World War 5
This week's unnerving incident in which US jets intercepted two Russian bombers off the coast of Alaska leaves us wondering how to read events. Russia sent the two "nuclear-capable" bombers to within 100 miles of Kodiak Island April 17, prompting the US to scramble two F-22 stealth fighter jets from Elmendorf Air Force Base. The US and Russian craft were side-by-side for a full 12 minutes, until they crossed out of the US Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). (The Telegraph, April 18) This came as ExxonMobil was seeking a waiver from US sanctions against Russia to move ahead with its Black Sea venture with Rosneft. The decision rested with the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), while Secretary of State (and ex-Exxon CEO) Rex Tillerson is officially recusing himself from any matters involving the company for two years. Still, it is counterintuitive (at least) that OFAC turned down the waiver April 21. (NYT, April 21; Fox Business, April 19)
An apparent chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun, Idlib governorate, left at least 80 dead April 4. After a bombing of the town, medics reported a "bloodless massacre," saying that they were treating people with symptoms including fainting, vomiting and foaming at the mouth. The hospital where gas-attack victims were being treated was itself bombed in the immediate aftermath, "bringing down rubble on top of medics as they worked," according to AFP. The opposition-run Health Department in Idlib has provided a list of the names of some 70 dead, with more still being identified. Some of the victims were brought across the border to Turkey for treatment, where several died. Turkish authorities say autopsies revealed evidence of exposure to sarin. The UN Security Council immediately called emergency talks on the attack. On April 4, US warships in the Mediterranean launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat air-base outside Homs, from where the Khan Shaykhun attack is said to have been launched. This constituted the first US attack on an Assad regime target throughout the course of the war (not counting last year's accident, immediately apologized for). (CNN, CNN, Jurist, BBC News, NYT, NPR)
Well, this is some very telling—and deeply disturbing—timing. Let's review what has happened in the one day since Mike Flynn resigned as National Security Advisor over his pre-election phone calls with the Russian ambassador. Trump, having heretofore been completely acquiescing in Putin's illegal annexation of Crimea, now tweets: "Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?" On the very day of Flynn's resignation, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said: "President Trump has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to deescalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea." (Russia's Foreign Ministry quickly responded, no dice: "Crimea is part of the Russian Federation.") Also that fateful day, the Pentagon said that multiple Russian military aircraft buzzed a US Navy destroyer in the flashpoint Black Sea, in "unsafe and unprofessional" maneuvers. This is said to have happened last week, but it is notable that it is only reported now. Russia of course denies it. (RFE/RL)
President Trump said Jan. 25 that he "will absolutely do safe zones in Syria" for those displaced by violence, and a leaked draft of his impending executive order apparently directs the State Department and Pentagon to present a plan to him within 90 days. But this was presented in explicitly xenophobic terms—not humanitarian. In making the announcement, he dissed Europe's leaders for taking in Syrian refugees. Trump said that Germany and other European countries made a "tremendous mistake by allowing these millions of people... I don't want that to happen here." (LAT, Reuters)
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Jan. 26 moved the minute hand of its symbolic Doomsday Clock from three minutes to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. On this year that marks the 70th anniversary of the Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin notes (full text at PDF; links added by CountrerVortex): "The United States and Russia—which together possess more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons—remained at odds in a variety of theaters, from Syria to Ukraine to the borders of NATO; both countries continued wide-ranging modernizations of their nuclear forces, and serious arms control negotiations were nowhere to be seen. North Korea conducted its fourth and fifth underground nuclear tests and gave every indication it would continue to develop nuclear weapons delivery capabilities. Threats of nuclear warfare hung in the background as Pakistan and India faced each other warily across the Line of Control in Kashmir after militants attacked two Indian army bases."
We aren't sure how much method to place in Donald Trump's madness. Right on the heels of the outrage over his diplomatically incorrect telephone conversation with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen comes word that he's appointed Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as the next US ambassador to China—news that will apparently be welcome in Beijing. The New York Times says that Branstad describes China's exceptionally authoritarian President Xi Jinping as an "old friend." Reuters tells us Branstad said he's had a "30-year friendship" with Xi, and added: "The president-elect understands my unique relationship to China." A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson reciprocated the warmth, calling Branstad an "old friend" of China.
This is very telling. While Kremlin mouthpiece RT is now bashing the anti-Trump protesters in the US, China Daily is gushing with enthusiasm for them. At first, this seems a little counter-intuitive. In some obvious ways, Trump's victory is good news for Beijing. Trump says he will pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal on his first day in the White House. (BBC News) On the campaign trail, he blasted the TPP as "a disaster done and pushed by special interests who want to rape our country." (ChinaWorker) Beijing views the TPP as a bid for US dominance in the Asia-Pacific region, and a reaction to China's territorial ambitions and superpower aspirations. Just as the US-backed TPP excludes China, Beijing is pushing a rival Pacific Rim trade initiative, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), that excludes the United States. After the US election results, China's Commerce Ministry announced a new push to conclude negotiations on the RCEP. (Reuters)
Assad regime and Russian warplanes resumed their bombardment of Aleppo Nov. 15 after the "humanitarian pause" announced last month. Damascus state TV boasted of "precision weapons to target terrorist positions," of course. Activists on the ground report an assault of unprecedented intensity, with bombs falling virtually constantly. The assault had been threatened in mass text messages sent to residents of rebel-held east Aleppo by the regime, instructing them to leave within 24 hours. The campaign of targeting hospitals has resumed, and eastern Aleppo is now without a single hospital operating at full capacity, the Syrian American Medical Society reports. One of those struck this week was a children's hospital, forcing staff to evacuate babies to safety. (EA Worldview, CNN, Nov. 19; CNN, Nov. 15)