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01 septembrie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 35 of 2020)

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

I. BELARUS. Lukashenka chose the ‘attrition war’ with the Belarusians.II. GREECE / TURKEY. Tensions persist.III. EUROPEAN UNION. Informal reunion of defense ministers. IV. ITALY / CHINA. Chinese foreign minister visits Italy.V. Developments to track this Week 36 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

English version by Mircea Mocanu

I. BELARUS. Lukashenka chose the ‘attrition war’ with the Belarusians.

Having his back covered by Moscow, which asked the West to leave Belarusians “solve their own problems” (meaning to leave the dictator in Russia’s hands), President Aleksandr Lukashenka decided to silence the political opposition by arresting several members of the newly established Coordination Council, and by stepping up repression. The dictator chose ‘attrition war’, taking advantage of opposition’s inability to decisively threaten the power. Belarusian make-shift opposition is limited to peaceful protests and civil resistance because Moscow threatened it would intervene in force if the situation degenerates. Had Russia not interfered to support Lukashenka with economic measures, this ‘attrition war’ would have been won by the opposition. But Moscow chose the option of ‘saving the dictator for the sake of dictatorship’, the secure way to keep Belarus in Russian sphere of influence. But this is just the beginning of the process where Lukashenka will start to yield to Russia elements of its political and economic sovereignty. The Belarusians feel the danger, and the ‘Live Belarus!’ slogan is heard more and more often. Neither Lukashenka, nor Putin mentions the price for the Kremlin’s support provided to the dictator. Should the situation turn towards removing Lukashenka, since the West is paralyzed by Moscow’s threat with intervention, the dictator’s plan is, perhaps, to increase control of Belarusian society, after the crisis is over. The Kremlin will reap the fruit by integrating Belarus, by stepping up the process of integration into the Union State, and by grabbing certain economic assets. In order to save his skin, Lukashenka is forced to accept this price. However, he also toes the waters of geopolitical games, with his representatives maintaining contacts with the west-Europeans. It seems that, while the domestic stalemate persists in a fragile balance between the power and the opposition, the balance is tilting in favor of Moscow. Nevertheless, the European heavyweights have announced they do not accept the solution proposed by Moscow and Lukashenka, but it is hard to see how the European Union can provide to Belarusians the right to express their political will without facing a direct confrontation with Moscow. The Belarusians cannot win such conflict, since Russia’s main argument is the possibility to practically invade Belarus, which they can do under the stipulations of Belarus’ CSTO membership.   

Aleksandr Lukashenka attempted to intimidate the opposition on August 23rd, by organizing a military intervention meant to prevent additional demonstrations, but he failed, and street protests reached a level which made him feel directly threatened (he showed up armed and surrounded by governmental militias, whom he thanked for support). Then, he started repression measures against the opposition by arresting members of the Coordination Council, beginning with the main organizers of street protests and strikes in state enterprises. Both the prison sentences ruled against opponents (only ten days), and the number of arrests (about fifty each day) are mild, which suggests that the dictator has a strategy of gradually increasing the repression, since he is interested in the end state of bringing back terror. Thus, he cannot be accused of violent repression and, supported by Moscow, he can present the situation as stable, with the dictatorship behaving legally. This narrative presents the opposition as the only party responsible for violence, which is a pretext necessary for a possible Russian intervention. The main disadvantage of this ‘attrition war’ approach is the economic impact: problems already appeared with Belarus’ currency reserve (enough only for next four-week imports), and foreign debt reimbursement. However, Russia offered to renegotiate a due two-billion debt. Moscow will help the dictator resist domestic and foreign financial pressure (half of Belarus’ 15 billion foreign debt is due to Moscow). But the two dictators keep silence about the price this country will pay: its economic submission to Russia, combined with its political surrender, as the fragile dictator capitulated to the Kremlin. However, the Belarusian people, the mass of “rats”, as Lukashenka called the protesters, did not say their last word. This is what the two dictators fear more than from the West. 

Meanwhile, the opposition tries to counter  Lukashenka’s moves, and grows more and more creative in this ‘attrition war’ against the dictator supported by Moscow. The opposition is active mostly through demonstrations (the protests this past weekend were large again), and through statements by its leaders, after they saw the judicial path blocked by the dictator-owned judiciary. Of course, the opposition will seek support from the West, without directly requesting that, for fear of being identified as western agents (which the two dictators are intensely working on). The opposition’s strength is both its militant mass (hundred of thousand protesters) and, especially, the unseen mass of disenfranchised Belarusians who weigh their survival chances between the dictator’s paternalism (Lukashenka circulates the chimera of increasing the wages) and the uncertain promise of a political – economic alternative. This happens while the population mentality was kept in the darkness of a post-Soviet environment (Lukashenka’s dictatorship has many fascist elements, although it was implemented with Soviet means and mentalities, as any post-Soviet dictatorship, by a ‘reversed Stalin transformation’: everything red turns green).  

Firstly, by the voice of Sergey Lavrov, Moscow made clear the framework: “let’s leave the Belarusian people decide” (meaning “let’s leave the dictator be”), and asked the West not to interfere, as Russia accused the West for intentions of meddling in Belarus (while Moscow’s meddling is natural, and legitimized by the dictator). Especially during the meeting with the American envoy, Moscow tested how far the West would go in supporting the Belarusian opposition. Finally, Vladimir Putin drew the direction lines: to support the dictator, including in repressing the protesters, and threatening the West not to interfere. Lukashenka is right, not on purpose, when he says „we have now hybrid war against Belarus”, referring to Western support for the opposition; but the true hybrid war, in a new shape, is the machination waged by Moscow. Cynically speaking, the Kremlin has asked itself whether it is worth risking an armed intervention in a country which the fraternal dictator is ready to forcibly offer to Russia on a platter. For the moment, the answer is No, as the solution identified by Moscow is to help the dictator and squeeze from him larger and larger concessions. A military invasion might be used only as support in repressing the protests with Russian forces (Putin has announced the establishment of such units). For the moment, the threat with armed intervention is used only to intimidate the West, in view of obtaining its non-involvement. Moscow’s plan seems to work, but, again, the unknown is the action of Belarusian people, who might resist repression. In such situation, the West would be encouraged to support the opposition more and more, being protected from Russian intervention by the very attitude of Belarusian people.

The West built the unitary stance that Belarusian people have the right to democratically express their political options and asked itself what can be done in support of Belarusian opposition. Meanwhile, the West continued dialogue with Moscow, and tried to open dialogue with Lukashenka (EU ambassadors to Minsk met a representative of the power). During the latest reunion, the EU decided: 1) EU does not recognize the latest election results, and deems the Belarusian authorities actions are unacceptable; 2) EU supports Belarus’ sovereignty and independence; 3) EU condemns repression; 4) EU proposed that OSCE works to initiate dialogue between the power and opposition; 5) EU imposes sanctions against Belarusian officials involved in election fraud and violent repression of protests; 6) EU supports dialogue as the only way towards democracy and respect for basic rights. Therefore, during the latest reunion, EU foreign ministers decided a firm policy towards Lukashenka and his cronies. However, for the moment, beside moral support, EU cannot do much for the Belarusian opposition. A mediation is sought between opposition and the power, but Lukashenka avoids such dialogue, because that would mean concessions leading, eventually, to the collapse of his dictatorship. Only fear of Moscow forces Lukashenka to test these options, knowing that the Kremlin will not need him anymore, after his dictatorship is saved with help from the other dictator (of course, Lukashenka the individual will benefit an ‘honorable retirement’ from the Kremlin, for his services in integrating Belarus into Russia). Although the ship seems to sail in Moscow direction, Lukashenka is not out of the woods yet, surprises may yet occur, even from Lukashenka. What is decisive in this respect is what we do not know: how strong, how, and at what pace will Moscow demand Lukashenka to deliver Belarus to Russia. How much trust is between the two dictators was cleared during the 33-mercenary episode: no trust at all, just fear, respectively hatred to everything meaning democracy, freedom, and the West.

Their mission is difficult, as the Belarusian resistance continues. Sunday, August 30th, thousands of Belarusians demonstrated in Minsk, although the authorities had warned them not to do it. The power reacted by arresting 125 persons. Again, Lukashenka showed up in public armed with a machine-gun, in a symbolic display of power, but this image only reveals his fear. During the past week, the power increased repression by arresting more participants to street protests. However, over 10,000 women had the courage to demonstrate on August 29th shouting the “Sacha, you are fired!” slogan. The number of victims is rising. Opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya announced that more than six citizens were killed, and other dozens ‘disappeared’. These details are not important for the power, what is important for Lukashenka and his cronies is to overwhelm these “sheep” and “rats” (as he called the protesters). For the Belarusian people though, these victims cannot be ignored, and the gap between the dictator and the nation is deepening. Of course, this is the most dangerous element for the power, beside the terms of delivering Belarus to Russia, by its own ‘president’.


II. GREECE / TURKEY. Tensions persist.

Tensions between Greece and Turkey returned because the Turkish geological survey vessel extended its activity, and naval exercises unfolded in close maritime areas. ‘Closing’ these maritime areas for naval exercises through NAVTEX messages raises a big danger. Greek threat of extending its territorial waters in the Aegean Sea from 6 miles to 12 miles poured gas on fire, as it was received in Ankara as a declaration of war. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’s tour created the framework for beginning negotiations, but each side raises the prerequisite that the other side should not “request any precondition” (in fact, before negotiations each side should not state an upfront position which might decisively shape the final solution). Athens benefits the EU diplomatic support, as well as France’s (and United Arab Emirates’) naval support, which leaves Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s threats without an air-naval superiority basis. In all this power play competition, called “plying with fire” by Heiko Maas, the danger of armed incidents looms large, and neither side wants something like this to happen, although each side wants the other side to make one step backwards first (for Ankara, it is crucial to get Greece to accept the presence of Turkish drilling vessels; for Athens, it is crucial to stop Turkish vessels’ drilling in disputed waters). The Greek Parliament ratified the maritime Exclusive Economic Zone delimitations with Egypt and Italy, which makes the Greek reaction, while the EU foreign minister reunion was the EU reaction. To both, Ankara announced it would not yield. Perhaps, both sides will continue their strategies of naval show of power, in view of gaining a better position before the moment when a solution to start negotiations is identified. The problem is that de-escalation became more difficult to achieve than continuing tensions at current level, considering the need to save face, especially for President Erdoğan. Although, stunningly, foreign presence in exercises reduces the risk of incidents causing a crisis, as it would force the United States and the ‘neutral’ European heavyweights to intervene (of course, Russia is ready to help too, but this would mean a major setback for NATO). This spike in tensions, amplified by military power plays, as well as belicose statements might be overcome. Should that happen, chances for a mediation between the two countries may appear and promise success. Nevertheless, tensions remain between a Turkey led by a nationalist Islamist autocrat, and a Greece with its own vulnerabilities, but which managed to gain EU support and military support from other countries. Turkey is alone, but this does not contribute to solving the problem, only to embitter President Erdoğan instead, and he is the only one who takes decisions for Turkey.      

Although they brought some progress, the visits paid by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to Athens and Ankara can be described by his statement regarding current situation: “Fire is being played with, and any small spark could lead to catastrophe”. This is a realistic assessment of current situation between Greece and Turkey, as the German diplomat is not known to exaggerate in any way. It is important that the German communication channel is maintained; although the EU has defined its principled position (‘we do not accept any breach of sovereignty against a European country’), and the United States rejected Ankara’s forced claims in Eastern Mediterranean Sea, the Europeans still seek a dialogue solution. Within the EU, there is the ‘hawks’, spearheaded by France, who support a tough position in support of directly involved Greece and Cyprus, and the ‘doves’ seeking a more flexible solution to negotiations: Germany, Italy, and Spain. Unfortunately for Ankara, the two positions complement each other and do not weaken the EU position. 

Greece ratified delimitation agreements with Egypt (and Italy) to establish commonly accepted Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in Mediterranean waters. On this opportunity, Greek government raised the issue of Greece’s territorial waters, respectively the perspective of extending them from 6 miles to 12 miles. For Athens, such document would have international legal foundation, same as the right to 200 miles of EEZ around its islands, as Greece is an UNCLOS signatory. However, Turkey wrought its own theory of the ‘Turkish continental plateau’, extending far into the Mediterranean… even beyond Greek islands. Therefore, Athens’ achievement is perceived by Turkey as an act of war because the Aegean Sea would become ‘a Greek sea’, and Greek territorial waters would cover a significant part of this sea. Ankara, who is not an UNCLOS signatory, reacted with expected threats: Recep Erdoğan gave a political – historical dimension specific to his Islamist – nationalist regime, which leaves no room for debates. Athens will likely settle for just receiving the threat, and avoid implementing extreme decisions, because Greece faces the risk of stepping into a trap (it has no means to implement an extreme decision) and to be regarded, by its own allies, as behaving provocatively. Perhaps Athens wanted to warn Ankara that, as a last resort, it has the legal means to put Turkey in difficulty.

At sea, there were escalations which fortunately led to no incident. In response to Greece’s ratification of its EEZ agreement with Egypt, (which opposes Turkey’s agreement with Libya), Turkey announced the extended presence of its survey vessel in the disputed waters. NAVTEX communiqués from both sides succeeded to close maritime areas for ships of the other side (practically, it is an abuse, because NAVTEX is a warning system meant for general dangers, free navigation is an international right. However, as a danger is announced based on upcoming naval exercises, any other vessel would enter that maritime area willingly taking responsibility for entailing risks). Ankara responded with its own naval exercise (and presenting imagery from a Turco-American exercise) to an air-naval exercise conducted by Greece, Cyprus, and France. Such power plays can degenerate into armed conflict following an incident undesired by any of the two sides.  

During the August 27th – 28th reunion in Gymnich, the EU decided: 1) EU is determined to defend EU interests and its solidarity with Greece and Cyprus; 2) Turkey must refrain from unilateral actions; 3) EU seeks a way for healthier relations with Turkey, by promoting dialogue, but the collective defense power, as well as steadfastness in defending common interests are also underlined; 4) EU encourages the dialogue promoted by Germany; 5) on the backdrop of increasing frustration regarding Turkey’s behavior, a list of individual sanctions will be drafted for countries involved in drilling activities in Cypriot waters; 6) EU will draft a series of proposals for restrictive measures against Turkey, and they will be discussed during the September 24th – 25th reunion. Despite threats received from Ankara, the EU did not apply sanctions yet, hoping that Turkey notices the EU determination, and open the door to dialogue. Considering that the foreign minister reunion unfolded after the informal meeting of EU defense ministers, one can say that what Russia failed to achieve was reached by a NATO member, Turkey: serious debates regarding a common European foreign and defense policy in case of threats to EU nations, therefore to the European Union.


III. EUROPEAN UNION. Informal reunion of defense ministers.

The August 26th informal reunion of EU member nation defense ministers was the first face to face meeting since the beginning of Coronavirus crisis. Its main goals were to prepare the November formal reunion, but also to discuss current crises. Josep Borrell declared that ”coming together has allowed us to go deeper into the several sensitive issues that we have to deal with in this difficult summer”, perhaps Belarus and Turkey.

The first issue they addressed was the cooperation between EU and UN, respectively NATO nations security and defense missions and operations. The presence of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and UN representative for peace operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix, proves the level of discussions regarding this cooperation.

Then, latest crises were discussed: 1) Mali, where a coup d’état led to a halt of civilian and military operations: EUTM Mali, and EUCAP Sahel Mali; however, it was stressed that these operations were not suspended; 2) The second crisis in discussion was Libya, where EU reiterated its support for the recent cease-fire agreement; in this context, EU also mentioned its support for the IRINI operation, which should not exceed the UN established framework.

Regarding the strategic orientation of its defense and security policy, EU defense ministers discussed the new security and defense ‘Strategic Compass’. Before November, the first review of threats against the EU is to be finalized. The Strategic Compass will cover crisis management, resilience, capability development, and partnerships. The development of European Peace Facility, which will be allotted five billion Euros was also discussed.

Perhaps the crises in Belarus and Eastern Mediterranean plus Libya were discussed both in the current context, and in strategic perspective, i.e. defining threats from Russia, and Turkey. There are maybe differences regarding the IRINI operation, therefore the limitation imposed by UN mandate was mentioned. We will see in November the way easterners, respectively southerners, perceive the threats against the European Union. Worth noticing, the crises went ahead of strategic analyses, and it was easy to see what the threats are, by looking at the crises they discussed.


IV.  ITALY / CHINA. Chinese foreign minister visits Italy.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s first visit to Europe since the outburst of Coronavirus crisis began in Italy, where the main results were achieved. Putting economy first, Italy continues its closer cooperation with China, hoping that common project and Chinese markets will add to advantages offered by European money and American support. Politically, Rome forgets the American and European concerns regarding China, hoping to gain outstanding economic results, although hitherto experience does not support such expectations. On the other side, China seeks to obtain a middle position, from the Europeans, in its conflict with the United States, and Rome did not let it down.

On August 25th, Wang Yi met the Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio. The two expressed the need that China and Italy build stronger relations (which will upset the U.S.). Di Maio stated that the goal of their meeting was to relaunch the bilateral strategic partnership from economic and industrial points of view. Italy is the first large European country which joined the Chinese ‘Belt and Road’ initiative by signing several important agreements in 2019, but which did not turn into economic projects yet. Remarkably, Italy did not respond to Washington’s request of imposing sanctions against the Chinese IT giant Huawei. Wang has insisted that it was important for China and the EU to consolidate their relations, and to deepen their cooperation in fighting the novel Coronavirus. Wang declared that his country did not want to be part of a Cold War. His European tour further includes Holland, Norway, France, and Germany.

While Di Maio spoke about the Italo-Chinese strategic partnership, Wang insisted on Beijing’s relations with the Europeans, as Italy is a bridgehead for China in the European Union. Italian economic interest, and Chinese political interest were visible. Beijing presents itself as a victim of Trump Administration’s attempts to start a Cold War, and counts on a middle-way European position. Perhaps the Europeans will have a stronger unitary position regarding China, both economic and political, but Italy gives the signal that current economic interest overcomes the European strategic political-economic perspectives.


V. Developments to track this Week 36 of 2020.

► UNITED STATES. The Republican Party Convention. President Donald Trump was officially nominated as Republican candidate for the U.S. presidential elections. He fully used the advantages offered by his office, as the White House provided the background for important show-ups and brought Trump’s family in close-up. Even Mike Pompeo’s tour in the Middle East appeared as an electoral event. Trump listed his successes (despite the general economic crisis caused by Coronavirus, previous economic measures taken by Trump are appreciated by the American middle and upper class), and insisted on the threat that Biden would bring, by destroying Trump’s legacy. Perhaps such strategy is successful, as it should reactivate his electoral basis. Trump also prepared for the undesired course of action: he mentioned the danger of seeing the elections frauded. Upcoming times will certainly bring not only an election campaign, but also a deep division of American nation.

► GERMANY / RUSSIA. German conclusion is that Navalny was poisoned. After German physicians announced Navalny was poisoned, the Kremlin reacted by stating that such conclusion was hasty. The German government requested a full clarification regarding this case (which, of course, will not happen), and the Kremlin was offended. Thus, an additional negative element added to Russia – Germany relations.

► BULGARIA. The justice minister resigned. Boyko Borisov failed in its diversion with proposing a Constitution change, and another scape goat was identified. Bulgaria sinks into a serious political crisis, as a solution to stabilize the country is hard to find.