China’s Operation Fox Hunt: Facts and Theories on How Missions Succeed and Flaws and Delinquencies Ripe for Exploitation (Part 1)

An Air China jet (above) soars upward after take-off on its flight home. On a number of similar flights from the US, a considerable number of For nearly a decade, undercover Chinese identification and repatriation teams, as greatcharlie has dubbed them, at the direct request and under the authority of the Chinese government, have entered the US under false pretenses, enlisted US-based accomplices, stalked hundreds of people, including US citizens and permanent residents, and coerced and cajoled them to return to China to face charges for economic crimes they allegedly committed. This effort is called Operation Fox Hunt. It went on near unhindered by US authorities until a bungled mission to capture a target in New Jersey led to arrests and allowed for the first prosecution involving Operation Fox Hunt in the US. Through an examination of flaws in the development, planning, and execution of that New Jersey mission based on available facts, greatcharlie provides some insights on additional ways to defeat ongoing and future missions by Chinese identification and repatriation teams.

On the intelligence front, the crisis of Chinese espionage in the US and the rest of the West has all of the hallmarks of a sort of ordeal. Chinese intelligence services have unfortunately managed to do their job successfully, collecting mountains of secret and information from the government bureaucracies and research and development sites, private businesses, high-tech firms particularly, academia, and think tanks. It would seem safe to say that Chinese espionage operations are ubiquitous. It is very likely that everyday they work harder and harder to make their networks and operations better and more effective, pushing their espionage capabilities far-beyond the reach of the counterintelligence services of the countries in which they operate. The primary conductors of China’s successful espionage operations orchestrated in the US, and globally are the Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó Guójiā Ānquán Bù (Ministry for State Security of the People’s Republic of China) or the MSS, China’s preeminent civilian intelligence agency, responsible for overseas espionage and counterintelligence both at home and abroad, and the Central Military Commission (CMC) Joint Staff Department, Intelligence Bureau of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), responsible for collecting and analyzing foreign military intelligence, including technology. 

But alas, there are other efforts at penetration and clandestine action undertaken by Chinese operatives in the US as well as other countries that are as insidious and perhaps worse. For nearly a decade, Chinese identification and repatriation teams, as greatcharlie has dubbed them, have absconded not with precious, secret information or property, but rather with people. (Identifying targets was actually one of the most challenging aspects of the teams’ activities. Without the ability to investigate and identify targets, any repatriation effort would be hopeless. In a worst case scenario, the wrong individual might embarrassingly be brought back to China.) Targets have not only been non-residents, but residents and naturalized US citizens. Indeed, incontrovertible proof exists that shows undercover identification and repatriation teams at the direct request and under the authority of the Chinese government have entered the US under false pretenses, stalked hundreds of people, including US citizens and permanent residents, and enlisted US-based accomplices–private investigators and self-styled bounty hunters–and relentlessly hound their targets. Ostensibly, the Chinese operatives have sought out fugitives from justice in China as part of an anti-corruption campaign. 

In a number of operations, Chinese identification and repatriation teams were completely successful in capturing their targets and bringing them back to China to face what the Communist Party of China deemed as justice. Yet, that has not always been the case. There is a great difference between grabbing intellectual property, trade secrets, computer files as well as actual technologies and grabbing people. There is a human element which, particularly under conditions that the Chinese government creates for its “volunteers,” leaves a degree of uncertainty and unpredictability that cannot be assessed until one sees actual results. In identification and repatriation operations, that same uncertainty can exist in the way that the targets may behave, too! That was the case with Chinese identification and repatriation operatives acting in New Jersey beginning in 2016. It was a bungled mission that has allowed for the first prosecution involving Operation Fox Hunt in the US. 

From the New Jersey case, a few insights are drawn by greatcharlie on this particular case of Operation Fox Hunt that may provide a better understanding on what Chinese operatives are doing via the operation and how they are doing what they are doing. With the color and life of the investigative reports greatcharlie found most informative aggregated with the facts laid out plainly in the federal court document, a somewhat definitive account of the event can be constructed. By highlighting flaws in the development, planning, and execution based on available facts of that case, greatcharlie seeks to provide insight on additional ways to defeat ongoing and future Chinese identification and repatriation activities under Operation Fox Hunt or under some new operation launched by Beijing. Just knowing what is wrong is not as great as knowing how to fix the problem. This commentary does not look at the situation only in the end to say everyone appears to be doing their best to halt China’s malign activities and all is peaches-and-cream. Comments and suggestions are offered, leaving it up to readers, think tank scholars, academics, policy analysts, and military and diplomatic officials, journalists, and students, but particularly practitioners who may serve in US counterintelligence, to observe, reflect, and act as they may. In the essay’s discussion, greatcharlie hopes to avoid any appearance of instructing counterintelligence officers on what to do. It would be satisfying enough to know that some of what is presented here might resonate with a few of them. By shedding light on some flaws in the development of plans and the organization of operators for action, as well as delinquencies in the execution of the plan, greatcharlie hopes it can offer something of use to the US, its allies, and friends to combat and to defeat similar malign clandestine and covert operations by China worldwide. If the matter of the identification and repatriation and repatriation operations is not put right, surely it will have an unfortunate effect on US national security now and into the future. Nihil tam difficile est ut non possit studio investigari. (Nothing is so difficult that it is not able to be tracked down by study.)

After People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping (above) assumed power in 2013, he initiated a sweeping anti-corruption campaign. Xi vowed to hunt down powerful “tigers” as well as lowly “flies” in the campaign to eradicate corruption. The slogan of the campaign became “fight tigers, swat flies and hunt foxes.” Xi warned corruption was so bad that it could threaten the Communist Party of China’s grip on power. That campaign has netted thousands of party leaders and rank-and-file government officials domestically. Indeed, Operations Fox Hunt and Operation Sky Net were part of the effort internationally in that regard. In June 2014, authorities established the International Office of Pursuing Fugitives and Recovering Embezzled Assets–staffed with a composite of personnel seconded from eight government agencies. In the first alone, 3,587 fugitives from over 90 countries had been returned to China.

Overview of Operation Fox Hunt and Operation Sky Net

As alleged in a July 22, 2021 criminal complaint filed in the Eastern District of New York, Criminal Division, defendants participated in an international campaign to threaten, harass, surveil and intimidate John Doe #1 and his family, in order to force John Doe #1 and Jane Doe #1 to return to China as part of “Operation Fox Hunt.” It was revealed in the reports of investigative journalists that John Doe #1 and Jane Doe #2 are Xu Jin and his wife, Liu Fang. The defendants allegedly engaged in clandestine, unsanctioned and illegal conduct within the US and facilitated the travel of Chinese government officials to the US in order to further carry out these illegal acts.  Between 2016 and 2019, multiple Chinese officials directed the defendants, and several others, to engage in efforts to coerce the victims to return to China.

The US Department of Justice has identified Operation Fox Hunt as an initiative by the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Public Security to locate and repatriate alleged Chinese “fugitives” who had fled to foreign countries that have committed crimes under Chinese law.  The Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó Gōng’ānbù (Ministry of Public Security of the People’s Republic of China) or MPS is an internal and political security and domestic intelligence service. Once back in China, those individuals typically face stiff charges. After  People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping  assumed power in 2013, he initiated a sweeping anti-corruption campaign. Xi vowed to hunt down powerful “tigers” as well as lowly “flies” in the campaign to eradicate corruption. The slogan of the campaign became “fight tigers, swat flies and hunt foxes.” Xi warned corruption was so bad that it could threaten the Communist Party of China’s grip on power. According to Human Rights Watch, that campaign has netted thousands of party leaders and rank-and-file government officials domestically. Operations Fox Hunt and Skynet were part of the effort internationally. In June 2014, authorities established the International Office of Pursuing Fugitives and Recovering Embezzled Assets–staffed with a composite of personnel seconded from eight government agencies. Just three years afterward, 3,587 fugitives from over 90 countries had been returned to China. 

Absent an extradition treaty between the US and China, one might look upon the problem as Chinese authorities taking it upon themselves to bring criminals to justice. However, it is of great concern for US officials that Operation Fox Hunt operatives, rather than working in the US with the approval and coordination of the federal government, instead regularly enter the US without notifying any bureaucracy in Washington relevant to their planned actions and engage in violations of US criminal law. To that extent, the activity has been described not only as “an end-run around the Department of State and the Department of Justice,” but “an end-run around US law.” Even more, it is alleged by US national security officials that despite Beijing’s claims to the contrary, identification and repatriation teams are pursuing certain individuals not due to a business dispute in China or violation of Chinese criminal law. Rather, there is a political purpose to the activity. In addition to tracking down those accused of economic crimes, Chinese identification and repatriation teams travel the world in pursuit of those afoul of the Communist Party of China, to include: Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hong Kongers, and followers of the Falun Gong religious movement. To force them into returning, authorities subject their relatives in China to harassment, jail, torture and other mistreatment, sometimes recording hostage-like videos to send to the US. Somewhat less concerning is Operation Sky Net which is a program that runs concurrently alongside Operation Fox Hunt and augment it by cutting-off the financial flows of citizens who have fled overseas and working to recover any proceeds gained through corruption.

Operation Fox Hunt: A MPS Mission

Although the Chinese citizens sought under Operation Fox Hunt are located overseas, identification and repatriation would be a task intrinsic to the mission of MPS. MPS surely has the most complete, up-to-date records on Chinese citizens and tracking down and identifying citizens its officers have honed and polished over decades. For that reason, MPS may very well be pulled into the mix of overseas espionage activities more often than may be presently conceived in the US and among its allies and partners. That same information about Chinese citizens is certainly of great interest to the Communist Party of China and in its hands via MPS. In addition to performing standard domestic functions as a law enforcement and intelligence and counterintelligence service, MPS is very much tied to the Communist Party of China to the extent that its present raison d’être and primary responsibility is to help the Party maintain its tight grip on the population.

To cloak their pursuit of individuals in apparent legality, Beijing has had the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), an inter-governmental law enforcement organization, to issue “Red Notices,” enumerating hosts of business crimes allegedly committed by their targets. In April 2015, China published a most-wanted list, called “100 Red Notices” that held the names of 100 officials and business executives accused in major corruption cases. According to government statistics, by December 2017, 51 out of “100 Red Notices” had returned to China. Among them, 10 were reportedly repatriated by foreign governments, while 35 returned “voluntarily” after being “persuaded.”

To cloak its pursuit of individuals in apparent legality, Beijing has had the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), an inter-governmental law enforcement organization, to issue “Red Notices,” enumerating hosts of business crimes allegedly committed by their targets. In April 2015, China published a most-wanted list, called “100 Red Notices” that held the names of 100 officials and business executives accused in major corruption cases. According to government statistics, by December 2017, 51 out of “100 Red Notices” had returned to China. Among them, 10 were reportedly repatriated by foreign governments, while 35 returned “voluntarily” after being “persuaded.”

Interestingly, Beijing’s acquisition of Red Notices on the innocent is surely a sinister practice. It has been a human rights concern of considerable importance in US-China relations. Reportedly, there are ongoing efforts by the US and other countries to snuff out Beijing’s Red Notice acquisition activity. One might say that any effort to do that would be near akin to shutting off the lights in the library reading room before closing. The list of “100 Red Notices” and every Red Notice acquired since that list  was posted, long ago should have served as figurative beckoning fingers for those seeking to defeat Operation Fox Hunt as to where the identification and repatriation teams would eventually show up. Countless traps and other tricks should have brought the whole cabaret down. With a proper strategy, officers directly from US counterintelligence services and perhaps truly well-equipped and well-experienced state, county, and municipal law enforcement organizations around the US should have used for good, stealthy, professional reconnaissance and surveillance. That reconnaissance and surveillance would have needed to have been performed unobtrusively and for the sake of those under Beijing’s requested Red Notices, unintrusively. Patience would also have been a main ingredient for success. The 17th century French traveller and jeweller, Jean Baptiste Chardin, (1643 – 1713) in “Voyages en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient” (1711), wrote: “La patience est amère, mais son fruit est doux.” (Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.) Further, to succeed, no assistance from contractors in the activity should have been allowed. Contractors for the most part can only offer what the young people refer to as “gangstalking,” “Keystone Cop” type choreography, and school-boy pranks. In one way or another they would have ruined anything they touched as they typically do.

Federal Court Documents Versus Investigative Reports as Sources

In an interview with George Plimpton in the Fall 1990 edition of the Paris Review, Maya Angelou said: “The facts can obscure the truth, what it really felt like.” Many might imagine the rudiments of tactics, techniques and procedures, and methods of China’s efforts as presented in the federal court document might serve as a source for guidance. They would be mistaken. Reading through the indictment, the facts of the case on first impression may appear laid out in the federal court document in a somewhat Daedalian manner to the nonlegal scholar, the layman. Not even the sequence of events was not made clear. From what is presented in the federal court indictment, one might believe the case leading to the indictment of Operation Fox Hunt operatives was rather featureless. The ways in which Chinese identification and repatriation teams acted as laid out appear almost predictable, given the nature of their mission and their desire to satisfy the authorities who commissioned the enterprise. There is nothing in the document that would strike a reader as something new, intriguing, or recherché. Much of what is within could hardly serve as a foundation upon which US law enforcement and counterintelligence service might be better enabled to construct new approaches to mitigate them. The whole matter actually took on new meaning for greatcharlie after reading a July 22, 2021 ProPublica article which conveyed the facts of the case in an interesting way stirred greatcharlie’s interest and resulted in a decision to dive deeper into the facts of the case.

 In the reports of investigative journalists of ProPublica and other publications, there is general acceptance of the facts as presented in the federal criminal complaint. Yet, even more important, the investigative reports provide color to the story of the identification and repatriation team’s activities. The investigative journalists’ stories offer assessments of principal actors involved, ascribing traits to them, painting pictures of them as well as locations where specific acts occurred, and aiding readers in understanding how it likely felt to be victimized by such an enterprise. Investigative journalists also present moments of life in a way that allows readers to enter an experience. Indeed, there is much to learn from several impressive articles by investigative journalists. By including that information with facts, the story of the episode provides a structure that allows a sufficient parsing of everything involved. 

Xu Jin (above), a legal permanent resident in the US, formerly directed the development commission of Wuhan, China before he left for the US in 2010. In both 2012 and 2014, the Chinese government caused the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) to issue “Red Notices” for Xu and Liu. According to those Red Notices, Xu was wanted by the Chinese government for “embezzlement,” abuse of power, [and] acceptance of bribes,” pursuant to Chinese Criminal Law Articles 383, 385, and 397, which carried a maximum possible penalty of life imprisonment. In 2015, the Chinese government put the couple on its list of 100 most wanted fugitives in Operation Fox Hunt. Chinese authorities have said they made three formal requests for US assistance about the couple, providing evidence about alleged money laundering and immigration crimes that could be prosecuted in the US.

Targets of the New Jersey Mission

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, Xu had directed Wuhan’s development commission before he left for the US in 2010 with his wife, Liu, who is a former insurance company executive. Xu and Liu, both 57 at the time of this writing, had obtained US green cards through a program that grants residency to foreigners who invest more than $500,000 in the US. In the interest of full-disclosure, a California consultant who helped them apply for the green cards later pleaded guilty to immigration fraud, and investigators in that case alleged that the wife’s petition for residency contained false information. But they remain legal residents. Using its standard artifice to tie everything up neatly with a legal bow, in and around 2012 and 2014, the Chinese government caused the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), an inter-governmental law enforcement organization to issue “Red Notices” for Xu and Liu. According to those Red Notices, Xu was wanted by the Chinese government for “embezzlement” abuse of power [and] acceptance of bribes,” pursuant to Chinese Criminal Law Articles 383, 385, and 397, which carried a maximum possible penalty of life imprisonment. In 2015, the Chinese government put the couple on its list of 100 most wanted fugitives in Operation Fox Hunt. Chinese authorities have said they made three formal requests for US assistance about the wanted couple, providing evidence about alleged money laundering and immigration crimes that could be prosecuted here. A spokesperson for the US Department of Justice declined to comment on that assertion.

In April 2018, the Chinese privately owned company, Xinba Construction Group Company, filed a lawsuit against the couple in New Jersey state court, accusing Xu of holding up projects to extort money from companies, and due to his actions, those companies still owe Xinba more than $10 million for contracts performed. In court filings, the couple denied Xu extorted or looted any company, calling the litigation an artifice designed to coerce the couple “to return to China and, if not, to harass and attempt to bankrupt” them. Their countersuit also alleged an extensive harassment campaign was being waged against them by Chinese operatives. They also claimed those same operatives had kidnapped Xu’s father living in China and that they had posed as special agents of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to stalk an immediate relative of Xu’s living in the US. Although the endangered couple’s attorney had accurately and clearly laid out the Chinese government’s villany, a judge in September 2019, out of ignorance, rejected their claims, saying they failed to provide sufficient evidence that Xinba was working with the Chinese government. A preceding judge overseeing the case, completely failing to understand the absolute gravity of matter with regard to US national security, remarked: “It’s not your ordinary case you see in the Superior Court in Essex County, but we’re open for all business I guess . . . No herniated discs. No slip and fall in this case.”

Perchance, back in Beijing, dismissive responses as such  from jurists of the US court system were predicted. US judges, unsure when they wanted to be sure, would reject what they did not understand or thought unimaginable. Predicting such behavior would presumably be one among a set of assumptions and predictions made in Beijing on the actions and reactions of those elements in the US whose responsibility and capability would be to present obstacles or prevent Operation Fox Hunt from succeeding. Those elements in the US were apparently no more threatening to senior executives, managers, and planners in MPS than the Maginot Line was to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht in 1940.

Liu Feng (above), is the wife of Xu Jin. A former insurance company executive, she came to the US with Xu in 2010. According to a Red Notice issued by Interpol, Liu is equally sought for arrest as Xu. In April 2018, the Chinese privately owned company, Xinba Construction Group Company, filed a lawsuit against Xu and Liu in New Jersey state court, accusing Xu of holding up projects to extort money from companies, and due to his actions, those companies still owe Xinba more than $10 million for contracts performed. In court filings, the couple denied Xu extorted or looted any company, calling the litigation an artifice designed to coerce the couple “to return to China and, if not, to harass and attempt to bankrupt” them. Their countersuit also alleged an extensive harassment campaign was being waged against them by Chinese operatives. They also claimed those same operatives had kidnapped Xu’s father living in China and had posed as federal agents to stalk an immediate relative of Liu living in the US.

Preparation for the Mission: What Was likely Raised in Feasibility Studies Done in Advance?

One should never expect China to come charging in with reckless abandon. If it had happened in the past, it surely will happen any more. The efforts of those operating in the US on all levels, espionage, identification and repatriation, and perchance, covert operations, will typically be calibrated, with supposedly every precaution taken into consideration. Vouloir c’est pouvoir. Operation Fox Hunt has been marked by concerted, energetic, and endless activity by China. For the most part, Chinese efforts in the US have been quiet, smooth, and quite sophisticated in nature. Albeit moving into the realm of conjecture, one can imagine how a feasibility study for the rendition operation was constructed and the assessments that led to the project being green-lit. 

MPS in coordination with China’s foreign intelligence services likely studied the situation, and recognized just how open the US was for the theft of its secrets in all sectors and then clearly decided to pour through, taking whatever they could. To date, there is no indication that they have decided to pare down any aspect of their clandestine and covert operations in the US, and evidently they have encountered nothing to even suggest that they should retreat. Ventis secundis, tene/tenete cursum. (The winds being favorable, hold the course.)

Surely, there were several feasibility studies produced on the possibility of successfully conducting identification and repatriation operations with concern at minimum focused on how under current circumstances, with espionage activities drawing so much attention in the US, the situation has not been made less secure for all teams operating there,  and the pitfalls of conducting such identification and repatriation operations with relations between the two countries at a relative low point. Such studies would likely be put before those assigned to manage the identification and repatriation operations in the US ostensibly  along with the volumes of studies done that provided confidence fhst China’s “espionage tsunami” would meet with considerable success.

Imaginably, information gathered for such feasibility studies would be up-to-date, and perhaps would be thorough enough to include manifests of law enforcement officers and counterintelligence officers within the planned area of operation of the identification and repatriation team, with notes on their working hours, usual movements and daily habits. If that might even remotely be the case, it would also mean China has engaged, and is likely continually engaged, in covert surveillance of many law enforcement and counterintelligence officers in the US who they may have discovered were handling Chinese espionage and identification and repatriation cases. They may have discovered that those investigators often display varied levels of diligence, are often inattentive when visiting site, are rarely thorough and at time outrightly remiss when interviewing individuals of interest, display their insecurities in conversation, prone to bullying their own citizens without any apparent cause, and are unprofessional often in dealing with existing contacts. Despite this perception based on analyses in the abstract or empirical evidence, US counterintelligence and law enforcement organizations around the US are not without count, and it would prove to be a mistake to minimize the threat of their presence altogether.

It is possible that feasibility studies such as those suggested had some influence on the decision on the location, the timing of the operations, and which émigré to pursue from a list of those sought. To this extent, Chinese investigators, as those participating in the identification and repatriation scheme, would be armed and enabled with an abundance of information. They enter the US, clearly equipped, able, and expecting to overcome difficulties foreseen and unforeseen from federal, state, or even municipal law enforcement or US counterintelligence services they may encounter. They have managed to establish, in the venues in which they have operated, freedom of movement so to speak. Of course, certain levels of information deemed “ultra-secret” or however it might be described by Chinese intelligence, would unlikely be shared by intelligence services with the identification and repatriation teams. Perhaps overall, the exchange of information by some organizations would be on a “need to know” basis.

In the abstract, conceivably lessons learned are internalized, studies and observations of law enforcement as much as counterintelligence surely are constantly underway in all the countries by every organization operating in respectively. In turn those studies and observations are doubtlessly shared to mutually support the success of one another. What may be recognized as too risky, ineffective, expected by the adversary through recent experience, would be cut away. What seemed to be a more available path to ends, is given consideration, and will likely find its way in efforts to prepare those going on the next missions. Malum est consilium quod mutari non potest. (Bad (ill-considered) is the plan that cannot be changed.)

Most important to note is that whether the matter is espionage or other malign clandestine and covert activities overseas, there can be no doubt that all are constantly moving through a process of evolution. It appears to be a manifestation of an idea, reflective of what has been dubbed “Xi thought,” that Chinese activities performed by government, Communist Party of China, or irregulars must be driven by an energy to push the country onward and upward into the position of the dominant power of the world and one might imagine perhaps even beyond that stature, whatever designs the Communist Party of China leadership might have in mind for that to be. At first blush, these comments may strike a few readers as being a bit lightweight, but some reasoning behind risking such audacious action in the US should be parsed out and laid out for readers to possibly accept and provide a basis for greatcharlie’s suggestions as to what may have been organized and had transpired beneath the surface.

The Main Operation Fox Hunt Players in This Drama

Once fully operational, the identification and repatriation team for the New Jersey mission grew to at least 19 US and Chinese operatives. Nine of the operatives among the identification and repatriation team members of the Operation Fox Hunt New Jersey operation are part of the case filed in the Eastern District of New York, Criminal Division.

Included in the criminal complaint were the following. Hu Ji was the lead investigator and identification and repatriation team leader.  Hu was at the time of the indictment a 46 year old officer serving in the Wuhan Public Security Bureau, a municipal bureau of MPS. To be a bit more specific, he was a veteran officer of the bureau’s foreign affairs unit. Hu is a man of the world with a natural turn for clandestine action and placing others in trying positions. Hu gained notice after joining an Operation Fox Hunt task force. Reportedly, in early 2016, the Wuhan newsmedia had published glowing profiles about him, describing his imposing height, his travels to 29 countries, and his arrests of eight fugitives.  In the view of the Wuhan newsmedia, Hu est a un autre niveau! In an interview, Hu told the Hubei Daily: “Out of the country does not mean out of the legal system.” He added: “Show your sword and punish even those in faraway lands.” 

Though in photographs Hu looks careworn, they typically present him as a professional, intelligent, well-minded, well-built–about 6-foot-1, well-dressed, well-groomed, handsome, smooth, and confident-looking, Chinese male. Hu is a compound of cunning and audacity, girded with steady nerves. His gift as a cool observer of mankind and an understanding of complicated interpersonal relationships allowed him to successfully carry off the job of team leader. That understanding of people surely aided him in manipulating and exploiting others. Hu’s cases had led from Fiji to France to Mexico, making headlines back home. The work was riskier here; in fact, it was illegal. He acquired dominant knowledge of the territory in which he operated. Hu was not even afraid to be at the elbow of law enforcement personnel to explain his purpose using some tall story, some artifice. Hu would identify himself as a Chinese police officer on his tourist visa. US officials hardly gave him a second glance. Sometimes, it was best to hide in plain sight. Perhaps the best way to express what is discussed here is to state that in his work, Hu could be dashing and audacious, but also honorable and discreet, using wits and memory, acting gradually. He could display a certain gentleness but certainly had the capability to be quite cruel. He had no qualms about exploiting individual weakness. Surely, individuals as Hu often seem far too well-equipped for the world in comparison to people most readers might know, or to themselves. In attempting to ascribe certain traits to Hu given his role as a normal Operation Fox Hunt lead investigator and identification and repatriation team leader, those considered by greatcharlie may appear to be mere abstractions. However, as far as one can tell, these are precisely the traits that assisted Hu in becoming a master at his work.

 At the time the complaint was filed, Zhu Feng, also known as “Johnny Zhu,” was a 34 year old PRC citizen and US lawful permanent resident, and until approximately April 2017, was a resident of Flushing, Queens, in New York City. Zhu had studied in Guam before moving to Flushing, which holds one of largest enclaves of Chinese immigrants in the US. His extended family became legal US residents and appreciated life in their new home. Zhu’s older brother served in the US military and then worked for the Social Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection, according to court documents and public records. Zhu reportedly performed odd jobs: tour guide, selling used cars. On social media, he sported a Yankees cap and a boyish smile and called himself “Endless Johnny.” He was torn from that life to serve as an involuntary clandestine operative for the Chinese government. Zhu Yong, also known as Jason Zhu,” was a 64 year old Chinese citizen and a legal permanent resident in the US. Zhu Yong was the father of co-defendant Zhu Feng. The older Zhu, is divorced and suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. He did not have a steady job, and divided his time between a home in Connecticut and his older son’s place in Queens. He traveled frequently to China which very likely caught the attention of MPS.

This conscription of families of captured targets is a ruthless and effective tactic. Yet, Chinese authorities find great value in it reportedly because they believe it ensures loyalty and obedience. They also apparently believe that allowing identification and repatriation teams to use local intermediaries enable them to shield Chinese officers from scrutiny by US counterintelligence services and state, county, and municipal law enforcement organizations around the US. The teams are often organized in what has been described as silos to keep operatives unaware of who other team members are or the full details of their mission.

Michael McMahon, a 53 year old US citizen, was a licensed private detective in New Jersey. McMahon came from an Irish-American family of police officers and firefighters. During his 14 years at the New York City Police Department, he worked in narcotics and an elite street crime unit, rising to detective sergeant. He received the Police Combat Cross, the department’s second-highest honor, for his role in a gunfight in the Bronx. In 2003, he retired on partial disability related to ailments caused by his time at Ground Zero after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. His wife, an actress, once had a long-running part on “As the World Turns,” a daytime soap opera. Zheng Congying, a 25 year old Chinese citizen and legal permanent resident, resided in Brooklyn, New York. Investigators believe he was hired muscle. Li Minjun, a 65 year old citizen and resident of China, was a physician formerly of the Hubei Xiangyang Center Hospital in Xiangyang, China. Li had also worked for the MPS. Brought aboard the team as a specialist, her assignment was to escort Xu’s father from China to the US against his will with the hope that he would cause his son to surrender to the identification and repatriation team.

Hu Ji was the lead investigator and identification and repatriation team leader.  Hu was at the time of his indictment was an officer serving in the Wuhan Public Security Bureau, a municipal bureau of MPS. To be a bit more specific, he was a veteran officer of the bureau’s foreign affairs unit. Hu is a man of the world with a natural turn for clandestine action and placing others in trying positions. Hu gained notice after joining an Operation Fox Hunt task force. Reportedly, in early 2016, the Wuhan newsmedia had published glowing profiles about him, describing his imposing height, his travels to 29 countries, and his arrests of eight fugitives. In an interview, Hu told the Hubei Daily: “Out of the country does not mean out of the legal system.” He added: “Show your sword and punish even those in faraway lands.”

PRC Official-2 was at one time an individual whose identity was known only to the Grand Jury. However, PRC Official-2 has since been revealed to be Tu Lan, a 50 year old citizen and resident of China, was employed as a prosecutor with the Hanyang People’s Procuratorate and a leader of a Wuhan Fox Hunt task force. She would eventually direct day-to-day activities of the identification and repatriation team. However, as she did not speak English, Johnny would stick close and be her intermediary between her and Michael McMahon, the US private investigator, who was referred to by the identification and repatriation team members simply as “Mike.” 

Zhai Yongqiang, a 46 year old Chinese citizen, resided in China and California. According to court documents, Tu Lan and Zhai Yongqiang, age 46, were the last of the nine charged in the superseding complaint. The identity of a ninth defendant, named Anonymous by US prosecutors, remains under seal.

Among those also included in the federal court documents but not indicted were PRC Official-1 is an individual whose identity remains known only to the Grand Jury.  PRC Official-1 is said to be a Chinese citizen and a director of the Wuhan prosecution office’s anti-corruption bureau. Note that US prosecutors did not charge or identify PRC Official-1 or PRC Official-2 which frequently occurs for strategic and diplomatic reasons with regard to counterintelligence cases. Rong Jing, a 39 year old permanent resident in the US, was Hu’s point man in California. He was a married businessman, living in Rancho Cucamonga, about 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Court documents state Rong described himself as a bounty hunter for the Chinese government. He apparently enjoyed his “Motherland” and was quite talkative about it. Rong’s discussion of his work as identification and repatriation team member provided investigators with a wealth of information on the insidious nature and ubiquitous presence of the Operation Fox Hunt networks. Co-conspirator #3 was an operative who on or about and between May 15, 2017 and May17, 2017, contacted and hired a private investigator in California–dubbed P1 in the federal court document–for the purpose of surveilling Jane Doe #2. Co-conspirator #3 provided P1 with a picture of a document from the defendant Zhai Yongqiang containing the name and personal identification information belonging to Xu.

Communist Party of China Expectations of the Identification and Repatriation Team 

In 2015, Liu Dong, then deputy director of MPS’s economic crimes division, headed Operation Fox Hunt for the organization. He used interviews with China’s newsmedia to supposedly provide citizens with a rare look into the Operation Fox Hunt teams. He told Xinhua news agency that the work required a young team because members needed the strength to withstand long hours and frequent long-distance travel. Liu also told Xinhua that his team was highly intelligent, tough and nimble, with backgrounds in economics, law, foreign languages and business management. He further stated that team members were selected in part for their “emotional quotient” for dealing with overseas law enforcement, and for their ability to handle adversity.

For those team members indoctrinated in Communist Chinese thought doubtlessly recognizes his or her solemn responsibility to ensure China achieved its maximum potential everyday. Chinese intelligence officers in the various services likely feel that they can outperform their opponents and overcome their efforts to defend targets from espionage and efforts to intercept them. One might postulate in the abstract that Chinese intelligence officers may very well have closely observed, or may have read reports on how the behavior, performance and professionalism of officers of organizations in adversarial countries responsible for investigating and halting China’s espionage and any other activities in them was so negative, self-defeating, and self-destructive that confidence in their own abilities was uplifted. Perhaps this impression or belief grows in certitude with every review of certain adversaries. While there may not exactly be a wide open door there likely appeared to be seemingly endless potential for action and perhaps limitless possibilities.

Imaginably, those operatives from China already associated with the Chinese government who were selected for the identification and repatriation team had no bad habits–such as indulging in alcohol, narcotics, pornograpby, misogyny, and prostitution–that could potentially become amplified in a Western environment. To go a bit further using Chinese intelligence officers as a model, identification and repatriation team members, while deployed in service of their country, would not be expected to take any aspect of their duties lightly. They would expectantly never display any desire to involve themselves with banal amusements to fill time when not active in the field–one could hardly call any time while deployed “outside working hours.”–or entertain themselves on mobile phones while performing work tasks. One might presume that whatever they may most enjoy, they contented themselves with least. In effect, the team was expected to figuratively display the “company culture” of the Communist Party of China and live and act by “company principles.” By engaging in heavy handed actions against family members of the targets, team members certainly could be said to have displayed the “best practices” of the company.

Despite all of the safeguards in place, team members were well-aware that danger in the form of lurking US counterintelligence services. While perhaps highly motivated, on the ground, the hyperbole of China’s domination of the field in the US uttered by senior executives and Communist Party of China leaders is likely obviate in the minds of many operatives due to the very strong desire not to be captured. Presumably, no Chinese intelligence officer or clandestine or covert operative of any kind wants to be caught due to his or her own delinquency, carelessness, or outright stupidity. There is also the matter of punishment they might face back home for their failure. In recent memory, few to none among have been caught and put on trial in a US court. This is surely the standard and the expectation for all of those deployed at the Chinese government’s bidding. Unusquisque mavult credere quam iudicare. (Everyone prefers to believe than to think.)

In 2015, Liu Dong, then deputy director of MPS’s economic crimes division, headed Operation Fox Hunt for the organization. He used interviews with China’s newsmedia to supposedly provide citizens with a rare look into the Operation Fox Hunt teams. He told Xinhua news agency that the work required a young team because members needed the strength to withstand long hours and frequent long-distance travel. Liu also told Xinhua that his team was highly intelligent, tough and nimble, with backgrounds in economics, law, foreign languages and business management. He further stated that team members were selected in part for their “emotional quotient” for dealing with overseas law enforcement, and for their ability to handle adversity.

Stalking and Attempted Repatriation of Xu Ji and Liu Feng

As the story goes, in September 2016, Hu flew to New York to launch the operation. Among his first moves, he went into New Jersey to reconnoiter the house in Short Hills and other locations. Then at Hu’s direction, his bevy of clandestine operatives began building a network. First, they needed a local private investigator, preferably a former police officer with contacts and the skills to track people down. Zhu Yong, together with co-conspirator whose identity is known only to the Grand Jury as “Co-conspirator #1,” hired Michael McMahon to investigate and surveil Xu. McMahon came from a family of police officers and firefighters. As an officer in the New York City Police Department (NYPD) for 14 years, he had served in a narcotics unit and an elite street crime unit. He rose to the rank of detective sergeant. He received the Police Combat Cross for his role in a gunfight in the Bronx. McMahon retired in 2003 on partial disability related to ailments caused by his time at Ground Zero after the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack. Reportedly, his wife, an actress, had a long-running part on “As the World Turns,” a daytime soap opera. Imaginably as a security precaution, Hu’s operatives enlisted a woman who presented herself as the New York-based employee of a translation company to contact McMahon. The woman explained to him that she discovered him through a Google search. She then introduced him to Zhu Feng and Zhu Yong, describing them as representatives of a private Chinese company that was trying to recover assets from a former employee who had stolen money.  Zhu Feng identified himself as the nephew of the owner of the Chinese firm, which he allegedly described as a construction company. The following month, Hu traveled to the US to meet with McMahon at a Panera Bread restaurant in Paramus, New Jersey, a suburb about 20 miles from New York City. Reportedly, the MPS officer presented himself as Eric Yan, an executive of the private company, during that meeting and other interactions. Zhu Feng and Zhu Yong also participated in Hu’s meetings with McMahon. Hu provided McMahon with a retainer of $5000 at that first meeting.  The two Zhu’s were reportedly involved with his succeeding payments. McMahon’s attorney claims his client “believed he was meeting company personnel” and never learned the identification and repatriation team’s true mission. “Nothing seemed suspicious at meetings” according to McMahon’s attorney. He also indicates that the identification and repatriation team members that his client met at no point mentioned the Chinese government or that anybody worked in law enforcement in China. He claims the focus of discussions was asset recovery, and they convincingly portrayed themselves as company employees with a vested interest in locating the money. 

Soon after he was hired, McMahon began to investigate Xu and his family, a process which included conducting surveillance on Xu and obtaining his banking information. ProPublica reports that McMahon brought in two more investigators to help stake out a suspected location of Xu and Liu, a house in New Jersey. He took the precaution of alerting local police to the surveillance presumably to prevent any misunderstandings if detected or reported by passers-by. (At that point, McMahon demonstrated the willingness to cooperate with law enforcement. Thereby, ample opportunity existed  for US counterintelligence services and law enforcement to enlist his assistance as an informant or operative. For reasons unknown, the opportunity was passed up.) As indicated by the federal document, McMahon’s activities were initially directed by the defendant Zhu Yong and later directly by Hu and Zhu Feng. McMahon was diligent in providing reports on his progress to Hu. In the Fall of 2016, McMahon sent Hu information regarding Xu and his family. In or about November 2016, McMahon emailed information about Liu’s international travel. Later, around December 2016, McMahon emailed Hu information concerning Liu’s date of birth, Social Security Number, and banking information. In November, Hu, still using the nom de guerre Yang, emailed McMahon to say he had “reported all we found” to his superiors in China

In December 2016, Hu visited New York again. On that occasion, he traveled with his manager. US authorities only identified Hu’s superior only as PRC Official-1, the director of the Wuhan prosecution office’s anti-corruption bureau and a leader of a Wuhan Fox Hunt task force that includes prosecutors and investigators in the Communist Party’s anti-corruption unit. After that visit, Hu and Zhu Feng returned to China. Oddly enough, in a meeting in Wuhan, Hu confided to Zhu that next time they did not plan to come back from the US without the targets.

Following months of investigative work by McMahon, the identification and repatriation team planned a specific operation to stalk and grab Xu via psychological coercion. It was then that the team moved to bring Xu’s elderly father from China to the US in order to communicate a threat on behalf of the Chinese government directly to Xu. As part of the plan, Xu’s father was directed to tell him to the effect that if he did not return to China, his family there would suffer serious harm, including imprisonment. In furtherance of this criminal scheme, team members, Zhu, Tu Lan, and Li Minjun traveled to the US.

Malgré-nous Among the Team’s Members

It has been said that in zealousness, one can usually find some weakness, some hidden doubts. In China, the world is limited to what is seen through the lens of the Communist Party of China and “Xi thought.” For some Chinese citizens, that line of thinking and a will of iron act as blinders, preventing other perspectives from seeping in. From the view of the Communist Party of China, in the New Jersey operation, a team was being sent in under Hu’s leadership whose members’ minds were turned wholly toward bringing John Doe #1 back to China. In no small part, therein lies the causality for the ultimate breakdown of the New Jersey identification and repatriation operation. 

Interestingly, not all team members were members of the Communist Party of China or aspired to be such. One would think Party membership would be sine qua non for a mission of this type as it was actually commissioned by the Party and given that certain exigent circumstances could arise, requiring almost anything of team members, including literal self-sacrifice. Those called upon were indeed not the most dedicated. The teams and their superiors in Beijing erred in presuming without any reliable ability to predict or confirm the fidelity of those non-Party members would gladly follow orders in every circumstance.

With the New Jersey enterprise, it is clear two team members, Zhu Feng and Zhu Yong were called upon presumptively because their loyalty was guaranteed with dangled threats to cause misfortune for their relatives, some of whom had already suffered by the government’s hand. It was certainly an odd type of fidelity. In Zhu Feng’s particular case, in the summer of 2016, he received news from relatives in Wuhan that MPS had brought his uncle, a former accountant, back to China from Houston. Zhu’s relatives also contacted him to say: “The cop who caught your uncle is named Hu Ji. They further explained: “He will contact you about another case. Do what he says.” Team Members of identification and repatriation teams such as Zhu Feng and Zhu Yong are ostensibly China’s version of the French malgré-nous. Malgré-nous were those men of the Alsace-Moselle region who were conscripted against their will into the German Wehrmacht or the Waffen SS during World War II. Chinese citizens were torn from their normal daily lives and pressed into service not simply as a matter of being under the authority and thumb of hostile power that controlled the territory in which they lived, but coping with the threat of harm, even death, of loved ones also living under the regime.

The Initial Effort and the First “Emotional Bomb”

In the spring of 2017, the plan was ready and all team elements were assembled in the US. Hu remained in Wuhan, managing activities, but he sent in a specialist, Tu Lan, a prosecutor for the Hanyang District of Wuhan. She would lead the repatriation team on the ground, but because she did not speak English, Zhu Feng (hereinafter referred to as Zhu as the role of his father, Zhu Yong, was not discussed beyond this point in any sources) would stick close and be her intermediary with McMahon. The other specialist sent into the US, Li Minjun, as aforementioned, was a doctor who had worked for MPS, US officials allege her assignment was to escort an elderly man across the world against his will in order to ambush his son, Xu. Reportedly, Hu hoped the shock would cause the wanted man, Xu Jin, to surrender on the spot. The age of Xu’s father’s age has not been disclosed, but presumably Hu felt he was frail enough to put Li at his side for the more than 15-hour flight. Interestingly, Zhu Yong, who at the mission’s outset was entrusted to find and establish links with a US-based private investigator with specific characteristics, Tu, Li, and McMahon were ages 64, 50, 65, and 53 respectively. It seems that for MPS managers, age has importance, imaginably equating to experience, capability, reliability, solid judgment, and wisdom among other positive qualities.

Hu told McMahon in an email in March that the plan was to bring the father unannounced to the house in New Jersey and lure him out. Hu also gave him the following instructions: “We just want to recomm[e]nd you trace him to find [his son’s] address.” According to the federal court document, Hu offered to pay McMahon in cash for his assistance. McMahon accepted the offer. Hu later emailed McMahon two photographs, one of which depicted Xu and Liu while the other depicted Xu’s parents. Before returning to the US, Zhu was given the task of overseeing operatives he had hired in the Chinese community in New York. He sent a text message ordering one operative to join Mahon’s  surveillance in New Jersey with instructions to “conduct surveillance there for 5 days. 12 hours on the first day, 10 hours on the second day, and 8 hours on the last three days . . . The compensation is 1800USD.” 

To all appearances, Zhu had Hu’s complete confidence. On first impression, an interesting historical parallel comes to mind with regard to the developing relationship between Zhu as a conscript with his superiors, or more accurately, his captors Hu and Tu. Despite being torn from his former carefree existence and forced to become a player in Operation Fox Hunt, he was nevertheless given key tasks, considerable responsibility, and treated in a rather avuncular manner particularly by Hu. In Ancient Rome, occasionally certain masters would depend upon slaves to perform important duties and provide them with opportunities for growth within the society. A couple of famous examples of that are the relationship that grew between the master Terentius Lucanus and Publius Terentius and that between Carpophorus and Callixtus. Born between 195/185 BC, Roman senator Terentius Lucanus brought Publius Terentius to Rome as a slave. He educated him, and freed him after being impressed by his abilities. Publius Terentius would become a playwright known better today as Terence. Terence’s 6 plays have survived through the centuries. He died young around 159 BC. Callixtus was a young slave from Rome. His master Carpophorus, gave him the responsibility of collecting funds given as alms by other Christians. Callixtus would become a Christian himself. According to Sextus Julius Africanus, Callixtus would become the Bishop of Rome from c. 218 AD, and is known both as Callistus I and Pope Callixtus. He was martyred for his Christian faith in c. 223 AD and is venerated as a saint by the Catholic Church. Perchance Hu was grooming Zhu as a protégé and foresaw a future for him as a full-fledged officer in MPS or some other security service.

Exploitation of Émigré Communities

Clever choices have been made by the identification and repatriation teams based on studies on the practices of law enforcement organizations around the US where Chinese investigators must operate. Aware of the Chinese government’s hostile activities within their own community, it would seem to be grave error to believe law enforcement around the US could possibly know what the Chinese government is doing in the US against émigrés or what it is capable of doing to please or make a good impression with the Communist Party of China. It is not always the case but to an extent, the émigrés, thinking ostensibly in survival mode, will typically see no other way to get by but to remain obedient to Chinese authorities. Unfortunately, there is of course the other reality that not everyone can be or wants to be a noble soul. 

As discussed in the December 13, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled  “Meditations and Ruminations on Chinese Intelligence: Revisiting a Lesson on Developing Insights from Four Decades Ago,” under Article 9 of the National Security Law of the People’s Republic of China, as adopted at the 15th session of the Standing Committee of the Twelfth National People’s Congress, maintenance of national security, priority shall be given to prevention, equal attention shall be paid to temporary and permanent solutions, specialized tasks shall be combined with reliance on the masses, the functions of specialized authorities and other relevant authorities in maintaining national security shall be maximized, and citizens and organizations shall be extensively mobilized to prevent, frustrate, and legally punish any conduct that compromises national security. Article 11 decrees that there will be no tolerance shown for the failure to meet one’s obligation to maintain national security. The article states: “All citizens of the People’s Republic of China, state authorities, armed forces, political parties, people’s groups, enterprises, public institutions, and other social organizations shall have the responsibility and obligation to maintain national security.” Authorities in China understand that extraordinary powers are entrusted in the hands of many, such as MPS and MSS officers, who work on national security matters. Contractors, and even informants, who might work on their behalf are placed under the same scrutiny. Those who have attempted to cross the Chinese government have faced stiff reprisals. The shadow of sudden death can hang over the head of any individual arrested for such betrayal. As stated under Article 13: “Whoever as an employee of a state authority abuses power, neglects duty, practices favoritism, or makes falsification in national security work or any activity involving national security shall be held liable in accordance with the law.” The article further declares: “Any individual or organization that fails to fulfill the obligation of maintaining national security or conducts any activity compromising national security in violation of this Law or any relevant law shall be held liable in accordance with the law.” The furtive work of Chinese citizens at home and abroad under the direction of the MPS, MSS, or PLA, does not need to be without guerdon. As explained under Article 12: “The state shall commend and reward individuals and organizations that have made prominent contributions to maintaining national security.

Unable to keep pace with the identification and repatriation teams from the start, naturally the initial hope would be given the gravity of the intrusion on US soil, that while moving about within Chinese émigré communities, the teams would at least act with some measure and would not exceed what is decent. That has not been the case regarding their behavior. Operation Fox Hunt teams have created great fear among the émigré communities. One might toss on top of that an apparent impunity with which hunters from China act against them. True, on paper, members of the Chinese émigré communities have nothing to fear in the US and are welcome to enjoy the benefits of living in a free society. Yet, as the MPS was able to accomplish more than imaginable in the US, displaying its power and capabilities, there remains uneasiness, fear, terror among Chinese émigré communities from something they are thousands of miles from. Chinese émigré communities are for the most part convinced of the ubiquitous nature of the Communist Party of China and China’s security services.

Chineee Émigré Communities and Unshakable Grip of Beijing

Unable to keep pace with the identification and repatriation teams from the start, the initial hope would be given the gravity of the intrusion on US soil, that within Chinese émigré communities, the teams would act with some measure and would not exceed what is decent. Surely, that has not been the case regarding their behavior. Operation Fox Hunt teams have created great fear among the émigré communities. One might toss on top of that an apparent impunity with which hunters from China act against them. True, on paper, members of the Chinese émigré communities have nothing to fear in the US and are welcome to enjoy the benefits of living in a free society. Yet, as the MPS was able to accomplish more than imaginable in the US, displaying its power and capabilities, there remains uneasiness, fear, terror among Chinese émigré communities from something they are thousands of miles from. Chinese émigré communities are for the most part convinced of the ubiquitous nature of the Communist Party of China and China’s security services. Indeed, within the émigré communities, there is an expectation, especially among more recent arrivals that always close by are recruited informants of MPS, Party Members, planted United Front Work Department operatives and informants, planted MSS intelligence officers, operatives, recruited informants. Memories and ways of living to survive in an authoritarian China are not easily shaken off. Quando libertas ceciderit, nemo libere dicere audebit. (When liberty will have fallen (falls/is lost), no one will dare to speak freely.) 

The learning curve for law enforcement organizations around the US may remain steep for some time as the ways and means with which the Chinese government uses to approach Chinese émigré communities on matters such as returning citizens and former citizens to China “to face justice,” is ever evolving. Use of lessons learned by the Operation Fox Hunt identification and repatriation teams will mean for the future more effective use of artifice, more effective collection of information within émigré communities, more effective counter-surveillance, more effective sharing information and data useful for operations among organizations engaged in clandestine and covert operations in the US.

To get Xu’s father into the US without incident, Zhu coached the captive elderly man on responses to standard questions asked by border inspectors at Newark Liberty International Airport. In advance of Xu’s father’s arrival in the US, the defendants Zhu and Tu flew to  Newark Liberty International Airport on or about April 3, 2017. Xu’s father and Li, the doctor, arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport on a flight from Shanghai on April 5, 2017. While in the US, the Tu met with Zhu and an individual known to US prosecutors as Co-conspirator #2 at a hotel in New Jersey. At that meeting, Tu directed Zhu and Co-conspirator #2 to surveil a residence belonging to a relative of Xu and Liu using night vision goggles in advance of bringing Xu’s father to the home. Tu also subsequently communicated with Zhu with regard to the logistics of the operation. On the evening of April 5, 2017, identification and repatriation team members brought Xu’s father to a house in New Jersey that belonged to his wife’s relatives. As that transpired, McMahon performed surveillance in the vicinity of the house belonging to Liu’s relatives to determine the present locations of members of Xu’s family, including Hu himself, which at that time remained unknown to the team.

On April 6, 2017, Xu met his father at a public location before they returned together to his residence. McMahon and other team members monitored the meeting of Xu and his father. That same day, Zhu requested that McMahon run a database check for a license plate number and address associated with Xu. McMahon provided that info. Xu’s father remained with his son for several days. During that time, he explained to Xu that his family in China would be harmed if he did not return to China. Hu’s hopes for a lightning-bolt triumph evaporated. Instead of acquiescence, the family stood fast and contacted law enforcement. The FBI got involved, a move the Operation Hunt team was almost immediately made aware of. According to the federal court document, on April 7, 2017, Zhu sent a text to Tu saying Hu wanted her “and the doctor to come back as soon as possible” to “evade actions by US law enforcement.”  That same day, Tu departed from John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York on a flight to Beijing. The next day, Li departed from Newark Liberty International Airport on a flight to Beijing.

Identification and Repatriation Team Receives Intriguing Alert

Although executed piecemeal, the departure of key members and leaders of the identification and repatriation team after the alert was sounded may have followed a prearranged course. As it was always possible that such a need to move fast would arise. Nevertheless, a flaw became apparent in that process. it would have made a bit more sense if team lead investigators and their superiors, when selecting team members, had only selected individuals who possessed certain talents, perhaps demonstrated on previous operations maybe in other areas, who would expectantly contribute to the operation’s success. In this particular situation, some identification and repatriation team members who remained in the field as Zhu appeared unsure of how to proceed, were unfamiliar with steps to take, and required supervision. Those next steps that needed to be taken should have been standard operating procedures deeply ingrained through training. In an exigent situation, the team leader also appeared not certain as to how team members might perform. Tu, for instance, appeared to feel the need to be emphatic when issuing instructions. Zhu communicated in a similar way to the operatives that he supervised. This “crack” in the team selection process was to a degree a self-inflicted handicap and vulnerability that could have proved costly if US counterintelligence services and law enforcement organizations around the US were aware of the situation and positioned themselves to take advantage of it. Knowing that this is how the identification and repatriation teams operate, it could allow them to be better prepared and steal a March on their prey on another occasion when they are in their sights. However, this may have been a lesson learned by Operation Fox Hunt managers and it is unlikely that they would not make the necessary changes to avoid dealing with this issue in the future. Surely, there remains a chance the situation will be the same next time, too! Some Operation Fox Hunt managers may feel on ne change pas une équipe qui gagne!

Chinese Countersurveillance Operations in the US

The fact that the identification and repatriation team received an alert that the FBI was fully aware of the effort to coerce Xu by using his father was reported almost as a trifle in the federal court document. Yet, in reality, it was small much in the way that the small movement of a needle on a seismograph can report a giant earthquake. Upon first reading about this particular moment of identification and repatriation operation, there grew an interest in greatcharlie in how Chinese operators engaged in all sorts of activities in the US are seemingly forewarned whenever law enforcement and counterintelligence services draw near them. Of course, one of the counterintelligence organizations might just be a leaky ship. There could be rotten apples in their midst. However, it certainly would not be too fanciful to conceive that Chinese operatives on government sanctioned missions receive more support from unknown entities nestled in the US than may be recognized officially or publicly.

One might postulate that with so many Chinese intelligence officers–there were reports of as many as 25,000 “in country” back in 2017–and their operatives and informants moving furtively throughout the US, there may very well be specialized counterintelligence elements, covert surveillance teams, positioned in numbers deemed sufficient by the powers that be in the PLA CMC Joint Military Staff Intelligence Bureau and MSS counterintelligence that provide overwatch for espionage operations. The PLA teams, rather than come from intelligence units, might instead be formed from PLA Army special operations units primed in the reconnaissance and surveillance operations and to engage in a special reconnaissance mission. Teams from MSS would likely be secounded from the provincial departments and municipal bureaus, Chinese intelligence elements operating in the US would surely appreciate a resource that would allow their officers, operatives, and informants to repeatedly evade intercept. Similar covert surveillance teams may be operating in other countries. It is just a theory.

One might postulate that with so many Chinese intelligence officers–there were reports of as many as 25,000 “in country” a few short years ago–and their operatives and informants moving furtively throughout the US, there may very well be specialized counterintelligence elements, covert surveillance teams, positioned in numbers deemed sufficient by the powers that be in the PLA CMC Joint Military Staff Intelligence Bureau and MSS counterintelligence secounded from the provincial departments and municipal bureaus, that provide overwatch for espionage operations. If providing assistance to them would actually be feasible, it would be counterintuitive not allow identification and repatriation teams to enjoy the overwatch of any theorized covert countersurveillance teams of MSS and PLA operating in close proximity to them. 

If providing assistance to them would actually be feasible, it would be counterintuitive not allow covert countersurveillance teams of MSS and PLA to provide overwatch for other operations ostensibly underway in close proximity to them, perhaps of a variety and number far in excess of espionage. Such would be to the great benefit of the Operation Fox Hunt identification and repatriation teams.

As part of their mission, the theorized covert surveillance teams would very likely shadow any law enforcement or US counterintelligence organizations for the purpose of countersurveillance and early warning. No law enforcement or US counterintelligence organizations would be allowed to surprisingly appear at the site of a meeting between team members and a target ol contracted operative. No law enforcement or US counterintelligence organizations would be allowed to place surveillance teams on any of Chinese operatives without the knowledge of the covert surveillance teams. Any alerts about threatening moves by law enforcement or US counterintelligence organizations would unlikely be relayed through channels from the intelligence element’s headquarters down to those managing the teams as the circumstances would invariably be exigent, and time would be of essence. Communication between intelligence elements and the team would ostensively be confined at the level of the intelligence field managers and the lead investigator of the team. Imaginably, MSS and PLA managers would establish some incognito for their contacts as a security measure in case some catastrophe should befall the identification and repatriation team and through interrogation, the team leader reveals anything about their MSS or PLA counterpart that could identity them.

MSS and PLA intelligence network managers would hardly want some incident with the identification and repatriation team to draw unwanted attention to their province. It would be best to help the team get in and get out rapidly and safely. Additionally, having the opportunity to study and make observations of their opposition’s practices in surveilling suspected foreign operatives or the steps they go through and how they perform and behave while in investigation mode imaginably would be invaluable for MSS or PLA intelligence officers operating in the US. On top of everything, as the identification and repatriation operations are apparently the brainchild of the Communist Party of China, it would be essential for them to accomplish their task. Those able to make that a reality would be expected to do their utmost to assist with all possible precautions taken into consideration. All involved would likely be called to account if it failed. A MSS or PLA field manager who has the identification and repatriation teams operating in their area of operation would have to be considerably indifferent to the wishes of the Communist Party of China to have a clear ability to ensure the success of the team’s effort, and do nothing to assist and actually allow it the flounder.

Much as the MPS organized the identification and repatriation teams, it may very well be that any prospective covert surveillance teams organized for purpose suggested, might be well trained officers of MPS–also an intelligence service with what might be deemed a counterintelligence proclivity, doing what they do best for the Communist Party of China, keeping an iron grip on all Chinese citizens. Covert communications between team lead investigators and the covert countersurveillance teams theorized here would likely be uniquely designed by MPS in China for the operation. If the theorized covert surveillance team discussed in this essay were a creature of MPS, having it take their eyes off what members of the identification and repatriation teams were doing surely would not thrill the powers that be at MPS Headquarters.

Omne ignotum pro magnifico est. (We have great notions of everything unknown.) Of course, it is possible that nothing remotely resembling what has been suggested here exists at all. On the other hand, there may actually be surveillance teams operating around the US in a manner of far greater conception than what has been hinted.

Gnawing Bit More on the Theorized Covert Surveillance Teams 

Conceivably, when not engaged in their patient vigil over Chinese operatives of all kinds, the hypothetical covert surveillance teams maintain a low key, traveled existence wherever they are. What may be viewed as most remarkable about the covert surveillance team members if discovered would be the fact they are by appearance so unremarkable. Anything linked to their activities would hardly be found wherever they might reside or frequent. All in all, they would surely keep themselves to themselves. Yet, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the theorized covert surveillance team is that they would likely be gaining experience and honing their skills with everyday that passes during which they have perhaps been out in the field. As their skills increase, their capabilities and willingness to take on greater challenges would also likely increase. Further, for those trying to cope with Chinese operatives of all kinds in the US, the imagined increase in experience and capabilities among the theorized covert surveillance teams would surely be attended by a marked increase in the degree of difficulty in capturing them. Imaginably some financial support would be provided for the additional expenditures on logistical needs for the supportive surveillance work. As the activity would be in direct support of a Communist Party of China directed operation, a large request would unlikely be made to cover personal service expenses. The honor and privilege of serving the Communist Party of China would expectantly be viewed in Beijing as sufficient reward.

Oddly enough, the identification and repatriation team still did not just pull the shutters down and run off just because FBI agents were onto them. With the specialists safe, the identification and repatriation team members rather audaciously continued to watch Xu’s in-laws home and Xu’s home. Tu joined Hu at the command post back in Wuhan where she continued to direct the identification and repatriation operation while in China. On April 9, 2017, Zhu messaged Tu Lan, inquiring: “Prosecutor Tu [Tu Lan] whose order should I take for now while I am here?” Tu replied: “You communicate with me and Hu [Hu Ji]. I will go to the Commission for Discipline Inspection this afternoon. I will contact you afterwards.” The “Commission for Discipline Inspection,” which was a Chinese government agency responsible for investigating members of the Communist Party for corruption. Tu also wrote to Zhu: “[Y]ou need to confirm that Mike [McMahon] can execute according to our requirement.” According to the federal court document,, on April 9, 2017, Tu  sent an electronic message to the Zhu asking: “Did you tell Hu [Hu Ji] that I still want to confirm [John Doe #1’s ] [Xu’s] father’s status?” Zhu responded, “It seemed that he has reported to the [Chinese Official #1] already,” and added that “I arranged to have me [McMahon] stay there Monday morning.” Zhu told Tu Lan that ” the money I have on hand can only have me [McMahon] to stay there for two days.” On April 11, 2017, McMahon and Zhu discussed–in English–additional steps to intimidate Xu into returning to China. The federal court document specifically quotes McMahon as proposing they “harass” Xu, including by “[p]ark[ing] outside his home and let him know we are there.” Zhu replied that they “can’t harass [John Doe #1] [Xu] like that lol.” The efforts to persuade Xu to return to China were unsuccessful. The emotional bomb fizzled.. On April 12, 2017,  Zhu and Xu’s father departed from Newark Liberty International Airport on a flight to Shanghai.

Discussion will be extended in Part 2, to be published later.

Senators Reassure Wary Baltic Nations That US Won’t Abandon NATO: Meanwhile, Latvia Shapes Its Own Fate

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Latvian National Guard troops in small unit training (above). Latvia is fully blended in the mix of defense preparations with its fellow NATO Members, Estonia and Lithuania, to deter or fight Russia and Belarus. A huge military build-up supported by the US, the EU, and NATO has been a necessary step taken by leaders in Riga. However, they are also using diplomacy to search for common ground with Russia and Belarus, and recently signed a defense cooperation agreement with Minsk.

According to a December 27, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Senators Reassure Wary Baltic Nations That US Won’t Abandon NATO,” US Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Amy Klobuchar arrived in Tallinn, Estonia on December 27th to reassure Baltic countries that the US remained committed to their defense and to the NATO alliance. At the time, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had expressed concern that the new US President-elect Donald Trump might not uphold the longstanding US commitment to their defense from the Russian Federation and its military partner, Belarus. That notion was predicated on statements Trump made during the election campaign. At a December 27th news conference with Estonia’s Prime Minister Juri Ratas, McCain remarked, “I am convinced and certain that our relations, and the American relationship with NATO, will remain the same.”  He further stated, “Our relationship is more important than perhaps it’s been in a long time,” and said he would support a permanent US troop presence, not just a rotation. About 5,000 US troops have rotated through Estonia since April 2014. Other stops on the Senators’ trip were Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Georgia. Ojars Eriks Kalnins, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Latvian Parliament (Saeima) and a former Latvian ambassador to the US was interviewed by phone for the New York Times article. Kalnins noted that Congressional Democrats and Republicans had tried to reassure the Baltic States for months that US policy toward European security would not change. Kalnins expressed optimism, saying “Our hope is that his administration will come around to backing the ongoing policy toward NATO and the Baltics.” Interestingly, he went on to state, “I don’t think there is a plausible scenario for Russia invading the Baltics. To be honest, I’m more concerned about the fate of Ukraine.” Since the time of the Senators visit, Trump has sought to ameliorate his comments on NATO by saying in an interview with The Times of London and Bild that the alliance “is very important to me.” Duo lepores qui insequitur, neutrum capit. (Who chases two rabbits, catches neither.)

Latvia is fully blended in the mix of defense preparations with its fellow NATO Members in the Baltics to deter or fight Russia and its allies. Initiating a military build up supported by the US, the EU, and NATO, with urgency and diligence was a necessary and admirable course for the leadership in Riga to take. Since 2014, Latvia has one of the fastest growing defense budgets in the world. That growth will be sustained until 2018 and will be well over 2 percent GDP by then. Defense is a crucial issue for Latvia, however, there are other dimensions country of great importance to Latvians such as the economy. It problems require significant attention, too! The West has engaged in efforts to ensure Latvia received foreign economic assistance. It has stemmed some problem. Still, that help has essentially been a bromide for Latvia’s economic woes. Worse, it may have slowed Latvia on the road to self-directed stability. Some officials in Riga have developed a dependency on that aid, making plans around it, but not all have.

In addition to its own initiative, Latvia has been driven by the West’s friendly but insistent voice to devote so much attention, energy, and money to defense. As a result, its economy has become an ancillary story. The leadership in Riga is undoubtedly appreciative of the West’s assistance, but paramount to them, much as the leaders in any national capital, is maintaining their country’s solvency and unity. Not to be impolitic, but for Western countries working with Latvia, the true priority is their own interests. It is possible that in private, leaders in Riga might admit that they sense themselves as being confined on a path of succumbing to obligations stemming from its membership in regional military alliances. From a more extreme perspective, some leaders in Riga may want to overcome a nagging sense that Latvia has become Western powers’ “ball to play with.” Concerns among the Latvians and their Baltic neighbors over Western perceptions of them seemed to be manifested by their recent complaints over the use of the term “former Soviet republics” in the media to describe them. Riga is entitled to set its own national priorities, and with regard to security, devise its own military plans and diplomatic ones to quell both potential and real threats. That certainly does not mean leaders in Riga might have some interest in breaking away from any of its security arrangements. However, they apparently view it as reasonable to use diplomacy to search for common ground with Russia and Belarus, in tandem with their military build-up. Neither its Baltic neighbors nor other NATO members could truly welcome a decision by Latvia to take such an independent diplomatic tack. Yet, success would allow Riga to focus more on Latvia’s other problems and become less absorbed by defense. Riga has recently made diplomatic moves of some significance with Minsk and with Moscow. Non quia difficilia sunt non audemus sed quia non audemus difficilia sunt. (It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, but because we do not dare that things are difficult.)

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The Republic of Latvia is one of the three Baltic States in Northern Europe. It is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east, and Belarus to the southeast. Although Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are sovereign countries, for decades they have maintained cooperative arrangements. They are linked today. Latvia is fully blended in the mix of defense preparations with its Baltic neighbors Yet, also of great importance to Latvians are economic woes besetting their country.

Latvia in Brief

The Republic of Latvia is one of the three Baltic States in Northern Europe. It is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east, and Belarus to the southeast. Its coastline to the west on the Baltic Sea is 531 km and forms a maritime border with Sweden. Latvia has approximately 1,957,200 inhabitants and a total territory of 64,589 km2.  Latvia was originally established as a democratic parliamentary republic in 1918 on 18 November 1918. However, its de facto independence was interrupted during World War II. In 1940, the country was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, and re-occupied by the Soviets in 1944 to form the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic for fifty years. The “Singing Revolution” that started in 1987 called for the Baltic States emancipation from Soviet rule. It ended with the Declaration on the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia on 4 May 1990, and restoring de facto independence on 21 August 1991. In Latvia, the central government in Riga, the capital, is supreme, and the administrative divisions only exercise powers delegated to them by the Central government. There are 118 administrative divisions, of which 109 are municipalities and 9 are cities.  Latvians and Livs are the indigenous people of Latvia. Latvian is the country’s official language. Despite foreign rule from the 13th to 20th centuries, the Latvian nation maintained its identity throughout the generations via the language and musical traditions. A demographic profile of Latvia provided by Index Mundi indicates Latvians comprise 61.1 percent of the population. As a consequence of the Soviet occupation,  ethnic Russians comprise 26.2 percent of the population, some of whom are non-citizens. Belarusians make up 3.5 percent of the population, Ukrainians represent 2.3 percent,   represent 2.2 percent, and Lithuanians are 1.3 percent. Remaining groups represent 3.4 percent of the population. Until World War II, Latvia had significant minorities of ethnic Germans and Jews. Latvia is historically predominantly Protestant Lutheran, except for the Latgale region in the southeast, which has historically been predominantly Roman Catholic. The Russian population has also brought a significant portion of Eastern Orthodox Christians. Latvia is a member of the EU, NATO, the UN, the Council of Europe, Organization Economic Cooperation and Development, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Council of Baltic Sea States, Nordic Baltic Cooperation, Nordic Investment Bank. For 2014, Latvia is listed 46th on the Human Development Index and as a high income country as of January 1, 2017.

At the Foundation of Baltic Unity

Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are often looked upon in the West as a matched set of three countries. To an extent, they are! Although each established its sovereignty separately, the three entered into a cooperative arrangement known as the trilateral Treaty on Concord and Cooperation, signed in Geneva on September 12, 1934. Turbulent events beginning at the start of World War II had all three Baltic States initially sucked into the Soviet Union, then invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, and finally re-occupied and reincorporated as Soviet republics. The West continued to recognize the sovereignty of the three countries. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Baltic States signed the Declaration on Unity and Cooperation on May 12, 1990 in Tallinn, restoring cooperation between Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Pursuant to the Geneva Treaty, the Baltic Council was established in 1990. The Baltic Council of Ministers (BCM), formed at the meeting of Baltic Prime Ministers in Tallinn on June 13, 1994, established an institution of trilateral intergovernmental cooperation. There was also an Agreement on Baltic Parliamentary and Governmental cooperation signed in Tallinn on the same day. These agreements are at the foundation of what is known as Baltic unity.  When the Baltic States joined the EU and NATO, the BCM was reformed and adjusted to the changed environment. It still operates under the guidance of the Prime Ministers’ Council, and the Cooperation Council, which comprises the ministers of foreign affairs, and coordinates the activity of the Committees of Senior Officials (CSO). In accord with the Terms of Reference, the Committees of Senior Officials act in five areas of cooperation at the expert level. If necessary, Task Forces are established by the Prime Ministers’ Council. The Prime Ministers’ Council determines specific task to be performed by a Task Force within time parameters. The Secretariat arranges the activities of the BCM. The Secretariat is staffed by officers of the foreign ministries of the three Baltic States responsible for the countries cooperation. Under the initiative of the chairmanship of the BCM, the Secretariat does the preparatory work for the meetings of the Prime Ministers’ Council and Cooperation Council. The chairmanship starts at the beginning of every calendar year. The country with the chairmanship directs work done on all levels of cooperation. Perhaps 2016 was the best year for Latvia to engage in its daring and optimistic diplomacy with Belarus and Russia. Latvia held the BCM chairmanship and presided over the Baltic Assembly (BA).

The BA is an international organization established on November 8, 1991 aimed at promoting cooperation between the Baltic States’ parliaments. The BA works under a statute entered into force on October 31, 1993. The Protocol amending the Agreement on Baltic Parliamentary and Governmental Cooperation was signed on November 28, 2003 in Vilnius. The Baltic Council is an annual joint meeting held by the BCM and the BA. This meeting includes a session of the BA, a meeting between the Presidium of the BA and Cooperation Council of the BCM, and a meeting of the Cooperation Council of the BCM.  A report by the Chairman of the Cooperation Council to the BA session must be prepared on: cooperation between the Baltic States in the previous year; activities related to the resolutions adopted by the BA during the current year; and, plans for future cooperation. Although Latvia was open enough to engage in diplomatic efforts with Belarus and Russia while at the helm of the BCM and BA, its approach to those countries did not lead Estonia and Lithuania to take similar action. There was certainly no abatement of Estonia and Lithuania’s fears over Russian and Belarusian actions and intentions.

Latvia’s Poor Economy – A Special Problem

Albeit as a result of the precarious economic situation it has faced for nearly a decade, Latvia, to make use of a phrase from the Bundesliga, carries the red lantern among the Baltic States. From 1999 to 2007, Latvia had one of the highest GDP growth rates in Europe. However, the Latvian economy entered a phase of fiscal contraction during the second half of 2008 after an extended period of credit-based speculation and unrealistic appreciation in real estate values. Growth was mainly driven by growth of domestic consumption, financed by a serious increase of private debt, as well as a negative foreign trade balance. The prices of real estate, which were at some points growing by approximately 5 percent a month, were long perceived to be too high for the economy, which mainly produces low-value goods and raw materials. Ignoring recommendations from the IMF and others to break their peg to the euro and devalue the currency, the Latvians instead embarked on a brutal programme of “internal devaluation,” improving competitiveness by slashing wages and prices. After losing access to capital markets, and accepting a $10.5 billion bail-out from the IMF and the EU, the government implemented an austerity plan worth 17 percent of GDP over four years. Problems were exacerbated by the global economic crisis, shortage of credit and huge money resources used for the bailout of Parex bank. In 2008, Parex, then the second-largest bank in Latvia, was nationalized. In the end, Latvia had to take $2.35 billion in aid from the IMF for the bank’s bail out. The Latvian economy fell 18 percent in the first three months of 2009, the biggest fall in the EU.  The unemployment rate in Latvia rose sharply in this period from a low of 5.4 percent in November 2007 to over 22 percent. In April 2010, Latvia had the highest unemployment rate in the EU, at 22.5 percent. In July 2012, the IMF concluded that the First Post-Program Monitoring Discussions with the Republic of Latvia, announcing that Latvia’s economy was recovering strongly since 2010, following the deep downturn in 2008–09. However, while some in the West define Latvia as a success, others call it the best example of an apparent Western tendency to cloak disaster with positive statements. Net economic growth in Latvia had been nonexistent since 2006. Reportedly, the collapse was severe enough that Latvia still had not returned it to its pre-crisis peak of activity.  Latvia should have labeled a catastrophe. Even now, unemployment is around 9.5 percent, which is still high and real wages are about 5 percent smaller than they were back in 2007. Even more alarming for the country’s long-term economic prospects is loss of Latvia’s loss of more than 300,000 people since 2000. Its population has dropped from around 2.3 million to about 2 million. Many Latvians were prompted to seek out better opportunities in the rest of the EU due to the financial crisis.

In 2014 the GDP of Latvia was $31.3 billion and its GDP per capita was $23,500. Latvia is the 78th largest export economy in the world and the 34th most complex economy according to the Economic Complexity Index (ECI). Records indicate Latvia increased exports at an annualized rate of 12.3 percent, from $7.98 billion in 2009 to $14.3 billion in 2014. Imports stood at $17.2 billion, resulting in a negative trade balance of $2.93 billion. The top exports of Latvia are Refined Petroleum ($1.22 billion), Sawn Wood ($730 million), Crude Petroleum ($644 million), Hard Liquor ($556 million) and Broadcasting Equipment ($394 million), using the 1992 revision of the HS (Harmonized System) classification. Its top imports are Refined Petroleum ($2 billion), Broadcasting Equipment ($666 million), Petroleum Gas ($600 million), Cars ($599 million) and Packaged Medicaments ($519 million). The top export destinations of Latvia are Lithuania ($2.31 billion), Russia ($1.3 billion), Estonia ($938 million), Belarus ($854 million) and Germany ($851 million). The top import origins are Lithuania ($2.69 billion), Russia ($2.02 billion), Poland ($1.74 billion), Germany ($1.71 billion) and Estonia ($1.17 billion). The top import origins of Latvia are Lithuania ($2.69 billion), Russia ($2.02 billion), Poland ($1.74 billion), Germany ($1.71 billion) and Estonia ($1.17 billion).

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Most transit traffic in Latvia uses the ports of Riga, Liepāja, and Ventspils (above). Half the cargo is crude oil and oil products. In addition to road and railway connections, Ventspils is also linked to oil extraction fields and transportation routes of Russian Federation via a system of two pipelines. The Russian state-owned pipeline operator Transneft plans to halt oil product operations at Ventspils and Riga as of 2018. Its chief executive officer said by 2018 Russia’s cargo flow to the Baltic States will be zero.

Latvia’s transport sector is around 14 percent of GDP. Transit between Russia and Belarus is considerable. Three biggest ports of Latvia are located in Riga, Liepāja, and Ventspils. Most transit traffic uses them and half the cargo is crude oil and oil products. Ventspils is one of the busiest ports in the Baltic States. Along with its road and railway connections, Ventspils is also linked to oil extraction fields and transportation routes of Russian Federation via system of two pipelines from Polotsk, Belarus. Latvia operates Inčukalns underground gas storage facility, one of the largest underground gas storage facilities in Europe and the only one in the Baltic States. However, the future of Latvia’s transport and energy sectors appears uncertain. Riga has sought to meet EU regulations and reduce its dependence on energy supplies from Russia. However, that process has created the opportunity for Russia to essentially pull the rug from under Latvia. The Russian state-owned pipeline operator Transneft plans to halt oil product operations at Latvia’s ports of Ventspils and Riga as of 2018, and redirect volumes to the Russian Baltic Sea ports of Ust-Luga and Primorsk and the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. During a meeting with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, on September 13, 2015, Transneft’s chief executive officer, Nikolai Tokarev, said, “We will re-orient the cargo turnover from the Baltic ports of Ventspils, Riga to our Baltic ports–of Ust-Luga and Primorsk–as well as to Novorossiisk.” Tokarev predicted turnover at Latvia’s ports would shrink to 5 million metric tons (mt) in 2016 from 9 million mt in 2015. He further stated “By 2018 we will reduce this cargo flow to the Baltic states to zero. We will fill up our ports, because there is capacity surplus.” Transneft plans to convert some of the pipeline capacity not being used for crude to transport oil products to Primorsk and Novorossiisk.

Currently, a former crude pipeline, the Yaroslav-Kirishi 2, is being converted to carry diesel to Primorsk and is due to be operational in October. The converted pipeline, which will run along the already functioning Kstovo-Primorsk trunk, will allow Transneft to expand the capacity of the so-called North, or Sever, diesel pipeline running to the Baltic port of Primorsk to 25 million mt per year from November 2017, earlier than the previously planned 2020. Russia exports only diesel via pipeline, with currently two pipelines shipping Euro 5, or 10 parts per million (ppm) max sulfur diesel, to the Baltic ports of Primorsk and Ventspils. Gasoil continues to be shipped by rail, but Baltic ports have become an outlet for a large proportion of all ultra low sulfur diesel supply to Northwest Europe. Last October, the pipeline to Ventspils fully switched to 10 ppm diesel flows. Russian products flows through the Baltic ports – Sillamae, Klaipeda, Riga, Tallinn, had all been shrinking. Russia halted crude exports via Ventspils more than a decade ago, but continued to ship gasoil and subsequently ULSD via the pipeline to the Latvian port. However, transshipment volumes through Ventspils Nafta Terminals on the Baltic Sea have also been dwindling. Ventspils, which is majority owned by trader Vitol, handled 4.29 million mt of oil products in the first half of the year, down 27.3 percent from a year earlier. Russian pipeline volumes continued their downward trend in the first half of 2016, with LatRosTrans transporting 2.4 million mt, down from 2.98 million mt in the first half of 2015. The terminal also handles products delivered by rail from Russia and Belarus. According to traders, it is now being filled with ultra low sulfur diesel.

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Latvia’s Incukalns underground gas storage facility (above) is one the largest in Europe. It was built during the Soviet era to meet the region’s needs, including northwestern Russia. However, Incukalns entered th 2016-2017 winter season one-third empty. Total injections have dropped to 1.25 billion cubic metres (bcm) from 1.6 bcm in 2015 and 1.9 bcm in 2014. At the end of the 2016 injection season, it had 1.53 bcm of gas in storage, the lowest level since 2000. The future of Latvia’s energy sector is uncertain.

Latvia’s gas utility, Latvijas Gaze is set to transfer part of its assets – including one of Europe’s largest underground gas storage facilities, Incukalns – to Latvia’s future gas grid and storage operator Conexus Baltic Grid, ahead of a planned market liberalisation in April 2017. The current owners of Latvijas Gaze – Russia’s Gazprom, Germany’s Uniper and Latvia’s Itera Latvija – which have a combined stake of slightly over 68 percent, will have to divest shares in Conexus by the end of 2017 due to legal requirements. Latvijas Gaze’s restructuring is a part of wider gas market reforms approved by the Latvian parliament in February 2016 in an effort to meet EU regulations. and reduce dependence on energy supplies from Russia. The European infrastructure fund Marguerite, which holds a 28.97 percent stake in Latvijas Gaze, plans to stay in Conexus after the restructuring, it told Reuters in an email. The fund declined to say whether it might want to increase its stake in Conexus. The storage facility, built during the Soviet era to meet the needs of the wider region, including northwestern Russia, is entering this winter season one-third empty. Gazprom and Estonian utility Eesti Gaas have not injected any new gas at Incukalns in 2016. Total injections have dropped to 1.25 billion cubic meters (bcm) from 1.6 bcm year ago and 1.9 bcm in 2014. At the end of the injection season, which runs from April until October, it had 1.53 bcm of gas in storage, the lowest level since at least 2000. This includes 0.2 bcm of gas Gazprom injected for Russia’s needs during the previous year. Estonian customers told Latvijas Gaze they could meet their needs by direct imports from Russia, while Gazprom said it also had no need to store more gas. While the drop in injections coincides with the Latvian parliament’s decision to end Gazprom’s supply monopoly, both Latvian officials and the Russian supplier said the reasons were economic. Russia has spare capacity to deliver gas to its St Petersburg region, previously also supplied from the Latvian storage facility, as it prepares to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany across the Baltic Sea. Ivars Scerbickis, head of Incukalns gas storage, said “Historically, Incukalns’ role has been indisputable in the region.” He went on to state, “Now it’s a challenge for us to keep it the same.”  Latvian officials hope that Gazprom will use Incukalns after market liberalisation to ensure security of supplies, especially during cold winters when demand spikes. Latvia may be hoping to acquire Finland and Poland as new customer when new gas links are built from Estonia and Lithuania by around 2020. Ibit, ibIt eo quo vis qui zonam perdidit. (The one who loses his money belt will go where you wish.)

Latvia: A Russian Military Target

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin finds causality for the misunderstandings and crises with the West over Eastern Europe in actions taken 25 years ago with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Putin explained at the 2007 Munich Security Conference and many times since that former NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner had guaranteed that NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Wall. Moreover, he has pointed to the statements of German parliamentarian Egon Bahr who explained on June 26, 1990: “If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.” In a Bild interview on January 11, 2016, Putin pointed to what he described as a very concrete suggestion by Bahr on how that danger could be averted: “the USA, the Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structures.” When the Bild interviewer pointed out to Putin that under NATO’s rules and self-understanding it can accept free countries as members if they want to be members and meet certain requirements.  Putin responded, “Nowhere is it written that NATO had to accept certain countries. All that would have been required to refrain from doing so was political will. But people didn’t not want to.” Putin declared the reason for NATO’s lack of restraint was “NATO and the USA wanted complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone.”

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Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right) and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left). Some Western analysts conclude Russia’s centuries old habit of devouring bordering countries puts Latvia and it Baltic neighbors at risk. Others say Putin seeks hegemony over them due to his beliefs about Russian nationhood and historical destiny. Putin says NATO guaranteed Russia that it would “not expand eastward” and it is doing so knowing it “will lead to Russia’s isolation.”

However, some Russia experts do not believe that Putin is driven by the failure of the West to honor its post-Cold War commitments to Russia. Hillary Appel of Claremont McKenna College asserts that Russia has a centuries old habit of devouring for bordering countries as the Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania  as a means of ensuring its physical control of their territory.  She explains that was Russia built its empire that way. It was a stratagem quite different from that of Britain and France, whose empires were built upon the conquest of distant, unconnected territories on other continents. Russia’s approach left it the largest country in the world geographically, even after the republics of its Soviet empire sought independence. Appel proffers that after ascending to power, Putin in words and deeds as both Prime minister and president refused to accept the further dissolution of Russian controlled territory, and through what she describes as tremendous brutality and violence in Chechnya, thwarting Chechen designs for independence.

Paul Miller of the University of Texas, explains that Putin is not driven by cold calculations of rational self-interest, because no human is. Putin believes hegemony over Russia’s near-abroad is necessary for Russian security because of his beliefs about Russian nationhood and historical destiny. Putin and his advisers are not mere nationalist. Miller believes Putin and his advisers may be driven by “peculiar form of Russian nationalism infused with religion, destiny, and messianism.” As part of that narrative, Russia is the guardian of Orthodox Christianity and has a mission to protect and expand the faith. Miller believes that a truly rational Russia would not see NATO and EU expansion as a threat, because the liberal order is open and inclusive and would actually augment Russia’s security and prosperity. If Putin and his advisers see the world through the prism of Russian religious nationalism, Miller states, “the West is inherently a threat because of its degeneracy and globalism.” Indeed, to them, Miller proffers, “NATO is not the benign guarantor of liberal order in Europe, but the hostile agent of the degenerate West and the primary obstacle to Russian greatness.” To that extent, Putin’s grand strategy, Miller says, requires breaking NATO and making the Article V mutual security guarantee meaningless.Putin has already succeeded in eroding NATO’s credibility. His last two targets, Georgia and Ukraine, were not NATO members, but in 2008 had been explicitly and publicly assured that they would be granted Membership Action Plans. By occupying those countries Putin has assured they would never join NATO in the near term as Miller asserts no country will ever join NATO while being partly occupied by Russia.

The Baltic States are NATO Members. Due to that, Miller explains that Putin would unlikely send large formations of uniformed Russian soldiers over the international border as even the most cautious NATO members will not ignore an overt conventional invasion. Miller believes Putin will instigate an ambiguous militarized crisis using deniable proxies, probably in the next two years. Miller outlined what might be observed as follows:  1) Perhaps many among the 25 percent of Latvians or Estonians who are ethnically Russian will begin rioting, protesting for their rights, claiming to be persecuted, and asking for “international protection;” 2) A suspiciously well armed and well trained “Popular Front for the Liberation of the Russian Baltics” will appear; 3) A few high-profile assassinations and bombings bring the Baltics to the edge of civil war. 4) A low-grade insurgency may emerge. 4) Russia will block all UN Security Council resolutions, but will offer its unilateral services as a peacekeeper; 5) The North Atlantic Council will meet. 6) Poland will lead the effort to invoke Article V, declare the Baltics under Russian attack, and rally collective defense against Russian aggression. 7) The Germans and French will fiercely resist. Everyone will look to the US to see which way the alliance leader tilts. 8) If the Alliance does not invoke Article V, NATO’s mutual security guarantee becomes functionally meaningless. 9) No NATO Member will put any faith in the treaty to guarantee it’s own defense against Russia in the future. Some Eastern European countries may choose to join up with Russia. 10) Others, starting with Poland, will begin arming to the teeth.

In January 2016, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the formation of a new Baltic command, which would have 60,000 troops—three motor rifle divisions—stationed near the western region of Russia, bordering Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In addition, Russia is expanding its Baltic Fleet and has deployed a new generation of surface-to-air missiles into the Kaliningrad region, bordering on Poland and Lithuania. Kaliber missiles can launch nuclear warheads. The Russian warships Serpukhov and Zeleny Dol were recently added to the Baltic Fleet, armed with long-range, new-generation cruise missiles. Russia even held four days of civil defense drills, involving 40 million Russian citizens, underscoring the country’s readiness for war. The most recent maneuvers by the Baltic Fleet involved a simulated attack on US warships in the Sea.

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Many in the Baltics feel they will fall prey to the same territorial ambitions Russia displayed in Crimea in 2014. Under a new State Defense Concept, Latvia’s defense budget will be increased to 2 percent of GDP by 2018. It earmarked 20 percent of the budget for purchasing new equipment.  It also states the Armed Forces in peacetime will number 17,500 men to include: 6,500 from the professional ranks; 8,000 from the National Guard troops; and, 3,000 from the reserves.

Latvia’s Response: 2016 State Defense Concept

Many in the Baltic States feel they will be next to fall prey to Russia’s territorial ambitions, which it demonstrated by annexing Crimea in 2014. When one hears the tempest swirl, it is rational to prepare a defense against the storm. At the core of Latvia’s national security concerns is the threat from Russia. Factors influencing that perspective include Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the clandestine war in eastern Ukraine, and Moscow’s heightened military force on patrol off the coasts of the Baltics and Western Europe. Western analysts conclude the Russia’s deployment of nuclear capable Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad province between Poland and Lithuania underscored Moscow’s efforts to intimidate the Baltics and the West. Much as all other European countries, Latvia must also devote new attention to the continuing encroachment of the ISIS threat from the Middle East. The developing security environment has driven Latvia to give greater attention to security policy and the strengthening of defense capabilities on the national and international levels. Membership in NATO and the EU play a decisive role in Latvia’s security policy, and Latvia is actively participating in these organizations as well as bilaterally with its allies in order to bolster its own security and the security of its region. In this regard, Riga accepts that it is in Latvia’s national interest to establish arrangements for a sustained NATO military presence on Latvian territory that in turn bolster both the deterrent posture and real defense of the alliance against the Russian threat. Of equal  importance is increasing the capabilities of NATO rapid reaction forces to better enable them to assist all member states in an emergency. Latvia welcomed the increase in the NATO Response Force (NRF) to 40,000 troops which are ready to respond in a few days’ time. Some 5,000 troops of the NRF serve in the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) which is ready respond to any Russian moves on Europe’s eastern front within hours. Latvia is one of six NATO members in which NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs) have been established. In an emergency, these units would be instrumental in facilitating the rapid deployment of military combat forces, ensuring that they could operate effectively on Latvia’s land and sea and in the air. Additionally, the NFIUs allow regional NATO Members to implement a coordinated program for military exercises.

In addition to conventional attack, Latvia, much as Paul Miller prognosticated, might be facing foreign efforts at subversion and insurgency, characteristic of hybrid warfare. Reportedly, Russia, using hybrid warfare, has sought to destabilize governments and societies by direct means and other elements as well. Those other elements may include cyber-attacks, disinformation and propaganda campaigns, intelligence operations, the application of coercion ranging from economic pressure to the leverage using energy supplies as an instrument, the use of disguised military personnel, and the use of terrorists and armed groups as proxies for various types of attacks. Plans for Latvia’s response to both the conventional and hybrid attacks have been coalesced in a new national security strategy, the 2016 State Defense Concept. The Concept specifies eight major challenges for Latvia’s security and measures to prevent them: external challenges, foreign intelligence and special services, military threats, threats to social unity, threats to information community, economic challenges, international terrorism and cyber-terrorism. Latvia’s priorities are to reinforce its borders, to improve its refugee policy and to prevent radicalization risks. To thwart threats posed by foreign intelligence and special services, the Concept indicated that Latvia should develop its national security and counterespionage services and should undertake preventive policies. The country should also develop public mass media, reduce the influence of Russian mass media specifically, control foreign investment, and ensure stable energy supplies. Since hybrid warfare can be used independently or in tandem with conventional military attacks, Latvia actively contributes to NATO and EU efforts to seek the most effective solutions to counter hybrid threats, including in the information space.

Latvia’s defense budget will be increased to 2 percent of GDP by 2018, according to the Concept. The strategy further states that the Latvian Armed Forces in peacetime will number 17,500 men which will include 6,500 from the professional ranks, 8,000 from the National Guard troops and 3,000 from the reserves. Moreover, 20 percent of the defense budget will be earmarked for the purchase of new equipment. Priorities concerning the armed forces included the strengthening the operational capability of the Latvian Armed Forces, the further integration of the National Guard within the Armed Forces, strengthening the Special Tasks Unit–special operations forces–as well as boosting early-warning capabilities, airspace surveillance and air defense. Finally, the document emphasizes the integration and regional cooperation of the three Baltic States’ militaries. On June 16, 2016, Latvia’s Saeima approved the government’s national security strategy.

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A Latvian soldier and Estonian soldier perform check their equipment (above). The Latvian Armed Forces’ priorities include bolstering its operational capabilities, the further integration of the National Guard within the Armed Forces, strengthening the Special Tasks Unit–special operations forces–as well as boosting early-warning capabilities, airspace surveillance and air defense. Emphasis is also being placed on the integration and regional cooperation of the Baltic States’ militaries.

NATO’s Commitments to Latvia and Its Baltic Neighbors

At the Summit Meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government from July 8 to July 9 2016 in Warsaw, Poland, it was agreed that combat forces would be deployed into the three Baltic States and Poland. That force will consist of seven combat brigades, including three heavy armored brigades, backed up by air power and land fire. In February, a US battalion task force of about 900 soldiers from Viselk, Germany, accompanied by smaller United Kingdom and Romanian units, will be deployed to Orzysk, Poland. That force will be backed by United Kingdom Typhoon fighter jets, which will begin patrols over the Black Sea. They will be joined in Europe later by a brigade combat team from Fort Carson, Colorado equipped with tanks and other heavy equipment and a combat aviation brigade from Fort Drum, New York.  All of the US troops are scheduled to be in place by June 2017. The United Kingdom will send a battalion of 800 troops to Estonia. It will be supported by French and Danish troops starting from May 2017. Canada will send 450 troops to Latvia, who will joined by 140 troops from Italy. Germany has promised to send between 400 and 600 troops to Lithuania, along with forces from the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Croatia and Luxembourg. The deployment will cost NATO Member States $2.7 billion a year. The US Navy has deployed four Arleigh Burke class destroyers equipped with AEGIS missile defense systems to Rota, Spain. A separate land-based AEGIS system is being constructed in Romania on the Black Sea.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the troop contributions to a new 4,000-strong force in the Baltics and Eastern Europe were a measured response to what the alliance believes are some 330,000 Russian troops stationed on Russia’s western flank near Moscow. Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance remarked about the deployments, “What deterrence looks like is that it raises the threshold of risk (for Russia). It may be slight, but it is definitely there.” He further explained, “You can use the term ‘tripwire’ as descriptors, but what it really does is raise that calculus of risk. Do you take any steps against a NATO nation given that the alliance has decided to put in very credible combat forces?” Commenting about the armed forces of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania following a visit to the Baltic States in 2016, the commander of the US Special Operations Command, US Army General Raymond Thomas stated, “They’re scared to death of Russia.” He further stated, “They are very open about that. They’re desperate for our leadership.” Hannibal ad portas! (Hannibal is at the gates!)

Former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, United Kingdom General Sir Richard Shirreff, wrote a CNN assessment October 21, 2016, warned that if Russia puts one soldier across the borders of the Baltic States, it means war with NATO. Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania have been members of NATO since 2004 and are therefore protected under Article V of the Washington Treaty, the founding document of NATO, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. A Russian attack on the Baltic States puts the US at war with Russia—meaning nuclear war, because Russia integrates nuclear weapons into every aspect of its military doctrine. Shirreff stated pointedly, “And don’t think Russia would limit itself to the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Any form of nuclear release by the Russians would almost certainly precipitate nuclear retaliation by the United States.”

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Canadian Army troops (above). At the 2016 Summit Meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government, it was agreed that NATO would deploy combat forces into the three Baltic States and Poland. Canada will send 450 troops to Latvia. They will be joined by 140 Italian troops. Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance said about the deployments, “What deterrence looks like is that it raises the threshold of risk (for Russia). It may be slight, but it is definitely there.”

Baltic Air Policing – “Latvia’s Air Power”

After the Baltic States joined NATO in 2004, the immediate commitment of alliance its three new members was nonstop policing of their airspace. Initially, Baltic Air Policing was conducted by NATO Member States on a three-month rotation from Lithuania’s First Air Force Base in Zokniai/Šiauliai International Airport, near the northern city of Šiauliai, and starting 2014 at the Ämari Air Base in Harju County, Estonia. Starting with the Turkish deployment, rotations changed to a four-month basis. Usual deployments consist of four fighter aircraft with between 50 and 100 support personnel. However, all member nations contribute in some form to the NATO Air policing, be it through the use of national aerial surveillance systems, air traffic management, interceptor aircraft or other air defence measures. NATO Air Policing requires making an Air Surveillance and Control System, an Air Command and Control structure and Quick Reaction Alert (Interceptor) aircraft continuously available.

Russian military aircraft near the Baltic Sea were intercepted by NATO jets 110 times in 2016. According to NATO, that number was lower than the 160 intercepts recorded in 2015 and the 140 in 2014. However, this greatly exceeds the number of aerial encounters above the Baltic Sea before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014; in 2013, NATO fighter jets intercepted Russian aircraft 43 times. Belgian Air Force Major General Thierry Dupont, commander of NATO’s Combined Air Operations Center, says that the number of intercepts has increased since 2014 because Russia is flying more aircraft in Baltic airspace, but also because the alliance has increased its air policing capabilities. The vast majority of the interceptions were made before any incursion into sovereign allied airspace, although over the last 12 months Estonia has reported at least six airspace violations by Russian jets. Moscow has denied the accusations. Dupont told Newsweek, “One of NATO’s roles is to preserve the integrity of the Allies’ airspace,” He further stated, “Missions like the Baltic Air Policing demonstrate NATO’s resolve and capability to ensure protection across Allies’ airspace, including those Allies that do not have their own Air Policing assets.”

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Two German Typhoon fighters performing Baltic Air Policing duties (above). When the Baltic States joined NATO in 2004, the alliance’s first visible commitment to them was policing their airspace. Belgian Air Force Major General Thierry Dupont, commander of NATO’s Combined Air Operations Center, stated: “Missions like the Baltic Air Policing demonstrate NATO’s resolve and capability to ensure protection across Allies’ airspace, including those Allies that do not have their own Air Policing assets.”

In War as I Knew It, US Army General George Patton explained, “We should not plan and then try to make circumstances fit those plans. Instead we should make plans to fit the circumstances.” Despite the Baltic Air Policing and beefed-up ground deployments opposites Russian forces in the Baltics and elsewhere, there are many Western defense analysts who believe that the NATO response is too weak, and, as the result, is an invitation for Russia to take aggressive action. Upon hearing that, some officials in Riga might begin to consider what can really been gained by its robust military build-up. In his assessment for CNN, Shirreff called for a much larger NATO deployment into the Baltics and Eastern Europe, one that would represent a credible deterrent, rather than a token force that could be over-run within hours. The Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, US Army General Curtis Scaparrotti has agreed with Shirreff, but has not specified the force size and composition required to provide a credible deterrent.

A RAND Corporation study prepared for US Department of Defense centered on several tabletop war games, based on the Russian deployments into the Crimea. The war games were played by US military officers and civilian officials over several months between 2014-2015. The game ended with a disastrous defeat for NATO in a matter of days. The study found that NATO forces being deployed to the Baltics, were small. Those forces lacked the vehicles and firepower to take on the Russian juggernaut of heavy tanks and mechanized vehicles opposite them. It indicated that NATO ground troops lacked anti-aircraft artillery to fend off Russian warplanes in a wartime scenario. According to the study, “By and large, NATO’s infantry found themselves unable even to retreat successfully and were destroyed in place.” Regarding US and allied air power, despite its ability to strike in depth against advancing Russian forces, destroying many in place and disrupting and delaying the attacks of others, US and allied air commanders would need to limit the number of aircraft dedicated to that mission and deploy them to negating the capabilities of Russia’s air defenses and provide air cover against Russian air attacks on rear areas. It was accepted that Russian forces would be able to smash through NATO defenses and drive on to Riga or Tallinn within 36 to 60 hours. The RAND study assessed that US and its allies would be left with three equally unpalatable options. NATO could launch a prolonged counter-offensive to take back the Baltic capitals; NATO could threaten Moscow with direct attack; or NATO could accept the outcome of the Russian lightning strikes and devise a long-term counter-strategy. The RAND study concluded that options one and two would lead to nuclear war; option three would result in a new Cold War that could eventually go hot. In discussing a possible way forward, the RAND study indicated that through “due diligence” and bolstering its defenses, NATO would send “a message to Moscow of serious commitment and one of reassurance to all NATO members and to all US allies and partners worldwide.” Esse quam videri. (To be rather than to seem.)

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A RAND study assessed that Russian Federation forces could smash through NATO defenses and drive on targets such as Riga or Tallinn within 36 to 60 hours, leaving the US and NATO Allies with three equally unpalatable options. NATO could launch a prolonged counter-offensive to take back the Baltic capitals; NATO could threaten Moscow with direct attack; or NATO could accept the outcome of the Russian strikes and devise a long-term counter-strategy.

Has Latvia Found a Self-Directed Path?

Animus in consulendo liber. (Free spirit to decide.) When he told the New York Times, “I don’t think there is a plausible scenario for Russia invading the Baltics,” Kalnins revealed much. Latvia serves as an element of what is essentially a militarized buffer between the West and possible aggression from the east.  However, Riga may want to dial down from the hardline stance it has been taking and no longer be almost singularly engrossed in military affairs. Regarding diplomacy, the most important mission of Latvian diplomats has been creating arrangements for a long-term NATO military presence in Latvia as a defense against any threats to its territory and bolster alliance defenses from the east as well. Apparently, Latvia’s leaders would like to use diplomacy to enhance established bilateral ties with Belarus and Russia. Before diplomatic efforts of this type actually began with Belarus, and to some degree with Russia, the Latvian Ministry of Defense publicly indicated that it would not exclude engaging in dialogue in order to promote trust between two countries.  Moreover, Riga seemed to hope delicate and simple talks with Belarus and Russia could have some palliative effect and convince them that Latvia and the other Baltic States pose no threat to their interests. Riga would certainly like for them to be assured that Latvia would not provide an prospective avenue upon which the West would invade Russia. An invasion from its direction was among attacks prognosticated by the Russian Federation General Staff in their Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation.

During an official visit to Latvia by the Belarusian Minister of Defense, Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov on December 5 to December 6, 2016, Latvia and Belarus signed an agreement on defense cooperation. Prior to the meeting, Latvian Defense Ministry announced that the text of the agreement that involved Latvia and Belarus would not be released, a standard practice. However, it was also indicated before the meeting that the agreement would concern defense cooperation between the Latvian Ministry of Defense and the Belarus Ministry of Defense. The goal would be to promote cooperation between both countries in the fields of international security and defense policy, airspace surveillance, arms control, NATO’s Partnership for Peace program activities, military medicine, as well as environmental protection, cultural and sports activities in the armed forces. Ravkov’s visit also included congenial meetings between Latvian Minister of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis and Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics. The parties discussed a wide range of issues, including bilateral military cooperation. The Belarusian delegation also visited a school in the city of Cesis that trains instructors for the National Armed Forces of Latvia. While the two countries have enjoyed what the Latvian Defense Ministry described as “fruitful cooperation” since 2004, to include a series of exchange visits and inspections taking place on both sides of the border, the signing of the agreement represents the creation of a new dimension of that relationship.

Wary officials among Latvia’s Baltic neighbors and other NATO allies might be that the willingness of Belarus to engage bilaterally with Latvia was based on a hope that it could poach Latvia from the West’s reserve. However, there is no apparent leverage Belarus could use to pry Latvia from the BCM, EU, NATO, or any other Western based organizations. There should also be little fear that Latvia officials and experts might be contaminated from contact with their Belarusian counterparts. The willingness of Belarus to talk is more likely part of an effort by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to intensify fence mending efforts with the West. He managed to grab the attention of EU leaders in a positive way when he decided to free a number of political prisoners and host multiparty mediations in Minsk for the cease-fire in neighboring Ukraine. As of late, Belarusian diplomats have been pouring considerable energy in enhancing their country’s relations with the West, hoping to capitalize on Belarus’ newfound importance for regional stability. Suspicious officials among Latvia’s Baltic neighbors and other NATO allies might be that the willingness of Belarus to engage bilaterally with Latvia was based on a hope that it could pry from the West’s hand. However, it may be part of an effort by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to mend fences with the West. He managed to grab the attention of EU leaders in a positive way when he decided to free a number of political prisoners and host multiparty mediations in Minsk for the cease-fire in neighboring Ukraine. As of late, Belarusian diplomats have been pouring considerable energy in enhancing their country’s relations with the West, hoping to capitalize on Belarus’ newfound importance for regional stability. Lukashenko’s current perspective of the EU appears to be reflected in his statements in favor of dialogue with it.  On March 5, 2016, Lukashenko explained: “The Europeans . . . are ready to cooperate with us, including for the sake of security in Europe. We say to them that we’re always open to [talking].”

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From December 5 to December 6, 2016, Belarusian Minister of Defense, Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov made an official visit to Latvia. The visit included congenial meetings between Latvian Minister of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis and Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics. Before Ravkov left, Latvia and Belarus signed an agreement on defense cooperation.

Regarding Russia, the Latvian Ministry of Defense said on December 8, 2016, its officials met with high-level Russian Federation Ministry of Defense officials to talks in Riga. The meeting’s purpose was to discuss what the Latvian Ministry of Defense said were “serious questions about the intentions of the neighboring country, including large-scale training on the Latvian border.” The original invitation for talks came from Russia.  In it, Latvian officials to go to Moscow to discuss regional security. Russia sent it to Latvia via its military attache in Riga on August 2016. Riga responded by sending a reply requesting that the Russians visit Riga for talks and using the same Russian Federation military attaché as a point of contact. In a statement issued on November 22, 2016, the Latvian Ministry of Defense explained, “Latvia has consistently pointed to the fact that Russian military activity in the border area, including the development of military infrastructure, raises serious questions about the intentions of the neighboring country. Moreover, Russia conducts military exercises without telling its neighbors about their time and place. Therefore, the meeting would aim to achieve greater transparency from the neighboring country’s side.” The meeting’s genesis was an invitation for talks from Russia in August 2016.  In it, Latvian officials were asked to come to Moscow to discuss regional security. Russia sent the invite to Latvia through its military attaché in Riga. Latvia responded by sending a reply requesting that the Russians visit Riga for talks and using the same Russian Federation military attaché as a point of contact. According to a press release from the Latvian Ministry of Defense, “During the discussions, the parties exchanged views on the security situation in the border area. The Latvian side emphasized that Russian military activities, including large-scale military exercises, development of military infrastructure and the creation of new military units raise concerns about Russia’s intentions and long-term ambitions in the region.” It went on to state, “Also the Latvian side emphasized that most of Russia’s advanced capabilities and large-scale training Latvian border are geared towards attack rather than defense. The released further proffered, “Considering also unfriendly and sometimes hostile rhetoric with regard to Latvia, it creates the need for Latvia to seek additional security guarantees and to step up cooperation with its allies in response to Russian military activities. Taking into account developments in the last year, the Latvian side at the meeting asked for an explanation for the scale of military activities and offered ways to reduce tensions.”

With the aim of promoting mutual openness and trust in military matters, a press release from the Latvian Ministry of Defense stated “the Latvian side offered in addition to the existing provisions of arms control, resulting from the OSCE’s Vienna Document, one further arms control evaluation visit and one inspection of Latvian-Russian border areas . . . .” Latvia also reportedly called upon Russia “to declare its readiness for greater transparency in military activities, not only in words but also in deeds.” There was no mention of what such “deeds” might be. The Russian Federation Ministry of Defense announced that there was a meeting of Defense experts in Riga on December 8th but it did not elaborate on the substance of the talks. While immediate gains of the meeting with Russian Federation Ministry of Defense officials were small relative to the product of the recent meetings and agreement with Belarusian Ministry of Defense officials, its importance must be measured by the fact that formal military cooperation between Russia and Latvia had been suspended since Russia’s 2014 action in Crimea. Officials agreed to continue the dialogue between defense ministry experts of both countries.

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Latvia (shaded gold) and its neighbors. The Latvian Ministry of Defense said on December 8, 2016, its officials met with high-level Russian Federation Ministry of Defense officials to talks in Riga. The meeting’s aim was to discuss what the Latvian Ministry of Defense said were “serious questions about the intentions of the neighboring country, including large-scale training on the Latvian border.” Russia announced defense experts met in Riga but gave no details on their talks.

The Way Forward

Threat identification and threat inflation are key elements in international affairs. As a result, over the last several decades, alarmism has been prominent in thinking about international security. However, deciding whether a threat is truly urgent and important is difficult, and has potential pitfalls. John Mueller of the CATO Institute explained that alarmism, when successfully generated, very frequently leads to two responses that are serially connected and often prove to be unwise, even dangerous. First, a threatening event is treated not as an aberration, but rather as a harbinger indicating that things have suddenly become much more dangerous, will remain so, and will become worse — an exercise that might be called “massive extrapolation.” Second, there is a tendency to lash out at the threat and to overspend to deal with it without much thought about alternative policies including ones that might advocate simply letting it be. Many in the Baltic States feel that they may fall prey to Russia’s territorial ambitions. The threat that Russia poses to the Baltic States is authentic, and when one hears the tempest swirl, it is rational to prepare a defense against the storm. Clearly, Riga believes that there are options other than simply preparing for all out war or appeasement, particularly given its economic circumstances. Stating that Latvia has the right decide how to proceed with its foreign and defense policy as well as its economic development may seem analogous to lending light to the sun. Still, while Riga has the freedom to act as it chooses, it may have felt, and may still feel, a bit constrained about moving confidently toward overtures and bilateral talks. In an apparent effort to show deference to those partners, it has moved in that direction at a deliberate pace. Talks and agreements may appear to some friends and foes alike as cracks in shield against potential Russian aggression. However, nothing that Latvian officials have ever said would lead anyone to think Riga would accept what might be called poor Russian behavior.

The renowned 19th century Prussian statesman, Otto von Bismarck has been quoted as saying: “A conquering army on the border will not be stopped by eloquence.” The renowned US conservative commentator and author, William F. Buckley, Jr. warned against the devilish conceit that peace might issue from concordance with evil.  While attending day school in London, Buckley coincidently passed through the airfield at Heston Aerodrome on the rainy evening of September 30, 1938 and saw United Kingdom Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain wave a piece of paper announcing “Peace in our time.” It is uncertain what Latvia’s latest exercise of free its will–diplomacy with Belarus and Russia–might look like in the end. There is the chance that an enterprise of this type, undertaken by Riga could collapse in a big heap. Perhaps nothing will change. Yet, Riga might just get its diplomatic effort with Belarus and Russia just right. Right actions tend to make for good deeds. The on-going enterprise holds out the promise of great rewards. Faber est suae quisque fortunae. (Every man is the artisan of his own fortune.)

Putin’s Next Target May Be Moldova, But His Goal Is to Increase Trade, Not Conquer via Military Action

cq373omweaey4-xA September 16, 2016 Wall Street Journal editorial explained the West should give greater concern to Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s intentions in Moldova. It points to a referendum in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria calling for annexation by Russia. That referendum along with recent political unrest and mass protests (as seen above) make Moldova appear ripe for conquest. Russia is trying to create greater ties in Moldova, but its efforts should not be misconstrued as a prelude to hybrid warfare. Western analysts must overcome the predilection of viewing any Russian moves westward as a step toward war.

According to a September 13, 2016 Wall Street Journal editorial entitled “Putin’s Next Target,” while Western attention has been fixed in Ukraine as the field of Russian aggression in Europe, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is turning its attention to Moldova, where Moscow controls a breakaway territory called Transnistria. The editorial explains that a referendum was held in Transnistria on the 10th anniversary of its establishment in which 97.3 percent of residents demanded to be annexed by Russia. Transnistria’s president, Evgeniy Shevchuk further marked the occasion by issuing a decree asking Russia for full annexation, and announcing the formation of a committee to provide a plan for the harmonization of Transnistria law with Russian law by November. The Wall Street Journal editorial says the matter bears attention “less another Russian power play comes to pass.”

While the editorial notes Putin has been reticent about the decree, it also explains Putin has been flexing his military muscles in Transnistria. Drills were conducted by the Russian Federation’s peacekeeping force in Transnistria both in 2015 and 2016. Although Moscow promised in 2002 to remove its contingent of about 1,000 peacekeepers they remained in the territory. The Wall Street Journal surmises that those exercises and Shevchuk’s annexation decree may indicate Putin is testing the climate in the West for a potential next move. In response the Wall Street Journal says US and European leaders must telegraph that any effort to make permanent Russia’s occupation of Transnistria will be treated as an illegal encroachment on Moldovan sovereignty and trigger sanctions.

Evidence may exist within certain parameters to support the view of the Wall Street Journal that Moldova might be ripe for Putin’s taking. Western analysts, who think in line with the Wall Street Journal, have expressed concern that a prospective effort by Russia to take Moldova would come in the form of hybrid warfare—the blend of unidentified troops, propaganda and economic pressure. In addition to maintaining forces on Moldovan territory, for almost a year, pro-Russian political parties who receive support from Moscow, albeit along with considerable support from pro-EU, pro-Romanian parties, helped to organize mass anti-government protests which in 2015 and 2016 have involved tens of thousands of participants. The protests started after the three Molovan banks that had kept social security funds somehow lost $1 billion prior in November 2014. Pro-Russian political parties have also played a part in organization anti-government demonstrations, particularly in 2016. Throw on top everything the fact that Moldova as one of the poorest European countries has to deal with the pressing issues of overwhelming poverty, corruption, an inefficient legal system and widespread workforce migration to Russia and the EU. It may very well be true that Putin senses the West now lacks the determination to forcefully ensure its interests. Perhaps the West is doing less than it should to dissuade Russia from acting wherever it sees fit. Former Soviet republics and new Member States of NATO in Central and Eastern Europe fear the military might of Russia.

There are a number of analysts in the US and EU who have surmised that for the near future Russia will exercise restraint due to its weak economy, isolation from the West, and concerns that it would over-commit its military forces. Still, far more sense they have the advantage over Russia, and express a degree of certainty over what Putin’s intentions are. Concerning Moldova, that may account for what colloquially would be called a knee-jerk response to a more nuanced situation. The predilection of analysts to view any moves by Russia westward to establish greater political, economic, or military ties to a country as a prelude to war must be overcome. That will allow for more rationale policy approaches and more efficacious moves by the US, EU, and NATO. Acclinis falsis animus meliora recusat. (The mind intent upon false appearances refuses to admit better things.)
moldaviaMoldova was carved from Romania’s Bessarabia Province in 1940 by the Soviet Union as a consequence of its non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. After declaring its independence from the Soviet Union, power shifted between the Communist Party which has sought a strong linkage with Russia, and pro-Romanian, pro-European parties which have advocated for EU membership. Since 2009, efforts have been made to move westward, but a final choice on which way to turn has not been made.

Moldova: In Brief

In 1940, Moldova was carved from Romania’s Bessarabia Province by the Soviet Union as a consequence of its non-aggression agreement with Nazi Germany, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939. Since then, Moldova has been home to three main ethnic groups, Moldovans, Russians, and Ukrainians. When Moldova became an independent country, power shifted between the Communist Party which has as a custom sought a strong linkage with Russia, and pro-European parties that have advocated for EU membership. In 2009, pro-European parties took firm control in Chisinau, and in 2014, Moldova signed of an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade to deepen political ties with Brussels and gradually integrate Moldova into the European Common Market. Exports increased, the economy grew, and, in response to reforms, including improving human rights, Moldovan citizens were entitled to travel visa-free into the EU. However, corrupt politics and a confusing, mazelike, parliamentary structure made it nearly impossible for Chisinau to recurvate in order to meet the requirements of EU ascension. After those initial days of change, little was done after to open up the country’s economy and its institutions. Moldova remains one of Europe’s poorest countries. Low incomes cause hundreds of thousands of Moldovans to seek a better life abroad.

Many Moldovans still look to the EU for answers. It accounts for the fact that the majority Moldovan voters in the past three parliamentary elections since 2009 have opted for liberal, pro-Western, and albeit, pro-Romanian governments. In that vein, many officials in Chisinau see Romania as a vital counterweight to Russian influence. Bucharest is generally recognized on the international stage as a representative of Moldova’s interests in the network of international organizations, as well as a source of financial air and the know-how necessary for the implementation of reforms. However, other Moldovans instead believe prosperity lies with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union. The gap between social and political forces in the country progressively widened. Both sides seem to have temporarily united in response to the average Moldovans’ resentment toward the elite, the oil oligarchs. The disappearance of $1 billion from the country’s banks stoked that frustration. It well-illustrated the failure of Moldova’s leaders to protect their citizens’ interests. The news spread and caused the depreciation of the local currency, the leu.  Price increases and soaring interest rates were accompanied by the loss of purchasing power of the local population Official sources report that in 2015, the average salary in Moldova was just $250. Public finances were battered by the bail-out required to stabilize the banks. Occasio aegre offertur, facile amittitur. (Opportunity is offered with difficulty, lost with ease.

street_marketMoldovan street vendors (above). In 2009, pro-European parties took firm control. in Chisinau, and in 2014, Moldova signed of an EU Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade to deepen ties with Brussels and integrate Moldova into the European Common Market. Exports increased, the economy grew, and, in response to reforms, including improving human rights, Moldovan citizens were able to travel visa-free into the EU. Yet, after those initial days of change, little more was done to open up the country’s economy and institutions. Moldova remains one of Europe’s poorest countries.

In the spring of 2015 citizens already fed up with the disappearance of $1 billion from Moldovan banks, corruption, poverty, and immigration problems for twenty-five years since the breakaway from the Soviet Union, engaged in large-scale protests country-wide. The protests were organized in the Dignity and Truth Platform Party that was established in February 2015, particularly in response to the theft of funds from the banks. Dignity and Truth, has been led by lawyers, journalists, and members of Moldovan civil society. It sharply has criticized the authorities and simultaneously has supported the formation of an authentic pro-EU reformist government and pushing for the country’s EU integration. One protest was attended by over 100,000 citizens. Most recently, in August 2016, tensions boiled over during Moldova’s Independence Day parade.  Protesters clashed with police in the capital. One protester lamented: “We decided to celebrate this day in the manner because we do not at all feel free. People are poor, people leave the country. Those who have recently stolen a billion dollars from us, organize military parades, waste millions from the budget on it, which essentially means from our money in time crisis.”   Protesters also expressed anger against oil oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc’s influence in the government and called for early elections.
_85409796_028900060-1Mass protest in Chisinau, September 2015 (above). In Moldova, citizens already frustrated by corruption, poverty, and immigration problems for twenty-five years since the breakaway from the Soviet Union, engaged in large-scale protests country-wide since the spring of 2015. The protests were organized in the Dignity and Truth Platform Party that was established in February 2015, particularly in response to the theft of $1 billion in funds from the banks. Protests had included as many as 100,000 citizens. Tensions boiled over recently over Moldova’s 2016 Independence Day parade.

Moldova’soon Independent Republis: Transnistria and Gagauzia

Transnistria is located on the eastern side of the Dneister River and 450 miles along the Moldova-Ukraine border. The Slavic element of Russians and Ukrainians constitute nearly 60 percent of Moldova’s population. They speak Russian or Ukrainian or both. When the Moldovan Parliament ruled in 1989 that the official language of the republic was to be Romanian (Moldovan) written in the Latin script, and gave five years for non-Romanian citizens to learn it, Russian and Ukrainian speaking population of Transnistria registered their disapproval There was a sense that pan-Romanian nationalism was on the rise. That was when Transnistria region declared its independence from Moldova. Moldova rejected that declaration and engaged in a two year campaign to retake the territory. What followed was a series of clashes between the sides, culminating with a violent armed conflict into which the Russian Federation 14th Army, based in Moldova, was drawn in on the side of the breakaway republic. Two years later Moldova proved unable to retake the territory in a war that killed 1,500 people The number of war refugees was approximated at 120,000 and 150,000.   Transnistria emerged as a pro-Russian statelet. To maintain peace and security in the territory, a joint command structure and tri-lateral peacekeeping force, comprised of Russian, Moldovan, and Transnistrian units were established following Transnistria peace settlement on July 21, 1992,  In 1998, 10 Ukrainian observers joined the peacekeeping force. The Russia still maintains 1000 peacekeepers in the territory despite a 2002 promise by Moscow to remove them.. Since 2005, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the EU, the US, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and Moldova and Transnistria have been engaged in a “5+2” process aimed at bringing the conflict between Moldova and Transnistria to an understanding consistent with Moldova’s territorial integrity while providing a special status for Transnistria

In 1990, fears that Moldova might seek to unify with Romania led the region to declare its independence, calling itself the Gagauz Republic, even before the Transnistria conflict erupted. Moreover, unlike Transnistria, fighting never broke out in Gagauz. A 1994 compromise between Chisinau and authorities in the Gagauzia’s capital, Comrat, led to the creation of the autonomous region of Gagauzia within Moldova. Initially, Moldova’s law on the status of Gagauzia gave the region the right to declare independence should Moldova “lose its sovereignty,” at the same time, meaning seek unification with Romania, but a 2003 amendment to the Moldova constitution abolished that right. declaring Gagauzia a “constituent and integral” part of Moldova. The Gagauz are Orthodox Christian people of Turkic origin who settled in the region nearly 800 years ago and are linguistically, ethically, and culturally distinct from their Moldovan, Romanian, and Ukrainian neighbors. Gagauzia, along with the remaining territory known as Bessarabia, became part of the Russian Empire following the Russo-Turkish War from 1806-1812. While other parts of the eventual Soviet Union saw a decent amount of ethnic integration, over 80 percent of the territory’s population remains Gagauz. Still, it’s population of 160,000 represents about 5 percent of Moldova’s total population. Gagauzia is not actually a congruous region. It includes all areas of Moldova in which the Gaguaz are over half the population, as well as parts of the country that have joined Gagauzia by referendum. Gagauzia’s boundaries have gone through several revisions since 1994. occupying just 5 percent of Moldova’s territory.
moldova-transnistria-gagauzia-mapTransnistria is an unrecognized republic which was declared in 1990. With Rusia’s assistance, it managed to prevent Moldova from reclaiming its territory in the War of Transnistria in 1992. Since the war ended, the Russian Federation has stationed 1000 peacekeepers there. Fighting never broke out in Gagauzia and Russia has no troops there. A 1994 compromise between Chisinau and local authorities in Comrat led to the creation of the autonomous of Gagauzia within Moldova. With a population of 160,000, it is a non-contiguous territory occupying 5 percent of Moldova’s territory.

Moldova’s Neighbors: Romania, Ukraine, and Russia

Since great portions of Moldova’s population are ethnically associated with its neighboring countries, neighboring governments have established lines into Moldova. Besides its traditional goals of consolidating its own position within the EU and NATO and bolstering its partnership with the US, Romania for years has declared that Moldova is a priority of its foreign policy. Romania’s policy aims toward Moldova include reinforcing its neighbor’s position within the system of Western institutions and improving its international linkages. In that vein, Romania has also tried to prevent any attempt to deepen Moldova’s integration in Russian structures, primarily the Eurasian Economic Union. That requires Bucharest to achieve its aims at the political and diplomatic levels, but also by increasing economic ties with Moldova.

Often the notion of Moldovan-Romanian unification is discussed by Romanian political leaders, However, for now, that is unrealistic for political, economic, and social reasons. In Bucharest, politicians would lose power and most would be deprived of career prospects, and established political and business interests would be jeopardized. Romanian policy towards Moldova, and by extension the two countries political relations, are most often shaped, among other factors, political pragmatism resulting from the desire to win the support of the Romanian electorate. Romania has managed to play a generally positive role in drawing Moldova toward Western structures and has been effective in its actions, its effectiveness in other areas of bilateral cooperation has been negligible. The technical support that Bucharest has provided is less than necessary, and infrastructure projects have been seriously delayed as a result of problems in coordinating actions among relevant ministries. This has led to a large breach between Bucharest’s frequent declarations of support for Moldova and actual results. Indeed, Romania has not implemented a coherent strategy toward Moldova. Its policy has essentially been a function of domestic, not foreign policy. Bucharest’s political objectives are often subordinated to rivalry among Romanian political parties.acba38cb4c3725a54cd1663c51b7d537

Moldova (shaded green above) and its neighbors. Romania for years has declared that Moldova is a foreign policy priority. Its policy aims for Moldova include reinforcing its position within Western institutions and improving its international links. Ukraine and Moldova have unresolved bilateral issues include long lasting property issues related to resorts inherited from the Soviet Union, a hydroelectric station, and an issue of border demarcation. Russia views Moldova as an integral part of its geopolitical and cultural space and invests a great deal in preserving and increasing its influence in the country.

For the Ukrainian government, relations with Moldova have been overshadowed by Kiev’s relations of with the US, the EU, and Russia. Chisinau has had to repeatedly deal with Ukrainian officials and experts who have perceived Moldova as being too small to influence regional developments and too weak to shape the agenda of the bilateral relations. However, such an approach has been proven false for a number of reasons. Despite Moldova’s diminutive size, relatively weak economy, and limited influence in the region, the Moldovan government is tough in negotiations. Bilateral issues that remain unresolved between Ukraine and Moldova include long lasting property issues related to resorts inherited from the Soviet Union, a hydroelectric station, and an issue of border demarcation. Left unresolved, these issues could potentially harm joint efforts for European integration, influence the 5+2 (Talks on the Transnistria conflict settlement, and joint participation in the regional projects,

Regarding Transnistria, since 2014, Ukraine has massed heavy weapons on the border with the statelet to deter the launch of a military campaign from it. Kiev gas also imposed limits on the transit of Transnistrian nationals and citizens of Russia, 200,000 of whom currently live in Transnistria. There are 500,000 ethnic Russians in Transnistria. When appointed in June 2015, the Governor of Ukraine’s Odessa Region Mikhail Saakashvili announced plans to reinforce Ukraine’s border with Transnistria. He stated at an Odessa news conference, “We have two major tasks—to reinforce the border and curb corruption. Drugs and weapons trafficking across the border means nothing good.” He also blamed Transnistrian authorities of destabilizing the situation in Ukraine.

The Wall Street Journal’s assay of the Russian Federaton’s Moldova policy was correct to the extent that it explained Moscow wants Moldova to remain in its sphere of influence. Putin wants Moldova to join his Eurasian Economic Union and not the EU. He considers Moldova to be an integral part of Russia’s geopolitical and cultural space and has invested heavily in preserving and increasing its influence in the country. It uses elements of soft power to gain control of assets and political opinion support.   Russian authorities can also manipulate Moldova through its dependence on Russian policies on gas supplies. Within the Russian speaking population of Moldova, sentiment has ostensibly been manipulated through the idea of Russkiy Mir (Russian World). True, the Moldovan heritage is not Slav. Still, Sovietization and Russification had an impact on the identity of many Moldovans.
630xnxd78c0b1-zelenye-chelovechki_628x420-jpg-pagespeed-ic_-xxvmhyzuga1“Green men” in Crimea (above). Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the explosion of violence in the Donetsk and Luhansk, exposed the challenge Chisinau faces in maintaining its border and interpreting Russia’s actions and intentions. The Wall Street Journal editorial noted Putin has been flexing his military muscles and testing the climate in the West for a potential next move. Considering this, it would not be completely unreasonable for Chisinau to consider that Moldova might be facing the threat from hybrid warfare.

The Hybrid Warfare “Threat” to Moldova

Accensa domo proxium, tua quoque periclitatur. (When the house of your neighbor is in flames, your own is in danger.) Moldova’s leaders do not speak to Russia with timidity, but they are realists concerning the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two counties, and signal that understanding in their measured actions. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the explosion of violence in the Donetsk and Luhansk, exposed the challenge Chisinau faces in maintaining its border and interpreting Russia’s actions and intentions. The Wall Street Journal editorial noted Putin has been flexing his military muscles and testing the climate in the West for a potential next move. Given these considerations, it would not be completely unreasonable or unwarranted for Chisinau to consider the possibility that Moldova might be facing the threat from subversion and insurgency, characteriistic of hybrid warfare. Elements of the tactic include::

A de-legitimization media campaign:

  1. The population’s preferences are influenced by altering their perceived needs

The political subversion stage:

  1. Front groups are created to gain public credibility
  2. The country’s institutions—particularly military and law enforcement—are infiltrated.
  3. Governmental power is corroded by fomenting riots, staging violent demonstrations, and generally igniting civil unrest.

The final stage:

  1. Legitimate power is replaced by the capture of government buildings by force and local law enforcement and military units are disabled.

Moscow has already punished Moldova for seeking closer ties with the West. Import bans were placed on Moldovan wines in 2013 and agricultural products in 2014, each time over health regulations and each time close to Moldovan EU summits and accords. New restrictions on remittances that Moldovan workers in Russia send home have also hampered economic growth. Remittances represent over 30 percent of Moldova’s GDP and up to 65 percent of them come from Russia. Once the Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement were signed with the EU in June 2014, prices of imported gas from Russia rose. Moldova is heavily dependent on imported energy and the Russian state-owned Gazprom is its main supplier of gas. To reduce Moldova’s dependency on Russian gas, a pipeline was constructed between the Romanian town of Iasi and Moldova town of Ungheni. Although the pipeline was ready for use, Chisinau, seemingly concerned over displeasing Moscow, announced in November 2015 that it had extended its gas contracts with Russia for another year. There are fears that tensions between the pro-Russia population and the pro-Romania Unionist which support reunification with could also make Moldova vulnerable and could provide Russia a plausible justification to intervene. Russian media which is widely available in Moldova, serves as a soft power instrument for wider dissemination of Russian official propaganda and anti-Western messages.
victory-day-transnistria-1-680x365-1Transnistrian troops on parade (above). Transnistria’s leaders in Tiraspol say Moldova and Ukraine have conspired to keep their country under an economic blockade. Russia accuses Moldova and Ukraine of squeezing Transnistria. Kiev denies any systematic actions against Moldova except suspending military cooperation after Moscow annexed Crimea and began supporting rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Still, Kiev has built up its forces on its border with Transnistria. Transnistria has mobilized its army reservists between 18 and 27. Its forces have participated in exercises with Russian Federation forces since 2015.

In his speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 13, 2016, Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev referred to the political crisis in Moldova as a major threat to European security.  Many nfluential Western politicians are of the same opinion. On August 10, 2015, Thorbjorn Jagland, the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, referred to Moldova as “an occupied state” and pointed out that the country could become the next issue for EU security. He stated: “Many in Moldova worry that Transnistria could become the next Crimea, an anxiety that has been further fueled by appeals for Russian protection from some of the province’s civic groups.”  Despite protests from Chisinau, in April 9, 2015, Russian forces conducted a drill in Transnistria. According to Russian news agencies, 400 Russian troops participated in exercises in Transnistria. They fired 100,000 rounds of ammunition. Again, on August 2016, Russian Federation forces stationed in Transnistria held a tank drill in the territory. Some Western analysts went as far as to say such exercises were intended to create the impression that Putin might take more dramatic action to subdue that defiant country. Western analysts also allege Putin was sending a warning to Moldovans to abandon their dreams of Western integration.

Russia accuses Moldova and Ukraine of squeezing Transnistria. Kiev denies any systematic actions against Tiraspol other than the suspension of military cooperation that followed Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and actions in eastern Ukraine. On June 12, 2015, Ukraine moved troops toward its border with Transnistria. Alarmed, Transnistria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Vitaly Ignatiev stated, “the situation here is very bad . . . Economic production is going down, foreign trade is shrinking, the security situation is equally alarming with our Moldovan partners holding military drills with NATO and the Ukrainian pressure mounting everyday.”  Transnistria’s leaders believe Moldova and Ukraine have conspired to keep their country under an economic blockade and have mobilized their republic’s army reservists between 18 and 27.

If Moldova faced Russian military intervention, it would unlikely be able to successfully respond. In terms of preparations by Chisinau, Moldovan forces initially began conducting a series of exercises ostensibly to prepare for a possible Russian attempt to seize its territory following Russian actions in Crimea and Donetsk and Luhansk. Those exercises, however, convinced few in Moldova that the country was at all prepared to efficaciously defend itself against hybrid warfare or any other type of attack. Those efforts made seemed more than anything else to be examples of “pokazuhka.”   In the Soviet Union, pokazuhka referred to performances by units designed by military commanders to create the appearance of troop combat readiness to impress superiors and gain commendations. Beyond such  window-dressing style training, Moldovan forces lacked military hardware, spare parts, fuel, munitions, body armor, food supplies, and light anti-tank weapons. The defense budget has been kept at $30 million, hovering between 0.3 and 0.6 GDP for the last several years. What Moldovan forces need to know is how to fight in densely populated urban and rural areas, train in the calibrated use of artillery avoid the self-destructive act of demolishing their own country’s infrastructure, and train to fight in an environment in which their opponent would restablish air superiority.
1026752708To prepare for possible Russian aggression, Moldovan forces initially began conducting a series of unilateral exercises. Those exercises, however, convinced few that Moldova was at all prepared to efficaciously defend itself against hybrid warfare or any other type of attack. Moldova soon received opportunities to train with NATO troops. Still, training and assistance to Moldova will be limited because it is not a full NATO member.

To help Moldova, a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, on July 25, 2015, about 800 troops from Moldova, the US, Romania, Poland, and Georgia took part in a joint military exercise in at the Balti military base in Moldova. The aim of exercise known as Joint Effort 2015 was to test the capabilities of the countries’ armed forces to cooperate. Moldova has since hosted additional military exercises since. Indeed, as part of the on-going cooperation between US and Moldovan defense forces, US, Moldovan, and Romanian troops conducted exercise Fire Shield 2016, a combined small arns, artillery training exercise at the Bulboaca Training Area, Moldova. The purpose of the exercise is to improve interoperability, explore concurrent training opportunities, and conduct safety training. Yet, training as well as assistance to Moldova will be limited because it is not a full-fledged NATO Member State. Moldova might receive some critical non-lethal equipment such as counter-battery radar, secure communications, and tactical drones. NATO could also intensify the training of Moldovan military forces in territorial defense However, none of that will truly make Moldova capable of deterring possible Russian aggression.

Pro-Europe national leaders in Chisinau pray to be part of the EU and NATO, but that possibly will not come right away. Granting Moldova NATO membership now, albeit hardly a possibility, or in the near future, may pose a set of problems that other member states may not ever want to deal with. Some in the West may even oppose arming Moldova, calculating that doing so would only cause Russia to inject more military forces in Transnistria. All of this means Chisinau should not feel certain of the US and EU commitment to help protect Moldova’s sovereignty and rights as an independent country. The administration of US President Barack Obama has indicated that the present and future challenge of US foreign policy is no longer to isolate and defeat an existential foe as Russia. Rather, it is creating a sustainable balance of power that advances the US interests by preserving peace and security and fostering collaboration among geopolitical rivals in addressing global transnational threats. It is difficult to assess how a new US administration will respond over Moldova.

Moldova: A False Positive for Hybrid Warfare Today

A false positive is an error in an evaluation process which leads one to conclude that a given condition has been fulfilled when it actually has not been fulfilled.  Russia certainly has exerted pressure on Moldova, but that may only be part of an effort to strengthen its diplomatic hand, not an overture to war. Russia is well-aware that cooperation stimulates economic growth and higher standards of living on both sides of a border by improving conditions for free trade and exchange. Russia believes that can be achieved by investment and integrating the region into the communication and transportation networks of its Eurasian Economic Union. Inter-border cooperation is understood to be a prerequisite of broader integration processes and improving relations between neighboring countries. It can serve as a mechanism for coping with the challenges and jolts resulting from the new divisions created between EU and Eurasian Economic Union countries. Domestic policy priorities and international and regional security issues can be harmonized through it. Inter-border cooperation can also serve to promote minority rights.
_87815849_3fc5bfe4-2a04-4658-9538-bea913051fcfIn July 16, 2016, Moldovan Prime Minister Pavel Filip held important meetings with Russian Federation Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin in Moldova. The aim of the meeting was to tackle the bilateral cooperation agenda. Rogozin offered a proposal for invigorated contacts between Chisinau and Tiraspol that would allow for normal relations, “above all in economics.” They discussed the division of Moldova into zones of influence,” one looking toward the EU, the other looking toward the Eurasian Economic Union.

Russian Federation Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin made a two-day visit to Moldova on July 6, 2016, during which he had important meetings in Chisinau with Moldovan Prime Minister Pavel Filip. The aim of the meeting was to allow the two officials to tackle the latest developments concerning the main elements on the bilateral cooperation agenda. Reports indicate Rogozin came at the invitation of Filip.  Filip emphasized Moldova’s interest in boosting the trade and investment relations with Russian partners and in particular, in the integration of Moldovan goods export to the Russian market. The Transnistria conflict settlement was also an important issue on the meeting agenda. Rogozin and Filip expressed support for the 5+2 talks, and welcomed the resumption of the discussion in this format. Additionally, the two officials discussed aspects of their countries’ cooperation in the migration sector, as well as in the cultural and humanitarian fields. They recognized the need to promote more governmental programs on developing ties in these cooperative areas.

Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci. ([He] has gained every point who has combined [the useful with the] agreeable.) More detailed reports of the meeting between Rogozin and Filip, however, paint a more intriguing picture Rogozin explained Russia wanted to see invigorated contacts between Chisinau and Tiraspol aimed at a return to normal relations, “above all in economics.”   What the two officials most importantly discussed was the de facto division of “zones of influence” one looking toward the West and the EU and one looking toward the East and the Eurasian Economic Union. The formally unrecognized Transnistria and the autonomous Gagauzia would be part of the eastern zone. The arrangement would also allow for the free movement of people and goods between them and to the broader communities of which each is a part. Further, the division of zones of influence would ostensibly spread to all areas of life, including information policy and civic freedoms. Activities that would be perfectly legal in one zone in Moldova could possibly result in arrest in the other.
017627776_30300With regard to trade with Moldova, Russian Federation Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin has presented a proposal to Moldova that would result in a creative arrangement for Russia. As Moldova is not subject to EU sanctions, theoretically, Russia could move its goods into a proposed European zone in Moldova via Transnistria and Gagauzia and thus escape restrictions. Simultaneously, the territories would become points for the expansion of the Russian world. Given the need to ensure that those territories remain part of Moldova, Moscow would hardly consider annexing Transnistria or Gagauzia.

With regard to trade with Moldova, Rogozin proposed a creative arrangement. Moldova is not subject to sanctions. Thus, theoretically, Russia could move its goods into a proposed European zone in Moldova via Transnistria and Gagauzia and escape restrictions. Simultaneously, the territories would become points for the expansion of the Russian world. Since Russia would need to ensure that those territories remained part of Moldova, Moscow would hardly consider annexing Transnistria or Gagauzia. Interestingly, after meeting with Filip, Rogozin went into Tiraspol without the usual complaints from Chisinau about visits of Russian officials to Transnistria. Rogozin, for his part, did not meet with pro-Russian opposition figures or mention any broader political settlement. For some analysts, this has created the impression that in the course of preliminary meetings, Moscow and Chisinau had firmly agreed about the proposed economic arrangement

Since that visit by Rogozin to Moldova, Chisinau has implored the West to help provide relief from pressure by Moscow.  Filip stated on August 16, 2016, “Through elections and international agreements, we have steadfastly chosen the Euro-Atlantic community as our inspiration and destination, and the current government is dedicated to securing our EU path. Moscow is none too pleased, and that is why we need the help of Washington and other Western capitals to solidify our transition from several decades of communism into a free-market economy.” In coming presidential elections, Moldovans will make a choice whether to stay on the pro-Western path toward the EU or more closer to Russia’s orbit

The Way Forward

In Act II, Scene ii of William Shakespeare’s comedy, Trolius and Cressida, Hector, the Prince of Troy, a fierce warrior, and leader of the Trojan armies, states: “Modest doubt is call’d The beacon of the wise, the tent that searches To the bottom of the worst.” Searching for the worst, one might consider that if things do not go Russia’s way in Moldova’s coming presidential elections, Moscow could begin to quietly provide enhanced economic support to Transnistria and Gagauzia. That aid might take the form of a considerable amount of Russian rubles to encourage greater purchases of Russian goods. That aid might initially be cloaked. It could also continue to provide humanitarian aid using truck convoys. Russia could provide financial support to pro-Russian separatist political organizations. To encourage ethnic-Russians to remain in Transnistria and Gagauzia, Russia may assist directly in the infrastructure improvements in those territories, as well as focus on the construction of new schools, churches, community centers, and infrastructure projects that meet the needs of those communities. At the same time, Russia could enable pro-Russian separatists in Transnistria and Gagauzia as a hedge against any attempts to reverse gains made. Separatists could be enabled to defend themselves with training from Russian military advisers perhaps acting covertly and they could also be provided with new Russian armaments. Russia would unlikely withdraw its forces in Transnistria and could possibly increase the measure of those forces to create the capability to rush into restive Gagauzia if any fighting began there. It is easy to postulate such theories on possible moves by Moscow, they are unlikely to be observed in Moldova.  A decision against Russia’s interests in Moldova will not create an ultimate crisis for Moscow. The wisdom exists to resist war.

Nihil est incertus volgo. (Nothing is more uncertain than the favor of the crowd.) Moldova’s sovereignty is as important an issue in coming elections as the country’s economic future. Paramount in considering Rogozin’s proposal is that it would not only establish the defined interests of Moscow, but would also preserve Moldova’s unity, solvency. Despite imperfections in the proposal, it might best serve Moldova’s interests for the moment. To an extent, Rogozin’s proposal represents an effort at compromise by Moscow. Unable to bring all of Moldova into its Eurasian Economic Union, it seeks to create spheres of interest. It may very well be a signal from Moscow that it intends to stick with diplomacy to resolve its issues with Moldova. Despite veiled threats from some senior Russian Federation officials and apprehension among Moldovan officials, Chisinau signed the Association Agreement with the EU in 2014. Moldovan officials now appear somewhat concerned over Russia’s reaction to a possible vote by Moldovans to remain on a western track in coming presidential elections. If they vote to go West, it ironically may prove to have been Moscow’s adherence to a diplomatic tack on establishing zones of influence that created enough breathing space for them to feel unafraid to do so.