In Other News: Russian Aggression, Cuba without the Castros & More – April 23, 2021

April 23, 2021

Russia appears to be seeking out a middle ground between overt aggression and plausible deniability in its western-facing foreign policy, likely in response to the U.S. ratcheting up the rhetoric around and response to Kremlin transgressions in the U.S., UK, and elsewhere. President Putin warned the U.S. and other Western countries in a state-of-the-nation speech that crossing unspecified “red lines” would bring an “asymmetric, fast and tough” response. But on the same day, Russia’s defense ministry announced plans to pull back troops back after amassing forces at the Ukrainian border in what the U.S. and allies had seen as an alarming display of sabre rattling. The Kremlin must show its domestic audience that it will respond in kind to recent U.S. moves to penalize Russia for election interference, adventurism in Ukraine, and the poisoning and imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. At the same time, Russia’s president and his circle are under increasing strain from the economic impact of previous sanctions, Covid, and low oil prices, along with rising public discontent over the Navalny issue and punitive actions taken by other countries that object to Russian hacking, spying, and other transgressions. More than 10,000 people in cities across Russia have turned out to protest Navalny’s detention – despite a ban on protests – and at least 1,700 were arrested. Separately, NATO member the Czech Republic expelled dozens of Russian diplomats over evidence that the Kremlin had had a hand in an attack on a Czech weapons facility in 2014. Evidence is building that while the West has been focused on other threats, Russia has continued with Cold War-era tactics and strategies intended to weaken its erstwhile Western adversaries (and suppress dissent at home), and as more of that evidence comes to light, the fallout is growing more severe. With its pullback of forces from the Ukrainian border, Russia is signaling that it recognizes the value of limited compromise in maintaining a civil (if chilly) relationship with those adversaries, and thus may prove amenable to agreeing to a new set of Moscow Rules.

Raúl Castro has stepped down from power in Cuba, leaving the island without a Castro at the helm for the first time since the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Miguel Díaz-Canel will take over as the hand-picked successor to lead the Communist Party. He is already Cuba’s current president and considered a party loyalist and faithful to the tenets of the Cuban Revolution, which include economic controls and a one-party political system. The news of Castro’s retirement was not surprising. If anything, the changing of the guard has been slow and methodical, just like the opening of the Cuban economy has been to private investment and entrepreneurship. The Cuban Communist Party has managed to maintain control over the country for decades now, even amid deep economic contractions felt in the mid-1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union and in the last year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. To address the economic pain caused by the pandemic and a halt in tourism, the Cuban government has sought to make minor adjustments to the types of private sector jobs legally licensed to Cubans. They include many service sector-type jobs designed to give Cubans an ability to make dollars on the island, but even still, the main sectors of the economy such as sugar, tobacco, and nickel mining are not on the list and remain state-controlled industries. And despite Raúl Castro’s departure from government, it is unlikely that Cuba will see any major political changes in the near term. The legacy of the Cuban Revolution – its successes in education, healthcare, and maintaining Cuba’s cultural identity – remains important to the political elite in power like Díaz-Canel, and they seem more inclined to hang on to that power and control rather than institute meaningful political or economic change in Cuba.

Idriss Deby, President of Chad, was killed in a clash with rebels on Saturday after three decades in office and having just been elected to a sixth term as president. Chad had long been a critical ally to France in the fight against Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other terrorist groups active in the Sahara-Sahel region of Africa. Deby’s death may mark the end of that base of support as well as a period of growing instability in the region. A number of terrorist groups active in Chad, Nigeria, and other countries in the Sahara-Sahel have been aligned or otherwise linked, even if loosely, with transnational terrorist organizations, and pockets of instability in any region can offer a safe haven in which those groups can plan, train, and flourish. The rebel group responsible for Deby’s death, the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), reportedly trained in Libya, yet another country struggling with instability after the long rule and violent death of its former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The U.S. is currently grappling with the potential implications of a complete pull-out of troops from Afghanistan by September 11 of this year, and what that may mean for the locale as a renewed training ground for extremists. However, the problem is not limited to Afghanistan. The potential implications of terrorist breeding grounds are likely to be felt far beyond the regions in which those breeding grounds are located – attacks can and do happen far from where the planning and training take place.