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World roundup: February 22 2022
Stories from Iran, Libya, Colombia, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
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.
February 22, 1848: A large crowd gathers in downtown Paris to demonstrate its anger against King Louis Philippe I and demand the resignation of his prime minister, François Pierre Guillaume Guizot. The following day, Guizot’s resignation was overshadowed when French soldiers fired on the crowd, massacring more than 50 of them and kicking off the French Revolution of 1848. The revolution toppled Louis Philippe and instituted the French Second Republic, which lasted until 1852 when its president, Louis Napoléon Bonaparte (AKA Napoleon III), declared himself emperor as his uncle had done in 1804.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Iraq’s Razzaza Lake, also known as Lake Milh or “Salt Lake,” is drying up thanks to a combination of drought and the unsustainable overuse of water upstream on the Euphrates River. Razzaza is a man-made lake, constructed in the 1970s to help regulate flooding on the Euphrates and to provide a source of recreation and livelihoods (via fishing and irrigation). At this point it’s almost unusable, as the water flow into the lake has dropped to the point where the water that’s left has high levels of salinity and pollution. Humanity’s steady depletion of water resources may not be the most pressing crisis facing the world today, but it’s likely to get to that point over the rest of this century without drastic amelioration efforts.
Israeli occupation forces killed a 14 year old Palestinian boy near the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Tuesday. Israeli authorities are claiming that the boy was one of a group of three Palestinians allegedly throwing Molotov cocktails at passing cars, which certainly seems very simple and believable. They claim the same troops who shot him administered first aid at the scene, alas to no avail. A “local activist” named Ahmad Salah is telling a slightly different story, alleging that the Israelis prevented the victim from receiving medical care.
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday celebrated its first ever national holiday dedicated to the nation’s founding, on a date that was carefully chosen to gloss over the role that Wahhabism played in that process. Modern historians tend to date the origins of modern Saudi Arabia to the 1744-1745 arrival of theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab to the small Emirate of Diriyah, in central Arabia. He struck an agreement with the emir of Diriyah, a man named Muhammad ibn Saud, and the union of the Saud family’s political and military resources and Wahhabism’s ultra austere interpretation of Islam formed the historical core of modern Saudi Arabia.
Current Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would like very much for people to ignore the Wahhabi part of that story, since Wahhabism’s reputation has taken a few hits since then. And so the day he’s chosen to mark as “Founding Day” is the day in 1727 when Muhammad ibn Saud became emir of Diriyah. It’s not a completely indefensible choice but it is intentionally misleading to some degree.
Reuters, citing “sources close to the negotiations,” is reporting that the US and Iran might be close to agreeing on a prisoner exchange that would complement what looks like a forthcoming agreement on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Lead US negotiator Robert Malley has suggested that a release of foreigners in Iranian custody would be a necessary prerequisite for a nuclear agreement. Iranian officials have pushed back against that but only in a framing sense, so as long as the prisoner issue isn’t directly tied to the nuke talks then it seems like they won’t have a problem. The scope of the exchange won’t be known until there’s an agreement, but the Iranians are believed to be seeking the release of about 12 people in US custody and perhaps more who have been jailed in other countries. Iranian authorities are holding several foreign nationals, most of them with dual citizenship (a status that Iranian law does not recognize).
As we’ve noted previously in this newsletter, whatever hope the Pakistani government may have had that an Afghan Taliban takeover in Kabul would be a boon for Pakistan has dissipated, presumably, in the months since that takeover happened. Militant incidents in Pakistan were up 42 percent last year compared to 2020, mostly fueled by a resurgent Pakistani Taliban (TTP) that’s still using safe havens in Afghanistan to organize attacks and, apparently, to threaten and thereby extort cash from wealthy Pakistani businessmen. The TTP also seems to be supporting Baluch separatists, some of whom also operate out of Afghan havens. Militant issues aside, Pakistan has also reportedly seen a drain of US dollars as people move substantial amounts of it over the border. Pakistani authorities have imposed limits on the amount of US dollars that travelers can legally carry into Afghanistan but that’s not going to do much to curtail smuggling.
Thomas Andrews, the United Nations rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, issued a statement on Tuesday identifying those countries believed to be selling arms to Myanmar’s junta government. China and Russia head the list, which also apparently includes Serbia. The UN General Assembly adopted an arms embargo on Myanmar last year, but like pretty much everything else the UNGA does that embargo is nonbinding and unenforceable. Andrews called on the UN Security Council to adopt what would be a weightier arms embargo, but given that Russia and China both wield vetoes in that body it seems unlikely such a measure will actually be taken.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Tuesday that his government will spend a cool (cold, really) $578 million to bolster Australia’s research and surveillance capabilities in Antarctica. The funding will go in part to building out Australia’s drone fleet as well as to buying at least four new long-range helicopters. The motivation is…wait for it…China, which apparently has some unspecified but surely nefarious designs on Antarctica according to the Australian think tank community. Bundle up, and so forth.
Libyan Prime Minister (or one of them, anyway) Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh warned in a speech on Monday that a parliamentary effort to replace him could mean a return to open civil war, and I can’t tell if he was offering that as a bit of cautionary advice or as a threat. Dbeibeh reiterated that he has no intention of ceding authority to Fathi Bashagha, whom the Libyan House of Representatives designated to replace him earlier this month, and will only give way to an elected government.
The thing is, nobody knows when Libya is going to get around to holding elections. They were supposed to take place in December, hence the disarray about whether or not Dbeibeh is still legitimately PM, but when it appointed Bashagha the HoR seemed to rule out the possibility of elections through the end of this year. Dbeibeh is proposing to hold elections on a new constitution and new parliament in June, but that timeframe would require Libyan officials to be making preparations for those things now and instead they’re squabbling over who gets to be interim PM.
Nigerien authorities said on Tuesday that at least 18 people were killed in two incidents in the Tillabéri region on Sunday. The gunmen, presumably jihadists, first attacked a truck along a road between two villages in the region, killing at least 14 people, and then killed four more in a second incident after that. Islamic State in the Greater Sahara is particularly active in Tillabéri.
Four police officers were reportedly killed in two separate incidents in southeastern Nigeria on Sunday. In Imo state, attackers stormed a police station, killing two officers, before police drove them off and arrested 17 of them. In Anambra state, meanwhile, gunmen ambushed a convoy carrying an official from neighboring Enugu state and killed two members of its police escort. Authorities seem to be pinning responsibility for both attacks on the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra group, as they do with most incidents like this in southeastern Nigeria. As it almost always does, IPOB is denying any involvement.
As you might expect, Tuesday’s Ukraine news was dominated by reactions to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision the previous day to recognize the independence of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) and the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) in eastern Ukraine. I’ll try to run through this as efficiently as I can:
First, and to I assume nobody’s surprise, the Russian parliament has approved everything Putin set in motion on Monday—recognition of the two republics, treaties with both of them, and the open introduction of Russian military forces to Ukraine’s Donbas region under the rubric of a “peacekeeping” operation. This was such a foregone conclusion that Putin does not seem to have waited for the vote before sending forces into the Donbas.
The biggest looming question now is whether Putin’s moves will spark a shooting war, or perhaps the more apt question is how big a shooting war they’ll spark. Some level of conflict may be inevitable here. The Russian government is publicly suggesting that recognition and occupation could “calm” the Donbas situation, while the US officials are still insisting this is all just a prelude to a full-blown Russian invasion of Ukraine. The reality is probably somewhere between those two poles, but where exactly is still up in the air. At the “full-blown invasion” end of the spectrum it is not exactly comforting that Moscow is evacuating its diplomatic staff from Ukraine and that first Putin (yesterday) and now Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have publicly wondered whether Ukraine should actually exist as a state. Lavrov’s comments were a bit more nuanced than Putin’s but still seem fairly troubling in their implications.
The initial response from Ukraine has unsurprisingly been defiance, with President Volodymyr Zelensky making it clear early Tuesday that his government will not cede territory to Russia and/or the DNR/LNR. Zelensky later recalled the acting Ukrainian chargé d’affaires in Moscow and suggested that Kyiv could cut diplomatic ties with Russia altogether. Zelensky has also started conscripting Ukrainian military reservists—though he’s stopped short of a full mobilization—and instituted a few emergency measures to try to bolster the Ukrainian economy.
One thing that will help determine what comes next is clarification on what, exactly, the Russian government believes it’s recognized. The current actual territory occupied by the DNR and LNR is only part of their respective Ukrainian provinces (Donetsk and Luhansk). A statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday suggested that Moscow would only recognize those area currently under DNR/LNR control. Putin contradicted that statement later in the day, saying that his recognition applied to all the territory claimed by those republics, which encompasses the entirety of both provinces. Presumably he’s got the final word here, and that word probably ensures there’s going to be a war, though it doesn’t say much about the scope of that war.
Another big factor in how big a war we’re about to see is probably the degree to which Western governments intend to try to squeeze Russia in retaliation for what Moscow has done so far. The German government came out of the gate surprisingly hard on Tuesday, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz announcing that his government was freezing the certification process for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia. That’s a big step, one Berlin has resisted in the past, that will have serious repercussions for the Russian energy sector but also for European countries that are heavily dependent on Russian gas supplies. If Russia were to respond by cutting all gas supplies to Europe the effect would be profound. This is going to energize the effort to find alternative suppliers for the European market, but that will take time and meanwhile I think it’s safe to assume that already very high oil and gas prices are going to get still higher.
The sanctions floodgates are already opening. The Biden administration on Tuesday blacklisted two major Russian banks and imposed a ban on trading in Russian sovereign debt. It apparently intends to start blacklisting prominent Russian individuals (i.e., oligarchs) and their families on Wednesday. It’s also reportedly working with a group of Asian states on implementing a package of export controls that could, for example, limit Russian access to semiconductors. The European Union has already drawn up a list of 27 Russian individuals and entities to blacklist, along with other economic sanctions, and it apparently intends to impose its usual asset freeze/travel ban combo against every member of the Russian Duma. And the UK announced its own sanctions targeting five Russian banks and three oligarchs. The danger here, it seems to me, is going too far. Sanction Russia too heavily and it could leave Putin feeling that he has nothing to lose by going further, thereby helping to trigger the full invasion that I think can still be avoided.
In case there was any doubt, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called off the meeting he was supposed to have with Lavrov later this week. A planned meeting between Lavrov and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is also apparently off, as presumably any plans for a summit between Putin and Joe Biden.
Reactions from elsewhere have been varied. The Syrian government, which is nearly as enthralled to Putin as the DNR and LNR, has already offered its “support” for the republics’ independence though I don’t think it’s officially recognized them yet. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who values Turkey’s relationship with Ukraine (and particularly values Ukraine’s purchases of Turkish weaponry) but is pretty reliant on his cordial relationship with Putin, told Zelensky that he opposes the recognition but isn’t likely to do much more than offer that statement. The Chinese government also seems to be proceeding cautiously, with its diplomats calling for “restraint” while sidestepping the question of Donbas independence.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note some of the array of thinkpieces on this subject that have dropped in the last 24 hours. World Politics Review’s Erica Gaston believes this is the full confirmation that the world has entered a New Cold War between, I guess, the West on one hand and Russia-China on the other. This framing is somewhat baffling to me. We may be in a “new cold war,” in the sense of a simmering major power state of hostilities that falls short (hopefully) of World War III, but I don’t think a “New Cold War,” in the sense of a repeat or even a facsimile of the old one, is possible. The main dynamic of the Cold War, two major powers representing two competing economic and political systems, doesn’t apply anymore. What we have now are a group of powerful countries jockeying for position within a single global capitalist system and hoping to amass as much as they can before climate change brings everything crumbling down. In my opinion.
Elsewhere, Foreign Policy’s Natia Seskuria argues that these events are the 2008 Russo-Georgia War all over again, which is I think oversimplified though there are certainly many parallels. In particular, the 2008 war happened in part because of some bad decisions that were made by the Georgian government that Zelensky hasn’t duplicated, at least not yet. Quincy’s Sarang Shidore looks at the similarities between what Russia is doing in Ukraine and what NATO did in Kosovo, which isn’t a narrative many in the US would acknowledge even though Kosovo formed part of the model for Putin’s 2008 intervention in Georgia, which we’re told is the model for this intervention.
The Ukraine situation is reverberating in Finland, where President Sauli Niinistö suggested on Tuesday that the long-standing debate over whether or not to join NATO could “be further activated” depending on what happens in Ukraine. Finland and Sweden are both NATO partners and would probably be fast-tracked for membership, but until recently neither has shown much interest in going all the way, so to speak. The Swedish government still doesn’t seem all that interested in it, but Finnish officials have been a bit more open to the possibility, particularly if they feel a threat emanating from Moscow.
The Israeli government claims it has evidence that Iran is shipping precision-guided munitions to Venezuela to arm the drones it’s also supplying to Venezuela. It’s no secret that Iran is supplying Venezuelan with drones or possibly helping it to build its own drones, but arming those drones would be another matter. Frankly this all sounds very simple and believable too—I’m not saying the Israelis are outright making it up, but this revelation (assuming that’s what it really is) seems oddly timed as a sort of last ditch effort to undermine the nuclear talks.
At World Politics Review, journalists Daniela Díaz and Joshua Collins unpack the escalating rural violence in Colombia. In Arauca department, for example, the National Liberation Army (ELN) is battling the 10th Front, which emerged from the remnants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). But violence is up nationwide, and its rise seems to coincide with the 2018 election of Colombian President Iván Duque:
Arauca may represent the most dramatic case of open conflict in Colombia, but it is far from the only one. Since coming into office in 2018, President Ivan Duque has worked to dismantle aspects of the peace deal signed in 2016 between the Colombian government and the FARC, and his efforts have borne fruit: War has returned to the Colombian countryside.
In the northern coastal region of Choco, the ELN is fighting with narco-paramilitary groups descended from the “self-defense forces” that aided the government during the civil war. The clashes there have already displaced or confined more than 2,000 people this year, according to Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Meanwhile, the central-western department of Cauca is reeling from a Feb. 6 car bomb explosion in the town of Padilla, which killed one and wounded four. Ongoing conflict in that region has also killed hundreds of indigenous activists since 2016, including most recently the Jan. 26 murder of Albeiro Camayo. Camayo was a well-known leader of the region’s Indigenous Guard, a nonviolent community protection network, and his killing has caused widespread popular outrage.
The recent escalation of attacks, though shocking, is merely a continuation of a trend that has seen violence worsen since the start of Duque’s presidency. Between January and September of last year, the United Nations’ humanitarian affairs office recorded more than 72,000 displacements in the country—a 196 percent increase compared to the same period in 2020.
Five employees of Guatemala’s Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI) have reportedly resigned their jobs this month amid allegations that Attorney General María Porras has been sitting on corruption cases. Porras’s office has also apparently been arresting FECI employees under dubious claims that they’re abusing their authority. The Biden administration has been sanctioning Central American officials over corruption allegations and this could fuel another round of those sanctions.
Finally…I’m going to wrap up here. Tonight’s newsletter is already plenty long enough. I’ll close simply by offering my gratitude to you for reading and supporting Foreign Exchanges. You make this newsletter possible. Thanks!