Discover more from Foreign Exchanges
World roundup: March 5-6 2022
Stories from Iran, China, Venezuela, and more
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 4, 1493: Christopher Columbus and his crew aboard the Niña arrive at the port of Lisbon, Portugal, on their return from his first voyage to the lands soon to be known as the Americas. After navigating some legal hot water over interpretations of the 1479 Treaty of Alcáçovas, which divided the Atlantic into Portuguese and Spanish spheres of influence, Columbus returned to Spain, convinced he’d charted a western route to Asia. He was slightly off, but to be fair they eventually figured that out.
March 4, 1913: Greek forces defeat a very well-entrenched Ottoman army in the Battle of Bizani, one of the final engagements of the First Balkan War. The Greek victory meant that the city of Ioannina and the surrounding southern Epirus region came under Athens’ control, instead of winding up part of newly independent Albania.
March 5, 363: The Roman Emperor Julian, later dubbed “Julian the Apostate” since he has the distinction of being the last non-Christian Roman ruler, leads his army east to invade the Sasanian (Persian) Empire. Roman invasions of Persia generally turned out to be mistakes, and though Julian was a skilled military commander this campaign was certainly no exception. After some initial successes, Julian gave up his plan to besiege Ctesiphon and instead he led his army on an aimless march through Mesopotamia, harassed the whole way by Persian forces. He died of wounds suffered in the Battle of Samarra in June. The army chose his successor, a general named Jovian who ordered a prompt retreat back to Roman territory.
March 5, 1046: One of the greatest travelers in Islamic history, Nasir Khusraw, departs the Central Asian city of Merv to undertake the Hajj. He spent the next seven years traveling the Middle East, making several more trips to Mecca, visiting Cairo, converting to Ismaʿili Shiʿism, and finally reaching the region of Khorasan in 1052 as an Ismaʿili missionary. He recorded these travels in a book, the Safarnama, which is one of the most famous travelogues ever produced and became one of the early classics of the rejuvenated Persian language.
March 6, 961: The Siege of Chandax ends with a Byzantine victory and their recovery of the island of Crete.
March 6, 1957: Ghana gains its independence from Britain, becoming the first British colony in sub-Saharan Africa to do so. Commemorated as Independence Day in Ghana.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
According to state media, at least 13 Syrian soldiers were killed, and another 18 wounded, on Sunday when their bus was attacked by Islamic State fighters in the vicinity of Palmyra in central Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims that at least 15 soldiers were killed in the attack.
Leaders of Yemen’s Houthi/Ansar Allah rebellion have reportedly put their signatures on a document outlining the United Nations’ plan to transfer the oil cargo from the disabled and disintegrating FSO Safer, which has been abandoned near Hudaydah since near the start of the Yemeni war, to another tanker. The UN has been trying to forestall the Safer’s looming environmental crisis—it could spill upwards of 1.1 million barrels of oil out into the Red Sea if nothing is done to prevent that—for several years, but this is as close as it and the rebels have actually gotten to implementing a plan. That said, the rebels have pulled out of several previous agreements (that admittedly didn’t get to the signed memo stage), so this issue shouldn’t be considered resolved until that oil is safely transferred.
The Iraqi parliament voted on Saturday to reopen the candidate registration process for their long-delayed presidential election. We’ve been documenting the many twists and turns in this race, including most recently the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court’s rejection of Kurdistan Regional Government Interior Minister Rêber Ahmed’s candidacy. That ruling appears to have sent parliament back to square one. Iraqi MPs have to elect a president before they can continue on to the appointment of a prime minister and cabinet, a process several Shiʿa parties are attempting to block in order to force prospective kingmaker Muqtada al-Sadr to drop his plans to form a majority government and revert back to the “national unity” format that has been the standard for every Iraqi government since the US invasion.
Israeli occupation forces killed two Palestinians in separate incidents on Sunday. In eastern Jerusalem, a Palestinian man allegedly approached a group of Israeli police officers and stabbed one before being shot and killed by the others. In Abu Dis, an Arab suburb of Jerusalem, Israeli forces killed one of two Palestinians who were allegedly tossing fire bombs at their outpost. The other fled the scene.
So the good news is that International Atomic Energy Agency head Rafael Grossi was able, during his visit to Tehran on Saturday, to come to an agreement with Iranian officials on a plan for resolving the IAEA’s ongoing investigation into enriched uranium traces found at three undeclared Iranian sites. The plan calls for a final report on the issue from Grossi at the IAEA’s June board of governors meeting. While there’s no way to predict what that report will say, and its outcome could have repercussions down the road, the announcement of a path forward on this issue potentially removes one of the lingering impediments to an agreement on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
The bad news is that Russian negotiators may have created a brand new impediment to the agreement on Saturday when they introduced a demand that Russian trade with Iran be exempted from Western sanctions over their Ukraine invasion. Moscow may be trying to sink the deal altogether, viewing the lifting of sanctions and the wider introduction of Iranian oil to the market as problematic given the potential for Western sanctions on Russia’s energy sector. But while Russia is expected to play an active role in re-implementing the deal (for example by taking control of Iran’s surplus uranium stockpile), even if it were to pull out of the accord altogether that wouldn’t necessarily scuttle the entire accord.
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for Friday’s suicide bombing of a Shiʿa mosque in Peshawar, the death toll from which now stands at 63 and may rise higher still. Pakistani authorities said on Saturday that they’d identified the bomber and expected to take down the rest of his cell within the next couple of days.
A grenade attack in a crowded market in the Kashmiri regional capital, Srinagar, killed at least one person and wounded 20 more on Sunday. The target appears to have been Indian security personnel, though the choice of venue meant a high likelihood of civilian casualties. There’s little question that Kashmiri separatists were responsible though as far as I’m aware no specific group has claimed the attack as yet.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced on Saturday that Beijing’s 2022 military budget will be ¥1.45 trillion (around $229.47 billion), a substantial (7.1 percent) hike over last year’s allotment. Of particular note, that increase outpaces China’s expected 5.5 percent overall economic growth, a figure that may wind up being adjusted down in the wake of the Ukraine invasion and its various repercussions. Of course it’s still less than a third of the US military budget, though the difference isn’t quite so stark when purchasing power is taken into consideration. Expect calls for even bigger US military budgets to follow this news.
In addition to the higher military budget, Beijing’s annual report also mentions a desire for “resolving the Taiwan question in the new era,” phrasing that is unlikely to tamp down concerns in Taiwan that what’s happening to Ukraine may at some point happen to their country. These reports always say something about reunification so it’s probably not worth reading too much into this. But that said I guess it’s not so surprising that the confluence of Ukraine, this particular phrase, and the heightened military budget would raise some eyebrows.
North Korean officials are claiming that the missile or rocket test they carried out on Saturday was related to their development of a satellite launch system. This is the second straight incident like this that Pyongyang has attributed to the satellite program. But South Korean officials seem convinced that both of these tests have been covertly related to North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile program. Under this theory, labeling them as satellite tests obfuscates the issue enough so that Pyongyang can “send a message” to the United States without necessarily drawing a punitive response from Washington.
The Tunisian Interior Ministry reported on Saturday that its security forces had prevented some sort of terrorist attack and arrested one suspect, a woman who was apparently planning to undertake a suicide bombing. Details beyond that are spotty, but her intended target is believed to have been a security facility.
The Malian military is denying claims that its soldiers were responsible for an alleged massacre of dozens of men in Mali’s Ségou region. Video purportedly showing the charred bodies of the victims has been circulating online along with allegations that they were killing by Malian security forces. The bodies were reportedly discovered on Tuesday and it’s believed the victims had been arrested over the course of the past couple of weeks. Though it of course routinely denies allegations to this effect, this is not the first atrocity to which the Malian military has been linked.
Following up on its appointment of economist Albert Ouedraogo as interim prime minister on Thursday, Burkina Faso’s ruling junta named the rest of its interim cabinet on Saturday. Notably the new cabinet retains Defense Minister Barthelemy Simporé from former President Roch Kaboré’s government, so I guess junta leaders don’t hold him responsible for Kaboré’s failure to manage the country’s mounting jihadist violence problem. That was the chief stated grievance behind the coup that removed Kaboré from office back in January.
At least 20 people were reportedly killed on Wednesday when militants attacked a bus in Ethiopia’s Benishangul-Gumuz region. A provincial official described the attackers as, according to Addis Standard, “‘anti-peace forces’ infiltrating through Sudan,” terminology that I have to admit I’m having a hard time trying to parse.
In this weekend’s news from Russia:
Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first substantive public remarks on his invasion of Ukraine on Saturday and surely sent a thrill up the legs of headline writers all over the US when he said that Western sanctions “are like the declaration of war” or something to that effect (translation being a somewhat inexact art). You’ll note that he didn’t say they are a declaration of war and he didn’t himself declare war on NATO or the like (technically I don’t even think he’s declared war on Ukraine, as absurd as that may be). But putting “Putin” and “declaration of war” in the same headline is bound to get clicks.
Putin also warned that continued Ukrainian resistance to his invasion could “risk the future of Ukrainian statehood,” a concept he’s already more or less rejected on a theoretical/historical level. There’s something perverse about invading a place and then blaming the people living in that place for resisting your invasion, but that’s generally what invaders do.
For whatever it’s worth (not much, it would appear), Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attempted to play peacemaker over the weekend, meeting with Putin in Moscow on Saturday before speaking by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and heading to Berlin for a confab with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. There’s no indication he made any headway, but then he’s not alone there as nobody else has made any headway talking with Putin over the past ten days either.
As to the aforementioned sanctions, there were a couple of developments of note over the weekend. Aeroflot, Russia’s largest commercial air carrier, announced that it’s giving up on international flights (other thank to Minsk, which is still technically an international flight) starting Tuesday. Airspace bans and other logistical obstacles have made maintaining these flights difficult and there are fears that foreign governments may start seizing Russian planes that leave Russian jurisdiction. Visa and Mastercard, meanwhile, have suspended their operations in Russia. International transactions involving Russia—cardholders in Russia attempting to buy something outside the country and cardholders outside Russia attempting to buy something inside the country—will be barred, but it sounds like transactions within Russia (which are handled by a domestic firm) will be unaffected. Russian banks are reportedly planning to turn to China and its UnionPay system as an alternative to the Western card companies.
On the “potential forthcoming development” front, Antony Blinken told NBC News on Sunday that the Biden administration is “now in very active discussions with our European partners about banning the import of Russian oil to our countries” while somehow still “maintaining a steady global supply of oil.” I’m not sure how they intend to do that, though there are a couple of possibilities in this very roundup (the Iran deal above and another coming below). The invasion has spiked oil prices that were already high, and while polling indicates an appetite among Americans for more sanctions on Russia even if those translate to higher energy prices, my suspicion is that most US voters aren’t going to connect those two things when they’re pumping gas at $6 per gallon and paying commensurately higher prices at the grocery store.
While quite a number of them have found their way to various Western blacklists over the past couple of weeks, sanctions experts and anti-corruption types are saying that there’s more to do in terms of closing loopholes through which Russian elites (“oligarchs”) are able to conceal their assets. There are obvious anti-corruption reasons to go after these people, so obvious that it shouldn’t have taken the invasion of Ukraine to make it happen. But to be clear, there’s no reason at this point to think that doing so will or even can impact Putin’s decision-making.
Antiwar protests in some 65 Russian towns and cities led to the arrest of over 4600 people on Sunday, according to a monitoring group called OVD-Info. Russian authorities continue to crack down on both foreign media outlets and independent domestic media outlets, presumably over…oh, let’s say “disagreements” with how they’re covering the war.
While it seems like everybody’s still trying to grasp the effects the invasion and subsequent Western sanctions on Russia could have on the global economy—here’s another attempt to break down what might happen to food prices and suffice to say it’s not good—the World Bank published a piece on Friday on another aspect of that story: remittances. Expat workers in Russia generally send part of their income back home and those remittance streams can be important contributors to the local economy. The Bank estimates that payments to Central Asian and Caucasian states are likely to be very hard hit this year, while remittance payments to Ukraine ironically enough may actually go up, due to the large number of people suddenly relocating to (and presumably needing to find jobs in) countries elsewhere in Europe.
And in Ukraine:
The United Nations says it’s now confirmed at least 364 civilians killed and 759 more wounded in Ukraine since the start of the invasion. Both figures are likely undercounting the actual casualty toll.
The UN refugee agency has tracked more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees in the ten days since the invasion began, making this “the fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II” according to its Twitter account. That figure may actually be out of date, as Polish authorities announced late Sunday that they’d tracked over 1 million refugees entering that country alone. Migration to Poland has accounted for a bit over half of the total so far, so that figure would imply that the overall refugee count is approaching 2 million.
The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, is continuing to cite Russian casualty figures—11,000 soldiers dead at last check—that seem if not impossible then at least implausible, and unsustainable for the Russians on the off chance they’re accurate.
The humanitarian corridor project may already be dead just a couple of days after Ukrainian and Russian negotiators agreed on it. Attempts to open such a corridor to allow residents of the besieged southern city of Mariupol failed at least twice over the weekend. Each side accused the other of failing to abide by the localized ceasefire that would be necessary to open the corridor.
The above is likely to be a blow to the prospects of future talks, though interestingly one member of the Ukrainian negotiating team reportedly told Fox News on Sunday that Kyiv is “ready to discuss some non-NATO models” for its national security. The “NATO model” possibility is of course one of the main issues cited by Russian officials to justify their invasion, so this unlock new possibilities for further discussion—though things may now be beyond the point where “talking them out” is a realistic option.
I haven’t seen any reports of major territorial movements this weekend, but there are reports of heavy Russian shelling on the town of Irpin, outside of Kyiv, while Ukrainian forces are still digging in for a siege of their capital. Their plan now appears to be to fortify as many major cities as possible while conducting quick “hit and run” style attacks on Russian forces in the open field. Russian rocket fire reportedly destroyed the airport in the western Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia on Sunday. That’s well ahead of where Russian ground forces are but makes sense if the aim is to finally eliminate Ukrainian air capabilities. On a possibly related note, the Russians also reportedly disabled a Ukrainian military airfield south of Kyiv on Sunday.
In southern Ukraine, defenders in the port city of Mykolaiv have reportedly driven Russian forces completely out of that city, even retaking control of its airport after it had fallen into Russian hands. It seems doubtful that they can continue holding out like this, but the fact that they’ve been able to do so for the past three days is itself surprising and imposes costs in terms of losses and logistical problems that may affect the expected Russian advance on Odessa.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky continues to demand either a Western-imposed no-fly zone over Ukraine or a supply of military aircraft. He’s unlikely to get the former but there’s new reason to believe he may get the latter, as the Biden administration is reportedly in talks with the Polish government to supply Ukraine with its MiG-29 fighter jets in return for an expedited shipment of US F-16s to replace them and maintain the Polish Air Force. It seems part of Warsaw’s reluctance to provide its planes to Ukraine is a concern about depleting its own military. A shipment of F-16s would allay that concern and would probably also, as a side benefit, be good news for General Dynamics’ bottom line. Who says there are no winners in war?
Off the battlefield, Ukrainian authorities say that Russian (presumably) hackers have been “attacking Ukrainian information resources nonstop” since the start of the invasion. These attacks have apparently had little effect so far.
Although US officials continue to insist against the odds that the Ukrainian military can “win” this conflict—I suppose it depends on how you define “win” but even “not lose” still seems like a long shot—but The Washington Post reports that US and European governments are already planning to support an extended Ukrainian insurgency, including a “government in-exile.” Most of the current Ukrainian government remains in Kyiv, so this would assume either that they eventually evacuate or name some sort of successor institution. I for one am excited to see how this plays out, because as far as I can remember (the past 48 hours or so) Western support for insurgents around the world has never had any drawbacks or eventual downsides.
A new poll from France’s Le Monde newspaper indicates that incumbent Emmanuel Macron has gotten a major boost due to the Ukraine war ahead of next month’s French presidential election. The survey has Macron winning the April 10 first round with 30.5 percent of the vote, up from 26.5 percent in the same poll last week and well ahead of runner up Marine Le Pen at 14.5 percent (down a point). Macron then easily beats Le Pen in their hypothetical April 24 runoff, 59-41.
In what could prove to be a fascinating development, the Biden administration sent what sounds like a fairly high-level delegation, including senior White House and State Department officials, to Venezuela on Saturday to meet with President Nicolás Maduro. That this delegation went to meet with Maduro, whom the US government doesn’t officially recognize as Venezuela’s legitimate president, is itself noteworthy. But their intention appears to be rebuilding at least commercial ties between the US and Venezuela in an effort to pry Caracas out of Russia’s orbit, or at least to get some more Venezuelan oil flowing to market. The immediate aim appears to have been negotiating the release of several prominent detainees of Maduro’s government, including six executives from the oil company Citgo and three former US service members.
It doesn’t sound like they made any immediate progress over the weekend, but this could be the start of a longer process. The administration may be hoping to entice Maduro to resume participation in reconciliation talks with the Venezuelan opposition, which the Mexican government had been brokering but which more or less collapsed last year. In the meantime it could take some steps to ease Venezuelan oil sanctions.
Finally, TomDispatch’s Nick Turse looks at the extent of the global refugee situation, which has hit crisis levels and is only getting worse:
The number of people forcibly displaced by war, persecution, general violence, or human-rights violations last year swelled to a staggering 84 million, according to UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. If they formed their own country, it would be the 17th largest in the world, slightly bigger than Iran or Germany. Add in those driven across borders by economic desperation and the number balloons past one billion, placing it among the three largest nations on Earth.
This “nation” of the dispossessed is only expected to grow, according to a new report by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), an aid organization focused on displacement. Their forecast, which covers 26 high-risk countries, predicts that the number of displaced people will increase by almost three million this year and nearly four million in 2023. This means that, in the decade between 2014 and 2023, the displaced population on this planet will have almost doubled, growing by more than 35 million people. And that doesn’t even count most of the seven million-plus likely to be displaced by Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine.
“It is extremely worrying to see such a rapidly increasing number of displaced persons in such a short time,” said Charlotte Slente, the secretary general of the Danish Refugee Council. “This is where the international community and diplomacy need to step up. Unfortunately, we see a decreasing number of peace agreements and a lack of international attention to countries where displacement is predicted to rise most.”