Europe/Americas update: August 21 2018

CLIMATE CHANGE

Building off of last night’s update, here’s some more fantastic climate news:

The oldest and thickest sea ice in the Arctic has started to break up, opening waters north of Greenland that are normally frozen, even in summer.

This phenomenon – which has never been recorded before – has occurred twice this year due to warm winds and a climate-change driven heatwave in the northern hemisphere.

One meteorologist described the loss of ice as “scary”. Others said it could force scientists to revise their theories about which part of the Arctic will withstand warming the longest.

Lest we all start to despair, I think we should also point out here that the Trump administration’s Environmental “Protection” Agency is pushing to drastically weaken regulations on coal-fired power plants. This will will not only contribute to faster climate change, but it will also ruin the lives of potentially thousands of people each year thanks to dirtier air. OK, now you can feel free to despair.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

Microsoft says that it’s discovered new evidence of Russian hacking efforts, in this case targeting the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute, two conservative DC think tanks generally associated with the right’s horse shit fig leaf Never* Trump** movement, as well as the US Senate. The same group identified by Microsoft is alleged to have been behind hacks at the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton 2016 campaign. The effort presumably has something to do with the midterms, although anybody in Russia who thinks that the goddamn Hudson Institute is going to play a pivotal role in the midterms needs to reconsider their perspective on US politics.

The Russian government is of course expressing puzzlement at Microsoft’s charges, because when it comes to hacking the Kremlin is perpetually the old Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer character from Saturday Night Live (ask your parents, or possibly grandparents at this point). “Hacking? They do that on computers nowadays, right? Yeah, we’re still pretty new to that whole thing.”

The Trump administration is warning that it’s preparing a slew of new economic sanctions against Russia over a variety of alleged nefarious Russian misdeeds, like such as hacking, political meddling, Russia’s role in Syria, and its efforts to help evade sanctions against North Korea. Much of the impetus for this saber rattling is apparently coming from Congress, wherein six senators (led by Lindsey Graham and Bob Menendez) have introduced the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2018. If it becomes law, the measure would require the administration to at least consider adding Russia to the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsors and would further require it to report on efforts to get the Russians to help leverage Iran out of Syria.

SERBIA

The Serbian government may reimpose mandatory military service after the policy took a nine-year hiatus. And frankly if you pretend the entire decade of the 1990s never happened I can’t see why anybody would have a problem with this. Belgrade is apparently concerned about its military readiness in light of how volatile the Balkans can be–of course the Serbians don’t contribute to that volatility and are merely victimized by it–but the plan may not go through because the Serbs might not have the budget for such a significant military expansion. The term of compulsory service is also short enough that it’s not clear this would substantially improve the Serbian military anyway.

SPAIN

The man who burst into a police station outside of Barcelona wielding a knife on Monday and was subsequently killed by police may have been attempting to commit suicide. The would-be attacker, an Algerian national, had come out as gay according to his ex-wife and was distraught about that. Spanish authorities are still treating the incident as a terrorist attack for now.

AMERICAS

The Venezuelan migrant crisis is still dominating news in South America.

ECUADOR

The Ecuadorean government on Tuesday called for a regional summit to deal with the Venezuelan refugee situation. The summit would bring representatives from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Paraguay, Panama, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, and Venezuela to Quito later this month to discuss the issue.

COLOMBIA

The Colombian government, meanwhile, issued a formal protest to the Venezuelan government, accusing its soldiers of crossing into Colombia over the weekend without permission. It’s unclear why the Venezuelans would have crossed the border but this isn’t the first time Colombia has made this accusation.

VENEZUELA

Inside Venezuela, meanwhile, day two of Nicolás Maduro’s currency reform reported saw much of the country’s commercial activity remain as stymied as it had been on day one:

Shuttered stores, empty streets, confusion over the cost of basic items: the day after President Nicolas Maduro introduced measures to invigorate Venezuela’s economy found the country in turmoil and its population afraid his “program for recovery, growth and economic prosperity” would lead it deeper into depression.

The measures included increasing taxes, raising the price of gas for some buyers who do not register with the government, and slashing five zeros out of the devalued currency, the bolívar, which was renamed the sovereign bolívar.

The currency change left many consumers — and vendors — bewildered. On Monday, the day the new economic plan was rolled out, streets were quiet and most shops were closed, as Mr. Maduro had decreed a national holiday. But most remained closed on Tuesday as shopkeepers tried to understand how to reset prices in the new currency and buyers struggled to make the conversion.

Potentially compounding an already critical situation, Venezuela suffered a 7.3 magnitude earthquake just off its northern coast on Tuesday evening. We don’t normally deal in natural disasters here unless they become security issues, and in this case I think you can safely say this is already a security issue. There have been no reports of serious damage or casualties so far but obviously it’s still very early.

EL SALVADOR

The Salvadoran government made it clear on Tuesday that its decision to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan was based on pure economic considerations:

El Salvador was the third Latin American country in the past two years to switch alliances, and presidential spokesman Roberto Lorenzana said attracting investment and developing the economy were key goals behind the decision.

“Fundamentally, it’s an interest in betting on the growth of our country with one of the world’s most booming economies,” he said in a television interview following Monday’s announcement. “El Salvador can’t turn its back on international reality.”

The US ambassador to El Salvador, Jean Manes, called the Salvadoran decision “worrisome,” a fascinating criticism coming from a country that severed ties with Taiwan because it wanted to make nice with China nearly 40 years ago.

TRA
US President Jimmy Carter behaving in a worrisome manner with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979

UNITED STATES

Finally, Obama administration cybersecurity adviser Patrick Barry argues that the Trump administration’s recent move to consolidate control over offensive US cyber capabilities in the White House could be very risky:

In the absence of a White House cyberteam, the United States is left with a handful of individuals to handle policy. One of them is National Security Advisor John Bolton. With regard to cyberspace, Bolton has shown a predilection for the easy button, issuing aggressive threats with little regard for the consequences. Before his appointment, for example, Bolton called for the United States to use its “muscular cyber capabilities,” to impose costs on our adversaries “so high that they will simply consign all their cyberwarfare plans to their computer memories to gather electronic dust.” Bolton’s words sound great, but they betray a simplistic understanding of the difficulty involved in unseating Russia and China from their digital perch, including what do when their infrastructure is in an unwitting third country or, worse, in the United States itself.

Another problem is Bolton’s reputation for consolidating power around himself. There is an obvious problem with allowing one person—and a rather trigger-happy one, at that—to have so much influence: He could push the United States toward war, even if Trump never intended it. Although the national security advisor has no formal operational role in war, Bolton already demonstrated that recklessness can inch the country closer to conflict when he made some ill-advised and unsanctioned comments about North Korea. He may also have a freer hand when it comes to cyberwar, thanks to some seldom-noticed provisions within the National Defense Authorization Act that appear to pre-authorize the use of certain cybertools against the United States’ main adversaries. As much as Washington may indeed need to do a better job punching back against cyberthreats, it matters who is doing the punching and how, especially if it is primarily a person with a penchant for living dangerously.

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Author: DWD

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