14 January 2019

International security-2019 forecasts (II)

Niculae Iancu

Image source: Mediafax

In order to analyse the major international security evolutions in 2019, we chose the four of a kind composed of European Union, Russia, China and Middle East, which, along the United States, are majorly important for Romania, given the important issues which could shape or influence the global future security architecture. And because many times in the card games the fifth card can make the difference, I think it would be faire for the analysis to have also the trump card on the game table, which could change everything through a single move: the war in Syria.

European Union. EU will suffer from major turbulences due to the continuity and the intensification of the threats it has on its security agenda, like terrorism, organized crime and cyber-criminality, as well as the manifestation at its core of illiberal and secessionist forces which will try to take and divert the forthcoming European elections in the first quarter 2019. The cleavages on sensitive international security topics with the United States will get deeper, due to the challenges coming from the lack of mutual information and Washington’s unpredictable decisions regarding the strategy of the situations in the hotspot areas of the world.

2019 will be the year of testing Brussels new global vision viability over the future of common European defence. Union’s place and role in the future global security architecture will depend on how member states’ initiatives, gathered under PESCO’s aegis, will convince that a strong European security can go beyond the national concerns and bureaucracies’ borders, as well as how the common funding procedures of the future European strategic military capabilities will prove that when it comes to European project’s survival, the European interests can prevail over the national interests.

After US’s assumed withdrawal from certain conflict or potentially conflictual areas, the European Union will take over the security linchpin in Central and East Europe and Western Balkans, to counterbalance Moscow’s increasing aggressive interests, respectively the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea also, to counterbalance Russia and Turkey’s presence in the regional security architecture. The Union will be attending more and more the US-China security equation, as well as the regional power distribution system from the Middle East. Despite its global ambitions, EU will continue to be quasi-inexistent in the competition for Artic Ocean’s domination and will not have an important role in the Washington-Moscow relation, in the regional power balance from the East China Sea, including the North-Korean issue, as well as in the development of Pacific’s US security project.

Russia. Russia will do its utmost to ensure the credibility of its message of strength on the reinstatement of the multi-polar world. However, such a message must be regarded with some skepticism, at least inside the drawing of concentric circles of Moscow influence spheres, as Russia's aspirations to regain the status of great power do not seem to be supported by what we called above that it represents the posture of a global hegemon.

However, even in the absence of some constitutive elements to complete its desired great power profile, Russia will continue, in 2019 also, to act to take over and extend the influence and control over more and more widespread spaces, primarily at the level of political decision-making within immature and fragile democracies, but also on the economic and  social levels of societies fragmented by illiberal propaganda. The battlefield will continue to be predominantly of a hybrid nature, although the force actions seem to become a real option. Russia’s geographic proximity with the European Union will still increase the threats against the European project. The moment of opportunity will be created by the elections for common institutions, which should be carefully considered in all the European security analysis centers, to set up the list of common space’s vulnerabilities, that Brussels should regard as the set of priorities action to strengthen its future security.

The conflict with Ukraine remains the critical topic which could significantly deteriorate the security situation in 2019. Russia’s advances since 2014, when it succeeded in annexing Crimea without too much effort, give it the arguments to continue to test current international system’s capacity and determination to enforce compliance with the assumed rules and, above all, the level at which it is willing to continue to impose sanctions to the states which are aggressively and constantly violating these rules.

Furthermore, Russia will continue, in 2019, the financing of its major weapon system programs, it will focus on the new kinetic technologies, but also on the unmanned systems and artificial intelligence. To increase the sustainability level of such investments, Russia will seek to extend its military equipment foreign market, thus colliding with the interests of other major weapons vendors, mostly the US, but also the United Kingdom, France and, even, China and Israel.

China. If about Russia we can say that it is still too impaired by the Soviet Union failure to continue to follow the theoretical evolution approach towards the global hegemon status, regarding China, even president Xi Jinping was saying that Beijing does not have the “gene” for such a posture, rewording that idea of the current Chinese political message: “ China will not follow the old practices of a strong country in seeking to become a global hegemon”. Most of international security observers think that the Chinese leaders are honest in asserting this vision. Yet, China will try to find all the benefits of a global power, but in a different way, which is called by Oriana Skylar Mastro, in Foreign Affairs, “Stealth Superpower”. Concretely, this position will actually mean China’s total domination in the Indo-Pacific region, like the US strategists have called it to highlight India’s more and more important role in the Pacific security architecture, as well as China’s capacity to confront the United States in any global issue, when the Chinese interest demands it, without Beijing aiming to become the global leader, as this position will continue to be filled by Washington.

The main tools to materialize this vision are of political and economic nature, as in 2019 we are expecting to see an increase in China’s influence on these two fields, especially in creating the new Belt and Road Initiative, with $1.7 billion per year for Asia alone, according to Western publications. The question here is which will be the military dimension of China’s “global belt” influence, shaped drawn along a route that goes through South Asia, Middle East, North Africa, and together with Central Asia and Russia, to join in the European space. Moreover, we will have to see the force measures that China is willing to undertake to protect its investments, within or beyond its new “A2/AD” doctrine.

The so-called Sino-American “new Cold War”, determined by Washington’s trade protectionist decisions, will continue in 2019 also. We can anticipate some tendencies determined by the actual “truce”, agreed by the leaders of the two countries at the G20 Summit in Argentina, which have the potential to further relax the issue with the expected diversification of the tax arrangement.

Although there is no foreseeable clash of force between the two major players, with competing global interests, China’s increasing influence in South-East Asia and its extension in Pacific and Oceania, forces the United States to take measures to relocate some military capabilities and headquarters in the region, a trend that will remain in 2019. General Mark Milley, nominated to take the highest position in the US military hierarchy, to take place in 2019, was saying that “we are witnessing the greatest shift in world economic power to occur in five centuries as the global financial center of gravity moves from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast, and military power is following it”.

Middle East. Middle East has the most complex combination of local, regional and global factors with potential to significantly affect the stability of the hottest region on the globe and even the global security as a whole. 2018 was overwhelmed by security events in the region, with the military theatre of the global war against ISIS, the open and intense conflicts from Syria and Yemen, with the complicated evolutions of the power balances between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia and all three together, with the disagreements between the Arab states, the crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the intensification of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli-Iranian ones, the allegations of the international community against the de facto leader of the Saudi regime, the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, about the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the list can go on.

Two special notes. One regarding Iran, which continues to play a major destabilizing role in the whole region, ranging from continuing its nuclear program, and the cyber operations actions against Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Western states, to financing its proxy groups, like Hezbollah and Houthis and the Shiite militias in Iraq. The other one, regarding Turkey, which seems to have crossed a peak in questioning the viability of its North Atlantic option, as well as a tendency to bandwagoning with Moscow, regarding the security issue from the Black Sea, Middle East or anything related to military acquisition.

Considering the continued accumulation of conflicting potential energy in all of these regional insecurity spots, in 2019 we are expecting some major decisions from the international organizations, along with global solutions and resolutions which could consolidate the trust and cooperation resources that might still exist in the region. As a consequence, Middle East will be the proof test of the solidity and viability vision which led to the drawing of the international system at the end of the Second World War, and the United Nations Organization is forced to play this card with great care and inspiration.

Syria. The Syrian conflict is coming to an end. Such a premise provides the opportunity to address the Syrian issue separately, even if it is a major insecurity issue belonging to the Middle East’s broader framework. Although most of international security observers think that Bashar al-Assad’s regime will come out on top, the opinions about the true winner, regarding the regional control and influence, are still divided, hit-or-miss, between Iran, Turkey and Russia. We should note that this short list does not include the United States and European Union, and not even Saudi Arabia, as Washington was recently trying to suggest that it should be. The centre of gravity of the future evolutions is Idlib region, where the line between violence and negotiation is extremely fragile, and any movement, even an accidentally one, of the above-mentioned parties, to which we should add also Israel, could start a major insecurity course of action. As a global perspective for 2019, the Status Quo is not a feasible scenario, and the end could be tragic, not only locally or regionally, but even globally.


If we can say about 2018 that it was the year of security events unprecedented multiplication, in the last quarter of century, 2019 emerges as the year of global security architecture’s systemic transformations. In the absence of major strategic surprises, 2019 will not be the year of World War III, neither the year of disintegration of European Union nor the year of dismantling of NATO. Despite the intensification of worrying analysis regarding the nuclear threat recrudescence, the status quo will persist.

The unilateralist policies, which are increasing in the Western world, and the decrease of trust in the ability of international organizations to provide the international system’s governance, are the greatest challenges of the following year.

Their intersection and interdependence with the decline in global economic growth and geopolitical transformations taking place in a significant number of regions around the globe creates an extremely complex security matrix and sufficient volatile spots to keep the senses of strategic decision-makers on all meridians.

This is the reason why, 2019 should be the year of measure in political and security actions and decisions, the year of return to the origins of acknowledged security approaches and the rediscovery of the security theories, in the expected effort of the international community of objectively and rationally design the future.