World roundup: March 3 2022
Stories from Iran, South Korea, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 2, 1962: The Burmese military, led by General Ne Win, overthrows the country’s civilian government in a coup. The military stepped in amid widespread public opposition to the government, which was accused of corruption and incompetence, and fears that the government’s weakness might cause the country to break apart. It kicked off a period of military or essentially military rule in Myanmar that ended…well, I’m sure it will end one of these days.
March 2, 2002: The US military begins Operation Anaconda in Paktia province, the first large-scale battle in the War in Afghanistan. The battle ended on March 18 with a decisive US/coalition victory.
March 3, 1878: The Treaty of San Stefano ends the 1877-1878 Ottoman-Russian War with a decisive Russian victory. The treaty was so lopsided, and in particular the amount of territory given to Bulgaria was so large, that Britain and France stepped in and forced it to be substantially revised at the Congress of Berlin held that summer.
March 3, 1918: The Bolshevik government of Russia signs the Treaty of Brest Litovsk with the Central Powers, marking Russia’s formal withdrawal from World War I. In addition to quitting the war, Russia ceded its claims on Belarus, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine in Eastern Europe, all of which were expected to come under German domination, and its territories in the Caucasus, which were expected to come under Ottoman domination. Naturally all of those plans were upset when the Central Powers lost the war.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Among the many places likely to suffer negative consequences as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is Yemen, a country that’s already dealing with just about all the negative consequences it can handle at the moment. Disruptions particularly to the global wheat market—Ukraine is one of the world’s top wheat exporters, and with the price of oil now topping $110 per barrel shipping any wheat from anywhere has become substantially more expensive—are likely to make it harder for the World Food Program to keep even meager food aid flowing into Yemen, parts of which were in famine conditions before the Ukraine war started. The prospect of diminished aid has reportedly triggered some panic buying by Yemenis, which of course only makes the situation worse.
Amid its various recent rulings about the ongoing presidential race, the Iraqi Supreme Federal Court issued a ruling last month that could shake up the country’s energy sector and may provoke new political tensions between Kurdish officials and Baghdad. The court ruled that the Kurdistan Regional Government does not have the right to manage its oil exports independently of the Iraqi national government. The KRG has for years maintained its own oil export arrangements with the Turkish government. Baghdad sometimes complains about this state of affairs and the court’s ruling emerged from a 2012 legal challenge filed by Iraqi officials. When questioned about the issue Kurdish officials insist that they need the revenue from those oil exports because they’re not getting budget transfers from Baghdad, to which they are legally entitled. So without the oil sales they would have very little to no revenue. KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani says he intends to ignore the court ruling.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest quarterly Iran report says that Tehran has hitherto stockpiled 33.2 kilograms of 60 percent enriched uranium, roughly doubling the amount it had as of the agency’s previous report. This is significant because at somewhere around 45 kilograms of 60 percent enriched uranium Iran will have amassed enough material to refine into around 25 kilograms of 90 percent enriched uranium, which is—wait for it—enough to fuel a nuclear bomb. That doesn’t mean Iran would have a nuclear bomb, but it does sound like a good time to reach an joint agreement, a comprehensive plan of action if you will, that among other things would require Iran to rid itself of that entire stockpile of 60 percent enriched uranium.
Negotiations on reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action remain on hold over what everyone seems to agree are the final details, one of which apparently has to do with the IAEA’s investigation into possibly undeclared Iranian nuclear sites. The Iranians want that investigation ended as part of a new agreement, but the US is resisting that demand because the original agreement said nothing about limiting the IAEA’s investigative prerogatives. IAEA boss Rafael Grossi is reportedly heading to Iran this weekend where he will try to work something out on this front and thereby remove this particular impediment to a deal.
New satellite imagery suggests that Iran recently attempted another space launch and suffered what looks like a fairly catastrophic failure. The images of Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Semnan province show scorch marks and signs of damage to a rocket gantry, none of which would be expected after a successful launch. The US regards Iranian space launches more or less as ballistic missile tests, though I doubt the Biden administration will make much of this attempt given that doing so would risk undermining the nuclear talks.
The Georgian government, no doubt observing what’s been happening in Ukraine, has decided to join the Ukrainian government in applying to join the European Union. Georgian officials had been intending to apply in 2024, but perhaps motivated by the large crowds that have been gathering nightly in Tbilisi to express solidarity with Ukraine and call for greater integration with the EU, they’ve decided not to wait. Georgia still hasn’t fully implemented the Association Agreement it signed with the EU in 2014, and between that and its still-open territorial disputes over Abkhazia and South Ossetia its chances of rapid EU accession are likely slim.
The Armenian parliament on Thursday elected former Minister of High-Tech Industry Vahagn Khachaturyan as the country’s new president. He replaces Armen Sarkisian, who resigned in January mostly over the weakness of the office of president and his consequent inability to challenge Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s authority. Having served in Pashinyan’s cabinet, Khachaturyan presumably doesn’t have the same intentions.
The Chinese government issued another denial on Thursday to claims that it asked Moscow to delay its Ukraine invasion until after the Olympics (in other words meaning Beijing knew the invasion was coming and didn’t do or say anything about it). China’s Washington embassy had already issued a denial but apparently the foreign ministry deemed the allegation serious enough to warrant another go round.
South Korean presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, nominee of the conservative People’s Party, announced on Thursday that he’s dropping out of the race and endorsing fellow conservative Yoon Suk-yeol in next Wednesday’s election. Ahn had been running a distant third in polling behind Yoon and Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung, and his endorsement may be enough to ensure that Yoon emerges victorious.
US officials are, according to The Wall Street Journal at least, worried that Sudan’s ruling junta is preparing to resuscitate a previously suspended agreement to allow Russia to build and occupy (for at least 25 years) a naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Moscow and Khartoum originally negotiated such a deal back in 2020, but the junta froze the project amid warming relations with Washington. Amid the general decline of US-Sudanese relations since last October’s coup, it seems the idea is being revisited. In addition to improving Russia’s military projection into the Red Sea region, a naval base could help improve logistics for the various mining and other resource extraction deals Moscow has been signing with governments across the continent—most of them related to the work that the Wagner Group is doing in the paramilitary/mercenary sphere.
New Libyan Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha and his cabinet were formally sworn in on Thursday, in a ceremony marred by allegations that an unspecified “armed group” aligned with his new rival, incumbent Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, had prevented three of Bashagha’s cabinet ministers from attending. Further dulling Bashagha’s new cabinet sheen was the resignation of his choice for economy and trade minister, Jamal Salem Shaaban. In announcing his resignation, Shaaban amplified claims that Tuesday’s House of Representatives vote to confirm Bashagha and company was handled fraudulently.
The Economic Community of West African States said on Thursday that it’s “concerned” about Guinea’s stalled transition back to elected civilian governance. The junta that ousted former President Alpha Condé back in September has yet to come forward with a transition plan despite promises to do so. The bloc has already sanctioned Guinea over the junta’s lack of progress but more penalties may be forthcoming.
On a similar note, ECOWAS has canceled a delegation of member heads of state that was scheduled to head to Burkina Faso and intends to replace that delegation with a lower-level on featuring member state cabinet ministers. The bloc didn’t go into copious detail but it seems it’s similarly concerned with the newly-announced three year Burkinabé political transition. ECOWAS has not yet sanctioned Burkina Faso’s junta but the announcement of that extended timetable could trigger a response.
Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi named former Economy Minister Adriano Maleiane as his new prime minister on Thursday, replacing the ousted Carlos Agostinho do Rosário. Nyusi canned a number of cabinet ministers, including Rosário, this week and so far has not explained his decision.
In Thursday’s news from Russia:
French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin held their third phone chat since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this one apparently a bit less cordial than the previous two. Ominously, according to French officials Macron came away from the interchange believing that “the worst is yet to come” in Ukraine and that Putin’s intention is to fully occupy the country. I guess if there’s a silver lining in this it’s that the French readout of every other call Macron and Putin have had has turned out to be either mostly or entirely wrong as far as I can tell in terms of aligning with subsequent events, so maybe that will be the case here. I doubt it, though.
On the plus side, I suppose, the US and Russian militaries have opened a new deconfliction hotline specific to Ukraine. This will create an always-open communications channel to help prevent any miscalculations or the like from escalating into something more serious. The two countries have a similar channel in place in Syria. One might wonder why they need one in Ukraine, where US forces are not supposed to be operating, but there is some concern about interactions between Russian forces in Ukraine and NATO forces in several countries bordering Ukraine.
Western countries still seem to be in a holding pattern in terms of sanctions, implementing those they’ve already imposed on Russia and waiting to see how much of an impact they make before moving forward with any major new initiatives. The Biden administration has added more names to its Russian oligarch blacklist, for whatever good that will do. The Canadian government on Thursday revoked favored nation trading status for both Russia and Belarus, which means an immediate imposition of 35 percent tariffs on their exports, and is calling on other countries to do the same.
European governments are scoping out alternatives to Russian natural gas, both because of rising prices and the potential for Russian supplies to be cut off at some point in this economic war, but unsurprisingly they’re running into the reality that any serious alternative is at best months away from being implementable. Even achieving significant reductions in Russian gas imports by next winter is likely impossible without a very serious energy conservation component, which is a sacrifice European leaders have so far been unwilling to ask their citizens to make (though, to be fair, they have been trying to convey the message that sanctions on Russia will impact European consumers).
Speaking of sacrifices, the UK government is under some pressure to get moving on its stated plans to freeze the assets of 100 or more Russian elites whose investments have been a major boon to the British financial system for many years now. UK officials are moving slowly enough that at least some of those folks might be able to move their assets to safer environs before the proverbial sanctions hammer drops. France and Germany seem, by comparison, to be on a much faster track.
In the private sector, the wave of companies that have stopped doing business in and/or with Russia grew somewhat larger on Thursday when Sabre, a Texas-based firm that provides booking services for many of the world’s major airlines, cut ties with Russia’s largest air carrier, Aeroflot. Between this and the number of countries that are now banning Russian flights from their airspace, it is not a great time to be a commercial air traveler in Russia. Much of the impact of these corporate divestments is likely to be temporary (until Russian companies develop or import alternatives to iPhones, say) but harming the lives and in some cases livelihoods of ordinary Russians could easily wind up backfiring on the West by churning up resentments and feelings that their country is under attack from foreign adversaries.
The United States continues to allege that Russian authorities are smothering independent media access within Russia in an effort to control the domestic narrative about this conflict. As I’ve mentioned previously Ukrainians have been attempting to get around Russian authorities to get images purportedly of Russian war dead and/or prisoners to the Russian audience. As I’ve also noted there’s a compelling case to be made that doing this violates international law, though the Ukrainians I’m sure would argue that they’re not doing it to humiliate the Russian captives and so they’re in the clear. The Geneva Conventions oblige captors not to subject prisoners to “insults and public curiosity,” which is vague enough to be interpreted in all sorts of ways. At any rate, and as with all matters of international law, this only matters if at some point there’s an attempt to prosecute violators and I don’t see that happening here anytime soon, if ever.
The Kremlin is denying rumors that it plans to impose martial law inside Russia. Those rumors have reportedly driven a number of Russians to get out of the country while the getting is good, so to speak, ahead of either a crackdown or more widespread international bans on Russian commercial flights. The Federation Council, which is the upper house of the Russian parliament, is scheduled to hold an extraordinary session on Friday. Clearly they’re planning to do something or else they wouldn’t have called the session, but whether that “something” is martial law remains an open question.
Seven of the eight members of the Arctic Council—all of them except Russia, in other words—have said they will boycott the council’s work at least through the end of Moscow’s turn as council chair (which ends next year). The council aims to maintain orderly management of the Arctic Ocean in areas like commerce and resource extraction, which has become a particularly critical issue now that melting ice has unlocked most or all of that body of water to traffic and exploitation.
Quincy’s Ben Freeman has an illuminating look at what the war, and sanctions, have done to Russia’s lobbying effort in Washington. Moscow has spent tens of millions of dollars just on above-board influence peddling in DC over the last few years, but the number of DC firms willing to take the Russian government or Russian interests on as clients seems to have dropped to zero.
And in Ukraine:
Ukrainian negotiators arrived in Belarus on Thursday for a second round of peace talks with their Russian counterparts. It sounds like they were able to agree on the opening of humanitarian corridors for Ukrainians attempting to flee active combat zones, which could also be used to send aid to civilians still in those combat zones, but nothing beyond that. Still relatively small agreements like this can build trust toward bigger agreements on things like ceasefires down the road. It’s an agonizingly slow process in the midst of an ongoing war, but at least it is progress. Quincy’s Anatol Lieven outlines what could be a realistic peace settlement if anybody is interested at this point in being realistic.
Casualty information remains spotty, with the United Nations updating its official count to 249 civilians killed and 553 injured. Both are certainly undercounting the actual toll. Authorities in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv are saying that at least 33 people were killed by Russian shelling there on Thursday though like everything else on this topic that claim is unconfirmable. As we noted yesterday, the UN now says that over 1 million Ukrainians have fled the country, most of them to Poland.
The Russian advance has made substantially more progress in southern Ukraine, where Russian forces have been moving fairly steadily, than it has in northern and eastern Ukraine, where they seem to be somewhat bogged down. The southern port city of Kherson appears to be in Russian hands, US wishcasting notwithstanding, which is strategically relevant in that controlling the city enables the Russians to secure water supplies to Crimea and puts them on the road to potentially threatening the larger port city of Odessa by land. Russian forces are now reportedly moving on Mykolaiv, the next significant port on the way to Odessa. The southeastern port city of Mariupol, meanwhile, remains nominally in Ukrainian control but it’s been fully invested and seems to be under a fairly withering assault from Russian forces.
Russian forces have also reportedly entered the southern town of Enerhodar, site of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest such plant in Europe. There are now reports that some part of the plant is on fire as the result of an ongoing battle. The chances of a meltdown seem fairly slim (the fire is most likely not affecting a critical part of the site), though as a rule I would say it’s better not to engage in active hostilities within eyesight of a nuclear reactor.
In the north and east, as I say, things seem to be somewhat different, with Russian forces still positioning themselves to invest Kyiv and other major cities. There continues to be justifiable worry over the very large Russian convoy that’s been moving slowly, or sometimes not at all, toward Kyiv for the past several days, though the amount of time that column has spent plodding along on open roads has reportedly made it an inviting repeat target for Ukrainian airstrikes. If those claims are accurate it speaks to the difficult-to-explain Russian decision to send ground forces into Ukraine without having fully secured the airspace.
Speculation continues to run high that Russian forces are using thermobaric weapons, also known as “vacuum” or “aerosol” bombs, in Ukraine. These weapons pack more destructive power than conventional explosives and their use in civilian population centers could, like the Russians’ alleged use of cluster bombs, be deemed a war crime. But again that assumes there’s going to be some legal proceeding that emerges from this conflict and all I can say is I’ll believe that when I see it. It’s one thing to set up a tribunal to adjudicate war crimes in, say, the former Yugoslavia, but quite another to envision doing so when one of the combatants is a military/nuclear superpower. As evidence I would submit the absence of any attempt at international justice following the US invasion of Iraq.
The Biden administration also announced on Thursday that it’s granting temporary protected status to Ukrainians in the US for at least the next 18 months. Essentially this means they can remain in the US past the expiration of any visas they might have without fear of deportation.
Like its colleagues in Ukraine and Georgia, the Moldovan government would also apparently like to be considered for European Union membership, at least according to the application that President Maia Sandu signed on Wednesday. There is some reason for Moldova to be concerned about what’s happening next door, including the fact that it’s also home to a Russian separatist “republic” in its Transnistria region. But also like Georgia and Ukraine, there’s no indication that Moldova is currently a viable candidate for full EU membership.
Surprising nobody, French President Emmanuel Macron officially announced on Thursday that he’s running for reelection in April. Polling consistently shows Macron winning the first round on April 10 and then easily defeating any of his three likely opponents in the runoff on April 24.
The Biden administration intends to resume consular services at the US embassy in Havana, though only for some immigrant visas. The State Department evacuated most of its staff from Cuba in 2017 at the height of Havana Syndrome panic and has been handling most consular services for Cuba out of its embassy in Guyana—which puts those services out of reach for Cubans who can’t afford to make that trip. The Guyana embassy will continue to handle the bulk of Cuban consular work moving forward.
Finally, at The Washington Post, international relations scholar Samuel Moyn looks at the failure of “rules-based orders” to apply those rules evenly:
The meaning and value of “rules-based orders” — whether in the domestic context or the international — always depend on who gets to decide when the rules apply. We like to think the purpose of our rules-based order at home — the “rule of law” is the usual phrase for it — is domestic peace and security. It sometimes works: Laws prohibit much grievous harm, the police keep people safe, and the criminal justice system tries the accused and punishes the convicted. But we also know that the powerful have ways out of trouble and that application of the rules leads to the mass incarceration of the weak or unprivileged. Our aspiration to safety masks a reality of impunity for some and subjugation for others — typically across lines of race and wealth.
The situation is even worse on the international stage. We might not tolerate a criminal law that openly provided the most powerful members of society a get-out-of-jail-free card. Yet through their veto on the Security Council, certain states have a stack of never-get-indicted cards — and they can never run out. When Russia played one last Friday, in response to the Security Council condemnation organized by the U.S. government, it was certainly not the first time it made use of the charter’s rules to help it break the most basic rules in the international order with impunity.
“You cannot veto the Ukrainian people, you cannot veto the U.N. Charter, and you will not veto accountability,” thundered Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. representative to the United States, in response to Russia’s veto. But the point is that it is precisely the U.N. Charter that allows Russia to make the precious international rule prohibiting war inapplicable to its conduct.
The United States also seeks exceptions for itself. Critics of the United States have not tired over the years of warning that we would have no standing to indict others’ aggressive acts, given our own actions. When Putin, in his irate harangue days before the Ukraine invasion, pointed to American hypocrisy about the use of force, he was being cynical but not untruthful. The military operation against Yugoslav forces in 1999, to protect civilians in Kosovo, was not approved by the United Nations, Putin noted. “Some Western colleagues do not like to remember those events,” he said, referring to the months of bombing of Belgrade. Nor was the Iraq War, nor the American intervention in Syria.