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World roundup: March 1 2022
Stories from Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
February 28, 202 BCE: Former rebel leader Liu Bang is crowned Emperor Gaozu, ending the Chu-Han war and marking the start of the Han Dynasty. The Han ruled China until 220 CE, except for a brief interlude during the years 9-23 CE.
February 28, 1991: US President George H. W. Bush declares that Iraqi forces have withdrawn from Kuwait and announces a ceasefire. Bush’s announcement marked the end of the Gulf War but was only the start of the US obsession with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
March 1, 1811: The Massacre at the Citadel
March 1, 1896: An Ethiopian army under Emperor Menelik II defeats an Italian army under Oreste Baratieri, the governor of Italian Eritrea. Their defeat forced the Italians and their local allies to retreat to Eritrea and brought the First Italo-Ethiopian War to an end with an Ethiopian victory. The Italians would, of course, be back a few decades later.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
At least two Syrian soldiers and two members of a “military council” affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces militia were killed in some sort of confrontation near the town of Tal Tamr in Hasakah province on Tuesday. Syrian media is claiming that a joint US-SDF patrol attempted to enter an area controlled by government forces and at some point the SDF fighters attacked the Syrian soldiers for some unspecified reason. Clashes between government forces and the SDF in northeastern Syria are rare but they do happen from time to time.
The Turkish government’s decision to invoke its power to close the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits to warships may have greater repercussions for Russian military activity in Syria than in Ukraine. As we’ve noted, Turkey is not legally permitted to block Russian ships from “returning to base,” so if Moscow wants to move naval assets into the Black Sea it may just need to designate those assets as part of its Black Sea fleet. Less ambiguous is what this means for Russian assets that are already in the Black Sea, which should be barred from sailing into the Mediterranean. Which means they won’t be able to get to Syria.
The Iraqi military says it conducted airstrikes in Anbar province on Tuesday that killed at least three Islamic State fighters.
Israeli occupation forces killed at least three Palestinians in two incidents in the West Bank on Tuesday. The first, an overnight raid of a displacement camp in Jenin, we already mentioned yesterday. One person was killed immediately in that incident while a second later succumbed to his wounds. The third was killed in a shooting in the town of Beit Fajjar, just south of Bethlehem. The circumstances of that second shooting are unclear.
Kazakhstan’s ruling Nur Otan (“Light of the Fatherland”) party is changing its name to Amanat (“Legacy”). There’s no obvious reason for this but it may be related to the continuing effort to excise former President Nursultan Nazarbayev from public life. The party was founded to support Nazarbayev in his 1999 reelection campaign and is, or was, partially named for him (Nur Otan, Nursultan). Nazarbayev liked to stick the word “nur” on lots of things during his time in power, and after his retirement the Kazakh capital, Astana, was renamed Nur-Sultan in his honor. That might be the next domino to fall in this process.
In a tweet on Tuesday, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid wrote that “our countrymen who have legal documents and invitation can travel abroad.” This otherwise innocuous statement contradicts a previous statement by Mujahid declaring that the Taliban were banning all evacuations of Afghan nationals, ostensibly over poor living conditions being experienced by those who have already evacuated and are now mostly in squalid facilities in Qatar and Turkey. That announcement received a poor reception in the West amid hints that it could affect the Taliban’s ability to gain sanctions relief. Mujahid had also announced that the Taliban would bar women from traveling without a male guardian. It’s unclear whether the Taliban meant to walk that back as well.
Meanwhile the World Bank’s executive board voted Tuesday to free up some $1 billion in frozen funds that had been earmarked for Afghan reconstruction projects for use in financing Afghan relief efforts. Donors to the reconstruction fund will be asked to allocate a first tranche of around $600 million to fund four projects in areas like agriculture, education, and public health.
The Philippine military attacked a camp belonging to the Islamic State-affiliated Dawlah Islamiya group in Lanao del Sur province on Tuesday, killing at least two of the group’s fighters (UPDATE: at least seven of them). One Philippine soldier was also killed in the assault.
Following a telephone call between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, on Tuesday, the Chinese government suggested that it has an interest in “playing a mediation role” in ending the Ukraine invasion. Chinese officials and Chinese media outlets have been trying to walk a line between respecting Russian security concerns and condemning, or at least not outwardly supporting, the invasion. That could give Beijing unique leverage to mediate a peace deal, but it will have to do more than just talk about mediating and actually use its leverage to bring the parties together. China also has self-interested reasons to get involved diplomatically—for one thing, brokering an end to this conflict would be a major feather in China’s “great power” cap, and for another, the war may already be doing material damage to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The Libyan House of Representatives voted Tuesday to confirm new Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha and his cabinet. Unfortunately for Libyan political stability, incumbent PM Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh and his Government of National Unity are still refusing to make way for the new gang. In addition to the whole “two governments” problem, there appear to be serious concerns about the way HoR Speaker Aguila Saleh conducted the vote. It’s unclear whether the legislature had the required quorum for the vote to count, and it appears Saleh announced Bashagha’s confirmation before the entire assembly actually had a chance to vote (these two issues may be related). And so the upshot is that Libya is probably a bit further away from completing its political transition and a bit closer to backsliding into war again.
Burkina Faso’s interim national conference officially laid out its plan for a three year transition back to elected civilian rule on Tuesday, in the form of a charter that was then signed into…oh, let’s say “law” by Burkinabé junta leader/interim president Paul-Henri Damiba. The committee that drafted the charter had called for a two and a half year transition that the conference extended to a full three. As yet the Economic Community of West African States has had little to say about Burkina Faso’s junta or its transition plans, and it remains to be seen how the bloc will react to this timetable. The African Union and other international actors appear to be waiting for ECOWAS to make the first move before they react.
In Tuesday’s news from Russia:
The Russian military held drills featuring the country’s nuclear submarines and intercontinental ballistic missile launchers on Tuesday. I presume Vladimir Putin feels he got his point across.
One aspect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that I don’t think we’ve touched on here yet is the escalating information war targeting Russian families. Amid growing evidence that many in Russia may not even know there’s a war going on and that Russian leaders didn’t inform their own rank and file soldiers of the invasion until they gave the order to move into Ukraine, there are outlets in Ukraine that are trying to send images of Russian war dead and Russian prisoners back to Russia. Some of this verges on violating international law covering the treatment of the dead and captured in wartime, though intent is a factor in determining legality and in this case, informing the Russian public about what’s happening is probably permissible.
There’s not much new that I’ve seen on the sanctions front. The Canadian government is barring Russian commercial ships and fishing boats from its ports and internal waters, following a similar move by the UK government on Monday. Many countries have already banned Russian aircraft from their airspace (the US is expected to join this crowd soon), so seaport bans like this may be the next step. The Mexican government, meanwhile, announced that it has no intention of sanctioning Russia in keeping with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s “no problems” approach to foreign policy.
Inside Russia there’s more evidence of people scrambling to withdraw their money from the bank in something other than rubles, after the Russian currency hit around 110 per dollar due to Western sanctions. I don’t have specific links to these stories but if you scroll through this Associated Press live file you’ll see that Russian authorities have put in place measures to limit the ability to take foreign currency out of Russia and may implement measures preventing foreign companies from divesting from Russian firms and projects. I’m not sure how the latter would work but then as I am frequently reminded I am not a high finance guy.
Both Sarah Lazare and Spencer Ackerman have written pieces that dig into an issue I raised yesterday, which is the impact of these sanctions on average Russians. The measures that were announced over the weekend will almost certainly cause more pain to non-elites in Russia than they will to the fabled oligarchs who supposedly influence Putin’s behavior. Even if you think these sanctions are appropriate in the moment, it is imperative that Western governments provide a clear sense of what Russia would need to do to see these sanctions lifted. Not only is that appropriate from the perspective of the Russian people, it could also be key to getting these sanctions to actually work. If Putin has reason to believe that they’re never going away (or only going away in the event of “regime change” in Moscow), then he has no incentive to stop this invasion.
Speaking of the oligarchs, many of them are speaking out against the invasion. There’s no way to know if those public comments mirror what they say or think privately, but it is pretty clear that the public comments aren’t affecting Putin’s thinking.
The AP catalogs some of the holes in the sanctions regime, from those that Western governments have left intentionally (sparing the Russian energy sector and its gold reserves, for example) to those that might not be so intentional (i.e., cryptocurrency). Russia is fairly well positioned to ride out these sanctions, though that means accepted some level of economic pain on behalf of its populace. What could be interesting is if this event brings greater government scrutiny to the crypto world. I’m certainly no expert on that subject but I would assume that’s something that community would prefer to avoid.
China is, as we’ve all heard repeatedly by now, also expected to be a safety valve for the heavily sanctioned Russian economy. But it remains to be seen how much help it will provide. The most obvious way China could help would be to start buying more Russian natural gas, but the infrastructure to support that doesn’t exist yet. Logistical challenges and concerns about violating Western sanctions could likewise limit China’s engagement with Russia in other sectors.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko continues to move military units to the Ukrainian border while insisting that he has no plan to send his own forces into Ukraine to assist the Russian invasion. I don’t know what to make of that but I suspect he’s planning to send his own forces into Ukraine to assist the Russian invasion. On a related note, the British government on Tuesday blacklisted four senior figures in the Belarusian Defense Ministry over the assistance Minsk has given to the invasion thus far.
In Tuesday’s news from Ukraine:
Casualty data is still very spotty and attempts to track that information in the aggregate are almost certainly falling short of the real picture. The United Nations keeps updating its civilian casualty count, which as of Tuesday stood at 136 and 400 or more wounded, but even it acknowledges it’s probably undercounting the actual toll. Many of those casualties are coming out of the Donbas, which has kind of become a forgotten piece of this conflict, and it’s unclear how they break down in terms of people living in the government- or rebel/Russian-held parts of that region. The number of foreign nationals killed in this conflict is increasing, with one Indian and one Algerian national reportedly killed in Russian artillery attacks on Kharkiv on Monday.
Tracking casualties in individual incidents is probably more reliable under the circumstances but obviously doesn’t tell the whole picture. Russian artillery and airstrikes in northern Ukraine have been focused on the cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, though a missile strike on a military base in Okhtyrka reportedly killed over 70 Ukrainian soldiers. At least ten civilians were reportedly killed in a Russian artillery strike on central Kharkiv and another eight or more in another bombardment that reportedly hit a housing complex elsewhere in the city. At least four people were reportedly killed on Tuesday in the city of Zhytomyr, when a Russian cruise missile that may have been intended for a nearby military base instead struck a civilian are of the city. A Russian airstrike on central Kyiv killed at least five people and damaged the city’s main TV tower (which may be used by the Ukrainian government for official purposes in addition to private TV broadcasters). It’s unclear how much damage that strike did to the tower’s ability to broadcast, But it did come close to damaging the World War II Babi Yar memorial, which sits on the site of a Nazi atrocity. This seems morbidly ironic for a Russian invasion that’s supposedly intended to “denazify” Ukraine.
In terms of peace talks, as far as I know Ukrainian and Russian representatives are still scheduled to meet on Wednesday for a second round of negotiations. But Turkish government spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin told CNN Türk on Tuesday that the meeting is unlikely to take place, citing “unrealistic” Russian demands. Ankara is communicating with both governments so presumably Kalin knows what he’s talking about, but we’ll find out soon enough.
Tuesday’s events support the theory that the invasion is entering a “new phase,” one in which the Russian military is backing off from its previous attempts to seize major cities in quick incursions and is preparing to besiege those cities instead. Also supporting that theory is the massive column of Russian forces, some 40 kilometers long, that’s been observed moving in the direction of Kyiv. Warnings of an impending siege seem to have triggered a major civilian exodus from the Ukrainian capital. The thing is, moving that large a force in such a way that it’s forced to stretch out that long is not exactly ideal from a logistical perspective, and so reports from Western intelligence agencies that those Russian forces are moving slowly or not at all, and even claims of low morale within the Russian ranks, seem plausible, if unconfirmable.
In southern Ukraine, which has gotten less media attention, Russian forces have been advancing more steadily. Russian soldiers have been observed on the outskirts of the city of Kherson, while if the city of Mariupol is not yet completely surrounded it likely soon will be. It’s likely these two things—the Russian advance and the relative lack of attention—are related, just by the by.
One of the more unexpected (and inexplicable) aspects of the “first phase” of the conflict, if you want to think of it that way, is that the Russian military still hasn’t secured full control of Ukrainian airspace. This is among the first things an invading army does, and when the military imbalance is as great as it is between these two countries (on paper, at least) it’s generally done or at least almost done before ground forces are deployed. But some Ukrainian aircraft and air defense systems are still operating. Obviously Russian ground forces haven’t had that hard a time moving around, regardless, but there have been reports of fairly significant Ukrainian drone strikes on Russian columns, for example. This is another thing that speaks to the theory that Russian leaders expected this invasion to go more quickly/easily than it has.
On a related note, the doomsday scenario of Russian cyber attacks shutting down Ukrainian command and control systems or otherwise wreaking havoc on the defenders’ military capabilities hasn’t come to pass. Whether that’s because the Russians have failed to land a major cyber blow or just haven’t tried yet is anybody’s guess. Ukrainian hacker groups are reportedly planning attacks against Russian infrastructure, so maybe cybersecurity will start to play a more significant role in this conflict—just not in the way that might have been expected.
Kyiv has recalled its ambassador from Georgia over Tbilisi’s rather milquetoast response to the Russian invasion. Georgian authorities on Monday reportedly barred a flight of people volunteering to aid the Ukrainian war effort from leaving the country, which seems to have been the final straw from Ukraine’s perspective. This is a relatively insignificant thing but we usually try to keep track of diplomatic comings and goings around here.
The UN on Tuesday announced an appeal for some $1.7 billion to finance humanitarian aid efforts in Ukraine and for Ukrainian refugees. It’s estimating that upwards of 4 million refugees and another 12 million people inside Ukraine are eventually going to need critical relief.
The 31 member states of the International Energy Agency announced on Tuesday that they’ll release a collective 60 million barrels of oil from their various reserves in an effort to slow the spike in global oil prices that this conflict has generated. Even without sanctions targeting Russian oil exports prices are at this point in the $105 per barrel range and still climbing. Beyond energy markets, The New York Times has a piece today on the impacts the war is having on global supply networks.
Inkstick Media’s Jordan Cohen has an important piece on where at least some of the Western weapons now flooding into Ukraine are likely to wind up. If you guessed “the black market,” you’re on the right track. Cautionary notes about weapons and sanctions are going to fall on mostly deaf ears in the heat of this moment, but in my view it’s crucial that they be raised anyway.
New polling from the University of Costa Rica puts ex-Finance Minister Rodrigo Chaves in the lead heading into the April 3 Costa Rican presidential runoff. Chaves finished second to former President José Figueres in the first round earlier this month, but this survey has him at 46.5 percent support, well ahead of Figueres at 35.9 percent. Chaves may benefit from being the slightly more outsider candidate against the former head of state Figueres.
In one of its first acts since she took office, Honduran President Xiomara Castro’s government announced on Monday that it is canceling environmental permits for all mining projects. It’s not immediate clear whether this will apply to new projects only or to all mining projects nationwide, but officials are particularly singling out open-pit mining for its severe environmental impacts.
Finally, a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints a—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—dismal picture about the effects of climate change:
The dangers of climate change are mounting so rapidly that they could soon overwhelm the ability of both nature and humanity to adapt unless greenhouse gas emissions are quickly reduced, according to a major new scientific report released on Monday.
The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of experts convened by the United Nations, is the most detailed look yet at the threats posed by global warming. It concludes that nations aren’t doing nearly enough to protect cities, farms and coastlines from the hazards that climate change has unleashed so far, such as record droughts and rising seas, let alone from the even greater disasters in store as the planet continues to warm.
Written by 270 researchers from 67 countries, the report is “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general. “With fact upon fact, this report reveals how people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change.”
Among other things, the report puts into stark relief the economic impact that climate change has already had, most of it landing disproportionately on the developing world. It may recharge the debate over whether the developing world should be left to shoulder that pain mostly on its own or compensated for it by the developed world—you know, the part that’s responsible for nearly all of the carbon emissions that have brought the planet to this state.