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24 decembrie 2019 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 51 of 2019)

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

I. HUNGARY. President Viktor Orbán sends a message to Romania. II. RUSSIA. President Vladimir Putin holds his annual press conference. III. UNITED STATES established sanctions on Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. IV. TURKEY. Incirlik base is under closure threat.V. Developments to track this Week 52, last of 2019.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. HUNGARY. President Viktor Orbán sends a message to Romania.

On December 18th Romania marked 30 years since the beginning of 1989 revolution. On this occasion, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visited the city of Timişoara and issued a surprising message of opening toward Romania. His message generates optimism, but also raised several questions as it calls for unity in the fight against Hungarian leadership’s enemy, which is western liberalism. Therefore, Romanian government’s answer was just a polite refusal. Although that was more a rhetorical call, the message has the merit of being a small first step in improving bilateral relations. One day, such development would lead, as we all hope, to that rapprochement by reconciliation, which should be natural for two European nations with a complicated common history, but condemned to go together, since we live as neighbors for centuries, and we will further live together, as nations and cultures.

Marking the event, Viktor Orbán noticed that “inhabitants of Timişoara and Romania’s citizens sent an important message to the world, that we, the central-Europeans, will regain our liberty, for the price of life, if necessary”. Orbán highlighted that, in 1989, “cornmeal exploded”, and that “it is possible for Romanians and Hungarians to fight together for a common cause”. He also mentioned another historical moment, the Hungarian anti-communist rebellion of 1956, when “Poles, Hungarians in Romania and Romanians were solidary with Hungary”. After underlining that “Romanians showed that a popular revolt was possible, and that would lead to the fall of communism”, Viktor Orbán concluded that “peoples of Central Europe always knew that the great powers would never grant us liberty. These peoples also know that the gift can come only from God”. Orbán ignored the role of the West, the containment policy, and he injected history with a metaphysical dimension, hard to be filtered into post-communist developments occurred in either of the two countries, as the elites’ cynicism prevailed over the idealist patriotism of anti-communist revolutionaries.

In these circumstances, Viktor Orbán steered toward the future by asking a crucial question: “are we, Romanians and Hungarians, able to also think about the way we want the future to look like, the not distant future we want to live next to each other? Are there, or can we identify common objectives of our two nations?” Viktor Orbán believes that the right  moment for that future is already here: “we, Hungarians, want to end this situation where we are forced to accept the status of second grade Europeans. After fourty years of communism and Soviet occupation, it is still something to reach the second-grade level. However, we want to be a European country where life, creation and living in general are top notch. Hungary wants to produce goods by using state-of-the-art technology, wants to benefit from the best and cleanest natural environment, and wants to remain one of the most secure countries in the world. Therefore, together with our neighbors, together with Romania, we are ready to build a new Central Europe, where we cease to be just suppliers of large western holdings, and where our countries will represent the most competitive and successful regions. We want highways and high-speed trains between our cities, we want jobs for everybody, we want countries where labor force returns, and we want countries where people from Western Europe would bother us by seeking jobs. Should we be again solidary and united, and should we work together, the impossible will be again possible, and we will be able to build together a new European reality”.    

Beyond the anti-western paradigm, Viktor Orbán’s message is remarkable, by identifying a perpetual reality, by pointing that we are too linked to not be together. However, there are many negative elements. Viktor Orbán proposes a Central Europe against the West, which is not the case for Romania’s views. Hungary is a second-grade country which successfully graduated transition[1], but faces an anti-western ideology, shows nationalistic features and has an autocratic leadership. Meanwhile, Romania is a third-grade country, which seeks to find a way for development after stagnation. Thus, although we are in so different stages of development, Romanians have the advantage of having a clear reference: as we always did in the history, our guidelines are the European values, perceived as being also Romanian. Therefore, Romania wants to belong to European realities, as they currently are, not to a new reality put together against it. This is the reason for the polite refusal received by Viktor Orbán from Romania’s representative. This also explains the foreign policy difference between the two countries: Romania plays perennial cards, counting on western heavyweight nations. Those nations not only they never let down Romania in dire straits, but also because Romania always believed it resembled them, from the spirit of Romania’s Constitutions, to its cultural, political and economic ideals. When Romania was cast away from the liberal West, it regressed both domestically and internationally, and became the victim of its adversaries. So, in 1940, after its western allies, France and Great Britain, were withdrawing in face of Nazi Germany, Romania immediately lost territories where Romanians were in majority. Although, to the benefit of both nations, Romanians and Hungarians are no longer adversaries now, even recently we witnessed the price paid when isolating from the West. After the Hungarian foreign minister came to Bucharest to offer support of Budapest to the then Romanian authorities… against the European Commission, we were asking what the price would have been. We learn now, that Viktor Orbán government had obtained a “verbal approval” for its program of supporting ethnic Hungarian farmers in Romania. The fact itself would be welcomed (any support for our citizens is beneficial), but let’s see with what other nation has Hungary the nerve to behave like that, knowing that, between countries, agreements are in writing? Even a simple diplomatic note is… a written document!

Beyond his policy, which is counterproductive to Hungary’s future, Viktor Orbán has a big merit, and that is seeing that there is a “not distant future we want to live next to each other”, and that there is a Central Europe where Hungarians and Romanians can have “common objectives”. For this, Romania should recover the economic and social gap, and it will do it only shoulder to shoulder with the West, while Hungary should stop its political regress proposed by Viktor Orbán himself. Viktor Orbán deserves all credit for putting the word “together” in its proper place, instead of “against each other”. Köszönöm (thank you) for this vision, mister Orbán! We only need to recover the gap, and Budapest must repair what is broken, meaning to change Viktor Orbán regime’s authoritarian orientation, its excesses against the rule of law, and its nationalist and radical behavior. Does it seem possible? Viktor Orbán himself told us that, for Romanians and Hungarians, when there is a will, nothing is impossible!


II. RUSSIA. President Vladimir Putin holds his annual press conference.

On December 10th, President Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference, which claims to be the Kremlin autocrat’s meeting with the nation, brought nothing new. In foreign policy, Putin reiterated the same positions: he sent a trade-off message to the West, respectively the United States, especially regarding nuclear arms control; he anchored himself in sturdy positions towards Ukraine; he mentioned balance in Moscow’s relations with Asian nations, where he pointed at both progress and limits in Russia’s relations with China. At home, Putin maintained his known positions, but there were moments when the “true Russia” surfaced. See, below, summarized positions regarding defense and security, which  implicitly speak to us in Romania.

  1. Relations with the United States. Putin believes that President Donald Trump will not be removed from the White House and his position is similar to that of the United States president’s (the Democrats would have invented this impeachment trial because they lack alternative political means to change the current situation): “the Democrats attempted to reach results by other means, accusing Trump of plotting with Russia, then no conspiracy was proven (yet the FBI investigation concluded that Russia had been involved). Now they fabricated the pressure on Ukraine”. Regarding the proposed sanctions against Russia, Putin stated that “these decisions are taken by people who practically are not responsible for such decisions. These are not executive structures, but representative bodies, they are supposed to make laws. Instead, they make decisions regarding Russia” (False: the United States is a democracy, the legislative body comes first, and the executive, no matter how strong, implements the legislation voted by the Congress; Putin’s notion reflects an autocrat’s disdain regarding a “cardboard legislative”, not the U.S. realities). Putin admitted that these decisions impact on Russo-American relations. He warned that Russia would react in the mirror to Washington decisions. Putin sent a crystal-clear message: “we are interested in developing our relations with the United States, and we will do that with whoever lives in the White House or whoever will control the Congress”. Putin believes that the foundation for building Moscow’s relations with Washington is the global security issues, including START 3 (New START). Russia has sent its proposals in that regard and is ready to extend the current agreement by an accord signed before the end of this year. However, he did not receive an answer so far, which Putin thinks it is “a bad thing, since there is nothing else to contain the arms race”. Bottom line, Putin sent a message of opening to the United States, particularly to Donald Trump, regarding the arms control issue[2].
  2. Relations with Ukraine. Although Vladimir Putin refused to discuss about his Ukrainian counterpart, he has reiterated that “there is nothing else but the Minsk Agreements”, and declared he was very much concerned about Zelenskiy’s statements regarding a revision of these agreements: “the situation might reach a deadlock, because the Minsk Agreement core is the wording on Donbass region special status, which should be included into Ukraine’s fundamental legislation”. Putin insisted that “we need a direct (Kyiv’s) dialogue with Donbass (read “the separatists”)! This is absent”. However, Putin issued an optimistic message: “Donbass conflict resolution is not a lost cause”. He accused Ukraine for “not wishing to withdraw its troops from the contact line, which is alarming, but, however, the Normandy format activity is favorable”. Putin returned to the issue of decentralizing Ukraine, pointing that such measures should be agreed with the two self-proclaimed separatist republics: “solving the Donbass conflict should be achieved by starting a dialogue with the citizens (read: with the separatists imposed at gun point by the Kremlin), not by force”. For the current Donbass separation from Ukraine, Putin accused… Petro Poroshenko (for using the air force and imposing total blockade). Putin reiterated the essential Russian positions regarding Donbass: a) Kyiv’s control of its borders should be resumed after the elections, and after the separatists gain a special status; b) “regarding the withdrawal of foreign forces, there are no foreign forces. There are local police, self-defense forces, manned by local population”. As for the separatist tanks, “this is their weaponry, it is not foreign”. Putin introduced a new theory, meant to legitimate the separatists: Poroshenko insisted that leaders of the two unrecognized republics signed the Minsk Agreements. Thus, Ukraine was the one to recognize that such entities exist” (false: the separatists are not Minsk Agreements signatories, but co-signatories, just for making them cease fire). Although painful for those who had certain illusions, Putin’s declarations bring nothing new, they are only reiterations of Moscow’s known positions. Regarding the agreement on gas transit through Ukraine, Putin stated that Russia agrees to continue this business (which was later confirmed in a written agreement). In this context, he presented the imagine of a Ukraine plundered by the West, which wants “Ukraine to tweak the budget on Russia’s account. You give them money, help them, grant them good loans with preferential interests for a long time. But no, that will not happen”.
  3. Relations with China. Putin declared that “the most important thing achieved during the latest years between Russia and China, are neither the figures, nor the fields we cooperate, but the unprecedented level of trust created between our countries”, as the Sino-Russian cooperation represents “a major factor of international stability, including in respecting the international law, by creating a multipolar world”. World multipolarity would be a consequence of economic exchanges, and Putin has stated that the United States is overtaken by China on GDP. However, Putin declared that “we do not have, and do not intend to make a military alliance with China”.
  4. On domestic issues, Putin reiterated the well-known notions: the need to increase the living standard, with the unfair western sanctions on the same plate. However, the “real Russia” appeared too, when several journalists dared to address the war veteran extortion by Sochi authorities, the increase in airfares, and small wages. That the “real Russia” is more complicated that the picture drawn by the power is proven by the recent terrorist attack on the FSB building in Moscow, true symbol of Chekist power.

On Ukraine, although negative, Putin’s positions were to be expected. It is positive that he maintained his rapprochement message regarding Russia’s relations with the U.S.

This message was also reiterated by GEN Valery Gerasimov, the head of Russia’s General Staff. In his annual speech, after repeating old accusations and warnings to NATO and the United States, Gerasimov declared that Russia does not expect a full-scale conflict in the next year. Also, following Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Washington, Gerasimov had a meeting with his American counterpart.

On the other hand, on December 22nd, Sergey Lavrov announced that Russia is ready to include the new Sarmat missile and its hypersonic glider Avangard in the New START, should that agreement be extended. Moscow cautiously calculates its moves, especially that flaws are visible, despite further pursuing Russia’s weapon development programs[3]. This situation can only please us, especially because, on the ground, tensed standoffs continue: an American destroyer which entered the Black Sea was closely pursued by a Russian corvette with anti-ship missiles (and perhaps by a Kilo II submarine as well).


III. UNITED STATES established sanctions on Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

On December 20th, the United States decided sanctions against the manufacturers contributing to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline construction. This is a blow to Russia, but also to Germany. The American pressure resulted in an immediate halt of the pipeline construction, although works are in the final phase. Both the United States and Germany “are right” in their arguments. However, security of the West will probably prevail, and Russia’s recent agreement with Ukraine on gas transit stands to prove it.   

The sanctions against companies involved in building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline (NS2) were introduced by the U.S. Congress in the wider package law called “2020 National Defense Authorization Act”, which was very quickly signed by President Donald Trump. This law requests the vessels involved in constructing NS2 to “immediately” stop their activities on this pipeline, otherwise sanctions are to follow, including the blocking of all material and financial assets. NS2 was just a few weeks away from finalizing construction, with only works in the Danish Exclusive Economic Zone to be performed (Denmark delayed its agreement until one month ago). The Allseas Group company, charged with finalizing this last pipeline segment, announced it suspended its activity in view if imminent U.S. sanctions. So, Allseas Group reacted to the December 19th letter sent by U.S. Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson, who warned the company to immediately stop its activity or be subjected to American sanctions. Previously, information has circulated that Allseas Group might finish the pipeline within the thirty-day term stipulated in law for halting the work. Senator Cruz admitted that, in this piece of legislation, he targeted the vessels participating in NS2 construction because Russia does not possess such technology.

Germany protested this law adopted by the United States. Although Berlin had previously stated that NS2 was a private project, the German finance minister Olaf Scholz declared that Germany “firmly rejects” this law, for "serious interference in the internal affairs of Germany and Europe and their sovereignty". These accusations repeat those issued by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. Germany raised the problem to European Union level, and, on December 21st, the European Commission announced it would examine the way these sanctions taken against a company "conducting legitimate business" impact on the NS2 construction. On the other hand, German government trans-Atlantic relation coordinator Peter Beyer pointed put that sanctions do not target Germany, but private companies; Therefore, "Germany will not take any countermeasures. If so, this would have to happen at European level anyway, but that won't happen either". He has stated that imposing these sanctions does not represent a turning point in German – American relations.

Russia protested on December 22nd, by the voice of Sergey Lavrov, who declared that NS2, same as TurkStream, will be inaugurated despite U.S. sanctions. Previously, during his visit to Washington, Lavrov had stated that sanctions would not stop the NS2 construction. Interestingly, only hours before President Trump signed the law, Moscow had announced an agreement with Kyiv on a new five-year contract for gas transit through Ukraine to western Europe. Both the United States and the EU had warned Russia to reach an agreement for transit through Ukraine, given the well-founded fear that Russia would use NS2 and the TurkStream to replace the transit through Ukraine.

Worse for Moscow, other sanctions were drafted (the so-called “sanctions from Hell”) and will be voted in the Congress, in order to punish Russia for meddling into American elections and for its military actions in Syria.

The United States opposed the NS2 pipeline for energy security reasons, arguing that NS2, together with TurkStream, would increase Europe’s dependence on Russian energy. The U.S. eluded to say that U.S. itself is interested in selling liquefied natural gas (LNG) on European market. The other way around, Germany stressed that NS2 project is private, eluding to say that NS2 would afflict the European security. This situation will stress the relations between Germany and the United States, although Berlin has shifted the problem to Brussels. Russia loses, at least on short-term, discovering that the entanglement tactics does not always work. Meanwhile, the European energy security is a net beneficiary of this situation.

For Romania, wiser than involving in such big games, would be better to solve our local problems, ranging from interconnection (creating a single market, for better or worse) to exploiting the Black Sea deposits and, especially, if possible, to relaunch Romania’s oil and gas based industry, at least for the reason of avoiding to have our gas burned by somebody else, as they blatantly and “in your face” put it.


IV. TURKEY. Incirlik base is under closure threat.

On December 15th, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to close the Incirlik Air Base, should the United States introduce sanctions against Turkey, but also in response to U.S. Senate recognition of the Ottoman genocide against Armenians. Erdoğan declared that “if it is necessary for us to take such a step, of course we have the authority... If this is necessary, together with our delegations, we will close down Incirlik if necessary”. Although other Turkish officials made such threat (recently, the foreign minister did), it is for the first time when this threat is made by President Erdoğan. The Incirlik base hosts American aircraft and tactical nuclear weapons. Turkey might also close the Kurecik base, which hosts the American radar installations part of the NATO anti-ballistic defense system.  

On December 16th, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper reacted with surprise and stated it was necessary to talk to his Turkish couneterpart in order to understand how serious President Erdoğan was about it: “It has not been brought up to me before. The first I heard of it was reading it in the papers as you just mentioned and so I need to talk to my defense counterpart to understand what they really mean and how serious they are”. Esper added that, should Turkey really want to close the Kurecik Base, it should take the issue at NATO level: “They are a sovereign nation to begin with, so they have that inherent right to house or to not house NATO bases or foreign troops… But again, I think this becomes an alliance matter, your commitment to the alliance, if indeed they are serious about what they are saying”.

So, Turkey is threatened by the U.S. Congress with sanctions in response to Ankara’s purchase of Russian S400 air defense system and for its military operations against Syrian Kurds. Therefore, President Erdoğan threatens with closing a vital military base for the United States. This tactics is risky, as the U.S. might begin withdrawing from Incirlik. This base in southern Turkey has a strategic role because the American aircraft can cover from here the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Pentagon already took minimal precaution measures: it extended the agreements regarding its bases in Greece (to cover Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East), they are a welcomed presence in Romania, but they withdrew from Central Asia (U.S. contigent reduction in Afghanistan continues, regardless the pace of negotiations with the Taliban). Also, the United States will likely start to transfer its nukes to other locations. Otherwise, there is no explanation for Erdoğan’s previous declaration suggesting that, in absence of foreign nuclear weapons deployed on its territory, Turkey would be entitled to produce its own nuclear weapons.

Turkey’s relations with the United States get more complicated, and this is not good for Romania (or other nations for that matter), although we might benefit from an increased American presence, should the Incirlik base close down. Let’s hope that there are simple threats, and that President Erdoğan will know where to stop.


V. Developments to track this Week 52, last of 2019.

► UNITED STATES. The impeachment was voted in the House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate is to try President Donald Trump. It remains to be seen how much he will benefit from the rejection of all accusations by the Republican dominated Senate. Anyway, the American political class will focus on this domestic huge issue and will have very little time left for foreign policy decisions.

► BELARUS - RUSSIA. The meeting between the two presidents did occur eventually, but with no result. In Minsk, the power allowed the population to demonstrate in the streets against a deeper integration of the two nations. Not by chance, exactly in the right moment, a witness fled to Germany appeared to expose the persecution of Belarusian political leaders and businessmen by Lukashenka’s “death squads”. Perhaps it is not by chance either, that such information surfaces precisely when Lukashenka turns his back to Moscow, seeking support in the West. 

► CENTRAL EUROPE. The power shift continues in Poland and Slovakia. Defying Brussels, Polish governing party PiS continues its move on the justice system by promoting in Polish lower chamber a bill meant to punish the judges who criticize the reform in justice. PiS has problems in the higher chamber though, where its majority is not sure. In Slovakia, the trial of perpetrators in the case of a murdered journalist (and his girlfriend) began, and this trial will directly impact on the power, respectively Robert Fico’s party. In Prague, street protests against Prime Minister Andřej Babiš continue, on the backdrop of the investigation reopened against him (as result of an EU report regarding the misuse of European funds). In his turn, Viktor Orbán is at war with Hungarian culture elite (theater actors).   

► SYRIA. Following Russian and Syrian air attacks on Idlib, dozens of thousands of Syrians flee to Turkey. The process of pacifying the terrorist-controlled areas, by executing air attacks including against civilian population does not occur as Ankara imagined, when agreeing with Russia and Iran.

► LIBYA. The conflict in Libya gets more complicated. Turkey voted the necessary legislation and is prepared to deploy troops to Libya. Russia and Turkey have consultations (they support opposite sides), but also do the westerners: Italy and France have their own consultations, in fear that they will have a new peacemaking implemented by the two power in full expansion, Russia and Turkey, and such peacemaking will directly impact on western security.

[1] In economy, where all effects of political elite come together for the nation, “a Hungarian is worth four Romanians”: a country twice smaller exports twice more.

[2] It is relevant that Putin suddenly interrupted a Japanese journalist who was building a question regarding the danger of a nuclear war, in the context of upcoming end of current arms control agreements. Putin burst out: “What imminent nuclear war? What are you talking about?”. It is the same Putin who, one year ago, was resignedly preparing the Russians for apocalypse, and, a couple of months ago, was scaring everybody with his nuclear-powered cruise missiles and autonomous underwater vehicles with nuclear warhead. For sure, the tune has changed at the Kremlin, because an agreement with the United States is coveted, not an arms race (which Moscow already initiated though)!

[3] Russia lost another Tu22M3 strategic bomber, the second during this year (from a park of dozens of such aircraft). Despite Sergey Shoigu’s declarations regarding air force priority, and strategic air forces foremost, the money goes to the A 100 surveillance and command aircraft production (belated program) and transport aircraft, as well as towards further providing tactical aviation with the successful Su 35 aircraft. Resuming the Tu 160 construction is uncertain, and so is the purchase of a larger number of Su 57 aircraft. Also uncertain is the return of Russia’s only aircraft carrier to the operational fleet, after it caught fire while in the shipyard. Declarations are one thing, while facts are another fish dish!