In Other News – The Will to Resist – 2/23/2023

February 23, 2023

History will look back at the Russian invasion of Ukraine — that took place a year ago today — and say that this was a defining inflection point in global realignment. What is most striking is how very disruptive the invasion has been and how the downstream effects have prompted strategic pivots from nearly all parties. A flailing NATO was reinvigorated and a resonant counter narrative to the global rise in autocracy began to crystallize in the zeitgeist. What’s more the undergirding tenants of economic cooperation stood strong with countries and private corporations largely complying at their own initiative to the international sanctions regime. Europe weened itself from Russian energy incurring a cost no one expected it to bear and prompted an accelerated shift to clean energies, concurrently depriving Russia of its biggest leverage with Europe. Supply chain disruptions from Covid were exacerbated, catalyzing an enduring effort to diversity supply chains away from China. China’s role as an essential partner for Russia is undeniable but Russia’s role for China is less that of a strategic partner and more that of a useful pawn who can distract Western attention away from the South China Sea and China’s own regional expansion ambitions. Still China’s support for Russia will remain circumscribed by the importance of its trade relationships with the West. Perhaps most stark is this diminishment of Russia’s strategic agency as an energy exporter and viable strategic threat to Europe;: if Russia cannot win against Ukraine, then it doesn’t hold a chance against Europe. This reality has prompted a heightened risk of domestic political trouble within Russia coming from its Far Right flank.

As the war is likely to drag on for some time, this global realignment will continue and in step with it will be a battle for predominance in the 21st century between China and the West. Already, traditional alliances and partnerships in the Middle East are shifting, whether it be Turkey’s irksome role holding up NATO expansion, the ambiguous positioning of Israel, UAE, and Saudi as traditional U.S. allies, or Iran and Russia’s newfound brotherhood of de facto rogue states who are more and more likely to engage in active measures and asymmetrical mischief. The assertive neutrality of India, South Africa, and nearly the whole of Latin America underscores the critical role that the Global South will now play in matters of international diplomacy and geopolitical problem-solving including war, energy, food, resources, and addressing climate change. What is at stake is whether the international system of governance and its institutions will ultimately hold. The war has brought to the fore a realization that the past several decades have brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to the world (with the glaring exceptions of the Middle East and Afghanistan) and this entire system is currently under strain from Russia’s abrogation of the tenant of territorial sovereignty and its willingness to breach international norms of war and commit human rights abuses. There is an opportunity here for the West to try and turn the page for its own wars of choice and make a case for a reassertion of Western democratic values with its trademark rule of law, and investment to fill the emergent vacuums being left by China’s faltering Belt and Road initiative. China will continue to press the case for multipolarity and alternative centers of influence away from the West. The greatest threat to the West may be its own resolve threatened by internal political dynamics, whereas Xi and Putin have demonstrated time and time again how they will not countenance even a modicum of domestic dissent.

And yet perhaps the most enduring observation to take away from this last year is the indomitable strength of the Ukrainian people’s desire for self-determination. Only history will tell how the fault lines will eventually settle but there is enormous resilience, innovation, and brilliance to be found in the will to resist. And that is something to never be underestimated.

In Other News – One Year After the Russian Invasion of the Ukraine – 2/17/2023

February 17, 2023

One year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the regional fight for justice has global implications. At this time last year, Western politicians, journalists, analysts, and intelligence officials were heatedly debating whether Putin would have the audacity and political support to invade Ukraine (again). Today, at the Munich Security Conference, Ukraine’s Western allies are instead trying to figure out how to support Kyiv for the long haul, as fears of a prolonged conflict loom large. It’s also become increasingly clear that the outcome of this regional battle will establish a precedent for global geopolitical conditions to come.

Regionally, Putin’s disregard for human life has been on full display. Within its own borders, Russia has recruited prisoners, exploited its poorest and most desperate citizens, arrested, tortured, and killed political dissidents, and turned against members of its minority populations. In Ukraine, Putin’s army has attacked civilians and civilian infrastructure, tortured and raped women and minors, and forcibly separated thousands of Ukrainian children from their families to “re-educate” them at Russian camps.

Further, as the war’s anniversary approaches, Putin’s cronies are organizing a mass action to celebrate the Russian military in an event termed “The Heroes of Our Time.” Attendees will be able to record videos of themselves in front of war memorials and craft goods to send to the frontlines. The regime is also encouraging citizens to paint murals honoring the troops across Russian cities, thereby enlisting regular people as propaganda artists, and coordinating meetings between soldiers and Russian schoolchildren. It will all culminate in a Moscow rally where Putin is expected to speak.

Meanwhile, thousands are dying on the battlefield, and the fight is increasingly intense in Eastern Ukrainian cities like Bakhmut and Vuhledar. The discussion at the Munich conference was understandably about keeping Ukraine armed with the weapons it needs during the latest Russian offensive and in the weeks or months to come. But we also cannot lose sight of the larger geopolitical implications of any potential Russian gains. Indeed, our adversaries seem to be capitalizing on the uncertain global conditions to strengthen their alliances.

This week, for the first time in 20 years, an Iranian President traveled to China. President Xi Jinping gave a warm welcome to his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi and his large delegation, and lauded China’s “solidarity and cooperation” among the current complex geopolitical environment. Xi also called for the lifting of sanctions against Iran and remarked that he would support Iran’s efforts to safeguard its national sovereignty. At the same time, Xi assured Iran that he’d help reinvigorate negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal, and the two leaders signed cooperation agreements on items like agriculture and trade, and China’s traditional soft power initiatives like sports and culture.

Further, China and Iran are closely watching the Ukrainian battlefield to assess both the tactics of modern warfare and the political implications. Thanks to the Russians, Iranian drones are on exhibit in Ukraine, and US officials have noted that Iran is learning how the drones operate in different weather and circumstances, allowing the developers to refine the weapons for future use. The Iranians are also reportedly planning to build a drone factory several hundred miles outside of Moscow.

The Chinese are no doubt also noting which weapons are effective for an offensive on a neighboring state, and taking stock of the type of economic and political penalties facing Putin’s regime. Important lessons can be gleaned from Putin’s attempts to restock ammunition, troops, and political propaganda as the second year of his attack continues. Ukraine’s allies, too, must take stock of the previous year – recognizing that this battle is larger than the immediate region and increasing our support accordingly.

In Other News – Keeping Russia at Bay & More – 2/10/2023

February 10, 2023

Keeping Russia at bay one year into the war will require unrelenting political and physical will. This week, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy made a whirlwind tour of European capitals to express gratitude to his allies and secure more weapons for his troops. Zelenskyy also advocated for financial aid to run and reconstruct his nation, and to accelerate Ukraine’s membership in the European Union. It’s only the second time that Zelenskyy has traveled outside of Ukraine since the onset of the war, and it’s indicative of the pressure that the Ukrainian leader is facing. As the war enters its second year, sustaining financial, political, and technical support from allies will be essential to maintaining morale and keeping Ukrainian troops equipped to withstand the seemingly endless number of Russian soldiers flooding the East.

Russia is now upping its offensive and conducting missile strikes across multiple cities. Ukrainian analysts and officials report that the latest batch of Russian forces are better trained and equipped, and that fighting is expected to accelerate, particularly around the eastern city of Kreminna. The Russians hope to distract Ukrainian soldiers from Bakhmut, where the Ukrainians are actively fending off attack, and the Russians also want to use Kreminna as an access point to the larger strategic city of Lyman. Putin is reportedly planning to deliver his belated annual address to Russia’s Federal Assembly around February 21, close to the war’s anniversary, and it’s likely that he wants to report some tangible gains.

Indeed, Russia is also assaulting civilian infrastructure in the Donetsk and Kherson regions, and the threat of missile attacks throughout Ukraine remains of grave concern. This week, the Institute for the Study of War noted that Moscow has regained the initiative for the first time since this summer but had yet to score a major strategic gain. While Russia is clearly escalating, the outcome of its efforts remains uncertain, and Ukraine remains firm in its resolve to defend its territory. In the coming weeks, it will be more essential than ever for allies to support Ukraine both through weapons and technical support, as well as through forward-looking efforts to promote EU membership and reconstruction.

India is a critical but complicated counter to China. In recent years, the United States has strengthened its geopolitical and economic ties with India, primarily to support India as an economic alternative to China, but also purportedly because of overlapping values and ambitions. This year, India is serving at the helm of the G-20 and the Shanghai Cooperation, demonstrating the reach and strength of its current political positioning. India is also expected to become the world’s most populous nation over the next 12 months, and its economic ambitions are likewise accelerating.

But India is taking advantage of its strategic global position to first and foremost to promote its own national interests. This week, Russian energy executives attended the India Energy summit to ensure that Russian oil continues to find a key buyer there. Russia currently supplies the most oil of any nation to India, and this mutually beneficial dynamic is only going to reinforce the two nations’ longstanding political ties. Indeed, over the past year, India has become a top customer of Russian crude oil and notably, it doesn’t look like Washington is going to hold it against them. Likewise, India hasn’t faced repercussions for purchasing Russian weapons systems that would normally be under sanction.

While India continues to buy the Russian products, Prime Minister Modi and the Biden Administration are simultaneously collaborating on defense industrial initiatives and critical and emerging technologies. This includes supporting India’s semiconductor sector and a range of initiatives from AI to space. India is wary of Chinese encroachment, both physically on its Himalayan border and on the intelligence and technology fronts, and Washington is a strong ally in this regard.

But although India and the United States are aligned on their goal to curb Chinese aggression, India’s friendship with Russia, who is also a Chinese ally, complicates matters. There’s the risk that any information India shares with Russia will be shared with China, which would ultimately serve against its own best interest, and ours. Further, India’s domestic situation has been marred by an uptick in religious conflict and repressive social policies by the leading party line that has weakened democratic values and human rights within Indian borders. If India hopes to be a real counterweight to China on the global stage, both its political alliances and domestic policies will be factors for potential partners to consider.

In Other News – A View from Abroad – 2/3/2023

February 3, 2023

A view from Abroad
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.

Geopolitical changes are leading Japan to shift its foreign and defense policies, presenting opportunities for the European Union and the United States. In December, Japan approved a notable defense budget increase in line with the strategy outlined in its latest defense white paper. The updated strategy aims to both expand defense spending and enhance cooperation with likeminded partners. Japan’s primary security threats are North Korea, which is actively furthering its nuclear, missile and military capabilities, and China- whose increasingly aggressive military posture is a threat to many in the region. The increased military cooperation between Russia and China over the past year has only amplified Japan’s concerns.

The white paper denotes a significant shift in Japanese policy. Since WWII, Japan has pursued a pacifist and cautious foreign policy, relying heavily on Washington for its defense, including its nuclear umbrella. Japanese defense spending has been less than 1% of GDP, and even participation in UN peacekeeping missions was politically contentious, often limited to support and medical troops. But in the current international context, Japan feels that it’s necessary to “fundamentally reinforce its defense capabilities as the last guarantor of national security”- and Tokyo is updating its approach accordingly.

Of the multiple regional threats, China is Japan’s greatest security challenge. The active Japan-China dispute regarding ownership of the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands, strategically located between the two nations, demonstrates Japan’s vulnerability and frustration. Already twice in January, Chinese vessels have intruded into Japanese waters around the islands, putting Japan on-guard. China’s threats towards Taiwan and its claims on the South China sea have also been explicitly added to the list of contentious issues between the two countries.

As the white paper describes, the Japanese are hoping to address these threats first and foremost by bolstering self-defense via increased cooperation with likeminded countries. This includes upgrading relations with the United States, but also with Australia, India, and European allies, as well as many Southeast Asian countries who are likewise under threat of the Chinese claims on the South China Sea. Enhanced maritime and military cooperation are stated as clear goals.

Japan also wants to be able to deter an attack by developing a counter strike capability, which is where things really diverge from previous policy. Tokyo plans to double its budget in line with the current NATO target of 2% GDP (more than $300 billion), which will lead to enormous outside investments. Japan has a particular interest in cruise missiles, air and missile defense, cyber security, space defense, stockpiling ammunition, and fuel, and it’s also developing a policy on economic security, vis a vis dependence on China.

The new Japanese approach has momentum and has already translated into concrete action. In January, as incoming chair of the G7, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made a whirlwind tour of Italy, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. There, he quickly secured oral and written agreements about intensified defense and foreign policy cooperation in renewed strategic partnerships or alliances. This week, SG NATO Stoltenberg visited Japan and concluded a joint declaration with Kishida on enhancing cooperation, building upon various developments in the past two months.

For the EU, it makes sense to support Japan’s more assertive defense posture on both the political and economic levels. In the short term, the EU and allies are concerned with Russia’s naked aggression against Ukraine, but in the long-run China will offer the West a systemic challenge. With the need to strengthen its defense against this adversary, Japan will look to European companies for equipment, especially in areas where United States is not the preferred and established supplier. A good example of this is the joint development by UK, Italy and Japan of a next generation fighter jet in the program called “Tempest”, announced last December.

Japan is also leaning into global initiatives that aim to limit China’s prowess. Just this week, the Japanese joined the Washington-led initiative to further restrict what chip-making equipment can be sold to China, and more of these agreements are anticipated. Further, as Japan, and others, adapt policies to increase self-defense in areas ranging from military equipment to food and supply chain, EU and Western alliances are likely to expand, and leaders in Moscow and Beijing will be increasingly confronted with the unanticipated ramifications of their aggression and partnership.