MAS Special ReportWeekly review

Weekly review NATO - UE LEVANT Western Balkans Black Sea Region

31 decembrie 2018 - Special reports - Weekly review


Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. RUSSIA. Missile testing aimed at ...preserving the INF.

II. RUSSIA - UKRAINE. Tensions during truce.

III. BALKANS. Beyond Kosovo crisis, the Balkans begin to move.

IV. MIDDLE EAST. In Syria, the Kurds moved first, and in Israel early elections are to follow.

V. Developments to track in 2019 and New Year’s Eve resolutions.


I. RUSSIA. Missile testing aimed at ...preserving the INF.

On December 26th, the Russian Strategic Forces successfully tested the Avangard System. This strategic offensive (possibly nuclear capable) weapon is a hypersonic ”glider” (if something that moves at hypersonic speed can be called a glider) launched from a ballistic rocket SS-19/UR-100NUTTH. The SS-19 / Avangard hypersonic payload combined weapon was launched from a Dombarovskiy missile division silo and the Avangard glider hit a target 6000 km away, in the Kura firing range in Kamchatka Peninsula. The launch was observed from the National Defense Control Center by the President of Russia and other officials. It was reported that the Avangard system has completed the tests and is ready for deployment in 2019.

The Avangard system (also called Project 4202) has a long history. The vehicle, initially called Yu-70, was tested in the 90s and then it was left on the shelf until 2004, when it was presented again to the Russian leadership. A long series of additional tests followed until 2014, with mixt results. The program was almost shut down at the end of 2014, but several tests followed before good results were reportedly achieved only lately. This allowed the operationalization of two SS-19/UR-100NUTTH missiles siloed at Dombarovskiy. A total of 12 such rockets are to be based there until the end of 2027 .

The Russians claim the glider has reached the speed of 20 Mach (twenty times the speed of sound in air) or even 27 Mach by other accounts. One should consider that the vehicle is flying at altitudes of 70-80 km, where the speed of sound is about 290 m/s, which is less than 340 m/s at the sea level. Thus, 20 Mach would be 5.8 km/s, and 27 Mach would be about 7.8 km/s. This is quite remarkable indeed, and it means that the Russian engineers managed to overcome the serious dynamics problems of precise maneuvering at very high speed. There is also the issue of high performance materials needed to withstand the high temperatures generated by that friction.

And all this after unofficial American sources mentioned that a test had failed in 2017.

Basically, Avangard is not a hypersonic vehicle per se, but a ballistic missile payload which glides after being lifted to operational altitude. Once released, the Avangard warhead glides with horizontal and vertical maneuvers to avoid interception by zigzaging on a complicated trajectory, after the simple ballistic ascension. The first question is if the technical problems have been really solved. Then, if three successful tests really occurred (the 2017 failed test has not been announced by the Russian officials). Another question is linked to the claimed speeds – how real they are: 27 Mach, 20 Mach or even lower than those figures. Regardless the precise answers to these questions, Avangard makes a true challenge to the US interception systems both by the warhead’s speed and its unpredictable trajectory. American experts declared that, ”if the Russians are not bluffing and the Avangard is ready for production, the Kremlin is ahead of Beijing and the United States—both of which are trying to develop similar hypersonic boost-glide weapons”. Also, the Avangard system is a real problem for both the detection sensors, let alone the interceptors. What silver bullet is needed to hit such a target zigzaging at such speed? For example, the Aegis Ashore anti-ballistic shield, even with SM3 IIA interceptors reaching 4.5 km/s (15.25 Mach) has no chance to down a 20 – 27 Mach warhead. This does not mean that everything is lost, the US anti-ballistic systems can still aim at the ascending ballistic missile and hit it before it releases the hypersonic warhead. Or, different solutions can be found, for example space-based laser systems or electromagnetic pulse bombs, which do not need to actually touch the glider, but to burst out in vicinity and fry Avangard’s electronics. But Russia claims it already got ahead of the idea of hitting the ballistic vector, and is in the process of developing rockets that the current anti-ballistic systems cannot stop. Now, there are doubts elsewhere: if Moscow is already working on the antidote, why is it so adamant about keeping the INF alive and persuade Washington to give up its anti-ballistic shield? Maybe one should pay attention to the time race, the pace the Russian new systems are operationalized.

I compared above the Avangard speed with the Aegis Ashore interceptor speed just because the suspected ballistic vector meant to lift Avangard up is, in fact, RS-26 Rubezh / SS-X-31 (or SS-X-29B), which would breach INF treaty: Russia has tested that missile at ranges over 6000 km with payloads under the handbook weight, as the missile range is under 5500 km with a full weight payload.

Now we reach political-military issues: Russia announced it has, beside the SSC-8 cruise missile, a gliding warhead called Avangard, which cannot be intercepted with existing anti-ballistic systems, and which can be mounted on another missile breaching the INF, the ballistic RS-26 Rubezh / SS-X-31. The message is sent to the US, but especially to the Europeans fearing the consequences of US withdrawal from INF. On December 27th, the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas expressed his skepticism regarding a would-be American response by nuclear warhead missiles deployed to Europe: “Under no circumstances should Europe become a stage for a rearmament debate... Stationing of new medium-range missiles would be met with broad resistance in Germany... Nuclear rearmament is most certainly the wrong answer.” However, the same H. Maas and his party SPD are seeking a new policy towards Russia, based on visible results, not on high level meetings and personal level arrangements, which all proved ineffective.

s we know President Donald Trump by now, we might find ourselves in the situation where he refuses any response to Russia’s breaching the INF if the Europeans do not pay for their security. It is only then when we, the Europeans, will see what breaking the trans-Atlantic link really means: Russian SSC-8 and RS-26 missiles threatening both political-military decision centers and various other strategic military objective, and the ports where American military relief is supposed to arrive. Therefore, we better ask ourselves what will the US do to protect us from the Russian missiles already deployed, than telling what US should not do.

II. RUSSIA - UKRAINE. Tensions during truce.

On December 29th, Russia rejected the common Franco-German declaration requesting the liberation of the Ukrainian sailors arrested during the Kerch Strait incident. This declaration is accusing Russia of use of force, illegal control of the ships and breaching human rights in Crimea. The Russian Foreign Ministry responded: “it is regrettable that the second part of this statement, in which Berlin and Paris presumptuously accuse Russia of certain violations of human rights in the Crimea and escalation of tension in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, present us with unacceptable requirements.” Disregarding that the 24 sailors have been declared POWs, President Vladimir Putin conveyed to Chancellor Angela Merkel that the Ukrainian sailors woud be tried according to Russian laws. It is noticeable though, that Russia shows some opening to a peaceful solution of the problem. Probably releasing the sailors is envisaged, after convicting them, and then granting a limited freedom for the maritime trafic in the Sea of Azov. This would serve Moscow’s paradigm: Crimea has not been annexed by force, no human rights are breached there, and the Sea of Azov is open to maritime trafic (just as much as the Kremlin decides). Russia reacted the same when the UN Security Council condemned Russia for breaching the human rights in Crimea. Russia is still in search for a way which looks legal to split the annexation of Crimea from the current disputes regarding the Sea of Azov because, if the latter issue is prone to compromise, the former is not, the Crimean predicament has no turning back.

The Russian aviation intercepted again an American electronic reconnaissance aircraft Rivet Joint, on December 27th, IVO Crimea. However, this time Moscow acted according to international rules, for a change. This action confirms what we estimated in the Week 51 Report, and will likely happen again. The good news this time is that Moscow did not attempt to turn it into an incident, as it happened before.
The Russian ELINT warship IVAN KHURS entered the Black Sea, on December 27th, heading towards Sevastopol. The IVAN KHURS is a new electronic intelligence vessel (AGI), with remarkable SIGINT (SIGnals INTelligence) and EW (Electronic Warfare) capabilities. Having on board modern communication systems, it can also be used as a command warship with C4ISR capabilities. IVAN KHURS has the capability to detect and monitor the launching of ballistic and cruise missiles. Russia is reinforcing the ELINT capabilities of its Black Sea Fleet with one of the largest and most modern warships of the kind (one Russian AGI vessel sunk close to Bosporus Strait a couple of years ago).  
Such vessel  is needed in all Russian fleets, especially those facing American warships and submarines (the North Fleet, the Pacific Fleet). In these circumstances, it is worth pointing out the deployment of IVAN KHURS in the Black Sea, a strong indication of the importance bestowed by Russia into this region, now, and also an indication of the importance Moscow gives to the conflict with Ukraine, including at sea. Of course, IVAN KHURS will conduct missions in Eastern Mediterranean too, but what we are concerned of, is the missions close to the Romanian littoral.

New Year’s Eve truce. On December 27th, the Ukrainian representative in the Trilateral Contact Group Minsk, Yevhen Marchuk, announced that an agreement has been reached with the separatists for a truce between the two parties starting December 29th. We will see if that agreement holds, given the contradictory signals sent by both sides. The Russian Prime-Minister, Dmitri Medvedev, announced, on December 29th, an embargo on a large list of Ukrainian agricultural and industrial products, only days after it already had extended the list of sanctions against Ukrainian firms and individuals. On December 28th, the Russian authorities also announced that a protection fence has been built across the istmus between Crimea and Ukraine.

In his turn, on December 26th, the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, decided to lift the state of emergency established in several Ukrainian regions. However, the interdiction for all Russian male citizens age 16 to 60 to enter Ukraine remains. The two parties accused each other of preparing a provocation with chemical weapons / toxic substances. After the spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry conveyed such accusations made by the separatists, the Ukrainian intelligence agency also mentioned the possibility that the separatists might commit  a chemical attack. A typical Black Swan situation: the more unlikely such attack appeared, the more serious the aftermath would be. Nevertheless, probably the separatists will show more restrain in involving the British in such ruse along the Ukrainians, because a tiny sign of thaw can be seen in the relations between Moscow and London: starting January 2019, a limited number of Russian, respectively British diplomats will be accredited in the respective embassies in London and Moscow. 

Consequently, we will likely enjoy a quiet New Year’s Eve and the Russian / Ukrainian Christmas in these countries, but the hostile attitudes and acts will certainly resume shortly afterwards, with increased intensity, especially since the presidential elections get closer in Ukraine.    

III. BALKANS. Beyond Kosovo crisis, the Balkans begin to move.

We mentioned last week that the Kosovo powder keg has heated up after Priština’s decision to raise the tariffs for Serbian and Bosnian merchandise entering Kosovo, which increased ten times the cost of living for the Serbs living north of Ibar River. Now, Priština introduced a second wave of raised tariffs, this time on third country products imported through Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Belgrade called this measure irrational, and it is a matter of time until… no, it will not be Belgrade to give in, but until the Serbs north of Ibar River will react, supported by Serbia (The targeted imports plummeted from 35 million Euros to only 300 000).

In addition to this, a new phenomenon appeared: the authorities are challenged by public protests from Albania to Serbia, in various degrees. In Albania, under the pressure of student protests, on December 28th, Prime-Minister Edi Rama reshuffled eight minsters. The accusations by the protesters target the basis of power: corruption, nepotism, incompetence, and the lack of administration capabilities to govern the country. Although the protests started with limited requests (a decrease in schooling taxes), there is no guarantee that E. Rama’s measure will stop the student protests.

Street protests became a rule in Belgrade too, where the Aleksandar Vučić regime is accused of controlling the justice and the press, while protecting the oligarchs, who grabbed the economy and the politics in Serbia under the banner of nationalism. Still at low level now, the protests will become a constant concern for the government. Even in Republika Srpska of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Miroslav Dodik waved the banner of nationalism for consolidating his power, the authorities try to quell a protest movement against his power: on December 25th, an individual was arrested after protesting for months: he was demanding the authorities to investigate the case of his son’s killing and he also accused the police of complicity and the attempt to cover up the case. This action by the police might fuel the protests.

In the western Balkans, where nationalists made fortunes and grabbed power masquerading as Messiahs of the nation, they might come to face the nation itself.  

In Syria, the Kurds moved first.

President Donald Trump’s coup-de-grace decision to withdraw the American troops from Syria showed its first effects in Syria, of course. The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sought to shape the political-military environment in preparation for chasing away the Syrian Kurds east of the Euphrates River. He began a build-up of forces along the border, he initiated a dialogue with Moscow on the issue, and he warned Paris to keep off. In fact, France is well-aware of its limits: President Emmanuel Macron criticized the American decision, the French troops ostensibly patrolled in Manbij during the Christmas week-end, then the French admitted that ”without the Americans nothing is possible. With only 200 special forces troops, we cannot stay if they leave and we do not have even the means to leave without them”.  

However, the Kurds moved first, allowing Bashar al-Assad troops to enter Manbij on December 28th. Turkey could only settle with the statement that it has nothing against that, with the condition that the ”terrorists” (the Kurdish YPG) leave the town. Turkey found consolation in a high level meeting in Moscow for coordinating its actions in Syria with Russia. Turkey did not get much, as Russia had already gladly approved Kurds’ action to deliver Manbij town and region to the Damascus authorities. We will see what the next tripartite conference has to offer, because to the victor go the spoils…

In ISRAEL, early elections are to follow.

The long-awaited right-wing coalition announcement to organize early elections did not surprise anybody. The governing coalition leaves power only to come back in a new format. On December 24th, Prime-Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the decision to dissolve the Knesset and organize snap elections in April 2019. He seems to have decided that it tis the right time, because the majority has dwindled to a small margin, and internal disputes have not been solved (including the bill meant to make the ultra-orthodox Israelis serve in the military, as everybody else, including females).

However, issues begin to appear: first, a recent poll shows that the right-wing plus the extreme right have the capacity to continue governing, with Likud Party at the same level. B. Netanyahu though, is now supported by only a third of the responders to remain prime-minister. But the biggest problem has a name: the former Chief of Defense, retired general Benny Gantz. He was expected for a long time to enter politics, and, on December 27, he founded the Resilience for Israel Party. B.Gantz is a political threat to Likud and B. Netanyahu because he is well placed in the polls and, with his center-right stance, he brings together large numbers of votes from the center and from the right as well. In addition, until the elections, the electorate might not figure out what this new party really stands for, but it knows very well who this new leader is and what he is capable of.

B. Netanyahu will likely do his best to cling to the power, although even his supporters seem to have had enough of him, despite his achievements. B.Netanyahu takes credit for consolidating Israel’s military and economic power to a new level, by leveraging all circumstances. However, he is allegedly corrupt (several dossiers are waiting for his explanations), he completely smashed the ”two-state solution” for the Palestinian problem and, to some observers, he seems to be at the end of his political journey.

But the capable B. Netanyahu would not have called for early elections if he was not certain of his chances to win a new mandate. Meanwhile, he defied Russia and ordered a new air attack in Syria, against Damascus bases hosting Iranian soldiers. The Syrian anti-aircraft defense system was ineffective, even with the S-300 systems offered by Russia. Consequently, all the Russians could respond was to accuse Israel of jeopardizing the civilian flights by this attack.
V. Developments to track in 2019 and New Year’s Eve resolutions.

 EUROPEAN UNION. Subjected to many tensions, the EU will need to reform and reinvent itself. The European Parliament elections in May will be decisive, and the Brexit as well. Will the EU solve the problems of populism and anti-European drift in some member nations? Will the economic power called Italy, now in populist drift, mange to settle? Will the reform in France succeed? Will Germany really become the leader of Europe?

 UNITED STATES. Where is Donald Trump’s presidency heading? Despite the Mueller investigation, will the President push and take measures after measures to please his constituency, in disregard of negative effects? This 2019 is the year when many unpleasant surprises are lurking. Well, not really surprises though: the relations with Russia, especially the INF problem, the US loyalty to European allies, departure from traditional responsibilities – all these might bring new uncertainties in everybody’s relations with Washington.

 RUSSIA. Will President Vladimir Putin decide that the price for his aggressions is too high? After all, the price of crude would not rise, and the Russian economy is in stagnation as a visible result of the western sanctions. And should the US fail to respond (which might be expected from D. Trump), what will the Europeans do, when they are so much used to oppose American plans to protect them? What will Russia do in Ukraine? With no sign of seeking peace in sight, when will Russia decide to act? What will Russia do in the Black Sea? How far will Russia push in its Syrian military adventure? The role of momentary hegemon feels good, but it costs. It will come a time when the price is unbearable for the Russian society, and then V.Putin will need to find a different answer.

 UKRAINE. The presidential elections, ahead of the parliamentary polls, are crucial for Ukraine. Although the pro-Russian forces are in defense, the economic and social situation make the political situation unstable. And any instability will be exploited by Russia. However, having Yulia Tymoshenko instead would likely bring an even bigger instability than Petro Poroshenko staying in power. Ukraine’s economy is not out of the woods yet (Kyiv is still supported by IMF loans), and the political picture is still blurry: the essential reforms needed to turn Ukraine into a real democracy are yet to come, and the power is not prepared to make this step. They still consider that ”patriotism” is enough and it costs nothing, it is just measured by the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed in Donbass.

 REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA. 2019 seems to be a decisive year, when the pro-Russian forces think they can get the whole political power. Vladimir Plahotniuc will defend ”his state” and we will likely witness the current cohabitation, with both parties hoping they persuade their respective political sponsors of being worthy of vital support. If for V. Plahotniuc it seems to be mission impossible, for Igor Dodon the uphill journey is just beginning, because Russia did not ask yet for substantial results: implementation of the new Kozak plan and serious steps towards Moldova’s integration into Russia’s sphere of influence. The democratic forces do not have the power to oppose these maneuvers, but the society as a whole, does. Year 2019 could also be the year when Bucharest finally figures out what it wants in the R. of Moldova, provided it asks itself this question.

 SERBIA. Belgrade will have to face the Kosovo problem upfront, but also its domestic realities. In the political environment, the Serbs seem to have enough of a problem which is jamming their future, and the only concern is now the fate of the Serbs north of Ibar River. The Serbian oligarchs have squeezed a lot of political and economic profit from the nationalist tragedy still consuming this country. The Belgrade regime did nothing to jeopardize their interests, or to salvage the country from this current situation, either by offering democratic liberties or by opening the economy. Can the Serbian society still tolerate such regime? The ”multi-vector” game is about to turn bad, because Russia and the West cannot share the same sheath, not even in Belgrade, known for playing at two heads for decades. But there is still time for that choice. The rest of Western Balkans, with fragile democracy and economy, is far from us, both as threats and as opportunities. 

 MIDDLE EAST. TURKEY, which is of utmost importance for Romania, will likely pursue the path opened by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This will probably enforce previous trends, with the economic problems as sole moderating factor. There will be crises, big or small, with the neighbors, from Iraq and Syria to Cyprus and Greece. There will likely be problems with the US, Israel and Egypt as well. However, 2019 will be the year when R.T. Erdoğan will learn if his ambitions of becoming a leader of the Sunni world fade away before really blooming. It will be interesting to watch whether they will fade quietly or in a storm. For the rest, the Middle East is far from Romania, itemizing from the destroyed Syria, to Israel determined to stop the Iranian threat, and from a simmering Arab world to Iran subjected to sanctions. 

 GLOBAL. The trade tensions between the US and China will dominate year 2019. However, other economic crises cannot be ruled out, given the large number of unknowns, especially the aggressive and chaotic economic policy of President Donald Trump. By the actions of its president, the main global stability factor, America, became a generator of uncertainty, and it is only the functional democratic system of the US to limit the negative consequences. However, D. Trump is right about China, and an agreement between the two would contribute to a fair and stable economic future. 

Let us hope that no major crisis will occur, of any nature, in our neighborhood or elsewhere. And let us hope we will be able to overcome the crises that occur.

But first and foremost, let us hope there will be peace, that no war will begin, and the current conflicts will end. We do not want this period to be remembered as the golden age before something catastrophic, but only as the time we found our way to an era when peace became the rule, not the exception.


 We wish you a HAPPY NEW YEAR, 2019!!!