-eastern flank will be fully defended from any negative influence. Romania is one of the vital pillars and partners in United States and NATO defense strategy. Romania should never worry about the integrity and security of its borders”. In Germany, very rough political reactions appeared, and they stressed the negative effects Washington’s action would have upon American – German relations, upon the transatlantic relations and upon Germany, respectively Europe as a whole: Markus Söder, the CSU Bavarian viewed to become future Chancellor said “this afflicts American – German relations. Respect is not a one-way road”; CDU expert Norbert Röttgen added: “instead of consolidating NATO, troop redeployment will lead to Alliance weakening”. German Social-Democrats and Ecologists were even tougher. Also, American Democrat opposition, as well as former American commanders stated this is a negative move (Gen. Ben Hodges: “American troop withdrawal from Germany is a gift offered to Russia”). Moscow’s reaction was moderate. First, perceiving the principle mentioned by Elmer regarding redeployment to the East, there was a negative reaction by non-essential representatives, Russian deputies who declared that Russia would react to American troop redeployment; then, there was Dmitry Peskov’s reaction regarding the general reduction of U.S. troops in Europe: “the less American soldiers are on the European continent, the calmer the situation in Europe becomes” (Is it? How many American soldiers were in Ukraine, when Russia “calmed” it by illegally annexing Crimea, and occupying Donbass, or in Aleppo when Russia brought a “tomb calm” by systematically bombing the civilian population? None. This is precisely why the Kremlin was able to “calm” those places).   

For assessing where we are, from military, political-military and political points of view, let us recap the entire action. In the military domain, we see: 1) 6,400 soldiers are withdrawn from Europe, mainly a mechanized infantry regiment, which will be compensated, though, by rotational deployment of these troops or similar units, directly from the U.S. to eastern Europe, especially in the Black Sea region; 2) 5,600 American soldiers currently deployed to Germany will be transferred to Belgium, Italy, and Poland, as well as by rotation, again in the Black Sea region. Two American regional commands will be relocated from Stuttgart to Belgium, in Mons, which increases “upstream” cooperation with SHAPE, but diminishes the “downstream” cooperation with American units deployed to Germany (most American infrastructure in Europe remains more dense in Germany). Also, an American Army Corps command (Corps V) will be deployed to Poland, where it will make the nucleus of a regional army corps (responsible for the whole NATO eastern border; this means a transfer of the American command disposition center of gravity towards NATO’s eastern border; 3) air force elements belonging to a large unit, the 52nd Fighter Wing, mainly a F-16 squadron, will be redeployed to Italy (although it is stressed that such move will bring these fighters closer to the Black Sea region, the difference in distance is not that significant; what is important though, is that the squadron is brought to serve the southern flank of NATO’s eastern border, and the unit will be destined to be deployed by rotation to the Black Sea region). Therefore, at European level, there is not a big change, only the compensated withdrawal of a regiment, a couple of force and command repositions, and a small shift to the East, but with a rotational troop deployment, not permanent. The new command deployment to Poland was predictable, there were indications pointing to that move, from the political agreement to the strong Polish – American military cooperation (where the Poles bring a substantial, both economic and military contribution: units, equipment, and personnel). 

From a political – military point of view, there is an insignificant reduction in American military presence in Europe (compensated, though, by a rotational deployment in the Black Sea region!), a reorientation of U.S. disposition in Europe towards the East, both by troop and command disposition (about troops - only as much as the rotational deployments will be substantial, and about commands - only if the command in Poland is established). For Romania, a consolidated presence of American troops, albeit by rotation only, is an encouraging element, as presented by ambassador Zuckerman, but this will matter only to the extend we fulfil our duty too (our units, equipment, and people). This beneficial effect is the result of American institutions’ capacity to implement a political decision based on reasons other than military, into a principled political – military action which will eventually lead to Europe’s defense capacity consolidation (although, for the moment, only the figures seem to matter: an American regiment leaves Europe). Both Mark Esper’s and Jens Stoltenberg’s messages highlight this conclusion.

Thirdly, from a political point of view, this is visibly President Trump’s decision meant to punish Germany, respectively Chancellor Angela Merkel. If he meant to politically hurt Germany, he succeeded, as German reactions focused on this aspect of Trump’s decision – the fall in mutual trust and respect of the two nations (although there are military effects: bilateral military cooperation decreased), as well as economic consequences (for the communities in Germany from where American troops leave). However, if a momentary guilt for this degradation seems to point at President Trump, political divergences are deeper, not limited to Germany’s allotment of less than 2% of GDP for defense (neither Belgium, nor Italy budgets 2% for defense). Instead, there are several political attitude issues, and the Germans will likely analyze an answer to the question “why did we get here, with or without Trump as U.S. president?”. This is the negative impact of American redeployments, the political fallout of weakening the German – American relation, which is a basic component of the transatlantic relations. This lovers’ spat brings much political anger, but its causes might partly vanish (these redeployments require time, and many things can happen meanwhile). Therefore, these momentary tensions do not afflict Europe’s defense, but will generate a reassessment of Germany – United States bilateral policy, and, on the long-run, the result of such reassessment should have a positive outcome! This is the reason the Kremlin does not know yet whether to laugh or to cry: the problem is not about limited rotational deployments to the East, compensated by the withdrawal of a regiment, but the situation of German – American relations, especially on long term, where the Kremlin hopes for the worst.


II. RUSSIA. The Black Sea Fleet conducts an air-naval exercise.

Russia conducted an air-naval exercise at the Black Sea. During this activity, Moscow tested the air defense system of its Admiral Grigorovich – class frigates, the backbone of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Willing to keep these tests discrete, Russian military sent aircraft to intercept any prying American Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) aircraft. The exercise was likely a warning to NATO regarding the frigate operational capabilities, and to Ukraine, who is preparing a “sea denial” strategy using the “Neptune” anti-ship missiles deployed along its littoral. Also, army units of Russia’s Strategic Joint Command (CJS) “South” were alerted, probably as a warning to Turkey, who organized common exercises with Azerbaijan in the Azeri exclave of Nakhichevan, bordering Turkey, on the backdrop of current Azeri – Armenian tensions.

On July 29th, Russian Defense Ministry has announced that over twenty Black Sea Fleet warships take part in a naval exercise, counting for the second phase of Fleet warship training. In the framework of this exercise, the Black Sea Fleet exercised air defense, counter-ship combat and attacks on targets ashore, anti-sabotage defense, and ship survivability. Aircraft and helicopters of naval and tactical aviation stationed in Crimea provided air support. Among participating warships there were: two frigates (the Admiral Grigorovich-class Admiral Essen and the Krivak-II-class Pitlivi); the patrol-ship project 2216 Dmitry Rogachev; the Buyan M – class corvettes project 21631 Orekhovo-Zuyevo, and Ingushetia; as well as the Ropucha I – class, project 775, landing ships Czar Kunikov, and Saratov.

During these exercises, the most important element was the live fire drills conducted by frigate Admiral Essen, including the neutralization of an anti-ship missile intercepted by its air-defense system. On July 30th, a Progress (SS-N-3 Shaddock) anti-ship missile launched from the shore by the Utex missile system[4] was intercepted by the air-defense system of frigate Shtil-1 (SA-N-12), which uses the same missile as the ground air-defense system Buk, 9M317M (SA-17). Remarkably, the 24 anti-aircraft missiles were launched from the vertical launcher / VLS 3S90E. By this successful interception, the entire sensor-to-missile kill chain was tested: the air monitoring system (the Fregat M2M 3D radar), and the 3R90E1 fire control system for these missiles (four MR-90 Orekh radars with sectorial coverage), as well as the Trebovanie-M integrated naval Command-and-control system. In this context, on July 31st, Russian Ministry of Defense announced the interception of two American reconnaissance aircraft above the Black Sea, by Su-27 fighters which took off from Crimea. The interception of an anti-ship missile by the air-defense system on board frigate Essen demonstrates the Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate capability of self-defense against anti-ship missiles. Russia managed only in the latest decades to build its own “sea-skimming” missiles SS-N-25, and SS-N-27 Kalibr, like the Harpoon or Exocet. Therefore, it is worth mentioning that between the Progress missile (a 750 kilometer-range old but good missile) and the “sea-skimming” missiles such as Harpoon or Exocet lies… the whole Falkland Islands drama, where the British fleet was able to intercept Progress-type missiles, but not Exocet missiles. However, the achievement is outstanding, especially since Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is not yet threatened by any high-tech anti-ship missile system in northwestern Black Sea waters.

Current Azeri – Armenian tensions include mutual accusations of opening fire at the contact line, but there is also Turkey’s involvement by organizing common Turkish – Azeri exercises (the air and ground TurAz Qartali-2020 exercises, with participation of Turkish F-16 aircraft and assault helicopters). In this context, Russia alerted the 8th Army of SJC “South”. Russian exercise unfolded in the area of Rostov, Volgograd, as well as in Armenia. This is a power play by Turkey and Russia, in support of their respective allies Azerbaijan, and Armenia. The tensions were kept under control by direct communication between the two leaders, Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdoğan. By banning the inspections conducted by Ankara in the framework of arms control, Yerevan reacted to Turkey’s implication in Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan by these exercises, which demonstrate Ankara’s undoubtful military support to Baku. By this Turkish implication, the Azeri – Armenian conflict enters a new phase, where Baku can reopen the confrontations, being supported by Ankara, in the event negotiations do not pan out (and they rather don’t). As this danger grows bigger, Russia sides firmly along its OTSC ally, Armenia.

On another page, let us notice that Il-20M modernized ELINT aircraft were deployed to SJC “South” for reconnaissance actions meant to mark targets for MiG-31K fighters. These MiGs can carry Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, air-launched ballistic missiles which make a threat to NATO in the Black Sea area. Is there an extension of Kinzhal strike capability to cover naval targets as well? That would be the Chinese concept of striking warships with ballistic missiles. Such threat would directly concern Romania, as our future corvettes should cope with this danger too. 


III. POLAND / UKRAINE / LITHUANIA. The ‘Lublin Triangle’ is born.

Caught between domestic reform stagnation and the uncertainty in the negotiations with Russia, Ukraine seeks a way to increased cooperation with its main partner Poland. Ukraine shares with Poland a common approach to Russian threat, and Lithuania steps in to provide a regional dimension to this initiative. It seems to be the only practical solution, as Kyiv is still far away from NATO and the EU, and other cooperation solutions proved ineffective.

On July 28th, Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania announced they would form a ‘Lublin Triangle’, as a cooperation format meant to overpass the security domain, by defining itself as a political and economic initiative. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has announced “the creation of the ‘Lublin Triangle’, a format that will be an important element in the development and strengthening of Central Europe, as well as in strengthening Ukraine as a full member of the European and Euro-Atlantic family of nations". The three nations were already fostering a military cooperation in the framework of Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian Brigade, but the new format is meant to extend this cooperation from security to economy (trade, investments, infrastructure). On this occasion, Kuleba thanked Poland and Lithuania for their constant support to Ukraine on its way to EU and NATO integration. Highly likely, Warsaw decided it should formalize intensified relations with Kyiv, and the Lithuanians are to enlarge the regional feature towards the Baltics. Practically, the two countries are more and more integrated, several million Ukrainians working in Poland, and the two economies intend to get closer to each other, considering that the Ukrainian space is the natural development area for Polish investments. At the same time, the threat they perceive is the same: the danger of Nord Stream II was also discussed. This initiative comes in the context where Ukraine is far from its integration into NATO and EU, and foreign obstacles add to domestic problems: Russia feeds the conflict in Donbass, thus blocking Kyiv’s path to NATO, and Ukraine’s economy is in stalemate, because reforms are not implemented.

It is worth mentioning that other cooperation formats (the Visegrad Group, the Three Seas Initiative) are ineffective for Ukraine’s current objectives as they are eclectic and directed to other goals than bringing Ukraine near EU and NATO. In addition, in the West, Ukraine has an almost hostile Euro-Atlantic country – Hungary, and in the South-West a limited capability Euro-Atlantic country, Romania (who is / or should be focused on another country to be steered towards the EU, the Republic of Moldova, but which resists by efforts of its President Igor Dodon, who wants to lead it towards… nowhere). Therefore, Warsaw and Kyiv decided to forge a ‘smaller Intermarium’, benefitting a historical and linguistic basis. The problem though, is the extent the Ukrainian elite will accept Polish competitional presence, and whether Polish elite will take this risk. One should not ignore the historical signification, the heritage of 1596 ‘Lublin Union”, which created the Polish – Lithuanian state also covering large portions of Ukraine and opposed Moscow’s expansion. There are chances of success, especially since the Russian danger, which makes the main incentive, looms large over both countries: while Poland is fully integrated into EU and NATO, and has the United States strongly supportive, Ukraine fights for survival with a Russia upset because its view to Europe is obscured by Ukraine, who insists on remaining independent and sovereign (and which Moscow believed it had assimilated, during the Czarist and Soviet eras).  

This is also the problem in the context of recent cease-fire agreement in Donbass: veterans having participated in battles, and Ukrainian nationalists do not support the cease-fire for fear that Kyiv is about to yield now what was gained by fighting. The cease-fire agreement was not respected, but the number of incidents diminished after the phone conversation between presidents Putin and Zelenskiy. That was an additional opportunity for Moscow to impose its paradigm: Kyiv would implement the Minsk Agreement, meaning political concessions, in conditions where Moscow does not withdraw its troops, and does not allow border control by the Ukrainians. Under the push of Normandy format talks, Kyiv seems ready to engage in negotiations whose objective is not clear, beyond the wish for peace[5]. An indication in that respect is Leonid Kuchma’s resignation from his position as Ukrainian representative in the Trilateral Contact Group. Anyway, Kyiv’s new representative, another former president of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, communicated that was ready for compromise, but not a compromise meaning concessions in Ukraine’s fundamental national interests (which is what the Kremlin wants).


IV.  TURKEY / GREECE. Limited détente.

After concerningly increased tensions, Ankara announced it would not begin drilling in waters south of Greek Kastellorizo Island. The news came after a visit paid by the Spanish foreign minister, but Germany is the actor who obtained this result, both by warning Ankara on its limits, and by opening a Turkish – Greek negotiating channel. The United States role should not be ignored either, on setting limits of the conflict. However, the détente is just temporary, and further negotiations seem to be very difficult. In that idea, Ankara announced it would send a geological survey vessel south of Cyprus, thus reactivating the other maritime dispute, with Cyprus.

First, Spanish Foreign Minister Gonzales Laya visited Ankara, where he met his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. After this visit, on July 27th, Laya declared that an inflexion point had been reached in the dispute between Turkey and Greece, regarding drilling in eastern Mediterranean Sea. Gonzales added that drillings might be suspended for one month, allowing a dialogue to happen. Then, Greece announced that Turkish vessels left the area where drillings were supposed to begin (worth mentioning, the Turkish drilling vessel did not leave the Turkish port where it was waiting). Turkish compliance came later (July 27th), when Turkish Presidency spokesman Ibrahim Kalin announced that President Recep Erdoğan had decided the suspension of drilling activities in areas disputed with Greece in eastern Mediterranean. Kalin added that countries should drill in their own continental shelf, and to conduct common activities in disputed areas; he also added that Turkey’s dispute with Greece on oil / gas exploitation rights in the Mediterranean Sea should be solved through dialogue. Athens responded it was ready for negotiations, but not under the threat of force. Recently, Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar announced that Turkey and Greece would shortly begin negotiations in Ankara.

Although the final mediation was performed by Spain, it was Germany the country who sought a diplomatic solution even when the crisis was at its peak. One week before, Ibrahim Kalin had announced that a negotiation channel with Greece was established, even while Ankara was talking about a vessel being sent to drill in the disputed maritime areas south of Kastellorizo Island. The Greek press published that, in the phone conversation between Angela Markel and Recep Erdoğan, the latter spoke not only about the need for dialogue, but also the limits: the EU, respectively Germany, should not side with Greece in the event of an escalated dispute. Also, the United States had a role in establishing negotiation limits, as American warships were conducting exercises both with Greek and Turkish warships – a signal that Washington will not allow a naval conflict between two NATO allies. Perhaps the fact that two important allies, Germany and the U.S. sent a clear signal persuaded President Erdoğan to decide the halt of dispute escalation, especially as Turkey faces economic problems which it cannot solve in isolation (Turkish Lira is falling in comparison with the Euro and the US Dollar). There is now a respite, as the risk of escalation is temporarily put away, but it is still far from a solution. It feels well for everybody, both for the two nations in dispute, and for NATO and EU, that a gateway to negotiations was identified, but a solution of these negotiations will be difficult to agree.


V. Developments to track this Week 32 of 2020.

► UNITED STATES / RUSSIA. Negotiations on nuclear arms control. After talking for one day the issue of weapons in space, the two great powers have been discussing, for three days, the problem of strategic nuclear arms control. The continuation of these discussions is a success, as they keep the door ajar for extending the New START. President Trump entered dire straits in the election campaign, which makes both sides prone to make concessions for reaching an extension of New START.

► REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. Igor Dodon met Transnistrian leader Vadim Krasnoselski  (“Transnistria’s president”, as Dodon called him). The goal is likely the preparations for Dodon’s reelection by involving Transnistrian electorate to the voting process. Dodon appears in the polls with a 10% difference ahead of Maia Sandu, but he is aware that, in absence of a ‘Transnistrian electorate maneuver’, he has little chances for reelection (ironically, the last time, Dodon made this maneuver supported by Plahotniuc, while now he is to be supported by Russia).

► BELARUS. Lukashenka arrests Russia’s provocation agents. In circumstances where he arrested his counter-candidates, and is sure of winning the elections again, but not sure about domestic stability, President Lukashenka ruined Moscow’s plans by arresting 33 Wagner mercenaries of the 200 (which Lukashenka claimed they entered Belarus with hostile intentions). The Kremlin reacted with moderation, by denying any connection with those people, but requested their release, nevertheless. The increased tensions between Minsk and Moscow reached a high level, and it is interesting to watch how the Kremlin will manage the situation, considering that Belarusian law enforcement forces are under Lukashenka’s total control, and their infiltration by Russian secret agencies seems to have failed.

[1] According to American strategic concepts, expeditionary forces are broken down by their deployment capacity and readiness, in: Immediate Response Force, Contingency Response Force, and they are utilized in the framework of Dynamic Force Employment.

[2] So called ‘Stryker units’, named after the Infantry Carrier Vehicle / ICV these units are equipped with.

[3] A Wing is a large air force unit of regiment / brigade level, composed of several Groups, either fighter or support, and the Groups are made of squadrons.  Within recently decides relocation, elements of the 52nd Fighter Wing, currently stationed in Spangdahlem, will be redeployed, including a squadron of twenty F-16 fighters.

[4] Utex is a fixed battery of anti-ship missiles rehabilitated by Russia in Crimea.

[5] Ukraine has announced it supports the return of Russian officers to the Common Coordination and Control Center.