Europe/Americas update: January 29 2018



Donald Trump seems to be itching for a trade war with the European Union, and the EU says it will give him one if it comes to that:

Brussels has warned that it stands ready to retaliate and potentially open up a transatlantic trade war if the US delivers on apparent threats to restrict European imports.


The US president, Donald Trump, claimed in an interview with ITV broadcast on Sunday that the EU had been “very unfair” on American exporters, and that it would “morph into something very big” that would “turn out to be very much to [the EU’s] detriment”.


The Kremlin is accusing the US of interfering in Russia’s upcoming presidential election–imagine that–via the expected release of a Treasury Department report detailing Vladimir Putin’s relationships with shady Russian oligarchs. This is rich not only for the obvious reasons, but also because there’s barely any election to influence. Putin isn’t being challenged by any serious contenders and will walk to an easy reelection. But for legacy reasons he wants to win in a high turnout landslide, and given Russians’ apathy toward politics nowadays that’s unlikely regardless of what the US government does between now and the election.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov says that gay activists “make up all sorts of nonsense for money,” like allegations that Kadyrov’s security forces have been brutalizing the gay Chechen population. He insists that not a single person in Chechnya has committed any human rights violations. We’re in heavy “are you going to believe me or your lying eyes” territory here, based on the volume of reports that have come out about the way Kadyrov’s goons treat gay Chechen men.


Reuters is reporting on the 2017 death of a Russian general in Syria that has had implications for Russian claims of non-involvement in Ukraine:

In the fall of 2015, pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine were introduced to a moustachioed new commander who, like his predecessors, went by the codename Tuman – “fog” in Russian.


Also like his predecessors, he appeared to be a Russian national. He signed documents as General Primakov.


When he was killed while on official assignment to Syria two years later, it turns out that this name was also fake, a deception to hide Russia’s central role in a conflict that Moscow and the rebels maintain was entirely homegrown.


In fact, Valery Asapov was a Russian general working undercover.

Ukrainian rebels and Asapov’s own brother have said he served in Ukraine, but claims that he commanded “volunteer” forces in both Ukraine and Syria are belied by the fact that he had an official rank in the Russian army and that he was ostensibly on active duty–albeit officially on other assignments–during both of his deployments. While he was in Ukraine he was officially deployed in Russia near the Ukrainian border, and while he was commanding soldiers in the field in Syria he was officially there as an adviser.


New Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă made it official on Monday, when her cabinet passed a confidence vote in the Romanian parliament. She becomes the first woman PM in Romanian history. There are concerns, largely driven by Dăncilă’s lack of experience and relative obscurity, that she’ll be little more than a proxy for Social Democratic Party leader Liviu Dragnea, who is currently barred from serving in parliament or as PM himself due to a prior corruption conviction.


Prime Minister Andrej Babiš got a new lease on life over the weekend when his pal Miloš Zeman was reelected as Czech president. Zeman sounds like he’s prepared to give Babiš all the time he needs to form a new government, which gives the PM leverage to use in negotiating for support with other Czech parties. Babiš prefers to run a minority government as opposed to forming a coalition, but he needs enough votes in parliament to get through a confidence vote either way. He’s negotiating for support from the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, which would be enough to get him over the hump if he can manage to get them on side.


The British government has assessed its post-Brexit fortunes and the outlook is apparently pretty grim:

The government’s new analysis of the impact of Brexit says the UK would be worse off outside the European Union under every scenario modelled, BuzzFeed News can reveal.


The assessment, which is titled “EU Exit Analysis – Cross Whitehall Briefing” and dated January 2018, looked at three of the most plausible Brexit scenarios based on existing EU arrangements.


Under a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, UK growth would be 5% lower over the next 15 years compared to current forecasts, according to the analysis.


The “no deal” scenario, which would see the UK revert to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, would reduce growth by 8% over that period. The softest Brexit option of continued single-market access through membership of the European Economic Area would, in the longer term, still lower growth by 2%.

For some reason Theresa May and her cabinet have been refusing to release a report like this or even acknowledge that one existed. Honestly I’m stumped as to a reason for that behavior.

Oh, and while we’re on this subject, Brussels is insisting that during any “transition period” after Brexit, during which time the UK would continue to operate under EU laws and rules in return for continued access to the single market and the customs union, London would have no say in how the EU is run. This is not going to go over well with Britain. Neither is the EU’s insistence that any trade agreements Britain negotiates during its hypothetical transition period would be subject to EU review. That one seems like it might be an overreach by Brussels.



A faction of the ELN was apparently behind all three attacks against Colombian police over the weekend, and as a result the Colombian government has broken off peace talks with the rebel group. The setback highlights the unique challenges posed by those negotiations:

Ending the conflict with the E.L.N., most here agree, will most likely prove to be even more of a challenge than ending the one with the FARC was.


The E.L.N., a Marxist-Leninist organization founded in the 1960s, is more ideological than the FARC and is considered less hierarchical. Individual factions often act autonomously — at times over the objections of commanders.


Some leaders have joined peace talks, while others openly reject any negotiation. All seem increasingly desperate in a war that seems unwinnable, analysts say.


New polling shows leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador is still the frontrunner heading into July’s presidential election. However, his lead over center-right candidate Ricardo Anaya Cortés is 32-26, where in December it had stood at 31-23. The new poll also shows more undecided voters than in December, 20 percent to 13 percent.


The Trump administration staged its big Yemen demonstration for members of the UN Security Council on Monday. Using alleged evidence supplied by Saudi Arabia and assembled by the US, the administration attempted to convince council members that Iran has been arming the Houthis in violation of a UN arms embargo. A UN report has already suggested that Iran is in violation of the embargo for not preventing the Houthis from obtaining what appear to be Iranian weapons, but the Trump administration is accusing Tehran of actively arming the Yemeni rebel group. It’s not clear they convinced anybody of their case.

Meanwhile, the administration allowed a Monday deadline to impose new sanctions on Russia to lapse without taking any action. August’s “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” had set the deadline, but the administration argues that just the threat of new sanctions is already hurting Russian arms sales, and it wants to proceed carefully in order to assess that impact before deciding whether to actually follow through. I suppose you could contrast the administration’s methodical approach to these Russian sanctions with its ham-handed mad dash to slap as many sanctions on Iran as quickly as possible even though it’s damaging America’s reputation in the process and come to some interesting conclusions, if you were of a mind to do so. But I digress.

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