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05 noiembrie 2019 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 44 of 2019)

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

I. UKRAINE - RUSSIA. Troops clear the contact line. II. HUNGARY - RUSSIA. Vladimir Putin visits Budapest. III. UNITED STATES. The House voted for starting impeachment procedures. IV. RUSSIA. Strategic nuclear exercise. V. Developments to track this Week 45 of 2019.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. UKRAINE - RUSSIA. Troops clear the contact line.

Ukrainian troops started to withdraw from the contact line in Donbass, which provides chances for a new Normandy format reunion. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy took this military risk for the purpose to offer a chance to peace negotiations. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Kyiv to reiterate the Alliance support, but the limits of such support were already demonstrated by the very fact that a NATO declaration in support of Ukraine failed to be issued, because Hungary opposed. Peace seems to be still far, but chances are that cease-fire is maintained. Negotiations regarding gas transit through Ukraine stagnate, but they will occur though, considering that Denmark accepted the itinerary of Nord Stream II through its territorial waters (Bornholm Island). That was a tit for tat with Russia, which accepted to sign a contract with Ukraine for gas transit and price, at least for the near future.

On October 29th, Ukrainian troops began withdrawal from the contact line near Zolote. This step is important, given that it follows an uncertainty period regarding the phased withdrawal which started at Stanitsia Luhanska, and was suspended due to the breach of cease-fire. Pro-Russian separatists also withdrew from the contact line, and the OSCE confirmed both withdrawals. This operation is to continue at Petrivske.

President Zelenskiy previously visited the troops along the contact line in order to boost the withdrawal process, because this decision was rejected by part of the opposition, population, and veterans. The nationalists sent a warning that, if the separatists profit the breaches created after this withdrawal, Kyiv should not count on the nationalist support any longer. Although painful, especially for those who have fought there, this withdrawal represents a calculated military risk. One should consider that Moscow sent a message supporting the reduction of tensions (the separatists observed the cease-fire agreement), and current framework does not facilitate an escalation, because both sides are interested in resuming negotiations. The question remains whether Moscow will be satisfied and decide the date for next Normandy format meeting.

During his visit to Ukraine, where he delivered a speech to the parliament (Verkhovna Rada), NATO Secretary General sent an unequivocal message requesting Russia to withdraw its troops from Donbass and return the Ukrainian vessels it captured during the Kerch Strait incident. He reiterated that “the door remains open” for Ukraine: “As a sovereign nation, Ukraine has the right to choose its own security arrangements”.

If that were the case, the peace Ukraine wishes to obtain from Moscow claims the price of part of Ukraine’s sovereignty. The only question is how much Kyiv is prepared to yield, because what is crucial for Ukraine is to stay off Russia’s control, albeit within or outside NATO and EU. In finding a peace solution at the Normandy format negotiations, respectively in drafting the separatist region special status, this is the real problem, not the rights of Donbass inhabitants.

Nevertheless, there was no NATO declaration in support of Ukraine, because Hungary opposed such document. This move by Hungary is coherent with previous Hungarian actions of blocking Ukraine’s political and military cooperation with the Alliance, including at the NATO – Ukraine Commission level. Budapest reacted against the law limiting education in minority languages, which was voted in Kyiv. This law, which affects the education in mother language for minorities in Ukraine, including Hungarian and Romanian, was motivated by Kyiv with the need to defend against Russia’s destabilizing actions using the Russian minority. However, Hungary’s disproportionate reaction looks like a backstabbing against Ukraine in the current context, when Kyiv faces so many security problems. We will see whether Ukrainian declaration regarding respecting minority rights will appease Budapest. Notably, Viktor Orbán, same as Vladimir Putin, tried to persuade President Trump that Ukraine is a lost cause, this country being unable to rise above the corruption which dooms it to stagnation.

In Kyiv, the bill regarding illegal enrichment was passed, and privatization of state businesses was decided, but Zelenskiy did not convince. Only now, he announced that PrivatBank would not be returned to oligarch Kolomoisky, much too late to be credible, considering the decision by a Court in London, and IMF warnings. And there is the gas problem, where Russia did not sign yet a contract for gas transit and sale to Ukraine, and the current contract expiration date in January 2020 is close and getting closer.

Ukraine enters a crical period, with President Zelenskiy seeking to unlock the situation both abroad, and at home, but hopes are shaded by upcoming dangers.


II. HUNGARY - RUSSIA. Vladimir Putin visits Budapest.

The October 30th visit paid by President Vladimir Putin to Budapest continues the good relations between the two countries. The discussions were about energy, with Budapest trying to profit in economy from its political openness towards Moscow. Within the limits of Hungary’s capability, Russia seeks to use its relations with Budapest for breaking the political isolation and promote its plans to dominate the European energy market.

President Vladimir Putin and President Viktor Orbán discussed economic issues, but the political issues, although kept in low profile, were more important. The main point was Hungary’s oil and gas purchases from Russia, and an extension of the Páks nuclear plant, a project which is slacking[1]. In this regard, Viktor Orbán announced that Hungary considers the Turkish Stream gas pipeline a priority, since it opens an alternative route for purchasing Russian gas.

Each party declared its credo: Orbán stated that “Hungary is a NATO and EU member, and will stay so, but that does not exclude that in certain questions we engage in cooperation with Russia”; and Putin praised „Hungary’s cooperation with Russia, which is a winner for everybody, inclusiv for EU and NATO”. Well, it is not just like that, because the frontline nations would lose if they do not adapt to the new changes which the two countries promote. As about Hungary, what if each EU and NATO member nation would selfishly and unethically promote its interests, thus profiting the security these organizations assure?

The political aspect was highlighted by Vladimir Putin, who announced that ”prospects of normalizing relations between Russia and the European Union” were also discussed. This is the price for paying favors to Hungary in energy projects by Moscow: a more active policy within the EU for lifting the sanctions against Russia. Proving that Hungary can, wants and gains momantum in doing that, from its position as NATO member, is the way Budapest acted regarding Ukraine[2].

However, there is a red line Hungary cannot cross. This is visible in the measures Budapest takes for fine-tuning the “justice reform”, hoping that Brussels will accept this as the expected response, and Hungary’s marginalization by mentioning Article 7 will end. Hungary remains in the focus of EU discontent, but not an important topic to decisively  influence European Union’s policy towards Russia. The main proof, there was no Hungarian veto to the sanctions against Russia.

At the common press conference with Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán stated that “Hungary is interested that relations between Russia and NATO improve. Hungary’s historical and political experience shows that when relations are bad and there are tensions, Hungary loses”. Who is there to deny good relations with Russia, but what are the terms and price of conducting such relations? Behind such truisms, a new consistent appeasement strategy, based on the autocratic nature of these two regimes, as well as on common economic but also political interests.

Orbán motivated Hungary’s cooperation with Russia and with Turkey by geopolitical considerations: “The basis of our political cooperation is a very simple geographical fact, that no country can change its house number… we live in a Berlin – Moscow - Istanbul triangle”. Is it as simple as that? Orbán shares autoritarian reflexes with his two ”counterparts” in Moscow and Ankara[3]. Does he not play ball[4] with them now, while protected by his membership to the Berlin – Brussels – Washington triangle of security, politics and economy? Orbán benefits the advantage that Hungary is economically, socially and militarily powerful, as a comparison with the way Russia treats Bulgaria shows. Although Sofia seeks to relaunch its economic relations, it sees its political relations going south, and is forced to expulse Russian spies, or to deny agreement to a Russian diplomat. The reason is Bulgaria’s weakness, this country being economically and politically penetrated by Moscow.

The rise of Russo-Hungarian bilateral relations, in fact between Putin and Orbán, raises two questions in Romania: 1) How does Bucharest adapt to the new energy realities? Is the ”dependence of Russian gas” paradigm fading, after both Nord Stream, and Turkish Stream pipelines near their finalization? It is the moment when decision-makers in Bucharest should perhaps assess all options (own production, especially Black Sea sources, interconnection, as well as American NLG), and also the reality of energy market (Romania imports Russian gas), then draft implementable solutions; 2) how far will Budapest go with accepting to promote Russian interests inside the EU and NATO, and how should Romania react? Of course, the answer should be identified considering, again, the realities: whether we like it or not, before Moscow or Ankara, the closest capital to Budapest is... Bucharest, from any point of view one would look: geopolitical, historical, cultural or political.


III. UNITED STATES. The House voted for starting impeachment procedures.

Although it has no chances of success, the official beginning of impeachment procedures has a significant importance, because the very functionality of the entire American institutional architecture is to be tested. The democrats are confident they possess undoubtful evidence, but these can be relatively easily rejected by a Republican Party captive to President Donald Trump. Although 50% of the electorate[5] agrees with the impeachment, the major risk for the Democrats is that a predictable procedure rejection in the Senate would afflict the chances of the Democrat candidate to U.S. presidency, in a political context more immoral than ever, and facing a divided electorate, who votes for domestic economic considerations. The United States is sinking into a deep political struggle, exactly when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces that economic tensions with China are part of a more complex conflict, a new Cold War.

On October 31st, the House of Representatives, dominated by the Democrats, passed the resolution which formally initiates the impeachment procedure against President Trump. The Republicans were disturbed by the secret hearings in House commissions dominated by the Democrats. Therefore, they strongly requested this resolution, which establishes the steps and the way the impeachment procedures will unfold. Thus, there will be more transparency – public hearings, and the President’s team of lawyers will have access to the investigation. The 232 versus 196 vote precisely followed party lines in favor of the Democrats. This indicates the future failure in the Senate, where President Trump will be tried after the vote in the House formally indicts him.

However, the Democrats hold an important “trump card”: White House staff have testified that President Trump requested an illegal tit for tat during his discussion with President Zelenskiy: in exchange for U.S. military support to Ukraine, he requested an investigation which eventually would compromise Joe Biden through Joe Biden’s son. The Democrats also count on the detail that the transcript received from the White House for that discussion is not verbatim, which provides them with the hope to also accuse President Trump for obstructing the justice by altering evidence, on top of the abuse of power accusation.

President Trump’s defense strategy is to attack the impeachment procedure, which is presented as an unjustified whim of the Democrats, a witch-hunt, and to compromise the witnesses. But it seems that it is no longer enough. His team will likely turn towards belittling Trump’s actions by presenting them as natural actions for a president (who requested the Ukrainians to fight corruption, even in a case pointing to the son of a possible competitor in the presidential race, in exchange for granting military support). Although no further reveals surface to increase the size and seriousness of this case, and it is little likely that such reveals will appear, the Republicans will defend the president, and the Senate will vote against impeachment.

Regardless the way the case goes, the United States is caught in this tough political struggle. A worrisome element is the question persistently reiterated by Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi: considering that president Trump’s actions eventually favor Russia, what does Putin hold on President Trump as political, economic or personal leverage?

Under these difficult domestic circumstances, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declarations cast an additional more dangerous perspective upon the economic tensions with China. On October 31st, he stated that United States must confront the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Mentioning that the U.S. sought to gain China’s friendship, but also that the Chinese people and the CCP are not the same thing, he made a true Cold War declaration: “They are reaching for and using methods that have created challenges for the United States and for the world and we collectively, all of us, need to confront these challenges ... head on... It is no longer realistic to ignore the fundamental differences between our two systems, and the impact that … the differences in those systems have on American national security”. This statement is more important considering that it comes after recent accusations by Mike Pompeo regarding the breaching of human rights by China against its Muslim Uighurs.

Beijing’s reaction was tough, these declarations were received as vicious attacks against China, right after the end of a CCP plenary reunion. That is the forum where the most important foreign and domestic policy decisions are made in secret. Beijing had anyway a handful of problems to solve, from the economic tensions with the United States and the decrease in economic growth, to the street protests in Hong Kong.

What was long expected just happened, the United States identified the cause of its economic tensions with China, the same as the cause of difficulties in reaching an agreement. Although it did not attempt to export its political system, China runs an economy, a state and a society forged by the CCP political leadership. Despite accepting certain capitalist elements in economy, this leadership remains fundamentally Marxist-Leninist, feature which was strengthened while President Xi Jinping consolidated his power. Since the Trump Administration identified the Chinese economic problem, the deepening of tensions between the two countries in foreign policy and in military developments was ever more visible. The theory of convergence between the two systems was long time buried, especially since President Xi Jinping took power, and now Mike Pompeo performs the duty of exposing this reality: the United States and China are geared in a new Cold War with political reasons: the gap between the two systems, although the economic issues were visible, while the military issues were ignored for a while. Compared with the first Cold War, the United States no longer holds either an easily secured economic supremacy, or political supremacy: the Chinese communism is successful, although Trump Administration was that which ignored its own institutions, but also the political foundation - the respect of human rights, which secured functionality for the post-war international order.

An immediate consequence of these developments will be the United States split focus on domestic issues, respectively on confrontation with China.


IV. RUSSIA. Strategic nuclear exercise.  

Russia conducted the largest post-Soviet era exercise with its North fleet nuclear submarines. Also, the Bulava ballistic missile (SLBM) was successfully launched from a new Borei class submarine. Moscow demonstrated that its nuclear submarine fleet, part of its nuclear triad, can successfully fulfil its nuclear deterrence mission in two ways: by launching a modern ballistic missile and thus demonstrating the defense capacity of its Arctic stronghold, as well as by showing Russia’s capacity to launch cruise missiles from submarines able to pass undetected on positions where they can threaten its main adversary, the United States. That is in the North Atlantic, crossing the “GIUK gap”[6]. Considering the perspective that the February 2021 expiration date for the New START is getting closer, and that no negotiations for a new agreement are in sight, Moscow sent the diplomatic message that a New START extension is necessary, since there is no time for negotiating a new agreement. In the same time, Moscow sent a military supporting message by this huge exercise.

On October 30th, Russia announced the launching of a Bulava SLBM from the new Borei class (project 955A) Knyaz Vladimir nuclear submarine. This launch was conducted in live conditions, during immersion in the White Sea, part of Russia’s “northern stronghold”, and the target was a range in the Far East Kamchatka Peninsula. The event was presented as a commissioning procedure, a certification for turning the new submarine to operational status, armed with such missiles.

Previously, on October 26th, the Norwegian press announced that two Russian Sierra class submarines, the Pskov and the Nizhny Novgorod, conducted deep diving tests and armament system tests in the Sea of Norway. This information was partly confirmed by Russian media.

However, Russian media did not confirm that Moscow conducted, in northern Europe waters, the largest nuclear submarine exercise since the fall of the Soviet Union. On October 29th, referring to Norwegian intelligence agencies, Norwegian press reported on this exercise, which tested the Russian submarine capability to sneak unnoticed from the Arctic Ocean into the Atlantic Ocean. In the framework of this large-scale exercise, last week, at least eight Russian nuclear submarines left their home ports in Kola Peninsula with the mission to cross into the North Atlantic without being detected by NATO. The exercise began while the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the Russian North Fleet commander, Aleksandr Moiseyev, were paying a visit to Norway, where they also discussed the security situation in northern Europe.

In total, ten submarines were detected, whence eight nuclear submarines. Sources in the Norwegian intelligence agency communicated that this organization has a relatively accurate image of these submarine positioning: two were detected west of Bear Island (Bærøya), two between the Svalbard (Spitzbergen) Archipelago and the Norwegian coast (in its easternmost part, Finnmark province), two in the eastern Barents Sea, guarding the entrance into this body of water, and two in the north part of the Sea of Norway. The exercise would last for about 60 days. Norwegian intelligence agencies assess that the objective of this operation is to demonstrate to Washington that Russia can threaten the U.S. eastern coast, but also to protect the Arctic stronghold where Moscow can launch ballistic missiles.

Items of interests:

  1. The size of this exercise;
  2. Testing of all elements of nuclear deterrence:
    1. A ballistic missile was launched from within the “stronghold”[7];
    2. Underwater defense of the Arctic stronghold by attack and guided missile submarines[8];
    3. Attack submarines and guided missile submarines forced the GIUK gap of North Atlantic towards waters from where they can launch cruise missiles against targets in the United States;
  3. Russia achieved strategic surprise by conducting such unnotified large scale exercise (it cannot be ruled out that launching this operation was a surprise even for the… North Fleet Command, as the Kremlin sought to test its readiness, considering small failures during the previous exercise). Same remarkable is the fact that the Norway Navy delivered, by detecting these submarines.

The new Cold War between Russia and the United States, respectively NATO, is heating up, as the Kremlin seems determined to show it is in a frontline position in the new arms race. The Kremlin’s goal is to keep the New START agreement controlling the strategic nuclear armament. To this end, Moscow counts on deploying the Kalibr cruise missile both on submarines and other naval platforms, as well as on land platforms (the SSC-8 missiles).


V. Developments to track this Week 45 of 2019.

► REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. The second round of local elections will decide the mayor of Chişinău, local position of great political importance for the whole country. The ACUM representative, Andrei Năstase has the first chance, but the race is very tight. It is interesting to watch how the relations between ACUM and the Socialists will unfold after these elections.

► SPAIN. Upcoming local elections bring more uncertainty than anytime before. The Socialists will not be able to reach majority, and the far right party, VOX, in on the rise. The situation is more complicated as a coalition between left and right is almost ruled out. The extinction of the center in favor of the far right comes on the backdrop of the Catalan crisis. Should the Socialists need the votes of independent parliamentarians, what will these politicians do, knowing the Catalan maximalist demands. 

► AFGHANISTAN. After the Moscow conference, Russia and China actively interfere in the peace negotiation issue, and Washington seems ready to accept this situation. When and how will the negotiations resume, and what will the outcome be, knowing that President Trump wants a quick withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan?  

► WESTERN BALKANS. After the cold shower of reading the European Union strategy for the region, these nations warn about the destabilizing effect of the de facto stopping of their accession to the EU, and they propose solutions for an increased regional cooperation. Russia and other powers with influence in the Balkans are ready to “help”. After signing a free trade agreement with Serbia, Moscow proposed similar agreements to Northern Macedonia and Albania.

► UNITED KINGDOM. After a new postponement, early elections will occur in Britain. Although they are in the lead, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives will face enough problems, both from the Labor (however, “condemned” to lose under the leadership of Marxist Jeremy Corbyn), and from the rivalry with supporters of a tough Brexit, like Nigel Farage. Remarkably, Boris Johnson refused the advice of President Trump to ally with Nigel Farage. The most interesting British elections are to follow, and they would end the mostly two-party system in the United Kingdom. Additionally, Scottish separatism is increasing, and the idea of a new referendum for Scotland independence returns to the front stage.

► GEORGIA. Will the cyber-attack which paralyzed this country be followed by additional hostile actions? What is in store for Georgia? But also, what country is next on the (easy-to-guess-who) cyber-aggressor agenda? 

► SYRIA. Boding well for President Trump, the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi raises more questions than answers. Is the Islamic State defeated?  Will the Unites States continue to fight, or will it leave the stage (after coming back at a much smaller scale)? Who will fight terrorists, and, finally, who are the terrorists? So, those named “terrorists” by Turkey, the Syrian Kurds, have fought, in northern Syria, against Turkey’s allies, which the West and Russia had identified as terrorists. However, Russia saw these as terrorists only in Idlib, and their presence in the Security Zone was tolerated as part of the agreement with Turkey. The Syrian calvary did not end yet, it just moved the conflict area: temporarily, northeastern Syria; Idlib probably follows.

[1] The project began in 2014 and stipulates that Russia would build two new reactors for this nuclear plant. The project is to be financed by Russia with 12.5 billion Euros.

[2] Of course, in this case, Petro Poroshenko and Ukrainian nationalists also “contributed” to this behavior, as they “helped” Orbán by offering him the opportunity to block Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO by passing a radical law.

[3] Budapest agreed with Turkey’s operation in northern Syria, thus creating difficulties to the EU in taking decisions regarding Turkey. The custom called the “small players” to stay put, though.

[4] Migration and the situation in northern Syria were also discussed, in the context where Budapest just discovered a new calling, that of protecting the Christians in Levant.

[5] One should notice that this percentage is partly irrelevant, given the complicated electoral system in the United States. Thus, it is more relevant that President Trump benefits from a high anti-impeachment rate in the swing states, which are decisive in elections.

[6] GIUK gap defines the maritime bottleneck between Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom.

[7] This “stronghold” is a maritime area well protected against submarines, against air attacks, and against surface warships, a maritime area which Russia can safely use for launching SLBMs (submarine launched ballistic missiles). Russian attack submarines and guided missile submarines have the mission to provide anti-submarine and anti-surface warship defense. Although it seems to be somewhere far away, the “stronghold” is, in fact, just between Europe and Canada / North America, the perfect playground for intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

[8] Russia possesses three types of nuclear propulsion submarines: 1) submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles; 2) attack submarines, like those of Sierra class, showcased in this exercise, which typically carry torpedoes, but can also launch anti-ship cruise missiles; 3) guided missile submarines, true “arsenals” carrying a large number of anti-ship cruise missiles, like those of Oscar class. Currently, Russia seeks to modernize some “arsenal” submarines by mounting Kalibr missiles on board (the Kalibr cruise missiles can be used against surface warships or against land targets). So, these submarines become part of the strategic nuclear response, as Moscow can use Kalibr missiles to strike land targets. The same role, but from land platforms, is performed by the SSC-8 cruise missiles.