Tensions in the Sea of Azov. On Sunday, the Russian navy opened fire on three Ukrainian ships before seizing them in the Kerch Strait, the narrow passageway connecting the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Moscow claims the Ukrainian ships – two small armored artillery vessels and a tugboat – had entered Russian territorial waters near Crimea illegally. Russian warplanes and combat helicopters were deployed in the area. Six Ukrainian sailors were injured. Russia accused Kiev of orchestrating the entire incident; making Moscow the villain would create the conditions for new Western sanctions, and the imposition of martial law in Ukraine would allow Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to delay upcoming elections, in which he is trailing. (The parliament will vote on the issue of martial law later today.) Russia has been slowly solidifying its position in Crimea since seizing the peninsula in 2014. It’s bided its time, preparing for a potential military conflict, and if statements made by Poroshenko are to be believed, that conflict is in the offing: He claims to have intelligence that Russia is readying itself for a ground invasion. But those statements are hard to believe. Russia is wary of new sanctions, and it doesn’t need to fight a war with Ukraine to secure its interests there. Still, the coming days will be unpredictable, as is often the case when domestic politics muddies the waters.
Brexit: out of the frying pan, into the fire. EU leaders have approved the text of the Brexit withdrawal agreement and political declaration. The latter is non-binding and outlines both sides’ aspirations for the long-term relationship. The former sets the terms of the transition period between Brexit day in March 2019 and the end of 2020, at which point there will be a deal on the future relationship, a one- or two-year extension of the transition period, or the dreaded backstop will kick in. The approval process was not without drama. The main obstacle to unanimous support had been Gibraltar. In the end, the United Kingdom agreed that the terms of the future relationship would not apply to “the Rock;” instead, the U.K. and Spain, which have feuded over Gibraltar for centuries, will negotiate its future directly. This was the clearest indication yet of the challenge Brexit poses to British territory, but it won’t be the last. With the EU seal of approval out of the way, attention can return to the near-impossible task of getting the agreement through the House of Commons. (The Democratic Unionist Party, the Northern Irish party on which Theresa May’s parliamentary majority depends, announced over the weekend that it will oppose the deal.) It’s anyone’s guess what happens after the second week of December, when that vote will almost certainly fail, but one way or another we still anticipate a deal.
Small attacks, big stakes in Pakistan. Three gunmen wearing suicide vests attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi on Friday, killing two policemen and two bystanders before security forces shot and killed them. The separatist Balochistan Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the attack and labeled China – whose signature Belt and Road Initiative includes major projects in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province – an oppressor exploiting local resources. The incident is just the latest in a string of sporadic attacks on Chinese assets in Pakistan. But the security risks have yet to cast serious doubt on BRI’s future in the country, even though the projects in question are located in some of Pakistan’s most restive areas. Pakistani officials wasted little time in pinning blame for the attack on India. Prime Minister Imran Khan even called the incident “part of a conspiracy” against Pakistani and Chinese cooperation. India is indeed deeply unsettled by China’s growing military and economic footprint in Pakistan, and the two rivals have used militant proxies to keep each other off balance in the past. Regardless of whether Islamabad’s latest accusations have any merit, Pakistan will be the center of gravity in Indian-Chinese competition for the foreseeable future.
Israel’s charm offensive continues. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stayed busy in the two weeks since he made a secret, landmark visit to Oman. On Sunday, he hosted Chadian President Idriss Deby in Jerusalem, the first visit by a leader of the Muslim-majority African country, which severed diplomatic ties with Israel in 1972. Israel, meanwhile, is also reportedly working to re-establish relations with Sudan, another Muslim-majority African state that has long given it the cold shoulder. Finally, Israeli media said this weekend that Netanyahu is planning a visit to Bahrain to try to restore diplomatic ties with the kingdom, home to a major U.S. military base. The reports came while Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – who is believed to be quietly advocating on Israel’s behalf as part of an effort to build a coalition against Iran – was visiting Manama. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, leaders of Muslim-majority countries are not always reflexively opposed to Israel. Iran’s expansion and the persistent jihadist threat in the Middle East and North Africa have put Israel in the rare position of making new friends.
A quick update on Syria. It was a busy weekend for the beleaguered country. Syrian warplanes struck rebel territory in Idlib province for the first time since Russia and Turkey agreed to create a buffer zone in September, according to activists. In Aleppo, more than 100 people were injured in a suspected gas attack on Saturday. Syria and Russia blamed the rebels, and Moscow launched airstrikes on rebel positions following the attack. Meanwhile, the United States has started building five observation posts on the Syria-Turkey border, despite opposition from Ankara. Major clashes between Islamic State militants and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in eastern Syria killed dozens of civilians and fighters. The defense ministers of Turkey and Russia held talks on Syria on Sunday. Clearly, they had a lot to talk about.
- Saudi crude oil production hit an all-time high in November – 11.2 million barrels per day, according to Bloomberg.
- On Sunday, Houthi rebels in Yemen resumed drone attacks against Saudi positions.
- Russia said it is planning for U.S. nuclear missile deployments in Europe once it withdraws from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
- Mexico’s incoming government denied reports that it had reached a deal with the U.S. on allowing migrants to remain in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed by U.S. courts.