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World roundup: February 18-19 2023
Stories from Iran, North Korea, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
February 17, 1979: The Sino-Vietnamese War begins with a Chinese invasion, in response to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia (ousting the Khmer Rouge) the previous year. The “war,” such as it was, lasted only about a month and ended when the Chinese army, having stalled out around 20 kilometers over the border, declared victory and withdrew. Vietnam also claimed victory in repelling the invasion, and their claim is generally more accepted today—though admittedly the Chinese military did do serious damage to northern Vietnam’s infrastructure.
February 17, 2008: Kosovo declares its independence from Serbia. The Kosovan parliament voted (with ethnic Serb MPs boycotting) to declare independence after United Nations-supervised negotiations on a sort of independence-in-all-but-name status fell apart. Though still not recognized by Serbia and an ongoing source of tension in the Balkans, this date is commemorated as Independence Day in Kosovo.
February 18, 1229: The Sixth Crusade ends
February 19, 197: The Roman army under Emperor Septimus Severus faces off against forces loyal to Roman usurper Clodius Albinus in the Battle of Lugdunum. After a two day fight Severus and his army were victorious, and Albinus either committed suicide or was murdered. Exact casualty figures are obviously impossible to tabulate, but there were a large number of Roman soldiers involved (a total of between 100,000 and 150,000, split more or less evenly between the two principals) and later reports suggest high casualties on both sides. Consequently, many historians hold that Lugdunum produced the greatest number of Roman military casualties of any single battle in the history of the empire.
February 19, 1913: Mexican politician Pedro Lascuráin enjoys the shortest presidency in history.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Israeli military carried out another of its periodic Syrian missile strikes on Sunday morning, killing at least 15 people in what the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights characterized as its “deadliest” attack on Damascus since the start of the Syrian civil war. At least two of the dead were civilians. Elsewhere, US and Syrian Democratic Forces personnel captured a “provincial official” from Islamic State on Saturday during a raid somewhere in eastern Syria.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula announced on Saturday that it had completed a prisoner swap with Yemen’s Houthi rebels, with two prisoners from either side being freed. Houthi officials later confirmed the exchange but neither party has gone into any detail as to how or exactly when it happened. Negotiating with AQAP is unlikely to put the Houthis on the US government’s holiday card list, but they were unlikely to get there anyway so I’m not sure this means much in the bigger picture.
Israeli diplomat Sharon Bar-Li was evicted from the African Union summit in Ethiopia on Saturday even though the Israeli government claims that it has been accredited as an AU observer nation. Israeli officials are accusing AU members who oppose its observer status, chiefly Algeria and South Africa, of engineering her ouster. The thing is, it’s not entirely clear that Israel does have observer status in the AU. The head of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, approved Israel’s accreditation back in 2021, but the full AU has never voted on the issue and it has been a sore point since then. The AU’s position now is that Israel’s observer status has been suspended pending such a vote, therefore it was inappropriate for Bar-Li or any other Israeli official to attend the summit.
Elsewhere, it seems the United Nations Security Council will not be voting on that UAE-drafted resolution condemning Israeli settlement-building. This almost certainly means the United States was planning to veto the resolution. Instead the resolution will be redrafted as a UNSC “presidential statement.” What is a “presidential statement,” you ask? It’s a weaker form of Council document that, unlike a resolution, is not legally binding. There probably wouldn’t have been anything “legally binding” (or at least legally enforceable) about the resolution either, but this is just how the UN rolls. These statements are supposed to be adopted by consensus so the US could still block this one, but since it would be even less meaningful than the usual UNSC output the Biden administration may decide to abstain instead.
Bloomberg reported on Sunday that International Atomic Energy Agency monitors have detected evidence that Iran has enriched an unknown quantity of uranium to 84 percent. I would say “insert your favorite JCPOA joke” here but this is a fairly serious development. Uranium that has been enriched that high is close to the traditional “weapons grade” level (90 percent or higher). But “weapons grade” is a somewhat arbitrary distinction—if a country has enough 84 percent enriched uranium it would be entirely possible to produce a nuclear device with no further enrichment required. I don’t think Iran is trying to produce a weapon but the US and Israel do as a matter of policy and this news could be the sort of thing that triggers a military response.
The IAEA hasn’t officially commented except to say it’s discussing the matter with the Iranians. The detection of traces of 84 percent enriched uranium doesn’t necessarily mean the Iranians have enriched to that level, and for what it’s worth that’s the story the Iranians are going with at this point. It’s also conceivable that the Iranians enriched that high accidentally, in which case there are ways to redress the issue. To bring this full circle, while I don’t think it’s a good time to make any JCPOA jokes it should be noted that this almost certainly would not have happened had Donald Trump not destroyed that agreement.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told all three network Sunday morning news programs that the US has “information” suggesting that China is “considering providing lethal support to Russia in its efforts in Ukraine.” There’s been no indication as to what this “information” entails, but Blinken apparently shared US concerns over the issue with senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi when the two met on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Saturday. Any move like this from China would represent a huge escalation from their current Ukraine policy, which has kept the war somewhat at arms length while maintaining a close relationship with Moscow (including the provision of non-lethal aid).
It’s unclear why Beijing would make the decision to start sending weapons to Russia now after refusing to do so through the first year of the war. Blinken’s claim also runs counter to reports in recent days that Chinese President Xi Jinping was planning to mark the first anniversary of the war with some sort of attempt to organize peace talks. None of this is to say that China isn’t planning to start sending arms to Russia, just that I think Blinken’s statements should be treated with some healthy skepticism.
The North Korean military launched a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile on Saturday, making good on its threat against future US-South Korean military exercises. The North Koreans have tested this missile previously, but there are indications that the missile fired on Saturday had been upgraded from past Hwasong-15 models. Undeterred, apparently, the US and South Korean militaries and US and Japanese militaries separately held joint air exercises on Sunday, which in turn prompted Pyongyang to fire off a pair of what were either rockets or short-range ballistic missiles on Monday morning, while referring to the Pacific Ocean as a “firing range.” I’m sure you’re all excited and/or terrified to see what happens next.
Tunisia’s largest trade union, UGTT, organized large nationwide protests on Saturday against President Kais Saied’s political and economic agenda. Saied’s government is in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout loan that will undoubtedly involve the IMF’s traditional belt-tightening austerity in the form of subsidy cuts and higher taxes in a country where the cost of living is already rising to levels most people cannot afford. Compounding the situation, a recent string of arrests targeting Saied’s political opponents has included a “senior UGTT official,” according to Al Jazeera. UGTT may be the one force left in Tunisian politics that can actually challenge Saied after the latter’s efforts to consolidate authority in his own person over the past year and a half.
The French military officially marked its departure from Burkina Faso over the weekend, sticking to the deadline Burkinabé officials gave when they ordered its departure last month. Burkina Faso’s ruling military junta has been accused of hiring Russia’s Wagner Group to provide counter-terrorism assistance, something the junta in neighboring Mali did while also severing its ties with the French military, but junta officials have denied those accusations.
Speaking of the Burkinabé and Malian juntas, Economic Community of West African States member states decided during a meeting on the sidelines of the AU summit to maintain sanctions against both countries as well as against Guinea. All three are under ECOWAS sanctions meant to prod their respective juntas to complete their transitions back to civilian rule by 2024 (for Burkina Faso and Mali) and 2025 (for Guinea). ECOWAS members also reportedly imposed new travel bans on officials in all three countries. The AU plans to consider whether to lift the suspensions it imposed on these countries (and Sudan) in the wake of their respective coups, though it’s unclear when that might happen and the AU may be waiting for ECOWAS to take the first step toward normalization.
The Dutch government says it plans to close its consulate in Saint Petersburg and reduce, within the next two weeks, the size of Russia’s diplomatic mission in the Netherlands to match the size of the staff at the Dutch embassy in Moscow. In announcing these plans Dutch authorities accused the Russian government of attempting to bring spies into The Hague and of refusing to approve visas for Dutch diplomatic staff trying to enter Russia.
In news related to Ukraine:
The Russian military claimed on Saturday to have captured the village of Hrianykivka, which is located in Ukraine’s Kharkiv oblast. If true it would be the first bit of Kharkiv the Russians have held since being driven out of that province back in September. The Ukrainian government has only said the village is under attack and there hasn’t been any independent confirmation or rejection of the Russian claim. Hrianykivka is well north of where most of the action has been lately, around Bakhmut.
With the situation in Bakhmut increasingly precarious for the Ukrainians, there is growing pressure on the US and other NATO members to escalate their arms and ammunition supplies. Ukraine’s delegation to the Munich Security Conference focused primarily on renewing Kyiv’s pitch for aircraft, and it seems like the US is moving inexorably toward agreed to provide Ukraine with F-16s. The first step would likely involve bringing Ukrainian pilots to the US to train on the aircraft, a process that could take several weeks. In the meantime, there are more critical issues facing the Ukrainian military, like acute shortages of ammunition. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s comments in Munich focused primarily on speeding up arms shipments to the Ukrainians, and there’s apparently a proposal on the table for the EU to buy ammunition for Ukraine on behalf of member states, rather than relying on individual states to handle their own purchases.
Don’t look now, but the Black Sea Grain Initiative may be breaking down. The rate of inspections of ships leaving the Black Sea has reportedly dropped to half of what it was four months ago, which has meant more cargo ships waiting for clearance and less Ukrainian grain getting to market. Some 3 million metric tons of food left Ukraine in January, compared with 3.7 million metric tons the month before. Needless to say that’s not a great trend, and based on current wait times for inspections that figure is likely to be lower for February.
The Ukrainian government is accusing the oil company Shell and the energy trading firm Vitol of dodging sanctions by bringing “Russian-origin oil products” into the EU via Turkey. There’s apparently a loophole in the sanctions whereby Russian oil that’s sent elsewhere to be refined can then be brought into the EU as though it originated in the country that did the refining. Turkey has dramatically increased its importation of Russian oil since the start of the war, as has India, with both countries refining the crude into other products for resale or export.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tried on Saturday to play down reports that he may be close to reaching a deal with the EU on the status of Northern Ireland. Sunak told reporters in Munich that “there is an understanding of what needs to be done” to conclude a deal, but said that talks “are by no means done.”
Finally, TomDispatch’s Julia Gledhill and William Hartung make the case for tackling waste in the Pentagon budget and, especially, in the US military’s weapons procurement process:
Pentagon waste is a longstanding issue in desperate need of meaningful action. Last November, the Department of Defense once again failed to pass even a basic audit, as it had several times before. In fact, independent auditors weren’t even able to assess the Pentagon’s full financial picture because they couldn’t gather all the necessary information to complete an evaluation. In some ways, that should have been devastating, the equivalent of a child receiving an incomplete on an end-of-year report card. No less alarming, the Pentagon couldn’t even account for about 61% of its $3.5 trillion in assets. Yet the last Congress still approved $858 billion in defense programs for fiscal year 2023, a full $45 billion more than even the Biden administration requested.
Spending levels aside, poor financial management has a serious negative impact on both service members and taxpayers. Last month, for example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that the Pentagon can’t account for at least $220 billion worth of its property, including such basics as ammunition, missiles, torpedoes, and their component parts. For its part, Congress (and so the average taxpayer) doesn’t have the faintest idea how much it’s spent on weapons or their components distributed to contractors for maintenance and upgrades. Worse, the GAO reports that the $220 billion in unaccounted-for equipment and parts is “likely significantly understated.”
Such irresponsible financial management also applies to Pentagon weapons purchases, creating another set of problems. The Department of Defense commits staggering numbers of taxpayer dollars to new weapons programs without doing its due diligence, all too often resulting in dysfunctional systems. The GAO has reported on this issue for 20 years and yet there’s been little discernible change in Pentagon behavior.
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