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The Week in Review: May 21-27, 2022
Biden speaks out on Taiwan, Russia advances in the Donbas, and more
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This week, Russian forces launched an all-out assault to seize the entire Donbas. Joe Biden’s comments on Taiwan prompted a quick walking back from senior US officials. The Islamic State launched several attacks across Iraq and Afghanistan, but its leader may have been arrested in Turkey. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced plans for a new military offensive into Northern Syria.
While visiting Tokyo on Monday, US President Joe Biden was asked by a reporter whether the US would intervene militarily should China invade Taiwan. Biden replied “yes” and later added that “that’s the commitment we made.” His administration spent part of the week cleaning up after those comments. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told a news conference later that same day that Biden’s comments did not represent a change in Taiwan policy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken would re-iterate the same position in a speech on Thursday, while accusing China of becoming more “belligerent” towards Taiwan. Biden’s comments ended up somewhat overshadowing the actual purpose of his Tokyo visit: the announcement of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a new multinational bloc whose purpose still isn’t entirely clear.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made the rounds through the Pacific this week, pitching a security program to the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Micronesia, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu. The program is modeled along the lines of the agreement that China recently signed with the Solomon Islands, which is oriented around the idea of cooperation on law enforcement matters with the possibility of expansion into other areas (economic, military, etc.) down the road.
Gunmen, apparently working on behalf of the Israeli government, murdered Iranian Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei outside of his home in Tehran on Sunday. Khodaei was an officer in the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and reports suggest that Israel perceived him to be a deputy commander of an IRGC unit specializing in kidnapping and assassinations. Other sources have suggested that Khodaei was a logistical expert working to transport weapons to Iranian-linked militias in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Pivoting to the Iran nuclear deal, Politico reports that US President Joe Biden has come to a “final decision” to keep the IRGC on the State Department’s foreign terrorist organization list. With Iranian officials having made the IRGC’s delisting a prerequisite for reviving the nuclear deal, this may snuff out what little hope was left for reaching an agreement.
Finally, US authorities earlier this week impounded an Iranian-flagged, Russian-operated tanker near Greece, looking to seize the cargo (a shipment of Iranian oil) and divert it to the US. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy retaliated later in the week, seizing two Greek-flagged oil tankers in the Persian Gulf on Friday. Keep an eye out for further developments on this front.
The Islamic State launched a flurry of attacks this week, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. On Monday, two separate attacks in Iraq’s Kirkuk and Diyala provinces left at least 12 dead; then, on Wednesday, multiple bombings across Afghanistan killed at least 14. There’s also speculation that a brutal attack in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state which killed at least 50 people was the doing of the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP).
Finally, Turkish security forces may have arrested Abu’l-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, Islamic State’s, during a raid on an IS hideout in Istanbul last week. There’s no confirmation of his identity yet, but Turkish authorities may make an official announcement in the coming days.
On Tuesday, the Russian military launched an all-out assault to seize the rest of the Donbas, according to Reuters. Russian forces steadily advanced throughout the week, and as of Friday were close to encircling Severodonetsk, the largest city in Luhansk oblast that’s still in Ukraine’s possession. Their progress has been grueling and bloody, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky referring to the offensive as a “genocide” and claiming that “50 to 100 people” may be dying in combat in the Donbas per day.
US involvement in Ukraine seems poised to escalate in the coming weeks, with the Biden administration reportedly on the verge of sending multiple rocket launch systems to Ukraine. These would in theory allow Ukrainian forces to strike targets deep within Russian borders, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov previously warned would constitute a step towards “unacceptable escalation.” The Biden Administration is also reportedly weighing up proposals to send US special forces to Ukraine, with the limited goal of guarding the US embassy in Kyiv. Their presence could easily snowball into even greater US involvement.
Finally, European Union members are scrambling to reach an agreement on some sort of Russian oil embargo. With Hungary blocking the imposition of a full embargo, EU leaders are attempting to patch together a compromise that can be announced during their two-day summit on Monday and Tuesday. One proposal that’s gained steam is a plan to block deliveries of Russian oil via tanker, while leaving pipeline shipments untouched; this would allow Hungary to continue receiving Russian oil as normal, while blocking around three-quarters of Russia’s oil exports to EU member states.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on Monday that Turkish forces would be launching a military offensive into regions of Northern Syria that are still controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces—a predominantly Kurdish militia that has attacked Turkish forces in Syria as well as across the Turkish border itself. The scope of the offensive remains unclear, but it’s worth considering whether Erdoğan feels he is in a position of power over the rest of NATO, as he’s made himself the chief obstacle to Finland and Sweden joining the alliance.
Speaking of NATO, Finnish and Swedish diplomats arrived in Ankara on Wednesday to try to hammer out a way for their NATO applications to proceed past Erdoğan’s demands. It’s unclear how much progress was made on what; Turkish officials commented that both delegations had exhibited a “positive attitude” on the subject of lifting their embargoes on arms sales to Turkey, but little was said about Turkey’s other demands.
Also on Monday, Erdoğan declared that Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis “no longer exists for me”, possibly in response to Mitsotakis visiting the US last week to purportedly purchase F-35 aircraft—which Turkey is barred from purchasing. Mitsotakis seems to have urged US officials to rethink plans to sell new F-16 aircraft to Turkey, which is what sparked Erdoğan’s outburst.
Some words in foreign affairs parlance carry more meaning than just their literal definition. One such word, genocide, has been repeatedly invoked in the past few weeks to characterize the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Last month, US President Joe Biden claimed that Vladimir Putin was committing genocide by trying to “wipe out the idea of even being Ukrainian.” Shortly after, Canadian lawmakers unanimously passed a motion recognizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine as genocide. And just this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russian forces of committing genocide in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Watching world leaders use the ‘g-word’ so liberally contrasts starkly with US policy during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, where the Clinton administration explicitly instructed its spokespeople not to call the killings of over 800,000 Tutsis genocide. That policy is best captured by an infamous press conference featuring then-State-Department spokesperson Christine Shelley, where she stubbornly dodged multiple calls from reporters to use the g-word. At the time, it was unclear what the legal ramifications were if the US were to formally recognize genocide, and the Clinton administration feared it would compel them to commit to military intervention. (As you already know, its use would not compel the US to military intervention. The same day of Shelley’s ‘genocide jig’, then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher would later use the g-word' to describe the massacres unfolding across Rwanda — from which no US response would emerge.)
It might seem like a near-complete reversal has occurred around genocide discourse since then: from a position where it seemed that using the g-word would draw the US into a costly intervention on the other side of the world, to one where using the g-word compelled nothing.
While the word ‘genocide’ compels nothing, however, it enables much. Its purpose as a rhetorical tool has evolved, but it has evolved to achieve the same ends through different means. Instead of forcing the US to intervene, the g-word makes it easier for policymakers to adopt interventionist policies abroad with public support. That may partially explain why the Biden administration has been able to quietly escalate its support for Ukraine to more than $4 billion in security assistance thus far — more than Ukraine received from the US in the seven years prior — and has been able to float the idea of sending special forces to guard the US embassy in Kyiv. It may also help explain why Canada was able to devote C$500 million in aid to Ukraine as part of its annual national budget this year. (Interestingly, US and Canadian decrees of genocide came after their initial announcements of military aid, suggesting that the word might be more useful for sustaining public support rather than attracting it.)
This is not to argue that a single word has the power to spur the American public into action; it’s just a single item in a playbook of strategies that policymakers and media outlets use to harness public opinion around certain policies. However, use of the g-word can still be a helpful warning sign that policymakers are trying to tug on your activist heartstrings for their own political benefit.