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World roundup: April 12 2022
Stories from Yemen, Pakistan, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
April 11, 1241: The Battle of Mohi
April 11, 1979: The Tanzania People's Defence Force, along with a group of Ugandan opposition fighters called the Uganda National Liberation Front, seizes Kampala and forces Ugandan dictator Idi Amin to flee into exile after over eight years in power. Amin sought sanctuary first in Libya and later in Saudi Arabia, where he lived until his death in 2003. His time in power is remembered mostly for its brutality toward ethnic minorities and political opponents, with estimates of the number of people killed on Amin’s orders ranging from around 100,000 at the lower end to upwards of 500,000 at the higher end.
April 12, 1204: The army of the Fourth Crusade sacks Constantinople, temporarily eliminating the Byzantine Empire.
April 12, 1861: Batteries from the new “Provisional Forces of the Confederate States” open fire on Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, kicking off the American Civil War. The garrison commander, Major Robert Anderson, agreed to surrender and evacuate the fort the following day. Two US soldiers were killed the day after that when some ammunition in the fort exploded during a ceremonial salute to the US flag, but they were the only two fatalities connected with the battle. The fort remained in Confederate hands until they evacuated it in 1865 during William T. Sherman’s war-ending Carolinas Campaign.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Rebel fighters killed one Syrian soldier in southern Idlib province on Monday, prompting the Syrian military to bombard several parts of the rebel-held enclave later in the day. There’s no word on casualties from those retaliatory attacks.
Shortly after we adjourned on a bit of a skeptical note about the possibility of a Yemeni ceasefire, the United Nations announced that it had gotten agreement from both the rebel and government/Saudi sides to pause fighting not just for the duration of Ramadan but for a full two months. The agreement calls for a limited easing of the Saudi sea and air blockade on northern Yemen and its success or failure will likely hinge on the ability of the UN to broker initial steps toward a peace agreement—prisoner exchanges, for example, or possibly agreements to allow transit across the conflict’s existing front lines.
On the subject of peace talks, the rebels will be dealing with a new titular Yemeni authority, as nominal Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi canned his vice president last week and then announced that he was turning all executive authority over to a council led by former Interior Minister Rashad al-Alimi. It’s too soon to draw any conclusions about this shift, which seems to remove Hadi from power altogether although I haven’t seen any specific declaration that he’s resigned the presidential office as opposed to transferring its powers. But it clearly was done at Saudi behest, if we can go by the billions of dollars in new aid pledges from Riyadh that followed Hadi’s announcement. The council can’t help but have more legitimacy than Hadi, so presumably it will be better equipped to negotiate.
There were reports of confrontations between Palestinian protesters and Israeli occupation forces in and around the West Bank city of Jenin on Tuesday, following an incident in the Israeli city of Ashkelon wherein a Palestinian man allegedly pulled a knife on an Israeli police officer who then shot and killed him. Israeli forces have been undertaking regular security raids in the Jenin area for the past several days in response to a spate of recent attacks in Israeli towns and cities over the past few weeks. Several of those attacks have been claimed by Islamic State in what appears to be that group’s first serious foray into Israel.
An Israeli lawmaker named Idit Silman resigned her spot in the ruling coalition and joined the opposition Likud Party last week, taking Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s narrow 61 seat majority down to a 60 seat non-majority and potentially imperiling the coalition. Nothing significant has come of this so far but the coalition’s ability to pass legislation is now questionable at best, and the dysfunction may force Bennett to call for a snap election. Given how tenuous his anti-Benjamin Netanyahu coalition is a new election could mark its end and the start of a whole new round of Israeli political dysfunction.
Saudi authorities announced over the weekend that they’re expanding attendance limits for the next Hajj, scheduled for July, to one million pilgrims. While still lower than the 2-3 million pilgrims who undertook the Hajj pre-COVID, it dwarfs last year’s cap of 60,000 and suggests things are on a path back to normal. Hajj participation will be limited to those under 65 with full vaccinations and negative PCR tests.
European Council President Charles Michel hosted Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Brussels last week for a confab during which, according to Michel at least, they agreed to “move rapidly toward a peace agreement” between their respective countries. Which seems promising in principle but elides some very difficult issues that need to be worked out to get to such an agreement. One of which is going to be whether the Russian government, which views itself as the rightful guarantor of geopolitical relations in the southern Caucasus, is going to be comfortable with a European Union-brokered peace process between Yerevan and Baku given the current state of, well, everything.
The main issue is of course the long-term status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the predominantly Armenian region that lies within Azerbaijan’s international accepted borders. Armenian rhetoric has apparently shifted of late away from demands for Karabakh’s territorial autonomy and toward an insistence that Baku afford its inhabitants a protected status within Azerbaijan. That’s a major concession on Armenia’s part, but Aliyev’s rhetoric since the 2020 Karabakh war has, to put it mildly, not shown much willingness to consider that as an option. The very real threat that the Armenian population of Karabakh could be ethnically cleansed or worse will hang over these talks without some enforceable assurances from Aliyev.
The Iranian government on Tuesday summoned the Afghan chargé d’affaires in Tehran over reports that protesters had thrown rocks at Iranian diplomatic offices in Herat and Kabul the previous day. The protesters were angry over claims that Afghan refugees are being mistreated by Iranian authorities, a charge the Iranian government has rejected. The Iranian Foreign Ministry says it’s shut down consular services in Afghanistan indefinitely. It’s probably worth nothing that, while Iran and the Taliban came to have a pretty cordial relationship in the latter stages of the US war in Afghanistan, they were bitterly hostile to one another in the late 1990s, the last time the Taliban ran Afghanistan.
Pakistani Taliban fighters attacked a Pakistani military unit in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province early Tuesday, killing at least two soldiers. At least two of the attackers were also killed in the clash.
Elsewhere, in case you haven’t already heard Pakistan officially has a new prime minister in the person of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leader Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of former Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif. Imran Khan made a last-ditch bid to thwart a no confidence motion while I was away, by dissolving parliament and moving to a snap election. Pakistan’s Supreme Court nullified that dissolution on Thursday and ordered parliament to vote on the motion—which, as expected, Khan lost. Sharif takes office facing a fairly substantial protest movement among supporters of Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, who seem to have coalesced around the claim that Sharif and other opposition leaders colluded with the United States to arrange Khan’s ouster. This is not out of the question but I’m not sure what (if any) evidentiary basis Khan and PTI have for making this claim.
The Sri Lankan government announced on Tuesday that it’s suspending debt service payments, putting itself in default and potentially exacerbating what was already a serious economic crisis. Protesters have for a few weeks now been demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation over and rising prices and/or shortages of staple goods. Authorities are imposing austerity measures with an eye toward appeasing creditors and potentially working out some kind of bailout with the International Monetary Fund, but the effect of higher interest rates and a devalued currency may intensify the protests.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has set May 21 as the date for that country’s next parliamentary election, which will contest all 151 seats in the Australian House of Representatives and 40 of the 76 seats in the Australian Senate. May 21 is the latest possible date for Morrison to hold the joint election, and he’s waiting until then presumably because polling right now suggests the opposition Labor Party could unseat the ruling Liberal-National Coalition. Of course, the Coalition won the 2019 election despite mostly unfavorable polling, so I wouldn’t draw any firm conclusions as to how this race is likely to turn out.
Authorities in Algeria are accusing the Moroccan military of killing three people in an airstrike on Sunday that struck a truck convoy near the border between Mauritania and the disputed Western Sahara region. The Algerian government supports the Sahrawi separatist movement and its relationship with Morocco is troubled to say the least, so this claim should probably be taken with a grain of salt particularly inasmuch as details seem to be pretty sparse. Media outlets connected with the separatist Polisario Front have reported on the strike but neither Moroccan nor Mauritanian officials have confirmed that such an incident took place.
Five Beninese soldiers were killed on Monday when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in northern Benin’s Pendjari National Park. The bomb was likely planted by Islamist militants and reflects the ongoing expansion of Islamist militancy from Burkina Faso and Niger into northern Benin.
A major bandit attack targeting four villages in central Nigeria’s Plateau state left more than 100 people dead, according to local authorities and survivors. The attacks began on Sunday and it’s unclear how long they continued. There’s been no claim of responsibility and no indication as to motive, but the incident took place in a part of Nigeria where violence between (predominantly Fulani) herding communities and (predominantly Hausa) farming communities has become more frequent as the two groups compete for a shrinking amount of arable land. Survivors seemed to indicate that the attackers were herders.
While I was away, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his vice president/rival Riek Machar recommitted themselves to implementing their 2018 peace agreement, most particularly on the subject of integrating Machar’s rebel fighters into the regular South Sudanese military. Government and rebel forces had been clashing with increasing regularity over the past few weeks and the rebels announced late last month that they were suspending participation in the admittedly dormant implementation process. I’d say this is good news, except that Kiir and Machar have made similar pledges more than once since they signed that peace deal, to no apparent avail. That said, on Tuesday South Sudanese officials announced that they’ve formed a unified military command, which is further than they’ve ever progressed on this front. So perhaps they’re finally on track.
In news from Russia:
As part of its shift in focus to eastern Ukraine and specifically the Donbas region (about which more below), the Russian military while I was away withdrew entirely from the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions in northern Ukraine. The withdrawal allowed Ukrainian forces to reenter places that have been under Russian control for several weeks, like the Kyivan suburb of Bucha, where they allegedly uncovered evidence of serious atrocities committed by Russian soldiers against civilians. I want to stress that these allegations are not proven, though Russian claims that the dead bodies found in Bucha were either mocked up or placed there by the Ukrainians are at least somewhat undermined by satellite imagery. I think it’s also important to note that there are credible allegations of war crimes going in both directions in this conflict, and it would be trite to say “that’s what war is” but just because it’s trite doesn’t make it wrong.
The Bucha revelations prompted some new Western financial sanctions but really nothing beyond the paradigm that’s already been established. In particular, European governments (Germany above all) continue to resist embargoes on Russian oil or gas exports. Coal exports are the very low hanging fruit on this particular tree and the EU has reportedly coalesced behind an embargo in that area, but one that won’t come into effect until at least August—at Germany’s behest.
The credit rating agency S&P has deemed Russia to be in “selective default” of its international debt after Moscow apparently tried to make service payments in rubles on two dollar-denominated bonds earlier this month. The Russian treasury does have a 30 grace period to make good on these debts but it seems more inclined to pursue legal remedies than to ship out more of its dwindling foreign currency reserves.
The Russian military has appointed a new commander in Ukraine in the person of General Aleksandr Dvornikov. Whether this is indicative of frustration over the conduct of the war to date or not is open to interpretation. Dvornikov is famous, or perhaps infamous would be the better term, for using fairly brutal tactics in both Chechnya in 2000 and in Syria over the past several years, and I doubt he was ordered to soften his approach for the Ukraine war.
And in Ukraine:
As I noted above, by all accounts the Russians are refocusing their still substantial military assets on the Donbas. They don’t appear ready to launch a new ground offensive yet but they’ve reportedly intensified their artillery activity in the region and there are growing calls for Ukrainian civilians to get out of at least Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts before evacuation becomes significantly more difficult. An apparent Russian missile attack killed more than 50 people and wounded dozens more on Friday at a large train station at Kramatorsk, which would be consistent with an attempt to degrade regional infrastructure ahead of a new operation. I say “apparent” because there’s been some dispute as to the provenance of the missile that hit the station, but I think the preponderance of evidence still points to a Russian attack.
Somewhat surprisingly, the besieged port city of Mariupol has still not fallen completely into Russian hands, though its defenders are reportedly running short of ammunition and other critical materiel. Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, are suggesting that “tens of thousands” of people have been killed in Mariupol over the course of the war, but while the fighting is going on there’s no way to know to any certainty how many casualties have accumulated there.
If you’ve been online at all over the past day or two then you’ve undoubtedly seen claims of Russian chemical weapons use in Mariupol, based on a report from the paramilitary Azov Battalion that three of its fighters took ill with symptoms that could be consistent with exposure to chemical munitions. Needless to say both the scale of the alleged attack and the source mean that this isn’t terribly convincing stuff, and so far nobody seems to be able to confirm the Azov claim.
Ukrainian cybersecurity officials are claiming that they foiled a Russian attempt to hack Ukraine’s power grid last week. They seem to be indicating that the Russians laid the groundwork for this attack weeks ago, and it’s unclear why they attempted it last week. Nor is there any indication as to how the Ukrainians were able to prevent it.
Ukrainian authorities are also saying they’ve recaptured Viktor Medvedchuk, the politician previously considered to be Putin’s Man in Kyiv until he was placed under house arrest and eventually fled in the early days of the invasion. Zelensky seems inclined to trade Medvedchuk for Ukrainian soldiers held captive by Russia, assuming Moscow is interested in such a swap.
The Biden administration is reportedly close to announcing another $750 million in new military aid to Ukraine, and the Pentagon is planning to meet with representatives of the eight largest US defense contractors on Wednesday to discuss supporting Ukraine’s military efforts over what’s likely to be an extended conflict to come. As ever it’s just nice to see that somebody is winning this war.
To no surprise, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić easily won reelection while I was away, taking over 58 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. In what may be considered a bit of a surprise, his coalition looks to have suffered a setback in the parliamentary vote, dropping to 120 seats in the 250 seat National Assembly and thus losing its sole majority. It should be able to maintain its overall control of the legislature alongside coalition partners.
Also unsurprisingly, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won another term in charge of the Hungarian government. If anything, the surprise here is the margin of Fidesz’s victory. After polling showed it with a consistent but narrow lead heading into the election, Fidesz won convincingly on election day (April 3), making a net gain of two seats to expand its parliamentary supermajority. It now controls 135 seats in the 199 seat Hungarian National Assembly. The joint opposition managed to lose a collective eight seats and I question whether its constituent parties will be inclined to keep working together after this defeat.
Also in line with expectations, incumbent Emmanuel Macron won the first round of France’s presidential election on Sunday. Indeed, Macron actually managed to slightly outperform some very dismal pre-election polling to take just under 28 percent of the vote. In the April 24 runoff he’ll face, and again this is not a surprise, far-right rival Marine Le Pen, who more or less met polling expectations with a bit over 23 percent of the vote. The big electoral surprise was the performance of leftist challenger Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who exceeded his pre-election polling to come in at just under 22 percent of the vote and nearly knock Le Pen out of the runoff. With Macron not terribly popular these days and second-round polling suggesting an uncomfortably tight race with Le Pen, the incumbent could spend the next few days trying to appeal to Mélenchon voters. He’s already wavered a bit on his big plan to raise the French retirement age but as he’s been president for five years now there’s only so much he can do to obfuscate his own center-right record.
Argentine trucking interests extended their strike on grain shipments into a second day on Tuesday, with potentially more to come. Trucking company owners are reportedly demanding higher rates to account for inflation. If this strike continues for any length of time it could begin to impact Argentine grain exports—there’s enough storage at major seaports right now to sustain those exports but that won’t last forever—at a time when food importing countries are already reeling due to the war in Ukraine and its impact on both Ukrainian and Russian exports.
Finally, TomDispatch’s William Astore wonders if there’s any circumstance under which the US government would be willing to entertain the idea of cutting defense spending:
I have a question for you: What would it take in today’s world for America’s military spending to go down? Here’s one admittedly farfetched scenario: Vladimir Putin loses his grip on power and Russia retrenches militarily while reaching out to normalize relations with the West. At the same time, China prudently decides to spend less on its military, pursuing economic power while abandoning any pretense to a militarized superpower status. Assuming such an unlikely scenario, with a “new cold war” nipped in the bud and the U.S. as the world’s unchallenged global hegemon, Pentagon spending would surely shrink, right?
Well, I wouldn’t count on it. Based on developments after the Soviet Union’s collapse three decades ago, here’s what I suspect would be far more likely to happen. The U.S. military, aided by various strap-hanging think tanks, intelligence agencies, and weapons manufacturers, would simply shift into overdrive. As its spokespeople would explain to anyone who’d listen (especially in Congress), the disappearance of the Russian and Chinese threats would carry its own awesome dangers, leaving this country prospectively even less safe than before.
You’d hear things like: we’ve suddenly been plunged into a more complex multipolar world, significantly more chaotic now that our “near-peer” rivals are no longer challenging us, with even more asymmetrical threats to U.S. military dominance. The key word, of course, would be “more” — linked, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, to omnipresent Pentagon demands for yet more military spending. When it comes to weapons, budgets, and war, the military-industrial complex’s philosophy is captured by an arch comment of the legendary actress Mae West: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”