February 20, 2017

Week's News Express Analysis № 07(38)/02


(February 13–19, 2017)


I. Major-Profile Events in the Development of the Situation around Ukraine

Last week, the main resonant event in the development of the situation in the world and around Ukraine was another surge of tension in relations between Russia and the West, indicating existence of fundamental differences between them, despite the change of government in the United States. This trend is accompanied by the intensified demonstration of force by both sides, as it was during the “Cold War”. The reason for this was the confirmation by the United States, the EU and NATO of the immutability of their position regarding Russia, and this causes Moscow's increasingly “hysterical” reaction as the crisis processes in the Russian Federation are getting sharper under the influence of Western sanctions.

The USA. Understanding Moscow's real policy, as well as the stable negative attitude of the Congress, the secret services and the American Society to Putin's regime make D. Trump's administration move to a more pragmatic positions in its relations with Russia, and to avoid any hints of possible ties with it.

On 15 February 2017, in his Twitter account, US President D. Trump acknowledged Russia's occupation of the Ukrainian Crimea during the presidency of B. Obama, who “...was too soft on Russia”. D. Trump's position was concretized by White House Spokesman Sean Spicer. According to him, “President Trumps has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in Ukraine and return the Crimea”. US Treasury Secretary S. Mnuchin added to S. Spicer's statement. He voiced Washington's intentions to continue sanctions against Russia for its aggression against Ukraine.

On the same day US President's National Security Advisor M. Flynn resigned from his post, having been accused of secret negotiations with the RF's Ambassador in Washington, S. Kislyak on lifting the sanctions against Russia.

Besides, on 16 February 2017, official representative of US Department of Defense Courtney Hillson emphasized that the U.S. remains strongly supportive to building the capacity of Ukraine's forces. Such intentions have been supported by Senator J. McCain, who urged Washington to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine.

According to some experts, the reason for the White House's demonstration of firm attitude to Russia was the publication by the US intelligence agencies of new evidences of D. Trump's “team”'s contacts with V. Putin's regime, which fact makes the US administration take measures to improve its reputation. However, in any case, these Washington's moves are a clear signal to Russia about the futility of Moscow's attempts through hidden manipulations to influence the USA's positions.

The European Union. The European Union is preparing a large-scale program to provide assistance in the reconstruction of the destroyed (as a result of Russia's aggression in the East of Ukraine) infrastructure, said the representative of Malta, Parliamentary Secretary for the EU presidency, Ian Borg, during the debate in the European Parliament on the deteriorating situation in the Donbas. “We are preparing an important EU program for Ukraine's government-controlled areas along the front line, which aims to support economic development, social integration and creation of jobs”, — said the representative of the European Union. He said that the program would be based on the financial plan for the 2018–2020 years, and include a large-scale reconstruction of the areas in the East of Ukraine, as soon as conditions permit. The EU representative also pointed out that sanctions against Russia should be maintained until it has fully implemented the Minsk Agreements. Ian Borg assured that the issue of Ukraine remains one of the top priorities on the agenda of the EU policy.

The Munich Security Conference. The growth of the level of threats to the world and European security as a result of Russia's aggressive policy, was one of the main topics at the Munich Security Conference (February 17–19). The majority of Western countries condemned V. Putin's regime and supported Ukraine. In this respect, most significant were the speeches by US Vice President M. Pence, Federal Chancellor of Germany A. Merkel, as well as those by the Ministers of Defence of France and Great Britain.

Thus, according to M. Pence, Russia must bear all the responsibility for its actions against Ukraine and fulfill the Minsk Agreements. This is what the United States will insist on. A similar position was taken by A. Merkel. Besides, she said about the importance of further strengthening of NATO's eastern flank. In turn, France's Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and the United Kingdom's Michael Fallon spoke about the need for NATO's firm respond to Russia's violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (in terms of the deployment of tactical missile systems “Iskander-M” in the Kaliningrad region of the RF), as well as to hacker attacks on computer networks of the EU countries.

Ten years ago, during the Munich conference in 2007, V. Putin announced that Russia was turning to a policy of confrontation with the West. Real manifestations of this policy were Russia's aggression against Georgia in 2008 and aggression against Ukraine in 2014. As a result, today, Russia has found itself in the actual international isolation and has moved to rogue states rank on a par with Iran and North Korea.

The firmness of the West's position on the Russian and Ukrainian issues is a “shock” to the Kremlin, which was almost sure of “the inevitability of rapid changes in the policy of Western countries and international organizations” in its favor. This once again confirms the inadequacy of V. Putin's regime's estimates of the actual processes taking place in the world, which leads to the inadequacy of the Kremlin's actions.

At the same time, Moscow still hopes for the possibility of reaching an understanding with the USA and the EU. To this end, the Russian Federation's leadership continues to demonstrate the tactics of “readiness for a peaceful settlement of the situation in the Donbas” while delaying real solutions to the conflict. Russia also is increasing the pressure on the USA and the EU, including through intimidating them with its military capabilities.


II. Russia's Armed Aggression against Ukraine

The evidence of Russia's above-mentioned approach were the results of the meetings of the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk on 15 February 2017, and of the Foreign Ministers of the participants of the “Normandy Four” on 18 February 2017 (on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference).

Thus, during the talks in Minsk, another agreement was reached on withdrawal of heavy weapons (over 100 mm caliber) from the front line. However, the Russian side again raised the question of using “Steinmeier's Formula” to resolve the situation in the Donbas, including terms of Ukraine's recognizing “special status” of the breakaway republics and agreeing to holding elections in the “DPR” and “LPR” prior to the withdrawal of Russian troops from their territory. As before, Ukraine reiterated its position on the inadmissibility of such an approach.

In turn, the result of the meeting of Foreign Ministers of countries-participants of the “Normandy Format” was the absolutely expected statement on the need for a ceasefire in the conflict zone in the Donbas and withdrawal from the front line, that does not impose any obligations on Russia. Besides, the participants agreed not to expand the “Normandy Format” of the negotiation process by including the United States. The only positive result of the negotiations was Russia's agreeing to let the staff of the International Red Cross to the occupied territories of Ukraine, to the hostages and prisoners of war.


2.1. The East of Ukraine (The ATO Zone)

Despite Russia's statements about its “commitment to the peaceful settlement of the conflict in the Donbas”, Moscow is demonstrating its having no intention to fulfill the agreements reached. Thus, for a week, the Russian-terrorist forces have been actively shelling the positions of the ATO Forces and peaceful settlements. Such attacks continued during the meetings of both, the Tripartite Contact Group and the representatives of the “Normandy Four”. Actually, the Kremlin's position on this issue was voiced by the leader of the “DPR” A. Zakharchenko, who refused to withdraw heavy weapons from the front line before the ATO forces' withdrawal from it.

At the same time, Russia continued activities to build up the capacity of its troops in the occupied territories of Ukraine (including by bringing additional tank units), as well as to resupply ammunition and other logistical means. Besides, according to Russian media reports, in the south of Russia have already been formed the units of 7000 “Cossacks” (in fact, Russian mercenaries), ready to be sent to the Donbas.

Against this background, within the framework of political pressure on Ukraine, some members of the State Duma of the Russian Federation raised the question of the need for Russia's recognizing the “DPR”/”LPR”. In order to demonstrate the reality of such a step, February 18, 2017, President V. Putin signed a decree on the recognition of some “documents” issued in certain regions of Ukraine (ORDLO), controlled by the “DPR” and “LPR” groupings which are recognized in Ukraine as terrorist ones. According to the text of the decree, Russia declared valid “identity documents, education documents, birth certificates, conclusion (termination) of marriage, change of name, death, certificates of registration and license plates of vehicles”.

According to most experts, V. Putin's recognition of the ORDLO's “documents”, has confirmed the fact of the Russian occupation and once again demonstrated the violation of international law. Secretary of the NSDC of Ukraine O. Turchynov has said that this way the Russian President in fact has withdrawn from the Minsk process.


2.2. The Crimean Peninsula

Contrary to Moscow's expectations, most of the leading countries of the world do not recognize “the legitimacy of the Crimea's belonging to Russia”. Thus, on 14 February 2017, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey M. Cavusoglu reiterated Ankara's position on support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine and non-recognition of Russia' annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. He also said, Turkey would continue to support the Crimean Tatars.

Statement by M. Cavusoglu was made against the background of another complication of the Turkish-Russian relations after the “mistaken” attack by aircraft of the Russian VKS on the positions of the Turkish troops in Syria.


2.3. Other Aspects of Russia's Actions against Ukraine and the West

In response to the confirmation by the United States, the EU and NATO of the immutability of their positions with regard to Russia, the Russian leadership is whipping up a new wave of anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian hysteria in the information space. The main content of Moscow's actions is accusing US President D. Trump of “a violation of his election promises to recognize of Crimea's belonging to Russia and to lift sanctions against Russia”. Such D. Trump's actions are called “betrayal of the voters”.

At the same time, they have launched a new information campaign aimed at undermining D. Trump's positions by the negative and biased coverage of various aspects of his activities in the presidential post, including in the sphere of foreign policy. In particular, there are statements about the current leadership of Ukraine’s support from the USA, which supposedly is “the main reason for the continuation of the armed conflict in the Donbas”. Based on this, as well as on Washington's intentions to assist in strengthening the defense sector of Ukraine, Russia calls the United States “party to the conflict in Ukraine”.

At this, V. Putin's regime continues its comprehensive strategy to discredit Ukraine in the West's eyes, constantly improving its forms and methods. Thus, on 17 February 2017, speaking at the College of the FSB of Russia, RF President V. Putin spoke about “Ukraine's unwillingness to peacefully resolve the conflict in the Donbas” and “the threat of Ukraine's conducting terrorist acts on the Russian territory”. In turn, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation accused Ukraine of the use of tactical missile systems “Tochka-U” (“filled with high-explosive and cluster charges”) against civilian targets in the Donbas. This is treated by Moscow as “Ukraine's using weapons of mass destruction against the civilian population”.

Apart from discrediting Ukraine, a separate aim of such Putin regime's actions is to divert the world's attention from the Western media reports on the use of Russian missiles “Tochka-U” against the Syrian opposition in Idlib. According to some sources, in January and February 2017, the Russian government gave the Syrian troops about 50 missiles to the “Tochka-U” systems which had been removed from operational use by the RF Armed Forces after rearming them with new operational-tactical missile systems “Iskander-M”.

Russia has denied giving “Tochka-U” to B. Assad's regime, but recognizes the strengthening of its troops in Syria. Thus, despite the continuing peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition, last week the Russian air base in Syria Hmeymim additionally received four multifunctional aircrafts Su-34.


Against this background, within the framework of operational and combat training of the RF’s Armed Forces, Russia continued demonstrating military might to Ukraine and the USA/NATO. Thus, on February 14–17, 2017, was conducted a sudden inspection of combat readiness of the Western Military District of the Russian Federation's Armed Forces.

At the same time, was conducted the second (since the beginning of the year) operational-tactical exercise of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces (RVSN) with bringing “Topol-M” mobile missile complexes to combat patrol. The exercise involved all the five missile groups of the RVSN.

They also continue preparations for this year's first joint exercises of airborne troops of Russia and Belarus, scheduled for April 2017, on the territory of Belarus (Brest region, near the borders of Poland and Ukraine). The participants will be the units of the 106th Airborne Division (Tula), of the Airborne Troops of the RF Armed Forces, 38th Air Assault Brigade (Brest) of the Special Task Forces of the Armed Forces of Belarus. It is not excluded that the exercises will be conducted within the framework of the general plan of preparations for the “West-2017” SCPE.

Russia also continues its reconnaissance-provocative actions against the USA and NATO. In particular, the Russian Navy intelligence ship “Victor Leonov” (able to carry out electronic and sonar reconnaissance) was recorded last week near the US Navy bases of Newport and New London.

Besides, February 10, 2017, aircrafts of the Russian VKS, including Su-24 front-line bombers and IL-38 anti-submarine aircraft, several times approached the US Navy destroyer “Porter” in the Black Sea (participated in the NATO's “Sea Shield” Joint Naval exercise). Similar provocations involving two Su-24 were repeated on 15 February 2017, against the Spanish frigate “Almirante Juan de Borbon”, which was also taking part in the exercises.

The process of re-equipping the Russian troops with new (modified) types of weapons and military equipment continues. In February 2017, the 1st Guards Tank Army of the Western Military District received the first batch of tanks T-72B3 of latest modifications. The features of the new tanks are a more powerful engine, automatic transmission, improved weapons, targeting and control systems, and enhanced armored protection.


III. Ukraine, International Organizations and Leading Western Countries

3.1. International Organizations

The European Union. The European Union's political and economic measures to curb V. Putin's regime are accompanied by EU leadership's actions to strengthen the security of Europe. Thus, in terms of practical implementation of the Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy of the EU “Shared Vision, Common Action: a Stronger Europe” (adopted in June 2016), on 16 February 2017, the European Parliament approved the decision to create a common European army. It is suggested to create common military headquarters and joint rapid respond forces, to clarify the terms of using battalion groups of the European Union, as well as to define a civilian crisis response capacity. However, according to the officials, this does not mean creation of separate from NATO European forces.

NATO. On 15–16 February 2017, in Brussels there was a meeting of NATO’s Defense Ministers, dedicated to clarifying the basic directions of activity of the Alliance taking into consideration the changes in USA's leadership. During the meeting, the new US Defense Secretary, General J. Mattis confirmed the role and importance of NATO as the basis for the security of the USA and Europe. At the same time, he stressed the need for dialogue with Russia only with the United States and NATO's power advantage over it, as it was during the “Cold War”.

In turn, NATO Secretary General J. Stoltenberg announced the Alliance's plans to continue strengthening its military presence in the Black Sea region. According to him, the need for this was caused by Russia's increased military activity on the South-Western strategic direction.

In view of the above-mentioned circumstances, the meeting stressed the need for unconditional implementation by the Alliance members of their commitments on financing the defense sector.

Evidence of the immutability of Washington's position with regard to NATO is the continuation of the USA's active participation in the implementation of the decisions of the Warsaw Summit of NATO (July 2016) on strengthening the military presence of the Alliance in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. In particular, on 12 February 2017, the brigade combat team of the 10th Aviation Brigade of the US Armed Forces (home station — Fort Drum, NY) arrived in Germany. It consists of 86 helicopters, including Chinook, Apache and Black Hawk.

The main place of the dislocation of the 10th Aviation Brigade in Europe will be the US military base Illesheim in Bavaria (Germany). Part of the equipment and personnel (5 helicopters and 50 soldiers each) will be directed to provide aviation support to battalion tactical group (BTG) of NATO in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Romania.

In addition, after the completion of the exercises in Poland, to form the said BTG, last week units of the 3rd Armored Brigade of the US Armed Forces, including the battalion tactical group of 500 soldiers, 30 M1 Abrams tanks, 15 M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and M109A6 Paladin self-propelled artillery systems arrived in Romania, as well as company tactical groups each consisting of 120 military servicemen, 10 M1 Abrams tanks and 5 M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles — in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

At the same time, against the background of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces' exercise, on 14 February 2017, a US nuclear-powered submarine performed a combat-training launch of two ballistic missiles from the Pacific Ocean.


3.2. Leading Western Countries

The United Kingdom. Despite Great Britain's plans to exit the EU, the leadership of the country remains one of the major conductors of the West's policy to contain Russia. In this regard, in February of this year, the British government decided to establish a special fund of 700 million pounds (876 million US dollars) to support the UK's allies in the world. Most of these funds will be used to provide assistance in strengthening the defense capacity of Ukraine and the Baltic countries.

France. Taking into consideration the facts of the external interference with the political process in the USA and the EU, on 16 February 2017, Minister of Foreign Affairs of France Jean Hérault voiced a special warning about the inadmissibility of such actions against the French state. According to J. Herault, France reserves the right to respond in case of attempts to influence the presidential elections in the country. At this, he pointed out the cases of hacker attacks on the French computer networks from the territory of Russia.

Poland. Taking into consideration Russia's growing military activity on the Western strategic direction, including the preparations for the “West-2017” SCPE, Poland's political elite speak in favor of a substantial increase in the defense budget of the country. In particular, on 13 February 2017, the leader of the ruling Polish party “Law and Justice” J. Kaczynski put forward the initiative to increase spending on the defense sector by 1.5 times — up to 3 % of GDP. This exceeds the determined by NATO level of the member-countries' defense expenditure, which shall not be less than 2 % of GDP.


IV. Other Important Trends and Developments that Will Have an Impact on Ukraine's National Interests

Russia. Moscow's unprincipled demonstration of its geopolitical ambitions causes further aggravation of Russia's relations with the neighboring countries. Thus, on 13 February 2017, as part of exerting pressure on Belarus, “Rosselkhoznadzor” introduced an additional restriction of access of meat products manufactured in Belarus to the Russian market. Taking into consideration such Moscow's actions, Belarus continues measures to reduce dependence on Russian energy carriers. Thus, the Belarusian state company “Belarusneft” has signed a contract with the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) to purchase Iranian oil. Deliveries will be made through the ports of Odessa in Ukraine and Ventspils in Latvia.

Also, last week, in the context of the approval of its rights to the Kuril islands — subject to dispute with Japan, the Russian government gave Russian names to a number of them (previously remained anonymous). Such actions of the Kremlin were condemned by Japan, which expressed its disappointment with such steps of Russia's. This situation demonstrates the impossibility of rapid improvement in Russian-Japanese relations and, accordingly, Japan's withdrawal from the sanctions regime against Russia.


V. Major Trends in the Development of the Situation around Ukraine in the Future

5.1. Key Events and Trends that Will Be Most Important for Ukraine

The USA and EU's positions show a high likelihood of maintaining the sanctions against Russia in their present form at least till June 2017. After that, the bulk of the sanctions, which concerns the Putin regime's actions in the East of Ukraine, may be revised depending on the situation.

Thus, the USA and the EU can ease or lift the sanctions against Russia if they see positive developments in the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. Reaching an agreement with the West on this issue becomes vital for Moscow due to the exhaustion of the Reserve Fund of the Russian Federation, which can be completely consumed by June–July 2017.

With this in mind, we should expect the Kremlin's maximum concentration of its efforts at forcing Ukraine to accept the Russian approach to resolving the conflict in the Donbas (based on “Steinmeier's Formula”) exactly before this summer. To this end, Russia will continue to use a set of interrelated measures to put pressure (influence) on Ukraine, Europe and the USA, which will be adapted to the current situation at any given time.

In political terms, the main focus of Moscow's actions will be its attempts to achieve a compromise with the United States on the Ukrainian issue, in particular, in exchange for the deepening of cooperation between the parties in the fight against international terrorism. Besides, for the purpose of influence on Ukraine, Russia can raise questions about its recognition of the “DPR” and “LPR”. Moscow will pay special attention to destabilizing the political situation in Ukraine, in order to create prerequisites for changing the Ukrainian authorities.

In the economic sphere, Russia could move to new forms of pressure on Ukraine in the most critical for us energy issues. In particular, Moscow can complicate or completely block the supply of coal to the Ukrainian thermal power plants from the occupied territories of the Donbas. This is precisely one of the reasons for the leaders of the safe-proclaimed republics (“DPR”/“LPR”)'s demands for the payment of taxes by the Ukrainian enterprises operating in the occupied territories.

In the security sphere, V. Putin will intensify blackmailing Ukraine and its western partners with the threat of a full-scale armed conflict in the Donbas. The signs of the implementation of such plans by Moscow are its blocking of the process of adoption of the “road map” for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, periodic intensification of hostilities in the conflict zone, as well as the build-up of Russian troops in the occupied territories.

In the information space, Moscow will intensify steps to discredit Ukraine in the most critical for the USA and the EU aspects. In this regard, we should expect new provocations with followed by accusing Ukraine of “not fulfilling the Minsk Agreements,” “conducting policy of state terrorism”, “use of prohibited weapons systems, including weapons of mass destruction against the civilians of the Donbas”, “organizing an international drug trafficking” etc.

The effectiveness of these Moscow's measures will depend on the firmness of Ukraine's position in defending its interests, and on the West's policy coherence to support our State. At the same time, we should not exclude that Ukraine and its Western partners' intransigence could force Putin's regime to make concessions.


5.2. Prospects for the Development of Events in the Conflict Zones in Ukraine

The development of the situation around the Donbas and Crimea will fully comply with the above-mentioned directions of Russia's actions to put pressure on Ukraine. Thus, Putin's regime will continue its policy of maintaining tension in the conflict zone in the Donbas with periodic intensification of armed confrontation. This does not exclude the possibility of both local and large-scale offensive operations on the most important for the “DPR” and “LPR” directions. Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine is unlikely, however, Moscow can take such a step, as a last means of pressure on Ukraine and its Western partners. The cause for this may be the Kremlin's large-scale provocation, including a resonant terrorist attack on the Russian or Ukrainian territory.

At the same time, Russia will make further efforts to strengthen its positions in the Crimea. Judging by Moscow's interests and peculiarities of the current situation in the Crimean Peninsula, the main directions of such efforts will be as follows: further build-up of the Russian military presence in the Crimea, construction of a bridge across the Kerch Strait, as well as strengthening the penal system and mopping-up of all the opponents of Putin's regime.

Besides, the Crimean issue, as before, will be used by Russia to organize all sorts of provocations against Ukraine.


5.3. Other Important Events that Will Have an Impact on Ukraine's Interests and Security

In late February of this year the Netherlands' Parliament plans to begin to consider the ratification of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU. In case the Parliament takes a positive decision, the last obstacle on the way to the Agreement's official entry into force will be removed.