News Briefs – February 14, 2020

Estonia: Russia attack not likely but Baltics under threat

Estonia’s foreign intelligence agency says the likelihood of a military attack from neighboring Russia remains low, but that any confrontation between Russia and the West could quickly turn into “a threat situation for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.”
Director General Mikk Marran of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service said Feb. 12 that while Moscow wants to refrain from a conflict with NATO, it may opt for “a preventive military offensive” in the Baltic region if it anticipates an escalation of a conflict “even if this occurs in another region.”
“The main security threat for Estonia in the year 2020 is Russia. That threat hasn’t changed as Russia hasn’t changed,” Marran told reporters during a news conference following unveiling of the agency’s annual review in Tallinn, the capital of the former Soviet republic of 1.3 million.
Russian President Vladimir “Putin’s regime remains in power and continues its fight against the democratic world order, including Estonia and our (NATO) allies. Almost all threats to Estonia’s security derive from activities by Russia,” Marran said.
The 79-page report said Moscow’s increasing deployment of weapons along the borders of Estonia and its neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, Moscow’s “covert influence operations” and its Cold War-style military maneuvers are destabilizing the Baltic Sea region. The region is home to nine European nations.
The Russian armed forces have deployed short-range ballistic Iskander missiles some 75 miles from its Estonian border and a mere 27 miles from its Lithuanian border, the agency noted. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have all been NATO members since 2004.
Some 18,000 Russian ground and airborne troops are currently stationed close to the border areas with Estonia and Latvia complete with a substantial amount of offensive equipment that brings “absolute supremacy” to Russia in military terms against NATO forces in the Baltic region, according to estimates by the agency. AP

U.S. admiral hopes Philippine security pact can still be saved

The move by the Philippines to end a security pact that allowed U.S. forces to train in the country potentially “challenged” future American operations with Filipino forces, a U.S. admiral said Feb. 13.
Adm. Philip S. Davidson, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told a foreign policy think-tank in Sydney that he hoped the U.S. State Department would be able to negotiate a solution that would keep the Visiting Forces Agreement in place.
“It’s a 180-day notice, so we have some time for diplomatic efforts to be pursued here,” Davidson said. “I hope we can get to a successful outcome.”
The Philippines notified the United States on Feb. 11 it would end the agreement, in the most serious threat under President Rodrigo Duterte to their 69-year bilateral treaty alliance.
Davidson said the United States did not have such agreements with every country in the region.
“But our ability to help the Philippines and their counter-violent extremist fight in the south, our ability to train and operate within the Philippines and with Filipino armed forces would be challenged without that Visiting Forces Agreement,” Davidson said.
American forces have provided intelligence, training and aid that allowed the Philippines to deal with human trafficking, cyberattacks, illegal narcotics and terrorism. U.S. military assistance helped Philippine forces quell a disastrous siege by Islamic State group-aligned militants in southern Marawi city in 2017.
The accord, known by its acronym VFA, legally allows the entry of large numbers of American forces along with U.S. military ships and aircraft for joint training with Philippine troops. It specifies which country will have jurisdiction over American soldiers who may be accused of crimes while in the Philippines, a sensitive issue in the former American colony.
A separate defense pact subsequently signed by the allies in 2014, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, allows the extended stay of U.S. forces and authorizes them to build and maintain barracks and warehouses and store defense equipment and weapons inside five designated Philippine military camps.
Duterte has often criticized U.S. security policies while praising those of China and Russia, despite the Philippine military’s close historic ties with its American counterpart. AP

Iraq green-lights resumption of NATO training effort

The Iraqi government has given NATO the green light to stay in the country, the alliance’s chief said Feb. 13, weeks after Iraq demanded foreign forces leave the country over the U.S. killing of Iran’s top general near the Baghdad airport.
Prodded by U.S. President Donald Trump to do more in the wider Middle East, NATO has been developing plans to expand its training effort in Iraq, where it was helping build up the Iraqi army and provide security advice to government ministries until it was suspended over the drone strike.
“The government of Iraq has confirmed to us their desire for a continuation of the NATO training, advising and capacity building activities for the Iraqi armed forces,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels during a meeting of allied defense ministers.
“We will only stay in Iraq as long as we are welcome,” he added.
NATO’s Canada-led training mission was launched in 2018 and involves around 500 troops. The plan now is to move hundreds of trainers working with the international force fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq over to that mission.
Unlike the international coalition, NATO’s training effort does not involve combat operations.
The move was not expected to involve the deployment of more troops. But when asked if he had received pledges from other NATO allies to do more so the U.S. could reduce its personnel in Iraq, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said “the short answer is yes.” He declined to provide details. AP

Airbus shows loss for 2019 due to big bribery settlement

Commercial aircraft maker Airbus lost 1.36 billion euros ($1.48 billion) in 2019 because of a multibillion-euro bribery settlement with authorities in three countries, but otherwise saw a record year of aircraft deliveries and increased its dividend.
Operating earnings without one-time burdens rose 19 percent to 6.9 billion euros. The company said Feb. 13 it would propose a dividend of 1.80 euros per share, up 9 percent from 2017. Revenues rose 11 percent to 70.5 billion euros as the company ramped up production of its A320 twinjet.
CEO Guillaume Faury called it “a strong underlying financial performance” while acknowledging that “of course we cannot be satisfied” with the net loss.”
Faury also that Airbus sees no short-term benefit from Boeing’s troubles with its grounded 737 MAX because the competing A320 is sold out years ahead.
Asked how much Airbus had benefited from Boeing’s troubles, he said that “it might look like a paradox, but in the short term we do not benefit from the situation with a competitor.”
“It has to do with safety, and safety is paramount for the industry. This is one of the things we all have in common.”
He added that “we cannot take benefits on the 320. We are sold out through 2025 roughly and therefore we cannot step in to offset the needs of airline customers that will not be fulfilled” due to the grounding of the MAX.
Airbus saw deliveries of 863 commercial aircraft, up from 800 in the year before. The company boosted orders to 768 as competitor Boeing stumbled because of the grounding of its 737 MAX jet after two crashes that killed 346 people. Boeing’s net orders were negative because of cancellations and the bankruptcy of a large customer, India’s Jet Airways, and came in at minus 87.
The large net loss reflected 3.6 billion euros set aside to cover a criminal settlement with authorities in the U.S., France and Britain over past corrupt practices. The company also lost 1.2 billion euros because of troubles with its A400M military transport program and 221 million euros because the German government suspended export licenses to Saudi Arabia through March.
Airbus is legally headquartered in the Netherlands but has its main base in Toulouse, France, and factories there and in Hamburg, Germany, Seville, Spain, Tianjin, China, and Mobile, Ala., in the U.S. It also makes military aircraft, helicopters and satellites. AP

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