World roundup: September 13 2022
Stories from Armenia, Ukraine, Chile, and more
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Hello! It’s been a while, and a lot happened while I was gone so I’m just forewarning you that this is a long one. That’s in fact why it’s coming out a bit early, because if I add anything else to it we may exceed email limits and that would not be good. More to come tomorrow!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
September 12, 1683: The Battle of Vienna
September 12, 1974: A committee of Ethiopian military officers, called the “Derg,” overthrows Emperor Haile Selassie in a coup amid mass unrest caused in part by a serious famine. The Derg, which refashioned itself as the “Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia,” ruled the country until 1987, when it further transformed itself into the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
September 13, 533: A Byzantine army under Belisarius defeats the Vandals in the Battle of Ad Decimum, near Carthage. This was Belisarius’s first victory in his invasion of North Africa and kicked off his campaign to restore the western Mediterranean to imperial control.
September 13, 1993: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chair Yasser Arafat sign the Oslo I Accord in Washington, DC. Oslo I established the creation of a Palestinian government as well as provisions for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Occupied Territories and economic cooperation between the Israelis and Palestinians. It was supposed to be an interim agreement but, well, you can see how that went.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The United Nations coordinator in Syria, Imran Riza, issued a statement on Tuesday warning that a nascent cholera outbreak in Syria could pose a threat not just to that country but to the wider region. At least five people have died amid over two dozen reported cholera cases that the UN has linked to contaminated water from the Euphrates River (hence the regional implications) used for drinking and irrigation. Syrian water treatment infrastructure has been battered by the country’s civil war.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi headed to Qatar on Tuesday for a two day
fundraising effort trip meant to emphasize that their bilateral bad blood is all in the past. This is Sisi’s first visit to Qatar since Egypt joined Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE in cutting ties with Doha back in 2017, a rift that was closed with the signing of the al-Ula Declaration back in January 2021. Sisi welcomed Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to Egypt back in June, so Tamim is returning the favor. He’s likely prepared to promise substantial Qatari investment in the Egyptian economy, and Sisi is also planning to meet with Qatari business leaders while he’s there to try to boost private investment as well.
The “E3” (France, Germany, and the UK) issued a joint statement over the weekend questioning “Iran’s intentions and commitment to a successful outcome” of talks on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. That statement came a little over a week after Iran’s latest proposal in those negotiations was rejected by the US and the three European states as a “backwards” step, in the words of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. It seems likely that the Biden administration is going to use that unsatisfactory Iranian response as a justification for shelving the nuclear talks at least until after the US midterm election in November.
Details are still somewhat sparse, but it’s clear that there was a fairly sizable clash along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijani overnight and into Tuesday morning (local time), with Armenian officials saying that at least 49 of their soldiers were killed and Azerbaijani officials responding that they lost 50 soldiers. The Azerbaijani claim that they lost exactly one more soldier than the Armenians seems a little bespoke to me but clearly there were Azerbaijani casualties. Each side is, of course, accusing the other of provoking the incident. I’m unclear as to whether or not the fighting has entirely stopped—there were reports of a Russian-brokered ceasefire on Tuesday morning but there have been claims since then that it’s broken down and Moscow has been calling for “calm” from both parties.
It’s difficult to get a read on what this exchange suggests. It’s entirely possible this is just another in a series of skirmishes that have taken place since the end of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. These usually take place when peace talks between Yerevan and Baku have slowed down and the Azerbaijanis want to force Armenia to make new concessions to get them going again. But as Eurasianet notes this incident took place in southern Armenia proper, not in or around Karabakh, which represents an escalation from the Azerbaijani side. Armenian officials accused the Azerbaijanis of trying to seize Armenian land and have taken their case to the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Given recent events in Ukraine (see below), it would not be terribly surprising if the Azerbaijanis were attempting to test Moscow’s commitment to its southern Caucasian peacekeeping operation.
The Kazakh government is reportedly planning to change the name of its capital, Nur-Sultan, back to Astana. That was the city’s name until 2019, when it was changed to honor former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. With current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev doing everything he can to put Nazarbayev’s reign in Kazakhstan’s rear view mirror, this development was probably inevitable. The measure has to work its way through the Kazakh parliament but it’s unlikely to meet heavy opposition there.
Afghan authorities claimed on Tuesday that their security forces had killed some 40 rebel fighters, including “four commanders,” and wounded more than 100 during a “clearance operation” in the Panjshir Valley. As far as I know they did not go into any detail and it’s not clear when this operation is supposed to have taken place. The National Resistance Front, made up of officials and security forces from Afghanistan’s pre-Taliban government, had previously established a foothold in Panjshir so the rebels in question are presumably their fighters.
Idrees Khan, a tribal leader known to oppose the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP) was killed along with four other people on Tuesday when his vehicle ran over a bomb in the Swat region of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. There’s been no claim of responsibility but there are growing fears that the TTP’s peace talks with the Pakistani government are failing and that the organization is resuming its campaign of violence. Khan led a tribal alliance that helped the Pakistani government drive the TTP out of the Swat region back in 2009 and this bombing may signal the Taliban’s intent to move back into the area.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is heading to a summit for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan this week, where he’s expected among other things to discuss his new “Global Security Initiative” and to have a chat with Russian President Vladimir Putin. I hesitate to even mention something this banal except insofar as it’s Xi is first trip outside of China since the onset of COVID. Xi proposed the Global Security Initiative back in April as a security-oriented supplement to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and other international projects. It’s meant to counter US initiatives like the “Quad.”
North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly passed a new piece of legislation last week that formally codified its status as a nuclear power and legally authorizes the North Korean military to conduct a first strike nuclear attack should the country or its interests be deemed at risk. Kim Jong-un already had all the power he needed to order a nuclear strike under any justification, so the legislation really seems intended more as a statement of Pyongyang’s red lines and as a reiteration of its determination not to “denuclearize” no matter how many times the US and/or South Korea ask.
In what looks like a boost to hopes for peace talks, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front declared on Sunday that it is open to an African Union-led negotiation and “ready to abide by an immediate and mutually agreed cessation of hostilities” with the Ethiopian government. Fighting between the TPLF and Ethiopian federal forces (and their allies) resumed late last month with each side accusing the other of breaking their March ceasefire agreement. The TPLF earlier this month accused the Eritrean military of spearheading a major new offensive in northern Tigray. One of the sticking points hindering that March agreement was a dispute over whether the peace process should be overseen by the AU (the Ethiopian government’s choice) or (now former) Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (the TPLF’s choice). So the TPLF is making a significant concession here that could enable peace talks.
I haven’t seen an official response to the TPLF’s statement from Addis Ababa as yet, but there were reports Tuesday of new Ethiopian drone strikes targeting the campus of Mekelle University and the offices of a Tigrayan TV station. Needless to say that’s not a terribly encouraging development.
Kenya’s former deputy president, William Ruto, officially took office as its new president on Tuesday, Kenyatta. Ruto won a contested election over perpetual candidate Raila Odinga last month. Odinga challenged the result but last week the Kenyan Supreme Court tossed out that challenge in a ruling Odinga said he would accept despite his “vehement” disagreement. A large number of people were reportedly injured on Tuesday when crowds attempted to enter Kasarani stadium in Nairobi to witness the inauguration ceremony even after the facility had reached capacity.
Jihadist militants active in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province have reportedly expanded their insurgency south into Nampula, the most populous province in the country. Last month the International Organization for Migration reported that a “new offensive” by the militants in Cabo Delgado had displaced some 80,000 people since June. Prior to the start of that offensive it seemed like a regional intervention, including forces from Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community, had enabled Mozambican authorities to get a handle on the insurgency.
Now, about those Ukrainian military gains. Easily the most significant (or at least the most intensely covered) event over the past week has been a surprising and surprisingly successful Ukrainian counteroffensive, not in the southern part of the country but rather in northeastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv oblast. The operation began late last week, and by Friday Ukrainian forces had recovered a significant amount of territory, including two key logistical centers in the rail hub town of Kupiansk and the city of Izyum. The Ukrainian military appears to have taken advantage of the fact that its Russian counterpart shifted soldiers and resources to southern Ukraine to deal with the previously announced counteroffensive there. Ukrainian officials are now claiming that the southern operation was all along intended as a feint, which is entirely possible though accounts from soldiers who’ve been fighting in the south suggest otherwise and I’m really not sure it matters at this point anyway.
The apparent collapse of Russian forces in Kharkiv—which Moscow has tried to characterize as a redeployment though what evidence is available suggests a fairly disorderly withdrawal—continued through the weekend and into Tuesday, with Ukrainian forces advancing all the way to the Russian border in some areas. Territorial changes can be hard to track moment to moment but it now appears that almost all of Kharkiv oblast is back under Ukrainian control after just a few days of fighting largely characterized by a Russian retreat. The Russians seem to be retaliating by bombarding population centers and public utilities in Kharkiv as well as other parts of eastern Ukraine. If the Ukrainian advance continues rolling it’s conceivable they could enter Luhansk oblast for the first time since the Russians captured Lysychansk in July.
There’s talk about this counteroffensive as a “turning point” in the war, which I think is a bit premature though not necessarily unfounded. It’s certainly the biggest shift in the conflict since at least May, when Russian forces seized Kherson, or April, when the Russians ended their stalled operations around Kyiv and in much of northeastern Ukraine under the pretense of shifting to a “new phase” of the war focused on the Donbas. Is it something more than that?
The rapidity of the Ukrainian advance appears to have exposed weaknesses in the Russian front and will likely reinvigorate Western efforts to support Kyiv militarily and economically. The seizure of Izyum in particular positions the Ukrainians to pressure, if they want, Russian forces in the Donbas. And the undeniable fact of this Russian military setback is causing, for the first time since the invasion began, war mongering Russian political commentators and regime loyalists to wonder whether Vladimir Putin has any idea what he’s doing, which could have repercussions moving forward though those repercussions could take a number of forms (Putin could feel pressure to intensify Russia’s war effort, for example). But turning points are usually defined in hindsight, not in the moment. And even if this does wind up being a turning point that doesn’t mean the war is nearing a conclusion.
A couple of other news items of note:
Whether it was all an elaborate setup or a genuine counteroffensive, the Ukrainian operation in Kherson oblast has apparently caused Russian-appointed officials there to postpone plans to hold a referendum on annexation by Moscow. Evidence of Ukrainian advances in Kherson has been sparse (certainly compared with Kharkiv) and the operation still seems more focused on disrupting Russian supply lines than retaking territory, but delaying that referendum is itself a success from Kyiv’s perspective. On Tuesday, the AP reported claims by Ukrainian officials that Russian forces were withdrawing from the southern city of Melitopol and were attempting to flee into Crimea. That would be a remarkable development if true but as far as I can tell there’s no confirmation for it as yet.
Ukraine’s Energoatom firm announced on Sunday that it had shut down the last working reactor at the embattled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Shelling disconnected the facility from the Ukrainian power grid earlier this month, raising fears that its cooling and safety mechanisms might go offline. Energoatom has apparently been able to reconnect the plant to the grid in order to power the shutdown but officials have decided that ongoing fighting near the plant posed too great a risk to keep it running. The International Atomic Energy Agency has been calling for both sides to create a demilitarized zone around the facility, which is the largest nuclear plant in Europe.
Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová appointed a new cabinet on Tuesday that leaves incumbent Prime Minister Eduard Heger at the head of a minority government following the withdrawal last week of the Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS) from Heger’s coalition. SaS party leader Richard Sulík resigned his cabinet post late last month over a longstanding demand for the ouster of Finance Minister Igor Matovič but left in limbo the question of whether his party as a whole would withdraw from the government. The new cabinet is a continuation of the previous one with four new ministers to replace the four departed SaS members.
Swedish voters headed to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament, and they decided…well, it’s still too close to call, but it’s clear there’s been a shift toward the far-right in Swedish politics regardless of the final outcome. At latest count it looks like the bloc of four Swedish conservative parties will emerge with a collective majority, though the margins remains so thin that the outstanding votes could still tip the outcome in the other direction. In particular, voters have swung toward the far-right, xenophobic Sweden Democrats, giving that party a significant boost over its 2018 performance and leaving it as the largest conservative party in the new Riksdag.
Assuming this partial result holds, it’s likely that the Centre, Moderate, and Christian Democratic parties will seek to form a minority government with the Sweden Democrats’ support, with Moderate Party boss Ulf Kristersson as prime minister. Kristersson has a deal in place with the Sweden Democrats for their support, though the far-right party is likely to demand considerable influence in terms of policy given its electoral performance and other members of Kristersson’s proposed coalition could balk at that.
Members of the UK Conservative Party did indeed elect Liz Truss as their new party leader and, therefore, as the UK’s new prime minister, a result that was foretold in pre-election polling. Results of the month-long vote were announced last Monday and Truss was designated PM the following day by Queen Elizabeth II. As it happens this was perhaps Elizabeth’s final official act as monarch, because she passed away on Thursday at the age of 96. She’s been succeeded by her son, now King Charles III.
Chilean voters resoundingly rejected that country’s proposed new constitution in a plebiscite held on September 4, 61.9 percent to 38.1 percent. This was consistent with pre-election polling, which consistently had the “reject” side winning the vote, though the margin was a bit larger than those surveys had predicted. This was a marked turnaround from Chile’s 2020 plebiscite, in which 78 percent of voters (albeit under significantly lower turnout) voted to replace their Pinochet-era charter. Multiple explanations have been offered to explain the outcome, including struggles during the drafting process, which produced a complicated and heavily identitarian text that may have been off-putting to voters. Chilean President Gabriel Boric, whose agenda has largely been on ice awaiting the outcome of this vote, said he intends to draft a new constitution though it’s unclear how that process will legally proceed.
By way of a shameless plug, we discussed the vote on a special American Prestige last week with SUNY Binghamton professor René Rojas. If you’re interested in further analysis please check it out.
Finally, and related to the news from Ukraine I outlined above, Bob Wright of the Nonzero Newsletter considers the struggles that major US media outlets seem to exhibit when trying to report on Vladimir Putin:
My theory involves a cognitive bias (familiar to regular readers of NZN) called attribution error, which can cloud, among other things, our understanding of enemies and rivals. It works like this:
When an enemy or rival does something we consider bad, we tend to attribute the bad behavior to the person’s “disposition” (their basic nature) rather than to “situation” (such factors as peer pressure or political pressure or workplace stress or whatever). But if they do something we consider good, we tend to emphasize situational factors, not dispositional ones.
Our enemies and rivals, in other words, do bad things because that’s the kind of people they are and do good things only when pushed toward them by circumstance; attribution error is, among other things, a mechanism for preserving this unflattering framing of them. (With friends and allies it works the other way around: We tend to attribute good things they do to the kind of people they are and bad things they do to peer pressure or a stressful workplace or whatever.)
So if most American journalists and foreign policy elites view Putin as an enemy—and don’t somehow overcome the biased assessment of his motivation this view naturally brings—they’ll tend to ignore or downplay factors in his environment that encouraged him to invade Ukraine. They may note, even dwell on, the fact that some Russians oppose the war, but they’ll be less inclined to highlight Russian factions that support the war.
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