Europe/Americas update: February 1 2019



The Trump administration made it official on Friday, announcing its intention to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The administration made its intentions clear months ago, kicking off a long and fruitless round of talks involving Russia and NATO to try to salvage the accord, which the US maintains has been violated by Russia’s Novator 9M729 land-based cruise missile (Moscow denies that the weapon violates the INF’s terms). Friday’s announcement opens up a new six month window in which talks could continue, though they’ll likely be just as fruitless as they’ve been to this point. In reality, the administration wants out of the INF treaty no matter what Russia does, mostly because it believes the treaty disadvantages it again China, which is not party to the accord. Donald Trump has expressed interest in negotiating a “new” treaty that would include China, but that’s unlikely to happen.

The INF Treaty may not be the last US-Russia arms control treaty to get scrapped by this administration. National Security Advisor John Bolton seems to loathe arms control agreements–possibly because of a longstanding desire to bathe the world in nuclear fire, but who can say for sure–and he’d probably like a crack at something like the 2010 New START agreement. Since that deal was negotiated by Barack Obama, Bolton will have no trouble convincing Trump that it’s bad and needs to go.


Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s recent charm offensive toward the West is being jeopardized by his compulsion to toss journalists in prison:

As relations with Russia sour, neighboring Belarus has been extending olive branches to the West in a bid to seek alternatives to Moscow’s iron embrace. But an ongoing criminal case against the editor in chief of the country’s most widely read news site has called into question whether Minsk is committed to reforms that are more than just cosmetic.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists described 2018 as one of the worst years for independent media in the country. Last August, at least 18 journalists from independent news outlets were arrested and had their homes searched. The journalists were accused of illegally accessing the paid subscriber section of the state news wire, Belta—a seemingly minor crime punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment.

Most of the charges were later dropped. But the case against one of the journalists, Marina Zolotova, the editor in chief of the popular independent news site, has escalated. Zolotova now stands charged with “inaction of an official,” which is comparable to criminal negligence. The charges—as with those of the other journalists accused earlier—are widely seen as being politically motivated.

It was announced on Wednesday that Zolotova’s trial will start on Feb. 12.


Analyst Jonathan Brunson writes that Ukraine’s Donbas conflict remains frozen in part because Kiev doesn’t really want the breakaway region back and Russia will not allow it to become fully independent:

The first obstacle to implementing Minsk is that there is no plausible way to reintegrate Donbas into Ukraine. Two MPs have now publicly referred to Donbas as gangrene that must be severed before it infects the rest of Ukraine. “Trojan horse” is a term used to slur the idea of reintegrating the at least half-million remaining pro-Russians estimated to still inhabit Donbas; this rhetoric was semi-vindicated when it was revealed that Russia’s plot to erode central government control in neighboring Zaporyzhya region was codenamed Operation Troy. Donbas has also now twice flirted with secession. Its gambit during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution resulted in constitutional changes benefiting Ukraine’s pro-Russian fifth column, laying the basis for renewed conflict 10 years later in 2014. It is not in the national interest of a stable, coherent democracy reorienting West to reintegrate Donbas again.

Nationalist opposition to Minsk also contributes to its unimplementability. After the suppression of anti-Maidan separatists in regions beyond Donbas, only far-right extremists are still armed to the teeth and full of disgruntled military-aged males deeply invested in blocking concession to Russia.  Andriy Biletskiy, leader of the ultra-nationalist Azov Battalion, said in 2017 that “Minsk implementation means federalization and collapse of the country.” To the delight of anti-Ukrainian press, the movement he leads holds torch marches against Minsk that also evoke Third Reich imagery, fueling Kremlin propaganda about creeping ethnic nationalism. But although Ukraine has a rich tradition of underground, right-wing paramilitarism, many today argue that Russia has a hand in stoking the fringe far right to make this young democracy look bad. That conspiratorial view also predominates among Western officials, where the consensus is largely that Ukraine’s radicals are a Kremlin-amplified phenomenon.

Despite great potential for escalation, it remains unlikely. Russia doesn’t want a failed state on its border, separatist capabilities are limited without Moscow’s blessing, and Kyiv doesn’t want to risk more deaths — or the chance its Western allies might choose not to protect it — by launching an offensive. At the same time, neither side wants to win, as evidenced by both Ukrainian and Russian unwillingness to assume reconstruction costs. A common joke is, “Loser gets Donbas.”


According to the Independent, the British government is now looking at plans to negotiate a permanent customs union between the UK and the European Union “as a route to rescuing the Brexit deal.” This despite the fact that Theresa May has categorically rejected such an idea and that it’s pure poison to the hardline pro-Brexit crowd in her Conservative party. Keeping the UK in a customs union is one form of “soft” Brexit, though it could also be termed a “why the hell did we even bother” Brexit because it would leave the UK subject to most of the same EU rules it’s under now, just without any say in making them. It would, on the other hand, probably solve the Irish border problem that’s still threatening to lead to a “no deal” Brexit. And it could get significant support from Labour MPs, maybe enough to pass parliament despite those hardline Tory objections.

The issue of Gibraltar continues to be a dicey one. EU legislation that would give UK citizens visa-free travel to the continent after Brexit has caused offense in London because (apparently at Spain’s behest) it refers to Gibraltar as a British “colony.” The UK gets quite angry when you refer to Gibraltar as a colony, you see, rather than an “overseas territory” as it was legally classified in 2002. Spain, which gave Gibraltar to Britain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht that ended the War of Spanish Succession, continues to view the enclave as a UK colony.



Reuters is reporting that former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is preparing to run in October’s general election, challenging incumbent Mauricio Macri for the job. Macri’s austerity program has severely damaged his popularity, and Fernández would easily be his highest-profile challenger. She is mired in a corruption investigation, however, so her chances of unseating Macri might not be that good.


Colombian President Iván Duque declared on Friday that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro “has very few hours left.” It’s unclear whether he’s got some inside information to that effect. Duque naturally praised his own efforts in the cause of ousting Maduro from power.

It is true, to be fair, that something could shake loose on Saturday. Opposition leader and self-proclaimed president Juan Guaidó has called for a mass nationwide protest on Saturday and it’s expected that plenty of people will take to the streets across the country to demand Maduro’s removal (presumably there will be counter-protests in support of Maduro, but I don’t imagine we’ll hear very much about those here in the US). Guaidó needs a large demonstration to show that he’s still got momentum behind him, and possibly in order to sway the all-important Venezuelan military over to his side.


Finally, at the Fellow Travelers Blog, the Center for a New American Security’s Neil Bhatiya makes the case that sanctions–if designed properly–could be a powerful tool in advancing a left foreign policy:

In November, Nicholas Mulder took to The Nation to make the case against economic sanctions as a tool of leftist foreign policy. Sanctions, he argued, have a far less effective record than US policymakers’ instinctive preference for them would suggest, and cause more damage to innocent parties than the foreign policy establishment should be comfortable with; in either case, Mulder is skeptical progressive should desire applying them to US adversaries.   

However, in calling for the rejection of sanctions, Mulder is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. When it comes to the left foreign policy goals Mulder rightfully lauds–enforcing international norms on nonproliferation, human rights, and corruption, as well as busting oligarchs, ending tax evasion, and deterring other financial crimes–sanctions are a more realistic and more effective tool than any alternative at hand.

Mulder is right that we should use economic leverage to crackdown on international oligarchic corruption. Cleaning up the international financial system will lead to a more equitable global economy–international financial institutions should be facilitating economic development and responsible deployment of capital to help governments, not tax evasion and the proliferation of anonymous corporations for the global rich and criminals to move money around. But that will never happen if progressives are not ready to wield strong sanctions. Safe havens for dirty money have to fear swift response.

A NOTE: I try to note as many of these leftish foreign policy think pieces as I can, though I know I miss many of them (mostly because I can only keep track of so many publications). I missed Mulder’s piece, for example, though fortunately there’s a link to it up there in that excerpt. I also try to refrain from commenting on them too much unless they’re completely awful, because I think the discussion of a left foreign policy itself is important, and, frankly, because my academic training was in another area altogether so there are people better suited than me for having that discussion.

This FTB piece has generated some controversy on social media because the immediate left reaction to “sanctions” is that they’re bad, full stop. They immiserate entire populations. They’re another tool in the imperial toolkit. The US overuses them, which hurts our diplomatic efforts in other areas. These are accurate criticisms, in my view. But economic relationships between countries aren’t going to disappear, and so the option of altering those relationships to try to coerce some kind of perceived desirable outcome (sanctions, in other words) will always be there for policymakers to consider.

So it’s important to have the conversation about whether sanctions are inherently bad (and/or useless, which is part of Mulder’s argument) or whether they can be designed in such a way as to effectively advance aspects of a left agenda without incurring a lot of negative side-effects. Can you sanction individual plutocrats for hoarding ill-gotten wealth without hurting the people from whom they’re hoarding it? I don’t know enough about sanctions as policy to say. Maybe this is an awkward time to be having this conversation, what with Venezuela being a prime example of all the negative aspects of US sanctions policy. But it’s still an important topic.

Bhatiya uses a couple of examples here that I think are questionable. Gaddafi dropped his WMD program in large part because he was afraid he might be next on the Bush administration’s hit list after Saddam, for example, and there are serious questions about the degree to which sanctions forced Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program. And those sanctions regimes hurt average Libyans and Iranians quite a bit. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a way to do sanctions differently, does it? Maybe it does! That’s why we need to have the conversation.

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