In Other News: EU Imposes New Sanctions on Russians, US Criticizes UN Human Rights Council Election & More – October 16, 2020

October 16, 2020

The EU imposed a raft of new sanctions on six Russian individuals in President Putin’s circle and the president of Belarus this week, signaling a new willingness to penalize the Kremlin and its allies for their more egregious violations of democratic and human rights norms.  The sanctions against the six Russians are in response to the poisoning of Kremlin opposition figure Alexey Navalny, while those targeting Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko are a response to his ongoing crackdown on protests sparked by recent presidential election, widely viewed as fraudulent, that delivered him a sixth term in office. Lukashenko is now subject to a travel ban and a freeze on any assets held in the EU, as are the following six individuals: Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russian domestic intelligence agency the FSB; first deputy chief of staff to the president Sergei Kiriyenko; head of the Kremlin’s domestic policy directorate Andrei Yarin; deputy defense ministers Aleksey Krivoruchko and Pavel Popov; and Sergei Menyaylo, Kremlin envoy to the Siberian Federal District, where the poisoning took place. Also subject to an asset freeze is Russia’s State Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology, after the intergovernmental Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed that the attack on Navalny involved the use of military-grade nerve agent Novichok. Separately, the EU also sanctioned Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin for violating a United Nations arms embargo on Libya.

Cuba, China, and Russia won seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council this week – a vote fiercely criticized by the United States government. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the vote “a win for tyrants and embarrassment for the global body” and said it further justifies the U.S. decision to leave the UN Human Rights Council in 2018. The UN General Assembly held the election on October 13 for 15 seats on the 47-nation Human Rights Council. Members elected will serve three-year terms beginning on January 1, 2021. In addition to these three countries, Venezuela will remain on the council despite a UN report released on September 16 with damning allegations of “crimes against humanity” by the Venezuelan regime. Instead of promoting human rights, these new members are more likely to undermine UN investigations, like the UN mission to Venezuela created last year, into abuses in their own countries and their allies. The election of these members to the UN Human Rights Council also reconfirms American doubts about this multilateral organization, whose members are supposed to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

Armenia and Azerbaijan are accusing each other of breaking a cease-fire in their ongoing conflict over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which continues to fuel concerns about a larger conflagration that could draw in large powers with territorial ambitions. The two sides reached a deal for a temporary cease-fire, set to begin last Saturday, to allow for prisoner exchanges and retrieval of casualties (more than 550 have been killed in the fighting). However, the truce broke down quickly with little clarity over which side is to blame. Russia, which helped broker the cease-fire, has offered to dispatch military observers to assist and continues to call for a negotiated solution. Turkey, in contrast, has been outspoken in its support for Azerbaijan, and while it has denied reports that it deployed Syrian mercenaries to the fighting on Azerbaijan’s behalf, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dismissed widespread international calls for a cease-fire. Turkey also drew (rhetorical) fire this week for restarting natural gas exploration in contested waters in the Eastern Mediterranean. In doing so, Turkey is effectively daring the EU to make good on recent threats to impose sanctions on Turkey for continuing its exploration activity in the area. The Turkish drillship, escorted by Turkish naval vessels, is searching for gas in an area of the sea that is also claimed by Greece and Cyprus. This is not the first instance of Turkey needling Greece – and countries that support Greek claims – by deploying drillships offshore in contested areas. However, in combination with Turkey’s military adventures in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan, this incident rounds out a picture of a regional aggressor that appears unconcerned by the objections of other large powers, such as Russia and the EU. Turkey’s actions are destabilizing at best, and it remains to be seen whether EU sanctions will be an effective deterrent, or whether more decisive action will be needed.

“Will Nunes Win Confirmation to Brazil’s High Court?” Latin America Advisor, October 14, 2020

Asked if President Jair Bolsonaro’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Kássio Nunes Marques, will be confirmed by the Senate, TAG’s Amanda Mattingly responded that Bolsonaro wants a candidate he thinks can be confirmed with support from his conservative base and centrists in the Senate. Amanda also noted that “Bolsonaro likely wants an ally installed on the court, especially if the investigations into his family move forward.”

Will Nunes Win Confirmation to Brazil’s High Court?

In Other News: Russian Election Interference, Mexico’s Infrastructure Plan & More – October 9, 2020

October 9, 2020

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security released its “Homeland Threat Assessment” this week, highlighting Russian efforts to influence the outcome of this year’s presidential election among the country’s most pressing threats.  According to the assessment, these efforts will continue along the same lines used in 2016, as they seek to identify and exacerbate existing political tensions, undermine the candidacy of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, and use misinformation to suppress votes. However, in contrast to the previous election, the assessment did not identify efforts by the Russians to manipulate election infrastructure itself. Separate but related threats from Russia highlighted in the report include Russian dissemination of Covid-19-related misinformation and the potential for sophisticated cyberattacks on critical infrastructure systems that could take them offline for days. The report also detailed a number of threats to the U.S. posed by China, including espionage across a variety of sectors, from commerce to academia, along with intellectual property theft and misinformation campaigns designed to shift blame for the Covid-19 pandemic from China to the U.S. DHS notes that like Russia, China possesses and may deploy sophisticated cyberattack capabilities to target infrastructure in defense, energy, telecoms, and other areas critical to our everyday functioning.

Mexico announced a $14 billion infrastructure plan in an effort to boost the struggling economy and create 185,000 jobs. This week, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) unveiled his plan for 39 joint public-private infrastructure projects, including investments in highways, a rail project between Mexico City and Querétaro, and increased refining capacity of the state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX). The proposal is designed to help the Mexican economy, which has been devastated by the pandemic, accompanying shutdowns, and the crash in oil prices last spring and is set to contract by 10% this year. Some of the projects in the proposal have already been on the table, but the renewed focus and olive branch extended to the business community by the Mexican president could get these off the ground. AMLO has had a strained relationship with the business community since he took office in 2018 and canceled the $13 billion airport project in Mexico City. More recently, he has rattled the energy sector by talking about rolling back the 2013 energy reforms that opened up the sector to private investment. AMLO has been critical of the reforms and the manner in which the previous administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto secured the votes to push the reforms through. Reversing the energy reforms could be something AMLO and his political party Morena attempt next year in advance of 2021 midterm elections.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to Russia-brokered cease-fire talks after more than a week of hostilities over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which have killed more than 375 people, with casualties including civilians. The talks, to be held in Moscow, are intended to reach a truce that allows the two sides to exchange prisoners and collect casualties, rather than a full resolution of the conflict. The two countries have been trading unconfirmed accusations, such as allegations that Azerbaijan shelled an historic Armenian Christian cathedral and that Armenia has fired rockets at the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, a critical piece of oil infrastructure that has helped secure Azerbaijan’s economic and political independence from Russia and delivers more than 1 million barrels per day of oil to global markets. Both sides have been accused of using cluster bombs, which are banned in many countries owing to the indiscriminate nature of their impact and associated threat to civilians. Although the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is a localized conflict between two small, regional powers, its recent escalation has generated alarm internationally owing to the risk that it might draw in larger powers, namely Russia and Turkey. Turkey has publicly stated its willingness to provide military support to Azerbaijan, and some reports suggest that Turkey has already deployed its own fighter jets, as well as Syrian mercenaries, to the conflict. In addition to meddling in Russia’s backyard (Azerbaijan and Armenia are former Soviet republics), Turkey’s actions have also hampered outside attempts to tamp down the conflict. Adding to the mix, Iran has alleged that shelling has spilled over the border and warned of the potential for a regional war. The talks in Moscow are likely to bring matters to some sort of short-term resolution, but this is a complex conflict that has resisted full resolution for decades and probably will for many years to come.

In Other News: Venezuela Receives Iranian Fuel, Armenian-Azerbaijani Tensions Escalate & More – October 2, 2020

October 2, 2020

Venezuela is receiving fuel from Iran as it deals with growing social unrest due to gas and food shortages. Three Iranian tankers carrying approximately 815,000 barrels of fuel arrived this week in Venezuela to help the country deal with the acute gasoline shortage in recent weeks. Press reports out of Venezuela indicate that gas station closures have been met with street protests by average Venezuelans frustrated by the fuel shortages. The fuel crisis is hitting the country hard and choking off economic activity, including the distribution of food, medicine, and basic supplies. Reportedly, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has paid Iran for the fuel in gold blocks which were flown to Tehran so as to avert seizure by U.S. authorities. Enforcing U.S. sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, U.S. authorities seized approximately 1.1 million barrels of Iranian gasoline headed for Venezuela in August. This week’s shipment of Iranian fuel to Venezuela will be the second flotilla to arrive without seizure since May. Still, the gold-for-fuel trade between Venezuela and Iran will not solve Venezuela’s oil sector crisis. Venezuela’s oil refineries have largely halted operations due to the lack of investment and maintenance as well as U.S. sanctions on the sector imposed in early 2019. Reportedly, the Cardon refinery is the only one that is currently operational, producing about 20,000 barrels a day. Once Venezuela runs through what amounts to a short-term, emergency fuel injection from Iran, it is likely that the gas lines and social unrest will return.

Armenia has accused Turkey of shooting down one of its jets amid the most recent escalation of a long-simmering Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a patch of disputed territory sandwiched between the two. While limited outbreaks of violence have been a feature of Caucasus geopolitics for decades, the most recent flare-up, which began on Sunday and has already killed dozens, has reached a scale not seen since a cease-fire brokered by Russia in 1994. Armenia also claims that Turkey has deployed Syrian mercenaries to the conflict on Azerbaijan’s behalf. Turkey has denied Armenia’s allegations, which have not been independently confirmed. However, after decades of limiting its involvement in the conflict to rhetoric, Turkey recently conducted military exercises with Azerbaijan in July and earlier this week called on Armenia to end its occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Furthermore, its amped-up support of Azerbaijan comes amid a pattern of expanding Turkish engagement in conflicts in countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire, either via proxy (such as deploying Syrian mercenaries in Libya) or directly (like its incursions into Iraq and Syria to target suspected PKK positions). Another concerning facet of this engagement is Turkey, though its involvement in civil wars in Libya and Syria, has positioned itself in opposition to Russia, with the two powers supporting opposing sides in the conflicts. Russia maintains influence in both Azerbaijan and Armenia, arms both sides, and is unlikely to look favorably on Turkish intervention in former Soviet republics. Looking beyond the risk of Turkey crossing a red line in Russia’s backyard, Turkish adventurism in its former empire – an empire that overlaps with areas that also once fell under Soviet control – could help turn contained, localized conflicts into larger regional power struggles. As Turkey continues to expand its military presence abroad, it is unclear what the limits are to its leaders’ ambitions.

Indian announcements on defense purchases and additional deployments to the Himalayas are spurring speculation that it may be preparing for the possibility – even if remote – of an armed conflict with China at the two countries’ contested border. India released details of arms procurement plans this week that include 72,000 assault rifles from Sig Sauer – reported to be for troops at the Chinese and Pakistani borders – and anti-airfield weaponry. Meanwhile, Indian news outlets reported the deployment of more Russian-made tanks and combat vehicles to eastern Ladakh, the location of the Line of Actual control, the de facto border between India and China. Separately, India has announced policy changes designed to accelerate both the purchase and domestic manufacture of arms and other military equipment. In a bid to reduce red tape in defense procurement, India will no longer require foreign suppliers of weapons, aircraft, and other military hardware to invest in India, and also scrapped a mandate that the Indian military buy – rather than lease – foreign military equipment. Delhi has also set new production targets for domestic defense manufacturing that envisage doubling production and increasing defense exports four-fold by 2025. The military buildup has both security and economic components. Increasing domestic defense production can both boost economic activity and reduce spending on imports (India was the world’s second-largest arms importer in 2015-2019 after Saudi Arabia). However, as tensions continue to build at the Actual Line of Control with neither side showing signs of backing down, India, whose military is no match for China’s, may also be preparing for the worst. That said, we reiterate that neither side wants a full-blown outbreak of violence.