The relationship between Washington and Moscow is already near the breaking point, and early this morning, risked spinning entirely out of control, when a pair of Russian jets first harassed and thenMore
It is evening in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, one of NATO’s easternmost members. I am waiting at the edge of Izvor Park in the city center to meet with a young friend who has fled Ukraine. In the backdrop of the park is the Palace of the Parliament, the brutalist architectural crown jewel of the Ceaușescu era, and the heaviest building on earth.
When my friend Pyotr arrives, we sit for beers and share our recent stories; it is late March 2022, just one month since Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine began. I have been maneuvering a bureaucratic maze as I try to gain entry into the Russian Federation and the separatist republics of the Donbas; I am awaiting a call back from consulates in Romania and Moldova. Pyotr has just arrived from Kiev by train. A number of his comrades in communist, socialist, and union organizations around Ukraine have been detained.
Recently, the Kononovich brothers, notable Ukrainian communists, had been arrested and disappeared (following their imprisonment, they are now under house arrest). Over a few days of conversation, I learn more from Pyotr than I could ever put into writing; he says to me at one point: “if there is one thing to understand, it is that sovereignty in Ukraine and Eastern Europe has been stolen by the West not through any military invasion or political party, but through the infiltration of Ukrainian civil society by Western interests, NGOs, and right-wing nationalists. Everyone in Ukraine knows that Washington directs this process, whether they support it or not.”
After a week in Bucharest, I head for the consulate in neighboring Moldova, where I have just spent nearly a month reporting on the refugee influx from Ukraine. I have been advised that it is my only option for obtaining a visa to Russia. The divide between pro-Western and pro-Russian civilians is palpable where the Moldovan government is led by Maia Sandu, a graduate of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and former staffer for the World Bank.
Just as in Ukraine, there is a push in Moldova by pro-West factions to limit public use of the Russian language, despite Russian being the native tongue of hundreds of thousands of Moldovans. One man I speak to there, who is the head of a Ukrainian diaspora NGO, and a former candidate for vice mayor of Chișinău, the capital city, happily informs me that Ukrainians are European, while Russians have “Mongol blood.”
At last, the visa materializes. I leave Moldova and travel to Russia, and then I make my way through Russia to Rostov-on-Don, the last stop on Russian Federation turf before the border with the breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk People’s republics (DPR/LPR). There, in the Donbas, a region that became a mining powerhouse in the USSR, war has been raging for eight years. I am questioned for hours at every border crossing, even in Saint Petersburg, because of my U.S. passport and my tattoos (of which I have many). I am never violated or intimidated, just thoroughly questioned and checked. Mostly, it seems to me, the border officials are looking for swastikas, or evidence of Ukrainian nationalist affiliations, the markers of an individual likely to be hostile to Russia’s advances.
My final crossing into DPR happens in the evening. I emerge from a forest into the capital city of Donetsk. I arrived ready to accept any reality that I witnessed. What I saw was a people who had been through hell, and had adjusted to it, all the while unwavering in their commitment to what they see as a fight for self-determination against the reach of the United States and its vassals, especially NATO.
I see Russian, Soviet, and DPR flags everywhere, along with large signs and billboards: “To Victory,” “We Take Care of Our Own,” “We are Russia.” Victory Day, the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by Soviet forces on May 9, 1945, perhaps still the most significant day on the Russian calendar, is fast approaching.
I am brought by an official escort to the Central Hotel, about 300 meters from an enormous statue of Lenin that overlooks the main square of Donetsk. There is no active plumbing in the city for about 20-22 hours each day, and no hot water at all; Ukrainian armed forces had blown out the water supply. For the first time in my life, I can hear live artillery going off in relative proximity.
The next morning, I walk to the “fancy” hotel in town, where journalists congregate to have coffee and use fast Wi-Fi (that hotel has since been leveled by Ukrainian munitions; a friend of mine was injured in the attack). I strike up a conversation with a Moscow-based Canadian journalist, who sees on a Donetsk Telegram feed that the Sokol market in the Kirovsky District of Donetsk has just been hit by shelling and that there are fatalities. We rush to a cab and head there.
When we pull up to the marketplace, smoke is everywhere, and many stalls have been burned to a crisp. Shelling continues nearby, close enough to shake the earth beneath our feet. We are brought to a member of the neighborhood safety commission, Gennady Andreevich, who walks us through the wreckage, down side alleys into the food market. An old woman’s body is lying on the ground in a pool of blood. “She came to buy vegetables,” he tells us. “There was also a local teacher who came to buy supplies for his mechanics class; his body was not left in recognizable condition. They never target military positions, you know? Always the markets, where the people go to socialize, to work, to get the things they need to live… or the residential buildings. See? Over there? That is where our neighborhood office is. They hit that last month. My colleague was killed.” He points to a large concrete building.
He is steely, but not without emotion. “There is absolutely no military reason to strike places like this,” he tells us. “They do it to strike fear in our hearts, but it does not work.” This is just my first day, and I am already seeing that the things we’ve been hearing about Donbas are anything but the common NATO refrain of “Kremlin fabrications.”
The following night, a residential building behind a school is hit, and we discover an elderly couple arranging some of the wreckage at the entrance to their building. The woman, who will only give her first name, Elena, is eager to speak with a Western reporter. She tells us that their block has been hit almost weekly for eight years, as they live on the outskirts, near the front. Most of the younger people have abandoned the area, she says, but she has had to stay to care for her bedridden father. “He served as a miner in the Ukrainian army in the USSR. He received many distinguished medals,” she tells us. “They attack us, simply because we did not want to follow a government that betrayed our heritage. We in the Donbas did not support Euromaidan. We are Ukrainian, but we are Russian.” I ask if the Minsk accords, which previously negotiated ceasefires between the separatists and Ukraine, had helped at all. “When Minsk was signed, the shelling here on the edge of the city only got worse.” We pass through their apartment, where their grandchildren left just that morning. She credits an Eastern Orthodox icon painting of Mary for protecting them.
“What would you have to say to anyone reading or watching this in the West?” I ask her.
“I want to repeat to America and to Europe: You send weapons to Ukraine. Ukraine kills… I’m not sure who they consider us to be now, but we are Ukrainian. We all have Ukrainian passports. You aggravate and escalate the situation even more. You should sit at the negotiation table, and not try to solve this by sending more arms.”
I spend some of April, all of May, and some of June in the Donbas. I tour front-line cities, alone and with military transports; I meet with people everywhere: there is Alexei Aybu in Lugansk, a member of “Borotba,” (Struggle), a Ukrainian communist party, who fled Odessa after he barely survived the May 2014 Ukrainian nationalist massacre of more than 40 of his comrades in the trade union building. There is “Aurora,” a Donetsk-based Marxist women’s collective comprised of a mix of locals from the Donbas and refugees from western Ukraine, who have especially harsh words for Western “socialists” who are largely backing their attackers in Kiev.
In Mariupol, we see destruction on an inhuman level. Over and over, the locals there tell us that the Ukrainian Azov battalion, who at the time of my visit are still in the Azovstal bunker, has occupied the city for years with an iron fist; they tell us that when the Russians came nearer, Azov laid waste to the city, not allowing civilians any safe escape corridors, and threatening them with death should they attempt to flee.
Everywhere this narrative is repeated, as is the theme of Kiev as an occupier, and Moscow as the liberator. We see the huge influx of reconstruction and humanitarian aid brought in from Russia, while all Western organizations seem to have abandoned Donbas. I tour the peripheral districts at length; everywhere is another memorial for the dead, a list of names, and stuffed animals to remember the children. It is estimated that between 2014-2022, 15,000 people lost their lives in the Donbas, the vast majority in these extremely poor residential areas, forgotten casualties in a war hidden from the view of the West, who seem to believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin awoke one morning in February and decided he wanted some of Ukraine.
On May 9 (the aforementioned Victory Day of the Soviets over Germany in World War II), I join a caravan of reporters (I’m the only U.S. journalist in sight) to Mellitopol, a city in the Zaporozhye region, next to Mariupol. Mellitopol had also been occupied by Kiev-friendly forces until February 2022, but the city was abandoned by Ukraine without a fight. We have come to witness the festivities for Victory Day; for seven years of what the locals we spoke with there called “occupation” by the Kiev regime, any celebrations of the Soviet victory in World War II have been made illegal, so this will be the first one. Most of us assume that given the instability of the political climate, the curfews, and the closeness of the ongoing battles, it will be a fairly subdued affair.
Instead, at least 10,000 people take the streets, in a procession led by a column of Red Army veterans, many of whom fought in the World War II Battle of Stalingrad. The jubilation is contagious; tears stream down the eyes of people of all ages, including both those who lived through World War II, and those who have only lived through this one. It is an experience unlike any other.
A woman sees me capturing footage of the procession, and beckons me over. She says, “You tell them over there, we are Russian, and we have always been Russian. We defeated fascism then, and we will do it again.”
I asked many people there if they had criticisms of the Russian government, or of Putin’s decisions. There is one refrain that I heard, over and over, maybe best articulated by Svetlana Valkovich, of the aforementioned “Aurora” group: “Putin, yes, made many mistakes. Most of all, he waited far too long to come to help us here in Donbas. We begged Russia to come for years, but at least they have come now.”
Days before the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2023, U.S. officials claimed that China was considering providing Russia with lethal weaponry to support its military campaign. China denied the accusations, and on the anniversary of the invasion instead put forth its 12-point peace plan to end the conflict. These events followed after tensions between Beijing and Washington flared during the Chinese spy balloon scandal that began in early February 2023.
Since the war’s inception, the U.S. has cautioned China not to support Russia. Following reports that Russia had asked China for military assistance in March 2022, Washington warned that countries providing “material, economic, financial [or] rhetorical” support to Russia would face “consequences.” The Biden administration also confronted China in January 2023 with “evidence that [suggested] some Chinese state-owned companies may be providing assistance” to the Russian military.
China has largely adhered to Western sanctions restricting business with Russia. Nonetheless, it has been essential to Russia’s economic resilience and its war campaign since February 2022. China substantially increased its coal, oil, and natural gas imports from Russia in 2022, for example, which alongside India’s increased imports, have helped the Kremlin negate some of the effects of declining energy sales to Europe. The underlying motive for increased Chinese and Indian purchases of Russian energy, however, remains the steep discounts they have been offered by Russia, which is desperate to replace its former customers in Europe.
China has also increased its technology exports to Russia for use by its defense industry after many Russian companies were denied access to technology from Europe and the U.S. because of the imposition of sanctions. According to the think tank Silverado Policy Accelerator, “Russia continues to have access to crucial dual-use technologies such as semiconductors, thanks in part to China and Hong Kong.” Additionally, China has helped Russia undermine Western economic sanctions by developing international payment systems outside of Western control and has advocated for building an “international alliance of businesses” comprising non-Western companies.
Beijing has also been essential in undermining Western efforts to portray Russia as an international pariah. China has repeatedly abstained from UN votes condemning the Russian invasion and voted against an April 2022 resolution to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council. Beijing also seems to have vacillated between calling the situation in Ukraine a conflict and calling out the breaking of UN rules regarding borders. In addition, China, alongside Russia, declined to endorse the G-20 communique that featured language critical of the war in Ukraine at the end of the meeting on March 2, 2023. Chinese state media has also been largely favorable or neutral to Russia since the invasion began.
Russian and Chinese forces have held several bilateral military exercises and patrols since February 2022. The last exercise took place in the East China Sea in December 2022, and the “main purpose of the exercise [was] to strengthen naval cooperation between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China and to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” the Russian Ministry statement said. Meanwhile, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping met and posed for photos at the September 2022 Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit. And in the coming months, Xi Jinping is expected to travel to Russia after top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi visited Moscow in February 2023.
While China has shown it is willing to assist Russia, it has been careful to avoid perceptions of overt support. China has cited the need to respect and safeguard “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries,” without denouncing Russia or calling for it to end the conflict. But after China’s top drone maker, Da Jiang Innovations (DJI), banned exports of its drones to Ukraine and Russia in April 2022, Russia has continued to freely operate DJI surveillance technology to target Ukrainian drone operators, demonstrating the limits of Chinese neutrality.
Alongside the suspected impending Chinese military supplies to Russia, that were referred to by the Biden administration, Beijing is clearly more invested in a Russian victory than a Ukrainian one, even if it won’t admit it publicly.
So why is China so invested in supporting Russia while refusing to do so openly? There is no doubt a calculus in Beijing that the greater and longer the West focuses on Ukraine, the fewer resources Western countries can afford to give to Taiwan and the Asia-Pacific region. Prolonging the conflict would also weaken Russia, which in some Chinese nationalist circles is still viewed as a competitor and as having unjustly seized Chinese territory in the 19th century.
Still, there are clear benefits for China if the conflict ends sooner rather than later, and on Russian terms. Just weeks before the invasion in February 2022, Russia and China had signed their “no limits” partnership, while both Xi and Putin have called the other their “best friend.” Giving support to allies will help increase trust toward Beijing while also growing its leverage over a strained Russia.
China also desires a stable, friendly neighbor. A Russian defeat could lead to the country’s collapse, potentially destabilizing much of Eurasia. Russian leadership change, in case of a defeat, could also usher in a pro-Western Russian government on China’s doorstep, something Beijing is keen to avoid.
The war has in turn destabilized global energy and food markets and caused extreme instability in the global economy, at a time when China’s national economy is still fragile as it recovers from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia is a vital economic partner to China, largely in the energy industry, but also owing to the Kremlin’s role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative to increase trade across Eurasia.
While Russia’s importance in this regard has diminished since the invasion, Moscow retains significant leverage among the former Soviet countries that form the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), as well as across the energy industries of Central Asia.
A Ukrainian military defeat would also have negative effects on the U.S.’ standing in global affairs by proving Western military assistance was unable to turn the tide of a major conflict. Contrastingly, a Ukrainian victory would solidify Western support for Taiwan, embolden Western-style democracy advocates around the world, and reverse perceptions in China of Western decline in global affairs.
But an open supply of lethal weaponry could destroy China’s economic relations with the West when China is still studying the effects of sanctions on a major economy like Russia. This has not prevented Beijing from pointing out the U.S.’ double standard in supplying the Taiwanese military with weapons, most recently in March 2023, when Foreign Minister Qin Gang asked “Why, while asking China not to provide arms to Russia, has the United States sold arms to Taiwan in violation of a  joint communique?”
While relations between the U.S. and China are increasingly tense, there is fear in Beijing that overt support for Russia could damage Beijing’s relations with the EU. The EU is now China’s largest export market, and China still hopes to drive a wedge between the EU and the U.S. and prevent the development of a joint trans-Atlantic policy toward China. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on March 5, 2023, said that China will not supply Russia with lethal military aid “suggesting that Berlin has received bilateral assurances from Beijing on the issue.” Together with Xi Jinping’s comments in November 2022 stressing the need to avoid the threat or use of nuclear weapons, China seeks to highlight its mediating position and prove it is a responsible actor in world affairs that promotes peace. The Chinese-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to re-establish official relations on March 10, 2023, was further evidence of this initiative.
Contrastingly, China views the U.S. as a rogue superpower, and sees “confrontation and conflict” with the U.S. as inevitable unless Washington changes course, according to Qin Gang. And while China continues to be suspicious of U.S. attempts to contain it, such policies have become increasingly acknowledged even in U.S. political circles in recent years.
Nonetheless, both lethal and non-lethal military aid to Russia from China will likely increase, funneled indirectly through willing third countries. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s arrival for a state visit to Beijing on February 28 caused alarm in the U.S. precisely because of this reason. Ultimately, China sees the Ukraine war as part of a wider conflict with the U.S.-led Western world. Aiding Russia is seen as a strategic decision for China, meaning its “pro-Russian neutrality” will continue to be cautiously tested in Beijing.
While China did not cause the Ukraine crisis, it seeks to navigate it effectively. The Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s allowed Beijing to rapidly expand its ties with the West, and the Ukraine crisis will help China benefit from its relationship with Russia amid global economic uncertainty. China will take the necessary steps to avoid spooking the EU, while recognizing that tension with Washington may be inescapable.
Iran and Saudi Arabia, after years of enmity, agreed last week to restore diplomatic ties after talks facilitated by China, a significant development widely welcomed worldwide.
Experts have said that the Beijing-brokered detente has raised hopes for a much-needed reduction in tensions in the Middle East, with a particular focus on the ongoing war in Yemen.
They told Xinhua that China’s economic and diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran are highly significant, allowing Beijing to play a constructive role in de-escalating conflicts in war-torn Yemen and beyond.
Abdullah Dubalah, a Yemeni political observer, told Xinhua, “China’s participation in facilitating the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia serves the region’s stability, as it maintains good relations with both countries, thereby promoting a more peaceful and prosperous Gulf region.”
He noted China plays a role in facilitating dialogue and cooperation in the region, which is entirely different from the divide-and-rule approach of the United States.
Adel Dashela, a Yemeni writer and academic researcher, said China had demonstrated its diplomatic prowess by successfully resolving international disputes through political dialogue.
He said the two sides must adhere to the agreed-upon terms to overcome obstacles, reduce regional tensions and benefit all parties involved.
The expert pointed out that Iran and Saudi Arabia also play a significant role in resolving Yemen’s civil conflicts, adding that the two regional powers should put the interests of Yemen on par with the regional security issues because Yemen has become a hotbed for regional conflicts and unrest.
Still, some Yemeni observers told Xinhua that the recent Saudi-Iran deal alone cannot resolve Yemen’s plight, calling for more efforts to end the crisis.
“Although the China-brokered agreement can create a positive momentum in Yemen, it does not fix all problems in the war-torn country,” said Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen, a Yemeni political researcher.
She said “the underlying issues that have fueled the conflict in Yemen, such as political divisions, economic instability, and regional power struggles, are complex and difficult to resolve.”
Al-Deen said she believes that a comprehensive political solution for Yemen issues requires the involvement of key regional players, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, and sustained international efforts.
Adil Al-Shuja’a, a politics professor from Sanaa university, said “the crisis in the region has been ongoing for decades, and the agreement is a step towards a potential resolution. “
The expert’s view was echoed by Yasin Al-Tamimi, a political analyst and writer, who said “the agreement, which marks a new chapter in the relationship between the two countries, is expected to have an impact on the conflict in Yemen and could give Riyadh the impetus it needs to end Yemen’s war.”
Al-Tamimi said “to achieve this goal, it is believed that a negotiated settlement will be necessary. Such an agreement would enable Saudi Arabia to maintain its influence over the political landscape of Yemen while at the same time providing a pathway towards peace and stability in the region.”
The civil war erupted in Yemen in late 2014 when the Iran-backed Houthi militia seized control of some northern cities and forced the Saudi-backed Yemeni government out of the capital Sanaa.
The war has killed tens of thousands of Yemenis, displaced 4 million people, and pushed the country to the brink of famine.
In a statement released by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Yemeni government welcomed the recent agreement as a potential opportunity to improve relations and serve the region’s stability.
Meanwhile, Houthi group spokesperson Mohammad Abdul-Salam wrote on Twitter that the group’s leaders welcome the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, believing it would promote stability in the region.
The free trade agreement (FTA) between the Philippines and South Korea is in the final stages, the Philippine Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) said on Tuesday.
Philippine Trade Secretary Alfredo Pascual said, “we have concluded our negotiations and are now in the final stages of our FTA with South Korea.”
The Philippines is also “looking into entering a potential preferential trade agreement with India and launching negotiations for a comprehensive economic partnership agreement with the United Arab Emirates,” Pascual was quoted by the DTI as saying.
Last month, the Philippines ratified the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement.
“When the agreement takes effect, Philippine exporters will gain a market of 15 countries representing nearly 30 percent of the world’s population, economy, and trade,” Pascual said the RCEP gains outweigh the losses. “Among others, we need to take advantage of the enhanced trade facilitation provisions that make cross-border trade simpler and faster.”
The RCEP is a massive trade deal involving Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The relationship between Washington and Moscow is already near the breaking point, and early this morning, risked spinning entirely out of control, when a pair of Russian jets first harassed and then attacked an unarmed American MQ-9 Reaper surveillance drone flying over the international waters of the Black Sea. The two Su-27 fighters dumped fuel on the drone, apparently trying to blind its sensors, before colliding with its propeller, bringing the $32 million piece of military hardware crashing down to the water below.
Predictably, Russia’s Ministry of Defense offered a different account of what took place, saying the drone’s own maneuvers caused it to rapidly lose altitude and crash. In any event, it was the first documented physical clash between the armed forces of the United States and Russia resulting from the war in Ukraine, a perilous precedent that should give everyone some pause.
Apparently, these kinds of high-altitude confrontations between the U.S. and Russia are “not an uncommon occurrence,” according to John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman. Still, Kirby acknowledged this incident as “noteworthy because of how unsafe and unprofessional it was,” to say nothing of how the “reckless” attack further inflames an already tense atmosphere, and adds to the danger of a direct clash between the United States and Russia.
Notably, the U.S. and Russia had no communication during the incident, and thus no way to deescalate, or express intentions. Afterward, the Russian ambassador in Washington was summoned to receive formal American objections to the attack, which Ned Price at the State Department called a “brazen violation of international law.”
Certainly, incidents like these add to the grave risk of mistakes and miscalculations between the two nuclear powers, and the danger of unintended escalation, with all that entails. Relations between Moscow and Washington are already at an all-time low, amid Vladimir Putin’s catastrophically botched invasion of Ukraine, and Joe Biden’s arming of Kyiv, and it likely wouldn’t take much to send things spiraling further downward.
The danger of accidental escalation is real
The aerial run-in merely reinforced the sense that any errant spark could lead to serious and unintended consequences, a complete rupture in relations, and the possibility of armed conflict. The downed Reaper was unmanned; what if it had been a manned surveillance flight, and the U.S. incurred casualties as a result of Russian aggression?
Clearly, it would be a different story, and an incredibly dangerous one.
Still, the White House seemed keen not to allow the incident to devolve into a tit-for-tat cycle of mutual escalation, and apparently resisted calls to respond with military force. As New York Times reporter David Sanger said on CNN today, the White House wanted to respond “calmly,” and avoid the prospect of unintended escalation, particularly because the drone was unmanned.
Nonetheless, it’s clear, Sanger said, that the Russians have a mounting appetite to take on the Americans on the sidelines of the war in Ukraine, even as Russia struggles desperately on the battlefield. Russia’s recent offensives in Bakhmut and elsewhere have resulted in meager territorial advances, and at a staggering cost in human life, particularly the life of Russian conscripts and mercenaries, who have been engaged in suicidal assaults to inch forward against Ukraine’s fortified defenses.
After losing an estimated 200,000 casualties and counting in its disastrous campaign to subdue and absorb Ukraine, the Kremlin has increasingly characterized the war as an existential conflict between Russia and the United States. Incidents like the one today show the danger of that notion coming to fruition, in what would be an apocalyptic nuclear confrontation humanity would be unlikely to survive, should one begin.
A light in the darkness for Putin
Meanwhile, favorable developments amid early presidential posturing have given Vladimir Putin something to smile about, as presidential frontrunner Gov. Ron DeSantis went on Tucker Carlson’s show and argued that defending Ukraine was not in America’s vital national interest. He referred to Putin’s wanton aggression as a “territorial dispute,” and made it clear that if elected, American aid to Ukraine would quickly evaporate.
Clearly, the Florida governor is aligning himself with Donald Trump’s isolationist MAGA bent, even as he prepares to take on the former president for the Republican nomination in 2024, as Trump faces the prospect of criminal indictments.
DeSantis’s view stands in sharp contrast to many of the elected leaders of the Republican Party, and provoked a round of heated criticism from Marco Rubio, Lyndsey Graham, Liz Cheney, Mitch McConnell, and other leading lights in the GOP, who have argued that the United States should be doing even more for Ukraine, and certainly not less.
However, Ron DeSantis has always fashioned himself in Trump’s tainted image, as a combative culture warrior, and jingoistic “America First” nationalist, so his view on Ukraine should come as no surprise. Rather, it shows DeSantis’s strategy is to mimic Donald Trump and his ever evolving political positions, while keeping himself free of the toxic drama and criminal investigations that constantly engulf the former president.
In any case, it’s a major win for the Kremlin, and Vladimir Putin himself, who has been banking on a change in leadership in Washington to bail him out of his dismal war in Ukraine. If DeSantis, or god forbid, Trump were to retake the White House, and military and financial aid to Kyiv dried up, Putin’s path to victory would suddenly become far more clear, and plausible.
For his part, Vladimir Putin can be expected to do everything in his power to assist his allies in the MAGA wing of the Republican Party to achieve electoral victory in 2024, and Ron DeSantis is now on that short list. Presumably, the Kremlin will intervene vigorously in the next American election, by carrying out cyberattacks, hacking, and targeted propaganda to elevate a pro-Putin candidate, much like in 2016.
However, this time, America’s national security establishment has no excuse not to see it coming, and should be prepared to counter the Kremlin’s machinations forcefully, and from the outset. The Biden administration has every incentive to prevent Putin from sabotaging American democracy, and everything to lose should they fail.
The restoration of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia has garnered curious allusions of doom and gloom, if not outright shock and awe, over Israel’s back channel security dialogue with the Kingdom, not to mention damage to U.S. interests in the region. The New York Times captured it as “the topsiest and turviest of developments anyone could have imagined, a shift that left heads spinning in capitals around the globe.” And in a separate piece, it quoted Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the arguably hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies that “Renewed Iran-Saudi ties as a result of Chinese mediation is a lose, lose, lose for American interests.”
But the Times wasn’t alone. Twitter was replete with nightmarish scenarios for U.S. influence and prestige in the Middle East and concern in Tel Aviv even as the Biden administration outwardly welcomed the development. John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, expressed skepticism that Iran would honor its commitments to abstain from violence or interference in the Kingdom’s internal affairs, but acknowledged how the development could serve in defusing regional tensions and possibly ending the war in Yemen. Friction between Iran and its neighbors across the Gulf account for Yemen’s horrendous humanitarian crisis, energy-market rattling missile strikes against the Kingdom and United Arab Emirates, and Tehran’s meddling among Saudi’s Arabia’s disenfranchised Shia community. Reducing that is in Washington and Tel Aviv’s interest, regardless who gets the credit.
The reality is that Iran and Saudi Arabia have been walking back their mutual escalation of provocative words and deeds for quite some time.
Representatives, generally from the nation’s respective intelligence services, have conducted meetings brokered respectively by the Iraqis and Omanis for at least the last two years. And while the Saudis certainly don’t tell the U.S. everything, my direct experience in this dialogue is consistent with Washington’s assertion that it was kept in the loop and Israel was likewise hardly taken by surprise.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began his de facto rule of the Kingdom flexing his military muscles in Yemen while making saber-rattling boasts concerning Iran. He even boldly suggested Riyadh would pursue its own nuclear program should the Iranians weaponize theirs. But reality set in after Saudi military failings in Yemen and Houthi attacks inside the Kingdom undermined Prince Mohammed’s superpower narrative.
The crown prince’s confidence in U.S. security guarantees wavered further following the September 2019 missile and drone attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, which the U.S. acknowledged to have been Iranian facilitated. And Prince Mohammad did not take kindly to incoming President-elect Biden referring to him and the Kingdom as pariahs owing to persistent evidence of human rights violations and an intelligence community assessment the White House released holding him personally responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
Ropes of Sand
Prince Mohammad’s political fortunes are largely dependent on whether Vision 2030 can deliver on the promise to diversify the country’s petrochemical-dependent economy and bring greater employment and increased housing. Neom, the high tech, futuristic $500 billion dollar city under construction in Saudi Arabia’s northwest is the centerpiece on which much else depends. Despite the influx of petrodollars owing to the war in Ukraine, Neom has struggled to meet its projected 2024 opening which, along with other setbacks, have shaped Prince Mohammad’s greater pragmatism. The opening to Iran, Yemen ceasefire and reversal of the Qatari boycott reflect such necessary pragmatism.
Nevertheless, the crown prince is demonstrating independence from what he sees as America’s unreliable protective blanket and looking for alternative security partners. Making the Biden White House look bad is just an added benefit-but that does not make for an existential threat to U.S. interests. Despite the Times’ hyperbole (and the Wall Street Journal’s earlier claim that “the relationship had hit the breaking point.”, there’s no evidence Prince Mohammad is prepared to sustain the enormous costs of converting the Kingdom’s well integrated and U.S.-dependent military infrastructure to Chinese or Russian weapons systems.
Moreover, in the most catastrophic scenario, China will not threaten to boycott Iranian oil on which it depends or project force in the Kingdom’s defense were Tehran to attack. But the Crown Prince is betting the U.S. wouldn’t stand by under such circumstances regardless of Riyadh’s friction with Washington, thereby providing him freedom to play the international field to serve his own political narrative.
The Saudi ruler also likes the prestige associated with American technology and its advanced battlefield-tested systems like those the Ukrainians are using to great effect against Russia-as does Prince Mohammed’s one-time ally and increasingly rival UAE’s President Mohamed Bin Zayed, who likewise endeavors to chart his own course. Were Prince Mohammed ever to petulantly jump off that ledge, as he’s certainly capable of impulsive, poorly calculated decisions, doing so could not possibly occur overnight and would leave the Kingdom’s American-centric infrastructure vulnerable.
The fact is that Riyadh has in recent years been scaling back defense spending to finance the crown prince’s grand economic programs. His aim appears to achieve a social contract of sorts cribbed from China to offset his people’s aspirations for political freedom in exchange for social reforms and comfortable lives.
That’s not to totally dismiss the China card. Prince Mohammed has for some time been looking to China for support in developing Saudi Arabia’s own ballistic missile capability, as well as a pilot nuclear program, and Beijing is only too happy to help. The Intercept reported that part of DCIA Burns’ April 2022 travel to the Kingdom was to dissuade the Crown Prince from procuring fully assembled Chinese ballistic missiles as a deterrent against, or response to, Iran.
Mind the Gap
But beyond the smiles and handshakes recently choreographed in Beijing, the Crown Prince appears interested in addressing defense gaps relative to Iran whose threat is not going away. China is likely to accommodate capabilities the U.S. would rather withhold making it likely Prince Mohammed will pursue a broad range of military and economic opportunities with Beijing, but avoid an either-or choice with the U.S.
China, for its part, will eagerly work to erode and replace U.S. regional influence in a region which accounts for much of its energy supplies. As reflected by news that Beijing is working to host a summit among Iran and its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbors, Chinese leaders hope to reap the lucrative economic opportunities and likewise solidify its image as the preeminent and most reliable world power. Money talks, and face is critical in this region where rulers all strive to appear strong and independent of foreign influence, but no Gulf ruler is going to stake their Kingdoms on Chinese security guarantees-or weapons.
As for Israel, the development similarly falls short of a doomsday event. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would surely value the political gains at home and abroad of securing normalization with Saudi Arabia, coming as it would at both Iran’s and the Palestinians’ expense. But the truth is that Israel’s security back channel with Saudi Arabia has been ongoing for years and across far more challenging political climates. Benny Gantz, while the Israeli army’s chief of staff, then Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, and former directors of the National Security Council Yossi Cohen and Meir Ben-Shabbat have all travelled to the Kingdom in recent years.
Moreover, a November 2020 Washington Post story quoting Israeli media and claiming confirmation from an anonymous Israeli intelligence official reported that Netanyahu himself, traveling with then Mossad Chief Cohen, met Prince Mohammed personally. The gathering occurred in Neom, the same Saudi futuristic city under development, along with then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Israeli-Saudi cooperation concerning Iran is not going to end, but rather remain in the shadows, for the time being. After all, Iran remains a far more likely military threat. Tehran’s hardline leaders will not order the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to abandon the Kingdom’s Shi’a, whose unrest could undermine Prince Mohammed’s veneer of strength, and threaten the nation’s Northeastern oil epicenter.
It has been vintage Prince Mohammed to quickly follow-up any acts of defiance with the White House, as was the case with last year’s oil production cut, with messaging and appeals to the American public. This appears the case with the Kingdom’s sudden revelation of its willingness to establish ties with Israel. Riyadh went on an info spree in the U.S. following the October cuts to justify the measure, during which it issued statements and used proxies to highlight its good deeds and philanthropic efforts, including gifts to American universities.
More practically, however, Prince Mohammed is unlikely to normalize relations with Israel absent the creation of a Palestinian state while his father lives. Palestinian statehood is dear to King Salman’s heart, assuming health has not incapacitated him, the King having played a major role in developing the thrice Arab League endorsed 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. The plan offers Arab states’ recognition and normalization of ties with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from occupied territories, a just settlement, and a Palestinian state. A frail King Salman reassured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his own public while still seen conducting meetings in May 2021, as he had after the U.S. pushed Riyadh throughout 2020 to join the Abraham Peace Accords, that Saudi Arabia remained committed to the 2002 framework and would not forsake the Palestinians.
Bangladesh has warmly hailed the normalization of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran in a major breakthrough announced in an agreement brokered by China.
Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told journalists here Sunday night that Dhaka lauds China, Iraq and Oman for facilitating the negotiation, leading to the successful breakthrough which reflects the power of constructive engagement and meaningful dialogue.
He also lauded the leadership of Saudi Arabia and Iran for this very positive development.
Bangladesh believes that this would contribute to reducing tension and conflict in the Gulf region, foster stability, and create the path for “durable and sustainable long-term peace for the betterment of the brotherly peoples in the Middle East region,” he said.
Tehran and Riyadh announced an agreement in Beijing last Friday to restore their diplomatic ties.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Monday dismissed U.S. State Department travel advisories that recommend Americans avoid vacationing in Mexico.
“Mexico is safer than the United States,” Lopez Obrador told reporters at his daily press conference at the National Palace in Mexico City.
“There is no problem whatsoever for traveling safely through Mexico,” he added.
According to the president, Mexico is safe and there are increasingly more Americans who have come to reside in the country in recent years.
The U.S. State Department has issued travel advisories for Mexican destinations, including “do not travel” warnings for several states marred by drug violence.
The advisories are part of “a campaign” against Mexico, mainly by “conservative” U.S. politicians who disagree with Mexico’s current reformist agenda, said Lopez Obrador.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard was to meet Monday with Mexican consuls in Washington to report on the measures the government is taking against crime and drug trafficking, he said.
Business is booming for arms makers, energy companies and camping equipment manufacturers — due to the war in Ukraine. Many American and European companies are benefiting from the crisis. Why is that? How is that?
The winner and losers are apparent. The losers are civilians in Ukraine and soldiers on both sides of the conflict. More clearly, the winners are weapons manufacturers like BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon Technologies and Rheinmetall, et al.
BAE offers howitzers like the M-777, which can fire 155-mm shells at targets 30 kilometers away. Lockheed Martin and Raytheon make infra-red guided Javelin missiles that have a range of 4 kilometers that are used to penetrate armoured vehicles. Raytheon also makes Stinger missiles. Rheinmetall has offered to provide 50 old Leopard 1 tanks to Ukraine as well as 35 Marder infantry fighting vehicles.
Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk has been making regular surveillance flights over the Ukrainian border. “They profit from war, and they push for war, and they even hope to profit more from bloodshed, from destruction,” Yurii Sheliazhenko, the executive secretary of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement, told Democracy Now.
Indeed, the CEOs of military contractors have been quite public about how profitable they expect the war to be. “We see opportunities to further enhance the medium-term outlook as our customers address the elevated threat environment,” Charles Woodburn, CEO of BAE Systems, told investors.
“Security – as shown by the current conflict – is the bedrock of our life in peace and freedom. Rheinmetall has a special obligation here,” Armin Papperger, Rheinmetall CEO, told investors back a long time ago.
In fact, fully one month before the invasion, Gregory Hayes, CEO of Raytheon, told investors: “I fully expect we’re going to see some benefit from it.” He remains defiant about his comment when questioned by a reporter from the Harvard Business Review. “We don’t apologize for making these systems, making these weapons. The fact is, they are incredibly effective in deterring and dealing with the threat that the Ukrainians are seeing today,” he said.
These companies are openly backed by the U.S. government. The Pentagon issued a press release on April 13, 2022 about a meeting that Kathleen Hicks, the deputy secretary of defense, convened with leaders of eight weapons makers, namely BAE Systems, Boeing, General Dynamics, Huntington Ingalls, L3Harris, Raytheon Technologies, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
“The Biden Administration is working around the clock to fulfill Ukraine’s priority security assistance requests, drawing down weapons from U.S. stocks when they are available, purchasing directly from industry for rapid delivery to Ukraine, and facilitating the transfer of weapons from allies and partners when their systems better suit Ukraine’s needs,” said Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman.
President Biden has also been very candid about the role he expects of the weapons makers. “You’re making it possible for the Ukrainian people to defend themselves, without us having to risk getting into a third world war by sending in American soldiers fighting Russian soldiers,” Biden told workers at Javelin missile factory operated by Lockheed in Alabama earlier.
Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine is also expected to increase overall demand for weapons systems especially as Finland and Sweden have applied to become members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) after decades of staying neutral. Not least Germany, which demilitarized in 1945 after the two World Wars, recently announced plans to increase military spending immediately by more than US$100 billion.
Weapons companies were already receiving a massive amount of money from the U.S. government – some US$768 billion in 2021 before the war in Ukraine began. The U.S. Congress approved a US$40 billion spending package for the Ukraine war with a big chunk going to arms companies.
In order to keep the money flowing, these weapons makers spent US$2.5 billion on lobbying over the last 20 years, according to numbers gathered by Brown University’s Costs of War Project. Indeed, the number of military lobbyists over the past five years has outnumbered the number of members of the U.S. Congress.
The same is true in the UK where BAE Systems has been the largest lobbyist in the UK during the past ten years, according to Transparency International. Indeed, BAE has held 30 meetings with government ministers in just the past two years.
For these companies, the war in Ukraine came at just the right time, say analysts. “When the Afghanistan war ended, when you had some of the CEOs of defense contractors lamenting the fact that the war ended and they were expecting a hit to their bottom line,” Dan Grazier, a senior defense policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington DC, told Vice President. “When the Ukraine war started, there were people there almost eagerly anticipating it—you know, big, big profits.”
Others noted that the weapons companies have little interest in diplomatic solutions to put an end to the conflict. “There’s not very much money to be made in diplomacy, usually,” Erik Sperling, executive director of the anti-war group Just Foreign Policy, told Xinhua news service.
Since the war began, stock market speculators have rewarded shareholders of these companies. The shares of BAE Systems, the largest weapons manufacturer in Europe and the UK, had risen by 21 percent since the start of the invasion; Rheinmetall has seen its stock price surge 88 percent over the last three months. In the U.S., Northrop Grumman’s stocks are up by around 16 percent, while shares of Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest weapons manufacturer, and shares of Raytheon Technologies increased by 28 and 20 percent respectively in the first month of the invasion.
“The situation is delightful for Rheinmetall, they probably never even dreamed of something like this €100 billion fund,” Alexander Lurz, a disarmament expert at Greenpeace Germany, told the Irish Times. “Now they just have to wait for the orders to arrive.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian peace activists have been speaking out against the war, stating that they want Western governments to understand that escalating weapons supplies has devastating consequences.
“I feel that my country now is like a battlefield for all countries’ ambition: NATO parts and Russia parts. And two imperialistic countries want to divide my country,” Nina Potarska, coordinator for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Ukraine, told Democracy Now. “I just want to stress one very simple idea, that this is not movie. We are real people, and we die like real people. And real children cry because of the explosions everywhere. It’s not matter in Ukraine or in Afghanistan or in Syria: We all alive people, and we want to be in peace.”
And across the world, activists are taking this message to corporate headquarters.
For example, Lockheed Martin was the target of protests in earlier by the British group Block Lockheed, which blocked traffic from entering the company’s technology plant in the town of Ampthill in the UK. A spokesperson for the protesters said, “We are trying to draw people’s attention to the fact that war profiteers aren’t interested in peace… They make a lot of money out of constant war.”
In late March, 2022, five demonstrators were arrested for protesting on the roof of Raytheon Technologies’ building in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Protestors, including the FANG Collective and Resist and Abolish the Military Industrial Complex (RAM INC), held banners that read: “Raytheon profits from death in Palestine, Yemen, & Ukraine” and “End all wars, end all empires.”
In late April last year, peace activists across the globe – from Seoul to Sicily to Montréal – protested and brought petitions and banners to Lockheed Martin offices, demanding the company begin working on conversion to peaceful industries.
On May 10, 2022 a number of peace organizations in Germany held a protest at the headquarters of Rheinmetall in Düsseldorf, the largest weapons maker in Germany. “Capital feels well in times of war. We already know that from the past,” an activist from the Disarming Rheinmetall group told Die Tageszeitung.
And on May 17 last year, a University of California coalition called UC Divest protested outside the university Board of Regents meeting to demand the university divest from weapons manufacturers, chanting: “Hey hey, ho ho, corporate greed has got to go,” and “UC, UC, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side.”
New Delhi : Despite diplomatic differences in the G20 Foreign Ministers summit, India has been able to prove that it has been able to make the countries achieve consensus on many issues including climate change, food, fuel and energy security, etc. Keeping in mind the arising differences between countries on many issues including the Ukraine war, India has certainly proved that it not only deserves the Chair it holds, but also holds a coveted position in the current scenario of global diplomacy.
The consensus India hammered out in the last G-20 meet in Bali, Indonesia, had emerged as a challenge for it in its own backyard. But under the great stewardship of India’s Foreign Minister, Mr S Jaishankar, India has played its part diplomatically very well, even while walking a tightrope.
The on-going Ukraine war has created a sharp divide between the West and Russia-China. What precipitated it was NATO’s hardening stance against Russia and at the same time, Russia, with its historic ties with India, would like to expect Delhi to be a coveted strategic partner. Remember, India and China abstained from the UN General Assembly resolution regarding the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
India has reminded the G20 countries through the mantra of its Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, that “today’s era must not be of war”.
While the Russian Foreign Minister, Mr Sergey Lavrov, put the blame on West, saying “unfortunately the joint declaration was not adopted because of the rhetoric of the West”, The US Secretary of State, Mr Anthony Blinken, referred to Russia and China as “outliers”. However, Mr Blinken did agree with the Indian Foreign Minister that 95 percent issues have got consensus.
India will have to keenly watch out for the Sino-Russian closeness and chart out a future course of partnership with Moscow. The growing diplomatic battlelines between China and the US, is a test for India, which Indian diplomats think, will not dilute its bilateral relations with Russia or the US.
In fact, on the other hand, it is a brilliant opportunity for India to showcase its soft-power projection in other geographies. Do not forget, the Quad foreign ministers conference hosted by India close on the heels of the G20 summit.
India’s Prime Minister, Mr Modi, will want to pull off a formula to solve the Ukraine issue with several world leaders urging India to play the role. It may well see the day when Ayurveda settles the issue between allopathy and homeopathy! Hectic diplomatic parleys have already established India’s stupendous growth on the global high table. But the September 2023 G-20 meeting is still a long way to go. Experts think India will be walking the tightest tightrope then, but foreign policy history has proved time and again, that issues and parleys change in hours and days.
India may win the T20 by a comfortable margin in the G20.
From a Sri Lankan viewpoint, the finance ministers of the G20 countries, did discuss the challenges faced by the global economy and recognised the “urgency to address debt vulnerabilities” and “look (ed) forward to a swift resolution to Sri Lanka’s debt situation”. Despite media reports that no concrete commitments were made, it is better not to jump the gun. Policy is laid on a certain day and action taken on another day, and they are fine if they are in time.
India’s Finance Minister, Ms Nirmala Sitharaman, had said that a common position for ‘debt language’ had been arrived at. Sri Lanka, Ghana, Zambia and Ethiopia would benefit from the discussions. “..Further, we look forward to a swift resolution to Sri Lanka’s debt situation,” she has said late last month.
It is a time now to set realistic expectations during India’s G20 Presidency. Experts say it is just a matter of time before G20 will offer innovative solutions to many problems pressing the world over before critics continue to question its relevance.
Even now, during the geo-political fragmentation and diplomatic hurdles in the backdrop of a pandemic, the ray of hope is still alive. It is expected that the message of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (One Earth, One Family, One Future), will truly resonate.