World roundup: February 26-27 2022
Stories from Yemen, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and more
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 25, 628: Sasanian nobles overthrow Emperor Khosrow II in favor of his son, Kavadh II, who promptly had his brothers and his father executed. Khosrow was on the verge of losing the 602-628 war against the Byzantines, which had begun very promisingly for the Sasanians but fell apart beginning with Khosrow’s ill-advised 626 siege of Constantinople. One of Kavadh’s first actions as emperor was to make peace with Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, after which his brutality toward the rest of his family plunged the Sasanian Empire into a civil war from which it never fully recovered.
February 25, 1943: The World War II Battle of Kasserine Pass, in central Tunisia, ends in an Axis tactical victory but a strategic stalemate.
February 26, 1815: Napoleon Bonaparte escapes his exile on the island of Elba in a bid to return to France and restore his empire. The erstwhile emperor entered Paris on March 20, chasing off the just enthroned Bourbon king, Louis XVIII, and beginning the “hundred days,” his brief revival/reunion tour. Napoleon’s attempt at a second act came to an end on June 18 at the Battle of Waterloo, in which British and Prussian armies won a decisive victory. He withdrew to Paris to find that the city had already turned against him, and abdicated on June 22. His second exile, on the more remote island of St. Helena, would prove permanent.
February 27, 1844: A group of leading Dominicans called La Trinitaria declares independence from Haiti. Thus began the 12 year Dominican War of Independence, after which the Dominican Republic was established as an independent nation. Commemorated today as Independence Day in the Dominican Republic.
February 27, 1933: The Reichstag building in Berlin is set on fire one month after Adolf Hitler had become chancellor. Hitler and the Nazis pinned the arson on a communist named Marinus van der Lübbe, either alone or in collaboration with other communists. As far as I know, most historians nowadays believe that van der Lübbe set the fire alone, and that the Nazis manufactured the collaborator scenario to justify an already planned crackdown on communists that allowed them to tighten their grip on power.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
According to The New Arab, Yemeni government forces have made advances into rebel-controlled parts of the city of Taiz, in an offensive that began on Friday and has claimed at least 30 rebels and 12 pro-government fighters. There has also been fighting reported in Hajjah province, where it sounds like the rebels may have gained a bit of ground. On a related note, the United Nations Security Council is scheduled to vote on an arms embargo targeting the Houthi/Ansar Allah rebels. The UAE has been pushing this measure, which would expand a current embargo on Houthi leaders to the whole rebel operation.
In a change of tone, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced on Sunday that Ankara would henceforth deem Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to be a war, triggering the Turkish government’s right to restrict military traffic through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits in accordance with the 1936 Montreux Convention. The Ukrainian government has been asking Turkey to close the straits to Russian warships, but even under Montreux there’s only so much Turkey can do to legally impede Russian traffic. That’s because any Russian vessels that are part of its Black Fleet naval forces still have the right to traverse the straits to “return to base,” as it were. In principle any Russian ship that requests passage through the straits should return to port without participating in hostilities, but I doubt anybody will try to enforce that restriction.
Afghan authorities say their security forces are going “house to house” in Kabul and other major cities in an effort to track down alleged criminals and weapons. This has obviously raised concerns that the Taliban is really tracking down people who worked for the previous Afghan government or the foreign military forces that supported it, though from what I can tell there’s no evidence of that as yet. The Taliban also says it’s putting a ban on evacuations of Afghan nationals over “reports” that those Afghans who have already fled the country are being treated poorly in their transitional lodgings in Qatar and Turkey. Taliban officials say they’ll allow evacuations to resume once they are convinced that the situation has improved for migrants who have already left.
Pakistani security forces killed an unspecified “militant” in a raid in the North Waziristan region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Saturday. The story doesn’t go into detail but given the location I would assume they were raiding a Pakistani Taliban facility. Elsewhere, Pakistani authorities reopened the Chaman-Spin Boldak crossing along the Afghan-Pakistan border on Saturday, two days after some sort of cross-border firefight forced its closure.
The Nepalese parliament voted on Sunday to approve a controversial $500 million infrastructure grant from the US Millennium Challenge Corporation. Opposition politicians and a substantial segment of the Nepalese population argued against accepting the grant due to concerns that the money would oblige Nepal to adopt US friendly policies, particularly with respect to China. Hundreds of protesters clashed with police even as the vote was being held.
North Korea conducted a new ballistic missile test on Sunday, its eighth weapons test so far this year. State media reported that the test was of a rocket intended for use in a “reconnaissance satellite” project, which would be in keeping with one of the objectives North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has laid out for his military.
Talks between Chad’s ruling junta and a number of the country’s various rebel groups that were supposed to begin in Qatar on Sunday have instead been delayed. Apparently all the “preparations” haven’t yet been made. It’s unclear how long this postponement is going to last, but it may only be days. These talks are supposed to be part of the political transition to new elections in the wake of last April’s coup. That transition was supposed to last 18 months but major parts of the transition plan have been delayed and I would say the notion that they’ll be wrapped up by the end of this year may be a bit farfetched at this point.
The US State Department late Friday announced visa bans on “a number of Somali officials and other individuals,” according to a statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The Biden administration has accused these folks of “undermining the democratic process” in unspecified ways. The bans were imposed after Somali officials announced that they’ve pushed back the end of their indirect parliamentary election to March 15. That process was supposed to wrap up on Friday.
I already covered most of Saturday’s events related to the Ukraine invasion yesterday in a rare Saturday newsletter, in case you missed it. So I’m going to try to stick mostly to things that happened on Sunday:
Perhaps the biggest and certainly the most alarming development Sunday came in the form of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s televised order for Russian strategic (i.e., nuclear) forces to adopt “a special mode of combat duty” in response to “aggressive statements” from the governments of NATO member states. I’ve seen this order variously categorized as a decision to put Russian nukes on “alert” or “high alert” and I’m not sure that’s a reasonable conclusion. “A special mode of combat duty” sounds like empty jargon frankly, and at least one analyst, a Russian military veteran working for Deutsche Welle, has speculated that it may not mean anything. Another analyst, Pavel Podvig, suggested on Twitter that Putin could be activating Russian nuclear command and control, which would constitute a step closer to being able to launch nuclear weapons, so that would be something but probably still not “high alert” in the alarmist way some outlets are bandying that term about. Anyway it sounded menacing, and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu looked visibly nauseous as Putin was giving the order, so make of that what you will. On the plus side, the Biden administration appears to be dismissing Putin’s statement rather than, say, raising US nuclear readiness in response.
Now that Western governments have (partially) pulled the trigger on blocking Russian banks from the SWIFT network, the biggest remaining sanctions-related question is probably the fate of Russia’s energy sector. Western sanctions have so far left it relatively untouched, no doubt hoping to keep Russian natural gas flowing to Europe and Russian oil flowing to a market where prices have been flirting with the $100 per barrel level since the invasion began. This is one of the reasons for the limited SWIFT decision, which still leaves some Russian banks connected to the network and therefore able to finance energy transactions. Sanctions have also left Russia’s agriculture sector alone, in deference to the many countries that are dependent on Russian grain imports. These are two gaping holes—OK, maybe one gaping hole and one kind of largeish hole—in the sanctions architecture as it stands right now. Moscow could take the decision out of Western hands by unilaterally cutting gas flows to Europe as a retaliatory measure, but economically that would hurt Russia almost as much as it would hurt Europe.
Sticking with energy, BP announced on Sunday that it’s dumping its 19.75 percent stake in the massive Russian oil company Rosneft. The move, which BP claims will cost it upwards of $25 billion, could be the first of several such actions by Western energy companies with large stakes in Russian operations. Not only is it good PR for them at the moment but it also removes any uncertainty about potential Russian asset freezes or seizures.
Speaking of the Saturday’s financial sanctions, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis told reporters on Sunday that it is “very probable” the Swiss government will on Monday announce that it’s freezing Russian assets in line with what the European Union has already done. That would seem to violate Swiss neutrality, but Cassis rejected that notion in his interview. For Switzerland to take this step would certainly enhance the impact of those EU asset freezes. In the meantime, there are indications that Russian citizens are already scrambling to withdraw their money from banks over concerns of a cash shortage related to the Western seizure of the Russian Central Bank’s foreign reserves. Monday could see the makings of a bank run.
Most European countries have now barred Russian aircraft from their airspace, creating major headaches for Russian air carriers in terms both of cost and of aircraft maintenance (which is already complicated by Western sanctions covering the importation of aircraft components). Russian commercial flights are now forces to take circuitous routes even to get to Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, which is technically a “domestic” flight. Elsewhere, the EU announced Sunday that it will move to ban Russian TV outlets RT and Sputnik from broadcasting within the EU.
The US embassy in Moscow on Sunday advised all US nationals in Russia to leave the country ASAP, in part due to the increasing restrictions on flights out of the country. The French government likewise advised its citizens who are “visiting” Russia to make arrangements to go elsewhere.
Eurasianet is tracking what seems to be a Russian effort to create the impression of support for its Ukraine invasion among Moscow’s Central Asian allies. Putin has in recent days held phone meetings with Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Japarov and Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and in both cases the Russian readouts on those calls has talked about expressions of “support” from the Central Asian heads of state that the Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments disavowed in their own readouts. Central Asia has also been the subject of one apparent US disinformation effort. On Saturday the US National Security Council told NBC News that the government of Kazakhstan had rejected a Russian appeal for military assistance in Ukraine. Kazakh sources say the Russians never made that appeal.
Antiwar protests continued in Russia for a fourth straight day on Sunday, with at least 2000 people being arrested according to Reuters. They put the four day arrest total at around 5500. Again it’s impossible to even hazard a guess as to how large these demonstrations have been, but given the extent of the crackdown and on the Russian government’s efforts to stifle critical media and even social media coverage of the invasion, the fact that they’re still going at all is worth noting. Meanwhile, some of the calls for an end to the war are starting to come from inside the house, so to speak, in the form of Russian oligarchs with ostensibly close ties to Putin himself. On Sunday both Mikhail Fridman, who is Ukrainian-born, and Oleg Deripaska, who’s had a starring role on MSNBC programming for the past six years, made public or semi-public calls for an end to the conflict. I don’t know if it means anything, but if Putin is listening to anybody other than himself these days he’s presumably listening to people like these two.
Belarusians headed to the polls on Sunday to vote in a constitutional referendum that among other things could strip the country of its legal non-nuclear status. The main change envisioned by the referendum, which is sure to pass in a country where elections are more for show than anything else, is the empowerment of the “All-Belarusian People’s Assembly.” Contrary to the impression you might get from its name, that body is an unelected grouping of senior government officials and major business leaders that previously had no actual legal authority but now could function as a sort of quasi legislature or national board of directors. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko could decide to retire from the presidency but retain functional executive authority as the chair of the assembly, in theory. The referendum also strikes Article 18 of the current Belarusian constitution, the nuclear-free part, which (again in theory) could permit the stationing of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus (a domestic Belarusian nuclear program is another possible but far less likely development).
This referendum has been on the books since last January so it’s not connected to what’s happening in Ukraine, but at the same time it’s hard to separate it from that story. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that the vote was marked by protests against the Ukraine invasion, during which Belarusian security forces reportedly arrested some 290 people.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine:
I suppose we should start with the news that Ukrainian and Russian diplomats have agreed to meet at a site along the Ukraine-Belarus border “without preconditions,” as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky put it. Zelensky and Lukashenko apparently worked out the details in a phone call on Sunday. I have no idea what they’re prepared to discuss—the Ukrainians have intimated that they’re only going to listen to what the Russians are offering—and so I wouldn’t put much hope in the sudden outbreak of peace. But stranger things have happened.
The situation on the ground, which you can track via the Ukraine live map, doesn’t seem to have changed much between Saturday and Sunday. It sounds like some of the heaviest overnight fighting took place in the city of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, where Russian forces were able to enter the city but were apparently driven out by morning. Kharkiv and Kyiv have been the two main Russian targets in the north and both are still in Ukrainian hands. More Russian forces are reportedly advancing on Kyiv so they may make another major assault there overnight. Russian forces have made more progress in southern Ukraine, where they claim to have “blocked” two cities (I assume they mean besieged, though that’s not reflected on any maps as yet) and have reportedly been able to gain control of a land bridge connecting Crimea to the Donbas. They’ve had to go around the city of Mariupol, which is still government-controlled, but that city is high on their target list as well.
By the way, reporter and Friend of FX Jack Crosbie is doing some fantastic reporting from Kharkiv for Rolling Stone if you’re looking for actual accounts from the warzone.
When I say the situation on the ground hasn’t changed I include what I wrote yesterday about What It All Means for the Russian invasion. Things probably haven’t gone as quickly or as smoothly as Moscow would have liked and they may be running into logistical issues, but they still have a very large force that hasn’t been committed to the fight yet and they’re clearly still making progress, even if it’s not on their ideal timetable. Without going into detail the Ukrainian military said that Sunday was a “difficult time,” which could indicate that its capabilities are starting to wear down. Worryingly, there are indications that the Russians may be moving to another “phase” of the invasion, one that could feature fewer special forces and more heavy artillery, maybe trained indiscriminately on these holdout cities, which could up the civilian casualty count substantially.
Speaking of casualties, the Ukrainian Health Ministry says it’s recorded 352 civilians killed, 14 of them children, by Russian forces thus far, along with 1684 wounded. The Ukrainian defense ministry on Sunday put the Russian death toll at somewhere around 4300. That figure isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility but I wouldn’t put too much stock in it because I don’t know that the Ukrainian government is likely to have a good handle on Russian casualties. The Russian government finally acknowledged suffering some casualties on Sunday, though without offering any specifics. The United Nations, meanwhile, put the number of Ukrainian refugees at roughly 368,000 and climbing.
The EU announced on Sunday that it’s releasing €450 million to finance the purchase of weapons for Ukraine. That’s on top of the $350 million the Biden administration announced on Saturday and the tens of millions of euros in arms various EU members have been sending to Ukraine on their own initiative.
This story is still developing, but separately from the EU weapons program noted above it sounds like a number of EU states are considering supplying fighter planes to Ukraine and Kyiv’s request. Ostensibly these would be models with which Ukrainian pilots are familiar, sent by former Warsaw Pact states, but let’s just say it would not be the most surprising thing in the world if at least some of those planes come with pilots included—unofficially, of course. That’s an extraordinarily dicey proposition from an escalation perspective. I’ll leave it there, since I don’t know what the actual plan is here and I don’t want to cause any more panic than this roundup has already caused.
Kyiv has lodged a genocide complaint against Russia at the International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest judicial body. They’ll ask the court to order Russia to cease and desist, an order Moscow will ignore if that’s how the court rules. The ICJ moves very slowly in terms of reaching its final decisions but it could issue a quick interim ruling for whatever good that would do.
I want to link to a couple of stories that talk about racial aspects of this story, which for obvious reasons I don’t feel qualified to discuss at length. There are at least a couple of dimensions here, one of which is the “wow, I can’t believe this is happening in a country full of Europeans” discourse that I’m sure you’ve seen filtered through a number of media outlets in ways both subtle and not so subtle over the past few days. The other may be more immediately harmful, and that has to do with refugees. It’s been somewhat surprising to see European governments that in some cases came to power on the basis of their xenophobia toward asylum seekers from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa announce an open door policy for asylum seekers from Ukraine. It’s been less surprising to see that open door policy implemented somewhat differently for Ukrainian refugees of color.
If you’re looking for any long-term repercussions to emerge from the Ukraine invasion, besides whatever the ultimate outcome is for Ukraine, I think Sunday may have brought a fairly momentous one:
It took an invasion of a sovereign country nearby, threats of nuclear attack, images of civilians facing off against Russian tanks and a spate of shaming from allies for Germany to shake its decades-long faith in a military-averse foreign policy that was born of the crimes of the Third Reich.
But once Chancellor Olaf Scholz decided to act, the country’s about-face was swift.
“Feb. 24, 2022, marks a historic turning point in the history of our continent,” Mr. Scholz said in an address to a special session of Parliament on Sunday, citing the date when President Vladimir V. Putin ordered Russian forces to launch an unprovoked attack on Ukraine.
He announced that Germany would increase its military spending to more than 2 percent of the country’s economic output, beginning immediately with a one-off 100 billion euros, or $113 billion, to invest in the country’s woefully underequipped armed forces. He added that Germany would speed up construction of two terminals for receiving liquefied natural gas, or LNG, part of efforts to ease the country’s reliance on Russian energy.
The repercussions of this decision could be profound. German rearmament on this scale could unbalance the NATO alliance and have serious implications for efforts to bolster a collective European defense forces that is independent from the United States. It immediately puts Germany on a path to supplant France as Europe’s clear (leaving the Brexited UK aside) military power. And of course it’s a tremendous gift to German arms manufacturers.
French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to finally announce his reelection campaign this week, just ahead of the March 4 filing deadline. Macron may be able to use the Ukraine invasion to his political advantage, as both of his right-wing extremist challengers, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, have taken what could be regarded as pro-Putin stances in the past and will now have to explain themselves. Most polling has one of the two of them finishing as runner up to Macron in April’s first round and then has Macron beating either fairly handily in the runoff.
Finally, at Jacobin, Michael Franczak looks at the US military’s newly stated commitment to reducing carbon emissions and the blinkered history on which that commitment rests:
Two weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that the US Army had just released its “first ever climate strategy.” Generals and other strategists have argued for years that climate change will act as a “threat multiplier,” worsening violent conflict within and between countries, and the Pentagon, National Security Council, and CIA detailed the latest implications in a series of reports last October.
Now, we’re told, the Pentagon is serious about reducing its own substantial carbon footprint — which, the Post explains, makes up 56 percent of the federal government’s emissions and 52 percent of its electricity use. How serious? Their “ambitious goals” include:
Carbon-free electricity for installations by 2030. Net zero emissions from Army installations by 2045. An increasingly electrified vehicle fleet, including developing electric tactical vehicles — the ones that actually drive out into combat — by 2050. Microgrid installations on all Army posts by 2035, paving the way for increased renewable energy. Thinking more about climate issues when making decisions about how the Army manages its vast land holdings.
Left out of the Post article and US Army press release is a key bit of context: the global scale of the US Army’s current carbon footprint. According to political scientist Neta Crawford, codirector of Brown University’s Costs of War project, the Department of Defense is the world’s largest institutional user of petroleum and its single largest institutional producer of greenhouse gases. The Pentagon produces more emissions than entire developed countries such as Sweden, Denmark, and Portugal. For the last forty years, its entire military strategy was premised on protecting access to Persian Gulf oil — as in so many other cases, helping to create the enemy it now fights.