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World roundup: September 27 2022
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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Shanah Tovah to those celebrating Rosh Hashanah!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
September 26, 1799: A Republican French army under André Masséna outflanks and defeats a Russian-Austrian force at the Second Battle of Zürich. The French victory recovered what Masséna had lost in his defeat at the First Battle of Zürich in June and led to Russia’s decision to quit the Second Coalition. Shortly afterward Napoleon returned to Paris from Egypt and made himself First Consul, and the French Revolutionary Wars began to go in a whole new direction.
September 26, 1983: The Soviet Union’s early warning network determines that the United States has launched one intercontinental ballistic missile and recommends retaliating, but an air force lieutenant colonel named Stanislav Petrov, under the assumption that the US would not launch a nuclear first strike with a single weapon, decides that it must be malfunctioning. He made a similar determination when the system later showed four more US missiles in fight, and turned out to be correct—Soviet satellites were somehow misreading sunlight reflecting off of high altitude clouds as missiles. Petrov’s decision not to rely on the warning system probably single-handedly prevented World War III.
September 27, 1669: The Siege of Candia ends
September 27, 1822: French orientalist Jean-François Champollion (d. 1832) publishes the first results of his translation of the Rosetta Stone, the first true breakthrough in the effort by European scholars to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. Two years later he published Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens, which cemented his reputation as the “Father of Egyptology.”
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The mayor of Musayfirah, a town in southern Syria’s restive Daraa province, was assassinated early Tuesday on his way to work. The killing comes one day after gunmen murdered the imam of a mosque in another Daraa town, Tafas. There’s no indication as to responsibility in either attack, but Daraa continues to suffer low-level violence as “former” rebel factions and pro-government militants remain active.
Syria’s cholera outbreak has now spread from the northeastern part of the country nationwide, involving at least 2000 confirmed cases and 29 confirmed deaths. People living in overcrowded displacement camps are at greatest risk of contracting the illness, which comprises a large proportion of the Syrian population after more than 11 years of war.
Turkish authorities have released more details regarding Monday’s attack on police in Mersin province. According to Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu the attackers were two women affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who opened fire on police officers who were guarding a hotel and ultimately detonated suicide vests after they’d been wounded. One police officer was killed in addition to the two attackers, while two people were wounded.
Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih al-Berri has called a new session for September 29, wherein the main objective will be electing a new president. Incumbent Michel Aoun’s term ends on October 31 and Lebanese presidents are not eligible for reelection. There is no clear candidate in line to succeed Aoun, however, which raises the possibility of a deadlocked parliament and a vacant presidency. Lebanon spent over two years without a president between 2014 and 2016 because parliament could not agree, so there is recent precedent for something like that. While the Lebanese presidency is not a particularly powerful office, if parliament can’t agree on a president it’s unlikely to be able to agree on much else.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz reshuffled his cabinet on Tuesday, or at least somebody reshuffled it for him since it’s unclear whether he’s really involved in the day to day management of his kingdom. And by “somebody” I mean Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who got a promotion to prime minister in the new grouping. You don’t often hear about the Saudi prime minister, and that’s because this is only the second time in the kingdom’s history that the PM has been someone other than the reigning king. For the first case you have to go all the way back to Crown Prince (later king) Faisal, who served as PM for his unpopular brother, King Saud, from 1954-1960 and again from 1962 until he deposed Saud and replaced him in 1964.
MBS has been the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia for some time now, but this promotion will make his reign a little more de jure than it had been. It also, and I’m sure this is purely a coincidence, may give the Biden administration justification to confer sovereign immunity on the prince, who just so happens to be facing a lawsuit in the US over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The rest of the cabinet seems largely unchanged, with the new PM’s brother Khalid bin Salman succeeding him as defense minister and another brother, Abdulaziz bin Salman, remaining as energy minister.
The Afghan government has apparently cut a deal with Moscow to purchase Russian fuel and food products. According to acting Commerce and Industry Minister Haji Nooruddin Azizi the Russians offered Afghanistan a discount on global prices in order to conclude the deal. The agreement will help Kabul obtain basic goods despite being largely cut off from the global financial network by the United States and gives sanctions-hit Russia a new export market. It’s also further evidence that US sanctions are pushing target countries into closer economic alignment with one another.
Chinese President Xi Jinping made a public appearance on state TV on Tuesday. I mention this otherwise mundane event because for several days now there have been rumors swirling of some sort of coup in Beijing despite, as far as I can tell, a complete absence of evidence for such a claim. Maybe Tuesday’s appearance will put an end to that speculation. I know, probably not.
The South Korean government claimed on Monday, and the Chinese government later confirmed, that China and North Korea have resumed cross-border freight transit. The two countries had shut down freight shipments back in April amid an outbreak of COVID on the Chinese side of the border. This was just prior to the onset of North Korean’s one acknowledged COVID outbreak, which is probably not a coincidence though Pyongyang insists that its outbreak came from South Korea somehow.
Al Jazeera reports that there are indications of some friction within Sudan’s ruling military junta, as deputy leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (“Hemeti”) appears to be cozying up (or trying to, anyway) to civilian opposition groups in an effort to outflank his boss:
In recent weeks, Dagalo – better known as Hemeti – has declared the October 25, 2021 coup a failure due to the ongoing protests and a spiralling economy, and touted his efforts to reduce violence in Sudan’s neglected peripheral regions.
But as the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a group widely blamed for killing more than 120 protesters in the capital of Khartoum in June 2019, many in the pro-democracy movement do not trust Hemeti.
“Hemeti knows that the military coup failed … that’s why he is now claiming to support the people of Sudan. But all he wants is power in the next government,” said Sammer Hamza, a 25-year-old pro-democracy activist.
Hemeti is widely considered a shrewd and calculating figure after turning on his previous sponsor and Sudan’s former President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. He eventually became the second-in-command to top army General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, his partner in the coup.
Now after months of cracking down on pro-democracy demonstrators, the RSF leader is backing efforts to form a civilian government to secure popular and international legitimacy while strengthening his position [vis-a-vis] al-Burhan, according to activists and analysts.
The Moroccan Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that the Algerian government had delivered an invitation to Moroccan King Mohammed VI to attend November’s Arab League summit in Algiers. This is at least somewhat notable in that Algeria cut diplomatic ties with Morocco in August of last year over unspecified “hostile acts” by the Moroccan government. Relations have been frosty ever since. The invitation doesn’t mean they’re back on the mend but it does at least avoid any diplomatic snafu around the summit.
The Nigerien government has reportedly suspended the shipment (and transshipment) of “oil products” to Mali, save those products being used by the United Nations peacekeeping mission there. According to AFP, Nigerien officials are citing “security reasons” for the suspension, and there have been reports of shipments being hijacked by Islamist militants in the Nigerien-Malian border region. Interestingly, though, the move comes a few days after Malian Prime Minister Abdoulaye Maïga’s speech at the UN General Assembly, wherein he had some unkind words for Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum. What a coincidence! The suspension affects goods made in Niger as well as Nigerian products that are shipped to Mali through Niger.
An apparent act of sabotage has seriously damaged Russia’s Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, sending natural gas spewing into the Baltic Sea. While there’s no definitive proof yet as to what happened, officials across Europe and in Russia have settled on deliberate sabotage as the cause of what appear to be three major pipeline leaks (two on the NS 1 and one on the NS 2). This determination is based in part on seismograph readings collected by Sweden's Uppsala University on Monday. Those readings show two incidents in the Baltic that appear to correspond with man-made explosions rather than anything natural. Officials are still assessing the extent of the damage but there are already serious concerns for ship traffic in the Baltic as well as fears of a major methane leak. The climate impact is mitigated by the fact that Russia was not sending natural gas through either pipeline at the time of these explosions, but it’s still likely to be substantial.
Assuming the pipelines were blown up, the obvious question is “by whom?” Speculation in the West has immediately run toward Russia, even though the pipelines are essentially Russian property. It’s certainly possible Moscow decided to blow up its own pipelines as a show of force and/or a way to raise global energy prices (or maybe even a false flag), though I’m not sure the “motive” part of this allegation is terribly solid. Moscow had already stopped shipping through Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 never came online in the first place, which makes both pipelines expendable but also makes the choice to then blow them up seem a little bizarre.
Polish politician Radek Sikorski openly thanked the United States for blowing up the pipelines on Twitter. There’s no particular reason to take his word for it, but this is another possible scenario—though you’d ideally like to see a bit more evidence than a single tweet from a foreign politician. NATO reportedly conducted air exercises over the Baltic on Monday, so that’s an interesting coincidence. The destruction of the pipelines probably makes it less likely that European governments might falter in their commitment to the pro-Ukraine cause due to demand for Russian gas over the winter, seeing as how they won’t be able to get any Russian gas now anyway. But would the US be willing to risk the sort of escalation that might ensue from carrying out this attack just to destroy a couple of currently unused pipelines? It’s unclear. So we have two possible scenarios, neither one of which makes a tremendous amount of sense, but one of which is likely accurate. Other possible suspects, like Ukraine (probably not capable of carrying out an attack of this nature) and other NATO members (would not act without US backing), are even less likely.
The results, such as they are, have come in, and to I assume nobody’s surprise the remaining populations of the four Ukrainian regions (aside from Crimea) that are under partial or total Russian occupation—Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia—have all voted overwhelmingly in favor of annexation. These results won’t be recognized internationally—and shouldn’t be, since there’s no legitimacy in a referendum held amid massive wartime displacement (and that’s without considering the anecdotal reports of voting irregularities). But they do clear the way for Russia to “annex” these regions, a process that could begin within days and end with Moscow officially extending its nuclear umbrella to cover them.
The Ukraine live map appears to show new Ukrainian advances around the town of Lyman in Donetsk oblast. These aren’t major advances but they seem to show an attempt by the Ukrainians to surround Lyman and move against it from the west. Lyman is somewhat significant from a strategic perspective so developments there could be worth watching.
Brazilian police detailed to presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s campaign have reportedly requested additional support at Lula’s campaign events due to threats of violence from what they’ve called “radicalized opponents.” Mostly this is the result of Lula’s opponent, incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, inciting his supporters with talk of election fraud and warnings about Lula’s “communist” leanings while also making it easier for them to obtain firearms. Indeed, Bolsonaro’s presidency has coincided with a sharp rise in incidents of political violence from 2018 to 2020 and again from 2020 to this year.
This past weekend, a Bolsonaro supporter reportedly stabbed a Lula supporter to death in an incident in northeastern Brazil’s Ceara state, and with the election approaching a poll from Datafolha earlier this month found that around 70 percent of Brazilians are concerned that their political views might make them targets for violence. With Bolsonaro likely to lose (at least according to polling) and very likely to try to dispute the election results if he does, the potential for violence seems likely to keep going up.
Gangs in Port-au-Prince have reportedly dug trenches and positioned shipping containers in order to blockade the Varreux terminal, the city’s main fuel intake facility. They’re angry over the Haitian government’s decision to cut fuel subsidies but their blockade has drastically reduced the amount of fuel getting into the city and now even hospitals are being forced to cut back or consider shutting down altogether.
The Biden administration is reportedly trying to organize a coalition of countries intent on gutting a proposed global treaty on plastic pollution. The UN is working on developing such a treaty by 2024, based on an agreement member states reached earlier this year. A bloc of Western states and developing countries has emerged to push for treaty language that adopts tough international standards. The US has taken the opposing position, arguing instead that the treaty should rely on individual countries voluntarily adopting their own plastic pollution standards, or in other words arguing that the treaty should include no standards at all. Laughably, the administration seems to be using the Paris climate agreement as a model, despite the ample evidence that said agreement isn’t actually achieving its goal of preventing catastrophic levels of global warming. As was the case with Paris, oil companies have a vested interest in avoiding a global framework and the US government has a vested interest in carrying water for those companies.
Finally, Cornell University’s Nicholas Mulder looks at the implications of what appears increasingly like it will be a long-term economic war between the West and Russia:
But although Fortress Russia was breached, it has so far neither collapsed nor surrendered. Capital controls and interest rate hikes by the Russian government staved off a financial crisis and the collapse of the ruble. After an initial dip, Russian oil production and exports recovered, driven by an increase in purchases from China, India, and other Asian countries. For the country’s core provinces, unemployment has remained at manageable levels. The long-term outlook for Russia is a very dire one of economic stagnation. But it is less immediately catastrophic than many first imagined: the country’s central bank now foresees a downturn “more prolonged in time and perhaps less deep.”
Yet if the most optimistic Western hopes for sanctions have not been realized, the opposite prediction—that sanctions would have catastrophically adverse consequences for the countries imposing them—also turned out to be inaccurate. Warnings that sanctions amounted to Western overreach and would accelerate the demise of the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency and lead to the general disintegration of the global economy proved incorrect: the dollar is today stronger than before and trade flows have remained broadly stable.
To reduce their exposure to U.S. sanctions and interest rate policy, countries like Brazil, China, India, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates are increasingly using regional currencies in bilateral trade. Yet this has hardly dented the dollar’s broader appeal as a reserve currency. Russia’s retaliatory reduction in gas deliveries to Europe, moreover, is a weapon that can only be used once. The Kremlin’s gas embargo will ultimately encourage diversification and a switch to renewables, fortifying rather than weakening the region’s energy security.
There is a notable parallel between the expectations that Russia harbored for its military invasion and what the West hoped its economic sanctions would achieve: both parties wanted to defeat their opponents with a quick, sudden strike producing immediate collapse. This obviously did not come to pass. Indeed, both Ukraine’s recent triumphs on the battlefield and Putin’s eventual turn to mobilization in Russia may foreshadow a long war. Russia and the West have both adjusted and become increasingly hardened targets for each other’s economic weapons. Ultimately, the costs of this economic war will be borne mainly by weaker economies in the global South. States that lack the buffers—whether strategic commodity reserves, liquidity, or trade surpluses—to adapt to the new world of sanctions turmoil are especially vulnerable.
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