Europe/Americas update: April 4 2018



The Russian military started a three day live-fire missile drill on Wednesday in Latvian economic waters that shut down part of Latvia’s commercial airspace. Rude, I guess? How this is any different from the US and South Korea running joint military drills in North Korea’s backyard is beyond me, but it’s Russia so

US President Donald Trump just met with the leaders of all three Baltic states in Washington on Tuesday. Was this drill scheduled deliberately after that meeting as a troll? Would it actually matter if it had been?


BuzzFeed’s J. Lester Feder and Rebeka Kulcsar write about the man they call Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s “own version of Steve Bannon”:

Unlike the media-loving Bannon, this advisor’s role has been kept so secret that Fidesz officials have long avoided acknowledging any significant relationship with him — the press outside Fidesz’s control nicknamed him Orbán’s “phantom adviser.” An opposition MP once demanded during a parliamentary session that Orbán explain the man’s role, to which the prime minister responded by reading a prepared statement: “I did not find the person in question on the payroll of a single government institution or public company, so I am not competent to answer the question.”


The mysterious man’s name is Árpád Habony, a former art student and competitive sword fighter who became one of Orbán’s most trusted advisers after the latter suffered a crushing electoral defeat in 2002. Over the next 15 years, Habony helped build Orbán’s loyal network of media outlets, forged a partnership with a Republican consultant from the US famous for negative campaigning, and transformed Fidesz into a relentless machine campaigning against immigrants and liberal elites. He’s also become a very wealthy man in the process.


Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos on Wednesday ordered the deployment of 7000 soldiers to various islands and the country’s border with Turkey. He did so amid a recent spike in angry exchanges between the two countries over their still-unsettled border, and while referring to Turkey as “an opponent, an enemy that continues to provoke us” and promising to “crush them” should the Turks “have the guts…to challenge one inch of our territory.” This is a, shall we say, fairly interesting way for a NATO member state’s defense minister to refer to another NATO member. On the plus side, Kammenos, who leads a small right-wing party that is a junior member of the governing coalition, doesn’t seem to be speaking for anyone else in the Greek government.


Italy’s Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio has proposed a “German-style governing contract” that would serve as the basis for a seemingly unwieldy coalition between his party, the far right League, and the center-left Democratic Party. Di Maio would become prime minister under this arrangement, but the parties would all be bound by a comprehensive policy agreement that they would reach prior to forming the government, along the lines of what Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democrats have done in Germany. I’m not sure if Di Maio has been paying attention to German politics, and he’s been pretty busy so you couldn’t really blame him if he hasn’t, but using them as a model for anything seems like kind of a bad idea.


We’re in day two of the French rail worker strike, and there’s not much new to say about it except to note that some French people seem to be of two minds on the whole affair:

A growing number of French people support the strike, with 44 percent approving it, up 6 percentage points from two weeks ago, according to an Elabe poll for BFM TV.


At the same time, a large majority is in favor of the specific measures proposed by the government to reform the rail service.

Presumably this means there are at least some folks who support the strike but also support the government proposals that have caused it. Very sensible stuff.


In an interview with Reuters on Wednesday, Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said he hopes to conclude an agreement with Britain over the post-Brexit status of Gibraltar by this fall, so that the issue is not looming over the later stages of London’s Brexit talks with the European Union. Gibraltar will leave the EU with the rest of the UK, even though 96 percent of its residents voted against Brexit and the reimposition of a hard border with Spain is going to be a nightmare for those people. The issue is not unlike the problem the UK is having over the Northern Ireland border, though for obvious reasons it hasn’t garnered the same kind of attention. But Spain, like Ireland, could scuttle whatever Brexit arrangements London reaches with Brussels if it’s not happy with the Gibraltar component. Ideally Madrid would of course like Gibraltar back, which would certainly put an end to any Brexit-related drama there, but since that’s a non-starter both for the UK and for most people living in Gibraltar some other kind of arrangement is required.


Boris Johnson continues to do a fantastic job. After Britain’s Porton Down laboratory said it had still not been able to trace the nerve agent used against Sergei Skripal and his daughter to Russia, Johnson’s foreign minister tried to quietly delete a tweet it had made last month saying that Porton Down had already concluded the substance was of Russian origin. Unfortunately the internet never forgets:

The deleted tweet kind of undermines London’s new talking point that Porton Down was never charged with figuring out the substance’s point of origin, and adds fuel to critics–and the Russians–who have been saying that the UK government is way out over its skis in terms of the claims it’s been making about the Skripal case. This is not to say that Russia wasn’t behind the attack, just that London has likely been making claims without waiting for the evidence to back them up.

The Russians have convened a special session of the United Nations Security Council for Thursday in which they are likely to rake Johnson over the coals and attempt to discredit the entire Skripal investigation. The Russians want to conduct a joint investigation into the case, which is pretty absurd–imagine the LA district attorney asking OJ to help figure out who killed Nicole–but Johnson has single-handedly breathed new life into their claims of innocence.



Former and would-be future Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva got a step closer to going to prison on Wednesday when Supreme Court Justice Rosa Weber ruled against his motion to stay out of prison while he appeals a corruption conviction. Her vote was apparently considered pivotal, and it now seems likely that a majority of the court will vote to send Lula up the river post haste.

Lula has been the overwhelming favorite to win October’s presidential election, which admittedly is absurd considering that he’s already been convicted of corruption and is facing six (!) other corruption-related trials. But once you get past the absurdity, this ruling–which presumably means he’ll no longer be allowed to run–could throw Brazilian politics into chaos. The incumbent, Michel Temer, has begun suggesting that he’ll run for reelection despite being about as popular as leprosy, so that should be fun.

Adding to the crisis, the Brazilian military had been making noises about possibly, uh, involving itself in the political process should the court decide to grant Lula his freedom pending appeal. While that outcome may have been averted thanks to Weber’s vote, it’s still not a good sign when the military starts sniffing around the political process. And it will add to the belief among Lula’s supporters that his conviction has been part of an elaborate process to block him from attaining the presidency again.


Great news, everybody! The Pentagon says the Global War on Terror is coming to an end! We did it! Awesome! Peace in our ti–I’m sorry, what’s that?

“Great power competition, not terrorism, has emerged as the central challenge to U.S. security and prosperity,” claimed Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist while releasing the Pentagon’s $686 billion budget request in January. “It is increasingly apparent that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian values and, in the process, replace the free and open order that has enabled global security and prosperity since World War II.”


Of course, just how committed President Trump is to the preservation of that “free and open order” remains questionable given his determination to scuttle international treaties and ignite a global trade war. Similarly, whether China and Russia truly seek to undermine the existing world order or simply make it less American-centric is a question that deserves close attention, just not today.


The reason is simple enough. The screaming headline you should have seen in any paper (but haven’t) is this: the U.S. military has made up its mind about the future. It has committed itself and the nation to a three-front geopolitical struggle to resist Chinese and Russian advances in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

Oh, cool. Well that should be fun. On the plus side we’re going to have to buy a shitload of expensive new military stuff, so if you’re a defense contractor start working on your designs for drones that only occasionally attack their own operators, submarines that dissolve in salt water, and tanks that cost $2.4 billion a piece but can’t be fitted for treads until upgrade 12.7 in 2029 at an additional cost of $1.6 billion per tread. The world is your oyster.

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