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World roundup: June 23-25 2023
Stories from China, Sudan, Russia, and elsewhere
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THIS WEEKEND IN HISTORY
June 23, 1757: A British East India Company army defeats a combined Bengali-French army at the Battle of Palashi (Plassey). EIC officials managed to turn Mir Jafar, the field commander of the Bengali army, by promising to elevate him to the Bengali throne, which proved key to securing victory despite being heavily outnumbered. After the battle the British commander, Robert Clive, installed Mir Jafar in place of the ousted Siraj ud-Daulah as the Nawab of Bengal and effectively annexed Bengal into the East India Company’s territory. Plassey thus became one of the key battles in establishing British control over the Indian subcontinent.
June 24, 1812: Napoleon leads his Grande Armée into Russia. Despite capturing Moscow in September, this was easily Napoleon’s greatest military catastrophe. The Russian army simply stayed out of Napoleon’s way until he was forced to withdraw, at which point his army ran smack into a Russian winter for which they were evidently unprepared. Estimates of the size of Napoleon’s army and thus of the scale of the catastrophe vary, but they range from around 450,000 men to around 685,000, with estimates of the number of who returned from the expedition ranging from an optimistic 120,000 to as low as 70,000. The disaster was not the end of Napoleon’s empire, but it was a big step on the road toward its end.
June 24, 1932: A joint civilian-military junta led by the People’s Party forces Siamese King Prajadhipok to adopt constitutional reforms. The coup, known as the “Siamese Revolution,” is one of the seminal events in the history of modern Thailand, as it replaced the country’s centuries-old absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy. The legacy of the coup continues to be debated to the present day, with some arguing that the transition to constitutional monarchy would have happened anyway.
June 24, 1948: Soviet authorities blockade the western portion of Berlin, setting off one of the most serious crises of the Cold War. Two days later, the US, UK, and others launched the Berlin Airlift to keep the city supplied, and the Soviets lifted the blockade in May 1949.
June 25, 1950: The Korean War begins with, by most accounts, a North Korean invasion of South Korea, although the Korean People’s Army claimed that South Korean forces invaded their territory first. There was already a North Korean-supported insurgency in South Korea, and conflicts at the Korean border had been going on almost since the Allies liberated and partitioned the peninsula in 1945, but the US decision to intervene two days later makes the June 25 incident stand out as the “official” start of the conflict. The war still hasn’t technically ended, but the fighting stopped in 1953 in a stalemate after two failed North Korean/Chinese invasions of South Korea sandwiched around one failed South Korean/US invasion of North Korea.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Russian airstrikes killed at least 13 people in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province on Sunday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Nine of them were civilians, another 30 of whom were wounded in the attacks. These airstrikes may have been conducted in response to a number of rebel drone attacks on government-held areas over the past few days, in which the SOHR says four civilians were killed.
On a more positive note, a United Nations convoy brought humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas of northwestern Syria via government-held territory on Friday. This was the first convoy of its kind since January and thus the first since that region was devastated by February’s earthquake disaster. Most humanitarian relief in northwestern Syria comes via corridors opened from Turkey, but the Russian government is constantly threatening to use its UN Security Council veto to shut down that cross-border operation and force all aid to be channeled through the Syrian government.
In a similar vein, an aid group calling itself the “Syrian Emergency Task Force” has managed to bring a relief shipment to the Rukban displaced persons camp in southern Syria. That facility is located in a no man’s land around the US military base at Tanf, which lies outside the Syrian government’s reach. The US government has been steadfastly unwilling to take responsibility for aiding Rukban’s residents, who numbered in the tens of thousands at one point but are down to around 8000 today as most left for lack of food and other basic necessities. The aid group was able to capitalize on the Denton Program, a US military initiative that allows private humanitarian organizations to hitch a ride on US military transports, after the Pentagon agreed to add Syria to a list of allowed countries.
Israeli occupation forces killed a 17 year old Palestinian militant after he reportedly fired on a West Bank military checkpoint just north of Jerusalem on Saturday. Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade claimed the militant as one of their fighters.
The annual Hajj began in Mecca on Sunday, so best wishes to all of the attendees. This pilgrimage is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. It is the first Hajj conducted without a cap on the number of pilgrims since the onset of COVID back in 2020. Saudi authorities have gradually ramped back up from just 10,000 that year to 59,000 in 2021 and 1 million last year. Expectations were that this Hajj would exceed 2.5 million pilgrims, which would make it the largest in history. The other major issue surrounding this Hajj is the heat. The dates for the Hajj float annually due to the divergence between the Islamic lunar year and the solar year, and needless to say late June in climate change and El Niño-enhanced Saudi heat is no small thing. Daytime temperatures are expected to remain north of 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) for the duration of the Hajj and subsequent Eid al-Adha celebration. The Saudis say they have thousands of medical personnel on standby.
According to the Pakistani army, Indian security forces opened fire on “a group of shepherds” along the Line of Control that separates Indian and Pakistani Kashmir on Saturday, killing two of them. Indian and Pakistani forces are still bound by a 2021 ceasefire along the LoC and it’s unclear what prompted Saturday’s shooting. Indian authorities haven’t commented to my knowledge.
Elsewhere, Islamic State claimed responsibility for an overnight shooting in Peshawar in which one Sikh individual was killed. This makes three Pakistani Sikhs killed so far this year in what seem to be intentional attacks. It’s probably safe to speculate that IS was responsible for the other two as well.
On Friday, the US government confirmed that its ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, had been summoned by the Chinese Foreign Ministry and issued a formal reprimand over Joe Biden’s insulting comments regarding Chinese President Xi Jinping at a Tuesday fundraiser. Publicly the Biden administration says it hasn’t seen any substantive reaction to those comments from Beijing, but according to CNN anonymous “US officials” have privately expressed concerns about the effect they might have on US-Chinese relations.
A newly declassified report from the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence finds “no direct evidence” supporting the COVID “lab leak” theory, which posits that the pandemic emerged accidentally (or otherwise) out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology rather than via a natural vector. This doesn’t rule out that theory, and indeed the report says the intelligence community is still “unable to determine the precise origin” of the pandemic.
The Rapid Support Forces unit claimed on Sunday that its fighters had seized control of a Central Reserve Police base in southern Khartoum, capturing a number of vehicles and sizable amount of ammunition in the process. The RSF has consistently outperformed the Sudanese military on the ground, possibly because its fighters have actual combat experience whereas most Sudanese soldiers do not, and the military has been unable to use its advantages in air and artillery power to counter RSF advances. Fighting in the three city “capital area” (Khartoum plus Bahri and Omdurman) has been particularly heavy since the expiration of the conflict’s most recent ceasefire on Wednesday morning. Fighting is also raging across Darfur between RSF and Arab tribal forces on one side and non-Arab militias on the other. At least 12 civilians were reportedly killed over the weekend in the city of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur state, amid reports of heavy clashes.
Election officials are counting votes following Saturday’s general election in Sierra Leone. Results may be available as soon as Monday, but already there have been complaints from opposition leaders about a lack of transparency in the tallying process. Incumbent Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party is standing for reelection against 11 challengers, chief among them Samura Kamara of the All Peoples Congress party, in the presidential race. Those two faced off in 2018, with Bio winning a relatively slim runoff victory. Kamara is among those alleging shenanigans in the vote count, which may mean he’s planning to mount a challenge if he loses. On the parliamentary side, Bio has instituted a new proportional election system in place of the previous first-past-the-post format along with a very high (12 percent) minimum threshold for seating in the legislature. This should favor large establishment parties over smaller rivals.
UPDATE: APC officials are accusing Sierra Leonean security forces of attacking their party headquarters in Freetown, as well as a crowd of supporters gathered outside, on Sunday night. There definitely appears to have been some sort of violent clash outside the party office, though claims that security forces fired live ammunition into the crowd are unconfirmed. There’s no word on casualties to my knowledge and there’s been no comment from Sierra Leonean authorities.
Malian election authorities announced on Friday that 97 percent of voters had approved a package of constitutional changes in last Sunday’s referendum. Turnout was a meager, but not entirely embarrassing, 39.4 percent. The amendments would, among other things, strengthen the office of the Malian presidency, most likely paving the way for current junta leader Assimi Goïta to seamlessly assume that office when said junta gives way to a nominally civilian government next year.
Islamist militants are believed to have been responsible for killing eight farmers and abducting ten other people in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state on Thursday. There’s no indication as to whether these were Boko Haram or Islamic State West Africa Province fighters.
Al-Shabab militants from Somalia are believed to have been responsible for killing five people in eastern Kenya’s Lamu county on Saturday. The attackers struck two villages, looting homes for food in the process. Lamu is located close to the Somali border and has seen a number of al-Shabab attacks over the past several years.
I’m not sure how much more there is to say about Saturday’s brief revolt by members of Russia’s Wagner Group private military company, led by their boss Yevgeny Prigozhin. As I noted yesterday, with about 5000 of his mercenaries situated some 200 kilometers outside of Moscow, Prigozhin abruptly agreed to pack up and go into what looks like exile in Belarus. The bulk of his fighters left the city of Rostov-on-Don, where earlier in the day they’d occupied Russia’s Southern Military District offices, and returned to their encampments. In return, based on what the Russian government has said publicly so far, criminal charges that had been opened against Prigozhin were dropped and Wagner fighters who participated in the mini-insurrection have been assured they will not be prosecuted.
My thinking yesterday was that there had to be more to this agreement that wasn’t being made public and I still believe that, though with a bit more time to consider how things unfolded I also think it’s very possible Prigozhin found himself in over his head and panicked. It’s still unclear what he thought seizing a Russian city and marching on Moscow would achieve, but if he was hoping either to force Vladimir Putin to fire Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and/or military chief of staff Valery Gerasimov (with whom Prigozhin has been feuding for months) or to win over disaffected elements of the Russian security establishment to his cause, he came up empty on both counts. Approaching a real point of no return outside Moscow, Prigozhin may have leapt at whatever deal Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko offered during their phone chat. Again, though, there may have been some sweetener involved that hasn’t been publicly announced, perhaps a payout for Prigozhin or some promise of future goodies.
A lot of questions are swirling about What It All Means, if it means anything, and nobody will know the answers to those questions for some time to come. Shoigu and/or Gerasimov could still wind up being fired, though Putin would look weak if he removed either now so they’re probably safe for the time being. The Wagner Group seems like it will be dissolved, but how is Moscow going to transition its global operations? Prigozhin had been refusing to sign a contract with the defense ministry, which may have threatened Wagner’s future anyway and almost certainly contributed to his uprising. US intelligence agencies apparently assessed several days ago that tension over the contract, along with Prigozhin’s other beefs with Russian military leadership, were heading toward some sort of crisis. My point is that it’s possible the Russians were already planning to move on from Wagner before this weekend’s events.
Then there are the Big Picture thinkpieces wondering, or in some cases wishcasting, about the uprising having dealt a fatal blow to Putin’s rule. I would suggest that anyone engaging in that sort of talk is getting way out ahead of events and, additionally, should consider the potential ramifications of serious political instability in the country with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
There’s little indication that the Wagner dust-up has impacted Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. The Russian military kept up a steady bombardment of Ukrainian cities over the weekend for one thing, and for another there’s seemingly been no major progress by the Ukrainian military in its grand counteroffensive. Indeed, the counteroffensive’s overall lack of progress is becoming harder to dismiss, with even “two western officials and a senior US military official” indicating to CNN on Friday that the effort is “not meeting expectations on any front.” The combination of well-established Russian defensive positions and Russia’s air superiority appears to be more challenging than the Ukrainians expected. In fairness, nobody seems ready to declare the counteroffensive a failure, and the Ukrainians insist the main thrust of the operation still hasn’t begun.
As expected, the conservative New Democracy Party won an overwhelming victory in Sunday’s snap parliamentary election, taking 40.5 percent of vote to finish well clear of second-place Syriza at 18 percent. New Democracy won with a similar margin in last month’s parliamentary election, but because of the rules under which that election was contested its vote total did not translate into an outright majority of legislative seats. This time around, under different rules crafted to favor larger parties, New Democracy should finish with around 158 seats in the 300 seat parliament. The victory means that “former” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who by law had to step down after the May vote in order to force this snap election, will resume that post.
Guatemalan voters headed to the polls on Sunday for a general election. Votes are still being counted but all indications are they’ll be headed back to the polls in August for a runoff in the presidential race, between former First Lady Sandra Torres and…somebody, most likely either diplomat Edmond Mulet or former congressperson Zury Ríos. Torres may struggle to defeat either head-to-head.
With heavy rains expected to help replenish the drought-stricken Panama Canal, Panamanian authorities have decided to hold off on imposing new depth restrictions on shipping vessels entering the channel. Those restrictions could be revisited if water levels in the canal start dropping again.
Finally, writing for The New York Times, Stephen Wertheim questions the logic behind the push to bring Ukraine into NATO:
Sometimes the stories we tell to win the war help us lose the peace. After the 9/11 attacks, the United States decided the Taliban government in Afghanistan was as culpable as the Qaeda terrorists who struck America. It then spent 20 years trying to keep the Taliban entirely out of power, only to cede the whole country to them.
The story we are telling ourselves today about the war in Ukraine runs its own risk. Since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the debate in Western capitals about the origins of the conflict settled on one leading cause: Russia took up arms exclusively out of aggressive and imperialistic drives, and Western policies, including the yearslong expansion of NATO, were beside the point.
When NATO weighs Ukraine’s prospects for membership at its summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, next month, it must recognize that the war has more complex causes than this popular narrative suggests. Without question, Russia is committing horrific, inexcusable aggression against Ukraine, and imperialist attitudes in Moscow run deep. But partly because of those attitudes, Russia’s leaders are also reacting to NATO’s expansion. Folding Ukraine into the alliance won’t end that impulse, even with U.S. backing and the nuclear guarantee it brings. Ukraine’s best path to peace is to be well armed and supported outside NATO.
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