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World roundup: February 23 2023
Stories from China, Nigeria, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
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. Louis Philippe was the last King of the French.
February 23, 1455: This is traditionally the date cited for the publication of the “Gutenberg Bible,” one of the first books mass printed in Europe using moveable metal type and certainly the most famous. Johannes Gutenberg’s work helped usher in the age of printing, in which books could be produced at such a volume that they became affordable and available to a wider segment of the public and printing works in vernacular languages (rather than just Latin) became more viable.
February 23, 1966: Leaders of the Syrian regional branch of the Baʿath Party pull off a coup d’etat, ousting the old guard party leadership. The incident precipitated the splintering of the previously pan-Arab Baʿathist movement into Syrian and Iraqi national parties.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
US President Joe Biden has nominated former MasterCard chief executive Ajay Banga to replace the outgoing David Malpass as president of the World Bank. Banga will almost certainly be confirmed, given how much sway the US has in terms of the Bank’s administration, and he’ll be taking over amid a global debt crisis and growing calls for the Bank to focus its resources on supporting clean energy and climate amelioration projects. I have no idea what his environmental record is and, given his background, I’m not entirely sure he has one.
According to Reuters, it was UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan who persuaded Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give the United Nations permission to open additional corridors for humanitarian aid from southern Turkey into earthquake-ravaged northwestern Syria. Visiting Damascus the day before Assad gave his assent, it seems Abdullah convinced him that the new corridors would be regarded as a gesture of “goodwill” by the international community. Assad’s decision has allowed aid groups operating in northwestern Syria to intensify their efforts in the aftermath of the earthquake. It also suggests that the UAE, which has gone further than most other Arab nations in rebuilding its relationship with Assad, is now in a position to influence his decision-making.
Unsurprisingly, the Israeli military responded to rocket fire out of Gaza (courtesy of Palestinian Islamic Jihad) on Thursday morning with airstrikes on targets it identified as a “weapons factory” and a “military camp” belonging to Hamas. There’s been no indication of casualties, either from the rockets or the airstrikes. The rockets were fired in retaliation for an Israeli raid in the West Bank city of Nablus on Wednesday in which at least 11 people were killed, including two PIJ commanders.
West Bank violence is likely to worsen now that far-right, pro-settler Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has been given oversight of the territory under a special position within the Israeli Defense Ministry. That second gig was Smotrich’s price for agreeing to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition and his aim is to bring Israeli settlements under Israeli civilian law rather than the military rule that currently governs the entire West Bank. This is de facto annexation. We’ll have to wait and see if any of Israel’s “Abraham Accords” partners chafe at the above, given that part of their rationale for normalizing relations with Israel back in 2020 was to stop Netanyahu’s admittedly more expansive annexation plans.
One country that decided not to join the Accords, Oman, announced on Thursday that it will allow Israeli commercial aircraft to pass through its airspace. While not as big a deal as Saudi Arabia’s decision to open its airspace for Israeli flights last year, this will nevertheless give Israeli carriers a more direct route to several Asian destinations. The Omani government has long maintained a cordial, if informal, relationship with Israel, but has rejected the idea of normalization absent a settlement to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Muscat did establish formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican on Thursday. So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice. The Vatican now has diplomatic ties with every Arabian Peninsula nation except the Saudis.
Iran’s Nour News outlet, which is linked to the government, confirmed on Thursday that International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have discovered traces of 84 percent enriched uranium in Iran, a story that Bloomberg broke over the weekend. The Iranians are claiming that this discovery reflects inspector error or “a deliberate action to create political atmospheres against Iran” and does not mean Iranian officials have decided to start enriching uranium to that level. It is possible that a stray sample showed higher levels of enrichment than what the Iranians are doing but the discovery probably puts the burden of proof on the Iranians to demonstrate that they’re not enriching to 84 percent.
There were reports of gunfire, possibly antiaircraft fire, and explosions in the Iranian city of Karaj late Thursday. Iranian authorities are claiming they were part of some sort of military exercise, but that seems implausible and the possibility of another Israeli attack cannot be ruled out.
According to Eurasianet, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has made a significant adjustment in his negotiations with the Armenian government:
Azerbaijan has offered a new proposal to Armenia in the ongoing peace negotiations between the two countries: to allow Armenian checks of Azerbaijani traffic along what Baku calls the “Zangezur Corridor,” in exchange for the establishment of Azerbaijani checkpoints on the road connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.
The move would effectively give up on the larger geopolitical vision of the Zangezur Corridor: a seamless transportation route connecting Azerbaijan to Turkey and beyond. At its most fanciful, it was envisaged as a road to “unite the entire Turkic world.” Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev has even repeatedly threatened to use force if Armenia doesn’t allow the corridor to be built.
Now, though, Aliyev says that Baku would accept Armenian checkpoints on the road when it enters and leaves Armenian territory. “It would be good if Armenia and Azerbaijan established checkpoints on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border bilaterally,” he told reporters on February 18. “Checkpoints should be established at both ends of the Zangezur corridor and the border between the Lachin district [of Azerbaijan] and Armenia.”
An Azerbaijani customs post on the Lachin Corridor leaves that corridor vulnerable to being closed and officials in Karabakh are likely to oppose it strenuously. But it’s unclear how much that opposition will affect the Armenian government’s thinking.
The Afghan government has decided to reopen the Torkham border crossing with Pakistan, which it closed Sunday night. It would seem the Pakistani delegation that visited Kabul on Wednesday made a good impression. The thousands of truck drivers who have been stuck in traffic on either side of the border since Sunday will no doubt be happy to get moving again. As to why they closed the crossing in the first place, Afghan officials say it was because the Pakistanis had been refusing to allow Afghan nationals in need of medical care to enter Pakistan.
China’s deputy UN ambassador, Dai Bing, told the UN General Assembly on Thursday that the first year of the Ukraine war proves “that sending weapons will not bring peace.” Presumably this was a shot at the US, which has sent a lot of weapons to Ukraine, though I’m sure US officials would say they did so to prevent the “peace” that would have followed from a quick Russian victory. I mention Dai’s comment because it is incongruous with claims this week from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg alleging that China is about to start supplying weapons to the Russian military. Chinese officials have rejected those allegations. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also told reporters on Thursday that senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi assured him during the Munich Security Conference last week that China is not planning to arm the Russians.
However, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported on Thursday that the Russian military is in talks with a Chinese firm, Xian Bingo Intelligent Aviation Technology, about purchasing 100 ZT-180 drones. They are loitering munitions or “kamikaze drones,” apparently similar to the Iranian Shahed-136 drones the Russians have been using (allegedly). According to this report the deal could also include the establishment of a facility to manufacture more drones in Russia. The Russians may be circling a deal with a second Chinese firm to provide parts for their Sukhoi Su-27 fighter aircraft. None of this is confirmed but it does put some meat on the vague claims Blinken and Stoltenberg have been making.
The North Korean military test-fired four “Hwasal-2” cruise missiles off of the country’s eastern coast on Friday. State media says they traveled 2000 kilometers, which would put them in the “long-range” category. The test was apparently meant to demonstrate North Korea’s ability to launch a nuclear counterattack, which presumably means these missiles are nuclear capable though I confess I haven’t been able to find any information about the “Hwasal-2” other than reports on this very test. It appears to be new. It may also be worth noting that it was the North Koreans who broke the news of this launch, suggesting that the US, Japanese, and South Korean militaries may not have known it happened. The test took place while US and South Korean officials were engaged in a “table-top” military exercise simulating a North Korean nuclear strike.
An apparent jihadist attack killed at least 12 members of the paramilitary “Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland” (VDP) security force in Burkina Faso’s Centre-Nord region on Wednesday. VDP personnel are given a gun and two weeks of training and then sent out on military support missions where they’re frequently sitting ducks for more seasoned jihadist militants.
With two days to go before Nigeria’s general election, a Senate candidate and a campaign worker were killed in two separate attacks in southeastern Nigeria’s Enugu state on Thursday. Authorities are blaming Biafran separatist militants for both incidents. Police were apparently able to thwart another attack targeting a candidate for state governor.
Increasingly it looks like the Labour Party’s Peter Obi will emerge victorious in Saturday’s presidential election, though as Alex Thurston wrote here earlier this month there are serious questions as to whether Labour has the infrastructure to translate Obi’s popularity into votes. A new concern has arisen over the Nigerian government’s controversial currency changeover program and the cash shortage it has created. The currency crunch could have unpredictable effects on turnout and it’s reportedly left many election observer groups struggling to stand up their operations because they’re out of cash.
Fighting between Somaliland security forces and militias in and around the town of Las Anod has killed at least 96 people and left some 560 wounded over the past two weeks, according to the main local hospital. That’s despite a unilateral ceasefire declared by Somaliland authorities on February 10. Indeed, the ceasefire seems to have had little or no effect on the conflict, with Somaliland officials arguing that their forces are acting in self defense. The militias have tried to declare independence from Somaliland, which itself declared independence from Somalia in 1991, with the intention either of joining Somalia’s autonomous Puntland region or establishing a new regional administration under the Somali federal government.
It would appear that Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s beef with the Russian Defense Ministry has ended, at least temporarily, as he announced on Thursday that his mercenary fighters are getting the ammunition he’s spent all week demanding. Prigozhin naturally credited himself for pressuring the ministry to deliver the ammo he previously claimed it was withholding in an effort to “destroy” Wagner due to, I guess, jealousy over its perceived battlefield successes. The Russian military has denied that it was withholding ammo and obliquely suggested that Prigozhin’s complaints were treasonous, in that they were providing aid and comfort to Ukraine.
In Ukraine news:
Friday will mark one year since the Russian invasion began, and the Russians appear to be commemorating the milestone by intensifying their assault on the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. The Ukrainian military reported 90 Russian attacks to the north and south of the city from Wednesday into Thursday. Ukrainian officials have suggested that Russia’s aim in escalating their offensive is to “deplete” Ukrainian forces, which doesn’t explain why the Ukrainians are obliging them by putting up such a strenuous defense of a city whose strategic value is at the very least debatable.
The US and the rest of the G7 are likely to mark Friday’s anniversary with announcements of new aid for Ukraine and new economic sanctions against Russia. The Biden administration previewed the new sanctions package on Thursday, with the White House saying it will target Russian banks, tech and defense firms, and individuals tied to the war effort. The Ukrainian parliament on Thursday imposed a 50 year ban on Russian financial institutions operating in Ukraine, the impact of which may be more symbolic than tangible.
At the UN, meanwhile, the General Assembly on Thursday voted 141-7, with 32 abstentions, to condemn the Russian invasion. Only Belarus, Eritrea, Mali, Nicaragua, North Korea, and Syria were willing to join Russia in voting against the resolution. Bad blood over the war also impacted an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Vienna, most of whose delegates walked out of Thursday’s session when the Russian delegation addressed the body.
Máté Kocsis, the parliamentary leader of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party, said on Thursday that Budapest is planning to send a delegation to Sweden and Finland next week to discuss both countries’ NATO accession processes. Hungary is the only NATO member other than Turkey that hasn’t yet ratified both countries’ applications, and according to Kocsis this is because some members of the ruling party feel that certain unnamed Finnish and Swedish politicians “have insulted Hungary in a crude, unfounded and often vulgar manner in recent years.” Something about this narrative doesn’t ring true. Orbán insisted last year, despite his warm relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, that the Hungarian government would approve both Finland and Sweden and as far as intra-Fidesz politics go, Orbán always gets what he wants. It’s unlikely that he’s being stymied by some recalcitrant group of legislators.
Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s Connor Echols reports on the Biden administration’s newly unveiled policy around arms sales:
The State Department is now instructed to block U.S. arms transfers to any country that will “more likely than not” use them to commit serious human rights violations. Officials previously had to have “actual knowledge” that American weapons would be used to perpetrate such offenses.
The new rule “gives a decision-maker who wants to honor human rights a better capability to do that than the ‘actual knowledge’ standard,” according to Jeff Abramson of the Arms Control Association. U.S. officials have not specified which countries could be affected by the policy.
The change, which Reuters first reported on Wednesday, is part of President Joe Biden’s long-awaited Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy. The document outlines the administration’s general approach to foreign security assistance and includes guidance for the State Department, the Pentagon, and the Commerce Department.
Experts say Biden’s CAT policy represents a significant shift from that of President Donald Trump, which emphasized the economic benefits of U.S. weapons sales while discounting risks of abuse.
I’m not sure “better than Donald Trump” is the standard to which the Biden administration should aspire, but here we are. Certainly the administration’s record on arms deals over its first two years doesn’t suggest that it intends to take a strict approach to the “more likely than not” standard, particularly not at a time when the global arms trade is booming and the US security establishment undoubtedly would prefer to grow its weapons market share rather than risk shrinking it.
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