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World roundup: March 17 2022
Stories from Pakistan, Sudan, Russia, and more
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Happy St. Patrick’s Day to those who are celebrating!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 16, 1527: Though outnumbered, an early Mughal army under the dynasty’s founder, Babur, defeats a conglomeration of forces under Rajput leader Rana Sanga at the Battle of Khanwa in northeastern India. Babur made effective use of field artillery and wagon fortifications, as well as the defection of a large portion of Rana Sanga’s army, to win the battle. In defeat Rana Sanga’s alliance fell apart and Mughal control of northern India was secured—at least until they were (temporarily) ousted from power in 1540.
March 16, 1988: The Iraqi military massacres between 3200 and 5000 Kurds in the city of Halabja using mustard gas and an undetermined nerve agent. The attack was the gruesome centerpiece of Saddam Hussein’s Anfal Genocide, which targeted Iraqi Kurds who resisted Hussein’s government with Iranian assistance, under a broader plan to “Arabize” northern Iraq.
March 17, 1861: The first Italian parliament proclaims King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia as king of a newly unified Italy. This was the culmination of a unification process (the Risorgimento) that began amid the Revolutions of 1848, though the process wasn’t completed until the Italians took Venice from Austria in 1866 and Rome from the Papacy in 1870.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
It appears that the Gulf Cooperation Council is not willing to change the venue of its proposed Yemeni peace conference to someplace other than Riyadh. As Yemeni rebel leaders have already said they’re unwilling to attend a conference held in Saudi Arabia, given that the kingdom is one of the combatants in the Yemen war, it seems unlikely that they’ll attend and, therefore, that the conference will have any hope of accomplishing anything.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
A UAE cargo vessel sank Thursday in apparently rough weather just off the coast of Iran. Details are spotty but according to maritime tracking information the ship was the Al Salmy 6 and it was heading from Dubai to the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr. Iranian authorities responded to the ship’s distress call and were able to recover 29 of its 30 crew members. The ship reportedly capsized in heavy winds and there’s no indication that anything other than weather was responsible.
Associated Press reporter Matthew Lee tracks the state of negotiations on reviving the Iran nuclear deal. The main takeaway is that things seem to be back to where they were prior to last week’s Russian demand for exemptions that seemed to inject new uncertainty into the process. That is to say both the US and Iranian governments are back to insisting that a deal is close at hand if only the other side were willing to make one or two additional concessions.
The United Nations Security Council voted Thursday to extend the mandate of the UN’s political mission in Afghanistan for at least another year and, along with that, to establish relations with the Taliban-led government—sort of. The text of the resolution apparently talks in vague terms about interacting with all political entities in Afghanistan without specifically mentioning the Taliban and/or the government it’s established. So it’s short of actual diplomatic recognition. Russia abstained from the vote for reasons that aren’t entirely clear and I suspect have more to do with Ukraine than Afghanistan.
It would appear that not only is Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan losing the backing of his coalition partners, he’s also losing support within his own Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Several PTI members of parliament have reportedly gone over to the opposition ahead of an expected no-confidence vote. Khan’s coalition does not have a large majority in the National Assembly, so he’s in no position to lose any support if he’s to survive that vote.
The US State Department named Vietnamese author Phạm Đoan Trang as one of the recipients of its 2022 International Women of Courage awards at a ceremony on on Monday. The thing is, Vietnamese authorities sentenced Trang to nine years in prison last December for allegedly writing “anti-state propaganda” mostly having to do with Vietnam’s human rights record. So the Vietnamese government was not pleased with her IWOC selection and its foreign ministry made that displeasure known on Thursday. The incident is unlikely to affect the bilateral relationship, which is already occasionally tested by human rights criticisms from Washington.
Similarly irritated with the US State Department is the Chinese government, whose grievance has to do with comments from Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview on Wednesday. Among other topics, Blinken opined that China’s stated commitment to the UN charter is undermined by its refusal to more strenuously oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Since the invasion began, Beijing has frequently expressed support for Ukrainian sovereignty but always in a somewhat general sense that falls short of criticizing Moscow. Of course, one might look at the United States’ record in juxtaposition with the principles of the UN charter and come away thinking there’s an even bigger disconnect on Washington’s end, but I digress.
At least 17 people have reportedly been killed in another outbreak of inter-communal violence this week in the Jabal Moon region of Sudan’s West Darfur state. There have been a number of similar outbreaks in that area over the past several months that are believed to have involved attacks by members of the Arab “Janjaweed” militia on non-Arab communities. The Janjaweed has been responsible for some of the worst atrocities in the Darfur conflict, which entered its 20th year this year albeit at a much lower level of violence than during its main phase in the 00s. Elements of the Janjaweed were given official status in 2013 under the imprimatur of the Sudanese military’s “Rapid Support Forces,” and there are unconfirmed accusations of RSF involvement in these Jabal Moon incidents. Their goal may be the elimination of local resistance to a number of gold mining projects in the region.
The violence in Darfur is taking place amid the backdrop of Sudan’s political crisis, which has left the military in uncontested control of the country and thus free to do as it likes in Jabal Moon and anywhere else for that matter. Thousands of protesters turned out again on Thursday to call for the formation of a civilian government and to express their dismay at Sudan’s worsening economic struggles, but there’s no indication that these regular protests are having much of an impact.
A request that Tunisian President Kais Saied’s made back in January for the public to participate in rewriting the country’s constitution via an online questionnaire has gone largely unanswered, as only 412,000 people have apparently responded and the exercise is set to end on Sunday. That’s around six percent of Tunisian voters. A referendum with that level of participation would be regarded as illegitimate so it’s hard to see how this questionnaire could be treated any other way.
Gunmen, presumably jihadist militants, attacked a passenger bus in western Niger’s Tillabéri region on Wednesday, killing at least 19 people. There are al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates active in that region but as far as I know there hasn’t been any claim of responsibility as yet.
In Thursday’s news from Russia:
Peace talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiating teams are continuing, but Moscow on Thursday threw some cold water on hopes of any immediate resolution to the war, with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov suggesting a lack of “zeal” on the Ukrainian side was to blame. Anonymous “Western officials” told Reuters that there is still “a very, very big gap” between the two sides, without going into any further detail except to blame Vladimir Putin for whatever gap there is.
Moscow does appear to have successfully made a $117 million interest payment on two dollar-denominated bonds on Wednesday, forestalling a potential default at least for the time being. It sounds like the banks involved in this transaction needed approval from US authorities to proceed, suggesting that, if it chose, the Biden administration could force a Russian default down the road under the sanctions it’s now imposed on Russian finances. Moscow reportedly has another $4.6 billion or so in dollar- and euro-denominated bond payments to make over the rest of this year so this is not a purely hypothetical issue.
Russian authorities say that government and several major business websites are facing heavy cyber attacks. It seems reasonable to conclude these are related to the Ukraine invasion though their provenance is unknown. Ukrainian officials had talked toward the beginning of the conflict about forming a cyber battalion, while the hacker collective “Anonymous” has also suggested it might target Russian sites.
The Swiss Bankers Association, in a rare moment of translucency if not quite transparency, has revealed that wealthy Russians may hold upwards of 200 billion Swiss francs, or around $213 billion, in Swiss financial institutions. This whopping sum suggests a massive task ahead of Swiss regulators if, as promised, they intend to apply European Union sanctions to Russian assets in Switzerland.
The European Space Agency announced Thursday that it’s suspending its “ExoMars” joint mission with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency. This rover mission was supposed to have gone off in 2020 but was delayed through at least 2024 and now may not happen at all, though Roscosmos boss Dmitry Rogozin suggested that Russia will continue on its own.
And in Ukraine:
With the UN updating its too-low civilian casualty count to 780 people killed and 1252 wounded since the invasion began, the Russian UN delegation on Thursday quashed its own draft Security Council resolution calling for humanitarian access to besieged Ukrainian cities. That resolution was likely to fail, since it didn’t specifically mention the Russian invasion as the reason that humanitarian access was necessary. Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia blamed Western “blackmail and threats” for the impasse.
The war itself remains more or less static apart from air and artillery strikes reported in a number of Ukrainian cities. At last check, authorities in Mariupol were still trying to ascertain the casualty toll from Wednesday’s apparent Russian bombing of a theater in which residents were sheltering. Mariupol remains the city being hardest hit by the Russian military, with some 350,000 residents still believed to be trapped there by the Russian encirclement. Local officials have cited a death toll of over 2000, but under the circumstances that’s impossible to confirm.
At a joint press conference with his US counterpart, Lloyd Austin, Slovak Defense Minister Jaroslav Naď suggested that his government could provide S-300 air defense systems to Ukraine if it were compensated with equivalent Western systems. He was presumably talking about US Patriot batteries, but Austin demurred regardless. As with the Polish offer to supply MiG-29s in return for US aircraft, the logistics of getting these systems into Ukraine seem daunting to say the least. Nevertheless, the Biden administration has said it’s exploring ways to get more advanced anti-aircraft systems to the Ukrainian military, and the S-300 is a system with which they would be familiar. The Russian Foreign Ministry says that supplying such systems to Ukraine would be “destabilizing,” which is a pretty wild claim for the Russian government to make at this particular time.
Sticking to this theme, Reuters has a piece today on the escalating European demand for US-made military hardware in the wake of the Russian invasion. The European shopping list is extensive and you can check it out at that link, but the upshot is that since the invasion began, Lockheed Martin stock is up 8.3 percent and Raytheon stock is up 3.9 percent. As I’ve said before these are the only clear winners of this war.
The Russian navy is reportedly blocking wheat shipments from leaving the Black Sea, adding to fears that one result of this war could be a global food shortage. The Panamanian Maritime Authority is estimating that between 200 and 300 ships are stuck in the Black Sea—other estimates put the number closer to 100, but that’s still not good news from a supply chain perspective. The Panamanians are also claiming that two of their ships have been damaged and another sunk by Russian fire, and there are other reports of ships similarly coming under Russian attack. Russian officials have blamed Ukrainian mines for the shipping bottleneck.
The Brazilian Justice Ministry has seen fit to bestow the “Medal of Indigenous Merit,” an award meant to go to individuals who have gone the extra mile (kilometer, whatever) to protect indigenous Brazilian communities, on none other than President Jair Bolsonaro. To be as charitable as I think is possible, Bolsonaro’s record on protecting indigenous communities is checkered, unless by “protecting” you mean “exploiting their land.” Suffice to say that leaders of those communities have been pointing that out. The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, for example, called the award a “contemptuous gesture.” Maybe they meant it in a nice way.
A Honduran judge on Wednesday approved the extradition of former President Juan Orlando Hernández to the United States, where he’s wanted on drug trafficking and related charges. Hernández’s attorneys say they intend to appeal.
Finally, instead of an article let’s end with a short video explainer from the Quincy Institute’s William Hartung, on the role that arms contractors—those companies whose stock prices are doing so well on account of the war in Ukraine—play in inflating the bulbous US defense budget: