Europe/Americas update: October 31 2018

Happy Halloween to those who are celebrating!

EUROPE

RUSSIA

A suicide bomber struck the Federal Security Service (FSB) office in the city of Arkhangelsk on Wednesday, injuring three people (the bomber obviously died). So far there’s been no motive offered for the bombing, which is a fairly unusual occurrence in Russia outside of the North Caucasus region and major cities. There is a post on the Telegram messaging system that may be from the bomber (whose image was captured by CCTV before the explosion), in which he says he was an anarchist and expresses particular hostility toward the FSB.

Representatives from Russia and NATO met in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss Ukraine, military drills, Afghanistan, and joint security concerns. The main topic of conversation, however, seems to have been the recent US decision to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on the Russians to release more details about its 9M729 (or SSC-8 according to its NATO designation) land-based cruise missile, the weapon that the US, backed up by many independent arms control analysts, says has put Russia in violation of the treaty. It doesn’t appear that he made any immediate headway on that issue.

LATVIA

The Latvian government has reportedly arrested Oleg Buraks, who was a high-ranking official in its interior ministry until he retired in 2006, on the charge of spying for Russia.

UKRAINE

Though it seems unlikely that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s decision to seek autonomy from Russia could spiral into violence, the possibility may not be totally farfetched:

Today, the Russian Orthodox Church has very close ties to the Russian government — and neither has taken the news well. The Russian church immediately severed ties with Constantinople, effectively separating 100 million Russian Orthodox believers from the other 200 million Orthodox faithful worldwide. UOC-MP parishes make up about 35 percent of all Russian Orthodox parishes (including those in Russia), so it would be a major loss to Moscow if they all switch loyalty to Kiev.

Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov issued a thinly veiled warning that echoed Moscow’s justification for occupying Crimea in 2014, saying that it would defend “the interests of Russians and Russian-speakers … [and] of Orthodox Christians.” Peskov further warned of possible Russian intervention “if the Ukrainian authorities are unable to keep the situation within legal bounds, if it takes some ugly, violent turn.”

Peskov’s statement is troubling, given Russia’s history of using trumped-up “rights violations” of Russian “compatriots” to justify military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine. The potential for conflict to turn violent is real as parishes decide whether to shift allegiance to the Kiev Patriarchate. Valuable church property is at stake; some of Kiev’s most iconic churches are aligned with the different patriarchates. Though [Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople] called on all sides to “avoid appropriation of Churches, Monasteries and other properties, as well as every other act of violence and retaliation,” divided parishes could turn to violence to settle scores.

It is pretty farfetched to imagine that sort of violence escalating to a military conflict, but the Russian government could use any localized violence that breaks out as a means to destabilize Kiev, which in itself serves Russian aims.

BULGARIA

The Bulgarian government on Wednesday arrested Petar Haralampiev, who runs its State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad, and charged him with selling Bulgarian passports (with European Union access) to foreigners from the Balkans, Moldova, and Ukraine. Well, technically he only sold certificates “proving” that the bearers were ethnically Bulgarian, which allowed them to then apply for Bulgarian passports, but that seems like a pretty immaterial distinction. The scheme worked in part because there are large Bulgarian populations in all of those places.

AUSTRIA

The Austrian government announced on Wednesday that it will join Hungary and the United States in withdrawing from the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The treaty, which aims to lay the groundwork for an orderly international system for coping with migrants, is alleged by xenophobic far right governments–or three of them, at least, so far–to be a nefarious attempt to undermine national sovereignty and create a “right” to migration.

UNITED KINGDOM

UK Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has written in a letter to a member of parliament that there’s no reason why London and Brussels can’t hash out a Brexit agreement by November 21. Which is wild, except for the part where Raab admits that the Northern Ireland border, the problem that doesn’t seem to have a solution, remains the big holdup in finalizing a deal. So I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

Jair Bolsonaro only just became Brazil’s president-elect but already there are serious questions being raised about his foreign policy plans as he’s articulated them:

Bolsonaro, who takes office Jan. 1, has promised to pull Latin America’s largest nation out of the Paris climate accord, join the handful of countries that have moved their embassies in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and take a hard line against President Nicolas Maduro in neighboring Venezuela.

The former army captain, who gained notoriety as a congressman for violence-laden language and offensive comments, has also frequently bashed China, Brazil’s largest foreign investor.

The broad brushes of his plans have diplomats, political analysts and former government officials warning that such moves could isolate the regional powerhouse instead of opening new markets, which Bolsonaro has said he wants to do by enacting widespread privatization of state industries.

“If Bolsonaro does what he says, Brazil will quickly become a pariah in the global community,” said Rubens Ricupero, a former finance and environment minister. “Brazil has 50,000 problems to solve. He wants to give us problems we don’t have in exchange for nothing.”

HONDURAS

Al Jazeera reports on the Honduran government’s efforts to stop would-be migrants from trying to leave the country to head north to the US border:

EL SALVADOR

Two more migrant caravans of around 1000 people each reportedly left San Salvador on Wednesday, bound eventually for the US-Mexico border. They’ll presumably soon join other caravans that are currently making their way through southern Mexico.

MEXICO

If and when these caravans get to the US-Mexico border they’ll be greeted by thousands of active duty US soldiers who have been deployed there by a president who knows there’s great political value in convincing his racist fans that a couple of thousand impoverished Central American people represents a clear and present danger to The Most Powerful Nation on Earth™. The chances that said president orders those soldiers to do more than simply block the border is, as I’ve said repeatedly now, not zero, and that should terrify any person with a conscience watching this all unfold. It does not, apparently, terrify Defense Secretary James Mattis, so make of that what you will. Mattis on Wednesday angrily dismissed claims that the border deployment is a political stunt:

“The support that we provide to the secretary for homeland security is practical support based on the request from the commissioner of customs and border police, so we don’t do stunts in this department,” Mattis said after a meeting with his South Korean counterpart at the Pentagon.

Yeah, God knows the Pentagon never does political stunts. Also, I never eat cheeseburgers.

UNITED STATES

Finally, while we usually talk about Syria in our Middle East updates, I think this piece by Win Without War’s Laila Ujayli on what the United States has done to Raqqa belongs here instead:

Before the start of the Syrian war, my family used to spend summers in Raqqa, the eastern city that the self-described Islamic State (ISIS or IS) illegitimately claimed as its capital. During those long summer days years ago, my friends and I caught frogs in the sunflower fields on the banks of the Euphrates. When the sun set, we played flashlight tag on the city’s flat rooftops while the adults conversed over cups of amber tea swirling with mint leaves.

Over the past few years, I and others around the world paid close attention to the U.S.-led efforts to liberate Raqqa from IS control. But as the anniversary of the city’s liberation quietly passed Washington by this month, few people seem to be interested in the aftermath of that liberation. The city lies in ruins. People have begun to return to what remains of their homes, clearing roads and re-opening shops. But they do so in the shadow of apocalyptic destruction—miles of skeletal buildings full of the stench of corpses still trapped beneath mammoth slabs of concrete.

Raqqa’s people deserve the same safety and security granted to the rest of the world by the degradation of IS territory. But a year after the city’s liberation, they are still waitingfor it. Raqqa’s destruction tells a tragic tale of the fundamental flaws of America’s counter-terrorism strategy if policymakers accept enough responsibility to listen.

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