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World roundup: May 23 2023
Stories from Iran, Sudan, Russia, and elsewhere
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: I will be taking this coming weekend off to correspond with the Memorial Day holiday here in the US, mostly because I need a break. We’ll be on a regular schedule through Thursday and then will get back to normal the following Tuesday. Thanks!
TODAY IN HISTORY
May 23, 1430: In the early days of their siege of the town of Compiègne, Burgundian forces drive off a sortie by the French garrison and in the process capture none other than Joan of Arc, the heroine of the siege of Orléans. The Burgundians turned Joan over to their English allies in exchange for a substantial ransom, and English authorities quickly put her on trial for blasphemy. Among Joan’s alleged crimes were claiming to have received direct communications from God and wearing “masculine” clothing, which seems inevitable if you’re going to ride into battle but I digress. The verdict was never in doubt, with England intending to discredit French King Charles VII’s claim on the throne by associating him with a “convicted” heretic. Joan was executed on May 30, 1431. As far as the siege was concerned, it ended in November 1430 with a French victory that was not terribly decisive as far as the wider Hundred Years’ War was concerned.
May 23, 1618: Two Catholic Bohemian nobles, Jaroslav Bořita of Martinice and Vilém Slavata of Chlum, are thrown out of the top floor window of the Bohemian Chancellery in Prague by a group of Protestant nobles angered over the religious policies of the Bohemian king, the future Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II. Both somehow survived the 70 foot drop, but this “Defenestration of Prague” (one of three such incidents but the one most people likely mean when they talk about the Defenestration of Prague) helped trigger the Thirty Years’ War.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
An apparent Turkish drone strike killed three Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) fighters in Iraq’s Sinjar district on Tuesday. YBS is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and so the Turkish government regards its fighters as legitimate targets.
German prosecutors have issued a warrant for the arrest of Lebanese central bank governor Riad Salameh, joining French prosecutors as a Europe-wide investigation into Lebanese corruption continues. The Germans reportedly informed Lebanese authorities about the warrant on Tuesday. Lebanon as a rule does not extradite its citizens for prosecution abroad, but Lebanese officials have suggested a willingness to consider trying Salameh in Lebanon. My guess is that he’ll escape prosecution because whatever he might say in testimony could implicate other members of Lebanon’s ruling elite, but that’s just a guess.
Satellite imagery confirms that the Iranian government is building a new nuclear facility of some kind, not far from its Natanz nuclear enrichment plant. The Iranians say it’s a new centrifuge manufacturing plant, meant to replace the Natanz plant that was heavily damaged in an act of likely-Israeli sabotage back in 2020. What’s of concern is that this new structure is apparently situated so far underground as to make it impervious even to the vaunted GBU-57, the US “bunker buster” bomb. Plans for a possible airstrike against Iranian nuclear targets, like the country’s hardened Fordow facility, call for using two such bombs in quick succession, but if this new structure is as far underground as is being speculated then even two of them wouldn’t be enough.
This is all relatively uninteresting unless you’re of the opinion that the existence of an Iranian nuclear program is a casus belli. Unfortunately that happens to be the opinion of the Israeli government and at least some elements within the US government, so Iran’s construction of a nuclear facility that is well protected from airstrike raises some serious concerns about what sort of action those countries might take against it. Senior Israeli military officers are musing publicly about this sort of thing and that’s probably not a good sign. It’s sort of cliche at this point to note that the Iranian nuclear program wasn’t a concern until Donald Trump scrapped the 2015 nuclear deal, but I feel like noting it anyway.
The Pakistani Taliban (TTP) claimed responsibility for an attack on Tuesday against an energy complex operated by MOL Pakistan Oil and Gas Company in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The attackers killed at least six security personnel on site and caused some material damage.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Indonesia on Tuesday, where he and Indonesian President Joko Widodo signed a number of economic deals that notably could see bilateral commerce conducted in Iranian rials and Indonesian rupiahs rather than in US dollars. This is handy in that Iran is largely blocked from using dollars by US sanctions. Raisi claimed that the two countries are trying to bump bilateral trade up to an annual level of $20 billion, which seems a tad optimistic given that it stood at around $1 billion last year but I suppose it’s good to have stretch goals. Regardless, there are economic opportunities in Indonesia for Iran to exploit and improving ties with the world’s largest predominantly Muslim nation fits with Raisi’s recent diplomatic efforts within the Middle East.
The opposition National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party led by former Prime Minister (and former president) Xanana Gusmão has apparently won Sunday’s East Timorese parliamentary election. State media reported on Tuesday that CNRT took 41 percent of the vote, which should translate to 31 seats in the National Parliament, give or take. That would be just two shy of a majority in the 65 seat body, which puts Gusmão in pretty good shape heading into coalition talks. The Fretilin party, currently the largest member of East Timor’s governing coalition, took just under 26 percent of the vote and should have around 19 seats in the new session. It may be possible for the current four-party governing coalition to stick together and hold a slim majority in the legislature, but media coverage is leaning toward Gusmão as the favorite to form a new government.
The Biden administration (joined by the South Korean government) on Tuesday blacklisted one North Korean individual and one entity, the Chinyong Information Technology Cooperation Company, over allegations of widespread cybercrime. The US also blacklisted three other entities that had already been sanctioned by South Korea. The US alleges that the North Korean government “seeds” IT workers around the world, most particularly in Russia and China, and those workers then engage in illicit activity designed to raise money primarily to support Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
It would appear—and I know this comes as a great surprise—that the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces are not, strictly speaking, abiding by their seven day ceasefire, which in theory went into effect late Monday local time. That said, according to Reuters the ceasefire has offered “some respite” to civilians trapped in Khartoum and its environs, so it seems the fighting has at least ebbed if not halted entirely. There have been continued reports of artillery fire and of overflights by military aircraft, but notably civilians seem to be indicating a reduction in violence since the ceasefire began so maybe it’s just taking some time to fully take hold.
A Saudi-US monitoring group is tracking alleged ceasefire violations and the threat of sanctions has been dangled in an effort to keep senior leaders on both sides in line, but among other concerns there are questions as to how much control those senior leaders actually have over their fighters. It sounds like preparations are being made to move humanitarian aid from Port Sudan into the capital region but it remains to be seen whether conditions will allow for a large influx of relief.
Thousands of people protested in cities across Ethiopia’s Tigray region on Tuesday to demand the ouster of occupying military forces from Eritrea and the return of Tigrayans displaced by the 2020-2022 war between the Ethiopian government (with Eritrean help) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Although an implementation agreement reached by the Ethiopian government and TPLF last November called for the removal of non-Ethiopian military forces from Tigray (the original peace deal doesn’t mention foreign forces at all), there are still Eritrean soldiers occupying parts of the region.
There are indications that the “sabotage” operation that was underway in Russia’s Belgorod oblast on Monday is no longer a going concern. Russian officials declared on Tuesday that they’d thoroughly defeated the Ukrainian operatives and/or Russian militants involved in the operation, killing more than 70 of them and destroying at least four vehicles. There’s no independent confirmation of this claim, but one of the groups involved in the operation, the Russian Volunteer Corps, issued a statement that seemed to suggest that this episode has reached its end (while promising more escapades to come). At least one Russian civilian was also reportedly killed in the fighting. Ukrainian officials are continuing to deny direct involvement in this operation but a number of their denials seem somewhat tongue-in-cheek and it’s pretty clear they’ve at least provided assistance to the “saboteur” groups. Part of that assistance may have involved US-provided armored vehicles, at least three of which were used in the Belgorod operation according to The New York Times.
A Russian court extended the pretrial detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich for another three months on Tuesday. Russian authorities arrested Gershkovich back in March on spying allegations but beyond that not much is known about his case. The US government has been demanding his release but it’s unlikely the Russians will be prepared to discuss it until after he’s been tried, which now looks like it will take a while.
In Ukraine news:
Ukrainian officials complained on Tuesday that the Russian Navy is blocking grain ships from docking at Ukraine’s Pivdennyi port, which is one of three Ukrainian ports (the largest of them, in fact) that is supposed to be active under the Black Sea Grain Initiative. There’s been no comment from the Russian side but they may be hoping to force the Ukrainians to reopen a pipeline through which Russia exported ammonia for fertilizer prior to the war. The Russians are keen to get the pipeline working again but Ukrainian officials have said they’ll only reopen it if Russia agrees to expand the Black Sea Grain Initiative to include additional ports and products.
I noted a few days ago that Ukrainian officials have been throwing around some improbably high figures for the success of their air defenses, suggesting that they might be exaggerating a bit. Among those figures were what seems like an extraordinary success rate at defending against Russia’s supposedly unstoppable Kinzhal hypersonic missiles. There’s a new piece at Brookings that suggests a different takeaway, which is that maybe the Kinzhal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Indeed, the entire category of “hypersonic” weaponry may be mostly, uh, hype (I’m so sorry). The threat inflation is at least useful for wringing higher military budgets out of Congress, though, so there is some upside.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to the G7 summit in Japan over the weekend was part of a larger diplomatic outreach to the “nonaligned” world, countries that on the whole have not fallen in line behind the West’s pro-Ukraine position. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba is now on a tour of Africa trying to shore up support, and of course Zelensky’s G7 trip came after he made a surprise visit to the Arab League leaders summit in Saudi Arabia. Zelensky spent a good deal of time in Japan courting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was attending the G7 as an observer. I don’t know how much actual progress he made on that front but his cordial meeting with the Indian PM stands in stark contrast with his treatment of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was apparently snubbed by Zelensky.
Lucky duck Greek voters are officially getting to do Sunday’s parliamentary election all over again, probably on June 25. After Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose New Democracy party won the election but fell short of a sole majority, rejected the possibility of forming a coalition, the election’s second and third place finishers—Syriza and Pasok—were each presented with the authority to form a government on Tuesday in accordance with Greek law. Both parties immediately rejected the mandate, since they had no chance of actually succeeding, thereby locking in the snap election. The next vote will be held under a new electoral rule that will make it easier for a single party to amass a parliamentary majority.
Finally, in a new piece for Foreign Affairs, Emma Ashford, Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson, and Stephen Wertheim make the case for reducing the US role in providing European security:
For many analysts in Washington, the latter move would be a costly mistake. As the political scientist Michael Mazarr recently wrote in Foreign Affairs (“Why America Still Needs Europe,” April 17), significantly downgrading the United States’ defense commitments in Europe would “validate the grim picture that China and Russia now paint of a United States that is pitilessly self-interested and transactional, and would severely undermine the United States’ painstaking attempts to build a reputation as that rare great power that offers something to the world other than naked ambition.”
This is a common refrain among those who believe that any meaningful U.S. military drawdown from Europe—most likely involving other states stepping up to shoulder the lion’s share of the defense burden—would sever U.S. ties with the continent and even the world. Pulling back, they argue, is prohibitively risky, would save little money, and could destroy broader cooperation between the United States and Europe.
This concern is overblown. It rests on excessive optimism about the United States’ ability to deter both China and Russia indefinitely and on unwarranted pessimism about the trajectory of a more capable Europe. In reality, countries on both sides of the Atlantic would benefit from transferring most of the responsibility for defending Europe to Europeans themselves, allowing the United States to shift to a supporting role. The result is more likely to be a balanced and sustainable transatlantic partnership than a transatlantic divorce. The alternative, meanwhile, is to stick with a deteriorating status quo that suppresses Europe’s defense capabilities and asks ever more of Washington.
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