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World roundup: April 19 2022
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
April 18, 1897: The Ottoman Empire declares war on Greece, marking the official start of the Greco-Turkish War (which had unofficially begun the previous month).
April 19, 1775: Two military engagements between British regulars and American colonial militia in the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord mark the start of the American Revolution. The British force succeeded in destroying some cannons and ammunition at Concord but was driven back into Boston by the militia. A large (15,000 man) militia army recruited from across New England then surrounded and besieged the city, which the British evacuated the following March.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The United Nations was to have spent part of the day Tuesday discussing a proposal from Liechtenstein that would potentially make it more uncomfortable for the five permanent Security Council members to wield their veto power. I’m not entirely clear on what the proposal entails but the basic principle appears to be that the General Assembly would convene to debate such an invocation, which could force the vetoing power to justify its actions in a public forum. It’s unlikely to have any tangible effect beyond that.
Lebanese Economy Minister Amin Salam told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Beirut is negotiating a $150 million food security loan from the World Bank to help stabilize the price of bread in particular. The war in Ukraine has added to concerns about Lebanon’s ability to import food, which had already been badly affected by the 2020 explosion that destroyed much of Beirut’s seaport including much of its grain storage capacity. Lebanon’s broader economic crisis has also forced the government to pare back subsidies for lack of foreign currency reserves. Wheat subsidies may be soon to go, though Salam suggested the government may try to implement a hybrid cutback where subsidies are maintained for wheat used in bread making but ended for wheat used in less essential processes (pastry making, for example).
The Israeli military undertook overnight airstrikes on what it called a Hamas weapons plant in Gaza, in retaliation for Monday’s rocket fire out of that enclave. There’s no indication of any casualties either in the rocket attack (which was apparently intercepted by Israeli air defenses) or in the Israeli airstrikes. This is the first exchange like this in several months and could open the floodgates to more of the same, especially if tensions remain high in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. Islamic Jihad fighters are reportedly preparing for more fighting by readying their tunnel networks under Gaza, though that doesn’t mean escalation is inevitable.
That said, tensions are not subsiding in the West Bank, where a large group of Israeli settlers marched from a settlement outside Nablus to the site of a former settlement at Homesh on Tuesday. Homesh was deemed illegal even under Israeli law—which is substantially more lenient on the subject of settlements than, say, international law—and was abandoned in 2005. Hardline settler groups want to revive it, however, and instead of treating their unsanctioned march as the provocation it was, Israeli occupation forces marched alongside Tuesday’s demonstrators, protecting them. Israeli forces reportedly wounded at least 40 Palestinian counter-protesters in the nearby village of Burqa.
Islamic State’s Khorasan Province affiliate is claiming that its fighters carried out some sort of rocket attack against an Uzbek military unit from across the border in northern Afghanistan. It’s unclear when this alleged attack took place but IS media reported on the claim on Monday. So far there’s no corroboration that this attack ever took place—indeed, the Uzbek government, the Uzbek military, and people living in the region where it supposedly occurred are all denying the IS account. The group appears to be undertaking a recruitment drive in Central Asia and may view attacks—or claims of attacks—like this as a way to attract attention among disaffected jihadi-sympathetic individuals.
Twin bombings in a predominantly Hazara section of Kabul killed at least six people and wounded 11 more on Tuesday. As far as I know there’s been no claim of responsibility as yet but this is almost certainly an Islamic State attack. The target all but gives that away.
Police fired into a crowd of protesters in the town of Rambukkana on Tuesday, killing at least one person and wounding at least ten others. The demonstrators were protesting over rising fuel prices caused by global trends as well as a foreign currency crunch that’s left Sri Lanka struggling to pay for imports. Protests in Colombo also continued on Tuesday, with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation still high on the list of demands. Speaking to parliament, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa—the president’s older brother—suggested a constitutional change to shift power from the presidency to parliament as a way to sidestep demands for President Rajapaksa’s resignation. It seems unlikely that this is going to satisfy protesters, since that change would only shift executive authority from one Rajapaksa brother to the other while maintaining the family’s overall control of the Sri Lankan government.
According to Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Solomon Islands FM Jeremiah Manele have signed a framework agreement outlining the recent bilateral security cooperation deal that’s sent officials in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States into a panic over the possibility of China establishing a military base (the horror!) in the Solomons. Tuesday’s statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry didn’t go into specifics about exactly what was signed or when it was signed.
The Biden administration is sending Kurt Campbell from the National Security Council and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink to Honiara later this week to try to improve relations with a country that, for better or worse, seems to be the current front line in the New Cold War. Among the items on their agenda will presumably be plans for reopening the US embassy, which was shuttered in the 1990s when Washington, having I guess not considered the possibility that it might one day find itself jockeying with Beijing for influence in the region, consolidated its Pacific Islands diplomatic offices.
The latest Guardian poll finds Australia’s Labor Party has lost three points in the head-to-head preference matchup with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal-National Coalition and now leads the Coalition by just one point, 47-46, where it had a 50-45 lead two weeks ago. Most voters (55 percent) expect Labor to win the May 21 election but these numbers put the contest well into tossup territory. Labor leader Anthony Albanese may be a drag on his party, as voters prefer Morrison over him 40-36 on the question of who they would like to be prime minister.
Libya’s metastasizing oil shutdown reached a second export terminal on Tuesday, as the National Oil Company was forced to halt operations at Brega. Groups allied with one of Libya’s two competing prime ministers, Fathi Bashagha, have been seizing oil facilities across the country in support of their man’s claim on power. The shutdown of Brega will likely force cascading shutdowns at the oilfields that pump to that facility. There is no sign this situation is going to improve anytime soon. Representatives for Bashagha and his rival/fellow PM, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, concluded a week of United Nations-brokered meetings in Cairo on Tuesday having failed to resolve their dispute and/or organize a national election that might provide a way out of the impasse.
Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara on Tuesday named Tiémoko Meyliet Kone, governor of the Central Bank of West African States, as his new vice president. Ouattara hasn’t had a VP since 2020, and given that he’s a) 80 and b) currently serving the third of his two legally permitted terms in office, there’s a strong likelihood that this means he’s settled on Kone as his heir apparent.
France 24 reports on the worsening drought conditions across much of the Horn of Africa:
In news from Russia:
The regional administration in Russia’s Belgorod oblast reported on Tuesday that Ukrainian forces shelled a border village in that province, wounding at least three people and damaging some 30 houses. The Ukrainian military is denying the allegation.
Leaders of several Western nations took part in a virtual conference call on Tuesday to discuss the war, which likely means two things are forthcoming: more weapons shipments to Ukraine and more sanctions against Russia. More about the former below, but as to the latter it’s unclear what new sanctions may be in the offing and whether they’ll be substantively new or just expansions of already massive Western blacklists. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire raised the possibility of a European embargo on Russian oil to reporters but his comments suggested that there’s still no consensus within the European Union about taking such a step. Which almost certainly means that Germany is still resisting it.
Russian Central Bank President Elvira Nabiullina told Russian media on Tuesday that her bank is “going to work on legal claims” to recover those Russian foreign currency reserves that were frozen by Western governments last month. Around $300 billion of Russia’s ~$640 billion in reserves was deposited in European and US institutions and therefore vulnerable to that freeze. It seems unlikely to me that Moscow could win an enforceable judgment in its favor on this issue—it’s not even clear where they would file a lawsuit. Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov outlined a 2.5 trillion ruble ($32.3 billion) economic stimulus plan on Tuesday, suggesting that even though sanctions haven’t changed Russia’s commitment to the war they have taken a bite out of its economy.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday expelled 31 diplomatic personnel from three European countries—15 from the Netherlands, 12 from Belgium, and four from Austria. All were retaliations for the expulsion of Russian diplomats from those countries. At this point it’s hard to believe there are any Russian diplomats left outside of Russia, but the tit for tat is likely to continue as Moscow still has to respond to recent expulsions from France and Germany. Moscow is also threatening to close the Polish embassy, after the Polish government cut the Russian embassy in Warsaw off from its bank accounts. That facility will likely have to close as a result, in which case the Russians have said they’ll respond in kind.
And in Ukraine:
As noted above, Tuesday’s meeting of Western leaders produced a flurry of new commitments to further arm the Ukrainian military. A major US arms shipment is reportedly on the way to Ukraine already, part of the new tranche of arms the Biden administration pledged to send last week, and Germany, the UK, and the US all emerged from Tuesday’s meeting promising more to come. In particular there seems to be an emphasis on providing the Ukrainians with heavy artillery for countering the new Russian ground offensive in the Donbas.
One of Kyiv’s long-standing arms requests has apparently been met, somehow. The Pentagon intimated on Tuesday that Ukraine has received a shipment of new fixed wing aircraft along with parts to maintain the airplanes it’s been flying. There’s no indication who supplied the aircraft or how they were successfully brought into Ukraine. There’s a good change that the United States will be selling F-16s to whichever nation supplied them, though, so we’ll probably be able to figure it out at some point.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed on Tuesday that Russia has indeed begun the “second phase,” or whatever, of its invasion. Apart from the fact that this phase is mostly geographically limited to the Donbas (at least on the ground), so far this phase appears to be proceeding more slowly than the initial phase, which included quick strike attacks on key targets like Hostomel airport outside Kyiv. That could be bad news for the Ukrainians, who are going to struggle to keep up with the larger Russian military in a grind-it-out type of conflict. But it will likely also be costly for the Russians. Ukrainian officials are reportedly moving to evacuate civilians from the Donbas before any Russian advance makes that impossible.
The Russians have reportedly bolstered their forces in the Donbas with upwards of 20,000 mercenaries, mostly recruited from Libya and Syria and primarily, judging from way they’re being equipped (or not being equipped, really), meant to serve as cannon fodder for the regular Russian military. Russia has been offering Syrian soldiers a monthly salary of between $600 and $3000 to go to Ukraine, which is a veritable windfall from their perspective but also means the Russians don’t have much incentive to make sure they stay alive for any length of time.
The Russian military has presented the remaining Ukrainian defenders in Mariupol with another ultimatum, along with a promise of safe passage provided they disarm and leave the Azovstal steel plant between 2 and 4 PM Wednesday, Moscow time. There’s been no comment from the Ukrainians on this as far as I know, but they’ve ignored at least two previous Russian ultimatums like this and there’s no particular reason to think they’ll do otherwise with this one.
Russian and Ukrainian forces completed another prisoner exchange on Tuesday, with the Russians turning 60 combatants and 16 civilians over to Ukraine according to Deputy Ukrainian Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk. I haven’t seen any information on how many prisoners the Ukrainians sent back to Russia.
Three new polls released Tuesday show Emmanuel Macron padding his lead over challenger Marine Le Pen ahead of France’s presidential runoff on Sunday. Surveys from Ipsos, Opinionway, and Ifop put Macron at 56.5, 56, and 55 percent support respectively, better than Macron was polling before the first round on April 10. Leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who finished third in the first round with around 22 percent, is advising his supporters not to vote for Le Pen in the runoff—though he’s not asking them to vote for Macron. Most seem likely to skip the vote altogether.
Workers from Argentina’s Maritime, Port, and Naval Industry Federation union are reportedly planning a 24 hour walkout on Thursday to protest a lack of government action on needed maintenance for key maritime facilities. In particular they appear to be frustrated at the slow progress on bids for maintenance work on the Paraná River and at the port of Buenos Aires. The walkout is not expected to have much impact on Argentine grain exports, which is probably good news given that global food commerce has seen better days.
Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s Gabriella Gricius outlines the impact the Ukraine war is having on relations in the Arctic region:
Although it may be many miles away, echoes of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been felt as far north as the Arctic.
In March 2022, the Arctic 7 (Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Canada, Denmark, and the United States) released a statement announcing they would pause work of the Arctic Council in response to the invasion and more broadly Russia’s behavior on the world stage. While this pause may be understandable given the Arctic 7’s need to react to the war in Ukraine and Russia’s current chairmanship of the Council, it presents real concerns for the future of Arctic collaboration and security.
Although the Arctic 7 have indicated their wish to eventually restart the Council’s work — such as monitoring increasing microplastics and litter in the Arctic, reporting on climate change, and coordinating response exercises for emergency situations and increased Arctic shipping — this pause presents an important opening for rethinking Arctic cooperation, such as changing the Arctic Council’s funding structure and restructuring the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable to include Russia in a time of increasing tensions.
Arctic Council funding should be increased from member states to not just cover annual running costs but to fund projects that involve emergency preparedness and environmental monitoring — particularly as the impacts of climate change are felt even more starkly in the Arctic. Military-to-military communication is also needed in the region, whether that comes through restructuring the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable to include Russia or by creating a temporary forum that exists to ensure that miscalculation or error does not result in a wider conflict.