In Other News – The Imperfection of the UN – 9-22-2023

September 22, 2023

This week’s United Nations General Assembly highlighted the challenges that international institutions are facing and portends further unraveling. While the stated goal of the United Nations (UN) to maintain international peace and security might be inherently aspirational, global leaders have often overlooked the organization’s imperfection because the UN was the only real space for multiple parties- even with conflicting viewpoints – to sit at the same table and be heard.

But on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy laid bare the shortcomings of the United Nations when he remarked to Security Council members that “Ukrainian soldiers now are doing at the expense of their blood what the U.N. Security Council should do by its voting. They’re stopping aggression and upholding the principles of the U.N. Charter.” Other leaders like Brazilian President Lula also highlighted that the Security Council hadn’t taken a firm enough stance against its permanent members who “wage unauthorized wars.” And ironically, even Russian representative Sergey Lavrov preposterously expressed frustration with the UN- commenting that members weren’t adhering to the UN Charter because they were interfering in the “internal” affairs of other nations.

Indeed, that Russia is currently at the helm of the UN Security Council demonstrates how the application of collectivist policies can undermine the very institution that it is meant to uphold. Nonetheless, for decades the UN has played a significant role in non-military areas like humanitarian aid and education. It’s also provided the leading forum for international dialogue at the highest levels, often among real adversaries, and its members are united by a Charter that at least attempts to provide an ethical compass. After existing for decades, and due to its size and scope, the UN carries a sort of gravitas that demands countries pay attention.

This year, however, the heads of state of China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom, didn’t attend the annual UN General Assembly. While their absence might have been due to conflicting commitments or more immediate priorities, when important people don’t show up to the meeting it sends a signal about the impact of the event and the institution behind it. Notably, while some UN members are clearly frustrated with the organization’s shortcomings in preventing or resolving military conflict, others have been looking to other institutions to provide for many of their geopolitical needs.

For example, instead of depending on UN peacekeeping missions to keep the peace in parts of Africa, national leaders there have increasingly turned to private military groups like the Wagner Group to ensure some degree of regional stability. To help with economic growth and infrastructure developments, some nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America have looked to China to provide loans that don’t come with any ethical demands- simply financial ones. Indeed, there’s been a gradual geopolitical shift where nations, particularly in the Global South, have been looking for alternatives to Western-dominated institutions, and Chinese President Xi is ready at the plate.

President Xi seems to be simultaneously promoting alternatives to Western-led initiatives and downplaying the significance of the current ones. Since taking office in 2012, Xi has attended every G-20 meeting- but he didn’t show up to the most recent one a few weeks ago. While it could be that Xi is dealing with other issues, or that he was trying to snub India, more likely he’s making a statement that the multinational forums he can dominate – like the Belt and Road forum and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization- are the ones worth attending. And it’s convenient that Xi is presenting alternative alliances while geopolitical realignment – spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – is readily underway.

While these nascent alliances, including groups like the recently expanded BRICS, might present a quasi-alternative to Western dominance, they lack key components of the UN. All nations will act in their own self-interest, but the purpose of longstanding international organizations like the UN is to discuss how these actions impact others and make some concessions that will ultimately benefit all involved. Critically, some of the more significant new alliances take a narrow economic view and don’t include states with conflicting geopolitical priorities- eliminating essential voices that require a more inclusive forum. And despite the UN’s shortcomings, these new formations don’t have the key goals for peace, prosperity, health, or climate action – which will ultimately undermine their long-term viability.

The Arkin Group is a strategic intelligence firm offering investigative research, due diligence, international risk and crisis consulting, and security & preparedness services. We can be contacted at 212-333-0280.

In Other News – A View from Abroad – 9-14-2023

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.

China’s ambitions are bumping up against reality, but it’s unclear if President Xi will reverse course this far down the line. It has been widely reported that the Chinese economy is in trouble- replete with high youth unemployment, a real estate crisis, and the exit of critical private investors. Non-performing loans and debt overload at the local government level, Chinese consumers who are saving vs spending, and an aging population due to the One Child policy era, are further contributing to China’s economic stagnation. Indeed, regardless of the official state claim that there’s no problem, China has fallen below the double-digit economic growth it needs to provide for its society- and there’s real concern within both the Chinese and international communities about how President Xi is going to handle the challenging economic reality.

The Chinese government has thus far reacted to the threat in classic communist fashion: state censors have proclaimed that terms like “deflation” and “capital flight”, which might affect confidence in the Chinese economy, cannot be used anymore. Youth employment statistics are no longer being shared. Official rhetoric has increasingly become “us vs. the West”, but collaboration with the West has been an essential component of China’s economic growth, and it’s unlikely China will be able to sustain the necessary growth it now needs without it. Indeed, President Xi can’t simply make these problems go away by silencing dissent and attempting to frame the world order in black and white terms.

President Xi’s reputation is intrinsically connected to how well China does economically. For years, he has consolidated power by sidelining opponents, battling corruption, and enhancing his personal control of Communist Party institutions like the army and press. Xi has amassed an amount of control we haven’t seen since Mao Zedong times- Xi even abolished his own term limits and moved away from the collective decision making installed by Deng Xiaoping after the demise of Mao and the disasters of the Cultural Revolution. While this concentration of power has led to the possibility of quick executive decision making, it has made China ever more reliant on the whims of its new emperor.

President Xi’s ambitions are also on display internationally, where he is similarly trying to amass control. He’s had some luck with Russia, where under sanctions Putin has been providing China with cheap oil and gas that serve as de facto tributes to the emperor. Along the same lines, many countries, particularly in Africa, have become more dependent on Beijing because of their dependence on low interest and condition-free based loans from China. This kind of financial dependence on China has in turn led many of these countries to support China at the United Nations in New York and at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Indeed, Xi’s intention is not to build a new international system but to hollow-out the current one. Xi’s recent and notable absences at major world forums like the G-20 are indicative of this vision: instead of framing China as an alternative to the West, or even a complement, Xi wants to show that the current system only matters when he’s at the helm. Over time, Xi’s been trying to lay the foundation for a new order by taking soft power measures like giving financial gifts to poor nations, which readily leads to corruption in the receiving nations, and modeling how a dictator can gain power via political and technical suppression. As part of this imperial effort, Xi is either going to stick with and try to dominate certain global institutions, or simply ignore them and create his own.

Initially, Xi framed his international program under the “One Belt, One Road Initiative” and now he is using the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, and the Global Civilization Initiative as groups that he can dominate. This builds on earlier cooperative efforts such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), the SCO (Security Cooperation Organization in central Asia) and the G77 (the group of around 133 developing counties at the UN in New York) to consolidate and enhance China’s international position. Indeed, the recent decision for the BRICS to include six additional countries – Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, KSA, UAE – does not enhance the democratic value of its participants but gives China an additional platform to influence other countries. Within the group, China’s influence is overwhelming: after enlargement China will hold around 62% of the total GDP of all members.

But as much as Xi clout’s might be rising in certain circles, the threat of China’s overreach looms large at the horizon. It’s not going to be easy for Xi when developing countries stop paying interest to China on their outstanding loans, and China doesn’t have the kind of friends who will bolster the nation as it tries to regroup economically. Further, the more that China rises on the global stage, the more opposing nations will unite to form an effective counterweight in the balance of power- as displayed by the recent US-Japan-South Korea summit and the rapprochement of the US and the European Union. India, too, isn’t going to take China’s latest territorial claims and notable attendance snubs lightly.

And ultimately, while the political position of President Xi is stable, secure and, almost by definition, uncontested, the extent to which he can leverage his position both nationally and internationally will be determined by the Chinese economy. In the short term, China has made such enormous economic progress in the past few decades that Xi can build upon what the nation has achieved. But longer term, low economic growth – like that of Japan’s zero growth economy after the booming seventies – could lead to serious systemic challenges and limit what China can do internationally. It’s now up to Xi to decide if his ambitions will lead him to further step-out of the very system that supported China’s rise, or if he’ll reverse course and realize that strategic collaboration might be key to preserving his economy – and legacy.

The Arkin Group is a strategic intelligence firm offering investigative research, due diligence, international risk and crisis consulting, and security & preparedness services. We can be contacted at 212-333-0280.

In Other News – Renewed Hope in Ukraine – 9/8/2023

September 8, 2023

With a shakeup of the leadership of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry and the successful breach of the Russia’s first line of defense near Robotyne, there is renewed hope in Kyiv that its war effort will take on fresh momentum. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken was the first to reiterate international support with his surprise visit and $1 billion military aid package and this on the heels of committing the long-sought F16s. NATO commander Jens Stoltenberg was quick to follow stating, “We need to be with Ukraine, not only good times but also bad times… Because to support Ukraine is not an option.” Ukraine’s months-long slog to reach this milestone is more meaningful than many appreciate. In doing so, it has threatened critical Russian command centers and logistic hubs and imposed a major cost of attrition for Russia in troops and weapons, all the while doing its best to preserve Ukrainian forces.

The goal is to disrupt Russia’s strategic land bridge to Crimea, which would cut Crimea off from the rest of Russia and restore Ukraine’s critical access to the Sea of Azov. Russia for its part reportedly redeployed some of its strongest units from Donetsk to the Zaporizhzhia region to buttress against this breach and, more tellingly, is engaged in a world-wide campaign to amass more weapons and soldiers. Slating a meeting with North Korean despot Kim Jong-Un is the latest development in Putin’s trend of courting global pariahs in a coalition of the outcast (Iranian drones are now a critical aspect of Russian military armaments). Cuba is the latest country after Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan to criticize Moscow for poaching its nationals to fight in Ukraine. (Ukraine for its part also further restricted its policies on who is exempt from fighting for medical reasons.)

While many believe that Putin’s strategy is to hold out until the next American election cycle with the hope that a new American administration would curb support for Ukraine, there are indications that Russia’s current situation is quite dire, making a 16 months-long time frame even more of a gamble. The Russian economy is in serious decline, and it now needs to turn to private military contracts via the Wagner Group and other Russia private militias like Convoy, Redut, and Patriot and their quid pro quo mineral/diamonds/metal/energy/timber extraction contracts in Africa to fund its war. This too is quite risky given that in the same period that Wagner took over security in Mali, ISIS has doubled its territory in the region. So, Russia may soon be mired in counter-insurgency campaigns in Africa in addition to dealing with the regional instability it has endeavored to unleash via a robust and sustained disinformation campaign. The slate of Russia-encouraged coups spanning the continent from Guinea to Sudan in the past six years shows that Russia’s core strategic tenet is to maximize its influence in Africa and pillage for profit for Russian interests.

In addition to the disruptive and brutal world view that Putin advances, the likely refugee crisis to emerge from this sub-Saharan adventurism will be a further burden on Europe and should further galvanize Europe and its allies to continue its support for Ukraine. For their part, African leaders should be weary of what Russia is offering. Just as China’s Belt and Road has become an ominous shackle of debt, Russia’s “anti-colonial” support may usher in a period of great instability. What these recent events portend, is that the West’s conflict with Russia is escalating in intensity and expanding into new geographies and theatres increasing the risk of conflagration.

The Arkin Group is a strategic intelligence firm offering investigative research, due diligence, international risk and crisis consulting, and security & preparedness services. We can be contacted at 212-333-0280.

In Other News – Monthly Op-Ed – 8/31/2023

August 31, 2023

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.

What Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is revealing about modern diplomacy. Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine a year and a half ago, the international media has been carefully tracking the military aspects of the war. And battlefield developments, including most recently the deaths of Wagner Group military leaders, the Ukrainian counteroffensive, drone attacks on Moscow and the delivery of increasingly sophisticated arms to Ukraine, continue to grab the headlines. But in the background, diplomatic efforts to enhance political support for Ukraine have also been playing a role, and it’s worth assessing where they’ve had the greatest impact so far.

Although a vast majority of United Nations member states are supportive of Ukraine- as demonstrated at multiple voting sessions at the UN General Assembly and other international forums since the onset of the war, diplomatic pressures to contain Russia do not appear to have significantly shifted Putin’s calculus. Putin has continued to wage a brutal war, with civilians as ready targets, and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight. Where diplomacy has made a real impact, however, has been in the realm of bolstering Putin’s opposition and over time making Putin less appealing to the nations that had tried to remain neutral by abstaining during UN votes.

For example, diplomatic measures undertaken by Ukrainian allies to ensure that Ukrainian soldiers continue to receive arms and training have been essential to Ukraine’s ongoing defense. That Finland and Sweden are both becoming NATO members is also a diplomatic win that limits Putin’s reach and regional status. Incorporating allies like South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand further into the NATO mix has also sent a strong signal that there are multiple, powerful nations that are willing to stand-up against those who defy territorial sovereignty.

Further, over the past year and a half, we’ve also seen that diplomatic efforts to encourage more neutral nations to support Ukraine appear most effective when Russia’s own decisions are hindering those nations. For example, in early August both India and China participated in a diplomatic gathering in Saudi Arabia designed to outline some parameters for peace talks moving forward. Russia was not in attendance, but over 40 UN member states were there. And it’s likely that some of the more neutral countries were willing to attend because Putin’s actions have been harming the economic health of their own respective regions- a sentiment reflected by the South African President who stated in June that “This conflict is affecting Africa negatively.”

While the Saudi meeting didn’t produce any readily tangible results, Moscow must have been uncomfortable with leaders from places like India, China and South Africa engaging in an open discussion with a large group of countries that fully support Ukraine– particularly during a time when Russian allies and adversaries are both being negatively impacted by Putin’s withdrawal from the Black Sea grain deal. The fact that nations like China and India both participated and agreed to continue their discussions regarding a Russia-Ukraine peace deal is notable given their more hands-off nature at the beginning of the war.

The Saudi meeting also demonstrated how the role and form of diplomacy has been evolving more broadly. The widespread participation indicates that Saudi Arabia is back on the international scene, after it was ostracized with the killing of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Indeed, Saudi has cultivated relations with China by selling enormous amounts of oil to the country, and at the same time has kept the communication with Moscow open in a feat of diplomatic savvy.

It’s also notable that the Saudi meeting took place at the National Security Advisor level, and not at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs level. Further, this might have been the first major international meeting where the meeting results were only published in a tweet – and one that just generally stated that conversations would continue. These developments indicate that there are multiple levels of diplomacy at play, that many nations have a stake in the outcome, and that diffuse consequences of the war have led to diffuse ways to address it. As the military battle wages on, diplomatic measures will likewise continue to evolve alongside of, and with an eye towards influencing, what happens on the battlefield.

The Arkin Group is a strategic intelligence firm offering investigative research, due diligence, international risk and crisis consulting, and security & preparedness services. We can be contacted at 212-333-0280.

In Other News – Putin’s Revenge – 8-25-2023

August 25, 2023

Putin wasn’t confident that he could punish Yevgeny Prigozhin in a traditional Russian show trial without an unpredictable reaction. Instead, in an emotion-driven attempt to reclaim his strongman image, Putin resorted to a dramatic act of violence against him. When Yevgeny Prigozhin led Wagner troops on a march towards Moscow in late June- shooting down multiple Russian military aircraft in the process- he humiliated Vladimir Putin and exposed cracks within the broader Russian elite. On August 23, two months after that event, Putin enacted his revenge when a plane carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin and other Wagner leaders reportedly exploded and crashed in the Tver region northwest of Moscow. Putin should have been able to punish Prigozhin by arresting him, putting him on trial for treason, and exacting the punishment he desired. But Putin seemingly wasn’t confident that he’d have control over that process. Instead, in a sign of apparent weakness, Putin elected for a quick, violent act handled by a limited number of his inner circle.

Putin was also driven by his need to reclaim his strongman image and so a dramatic, violent event appealed to his thug instincts. But with this decision, like many others, Putin was driven by raw emotion, not strategy. For months, as the war in Ukraine has continued with no end in sight and the Russian economy has been in steady decline, Putin has been taking extreme measures to quash any form of dissent. Notably, in addition to threatening, imprisoning, or killing Russian political dissidents or journalists opposed to the Ukraine invasion, Putin’s been increasingly targeting ultranationalists like Prigozhin and his supporters. The very individuals who’ve loyally done Putin’s dirty work for him in places like Chechnya, Syria, and Ukraine are now susceptible to receiving the same violent treatment they’ve been delivering on his behalf.

In late June, Putin arrested Igor Girkin, a Russian-born FSB officer and hardliner who played a key role in the initial Russian-annexation of Crimea and numerous other horrific acts like the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Ironically, Putin charged Girkin with terrorism. And on August 23, the same day as the plane crash, “General Armageddon” Surovikin, who is renowned by many Russian hardliners for his battlefield tactics, was fired from his role as Commander in Chief of the Russian Aerospace Forces- a role he’s held for years. Surovikin was ostensibly punished for being close to Prigozhin and his awareness of Wagner’s plans to march on Moscow. Other Russian nationalists like Dmitry Utkin – the head of Wagner’s combat operations, and Valery Chekalov- Wagner’s logistical lead, were also reportedly killed in the plane crash.

But it’s not lost on hardliners – and on many discontented members of the Russian military- that Prigozhin and Surovikin were some of the more effective military leaders in Ukraine. In fact, when Prigozhin returned to Rostov on Don after the mutiny, he was greeted with a hero’s welcome. And Putin might have just unintentionally turned Prigozhin into a symbol of martyrdom – there are already echoes on Telegram from Wagner groups and others that are espousing Prigozhin as a truthteller who understood the dynamics on the ground better than anyone. Indeed, Prigozhin was a useful instrument that Putin forgot how to play.

While some political pundits are arguing that the plane crash will reconsolidate power for Putin, it’s more likely that Russia has just entered a new era of retribution and violence that will impact both Putin’s friends and foes. By demonstrating that he’s willing to kill close former loyalists and their associates, Putin’s friends should be concerned for what their future might hold. Ironically, the more that Putin yields to his violent tendencies, the more paranoid, distracted, and ineffective his intelligence, military, and siloviki could become.

Further, Putin was already operating with bad intelligence when he first invaded Ukraine, and now he’s less likely than ever to get the information he needs to make a strategic decision. It could put an individual at great personal risk to tell Putin something that he doesn’t want to hear. Ultimately, instead of bolstering his intelligence network, and attempting to make sound, strategic decisions, Putin has allowed his emotions to expand a war against Ukrainians to include violent conflict among Russians. And this tense dynamic among the elite in Russia will not be easily resolved by one vengeful act against Prigozhin. In addition, as more and more Russian bodies are returned from the battlefield and the economic impact of the war reaches far beyond the immediate circle of the elite, the internal division is only likely to increase.

For more on the role of covert action and the concept of a “just war”, please check out the recent session with Johns Hopkins University, MS in Intelligence Analysis Program:

Spying and Covert Action Made Simple featuring Jack Devine

In Other News – Russia, China, and the Global South’s Economic Agency – 8/17/2023

August 17, 2023

With the Chinese and Russian economies in significant flux, nations in the Global South are increasingly looking for new ways to engage and protect their interests. Just as the global economy was starting to show signs of recovery post-Covid, Russia launched a war on Ukraine that has had great ramifications on geopolitics and economic stability worldwide. Indeed, because of global interdependence on food, materials, access to energy and natural resources, regional conflicts now have an impact far beyond their borders. Threats like terrorism and climate change are also inherently transnational. While the current political upheaval in places like Niger, Libya, and Pakistan might not be directly attributable to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war has opened a door for geopolitical realignment.

This week, we’ve been watching as Russia takes measures to curb a falling ruble and China grapples with its own economic downturn. Of concern to both nations is how to navigate the intersection between economic security and national security. On Thursday, the Chinese State Council said that it would be taking steps to encourage greater foreign investment and improve the operating environment for private firms to help offset its faltering real estate sector and burgeoning youth unemployment. But with national security measures like a sweeping anti-espionage underpinned by raids on some key foreign consulting companies, international businesses aren’t rushing into China. It’s uncertain what further steps the Chinese will take to mitigate the risk of prolonged stagnation, but they’ll need to carefully weigh their domestic concerns against global ambitions.

Russia is likely to feel the fallout of China’s economic woes as well. Since the onset of the war in Ukraine, China has been a Russian ally – with the looming question of whether President Xi would be willing to help Putin with resources or weapons. While this material support has yet to overtly become a reality, it seems increasingly unlikely that China would supply Russia with any substantial equipment or other cost-intensive measures. If anything, we might see China exert more pressure on Russia to figure out how to end the war quickly because the consequent instability is putting China’s own economy at greater risk. China’s diplomatic trips to Russia and Belarus this week on the heels of its participation in the Saudi-led peace talks further suggests that Chinese diplomatic maneuverings are in the works.

Russia, meanwhile, has its own domestic economic concerns that are likely to further put Putin in the hot seat among his own cohort. In response to a plummeting ruble, this week Russia’s Central Bank raised interest rates to 12%. The ruble’s weak status among major world currencies isn’t going to be easily glossed over by Russian propagandists – even if the bank tried to explain that the fall was due to “inflationary pressure” caused by outsized domestic demands relative to output capacity. More likely, the ruble’s fall can be attributed to a combination of factors, including a labor shortage due to young men fleeing the country to avoid conscription, and the impact of Western sanctions.

Indeed, sanctions aim to make the political and economic cost of the war untenable, and we’re starting to see this play out. Russia’s energy revenues are down nearly 50% year on year due to a Western cap on oil and ban on Russian gas in addition to Chinese and Indian discount purchasing. Sanctions are also a huge barrier for foreign investment, even countries who are seemingly trying to remain neutral do not want to run afoul of sanctions regimes. Moscow’s overall trade imbalance and flight of foreign investment are also impacting tax revenues, which comes at a time where Russia is doubling its spending on the war to nearly $100 billion a year. Some 30% of all central budgetary expenses are now going towards a war that seems to be predicated on a Russian strategy to draw out until the next U.S. election, which seems a very perilous strategy given the real numbers.

While Russia and China grapple with their own problems, leaders of the Global South are working to position themselves without dependency on any single global power. Indeed, we’re seeing how key nations like Brazil and Nigeria are actively engaging in and leading their own international institutions, whether it be the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) or the West African ECOWAS coalition, respectively. Next week, many leaders of the Global South will gather in South Africa for the BRICS conference, where Putin will be notably absent among the global leaders. And we can expect that behind the discussion for economic agency, many of the participants will likely be thinking about Chinese investment differently given China’s economic struggles, and debating whether supporting Putin still makes sense given the widespread instability that his war continues to unleash.

The Arkin Group is a strategic intelligence firm offering investigative research, due diligence, international risk and crisis consulting, and security & preparedness services. We can be contacted at 212-333-0280.

In Other News – Unrest in the Sahel – 8/10/2023

August 10, 2023

In Niger, a coup underpinned by anti-French sentiment makes space for Russia, but Putin isn’t the partner the junta is hoping for. On July 26, the democratically elected leader of Niger, President Mohamed Bazoum, was overthrown by a military junta- the latest in a wave of coups in West Africa over the past few years. Bazoum is known as an ally of the West and a dependable partner in the fight against Islamic extremism. The United States has over 1,000 military personnel in Niger to help counter ISIS and Al Qaeda threats and encourage democratic rule and regional stability, and France also moved over 1,000 personnel to Niger in the aftermath of coups in Mali and Burkina Faso.

But when there are coups in former French colonies in the Sahel, France is usually the first target. Already, the military junta in Niger has revoked military cooperation agreements with France, although the fate of the US personnel remains undetermined. Nigeriens claim many grievances against the French, including accusations that the French continuously meddle in Niger’s political system to ensure that a French-friendly leader is at the helm. Niger is also one of the poorest countries in the world, and some Nigeriens suggest that the French have been exploiting Niger’s natural resources like Uranium.

Regardless of the validity of the grievances held by many in Niger, however, Russia is in no way a better alternative to France. Upon witnessing the coup, Russian-affiliated Wagner Group leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin was quick to blame the political upheaval on the colonial legacy and sympathize with the coup leaders. He then moved right on to business- promoting his services and touting Wagner’s efforts to contain violent Islamic groups that are prominent in the border area where Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger meet.

But Wagner forces operating in Africa are notorious for grave human rights abuses, including the harassment of aid workers, journalists, peacekeepers, and minorities in the region. Wagner has also been responsible for numerous atrocities against civilians and is known for its use of excessive violence. In its justification for sanctioning the group, the US Treasury describes how Wagner personnel are engaged “in an ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions, and physical abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali.”

In addition to the many problems with Wagner, Russia is itself in no position to serve as an economic or political alternative to the West. In 2019, when Russia tried to reignite ties at the first Russia-Africa summit, Putin relied on historic and personal connections from the Soviet period, as well as promising trade offers that didn’t depend on political conditions. It was an optimistic time for those involved, and over 40 African heads of state attended the event in Sochi.

But since then, much of Africa’s economic calculus has shifted: at the Russia-Africa summit held last month, only 17 African heads of state attended. Instead of living up to the promises of the first summit, Russia’s trade with Africa has been declining since 2020- while African trade with the EU has nearly doubled. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has only amplified this dynamic, with both the Kremlin’s money and focus diverted to attacking its neighbor. And with the ruble now struggling, Russia is more unlikely than ever to live up to the financial promises that it just made.

Further, even if many African nations mistakenly admire Putin for “standing up” to the West, the war has revealed that Russia is neither a regional nor global powerhouse. Last weekend, leaders from influential nations like India and China met in Saudi Arabia to discuss the parameters for a Ukraine-Russia peace plan- and Russia was not invited. Putin isn’t even going to be physically attending the BRICS summit coming up in late August in South Africa, as there’s an active International Criminal Court warrant out for his arrest. Putin’s withdrawal from the Black Sea grain deal only further distances Russia from African allies and others who depend on these critical products moving freely.

It remains to be seen if Niger will join Russia among the global cohort of autocratic states, but right now the stakes are high. The situation unfolding in the Sahel is reminiscent of the Cold War where Africa was a battleground for power. Should Niger fall under Russian influence, it would be a set-back for both the United States and democratic allies worldwide.

The Arkin Group is a strategic intelligence firm offering investigative research, due diligence, international risk and crisis consulting, and security & preparedness services. We can be contacted at 212-333-0280.

In Other News – Putin’s Weakness – 8/4/2023

August 4, 2023

Putin often behaves in an unpredictable way, but it’s a sign of weakness and reveals his lack of strategic thinking. When Russia first invaded Ukraine, there was a lot of discussion about how Putin was weaponizing energy and the consequences this would have for Russia’s major customers, like Germany. But Putin’s also been playing with the weaponization of food since the onset of the war, and he recently doubled down when he withdrew from the Black Sea grain deal. Unlike Putin’s weaponization of energy, however, weaponizing grain winds-up hurting the economies of some of Russia’s key allies, not its adversaries. It’s clear that Putin’s making this decision from a position of weakness.

While Russia’s been attacking grain ports in Odesa for several weeks, with grave consequences on global food access, on Wednesday Russia shifted and attacked an inland port on the Danube River that had seemingly been granted some degree of protection due to its location and proximity to NATO member state Romania. And according to Ukraine’s infrastructure ministry, this week’s attacks on the Izmail port damaged almost 40,000 tons of grain destined to countries in Africa, as well as China and Israel. Global food prices also spiked in response to the destruction.

It’s possible that the Izmail attacks were in retaliation for a notable event on Sunday where three civilian cargo ships, registered to Israel, Greece, and Turkey-Georgia respectively, defied Putin’s Black Sea blockade to anchor at Izmail. But given the general uptick in attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, Izmail was probably an increasingly appealing target regardless. It will be instructive to see, however, if there are any direct repercussions for Israel/Greece/Turkey/Georgia for their defiant act, or if Putin will be forced to ignore the discretion.

Indeed, it’s a common theme since the onset of the war that Putin hasn’t been responding to acts of opposition in the way that many anticipate. For example, one of the primary arguments for not providing Ukraine with more sophisticated, heavy Western weaponry over the course of the past year and half was that Putin would do something drastic. But so far, every time new weapons are delivered it’s just been more of the same from Russia. Along similar lines, when Yevgeniy Prigozhin decided to launch a short-lived mutiny and march towards Moscow, many thought that Prigozhin was a dead man walking. But right now, instead of being locked-up or killed, Prigozhin appears to be coordinating Wagner fighters in Belarus and Africa.

While direct repercussions for defying Putin appear strangely absent, the indirect repercussions of the war are wide-ranging. These repercussions are felt by countries in the African Sahel region, like Niger, where Prigozhin is being supportive of the anti-democratic leaders of the recent coup. And repercussions are felt by many countries who rely on a stable supply of grain and oil, like India, who recently decided to participate in the upcoming Saudi-led peace summit that’s being held this weekend in Jeddah.

Indeed, diplomats from key countries in the Global South like India, Brazil and South Africa are expected to attend the summit, and even China is likely attending. Notably, Russia is not on the invite list. The summit will likely try to develop a set of shared principles for framing future peace talks, and while no peace will ever be established without Russian involvement, Russian allies who’ve been feeling the many negative repercussions of the war will be taking the peace discussions seriously. Putin can thank his own lack of strategic vision for the complaints and pressure he gets from his allies afterwards.

The Arkin Group is a strategic intelligence firm offering investigative research, due diligence, international risk and crisis consulting, and security & preparedness services. We can be contacted at 212-333-0280.

In Other News – A View from Abroad – 7/27/2023

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 recent NATO summit succeeded in solidifying the alliance’s goals – now it’s time for implementation.

In mid-July, NATO leaders assembled in Vilnius, Lithuania at a meeting where painstaking diplomatic preparations and intense deliberations yielded ambitious results. While the summit gave a clear political signal of unity and opposition against Russia, the NATO commitments likely fell short of Ukraine’s expectations. However, the total package was better than many Ukrainian allies had expected, and it included commitments to provide Kyiv with ongoing political support as well as arms, munitions, supplies, and training. It also made provisions for a simplified NATO accession process for Ukraine.

The additional G7 commitment to Ukraine’s security gave broader security guarantees than ever before, and in the process asserted the G7’s position as the new geopolitical force to be reckoned with. The G7 has expanded from the economic domain to include geopolitics, and this will further allow Japan to contribute to the alliance’s shared goals. Indeed, the presence of Japan, Australia, South Korea, and New Zealand during the summit demonstrates new partnerships among nations who will defend the most basic principles of the UN Charter. NATO’s increased attention to the security threat posed by China, and the nuclear threat of North-Korea, will also serve to bolster the partnerships.

Other significant results of the NATO summit likewise reflect the new security paradigm that Russia’s invasion has elicited. The summit was the first for Finland to formally attend as a member, and Sweden attended as an observer. Turkish President Erdogan’s last-minute decision to lift his blockade of Sweden’s accession, which he did under the heavy pressure of major NATO countries, will lead to a stronger security alliance and create a solid defensive block in the north of Europe that can better deter Moscow.

Notably, Sweden and Finland were previously associated with the negotiations for the Nuclear Ban Treaty in 2017, but both nations have now acceded to an alliance that regards nuclear deterrence as a critical part of its security strategy. Naiveté and clean hands policy days are over. Strengthening the enhanced forward presence in Eastern Europe is another clear signal to Moscow: do not mess with us.

The summit also brought NATO “back to its core business” of defending its member states under the Article 5 commitment: an attack on one is an attack on all. The days of prioritizing out of area operations, like Afghanistan, are over. The focus is now on collective defense against the Russian threat, and the renewed commitment for members to spend 2% of GDP on defense – as a minimum requirement but not a ceiling – are defining a new era.

Streamlining the organization of NATO and the defense production plan will also help to ensure that regional industry will be able to fill current needs and shortfalls. Between Covid-19 and Russia, NATO states know that reliable production and supply chains are essential to security. Further, the commitment to improve economic resilience also highlights the political dimension of NATO – the primary transatlantic foreign policy forum – in response to the long-term challenge posed by China.

The summit launched us into a new era, but it’s now time for implementation. Next steps will include the formal ratification of Sweden’s membership request by Turkey, payment of a minimum 2% defense spending by all allies, converting the new NATO strategy into concrete plans and action, delivering on the package for Ukraine, smart outreach by the G7 and NATO countries towards Africa, Asia, and South America, and the conclusion of bilateral agreements to underpin the commitments to Ukraine.

The goals are broad and ambitious, but in a security environment replete with threats from Russia as a nuclear power, the motivation will likely translate into action. Indeed, while NATO was once declared ‘brain dead’ by French president Macron, it has been re-invigorated and re-energized by Putin’s attack on Ukraine. Next year, many NATO states will face elections that could lead to policy changes in the capitals involved. But the stronger NATO is, the better it will be able to withstand political whims and remain the cornerstone defense of its member states and their citizens, and our shared democratic values.

The Arkin Group is a strategic intelligence firm offering investigative research, due diligence, international risk and crisis consulting, and security & preparedness services. We can be contacted at 212-333-0280.

In Other News – Putin Determined to Maintain Control – 7-21-2023

July 21, 2023

After a short-lived mutiny, Putin is determined to maintain control, but his methods could turn his allies against him. In the aftermath of last month’s Wagner Group mutiny led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, Vladimir Putin has been making every effort to demonstrate strength and unity among the Russian elite. But as noted by the leader of the British foreign intelligence service MI6 this week, while Putin may have cut a deal with Prigozhin to save face, the episode exposed deeper fractures within the Kremlin that will be harder to glaze over. To compensate, Putin is increasing his attacks on Ukraine and distancing himself further from international standards of conduct. And what’s he doing now is likely to resonate far beyond borders.

Putin doesn’t seem to know exactly what to do with Prigozhin, or with other influential individuals like the brutal but relatively competent Prigozhin ally General Sergey Surovikin. While Putin met with Prigozhin a few days after the mutiny, Surovikin reportedly hasn’t been seen since June 24. Prigozhin’s status, however, also remains cloudy. This week, two Telegram channels linked to the Wagner Group showed footage that appeared to depict Prigozhin speaking to his mercenary fighters at a training camp in Belarus. But in the video, instead of offering any type of repentance, Prigozhin reiterated his statement that Russia’s military conduct in Ukraine has been disgraceful, and that Wagner fighters should prepare to double-down on efforts in Africa.

While Prigozhin’s fate remains unclear, it’s certain that Putin is painstakingly taking his frustration out on Ukraine. Over the past several days, Russia has pummeled Odesa with missile strikes in a shameless attack on infrastructure and civilians that is notable even in a battle replete with war crimes. The Odesa attacks were ostensibly in retaliation for the surprise Ukrainian drone attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge, but were no doubt designed to make a statement of power. The bridge, which connects mainland Russia to Crimea, is both physically and symbolically important for Putin who personally announced the construction of the bridge immediately after Russia’s illegal annexation of the peninsula in 2014.

For the Ukrainians to even come close to damaging the Kerch bridge shows just how determined and competent the Ukrainian forces are, and how gravely Russia, and many others, underestimated their strength at the initial time of Russia’s invasion. While the Ukrainian counteroffensive is expected by most military analysts to be a drawn-out process focused on incremental gains, even approaching an attack on such a sensitive Russian target is remarkable. Viewed under a wider lens, just preventing a Russian victory is an accomplishment, and Ukraine’s allies should recognize this with their continued support.

Putin’s alleged retaliatory hits on Odesa, however, in concert with his recent withdrawal from the Black Sea grain deal, also show just how far he’ll go to try and shore up control at home. Simultaneous to these physical attacks on Ukraine, the Russian State Duma was approving a bill that will expand the capacity of the National Guard to use military-grade fighting equipment. Expected to be adopted into law, the National Guard will use the heavier weapons to do things like “ensure security during mass unrest” and “suppress resistance from armed individuals refusing to comply with legal requirements” within Russia.

As Putin tightens his grip on his own population and takes measures to assert military strength, Russia continues to benefit from the support of many in the Global South. But with Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal, and the anticipated mayhem in the Black Sea, Putin is more likely to be seen as the force behind the coming food shortages, resulting famines and refugee flows. And even if leaders in the Global South don’t blame Putin exclusively, he’ll be under increased pressure to rectify the situation for their benefit. Indeed, Putin’s actions this week are a testament to just how rattled he is- and to the grave measures he’s willing to take to maintain control.

The Arkin Group is a strategic intelligence firm offering investigative research, due diligence, international risk and crisis consulting, and security & preparedness services. We can be contacted at 212-333-0280.