Discover more from Foreign Exchanges
World roundup: May 26 2022
Stories from Australia, Ukraine, 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 for free today:
FX is going to take a short break for the holiday weekend. Subscribers will receive tomorrow’s roundup and then we’ll return to regular programming on Tuesday. Thanks for reading!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
May 25, 1521: The Diet of Worms, an assembly called by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in response to the growing “Protestant” reform movement led by Martin Luther, culminates with the Edict of Worms. In that proclamation, Charles declared Luther “a notorious heretic” and promised that “those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.” A plan to arrest Luther, who had previously testified before the diet and was on his way home to Wittenburg, was thwarted by Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, who “kidnapped” Luther and stashed him in Wartburg Castle for his own safety. Luther remained at Wartburg until the following March, writing and translating the New Testament into German while his reform movement escalated into a schism and Protestantism began to separate from the Catholic Church.
May 25, 1946: The British Mandate of Transjordan gains independence as “The Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan” with the crowning of Emir Abdullah I as king. May 25 is annually commemorated in Jordan as Independence Day.
May 25, 1981: Leaders from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates sign the Gulf Cooperation Council charter in Abu Dhabi, formally marking the birth of that organization. The GCC was intended to streamline political and economic relations between the six Gulf Arab states, with the potential for tighter unification down the road. It has led to the creation of a Gulf customs union and a number of joint infrastructure projects, but big plans regarding monetary union and increased regional cohesion have been largely undermined by the Saudi-Qatari rivalry.
May 26, 1908: A British drilling operation discovers a commercially-viable oil deposit at Masjed Soleyman, in Iran’s Khuzestan province. Lucky them! This was the first oil find in the Middle East and obviously began the region’s transformation into the stable, economically advantaged paradise it is today. The strike was made under the terms of the “D’Arcy Concession,” a 1901 agreement between British oil baron William Knox D’Arcy and Iranian ruler Mozaffar al-Din Shah Qajar that gave D’Arcy exclusive rights to explore for oil in Iran in exchange for a payment of 20,000 pounds and a mere 16 percent of any future profits. The Burmah Oil Company, which backed D’Arcy’s operation, formed the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (which goes by BP nowadays) and began extracting Iranian oil under the concession’s extremely lopsided terms. Let’s just say this led to some problems down the road and leave it at that.
May 26, 1918: The short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia declares independence from the considerably shorter-lived Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, which in turn formed out of the collapse of the Russian Empire. Although Georgia fell to a Red Army invasion in early 1921 and became a Soviet republic, this not-quite-three year period of independence was formative in terms of the development of Georgian nationalism, and after the country regained its independence from the USSR the Georgian government established May 26 as Independence Day.
May 26: 1966: British Guiana, which you likely know better as Guyana, gains its independence. May 26 is Independence Day in Guyana.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A grenade attack in a fish market in Aden killed at least five people and wounded 20 others on Thursday. At this point there doesn’t seem to be any indication as to the identity of the bomber or motive behind the incident.
Elsewhere, the US government reiterated its call for Yemeni rebels to release the remaining former US embassy staff members they still have in custody. The rebels arrested a large number of local embassy staff in Sanaa back in October, primarily but not exclusively security guards. They released most of them but at least 11 were believed to have remained in detention. One of those, a Yemeni man who previously worked for the US Agency for International Development, has apparently died while still in custody. Details on his death are unclear but that’s what prompted the renewed push for the release of the remainder of those prisoners.
Turkish authorities reportedly believe their security forces arrested the leader of Islamic State, who goes by the nom de guerre “Abu’l-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi,” during a raid on an apparent IS hideout in Istanbul last week. There’s been no official announcement of this arrest but Turkish media has broken the story. Part of the reason the Turks haven’t made an announcement yet may be that they’re still unsure whether the man they have in custody is the IS leader. There’s still some uncertainty about who “Abu’l-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi” actually is, though Iraqi authorities have identified him as the older brother of former IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They may also be concerned about the potential for some sort of IS retaliatory attack, though the cat is presumably now out of the bag as far as that’s concerned.
The Lebanese lira hit a new record low on Thursday, trading at around 36,000 per US dollar on the black market at time of writing. That’s lower than the previous low of 34,000/dollar, set on, um, Tuesday. These new declines come just days after a parliamentary election whose ultimate outcome remains unclear pending coalition negotiations. They also come after a few months of stability in the lira’s value, suggesting that the Lebanese Central Bank can no longer sustain a program it implemented back in January to buoy the currency.
The Palestinian investigation into the death of reporter Shireen Abu Akleh earlier this month has concluded that she was intentionally gunned down by Israeli security forces during their arrest raid in Jenin. That corresponds with findings released by CNN earlier this week, but you can rest assured it will carry no weight with Israeli authorities.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan abruptly called off his march on Islamabad after it sparked violence the previous day and overnight, with one condition: he’s demanding that the Pakistani government call snap elections within six days, lest the march resume. Pakistani authorities allowed Khan’s marchers to enter Islamabad late Wednesday in an effort to curtail the violence, but that only seems to have moved the violence into the Pakistani capital. Khan continues to insist that the confidence vote that ousted him last month was orchestrated by the United States and wants a new election to prove that he’s still got the support of the Pakistani people (well, a plurality of them anyway). As far as I know nobody in the current Pakistani government has responded to his ultimatum as yet.
The sentencing of a prominent Kashmiri separatist leader to life in prison by an Indian court has sparked new violence in Kashmir that’s left at least eight people dead over the past two days. The court sentenced Yasin Malik, leader of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, to a life sentence on Wednesday. Since then, militants have killed at least one police officer and one “television and social-media performer,” as Reuters put it, while Indian security forces say they’ve killed at least three Jaish-e-Mohammad militants and three Lashkar-e-Taiba militants in separate engagements.
A few days after US President Joe Biden redefined, for at least the fourth time by my count, US policy toward Taiwan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a speech in Washington on Thursday that sought to lay out the administration’s approach toward China. Surprising…well, hopefully nobody at this point, Blinken made it clear that the administration views the Ukraine kerfuffle as more or less a dress rehearsal for some future international stand against China, saying openly that Washington intends to keep the current anti-Russia coalition together and redirect its focus toward Beijing over time. He stressed, as the Biden administration has been stressing since Monday, that Joe Biden’s comments earlier this week did not represent a change in Taiwan policy and instead argued that it’s China that’s been changing the status quo around Taiwan by becoming more “belligerent” toward the island.
The United Nations Security Council voted Thursday on a US-drafted resolution that would have intensified international sanctions on North Korea. The measure had the support of 13 of the council’s 15 members, but China and Russia exercised their vetoes so it was rejected. The US, which currently holds the presidency of the council, scheduled the vote despite knowing it would be vetoed.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi jetted off to the Solomon Islands on Thursday for a new round of Pacific Islands diplomacy in which he’ll be countered by new Australian FM Penny Wong, whose regional tour started in Fiji. Wang is hoping to build on the recent security agreement that China and the Solomons concluded, an agreement that Australian and US officials fear could lead to a Chinese military base in the Solomons even though officials in both countries insist there are no plans for such a facility. Wong, meanwhile, offers something of a fresh perspective as the representative of an Australian government that is not led by a climate change denier.
For reasons that should be clear, climate change—and especially its impact on sea levels—is a big deal in the Pacific, so Australia’s new government may be able to make some new headway in terms of improving relations with Pacific Island nations. And that would be good news for the United States, which relies on Canberra in its competition with China to curry favor in the South Pacific.
According to Reuters, thousands of people took to the streets of Khartoum on Thursday in the largest anti-junta protest that city has seen “in about two months.” A large cadre of security forces responded to the demonstration and there are anecdotal reports of injuries, but nothing beyond that from what I’ve seen.
Tunisian President Kais Saied is moving forward with a planned referendum on a new Tunisian constitution, issuing a decree on Wednesday setting July 25 as voting day. Saied, who does everything by decree these days, has named an advisory committee that will draft the new charter amid opposition from Tunisian political parties—who are excluded from the process—and the large UGTT union—which was invited to participate but at a relatively minor level.
An apparent jihadist attack left some 50 people dead in Burkina Faso’s Est region on Wednesday. According to authorities, they were killed while attempting to flee a “blockade” of the village of Madjoari.
The UN Security Council on Thursday voted 10-0, with five abstentions, to renew its international embargo on arms going to South Sudan for another year. That embargo has been in place since 2018 in hopes of reducing the chances that South Sudanese factions will be able to arm themselves for a return to civil war. The UN gave Juba a list of conditions for lifting the ban last year but so far South Sudanese leaders haven’t made much progress on meeting them.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The Congolese military is still battling the M23 militia for control of the Rumangabo region of North Kivu province, where fighting has been raging for the past couple of days. Congolese forces have reportedly retaken their military base in that region, which had fallen into rebel hands, but most of the surrounding area is still under M23’s control. The militia insists that Congolese security forces and their paramilitary allies started the fighting, but in truth M23 has been emerging from a long period of mostly dormancy this year, ostensibly because of the DRC’s failure to implement the terms of a 2013 peace deal.
In news from Russia:
Although sanctions haven’t compromised the Russian economy to a permanent end, that’s not to say they haven’t had an effect. Russian airlines, for example, are already making plans for maintaining their fleets of Western-made aircraft without access to proper spare parts, mostly by reducing the size of those fleets and stripping some planes in order to maintain others. Eventually that will become unsustainable, at which point it might be a good idea for Russian travelers to drive rather than flying. Russian tech firms are scrambling to maintain the country’s cellular service, which may have permanent effects on Russia’s telecommunications sector. Essentially it looks like the economic effect of the sanctions regime will be less acute but more extended than Western governments probably expected.
Speaking of sanctions, Western governments are considering a scheme whereby they might allow Russian elites to buy their way off of various sanctions blacklists by putting some part of their assets toward rebuilding Ukraine. Western countries have so far confiscated a bit over $10 billion, which is objectively a lot of money but only a relatively small fraction of the estimated $800 billion in assets that Russian oligarchs have stashed abroad. Since asset seizures are working very slowly, if at all, it seems Western leaders are looking for some sort of alternative.
The Russian government is on the way to adopting a law that would empower it to seize the assets of foreign companies doing business in Russia. The measure would target companies whose owners are deemed to be in “unfriendly” countries and would make it significantly more difficult for them to divest themselves of their Russian operations.
An anonymous “senior Turkish official” told Reuters on Thursday that Ankara is in talks with both Russian and Ukrainian officials about creating a maritime corridor to enable to export of over 20 million tons of grain that are currently stuck in storage at Ukrainian ports. There’s been a good deal of attention on that stranded grain in recent weeks as global food prices continue to rise. So far Moscow is insisting on some level of sanctions relief in exchange for allowing the grain to pass through its naval blockade, and Western governments don’t seem interested in that exchange. US Army General Christopher Cavoli, who is Joe Biden’s nominee to become the next Supreme Allied Commander Europe, warned the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that global food shortages benefit violent extremist groups like Islamic State. He suggested that the US military might, gosh, just have no choice but to intervene—only to end the blockade, of course. It wouldn’t go any farther than that, promise.
And in Ukraine:
According to the governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk oblast, Serhiy Gaidai, an advance unit of Russian forces on Thursday reached the last open highway connecting the city of Severodonetsk, and the Ukrainian forces stationed there, with the rest of Ukraine. That unit set up a checkpoint on the highway but, according to Gaidai, was eventually driven back. Still, this indicates the Russian military is advancing closer to Severodonetsk and the neighboring city of Lysychansk, which together represent Kyiv’s last real foothold in Luhansk.
To the north, the city of Kharkiv was subject to Russian artillery strikes on Thursday at a level residents there haven’t seen in weeks. These strikes are going to raise concerns that Kharkiv is still on Russia’s agenda despite its forces having largely withdrawn from that region to concentrate on the Donbas. That may still be the longer term plan, but at present I suspect Russian activity here and in other parts of northern Ukraine (along the Russian border in many places) are intended to hold some Ukrainian forces in that region to prevent their deployment to the Donbas.
In the second war crimes trial to be held in Ukraine since the conflict began, two more Russian soldiers have pleaded guilty, this time to firing artillery that destroyed civilian targets in Kharkiv oblast early on in the war. They’re facing a maximum sentence of 12 years in prison.
Kevin O’Reilly, the State Department official coordinating next month’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, confirmed on Thursday that the Biden administration will not invite the Nicaraguan and Venezuelan governments to send representatives to that event. It’s been rumored for some time now that the administration would shut out both nations as well as Cuba. It’s apparently still deliberating about Cuba, but the question may be irrelevant, as Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel said on Wednesday that he won’t attend either way. These snubs may trigger a much larger boycott of the summit, as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Bolivian President Luis Arce, and a number of other Latin American leaders have threatened to skip the event in the event of any exclusions.
The Salvadoran Congress on Wednesday agreed to extend President Nayib Bukele’s state of emergency, first imposed in late March ostensibly over escalating levels of gang violence, for at least another month. Al Jazeera reports on the ways that Salvadoran authorities have been using—and arguably abusing—the state of emergency over its first two months:
Finally, TomDispatch’s William Hartung argues that US arms manufacturers are playing both sides of the Biden administration’s global “democracy versus autocracy” competition:
The president has just approved a new $40 billion aid package for Ukraine rushed through Congress — an even higher figure, you’ll undoubtedly not be surprised to learn, than he asked for. More than half of that package will go for military purposes, which means the outlook for firms like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin couldn’t be brighter. Add to that new sales to NATO allies beefing up their military budgets in response to the Russian invasion, as well as the Pentagon’s own astronomical budget — slated to exceed $800 billion for 2023 — and the opportunities for profit seem nothing short of endless.
And it’s true that Ukraine does indeed need weapons to defend itself. In the context of a policy in Washington designed, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently put it all too bluntly, to “weaken Russia” rather than simply end the war, there is, however, a danger in sending too much, too fast. After all, escalating the conflict in this way could possibly lead to a direct confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, two nuclear-armed nations.
Putting that nightmarish possibility aside, there’s another question that comes to mind (mine, anyway): Does arming Ukraine really make Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and their cohorts “defenders of democracy”?
As someone who has followed Washington’s arms production and its global weapons sales for decades now, my answer would be: far from it. At best, those firms are opportunists, selling their wares wherever they’re allowed to, regardless of whether their products will be used to push back a Russian invasion of Ukraine or fuel the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe of this century in Yemen.
If they were truly to become part of an “arsenal of democracy,” those militarized mega-firms would have to trim their client lists considerably. I suspect, in fact, that if we were looking at their global sales in a more clear-eyed way, we would have to come up with a more apt term for them entirely. My own suggestion when it comes to Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, and similar firms would be “arsenal of autocracy.” Let me explain why I think that term would be all too apt.