The latest conflict afflicting northeast Syria

by Paul Iddon

In the space of a mere week, northeast Syria has once again descended into conflict with various powers scrambling to achieve different objectives. This was precipitated by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to green-light a Turkish attack on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that presently control northeast and east of Syria.

Overnight, from the 14th to th 15th of October, Syrian soldiers have moved into Manbij, Hasakah and Qamishli and established checkpoints towards the M4 Highway (Source and map:

Overnight, from the 14th to th 15th of October, Syrian soldiers have moved into Manbij, Hasakah and Qamishli and established checkpoints towards the M4 Highway (Source and map: “US Out, Assad In: Syrian Army to Enter Northern Syria“, T-Intelligence, 14.10.2019).

Since Trump green-lighted the Turkish invasion by withdrawing a small number of U.S. troops from the Syrian border – where they were monitoring a “safe zone” established between Turkey and the SDF by the U.S. in recent weeks to prevent any war – following a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on Oct. 6, Turkey began attacking northeast Syria, on Oct. 9.

As part of its Operation Peace Spring, Turkey bombed several cities and towns near the border and used its Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA), also known as the Syrian National Army, militia proxies to launch a ground incursion against the SDF into the Arab-majority Tal Abyad area, which sits between northeast Syria’s two Syrian Kurdish regions, Kobane and Jazira. At least 160,000 civilians have been displaced to date, according to the United Nations. The TFSA has killed unarmed civilians, executed Kurdish SDF fighters, and even ambushed and murdered Hevrin Khalaf, a female politician. These are actions which “almost certainly constitute a war crime, under international law“.

Manbij, Syria, last year (Photo: Mauricio Lima).” width=”360″ height=”240″ /> American Special Forces worked closely with Kurdish troops to fight the Islamic State in Manbij, Syria, last year (Photo: Mauricio Lima).

The SDF, despite being hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered, has so far seemingly put up a formidable fight on the ground. On Oct. 15, for example, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the group launched a counterattack against Turkey and the TFSA in Sari Kani (Ras al-Ain). It went on to note that the SDF is successfully using “fortifications, tunnel networks and a continuous supply of reinforcements” to combat Turkey’s incursion.

U.S. troops who had long trained the SDF and fought alongside them against the Islamic State (ISIS) have told U.S. media how “ashamed” they are of the withdrawal decision and their inability to help their allies, calling the decision a “betrayal” of the U.S. ally. Kurds also feel embittered by Trump’s decision, especially since the “safe zone” arrangement they had agreed to compelled them to destroy their defensive fortifications near the Turkish border and withdraw their heavy weapons. The SDF did both of these things in good faith under the belief that it would enable the U.S. to dissuade Turkey from launching any attack.

U.S. troops came under artillery fire from Turkish forces on Oct. 11. According to Navy Captain Brook DeWalt, “[t]he explosion occurred within a few hundred meters of a location in an area known by the Turks to have US forces present”. This raises questions about whether Turkey is trying to push the remaining U.S. troops farther from the border.

Then, on Oct. 15, U.S. F-15 jet fighters and Apache helicopter gunships were sent over northeast Syria to warn off TFSA fighters that came close to U.S. forces on the ground. One U.S. official said that the TFSA had “violated a standing agreement with the U.S. not to get close enough to threaten U.S. troops”. One Apache gunship even hovered mere feet off the ground to deter the TFSA fighters.

The destructive Turkish assault has, predictably, given ISIS an opportunity to exploit the chaos so it can regroup and reorganize. The group’s territorial caliphate was destroyed last March following the SDF’s capture of its very last redoubt, the Syrian town of Al-Baghuz Fawqani.

The SDF captured tens-of-thousands of ISIS suspects and have detained them in camps and prisons across northeast Syria. Countries from where ISIS foreign fighters originated, for the most part, refused to repatriate them and put them on trial, so the SDF kept them detained.

One of the two detained French women who fled the Islamic State group's last pocket in Syria walks with her child at al-Hol camp on February 17, 2019. (Photo: Bulent Kilic).

One of the two detained French women who fled the Islamic State group’s last pocket in Syria walks with her child at al-Hol camp on February 17, 2019. (Photo: Bulent Kilic).

In Al-Hol camp, there are about 70,000 people, thousands of them ISIS militants. In August, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham went so far as to say that the camp “is quickly becoming a mini-caliphate and a fertile recruiting ground for ISIS”. Upon the onset of the Turkish invasion, the SDF made clear that guarding Al-Hol and ISIS detention facilities is no longer a priority. ISIS has already proven capable of attacking SDF forces, and there have been simultaneous riots in Al-Hol.

Also, on Oct. 13, a Turkish bombing of Ain Issa gave hundreds of ISIS suspects the opportunity to escape from the detention camp. It is presently unclear where they have gone. U.S. officials confirmed to Foreign Policy that the TFSA “are deliberately releasing detainees affiliated with the Islamic State from unguarded prisons.”

Neighboring Iraq is sending troop reinforcements to its border out of fears that as many as 13,000 ISIS fighters could exploit Operation Peace Spring in order to use Syria as a launchpad once again to infiltrate other countries. It is also unclear if the TFSA plans to recruit these former ISIS prisoners into its ranks or let them simple escape and wage an insurgency of their own against the SDF further south (see also here: Patrick Cockburn, “Turkey Accused of Recruiting Ex-Isis Fighters to Attack Kurds in Syria“, The Independent, 07.02.2018).

The SDF has turned to Damascus for help halting the Turkish invasion. It denies that it is either handing over territory currently under its control or sacrificing its autonomy. It insists it is merely allowing in Syrian forces to defend the country’s border with Turkey. Syrian regime forces are reportedly going to be deployed in areas spanning from the Arab-majority Manbij region west of the Euphrates all across the vast northeastern Syrian border from the east bank of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border. They will not, however, be deployed to the Tal Abyad and Sari Kani areas where clashes are ongoing between the SDF and Turkish forces.

On Oct. 14, SDF commander-in-chief General Mazloum Abdi briefed Trump in a phone call about the situation on the ground in northeast Syria and expressed his concerns about Kobane being attacked. Shortly after, Trump talked with Erdogan and “received a firm commitment” that Turkey would not attack that city, according to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. However, on Oct. 15, an unconfirmed report stated that TFSA forces were attacking Kobane.

Additionally, on Oct. 15, Russia released a statement in which it said that its military police are deployed in Manbij and are patrolling “along the lines of contact between the Syrian Arab Republic and Turkey” and that the Russian military is also “interacting” with Turkey. This indicates that Moscow is taking up the role of deconflicting Manbij mere hours after the U.S. troops – which previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey as part of the so-called Manbij Roadmap – vacated the area.

A short video (see below) from Russia Today aptly signified the rapid changes that are presently transpiring in northeast Syria. It showed U.S. military vehicles leaving in one direction and Syrian regime forces passing by them on the road going in the other way on Oct. 14 — a clear indicator of the transfer of power that is currently taking place in this region.

It is unclear if the deployment of Syrian regime forces will be enough to prevent Turkey from capturing significant swathes of northeast Syria from the SDF. After all, when Turkey invaded the northwest Kurdish enclave of Afrin in early 2018, the Kurds also called on Damascus to defend the border and halt the invasion. While pro-regime militiamen were deployed to Afrin, they proved utterly incapable of preventing Turkey and the TFSA from conquering and occupying that region.

That said, on that occasion. Russia withdrew military police it had deployed in Afrin and kept the airspace open for the Turkish Air Force, effectively giving Ankara a green-light to invade. After Ankara captured Afrin city, on Mar. 18, Russia briefly closed the airspace, allowing several Kurdish fighters to escape to the neighboring Tal Rifaat area, where they have remained ever since. Russia can similarly limit how far this Turkish operation goes if it chooses to close the airspace over northeast Syria and warn Ankara from advancing any further.

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA) fighting in Was al-Ain on Oct. 13 (Photo: Nazeer Al-Khaib).

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA) fighting in Was al-Ain on Oct. 13 (Photo: Nazeer Al-Khaib).

In addition to its deployment to Manbij, Russia has stressed that it will not accept any confrontation between Turkish and Syrian forces. “This would simply be unacceptable… and therefore we will not allow it, of course,” said Russia’s presidential envoy to Syria Aleksandr Lavrentyev on Oct. 15. He also declared that the Turkish military can go no further than 5-10 kilometers into Syrian territory and that Moscow does not approve of Operation Peace Spring. Consequently, if Turkey goes further than that Russia will likely take steps to pressure Turkey to withdraw.

Whatever the case ultimately proves to be in the next couple of days and weeks, it is already clear that the situation in northeast Syria is rapidly changing, and the region may well remain a conflict zone for the foreseeable future.

Posted in English, Paul Iddon, Security Policy, Syria | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Rückblick: Krieg in der Ostukraine 2014/15 – Die russo-seperatistische Winteroffensive 2015 (Teil 3/4)

von Dr. Phil. Fritz Kälin, Militärhistoriker, Stab MND. Dieser Artikel wurde zuvor auf dem Blog der OG Panzer veröffentlicht — ich danke dem Autor und der OG Panzer für die Erlaubnis einer Zweitveröffentlichung.

Diese Artikelserie schildert den Kriegsverlauf in der Ostukraine mit Fokus auf die intensivsten Kampfhandlungen der Jahre 2014 und 2015. Wochenlange, intensive Kämpfe hatten die Frontlinien hin und her verschoben. Im September 2014 willigten die Konfliktparteien dem in Minsk ausgehandelten Waffenstillstand zu. Dabei dürfte der beidseitige Bedarf nach einer Kampfpause für die ausgepowerten eigenen Truppen eine grössere Rolle gespielt haben, als der erreichte Frontverlauf. Kiew war nicht bereit, seine beiden östlichsten Provinzen aufzugeben und die Seperatisten wollten ihr Gebiet mit Hilfe der russischen Bataillone in einer nächsten Offensive mindestens abrunden. Dazu mussten sie den Flughafen Donezk einnehmen und den ukrainischen Frontvorsprung bei Debalzeve eindrücken. Oder hatte die Offensive gar noch weiter gesteckte Ziele?

The main terminal of Donetsk International Airport hit by shelling during fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces on October 8, 2014.

The main terminal of Donetsk International Airport hit by shelling during fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces on October 8, 2014.

Die Flughäfen Donezk und Luhansk
Am 5. September 2014 war das Minsker Abkommen von der Ukraine, dem “Föderativen Staat Neurussland“, Russland und von der OSZE unterzeichnet worden. Im ersten von zwölf Punkten forderte es die unverzügliche beiderseitige Unterbrechung der Anwendung von Waffengewalt. Davon war an einigen Frontabschnitten jedoch nichts zu spüren. Den wochenlang umkämpften Flughafen bei Luhansk mussten die ukrainischen Verteidiger bereits am 1. September 2014 räumen.

Pufferzone, die durch das Minsker Protokoll während des Donbass-Krieges festgelegt wurde.

Pufferzone, die durch das Minsker Protokoll während des Donbass-Krieges festgelegt wurde.

Die schweren Kämpfe um den Flughafen Donezk hielten ungeachtet des Waffenstillstandes an. Dieser Internationale Flughafen war erst im Mai 2012 für die Fussballeuropameisterschaft fertiggestellt worden. Am 25./26. Mai 2014 hatten die Separatisten den Flughafen zum ersten Mal besetzt, wurden jedoch tags darauf wieder vertrieben. Ende September/Anfang Oktober unternahmen sie einen weiteren, erfolglosen Einnahmeversuch.

Der Donezker Flughafen fiel endgültig im Zuge der Winteroffensive im Januar 2015. Nach dem Scheitern ihrer Gegenangriffe räumten die Ukraine den Verlust am 21. Januar ein. Die 240-tägige Verteidigung des Donezker Flughafens wird im (wenig informativen) ukrainischen Film “Cyborgs” heroisiert. Doch was durchbrach diesen zähen Widerstand? Bei den Flughäfen von Luhansk und Donezk soll der Beschuss durch russische Mörserselbstfahrlafetten (Typ 2S4 Tyulpan) die Entscheidung herbeigeführt haben. Die 130kg schweren Geschosse vom Kaliber 240mm reissen Krater von 10m Durchmesser. Angesichts solcher Feuerkraft erübrigen sich nähere Ausführungen darüber, wie genau den russisch-separatistischen Angreifern die Einnahme der Flughäfen gelang.

Ukrainians reported significant Russian use of unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance and targeting purposes. The Russians combined this capability with MLRS and artillery with devastating effect; one Ukrainian officer stated that 70 percent of Ukrainian casualties were from MLRS and artillery strikes. Ukrainian military officers said that they have no capabilities to jam or down Russian UAVs. — Ivo H. Daalder et al., “Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do“,Atlantic Council, 2015, S. 12.

Die Kräfteverhältnisse Ende 2014/Anfang 2015
Beidseitig wurden die Kräfte im ostukrainischen Donbass im Januar 2015 auf 34’000 ukrainische Soldaten und 36’000 Separatisten geschätzt, darin integriert 8’500-10’000 reguläre russische Soldaten (8–10 Battalion Tactical Groups). Die Zahl der Kampfpanzer auf Separatistengebiet wurde auf mindestens 250, die Zahl der Schützenpanzer auf mindestens 800 geschätzt. Demgegenüber waren mehr als drei Viertel der Panzerabwehrwaffenbestände der Ukrainer über 20 Jahre alt bzw. zu rund 70% nicht mehr funktionstüchtig (Ivo H. Daalder et al., “Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do“,Atlantic Council, 2015, S. 12). Kiew hatte seit Konfliktbeginn gut die Hälfte seiner eingesetzten Panzer verloren. Die ukrainische Luftwaffe griff seit Minsk nicht mehr in die Kämpfe ein – worauf im nächsten Teil näher eingegangen wird.

Die Ukrainer unternahmen grosse Anstrengungen, um seit Jahren abgestelltes Kriegsgerät aller Art wieder flott zu machen. Trotz hohem Eigenbedarf sollten die Waffenexporte hochgekurbelt werden. Gemäss dem Ukrainischen Präsidenten Petro Poroshenko sollte sein Land bis 2020 zu einem der fünf grössten Waffenexporteure der Welt werden (Nolan Peterson, “The Truth About the War in Ukraine“, The Daily Signal, 10.08.2017). Die schmerzhaftesten Ausrüstungsmängel der Ukrainer bestanden jedoch nicht bei den Waffensystemen, sondern bei den Logistikleistungen, wie beispielsweise bei der medizinischen Versorgung der Truppe. Freiwillige zivile Helfer und Crowdfunding-Aufrufe durch die Truppe sind Symptome eines Staates, dessen Leistungsfähigkeit in keinem Verhältnis zum Wehrwillen seiner Bürger steht. Seit September 2014 konnten die ukrainischen Sicherheitskräfte höchstens Kampferfahrung, jedoch kaum neue materiellen und personellen Kräfte sammeln. Die Gegenseite rüstete derweil zum Jahreswechsel unübersehbar mit schwerstem Gerät auf. Ebenso offensichtlich war das Hauptziel einer pro-russischen Winteroffensive: der Frontvorsprung der Ukrainer bei der Stadt Debalzeve. Inwiefern die Offensive weitere Ziele verfolgte (Durchbruch in bis zu sechs Richtungen, u.a. entlang des Schwarzen Meeres und in Richtungen West und Nordwest) ist bis heute umstritten und nicht Teil dieser Ausführungen (Karber, “The Russian Military Forum“, 49′).

Kampf um Debalzewe mitte Januar bis Mitte Februar 2015.

Kampf um Debalzewe mitte Januar bis Mitte Februar 2015.

 
Beidseitiger Aufmarsch für die Schlacht um Debalzeve
Debalzeve liegt mit seiner Bahnverladestation auf der Schienenverbindung zwischen Donezk und Luhansk. Die Kontrolle über Debalzeve war für Kiew gewissermassen das letzte verbliebene Druckmittel. Aber ein Frontvorsprung nützt am Ende immer der insgesamt stärkeren Seite. Die Behauptung des Debalzeve-Vorsprungs hatte demnach bis Mitte 2014 Sinn gemacht, solange die Ukrainer nur gegen militärisch unterlegene Separatisten kämpften. Gegenüber der in jeder Hinsicht, aber insbesondere an Artillerie überlegenen Russischen Armee wurde aus dem Pfand eine tödliche Falle. Weitere ukrainische Truppen in einen schmalen, rein passiv verteidigten Frontbogen heineinzudrücken war geradezu unverantwortlich. Angaben zu ihrer Stärke variieren von 2’500 bis 8’000, wobei die tiefere Zahl wohl dem entspricht, was permanent zuvorderst im Frontvorsprung postiert war. In Debalzeve sollen laut Karber die Brigaden 25, 30, 80, 128 und eine Luftlandebrigade (rotierend) zum Einsatz gekommen sein (vgl. Karber, “The Russian Military Forum“, 55′). Bei den Kräfteangaben gilt es zu bedenken: Ukrainische Bataillone wiesen Ende 2014 oftmals nur noch Kompaniestärke auf und es bestanden keine operativen Reserven mehr. Die russisch-separatistische Seite soll für die Einnahme des Debalzeve-Frontbogens über 15’000 Mann eingesetzt haben. Die Hauptlast hätten dabei die regulären Truppen der russischen Armee mit modernen Kampfpanzern (T-72B3 und T-90) getragen.

Kommunikationsisolation und Artillerievorbereitung
Am 28. Januar begann ein sechstägiges Artilleriebombardement auf die Ukrainer im Frontvorsprung. Deren Internet- und Mobilkommunikation war bereits seit dem 20. Januar unterbrochen. Parallel wurde versucht, die Mobiltelefone der von der Aussenwelt kommunikativ isolierten ukrainischen Soldaten gegen sie selbst einzusetzen:

[…] Keeping us cut off from the rest of the world in Debaltseve, the Russian-led terrorists increased the intensity of their attacks and disseminated disinformation about Ukrainian losses in our battalion. […] During daily attacks in January–February, the Russian-sponsored terrorists used portable cell transmitters to deliver fake and provocative text messages to our mobiles, in order to instigate anger or panic among our troops and destabilize order in our units. […] Indeed, the terrorists had been taking control of our cell phones for up to 5–10 minutes, in order to deliver their propaganda messages. Sure, the SMS texts were anonymous and false. And not one of us fled, not one of us left our positions. Many times our unit commanders banned the use of cell phones in the battle zone, but our servicemen’s wish to reach relatives was so strong that they often ignored the ban and tried to catch any signal as best they could. — Viktor Kovalenko, “Debaltseve Diary 2: No Mobile Communications”, Debaltseve Diary, 17.04.2015, nicht mehr öffentlich abrufbar.

Am 2. Februar wurden Kräfte vom “Anti-Terrorist Operation”-Hauptquartier in Kramatorsk in Richtung Debalzeve verlegt (Maxim Tucker, “Ukraine Throws Reinforcements at Debaltseve, Separatists Vow to Escalate War“, KyivPost, 02.02.2015). Trotzdem gelang den Angreifern nach mehrtägigen schweren Kämpfen am 5. Februar die Einnahme von Wuhlehirsk, etwa 13 Kilometer westlich von Debalzeve. Von drei Seiten wuchs der Druck auf den Frontvorsprung.

Fake-SMS an einen ukraininschen Soldaten (zum Vergrössern klicken).

Fake-SMS an einen ukraininschen Soldaten (zum Vergrössern klicken).

Zeit, Kraft, Raum: Wenn der Verlust eines kleinen Ortes das Schicksal von 3’000 Mann besiegeln kann
Die wichtigste Strasse für die Ukrainer war die M-03 von Artemiwsk nach Debalzeve. Trotz beständigem, aber eher zufälligem Artilleriebeschuss blieb das etwa 50 Kilometer lange Wegstück für den Risikogewillten “offen”. Das an dieser Strasse gelegenes Dorf Lowhynowe war von den Ukrainern jedoch so schwach besetzt, dass eine kleine Spezialeinheit der Pro-Russen den Ort am 9. Februar einnehmen konnte. Dort blockierten sie die wichtige Strasse mit ihren Waffen, Panzerminen und Holzhindernissen. Die ukrainischen Truppen weiter vorne wurden nicht über den Verlust des Dorfes informiert. Diverse Fahrzeuge fuhren während der Folgestunden arglos in die Sperre und damit in ihr Verderben – unter anderem Lastwagen voller Artilleriemunition für die Geschütze und Mörser in Debalzeve. Dies führte dort in den zehn nächsten, entscheidenden Kampftagen zu Munitionsmangel bei diesen essentiellen Unterstützungswaffen.

Als diese Strassenblockade endlich bemerkt wurde, konnten aus den Verteidigern Debalzeves keine Kräfte für einen Gegenangriff auf das kleine Dorf freigemacht werden. Erst am 12. Februar wurden dafür von ausserhalb Einheiten der Brigaden 30 und 24 sowie von der 79. Luftlandebrigade zusammengezogen. Aber nicht alle der für den Angriff designierten Einheiten trafen rechtzeitig ein, während die Gegenseite zwischenzeitlich ihre Verteidigung mit Panzern und effektivem Artilleriefeuer verstärkt hatte. Der ukrainische Angriff misslang. Beteiligte sagten, mit nur einem Bataillon mehr wäre er geglückt.

In Minsk wurde parallel zu diesen schwersten Kampfhandlungen eine erneute “Waffenruhe” ausgehandelt. Das Minsk II-Abkommen wurde am 12. Februar 2015 abgeschlossen, am Tag des missglückten ukrainischen Gegenangriffs auf Lowhynowe. Der Verlust wie auch die gescheiterte Rückeroberung eines einzigen kleinen Dorfes entlang der wichtigsten Strasse im ganzen Kriegsgebiet kann auf puren Kräftemangel zurückgeführt werden.

Lowhynowe dürfte der letzte Sargnagel gewesen sein, den der Debalzeve-Frontvorsprung schon lange zu werden drohte. Dessen Räumung wurde dadurch unumgänglich. Am 17./18. Februar versuchten gegen 3’000 ukrainische Soldaten sich abzusetzen. Die Karte rechts zeigt links zeigt den Weg (blau), den das 40. Ukrainische Bataillon nahm. Die vom Gegner einsehbare Strasse M-03 (in der Karte rechts braun gekennzeichnet) musste dazu grösstenteils gemieden werden. Auf dem Rückzug entstanden substantielle Verluste an Menschen und Material. Die Gegenseite hatte entsprechend der russischen Doktrin der Rückzugsweg nicht komplett unterbrochen. Dies hätte die verlustreiche Abwehr verzweifelter Ausbruchversuche erfordert. Im Gegenteil konnte so die Bekämpfung des kanalisierten Gegners der Artillerie überlassen werden. Karber beziffert die ukrainischen Debalzeve-Verluste mit 100 Kampfpanzern, 250 gepanzerte Kampffahrzeuge, über 100 Artilleriegeschützen und 700 Lastwagen (Modern War Institute, “Dr. Phillip Karber Explains Russian Operations in Ukraine“, West Point, 13.04.2017, 23′).

Debalzeve – Defensiver Achtungserfolg oder schlecht gewählter Verhandlungspfand der Ukrainer?
Es lässt sich nur spekulieren, welche operativen Ziele die russisch-separatistische Winteroffensive ursprünglich hatte. Bei Donezk und Debalzeve dürften zumindest Minimalziele erreicht worden sein, mit hohen Verlusten für beide Seiten. Besonders der Kampf um den Frontbogen stärkte klar die Verhandlungsposition der russischen Seite in den Minsk II-Verhandlungen. Natürlich erlitt auch die Gegenseite Verluste, die aber weder unersetzbar noch “vergebens” gewesen sein dürften. In der Ukraine hingegen wurde das Vertrauen in eigene militärische und politische Führung erschüttert. Gut ein Jahr später hebt ein ukrainischen “Dokumentarfilm” über diese Schlacht bei der Erwähnung von Orten wie Lowhynowe und Wuhlehirsk angestrengt die Kampferfolge einzelner Soldaten hervor. Dem letztendlichen Verlust des Frontbogens wird die vermeintliche Vereitelung weiterreichender Ziele der gegnerischen Winteroffensive gegenübergestellt. Letztlich trägt der damalige Präsident Petro Poroschenko die politische Verantwortung dafür, dass seine Soldaten ohne Eingreifreserven in einer exponierten Lage zu lange und passiv ausharren mussten.

Der Mitteleinsatz und Ressourcenverschleiss für die Schlacht um Debalzeve sollte jedem zu denken geben, der in mechanisierten Truppen nur ein nostalgisches Relikt aus dem Kalten Krieg sehen will. Auch im Zeitalter der “Hacker und Trolle” ging es am Ende darum, dass eine Seite (die russisch-separatistische) sich erfolgreich auf die Verbindungslinie der (ukrainischen) Gegenseite legte und ihre eigenen erfolgreich schützte. Es gibt also keinen Grund, im 21. Jahrhundert auf die Lektüre von Klassikern wie Antoine-Henri Jomini zu verzichten. Der Kämpfer am Computer und der Drohnenoperateur sind nur weitere Kameraden, auf den die Grenadiere und Panzerbesatzungen heute genauso angewiesen sind, wie auf die Aufklärer vor ihnen, die Piloten über ihnen, die Infanteristen an ihren Seiten und den Artilleristen, Übermittlern, Stabsoffizieren u.v.m. hinter ihnen.

Posted in Armed Forces, Fritz Kälin, International, Ukraine | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Difficult G36 Replacement – Unrealistic demands on the future German Bundeswehr assault rifle?

by Björn Müller (Facebook / Twitter; originally published in German). Björn is journalist in Berlin focusing on security policy and geopolitics.

Since the late 1990s, the Heckler & Koch G36 assault rifle has been the standard rifle for the German Bundeswehr. The soldiers have confidence in this weapon. In their view, the rifle has proven itself, even in foreign missions, for example in Afghanistan. However, more than four years ago, the G36 made negative headlines. Tests had shown that the weapon loses accuracy when overheated. Under pressure from negative press coverage and without waiting for investigative reports from other working groups and commissions, the then Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen announced the retirement of the rifle. Ultimately, it turned out that the Bundeswehr soldiers had no problems with the rifle during battle and thus were not endangered. Regardless, the troops should get a new assault rifle; the bureaucratic process for the successor model has already started. However, it is already clear that the soldiers may have to wait longer for the new weapon than intended because there was criticism in the call for tenders.

A German Bundeswehr soldier of the Rapid Reaction Force in Masar-i-Scharif, Afghanistan, equipped with a G36.

A German Bundeswehr soldier of the Rapid Reaction Force in Masar-i-Scharif, Afghanistan, equipped with a G36.

The tendering process for a new Bundeswehr standard rifle has been going since the end of April 2017. The current model G36 should be replaced quickly because of the reputed technical weaknesses, such as the loss of accuracy at higher temperatures.

Doubts about the reliability of the weapon escalated four years ago to the so-called “G36 scandal”. The Ministry of Defense and the G36’s manufacturer Heckler & Koch entered into a bitter feud. It involved the question of whether with the G36 the company had delivered a weapon that did not meet the troops’ requirements. The Ministry even sued Heckler & Koch for damages, but lost the trial. Regardless, the G36 was no longer considered to be an up-to-date weapon, which was suitable for all scenarios for the Bundeswehr from the Baltic States, to Africa to Afghanistan.

Now 120,000 assault rifles are to be procured for 245 million euros. However, there is also a conflict about the G36’s successor. In October 2018, it became public that all submitted assault rifles failed to pass the test done by the Bundeswehr. Heckler & Koch, which has also applied for the contract, massively criticized the criteria stated in the tender in a letter to the Ministry of Defense published in May 2019. The completely unrealistic demands on the upcoming assault rifle would lead to the procurement of a weapon that does not meet the needs of the troops. The required maximum weight of 3.6 kg plays a major roll. Daniel Soudry, Certified Public Lawyer for Defense Procurement:

This is where the accusation of Heckler & Koch comes in. It is said that either all the requirements are fulfilled and the weight is exceeded or the weight requirement is met and the usage requirements for the weapon are not fulfilled. In other words a kind of “squaring of the circle”. And that would be such a classic case, if that is true, that the procurement law says something is demanded here that is not really achievable by bidders. And something like that can then definitely be assailed under procurement law.

The tender makes no specifications for the caliber of the new assault rifle. In addition to the usual NATO standard caliber 5.56 mm, the larger caliber 7.62 mm is therefore also permissible. According to Heckler & Koch, this heavier caliber would be the only sensible choice for the upcoming weapon. Only with the 7.62 mm caliber could the Bundeswehr’s requirements regarding precision and penetrating power be met. The problem is, however, that the new weapon must not weigh more than 3.6 kilograms. Apparently, according to the weapon manufacturer this weight requirement can only be fulfilled with the smaller 5.56 mm caliber. According to Heckler & Koch, the letter to the Ministry of Defense is not a letter of rebuke. Such would instigate a lawsuit. But why then the intervention?

In view of the tender for the successor to the G36 rifle, we have fulfilled our obligation as a specialist company to advise our customers competently and comprehensively in the selection of the new assault rifle to be procured. The aim of this explicit technical information is that a superior standard weapon can be procured for the soldiers to successfully carry out their mission for all realistic deployment scenarios. — Florian Bokermann, Director Public Affairs & Government Relations at the defense company Heckler & Koch.

So the weapons maker is smarter than the experts in the Bundeswehr? Not necessarily. Heckler & Koch’s letter apparently aims to persuade the Ministry of Defense to adapt the tender to the company’s vision. Obviously, the two models with which Heckler & Koch has applied for this large order – the models HK433 and HK416 – do not meet the requirements established by the Bundeswehr. Both weapons are 5.56 mm caliber. Heckler & Koch apparently demands that the weight limit of 3.6 kg for the new assault rifle be loosened. Because then the company could then be competitive with its HK417 model. This gun has the 7.62 mm caliber and is the heavy version of the HK 416, with which Heckler & Koch participated in the tender, but failed.

One thing is clear: companies naturally have an interest in selling a product that they have already developed and for which their production is already designed for. Heckler & Koch would have to invest a lot of money in advance for retrofits and new developments, without knowing if they will get the job at the end. Especially since the company, according to its annual report, is being squeezed by high debt burden (H&K AG, “Quarterly Report: Results for the Year Ended December 31, 2018“).

HK416 A5 - 11" – Kal. 5,56 MM X 45 NATO

HK416 A5 – 11″ – Kal. 5,56 MM X 45 NATO

A change in the tender is not in sight. Instead, the responsible procurement office considers improvement of the submitted assault rifles feasible and waits for them. A spokesman for the procurement office commented: “The demands to replace the G36 are challenging but achievable. We are confident that the competition will produce a suitable weapon.” However, the journalist and expert on handguns, Lars Winkelsdorf, sees things differently. He takes the same view as Heckler & Koch:

So I have a lot of documents; and in fact, the Bundeswehr is calling for a “can do everything” gismo. On the one hand, we have demands for effect, for extensive precision. On the other hand, the weapon should be as light as possible. And here are numerous physical factors that are already mutually exclusive.

In a first test phase, all submitted weapons for the G36 successor had actually failed, including the HK416 from Heckler & Koch. What is irritating, however, is that France’s army is currently procuring the Bundeswehr’s failed HK416 as their new standard rifle. Locations and scenarios for the Germans and French have become increasingly similar for quite some time – both are in operations from Afghanistan to Africa to the Baltic States. Moreover, France’s concept of an intervention army is geared much more to combat missions than that of the Bundeswehr. It is surprising that a weapon that satisfies the French failed miserably for the Bundeswehr. On request, the Bundeswehr procurement office only says: “The demands of the French armed forces on their new assault rifle are significantly different from those of the Bundeswehr”.

A product selected by France could also become relevant in the German procurement procedure. With this selection, the information on the French specifications and results of the product trials would be very helpful. — Quote from the Federal Ministry of Defense in 2015.

Meanwhile, a second series of tests of G36 replacement candidates is being conducted, which have been completed completed in late summer. To this end, bidding companies should have submitted improved models. Heckler & Koch has apparently not done that, but appears to be using their previous models and is banking on a change to the assault rifle criteria. The other publicly known competitor – Haenel – did not want to comment (however, Haenel told Remigiusz Wilk that the offered the second generation MK 556 assault rifle).

For Winkelsdorf, the specifications of the Bundeswehr tender are not only technically unattainable, the weapons expert also considers the entire conception of the G36 successor to be completely unsuccessful:

They are looking for a rifle to serve as a tool for all infantry tasks in the Bundeswehr. And it would actually make more sense if the Bundeswehr would provide their soldiers with a common platform. Here, at the level of the ministry itself, a clear catalog would first have had to be developed as to which weapon systems are needed at all for future operations and above all for which units.

That would mean that instead of pushing for as many requests from the troops on the upcoming assault rifle in one model, the Bundeswehr should define a rifle platform from the respective individual interests. From this, meaningful model variants for the respective end users, such as paratroopers or naval infantry, could be developed and procured. Once again from Winkelsdorf:

An example would be the American M16 weapon family, where there are many different versions. From the short version for special forces to precision rifles. But also on the Russian side we see that Kalashnikov manufactures numerous special versions for tank crews, for infantrymen, and even a light machine gun.

But the Bundeswehr wants to continue to procure a new extremely powerful standard rifle for all soldiers. The impression remains, as with many Bundeswehr armaments projects, once again a gold plated solution is being sought. This would be in stark contrast to the defense ministry’s claim to be more pragmatic in procurement, in order to facilitate the influx of weapon systems. Whether the Bundeswehr’s requirements for the new assault rifle can be met remains to be seen. It is perfectly clear now: the procurement of the G36 replacement will drag on.

Update from October 12th, 2019
According to the current schedule, the procurement decision for the new Bundeswehr assault rifle system is expected in the second quarter of 2020 — this means a delay of more than one year. The results of the second test phase are not disclosed. Even if the Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support of the Bundeswehr has not informed the public as to whether one of the later-filed assault rifles has successfully passed the demanding tests. However, the fact that a decision has been made on the procurement of the rifles allows the conclusion to be drawn that at least one of the rifles has fulfilled all the requirements. (Source: Jean-Phillipp Weisswang and Waldemar Geiger, “System Sturmgewehr Bundeswehr: Entscheidung 2020 erwartet“, ES&T – Europäische Sicherheit & Technik, 12.10.2019).

Posted in Armed Forces, Björn Müller, English, Technology | Leave a comment

Donbas: Waiting for reintegration into Ukraine

by Nikola Mikovic (Twitter), a Serbian freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst. He writes for several publications such as Geopolitical Monitor, Global Security Review, International Policy Digest, Global Comment, and Weekly Blitz. Nikola covers mostly Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

A member of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service signals for people to stop as they approach a checkpoint at the contact line between Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian troops, in Mayorsk, eastern Ukraine on July 3rd, 2019 (Photo: Gleb Garanich).

A member of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service signals for people to stop as they approach a checkpoint at the contact line between Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian troops, in Mayorsk, eastern Ukraine on July 3rd, 2019 (Photo: Gleb Garanich).

Kyiv and the Russia-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic signed an agreement last Tuesday, which paves the way for gradual reintegration of the Donbas region into Ukraine. The document known as the “Steinmeier Formula“, named after former German Foreign Minister and now President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier, envisages that the Donbas should get a special self-governing status after it holds elections under Ukrainian legislation.

The main difference between the Minsk Protocol signed in the Belarusian capital in 2014 and 2015, and the “Steinmeier Formula” is that the later does not mention a ceasefire necessary for the beginning of elections. According to Minsk II, an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire has to be established, and all foreign armed formations, military equipment, as well as mercenaries have to be withdrawn. However, the Minsk Protocol failed precisely at these points, and the “Steinmeier Formula” avoids to mention these pre-conditions for local elections in the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts.

Whether this will now lead to local elections in 2020 and the long term to a stabilization of the situation in Eastern Ukraine is rather doubtful. According to Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, the “Steinmeier Formula” is very unpopular in Ukraine because people see it as a sell-out to Moscow. The problem lies in defining what kind of autonomy both oblasts would be granted. A federal Ukraine where both oblasts would have a de facto veto in Ukraine’s politics would be a non-starter for many in Ukraine. According to Orysia Lutsevych, Research Fellow & Manager of the Ukraine Forum and Russia and Eurasia Programs at Chatham House, a majority of Ukrainians reject the idea of enshrining a special status for the Donbas in the Constitution (Mattia Nelles, “Expert Q&A: Will the Steinmeier Formula Bring Peace to Ukraine?“, Atlantic Council, 04.10.2019).

However, the lack of a definition of the nature of autonomy poses a risk not only for the Ukrainian side. After the election, a special status enshrined in the Constitution, and simultaneous longterm stabilization of the region, Ukraine will reinstate full control of its state border with Russia. For the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republic, this constitutes a significant change. Currently, they are de facto unrecognized countries with their military, police, customs, education, health, and justice systems. However, under Kyiv’s full control, in a worst-case scenario, it could be completely irrelevant if the territory formally has special status or not. As a comparison: after the Erdut Agreement between Croatia and local Serbs in the former Republic of Serbian Krajina, which enabled Zagreb to establish full control over the state border with Serbia, Serbs lost all the rights they previously had. Russian full implementation of the “Steinmeier Formula” might have the same consequence for the Russian and Russian speaking population of the Donbas, as Kyiv aims to implement full Ukrainization of that area, as it did in the rest of the country, practically not to provide any form of autonomy.

At this point, however, it is highly uncertain if the Kremlin will be ready to abandon its proxies in the Donbas, as such action could send a clear message to entities such as Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. Also, if the Kremlin agrees to return the Donbas to Ukraine, the West would unlikely lift all the sanctions it imposed on Russia in the past five years. Instead, it would welcome progress towards peace but probably would also put intense pressure on Russia to start the negotiation process with Ukraine over the status of Crimea. That is why some analysts believe that any form of reintegration of the Donbas into Ukraine would be seen as a sign of Russian weakness, and might be the start of another conflict. However, since Moscow already got involved in negotiations with Japan over the status of the Kuril Islands, which have been an integral part of Russia for over seventy years, it is not unrealistic to expect that the Kremlin will eventually negotiate the status of Crimea with Ukraine and the West.

Ukrainian nationalists hold a banner reading 'No capitulation!' as they protest against the "Steinmeier formula", near the Presidential Office in Kyiv, Ukraine, on October 1st, 2019.

Ukrainian nationalists hold a banner reading ‘No capitulation!’ as they protest against the “Steinmeier formula”, near the Presidential Office in Kyiv, Ukraine, on October 1st, 2019.

In the past, however, Russia has had bad experiences with the outcome of such negotiations. Apart from the Donbas peace talks, Steinmeier played a crucial role during the violent protests in Kyiv in 2014, which resulted in overthrowing the former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych. He, along with Yanukovych and Ukrainian opposition leaders, signed the Agreement on the settlement of political crisis in Ukraine. The document was never implemented, and Russian President Vladimir Putin later accused his “Western partners” of “deceiving Russia” by violating the agreement. In an interview published by Russian state TV in 2018, the Russian president openly admitted that his “Western partners” required from him to put pressure on Yanukovych and ask him not to use force against violent Western-backed protesters. Putin agreed, and Yanukovych was overthrown. How likely is it that the Russian proxies in the Donbas will eventually face the same fate — abandoned by Moscow and overthrown by Kyiv?

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A Summer of Reflection: Malaysia’s New Defense White Paper… and more…

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

The presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, who was defeated in the Indonesian elections, did not accept the final result and accused the other side of electoral fraud. This subsequently led to riots in which six people lost their lives, and more than 200 people were wounded. Indonesia's constitutional court rejected all the accusations at the end of June.

The presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, who was defeated in the Indonesian elections, did not accept the final result and accused the other side of electoral fraud. This subsequently led to riots in which six people lost their lives and more than 200 people were wounded. Indonesia’s constitutional court rejected all the accusations at the end of June.

As the dust settles from its general election in April, it seems little will change for Indonesia: Joko Widodo (commonly known as Jokowi) will continue to serve as President until at least 2024. However, Indonesia has often distanced itself from regional issues like the South China Sea disputes, and there are important recalibrations of defense policy elsewhere in Southeast Asia that merit attention. In the ongoing rivalry between the United States and China, it is certainly worth following these course changes among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in order to better understand where sympathies might if there is an escalation in the aforementioned great power rivalry.

Of particular interest, Malaysia has indicated that it will release a new defense white paper, which is expected to be tabled in Parliament in November. This will be the first time Malaysia’s Ministry of Defense has released such a strategic document, and it could go some way toward answering lingering questions about the foreign policy orientation of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Since the unexpected victory of Mahathir Mohamad and the Pakatan Haripan coalition in Malaysia’s May 2018 general election, it has been unclear how the country will position itself in the South China Sea disputes. There is even ambiguity as to whether Malaysia will ratify the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a wide-sweeping free trade agreement that also includes Japan, Canada, Mexico, and seven other countries.

Malaysian Coast Guard (MMEA) marine protector-class offshore patrol vessel KM 7501 Langkawi patrols in the waters of the Singapore strait in January 2017.

Malaysian Coast Guard (MMEA) marine protector-class offshore patrol vessel KM 7501 Langkawi patrols in the waters of the Singapore strait in January 2017.

The forthcoming defense white paper would go some way toward clarifying where Malaysia sees itself in the region and the broader international community. However, some stakeholders, such as the US, might be left disappointed by the contents. One of the more significant foreign policy initiatives pursued in the first year of this new Malaysian government was the establishment of a multi-departmental task force to combat illegal fishing, which was responsible for the capture of 25 Vietnamese fishing vessels in May 2019 alone and the issuance of an official protest note to Hanoi. Malaysia is not the only Southeast Asian country to suffer the effects of illegal fishing – in fact, Indonesia seized two Malaysian-flagged vessels in the Strait of Malacca on suspicion of engaging in just such activities in February 2019 – but the Pakatan Haripan government has taken a harder line. As such, continued efforts to address illegal fishing and resulting disputes with neighbors like Vietnam might occupy a prominent place in the defense white paper.

References in this document to illegal fishing, territorial disputes with Indonesia and Singapore, and the lingering effects of the 2013 Lahad Datu standoff with Philippines-based militants could present “wedge issues” for China, which would not see its expansionist interests in the South China Sea well-served by a coherent ASEAN. As such, much will hinge on Malaysia’s first defense white paper.

Brunei Darussalam has also indicated that it will release its defense white paper in early 2021. Brunei has considerable experience with such strategic documents, and so few surprises are expected there. In March 2019, Bruneian officials announced that the update to the country’s defense strategy would emphasize the role of defense diplomacy, as well as Brunei’s participation in multilateral bodies like ASEAN and, in particular, the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meetings (ADMM). However, any reference to the South China Sea will likely be missing, given that China has invested heavily in the Bruneian economy in recent years, with Hengyi Industries’ $3.4 billion Pulau Muara Besar refinery and petrochemical complex, which is expected to be operational by the end of 2019. Not wanting to imperil such investment into its troubled economy, Brunei’s policy on Chinese expansionism will undoubtedly remain that of acquiescence.

Other regional countries are long overdue for a strategic update, such as Cambodia (whose most recent defense white paper was issued in 2006) and Vietnam (whose own equivalent was last updated in 2009). But Indonesia is likely to be the next ASEAN member state to develop a new strategic document related to national defense. The most recent iteration of this document was published on November 2015, a little over one year after Jokowi was elected to his first term as President of Indonesia. In an election campaign that saw his record on defense issues heavily criticized by his main opponent, Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi secured a second term in April 2019. Although Jokowi won by a significant margin – 55.5% of the vote to Subianto’s 44.5% – this criticism could lead him to direct the country’s Ministry of Defense to revamp Indonesian defense policy and put forward some programs that would at least create the perception of a modernized National Armed Forces.

Joko Widodo onboard the Imam Bonjol warship in Indonesia's Natuna Islands.

Joko Widodo onboard the Imam Bonjol warship in Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.

Were Indonesia to proceed with a new defense white paper in the next year or so, this should be a welcome development for US policymakers and others concerned by China’s actions in the region. The Indonesian public has an increasingly negative view of China according to recent polls, and a new defense white paper could reflect this by referencing China as a potential threat to Indonesian security. Indonesia is a non-claimant state in the South China Sea, but China’s unilateral declaration of the nine-dash line intersects with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone near the Natuna islands. To cement Indonesia’s claim to the Natuna islands, Jokowi even personally visited them aboard an Indonesian military vessel in June 2016. Less related to Indonesia’s national security, Jokowi took considerable efforts in the 2019 election campaign to court religious conservatives, even making Indonesia’s top Muslim cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, his running mate. Advocacy on behalf of repressed Muslim communities elsewhere in the world, such as the Uighurs of China’s Xinjiang province, might become a new pillar of Indonesian foreign policy.

The next few years will prove crucial for not only the power struggle in the broader Asia-Pacific region but also for the future of ASEAN as an effective multilateral arrangement. China has demonstrated how quickly it can move to secure its interests or ambitions in the region, constructing reefs and other land features in the South China Sea protected by anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems in a matter of only a few years. A lack of any formal attention to this issue in the defense strategies of ASEAN members continues this trend of ceding the initiative to China. Hopefully, defense planners from Malaysia and some of its neighbors can capture this issue and propose measures to address this effectively.

Posted in Brunei, English, Indonesia, Malaysia, Paul Pryce, Politics in General, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A long way: Russian military reform – Part 3

by Patrick Truffer (originally published in German). He has been working in the Swiss Armed Forces for more than 15 years, holds a bachelor’s degree in public affairs from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zurich), and a master’s degree in international relations from the Free University of Berlin.

The purpose of this article is to investigate the factors driving Russian military reform, how the capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces have changed in the last ten years, and how they could change through 2030, based on the latest state armaments program. The first part was about the consolidation phase after the end of the Cold War; the inadequacies that became apparent during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, and finally the Serdyukov reform. The second part dealt with the progressive improvement of the Russian armed forces as a consequence of military reform, which became evident in the wars in Ukraine and Syria as well as in the major exercises of the last two years. In the third part, the possible further development of the Russian armed forces for the period up to the end of 2030 will be discussed, and a conclusion will be drawn.

Outlook through 2030

Until about 2018, the 2011-2020 state armaments program was the basis for the modernization of the Russian armed forces and amounted to 20.7 trillion rubles, equivalent to about 700 billion US dollars for the entire period or in other words, the yearly budget for the US armed forces. Not even half of this budget was used until 2018, partly because the Russian defense industry is often overwhelmed when it comes to quantity and quality. Although military equipment based on Soviet design is easy to mass-produce, high-volume production and the development of entirely new weapon systems are proving to be difficult. Taking into account the findings from the operation in Syria, the low oil price, western sanctions following the annexation of Crimea and the interference in the war in Ukraine, it became apparent that Russia could not sustain the arms program in the long run. Therefore, in December 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved the new State Armament Program for 2018-2027. Expressed in rubles, it has a budget similar to that of the previous program. Converted into US dollars, it does not even include half of the previous amount due to inflation. Since most military equipment is produced in Russia itself, however, the decline in the value of the ruble against the US dollar is less significant (Richard Connolly and Mathieu Boulègue, “Russia’s New State Armament Programme: Implications for Russian Armed Forces and Military Capabilities to 2017“, Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Mai 2018, p. 4f, 8, 10).

Even though the armament program is classified, enough details have been published by Russian officials, politicians, press articles, etc. that allow a rough estimate of the further development of armed forces until 2030. Vostok 2018 has already pointed to certain priorities for the next then years. The units, especially the airborne troops and special forces, are to become more mobile and can be mobilized on short notice even over long distances. Procuring new transport and tanker aircraft, therefore, plays an important role. However, extending the operational possibilities of the Antonov aircraft from Ukraine is not an option. These are to be replaced by the Ilyushin Il-476, Il-76MD Candid and possibly the Il-106 Ermak. Mass production of the Il-76MD Candid began in early 2018, but whether the goal of 40 units by the end of 2027 can be attained remains to be seen. (Connolly and Boulègue, p. 4, 15).

The modernization of the nuclear triad will be continued in the new armaments program and will play an important role. For intercontinental ballistic missiles, Russia will have a mix of RS-24 Yars (since 2010) and RS-28 Sarmat (from 2019) towards the end of the 2020s. The RS-24 Yars can carry 3-4 nuclear warheads, the RS-28 Sarmat can potentially carry up to 24 MIRV (likely up to three Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles) depending on size and mass [1], which should be able to penetrate a missile shield with both conventional and nuclear warheads equipped (Julian Cooper, “The Russian State Armament Programme, 2018-2027“, NATO Defense College, Mai 2018, p. 3). These are two of the new systems that Putin presented to Parliament in his Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly on March 1, 2018. Another proposed system – a still unnamed nuclear-powered cruise missile – will most likely not be completed by 2030, if at all (Jeffrey Lewis and Aaron Stein, “Russia’s Crashing Cruise Missile“, Arms Control Wonk, 11.06.2018). For strategic bombers, Russia will probably have to rely on a modernized Tupolev Tu-95MS Bear and Tu-160M2 Blackjack until the mid-2030s, as the newly planned PAK DA strategic bomber (subsonic speed, but with an operational distance of 15,000 km) will hardly be operational before that. Not listed as a strategic bomber due to the lack of, though retrofittable, mid-air refueling capability, Russia will also have Tu-22M3 Backfire (30 of the 100 will be upgraded to Tu-22M3M), which were used as bombers in the Syrian War. The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic air-to-ground missile, another weapon system introduced by Putin, which is also said to be able to penetrate a missile shield, is currently under development and is being tested in the Southern Military District. However, at the moment, it can not be estimated whether this system will be operational by 2030. The three strategic Borei-class submarines are among the most advanced Russian weapon systems and will be gradually supplemented by five additional submarines between 2019 and mid-2025. Together these eight submarines can then carry 128 Bulava intercontinental ballistic missiles, each of which has six nuclear warheads (Connolly and Boulègue, p. 16ff; “Balistic and Cruise Missile Threat“, National Air and Space Intelligence Center, Defense Intelligence Ballistic Missile Analysis Committee, June 2017, p. 33). It is still unclear whether Russia will develop additional new submarines (Project 09852, Belgorod). The Belgorod should carry up to four long-range unmanned underwater vehicles Kanyon (Status 6), equipped with nuclear warheads as announced by Putin (Cooper, p. 8).

Otherwise, the naval fleet no longer receives special treatment. On the contrary, the naval fleet is the real loser of the new armaments budget. The reason lies in the limited capabilities of the Russian shipbuilding and in the Kalibr cruise missiles, which allow smaller and older ships to operate from a distance of up to 2,500 km. Therefore, destroyers, cruisers, corvettes, frigates, and tactical submarines from the Soviet era are to be further modernized, but new large warships are not provided until well after 2030. If it does not sink before then, Russia will only have one obsolete aircraft carrier for the next 10-15 years, Admiral Kuznetsov, which is to be modernized by 2021. In the best-case scenario, eight new Gremyashchiy-class corvettes, three Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates, five Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates, two Lada-class submarines, six Varshavyankas-class submarines, and six Yasen-class nuclear attack submarines will be launched. Fifth-generation submarines will probably be barely produced before 2030. These include the diesel-electric Kalina-class and the nuclear-powered Husky-class. Also, amphibious capabilities will remain at a relatively low level. Currently, there are 4 Alligator-class 50+ year old ships, 15 Ropucha-class 40+ year old ships, and one new Ivan Gren-class ship. Initially, eight Ivan Gren-class ships were planned; six were canceled because of persistent technical problems (Connolly and Boulègue, p. 21; Dmitry Gorenburg, “Russia’s Military Modernization Plans: 2018-2027“, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memos, no. 495, 22.11.2017). Together with Great Britain and France, Russia will remain a medium-sized naval power in 2030, which can concurrently carry out only one major operation over a longer period.

Sukhoi Su-57 with the image of the Sukhoi Okhotnik UCAV on the fuselage.

Sukhoi Su-57 with the image of the Sukhoi Okhotnik UCAV on the fuselage.

The air and land forces are better off. The arsenal of combat aircraft is to be further modernized. By the end of 2017, this should include at least 186 Sukhoi Su-30MKI Flanker-H, 200 Sukhoi Su-35S Flanker-E, 200 Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback, 24 Mikoyan MiG-35 Fulcrum-F as well as some Mikoyan MiG-29SMT Fulcrum-E and MiG-31 Foxhound. Even though two prototypes have been tested in Syria, and 12-13 Sukhoi Su-57s are expected to be delivered between 2020 and 2025 (but still with an old engine because the development of the new high-performance engine is causing difficulties), it is unlikely that by the end of 2027 a larger number of Fifth-generation combat aircraft will be fully operational (Vladimir Karnozov, “Russia places initial Production Order for Stealth Fighter“, Aviation International News, 03.07.2018; Connolly and Boulègue, p. 18ff).

For ground troops, a total of about 2,700 T-72, T-80 and T-90 main battle tanks are to be further modernized. They are expected to represent the backbone of the ground forces by 2030. Mass production of the T-14 Armata is to begin by the end of next year, but because the main battle tank is relatively expensive in contrast to the modernized T-90M, and apparently being shunned by the armored forces, only one brigade is to be equipped with around 100 units of the new main battle tank by the end of 2027 (“Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia“, The Military Balance, vol. 118, 2018, p. 177; Connolly and Boulègue, p. 24). Also starting in 2021 a few Kurganets-25 infantry fighting vehicles are expected. For this purpose, 540 BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle and BMD-2 airborne tanks are to be modernized. Additionally the BMP-3 Dragoon will be produced from this year, which should have similar capabilities as the Kurganets-25, but is much cheaper to produce. The Bumerang infantry fighting vehicle and the T-15 Armata infantry fighting vehicle are currently unavailable – mass production by the end of 2027 is unlikely (Cooper, p. 11). Artillery will be modernized in a first phase with the 15.2 cm 2S19 Msta-S armored howitzer which will be gradually replaced in a second phase from 2020 by the new 15.2 cm 2S35 Koalitsiya-SV, which should be able to shoot precision ammunition up to 70 km (Nicholas de Larrinaga and Nikolai Novichkov, “Russia’s Armour Revolution“, IHS Jane’s 360, 25.04.2016). In addition, Uragan-1M and 9A52-4 Tornado multiple rocket launchers will be procured. In addition to the introduction of a modern fire control system, artillery brigades and regiments will, in the future, be equipped with drones for reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, and target evaluation. The armed forces currently have more than 1,000 unarmed Orlan-10 drones that can remain airborn for around 16 hours and are controlled by a ground station with a deployment radius of around 120-140 km. They will be used for reconnaissance and surveillance and will probably be capable of targeting and evaluating in the medium term. Russia still does not have armed drones (Connolly and Boulègue, S. 18ff).

Conclusion

Two factors are significantly responsible for the reform of the Russian armed forces. First, US and NATO behavior and several international events in 1999 seemed to point to a shift in the balance of power. Russia was powerless against NATO’s eastward enlargement, NATO’s Operation Allied Force, and NATO’s new expansive strategic concept. Despite nuclear armament, the effectiveness of the US precision weapons and the apparent capability gap of the Russian armed forces shook Russia’s status as a major power. This led to a new perception of threat from the US and NATO, a significant change in Russian domestic policy, and a long-term reversal of integration efforts in the Western world order. Together with the increase in government revenues since 2000 due to rising raw material prices, and with a new, self-confident Russian president, the conditions were ripe for a reform of the Russian armed forces. As a result, there was quantitative consolidation and investment in the preservation and modernization of the strategic nuclear arsenal, but there was still little pressure for comprehensive reform. Institutional sluggishness and resistance by the generals stood in the way. Only the second factor, the embarrassing performance for a great power in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, led both the political and military leaders to a willingness for an uncompromising enforcement of military reform. The necessary restructuring was implemented relatively quickly. Although there were still generals who were against a comprehensive reform, these were moved to retirement by the Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov with the backing of Putin. Influential posts were in turn filled by younger, progressive officers. However, the modernization of the Russian armed forces proved to be a much greater challenge due to the neglected arms industry after the Cold War.

Therefore, the newer weapon systems delivered to the military in large numbers from 2011 are still based on Soviet technology. Nevertheless, in more than ten years since the Russo-Georgian War, Russian forces have been modernized in many ways. An important step was, for example, the introduction of the Ratnik infantry fighting system, which brings the soldiers’ personal equipment up to date. Only with modern equipment and adequate protection can the right soldiers who are disciplined and ready to fight under challenging conditions be found in the long-term. This change could be observed from 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, the War in Donbass, and the military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. The troop commanders are better trained, the troops behave disciplined and are ready for action. Significant improvements in operations management, mobility, logistics, and conventional weapon systems have also been achieved over the last ten years. For example, Russia has limited quantities of precision weapons that can be deployed over long distances from a variety of carrier platforms (Eric Schmitt, “Vast Exercise Demonstrated Russia’s Growing Military Prowess“, The New York Times, 22.12.2017; Lamont Colucci, “The Coming Russian Aggression“, US News & World Report, 10.10.2017). Zapad 2017 and Vostok 2018 point out that the Russian armed forces can defend their territory and that of their allies effectively and sustainably, with the emphasis on the western and southern military districts. Offensive capabilities, however, remain rather conservative if a regional nuclear strike is excluded.

RS-28 Sarmat RS-28 Sarmat[/cap

In addition to the sanctions by Western countries and economic problems, the operation in Syria, in particular, has led to an early replacement of the 2011-2020 state armaments program and had a lasting effect on the follow-up program for the period 2018-2027. In the next ten years, a qualitative upgrading of the nuclear triad is to be expected. Russia wants to ensure a reliable second-strike capability in connection with last year’s US Nuclear Posture Review and the planned US missile shield. Combined with the degradation of international arms control treaties, there is a high risk of a renewed arms race.

The conventional weapon systems will also be further modernized in the next ten years. Paradoxically, this is in the interest of the Western world. If the “escalation to de-escalation” doctrine is taken into account, a more conventionally equipped Russia means a lower chance of using nuclear weapons. However, despite full-bodied announcements, the state armaments program for the next ten years is more of an evolution than a revolution. The Russian defense industry has much to catch up to in terms of quantity and quality. With Western sanctions, this is particularly difficult when it comes to electronic systems for the construction of navigation satellites and combat drones and in shipbuilding. Despite visible progress since the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the Russian armed forces still have a long way to go in terms of modernization.

Footnotes
[1] There are different opinions on how many Avangard hypersonic gliders the RS-28 Sarmat can deploy. According to Deagel: “the MIRVed Sarmat will carry 10-15 or up 24 Yu-74 nuclear warheads [(Projektname des Avangard Überschallgleiters)] delivering them to suborbital trajectories which will allow them to reach any target on Earth following any trajectory. […] As ICBM the missile is armed with ten 750-kiloton warheads (7.5 megatons) which are at the same time independently targetable (MIRV) and maneuverable (MARV). As carrier, the missile is armed with 16 hypersonic glide vehicles yielding 500 kilotons each (8 megatons) or 24 hypersonic glide vehicles each yielding 150 kilotons (3.6 megatons).”

Clarifications by Bernhard Schulyok, Specialist Officer of the Department of Military Strategy of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Defense, in the context of the 2019 Interdisciplinary Technology Talks (an event in cooperation with the Austrian Armed Forces, the Office for Armaments and Defense Technology, the Austria Institute for European and Security Policy and the Center for Security Studies of the ETH Zurich) showed that the RS-28 Sarmat probably could carry up to 24 MIRV (for example warheads) depending on size and mass, but that only up to 3 Avangard hypersonic gliders were probable. I thank Bernhard Schulyok for the clarifications and the corresponding feedback.

Posted in Armed Forces, English, International, Patrick Truffer, Russia, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Current generation of US spy satellite has a resolution of 10 cm per pixel

At the end of August, US President Donald Trump released a photo from satellite imagery showing the launch pad of the Imam Khomeini Spaceport at the Semnan Space Center in northern Iran, where a launch of an Iranian Safir space rocket failed. It was Iranian’s third attempt to loft a satellite into space, after two launches in January (Simorgh) and February (Safir) were unsuccessful in placing satellites in orbit. More than two-thirds of Iran’s satellite launches have failed over the past 11 years, a remarkably high number compared with the 5 percent failure rate worldwide.

In contrast to publicly available satellite imagery from Planet Labs and Maxar Technologies, the resolution of the tweeted imagery was with approximately 10 cm per pixel stunningly good. The imagery was probably shot by the USA-224 aka NROL-49 spy satellite, which is based on a KH-11 KENNEN (Block V) design. It shows the capabilities of the current generation of US spy satellites.

The photo used in Trump’s tweet probably was made by a cellphone. However, it seems that Trump did not tweet the satellite image immediately, because the black box at the top left corner was added after the shot and probably hides the level of classification on the original image.

David Schmerler, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, who closely examined the satellite imagery said that the image in Trump’s tweet revealed many details that reinforced the idea of a fueling or final-preparations disaster. For instance, the launching tower was still in the middle of the launching pad rather than having been pulled back — the standard Iranian practice.

For more details, the excellent and informative video produced by Scott Manley about the satellite imagery and the US spy satellite behind it, is highly recommended:

 
Sources

Posted in English, Intelligence, Iran, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Russia’s anti-air & air defense systems in Syria: more for show than substance?

by Roger Näbig (Twitter). He works as a lawyer and freelance journalist in Berlin with a focus on global conflicts, defense, security, military policy, armaments technology, and international law. He also gives lectures on defense policy issues. For a German version of the article see here.

Russia has neither the military means nor the political intention to establish an impregnable no-fly zone for Israel, the US and its allies in Syria. However, the findings on Russian anti-air and air defense systems gained in the Syrian conflict are not directly transferable to Russia’s “A2AD” zones in Europe.

Panzir-S1 at the Hmeimim military airfield (Syria).

Panzir-S1 at the Hmeimim military airfield (Syria)..

Russia has been exclusively equipping Syria with its anti-aircraft systems since the Soviet era and trains the Syrian soldiers in their use under Russian doctrine. Syria’s air defense consists mainly of modernized but outdated S-200VE (NATO code: SA-5 Gammon – long-range) and more modern 9K40 Buk-M2 (SA-17 Grizzly – mid-range) which are supplemented by Panzir-S1 (SA-22 Greyhound – close-range). Russia is also said to have rebuilt entirely Syrian air defenses and linked them with Russia’s air defense and radar systems at the military bases in Hmeimim (Air Force) and in Tartus (Navy). According to official statements, the two Russian bases on the Syrian Mediterranean coast are protected by three air defense layers, some of which also include Syrian systems. The outer ring is formed by S-400 Triumf (SA-21 Growler), S-300V4 (SA-23 Gladiator) and presumably Syrian S-200VE, the middle sea-based S-300FM (SA-N-20) and Buk-M2E, the inner Osa-AKM (SA-8 Gecko), S-125 Pechora-2M (SA-3 Goa) along with Tor-M1 (SA-15 Gauntlet) and Panzir-S2 for immediate close-range defense (Mikhail Khodaryonok, “Three Layers of Russian Air Defense at Hmeymim Air Base in Syria“, TASS, 12.02.2016).

Despite the combination of both air defense systems and intensive training of Syrian soldiers, Syrian air defense has suffered some defeats with its Russian systems since 2014. In recent years, using mainly fourth-generation fighters (F-15, F-16), Israel has flown more than 250 airstrikes on targets in Syria where only one of its aircraft was lost.

The United States launched airstrikes against a Syrian military airbase in 2017 and a year later, with Britain and France, against three alleged chemical weapons manufacturing plants (see also “Chemical Weapons in Syria: Red Lines or Proving Grounds“, offiziere.ch, 04.08.2018). In the first attack on April 2017, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at the Shayrat Airbase (south-east of Homs) in western Syria, of those, 58 hit their target. They were all launched from the two US destroyers, the USS Porter and USS Ross (“ISI First to Analyze Shayrat Airfield Missile Attack“, ImageSat International, 05.11.2017). After Russia had repeatedly pointed to its superior air defense in Syria and because the US had warned Russia just before the attack, this was an embarrassing performance. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that only 23 of the cruise missiles had reached their target, an assertion that can be refuted by analyzing satellite imagery (see below). Instead, it seems that Russia had not activated its air defense systems, and only the older Syrian systems were used. So why did Russia remain inactive, even though it had the means and had advance notice of the attack?

Trump’s bombardment of Syria’s Shayarat with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles -- click on the image to enlarge (compiled by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography).

Trump’s bombardment of Syria’s Shayarat with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles — click on the image to enlarge (compiled by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography (Facebook / Twitter).

Before this question can be answered, one must first address the common misconception about the alleged ability of Russian S-400 and S-300V4 anti-aircraft systems to create an impenetrable no-fly zone within a radius of up to 400 km. Although on paper, the technical data for both systems is impressive, many factors influence their actual range and efficiency in actual use against enemy fighter aircraft. For example, the 40N6 rocket with a range of 380 km on the S-400 was just approved for serial production at the end of October 2018 (Franz-Stefan Gady, “New Long-Range Missile for Russia’s S-400 Air Defense System Accepted Into Service“, The Diplomat, 23.10.2018). Even if it were to be available in larger quantities, only large targets, such as tanker, cargo and early warning aircraft flying at an altitude of more than 10 km could be detected and engaged at this range (Robert Dalsjö, Christofer Berglund und Michael Jonsson, “Bursting the Bubble – Russian A2/AD in the Baltic Sea Region: Capabilities, Countermeasures, and Implications“, Swedish Defence Research Agency Report, 04.03.2019). The accurate targeting of stealth-capable 5th generation aircraft (F-35, F-22) and needed low-flying cruise missiles remains an insurmountable technical problem for Russian air defense systems (Guy Plopsky, “Russia‘s Air Defenses in Syria: More Politics than Punch“, BESA Center Perspectives Paper, No. 618, 18.10.2017). Due to the radar horizon, even older 4th generation fighters can only be detected and identified at a distance of approx. 30-40 km and cruise missiles at an altitude of approx. 50 m at approx. 25 km which can only be partially improved by A-50 AWACS aircraft (Roger McDermott, “Russian Air Defenses and the US Strike on Al-Shayrat“, Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 14, Issue 50, 11.04.2017). Finally, radar detection can be severely hampered by airborne electronic warfare, such as the use of specialized combat aircraft such as the EA-18G Growler used in the attack on the Syrian military airfield.

The airstrike on Damascus and Homs in April 2018 on three alleged Syrian chemical weapon research and production sites involved 105 US, British and French (stealth) cruise missiles approaching from different directions. According to the Pentagon, all missiles fired reached their intended targets. Russia was also warned of this attack. Even in this attack on its closest ally in the Middle East, the Russian air defense systems remained inactive. Instead, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that Syria’s air defense alone had shot down 71 cruise missiles with its S-200, S-125, Osa, Buk, and Strela anti-aircraft systems (at Damascus International Airport, the Shayrat Airbase and other military airfields; a claim refuted by the coalition). This statement reflects Russia’s ambivalent attitude, because at no time did Russia deploy its anti-aircraft systems for the Syrian army during airstrikes on Syrian territory. There are two explanations for this. Firstly, Russia does not want to be drawn into an escalating conflict with the US or Israel, which could result from the active use of its air defense systems. Secondly, Russia’s political-military interests are solely for the protection of its two military bases in Syria (see also Damien Sharkov, “Criticisms aside, was Russia Capable of Halting the U.S. Strike?“, Newsweek, 08.04.2017).

• • •



Graphic compiled by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography (Facebook / Twitter).

• • •

Other indications point to this explanatory approach. In June 2017, a report by Russian television stated that Russia would not attack coalition aircraft in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), as long as they are more than 60 km away from the Hmeimim military airbase. While Syrian fighters flew escort for Russian fighter-bombers, the Russian side did not return the favor. In June 2017, when a US F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22, Russia also decided for political reasons to issue a clear warning. In those Syrian areas west of the Euphrates where the Russian Air Force is engaged in combat operations in Syrian airspace, all manned or unmanned aerial vehicles, including those belonging to the international coalition against IS, would pursued as air targets by the Russian air defense (“Russian Missile Defense to Track US-Led Coalition Aircraft in Syria – MoD“, Sputnik, 19.06.2017). It remained with the warning. When in February 2018, at Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, US fighters flew over the Euphrates to the western bank to repulse an attack by Syrian units supported by the private Russian paramilitary “Wagner Group“, neither the Russian air defense nor the Russian Air Force budged, even though here the lives of their citizens were at stake.

Sometimes conflicts do arise, and we are naturally concerned about the possibility of military confrontation between the Iranian and Israeli forces in Syria. We do everything possible to prevent it. To prevent the escalation of the conflict. — Levan Dzhagaryan, Russian Ambassador in Teheran, cited in Anna Ahronheim, “Russia Concerned about Military Confrontation between Israel and Iran“, The Jerusalem Post, 19.07.2018.

Russia also does not militarily intervene in Israeli airstrikes, including those on Iranian military installations in Syria. It is an open secret that Moscow is watching the growing influence of Tehran and the Shiite militias in Syria with increasing discomfort and distrust. More and more, Russia sees Iran as an annoying competitor, vying for supremacy in Syria, rather than a willing “brother-in-arms” in the bloody civil war. Syria, on the other hand, needs Iran as an ally to make up for its lack of battle-hardened ground forces. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Russia looks on passively when Israel bombs Iranian positions in Syria, as long as no Russian soldiers or institutions are harmed (Amir Tibon, “Everyone Wants to Get Iran Out of Syria. But No One Knows How to Do It“, Haaretz, 26.08.2018). Russia also worries that the perpetual Israeli-Iranian feud could drag its Syrian allies into a war with Israel in the medium term, which would do more harm than good to Russia itself. At the same time, Moscow does not want to dupe Damascus nor anger Teheran too much, which is why the Syrian air defense is allowed to engage with the Israeli Air Force in attacks on Iranian weapons depots and rocket factories (Lidia Averbukh und Margarete Klein, “Russlands Annäherung an Israel im Zeichen des Syrien-Konflikts“, SWP-Aktuell 2018/A 45, August 2018). It was foreseeable that this political balancing act would lead to long-term problems.

What followed then in September 2018 was so far the most significant political failure in the Syrian air war for Russia: the accidental shooting down of its Il-20 Maritime reconnaissance aircraft with a fifteen-man crew over the Mediterranean by a Russian designed Syrian air defense unit (presumably an S-200VE), which had previously tried in vain to fight four Israeli F-16Is in Syrian airspace. After this debacle, Russia decided in October 2018 to deliver the long-promised three S-300 batteries to Syria, each with eight launchers. One reason for this may well have been that the incident revealed the Syrian S-200 identification and compatibility problems with the more modern Russian systems, in addition to general shortcomings in air defense coordination between the two countries. Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu justified the deliveries, fiercely criticized by Israel, as aimed with guaranteeing a clear identification of Russian aircraft by the Syrian air defense in the future as well as avoiding further losses due to friendly fire. For Syria, this decision represents a significant increase and improvement in its air defense capabilities, even though the S-300’s maximum combat range is lower, the missiles used are much more effective.

Soviet S-200 ground-to-air missile (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin).

Soviet S-200 ground-to-air missile (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin).

Israel’s airstrikes on Damascus International Airport and nearby weapons depots in January 2019 are indicative of Syria’s progress in expanding its air defense capabilities. After all, Syrian Buk-M2 and Panzir-S2 anti-aircraft batteries could intercept some Israeli missiles of the first wave of attack, but this did not prevent Israel from eventually gaining the upper hand in military terms. The Syrian systems were no match for the Israeli “saturation attack” with several more waves of rockets, guided bombs, cruise missiles, and so-called suicide drones “Harop” against the original targets and additionally against the Syrian air defense units. In addition to the Iranian weapons camps, two Syrian Panzir-S2s were hit and destroyed. A video (below) showing the final approach of an Israeli guided missile to the modern Russian SHORAD system spread like wildfire on the Internet.

The recent strike shows clearly that, for political reasons, Russia still does not want to intervene in the conflict itself with its own, more modern anti-aircraft systems, and that therefore Israel will probably be able to overcome the Syrian air defense in the future, albeit with different methods of deployment and use more and better weapons systems. While Syria’s S-300 anti-aircraft batteries were unlikely to be fully operational in January 2019 and Syrian soldiers probably lacked adequate training, morale and operational readiness, Russia has probably also delivered older, less powerful export versions of its anti-aircraft systems. In addition, the Syrian S-300 anti-aircraft batteries were also not used in later Israeli airstrikes, for example in mid-April 2019, suggesting that Russia has a decisive voice in when they’re used (Sebastien Roblin, “Israeli F-16s Smashed a Syrian Missile Complex (And Russia Held Its Fire)“, The National Interest, 24.06.2019). Whether this will continue in the future will crucially depend on how the Middle East conflict develops. Therefore, one should be careful with inferences for comparable “A2AD” zones in Europe, e.g., in Kaliningrad or on the Crimean peninsula. In any case with its sometimes older anti-aircraft systems in service in Syria, Russia can gain valuable operational experience, which it will use to modernize its systems continuously.

Nonetheless, Israel’s and the United States’ many years of experience in the air war over Syria prove that Russia can not set up insurmountable “A2AD” zones in Eastern Europe either. The laws of physics (radar horizon), electronic warfare, and stealth capabilities in 5th/6th generation fighters (F-35, FCAS) continue to demonstrate the limits of Russian air defense. Worth mentioning is also the Israeli successes in the fight against Russian air defense systems by drones and the application of the former Soviet tactic of the “saturation attack” from the Cold War. Only if the European states are prepared and willing to spend more money on the purchase of modern combat aircraft, missiles, cruise missiles and drones in the future will they be able to disrupt or combat Russian air defense systems effectively in the event of a conflict. For Germany, this should be a wake-up call, not only to rely on NATO partners, but finally to clarify the succession of the almost 40-year-old Tornado fighter bomber, which, among other things, flies Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (“SEAD”) missions in the ECR version, and, above all, speeding up the development of the Future Combat Air System with France.

Posted in Armed Forces, English, International, Roger Näbig, Russia, Syria, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Proteste als Antwort auf die erodierenden Freiheitsrechte in Hongkong (Updated)

Go to the English version…

Als ehemalige, am 1. Juli 1997 an die Volksrepublik China zurückgegebene, britische Kolonie unterscheidet sich Hongkong in vielfacher Weise von China. Im Rahmen des vom chinesischen Führers Deng Xiaoping formulierten verfassungsmässigen Prinzips “Ein Land, zwei Systeme” und basierend auf Artikel 5 des Hongkonger Grundgesetzes ist die chinesische Sonderverwaltungszone bezüglich seiner internen Angelegenheiten für die 50 Jahre nach seiner Rückgabe an China, also bis 2047, weitgehend autonom. Dieses Selbstbestimmungsrecht umfasst nicht nur die Gesetzgebung, welche auf demokratisch-marktwirtschaftlichen Grundlagen beruhen kann, sondern auch das Erheben von Zöllen und die Ausgabe einer eigenen Währung. Auch der Personenverkehr zwischen Hongkong und China ist nicht frei. Festland-Chinesen, welche nach Hongkong ziehen, gelten als Migranten. Sie benötigen ein Visum oder eine Genehmigung um in der Sonderverwaltungszone zu arbeiten, zu studieren, ein Unternehmen zu gründen oder sich niederzulassen. Aussenpolitisch vertritt sich Hongkong in den Bereichen Wirtschaft, Finanzen, Aussenhandel und Kultur selber und ist damit weiterhin ein eigenständiges Mitglied bei der Welthandelsorganisation, der Asiatisch-Pazifischen Wirtschaftsgemeinschaft, der Asiatischen Entwicklungsbank und dem Financial Stability Board. Für die restliche Aussen- und für die Verteidigungspolitik ist jedoch die chinesische Zentralregierung zuständig.

Hongkongs Regierungschefin Carrie Lam mit Chinas Präsident Xi Jinping.

Hongkongs Regierungschefin Carrie Lam mit Chinas Präsident Xi Jinping.

Die wichtigste politische Funktion in Hongkong hat der/die Regierungschef/in inne. Dieses Amt wird seit dem 1. Juli 2017 durch Carrie Lam ausgeübt, welche der chinesischen Zentralregierung in Peking nahesteht. Sie wurde von einem 1’200 Mitglieder umfassenden Election Committee gewählt, welches verschiedene Berufsgruppen und Stadtteile repräsentieren soll, jedoch mehrheitlich durch pekingnahen Wirtschaftsleuten besetzt ist. Die von Lam angeführte Wahlreform 2014/15 hätte vorgesehen, dass die Bevölkerung aus 2-3 vom Election Committee nominierten Kandidaten hätte wählen können. Es handelte sich dabei jedoch um eine politische Mogelpackung, denn bei einer solchen Vorselektion hätten progressive Demokraten schon von vornherein keine Chance auf eine Wahl gehabt. Nach wie vor hätten pekingnahe Politiker im Vorteil gestanden, jedoch mit dem Unterschied, dass sie nun “pseudodemokratisch” durch die Bevölkerung gewählt worden wären. Deshalb lehnten pro-demokratische Kreise die Wahlreform ab, und es kam 2014 zu Protesten (Umbrella Movement). Schliesslich scheiterte die Wahlreform im Hongkonger Legislativrat, so dass immer noch das Election Committee alleine, ohne nachfolgende Wahl den/die Regierungschef/in festlegt. Das war natürlich nicht, was die pro-demokratischen Kreise mit ihren Protesten erreichen wollten; viel mehr wollten sie ein allgemeines Wahlrecht bei den Wahlen des Regierungschefs. Doch mit dem Scheitern der Wahlreform fehlte den meist jungen Demonstranten der breite Rückhalt in der Bevölkerung und die Proteste flauten ohne grosse politische Auswirkungen gegen Ende 2014 wieder ab.

Die seit März 2019 anhaltenden Proteste haben zwar einen anderen politischen Auslöser, knüpfen ideologisch jedoch an den Protesten von 2014 an. Am Anfang der erneuten Proteste steht ein von Lam eingebrachtes Auslieferungsgesetz über flüchtige Straftäter und Rechtshilfe in Strafsachen. Nicht nur unterscheiden sich die Strafverfolgung und das juristische System Hongkongs von demjenigen Chinas massgeblich, es ist auch eine der Bereiche in denen Hongkong autonom ist. Wegen den offensichtlichen Unterschieden schlug bereits im Juni 1987 die Special Group on Law of the Hongkong Basic Law Consultative Committee das Territorialprinzip vor. Das angewendete Strafverfolgungs- bzw. Justizsystem ist damit vom Ort der Tat abhängig, und nicht ob es sich beim Täter um einen Chinesen vom Festland oder aus Hongkong handelt. Eine dementsprechende gesetzliche Regelung fehlt jedoch bis dato. Dies führte 2018 zu einer Kontroverse, als ein Bürger aus Hongkong am Mord seiner Freundin in Taiwan bezichtigt wurde. Da es keine Auslieferungsmechanismen zwischen Hongkong und dem chinesischen Festland, Macau oder Taiwan gibt, kann der Verdächtige nicht nach Taiwan ausgeliefert werden (Daniel Victor and Tiffany May, “The Murder Case That Lit the Fuse in Hong Kong“, The New York Times, 15.06.2019). Das im Februar 2019 von Lam eingebrachte Auslieferungsgesetz soll diese gesetzliche Lücke hinsichtlich Festlandchina, Macau und Taiwan schliessen. Die Gegner dieses Gesetzes argumentieren, dass es langfristig die Möglichkeit schaffe nicht nur Straftäter, sondern auch andere der chinesischen Zentralregierung unangenehme Hongkonger Bürger und Ausländer zum Prozess nach Festlandchina auszuliefern.

Das chinesische Staatswappen in der Ständigen Vertretung Pekings in Hongkong wurde nach einem weitgehend friedlichen Marsch am 21. Juli 2019 mit schwarzer Farbe beschmiert.

Das chinesische Staatswappen in der Ständigen Vertretung Pekings in Hongkong wurde nach einem weitgehend friedlichen Marsch am 21. Juli 2019 mit schwarzer Farbe beschmiert.

Die tieferliegenden Gründe für den in der Hongkonger Bevölkerung breit unterstützten Protest haben auch mit dem Scheitern der pro-demokratischen Proteste von 2014 zu tun und sind ein Zeichen für das schwindende Vertrauen der Hongkonger in Politik und auf das zunehmende Aushöhlen des autonomen Rechtssystems. Die politische Vertretung ist wegen dem fehlenden allgemeinen Wahlrecht nicht durch die Bevölkerung legitimiert und seit der Rückgabe Hongkongs pro-chinesisch geprägt. Dass es den Demonstranten um mehr als nur den Rückzug des Auslieferungsgesetzes geht, zeigen auch die Attacken gegen das Gebäude der Ständigen Vertretung Pekings in Hongkong beispielhaft auf, welches vor etwas mehr als zwei Woche mit Eiern beworfen und dessen Staatswappen über dem Eingang mit schwarzer Farbe beschmiert wurde.

Zusätzlich sind die Freiheitsrechte in Hongkong seit den Unruhen von 2014 zunehmend am Erodieren. Ende 2015 sind beispielsweise fünf Buchhändler spurlos verschwunden, weil sie Bücher verkauft hatten, welche in Festland-China verboten sind (Ben Bland, “Hongkong: Beijing Opens a New Chapter“, Financial Times, 27.01.2016). Im Juli 2017 wurden vier pro-demokratische Politiker aus dem Legislativrat gedrängt, weil sie ihren Eid nicht richtig abgelegt hätten und zwei weitere, weil sie ein von China unabhängiges Hongkong befürworten würden. Der Entscheid des höchsten Hongkonger Gerichtes wurde von Lam ausdrücklich begrüsst (Ben Bland, “Hongkong Shaken by Removal of Pro-Democracy Lawmakers“, Financial Times, 14.07.2017). Im September 2018 wurde die Hongkong National Party wegen ihrer Forderung der Unabhängigkeit Hongkongs verboten. Zunehmend werden auch Kritiker ins Fadenkreuz genommen, so beispielsweise Victor Mallet, Asien-Redakteur der Financial Times mit Sitz in Hongkong, wo er mit seiner Familie lebte, bis ihm im Oktober 2018 eine Erneuerung seines Visums abgelehnt wurde. Dies erklärt, weshalb im Vergleich zu 2014 nicht nur mehr Menschen sich den Demonstrationen anschliessen, sondern dass sie auch aus verschiedensten Bevölkerungsschichten stammen.

Hongkongers opinion

Source: Nectar Gan and Kristin Huang, “Will China Send in the Troops to Stamp out Protests in Hong Kong?“, South China Morning Post, 24.07.2019.

Zwar hat die chinesische Zentralregierung kein Interesse an einer weiteren Eskalation, doch je länger desto mehr fühlt sich Peking von den Demonstranten herausgefordert. So wurde bereits über verschiedenste Kanäle den Demonstranten gedroht, sollten sie die soziale Ordnung gefährden. Beispielsweise hatte der Sprecher des chinesischen Verteidigungsministeriums, Wu Qian, Ende Juli erklärt, dass die People’s Liberation Army (PLA) auf Ersuchen der Stadtregierung nach Hongkong entsandt werden könnte, um die soziale Ordnung aufrechtzuerhalten. Würde ein solcher Schritt aus Sicht Pekings notwendig werden, könnte dies unverzüglich umgesetzt werden, denn mit der in Hongkong stationierten Garnison befinden sich bereits rund 6’000 -10’000 Soldaten in der Sonderverwaltungszone. Eigentlich wurde die Garnison bei der Übergabe Hongkongs aus symbolischen Gründen sowie zur Katastrophenhilfe und zur Verteidigung in die Sonderverwaltungszone geschaffen. Bisher kamen die Soldaten der Garnison erst einmal zum Einsatz, anscheinend jedoch ohne Ersuchen der Hongkonger Regierung: bei den Aufräumarbeiten nach dem schweren Taifun im Oktober 2018 (Alice Wu, “Hong Kong’s Continued Turmoil Paves Way for PLA to Step in“, South China Morning Post, 29.07.2019). Doch die Soldaten sind durchaus bereit zum Ordnungsdienst. Rund eine Woche nach Qian’s Aussagen wurde ein martiales Video der PLA Hongkong Garnison veröffentlicht, welches als Drohung gegenüber den Demonstranten in Hongkong verstanden werden kann (sie Video unten). Die “Global Times” — ein Propagandainstrument der Kommunistische Partei Chinasteilte den Clip auf Twitter, inklusive der Überschrift: “Eine offene Warnung an abtrünnige Hongkonger und ihre ausländischen Unterstützer?” Ausserdem ruft ein Soldat auf Kantonesisch – dem in Hongkong üblichen Dialekt – zu Beginn des Videos in ein Megafon, dass die Demonstranten für alle Konsequenzen selbst verantwortlich seien. Am Schluss dieser Sequenz führen bewaffnete Soldaten Demonstranten mit hinter dem Rücken gebundenen Händen in Bereiche ab, die als “Arrestzonen” markiert sind (Laurel Chor, “Hongkong Protests: China Releases Dramatic Army Propaganda Video“, The Guardian, 01.08.2019).

Gesetzlich ist eine Einmischung der PLA in die lokalen Angelegenheiten gemäss Artikel 14 des Hongkonger Grundgesetzes nur auf Ersuchen der Hongkonger Regierung vorgesehen, oder wenn sie gemäss Artikel 18 die Kontrolle über die innere Sicherheit verliert. Mit den mehr als 1’300 internationalen Unternehmen, welche ihren regionalen Sitz in Hongkong haben, sowie der Tatsache, dass Hongkong der viertgrösste Aktienhandelsplatz und der achtgrösste Exporteur der Welt ist, wird eine militärische Intervention Pekings eher unwahrscheinlich (Matthias Kamp und Michael Settelen, “Hongkongs Wirtschaft vor unsicheren Zeiten“, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 30.07.3019, S. 19). Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies am Center for Strategic and International Studies, ist jedoch der Meinung, dass solche Annahmen falsch seien. Sie würden die Art und Weise ignorieren, wie die Kommunistische Partei Chinas historische Ereignisse sieht und wie sie Entscheidungen treffe:

Looking at China’s own recent history, from the CCP’s perspective the lesson of Tiananmen Square was not that the use of tanks and PLA troops to subdue the Chinese people was a mistake. Rather, Deng Xiaoping and the party elders believed that the price was justified in order to stave off an even greater catastrophe. As Deng said in his first speech after the June 4 crackdown, “The nature of the incident should have been obvious from the very beginning. The handful of bad people had two basic slogans: overthrow the Communist Party and demolish the socialist system.” — Jude Blanchette, “How Close Is Hong Kong to a Second Tiananmen?“, Foreign Policy, 14.08.2019.

Die Frage bleibt, wie weit die Demonstranten gehen können, um dieses Mal wenigsten einen Teil ihrer Forderungen — (1) die vollständige Rücknahme des Auslieferungsgesetzes, (2) die negative Charakterisierung der Proteste, (4) die Freilassung und Entlastung verhafteter Demonstranten, (3) die Einsetzung einer unabhängigen Untersuchungskommission für polizeiliches Verhalten und Gewaltanwendung während der Proteste, (5) der Rücktritt von Lam und die Durchführung des allgemeinen Wahlrechts für die Wahlen zum Legislativrat und zum Regierungschef — durchsetzen zu können, jedoch gleichzeitig keine rote Linien zu überschreiten. Laut einem Bericht von Reuters scheint es, dass die Regierung von Hongkong kompromissbereit wäre, jedoch Peking einen solchen Kompromiss unterbindet. Gleichzeitig sind die roten Linien Pekings nicht klar definiert. Gemäss dem Sprecher für das Büro für die Angelegenheiten Hongkongs und Macaus in Peking, Yang Guang, dürfe erstens die nationale Sicherheit nicht gefährdet werden, zweitens die Demonstranten weder die Autorität der Zentralregierung noch jene des Grundgesetzes herausfordern und drittens dürfe Hongkong nicht als Basis missbraucht werden, China zu unterwandern (Patrick Zoll, “Drei Fragen und Antworten zu der Situation in Hongkong“, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 01.08.2019).

Demokratie-Aktivist Joshua Wong spricht im Juni 2017 während einer Demonstration mit der Presse. (Foto: Thomas Peter).

Demokratie-Aktivist Joshua Wong spricht im Juni 2017 während einer Demonstration mit der Presse. (Foto: Thomas Peter).

Die Verhaftungen von Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, Andy Chan und anderen regierungsfeindlichen oder prodemokratischen Führern sind ein Zeichen dafür, dass die Regierung Hongkongs unter dem Druck Pekings nun eine härtere Linie verfolgen könnte. Es zeigt aber auch, dass die chinesische Zentralregierung noch keine direkte Intervention in Betracht zieht. Es ist unwahrscheinlich, dass die Verhaftungen die Demonstrationsbewegung langfristig schwächen werden, denn im Gegensatz zu 2014 haben die aktuellen Proteste keine klaren Führungsstrukturen. (Patrick Zoll, “Die Verhaftungen in Hongkong sind symbolisch – und ihre harte Linie fährt die Regierung offenbar auf Wunsch Pekings“, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 31.08.2019).

Werden die Demonstranten dieses Mal mehr erreichen als in 2014? Kaum! Im besten Fall wird das Auslieferungsgesetz komplett zurückgezogen und eine unabhängigen Kommission zur Untersuchung des Polizeieinsatzes während den Demonstrationen eingesetzt, welche kaum irgendwelche Unregelmässigkeiten feststellen wird. Die Demonstranten würden damit zwar mehr als in 2014 erreichen, die weitere Erosion der Freiheitsrechte jedoch kaum aufhalten, geschweige denn ein Ausbau der demokratischen Prinzipien erzielen. Die chinesische Integration Hongkongs wird ungehindert fortschreiten, jedenfalls solange, wie es keine erheblichen negativen Auswirkungen auf den Wirtschaftsstandort haben wird. Zwar ist eine militärische Intervention eher unwahrscheinlich, jedoch bei einer weiteren Eskalation auch nicht vollkommen auszuschliessen. Es ist eher davon auszugehen, dass die Aktivisten, wie 2014, langfristig an breiter Unterstützung verlieren werden und damit die Dynamik der Protestbewegung tendenziell abnehmen wird.

Update vom 05.09.2019
Lam hat im Fernsehen verkündet, sie werde das Auslieferungsgesetz formal zurückziehen. Sie kommt damit zumindest einer von fünf Forderungen der Demonstranten nach.

Weitere Quellen
Patrick Zoll, “China zieht in Hongkong rote Linien“, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 30.07.2019.

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Protests as a response to the erosion of freedom in Hong Kong

Originally published in German…

As a former British crown colony returned to the People’s Republic of China on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong differs in many ways from Mainland China. Based on Deng Xiaoping’s principle of “one country, two systems” as enshrined in Article 5 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, the Chinese Special Administrative Region is to remain mostly autonomous in its internal affairs for the 50 years following its return to China, i.e., until 2047. This right to self-determination includes not only the right to make its laws, which can be based on the principles of a democratic market economy, but also levying customs duties and issuing a separate currency. The flow of people across the border between Hong Kong and Mainland China is also not free. Mainland Chinese who move to Hong Kong are considered migrants. They need a visa and special permission to work, study, start businesses or settle in the Special Administrative Region. In terms of foreign policy, Hong Kong represents itself in the areas of economy, finance, foreign trade, and culture and thus continues to be an independent member of the World Trade Organization, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Asian Development Bank, and the Financial Stability Board. However, the remainder of its foreign and defense policy is the responsibility of the Chinese central government in Beijing.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam with China's President Xi Jinping.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam with China’s President Xi Jinping.

The head of Hong Kong’s government is called the Chief Executive, a position held by Carrie Lam since July 1, 2017. She is close to the central government in Beijing and was chosen by the 1,200-member Election Committee. This electoral college represents various professional groups and districts in the city but is mostly occupied by business people with close ties to Beijing. The 2014/15 electoral reform proposed by Lam would have had a popular vote to select from 2-3 candidates nominated by the Election Committee. However, this proved to be just more smoke and mirrors, because, with such a pre-selection of candidates, progressive Democrats would have had no real choices to make at the polls. Politicians close to Beijing would still have been at an advantage, but now with the difference that they would have been pseudo-democratically “elected” by the people. This is why pro-democracy groups rejected the electoral reform, leading to protests in 2014 supported by a political movement known as the “Umbrella Movement“. In the end, the proposed electoral reform failed to pass Hong Kong’s Legislative Council; the Election Committee alone still chooses the Chief Executive, without any subsequent vote by the people. This outcome was not what the pro-democracy groups wanted to achieve; instead, they were seeking universal suffrage and the right to elect the Chief Executive freely. However, with the failure of the electoral reform, the mostly young protesters failed to find broad support in the population, and the protests died down again towards the end of 2014 without much political impact.

The current protests that have going on since March 2019 were triggered by other political concerns, but are nevertheless ideologically linked to the protests of 2014. At the beginning, the renewed protests were against a new extradition bill on “fugitive offenders and mutual legal assistance in criminal matters” introduced by Lam. With this bill the Legislative Council of Hong Kong would establish a mechanism for transfers of fugitives between Hong Kong and Taiwan, Macau and Mainland China, which are not covered in the existing laws. Not only is Hong Kong’s law enforcement and legal system significantly different from that of Mainland China, but it is also one of the areas where Hong Kong is autonomous. Because of these differences, the Special Group on Law of the Hong Kong Basic Law Consultative Committee proposed the “territorial principle” in 1987. Law enforcement would be based on where the offense took place and not whether the accused is from the mainland or Hong Kong. The corresponding legal regulations have, however, yet to be enacted. This led to a controversy in 2018 when a Hong Kong citizen was accused of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan. Since there are no extradition mechanisms in place between Hong Kong and Taiwan, the suspect could not be extradited to Taiwan. (Daniel Victor and Tiffany May, “The Murder Case That Lit the Fuse in Hong Kong“, The New York Times, 15.06.2019). However, the new extradition bill is not only intended to close this legal gap, but it will also be used to extradite offenders to Macau and Mainland China. The opponents of this law argue that, in the long term, it will also be used to extradite other Hong Kong citizens and foreigners targeted by the central government in Beijing for trial on the mainland.

The Chinese state coat of arms at the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was smeared with black paint after a mostly peaceful march on July 21, 2019.

The Chinese state coat of arms at the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was smeared with black paint after a mostly peaceful march on July 21, 2019.

The renewed protests in Hong Kong, which are widely supported by the people, are also related to the failure of pro-democracy protests in 2014 and a sign of the people’s dwindling confidence in politics and the growing erosion of the autonomous legal system. Those in power lack legitimacy because of the lack of universal suffrage and have been consistently pro-Beijing since the handover of Hong Kong. Protesters were pelting eggs at Beijing’s Liaison Office building in Hong Kong more than a month ago, and the PRC’s coat of arms at the entrance has been spray-painted black. These attacks indicate that the demonstrators are looking for more than just the repeal of the extradition law.

The freedoms enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong have been increasingly eroding since the 2014 protests. For example, at the end of 2015, five booksellers disappeared without a trace because they were selling books banned in mainland China (Ben Bland, “Hongkong: Beijing Opens a New Chapter“, Financial Times, 27.01.2016). In July, four pro-democracy politicians were forced out of the Legislative Council because they did not take their oath properly and two others because they endorsed a Hong Kong independent of China. Lam expressly welcomed the decision of the High Court in Hong Kong. (Ben Bland, “Hongkong Shaken by Removal of Pro-Democracy Lawmakers“, Financial Times, 14.07.2017) In September 2018, the Hong Kong National Party was banned for its calls for Hong Kong’s independence. Critics have also been increasingly targeted. For example, Victor Mallet, the Hong Kong-based Asia editor of the Financial Times, had lived in the territory with his family until he was refused visa renewal in October 2018. This explains why, in comparison to 2014, not only are more people joining the demonstrations, but also why they come from different social strata.

Hongkongers opinion

Source: Nectar Gan and Kristin Huang, “Will China Send in the Troops to Stamp out Protests in Hong Kong?“, South China Morning Post, 24.07.2019.

Although the Chinese central government has no interest in further escalation, it feels challenged by the demonstrators and has begun threatening protesters through various channels against “endangering the social order.” For example, Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman Wu Qian said at the end of July that, at the request of the city government, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could be sent to Hong Kong to maintain social order. If such a step became necessary from Beijing’s point of view, this could be implemented without delay as there are already some 6,000 to 10,000 troops stationed at the garrison in the Special Administrative Region. The garrison had been created at the handover of Hong Kong for symbolic reasons as well as to provide disaster relief and defense in the Special Administrative Region. To date, the soldiers of the garrison have only been called on once without the request of the Hong Kong government: in the cleanup after the severe typhoon in October 2018. (Alice Wu, “Hong Kong’s Continued Turmoil Paves Way for PLA to Step in“, South China Morning Post, 29.07.2019) However, the soldiers are quite ready for the call to arms. About a week after Qian’s statement, a martial video was released by the PLA Hong Kong Garrison, which could be understood as a threat to Hong Kong’s demonstrators (see video below). The Global Times, a propaganda tool of the Chinese Communist Party, shared the clip on Twitter, with the headline: “A blunt warning for Hong Kong’s secessionists and their foreign backers?” Furthermore, at the beginning of the video, a soldier is using a megaphone to speak in Cantonese — the usual Hong Kong dialect — to say that the demonstrators were solely responsible for any consequences they might suffer. After this sequence, armed soldiers then marched demonstrators with their hands tied behind their backs to areas marked as “detention zones”. (Laurel Chor, “Hongkong Protests: China Releases Dramatic Army Propaganda Video“, The Guardian, 01.08.2019).

By law, PLA interference in local affairs under Article 14 of the Hong Kong Basic Law may only take place at the request of the Hong Kong Government or if it loses control of its internal security following Article 18. With more than 1,300 international companies headquartered in Hong Kong, the fact that Hong Kong is the world’s fourth-largest stock market and the world’s eighth-largest exporter, Beijing’s military intervention seems to be unlikely. (Matthias Kamp and Michael Settelen, “Hongkongs Wirtschaft vor unsicheren Zeiten“, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 30.07.3019, S. 19). However, Jude Blanchette, holding the Freeman Chair in China Studies at Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes that assumptions postulating Beijing will seek to avoid a violent crackdown on protesters ignore the way the Chinese Communist Party views historical events and how it makes decisions:

Looking at China’s own recent history, from the CCP’s perspective the lesson of Tiananmen Square was not that the use of tanks and PLA troops to subdue the Chinese people was a mistake. Rather, Deng Xiaoping and the party elders believed that the price was justified in order to stave off an even greater catastrophe. As Deng said in his first speech after the June 4 crackdown, “The nature of the incident should have been obvious from the very beginning. The handful of bad people had two basic slogans: overthrow the Communist Party and demolish the socialist system.” — Jude Blanchette, “How Close Is Hong Kong to a Second Tiananmen?“, Foreign Policy, 14.08.2019.

The question remains as to how far the demonstrators can go and how they can ensure that at least some of their five main demands are met — (1) the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill from the legislative process, (2) the retraction of the “riot” characterization, (4) the release and exoneration of arrested protesters, (3) the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police conduct and use of force during the protests, (5) the resignation of Lam and the implementation of universal suffrage for Legislative Council and Chief Executive elections — without crossing a red line? According to a Reuters report, it seems that the Hong Kong government would be willing to compromise, but Beijing is preventing such a compromise. Concurrently, Beijing’s red lines are not clearly defined. According to Yang Guang, spokesperson for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing, firstly, national security should not be endangered; secondly, the demonstrators may neither challenge the authority of the central government nor of the Basic Law; and thirdly, Hong Kong should not be misused as a base to infiltrate mainland China. (Patrick Zoll, “Drei Fragen und Antworten zu der Situation in Hongkong“, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 01.08.2019).

Democracy activist Joshua Wong talks to the press during a demonstration in June 2017. (Photo:  Thomas Peter).

Democracy activist Joshua Wong talks to the press during a demonstration in June 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter).

The arrests of Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, Andy Chan, and other anti-government or pro-democracy leaders are a sign that Hong Kong’s government, under pressure from Beijing, could now take a harder line. However, it also shows that the Chinese central government is not yet considering direct intervention. It is unlikely that the arrests will weaken the demonstration movement in the long term because unlike in 2014, the current protests have no clear leadership structures. (Patrick Zoll, “Die Verhaftungen in Hongkong sind symbolisch – und ihre harte Linie fährt die Regierung offenbar auf Wunsch Pekings“, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 31.08.2019).

Will this year’s demonstrators achieve more than they did in 2014? Hardly! In the best-case scenario, they might see a repeal of the extradition law and an independent commission set up to investigate the police operations during the demonstrations, which, of course, will detect hardly any irregularities. Although the demonstrators would thus achieve more than they did in 2014, the further erosion of the freedoms in Hong Kong would hardly be stopped, let alone any expansion of democratic principles achieved. The Chinese integration of Hong Kong will continue unchecked, at least as long as it does not have a significant negative impact on the city as a center for business. Although a military intervention is rather unlikely, it cannot be completely ruled out in case of further escalation. It is more likely that the demonstrations will gradually lose broad support in the long term, as they did in 2014, and thus slow down the momentum of the protest movement.

Update from 05.09.2019
Lam announced on television that she would formally withdraw the extradition bill. She is thus complying with at least one of the five demands of the demonstrators.

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