World roundup: February 17 2022
Stories from Iran, Myanmar, Mali, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
February 16, 1804: A small US naval crew enters Tripoli harbor and destroys the grounded USS Philadelphia.
February 17, 1979: The Sino-Vietnamese War begins with a Chinese invasion, in response to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia (ousting the Khmer Rouge) the previous year. The “war,” such as it was, lasted only about a month and ended when the Chinese army, having stalled out around 20 kilometers over the border, declared victory and withdrew. Vietnam also claimed victory in repelling the invasion, and their claim is generally more accepted today—though admittedly the Chinese military did do serious damage to northern Vietnam’s infrastructure.
February 17, 2008: Kosovo declares its independence from Serbia. The Kosovan parliament voted (with ethnic Serb MPs boycotting) to declare independence after United Nations-supervised negotiations on a sort of independence-in-all-but-name status fell apart. Though still not recognized by Serbia and an ongoing source of tension in the Balkans, this date is commemorated as Independence Day in Kosovo.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Israeli military’s Wednesday evening missile attack reportedly struck the town of Zakyah, just south of Damascus. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights the target was a Syrian military outpost—it’s unclear why that particular outpost was targeted. I’ve still seen no word on casualties.
Quincy has produced a new video, featuring Friend of FX Annelle Sheline, that outlines the effect of Biden administration policies in prolonging the Yemen war:
The Israeli military is claiming that it shot down a drone that entered Israeli airspace via Lebanon on Thursday. It’s further claiming that the drone is, or I guess was, Hezbollah property. Israeli officials don’t seem to have gone into detail about what kind of drone this was, but it was likely a quadcopter type of vehicle that was either outfitted for reconnaissance or was just somebody’s recreational drone that drifted off course. Had the device been armed I suspect the Israelis would be making a much bigger deal out of it.
Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah accepted the resignations of Defense Minister Sheikh Hamad Jaber al-Sabah and Interior Minister Sheikh Ahmad Mansour al-Sabah on Thursday in a sign that Kuwait’s political tensions are still hanging around. Both men resigned in anger after opposition parties in parliament lodged no-confidence motions against several cabinet members. The Kuwaiti parliament is fairly powerful, at least by Gulf standards, and it can at times clash with members of the government—particularly those who are also members of the Kuwaiti royal family and may chafe at being subjected to political pressure. Kuwait went through three cabinets last year because of tensions with parliament, but it was thought that the third of those, named in December, would bring with it an end to this internal strife. That does not appear to have been the case.
There’s more news on the Iran nuclear deal front, though again I think it needs to be taken with a grain of salt as we’re very much in the late-stage of talks when public leaks are frequent and often inaccurate. With that in mind, Reuters is reporting that it’s gotten access to a draft of what could be the final agreement, with some adjustments. The draft lays out a staged process under which Iran would freeze its nuclear enrichment activities immediately and it and the US would stagger their return to compliance from there. That sequencing issue has been one of the big sticking points in the talks thus far. Iran would get some early relief in the form of access to funds currently frozen in overseas banks, but the biggest carrots (like an end to restrictions on Iranian oil exports) wouldn’t emerge until the end of the staged process. The agreement would also include the release of Western nationals currently in Iranian custody.
Nobody has signed anything so, again, grain of salt. Later in the day Iranian and Russian diplomats disputed the Reuters story, suggesting it had been leaked by sources interested in undermining the negotiations. A new deadline appears to be emerging in the form of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s next board of governors meeting on March 7. If no agreement is in place by then the drama could spill into the IAEA meeting and that would complicate the negotiations.
The Pakistani military says its forces killed six “insurgents” (the term used by Reuters, with no further clarification) in Baluchistan on Wednesday under unclear circumstances. In general Pakistani officials have escalated their security operations along the Afghan border of late, as it’s become clear that Afghanistan’s new Taliban-led government cannot and/or will not (definitely the former but maybe a bit of both) clamp down on militant activity on its side of that border.
Tensions between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani officials have risen since the Taliban takeover, in part because it’s inherited the previous Afghan government’s resistance to Pakistani efforts to fence off their border. The Afghan-Pakistan border, AKA the “Durand Line,” was drawn up by British officials in the 19th century and runs smack through the traditional homelands of both the Baluch and Pashtun peoples. Afghanistan officially repudiated the border in 1949 and no succeeding Afghan government, even one controlled by Pakistani clients, has reversed that position. For Pakistan to unilaterally fence the border off is viewed as an act of aggression by Kabul.
As expected, Thursday’s Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers summit in Cambodia was overshadowed by the absence of a Myanmar representative. ASEAN opted not to invite the FM for Myanmar’s junta government as punishment for the junta’s failure to a peace plan to which it agreed last year, and the junta rejected the bloc’s offer to allow it to send a “non-political” representative instead. Myanmar FM Wunna Maung Lwin was permitted to “attend” the meeting virtually with observer status.
The junta may have problems with another regional organization, as the New Zealand government announced on Thursday that it would not accept Myanmar’s membership in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. New Zealand is a full member in the RCEP, which is based on a regional free trade agreement signed two years ago that went into effect at the start of this year. Myanmar is a signatory to the 2020 agreement but hasn’t ratified it and so is not yet a member. New Zealand’s resistance could prevent it from becoming a member.
In a move that has been telegraphed for weeks and was seen as a foregone conclusion in recent days, the French government on Thursday announced that it will remove its counter-terrorism forces from Mali within the next six months. They’ll depart a bit less than a decade after they first arrived, to counter a jihadist uprising in northern Mali in 2013. European Union forces participating in the supplemental Takuba task force will also leave Mali, which is unsurprising given that the Takuba is fundamentally dependent on the French operation. The Malian junta’s relationships with France and the EU have been deteriorating since last year’s coup, over European demands for a quick transition back to civilian rule and the junta’s decision to hire mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group military contractor. Those relations had sunk so low as to become untenable in recent weeks.
French and EU forces are not going to be leaving the Sahel, though Paris has been planning to draw down its presence in the region for some time now. They will relocate, probably to Niger initially though Burkina Faso may ultimately wind up being the deployment’s new epicenter, given the state of jihadist activity there. By all indications the extended French presence in Mali has not been effective in countering jihadist militancy, though of course any uptick in violence from this point on will be cited as evidence that the French withdrawal (which will of course be blamed on Bamako) has had disastrous effects. But as Alex Thurston points out, that would be an overly simplistic interpretation of events.
A homemade bomb killed five members of an army patrol in southwestern Niger’s Tillabéri region on Wednesday. It’s unclear who was responsible for planting the explosive. Islamic State’s Greater Sahara affiliate is particularly active in western Niger but al-Qaeda affiliates from Mali and Burkina Faso also sometimes operate on the Nigerien side of those borders.
Most of the Russia news today has to do with Ukraine and so I’ve filed it under “Ukraine,” below. But there are a couple of other stories of note. For example, we learned on Thursday that the Russian Foreign Ministry expelled the deputy chief of the US diplomatic mission in Russia, Bart Gorman, last week. The Russians say they ordered the expulsion in retaliation for the “unreasonable expulsion” of a senior Russian diplomat from the US, but they didn’t say who the diplomat was or what justification the US offered for their expulsion. The State Department characterized Gorman’s expulsion as “unprovoked” and “an escalatory step” in what is now a long-standing US-Russia tit-for-tat over their respective diplomatic staffs.
The US government warned on Wednesday that Russian hackers have been pilfering information from US defense contractors on the regular for at least the past couple of years. According to CNN the hackers have nabbed information related to “aircraft design and the development of combat and weapons systems,” among other things. If you see a lot of stories about Russian military jets suddenly asphyxiating their pilots then you’ll know that they’re trying to put this information to use.
After what seemed like a possible window for deescalation earlier this week, tensions over a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine have spiked again, not coincidentally alongside alarmist rhetoric from Western governments. In fairness, the biggest source of escalation on Thursday was decidedly not rhetorical and came in the form of new artillery fire along the frozen front line in eastern Ukraine’s separatist Donbas region. Full details about whatever actually happened are difficult to ascertain, in part because each side is accusing the other of having been the aggressor. But indications are that Thursday’s activity went beyond the typical isolated ceasefire violations that occur with some regularity in Donbas.
What is known is that artillery fire hit the town of Stanytsia-Luhanska, striking among other things a kindergarten. At least three people (all adults) were wounded in the incident, but that was only one of several alleged attacks. Kyiv says it has evidence of no fewer than 34 ceasefire violations by the rebels, while the rebels claim that pro-government forces have carried out multiple attacks against them over the past day. The British government declared that the kindergarten strike was the long-awaited “false flag” operation that Moscow would use to justify an invasion, though no invasion seems to be forthcoming.
The US government and NATO continue to insist that Russian talk of pulling military units back from the Ukrainian border earlier this week was all a pack of lies, claiming that there’s been no evidence of any actual withdrawal in the two days since said talk hit the media. Joe Biden told reporters on Thursday that he expects Russia to invade Ukraine “in the next several days,” which is vaguer than “next Wednesday at 8 AM local time” but still somewhat specific. He sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken to New York for an unscheduled appearance at the UN Security Council, where Blinken pushed the “false flag” scenario. It’s unclear to me why the Biden administration believes Russia intends to fabricate a justification for invading instead of just invading, or why it seems to believe that telling everyone about that alleged intention at every opportunity is going to stop the Russians from doing it anyway, but this is probably why I don’t make the big bucks.
The Russians, for their part, insist that they have in fact sent some of their forces back to base and say that a full withdrawal will take time to complete. This is reasonable on its face but is also something you’d say if you’d just announced a withdrawal that you had no intention of actually carrying out. So it’s hard to know how much stock to put in it. Me personally, I’d give it a week or so before I started panicking again, but the Biden administration seems to think that this constant state of panic is actually constricting Russia’s military options—it’s also decimating the Ukrainian economy, but I guess that’s a secondary concern—so I don’t expect they’ll be willing to take any time off. Again, this is why I don’t make the big bucks.
Finally, at Responsible Statecraft, retired foreign service officer Elisabeth Brocking suggests looking to the past for a solution to the current crisis in Eastern Europe:
This crisis might have been averted via a now-forgotten arms control mechanism: the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. CFE, as I have written previously, was a masterpiece of arms control. Born of Cold War fears of a massive Soviet-led invasion of Western Europe, the treaty addressed both the Warsaw Pact’s advantage in force numbers and NATO’s edge in sophisticated weaponry.
Negotiated as a bloc-to-bloc agreement between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the treaty limited key categories of equipment needed to mount large-scale attacks and established an aggressive inspection regime. CFE survived the collapse of the Pact and the emergence of successor states to the USSR, bringing most of them into the treaty’s structure while reducing weapons, providing extensive transparency regarding both holdings and military exercises, and establishing channels of communication.
However, NATO expansion upset key treaty provisions. Moscow pressed for revisions reflecting new realities, and treaty parties agreed in 1999 to an Adapted CFE, known as ACFE. NATO states, unfortunately, dragged their feet for years on ratifications by raising objections to some Russian military deployments (which Russia either withdrew or had authorized by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe), continuing to expand the alliance at a rapid rate, and gaining the advantage of loopholes in the original agreement to potentially station forces in the Baltic states much closer to the Russian border.
Moscow withdrew from the CFE in 2007 in response to that dithering by NATO members. Brocking contends that CFE offers a model for structuring European security in a way that could avoid future scenarios like the one playing out right now around Ukraine. Of course if the current situation ends in a shooting war, nobody is going to be in much of a mood to negotiate anything.