Ukraine Update 24 February, 2022 (Afternoon)

I deliberately waited for President Biden to make his comments on the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine before posting the afternoon update. Biden’s remarks were largely a rehashing the threat of ‘devastating’ sanctions being prepared for implementation and painting Vladimir Putin’s actions in a decidedly dark light, and rightfully so. He believes Putin intends to reclaim through conquest what the Soviet Union ceded in 1991 upon its collapse. Biden also made it a point to explain that sanctions will not damage Russian economy immediately upon being unleashed. It will take some time for the effects to be felt. The rest of the comments and subsequent press conference centered around details of the sanctions as well as requests for clarification of the role of the United States military in the fighting thus far. Biden was clear to point out the purpose of US troop movements into Eastern Europe is to strengthen NATO’s Eastern Flank against possible Russian action in the future. There will be no direct military assistance provided to Ukraine by the US or NATO.

Also this afternoon, the Department of Defense announced the deployment of an additional 7,000 troops to Europe to help strengthen NATO defenses. This force will include an armored brigade, though it was unknown if the brigade will take its equipment from prepositioned war stocks in Europe or if its equipment and vehicles will need to be transported to Europe by ship.

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Military Update

-On the ground in Ukraine this afternoon, fighting continues to rage. As far as determining how much ground the Russian offensive has gained, that remains hidden by the fog of war for now. Fighting west of Kiev at the airport is still taking place. The Russian air mobile force that secured the airport early in the morning has been counterattacked by Ukrainian forces. It’s unclear which side now has control of the airport.

-Mariupol appears to now be in Russian control, or at least parts of the city are in Russian hands. Video obtained from there earlier today showed Russian troops setting up a checkpoint on a road with two armored vehicles in the background. Whether or not this scene occurred inside of Mariupol proper has not been confirmed. However, given that web camera streams from there are now out and communication severely degraded, I’ll assume Russia controls Mariupol unless independent sources confirm otherwise.

War Clouds Gathering Over Taiwan?

Over the weekend, relations between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan appear to have entered an impermanent and rather agitated new phase. With a week or so of escalatory air operations in Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone serving as the leadup, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that a peaceful reunification with Taiwan will be achieved. Taiwan’s leadership viewed Xi’s words as him throwing down the gauntlet. On Sunday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said her nation will not submit to pressure from China for reunification. Tsai went on to say that Taiwan will continue increasing its military capabilities “ to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us.”

Xi supports Taiwanese reunification under a ‘one country, two systems’ model along the lines the Hong Kong System, which went into place after British rule ended there in 1997. That system, however, has all but collapsed in the last two years. Beijing has successfully moved to take direct control over Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and roll back the territory’s autonomy since the summer of 2019. Holding up the prospect of this for Taiwan’s future was not going to garner support for a peaceful transition leading to eventual reunification. Xi was aware of this long before his address on Saturday. The Chinese leader can use Taiwan’s defiant response as justification to turn up the heat militarily on the island nation in the coming weeks and months.

The United States has inadvertently helped Xi’s efforts with the discovery that a small cadre of US troops has been present in Taiwan for over a year working to assist the ROC armed forces in strengthening their defenses against an increasingly aggressive China. Beijing can point to this as proof of Taipei and Washington working against Chinese desires to reunify Taiwan with the mainland peacefully.

Now, as a new week dawns in the Western Pacific, regional powers are uneasy about what China has planned for the short-term. Most self-described defense and geo-political analysts and experts spouting their views on Western news channels and social media continue to insist there’s no threat of Chinese military action against Taiwan on the horizon. What they are forgetting to mention, or factor into their conclusions, is that the record number of Chinese air sorties around Taiwan and Xi’s promise of reunification, albeit under ‘peaceful conditions,’ could serve to signal the start of a transition-to-hostilities phase for the People’s Republic of China.

North Korean Weapons Test Might Be Looming

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are now in Asia for discussions with their South Korean and Japanese opposites. US/South Korea military exercises are now underway in South Korea, and Pyongyang has resumed its cryptic rhetoric. The stage appears set for North Korea to conduct a weapons test to check the waters, so to speak, and to serve as a reminder to the US about what the future could hold if economic sanctions are not lifted. Ove the past 15 years or so, North Korea has traditionally conducted weapons tests and other types of provocative actions in the early days of new US and South Korean administrations. In light of the events mentioned above, and the fact that the Biden administration is only two months old, a weapons test by North Korea now would not come as a surprise.

On Monday, Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong released a rather cryptic statement. “We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off [gun] powder smell in our land. If it [the U.S.] wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.” The statement is the first official North Korean reaction since Joe Biden took office. The Biden administration’s attempts to resume talks with North Korea have so far been unsuccessful. Pyongyang has been radio silent, so to speak. However, with senior US administration officials now in the region to discuss, among other topics, North Korea, Kim Jong Un might decide this is a convenient time to stage a weapons test. A move which will serve to inform the Biden administration that more work is needed before discussions between the two nations can pick up again.

Ending Hostilities In Yemen Will Not Be So Easy

After Sunday’s drone and missile attacks against oil facilities and other targets in Saudi Arabia, the United States expressed alarm at the ‘genuine security threats’ the Saudis are facing from Yemeni-based and Iranian supported Houthi rebels. Not to sound facetious, but I honestly do not understand why the Biden administration is just now waking up to the realization that the Houthi rebels pose a danger to Saudi Arabian territory and economic interests. This past weekend saw Saudi Arabia’s largest oil export terminal at the port of Ras Tanura targeted. No damage was caused to the terminal, but fragments from an exploding ballistic missile did fall on the nearby ARAMCO facility.

Sunday was not the first time that the Houthis launched drone and missile attacks against economic targets inside of the Kingdom. The attack against the Abqaiq facility in 2019 caused considerable damage and affected Saudi Arabia’s oil production. The most recent attacks are not expected to have an effect on either production, or oil prices beyond today. Yet the attacks have helped to demonstrate how complicated ending the civil war in Yemen will be. The Houthis are clearly not prepared to talk peace right now, as this weekend revealed.

The White House has apparently noticed this, and the Biden administration sounds downright miffed. “We continue to be alarmed by the frequency of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia. Escalating attacks like these are not the actions of a group that is serious about peace,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told a press conference.

Well, to be fair, its probably not entirely the Houthis decision whether or not they come to the peace table. Tehran has reestablished its influence with the Yemeni-based group and is calling the shots once again. The US has not helped the prospects of ending the war in Yemen much lately either. Last month the Biden administration removed US support for Saudi military operations inside of Yemen. Though a bit naïve, the move was an act of good faith. Unfortunately, it has had almost the exact opposite effect and is enticing the Houthis to resume attacks on the economic infrastructure of Saudi Arabia.

The Biden administration will eventually learn how to navigate the Yemen quagmire, but it is coming at a cost.

Taiwanese Government ‘Very Concerned’ About A Possible Chinese Invasion

Taiwanese concern over continued Chinese military exercises and activity in and around Taiwan Strait is once again becoming apparent. Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, while conducting an interview with Stan Grant of Australia’s ABC News program The World voiced his belief that the risk of a military conflict in that area is increasing. Through the summer and fall months of 2020, when world attention was focused elsewhere, Chinese naval and air activity in the Taiwan Strait area was extensive. Wu went on to say that Taiwan’s government is now ‘very concerned’ about the prospects of a Chinese invasion of the island. China’s increased military posture around Taiwan comes as part of multiple Chinese moves beyond its borders. From leashing Hong Kong and dragging it fully into the Chinese sphere of influence, to the territorial expansions into the South China and East China seas.

Taiwan faces an uncertain future at the moment. Its close relationship with the United States will become even more valuable through the next four years. A Biden administration is not going to provide Taiwan with the material support that the Trump administration has. Nor will it stand firmly behind Taiwan as a counterbalance to recent Chinese actions and behavior in the Western Pacific. Although Joe Biden claims his administration will continue to support Taiwan, a look back at the relationships that the Obama, and Bush administrations had with Taiwan earlier in the century show that Taipei has valid reason to worry.

Even now as relations between Beijing and other powers in the Western Pacific have turned sour it provides no advantage for Taiwan. In the event of a large-scale PRC military operation against the island, Taiwan will have no formal allies it can turn to for assistance. Historically, the United States is the only friend it can rely on in the event of a crisis. But with Joe Biden sadly likely to take power in January, 2021, even that is no longer a guarantee.