NATO’s Southern Flank: Russian A2/AD emerges in the Mediterranean Sea

By BEF Vice President and NATO-chair Ionut Sutea

The Syrian quagmire is finally nearing a certain status quo. ISIS has been stripped-off its quasi-state form and forced back to operate as a traditional insurgency. The defeat can mostly be credited to the efforts of the U.S.-led International Coalition and its embedded local indigenous multi-ethnic group, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).  On the other hand, the Assad regime is has regained more than half of the national territory and now controls over 75% of the Syrian population. The opposition forces are utterly degraded and boxed into a few isolated patches of land in the western parts of Syria. Largely abandoned by their wealthy backers, inter-Rebel skirmishes further polarized the opposition between Islamists and hardcore militant Salafist (Jihadists). Turkey has made good use of their situation to further its own anti-Kurdish agenda on the borderlands with Operation “Euphrates Shield” (2016-2017) in northern Aleppo countryside, and Operation “Olive Branch” (2018) in Afrin canton.  But resulting from the Loyalist success in the civil war, geopolitical objectives are being translated into practice by the two main external backers of the Regime. The Russian Armed Forces as well as the Iranian-backed Shi’a paramilitary groups have played a key role in emboldening the Assad regime and degrading the Opposition – which enabled the two backers to satisfy their initial objectives.

Russia’s military intervention launched in mid-2015 was mostly motivated by long-term strategic goals that sought to undermine NATO’s southern flank and forward the agenda of resurgence. Inherently, the Russian Federation will now maintain a permanent military presence in the Mediterranean Sea and the Levant amid the end of the Syrian Civil War. The Latakia Air field, initially established a center of operations against ISIS, will now continue to host dozens of fighter jets and bombers; while the Naval Facility of Tartus, leased since the early 70s to Moscow, will be enhanced to form a Mediterranean Fleet consisting of a nuclear submarine and 11 warships. Guarded by the advanced S-400 anti-air system, the Russian military-assets on the Syrian coastline form a new Anti-Access Area Denial Zone (A2/AD). Russia has invested considerable energy into developing A2/AD capabilities and carefully positioning them to maximize their strategic effect. That process accelerated after the seizure of Crimea. A2/AD bubbles are purposed to deny an adversary’s forces access to a particular region or otherwise hinder freedom of maneuver – it includes, but it is not limited to: anti-air defense systems, counter-maritime assets and theater offensive strike weapons. The strategic ramifications of the action underpinned on the Syrian coastline are to vanguard the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus, challenge NATO’s freedom of maneuver on its southern flank and enhance Russia’s geopolitical posture and security needs throughout the region and the world.

In addition, the Russian expeditionary forces, mechanized units and fighter jets have been operated and moved as far as Syria’s central and eastern provinces. The Tiyas (T4), Shayrat (hit by U.S. tomahawk cruise missile in mid-2017) and Deir ez-Zor Air Bases are jointly operated by Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces. The Kremlin made good use of those assets to establish a forward operational presence stretching to the mid-Euphrates river valley, that is only contained by the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) present on the river’s eastern shores. The Russians are not only attempting to close the airspace in western Syria and contest the eastern Mediterranean, but also to establish a pro-active military expeditionary presence seeking to profit from U.S. disengagement in the Middle East. Such undertakings are projected to expand into Iraq, Libya and possibly Egypt.

The strategic diagnosis will, however, encounter several “black swans”. Given the current geopolitical environment, Russia’s plans are caught between a rock and a hard place. The Kremlin is playing Russian roulette in the Israeli-Iranian divergence. It is simultaneously attempting to maintain its military cooperation with the Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian militias, Iraqi PMUs and al-Quds forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), whilst pivoting with Jerusalem. This gamble has proven reckless and inefficient in recent deteriorating conditions. Operations security (OPSEC) and asset-protection has also been dangerously poor. Recent Rebel attacks on the Latakia Air Base show that Russia and the Syrian Regime are unable of fully securing vital and strategic bases from unsophisticated acts of aggression. This is only a taste of the long-term insurgency facing the Russian presence there, as the Kremlin continues to support a genocidal government formed by an Alawite minority in a predominantly Sunni, but hyper-complex, societal landscape. This is without mentioning the Turkish-Kurdish showdown developing in Afrin that further complicates a permanent settlement.

In the long-run, the creation of AD/2D bubbles on NATO’s flanks is counter-productive for the Kremlin. Moving advanced air defense and tactical nuclear weapons on Allied borders will only urge its richer and more capable Western adversaries to further proliferate precision-strike missile systems. This is a tech race that Moscow cannot keep up with, given its worsening economy and obsolete weapons industry. The United States will maintain strategic supremacy for the near future regardless of attempts from foes to compete. This should not downplay that Russian interference in the most contested region of the world has severely complicated the local dynamic and has strongly hampered Western strategic goals in the area. Now, more than ever, the Southern Flank needs to gain traction as a theater of utmost interest for NATO and Euro-Atlantic strategists.

Read an extended version of this assessment on T-Intelligence.

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.

Is Romania the new ‘sick man’ of the European Union?

By Stefania-Felicia Pavel, …

Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) anamnesis

At first sight, in the European Union, there seems to be a contagious democratic enfeeblement, a relapse of corruption to which Romania is not immune either. The dawn of 2007 ‒ Romania saw its bid to European Union accession coming to fruition. Simultaneously, it was established the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, a newly-minted tool meant to assist and assess the progress of both Romania and Bulgaria regarding judicial reforms and their mitigation of endemic corruption [1]. Back then, the CVM was seen as a panacea for the genetically-embedded democratic shortages Romania displayed. However, a decade later, and the CVM report of November 2017 [2] testifies that the effects of the corruption fight are either lax or lacking. In other words, Romania’s corruption is relapsing, engulfing the state and sickening the rule of law.

Stages of illiberal ailment

In the aftermath of the last CVM report, there was observed not only a stalemate in curbing corruption, but a worrying backslide. The independence of the judiciary and the anticorruption policies went down a slippery slope. The very push from the brink where Romania was perched comes from the Social Democrat Party, whose majority ruling in the Parliament since December 2016 generated the propitious conditions for the illiberal democracy ‘virus’ to take roots.

First sign of illness came with the Romanian government’s plan to amend laws that secure the independence of the judicial system. By large, these alterations affect the statute of judges and prosecutors, the structure of the judiciary, and the Superior Council of Magistracy. The amendments unduly empower the Ministry of Justice to oversee the entire judiciary, locking political control over the branches that ought to have unfettered independence. A prime example of the illiberal disease spreading was a night-time meeting on 22nd November 2017, when a special legal commission voted favourably on the amendment of Article 9 of Law 303/2004 [3].

They hereby decided that judges and prosecutors are required to refrain from making any public statement or taking any public action that denounces members of the legislative or executive branches. [4] Ergo, enhanced power was granted to the Government dominated by the Social Democrats. So, now they can excessively influence the judiciary. Unfortunately, this can result in an irreversible decay of judicial independence and, ultimately, the undermining of the separation of powers within the Romanian state.

Another scourge of the constitutional state was the ‘parliamentary coup’ against the judiciary.  This implied changes to be operated in the penal code and, respectively, the code of criminal procedure. All these modifications would render void corruption investigations of various members of the parliament. In the same vein, another potentially-lethal shot to the internal fight against corruption is the limitation of reporting on corruption cases. Other actions meant to weaken the anticorruption battle are the control on investigative journalism in general [5] coupled with the proposed decriminalization of some corruption offences. [6]

Experimental treatment from abroad

The internal derelictions of duty that impinged on the status quo of Romania raised mounting concern Europe-wide. The Romanian democratic malaise was also scrutinized by the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption monitoring body, the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO). GRECO sounded the alarm towards the snail-pace progress Romania registered with respects to preventing and countering corruption within the political echelons. From the initial prescription of a set of thirteen recommendations [7], Romania only partly enacted them via a too lenient conduct code for parliamentarians [8]. Moreover, it failed to overhaul the performance of the National Integrity Agency. Seriously concerned by the undemocratic tendencies, GRECO resolved to request reporting on behalf of the Romanian authorities on the progress to be registered by the end of 2018 [9].

A concurring vision was expressed in the Joint Statement of European Commission President Juncker and First Vice-President Timmermans. They too stressed that the resilience and irreversibility of the advancements attained through the CVM are the very prerequisite for the abolition of the Mechanism. They see the contentious justice laws as the litmus test of the Romania’s healing of corruption. Avowing its support to safeguard the independence of the judiciary and combat corruption [10], the European Commission it is not by any means promising a new lease of life to Romania’s democracy. However, it is willing to continue treating another ‘sick man’ of the European Union. Let’s all hope for a speedy recovery rather than a clinical death of democracy in Romania.

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.

 

[1] European Commission. “Commission Reports on Progress in Romania under the Co-Operation and Verification Mechanism.” Press Release Database, 15 Nov. 2017, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-17-4611_en.htm.

[2] European Commission. “Report from The Commission to The European Parliament and The Council. On Progress in Romania under the Co-Operation and Verification Mechanism”. 15 Nov. 2017, https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/comm-2017-751_en.pdf.

[3] Law 303/ 2004 on the Status of Judges and Prosecutors, published in the Official Journal no. 826, 13 Sep. 2005, Bucharest, http://legislatie.just.ro/Public/DetaliiDocument/53074

[4] Lacatus, Corina. “Is Romania at Risk of Backsliding over Corruption and the Rule of Law?”. EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics, 27 Nov. 2017, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2017/11/27/is-romania-at-risk-of-backsliding-over-corruption-and-the-rule-of-law/.

[5] Deutsche Welle. “Romanian Judicial Reform: Critics Decry ‘Parliamentary Coup’, Threat to Democracy.” DW.COM, 24 Dec. 2017, www.dw.com/en/romanian-judicial-reform-critics-decry-parliamentary-coup-threat-to-democracy/a-41923648.

[6] Rankin, Jennifer. “Romania Braced for Huge Protests over ‘Big Step Backwards’ on Rule of Law.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 Jan. 2018, www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/19/romania-braced-for-huge-protests-amid-big-step-backwards-on-rule-of-law.

[7] Council of Europe. Group of States against Corruption. “Fourth Evaluation Round. Corruption Prevention in Respect of Members of Parliament”. Adoption: 8 December 2017, 78th plenary meeting, Strasbourg. Publication: 18 Jan. 2017. https://rm.coe.int/fourth-evaluation-round-corruption-prevention-in-respect-of-members-of/168077e159.

[8] Code of Conduct of Deputies and Senators. Adopted by the Romanian Parliament on 11 Oct. 2017. https://www.juridice.ro/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Codul-de-conduit%C4%83.pdf

[9] Council of Europe. Group of States against Corruption. “Decisions”. 78th GRECO Plenary Meeting, Strasbourg, 8 Dec. 2017. https://rm.coe.int/78th-greco-plenary-meeting-strasbourg-4-8-december-2017-decisions/168076f486

[10] European Commission. “Joint Statement of European Commission President Juncker and First Vice-President Timmermans on the Latest Developments in Romania.” 24 Jan. 2018. http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_STATEMENT-18-423_en.htm