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Weekly review NATO - UE LEVANT Western Balkans Black Sea Region

17 decembrie 2019 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 50 of 2019)

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

I. RUSSIA - UKRAINE. The Normandy format meeting in Paris. II. RUSSIA – UNITED STATES. Sergey Lavrov visits Washington. III. UNITED KINGDOM. Crucial parliamentary elections. IV. EUROPEAN UNION. The European Council Summit. V. Developments to track this Week 51 of 2019.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. RUSSIA - UKRAINE. The Normandy format meeting in Paris.

The December 9th Normandy format meeting in Paris did not spectacularly relaunch negotiations, nor did it result in large concessions. Instead, this meeting marked a fragile new beginning with hopes for a cease-fire,  a start for negotiating the “special status”, and the initiation of the “Steinmeier formula” (implementing the Minsk Agreements starting with elections in Donbass). However, the whole problem is turned back to square one by the conundrum regarding necessary conditions for organizing elections in Donbass. That means who will be in control of that region before the elections (border control and withdrawal / dissolution of all armed forces in the region). Putin and Zelenskiy had dialogue, but they did not get along, as Zelenskiy successfully opposed Putin (and diplomatic pressure by France). Zelenskiy “entrenched” himself in the issue of establishing the preconditions for conducting elections. The question is not whether an important compromise is to be reached in the following four months, but whether what has been agreed, will be achieved (especially the cease-fire, as well as reaching an agreement on the “special status”). A displeased Putin would not agree with such developments, perceived as unilateral concessions (no way a transfer of control, given the danger suggested about a possible new Srebrenica[1]!). A complete cease-fire would deprive Moscow of its main tool used to bend Kyiv’s will, the military pressure. Moscow did not obtain any sanction lifting (the EU just extended its sanctions), but only a promise by Paris regarding a mechanism to dodge the American sanctions, too little compared to Russian expectations. The objectives remain completely opposite between Kyiv (peace, recovering territories and preserve sovereignty) and Moscow (control over Kyiv, and blocking Ukraine’s integration into NATO and the EU). However, this stake is much higher than France’s interests of relaunching relations with Russia, and security in Europe by defining Russia as partner, not adversary. Therefore, we cannot expect too much. Under these circumstances, one should focus on each “little devil” which might hide in details of the negotiations, not on the large political projections.

The final communiqué is relevant. The document included only a couple of measures and was not signed by the parties (thus lacking the quality of an agreement which would in any way alter the Minsk Agreement). The communiqué stipulates:

1. Immediate measures for stabilizing the situation on the ground. Parties commit to completely and comprehensively implement a cease-fire consolidated by all necessary measures to achieve the cease-fire before the end of 2019. These measures would support the development and implementation of an updated demining plan based on the decisions taken by the Trilateral Working Group[2] (TWG) during the demining activities of March 3rd, 2016. Those decisions would support an agreement within this TWG for three new areas of disengagement, in view of completing disengagement of forces and weapons until the end of March 2020. These measures encourage the TWG to facilitate the release of all detainees linked to the conflict before the end of the year, on the principle “all for all”, starting with “all identified for all identified”. This will happen in accord with international organizations, including granting the International Red Cross Committee total access to all detained individuals. These measures would also support an accord within the TWG, in thirty days, regarding new crossing points on the contact line, an accord based mainly on humanitarian reasons. These measures remind the OSCE Monitoring Mission (OSCE SMM) that it should be able to utilize all options offered by the March 21st, 2014 mandate, and have free and secure access to all Ukraine, for fully implementing its mandate;

2. Measures to implement the Minsk Agreement political stipulations: in the framework of Normandy Format (N4) and the TWG, the Parties express interest in concurring in all legal aspects pertaining to the Local Self-governing Special Order – the special status, in Certain Areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Regions – such as provisioned in the 2015 Measure Package regarding the Implementation of Minsk Agreements, in order to secure permanent functioning. The Parties deem necessary to incorporate the “Steinmeier formula” in the Ukrainian legislation, according to the version convened in N4 and TWG;

3. Continuity. The Parties request the foreign affairs ministers and political advisers to assure the implementation of reached agreements and agree to have an additional meeting in four months, regarding the political and security conditions, including for organizing local elections. The question was whether Zelenskiy would resist Putin’s pressure and cunning, and it seems he did, with the price of returning to an icy atmospherics between the two leaders (they did not shake hands and ignored each other at the press conference). The N4 meeting of all four leaders was prepared by a Macron – Zelenskiy meeting, and a Merkel – Putin meeting, and was completed by a Putin – Zelenskiy tête-à-tête.

While the written results confirmed expectations, later declarations watered down most optimistic expectations. Thus, Ukraine obtained cease-fire, plus new disengagements at the contact line. Kyiv had made first steps in withdrawing from the contact line and ceded strategic positions in the process (the separatists are in advantage, as their cities will remain off the Ukrainian artillery range) and they committed to new withdrawals. Then, the OSCE SMM is left to verify the separatist withdrawal (should they allow such verification!). However, fire did not cease on the contact line so far. We will see what happens in Minsk, in the TWG. Perhaps Russia, although reluctant, will be forced to observe this cease-fire. Nevertheless, Russia must get something in return, and quickly, something ranging from the certainty that an advantageous “special status” for Donbass would be accepted by Kyiv, to getting the sanctions lifted by the Europeans, read France, albeit somewhat veiled.

Sending the negotiations to the TWG is necessary to Moscow not only for preserving the narrative that Kyiv is caught in a civil war with one of its regions, but also for maintaining Russia as a “non-involved party”, a negotiator and solution guarantor. 

For the rest, illusions faded away quickly. Zelenskiy’s requests regarding Ukraine’s control over its borders with Russia, in fact control of Donbass, were slashed by Putin: such situation would lead to a new Srebrenica. The Kremlin continues the “fascist Kyiv” narrative (even with a Jewish president!), with a Kyiv exterminating the Russian population in the region in absence of Russian troop protection (which “are not in the region”, but, should Kyiv take over control of the borders, they would indeed be away from Donbass!). Only later, on December 14th, the Kremlin admitted, by Dmitri Peskov, that “the meeting did not make a momentous breakthrough”.

Although elections are essential (because they would legitimate the separatists pushed by Moscow to control the separatist region), not the local elections are the highest stake for Russia, but the “special status”, because Moscow wants “federalization”. In fact, the Kremlin wants to control the center by controlling the parts, respectively to control Kyiv by controlling the separatists under Russian obedience, legitimated through elections following the Steinmeier formula (organized without having the Russian military forces, and the whole political and administrative structure created by Moscow in Donbass for that matter, de-structured by Kyiv, after a would-be transfer of border control to Ukraine).

No result was reached yet regarding the gas transit either. Moscow wants to “compensate” the billion-dollar debt obtained by Ukraine at the London Court with the billions it provided to former president Yanukovych. Moscow also wants a one-year contract, while Kyiv prefers a ten-year contract, as Ukraine has the Nord Stream II “Damocles sword” above its head. However, the specter of American sanctions looms large over Nord Stream II (Washington will likely not block the pipeline but will slow down its construction and will complicate its exploitation, along the EU regulations).

Finally, Moscow did not achieve much, which is dangerous. Maybe a slack in European sanctions, albeit concealed maybe, might calm down the Kremlin. Anyway, Russia will recover something through the separatists, in the TWG. Regarding a relaxation in the sanctions though, Moscow’s hopes lay with France, because, otherwise, at EU level, belated repercussions of Moscow actions keep showing up (the EU started to debate a law like the Magnitsky Act in the United States). Perhaps the most important thing Putin achieved is his acceptance by the West in his terms and with his already gained position (by military aggression included), although it did not concede anything important. Thus, after Macron overlooked the Russian war crimes in Syria, Merkel overlooked the latest Russian murder in Berlin[3], and together, Macron and Merkel overlooked the presence of Russian troops in Donbass, perhaps Boris Johnson will not reject Putin’s call to resume dialogue, the same Boris Johnson who had called Putin “a new Hitler” after the Skripal case. 

Ukraine did not capitulate yet, and Russia finds it difficult to maintain its double role of aggressor and peace negotiator. A coveted cease-fire agreement implemented on the ground would be a huge step toward peace in the Black Sea region. Will Russia give up its crucial instrument in the Ukrainian crisis, the military pressure? Hard to believe. Therefore, harsh negotiations are expected within the TWG, with the cease-fire hinged by the Kremlin to concessions by Kyiv regarding the “special status” contents and “Steinmeier formula” implementation.


II. RUSSIA – UNITED STATES. Sergey Lavrov visits Washington.

Sergey Lavrov’s December 10th visit to Washington was a spectacular development, yet it did not deliver spectacular results. The biggest success was the visit itself, because it means not only a resumption of direct discussions on issues of bilateral and global interest, but also means a contribution to improving the image of both leaders: Donald Trump, who faces accusations from the House of Representatives, respectively Vladimir Putin, who faces a failure of his strategy to escalate tensions in view of later benefit in negotiations with the West (with the United States, regarding arms control, the New START, and the post-INF situation).

There are three perspectives on the meeting: the White House communiqué, Sergey Lavrov’s comments, and Mike Pompeo’s specifications. Although there are certain contradictions, they all show that important problems were discussed, yet no decision was taken. Perhaps Sergey Lavrov sent Donald Trump a message from Vladimir Putin[4]. The White House spokesman mentioned that  President Trump was informed on the level of bilateral relations by Sergey Lavrov and Mike Pompeo. ”D. Trump warned against any Russian attempts to interfere in United States elections, and also urged Russia to resolve the conflict with Ukraine”. “President Trump also emphasized his support for effective global arms control that includes not only Russia, but also China”. Donald Trump hailed the constant commitment along Russia on responding to common concerns, including making positive steps in the issue of missing persons. President Trump asked Russia to support the United States in its efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and to assure North Korea’s denuclearization. Trump and Lavrov discussed the status of their relations with China. Donald Trump pointed out that better relations with Russia will allow an increase in bilateral trade.

After the meeting, Lavrov declared that “President Donald Trump sincerely realizes benefits of good Russian – U.S. relations for Americans, for American businesses, as for the U.S. in general and for the global situation", but certain forces in the U.S. do not share this point of view. These relations "should contain no element of favoritism to anyone" and "be based on the balance of interests, pragmatism and mutual benefits". Lavrov suggested that  Russia and the United States should announce the extension of New START for avoiding a vacuum to appear in arms control: "We are aware that not everyone in the U.S. shares our point of view. [Certain forces] are trying to slow down the normalization of our relations by all means, to impose more and more sanctions [on Russia]".

Lavrov took caution measures by stating that both during this latest meeting, and the previous meeting, Trump did not disclose secret information. Lavrov declared that, contrary to the White House statements, “You know, we haven’t even actually discussed elections”. Later, when confronted by Pompeo, Lavrov diplomatically rephrased this statement.

Lavrov insisted on the topic of arms control even after the meeting with Pompeo: "We spoke today about the future of the Treaty on the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. Russia has reiterated its proposal to take a decision right today to extend this agreement... Naturally, this situation requires talks because there is not a single concrete proposal from our American partners on the table. In the meantime, to avoid vacuum, Russia and the United States, as two biggest nuclear powers, could announce the extension of the New START[5] and somewhat mollify the global public opinion this way, It would be good".

Sergey Lavrov insisted that strategic stability was a central topic at his talks with Pompeo: "We drew attention to the negative consequences of the US’ withdrawal from the INF Treaty". He mentioned that Russian proposal of adopting a common declaration on inadmisibility of a nuclear war was still standing. He declared that Russia was ready to consider the possibility of a multilateral format for arms control, should China support such initiative. He added that the existence of China’s nuclear arsenal was among the discussed issues, but he pointed that this arsenal is limited, compared to that of the two largest nuclear powers.

The visit offered the opportunity of discussing three issues: bilateral relations, including Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections, current crises, where Ukraine was highlighted (Syria was not mentioned), and arms control – so important for Russia. Regarding elections, Trump issued the message which is necessary in current domestic circumstances: leaving the line of countering his own intelligence agencies, Trump just warned Moscow to refrain from meddling in American elections. Lavrov wanted to belittle this message, insisting on Trump’s intention to have good relations with Russia (there are, however, “certain forces” which… see very well what Russia truly does!), but he was forced by Pompeo to review these statements. On crises, we will see how much the United States participates in negotiations regarding Ukraine, but also how much Russia will interfere in the Iran and North Korea crises.

The main issue on the table was the New START Agreement extension, where President Trump remained sturdy on his position: a future agreement should include China among the signatories. There is another problem though: the word is about a global agreement. Does that mean that the United States wants an agreement covering all nuclear payloads (including sub-strategic and tactical), not only the strategic warheads (New START)? We will see, as this issue is to be on the table during all 2020.

Following actions do not suggest any agreement was reached regarding the post-INF situation. So, the United States launched a ballistic missile with range over 500 kilometers (which, along a previously launched cruise missile, is one of the post-INF solutions). Russia conducted two routine launches, a ballistic missile on Iskander M system (with a range below 500 kilometers, but possible to be easily extended over 500 kilometers), and a Kalibr missile launch, in the Black Sea, from the Admiral Essen frigate, on December 11th, against a target located at over 250 kilometers. In the context of a complex naval exercise, with Crimea based Bal and Bastion batteries, this Kalibr missile launch is remarkable, and Russian press insisted on the strategic importance of Kalibr cruise missile, which is hard to intercept, and was launched from the Black Sea “bastion” [6]. The fact that Russian Kilo class submarines were sent from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea stands to prove that Moscow considers the “Crimea bastion” as being secure and unthreatened. Russia invented an original system to take these submarines from the Black Sea and bypassing the Montreux Convention in the process: that is done by sending the boats to the Mediterranean Sea, and then to the Baltic Sea “for repairing” (although repair facilities exist in Sevastopol, Kilo class submarines have been repaired there!).   

Regardless results, Lavrov’s visit is a good omen, and Moscow remains waiting for negotiations, especially regarding arms control, i.e. the New START. This diminishes the possibility of new aggression acts by the Kremlin or the tensioning of its relations with the United States, which might impact on global security, Romania’s included.


III. UNITED KINGDOM. Crucial parliamentary elections.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won a landslide victory in the December 12th parliamentary elections, and they are to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union on January 31st, 2020, as they claimed by their campaign slogan: “get Brexit done!”.   

The Conservatives won a comfortable parliamentary majority in the elections which decided not only the future government, but the long-term future of Britain as well, by implementing the Brexit. Boris Johnson did not hesitate to say that "It does look as though this One Nation Conservative government has been given a powerful new mandate to get Brexit done". The Conservatives won 365 seats (an increase of 48 seats), thus reaching a comfortable majority (well above the necessary 326 seats) in the House of Commons. Labor were crushed and won only 202 seats (60 seats down!), and the Liberal-Democrats won just 11 seats. The Conservative victory was secured by winning the constituencies of industrial north and in the Midlands, which were traditionally Labor areas. The Conservative victory is the largest in recent decades, while the Labor defeat is historical, the worst after WWII! Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn announced he would not lead the party for the next elections, but he did not specify the exact day of departure, which offers the party leadership a due period of reflection.

Scottish independentists, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won a very good result with 48 of the 59 seats reserved for Scotland, an increase of 13 seats, which makes them the leading political force in Scotland. On December 14th, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon warned that Boris Johnson should accept the reality that he was given the mandate for organizing a second referendum on Scotland’s independence. Her declaration came after December 13th, when Boris Johnson had told her he did not agree with organizing such referendum.

Boris Johnson gambled and won. His strategy was to put the British electorate in front of a choice that already gave him big chances: choose me and we have a clear path, already voted by a majority, we end this crisis and leave the EU (“get Brexit done”) or vote for an unrealistic Marxist candidate, who not only fails to solve the Brexit problem, by proposing a new referendum, but also brings upon us a general uncertainty through the socialist economic measures he proposes. The electorate, including that in industrial zones, who traditionally voted the Labor, chose the lesser yet predictable bad, and voted for Conservatives and for Brexit.

What comes next is obvious: Brexit, leaving the EU on January 31st, an immediate halt of free circulation of persons and tough negotiations with the European Commission for obtaining a wider access to the European market (a free trade agreement). In view of diminishing the Brexit economic shock, London must rise to the “Perfidious Albion” expectation by cooperating with the EU, but also threatening the EU with alternatives such as a free trade agreement with the U.S. The Europeans, especially Germany, will have to find a response to measure, especially since, from a strategic point of view, cooperation with the U.K. is desired, beyond immediate economic interests.

London will also face a domestic problem: the danger of Scottish separatism will increase. Boris Johnson, but the Europeans as well, must tread carefully here, as nobody is interested to see Britain split, although the Scotts have a point (we want in the EU, although England does not). For the rest, Boris Johnson can relax, because Jeremy Corbyn, as a good representative of the radical Left, will not quit Labor leadership before he is sure a new leadership replaces him, and that new Labor leadership is as radical as he is. The Labor problem will not be the Conservatives, but the way they manage to escape from the trap of radical left mentality where Corbyn led them and wants to further keep them.

Finally, it would be a good idea for the Europeans to think not only about the losses we will have from Brexit, but also about our “contribution” to this European tragedy. Without being dominant, among others, the guilt pertains to those European nations in the east who, although were benefitting from EU financial support, respectively British, did not use it properly, and continued to “export” their social problems, including to the U.K. One should pay attention to that issue, because the problem stays, since Britain is not the only nation not happy about this situation.


IV. EUROPEAN UNION. The European Council Summit.

The December 12th – 13th European Council Summit addressed two problems touching security. The environment issue, the so called “Green Deal”, means earmarking money with impact on energy security, and the important thing is how to use it (Romania is the only former communist nation owning a western technology nuclear plant, not a Soviet technology plant, and this makes it the ideal place to start new investments). Poland pushed it and lost, and Hungary is not far from that either, with Orbán’s attitude. The second problem, the European budget, is crucial for Romania, as both the cohesion funds and the agricultural funds are meant to diminish the general gap of our society and economy, respectively in a vital field, agriculture.

The budget proposed by Finland (which started its rotational presidency with one prime minister and ends it with another!) reflects the point of view promoted by small and medium net contributors (Finland, Austria, Sweden) who do not want to pay anymore for a South and East not only inefficient, but also led by elites which are perceived as corrupt (signals keep coming that way from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria...). Finally, Finland managed to upset most of the EU member nations. Perhaps Croatia, which is the next president, will reflect both the point of view promoted by those who benefit from funds, and that of the large net contributors, such as Germany, to which Croatia is very close, and which will follow Croatia as European Council president.

The European Council decided to transfer the problem of negotiating the budget to president Charles Michel, who announced he would seek a compromise. He also warned that negotiating the Multiannual Financial Framework (the multiannual budget MFF) is “extremely complex”, and “will be the most difficult one ever in EU history, because of the Brexit gap”. For Romania, this is an important security problem, because it speaks to our social and economic gap. Let’s hope that we will get an additional financial chance and know to use it in the interest of our society and state.


V. Developments to track this Week 51 of 2019.

► UNITED STATES. After struggle in the House Judiciary Committee, the full House of Representatives will vote the impeachment report against President Donald Trump. Very likely, the vote will be positive, considering the Democrat majority. President Trump was accused of abuse of power (when requesting Ukraine a “quid pro quo”, meaning United States military support in exchange for services offered to President Trump by indicting the son of a potential counter-candidate in the presidential race of 2020) and by obstructing the House of Representatives investigation. The impeachment will keep the United States focused on domestic policy and offers the image of a divided political class. On the other hand, the investigation revealed that American institutions are functional, and are operated by honest and competent officials. Even President Trump’s image is clearer: he does not seem to be, as Nancy Pelosi pointed, a citizen vulnerable to Russian blackmail, but a self-centered politician who was running his “America first” business, without any discrimination between his personal interest and the American nation’s interest. That is true both in appointing officials who are asked to be loyal firstly to the appointer, and in certain foreign policy actions (see Ukraine). The good thing is that, in one of its most difficult moments, the United States is not in a structural crisis. Therefore, America’s gravediggers in the Kremlin and not only, must settle with a political crisis with predictable outcome, and us in Romania, who rely on the strategic partnership with the United States, should just further keep calm and keep the course.

► BELARUS - RUSSIA. The problem is not that a meeting between the two presidents is going to take place, but that such meeting is not going to happen. The consolidation process of Russia – Belarus state union is in a stalemate, with Lukashenka promising he would not sign any document which would dent the fundamental interests of his country. The security effects are immediate: while Moscow, by Sergey Lavrov, announced it was worried about the increasing presence of NATO troops at the Belarus border, Minsk sends the signal it is ready to partake in common exercises with… NATO, if the Alliance observes Belarus status (member of CIS, CSTO, and Eurasian Economic Union). That is something like “protect our country from «Europe’s first dictator», although that dictator wants to protect our «last dictator in Europe» from his own people”. Minsk also profits the fact that Chinese loan came in the nick of time and allows Lukashenka regime to survive a while without negotiating with Moscow the thorny issue of oil imports. This latent crisis in Belarus transfers the center of gravity of Russia’s relations with the West, albeit partly, from Romania’s region a bit to the north. 

► ISRAEL. The election saga and the saga of Benjamin Netanyahu’s future go on. New elections are to follow in March, again quite balanced. However, Netanyahu begins to be contested in his own party, Likud, where competition already appeared in the person of Sa’ar. This politician acts like a viable alternative, considering that other corruption scandals are about to burst out and get closer to the prime minister (such as the scandal of submarines bought from Germany).  

► UNITED STATES – CHINA. An agreement is being heralded, or at least a first part of an agreement. Markets rejoice, although nothing is clear yet, and, considering precedents, this might still be just a “Chinese drop”. However, the news bodes well for President Trump, who is better and better positioned for a victory in the 2020 elections: China is forced to change its behavior in bilateral trade, without seeing negative effects on American economy. United States economy keeps growing, and migration seems to be under control, because the president’s blackmail policy towards Central American leaders works (they were forced to stop exporting their social problems to the U.S.). Therefore, Trump will try to delay his trial in the Senate and exploit this process, which he knows he will win, for launching himself in a bandwagon election campaign.

[1] Putin declared that, should the Ukrainians take control of the border, In Donbass “a new Srebrenica would occur”. False! During the war between the Ukrainians and the separatists, respectively the Russian troops, there were no massacres against civilians, although war rules were not observed in full (Ukraine still collects evidence regarding execution of Ukrainian POWs by the separatists). It is interesting to notice that, when it needs, the Kremlin forgets the “Serbian truth” it constantly supports and highlights another truth to save the day. So, Putin agrees now that a massacre was committed in Srebrenica (did he touch base with his friend Dodik on that?). The same way, in 2014, he compared the situation in Crimea with that in… Kosovo. This is the true color of Russo – Serbian relations, and Belgrade cannot miss that!  

[2] The Trilateral Working Group includes representatives of Kyiv (not executive level), the separatists, and OSCE. Russia wants to transfer as much as it can of the discussions and negotiations to this TWG level, in order to raise the separatists as equal part with Kyiv, while Moscow reserves the role of “party non-involved in the conflict”, a mediator at Normandy Four level.

[3] Putin’s meeting with Merkel did not provide a solution. Later, Russia “got even” by expelling two German diplomats from Moscow. Game over.

[4] This would explain Moscow’s special request for reciprocity, meaning that Russian Foreign Minister be received by the U.S. President, same as the American Secretary of State visiting Moscow is received by President Putin.

[5] In absence of any extension, New START expires in February 2021.

[6] SSC-8, the missile by which Russia breached the INF, is nothing else than a “Kalibr on land”. Kalibr cruise missiles represent the main threat against Europe, since there is no missile defense system against this missile, while against the ballistic missiles there is the BMD system at Deveselu / Romania, and later it will be an additional one in Poland. Russian experts just underline this breach in NATO defense disposition. A needed cruise missile defense system would imply a C4ISR system and aviation tactics, respectively anti-aircraft tactics, because, although they are subsonic, cruise missiles fly at low altitude and follow an unpredictable trajectory, difficult to detect, identify, and intercept.