World roundup: February 23 2022
Stories from Iraq, North Korea, Ukraine, and more
Tonight’s roundup is a bit earlier than usual so that your newsletter purveyor can take a little bit of a break. Anything we miss tonight we’ll cover tomorrow.
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 conducted yet another missile attack on positions inside Syria early Wednesday, striking targets in the Quneitra region. The Syrian military issued a statement that referred to “material damage” but didn’t mention any casualties.
The Biden administration on Wednesday unveiled new sanctions targeting what it called an “international network” that’s supposedly controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for the purpose of raising funds to support Yemen’s Houthi/Ansar Allah rebels. You can see the whole alleged network by clicking through that link up there, but the sanctions order targets individuals and companies based all over the world, including India, Singapore, Sweden, Turkey, and the UAE.
And speaking of the UAE, Emirati officials unveiled their own anti-Houthi sanctions on Tuesday, blacklisting one individual and five entities allegedly linked to the Yemeni rebels. At least a couple of these designations involved individuals who were also part of the larger Treasury listing but I’m not clear on how coordinated these sanctions were.
Lebanese Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi told reporters on Wednesday that his security forces had prevented an Islamic State plot to carry out terrorist attacks in the southern Beirut suburbs. The plan reportedly involved at least three separate attacks that would have started with shootings and concluded with suicide bombings. Southern Beirut and its environs are Hezbollah territory so the rationale seems fairly self-explanatory. According to Mawlawi, Lebanese authorities have arrested two Palestinian men who were allegedly recruiting potential suicide bombers. There’s been a fair amount of attention devoted recently to IS recruitment among impoverished Lebanese Sunnis, particularly in the Tripoli region. These recruits are usually sent to Syria and/or Iraq but it stands to reason that they might also be recruited for attacks inside Lebanon.
Israeli cabinet minister Eli Avidar submitted his resignation on Tuesday, apparently in a huff because he wanted to be intelligence minister but instead has been serving as a minister without portfolio. In announcing his resignation, Avidar lambasted Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his coalition, a coalition whose chances of survival may have gotten a little worse. Avidar will now return to the Knesset, where—as Al-Monitor’s Mazal Mualem notes—he’ll be the crucial 61st vote keeping Bennett’s coalition in power and sounds like he plans to make copious use of that leverage. The coalition has been trying to sideline potentially troublesome MKs by offering them senior positions in the government (the Israeli Foreign Service, in particular), but Avidar doesn’t seem interested in anything like that.
A second Kurdistan Democratic Party candidate for Iraqi president is having his candidacy challenged in court. After Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court disqualified former Iraqi Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari last week due to past corruption charges, the KDP nominated Kurdistan Regional Government Interior Minister Reber Ahmed in his place. If his candidacy is allowed to move forward there’s a reasonable chance he’ll have enough parliamentary support to unseat incumbent Barham Salih, as he has the backing of the KDP along with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiʿa bloc and the Sunni Sovereignty Coalition. This new suit seeks to disqualify Ahmed on the grounds that his candidacy was announced too late.
As Musings on Iraq’s Joel Wing writes, the legal challenges to both Zebari and Ahmed (as well as an earlier challenge to the election of Mohammed Halbusi as parliament speaker) are coming from the “Coordination Framework,” which is an alliance of non-Sadrite Shiʿa parties. They’re trying to gum up the government formation process in order to force Sadr to abandon his plans to exclude them from the forthcoming government coalition. Sadr’s aim is to “normalize” Iraqi politics by forming a majority coalition with a minority opposition, in contrast to the unwieldy “national unity” governments that Iraq has exclusively had since the US ousted Saddam Hussein. For the other Shiʿa parties that’s a big problem, because if they’re in the opposition then they lose most of their ability to dole out government patronage.
Unspecified “militants” reportedly attacked a Pakistani military outpost in Baluchistan province early Wednesday, killing at least ten Pakistani soldiers. At least one of the attackers was also killed in the ensuing firefight. There’s been no claim of responsibility here as yet, but given the location and the military target a Baluch separatist group seems the likeliest culprit.
The United Nations rapporteur for human rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, called on Wednesday for the international community to offer at least 60 million COVID vaccine doses to Pyongyang. In an effort to contain the pandemic, North Korean officials have imposed an economic lockdown so severe it’s reportedly left millions of people at acute risk of starvation, and Ojea Quintana’s thinking here seems to be that providing these vaccines might entice Pyongyang to ease up on that lockdown. The thing is, North Korea has rejected past vaccine offers and there’s no indication as far as I can tell that they’ve changed their thinking on this issue.
The South Korean military test-fired a homemade air defense system called L-SAM on Wednesday, which is noteworthy mostly inasmuch as it comes after a very active month of North Korean weapons tests in January. South Korea is investing heavily in defensive systems, both its own and Patriot and THAAD systems purchased from the United States. These locally-made products aren’t just protection against potential North Korean attacks—assuming they work they could also be a source of revenue via arms sales. This test may provoke a response from North Korea in the coming days.
Burkina Faso’s ruling junta is reportedly circling a 30 month transition to new elections and a restoration of civilian governance. That seems to be the result of a report compiled by the commission the junta established to lay out the details of the transition. Junta leaders had previously talked about needing at least two years in power so this is more or less in line with the expectations they’d set, but we’ll have to see whether it’s enough to avoid sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States and other international actors.
Islamic State West Africa Province claims it’s killed at least 30 soldiers in a series of attacks since Sunday targeting military patrols in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state. The Nigerian military hasn’t commented on this claim but it does say it carried out “clearance operations” in Borno on Monday that could have been organized in response to an ISWAP attack.
Before we get into the situation in Ukraine, let’s try to wade through the sanctions Western governments have imposed on Russia in response to Vladimir Putin’s decision to recognize the independence of two separatist entities in Ukraine’s Donbas region and then send the Russian military in to occupy those entites as a “peacekeeping” force:
The Biden administration intends to advance sanctions targeting Nord Stream 2 AG, a nominally Swiss firm owned by Russia’s Gazprom energy firm that has been building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. The physical pipeline has already been built but the German government has frozen its certification process and these sanctions could add another layer of obstacles to actually beginning operations.
The European Union has blacklisted hundreds of people, most prominently Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and Putin’s chief of staff, Anton Vaino. They’re joined by every member of the Russian Duma (the lower house of its parliament) who voted to approve Putin’s actions, 351 in all, along with a number of other Russian officials and the editor in chief of the RT news outlet. All will have any assets they’ve deposited in EU financial institutions frozen and will be barred from traveling into the EU. Additional EU sanctions are targeting Russian banks with ties to the Russian military as well as commercial activity involving either the Donetsk or Luhansk people’s republics.
The Japanese government has also announced a series of not-well-specified measures, including asset freezes and travel bans as well as a ban on “the issuance of Russian bonds in Japan.”
Russia is not Iran or Venezuela, by which I mean it has the capacity to retaliate for these sanctions. The biggest risk here is that Putin decides to escalate the Russian incursion into Ukraine, feeling he’s got nothing to lose. But Moscow could take intermediate steps short of that, for example reducing or cutting gas supplies to Europe. The German Institute of Energy Economics, however, has concluded that with current gas stockpiles Europe could probably ride out the last few weeks until spring without new Russian shipments—barring, of course, a major cold snap. That would buy European leaders some time to begin what’s could be a massive effort to kick their dependence on Russian gas before next winter, including increased use of renewables and the identification of alternative gas sources. No one source is going to replace Russia, but a combination of sources (the US and Qatar would likely be two of them) could at least replace part of the Russian supply. And in the meantime already high energy prices are likely to get even higher.
Cutting off Europe’s gas would, in turn, come at a major economic cost to Russia. Moscow could make up some of the lost revenue with increased gas sales to China, for example, but it would probably need to sell at a discount to entice more Chinese business and at the end of the day China’s gas demand isn’t infinite. Still, Russia has by all accounts spent several years sanction-proofing its economy, weaning itself off of many imported products, cutting debt, and building up a very large stockpile of foreign reserves (around $500 billion). Moscow can’t ride out major Western sanctions indefinitely but it might be able to hold out long enough for its retaliations to force Western governments to back down first.
In the interest of being comprehensive we should note that the Ukrainian government has imposed its own sanctions against scores of Russian officials. Like the EU’s sanctions these take the form of travel bans and asset freezes. Presumably the effect of these sanctions will be a bit more symbolic and less tangible than the EU sanctions, but maybe a lot of these folks were planning to visit the Beer Cultural Experience Center in Lviv or something and will now have to change those plans.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian authorities are saying that one of their soldiers was killed Wednesday by artillery fire along the front line in the Donbas. There’s no indication where it happened or what the circumstances were, but any flare up on the line now is going to be viewed as potentially the start of a bigger Russian invasion. That said, it’s unclear whether Russia has actually moved any additional forces into the Donbas since Monday, despite reporting earlier in the week to that effect. Putin says he hasn’t done so and as far as I can tell the US isn’t contradicting him, while there are conflicting claims on this point from officials in the Donetsk People’s Republic.
It also looks like Ukrainian government offices and possibly banks are dealing with another distributed denial of service attack, presumably courtesy of Russian hackers. It’s unclear how big the attack is or what impact it’s had on Ukrainian security institutions.
The Ukrainian government has declared a state of emergency, though it’s so far stopped short of full martial law, and it’s urging all Ukrainian nationals to leave Russia if they for some reason haven’t done that already. The US government, still hyping its total war scenario, is reportedly advising Kyiv that Russian forces could make a move on the city of Kharkiv in the next couple of days, which would be a major escalation as Kharkiv lies outside the Donbas altogether. In other words, there’s not even a tenuous peacekeeping justification for a Russian attack on that city. The cyber attack could (and I stress could) be the prelude to another escalation on the ground. But if the Russians haven’t even moved into the Donbas yet it’s hard to fathom how they’re going to make a move against Kharkiv in the next couple of days. Western analysts seem to believe that Russian forces can only maintain their current state of readiness for a short time, which if true means Putin will either have to order them forward or rotate them back to a more relaxed posture within the next few days.
Amid the flurry of sanctions targeting Russian elites and institutions, it remains to be seen how big a role the UK government is prepared to play in the process:
On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced what he called a first set of sanctions against oligarchs in response to Russian incursions into eastern Ukraine. Three rich businessmen with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, several members of Russia’s parliament and five midsize banks were sanctioned.
British officials say they are working on further sanctions, including plans to ban the Russian government from issuing debt on the London markets, restrict exports of key technology components to Russia and freeze the U.K. assets of a wider caste of Russian oligarchs. “We will hit them hard in the future,” said Mr. Johnson. Russia’s foreign ministry called the sanctions imposed by Western nations illegitimate and an effort by the West to restrain the country’s development.
London’s allure for oligarchs has faded in recent years amid increased hostility between the West and Moscow. However those oligarchs have left a long trail of property and family that still makes them a potential pressure point for the Russian government.
It is unclear how far the U.K. government will go to squeeze them amid fears it will damage the attractiveness of its financial center.
Fighters from Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group marked the first day of their “armed strike” on Wednesday by carrying out a number of attacks in which, among other things, they reportedly injured at least eight people, killed a police dog, set fire to a number of vehicles, and, in one attack in Cesar province, bombed a bridge. So it sounds like they had a full day. The “strike” is basically an enforced shut down in areas that ELN either controls or where it has a large enough presence to try to enforce its aims.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been publicly airing a few grievances with Washington this week. On Monday, he called on the US government “to stop funding groups that openly act as opponents of governments”—specifically his government. Reuters notes that a group called “Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity” has been on López Obrador’s radar for its criticism of his administration, and that group receives funding from the US Agency for International Development.
On Wednesday, meanwhile, López Obrador criticized US Secretary of State Antony Blinken over recent comments the latter made about the safety of journalists in Mexico. Blinken commented on a string of journalist killings in Mexico so far this year by saying that he “join[s] those calling for greater accountability and protections for Mexican journalists.” López Obrador took offense to the implication that Mexican authorities aren’t doing enough to protect journalists and on Wednesday called Blinken’s remarks “misinformed.” Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, for the record, though that doesn’t necessarily implicate the Mexican government and certainly doesn’t implicate López Obrador’s government, since the problem of violence against journalists long predates his election.
Haitian police fired on a group of protesters in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday, killing a reporter and wounding at least two others. The demonstrators were demanding an increase in Haiti’s minimum wage. It’s unclear what prompted police to open fire on them, but from the way it’s being described this incident sounds more like a drive by shooting than the typical confrontation between armed police and unarmed protesters.
Finally, Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic makes what I think is a very important point about the Biden administrations consistent rejection of diplomacy to find a way out of the Ukraine crisis:
Already, the army of war-hawk pundits that has been predicting — salivating over, may be more accurate — a Russian invasion has seized on this latest move as vindication of their usual talking points: Putin is Hitler, he seeks to revive the glory of the Soviet Union, he can’t be reasoned with, and only a show of force, not further “appeasement” or negotiations that “reward” his behavior, can make him stop. This is, incidentally, exactly the approach Washington and its allies, principally the UK, have taken to get us to this point.
Throughout this crisis, the Western position has been to take a caricaturishly hard line against negotiation. All the way back in December Putin put together his initial, maximalist opening bid calling for, most prominently, a legal, written pledge that neighboring Ukraine and Georgia wouldn’t join NATO, for Washington reenter the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty Trump had recklessly pulled out of, and a host of less realistic demands about NATO activities in former Soviet republics. But it was the first item on the list that was what Putin was really after. Limits to NATO’s eastward drift, after all, had long been a sore point for not just Putin, but even pro-Western Russian elites for years, something various US officials and thinkers had once openly recognized as understandable.
So, knowing that Moscow was now threatening military action against Ukraine if its objections to NATO enlargement continued to be ignored, what did Western officials do? They refused to budge on the matter again and again as the months wore on, even as, absurdly, they acknowledged Ukraine wasn’t joining the alliance anytime soon, and they made clear they wouldn’t fight to defend it. It’s the geopolitical equivalent of a gunman waving a pistol at your friend, demanding that you rule out any future plans to climb Mount Everest, only for you to cross your arms and refuse.
There’s obviously no guarantee that a more accommodating response to Russian security demands would have resolved this situation short of where things stand now, but the point is that the administration never really seemed to try. Even now, when there may still be a window to avoid a truly worst-case scenario, it’s walking away from the table in a huff. We can theorize about why that is, but I think the main takeaway is that while this crisis is primarily of Vladimir Putin’s making, he wasn’t the only one pushing the situation in the direction of conflict.
Those cyber attacks are likely great cover if there are a bunch of Ukrainian officials who need to do some shredding of documents, but I'm sure the fine folks (BoozAllen and US intelligence ghouls) over at ZeroFox wouldn't point their fingers at Russian without good cause, right?