In Other News – Russia is Officially to Blame for the Malaysia Air Tragedy – 11/23/2022

November 23, 2022

Despite rampant disinformation, Russia is officially to blame for the Malaysia Air tragedy. This is another example of Moscow’s ongoing campaign to distort facts and shape global politics. Last week, a Dutch court handed life sentences to two Russian men and a pro-Moscow Ukrainian for their involvement in shooting down a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet as it was flying over eastern Ukraine in 2014. Notably, the jet was shot down over separatist-controlled Donetsk six months into Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. The commercial airliner was hit by a Russian surface-to-air missile, killing all 298 people aboard, and Moscow was quick to muddy the waters of attribution. Anyone following the story closely, however, knew that Russia was likely responsible, and the recent convictions are a step towards justice.

At the time of the tragedy, the Kremlin made claims that the airliner had shifted course, that the missile had the signature of an outdated missile that Russia no longer used, and that video of the surface to air missile showed the rocket launcher being in Ukrainian occupied territory. The Russian media carried contradictory alternative stories that a surface to air missile was not actually the cause of the crash. The maneuvering of the disinformation narrative by Russia, combined with a rapidly shifting political situation in the region, replaced international outrage with profound confusion and at the time allowed the Kremlin to avoid the rightful amount of condemnation.

But robust open source-based investigations by groups like Bellingcat and Paris Match and the Ukrainian military were able to quickly piece together the true story. These investigators had technology on their side, and they were able to track the movement of the Buk Missile launcher from Russia, through Donetsk and to the missile site. They identified the burned field where the missile was launched from, triangulated the place of impact from the flight course, the crash site and the missile launching location, and ultimately dispelled much of the Russian misinformation.

And still, it took eight years for Russia to be held publicly accountable for the downing of the flight and for the world to see Russian culpability writ large. In similar fashion, since the summer of 2016, the US has been providing compelling information of Russian election interference attempts and disinformation campaigns to meddle in internal affairs of elections in the United States, Ukraine, and many other EU nations. These Russian efforts include conducting cyber-attacks, spreading disinformation, funding pro-Russian parties and coup-plotting.

These attempts have been vehemently denied by Russia despite a growing preponderance of evidence, until earlier this month when the head of the Wagner Group and financier of the infamous IRA disinformation troll farm, Yevgeny Prigozhin decided to publicly remark that “We have interfered [in US elections], we are interfering, and we will continue to interfere. Carefully, accurately, surgically and in our own way, as we know how to do.”

Indeed, in addition to the grinding battlefield in Ukraine, the information war is actively being fought, especially in the global South, where false Russian narratives abound. Cybersecurity firms have also identified Russian attempts to interfere in the US Midterm Elections, often propagating the message that the US is “wasting money” by supporting Ukraine. But like with the Malaysia airline findings, Ukraine’s efforts to take detailed account of Russian war crimes even while mid-battle will ultimately serve to demonstrate Moscow’s concerted attempts to distort reality.

In Other News – Global Leaders Raise Need for Ukraine-Russia Peace Talks – 11/17/2022

November 17, 2022

Global leaders increasingly raise the need for Ukraine-Russia peace talks, but the reality on the battlefield indicates that we’re months away from meaningful concessions that would form the basis of a realistic peace agreement. On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy outlined his nation’s ten-fold formula for peace to the participants of the G20 summit in Bali. The plan centers on the premise that Ukraine should not have to comprise on issues of sovereignty, territory, independence, and conscience. Zelenskyy also called for discussions on peace to be public and not in closed rooms. Understandably, Ukrainian distrust of Russia reigns large, and Zelenskyy also emphasized that there “will be no Minsk-3” because Moscow would immediately violate such an agreement.

Most members of the G20 strongly condemned the war and agreed that Russia violated territorial sovereignty, but assessments of the situation and the impact of sanctions on the global economy were reportedly disputed. At the end of the G20 summit, however, French President Macron stated that he wants to visit Beijing in the coming year and aims to encourage China to take on a mediating role in the conflict. Turkey is also hoping to capitalize on its negotiating position and wants to build on its diplomatic efforts negotiating the grain deal.

But on Tuesday, while peace talks were being floated, Russia reportedly conducted the largest number of strikes in a single day since the initial week of its invasion last February. The intensity of the attacks is highly significant even as Ukraine claims some victories in places like Kherson. Russia continues to target power generation and transmission facilities, and on Thursday gas production plants and civilian buildings near the southern city of Zaporizhzhia were hit, resulting in several deaths and significant power cuts. Zelenskyy accused Putin of decimating civilian access to heat and electricity, but Moscow blames Kyiv for its “unwillingness” to negotiate. Russian officials also incredulously insisted that the US and NATO should take the blame for this week’s missile incident in Poland that killed two, as Washington is the “prime cause” of everything that’s happened.

Global pressures are mounting to negotiate an end to the war that’s been threatening stability well beyond Ukrainian borders, but so far Ukraine’s resolve remains strong, and Russia’s actions leave little evidence of winding-down. As stated by Kremlin spokesman Peskov, who was asked this week about the millions of Ukrainians left without power as winter temperatures take hold, “The special military operation continues and its continuation does not depend on climatic, weather conditions.” Peskov’s statement demonstrates Russia’s willingness to promote its war effort at all costs, and it also indicates that any real peace discussion is unlikely until both sides reassess their standing after the cold, winter months.

In Other News – A View from Abroad – the Nuclear Issue – 11/10/2022

November 10, 2022

A View from Abroad – the Nuclear Issue
Once a 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.

The nuclear dimension in European foreign policy is back. Over the past 30 years, after intense debates on nuclear proliferation in the eighties, the nuclear threat in Europe gratefully retreated into the background. Out of the spotlight, the polarization of the previous decades disappeared, and nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties were updated and often concluded. European cooperation with Russia and China on non-proliferation, like with DPRK and Iran, even seemed possible. The existence of nuclear weapons was glazed over with opaque phrases such as ‘NATO as a nuclear alliance’, without an active understanding of what the stakes for using those weapons might be. Instead, leaders paid frequent lip-service to the greater aim of the Non-Proliferation Treaty: full nuclear disarmament.

But with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Putin’s subsequent nuclear saber-rattling and continued rhetoric – including his unfounded allegations about a Ukrainian dirty bomb – the nuclear threat is now again at the forefront of NATO’s calculus. European leaders are suddenly reacquainting themselves with the language, logic, and inherent dilemmas of nuclear weapons: Mutually Assured Destruction, deterrence, nuclear posture, strategic balance, and strategic ambiguity. This includes an assessment of leaving the opponent unsure of if, when, and how the West would react to Russia using nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine, and the unspoken acknowledgement of the presence of US nuclear weapons on European soil.

Washington addresses some of these questions in its latest Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released in its unclassified version in October. In line with previous versions, the latest NPR lists deterrence as the top priority and emphasizes that “The United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its Allies and partners.” But the report also maintains that “nuclear weapons are required to deter not only nuclear attack, but also a narrow range of other high consequence, strategic-level attacks.” The stated policy aims to “complicate an adversary’s entire decision calculus” and seemingly acknowledges the multiple variables impacting a nation’s decision about if and how to conduct an attack.

European leaders are also trying to navigate how to respond to the heightened nuclear threat level. In October, Josep Borrell, Foreign Affairs head of the EU, stated that the West’s answer to a potential Russia nuclear attack on Ukraine will not be with nuclear weapons, and French President Macron made a similar comment. These statements could lower the bar for Putin’s use of nuclear weapons, since they diminish the threat of nuclear retaliation and blur the red line for Moscow not to use them. Finland and Sweden, however, recognized the shifting geopolitical reality sparked by Russia’s attack, and they moved to join NATO as a nuclear alliance. Signing the Nuclear Ban treaty has consequently become impossible for these two new NATO members.

The current reality incited by the Russia-Ukraine war is bleak. But when the conflict is finally over, and international relations are allowed some return to normalcy, the crucial international treaties and institutions in the nuclear domain, such as Start I and II, INF, Open Skies, Nuclear Suppliers Group, IAEA and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, will need to be revived. European politicians can be bolstered by a collective effort to be consistent, rational and engage in non-emotional decision making on nuclear issues. Their choice of messaging will also be critical, as political signaling can readily influence the other side’s mental calculus and inform the global response. But regardless of how exactly they reshape their policies, European leaders can no longer exclude or view the nuclear threat as immaterial– no matter what choices Putin ultimately makes.

In Other News – Global Leaders Confront a New Energy Reality – 11/4/2022

November 4, 2022

As the United Nations COP27 approaches, global leaders confront a new energy reality that’s been heavily influenced by the Russia-Ukraine war. Since the onset of the war last February, the issue of energy security has become a top priority for almost every nation. For some Russian allies like China and India, the sudden availability of Russian energy supplies at a discounted rate has been welcomed, while EU nations and allies have scrambled to secure alternate supplies due to sanctions. Other nations, like Lebanon and Israel, have forged unlikely deals to exploit fossil fuel resources and get in on the action. OPEC+ members are trying to capitalize on the high demand and uncertain future while simultaneously managing political expectations. And all of this has been happening in the backdrop of an increased global awareness to reduce fossil fuel usage and emissions.

The Russia-Ukraine war has temporarily pushed both the emissions and climate financing commitments that were made last November at COP26 to the backburner. Understandably, national leaders have prioritized keeping the heat on and the industry going, regardless of the desire to curb emissions, and we’ve seen a lot of stop-gap measures put into place. Coal has reemerged as an energy source in places where it was being phased out. Nuclear energy is also being reassessed as a viable option, as are a myriad of alternative energy options like solar and wind. Indeed, the war has made a real case for renewables and is accelerating their development. But greener options aren’t yet affordable, cost-effective, or robust enough, and at the upcoming COP27 in Egypt next week, leaders will be challenged to commit to lowering emissions given the geopolitical and economic constraints.

For more than two decades, the UN COPs have been the forum for international negotiations on climate change. In 2015, the gathering led to the Paris Agreement that is still viewed as a fundamental benchmark by most nations today. But more recently, discussion about which nations should be responsible for funding the energy transition has taken center stage.

Notably, the upcoming COP is being held in Africa – a region with low emissions contributions but highly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Leaders of developed nations will come face-to-face with their failure to live up to the climate financing promises they made at COP26. Measures to curb inflation will further complicate the discussion. African leaders sitting on fossil fuel resources might also try to reconcile climate commitments with their right to, and need for, economic development, particularly as food supply chains and access remain threatened.

In addition to fossil fuels, the emerging resource battle is with the global south and developing economies that are rich in minerals and rare earth elements that will likely power the next phase of economic and technological development. Russia and China have already made significant investments and inroads in parts of Africa, and national policies are likely to be dictated by these economic relationships. Indeed, COP27 arrives at a time when energy, economics, and politics frequently have opposing needs, and it’s looking increasingly difficult to satisfy them all.