What follows are the preliminary findings for issues identified in the daily Watch Lists this week. We are only sending findings that we regard as significant or potentially significant to keep this email manageable. We have findings for all the Watch List items. Should you be interested in findings not listed here, please contact us and we will email them to you. The findings below include more items from later in the week because they often overlap with items from earlier in the week.
To emphasize, you can contact us if there is an item not included here for which you’d like to see the findings.
Our goal, as always, is to focus on what matters and not on things that don’t.
Items from Aug. 25
Turkey: Turkey’s intervention in Syria appears quite small, with about 20 to 30 tanks and 350 troops. Are there signs of a larger intervention?
- Finding: Yes, although not too much larger. AFP cites an anonymous Turkish official as saying that operations will continue until “imminent threats against the country’s national security have been neutralised.” A Hurriyet columnist said that Turkish army troops might reach 15,000 men to create a buffer zone in northern Syria and to stop the Kurds from connecting Afrin with their current holdings.
Iran-U.S.: Four small Iranian boats approached a U.S. destroyer. Are we facing a new round of naval tension?
- Finding: It is quite likely. The Iranians have a need – from time to time – to showcase that they are resisting the United States. This has become all the more necessary ever since the nuclear agreement.
Russia: Russia has publicized its new air-to-surface hypersonic missile. How widely deployed are these and what do we have on their performance?
- Finding: The missiles are not currently deployed as they are still in the testing phase. A source reported to Russian media that testing was close to completion. Russia’s Tactical Missiles Corporation (KTRV) confirmed testing was underway but did not offer any type of status update. Once combat ready, the missiles will be deployed on Tu-22M3 bombers.
Russia: Russia is holding large-scale snap drills near Ukraine and the Baltics. Any signs of intentions beyond drills?
- Finding: At the moment there are no indications of movement beyond drills. However, the location of the drills is significant and may be designed to enhance Russia’s negotiating position with the U.S. at a time when Turkey, in cooperation with the U.S., is more active in Syria.
Turkey-U.S.: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu talked by phone and Kerry confirmed that the Kurdish YFP forces are withdrawing east of the Euphrates. How does this effect U.S.-Turkish relations?
- Finding: Though it appears that the U.S. has not completely broken ties with the Kurdish forces, it has seemingly put them on the back burner in an effort to establish a better partnership with Turkey for the fight against the Islamic State. Between this change in allegiances and Vice President Joe Biden’s and the State Department’s comments concerning Gülen’s extradition, U.S.-Turkish relations seem to have shifted. The two countries are becoming closer and more reliant on one another (for the time being) as they navigate the current situations in Syria and Turkey.
Brazil: There have been media reports of Brazil’s success in selling bonds on global market albeit at premiums. Is Brazil recovering?
- Finding: Yes, the country appears to be bottoming out from its economic crisis. While the economy is expected to contract 3.1 percent this year, the government’s economic team predicts 1.2 percent growth for next year. In the budget law for 2017, some analysts expect the government to revise the growth rate upward for next year.
China: Xinhua is reporting that Chinese unemployment figures are accurate. The Chinese are increasingly sensitive over questions about the accuracy of the data it releases. Shall we read this as evidence that all is well with them, or that there are problems?
- Finding: China’s unemployment figures are not accurate. The true rate is somewhere above 10 percent. This has probably increased in the first 8 months of 2016. Rising unemployment would seriously pressure the government to stimulate more growth. Chinese President Xi Jinping and those close to him are trying very hard not to rely on stimulus and to push reforms. This is part of that balancing act.
Items from Aug. 24
North Korea: North Korea has launched a missile from a submarine in the direction of Japan. Our model says not to worry about North Korea, as it is all gestures and no substance. Do we need to re-evaluate that view, or at least the reaction of other countries to actions like this?
- Finding: The North Koreans have done this a few times this year – April, May and July most recently. The launch on Aug. 24 performed much better than the others; it flew 500 kilometers and landed in the Sea of Japan inside Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. Still, it doesn’t appear this will cause any changes. Foreign ministers from Japan, South Korea and China met and “agreed to call for the North to exercise self-restraint.”
Items from Aug. 23
Russia: Kommersant is reporting more changes in Russian government will come after the September elections, including head of the Foreign Intelligence Service. Is this routine reshuffling or is there a deeper meaning?
- Finding: Kommersant reported that the current speaker of the State Duma, Sergey Naryshkin, will be named head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service following the September elections. In the current context, this is not a routine reshuffle. First, this would be the latest in a string of very high-level Kremlin reshuffles. Second, a change at the top of the Foreign Intelligence Service at a time when Russia is facing a range of external challenges requires careful strategic and political decision-making from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Turkey-Lithuania: The leaders of Turkey and Lithuania met. Lithuania is hostile to Russia. When were these meetings scheduled? What meaning can we draw from this?
- Finding: This is further confirmation of Turkey redefining its relationship with the EU, Russia and its stance on regional issues like Syria. It also helped set the stage for a more independent and assertive Turkey prior to Biden’s visit.
EU: The eurozone’s PMI hit a seven-month high. Is it up by a significant amount? Has there been any other data trailing the PMI upswing?
- Finding: PMI has increased, but only very marginally. The numbers are an encouraging sign for European policymakers, but are still weak when compared to PMI in 2015. It is still too early to tell if these numbers are part of a broader improvement in economic conditions across the bloc.
Russia: Russian miners are staging a hunger strike over unpaid salaries at state-owned mines. Since this reminds us of the Yeltsin years, is this isolated or a broader problem?
- Finding: Right now, this miners’ hunger strike still fits in with the post-Yeltsin model of mining protests in Russia. Of the 2,200 affected miners, reports say only 60 to 65 have been actively participating in the hunger strike. The Rostov region is no stranger to mining protests over back pay involving hunger strikes and blockades. In the past 12 years or so, mining hunger strikes have lasted one to three weeks at a time and on occasion have spread to more groups. In the past, the federal government eventually came in to solve the problem.
U.K.: British exports have risen on the declining pound. We need to take a look at the real impact of the Brexit vote on Britain to date.
- Finding: Overall, the limited hard data released so far shows that the value of the pound against the euro and the dollar has dropped, consumer prices have risen, the labor market has held up and retail sales have risen. Britain is still coping with internal economic problems that were present before Brexit (like weak investment, stagnant productivity and a high balance of payments deficit).
Items from Aug. 22
Turkey: The Russians are saying that there is no agreement with Turkey over Syria. Turkish media has mentioned the possibility of leaving Fethullah Gülen in the United States. A group from U.S. State and Justice departments is heading for Turkey prior to Vice President Joe Biden’s visit. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım is denying that Turkey ever claimed the U.S. was behind the coup. Are we seeing an easing of tension between the U.S. and Turkey?
- Finding: There is a definite softening in the rhetoric here. There have also been media reports and statements by foreign officials stressing that while cooperation with Russia is important, Turkey and Russia ultimately are on opposing sides and don’t see eye to eye on Syria, though perhaps Assad could be part of an interim solution. What this changes on the ground at this point is unclear.
Germany-Europe: German Chancellor Angela Merkel is holding an astounding number of meetings with European leaders this week, both traveling to their countries and hosting them. The number is unprecedented. Is there some initiative underway from Germany?
- Finding: Yes, there is an initiative – to reassert German leadership and try to get EU countries on the same page post-Brexit. We do not know what Merkel is promising each set of countries, but the groupings of countries with which she is meeting offer a clue. Italy and France want economic concessions from Germany, and the Italians want a European defense force. Slovenia, Austria, Bulgaria and Croatia likely want assurances on migrants. The Visegrad countries want access to the British labor market post-Brexit and concessions on migration policy, as well as more power for national governments in the future. The Netherlands and Nordic countries are likely worried about concessions to eastern and southern EU members.
China: The Chinese Communist Party has announced that Party Cadre will be present at all meetings of Chinese social groups in the future. This appears a radical extension of party authority and concern. Is it? Or is this something that is not particularly new?
- Finding: It is an extension of party authority and concern. It applies not just to foreign non-governmental organizations, but to social organizations across China. The policy is new, but the trend is ongoing. It is part of the party’s attempt to establish its control throughout the country’s “moderately prosperous society.”
Russia: The Russian government said it would do what it could to sell Rosneft. Rosneft is the base of a powerful Russian leader, Igor Sechin. Rosneft is in trouble, but is this also an attempt to weaken Sechin?
- Finding: The planned sale of a 19.5 percent stake in Rosneft has been discussed for some time, but only 10 days ago reports emerged that the sale might be postponed due to concerns that rushing the sale, especially at a time of low oil prices, would make for a bad deal. The back-and-forth over the future of the company signals an ongoing struggle within Russian leadership circles. The sale of a stake in Bashneft – which Rosneft had wanted to buy – is being delayed. Putin had opposed Sechin’s wish for Rosneft to buy the Bashneft stake, and the delay thus could mean that the president ultimately decided not to directly undercut Sechin’s interests at this time.
Tajikistan: Gazprom has announced it is leaving Tajikistan over money. Tajik officials are registering all women wearing hijab. Are these just normal processes or is Tajikistan hurt by Gazprom and worried about Islamists?
- Finding: Both processes seem normal. Gazprom’s decision is likely linked to the financial crunch from the decline of oil prices coupled with Tajikistan’s high taxes, which other international companies have complained about. However, it is not completely leaving the country; just pulling back from two specific natural gas fields. The registration of women wearing hijab is limited to one town and is part of an ongoing effort to curb extremism from Salafists and Hizb al-Tahrir. That said, Tajikistan has been worried about rising extremism.