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Weekly review NATO - UE LEVANT Western Balkans Black Sea Region

30 octombrie 2018 - Special reports - Weekly review


Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. RUSSIA. The US National Security Adviser, John Bolton, paid a visit to Moscow. This event highlights the start of negotiations regarding the future of INF, whence Moscow will probably request US to give up the antiballistic installations at Deveselu / Romania. Meanwhile, the Kremlin initiated sanctions against Ukraine, and the US began the cyberwar against Russia. Sergei Shoygu, the Russian Minster of Defense, paid a visit to Minsk, in response to the NATO exercise in Norway.

II. THE KHASHOGGI CASE. A political assassination generated a game between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. This challenge has the prize of regional leader at stake, but also jeopardizes the Saudis’ relations with the US and the Europeans.

III. THE ISTANBUL CONFERENCE puts the peace process in Syria back on its tracks, and western nations are invited in the process for financing needed to rebuild Syria.

IV. Events to track this current 44 week.

  1.  RUSSIA

The US National Security Adviser, John Bolton, paid a visit to Moscow (October 22nd to 23rd). This event highlights the start of negotiations regarding the future of INF, whence Moscow will probably request US to give up the anti-ballistic installations at Deveselu / Romania. John Bolton visited top Russian cabinet officials and, most importantly, he discussed with President Vladimir Putin the whole range of bilateral issues. Of course, the INF problem had a high importance, and J. Bolton conveyed the message that the US would withdraw from INF because “there are Russian INF violations in Europe now”. After meeting V. Putin on October 23rd, J. Bolton declared that the US will quit INF. He added that the two presidents would discuss the matter on November 11th, when they are to meet in Paris. Another demand was that Russia should not meddle in the American elections. However, the US official mentioned that no decision regarding  further sanctions against Russia was taken in Washington, as yet. J. Bolton also asked Moscow to withdraw from Ukraine.

Bottom line, the talks in Moscow were a failure, as J. Bolton failed to make the Russian leadership give up breaching the INF. Nevertheless, is not sure at all if that would have changed Washington’s decision, because the treaty only includes the US and Russia, while China is not a signatory. “There’s a new strategic reality out there”: "there was only one country in the world bound by the INF treaty and that was the United States". Russia argued that US withdrawal jeopardizes the European security, but J. Bolton replied that “the threat is not America’s INF withdrawal from the treaty. The threat is Russian missiles already deployed” and breaching the INF Treaty. J.Bolton expressed his skepticism that INF could be saved and he stated that the US has not begun the withdrawal procedures, but would begin this démarche soon.

The withdrawal procedures might take a few months, while Russia will probably play all its cards to keep INF alive (although Moscow is breaching the treaty!). The Kremlin might attempt to renegotiate the INF, but also to get concessions from Washington, such as the withdrawal of the antiballistic installations deployed in Romania.  Russia’s first reaction was denial about breaching the treaty, but also portraying itself as the responsible party, concerned about the consequences of the US decision, and also about its own actions following the end of INF. It looks like that: being forced to deploy intermediate range missiles against the Europeans, Russia is worried about the fate of the Europeans threatened by... the Russian missiles. This game is part of the Kremlin’s strategy to divide the allies, counting on the reaction by some of the European nations to refuse the measures necessary to be taken by the US, after withdrawing from INF. The goal is weakening America and gain important concessions in a more favorable situation. So, on October 25th, President V. Putin expressed his hope that the US would not deploy intermediate range missiles in Europe, and warned that, should Washington do it, Russia would be obliged to designate as targets the countries hosting American missiles[i]: "The European nations that would agree to that should understand that they would expose their territory to the threat of a possible retaliatory strike. These are obvious things". V. Putin continued: "I don't understand why we should put Europe in such a grave danger... I see no reason for that... I would like to repeat that it's not our choice. We don't want it".

In the same tone, on October 24th, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, specified that the US actions are a threat to international security, as they would trigger an arms race. According to S. Ryabkov, Washington left no doubt regarding its withdrawal from INF, the only questions being when that would happen, and what the consequences would be. However, V. Putin will meet Donald Trump in Paris to persuade him to preserve the INF, although Washington has clear evidence, for years, that Russia has been breaching the INF.  

The European nations need to avoid any antagonisms among NATO members that might be exploited by Russia. This is why, on October 25th, they asked the US to work with Moscow on its compliance with the INF rather than withdrawing from the treaty. The UK showed solidarity with the US, but France and Germany expressed their concern about European security after the end of INF, and added that Russia should answer the American accusations about breaching the INF. This European reaction[ii] is exactly what Russia is expecting and hoping to hear – the first part, although it would never answer to the accusations included in the second part, and will continue to deny any breaching of INF.

Russia tried to cast a global light on the INF issue, in the attempt to isolate the US, but it failed on October 26th, when Moscow brought the INF subject to the United Nations, hoping that the UN would appeal to the US to preserve the treaty. But the UN rejected the Russian proposal, one of the arguments being that the deadline for including the topic in the agenda had expired - an indication suggesting that Moscow was surprised by the American decision.

The US prepares in advance its moves to counter the Russian game: it consults its European allies, most recently during the NATO Defense Ministerial held in Brussels. Then, on October 27th, in Qatar, the US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, declared that Washington worked in close cooperation with the European allies on INF and its implications upon European security. He insisted that, “eventually, we have to look reality in the eye, that is not to mean that we are walking away from arms control. But arms control must be more than words on a paper, it must be actions” according to words. Actually, J. Mattis reiterrated an obvious fact: it is not the agreements to impose strategic responsibility meant to secure their implementation, but the other way around – the responsibility for mutual security and rejection of aggression are to lead to signing and respecting agreements. As for the concrete responses, the US has a large range of options, due to its technological development. In the first phase, Washington might even avoid the deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe. At least this is what the NATO General Secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, meant on October 24th, by not expecting an increase of the nuclear arsenal in Europe as being the US answer: "We cannot have a Treaty between two parties that is only respected by one of them. Russia needs to come into compliance in a transparent and verifiable way" and "I don't foresee that allies will deploy more nuclear weapons in Europe as a response to the new Russian missile”.    

Worst for Romania is that V. Putin rejected President D. Trump’s claim regarding the breaching of INF by Russia, and himself alleged it was the United States that violated the pact. He charged that U.S. missile defense facilities in Romania would hold intermediate-range cruise missiles with just a quick tweak in computer software. Well, no antiballistic shield would render itself useless by turning into a cruise missile launching pad, when there are so many other options to achieve that. Nevertheless, the Russian President resumed this old and baseless narrative, and suggested what concession he wants from Washington in exchange for ceasing to breach INF, or for a renegotiation. So, the intended concession would be giving up the antiballistic installations in Romania, and, of course, giving up the plans for building the next installations, in Poland. The intended renegotiations would aim at a split INF, valid in Europe, yet not in Asia. V. Putin’s problem is that his ”friend” D. Trump has an exceptional trio of honest, competent and determined decision-makers, the ”adults in the room” – James Mattis, John Bolton and John F. Kerry, plus a sturdy institutional construction serving the interests of the American nation[iii].

Finally, V. Putin is right sometimes, at least when declaring that "the important thing is what decisions will come next". We wish there will not be a decision by which Russia be ”rewarded” for breaching the INF by withdrawing the US installations at Deveselu. No doubt, the American ally will perform according to its duty. We have to do our duty as well[iv]. The upcoming complicated security landscape brings an additional warning that, considering the situation with major vulnerabilities where we were led, there is no alternative to the triad – NATO membership, real European integration, and the strategic partnership with the US.

Russia initiated sanctions against Ukraine. On October 22nd, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, signed the decree on “special economic measures” against Ukraine, in response to the Ukrainian actions taken against Russian oligarchs and companies, for their implication in the Russian aggression in Crimea and Donbass. According to this document, the Russian government will list all the firms and individuals to be subjected to economic sanctions and will specify these sanctions. The decree also states that the new established sanctions will be lifted when the Ukrainian sanctions against Russian nationals and companies are lifted. Considering that such sanction further separates the Russian and Ukrainian economies, the question is why now? The answer is provided by the context: the government in Kyiv was forced by the IMF to increase the price of gas, needing to get an agreement for new loans, and this increase will bring unavoidable social effects. Thus, the Russian sanctions come on top of current difficulties in Ukraine, and the popular support for President Petro Poroshenko will further dwindle in a dire time: the future presidential elections in Ukraine are not only crucial but will create a situation prone to inspire a Russian intervention in the political realm and beyond.

The US began the cyber war against Russia. This week, the US Cyber Command initiated attacks against Russian operatives in the attempt to stop them distribute fake news aimed at influencing the future American elections. This action is quite important since, this past week, an interesting information surfaced: the origin of a cyber virus which has infected the security systems of oil wells in Saudi Arabia is… Russian. This means that Russia stepped up the level of its cyber war, from attacking direct adversaries (mostly Ukraine, but also US and NATO nations) to sabotaging economic competitors. Let’s not forget the importance of Saudi Arabia in maintaining the price of oil at levels lower than the figures which support Russia’s power.

The Russian Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoygu, responded to the NATO exercise in Norway by a visit to Minsk. During his visit, he discussed the level of bilateral military relations, but he also declared, on October 24th, that the NATO military actions reached an unprecedented level. The major concern is the future (yet unlikely) permanent US base in Poland, which might host, by S. Shoygu’s statements, an American armored division. The Russian Minister of Defense noticed the increase in NATO actions along its whole eastern border, the high level of NATO exercises near the Russian frontiers, and that the Alliance focuses on offensive actions. This last statement is false. There also needs to be said that the level of NATO exercises was much lower than the Russian exercises. The only point where S. Shoygu was right was the increase in the number of NATO reconnaissance flights with aircraft and unmanned aerial systems. However, these did not occur in the proximity of the Russian air space and they kept their transponders open, making their flight available to be monitored… on Internet.  The ministers of defense of Russia and Belarus signed the operational plan of the combined exercise Union Shield 2019, which would increase in size and importance. Thus, Russia generates an additional “Zapad”. From a military point of view, Russia always sought to consolidate the combined force grouping by deploying aviation capabilities to bases in Belarus. However, the Belarussian President, Aleksandr Lukashenko, did not honor his promises which would allow that to happen. In the current situation, when Russia started a new Cold War against the West, A. Lukashenko does not want the Belarussian military installations to become targets in a would-be Russo-NATO conflict. From a political point of view, the problem is more dangerous. The presence of Russian troops on Belarussian territory creates the possibility of an additional element for Russia: should the Kremlin decide that the moment for a “complete” union of the two countries has arrived, those troops may become handy, especially hence the Lukashenko dictatorship is shaking. Of course, the West will be to blame, for supporting the opposition in many ways. So, Belarus might be next, then Moldova.


II. THE KHASHOGGI CASE. A political assassination generated a game between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, having the position of regional leader at stake. It also generated the danger that the Saudi-American and Saudi-European relations worsen. Before anything else though, there is the murder: most likely, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Istanbul by a commando sent from Riyadh. However, the order came from the Saudi security agency, and the leads may point as high as the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader in Riyadh. Although all political regimes of the regional powers in the Middle East (except Israel), i.e. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Egypt are accused for grave breaching of the human rights. Horrendous crimes occurred in the two major conflicts conducted outside the laws of war, Syria and Yemen. Under the banner of justice, the assassination in Istanbul was used in the struggle among those countries for regional supremacy. The Saudi Arabia, whose dirty war in Yemen has been overlooked by the West, especially by the US (allied with Riyadh against Tehran), attempted to cover up the Khashoggi case: although obliged to admit the murder, Riyadh attempted to control the damage by refusing a transparent investigation. The goal is obvious: to protect the Crown Prince. So, the operatives executing the order were held responsible. Of course, they will be tried in Saudi Arabia.

Beyond “mediating” with Turkey the course of investigation, Mohammed bin Salman has bigger problems: first, there is the worsening of Saudi-American relations, and the second is his own political survival. For the first issue, the US President, D. Trump, finds very difficult to reach a solution for the crisis, because the pressure is huge both from the Congress and from the public. For the second issue, Mohammed bin Salman was caught in power struggle with his rivals (other princes), and in a state “reform”, meant to modernize the Saudi society. However, in an absolute monarchy no opposition is acceptable, hence the execution of the dissident journalist. The resurface of King Salman himself is an indication in this sense. The Saudi leadership acted on all fronts to clam down the case: mediation with Turkey, communication with the US, and public spectacular actions, but awkwardly cruel: the meeting between Mohammed bin Salman and the son of the murdered journalist. As it usually does, the Saudi Arabia made a service to the US by increasing the oil production, to limit the increase in oil price after Iran quit the market. The Saudi Arabia also decided sanctions against leaders of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in coordination with the American sanctions[v]. The critical point has not been reached yet, and the Saudi Kingdom will feel a long time the consequences of this case. The only good thing is that the Crown Prince will probably refrain for a while in his ways to enforce his power.

The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, used this murder to put in its place a political and religious rival: first, by leaks in the press, R. T. Erdoğan steered the public communication regarding the investigation towards maximal image losses for the Saudis. Then, in the Turkish Parliament, he officially presented the accusations. However, R.T. Erdoğan skipped the name of Mohammed bin Salman – an indication that he still negotiates with the monarchy the results of the investigations, aiming for a maximum gain for Turkey, yet acceptable for Riyadh.  So, after he faced his own human rights breaching problems, R.T.Erdoğan manages to gain three successes: to revitalize the Turkish-American relations (and Turkish-Western relations, in general); to put in difficulty his Saudi rivals and political enemies (who play, along Egypt, in the camp opposite to the “Muslim Brothers” – the political Islam, supported by Turkey and Qatar); and to hide his own domestic economic and political problems.

The Trump Administration finds itself in a complicated situation, as a close ally, Saudi Arabia, faces difficulties from a rogue ally, Turkey. Free from the pretense that it projects the democratic values and justice worldwide, D. Trump approached the issue with pragmatism and interest. He sent the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to the two capitals to mediate an acceptable solution, and sent the CIA Director to Ankara to listen first hand to the audio tape with the recording of the murder. D. Trump also explored a diplomatic solution to be identified before the case is cleared: the Saudi Arabia is a key ally, an important arms importer and an equally top investor in US (along the... presidential family).

Iran preferred to keep a low profile for a simple reason: the outcome is good for Iran either way, and the scandal went in Tehran’s favor, especially if Tehran… keeps distance. Consider this: should the scandal break Mohammed bin Salman, Tehran would get rid of an ambitious enemy without moving a finger; should the Crown Prince survive politically, why would Tehran make a fierce and bitter enemy of him, by meddling in the scandal? When the Iranian leadership made declarations, they attacked… the US, for tolerating such a scandal (although similar political assassinations, as well as terrorist attacks organized by Tehran are not exceptions). Naturally, Tehran reacted only when sanctions against its Islamic Revolutionary Guards leaders were imposed.

Finally, the Khashoggi assassination is a good example of what would the Middle East look like, being drowned in rivalries between countries led by authoritarian regimes without scruples. The great power, the US, although it still has a role to play, it cynically adapts to the situation. As J. Mattis mentioned, Russia cannot substitute America in the Middle East. But Russia squeezes as much as it can: at the investor forum in Riyadh, where westerners were absent, Moscow obtained some contracts, and voiced no negative reaction to the Saudis (the moral attitude is used only to attack the West). 

III. THE ISTANBUL CONFERENCE. The peace process in Syria is back on tracks. The invitations for financing the reconstruction of Syria are a pretext to implicate western countries. Regardless the goals of the victors in Syria, the Summit organized in Istanbul by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a step forward. The participants were the “accepted westerners” – France and Germany, along the “regional interventionist powers” – Russia and Turkey. The declared goal of the conference was to examine the security and political situation in Syria. The leaders of the four nations reiterated the call for a political process supported by the United Nations to end the war in Syria. On October 27th, Angela Merkel went as far as declaring that "the meeting demonstrated there is common determination to solve the problem... A joint solution can be achieved, not through military means, but only through political effort under the UN aegis". But a solution was already found: it was the military solution, now in need of sponsorship. The declarattion sounds nice, but is unrealistic. Russia will accept the German illusions as long as Berlin ... pays the bill for the reconstruction of Syria under Bashar al-Assad, who is kept in power by the Russian and the Iranian armed forces. The declaration also includes a call made for establishing a committee to work, until the end of this year, to reform the Constitution of Syria and open the process leading to free and fair elections in Syria. It also announces that the ”voluntary and safe” return of the refugees will be supported. Of course, the reality looks different: although Bashar al-Assad needs ”sunni subjects” to return and populate the country he just conquered by systematic destruction. However, he does not need them to mess up everything by... voting free. On the other hand, Turkey, and Germany as well, wish to get rid of the refugee burden, because they created economic problems in Turkey, respectively political problems in Germany. This is what Russia is counting on, and President Putin mentioned that a solution cannot be identified without consultations with Syria (Accept Bashar!) and the ”Iranian partners” (If your illusions do not work, it is because the Iranians oppose). V. Putin was not generous in declarations, but he described Iran as "a guarantor country of the peace process, the cease-fire, and the establishment of demilitarized zones". This is the classic „guarantor trick”, previously used in Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, in fact the very aggressors who won the war and later posing as impartial umpires. The realistic solution is simple: the westerners payments will trickle as refugees return back to Syria, while Russia and Iran will get the political solution they want: the dictator Bashar al-Assad in power, even with mock elections. For the moment, Turkey is interested in saving Idlib, and later to press the Syrian Kurds into withdrawing from some territories. Probably Ankara will plot with Russia and... Bashar in this respect, but it has a problem: the US are not out of Syria yet, as J. Mattis convinced President D. Trump that America should keep a role in Syria, at least to counter Iran.

IV. Week 44 – developments to track.

EUROPEAN UNION: The Brexit is still negotiated. Things get simple in London, where Teresa May’s “fragility” proved to be just smoke and mirrors necessary during the negotiations with Brussels. It is true, the budget is to be presented in the Parliament, but the Tories will circle the wagons, decided not to lose the government… and the power. After the European Commission rejected the Italian draft budget, another negotiation begins, where Rome will show determination and Brussels will keep quiet, waiting for the markets to increase economic pressure. Brussels will also continue to be concerned with East-European regimes who have problems with the rule of law. Beside Poland and Hungary, Romania might be added to the list (with a possible resolution in the European Parliament).  

  • THE UNITED STATES. The midterm election campaign is on its last leg. The future Congress, but also the fate of President Donald Trump is to be decided by this vote. The Republicans have a real comeback in the polls, supported by the reactions to the “immigrant caravan” coming from Mexico.
  • The INF issue will dominate the discussions on European security. A first round of talks will be on October 31st, at the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels. The second round will be later in Paris, when the American and Russian presidents meet, on November 11th.
  • Close to Romania, the preparations for the elections in Donbass deserve attention, as Russia needs to provide legitimacy to the separatists, in absence of any concessions from Kyiv. 

In ARMENIA, the early election plan conceived by Prime-Minister Nikol Pashinian seems to pan out, with the October 24th Parliament decision not to vote a new prime-minister by not voting the new Electoral Code. However, N. Pashinian needs to pay attention to reactions from Moscow, after John Bolton’s visit: the American National Security Adviser proposed not only intensified US-Armenia relations (very much welcomed in economic plane), but also contracts for American weapons for Armenia.

  •  The American sanctions against Iran reach their peak on November 11th. Tehran hopes that continuing to deliver oil to China and India, along with the Russian connection will work. This latter solution, accepted by the Europeans, means exporting oil to Russia via the Caspian Sea, its processing in Russia and then sale on open market. The US will certainly react, as John Bolton, was clear regarding the US goal: to press the ayatollahs’ power to the limit, by economic means.      

The Khashoggi scandal will continue to hold the first page. It will be interesting to watch how the “mediation”, not the justice, will provide a solution suitable for both Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

[i] Should the US eventually withdraw from INF, Russia will deploy precisely the SSC 8, for which it is accused by the US as being in breach of the treaty, although Moscow still denies any ill-doing. That means breaching the INF, but now openly!

[ii] What to say about “Russia’s strategic partner”, Italy, whose prime-minister was just beside Putin, when the Russian leader announced Moscow’s position on INF. Nevertheless, Italy will stick with America on INF, as its relationship with US is really strategic for any Italian government, while Rome’s relation with Russia is purely commercial, although elevated to political level by the Italian populists and far right. Regarding the European sanctions against Russia, Matteo Salvini already answered weeks ago, also in Moscow: although the European sanctions are an "economic, social, and cultural madness", Italy would not utilize its veto to prevent them.

[iii] In Paris, they will likely take care that no tête-a-tête would occur or, should one happen, D. Trump would not make any commitments. As about western hysteria, there is none although the Russian party suggests otherwise: V. Putin expressed his hope that he would discuss the INF in Paris, on November 11, and stated that "We are ready to work together with our American partners without any hysteria".

[iv] At least we should avoid stating and writing untruths, even stemming from incompetence, regarding the antiballistic shield, INF, interceptors, and other items too important to accept impersonated experts in those items… without reading almost anything!

[v] On October 23rd, along with the other five Gulf countries and the US, Saudi Arabia announced it would apply sanctions against Iranian officials associated in supporting a terrorist group – the Taliban in Afghanistan. These sanctions include members of Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and of the Al Quds forces. Although the measures are justifiable, it looks disproportionate, considering that the main sponsor of the Taliban is Pakistan, the Saudi Arabia’s ally (who offered Pakistan a financial support package this very week).