24 July 2018

Main political and military developments - Week 29 / 2018

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

U.S. – RUSSIA. The Meeting between the American and Russian Presidents in Helsinki The meeting between the American President, Donald Trump, and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, held in Helsinki, on July 16th, is historical, both for being special, and for its future consequences. D. Trump’s behavior, seeming to put his personal interests before those of the United States, and seeming accomplice to the Russian leader, triggered a wave of indignation in U.S. Covered beneath this veil lies the question that worries all western governments, including Washington, and shakes the confidence of the American elite in the tenant of the White House: what are the deals reached during the two hour tête-a-tête , more precisely, what promises D. Trump made to V. Putin, and on whose account. At this moment, not even the members of the American delegation were made privy to the contents of that discussion!

Image source: Mediafax

Already before the meeting, bad omens rose: D. Trump described the E.U. as an enemy to U.S., based on the bilateral trade deficit. In the same time, he described Russia as only a competitor “in some areas”, and reiterated the idea that the investigation regarding Russia’s meddling in the American presidential elections is a “witch hunt”, although the American prosecutors already indicted twelve Russian GRU officers for illegal activities in that respect. The meeting was quickly seen as a victory for V. Putin, who not only escaped previous isolation, but achieved two advantages: first, Trump supported his narrative regarding Moscow’s non-implication in American elections, and second, D. Trump failed to mention any of Russia’s aggressive actions. In addition, a cynical autocrat, former KGB, V. Putin had an upfront advantage in rapport with a narcissist with limited foreign policy knowledge, like D. Trump, let alone the suspicions expressed by the Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi, among others, as to what leverage holds Russia over Trump? Even the members of the American delegation had concerns prior to the tête-a-tête meeting, and the facts proved them right. However, the rest of the world is more concerned than them, because the president of the United States remains the leader of the free world, even if he quits the responsibilities stemming from that.

The joint press conference showed a D. Trump stuck to the Russian position to the point that he dismissed the reports provided by the American intelligence agencies regarding Russia’s meddling in American elections, while V. Putin maintained the well-known Russian narrative, plus professionally forged lies. The head of the American intelligence community, Dan Coats, reacted promptly in a communiqué, where he reaffirmed the dedication and professionalism of the American intelligence agencies – they had just arrested another Russian spy. Realizing the situation, the American president tardily declared that he trusts the intelligence agencies of the country he leads. Even more, he claimed he made some mistakes in speaking, which led to the false idea that he would not see Russia having attempted to rig the elections. If this were not dangerously tragic (an entire planet less Russia asks itself “why does Trump play this game?”), the situation would be as comic as a reality show can be.

The two presidents said that agreements were reached in important matters, but they failed to specify what. We generally found out that the nuclear arms control topic was touched, as well as terrorism and other issues of interest like Syria[1] (later we learned that it occurred in the context of Israel’s security), and Ukraine. D. Trump avoided mentioning Crimea, while V. Putin was the one to remind about the referendum which consecrated the annexation of the peninsula by Russia[2]. Special commissions are to be established regarding these issues, in order to prepare future official agreements, in the light of the accords reached by the two presidents. Although the Skripal case was not mentioned, it is hard to believe that the American intelligence agencies would step up their cooperation with the Russian counterparts, precisely when the latter are involved in an assassinate on allied territory, and when they continue to interfere with American domestic issues.

Resuming military contacts was also a discussion topic, and D. Trump said that the soldiers of the two countries communicate. Actually, they communicate so well…, that a Russian mercenary brigade was completely destroyed in Syria by American forces.

President Trump considered interesting the Russian proposal that two Americans[3] should be interrogated in exchange for the interrogation of twelve Russian GRU officers indicted by American prosecutors. Later on, although Trump’s own Department of State announced that the proposal is absurd, the White House pursued ambiguous statements, and the issue was dropped only after the Senate in Washington adopted a resolution opposing such course of action[4]

The reactions by the American political elite, Republican included, and by the press, were extremely critical, everybody asking himself “what happened in Helsinki?” On behalf of the Republicans, Senator McCain’s declarations are significant: he accused D. Trump of “naiveté and selfishness”, the meeting in Helsinki was a “tragic mistake”, and the press conference was “was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”. Probably the most spectacular declaration, considering his former position as head of the American intelligence community, was John Brennan’s: “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.” The Democrats and the press went much further with accusations against D. Trump.

The public opinion was also disappointed, the majority considering that the President did not perform well. On the other hand, 68% of the Republicans consider that the President did well. At the end of the day, this is the percentage that counts, as President D. Trump is interested in maintaining his popularity among his election basis. Being encouraged in this way, The White House announced that it would invite President V. Putin to Washington in the fall of this year.

However, President Trump does not have beside him even the staff of his own Administration. Rumor has it that all important figures of the White House openly expressed discontent regarding the President’s actions, especially the declarations during the press conference in Helsinki. Feeling that Donald Trump might not keep up to his promises, as result of the pressure in the States, V. Putin accused forces that oppose the development of Russo-American relations.

Bottom line, what did they talk about, anyway? There are the Russians who provide some insight, disinformation included, as they need to help D. Trump implement what he promised, by letting people know what has been decided. So, during a meeting with Russian diplomats, V. Putin communicated certain results of the discussions. Also Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the US, and one of Russia’s best experts in arms control, provided some information.

So, Ukraine was discussed, with Russia proposing a referendum in the separatist region, in order to confirm that the separatists in eastern Ukraine desire a special status within Ukraine. The proposal in a Crimea type cunning plan, with an occupation force in place (ethnic Russian separatists created and backed by Moscow, as well as Russian armed forces), and a predictable poll to provide legality and legitimacy to the separatists. What is different from Crimea though, the Kremlin’s plans see Donbas remaining within Ukraine, but with a special status, so that Moscow can control Kyiv in the classic “tail wagging its dog” logic. Nevertheless, V. Putin resumed accusations against Kyiv, for not complying with the Minsk Agreement. Here, V. Putin played smartly: exactly when the Europeans were asking for peace-keeping forces in Donbas, he swapped priorities to his benefit: he shifted the military issues (which are the leverage against the Ukrainians) to a second plane – let alone the cease-fire or peace-keeping forces, and brought forth to president Trump the political issues, where Moscow wants to get concessions from Kyiv, now by involving the American president. Detecting danger, the Ukrainian authorities asked for clarifications from Washington.

The most important problem for Russia’s vital interests is the nuclear arms control, i.e. the extension of START agreement, and the American continuation of INF agreement, although Russia breached that agreement, by operationalizing cruise missiles with a range exceeding 500 km. Here, the trap Putin set for Trump is easy to understand, given the persistence of Russian narrative. First, Moscow wants to link, in the future START agreement, the offensive nuclear armament to the anti-ballistic shield, which is purely defensive[5]. So, Russia hopes to stop the American global anti-ballistic program, and, by playing the INF, Russia intends to stop the deployment of the American anti-ballistic shield in Europe. The rationale would be like this: Russia would give up the missiles already operationalized (although Moscow does not admit they did operationalize such missiles), in exchange for U.S. decommissioning the anti-ballistic installations in Poland and Romania, because these capabilities can launch even Tomahawk cruise missiles[6], thus breaching the INF. In order to provide substance to its proposals, Russia tested again its own interceptor missile, claiming it is an upgrade. The Russian Defense Ministry also broadcast footage presenting the development and testing of the new weapon systems which V. Putin talked about months ago, albeit operationalized, in development, or simple projects. What D. Trump promised is not known, but the American experts know very well Russia’s objectives and negotiating tactics in this issue.

 Regarding Syria, humanitarian measures in support of the refugees were discussed, as well as issues linked to Israel’s security, more exactly the withdrawal of the Iranian forces from the proximity of Israel borders. Having Bashar al-Assad forces victory secured, The Kremlin wants Washington to accept its peace plan, and to sponsor the reconstruction of the country, camouflaged under the name of humanitarian measures to support the refugees. It bodes well to put the victims in front, in order to make sure that the executioners will profit. Knowing his reluctance to see American troops in Syria, D. Trump might have accepted the Russian proposals. The events immediately following the meeting in Helsinki seem to confirm D. Trump’s yielding o Russian requests: in the south, the rebels accepted the government’s conditions and surrendered, being alone and  subjected to heavy bombardments; as consequence, the Syrian army took positions along the demarcation line with Israel. It is worth mentioning that the Israeli Prime-Minister had a telephone discussion with V. Putin on this issue.

Although the American institutions will certainly temper Donald Trump’s commitments, it is worrisome to see the fate of nations decided without any guarantee that their interest is served, or even the American interest, for that matter, and this is done opaque and arbitrary, just according to D. Trump’s personal vision and will. Actually, there is no need to have strong commitments by President Trump, it is enough to provide V. Putin with the feeling that he may continue the path he took in Ukraine… and any prospect of diminishing Russian aggressive stance is totally vanished. D. Trump might act to raise some of the sanctions against Russia, measure which the Kremlin needs so much, but even that can be done only within limits decided by the Congress. 

Let us add President Trump’s affirmations regarding Montenegro, where the logic is strangely similar to the Russian narrative: the people of this nation are so aggressive that the obligation to defend them in a conflict they might cause, would trigger… the World War Three. Such declaration raises questions regarding the observation by the US of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. Yet it is this very article of the NATO treaty, and NATO’s extension to the East, that secured peace in Europe and blocked the establishment of a sphere of influence by Russia, now led by V. Putin, so admired by D. Trump.

 

THE EUROPEAN UNION. Free Trade Deal with Japan.

On July 17th, the EU signed the free trade agreement with Japan, the largest that EU ever signed. This is part of the European strategy to extend free trade deals with both developed and emerging economies, and is meant to reduce tariffs for a wide range of products.

While President Trump decides to raise custom taxes not only to China, to which he wages a real trade war, but also to EU, and while the Brexit, no matter how soft, takes the British economy out of the EU bloc, the European Commission in Brussels tries to make such free trade agreements with economies in Asia and Latin America, aiming to compensate the foreseeable losses, especially in rapport with the US. However, The United States remains the main trade partner of the EU, and the losses to be expected will be difficult to overcome, should President Trump pursue his trade war with the EU.

 

ISRAEL. The Vote on the Fundamental Law

On July 18, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, voted with 62 votes to 55, the fundamental law of this country. This was the most controversial bill in Israel, being contested by both the opposition and the civil society. The importance of the National Law is given by the fact that Israel does not have a proper Constitution, that role being taken by this fundamental law. The freshly voted document stipulates that Israel is the historic homeland of the Jews, who have the “unique” right to self-determination Israel. Defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people sparkled the fear by the Arab community (17.5% of the population) that the Arabs living in Israel would be discriminated. The representatives of this minority declared that the law is “racist”, it legalizes apartheid, and the EU expressed concern regarding the rights of the minorities. The allegations by the opposition and Arab minority are linked to the fact that the law fails to underline the democratic character of the Israeli state, stressing its Jewish feature. The Hebrew is the only official language, with the Arabic holding the second role, with a special status. The law explicitly mentions Jerusalem as being the capital city of Israel.

The law reflects the political orientation in majority in Israel, where the religious right dominates the left forces, which have secularist views. Between the two tendencies, more typical Jewish or more classical democratic, the National Law favors the first. However, in spite of the opposition accusations, this does not necessarily mean the degradation of democracy in the state of Israel. One of the immediate dangers is using this law, by the present government, the most right wing Cabinet in the whole history of Israel, to increase the colonization policy in the occupied territories. Such action, along with other of the kind, would lead to voiding de facto the “two state” peace solution.  The voting occurred in the context of this week’s events in Gaza – the persistence of Hamas actions, and the tough Israeli response. There was also the perspective of new Israeli air strikes, even a possible limited land offensive in Gaza. Such perspective prompted the opposition to ask if the government had other political interests, beyond security. However, the defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, denied any hidden agenda.

 

 



[1] D. Trump mentioned the necessity to help the unfortunate Syrians, forgetting that the one who orders indiscriminate bombing was standing just beside him.

[2] For Russia it does not matter that the referendum was held after the peninsula was occupied by Russian troops, which is against the international rules forbidding the occupation forces to legitimate their presence by such acts.

[3] A former US ambassador to Moscow, Mike McFaul, and a businessman, Bill Browder, who advocated the Magnitsky Act, which strongly inflicts upon worldwide interests of Russian tycoons.

[4] Voted unanimously, 98 to zero! Hardly ever was seen such bipartisan harmony. During the voting procedure, the American Senators were yelling “USA! USA!” Such enthusiasm was seen before only when America was under attack, after September 11. Although symbolic, the resolution speaks volumes about the distrust in the President’s view… and much more.  

[5] The anti-ballistic shield is perceived by Moscow as a threat to Russia’s very global status, because, when they are deployed worldwide, with improved operational qualities, the anti-ballistic missiles will be able to intercept the Russian ICBMs, thus voiding Russia’s only global power asset: its strategic nuclear armament.

[6] This argument is false, because it makes no sense to operationalize Tomahawk missiles from a land base, thus breaching the INF, when a single battleship, mobile and hard to track, can carry over 100 such missiles on board.