World roundup: May 7-8 2022
Stories from Egypt, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and more
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Happy Mother’s Day!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
May 6, 1527: A group of around 20,000 Habsburg soldiers and mercenaries, who were mutinying over not being paid, sack the city of Rome and besiege Pope Clement VII in the Castel Sant’Angelo. The city was heavily looted, and Clement was only released after agreeing to pay a ransom. Some art historians consider the sack and the devastation it entailed to mark the end of the Italian High Renaissance. It definitely marked a shift in the Catholic world. Clement and the papacy were badly weakened, and although Habsburg Emperor Charles V may have been a little embarrassed about how it happened, he was happy to take advantage, and so power shifted away from the popes and toward the emperors. Among other things this meant that the Church did not pursue the Crusade against Protestantism that Clement had favored, which helped solidify the Reformation.
May 6, 1954: British runner Roger Bannister becomes the first person to verifiably run a mile in under four minutes. That’s cool. I run a three minute mile myself, but four is really nice. Bannister’s time of 3:59.4 obviously stood as the world record, but only for about six weeks before it was broken on June 21 by Australian runner John Landy’s 3:58 mile.
May 7, 1942: The naval Battle of the Coral Sea reaches its climax, which is…mixed. The Japanese Navy won a tactical victory, sinking several heavy US vessels, including the fleet carrier USS Lexington, while losing comparatively less. But the losses Japan suffered severely curtailed its naval strength, preventing a planned invasion of Port Moresby in Papua and to the Allied victory at the Battle of Midway in June. What’s most noteworthy about this engagement is that it was the first naval battle in history in which the actual ships involved never directly fired on one another. The entire battle was fought via carrier aircraft. Needless to say this had a profound impact on naval warfare moving forward.
May 8, 1429: The Siege of Orléans ends with the withdrawal of the besieging English forces and, therefore, a French victory. This siege was the first victory by the French army under the leadership of Joan of Arc and helped reverse French fortunes in the Hundred Years’ War. It was not a devastating defeat for the English army, but had the English army captured Orléans it likely would have been able to conquer all of France so the victory prevented a total French defeat. The ensuing Loire Campaign was more decisive, opening up the city of Reims to the French army and giving the French Dauphin Charles the legitimacy to have himself crowned King Charles VII.
May 8, 1945: The German high command in Berlin signs its instrument of unconditional surrender, providing for the withdrawal and disarmament of the German military and the ouster of the Nazi-led government and ending World War II in Europe. Because the instrument was signed late into the evening, and thanks to the wonder of time zones, Victory in Europe, or “V-E,” Day is celebrated on May 8 in points west of Berlin and on May 9 in most points east of Berlin, like Russia and Israel.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Some enterprising country conducted airstrikes on Saturday targeting parts of eastern Syria’s Deir Ezzor province that are under the control of Iranian-backed militias, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. This strongly suggests that the country in question was either Israel or the United States. There’s no indication as to what was attacked and there’s been no report of casualties or significant damage.
At least 12 people were killed late Friday in some sort of clash between the Security Belt militia and alleged al-Qaeda fighters in southern Yemen’s Dhale province. Two of those killed were colonels in the Security Belt, which is aligned with the separatist Southern Transitional Council and is backed by the United Arab Emirates, along with two other Security Belt personnel and eight alleged al-Qaeda fighters. The militia unit reportedly ordered the (alleged) al-Qaeda fighters to disarm and that sparked the fighting.
The United Nations has organized an impromptu donors conference for Wednesday to try to raise the roughly $80 million it needs to deal with the FSO Safer, an oil tanker that’s been stranded in the Red Sea near Hudaydah since the start of the Yemen war. The deteriorating ship is an environmental catastrophe in waiting, carrying over 1.14 million barrels of oil that will spill out once the hull fully collapses. The UN finally reached agreement with Yemeni rebels earlier this year to offload that oil, with the understanding that it would eventually be turned over to the rebels.
Israeli occupation forces shot and killed a Palestinian late Sunday near the West Bank city of Tulkarm. He was allegedly attempting to bypass a security fence and enter Israel proper. Israeli forces also killed a knife-wielding Palestinian man who allegedly attacked a military outpost somewhere in the West Bank (details are sparse). Earlier in the day Israeli authorities arrested two men in connection with Thursday’s axe attack in the city of Elad in which three people were killed and several others wounded.
Islamic State militants attacked an Egyptian military checkpoint in northern Sinai on Saturday, killing at least 11 soldiers and wounding five others.
The Arab Center’s Khalil Al-Anani outlines the billions in financial aid that wealthy Gulf states have recently been funneling into the Egyptian economy:
On April 4, 2022, Gulf Arab countries pledged $22 billion to help Egypt avert a currency crisis resulting from the Russian war on Ukraine. The Egyptian pound lost about 14 percent of its value to the dollar. Additionally, Egypt has since the beginning of the year been facing a severe economic and financial crisis due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequences of the ongoing war in Ukraine. The surge in food, oil, and energy prices—coupled with the inefficient economic policies of the regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—increased the suffering of ordinary Egyptians, which raises the specter of another political and social turmoil similar to the Egyptian uprising in early 2011. The key questions now appear to be why Gulf countries seem keen to provide financial and economic support to Sisi’s regime and to what extent can the financial bailout really rescue it and Egypt in the medium and long terms?
The latter question is pretty easy to answer because Egypt has taken billions in Gulf handouts over the past several years and it hasn’t materially improved the economy—Sisi’s government either pockets the loot outright or funnels it into inefficient mega-projects that are themselves probably riddled with corruption. As to the former, while Egypt isn’t a major geopolitical player these days it’s still the largest Arab state, and the leaders of those Gulf countries all presumably see value in buying its friendship.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz checked into King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Jeddah on Saturday for a battery of tests, which seems routine for an 86 year old man whose health has been the subject of rumors (none of them good) for several years now. But the kingdom announced on Sunday that he’ll be staying in the hospital to “rest” even after the tests have been completed, which while not exactly out of the ordinary is still somewhat eyebrow raising. Crown Prince
Bonesaw McGraw Mohammed bin Salman, who already runs the kingdom on a day-to-day basis, would of course be in line to become king should anything happen to his father.
The Afghan government has decreed that all women must be fully covered, faces included, if they leave the house—under the caveat that frankly it would be better if they never did that. This marks pretty close to a full return to the ultra-repressive Taliban ethos of the late 1990s and may be a death knell for this government’s hopes of obtaining widespread international recognition and engagement or even of charting a path out of sanctions. Enforcement of this new edict will apparently be carried out on the offending woman’s male guardian, who could be fined and/or imprisoned depending on the offense. I’m not sure if that’s meant to be a concession to the international community but if it is I don’t think it will have the intended effect. The ruling from Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada has sparked a new round of “Taliban in Disarray” stories about divisions between “hardliners” and “pragmatists,” but at best such internal disagreements might impact the enforcement of these restrictions. They’re not going to get them rescinded.
The National Resistance Front, the nascent rebellion ostensibly led by Ahmad Massoud (son of the former “Northern Alliance” leader Ahmad Shah Massoud), claimed on Saturday that its forces had seized control of “three major districts” in Afghanistan’s Panjshir province. Afghan officials are denying this claim but residents of the Panjshir region are apparently confirming that some kind of battle took place (though they aren’t confirming the NRF’s claim as to the outcome).
The North Korean military tested another weapon on Saturday—a submarine-launched ballistic missile, according to South Korean authorities. South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol will take office on Tuesday and Joe Biden is expected to visit Seoul later this month, so the North Koreans may have several tests up their collective sleeve for the rest of this month. Speculation is growing that one of those tests might be of the nuclear variety, perhaps of a tactical or “low yield” warhead.
Hundreds of people demonstrated in Tunis on Sunday in support of President Kais Saied and his consolidation of power for ostensibly “anti-corruption” reasons. Saied has been increasingly under scrutiny over his plans—assuming he actually has any—to eventually transition away from what is effectively a dictatorship and back to a more democratic system of governance. The rally was meant to show that he still has supporters, though its size may indicate that his support is dwindling to some degree.
Militants ambushed a “food convoy” escorted by a unit of volunteer army auxiliaries in northern Burkina Faso’s Sahel region on Saturday, killing at least ten of the paramilitary guards along with two other people. There’s no indication as to who was responsible but both IS and al-Qaeda have active affiliates in that region. The country’s ongoing jihadist conflict has displaced an estimated 2 million people, according to the UN, while they and many of those who remain in place are increasingly cut off from humanitarian assistance.
Bandits attacked three villages in Zamfara state in northern Nigeria on Friday, killing at least 48 people in total. They also looted the villages, primarily for food, before apparently being driven off by the Nigerian military. These sorts of “bandit” raids (I put the word in quotes because it belies the sophistication of some of their operations) have displaced some 700,000 people in Zamfara alone, and the “bandits” have cut a wide swathe across several northern Nigerian provinces.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
At least 35 people, and perhaps upwards of 50 or more, have been killed in a militant attack on a gold mine in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province. Authorities announced the attack on Sunday but it’s unclear when it took place. It sounds like CODECO, an ethnic Lendu militia that’s one of the strongest of the many armed groups operating in Ituri and North and South Kivu provinces, was responsible for the attack.
In news from Russia:
G7 member states (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US) issued a joint statement on Sunday committing themselves to weaning off of Russian oil “in a timely and orderly fashion.” The careful reader will likely notice that this is not actually much of a commitment with such a nebulous timetable, but it’s about as close to an actual commitment as a group like the G7 is going to get. While the US, for example, has had little trouble quitting Russian oil since it didn’t import much in the first place, Germany in particular has a painful transition in front of it.
In terms of sanctions that have advanced beyond the hypothetical stage, the Biden administration on Sunday blacklisted 2596 Russian military personnel and 13 Belarusian military personnel, plus eight Russian companies and 69 Russian ships. Included in those sanctions are people alleged to have been involved in human rights abuses in Bucha. The administration also announced new sanctions on a number of Russian media firms as well as a ban on firms providing accounting services to any Russian individuals or entities. That last bit is likely meant to cut down on sanctions evasion. The UK government, meanwhile, announced the imposition of new tariffs on Russian metal and chemical imports and an export ban on several UK products heading to Russia.
And in Ukraine:
Sunday was a big day for celebrity visitors to Ukraine, starting with US First Lady Jill Biden. Presumably due to security concerns Biden’s visit stuck to southwestern Ukraine, where she met Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska in what was Zelenska’s first public appearance since the war began. Biden obviously isn’t a public official so her visit didn’t have any substantive meaning behind it, but it does carry greater symbolic significance than, say, sending a couple of cabinet ministers to Kyiv.
While Mrs. Biden was in western Ukraine, US Chargé d’Affaires Kristina Kvien led a team of diplomatic staff to Kyiv, partly to commemorate “Victory in Europe Day” (see above) and partly as a step toward reopening the US embassy. The US State Department has put reopening the embassy on its agenda and may do so by the end of the month.
Sunday’s other big visit involved Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He joined Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly, and Canadian Ambassador Larisa Galadza in reopening the Canadian embassy in Kyiv. The front line has moved far from the Ukrainian capital—and is continuing to move farther if reports of a Russian withdrawal from the Kharkiv region are accurate—so the risk to these embassies is no longer as serious as it was a few weeks ago.
On the front line, meanwhile, a number of people are believed to have been killed on Sunday when an apparent Russian airstrike hit a school-turned-shelter in the village of Bilohorivka in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk oblast. Officials are suggesting that as many as 60 people could have been killed in the incident while survivor accounts seem to be putting the figure lower, somewhere around 25.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin made his own surprise visit to Ukraine over the weekend, this one not sanctioned by Kyiv. Khusnullin stopped by Mariupol, apparently to talk about postwar reconstruction of a city that Moscow almost certainly intends to keep if possible. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk announced on Saturday that efforts to evacuate civilians from the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol had succeeded in bringing all women, children, and elderly out of the site. If the Russian forces besieging the plant intend to finish off the last Ukrainian combatants on that site, they’ll presumably do that forthwith.
The newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda reported a few days ago that peace talks between Russia and Ukraine were derailed when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Kyiv last month. Citing “sources close to” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the paper reported that during his visit, Johnson pressured the Ukrainian leader to take a harder line in talks with Moscow and hinted that Western governments might resist a peace deal now that they felt Russia was on the defensive. I have no way of knowing if this report is true, completely fabricated, or somewhere in between. This would explain why negotiations have basically ceased, with the Russian side complaining that Ukrainian negotiators reversed some of their previous positions. But that doesn’t mean it happened this way.
Officials in Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region claimed on Saturday that their region had been subject to no fewer than four Ukrainian drone strikes overnight. There’s no indication of casualties or damage, however, and Ukrainian officials continue to insist they’re being framed by the separatists to create a pretext for expanding the war into Moldova.
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva formally launched his campaign to unseat incumbent Jair Bolsonaro on Saturday. Lula’s entry into the race has been a foregone conclusion for some time now, but the kickoff means he’ll be able to take his pitch to voters with more intensity moving forward. He’s expected to make a big push for “moderates” turned off by Bolsonaro’s fascist inclinations by assuring them that he’s not planning to govern from the far left, and has tapped centrist Geraldo Alckmin as his running mate to help make that case. Lula leads Bolsonaro by a significant margin in polling but his lead has shrunk in recent weeks.
New Costa Rican President Rodrigo Chaves officially took office on Sunday. A conservative economist, Chaves was run out of a job at the World Bank amid sexual misconduct accusations but nevertheless defeated former President José María Figueres in last month’s runoff. His Social Democratic Progress Party only controls ten seats in Costa Rica’s 57 seat Legislative Assembly so he’ll have to cobble together a working majority in order to get anything substantive accomplished.
Finally, at Foreign Policy the Center for Global Development’s Charles Kenny and Scott Morris argue that the US government’s insistence on funneling foreign aid to everybody other than foreign governments (to NGOs, to consulting firms, to the US military, etc.) is not working:
The aid architecture that has come to replace government-to-government support in the United States carries its own set of risks. These include Beltway bandits putting profits over people and private sector deals that show little impact. And it leaves out an indispensable partner for development progress—and for providing the public goods and services that sustain human and environmental wellbeing. Governments are responsible for 83 percent of infrastructure investment in developing countries, provide the vast bulk of health and education services, set policies, and write regulations.
Today’s U.S. aid architecture provides next to no finance to directly influence or support government activities. Whether your development priority is renewable energy or pandemic preparedness, trying to work around rather than through governments is fighting with one hand and three more fingers tied behind your back.
This assumes, of course, that the point of foreign aid is to help people living in foreign countries. By that metric this is a massive failure. But if the point of foreign aid is just to funnel money to DC special interests, then in reality it’s a great success story.