Whatever hope there was attached to last night’s emergency meeting of the UN Security Council rapidly evaporated as the meeting went on. It was a typical security council meeting punctuated by uniform condemnation of Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government had requested the meeting yesterday after Russia announced its recognition of the Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic, the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine that are controlled by pro-Russian separatists. It was a purely symbolic gesture though. Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council and holds veto power, guaranteeing no resolution aimed at condemnation of Russia’s actions has even a remote chance of seeing the light of day.
Europe is taking the lead on applying sanctions to Russia for its actions yesterday. Germany has cast aside its reluctance of past weeks and suspended the certification process of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline while Great Britain has targeted five Russian banks for its first round of sanctions. France has not yet taken action, however, the threat of “targeted sanctions” was introduced by Paris minus specifics. The French government has a good amount of egg on its face after working relentlessly to set up a summit between US and Russian leaders this past weekend, only to see it turn to dust following Russia’s recognition of the breakaway republics yesterday. Perhaps this slap to the face will teach French leadership a lesson about trusting Vladimir Putin.
Despite the recognition of the LPR and DPR’s independence, the fact remains that two-thirds of the territory in both breakaway republics is controlled by the Ukrainian military…albeit tacitly in some instances. Russian ‘peacekeeping forces’ are reportedly advancing towards Mariupol, a vital port that sits in Ukrainian controlled territory. There has been contact between government forces and separatists and/or Russian peacekeepers at the Novoazovsk border crossing east of Mariupol. The port city is important to both Ukraine and Russia for a variety of reasons. It’s certainly worth discussing a bit at length later on in the day.
With the focus of the world locked directly on Ukraine for the last forty-eight hours, awaiting the start of a Russian invasion labeled ‘imminent’ unheeded warnings and frustrations are starting to appear. The United States is attempting to plug the dikes with fresh batches of information intermingled with predictions. Today it was President Biden’s turn to keep the heat maintained. He said indications continue to point towards a Russian invasion in the next few days and claims Russia is preparing a pretext to justify military action. Biden’s remarks came after Ukrainian forces and separatists exchanged fire in eastern Ukraine earlier Thursday. The Kremlin responded by accusing the US of ignoring Russia’s security concerns and threatened unspecified “military-technical measures.” The Russian Foreign Ministry followed up by expelling the US Deputy Chief of Mission from Moscow.
The latest fighting in eastern Ukraine is raising alarm bells, as it could very well be the first sign of Russia’s justification for military action starting to take form. Intent to offset a pretext or justification from gaining steam, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke at a UN Security Council meeting on Ukraine. He outlined a number of scenarios where Russia could construct to justify military action. Russia’s response was unusually sharp. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin distributed a letter to the Security Council accusing Ukrainian authorities of “exterminating” civilians in the east. This comes on the heels of Vladimir Putin’s comments earlier in the week about alleged genocide taking place in Donbass. Vershinin also called Blinken’s remarks ‘regrettable’ and repeated the Russian government’s claims that military units are beginning to withdraw from the border areas, something the US and other countries dispute.
Author’s Note: I’ve been out of the loop for much of the day and will try and post a second update this evening.
This morning’s meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York resembled a boxing match more than a gathering of diplomats. As soon as the meeting began, Russia’s ambassador Vasily Nebenzia objected to the meeting even being held. He labeled US accusations as unfounded and claimed the Russian government had addressed and refuted them already. US warnings of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine were dismissed as theatrics and fear-mongering. The US response was more measured. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield defended the need for a Security Council meeting after a series of private discussions on the Russian military buildup between US and Russian diplomats failed to make progress. Through the course of the meeting, Thomas-Greenfield and Nebenzia traded blows as they laid out the positions of their respective governments, yet there is no real prospect of formal action being taken by the UN Security Council since Russia holds veto power.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to have a telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin today, twenty-four hours before Johnson is set to visit Ukraine. Great Britain is defuse the current crisis through both diplomacy and deterrence. Defensive weapons are already being supplied to Ukraine and London has offered to increase the number of troops and aircraft it already has deployed on NATO’s Eastern Flank. Concurrent to this offer, legislation is being prepared which will levy a wide range of economic sanctions on Russia should Moscow choose to launch an invasion of Ukraine. Johnson’s own political future remains in doubt as reports of the prime minister having thrown parties during the COVID-19 lockdown have led to a government investigation into those reports. The findings are set to be released on Tuesday.
While much of the world’s attention is focused on Ukraine and Russia, North Korea has conducted a string of missile tests over the last month. The most recent test firing came yesterday, and was the nation’s most powerful test since 2017. It was an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) that reached an altitude of 2,000 kilometers before descending into the Sea of Japan. The tests this month have defied the UN ban on ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests by North Korea.
Sunday’s test was condemned by Japan, South Korea and the United States. Aside from words of condemnation and warning, however, there has been no concrete response from regional powers or from the US. South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in did remark that this round of missile tests is similar to 2017 when the North conducted nuclear tests and fired powerful missiles, some of which flew over Japan.
As for the reason behind these tests, there are a variety of opinions floating around. Some colleagues believe the tests are a signal to the world. A demonstration of North Korea’s military prowess to create a position of strength from which Pyongyang can use to its advantage. Then there is the timing of these tests. The Winter Olympics are set to start soon in Beijing and the South Korean presidential election is scheduled for March. Kim Jong Un might want to influence both, or at the very least remind the world North Korea is still there.
While I believe the reasons above are viable theories, conditions in North Korea are likely the main driving force behind the January surge of missile tests. The economy continues to struggle from a combination of factors; economic sanctions, COVID-19, and thirty-plus years of gross mismanagement on every level. These have combined to place the government in a precarious position. Kim Jong Un might be gambling that the US and other world powers realize the North is growing desperate and needs relief before the situation comes to a head. North Korea has employed this strategy before without success. Why Kim Jong Un would opt to try again is unclear.
Several nations are ordering their non-essential embassy staff members and dependents out of Ethiopia as the forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) move closer to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. The United States has joined Israel, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark in removing non-essential personnel from Ethiopia. The order was given on Friday and the US State Department is also urging all US nationals to leave the country too. A number of other rebel groups have joined the TPLF, forming an anti-government alliance that looks to unseat Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed from power one year after he launched the offensive in Tigray that has ultimately led to this point. In November 2020 there were very few people who could even entertain the notion that Addis Ababa would be under TPLF threat twelve months later.
The government has declared a state of emergency that will allow conscription of any military-aged civilian with weapons. Veterans are also being asked to reenlist in the military. In Addis Ababa, police are searching houses to uncover potential Tigrayans who are connected, or sympathetic to the TPLF. How much good these measures will do with the enemy fast approaching the city remains to be seen.
Beyond Ethiopia’s borders there have been a number of diplomatic efforts aimed at bringing the conflict to an end. The Biden administration’s press for negotiations to end the fighting fell upon deaf ears, and so have the selective sanctions placed on some Ethiopian officials by the US government. The reluctance of both sides to turn to diplomacy has derailed efforts by the African Union to mediate an end to the fighting and bring about a cease-fire. Predictably, United Nation Security Council calls for on all parties to refrain “from inflammatory hate speech and incitement to violence and divisiveness” are being ignored. The Security Council is also concerned with how this conflict will affect the stability of the region. The Horn of Africa has long been a hotbed of volatility. The prospect of the fighting leading to a division of Ethiopia similar to Yugoslavia in the early 1990s is beginning to make diplomats around the world uneasy.