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World roundup: March 22 2022
Stories from Syria, China, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 21, 1814: At the Battle of Arcis-sur-Aube, Napoleon is successfully able to disengage his army and retreat in order in the face of a much larger Austrian-Russian-Bavarian opponent. Though a tactical success for the French army, strategically the retreat allowed the Allies to move closer to Paris, and that’s a big part of the reason why this battle was the second-to-last engagement Napoleon fought before the Allies forced him into his first exile.
March 21, 1935: Iranian ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi’s request that the rest of the world call his country “Iran” instead of “Persia” officially takes effect.
March 22, 1739: Nader Shah’s Iranian army sacks the Indian city of Delhi.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Guardian believes it’s uncovered evidence of a “maze of shell companies” that the Syrian government is using to evade US sanctions:
The Syrian regime is setting up shell companies in a systematic attempt to avoid sanctions, according to official documents obtained by the Guardian.
The documents, not publicly available, detail at least three companies established in Syria on the same day with the explicit purpose of operating as a shell to buy shares and manage other companies.
They show clear links between the owners of the new shell companies, President Bashar al-Assad and Syria’s economically powerful elite, including individuals under sanction.
Complicating the ownership structure of businesses in Syria increases the complexity in untangling the role they have in bolstering the regime’s finances and makes it more difficult for foreign powers to impose sanctions effectively on the government’s inner circle.
An attacker later identified as an Arab Israeli citizen killed at least four people on Tuesday in a combination car ramming/knife assault at a gas station in Beersheba. An armed civilian apparently killed him. The attacker was previously imprisoned over some unspecified association with Islamic State but it’s unclear what that means—it could be anything from “communicated personally with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi” to “read some of their literature.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayhan to Sharm el-Sheikh for a trilateral summit that Agence France-Presse justifiably termed “unprecedented.” Nobody seems to have gone into any detail as to what they discussed but I would assume the Ukraine war was on the agenda, as all three men lead countries that are reliant on the United States for their security but all have also been hesitant to antagonize Russia by joining the US-led rush to condemn and punish the invasion.
What I think is more interesting here is the meeting itself and the photos that have emerged from it. They generally show Sisi in between the other two men at the literal center of the action, symbolism that hearkens back to a time when Egypt was something more than an afterthought in world affairs. That’s an image I’m sure Sisi would like to keep broadcasting.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Speaking of the UAE, the Arab Center’s Kristian Coates Ulrichsen examines the responses of the Gulf Cooperation Council and its member states to the Ukraine war, with the general consensus being that they’d prefer to stay out of it:
Like the rest of the Arab world, the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—have responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine according to their interests and preferences. While the fighting in Ukraine does not involve them or present a direct threat to regional stability, there are numerous secondary impacts that do have the potential to be consequential for these states’ interests. They include disruption to energy markets, economic dislocation caused by international sanctions on Russia, and new points of tension in (some) political relationships with the Biden Administration. Importantly, there is renewed focus on the balancing act between historically solid political and security integration into the American network of partnerships in the Middle East and the rapid growth of economic, energy, and investment connections with states such as Russia and China.
Officials throughout the Arab Gulf have expressed support for a diplomatic solution that ends the war which began when Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24. This in part reflects a reluctance to get drawn into the conflict to the degree where leaders may face pressure to take sides, although this may become more difficult the longer the war continues and fault-lines between the west and Russia widen. Beneath this veneer of consensus lies a spectrum along which Kuwait and Qatar have taken positions that more closely align with Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have adopted stances that more cautiously align with Russia, and Bahrain and Oman have largely sought to maintain a low profile. Kuwaiti and Qatari memories of being invaded or threatened by larger neighbors remain vivid while Saudi and Emirati leaders have unresolved issues with the Biden White House as well as stronger oil and defense ties with Russia.
Foreign Policy’s Lynne O’Donnell reports that the Taliban is ratcheting up its repression:
In the weeks since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, the Taliban have extended bans on many parts of what was once normal life before they took over the country last summer. Clampdowns on media, entertainment, and traditional holidays have been extended as the Taliban revive old practices, such as kidnapping foreigners for political leverage.
Journalists continue to be detained and beaten, and hundreds of media organizations have been closed down, ensuring that Taliban activities—including arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings—are not reported. A high-ranking Afghan security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said China is helping the Taliban build a TV station.
Celebrations to mark the Zoroastrian new year on March 20 were canceled. The Afghan flag has been replaced with the Taliban’s white banner. Television networks are not permitted to air foreign programs, and music and dancing are banned. Journalists must work within strict limitations; employees of Tolo TV, which made concessions to the Taliban to stay in business, were detained after reporting on censorship.
I’m not sure the suggestion that Taliban leaders are using the Ukraine war as cover really holds water but it is true that those Tolo employees were subsequently released after international outcry. Given their desire for international recognition it stands to reason they don’t want to attract a lot of negative attention.
France 24 reports on the effect the Ukraine war is having on food prices, focusing in this instance on conditions in Bangladesh:
According to Responsible Statecraft’s Nathan Hutson, the Ukraine war is interfering with the Belt and Road Initiative:
Boosting rail traffic running from China to the European Union via a web of routes through Kazakhstan, Russia, and Belarus is a key element in the Belt and Road Initiative, a $1 trillion vision unveiled by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2013 to project Beijing’s economic and political influence around the world. Rail traffic through Russian territory ran on schedule during the first few weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as orders initiated prior to the war completed their transcontinental journeys. But while transit via the sanctioned Russian Railways is still technically possible, a growing number of logistics companies have effectively halted BRI-related operations through Russia.
On March 10, for example, DB Schenker, a prominent German third-party logistics provider announced it was temporarily suspending “land, air and ocean transport” to and from Russia. A day earlier, another logistics giant, Hapag-Lloyd, confirmed it is no longer accepting bookings involving Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Also on March 9, a statement issued by the inland Port of Duisburg in Germany, a key hub for BRI shipments, noted that international insurers are likely to stop offering coverage for shipments transiting Russia and Belarus.
The financial fallout from the Silk Road rail breakdown is affecting China in a variety of ways. Not only is the war starting to cost Beijing lost trade revenue, it is also turning infrastructure investments into white elephants. One such project is the Great Stone Industrial Park situated about 15 miles outside the Belarusian capital, Minsk. The $2 billion, Chinese-financed complex was billed as a trade and IT hub but was mostly a goodwill gesture to induce BRI cooperation from Belarus. This investment may now prove a total loss for China.
The Ukraine war also seems to be derailing efforts to end another conflict with which many of you may be familiar: World War II. The Russian government has decided to drop out of ongoing negotiations with Japan on a World War II treaty, something they have yet to do mostly because of a dispute over ownership of the Kuril Islands, citing recently-imposed Japanese sanctions. The Japanese government on Tuesday protested that decision, arguing that the sanctions were prompted by Russian actions and therefore it’s inappropriate for Moscow to punish Japan for them.
The Biden administration is reportedly appointing career diplomat Joseph Yun to lead negotiations with the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau on renewing their Compacts of Free Association with the United States. These agreements provide those countries with duty-free trade status and allow citizens of those countries to travel visa-free to the United States, while the United States gets a number of concessions mostly of the military variety. The CFAs for the Marshalls and Micronesia are up for renewal next year and Palau’s is up in 2024. Renewing these deals is viewed as a key part of the US effort to maintain a presence in the Pacific to counter China.
Sudan’s ruling junta issued a statement on Tuesday denying allegations that Russia’s Wagner Group private military contractor is operating inside Sudan. Those allegations were proffered in a piece that appeared in Sudanese media on Monday, courtesy of the Norwegian, UK, and US governments, that accused Wagner of participating “in illicit activities connected to gold mining.” A Russian firm called M-Invest is active in Sudan and the US has in the past accused that firm of being a proxy for Wagner.
Fighting between Senegalese security forces and the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance has reportedly displaced some 6000 people inside neighboring Gambia. Almost 700 of those are residents of the Casamance region who have fled into Gambia but the rest are Gambians set to flight by clashes near the border. The Senegalese government began a new operation against the separatists earlier this month.
Guinea’s ruling junta kicked off a new national reconciliation process on Tuesday that’s intended to last six weeks and theoretically put the country on a path back toward civilian governance. That may be difficult, however, because several political groups—including a couple particularly influential ones—are boycotting over questions about what exactly it is the junta is intending to achieve. Junta leader Mamady Doumbouya has steadfastly refused to set a transition timetable despite international and growing domestic pressure to do so.
A group of bandits reportedly attacked a village in Nigeria’s Zamfara state on Sunday, killing at least 16 people. Local sources are putting the death toll at 37. Banditry continues to plague rural areas of northern Nigeria especially.
In today’s news from Russia:
So on the positive side, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov assured CNN on Tuesday that Russia would only resort to nuclear weapons in case of “an existential threat for our country.” He didn’t define what that might entail, exactly, but I’m sure it’s very reasonable. Presumably the issue of nukes came up again because Joe Biden suggested on Monday that Russian claims about the presence of chemical and/or biological weapons in Ukraine were “a clear sign” that Russia is “considering” the use of one or both of those WMD varietals. That prompted some sniping at the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday, but as yet neither the Russians nor their Western interlocutors have produced any evidence that either side is actually getting ready to deploy WMD in Ukraine.
The European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites has suspended its relationships with Russian clients and the Russian Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring due to concerns that any data it provides could be put to military use in Ukraine. Among other scenarios, if the Russian military is planning on deploying chemical/biological weapons then daily wind patterns in Ukraine would be vital information.
It’s not related to Ukraine, but a Russian court found opposition figure Aleksei Navalny guilty of fraud (embezzling money donated by his supporters, to be precise) and sentenced him to nine years in prison on Tuesday. That would be on top of the two and a half year prison sentence he was already serving. Believe it or not the prosecution may appeal this ruling, because it’s less than the 13 year sentence they wanted.
And in Ukraine:
The Russian military is continuing to rely on air and artillery bombardments targeting Ukrainian military facilities and cities. Shelling is reportedly escalating in Kharkiv, though whether that indicates a renewed Russian effort to take that city remains to be seen. The mayor of Boryspil, a town in Kyiv oblast situated near Ukraine’s largest international airport, is advising residents to evacuate as there’s apparently heavy fighting in that vicinity. On the other hand, there continue to be reports of Ukrainian counter offensives around Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mykolaiv. Their success is unclear. Video circulating online appears to show Ukrainian security forces back in control of Makariv, a town around 40 kilometers west of Kyiv. That claim is unconfirmed. Makariv fell under Russian control in the early days of the invasion and there have been conflicting reports about its status since then.
The port city of Mariupol continues to receive the worst of the Russian bombardments, by land and now also apparently by sea. Russian media is reporting that its forces have control of about half of the city, while Ukrainian officials say there are still over 100,000 civilians there who are looking to evacuate but have not yet found a safe way to do so. It’s impossible to assess the damage to Mariupol’s infrastructure but reports from people who have been able to escape the Russian siege suggest it has been quite severe.
In the realm of reportage that verges on wishcasting, it may interest you to learn that the Russian invasion is running out of both soldiers and food. Anything is possible, I guess, but stories like this strike me as either trying to will something into existence or as an attempt to irritate Vladimir Putin as part of some sort of psychological warfare project.
The US State Department is reportedly advising eligible Ukrainian nationals who have been working at the US embassy in Kyiv to enter the special immigrant visa program to gain permission to relocate to the United States. Many of those staffers sent a letter to the department earlier this month expressing concern that Washington has not kept to promises that it would continue paying their salaries even though the embassy has closed and its operations relocated to Lviv. It’s believed that only about half of the 600 or so Ukrainian staffers at the embassy are eligible for the SIV program, leaving the other half with no obvious recourse in the face of potential Russian reprisals should their forces eventually take the Ukrainian capital. The department seems to be advising them to apply for refugee/resettlement programs with the European Union.
Chile’s constituent assembly voted on Tuesday to push the deadline for the first draft of the new constitution it’s writing back to July 5, giving itself three more months to iron out details in a variety of areas. Assembly members are reportedly having some difficulty working through a large number of proposals in areas like environmental policy and social issues. If they can’t get a document drawn up by the deadline then Chile’s current Pinochet-era constitution will remain in place.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has reached an agreement with the New Democratic Party to continue supporting his minority Liberal Party government through Canada’s next scheduled parliamentary election in 2025. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh had previously been unwilling to offer any guarantees of continued support, but Trudeau was able to wring a commitment out of him in return for promises to pursue NDP priorities on climate change and health policy.
Finally, TomDispatch’s William Hartung, Nick Cleveland-Stout, and Taylor Giorno look at what proponents of a “new Cold War” approach to US foreign policy are really advocating:
Some supporters of higher Pentagon spending have, in fact, been promoting figures as awe inspiring as they are absurd. Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative National Review, is advocating a trillion-dollar military budget, while Matthew Kroenig of the Atlantic Council called for the United States to prepare to win simultaneous wars against Russia and China. He even suggested that Congress “could go so far as to double its defense spending” without straining our resources. That would translate into a proposed annual defense budget of perhaps $1.6 trillion. Neither of those astronomical figures is likely to be implemented soon, but that they’re being talked about at all is indicative of where the Washington debate on Pentagon spending is heading in the wake of the Ukraine disaster.
Ex-government officials are pressing for similarly staggering military budgets. As former Reagan-era State Department official and Iran-Contra operative Elliott Abrams argued in a recent Foreign Affairs piece titled “The New Cold War”: “It should be crystal clear now that a larger percentage of GDP [gross domestic product] will need to be spent on defense.” Similarly, in a Washington Post op-ed, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates insisted that “we need a larger, more advanced military in every branch, taking full advantage of new technologies to fight in new ways.” No matter that the U.S. already outspends China by a three-to-one margin and Russia by 10-to-one.
Truth be told, current levels of Pentagon spending could easily accommodate even a robust program of arming Ukraine as well as a shift of yet more U.S. troops to Eastern Europe. However, as hawkish voices exploit the Russian invasion to justify higher military budgets, don’t expect that sort of information to get much traction. At least for now, cries for more are going to drown out realistic views on the subject.
Beyond the danger of breaking the budget and siphoning off resources urgently needed to address pressing challenges like pandemics, climate change, and racial and economic injustice, a new Cold War could have devastating consequences. Under such a rubric, the U.S. would undoubtedly launch yet more military initiatives, while embracing unsavory allies in the name of fending off Russian and Chinese influence.