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World roundup: March 12-13 2022
Stories from Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 11, 1784: The British East India Company and Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in southern India, negotiate the Treaty of Mangalore, bringing the Second Anglo-Mysore War to a close. The 1780-1784 conflict saw Tipu Sultan and his father/predecessor, Hyder Ali (who died in 1782) win several early victories against the East India Company before the EIC counterattacked and fought back to a stalemate. When the American Revolutionary War ended and Britain made peace with Tipu Sultan’s ally, France, in 1783, London sent word demanding that the EIC wrap things up and so it negotiated this treaty, which returned things to the status quo ante bellum. A third Anglo-Mysore War in 1790-1792 ended in a decisive EIC victory that crippled Mysore, and the fourth Anglo-Mysore War in 1798-1799 finished the kingdom off for good.
March 11, 1917: British forces capture Baghdad from the Ottoman Empire.
March 12, 1930: Mahatma Gandhi leads a 24 day march covering more than 240 miles from the Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat to the village of Dandi, known as the “Salt March” or the “Dandi March.” Gandhi’s aim was to protest the British monopoly on salt production, so he and his followers manufactured their own salt at Dandi after arriving there on April 6, in violation of the 1882 British Salt Act. The march was a landmark event in both the conception of non-violent protest and the Indian independence movement. Gandhi’s decision to focus on an item that people used every day, salt, boosted the movement’s profile and led millions of Indians to follow his lead and launch their own salt protests.
March 12, 1938: Nazi Germany occupies Austria in an event known as the Anschluss. Uniting Austria and Germany was one of the earliest tenets of the Nazi Party and the most important component of its Heim ins Reich project to incorporate all ethnic Germans into a “Greater Germany.” The Nazi occupation, which was welcomed by many Austrians, rendered irrelevant a planned referendum on unification that Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg had scheduled for the following day.
March 12, 1968: With British blessing, the African island nation of Mauritius declares independence. Commemorated today as National Day in Mauritius.
March 13, 624: The Battle of Badr leaves Muhammad’s followers victorious in their first serious military engagement, against a small Meccan army.
March 13, 1591: The Sultanate of Morocco’s invasion of the Sahelian Songhai Empire culminates with a decisive victory in the Battle of Tondibi, just north of the city of Gao (in modern Mali). The victorious Moroccan army continued into Gao, the Songhai capital, and sacked the city, followed by the commercially important cities of Timbuktu and Djenné. The battle shattered the Songhai Empire, which had been around since the 1460s, causing it to break into several smaller kingdoms.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired a barrage of missiles at what it claims are some number of Israeli “strategic center” or “centers” in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, early Sunday morning. According to Iraqi officials one person was wounded in the attack but beyond that the effect is unclear. Some of the missiles landed near the US consulate in Erbil but caused no damage to that compound.
The IRGC characterized the attack as retaliation for an Israeli missile attack in Syria on Monday that killed two IRGC personnel, though the existence of these alleged Israeli facilities is at least somewhat in dispute. The KRG said the missiles did not strike any facilities used by a foreign government, and the Iraqi Foreign Ministry summoned the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad to lodge a formal protest over the attack. The Biden administration suggested on Sunday that it will look to ship additional air defense assets to Iraq in response to this incident.
America’s best Middle Eastern pals and shining beacon of decency Saudi Arabia executed 81 men in one very busy day on Saturday, all of them convicted on terrorism allegations. That may be the largest mass execution in Saudi history, which is replete with mass executions so that’s no small feat. Most of the men were apparently accused of having joined one or another terrorist group, but given the nature of Saudi legal proceedings and the somewhat expansive definition the kingdom has of what exactly constitutes a “terrorist group,” I suspect there’s plenty of reason to doubt the veracity of those accusations.
The Saudi mass execution may already have had one repercussion. After Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein announced on Saturday that Baghdad would be hosting another round of talks between the Saudis and Iran on Wednesday, the Iranian government announced on Sunday that it had “unilaterally suspended” those talks for the time being. Iranian media didn’t offer an explanation for the decision, but both the Iranian Foreign Ministry and Iranian ally Hezbollah subsequently criticized the Saturday’s executions and the United Nations is claiming that around half of the condemned were Shiʿa Saudis who’d been arrested years ago while protesting for equal treatment. Iranian officials have criticized Saudi executions in the past, especially when prominent Saudi Shiʿa were among the condemned, though Iran routinely outstrips the Saudis in the number of people it executes annually.
Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan and his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, met Saturday on the sidelines of the Antalya Diplomatic Forum to advance the ongoing process of normalizing their bilateral relationship. Çavuşoğlu described the meeting as “a very productive and constructive conversation,” so presumably the process is still on track.
The purge of former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his family from public life continued on Sunday with the arrest of Kairat Satybaldy, a businessperson and Nazarbayev’s nephew. Satybaldy was arrested on charges of embezzlement but is also reportedly under investigation for having participated in “crimes undermining the security of the state.” That impressively vague charge may mean he’s alleged to have participated somehow in the unrest that gripped Kazakhstan for several days back in January. There’s a lingering belief that unspecified forces behind the scenes, presumably linked to Nazarbayev in some way, seized on protests against rising fuel prices to orchestrate an attempted overthrow of the Kazakh government. Current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has moved quickly since January to sideline Nazarbayev and his various allies and/or family members who have prominent positions within the Kazakh government and/or its business community.
The most surprising thing about Turkmenistan’s presidential election on Saturday, at least so far, is that authorities haven’t yet announced a winner. Elections officials are claiming that the votes are still being counted, which would be surprising if for no other reason than that I find it hard to believe anyone ever bothers to count the votes in a Turkmen election. Serdar Berdimuhamedow, son of incumbent President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, has been the presumptive winner ever since his father announced that he was stepping down as president last month. The idea of any other candidate emerging victorious here is almost unthinkable and I would assume that this delay is meant to convey the impression that officials are dilligently at work to determine the winner of a legitimate election. But even that level of commitment to the bit is somewhat surprising, so who knows?
According to The Wall Street Journal, Chinese mining companies are moving to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral wealth:
Following the American exit from Afghanistan, China’s move to claim the country’s vast mineral wealth is centered on a mountain south of Kabul.
The mountain and the barren surrounding valley, in Logar province, a two-hour drive from the capital, contain one of the world’s biggest untapped reserves of copper.
China is negotiating with Taliban authorities to start mining at the site, called Mes Aynak, according to Chinese and Taliban officials. Beijing is also in talks to begin work on oil-and-gas reserves in the north of the country, Amu Darya. Both projects were on hold for years because of the war, which ended when the Taliban seized power in August.
Dozens of Chinese mining companies have descended on Kabul in recent weeks seeking contracts for other mines.
There’s a lot of prep work that needs to be done before mining can really start to benefit the ailing Afghan economy. One sidenote to this story, though it’s not the most important aspect, is that Mes Aynak’s copper vein sits under a large ancient city that dates back to the region’s pre-Islamic past. While everybody seems to be talking a good game in terms of trying to preserve that site while mining the copper, chances are it’s going to be destroyed.
The Pakistani government says it wants a joint investigation into the provenance of the Indian missile that “accidentally” landed on Pakistani soil on Friday. I put “accidentally” in quotes because Pakistani officials don’t entirely seem to be buying that explanation. At the very least it seems they’d like to know what measures the Indian military plans to take to try to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
At least two people were killed on Sunday when a bus ran over a landmine just outside the northern Burkinabé town of Taparko. There are active al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates in that region and it’s unclear who was responsible for planting this device. Elsewhere, Agence France-Presse is reporting that jihadist militants killed at least 11 people in an attack on a gold mine in northern Burkina Faso on Saturday. That incident took place two days after a similar gold mine attack left at least ten people dead.
The ruling Chadian military junta opened a peace conference in Qatar on Sunday with an array of rebel groups, hoping to end Chad’s myriad armed uprisings and chart a course toward elections and the restoration of civilian governa-aaand it’s over. Well, OK, it’s not over entirely. But the participants abruptly decided to suspend the conference for at least 48 hours at the conclusion of Sunday’s opening ceremony. The various rebel groups apparently haven’t been able to agree among themselves on the format for the negotiations, let alone come to an agreement with the junta. Several groups want only indirect negotiations moderated by Qatari officials, while others have proposed some sort of joint negotiating committee. The delay is apparently meant to see if they can agree on the composition of that committee.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, an autonomous agency within the Ethiopian government, is accusing Ethiopian soldiers of burning a prisoner alive in a video that’s been making the rounds on social media. It’s unclear when this incident took place, but the video shows uniformed personnel setting fire to a man in what the EHRC has identified as a part of the Benishangul-Gumuz region. According to the commission, Ethiopian forces killed eight Tigrayans suspected of carrying out some sort of attack, set fire to their bodies, then threw a ninth, still alive, Tigrayan into the fire for allegedly having ties to the other eight.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Congolese officials say that at least 32 people were killed in a series of attacks on villages in North Kivu province that began late Friday in the Beni region. They’re accusing the Allied Democratic Forces militia of carrying out those attacks.
In this weekend’s news from Russia:
Russian and Ukrainian negotiators, who have apparently been keeping in touch regularly though they haven’t had a round of face-to-face talks for nearly a week (unless you count Thursday’s dud in Antalya), seemed cautiously optimistic on Sunday about the direction their conversations have been heading. Lead Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak posted a video online in which he reportedly predicted that “we will achieve some results literally in a matter of days,” while a member of the Russian team, Leonid Slutsky, told Russian media that their “progress may grow in the coming days into a joint position of both delegations, into documents for signing.” These comments came a day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky noted a “fundamentally different approach” coming from the Russian side. Make of that what you will. Neither side offered any indication as to the scope of whatever it is they may be about to achieve but I would assume they’d start relatively small with a ceasefire before addressing any deeper grievances.
The comments from members of the respective negotiating teams do not align well with the French government’s readout of a phone call between Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday. According to Macron’s office Putin did not seem receptive to the French and German leaders’ calls for a ceasefire. The Russian readout, for what it’s worth, didn’t even mention a ceasefire as a topic of conversation.
There’s been a flurry of airline-related news this weekend, starting with a decision late Friday by the Bermudan Civil Aviation Authority to suspend safety certifications for all Russian aircraft in its registry. Bermuda registers more Russian commercial aircraft than any other country, and without those certifications it’s unlikely any of the planes in question will be able to fly internationally.
Meanwhile, the international firms that have leased planes to Russian airlines (523 planes in total) are coming to the realization that those aircraft are now Russian property. If they can’t fly internationally then that means repossessing them in Russia, and it’s unlikely Russian authorities would be cooperative in such an effort.
And AirSerbia, one of the few European carriers still flying to Russia, is returning to one flight per day to Moscow. It had gone to two Moscow flights per day in an effort to capitalize on the current situation but apparently received a hefty amount of backlash for doing so. The Serbian government, whose application for European Union membership does not need any additional controversy, ordered the airline to go back to a single daily flight.
Leaving the subject of airlines but sticking with aerospace more broadly, Russian officials are warning that Western sanctions could cause the crash of the International Space Station. I’m not entirely sure what the mechanism here is but I guess the sanctions could somehow prevent Russian missions to maintain its part of the structure, which would then eventually cause it to fall out of orbit. It’s either that or they’re threatening to crash the thing deliberately—it’s hard to know which at this point.
Authorities in the Bahamas are ordering all banks in that country to cut ties with Russian individuals or entities that have been sanctioned by Western government. It’s unclear how many Russian oligarchs have assets stashed in Bahamian financial institutions.
Anonymous “US officials” are claiming that Moscow has approached the Chinese government for military aid, chiefly weapons though they unsurprisingly didn’t go into any specifics. It’s unclear whether the Russian military uses any Chinese-made weapons systems but the Chinese military has definitely purchased arms from Russia, so they could conceivably ask for those things to be returned to boost the Ukraine war effort. This all seems pretty vague, and the Chinese government insists it’s got no idea what the Americans are talking about.
One of the unknown long term effects of the Ukraine invasion and its assorted repercussions is likely to be some degree of “brain drain.” At least one estimate has some 200,000 Russians or more leaving the country since the start of the invasion. These are likely to be disproportionately people of means and education. I’m hesitant to put much weight behind this, though, because Western institutions have been talking about a “Putin brain drain” for several years now and it’s unclear whether or to what extent it’s actually been happening or had an impact on the Russian economy or society.
And in Ukraine:
Zelensky announced on Saturday that at least 1300 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the start of the Russian invasion, which I believe is the first estimate the Ukrainian government has offered of its own military losses. On Sunday, Zelensky announced that some 125,000 civilians have been moved out of active war zones via “humanitarian corridors,” a figure that seems extremely low given the number of days these corridors have allegedly been open. Evacuation efforts are particularly focusing on Mariupol, the besieged port city where some 400,000 civilians are believed to be trapped and where basic supplies are reportedly beginning to run out. According to Zelensky there’s a humanitarian convoy on its way to Mariupol but time will tell whether it’s able to actually reach the city.
On the battlefield, the story that got the most attention this weekend involved a Russian air attack on a Ukrainian military base in Yavoriv, which lies west of the city of Lviv and is uncomfortably (in this context) close (about 7.5 miles) to the Polish border. At least 35 people were killed and another 134 wounded in the attack, though the Russian military says it killed some 180 “foreign mercenaries” along with “a large consignment of foreign weapons.” There’s some plausibility to these claims. The Yavoriv base has been used by NATO for training operations in Ukraine and is now reportedly serving as a logistical and training center for foreign fighters (and maybe foreign weapons) coming into Ukraine to support the government. What’s unclear is whether there are any NATO personnel officially on that base at present. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov tweeted about the attack and said “foreign instructors work here,” present tense. Maybe he just used imprecise wording. If not, then what did he mean?
In northern and eastern Ukraine, meanwhile, authorities are reportedly gearing up for another wave of attacks on major cities including Kyiv and Kharkiv, as well as a new Russian push in the Donbas region. There apparently are indications that Russian forces are moving north from Mariupol and south from Kharkiv with an eye toward encircling Ukrainian units stationed in the Donbas, which aligns with the latest maps of the war though the fact that the Russians haven’t yet taken either of those cities is likely to hamper their movements to some degree. If they do manage to complete this encirclement, though, it threatens to take a major chunk of what’s left of the regular Ukrainian military out of the war. There’s reportedly been particularly heavy fighting around the town of Volnovakha, with Ukrainian forces fighting to alleviate the siege of Mariupol. At last check Russian forces appeared to be in control of the town, which has been all but obliterated.
It would appear that Russian forces have forcibly disappeared at least two mayors of places they’ve occupied since the start of the invasion. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said via Twitter on Sunday that the mayor of the town of Dniprorudne, in Zaporizhzhia oblast, had been seized by the Russians. That came a day after the Russians installed a new mayor in Mellitopol to replace Ivan Fedorov, who’s likewise apparently been taken into custody. The new mayor was greeted by hundreds or possibly thousands of people protesting for Fedorov’s release.
The Biden administration has released another $200 million in weapons for shipment to Ukraine. As in past shipments this one is likely to be heavy on anti-tank and portable anti-aircraft devices. The US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (AKA the “Helsinki Commission”) is calling on the Biden administration to designate Ukraine, and Georgia for good measure, as “major non-NATO” US allies. This would streamline the bureaucracy involved in shipping arms to Ukraine but in contrast with NATO membership it would not oblige the US to come to Ukraine’s aid directly. The US recently bestowed MNNA status on Colombia and Qatar, but countries like Ukraine and Georgia that still harbor dreams (illusions, depending on your point of view) of joining NATO one day such a designation could be unwelcome even under the current circumstances.
The Chernobyl nuclear site has apparently been reconnected to the Ukrainian power grid. Cooling units on the site had been operating on generator backups for the past several days, and while the risk of a catastrophe remained relatively low it’s still preferable to have those things hooked up to the regular power supply.
Emmanuel Macron is reportedly planning to end most of France’s COVID restrictions on Monday, including his controversial “vaccine pass” and mandatory masking in most indoor spaces. The health rationale for this is probably less important than the political rationale, which is that Macron is heading into an election next month. He’s the prohibitive favorite to win that election, but every little bit helps and French public opinion seems to support relaxing pandemic controls.
Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s Eli Clifton reports on the case of an American billionaire who’s putting her money behind making sure the Korean War never really ends:
“To President Moon Jae In and the US Congress: True Peace Can Only Come from True Freedom,” flashed the three-story-high digital advertisement in Times Square. “Hold the North Korean Regime Accountable & Free the North Korean People.” Rolling across the screen, the text continued, “H.R. 3446 and H.R. 826 Benefit North Korea and China. If Passed, the Bill Will Ultimately Dismantle the UN Command and Remove US Troops from S. Korea,” before ending next to the photo of a mushroom cloud.
Connecting the two House bills to such apocalyptic imagery last September was decidedly hyperbolic. HR 3446, the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act, merely calls for the U.S. secretary of state to “pursue serious, urgent diplomatic engagement with North Korea and South Korea in pursuit of a binding peace agreement constituting a formal and final end to the state of war between North Korea, South Korea, and the United States.” HR 826, the Divided Family Reunification Act, would require the U.S. government to prioritize reuniting Korean Americans with family members separated after the signing of the armistice agreement in 1953, including through potential video reunions.
The opposition to these bills and the attacks against the grassroots activists who support them — many of whom are Korean American — have been led by a network of pressure groups with deep pockets, including a partnership with one of the biggest conservative political organizations in America; financial interests tied to fanning the flames of great-power competition with China; and media outlets that have amplified outlandish conspiracy theories about North Korean and Chinese interference in South Korean and U.S. elections. Yet while this network might seem broad and disparate, a close examination of the efforts opposing diplomatic initiatives with North Korea circles back to one individual who rarely speaks or appears in public: Annie M.H. Chan, a resident of Honolulu.