|Russia Uses Korean Crisis to Score Points in Its Standoff With US
During a January 11 meeting with the editors of major Russian print media outlets, President Vladimir Putin praised the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, as a mature and “absolutely learned politician.” According to Putin, Kim “has, without a doubt, won the game and achieved his strategic goal—he has a nuclear weapon and a missile that can reach any target on the territory of his probable adversary—and now is interested in defusing and consolidating the situation.” The term “probable adversary” (veroyatny protivnik) was regularly used during the Cold War by the Soviet military to refer indirectly to the United States and its allies. The expression went out of use after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed; but today, with the arrival of a new cold war and a renewed global standoff with the US,veroyatny protivnik is apparently back and it means exactly the same as before (Kremlin.ru, January 11, 2018).
On December 22, 2017, the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted to impose additional sanctions on North Korea (officially, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—DPRK), including an almost 90 percent cut in oil and fuel imports in response to a successful DPRK test-launch of a new more powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-15. Pyongyang denounced the new UN sanctions as an “act of war,” but as 2018 began, the government dramatically changed its rhetoric and began a “charm offensive” with the South (the Republic of Korea—ROK). North Korea resumed talks at the demilitarized zone and announced it would send a big delegation of officials, athletes and artists to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month (Interfax, January 7, 2018). The DPRK’s peaceful overtures have been welcomed in the South, while Putin and commentators in Moscow have interpreted them as a decisive DPRK “victory.” By dramatically shifting from war talk to peace propaganda, Kim Jong Un may consolidate the DPRK as a de facto nuclear state with ICBM capability, while somehow wiggling out of sanctions as the entire Korean nuclear problem is deferred to lengthy multilevel talks to seek “denuclearization” that will most likely never arrive. According to Putin, a “denuclearization of Korea is hardly achievable,” but further action may come only through “very cautious” dialogue and by providing the DPRK with security guarantees (Vz.ru, January 11, 2018).
Moscow and Pyongyang share the same veroyatny protivnk, but that does not make them direct allies. Russia accepts some local trans-border trade with the DPRK; and semi-slave North Korean workers are logging and doing other manual work in the thinly populated Russian Far East, earning money for Pyongyang—a practice that must end in two years under new UN sanctions. Some oil has been arriving in the DPRK from Russia, but Pyongyang’s main trading partner is still Beijing. Russian officials, including Putin, habitually denounce North Korean nuclear ambitions more as public lip service; and even then, they tend to pile the blame for the developing Korean nuclear crisis on the US. Moscow has, time and again, announced that more UN sanctions will choke North Korea and must be stopped. Last September, at a regional economic forum in Vladivostok, Putin told the leaders of Japan and South Korea that it was the US and its allies who provoked Pyongyang into developing nuclear weapons. Only prolonged, patient negotiations, as well as economic development, investment and the integration of the DPRK into the regional economy may stabilize the situation, he asserted (Kremlin.ru, September 7, 2017).
The Russian military and the Kremlin do not seem to perceive the DPRK’s limited nuclear/ICBM potential as a serious threat. Moreover, Kim Jong Un’s apparent successful disregard of US pressure is admired in Moscow. Nevertheless, time and again in 2017, up to December 22, Moscow—which rarely shies away from using its veto power at the UN—voted to support more and more punishing sanctions imposed on Pyongyang. Russian diplomats have been denouncing the UN sanctions and expressing distress because Washington and Beijing unilaterally agreed to pass new resolutions, more or less forcing Moscow’s arm into voting for them (Militarynews.ru, December 23, 2017). With US-Russian relations on a Cold War–like footing, Moscow needs Beijing as a solid partner more than ever and has been, in effect, sidelined on the Korean issue, playing second fiddle to the Chinese and more or less ignored by Washington. A frustrated Russian foreign ministry has been seeking ways to somehow get back in play on Korea (interfax-russia, January 2).
Tentative mutual Beijing-Washington coordination and understanding on Korea (or on anything) is most likely the Kremlin’s worst nightmare. Moscow was tremendously relieved when China and Russia joined ranks to together denounce the recent Vancouver meeting on North Korea, co-hosted by Canada and the United States. Neither Moscow nor Beijing were invited to Vancouver, and the two denounced the ministerial meeting as a “Cold War manifestation.” In addition to South Korea, the other 17 countries represented in Vancouver had all supported the UN military effort during the 1950–1953 Korean war; whereas China and Russia (then as the Soviet Union) participated in the conflict on the side of the DPRK (rbc.ru, January 17).
Russian diplomats insist on no more additional sanctions against Pyongyang and would be delighted if Beijing concurs. But the possible rift between Washington and Beijing after Vancouver is much more important to Moscow than the Korean issue per se. On January 18, Russia announced it has begun deliveries of the advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems ordered by China. Until now, China has been buying similar but older Russian weapons: In 2010, a massive deal was completed to deliver 15 batteries or “divisions” of S-300PMU-2 anti-aircraft missiles with four command-and-control SU 83М6Е2 centers, to provide China with a strategic anti-aircraft defense system covering its major cities. This massive deal effectively halted for several years the delivery of any new major anti-aircraft missile systems to the Russian military as all production capacity was devoted to work on the Chinese order. No official Russian publications reported on this S-300 deal as it progressed. The story is quite different today—the start of the S-400 delivery to China is being hailed by Russian official media as a major breakthrough (Militarynews.ru, January 18). This announcement is important beyond the direct military/commercial significance of the S-400 deal: It is meant to signal that the Moscow-Beijing axis is going strong.
Any Russian Naval Expansion Is Many Years Away
Vladimir Putin talks boldly about expanding the Russian military and especially the Russian fleet, but any expansion of the latter is, at best, many years away. Not only does it simply take a long time to build and launch new ships, but the largest planned naval vessels themselves come with enormous costs to build and deploy—costs that Russia has little hope of meeting anytime soon. Additional obstacles to expanding the navy include corruption and other major shortcomings in the Russian shipbuilding sector, which even Moscow admits are horrific, as well as the growing impact of Western sanctions on Russia’s defense industry, which Moscow officials now concede is all too real (Versia.ru, January 14, 2018; Newsru.com, January 17, 2018).
Two years ago, the Russian Ministry of Defense assured China that it has 100 ships patrolling the world’s blue water oceans (Russian.people.com.cn, December 1, 2016; Gazeta.ru, October 30, 2016). But a number of Moscow-based military experts say that the actual number is only about half that and is too geographically dispersed to meet the maritime challenges the Russian fleet faces. Thus, for all of Moscow’s rhetoric that Russia is back as a naval power, it in fact has been cutting back spending in almost all areas of the military and shifting what new resources it has to less expensive branches, like the infantry, rather than the more expensive one, like the navy (Graniru.org, May 13, 2017; Vedomosti, May 17, 2017;Newsland.com, May 19, 2017).
But the Kremlin’s plans to boost defense spending by $30 billion a year over the next decade have prompted some commentators in Moscow and the West to speculate about the revival of the Russian blue water navy, a force that has declined in size and reach since Soviet times and whose shortcomings were very much on display in Moscow’s Syrian operation (see EDM, October 27, 2016; December 15, 2016; Lenta.ru, December 26, 2017;Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, December 27, 2017). Correcting this situation, Russian experts say, will cost far more than what Putin is proposing; but Russia simply does not have enough money to even deploy new submarines, despite the fact that those appear to be the highest priority (Lenta.ru, July 16, 2017).
Indeed, according to London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the problems the Russian navy faced even in the case of the limited Syrian operation were so great that Moscow will not be able to replicate such a mission any time in the next decade unless it swiftly modernizes and expands its fleet (Svpressa.ru, July 10, 2017). However, Russian experts say, Moscow cannot afford to build new ships, especially not ones intended for blue water operations, at anything like the rate that would be required for that to happen (Regnum, Charter 97, July 13, 2017). Moreover, other Moscow specialists say that the country has not addressed even the most basic communications problems any serious blue water navy must overcome (Polit.ru, Kasparov.ru, October 3, 2017).
One of the major obstacles for Russia in rebuilding its blue water naval presence is inherent in the nature of military shipbuilding itself. It simply takes a long time, often many years, to construct a major vessel, even once the decision is made to do so. During that time, the budgets involved are always tempting targets for those who need money for other, more immediate, defense projects—or even non-defense ones. Consequently, even if one takes Putin’s bombast at face value, the ships he says he wants will not appear anytime soon. And the situation in Russia is such that Moscow experts say it takes twice as many years for the Russian shipbuilding industry to put a ship in the water as it does American yards (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 7, 2017). That problem, in fact, appears to be growing worse given problems in defense budgeting, Russian officials say (Vpk-news.ru, January 8, 2018).
Moscow will likely not be able to overcome these problems anytime soon for three main reasons: (1) massive corruption in the defense industry and especially in the shipbuilding yards, (2) sectoral problems, including antiquated and inadequate facilities, (3) and last, but far from least—Western sanctions. Because the price tag for naval vessels is so high and the length of time to build them is so great, Russia’s shipbuilding industry long has been among the most corrupt parts of the military-industrial sector (Kasparov.ru, August 7, 2017; Svpressa.ru, February 3, 2017). Its yards are in such poor shape that Russian defense officials concede they will not be able to deliver even icebreakers and other coastal vessels until sometime in the mid to late 2020s, if then (Nnm2.com, January 7, 2018; Forum-msk.org, January 8, 2018). Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the defense industry, says that if Russia is to have a new aircraft carrier, it must do so by building parts of it at three different sites and then assembling them because no one yard has the capacity to do the entire job (Zloy-odessit.livejournal.com, January 8, 2018).
But it is Western sanctions that may be placing the largest brake on any Russian fleet development. Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov said, in mid-January 2018, that the US sanctions are introducing enormous difficulties in the shipbuilding sector. He suggested Moscow should nonetheless be able to cope with them; but independent Russian experts disagree, saying the sanctions will delay the launch of a significantly modernized blue water navy for some years (Newsru.com, January 17, 2018).
Faced with these problems, Moscow is considering establishing foreign naval bases, which would allow its naval fleet to use smaller ships further away from Russia. But increasingly, those too appear out of reach—not so much because of Western opposition but rather because they, too, cost more than Russia can now afford and thus may prove to be albatrosses around the neck of the Russian economy (Versia.ru, January 14, 2018). That is not to say that Moscow will not launch any ships in the next several years—it will. Nor do Russia’s fiscal challenges mean it will fail to open any new bases abroad—it may succeed in establishing several of those as well. But considering its mounting and systemic setbacks, Russia is not about to recover its status as a blue ocean power anytime soon.
A Year in Review: Baltics Steadily Grow Their Armies
The biggest success for all three Baltic countries—Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia—last year was the arrival of the multinational battalion groups to the region, thus implementing the decisions reached at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) 2016 summit in Warsaw (see EDM, February 23, 2017). Furthermore, as of 2018, each of the Baltic States will have finally reached NATO’s mandated minimum of defense spending equaling at least 2 percent of their GDP.
The year 2017 was particularly consequential for Latvia’s military reform agenda. Notably, the authorities adopted policies encouraging stronger public involvement in defense; and terms, including “total defense” and “territorial defense,” took on renewed prominence in Latvian thinking on national security (see EDM, May 2, 2017).
For Latvia, the 2017 defense budget amounted to 1.7 percent of GDP, which allowed for several important procurement and construction projects to be implemented. The largest funding was allocated to the development of the capabilities of the National Armed Forces, including a Mechanized Infantry Brigade of the Mechanized Land Forces, air-defense, military engineering, as well as strengthening the National Guard and Special Task Unit. At the same time, the defense ministry launched the development of indirect fire support capacity (Mod.gov.lv, accessed January 8, 2018). As part of the effort to modernize the army’s mechanized units, Latvia acquired Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked)—or CVR(T)—vehicles from the United Kingdom; and 73 of the 123 purchased armored vehicles have already been delivered. Also in 2017, a bilateral agreement was signed between the Latvian Ministry of Defense and the Austrian Ministry of Defense and Sports on the purchase of M109A5Ö self-propelled Howitzer systems, including the purchase of fire-control and training platforms (Mk.gov.lv, December 29, 2017).
Meanwhile, the New Battle Engineering Development Plan, adopted last year, envisages the development of various mobility and anti-mobility capabilities—that is, capabilities for improving the movement and protection of friendly forces as well as providing support to the civilian population while hindering the advancement of the adversary. Moreover, border-crossing procedures of the Allied forces in the Baltic States were simplified, solving a common issue in the process of international military training in Europe.
In 2017, preparations continued for creating increased readiness units within the National Guard Battalions. These units will excel at various specialty tasks, and work has already begun on developing advanced mine-laying, anti-tank, military engineering, air-defense and sniper capabilities. The first certification of the high-readiness units will take place during the Namejs 2018 military training exercise (La.lv, December 31, 2017).
In January 2017, neighboring Baltic State Lithuania approved a new “National Security Strategy.” Much like the Latvian State Defense concept of 2016, the Lithuanian document explicitly names Russia as a potential national security threat. In addition to efforts to modernize its infrastructure for the rapid and efficient deployment of Allied forces in the country, the 2017 National Security Strategy lists Lithuania’s other priority as increasing its self-defense and mobilization capabilities. Lithuania also plans to conduct more regular exercises each year (Pism.pl, May 9, 2017).
Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis has noted that he hopes NATO countries will reach an agreement in 2018 on a comprehensive air-defense concept for the Baltic region, thus fixing the “weakest link” in Lithuanian defenses. According to the Lithuanian minister, the problem is political, as the technical details have mostly already been worked out. He, therefore, would like to see air defense be included in NATO’s existing plans for a forward presence in the Baltic countries (Delfi, November 22, 2017).
The northernmost and geographically most exposed Baltic State, Estonia, also pursued important steps to boost its defense posture last year. Notable, Minister of Defense Jüri Luik signed a bill in late 2017 that will open the door to allowing more women to serve than ever before. Up to 108 women will be able to enter conscript service this year (ERR, September 29, 2017). In addition, more attention will be paid to boosting the defensive will of Estonia’s young people by launching a patriotic education program (Leta.lv, December 28, 2017). Indeed, Latvia will similarly be reaching out to school-age youth by creating a voluntary military training program for young people.
According to Martin Herem, the chief of staff of the Estonian Defense Forces, in the event of a possible war, his country is presently ready to mobilize at least 21,000 men by providing them with weapons and ammunition. With such a resistance force under arms, “I am convinced that Estonia would not be occupied in a few days,” he stressed. “Perhaps the opponent would occupy some territory, but it would definitely not be able to occupy the whole country” (ERR, January 3).
Additionally, the Estonian Defense Forces recently received another batch of missiles for the Javelin anti-tank system, procured thanks to funding assistance allocated by the United States to support European security measures. The newer Javelin Block-1 type missiles, which arrived at the beginning of last December, are faster and more powerful than their predecessors, the Block-0 type missiles previously purchased by Estonia (ERR, December 12, 2017).
Also at the end of last year, Tallinn approved the implementation of the “National Defense Development Plan 2017–2026” for the years 2018–2021. It calls for the enhancement of armored maneuver capability, creation of a cyber command, the introduction of a new primary rifle and the construction of new military training areas (ERR, December 28, 2017).
During the next four years, Estonia’s independent defense capability will increase significantly, allowing the country to be able to react immediately if necessary. According to Minister of Defense Margus Tsahkna, “€40 million [$49 million] of the 2017 budget has been set aside for the purchase of ammunition, and from 2018–2021 we will invest an additional €166.5 million [$203.8 million] in ammunition in order to increase the combat capability of the defense forces” (ERR, February 23, 2017).
For the next several years Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia will continue to regard the United States as the main guarantor of security in the Baltic region. That said, going forward, the Baltic States can be expected to seek ever closer cooperation with their European partners, namely Germany, the UK, and the Nordic countries (Pism.pl, May 9, 2017). Illustratively, at the end of 2017, all three Baltic States joined the European Union’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) framework for security and defense. PESCO is a voluntary agreement between 25 EU Member States to strengthen cooperation within European security and defense matters. The PESCO Member States undertake all necessary efforts to make adequate financial investments in defense, including via equipment purchases, the coordination of defense planning, and improving the availability of forces dealing with crises response operations outside the EU bloc (Mod.gov.lv, Accessed January 8).
The coming year promises to be marked by further growth and development of the Baltic States’ defense sectors. And this will undoubtedly put increased pressure on local policymakers to maintain successful budget spending and accountability to both their own societies as well as their Allies. Preserving trust on all sides will be needed to guarantee the continued and systematic strengthening of the Balts’ defenses.
A Year in Review: Belarus Pursues Greater National Consolidation
Belarus experienced multiple ups and downs during 2017, but has emerged with its sovereignty intact and in many ways increasing freedom of action on the international stage.
The country overcame its 2.5-year-long economic decline largely due to favorable price dynamics of key Belarusian exports. Structural problems related to an unwieldy industrial public sector remain unresolved. However, at the end of the year, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed two major decrees designed to unshackle entrepreneurial activity and further promote the country’s successful IT sector. Together, these policies promise to have positive spillover effects for the entire economy. The remaining coexistence of archaic, Soviet-born, state-run, large industrial plants with dynamic, private, and international IT and manufacturing enclaves (the latter include the Minsk-based High-Tech Park and the Belarusian-Chinese Industrial Park “Great Stone”) go hand in hand with Belarus’s broader socio-cultural bipolarity. Going into 2018, quite a large portion of Belarusians remain dedicated to state paternalism; and considering the observed negative experiences of neighboring Russia and Ukraine, they feel they cannot be left to the mercy of new capitalists.
National consolidation, long the Achilles’ heel of Belarusian statehood, has nonetheless been progressing. Emblematic of this process last year was the act of defiance by Violetta Skvortsova, who won the triple jump at Europe’s junior track-and-field championship. She left the winners’ podium in protest when the organizers mistakenly performed the wrong national anthem during her medal ceremony. In Belarus, her act was greeted enthusiastically across the board (see EDM, August 2, 2017). Even more importantly, division lines in Belarusian society have been shifting. Additionally, the lasting antagonism between the opposition-minded minority and government-friendly majority has been giving way to new socio-political arrangements and “alliances.” Thus, last year, the most radical elements on both sides of the barricade (e.g., the state security apparatus and the intransigent part of the opposition) have increasingly come out against both sides’ moderates, who have been willing to meet halfway in the name of Belarus’s national interests. Among the overt signs of this development has been the official registration of the Speak the Truth civic campaign, which challenges the government but does not preclude cooperation with it (see EDM, June 8, 2017).
Likewise, technocratic and entrepreneurial elements inside the ruling elite are stronger than ever, and they may soon give rise to genuine public politics in Belarus (Nashe Mneniye, December 20, 2017). To a significant degree, this is already happening due to a broad-based consensus regarding the need to strengthen national independence. Last year, members of the entrepreneurial class appealed to the Belarusian opposition not to rock the boat (see EDM, April 6, 2017); while President Lukashenka invoked the idea of “healthy nationalism” (seeEDM, March 8, 2017). Meanwhile, the authorities bemoaned the pitiful condition of the Belarusian language in public life, and the government has been designing a monument to Belarusian victims of Stalinist repressions. In the Westernizing opposition, soul-searching was also underway during 2017, with prominent opinion molders openly questioning the politicization of history, a dedication to a neoliberal economy, and blanket distrust of the authorities—which had all been articles of faith among Belarus’s Westernizing nationalists for the past 30 years (Nashe Mneniye, December 11, 2017).
Slowly but steadily, Belarus has been distancing itself from Russia. Though inspired by Russia’s own behavior, the more important reason for this estrangement has been Russia’s pervasive and lasting stronghold—that of a parent state over its protectorate. For the latter, to start thinking of itself as a self-contained community, disengagement appears to be the only option. By no means should it amount to severing all the bonds with Russia—in fact, that is something that most Belarusians do not want, and they staunchly disapprove of Kyiv’s attempts to accomplish precisely that. Last year, even some foreigners, like former US ambassador to Russia James Collins, admonished Belarusians not to follow the example of Ukraine (see EDM, September 20, 2017). Belarusians, nonetheless, showed during 2017 that they want to be in charge of their own information space and more. The ongoing trial of three Belarusian journalists who allegedly denigrated Belarus as a national community in the Russian media is an awkward but valid illustration of Belarus distancing itself from Russia. It is awkward because in the West it looks like criminalizing free speech. Yet, it is valid because the trial shows that the label “fifth column”—which Lukashenka had for decades invariably attached to Westernizing nationalists—may be affixed to the proponents of the “Russian world,” too, as long as they are Belarusian citizens. After many opposition-minded Belarusians applauded the prosecution of those pro-Russian journalists, Vital Tsyhankou, a Minsk-based associate of Radio Liberty (who by no means shares their views), drew remarkable conclusions. First, “many Belarusians perceive freedom of speech as license to spread their own correct ideas, but they want to muzzle other people whose ideas they label incorrect and harmful.” Second, “many opposition-minded Belarusians “do not want the government to be more humane, calm and tolerant. Rather, they want it to be as omnipresent and militant as it is today but fighting ‘them’ instead of ‘us’ ” (Svaboda.org, December 19, 2017). Pertaining to political culture, Tsyhankou’s conclusions are food for thought for the remaining enthusiasts of regime change.
The past year was also replete with new achievements of Belarusian diplomacy. One of them was the introduction of the visa-free five-day trips to Belarus for citizens of 80 countries via Minsk International Airport. Above all, however, Belarusian diplomats continued to impress upon their counterparts that Belarus is interested in good relations with both of its geopolitical flanks—Russia and the collective West—and does not believe in a zero-sum approach to those relations.
Change in the West’s policies toward Belarus gained momentum, as well. Notably, Minsk hosted a July meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and a September Plenary Assembly of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences. In May, Belarus and Latvia won the right to co-host the 2021 Ice Hockey World Championship. In July, official contact between the members of the Belarusian Parliament and the European Parliament took place for the first time in 14 years. In October, Lukashenka received an invitation from the European Union to participate in the Brussels summit of the Eastern Partnership. Perhaps most important has been the belated recognition in the West of Belarus as a success story in governance. Although a flip side of the West’s dissatisfaction with internal developments in Ukraine, this recognition is still notable.
On the negative side, the government’s poorly thought through decree on social parasites was signed, leading to relatively massive public protests across the country. Beginning in February, rallies culminated on March 25, when quite a few participants of the rally in Minsk were apprehended. However, the court case devoted to prosecuting members of the allegedly subversive and militant nationalist underground fell apart, and more than 30 suspects were released (see EDM, March 27, 2017).
Barring a major conflagration between Russia and the West this year, the trends established in 2017 will likely continue throughout 2018. Belarus’s rapprochement with the West can be expected to proceed. The informal distancing from Russia will probably continue, too, as will the “abandoned spouse’s” reciprocal reactions. Because multilateral ties with Russia outweigh Belarus’s relations with the rest of the world, estrangement will provide for a slightly more balanced situation. However, economic and inter-personal relations with Russia will remain strong, and the border between the two countries should remain open. National consolidation, however, will be on the rise and public politics may eventually be born, so Lukashenka could finally cease being Belarus’s only politician. When the major government newspaper is allowed to conduct roundtables about the Belarusian language in the public domain (as occurred last November) while a pro-government political movement organizes days of unpaid voluntary labor at the site of KGB executions in the late 1930s, these are hopeful signs; and even more positive developments may lie ahead. This prediction of Victar Martinovich, a Belarusian author (see EDM, November 20, 2017), is credible indeed.