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19 octombrie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT Main Political and Military Developments WEEK 42 of 2020

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

I. EUROPEAN UNION. Foreign Minister Reunion. II. EUROPEAN UNION / RUSSIA. The Europeans impose sanctions against several Russian officials. III. TURKEY / EUROPEAN UNION / UNITED STATES. Ankara returns to provocative actions. IV. ARMENIA / AZERBAIJAN. The Nagorno-Karabakh war saga. V. Developments to track this Week 43 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

  English version by Mircea Mocanu

I. EUROPEAN UNION. Foreign Minister Reunion.  

The October 12th Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) reunited the European Union foreign ministers to make decisions in two thorny issues: the Belarus crisis, and the Navalny case[1]. Both issues led to targeted sanctions, and the Belarusian dictator is now on the list. Minsk and Moscow’s reactions were fierce and immediate. In case of Turkey, the EU reacted to Ankara’s latest actions, which again cause a conflictual situation. Remarkably, the Europeans support the Moscow mediated cease-fire agreement in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh war. 

The FAC reaffirmed EU support for Belarus’ independence and sovereignty (message to Russia) and for Belarusian citizens’ democratic rights and liberties. The reunion also decided to have EU institutions work a new set of sanctions against Belarusian officials, including President Aleksandr Lukashenka. FAC confirmed again that Lukashenka  lacks “any democratic legitimacy” and a plan of concrete measures in support of a “democratic Belarus” and Belarusian civil society was wrought. Facing Lukashenka’s sturdy approach of repressing the protests and refusing a dialogue with the opposition, the EU quit the hope of a dialogue with Lukashenka and toughens the sanctions by including the dictator himself on the blacklist. A plan with concrete measures in support of Belarusian opposition has been requested for some time by the frontline nations Poland and Lithuania, but this will be difficult to implement in current circumstances of a Belarus ‘sealed’ by Lukashenka with increasing pressure on protesters, but it is little likely to see the dictator bend and accept a true dialogue, because the current course of action secures the dictatorship survival. This can be achieved with Russia’s protection, and by initiating a fake dialogue with the society by proposing a new Constitution and consultations only with the ’tolerated’ opposition, that which is accepted by Moscow, while it guarantees the dictatorship preservation and also the preservation of Belarus in Russia’s sphere of influence.  

In the Navalny case, the Europeans decided to impose sanctions against Russia, and approved the proposals made by Germany and France regarding a firm response to the utilization of a chemical nerve gas. These would be “sanctions on Russians suspected of being involved in the poisoning of Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny in August that nearly took his life”. Regarding its relations with Russia, the EU reaffirmed the four principles issued in 2016: 1) full implementation of Minsk agreements before having the sanctions against Russia lifted; 2) the EU would continue strong relations with former Soviet countries located in its eastern heighborhood, and in Central Asia; 3) despite tensions, the EU would selectively engage Russia for several foreign policy issues, such as cooperation in the Middle East, counter-terrorism, and climate changes; 4) increased support to Russian civil society, and promoting direct contacts among citizens, considering that upcoming sanctions are meant against the regime in Moscow, not against Russian citizens. In current circumstances, the Europeans insisted on Minsk Agreement implementation, and support to civil society, respectively defending the human rights activists. The Kremlin reacted through Sergey Lavrov, who conveyed the message that Russia would impose similar sanctions. This is not the worst thing though, but the degradation of Russia’s relations with the Europeans, especially with Germany and France. The reason is that the Kremlin is upset because Berlin made much ado about Navalny’s poisoning with Novichok nerve gas; the four principles are constantly showed to Moscow; and EU stresses those principles which speak to Russia’s domestic policy and Moscow’s policy within its turf (the Ukrainian dossier was not forgotten by the EU).


II. EUROPEAN UNION / RUSSIA. The Europeans impose sanctions against several Russian officials.

After FAC’s decision and the nodding of EU nation leaders during the October 15th European Council reunion, EU imposed sanctions against high-ranking Russian officials, with a direct hit against the power core. EU did not hesitate to sanction those responsible for poisoning Aleksey Navalny. The Kremlin was visibly marked by the fact that EU went as high as possible with its sanctions, the six nominated individuals being close enough to President Vladimir Putin, on the power ladder. For the Kremlin, this is a blow to its prestige. Those who ordered state murders, and later shook the hands of Western counterparts, received what they deserved, an undesirable status. For this, the Europeans, especially the Germans, will not be forgiven by the Kremlin, where a personal and ‘customized’ regime keeps the appearance of respectability at high regards. However, as European accusations show, this respectability pertains to society circles other than a political elite. Even worse, based on these six names, one can easily understand who truly made the decision of poisoning Navalny[2].

The EU sanctions restrict access to EU nation territory and freezes personal assets (financial and real estate) for six important individuals (officials close to President Putin), plus a technological research institute. The blacklist published by the Europeans include: 1) FSB director Aleksandr Bortnikov (head of Russia’s domestic intelligence agency); two directors with Russia’s Presidential Administration, close collaborators of President Putin: Sergey Kiriyenko – deputy chief of Presidential Administration (also former prime-minister, for a short while), and Andrei Yarin, director of internal policy office; 3) two deputy ministers with the Defense Ministry, Pavel Popov and Aleksey Krivoruchko; 4) Russia’s ‘State Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology’ (GosNIIOKhT). Also included on the list is Yevgeny Prigozhin, ‘Putin’s chef’, accused of financing the ‘troll factory’ and of destabilizing Libya, with his Wagner organization mercenaries.

The EU specified that sanctions are part of a package of actions meant to prohibit chemical weapon proliferation, and explained the decision as follows: 1) "taking into account that Alexei Navalny was under surveillance at the time of his poisoning, it is reasonable to conclude that the poisoning was only possible with the involvement of the Federal Security Service"; 2) "it is reasonable to conclude that the poisoning of Alexei Navalny was only possible with the consent of the Presidential Executive Office"; 3) Russia’s Ministry of Defense is responsible for chemical weapons storage, in view of their destruction; 4) the sanctioned institute was involved in Novichok nerve gas production. Remarkably, the EU justifies its decisions by deductions, although, highly likely, these deductions are, in fact, based on verified intelligence (evidence-based intelligence), i.e. solid facts regarding the nominated individuals. However, such information cannot be presented as evidence for obvious reasons (they would reveal intelligence sources and means). This is precisely what the Russian leadership defense will be based on. The Kremlin will seek revenge but will also victimize itself; Moscow already accused Berlin of destroying the bilateral relations while hiding behind the European shield. Nevertheless, the European lesson will be not easily forgotten by Russia’s power inner circle. Although soft, the EU policy could not further tolerate a Russian leadership who uses assassination as political instrument, and breaches the law, including international agreements. A cooling period will follow for Russia’s relations with the Europeans, but this should not be a surprise, especially for the Kremlin, since the Kremlin is the one who took the decisions leading to this outcome.


III. TURKEY / EUROPEAN UNION / UNITED STATES. Ankara returns to provocative actions.

Several developments were indicating that political dialogue was about to begin: EU postponed until December any discussion on sanctions against Turkey; NATO mediated a military deconflicting agreement between Greece and Turkey; Turkish survey vessel was withdrawn from Greek maritime waters. Yet a dialogue did not begin, and Ankara resumed its aggressive behavior. Two developments blocked the process leading to negotiations and switched the course of action back to tensions: the Varosha neighborhood of Famagusta, main city in Turkey occupied Northern Cyprus (where the problem of Greek Cypriots, forced into exile in 1974, and their properties, remains open); and the Turkish NAVTEX announcement that Turkish survey vessel will return to drill in Greece claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The European Union and the United States presented negative reactions against Ankara, who also misbehaved in other issues: its meddling in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, and the deployment of Russian manufactured S-400 air defense system.

On October 12th, Ankara issued a NAVTEX warning[3] announcing that Turkish Oruç Reis geologic survey vessel was about to start seismic survey drilling operations in Eastern Mediterranean Sea for the following ten days. Athens condemned Ankara’s decision, considering that Oruç Reis vessel’s deployment in its claimed EEZ is a “major escalation” and a “direct threat to peace in the region”; Athens also reminded that Greece is not alone to face this challenge. On October 13th, the main mediator between the two adversary sides, Germany, by the voice of Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, criticized this Turkish unilateral action hampering the beginning of dialogue: “Turkey’s back and forth between escalation and a policy of detente has to stop... It is up to Turkey to create the conditions for talks”. Heiko Maas visited Athens and Nicosia and announced he deliberately excluded Ankara from his journey, precisely because this trip to Eastern Mediterranean was meant to support the resumption of dialogue, which is now very little likely to occur after recent Turkish actions. During the October 12th EU’s Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) reunion, the European foreign ministers stressed that the latest Navtex announcements by Turkey “affecting Greek and Cypriot maritime zones” were regrettable; in addition to the actions in Varosha, NAVTEX announcement leads to new tensions instead of contributing to EU promoted deescalation efforts. During the FAC, France presented a report regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh war, whence Turkey’s multifold nagative role was likely underlined: militarily, by direct implication in the conflict; legally, against the international law, by recruting Syrian jihadist warriors, whom it transported to the conflict area.

The upcoming adoption of European sanctions, in December, seems to be more and more likely, and the Turco-Greek dialogue remains a chimera; new military tensions seem to be more likely, as Turkey already announced naval exercises in the Aegean Sea, during October 26th to 28th (not by chance, perhaps: October 26th is the holiday called ‘Ohy’ in Greece, the day when, in 1940, the Greeks answered ‘NO’ to Mussolini’s ultimatum). On October 13th, the U.S. Department of State broadcast an unusually rough message to Ankara: “Coercion, threats, intimidation, and military activity will not resolve tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. We urge Turkey to end this calculated provocation and immediately begin exploratory talks with Greece”. Then, on October 14th, during his speech regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh war, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent a warning to Ankara: "We have watched the reporting of civilians deaths. We have watched Turkey to begin to reinforce Azerbaijan. We have asked every international player to stay out of the region, not to continue to reinforce trouble. We are working to deliver that". The United States position, which is growing tougher and tougher against Turkey, was visible during Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Athens, and is additionally explained by another Ankara’s hostile action: information surfaced about a serious incident which occurred in August, when Turkish military activated the fire control radar of its Russian manufactured S-400 air defense missile system to track a U.S. manufactured F-16 aricraft belonging to Greece’s Air Forces. It is exactly what Washington had demanded Ankara not to do: use a Russian air defense system against Western aircraft, also the reason for which Turkey was expelled from the F-35 fighter program). In the context of this information, we have another perspective on the message sent by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, during his visit to Ankara, when he warned Turkey that sanctions would follow, should Turkey persit in its program of operationalizing the S-400 system. The United States had told Ankara that "We continue to stress at the highest levels that the S-400 transaction remains a major obstacle in the bilateral relationship and at NATO, as well as a risk for potential sanctions". Nevertheless, Ankara continued the operationalization process, deployed the S-400 system to Sinop (Turkish north shore port), and began testing this system on British-manufactured Banshee drones. The danger of military incidents between Turkey and Greece is growing as Turkey drifts apart from the U.S. and the EU, and their warnings seem to not work. In these circumstances, the October 15th warning sent by French and German foreign ministers to Ankara sounds like an ultimatum before deciding sanctions (in December).


IV. ARMENIA / AZERBAIJAN. The Nagorno-Karabakh war saga.

The truce mediated by Moscow did not hold, and fights continued after only one hour with localities bombing. Supported by Ankara, Baku states it would go the whole way, and demanded the Armenians to evacuate Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan also suggested a Russo-Turkish mediation, which would eliminate the West and leave only these two regional interventionist powers to rule. But Russia prefers the Minsk Agreement group for mediation. Yerevan offers a defensive position and accepts the cease-fire and mediation by the Minsk Group nations (United States, Russia, France). The West supports a cease-fire and non-implication by third parties (Turkey). Baku and Ankara must decide if, and when they accept a cease-fire, but the two individuals who hold the decision power, Ilham Aliyev and Recep Erdoğan, are not yet ready to do it.

The war continues, and the Moscow mediated cease-fire, also supported by the West, yet not truly supported by Turkey, failed; however, this cease-fire remains a landmark in this war’s development. Both bombing of localities and frontline fights grew tougher. The Azeris continued their offensive both in the North and in the South, where they conquered the towns of Hadrut (October 12th) and Fuzuli (October 17th). Azeri drones continue to effectively strike Armenian artillery and missile systems, as well as armored vehicles. However, except for Turkish TB-2 drones (the downing of no such UAS was claimed), Armenian air defense artillery continues to down Azeri drones, thus demonstrating that it has not been decisively destroyed after the blows it got (which were significant, as the destruction of an S-300 system). So, the Armenians claimed the downing of an Azeri Su-25 ground attack aircraft, which is significant, given the constant danger of a possible presence of Turkish F-16 aircraft in the Theater of Operations; they were most recently seen on October 3rd, in Ganja airfield, central Azerbaijan. Fights continue with high intensity, but one should take into account that the Azeris have engaged their operational-strategic reserve since the seventh day of this war: units of 4th Army Corps joined the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Army Corps, already engaged in battle. Baku constantly receives Turkish support (both directly and in armament and finance), and makes efforts to cut the Armenian supply chain: Turkey closed the air space for humanitarian aid sent to the Armenians; Azerbaijan has an agreement with Georgia preventing such activities; Baku puts pressure on Iran who, although denying, seems to be Armenia’s last supply channel. The entire Azeri offensive led to conquering only 4%-5% of Armenian-controlled territories. However, considering the occupation of two important localities, Hadrut and Fuzuli, Ilham Aliyev can claim victory and justify Azerbaijan’s losses (non-disclosed losses, as they are classified ‘confidential data’). The frontline is largely stabilized by the Armenians (Prime-Minister Pashinyan: “Azeri blitzkrieg was stopped”), but the Armenians cannot turn to counter-offensive, as they proved to be vulnerable to air strikes, and already having significant losses themselves (over 600 soldiers). Turkish direct military support, as well as the superiority of weapon systems purchased by the Azeris balanced the previous Armenian qualitative military superiority. Aiming to hit military infrastructure and other critical infrastructure targets, bombing of inhabited places deep in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan continued, and both sides presented their civilian victims and damages on civilian objectives.       

The Armenians continue to present themselves as the aggressed party, demand cease-fire, and call for peace negotiations with transfer of territory in exchange for ending the conflict. On October 14th, Nikol Pashinyan revealed that, during the negotiations on Moscow, the Azeri side requested the return of the five Azeri provinces surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh (which are now occupied by Armenians), not in exchange for establishing the Nagorno-Karabakh status, but only for cease-fire; of course, the Armenians rejected such proposition. An important element was the event when missile systems were hit inside Armenia proper, because this opens a new chapter: Armenia can request Russia’s intervention based on the CSTO agreement, as Armenia was aggressed by Azerbaijan, not disputed Nagorno-Karabakh. By such attacks, Baku and Ankara test Moscow, which will hesitate to interfere directly, both for political-military and purely military reasons. The political-military reasons would mean avoiding to meddle into a major conflict where it would face, even by proxies, a strong adversary – Turkey, not low military capability adversaries, and the purely military reasons would mean that some of Russia’s air defense and Electronic Warfare (EW) systems are inferior to Turkish similar assets. Nevertheless, Moscow does not stand idle, it attacks Syrian regions which are sources of jihadist warriors transferred by Turkey to the South Caucasus conflict zone, and it conducts naval exercises in the Caspian Sea (a threat message to Azerbaijan, which is a Caspian Sea littoral nation).

Baku and Ankara continued their bellicose rhetoric and demanded the withdrawal of Armenians from the entire Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Also, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan joined the Azeri President Ilham Aliyev in the idea that negotiations should be mediated by Russia and Turkey only, proposal which was rejected by Moscow. By contacts at highest level, Russia continues its efforts to convince the two sides to cease fire and return to negotiations mediated, in the OSCE framework, by the three Minsk Group important members (Russia, United States, France). Proving realism, the Europeans support a cease-fire agreement mediated “by Moscow (Heiko Maas: "The conflict in Karabakh can only be solved with the participation of Russia”). Meanwhile the United States, thoroug the voice of Mike Pompeo, called the two parties to abide by the cease-fire agreement and end bombing localities. For that, U.S. called third parties to refrain from meddling into the conflict, which is a reference to Turkey, of course. Encouraged by Ankara, the Azeris will continue their offensive, for as long as they have the capability to do so. After losing important localities, the Armenians will likely mobilize to stabilize the frontline, but they have a limited capability to turn to counter-offensive. Highly likely, facing Russian and Western diplomatic pressure and limited territorial gains in exchange for heavy losses, Baku will accept cease-fire. The question is when will Azerbaijan do that?


V. Developments to track this Week 43 of 2020.

► BELARUS. The opposition issued an ultimatum to the dictator.  After the West’s decision to impose sanctions against him, an isolated Lukashenka toughened protest repression by threatening to open fire against the protestors in the street. On October 13th, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya published “The people’s ultimatum”, a statement in the name of the whole Belarusian opposition, urging Lukashenka to renounce power before December 25th, or he would face an all-out civil resistance movement, i.e. a general strike. Russia is passionately committed to support Lukashenka, and, on October 16th Tsikhanouskaya’s name confirmed on the list of individuals prosecuted by Minsk stands to prove it (she is accused of calls to breaching the constitutional order). Although encouraged by the West, has the Belarusian opposition the power to implement the threat with a general strike against a Lukashenka supported by Moscow? Lukashenka will react, perhaps, by attempts to divide the opposition and intimidate the workers.

► RUSSIA / UNITED STATES. Impasse and a new proposal for extending the New START agreement. On October 14th, the U.S. representative to negotiations Marshall Billingslea stated that the U.S. was ready to extend the New START accord for a while, should Russia agree to limit or freeze its nuclear arsenal: "We are, in fact, willing to extend the New START Treaty for some period of time, provided that they, in return, agree to a limitation or freeze on their nuclear arsenal. We are willing to do the same". On October 14th, Moscow reacted negatively, with Russian representative Sergey Ryabkov saying that such proposal was “unacceptable”. Sergey Lavrov adamantly repeated this rejection. Why this reaction to a reasonable proposition? It is because the United States proposes to freeze the entire nuclear arsenal, not only the strategic level weapons, while Russia wants to increase its advantage in sub-strategic nukes (especially after having breached the INF by deploying the SSC-8 missiles). Then, President Putin put forward another proposition on October 16th, announcing that Russia wishes to extend the New START agreement for one year, with no preconditions. Moscow plays the ‘stay the course’ card of continuity and intransigence, but President Trump is not that much dependent on this foreign policy achievement (the American domestic policy is decisive in U.S. elections) to make him yield (unless his openness to Russia kicks in).

► REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA / UNITED STATES / Moscow is not happy with the United States policy in the Republic of Moldova (RM). On October 12th, Moldovan incumbent President Igor Dodon declared that, should he win this Monday’s elections, he will defend his victory with people summoned in the streets. Then, on October 13th, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs David Hale had separate phone talks with Dodon and with his main counter-candidate Maia Sandu. They discussed the RM presidential elections, and David Hale insisted on the need for fair and honest campaign and elections. In this context, Sergey Lavrov declared, on October 14th: “so far, unfortunately, the 5+2 format for solving the Transnistrian problem does not work, mainly because the Americans force the developments to bring everything under their control, and create in Moldova another boil in the former Soviet space, aiming to prevent this coalition, which was formed, a while ago,  by Maia Sandu and Igor Dodon and his Socialist Party, from ever truly working, and make pro-Western forces gain an undoubtful victory”. First, the accusations regarding the failure of 5+2 format negotiations are baseless: in fact, Igor Dodon was not able to impose discussions on a new Kozak Memorandum. Beyond that, two issues catch one’s attention: 1) Moscow expects a destabilization of RM; 2) The United States would be responsible for that, by hampering a functional new “Kozak coalition”, after the first one failed when Igor Dodon removed Maia Sandu from power (prime-minister). We can only understand that the Kremlin’s maneuvers were thwarted with U.S. contribution. Lavrov conveys that Russia wants to have both Dodon as president and a new Kozak coalition (that would be necessary for Moscow to control, and the West to pay), but the Kremlin is afraid it might eventually get nothing at all.

[1] The Belgrade – Pristina dialogue and EU relations with Latin America were also discussed.

[2] In his book ‘The Presidential Administration: The Command and Control Nexus of Putin’s Russia’, British academic and writer Mark Galeotti offers a faithful image of the way Putin’s regime works.

[3] NAVTEX warnings are a way to announce dangers jeopardizing free navigation, but they are used by Turkey for broadcasting information about the deployment of Turkish survey vessels, which are perceived by Greece as political-military threats. Both sides utilize NAVTEX for announcing naval exercises for the same goal of communicating political-military threats and messages. Turkey went as far as sending messages on NAVTEX regarding… the militarization of Greek islands.