World roundup: March 29 2022
Stories from Yemen, Ukraine, Peru, and more
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: This newsletter will be taking a now-overdue and badly needed spring break following Thursday’s roundup and will return to a regular schedule on Tuesday, April 12. We will have a few items including (hopefully) a new column from Alex Aviña to keep things going while I’m away.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 28, 1737: The expanding Maratha Empire deals a significant defeat to the past-its-peak Mughal Empire in a battle near Delhi. The outcome wasn’t decisive, as the Maratha Peshwa (similar to grand vizier or perhaps prime minister if you prefer more modern-sounding equivalents) Baji Rao I subsequently withdrew in the face of a large Mughal relief army, but it stands as one of the first definitive signs that the Mughals were being eclipsed as the dominant power in India. Subsequent battles would see the Mughals forced to cede territory and pay tribute to the Marathas.
March 28, 1939: Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces successfully capture Madrid after a nearly two and a half year siege. Franco’s initial assault on the city began in November 1936 and was beaten back by its Republican defenders, so he settled in for a long campaign that eventually wore the defenders down. Franco entered the city and declared victory just days later, on April 1, bringing an end to the Spanish Civil War.
March 29, 1430: The Siege of Thessaloniki ends with the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine-turned-Venetian city.
March 29, 1857: An Indian sepoy named Mangal Pandey engages in an act of insurrection against East India Company officers at his military base outside of Kolkata. He was arrested and later hanged, as was his immediate superior for refusing to arrest him. Pandey’s case highlighted the growing dissatisfaction many sepoys were feeling toward the EIC, and his example (along with what many felt was a disproportionate punishment) helped spark the Sepoy Mutiny, also known as the Indian Rebellion of 1857. That insurrection failed, but it also prompted the British government to take direct control of India, stripping it from the EIC.
March 29, 1879: In arguably the decisive battle of the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War, a force of around 2200 British soldiers and auxiliaries defeats a Zulu army nearly ten times its size at Kambula. Coming just a few days after a smaller British force had suffered a devastating defeat in the Battle of Hlobane and two months after a decisive Zulu victory at Isandlwana ended the initial British invasion of Zululand, Kambula showed that a properly entrenched British army using rifles and field cannon could pick apart even a much larger Zulu force. The effect on Zulu morale appears to have been profound. A second British invasion of Zululand brought the war to a close in early July. British authorities then broke the Zulu kingdom apart into 13 chiefdoms.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
At least four people were killed in an outbreak of violence in the Syrian Democratic Forces’ al-Hol displaced persons/prison camp in northeastern Syria late Monday. According to the SDF its security personnel were attacked by an Islamic State cell within the camp. They returned fire and killed one IS fighter. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that three civilians were also killed in the clash and another ten people were wounded, but there don’t appear to be any further details on those casualties. A large portion of al-Hol is dedicated to housing the detained family members of IS fighters, and it’s within that area that IS seems to have established a foothold.
The Gulf Cooperation Council opened its planned Yemeni peace summit in Riyadh on Tuesday and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen commemorated the occasion by announcing a ceasefire starting Wednesday morning and potentially running through Ramadan, the Islamic holy month that should begin on or around Friday. The United Nations has been pushing for a Ramadan ceasefire and peace talks and the Houthi/Ansar Allah rebel group announced a three day ceasefire of its own on Saturday with a view toward generating a little goodwill. The rebels have yet to respond to the Saudi announcement but there would seem to be a pretty good chance they’ll reciprocate (UPDATE: they did not, so…never mind). The two sides also appear to be circling a prisoner swap though that hasn’t been agreed as yet. The length of this ceasefire will likely be determined by the success or failure of peace talks over the coming days or weeks but this is really starting to look like a legitimate opening to bring this war to an end.
At least five people were shot and killed on Tuesday in an incident reportedly involving a gunman on a motorcycle in the Israeli city of Bnei Brak, located just east of Tel Aviv. There’s no indication yet as to who was responsible for this attack but it bears similarities to Sunday’s shooting in Hadera that was later claimed by Islamic State. Israeli authorities arrested at least two people amid a series of raids earlier on Tuesday in connection with the Hadera incident and the apparent revelation of an active IS cell operating in Israel. If the incident in Bnei Brak is also IS’s doing that leaves little doubt that the organization is making a serious move into Israel for the first time since it attained prominence in 2014.
The Qatari government announced on Tuesday that it’s planning to invest some $5 billion in Egypt, without going into much detail. The particulars of the investment are less important than the top-line, which indicates that Qatari-Egyptian relations are improving along the most obvious possible line (wealthy Qatar buying not-so-wealthy Egypt’s friendship) a little over a year after the Qatari diplomatic crisis came to an end. One obvious area for collaboration would seem to be natural gas, with Egypt looking to exploit potential offshore resources in the eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea, and the Qataris obviously having a wealth of experience in that area to go along with their wealth of, uh, wealth.
Two days ahead of another OPEC+ meeting in which member states are likely to stay the course on global oil production rather than raising it to address high prices, energy ministers from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, speaking at something called the “World Government Summit” in Dubai on Tuesday, cautioned against “politicizing” the bloc by involving it in issues like the Ukraine war. It’s a little incongruous to suggest that people refrain from politicizing an inherently political organization, but Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman argued that without OPEC+, volatility in the oil market could be “worse” than it is now. Oil prices are hanging around $110 per barrel (Brent crude) or higher lately, so things could certainly get worse for oil producers like the Saudis who are reaping the rewards. I’m not sure it could get much worse for oil consumers.
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that it “is ready” for negotiations on a “comprehensive” peace treaty with Armenia. This declaration comes a day after the Armenian government called for such talks to begin while accusing the Azerbaijanis of laying the groundwork for a new military offensive in the Nagorno-Karabakh region—one that would very likely involve the attempted ethnic cleansing of that region’s indigenous Armenian population.
Inkstick’s Caleb Brennan recounts paramilitary operations undertaken as part of the US war in Afghanistan—often to devastating effect on the Afghan people:
[Retired CIA operations officer Phil] Reilly will go down in history as one of the first Americans to enter Afghanistan following the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Along with seven other CIA paramilitary officers, Reilly was flown in on a Russian Mi-17 helicopter to make contact with the Northern Alliance — the only major anti-Taliban resistance in the region — and conduct operations that would gather intelligence, conduct covert acts of extreme violence, surveil Taliban strongholds, and eventually arm a slew of warlords that were more than eager to become a counterinsurgency backed by American firepower and Pentagon capital.
Left out of the jovial exchanges between Reilly and [former CIA Director Michael] Morell is how these opaque operations are a preeminent form of conducting modern warfare: A method with high civilian casualties, no judicial oversight, and a means of preventing the kind of public relations disaster that many in the military intelligence community maintain (and their most sympathetic allies in the press) was the central reason for America’s failure in Vietnam.
Paramilitary tactics — which involves the usage of individuals (in this case both trained CIA operatives, police or security forces, and indigenous warlords) who function like professional military but without any of the oversight or bureaucratic note-keeping — are inherently unaccountable. They create an environment that promotes war crimes, human rights abuses, and conceals the true cost of occupation or geopolitical subterfuge. Conversely, while it has been pertinent to critique the deployment of airstrikes, drones, and private military contractors in the occupation of Afghanistan, not enough culpability was placed on the CIA and Special Forces, who oversaw the use of domestic paramilitary units that, throughout the 20-year US intervention, were granted carte blanche to brutalize, abduct, and murder Afghan civilians with impunity.
Philippine officials have lodged a formal diplomatic protest over an incident involving a Chinese coast guard vessel in the South China Sea over the weekend. According to Manila, the Chinese ship engaged in “close distance maneuvering” near a Philippine coast guard vessel near the Scarborough Shoal, ownership of which is disputed by the two countries though international law appears to side with the Philippine claim. The Chinese government hasn’t really commented on the incident except to reiterate its claim to the shoal.
The South Korean military now appears to be convinced that North Korea’s supposed Hwasong-17 missile test last week actually involved a Hwasong-15, a less powerful but also less experimental intercontinental ballistic missile model. The US military also appears to be coming around to this view, while the Japanese military is sticking with its initial Hwasong-17 assessment. It is conceivable that the North Koreans doctored a Hwasong-15—likely by lightening or even removing its payload—to allow it to perform similarly to what the Hwasong-17 would be expected to do in a flight test. If that’s what they did, and there’s no conclusive proof that they did as far as I can tell, then it would presumably mean the Hwasong-17 isn’t ready for prime-time yet.
Unspecified attackers struck a heavily occupied train outside of Abuja on Monday night, first blowing up the track and then opening fire on the train itself. There’s still no confirmed casualty count but with upwards of 1000 people aboard the train those figures could be high. It’s also believed that some number of passengers were abducted by the attackers. The attack took place in Kaduna state, which has been subjected to frequent acts of banditry in recent years—including other attacks on this very train line—though from the way authorities are describing this incident it seems more sophisticated than the typical act of banditry.
Days after the Ethiopian government and the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front agreed to a ceasefire in order to allow humanitarian aid to reach millions of at risk civilians in the Tigray region, the two sides are blaming each other for the fact that no aid has yet been forthcoming. The issue appears to be a demand from Ethiopian authorities that the TPLF withdraw from parts of Afar and the Amhara region that its forces have occupied. They’re claiming that TPLF fighters are blocking major roads into Tigray. The TPLF is apparently unwilling to withdraw its forces and is insisting that its fighters are not blocking the roads and that the government is lying to justify the lack of aid.
The Ugandan military is claiming that its forces battled a group of M23 rebels from the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo along the border on Tuesday, killing at least 14 of them. One Ugandan soldier was also reportedly killed. M23 has only been sporadically active in the DRC over the past few years but it seems to be having something of a resurgence over the past few days.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Speaking of which, it sounds like M23 is the prime suspect in the possible downing of a helicopter carrying eight United Nations personnel over North Kivu province on Monday. The personnel were reportedly conducting reconnaissance for the UN’s DRC peacekeeping mission in the wake of what apparent M23 attacks on multiple villages earlier in the day. Congolese authorities say the helicopter was shot down but the UN hasn’t confirmed that and it’s possible this was an accident. Most of the passengers were Pakistani peacekeepers and the Pakistani military is claiming that all eight were killed in the crash.
In news from Russia:
Russia’s TASS news agency is reporting that at least one shell from Ukraine landed near a Russian military base near the city of Belgorod on Tuesday evening, wounding at least four people. It’s not clear whether this is just a stray one-off or not, but obviously if Ukrainian forces are shelling the Russian side of the border that would be a significant development.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is pushing back, somewhat angrily it seems, at a new academic study that suggests cutting off Russian oil and gas imports would not be as catastrophic to the German economy as Scholz has suggested it would be. I think it’s safe to say he’s feeling increasing pressure to impose an embargo and thereby deny Russia a hefty amount of revenue. Scholz has adopted a long-term strategy for reducing German dependence on Russian energy, one that could pay dividends years from now but isn’t going to have much impact on the present situation.
It’s worth noting that Russia may wind up taking the decision out of Scholz’s hands if it continues to insist on being paid in rubles for its energy exports. Basically this seems like a game of chicken at this point, with Russia’s European customers refusing to buy rubles and Russia threatening to cut them off unless they do. Will European states cave because they don’t want to lose Russian oil and gas, or will Russia cave because it doesn’t want to lose the revenue?
The US and European Union are looking ahead to future rounds of sanctions, with Deputy US Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo telling reporters in London on Tuesday that military supply chains could be the next big target. For the EU, the European Commission is reportedly leaning on member states to end the practice of awarding “golden passports,” which are basically ways for very rich people to buy EU citizenship or at least residency. Such programs have been popular with wealthy Russians, who could potentially see their citizenship and/or residency status revoked if the EU actually pursues this.
There was a flurry of diplomatic activity on Tuesday as no fewer than four EU member states expelled Russian diplomats. The largest of these incidents took place in Belgium, which booted 21 Russian personnel, while the Netherlands kicked out 17, Ireland four, and Czechia one. As far as I can tell all are alleging that these diplomats were engaged in espionage. Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry expelled three Estonian, three Latvian, and four Lithuanian diplomats in retaliation for similar measures those governments took earlier this month. Retaliations against the four countries that expelled Russian personnel on Tuesday are certainly forthcoming.
And in Ukraine:
Russian and Ukrainian negotiators opened another round of face-to-face peace talks in Istanbul on Tuesday and…may have made some progress? It’s not entirely clear. The Russians, in the person of Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin, announced that they will “radically, by a large margin, reduce military activity” around both Kyiv and the besieged northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv. According to Fomin they’re doing this so as “to increase mutual trust and create the necessary conditions for further negotiations and achieving the ultimate goal” of a peace deal. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians said they’re willing to accept neutral status, potentially satisfying Moscow’s demand that they swear off joining NATO…in exchange for what sounds like a very NATO-ish security guarantee from a still-undetermined list of third parties. They’ve also proposed a 15 year timetable for determining the final status of Crimea and some vaguer proposals to discuss the future of the Donbas.
So is this actually good news? I want to be careful not to be the proverbial Debbie Downer here because a lot of people seem at least somewhat optimistic about what happened. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu seemed pretty pleased with how things turned out, but then he’s got some incentive to hype the outcome of his own peace conference. Ukrainian negotiators suggested that the sides had made enough progress to justify a meeting between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin, though the Russians seem more inclined to hold off until after their respective foreign ministers come to an accord. These seem like positive signs.
Even so, I’m not sure I see it. As far as I can tell the Russians offered to do something—reorienting their war effort away from northern Ukraine and toward eastern and southern Ukraine—that they’re already doing for purely military reasons. And the Ukrainians are “offering” things—de facto membership in a kind of NATO-lite, an extended negotiation over Crimea that might not be finished in Putin’s lifetime—that I’m very skeptical the Russians would be willing to accept. But as always time will tell. As it stands now, Russia’s aims—whether they’re new or have been Russia’s aims all along—seem like they’re going to require at least several weeks of additional fighting in southeastern Ukraine.
As for Mariupol, the city that’s taking the brunt of the violence of late and where there’s no indication the Russians are planning to let up, French President Emmanuel Macron held another of his phone calls with Putin on Tuesday to discuss a potential humanitarian relief mission. Putin apparently told him to get bent. The Russians are demanding that “Ukrainian nationalist militants” surrender—which is presumably a euphemism for the whole city surrendering and not just, say, its Azov Battalion defenders—as a precondition for alleviating Mariupol’s dire humanitarian conditions.
Peruvian President Pedro Castillo survived his second impeachment effort in less than a year on Monday, when only 55 members of the Peruvian Congress voted to oust him from office. Impeachment organizers needed 87 votes for removal—as it was, they actually lost some of the 76 members who voted to open the impeachment proceeding earlier this month.
The Colombian military says its soldiers killed at least 11 members of a dissident ex-Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) faction called Segunda Marquetalia in a battle in southern Colombia’s Putumayo state on Monday. They’re also claiming to have captured four other members of the group.
Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández is on his way to the United States, where he’ll be prosecuted on drug trafficking and related charges, after the Honduran Supreme Court ruled in favor of his extradition on Monday. Hernández could face life in prison if he’s convicted.
Protesters in the Haitian city of Les Cayes burst into the city’s airport and set fire to a plane on Tuesday as part of an apparent demonstration over high crime. The aircraft belongs, or rather belonged I guess, to a US missionary group called Agape Flights. It’s unclear whether the protesters targeted it intentionally or if the plane was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Finally, the Biden administration has revealed its total national security budget request for FY2023, and—you may want to sit down for this—it’s a major increase over the Pentagon’s 2022 budget. I know, I was stunned too. The administration wants to shovel a cool $813 billion into the US war machine next year, up from $778 billion this year, $773 billion of which will go to the Pentagon and the remaining $40 billion to ancillary agencies (the FBI, the Department of Energy, and so forth). To be fair there is a chance that Congress will not agree to the administration’s request, in that there’s some chance it will insist on an even larger increase. Needless to say, Responsible Statecraft’s William Hartung is not impressed:
The Biden administration’s FY 2023 proposal for national defense, released on Monday, far exceeds what is needed to provide a robust defense of the United States and its allies. At $813 billion, it is substantially more — adjusted for inflation — than spending at the height of the Korean or Vietnam wars, and over $100 billion more than peak spending during the Cold War. The $800 billion-plus figure for national defense includes the Pentagon budget, work on nuclear warheads at the Department of Energy, and smaller defense-related outlays at a number of other federal agencies.
Even before today’s budget release, 40 Republican lawmakers, led by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Olla.) pledged to add money to Biden’s request, as happened last year, when Congress added $30 billion to the Pentagon’s original budget proposal. Although the lawmakers did not state a target number, industry analyst Byron Callan has suggested that they could be aiming for a figure for national defense as high as an astonishing $875 billion.