World roundup: April 15 2021

Stories from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Russia, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

April 14, 43 BC: The legions of Mark Antony win a victory and suffer a defeat on the same day in the Battle of Forum Gallorum in northern Italy. Antony was besieging the governor of Cisalpine Gaul, Decimus Brutus, who was one of Julius Caesar’s assassins, when he was confronted by a Republican army under the command of that year’s consuls, Aulus Hirtius and Gaius Vibius Pansa. The consular army had been bolstered by a group of veteran reinforcements under Caesar’s declared heir, his great nephew/adopted son Octavian, who commanded the units guarding their camp. Antony’s army attacked the portion of the Republican force led by Pansa and won a fleeting victory before they were themselves attacked by the remaining Republican army under Hirtius and were forced to withdraw. Pansa was badly wounded and would die on April 22. The outcome of Forum Gallorum was inconclusive and led to a second, decisive engagement, the Battle of Mutina, a week later.

April 14, 1912: Shortly before midnight, the allegedly unsinkable ocean liner RMS Titanic strikes an iceberg and, well, begins sinking. In part due to the fact that it carried enough lifeboats for only about half of the passengers on board (and a third of the passengers it could have carried at full capacity), the Titanic’s sinking became one of the biggest maritime disasters in history, killing more than 1500 people.

April 15, 1395: The Battle of the Terek River

April 15, 1947: Jackie Robinson makes his Major League Baseball debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In doing so, he became the first African-American to play in the MLB, breaking the color barrier that had been entrenched in the league since the 1880s. Two years later he became the first African-American to win his league’s Most Valuable Player award for the 1949 season, and he was inducted in the the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for April 15:

  • 139,665,916 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (+836,294 since yesterday)

  • 2,998,843 reported fatalities (+13,839 since yesterday)

  • For vaccine data the New York Times has created a tracker here

In today’s global news:

  • An open letter from some 170 former world leaders and Nobel laureates issued Thursday calls on the Biden administration to waive intellectual property rules with respect to COVID vaccines. This would allow generic versions of those vaccines to be produced in facilities all over the world—most particularly in countries that are struggling to obtain adequate vaccine supplies. The Biden administration has suggested it might be open to a temporary waiver, but I’m sure it’s since heard some complaints from drug manufacturers about what that could mean for their profit margins.

  • In a related story, the Gavi Vaccine Alliance hosted a virtual meeting on Thursday in which it, the United Nations, and the World Bank called on wealthy countries to stop hoarding vaccines they don’t need and start donating surplus stockpiles to COVAX, the international program that aims to provide vaccine supplies to the developing world. Several countries, especially across Africa and Asia, have administered few or no vaccines while countries like the United States are already moving to vaccinate lower risk populations.

  • A new study suggests that a mere three percent of the planet can still be considered “ecologically intact,” meaning it is still home to “healthy” populations of its indigenous plants and animals. Mostly these areas lie in tropical forests that are increasingly under threat from development and arctic regions that are increasingly at risk due to climate change.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 20,713 confirmed coronavirus cases (+158)

  • 1414 reported fatalities (+12)

The Syrian government on Thursday halved the value of its currency, adjusting the Syrian pound’s official exchange rate from 1256 per US dollar to 2512 per dollar. Unofficially the pound is trading at around 3100 per dollar, though that’s markedly improved from its ~4600/dollar low point last month. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad canned his central bank governor earlier this week in advance of this move.

YEMEN

  • 5657 confirmed cases (+75)

  • 1097 reported fatalities (+14)

Saudi air defenses on Thursday responded to a “barrage” of Houthi missiles and drones (five of the former and four of the latter, according to the Saudis), which the Houthis later said was intended to target key oil and air defense facilities in and around the city of Jizan. There’s no word of any casualties or significant damage, though wreckage from one of the projectiles reportedly caused a fire on the campus of Jizan University.

TURKEY

  • 4,086,957 confirmed cases (+61,400)

  • 35,031 reported fatalities (+297)

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu insisted to Turkish media outlet NTV on Thursday that Ankara is definitely not “picking sides” in the ongoing hostilities between Ukraine and Russia. Çavuşoğlu’s comments were probably necessary, given that his boss, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, looked very much like he was picking sides over the weekend when he welcomed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Ankara over the weekend and offered substantial rhetorical support to the Ukrainian leader in addition to selling him armed drones. The relationship between Turkey and Russia has survived several other geopolitical disagreements, but Ukraine is a special case for Moscow and the Turks may want to tread carefully.

IRAQ

  • 956,860 confirmed cases (+7810)

  • 14,885 reported fatalities (+49)

In a literal blast from the past, a car bombing in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood on Thursday killed at least four people and wounded 20 more, according to local sources via Reuters. Baghdad, and Sadr City in particular, used to experience this sort of attack almost daily when the Islamic State was at its peak, but it’s been some time since that was the case and violence in Baghdad has become a rarity in the past couple of years. There’s been no claim of responsibility IS would have to be considered the prime suspect, though it is also possible that the bombing resulted from some kind of rivalry between hostile militias. Iraq is holding a snap election in October so political tensions are growing and violence sometimes accompanies that.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 836,706 confirmed cases (+202) in Israel, 276,407 confirmed cases (+1717) in Palestine

  • 6314 reported fatalities (+2) in Israel, 2937 reported fatalities (+14) in Palestine

A rocket fired from Gaza landed near the Israeli town of Sderot, in the Negev desert, late Thursday, to no apparent effect. An Israeli retaliation is presumably forthcoming. The rocket may have been intended to “commemorate” Israeli independence day. On the Gregorian calendar Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, which on the Israeli calendar corresponds to 5 Iyar 5708. This year 5 Iyar falls on Saturday, so per Israeli law celebrations were scheduled for Thursday so that they would not conflict with the Jewish sabbath.

IRAN

  • 2,168,872 confirmed cases (+25,078)

  • 65,680 reported fatalities (+321)

According to The Wall Street Journal, Iran produced more oil in March than in any month since May 2019, mostly thanks to increased exports to China made in spite of US sanctions. It would seem that Chinese customers began stepping up their purchases of Iranian oil after Joe Biden’s election in November, perhaps anticipating a US return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. That return has yet to materialize, though it seems like negotiations are making progress toward that goal. It is also the case that Chinese demand for oil is rebounding to pre-pandemic levels and thanks to the sanctions there’s probably no better deal to be found on the international market than some illicit Iranian crude, so Biden’s election may only be part of the story. The increased exports may strengthen Iran’s bargaining position with respect to reviving the nuclear deal, though frankly their bargaining position hasn’t changed measurably since the day Donald Trump tore that deal up so maybe some additional oil revenue isn’t going to make much difference.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

  • 57,612 confirmed cases (+78)

  • 2535 reported fatalities (+2)

At Foreign Policy, the City College of New York’s Rajan Menon praises Joe Biden’s decision to announce a US withdrawal from Afghanistan:

The Washington Post’s reaction matters only insofar as it signals the tide of criticism Biden will face. Those objections amount to a cobbling together of familiar Washington bromides, nourished by the abiding conviction that the United States’ 20-year campaign in a country which it still seems to know little about can be ended on acceptable terms. Exhibit A in this regard: the Afghanistan Study Group Final Report, which devotes nearly 60 pages to regurgitating the standard brief for staying the course.

And what precisely are those acceptable terms, and how will they be realized? Much of the foreign-policy establishment believes continued U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, which includes military deployments, can usher in a stable, democratic polity and society—one in which the rights of Afghan women and ethnic minorities (notably the Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks) are respected. Anyone who cherishes democracy should be delighted at the prospect of Afghans living in such a country.

What’s up for debate, however, isn’t whether Afghans have a right to democracy in principle. Of course they do. What those opposed to exiting Afghanistan have never explained convincingly is how the United States can possibly exert the degree of influence (or pressure) required to fashion the Afghanistan they envision when it hasn’t been able to do so after 20 years of trying.

Frustrated fans of perpetual US empire should take a little cheer from the news, reported by the New York Times, that the Biden administration isn’t planning on leaving Afghanistan completely alone. No, the US is apparently already negotiating with a few of Afghanistan’s neighbors—the article mentions Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, all shining examples of Joe Biden’s commitment to centering human rights and democratic values in his foreign policy—about the possibility of basing some US counter-terrorism forces, maybe a few drones and so forth as well, in order to attack any al-Qaeda or Islamic State presence in Afghanistan. The administration could also strike such targets from air bases in the Persian Gulf or Indian Ocean, or even in the US if it’s willing to commit long-range bombers to the task. Gathering intelligence is likely to become harder post-withdrawal, but the US can rely on an ongoing Turkish troop presence, on “private contractors,” or even on off-the-books US special forces for those needs. It should go without saying that none of this is particularly in line with international law, under which you’re not really supposed to just bomb another country whenever the mood strikes, but then it also goes without saying that the United States government does not care.

Oh, and the Biden administration expects to continue sending billions of dollars in aid to the Afghan government after the withdrawal. Though for all the good US aid money has done in terms of enabling the creation of a capable Afghan security apparatus or durable governing institutions, they’d probably be better off lighting that money on fire and calling it a day.

MYANMAR

  • 142,610 confirmed cases (+5)

  • 3206 reported fatalities (+0)

Myanmar security forces on Thursday reportedly arrested Wai Moe Naing, one of the leaders of the protest movement that’s formed in the wake of February’s military coup, along with a number of other prominent activists. That news came shortly after reports that security forces killed at least one person when they opened fire on crowds of protesters in the city of Mandalay.

At the New Left Review’s Sidecar blog, writer Carlos Sardiña Galache looks at the forces that have been unleashed by Myanmar’s coup and the challenges involved in trying to bring them together in a cohesive opposition to the junta:

Throughout the transition, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD strategy of engagement with the military had the effect of depoliticizing large swathes of Burmese society, especially the emerging middle classes: she convinced many of her supporters that unpredictable participatory politics could only hinder her attempts to assuage the generals. But the political opening created by the coup also prompted the emergence of new social movements that the NLD had mostly ignored: farmers organizing to fight against large-scale evictions and trade unions striking in the industrial areas for better working conditions. It is not by chance that the latter are at the forefront of the civil disobedience movement in cities like Yangon or Mandalay. Now, the conflict between elites that led to the events of 1 February has evolved into a war between the military and most of the population. There is much more at stake than releasing Suu Kyi and her party’s elected leaders.

It remains to be seen how long the anti-coup movement can endure the brutal repression of a well-armed Tatmadaw. As the possibility of a rebellion within the military becomes more distant by the day, given its strong espirit de corps, the only chance to tip the balance is the creation of a unified front of ethnic guerrillas. Such forces, combined with the ongoing protest movement in central Burma, would seriously overstretch the Tatmadaw. A government in hiding formed by NLD MPs elected in November – the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) – is already engaged in negotiations with the ethnic armed organizations to form a ‘Federal Army’; but uniting them would require overcoming historic distrust that runs much deeper than the divisions created by the coup.

AFRICA

MALI

  • 12,706 confirmed cases (+239)

  • 421 reported fatalities (+2)

Two Chadian soldiers involved with the G5 Sahel regional military force were killed when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in central Mali on Thursday. There’s been no claim of responsibility but the incident took place in a region where one of Jamaʿat Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin’s constituent groups is known to be active.

Elsewhere, Mali’s interim government announced Thursday that it will hold the first round of the country’s next general election on February 27 of next year, with a second round in March. In theory that vote will mark Mali’s transition back to fully civilian rule, following last August’s military coup. I say “in theory” because there are serious questions as to whether a) the interim government can actually organize a national election on that timeframe and b) whether the new civilian government will still be subject to some kind of military check on its authority.

BENIN

  • 7611 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 95 reported fatalities (+0)

Benin’s Constitutional Court on Thursday confirmed President Patrice Talon’s victory in Sunday’s election. Meanwhile, Talon’s security forces reportedly arrested opposition leader Joel Aivo, who along with other prominent opposition figures had been barred from running in that election. Talon’s political adversaries seem to be falling afoul of the law quite a bit lately, though I’m sure it’s all purely coincidental.

ETHIOPIA

  • 236,554 confirmed cases (+2149)

  • 3285 reported fatalities (+33)

United Nations humanitarian coordinator Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council on Thursday that he’s seen no evidence that Eritrean soldiers are leaving Ethiopia’s Tigray region, as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said they would earlier this month. Eritrean forces have been implicated in yet another war crime that allegedly took place on Monday in the Tigrayan town of Adwa. According to Lowcock, the humanitarian situation in Tigray continues to worsen, while aid agencies are still unable to reach most of the region. The chief health official for the interim Tigrayan regional government, Fasika Amdeselassie has told Reuters that conditions for women in the region are particularly dire, with many “being kept in sexual slavery.” Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers, particularly the latter, have been implicated in multiple incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

  • 28,769 confirmed cases (+55)

  • 745 reported fatalities (+0)

Congolese security forces reportedly killed at least one person during another anti-UN protest in the town of Oicha. Protesters, who are angry that the UN’s DRC peacekeeping mission has largely failed to prevent militant attacks against civilians and are calling for peacekeepers to leave the country, set up a roadblock in the town during their demonstration. Security forces attempted to clear the roadblock and it was during that effort that they killed the protester.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

  • 4,675,153 confirmed cases (+8944)

  • 104,398 reported fatalities (+398)

The Biden administration took a novel “all of the above” approach to leveling new sanctions against Russia on Thursday. Rather than pick and choose between various alleged Russian misdeeds, from hacking to election interference to Ukraine-related aggression and beyond, the administration punished all of it with a broad array of measures including standard blacklistings and the expulsion of ten Russian diplomatic personnel from the US. Adding insult to injury, the UK government on Thursday summoned the Russian ambassador in London to signal that it supports these US actions. The Russian government has, of course, already signaled its intention to retaliate, which I guess means they’re not on board with Joe Biden’s stated desire to rebuild the US-Russia relationship.

The most novel, and potentially most significant, of these measures was an order prohibiting US banks from purchasing ruble-denominated Russian sovereign debt on the primary market, in retaliation for alleged Russian efforts to interfere with the 2020 US presidential election. US banks were already prohibited from buying Russian debt in other currencies under a 2019 order. That’s likely to have a negative effect on the Russian economy—the ruble had a rough day on international currency markets as a result—though the administration did forego a stronger measure that would’ve barred US individuals and entities from buying Russian debt on the secondary market, which is where most of those purchases take place. So there is some validity to the Biden administration’s argument that these sanctions, while harsh, were not as harsh as they could have been. There’s also room to make them harsher, which I guess is supposed to be what encourages Moscow not to press its luck.

The Quincy Institute’s Anatol Lieven is unimpressed with two of the main issues the Biden administration cited (we’ll talk about the third below) in announcing these sanctions:

The Solarwinds hack (which it does seem was most probably the work of Russia) is widely described as an “attack.” It wasn’t. No U.S. institutions or infrastructure were attacked. It was an espionage operation in cyberspace, of a kind that the United States has openly acknowledged carrying out against Russia and other states. All major states conduct this kind of espionage, and it has never previously been made a cause of sanctions. The Biden administration is therefore introducing a new and very dangerous factor into international relations. Moreover, America’s ally Israel has just carried out an open act of cyber-sabotage against Iran in a transparent effort to destroy U.S. talks with Iran — without a word of Washington condemnation in response. Is this what a “ruled-based international order” looks like?

As to alleged Russian “interference” in the last elections, nobody has alleged that this was an attempt to rig the vote itself. To the extent it occurred (and no evidence of its extent has been made public), it was a very limited covert influence operation, of a kind that the United States has also often carried out itself. And if Washington openly supports the Russian domestic opposition to the present Russian government, it can expect the Russian government to respond in kind.

GREECE

  • 308,006 confirmed cases (+3822)

  • 9239 reported fatalities (+104)

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu headed to Athens on Thursday for a meeting with his Greek counterpart, Nikos Dendias, that went so well that by the end of it they were pretty much insulting one another in the middle of their joint press conference. The hope was that the two men could get the ball rolling on an eventual settlement of the dueling Greek-Turkish maritime claims that have contributed to escalating tension in the eastern Mediterranean. But after Dendias said something about Turkish military aircraft violating Greek airspace, and suggesting that such behavior could be sanctioned, things quickly deteriorated.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

  • 13,758,093 confirmed cases (+80,529)

  • 365,954 reported fatalities (+3774)

Brazil’s Supreme Court on Thursday upheld last month’s decision by Justice Edson Fachin to annul former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s corruption convictions due to prosecutorial misconduct. The decision forces prosecutors to retry their case against Lula if they choose to proceed, but for now it affirms Lula’s eligibility to run in next year’s Brazilian presidential election. Polling suggests that he could be the biggest threat to Jair Bolsonaro’s potential reelection.

Joe Biden’s plan to pay Brazil to stop destroying the Amazon rain forest has hit a snag over the timing of any compensation. Bolsonaro’s government is apparently demanding to be paid in advance, a demand that the rest of the world would have to be out of its collective mind to fulfill. The Biden administration says it would like to see a demonstrable Brazilian commitment to preserving the rain forest before it makes with the cash, and that’s apparently not acceptable for the Brazilians.

VENEZUELA

  • 178,094 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 1834 reported fatalities (+0)

One thread we really lost while I was on vacation a couple of weeks ago involves the ongoing conflict between Venezuelan security forces and a Colombian militant group that’s positioned along the Venezuelan-Colombian border. World Politics Review’s Benjamin Wilhelm recaps what’s been happening:

The Venezuelan military’s assault has centered around La Victoria, a small town in western Apure state on the Venezuelan side of the Arauca River, which marks the country’s border with Colombia. The target of the campaign is the 10th Front, a group of dissident rebels who once belonged to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the prominent leftist guerrilla group that agreed to demobilize when it signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government in 2016. Venezuelan officials said earlier this month that eight of its soldiers and nine members of armed groups had been killed in the clashes, while 33 people were being prosecuted by its military justice system.

But human rights groups have accused the Venezuelan armed forces of committing atrocities against the local civilian population, including extrajudicial killings, beatings and arbitrary detentions, out of suspicion that they are collaborating with the guerrillas. At least 5,000 people have fled the area around La Victoria and sought refuge in the town of Arauquita, on the Colombian side of the border. Human Rights Watch said it had found “credible evidence” that Venezuelan security forces had carried out the extrajudicial killings of three men and a woman during the ongoing offensive. In Arauquita, refugees fear returning to what they call the “war zone” on the Venezuelan side, and have crowded into makeshift shelters and tent settlements.

CUBA

  • 90,408 confirmed cases (+1004)

  • 491 reported fatalities (+4)

Raúl Castro is expected to retire from his post as first secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party at a party conference this weekend. Miguel Díaz-Canel, who succeeded Castro as president of Cuba’s Council of State and then became “President of Cuba” when that office was created in a 2019 constitutional change, is expected to succeed Castro as party leader as well. Castro’s retirement will certainly mark the end of an era and it will be interesting to see what happens to Cuban politics without a Castro at the helm. Díaz-Canel has taken some heat over a weak Cuban economy (largely thanks to Donald Trump reimposing sanctions) has already overseen a fairly substantial privatization and economic liberalization program.

UNITED STATES

  • 32,224,139 confirmed cases (+74,479)

  • 578,993 reported fatalities (+895)

Joe Biden is expected to start filling out his diplomatic corps in the coming days, making a slew of nominations for key ambassadorial posts and assistant secretaries of state. Biden may be under some pressure to minimize the number of donors he nominates after his predecessor went well beyond historical norms in rewarding his rich pals with ambassadorships. He is certainly going to be under some pressure to move quickly, as right now he’s lagging behind past administrations in terms of filling these positions. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of US senators is reportedly pushing a bill that would bar any future US president from withdrawing from NATO absent Senate approval. Not that this is aimed at any potential president in particular, but Donald Trump is eligible to run again in 2024.

To be totally honest I drew a blank on an appropriate photo tonight, so for no particular reason here’s Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels on Wednesday (State Department photo via Flickr)

Finally, one alleged misdeed for which the Biden administration chose not to sanction Russia on Thursday was the supposed program whereby Russian intelligence officers paid bounties to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan for killing US soldiers. The reason why, and I think you’re really going to get a kick out of this, is that the whole controversy about the bounties apparently rested on a bunch of bullshit:

It was a blockbuster story about Russia’s return to the imperial “Great Game” in Afghanistan. The Kremlin had spread money around the longtime central Asian battlefield for militants to kill remaining U.S. forces. It sparked a massive outcry from Democrats and their #resistance amplifiers about the treasonous Russian puppet in the White House whose admiration for Vladimir Putin had endangered American troops.

But on Thursday, the Biden administration announced that U.S. intelligence only had “low to moderate” confidence in the story after all. Translated from the jargon of spyworld, that means the intelligence agencies have found the story is, at best, unproven—and possibly untrue.

“The United States intelligence community assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks on U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019 and perhaps earlier,” a senior administration official said.

The administration isn’t completely giving up on the story, and of course neither is the New York Times, which broke it to great fanfare last year. That same senior administration official laughably insisted that Moscow must “explain its actions” in light of the “evidence” that the US intelligence community no longer finds particularly compelling. As it turns out, the “evidence” for the bounty program was derived almost entirely from detainee testimony, or in other words from statements that Afghan security forces tortured out of their desperate prisoners. You may recall that some people had questions about this very thing at the time the story was initially reported. In the absence of any independent evidence to corroborate these probably-coerced statements, the whole story has fallen apart.