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World roundup: March 19-20 2022
Stories from Yemen, Morocco, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 18, 1921: The Peace of Riga formally ends the 1919-1920 Polish-Soviet War. The Poles emerged mostly victorious, regaining some of the territory that had been lost to the Russian Empire during the three 18th century partitions of Poland, and the outcome put a damper on Bolshevik plans to try to spread their revolution to other parts of Europe. Poland’s borders with what had by then become the Soviet Union were of course redrawn again during and after World War II.
March 18, 1965: During the Voskhod 2 space mission, cosmonaut Alexei Leonov becomes the first person to conduct a spacewalk. Leonov exited the Voskhod spacecraft and spent 12 minutes, 9 seconds in space. The mission’s end the following day almost became a tragedy when weather forced the capsule to touch down off course, in the heavily forested Upper Kama Upland region. Leonov and his fellow cosmonaut, Pavel Belyayev, had to spend the night in the forest because the terrain made their planned airlift impossible and ground rescuers couldn’t reach them until the following day.
March 19, 1279: A heavily outnumbered Mongol (Yuan) fleet defeats a Song Dynasty fleet at the Battle of Yamen, today in China’s Guangdong province. Despite the disparity in numbers, the Yuan were able to blockade the Song fleet in Yamen’s harbor until it ran out of food and water, and then once the Song were desperate enough to attack the Mongols engaged in a ruse to drawn them into an engagement unprepared. In the wake of the defeat, the young Song Emperor Zhao Bing committed suicide, bringing the Song Dynasty to an end and leaving China entirely in Mongolian hands.
March 19, 1962: French and Algerian forces begin a ceasefire under the newly agreed Évian Accords that would mark the end of the fighting in the Algerian War of Independence. The Accords laid out the terms of Algerian independence while preserving some French commercial and military interests, and were put to an April referendum in France and a July referendum in Algeria, winning approval in both.
March 20, 1815: Having escaped exile on the island of Elba, Napoleon makes his triumphant return to Paris as emperor, beginning the “100 days” epilogue to his reign. He would abdicate again on June 22, after losing the Battle of Waterloo and realizing on his return to Paris that there was little public appetite to resist the coalition forces that were marching on the city.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The United Nations envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, is reportedly trying to negotiate a general ceasefire to coincide with Ramadan, which this year looks like it will begin on or around April 2. He may have to negotiate harder in the wake of a substantial Ansar Allah/Houthi attack on multiple targets inside Saudi Arabia early Sunday morning. There are no reports of casualties, but the drone/missile attack impacted production at a Saudi oil refinery in Yanbu and started a fire at an oil distribution facility in Jeddah. It’s unclear how much damage the attacks caused but I suspect that whatever they are, Aramco—whose profits and stock price are soaring—will be able to afford the bill.
Later in the day the Saudis reported shooting down another projectile (whether drone or missile is unclear) that appeared to be on its way to Jeddah. I’m not bullish on the chances of that Ramadan ceasefire coming to fruition.
German Economy Minister Robert Habeck visited Doha on Sunday to put pen to paper on a deal to bring Qatari liquefied natural gas to Germany as a potential replacement for natural gas imported from Russia. The deal is potentially a big break for Qatar, which is investing heavily in expanding its LNG production capacity with an eye toward breaking into a European market that is suddenly very interested in alternatives to Russian fossil fuels. But the timescale for this agreement has to be measured in years, both for the Qataris to expand production and for the German government to expand its capacity for receiving and processing LNG. It’s not going to have anything close to an immediate effect on German energy imports and the substantial amount of money they’re sending Russia’s way.
To great…oh, let’s say “fanfare,” Serdar Berdimuhamedow officially became the new president of Turkmenistan on Saturday, succeeding his father Gurbanguly. Nice to see he’s made something of himself.
The Pakistani parliament will on Friday consider a no-confidence motion that Prime Minister Imran Khan may be in serious danger of losing. Over the past week Khan has seen the coalition partners of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party waver in their support, followed by the defection of several members of PTI itself. As things stand right now it’s unlikely that he has the 172-plus votes he would need to win the confidence vote. Khan is cajoling those PTI defectors to return to the fold, while at the same time he’s pursuing a legal case against them for switching parties.
The Biden administration has officially concluded that the Myanmar military’s treatment of the Rohingya community constitutes genocide. The administration was careful to blame the military rather than the government, though since last February’s coup they’ve been the same thing, because applying its determination to the government as a whole could complicate efforts to support “pro-democracy” groups. As it is this “genocide” designation probably won’t have much tangible effect although it could support other international efforts to investigate crimes committed against the Rohingya.
North Korea apparently conducted another weapons test on Sunday. This time, according to the South Korean military, it involved a “multiple rocket launcher.” Most recently Pyongyang has been testing components of what it calls a satellite launch system but what US and South Korean officials are claiming is its Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile.
South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol announced on Sunday that he plans to move the presidential office and residence from the storied Blue House to the South Korean Defense Ministry’s offices and Seoul’s Hannam-dong neighborhood, respectively. It seems like this is being characterized as a populist gesture, since the ministry compound is more centrally located in Seoul and since his plan is to open the Blue House to the public. But I feel like that’s a hard case to make, given that it’s estimated this move will cost a bit over $40 million (including the cost of relocating the defense ministry) that could presumably be spent on something more pressing (which would be just about anything).
The announcement has sparked rumors that Yoon is under the influence of some shadowy feng shui masters, as the Blue House has apparently for some time been thought of as an “inauspicious” location for the executive seat. In fairness, incumbent Moon Jae-in also raised the idea of moving out of the Blue House but was ultimately convinced to drop the issue.
Thousands of people hit the streets of Tunis on Sunday in a show of displeasure with President Kais Saied’s ongoing one-man rule. Most of those who turned out appear to have been supporters of opposition parties that have opposed Saied’s power grab since it began last July, but there seem to have been a few who told reporters that they were former Saied supporters now disaffected with him. It’s difficult to know whether that signifies any larger turn away from Saied but it is plausible that some portion of his base is growing frustrated with the lack of a transition back to normal governance.
The Spanish government announced late Friday that it now supports the Moroccan government’s plan for broad autonomy for the disputed Western Sahara region. The Moroccan proposal would make Western Sahara largely self-governing on domestic issues, but only under the imprimatur of ultimate Moroccan sovereignty and Moroccan control over external issues (foreign policy, national defense, and so forth). Consequently it’s unacceptable to Polisario, the Sahrawi independence movement that’s been fighting on and off against Moroccan control of the region since Madrid withdrew from the region in 1975. It’s also unacceptable to Algeria, which supports Polisario as a weapon against Morocco and recalled its ambassador from Madrid in response to the new Spanish position. Morocco, meanwhile, restored its ambassador, who’d left Madrid last year over a dispute about the presence of Polisario leader Brahim Ghali in Spain for medical care.
At least seven people were injured on Friday as police attempted to break up a demonstration by supporters of the opposition African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) in Bissau. Police entered PAIGC’s headquarters in response to a court order suspending a planned party congress.
Presumed Islamist militants killed at least 11 Burkinabé soldiers and wounded eight others in an incident that took place in the country’s Est region on Sunday. Details beyond that do not appear to be available.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
At least 14 people were killed in an attack by an unspecified militant group on a displaced persons camp in Ituri province on Saturday. Locals appear to be blaming the Lendu CODECO militia for the assault. Elsewhere, at least four people were killed on Sunday in an attack probably carried out by Allied Democratic Forces fighters in neighboring North Kivu province.
In this weekend’s news from Russia:
In an interview published on Sunday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu suggested that Russian and Ukrainian negotiators are close to agreement on several key principles of a prospective ceasefire/peace deal. Çavuşoğlu has been involved in shuttle diplomacy between Moscow and Kyiv so presumably he’s in a position to know how peace talks are going, but I have to say it’s hard to square his optimism with current events on the ground in Ukraine (see below).
According to Reuters, many members of Syria’s “National Defense Forces,” a pro-government paramilitary group, are prepared to charge off to Ukraine but are still waiting to get the green light from Moscow. Russian officials have said they would welcome Syrian “volunteers” for their war effort but there are numerous reports of active Russian recruitment efforts in Syria, involving promises of hefty compensation by the standards of the average Syrian soldier or paramilitary.
The Australian government announced on Sunday that it’s banning alumina exports to Russia. The Russian metals industry imports 20 percent of its alumina from Australia and this ban will presumably cut into its aluminum production. Canberra also announced plans to ship coal to Ukraine at Kyiv’s request.
Oil is not the only commodity whose price has risen as a result of the Russian invasion. Grain is also getting more expensive, with wheat prices up 21 percent and barley prices up 33 percent since the war began. Compounding that increase, countries interested in growing more food domestically will find that fertilizer costs are up as much as 40 percent. We’re all aware that there were supply chain problems before the invasion, but a full blown war in a region sometimes called the world’s “breadbasket” has exacerbated those problems to the extreme. In addition to raising food prices for consumers the effect will be to diminish the availability of humanitarian nutritional aid, as donor money no longer stretches as far as it once did.
Economist Thomas Piketty believes that Western governments could be doing more to target and sanction wealthy Russians, with the first step being the creation of a “global financial register” to identify who owns what and where they own it. They haven’t done that and are unlikely to do it now because, according to Piketty, wealthy Westerners are opposed to the sort of public transparency such a register would entail. I’m unconvinced that tighter sanctions on Russian “oligarchs” would alter Vladimir Putin’s thinking. He’s been much more attuned to the views of Russian security elites, some of whom are themselves oligarchs but not all. And right now it’s not clear he’s listening to anybody. Regardless, the merits of a register like this seem pretty clear and go beyond the short-term desire to manufacture an end to this war.
And in Ukraine:
As of Sunday the UN’s confirmed civilian casualty count stood at 902 killed and 1459 wounded since the start of the invasion.
Nearly all of the attention on Sunday was focused on Mariupol, which after enduring almost three weeks of siege conditions now appears to be on the verge of capture by Russian forces. The Russians have given the forces defending Mariupol until 5 AM Monday (Moscow time, which is I believe 4 AM local time) to surrender and be “guaranteed safe passage” out of the city. It’s unclear whether this offer applies generally or only to non-combatants, but either way sounds like something not great is going to happen to anybody who sticks around after that deadline. The Russian assault on Mariupol has been escalating since Friday, when there were reports of fighting in the center of the city, and began incorporating an offshore naval bombardment as of Sunday morning. Casualties are impossible to estimate but there’s every likelihood that they’re severe, and on top of those there are unconfirmed claims from Mariupol officials that Russian forces have been “deporting” thousands of city residents to Russia. Mariupol would be the first major Ukrainian city to fall into Russian hands since the invasion began nearly a month ago, and would leave Russia in uncontested control of the entirely of Ukraine’s Azov coast.
UPDATE: Shortly after I hit “send” reports began emerging that Ukrainian officials had rejected Russia’s ultimatum. More on this tomorrow, surely.
Elsewhere Russian forces appear to have stopped trying to advance (with one key exception) and are content to rely on air power, missiles, and other artillery to attack Ukrainian military facilities and cities. There were reports this weekend of air raids in Mykolaiv, where one Russian rocket attack on Friday struck a barracks and killed more than (perhaps far more than) 40 Ukrainian marines. The Russian Navy has reportedly been firing cruise missiles into Ukraine from the Black and Caspian seas. The Russians also say they’ve used “hypersonic” missiles at least twice now. I guess they mean to show off their advanced military hardware, though the Ukrainian military isn’t even equipped to shoot down subsonic cruise missiles so they’re not exactly operating in a heavily contested environment.
Reuters is reporting that the Biden administration suggested that Turkey should send its Russian-made S-400 air defense systems to Ukraine, where they could be used in particular to target cruise missiles that are not vulnerable to the kinds of portable air defense systems Western nations have been sending to the Ukrainian military. While it would be morbidly hilarious if the longstanding US-Turkey beef over the purchase of those systems were resolved by sending them to Ukraine to be used to shoot down Russian aircraft and/or missiles, I have to say I really don’t see this happening.
The one exception I previewed above is in eastern Ukraine, where Russian forces have been moving very slowly in what looks like an effort to encircle the bulk of the Ukrainian army, which is still deployed in the Donbas. Assuming they’re able to take Mariupol in the next day or so the Russians could begin moving more quickly to complete this encirclement. It’s unclear to me why the Ukrainians aren’t pulling back to a less vulnerable position but there may be tactical reasons why a withdrawal would be riskier than staying put. Ukrainian officials are also warning about a potential invasion of western Ukraine via Belarus (whether this would involve Belarusian forces or not isn’t clear). They’ve been warning about this for several days now and it hasn’t yet materialized, though that doesn’t mean it won’t at some point.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on Sunday that he’s shutting down 11 Ukrainian opposition parties over their alleged ties to Russia. Only one, the Opposition Platform for Life party, appears to have a significant presence in parliament (44 seats in the 450 seat Verkhovna Rada). That party is led by Ukraine’s most prominent pro-Russian oligarch, Viktor Medvedchuk, who was arrested on treason charges last year (he apparently left house arrest after the invasion began and his whereabouts are currently unknown). The smaller Nashi Party was also banned—its leader, Yevhen Murayev, was allegedly tabbed by Moscow to serve as the leader of a puppet government according to a prewar claim by British intelligence services. It seems like Zelensky should have more important things to worry about right now and I don’t know that this does much to bolster his claim that Ukraine is fighting for democratic values against the horrors of authoritarian “Putinism,” but maybe that’s just me. I’m sure it won’t hurt his standing in the West either way.
The Washington Post looks at Jair Bolsonaro’s plan to use the war in Ukraine as an excuse to finally push through his plan to pillage indigenous land:
For years, President Jair Bolsonaro has eyed Brazil’s vast Indigenous lands with a combination of lust and frustration.
He has chafed against their size, questioning why Indigenous peoples have been granted control over 13 percent of Brazil’s territory. He has hungered over their resources: “Where there’s Indigenous land, there are riches beneath it.” And he has been the driving force behind a bill that would allow large-scale mining in the pristine territory, which could trigger what scientists warn would be an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.
Now, Bolsonaro says, Brazil finally has all the reason it needs to pass the legislation:
War between Russia and Ukraine.
Finally, TomDispatch’s own Tom Englehardt muses on the proliferation of scenarios for destroying human civilization:
He’s our very own emperor from hell, an updated version of Nero who, in legend, burned down Rome on a whim, though ours prefers drowning Washington. Why, just the other day, Donald Trump — and you knew perfectly well who I meant — bent the ears of 250 top Republican donors for 84 minutes. Among other things, he assured those all-American (not Russian) oligarchs — and let me quote him in the Washington Post on this — that “‘the global warming hoax, it just never ends…’ He mocked the concept of sea levels rising, disputing widely held science. ‘To which I say, great, we have more waterfront property.’”
Admittedly, he’s talking about flooded property, including possibly whole cities going underwater in the decades to come, but what the hell! Yes, indeed, he was the president of the United States not so long ago and, if all goes well (for him, not us), he or some doppelganger, could win the Oval Office again in 2024, ensuring the arrival of that new, all-too-wet waterfront property. And yes, he offered up that little gem — about the 9,000th time he’s called climate change a “hoax” (sometimes blaming it on China) — just as a new scientific report came out suggesting that, if things don’t improve in fossil-fuel-burning terms, up to half of the Amazon rain forest, one of the great carbon sinks on Earth, could be transformed into savanna. To quote the Washington Post again:
“The warming consequences of suddenly losing half the rainforest would be felt thousands of miles away and for centuries into the future, scientists warn. It would mean escalating storms and worsening wildfires, chronic food shortages and nearly a foot of sea level rise inundating coastal communities. It could trigger other tipping points, such as the melting of ice sheets or the disruption of the South American monsoon.”
Hey, Donald, what could possibly go wrong on this all-too-embattled planet of ours?
Of course, at this moment, three of the four largest greenhouse gas emitters, Russia, the U.S. (which is now allowing more drilling for oil and gas than even during Trump’s presidency), and China, are locked in what could only be thought of as a deadly embrace over Vladimir Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine. And the grim war the Russian president launched seems likely to guarantee yet more fossil-fuel use on a planet that needs so much less of it, even as he also put the issue of nuclear war back on the table for the first time since the Cold War ended. How appropriate, if you’re heading into Cold War II to once again raise the possibility — forget about the next Chernobyl — of turning World War III into a nuclear one.
At this point, if you don’t mind a genuine understatement, what a strange planet we now live on.