In Other News – A View from Abroad – 5-25-2023

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.

The upcoming NATO Summit provides an opportunity for NATO members to support Ukraine’s security, even without membership. Ukraine’s security depends on countering both immediate and long-term threats and NATO’s strategy should reflect this.

European leaders have updated their outlook since Russia first invaded Ukraine last year: where before the predominant view was that Russia must not win and Ukraine must not lose, this view has since shifted to the Russia must lose, and Ukraine must win. This shift, combined with the demonstrated strength of Ukraine’s military and Putin’s intolerable disregard for respecting international law and territorial sovereignty, make a political solution to the conflict untenable at present. But to promote future regional security, NATO needs to determine not only how to sustain Ukraine’s strong military defense, but how to best ensure the nation’s security moving forward.

The upcoming NATO Summit in Lithuania this July will offer a forum for European nations to recalibrate given the myriad geopolitical factors at play. Although the ultimate security guarantee for Ukraine would be NATO membership, Ukraine isn’t likely to be admitted to the organization while actively involved in a military conflict with Russia. This is partially due to the way NATO has historically viewed enlargement, recommending that aspiring members settle any active territorial disputes by peaceful means, but it’s also heavily political. Indeed, NATO enlargement is based on a set of loosely defined criteria, without a formalized set of rules, and politics trump doctrine. At present, some NATO members like the Baltic states currently advocate for Ukraine’s immediate NATO entry, but many other members are unlikely to accept it.

As membership isn’t likely imminent, the upcoming NATO Summit presents an opportunity for NATO members to develop a new definition of the NATO-Ukraine relationship. NATO members can strategize about what kind of security package, underwritten by a coalition of countries, might be a realistic alternative in the short-term. These security imperatives can be broken down into physical and non-physical categories.

In the physical threat realm, NATO members can help strategize on the issue of land defense and land borders- including how to continue to provide equipment and training to deter a new ground attack and remove all unexploded munitions. It can also work on better securing the waterways, including how to limit Putin’s control over the Black Sea. NATO members can also focus on the air domain, assessing if it would it be possible to have Ukrainian air space fall under some kind of joint air command.

In the non-physical attack sphere, NATO members can further collaborate on cyber defense, addressing how to best assist Ukraine in deterring and countering massive cyber-attacks. They can also refine strategies in the information domain, including how to continue sharing current intelligence on Russian troop movements and how to monitor upcoming threats. In the realm of economic security, NATO members can also be instructive on how to rebuild the Ukrainian economy and further integrate it with its EU neighbors. Indeed, at the upcoming NATO Summit, there are opportunities to develop strategies that not only support Ukraine in the present moment but lay the groundwork for its growth and durability.

Given the current state of the battlefield, NATO countries will be under extra pressure to maintain cohesion and continue to support Ukraine even without a clear endpoint- and they need to stay the course. NATO’s unified resolve will not only serve to increase Ukraine’s physical security, but to impact Russia’s future geopolitical calculations. Indeed, future Ukrainian security will in-part depend on how strongly Moscow is deterred this time, and maintaining cohesion of Ukrainian allies even throughout a grueling stalemate will send a critical long-term message.

In Other News – Ukraine and Allies Demonstrate a Committed Defense – 5-18-2023

May 18, 2023

Ukraine and allies demonstrate the impact of a committed defense. This week, Russia intensified its assault on Ukraine, launching over 30 cruise missiles into Ukrainian territory on Thursday morning alone. Thankfully, effective Western air defense systems and a concerted military training effort have allowed the resilient Ukrainian troops to largely defend against these attacks in Kyiv. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy recognizes how essential these defensive weapons are to his nation’s security, and this week he made in-person visits to some of his most critical European suppliers like Germany and the United Kingdom.

While Zelenskyy is requesting to reequip his troops with weapons like drones and tanks, he’s also asking for F-16 fighter jets. But Washington is still reluctant to send them. Over the past year, however, Ukraine’s allies have slowly but surely increased the sophistication of the weaponry that they’re willing to share. With every advance in sophisticated equipment, Ukraine and allies have watched for direct repercussions from Russia. And so far, the Russian response has not increased in way that should deter Ukraine’s allies from holding back on providing Zelenskyy with what he needs.

Many of Ukraine’s allies gathered on Thursday at the G7 meeting in Japan, where the discussion largely addressed both Russia and China. The G7 will focus on ways to counter China’s “economic coercion”, and it’s notable that China is simultaneously holding its own gathering with leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. These five strategic former Soviet republics won’t be easily swayed to view China as the dominant regional player, and there are historic and security reasons why they are so closely tied to Russia, but the gathering still can’t sit well with Putin.

Russia also probably has mixed feelings about China and its other traditional allies like South Africa increasingly raising the issue of a Russia-Ukraine peace deal. While any deal remains untenable given the current state of the battlefield, this week President Zelenskyy received a visit by Beijing’s newly appointed special envoy for Ukraine- the highest ranking Chinese official to travel to Ukraine since the Russian invasion. The two reportedly discussed China’s potential role as a peace broker, and the imperative for a “political settlement of the Ukraine crisis.”

Likewise, South Africa is also vying for a leading diplomatic role, and this week President Ramaphosa reportedly spoke separately to Putin and Zelenskyy regarding the idea of an “African leaders peace mission.” Both Putin and Zelenskyy agreed to participate, but the parameters of the talks have yet to be determined. Even though the discussions won’t likely lead to any viable peace deal, it’s notable that Russia’s allies from the Global South have been increasingly stating their interest in ending the battle, and over time the political pressure on Putin is likely to increase in kind.

It will also be interesting to watch how and if President Erdogan’s foreign policy will shift in the aftermath of such a close presidential election in Turkey. Erdogan, and other global leaders like India’s Modi, have been navigating a balance between maintaining ties with Russia and with many key Ukrainian allies. But as the battle continues, they are also likely to become exasperated by the economic ramifications of the conflict.

Thus far, India has benefited from cheap Russian oil prices and Modi knows that he can get away with it considering his nation’s critical role in countering China. But India has been circumventing EU sanctions by purchasing the Russian oil and selling refined products back to European nations, and this week EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called for a crackdown on the Russian-originated products. India won’t be happy to have its European customer base threatened, and if the loopholes that have benefitted global players like Modi continue to be tightened, it’s likely that Putin will increasingly feel the squeeze.

In Other News – Ukraine’s Patience vs. Russia’s Bluster – 5-12-2023

May 12, 2023

As the war grinds on, Ukraine’s patience and preparation stands in stark contrast to the bluster of Russian leadership. In an interview with European broadcasters aired on Thursday, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy remarked that Ukraine’s highly anticipated counteroffensive won’t begin until his troops are properly equipped and prepared. A few hours later, the UK defense secretary announced that Britain is supplying Storm Shadow cruise missiles to Ukraine, a significant development given that no other Western country has supplied Ukraine with long-range missiles. Western countries have been hesitant to send weapons that could be perceived as crossing Putin’s red lines, but we shouldn’t be, because realistically Russia has limited options to escalate from its side.

We should also recognize that Putin could view the hesitation as a signal that the West is growing tired of supporting its Ukrainian ally and we need to dispel him of this view. Indeed, while an influx of Western weapons and training will be essential to Ukraine’s continued efforts to defend its territory, Kyiv’s allies should also be thinking about how to continue to support Ukraine beyond any one upcoming counteroffensive. Conflict between Ukraine and Russia has been going on for years on multiple levels, and it’s not going to be easily resolved by a single military counteroffensive. Ukraine’s allies should prepare for sustained battles- both physical and political, emulating the same patience that we’ve seen demonstrated by Zelenskyy and his troops.

Meanwhile, Russia’s growing overtly frustrated with its lack of progress on the battlefield and with internal dissenters. This week, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Russian-affiliated Wagner mercenary group, who has repeatedly expressed frustration with the Russian defense ministry, accused a Russian brigade of deserting its Bakhmut post. Prigozhin has been careful to never directly criticize Putin, but this is also the first time that he’s accused Russian troops of abandoning the battlefield. This early dissent among the military forces is a warning about Putin’s long-term durability and indicates that there’s likely internal conflict within the Russian hierarchy.

Prigozhin also falsely claimed that Ukraine had in fact launched its counteroffensive on Thursday, and that Zelenskyy was “being deceptive” in his statement regarding the delay. While the hard-fought battle for Bakhmut has been underway for months, controlling Bakhmut is usually seen as more symbolic than strategic. The battle is viewed as microcosmic of Russia’s efforts in Ukraine more broadly, and Putin likely wanted to claim Bakhmut before his Victory Day event on May 9 in part to motivate his troops and display strength. But Russia’s inability to claim Bakhmut doesn’t auger well for Putin’s image, and his impatience is influencing his actions on everything from deciding to prematurely replace army generals to arresting Russian artists.

While Putin is trying to maintain control over a disillusioned military and growing civil unrest within his own borders, global events could further increase his frustrations. This weekend, the Turkish people will hold elections, and Turkish President Erdogan’s main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is known for being friendlier to the West. Even if Kilicdaroglu fails to secure power, the seemingly close contest sends a signal to Putin and other global autocrats. Indeed, just as Erdogan and Putin have been growing impatient with the progress they’ve made on political and economic fronts, their citizenry has likewise been growing impatient with them.

In Other News – A View from Abroad – 5-5-2023

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.

If EU member states maintain a more unified stance on China, it will bolster the EU’s standing on other issues. Despite the European Union’s adherence to the One China policy, in the current complex global geopolitical environment, EU member states have been struggling to send a coherent message on China. This makes the EU weaker as a collective body since Beijing can leverage the differences among members to advance its economic and political goals. It also weakens the EU’s relationship with Washington and sends mixed signals on how the allies would respond to any forthcoming Chinese military, economic, or political actions.

EU policy differences on China are especially pronounced regarding Taiwan. The EU and its member-states officially follow the One China policy, which means that they exclusively maintain diplomatic relations with Beijing and support China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. The states have also cultivated non-diplomatic relations with Taiwan, especially in trade. But they have to tread carefully. When China tried to punish Lithuania last year because of the country’s strong economic relations with Taiwan, the bloc did not uniformly act against the Chinese sanctions imposed against Lithuania.

European leaders who recently visited China also exemplified this divergence. After Macron visited Beijing, he stated that Europe should avoid getting dragged into a confrontation between China and the United States over Taiwan and should more generally reduce its dependency on Washington. However, fellow EU leaders were quick to criticize Macron’s irresponsible comments, which some attributed to the large Chinese commercial orders for French companies that Macron secured during his visit.

Indeed, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock took a different line when she traveled to China. Baerbock asked Beijing to de-escalate tensions over Taiwan and stated that a military escalation in the Taiwan Strait, where 50% of daily world trade flows, would be a global disaster. The EU’s high representative for foreign Affairs Josep Borrell has reiterated this position as well, while diplomatically stressing the One China policy. The United Kingdom also stated it would support the United States if China were to attack Taiwan.

The disconnected EU member state policies on China allows Beijing to leverage its economic power to pressure certain leaders to toe the line on Taiwan. But these policy differences also have wider policy implications. Washington and EU alignment against Russia has been essential to supporting Ukraine’s valiant defensive efforts, and China has no doubt been keeping close watch. But as the EU member states diverge on China, it’s uncertain if the United States can depend on the EU for political support and economic sanctions should a military conflict between Taiwan and China ever arise.

When the United States and EU member states are aligned, it sends a clear message to China who responds accordingly. For example, Washington and the EU were unified in their outrage after the Chinese Ambassador to France questioned the sovereignty of former Soviet Republics “as having no effective status under international law.” The collective outrage led to so much diplomatic pressure that Beijing had to restate its position as: “China respects the status of the republics born after the dissolution of the Soviet Union as sovereign countries.”

More generally, Western countries are refining and updating their approach to China given the current geopolitical context. Initially, some political leaders and analysts suggested an economic decoupling from China. But EU Commission President Von der Leyen was the first to reframe that concept to ‘de-risking’- suggesting that instead of severing all trade ties, a focused and selective approach would ensure that no vulnerable dependencies exist in strategically important sectors. Washington has also espoused the de-risking idea and isn’t aiming for autarky but for resilience and security in supply chains- in close cooperation with its allies and partners such as the EU.

The EU has labelled China as its partner, its competitor and as its systemic rival. That general approach gives enough flexibility in daily political and economic life and comes close to the US policy of competing with China on multiple dimensions but not looking for confrontation or conflict. Washington and the EU recognize that to address global problems like climate, macroeconomic stability, health security and food security, China is one of the crucial players. Their position will only be strengthened by unity across and among their allies.

In Other News – Russia Continues the Assault on a Strong Ukraine – 4-28-2023

April 28, 2023

Russia continues its physical and ideological attacks, but Ukraine and allies are holding their ground. It’s been nearly two months since Russia had the audacity to attack Kyiv, but on Friday, Putin renewed his attack on the capital city and broader nation. Ukraine’s air defense reportedly shot down over 10 Russian cruise missiles in Kyiv airspace, but a barrage of Russian missiles killed at least 17 people in the central Ukrainian cities of Uman and Dnipro, including two children. The intense wave of attacks is in line with Russia’s complete disregard for attacking civilian targets and infrastructure and supports the UN’s latest findings that Russian forces and private military companies in Ukraine have perpetrated significant human rights violations over the course of its unprovoked invasion.

In response to Friday’s attacks, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy quickly issued a request to his allies for more air defense supplies. And Zelenskyy has consistently demonstrated that if his troops are well-supplied, Ukraine can prevent a Russian advance. While there’s currently a lot of chatter about an upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive, the fact that Ukraine can defend Kyiv as effectively as it did on Friday demonstrates how far the discussion has come. Over a year ago, when Russia first invaded, Ukraine surprised much of the world by its ability to hold Putin at bay. These days, Russia is exerting great effort just trying to maintain control of one city, as the back and forth on Bakhmut continues.

Indeed, given the initial projections of Russian military dominance, holding the line is itself a type of victory for Ukraine. This week, Zelenskyy had a long phone call with Chinese President Xi, indicating that China might be growing tired of the war’s negative global economic ramifications. Xi said that he’d send special representatives to Ukraine and hold talks with all parties on resolving the crisis. But as Russia ramps up his attacks, and Ukraine continues to defend itself effectively, the circumstances just aren’t conducive to ceasefire. And based on Putin’s historic behavior, the Ukrainians don’t have any reason to believe that Russia would be satisfied with one.

In addition to the physical attacks on Ukraine, Russia is excessively attacking opposition figures and attempting to expand the definition of cybercrime to repress dissent. Earlier this week, Russia handed an extraordinarily high 25-year prison sentence to Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition activist who was charged with treason and spreading false information about the Russian military after speaking out against the Ukraine invasion. After the sentencing, Kara-Murza’s lawyer, who has defended other prominent Russian activists and dissidents, was also compelled to flee the country due to a warning that there was “interest” in him.

Russia’s fierce desire to contain any counternarrative about its leadership and policies is also visible in its consistent protest of global cyber cooperation. A UN panel just finished another round of negotiations on a new international cybercrime treaty and a draft is expected by June. But Russia has unsurprisingly advocated for the treaty to expand the definition of cybercrime to include greater control of information and speech. Russia’s hesitation is, of course, also complicated by its state-level involvement in perpetrating cybercrimes. While the goal of the new treaty is international cooperation on cybercrimes, Russia has protested previous such agreements like the Budapest Convention due to concerns that it encroached on national sovereignty. Indeed, Russia is unlikely to sign-off on the latest cyber treaty, but the nation’s desire to criminalize free speech on a global level is further proof of just how repressive it’s become.

In Other News – BRICS & Investment Opportunities – 4-20-2023

April 20, 2023

Brazilian President Lula’s recent visit to China brings the BRICS back into the spotlight, but the seeds for multipolarity were planted years ago. This week, Brazilian President Lula da Silva’s trip to Beijing reinvigorated the discussion of multipolarity and distributed alternatives to Washington’s economic dominance. Despite broader rhetoric on reducing the role of Western-dominated financial institutions, what Lula really wants from China is investment to help rejuvenate Brazil’s industrial sector. When Lula speaks of multipolarity, as he has done for decades, he means that his country wants options. And China offers finances without many of the regulatory restrictions imposed by the European Union or Washington.

The concept of the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, was originally coined by members of the US financial industry for the purpose of spotlighting investment opportunities. But thus far, the group has struggled to fully live up to its potential- the Brazilian economy contracted last year, China suffered economic fallout from its zero-Covid restrictions and Evergrande crises, South Africa’s economy contracted more than expected in late 2022 due to its failing power grid limiting industrial growth, and India’s economic growth is also anticipated to decrease in the near term. Russia, of course, is locked in an expensive and self-destructive war with no end in sight.

The BRIC countries, aware of their growing potential, held their first formal summit in Russia in 2009, and the concepts that the group discussed then were close to what they are now. The group still wants alternatives to the US Dollar and over the years has been inching towards this goal. BRICS members have increased the use of their own currencies when trading with one another and jointly established the New Development Bank in 2014- as a hopeful rival to US-dominated institutions like the World Bank. Since 2022, Russia, under sanctions, has also been advocating to create a common currency among BRICS members.

Although challenging the dollar’s hegemony has been a consistent BRICS theme, so long as the United States remains the dominant global economy, there isn’t much of a credible alternative. The group’s potential collaborative financial prowess is also impeded by a deep-seeded China-India rivalry. Further, over the decades of leadership, Washington has gained unique insights and refined its financial policies, whereas China is new to the challenges of being a global lender. What has quietly been sowed over the course of the BRICS years, however, is the investment that China and Russia have made throughout the developing world- including a concerted propaganda effort to present the West as responsible for all global financial and geopolitical woes.

Both China and Russia have looked to Africa for investment opportunities, but their efforts have been weakened by Russia’s war on Ukraine. In Africa, Russia has been diligently presenting itself as an alternative to the West for security cooperation, energy, and natural resource exploitation for years. It’s also been actively curating local media to shamelessly present its invasion of Ukraine as an act against Western dominance. With the upcoming Russia-Africa summit to be held for the first time post-Covid, battle-torn Russia will try to further reap the political rewards of its ongoing investment efforts. But Ukraine has fully commanded Putin’s attention and he doesn’t have as much to offer as in previous years.

China has also invested heavily in infrastructure throughout the continent via its Belt and Road Initiative. So far, this seems to be a double-edged sword, particularly as myriad loan recipients are suffering from the economic reverberations of Russia’s war. Chinese policies to maximize debt repayment have turned ugly in places like Sri Lanka and Zambia, with China ostensibly afraid that it will lose too much from some of its riskier investments. This struggle could ultimately play out with China deciding to collaborate with multilateral financial institutions or, more likely, doubling down on its own strategy.

As the BRICS are set to meet for their 15th annual summit this summer in South Africa, the group is expected to discuss expanding its membership, with countries like Algeria at the forefront. Putin has also reportedly accepted the invitation to attend the summit, but as South Africa is a signatory to the Rome Statute and is required to comply with the International Criminal Court, it would be expected to arrest Putin should he step foot within its territory. The topic is already making waves within local South African media, and it’s uncertain exactly what will happen. What’s clear, however, is that while Putin has invested heavily to control the narrative in Africa, his ongoing invasion of Ukraine is likely to challenge his alliances.

In Other News – A View from Abroad – 4-11-2023

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.

President Biden’s upcoming visit to Northern Ireland on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement indicates a potential shift in UK politics. In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, economic decisions have been tightly interwoven with political ideology in the United Kingdom. But since UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took the helm last October, his economic policies appear to be primarily driven by pragmatism. Still, it’s uncertain if Sunak is truly adapting his ideology or instead believes that without immediate measures to promote a stronger UK economy, ideology won’t matter because his party will lose the next election.

Under Brexit, UK trade with Europe, and subsequently the UK economy, has faced myriad challenges. The UK’s reluctance to negotiate more constructively with the EU about issues resulting from the Ireland- Northern Ireland Protocol also created political and economic problems in Belfast. But Liz Truss’ departure from office last fall was a turning point, and Sunak and Finance Minister Jeremy Hunt have been quick to make some practical changes.

Hunt immediately reversed several aspects of Truss’ ineffective mini budget, thus stabilizing the financial markets and the pound exchange rate. The Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministers also updated the national security strategy to again incorporate the European Union as an ally. The latest security Integrated Review seeks to balance UK ambitions and financial means, toning down the rhetoric of ‘Global Britain’ and repositioning the nation in line with its capacities, stressing the need for cooperation with like-minded friends.

Sunak has also been trying to ameliorate the political struggle in and about Northern Ireland. Over the past several months, his team has quietly negotiated a solution, establishing the Windsor Framework agreement to replace the doomed Ireland – Northern Ireland protocol. In principle, Sunak’s government’s agreement with the EU on Northern Ireland has been approved by the House of Commons in London, but it has yet to re-start Parliamentary work in Belfast. Nonetheless, the agreement opened the possibility of President Biden’s upcoming Good Friday Agreement anniversary visit. Notably, Sunak is also expected to discuss a free trade agreement with Biden at the upcoming meeting.

Sunak’s government has also encouraged collaboration with the EU on issues like scientific cooperation in the Horizon program, information exchange in the financial sector, agreement on data sharing and especially cooperation in the foreign and security field. He recently held a French-British summit in Paris reconnecting the two countries in friendship and concluded a deal on countering illegal migration. Finalizing the AUKUS agreement on delivering nuclear submarines to Australia together with the United States was another international success.

These efforts have led many to question if Sunak is ultimately placing country before party, but it’s too early to say how his strategy will play out. Given the financial situation that he inherited, however, facing the next round of elections in 2025 without economic improvements would be tantamount to political suicide for the Conservative party. Sunak is making strides, but he isn’t there yet, and every month in the United Kingdom approximately 250,000 people face a tripling of their mortgage payments, as interest rates have soared.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party is also working to strengthen its position. The group is isolating its far-left wing and reaching out to society and business, with the slogan ‘Labour is back in business’ – promising a dialogue when developing its policies once in power. That bodes well for continuity in the return of practicality in the coming period. Indeed, regardless of the outcome of the next election, if both the Conservative and Labour Parties are actively sidelining their more extreme elements, more pragmatic political and economic policy making could return to the United Kingdom.

Jack Devine’s Opinion in the Wall Street Journal – 4-11-2023

Help Ukraine Defeat Russia, Then Make Friends

The West neglected Moscow after the Cold War. Helping to defeat Putin would give us another chance.

By Jack Devine
April 11, 2023 6:20 pm ET

A short-term focus on the battlefield shouldn’t stop us from seeing the unique opportunity Ukraine provides to reset the balance of power in favor of supporters of democracy and freedom worldwide and to sideline the emergent autocratic alliances between Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. The way to do it is to defeat Vladimir Putin and then make friends with Russia.

Read the full article clicking here

In Other News – Russia’s Painstaking Process in Ukraine – 4-7-2023

April 7, 2023

Russia might be inching forward on the battlefield, but it’s a painstaking process met with heavy headwinds on multiple fronts. The battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut may be nearing a close as the Wagner Group alleges that it has gained control in the east of the city. Still, if we’ve learned anything in the past 13 months, it’s to never underestimate the Ukrainians! This high cost “victory” in Russia’s eyes would prompt Moscow to try and lay claim to the whole of the Donesk region, a pyrrhic victory when looked at in light of many public intelligence assessments stating that Russia is currently ill-equipped in strategy, men, arms and ammunition to take much more territory this year. And this bleak assessment factors in the extra civil mobilization, disappointing springtime surge, and drone procurements from Iran.

The intractability of the diminishing prospects of the situation seems to be tacitly acknowledged by Putin’s arrest of the WSJ journalist who reported on the growing effects of sanctions on the Russian economy. In addition, Putin’s agreement with OPEC to decrease oil production to keep prices higher, his recent announcement of an additional surge, and his nuclear sabre rattling announcing nuclear storage facility construction in Belarus also indicate that his situation is increasingly untenable.

Indeed, the longterm economic and political effects of the invasion are also coming home to roost with a remarkable diminishment of Russian intelligence capability on Western soil. Over the past year, there have been several reported occasions where Russian intelligence efforts have been notably disrupted by US and European security services, and this week the director of the Finnish Security and Intelligence Service remarked that the Russian intelligence station in Finland is now half of its former size. Like many European nations, ever since Putin invaded Ukraine, Finland has been expelling suspected spies and refusing visas to any potential agents.

Further, Russian deep-cover spies, like Sergey Cherkasov, who was recently indicted by US authorities for being an “illegal” operative of Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency after allegedly feigning Brazilian citizenship, have also been unmasked. The Russians are now left with fewer valuable human assets and are likely to dive even deeper into cyberespionage. Russian has focused much of its recent intelligence operations within Ukraine with mixed success, but the intensely local effort detracts from Moscow’s international aspirations, and what Putin may be coming to realize is that his pertinence as a global player may be soon obsolete.

Meanwhile, potential parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan were again evoked this week as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen met with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy during a stopover on US soil. Despite the uproar, the timbre and location of this visit is a sign of the U.S. trying to temper Chinese anger given that McCarthy switched up his plans to travel to Taiwan and revert to a meeting method that has occurred six times previously within the framework of the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity. Taiwan, a critical US supplier of semiconductors, is feeling a growing diplomatic isolation because of a concerted and longstanding Chinese campaign to deprive Taipei of international recognition as several African and Central American countries have cuddled up to Beijing. Interestingly, the former President of Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou traveled to China this week, the first trip ever made by an acting or former President of the island, suggesting that there are domestic political calculations ongoing within Taiwan of those fearful of a Chinese invasion.

In Other News – Fight for Democracy – 3/30/2023

March 30, 2023

Russia’s economy is finally feeling the effects of sanctions. A recent report (by the Wall Street journalist who was recently arrested in Russia on charges of espionage) states that energy revenue dropped by almost 46% in the first two months of this year compared to the same period in 2022. Europe’s price cap on Russian gas and ban on seaborne Russian crude oil have caused energy receipts to plummet and while Russia has found a buyer for its energy in China, it is at such a discounted price one might argue with friends like these, who needs enemies. Concurrently, Russia is spending a great deal money on its war, including on Iranian drones and other weapons, prompting many to sound alarm bells anew about the economic viability of the Russian state at war, which may be why there is renewed nuclear sabre rattling in Belarus.

Meanwhile, the U.S. led Summit for Democracy was held this week amidst a challenging backdrop for democracy throughout the world. A curb on freedom of speech and political opposition in India, the elimination of a critical election monitoring capability in Mexico, and post-electoral violence in Kenya are just the most recent examples of the pressures being put on free and open societies by interests seeking power above the public good. These cases demonstrate how unchecked corruption, curbs on media freedom and free speech, a diminishment of the rule of law and the autonomy of a judiciary, and manipulated elections are effective strategies to slowly undermine the institutions that underpin effective democracies – one need only to look and Hungary and Turkey that one could arguably call erstwhile democracies.

Still despite these trends, there are also indications that in other corners that democracies, their institutions, and the people they represent are willing to struggle through the inefficiencies of political freedom in order to pursue a better life. Ukraine is the most cogent case for this today. Despite crushing energy prices and domestic tensions, European countries continues to support the war. Recent elections in Brazil and Nigeria belied the expectation of debilitating post-electoral violence. And the decision in Israel to place judicial reforms on hold quelled, at least temporarily, fears of a constitutional crisis.

Concurrently, China is pursuing its own alternative vision of the future, grounded is a vision of autocratic rule as an effective mode of governance and economic development. Autocracy in the short term is more efficient. In the wake of pandemic lockdowns, democratic aspirations are dead in places like Hong Kong and Myanmar. The club of autocrats are seeking new alignments as evidenced in the newfound alliance between Russia and Iran, as well Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with China and its intention to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The number of countries willing to diplomatically recognize Taiwan continue to diminish in the wake of significant Chinese investment in Africa and Latin America, suggesting the continuous repositioning of various governments towards China in the face of their own economic requirements. Indeed, across Africa, Latin America and South East Asia, the case for prosperity is being made by both autocrats and democrats with varying diplomatic, economic, and security enticements.

Buyers of China’s prosperity without democracy should be wary… they ought to look at how Xi’s vision is really playing out in China and in places that have received large Chinese investments (who really benefits and who is saddled with crushing debt). Life in China is extremely difficult for most and impossible for some like the Uyghurs and the prospect for individual success perilous. What’s more, Putin’s disastrous genocidal war has shown the world in flagrant relief that autocratic leadership is sclerotic, unimaginative, deaf to facts, and brutal. Truly, democratic societies are the best counterweight to autocratic governments.