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28 ianuarie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 4 of 2020)

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

I. RUSSIA. Vladimir Putin replaces the General Prosecutor and promotes his proposals for changing the Constitution. II. KOSOVO. A new prime minister is nominated, but the crisis deepens. III. BELARUS. Lukashenka seeks to keep “his country” independent. IV. GERMANY - TURKEY. Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Moscow. V. Developments to track this Week 5 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. RUSSIA. Vladimir Putin replaces the General Prosecutor and promotes his proposals for changing the Constitution.

Following the line presented in his annual address to the nation, President Vladimir Putin replaced the General Prosecutor and sent his proposals for changing the Constitution to the parliament. Of course, these were voted unanimously in the lower chamber. By replacing a corrupt general prosecutor with an official acknowledged for his fair activity sends the message that the Office of General Prosecutor might near the status that it ought to bear, i.e. a true institution of criminal investigation in service of the state, not a tool for selective investigation based on political command. This might happen, of course, only as far as the power allows it to happen. The new government is rather the old one, with main ministers keeping their seats, but V. Putin appointed in key positions “his people” from the Presidential Administration.

On January 23rd, Russian parliamentarians voted in unanimity (432 aye ballots) the proposals V. Putin promoted for changing the Constitution. Although a second reading will follow in the State Duma (the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament), those amendments may be considered passed. They will also easily pass in Russia’s upper chamber, the Federation Council, and then will be signed by President Putin. 

Among the proposals submitted by Putin, in addition to those commented last week, one should notice the importance meant to be bestowed in the State Council, which would play a greater role in Moscow’s policy, especially in domestic issues. These proposed changes are an attempt by the Kremlin to find an answer to the problem of relations between the center and the regions, by effective but temporary measures. The Kremlin aims to take full control of the regions by the center, both by financial means (all money goes to Moscow and then gets redistributed from there), and by political leadership (lately, Putin has replaced region governors more than he used to do before). Moscow knows that only a “balanced” relation between interests of officials in the capital and those of local officials “reigning” in the republics and provinces can secure regime stability. The two classes of interests coincide in Putin’s view, although it is an illusion, not a reality: Russia can survive without “putinists”, but this should be kept as Russia’s “big secret”. A certain balance of power will be established, although not as radical as Putin wants to achieve by increasing the State Council role (rising from a mere consultative organ) and by compensating this role with increased powers for the Parliament, and with tighter requirements for officials in public service (the measures to make the public servants more “responsible”). The State Council will decide the main strategies in the nation’s foreign and domestic policy.

The president’s power will not significantly diminish either. The president can still appoint another prime minister if his candidate is rejected by the parliament, and he can overcome the need to sign the laws passed with more than two thirds by the parliament, by sending them to the Constitutional Court (which the president controls by appointing the judges and having the option of removing them). Putin pointed that “Russia needs a strong presidential authority”.

The establishment of a constitutional reform “working group” is only decorative, as decisions were already made. As the opposition noticed, the same goes for the plan to submit constitutional changes to a popular vote: a referendum is purely formal, considering that changes to Constitution were already decided by the Russian parliament.

On January 22nd, Russian Federation Council approved the appointment of Igor Krasnov as General Prosecutor. Nominated by President Putin on January 20th, Krasnov held the office of deputy head, Investigative Committee (a separate criminal investigation body, a kind of “parallel prosecution office” mean to secure, through a less corrupt structure, the control on corruption, including on officials within the “power vertical”). This appointment is relevant for the change Putin is promoting. The former general prosecutor, Yuri Chaika, was a symbol of 14 years of tolerance for generalized high-level corruption, with his infamy as “anti-justice warrior” reaching its peak with the Magnitsky case. The appointment of Igor Krasnov announces that the long arm of the law will reach not only the small fry, but the power’s big dogs too; that a harmonization of General Prosecutor Office and the Investigation Committee functions is possible; and that such measure might bring positive outcome to Russia’s judicial mechanism. Although it remains politically controlled, justice in Russia might become what it should have been in the first place, one of the state’s main pillars.

In the new “very balanced” government (Putin’s words), former government ministers can be seen again: Sergey Shoigu – defense, Sergey Lavrov – foreign affairs, Vladimir Kolokoltsev – internal affairs, Aleksandr Novak – energy, Anton Siluanov – finance (but not also vice prime minister). This is no surprise, since Putin system is built on people[1] and their personal interests, not on principles. Russia’s interests are among those personal interests, but not primary, it is “Russia with us in power and the way we want it to be”. Former ministers who had caused problems were removed, such as for sports, education and culture ministries. The former sports minister failed big time: Russia’s achievements in sports, which were supposed to highlight the image of a victorious Russia, were proven to be a national level scam! Removed ministers were replaced by officials tuned up to the day: the new minister of culture is not very deep immersed in culture issues, but we will see what new history of Russia he will promote in the world! Putin also appointed one of his councilors, Andrey Belousov as vice prime minister. Belousov is an advocate of increasing the state role in economy, i.e. the role of government investments. This appointment follows the notion of creating a government meant to administrate, not to take political decisions. Such government would implement the development plans designed by the power, that is injecting funds into an isolated economy threatened by stagnation. Interestingly, according to the new constitutional system, the appointments to government positions will be somewhat subjected to parliament scrutiny. This means that the ministers will not be seen only as the Kremlin’s tools, but as officials approved by the people through the elected parliament. In such perspective, it is interesting to watch how the election center of gravity will be distributed, from presidential elections to the parliamentary polls. 

Dmitry Medvedev stated he would continue to lead the United Russia Party. On January 19th, former prime minister Medvedev mentioned that such political commitment does not clash with his new important official position as vice president of Russia’s National Security Council (NSC), where he was appointed by the president. Yet the problem is that NSC will increase its decision-making role in the state. Although in a decrease of popularity, the United Russia still holds three quarters of the State Duma seats.

As radical “Putin’s reforms” might seem, as anti-reform they truly are. In fact, there is a restauration, since the Constitution is adapted to the wicked reality created by Putin’s Chekists holding the power. Their aim was to build a judicial mechanism which, together with officials appointed by Putin, would provide a new life to the system (meant to continue after its creator disappears) which Putin created by undermining Russia’s current Constitution (all equal before the law!). Nevertheless, such change benefitted the agreement by most Russians.

Lessons learned are clear: Vladimir Putin is preparing the “survival of Putin’s regime after Putin”. This is a regime that would pursue the same aggressive and revisionist foreign policy in disdain to international laws, although sometimes in disguise, according to circumstances. Such policy designates the West as adversary, not so much for being an ideologic enemy threatening its existence (this is not the case), as for naturally[2] shrinking its sphere of influence extended by force. This means that interested nations, like Romania, can plan their defense not for five years, but for the next decades, based on the reasonable assumption that the main threat for NATO and the European Union comes from the East. However, this threat will not become existential, provided that NATO remains sturdy on its feet and the United States does not quit Europe (perfectly valid hypotheses, regardless what some might dream outside the West, as well as within the West – the “Western anti-westerners”).

In an international perspective, Putin continues its verbal dispute with Poland on the topic of guilt for triggering the World War II. Of course, the basic idea is that Stalin was an “innocent dictator”, attacked by Hitler, who was “manipulated by the always maleficent westerners”, and both were forced into war against Poland (!) and the Ribbentrop – Molotov pact was… but it was not, and the secret annex… should remain secret, why so much fuss about it? This construction has a huge political impact: The Kremlin needs to enforce the historic narrative that Russia did not invade but it liberated Eastern Europe (although the poor eastern Europeans only wanted to be liberated by… themselves). Such narrative would provide a solid foundation for Russia’s current policy of expansion in the post-Soviet space and, if possible, in Central European countries as well (Romania is there, although we often ignore that). This false narrative impacts on the national interests Republic of Moldova, where current elite, born of the Soviet made nomenclature, puts the “Moldovenism” theory on this fiction (“Bessarabian Romanians liberated from Romanian occupation”… by the Soviets, those who did not learn the local language even today, after 75 years – see the recent broken Romanian Christmas greetings). Perhaps Belarus stays in line then, as “it should be protected”, and maybe “liberated”, in order to keep it safe from a “Polish aggression”. From this angle, the Kremlin’s “improved” historic narrative is part of the “shaping operation” which will prepare Russian intervention in Belarus, regardless its form (ranging from a Lukashenka’s “season flu” to a disguised military intervention). Lukashenka turned his back to Moscow and seeks to get oil from an alternative source. In addition, the arrival of Polish officials to Minsk cannot be tolerated by the Kremlin. Lukashenka operated important changes to the armed forces command, which proves that he expects the worst (although he candidly denies, as any “dignified” dictator).

Despite Putin’s calls, which are typical to a great power leader, that - “the big five” in the United Nations Security Council should have a special summit to discuss the big problems of the world, including Libya (not a word about Syria and Iran!), he remains a leader without credibility, to whom the West only forcibly talks, and when it does, it is conditioned. In this respect, Boris Johnson’s message is relevant: if you want normal relations, stop Skripal case type destabilizing actions![3]. Very likely, Putin will not follow Johnson’s advice more than to a limited extent: what would remain of the domestic and foreign fame of Putin’s Russia, without this aggressive policy, conducted in disdain of international norms?


II. KOSOVO. A new prime minister is nominated, but the crisis deepens.

Against the backdrop of disagreements between the two parties, Vetevendosje and LDK, which won the parliamentary elections by defeating the “UCK old guard”, Kosovo cannot succeed to have a government. Forced by president Hashim Thaci’s ultimatum, Vetevendosje nominated a prime minister. After that, forming a government became more and more complicated. Worse, the two parties departed from their common ground regarding the president of Kosovar parliament, and the whole political process went into a deadlock. Good news comes from unexpected progress in relations with Serbia, which signed an agreement with Kosovo for reopening air transport lines (an agreement on railway transport is to follow). This progress appeared due to intervention by the United States, who managed to conduct “European policy in the Balkans” better than the European heavyweights.

On January  20th, president Thaci assigned Vetevendosje leader Albin Kurti to form the new government. Vetevendosje won the October 2019 parliamentary elections with a relative majority of votes, then this party sent a letter to the president, announcing that Vetevendosje nominates Albin Kurti for the office of prime minister. Kurti has 15 days to form a government. Then, Vetevendosje announced that the parliament president, Glauk Konjufca (Vetevendosje member), elected by agreement of the two parties, would not resign. This announcement came after LDK had issued an ultimatum hinging its support for a new Kosovo government on Konjufca’s resignation. Glauk Konjufca was elected when the situation suggested that LDK would have the position of prime minister and a power balance with Vetevendosje was contemplated. But the final ballot count gave Vetevendosje more seats in the parliament than LDK (29 to 28), and Vetevendosje became entitled to nominate the prime minister, which LDK admitted. Stumbling blocks also appear in disagreements regarding ministers and regarding their support to reelect Thaci as president, in 2021.

Political differences between the two parties generate the basic cause of discontent. LDK, the older party, with a balanced policy (“Ibrahim Rugova’s political children”), promotes stronger relations with the United States and with the EU. Meanwhile, the Vetevendosje intransigents (“Ukshin Hoti’s political children”) push for a tough and independent policy, free from any foreign influences. In addition, they did not give up the idea of “Greater Albania” even when getting closer to governing.

On January 20th, Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement reopening air transport between the two countries. This agreement was signed at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, a detail which speaks volumes: which is the power involved as mediator – the United States, and who is the European nation responsible for the Western Balkans – Germany. Remarkably, the date for resuming civilian flights is hinged by Belgrade on having the tariffs lifted (the tariffs were introduced by Prishtina on products imported through Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and will be very likely lifted by the new government, but this new government… is not there yet).

Finally, it will likely be the United States influence to solve the crisis in Prishtina, despite the independence claimed by Vetevendosje. This party bears the main guilt for the current crisis, because it wants all important positions, although it needs LDK votes for forming the government. Vetevendosje refuses to see the reality of a Kosovo which is still more of a protectorate than a country able to pursue its own policy. This is precisely due to the Kosovar elite, unable to rise to the level required by the current situation.


III. BELARUS. Lukashenka seeks to keep “his country” independent.

Facing Russia’s pressure, President Aleksandr Lukashenka did not yield and made steps to maintaining Belarus sovereignty. In fact, he initiated the divorce between the two nations, which is unacceptable by the Kremlin. Lukashenka sought to find an alternative to Russian oil in his pursuit of keeping Belarus economy afloat and took measures for domestic consolidation in order to cope with Russia’s likely destabilizing actions, by making changes at military leadership level.   

On January 24th, President Lukashenka accused Moscow for pressing his country to complete the union between the two countries, about which he mentioned “it would never happen”. He issued these accusations, the first time explicitly, specifying that Moscow wants to exploit Belarus’s economic dependence of Russia (cheap oil and gas) aiming to “dissolve it into Russia”. Belarus president told his countrymen: "We have our own country, we're sovereign and independent. With our brains and hands, we earn what we can, we're building our own country. And we can't be a part of some other country... I can't betray you and dissolve Belarus, even into brotherly Russia... Even if I agree to that, Belarusians would eat me alive within a year... It's honorable to be the first [president of Belarus], but I sure don't want to be the last". With no exaggeration, let’s hope these words will not serve as epitaph. Moscow’s response, although silent, is much tougher: the agreement for delivering gas for only two months, and only one month for oil. This is a clear ultimatum sent to Lukashenka. Constitutional changes in Moscow can be read also as Putin’s renunciation of his plan of remaining in power as president of the Russia – Belarus Union.

Facing this threat, Minsk seeks alternative sources of oil in the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, after the attempt to get oil from Kazakhstan, but it was boycotted by Russia, of course (Kazakh oil needs to cross Russia in its way to the world market). However, the problem is not delivery and transit (Poland is prepared to open its ports for transiting oil to Belarus), but oil prices, which Minsk cannot afford. Nevertheless, Minsk announced it signed a contract with Norway, which will deliver oil to Belarus. 

At home, Lukashenka made changes on January 20th at military leadership level. He appointed a new minister of defense, General Viktar Khrenin (former commander of Belarus’s Military District West). His predecessor, General Andrey Raukou, was appointed Secretary General of the Security Council. Although Lukashenka also specified that recent appointments were not made in the context of on-going crisis in Minsk’s relations with Moscow, it is almost certain that current crisis is the true reason. He stated: "We are military men and times are complicated now. This doesn't mean there's going to be a war tomorrow and we'll have to fight someone, not at all. But a military organization cannot tolerate uncertainty".  

The upcoming visit of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on February 1st, is crucial for Lukashenka. This visit is meant to "underscore the U.S. commitment to a sovereign, independent, stable, and prosperous Belarus, and affirm our desire to normalize our bilateral relations" (this message is not only coveted, but also totally acceptable to Minsk, because the language “and a democratic Belarus” is missing).

A major crisis is looming in the center of the West’s eastern frontier with Russia. The Kremlin cannot tolerate Minsk’s split from its sphere of influence, especially that, this way, the failure of Russia’s “close neighborhood” concept is complete: no European post-Soviet nation would remain in Moscow’s sphere of influence (the parody in Chişinău with Russian agents, Moldovan scoundrels and western money cannot be considered a Russian success and, anyway, is insignificant in the general picture). In fact, Lukashenka himself is not interested in a total divorce from Russia, because Moscow will guarantee the preservation of his dictatorship against the danger of western democracy, but he would not deliver himself to the Kremlin for that, though.

The only comfort is that the heat will be in the center now, not in the southern flank of the East – West frontier. This is valid at least for the reason that the killing of Ukrainian soldiers shows that Putin does not care about the commitments in Normandy format (seeking a cease-fire along the contact line in Donbass), as long as those discussions did not deliver what Moscow considered it was strictly necessary (control on Ukraine to the limit of enough sovereignty allowing Russia to stop Ukraine from departing toward the West).


IV. GERMANY - TURKEY. Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Moscow.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s January 24th visit to Turkey aimed at improving bilateral relations, especially in education. Beyond that screen saver, this event offered the opportunity for negotiations between Germany (who got to talk to Turkey on behalf of the EU) and Turkey, on three major issues in dispute:

1) Libya, where two aggressive regional powers, Russia and Turkey, call the shots at the expense of the Europeans, in the void left behind by the United States. In this issue, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan almost denied the Berlin disagreement regarding the implementation of UN embargo on arms deliveries to warrying parties. He presented the Turkish military presence on the ground (and of Syrian jihadists transferred by Ankara to Libya) as being a support and training mission for the Tripoli government troops, based on an agreement signed in November 2019;

2) Migration: Erdoğan blackmails the EU with a new wave of migrants and asks more money for supporting the Syrian migrants. The issue is hot, considering that Bashar al-Assad forces, supported by Russian aviation, conduct a successful offensive in Idlib and cause a new migration wave of Syrian Sunni population to Turkey. Although details are not available, Berlin likely accepted to host Syrian refugees (how much money will really reach them is unknown);

3) Iraq and Iran. Ankara seeks to play the mediation role in Tehran’s relations with the West. For Germany, a functional relation with Turkey is strictly necessary considering a would-be European military mission to Iraq (although the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is no longer a headline).

We will see what “Mutti” obtained for us, the Europeans, from Erdoğan, and what she paid for that. Anyway, the positive element is that Berlin preserves its capacity to communicate with Ankara, although Berlin does not get too much from this.


V. Developments to track this Week 5 of 2020.

► UNITED STATES – UKRAINE / BELARUS. The upcoming trip that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will make in these countries is very important for the future of these nations’ relations with… Russia! The United States gets visibly involved in support of Minsk. The West faces the situation to help a dictator defend its country against another dictator (although the latter had supported the former to build his dictatorship with no hinderance from the West!).

In Kyiv, Mike Pompeo will reiterate Washington’s support for Ukraine. This happens after Moscow sent a clear message to Kyiv (the separatists killed two Ukrainian soldiers) that neither a cease-fire in Donbass, nor the end of Russian military pressure can be achieved if Zelenskiy fails to make political concessions to Putin.

► BULGARIA. Sofia expelled two Russian diplomats and indicted three other Russian citizens  for espionage. These actions took the Bulgarian – Russian relations to a historical and dangerous low. Sofia faces a crisis in its relations with Moscow, exactly when it needed it least. It interesting to see how Russia will react.

► MIDDLE EAST AND NORTHERN AFRICA. A would-be European military commitment in Libya and Iraq is not clear yet. In absence of a peace solution in Libya, the Europeans have no military decision to make. Meanwhile, in Iraq, the American withdrawal is no longer imminent. However, the Europeans must prepare for such possibility, and signals sent by Ursula von der Leyen show that, at European Commission level, the notion that European troops cannot do much in Iraq and Libya in absence of U.S. support gains momentum. Even the naval force announced by France for the Persian Gulf will deploy, in fact, as a NATO force (from procedures to the operation chain-of-command). Several European naval power nations joined this French initiative. The question now is whether this European force would serve the French interests rather than the European Union. The reason is that this naval force will have a deterrence role against Iran in order to prevent it from attacking Saudi Arabia, where France has invested in military and political projects (Paris put up a radar to defend the Saudi Kingdom from cruise missiles coming from wherever… that is Iran).

In the Libya dossier, the Berlin Conference reached a principle agreement regarding the implementation of UN embargo by all parties involved, but signals provided by important players, Russia and Turkey, show there is no chance this agreement will be observed. However, although a solution is not in sight, there is an international commitment, and the truce is holding on.  

In the Iran dossier, Tehran started the delay game: “we abide by the agreement that we… breach”. The game cannot go on like that for too long, therefore there is a major crisis, although it seems it does not present an emergency feature.

Bottom line, we still do not know whether circumstances and a decision are coming to generate the framework where European troops (Romanian included) might get deployed to Iraq od Libya in a European mission.

► UNITED STATES – EUROPEAN UNION. Negotiations for a new trade agreement begin or, if a new agreement is not reached, a trade war will begin between the United States and the European Union. President Donald Trump wants to solve the problem of the “trade deficit with the Europeans”, and he will do it with no reservations. The Europeans, good negotiators, already sent messengers to Washington, just to learn that the U.S. wants to impose tariffs on several European products, including German cars (which will impact on many other European countries, Romania included).

► UNITED KINGDOM. The Brexit day has come and negotiations for trade agreements between the United Kingdom and the European Union are now on the table.    

UNITED STATES – ISRAEL / PALESTINE. President Trump’s peace plan seems to be a failure even before it is born. As expected, the Palestinians said a flat “No” to a plan which cannot be balanced and fair, but for the Trump Administration this matters too little; it is important that a plan is circulated, and this would help Benjamin Netanyahu to stay in power for a while. In fact, the main topic of discussions between Washington and Tel Aviv will be different, most likely Iran.

[1] Maxim Oreshkin should be watched: he was removed from the position of minister of economy, although he delivered good results. Where will Putin appoint him? Will he fall, or he will rise stronger in the race?

[2] People want freedom and democracy, although the United States departed from the path of actively promoting them abroad, including for not disturbing Russia. In addition, to the communist desperation, people began to get it that there is no bread without truth, and they started to challenge the social contract based on conceding “you may steal, some crumbs will drop to us though!”

[3] And right now, friendly Bulgaria is forced to indict Russian agents involved in a failed murder attempt against a Bulgarian citizen, on Bulgarian territory! (after two international NGOs presented undoubtful evidence). In addition, Bulgaria also expels two Russian diplomats!