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Watch List Findings: Dec. 2, 2017

Russian-supported power transfer in eastern Ukraine, status of U.S. deployments in South Korea and Japan

|December 1, 2017

What follows are the preliminary findings for issues identified in the daily Watch Lists this week. We are only sending findings that we regard as significant or potentially significant to keep this list manageable. We have findings for all the Watch List items. Should you be interested in findings not listed here, please contact us and we will email them to you.

To emphasize, you can contact us if there is an item not included here for which you’d like to see the findings.

Our goal, as always, is to focus on what matters and not on things that don’t.

Items from Nov. 27

Ukraine: Local media in Ukraine reported that the leader of the Luhansk rebel region fled to Russia. It has also been reported that Russia is building up military forces in Donbass. We need to look at how the ongoing power struggle may affect the future of the rebel regions. How can the power struggles weaken the rebels? Why has Russia allowed the infighting to persist and grow?

  • Finding: The power transfer evidently has not weakened the rebels in Luhansk. What’s more, Russia reportedly supported it. The Kremlin insisted that there will be continuity, and local media reports indicate that Russia’s FSB intelligence agency has been detaining supporters of former Luhansk rebel leader Igor Plotnitsky. Fighting does not appear to be more intense than it was last week.

China: Chinese media reported that a propaganda outlet in Guizhou province retracted a series of articles that likened President Xi Jinping to Mao Zedong. The retraction was in response to orders from the central government. We are assessing how much control Xi has and looking for evidence that resistance may be emerging in response to reforms. What do we know about the backgrounds of those operating the local outlet? Who allowed the articles to be printed in the first place, and who order them to be pulled?

  • Finding: The publication, Guizhou Daily Qian Xinan, is guided by the Guizhou Provincial Committee, the Guizhou Provincial Government and the Guizhou Committee Propaganda Department, so whatever is published received the go-ahead from these entities, or they at least are to blame. Guizhou is a poor, autonomous region in China with a large minority population, and Xi’s push for poverty alleviation would benefit the province in several ways. It is still unclear who ordered the piece to be removed and deleted from the internet.

Turkey: Turkey, Qatar and Iran signed a transportation agreement intended to facilitate trade among the three countries. It effectively makes Iran the transit country for Turkey-Qatar trade. Additionally, the Iranian Chamber of Commerce said Iran is having difficulty exporting goods to Syria because the market is saturated with goods from Turkey. Why has Turkey signed on to a deal that links it so closely to Iran? How does Turkey view Iran’s growing power in the region? Is Ankara radically shifting its position?

  • Finding: Turkey essentially has a tactical alignment with the Iranians based on Ankara’s need to prevent Kurdish militias from growing stronger in Syria and Iraq and spilling over into Turkey. The Kurdish issue is Turkey’s more pressing priority, and working with Iran can help. The alignment is only temporary, however, since Turkey still cannot allow Iran to become the dominant power in the region, though there is only so much Ankara could do in that regard.

Israel: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Syria about the presence of Iranian troops in the country. He said Israel could change its policy of noninterference in the region if Iran established a strong troop presence in Syria. Statements aside, are there other indications of Israel getting more active in the region? Have we seen any new activity from the Israeli military?

  • Finding: We have not seen any signs of Israeli mobilization. See our Reality Check published Dec. 1.

Items from Nov. 28

China: Chinese media have widely publicized the suicide of a general who had been removed from his post at the Central Military Commission in August and had been placed under house arrest. The publicity is odd, considering the removal was already known. Why did Chinese media make it a point to run a large campaign around this suicide? What message is the government trying to convey? To whom is it sending the message?

  • Finding: The attention given to the suicide is indeed anomalous. Other recent suicides by lower-ranking military commanders placed under investigation for corruption did not receive the same degree of coverage. We won’t speculate on Beijing’s motivations, but we know that purges of high-profile figures in China are usually followed by investigations into people connected to the purged official. And considering the importance of keeping the People’s Liberation Army from balking at the Party’s authority, we can expect Beijing to move forcefully to prevent any backlash.

North Korea: North Korea has conducted another intercontinental ballistic missile test after a relatively long period of abstention. Does this mean negotiations have failed? Assuming the talks fail, North Korea will need one more year to complete its nuclear program, according to South Korea. (The U.S. believes Pyongyang will complete it in just a month.) How will the U.S. respond? Have we seen more U.S. forces deployed to Japan and South Korea?

  • Finding: We have not seen an unusual increase in the deployment of U.S. forces to Japan or South Korea. We may see some aircraft and personnel moved around for the Vigilant Ace exercises, which start next week, but the movements so far are within the typical size and scope relative to the past two years. Estimates of U.S. troops in South Korea are still at 28,500, in line with previous years.

Items from Nov. 29

North Korea: DailyNK, an online newspaper based in South Korea, reported that the North Koreans’ command-and-control system is limited in mountainous areas. According to the report, residents in these areas say they get orders from authorities in Pyongyang a week later than people living in other areas. What does the command-and-control system look like in North Korea’s south, where the bulk of the country’s artillery is located? What is the source of this report, and why would this media outlet release this information now?

  • Finding: North Korea’s military command structure is highly centralized, relying heavily on orders issued directly by the supreme leader. Its military doctrine has a rigid chain of command that is meticulously followed. But there are signs that decentralized command is possible during an attack. Each infantry regiment consists of three infantry battalions, each with its own artillery, which helps to ensure that regiments can act independently on the battlefield. We also know that, in the past, North Korea has had a number of unit-level storage depots throughout the country. The existence of these depots suggests that isolated emplacements are expected to continue to fight even without direction. On the other hand, North Korea’s behavior during artillery offensive fire in 2010 suggests that the military operated with a strong centralized command structure. The North successfully used “time on target” tactics. This is when rounds from different units, at varying distances, arrive at the same time on the same target. North Korea also demonstrated a high degree of inter-service coordination, with simultaneous, smooth operation of artillery, the navy and the air force. In preparation for the attack, North Korea laid new communications cable, and it was apparently a high-priority assignment – the work was obviously done using a mechanized trencher.

Items from Nov. 30

Russia, Armenia: Russia and Armenia are at odds over Yerevan’s economic ties with the European Union. Last week, Armenia signed the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement, which is meant to improve bilateral ties with the EU. Russian media have been very critical of the move. Why are the Russians so upset over this deal? Does this split indicate a permanent geopolitical shift in the Armenian-Russian relationship and in the Caucasus?

  • Finding: It does not indicate a geopolitical shift. Russia was informed of the EU-Armenia agreement as it was being negotiated. Moreover, Russia announced this week that it will not raise the price of natural gas sold to Armenia in 2018, a maneuver Moscow uses from time to time to punish behavior that contravenes its interests.

China, U.S.: A high-level Chinese military delegation met with U.S. generals in Washington on Nov. 29. The meeting has not been widely publicized. We need to figure out whether this was a routine visit or if it had greater significance. What did the participants discuss, and where did they meet? How large was the Chinese delegation?

  • Finding: The meeting does not appear to have been routine, but we don’t have much insight into the specifics of what it covered. According to boilerplate statements released by both sides, the meeting focused on areas like boosting cooperation and preventing miscalculation. No additional details have become available yet.

North Korea: A lot of information has emerged on the missile launched this week by North Korea. One issue of interest is North Korea’s ability to build a launcher, particularly a mobile launcher. We need to map out North Korea’s military capabilities. What are the technical hurdles to building a launcher, and how difficult is it to overcome these hurdles?

  • Finding: North Korea modeled its mobile launchers off Soviet mobile launchers and Chinese transport vehicles. The main hurdles in the development of mobile launchers involve affiliated technologies such as solid-fuel engines, which accelerate the process of transporting and deploying the missiles. “Cold launch” capability is also important; this uses compressed gas pressure to eject the missile from the canister, enabling the engine to ignite in the air and away from the ground, decreasing the risk of it destroying both the mobile launcher and the missile.