World roundup: May 5 2022
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Chad, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
May 4, 1799: The British East India Company and its allies capture the fortress of Seringapatam in the southern Indian sultanate of Mysore, ending a one month siege and along with it the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War and, indeed, the Anglo-Mysore Wars as a whole. The ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, had been a perpetual thorn in the EIC’s side, having risen to the throne during the Second Anglo-Mysore War and having led the kingdom into the Third Anglo-Mysore War. He was killed at Seringapatam and his kingdom was mostly absorbed by the EIC and its allies, the Maratha Empire and Hyderabad.
May 4, 1904: The United States assumes ownership of a nearly defunct French project to build a canal across Panama connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This was just a few months after Panama’s US-backed declaration of independence from Colombia, which the Roosevelt administration encouraged because the Colombian Congress wouldn’t ratify the treaty leasing the canal zone to the US. The project was completed in 1914 and it’s fair to say it was kind of a big deal.
May 5, 1260: Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, is crowned as the fifth Great Khan (khagan) of the Mongol Empire, a position he held until his death in 1294. Kublai’s accession contributed significantly to the ongoing disintegration of the empire, as it immediately touched off a four year civil war between the new khagan and his brother, Ariq Böke, which helped spark a war between the Ilkhanate in the Middle East and the Golden Horde Khanate in the Eurasian Steppe. That was followed by another civil war between Kublai and one of his cousins, Kaidu, that didn’t end until after Kaidu’s death in 1301. These events weakened the cohesion of the empire and contributed to the eventual irrelevance of the “Great Khan” label. Kublai ruled directly only over the empire’s Mongolian and Chinese regions. In that role, he shifted the imperial court from the Mongolian heartland to the Chinese city of Khanbaliq (modern Beijing) and is considered the founder of China’s Yuan Dynasty.
May 5, 1862: A Mexican republican army commanded by Ignacio Zaragoza defeats a larger French force under Charles de Lorencez at the Battle of Puebla. The unexpected Mexican victory delayed a French march on Mexico City, though with reinforcements the French army eventually did take the capital and installed a Habsburg noble as the short-lived Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. The republican side ultimately defeated the French and overthrew Maximilian in 1867, and this early, morale-boosting victory was made a Mexican national holiday, Cinco de Mayo.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The World Health Organization now estimates that some 15 million more people have died over the past two years than would have been expected to die under normal circumstances, far higher than the official global COVID death toll that’s currently at around 6.3 million. These “excess death” counts can be more accurate than official totals, given the difficulty in assessing COVID deaths and individual governments’ incentives to downplay their own national death tolls. They also arguably provide a more accurate view of the overall cost of the pandemic. Not all of these 15 million people would have died because of COVID itself, but many may have died because, say, they couldn’t get access to emergency medical care due to overwhelmed hospital networks.
The OPEC+ group held its monthly gabfest on Thursday and agreed to stay the course, maintaining the 432,000 barrel per day increase it adopted in April at least through June. That’s a bit higher than the 400,000 bpd increase it had been maintaining prior to April, but not meaningfully so. Global oil prices ticked down a hair on Thursday but not enough to be noticeable at the pumps. This is great news for oil companies like Shell, which just posted its highest first quarter earnings ever thanks to high energy prices. Good for them!
The New Arab is reporting that Yemeni rebels may have attacked a government security office in Taiz by drone on Thursday, wounding at least eight people in the process. If the rebels were responsible that would violate the ceasefire Yemen is still under, but from what I can tell the details on this story are still very sketchy so I’m hesitant to make too much of it at this point.
The Turkish economy experienced 69.97 percent inflation in April, after 61.14 inflation in March. I am not an economist but this doesn’t seem great. I’m not sure we can declare Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s “cut interest rates to counter inflation” plan a failure at this point, but at the very least it doesn’t appear to be working yet. At any rate, these figures may help explain why Erdoğan has decided to make nice with Saudi Arabia and its very large foreign investment fund.
At least three people were killed and at least two seriously wounded late Thursday in the central Israeli city of Elad in what appears to have been a knife attack. Details at this point seem fairly sparse but Israeli authorities are searching for an attacker or attackers and seem to be operating under the belief that they were/are Palestinian.
Elsewhere, Israeli police once again attacked Palestinians in the al-Aqsa courtyard on Thursday after a group of some 600 Jewish worshipers entered the site under police protection to mark Israel’s Independence Day (according to the Hebrew calendar). Their arrival prompted resistance from Palestinians on the site, which in turn prompted police to move against the Palestinians. This was the first incidence of violence at al-Aqsa in about ten days.
In the West Bank, meanwhile, the tense security environment that marked much of Ramadan is likely to get tenser after the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a petition opposing the planned demolition of eight Palestinian villages near Hebron. The Israeli military wants to destroy those villages, displacing some 1000 semi-nomadic Palestinians living there, to build a firing range. The court ruled that the nomads were not “permanent” residents of the territory and therefore could legally be evicted.
In case you were still interested for some reason, it seems that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have apologized to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett over the colorful remarks Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made over the weekend. You may recall that Lavrov explained to an Italian media outlet that Adolf Hitler “had Jewish blood” and that “the most rabid antisemites tend to be Jews,” all by way of explaining how one could “denazify” a country (Ukraine) with a Jewish president (Volodymyr Zelensky). The Israeli government has been demanding an apology, and now says it received one during a call between Putin and Bennett. The Russian readout of the call does not mention any apology.
Armenian-Turkish normalization talks are in limbo again after an apparently unproductive meeting between the two countries’ negotiators this week. According to Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman the Turkish government is dragging its feet in order to give Azerbaijan more leverage in its own peace talks with Armenia—potentially to Turkey’s detriment:
The war in Ukraine has bolstered confidence in Baku and Ankara alike, with Turkey’s geostrategic value and Azerbaijan’s vast energy resources back in the spotlight.
Armenia seized control of Nagorno-Karabakh in a previous war in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed along with seven adjacent regions. In the latest war in the fall of 2020, it lost four of those regions along with a third of Nagorno-Karabakh. It ceded the remaining three regions as part of a truce brokered by the Kremlin in November that year. The war marked the biggest humiliation the nation of 2.9 million has suffered since formally declaring independence in 1991.
Turkey has long signaled that an Armenian withdrawal from the occupied territories would be enough for the two countries to normalize relations. By backing Azerbaijan’s quest for more, Ankara may be missing its best opportunity in decades to make peace with its neighbor and to help heal the wounds of the Armenian Genocide. It will also forfeit the chance to balance relations with Azerbaijan’s strongman Ilham Aliyev. His deep pockets and long arms in the Turkish economy and media allow him to manipulate Turkish nationalist sentiment — at times against Turkey’s own interests, as when he torpedoed an earlier effort at Turkish-Armenian reconciliation in 2009.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has scheduled his forthcoming constitutional referendum for June 5. In keeping with his recent steps to decentralize power, or at least offer the appearance that he’s decentralizing power, the referendum will primarily deal with shifting power from the presidency to parliament.
Sudanese security forces killed one anti-junta protester on Thursday during a demonstration in Khartoum. Security personnel apparently ran the victim over. They’ve now killed at least 95 protesters since the coup last October in which the Sudanese military ousted the country’s civilian transitional government.
Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé has reportedly agreed to mediate between Mali’s ruling junta and “regional actors and more broadly…the entire international community.” What exactly that means is unclear but chances are he’ll be trying to help the junta reach an accord with the Economic Community of West African States over its lengthy timetable for transitioning Mali back to civilian rule. ECOWAS has sanctioned the junta over that plan and is demanding that it speed up the transition process. Gnassingbé could theoretically take a crack at repairing relations between the junta and the French government, which have completely collapsed, but that assumes the junta is interested in seeing those relations repaired.
The National Dialogue has now been postponed three times. Most recently, on May 1, Chad’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that at the request of Qatar, it was delaying the Dialogue until an unspecified date. As discussed in the Al Jazeera article linked above, moreover, there was pressure from rebels and from civil society groups for the authorities to delay, even as Deby suggested for a while that he would stick to the timeline. Not to be too cynical, but the image of the junta reluctantly postponing the Dialogue to accommodate other actors doesn’t quite convince me; it is clearly politically advantageous for the TMC to prolong the negotiations until it gets maximum buy-in, and the TMC may be quite wary of the reforms it may be called upon to make – and dissidents it may have to let back into Chad – after the Dialogue concludes.
The Somali parliament has scheduled its presidential election for May 15. That’s just a couple of days ahead of an International Monetary Fund-set deadline for the Somalis to have a new government fully in place lest they risk losing their IMF assistance. To my knowledge only Puntland governor Said Abdullahi Dani has so far announced his candidacy but several more will presumably throw their hats into the ring including (probably) incumbent Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed.
In news from Russia:
Earlier this week, in response to Russian claims that it’s no longer just fighting Ukraine but the entire West writ large, outgoing White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters very plainly that the war in Ukraine “is not a proxy war.” She meant it so forcefully that she repeated it in her very next sentence, so clearly this is a message the Biden administration wants to hammer home. Now, I’m not a communications expert, so I may be off base here. But I think it might help the White House deliver this “not a proxy war” message if the people working for it stopped blabbing to any reporter in earshot about how many Russians the US intelligence community is helping to kill:
Yesterday, “senior American officials” leaked to The New York Times that US intelligence has been responsible for the surprisingly high number of Russian generals the Ukrainian military is alleged to have killed (around 12) since the war began.
Today, we find that “people familiar with the matter” have helpfully informed The Washington Post that US intelligence was behind the Ukrainian sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, last month.
Officially the administration has responded to both of these leaks by insisting that it only provides Ukraine with intelligence that can be used for defensive purposes. I get the desire to leak this stuff to show that America is Doing Something and maybe to rub the Russians’ noses in it a bit, but if you really want to convince people that you’re not fighting a proxy war then these periodic victory laps (and other sorts of eyebrow-raising rhetoric) are pretty counterproductive.
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio on Thursday announced the addition of 140 individuals to his government’s Russian blacklist, plus an extended export ban applying to Russian military contractors.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday expelled seven Danish embassy personnel. Denmark booted 15 Russians out of the country last month so this was retaliation.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gave an interview to The Associated Press on Thursday in which he defended the invasion on the grounds that Ukraine was “provoking” Russia beforehand, while also expressing his own surprise that the war has lasted this long. I doubt Lukashenko is privy to Russian war plans, but he’s close enough to Vladimir Putin that if even he thinks things haven’t entirely gone Russia’s way, it’s probably safe to conclude that they haven’t entirely gone Russia’s way. Lukashenko trumpeted his role as a peacemaker, speaking of things that haven’t worked out, and at least once seemed to hint at some exasperation with the conflict and with the sanctions the West has levied against Belarus because of it.
And in Ukraine:
The Washington Post today characterizes the war as a race between the West’s effort to arm and supply the Ukrainian military and Russia’s effort to rearm and resupply its own military. Since refocusing their invasion on eastern and southern Ukraine, the Russians have been making slow but noticeable territorial advantages while using their air supremacy to whittle away at the Ukrainian military and its national infrastructure. The Ukrainian military has made some minor territorial gains as well, mostly in areas that no longer seem to be a priority to the Russians, but Western governments—in what has to be the biggest policy shift since the war began—seem to be talking themselves into a frenzy over the possibility of an outright Russian defeat (see above) where a few weeks ago they were talking about things like long-term insurgencies and governments in-exile. But again it’s not a proxy war or anything.
Thursday seems to have brought a notable increase in Russian artillery fire along the front line in eastern Ukraine, with the Russian military claiming (which should be treated as unconfirmed) to have killed more than 600 Ukrainian soldiers overnight. Whatever successes the West has had in terms of arming the Ukrainians, if this is how the war is going to be fought it seemingly favors a Russian military whose repair and resupply operations are—in contrast with Ukraine’s—fairly simple to manage and not under continual attack.
The effort to evacuate civilians from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol was thwarted again on Thursday by fighting between Russian forces and the site’s remaining Ukrainian combatants. Ukrainian officials are unsurprisingly blaming the Russians for failing to abide by their promised ceasefires. They will apparently try again on Friday.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is apparently heading to Kyiv, a relatively nondescript development that I mention only in relation to an ongoing diplomatic feud between Berlin and Kyiv. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been resisting a Ukraine trip of his own in solidarity with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. You may recall that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky unceremoniously disinvited Steinmeier from a Ukrainian junket last month, and apparently Scholz has been waiting for Zelensky to apologize, or something, before he would agree to make the trip himself. Zelensky and Steinmeier have apparently managed to come to an accord, and so Zelensky extended an invitation for both he and Scholz to visit in the near future. But Scholz is still hesitating, hence the decision to send Baerbock instead.
This is all silly in the context of the Ukraine war, but in the context of German politics it could wind up being somewhat impactful. Scholz’s Social Democratic Party has been under fire for its past affinity for Russia, and Scholz himself has been criticized for his hesitancy to get on board with embargoes on Russian oil and/or gas as well as for his unwillingness (only recently reversed) to send heavy weapons to Ukraine. He may be taking a political risk by refusing even the wholly symbolic gesture of visiting Kyiv, though polling so far suggests Germans are generally OK with how Scholz has handled this situation.
Peruvian President Pedro Castillo, who seems to be on a speed run of every possible political scandal, is now reportedly under investigation for allegedly plagiarizing the master’s thesis that he coauthored with his wife, Lilia Paredes. Local media sent the thesis to Turnitin, a “plagiarism detection service,” which found that 54 percent of it was lifted from other places. Peruvian prosecutors as well as officials at César Vallejo University are now investigating the claim, which could have criminal ramifications for Castillo and his wife if it’s deemed true. Castillo, who only took office in July even though it seems like he’s been around for several years by now, unsurprisingly denies the allegation.
The Colombian government on Wednesday extradited the head of the Gulf Clan, Dairo Antonio Úsuga David AKA “Otoniel,” to the United States. He’s wanted in the US on, unsurprisingly, drug- and terrorism-related charges. Colombian authorities captured him last October and will retake possession of him (assuming he’s still among us) after he serves whatever sentence he winds up facing in the US.
According to The New York Times, Laureano Ortega—the son of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega—had “quietly approached” the Biden administration a couple of months ago about repairing the US-Nicaraguan relationship. The Ortega family and government are heavily sanctioned by the US, and those sanctions seem to be causing financial pain for the family. The Ukraine war and the international effort to isolate Russia, a close Nicaraguan ally, may also be motivating the Ortegas to try to patch things up with Washington. The outreach was apparently serious enough that the US State Department sent an envoy to Managua in March to pursue it, but that trip came to naught and there’s no indication of any further developments.
BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS
The British Virgin Islands’ parliament voted no confidence in Premier Andrew Fahie, who also happens to be under arrest in the United States on drug charges. Fahie’s deputy, Natalio Wheatley, had already assumed his duties and now succeeds him as premier in the full legal sense. The BVI is still awaiting word from London regarding the possibility that it might come back under direct UK rule.
Open warfare between Haiti’s 400 Mawozo and Chen Mechan gangs in Port-au-Prince has killed at least 39 people over the past two weeks, according to Haitian and United Nations officials. At least 68 people have been wounded and some 9000 displaced in the fighting, which has also impacted Haiti’s largest fuel terminal and is thus causing fuel shortages nationwide.
The US Senate on Thursday confirmed Caroline Kennedy as the Biden administration’s new ambassador to Australia. Kennedy is obviously a political appointee though she did serve as US ambassador to Japan during the Obama administration. The Senate also confirmed political appointee Marc Nathanson as ambassador to Norway and diplomats MaryKay Carlson and Philip Goldberg as ambassadors to the Philippines and South Korea, respectively.
Finally, TomDispatch’s Tom Miller reports on the money that’s being made, even under the Biden administration, militarizing the US-Mexico border:
During Donald Trump’s years in office, the media focused largely on the former president’s fixation with the giant border wall he was trying to have built, a xenophobic symbol so filled with racism that it was far easier to find people offended by it than towers like this one. From where I stood, the closest stretch of border wall was 10 miles to the south in Nogales, a structure made of 20-foot-high steel bollards and covered with coiled razor wire. (That stretch of wall, in fact, had been built long before Trump took office.)
What I was now witnessing, however, could be called Biden’s wall. I’m speaking about a modern, high-tech border barrier of a different sort, an increasingly autonomous surveillance apparatus fueled by “public-private partnerships.” The technology for this “virtual wall” had been in the works for years, but the Biden administration has focused on it as if it were a humane alternative to Trump’s project.
In reality, for the Border Patrol, the “border-wall system,” as it’s called, is equal parts barrier, technology, and personnel. While the Biden administration has ditched the racist justifications that went with it, its officials continue to zealously promote the building of a border-wall system that’s increasingly profitable and ever more like something out of a science-fiction movie.