31 July 2018

MAIN POLITICAL AND MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS - WEEK 30 / 2018

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

United States - The Trump Administration made a series of clarifications regarding the American foreign policy, on the background of harsh criticism seen after the meeting in Helsinki. However, President Trump’s problems persist, impacting upon both domestic and foreign policy of his Administration.

Image source: Mediafax

First, there was President Donald Trump’s tweet on July 23rd, when he promised he “gave up nothing”, but only discussed with his Russian counterpart about the future benefits for both nations. He stressed that himself and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, "got along very well, which is a good thing". On the contrary, the Russians and also officials within Trump Administration maintain that agreements and concessions were made in Helsinki.  

American Congress leaders declared (July 25th) that V. Putin will not get an invitation to address the Congress, should he accept President Trump’s invitation to visit Washington this fall. This way, the Congress clearly let Putin know his was not welcome in Washington. So, while the President “gets along very well” with V. Putin, the Hill has an opposite stance, consistent with the national strategy signed by the same President Trump, and also with the proofs of aggression and hostility from Russia. Current initiatives in the Congress gain support towards new sanctions against Russia (against Russian oligarchs and Government[1], but also regarding unspoiled elections[2]). The whole international community wonders what the American policy will be on this thorny issue – Russia’s aggressive actions within the former Soviet area, especially the perspective of ending the conflict in Ukraine.

A White House official declared on July 25th that President D. Trump would like to invite V. Putin to Washington not this year, but in 2019, after the investigation regarding Russia’s meddling in the presidential elections was concluded. This postponement reflects the President’s recoil to the negative reaction by the American political elite regarding Trump’s Russia policy. There is no guarantee that the investigation will end before 2019 with the results President Trump wants. In order to save face, V. Putin announced he is open to consider any location, inclusive inviting Donald Trump to Moscow. The American political elite are probably horrified about the idea of President Trump visiting Moscow; in the aftermath of Helsinki, nobody wants to imagine the outcome of a meeting in Moscow.

The American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, reaffirmed on July 26th, during the hearing in the Senate, that the U.S. reject the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia, but he declined to offer information on any supposed agreements in Helsinki. Being provided in that location, this statement in defense of President Trump is meant to calm down the post-Helsinki worries. But the lack of any details regarding the substance of the meeting in Helsinki brings us back to square one, in uncertainty.

All in all, we witnessed the adaptation of the Trump Administration to the American Congress sturdiness regarding the President’s predicament on his Russia policy, and particularly the way D. Trump represented the United States during the meeting with the Russian President. However, the main questions remain: what deals were made? and why did President Trump behave this way? Both question are dwarfed though, by the developments in the investigation regarding Russia’s meddling in American elections, with the core issue – was it any collusion between D. Trump’s campaign staff and Russia?

President Trump’s problem is that the investigation progresses, the evidence is adding up, and the November midterm elections get closer. Donald Trump’s own lawyer appears to have admitted that the President had knowledge about the meeting between his campaign staff and Russian citizens connected to Russian intelligence services. This brings President Trump’s personal problems to national level, which will likely produce an unstable and unpredictable course of D. Trump’s and his Administration’s actions, both home and abroad. The midterm elections are essential, because a would-be Democrat majority will probably start the impeachment procedures against President D. Trump. Ironically, he claims that Russia will support the Democrats for these elections. Why would they, when such a good friend lives in the White House?

The upfront effect is an assertive Kremlin. A backyard example, there is no wonder that  British air police aircraft deployed in Romania intercepted a Russian Su 24 aircraft  flying too close to the Romanian air space. When are we going to see Romanian aircraft doing it?

As for the White House policy unpredictability, this past week’s tensions with Iran and Turkey are excellent proofs: first, the U.S. and Iran exchanged war threats, which were calmed by Defense Secretary James Mattis, who stated that the U.S. does not intend to change the Tehran regime; second, Washington threatens to impose new sanctions against Turkey. Of course, each of those two governments has considerable sins, but we were used to see the White House keeping off the games of an aggressive regime like the one in Iran (well not to the level of exchanging war threats), and negotiating even with Turkey dominated by an autocratic Erdoğan, in a natural atmospherics between two NATO allies.  

 

RUSSIA

The two stop tour made by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, accompanied by the Chief of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, raised more questions than it answered, regarding the agreements reached in Helsinki.

In Israel, the two Russian officials met with the Israeli Prime-Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to discuss the Iranian troops repositioning away from the Israeli – Syrian border, as well as Syria’s compliance with the separation of forces agreement, which is in force since the 1974 UN brokered armistice. Grigory Karasin, a high official with the Russian Foreign Ministry, described the visit as “urgent and important”. This visit comes on the background of two events: the Helsinki meeting, with no practical result made public, and of the operational situation in Syria, where Bashar Al-Assad forces took control of the territory adjacent to the demarcation line with Israel (in force since the 1974 separation of forces agreement). The Russian offer, with the Iranian forces to be withdrawn to a distance of 100 kilometers (62 miles, extended from an initial 80 km) has been rejected by B. Netanyahu: “we will not allow the Iranians to establish themselves even 100 kilometers from the border”. Bottom line, the meeting brought some results, only the Israeli Prime-Minister asked the Russian party to squeeze from the Iranians more than the 100 kilometer limit. It seems that the Russian delegation explained the limited influence Moscow has over Tehran as the reason for a limited withdrawal in Syria.

On the other hand, Israel asked Russia to make sure that Syria respects the 1974 separation of forces agreement. Subsequent events proved this request also hard to comply with: after the meeting, the Israeli-Syrian border situation heated up on July 23rd, when the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) attempted to intercept two SS 21 (Tochka U) rockets launched by the Syrian government forces, by using the David’s Sling interceptor system. The action was aborted (mid-air self-destruction) by IDF when they calculated that the Syrian missiles would not have touched Israeli territory. However, a failed intercept fire cannot be ruled out. The situation escalated on July 24th, when IDF hit a Syrian Suhoi aircraft, using Patriot missiles, on the ground that the Syrian aircraft entered the Israeli air space a couple of miles. These military events show that Israel will not allow Bashar Al-Assad to ignore the 1974 agreement when the Syrian regime tests the agreement, probably pushed by Iran.

In the wake of the Russian visit to Israel a question looms: why is Russia so “urgent and importantly” interested of Israel security, when it is not able to provide what is requested, i.e. the departure of Iranian forces from Syria?

In Berlin, Sergey Lavrov and Valery Gerasimov met, on July 24, with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas. In a quite short communiqué, the German government said that Syria, the Middle East situation, and the conflict in Ukraine were discussed. Very unlike the usual, no further details have been offered by the German government, except the fact that the meeting had been decided previously by Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin. The German opposition protested against this eyebrow raising lack of transparency.

Here, the question pops up: why would Russia talk to Germany, foremost Syria and the Middle East, knowing that Germany has no military role in these issues? Even more strangely, the Russian request to Germany was already known: V. Putin had told A. Merkel that Germany needs to contribute to the reconstruction of Syria, if Berlin wants the Syrian migrants to return to their country. In addition, for these issues, general Gerasimov was not needed, yet a special waiver was obtained from the European Commission, for the sanction forbidding V. Gerasimov to enter European Union territory. The only available explanation is that Ukraine was actually the main issue, since Russia wants to organize a referendum in the territory under separatist control, and it seems that such referendum has been accepted at the Helsinki meeting between the American and Russian presidents. Such referendum in Eastern Ukraine would legitimize the separatists internationally, and would inch Russia forwards, in Kremlin’s plan to control Kyiv. Moscow was always interested in providing its actions an international legal aspect. For example, after forcing Ukraine “manu militari” to accept the Minsk II Agreements, Russia also obtained the UN Security Council vote for these agreements.

 Perhaps Russia promised that, after the referendum is accepted by Ukraine, Moscow would accept international peace forces in the separatist region. This would explain the presence of General Valery Gerasimov in Berlin. Nevertheless, it is just the sequence of steps, which was the bone of contention at the last meeting of the foreign ministers in Normandy format: Kyiv wants military disengagement first, and political agreement implementation second, while Moscow wants the other way around: politics before military. Now, consider this: why would Germany accept to talk in Normandy format the Russo-American decision taken in Helsinki, tilting the balance in favor of the Russians? One may understand that, in Helsinki, President D. Trump probably accepted a bargain offered by V. Putin: in exchange for Russian efforts to provide security to Israel by persuading Iran to withdraw from Syria (or at least to a considerable distance from the Israeli border), D. Trump might have agreed to work with Ukraine to accept a referendum in Donbas before military disengagement. If this is the case, a precedent is born to bury the principle which formed the foundation of Pax Americana: no negotiations with aggressors and no recognition of the annexation by aggressors of territories occupied by force, or the utilization of such territories to limit the sovereignty of the victim nation. Russia is pleased and well used to such haggling, over the heads of nations whose fate is decided.

But hold your horses! It’s a long way to Tipperary, and no guarantee that the United States, which is much more than President Trump, or Germany accepted such game. The public opinion is watching, and Ukraine can defend itself, even alone. The East-Europeans do not forget that in Yalta perhaps Eastern Europe was not simply sold to the Soviet Union, but conditions were created to allow its occupation by the Soviets for almost a century, resulting in a painful aftermath and a long term deep identity crisis.

 

THE EUROPEAN UNION

 Jean-Claude Junker’s visit to Washington is considered to be an unexpected success: the United States and the European Union reached a framework agreement regarding the future bilateral economic relations, which will certainly improve their political relations too.

On July 25th, the U.S. President, Donald Trump and the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, agreed to hold off on further rounds of tariffs, and committed work together to establish a new bilateral comprehensive trade agreement. This would lead to reduced custom tariffs and other trade barriers, including energy products and the American liquefied natural gas (LNG). Very important, the White House gave up threating it would introduce taxes on European cars, and also will stop overtaxing European steel and aluminium. The two presidents also discussed the illegal practice in international trade, eying China, whose illegal dealings affect both parties: copyright theft and purchase of high technology companies are on the first page of both American and European legislation (the U.K. and Germany recently initiated packages of bills in this respect).

In both European and American political circles, there is a large quantity of skepticism regarding the real signification and durability of Juncker’s visit to Washington. There is a school of thought who explains President Trump’s change of mind in an electoral logic: a concession to Republican leaders, who, fearing defeat in the November midterm elections, asked the President to resume the party’s traditional policy. It can be concluded that a big trade war between the two giant western actors has been dodged, which is per se a game changer. The atmospherics of the declarations made by the two leaders might also seem surprising, as they mentioned zero tariffs and zero subventions, which remind us about the agreed by not signed US - EU agreement TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). TTIP was forged under the Obama Administration, but President Trump switched the policy in a totally different direction, dropping any intention to sign such agreement. The big question is whether the “truce” they reached will pan out concrete results, and will relax the transatlantic relations, especially considering that the US decision is not in the direction the Trump Administration championed so far.   

The answer is, very likely, “yes”, although many ups and downs will follow. Each of the two parties needs unrestricted trade relations with an economic partner similar as political system. This condition has stressed by Juncker himself, in a later speech in Washington, when he mentioned that the US and the EU have “shared history, shared values and shared interests”. Should the Europeans and the Americans remember about these shared values before rushing to satisfy their immediate individual interests in disrespect of these values, the path towards a new TTIP is open. It is sad that, for any weird would the Trump Administration policy towards Europe look, it is not the US the first to cynically calculate its economic interests, forgetting other obligations, but the Europeans, too “passionate for markets, regardless their political wrapping”. Emperor Vespasian was wrong: nowadays, money has a political stench!


[1] Senators John McCain and Ben Cardin introduced a new bill that would add Magnitski Act to another set of wide-ranging Russia sanctions called Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, that was signed by President Trump in the summer of 2017. It would give Congress a say over enforcing Magnitsky, and could protect Magnitski Act, because CAATSA has wide bipartisan support, which makes it difficult to repeal.

[2] Senators Chris Van Hollen and Marco Rubio have co-sponsored a bill called the Deter Act, which requires the U.S. to impose major sanctions against any foreign government who meddles in an American federal election.