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World roundup: March 8 2022
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Venezuela, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 7, 1573: The Fourth Ottoman-Venetian War ends with an Ottoman victory and a treaty that leaves the hitherto Venetian island of Cyprus under Ottoman control. Although this 1570-1573 war is best remembered for the 1571 naval Battle of Lepanto, which was a resounding victory for the Holy League, that victory came after the last Venetian city on Cyprus, Famagusta, had already fallen to an Ottoman siege. The treaty recognized the overall Ottoman victory and obliged Venice to pay a war indemnity on top of its loss of Cyprus and some territory in Dalmatia.
March 7, 1799: Napoleon’s army successfully captures the city of Jaffa, whose site is part of modern day Tel Aviv, after a very brief siege. The engagement is perhaps best known for Napoleon’s decision to conduct a mass execution of the defeated Ottoman garrison, killing at least 2000 and by some counts more than 4000 men. He apparently hoped that his brutality here would encourage other cities along his march into Syria to surrender peacefully, but instead it seems to have prompted the garrison in Napoleon’s next target, Acre, to resist more vigorously.
March 8, 1010 (or thereabouts): Persian writer Abu’l-Qasim Ferdowsi completes his monumental epic, the Shahnameh.
March 8, 1722: At the Battle of Gulnabad, a Ghilzai Afghan army under Mahmud Hotak defeats the Safavid army, inflicting heavy casualties. The Safavid defeat exposed their capital, Isfahan, to the Afghan forces, who then besieged it. The Safavids surrendered on October 23, and while they had a brief semi-revival in the early 1730s, for all practical purposes this defeat brought their dynasty to a close.
March 8, 1963: Syria’s 8 March Revolution
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
According to the Jordanian palace, Prince Hamzah—the half-brother of and former heir apparent to King Abdullah—has seen the light regarding his alleged involvement in an alleged coup attempt against his brother last April. The palace issued a statement on Tuesday purportedly from Hamzah, in which the prince admits to having “erred” in the “stances I have taken and the offenses I have committed against Your Majesty and our country over the past years” and apologizes for his “actions.” There’s really no way to know whether this statement actually came from Hamzah or was made voluntarily, just as there’s still really no way to know whether the “coup attempt” story was entirely on the up and up or just an excuse to crack down on internal dissent in the Jordanian court.
It would appear that Saudi and Emirati leaders are continuing to tell Joe Biden to get bent on the subject of ramping up oil production:
The White House unsuccessfully tried to arrange calls between President Biden and the de facto leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as the U.S. was working to build international support for Ukraine and contain a surge in oil prices, said Middle East and U.S. officials.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the U.A.E.’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan both declined U.S. requests to speak to Mr. Biden in recent weeks, the officials said, as Saudi and Emirati officials have become more vocal in recent weeks in their criticism of American policy in the Gulf.
“There was some expectation of a phone call, but it didn’t happen,” said a U.S. official of the planned discussion between the Saudi Prince Mohammed and Mr. Biden. “It was part of turning on the spigot [of Saudi oil].”
Mr. Biden did speak with Prince Mohammed’s 86-year-old father, King Salman, on Feb. 9, when the two men reiterated their countries’ longstanding partnership. The U.A.E.’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the call between Mr. Biden and Sheikh Mohammed would be rescheduled.
Those “two civilians” who were killed in an Israeli missile attack south of Damascus on Monday turn out to have been two members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The IRGC announced its intention to avenge their deaths via Iranian state media on Tuesday.
On a happier (?) note, it sounds like the IRGC was finally able to get a second military satellite into orbit, almost two years after it first did so (in April 2020). The IRGC describes its new Nour-2 as, like its Nour-1 predecessor, a reconnaissance satellite, though it’s anybody’s guess as to its level of sophistication. Satellite imagery suggested that an attempted launch last week went awry, so it’s been pretty clear for at least a few days now that the Iranians were up to some space-related activity.
A suicide bomber killed at least six members of a Pakistani paramilitary security unit in the Baluchistan region on Tuesday. Islamic State later claimed responsibility.
A group of Pakistani opposition parties, led by the Pakistan People’s Party, is calling for a no-confidence vote in Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government. They’re citing Khan’s “mismanagement” of the Pakistani economy and claim that he’s lost the support of the Pakistani military, whose backing was critical to putting him in office in the first place in 2018. Khan has of course always insisted that the military didn’t support him and the Pakistani military has long claimed that it’s apolitical despite copious evidence to the contrary. The opposition will need at least 172 votes to remove Khan and force an election.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet announced on Tuesday that she’d reached an agreement with the Chinese government for her to visit that country, perhaps as soon as May. Her trip would include a tour of the Xinjiang region, to investigate claims that Beijing is repressing the Uyghur people and other Muslim communities there. Bachelet’s office said back in December that it was only “weeks” away from issuing a report on those Uyghur allegations, but it hasn’t done so yet. The announcement of this trip presumably means the report will be further delayed. It seems unlikely that Chinese authorities will give Bachelet completely unfettered access in Xinjiang but we shall see.
The South Korean Navy seized a North Korean boat that reportedly crossed into South Korean waters on Tuesday and then fired a “warning shot” in the direction of a North Korean patrol boat that may have been trying to come to the other vessel’s aid and also allegedly entered South Korean waters. The nature of the first vessel is unclear—initial reports apparently described it as a “fishing boat,” but most of the men on board were in uniform, which seems incongruous for a fishing boat.
According to the Committee of Doctors in West Darfur, at least 16 people have been killed and another 16 wounded in another outbreak of inter-communal violence in Sudan’s West Darfur state. The fighting seems to have started over the weekend between members of the Massalit and Arab communities in the Jebel Moon region near the Chadian border. The specific trigger is at this point unknown, though those communities are frequently at odds with one another.
The armed group that had forced production shutdowns at two of Libya’s largest oil fields has apparently lifted its blockade. Libya’s National Oil Corporation announced on Tuesday that it was resuming operations at one of those fields, Sharara, and was repairing a pipeline in order to reopen the other. The blockade had cut Libyan oil production by a bit more than a quarter of the country’s 1.2 million barrel per day capacity.
Armed bandits have reportedly killed at least 67 members of a local defense force after three days of sustained fighting in northwestern Nigeria’s Kebbi state. The attackers reportedly ambushed members of the militia in Kebbi’s Zuru area on Sunday. Nigerian security forces have reportedly deployed to Kebbi but it’s not clear whether they’re making any difference and militia leaders claim the fighting is ongoing.
The commander of the Ugandan army, Lieutenant General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, is reportedly resigning his commission and leaving the military. The reason this otherwise unremarkable development is noteworthy is because Kainerugaba happens to be the son of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and his departure from military life most likely means he’s gearing up to succeed his father in Uganda’s 2026 presidential election.
In Tuesday’s Russia-related news:
As the Biden administration had been telegraphing for the past couple of days, on Tuesday Joe Biden announced that the US will henceforth stop importing Russian oil, gas, and other energy products. This is a unilateral ban and doesn’t involve sanctioning the Russian energy sector. Since the US imports a non-trivial amount of oil and refined products from Russia each year, this move is likely to raise energy prices in the United States along with all the ancillary effects that creates in terms of the prices of other products. Global oil prices spiked up to around $130 per barrel (Brent crude) on the news. The UK government later announced its own plan to phase out Russian oil imports by the end of the year.
The US move may raise pressure on other European states to take similar action, even though at this point it’s simply not possible for most of them to do so. At present Europe is pumping around $150 billion per year into Russia to pay for oil, oil derived products, and gas. This is both counterintuitive, in that it undermines the sanctions the European Union has leveled at Russia, and bad strategy, as it leaves European energy supplies dependent upon a state with which the EU is now de facto at war (sanctions are economic warfare and economic warfare is still warfare). The European Commission released a new plan on Tuesday that would cut Europe’s importation of Russian natural gas by two-thirds this year, a plan that calls for a mix of alternate suppliers, alternative energy investments, and conservation and whose chances of actually being implemented are probably about the same as my chances of discovering a major diamond deposit in the trunk of my car.
Quincy’s Annelle Sheline, Friend of FX, is correct to write that the lesson here is to stop burning fossil fuels so that major suppliers of those products (Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman, Mohammed bin Zayed, all your favorite Nice Guys) no longer have the rest of the world over a barrel. But that’s a lesson that humankind, and particularly Western governments, should have learned a thousand times over just in, say, the past half-century or so and yet here we are, still hooked.
The war isn’t just sending global energy markets into the stratosphere. The London Metal Exchange halted trading in nickel on Tuesday after prices rose above $100,000 per metric ton (they later dropped to around $80k per metric ton). Authorities are blaming market shenanigans for the price spike, but the fact is that Russia is also a major metals supplier. Western sanctions have mostly spared the Russian metals sector directly, but the market is likely reacting to the possibility of metals sanctions in the future as well as to the ancillary effects that other sanctions—banking, chiefly—are having on Russian metals exports.
The Japanese government announced new sanctions on Tuesday targeting 32 Russian and Belarusian individuals and 12 entities from both countries. It also imposed export controls targeting the Russian oil industry and the Belarusian military. The EU looks set to add more names to its lengthy Russian and Belarusian blacklists in the next day or so.
Meanwhile, several more Western companies availed themselves of the PR bonanza that is quitting the Russian market, where chances are they’re at risk of losing their profits and/or investments anyway. McDonald’s and Starbucks announced that they’re shutting down their Russian operations, as did Coca Cola and Pepsi, while Shell apologized for buying a large supply of discounted Russian crude last week and pledged to halt all purchases of Russian energy products, while Unilever announced that it would no longer sell its products in the Russian market.
Among the Western companies ditching Russia have been several tech firms, which is reportedly hanging Russian gig workers out to dry. Again if there’s anyone in Washington considering the impacts sanctions are having on ordinary Russians, this is something to add to the list. The expectation seems to be, as it’s been in Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, and elsewhere, that if you squeeze people hard enough they’ll overthrow their objectionable government on your behalf. That sanctions have never worked that way remains beside the point.
In an effort to preserve suddenly limited foreign currency stockpiles, the Russian Central Bank announced on Tuesday that it’s barring Russians from using rubles to buy US dollars and other currencies for at least six months. The bank has further imposed a $10,000 limit on withdrawals from foreign currency accounts. Anyone who wants to withdraw more than that is welcome to take the ruble equivalent, though it’s unclear why they would want to do so.
New polling indicates that 58 percent of Russians support the Ukraine invasion (46 percent firmly, the rest somewhat) while only 23 percent are opposed. Assuming these figures are reliable that’s a considerably lower level of support than Putin’s past foreign military adventures have garnered, though clearly this one is still relatively popular. The results conflict with those of a poll contracted by the Russian government that found 71 percent support for the war. Both polls highlight lower levels of support (or even outright opposition) among young Russians and city folk.
And in Ukraine:
The United Nations now says it’s confirmed 474 civilians killed and 861 wounded since the Russian invasion began. As always those figures understate the actual toll. The US military is estimating that between 2000 and 4000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the invasion, a figure that’s well below the figures being thrown around by Ukrainian officials (11,000 was the most recent one I’ve heard) but still quite high for an almost two-week operation. By contrast, a bit under 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed through the entirety of their was in Afghanistan, and that lasted just over nine years.
Both the UN and the European Union are reporting that the number of Ukrainian refugees has risen to over 2 million, making this one of the fastest growing refugee crises in history and causing both institutions to rethink their already pessimistic estimates of the likely total number of refugees uprooted by this war. The number of internally displaced Ukrainians is presumably much higher and is going to get higher still as civilians evacuate active combat zones. The EU is warning that unaccompanied minors are at high risk of being trafficked, though it’s unclear whether the bloc is prepared to take any steps to minimize that possibility.
On that subject, the Russian military on Tuesday announced the opening of five “humanitarian corridors” to allow civilians to evacuate five besieged or nearly-besieged Ukrainian cities: Cherhihiv, Kharkiv, Kyiv, Mariupol, and Sumy. There are mixed reports as to the efficacy of these corridors. At least two convoys were able to leave Sumy, a city in northeastern Ukraine that’s been heavily battered in recent days and where there’s been a large contingent of international students in need of evacuation. Residents have reportedly also fled the town of Irpin, a town in Kyiv’s western suburbs. But elsewhere there were reports of evacuations being interrupted, in Mariupol for example, with Ukrainian officials blaming Russian shelling. Moscow has now announced plans to undertake a “humanitarian ceasefire” on Wednesday morning to allow another window for civilians to evacuate.
The DC think tank Institute for the Study of War predicted on Tuesday that Russian forces would make a major assault on Kyiv “in the coming 24-96 hours.” They believe that the Russians have solved or are solving whatever logistical issues they might have been having on the Kyiv front, though as nobody really seems to agree on what those issues are it’s hard to know whether they’ve been addressed. As has been the case for several days the media focus on Kyiv is causing people to overlook Russian advances in the south, though I get the sense that’s starting to change. Russian forces have been stymied in their efforts to take the port city of Mykolaiv but there are indications that they may be trying to simply bypass it and move on to Odessa. They could theoretically link up with Russian peacekeeping forces currently stationed across the border in Moldova’s Transnistria region (who would no longer be doing any “peacekeeping” in this scenario) to surround Odessa.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave an interesting interview to ABC News in the US on Tuesday in which he expressed somewhat greater levels of flexibility on core Russian demands than he’s shown previously. In particular Zelensky was cool to the idea of Ukraine joining NATO, or rather made it clear that NATO is cool to the idea of admitting Ukraine, and suggested that he was open to discussing the status of Ukraine’s disputed territories—Donetsk, Luhansk, and presumably Crimea. Those issues comprise the core of Russia’s stated grievances, though it’s unclear if Putin is interested in serious peace talks at this point.
The Pentagon also apparently believes that both the Ukrainian and Russian militaries have most of their capabilities intact even after almost two weeks of heavy fighting. The problem with this analysis from the Ukrainian perspective is that the Russians started with substantially stronger capability and there’s no reason to believe they’ve lost much, if any, of their edge on paper.
Western nations continue to pour weapons and other materiel into Ukraine to maintain or bolster the Ukrainian military’s capabilities, and there may be billions of dollars’ worth of arms still to come even as the options for delivering them continue to shrink. The potential downsides here are substantial, from arms finding their way onto the black market, to supporting a potential Ukrainian insurgency that could have far-reaching and unpredictable effects, to supporting an extended campaign of urban warfare that could bring with it high casualties and the effective destruction of multiple Ukrainian cities.
Sticking with weaponry, the Polish government said on Tuesday that it’s ready to hand its MiG-29 fighters over to the United States (it’s believed to have 28 of them, give or take), for further transfer on to the Ukrainian military. It apparently made this announcement without checking with anybody in Washington, though, because the US military rejected the offer later in the day. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby argued that flying those MiGs from Germany into contested Ukrainian airspace was not “tenable” and he’s almost certainly right. Even if the planes weren’t shot down by Russian forces it’s difficult to see how the US would then extract its own pilots from the war zone. I don’t think the US is opposed in principle to getting those planes to the Ukrainian military, but not the way the Poles suggested.
The governments of Algeria, Nigeria, and Senegal have all expressed some level of outrage at apparent Ukrainian efforts to recruit mercenaries from across Africa (not just in those three countries). This would be the corollary to reports that Russia has been recruiting Syrians to serve in Ukraine, which we noted yesterday. A large influx of foreign fighters is likely to make it harder to negotiate a settlement to this conflict down the road, as it has in Syria and Libya among other places.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson is resisting some domestic pressure to seek NATO membership, arguing (with some justification) that to do so at this moment would risk heaping more instability on an already very unstable Europe. Her resistance could have a political cost—recent polling has a slim majority of Swedes (51 percent) in favor of joining NATO for perhaps the first time ever. That result also could be taken as a signal that whatever wider message Vladimir Putin was trying to send to Russia’s non-NATO neighbors by invading Ukraine has backfired badly.
The Peruvian Congress is once again attempting to impeach President Pedro Castillo, its second bite at this particular apple since Castillo took office last July. So far 50 members of the 130 member legislature have signed on to the effort, far short of the 87 votes Castillo’s opponents would need to oust him. It seems unlikely they’ll be able to secure that many votes, particularly as Castillo’s popularity, while still quite low (below 30 percent) in absolute terms, has been inching up a bit of late. Castillo is currently looking to amass the 66 votes he’ll need to confirm his new cabinet, led by Prime Minister Aníbal Torres. This is the fourth cabinet Castillo has appointed since July, which I’m sure will be part of the impeachment case against him.
The Biden administration’s sudden outreach to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro may already be paying dividends. Not only did Maduro announce on Monday that he intends to renew political reconciliation talks with Venezuelan opposition leaders—which would likely be a prerequisite for a full rapprochement with Washington—but The Associated Press reported Tuesday that his government has released at least one US national who had been in Venezuelan custody. The prisoner, or former prisoner apparently, is Gustavo Cardenas, one of six senior Citgo executives jailed by Maduro’s government on corruption charges back in 2017.
The US has been seeking the release of all six Citgo executives plus three ex-US military personnel arrested on various charges. Two of the latter were arrested in connection with that bizarre apparent coup attempt in Caracas in 2020 and I would say are the least likely of the bunch to be granted their freedom anytime soon. Washington also appears keen to get more Venezuelan oil pumping to market to try to tamp down on rising prices.
Finally, the US Supreme Court ruled last week that lawyers for Abu Zubaydah cannot obtain information from the Central Intelligence Agency regarding their client’s torture—um, I mean “alleged torture,” of course—because doing so would compromise US state secrets—specifically, the location of CIA black site detention/torture facilities. At his Forever Wars newsletter, Spencer Ackerman has an excellent summary of the ruling and its implications:
WHEN LAST WE LEFT Justice Stephen Breyer, he was testing the smoothness of his juridical brain by seeing if the fundamentals of the Forever Wars could scuff it. In an opinion last week that prevents Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad "Abu Zubaydah" Husayn from implicating the Polish government in his CIA torture, Breyer showed that his legal chrome is polished, gleaming and frictionless.
"Obviously the Court condones neither terrorism nor torture," Breyer wrote on Thursday for a 6-3 majority, "but in this case we are required to decide only a narrow evidentiary dispute."
In fact it is not obvious that the Court does not condone torture, since it just abbeted the CIA in covering up, yet again, the horrors it inflicted on Abu Zubaydah. But that's judicial liberalism for you: the self-congratulation of permitting an incommunicado forever-prisoner to plead his case to the Highest Court in The Land before denying him. And then insisting that obviously you oppose torture.
That denial amounts to Breyer and his colleagues accepting magic words from the CIA about how disclosure means total catastrophe instead of professional inconvenience. That said, Abu Zubaydah's attorneys see a win here inside a loss. They may not be able to ask CIA contractors Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell what the CIA did to Abu Zubaydah in Poland. But if they can frame their questions in a manner that does not explicitly implicate Poland, then they can route around Breyer's "narrow evidentiary dispute."