Self-destructive influence of Moscow

Author: Nikola Lunić, Executive Director of the Strategic Policy Council

On the occasion of escalation of the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

It was easy to ignore Brzezinski’s position that the world was dangerously sliding into international turmoil because there was no international structure which could tackle the problems that would explode at any moment with catastrophic consequences. However, the recent escalation of the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region has shown in the worst way all the destructive potential of a frozen conflict that could very easily escalate into a regional conflict with global consequences.

Azerbaijan has obviously been preparing for war with Armenia systematically and for a very long time, but the geopolitical influence in the South Caucasus outgrown the national interests of both Yerevan and Baku. Although future events will show that Russia will still remain a strategic factor in the Caucasus, it will lose through this war much of its geopolitical influence, global trust and the profitability coming from the Russian arms export. Its uncharacteristic absence and inactivity in this conflict will derogate it from the inviolable position of the master in that region and allow others to extend their influence partially, such as Turkey. At a time when the world hopes that the one of humanitarian cease-fires will become permanent, and at the same time mainly looks towards Ankara, the experiences of this conflict are very interesting so far.

LOSS OF TRUST: We should be reminded that Armenia is a full member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), while Azerbaijan left its membership in that military collective security organization more than 20 years ago. Despite the alliance for defending the external borders, the CSTO and Moscow did not react to the attacks and violation of Armenia’s air sovereignty. Russia has obviously subordinated its commitment to the obligations of collective security to its own interest sending an explicit message to the member states, but also to those who are in the negotiation process for membership in the CSTO – India, Egypt and Iran. Even more paradoxical is Armenia’s accusation that its ally Belarus continuously exports rockets to Azerbaijan for Multiple Launch Rocket System MLRS “Polonez” through Turkey, while the fighting continues and while the whole world calls for the de-escalation of the conflict. The cancellation of Yerevan’s participation in the CSTO military exercise “Indestructible Brotherhood 2020”, which took place during this month in Belarus, is understandable given the current conflict, but doubts about the indestructibility of brotherly ties are present.

Although Yerevan always emphasized in its statements that there was no alternative to membership in the CSTO, the protection of its own airspace remained exclusively on national capabilities and the declaratively expressed “concern” of the official Kremlin. The fact is that the crisis in the Nagorno-Karabakh region will last as long as Moscow wants, but there is no doubt that the irreconcilable emotions, ambitious aspirations and unresolved conflict with the key in Kremlin’s hands will remain even after the truce is established. It seems tragicomic that a member of the CSTO is asking Washington for help, which has already drastically reduced its assistance to Azerbaijan in the security sector for the current year. Also, it is absurd that the American reality star Kim Kardashian helps Armenia in different ways more than any member of the CSTO.

Photo: Bloomberg

LOSS OF THE MARKET: In the current situation, military experts around the world are carefully observing and analyzing the fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. And no matter how tragic it may be, based on the information and the obtained conclusions, they decide to procure complex combat systems that have shown reliability and efficiency. In the operations so far, the tactics of using Turkish and Israeli drones, Bayraktar TB2 and IAI Harop, have been operationally very successful in relation to Armenian air defense systems of Russian origin, which generally find it difficult to follow targets below 185 km/h. That is why the Azerbaijanis used armed drones at altitudes over 5 km with an action from a distance of 7 to 8 km, which could not be detected by the surveillance radars of most of Armenia’s air defense system. Thus, Armenia came to the situation where, in addition to respectable air defense, it uses mainly man-portable air-defense systems “Strela-2M” and “Igla” and anti-aircraft guns ZSU 23/4 “Šiljka” against Azerbaijani unmanned aerial vehicles. It should be emphasized that Armenia also procured a short-range air defense system “Tor-M2KM” from Russia, but it is not completely clear how many batteries are there, whether the system is operational and which territory it protects.

Whoever may underestimate Russian weapons he will be defeated quickly. However, all combat systems prove their reputation in practice as well. And the practice is not exactly in favor of sophisticated Russian technology without proven efficiency in modern low-intensity conflicts. Although it was on the verge of defeat, the Libyan Government of National Unity in Tripoli, with Turkish help, defended itself from the forces of General Khalifa Haftar. In doing so, it opposed the support given unselfishly to Haftar by Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. The downing of two Russian MiG-29S multi-role aircraft in Libya by the air defense of Turkish origin, and in 2015 the Sukhoi Su-24 in Syria, does not represent an advertisement for combat systems of Russian origin. This is confirmed by current events in the Caucasus, where the footage can even show the destruction of parts of the Armenian air defense system S-300PS, i.e., two launchers and the acquisition radar 36D6. The project of the Russian air defense system S-500 Prometheus amazed all those experts familiar with the problem with its capabilities and confirmed range of 500 km so far. However, such systems do not meet modern tactical challenges, especially in proxy wars in which the commitment and motivation of infantry cannot be counted on. Taking into account that many countries perceive the escalation of a low-intensity conflict as the biggest threat, the Russian defense industry could easily face less interest, and thus reduced profitability, which could jeopardize the development of some planned projects.

LOSS OF INFLUENCE: It cannot be said that the escalation of this conflict at this moment is in Russia’s interest. That is why Moscow is trying to maintain a neutral and peaceful position, even though everyone perceives it to be more in favor of Armenia. Even the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, called on the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikola Pashinyan, to thank Vladimir Putin for saving his country. Although with Turkey as an undisputed ally, Baku is also aware that the Kremlin’s limits of patience should not be provoked, and that is why it is faced with the dilemma of whether to use the technological dominance and offensive that yielded results, or to suspend actions and settle with the conquered territories. The reason for Moscow’s lack of energetic reaction is the internal situation in Armenia, where on the wings of “Electric Yerevan” and peaceful change of government, Pashinyan established himself as the leader of that revolution on anti-Russian rhetoric and announcements of leaving all kinds of Eurasian partnerships. Moscow should not be expected to forget that easily, but the lesson to Yerevan lasts too long with too expensive consequences.

It is obvious that the current events in the Nagorno-Karabakh region go beyond the relations between Moscow and Yerevan and re-actualize the geopolitical conflict in the projection of the interests of Ankara and Moscow. Moscow used to conflict its interests on a global level with the American one, while now it is doing so with the Turkish one with a variable success. Despite support of Russia, the government in Tripoli has not only defended itself, but is in a position to impose the terms of peace talks. In Syria, Russian support for Assad has yielded results, but Idlib remains unconquered, and Ankara retains control of border territories. Now in the Caucasus, which is indisputably in the sphere of Russian interest, Turkey is dictating the pace of conflict, and there is no doubt that it will be directly or indirectly involved in the negotiations. If Moscow’s intention was to show Yerevan its regional influence and protect its interests in Azerbaijan, it seems that all this is a small price to pay for the loss of geopolitical influence which Turkey is partially taking over.

Photo: BBC

However, Turkey should also be aware of its possibilities. Apart from Qatar, it has not secured a permanent ally for its own projection of interests. In the Sahel region, it is acting aggressively with a projection of soft power and is directly in conflict with France. In Libya, Syria and Iraq, Turkey tries to protect its interests by using military force, but also by mercenaries and extremists whom it selflessly helps technologically, logistically and in terms of personnel. Turkey is now present in Azerbaijan, where it organized transport for mercenaries from Syria and Libya, and then most likely dislocated parts of its regular army, such as instructors, pilots, but also F-16 aircrafts. The situation in the Aegean Sea regarding the exploitation right on resources above and under the sea-bed is on the verge of conflict with Greece, but also with Israel, Egypt and France.

It seems that Erdogan is trying, like Ataturk, to project the country’s strength into the realization of maximalist strategic interests. However, he ignores the fact that at that time the world came out of the Great War and no one wanted conflicts. Now the principles of geopolitical influences are significantly different, and we are witnessing the creation of new, until recently unimaginable, alliances in the Middle East. It is difficult to expect tolerance from contemporary global actors regarding resource claims or projections of interests such as the experience of 1938 when the Munich Agreement was signed. No one has such a utopian idea of lasting peace in the world anymore. Peace can hardly be imposed; it can only be won by mutual trust. And Turkey certainly does not provide it with enormous exports of weapons and military equipment to Azerbaijan, risking in that way a chance for peace. Turkey’s arms export rose from $ 278,880 in July this year to $ 36 million in August and then to $ 77.1 million in September. Such an approach to the conflict shows all international actors the explicit involvement of Ankara and its bare interests in the region.

Unfortunately, at the time of catastrophic consequences of the pandemic, as well as Washington’s focus on its own presidential elections, none of the powerful countries is showing enough diplomatic initiative. The peaceful rhetoric of the EU and the failure to find an appropriate response to the crisis, compromises the intentions of the EU to impose itself as a strategic actor in its environment. Iran is neutral in relation to the conflict, but the deep mistrust between Tehran and Ankara should be taken into account. About 20 million Azerbaijanis live in Iran, and they are already demanding support for Baku during the protests, but Tehran is also aware of their separatist potential and possible destabilization of the country. Due to the above, as well as the development of strategic cooperation, Iran will most likely follow the Russia’s approach to resolving the conflict.

Regardless of the fact that both sides are waging an intense media-propaganda war, placing diametrically opposed information on the situation on the ground, we can conclude that Azerbaijan currently has an operational initiative. However, the configuration of the terrain and the arrival of winter will cause a more lasting truce before all diplomatic efforts. With so much animosity, mistrust and emotions of the conflicting parties, the strength of force will not contribute to successful negotiations and peace. Conflict resolution can only come with mutual understanding and trust. Otherwise, any truce in unresolved conflicts will be the most important part of the war.

LESSONS FOR SERBIA: The example of the escalation of the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, makes us witness how a distant frozen conflict can easily drag us into a whirlpool of conflicts of interest with a number of consequences, starting from economic up to foreign policy. That is why frozen conflicts require constant active work of international community, and not passivity and lethargy. Without going into the history of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the question arises as to what we can learn from the latest escalation of the conflict and how to apply the lessons learned in the most efficient way in accordance with our national interests.

First, it is obvious that the state must define its vital national interests and foreign policy. The formulation of national values and interests should not be left to the feudalist perception of the competence of the relevant ministry, according to which the previous Minister of Defense determined that one of the interests of all Serbian citizens is preserving the existence and protection of the Serbian people wherever they live. Such a vocabulary in strategic documents is inappropriate for the 21st century because the same formulations in neighboring countries would not provide us with a sense of security. In addition, the adoption of the Foreign Policy Strategy would clearly and explicitly determine our foreign policy identity with priorities and goals. Such a strategy would require dedicated agility in preventing problems, strengthen the country’s security, create reliable alliances and promote Serbian interests and credibility. Adopting a foreign policy orientation would definitely relax the tense regional relations, prevent the aggressive political narrative of the 1990s, and promote the trust so lacking in the Balkans. It should not be specially emphasized that the harmonized foreign policy positions with Brussels, i.e., with the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU (CFSP), would clearly show the value criteria we strive for and the commitment to integration we hope for. Apart from that; the EU CFSP would be an effective shock absorber of all foreign pressures and blackmail that are common in international politics, and of which there are often no effective bilateral defense mechanisms.

Then, it is necessary to revise the strategic documents in the field of defense. Experiences from the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh raise the question of whether the Serbian Armed Forces (SAF) is capable of responding to new types of security challenges. Although the National Security Strategy and the Defense Strategy were adopted 10 months ago, it is obvious that Serbia’s determination to expand and improve cooperation with the CSTO should be reconsidered. This security alliance has proved that it provides only the illusion of security to its members, and that all CSTO bonds taken over, are of a lower level than the national interests of the member states. Even after almost a year, no action plans have been adopted for the mentioned strategies, and most likely neither the Military Strategy, the Doctrine of the SAF, the Long-Term Development Plan nor the doctrines of a lower hierarchical level. There is still no answer as to whether military neutrality is sustainable from the economic and military-operational aspect, and in particular, there is no analysis of the concept of total defense. Also, it would be interesting to hear answers to why the process of professionalization has been stopped and what is the alternative way that will enable the appropriate level of development, staffing, equipment and training of commands and units. After all, human resources are our greatest potential and should be our greatest investment.

The Baryaktar, Photo:

If a vision of what military capabilities are to be developed in the upcoming period is defined on the basis of revised defense plans, then transparent investments and procurements can be approached in order to build or improve specific capabilities. Procurement and capacity building should be as far away from politicians as possible and within the exclusive competence of experts in the SAF. The emphasis is on experts in the SAF, and not on appointed persons in the Ministry of Defense. Serbia is a country of limited resources that should be used in an optimal and efficient way, and not to spend the already small military budget on projects based on the experiences from the 1990s wars, as jovial politicians do by applying the method of trials and errors. Modern combat systems, including unmanned aerial vehicles, are proving their efficiency and are positioned as strategically important systems. But Serbia needs to develop such technology and complex subsystems as the Missile Technology Control System (MTCS), in cooperation with one of the EU countries towards which our foreign policy is directed, and not with Turkey, which is due to its aggressive foreign policy approach in the focus of the most powerful countries in the world. At a time when Canada has banned the further export of MTCS technology to Ankara, its ability to produce drones independently is questionable, as well as our intention to procure them from Turkey. Also, the experience of operations in Nagorno-Karabakh imposes an urgent improvement of the capabilities of the 224th Electronic Warfare Center of the SAF by procuring the most modern anti-drone systems (CUAS). Finally, the effects of camouflage or masking should not be overlooked. Instead of spending modest funds on cavalry units and stable maintenance, we should invest in projects of the most efficient and cheapest disguise, which includes both thermal imaging and visual camouflage. Masking is so important that it should not be left only to enthusiasm of individuals as it was done in 1999.

Finally, the reform of the Serbian Defense Industry (OIS) is essential. Unfortunately, instead of developing our defence industry technologically, and thus the country’s defense capabilities, individuals are oriented exclusively to profitability that does not end in the departments responsible for development in state-owned factories. Instead of privatization, world experience proves the efficiency of establishing a holding company that would invite investors into a partnership business relationship. This type of partnership is not new, and an example of that is the American military-industrial base, which is based on such partnerships (Public to Private Partnership – PPP). Forms of partnership can vary, but the essence is not to sell any key segment of production and not to give up any infrastructure, especially knowledge. Knowledge in this type of partnership should be exclusively state-owned; for all projects of weapons and military equipment. Entire production facilities can be state-owned but managed by private individuals. Only in this way we can improve production, ensure competitiveness on the world market and contribute to the country’s defense capabilities. Of course, without political party-depended excessive employment, as well as without fictitious employees. In that project, Yugoimport SDPR can have its place if they use their potentials and take responsibility for further coordinated development of the defense industry through the best EU experiences of the holding system.

Foreign policy, in fact, represents the relationship between the cost price and the benefits received and it has nothing to do with religion or emotions. Serbia’s foreign policy identity should be clear to everyone and its orientation towards European integration indisputable. In the security context, we essentially need a reliable alliance with powerful and influential countries or integration into a collective security system that guarantees us the peaceful future. Everything else is misconception which will be paid by investments of third countries caring about their own interests, but also by the future of our country.

Source: Novi Magazin

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