In Other News: Russian Aggression, Cuba without the Castros & More – April 23, 2021

April 23, 2021

Russia appears to be seeking out a middle ground between overt aggression and plausible deniability in its western-facing foreign policy, likely in response to the U.S. ratcheting up the rhetoric around and response to Kremlin transgressions in the U.S., UK, and elsewhere. President Putin warned the U.S. and other Western countries in a state-of-the-nation speech that crossing unspecified “red lines” would bring an “asymmetric, fast and tough” response. But on the same day, Russia’s defense ministry announced plans to pull back troops back after amassing forces at the Ukrainian border in what the U.S. and allies had seen as an alarming display of sabre rattling. The Kremlin must show its domestic audience that it will respond in kind to recent U.S. moves to penalize Russia for election interference, adventurism in Ukraine, and the poisoning and imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. At the same time, Russia’s president and his circle are under increasing strain from the economic impact of previous sanctions, Covid, and low oil prices, along with rising public discontent over the Navalny issue and punitive actions taken by other countries that object to Russian hacking, spying, and other transgressions. More than 10,000 people in cities across Russia have turned out to protest Navalny’s detention – despite a ban on protests – and at least 1,700 were arrested. Separately, NATO member the Czech Republic expelled dozens of Russian diplomats over evidence that the Kremlin had had a hand in an attack on a Czech weapons facility in 2014. Evidence is building that while the West has been focused on other threats, Russia has continued with Cold War-era tactics and strategies intended to weaken its erstwhile Western adversaries (and suppress dissent at home), and as more of that evidence comes to light, the fallout is growing more severe. With its pullback of forces from the Ukrainian border, Russia is signaling that it recognizes the value of limited compromise in maintaining a civil (if chilly) relationship with those adversaries, and thus may prove amenable to agreeing to a new set of Moscow Rules.

Raúl Castro has stepped down from power in Cuba, leaving the island without a Castro at the helm for the first time since the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Miguel Díaz-Canel will take over as the hand-picked successor to lead the Communist Party. He is already Cuba’s current president and considered a party loyalist and faithful to the tenets of the Cuban Revolution, which include economic controls and a one-party political system. The news of Castro’s retirement was not surprising. If anything, the changing of the guard has been slow and methodical, just like the opening of the Cuban economy has been to private investment and entrepreneurship. The Cuban Communist Party has managed to maintain control over the country for decades now, even amid deep economic contractions felt in the mid-1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union and in the last year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. To address the economic pain caused by the pandemic and a halt in tourism, the Cuban government has sought to make minor adjustments to the types of private sector jobs legally licensed to Cubans. They include many service sector-type jobs designed to give Cubans an ability to make dollars on the island, but even still, the main sectors of the economy such as sugar, tobacco, and nickel mining are not on the list and remain state-controlled industries. And despite Raúl Castro’s departure from government, it is unlikely that Cuba will see any major political changes in the near term. The legacy of the Cuban Revolution – its successes in education, healthcare, and maintaining Cuba’s cultural identity – remains important to the political elite in power like Díaz-Canel, and they seem more inclined to hang on to that power and control rather than institute meaningful political or economic change in Cuba.

Idriss Deby, President of Chad, was killed in a clash with rebels on Saturday after three decades in office and having just been elected to a sixth term as president. Chad had long been a critical ally to France in the fight against Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other terrorist groups active in the Sahara-Sahel region of Africa. Deby’s death may mark the end of that base of support as well as a period of growing instability in the region. A number of terrorist groups active in Chad, Nigeria, and other countries in the Sahara-Sahel have been aligned or otherwise linked, even if loosely, with transnational terrorist organizations, and pockets of instability in any region can offer a safe haven in which those groups can plan, train, and flourish. The rebel group responsible for Deby’s death, the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), reportedly trained in Libya, yet another country struggling with instability after the long rule and violent death of its former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The U.S. is currently grappling with the potential implications of a complete pull-out of troops from Afghanistan by September 11 of this year, and what that may mean for the locale as a renewed training ground for extremists. However, the problem is not limited to Afghanistan. The potential implications of terrorist breeding grounds are likely to be felt far beyond the regions in which those breeding grounds are located – attacks can and do happen far from where the planning and training take place.

In Other News: Sanctions on Russia, Iran Nuclear Deal & More – April 16, 2021

April 16, 2021

The Biden Administration imposed a robust round of sanctions against Russia for a litany of transgressions, targeting 32 entities and individuals involved in disinformation, Russian interference in the 2020 presidential election, and Russia’s occupation of Crimea. The sanctions aim to stifle lending to the Russian government, barring U.S. financial institutions from the primary market for rouble-denominated Russian sovereign bonds from June 14. The U.S. has also publicly identified the SVR as the entity responsible for the SolarWinds cyberespionage effort discovered at the end of 2020 and expelled 10 Russian diplomats believed to be intelligence agents from the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC. These are the visible facets of the U.S. response to Russian aggression. What’s more, the U.S. has stressed that there will be “unseen” components, as well. This announcement comes at a difficult moment for the Kremlin, which is contending with a faltering economy and a high-profile hunger strike by jailed opposition figure Alexey Navalny. These sanctions are also designed to cool down the saber rattling by Russia, which is amassing military forces along the border with eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Putin will not back off and is likely to respond to the new sanctions by countering in a measured way to match these actions, including the use of cyber operations and disinformation. These maneuvers leave room for miscalculation, but both sides have a good understanding of the risk. That said, this is a necessary step to set the stage for serious negotiations on a new set of Moscow Rules. Putin is a realist and has an appreciation of power in negotiations. Neither side can afford to begin discussions from a position of weakness. We have been drifting into a new Cold War in recent years, which is why it is necessary for the two sides start the arduous process of establishing rules of the road on both the use of cyberattacks and interference in each other’s internal politics. President Biden has offered Putin the possibility of a summit in coming months, and the upcoming Summit on Climate on April 22 and 23 may offer a natural opportunity to begin that dialogue, coupled with sidebar discussions among national security officials. This could be a critically important first step.

Should you be interested in probing deeper into the U.S. dynamic with Russia today, check out Spymaster’s Prism: The Fight Against Russian Aggression, by Jack Devine.

Iran and co-signatories to the 2015 nuclear agreement resumed negotiations in Vienna yesterday in a continued attempt to revive the deal, despite an attack on the Natanz nuclear facility earlier this week. The attack, widely believed to have been carried out by Israel, caused damage that was initially reported to be extensive (but has since been downplayed by Iran) and put the negotiations on shaky ground. In the immediate aftermath, Tehran pledged to increase uranium enrichment – in further violation of its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal – but Ayatollah Khamenei later signaled Iran’s intent to move forward with nuclear deal negotiations despite the attack. The talks will be an uphill battle for a variety of reasons, not least years of deep mistrust between the U.S. and Iran. However, events of this week suggest that even robust commitment to reaching an agreement on both sides cannot control for external factors. Israel has consistently opposed the deal, saying that the terms will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and has displayed its willingness to take action it deems necessary to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, even at the risk of disrupting a key foreign policy goal of one of its staunchest allies. This is even more reason for Tehran to see a deal as being in its interest. Sacrificing the country’s economic health for the sake of nuclear weapons was never a trade-off that made sense, and it may well be that its neighbors will, by hook or by crook, prevent a nuclear-armed Iran from ever coming to pass.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears mindful of politics and economics even as India faces a second, more deadly wave of Covid-19. The surge of new cases is causing migrant workers to pour out of cities like Mumbai, which are going into varying degrees of lockdown again. The number of infections has increased to more than 13.5 million confirmed cases, with the daily count now over 200,000. This figure puts India second to the United States. But even as migrants crowd stations to get out of the cities, reminiscent of scenes from the large-scale lockdowns in 2020, large gatherings continue throughout the country. From the farmers’ protests in the north that continue on after six months to the thousands of Hindus gathering on the banks of the Ganges for a religious festival to the large rallies held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political party facing upcoming local elections – it seems that the Indian government is loath to address the virus on a national scale. India’s economy shrank nearly 24% under the national lockdowns in 2020, causing deep suffering among India’s poorest segments of society. So far, the Indian government has been pushing for targeted lockdowns, or “micro containment zones,” in the cities and for the ongoing efforts of the national vaccination program, which is behind schedule and further complicated by reports of vaccine shortages. At the current inoculation rate, India would need more than two years to vaccinate 70% of its population and reach herd immunity. With the pace of vaccinations in India still vexingly slow at a time when cases are spreading rapidly, it seems unlikely India will get the virus under control any time soon.