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15 septembrie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 37 of 2020)

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

I. GERMANY / RUSSIA. Navalny case freezes bilateral relations.II. BELARUS. Supported by Russia, Lukashenka crushes the opposition. III. GREECE / FRANCE. South-European Summit. IV. EUROPEAN UNION / UNITED KINGDOM. Boris Johnson wants to breach the Brexit agreement.V. Developments to track this Week 38 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

English version by Mircea Mocanu

I. GERMANY / RUSSIA. Navalny case freezes bilateral relations.

Not surprisingly, Russia chose to ignore Germany’s ultimate request and failed to cooperate: Moscow did not open any investigation, but summoned the German ambassador to show Russia’s indignation for the way it is treated (Moscow was requested to explain Aleksey Navalny’s poisoning). The Kremlin wanted to belittle the issue to the framework of routine diplomatic activities, aiming to let the problem wither without Russia answering the questions. However, Berlin thwarted this attempt by transferring the investigation to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). While avoiding a media surge on this case, Berlin held the ground and took the first measures against the Kremlin (the Magnitsky Act was discussed in the Bundestag). By sending the lab investigation results to OPCW, Germany internationalized the problem and yanked it from the bilateral haggling trap. Germany’s position is solid, as the G7 foreign minister communiqué, and the UN Commissioner for Human Rights declarations increased the pressure on Russia. The United States support  was initially limited by President Trump’s position (“we do not have evidence yet… we will see”). Later though, Washington’s stance got momentum, and State Secretary Mike Pompeo provided unequivocal statements. After waiting in vain an answer from Russia, we are to see when Germany decides to act, and how tough measures Berlin and its allies will take. We are in a situation of resignation ahead of the inevitable: nobody wants to beef up the crisis by tough measures against Russia, but what else can Germany and its allies do to cope with such behavior by the Kremlin (non-admitting this illegal action on which there is evidence of Russian government implication), without losing credibility?  

Germany sent the lab investigation results to OPCW, not to Moscow, thus initiating an international investigation. Berlin prefers to follow this path of legal international and national procedure (Berlin will also open its own investigation, should Navalny request it), without getting entangled in polemics so necessary to the Kremlin, and to prepare sanctions together with its allies. The G7 communiqué proves that Berlin has secured the international support. By calculated reactions and a flawless behavior, Berlin seeks to solve the crisis with minimal losses in the bilateral relations. Nevertheless, Germany cannot stop its relations with Russia from plummeting down to dangerous levels. The Kremlin persisted with its only available and usual strategy of denying any implication and challenging German measures, also trying to produce alternative scenarios and discredit Berlin’s actions. These ruses will not succeed, but the Kremlin needs to save face (at the end of the day, there are two contrasting points of view) and a narrative meant to conceal the sad truth that, in Moscow, the power is in bed with murderers, as German proofs are doubtless. Russian representative to OPCW said that Moscow was ready to cooperate, but (the well-known ‘but’) Germany would have failed yet to send the necessary information to OPCW. This is the known Russian tactics of seeking to find out what Germany knows (in Navalny case, a new type of Novichok was used), aiming to make Moscow’s defense easier. Even more, although an investigation has not been opened, Russian police requested an interrogation of Navalny (who recovered from the coma), and built a new narrative: six individuals were allegedly identified to have been close to Navalny, and they were interrogated, except one, who had left for the United Kingdom. Following deductions are predictable. It looks like chasing a wild goose, as in the MH 17 flight case ”Ukrainian missile”.

Navalny case became a game of hide-and-seek the truth, with incriminating / clearing the Kremlin at stake. However, Germany has the proof of an assassination attempt with Novichok nerve gas, indication of a murder ordered by Russian government authorities (only they can produce, stockpile, and manipulate this substance). Beyond upcoming sanctions, the worst is that Moscow lost patient Berlin’s trust, and this will reflect on bilateral relations: Chancellor Merkel cannot communicate with Putin as she used to; beyond the moral aspect, this cannot bring anything good. Beyond a moral punishment, well-deserved by the Kremlin, there is an isolated Russia, which is a dangerous situation by itself, because cooperation elements will disappear. Such outcome has a negative impact both upon the European continent security, and upon Russia and the Russian people, who should not be mistaken by the Kremlin at all, let alone by an illegal action committed by the Kremlin.

Berlin’s problem is not as much to handle this crisis facing an aggressive Kremlin, but its question to Putin’s regime: Why does not the Kremlin end this outrageous behavior and leave the door ajar for cooperation? The answer is known, but hitherto avoided by Berlin: the political reality in Russia. The Kremlin grouping’s objective is to exert a discretionary power in Russia, considering that, without such illegal actions, the risk to be challenged might pop up. At the end of the day, Navalny is nothing else but an isolated rebel in a Russian society which forcibly accepts Putin’s regime. Navalny ridiculed the regime by showing that the power’s people are but a kleptocracy which turned Russia into its own private property[1]. Perhaps Navalny crossed the acceptable threshold when his political group became a credible alternative in view of local elections in Siberia, and in the context of Khabarovsk protests. With such behavior, the Kremlin gets itself into trouble at home too, since the Russians are a civilized nation, who did not lose respect for human life. Thus, Navalny was saved by the quick intervention of Russian pilots and health workers, who saw the man Navalny, not just ‘something’ bothering the power’s dealings.

The grace period offered by Berlin passed without any answer from Moscow, and chances to have such response are next to nil (Sergey Lavrov switched to the classical music sheet about “absurd accusations”). Now, Germany and its allies are to impose sanctions. Perhaps, in a first phase, these will not reach the level of economic sanctions, the only that would truly hurt the Kremlin. German-Russian relations are heading towards rock bottom, which increases insecurity on the continent. In these circumstances, no communication is effectively possible on current issues, like the Belarusian or Ukrainian crises (in Donbass, the cease-fire agreement was breached by the separatists). For the moment, this bodes well for the Kremlin, but in perspective, this is a loss for everybody. Lavrov threatened that Moscow would respond to sanctions, on the principle of reciprocity in international relations, but this is not the response that concerns the West, but that which is not mentioned, of a different nature.


II. BELARUS. Supported by Russia, Lukashenka crushes the opposition.

Street protests continued and the regime reacted roughly, with an increased number of arrests. Minsk government managed to take the Coordination Council leaders off the game, by secretly arresting them and tossing them over the border, but the regime failed to do that with the main opponent, Maria Kolesnikova, who became a symbol of Belarusian resistance. Repression took arbitrary forms, with regime’s masked thugs kidnapping / arresting people in the street. The opponents requested urgent international intervention, but their message received no answer. The European Union is preparing sanctions, but Lukashenka would not be on the list himself, indication that a door is left ajar for dialogue with the dictator. However, EU and U.S.  sanctions will have a limited impact, since the dictator receives support from Moscow (which will be eventually paid by Belarusians, of course). With Moscow support, slowly but surely, the dictator begins to win the attrition war against the resistance through a process  too little visible of repressing any form of opposition. Minsk begins the ‘Slavic Brotherhood’ military exercises with Russia, but without Serbia, which was supposed to be used for creating the framework where a Russian military presence in Belarus would have been natural, but Belgrade had to yield to EU pressure to abort. Lukashenka prepared his visit to Moscow by multiple contacts and discussions with Russian officials, as well as with an explicative interview, where he reiterated the concern regarding a (baseless) threat that, should his regime collapse, the Russian regime would fall too[2]. In economy, some arrangements have been made, in view of Lukashenka – Putin meeting, which occurred this past Monday. In contrast with previous meetings with Putin, when he decided whatever he wanted, including to leave without an agreement of a communiqué, Lukashenka has a limited liberty of maneuver at the  September 14th meeting in Sochi. Russian support is crucial for his regime; therefore, he will have to yield from Belarus’ independence and sovereignty, as well as from the national wealth. Considering that, highly likely, Putin’s requests will be maximal, the question is how much will Lukashenka be able to resist and preserve some of Belarus’ fundamental interests? Lukashenka is more vulnerable because his regime’s officials will react, should he yield too much, and he has little options. As for the West, it can only react as much as possible to Lukashenka’s and Putin’s actions, and to continue doing what it has been doing for a long time, which is to support Belarusian citizens.

President Aleksandr Lukashenka took decisive measures to eliminate the organized opposition, by kidnapping / arresting and tossing over the border all members of the newly established Coordination Council. This effort was only partly successful, as Maria Kolesnikova became a symbol of Belarusian resistance after she destroyed her passport and could not be immediately and forcibly sent across the border. Instead, she was sent to jail, from where she attacked… the dictatorship in court (anyway, the judiciary is also owned by the power, and this control was recently consolidated when Lukashenka appointed a new General Prosecutor). Lukashenka enforced his repression apparatus by promoting loyal opportunists, as well as individuals close to Moscow (the new head of KGB). However, he cannot fully count on unconditional support from state institutions. He maintained a permanent contact with Russia, by phone conversations with Putin and through the Russian ambassador, in preparation for the September 14th meeting (in essence, a haggle on how much of Belarus’ political and economic sovereignty would be conceded to Russia). Lukashenka’s problem is that he did not stop the crisis yet, he failed to silence the protests, but also that he has no back-up defense against Moscow, which will show no mercy when asking the payment for its support in the crisis. Lukashenka can still cling on three fulcrums: Moscow must keep up appearances (Peskov denied information that Russia would prepare to annex Belarus); Belarusians reject annexation (but cannot put up with him any longer either); and, perhaps, Minsk benefits from political and financial support from China. Nevertheless, these might prove to be too little against a Moscow which sees in the current crisis an opportunity to solve the Belarusian problem by taking over the control of this country, regardless the shape this process will be presented afterwards. Moscow’s problems (opposition from the West, and opposition from most of Belarusian people) will be overcome in force. The alleged threat from the West allows the Kremlin to act undisturbed, and the same method used for the Russian people si probably prepared for Belarusians too: a mix of repression and economic sugarcoating. Russian presence can be already noticed in the way protests are repressed, and the economic aid saves the regime: The Kremlin ordered Russian banks to feed Belarusian economic agents with credits in needed currency, and a $1.5 billion credit was just promised in Sochi. Also, energy agreements were prepared; while they save the Belarusian economy for the moment, at the end of the day they are favorable to Moscow. Meanwhile, the ‘Slavic Brotherhood’ military exercise brings Russian airborne troops to Belarus. Just in case.

The West dwells at threat level and is preparing sanctions. But sanctions will not be tough, the economic ones are ruled out for not harming the population, and the political sanctions will be limited (Lukashenka is not on the list, which indicates that a channel is left available for communication with the dictator). Western signals regarding ‘red lines’ for Moscow multiply in directions such as Belarus independence and sovereignty, as well as direct intervention, but the West has no capacity to directly impose such attitude, it can only react by sanctions. Therefore, the EU behavior looks non-engaging, even for European nations like neighboring Lithuania. As about the United States, the simple fact that correct messages were sent through a second rank official represents a signal. Beyond the unitary principled approach, EU acts eclectic, from Lithuania, which politically recognized the Belarusian opposition, to Cyprus, which blocks the sanctions by connecting them to those considered against Turkey[3]. Hesitations within the Visegrad Group show the best the difficulties which appear during concrete approaches to Belarusian problem.  However, the Kremlin knows that the West’s capacity to directly interfere in Belarus might be limited, but its capacity to react against Russia’s actions in Belarus is large, basically through economic measures. Therefore, this ‘political maskirovka’ will play an important role in implementing the agreements Moscow will reach with Lukashenka, as well as in other Russian actions in Belarus.

Facing increased regime repression and EU inaction, Belarusian opposition hopelessly cries for help, asking the West for strong support measures (Paval Latushka: ”The time for the declaration has already passed. Actions are needed”),  and to Russia for respect for the Belarusian state and Belarusians’ political options.  The opposition reacted to power actions by ‘going underground’ more correctly, going anonymous: The Coordination Council announced it would not have a board anymore, only Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel prize awarded writer was not kidnapped by the power’s thugs, being protected by EU ambassadors’ implication.

Lukashenka is steering towards a Pyrrhic victory, by defeating the Belarusians and preparing to deliver part of Belarusian sovereignty to Russia. Nevertheless, the game is not lost for the Belarusians yet, they cannot be neglected as political force in their own country. However, the Kremlin is ready to take the risk of losing the Belarusians while capturing Belarus, as it won Crimea while losing Ukraine and the Ukrainians.


III. GREECE / FRANCE. South-European Summit.

In the context of Greco-Turkish tensions, the summit organized by south-Europeans in Corsica has a significant importance for generating a common position in view of the upcoming European Summit dedicated to this problem. Greece, Cyprus, and the European heavyweight supporting them, France, obtained a common position of the southerners, but not an approval of French approach, because the other southerners (Italy and Spain) supported a softer approach. Franco-Greek relations will show consolidated military links, with Greece to purchase French armament. The question is how strong the French commitment will be, in bilateral relations, in the situation of an open conflict with Ankara. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reacted with new threats but, under U.S. pressure (Washington expressed its position by the voice of Mike Pompeo, while he was visiting Cyprus), Ankara is forced to moderate its strategy of force approach in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) dispute with Greece and Cyprus. However, for the moment, on the backdrop of President Macron’s warnings and purchase of French armament by Greece, tensions are still on the rise. The Europeans work to avoid a Greco-Turkish conflict, and this is the perspective where sanctions are to be decided against Turkey. Turco-Greek negotiations unfolding within NATO have limited scope to deconflict concrete situations from a technical point of view, aiming to avoid armed incidents; however, they did not progress either. As for the EEZ negotiations, despite German mediation, they seem to be more distant than ever: although Turkey stated its readiness, without preconditions, Ankara used the threat with force and announced as starting position its pro domo theory of a Turkish continental shelf; meanwhile, Greece applies the international law, the UNCLOS agreement, which was not signed by Turkey. Political geography (Greek islands remarkably close to Turkish shores) plays games with the two nations, and President Erdoğan’s nationalist Islamist ideology turns differences into tensions, and the chimera of gas reserves is just one of the opportunities for gaining historical balance.

In the September 10th final communiqué of the summit in Corsica, the south-European leaders called on Turkey to stop “unilateral and illegal activities” in Eastern Mediterranean Sea. They reaffirmed “full support and solidarity with Greece and Cyprus”, who must cope with Turkey’s “confrontational actions”: "We regret that Turkey has not responded to the repeated calls by the European Union to end its unilateral and illegal activities". They threatened that, "in absence of progress in engaging Turkey into a dialogue and unless it ends its unilateral activities, the EU is ready to develop a list of further restrictive measures". Germany was called to resume efforts of mediation between the two parties. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis communicated Athens’ conditions for normalization: "if Turkey really wants a frank dialogue with Greece and Cyprus with the European Union, it must demonstrate this in practice: to immediately stop unilateral actions, to make convincing indications that it respect international law" (implying respect for the UNCLOS Convention, which Turkey did not sign). He added that Turkey needs to "restrain its aggressive rhetoric" and "return to the table for exploratory talks with Greece". French position was presented by President Emmanuel Macron: "Turkey is no longer a partner in this region... We Europeans need to be clear and firm" with the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about its "inadmissible behaviour". Macron also denounced what he called "unacceptable" provocations from Turkey.

Turkish reaction was rough, the communiqué issued by participating nations was deemed partial and baseless, but this reaction was directed mainly against France, respectively the French president, who was described as “arrogant… with colonial reflexes”. Turkish Foreign Ministry accused the French president of stoking tensions and putting the "greater interests" of Europe at risk and added that "It is not for Macron to determine the maritime jurisdiction of any country in the Mediterranean". Ankara is upset seeing the principled unity of the Europeans, but especially understanding that the French approach will reflect, at least partly, in the European policy. And Turkish concerns have good reasons, as the EU firmly maintains a unitary principled position: a European nation cannot be threatened with the use of force. Regarding the approach to the problem, things change, Germany works to mediate. Even some south-Europeans are not in support of the French approach, which seems to be pro domo. Spain is in favor of dialogue (in the context where Spanish diplomacy cooperates very well with Josep Borrell), and Italy has many issues to reproach to France (which opened the Libyan ordeal without having a solution for this conundrum, and the costs are partly paid by Rome; in Libya, oil contracts remain a stake, the French Total in in competition with Italian ENI). It is obvious that Paris’ policy in support of Athens is connected to armament contracts.

In the context of tensions with Turkey, Greece begins large purchase programs, after having neglected its armed forces, due to previous economic crisis. Athens’ programs will touch ten billion Euros, extended over a decade, whence 1.5 billion Euros are earmarked for programs to be started right now (this raises questions regarding Greece’s financial situation, not only among creditors, but also in the ranks of Greek electorate: Mitsotakis won the elections with a message of economic recovery). The main beneficiary of these upcoming armament contracts will be France. The contracts were concluded between President Macron and Prime Minister Mitsotakis, during the meeting in Corsica. On September 13th, Mitsotakis announced that Greece would buy 18 Rafale aircraft, four multifunctional frigates with four naval helicopters, anti-tank weapons, torpedoes, and air force missiles. Greece will increase its armed forces strength with 15,000 soldiers and will invest in its national defense industry and cyber warfare capabilities.

The United States reaffirmed its position during the visit that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid to Cyprus. During his meeting with the Cypriot president, Mike Pompeo stated that U.S. is ”deeply concerned by Turkey’s ongoing operations surveying for natural resources in areas over which Greece and Cyprus assert jurisdiction in the Eastern Mediterranean”. Evaluating the Cypriot-American relations as being better than ever, Pompeo noticed that “countries in the region need to resolve disagreements – including on security and energy, resource and maritime issues – diplomatically and peacefully”. He added that ”the resources of Cyprus should be shared equitably among the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots communities”. American – Cypriot military cooperation is increasing (a ground force, maritime, and port security training center will be opened in Cyprus), in circumstances where the United States lifted the arm sale embargo on Cyprus. These developments represent a change in Cyprus’ security policy towards the U.S., in sync with Greece. Recently, Sergey Lavrov also visited Cyprus, in the attempt to preserve the good level of Russo-Cypriot relations, on the backdrop of information that, considering its move towards the United States, Cyprus would no longer allow anchorage and logistic supply for Russian warships.

Facing an aggregate threat of European sanctions and worsening economic problems, Ankara decided to withdraw the survey vessel Oruç Reis from the disputed waters. Finally, beyond all arguments, Recep Erdoğan can no longer use the threat with force, and escape consequences. While the need to solve the dispute in diplomatic terms remains a priority, not the dispute itself is the problem, as but the fact that such aggressive approach by a NATO nation against another NATO nation and a EU country cannot be tolerated by the peers. Many European nations do not wish to ruin their relations with Ankara, but the red line of no threat with the use of force of a European country cannot be crossed without consequences.


IV.  EUROPEAN UNION / UNITED KINGDOM. Boris Johnson wants to breach the Brexit agreement.

On the backdrop of the impasse in the EU – United Kingdom trade agreement negotiations, Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided to send to the Parliament a bill which breaches London’s Brexit commitments. He intends to create the framework where Britain can force concessions from the EU in the future trade agreement. The European Commission (EC) requested an emergency meeting which petered out and is preparing for a future without a trade agreement with the UK. Beyond differences between the two parties in negotiating the future trade agreement, the British prime minister initiative is a blackmail, because the bill has the effect of knowingly breaching the Brexit commitments (the British Cabinet admits that the bill “limitedly” breaches the international law). This will seriously impact on the trust between London and the Europeans, with effects upon their political and economic cooperation.

During the London September 10th emergency meeting requested by the EU, the EC Vice President (Slovak) Maroš Šefčovič told the British government that the Europeans expect a withdrawal of this bill “by the end of this month”, because it breaches the commitments taken on Brexit. Šefčovič stated that this gesture would constitute an "extremely serious violation" of the withdrawal agreement and of international law, and it seriously impacts on the trust between UK and EU. The bill reviews several aspects of Brexit regarding Northern Ireland, which were taken in order to preserve peace in this British federal entity, respectively the establishment of a “hard frontier” between Northern Ireland and Ireland (Northern Ireland would remain in line with European norms established in the EU single market). Even in the UK there is a concern linked to the impact on Britain’s credibility, because the danger of breaching an international law appears, and Britain would lose its moral standards.

In current negotiations regarding the future trade agreement between EU and UK, there are still differences in areas such as fishing, but the most important is the European conditioning that a tax free access for the British to the European market be established in a package with competition control measures. It is suspicioned that, by this gesture of force, Boris Johnson hopes he would bargain with the Europeans using this bill: should the Europeans yield in the future agreement, the Brits will withdraw the bill from the parliament. The Europeans believe that Boris Johnson went too far, and the EU sent him an ultimatum: by the end of the month, London must withdraw the bill breaching the Brexit agreement, or there will be no trade agreement at all. Both sides prepare for a future without a trade agreement.


V. Developments to track this Week 38 of 2020.

► SERBIA / KOSOVO. And there was the Brussels meeting. Although, on the background, there is the Europeans’ desire to obtain Kosovo recognition, the meeting focused on concrete issues, whose solution should bring the two parties closer. These are, in fact, palliatives, as the EU failed to achieve more than harmonization with economic agreements signed in Washington but rejecting the diplomatic measures regarding Israel. Aleksandar Vučić has now other problems, with Russia. After Vučić was insulted by the Russian Foreign Minister spokeswoman, Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov patched things up by apologizing to Vučić in direct discussions. This is just the tip of the iceberg though, as the Kremlin fears that Vučić would make economic and energy concessions to the United States, at the expense of Russia, and that he would appoint less pro-Russian officials in the future Serbian government. 

► RUSSIA / MIDDLE EAST. Sergey Lavrov’s tour in the Middle East cleared several Russian positions. Lavrov visited Syria, where Moscow promised economic support to Bashar al-Assad, in conditions where the two countries are subjected to sanctions by the West, but this support is hinged on Syrian economic and political concessions. In Cyprus, Lavrov sought to maintain Russian positions in the island, and stated Moscow’s wish to mediate between Cyprus and Turkey. Lavrov also expressed his support for a peaceful solution in Libya. 

► AFGHANISTAN. The Taliban negotiate with the power in Kabul. After postponements and successive concessions by the government in Kabul, peace negotiations begin. The Taliban never stopped attacks, but the United States presses the Kabul authorities, being interested in withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan. The United States withdraws troops also from Iraq, as this policy is an important element of Donald Trump’s election campaign. Let us hope that the war in Afghanistan finally ends, although the final solution might raise the question whether the sacrifice of so many was even worth making.

[1] Navalny’s investigations, uplinked on YouTube, are worth watching, as Navalny had the talent to present with much humor outraging tragic facts, considering the cynicism when huge fortunes are plundered in a rich country with poor citizens.

[2] This is not true; Lukashenka’s would-be fall would not threaten to Putin’s regime. Lukashenka only attempts to demonstrate the ‘existential link’ between the two dictatorships, but Putin regime has much more solid social, economic, and political bases. Although the fall of Lukashenka’s dictatorship would have a strong echo in Russia, Putin regime is far from being endangered to be destabilized by such event. Lukashenka is fantasizing, as any dictator who invents pseudo-explanations to justify the repression against his own people. The most hilarious but also dangerous though, are the fabulations about the war knocking at the door. But there is no such threat, Belarusian armed forces are mobilized only to scare Belarusians… and hunt some balloons!

[3] Why against the dictator in Minsk and not against the dictator in Ankara too? The cynical but correct answer is: because the dictator in Ankara is ‘ours’, as Turkey is a NATO member nation, and additionally, Erdoğan became president being voted by the Turks, exactly what is missing in Belarus, and what triggered the crisis.