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29 septembrie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 39 of 2020)

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

I. EUROPEAN UNION. Foreign minister reunion.II. RUSSIA. The ‘Kavkaz 202’ strategic military Exercise.III. BELARUS. Is Lukashenka president?IV. UKRAINE. Josep Borrell visits Kyiv.V. Developments to track this Week 40 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

English version by Mircea Mocanu

I. EUROPEAN UNION. Foreign minister reunion. 

The European reunion supposed to end with important decisions regarding sanctions did not pan out due to Cypriot blockage and other differences. Decisions were transferred to European nation leaders, and their reunion was also conveniently postponed (the reason was Charles Michel’s isolation due to Covid-19). Despite their attempt to prove sturdiness and unity, the Europeans failed to turn into sanctions their threats against Belarusian, Turkish, and Russian leaders. This looks bad, but also presents positive aspects (in Turkey’s case, the path to negotiations remains open). In each of these cases, we see specific issues which must be approached adequately; Cypriot blockage is just the tip of the iceberg (Cyprus hinged the sanctions against Belarusian dictator on sanctions against Turkish president, which indicates unanimity as a the weak point of Europe’s decisional system, and also shows the difficulty of supporting Cyprus, at EU level). However, Belarus’ dictator is no longer recognized by the EU as president of his country, and the Kremlin will not dodge sanctions in Navalny case. As about Turkey, its return to negotiation table shows that President Recep Erdoğan understood the EU power, albeit soft. In this context, Romania’s initiative is remarkable, with the declaration on Belarus signed by presidents of three frontline EU countries (along Poland and Lithuania, which are directly interested), next to the letter addressed to Josep Borrell regarding Navalny case (where the three above mentioned signatories were joined by Estonia and Denmark). This is an important step which pulls Bucharest out from its traditional passivity and serves a principled cooperation strategy among the frontline EU nations facing a common threat[1]. This strategy is close enough to the European heavyweights’ position (although, in Belarus’ case, the Polish – Lithuanian approach has little chances of success at European union level). Nevertheless, while becoming an active player with such bold approach, Romania might cause a reaction from Russia, even if this initiative will not turn into decisions at European level. From here, we can see the need to synchronize this initiative with significant progress in other areas: political, military, economic, and social.    

On September 21st, the problems that European foreign ministers discussed in the framework of Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) were Belarus, Libya, relations with the African Union, as well as Venezuela; however, another problem, sanctions against Turkey, jammed the discussions. Although the ministers met the Belarusian opposition leader, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya (not in an official event), and the Belarusian problem dominated the reunion, FAC made no decision in this regard, although, according to Josep Borrell, “the Ministers sent a strong signal: we do not recognize [Aleksandr] Lukashenka’s legitimacy as a result of elections that we consider falsified”. The “solidarity with the people of Belarus” was reiterated, as well as “their democratic aspirations and their call for new, free and fair elections under the OSCE’s supervision”. Remarkably, the EU offered a common bridge to Russia by supporting an OSCE mission (where Russia would be part), but, highly likely, the Kremlin will not accept any implication of the West in Belarus, not even through OSCE, where Moscow has a strong voice. The EU requested a national dialogue in view of solving the crisis, plus free and fair elections, and announced its support to Belarus’ sovereignty and independence by asking Belarus “eastern partners” (read… Russia) not to interfere in internal affairs of this country, because “Belarusian people should decide its future”. Regarding sanctions, “although there is a clear will to adopt those sanctions, it has not been possible to do that today, because the required unanimity was not reached” (Borrell: “we need unanimity and we did not have it. Cyprus is not against sanctions but will not give its vote to make it possible, because it considers that, at the same time, Turkey must be sanctioned too”). Borrell noticed that the EU credibility itself depends on its capacity to sanction the Belarusian leadership. In Navalny case, an international investigation regarding his poisoning has been requested, with a complete and transparent cooperation with the OPCW; a complete debate on Russia will take place next month. It is important that decisions in these three main issues were postponed, which was necessary for identifying the best solutions, balanced, and generating intended effects (changing the behavior of certain leaders), yet not escalating any of these problems. Nevertheless, the EU cannot ignore the reality: there is no such solution, especially in case of Belarus and Russia (where political regime survival comes first, and any means is used if it serves this purpose, regardless the Europeans’ reaction).

Regarding Libya, EU support for a cease-fire accord was expressed, and three priorities were defined: 1) reaching a permanent and sustainable cease-fire agreement; 2) mobilization of all efforts for complete lifting of a ban on oil exports; 3) political dialogue. The reunion noticed that IRINI Operation continues to contribute to implementing the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations. Relations with China and Turkey were also discussed, as well as Lebanon. In the Turkish predicament, positive steps were noticed (readiness for beginning negotiations), while continued drilling operations in Cypriot waters  are regrettable. This problem was also transferred upstairs to the European leader level too. Finally, there were no decisions, but that happened not for major divergencies in principles, but because synchronization in reactions to Belarus crisis and Eastern Mediterranean crisis was requested. In these two issues, European heavyweights have different approaches, dialogue is preferred with Ankara, when Ankara provides signals it would change its attitude.


II. RUSSIA. The ‘Kavkaz 2020’ strategic military exercise.

The ‘Kavkaz 2020’, which unfolded between September 21st and 26th, is the largest military exercise in the Black Sea region. This activity repeats every four years in Russia’s most important military district, the Military Region ‘South’, which includes a vulnerable area, the Caucasus, and several territories controlled by Russia (annexed Crimea, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria). The two strategic directions, South and South-West, where Russia’s Strategic Joint Command (SJC) ‘South’ is responsible, cover the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (which just burst out again), and the conflict in Donbass (concerned about the Kavkaz 2020, Ukraine decided to conduct its own military exercise). Military actions component of Kavkaz 2020 covered the whole range: air defense from air and ground platforms, air landing and maritime landing (in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea), complex naval actions, missile launching, large ground actions with joint components (involving infantry, armor, artillery and air support), as well as counter-terrorist actions (the ‘glue’ for crossing from hybrid warfare to large conventional actions against a symmetric adversary, like NATO). 

The Kavkaz 2020 was a large military exercise with 80,000 soldiers and was presented as a cooperation activity involving allies and partners (although foreign participation rose to just 1000 soldiers). Five countries took part in Kavkaz 2020, but, beyond, their wish to offer the picture of international cooperation (China and Pakistan), it is worth underlining Armenia’s participation (Russian troops deployed in Armenia operated together with Armenian soldiers), and Belarus (where Russian presence will continue, in the context of the crisis, and, should Moscow deem necessary, an intervention cannot be ruled out). In fact, it was an overwhelmingly Russian exercise, with purely national objectives in Moscow’s declared turf, while the ally presence was necessary to exercise a would-be Russian intervention in these SCTO member nations. Highly likely, Russian troops deployed to Transnistria (Operational Group of Russian Troops / OGRT) were somewhat also integrated in the Kavkaz 2020.

The Kavkaz 2020 exercise aimed at verifying the Russian troop capacity to provide security in south-western Russia by testing the command and control system and the entire range of capabilities, the logistic system, as well as  the readiness of airborne troops, special forces, and marine infantry (the spearheads of any intervention). The exercise involved all military branches of JSC South and unfolded in training ranges of Black Sea, Caspian Sea regions in Russia (Prudboy, Ashuluk, Kapustin Yar, and Kopanskaya), grounds in Armenia, as well as in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 

Let us review the most important of military actions exercised during Kavkaz 2020. Missile launches included: 1) air defense launches, from S 400 to short range missiles; 2) anti-ship and cruise missile launches from warships and submarines, especially in the Black Sea, where a Kalibr missile was launched from a Kilo II class submarine against a ground based target, as well as missiles of Bal and Bastion shore defense systems; 3) launches of ballistic and cruise (SSC-8!) missiles from an Iskander system; 4) air landing at regiment / brigade level. Airborne troops were ubiquitous, being used in almost all circumstances, some of them novel (littoral defense, vertical maneuver in joint actions meant to destroy an enemy armored group); 5) large joint actions (the one in Volgograd area was remarkable), involving aviation, air landing from helicopters, tank and mechanized infantry troops supported with fire from both classic and reactive artillery (using drones for targeting); 6) amphibious landing in the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. Practically, the entire range of land actions were exercised in various phases of Kavkaz 2020 (from demining and assault river crossing, to joint actions of armor and mechanized infantry, with fire support from artillery and aviation), and the whole range of naval actions with air support and in hostile intense EW environment. The ground and naval counter-terrorist actions are also worth mentioning.

Behind information provided by Russian authorities, which serves rather propaganda than honest information: actions were compartmentalized at participating troop strengths below the levels requiring the presence of military observers, according to Vienna agreements. Therefore, many questions arise: What units were involved? What was the true exercise scenario at strategic level? What military intervention was exercised, following the established tradition of such strategic exercises (Zapad 2013 ahead of the aggression in Ukraine, Center 2015 ahead of the intervention in Syria)? Anyway, we already witness a situation in the Caucasus, where the Nagorno-Karabakh armed conflict resumed. Let us notice that, on the backdrop of Kavkaz 2020, Canadian F-18s deployed to Romania intercepted Russian Su-27s IVO Romanian air space.


III. BELARUS. Is Lukashenka president?

This is the question looming over the crisis in Belarus, for the next period. President Aleksandr Lukashenka consolidated his position, but the opposition still has the capacity to generate large protests. Short of jeopardizing the dictatorship, such street demonstrations continue to convey the resistance message. The call for civil resistance failed to generate an echo, which shows the limits of Belarusian resistance movement. The dictator decided to perform his official inauguration aiming to consolidate his domestic stance and cope with foreign pressure. The West reacted by sending the key non-recognition message regarding Lukashenka’s office. The Europeans postponed the reunion meant to generate sanctions on Belarus. Meanwhile, the military situation worsened: in the context of ‘Slavic Brotherhood’ military exercise, Russia escalated the tensions by strategic aviation flights. NATO responded in kind. After having promised support to the dictator, and gained significant concessions from Minsk, the Kremlin expects Lukashenka to ‘solve’ the situation ASAP[2]. Moscow is present (in the media, economy, and military), but also falsely absent (stating that it keeps distance from the ongoing political struggle, although it is the only foreign player on Belarusian domestic political stage). From this vantage point, the Kremlin can steer the events at its best. After having obtained Moscow’s rescue, salvaged Lukashenka will seek to keep off the Kremlin’s embrace, and work to control as much as he can the speed of Belarus’ integration into the Union State. At the same time, the dictator will likely attempt to yield as little as he can from the national wealth, but that will be difficult. In this respect, he will likely play the Chinese card, where he is to hold several high-level meetings. At home, Lukashenka must watch over the Belarusian elite, which should be precluded from betraying him by teaming not with the opposition (it is not the case, for new nomenclature profiteers), but with Russia. For avoiding decisive implication, the West can only impose limited sanctions. Nevertheless, by not recognizing Lukashenka as president of Belarus, the West made an essential step, with significant consequences towards future non-recognition of the dictator’s decisions, and his isolation. However, Moscow’s objective of deeper control over Belarus will be facilitated following this isolation of Lukashenka by the West.

During a quasi-secret ceremony, Aleksandr Lukashenka was sworn in office on September 23rd, thus inaugurating his new claimed mandate. Only power inner circle figures were invited to that ceremony, and rumors circulate they were forced to swear allegiance to the dictator, during the same event. While the dictator consolidated his position at home and kept legal appearances with an official inauguration where he rallied the Belarusian nomenclature, he performed not that well in the international stage, as he generated a strong reaction by the West. In a September 23rd declaration, Brussels announced that "The European Union does not recognize their falsified results. On this basis, the so-called ‘inauguration’ of September 23, 2020 and the new mandate claimed by Aleksandr Lukashenko lack any democratic legitimacy". Not recognizing Lukashenka as president was an attitude already mentioned by European officials, including by Josep Borrell. The EU will continue this approach, and a similar decision is to be taken during the upcoming European summit. On September 23rd, in a U.S. Department of State communiqué, Washington announced that United States ceased to recognize Lukashenka as president of Belarus: "The United States cannot consider Aleksandr Lukashenka the legitimately elected leader of Belarus". The State Department called for a "national dialogue" culminating in "a free and fair election under independent observation". There is information that the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada will soon establish sanctions against Belarus.

The question ‘Is Lukashenka president?’ now has two opposite answers, one provided by the West, and another provided by Russia. Beside isolating the dictator, this position taken by the West brings several international law questions regarding the way the West had relations with Belarus while it was led by Lukashenka. Thus, the West does not recognize the dictator, but will be forced to communicate with his regime, as the parliament in Minsk, which is controlled by dictator, was previously recognized; implicitly, the government established by this parliament benefits from that recognition. The Belarus crisis reached fragile deadlocks both between the West and Russia, and between the dictator and the resistance. The dictator seems to have an open path towards full victory, but the Belarusian resistance would not collapse. It seems that Lukashenka would have won about 50% of the ballots, but he certainly does not have such support now, as Belarusians are angered by the repression. The dictator cannot risk new elections, and this means the end of his rule as dictator, no matter who would challenge him, the Belarusians or, more likely, the Kremlin.


IV.  UKRAINE. Josep Borrell visits Kyiv.

On September 22nd, during the short visit he paid to Kyiv, Josep Borrell sent a clear message to President Zelenskiy: the power in Kyiv needs to constructively cooperate with the International Monetary Fund to make the EU economic aid flow. In fact, the message is sharp: should the power in Kyiv fail to live up to its promise to respect the rule of law and take real measures of beginning a fight against corruption, Ukraine will receive neither European aid, nor the IMF loan.

The EU High Representative Josep Borrell hinged the EU financial support on Kyiv power’s cooperation with the IMF, in fact, on the rule of law and the relaunch of anti-corruption fight in Ukraine. Thus, in view of getting the promised European economic aid meant to enable Kyiv cope with the economic crisis caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, Ukraine must resume its cooperation with the IMF. Borrell pointed that EU is ready to offer 1.2 billion Euros in macro-financial assistance to Kyiv for eliminating the economic crisis effects, but “Ukraine needs to constructively engage... with the International Monetary Fund and also the attached conditions about the rule of law of this help”. With its arms twisted by the IMF requests, the power in Kyiv passed the economico-financial laws. Then, in June, Kyiv and the IMF signed an agreement securing a 5-billion dollars loan to Ukraine. This money was further hinged on a continued sound domestic financial policy, rule of law, and anti-corruption efforts. However, the power in Kyiv failed to honor these promises, and visible threats to justice independence appeared, as well as pressure upon anti-corruption institutions, such as dismissal or resignation of important officials of their board (they accused political pressure). Therefore, the IMF stopped the transfer of funds because the fight against corruption remained just a slogan. Practically, on this battlefield, the United States did more than Kyiv by investigating Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky. Even more, concerns regarding the selection process for appointing the new anti-corruption chief prosecutor led to the situation where European Parliament members requested the European Commission to lift the visa waver granted to Ukraine. Nevertheless, Borrell promised that such measures would not be taken.   

The main hurdle in EU support for the Ukrainians is still the very power in Kyiv. The hopes that Zelenskiy generated withered off, he just replaced ‘Poroshenko’s justice’ with ‘Zelenskiy’s justice’, which failed to provide either the rule of law, or fight against corruption, or reforms, as he had promised. The case of Ukraine is not single in the post-Soviet space (Republic of Moldova is in the same situation), but it is worse, because Kyiv is under a double threat: domestic and from abroad, from Russia.


V. Developments to track this Week 40 of 2020.

► ARMENIA / AZERBAIJAN. The armed conflict resumed, Yerevan announced general mobilization and established martial law in Armenia. Previously, Yerevan had announced it downed several Azeri helicopters and drones, and accused Baku of bombing and shelling communities in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azeri President Ilham Aliyev announced Azeri forces’ victory on Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, which indicates that Baku has triggered an offensive (it seems that an Armenian garrison was surrounded). Highly likely, encouraged by Turkish President Erdoğan, and receiving military support from Turkey, President Aliyev decided to resume the armed conflict. Lately, both sides conducted military exercises (Russia and Armenia in the framework of Kavkaz 2020) and mobilized their resources. Unconfirmed information claims that Turkey would have transferred jihadist fighters from Syria to Azerbaijan. The situation is worsened by the perspective that Russia will interfere in support of Armenia, and Turkey in support of Azerbaijan, especially through the exclave of Nakhichevan. Thus, the two interventionists, Russia and Turkey might confront each other, through proxies now, inside Russia’s very sphere of influence. Baku and Ankara might be disappointed, as Russia is to jump in support of Armenia with superior forces and means (although there is a limitation regarding the air space gap). In this case, Moscow will shed its traditional ‘mediation’ role and its relative reserve in supporting a more and more independent Yerevan (Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian took firm measures for democratization and rule of law, at the expense of the old pro-Russian guard, which divided the country; this caused Moscow’s reluctance). The problem is that, based on the SCTO treaty, Russia can defend only Armenia, not Nagorno-Karabakh, whose annexation Moscow did not recognize. Therefore, Russia will defend only Armenia, while Armenians will fight in Nagorno-Karabakh. Perhaps the situation will not reach such level, as Russian and Turkish foreign ministers are already in contact. 

► EUROPEAN UNION. At the European Council, European nation leaders must take important decisions which will affect the EU credibility regarding Belarus, Russia, and Turkey. For each of these cases, balance must be established between deterring the current behavior of leaders in those countries, and the need to preserve bridges to those nations. In Belarus, EU knows what sanctions must decide, the problem is to convince Cyprus, as the main step, that of not recognizing Lukashenka as president, was already announced. In the Navalny case, Germany, who proposed sanctions against Russia, will be that who decides limits thereof. In case of Turkey, everything depends on how seriously Ankara engages in negotiations and gives up its aggressive behavior not only towards Greece, but towards Cyprus as well.

► UNITED STATES / RUSSIA. Chances of extending the New START dwindle. After seeing the U.S. representative presenting the American position in an interview to Russian media, Moscow’s representative announced that Russia is not ready to make significant concessions to get an extension of this agreement. To make the New START live on, albeit for a period shorter than five years, the United States requests Russia to: 1) accept more detailed control measures; 2) commitment to engage in negotiations regarding an agreement limiting the entire range of nuclear armament; 3) accept the idea of an agreement to include China. Highly likely, Russia is concerned by the first two points, and tries to keep the advantage it holds by having developed and deployed some new strategic and sub-strategic armament systems. The detail that President Trump is in full election campaign and needs a success in foreign policy might tilts the balance in favor of a common declaration on extending the agreement, even in absence of any concession by Russia.

► GREECE / TURKEY. The situation settled, dialogue resumed, and negotiations began, but optimism is still not in sight. The good news is that European pressure and German mediation panned out, but negotiations threat to be difficult. Turkey wants to include the problem of Greek islands’ militarization, while Greece wants only to discuss jurisdiction on territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone, starting from the international law (resorting to UNCLOS treaty, which Turkey did not sign).

[1] The moment when Igor Dodon will lead the Republic of Moldova into the next crisis is not far. He already speaks about “NGOs receiving money to destabilize the situation”, while he is consolidating the authoritarian system where abuse and illegality make the norm. Another signal is the letter sent by his counter-candidates to international community representatives: in this letter, they point to the actions conducted by the power to compromise the following elections.

[2] Russian press provides speculations that Putin would have given Lukashenka two months to sort it out. However, a direct force intervention is the last thing Moscow wants to do, although Russia would not hesitate to resort to military intervention, should the Kremlin deem necessary, for preserving control over Belarus. November is the deadline for this ultimatum, and this coincides with the elections in the United States. After that, there will be only the European Union, for a while, to face Russia’s maneuvers in Belarus and beyond (Republic of Moldova rises as possible next political crisis in this neck of the woods).