MAS Special ReportWeekly review

Weekly review NATO - UE LEVANT Western Balkans Black Sea Region

04 decembrie 2018 - Special reports - Weekly review


Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

Sursă foto: Mediafax

One hundred years ago, a large majority of Romanians, rising at the height of the historical moment, decided to create the Greater Romania. It was not against somebody, but for somebody - the future generations. This is what we are, those meant to continue building Romania for our future generations. We live in peace today with the descendants of those who were against the Great Union and we ought to think about the forefathers who fought and died for the cause of Greater Romania, they were brave individuals with deep roots and worthy to be remembered in glory.

I. ROMANIA: At the anniversary of one hundred years after the Great Union, Romania is not alone.

II. RUSSIA - UKRAINE. For the moment, the situation in the Sea of Azov has calmed down.

III. US - CHINA. We have a temporary truce in the trade war.

IV. BALKANS. Hashim Thaci  visits Washington.

V. This week 49 – developments to track.


I.ROMANIA. At the anniversary of one hundred years since the Great Union, Romania is confident[1] and is not alone, but integrated in the West, and the threats are not imminent, although not completely vanished.

First of all, we still comply with the geopolitical survival prerequisite mentioned by Gheorghe Brătianu: we have the Carpathians’ ridgelines clear and the access to the Black Sea[2]. As for our integration into the western democracy club, where we belong and where we are born as a modern state, the messages from our allies and friends speak volumes. Coming from the guarantor of security not only for us, but the whole Free World, “Uncle Sam’s” message summarizes the messages sent by all our allies and friends, regardless the illusions fostered by the enemies of liberty.  So, congratulating the Romanians on their National Day, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, stated that “Romania is a strong Ally of the United States. We appreciate Romania’s contribution to global security through its membership in NATO, including participation in international missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we appreciate the sacrifices Romania has made. We salute your leadership in addressing regional issues, such as Black Sea security. The United States will continue to stand with Romania in its efforts to uphold democratic values and the rule of law, which are at the core of our relationship and the foundation of economic growth and prosperity”.

This message is unequivocal for us and our friends, as for our adversaries as well, but it also obliges us, both domestically and abroad. Abroad, our participation in the operations in Afghanistan will continue until a political peace solution is found, as our commitment to US regarding Afghanistan is from the start to the end. The sacrifice made by our fallen soldiers in Afghanistan is the price we pay to have an ally and an alliance who secure our peace at home.

 More difficult though is the role of leader in the Black Sea security, especially at the beginning of our naval and air capacity development, when the situation gets complicated in the area, with Ukraine’s  request to NATO to get involved into the issues of the Sea of Azov. This might be seen as a questionable approach to counter Russia’s actions. We develop military capabilities to deter, not take a military role, our main weapon in achieving a regional leader posture is diplomacy. This is built on the often quoted “security provider / exporter”, actually a non-belligerent approach by a Goody Two-shoes country.  

Regardless future foreign challenges, we have reasons to rejoice our one hundred year anniversary since the creation of Greater Romania: we are free and living in a democratic nation, and we have the chance to build a prosperous future.


II. RUSSIA - UKRAINE. For the moment, the situation in the Sea of Azov has calmed down. After the incident in the Kerch Straits[3], the situation went tense very quickly by two developments: Kyiv declared state of emergency, and Russia refused to free the Ukrainian sailors and return the captured vessels. The good news came at the end of the week 48, when Chancellor Angela Merkel met President Vladimir Putin, on December 1st, and four-party consultations were decided on the Kerch Straits issue. The four parties are Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine. The silver lining of a mediation showed and escalation of the tensions was stopped, although such mediation might lead to no solution. The hopes were toned down on December 1st, by V. Putin’s statement that this conflict with Ukraine would continue as long as the current political power in Kyiv is in place. This reveals Moscow’s strategy of involvment into the Ukrainian domestic politics, aiming at reaching the well known objectives, and the message is: Ukrainians, if you want peace, elect a power able to concede to our requests, to accept what Russia wants, from Crimea to Donbass and eventually your reintegration back into the Russian sphere of influence.

Ukraine faces a clear act of war by Russia, who opened fire against Ukrainian vessels. Consequently, Kyiv tries to internationalize the issue with several goals: obtaining free passage through the Kerch Straits for all Ukrainian vessels, military included; the ceasing of Russian checking of its vessels in the Sea of Azov; blaming Russia for its actions; as well as a direct implication of the West in the Se of Azov conflict. Facing domestic suspicions for declaring the martial law (seen as an attempt to gain a political edge in view of the upcoming presidential elections), President Petro Poroshenko reduced the state of emergency duration and widened his contacts and calls to the West. NATO had the most clear reaction, and the Ukrainians pushed this pedal, maybe to much though.

The request fof NATO warships in the Sea of Azov seems counterproductive both to Ukraine, and to NATO’s efforts to deal with this situation. First, NATO cannot defend Ukraine directly, albeit by the presence of its warships in the Sea of Azov because, for any Rules of Engagement considered, they would be there to stop Russian actions by deterrence (presence of forces), not by implementing an agreement. Second, the NATO warships would not be able to peacefully enter the Sea of Azov using the same agreement the Ukrainian vessels have. Third, what could the NATO warships do in the Sea of Azov other than escorting the Ukrainian ships... and how should they react when Russia continues controling , i.e. the blockade… other than not engaging in any way at all!  Additionally, a military aspect (less relevant though, because the issue is political): the Sea of Azov is small and such an air-naval theater make the A2AD systems (from anti-ship to anti-aircraft) a real threat to NATO warships. Ukraine must understand that NATO supports it, but the Alliance cannot wage war on Russia over this issue. Same as Georgia once upon a time...

NATO’s moderate response and Angela Merkel’s call to keep the issue in proportion were quite natural in the given situation. Additionally, Ukraine made itself a wrong service, because picturing a ”NATO threat to Russia, coming from Ukraine” was exactly the engine of Russian propaganda when it attacked Crimea, then Donbass. Just consider that Russia really attacked Ukraine, not simply threaten and humilliate Kyiv by this power play. What would the consequences be? In such event, what would Kyiv’s call to NATO have been considered by Moscow, other that the best argument to convince all Russians of the imminent NATO threat requiring an all out attack on Ukraine?

In the same time, Ukraine’s declarations that Russia has deployed troops at the border, although exaggerated, were very likely based on truth. An American Electronic Reconnaissance aircraft flew over the area and confirmed the situation on the ground. One proof was visible: Russia alerted all logistic and engineering units in the Military Region South. What better indication at operational-strategic level, especially since the explanation was childish: bad weather! Another military development, this time notified by Russia, was the consolidation of the anti-aircraft capabilities in Crimea. The deployment of a new S-400 missile squadron is to follow (and its complementary systems, the Pantsir), while one of the three already present in Crimea is being redeployed to the north, to Djankoi, thus consolidating the A2AD on the Sea of Azov.

Russia defied again the international community, not only by holding the Ukrainian sailors arrested, but opening criminal records for them, on the grounds of violating the Russian state frontier. The ”confessions” by the black-eyed Ukrainian sailors were the pathetic proof of the attempt to build a legal case on an illegal action. At political level, the Russian side kept silence until President V. Putin himself released the message of downplaying the incident and incriminating Petro Poroshenko as being the initiator of the incident, for electoral reasons. And that happened after refusing P. Poroshenko and talking to Chancellor Angela Merkel.   

While dwarfing the gravity of the Kerch Straits incident and confident in its own narrative, Moscow also exaggerated in incriminating the West. He claimed that US and the Europeans encouraged Kyiv to generate this incident. This accusation was too much for the West, who is aware of the incident  gravity and is concerned of the conflict escalation. The Europeans’ reactions were negative, including those of the Germans, which were critical and unequivocal. 

However, the worst point was President Donald Trump’s cancelation of his meeting with President Putin in Argentina, at the G20 Summit. Most likely, the American domestic reasons were decisive, but the Kerch Straits incident had a role too. About the US issue, the investigation of Russian meddling into American elections gained a new momentum, following new statements by D. Trump’s lawyer. Moscow acted as being surprised, but it was really humiliated. Where is the great power strictly necessary for discussing the fate of Europe by renegotiating the INF? By a strike of his pen – actually a twitter, the US President canceled the whole aura of the meeting and also its stake. For the moment at least, Russia cannot escalate either the INF or the Ukraine issue. The situation became awkward, with the two presidents almost avoiding each other at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires. Praise the Lord a ”brief encounter” occurred, because total isolation does not help anybody.

Even another bilateral discussion, between V. Putin and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman appeared as a meeting between two ”political criminals”. And this meeting was of utmost importance for V. Putin, who needed an agreed reduction of oil production, because the price of crude is dangerously plateauing at $50 / barrel, far under Moscow’s vital $70 / barrel. The UK made sure that, in the eve of the G20 Summit, the official conclusions of the investigations were leaked that only V. Putin could have been the one to order the actions in Skripal case.

Russia’s prestige is wounded, the Kremlin is thrown in uncertainty regarding the INF and is accused by the West for the armed attack conducted in the Kerch Straits, as well as for the Skripal case. How V. Putin will react is hard to predict: maybe moderation in the Ukrainian problem, as the announced consultations offer the chance for a necessary dialogue now, even for Russia; maybe also moderation in the INF issue, until a dialogue is opened, at least at low level, if the two presidents would not meet. From now on, Russia cannot further escalate without taking the risk of important consequences, but it cannot accept the current situation either. At least, after keeping the Kerch Straits closed for vessels navigating to and from Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov, Russia opened the gateway for others. Is it a step towards peace? And would Kyiv, pressed by the West, respond the same? Until now, under the state of emergency, Ukraine continued its firm stance by denying access to Ukraine for Russian male citizens over 16 and under 60 (with special exceptions, like participation to funerals). And there is the upcoming tomos on the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and its political implications. There is no surprise that Ukraine enforced the critical infrastructure protection and consolidated the Black Sea ports, aiming to counter the ”testing of the world order by Russia”. However, there is an exaggeration there: for the moment, V. Putin ”only” wants Ukraine, and P. Poroshenko will manage to defend it only by reforming his country and opening a path to the future, not worrying about the world order.  V. Putin announced there would be no discussions with Kyiv regarding the release of the arrested Ukrainian sailors, but he did not respond anything regarding the restriction on Russian citizens traveling to Ukraine.

For Russia, the worst came in the form of the message sent on December 2nd by the US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who has said that "this is a very complex situation because Mr. Putin is clearly a slow learner", because he attempted again to meddle into the American elections – the midterms in November. Jim Mattis added that "we are dealing with someone that we simply cannot trust", and, regarding the INF, "we are dealing with Putin's duplicitous violation of the INF Treaty". The message’s value is more serious as J. Mattis is a former soldier who saw and lived many hardships. He does not make baseless politicized statements and does not want to act rough in foreign relations, he is rather realistic and prone to fairly compromise.

For the moment, the situation has calmed down east of Romania, but hard times are likely coming both on the naval situation in the Black Sea, and on the likely cessation of the INF. In both problems, we find ourselves close to the eye of the storm, and we do not have many tools to tweak the developments. However, at least we should realize the dimensions and the danger of the situation.


III. US - CHINA. We have a temporary truce in the trade war.

The two presidents, Donald Trump and XI Jinping met on December 2nd, at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires. They agreed to temporary halt the trade war, i.e. to suspend the additional tariffs for 90 days in order to create conditions to identify a negotiated solution. The agreement was also reflected in a wording not criticizing protectionism prepared for the final communique to be issued for the G20 Summit.

China agreed to not introduce tariffs from January 1st, 2019. The US threat to raise tariffs from 10% (200 billion USD) to 25% will not come true for the moment, but, if past 90 days a solution is not found, this measure will be automatically implemented. In response, China agreed to buy American food, energy and industrial products.

Even if Donald Trump declared that "it's an incredible deal" (”China will be opening up”), it is just an overture, and negotiations are to follow. Otherwise, should this opening fail, the trade war will worsen.

Actually, China did not give up anything crucial, and the big questions remain on abiding by the economic rules and opening the domestic market. However, we can find remarkable elements in the declaration of the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi: the two leaders had agreed to open their domestic markets and that this process could lead to the resolution of "legitimate" US concerns. For the first time, Beijing admits that the US has some legitimate concerns, which seems to look like accepting the American paradigm. We are so far from an agreement though, and is more likely that Beijing will drag, waiting for D. Trump, impatient but also under domestic pressure, to accept the little that China will offer, and provided that D. Trump does not quit the stage in the meantime. What is important is that we see hopes that rules will govern this global competition.

  A report published by the American NGO Hoover Institution this past Thursday notices that Beijing transferred from economic competition to political and military challenging the US, which is an indication of ingredients for a new Cold War. This seems to be the only plausible assessment, since the Chinese state capitalism did not reach an ideological convergence, because the Chinese Communist Party refuses to reform the system. Mass imprisoning the Uighurs and the Big Brother surveillance methods on the population stand to prove it. The main problem is that this Communist system is economically viable.


IV. BALKANS. Hashim Thaci visits Washington.

On the Kosovar president’s visit to Washington, the US sent an unequivocal message ranging from the American support for the statehood of Kosovo, to the request addressed to Priština to give up the additional huge tariffs on Serbian goods, but especially announcing the American support for the solution the two parties would find together.

Although the authorities in Priština rejected shedding the tariffs, the very fact that Washington showed its support for a negotiated solution, albeit with exchange of territories, opens the path to break out of the blockage. This can happen even with a tough Kosovar government, maybe based on a principle position of a large European nation, yet wrong, and facing a Belgrade government fostering an approach still locked in the past.  

The US must get involved in finding a solution, since it was part of the problem – the establishment of the entity named Kosovo, which solved another problem. But let’s put aside the reasons for that now. It is also worth mentioning Russia’s position, conveyed by the Kosovar president after the literally upstanding meeting with Vladimir Putin, in Paris. According to Hashim Thaci, Moscow will also agree with a solution found by Priština and Belgrade together.

This news makes the silver lining, but the immediate cloud is the tensions about to increase while the Kosovar tariffs are in force. Serbia cannot watch idle how the economic situation of the Serbian minority north of Ibar River worsens and will be forced to react to the severing of its economic ties with that community. Priština knows it and is waiting for Belgrade to move. Since the large sponsors did not agree on the solution yet, the two adversaries might find themselves in conflict.   


V. Next week 47 – developments to track.


  • In the wake of G20 Summit. The sequel of the important China - US meeting is worth following. The sequel of the Russia – US non-meeting too. The third meeting, Russia – Saudi Arabia will have an immediate economic and political impact, especially for Russia: the evolution in price of oil. There are big chances we will see just a slight increase. Inshallah slight!

  • What Russia will do in Ukraine and in the INF issue, aggregated with the developments in the Mueller investigation, gain a global importance, but especially for the Black Sea area. There are little optimistic signals, as the US seems to be departing from INF, with a crucial decision expected at NATO level, this December. Russia will try to do something, interesting to see what.


  • Syria is hot again. Israel resumed the attacks in Syria against Iranian / Hezbollah targets, defying the Russo-Syrian anti-aircraft dome. In Syria, stabilizing Idlib is not easy, because in Astana only solutions to harmonize the winners’ interests were found. Such solution is a common position against the US presence in Syria, where the American-Kurdish details along the border prevent Turkish forces from attacking the SDF. The prerequisite for converging the Astana peace process with the Geneva process was the establishment of a Constitutional Commission. That has not been achieved, as the UN representative Staffan de Mistura noticed and Angela Merkel reminded Vladimir Putin in Buenos Aires.   


  • The UK finally reached the moment of truth – the vote in the Parliament on the Brexit provisional agreement. After a week of a real electoral campaign, where Prime-Minister Teresa May worked to persuade her own MPs, the vote will follow, and it will not be the end of the problem. The Europeans are dreaming about a new referendum, which will hopefully keep Britain in. Maybe, just maybe… especially since good news comes from the ”Italian front”, where reasonable moderation replaced confrontation.  



[1] What people think is more important than any political plan. Thus, we did not lose confidence in ourselves: 85% of us are proud to be Romanian; we did not lose the sense of historical responsibility: 59% of us agree on the union with the Republic of Moldova; we did not lose the sense of realism: we want good relations with Hungary (28%), with Moldova (12%) and with Ukraine (12%), meaning those whom we are bound to be together with by history (Hungary), then those who are “us”, although not always with us (R. of Moldova), and then those who are the largest neighbours (Ukraine). The other two, Bulgaria and Serbia, although they do not know it (the way they treat the Romanian minority proves it – either called Vlachs, or it does not exist at all… although they do), they are long-time along us on the path of understanding and cooperation.

[2] I.C.Brătianu issued the security prerequisite for the whole Romanian people: “We cannot think about the existence of the Romanian people without the Nistru River. Bassarabia  is for us the doorstep of our home”. We also comply, indirectly, with this prerequisite, by granting Romanian citizenship to citizens of the Republic of Moldova. And we do it not on ethnic but on judicial grounds, to those who used to be citizens of Greater Romania, or their descendants, ethnic Romanians or not! For us, the same as for the Finns, when Karelia was taken from Finland, the people are important, and we give them a fair chance.

[3] The incident has been investigated on this site in the paper “The Naval Incident in the Kerch Straits – Lessons Learned”. Meanwhile, the event picture received additional information: 1) Although they notified the Russian side, the Ukrainian ships stopped waiting the pilot and decided to enter the straits by themselves. The pilot was hours late, which made clear that Russia was not going to provide a pilot at all. This piece of information does not change the overall meaning of the incident, as a navigation procedure does not prevail over the common treaty allowing free passage through the straits to vessels of both parties, including warships; 2) At least one Ukrainian vessel entered the Russian territorial waters when harassed by the Russian warships. This does not change the equation either, as the Ukrainian vessel movements were evasive against dangerous maneuvers by the Russian warships, which were jeopardizing the Ukrainian vessel security; 3) The Russian warships opened fire to hit the Ukrainian vessels, not to warn, as the tracks on the Ukrainian vessels prove.