Europe/Americas update: January 17 2019

EUROPE

RUSSIA

At LobeLog, Mark Katz wonders if the US withdrawal from Syria is helping push Gulf states toward Russia:

Moscow, of course, is very pleased that, because of the potential U.S. withdrawal from Syria and the fear of what Iran may do there afterward, Gulf Arabs are more likely to view the Russian presence in Syria as a stabilizing factor that could protect them not just from Iran but from Turkey as well. Moscow values its collaboration with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular since they trade with and invest in Russia, help Russia evade Western economic sanctions, cooperate with Russia in limiting oil production through the OPEC+ format, and can potentially provide reconstruction assistance for Syria that Moscow is neither willing nor able to come up with itself.

Indeed, Russian-Gulf Arab relations may now be better than at any point in the past. Common interests have contributed to this, but so has inconsistent U.S. foreign policy. Trump’s withdrawal announcement—and his statement that Iran can “do what they want” in Syria—has only made it more prudent than ever for the Gulf Arabs, as well as Israel, to hedge against the possibility of further U.S. withdrawal from the region by turning toward a Russia that clearly intends to stay.

SERBIA

Vladimir Putin visited Serbia on Thursday and was given near-royal treatment. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić is attempting to do the seemingly impossible–get his country into the European Union without alienating Moscow. So he’s been very open to Russian investment and very ingratiating toward Putin personally, whatever it takes to stay on his good side. Putin is known to be unhappy about Serbia’s pursuit of EU membership, and he may be subtly trying to increase Serbia-Kosovo tensions since Serbia cannot get into the EU until it comes to some kind of accord with Kosovo.

FRANCE

As France’s “Yellow Vest” protests continue, the brutality of the French police response seems to be escalating:

The first Yellow Vest protests late last year, which began as a kind of populist uprising among the mostly white working class from France’s smaller cities, ended with riots that left windows shattered in Paris’s most famous upscale shopping district. But these protests kept widespread public support despite the violence — and some nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiments from protesters — and President Emmanuel Macron was eventually forced to strike a conciliatory tone. He reversed the gas tax that sparked the first protests and has just launched a “national debate” that includes stops across the country for French people to air their grievances.

But the debate has been upstaged this week by the growing number reports of brutal police tactics that critics say have also injured bystanders who weren’t even involved in the protests, which are still being held each weekend. Last weekend, for example, a protester in Bordeaux was put in a coma after sustaining a head injury, and a police officer beating immobilized protesters in Toulon.

UNITED KINGDOM

Parliament will vote on Theresa May’s Brexit “Plan B” on January 29. What is May’s “Plan B,” you ask? Hell if I know! She was barely able to cobble together a “Plan A” after almost two years, so expecting her to have a fallback option ready to do so soon after her initial plan got obliterated in parliament just this week is probably unreasonable. What seems likely to happen is that MPs are going to be able to propose their own Brexit ideas over the next week or so, and those ideas will somehow be cobbled together into a new Brexit plan that one assumes would then be taken to Brussels as a sort of “take it or leave it” thing. This would be a novel approach, negotiating Britain’s EU exit without any EU input, and I have to say I’m not sure I like its chances.

Anyway, May’s ongoing catastrophe of a government appears to be making the best possible case for canning the whole idea of Brexit. A new YouGov poll says that UK voters would vote to remain in the EU by a 12 (!) point margin if a second referendum were held today. That’s easily the most lopsided result in any of these polls since the Brexit referendum.

According to May’s spokespeople, she has not yet approached Brussels about possibly extending the Brexit deadline past March 29. If she does, EU officials say they’ll need a reason–I’m not sure “Brexit ate my homework” is going to fly in that respect.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA/BRAZIL

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro says he’s ready “to re-establish order and democracy” in Venezuela. So that should be fun. He hasn’t offered any details about how he plans to do that or what he envisions a “re-established” Venezuelan democracy would look like, but when a fascist starts talking about intervening in his neighbor’s affairs you can usually predict where that’s heading.

COLOMBIA

A car bombing at a police academy in Bogotá on Thursday killed at least 21 people and wounded over 50. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, the deadliest in Bogotá since FARC ended its rebellion in 2016.

MEXICO

Just under 1000 more migrants crossed into Mexico on Thursday. This caravan will be the first test for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s migrant arrangement with Donald Trump, wherein AMLO tries to keep the migrants in Mexico rather than pushing on to the US border and Trump agrees to provide development aid for Mexico and Central America. It’s unclear how many of this new group of migrants are committed to trying to get into the US and how many would be amenable to staying in Mexico.

CUBA

The Trump administration may activate Title III of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which empowers US citizens to sue foreign companies profiting in any way from goods/property/etc. that was seized by the Cuban government after the 1959 revolution. Every president since the act became law has waived Title III for six months at a time because it’s so provocative, not just toward Cuba but toward any country with business interests in Cuba. But the administration has decided to only suspend the measure for six weeks this time around, with the obvious implication that it’s not going to suspend it again.

UNITED STATES

Finally, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman has the rundown on the Trump administrations big new plan to waste billions of dollars chasing the missile defense dragon:

The United States is seeking potentially the most serious expansion of its missile defense capabilities since the Cold War, with President Donald Trump putting his weight behind an ambitious new plan that explicitly states America’s intent to defeat missiles fired from Russia or China.

In his fifth visit to the Pentagon since he took office two years ago, Trump rolled out the results of the administration’s long-delayed Missile Defense Review, which was initially anticipated by the end of 2017. Putting his presidential clout behind the new strategy, Trump tied a stronger missile defense posture to his long-promised wall along the southern border, saying that, as president, his first duty is “the defense of the country.”

“All over, foreign adversaries—competitors and rogue regimes—are steadily enhancing their missile arsenals,” Trump said in an address at the Pentagon auditorium. “I will accept nothing less for our nation than the best, most cutting-edge missile defense systems.”

Cool. I look forward to us dumping pallets of cash on Raytheon HQ as they doctor up some “successful tests” of their new systems.

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