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13 august 2019 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 32 of 2019)

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

I. RUSSIA. First reaction after the INF demise. II. UKRAINE. Zelenskiy – Putin phone conversation. III. BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA. Government ten months after the elections. IV. TURKEY - UNITED STATES. Agreement on the security zone in Syria. V. Developments to track this Week 33 of 2019.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. RUSSIA. First reaction after the INF demise.

In its first reaction after the end of INF treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened with new missiles in response to those to be produced by the United States, but he also called for negotiations regarding a new nuclear arms control agreement.

Vladimir Putin summoned the Russian National Security Council for August 5th, where the post-INF situation was discussed. He warned that Russia would respond symmetrically if the U.S. developed ground-based short and medium range missiles (those which were limited by the INF): "If Russia obtains reliable information whereby the United States completes the development of these systems and starts to produce them, Russia will have no option other than to engage in a full-scale effort to develop similar missiles".

Putin blamed the U.S. for the end of INF, but mentioned it was crucial that Russia and  the United States resumed discussions regarding arms control in order to prevent the beginning of a new arms race unrestricted by any agreement: "In order to avoid chaos with no rules, restrictions, or laws, we need to once more weigh up all the dangerous consequences and launch a serious and meaningful dialogue free from any ambiguity... Russia considers that it is necessary to revive without delay meaningful talks on ensuring strategic stability and security. We are ready to engage in these efforts", Putin said.

For supporting such point of view, stability by sturdiness, the Russian President sent strategic bombers in the area of American – Canadian air control, and those were intercepted by F22 and F18 aircraft of these nations.

By Moscow standards, such reaction by the Kremlin was natural after the end of INF. On one side threatening with military response to U.S. actions, and on the other side calling for serious negotiations to “secure strategic stability and security”.

Specifications need to be made though. Russia already possesses beyond development phase the cruise and ballistic missiles it threatens it would develop. Even more, Moscow has already operationalized the cruise missiles (four battalions of SSC-8 missiles). The Kremlin needs to maintain this narrative, it cannot admit now what it did not admit when saving the INF was still possible. But this does nothing to increase trust, which is a quite necessary element for the success of future negotiations. 

As for “securing strategic stability and security”, Russia is the one to have breached the status quo. Apparently, the United States “started” the problem, by quitting the ABM and developing anti-ballistic systems, yet time has proved the United States right, both regarding the threats from North Korea plus Iran, and Russia’s behavior, in the very case of INF. Russia feared that the missile defense systems would evolve to the level whereby its strategic ballistic missiles were possibly intercepted. This led to the development of new armament systems, the hypersonic missiles, ranging from the Avangard (the hypersonic glider mounted on a ballistic missile), to the air-launched (Kinzhal, in fact an air-launched Iskander), the ship-based missiles (Zirkon, still under development), as well as the nuclear-powered cruise missile, the Burevestnik. But these are in their development phase (except Kinzhal, which was hastily deployed to threaten the missile defense installations at Deveselu / Romania), and they do not guarantee they would be reliable systems to successfully become operationalized. The best example of uncertainty is the nuclear-powered cruise missile Burevestnik. A test of this missile just caused the most recent tragedy on August 8th, with five casualties and the danger of nuclear contamination IVO the testing range of Nyonoksa, although, of course, the Kremlin does not admit yet this outcome. At European theater level, Russia responded to NATO’s conventional superiority by deploying the INF breaching SSC-8 missiles, thus changing the strategic balance of this theater of operations[i].

Now we reach the point where Putin calls for “secure strategic stability and security”. Is Russia afraid that the United States also quits the New START agreement, since Washington has already declared it aims at a new global arrangement (all nuclear weapons, not only the strategic warheads), also extended to include China? And how is Moscow supposed to solve such situation, when it did not abide by the previous agreements (the INF) and threatens with all kinds of advanced weapons it is not able to properly operationalize? The false start, as Moscow did in the INF case, is an element that does not engender trust. Nor the friendship showed by President Trump seems to be an advantage, since Donald Trump eventually follows what his experts design, and one of the toughest among those is John Bolton, his national security adviser. Bottom line, what seems to be a chess game where the Kremlin has prepared its moves in advance, rather proves to be a Russian roulette where nobody knows for sure what his next steps are. This is precisely the danger, because Russia is a relatively small economic power with political sclerosis, engaged in a competition for nuclear arms supremacy which it cannot win, but cannot afford to lose either.

Russian system’s sclerosis is proven by the Kremlin’s hash actions after deciding that no opposition should exist in Russia. The opposition leaders were arrested, Navalny even received a special warning (either poisoned or only intoxicated, the signal passed through), the protesters are arrested by the dozens… and still a couple of thousand protesters decided to go to the streets of Moscow on August 10th. On short term, the Kremlin will succeed to stop the protests, but at what cost? The story that protesters are creation of the West (the eternal invented enemy) does not convince anymore, although the U.S. Embassy was criticized for… a map. And not the United States, but the very Europeans who were calling for cooperation with Russia, like Germany and France, reacted most vividly to Moscow’s actions to repress the protesters.

Putin’s social contract with the Russian people was submission in the political domain and silence in the public space in exchange for a minimum living standard. The power knows that this contract seems to stumble, and the Kremlin is the side which failed to deliver. The political system put the whole power in the hands of one individual, Vladimir Putin, who represents the interests of a KGB-oligarchic gang glued by corruption. Such political system cannot reform without endangering the state stability (and the gang’s fate!), therefore the stalemate and the power’s fear. Putin forgot what he had promised to the Russians during his inauguration: “proryv” – the jump ahead!

It is this very state that started an arms race which it cannot win because it is backward in economy and technology, but it will do everything in its power to not lose it. His everything is the danger we all face.   


II. UKRAINE. Zelenskiy – Putin phone conversation.

On August 7th, upon his request, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin and asked him to work on stopping the fights in Eastern Ukraine. The event took place after four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in Donbass by pro-Russian separatists. This was the second phone discussion between the two since President Zelenskiy was elected in April.

V. Zelenskiy declared: "I called him urgently. I told him that this brings us no closer to peace". He also requested Putin to ask the separatists to "stop killing our people". Putin allegedly promised something in this regard, but the details are still to be made public. The event which triggered that talk was the killing of four Ukrainian soldiers on August 6th, the largest number of casualties since a truce has been announced, three weeks ago. On the other side, the Kremlin communicated that the two presidents discussed the perspective of cooperation in Normandy format, and they agreed to intensify negotiations regarding a prisoner exchange.  

Volodymyr Zelenskiy also called the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who agreed to summon a new meeting in Normandy format.

This discussion is an important step in relaunching Russo-Ukrainian negotiations regarding the Donbass conflict. The approach is different, as the way the conversation was presented shows: to novice Zelenskiy’s emotional approaches, Putin responded by “framing” Zelenskiy in the diplomatic format that Moscow conceived precisely for imposing its solution to end the conflict (which has to be a solution leading to Ukraine’s control by Russia, otherwise, why bother with so much war and tensions?!).

Russia will likely not rush into a new Normandy format meeting, as it is patient enough to wait until Zelenskiy meets problems, because, right now, the Ukrainian president is still riding the wave of enthusiasm keeping the Ukrainian nation closely united around him. Even the novice Zelenskiy’s honest emotional approach entangles the Kremlin at tactical level: Zelenskiy cannot be portrayed now as the nationalist warrying leader who oppresses the poor Russian speaking population of Donbass (and who, naturally, must defend itself, with Moscow support, from these fascist nationalists in Kyiv[ii]).

Zelenskiy makes the first shy and contradictory steps, both domestically and abroad. His visit to Turkey and the invitation issued to Turkish investors to come to Ukraine, also announcing the intention to privatize agricultural real estate, speak to his actions already taking shape at home. Zelenskiy is preparing reform plans (including a new agreement with the IMF) and made changes in the military and other institutions. However, it remains to be seen whether the people appointed by him will be competent leaders in service of Ukraine, or they will be just individuals obedient to the president, but incompetent and unprepared for conducting reforms.

The main event abroad will be Zelenskiy’s meeting with President Donald Trump, whose signals are positive: Zelenskiy is a good leader who will propose Putin an agreement and will reestablish peace.

Zelenskiy will truly resume his “reign” (by almost completely controlling the power) after August 28th, the date when the Rada (the parliament) meets in session. Henceforth, he will appoint the prime minister and the Cabinet members, as well as the General Prosecutor. Henceforth, he will also show whether he can change anything, or this is just another Ukraine’s failed hope. Anyway, reform means changes, and, on short term, changes bring instability, which is what the Kremlin is specifically waiting for.


III. BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA. Government ten months after the elections.  

On August 5th, the three leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), a Serb, a Croat, and a Muslim agreed on forming a new government. The trade-off accord was mediated by the European Union Mission to BiH, who identified a compromise solution regarding the main stumbling block, the country’s future integration into NATO. The outcome agreement allows BiH to have a government ten months after the elections! 

However, the timeframe to put together a government is only thirty days, and the main actor, Serbian representative in the tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, blatantly threatened: “I think this is an important moment which allows us to move forward”. But, should the parties fail to agree upon a government within the timeframe, “that will mean that Bosnia is in a deep constitutional and political crisis and that its sovereignty will come into question... Unless this document as agreed and signed has been implemented in the next 30 days, the SNSD [the ethnic Serbian Socialists] will block the work of all institutions and nobody will be able to stop that, neither European or any other international institutions”.  

Dodik’s power resides in his capacity to block any important decision at BiH central level. Dodik has abused that power, as also did the leaders of the other two ethnic – religious component groups, the Croats and the Muslims (called Boshniaks). However, he stands out for having made that skill an art turning him into the key person in BiH. Forming a government was blocked by the Croats and the Muslims, who insisted that the prime minister, who is going to be appointed by SNSD, commits to continue the path of integration into NATO. By refusing to accept such commitment, the SNSD blocked the works of BiH Parliament.

The bone of contention is the nation’s position toward NATO. While the Croats and the Muslims support BiH’s integration into the North-Atlantic Alliance, the BiH Serbs oppose that, and they are supported by Russia in this attitude, relying on recent reasons: NATO was the military power which bombed them during the civil war, thus making them accept the Dayton Agreement. The compromise solution includes the provision that BiH leaders will “promote relations with NATO without prejudicing a future decision about the membership of Bosnia and Herzegovina”. The same as the majority of ethnic Serbian population in BiH, Dodik is against NATO, and he stands for good relations with Russia. Dodik even repeatedly threatened with the secession of his Serbian component (Republika Srpska) from the confederate state of BiH.

So, are we on the path towards a solution, or we steer towards a worse political crisis? Most likely, a solution will be identified, and BiH will have a government with a SNSD prime minister accepting to continue cooperation with NATO, within certain limits. Dodik and the SNSD need to stay in power in Republika Srpska, and their actions must probably be understood by this angle – getting as much as possible for R. Srpska, not Dodik’s geopolitical games of threatening with blocking the country or splitting the R. Srpska from BiH. We will only get that far if Dodik’s sponsor, Moscow, wants a crisis in BiH. However, in such situation, the sponsor should contribute not only with political nationalist messages, but with money too, and money is in short supply in Russia now.

As these past ten months showed, BiH can exist even without a government, or rather it can mimic existence, without functional institutions. The West sees the future of BiH in development by stabilization and integration into NATO and EU. This view is based on the hypothesis that economic growth will entail democratization, which, in turn, will secure transition from a political stage dominated by nationalist parties to a normal state. Nevertheless, such course of action is still far from being verified.

The opposite course of action, R. Srpska’s secession, is not likely either, although, by this threat, Dodik gets the attention of Brussels and beyond. This happens because, regardless how much he overstates his capacity to blackmail, Dodik is not the key actor, but Belgrade is. This is where Serbia’s political orientation will be decided, the Serbs’ position in the Balkans in general, and R. Srpska’s fate as well. But Belgrade experiences other worries though: on the backdrop of Pristina’s impertinence, signals of discontent and accepted sufficiency arrive[iii].

Perhaps more dangerous than that is the fact that the West, who committed to solve the situation, as it also bears a part of responsibility for generating this predicament, is not longer very much interested in the region, not as much as it should be.


IV. TURKEY - UNITED STATES. Agreement on the security zone in Syria.

On August 7th, Turkey and the Unites States reached an agreement to establish a common operational center designed to control the Security Zone along Syria’s northern border. After three days of intense discussions, the two military delegations agreed that the new operational center coordinates and manages stability operations in the Security Zone, which makes a Turkish military operation possible east of Euphrates River.

Only few details were provided on this agreement, which ends a stalemate lasting for months. The bone of contention was the Security Zone width (how deep into Syrian territory), and, especially, who will command the combined forces planned to patrol the Security Zone. This area will stretch for 40 kilometers along the Turkish – Syrian border, separating the Kurdish forces (allied with the United States against the IS) from Turkey’s border. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan commented that Washington progressed in the right direction, and the process of stabilizing the Security Zone will start by opening this common operational center: “What really mattered here was the issue of this step being taken on the east of the Euphrates, and this is now being realised together with the Americans”. The solution between the Turkish and American positions was not specified, but Turkey always insisted to get the highest authority in the Security Zone, which the U.S. always opposed.

Previously, there were only threats. Turkey was threatening with a military operation east of Euphrates, but the Kurds answered that would mean starting a “big war”. The Pentagon had warned about the danger that IS reappeared in north-western Syria, and the Kurds were not able to cope with that threat without American support[iv].

The agreement is a great success, albeit only for avoiding the beginning of a new conflict between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds. Washington found a compromise in a difficult moment for Turco-American relations, after the S-400 / F-35 crisis. Very likely, Turkey obtained only a part of what it wanted, with the ultimate authority over the Security Zone bestowed upon the common operational center commander, not solely on Ankara. On the other hand, the United States, finding itself in a difficult moment in Syria (The White House requests withdrawal and the Pentagon opposes) probably yielded and accepted the Turkish proposal on Security Zone dimensions.

Most important though, a solution was found, and the Turco-American relation crisis did not deepen through a Turco-Kurdish conflict whereby the U.S. troops are allied with Syrian Kurds. But this is just the beginning of the efforts to maintain a reasonable level of relations between two NATO allies.

Considering the incoherence of Washington’s policy in Syria, other problems are expected to appear. While President Trump announced withdrawal, the Pentagon, forced by tactical realities,  requested a slow-down. No European ally responded to the U.S. request for taking responsibility in north-west Syria; therefore, the American soldiers, albeit in reduced numbers, remain there. At strategic level, we witness the difference between the Trump Administration approach of withdrawal, and the traditional American approach of engaging into stabilization efforts in strategic areas.

As for Ankara, this marks the end just for a phase of its tensed relations with the West, mainly with the U.S. The future still looks bleak, although a major impasse was just overcome. That is if the impasse was overcome, because it is still to be seen whether the solution they found can be implemented (the two parties have opposite views in almost all details regarding the way the Security Zone should work and how it should be stabilized).


V. Developments to track this Week 32 of 2019.

• THE BLACK SEA. The USS Porter, American guided-missile destroyer equipped with Aegis BMD, entered the Black Sea. Now we will see the Kremlin’s reaction, especially since this U.S. warship will likely cross without hesitation one or more of the five maritime areas closed by Moscow for naval exercises.

• ITALY. Mateo Salvini decided it is time to shed the governing alliance with the Populists of Cinque Stelle Movement (M5S). A relatively minor dispute, regarding a railway connection to France was the pretext for breaking the coalition. Mateo Salvini’s La Lega is to decide the Giuseppe Conti government’s fall by a non-confidence vote in the parliament followed by snap elections. However, there is the danger that M5S forms a majority with Italian Center-Left political forces, but this is still a marginal option. Nevertheless, Mateo Salvini already launched attacks against such alliance. Salvini wants to exploit the fact that La Lega rose to 40% in the polls, at the expense of the M5S Populists. He was boosted by the strong anti-immigration measures he took. Although not palatable to the politically correct Brussels, these measures are to the liking of most Italians, who face daily problems of illegal migration reality. In Rome, this is another episode of the soap opera with known finale: the Italian financial crisis that will shake the Euro Zone, the European Union respectively.

IRAN. At the end of the day, we will see in the Persian Gulf just the combined U.S. – British naval mission, perhaps with additional other Anglo-Saxons. The Iranians persist to force the situation, while the economic situation is still acceptable, not thanks to Tehran’s allies, but to… the United States, who delays in establishing a full-scale embargo on Iran’s oil exports (exemptions granted to certain nations are no longer applicable). Russia wants to begin common naval exercises with Iran in the Gulf, and Iran keeps threatening. Tehran’s threats range from breaching the nuclear deal limits to inaugurating high-tech air-defense systems. In fact, Tehran knows that President Trump will refrain from conducting a strong military response against Iran, and it pushes on. The problem is that Iran does not get anything this way.

The Europeans do not play ball and prefer an ambiguous diplomacy which angers the White House. What is concerning regarding the trans-Atlantic unity is that President Trump reacted by criticizing President Emmanuel Macron to the French efforts of seeking a solution for preserving the nuclear deal with Iran. In its turn, Germany was also criticized by the U.S. ambassador to Berlin for failing to rise at the level of its international responsibilities by refusing to join the U.S. initiated naval mission in the Gulf. This is just a part of the truth though, as Germany genuinely always hesitates to engage in military actions. The other part of the truth is that, in this case, Germany has a divergent political attitude from Washington’s, and accuses the United States for generating the current situation by quitting the nuclear deal established with Iran. On the background of these disagreements, we can only wait to see what the upcoming G7 reunion in France brings, because that meeting is mainly about Iran.

• UNITED STATES – GERMANY - POLAND. Signals sent by the U.S. about deploying troops to Poland, as punishment for Berlin’s failure to commit adequately to the common defense effort, are worrisome. An advance of American military disposition towards the East can only be beneficial, because the U.S. presence in Poland consolidates NATO, while also disturbing Russia, who will react accordingly. However, doing this at the expense of American – German political and military relations is certainly negative. Everything will get clear though, during President Trump’s visit to Poland. Perhaps we will see a rotational deployment from Germany to Poland, because the Pentagon knows how to balance the political – military glitches caused by the blunt approach Trump Administration practices on various political and military realities. For Germany, this an alert signal as well, because there are more and more visible limits of Berlin’s policy of “with American troops, but not with the United States” (in many political – military issues, including the defense budget). 

[i] For Russia, the intermediate range missiles under the INF writ remain a European theater problem. In Asia, the United States will deploy such missiles just for countering the Chinese missiles of the same category, not at all for threatening Russia. Therefore, Moscow’s threat of deploying intermediate range missiles in Russia’s Asian parts, should the U.S. deploy such missiles in Asia, is rather a courtesy gesture to China, not a realistic strategic option. In fact, Russia would be in profit for the long run, if China was included into a future INF. But this will not happen, because Beijing avoids being caught by the United States into such agreement, which would neutralize a significant part of its A2AD system build specifically for keeping far away the American fleet and missiles which might strike… Russia.

[ii] Even by Zelenskiy’s Jewish origin, the Ukrainian electorate demolished the Kremlin’s theory about Ukrainian fascists who waged a gruesome war against minorities.

[iii] Such as the ill-inspired declaration the Serbian CHOD issued regarding the fact that Russia would stand beside Serbia when Serbia and Kosovo be in dire straits. Well, other that a military crisis, without any result for Serbia other than blocking its relations with NATO and the EU, what would that mean? At the end of the day, what are Serbia’s national interests, beyond the wounded prestige: perhaps to turn the Kosovo page, while securing for the ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo an honorable status, and a living standard as good as they can get.

[iv] The U.S. forces’ partial withdrawal occurred precisely when the IS was regenerating its combat force.