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World roundup: April 28 2022
Stories from Yemen, North Korea, Ethiopia, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
April 27, 1960: The Togolese Republic declares its independence from France. Commemorated annually as Independence Day in Togo.
April 27, 1961: The Republic of Sierra Leone gains its independence from the United Kingdom as the result of negotiations that had taken place the previous year. Commemorated annually as Independence Day in Sierra Leone.
April 27, 1978: The People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, with the support of the Soviet Union, undertakes a coup against Afghan President Mohammed Daoud Khan that is known as the “Saur Revolution.” PDPA leader Nur Muhammad Taraki assumed the presidency after Khan’s execution on April 28, and mismanaged things so badly that his own party ousted and executed him in September 1979. That incident led directly to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and, with few and very brief exceptions, Afghanistan has been in a state of war ever since.
April 28, 224: This is the date generally given for the Battle of Hormozdgan, which effectively ended Parthian rule over the Persian Empire and installed the Sasanian dynasty in its place. Then-Emperor Artabanus IV was responding to the rise of the Sasanids under Ardashir V, king of Pars. Ardashir’s smaller but better armed and better prepared force met the Parthians at Hormozdgan—the location of which remains unconfirmed but was probably near the Iranian town of Ram-Hormoz—and won a decisive victory, killing Artabanus in the process. Ardashir V of Pars soon became Ardashir I of Persia, and the Sasanians ruled the empire until the Arab invasion swept them (and the Persian Empire in general) aside in the 7th century.
April 28, 1192: The newly elected king of Jerusalem, Conrad of Montferrat, is assassinated in the city of Tyre.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Gunmen, likely Islamic State militants, attacked a Ramadan iftar hosted by a former spokesperson for the US-affiliated Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province on Thursday, killing at least seven people including the SDF host. IS and its various affiliates and devotees have drastically escalated their activities over the past several weeks, partly in retaliation for a couple of recent high profile deaths and partly in an effort to capitalize on the unrest sparked by the Ukraine war.
The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen announced on Thursday that it intends to release 163 Houthi/Ansar Allah prisoners, apparently at the end of Ramadan. Ansar Allah had previously suggested a mutual release of 200 prisoners each to coincide with the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan and should take place either Monday or Tuesday. The two sides had discussed a much larger prisoner swap just before Ramadan began but that has not come to fruition.
Capital punishment is apparently on the rise in Iran, according to a joint report from the NGOs Iran Human Rights and Together Against the Death Penalty. Iranian authorities carried out 333 executions in 2021, 25 percent more than they carried out the previous year, with a particular emphasis on executions for drug-related offenses (126, five times more than in 2020). The escalation may have something to do with the election of Ebrahim Raisi, whose fondness for killing people is fairly well-documented, as president. The three most active months for Iranian executioners last year all occurred after Raisi’s election—though in fairness the most active month, July, was just prior to his August 3 inauguration.
Two bombings in Mazar-i-Sharif on Thursday killed at least nine people and wounded 13 others in total. There’s been no claim of responsibility as yet but the target appeared to be members of the Hazara community and that strongly indicates Islamic State involvement.
The murder of two Iranian clerics by an Afghan migrant is fueling tension between Tehran and Kabul. Earlier this month an Afghan stabbed three clerics inside the Imam Reza shrine in the Iranian city of Mashhad, killing two and wounding the third. The attacker was an ethnic Uzbek who had apparently been radicalized against Shiʿa. That incident sparked reprisals against other Afghan migrants in Iran, which in turn sparked a rise in anti-Iran sentiment in Afghanistan that was arguably fueled by officials within the country’s Taliban-led government. Things have since spiraled to the point where Afghan and Iranian border guards are clashing with one another and Kabul is sending a delegation to Iran to try to smooth things over.
The Indonesian government’s new ban on palm oil exports went into effect on Thursday. The move is protectionist, motivated by concerns about global cooking oil prices and availability. It may help alleviate those problems for consumers within Indonesia, but it’s going to worsen them for anyone outside of Indonesia, which is the world’s largest palm oil supplier. It’s also likely to be unpopular with palm oil producers, who won’t be able to reap the extra profits that exports bring.
At Foreign Policy, David Kang and Jessica Lee aren’t optimistic about the possibility for diplomacy with North Korea moving forward:
The United States has “high expectations for working with the Yoon administration on issues related to the Korean Peninsula,” the United States’ top envoy for North Korea stated while in Seoul last week. But those expectations may be misplaced, given that Washington appears unwilling to prioritize stabilization through a more flexible diplomatic strategy.
To be sure, Seoul is taking a similar line. South Korea’s incoming conservative president Yoon Suk-yeol has promised to be tough on North Korea. Pledging to “teach [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] some manners,” the Yoon administration brings with it hopes of a more pliant North, in contrast with South Korea’s outgoing Moon Jae-in administration, which was more focused on dialogue and engagement.
For its part, the Biden administration has essentially replicated the policy of previous U.S. administrations toward the Korean Peninsula, continuing a “pressure and more pressure” approach: articulating a willingness to talk without any actual policies or practical measures designed to produce positive movement in U.S.-North Korean relations.
One thing that’s could easily put a damper on the relationship between North Korea on the one hand and South Korea and the US on the other would be a return to the days when defector organizations based in South Korea papered their northern neighbor with leaflets (carried by balloon) denouncing the North Korean government. Although the Moon Jae-in’s government criminalized such activities in 2020 in an effort to support inter-Korean diplomacy, it seems defector groups have started doing it again under the assumption that the more conservative Yoon administration. In addition to irritating Pyongyang, past leaflet campaigns have drawn criticism from South Koreans living in communities along the Demilitarized Zone, as North Korean soldiers sometimes decide to fire random shots across the border in response to leaflet launches.
Russia isn’t the only country wielding gas exports as a policy tool these days. The Algerian government on Wednesday issued a threat to halt its gas sales to Spain should Madrid send some portion of that gas on to any “third parties.” While that phrasing leaves things somewhat open-ended, what Algiers wants is to ensure that Spain doesn’t ship any gas to Morocco. The perpetually up-and-down relationship between Algeria and Morocco is most definitely in one of its down phases at the moment, and as a result Algeria back in November stopped shipping gas to Spain via the Gaz Maghreb Europe pipeline, which runs through Morocco and from which Rabat also received Algerian gas. Algeria is still shipping gas to Spain via a direct pipeline under the Mediterranean, and apparently the Spanish government is exploring the possibility of reversing the GME pipeline to ship gas to Morocco. Clearly that’s not going to fly with the Algerians.
The Ethiopian government says that the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front has not pulled its fighters out of the Afar region, despite having announced that it was doing so earlier this week. The TPLF said that it was pulling its forces back to the Tigray region in order to facilitate humanitarian relief shipments into that embattled province, but it hasn’t yet responded to this new Ethiopian claim. There are millions of people in Tigray who are at some level of food insecurity, due to a lethal mix of war and the drought that continues to afflict much of the Horn of Africa and has fueled a much larger food insecurity crisis across the country. That in turn is part of an even larger food insecurity crisis that’s sweeping across much of sub-Saharan Africa and has been ratcheted up by the effects of the Ukraine war.
Some 500 ethnic Tigrayans currently serving as United Nations peacekeepers monitoring the disputed Abyei region on the Sudan-South Sudan border have requested asylum in Sudan over fears they’ll be imprisoned (or worse) if they return to Ethiopia. Ethiopian authorities, whose campaign of seemingly arbitrary arrests of ethnic Tigrayans is by this point well-documented, are nevertheless accusing the TPLF of spreading disinformation among the peacekeepers in order to encourage “defections.”
The lower house of the Somali parliament on Thursday elected itself a new speaker, Sheikh Adan Mohamed Nur. The vote took place amid yet another dispute between Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble, who have been arguing over whether African Union peacekeepers can be tasked with providing security for legislators who have found themselves targeted in a number of recent violent incidents. Mohamed opposes that and earlier this week barred legislators from attending a session over the dispute. The unspoken but clearly present concern is that Mohamed may want to leave those legislators relatively unprotected so that they might be…oh, let’s say “persuaded” to reelect him to another term as president. But Nur is an established critic of Mohamed as is the newly reelected speaker of the upper house of parliament, Abdi Hashi. Their elevations suggest this parliament is not going to be amenable to keeping Mohamed in office.
In news from Russia:
The Russian Foreign Ministry continued issuing travel bans on Thursday, focusing this time on Canada. In all the ministry barred 592 Canadian individuals from visiting Russia, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. I’m not sure about the other 590 but frankly I can kind of see their point with those two. Anyway, unless any of these folks were really hankering for a trip to the Vodka Museum in St. Petersburg (Google it) this is a purely symbolic measure.
The ministry also accused the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe of passing intelligence about Russian and Donbas separatist troop movements to the Ukrainian government and/or its Western allies. Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova apparently did not offer any evidence to support this accusation but did suggest that officials in the Donetsk People’s Republic could do so.
Meanwhile, the repercussions of Wednesday’s move to cut Bulgaria and Poland off from Russian gas exports have yet to fully emerge, but so far the short term implications seem to be working in Russia’s favor. Gazprom lost two of its smaller customers, in return for which it got a nice spike in global gas prices and fired a warning shot in the direction of its larger European customers. Long term the outcome is less certain. According to The Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous German officials, Berlin has conveyed to the European Union that it no longer opposes a bloc-wide embargo on Russian oil, provided it were phased in slowly enough to allow Germany to secure alternative suppliers. The Germans still seen hesitant about a gas embargo, but an oil embargo might take a major bite out of Russian energy revenues, depending on the impact it had on global oil prices and on Russia’s ability to line up alternative customers. Germany was by far the largest but not the only EU member resisting an oil embargo, so assuming this report is accurate it doesn’t completely resolve the EU’s internal disunity.
The Biden administration is seeking authority from the US Congress to confiscate the assets of blacklisted Russian oligarchs and use them to pay for aid to Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has gone further than this and asked for frozen Russian state assets to be sent to Ukraine, but I would imagine the administration is leery of going that far both in terms of precedent setting (its theft of the Afghan central bank’s foreign reserves notwithstanding) and because spending those assets now could preclude them being used as leverage in peace negotiations.
And in Ukraine:
UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited Kyiv on Thursday to balance out his trip to Moscow earlier this week. Perhaps to make him feel welcome, the Russian military fired missiles into downtown Kyiv while Guterres was there. At least one person was killed in that attack.
Speaking of Guterres’ Moscow excursion, Ukrainian officials said Thursday that they’ve begun planning an evacuation of the remaining civilians holed up in Mariupol’s besieged Azovstal steel plant. According to Guterres, during their meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in principle to let the UN and the Red Cross help organize such an evacuation. Of course an agreement in principle is not an agreement in practice, and the plan could be held up for any number of reasons, including the possibility that combatants might attempt to vacate Azovstal along with the civilians.
Ukrainian officials also announced another prisoner exchange on Thursday, saying they’d received 45 individuals from Russia without specifying how many people went the other direction. These sorts of exchanges seem to be happening on an almost daily basis lately, though there’s no indication they’re improving the overall diplomatic climate.
Joe Biden is requesting a cool $33 billion from the US Congress for aid to Ukraine, at least $20 billion of which will come in the form of weaponry. Assuming Congress acquiesces, and I think the chances are higher that it will increase the amount than that it will balk at Biden’s request, that will mean the US has committed nearly $50 billion to Ukraine since the start of the invasion and will make Ukraine far and away the single largest recipient of US military aid in this or any other year. Even the Afghan government that the United States created never got this level of support (by which I mean expenditures on behalf of the Afghan military, not direct expenditures by the US military on its own war effort) in a single year, let alone over a two-month period. I’ve seen this ask characterized as a signal that the US is preparing to support Ukraine through a lengthy war to come, which seems premature to me because Biden could very well come back a month from now and every single month after that and ask for another similar sized (or larger) chunk of cash.
On a related note, Congress has voted to revive the “lend-lease” program (shout out to World War II fans) for Ukraine. This will theoretically remove red tape around the supply of arms to Ukraine and/or to NATO allies in Eastern Europe who are supplying Ukraine with their Soviet-era arms because those are more familiar to the Ukrainian military. Biden still needs to sign the measure into law but I’d say the chances of him doing so are pretty high.
The Montenegrin parliament confirmed a new government on Thursday to replace the previous cabinet led by former Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić, which lost a no confidence vote back in February. Montenegro’s new PM is Dritan Abazović of the centrist United Reform Action party. He’s leading a minority centrist coalition so his chances of shepherding any major legislation through parliament are fairly small. Indeed his main task may be to stabilize Montenegro’s EU accession process and otherwise to bide time until a new election sometime between now and August 2024.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday that if Sweden and/or Finland decide to join NATO he would “expect” their membership process(es) “to go quickly.” In particular it sounds like the alliance might extend a form of Article 5 guarantee to those countries in case somebody (Russia, presumably) decided to threaten them during their accession period. Just in case you thought Europe was running out of ways to create more tension.
Speaking of which, NATO member Turkey is denying allegations from fellow NATO member Greece that Turkish military aircraft have been violating Greek airspace. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis says he’s notified Stoltenberg of alleged recent Turkish flights over an unspecified number of Greek islands, and earlier this week the Greek Foreign Ministry summoned Turkey’s ambassador in Athens to lodge a complaint over the issue. Turkey and Greece have long disputed their air and maritime boundaries in the eastern Aegean Sea.
Finally, over at Responsible Statecraft media critic Dan Froomkin takes issue with the way the US media is covering the war in Ukraine:
As U.S. leaders speak more openly about their geopolitical goals, and Russian leaders warn of the risk of nuclear war, there are essential questions that journalists should be raising in their coverage of the war in Ukraine that they are not. Chief among them:
Is escalating what has clearly emerged as a proxy war between the United States and Russia hastening or prolonging the carnage in Ukraine?
And: What’s the best way to minimize the risk of a nuclear conflict?
Thus far, most American news coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has reflected an unquestioned conviction that the more weapons the United States and the West send the Ukrainians the better.
It may well be that continuing and accelerating the arming of the Ukrainian military is, in fact, the best of bad options, the quickest way to peace, and doesn’t increase the likelihood of a nuclear strike. But that’s a hypothesis, which should be questioned and discussed, not blindly embraced as fact.
And in the meantime, Ukraine is being destroyed. Civilians are dying, refugees are fleeing for their lives, untold damage is being done to Ukraine’s infrastructure, and young men in arms are killing each other.
It’s time now for journalists to talk and write about at what point the goal of punishing Russia could diverge from the goal of bringing peace to the Ukrainian people as expediently as possible — and what the West should do if and when that happens.