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20 august 2019 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 33 of 2019)

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

I. RUSSIA. Protests and power play. II. UNITED KINGDOM – UNITED STATES. John Bolton visits London. III. REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. Steps forwards and steps backwards. IV. SERBIA - KOSOVO. Western message on resuming negotiations. V. Developments to track this Week 34 of 2019.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. RUSSIA. Protests and power play.

Protests continue in Moscow, which proves that the power does not benefit support from all Russian population, as the autocratic ideology requires. Grave problems, such as the nuclear incident at Nyonoksa, are silenced. Abroad, a show of force indicates a new trend: Moscow’s attention turns somewhat to the Asian theater. In these circumstances, a small air incident with NATO aircraft is worth highlighting.

Despite harsh repression, protests continue. In a symbolic city, such as Moscow, street protests increased to several dozen thousand participants. More important, these protests are supported by a large part of Moscow’s inhabitants: about one third support the protests and another third are against them. The power did not yield, the opposition representatives are still banned from the September 8th local elections. What is worse, everything connected with the opposition was subjected to law enforcement actions, with most opposition leaders arrested. The protests will likely last until after the election day, when the power’s candidates will, of course, win, since they do not have opponents.

It is interesting that most candidates pose as independent, because the power’s United Russia party is unpopular, being associated with the corrupt system governing the country. These protests certainly pose no threat to the power, and the Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov rushed to announce that there was no political crisis in Russia. However, these protests are the largest since about one decade ago, when similar events marked the turn from “Putin the Liberal” to “Putin the Dictator”. Peskov is right, but only partly: the street protests indicate that the “sovereign democracy” does not exist, that the system does not have the popular support it claims, and, worse, that the power is afraid (especially in Moscow: as any Russian dictator, Putin knows very well that Russian regimes fell after coups organized in capital cities).

Russia possesses enough financial resources to face the sanctions, and this allows Moscow to resist and respond, domestically, with investments and social measures. Abroad, Russia will likely pursue a tough stance, unabated against the ideological enemy, the West, which is guilty for… existing, as a reference element for the protesters and for the Russian population writ large.

On the nuclear incident in Nyonoksa, Moscow is in denial.  The power kept silent on the recent nuclear accident in Nyonoksa, Arkhangelsk Region, instead praising Russia’s technological capability, and Russia’s leadership perspective to win the new arms race. In fact, without pink lenses, the situation looks bleak. The US ambassador to Moscow sent a worrisome signal: The United States does not hold yet a clear-cut idea whether the New START treaty is to continue or not (The treaty continues automatically for another five years, if none of the two signatory countries denounce it). The U.S. president’s national security adviser John Bolton announced Washington’s intention to seek a comprehensive agreement to replace New START, which raises serious doubts regarding the future of current United States – Russia accord. It is only after the possible failure of all attempts to continue or extend the New START when the United States will fully embark on this new arms race.

Until then, there is only the failure of a nuclear-powered missile in the test range, only having four SSC-8 missile battalions operationalized, as well as a MIG-31 squadron carrying Kinzhal hypersonic missiles operationalized in Russia’s Military Region South.

Russian strategic aviation is deployed IVO Alaska. In a symbolic show of force, Russia temporarily deployed two Tu 160 strategic bombers to a base on its Pacific coast. The location allows a quick strike against American military targets in Alaska, including anti-ballistic installations. The deployment was only temporary, with demonstrative features, but it may indicate that the Kremlin pays an increased attention to the Far East. Moscow might do so for two possible reasons: 1) to demonstrate its capability to directly threaten the United States with its strategic aviation; 2) to display an increasing military cooperation with China, in a joint effort to counter the United States in the Pacific theater of operations. However, the Kremlin will maintain its attention to the European theater as well, because it still wants to recover post-Soviet countries (Belarus seems to follow!). Europe is also where Russia needs to defend its main military, political and economic assets.

Therefore, Russia’s naval exercises in the Baltic Sea were quite large. As expected, incidents occurred, in form of intercept actions. On August 8th, British aircraft had already intercepted Russian Tu 142 strategic bombers escorted by Su 27 fighters above the Baltic Sea. On August 18th, a Spanish F18 intercepted a transport aircraft having the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on board. This gave Moscow the opportunity to showcase the event as an incident whereby its fighters chased away a NATO aircraft coming too close to the airplane used by its defense minister. In fact, what the Spanish pilot did was to follow NATO rules of engagement and make a visual identification of an airplane flying without a flight plan and with its transponder off, nothing more. Nevertheless, Russian propaganda exploited this event at maximum.

As Putin’s visit to Crimea did not diminish the political impact of Moscow protest rallies against the power, nor will this incident, or other demonstrations of force. It seems still dangerous that the Kremlin seeks to highlight its power status by resorting to such actions. Next situation of the kind will occur in the Black Sea, on the backdrop of Russian Military Region South exercises.


II. UNITED KINGDOM – UNITED STATES. John Bolton visits London. 

On August 12th, the U.S. president’s national security adviser John Bolton paid a visit to London. This event was aimed at improving the American – British relations under the new management of Boris Johnson as prime minister, after some tense moments during the previous tenant in Downing Street 10, Theresa May. John Bolton assured the British government that President Donald Trump wants a successful Brexit and is prepared to support the U.K. in this effort, by signing a free trade agreement.

John Bolton summarized the American position regarding the Brexit by declaring that United States will enthusiastically support Britain’s decision to quit the European Union even without an agreement, i.e. Blind Brexit. John Bolton’s main message was that Washington would help London to overcome the shock of exiting the EU by signing the proposed free trade agreement, currently under negotiations between the two capitals. Should Britain quit the Eu by October 31st, albeit with or without an agreement, London will likely steer towards even closer relations with Washington.

In a wider perspective, in issues like China and Iran, John Bolton’s visit might generate a harsher British attitude. According to John Bolton, it is not yet clear whether U.K. took a final decision regarding Huawei (excluding this IT giant from G5 implementation in Britain). However, judging by the direction where the bilateral relations are heading, this decision will likely comply with the U.S. wish. Regarding Iran, current British Cabinet had already decided to join the American naval mission in the Persian Gulf. London was “encouraged” by Tehran’s aggressive policy, which endangered the British oil tanker navigation in the Gulf, after an Iranian oil tanker had been arrested in Gibraltar. Now, it is obvious that U.S. – U.K. cooperation will deepen, in contrast to Theresa May’s “middle” attitude of considering the European mission as well[1].   

John Bolton’s visit relaunches the American – British relations according to the vision of the respective leaders, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. What is new is Boris Johnson’s rise to power, as he represents the British Conservatives’ anti-European wing, which wants to implement a Brexit in force, not a negotiated agreement. The EU steadfastness is nurtured by the difference between economic powers of E.U. and U.K. Facing this European attitude of not renegotiating the agreement signed with Theresa May, Boris Johnson chooses a confrontational stance toward Brussels: not only Brexit at any cost, but also perceiving the E.U. as adversary. This attitude coincides with Donald Trump’s, who sees the E.U. as a competitor in economy, not as a political and military ally or a competitor who plays by the rules. Therefore, a relaunch of American – British relations will likely happen quickly.

Per se, this is a good thing, as the Washington – London axis is one of the founding bedrocks of western civilization. The problem is that this relaunch is conducted against the European Union, according to an obtuse anti-European vision. Regardless the number of problems Brussels uses to cause, respectively Paris and Berlin, they always had the behavior of allies, maybe difficult, fickle and militarily weak, but allies though.

Before facing foreign issues, Boris Johnson must face domestic realities, and his Blind Brexit choice hits resistance from the Parliament, which he intends to overcome through a political crisis leading to early elections. However, knowing Boris Johnson’s personality, this course of action might be a game meant to force Brussels to yield. The free trade agreement proposed by John Bolton looks like a piece in such game.

Beyond current differences, consolidating the American – British relation not with the E.U., but against the E.U. cannot bode well. The Europeans make mistakes, see France’s haste in promoting certain “European” directions. Regardless how many mistakes they make though, the main cause of this drift is the populist – nationalist vision of both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, a vision reflecting the option of an only limited part of the political elite in the two nations.

For Romania, seeing the three elements of support for our national security (E.U., NATO and U.S.) drifting apart, in not a good thing at all. We can only hope that, after the Brexit shock, the differences will diminish on the backdrop of hostile actions by the West’s adversaries, who see the West diluting its unity.


III. REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. Steps forwards and steps backwards.

Passing the electoral law, appointment of new judges with the Constitutional Court, as well as other recent measures indicate an evolution, although these measures obviously result from non-transparent agreements between ACUM and the Socialists (PSRM). On one hand, the majority ACUM government makes efforts to identify a way between economic reform, meant to attract foreign investors, and social measures, meant to keep the population supportive. On the other hand, PSRM tries to capitalize the government’s successes for itself. To this aim, it insists on signing a comprehensive governing agreement, which ACUM wants to hinge on including reform measures.

At first reading, the Parliament of Republic of Moldova (RM) passed the bill which returns the voting system in RM to party lists. This steers the country away from the mixed system promoted by the Plahotniuc – Dodon tandem (!) and criticized by the European Union (E.U.). 59 deputies of the ACUM – PSRM coalition voted for this quo ante change. The law includes specifications regarding the vote in diaspora and regulates the donations to the parties by allowing donations from Moldovan citizens in diaspora. Thus, the interdiction of financing political parties by Moldovan citizens living abroad is relaxed. The new law increases chances for the ACUM and reduces the possibilities to manipulate the elections, as the Democrats (PD) did, as well as PSRM. What is a dangerous visible trap though, the liberty of financing parties from abroad favors the PSRM, which is financed with almost one million dollars a month by the Kremlin, as Igor Dodon himself has admitted. As in other situations, this law is a compromise between ACUM’s interest to democratize the country, and PSRM’s interest of consolidating its control on the country.

The RM Parliament also made changes in the budget, revenue and customs policy. Moldovan deputies voted changes to the fiscal code, the law on customs tariffs, the law on penalties for environment pollution, the law on social security public system, the law on food stamps, and the law on voluntary income filing and fiscal stimulation of loyal taxpayers. While the ACUM focuses on measures meant to relaunch the economy and attract investors, PSRM focuses on social measures which promise to safeguard its constituency. To the extent ACUM is successful, PSRM wants to be  part of that outcome, but it will seek to split from unpopular measures with negative electoral impact, but which the government is forced to implement. What is stunning is that, in a plundered country such as RM, Maia Sandu’s government can only succeed, albeit by simple promoting transparent measures which normalize the situation, also benefiting from a substantial European financial support.  

The appointment of new judges to the Constitutional Court showed once again the divergent interests of the two parties: ACUM wants to make this institution functional, while PSRM wants only to control it. The Parliament appointment of two judges, other than those who won the contest (!), was not transparent, and this is an alarm signal. ACUM  was dragged into the under-the-counter-decisions game, those which it always blamed and tried to stay clear of, and now conceded a first compromise against its principles. Therefore, a character well known for his dangerously close connections to Moscow, and also with integrity issues, Vladimir Ţurcan, was appointed by the Parliament without even… having competed for that, let alone winning!

In the process of eliminating Vladimir Plahotniuc’s mafia, things are in progress, although only symbolic in some directions. So, lifting Ilan Şor’s parliamentary immunity is a first symbolic step towards clearing the “theft of the billion” case (Igor Dodon’s words!). Plahotniuc’s brother in law committed suicide, which is an eloquent indication that Plahotniuc’s mafia is in disarray. 

In this phase, when the government is scoring and dominates the stage by effective measures towards rebuilding the state institutions and recovering the economy, PSRM wants to bind ACUM through a comprehensive and long-term agreement. On one side, PSRM wants to join the band wagon of a success story rising in the economic and social fields. On the other hand, though, PSRM wants to limit government’s actions in the attempt to forestall the democratization of state institutions and the society beyond a point where they can no longer be controlled by an autocratic party, respectively by President Igor Dodon in the benefit of Moscow. So far, the society is content with current developments and 50% of the population supports an agreement between the two parties. Feeling the incoming danger, ACUM hinges its signature on such document on including language making the reforms mandatory. Here is where the problems begin, as PSRM would accept only reforms just tweaking the society, not deeply transforming the nation. A democratized and prosperous Moldovan society will steer towards the West, and Igor Dodon and alike have no place in such world.

For the moment, Igor Dodon and PSRM are already bound to give up their main weapon, the anti-Romanianism. Now, for justifying the need for privileged relations with Russia, Igor Dodon quotes from Frank-Walter Steinmeier (a former German Social-Democrat foreign minister with a friendly attitude toward Moscow, to say the least), who has stated that solving the Transnistrian conflict cannot be achieved without building good relations with Moscow.

For the moment, Chişinău is busy to find its way out the post-Plahotniuc crisis and to fairly share the power between the two parties, ACUM and PSRM. It is still debatable whether they will be able to continue together, albeit for the benefit of RM, with divergent views upon this “benefit”. A would-be agreement will be a first indicator about the future cooperation between ACUM and PSRM. A second indicator to watch will be the attitude regarding Romania, i,e, any attack that may be triggered by the Socialists, spearheaded by Igor Dodon: their raison d’être is to drive RM to the East by using the Moldovenism ideology, and the easiest step on this path is to attack RM’s historical anchor in the West, which is Romania. However, such decision will not be taken in Chişinău, not even in the building of its presidency, but in Moscow.    


IV. SERBIA - KOSOVO. Western message on resuming negotiations.

On August 13th, in a document / declaration sent both to Serbia and Kosovo, western powers asked the two parties to resume negotiations, considering that the current situation is unacceptable and “not sustainable”. The two entities were requested to solve their differences in order to progress on the path to European integration.

The U.S. and four European powers, United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany asked Serbia and Kosovo to resume negotiations under E.U. mediation with the aim of normalizing bilateral relations “with urgency” and ending the current deadlock: "After years of stagnation, the time has come to finally end the conflicts of the 1990s and provide a secure and prosperous future for the people of Kosovo and Serbia”.

In the vision of the five western powers, the two sides must negotiate in good faith a comprehensive agreement, which should be politically implementable and mandatory (legally binding) and should contribute to regional stability. In the document, they ask Pristina to cancel the excessive tariffs it has introduced in November 2018, and they ask Belgrade to suspend its campaign of blocking Kosovo international recognition.

The message is unequivocal, both regarding the goal, and regarding the support the five powers would provide: "The status quo prevents progress on Kosovo's and Serbia's path towards the EU and is simply not sustainable… We want to see the people of Kosovo and Serbia benefit from a lasting peace and have the opportunity to build their own futures. We stand ready to assist in any way possible".

This declaration represents an important attempt by the united West to budge things. It follows the German – French failure have negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade resumed. This new joint effort brings the American weight to the balance, but it also limits Germany’s weight, as Berlin was seen biased, especially when it opposed the exchange of territories which Serbia and Kosovo had agreed upon (!), in a seemingly favorable moment, just before the latest tensions[2]. Although negotiations would resume under E.U. mediation, the American implication is commendable, it is an element which might provide a chance of success to starting real negotiations.

But the circumstances are extremely unfavorable now, both domestically and abroad. The leaderships in both capitals are not prepared to negotiate, and Serbia’s sponsors, Russia and China, will encourage Belgrade to resist, while Pristina’s sponsors, the five signatories, did not make significant steps to offer Belgrade proper guarantees of impartiality on their démarche.

The first diplomatic signals from the two capitals were negative: both agreed to resume dialogue, but without yielding exactly what they were requested to. Belgrade insists that Pristina’s tariffs were a unilateral gesture, while Pristina mentions it introduced the tariffs only to respond to Serbia’s policy of blocking Kosovo’s recognition.

There is still hope, although not specified in the declaration. The five western powers have enough means to exert pressure, especially upon Kosovo, but also on Serbia. However, these means cannot be used before the five power find themselves a solution acceptable for Belgrade as well, and this is about the fate of ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo, north of Ibar River. Perhaps the exchange of territory reloaded?

Bottom line, this is the problem: there is no point in starting negotiations leading nowhere, if the five western nations fail to provide a fair solution that can be accepted by the two parties albeit pushed a bit in the positive direction: Kosovo to gain recognition of its independence, and Serbia to gain something really meaningful for the Serbs living in Kosovo. And this something must be fair enough for Serbia not only at the level of a solution for the Serbs north of Ibar River, but also to save face for the power in Belgrade. Serbia needs such solution which can save Serbia’s honor and be implementable in Serbia, but also needs to persuade its allies, especially Russia, that accepting that solution is profitable. Maybe the exchange of territory solution, already accepted by the United States, might be accepted again by Serbia and Kosovo. However, that would mean that Germany should change its position and agree. Therefore, we still must wait, especially since Russia is prepared to encourage Belgrade to reject everything, because the only country where the Kremlin wants stability is… Russia.

The West made the historic mistake to force Kosovo’s independence by submitting Serbia to a fait accompli[3]. Such forced birth of Kosovo met Belgrade’s staunch rejection, for having no serious alternative: at home, the power cannot simply surrender for the sake of the promise of integration into the European Union; abroad, Belgrade has partners it can rely on in its resisting policy: Russia and China, who are governed, of course, by their own interests, only partly coinciding with Serbia’s interests.

It seems that the West must learn first that, although it defeated Serbia in the war of the 90s, this country cannot be defeated in the peace of 2019. The ethnic Serbs north of Ibar River deserve what was given to the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. It is only with such cynical yet realistic and impartial perspective that negotiations can be spoken about. And it is only then that both Belgrade and Pristina will come out of the stalemate they linger today. Unfortunately, should the negotiations fail again, Belgrade has alternatives: Russia and China. Should the West fail again, it has no more reason to complain, it serves it right, or better said, it made it to us (Romania) with its own hands and left a source of instability at our doorstep.


V. Developments to track this Week 34 of 2019.

• UKRAINE. French President Emmanuel Macron will welcome Russian President Vladimir Putin on August 19th, in the attempt to resume the Normandy format negotiations on Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy seems to have made proposals which might move things ahead. Of course, this is only if the Kremlin deems that they are acceptable. Very likely, considering that Moscow’s goal is not peace, but control over Kyiv, through the separatists, a solution will not be reached anytime soon. It is important, though, to have the discussions started, because this might keep the danger of a large armed conflict at bay. This course of action is possible, with Putin leaving the impression that he concedes something, since he needs the sanctions lifted, at least partly. 

• ITALY. Mateo Salvini’s scheme to remove the government failed, and no early elections with be held in Italy. Even the postponement by one week of the debates in the parliament represents a first failure. Salvini definitely lost the Five Star Movement (M5S) without gaining anything in exchange. He exchanged the M5S 18% in the parliament for an illusion of 40% he will not be able to get for his party, because the early elections he was dreaming of may not happen in time.

IRAN. The G7 meeting is upcoming, and there the situation in the Persian Gulf is to be discussed, with Iran in the spot. The Europeans must find that unique voice to speak to President Trump and reach an agreement. The chances to reach an agreement on this issue are slim, but clarifications of each position would help making Tehran feel more isolated in the political and economic crisis increasing due to American sanctions. 

• Global. The G7 Summit arrives in a period with many global problems. Although apparently calmed down, the Sino-American trade war is in full swing, and effects start to appear. The political-military facet of this confrontation stands out on the background of both the protests in Hong Kong (where the Chinese armed intervention is imminent) and Taiwan (Washington’s sale of F16 aircraft enraged Beijing leadership). Other crises are ongoing, from North Korea to Venezuela, and the Trump Administration seems comfortable with such situation: nothing solved, with all crises persisting at high levels of tension.

[1] The European mission still lingers in discussion mode, with slim chances to come true in the same time with the American – British mission, although Angela Merkel’s declarations leave room for hope.

[2] Tensions escalated after Pristina introduced excessive (100%) tariffs on Serbian products in response to Belgrade’s measures to block Kosovo’s international recognition.

[3] The example of Kosovo’s army alone speaks volumes. Like having a new state appear under the KFOR shield was not enough, with enough police force and KFOR protection, Pristina was tolerated or even encouraged by its sponsors to establish its own armed forces. Serbia’s reaction was swift: although Kosovo’s army did not represent a military danger to Serbia, Belgrade armed itself, supported by Russia. And the West is still wondering why Serbia went so deep into Russia’s arms! The fact that Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić needed Moscow’s approval to form his government means more than alliance, it means loss of national sovereignty.