In Other News – NATO Diplomatically Engages Putin on the Ukraine, the Beijing Olympics, & More – 1/28/2022

January 28, 2022

NATO members continue to diplomatically engage Putin on Ukraine, but US ramp-up of weapons to Kyiv could significantly impact Putin’s calculus. This week, French President Macron was the latest to speak with Putin regarding Ukraine tensions, but in the conversation, Putin reportedly reiterated that the recent US and NATO responses to his demands failed to account for Moscow’s primary concerns: preventing NATO’s expansion and refusing to deploy strike weapons systems near Russia’s borders. Further, on Wednesday US Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized that admissions for new NATO members remains open, which would include potential Ukraine membership. Simultaneously, Washington has recently raised the cost of a Russian invasion by shipping weapons like Stingers and Javelin anti-tank missiles and launchers to Ukraine‒ sophisticated equipment that would show up in droves in the case of an actual invasion.

NATO is also carefully watching Putin’s latest build-up of troops and weapons in Belarus, and on Friday Belarusian leader Lukashenko announced that Belarus will fight alongside Russia if Moscow invades Ukraine. Both Lukashenko and Russian officials, however, continue to publicly state that Moscow is not planning an invasion. Putin is now going to escalate or de-escalate based on his calculations of what a Ukrainian war might look like. He’s likely weighing how many Russian lives would be lost in a drawn-out battle, and what he can accomplish through other efforts to destabilize Kyiv.

The Ukraine-Russia tensions have already demonstrated to NATO that the alliance must secure alternative energy resources for Europe and continue to actively support pro-democratic governments while increasing cooperation among members in this mission. This work is key, because Putin’s determination to retake Ukraine by force, subterfuge, election meddling, repeated cyber-attacks and disinformation, or any subsequent annexations, will remain steadfast regardless of how the next few weeks play out. While Turkish President Erdogan’s upcoming discussions with Putin could be important, as Turkey is the second largest standing military force in NATO and maintains friendly relations with both Moscow and Kyiv, Putin will use both the content of these diplomatic conversations, and his assessment of Ukraine’s increasing military strength, to decide on his next move.

Upcoming Beijing Olympics raise political and security concerns, frustrating China. The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and an evolving number of European nations are participating in a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in a move that has enraged Chinese officials. The protesting nations cite Beijing’s human rights abuses ranging from anti-democratic acts in Hong Kong, to the public disappearance of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai after she made sexual assault allegation against a former top official of the Communist Party, as reasons to boycott the competition. Not one to pass up an opportunity, Putin recently stated that Russia and China “share common values,” and announced that he will attend the opening ceremonies and meet with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

While athletes from the boycotting nations will still be participating, Chinese officials have referred to the political protest as an example of American political manipulation, further remarking that the United States can’t boycott the Beijing Olympics because Washington hasn’t been invited. China has also stated that the boycotting nations would “pay a price” for their action. Notable US allies South Korea, Germany, Italy, and France have thus far not joined the boycott; while all have been critical of China’s human rights record, Italy and France are respectively hosting the Olympics in 2024 and 2026 and they likely want to avoid retaliation by China.

China has been preparing for months to shine, even ensuring blue skies by suspending factory production across the country’s northeast. Beijing has also enacted strict lockdown measures to contain Covid-19, although some nations still aren’t sending representatives due to pandemic concerns. Despite China’s best efforts to present Beijing as a safe environment, National Olympic Committees in countries like Sweden and the United States are warning athletes that they’ll be exposed to a myriad of data security risks such as surveillance and cybercrime while in country; athletes are advised to leave all personal technological equipment at home and instead use temporary “burner” phones. Security flaws have also been detected in China’s mandatory Olympics app for athletes that contains sensitive personal data, and there are ongoing concerns about the safety of making financial transactions via China’s digital yuan. Opening ceremonies are scheduled for February 4.

In Other News – Putin & Ukraine, Violent attacks in Pakistan, & More – 1/21/2022

January 21, 2022

If Putin wants to invade Ukraine it won’t be sanctions alone that stop him. This week, at high-level discussions between the United States and Russia in Geneva, Moscow continued to insist that it wasn’t planning a Ukraine attack and restated its demands that the US-led NATO military alliance halt regional activity and never accept Ukraine as a member. Meanwhile, new satellite images captured Wednesday show additional Russian troops and equipment near the country’s border with Ukraine. Despite intense diplomatic efforts by Washington and partners to lower tensions, Putin seems to be enjoying the global spotlight and is carefully weighing his options as he considers next steps. Economic penalties alone are unlikely to deter Putin at this point, but he could be deterred by the possibility of a sustained resistance that would result in drawn-out fighting and a heavy Russian death toll. Nonetheless, it’s increasingly possible that Putin could test the waters with some trumped up provocation and see how his opponents respond. Taking a piecemeal approach would allow Putin to better assess what he’s actually up against − including isolation from the West or strong overt or covert Western military support to Ukrainian troops, that could threaten Moscow’s ability to prevail.

Violent attacks in Pakistan are steady but certain as Pakistan tries to keep diverse allies happy. This week, several violent attacks in Pakistan served as a reminder of the precarious security situation in the region and could be a harbinger of greater instability. Overnight attacks on Monday targeted police in Islamabad, and two policemen were later killed in attacks in the districts of Dir and North Waziristan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, bordering Afghanistan. These attacks were claimed by Tehrik-e-Taliban “TTP” or the Pakistani Taliban, who also claimed responsibility for attacks on Pakistani army personnel in late December. The TTP is reportedly growing stronger and headquartered in Afghanistan, but recent TTP-Islamabad negotiation attempts fell apart, and it seems that the Pakistani leadership isn’t willing to sacrifice good ties with the Afghan Taliban by pressing the issue. However, the TTP also presents a threat to Pakistan’s neighbors like India, as well as international investors like the Chinese who are vulnerable to the attacks while working in Pakistan on joint infrastructure projects. In addition to dealing with the TTP, Islamabad is also challenged by Baloch separatists, a group who just claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed several individuals in Lahore on Thursday, and previously attacked Chinese infrastructure project workers in southwest Pakistan last summer.

Lebanon’s increasing domestic woes could spiral into an international refugee crisis. In the aftermath of the Beirut port blasts of August 2020, the Lebanese government has been unable to pull the nation out of economic and political turmoil and has failed to provide citizens with fundamental services like healthcare, electricity, and food. A “day of rage” coordinated by Lebanon’s transport unions last week shut down transport routes and educational institutions, but thus far the strikes have failed to materialize in any government reforms. Since 2020, much of the Lebanese middle class has fled for the Americas, the Arab Gulf states, and Europe through a formal migration process. But with increasingly difficult economic socio-economic conditions challenging those who remain, a growing number of poorer and disheartened Lebanese, as well as Palestinian and Syrian refugees based within Lebanese borders, are reportedly planning to leave as well. This group is unlikely to have the resources needed to move via legal means, and it is anticipated that many will attempt to relocate to Europe via illegal sea routes, potentially creating a new migrant crisis. Despite international aid efforts over the past several months, and recent news that Jordan will sign a formal agreement next week to supply Lebanon with electricity under a US-backed regional plan, the situation is unlikely to stabilize soon, and ramifications of the domestic crisis are anticipated well beyond Lebanon’s borders.

In Other News – Stability in the Balkans is Threatened & More – 1/14/2022

January 14, 2022

Putin’s continued gamesmanship threatens stability in the Balkans. In the aftermath of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, a fragile peace has held in Bosnia Herzegovina under the Dayton Accords, but last fall tensions increased among the country’s multi-ethnic leaders and Putin is now adding fuel to the fire. Under the Dayton Accords, the Republika Srpska (Serbian), and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Croatian and Bosnian) share leadership of the country, but in October, Milorad Dodik, the Serb-Bosnian leader who has been cultivating a friendship with Putin, called for Bosnian secession and announced that Republika Srpska would withdraw from the country’s armed forces as well as key judicial and taxation bodies. Republika Srpska then passed a law obliging the local authorities not to cooperate with national institutions attempting to implement state-level law.

Last Sunday, on the “Day of the Serbian Republic” that’s been proclaimed unconstitutional in Bosnia and Herzegovina due to its association with the bloody ethnic conflicts in the 1990s, Putin visibly demonstrated his support of the Serbian cause. At the celebration, Russian ambassador Igor Kalabuhov was prominently seated next to Milorad Dodik. Moscow’s public celebration of an independent Republika Srpska deliberately undermines the Dayton Accords, and by extension NATO and the EU. Further, Moscow’s endorsement of Dodik, while simultaneously sending troops to Kazakhstan to violently curb social protest, puts real weight behind his words and once again demonstrates how far he’ll go to test NATO’s resolve. But in a tinderbox like the Balkans, Putin’s actions could unleash forces that neither NATO nor Putin will be able to control.

China’s global, soft power efforts expand but are undermined but non-democratic and hard power actions. Since President Xi assumed power nearly a decade ago, Beijing has concertedly increased its global soft power efforts everywhere from Chile to Israel. Just last week China’s Foreign Minister took a whirlwind tour of Eritrea, Kenya, and Comoros to further encourage economic partnerships and cooperation, pledging China’s continued vaccine distribution in Africa. In December, one of Beijing’s first Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects was completed with the inauguration of the Laos-China Railway. Although there are real fears that BRI projects could be a “debt trap” for developing nations, vaccines and railways build goodwill and connections, as do the numerous Chinese cultural and educational programs that we’re seeing sprout up around the world.

But while Beijing may be advancing components of its soft power strategy, it’s failing in one key area. According to scholar Joseph Nye who first coined the term “soft power” in 1990, soft power comes from three primary sources: a nation’s culture, policies, and political values. Policies here can be seen as legitimate when they are framed with an awareness of another country’s interest, and China’s been heavily working this angle in Pakistan, Latin America, and Africa. Beijing’s weak spot lies with its political values which are overtly undemocratic at a time of heightened global attention.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen companies from Tesla to Intel criticized heavily for any association with business in China’s Xinjiang province, the area where China’s minority Muslim population has been subject to human rights abuses. And companies are increasingly pressured to make sure that their supply chain is free from any abusive practices. Further, in addition to lacking in a value system that could strengthen its soft power efforts, Beijing’s consistent use of hard power in places like the South China Sea and Indian border, as well as the economic punishment it served to Australia, inevitably makes partners know that they are dealing with a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

In Other News – Saudi Arabia is positioning China in a strategic role in the Gulf & More – 1/7/2022

January 7, 2022

Arrest and prosecution of Russian tech mogul presents opportunity for US intelligence. Last March, Vladislav Klyushin, a Russian tech executive charged with hacking into confidential quarterly earnings reports of US companies and making millions on insider trading, was arrested by the US government while on a ski trip to Switzerland. It wasn’t until mid-December, however, that the Swiss made public their decision to extradite Klyushin to the United States, shunning Putin’s request to try the accused in Russia. As per the indictment, Klyushin previously led M13, a Russian cybersecurity company whose IT solutions were used by the Russian government, and Klyushin also is associated with Ivan Ermakov, one of the alleged dozen Russian intelligence operatives charged in connection with the 2016 election hacking. This week in Boston federal court, Klyushin pled not guilty to the insider trading charges. But if Klyushin decides to cooperate with the US Government, he holds unique insight on the Kremlin’s cyberattacks and strategy and could offer intelligence operators an insider’s view into GRU operations against the US and its allies.

Saudis are reportedly manufacturing ballistic missiles, complicating diplomatic efforts to reach nuclear agreement and positioning China in a strategic role in the Gulf. In a development that could have significant regional repercussions, US Intelligence agencies have assessed that Saudi Arabia, with the assistance of China, is now actively manufacturing ballistic missiles. If true, this would shift the power dynamic in the region and complicate efforts to expand the terms of a nuclear deal with Iran to include restraints on missile technology. There’s no clear end in sight to the enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and with the Saudis now manufacturing their own missiles, Tehran will be hard pressed to scale back their own missile program. Over the past year, China has increased its collaboration with Iran on economic and security issues, including on state-level cyberattack initiatives, while simultaneously helping the Saudis build up their defenses. While it’s in China’s interest to have stability between Saudi and Iran, it’s uncertain if President Xi is angling to broker a détente between the two nations or is instead just playing both sides to his advantage.

Widespread efforts to curb transnational crime are announced in December, but their effectiveness remains to be seen. In December, President Biden signed an Executive Order to mitigate the threat of transnational organized crime, noting that cross-border criminal networks threaten everything from the health of the environment to democratic processes and the rule of law. The Executive Order comes with the establishment of a United States Council on Transnational Crime that includes representatives from major offices like the Director of National Intelligence and US Treasury. The initiative highlights the need for increased information sharing with private and international entities, a goal that is becoming more pressing for international bodies and nations.

In late December the Korean National Police Agency of the Republic of Korea, whose leadership noted that transnational crime has been fortified with the development of technology and globalization, signed a Working Arrangement with Europol to collaborate on the threat. Also in mid-December, Russia and Cambodia pledged cooperation in countering transnational crime, highlighting money laundering and terrorist financing as focus areas, and presenting Russia as a third path between China and the US. While global efforts to collaborate on transnational crime are building momentum, many nations will likely remain reticent to share any information that could incriminate their leadership or influential criminal actors.