In Other News – All Evidence Suggests Putin Remains Undeterred in Ukraine – 10/27/2022

October 27, 2022

Despite Russian setbacks on the ground, all evidence suggests that Vladimir Putin remains undeterred in Ukraine. From the onslaught of Russian missiles targeting critical infrastructure to running nuclear drills in response to the completely unverified intelligence that Ukraine is trying to build a dirty bomb, Putin’s new war posture is geared to grind down both Ukrainian and Western resolve for his unjust war. As Autumn progresses, Putin hopes to shroud the Ukrainian people in darkness and cold and cause enormous strain to American and European political leaders with high gas prices and the threat of nuclear fallout and hoping that the U.S. midterm elections might turn a result more amenable to his worldview. He is hoping that the West might start to negotiate for themselves and not Ukraine to end their own pain.

The winter will be very hard, Ukraine has rolling blackouts and water supplies to key cities, like Mykolaiv, are now unsecured. Ukraine has directed its displaced refugees not to return to Ukraine until after the winter. European leaders are reaching on a consensus for a price cap on Russian energy as Russian energy flows are steadily being cut and still prices in Europe are soaring. Also, the coming months will reveal the results of the massive Russian mobilization, whether some of the purported 300,000 newly conscripted Russian troops can successfully be redeployed to overwhelm Ukrainian forces despite the apparent and serious logistical, tactical, political, and social challenges to do so.

Just as staving off Russia’s access to elements essential to microchip production has been key to the sanctions effort, ensured access to technology has become central to sustaining Ukraine’s war effort as evidenced by the hectic effort to ensure continuation of Elon Musk’s Starlink service following his parroting of Russian talking points on many social media and public forums. Precision guided missile systems require satellite links and communication with the field. There is general consensus that one of the major key success factors to staving off Russian cyber attacks has been the longtime investment of Microsoft in Ukraine. Furthermore, drones and the novel use of AI have been integral to Ukraine’s effective, asymmetrical battle strategy.

Russia understands this too as evidenced by Russian Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov statements at the UN declaring that Russia will consider commercial satellites belonging to the U.S. and it’s Allies legitimate military targets if they are used to support the Ukrainian war effort. As the war drags on, technology and innovation more generally may be the crux upon which Ukraine resistance will need to be leveraged in response to continuing Russian devastation.

Unfazed by Putin’s nuclear blackmail, NATO continued to run its “Steadfast Noon” war games, which test airborne nuclear forces but with no live-fire elements, in Belgium, the UK and over the North Sea. Attention presently is focused on providing Ukraine with the anti-missile defenses its needs as well as the financial support required to sustain living conditions in Ukraine. For now, NATO and its partners are galvanized both by Ukraine’s military success on the ground but also by the clear understanding that European and Western security is inextricably linked to Ukrainian victory. In fact discussion this week in Germany on funding the Ukrainian rebuild focused more on the importance of funding the Ukrainian war effort.

In Other News – Iranian Weapons in Russia Reveal Putin’s Limitations – 10/21/2022

October 21, 2022

Iranian weapons in Russia reveal Putin’s needs and limitations, geopolitical realignments abound. This week, Tehran’s relationship with Moscow made headlines after Ukraine accused Russia of using Iranian-made drones to attack Kyiv and stated that Ukrainian air defenses have shot down over 200 Iranian-made drones in the past few weeks. US Intelligence officials also reported that Iranian military personnel were in Crimea in the capacity of drone trainers and tech support workers after the Russian military suffered “operator and system failures early on” in its attempts to effectively use the weapons.

Tehran has publicly denied the accusation of selling Iranian weapons to Russia, and the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman even had the audacity to offer “dialogue and negotiation with Ukraine to clear these allegations”. The Kremlin, unsurprisingly, has also denied use of the Iranian equipment. Meanwhile, US Intelligence officials are concerned that Russia isn’t going to limit its purchases to Iranian drones but could be trying to buy surface-to-surface missiles from Tehran. In early September, the US Treasury’s OFAC designated a Tehran-based air transportation service and several Iranian corporate entities for the involvement in supplying drones to Russia, and it’s likely that more sanctions are to come.

Iran and Russia, in addition to sharing the false narrative that the West is an instigator that’s responsible for their immense social and economic problems, have prior on-the-ground experience collaborating on the battlefield. Although the Moscow-Tehran relationship is long marked by competition and opportunism, the nations can work together well enough when there’s common interest. Of note, many of the same Iranian and Russian leaders involved in securing a 2015 bilateral agreement on military-technical cooperation between the two nations are still involved in government and military leadership positions today.

While that deal was designed to coordinate operations in Syria, which they did, over the years personal relationships have developed, and the nations have collaborated on sanctions evasion and other energy initiatives. Tehran also knows that Russia won’t criticize its leaders for violently curbing internal dissent, which has been steady ever since 22 year-old Iranian Mahsa Amini recently died in the hands of the government after being arrested for wearing her hijab improperly. And Tehran can also depend on Russia to threaten Israel with retaliation if Israel moves to supply Kyiv’s military with technology or weapons.

But as much as the Iranian drone revelation reveals about Moscow’s relations with Tehran, we can also learn a lot from what we’re not seeing. That the Russians needed to resort to Iranian-made weapons indicates that they’re not getting what they might have wanted from China, which has been a concern since the onset of the war. Thus far, Beijing has primarily supported Russia by parroting the Kremlin’s propaganda and refusing to condemn Putin in the international arena. Beijing has also maintained essential economic dealings with Moscow, often price gouging Putin in the process, yet China’s been careful to avoid violating certain sanctions and Russia’s tech needs have been hurt in response.

China’s also been creeping into traditional Russian turf while Putin’s been distracted looking west. Central Asian countries, who typically look to Russia as a regional negotiator have taken advantage of Russia’s weakness to express their grievances about Moscow and hold independent meetings with China. Beijing has also invested billions in regional infrastructure development and has paid special attention to deepening relations with Kazakhstan- a key regional actor that borders both China and Russia. While Russia has traditionally played policeman and ensured that even unpopular regional leaders were able to maintain their positions, it’s also true that over a year since Taliban control of Afghanistan other Central Asian nations haven’t seen an increased threat or needed Moscow’s protection.

With multiple variables clearly at play, we can anticipate traditional regional allies testing the waters, and enemies finding areas of opportunity. The same week that Iran was making headlines for the drones, an advisor to the Iranian Supreme Leader proclaimed that Saudi Arabia and Iran should reopen their embassies to solve their problems “in a better way.” Indeed, the geopolitical order that was initially rocked back in February continues to actively evolve and shape political strategy in the greater region.

In Other News – Chinese President Xi Jinping: New Mao Zedong or New Emperor? – 10/14/2022

October 14, 2022

On the cusp of the Chinese National Congress, analysis from a global contributor offers readers insight on how Xi might be weighing his next steps

President Xi’s next term is almost certain, but his legacy is on the line with Taiwan. At the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party on October 16, President Xi is likely to secure a third presidential term after abolishing the two-term limit back in 2018. Indeed, over the previous decade, Xi has steadily dissolved the collective leadership principles that were in place to protect the country against the whims of a single leader. Instead, he’s centralized the reins of power, holding the positions of President, General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Committee at the same time. But while centralizing power might serve to make the government more effective, it also makes the leader more vulnerable, and this paradox will impact Xi’s actions vis-à-vis Taiwan.

Like his predecessors, Xi holds the dual ambitions of Chinese territorial expansion and economic prosperity, and in the case of Taiwan they’re intimately related. Major technical questions abound on the likelihood of a successful Chinese military invasion, and it remains uncertain if Xi’s soldiers are battle-ready and up to the task. It is also unclear if it would even be possible for Beijing to conquer the island without destroying it, and how much external support Taiwan would receive. Further, invading Taiwan could send Xi down Putin’s path, forcing Beijing into economic isolation at a time when China’s success heavily depends on its economic interaction with the West.

Trade between China and the United States and China and the EU is enormous. In both relations, total trade with China is above $650 billion. Accumulated Foreign Direct Investment in and from China for the US and EU respectively is upwards of $100 billion. These numbers indicate how interwoven the three economies are and how the prosperity of China is linked with functioning political and economic relations with Washington and Brussels.

Xi is likely weighing expansion against internal stability, and he’s acutely aware of how these goals have played out in Chinese history. While Mao Zedong was able to unify the mainland of China, his tenure ended in disgrace replete with political upheaval and an attempt to cover up a horrific earthquake. Deng Xiaoping, who took the lead not long after Mao’s death, achieved agreements on the transfer of Hong Kong and Macao, but he will also be remembered by the violent suppression of Tiananmen Square in 1989. Further, from an economic perspective, Mao’s period was a disaster while Deng’s rule led to a period of positive and transformative change.

Traditionally in China, the emperor was seen as the connection between the earth and heaven, and nation-wide prosperity or disasters under his reign were attributed to whether the leader was in fact operating under a mandate from heaven. Under Xi, the Chinese economy has done well, but continued economic growth is being challenged by Beijing’s draconian Covid restrictions and an impending internal financial crisis. Xi knows that employing military means in Taiwan any time soon could endanger China’s stability and thereby threaten his legitimacy and legacy. Indeed, regardless of how much Xi wants to expand, he will act to maintain safeguard his own power and that of his Party first.

In Other News – Crimean Bridge Attack Comes at a Time of Escalated Pressures on Putin – 10/13/2022

October 13, 2022

Crimean bridge attack comes at a time of escalated pressures on Putin, global players actively navigate their response. The Kerch Bridge, that was attacked in an early morning explosion last Saturday, connects illegally annexed Crimea to Russia and holds symbolic and strategic value for Moscow. In 2018, Putin personally inaugurated the bridge, comprised of both rail and road structures, to increase Russia’s ability to supply the peninsula and demonstrate that Crimea is firmly in Russia’s grasp. After the Saturday bridge attack, which appears to have been designed to maximize infrastructure damage and limit civilian deaths, Putin seemingly unleashed his fury with a series of airstrikes on Ukrainian civilian and critical infrastructure targets. It’s also possible that these strikes had been planned even before the bridge attack to help satisfy the escalatory demands of the Russian far-right. The attacks targeted locations across the whole of Ukraine and were likely led by a man with noted disregard for human life, General Sergei Surovikin.

Surovikin, who was previously in charge of Russian operations in the Ukrainian South, was recently appointed by Putin to lead the pan-Ukraine war effort. This is the first time Putin has put one individual in charge of all of Ukraine, and with Surovikin, a longtime veteran of Russia’s brutal war efforts in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria, civilian targets now appear fair game. Surovikin’s appointment is also in line with the same unhinged rationale of Moscow’s increased nuclear threats: Putin still seems to think that if he’s vicious enough he can convince NATO and the United States to talk Ukraine out of defending itself. But just like he underestimated Ukraine’s ability to fight back, Putin continues to underestimate Western resolve against him.

Indeed, the recent Russian attacks further galvanized the Ukrainian resistance and prompted G7 countries to reiterate, increase, and accelerate support for Ukraine, including promising air defense systems. Further, Forbes Ukraine has estimated that the attacks cost Moscow $400-700 million on just the first day- an expenditure that’s unsustainable. Russia’s political and military options also seem to be floundering – Ukraine continues to make gains in disputed territories in the South and East and many men of fighting age have fled Russia since the partial and increasingly unpopular mobilization was announced.

It’s also uncertain if the mobilization can really take effect before winter and how much of an impact it will ultimately have. The Wagner Group and Chechen fighters have refrained from committing more of their elite fighters, opting to recruit in prisons, and Russia is drawing upon more of its minority populations and foreign prisoners for cannon fodder. Training conditions for the conscripts are also reportedly awful and demoralizing. There are further reports that Russia is trying to sign on Ukrainian refugees from Mariupol, in another signal of Moscow’s desperation and an indication that there’s going to be serious a morale problem among the troops.

Putin is still attempting to weaponize food and energy, but his initial attempt to punish Europe by withholding gas was impulsive and signaled early on that the Europeans should prepare for further disruption- which they did. This week, Berlin quickly rejected Putin’s offer to resume gas supplies to Europe via the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, demonstrating a firm resolve even with potentially difficult economic repercussions. It’s possible that Putin has a friendlier face with OPEC+ members like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who recently frustrated Washington by announcing production cuts, but these countries are promoting their own national economic interests and Moscow can’t reliably depend upon them in the long run.

Further, the energy reconfiguration sparked by the war continues to lead to a new political and economic reality. Just this week Israel and Lebanon accepted a US-led agreement on their contentious maritime border. The historic deal could allow natural gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, and both Israel and Lebanon could reap economic benefit from the resources. For its part, Israel has said that it will start extracting and exporting gas to Europe right away, and Lebanon is also expected to act quickly. Indeed, while the battle in Ukraine might be seemingly entrenched, geopolitical dealings are in full force and are likely to impact negotiating positions moving forward.

In Other News – A View from Europe – 10/7/2022

October 7, 2022

A View from Europe
The first week of every month, In Other News features a short op-ed heavily informed by the European perspective. We hope that these special monthly pieces will offer our readers an enriched understanding of global events and allow for a more robust international risk calculus.

What the European Union can learn from the global response to the Russia-Ukraine war
The response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has varied widely among global leaders, and this variation serves as a powerful wake-up call for European policy makers. Discussions within the European Union (EU) often assume common core values and principles, but these values are not inherently transferrable to third countries that are operating on a different calculus and are first and foremost informed by their national interests. While the latest United Nations voting patterns indicate that Russia is increasingly isolated, with only a few rogue allies remaining, the evolution of international votes helps to elucidate the factors that shape and inform the decisions of non-European global leaders.

When Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) decided not to recognize Moscow’s territorial conquests. Of 193 UNGA members, 100 voted against Russia, 11 voted with Russia, and there were 58 abstentions. 24 countries did not show up for the vote. After the February 2022 attack, however, a greater UNGA majority condemned Putin’s actions and requested full withdrawal of Russian troops. 141 countries voted against Russia, 5 sided with Russia, and there were 35 abstentions – including India, surprisingly, and unsurprisingly China. 12 countries did not show up for the vote.

A similar symbolical vote took place in September 2022 when UNGA approved Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s request to hold a virtual address. Only six countries sided with Russia: Belarus, Cuba, Eritrea, Nicaragua, North Korea, and Syria. Notably, India supported Ukraine here for the first time, after abstaining from the two previous resolutions.

Russia’s violation of international law, including the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, the Budapest Memorandum, and the NATO-Russia act, was so extreme with the latest invasion that some European observers were surprised that not all countries condemned Russia’s unprovoked military attack. But Moscow’s overtly unethical behavior is not the decisive factor. The voting pattern at the UN shows that countries base their foreign policy considerations on national self-interest first, followed by issues of international law, values and principles.

For Western nations, national self-interest is aligned with the obvious international legal considerations of the Russian invasion. The horrific war crimes committed by the Russian troops further emphasize that fundamental values and principles are at stake.

The six states aligning with Russia, however, believe they have no choice but to support Putin in view of their perceived dependency on Moscow. They are making the calculation that voting now with Putin will bring them political advantages in future.

A group of approximately 40 countries, mainly from Africa and Asia have not taken a clear position on Russia, either abstaining from voting or not turning up for the vote. There’s an adage that helps explain their lack of interference: “when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled”. Indeed, this group of nations seems to believe that ‘playing invisible’ best serves their national interest. Food security also remains an important concern in their political calculus.

The position of two influential Asian countries, China and India, is being closely watched. China is balancing its partnership with Moscow with its concerns about international stability and economic consequences- Xi has increasingly made his concerns clear to Putin. India, which abstained during the first UN votes, is trying to strike a balance between its partnerships with the West and with Russia. The fact that during the September vote it sided with Ukraine and Prime Minister Modi remarked that “this is not an era of war” has further shifted the international balance against Putin.

Finally, in every country’s policy formulation on Russia’s attack, opportunism is also relevant: which country will prevail? Indeed, Ukraine’s current performance on the battlefield will further influence international support for its brave defense. And in addition to battlefield losses, Russia’s escalatory comments on use of nuclear weapons and actions on mobilization have not helped its international support and only serve to further isolate the nation.