In Other News – Putin’s Strategic Blunder, & More – 2/24/2022

February 24, 2022

Putin’s Strategic Blunder
While the world watches to see the depth and breadth of Russia’s assault on Ukraine as well as the West’s response, from a strategic perspective, this appears to be a massive overstep for Putin. His invasion of Ukraine is an uncharacteristic move for an individual whose leadership style has been predicated on cautious, deliberate, and calculated steps. His strength and influence have grown over the past decade largely through asymmetric and covert action. That gameplan has been seemingly cast aside with a display of unmitigated aggression taking place on the world stage. By upending the post-Cold War security dynamic, he has galvanized and strengthened NATO, bringing unity to an organization where there had been little in recent years. While Putin has made clear he can live with the economic isolation and resulting hardships that will fall upon the Russian people, it is the displeasure of everyday Russians and the oligarchs he should fear most. Should his campaign in Ukraine get bogged down and be accompanied by higher than “acceptable” casualties and costs, the support for his ruthless ambition will dissipate, and likely over time spell the end to both Putin, and his dreams of resurrecting the Russian empire.

Sanctions on the Horizon and Their Effects
The strength and heft of the power of international sanctions benefited from a major shift when the post-Merkel leadership in Germany agreed to halt the certification of the NordStream 2 pipeline. This demonstrated a newfound unity from NATO, and the willingness of Germany to withstand domestic discomfort to stand united against Russia. It also placed more pressure on Britain and the rest of the NATO partners to increase the severity of their sanctions. President Biden announced that Russian Banks are the next target, and U.S. companies will be prohibited from exporting electronics and computer chips to Russia, which will take away a key component to modern living, and for which Russia doesn’t have a domestic production capability. While likely very difficult to gain agreement among the participants, barring Russia from the SWIFT network is potentially on the table. If successful, this would serve to cut Russia off from the dollar and the majority of the international banking infrastructure. In addition to amassing more than $600 billion in gold-based reserves, through its “Fortress Russia” policy, Russia has deliberately sought to pursue self-sufficiency through more domestic food and medicine production, as well as economic diversification away from dollar-based transactions and towards the Euro and the Yuan. Anticipated sanctions will have a profound impact on the already sclerotic Russian economy, affecting economic growth, increasing poverty, spurring inflation, deterring investment, and possibly provoking a run on Russian banks as holders will want to flee the rapidly devaluating ruble.

Active Measures and Information Warfare
Putin’s intelligence playbook has been on full display in the lead up to this conflict. First and foremost, since 2014, Putin has been cultivating an ultranationalist narrative that in part promotes the reunification of an expansive ancient Russia, which includes by his account Ukraine. This narrative has been promoted in movies and films and integrated more and more throughout Russian policy documents. This position was driven home Wednesday night with Putin’s contemptuous dismissal of the notion that Ukraine was a sovereign nation. Following the 2014 annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbas Region, Putin’s efforts have been relentless in creating the false narrative that these two regions fervently desire to be independent from Ukraine. He has sent mercenaries into these regions to pose as independentist armies, run political campaigns and insurrection efforts to advance this political reality, and even staged fake terrorist attacks. Within Russia too, he has promoted the narrative that Russia is protecting ethnic Russians, and in the two days since their “declaration of independence,” has provoked a fake refugee crisis by ordering all people to evacuate these regions into Russia whilst conscripting every male over 18 into the new independentist armies. To add to the confusion, Russia launched a cyber-attack on Ukrainian government banking sites and started sending fake text messages to Ukrainian troops ordering evacuations. Russia has additionally used a wide-sweeping bot attack to disable Twitter accounts that had been providing a reliable crowd sourced accounting of events on the ground. The race is now on to determine how the narrative of the war in Ukraine will be told… but the truth is not on Russia’s side.

In Other News – Putin’s Brinkmanship Remains as Ukraine Crisis Continues, France and Others Announce Troop Withdrawal from Mali, & More – 2/18/2022

February 18, 2022

As the Ukraine crisis continues, Putin’s brinkmanship is further called into question. Conflicting reports regarding Russian troop withdrawal from the Ukrainian border were rampant this week, while Kyiv and Russian-backed separatists both accused each other of ceasefire violations. On Friday, the separatist leader of eastern Ukraine’s self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) reportedly ordered the mass evacuation of women, children, and elderly citizens to Russia due to concerns that Ukraine was launching some sort of offensive. Kyiv utterly denied the allegation. While accusations of shelling along the line of contact in Donbas could serve as a pretext for further Russian force, the ongoing tensions are also serving to bolster Ukraine’s military capability. The United States is selling more weaponry like Abrams tanks to neighboring states like Poland, while other nations like the Netherlands just announced plans to send more military equipment to Ukraine. As the crisis drags on, Putin’s brinkmanship is further called into question. But if he’s not bluffing, Putin’s picking a very costly and historic, paradigm shifting battle with the United States and an increasingly united West.

Tensions remain high on the Russia-Ukraine crisis, but it’s not distracting Putin from cultivating allies in Latin America. This week, Putin met with Brazilian President Bolsonaro in Moscow, where the pair primarily focused on energy project cooperation: in September Russia’s Rosatom signed an agreement to help Brazil develop and maintain nuclear power plants. It’s also convenient that Brazil currently sits on the UN Security Council, but Putin’s interested in an even broader regional impact. Earlier this month, Argentine President Alberto Fernández also visited Putin in Moscow, where the leaders reportedly discussed Argentina’s desire to be less dependent upon the United States and IMF funding.

Indeed, despite the heavy focus on Ukraine, Putin’s been building up military presence in Latin America over the past several years- most overtly in Nicaragua, but with ventures in Venezuela and the Caribbean as well. He’s also been expanding regional cooperation in areas like agriculture, mining, and space. These activities are reminiscent of the Cold War alliances with countries that are unfriendly to the United States. While Putin knows that developing a coalition of anti-US authoritarian regimes in Latin America might not present a direct threat to US security, he’s painting Moscow as a third path and economic and political ramifications could be significant.

France and European security partners announce troop withdrawal from Mali after nearly a decade of fighting. According to French President Macron, the decision to withdraw all troops from Mali, and likely redeploy them elsewhere in the Sahel, follows multiple obstructions by Malian authorities. In the past several years, the conditions to effectively collaborate on counterterrorism in Mali have eroded. In August 2020, internal special forces officers toppled Mali’s president, and nine months later, Col. Assisi Goita led a second coup and instated himself as leader. Goita’s regime has since ignored its transitional status, as well as promises to hold free and fair elections, frustrating Paris and its allies. Further, in January France’s top diplomat accused Mali of hiring Russian Wagner Group mercenaries, although Putin continues to deny any state-association with the hired force. With France’s latest plans to withdraw, what remains to combat a resurgent AQ and ISIS in a beleaguered Mali will be Mali’s army, a United Nations peacekeeping mission, and a government primarily focused on retaining its own power.

Canadian Freedom Convoy demonstrates how the same tools that group organizers rely upon can quickly be used against them, raises questions of future interference. After the Canadian government requested that mainstream crowdfunding platform GoFundMe remove a fundraising site supporting the convoy, the group began to receive online donations via alternative site GiveSendGo. But this week GiveSendGo was hacked, and its donor list leaked. While groups like the convoy are leveraging technology and social networking to their advantage, so are their ideological opponents. Individuals from all over the world reportedly donated to the convoy, and there have been copycat movements in other countries. Foreign elements could also take advantage of online organizing efforts like this. But the reach the internet allows comes with a risk, and the individuals who support these actions furtively are being exposed – not unlike how January 6th activists were identified via their social media postings. What’s notable about the recent convoy developments is that this is one of the first times a hacktivist group is targeting these specific groups and actors, which may be the beginning of a trend to watch in the cybersphere where independent hackers are taking aim at what they characterize as antidemocratic populist movements.

In Other News – China endorses Putin, Omicron Responses Affected by Politics, & More – 2/11/2022

February 11, 2022

China publicly endorses Putin, but political consequences of a Ukraine invasion could limit just how far Beijing will go in its support. While Putin contemplates his next move, the West is uniting against Moscow. Ukraine and NATO allies are strengthening their defenses through weapons acquisition, bulked-up and repositioned troops, and increased agreement on what a response might entail. If Putin continues to shun all diplomacy and keeps building up troops on Ukraine’s border, he could be on his way to becoming an intractable outcast to the entire democratic world. This week, after Putin and President Xi met at the Beijing Olympics, China and Russia released a substantial long-term agreement that ups their mutual support to an unprecedented degree. But Putin may have a wrongfooted Cold War vision of recreating a Sino-Soviet alliance. In today’s context, it’s doubtful that words would materialize into actual Chinese cyber or military support during a Ukraine attack. Ultimately, China is going to do whatever it decides is in its own best economic and financial interests, and its relationship with the United States and Europe is so intertwined that it’s unlikely Beijing would jeopardize this with visible military support for Putin’s Ukraine grab.

Political systems are impacting Omicron response policies, but the long-term effects remain to be seen. There is wide variation in how nations are currently responding to the pandemic. For example, Denmark has lifted all Covid restrictions even while its infection rate remains high. This policy is informed by a high vaccination rate, wide availability of effective treatments, and adequate hospital capacity to care for those who need it; to keep restrictions in place would be a deleterious constraint on a free society. Hong Kong, however, has adapted a zero-Covid policy that’s resulted in a new lockdown. On top of low vaccination rates and strained hospital capacity, Hong Kong now faces a food shortage and no income from tourism.

These prolonged restrictions coupled with the antidemocratic legislation passed in Hong Kong during the pandemic has prompted a flight of human and investment capital that is likely to endure. Hong Kong, like China, continues to opportunistically use the pandemic to entrench a totalitarian hold over its populace. While the pandemic responses in Denmark and Hong Kong demonstrate vastly different governmental approaches, it remains to be seen if national policies will continue along their current trajectories and wind-up having a long-term impact on economic growth and political freedom.

United States removed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia “FARC” organization from its Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list, but FARC affiliates are still named. The FARC is notorious for its bloody history in Colombia spanning over 50 years replete with hundreds of thousands of deaths. In 2016, the FARC signed a peace agreement with the government of Colombia, but mass killings have continued along with violent territorial disputes over land and control of the narcotics trade. However, in late 2021 – in a move that upset several US politicians and some members of the Colombian government, the United States removed the FARC from the FTO list, noting that the broader FARC organization had adhered to the main terms of the peace agreement. At the same time, the Biden administration added two new Colombian organizations and their leadership to the list, including FARC splinter group “FARC-EP” and “Segunda Marquetalia.” While the removal of FARC from the FTO list was intended to send the message that becoming part of the political process will be rewarded, and that the list targets those most active today, concurrently naming two successor organizations to that same list, with many of the same members, will likely reduce the impact of the removal.

In Other News – Putin and the Ukraine, Conflict Spills Over Yemeni Border, & More – 2/3/2022

February 3, 2022

No matter if Putin decides to invade Ukraine or not, his actions will have long lasting consequences. Putin has managed to command the world’s attention by amassing troops along the Ukrainian border, but by doing so he’s increasingly alienated Western nations and given them time to bond together in a more united front. Putin has particularly frustrated France and Germany and he’s only further isolating himself from the West as he continues to build-up troops while simultaneously holding discussions to reduce tensions.

The drawn-out build-up has also allowed Ukrainians to better prepare for an attack, and for the United States to bolster its NATO deployment in Eastern Europe and send even more sophisticated military equipment over to Ukrainian troops. Putin also likely recognizes that Ukrainians are better equipped to defend against a Russian invasion now than they were back in 2014, having a larger and more robust military force, and that national sentiment is also more united against him. Even if Putin invaded and achieved some degree of military success, he should anticipate continued resistance from the Ukrainian population.

The question now is not just if Putin will invade, but what else he will do to threaten the resolve of US and NATO allies. Moscow could try to wield economic and political damage on the West through weaponizing energy and waging disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure, while also exhausting patience with constant destabilizing acts like bolstering its troops in Belarus. Putin isn’t going to give up easily on reclaiming his version of Russia, but the strength of his arsenal depends on the unity and endurance of those containing him.

Conflict spills over the Yemeni border as the United Arab Emirates is attacked, United States aims to balance support and political goals. In response to a recent spate of attacks directed at the UAE by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, the United States is ramping up military support to the Emiratis. On Monday, Washington reported that US forces had activated Patriot missile defenses in the UAE, and on Wednesday US officials stated they would further deploy a guided missile destroyer and state-of-the-art fighter jets to help defend their Emirati partners. While the devastating conflict in Yemen has dragged on for years, and Saudi has faced Houthi attacks on its oil facilities and southern region, attacks on the UAE are notably rare. But in January the Houthis targeted the UAE three times, including a drone-and-missile assault on Abu Dhabi’s oil facilities and airport that killed three foreign workers, and a missile attack, that was thwarted, while the Israeli President was recently visiting. The escalation comes at a delicate time for Washington as negotiations to restore the Iran nuclear deal are reportedly in their final stage. While it’s currently unclear how the uptick in violence will impact the discussions, the attacks appear to have brought Saudi and the UAE closer together again as the Yemeni war is actively threatening security within their own borders.

Military coups in Africa appear off to the same rapid clip seen in 2021, paving the way for regional democratic decline. Last fall, after several coup d’états and coup attempts in nations like Chad, Mali, Guinea and Sudan, UN Secretary General Guterres expressed concern that “military coups are back” after a quieter period during the previous decade. The start of 2022 has already seen a successful coup d’état in Burkina Faso and a failed attempt in Guinea Bissau. Over the past few years there’s been a weak response by the international community to these unconstitutional takeovers, including inconsistent or inconsequential responses from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and France, among others. Indeed, strategic competition with China and Russia has also been prioritized over a dedicated effort to promote democracy in the region. But democratic decline in Africa is of concern not just because of the decrease in political liberties and civil rights of local citizens, but because democracy itself is still the best political system we’ve got to ensure inclusive development and future peace and stability. Further, without clear and firm consequences from the international community, leaders of brazen takeovers are empowered, and the democratic world misses an opportunity for growth and unity.