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World roundup: May 25 2023
Stories from Afghanistan, Sudan, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: I will be taking this weekend off to correspond with the Memorial Day holiday here in the US, mostly because I need a break. We’ll be get back to a regular schedule on Tuesday. Happy Memorial Day to those celebrating and to everybody else, have a great weekend!
TODAY 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 intra-GCC tensions.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A new Al-Monitor/Premise poll puts Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in a statistical tie heading into their big runoff on Sunday, with Erdoğan at 40 percent support and Kılıçdaroğlu at 39 percent with 15 percent undecided. I try not to get into “unskewing the polls” discourse here but this is a weird result. There’s no logical reason to believe that 15 percent of the Turkish electorate is suddenly undecided less than two weeks after that same electorate nearly handed Erdoğan a first round victory. I mention it here only in the sense that anything can happen.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
A Reuters look at Russian customs records identifies a few beneficiaries of Western sanctions on Russian gold bullion:
The records, which contain details of nearly a thousand gold shipments in the year since the Ukraine war started, show the [UAE] imported 75.7 tonnes of Russian gold worth $4.3 billion - up from just 1.3 tonnes during 2021.
China and Turkey were the next biggest destinations, importing about 20 tonnes each between Feb. 24, 2022 and March 3, 2023. With the UAE, the three countries accounted for 99.8% of the Russian gold exports in the customs data for this period.
In the days after the Ukraine conflict started, many multinational banks, logistics providers and precious metal refiners stopped handling Russian gold, which had typically been shipped to London, a gold trading and storage hub.
The London Bullion Market Association banned Russian bars made from March 7, 2022, and by the end of August, Britain, the European Union, Switzerland, the United States, Canada and Japan had all banned imports of Russian bullion.
The Iranian Defense Ministry declared on Thursday that it had successfully tested a new ballistic missile with a 2000 kilometer range and the capacity to carry a 1500 kilogram warhead. The new weapon is called “Khaybar,” which is a not-so-veiled reference to Israel as it refers to the Khaybar oasis in the Arabian peninsula, where Muhammad and his followers besieged a Jewish Arab tribe in 628. That maximum range would put all of Israel comfortably within this missile’s reach. Under the circumstances its unveiling is likely to increase regional tensions.
The director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, told the AP on Thursday that he’s close to getting Taliban leaders to allow women in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province to resume working for humanitarian relief organizations. This would be a partial reversal of a ban the Taliban imposed back in December, and if it takes hold in Kandahar—the Taliban’s religious center—there’s every reason to believe the policy change would be extended to the rest of the country. We’re very much in “believe it when you see it” territory, but reversing the ban would be a major development in terms of boosting humanitarian aid.
Cambodia’s opposition Candlelight Party has lost the appeal it filed over the elections board’s decision to bar it from standing in July’s general election. This ensures that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party will be essentially unchallenged on the ballot. July’s election is noteworthy in that long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen has hinted at the possibility that he could retire afterward, presumably turning things over to his son, Hun Manet.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Ukraine is about to receive an influx of hundreds of thousands of South Korean-made 155 millimeter artillery rounds, breaching Seoul’s policy heretofore of only providing non-lethal support to Kyiv. The South Korean Defense Ministry insists that the report contains “inaccuracies” and that the lethal assistance policy has not changed, but this may be a question of semantics. Technically, per the WSJ, the South Koreans are giving the shells to the US and it’s the US—whose own stockpile of 155mm shells has been severely depleted in service of the Ukrainian war effort—that would technically be sending them to Ukraine. The US has been thinking about sending Ukraine cluster bombs (which could fill the same basic military niche as the 155mm shells but are far more dangerous to civilians primarily because of a high “dud” rate), but this South Korean shipment will apparently delay a decision on that front.
It seems like the parties to Sudan’s ongoing (I use that term loosely) ceasefire are committed to insisting that it is still active even though there’s little evidence of that on the ground. The US State Department is still talking about ceasefire “violations” as though they were discrete events when in reality there are reports of widespread fighting in and around Khartoum as well as in several parts of the Darfur region. The fighting has apparently been serious enough to prohibit efforts to bring humanitarian relief to civilians trapped in those areas, which was in point of fact supposed to be the goal of the ceasefire. The Biden administration has threatened to sanction senior figures in the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces, but either they’re not particularly concerned about being sanctioned or—as has been speculated—they don’t have much meaningful control over their own rank and file.
Libya’s “Government of National Unity,” which is based in the western part of the country, said on Thursday that its “air force” had carried out strikes against what it described as criminal trafficking gangs in the city of Zawiya. The GNU isn’t known to have an air force at its disposal but it does have drones courtesy of the Turkish government, so perhaps that’s what they meant. Although Zawiya is a western city there are militias there that support the GNU’s rival government based in eastern Libya, so it’s also possible that the “trafficking” allegation is not entirely accurate.
The Biden administration on Thursday blacklisted Ivan Aleksandrovich Maslov, a man it described as the head of the Wagner Group’s operations in Mali. Maslov’s designation came with a new “warning” that Wagner’s Mali outfit is funneling weapons to Ukraine and to the RSF in Sudan. A statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry described this claim as a “hoax” and there’s been no comment from Wagner as far as I know.
The AP reports that the exodus of Western companies from Russia is running into resistance and, in some cases, is starting to reverse:
Increasingly, Russia has put hurdles in the way of companies that want out, requiring approval by a government commission and in some cases from President Vladimir Putin himself, while imposing painful discounts and taxes on sale prices.
Though companies’ stories vary, a common theme is having to thread an obstacle course between Western sanctions and outraged public opinion on one side and Russia’s efforts to discourage and penalize departures on the other. Some international brands such as Coke and Apple are trickling in informally through third countries despite a decision to exit.
Many companies are simply staying put, sometimes citing responsibility to shareholders or employees or legal obligations to local franchisees or partners. Others argue that they’re providing essentials like food, farm supplies or medicine. Some say nothing.
Elsewhere, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on Thursday that it’s closing the Russian consulate in the Swedish city of Gothenburg and the Swedish consulate in St. Petersburg, while expelling five Swedish diplomatic staffers from Russia. The move comes in retaliation for the Swedish government’s expulsion of five Russian diplomatic staffers last month. Russian authorities also announced the arrest of two Ukrainians and two Russians in connection with an alleged plot to destroy power lines at Russia’s Leningrad and Kalinin nuclear plants. Russian officials are pointing a finger at Ukrainian intelligence services.
The Russian and Belarusian governments on Thursday finalized an agreement to deploy Russian tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil. So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice. The deal, which seems more about showing off Russia’s nuclear arsenal than any real tactical or strategic benefit, will see Russia construct a storage facility for those nukes in Belarus. Moscow says it will retain ultimate control over the weapons.
In news from Ukraine:
As promised, the Wagner Group appears to be in the process of withdrawing from Bakhmut and handing control of the city off to the Russian military. Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, who claims he lost 20,000 fighters taking Bakhmut, said his men will redeploy to the rear of the Russian line but could reenter the city if necessary.
According to Reuters some 40 cargo vessels are stuck in Istanbul awaiting inspection under the Black Sea Grain Initiative. They may be bound for the Ukrainian port of Pivdennyi, which Ukrainian officials accused Russia of essentially blockading earlier this week. The slowdown is severely impacting grain exports and may be Moscow’s way of undermining the Initiative, over its grievances regarding Western sanctions, without formally scrapping it.
The deputy director of Ukraine’s military intelligence service, Vadym Skibitsky, for some unfathomable reason decided to tell German media on Thursday that Kyiv is actively trying to assassinate Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is the sort of thing that isn’t terribly surprising but is probably better left unsaid. Russian officials dismissed any threat to Putin’s life but also seized on Skibitsky’s comments to reinforce their claims that the Ukrainian government is a “terrorist regime” that poses a national security threat to Russia.
The Biden administration is reportedly set to unveil another $300 million tranche of military aid for Ukraine, possibly Friday but more likely after the Memorial Day holiday. This new allotment of aid will again focus primarily on ammunition, including more Guided Multiple Launch Rockets for Ukraine’s HIMARS units. Meanwhile, amid the rush to equip Ukraine with F-16 aircraft, the Swedish government is reportedly considering a Ukrainian request to try out its JAS 39 Gripen aircraft. Right now they’re only talking about letting Ukrainian pilots try the craft in a training context.
The Peruvian Congress voted on Thursday to declare Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador persona non grata, for criticizing the ouster and arrest of former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo back in December and for referring to Castillo’s replacement, Dina Boluarte, as a “usurper.” AMLO joins Colombian President Gustavo Petro and former Bolivian President Evo Morales, both of whom have been similarly critical of Castillo’s treatment, on Peru’s “not welcome” list.
Finally, World Politics Review’s Aude Darnal looks at Washington’s deeply misguided approach to interacting with the “Global South”:
As U.S. officials focus on countering China and Russia, both in their respective immediate neighborhoods and in other regions where their influence is rising, Washington’s policy community is taking a new look at U.S. relations with the Global South. These conversations tend to focus on two main questions: How does engaging with these smaller states advance U.S. interests? And why are many Global South countries ambivalent toward the U.S. and reluctant to follow its lead?
Given the strategic importance for the U.S. of these countries, the fact that these conversations about the Global South are taking place is encouraging. But that they focus on these questions also demonstrates how little U.S. leaders, policymakers and the wider public understand the Majority World, as some like to call the Global South. As a result of this knowledge deficit, political actors in the U.S. tend to base their analysis and decisions on assumptions, which are often proven to be wrong.
This is particularly problematic for two reasons. First, the lack of knowledge and flawed reasoning about these countries fuels U.S. hubris, which is expressed in the belief that, as Hal Brands put it in a recent op-ed, the “Global South owes America some thanks.” Second, ignorance about the Global South also contributes to a lack of urgency in reforming the international order, which currently reflects and perpetuates deep inequalities affecting most Global South countries that must be addressed.
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