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17 septembrie 2019 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 37 of 2019)

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

I. FRANCE - RUSSIA. The “2 + 2” reunion in Moscow. II. RUSSIA. Regional and municipal elections. III. UKRAINE. The perspective of peace negotiations. IV. REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. The foreign minister visits Moscow. V. Developments to track this Week 38 of 2019.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. FRANCE - RUSSIA. The “2 + 2” reunion in Moscow

By this “2 + 2” meeting at foreign and defense minister level, French President Emmanuel Macron tried to relaunch relations with Russia. This reunion in Moscow had an ambitious agenda: current problems were discussed, with Ukraine in the first place, but also the European security architecture. A future meeting in Normandy format seems to be a first result, as Ukraine is the test Russia needs to pass to prove that a reset of relations has just begun. However, France does not consider that the moment to talk about lifting the sanctions has arrived. French initiative has raised several question marks among the other Europeans, Germany included, because it brings more dangers than opportunities, especially since France speaks in the name of Europe without consulting yet any other European Union country.

The “2 + 2” reunion was preceded by a phone conversation between the two presidents, on September 8th. They decided the agenda and the main topics of the meeting, while the ministers were left to work on details. Considering that both presidents appreciated the prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine, the main issue was the next Normandy format meeting (Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany). Iran was also discussed.

On September 9th, Jean-Yves Le Drian (foreign affairs) and Florence Parly (defense) met their Russian respective counterparts, Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Shoigu, in the „2 + 2” format, first time after 2014. They explored ”ways of communication” in a series of important strategic issues like Ukraine and Iran, as well as the arms race between Russia and the United States. Sergey Lavrov declared he paid attention to French suggestions regarding a European security architecture with Russia, not without it, and not as a counterweight to Russia either.

The initiative generated concerns in European capitals: not only Poland, the Netherlands and the Baltic States, but also Germany was bothered by the French initiative. Berlin’s voice was the loudest, and the German press revealed that a third meeting had occurred, and that was between the heads of secret agencies, Nikolay Patrushev and his French counterpart. Bundestag speaker Norbert Röttgen accused Paris for not consulting with Berlin or any other European capital: “The problem is that you’re rewarding Putin even though he hasn’t moved an inch on anything... There has been no change in Russian policy. It’s a real validation for Putin. He does nothing and still there’s this rapprochement from Europe.”

Emmanuel Macron explained the French approach during a meeting with the French diplomatic corps. He indicated that disagreements must be overcome and relations with Russia must be thought over again: “Pushing Russia from Europe is a profound strategic error... It's not in our interest to be weak and guilty, to forget all our disagreements and to embrace each other again... The European continent will never be stable, will never be in security, if we don't pacify and clarify our relations with Russia”.  But this approach ignores that Russia did not change its attitude in foreign issues at all, since the Kremlin’s stance has a deeper domestic foundation.

As usual, the American reaction was dual. On one side, there were American politicians who expressed skepticism regarding this initiative. Among them, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stated that “it would be great if we could get Russia to behave like a more normal country. But you also can't ignore the last many years of history where Russia has invaded Georgia. It has annexed Crimea. It is occupying parts of Ukraine. It is threatening the Baltic states”. However, for the United States it is President Donald Trump who speaks in the first place, and he saluted this relaunch of negotiations in Normandy format, then he talked about the U.S. joining these meetings (although this seems unlikely). On the other side, the American representative for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, reiterrated that Russia must just stick to implementing the Minsk Agreements stipulations.

Why does France do this? On the backdrop of America’s policy under Trump Administration, the United Kingdom leaving the European Union (and therefore currently paralyzed), and Germany refraining from taking any active role in strategic issues, Macron considered it is the right time to push France in an important role under his leadership, a leader who can speak for the West. Emmanuel Macron wants to pose as mediator in the most difficult dossiers, and France as the power in quest for solutions, as well as a balance between the powers at play[1].

There is here something of a “de Gaule” trend in French foreign policy these days, whereby Paris sees this current framework as a strategic opportunity to act as the most important political and military power in the continent. Paris also considers it can generate a security architecture which may bring France closer to Russia while the United States slides away. However, this perception contradicts the reality that Germany is Europe’s central political and economic force and is also dangerously opposed to Lord Ismay’s definition for NATO: keep Russia out of Europe, American in and Germany down. Even more, France opens a dialogue with Russia without prerequisites and without a tangible objective, which means tacitly accepting Russian interests incongruent with international laws. Nevertheless, Le Drian declared that the French approach is not naïve, as no seriously different positions between Russia and France can be identified.

From a strategic point of view, Macron’s idea that he can bring Russia closer to Europe might be upright wrong, because Russia does not want to be closer to Europe, not in European terms at least, Russia only wants to reach its specific objectives: it wants the West to recognize Russia’s dominance over the former Soviet area, as well as Russia’s expansion in Europe, while NATO, U.S. and E.U. influence should stop in Russia’s claimed sphere of influence.

Moscow gladly accepted this opportunity offered by France and presented it as a good example of pragmatic cooperation, but Moscow never suggested any intention to yield regarding Ukraine. Russia will accept negotiations, but only towards the solution the Kremlin decides. President Vladimir Putin faces serious problems: sanctions, political and social problems caused by economic shortages, international isolation, arms race with the United States. In these circumstances, Putin sees no reason to oppose such initiative. Russia will look for a crack in the western bloc and it seems he found it quite easily. Putin seems to be rewarded, although he did not concede anything and did not change his position at all. 

On the other hand, although it disturbed the other Europeans, France did not concede anything crucial either, it just opened a dialogue. However, short-term results of this dialogue are paramount for France’s long-term ambitions of building a new security architecture together with Russia[2]. From this angle, the outcome in the Ukraine dossier is crucial. Therefore, announcing a new meeting in Normandy format is not business as usual, but one of the most important tests, both for Russia and Ukraine, and for France. However, the positions of nations not mentioned clear enough are the most important, and they are Germany and, of course, the United States[3].


II. RUSSIA. Regional and municipal elections. 

The regional and municipal elections held on September 8th were won by the power party, United Russia. However, symbolically, it lost Moscow! United Russia won all 16 governor positions, including in Sankt Petersburg Region, and preserved majority in Moscow city council, although having lost about a third of the municipal seats (it won only 25 seats of 45, compared to previous 28 seats plus 10 supportive independents, in 2014)[4]. The Communist Party won 13 seats in Moscow municipality (compared to 5 seats in 2014), and Yabloko Party won 4 seats. The voting process was marked by several problems, but those did not significantly alter the general outcome.

The elections in Moscow drew the attention of Russian and international public opinion and reached symbolic value after the power had denied candidacy to opposition representatives, which led to repeated street protests against the government. The opposition, led by Aleksey Navalny, feels encouraged by these results, although they do not show any significant damage to the power in view of next parliamentary, then presidential elections. The Communist Party, part of the “decorative opposition” accepted by the Kremlin, was the winner who capitalized at the expense of power party losses. The opposition used the tactics of persuading the voters to offer their ballots to the best placed opposition candidate, albeit from the decorative opposition. Aleksey Navalny took credit for a role in this perceived victory by affirming that this tactics have worked properly.

President Vladimir Putin declared himself satisfied with election results, despite United Russia’s losses in Moscow. His popularity remains above 60%, enough to secure leading, yet not enough to consecrate  him an undisputed master of Russia (although he is). The turnout was low, with only 22% in Moscow. Remarkably, many power representatives run as independent, in order to put a distance to governing United Russia, which shows a visible loss in popularity.

Beyond symbolic elements, Russian regional and municipal elections showed a power controlling Russia yet not fully happy with the results, because this past week the police raided several opposition headquarters. Very likely, the autocratic power (according to the Kremlin, Russia must obey only Vladimir Putin) is not happy because the results show the existence of a spark in the opposition led by Navalny in an increasingly volatile social space. For an establishment declaring itself the “sovereign democracy” force of a great power with worldwide ambitions, a visible challenge by the opposition is hard to accept, although that opposition is quite minimal.

Russian opposition will likely be increasingly persecuted, as the Kremlin has a much clearer image of the economic and social difficulties, and about the potential for future movements which might afflict the regime’s and Russia’s stability. That is the last situation the Kremlin would need, when the adventures abroad and the global circumstances cause political, economic and social problems for Russia.


III. UKRAINE. The perspective of peace negotiations.

At least from France’s and President Donald Trump’s perspective, the announced peace negotiations in Normandy format seem to be a step forward. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also showed readiness for these talks, and Russia agreed, in principle, with a Normandy format meeting. However, there are big problems, as Russia puts conditions, and the Ukrainian representatives show skepticism, if not concern, regarding future negotiations.

On September 13th, President Zelenskiy expressed his hope that both the Normandy format and his meeting with President Trump would occur during this September. However, when asked about a possible peace-keeping mission in the conflict area, he indicated he would not want Donbass to become a new Transnistria, where Russian troops deployment became permanent.

On September 13th, Russian president adviser and career diplomat Yuriy Ushakov stated that Russia was ready to participate to the Normandy format meeting, but it put strict conditions. Moscow will agree to such meeting only provided these prerequisites are met. Ushakov declared: “We believe that such a meeting should take place and we agree that it can be held in Paris, as proposed by French President Macron”. A date was not yet determined, but he did not rule out that such meeting can occur in October. The conditions put by Moscow are as follow: 1) the two party military forces should be separated along the contact line; 2) the contents of a document establishing a special status for Donbass region should be agreed before the meeting; 3) a preliminary agreement on the conclusions of such meeting should be convened.

On September 13th, the Ukrainian representative at Minsk talks with the separatists, former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma expressed his concern regarding the unacceptable concessions Ukraine might be forced to make during upcoming negotiations. Even more, he expressed concerns that French and German leaders might be those who would press Zelenskiy to accept “unacceptable compromise” with Russia. Such compromise could be a plan to let the separatist organize elections not supervised by the Kyiv authorities: "I don't have a lot of hope. Zelenskiy will have a very hard time — it will be one against three people". Kuchma also declared that Ukraine is requested to agree to all Moscow’s demands, including granting the separatists increased powers. He reminded that Ukraine supports a peace arrangement based on the Minsk Agreements: "Let's comply with the Minsk accords," Kuchma said. "Security comes first. You need to pull out the troops, pull out the heavy weaponry, give us back the border and then we will hold a free election”.

We can draw a couple of conclusions from these messages. Firstly, capitalizing on Macron’s impatience to solve the Donbass conflict, Russia, along Angela Merkel, wants to turn it into a pressure tool on novice Zelenskiy. Then Russia already decided the solution, which has nothing to do with the implementation of Minsk Agreements. So, troop and heavy weaponry withdrawal is no longer a natural first step, as the agreement stipulates, but the two worrying parties, Ukrainians and the separatists should be separated by Russian ”peace-keeping” forces. This way, Russia rises as pacifying power, as it did in Moldova as well (where, of course, Russian troops also fought on the separatist side), and Moscow deploys its troops along a line they will never leave. Then, without seeing Russian troops leaving, but on the contrary, legalizing their presence in writing, Ukraine would accept getting to the next step, which is drafting a special status for Donbass and accepting elections in a territory Kyiv does not control, which would provide the separatists with legitimacy to later ”democratically” decide independence or union with Russia. Or, God forbid such decisions, their legitimacy would allow step three – having Moscow’s control over Kyiv through a special status Donbass – the same recipee as for Transnistria.

Practically, Ukraine should accept everything Russia wants even before the negotiations begin, and Zelenskiy would travel to Paris only to rubberstamp the concessions made to Moscow, under the pressure by western mediators. An unhappy perspective looms large on Ukraine, especially since Zelenskiy cannot easily oppose France and Germany (and President Trump), because Ukraine depends on their political, economic and military support. The westerners might put pressure on Russia too, but will they seek a fair solution, according to Minsk Agreements? Macron’s rush and Trump’s ”openness” to Russia take their toll.

On the other hand, Kyiv can defend Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by postponing decisions or bluntly rejecting these attempts to force its capitulation. Also, western mediators are probably not that cynical to reward Russian aggression with an agreement allowing Moscow’s control on Ukraine (exactly the Kremlin’s main goal). If not for other reasons, maybe because the domino effect might begin, and Moscow might be encouraged to start looking for the next target. However, one should not forget that time works against the Kremlin, because the sanctions’ effect is increasing. Kyiv knows that no agreement is better than a bad agreement, especially since Russia cannot increase its military pressure, at least not under current circumstances, when it wants to pose as conciliatory, because it seeks its way out of isolation and the sanctions lifted.


IV. REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. The foreign minister visits Moscow.

On September 11th, Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicolae Popescu visited Moscow to relaunch the bilateral relations and clarify the government in Chişinău’s position. He met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the chairman of Russian parliament’s upper chamber foreign policy commission, Konstantin Kosachyov. 

Nicu Popescu sent the message that Republic of Moldova (RM) wants to normalize its relations with Russia but will not reconsider any of the agreements RM has signed with the EU and NATO. Also, RM does not intend to quit the free trade agreement with Russia either (the 2012 CSI free trade agreement), but only wants this agreement just implemented as it is, with no further development towards including RM into the Euro-Asian Economic Union (EEU), as Moscow encourages Chişinău to do. After meeting Sergey Lavrov, Nicu Popescu declared that the main problem in bilateral relations is the support Russia grants to Transnistrian separatists and that "Russia's military presence in the Transnistrian region of the Republic of Moldova contradicts the principle of neutrality fixed in our country's constitution and I stressed [during the talks] that the withdrawal of the Russian troops remains one of the highest priorities for the Republic of Moldova". Nicu Popescu also indicated that RM cannot return to discussions about federalization or Kozak drafted principles.

Sergey Lavrov only noticed that discussions went naturally and mentioned RM’s wish to activate its dialogue with Russia. He asked RM to rise restrictions imposed on Russian media and presented this issue in the wider context of Russian language status in RM and the rights of Russian ethnic minority in RM. During these talks, the issue of Russian ammunition stored in the Colbasna dump was also discussed, and Nicu Popescu agreed with Sergey Lavrov’s idea that Russia should destroy that ammo with its means and its pace. Perhaps this was a detail Russia will try to exploit, but, anyway, this was just a preliminary stage of discussions.

The majority ACUM government sent a message of continuity regarding RM’s European orientation, but also regarding RM’s relations with NATO. Chişinău’s position regarding Russian troops and Kozak plan remain unchanged. This is a bold attitude, considering Moscow’s position on these matters[5]. Regarding the economic relations, RM rejected Russia’s attempts to integrate RM into the EEU, especially since RM already cut off from Russia (only 8% of RM exports go to Russia now).

It is very unlikely that Russia accept this position, but, on the backdrop of East-West compromise which made Plahotniuc’s ousting possible, Moscow must play nicely, at least for a while, especially since its henchman, President Igor Dodon, will do his job to promote Moscow’s agenda instead of Moscow itself. For a while, the geopolitical battle unfolds within the current power in Chişinău, featuring the ACUM and Igor Dodon / PSRM (Moldovan Socialists), who bearly continue their cohabitation honeymoon, although political differences between the two groups are huge.


V. Developments to track this Week 38 of 2019.

► UNITED STATES. What will the United States foreign policy be after John Bolton was dismissed? President Donald Trump will appoint another national security advisor. Although tough, John Bolton represented American traditional foreign policy, both in principles and strategies. How will the U.S. foreign policy look like when the president is surrounded by people who cannot say no? 

► ISRAEL. Upcoming parliamentary elections will decide Benjamin Netanyahu’s fate. The struggle is tight, and this is why Netanyahu announced he would annex territories on the West Bank, he toughened his stance regarding HAMAS, met Vladimir Putin and brought new accusations against Iran. President Trump’s proposal regarding a new military agreement with Israel can be interpreted as an additional electoral element in support of Netanyahu. We will see the results, and three scores will be important: how much the groups around Netanyahu and Ganz win, yet not only those, but also Liebermann’s party, which might become kingmaker.

► IRAN. Although President Trump speaks about the possibility of a meeting with the Iranian leaders, the likelihood is slim. Tehran persists in its blackmail policy by threatening with installing new centrifuges and attacking Saudi Arabia through proxies (which can already be considered casus belli by Washington). Tehran’s credibility remains low, especially after the new Israeli accusations (previous accusations were confirmed).                              

► EUROPEAN UNION. Ursula von der Leyen presented her list of candidates. It is interesting to watch their validation and voting. Considering that the country is important, but also the candidate, it is predictable who will fail. The establishment of two new departments is remarkable – the one about identity (dealing with migration too) and the one on defense and defense industry.

► BULGARIA. A Bulgarian citizen was accused of spying for Russia. Although the case was presented as espionage in benefit of Russian individuals and entities, not the government, this case is still important in a country where Russian influence is rather large. Although electoral reasons are at play, how serious is this case, and how will it impact on Bulgaria’s relations with Russia?

[1] The personal element should not be ignored, especially since President Macron was previously criticizing Putin for Moscow’s domestic and international actions. Macron’s foreign policy achievements are minor (see the Libya case) and his domestic policy just offered him a slack between the Yellow Vest protests and the pension reform. Macron considers that a window of opportunity for solving the Ukraine problem just opened, and this opportunity can bring France and himself an important diplomatic success.

[2] Why is a “new security architecture” needed? Is it not one in place already, and it secures us from Russia? It is NATO and the U.S. present on the continent, plus the EU playing an ever-increasing role, and Russia is asserting the position of adversary for both! Wouldn’t it be wiser for us to adapt this security architecture to new realities, as we acquire the necessary resources and ways? Does France’s discomfort with Trump Administration mean that Paris should assume the role to defend Europe without the United States against Russia through a “new security architecture”? We know, once a wolf gets invited into our home, it would not turn into a puppy.

[3] However, Ukraine was saved by the United States. Let’s remember the American diplomat’s “f..k Europe”, and one can realize the U.S. power in stabilizing Ukraine during the most critical moments of Russia’s invasion.

[4] United Russia lost only in the regional council of Khabarovsk, in the Far East on the Amur River, and it lost badly there, getting only two seats.

[5] The mimicry of Russian ambassador in Chişinău, combining arrogance with condescendence when Nicu Popescu communicated in Russian language Chişinău’s intention to relaunch bilateral relations speakes more than the whole text of official meeting communiqué.