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22 septembrie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 38 of 2020)

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

I. RUSSIA / NATO. Strategic aviation flights over the Black Sea.II. GERMANY / RUSSIA. Navalny case developments.III. BELARUS / RUSSIA. Lukashenka – Putin meeting.IV. EUROPEAN UNION / CHINA. The summit of European and Chinese leaders.V. Developments to track this Week 39 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

English version by Mircea Mocanu

I. RUSSIA / NATO. Strategic aviation flights over the Black Sea. 

Strategic aviation of both Russia and the United States conducted flights in the air space between Russia and NATO nations, from the Barents Sea to Okhotsk Sea, Sea of Norway, North Sea, Baltic Sea, and the Black Sea. In the Barents Sea, again, NATO aircraft entered unnotified. The United States has a new approach, which is offensive, and involves flights conducted by strategic bombers in areas IVO Russia; for Romania, the flights over the Black Sea are more important. Disturbed for being no longer the only power conducting strategic aviation flights close to adversary borders, Moscow responded by intercepting American aircraft with its fighters, and by flights of its own strategic aviation. In the Black Sea area, American bombers had Romanian, then Ukrainian escorts, above the respective air spaces. Perhaps Moscow was disturbed especially by the flights in Ukraine, IVO the Sea of Azov. Russia sent Tu-22M3 strategic bombers and Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance and antisubmarine aircraft (a variant of Tu-95 strategic bomber), while the American USS Roosevelt destroyer and other NATO warships, including ELINT aircraft, entered the Black Sea air space. Continuing the known modus operandi, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet sent its warships to follow the USS Roosevelt. Beyond mirroring force demonstrations, meant to deter the adversary, an Electronic Warfare (EW) (as NATO reconnaissance aircraft are an usual presence), and an intelligence presence (identification of adversary’s tactics, techniques, and procedures / TTP) take place in the Black Sea. The situation gets more complicated, as the United States initiated an offensive approach mirroring the Russian habits. The American allies live up to their duty by contributing to deterrence, and the detail that a Romanian escort of four F-16s took part in this action, is certainly a step forward. On the other side, the situation will get even more complicated, as Moscow’s declarations point at a more aggressive future Russian behavior.  

This intensification of Russian and American strategic aviation activity in the European Theater of operation (TO) arrived on the background of American strategic bomber deployment to Europe. This triggered a beefed-up Russian response. Militarily, the United States turns to this approach of bomber activity in the European TO also on the backdrop of INF demise, as Russia holds the advantage of already having deployed the SSC-8 ground-based cruise missiles. NATO increased the presence of its warships in the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, and repeated its foray in the Barents Sea, thus challenging Russia’s naval superiority. The force balance (both naval and air) changed. Politically, things entangled on the background of current cold relations between Russia and the West, especially considering the Belarusian crisis, where dictator Lukashenka, encouraged by Moscow, is playing with fire: he invents an imminent threat of a western aggression, while himself is the one who deploys armed forces to conduct demonstrations of force IVO its border with NATO (and will continue these activities, further complicating the situation by adding Russian troops). In the Black Sea, there is the ‘open wound’ called Ukraine, with its Donbass conflict. We will present only the events in the Black Sea, although they are linked to activities unfolding in other parts of Europe, or in other theaters like Pacific, and the Arctic.

This past week’s events began with the flight conducted in the Black Sea area by American B-52H bombers (of the 5th Aviation Wing temporarily deployed to Fairford AFB / UK). On September 14th, three B-52H bombers (KAGO11, KAGO12, KAGO13) conducted a mission in the Black Sea region, flying above Romanian air space with an escort of four Romanian F-16 fighters, respectively above Ukraine, with an escort of Ukrainian Su-27s. The American bombers were intercepted above the Black Sea, far from the air space associated to the Crimean Peninsula, by four Russian Su-27 / Su-30 fighters. In the images released by Moscow, showing the interception, the American bombers seem to fly without an escort. As usual, NATO ELINT aircraft were present in the region, which shows that NATO monitors Moscow’s reactions. Russian strategic aviation was present in the region with the known Tu-22M3 strategic bombers, and with the Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft. According to Moscow’s communiqué, two Tu-22M3 strategic bombers flew over the Black Sea on September 16th and were escorted by Su-27 aircraft during various phases of their flight. The communiqué mentions that these escorts were provided by aircraft of some countries, with no further specification. According to unconfirmed information, the two Tu-22M3 bombers took off from Shaykovka air base, together with other Tu-22M3 (code names 22358, 22359, 22571, 99191). Additionally, an A-50 air surveillance and control aircraft took off from Krymsk air base and participated in this mission. A Tu-142 (code name 42203) maritime surveillance and anti-submarine aircraft flew on the Black Sea region on September 16th, partly escorted by Su-30SM fighters. According to unconfirmed information, two such Tu-142 aircraft had flown over the Black Sea in the previous day, September 15th. In absence of confirmed information, we cannot reconstitute the Russian aircraft flight trajectory or issue hypotheses on their missions. We can only presume that, beside exerting the basic mission of strategic bombers, that of launching ACLM cruise missiles against adversary targets, Russian bombers also exercised the mission of striking adversary warships, considering that the Tu-22M3s carries Kh22 / Kh32 air-to-ship missiles, and the Tu-142 has the capability of detecting naval targets (thus providing targeting support to the Tu-22M3 bombers). We consider this hypothesis considering the presence of American USS Roosevelt destroyer in the Black Sea, as well as other NATO, British and French warships.

The presence of American strategic bombers and NATO ELINT aircraft in the Black Sea region, respectively in the Ukrainian air space changed the original scenario where only Russia used to conduct strategic aviation flights in this area. Highly likely, Russia will react more aggressively, which was expressed in the massage of Russia’s Chief of Defense: “The US and its NATO allies did not support Russia's proposals to prevent military incidents. In the event of an escalation of the situation in the Black Sea region, all responsibility for this will fall entirely on the United States and its NATO allies”. This message suggests that we might witness more aggressive flights, and more dangerous interceptions (such as, recently, the interception of a B-52 bomber by a Russian Su-27 fighter). Developments grow more complicated in the Black Sea region, with Russia to increase its actions in response to NATO’s intensified presence in the area, which challenges Russia’s air and naval supremacy in the Black Sea region. We wanted the allied presence above the Black Sea, we have it now, but we must live up to the level of such situation, considering that, in case of an escalation, at least in the initial phase, we must cope with the escalation by ourselves.


II. GERMANY / RUSSIA. Navalny case developments.

Aleksey Navalny regained consciousness, but the effects of his poisoning persist. Germany continues to prepare a political response, and Berlin ‘Europeanized’ the problem, with French and Swedish labs confirming the presence of Novichok nerve agent in Navalny’s test results. Therefore, the Europeans provide independent proofs supporting Berlin’s position. France joined the German position: President Emmanuel Macron sending to Vladimir Putin that explanations are necessary. The Kremlin persisted in its position of contesting the results of lab investigations conducted by West-Europeans and showing indignation regarding the treatment Russia is allegedly subjected to. Sanctions will follow, but they will likely not touch the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. However, the worst happened already: the mistrust of German and French leaders in Putin’s regime will describe the relations between these nations and Russia. Germany and France are not only the most important countries in the European Union, but also those who worked to build a cooperation relation with the Kremlin.  

The German government announced that two European laboratories, one French, and one Swedish, confirmed the presence of Novichok nerve gas in Navalny’s body, which ‘Europeanizes’ the accusations and strengthen Berlin’s position. Politically, the position presented by France, who is the last possible mediator, defines the European stance. In a September 14th phone conversation, Emmanuel Macron asked Vladimir Putin to completely and with no delay clear the “assassination attempt” against Navalny, and communicated that, based on its own investigations, France agrees with the German conclusion: “Clarification is needed from Russia, in a credible and transparent investigation”. Vladimir Putin responded considering the accusations against Moscow as “inadequate” and “baseless”. He asked Berlin to send the biological samples supporting these allegations.

On September 17th, the European Parliament (EP) adopted a resolution requesting a complete investigation in the Navalny case and asked the European Commission to impose severe sanctions against Russia. Thus, the EP established the moral standard and showed what the Europeans would want, not what would happen, because the EU is forced to continue a Realpolitik in its relations with Moscow, regardless what the Kremlin decides to do. Despite evidence[1], Russia’s position remained unchanged. Moscow’s approach was voiced on September 14th by Sergey Lavrov, who accused the West of arrogant attitude in the Navalny case: "Western partners are looking at us with arrogance in this regard: we have the right to doubt if they are right and to doubt their professionalism [over Navalny’s alleged poisoning]. If this is so, then they [representatives of the West] dare doubt the professionalism of our doctors and investigators”. In Lavrov’s opinion, “in the Navalny case, they (the Europeans) crossed any good sense limit: in fact, they demand us to admit our guilt”. He affirmed that “had not been the Navalny case, western nations would have invented another pretext to impose even more sanctions against Russia”. It is rather here where Russia’s relations with the Europeans lie; what is worth noting is that there is little room for negotiations, and that, with sanctions in sight, there is a veiled threat from Moscow, with Lavrov declaring that "this stance unfortunately reminds us of the past. Europe used to be arrogant and felt infallible before, which led to tragic consequences".


III. BELARUS / RUSSIA. Lukashenka – Putin meeting.

For the Belarus crisis, the September 14th, meeting in Sochi, between Aleksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin is the crucial moment, as the decisions taken there will essentially mark further developments. As discussions were shrouded in secrecy (four hours of discussions, mostly face to face), we can only partly presume those decisions, by analyzing the declarations and subsequent measures, especially those with Russian implication. Repression against the protesters continued, most of the opposition leaders are either arrested, or in exile, but the resistance is still strong. The opposition leaders in exile have been working to gain an international solidarity reaction, but the answer they received is only symbolic, practically no action, although embellished with support statements. The Europeans heavyweights prepare sanctions against Lukashenka regime, and warn Moscow, probably the only measure with significant political impact. In an upcoming European Parliament resolution, they will likely decide the non-recognition of Lukashenka as President of Belarus, after November 5th (when his current mandate officially expires). Belarus’ fate seems to have been decided by Russia, who is to integrate this country into the Union State (and not only: Belarusian state wealth caught the attention of the Kremlin and Russian oligarchs). Dictator Lukashenka is doing his part, aiming to save his skin: he delivers the country to Putin. However, two elements might twart the plans: the Belarusians’ resistance, and the reactions from the West to Moscow’s dealings in Belarus.

After the meeting in Sochi, the main measure they announced was the economic aid that Russia will offer Belarus, in fact, to Lukashenka, worth $1.5 billion. This money will be used both to refinance old debts, and for current spending. Therefore, Lukashenka has the chance to survive by avoiding the collapse of Belarus and winning the attrition war against his own people.

Politically, Putin granted his entire political support to the dictator in Minsk: 1) he reiterated Russia’s recognition of Lukashenka as president; 2) he reiterated that Belarusians should provide the solution, and mentioned the constitutional reform proposed by Lukashenka. These statements should be corroborated with Russian official declarations and Russian narrative that United States and western neighbors of Belarus are responsible for the current situation and prepare a ‘color revolution’ (Naryshkin: “According to the SVR’s information, the United States is playing a key role in Belarus”). Therefore, Putin’s view means that Lukashenka should generate the solution, assisted by Russia, in isolation from the West: repressing the opposition (described as instrument of the West); stabilizing the situation by opening a pseudo-dialogue with the working class (who will be silenced by a combination of benefits and intimidation); and initiating a pseudo-reform which will secure a continued dictatorship by adjusting the Constitution (continuity will be provided to the dictator too, for as long as necessary, the end state being to legitimize a leadership faithful to Moscow and accepted by Belarusians, in continuity to current regime); 3) Putin established the roadmap for integrating Belarus into Russia: the completion of Russia – Belarus Union, the legal framework already available to Moscow (together with the Euro-Asian Economic Union and the Community of Independent States), in circumstances where, highly likely, Lukashenka ‘surrendered’ and accepted this integration. There are many indications of such surrender, from Lukashenka’s declarations of loyalty to Moscow, and his confession of “having learned his lesson”, to the servant stance he offered to Putin. Later actions, the military exercise “Slavic Brotherhood 2020”, the visit paid by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to Minsk, as well as the declarations offered by the dictator regarding CSTO consolidation, point to another accord they reached: by continuing Russo-Belarusian exercises, practically, there will be permanent Russian military presence which creates a Damocles sword above the heads of all opponents to Lukashenka’s  regime, in addition to Belarus’ own armed forces. While generating the necessary narrative for such development, the dictator’s discourse reached dangerous levels, he easily speaks about the danger of war. Perhaps they also agreed upon a common plan to put down the opposition resistance, and the Russian narrative regarding the West’s implication in current protests is an indication in that direction. Lukashenka announced that his government would close the borders, but, for the moment, he is stalling, as he is not prepared to cope with the consequences.

The opposition succeeded to continue street protests. Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s speech to the UN Human Rights Committee, her appeal for establishing an international commission to investigate repression in Belarus, and the UN Resolution are symbolic victories, but just that. On diplomatic lines too, Russia’s support to the dictator is significant: Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that inviting Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya to Brussels would be perceived by Moscow as interference with Belarus’ internal affairs and a violation of UN Charter. While less strong, protests still show that Lukashenka is not in full control, although be belittles the size of demonstrations (‘the red lines have not been crossed’); this way, Lukashenka aims to preserve room to breathe when facing the Kremlin. The Europeans will impose some sanctions, and the European Parliament already established the European position (more specific, in current circumstances and internal divisions within EU, this position is more of a principle issue, not what practically will be implemented).


IV.  EUROPEAN UNION / CHINA. The summit of European and Chinese leaders.

Replacing the monumental would-a-been EU – China summit, the September 14th video-summit was a moment of truth. European leaders ceased to accept Beijing’s strategy of postponing the fulfilment of its commitments, respectively China’s failure to commit to an agreement with written rules on fair economic competition. EU – China relations enter the realistic phase, with Europeans refusing to be lured with the carrot of unfulfilled promises, and China adopting a great economic power position in its relations with Europe, and a great political power position, when rejecting European accusations regarding human right breaching in China.   

In a nutshell, Ursula von der Leyen (VDL), Charles Michel, and Angela Merkel (Germany holds EU presidency) sent the message that the Europeans will no longer be manipulated with promises by Chinese leadership. More specifically, they told President Xi Jinping that the EU would no longer accept Beijing’s economic behavior and requested reciprocity in economy and trade. VDL declared “We are really serious about having access to the Chinese market and tearing down the barriers”.

European leaders requested President Xi Jinping to open Chinese market by lifting custom tariffs. Practically, China failed to fulfill its promises of beginning a fair and liberalized bilateral trade, while the EU accuses Beijing of breaching the rules of international trade, including by committing intellectual property theft. The three European leaders insisted to learn from Chinese leaders whether they truly wanted to reach an agreement regarding investments, and Merkel declared: “We put on pressure ... to make progress on the investment agreement... Overall, cooperation with China must be based on certain principles - reciprocity, fair competition. We are different social systems, but while we are committed to multilateralism, it must be rules-based”[2]. President Charles Michel conveyed the message that “Europe needs to be a player, not a playing field”, which points to the global U.S. – China game, as well as to political and economic games played by Beijing in Europe. EU leaders did not hesitate to raise political problems, such as repression in Hong Kong, and minority persecutions, all these being rejected by Beijing leadership as interference in China’s internal issues: “Chinese people will not accept ‘an instructor’ on human rights and oppose ‘double standards’ “. The problem of global warming commitments was also touched, with China remaining the largest pollution source at global level. After the moment of truth, let us see whether true agreements will be concluded, but chances are relatively low.


V. Developments to track this Week 39 of 2020.

► EUROPEAN UNION. Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union speech includes the issue of migration, meaning reviewing the Dublin Agreement, which will trigger strong reaction by European nations. The European Commission proposals will be seriously debated, if not challenged, by leaders of European countries.

► GREECE / TURKEY. Greco – Turkish contacts within NATO, ahead of EU sanctions. On the backdrop of mutual accusations, discussions in NATO continued. Threats and insults keep pouring, same as calls for dialogue. At sea, despite ongoing naval exercises, tensions seem to diminish, although Turkey sent (through NAVTEX again!) the accusation that Greece would militarize Chios Island. Ankara sent the message that Turkey withdrew the survey vessel from waters disputed with Greece, to give a chance to negotiations with Athens. However, Ankara announced (by NAVTEX message) it would maintain the vessel operating in Cypriot waters. In response, Cyprus threatened the Europeans with blocking upcoming sanctions against Lukashenka regime, if sanctions against Ankara are not decided. 

► REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. Igor Dodon filed his candidacy as independent. The great electoral confrontation begins, and Maia Sandu has chances to defeat Dodon. Nevertheless, Dodon will seek to use the voters of Transnistria, and Maia Sandu warned him about social reactions in response. One should consider that Igor Dodon wants to change the Constitution in view of obtaining larger powers as future president. This is how all dictatorial regimes started in the former post-Soviet space, with a president who had made himself a dictator first. We will witness three months of election campaign with abuses by the power.

[1] Navalny’s close associates announced that German experts found traces of Novichok on bottles found in the hotel room used by Navalny. The Kremlin responded that those bottles might have served as evidence only in the situation where they were not taken out of Russia.

[2] Europe still stands well. It has an agreement with China on food and drinks. Although this is a small step, it is rather more difficult to accomplish by non-EU countries.