In Other News – Putin’s Brinkmanship Remains as Ukraine Crisis Continues, France and Others Announce Troop Withdrawal from Mali, & More – 2/18/2022

February 18, 2022

As the Ukraine crisis continues, Putin’s brinkmanship is further called into question. Conflicting reports regarding Russian troop withdrawal from the Ukrainian border were rampant this week, while Kyiv and Russian-backed separatists both accused each other of ceasefire violations. On Friday, the separatist leader of eastern Ukraine’s self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) reportedly ordered the mass evacuation of women, children, and elderly citizens to Russia due to concerns that Ukraine was launching some sort of offensive. Kyiv utterly denied the allegation. While accusations of shelling along the line of contact in Donbas could serve as a pretext for further Russian force, the ongoing tensions are also serving to bolster Ukraine’s military capability. The United States is selling more weaponry like Abrams tanks to neighboring states like Poland, while other nations like the Netherlands just announced plans to send more military equipment to Ukraine. As the crisis drags on, Putin’s brinkmanship is further called into question. But if he’s not bluffing, Putin’s picking a very costly and historic, paradigm shifting battle with the United States and an increasingly united West.

Tensions remain high on the Russia-Ukraine crisis, but it’s not distracting Putin from cultivating allies in Latin America. This week, Putin met with Brazilian President Bolsonaro in Moscow, where the pair primarily focused on energy project cooperation: in September Russia’s Rosatom signed an agreement to help Brazil develop and maintain nuclear power plants. It’s also convenient that Brazil currently sits on the UN Security Council, but Putin’s interested in an even broader regional impact. Earlier this month, Argentine President Alberto Fernández also visited Putin in Moscow, where the leaders reportedly discussed Argentina’s desire to be less dependent upon the United States and IMF funding.

Indeed, despite the heavy focus on Ukraine, Putin’s been building up military presence in Latin America over the past several years- most overtly in Nicaragua, but with ventures in Venezuela and the Caribbean as well. He’s also been expanding regional cooperation in areas like agriculture, mining, and space. These activities are reminiscent of the Cold War alliances with countries that are unfriendly to the United States. While Putin knows that developing a coalition of anti-US authoritarian regimes in Latin America might not present a direct threat to US security, he’s painting Moscow as a third path and economic and political ramifications could be significant.

France and European security partners announce troop withdrawal from Mali after nearly a decade of fighting. According to French President Macron, the decision to withdraw all troops from Mali, and likely redeploy them elsewhere in the Sahel, follows multiple obstructions by Malian authorities. In the past several years, the conditions to effectively collaborate on counterterrorism in Mali have eroded. In August 2020, internal special forces officers toppled Mali’s president, and nine months later, Col. Assisi Goita led a second coup and instated himself as leader. Goita’s regime has since ignored its transitional status, as well as promises to hold free and fair elections, frustrating Paris and its allies. Further, in January France’s top diplomat accused Mali of hiring Russian Wagner Group mercenaries, although Putin continues to deny any state-association with the hired force. With France’s latest plans to withdraw, what remains to combat a resurgent AQ and ISIS in a beleaguered Mali will be Mali’s army, a United Nations peacekeeping mission, and a government primarily focused on retaining its own power.

Canadian Freedom Convoy demonstrates how the same tools that group organizers rely upon can quickly be used against them, raises questions of future interference. After the Canadian government requested that mainstream crowdfunding platform GoFundMe remove a fundraising site supporting the convoy, the group began to receive online donations via alternative site GiveSendGo. But this week GiveSendGo was hacked, and its donor list leaked. While groups like the convoy are leveraging technology and social networking to their advantage, so are their ideological opponents. Individuals from all over the world reportedly donated to the convoy, and there have been copycat movements in other countries. Foreign elements could also take advantage of online organizing efforts like this. But the reach the internet allows comes with a risk, and the individuals who support these actions furtively are being exposed – not unlike how January 6th activists were identified via their social media postings. What’s notable about the recent convoy developments is that this is one of the first times a hacktivist group is targeting these specific groups and actors, which may be the beginning of a trend to watch in the cybersphere where independent hackers are taking aim at what they characterize as antidemocratic populist movements.