Following a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kiev, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin were expressive in declaring that the United States is committed to assisting Ukraine win the war and repel Russian forces from its territory entirely. Austin also said that along with preserving Ukraine, another US desire is to see Russia “weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine.” Blinken also confirmed the US will be opening its embassy back in Kiev within the coming weeks.
Russia is continuing to focus on attacking Ukraine’s infrastructure. Today, a number of rail stations and facilities in central and western Ukraine were attacked, as well as other targets labeled by Ukrainian officials as ‘critical infrastructure.’ Civilian casualties were reported.
Following a fairly quiet Orthodox Easter Sunday, the tempo of fighting in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian positions on the eastern outskirts of Kharkov began taking artillery fire early Monday morning and there are indications of fighting taking place in other areas of the east. This fighting is responsible for the destruction of a substation in the town of Kreminna which has knocked out power for the entire province of Luhansk.
The British government today has said Russian combat losses in the Ukraine War have topped 15,000. U.K. Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace also informed Parliament that over 2,000 Russian armored vehicles were destroyed or captured, including 530 tanks, 530 armored personnel carriers and 560 infantry fighting vehicles, as well as 60 helicopters and fighter jets.
A flareup of fighting between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan along their common border appears to have been brought to an end, but not after at least thirty people were killed according to Kyrgyz government officials. Military units from both nations started exchanging fire on Thursday and according to independent sources, civilians on both sides of the border joined in the firefights. By today, Tajik and Kyrgyz officials met to defuse the situation. It seems a temporary ceasefire has been established and the leaders of the two nations have discussed matters over the phone. President Sadyr Japarov of Kyrgyzstan and his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rakhmon have agreed to meet later in May.
Territorial claims and access to water were the causes of Thursday’s military engagements. Border disagreements between the two nations are not new, having stemmed from demarcations made during the 1980s at a time when these nations were part of the Soviet Union. The area of the border where Thursday’s clashes occurred is a frequent flashpoint.
This recent round of fighting in Central Asia underscores the volatility which the region has experienced in the last year. The Azeri-Armenian war and continued tension between Georgia and Russia generally grab the media headlines, yet there are a number of other regional issues and rivalries simmering just beneath the surface. The situation between Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan over the shared Fergana Valley is one of them. The chances of a larger water war in the area cannot be discounted as the importance of water access for these landlocked nation-states becomes a matter of national survival.
Tens of thousands of Lebanese citizens took to the streets Saturday for a third day of protests aimed at tax increases and government corruption. Following today’s demonstrations, four ministers from the Lebanese Forces Party, a traditional ally of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, resigned from his cabinet. Samir Gaegea, the head of the party released a short, simple statement explaining the reasoning behind the resignations: “We are convinced that the government is unable to take the necessary steps to save the situation.” Protesters in Beirut responded to news of the resignations with cheers and celebration. So far, the demonstrations and protests have been peaceful and there are no indications that will change anytime soon.
Still, the Lebanese government has reason to worry. The rising costs of living, and tax increases are what prompted the protests. Right now, even though the tone of the demonstrations has been peaceful, citizens are angry and frustrated at what is largely perceived as the government’s inability to address the nation’s poor infrastructure, official corruption, and high unemployment. These frustrations are very similar to those recently voiced by Iraqi citizens, which led to violent, bloody demonstrations across Iraq.
Cronyism, unemployment, and crumbling infrastructures have become common issues around the Middle East. Iraq and Lebanon are not alone. In other nations civilian frustrations are simmering though it remains to be seen if the recent protests in Iraq, and Lebanon inspire similar actions in Tunisia, Egypt, or even Kuwait, and Bahrain. If so, do not expect the next wave of political instability will not become the radical-fueled conflagration that Arab Spring did in 2010 and 2011.
18 March, 2019 marked the fifth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. On this date in 2014, Russian commandos blockaded Simferopol International Airport, military bases across the peninsula, and the Crimean parliament building. This action marked the beginning of Russia annexing Crimea, which eventually contributed to the start of fighting in Eastern Ukraine between Russian-supported separatists, and Ukrainian government forces. Moscow’s actions brought about a deep freeze in its relations with the West, and significantly altered the way Russia is perceived, and treated by the rest of the world.
Russian President Vladimir Putin marked the anniversary with a visit to the peninsula. He visited two powerplants currently under construction, and lauded efforts to improve the infrastructure of the Crimea. This is not the first improvement project Russia has undertaken in recent times. Last year a bridge connecting southern Russia to the Crimea was constructed. These are steps necessary to Crimea’s continued re-integration with Russia.
Behind the anniversary celebrations, there are other signs of re-integration taking place which go unmentioned by the world media. For months now, Russia has been undertaking a gradual military buildup of its forces on the Crimean peninsula. Additional batteries of SA-21 Growler (S-400) surface-to-air missiles arrived at Russian airbases there. This deployment was followed by a staggered redeployment of Russian warplanes to Crimea. The buildup continues, with the latest installment being Russian long range Tu-22M Backfire bombers. Moscow claims that the presence of Backfires is intended as a counter to the US deployment of its missile defense system in Romania.
There’s certainly a degree of truth attached to the reasoning. However, with the Ukrainian presidential election coming up at the end of the month, having Backfire bombers based so close to Ukrainian territory and airspace could also be perceived as an attempt by Russia to overtly affect the election.