“Thinking Forward: Preparing for U.S. Election Turbulence” – KARV Communications Q&A with Jack Devine, October 27, 2020

A week before Election Day 2020, TAG President Jack Devine spoke with KARV Communications about the U.S. elections and prospects for political unrest in the country following the vote. Asked what companies should be doing to prepare for any potential civil unrest or other issues in the aftermath of the election, Jack said, “This is potentially the most contentious election of this generation due to the uncertain outcome and COVID-19-related difficulties in voting. There could be some civil unrest if one candidate appears to win on election night, but mail-in votes change the results. Keep in mind that the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, Nevada, and Minnesota all have ballot deadlines three or more days beyond election day. If the eventual numbers are close, there could be short-term unrest. National security and police infrastructure are robust enough to not let this get out of hand. The U.S. is well-positioned to handle protests or other disruptions after the election, and our political institutions will prevail. Due to the level of uncertainty of the election and citizen response, it is essential that companies have well-practiced emergency plans including protection of people, information, and physical facilities.”

Read Jack’s Q&A with KARV Communications here.

In Other News: IAEA Calls Out Iran, US Tries to Stop Money Going to China’s PLA & More – November 13, 2020

November 13, 2020

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has reported that Iran now has more than 12 times the amount of enriched uranium allowed under the multilateral nuclear deal signed with China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the US in 2015. The global nuclear watchdog has also found that Iran has been enriching uranium to 4.5% purity, above the 3.67% limit agreed in the accord. Iran began flagrantly violating the terms of the deal when the US, under the Trump administration, withdrew from it in 2018. The election of Joe Biden – who was vice president when the US signed on to the deal – has led to speculation that the US could again seek some sort of rapprochement with Iran on its nuclear program. Progress on this issue is likely to be among the Biden administration’s priorities for reengagement in multilateral accords and institutions, such as the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization. However, efforts to reestablish productive ties with Iran will encounter obstacles and domestic resistance that would not figure into re-signing a multilateral climate agreement. Iran’s very public violations of the nuclear deal complicate the argument that it will be a cooperative partner in any future agreement the two sides are likely to reach. And even getting to a deal will be an uphill battle – Iran is notorious for driving a hard bargain and will push for any and all advantages it can extract from talks. Biden’s history on this issue suggests that at the very least he may make a good faith effort to cool tensions between the two countries, but under the circumstances, chances are slim that these efforts will succeed.

President Trump has signed an executive order prohibiting U.S. firms or individuals from investing, either via direct share ownership or through funds (including emerging markets and mutual funds), in 31 companies the U.S. has labeled as providing support to modernization of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The goal of the order is to prevent the channeling of U.S. capital into the buildup and modernization of the Chinese military. The prohibition on new investments in these companies goes into effect on January 11, and investors and funds have until November 2021 to divest existing assets that fall under the newly prohibited category. The firms on the list include state-run providers of aerospace, shipbuilding, and construction equipment and services, as well as those that develop and sell advanced technological products with military applications. Two of the companies on the list, China Mobile Communications and China Telecommunications Corp., have units listed in the U.S., and others are listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange. China watchers have warned that some of the Trump administration’s recent moves to ratchet up pressure on Beijing may push U.S.-China relations to a level of tension that a Biden administration would have difficulty walking back. However, China is known for its long view in foreign policy and other facets of geopolitics – Beijing is unlikely to overreact, and more likely to seek a proportional response that saves face but still gives it latitude to establish a new (and less contentious) normal with the incoming administration.

Political turmoil hit Peru this week when the Peruvian congress ousted President Martín Vizcarra on corruption allegations and installed speaker Manuel Merino as president. Merino was sworn in as Peru’s president on Tuesday after Vizcarra was impeached by Congress on Monday in an act that the Peruvian people saw as a legislative coup on a popular president. Merino, who was the speaker of Congress and instigated impeachment proceedings, has been accused of trying to protect his own political interests and those of his allies, who have also been accused of corruption. Not surprisingly, Peruvians took to the streets after Vizcarra’s ousting. Vizcarra has been popular in Peru, with 50% approval ratings even through the challenging period of coronavirus lockdowns that have pushed the Peruvian economy into a downturn and a projected contraction of 14% in 2020, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Polling data indicates that three quarters of Peruvians believe Vizcarra should not have been removed from the presidency, despite allegations that he took bribes from construction companies. Now, it appears there are no real checks and balances in place on Merino and an elevated concern that he could put off presidential elections currently scheduled for April 11, 2021. Unfortunately, this is another example of how corruption and corruption allegations continue to undermine democratic institutions and the will of the people in Latin America. With many countries in the region mired in their own domestic political and economic issues, it is unlikely that the situation in Peru will be met with much resistance or even reaction from the international community.

In Other News: Beijing Suspends Ant Financial’s IPO, ISIS Claims Credit for Vienna Attack & More – November 6, 2020

November 6, 2020

Beijing’s suspension of Chinese fintech juggernaut Ant Financial’s initial public offering, triggered by billionaire and company co-founder Jack Ma’s comments criticizing China’s financial regulatory environment, displays the degree to which political priorities trump other considerations in China. The listing, initially scheduled for yesterday, was set to break records – it had attracted orders of around $3 trillion – and would have raised the profile of Shanghai’s STAR market, which was launched only last year. Ma’s comments, made at a conference on October 24, took aim at Chinese and global financial regulators for outdated regulation methods that stifle innovation and fail to provide opportunity for young talent. Ant Financial is a dominant Chinese provider of e-pay services through its Alipay app and is also a major player in consumer lending and credit scoring. Beijing is expected to allow the IPO to move forward eventually, but investors have good reason to be more skittish about the risks inherent in investing in China than they were just a few days prior. China’s tech competitiveness is a critical element of its global rise, but this incident is a signal that just because a company is important for China’s tech ambitions does not mean that company is immune from domestic political risk. Savvy foreign investors in China will understand that they must be mindful that politics – specifically toeing the Beijing line – will override other considerations.

ISIS has claimed credit for a terrorist attack in central Vienna earlier this week that killed at least five and injured more than 20. Police killed the gunman, 20-year old Kujtim Fejzulai, and arrested another 14 people suspected to have been linked to the attack. Fejzulai, a dual citizen of Austria and North Macedonia, spent nearly two years in prison for an attempt to travel to Syria to join ISIS. The incident follows two grisly beheadings in France, the first over use of a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad in a class lecture on freedom of expression and the second in a church in Nice, where the attacker also killed two additional bystanders. These incidents are sparking concerns that the EU is now confronting a new wave of terrorism by Muslim extremists as countries across the continent struggle to contain resurgent Covid-19 outbreaks. ISIS and other terrorist groups have encouraged supporters and sympathizers to take advantage of the distraction caused by the pandemic, using it as cover to expand their activities. As the pandemic drags on, possibly through to 2022, EU countries – and other western targets contending with Covid-19, among other worries, such as political turmoil – should remain vigilant against the possibility of stepped-up terrorist activity.

A Taliban attack on the governor’s compound in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan was likely carried out by a drone, signaling a troubling shift in the nature of ongoing warfare in the country. The attack, which killed at least four security officers, came amid ongoing negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Qatar, which have been the backdrop to a dramatic rise in violent incidents. There has been some speculation that the Taliban has previously used remote-controlled aerial devices in attacks in addition to propaganda and reconnaissance activities – if so, those attacks have gone largely unreported. However, drone attacks have been employed by other regional militant actors, including ISIS. The expanded use of armed drones would imply a new element of risk in an already-volatile situation marked by rising casualties (~2,100 civilians dead and another ~3,800 wounded in January-September 2020) and the ongoing drawdown of US troops. It is also emblematic of a global trend. Drones are cheap, small, and easy to use. Reports of the use of drones to carry out violent attacks has been reported in asymmetric conflicts worldwide, from ISIS in Iraq and Syria to drug cartels in Central America to the alleged assassination attempt on Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro in 2018. Coupled with the real risk of stepped-up terrorist activity under the cover of the pandemic (see above), this trend is a clear cause for concern that should engender a robust defensive response.

In Other News: Ceasefire in Libya, Elections in Chile and Bolivia & More – October 30, 2020

October 30, 2020

The United Nations announced a ceasefire agreement on October 23 between the two main factions in the Libya civil war. Representatives of the UN-recognized government of Libya (GNA,) led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and the Libyan National Army (LNA) forces, commanded by General Khalifa Haftar, reached agreement after negotiations with the UN and signed the deal in Geneva last week. Libya has been in conflict since Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011. In 2014, the conflict escalated and the country split into factions following contested elections. Regional actors have been embroiled in the civil war as well, including Turkey, Russia, and Egypt. Russians have sent mercenary fighters and Egyptian President Al-Sisi had even contemplated ordering Egyptian ground forces into Libya to support General’s forces if the opposing GNA forces had attacked the eastern city of Sirte. Under the ceasefire deal, the two sides have agreed to “a complete, countrywide and permanent agreement” effective immediately. The agreement calls for frontline forces to return to their bases and for foreign actors to withdraw. The ceasefire also allows for road and air routes to reopen in the country. UN acting special envoy Stephanie Williams said that the ceasefire agreement will “go down in history” and pave the way for a broader political agreement between the two sides, with talks to begin in Tunis in November. No doubt there will be difficult discussions over representation in the capital, national control over Libya’s oil sector, distribution of oil revenue, and the unification of security forces under a central authority, but the ceasefire is an important first step, provided it holds.

Peaceful elections in Chile and Bolivia demonstrate the resolve of Latin Americans hit hard by the pandemic but determined to vote. On October 18, Bolivians elected leftist Luis Arce from the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party of former President Evo Morales. Arce won with 55% of the vote, and MAS also won majorities in both houses of congress. On October 25, Chileans voted overwhelmingly to draft a new constitution for the country, with 78% of respondents saying “yes” to a rewrite. Both elections had been postponed from earlier dates this year due to coronavirus shutdowns, and both were the result of political and social strife in their countries in 2019. In Bolivia, former President Morales fled the country amid political protests and a contested election last year, leading to an interim government led by conservative Jeanine Áñez. In Chile, large-scale protests over growing inequities in the country led to an agreement by the government of President Sebastián Piñera to hold a national referendum to decide whether or not to draft a new constitution. The good news is that the elections in Bolivia and Chile saw strong voter turnout and were held safely, peacefully, and without signs of fraud. What is less clear, however, is how a President Arce in Bolivia or a new constitution once drafted in Chile will deal with the most pressing issues facing the region – including the ongoing health crisis of Covid-19, a significant economic recession, and inadequate state resources to deal with either.

Anger over police use of excessive force sparked weeks of unrest in Nigeria after video surfaced of officers from the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police unit allegedly shooting a civilian in the street. There have been peaceful demonstrations against the unit since at least 2017, and SARS has since been disbanded. But problems with the excessive use of force and lack of accountability among the country’s security forces are much larger than SARS. The Nigerian military killed at least a dozen in a show of force to disperse protests in Lagos last week, and states across the country have imposed curfews and mobilized all available police resources as protests have persisted in a pent-up response to decades of widespread law enforcement brutality and impunity. Nigerian demonstrations follow similar movements in Kenya, where protests arose over a documented rise in police killings, and in Zimbabwe over security forces’ use of excessive force and government-sanctioned torture tactics. There appears to be some solidarity not only among these movements in sub-Saharan Africa, but also with the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., which all call for greater police accountability. Black Lives Matter has sparked solidarity protests all over the world, in a long list of countries including the UK, Belgium, Brazil, India, and Japan. As this point it remains an open question whether demonstrations engender lasting change. However, the wide-ranging uptake of the cause points to an issue that governments will need to confront with solutions, rather than force, lest they add so much fuel to the fire that it becomes a threat to political stability.

In Other News: Russia & Iran Weaponizing US Voter Data, Sudan Designation & More – October 23, 2020

October 23, 2020

Russia and Iran are weaponizing U.S. voter registration data, much of it publicly available information, in bids to influence U.S. election results with less than two weeks to go, according to U.S. intelligence officials. The U.S. warned of meddling by both countries, but honed in on Iran being behind a clumsy email blast purporting to be from far-right extremist militant group the Proud Boys and threatening registered Democrats if they did not vote for President Trump in the upcoming presidential election. Evidence suggests that Russia, Iran, and China are all involved in efforts to influence U.S. electoral outcomes. But Russia is widely accepted and understood to represent the largest threat, owing both to its sophisticated hacking and disinformation capabilities and the scale of its attempts prior to the 2016 election and throughout the current administration. More attempts are likely both in the lead-up to election day and in the days and weeks afterward, especially in the event of a close race.

The U.S. plans to lift Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terror after 27 years, which could lead to a dramatic expansion in economic opportunity for the country, where nearly half the population lives below the poverty line. The move, which removes restrictions on Sudan’s access to international financial networks, will enable receipt of foreign investment, debt relief, and humanitarian and military aid. However, Khartoum will first be required to pay $335 million in restitution to victims and their families of attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and an attack on a U.S. Navy destroyer in Yemen in 1998 and 2000 respectively. The U.S. policy pivot comes in the wake of a change in government in Sudan last year when Omar Hassan al-Bashir was forced out and replaced with a transitional government. Sudan is expected to be the fifth Arab country to normalize relations with Israel, in what is broadly understood as a concession to the U.S. in exchange for lifting the designation. Sudanese recognition of Israel is unlikely to have a significant impact on other, more influential Arab states mulling a normalization of relations with Israel, but nonetheless maintains momentum on the issue, with Morocco and Oman potentially next in line.

France has conducted a series of raids on suspected radical Muslims and Muslim groups, expelled foreigners suspected of links to terrorism, and closed down a mosque and multiple Muslim aid organizations. The crackdown comes in the wake of the murder of a teacher for using caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad as part of a lesson. The caricatures had been published several years prior by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, prompting a 2015 terrorist attack on its offices that killed 10 of its staff. This latest attack has fed a surge of nationalism, along with anti-Muslim rhetoric from the French far right, muting potential criticism of the crackdown. However, once the initial shock subsides, President Emmanuel Macron and his administration will have to decide how to calibrate a longer-term response that addresses growing terrorist concerns without further inflaming extremist sentiment among the country’s Muslims. Too light a touch could put his 2022 election prospects in doubt, whereas too harsh a crackdown could backfire and fuel additional attacks.

In Other News: EU Imposes New Sanctions on Russians, US Criticizes UN Human Rights Council Election & More – October 16, 2020

October 16, 2020

The EU imposed a raft of new sanctions on six Russian individuals in President Putin’s circle and the president of Belarus this week, signaling a new willingness to penalize the Kremlin and its allies for their more egregious violations of democratic and human rights norms.  The sanctions against the six Russians are in response to the poisoning of Kremlin opposition figure Alexey Navalny, while those targeting Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko are a response to his ongoing crackdown on protests sparked by recent presidential election, widely viewed as fraudulent, that delivered him a sixth term in office. Lukashenko is now subject to a travel ban and a freeze on any assets held in the EU, as are the following six individuals: Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russian domestic intelligence agency the FSB; first deputy chief of staff to the president Sergei Kiriyenko; head of the Kremlin’s domestic policy directorate Andrei Yarin; deputy defense ministers Aleksey Krivoruchko and Pavel Popov; and Sergei Menyaylo, Kremlin envoy to the Siberian Federal District, where the poisoning took place. Also subject to an asset freeze is Russia’s State Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology, after the intergovernmental Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed that the attack on Navalny involved the use of military-grade nerve agent Novichok. Separately, the EU also sanctioned Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin for violating a United Nations arms embargo on Libya.

Cuba, China, and Russia won seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council this week – a vote fiercely criticized by the United States government. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the vote “a win for tyrants and embarrassment for the global body” and said it further justifies the U.S. decision to leave the UN Human Rights Council in 2018. The UN General Assembly held the election on October 13 for 15 seats on the 47-nation Human Rights Council. Members elected will serve three-year terms beginning on January 1, 2021. In addition to these three countries, Venezuela will remain on the council despite a UN report released on September 16 with damning allegations of “crimes against humanity” by the Venezuelan regime. Instead of promoting human rights, these new members are more likely to undermine UN investigations, like the UN mission to Venezuela created last year, into abuses in their own countries and their allies. The election of these members to the UN Human Rights Council also reconfirms American doubts about this multilateral organization, whose members are supposed to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

Armenia and Azerbaijan are accusing each other of breaking a cease-fire in their ongoing conflict over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which continues to fuel concerns about a larger conflagration that could draw in large powers with territorial ambitions. The two sides reached a deal for a temporary cease-fire, set to begin last Saturday, to allow for prisoner exchanges and retrieval of casualties (more than 550 have been killed in the fighting). However, the truce broke down quickly with little clarity over which side is to blame. Russia, which helped broker the cease-fire, has offered to dispatch military observers to assist and continues to call for a negotiated solution. Turkey, in contrast, has been outspoken in its support for Azerbaijan, and while it has denied reports that it deployed Syrian mercenaries to the fighting on Azerbaijan’s behalf, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dismissed widespread international calls for a cease-fire. Turkey also drew (rhetorical) fire this week for restarting natural gas exploration in contested waters in the Eastern Mediterranean. In doing so, Turkey is effectively daring the EU to make good on recent threats to impose sanctions on Turkey for continuing its exploration activity in the area. The Turkish drillship, escorted by Turkish naval vessels, is searching for gas in an area of the sea that is also claimed by Greece and Cyprus. This is not the first instance of Turkey needling Greece – and countries that support Greek claims – by deploying drillships offshore in contested areas. However, in combination with Turkey’s military adventures in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan, this incident rounds out a picture of a regional aggressor that appears unconcerned by the objections of other large powers, such as Russia and the EU. Turkey’s actions are destabilizing at best, and it remains to be seen whether EU sanctions will be an effective deterrent, or whether more decisive action will be needed.

“Will Nunes Win Confirmation to Brazil’s High Court?” Latin America Advisor, October 14, 2020

Asked if President Jair Bolsonaro’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Kássio Nunes Marques, will be confirmed by the Senate, TAG’s Amanda Mattingly responded that Bolsonaro wants a candidate he thinks can be confirmed with support from his conservative base and centrists in the Senate. Amanda also noted that “Bolsonaro likely wants an ally installed on the court, especially if the investigations into his family move forward.”

Will Nunes Win Confirmation to Brazil’s High Court?

In Other News: Russian Election Interference, Mexico’s Infrastructure Plan & More – October 9, 2020

October 9, 2020

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security released its “Homeland Threat Assessment” this week, highlighting Russian efforts to influence the outcome of this year’s presidential election among the country’s most pressing threats.  According to the assessment, these efforts will continue along the same lines used in 2016, as they seek to identify and exacerbate existing political tensions, undermine the candidacy of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, and use misinformation to suppress votes. However, in contrast to the previous election, the assessment did not identify efforts by the Russians to manipulate election infrastructure itself. Separate but related threats from Russia highlighted in the report include Russian dissemination of Covid-19-related misinformation and the potential for sophisticated cyberattacks on critical infrastructure systems that could take them offline for days. The report also detailed a number of threats to the U.S. posed by China, including espionage across a variety of sectors, from commerce to academia, along with intellectual property theft and misinformation campaigns designed to shift blame for the Covid-19 pandemic from China to the U.S. DHS notes that like Russia, China possesses and may deploy sophisticated cyberattack capabilities to target infrastructure in defense, energy, telecoms, and other areas critical to our everyday functioning.

Mexico announced a $14 billion infrastructure plan in an effort to boost the struggling economy and create 185,000 jobs. This week, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) unveiled his plan for 39 joint public-private infrastructure projects, including investments in highways, a rail project between Mexico City and Querétaro, and increased refining capacity of the state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX). The proposal is designed to help the Mexican economy, which has been devastated by the pandemic, accompanying shutdowns, and the crash in oil prices last spring and is set to contract by 10% this year. Some of the projects in the proposal have already been on the table, but the renewed focus and olive branch extended to the business community by the Mexican president could get these off the ground. AMLO has had a strained relationship with the business community since he took office in 2018 and canceled the $13 billion airport project in Mexico City. More recently, he has rattled the energy sector by talking about rolling back the 2013 energy reforms that opened up the sector to private investment. AMLO has been critical of the reforms and the manner in which the previous administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto secured the votes to push the reforms through. Reversing the energy reforms could be something AMLO and his political party Morena attempt next year in advance of 2021 midterm elections.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to Russia-brokered cease-fire talks after more than a week of hostilities over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which have killed more than 375 people, with casualties including civilians. The talks, to be held in Moscow, are intended to reach a truce that allows the two sides to exchange prisoners and collect casualties, rather than a full resolution of the conflict. The two countries have been trading unconfirmed accusations, such as allegations that Azerbaijan shelled an historic Armenian Christian cathedral and that Armenia has fired rockets at the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, a critical piece of oil infrastructure that has helped secure Azerbaijan’s economic and political independence from Russia and delivers more than 1 million barrels per day of oil to global markets. Both sides have been accused of using cluster bombs, which are banned in many countries owing to the indiscriminate nature of their impact and associated threat to civilians. Although the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is a localized conflict between two small, regional powers, its recent escalation has generated alarm internationally owing to the risk that it might draw in larger powers, namely Russia and Turkey. Turkey has publicly stated its willingness to provide military support to Azerbaijan, and some reports suggest that Turkey has already deployed its own fighter jets, as well as Syrian mercenaries, to the conflict. In addition to meddling in Russia’s backyard (Azerbaijan and Armenia are former Soviet republics), Turkey’s actions have also hampered outside attempts to tamp down the conflict. Adding to the mix, Iran has alleged that shelling has spilled over the border and warned of the potential for a regional war. The talks in Moscow are likely to bring matters to some sort of short-term resolution, but this is a complex conflict that has resisted full resolution for decades and probably will for many years to come.

In Other News: Venezuela Receives Iranian Fuel, Armenian-Azerbaijani Tensions Escalate & More – October 2, 2020

October 2, 2020

Venezuela is receiving fuel from Iran as it deals with growing social unrest due to gas and food shortages. Three Iranian tankers carrying approximately 815,000 barrels of fuel arrived this week in Venezuela to help the country deal with the acute gasoline shortage in recent weeks. Press reports out of Venezuela indicate that gas station closures have been met with street protests by average Venezuelans frustrated by the fuel shortages. The fuel crisis is hitting the country hard and choking off economic activity, including the distribution of food, medicine, and basic supplies. Reportedly, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has paid Iran for the fuel in gold blocks which were flown to Tehran so as to avert seizure by U.S. authorities. Enforcing U.S. sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, U.S. authorities seized approximately 1.1 million barrels of Iranian gasoline headed for Venezuela in August. This week’s shipment of Iranian fuel to Venezuela will be the second flotilla to arrive without seizure since May. Still, the gold-for-fuel trade between Venezuela and Iran will not solve Venezuela’s oil sector crisis. Venezuela’s oil refineries have largely halted operations due to the lack of investment and maintenance as well as U.S. sanctions on the sector imposed in early 2019. Reportedly, the Cardon refinery is the only one that is currently operational, producing about 20,000 barrels a day. Once Venezuela runs through what amounts to a short-term, emergency fuel injection from Iran, it is likely that the gas lines and social unrest will return.

Armenia has accused Turkey of shooting down one of its jets amid the most recent escalation of a long-simmering Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a patch of disputed territory sandwiched between the two. While limited outbreaks of violence have been a feature of Caucasus geopolitics for decades, the most recent flare-up, which began on Sunday and has already killed dozens, has reached a scale not seen since a cease-fire brokered by Russia in 1994. Armenia also claims that Turkey has deployed Syrian mercenaries to the conflict on Azerbaijan’s behalf. Turkey has denied Armenia’s allegations, which have not been independently confirmed. However, after decades of limiting its involvement in the conflict to rhetoric, Turkey recently conducted military exercises with Azerbaijan in July and earlier this week called on Armenia to end its occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Furthermore, its amped-up support of Azerbaijan comes amid a pattern of expanding Turkish engagement in conflicts in countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire, either via proxy (such as deploying Syrian mercenaries in Libya) or directly (like its incursions into Iraq and Syria to target suspected PKK positions). Another concerning facet of this engagement is Turkey, though its involvement in civil wars in Libya and Syria, has positioned itself in opposition to Russia, with the two powers supporting opposing sides in the conflicts. Russia maintains influence in both Azerbaijan and Armenia, arms both sides, and is unlikely to look favorably on Turkish intervention in former Soviet republics. Looking beyond the risk of Turkey crossing a red line in Russia’s backyard, Turkish adventurism in its former empire – an empire that overlaps with areas that also once fell under Soviet control – could help turn contained, localized conflicts into larger regional power struggles. As Turkey continues to expand its military presence abroad, it is unclear what the limits are to its leaders’ ambitions.

Indian announcements on defense purchases and additional deployments to the Himalayas are spurring speculation that it may be preparing for the possibility – even if remote – of an armed conflict with China at the two countries’ contested border. India released details of arms procurement plans this week that include 72,000 assault rifles from Sig Sauer – reported to be for troops at the Chinese and Pakistani borders – and anti-airfield weaponry. Meanwhile, Indian news outlets reported the deployment of more Russian-made tanks and combat vehicles to eastern Ladakh, the location of the Line of Actual control, the de facto border between India and China. Separately, India has announced policy changes designed to accelerate both the purchase and domestic manufacture of arms and other military equipment. In a bid to reduce red tape in defense procurement, India will no longer require foreign suppliers of weapons, aircraft, and other military hardware to invest in India, and also scrapped a mandate that the Indian military buy – rather than lease – foreign military equipment. Delhi has also set new production targets for domestic defense manufacturing that envisage doubling production and increasing defense exports four-fold by 2025. The military buildup has both security and economic components. Increasing domestic defense production can both boost economic activity and reduce spending on imports (India was the world’s second-largest arms importer in 2015-2019 after Saudi Arabia). However, as tensions continue to build at the Actual Line of Control with neither side showing signs of backing down, India, whose military is no match for China’s, may also be preparing for the worst. That said, we reiterate that neither side wants a full-blown outbreak of violence.

In Other News: Brazil’s “Operation Car Wash” Continues, Iran Opens New Naval Base & More – September 25, 2020

September 25, 2020

Brazil has allowed its popular anti-corruption task force to continue, as the country’s former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva faces fresh charges. President Jair Bolsonaro and his top prosecutor Augusto Aras extended the mandate of the “Operation Car Wash” task force until January 31. Earlier this month, critics raised the alarm that they would disband the team that started in 2014. Operation Car Wash has grabbed national and international attention for exposing corrupt practices by politicians and businesses like Petrobras and Odebrecht over the past six years. Just this week, offshore drilling company Seadrill announced that its Brazilian subsidiary Seadrill Serviços de Petroleo, Ltda has been served with a search and seizure warrant in relation to the investigation of Petrobras. Last week, Lula da Silva was hit with new money laundering charges – the fourth case against him as a result of Operation Car Wash. Lula da Silva denies the charges, and his supporters see them as political persecution. Bolsonaro campaigned on an anti-corruption platform in 2018 when Lula da Silva was barred from running due to corruption charges against him. But since taking office, Bolsonaro has been accused of interfering in corruption investigations involving his sons, and former Justice Minister Sergio Mora, who was a leading figure in the anti-corruption efforts of Operation Car Wash, stepped down in April as a result. Politicizing anti-corruption efforts is not new in Brazil and will likely continue through Bolsonaro’s term in office and into his reelection campaign in 2022.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps has opened a new naval base on the Strait of Hormuz – a critical oil shipping lane that handles more than one-fifth of global supply – amid a realignment of regional geopolitics that appears designed to contain Tehran. Iranian state television announced that the Shaheed Rahbari base on the eastern side of the strait will give Iran control over ships that transit the Hormuz Strait, the Persian Gulf, and the Sea of Oman. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz assailed Iran in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week, alleging that decades of peaceful outreach to Iran have been met with intransigence on the nuclear issue, supporting extremist groups in the region, and recently, attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Saudi Arabia and many of its neighbors in the Middle East have long been understood to be working with Israel behind the scenes in response to growing concern about Iran as a threat to regional stability and security. Last week, the UAE and Bahrain signed accords normalizing relationships with Israel, becoming the region’s third and fourth countries to do so, and more Middle East states may follow suit. An increasingly isolated Iran may be prone to high-visibility threats (such as to global oil shipping), small-scale confrontations, and other announcements designed to engender concern about destabilizing activities.

Evidence and assessments are continuing to emerge about foreign powers’ efforts to influence U.S. elections, highlighting the need for a robust and coordinated U.S. defensive response. The Central Intelligence Agency recently reiterated its 2016 conclusion, this time with moderate confidence, that Russian President Vladimir Putin was directing election interference efforts to boost the electoral chances of President Trump. Sources have conveyed to media that the assessment, which is classified, says that Putin is likely directing the Russian influence operation. The operation involves efforts by pro-Russian Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach (who was recently sanctioned by the U.S.) to work through U.S. media, lobbyists, and members of Congress to spread rumors and other information detrimental to Democratic candidate Joe Biden. The shift from high confidence in 2016 to moderate confidence now appears to be linked to a smaller volume of direct evidence linking the Russian president to election interference efforts. Meanwhile, Facebook has taken down a number of fake accounts believed to be part of a Chinese election interference campaign. In contrast to Russia’s efforts, the Chinese campaign is understood to be limited in size and does not support a specific candidate – messages being disseminated are intended both to support and to undermine the incumbent president’s campaign. That Russia is persisting in its interference efforts despite public denouncement and punitive sanctions for its previous efforts, and that China and Iran (to some degree) are testing these waters, as well, indicate that the U.S. should enhance its focus on online political meddling as an ongoing threat to our national security. We need to build on efforts already underway both to strengthen our defenses against these assaults, which are likely to continue and become more sophisticated over time, and to mount a proactive response to these transgressions.