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World roundup: February 24 2022
Stories from...Ukraine, mostly
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
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 scholarly 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.
February 24, 1525: In a battle outside the northern Italian city of Pavia, a besieging French army under King Francis I is so thoroughly defeated by a Habsburg relief force that Francis himself is taken prisoner. Francis’ capture led directly to the end of the 1521-1526 Italian War, which had begun over Charles V’s election as Holy Roman Emperor in 1520 and Pope Leo X’s decision to switch alliances from Francis to Charles, Leo having decided that the emperor would be a more useful partner in his spiritual battle against Martin Luther. Francis spent the rest of the war in captivity, first in Genoa and later in a series of Spanish cities, before he and Charles signed the Treaty of Madrid in 1526, ending the war on terms favorable to the Habsburgs.
February 24, 1739: The Battle of Karnal
February 24, 1918: The Republic of Estonia declares independence from Russia before being occupied by German forces. Upon its defeat in World War I, Germany was obliged to turn Estonia over to an independent government, and the country remained independent until it was occupied by the Soviets in 1940. Despite Estonia’s rather lengthy Soviet interlude, which lasted until 1991, this date is recognized and commemorated as Estonian Independence Day.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The International Energy Agency released a new analysis on Wednesday suggesting that global methane emissions are a whopping 70 percent higher than the figures that have been offered by governments around the world. Most or all of these emissions are coming from leaky oil, coal, and natural gas facilities, which are apparently spewing an amount of methane into the atmosphere that’s equivalent to Europe’s annual natural gas consumption (about 180 billion cubic meters). At current gas prices, the IEA estimates that energy companies could cap these leaks and make a substantial profit with the amount of hydrocarbons they’d recover. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide but also dissipates more quickly.
On a possibly related note, sea ice levels in the Southern Ocean have dropped below 2 million square kilometers for the first time since scientists began tracking it in 1979. The previous record was around 2.1 million square kilometers in 2017. Scientists aren’t entirely clear on the causal connection between climate change and Antarctic sea ice but to have two all time lows like that in the span of just a few years probably isn’t good.
Another Israeli missile strike outside of Damascus has reportedly killed at least six “pro-government fighters.” According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the strike targeted facilities near Damascus airport that are used by Iranian-supported militias. It’s reporting that two Syrian soldiers were among the dead along with four members of unspecified militias. Syrian media is reporting three dead soldiers and does not seem to be reporting about any militia personnel.
Yemen’s Houthi/Ansar Allah rebels have reportedly arrested a former press officer from the long defunct US embassy in Sanaa. They’re now believed to be holding at least 11 former embassy staffers with no indication as to why they’ve arrested them.
Afghan Taliban personnel apparently engaged in some sort of gun battle with Pakistani border guards in Kandahar province on Thursday, leaving at least two and possibly three people dead as a result (all, as far as I can tell, on the Afghan side of the border). Details beyond that are spotty but Afghan officials are asserting that the Pakistanis shot first, for reasons unknown. Tensions are increasing along the border, with Pakistani officials undoubtedly growing irritated that the Afghan Taliban either cannot or will not (probably a little of both) do anything to contain Pakistani militants operating out of bases in southern Afghanistan, and the Afghan Taliban angry over Pakistan’s construction of a wall along the “Durand Line,” the British-drawn border that successive Afghan governments have refused to accept as legitimate.
A new military offensive against the rebel Karenni National Defense Force in Myanmar’s Kayah state has reportedly displaced thousands of people over the past couple of days. Casualty information is meager but a couple of reports have at least five people being killed just on Wednesday amid the military assault. As far as I can tell the Karenni National Defense Force is distinct from the Karenni Army, which has been carrying out an on again, off again ethnic insurgency since the 1950s. The Karenni National Defense Force is a more recent creation, one of several local or regional “national defense forces” that have sprung up in opposition to last year’s military coup and the junta that still holds power in Naypyidaw. There’s probably some level of overlap or collaboration between the two groups but I’m unclear as to how much.
The Chinese military flew nine aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense zone on Thursday, drawing a response from the Taiwanese air force. I’ve been trying to wean myself off of writing updates every time China buzzes Taiwan like this, but in this particular case, with what’s happening in Europe, I thought it might be worth mentioning that it happened.
The Libyan House of Representatives says that it is set to hold a confirmation vote for new Prime Minister-designate Fathi Bashagha’s government sometime next week, perhaps as soon as Monday. It will presumably approve the new government, which is going to be somewhat awkward given that current Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh and his Government of National Unity don’t appear to be going anywhere. Libya has been experimenting with just having a single government since Dbeibeh took office last March, but for several years prior to that the country did operate under a two-government system. That those years coincided with a civil war is, I’m sure, purely coincidental.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
Central African authorities have released four United Nations peacekeepers they’d arrested at Bangui airport earlier this week under murky circumstances. All four are French Foreign Legion personnel and were detailed as security for the commander of the UN peacekeeping mission in the CAR. The arrest sparked rumors that they were part of a plot to assassinate Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, whose relationship with Paris has frayed because of his decision to employ Russian Wagner Group mercenaries. As far as I know they were never formally charged with anything, let alone attempting to assassinate Touadéra.
In a time of great uncertainty, the US military returned to something familiar earlier this week when it conducted its first drone strike on Somali territory since August. The strike reportedly came in response to an attack by al-Shabab fighters against Somali military forces or allied paramilitaries outside Mogadishu on Tuesday. US Africa Command says it has no indication how many al-Shabab fighters were killed in the strike but is certain there were no civilian casualties. Its record in terms of assessing civilian casualties is not good, so take that claim with a grain of salt.
Obviously most of the world’s attention is focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began early Thursday following a televised address by Russian President Vladimir Putin. I’ll try to run through as much information as I can, with the caveats that a) this a moment of extreme uncertainty and some of this is likely going to be invalidated by subsequent reporting, and b) even many of the details that are accurate now will be overtaken by events, possibly by the time you read this. So with that in mind, let’s start with those aspects of the conflict that are specific to Russia:
Russian officials are claiming that three people have been wounded by artillery fire in the region of Belgorod, near the Ukrainian border. This is not inconceivable but at this point I’d treat any Russian claim like this skeptically to say the least.
The main story here aside from the shooting war itself is the economic war, and it’s definitely getting more intense. Joe Biden announced a new tranche of sanctions on Thursday and European Union officials did likewise along with the United Kingdom. It would take too long to outline the specifics of these new measures (Foreign Policy has the most detailed rundown I’ve seen if you’re interested) but the upshot is that they’re continuing to target Russian banks and oligarchs with asset freezes and bans on commercial interaction. Biden also announced new export controls that will make it difficult for Russia to legally acquire a variety of products, including semiconductors. The US also announced sanctions on 24 Belarusian nationals and organizations in connection with the invasion.
One thing that does not seem to be on the table is cutting Russian banks’ access to the SWIFT financial transaction network, much to the consternation of Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. Whether that’s because European leaders want to hold that particular measure back as a potential deterrent or they don’t want their own financial institutions to take the haircut that a total Russian ban would entail is unclear. There are indications that even as late as yesterday several European countries were still arguing for bespoke sanctions exceptions to protect key domestic economic sectors, though perhaps the fact of an actual invasion has changed their thinking.
The war is already taking an economic toll on Russia, with the ruble cratering in early trading on Thursday before Russia’s central bank stepped in and began making large currency buys to stabilize its value. Russian stock markets were similarly down. Putin has been preparing for something like this for a while now, so these short term struggles are unlikely to sway his thinking, to the extent he’s actually doing any thinking at the moment. Global oil prices also spiked to around $105 per barrel (for Brent crude) on Thursday before coming back down a bit, and higher oil prices are naturally good for Russian oil revenue. But it probably is worth pointing out that Putin on Thursday held a televised meeting with “business leaders” to let them know that he was “forced” into this conflict. That’s a self-serving lie, but it’s interesting that he felt the need to tell it.
Somewhat surprising, I think, is the fact that we’ve seen antiwar protests break out in a number of Russian cities since the fighting began. There’s no way to know how many people are participating, especially given Russian media restrictions. According to The Guardian at Russian authorities have arrested over 1700 protesters so far amid demonstrations in at least 53 cities that seemed to start modestly but grow larger throughout the day. I think it’s worth highlighting that these people are certainly aware that protesting is likely to land them in jail and yet they’re doing it anyway.
Adding to the above picture, polling (admittedly a dicey proposition in Russia of all places) suggests that a large minority of the Russian population was not in favor of this conflict. Given the media environment in Russia, 40 percent opposition to something for which Putin has been actively rallying support is substantial.
Moving on to the situation in Ukraine:
According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Russian forces killed 137 people and wounded 316 more during day one of their Ukrainian invasion. I would assume there’s some uncertainty built into those figures. I have not seen any estimates as to displacement, though images showing lines of cars heading west from Ukraine’s major cities speak to what is probably a massive evacuation from the current war zone into western Ukraine and beyond.
Most of the Russian war effort on Thursday appeared to focus on air/missile strikes against Ukrainian military facilities. The Russians claim they’ve destroyed dozens of those, including 11 Ukrainian airbases, and that they’ve “neutralized” Ukraine’s air defenses. Those claims are as far as I know unconfirmed. On the ground, Ukrainian forces appear to be mostly surrendering the border, which is probably a tactically sound choice given how overmatched they are military-to-military, in favor of more defensible positions. US officials say they’re monitoring at least three lines of advance for Russian ground forces—north from Crimea, south toward the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, and south from Belarus toward Kyiv. That third battle group has reportedly taken Chernobyl—hopefully they won’t irradiate half of Eastern Europe, but that is now an actual possibility.
I’m seeing conflicting claims on Twitter about the status of the Hostomel airport just outside of Kyiv. Russian paratroopers launched an attack on that airport early on and at one point appeared to have gained control of the facility. Now I’m seeing some reports that it’s back in Ukrainian control or that the fighting has resumed and the airport is up for grabs. Control of Hostomel would allow the Russians to make a quick move on Kyiv, but if they can’t secure it that’s not a significant setback for their invasion.
For what it’s worth, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claims there are no Belarusian forces participating in the invasion. There’s no particular reason to believe him and even if he’s telling the truth he’s still allowing Belarus to be used as a launching point.
Wednesday’s DDoS attack on multiple Ukrainian targets was followed by a more sophisticated cyber attack involving a malware that’s apparently being called “HermeticWiper.” The program disables computers by preventing rebooting. These sorts of “wiper” attacks can be quite damaging, and of course in hindsight it’s clear that was the first stage of the invasion.
In addition to whatever sanctions emerge from this, there will be heightened calls to arm whatever resistance remains in Ukraine, whether that’s the regular Ukrainian military (which may not be very long for this world) or paramilitary insurgents (undoubtedly including right-wing extremists). The US loves arming proxies and is no doubt prepared to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian, but a sensible approach to this question would ask whether more weapons are actually likely to be of aid to the Ukrainian people. They could just prolong the war and intensify the level of Russia’s assault, leading to more death and more suffering. I’m not pronouncing that they would, but this is a question that should be asked. And that’s leaving aside the issue of whether Russia would regard arms shipments as enough of an intervention to trigger the nuclear retaliation Putin essentially threatened in his Thursday morning speech. It’s hard to imagine Putin starting World War III over small arms shipments to Ukrainian insurgents, but then it was hard to imagine him going as far as he already has and yet here we are.
NATO held an emergency summit on Thursday in response to the invocation of Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty by eight member states. Members emerged from that meeting announcing an intention to send additional NATO forces to reinforce eastern members like Poland and the Baltic states. To that end, the Pentagon has announced the deployment of 7000 additional soldiers to Europe. I think they’re still hashing out the specifics of that deployment. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated that there’s no intention to send NATO forces into Ukraine to directly counter the Russian invasion.
The United Nations Security Council will be meeting on Friday
to adopt a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraineso that Russia can veto a resolution condemning its invasion of Ukraine. The resolution’s failure is obviously built into the process, and it sounds like the plan then is to put the same resolution before the UN General Assembly. There it will likely be adopted, but UNGA resolutions are as we know purely symbolic.
Everything that’s happened so far points to the worst-case scenario, a full-scale Russian invasion intended to expunge the Ukrainian government and replace it with a Russian-friendly client. I guess we shouldn’t completely rule out the possibility of something more limited given that it’s only been a day since this invasion started, but I see no evidence of that. As I suggested last night it’s fair to say that the maximalist warnings the Biden administration has been issuing were more or less correct, and those who have been expressing skepticism about those warnings, myself included, were wrong. I try to confine my analysis to what I think is supported by the facts, but I clearly missed something here because even though I knew on some level that this outcome was possible, I considered it unlikely in the extreme. For that I apologize.
Finally, if you missed it earlier today Daniel Bessner returned with a new column asking what I think is a very timely question:
Vladimir Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine has engendered questions about interventionism that are central to the future of U.S. foreign affairs: Is it possible for the United States to undertake “good” military interventions for causes that some segment of Americans deem worthy? Or should the United States militarily retreat from the world, leaving the affairs of other regions to those more directly affected by them?
On first glance, the answer to these questions appears to be simple, especially for the anti-imperialist: of course the United States should refuse to intervene militarily in foreign affairs that don’t directly threaten US “interests.” But this position—which, to be transparent, is my own—nevertheless begs two additional, and crucial, questions: What are the United States’ “interests,” and who gets to decide them? Can an anti-imperialist really refer to US “interests” with a straight face?