31 December 2019

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 52 of 2019)

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

I. RUSSIA operationalizes the Avangard hypersonic missile system. II. RUSSIA. Double power play in the Black Sea. III. MONTENEGRO. The law on religious institutions sparks political tensions. IV. RUSSIA - UKRAINE. There is an agreement on gas transit, but not a contract. V. Developments to track this week, which is also Week 1 of 2020.

Image source: Mediafax


I. RUSSIA operationalizes the Avangard hypersonic missile system.

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has informed President Vladimir Putin that the Avangard hypersonic system has been operationalized. Previously, during the annual review meeting at the Defense Ministry, Vladimir Putin had presented the image of a Russian military well ahead of its adversaries, especially by developments in modern strategic armament. The recent fall of a “somewhat stealth” Su 57 aircraft partly contradicts these optimistic views. Russian defense minister repeated the threat from the West narrative, but the foreign minister reiterated Moscow’s readiness to extend the current nuclear strategic armament agreement with the United States. 


On December 27th, Russian Defense Ministry announced that the first regiment with Avangard hypersonic nuclear-capable missiles was operationalized. The system includes intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) with the Avangard hypersonic glider as a nuclear-capable warhead. Previously, President Vladimir Putin had pointed that Avangard system is unique in the world and puts Russia at the top in the hypersonic arms race. He has also stated that Avangard cannot be intercepted by ballistic defense systems: “Today, we have a unique situation in our new and recent history. They (other countries) are trying to catch up with us. Not a single country possesses hypersonic weapons, let alone continental-range hypersonic weapons”, such as Avangard.

The new system is composed by an ICBM missile carrying as payload an Avangard hypersonic glider. The hypersonic glider is lifted by the ICBM to altitudes between 40 kilometers and 100 kilometers, then it glides at the upper limits of the atmosphere and conducts complex maneuvers on a more complicated trajectory than that of a regular warhead, which gets linear, especially at low altitudes. Current missile defense systems face difficult problems in detecting and predicting hypersonic warhead trajectories, which obviously makes their interception questionable.

The Kremlin states that this system is unparalleled, as the United States has not operationalized such system yet. However, there are several questions linked to the Avangard true features, its degree of operationalization, and its capacity to remain invincible to current missile defense systems. The Pentagon announced it would not comment the Avangard system claimed features, but western experts expressed doubts that Avangard can dodge missile defense systems, although it gains by trajectory unpredictability. It is worth mentioning that the Kremlin has invited U.S. experts to inspect the Avangard system, under New START still valid stipulations, precisely for bestowing credibility to its statements regarding Avangard operationalization and features.

Avangard operationalization was made not for speeding up the arms race and capitalizing on Russia’s head-start, but for freezing the arms race at current level by extending the New START. The Kremlin is so focused on this goal that it announced it would include the Avangard system in a would-be extended New START, as it would also add the new Sarmat ICBM in a new agreement with the United States. However, it is little likely that President Donald Trump will extend this agreement. As about the Avangard, the pace of operationalization will tell how much it is propaganda, and how much is reality with this new strategic offensive weapon system.


II. RUSSIA. Double power play in the Black Sea.

Russia conducted two power play exercises in the Black Sea: the tactical aviation stationed in Crimea simulated anti-ship attacks on a real American destroyer sailing to Odessa, and two Tu 95 strategic bombers simulated cruise missile launching during strategic aviation flights over this region. These actions were not provocative. Perhaps Moscow intended to demonstrate its air and naval supremacy in northwestern Black Sea, and also intended to monitor the reactions of the following actors: the American destroyer, the Ukrainian air defense, and NATO, respectively Romania.

After being closely monitored by a Russian warship, on December 24th, the USS Ross American destroyer, while sailing toward Odessa, was the target of a attack simulated by Russian tactical aviation stationed in Crimea. The Su 24 fighter-bomber aircraft (Russian tactical aviation’s working horse), escorted by Su 27 or Su 30 fighters, simulated launches of anti-ship missiles[1] on the U.S. destroyer. The two Su 24 conducted low altitude flights with aggressive maneuvers and simulated missile attacks on the American warship. The Arleigh Burke class USS Ross destroyer (DDG 71) has ballistic missile defense (BDM) capability through the upgraded Aegis system, and also carrying BM3 missile defense missiles. USS Ross, with home-port in Rota, Spain, is part of NATO ballistic missile system. Russia reacts in a peculiar way to the deployment of such warship, respectively BDM system to the Black Sea. Nevertheless, Russia conducted these actions within the limits  of security measures convened with the United States in the agreement regarding security in air and on sea, which is in force since the begining of the Cold War. The U.S. did not object at all[2].

A second demonstration of force was the flight of two Tu 95 strategic bombers above the Black Sea waters, respectively above the Crimean Peninsula. There, on December 25th, they very likely simulated launches of cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles. The target was, probably, the harbor of Odessa, where the USS Ross had anchored, although the launch simulation took place “in the mirror” (the closed area for the exercise had a tip to the north-east, but its symmetrical area is the whole north-western Black Sea, between Odessa and the Danube Delta).The two Tu 95 strategic bombers (codenamed 73041 and 73042 and likely belonging to the 184 Strategic Aviation Regiment) took off from Engels air force base.

The flight was repeated on December 27th, when the same two strategic bombers flew from Engels to Crimea. This routine of Russian strategic aviation exercises over the Black Sea with short-time repetition indicates the possibility of more complex action being prepared (live launches?). That option should be considered, especially since, for the second flight a disinformation component (maskirovka) cannot be ruled out, because there was no visual identification of the two aircraft. The United States only responded by reconnaissance flights of Rivet Joint and Global Hawk aircraft, in northern and north-eastern Black Sea.

Very likely, the Kremlin decided to conduct such power play demonstrations in order to prove its air and naval superiority in the Black Sea region, especially in its northwestern waters, which is an area of interest, considering the conflict with Ukraine and tensions with NATO. Practically, the Kremlin tested the reaction capacity of Ukrainian and NATO, respectively Romanian air defenses, in an area of Romania’s responsibility. At least at the level of official communiqués, the absence thereof shows that that objective was achieved. Worth reiterating, there were no provocations, the strategic bombers had their transponders working[3], and the Su 24 observed the safety limits… this time. In the future, we’ll see!


III. MONTENEGRO. The law on religious institutions sparks political tensions.

On December 27th, the Parliament in Podgorica [pod-GO-ri-tza] voted the bill regarding religious communities despite protests by the opposition within and outside the parliament, as well as protests from Serbian Orthodox Church representatives (the Montenegrin church loyal to Belgrade). There were incidents in the parliament, law enforcement had to act, and they arrested opposition deputies who had attempted to block the vote. According to this law, religious communities must prove their property on goods, including on real property, by documents issued before 1918, the year when Montenegro became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (firstly called the “Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians”), the precursor of post WW2 communist Yugoslavia.     

Pro-Serbian Montenegrin opposition, the Democratic Front, rightfully claims that this law is an attempt to promote the small Montenegrin autocephalous church at the expense of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), which integrated the Montenegrin church after 1918, including by absorbing its properties. The governing Democratic Socialist Party stresses that, after 1918, SOC came in possession of current properties by “swallowing” Montenegrin real estate. Thus, the government claims that the Montenegrin Autocephalous Orthodox Church (MAOC) truly represents the Montenegrins (although it is not recognized by any other orthodox church). There is a clear element of forcibly promotion of the Montenegrin church by the power in Podgorica. Such stance is only justified by the attitude of considering anything SOC does or says as supporting Serbia’s policy in Montenegro, in circumstances where the two nations go different directions: while Montenegro steers towards the West, Serbia is rather siding with the East. 

Apparently, the new law only requires proof that church property on goods acquired before 1918, the year when Montenegro became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In fact, this law is a blow on SOC, which is going to lose a significant part of its real estate. Thus, the power really hits the SOC with a step towards imposing the MAOC. Therefore, there is an additional phase in the struggle for defining the Montenegrin national identity, independent from Serbia. The government conducts this struggle on both political and religious planes, as the pro-western power sees the national identity, against the opposition view, which sees the Montenegrin national identity as being… Serbian. Both sides have strong cases, as common identity elements with Serbia are as equally present in Montenegro as separate identity features. While the power highlights the differences, the opposition underlines the common elements. The result is a struggle for the future, with or without Serbia, by either using or rewriting issues from the past. As they say, the Balkans have too much history in too little geography.

In the fight between the pro-western power, yet corrupt and authoritarian, with a Milo Djukanović who wouldn’t quit power, and the Serbia-nationalist and anti-western opposition, the two churches, the Serbian and the autocephalous, are only instruments. Very likely, tensions will increase, considering the political core of the problem. The problems spilled over the level where a compromise was possible, as Belgrade jumped in (and Moscow as well), although Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vučić, called for diminishing tensions through diplomatic means.


IV. RUSSIA - UKRAINE. There is an agreement on gas transit, and now a contract too.

On December 27th, Ukrainian state company Naftogaz announced it received $2.9 bn from Gazprom. This payment settles the dispute between the two companies regarding the debts, part of the larger agreement previously reached between Naftogaz and Gazprom. Previously, on December 21st, they have announced the agreement regarding gas transit from Russia to Western Europa through Ukraine, after January 1st, 2020. Part of this agreement was about this $2.9 bn debt decided by a trade mediation tribunal in Stockholm in favor of Ukraine. Finnaly, Naftogaz and Gazprom have signed a contract on gas transit for a five-year period (midway between Ukriane’s request for a ten-year contract, and Russia’s just one-year offer). 

There, there, where are we? In the East, especially in negotiations with Russia, nothing is done deal until a document is signed, in this case, a contract. First, facing multiple pressure, a framework agreement was reached, and it was mediated by the European Commissioner for Energy (who is, in the same time, although it passed unnoticed, also an Angela Merkel’s counsellor). The agreement stipulated, in principle, a resolution of the debt problem and a would-be signature on a five-year contract on gas transit. The parties met again, in Minsk. Regarding the debt, Russia had to yield, although Moscow attempted to even this debt with the loan which Russia had granted to Ukraine in the last moments of Viktor Yanukovich’s “reign” (Vladimir Putin insisted on this solution, and a plethora of Russian made fake news were “solving” the issue this way).

There was only the detail of signing the contract now, and this only happened Monday, December 30th. The agreement on five-year transit is clear, but it did not turn into a signed contract right away, because little devils remained hidden in details: the transit price and technical conditions. Until the contract got signed, the problem was not solved, although Ukraine could still face gas shortages by using its stored gas. Only now, after the contract was signed, one can say that Ukraine was successful, and it reached success in circumstances where Moscow was forced to make concessions, because both projects to by-pass Ukraine, Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream do not reach Western Europe yet: Nord Stream 2 is blocked in Bornholm Island waters by American sanctions, although Moscow claims it can overcome them, and TurkStream, which should be opened on January 8th, 2020, has no guarantee it will continue on the Bulgarian territory, where transit is supposed to use the current Bulgarian system, and the construction is stalling.

The contract was signed on December 30th, but it is important what the contract says, beside the already agreed five-year timeframe. Apparently, there is a thaw between the two parties going on now, and the announcement on prisoner exchange stands to prove it, but this is not a crucial element, as a cease-fire on the contact line would be… and it did not happen! So, we are left to see the contract content now, and hope for a cease-fire.


V. Developments to track this week, which is also Week 1 of 2020.

► LIBYA. The situation got more complicated after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decisions, but also following attacks conducted by General Haftar on Libyan capital Tripoli. Erdoğan prepared necessary legislation to deploy Turkish troops to Libya, but brought Greece into equation as well, by signing with the Islamist government in Tripoli the agreement defining the maritime areas in Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Russia supports General Haftar, as Russian mercenaries are already involved in fights in Tripoli. Meanwhile, the United States shows it is still interested in Middle East and Northern Africa. In these circumstances, Turkish, Russian, Egyptian and American leaders had telephone conversations on this issue. Erdoğan’s visit to Tunis shows that Turkey is also in quest for other solutions. The danger of escalating the conflict grows bigger and bigger, and President Erdoğan also “has the merit” of connecting the danger with the problem of dividing the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, a problem which also divides the Eastern Mediterranean nations.

► RUSSIA - BELARUS. Tensions are on the rise, and the two autocrat leaders cannot reach an agreement. Moscow badly needs to fully unite Russia with Belarus for two reasons: to show that Russia is on the straight and narrow path of recovering its sphere of influence, and to pave the way for Vladimir Putin’s election as president of the new political entity, thus overcoming Russian constitutional limits regarding his future eligibility as candidate for presidency. While the Kremlin wants to conclude the political union, President Lukashenka wants an economic union, in fact he wants Russia to continue subsidizing Belarussian economy without conceding any sovereignty in exchange. Lukashenka’s way is unacceptable for Moscow and a wave of declarations and veiled threats announced the failure of negotiations linked to deepening the union between the two countries. While Moscow belittles the seriousness of this situation, Lukashenka even mentions the danger of war. A fight is going on for Belarus sovereignty, and President Lukashenka, although vocal, is not very well placed to win, especially because it is not clear whether he is thinking about safeguarding Belarus sovereignty or he only contemplates his own sovereignty from the Kremlin.

► GLOBAL. High confidence assessments indicate the imminent end of 2019. In the same time, it is very likely that year 2020 is about to begin early on Wednesday, January 1st. Under these circumstances, the analysts of Defense and Security Monitor are happy to wish their readers and friends

A Happy New Year 2020!

[1] The Su 24 carries the Kh-31 anti-ship missile (AS-17 Krypton in NATO language), one of the first Russian supersonic anti-ship missiles capable of speeds up to Mach 3.5!

[2] The source of information was Ukrainian, with data collected through radar surveillance (electronic intelligence - ELINT) and, perhaps, communication intelligence (COMINT), because not only the escort was not precisely identified: either Su 27 or Su 30 aircraft. So far, no official American reaction was issued regarding these simulated attacks.

[3] For those interested in detection of Russian strategic bomber flights, or even in early warning of such events, there are https://twitter.com/mil_radar and https://twitter.com/galandecZP for early warning (the start of radio communications is announced from the very aircraft take-off, by monitoring the UHF / VHF frequencies established for the strategic aviation), and the https://www.flightradar24.com/ for tracking the bomber flights (provided they have the transponders on). Of course, these data must be coordinated with the location of “closed areas” and with visual identification by plenty of “useful amateurs” ready to publish imagery with aircraft in flight. Russian Defense Ministry publishes its communiqués only late if at all, just to test the way these activities are watched by third parties. At least in this case, freelancers were celebrating season holidays, and there was no reaction in the tabloid press (perhaps also because no official communiqué was issued, except for the Ukrainian, regarding the Su 24 aircraft flights escorted by Su 27s or Su 30s, but this was not rebroadcast by international press agencies).