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America’s Voice in Europe to Counter the Kremlin

The Nordic countries (as I reported in my previous post) are helping their Baltic neighbors counter Russia’s pervasive propaganda by lending them not just human resources and expertise but their own world-famous programming. Borgen versus the Kremlin, you might call it.

Russia Expected to Escalate War in Ukraine Soon

That’s what a number of prominent experts think. Andrii Parubii, the vice speaker of Ukraine’s Parliament and former national security adviser, stated on March 27th that there is a “high risk” of a “full-scale military operation” in the next few weeks. An expert team led by Wesley Clark, a retired US Army general and former NATO supreme allied commander, informed the Atlantic Council in Washington on March 30th that “Ukrainian forces expect [an] attack within the next 60 days.

The Xi Jinping Faction in China

On Friday, the Asahi Shimbun, a Tokyo newspaper, suggested that Chinese ruler Xi Jinping was building a “Zhejiang faction” by promoting longtime acquaintances, some from the Nanjing Military Region of the People’s Liberation Army. Xi served in party posts located in that district.

The report is striking because Xi is at the same time attacking factionalism inside the Communist Party. “Banding together in gangs, forming cliques for private ends, or forming factions is not permitted,”  the official Xinhua News Agency stated after a December 29th meeting of the Politburo, the high party organ.

Xi’s attack on factionalism, while attempting to form a faction of his own, is roiling the Communist Party. 

Egypt and Saudi Arabia's Big Adventure

It was bound to happen sooner or later, and the Middle East decided on sooner: Saudi Arabia is bombing Yemen, and Egypt is prepping a ground invasion.

Why was this bound to happen? Because Yemen's Iranian-backed Shia Houthi movement is sweeping across the country in force. And if any two countries in the Sunni Arab world are going to get involved in that fight it will be Egypt and Saudi Arabia, partly because they're Yemen's neighbors and partly because that's how they roll. Egypt fought a long war in Yemen from 1962 to 1967 and the Saudis invaded Bahrain in 2011 to put down a Shia rebellion against the Sunni ruling house of Khalifa.

Iran has been a regional power since the time of the Persian Empire, and the current revolutionary regime that swept away the Shah in 1979 wants to restore Iran's place as a regional superpower. It's tricky, however. The overwhelming majority of the Middle East's population is Sunni and Arab while Iran is Shia and dominated by Persians. These ethnic and religious differences mean little to us in the West, but they mean everything in the Middle East. 

Much of the Arab world is fractured along ethnic, sectarian, and tribal lines, but Iran, despite its patchwork of Persians, Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis, and Arabs, has long been a coherent nation-state. It rests atop the region's relatively temperate highlands and can easily project power down to the hot Arab lowlands below. Its preferred method these days is divide-and-conquer rather than direct confrontation, and it has been perfecting the art of sectarian proxy war since its Revolutionary Guard Corps founded Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982.

Yemen's Houthis are its latest project, and the neighbors are not going to stand for it. They'd rather have Al Qaeda take over the country, not because they swoon over Al Qaeda—they don't—but because sect in that part of the world, as ever, trumps ideology.

It's not just that the Houthis are at war with the Egyptians' and the Saudis' fellow Sunnis. Every Arab government in the region aside from Syria's and Iraq's fears and loathes the rise of Iranian power.

Egypt’s megalomaniacal former president Gamal Abdel Nasser got more than 20,000 Egyptian soldiers killed in his ludicrous bid to overthrow Yemen’s monarchy in the mid 1960s. “In this terrain,” Patrick Seale wrote in The New Republic in 1963, “the slow-moving Nile Valley peasant has proved a poor match for the barefoot, elusive tribesmen armed only with rifle and jambiya--the vast, curved, razor-sharp dagger which every male Yemeni wears in his belt.” But that disastrous doesn’t register as a loss any more than the disastrous war against Israel in 1973—which Egypt claims to have won—registers as a loss.

Egypt's current ruler General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi wouldn’t care either way. He's basically a 21st century version of Nasser, minus the latter's regional popularity. Throngs of Arabs outside Egypt aren't clamoring to be annexed by Cairo as they did during the 1950s, but Sisi is nevertheless as puffed up and full of himself and eager to restore Egypt as the rooster of the Arab world regardless of what anyone else over there thinks about it. Pulling a Nasser and stomping the Shias of Yemen wasn't inevitable when he seized power from the Muslim Brotherhood last year, but it became almost inevitable when the Gulf region cried out for help against Iranian malfeasance on the peninsula.

The Saudis, meanwhile, are Iran's bitterest enemies in the Arab world, and they share a border with Yemen. Saudi citizens on their own side of the border have long been linked to Yemen in the same way Vancouver, British Columbia, is more linked to Seattle and Portland than to Quebec. Riyadh is simply not going to tolerate Iranian adventurism so close to home in a region that overlaps with its own territory. If Iran succeeds in Yemen—and it might—there's nothing stopping Tehran from backing a Shia insurgency against the Saudi crown and the fanatical Sunni Wahhabis.

So here we are with yet another Middle Eastern civil war that's sucking in regional powers. The United States can stay out of it. The United States is going to stay out of it. The United States is less involved in Yemen right now despite the internationalization of the conflict than when the country was kinda sorta “stable” before the Arab Spring blew through the place and knocked everything sideways.

You might think from Western media coverage of the region that the Israelis are the only ones concerned about Iran's expansionist foreign policy and its nuclear weapons program, but that's only because Arab governments make less public noise about it in public. Look at what Arab governments are doing, however. While the Israelis groan about it on television and in Congress, the Arabs are going to war.

Ukraine as a Vital Security Interest for Europe

An American official in Brussels recently informed me of a meeting he had with a highly placed European Union diplomat during which the latter “stressed that Ukraine is an ‘almost existential’ issue for Europe.”

The phrase “almost existential” is worth looking at more closely. Existential issues concern the life or death of the subject concerned. A Russian attack on Germany would be an existential issue for Germany. A Russian attack on Tajikistan would be an existential issue for Tajikistan, but a non-existential issue for Germany. An almost existential issue for some country is thus something that almost concerns—or is almost equivalent to—the life and death of that country. Seen in this light, the claim that Ukraine is almost existential for Europe amounts to saying that Ukraine’s life or death is almost equivalent to the life or death of Europe.

Iran’s Latest Bait and Switch

Watching the P5+1 talks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the final scene of the classic movie Some Like it Hot. Remember it? Jack Lemmon has spent much of the film dressed as a woman, and as a result, has inadvertently won the affections of a smitten Joe E. Brown. Trying to back out of this entanglement, Lemmon gives Brown reason after reason why they can’t be married. The trouble is, nothing Curtis says is able to put Brown off. Desperate, Curtis finally removes his wig and shouts, “I’m a man!” But Brown simply smiles and says, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

America’s stance in the P5+1 talks has had more than a bit of the Joe E. Brown about it.

China’s Never-Ending ‘War on Pollution’

On Monday, the Beijing municipal government announced it would close the last of its major coal-fired generating stations. By next year, China Huaneng Group’s 845-megawatt plant will cease operations. The capital city shuttered another one in 2014 and two more last week. The closed facilities will be replaced by four new ones powered by clean-burning natural gas. Beijing’s notoriously dirty skies—its air is more than twice as bad as the Chinese national standard—should be cleaner as a result of the closures.

There is now a sense that Chinese leaders are starting to take the environment seriously. Premier Li Keqiang, for instance, at the National People’s Congress this month said he was reaffirming his March 2014 “declaration of war” against pollution.

Dealing with Iran: Get It in Writing

On March 25th, the New York Times reported that Iranian negotiators are resisting putting onto paper the yet-to-be-finalized political framework for a comprehensive agreement on its nuclear program. Anyone who’s ever waited four months for a landlord to fix a leaky faucet he “promised” to fix “tomorrow,” knows the importance of the age-old adage, “Get It in Writing,” or as the seasoned diplomat and scholar Dennis Ross explains more eloquently, “As important as it is to forge conceptual understandings, they must still be translated into concrete agreements that get expressed in writing.”

Kremlin Election Fraud Revealed. Again.

NOVOYE DEVYATKINO, Russia — The most popular political myths of Vladimir Putin’s regime, too often uncritically repeated by Western commentators—that Putin and his United Russia party are “supported by the vast majority of Russians” and that the opposition is “weak” and “unpopular”—are rarely tested, since most of the time Kremlin opponents are barred from the ballot. Last Sunday offered a rare glimpse into the actual opinions of Russian voters.

On March 22nd, Novoye Devyatkino, a municipality north of St. Petersburg that has been referred to as “Russia’s New Hampshire” because its voting trends usually match the national ones, held a special legislative election. Uncharacteristically, a wide spectrum of candidates were allowed on the ballot, including Sergei Kuzin, the St. Petersburg coordinator of Open Russia, the pro-democracy movement established by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and member of the People’s Freedom Party, founded by the slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

Responding to Kremlin Propaganda in the Baltics

How to counter Vladimir Putin’s propaganda? The EU is trying to decide on a strategy. Meanwhile—you read it here first—the Nordic and Baltics states are steaming ahead with a very concrete plan that will soon offer Russian-language television in the Baltic states, where Russian minorities today almost exclusively watch Kremlin-directed TV. Call it Nordic noir versus the Kremlin.

“The Russians have a lot of good TV shows, so the Baltic states need something that will convince Russian-speakers to switch over,” says Per Carlsen, Denmark’s ambassador to Latvia. Russia offers good television indeed, especially compared to the rather simple Russian-language fare provided by the Baltic governments. And between the compelling entertainment shows, the Baltic Russian-speakers watch compellingly produced news shows. How is a small country supposed to create an answer to that, and a rapid one at that?

Sweden, Finland, and NATO

What a difference a year makes. A year ago, the share of Swedes opposing NATO membership reached 50 percent, up by 10 percentage points from a year earlier. But now only 35 percent oppose NATO membership, compared to 48 percent who support it. That’s the first time NATO membership has been Swedes’ top choice, reports the Swedish news agency TT. According to the same survey, a majority of Swedes wants to reintroduce conscription, and, in a remarkable turn of events, almost 60 percent want to increase defense spending, a 100 percent increase compared to only three years ago.

Yemen Falls Apart

Suicide-bombers killed at least 137 people and wounded more than 350 in Yemen at two Shia mosques in the capital city of Sanaa on Friday. The very next day, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seized control of the city of al-Houta, and the day after that, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel movement conquered parts of Taiz, the nation's third-largest city. Rival militias are battling for control of the international airport in the coastal city of Aden, and the US government just announced that American troops are evacuating Al Anad airbase.

ISIS is taking credit for the Sanaa attacks. “Infidel Houthis should know that the soldiers of the Islamic State will not rest,” it said, “until they eradicate them and cut off the arm of the Safavid (Iranian) plan in Yemen.” Al Qaeda has a much larger footprint in Yemen, so the ISIS claim is a little bit dubious, but ISIS is on the rise there and its attitude toward Shia Muslims is more bloodthirsty—more explicitly genocidal as the quote above shows—than Al Qaeda's.

Regardless of who committed the latest round of atrocities, everything in Yemen is about to become much, much worse. The region-wide storm of sectarian hatred has been gathering strength by the year for more than a decade, and it blew the roof off Yemen earlier this year when the Houthis, who are Shias, seized control of the capital and sent Sunni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi into semi-exile in Aden.

The Houthis see their takeover of the city and government institutions as a natural progression of the revolution in 2011 that toppled former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but it isn't, not really. While they enjoy some backing beyond their Shia support base, the sectarian dimension is inescapable. Shias make up almost half the population, and the Sunni majority is keenly aware that minorities in the Middle East are capable of seizing power and lording it over everyone else—especially if they're sponsored by a regional mini superpower like Iran. Syria has been ruled by the Iranian-backed Alawite minority for decades, and Saddam Hussein used brute force to bring the Sunni minority to power in Iraq.

Still, the Houthis have virtually no chance of ruling the entire country. Their “territory,” so to speak, is restricted to the northwestern region surrounding the capital. Previous governments had a rough go of it too. South Yemen was a communist state—the so-called People's Democratic Republic of Yemen—until the Soviet Union finally ruptured, and four years after unification with North Yemen, the armed forces of each former half declared war on each other.

Far more likely than a comprehensive Houthi takeover is a new and more dangerous phase of Yemen's endless self-cannibalization—more dangerous because this otherwise parochial and irrelevant conflict has been internationalized, with ISIS, the Saudis, and Iran squaring off against each other in yet another regional proxy war.

The Houthi movement is named after Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, an insurrection leader killed by the former government in 2004. They are Shias, but unlike the “Twelver” Shia Muslims of Iran—who revere eleven imams and await the birth of the occluded twelfth—most of Yemen's Shias are “Fivers.” Iran doesn't mind. From its point of view, better the odd “Fiver” Shias than Sunnis, but all that really matters is that the Houthis are willing to say yes to Tehran, its weapon shipments, and its top-notch military advisors and trainers. 

The next-door Saudis, of course, are backing what's left of Hadi's former government down in Aden. They've been Yemen's primary patron since the 1930s and won't sit back and idly watch as Iran's Islamic Revolution is exported to their back yard any more than the United States would have allowed the Moscow to conquer Canada during the Cold War.

Yemen's conflict is tribal, sectarian, and political at the same time, and it's becoming increasingly internationalized even as the US is leaving. It's also a little bizarre. Last month, President Hadi declared Aden the new capital, though no one in the world, not even his allies, recognize it as such. A few days ago a Houthi-commanded military jet flew over the city from Sanaa and fired missiles at his residence.

The US has few friends and even less leverage, especially now that it's all falling apart, so Washington is washing its hands and bringing everyone home. All we can really hope for there is less instability, not so much because Yemen's local squabbling affects us—until now it hardly registered outside the country—but because dangerous adversaries that threaten the West are hoping to expand their base of operations and their ability to export malfeasance everywhere else. Let's not forget that Osama bin Laden's family is of Yemeni origin, as was Anwar Al-Awlaki, one of Al Qaeda's chief propagandists before the Pentagon vaporized him with a Hellfire missile in 2011. The deadliest bomb-maker in the world plies his trade with Yemen's branch of Al Qaeda and has planned at least three attacks against commercial airliners. And now that Iran is involved in the Saudi family's sphere of influence and the Sunni majority is backsliding, ISIS and Al Qaeda are gaining even more traction.

Consider the city of Radaa. Al Qaeda briefly seized power there in 2012, but local tribesmen and government troops drove them out. Now that the Houthis are in the saddle in Sanaa, however, the tribes in Radaa are siding with Al Qaeda again. Al Qaeda's takeover of al-Houta three days ago shows that Radaa is anything but an isolated case.

All this parallels events in Iraq. The Sunni tribes of Anbar Province forged an alliance with American soldiers and Marines against Al Qaeda in the mid-2000s, but after the US withdrew and President Nouri al-Maliki ruled the country as a heavy-handed Iranian proxy, many tribes in Anbar switched their allegiance to ISIS.

Yemen may well turn into the Iraq or Syria—take your pick—of the Arabian Peninsula. All the US can really do at this point is watch in horror as the Middle East continues to chew its own leg off and malefactors with global ambitions thrive in the chaos.

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

Is There Economic Reform in Ukraine?

If you listen to Ukrainians tell it, there’s been absolutely no reform within the last year. Their frustration is understandable—they want the positive effects of major change now—but their perception just doesn’t correspond to the facts.

The much awaited reform process is actually under way—though quietly and unobtrusively. The Education Ministry and the Ministry of Internal Affairs have led the way with restructuring universities and the police force, probably because they don’t deal directly with high-stakes corruption and the power of the oligarchs. Some personnel cuts have been introduced in the presidential administration and the government bureaucracy; more are forecast. A law (albeit flawed) on lustration has been adopted and has already led to some high-level resignations and prosecutions. An Anti-Corruption Bureau has been approved, and a head is currently being sought.

Sri Lanka Pushes Back on China's Influence

On March 5th, Sri Lanka’s new government suspended a $1.4 billion development in downtown Colombo, the capital city. The stated reason was procedural. A review board had determined the project was not properly approved. The real explanation has to do with Sri Lanka’s recent elections. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s president, who sought this and other Chinese investments in this Indian Ocean nation of 20 million, was turned out of office on January 8th.

Rajapaksa’s welcome mat for Chinese influence was a major issue in the campaign, as was his creeping authoritarianism, stifling of dissent, and erosion of the rule of law. Sensing his support ebbing, Rajapaksa called for the poll two years early, in hopes of locking in an unprecedented third term. It was too late. He had lost support from loyal constituencies, and members of his government defected to the opposition, including the man who defeated him, the new president, Maithripala Sirisena, formerly general secretary of Rajapaksa’s political party.

China's Infrastructure Bank Proposal Gains Traction

On Tuesday, France, Germany, and Italy announced they will participate in the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The trio follows Britain’s decision to do so and precedes expected announcements by Australia and South Korea.

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