In Other News – Putin postures that the West is inciting the Ukraine war, Freedom of speech is under attack by both Russian and China, & More – 12/30/2021

December 30, 2021

Putin posturing that the West is inciting Ukraine war – threatens military action if NATO rejects terms. On December 23, under the pretext of defending Russia from the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that the West, not Russia, was stoking the threat of war with on the Ukraine border. He said the West’s talk of “war, war, war,” could indicate that Kiev is the one preparing to attack in Russia-backed separatist territories in eastern Ukraine. Putin added that Kiev’s overtures towards the West represent a security threat to Russia. On December 26, Putin said that he will be forced to consider “numerous options, including a military response,” if NATO does not guarantee it will bar Ukraine from membership in the alliance. Putin also demanded the reduction of Western military deployments in Eastern Europe. Putin, whose remarks aired on Russian State TV, expressed concern that missiles could be deployed in Ukraine if the former Soviet satellite joins NATO. “We have nowhere to retreat,” Putin said. “They have pushed us to a line that we can’t cross.”

Despite having positioned more than 100,000 Russian troops on the Ukraine border, Putin is clearly attempting to shift the narrative, portraying what is viewed by many as the likely invasion of Ukraine as a defensive measure, provoked by the West, and necessary to protect Russia from an aggressive NATO alliance – the West has given him “no choice” but to advance into Ukraine. Putin has requested a call with President Biden, which is now scheduled to take place Thursday afternoon. In addition, U.S. and Russian officials are scheduled to hold security talks on Jan. 10, with broader meetings to include other European countries Jan. 12 and 13. For Putin, his fictional narrative serves to both lay the groundwork for wrenching concessions from NATO, and publicly justify the invasion of Ukraine to the Russian people and the world.

Ukraine, once again, charges a former leader with helping Russia. Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who came to power in 2014 as war loomed with Russia, has now been accused by Ukrainian authorities of treason. Despite his very public nationalist stance against Moscow at the time, the current Ukrainian Attorney General has now accused Poroshenko of working on behalf of Russia and thwarting Ukrainian efforts to buy coal on the world market. According to the Prosecutor General, after Russia had seized parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Ukraine was on the brink of an energy crisis and tried to buy coal from South Africa. It is alleged Poroshenko, on behalf of Russia, created artificial obstacles to prevent that purchase, and Ukraine ended up buying coal from a supplier with ties to Russia.

In 2019, Poroshenko lost his bid for reelection to Volodymyr Zelensky, and now Zelensky’s government is going after Poroshenko. The Ukrainian people have seen this before, however, as Poroshenko’s government went after his political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, using similar allegations. The current charges are viewed skeptically by many, as they believe Zelensky is targeting Poroshenko for purely political reasons. For others, Poroshenko is a traitor. Regardless of whom is to be believed, the political division adds to the instability created by Russian troops massing on the border.

Democracy and freedom of speech under attack by both China and Russia. Stand News – a pro-democracy website in Hong Kong – was closed Wednesday after its offices were raided by Hong Kong police. Six current and former staff and board members of the site were arrested and face up to two years in prison. Stand News has since announced it has closed and dismissed all employees. A Hong Kong police official said Stand News was raided because it had published multiple “seditious” articles in 2020 and 2021. The last pro-democracy newspaper with physical distribution in Hong Kong was closed in June under similar circumstances by the increasingly less semi-autonomous city’s government. Beijing has been asserting significantly more control over Hong Kong in recent months, and this is yet another example of China’s increasingly oppressive influence, and continued efforts to silence pro-democracy voices.

The shutdown of Stand News was coincident with Putin’s continued repression of free speech and human rights in Russia, as on Tuesday, the Russian Supreme Court ordered a prominent human rights group to disband. The court issued the Order to “Memorial” – an organization that has worked to preserve the records of political repression during the Soviet era. Prosecutors filed suit against the group in November, and the court accepted prosecutors’ allegations that the human rights group had received funding from foreign organizations. Memorial has now been labeled as a “foreign agent” by the Russian government. Other groups and media outlets critical of Russian authorities have received the same designation. Supporters gathered in and outside the courtroom chanted “Disgrace” as the ruling was issued. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed “strong concern” about the case last month, however the UN’s concerns were ignored. Despite public criticism, China and Russia’s ongoing suppression of dissent and human rights will likely continue unabated for the foreseeable future.

Adam Mendler: Interview with CIA Spymaster Jack Devine

Adam Mendler discusses with Jack his background and history on his blog.

In Other News – Chilean politics shift left with the election of Gabriel Boric, Pro-Beijing vetted “Patriots” cruise to victory in Hong Kong legislative elections, & More – 12/23/2021

December 23, 2021

Chilean politics shift left with the election of Gabriel Boric. On Sunday, in a nation known for its moderate bend, 56% of Chilean voters chose 35-year-old, leftist candidate Gabriel Boric to assume the presidency in March 2022. Boric capitalized on the sentiment behind widespread 2019 left-wing protests and nationwide grievances about economic inequality. Chile’s shift to the left is consistent with others in the region, such as Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, and likely soon Brazil, but Boric appears to be differentiating himself through his pragmatism, as seen in the adjustments he made towards the center throughout his campaign. While it’s unclear how Boric will translate his ideas into policy making, he has emphasized the need to uphold democratic processes and has openly pressed for dialogue and consensus with opposition parties. Boric will be challenged to maintain balance in an increasingly polarized nation− he’ll be faced with a divided Congress and will have to placate extremist coalition partners while working with a constitutional assembly that is further left than most of Chilean society. How far Boric is willing to compromise to push forward the policies that are most dear to him without alienating either allies or economic opponents remains to be seen.

As tensions between Lithuania and Beijing escalate, Chinese use economic clout to drive foreign policy agenda: Relations between Vilnius and Beijing, progressively more contentious since 2019, have entered a new phase. In response to the opening of a representative office of Taiwan in Vilnius, China downgraded diplomatic relations with Lithuania, recalled its ambassador, and declared his Lithuanian counterpart persona non grata in Beijing. China is now reported to be using its economic influence on the global supply chain to strike another blow to Lithuania, but perhaps more to test the EU’s and the West’s solidarity.

Lithuania’s direct trade with China is not significant, but its export-based economy is home to hundreds of companies that make products such as furniture, lasers, food, and clothing for multinationals that sell to China. China is reported to have specifically told a number of those multinationals to sever ties with Lithuania or face being shut out of the Chinese market. China’s foreign ministry has denied this, however added that its companies “no longer trusted Lithuania.” In response, Lithuania has appealed to the European Commission for support. The European Commission responded that the EU was ready “to stand up against all types of political pressure and coercive measures applied against any member state.” Whether they will or not remains to be seen. As the second largest economy in the world, should China determine that their economic coercion is in any way effective in isolating Lithuania, they will undoubtedly use this strategy against others in the future.

Pro-Beijing vetted “Patriots” cruise to victory in Hong Kong legislative elections: In December 19 elections described as “undemocratic” by a number of foreign governments, rights groups, and mainstream Hong Kong pro-democracy parties, vetted pro-Beijing candidates swept to victory in a “Patriots-only” legislative election. Only candidates vetted by the government as “patriots” could run, and turnout was a record low 30.2% — about half the turnout of the 2016 election. Pro-democracy candidates were largely absent, and a crackdown under targeted legislation jailed scores of democrats, and forced others who had initially wanted to run into exile. The record low turnout is seen as the result of China’s imposition of a national security law and sweeping electoral changes intended to bring the city more firmly under its authoritarian control. The reforms limited the number of available seats, and the candidate vetting process all but assured the results. Almost all seats were taken by pro-Beijing and pro-establishment candidates, and these electoral “victories” are seen as advancing China’s policy of cracking down on the city’s freedom.

When interviewed, head of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong that won half of the directly elected seats, said the patriots-only rules would improve governance. “It needs some time for people to get adapted to this system.” China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong described the election as a “successful practice of democracy with Hong Kong characteristics.” The Hong Kong branch of China’s foreign ministry said the electoral system was an internal affair and urged “foreign forces” not to interfere.

The inevitable results of the election and seemingly scripted official response to criticism sends a disturbing message and does not bode well for freedom or the democratic process in Hong Kong. As yet another bellwether for the future of civic freedom in Hong Kong, “based on external legal advice and risk assessment for the best interest of the university,” the University of Hong Kong removed the “Pillar of Shame” statue on December 23rd. The prominent statue, which had been on campus for more than twenty years, commemorated the victims of China’s Tiananmen Square massacre, and depicted 50 contorted bodies, some in mid-scream. It is to be placed in storage.

In Other News – China presents itself to Central America as ready economic alternative to the United States & More – 12/17/2021

December 17, 2021

Regardless of what happens in the coming weeks, Putin’s not giving up on Ukraine. While the near-term threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine has diminished significantly, Putin strongly believes Ukraine belongs in his sphere of influence and is prepared to go to extreme measures to make that a reality. Putin has demonstrated this in the past by his egregious invasion and occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and he’s hard fixed on keeping Ukraine out of NATO and preventing Washington from strengthening Ukraine’s military offensive capabilities. It is likely Putin would consider further territorial encroachments of Ukraine if he thought he could get away with it and if Ukraine was drifting out of his grasp. In the meantime, the spymaster president can be expected to try to undermine the political, economic, and military strength of Ukraine. This will remain one of his highest priorities and will be a continuing point of friction with Washington and the West.

Nicaragua cuts ties with Taiwan as China presents itself to Central America as ready economic alternative to the United States. Last week Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who was recently reelected for the fourth time in a sham election, declared that his nation will no longer recognize Taiwan. The announcement was made on the first day of the US-held Summit for Democracy, that included Taiwan not China, and comes on the heels of new US sanctions on Ortega’s aides. While Taiwan had been a relatively important trade partner for Nicaragua, Beijing has quickly signaled that it’s a ready economic alternative to the United States and its allies; just days after Ortega’s regime shunned Taipei, China reportedly rewarded Managua with one million Covid vaccines. Since 2016, Taiwan has lost support from eight nations, and Ortega’s move lowers Taiwan’s total number of diplomatic allies to 14. Notably, in addition to Nicaragua, several nations who recently flipped allegiance are in the Caribbean and Central America- including the Dominican Republic, Panama, and El Salvador. Newly elected President Castro of Honduras has also considered opening ties with China.

As France withdraws more troops from Mali, European Union sanctions Russian private military contractor Wagner Group. In a continued effort to curb Russian aggression and the nation’s associated human rights abuses abroad, this week the European Union (EU) issued sanctions on Russia-backed private military contractor Wagner Group. Eight individuals and four entities connected to Wagner were also sanctioned for their participation in “torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings, or in destabilising activities in some of the countries they operate in, including Libya, Syria, Ukraine (Donbas) and the Central African Republic.” Putin has denied any wrongdoing and asserted that the Wagner Group is not a Russian political entity and is allowed to act on its own volition provided it doesn’t break any Russian laws.

The Wagner Group has made headlines in the past few weeks as France is withdrawing some of its longstanding troops from Mali, and interim Malian President Goita was rumored to be looking to Wagner for military support. On Wednesday, after Mali reportedly turned down an offer of additional UN peacekeepers, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Goita that a deal with Wagner would waste money and further destabilize Mali; French President Macron is expected to have a similar conversation with Goita next week. But the issue is yet another example of how Russia is taking advantage of an unstable environment to present itself as a viable alternative to the West.

For Jack’s take on how the United States can better position itself against Russia and Chinese aggression, click here for his latest op-ed:

In Other News – US releases new strategy on dismantling corruption, releases new strategy on dismantling corruption, & More – 12/10/2021

December 10, 2021

Greater private public collaboration anticipated after United States releases new strategy on dismantling corruption. In early June, US President Biden placed the fight against corruption as a core national security interest of the United States, kicking off a broad, interagency review to take stock of current US anti-corruption efforts, identify gaps in current policy, and develop a strategy to mitigate corruption moving forward. The United States has historically recognized decreasing corruption as a goal of its foreign policy, but now that the global financial system is extremely interconnected, US financial institutions are being readily abused by corrupt actors to hide assets and launder proceeds of corrupt acts.

In response to the pervasive threat, this week Washington published its first-ever US Strategy on Countering Corruption. The report details how the United States will tackle the issue by increasing relevant intelligence collection and diplomatic measures, further emphasizing that criminal actors must be held accountable. But the strategy focuses heavily on bringing greater transparency to the US and international financial systems, which indicates that private financial institutions- both domestic and foreign- will be increasingly called upon to assist. The US has already issued a fresh round of sanctions on corrupt government officials and companies this week, including on former Ukrainian official Andrey Portnov, accusing him of buying influence in Ukraine’s courts.

Uptick in tensions with China as new information about human rights abuse surfaces, Beijing Olympics approach. This week, an unofficial UK tribunal reported that the Muslim minority Uyghur population of China has been subjected to genocide and crimes against humanity by the Chinese government. The tribunal was comprised of lawyers, academics, and businesspeople, and was heavily informed by leaked government documents detailing the abuse. The documents indicate that the Chinese government took efforts to sterilize Uyghur women, imposing measures to prevent births within the group- a recognized component of genocide. The tribunal also concluded that the degree of state repression could not exist without high-level government approval.

While the tribunal is not a government-backed entity and cannot sanction China in response, the research details ongoing allegations of human rights abuses at a time of heightened attention on Beijing. The Chinese Embassy in London denounced the tribunal as a “political tool used by a few anti-China and separatist elements to deceive and mislead the public”, further stating that any Chinese policies in Uyghur region of Xinjiang were aimed at preventing terrorism. This week, the UK, Canada, and Australia joined the United States in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics. In response, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson stated that the nations “will have to pay the price for their mistaken acts.”

Despite the pandemic, sustained government demand keeps the sale of weapons and military services on upward trajectory. According to new findings by Swedish thinktank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), even as the global economy contracted by about 3% during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, arms sales increased. The world’s top 100 largest arms firms reportedly clocked in record sales of $531bn in 2020, a 1.3% increase in real terms from 2019. US-based companies represented the greatest percentage of the top 100 arms companies, and researchers noted several top US companies were also venturing into space technology via acquisitions. Chinese firms represented the second largest percentage of the total top 100, with UK firms in third. There were nine Russian companies in the top 100 but their sales combined decreased by 6.5% from 2019-2020. This follows Russia’s reported downward sales trajectory since 2017, but Russian firms are notably diversifying their product lines in response to a government policy to increase their share of civilian sales to 50% over the next ten years.

In Other News – Honduras elects first female president as greater region swings left, Belarus threatens to retaliate after new round of sanctions, & More – 12/3/2021

December 3, 2021

Honduras elects first female president as greater region swings left. This week, Xiomara Castro claimed victory in the Honduran Presidential Elections, ending the 12-year rule of the conservative party and becoming the nation’s first female president. From 2006-2009, Castro’s husband, Manuel Zelaya, served as the President of Honduras before he was ousted in a military-backed coup. Based on the political repression and violence that transpired during the 2017 presidential runoff, many feared that a new opposition-party victory would result in political turmoil, but the transition appears peaceful thus far. Castro is inheriting a deeply impoverished nation, where natural disasters and effects of the pandemic have further pushed nearly three quarters of the population beneath the poverty line. She’s promised to decrease corruption and improve the economy, and to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing− although the latest reporting indicates she might be reversing her stance on this.

The political shift left, however, is not unique to Honduras, and in the greater region Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru have all seen the return of leftist rule over the past two years. In Brazil as well, the latest polls indicate that rightwing leader Bolsonaro is likely to be unseated next year by former leftist leader Lula da Silva. Notably, even Chile, which in recent years has been a beacon of moderate political entity in a heated region, is showing signs of political polarization− current polls indicate that Chilean leftist presidential candidate Gabriel Boric is in the lead against conservative Jose Antonio Kast as the second round of elections approach on December 19. Seemingly, there is now a region-wide decline in moderate, centrist candidates. On a recent trip to Latin America, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized the need for regional leaders to uphold democratic processes and prevent interference by China and Russia. But to what extent the new wildcard and leftist leaders will seek to embrace, or counter, US influence remains to be seen.

Belarus threatens to retaliate after new round of sanctions. Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus and close Putin ally, has been perpetuating human right abuses that reach beyond national borders and he’s currently involved in a devastating migrant crisis. This week, Lukashenko’s also been making headlines through numerous provocative statements and threats, including that he’d be willing to hold nuclear weapons for Putin amid tensions between Russia and NATO, and that annexed Crimea legally belongs to Russia. On Wednesday, Lukashenko also stated that he’s willing to prevent energy transit from Russia to the EU if Poland shuts its borders. On Thursday, the US, Canada, UK, and EU issued a new round of sanctions on Belarusian entities and individuals in protest of human rights abuses, but on Friday Lukashenko hit back that he’s preparing retaliatory countermeasures, promising a tough and asymmetric response. The latest round of sanctions, reportedly designed to place restrictions on those responsible for the worst anti-democratic acts in Belarus, comes at a time of increased tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

Police in 20 countries collaborate to tackle transnational, cyber-enabled financial crime on a global scale. According to a new Interpol report, from June-September police in 20 countries worked together on Operation Haechi-II, the second operation in a three-year project supported by the Republic of Korea that involved Interpol member countries on every continent. Operation Haechi-II, which focused on crimes like online romance scams, illicit gambling, and investment fraud, resulted in over 1000 arrests as well as the closure of 2,350 bank accounts worldwide; over $27 million was seized. Operation Haechi-II, which highlights the transnational nature of cyber financial crime, also identified 10 new ways that criminals attract suspects, like a malware-laden app branded like the popular Netflix show Squid Game. According to the Interpol Secretary General, the Operation has demonstrated that the uptick in online financial crime caused by the Covid-19 pandemic shows little sign of waning, and with the Omicron variant already impacting the global market, criminal exploitation is likely to continue.