18 September 2018

MAIN POLITICAL AND MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS - WEEK 37

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

Image source: Mediafax

I). THE EUROPEAN UNION. Jean-Claude Juncker Delivers the “State of the Union” Speech in a Crucial Moment for the Union.  

II) HUNGARY. The Europeans’ Vote in Strasbourg Parliament Tells Viktor Orbán that the Rule of Law Is Not Negotiable in the European Union.

III) RUSSIA. Vladimir Putin Seeks a Way Out of Russia’s Predicament by Combining the Show of Force with Overtures to Dialogue.

 

I). THE EUROPEAN UNION. Jean-Claude Juncker Delivers the “State of the Union” Speech in a Crucial Moment for the Union.     

  In his ”State of the Union” speech, delivered on September 12th, Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission (EC), reviewed the present situation of the EU, but, especially, he presented goals for the future. The main promise was that he would continue the effort to ”render this imperfect Union that little bit more perfect with each passing day”. J-C. Juncker also asked for more respect to the EU, and warned against over-nationalism, which spreads hatred and blames everybody else, instead of seeking solutions. He described the EU as ”guardian of peace”, to whom we should be thankful for living in a continent of peace. But a guardian should peform in hard ways as well, not only in soft ways.

Although the speech was very appreciative of the common effort to bail out Greece, it did not touch the main problem of the Euro Zone, the economic core of the EU, i.e. how to make the common currency stronger in absence of a unitary financial policy. It is true, the EU economy found its way out of the crisis, and the investments thrive, also thanks to the European Fund for Strategic Investment (FSI). However, the issue of cohesion has not been mentioned, especially regarding the losers unable to absorb the cohesion funds, let alone the FSI money. 

J-C. Juncker highlighted the global position held by the EU, the largest common market, and the source of a so strong Europe: its principles and its economic and social realities. He asked for a more united Europe, able to really matter, since it can “export stability”. The EC president specified the need of unity in solving the Western Balkan problems and stressed that, should the EU fail to find a solution, others will find their solution instead. Was it a reproach towards Germany, especially being well known that Federica Mogherini was in favor of a solution to Kosovo problem by a land exchange with Serbia?[1]

Another example was Syria, where the EU “cannot remain silent” in the face of the humanitary catastrophe still looming large in Idlib. The conflict in Syria was presented as an example that the world order which secured favorable conditions for EU to flourish is now “increasingly called into question”.

J-C. Juncker went even further, declaring that “in today’s world, Europe can no longer be certain that words given yesterday can still be counted today. The old alliances may not look the same tomorrow”. Now it would be “the hour of European sovereignty” (the subtitle of the printed speech). Really? And opposite to who? To the US, the core of NATO, which defends Europe? J-C. Juncker follows the logic of France, challenging the transatlantic unity, a line of thought increasingly accepted by the balanced Germany. However, in spite of the confusion where President Donald Trump cast the American foreign policy, Washington’s foreign committments have been upkept beyond complaint, especially in Europe, from NATO issues to the Ukraine conflict.

The idea of asserting a European security independent from the US (read a EU placed midway between the US and Russia) is unrealistic for two reasons: first, the European nations cannot secure an effective defense against the Russian threat outside NATO, i.e. outside the US support[2]; and second, people unite around values which they truely believe in, and which secure both their identity and their social and political success, not around values they just state or simulate they respect. Eventually, the Europeans, as a whole, ought to accept that they have more in common with Washington than with Moscow – liberty and democracy. And this is true even when the American policy drifts away from its traditional course. Regarding the values, we, Romanians clearly saw that we have more in common with the people across the ocean than with those who speak the same language as us and live across a river which is, in some places, just four inches deep, but whose elite thinks just like the elite in... Vladivostok!

Bottom line though, the basic idea, of a Europe able to protect its citizens from foreign and domestic threats is more than a wish, is a necessity. As for the requirement that ”Europe has to become a more sovereign actor in international relations”, well, what is stopping it? Of course, more than anything alse, it is the domestic divergencies, hence the call for a united and strong Europe is quite legitimate.

Regarding the current challenge, migration, J-C. Juncker reiterrated the idea that Europe will not become a fortress, it will not turn its back to those in distress, but will overcome the domestic divisions and differences, eventually championing multilateralism. However, if one considers the level reached by the dialogue between the internal affairs ministers of Italy and Luxemburg, we are still far from overcoming the differences. To this generous vision, J-C. Juncker added concrete proposals regarding the limitation of illegal migration[3].

J-C. Juncker also drew attention towards maintaining a Schengen Zone without internal borders, and insisted on solidarity. A special attention was given to Africa, perhaps in connection to a solution to illegal migration: Europe should consolidate its relations with Africa to the level of a... free trade agreement! Rather ambitious plan, considering that such agreement was reached only with Japan, the one with the US failed (not EU’s guilt), and the agreement with UK will be as difficult as the ongoing negotiations, which do not lead yet to a solution, in spite of all the hopes and dialogue availability.

Regarding the big upcoming problem, the Brexit, J-C. Juncker reiterrated the principles which the EU, althoug flexibly[4], would follow: regretfully respecting the exit decision taken by the UK, Juncker reminded that London cannot preserve the membership privileges after opting out, thus ceasing to be eligible for a common market; the EU will remain solidary with a EU member, Ireland, regarding the border issue with Northern Ireland; after Brexit, the UK will be a close partner of the EU. On the background of an unstable political situation, the signals coming from London do not seem to show that UK understood or accepts these three principles, as concrete as possible, though.

J-C. Juncker mentioned the 2019 great events for the future of the EU: the European legislative elections, and the European summit in Sibiu (Romania), next May. In the former event, the populists and the anti-European extremists have to be defeated, should the EU intend to continue as a Union, and not as a group of sovereign nations. The latter event, the Sibiu Summit, should offer to the Europeans a clear perspective on their future, with clearly accepted objectives, not mere palliatives. That is especially because, by then, the 2020 EU budget problem will be solved, meaning who will give money and who will get European money. And there will also be decided whether a real progress is possible in consolidating the EU common foreign policy, and which that path would be.

Maybe J-C. Juncker is wright regarding Sibiu; it is then left to us, Romanians, to have our own Sibiu pre-summit, and to decide by then what we want for our country, also from the point of view raised by J-C. Juncker on justice. So, ”the Commission will resist all attacks on the rule of law... and Article 7 must be applied whenever the rule of law is threatened... The European Union is a community of law. Respecting the rule of law and abiding by Court decisions are not optional”. Indeed, Viktor Orbán just felt that on his own skin.

Optimistic and pesimistic in the same time, J-C. Juncker, as a politician who saw many things, offered us, the Europeans, more truths and a number of solutions, which we can agree with or not. Anyway, one important truth cannot be neglected: only in a united Europe, based on the principles of democracy and rule of law, we have the chance of a common future, in peace and prosperity. The elites of the Member States, who come to power promising the good of the citizens, are left to understand this. Romania makes no exception. So, at one hundred years since Alba Iulia, all the ways, Romanian and European, should lead to... Sibiu.  

 

II) HUNGARY. The Europeans’ Vote in Strasbourg Parliament Tells Viktor Orbán that the Rule of Law Is Not Negotiable in the European Union.   

Tolerated for a too long time, Viktor Orbán received a humiliating warning on September 12th, by the vote in the European Parliament, which approved the report presenting breaches in the rule of law in Hungary, and authorized the implementation of the procedures under Article 7 of the EU treaty, the text regarding the sanctions meant to defend the rule of law.

V. Orbán preferred to ignore the EU Parliament decision, knowing that time will pass before this warning translates into loss of European money, which is actually all that he is interested in. The EU Parliament vote itself showed that V. Orbán still has enough supporters, and the procedures will be long and difficult[5]. Additionally, Poland, which is in a similar situation, announced that it would oppose a decision unfavorable to Hungary.

By identifying his regime and its assault against the rule of law, with the whole Hungarian nation and its interests, V. Orbán demonstrated, better than the report identifying the abuses by his regime, how dangerous his ”illiberal” policy became. Even more, V. Orbán made baseless threats (to bring the case before the European Court of Justice), and accused Angela Merkel for attempting to undermine the capacity of the Hungarian Republic to defend its borders. Let alone that V. Orbán transferred the problem to a different plane, by stating that his country would be punished for its anti-immigration policy. 

Same as his previous idea, of establishing an illiberal axis with the Italian far right, and attacking Angela Merkel in the process, this is also questionable: the political games in Germany are far too big for a leader of V. Orbán caliber to matter. The German right wing elite, facing an unexpectedly popular anti-immigration reaction, is asking itself just one question, and that is how far should it slide to the right under these conditions: the need not to jeopardize its unity; the need to firmly solve the migration problem; and the need not to lose votes to the far right party, AfD.

Worst for Viktor Orbán is that he lost the support of the European Popular Party, as its leader, the German Manfred Weber, decided to end the hesitations after the aggressive speech of V. Orbán in the European Parliament. There were previous signals already, when the Austrian right wing chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, announced that his members of EU Parliament will vote against V. Orbán.

Romania has no reasons to rejoice, for two reasons: first, because Romania and Hungary are too much linked for a failure of Budapest to have no consequence on Bucharest; and second, because our turn might come, and Hungary plays in a higher league: it is in a different phase of political development, which we didn’t even start yet, and is in more advanced economic development phase (a country half the size exports twice as much). V. Orbán opened this phase when he came to power, after the socialist prime-minister (the former communists) was proven to have lied to the EU regarding economic-financial performance figures. V. Orbán led Hungary towards a political regime having roots in the pre-communist past: a totalitarian regime, with nationalist and religious (catholic and protestant) roots. This development is similar to the situation in Poland, where a conservative regime with catholic roots has been established - a construction resembling the Polish establishment preceding the World War II. A comparison with Romania is inadequate, which makes more dangerous a possible situation where we would similarly face the EU Parliament.

 

III) RUSSIA. Vladimir Putin Seeks a Way Out of Russia’s Predicament by Combining the Show of Force with Overtures to Dialogue.

This past week 37, the Russian leadership, Vladimir Putin respectively, made a real diplomatic and military tour de force, in quest of a solution, a favorable way out of the isolation Russia is confined to, and to preclude a predictible worsening of the country’s economic situation, facing possible new sanctions and more tense relations with the West.

Firstly, Russia performed a show of force by the ample military exercise ”Vostok 2018” (East 2018), a boogieman showed to the US, respectively NATO. In this context, during his meeting with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, V. Putin sent the message of a convergence of Russian and Chinese security, foreign policy, and economic interests. This message was aimed primarily to the US. Then, he balanced this rapprochement to China by a surprise proposition to Japan, to conclude a peace treaty by the end of this year. However, such a treaty will not be signed by Japan unless Russia returns the Southern Kuriles to Japan, which is unlikely. Finally, V. Putin announced his availability for a deescalation of the tensions with the United States, more precisely his receptivity to consider President Trump’s attempt to reset the Russo-American relations.

In Syria, Russia tempered the air attacks and postponed Bashar al-Assad’s offensive in Idlib. Nevertheless, Russia discussed with Germany the Syrian and the Ukrainian problems (in the latter case, Russia did not escalate the military conflict, although it could afford it). The discussions occurred during Sergey Lavrov’s conciliatory visit to Berlin. In addition, V. Putin met the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (actually Monday, week 38), aiming to find a negotiated solution for Idlib.

Russia also tried to repair issues catching up from the past, alternating a rough approach with an apparently conciliatory attitude: in the Skripal case, Moscow “found” the two “civilian tourists” accused by the British authorities for executing the chemical attack; at the UN, Moscow put pressure to be excluded from the report regarding the breaching of sanctions against North Korea; in the battle for Ukraine, Russia transferred the offensive in a spiritual-religious plane, where the Russian Orthodox Church initiated the conflict with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, because this accepted an Autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, not subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The military exercise Vostok 2018, conducted in eastern Siberia, close to the border with China, was the largest drill conducted so far by Russia. It included 300 000 soldiers from all branches of the military, 1000 aircraft, 36 000 armored vehicles and numerous warships. At political-military level, Vostok 2018 was a significant step forward in the Sino-Russian military cooperation, as a contingent of 3000 Chinese soldiers were invited to partake in the exercises.

V. Putin pointed out that it is for the first time that Russian land, air, and naval forces take part in an exercise of this size. The Russian President      addressed the soldiers with a message of peace, plus a message of deterrence, as Russia was a peaceful country ready for cooperation with any state interested in partnership. “Therefore we are going to further strengthen our armed forces, supply them with the latest generations of weapons and equipment, develop international military partnership”, Putin said.

By their sheer size, Vostok 2018 exercises were interpreted as a rehearsal for a very large conflict. Considering the very good level of the political and military Sino-Russian relations, and the participation of Chinese troops in this exercise, the conflict for which the Russian soldiers just trained for is a conflict against the US, respectively NATO. The North-Atlantic Alliance expressed concern about the exercise, and its intention to monitor its development, although the combined exercise was conducted far from Europe, as the Russian annual strategic exercises are held by rotation, in three regions of Russia (last year in western Russia - Zapad 2017 / West 2017). However, the strategic mobility of the Russian armed forces makes the place where the exercises are held, irrelevant.   

During Vostok 2018, complex maneuvers of joint forces were conducted: air defense from land and air (missiles launched by modern S-400 air defense systems); achieving and maintaining air supremacy; complex drills of infantry and tank troops with fire support by artillery and from air (by fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft); landing drills by airborne troops and special operations forces; short range cruise and ballistic missile launches – Iskander K and Iskander M (Iskander K is suspected of breaching the INF by launching Kalibr missiles from mobile land platforms); amphibious landing drills, naval exercises with missile launching; and exercises by the strategic air forces. Of course, drones and robots were used, and the electronic warfare, as well as the hybrid warfare, were given the importance required by the present Russian military doctrine.

The complexity and size of the exercise support the hypothesis that Vostok 2018 was conducted in view of a major war against the US. It is significant, however, that the US Air Forces intercepted Russian strategic bombers in the air space of American air traffic responsibility. So, a hypothesis can be made, that the Russian strategic bomber flights were part of the exercise final phase, the same as, during Zapad 2017, the final phase included the escalation of the conflict from conventional to nuclear war.

It is noticeable that the Chinese troops were not just a symbolic presence; they were really integrated into the Russian exercises. A Russian analyst went as far as to say that Russia has China as a strategic partner. The response from the US came from the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis: "I think that nations act out of their interests, I see little in the long-term that aligns Russia and China". Nevertheless, let’s not forget that V. Putin is too little interested in long term actions, he acts opportunely, if not opportunistic, on short term.

Of course, after such a force demonstration, a peace message was necessary, as V. Putin offered to the soldiers participating in the exercises, but also a direct warning to the United States, same as the same V. Putin did during his meeting with the Chinese President.

On September 11, the Russian President met the Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in the framework of the annual conference dedicated to the development of eastern Russia. V. Putin told Xi Jinping that the relations between the two countries, ranging from security to defense, are based on mutual trust. Once the convergence of security interests was established, V. Putin proposed the reduction of bilateral trade conducted in US dollars, and continue those exchanges using the respective national currencies. It is hard to believe that such proposal will be implemented, because using a national currency reflects the level of trust bestowed in the economy that supports that currency, and the real level of trust between the two nations is relatively low, especially at economic level (Putin’s wish to restart the diplomatic and economic relations with Japan stands to prove that).

For the moment, Russia braces up for the worst: the implementation of the new American sanctions caused by the Skripal case (phase two), but also the future sanctions to be discussed by the US Congress this fall, which might be followed by additional sanctions linked to the breaching of the UN sanctions in the case of North Korea.

The Russian politicians and diplomacy seek to diminish the effects of Russian past actions, but this enterprise is difficult; In the US, Paul Manafort agreed to cooperate with the authorities, which will further push the investigations regarding the Russian meddling in American elections.

In Ukraine, Russia got rid of the pressure put by the German and French road map regarding the introducing of peacekeepers in Donbas, but it did not escalate the conflict either. Perhaps Moscow is waiting for the Ukrainian presidential elections, when this country will be vulnerable again. However, Ukraine’s economic situation is not very happy – President Poroshenko recently mentioned the need for new IMF loans to keep his country afloat. To Russia, the answer from Germany was clear: Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that the European sanctions will continue until the situation in Ukraine gets normal (let alone that she also mentioned the need to put an end to Russia’s hybrid war).

In Syria, Russia is looking for a negotiated solution: S. Lavrov washed down Moscow’s stance - Russia will pursue its air strikes in Idlib, but his message was that a negotiated solution is also sought. While the result of Russo-Turkish discussions was expected, both parties advanced both ways: a political solution was presented as desirable, but they both were strengthening their military disposition. Latest news is that Monday, September 17th, a 15 – 20 km wide demilitarized zone in Idlib has been agreed, with Turkish and Russian patrols.

Although not sincere, Russia’s overtures to dialogue will probably be accepted by the West / by the US, as an opportunity. Maybe a positive response to dialogue overtures will make Moscow return not only to dialogue, but will offer a slack regarding its aggressive policy. After all it is our duty to hope, although V. Putin proved that, albeit calculated, he keeps pursuing an ever more aggressive policy. Doesn’t it remind us of Neville Chamberlain waving a paper?   

 


[1] Nevertheless, in Kosovo a new problem arises, after the authorities in Priština resurfaced a project meant to transform the Kosovar security forces into a national military. This project has neither the US, nor NATO support, as KFOR is the only armed force authorized to maintain peace in Kosovo, according to UN Security Council Resolution 1244. The Serbian leadership does offer a balanced language either: President Vućič stated that solving the Kosovar problem should mean the door opening for Serbia’s integration into the EU. Wrong: solving this problem is a neccessary prerequisite, not sufficient though. And this analysis comes after the unhappy eulogy to Miloševič, extremely badly received in the region and in the whole Europe. 

[2] After the French President, Emmanuel Macron, presented the idea of a European defense (almost a ”small European NATO”), the French chief of defense (CHOD) produced a strategy for developing the French armed forces, which also revealed its weaknesses. Similarly, after Chancellor Angela Merkel sadly noticed that ”we should deal with it ourselves”, the draft plan presented by the German defense minister Ursula von der Leyden, reagrding the armed forces developent strategy, was received with skeptisism by almost the whole German political class.

[3] Such proposals are: the strengthening of the ”European Border and Coast Guard”; the development of the European Asylum Agency; and the speed-up of illegal migrant return to their countries.

[4] This was noticed in the position taken by the EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, who gave up the technical inflexibility, most likely at the request of important European leaders. However, Angela Merkel reiterated the need of a Brexit meant to set the prerequisites for a future optimal EU-UK cooperation.

[5] There is no guarantee that the EU Council will decide, with a necessary majority of four fifths, that the rule of law is threatened in Hungary.