Daily Memo: Update on Azerbaijan-Armenia Hostilities

Update on Azerbaijan-Armenia border clashes. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry on Monday accused Armenia of violating a cease-fire 45 times over the past day using high-caliber machine guns and sniper rifles. Armenia’s Defense Ministry, however, said one of its contract servicemen was killed overnight by sniper fire from Azerbaijani forces. Turkey and Russia seem increasingly interested in the conflict. Turkey will participate in tactical exercises hosted by Azerbaijan next month involving both countries’ ground and air forces. And on Saturday, roughly 5,000 protesters held a rally in Istanbul’s Bayazid Square to express their support for Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, Armenia last week hosted joint exercises with Russia, though they were scheduled prior to the outbreak of the latest hostilities, according to Armenian authorities. Turkey and Russia undoubtedly don’t want a confrontation right now, but both countries will be keeping a close eye on what happens on the Azerbaijan-Armenia border as, in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own words, the situation is “very sensitive.” Exchanging fire. Israel and Hezbollah have exchanged heavy fire after Israel Defense Forces said they foiled a Hezbollah attack in the contested Mount Dov area on Monday. Hezbollah reportedly launched a Kornet anti-tank guided missile at the IDF, though Israel denied this. […]

The Presidential Elections in Belarus

On Aug. 9, Belarus will hold presidential elections at a time when the country has never faced so many threats from so many directions. That’s according to incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko, who has held office since 1994. Self-serving as that may be, he may also have a point. Belarus is divided between opposition groups that want to bring it closer to Europe, and thus away from Russia, and groups that want the opposite. For Lukashenko, who has generally sided with Russia in his time in office, confronting the public divide means grappling with the geopolitical issues critical to Belarus’ future. In that sense, he has two objectives: one, to maintain the country’s sovereignty by balancing between Russia and the West, and two, to stay in power long enough to do it. Short of a Western-backed revolution – which doesn’t appear to be on the table – his position is secure. Stuck in the Middle Lukashenko understands his country’s dilemma, stuck as it is between Russia and Europe, and he knows the conflict in Ukraine only makes it worse. He’s gone so far as to warn that Belarus could revert back to its 1921 borders. Territorial loss is extremely unlikely, but […]

Daily Memo: Coalitions in the Med

Coalitions in the Med. Europe is scrambling to resolve the standoff in the Eastern Mediterranean. French President Emmanuel Macron held a meeting with Cyprus’ president, Nicos Anastasia, during which they called for sanctions on Turkey and criticized the European Union for doing “too little” in the face of a power struggle with Turkey and Russia in the Mediterranean. A spokesman for Turkey’s Foreign Ministry criticized the proposals and reiterated Turkey’s intention to defend its “legitimate rights” in the Eastern Mediterranean. But as Turkey and France participate in a war of words, Greece and EU leaders are conducting backdoor discussions to build a coalition against Turkey and explore possibilities for de-escalation. This past week alone, Greece’s foreign minister has discussed options with the foreign ministers of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the EU. Greece is hopeful the situation can be defused without coming to blows. Its national security adviser, for example, has ruled out the possibility of military confrontation, saying talks brokered by Germany were trending toward de-escalation. Conflicting reports in Iran. Iran Watch reports that the recent explosion at the Natanz nuclear facility was caused by a bomb allegedly planted by a contracted engineer, who had worked at Natanz for […]

The EU Opens the Door to More China Trade

After 10 years of negotiation, the European Council earlier this week authorized the EU to sign a trade agreement with China. The deal will protect geographical indications, a type of intellectual property for products like Camembert cheese from Lower Normandy and Prosecco from Veneto that possess certain qualities unique to their place of origin. The agreement will prevent these kinds of products from being produced elsewhere and sold using expressions such as “kind,” “type,” “style” and “imitation.” The deal may not sound like much; it covers just 100 products from each side, and some EU members are more represented than others on the list of products. (French goods, for example, represent a quarter of the protected products.) But it is notable that the EU, at this critical time, is laying the groundwork for a broader trade agreement with China. Indeed, the timing of the deal is interesting. It had been under negotiation for a decade, a long time even by EU standards, and it still needs approval from the European Parliament (which is mostly a formality at this point) before it can take effect. Moreover, the European Commission called China a “strategic competitor” as recently as 2019, and opinion polls […]

Daily Memo: Cease-Fires and Divisions

Two Libyas? Senior officials from the foreign ministries of Turkey and Russia met from July 21 to July 22 in Ankara to discuss a cease-fire in Libya. They agreed that they should continue to jointly try to resolve the civil war, noting that any military solution could be just as detrimental to Libya in the long term, but they are still on opposing sides of the conflict. This raises the possibility that Libya could be divided into eastern and western regions governed by the Libyan National Army (supported by Russia) and the Government of National Accord (supported by Turkey), respectively. Even if Libya agreed to a hypothetical division, other countries would object, most notably Germany, whose defense minister said it would be bad for Europe. Another cease-fire in Ukraine. Negotiators from Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reached a cease-fire agreement Wednesday — a precondition for Normandy Format talks with Germany, Russia, France and Ukraine later this year. But some obstacles remain. Even if militants in the east honor the agreement, Kyiv refuses to designate a special status for the Donbas region, Donetsk and Luhansk, vowing to advance its control of the Russian-Ukrainian border before […]

Daily Memo: Setting Fire to Diplomacy, Hezbollah Retaliates

China, we have a problem. The U.S. abruptly ordered the closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, Texas, citing “massive illegal spying and influence operations,” and gave the Chinese 72 hours to vacate the premises. Washington didn’t provide any more detail on its rationale for the move, but it comes less than a day after the Department of Justice unsealed an indictment accusing a pair of government-affiliated hackers of trying to steal COVID-19 research from U.S. companies. The Chinese reportedly burned so many documents before leaving that the Houston Fire Department was called to the scene. True to form, Beijing pledged to retaliate (U.S. diplomats and spies in China might want to get a jump on their own shredding operations). However, Reuters has reported that Beijing is considering ordering the closure of the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan, which has been shuttered since the coronavirus outbreak began. In other words, Beijing is mainly interested in saving face and keeping the matter from escalating. There are several irresolvable points of contention in the U.S.-Chinese relationship — and, to be sure, all major powers run espionage operations out of their embassies and consulates — but a complete breakdown in diplomatic channels is in […]

The Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales

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The British recently finished building two new aircraft carriers, the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales. Last week, Britain announced that one of...

Daily Memo: The EU Deadlock Breaks

The deadlock breaks. After three days of intense negotiations – which comprised the second-longest summit in European Council history – the European Union finally reached a deal on Tuesday on a coronavirus recovery plan. The stalemate between the EU’s northern and southern member states over the size and scope of the “Next Generation EU” package finally broke with an agreement on a 1 trillion-euro long-term budget and 750 billion-euro recovery plan. But while the EU celebrates reaching consensus after months of talks, many hard-hit southern economies say the deal still doesn’t go far enough and are already lobbying for another wave of financial assistance in the future. The recovery plan includes 360 billion euros in loans and 390 billion euros in grants – which is a slight victory for the northern “frugal four” countries considering the initial proposal had offered 500 billion euros in grants. The frugals, which called the deal “historic,” were also given larger rebates on their EU contributions than was originally anticipated. Dam trouble in China? Chinese authorities are warning that the mighty Yangtze River is cresting again, risking a major increase in flooding that has already displaced millions of people and killed at least 15. The […]

Lebanon’s Place in the Middle East

This year is modern Lebanon’s 100th anniversary. What should be an auspicious occasion is instead marked by the most severe economic crisis in the country’s history. Poverty grows every day as the middle class disappears, and citizens have publicly vented their frustrations over what they see as an out of touch ruling class. Arab Gulf countries have yet to come to their aid as they have in the past, arguing that helping Lebanon helps Hezbollah, Iran’s most reliable regional proxy group. The government’s failure to deal with deteriorating social conditions has revived demands for disarming Hezbollah and reestablishing Lebanon’s neutrality. The Maronite Church is leading the drive to extricate Lebanon from the conflicts of the region, strengthen the machinery of the state, and empower the national army. Supported by the Vatican, the local representative of its Caritas humanitarian charity has warned the international community that Lebanon is rapidly disintegrating. Sectarian Problems Solutions to these kinds of problems are often elusive for a country as complex as Lebanon. Its founding fathers understood the complexity of the country’s sectarian divisions, and how those divisions were made worse by centuries of isolation in mountain sanctuaries that separated most Christians, Shiites and Druze from […]

Daily Memo: US Naval Drills in the Indian Ocean and Black Sea

U.S.-Indian maritime exercises. The U.S. and Indian navies are expected to conduct joint exercises this week in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean Basin. The USS Nimitz carrier group reportedly moved into the waters en route to the Middle East after taking part in war games with the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea last week. The planned exercise is relatively modest – just a “basic maritime drill” known as a passing exercise – but the timing and location are both significant. It comes less than a month after India conducted a similar drill with Japan, and amid widespread reports that Australia for the first time will join the India-led Malabar exercises in August, which also feature the U.S. and Japan. (The four countries together make up the so-called Quad.) As we’ve discussed, the Quad will coalesce around quiet moves by the four partners to deepen cooperation more than around any sort of grand shows of quadrilateral unity. It is also notable that the U.S.-India drill will take place around India’s strategically invaluable Andaman and Nicobar islands, near the mouth of the Strait of Malacca. If India is going to play a robust role in any coalition […]

Is the Eastern Mediterranean the New Manchuria and Abyssinia?

A financial crisis has swept the globe, creating socio-economic tensions and political divisions that divert governments’ attention from important global issues. In the preceding years of chaos, flashpoints emerged in Africa and Asia that pitted revisionists, allies and institutions against one another. Japan installed a puppet government in Manchuria in 1931 before fully invading the mainland six years later. Meanwhile, Italy attacked and annexed Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) in 1935 and 1936. These actions bent international law to its breaking point and tested the limits of allies. Despite its design for collective security, the paralyzed League of Nations – undermined by entangled allegiances and conflicts among its own members – was effectively dead. 2020 isn’t 1938, but the parallels are difficult to ignore. The world is bracing itself for the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, one that, without a COVID-19 vaccine, may only get worse. Indeed, the 2008 financial crisis may have started the turn toward nationalism and isolationism, but the current pandemic has accelerated it, creating a climate that prioritizes state imperatives over all else and calls into question the reliability of international institutions. This time, the flashpoint is the Eastern Mediterranean. The ongoing hostility between Greece and […]

Daily Memo: Iranian Protests Are Back

Welcome back, Iranian protests. After a several-month hiatus due largely to the coronavirus outbreak, protests have broken out again in Iran, this time in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan. Citizens there are upset with economic conditions that continue to deteriorate under sanctions even as the government in Tehran presses forward with foreign adventurism in places like Gaza and Lebanon. The government has since dispersed protesters with tear gas and has partially restricted internet access in Khuzestan, while security forces were preemptively deployed to major cities such as Tehran and Isfahan. The protests come after a controversial governmental decision to uphold death sentences for three protesters who demonstrated against the government late last year, when unrest erupted over similar grievances of political frustration and poor economic conditions. Harsh crackdowns from Iran’s police and Basij forces resulted in the deadliest street violence since the 1979 revolution. The news of protests coincides with fresh U.S. intelligence that Iran has placed portions of its air defense system on “high alert” following several accidental fires and unexplained explosions at a number of Iranian facilities. Many, though not Tehran itself, have blamed the “mishaps” on Israel. Escalating threats in the Caucasus. Following cross-border clashes over the […]