In Other News – Russia accused weaponizing gas supplies; ISIS-K continues to challenge Tabliban authority; & More – 10/22/2021

October 22, 2021

Russia accused of weaponizing gas supplies amid Europe’s ongoing energy crisis. Putin appears to be exploiting Europe’s energy crisis to get EU approval for Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline that bypasses Ukraine, transferring gas from Russia to Germany. While Putin insists that he hasn’t been withholding gas destined for Europe pending the project’s approval, the International Energy Agency has stated that Russia could be doing more to increase gas availability. Natural gas prices in Europe and Asia are reportedly at record highs, due to a combination of increased demand post-Covid, extreme weather, and speculation on the EU’s emissions market, and with winter nearing Europe is looking to ensure the safety of both its economy and citizens. While Putin blames Europe for not storing enough gas after the harsh winter of 2020-2021, he has also remarked that if the Nord Stream 2 is approved he’s 100% certain that Europe’s energy woes would be resolved. Further, it will offer Putin the welcome consequence of endangering Ukraine’s gas supply by pushing Ukraine to the end of the new west-to-east receiving line.

ISIS-K continues to challenge Taliban authority with steady stream of destructive attacks. October has seen multiple, extremely deadly attacks against the Afghan Shi’a population carried out by members of ISIS-K, in what’s part of a larger effort for the group to disrupt any new order established by the Taliban. Two separate bombings of Shi’a mosques during well-attended Friday prayer sessions have resulted in at least 100 deaths and hundreds of injuries. ISIS-K has also been notably active in parts of the country that aren’t its traditional strongholds, like Kandahar, and the group has been brazen enough to kill Taliban police chiefs and other officials. The United Nations has called the most recent Shi’a mosque attack part of “a disturbing pattern of violence” and there isn’t going to be an easy or clean resolution. Weekly ISIS propaganda published via Telegram has further highlighted ISIS’ intent to target Shi’a throughout the Middle East, with particular attention to the ethnic minority Hazara Shi’a population of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in addition to ethnic minorities, women, artists, and journalists continue to be targeted and disenfranchised by both ISIS-K and the Taliban.

Venezuela-US tensions rise after extradition developments of two key Venezuelan figures. Last weekend Alex Saab, a businessman accused of laundering money for Venezuela and a close advisor to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, was extradited to the United States after being detained in Cape Verde since June 2020. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked that the criminal case against Saab, who also has purported ties to Hezbollah, had transpired for over a decade, but Maduro immediately retaliated by shutting down scheduled negotiations with Washington and detaining six US oil executives. Earlier this week, the Spanish high court gave permission for another extradition to the United States, but this one pertains to a Maduro opponent− Hugo Carvajal, a Venezuelan former spy chief who faces charges of narcotics trafficking and collaboration with the FARC. Carvajal reportedly had a falling out with Maduro and could hold incriminating evidence against him. In the meantime, Maduro seems to be wasting no time upping his US defenses, announcing that Venezuela and Iran will sign a 20-year cooperation accord.

In Other News – Cuban Government opponents denied permission to march in Havanna; US holds two-day virtual summit on cybercrime; & More – October 15, 2021

October 15, 2021

Cuban government opponents denied permission to march in Havana this November, protestors say they will continue without it. On Tuesday, Cuban local authorities rejected the request by a broad group of Cuban artists and dissidents, many reportedly based outside of the country, to hold a rally for civil liberties next month in Havana. The protest was initially scheduled for November 20 but changed to November 15 after the government suddenly designated the 20th as a National Defense Day. November 15, however, marks the date that Cuba is scheduled to reopen its borders to tourists after a two-year Covid-19 shutdown, and active measures of political dissent could be a major disruptor. Cuban authorities, who are on high guard after the rare and widespread anti-government protests last July, have asserted that the aspiring November protestors are linked to subversive organizations and aim for regime change, likely instigated by the United States. According to a statement on the dissident coalition’s Facebook page, protestors are planning to march with or without permission, subjecting them to a potentially violent response and even imprisonment as seen last summer.

United States holds two-day virtual summit on cybercrime, Russia not included. This week the United States held a two-day meeting with representatives from over 30 countries to discuss key cybercrime issues, like prosecuting ransomware criminals and the role of virtual currency in illicit payments, emphasizing that international collaboration is necessarily to thwart the global threat. Australia, Germany, India, and the United Kingdom each headed up a core session. According to a senior US official, Russia was not invited to the meeting due to “various constraints”, but future participation is not off the table. The United States initiated bilateral talks with Russia on ransomware over the summer, where President Biden reportedly shared information about criminal activity emanating from Russian territory, but Putin hasn’t responded with any visibly significant actions thus far. While major cybercrime actors from Russia, and for that matter China, won’t be easily deterred without direct action on the part of Putin and Xi, ransomware criminals often employ transnational networks to launder money across multiple countries and jurisdictions, and there could be opportunities for allies to block criminal behavior along the way.

Iraqi parliamentary election results signal disillusionment with Iran, broader Iraqi political apparatus. Earlier this week, allies of Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gained the bulk of Iraqi parliamentary seats, upsetting Iran-backed groups who did much better in 2018 and are already stating they’ll appeal the election results. In recent years, al-Sadr, who is remembered for leading a resistance against US troops back in 2003, has adopted a nationalist bent and gained momentum in his rallying cry against corruption and all foreign interference in Iraqi affairs− particularly by the United States and Iran. But in addition to revealing significant divisions among Shi’a factions in the country, the recent elections showed a great disillusionment of politics in general. Voter turnout of about 40% marked a record low in the post-Saddam Hussein era, indicating widespread distrust of Iraqi politicians and general skepticism about the ability for citizens to affect change; the number of younger voters was especially low.

In Other News – New and rejuvenated alliances surface to curb threat of China, Iran & More – 10/1/2021

October 1, 2021

New and rejuvenated alliances surface to curb threat of China, Iran. Last week the United States, India, Japan, and Australia met at the White House for the first in-person gathering of the reinvigorated Quad Security Dialogue since Biden took office. Although the Quad isn’t a military alliance and there is no formal defense pact, it has the potential to be a powerful strategic partnership given the significance, positioning and shared priorities of the nations involved. India’s presence is particularly notable given its historic resistance to joining security alliances. Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand, so-called Quad Plus members, could also come to lean more heavily on the alliance depending on China’s trajectory. The new Australian, US, and UK “AUKUS” pact likewise adopts a group strategy to counter China’s dominance in the Indo-Pacific.

Separately, in the Middle East this week, Israel’s foreign minister traveled to Bahrain in a historic first visit to inaugurate the Israeli embassy in Manama‒ the two nations are expected to sign memorandums of understanding on technology, economics, and water among others. In a meeting that many would have felt impossible just several years ago, the Israeli and Bahraini foreign ministers discussed “shared threats” and sent a clear signal to Iran that they’re willing to go beyond status quo relations to keep their aggressive neighbor in-check.

Implementation of central bank digital currencies likely to grow as pilot finds the concept can save time and money. Recent results from a Bank of International Settlements (BIS)-backed pilot study involving the central banks of Hong Kong and Thailand indicates that cross border payments made via digital forms of fiat currency could reduce transaction time from days to seconds and costs by up to 50%. Over 80 nations are reportedly exploring central bank digital currencies (CBDCs), with China taking the most aggressive approach by simultaneously piloting the digital yuan and making other cryptocurrencies illegal entirely. CBDCs are digital versions of fiat currency and they’re backed by the government which makes them less volatile, and less anonymous, than cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. With CBDCs, governments hope to capitalize on both blockchain technology and the success of digital payment systems like PayPal and WePay. CBDCs are touted to help nations better reach and serve unbanked citizens, but they also grant the government far greater insight into consumer data that’s currently only held by private fintech companies or banks. The Fed still isn’t entirely sold on the concept, recognizing that the risks of CBDCs include everything from hacking and surveillance, to disrupting the function of domestic financial institutions and the global payments system, but it’s likely going to be under pressure to come up with something given the prevalence of the effort.

To counter the threat of climate change, some lawyers suggest ecocide should be treated as an international crime. With climate change at the top of the global agenda, over the summer an independent panel of environmental and criminal lawyers drafted a proposal to amend the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to include ecocide as the fifth international crime. The addition would put ecocide along genocide, war crimes, the crime of aggression and crimes against humanity, and would make private actors like investors and business leaders liable to criminal prosecution. The panel has defined ecocide as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.” The definition emphasizes that punishable acts must cause severe and either widespread or long-term environmental damage. The ICC can’t investigate corporations or governments, but individuals who are part of larger groups could be charged. Notably, the addition of ecocide would allow the ICC to prosecute the crimes even if they take place during times of peace where currently environmental violations are only illegal during times of war.

In Other News – World Bank Discontinues Doing Business Report & More – 9/24/21

September 24, 2021

The internet was supposed to be borderless, but national leaders are wielding control over tech companies via local employee requirements. National leaders frustrated with the power of big tech gained a victory this week when Apple and Google capitulated to Russia’s orders and removed an election app created by imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny just before the onset of Russia’s parliamentary elections. The tech companies reportedly stood their ground, but Russia threatened criminal charges against local Google employees, naming specific individuals who would face prosecution if the companies didn’t comply and remove the app. Countries like Russia and India have recently used their market power to require that tech companies maintain local offices where employees are physically vulnerable to state-level enforcement. In May, Indian police officials raided two local Twitter offices and demanded to know why certain government-issued Tweets had been categorized as “manipulated media.” In July, Putin signed a new law requiring that any social media company with more than 500,000 Russian visitors a day must open physical offices in Russia or else they’d be subject to advertising bans and penalties. Although some countries might be hesitant to make demands on a giant like Google, Russia has developed viable, competing domestic social media platforms and search engines, and is better positioned than most to handle a fallout with Silicon Valley.

World Bank discontinues high profile Doing Business report, rocks credibility of global rating systems. Last week the World Bank announced that it will discontinue its annual Doing Business report after a series of reviews and independent audits revealed that bank leaders pressured staffers to manipulate data and boost the ratings of China and Saudi Arabia in the 2018 and 2020 reports. Launched in 2003, the Doing Business report was part of the World Bank’s effort to remain relevant during the period when major developing countries like India and Brazil were becoming richer and could shop around for private, alternate funding. The report, which has not been without controversy, became a critical global ranking system and national leaders strived to be in the top 20. Members of the World Bank leadership were subsequently under political pressure to cook the books, and there apparently weren’t enough safeguards in place to preserve data integrity. While the recent scandal will impact the direction of the Bank, it will also have ramifications for other global rating initiatives that claim objectivity. As such, it will be more critical than ever for corporations and investors to seek diverse intelligence inputs to understand the true conditions on the ground and make the best decisions on how to proceed.

In attempt to curb ransomware activity, US Treasury issues first sanctions against cryptocurrency exchange. On Tuesday, the White House imposed sanctions against virtual cryptocurrency exchange Suex for its role in facilitating cryptocurrency payments to ransomware attackers. The designation marks the first time that the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Controls (OFAC) has sanctioned a virtual cryptocurrency exchange for complicity in ransomware crimes. OFAC is adding Suex to its list of specifically designated nationals (SDNs), a category usually reserved for serious narcotics traffickers or terrorists, and it’s now illegal for US residents or citizens to conduct business with the exchange. Media reports indicate that Suex executives are likely Russian and Czech, but that the exchange operates out of Russia. According to an analysis by the US Treasury Department, over 40% of Suex transactions were associated with illicit actors, and blockchain analytics company Chainalysis identified about $13 million in bitcoin transactions sent through Suex directly tied to ransomware attacks. The Suex sanctions will serve as one component of many needed to curb the uptick of ransomware attacks that continue to disrupt critical supply chains.

San Diego World Affairs Council: Jack Devine and Jonathan Ward on Russia and China

The San Diego World Affairs Council presents the “Distinguished Speaker” Series featuring Jack Devine & Jonathan Ward, Ph.D.

Jack Devine and Jonathan Ward on Russia and China

In Other News – Bloomberg Radio Podcast, the recent coup d’état Guinea, & More – 9/17/2021

September 17, 2021

Image credit: Creative Commons, www. kremlin.ru via Wikimedia commons
Image credit: Creative Commons, www. kremlin.ru via Wikimedia commons

In a recent Bloomberg radio podcast, Barry Ritholtz and I discuss the spy business and a wide range of geopolitical issues, focusing heavily on Russia’s ongoing political strategy that includes global cyber and economic influence campaigns. Russia will work to incite or prevent instability in a region depending on its interests, and in the Bloomberg interview I share some opinions on how Putin operates and why. In this week’s In Other News, I further explore how Russia, and in this case also China, meddles in the politics of other nations in a way that doesn’t always end favorably for those involved.

Recent coup d’état in Guinea could challenge Russian and Chinese economic interests. China and Russia have been competing for the exploitation of Guinea’s rich mineral reserves that include iron ore and bauxite, used to produce aluminum, but economic ventures in West Africa remain vulnerable to political instability and the recent coup in Guinea marks the third such takeover in the past six months, following similar events in Mali and Chad. On September 5, Guinean President Alpha Condé, who’s received Russian support since he assumed power in 2010, was toppled in a coup d’état fronted by the young, charismatic Colonel Mamady Doumbouya. Condé had outraged the general populace when in 2019 he changed the Constitution so that he could continue to lead for a third term in 2020, but both the Chinese and Russians supported his extended rule. Russia has a longstanding economic and trade relationship with Guinea dating back to the Soviet era and has been substantially invested in bauxite mining operations and arms sales with Conakry, with the welcome side effect of challenging key western actors in the process. The Chinese, too, have trade deals with Guinea that date back 50 years, and in return Guinea has supported measures like China’s Hong Kong national security law.

The recent coup, which temporarily shook the global aluminum market and caused prices of the metal to jump to a 10-year high, could affect Chinese and Russian local mining operations if the new leadership seeks to intervene in current practices. And given the coup’s potentially negative impact on China and Russia, the United States has subsequently been accused of assisting Doumbouya, especially since US Special Forces were actively training the Guinean military to bolster its counterterrorism efforts at the time of the takeover. But the United States denies any involvement and the political upheaval in Guinea is part of broader regional frustration with ruling elites who consistently prioritize their own advancement over that of their people. Although the United States, like China and Russia, has denounced the coup, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) appears to be taking a hard stance by sanctioning coup leaders and demanding civilian elections in six months, Doumbouya has likely been watching the success of nearby takeovers and recognizes that punitive measures are generally lifted quickly. While some Guineans are presently celebrating Condé’s demise, the new Guinean leadership will prove an exception if it promotes human rights or institutes positive social change any better than its predecessor in the long run.

As Chilean elections approach, the issue of Chinese foreign investments could be divisive. Chile was the first country in South America to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1970, and the well-established relationship between Chile and China was further bolstered in 2005 with the signing of a free trade agreement. But China wasn’t making a significant investment in Chile until about five years ago when former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet made a substantial push for Chinese funding. The effort has proven successful, and according to InvestChile, a government agency focused on foreign investment in Chile, Chinese firms weathered the pandemic and are embarking on several new Chilean projects with an increasing focus on infrastructure investment. Further, Chinese firm Sinovac recently announced plans to invest $60m in Chile via the construction of a research and development center along with a vaccine manufacturing plant. But some Chilean politicians have stated that Chinese investments need to be viewed through the lens of national security, and others have questioned if recent purchases of major Chilean electricity companies could threaten the nation’s authority over the industry. Chile’s relationship with China has historically been supported by both the right and the left, but it’s possible that as the Chilean presidential elections approach in November, the issue of regulation on foreign investment could become more contentious.

“Jack Devine on the Afghan War’s Financial Disaster,” Bloomberg Radio, September 11, 2021

Bloomberg Opinion columnist Barry Ritholtz speaks with Jack Devine, a 32-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency and the founding partner and president of the international risk consulting firm The Arkin Group. Devine is also the author of “Spymaster’s Prism: The Fight Against Russian Aggression” and “Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story.”

Jack Devine on the Afghan War’s Financial Disaster

In Other News – Terrorism After 9/11 & More – 9/10/2021

September 10, 2021

Terrorism after 9/11 and the potential impact of the Taliban’s reemergence.

Many of us can still remember where we were twenty years ago on September 11, scrambling to contact and locate loved ones as we watched the Twin Towers transform into smoky, foreboding chimneys rapidly approaching collapse. The attacks were highly personal, not only for those who tragically lost family members or friends that day but for anyone who cherished the value of freedom. Thousands of lives were taken on 9/11, and thousands more in the subsequent weeks and years as our nation retaliated against myriad terrorist threats ranging from al-Qaeda attacks on US interests to the advent of ISIS and its attempted caliphate.

Over the past two decades the threat of terrorism has evolved and shifted but it has never disappeared. Terrorist groups continue to exploit local grievances to assert regional control, strengthening their presence in parts of South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Even where groups don’t have a physical foothold, they can claim an ideological one and in the years since 9/11 the internet has significantly disrupted the way that terrorist groups recruit, organize and operate. The recent attack on Karzai airport in Afghanistan, attributed to regional ISIS affiliate ISIS-K, demonstrates the resilience of a diffuse movement whose members are motivated by shared ideology.

Indeed, in Afghanistan, groups like ISIS-K and most notably the Taliban itself, have been able to maintain or develop a certain degree of power despite years of foreign military intervention. It can be debated whether a continued US presence would have contained these violent elements, and for how long and at what cost, but as it stands now the Taliban has gained control and it’s going to try to keep it. The Taliban is presently focused on establishing itself as a legitimate governing entity with firm command over the Afghan people and an eye towards acquiring regional power.

But as part of this effort the Taliban will need to figure out how to use its connections to al-Qaeda and Pakistan to thwart rivals like ISIS-K, potentially expanding its reach into, and further destabilizing, South Asia in the process. While it remains to be seen how much the Taliban and al-Qaeda will ultimately unite to support each other’s regional power grab, the Taliban likely recognizes that any attack on the United States cultivated on Afghan soil would come at an extremely high cost‒ resulting in a rapid US military response, and again weakening the ambitions of both groups in the process.

UAE establishing specialized court for money laundering as part of larger effort to strengthen nation’s standing as an international financial center. Over the past several years the UAE has been making a concerted effort to enhance its anti-money laundering (AML) regime and its progress was recognized in the latest Financial Action Task Force (FATF) assessment that lauded many of the nation’s improvements. But given the stature of the UAE as a major business and financial hub dealing with a large volume of diverse, high-risk inputs, the number of annual money laundering prosecutions nationwide hasn’t lined up with the degree and type of activity. Recognizing this disparity, in late August, the government of Dubai announced the establishment of a new court within the Court of First Instance and the Court of Appeal that will be focused on prosecuting money laundering offenses, further building out the UAE’s efforts to prevent financial crime after the Executive Office of AML and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (CFT) was approved by the cabinet in April. Abu Dhabi established a similar court last fall which has already been instrumental in prosecuting financial crimes that often require specialized expertise. While the UAE’s AML/CFT efforts are increasingly important and commendable, the success of the courts will still depend on inputs from financial institutions, regulators, and invested citizens who must all play a role in identifying criminal activity and alerting authorities to the illicit behavior.

In Other News – Terrorist Attack in Kabul, Africa’s Sahel and terrorist attacks, & More – 8/27/2021

August 27, 2021

Terrorist attacks in Kabul kill numerous US service members, civilians and Afghans, harbinger of challenges to come. Thursday’s tragic attacks near Kabul airport were coordinated, complex, and effective at challenging the Taliban’s authority in a high-profile act of destruction. The attacks have been claimed by regional ISIS-affiliate, ISIS-Khorasan “ISIS-K”, which was officially established in early 2015 and is primarily comprised of Taliban defectors, former Pakistani Tehrik-i-Taliban members, and former members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. For several years ISIS-K has been fighting against the Taliban, particularly in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan where both groups want to rule the drug trade. ISIS-K has also remarked that the Taliban was in partnership with the US military and has abandoned the jihadist battlefield for a national, not universal, cause. A UN Security Council report from February 2021 indicates that ISIS-K was responsible for the deaths of about 600 civilians and 2,500 Afghan security forces from early 2020-2021, and even though the group had lost territory it maintained sleeper cells in Kabul. Thursday’s ISIS-K attacks are likely indicative of violent unrest to come as the Taliban navigates how to govern a country that is impoverished, economically dependent on illegal narcotics sales and foreign aid, rife with dissenting violent jihadists groups, and devoid of many competent civil society and service members who recently fled the nation.

In Africa’s Sahel, steady stream of terrorist attacks demonstrates continued breadth and brutality of al-Qaeda and ISIS-linked militants. Last week, two armed militant attacks on villagers in southwestern Niger resulted in more than 50 deaths, and on Wednesday over 16 Nigerien soldiers were killed in a southeast attack by terrorist group Boko Haram. Niger, which borders seven countries and is among the world’s poorest, has seen an uptick in terrorist attacks over the past year. According to Niger’s newly elected President Mohamed Bazoum, his country is struggling to contain the insurgency and can’t afford to purchase the airplanes necessary to secure multiple vulnerable areas. Despite more than eight years of military intervention led by the French, armed groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS in the region persist, and French President Emmanuel Macron recently announced plans to withdraw about half of the French troops, explaining that France doesn’t have the vocation or the will to stay eternally in the Sahel. France will, however, continue to be instrumental in leading specialized counterterrorism efforts in the region in collaboration with other local and international partners. In addition to ongoing attacks in the Sahel, some jihadists are moving south into deeper parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and continue to exploit porous borders, ethnic tensions, criminal networks, political instability, and weak or corrupt security forces.

Big Oil investing heavily in offshore oil projects in Brazil, Latin America, diversification important for long term economic health. During 2020, while demand for oil plummeted in many parts of the world, Brazil was increasing its output and production shows little sign of stopping. According to Brazil’s energy minister, the nation will be pumping 5.3 million barrels daily by 2030 and could be among the top five oil producers in the world. Brazil has been offering high quality, low-priced oil at a time of strife and competition among OPEC+ countries, making its projected 75% increase over the next 10 years a more realistic target. Further, Brazil’s offshore pre-salt fields are appealing because they offer crude oil with low carbon intensity, making them a slightly greener option during the transition to decarbonize the global economy. In addition to Big Oil’s investments in Brazil, leading companies are also putting significant funds into offshore projects and exploration in Guyana and Surinam. Venezuela, too, is hoping for easing of sanctions in the upcoming months that might help the nation reclaim its spot as a dominant producer. While Latin America is poised to take a leading role in oil production over the next five to ten years, simultaneous economic diversification will be critical given the increasing global efforts to reduce carbon dependance.

In Other News – Taliban at the helm & More – 8/20/2021

August 20, 2021

Taliban at the helm, regional actors engage new Afghan leadership for geostrategic gains. While the international community grapples with how, if, and to what extent it should engage with the Taliban, regional powers Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan – who all laid the groundwork for relations with the Taliban and continue to safely operate their embassies in Kabul − are working with the new leadership to secure their geostrategic positions. Russia, who initially welcomed the Taliban’s downfall back in 2001, has steadily changed course over time, seemingly concluding that it could better negotiate with the Taliban than a US-supported Afghan government. But Russia, who is eager to be the dominant military power in Central Asia, will need the Taliban to effectively keep narcotics trafficking and militant activity in the neighborhood at bay. China, like Russia, wants to prevent transnational militant groups from encroaching, namely those with ties to China’s Muslim population in the Xinjiang region that borders Afghanistan. China will also pressure the Taliban to limit its influence on extremist groups within Pakistan where Beijing has invested substantial funds in the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor infrastructure projects. China’s own investment in Afghanistan is a possibility, but Beijing will likely be cautious due to both the Taliban’s yet-undetermined governing direction and past experiences losing money in similar Afghan initiatives. Iran cares most about getting rid of the US, protecting its Afghan border, and making sure that the Afghan Shi’a population isn’t persecuted. The Iranian Supreme Leader is willing to set aside substantial differences between himself and the Taliban leadership to achieve these goals and is reportedly in discussion with the Taliban to develop a more inclusive government representative of all Afghan ethnicities. Pakistan, who already has a well-established relationship with the Taliban, will now be looking to contain its own extremist and separatist groups from inspiration or influence. And despite the complicated nature of working with a nation who has arguably kept the Taliban alive for the past two decades, the US will need to collaborate with Islamabad if it wants to have any substantial impact on the Taliban’s actions. In addition to each nation’s engagement with the Taliban, shifting dynamics are at play between the nations themselves: China and Pakistan are close allies, Russia might be somewhat warming to Pakistan after decades of siding with India, and China and Russia have been conducting joint military exercises.

Venezuelan negotiations underway with limited expectations, investors watching closely. Last week in Mexico City representatives of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro came together with representatives of the US-backed democratic opposition to initiate negotiations aimed at ending the five-year political stalemate. In a seemingly goodwill gesture, during the week Maduro released Freddy Guevara, an opposition leader who was imprisoned for over a month due to alleged involvement in a violent attack against security forces, so that he can participate when the talks begin in earnest in early September. In a new twist, both Maduro and the opposition will be represented by a primary negotiator of their choice: Maduro’s camp will be represented by Russia, and the opposition will be supported by the Netherlands- their second choice to the United States who will instead be part of a broader team of 10 international negotiators. The talks will be facilitated by Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and seven critical issues ranging from human rights to economic policies will be on the table. Maduro, whose primary goal is to get the US to ease sanctions, is entering the negotiations in a strong position and has succeeded in the past even when coming from a weaker one; but opposition leaders appear cautiously optimistic that they might be able to reach partial agreements on issues like Covid-19 vaccine imports and ensuring fair conditions for the upcoming regional elections in November. Some international investors too, seem to think that partial sanctions relief could be a possibility, and several private equity funds and companies have demonstrated a renewed interest in Venezuela‒ angling to profit from the first phase of a potential economic recovery.