21 August 2018

MAIN POLITICAL AND MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS - WEEK 33

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

I) GERMANY – RUSSIA. The “almost secret” meeting between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin has apparently brought no special results. II) TURKEY. The financial crisis continues, the relations with the US deteriorate, yet those with Russia, seen as alternative, are not a way out.

Image source: Mediafax

I) GERMANY – RUSSIA. The “almost secret” meeting between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin has apparently brought no special results.

The meeting between the two leaders, held on August 19th at Meseberg Palace in Gransee, near Berlin, was made public late, was followed by no statements on the discussed topics, and it has been apparently concluded with no special results.

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov (diplomat, translator and turkologist), stated that the meeting had just been intended to merely “check the watches” (i.e. agreeing on issues to be addressed, not deciding on solutions), although, most likely, the reality is quite different. Russia is pushing for its own solutions, being under the US sanctions’ pressure but stimulated by the Helsinki arrangements (which President Donald Trump cannot fulfill, since the American elite compelled him to fall back).

On Ukraine issue, Moscow has firstly to convince the Europeans to agree with the Helsinki solution, and then to lift their sanctions, at least partly.

On Syria issue, after savagely bombing the civilian population, Russia wants now “Germany to pay” for the reconstruction of a “Bashar’s Syria”, be it just for that it is mandatory to create proper conditions for the Syrian refugees to come back to their home country.

On the North Stream II issue, Russia has, to some extent, Germany’s collusion, who deliberately failed to notice the political dimension of the project. This is one step further to Ukraine’s economic ruin, intended for its subsequent political seizure by Russia. Sadly, the Trump Administration opposes to the North Stream II not for Ukraine’s sakes, but for unrealistic economic reasons: currently, the American LNG[1] is not competitive with the Russian gas transited by pipeline.

Next, although mentioned as a possible topic for discussions, the subject of Iran’s new nuclear deal is a “self-solving problem”. The Europeans, as well as the Russians, have been left to do little about it by the US sanctions. Moreover, the EU, as opposed to the Russians, back up only the agreement itself, not Iran as a country, to whom they have so many concerns over, starting from the ballistic missile program up to its destabilizing actions the entire Middle East.



[1] LNG = Liquefied Natural Gas

 

This meeting seems to be part of a more complicated game of Putin’s. He has done everything in his power to fulfill his promise made to Donald Trump in Helsinki regarding the security of Israel at its Syrian border[1]. He made efforts in that respect in order to get the American sanctions lifted instead, but without losing his upper hand in Ukraine (mainly, this means political concessions by Kyiv before a real cease-fire agreement, troops disengagement, and peacekeeping forces deployed in Donbas. This clarifies why Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had a discussion over the telephone before the meeting, and why there was neither a final statement nor a proper press conference after the Merkel – Putin meeting at Meseberg Palace. Instead, there were only scant declarations attempting to hide difficult discussions and the lack of an agreement, albeit only at principle level.

However, a common view was shared on the North Stream II: this would be a purely commercial project, in spite of the American and Ukrainian concerns. Vladimir Putin mentioned this argument when also stating that: “that’s why it is necessary to take measures against possible non-competitive and illegal attacks from the third countries in order to complete this project eventually”.

On the other hand, at the beginning of the meeting, Chancellor Merkel stressed that Ukraine must still play an important role in the gas transit to Western Europe, and welcomed the beginning of discussions among the European Union, Ukraine and Russia on that issue. V.Putin replied that “such a move has to make sense from a business perspective”. But once the North Stream II functional, there is no economic reason for the gas transit through Ukraine at all. So, to summarize, the EU – Ukraine - Russia talks are good looking, but they lead to nowhere: even if, for Germany’s sakes, an agreement is to be signed allowing Ukraine to transit some of the Russian gas, there is no guarantee for a Russian long-term full commitment to it. Historically speaking, Russia fully complied with an agreement only when it deemed suitable or when Moscow was not strong enough to ignore it. For instance: the Minsk Agreements, the Georgia Agreement, the Istanbul OSCE Agreement, the Budapest Memorandum, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Helsinki Agreements, Paris Peace Treaty[2] and the Yalta Agreements. Ironically, Russia is right when saying that the North Stream II is a pure economic project, but that is true only blatantly ignoring the pink elephant. In fact, one must not forget that Ukraine, who loses economically from this project, is the very state continuously aggressed by Russia, both politically and militarily.

 Therefore, no matter how economic Angela Merkel says the project is, it resembles a Locarno type agreement, according to which, last century, Germany was allowed to do whatever it deemed suitable in the East as long as the Western borders stay intact (it is well known where this approach led to). Similarly, Germany solves now its energy needs and leaves the East, Ukraine respectively, to Russia’s mercy.

The truth is that the German influential groups decided that this gas pipeline is to be done and this is the end of discussion. But there’s a yin for every yang: the Trump Administration opposes for economic reasons as well. Dmitry Peskov announced that American sanctions’ effects on the project were not addressed during the meeting. Really?

Before the meeting, A. Merkel said that both countries, especially Russia as a permanent member of the UN Security Council - had a responsibility to work to solve the ongoing fighting in Ukraine and Syria. This is a sample of A.Merkel “sublime diplomacy” intended to make V. Putin more responsible. She knows, as we all do, that the military aggression in Ukraine is conducted by Russia and that Russia is also the interventionist power in Syria. Its military actions provided victory to a dictator over the majority of his people, irrespective this majority uprising was led by radicals, jihadists or even Islamic terrorists (Al-Nusra).

As for the Syrian problem, Chancellor A. Merkel cautioned over a possible humanitarian crisis that could be triggered by an offensive on Idlib, conducted by Bashar and supported by Iran and Russia. The German and Russian leaders discussed the issue of constitutional reforms and possible elections in Syria, but these are only sheer Western illusions. Vladimir Putin too is worried about the humanitarian situation. Therefore, he asks Germany and the West, in general, to help Bashar to restore... the Syrian infrastructure. Of course, after he seizes as much territory of Syria as possible, he needs Western money to rebuild his country he has brought to the ground. Cynically, the issue of Idlib will be debated and decided on according to the interests belonging to the actors that interfered in Syria: Russia (alongside with Iran and Bashar Al-Assad as just a symbol) and Turkey. The Europeans do not really have too much of a military or political argument in the Syrian problem except that they are seen as “the schmucks who pick up the bill”, as Donald Trump would put it.

On Ukraine issue, actually the real reason behind the meeting, A.Merkel insisted for reaching a cease-fire agreement in the same time with the beginning of the new school year. Probably, such an agreement might be signed, but it will not last for long. Why would Russia make any military concession since there were no political yields from Kyiv? The Europeans have a strong argument indeed: the economic sanctions. The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, declared that Germany hopes to spur once more the peace process based on the Minsk Agreements, any sanction lifting being conditioned by the Minsk Agreements full implementation. However, Russia can use the Helsinki Agreements as leverage, especially since it has gone through its part of the deal by ensuring Israel’s security at the Syrian border. The key question is that: what is Ukraine to be asked for to yield, from a political standpoint, in order to make Russia agree on a cease-fire and, thus, having the Minsk process released and the sanctions be lifted? Is it possible to be the Donbas referendum the Russians spoke about after Helsinki? But this would mean the international legitimacy of the separatists and Kyiv knows it very well. Most probably, we will find out next week, when John Bolton, the White House national-security adviser, is going to meet a Russian counterpart, possibly Nikolai Patrushev. This meeting too is shrouded in secrecy, just as the Merkel - Putin meeting was. This is not a good sign, since the lack of transparency always favors Russia, who can thereby promote its dishonest solutions based on force, and can make deals on other nations’ expenses. But, before his meeting with N. Patrushev in Geneva, J. Bolton will be visiting Kyiv. Although known as a tough, experienced negotiator with Russia, J. Bolton will bear a mandate from Donald Trump, who has stricken some deals with V. Putin in Helsinki. Let us hope that the Congress pressure on D.Trump is that high so he will not fulfill the deal concerning Ukraine, which was immoral in the first place: Russia, an invader and occupying power, organizes a referendum to legitimate its own pressure tool on Kyiv, i.e. the separatists.

Besides, Russia has been very aggressive on the ground this 33rd week: it almost completely closed for 24 hours the maritime space between the Crimean Peninsula and the Snake Island, and launched a ship-to-ship missile in this area, from the Admiral Grigorevich frigate. It also intensified the military actions in Donbas: 120 mm heavy artillery shelling and GRAD multiple rocket launcher firings. The OSCE’s unmanned aerial vehicles detected four electronic warfare systems deployed in Donbas. Likewise, the GOTR[3] deployed in Transnistria and the separatist soldiers conducted an unauthorized Nistru / Dniester crossing offensive exercise, humiliating the Moldovan counterpart in the Unified Control Commission and the Peacekeeping Force Commander in the Republic of Moldova as well as the OSCE Mission. All their protests were not answered. These are not good auspices, especially when a link between the Kremlin enthusiasm after the Helsinki meeting and its aggressiveness upsurge can be noticed. Anyway, Chancellor Angela Merkel, as an ethical person, does not make deals over other nations’ heads, so the Berlin meeting had a foreseeable outcome. Let us see what proposals the US will send, through John Bolton, to Geneva, and Kyiv respectively.

II) TURKEY. The financial crisis continues, the relations with the US deteriorate, yet those with Russia, seen as alternative, are not a way out.

Week 33 started badly for the Turkish-American relations: on August 15th, a Turkish Court of law rejected the American clergyman Andrew Brunson’s appeal, who is the subject of an ongoing dispute between the two countries. A higher judiciary instance is about to decide on his appeal, but, as of yet, it is not very clear when. The deadline is October, when the trial is supposed to begin. Actually, the Appeal Court answer is going to be influenced by the political decision to free the pastor or the send him to trial, where he faces a 35 year sentence. There is a precedent case in which two Greek soldiers were released during this week 33, after they were detained in prison for a while, waiting for an espionage trial (both have trespassed the border by mistake). In fact, they were kept as currency for the Turkish soldiers who had deserted in Greece after the coup d’état. Beyond any political plan, freeing the two soldiers is the only good news for… Turkey, because at least the relations with Greece exited the deadlock created by this arrest.

On the same day, August 15th, Turkey announced that extra tariffs have been adopted on American imported goods including vehicles, alcohol, tobacco, cosmetics and coal. On the same time, the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan invited the people to boycott the American electronic goods, especially the mobile phones. All of those actions were justified as an answer to the newly imposed tariffs by the Trump Administration for the Turkish steel and aluminum exported to the US. The items subjected to the newly imposed tariffs account for $1 billion of imports last year, similar to the amount of Turkish steel and aluminum exports.

The Turkish currency, lira, seemed to be fairly stable since Berat Albayrak, the finance minister, announced steps to reassure the markets that capital flow will continue and the Turkish financial institutions are independent. The situation appeared to be saved, despite the investors’ skepticism, as they trust neither R.T.Erdoğan’s economic decisions, nor his son-in-law B.Albayrak’s efforts to become a credible person, able to bring security on the capital market. But on August 16th, President Trump threatened with a new series of sanctions, as a response to the rejection of the American pastor appeal. Consequently, the Turkish lira depreciation continued.

The Turkish president looked for a Western alternative to the US, trying to get closer to France, and to Germany too, with whom Turkey used to have lately more than difficult relations. But such a solution is way less likely, since France is wondering whether Turkey is able to pay its debts to the French banks.

The “great salvation”, increased relations with Russia, did not pass the phase of good intentions. The visit paid to Ankara by Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, revealed that, beside the problems that both countries have with the West, especially with the US, Turkey and Russia have little in common. Moreover, they are rivals in Syria (no solution has been found for Idlib) and the measure to abandon the American dollar in bilateral relations is just a hypothesis. There is no doubt that an increase in economic trade is nevertheless possible, but both countries need something none of them could provide: high technology products, which are a Western attribute.

President Erdoğan has much too early forgotten that Turkey, now politically submitted to Islam and is drifting away from the kemalist secular state, was built up on Western technology and investments. This process was also favored by a concurrence of events created by the USSR and the other Eastern centralized economies collapse, and not the other way around: a desired break up with the West, especially with the US, and the economic co-operation with Russia.

The Turkish financial crisis is likely to continue, driven by the worsening relation with the US, on the short term, and, on the medium and long term, dictated by structural problems, such as: the political involvement in the Turkish Central Bank decisions; the political instability with economic impact; the international debts; and the loss of investors’ trust. The high rate of inflation and the national currency downfall are just the tip of the iceberg.

If military aspects with political implications are added to the above, a much complete picture is revealed. For instance, the new American defense budget provides the funding for Turkey’s exclusion from the F 35 fighter program. This is for the first time after the WWII that Turkey is excluded from an already agreed military acquisition program. Until now, the Congress was just reluctant to the Turkish military acquisition programs, and used to just postpone or limit them.

This break up brings along a great loss for the both sides, but Turkey is the one who will lose the most. By raising the tensions to very high levels, R.Erdoğan has become too busy to see the trees and has failed the notice the forest. His state, built up against the kemalist secular construction, is going to lose the connection with the West and the power residing in this connection. Russia, China (who begins serious economic talks with the US), Iran (caught in a severe economic crisis, even before the American sanctions became effective) have their own problems to solve and cannot be an alternative solution for Turkey (maybe just a palliative solution). Ironically, Turkey cannot covertly violate anymore the sanctions against Iran because it opposed to them from the beginning. Previously, a great deal of money came out from this “business”, although this was just another nail in the Turkey-US relation coffin.

Most likely, sooner or later R.Erdoğan will surrender in the American pastor case, constrained by the economic situation. The only question to be answered to is whether he will find or not an honorable way out? But Erdoğan’s Turkey biggest problem of all, i.e. the structural economic and political issue, still remains, and along with it comes an ever-growing distance from the Western world.


[1] Not only that the Iranians and their allies were sent 80 km away from the 1974 Demarcation line, but under the Russian check-points protection, the UN observers returned into the Buffer Zone to verify the 1974 cease fire and the implementation of 1974 disengagement agreements between Syria and Israel.

[2] The Soviet Union made a grab on the Snake Island in the Black Sea, through a simple minute signed by Ana Pauker, a Moscow controlled politician in Romania; thus, a document not even at minister level, let alone any ratification of the Romanian parliament ever.

[3] The Operative Group of Russian Troops.