World roundup: March 24 2022
Stories from Iraq, North Korea, South Sudan, and more
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Today’s roundup is coming out early due to a prior commitment this evening. We’ll tackle whatever we miss in tomorrow’s newsletter.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 23, 1879: A small Chilean army defeats a much smaller Bolivian force at the Battle of Topáter, which helped trigger the 1879-1884 War of the Pacific. The conflict, fought over a variety of issues including control of Pacific shipping routes and nitrate deposits in the region, ended with Chile victorious over a Bolivian-Peruvian alliance. The resulting settlement saw both defeated countries ceding territory to Chile, including Bolivia’s entire parcel of Pacific coastline.
March 23, 1991: The rebel Revolutionary United Front, with the support of Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia, invades Sierra Leone, kicking off the 1991-2002 Sierra Leone Civil War. After a succession of governments and with considerable foreign help, especially from Britain, the Sierra Leone government emerged victorious. The RUF was later charged with committing a vast array of war crimes, and Taylor, after a stint as president of Liberia, was eventually tried and convicted on 11 war crimes counts by the post-war Special Court for Sierra Leone.
March 24, 1944: Dozens of prisoners at a German POW camp near the town of Sagan called Stalag Luft III escape in a daring overnight action. In total 76 prisoners escaped, but 73 of them were eventually tracked down and recaptured, and 50 of those were executed on Adolf Hitler’s orders in what was later deemed a war crime. The escape is best known as the inspiration for the 1963 film The Great Escape.
March 24, 1999: NATO begins its bombing campaign in Yugoslavia in an effort to force an end to the 1998-1999 Kosovo War. It took 78 days of sustained bombardment but the Yugoslav government of Slobodan Milošević did ultimately agree to stop fighting and Kosovo became de facto independent. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but that declaration is still not universally recognized.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Another car bombing, this time in Aden, killed another senior military commander in the pro-government coalition on Wednesday. Major General Thabet Jawas, commander of the “al-Anad Axis,” was killed along with four other people including his son, and five others were wounded. There’s been no claim of responsibility but both Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have engaged in attacks like this in Aden in the past.
The Iraqi parliament is scheduled to hold its long-delayed vote for a new president (who would then be able to nominate a prime minister) on Saturday, but according to The New Arab there’s a serious risk that it won’t have a quorum in place to make that vote legal. The emerging coalition of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiʿa bloc, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and the Sunni Sovereignty Alliance has put forward Kurdish politician Reber Ahmed as its presidential candidate and Mohammad Jaafar al-Sadr, Muqtada’s brother, as its PM candidate.
This alliance probably has a majority in parliament, so these picks should be elected if the vote is allowed to proceed. But opponents, in particular the Shiʿa Coordination Framework, are trying to interfere with the vote so as to force Sadr to give up his plan to form a simple majority government and stick to the post-Iraq War tradition of national unity governments that can’t get anything done but that allow all political stakeholders to get a piece of the proverbial pie in terms of government revenue and patronage jobs. A full Coordination Framework boycott should leave Saturday’s session short of a quorum.
According to Eurasianet’s Ayla Jean Yackley, the war in Ukraine has spurred efforts by the Turkish and Armenian governments to normalize their bilateral relationship, perhaps out of a sense that with Russia’s attention elsewhere it’s a fortuitous time for Turkey to increase its role in the southern Caucasus and for Armenia to resolve its unsettled relationships with both Turkey and Azerbaijan. But that’s presumably going to be complicated by continuing reports of Azerbaijani attacks on Karabakh. I haven’t seen details on the frequency or extent of these attacks but it seems likely that the Azerbaijanis are exploiting Russian distraction to carry out attacks might otherwise be thwarted by Russian peacekeepers.
Baku has also reportedly been toying with gas supplies to the Karabakh region, at a time when temperatures are still bitterly cold. It’s going to be politically impossible for the Armenian government to improve relations with Turkey, let alone Azerbaijan, if the Azerbaijanis continue to brutalize the Armenian population in Karabakh.
A group of Pakistani Taliban fighters crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan early Thursday morning engaged in a firefight in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in which at least four Pakistan security personnel were killed. The Pakistani military statement about the incident suggested that they’d “foiled” a militant attack, which presumably means they drove the attackers back across the border though I don’t know that for certain.
The North Korean military on Thursday test-fired what appears to have been an intercontinental ballistic missile off of its eastern coast. This is North Korea’s first test of a weapon capable of hitting the United States since 2017, and if its previous weapons tests this year didn’t draw much attention from Washington I suspect this one will. There’s some disagreement about which ICBM model was tested, with initial speculation focused on Pyongyang’s largest model, the Hwasong-17, but subsequent speculation suggesting that it was actually a less powerful Hwasong-15 equipped with boosters and/or a light or no payload in order to give it more range. The South Korean military hurriedly organized a battery of its own weapons tests in response but I’m sure we’ll see a further response from Seoul and Washington soon.
The Chinese and Solomons governments are reportedly nearing a deal that could allow the Chinese military to base naval vessels in the Solomon Islands. The agreement is part of a broader security accord that gives China some policing powers in the Solomons, though at this point it seems to be in a general “memorandum of understanding” form rather than something more specific.
The West African Economic and Monetary Union’s internal court has ruled that sanctions imposed by that body against Mali’s ruling junta in January must be suspended. The junta has described those sanctions as “illegal,” though without really explaining its reasoning. Chiefly the sanctions cut Malian financial institutions off from any bank operating under the union’s umbrella, which on humanitarian grounds alone is questionable. Actually lifting those sanctions is a political decision that union member states could still refuse to take given that there’s no independent means of enforcing the court’s ruling.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
Rebel forces attacked a military outpost in the CAR’s Ouham-Pende region on Tuesday, killing at least five people (three of them civilians). Authorities believe the country’s largest rebel faction, the Return, Reclamation and Rehabilitation (3R) group, was responsible.
Clashes have been reported between South Sudanese military forces and fighters from the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army In Opposition group in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state, potentially threatening the country’s tenuous peace process. The SPLA-IO is accusing government forces of attacking its outposts in Upper Nile without provocation. The SPLA-IO is led by on again, off again Vice President Riek Machar, who most recently signed a peace deal with President Salva Kiir in 2018 whose implementation has been haphazard to say the least. In particular the two sides have made little progress on integrating Machar’s forces into the South Sudanese military, leaving room for something like this to happen.
The Ethiopian government on Thursday declared a ceasefire in its war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in an ostensible effort to get humanitarian aid into the Tigray region. Millions of people in Tigray are in desperate need of food and other basic goods but the ongoing conflict has hampered international relief efforts. The TPLF to my knowledge has yet to respond to the ceasefire so it remains to be seen whether it will actually come to fruition.
The casualty count in Wednesday’s double suicide bombing in the Somali city of Beledweyne has skyrocketed to at least 48 killed and 108 wounded. Initial estimates had ten people killed including the apparent target, a local politician campaigning as part of Somalia’s ongoing parliamentary election. Al-Shabab has been attempting to disrupt that election by targeting candidates across the country.
In today’s news from Russia:
The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly (140-5, with 38 abstentions) on Thursday to pass a resolution calling for humanitarian aid access to Ukraine and protection of Ukrainian civilians while condemning the Russian invasion. This was the alternative to a Russian-drafted resolution that included the humanitarian and civilian bits but made no mention of the invasion and was defeated in the UN Security Council on Wednesday. As with all UNGA votes this one is purely symbolic.
The Biden administration on Thursday announced new sanctions targeting some 40 Russian defense contractors as well as 328 members of the Russian Duma and the head of Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank. The US Treasury Department also indicated that transactions with sanctioned Russian entities involving gold could still be subject to US penalties, in case anyone was thinking about dodging sanctions by avoiding the dollar.
In other sanctions news, the UK expanded its Russian blacklist by adding another 65 entities and individuals to it on Thursday. Among the new lucky duckies is Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s stepdaughter, who apparently owns some swanky property in London. And European Union leaders met along with US President Joe Biden in Brussels on Thursday to continue exploring the possibility of an embargo on Russian energy exports. Such a ban seems unlikely, particularly with the German government pretty firmly opposed.
A very swanky $700 million superyacht that’s currently under repair in the Italian town of Marina di Carrara lost all of its crew on Thursday when they not only left their jobs but left town to boot. Why? Well, there’s apparently a good deal of speculation that this impressive vessel, the Scheherazade, is owned by none other than Vladimir Putin himself, albeit through a variety of channels that obfuscate that ownership for legal purposes. Italian authorities have reportedly been investigating the Scheherazade for some time now and could wind up impounding it.
Poland on Thursday became the first of Russia’s European energy companies to refuse to pay for its natural gas purchases in rubles, as Gazprom is now reportedly demanding. Russian authorities want “unfriendly countries” to pay in rubles as a way of bolstering the currency’s value, but technically it seems that Gazprom is violating its contracts by changing the required method of payment.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu briefly appeared on Russian TV on Thursday for the first time in almost two weeks. Shoigu’s absence has raised speculation that he’s being punished for some perceived failure of the Ukrainian war effort. That speculation aligns with similarly speculative reports of purges in the ranks of the Russian security establishment, particularly the Federal Security Service (FSB), over the invasion. I think it’s best to steer clear of this sort of speculation but Shoigu’s appearance may have been a deliberate attempt to dispel these stories.
A new poll from NORC finds that 56 percent of Americans feel that Joe Biden has not been “tough enough” in responding to the Russian invasion. I tend to think that polls like this are useless, because ultimately when people are (hypothetically) paying $8 per gallon for gasoline they’re not going to know that it’s because the US sanctioned Russian oil companies and they’re going to blame Biden anyway. But the White House could see it as a green light to go even further down the sanctions road.
And in Ukraine:
NATO leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday agreed in principle to start supplying Ukraine with more sophisticated weapons, potentially including artillery, tanks, and jets, in response to a call for greater assistance from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. I say “in principle” because it’s still completely unclear how they’d get things like tanks and jets into Ukraine without risking a wider war and there’s still no indication that any NATO member states are prepared to try.
In reference to the above tweet, NATO members agreed, presumably because of Ukraine, to extend Stoltenberg’s term as secretary-general by a year, through September 30, 2023.
Much of the NATO meeting was apparently dominated by talk of the potential Russian use of chemical and/or biological weapons (or, hell, tactical nuclear weapons) in Ukraine, with Joe Biden warning that “we would respond” in such an instance without specifying who “we” is and what sort of response “they” might make. A G7 meeting later in the day was similarly oriented around the WMD issue. NATO members agreed to provide Ukraine with WMD-related equipment and training. There’s no evidence that Russia is preparing to use WMD of any variety in Ukraine (the reason I know this is because the US government hasn’t tried to offer any) but I suppose it’s good to be prepared.
The Ukrainian military says it destroyed a large Russian landing support vessel, the Orsk, in Berdyansk, a port town in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia oblast that’s controlled by the Russian military. There is evidence that something was attacked in Berdyansk’s harbor on Thursday though as far as I can tell there’s no confirmation as to whether that something was the Orsk and whether it was actually destroyed. Russian forces, meanwhile, are reportedly claiming to have captured the town of Izyum, in Kharkiv oblast.
The Ukrainian government is alleging that Russian forces have abducted 402,000 Ukrainian civilians and forcibly taken them into Russia since the invasion began. Moscow isn’t disputing that number but claims those people wanted to go to Russia.
The Bulgarian government on Thursday announced that it’s recalling its ambassador from Moscow, in response to controversial remarks from the Russian ambassador in Sofia earlier this week. That ambassador, Eleonora Mitrofanova, apparently suggested to Russian TV that the Bulgarian people did not support the actions their government has taken to respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Needless to say it’s unclear how she knows that to be the case. In announcing the recall, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said it was inappropriate for a foreign ambassador to try to speak on behalf of the Bulgarian people.
Finally, amid reports of high temperatures some 40 degrees Celsius over previous records in Antarctica and 20-30 degrees over previous records in the Arctic, TomDispatch’s Aviva Chomsky looks at the true meaning of “American exceptionalism”:
With a population of around 330 million, the United States today has less than a quarter of either China’s population of more than 1.4 billion or India’s, which is just under that figure. Four other countries — Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan — fall into the population range of 200 to 300 million, but their per-capita gross domestic products (GDPs) and their per-capita emissions are far below ours. In fact, the total U.S. GDP of more than $19 trillion far exceeds that of any other country, followed by China at $12 trillion and Japan at $5 trillion.
In sum, the United States is exceptional when it comes to both its size and wealth. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn then that, until 2006, it was also by far the world’s top CO2 emitter. After that, it was surpassed by a fast-developing China (though that country’s per capita emissions remain less than half of ours) and no other country’s greenhouse gas emissions come close to either of those two.
To fully understand different countries’ responsibility, it’s necessary to go past yearly numbers and look at how much they’ve emitted over time, since the greenhouse gases we put in the atmosphere don’t disappear at the end of the year. Here again, one country stands out above all the others: the United States, whose cumulative emissions reached 416 billion tons by the end of 2020. China’s, which didn’t start rising rapidly until the 1980s, reached 235 billion tons in that year, while India trailed at 54 billion.
Having first hit 20 billion tons in 1910, U.S. cumulative emissions have only shot up ever since, while China’s didn’t hit that 20 billion mark until 1979. So the U.S. got a big head start and, cumulatively speaking, is still way ahead when it comes to taking down this planet.