In Other News: Potential Lifting of Sanctions on Iran, China Flexing Maritime Muscle & More – April 9, 2021

April 9, 2021

The U.S. has announced that it is prepared to lift some sanctions on Iran in coordination with steps by Tehran to come back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal’s stipulations on uranium enrichment. The announcements are the result of bilateral communications, carried out via intermediaries, at meetings this week in Vienna between Iran and the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China, with a U.S. delegation working nearby. The Biden administration has publicly committed to reengaging in the nuclear deal, which promised Iran economic benefits in exchange for limitations on further development of its nuclear program. With the U.S. departure from the deal in 2018 – and the imposition of hundreds of punitive economic sanctions on Iran – other signatories, including the EU, were unable to deliver on their economic commitments, and Iran embarked on highly visible efforts to violate its own commitments on uranium enrichment. The U.S. has estimated that at this point, Iran is only a few months away from having sufficient enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon. While these announcements hint at progress on a revived nuclear deal, the two sides remain far from agreement on a number of issues, including which comes first – the U.S. lifting sanctions or Iran putting the brakes on uranium enrichment. Tehran has proved over and over again that it is a tough and demanding negotiator and may seek to exploit the U.S.’s commitment to returning to the nuclear deal as a means to extract greater concessions. However, its regime should bear in mind that the U.S. is not the only country that will take issue with a nuclear-armed Iran – concern about Tehran as a source of regional instability has created some strange bedfellows, helping to spur the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and some of its long-hostile neighbors. Iran has more to lose by going nuclear and triggering a forceful, multilateral response than by reengaging with the international community and reestablishing its trade links.

Hundreds of Chinese commercial fishing boats dropped anchor off the Spratly Islands in late March, ostensibly to shelter from a coming storm, but in what is a transparent ploy to press its claims to South China Sea territory that both Vietnam and the Philippines also claim as their own. While many of the boats departed, roughly 40 remained in the area. This overt display of maritime muscle – it is the largest fleet of nominally civilian boats that Beijing has used thus far to intimidate its neighbors in the region –puts the U.S. and its Asian and Western allies under pressure to craft a response, and may have been intended partly as a test for the Biden administration. The administration has publicly criticized China’s actions and affirmed that the U.S.’s bilateral defense treaty with the Philippines includes attacks in the South China Sea, and the U.S. (and allies like the UK and Australia) will likely ratchet up freedom-of-navigation operations in the area as it has done in the past. However, its options beyond these are otherwise limited. While too sedate a response sends a signal to Beijing that its regional aggressions will be met with little more than harsh words, too strong a response risks maritime escalation in the South China Sea involving the world’s two largest navies. None of the major players in the South China Sea has an interest in escalation – on the contrary, the U.S. and its allies’ responses to each new incident are carefully calibrated to avoid such an outcome. However, future aggressions by Beijing (which are a near-certainty) and continued failure of these careful responses to elicit a change in behavior will elevate the risk that a misstep by one party will trigger a larger confrontation.

Jordanian Prince Hamzeh, the younger half-brother of Jordanian King Abdullah, was detained along with more than a dozen others in what has been widely described as a coup attempt backed by foreign interests. Without going into specifics, Jordan’s foreign minister publicly accused Prince Hamzeh of working with a former finance minister and another royal family member to damage the country’s security and stability. Prince Hamzeh has since released a letter affirming his allegiance to the king, though not before making a public statement that appeared to hold him responsible for governmental incompetence and corruption. Also making the rounds on social media is a recording of the head of the Jordanian Army warning Prince Hamzeh to cease social media use that criticizes the king (criticizing the king is illegal in Jordan). The events in Jordan would appear to be strictly an internal, albeit dishy matter. However, the threat of disruption would have broader implications. Jordan is a U.S. ally – the U.S. has troops and aircraft stationed there – and a partner in combating terrorism. Amman provided U.S. forces overland access to Iraq during the Iraq War, provided support to the U.S. in its campaign against ISIS, has long-established diplomatic ties with Israel, and stands in alignment with other Sunni-majority neighbors in opposition to Iran. The crisis appears to have passed, and that is good news. Jordan is a bastion of stability in a volatile region, and powers with strong interests there – such as the U.S. and Israel – want to make sure that remains the case.

In Other News: China’s Lack of Transparency, Brazil’s Bolsonaro & More – April 2, 2021

April 2, 2021

China’s refusal to provide earlier, more transparent access to data to World Health Organization investigators appears to be strengthening suspicions that Covid-19 was the result of a leak from a Chinese lab, rather than transmission from animal to human in a market, as both China and the WHO have asserted. The Director of the World Health Organization, General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, along with more than a dozen governments (including the US), have taken Beijing to task for its failure to provide greater access to information surrounding the origins of a pandemic that has now infected more than 127 million worldwide and killed more than 2 million. A new WHO report released on Tuesday concluded that the market’s role in the initial jump from animal to human is not clear and was not conclusively found to be the source of the virus, even if it was the site of one of its earliest outbreaks. The report found no link between the earliest reported case, on December 8, and the market, and Tedros stated publicly this week that the investigation did not adequately assess the potential role of a laboratory incident as the pandemic’s origin. The US has criticized the Chinese government for denying investigators access to data and issued a joint statement with more than a dozen other countries – including Canada, the UK, South Korea, and Japan – voicing concern over the lack of transparency on the part of the Chinese. The WHO’s investigation team found it highly unlikely that Covid-19 was released accidentally from a lab. However, China’s lack of transparency in handling the issue, and what is commonly understood to be a lack of transparency by the Chinese government generally, has undermined any confidence the international community might have otherwise had in the findings. Paradoxically, it is this feature of Beijing’s methods that may be a contributing obstacle to its efforts to establish itself as a global leader in pandemic response, including vaccine diplomacy.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is facing increased criticism for his handling of the pandemic from the public and Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – who now seems likely to run against Bolsonaro in 2022. Bolsonaro has responded to the growing outcry over the pandemic with a cabinet shakeup this week, announcing the departure of six cabinet-level officials on Monday. The move came a week after Bolsonaro appointed his fourth health minister since the start of the pandemic. Following the announcement, the commanders of the armed forces resigned in protest on Tuesday, deepening the crisis currently engulfing the president. With Covid-19 deaths close to 4,000 a day and hospitals across Brazil running out of beds and oxygen, Bolsonaro’s popularity has fallen and his political adversaries are seeing an opportunity. Da Silva, the 75-year old leftist from the Workers Party popularly known as “Lula,” has urged Brazilians to get vaccinated and not listen to Bolsonaro’s “foolishness” anymore. Lula has said Brazil is experiencing “genocide” due to Bolsonaro’s lack of leadership during the crisis and called on the United States to convene the G20 to address global vaccine equity. Until last week, Lula had been fighting corruption charges, but on March 23, he finally won vindication when Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that former judge Sergio Moro was biased in his oversight of Lula’s trial and that his conviction should be overturned. The ruling has tarnished Moro’s record as an anti-corruption crusader, but more significantly, it has paved the way for Lula to run for president against Bolsonaro next year. Polling data out of Brazil suggests Lula defeating Bolsonaro in a presidential contest.

Italy has expelled two Russian diplomats over espionage charges, alleging that they paid an Italian defense official, Walter Biot, ~$5,800 for classified documents. Police separately recovered NATO documents that they believe Biot gave them on a previous occasion. This news comes just days after a series of headlines regarding a Russian spy ring that was broken up in Bulgaria. Six Bulgarians were arrested on suspicion of supplying Russia with Bulgarian state secrets, as well as information on NATO and the EU. Russia has grown increasingly alienated from the West following its invasion of Ukraine, the poisoning and arrest of Kremlin political opponent Alexey Navalny, and attempts to influence elections in the US and the UK among other countries. Though its military might is severely diminished from the Soviet era and its finances are suffering from low oil prices and international sanctions, Russia’s intelligence capabilities have remained robust and well-funded, and these incidents, while unsurprising, should serve as reminders that Russia’s intelligence apparatus is a persistent threat that should not be underestimated.

For more on Russia, listen to TAG President Jack Devine’s March 29 interview on Bloomberg Radio hosted by Paul Sweeney and Matt Miller. Jack Devine, former chief of CIA’s worldwide operations, talks about Russia as the number one threat to U.S. security and democracy and his new book, Spymaster’s Prism: The Fight Against Russian Aggression.

In Other News: US-China Bilateral Meeting, Suez Canal Traffic & More – March 26, 2021

March 26, 2021

A contentious start to a bilateral U.S.-China meeting in Alaska, in which senior diplomats from both sides exchanged heated words in full view of the press, has sparked concerns that Washington and Beijing are heading inexorably toward conflict. Just days later, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on NATO to join U.S. efforts to counter Beijing in an address to the organization in Brussels. These outward-facing statements suggest a new and more confrontational U.S. approach to China, one that emphasizes issues such as human rights (specifically as pertain to China’s Muslim Uighur minority) and Beijing’s continual buying of Iranian and Venezuelan oil in violation of U.S. sanctions. U.S. officials have reported that Beijing is actually upping oil purchases from the two countries and is expected to take around 1 million barrels per day from Iran alone this month. These are worrying signs of more trouble to come. At this stage, the U.S. and Chinese economies remain inextricably linked – the U.S. is the world’s largest buyer of Chinese exports and the source of specific goods with strategic value to China, namely products like natural gas and semiconductor technology. That link will likely stave off a bigger confrontation in the near term. However, over a longer time horizon, both countries are taking steps to reduce their reliance on the other, which may offer more wiggle room for riskier behavior, such as confrontation over Taiwan or the South China Sea. Neither the U.S. nor China has an interest in such a confrontation, which would undermine global stability, as well as the benefits of the trade relationship. That said, U.S. efforts to build a coalition against Chinese aggression are a prudent bit of contingency planning that will hopefully ensure that if Beijing crosses a red line, it does so at very high cost.

Suez Canal traffic ground to a halt this week when poor visibility caused by a sandstorm and high winds caused a 200,000-ton container ship to get stuck sideways in the channel, highlighting the risk of chokepoints to the smooth functioning of global trade. Roughly 12% of all global trade (including around a million barrels a day of oil and 8% of global liquefied natural gas shipping) transits the 120-mile canal, and the blockage has delayed passage of more than 100 ships. This in turn is affecting shipping times, extending them in some cases by more than a day, with knock-on effects in availability of goods as basic as food, clothing, and furniture. Threat analysis of chokepoints like the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz often focuses on the potential for military action – around a fifth of the world’s oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz, which sits at the southern coast of Iran, whose regime has frequently threatened to block it amid disputes with oil-importing countries (including as the U.S.). However, this is the second time this year that weather has caused a major disruption to activity, with the first being a freeze in Texas that knocked out power to thousands for several days. While cyber and military threats to the functioning of critical infrastructure dominate headlines, everyday occurrences can prove just as disruptive if steps are not taken to develop plans and systems to ensure continuous, reliable operations under a host of circumstances. As we shift our national security focus to efforts to penetrate the cyber systems underpinning our critical infrastructure, we must also maintain a strong focus on ensuring physical system reliability, wide-ranging contingency planning, and redundancy.

North Korea launched four short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan this week, in another provocation from Pyongyang. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga issued a statement condemning the action this week and noting that it “threatens the peace and security of Japan and the region.” The missiles landed in the sea between North Korea and Japan and were the first tests since March 2020 by the North Koreans and considered to be smaller than previous tests. Observers believe that North Korea is looking for concessions from the United States – as well as attention – while also fueling tensions ahead of the Tokyo Olympics scheduled for this summer in Japan. North Korea launched the missile tests this week after refusing recent overtures for dialogue with the Biden administration and citing “U.S. hostility.” It is noted that North Korea has a history of missile launches at the start of a new administration in the United States and South Korea. The international community condemned the action by North Korea as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions, but it is unclear what more the United States, South Korea, or Japan can do without assistance from China.

In Other News: Russia Threats, Mexico & More – March 19, 2021

March 19, 2021

A declassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence identifies Russian President Vladimir Putin as having authorized a state-sponsored campaign to influence the outcome of U.S. presidential elections in November 2020. According to the assessment, Russia’s efforts included covert operations to influence people close to then-president Trump to spread damaging misinformation about then-candidate Biden, as well as campaigns designed to sow division and undermine public trust in the U.S. electoral system. According to the report, evidence found does not indicate that Russia’s attempts to sway the election included efforts to disrupt the physical voting process. The report also named Iran as having pursued a campaign, authorized by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to undermine Trump, notably by sending fraudulent emails to Democratic voters in Florida (the scheme was identified early on as a ruse). The assessment also found that China considered its own influence campaign but opted against it owing to low likelihood of success and the risk that it would backfire if discovered. Though other countries attempted to influence the U.S. election outcome to varying degrees, the report clearly conveys that Russia’s operations were the most aggressive and widest ranging. Furthermore, it details efforts that follow a tried-and-true, KGB-era playbook. Soviet Russia’s intelligence apparatus made frequent and very skilled use of disinformation in its decades-long efforts to undermine the U.S. and other western democracies, sometimes to devastating effect, and the rise of social media has given the Kremlin greater reach and greater capacity to pinpoint target audiences to push that misinformation into mainstream U.S. discourse. Developing tools to identify and combat these efforts will be a challenge, but the ODNI report signals that countering an increasingly aggressive Russia is a high priority for the U.S.

Mexico will receive Covid-19 vaccines from the United States, as the two countries also negotiate the handling of migrants on the U.S. southern border. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been working with the Biden administration to address the surge in migrants on the U.S. southern border but has been resisting pressure to do more. The Biden team has urged López Obrador to take in more families turned away by U.S. authorities and, like the Trump administration, is leaning on him to secure Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. López Obrador commented that Biden is seen as the “migrant president,” implying that Biden is responsible for the surge in migrants, at least in part due to his rejection of Trump’s hard line immigration policies and the perception that the United States is now “open” to migrants. U.S. officials have countered by saying that Biden has a “more humane” approach to immigration. As the United States is seeking help from Mexico to deal with the influx of migrants, Mexico is seeking help from the United States to deal with Covid-19. In the past year, Mexico has sustained approximately 200,000 Mexican deaths from Covid-19, a drop in GDP of 8.5%, about 3.25 million jobs lost. López Obrador clearly sees this as a quid pro quo: help with the migrants in exchange for help with the vaccinee. In a strategic response, the White House announced yesterday that the Biden administration will make 2.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine available to Mexico and 1.5 million doses to Canada. The AstraZeneca vaccine has not been approved yet for use in the United States but has in Mexico and Canada.

The Biden administration is reportedly mulling new sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to link Russian gas directly to the German market. The 1,230 km pipeline would run along the floor of the Baltic Sea from Ust-Luga, Russia to Lubmin in northern Germany, bypassing Ukraine, whose existing pipeline network linking Russia to European customers has long been a source of (mostly) stable transit revenues. Nord Stream 2 is a top Kremlin priority, as it would strengthen Russia’s market power in Europe as well as its ability to use gas transit as a means of applying pressure on Ukraine. (Russia has cut gas deliveries to Ukraine twice over pricing disputes, impacting supply to buyers further downstream). Existing sanctions targeting the pipeline have slowed its construction, but Russia has pressed ahead despite challenges related to financing and securing services and equipment. New sanctions could include designation of the project’s parent company, Nord Stream 2 AG, as well as companies that provide services (such as insurance) and support to undersea pipe-laying vessels involved in the construction. The US appears committed to preventing the pipeline’s completion and has made other efforts to chip away at Moscow’s market power in Europe, including promotion of US liquefied natural gas exports to the EU. However, its best efforts have yet to bring construction to a halt, and Germany – a key US ally and a key consumer of Russian gas – continues to support its completion. Germany has in the past floated the possibility of shutting off incoming flows in the event that Russia crosses a red line, but the precise placement of such a red line, and the impact on German customers, would both be tricky issues to navigate. If stopping the pipeline proves to be beyond the powers of sanctions, the US will have to develop new ways of supporting Ukrainian efforts to shore up its independence from Moscow.

For more on Russia and its efforts to undermine American security and democracy, listen to TAG President Jack Devine’s recent interview on Top of Mind with Julie Rose. Jack discusses his new book Spymaster’s Prism and the ongoing fight against Russian aggression.

In Other News: Cyberattacks, Latin American Unrest & More – March 11, 2021

March 11, 2021

Two high-profile cyberattacks on U.S. entities made headlines this week – one by China and one by “hacktivists – exposing widespread vulnerabilities in U.S. cyber infrastructure. News reports surfaced last weekend of a targeted Chinese cyberattack on tens of thousands of servers using Microsoft Exchange, as well as an indiscriminate, automated second wave of hacks that began on February 26 that installed backdoors vulnerable to future ransomware attacks. Days later, an international group of activist hackers announced it had accessed the feeds of nearly 150,000 security cameras through a breach of camera provider Verkada to call attention to the security vulnerabilities associated with widespread surveillance technologies. Among the more than 24,000 affected entities were facilities critical to daily life – schools, banks, offices, jails – as well as factories and warehouses belonging to electric automaker Tesla. Some of the security systems in question also use facial recognition technology, which has drawn criticism for its use or suspected use for the purposes of political and religious repression (including use by China to track members of the Muslim Uighur minority). Hackers said that in addition to live feeds, they were also able to access archived video, as well as Verkada customer lists and balance sheets. The security and privacy implications of a breach like this are staggering, and coming on the heels of high-profile, state-sponsored cyberattacks on U.S. entities, highlight the urgency of U.S. efforts to shore up our cyber defenses.

Latin America continues to face crisis and unrest due to the pandemic, economic losses, and inequitable distribution of the vaccine. Paraguay is the latest example of a country with surging Covid-19 cases and an inadequate government response. Over the last week, ordinary Paraguayans have protested against President Mario Abdo Benítez for his handling of the public health crisis. A shortage of drugs and doctors, medical supplies, and vaccines have pushed people to the streets in outrage. Most of the demonstrations have been peaceful, but some have included the use of teargas and rubber bullets by security forces. Meanwhile, health ministers across the region have been forced out of office in the midst of growing public criticism of the vaccination rollout in their countries. These include the health ministers of Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Peru – all ousted due to ineffective pandemic responses and VIP vaccinations that enable the rich and connected to jump the queue for shots in short supply. Unfortunately, the pandemic has brought many uncomfortable truths about Latin America to the fore, including the lack of economic diversification and opportunity, the yawning gap between the wealthy and the poor, the lack of capacity on the part of Latin American governments to provide basic healthcare, and the endemic corruption and graft which allows those in positions of power to advance at the expense of the public good.

The US has announced new sanctions on Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky for corruption, saying he poses an ongoing risk to Ukraine’s democratic process and institutions, as part of a broader anti-corruption policy agenda in the country. The sanctions bar Kolomoisky and his family from traveling to the U.S. but do not affect his financial assets. However, the Department of Justice has accused Kolomoisky of misappropriating funds from Ukraine’s PrivatBank and using them to purchase real estate properties in Kentucky, Texas, and Ohio in a loan scheme that ultimately defrauded PrivatBank of billions of dollars. Kolomoisky is a former owner of PrivatBank, which collapsed in 2016 and was rescued (and nationalized) with a $5.5 bailout package that included US and EU aid funding. Though Kolomoisky no longer serves as a government official in Ukraine, he is the former governor of Dnipropetrovsk Region (Oblast) and, as a leading figure in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party and member of Ukraine’s powerful oligarch class, maintains a significant degree of influence at the highest levels of the Ukrainian political system. Zelensky responded to the U.S. move with a statement calling for weakening the oligarchs’ dominant position in the country’s markets, media, and politics, and it is clear he will have the U.S.’s backing for moving in that direction. However, Kolomoisky’s response to increased U.S. scrutiny was to seek closer relations to Moscow, a move that other oligarchs may emulate if and when they find themselves in the crosshairs. Should Zelensky press ahead with this U.S.-backed initiative, both Ukraine and the U.S. should be prepared for a Kremlin counteroffensive.