Throughout December 2019 there has been some new military developments in Eastern Europe. NATO has increased its presence in the region and Russia has announced that it is the first country to possess hypersonic weapons. There is not much trust between the two, especially as both seek to build more military power to deter the other. While one excuses their actions as defensive, the other considers them aggressive – and respond with what they again consider as defensive measures. Thus, the cycle continues.
Eastern Europe has become the centre of this security dilemma as it is situated between the two. Estonian defence minister Jüri Luik said that Russia’s actions showed it was a serious security threat. Lithuanian defence minister Raimundas Karoblis added that “Russia is the only external existential threat” they have. As such several countries in the region clearly consider Russia the major security concern. Consequently, NATO has sought to strengthen its Eastern flank throughout December. Its efforts in Eastern Europe have included deploying rapid response forces, embedding units under the Baltic states’ forces command, building up equipment arsenals, and conducting increasingly complex exercises. UK troops were sent to Estonia and German troops to Lithuania to reassure their allies on the eastern side of NATO. In addition, Romania’s president said that 120 air defence troops would be sent to Poland to support NATO’s presence there.
This positioning of military forces in Eastern Europe was considered necessary to deter the alleged increased Russian aggression. Defence leaders have said that the deployment of the enhanced forward presence battalions in the Baltics have significantly reduced the risk of military conflict in the region. Looking at the future, using American troops to bolster defence against Russia remains a top priority to strengthen security in Eastern Europe. In addition, strengthening the Baltic states’ air defence has been cited as a priority when considering a situation where they would be faced with Russia’s capability. Defence minister Luik said that NATO is the only organisation that can deter the Russian aggression against its neighbours.
Russia fear the prospect of its neighbours joining NATO as this would leave it surrounded by pro-Western states. Valášek, a researcher focusing on security and defence, said that “Moscow’s general strategy has been to deter what it perceives as challenges to its political order and territory(…) and dominate its immediate neighbourhood…”. The tensions between the two have only increased as Russia revealed that its hypersonic weapon had now become operational. In what was either a move for increased transparency or a show of power, Russia recently demonstrated the weapon for American inspectors. Russia claimed that the Avangard is capable of travelling at 27 times the speed of sound and dodge missile defence systems that tries to block it. Its difference from a regular missile warhead is that the latter follow a predictable path after separation while the Avangard can make maneuvers, thus making it much more difficult to stop.
The US and Russia has been working on these types of weapons for years. The Russian military is the first one to own this new class of nuclear weapon, meaning other militaries can currently not defend themselves against it. As such defence strategies against hypersonic weapons will likely be high on Western countries’ agenda. US officials have already discussed putting sensors in space to ensure fast detection of such weapons. While Western countries are most likely not far from developing these weapons themselves, Russia is currently pulling ahead in the global arms race – and that will no doubt trouble NATO going into 2020.
This development has been viewed by many as a concerning sign for the future of warfare. The concern that an arms race has begun between Russia and the US only rose when the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between Russia and the US broke down earlier in 2019. The relationship between the two has been particularly strained since 2014. The annexation of Crimea and Russia’s backing of separatists in Ukraine means that all civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO are suspended. The alliance has a difficult task as it must encourage dialogue with Russia in order to reduce these tensions while also backing its neighbours, like Ukraine. NATO stated their committal to remain open to dialogue and to create a constructive relationship with Russia in the December 4 Declaration by the Heads of State participating in a NATO Leaders Meeting in London. However, according to NATO this can only happen when Russia’s actions make it possible.
“Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security”, the Declaration said. While the Cold War and the Soviet Union is a long time ago the tensions between the West and Russia continues to be high. It is difficult to see how the security dilemma in Eastern Europe can be solved as this would require agreements on issues such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict, arms control, and sanctions. For the moment these appear insolvable.
The United States’ assassination of General Qassem Soleimani has heightened security concerns about shipping in the Gulf region, notably the Strait of Hormuz, as the world warily awaits to see how Iran will respond to the killing of its military commander. The US strike that killed the military commander effectively marks a significant escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran, with Iran launching a ballistic missile attack days later. On 8 January, Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran, killing all 176 passengers and crewmembers on board. The reason for the crash is currently under investigation, with Iranian authorities blaming technical issues, though the crash’s timing, just hours after Iran launched missiles at US targets in Iraq, has provoked speculation about other possible causes. On 9 January, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced during a press conference that evidence suggested an Iranian missile brought down the aircraft by accident. With Iran already rejecting the claims, tensions are likely to further escalate in the coming days and weeks as further information pertaining to the crash is released.
KILLING OF SOLEIMANI
On 3 January 2020, US officials announced that Iran’s most powerful military commander, General Qassem Soleimani, had been killed by a US air strike in neighbouring Iraq. Soleimani had spearheaded Iranian military operations in the Middle East as head of Iran’s elite Quds Force. He was killed at Baghdad airport, along with other Iran-backed militia figures, early on Friday in a strike that was ordered by US President Donald Trump. Speaking shortly after the confirmation of the strike, President Trump disclosed that Soleimani was “directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions of people.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has stated that “severe revenge awaits the criminals” behind the attack as he announced three days of national mourning.
On 8 January, Iran carried out a ballistic missile attack on air bases housing US forces in Iraq. More than a dozen missiles were launched from Iran, striking two air bases in Irbil and Al Asad, west of Baghdad. The strikes, which occurred at about 2:00 AM local time (10:30 PM GMT), occurred just hours after the burial of Soleimani. While it is believed that the strikes were in retaliation of Soleimani’s killing, with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei stating that the attack was a “slap in the face” for the US, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif later issued a statement on Twitter, claiming that the attack was self-defence while denying that Iran was seeking to escalate the situation into war. So far there has been minimal response from Washington, with President Trump tweeting that all was well and that casualties and damage were being assessed.
Soleimani was widely seen as the second most powerful figure in Iran behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The Quds Force, which is an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, reported directly to the ayatollah and Soleimani was hailed as a heroic national figure. Under Soleimani’s leadership, Iran had bolstered Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as other pro-Iranian militant groups, effectively expanding its military presence in neighbouring Iraq as well as in Syria, where it orchestrated Syria’s offensive against rebel groups in that country’s long-running civil war. The US however has called the commander and the Quds Force terrorists, holding them responsible for the deaths of hundreds of US personnel. A statement released by the Pentagon shortly after his death disclosed that Soleimani had been “developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” adding that “this strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.”
The crash of flight PS752 has further complicated tensions with Iran, with Western leaders stating that evidence suggests that the plane had been hit by a surface-to-air missile, possibly in error. US media have speculated that the airline may have been mistaken for a warplane as Iran prepared for possible US retaliation, while a new video released on 10 January appears to show a plane being hit by a projectile over Tehran. Iran however has rejected the suggestions, with the country’s civil aviation chief stating on Friday that he was “certain” that the plane was not it by a missile. During a news conference on Friday, Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization (CAOI) chief Ali Abedzadeh repeated his view that a missile was not the cause of the crash. He told reporters, “the thing that is clear to us and that we can say with certainty is that this plane was not hit by a missile,” adding “as I said last night, this plane for more than one and a half minutes was on fire and was in the air, and the location shows that the pilot was attempting to return.” The statement comes after Iran’s government spokesman Ali Rabiei on Thursday accused the US and its allies of “lying and engaging in psychological warfare” in their speculation over the cause of the accident. Separately an Iranian official disclosed on Friday that there was documentation to prove that the plane had a mechanical issue before take-off. According to the official, it was not signed off for flying, but Ukrainian airline officials had overruled these objections, though no further details have been released.
Iran has promised to carry out a full investigation, though there are growing concerns about the transparency of its findings. While Iran initially indicated that it would not hand over the recovered “black boxes” to Boeing, the plane’s manufacturer, or to the US, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has since confirmed that it has been invited to take part in the investigation and would send a representative. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada and France’s BEA air accident agency have also confirmed that they have been invited to take part in the investigation. TV images from the crash site on Thursday depicted a bulldozer to clear debris away, raising concerns that vital evidence could have been removed. The “black box” flight recorders have been recovered from the wreckage, with Iran’s official Irna news agency reporting that they will be opened on Friday.
All 176 passengers and crewmembers on board the plane were killed. Victims of the crash include 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians as well as nationals from Sweden, the United Kingdom, Afghanistan and Germany. In the wake of the crash and missile attacks a number of airlines have announced that they are re-routing flights that fly over Iran and Iraqi airspace. Major carriers include Air France, Lufthansa, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Taiwan’s Eva Air, which have all announced that they will opt for different routes for their flights to and from Europe. The US Federal Aviation Agency has restricted commercial US flights “from operating in the airspace over Iraq, Iran and the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.” Russian authorities have also recommended that their country’s airlines avoid the same areas. As of 10 January 2020, Turkish flag carrier Turkish Airline and Turkish low-cost carrier Pegasus Airlines as well as Qatar Airways continue to fly over Iran as usual. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have both disclosed that they are monitoring the situation, though they have not yet diverted flights.
IMPACT ON SHIPPING INDUSTRY
In the wake of Soleimani’s death, the missile attack and crash of flight PS752 tensions between the US and Iran have significantly risen and there has been growing concern about shipping in the Gulf region. In particular, the airplane crash has demonstrated how fragile the current situation is, indicating that the shipping industry could also fall victim to unintended consequences stemming for the heightened tensions.
The Gulf’s waters however have already been considered as being vulnerable to Iranian retaliation ever since President Trump in 2015 withdrew the US from the nuclear deal, which Tehran had signed with world powers, and imposed sanctions on the country. The Strait of Hormuz a narrow but strategically important waterway, links crude producers in the Middle East with key global markets. In May and June 2019, the waterway became a focal point in heightened US-Iran tensions when six oil tankers were attacked in, or near, the waterway. Furthermore, Iran has in the past repeatedly vowed to disrupt oil and petrochemical flows through the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of the world’s seaborne oil passes, in the event that it was unable to export its crude.
With the current dramatic escalation of tensions between the US and Iran, there are increasing concerns that a widening conflict could disrupt global oil supplies and impact shipping in the region. With a number of countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which have both backed President Trump’s maximum pressure strategy against Iran, calling for restraint since Soleimani was killed, it is likely that any response from Iran will be asymmetric in nature, resulting in the shipping community and vessels transiting this region needing to take additional precautions while also being prepared for the unexpected. While so far, shipping flows via the Strait of Hormuz have had little change since the targeted killing of Soleimani, it is likely that Iran will resume threatening commercial shipping in the Gulf and could launch similar attacks to those that were carried out last year.
In the wake of heightened tensions, the US Maritime Administration on 2 January 2020 issued an alert over potential Iranian action against “maritime interests in the region.” It noted that US commercial vessels operating in the area should review the US Maritime Advisory 2019-012. Meanwhile the UK has again increased its military presence in the Gulf. On 4 January, the UK announced that the Royal Navy will offer to accompany British-flagged commercial vessels through the Strait of Hormuz. Britain’s Defence Minister Ben Wallace ordered HMS MONTROSE and HMS DEFENDER to prepare to return to escort duties. The UK has also put military helicopters on standby. There have also been reports that insurance underwriters are likely to increase rates in the coming days to reflect perceptions of a greater war risk for shipping in the Gulf. In May 2019, the Joint War Committee widened the area around the Gulf for “enhanced risk for marine insurers” after a number of attacks targeting tankers. Washington blamed Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards for two sabotage attacks that targeted tankers in the Gulf in May and June. In July, the guards seized a British-flagged tanker in the Gulf in retaliation for the UK’s detention of an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar. After that incident, the UK navy escorted vessels through the Strait of Hormuz, though those escorts concluded in November in the wake of the tanks being released and tensions between the two countries easing.
OUTLOOK AND GUIDANCE
With a diplomatic solution between the US and Iran currently unlikely, the situation in the Gulf region could destabilize further. Vessels transiting this region are advised of the following:
- Vessels operating in the region must remain vigilant and listen for military warnings at all times;
- Armed private security should not be used as a risk mitigation measure in this region;
- Navigational norms in the Strait of Hormuz should continue to be complied with.
In addition, shipping companies are advised to review BMP5 practices, US maritime advisories, industry releasable threat bulletins, flag security advisories and bulletins, as well as the ship’s hull and machinery, war risk and P&I Insurances prior to transiting this region in order to ensure that the vessel has cover and remains within cover throughout the voyage.
The following vessel guidance should be implemented:
- Undertake a new ship- and voyage-specific threat risk assessment prior to entering any region where there has been an incident, or where the threat has changed;
- Where transit includes passage through a confined strait, if navigationally safe to do so, vessels should consider unmanned machinery spaces (UMS) for the duration;
- Vessels should consider transiting at full speed while ensuring that this is only done where it is commensurate with safe navigation and manoeuvring permits;
- Consider if a day/night transit is appropriate to the threat posed;
- After the risk assessment, review the Ship’s Security Plan and Vessel Hardening Plan;
Carry out security damage control training and exercises prior to entering area of increased risk.
On 14 December, 100.000 people attended a rally in Piazza San Giovanni, Rome. This rally was organized by a grass-roots movement called “Sardines”. The movement was started by 4 activists on 14 November in Bologna. They organized a rally there which targeted 6,000 people to attend. Turns out, some 12,000 people attended it, double the expectations. The movement quickly spread across cities in Italy with dozens of subsequent rallies being held. In December alone, protests have been conducted in various cities such as Milan, Turin, Palermo, Florence, Naples, and Rome, which have been attended by more than 300,000 people in total. The aim of the Sardine movement is to counter the growing support of far-right politics which are being led by Matteo Salvini. The Sardine movement denounces the anti-immigration and Euroscepticism rhetoric which is promoted by the far-right.
Since 2018, Salvini has promoted radical anti-immigration and Euroscepticism throughout his speech. Even though he has already been removed from his position of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, he is still considered as one of the most powerful politicians in Italy. He has gained a huge public support especially in the northern part of Italy through his far-right campaign and his party has never been stronger. Even in the city of Bologna, which is considered as the stronghold for leftist, Salvini has proven to gain much support too recently when his political campaign was attended by some 5,000 people. Therefore, it is believed that Salvini’s removal from his position of power within the Italian government has had very little effect towards his popularity. His far-right idea has captured public attention and support, thus placing him as a significant threat to the current left-wing government for the upcoming election in January. The Sardine movement emerged as the reaction of this growing far-right threat, calling their actions as “the fight towards fascism”.
The Sardine movement is blatantly calling Salvini and his supporters as fascists, as Salvini’s campaign is considered by them as an action of “allowing the worst form of racism to exist”. The dozens of rallies conducted by the Sardine Movement were mainly denouncing the ideas of anti-immigration and Euroscepticism within Salvini’s campaign. However, it has been seen that some protestors were also protesting other issues such as the growth of mafia, poverty, and climate change. By seeing this, it is believed that Sardini’s movement is not a movement which is filled by a very specific demographic, which means that they are not linked to any political party. The movement welcomes everyone who agrees in fighting Salvini’s ideas and prevents him to rise into power. The movement itself can be defined as more leaning towards the left-wing within the political spectrum by looking at their views of equality, anti-racial discrimination, and support of civility in politics. However, their broad public scope and primary end goal shows their independency from any influence coming from particular political party. Therefore, The Sardines Movement can be characterized as a pure form of people controlled movement which fighting the growth of far-right populism as their sole purpose.
The Russian “sovereign internet” law that took effect on November 1 gives the Russian government the possibility to switch off internet connections within Russia from external traffic “in an emergency”. What constitutes one is up to its government. There are two important aspects of this law: cyber security and surveillance.
Let us first deal with the cyber aspect. Russia claims that the law is only meant to be a protective measure in response to the US’ introduction of more aggressive cyber security policies. It aims to reduce reliance on foreign services by requiring internet service providers to install network equipment using deep packet inspection (DPI) which is capable of identifying the source of traffic and filter content. A back-up domain name system (DNS) will come into operation in order for Russia’s own domestic internet to continue functioning. Internet service providers will have to disconnect from foreign servers and rely on this DNS instead. In this way, it will have a back-up internet when it shuts itself off from the global web.
The parallel web run solely on Russian internet servers is meant to enable Russia to combat incoming cyber-attacks and to preserve their own domestic network if the West decide to cut the country off from the world wide web. These are certainly some of the secondary benefits of the law. However, a security expert said that this law signifies that Russia is preparing to protect itself from the consequences of launching cyber-attacks. Russia knows that if it undertakes a cyber-attack there is no guarantee that it won’t damage their own economy and systems. By pre-emptively cutting itself from the internet, it can avoid the blowback effect its attacks would have on its own internet.
The second aspect of this law is that it is part of a global trend to try to take control over the internet. These measures, including website blocking and mass surveillance, are in practice much better at monitoring and controlling the country’s own population than they are at fighting foreign interference. This suggests that the law will have greatest effect on freedom of expression rights. In addition, Russia cannot completely cut itself off from the internet if it wants to maintain contact with foreign entities for purposes such as trading. It therefore seems unlikely that Russia would go so far as cutting itself off as long as it wants to maintain business relations. Again, that suggests that the law might be used for the purposes of monitoring Russia’s citizens rather than for cyber protection as the country claims.
That said, it is also true that as a state becomes more dependent on the internet for its infrastructure, it becomes more vulnerable to attacks. Russia knows this well as it has become involved in two of the most direct examples of what we generally describe as cyberwarfare, involving Estonia and Georgia. According to a security expert, in the event that a war breaks out between Russia and NATO it is likely that Russia would be quick to cut its internet off from external traffic. Russia’s internet traffic, like many other countries’, is routed through US exchange points. The fear was that Russia relied too heavily on the US for their internet access. The law intends to solve this by requiring implementation of technical measures that will re-route it through national exchange points instead.
Tech analysists have questioned whether this will actually work in practice. The law does seem to have a feature that is common in laws relating to the internet – that it will be very hard to implement in practice. Russia also has a “pretty poor track record” of technical implementation when trying to impose its national security ideas on the internet. Increasing their cyber defence has been on the Russian government’s agenda for years. This process only accelerated after the 2008 war with Georgia where Russia’s armed forces’ performance in the information domain was criticised. However, back in 2012 internet platforms and service providers said they couldn’t do what the current law requires. It simply wouldn’t work with the internet because it relies on free flow of information across the borders.
But on the other hand, Russia has come a long way since then. It has been practicing and trying to get the technical measures in place for a sufficient number of years now. One thing Russia has been working on is technical measures that can clamp down sources and means of communication that it dislikes. The other thing the country has been doing is to conduct trial runs of the so-called internet kill switch. These were overseen by the country’s telecom watchdog Roskomnadzor, which regulates the internet. Roskomnadzor also began installing the equipment required by the law in September 2019.
The enactment of this law tells the rest of the world that Russia can survive, and even thrive, in complete isolation. This may be particularly concerning for NATO after Colonel Jaak Tarien’s, the chief of NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre, commented on December 4 that it has been slow in its response to the threat of cyber-attacks. “Unless it is a real war, NATO moves at NATO’s pace”, he said ahead of the NATO leaders gathering in London to discuss issues related to cyber security. Still, the law will most likely not have any immediate dramatic effect. The country does not yet have a switch it can simply flick when it suddenly wants to do something.
As such the actual effects this law will have is difficult to predict. However, instead of deterring other countries from launching cyber-attacks against Russia, the enactment of this law may actually encourage them to increase their own cyber abilities. Meanwhile its effects in relation to increased censorship and surveillance could encourage more protests like the ones that took place when the law was first signed.
Denmark has implemented temporary strict border control in Sweden after a series of bombings and shootings throughout this year. The Danish government has put the border control within Øresund bridge which will remain in place until May 2020. The bridge is separates Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, and Swedish third’s largest city, Malmo. These two cities have been the major location of the shootings and bombings that have happened this year. Authorities believed that all the shootings and bombings were orchestrated by organized crime based in Sweden, which currently is in the middle of gang war. Since the beginning of this year, 13 bombings have happened in Copenhagen. The gang war has also heavily occurred in Sweden. Sweden’s national police has been called out to more than 100 blasts this year, with 30 of them happening in the past 2 months. In Malmo alone, 29 explosions and 5 fatal shootings have happened this year. The most recent incident happened on 10 November, when a 15 year-old teenager was killed during a shootout near a pizza place in Malmo. The rise of gang-related violence in Denmark is caused by no other than the increase of participation within organized crime among Swedish nationals.
Authorities has successfully pinpointeds several specific demographis for gang members who are involved in the gang war. It is known that most of the perpetrators are young males under the age of 30, unemployed, with immigrant and poor backgrounds, and also do not possess high school diplomas. These particular demographics have contributed to the rise of organized crime participation in Sweden, which have also been caused by the feelings of non-belonging in the country. These people are not even fluent in Swedish and grew up in a neighbourhood which sees drug dealing as being the most successful occupation within the area. Authorities has been addressing this particular neighbourhood as a “vulnerable area”. In this neighbourhood, several social issues such as high unemployment, segregation faced by immigrants, school drop-outs, and drug trafficking have occurred. According to these facts, it is believed that Swedish government should try to implement preventive action to tackle these social issues from becoming factors of organized crime involvement among Swedish people. Decreasing the growth of these particular social issues will need an implementation of long-term policies. For example, a long-term Swedish language education and counselling for immigrants will eventually eliminate language barriers, which are believed to be one of the factors of segregation faced by foreign-born inhabitants. However, so far the Swedish government only considers action which directly targets the gang-related violence.
The Swedish government has granted the authorities new powers to tackle gang-related violence through a new policy called the 34-point plan. With this policy, the Swedish police will be able to deploy spyware which will intercept encrypted communication within a particular device in order of conduct espionage towards suspects. Other than bypassing encryption, this spyware will also enable authorities to turn on microphones and cameras within the devices of the suspects. This new power received by the authorities will hopefully create a safer society since the violent gangs often use encrypted services for communication. Unfortunately, this policy is not enough to produce a long-term solution. To create a long-term outcome, the need to eliminate the factors of gang-related violence must also be addressed, not only the violence itself. The Swedish government should focus on creating policies which will improve the quality of life and decrease the social issues within the so called “vulnerable area”. By doing this, it will eventually lead to the decrease of gang-related violence, though it is likely not impossible to eliminate it totally.