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.