Discover more from Foreign Exchanges
World roundup: February 21 2023
Stories from Yemen, Russia, Peru, and elsewhere
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
February 20, 1865: The Uruguayan War, which began as a rebellion by the Colorado Party (aided by Brazil and Argentina) against the Blanco Party-led Uruguayan government (aided by Paraguay), ends with the Blancos’ surrender and the formation of a new Colorado-led government. The results of this relatively short (a bit over six months) conflict were mostly subsumed by the much longer (almost five and half year) and more destructive Paraguayan War (AKA the “War of the Triple Alliance”) that spun out of it. Brazil and Paraguay had already gone to war the previous year, and when the Uruguayan War ended both Argentina and the new Uruguayan government also declared war against Paraguay.
February 20, 1988: Leaders of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave declare independence from Azerbaijan along with their intention to merge the region with Armenia, kicking off the six year long Nagorno-Karabakh War. A relatively low-level conflict in its first couple of years, the war really heated up with the fall of the Soviet Union, when both Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent states free to conduct their own wars without oversight. The conflict ended in 1994 with an Armenian military victory that established both Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto independence and an Armenian military occupation in surrounding parts of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani forces recovered those regions and part of Nagorno-Karabakh in a second war in late 2020.
February 21, 1916: The Battle of Verdun—the longest battle of World War I and, indeed, in modern history—begins. It would end with a French victory over the attacking Germans almost a full ten months later, on December 18, after more than 300,000 soldiers had been killed on either side and upwards of 800,000 wounded. The battle is remembered today for its extended brutality and, in France, for the resistance the French army showed in the face of a sustained German effort to wear it down.
February 21, 1921: The Iranian Cossack Brigade marches into Tehran and, in a coup supported by British officials in Iran, forces Ahmad Shah Qajar to appoint a new cabinet led by journalist Ziaʾeddin Tabatabaee and military commander Reza Khan—the future Reza Shah Pahlavi.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The New Arab, citing a couple of Arabic-language outlets, is reporting that rebel and Yemeni government forces have been battling for several days in an area close to the Yemen-Saudi border. There’s no confirmation of these reports and no indication as to how heavy the fighting has been, but given that Yemen’s ceasefire lapsed back in October any new reports of fighting should raise alarm.
Off the battlefield, the Saudi government reportedly deposited $1 billion with the Yemeni central bank in Aden on Tuesday, possibly with a “thanks for letting us blow up your country” card assuming Hallmark makes that sort of thing. It probably comes as no surprise that Yemen’s economy has been more or less obliterated since the civil war began in 2014, so cash is in short supply these days. According to Yemeni presidential council chair Rashad al-Alimi, the money is meant to prop up the Yemeni rial as well as to pay for unspecified government projects.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a call for dialogue with those who oppose his government’s judicial “reform” agenda on Tuesday, one day after said agenda made more progress through the Israeli Knesset. That agenda, which more or less amounts to stripping the judiciary of any ability to check the government’s power, has sparked a series of large opposition demonstrations in recent weeks and polling suggests that a majority of Israelis would like Netanyahu either to pull the plug on it altogether or to pause the legislative process and negotiate with opposition parties over modifying the legislation.
Iranian authorities have reportedly sentenced dual Iranian-German national (and legal US resident) Jamshid Sharmahd to death for allegedly masterminding a bombing at a mosque in Shiraz back in 2008 along with a number of other terrorist incidents. They’ve identified Sharmahd as the leader of the militant wing of the Kingdom Assembly of Iran, a group that seeks to remove the current Iranian government and replace it with a monarchy, though not with a restoration of the pre-Iranian Revolution Pahlavi monarchy. Iranian agents apparently nabbed him in Dubai in 2020. Sharmahd’s family claims that he was only the Kingdom Assembly’s spokesperson and had no involvement in any attacks. Executions of dual nationals are sensitive issues for the Iranian government, though that hasn’t stopped them in the past.
Elsewhere, the Iranian government on Tuesday added 36 individuals and entities to its European Union and United Kingdom blacklists, in retaliation for recent sanctions leveled by those governments. As always even calling these things “symbolic” stretches the truth a bit.
Unknown gunmen attacked a police facility in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province on Tuesday, killing two police officers. There’s no indication as to responsibility but both Baluch separatists and Islamist militants (Pakistani Taliban, usually) are active in Baluchistan.
Foreign Policy’s Christina Lu reports that the Belt and Road Initiative’s financial and foreign policy goals are increasingly in conflict with one another:
In the span of a decade, China has emerged as the developing world’s bank of choice, pouring hundreds of billions of dollars in loans into global infrastructure projects as part of its sprawling Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
But as its borrowers fail to pay up, China is finding that its newfound authority is coming at a price. Eager to recoup its money, Beijing is transitioning from generous investor to tough enforcer—and jeopardizing the very goodwill that it tried to build with initiatives such as the BRI. China has broken a few bones in Sri Lanka, whose financial turmoil allowed Beijing to seize control of a strategic port, and is hassling Pakistan, Zambia, and Suriname for repayment.
For two decades, countries “were getting to know China as the kind of benevolent financier of big-ticket infrastructure,” said Bradley Parks, the executive director of the AidData research group at William & Mary. Now, he said, “the developing world is getting to know China in a very new role—and that new role is as the world’s largest official debt collector.”
The problem for China is that nobody likes being hounded for money. Chasing down unpaid debts won’t win many friends. It complicates Beijing’s broader aspirations of extending its influence and forging new relationships through economic deals. That tension, experts say, has left Beijing facing an impossible trade-off: Can it collect its money without hurting its image?
US officials and analysts overstate the extent of China’s role in the global debt crisis because it makes for a nice New Cold War narrative that also provides cover for predatory Western lenders. Nevertheless, it does seem clear that Belt and Road can’t be both a money-making initiative (requiring Beijing to chase down debtors and punish non-payment) and an effective soft-power tool, at least not under the present global economic circumstances.
A convoy of United Nations peacekeepers struck a roadside bomb in central Mali’s Mopti region on Tuesday. At least three peacekeepers were killed and five more wounded in the incident. The Malian mission is one of the UN’s largest peacekeeping operations and its deadliest, which makes its ineffectiveness all the more troubling.
An attack by suspected jihadist militants killed at least 15 soldiers in northern Burkina Faso’s Sahel region late Monday. Many soldiers are reportedly missing so the casualty count seems likely to rise. This is the second relatively high casualty jihadist attack in the Sahel region in four days, following the incident on Friday in which 51 soldiers were killed. The combined effect of these two attacks seems to have produced a bit of a “rally around the flag” effect with opposition political parties and civil society groups expressing support for the country’s ruling junta despite their past differences with junta leaders over the progress (or lack thereof) toward a restoration of civilian rule.
Al-Shabab militants killed at least ten people, all characterized as civilians, and wounded seven other people in an attack that targeted a house in Mogadishu on Tuesday. Somali security forces say they killed four al-Shabab attackers in the ensuing firefight. Al-Shabab later claimed that its fighters had killed 70 people and said they targeted the house because there were Somali military officials and wounded fighters from anti-Shabab militias staying there.
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his “State of the Nation” address on Tuesday, having delayed it to more closely coincide with the first anniversary of his big Ukraine adventure. Most of his speech was devoted to a defense of the war and the kind of reserved, thoughtful rhetoric that would secure Putin a prime time slot on any number of fine news outlets in the US should he be looking for a post-retirement gig. Apparently pedophilia is now “the norm” in Western society, for example.
The one substantive revelation to emerge from the speech is that Putin is suspending Russia’s participation in New START, the only currently active nuclear arms limitation treaty. He’s referring to the treaty’s inspection elements, as the Russian Foreign Ministry insisted that Moscow would still abide by New START’s caps on the number of nuclear warheads and on its requirements to share information regarding intercontinental ballistic missile testing. To be fair, from Russia’s standpoint it’s not altogether unreasonable to block inspections of sensitive nuclear sites by US personnel when the US government is providing targeting information and other intelligence to the Ukrainian military. US and other Western officials expressed disappointment over this announcement but there was no indication they’re planning to adjust their Ukraine operations in response.
In other Russia-related news:
Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin escalated his war of words with senior figures in the Russian military establishment on Tuesday, issuing another audio statement accusing Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov of trying to “destroy Wagner” by starving its forces of ammunition. He further suggested that their actions “can be likened to high treason” given the role Wagner’s fighters are currently playing in Ukraine. The Russian Defense Ministry is denying Prigozhin’s allegations.
Russia’s federal statistical agency says the country’s economy contracted by only 2.1 percent last year, far less than most estimates had projected given the extent of Western sanctions. Assuming this figure is accurate, increased military spending and higher energy prices explain most of the outcome.
US President Joe Biden, in Warsaw after having spent his Monday in Kyiv, countered Putin’s speech on Tuesday with his own first anniversary remarks on the Ukraine war. There was nothing of substance in Biden’s speech as far as I can tell, just the expected rhetoric about the West’s commitment to Ukraine, declarations of Russia’s real and/or perceived military failures, and some cheerleading for NATO and democracy.
Hungarian media is reporting that the country’s parliament could take up the issue of the Swedish and Finnish governments’ NATO applications on March 1, with a vote scheduled the following week. Hungary is the only NATO member other than Turkey not to have approved those applications yet. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said back in November that his government would support both countries’ accessions, but Orbán has a fairly close relationship with Moscow and the fact that he still hasn’t scheduled a vote on this has raised some suspicions about his intent.
Peruvian prosecutors have opened an official investigation into corruption charges leveled against former President Pedro Castillo. Those charges dogged Castillo during much of his time in office though this is the first formal inquiry into them. The investigation could be used to justify keeping Castillo in detention, where he’s been since his ouster from office in December, but it’s unlikely to go over well with the people who have been protesting in part to demand his release.
Writing for World Politics Review, Jo-Marie Burt looks at the current state of those protests:
[interim President Dina] Boluarte says it is up to Congress, not her, to enable the necessary reforms to the constitution to allow early general elections. Congress, meanwhile, has debated a series of proposals to convene early elections in 2023 or 2024. But in early February, the body’s Constitutional Committee archived all of them, and last week legislators concluded the legislative session with no agreements that would allow early elections this year or next. Boluarte’s resignation would automatically trigger early elections and, potentially, alleviate the immediate political crisis, but she has insisted time and again that she has no plans to resign. She and Congress seem determined to remain in their positions, even as the country slides into a crisis of ungovernability that has undermined the rule of law and democracy itself. Current polls show that 74 percent of Peruvians think that Boluarte should resign and 75 percent say there should be early general elections. Congress’ approval rating is in the single digits.
Fed up with ineffective and self-serving politicians, Peruvians—especially those from poor, rural and Indigenous regions, who have historically been excluded and marginalized—are demanding a clean slate, and they don’t seem inclined to back down. The political deadlock is raising fears of an intractable conflict that could lead to greater violence and even more deaths.
How did things in Peru go so wrong? The answer to that question begins with the recognition that the protests haven’t happened in a vacuum. Rather they are the product of decades of misrule and corruption, as well as the legacy of the country’s civil conflict in the last two decades of the 20th century, which have combined to leave rural Peruvians disenfranchised, marginalized and forgotten by Lima’s political establishment.
Meanwhile, the US government has reportedly agreed to extradite former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo back to Lima to face his own corruption charges. Toledo has been wanted since 2018 over allegations related to the sprawling corruption scandal involving the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht.
Finally, The Intercept’s Nick Turse reports on a troubling theft at a US military facility in Niger:
Officially, Base Aerienne 201, located in this town on the southern fringe of the Sahara desert, is not a U.S. military outpost. In reality, Air Base 201 — known locally as “Base Americaine” — is the linchpin of the U.S. military’s archipelago of bases in North and West Africa and a key part of America’s wide-ranging intelligence, surveillance, and security efforts in the region.
Built at a price tag of $110 million and maintained to the tune of $20 to $30 million each year, AB 201 serves as a Sahelian surveillance hub that’s home to Space Force personnel involved in high-tech satellite communications, Joint Special Operations Air Detachment facilities, and a fleet of drones — including armed MQ-9 Reapers — that scour the surrounding region day and night for terrorist activity. A high-security haven, Air Base 201 sits within a 25-kilometer “base security zone” and is protected by fences, barriers, upgraded air-conditioned guard towers with custom-made firing ports, and military working dogs.
The trappings of security can, however, be illusory. Late last year, in the shadow of this bastion of American techno-militarism, four men in a pickup truck carried out a daylight armed robbery of defense contractors from the base and drove off with roughly $40,000 in U.S. taxpayer money. U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, did not report on or publicly acknowledge the theft from Australian-based Austability, a subcontractor apparently working with U.S. defense giant Amentum.
“It is troubling that an affiliate of a major U.S. contractor is unable to provide basic security, even for payroll funds, while traveling near a major U.S. base,” wrote William Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a defense contracting expert. “It is indicative either of lax security procedures or an especially dangerous environment close to a sensitive U.S. facility — or both.”
Neither AFRICOM nor U.S. Air Forces Africa provided answers to questions about the robbery prior to publication. “We have nothing further to add,” Timothy S. Pietrack, the deputy chief of AFRICOM Public Affairs, told The Intercept.
Apparently having a US security base in your neighborhood does not guarantee any sort of security. Go figure.
Thanks for reading! Foreign Exchanges is entirely a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.