World roundup: December 2 2021
Stories from Iran, Ukraine, Mexico, and more
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REMINDER: We’ll be taking another short break this weekend as I do some traveling. We’ll be back to regular programming on Tuesday, and that should be the last interruption before our usual end of the year break.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
December 1, 1640: Portuguese nobles declare John (João) IV (d. 1656) their new king. This is significant in that it meant they were simultaneously declaring an end to the 60 year old Iberian Union and were no longer subject to the rule of Spanish King Philip IV (d. 1665). The 1640-1668 Portuguese Restoration War ensued, which—as any present day map of Europe will confirm—ended with a Portuguese victory and confirmation of the new monarchy.
December 1, 1918: The “South Slavic” (Slovenian and Croatian) parts of Austria-Hungary are united with Serbia and Montenegro as the “Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.” This name was changed in 1929 to the “Kingdom of Yugoslavia” and again after World War II to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This experiment in dueling nationalisms broke apart—quite violently, in case you missed it—in the 1990s.
December 2, 1805: At the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon wins arguably his greatest victory against a larger joint Russian-Austrian army. The Allies suffered 36,000 dead/wounded/captured compared with only 9000 for the French. The French victory was so complete that not only did it end the War of the Third Coalition, it allowed Napoleon to create the Confederation of the Rhine among the German states that had become French clients. The following year, because of the new confederation, Emperor Francis II had to dissolve the Holy Roman Empire, which had been in existence continuously since 962 and traced its origins back to Charlemagne’s coronation as “emperor of the Romans” in 800.
December 2, 1942: Enrico Fermi and his team create the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction at “Chicago Pile-1,” a rudimentary reactor built under the campus of the University of Chicago. This was the first milestone achievement for the Manhattan Project in its race to build a nuclear bomb before Nazi Germany.
December 2, 1971: Six small Persian Gulf emirates—Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain—cease to be UK protectorates and collectively form the United Arab Emirates. A seventh emirate, Ras al-Khaimah, held out at first but agreed to come on board the following February. Annually commemorated as UAE National Day.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
COVID’s Omicron variant is continuing to spread worldwide, including several new cases in the United States. In terms of what this new variant does as compared with previously detected variants, the picture is still emerging. Evidence from South Africa, where Omicron may have originated and where it certainly seems to be taking hold quickly, suggests that it is highly transmissible and is capable of reinfecting people who contracted an earlier COVID variant and should in theory have natural immunity. But in terms of severity I still haven’t seen anything to suggest it’s substantially different from other variants.
The emergence of the new strain, and the potential for it to lead to more travel bans and potentially even lockdowns, has raised questions about OPEC+ and its plan to restore global oil production to pre-pandemic levels. Member states met on Thursday and decided to stick with their current restoration plan, at least through January. But if Omicron, or some other new variant, looks like it may cause a downturn in oil demand, the bloc will likely revisit this issue.
The United Nations says it’s looking to raise $41 billion for 2022 to meet the humanitarian needs of some 183 million people across multiple crises including the dire situations in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. That’s the largest amount of humanitarian funding the UN has ever sought.
According to Syrian media, someone attacked a bus full of oil workers in a government-controlled part of eastern Syria’s Deir Ezzor province on Thursday, killing at least ten people and wounding another. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that the bus was bombed, but the type of explosive is unknown. There’s also no information as to perpetrator, but given the location Islamic State is presumably the leading candidate.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan replaced his finance minister, Lütfi Elvan, on Thursday after a bit more than a year on the job. He was apparently the sacrificial lamb for the collapse of the lira, which has lost some 40 percent of its value against the US dollar so far this year. Taking over for Elvan is his former deputy, Nureddin Nebati, who is apparently a Friend of Erdoğan who supports the president’s refusal to raise interest rates even though conventional economic wisdom mandates rate hikes to combat inflation. Officially Elvan’s departure is being described as a resignation, though in reality he may have been canned. Either way the cause is almost certainly that he and his ex-boss didn’t agree on the interest rate issue.
Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi is reportedly planning to resign on Friday, in an effort to resolve the diplomatic conflict between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia (plus several other Gulf Arab states). The Saudis cut ties with Lebanon in October over comments Kordahi made criticizing the war in Yemen prior to his appointment to the cabinet. The UAE and Kuwait followed suit. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has been calling on Kordahi to resign for weeks now in hopes that his departure could help patch things up with Riyadh.
Both US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian offered pessimistic statements Thursday on the possibility of successfully reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The Iranian delegation in Vienna for talks on that subject presented proposals to the rest of the deal’s participants for the lifting of US sanctions and the steps Iran would take to return to compliance with the agreement. It’s unclear whether Blinken had any knowledge of those proposals when he told reporters in Stockholm that “recent moves, recent rhetoric, don't give us a lot of cause for ... optimism.” I haven’t seen any comment on the Iranian documents from any of the parties present in Vienna, including the US delegation that’s participating in the talks indirectly.
The UN’s credentials committee decided Wednesday to continue punting on the question of representation for the still-somewhat-new Afghan government and the really-not-that-new-anymore Myanmar junta. The UN has so far refused to seat representatives of either country out of a reluctance to legitimize their governments, leaving their pre-Taliban and pre-junta (respectively) representatives in place. It’s unclear if the committee will recommend continuing to leave those representatives in their seats—it could opt instead to vacate both countries’ delegations. The UN General Assembly has final say on all members’ representation, though if the committee can’t reach a consensus then there’s little chance the UNGA will.
Human Rights Watch issued a new report on Thursday alleging that Myanmar security forces engaged in a “planned and coordinated” massacre of “at least 65 protesters and bystanders” in an incident in Yangon on March 14. The victims were, of course, protesting against the February 1 coup. Myanmar forces have killed upwards of 1300 people or more since the coup. In this particular attack HRW says that “testimonies and digital forensics” show evidence of premeditation. If you’re wondering why the UN won’t seat the junta’s representative, this would be part of the reason why.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen made it clear on Thursday that he expects his son, Hun Manet, to succeed him upon his planned 2028 retirement (or before, I suppose, should circumstances warrant). Hun Manet currently serves as head of the Cambodian army and the Cambodian counter-terrorism force, and as deputy commander of both the overall Cambodian military and Hun Sen’s bodyguard. To forestall accusations of autocracy, Hun Sen was quick to add that Hun Manet should only succeed him through democratic means—presumably the same democratic means by which Hun Sen has remained in power for 36 years and counting.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned the Japanese ambassador in Beijing on Wednesday evening to lodge a complaint over a comment made by former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō at a Taiwanese think tank event earlier in the day. Abe apparently told the audience that Japan would defend Taiwan in case of an attack by mainland China, which isn’t really Abe’s decision to make anymore but was apparently enough to irritate Beijing.
The North Korean-watching website 38 North reported Thursday that satellite imagery suggests Pyongyang is getting ready to reopen its border with China for some commercial traffic. The imagery seems to show the construction of a “disinfection” facility at the Uiju airfield, which is located close to the border, including a new rail line. There’s no indication that the North Koreans are planning to reopen the border to truck traffic but these developments at the airfield indicate that rail traffic is presumably on the menu. Indeed, some of the images may show that rail traffic has already resumed, albeit at a limited level. Getting information out of North Korea is difficult, but it’s believed that the country has been struggling badly as its pandemic-related border closure has shut off the flow of basic goods from China.
A court in the southern Libyan city of Sebha ruled on Thursday that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, can in fact run for president in next month’s election. Libyan officials had disqualified Gaddafi because of his 2015 conviction (in absentia) on war crimes charges, but he appealed the ruling. The court had been set to rule on his case last week but postponed the proceedings due to the presence of armed fighters allied with warlord and presidential candidate Khalifa Haftar near the Sebha courthouse. The court ruling could trigger a violent backlash.
Apparent Islamist militants attacked a military outpost in northern Benin’s Porga region late Wednesday, killing two soldiers. One of the attackers was also killed in the exchange. This was the second such incident in northern Benin this week—an army patrol came under attack on Tuesday, sparking a clash in which, as on Wednesday, one of the attackers was killed. The precise identity of the attackers is unknown, but it’s been clear for some time now that al-Qaeda and IS affiliates in the Sahel (and specifically in Burkina Faso and Niger) are trying to spread their insurgencies to the south into countries like Benin and Ivory Coast.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Congolese security forces opened fire on a crowd of protesters in the eastern city of Bukavu on Thursday, wounding at least two journalists who were covering the demonstration. The protesters were there in support of South Kivu’s provincial government, which the provincial assembly voted to oust from office. The government insists the assembly vote was illegitimate.
The Russian military has reportedly placed several Bastion coastal missile defense batteries, plus the personnel needed to operate them, on the island of Matua, which is located in the disputed Kuril Island chain. Moscow has steadily expanded its military presence in the Kurils, the southernmost islands of which are claimed by Japan. Russia occupied those islands at the end of World War II and their status has been contested ever since.
The European Union, Canada, the US, and the UK coordinated another round of new sanctions targeting Belarus on Thursday. The EU’s sanctions targeted Belarus’s national air carrier, Belavia, along with hotels, travel agents, and other entities and individuals accused of participating in Minsk’s alleged scheme to bring migrants into the country and then push them toward the Latvian, Lithuanian, and Polish borders.
Russian authorities said on Thursday that they’d arrested three Ukrainian spies, at least one of whom was allegedly plotting a bombing of some sort. The Ukranian government denied the claim and attributed it to the “hybrid war” it claims Russia is waging on Ukraine.
Elsewhere, the big Stockholm meeting between the chief US and Russian diplomats on Thursday was taken up mostly with an unproductive discussion of Russian-Ukrainian tensions:
Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Moscow on Thursday to abandon plans for a potential invasion of Ukraine, calling for a peaceful resolution to an intensifying showdown between Russia and the West.
Blinken’s warning in talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Moscow could face dire consequences over Ukraine, and Lavrov’s vow to respond to any punitive measures from the West, underscored the obstacles to defusing the brewing crisis.
Their meeting on the margins of a European cooperation conference, Blinken’s second bilateral encounter with the Russian diplomat since becoming secretary of state, appeared to yield no substantive agreements but provided a means for the Biden administration to add force to its threat of “high-impact” economic retaliation should Russia launch an offensive against Ukraine.
Lavrov suggested after the meeting that Moscow will present NATO with a new European security plan intended to, among other things, forestall further NATO expansion in Eastern Europe and reduce tensions between Russia and the West. I suspect it will not be well received, but what do I know?
Ex-Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who resigned his chancellorship in October amid a serious corruption allegation, resigned again on Thursday, this time from politics in general. Kurz quit his parliamentary seat and his post as leader of the conservative People’s Party. I mention all this mostly because Kurz’s resignation preceded the resignation of Alexander Schallenberg, the man who succeeded him as chancellor. In explaining his decision, Schallenberg argued that whoever is elected to succeed Kurz as party leader should also have the opportunity to serve as chancellor. Schallenberg also said he’s not planning to run in the leadership election.
More new polling puts leftist Gabriel Boric in the lead ahead of Chile’s December 19 presidential runoff. The survey from pollster Criteria Research has Boric leading far right contender José Antonio Kast, 54 percent to 46 percent.
The Biden administration has reached agreement with the Mexican government on restoring the Trump administration’s harsh Migrant Protection Protocols (AKA the “Remain in Mexico” program) for would-be asylum seekers. A federal court ordered the administration to reinstate MPP back in August, but the Mexican government insisted on several alterations to the program. Among these are a commitment to provide asylum seekers with legal counsel and COVID vaccines, and to hear their asylum claims within six months. The changes should ease the burden on Mexico and may make the MPP program slightly more humane, in a “putting lipstick on a pig” kind of way. The Biden administration says it’s still planning to faze the program out altogether.
Finally, on a happy note, TomDispatch’s Michael Klare has penciled in a war with China for the end of this decade:
When the Department of Defense released its annual report on Chinese military strength in early November, one claim generated headlines around the world. By 2030, it suggested, China would probably have 1,000 nuclear warheads — three times more than at present and enough to pose a substantial threat to the United States. As a Washington Post headline put it, typically enough: “China accelerates nuclear weapons expansion, seeks 1,000 warheads or more, Pentagon says.”
The media, however, largely ignored a far more significant claim in that same report: that China would be ready to conduct “intelligentized” warfare by 2027, enabling the Chinese to effectively resist any U.S. military response should it decide to invade the island of Taiwan, which they view as a renegade province. To the newsmakers of this moment, that might have seemed like far less of a headline-grabber than those future warheads, but the implications couldn’t be more consequential. Let me, then, offer you a basic translation of that finding: as the Pentagon sees things, be prepared for World War III to break out any time after January 1, 2027.
To appreciate just how terrifying that calculation is, four key questions have to be answered. What does the Pentagon mean by “intelligentized” warfare? Why would it be so significant if China achieved it? Why do U.S. military officials assume that a war over Taiwan could erupt the moment China masters such warfare? And why would such a war over Taiwan almost certainly turn into World War III, with every likelihood of going nuclear?
The upshot is that the Pentagon expects the Chinese military to have significantly improved its “C4ISR” (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities by 2027 to the point where it is at or near parity with the US military. Since C4ISR is the area in which the US military has its greatest edge over its Chinese counterpart, closing that gap could theoretically embolden Beijing to attack Taiwan, which by 2027 may (given the state of discourse in Washington these days) be under explicit US protection. That’s a recipe for war.