Daily Memo: North Korea Backs Down, Putin Promises Changes

Kim backs down. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un suspended plans for “military action” against South Korea, per state media on Wednesday. North Korea also reportedly began taking down loudspeakers blasting propaganda toward the South – something that doesn’t particularly bother Seoul but that drives Pyongyang batty when South Korea cranks up its own loudspeakers. This caps several weeks of hostility from the North toward Seoul, ostensibly over the launching of balloons carrying food and anti-Kim propaganda across the Demilitarized Zone by activists in the South. The North’s recent moves have been peculiar, to say the least, but point mostly toward internal stresses. The most likely explanation was that Kim was trying to help his sister, Kim Yo Jong, consolidate some power, as his alleged health problems over the past few months exposed how unprepared the regime is for an untimely demise by the leader. When the regime gets preoccupied with power struggles in the capital, it often makes a big show of external hostility in order to both impress the masses at home and warn outside powers against any attempts at political meddling. Meanwhile, North Korea is widely believed to be under immense economic pressure. (China is reportedly quietly […]

Will the Coronavirus Forge a Brave New World?

Of all the major geopolitical players on the planet, Mother Nature may be the toughest adversary. Nature has neither imperatives nor constraints to guide its behavior. Rather, it operates off general patterns that occur under various conditions. While the patterns provide broad strokes of expected behavior, it strikes mostly randomly. Even predictable phenomena, such as the Atlantic hurricane season, tell us nothing about the magnitude and target of, or potential for, economic damage. A catastrophic Category 5 hurricane that misses major population centers is quickly forgotten; a milder Category 3 hurricane that decimates New Orleans has long-lasting consequences. Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by a novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, was a predictable phenomenon. Modern disease outbreaks allow scientists to detect patterns, even if they cannot precisely predict what, when, where and how an outbreak might occur. For decades, microbiologists and epidemiologists have warned about an influenza pandemic. These occur with some regularity; the previous four were in 1918, 1957, 1968 and 2009. But while public health officials were fixated on the flu, a deadly new virus was percolating in China. By the time the biomedical community fully grasped the severity of the disease, it was too late. It had […]

Daily Memo: India and China Pull Back From the Brink

Cooler heads in the Himalayas. India and China on Tuesday agreed on a set of “modalities for disengagement from all friction areas in eastern Ladakh” in the Himalayas, per a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement and unnamed Indian government sources. Few details of the pullback have been released. As we’ve discussed, the unforgiving geography of the Himalayas strictly limits on the ability of either side to escalate matters along the Line of Actual Control itself – making it relatively easy for cooler heads to prevail. But that doesn’t mean the clashes can’t lead to indirect escalation elsewhere. India, for example, is pushing through a bevy of new restrictions on doing business with Chinese firms amid widespread public calls for a boycott targeting Chinese goods. New Delhi is reportedly reconsidering its reluctance to ban Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE from its 5G buildout. On the military front, India has reportedly asked Russia – for years, India’s foremost arms supplier – to expedite deliveries of new fighter jets and S-400 missile defense systems. Either way, Chinese pressure in the Himalayas isn’t about to go away. On a related note, Nepal’s government is reportedly concerned that China’s rerouting of rivers in Tibet will […]

Putin’s New History of Europe and the Rehabilitation of Stalin

Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to argue that World War II, and much of the suffering wrought by it, was the responsibility not just...

Daily Memo: Protests in Belarus, Armed Forces Reforms in China

Unrest in Belarus. Protests have erupted again in Belarus against the detention of activists and presidential hopefuls set to challenge President Alexander Lukashenko in elections that will take place on Aug. 9. About 270 participants – at least 80 in Minsk and about 10 each in Gomel, Vitebsk and Bobruisk – were arrested for violating rules against holding mass events and disobeying police officers. The EU has voiced its support for the protesters, saying that Belarusian authorities must ensure equal conditions for all those who wish to participate in the presidential elections. Viktor Babariko, the former head of Belgazprombank, was detained last week over allegations of tax evasion and money laundering, and protest leader and blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky had previously also been jailed. After verifying the signatures of each presidential nominee, the Central Election Commission of Belarus allowed seven candidates, including Babariko, to enter the race. But it’s likely that the protests will continue, and it’s unlikely that Lukashenko will allow tough measures that would clamp down on the protesters. He still controls the power structures, and he needs to ensure that the election is contested to avoid accusations of misconduct not only from voters but also from the West, […]

For Russia, the Future Is North

Stabilizing its Arctic regions is becoming a priority for Moscow.

Daily Memo: China Tightens Its Belt and Road

Beijing tightens its Belt and Road. China on Friday admitted that nearly a fifth of its BRI projects have been “seriously affected” by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. According to a Chinese Foreign Ministry survey, another 30-40 percent of BRI projects have been “somewhat affected.” We have no idea what either of those descriptions means in reality. But it stands to reason that, between China’s need to focus its fiscal resources on domestic rescues and the financial fix that governments across the world are suddenly in, projects that were already commercially dubious are now prime candidates for the chopping block. Even before the pandemic, Beijing was forcing state-backed banks and firms involved in BRI projects to apply greater scrutiny to their investments. Partner countries were doing the same. On Friday, Pakistan announced that it was slashing its contribution to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – one of Beijing’s flagship BRI initiatives – by as much as a third. And a Pakistani Senate committee is demanding the release of details about an agreement between Beijing and Islamabad on the strategically lucrative Gwadar port project, which is at the center of speculation about Chinese naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean. It’s worth […]

Why the Himalayas Are Worth Fighting For

It says quite a bit about the sheer improbability of a major China-India war in the Himalayas that this week’s deadly clash in the Galwan Valley – which produced the first fatalities along the disputed high-altitude border since 1975 – played out the way it did. No shots were fired, no explosives detonated. Rather, it was just two nuclear powers going at it the old-fashioned way: with fists and clubs and whatever else their troops could find lying around. The 20-odd Indian soldiers and their two dozen or so Chinese counterparts who reportedly lost their lives are believed to have done so by falling off a cliff and/or into a river turgid with spring snowmelt. The unforgiving terrain impeded rescue efforts on both sides, leaving the wounded exposed to sub-zero temperatures. Both China and India have been building out ambitious networks of roads and outposts in order to be able to bring substantial firepower to the frontline. Yet, evidently, neither side is capable of truly taming the unforgiving geography of the Himalayas to the extent needed to conduct complicated operations, much less stage an overland invasion into the other’s heartland. But this doesn’t mean that the high ground isn’t strategically […]

Turkey and Iran’s Entente in Iraq

Earlier this week, there appeared to be a thaw in tensions between Iran and Turkey. After months of tense exchanges, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Istanbul to discuss “all aspects” of the Iranian-Turkish relationship with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu. After the meeting, the ministers announced plans to deepen trade ties, further cooperate in the Syrian peace process and reopen Iran-Turkey border crossings. These developments are part of a new Middle Eastern entente in the making. Last year, Turkey launched Operation Claw against militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in northern Iraq, and just this week, it launched aerial and ground offensives, dubbed Operation Claw-Eagle and Operation Claw-Tiger, that involved the deployment of ground, artillery and air units to “neutralize” 500 PKK targets and set up a series of temporary bases in the region. In the past, Turkey has launched these types of counterterrorism operations alone. But this time, it had backup. And as Operation Claw-Eagle began, Iranian artillery units simultaneously shelled multiple PKK hideouts along the Iran-Iraq border around the Haji Omeran district. (click to enlarge) Iran’s assault on the PKK was more than just a coincidence; it appears that Ankara and Tehran are creating […]

Daily Memo: Russia’s Regional Budgets, US-UK Trade

Russian government revenue falls. According to a study by the HSE Center of Development Institute, revenues for Russia’s regions fell on average by 30 percent in April relative to April 2019 due to declining oil prices and the coronavirus crisis. The largest decline was in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, Astrakhan region, the Komi Republic, Tuva Republic and the Krasnodar Territory, all of which saw their revenues fall by at least 60 percent. Revenues from income taxes fell by 29 percent, from personal income taxes by almost 20 percent and from property taxes by 44 percent. This was the result of slowing business activity, a fall in salaries and rising unemployment. (In the first two weeks of June, the number of officially registered unemployed people increased by 16 percent, totaling 2.42 million people.) At the same time, however, spending in the regions increased significantly, especially on medicine, expenditures on which nearly doubled. It’s expected that after quarantine restrictions are lifted, the economy will gradually improve, but the lower income levels may continue to cause problems for the federal government. The regions will find it hard to finance not only previously planned projects but also the sectors that were hurt significantly by […]

Daily Memo: Clarity on the Himalayan Skirmish, More Confusion in Korea

Sticks, stones and 15,000-foot cliffs. As it turns out, the first casualties since 1975 in the India-China Himalayan standoff came not from a firefight, as assumed. (This is important, as it would have meant one or both sides had broken a mutual protocol that bars troops in the area from carrying firearms, potentially presaging a dangerous break from the historical pattern.) Rather, it appears the mother of all brawls broke out in the disputed Galwan Valley when, at least per Indian media, Chinese troops “trapped and encircled” an Indian patrol of some 120 troops in an area China had previously agreed to vacate. The melee, which lasted some six hours, involved stones, iron rods and “nail-studded clubs.” Some of the reported 20 Indian troops who died reportedly fell to their deaths off a 15,000-foot cliff. Others died from their injuries and/or exposure as nightfall brought with it subzero temperatures. Indian media and U.S. intelligence are claiming that there were as many as 43 Chinese casualties as well, and Beijing has hinted that this was indeed the case, without confirming it. (In past conflicts, China did not provide official casualty counts for years or even decades afterward.) The schoolyard nature of […]

Latin America’s Place in the World

Whether they like it or not, most countries are drawn into the international system in one way or another. For this reason, introducing the concept of “international insertion” into the study of international relations may seem redundant or unnecessary. But it plays an important role in the study of Latin America’s international relations, in particular, because it helps explain the region’s geopolitical realities, which are founded in its place at the periphery of the global system. The concept involves identifying the ways in which a country can become more involved in the global system. In geopolitics, not all countries are created equal; some are more powerful than others, but the behavior of all is governed by their attempts to acquire and maintain power. Powerful states that are able drive the global system are considered the center of gravity, and weak states that do not have the means to influence the global system exist on the periphery, orbiting around the center. Geography determines whether a country is part of the periphery or the center because these are the things that determine a country’s power potential. Although technological advances have offered countries ways to overcome their limitations, many Latin American states remain […]