World roundup: March 10 2022
Stories from North Korea, Libya, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 9, 1500: Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral sets sail with a fleet bound for India by a circuitous route through the western Atlantic Ocean. In April, Cabral’s fleet made landfall in what is now eastern Brazil. It’s unclear whether he knew the land was there or just stumbled on it while making a wide turn toward the southern tip of Africa. Either way, this was the one part of the Americas that was far enough east to fall within Portugal’s allotted colonial domain under the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. Cabral’s fleet eventually continued on around Africa to Calicut, where he and his crew massacred around 600 people on ten merchant ships in retaliation for an attack on a Portuguese factory, and then headed back to Portugal.
March 10, 241 BC: A Roman fleet under Gaius Lutatius Catulus and Quintus Valerius Falto defeats a Carthaginian fleet at the Battle of the Aegates, just off the west coast of Sicily. The Carthaginians outnumbered the Roman fleet, but their ships were encumbered with supplies bound for the Carthaginian army on Sicily, and their sailors were inexperienced at combat. The Roman victory upheld their blockade on Sicily, and rather than build a new fleet the Carthaginian Senate instead ordered its commander on the island, Hamilcar Barca (father of Hannibal) to negotiate a treaty with the Romans. The ensuing Treaty of Lutatius ended the First Punic War, forcing Carthage to abandon Sicily and pay a war indemnity to Rome. Hamilcar spent the rest of his life hating Rome and, suffice to say, passed that feeling on to his son.
March 10, 1861: The Toucouleur Empire of Omar Saidou Tall conquers the city of Ségou, bringing an end to the already reeling Bamana Empire and consolidating much of West Africa (modern Guinea, Mali, and Senegal) under Omar Tall’s control. Although it was riding high at this point, the Toucouleur Empire’s further expansion was stymied by the Fula Massina Empire to the north, and by the 1890s it was swept aside by French colonization.
March 10, 1916: The British high commissioner for Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, pens the tenth and final letter in his exchange with Sharif Hussein of Mecca. Over the course of those ten letters the two men established the conditions under which Hussein would lead an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Britain reneged on its promises to support the creation of a single “Arab Caliphate,” ceding Syria to France (though McMahon did caution that France had interests in Syria and that Britain couldn’t entirely dispose of them) and most of Palestine to Zionism (though it’s hard to determine exactly what Britain promised Hussein with respect to Palestine).
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Islamic State on Thursday finally got around to confirming the demise of its former leader (caliph, emir, whatever), Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, who died under not-entirely-clear circumstances during a US special forces raid in northwestern Syria last month. IS also announced his replacement, Abu Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, who could be anybody although I am at least fairly certain it’s not me personally. These formulaic noms de guerre are meant intentionally to conceal the identity of the new leader, though some enterprising terrorism researcher may be able to figure out which senior IS figure has gotten the promotion.
Qatar is now officially a “major non-NATO ally” of the United States, fulfilling a promise Joe Biden made to Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani back in January. Qatar joins Bahrain and Kuwait among Gulf states that have been so designated.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
The UAE on Thursday partially walked back a statement issued by its US ambassador, Yousef al-Otaiba, the previous day. Otaiba had suggested that the UAE would be open to pumping more oil in an effort to stabilize global prices, which have been highly volatile since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began though they appear to have dropped a bit today. Via Twitter UAE Energy Minister Suhail al-Mazroui affirmed that his country is “committed” to the OPEC+ group and its control of global oil production. In other words, don’t expect the Emiratis to go rogue and start pumping a bunch of extra oil in order to help Joe Biden keep gasoline prices down.
Turkmen voters will head to the polls on Saturday to elect Serdar Berdimuhamedow as president, succeeding his father Gurbanguly. In fairness Serdar is likely getting the job whether or not those voters pick him or even show up at all—voter participation is superfluous to the outcomes of Turkmen elections. The election will mark a passing of the torch, though as Gurbanguly is apparently planning to continue on in his side gig as head of the Turkmen People’s Council (its senate, basically), he’s not going to be leaving politics entirely.
India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has won four of five recent state legislative elections, holding on to its majority in the key state of Uttar Pradesh as well as the its majorities in the states of Goa, Manipur, and Uttarakhand. Although the party did lose seats in Uttar Pradesh, its overall success bodes well for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he starts to prepare for India’s 2024 general election. India’s hitherto main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, took a beating in Punjab’s legislative election losing control of the assembly to the Aam Aadmi Party and maybe signaling the end of its salience as a national political force.
The Pentagon said on Thursday that it believes North Korea’s two most recent test launches, ostensibly of a satellite launcher system, were in fact tests related to Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile program. That assessment, as well as predictions of a full-blown ICBM test to come (possibly also under the guise of a space launch), is likely to mean new US sanctions on North Korea in the not too distant future. Kim Jong-un may have thrown additional fuel on the fire on Friday, when North Korean state media reported that he’d ordered North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launch facility to be expanded “into an ultramodern advanced base.” In addition to being the place where North Korea conducts its space launches, Sohae is also the place where it conducts its ICBM tests—which is perhaps unsurprising given that there is some degree of overlap between those technologies.
The return of conservative rule in South Korea comes as Seoul harbors growing ambitions to be a key player on global challenges, such as supply-chain resiliency, climate change, vaccine supply and emerging technology — especially in the face of intensifying U.S.-China competition.
But despite its big dreams, South Korea under liberal president Moon Jae-in prioritized improving relations with North Korea, which sometimes meant it hedged or sat on the sidelines to avoid overly antagonizing China, North Korea’s economic lifeline. With progress on inter-Korean relations and North Korea’s denuclearization more elusive than ever, South Korea under Yoon is likely to dramatically change course, experts say.
The dramatic change of course is really more of a return to the pre-Moon consensus. That the pre-Moon consensus made absolutely no progress in achieving inter-Korean peace is presumably beside the point. But at least Seoul can play a bigger role supporting the United States against China in the “New Cold War.” That has to be good news for South Koreans, right?
Sudanese security forces reportedly killed two more anti-junta protesters on Thursday—one in Khartoum and the other in Omdurman—bringing to at least 87 the number of people they’ve killed since October’s coup.
An “armed convoy,” in Reuters’ words, began advancing on Tripoli on Thursday in support of Fathi Bashagha, one of Libya’s two current prime ministers. Bashagha announced on Tuesday that he would arrive in Tripoli by Thursday, intending to assume office even though the second of those two PMs, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, shows no intention of stepping aside. The convoy stood down and returned to the city of Misrata, whence it came, after apparently meeting resistance from groups aligned with Dbeibeh and after Bashagha opted not to escalate this situation and risk violence. Even so, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the current state of Libyan politics is not ideal.
Apparently feeling like the world is just too stable these days, the Pentagon is reportedly asking Joe Biden to send US soldiers back to Somalia. Basically the US military would like Biden to reverse Donald Trump’s December 2020 order to pull around 700 US special forces out of Somalia, repositioning most of them in Djibouti and Kenya. They claim that withdrawal has coincided with an uptick in attacks by al-Shabab. Biden seems likely to acquiesce.
A new World Bank report names South Africa as the most unequal country on Earth. According to the report, around 10 percent of the South African population owns roughly 80 percent of the wealth. The report used data compiled pre-pandemic, so it’s possible the economic turmoil of the past couple of years might have changed things up a bit. Or just made them worse.
In Thursday’s news from Russia:
Thursday was the big day when Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were set to meet on the sidelines of the Antalya Diplomacy Forum. The first story I saw about that meeting this morning had Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu saying that it was “civil,” which seemed like a pretty good indication that they hadn’t actually accomplished anything. And, as it turns out, they hadn’t. Çavuşoğlu apparently tried to orient the meeting toward a discussion of immediate humanitarian needs in Ukraine, which was probably the right direction to take, but Lavrov and Kuleba couldn’t even come to terms on a temporary ceasefire let alone something closer to a resolution to the conflict.
The United Kingdom on Thursday expanded its Russian blacklist to incorporate seven more oligarchs, including the current owner (he’s reportedly been looking to sell) of the Chelsea football club, Roman Abramovich. London has moved more slowly to sanction Russian elites than the United States and European Union have, responding to criticism by insisting that it’s moving as fast as UK law allows.
The Russian government is suggesting that it could seize the assets of many of the Western companies that have been moving to shutter their Russian operations over the past couple of weeks. Specifically, any company with more than 25 percent foreign ownership could be a target for nationalization followed by redistribution to a friendly domestic billionaire. Moscow has started responding to Western sanctions and export controls with its own similar measures, though its ability to retaliate is fairly limited.
And in Ukraine:
A new piece at The Washington Post explores the uncertainty about casualty counts in Ukraine, where the UN says at least 549 civilians have been killed since the start of the invasion even as the government of Mariupol claims upwards of 1300 people have been killed in that city alone. Combatant casualty counts have been similarly disparate. It’s unsatisfying to say that the only reliable estimate of the number of people killed over the past two weeks is “a lot,” but every party offering a count (the UN, Russia, Ukraine, the United States) is either hobbled by lack of information or unreliable because they have an incentive to lie.
On the ground there’s been little substantive movement in a few days now. In the north, Russian forces have reportedly encircled the city of Chernihiv, just north of Kyiv, while in the south they’re continuing to pound the already-besieged city of Mariupol. According to Ukrainian officials, Russian shelling prevented the evacuation of anybody from Mariupol on Thursday, despite previously announced intentions with respect to “humanitarian corridors.” The Russians claim they plan to open corridors out of five cities (including Mariupol) on Friday, but the implementation of these things has been so haphazard (to put the best possible spin on it) that I don’t think that promise can be considered reliable.
In Kyiv, officials are estimating that around 2 million people—roughly half the population of the metropolitan area—have fled an expected Russian siege that’s been expected for about a week now. The large Russian column northwest of Kyiv that’s presumably meant to either encircle or assault the city remains more or less stuck in place according to Western estimates. This may be due to flooding in that region that’s been observed in satellite photos and may have been intentionally caused by Ukrainians to slow the Russian advance.
The Ukrainian government is estimating that the invasion has caused roughly $100 billion in physical damage to date, which like all the casualty counts should be treated as very approximate. A number like that speaks to what’s going to be a massive postwar reconstruction effort—and that’s if the war ended today, which it won’t.
European Union leaders held a summit in Versailles on Thursday at which they promised to “strengthen [their] bonds” with Ukraine but ruled out offering Kyiv fast track EU membership. The EU has no “fast track” procedure and it’s unclear what form such a thing would take. Ukraine, meanwhile, was not even a realistic candidate for the regular track to EU membership until the invasion, and bringing it into the fold now would absolutely risk escalating the conflict.
The US House of Representatives voted Wednesday night to approve an omnibus spending bill that includes $13.6 billion in aid for Ukraine. Assuming it passes the Senate some portion of that aid will be of the humanitarian or at least non-lethal variety, but I think it’s safe to assume that at least half will be earmarked for weapons. In a very thorough analysis of the state of this war thus far, The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill considers the possible repercussions of Western arms in terms of supporting the Ukrainian resistance on the one hand and prolonging the war on the other.
At Foreign Policy, Canadian journalist Justin Ling traces Russian claims about allege covert biological weapons labs in Ukraine back to a long-standing conspiracy theory that has circulated inside Russia and was most recently filtered through the “Q-Anon” movement. Officially, at least, the labs trace back to post-Cold War project to take apart the substantial Soviet weapons of mass destruction program. They’ve transitioned to more of a research role in recent years, and it may be worth noting here that the World Health Organization has reportedly advised Ukrainian officials to destroy any pathogens currently stored in those labs in order to prevent their release—accidental or otherwise—amid the war. If the Russians are purely engaged in conspiracy mongering here then the question is why—and if the answer is to manufacture a justification for their invasion, then the possibility exists that they could also manufacture evidence of an illicit bioweapons program. The UN Security Council is reportedly set to meet Friday to discuss Russia’s bioweapons claims.
While I have no idea how anybody could possibly be doing polling in Ukraine right now, a survey from the pollster Info Sapiens indicates that two-thirds of Ukrainians favor continuing to resist the Russian invasion and a majority oppose a ban on Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO as a condition of a peace settlement. While those results seem reasonable under the circumstances, defiance being perhaps the likeliest reaction to a foreign invasion, I wouldn’t put too much weight behind them.
Katalin Novák became the first woman ever elected president of Hungary on Thursday by a 137-51 margin in parliament. She’ll succeed incumbent János Áder when his term expires in May. Both are allies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The Hungarian presidency is largely ceremonial so the practical import of this election is definitely superseded by the symbolism.
Spain’s far-right Vox party has agreed to serve in a coalition led by the conservative People’s Party in the Castile and León regional parliament, marking the first time a far-right Spanish party has been part of a regional government since the heady days of Francisco Franco. Vox is currently the third largest party in the Spanish Congress of Deputies, and any success it has at the regional level is liable to bolster its national profile.
Finally, the Project on Government Oversight reports that the historically troubled F-35 program is still awash in problems:
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program appears to be in a state of suspended development, with little progress made in 2021 toward improving its lackluster performance. The latest report by the Pentagon’s Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E) reveals stagnation and even backsliding in some fleet reliability measures.
And that’s just the public DOT&E report.
In an unprecedented move, DOT&E is concealing many of the key details of the F-35’s poor performance. For the first time ever, the testing office created a non-public “controlled unclassified information” version of its report, and although there is much overlap between the two versions, the meaningful details about the ever-troubled program are only included in the non-public one.
One thing to note about so-called controlled unclassified information: It is not classified. The label is a tool that some in the federal government misuse to conceal information that could be embarrassing to them, but because the information does not damage national security, they can’t hide it under a classification label. The Project On Government Oversight obtained a copy of the non-public report, and what it clearly shows is that the F-35 program has made few fixes to many of the reliability and performance problems that have prevented the aircraft from meeting the needs of the services. This is information the public must have in order to pressure policymakers to correct the problems that, if uncorrected, could harm U.S. service members and the U.S. national defense mission.