Europe/Americas update: January 22 2019



At least ten crew members aboard two ships in the Kerch Strait have died after their vessels caught on fire at sea on Monday. Normally this is not the kind of story we cover here, but it turns out that these deaths were related to US sanctions against Russia and Syria. One of the ships was barred from docking at the nearby Russian port of Temryuk to take on its load of liquified petroleum gas, and so the ships were attempting a substantially riskier ship-to-ship fuel transfer at sea when things went catastrophically wrong. In addition to the ten crew members known to have been killed, another ten are missing and considered dead, meaning that 20 of the ships’ 32 combined crew members were likely killed. Both ships had previously been named by the US as potential violators of international oil sanctions against Syria, but one of the ships had apparently changed its name and was still allowed to access the port while the other was barred.

Lawyers for the ex-US Marine who was arrested last month by Russian authorities and charged with espionage say that he’s being set up:

A former United States Marine who was arrested in Moscow on spying charges had been handed a flash drive that he thought contained pictures of churches but was instead loaded with classified information, his lawyer said on Tuesday.

Paul N. Whelan, 48, was arrested by the Federal Security Service on Dec. 28 in an upscale Moscow hotel where he had been staying for a wedding. After his arrest, it emerged that by birth and through a patchwork of ancestors, he held citizenship from the United States, Canada, Britain and Ireland.

Mr. Whelan, who has denied the charges, was detained in his room minutes after being given a thumb drive containing a full list of names of the employees of a secret Russian security agency, according to report early this month by Rosbalt, a news agency close to the security services.

It’s possible the Russians picked up Whelan in order to exchange him for alleged Russian spy and Russiagate celebrity Maria Butina, but that assumes he really was set up. There’s apparently a history of Russian authorities doing things like this–or at least a history of people alleging that Russian authorities have done things like this–but who knows?


Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko announced her candidacy for the country’s presidency on Tuesday. Ukrainians will go to the polls on March 31, and given his considerably unpopularity, incumbent Petro Poroshenko may be a long shot to hang on to his job absent any funny business. Tymoshenko, one of Ukraine’s best-known political figures, may be the favorite heading into the campaign. In her announcement, she accused Poroshenko of profiting off of the ongoing low-level war in eastern Ukraine and suggested that’s why he hasn’t ended it.


The French Foreign Ministry summoned the Italian ambassador on Tuesday to complain about Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio’s recent “hostile” comments about France’s role in Africa. Di Maio over the weekend accused France of continuing to colonize “tens of African states,” thereby “impoverishing” those countries and contributing to the waves of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe. He further called on the European Union to sanction Paris over its policies in Africa.

Di Maio and his fellow deputy PM, Matteo Salvini, who are both populists, have had an extremely frosty relationship with French President Emmanuel Macron, who isn’t even popular let alone populist, mostly over immigration. Salvini jumped on the pile on Tuesday, accusing Macron of fomenting chaos in Libya in order to increase French influence there at Italy’s expense and agreeing with Di Maio that France’s primary concern in Africa is extraction, not development. It fell to their front man, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, to assure everybody that France and Italy are still buddies who are just having a little argument at the moment.

The important take away here, it seems to me, is that all of these people are assholes. Macron’s main interest in Africa is extractive. But Di Maio and especially the thoroughly racist Salvini only care because African poverty sends African migrants sailing for Italy and because they’re worried that Italy isn’t extracting enough from its former colony, Libya. It’s not as though any of the people involved in this spat actually care about what happens in Africa.


Protesters lobbed gasoline bombs at a police station in the city of Setubal and set fire to cars in Lisbon on Monday night, after a rally in Lisbon against police brutality was broken up forcefully by the cops. The rally was held in response to video showing police beating several black people after responding to reports of a brawl in a predominantly black Lisbon neighborhood on Sunday.


Some Tory Brexit hardliners, worried about the possibility that the timeline for the UK to leave the EU could be delayed, are signaling that they could reconsider Theresa May’s Brexit plan if she obtains a significant concession from the EU regarding the Irish border backstop. Most likely this would involve a firm deadline for any arrangement that leaves the UK in the EU customs union or subject to EU rules while a more permanent trade agreement is worked out. There are two problems here: one, the EU has been pretty adamant that it will not renegotiate the Brexit deal, and two, it’s not clear that May could get her deal through parliament even with the support of this group of Tories.


Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar appeared on Tuesday to open the door to a bilateral border deal between Ireland and the UK as a way out of the Brexit impasse. It’s the first time Varadkar has suggested this, but it’s hard to see how it could work. London has already downplayed the possibility of a bilateral agreement like this, and anyway what Varadkar probably wants is an agreement whereby Northern Ireland remains more or less completely aligned with Irish (i.e., EU) customs and other rules, which the UK’s Democratic Unionist Party and hardline Tories have already rejected.



Jair Bolsonaro spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday and told the assembled business titans that “it is now our mission to make progress in harmonizing environmental preservation and biodiversity with the much-needed economic development” for Brazil. Which means you can kiss much of the Amazon rainforest goodbye, probably. But if you’re still wondering why the rest of the world didn’t really blink twice when a fascist was elected president of the largest country in Latin America, the pro-business, privatization-heavy economic agenda Bolsonaro laid out at Davos is the reason.


With opposition rallies planned in Venezuela on Wednesday, US Vice-President Mike Pence removed any pretense that the US isn’t actively working to overthrow Nicolás Maduro with a Wall Street Journal op-ed chock full of the usual rhetoric about how the US stands with the Venezuelan people. Which is true, but only for a certain subset of the Venezuelan people and only insofar as they agree with the US government that they’d be better off with a nice, pro-business right-winger in charge of their country.


The death toll in Friday’s gas pipeline explosion in Hidalgo state has risen to 96.


Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell resigned his post on Tuesday for what he termed “personal reasons.” Mitchell is a strong proponent of NATO, so it’s not too hard to figure out what those personal reasons probably were. He’s the latest in a recent string of senior foreign policy figures to leave the administration, and his departure will contribute to the ongoing personnel issues at the State Department.

Finally, the Washington Post explores the question of whether Donald Trump is emboldening authoritarians and would-be authoritarians around the world:

The strongman style of leadership is not new, of course, and it is not always obvious who is inspiring whom. Trump himself climbed to power amid a surge of nativist and nationalist politics worldwide, and his chief campaign guru, Stephen K. Bannon, borrowed themes and phrases from European populists to rally the make-America-great-again faithful.

But in interviews on four continents, diplomats, rights activists and foreign officials said that after two years of Trump using the world’s most powerful megaphone to cheer authoritarians, bully democratic allies and denigrate traditional American values, the impact on how others govern is becoming clear.

“While the global decline in freedom didn’t begin with Donald Trump’s presidency, I do think he has been an accelerant,” said Uzra Zeya, a State Department veteran who resigned last spring following a 25-year career that culminated as the nation’s top Foreign Service officer in Paris.

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