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World roundup: April 15-17 2022
Stories from Iran, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and more
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Happy Easter and a belated Happy Passover to those who are celebrating either or both.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
April 15, 1395: The Battle of the Terek River
April 15, 1947: Jackie Robinson makes his Major League Baseball debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In doing so, he became the first African-American to play in the MLB, breaking the color barrier that had been entrenched in the league since the 1880s. Two years later he became the first African-American to win his league’s Most Valuable Player award for the 1949 season, and he was inducted in the the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
April 16, 1457 BCE: This is the date most commonly cited for the Battle of Megiddo, the earliest well-documented (reasonably, anyway) battle in human history. An Egyptian army under Pharaoh Thutmose III defeated a group of rebelling Canaanite kingdoms at Megiddo, a city that was the site of so many battles in the ancient world that it gave its name to the hypothetical apocalyptic “Battle of Armageddon.” They followed up by besieging the city, which fell seven months later. Thutmose’s victory restored Egyptian preeminence in the Levant and enabled the greatest territorial expansion in Ancient Egyptian history.
April 17, 1895: Representatives of the Empire of Japan and China’s Qing Dynasty sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki, ending the First Sino-Japanese War. Reflecting the decisive Japanese victory, the treaty obliged the Qing to renounce Chinese claims on Korea, cede islands in the Taiwan Strait (including Taiwan itself) to Japan, pay reparations, and establish “most favored nation” trade status with Japan. European powers France, Germany, and Russia intervened to force Japan to give up control of the Liaodong Peninsula, which had been another stipulation of the treaty. The newly independent Korea quickly fell under Japan’s sway, which brought the Japanese into Russia’s orbit and led to the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War.
April 17, 1975: The Cambodian Civil War ends with the Khmer Rouge capture of Phnom Penh and the ouster of the short-lived Khmer Republic. The Khmer Rouge briefly restored the Cambodian monarchy before embarking on one of the most brutal genocides in history, in which upwards of 25 percent of the Cambodian population was killed through a mix of mass executions, forced labor, and other more indirect forms of violence. That genocide finally ended when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 and removed the Khmer Rouge from power.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The World Food Program is reportedly reducing its nutritional assistance to people in northwestern Syria from 1300 calories per day to 1170 calories per day effective next month, reflecting the rising cost of staples like vegetable oil and wheat flour in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Somewhere on the order of 1.35 million people will be impacted by the cutback. It’s unclear from the reporting whether similar cuts are being made to other WFP programs but given that the cost of food is rising globally while WFP’s budget is not, I’d guess it’s likely.
To I think no great surprise, The Wall Street Journal is reporting that it was Saudi Arabia that engineered Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi’s transfer of power to an executive committee earlier this month. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman apparently presented Hadi with a written decree surrendering his powers to the council, and the WSJ is reporting that Hadi has since been placed under effective house arrest in Riyadh. There’s no word on whether MBS was carrying his bone saw along with the decree but I suspect Hadi got the message either way. The Saudis are of course denying everything. It seems like the Saudi aim was to establish a more credible representative for Yemen to help facilitate peace talks, though at this point the council seems to be struggling to gain legitimacy with Yemeni rebels and with some of Hadi’s supporters, such as they are.
Israeli police raided the courtyard around Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque on Friday, injuring at least 153 Palestinians according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. At least three police officers were also injured in the incident, which authorities blamed on Palestinians allegedly throwing rocks at people at the nearby Western Wall holy site. Another 19 Palestinians were wounded on Sunday when police escorted a group of Jewish visitors onto the site and Palestinians apparently attempted to bar access.
These incidents come after a series of terrorist attacks in Israel were followed by a violent retributive campaign by Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank, so tensions were already high. That’s raised concerns of a potential repeat of last year’s Gaza war, which started with violence in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank and escalated into another round of conflict between Israel and Hamas. The violence may also threaten the already tenuous stability of Israel’s governing coalition. One of its members, the United Arab List or Ra’am party, announced on Sunday that it’s “suspending” its participation in the coalition. It’s not entirely clear what that means, but in announcing the decision UAL threatened to quit the coalition outright if the police raids continue. The coalition has already lost its parliamentary majority and if it shrinks again it’s hard to see how it can avoid collapse.
According to Laura Rozen, the Biden administration has decided not to respond to a proposal the Iranian government made late last month to close the final disagreements between the two parties over reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. This presumably means it’s refusing to consider removing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the State Department’s foreign terrorist list, which is believed to be Tehran’s last major demand, and that it’s even refusing to offer an alternative like delisting the full IRGC but listing units within the organization, chiefly the Quds Force. The terrorist designation is a largely symbolic one in this case, as the IRGC is and would remain heavily sanctioned by the US through other legal mechanisms. But both Washington and Tehran have now made this such a sticking point that for either side to give in would be embarrassing and politically costly at home. This isn’t a full death knell for these negotiations, but absent an infusion of creative thinking and political will it’s difficult to see where things could progress from here.
Following a militant attack in northern Pakistan on Thursday (see below), the Pakistani military unleashed a barrage of airstrikes on Afghanistan’s Khost and Kunar provinces on Saturday. The death toll from this attack now stands at 47, which is up sharply from initial claims that were in single digits and suggests that the figure could rise still further. The airstrikes reportedly sparked anti-Pakistan protests in Khost, where most of the deaths occurred, and prompted the Afghan government to summon Pakistan’s ambassador in Kabul in order to lodge a formal complaint. To my knowledge the Pakistani government hasn’t commented directly on the airstrikes but did reiterate a demand that Afghan authorities put a stop to militants—Pakistani Taliban, chiefly—using Afghan territory as a base from which to attack Pakistan.
The precipitating incident was an ambush involving a Pakistani military unit in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Thursday that left seven Pakistani soldiers and four attackers dead. There’s been no claim of responsibility but the Pakistani Taliban is the likely culprit. I hesitate to put this in the context of Pakistan’s recent political upheaval because former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government was by all appearances getting increasingly irritated with the Afghan Taliban’s inability and/or unwillingness (probably some of both) to deal with the Pakistani Taliban’s presence in Afghanistan. But Khan was also a soft touch with respect to the Afghan Taliban and Islamism in general, and it is possible that Saturday’s retaliation was meant as a signal from new Pakistani PM Shehbaz Sharif that his government plans to take a harder line with Kabul on this issue.
Two bombings in southern Thailand’s Pattani province left at least one person dead and three police officers wounded on Friday. Both blasts have been claimed by a group called “G5,” which is part of the Islamist Malay separatist Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO). They’re apparently displeased with the fact that the Thai government negotiated a Ramadan ceasefire with the larger Barisan Revolusi Nasional separatist group and the bombings were meant to highlight that displeasure. BRN and the government are negotiating a political resolution that would most likely foreclose on the possibility of southern Thai secession in favor of autonomy within Thailand, a scenario to which PULO also objects.
North Korean media announced on Sunday that the country’s military had undertaken a successful test of some sort of “tactical guided weapon” that would increase the effectiveness of its artillery, including tactical nuclear forces, in combat. This aligns with reports from the South Korean military of two projectiles fired into the sea off of North Korea’s eastern coast on Saturday, perhaps to mark the previous day’s celebration of North Korean founding father Kim Il-sung’s birthday.
As far as what they tested, it’s likely a short-range ballistic missile. That’s not particularly novel for North Korea, but the open discussion of tactical nuclear weaponry is. None of North Korea’s previous nuclear tests have involved anything that could be considered in the “low yield” or tactical category, so it stands to reason that if they’re developing weapons to deliver tactical warheads they’re going to be testing a tactical nuclear device at some point. That would dovetail with reports recently of activity at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear testing site.
Libya’s National Oil Corporation has shut down production at one of the country’s largest oilfields, al-Fil, over an apparent protest of some sort on that site. Details are sketchy at best but it sounds like a group aligned with Fathi Bashagha, one of Libya’s two competing prime ministers, may have seized al-Fil and forced the shutdown. Al-Fil and Libya’s largest oilfield, Sharara, were both shut down just last month by an unspecified militia, depriving Libya of revenue and adding more pressure to an already unsteady global oil market. Both oilfields later reopened but clearly they’re still at risk due to Libya’s overall instability.
The Malian military claims it killed “a dozen terrorists” from the al-Qaeda linked Jamaʿat Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin organization in two airstrikes on Thursday in central Mali’s Mopti region. This claim should probably be taken with a grain of salt, since the Malian military also says it killed a couple hundred JNIM fighters in an operation last month not far from the site of these airstrikes, but there are indications that it actually massacred a couple hundred civilians instead.
The Nigerian military is claiming that it killed or wounded more than 70 Islamic State West Africa Province fighters in airstrikes that took place last Wednesday in the Lake Chad region in northeastern Nigeria. A joint operation in that region involving forces from Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria is reportedly putting pressure on ISWAP, though reports of its successes are only coming from the joint force and there’s no confirmation of its claims. On a related note, the Biden administration has given the green light to a $1 billion sale of 12 AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters to the Nigerian military in spite of concerns about Nigeria’s dismal human rights record. I’m sure they’ll be put to good use shooting at ISWAP fighters, bandits, and/or protesters.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
The United Nations Central African peacekeeping mission says it’s investigating reports that CAR soldiers backed up by Russian mercenaries carried out an operation on April 11-12 in the northern CAR’s Vakaga province in which at least ten civilians were killed. The UN didn’t go into much detail beyond that.
In news from Russia:
The Russian military released video on Saturday of the commander of its navy, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, meeting in Sevastopol with the crew of the sunken cruiser Moskva, which had been the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet until it was sunk, apparently by Ukrainian missiles, on Wednesday-Thursday. I mention this because the video may exacerbate questions about Russia’s account of that sinking. In the official story all 500-plus crew members aboard the Moskva were safely evacuated before it sank, but in the video it’s pretty clear that Yevmenov is inspecting only around 100 crewmen. There has been speculation about possible casualties aboard the Moskva and while the video doesn’t prove anything in that respect, it doesn’t disprove anything either.
The Russian Foreign Ministry announced the expulsion of 18 European Union diplomats from the country on Friday. This move was in retaliation for the EU’s expulsion of 19 Russian diplomats from its headquarters in Brussels earlier this month on allegations of espionage. Russian authorities have also barred UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson from entering the country, something I imagine many other governments have wanted to do at one time or another, along with other senior British officials. The Russians have imposed similar bans on officials in other hostile nations like the US.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has reportedly asked US President Joe Biden to add Russia to the US State Department’s “state sponsors of terrorism” list. Such a designation would dial Washington’s sanctions response to the Russian invasion up to 11, as it were, imposing across the board penalties akin to those the US has imposed on the countries that are currently on that list (Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria). It’s a step the US never even took against the Soviets during the Cold War, the reasoning being that imposing across the board sanctions on a country that’s not already relatively peripheral to the global economy could have serious unforeseeable consequences.
Speaking of serious consequences, with Russia either in default or about to be in default on its foreign debt, it remains to be seen how creditors will react and what impact it will have on Moscow’s ability access international financing in the short term. In the long term, The Washington Post is reporting that the Biden administration and US allies in Europe have decided to adopt a policy of isolation toward Russia. In addition to sanctions this would involve closing down diplomatic channels to Russia, like the NATO-Russia Council, and accomplishing the elusive goal of European independence from Russian energy supplies. It’s difficult to know whether the US and European governments would be open to pulling back on this strategy if asked to do so in order, say, to facilitate a peace agreement in Ukraine. I suspect they would not, even if asked by Zelensky. But I guess time will tell.
And in Ukraine:
The Russian military appears to be fully in control of the port city of Mariupol—or whatever is left of it after weeks of encirclement and bombardment—with a small residual force of Ukrainian fighters still holed up inside the Azovstal steel plant on the outskirts of the city. The Russians had given those fighters until 6 AM Sunday Moscow time to surrender and 1 PM Moscow time to vacate the premises, but both of those deadlines have passed and it seems they’re intending to make a last stand. The seizure of Mariupol leaves all of Ukraine’s Azov Sea coastline in Russian control and solidifies a land bridge connecting Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, to the separatist Donbas region, which Russia may annex when all is said and done.
Zelensky has warned that the Russian “elimination” of Mariupol’s remaining defenders would threaten ongoing peace talks, but it’s not clear that’s particularly important to Moscow (especially since they talks haven’t really made any progress) and if those defenders won’t surrender it’s hard to see how else this situation can end. The seizure of Mariupol is/will be Russia’s most significant achievement since the war started and that alone could be worth the trouble in terms of what Russian President Vladimir Putin will now be able to claim to the Russian public. It may also allow the Russians to minimize any negative images coming out of Mariupol, where potentially thousands of people have been killed over the past several weeks while the conflict has made it nearly impossible to get any verifiable news out.
Elsewhere, there were reports of heavy Russian air and missile attacks across Ukraine over the weekend, especially in major cities including Kyiv, Lviv, and Odessa. The stepped up air campaign likely was meant as a response to the sinking of the Moskva, and it’s probably not a coincidence that one of the targets was a missile factory outside Kyiv where the missiles used to sink the Moskva were likely manufactured.
To end on a small positive note, Ukrainian and Russian forces reportedly had a small prisoner exchange in Kherson oblast on Friday, with the Ukrainians releasing four Russian POWs in return for five Ukrainians held captive by the Russians. This exchange seems to have been part of a slightly larger deal announced by Ukrainian authorities on Thursday but I haven’t seen details on any other exchanges.
The North Macedonian Foreign Ministry expelled six Russian diplomats on Friday, presumably over alleged spying. Skopje kicked out five Russian diplomats late last month on similar allegations. A Russian response is presumably forthcoming.
Swedish police shot and wounded three people in the city of Norrkoping on Sunday in the latest of a series of protests and counter-protests over the activities of a xenophobic politician named Rasmus Paludan. The far right party affiliated with Paludan, Stram Kurs, has been threatening to burn copies of the Quran at rallies across Sweden. Authorities are responding not to Paludan’s incitement but to the counter-protests it’s sparked. They’re claiming that they fired warning shots at one such counter-protest in Norrkoping and that somehow three of those warning shots struck people.
A poll from Ipsos-Sopra Steria finds incumbent Emmanuel Macron leading challenger Marine Le Pen 55.5 percent to 44.5 percent ahead of their April 24 presidential runoff. That’s a bit larger a margin for Macron than some polling suggested prior to the April 10 first round, but still a bit close for comfort. However, the European Anti-Fraud Office has issued a new report accusing Le Pen and members of her National Rally party of misappropriation of European Union funds, allegations that French prosecutors are reportedly “examining.” National Rally leaders are already accusing the EU of attempting to fix the election in Macron’s favor, but it’s unclear whether that argument is going to work or if the embezzlement charge will hurt Le Pen with any less than die hard supporters.
The Brazilian government claimed on Friday that it was sending security forces as well as personnel from its Indigenous affairs and environmental offices to the Xipaya Indigenous Land in northern Brazil in response to claims that the protected territory has been more or less invaded by illegal mining concerns. Members of the Xipaya community are claiming that some sort of mining raft has entered their territory along the Iriri River and has already begun destroying an island on that river. Given that this is Jair Bolsonaro’s government we’re talking about, any commitment to helping rather than immiserating Indigenous Brazilians has to be viewed skeptically.
The Mexican Congress is preparing to vote on a signature piece of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s agenda, a constitutional amendment that would give Mexico’s state-owned Comision Federal de Electricidad considerable leverage over the private sector in Mexico’s electricity market. The measure has drawn sharp opposition from Washington, ostensibly over environmental concerns but in reality because it would leave US energy firms in a substantially weaker position in terms of selling electricity to Mexico. The amendment is likely to fall short of the two-thirds vote required for passage.
Finally, TomDispatch’s William Hartung and Julia Gledhill outline just how beneficial the war in Ukraine has been for US defense contractors, both in the short term through supplying weapons to Kyiv and in the long term:
For U.S. arms makers, however, the greatest benefits of the war in Ukraine won’t be immediate weapons sales, large as they are, but the changing nature of the ongoing debate over Pentagon spending itself. Of course, the representatives of such companies were already plugging the long-term challenge posed by China, a greatly exaggerated threat, but the Russian invasion is nothing short of manna from heaven for them, the ultimate rallying cry for advocates of greater military outlays. Even before the war, the Pentagon was slated to receive at least $7.3 trillion over the next decade, more than four times the cost of President Biden’s $1.7 trillion domestic Build Back Better plan, already stymied by members of Congress who labeled it “too expensive” by far. And keep in mind that, given the current surge in Pentagon spending, that $7.3 trillion could prove a minimal figure.
Indeed, Pentagon officials like Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks promptly cited Ukraine as one of the rationales for the Biden administration’s proposed record national-security budget proposal of $813 billion, calling Russia’s invasion “an acute threat to the world order.” In another era that budget request for Fiscal Year 2023 would have been mind-boggling, since it’s higher than spending at the peaks of the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam and over $100 billion more than the Pentagon received annually at the height of the Cold War.
Despite its size, however, congressional Republicans — joined by a significant number of their Democratic colleagues — are already pushing for more. Forty Republican members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have, in fact, signed a letter to President Biden calling for 5% growth in military spending beyond inflation, which would potentially add up to $100 billion to that budget request. Typically enough, Representative Elaine Luria (D-VA), who represents the area near the Huntington Ingalls company’s Newport News military shipyard in Virginia, accused the administration of “gutting the Navy” because it contemplates decommissioning some older ships to make way for new ones. That complaint was lodged despite that service’s plan to spend a whopping $28 billion on new ships in FY 2023.