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World roundup: April 22-23 2023
Stories from Azerbaijan, Sudan, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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THIS WEEKEND IN HISTORY
April 22, 1809: Napoleon’s army defeats the Austrians under Archduke Charles at the Battle of Eckmühl, in Bavaria. The victory is considered a turning point in the the 1809 War of the Fifth Coalition, because it blunted Austria’s invasion of Bavaria, which had caught the French leader somewhat by surprise, and allowed him to go on the offensive by invading Austria.
April 22, 1948: In one of the last major engagements before the civil war in Palestine turned into the Arab-Israeli War, the Jewish paramilitary organization Haganah captures the Arab sections of the port city of Haifa from the Palestinians. Haifa was one of six largely mixed cities the Haganah captured between the start of April and the middle of May—by the end of May, between voluntary flight and involuntary expulsions the number of Arabs living in those cities collectively dropped from an estimated 177,000 to an estimated 13,000.
April 23, 1817: Under their leader Miloš Obrenović, a group of Serbian rebels in the village of Takovo declare independence from the Ottoman Empire, setting off the Second Serbian Uprising. After a conflict that lasted until late July 1817, the rebels were able to win de facto independence from the Ottomans, who recognized their autonomous state as the “Principality of Serbia.” The Serbians finally gained full independence at the Congress of Berlin in 1878.
April 23, 1985: In what’s considered one of the most catastrophically bad business decisions of all time, the Coca-Cola Company introduces a new formula for its flagship beverage. Although the new formula had outperformed the old one in taste tests, the move was so overwhelmingly unpopular that the company revived the old formula a mere three months later, first as “Coca-Cola Classic” and later, after it had phased out the new formula, as just “Coca-Cola” again. The switch seemed so baffling that it spawned a plethora of conspiracy theories, ranging from a ploy to boost sales to a cover story to disguise changes in the original formula (a switch from sugar to high fructose corn syrup and/or the removal of its remaining coca components).
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
In its latest annual report, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says that 2022 saw governments around the world devote a record $2.24 trillion to military spending. The war in Ukraine seems to have been the big driver behind this increase, which included a huge 13 percent jump in defense spending across Europe. Finland, which shares a very long border with Russia, increased its military spending by some 36 percent. The United States remains by far the global leader in the field, spending $877 billion on its military to account for roughly 39 percent of all military spending worldwide.
The Israeli government has arrested a Jordanian member of parliament, Imad al-Adwan, on charges of attempting to smuggle weapons into the West Bank. The Jordanian Foreign Ministry announced the arrest on Sunday and said it’s trying “to find out the merits of the situation and address it as soon as possible.” There’s been no comment from Israel officials yet as far as I know. Jordanian-Israeli relations were already at an ebb but this is likely to make things much worse, particularly if the evidence against Adwan is not especially compelling.
Saturday saw another massive demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan in Tel Aviv. Upwards of 110,000 people are estimated to have participated. The prospect of facing a similarly sized protest appears to have caused Netanyahu to cancel a planned speech marking Israel’s Independence Day on Sunday at an event sponsored by Jewish Federations of North America, among other groups. More protests are planned this week ahead of Wednesday’s Independence Day holiday.
The Armenian military says that an Azerbaijani sniper killed one of its soldiers near a border village in Armenia’s Gegharkunik province on Sunday. Azerbaijani officials are insisting that’s not true and claim their forces came under attack from the Armenian side of the border. Whoever did the shooting, the cause may have had something to do with the Azerbaijani military’s erection of a checkpoint along the Lachin Corridor connecting the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave to Armenia. Karabakh has been under an effective blockade since a group of alleged “environmental activists” set up shop along the corridor in December, but the establishment of a checkpoint like this raises the threat to civilians in Karabakh and suggests that the blockade could become a permanent institution.
Azerbaijani authorities claim that the checkpoint was made necessary by Armenian gun runners using the corridor to funnel weapons to Karabakh. They’ve never to my knowledge offered any evidence that this is happening, though I suppose absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The checkpoint does appear to violate the 2020 armistice that ended that fall’s Karabakh war, a fact the Armenians have noted though it does them little good when the ceasefire’s guarantor—Russia—isn’t interested in enforcing its terms.
Another document in the Great Discord Leak alleges that Islamic State is using Afghanistan as its base of operations while planning attacks worldwide:
The attack planning, detailed in U.S. intelligence findings leaked on the Discord messaging platform and obtained by The Washington Post, reveal specific efforts to target embassies, churches, business centers and the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, which drew more than 2 million spectators last summer in Qatar. Pentagon officials were aware in December of nine such plots coordinated by ISIS leaders in Afghanistan, and the number rose to 15 by February, says the assessment, which has not been disclosed previously.
“ISIS has been developing a cost-effective model for external operations that relies on resources from outside Afghanistan, operatives in target countries, and extensive facilitation networks,” says the assessment, which is labeled top-secret and bears the logos of several Defense Department organizations. “The model will likely enable ISIS to overcome obstacles — such as competent security services — and reduce some plot timelines, minimizing disruption opportunities.”
This is most likely overblown, given that the Afghan IS branch hasn’t shown any ability to carry out attacks anywhere other than Afghanistan. That they supposedly had a plan to attack the World Cup is nice for them, I guess, but since they didn’t do it I don’t think there’s any point worrying about it now. I mostly wanted to highlight the use of “cost-effective model” to describe the activities of a terrorist group, which I find morbidly funny. They’re leveraging their core competencies and synergizing best practice learnings to shift paradigms, or whatever.
Unknown gunmen shot and killed the deputy director of Myanmar’s Union Election Commission, Sai Kyaw Thu, in Yangon on Saturday. Authorities blamed the anti-junta “People’s Defense Forces” militias for the shooting and that seems like a reasonable conclusion. PDF fighters have carried out similar attacks against government bureaucrats and prominent civilians tied to the junta in the past.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has made an official complaint to the South Korean government over a recent comment from South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol regarding a potential war over Taiwan. It seems Yoon’s offense was suggesting, in an interview with Reuters, that such a conflict would be “a global issue.” Beijing, of course, regards Taiwan as a purely internal matter.
The Chinese government has also been on the receiving end of some diplomatic blowback, after Chinese ambassador to France Lu Shaye said in a televised interview on Friday, in reference to Ukraine, that “ex-Soviet Union countries do not have effective status, as we say, under international law because there’s no international accord to concretise their status as a sovereign country.” This is at best a tendentious reading of post-Cold War history, though it would be more accurate to say it’s simply wrong (the fact that those states are all United Nations members is enough to establish their status in international law). Denying sovereignty to Ukraine under this standard would also deny it to fellow ex-Soviet country Russia, so I’m not even sure what point Lu was trying to make. He was responding to a question about the status of Crimea, the nuances of which could probably be just as easily described without questioning the sovereign status of 15 countries. Unsurprisingly there’s been a bit of an uproar over this statement, primarily from the governments of the three ex-Soviet Baltic states and the French government.
Now that it’s approaching its end anyway, I think it’s safe to say that Sudan’s three day Eid ceasefire did not involve a cessation of firing. Whether it even involved much of a lull in the fighting probably depends on your perspective. There was enough of a slowdown over the weekend to permit several foreign governments to evacuate their diplomatic personnel from Khartoum, including the United States. The “Rapid Support Forces,” one of the two belligerents here along with the regular Sudanese military, claimed that its personnel coordinated with the US military on the evacuation, a claim the Biden administration denied. Thousands of civilians have also been able to flee the capital and its environs, most of them apparently heading north to Egypt, while refugees are streaming from the Darfur region into neighboring Chad.
In other news:
A London-based internet monitor called NetBlocks says that Sudan is now almost totally offline. This is not surprising but is also not good news, inasmuch as it will likely affect further evacuation efforts as well as reporting about the conflict.
The New York Times, citing “American officials,” is claiming that the Wagner Group has offered the RSF surface-to-air missiles, which would help the paramilitaries counter the Sudanese military’s biggest edge, its air power. RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo has a standing relationship with Wagner but it’s unclear at this point whether he’s accepted their offer.
On a somewhat related note, The Guardian is reporting that the RSF is getting help from Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar and his “Libyan National Army.” This is also a longstanding relationship—Haftar and Dagalo are believed to collaborate in a number of illicit activities and RSF fighters participated (uh, allegedly) in the Libyan civil war as mercenaries fighting for the LNA. Haftar has reportedly arrested Musa Hilal (a Janjaweed tribal leader from Darfur who is not on good terms with Dagalo), allegedly alerted Dagalo to threats against him in Khartoum (contributing to the RSF’s decision to attack Sudanese military positions on April 15 and kick off this whole conflict), and there are claims that he’s sending arms and/or supplies to the RSF.
At least ten civilians and some 28 jihadist militants were killed on Saturday when said militants attacked a military base near the town of Savare, in central Mali’s Mopti region. That facility reportedly houses personnel from Russia’s Wagner Group private military contractor (UPDATE: the al-Qaeda affiliate Jamaʿat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin has now claimed responsibility for this attack). Also on Saturday, the Malian army claims it killed some 60 jihadist militants in another part of Mopti and “destroyed a terrorist sanctuary” in the Koulikoro region. A military helicopter that may have been involved in the Koulikoro operation later crashed in Bamako, killing all three personnel on board, but as far as I know there’s no indication that the crash was anything other than accidental.
Some 60 civilians were reportedly killed on Friday in a village in Burkina Faso’s Nord region, near the Malian border, by armed men wearing Burkinabé military uniforms. A local prosecutor has opened an investigation into the incident. It is possible that jihadists, who are plentiful in that part of the country, disguised themselves as soldiers to carry out the attack. But Burkinabé security forces are also not above killing civilians, especially if they’re suspected of colluding with militants.
The Ethiopian government and rebel Oromo Liberation Army are scheduled to open a new attempt at peace talks in Tanzania on Tuesday, according to a statement that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed issued on Sunday. There’s been no comment on this from the OLA as far as I’m aware. The OLA, whose grievances deal with the perceived mistreatment of Ethiopia’s Oromo community, has been fighting an insurgency against the government since the 1970s. There was some hope that Abiy, who is ethnically at least part Oromo, would be able to negotiate an end to that insurgency when he became PM in 2018, but apart from some early optimism nothing seriously has yet developed in that regard.
Security forces reportedly killed at least 21 al-Shabab fighters on Saturday in repelling an attack by that group on a town and nearby military base in central Somalia’s Galgadud province. At least three civilians were killed and more are missing. It’s unclear from the reporting whether the security forces suffered any casualties though it would be surprising if they did not.
The Russian government on Sunday expelled “more than 20” (possibly as many as 34) members of Germany’s diplomatic mission, apparently in retaliation for a German expulsion of the same number of Russian staffers. According to the German Foreign Ministry, the two countries have been in discussions about reducing the size of their mutual diplomatic missions, ostensibly over German concerns about Russian spying.
Another set of documents that was part of the Great Discord Leak apparently alleges that the Wagner Group is forming a “confederation” of African states whose governments are to one degree or another enthralled to Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin. The tranche of documents further outlines a number of actions that the US and allied states either have taken or have proposed taking against Wagner assets. A lot of this seems overblown and/or simplistic, but especially parts that blame political instability in several countries within this alleged “confederation” on Wagner’s malevolent influence. As Nathaniel Powell pointed out on Twitter, not only does this interpretation of events completely (insultingly) dismiss the domestic politics in the African states in question, it also glosses over the many failures of US, French, and other Western policies toward those countries.
The Russian military on Sunday claimed new advances in Bakhmut, saying that its forces had taken two more blocks in the western part of the city. That may not sound like much territory, but the fact is the Ukrainians don’t have much territory left under their control in Bakhmut so every block is critical. Ukrainian officials continue to insist that they’re holding firm on the front line and have no plans to withdraw.
Elsewhere, the Institute for the Study of War is claiming, according to what the AP called “geolocated footage from pro-Kremlin military bloggers,” that the Ukrainian military has seized positions on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River near the town of Oleshky, in southern Ukraine’s Kherson oblast. Assuming this is accurate (ISW is wholly pro-Ukraine and any analysis it offers should be considered in that light) and that the Ukrainians can supply and reinforce those positions, this could be the opening phase of Ukraine’s long-discussed “spring counteroffensive.” The head of Kherson’s regional council, Oleksandr Samoylenko, has gone so far as to claim that Russian forces are evacuating civilians from the parts of Kherson that are still under their control. If that’s true, it presumably means the Russians are also expecting a new Ukrainian advance and may even mean they’re preparing for a military withdrawal once the civilians are removed. This is of course all highly speculative.
Finally, TomDispatch’s Michael Klare says that while the Biden administration’s $842 billion 2024 military budget request contains a large chunk of money devoted to the potential for a “great power war” with China and/or Russia sometime in the next 10-20 years, it also includes the seeds for even more massive Pentagon budgets over the following decades:
But while preparations for such wars in the near future drive a significant part of that increase, a surprising share of it — $145 billion, or 17% — is aimed at possible conflicts in the 2040s and 2050s. Believing that our “strategic competition” with China is likely to persist for decades to come and that a conflict with that country could erupt at any moment along that future trajectory, the Pentagon is requesting its largest allocation ever for what’s called “research, development, test, and evaluation” (RDT&E), or the process of converting the latest scientific discoveries into weapons of war.
To put this in perspective, that $145 billion is more than any other country except what China spends on defense in toto and constitutes approximately half of China’s full military budget. So what’s that staggering sum of money, itself only a modest part of this country’s military budget, intended for?
Some of it, especially the “T&E” part, is designed for futuristic upgrades of existing weapons systems. For example, the B-52 bomber — at 70, the oldest model still flying — is being retrofitted to carry experimental AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapons (ARRWs), or advanced hypersonic missiles. But much of that sum, especially the “R&D” part, is aimed at developing weapons that may not see battlefield use until decades in the future, if ever. Spending on such systems is still only in the millions or low billions, but it will certainly balloon into the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in the years to come, ensuring that future Pentagon budgets soar into the trillions.
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