Beyond COVID-19, Part 2: U.S. Marines Prepare for China and Russia Prepares to Vote

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We are now in week two of self quarantine in the United States. As testing increases across the country, we are finally getting a sense of how widespread COVID-19 is. This is our second “installment” of Beyond COVID-19. The Foreign Policy Research Institute created this Round Table series in an effort to keep our readers informed of key stories that would normally receive plenty of news coverage but aren’t due to the constant coverage of the pandemic. We hope that these short answers will inspire you to follow-up on these important developments from around the world.

This Round Table features a conversation between Thomas J. Shattuck, Research Associate in the Asia Program at FPRI; Aaron Stein, Director of the Middle East Program and acting Director of the National Security Program at FPRI; and Maia Otarashvili, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program at FPRI. The intention is to convene these conversations twice a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) for the duration of the crisis (with occasional guests popping in), so that readers will not miss pertinent information and stories from the areas that FPRI covers. 

General reminder to our readers to keep up to date with guidelines coming from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; continue to stay home as much as possible; and when you must leave your home and engage with people, be mindful of social distancing practices; and wash your hands frequently with soap for at least 20 seconds.

Thomas Shattuck: Aaron, last week, you discussed developments in Iraq and Syria. This week, Syria officially announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19, the Turks and the Russians conducted their second joint patrol of the M4 highway, and the United Kingdom announced that they would halve the number of troops they have deployed in Iraq to support Operation Inherent Resolve, the American-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State. So there is a lot going on, what are you spending your time focused on?

Aaron Stein: In Syria, the basic issue that I’m paying the most attention to is linked to challenges implementing the Turkish-Russian ceasefire. Turkey and Russia are still struggling to conduct joint patrols, as is required under the terms of the March agreement. I don’t know when Russia gets fed up with this and starts bombing again, but that is where this will go. It is destabilizing, and I do not see how either side can appease the local population in that strip of territory. Certainly, this is something to watch and keeps me busy and why I recently argued in War on the Rocks that the United States should think about the costs Russia will have to endure, as it seeks to think about how Syria fits into great power competition. 

Shattuck: Trump seemed to have put Syria on the backburner of priorities well before the COVID-19 outbreak. Now, those days seem like eons ago, and the priority that the United States places on Syria has probably dropped even further. How will that change the calculus of Turkey and Russia moving forward?

Stein: First, I think it is a misnomer to think that other countries are handling this situation well, or that they have some sort of magic formula to contain the outbreak. Turkey is experiencing a sharp rise in cases, and most believe that Russia is just hiding the extent of people infected. So, I think we are all in the same boat. I think that the outcome is that government, especially authoritarian governments like Turkey and Russia that are dependent on strong top-down directives to make and implement policy, faces bandwidth issues, and things that are in place kinda go on auto-pilot. So, in Syria, you do have an incentive for both sides to maintain cooperation. I don’t think American actions matter all that much in the day-to-day handling of joint patrols along a highway that the U.S. only cares about within the context of its relations with Turkey and its competition with Moscowand which matters less now that our government is absorbed with the growing epidemic. The issue these two countries face is that the joint patrols do not solve broader issues in Syria, and the drivers of the civil war are all still there, so at any point they can flare up again. And when they do, Russia has the fire power to bomb when it feels like, and Turkey will be faced with a refugee crisis and the decision to try and use military force to blunt an offensive. Faced with this unsavory option, the least bad way forward, at least in the short-term, is to keep hammering away at these patrols, despite them having little hope of ensuring a lasting solution to the now 10-year old civil war. This is why I think Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was in Syria this week; he wanted to get an update on the state of the conflict. I assume to get the Assad regime on the same basic page as Moscow. So, I expect more patrols and efforts to keep the unstable status quo just stable enough to kick the can down the road for a few months. 

Shattuck: Maia, last week, you talked about the proposed changes to the Russian constitution to allow Vladimir Putin to stay in power. Are there any new updates on the April referendum?

Maia Otarashvili: Formally, Russia is still on track to hold the April referendum on removing term limits for Putin’s presidency, although there have been rumors that it may be cancelled or rescheduled. What we know for sure is that at least in Moscow the election commission is looking into holding an online referendum instead, one that would be open from April 19 to 22. Russia now has over 450 reported COVID-19 cases, and that number will go up as testing improves and speeds up. If Russia does end up holding the vote online, it will be a very interesting case study, and we’ll be keeping an eye on it. 

Shattuck: Maia, something that had received some attention before the COVID-19 outbreak really hit the United States was a developing price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia on oil. What can you tell us about the collapse of that tenuous alliance?

Otarashvili: The Russia-Saudi oil war continues. This is another issue that broke out before the COVID-19 concerns became widespread in the United States. Russia and Saudi Arabia had an alliance propping up global oil prices. That alliance has collapsed, and Russia even walked away from OPEC meetings earlier this month. Now, a surge in oil production has dropped prices to record lows, with no compromise in sight so far. The oil war already spelled bad news for Russia’s troubled economy, now its effects are going to be paired with the COVID-19 fallout, which is already starting to hit the Russian markets. So, Russia is growing more authoritarian and more impoverished almost each day. We saw a lot of unrest this past summer, with people protesting against worsening living conditions. The protests were quashed by the government, with extreme force. What this month’s developments tell us is that we are likely to see more desperate Russians taking to the streets. 

Tom, there have been some developments around the Olympics this week. What can you tell us?

Shattuck: Well, it’s official: the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo are officially postponed. On Monday, Canada and Australia had announced that they would not be sending athletes to Tokyo due to COVID-19 concerns. They both called for the postponement of the Games until the pandemic ends. That appears to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back because today the International Olympic Committee announced “the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.” This is a sad, but necessary, move. It’ll give the world something to look forward to once this is all over, and by not outright cancelling the games, it won’t completely devastate Japan’s economy and its already massive investment in making the games happen.

Aaron, let’s switch back to you. The U.S. Marines purchased Tomahawk cruise missiles and plans to release a new plan for dealing with great power competitors, specifically China. What are the implications of what’s going on with the Marines?

Stein: I am going to switch focus and put on my national security hat. For those that do not already know, I am the acting Director of the National Security Program at FPRI, and we will have some new and interesting foci in the months to come, as we work under rather odd circumstances to launch a series of initiatives ranging from technology to climate change. 

This week, I am looking at the Marines Corp, and specifically the unveiling of a new plan to challenge China, lieu of the previous decade-plus focus on counterinsurgent warfare and tactics. This is a topic that I will have to revisit, but one thing that I am playing close attention to is the Marines’ purchase of Tomahawk cruise missiles, which perhaps signals the intent to deploy these missiles on shore. The deployment of these systems on land would have been a violation of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but after Russia violated the treaty with the reported development of the 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile, the United States withdrew and dedicated funding to develop its own system. A ground-launched Tomahawk makes a lot of sense, mostly because it was one of the missiles that the United States dismantled as part of the INF in the late 1980s. The missile, known as the Gyrphon, was a Tomahawk with a booster for ground launch from a truck.

The idea, according to reporting in the Wall Street Journal, is for Marines to operate “within range” of China’s longer-range systems, like missiles and aircraft, and to disperse when targeted on islands in the so-called first island chain. This refers to the archipelago chain that rings the Chinese coast. From these small, dispersed units, the Marines suggest using drones and anti-ship missiles (perhaps to include Tomahawks) to target the Chinese Navy before it could move beyond the first island chain and, also, to feed sensor data to the U.S. Navy and Air Force who could use longer-range systems. 

To pull this off, the Marines are suggesting steep cuts to its armored forces, a move that is certain to raise some eyebrows and prompt debate about whether it is wise to plan for only one potential enemy (China), at the expense of other potential competitors, like Russia or Iran. This emphasis on “great power competition” is part of a broader realignment of defense goals for the United States and, at FPRI, I wrote a report about how to help hasten this shift without sacrificing U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Shattuck: Maia, NATO’s 2019 annual report paints its Baltic and Black Sea member states in a positive light. Amid concerns over the strength of the alliance, the eastern flank members seem to be more committed to the alliance than ever before. Can you explain this?

Otarashvili: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has released his 2019 annual report, and the Baltic states have a lot to be proud of. According to the report, in 2019, only nine out of the 29 member-states met the NATO-agreed guideline of spending 2% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are among the nine states, with the United States, United Kingdom, Romania, Poland, Greece, and Bulgaria. Amid increased Russian aggression in the region, NATO deployed a Forward Presence in the eastern part of the alliance, placing combat-ready battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. The 5,000 troops are meant to contribute to deterrence by operating alongside national defense forces in each of the countries, demonstrating NATO resolve and unity against potential Russian aggression. 

It must be noted that NATO continues to deploy a Forward Presence in the Black Sea region as well. It has placed land forces in Romania, made investments in air policing, and enhanced the presence of the NATO Standing Naval Forces in the Black Sea (in 2019, NATO ships spent 100 days in the Black Sea). In return, the six potentially vulnerable countries at the edge of NATO’s eastern flank benefitting from these deployments (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria) have met the 2% defense spending goal, showing their commitment to the alliance and its common defense strategy. This week, FPRI published a great article by Dr. Nick Gvosdev on the effects of the pandemic on the NATO alliance. It’s a must-read! And for the latest developments in the Baltics, including the coverage of their experience with the pandemic, keep an eye out for our Baltic Roundup later this week. You can sign up for the newsletter here, to keep up with our analyses of the latest developments in the region. 

Shattuck: Maia and Aaron, thanks again for taking the time to let us know about these important developments around the world. On Thursday, we will be featuring our first special guest: Dr. Nick Gvosdev, who Maia just gave a shout-out to.





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