Europe/Americas update: March 2 2018



The Russian government on Friday angrily rejected claims from the Trump administration that its fancy new nuclear weapons that promise to destroy humanity even better than the old ones actually violate international treaties.

For the Russians, ironically, it’s America’s decision to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 that’s partly motivating their decision to spend lots of money on new nukes at a time when their people can barely feed themselves between the pressures of low oil prices and international sanctions. The US has always insisted that its missile defense program is only large enough to stop small-scale threats from “rogue nations,” like Iran, Israel, or North Korea. But Russia has never believed that–and oh hey, we’re now proving that they were right not to believe it, so that’s really generous of us. And while we don’t actually know if any of these newly unveiled Russian devices actually work, we do know that missile defense frequently doesn’t. So I hope the massive defense contractor subsidy that the missile defense program has been was worth potentially reopening a nuclear arms race.


The Ukrainian government has ordered the closure of all schools and colleges in the country in an effort to conserve gas, and is ordering power plants to switch over to fuel oil wherever possible. Why? Because Russia’s Gazprom, which remains Ukraine’s main natural gas supplier despite, well, you know, has announced that it’s unilaterally shutting off gas shipments to Ukraine. Gazprom and Ukraine’s Naftgaz firm have been feuding for several years, with Gazprom saying that Ukraine hasn’t been paying for its gas and Naftgaz claiming that it’s owed money because Gazprom hasn’t been delivering as much gas as promised and for transit fees (Gazprom pipes its supply through Ukraine to get to the rest of Europe). A court in Sweden ruled this week that when everybody’s various grievances were worked out, Gazprom owed Naftgaz a net of about $2.56 billion. Gazprom is, uh, not taking that news well.

Of course, Ukraine and Russia have a whole host of problems between them beyond gas, even though the issue of fuel is particularly salient in Ukraine in February. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych crawled out from his spider hole on Friday to offer to mediate one of those problems, the frozen civil war in eastern Ukraine. Not only is Yanukovych wanted on treason charges in Ukraine, but his proposal to mediate presupposes that Kiev has any interest in negotiating directly with the Donbas separatists, which it clearly does not. So I don’t think his offer is going to be much help.


Slovakian journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee were murdered on Sunday in their home. His investigative work focused on ties between the Italian mafia and Slovakian businesses and politicians, so it doesn’t take a lot of deductive reasoning to figure out what most likely happened. Journalist Dariusz Kalan says that Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico’s government bears much responsibility for Kuciak’s murder, both for its high levels of corruption and its outright hostility toward reporters.


Whatever the outcome of Italy’s parliamentary election this weekend, the campaign itself has been a microcosm of the problems facing Western democracies more broadly:

In elections in the United States and elsewhere in Europe, the far right had shifted the debate within the political establishment. But in Italy, the birthplace of fascism, they are a full partner in it.


The populism, the electronic misinformation, the crumbling of the left and the rise of the anti-immigrant, post-fascist hard right that has floated in the European ether for years all crystallized in the Italian campaign.


Carles Puigdemont has given up his plans to be Catalan president again, but he still insists that he will “lead” a Catalan government-in-exile in Belgium. He’s going to form a “Council of the Republic” to control the region. Puigdemont says he wants to talk with the Spanish government but the Spanish government won’t reciprocate, comparing Madrid’s approach to non-violent Catalan separatists with its willingness to negotiate with the violent Basque separatist group ETA.


Theresa May delivered a speech on Friday in which she talked about the need for Britain to “face up to some hard facts” about Brexit, namely that the European Union will not allow the UK, after it leaves the bloc, “to enjoy all the benefits without all of the obligations.” She then laid out her thoughts about the post-Brexit relationship between the EU and UK, which mostly consist of Britain getting to enjoy the benefits of membership without, uh, all of the obligations.

This is typical for May, who occasionally comes close to some genuine rhetorical insight about Brexit but never actually turns the rhetoric into substance, party because she’s walking such a political tightrope that she really can’t. She rejected the notion that her vague insistence on a super special trade deal just for Britain amounts to “cherrypicking,” but that doesn’t change the fact that she still seems to be wildly overestimating how much leverage Britain has in these talks. And she’s still far more realistic about that than the hardcore Brexiters in her party. Anyway, kudos to her for being “straight” with the British public almost two years after the Brexit referendum.



The Trump administration announced on Friday that it is making previously temporary staff reductions in its Cuban embassy permanent. The reductions were instituted in early September over the still-mysterious ailments that afflicted (and in some cases continue to afflict) several members of the embassy staff, but such temporary reductions are only supposed to last for six months. With the deadline to restore full operations looming, the State Department has decided to redefine “full operations” in Havana at this new, lower level. Washington blames the Cuban government for whatever happened to its diplomats, which is not an unreasonable position to take (host governments are obliged to protect foreign diplomats) except insofar as it’s “whatever happened” to them is still completely unknown.


The idea of a full-blown US-Canada trade war is almost too absurd to consider, and yet Donald Trump’s big impending tariff announcement is clearly not going over well north of the border:

Canadians reacted with a mixture of anger, confusion and resignation this week to President Trump’s promise to hit U.S. imports of steel and aluminum with hefty tariffs, upending decades of economic cooperation and integration.


“We’re pretty consistently flabbergasted that Canada is at the top of the hit parade of trade villains” in Trump’s eyes, said Douglas Porter, chief economist at the Bank of Montreal.

Trump obviously intended China to be the main target of his proposed tariffs, but Canada is the largest exporter of steel and aluminum to the United States and will feel the impact of the measures far more than China will. It’s possible that Trump could exempt Canadian products from the tariffs, but if he does that then what’s the point of doing the tariffs in the first place?


Finally, LobeLog’s John Feffer welcomes the return, via Donald Trump, of Christian Apocalypticism to American foreign policy:

For example, despite some early nods in the direction of the Palestinians, Trump has become a major champion of Israel. He has even announced that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of the country. For run-of-the-mill, right-wing evangelicals, Trump’s decision is just plain good geopolitics: They believe that Israel is a force for good in the world, and anything that Washington does on its behalf helps both the United States and Christianity in general.


For the dispensationalists who are obsessed with the Rapture and the coming of end times, the Jerusalem decision is a sign and portent that Trump is willing to stand against the entire world, if necessary, to stand up for Israel. Mainline evangelicals often pretend that dispensationalists attract only a small number of folks. According to one poll, however, 65 percent of evangelical leaders identify with premillennialism — that’s the strand of Christian doctrine that involves the second coming of Jesus, a period of tribulation, and a 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth (with the Rapture happening at some point during that period).

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