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World roundup: January 13 2022
Stories from China, Mali, El Salvador, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 12, 1945: The Soviet Red Army begins its Vistula–Oder Offensive, a massive push into Poland involving over 2.2 million soldiers. The operation ended on February 2 with the defeat of German Army Group A, the successful conquest of most of Poland, and the liberation of several Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Although at one point Soviet forces had advanced close to Berlin with little or no remaining German defenses between them and the city, Marshal Georgy Zhukov opted to halt the advance and shore up his flanks against German attack, buying the Germans a bit more time to, shall we say, put their affairs in order.
January 12, 1970: “Operation Tail-Wind” ends with the surrender of the separatist Biafran army, bringing the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War (or the “Biafran War” if you like) to a close. Biafran rebel leader Odumegwu Ojukwu fled into exile on January 9 and the remaining leaders of the would-be country formally surrendered to Nigerian authorities on January 15.
January 13, 532: The Nika Riots (think soccer riot on steroids) begin in Constantinople. Basically, two factions (or demes) of chariot racing fans, the Greens and the Blues, both frustrated over taxation, corruption, and recent crackdowns on their hooliganism by the authorities, rioted during that day’s chariot races in the Hippodrome. Over the next week the mob seized control of the city, crowned its own “emperor” named Hypatius (against his wishes, it seems), and nearly put the real emperor, Justinian I, to flight. A few of Justinian’s military officers were able to slip out of the city and bring their soldiers back with them, while the emperor offered leaders in the Blue faction a hefty bribe to abandon the Greens (most of them seem to have done so). The soldiers arrived and began killing anyone who remained in the Hippodrome, mostly Greens and those Blues who hadn’t left. The Byzantine historian Procopius says that the army massacred some 30,000 people. That figure is on the high end of modern estimates, but there’s no question that many people were killed. When the dust cleared, Justinian was back in unquestioned control of the city.
January 13, 1951: A French army is able to win a decisive victory over a larger Việt Minh force in the Battle of Vĩnh Yên. The battle ended a several months-long string of victories by the Việt Minh and helped extend the First Indochina War all the way into 1954.
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 International Maritime Bureau’s 2021 annual report, the incidence of piracy reached its lowest level since 1994 last year. A mere 132 pirate attacks were reported worldwide, down significantly from the 195 such attacks the IMB recorded in 2020 and the 162 it recorded in 2019. The decline seems to have been driven by a particularly sharp decline in incidents in the Gulf of Guinea, which has overtaken the Gulf of Aden as the global piracy hot spot but only saw 34 attacks last year, compared with 81 in 2020. That puts it behind the Singapore Strait, which saw a significant increase in attacks to put it at 35 for the year.
At series of bombings in Turkish-held northwestern Syria left at least three people dead on Thursday, two of them suspected bombers. An apparent IED in the city of Azaz killed one civilian, while the two suicide bombings took place in al-Bab and Afrin. Those blasts appear only to have killed the attackers, though three people were reportedly wounded in the al-Bab bombing. It’s likely the Kurdish YPG militia was responsible for all three attacks, though Islamic State can’t be ruled out.
Speak of the devil, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that Russian airstrikes on a sparsely-populated stretch of eastern Syria killed at least 11 IS fighters and wounded 20 others on Thursday. These strikes were apparently conducted in retaliation for two IS attack on Wednesday, one that killed at least five pro-government militia fighters in al-Bukamal and another that killed at least three pro-government fighters in another part of Deir Ezzor province.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan welcomed a group of European Union ambassadors to Ankara on Thursday and treated them to two of his classic routines, “the EU isn’t doing enough to help us manage the refugee situation” and “the EU isn’t doing enough to improve our mutual relationship.” On the former Erdoğan has a point, given that the EU shamelessly outsourced its refugee policy to Turkey in 2016 and has never bothered to come up with a more sustainable (or responsible) approach to the issue. As to the latter complaint, Erdoğan is just as responsible as the EU for the lousy state of their ties, and given how often he appeals to nationalist panic about Turkey’s foreign persecutors in order to score domestic political points, I suspect he’s perfectly happy to keep that relationship tense.
Somebody fired four rockets at the US embassy in Baghdad on Thursday, triggering the facility’s C-RAM (Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar) system. According to Iraqi officials three of the rockets landed on embassy grounds to no apparent effect, while the fourth struck a school in a residential area nearby. Three people, one woman and two children, were wounded amid all of this, probably by that fourth rocket though those same Iraqi officials didn’t go into any detail about the casualties. There’s little question that this attack was carried out by someone within the Iraqi militia community, though as in the case of those attacks in Syria (see above), IS can’t be completely ruled out.
Whatever minimal progress Iraq’s parliament had made in its new term were put on ice on Thursday, when Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court suspended Mohamed al-Halbousi’s reelection as speaker. Halbousi won a second term as speaker in Sunday’s initial parliamentary session, in what was viewed (and may still be) a victory for Muqtada al-Sadr’s parliamentary bloc. The vote was taken without the presence of MP Mahmud al-Mashhadani, who as the oldest member of the Iraqi parliament was supposed to preside over the speaker vote. He suffered some sort of health incident on the floor and had to be taken to the hospital, but the body decided to hold its speaker election anyway. Mashhadani and another MP have challenged the legitimacy of Halbousi’s election on those grounds. Thurday’s ruling is only temporary while the court considers that challenge.
Major Lebanese unions called a general strike on Thursday over the elimination of fuel subsidies and the general decaying state of the Lebanese economy. The effort appears to have had mixed results. Public transit unions participated in the strike, and when protesters began blocking major roads and highways it apparently generated a substantial amount of gridlock, particularly in Beirut. On the other hand, the 12 hour demonstrations that were meant to accompany the strike seem in general to have been poorly attended, and most broke up well before their scheduled end.
Two Israeli military officers were shot and killed in a friendly fire incident overnight. Israeli occupation forces apparently held a nighttime drill at an outpost in the Jordan Valley, after which these two officers observed a “suspicious” person and fired warning shots to chase that person away. Other Israeli personnel nearby took those warning shots to be an attack by Palestinian militants and opened fire.
Israel’s tenuous governing coalition is suddenly facing an internal threat over recent Bedouin protests in the Negev desert. Israeli nationalists have been undertaking a project to plant trees in the Negev, which sounds neat except insofar as it’s a pretty direct challenge to the livelihoods of the aforementioned desert dwelling Bedouin. They’ve been protesting what they view as an act of displacement, and naturally Israeli security forces have sided with the nationalists and have used heavy-handed tactics to suppress those demonstrations, which admittedly seem to have turned violent at times. Leftists or center-leftists in the coalition are opposed to the tree planting while Mansour Abbas’s United Arab List not only sympathizes with the Bedouin, it depends on their support politically. Meanwhile the right wing elements of the coalition, like Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, are of course supporting the tree planters. Centrist elements in the coalition, led by Foreign Minister/alternate PM Yair Lapid, are trying to hold things together, but according to Al-Monitor’s Mazal Mualem the dysfunction is benefiting ex-PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s poll numbers while testing the coalition’s cohesion.
The Biden administration has cleared the South Korean government to pay over $61 million to Iran’s Dayyani Group, a settlement in a breach of contract dispute, without violating US sanctions. Dayyani made a $50 million deposit in South Korea ahead of an effort to purchase majority control of South Korea’s Daewoo Electronics company. That bid failed, but apparently Dayyani never got its deposit back. In 2018 the World Bank ruled that South Korea owed Dayyani $61.4 million, but US sanctions have prevented the South Koreans from making the payment. The actual amount of the South Korean payment could be higher now—it’s not clear to me whether they’ll be obliged to pay interest because of the three-plus year delay.
Iranian media is reporting that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ space program successfully launched a solid-fueled rocket into space last week. I don’t know how much credence to give this claim, but if true it could have military implications. Solid fuel is more often associated with weapons than with space launches, because its stability allows ballistic missiles to be stored fully fueled and ready to launch, which minimizes preparation time and the chance of preemptive attacks. There’s really no need to use solid fuel in the case of a space launch, unless you’re interested in testing it for potential military use.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Thursday that the forces it sent to Kazakhstan last week as part of a Collective Security Treaty Organization peacekeeping force are preparing to return home. Perhaps to mark the occasion, Almaty airport—one of the facilities those peacekeepers helped secure during last week’s protests—resumed operation on Thursday morning. Kazakh authorities continue to carry out mass arrests connected with the protests, reporting almost 2000 more detentions on Thursday. That would bring the total number of people arrested so far to well over 13,000 and perhaps close to 14,000.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the events of the past couple of weeks have caused US companies to reexamine their considerable investments in Kazakhstan, whose mineral wealth in particular has made it an attractive target for American cash. The speed with which last week’s protests spread and the issues they spotlighted (high levels of inequality and corruption) have raised concerns about security and long-term stability. We’ll see how things play out, but I doubt this incident is going to spark a major investor flight. That mineral wealth is still mighty appealing, and the US government has geostrategic reasons to encourage American companies to maintain their presence in Kazakhstan, lest they leave a vacuum that would inevitably be filled by Chinese and/or Russian alternatives.
The US State Department issued a report on Wednesday that sought to poke holes in the Chinese government’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea. The report characterizes those Chinese claims as lacking “a legal justification.” In fairness, this position is supported by international law, at least according to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which ruled in favor of the Philippine government in a 2016 case in which it determined that China’s claims were not consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Of course, any time the United States invokes “international law” it has to contend with the fact that Washington has always taken what could most charitably be described as a selective approach to its application. The Chinese government criticized the report on Thursday, arguing that its claims are in fact supported by international law. But ultimately Beijing’s position with respect to the South China Sea is that great powers can do what they want, which is a position the United States regularly takes as well.
Another round of anti-junta protests turned violent on Thursday, as a group of protesters—I think it may be fair to call them “rioters” in this instance—reportedly stabbed a Sudanese police officer to death. This is the first instance of a member of Sudan’s security forces being killed since October’s coup ousted the civilian transitional government and restored political power exclusively to the military. At least 63 civilian protesters have been killed in that time and hundreds more wounded. The UN is attempting to broker talks between protest organizers and the junta to try to put Sudan back on the path to a political transition, but one of the main organizers, the Sudanese Professionals Association, is refusing to take part and calling for an immediate shift to civilian governance.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced Thursday that the EU will impose sanctions on Mali’s ruling junta that mirror those imposed by the Economic Community of West African States over the weekend. The French government is especially keen to punish the junta, both for its decision to delay Mali’s political transition to as late as 2026 and for its decision to hire Russia’s Wagner Group private military contractor to help it battle Islamist militants.
Writing for Responsible Statecraft, FX’s Alex Thurston suggests that junta leader Assimi Goita and his prime minister, Choguel Maiga, may feel like they can outlast and outmaneuver both ECOWAS and the EU. By laying out such an extended alternative transition timeline, the junta has left itself a lot of room to compromise with ECOWAS even as the West African bloc gives up on its demand that the junta hold elections next month. And the junta may be willing to give up its ties to Wagner/Russia in exchange for the EU agreeing to buzz off. In the meantime, though, ECOWAS’s broad sanctions are likely to hurt the Malian people more than they hurt the junta.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov suggested in comments to the TASS news agency on Thursday that talks between Moscow and the West had hit a “dead end” and that he saw no point in continuing them. This was while the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Permanent Council was holding its first 2022 meeting in Vienna, a session that was supposed to be the third bite at this proverbial apple following bilateral US-Russia talks on Monday and a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on Wednesday. Suffice to say nothing of note happened at the OSCE meeting either.
What does that mean? Beats me! Maybe nothing. On the other hand, maybe Russia will invade Ukraine now, though the Russians keep denying any intention to do so and even the Biden administration isn’t ready to say that such an invasion is imminent, though that hasn’t stopped them from hyping it. Instead they say they’re formulating some unspecified “military-technical” response to NATO’s refusal to meet their demands, mostly around blocking any future NATO expansion. Ryabkov hinted at the possibility of Russia sending military aid to countries in Washington’s “near abroad,” like Cuba and Venezuela, akin to the US arming Ukraine, though US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan dismissed that talk as “bluster.”
While noting the absurdity that this crisis has emerged over the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, a scenario that is extraordinarily farfetched at present even without Russian threats, Quincy’s Anatol Lieven argues that this week’s diplomacy has made a war more, rather than less, likely. However, he contends that there are still moves that the US and European states can make to try to forestall a conflict, though time may be running out:
There is still a chance that U.S. flexibility in two other areas can avert Russian military action. The first is NATO commitment to deploy no new forces in NATO countries close to Russia’s borders, in return for Russian limits on new deployments and the stand-down of the troops now deployed on Ukraine’s borders.
The second is genuine U.S. and Western support for the Minsk II agreement on autonomy for a demilitarized Donbas region within Ukraine, and real pressure on the Ukrainian government to concede this. Donbas autonomy within Ukraine would be a serious barrier both to Ukraine seeking NATO membership, and to the development of a mono-ethnic Ukraine, and would therefore indirectly meet Russia’s key concerns.
The United States however now needs to move very fast to offer these compromises. If it does not, then a new war looks increasingly possible. This war would be a disaster for all parties concerned: for NATO, whose military impotence would be cruelly emphasised; for Russia, that would suffer severe economic damage and be forced into a position of dependency on China with grave implications for Russia’s future; and above all for the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who would lose their lives. In fact, the only country that would benefit unequivocally from such a war would be China —and I wasn’t aware that U.S. and NATO policies are designed to further the geopolitical aims of Beijing.
UN and EU officials dinged the governments of Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland on Thursday for their mistreatment of asylum seekers. During last year’s border tensions with Belarus, when the EU was accusing Minsk of deliberately bringing migrants in from regions like North Africa and the Middle East and then marching them to the border in retaliation for EU sanctions, these three governments used internationally outlawed tactics like “pushback” to keep those migrants out. As the name implies, “pushback” means literally forcing migrants who have crossed the border to go back whence they came, denying them their legal right to claim asylum.
All three states are further accused of denying aid groups access to their border areas. Although the flow of would-be migrants has declined significantly since the Belarus and the EU reached an accord over the winter, there are still hundreds of migrants stranded in those border areas who are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Despite all of these allegations, there’s virtually no chance the EU will actually take disciplinary action against any of the countries in question.
New Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala and his cabinet received their official parliamentary confirmation on Thursday. Fiala and his coalition partners won 108 seats in the 200 seat Chamber of Deputies, so this vote was not in question. Given Fiala’s austerity-heavy economic agenda, however, his long-term future as PM probably is in question.
US diplomatic personnel in Geneva and Paris are the latest victims of “Havana Syndrome,” the vague array of symptoms that may or may not actually constitute a real disorder but which are definitely—at least as far as the US government is concerned—caused by an unknown and possibly fictional energy weapon developed by one or more of America’s evildoing adversaries. At least three cases of the hypothetical condition have reportedly been diagnosed (well, sort of) in Geneva and one in Paris. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked Thursday that the US government still doesn’t really know what or who is causing “Havana Syndrome,” which in another context might cause one to wonder whether “Havana Syndrome” actually exists at all. But not, apparently, in this context.
Two more new polls have the Socialist Party winning Portugal’s January 30 snap election but falling short of a majority. One survey, from the pollster Pitagorica, is actually somewhat favorable for the Socialists because it shows them at 39.6 percent support, which translates into winning between 42 and 45 percent of the seats in the next parliament. Under those conditions it’s possible the party will only need one parliamentary ally, rather than the two (the Communist Party and the Left Bloc) it needed in the previous session. The other survey, from Intercampus, is much less favorable as it puts the Socialists at only 29 percent support. In that case they’d likely need the support of both parties again. Left Bloc and the Communists opposed Prime Minister António Costa’s proposed 2022 budget when it came to a vote in October, forcing this snap vote. If Costa emerges from this election still needing their support, then this whole exercise will have achieved basically nothing.
Citing unspecified documents from Venezuela’s state oil firm, PDVSA, along with data from Refinitiv Eikon, which tracks tanker traffic, Reuters is reporting that the Venezuelan government has increased its shipments of fuel and food to Cuba over the past year. Caracas has long exported oil products to Cuba—solidarity among countries under US sanctions, I guess—but it cut back on those exports in 2020 because its domestic production capacity was in decline due to lack of maintenance at PDVSA’s refineries. This left Cuba in fairly dire need of fuel. But the timely arrival of refinery parts from Iran—solidarity again—has allowed Venezuela to boost production and therefore to increase exports to Cuba again.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Thursday that it’s confirmed the killings of 78 human rights activists in Colombia last year, a figure that probably understates the extent of the problem. The UNOHCHR received 202 reports of activist murders in 2021 and has had to discard 85 of those as “inconclusive.” It’s still investigating 39 claims. Activists—human rights, environmental, indigenous rights, and so forth—are frequently targeted for violence in Colombia. President Iván Duque’s government blames gangs, right-wing militias, and leftist rebels for these attacks, mostly to deflect from its own apparent disinterest in protecting these people or investigating their murders.
The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and the non-profit group Access Now have confirmed that dozens of Salvadoran journalists and civil society organizations have been targets of surveillance using the Israeli NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. There’s no evidence directly linking these hacks to Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele or his government. But the hacks just so happen to coincide with a broad investigation into the Bukele government’s potentially illicit interactions with Salvadoran criminal gangs, so you don’t need to be Hercule Poirot to puzzle out what happened here.
Finally, at Inkstick, William Hartung looks at the effect that the expansion of private military contractors has had on the American ability—and willingness—to wage war:
The issue of waste in America’s endless wars should certainly not be ignored, given its immense costs to taxpayers. As early as 2011 — ten years into the Afghan war — the congressionally-mandated Commission on Wartime Contracting estimated that there had already been between $31 billion and $60 billion in waste related to contracting in the two war zones. There has been no comparable analysis since, but it’s safe to say that there have been tens of billions more in waste — including criminal fraud — in the most recent ten years of war. The Special Investigator General for Afghan Reconstruction has produced scores of reports documenting waste in Afghanistan, even as it has helped convict 160 companies and individuals of fraud and saved taxpayers $3.8 billion in the process.
All of this occurred in the context of the record surge in Pentagon spending that accompanied and was publicly justified by what was originally known as the Global War on Terror. As I noted in a joint report of the Center for International Policy and the Brown Costs of War Project published in September 2021, the post-9/11 surge in Pentagon spending resulted in $14 trillion in Pentagon spending from 2001 to 2020, up to half of which went to contractors. Among the report’s findings were that the biggest beneficiaries by far were the top five weapons contractors, namely Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman. These five companies alone have split $2.1 trillion in contracts since 2001. To give some sense of scale, Lockheed Martin alone received $75 billion in Pentagon contracts in 2020, which was more than one and one-half times the combined budgets of the State Department and the Agency for International Development. If the Biden administration is truly to put diplomacy first, this extreme militarization of our budget must be corrected.
So, war and preparations for war are big business, on an almost unimaginable scale. But the use of contractors has an even more pernicious effect: It makes war more likely and makes it easier to extend wars long beyond the point at which they should have been ended. In short, the use of private contractors enables war.