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France’s Increase in Youth Gang Violence

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When you think of Paris the image of youth gang violence is probably not the first thing that pops up into your mind. The city that is known for its history, culture, and food has made headlines recently for a very different reason. Over the past several months, the suburbs of Paris have experienced numerous incidents of youth violence that often led to lives lost. In mid-January, around 30 youths from rival gangs aged between 12 and 18 years old, joined to inflict violence on each other. The fight left a 15-year-old dead from a stab wound. The violence focused attention on the issue of youth violence, which is not particularly new, but is increasingly worrying for French officials and communities across Paris.

Although the major city has had a relationship with violent crime in the past this new spat of violence is affecting the city like never before, partly due to the young age of those being drawn into violence. Teenagers from all backgrounds are taking part in violence that has led to numerous injuries and at least 7 deaths.Tensions among teenagers are heightened and the cause of the tensions come from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, nationwide curfew, and social media, which is fueling boredom and frustration. France has had a range of coronavirus restrictions since March 2020, along with many other nations, and as recently as March 31, 2021, President Macron announced a new lockdown, which is likely to be in place until the end of April. The country’s 6pm to 6am curfew is likely another cause to the increase in violence. Community leaders, coaches, and other positive role models are no longer able to meet with young people turning to violence because of the COVID-19 restrictions.

Interior ministry statistics show a rise in gang violence among young people. There were 357 recorded incidents in 2020 compared to the 288 in 2019. The interior ministry has recorded 74 gangs throughout the country with more than half in the region of Paris. However, the police force is relucent to calling them “gangs” because they lack organization and structure. It is often just a group of teenagers who are from the same arrondissement, school, or block of flats, and share the same economic standing. Typically, they have a core group of five or six people. Many come from underprivileged environments and tend to have difficulties at school, so this results in young people banding together because it gives them a sense of identity as well as protects them. This sense of identity is one that might have been found in sports or after school programs- which are no longer active.

The most recent killing that rocked the nation was that of a 14-year-old girl whose body was found in the Seine river. Two teenagers, both 15 years old, have been arrested for the murder. The mother of the detained boy alerted the police after her son confessed, he and his friend had hit a girl causing her to fall into the Seine. Tensions rose between the three teenagers after compromising photos of the victim were shared on the popular messaging service Snapchat. It is often heard that bullying starts in the classroom or playground, but with the pandemic students have not been in school for quite some time. In recent years, particularly months, the bullying has moved online. Teenagers no longer have activities to keep them busy after school and combined with the increased amount of time people are spending online, violence is an activity that is keeping them busy. This is just one example of a series of incidents spread across Paris. Others include two teenagers, aged 14 and 16, who were left fighting for their lives following a gang brawl in Champigny-sur-Marne and just a couple weeks earlier two men, aged 17 and 27, were arrested after the shooting death of a 15-year-old boy in Bondy.

The government has sounded the alarm over the surge in youth gang violence in the Paris suburbs, which are drawing in children as young as 12. Top government officials have vowed to tackle the problem but have yet to publish any plans. Ministers in education, justice, and security recently met on March 12, 2021 to discuss how to handle the influx of violence and a new security directive aimed at combatting youth gang violence is to be introduced in May. All attention will be on France when the new directive is launched to see if it decreases the number of violent crimes. Violence among youth is not unique to France, many western European nations are dealing with some type of increase in violence, whether it be domestic violence, right-wing violence, or violent protests, there seems to be a general consensus that boredom and “lockdown fatigue” has played a role. It is growing evermore difficult allowing people access to their social outlets when many western European nations are in the beginning stages of their third wave of the virus.

The government has focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, nationwide curfew, and social media being the cause for the heightened tensions among teens. Covid-19- related restrictions, the closure of sport facilities, gyms, and other social outlets has complicated the situation by fueling boredom and frustration. The implications of the continuing national and regional lockdowns, curfews, and more time to spend online has led to an increase in violence among youth that France does not yet know how to handle. The Interior Minister sent police reinforcements to some neighborhoods but communities throughout France that have been affected by violence are calling for sport facilities and social outlets be opened up. For communities across France, the solution to the violence is not an increase in police presence but instead the government working with schools and community groups on finding a way to give teenagers the forms of social support they usually rely on, like sport facilities or youth clubs, while also balancing the ongoing health crisis.

Israeli Elections 2021: What Could A Potential Israeli Government Look Like?

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On 23 March 2021, Israelis took to the polls to vote in their fourth elections in almost 2 years. The Jewish State has consistently failed to form a government from Israel’s 120-seat Knesset (Hebrew for “Assembly”), and so this time around Israelis hope to break the deadlock. Israel’s representational system requires a majority of at least 61 seats for a government to be formed. Such majorities can be formed either by one party or through a coalition of several – the former a rarity, and the latter with regularity. With this fourth election, one thing promising is that ideologically-aligned blocs of the smaller parties have emerged and begun to converge around the larger parties in Israel. For example, on the one side you have the right-wing ‘Netanyahu’bloc (tallied as holding 53 seats), and on the other side you have the centrist ‘Change’ bloc (tallied as holding 57) .This appears to foreshadow a return to a more stable 2 party system, with the 2 blocs resembling something like a broad-church, 2 party system – predicated on ideological convergence or a spectrum of ideas. Therefore any government formed – at least from this election anyway – will almost certainly be rooted in such blocs.

However, the opposite point can also be argued: that Israeli politics has never been so complicated and ideologically divided, and thus the makeup of any new government cannot be predicted. This is evident in that there are way too many parties on the scene with competing interests and ideological non-negotiables. What’s more is even those parties – and the Members of Knesset (MKs) who lead them – with ideological similarities and who share the same political roots or careers, are oftentimes the most vehemently opposed to allying themselves with each other than with parties dissimilar to themselves. But all points aside, whatever mess the political scene seems to be on paper, it no way compares to the reality of the situation and how it will pan out. This is perhaps why 3 days on from Election Day and since all the votes have been tallied, Israel is still no closer to having formed a government. That being said, for the purposes of humouring oneself, if Israel were to form a government what would it look like? Examples of parties and key actors will be referenced throughout to illustrate theories.

First and foremost when speaking of potential coalitions, what seems most likely is that any government coalition formed will either be headed by or deeply reliant upon Netanyahu’s The Likud party (currently projected as having 30 seats) or MK Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party (currently projected as having 17 seats). This is because being the biggest parties in the Knesset, their buy-in will be needed in order to ensure the best chance of there being a strong majority in the Knesset necessary to form a coalition government that lasts. But an even more obvious reason why it would be logical to assume either party will head any new coalition government is the President of Israel nominally tasks the leader of the biggest party to have the first opportunity to build a coalition.

It is only in rare, exceptional circumstances that the President allows a non-dominant party leader to have a crack at building a coalition – this is because in such circumstances it would first require the agreement of at least 61 MKs to sanction a non-dominant party leader to build a coalition. However, in this election there is a possibility that this could happen due to the frustrations of both Israelis and MKs with the current state of Israeli politics. Being desperate to form a government after three unsuccessful elections, MKs and the President of Israel might opt for a third way to resolving this political crisis. This point will be returned to later in this article.

Meanwhile back to the point about the likelihood of a Likud-led government, judging from both past precedent and ideological sympathies, it seems highly likely that any Likud government would have or at the very least would try to garner the support of both Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox Jewish) parties, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) (currently projected as holding 7 seats) and Shas (currently projected as holding 9 seats). Both have been beholden coalition partners in most of Netanyahu’s terms in office. Both groups are fundamentalist and very much value the Jewish character of state affairs. Both groups also seek to uphold the interests of Ultra-Orthodox segment of Israeli society, which makes up about 18 percent of Israeli society. Because Netanyahu has in his political past ceded legislation to such parties and upheld their interests, both parties have an incentive to maintain the status quo – vis-à-vis keeping the Prime Minister and Likud in power. This means any Likud government will likely include these parties, so as to mutually reinforce each other. Additionally, the values of the Haredi parties are so far removed from the ‘Change’ bloc – who predicate their movement on secularisation in opposition to the interest of the Haredim, universal interest of all segments of Israeli society, and centre-left values – and thus it seems very unlikely that these religious parties will ally with Yair Lapid and his party to form a coalition.

However, that is not to say that Yesh Atid definitively will not attempt to pander to the Haredi parties and be successful in doing so – on the contrary, this might be a viable option, as if the ‘Change’ bloc compromises its values to be more inclusive of the Haredim, they might just be able to entice them to abandon the ‘Netanyahu’ bloc in favour of joining their coalition. In fact, if the ‘Change’ bloc was successful in even bringing one of the parties on board, that would be more than enough to secure a stable government coalition – the bloc’s 57 seats would increase to 64 if UTJ joined, or 66 if Shas did. On the subject of Yesh Atid, it is remotely possible that they could entice one of the non-aligned so-called “kingmaker” parties to join their bloc – namely Yamina, but also perhaps newly-formed Arab party Ra’am.

HaYamin HaChadash (Hebrew for the New Right) – typically styled as Yamina – currently holds 7 seats in the Knesset. A national-religious party – such parties are mixed both secular nationalist MKs and Orthodox MKs who are more moderate and engaged with Israeli society than their Haredi co-religionists – Yamina nominally would have allied itself with the ‘Netanyahu’ bloc. However, its leader Naftali Bennett seeks to see the long-serving Prime Minister Netanyahu vacate the political scene and make way for a new generation of political leadership.

What’s more, to complicate the situation Bennett’s former party The Jewish Home recently split from the national-religious camp, after he fell out with his number 2, the more inflammatory Betzalel Smotrich, over differences in direction and perspective. Bennett, the more moderate and liberal politician went on to form Yamina, whilst Smotrich ventured further right to form the Religious-Zionists party – the latter sits firmly inside Netanyahu’s bloc, currently holding 6 seats, and had already signed a surplus-votes deal with The Likud. Both of these factors make Yamina a prime target for the ‘Change’ bloc to bring into their coalition. However, Bennett in the past has said he would not sit in a coalition led by Yair Lapid, and that he would not work with Arab parties – which would not work to hold the ‘Change’ bloc together (i.e. Joint List). That being said, Bennett has not ruled out working with Yair Lapid’s party – which suggests he would be open to joining them in some form of a coalition, albeit with Yair Lapid not being the coalition leader / potential next Prime Minister.

Similarly, Bennett also remarked in his speech to his supporters on Election Day that “Now is the time to heal, and heal the rifts within the nation” and that he would seek to do what is best for Israel – namely fostering an Israel that works for all Israelis across the religious, ethnic and political spectrum. From this speech one can garner either 1 of 3 things: he is seriously considering working with other parties outside of his natural inclination (i.e. those in the centre and on the left); he is considering putting his differences with Netanyahu aside to back the right-wing bloc, or that he is edging gearing himself up to becoming the Prime Minister of the new government. Of the second option, it is entirely possible that Bennett could chose to back the ‘Netanyahu’ bloc – albeit not without seeking concessions from the government (e.g. being rewarded with the post of Defense Minister or Foreign Minister for himself or for his Yamina compatriot, MK Ayelet Shaked). He could also request a rotational government with the Prime Minister – which would allow him to become Prime Minister. However, the third option – that he is preparing to become sole Prime Minister of a new government – seems more plausible.

The latter point takes us back to the scenario mentioned earlier: that 61 MKs could suggest the President nominate another Knesset member to form a coalition. Bennett is currently tipped as an outsider to do this. He is the possible third way. Again, the likelihood of this happening is very slim – as it would require the buy-in of many MKs. However, if it did happen, aside from the MKs of Yamina, I predict the MKs that would back it would be those from Yesh Atid, then flanked by MKs from the newly-formed right-wing party, New Hope (6 seats), and then also perhaps Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party (7 seats). It is also possible that some in the Religious-Zionists party could be enticed to back him should this scenario pan out.

But anyway, why Yesh Atid first? Because the leading party of the ‘Change’ bloc that is literally called “There is a future” – and whose leader in his Election Day speech rejoiced at a non-right wing dominant coalition not being possible – would do anything to ensure Netanyahu leaves office and that Smotrich’s party in particular does not get to be in a government. Therefore ceding to Bennett would be a small yet safe choice to make to realise Yesh Atid’s dreams. But, it would be ultimately up to Yair Lapid, and whether he would sacrifice his dream of becoming a Prime Minister for the sake preventing Netanyahu retaining office via enabling another premier candidate.

With regards to why New Hope, the party was formed by a high-ranking member of Likud, Gideon Sa’ar, who grew frustrated by Netanyahu’s leadership. Other subsequent members of Likud joined the party, as did a couple from a smaller centre-right party, as well as one from Likud rival and centrist party, Blue and White. Thus already, once can see that the members of this party have an incentive to keep Netanyahu out of government by any means necessary. The 2 parties also ideologically align somewhat – both parties are right-wing and staunchly nationalist. Additionally, in January 2021 the party signed a surplus-votes deal with Yamina, and thus in a sense New Hope is already beholden to Bennett. However, Sa’ar has not ruled out sitting in a rotational government with Netanyahu, and therefore support for Bennett might not be so clear cut. With regards to Yisrael Beiteinu, they share a similar disdain for Netanyahu’s leadership – with leader Lieberman having experienced it first-hand as a former Likud member, and as a coalition partner of Netanyahu. Lieberman already has ruled out working with Netanyahu. This could entice them to back Bennett as a right-wing rival of Netanyahu.

Aside from the Bennett situation, going back to Netanyahu’s bloc, it still does not have enough seats to make a coalition – and still will not, even if Yamina joins them. This means that the bloc would have to either entice the other right-wing parties in the ‘Change’ bloc to join them – either New Hope or Yisrael Beiteinu – or perhaps even the new Arab Ra’am party. It seems clear that Yisrael Beiteinu MKs will not defect to Likud or the bloc, but perhaps the New Hope MKs might? This could be the case, as the political ambition of MKs in this new party – which I add did not do as well as they expected – might entice them into backing Netanyahu. In fact, it seems likely that if they did back him for Prime Minister, New Hope MKs would be rewarded with high positions in Israel’s Cabinet. Therefore, this too is a possibility.

Lastly, to the plight of the Arab parties: Ra’am (4 seats) and the Joint List of Arab parties (6 seats). The former party split from the latter in late January 2021. Ra’am was not expected to gain many seats in the Knesset, but has actually exceeded expectations. Meanwhile, the Joint List has lost seats – both to Ra’am, but also likely to Blue and White, Meretz and Avodah in the ‘Change’ bloc. This is likely due to social issues in the Arab sector of Israeli society, and the perception that the joint alliance has not done enough to improve the situation of Arabs in Israel. Most, if not all, the parties in both the ‘Netanyahu’ bloc have ruled out working with Arab parties. On the contrary, Joint List sits inside the ‘Change’ bloc, and Yair Lapid sees them as worthy coalition partners. This is a plus-plus for the ‘Change’ bloc.

Meanwhile, Ra’am is believed to be somewhat more open to being in government, but has yet to officially publicise its position. Therefore it is a case of waiting and seeing what they will decide. This makes them a possible, albeit unlikely target for the ‘Netanyahu’ bloc. But, it should be noted that Yamina, New Hope and most certainly the Religious-Zionists have ruled out working with Arab parties. Therefore this solution is unlikely to work. It should also be noted that should the ‘Change’ bloc on the other hand court Ra’am to join their bloc, this would help them to achieve an unstable coalition government. However, a couple of parties in the ‘Change’ bloc have ruled out working with them. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the Arab parties will feature in any new government, should one form. However, the ironic thing is that the Ra’am party might just be answer to the bloc’s problems. Should the bloc secure defections from other parties and then manage to accept Ra’am into the bloc, then Netanyahu could form a coalition – albeit an unstable one.

Tanzania’s Hidden COVID-19 Epidemic

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Tanzania’s former President John Magufuli earned the title of one of the most prominent COVID-19 sceptics amongst world leaders. The country had stopped reporting case and death statistics in May 2020. The registers number on the World Health Organisation’s Covid dashboard remain at 509 cases and 21 deaths. Magufuli dismissed containment measures such as masks and social distancing, and even refused to order vaccinations for his citizens, therefore little is known about the state of the virus within Tanzania.

Magufuli passed away on the 17th March 2021, after speculations about his wellbeing due to his disappearance from the public view on the 27th February. The news was broken by Tanzania’s Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan on state television.  His administration had not spoken on his health and whereabouts until then, and merely questioning or spreading rumours about the president’s condition resulted in arrest. The government was clearly trying to buy time while the president was very ill or already dead. Magufuli’s passing was attributed to “heart problems” but many still suspect that he succumbed to COVID-19.

Conspiracy Theories

When the country recorded its first case, some containment measures were taken such as closing schools, limiting public gatherings, even encouraging people not to travel within or outside Dar es Salaam and other regions. However, the approach since then has been completely different.

In May 2020, Magufuli triggered conspiracy theories in an effort to investigate the quality of testing kits and to question the amount of positive cases in the country. He sent non-human samples from fruit and animals to the country’s main lab which came back positive for COVID-19. When sharing the results with the nation, the president stated that this likely meant some individuals were being tested positive when in fact they were not infected with coronavirus – de-emphasising COVID-19’s risks.

This shift in public health messaging triggered its neighbour Zambia to shut its borders with the country due to apprehension over Tanzania’s lack of COVID-19 response. Magufuli’s leadership style put not only many Tanzanians in danger, but the lack of containment was also harming the region’s chances of stopping its spread.

After the shift in messaging and the abandonment of precautions, many businesses soon reopened and by June people had returned to normalcy. The president did not fear this virus, and this was reflected in society.

In January 2021, Magufuli announced the country would not be ordering vaccines, as they “are not good, if they were, then the white man would have brought vaccines for HIV/AIDS.” He also added that his country would not be guinea pigs in vaccination trials. President Magufuli presented himself as an African nationalist waging war against foreign powers. He used the disease as warfare while hinting at the virus as a western plot:

“So many times, I have insisted that not everything that you are given is good. There could be people being used, that equipment could be used… but it could also be sabotage because this is warfare,”

Science Vs. Religion

Magufuli was a former chemistry and math teacher, and had a doctorate in chemistry so with his scientific background, his decision to rely on faith and herbal medication rather than evidence was a shock to many of his neighbours and the international community.

He urged citizens to pray to their individual gods, in mosques and churches, so that God will hear them. Magufuli had also backed traditional medication, including steam inhalation to fight the virus, despite the WHO saying there is no evidence that these treatments work. Herbal remedies are a common feature in many African nations with the WHO showing that 80% of Africans use them. He had even ordered a planeload of herbal potions that were popularised in Madagascar. Magufuli clearly viewed African nations as allies, as opposed to the West and preferred to deal with them when seeking out medical remedies.

A surprise change in messaging came in mid-February shortly after the death of the senior Tanzanian politician paired with the more general deadly resurgence of the infection which had put pressure on the government to provide clearer guidelines for the pandemic. This revelation added to concerns of a hidden epidemic within Tanzania despite the country’s insistence of having had no local transmissions. Magufuli said the government had not forbidden the wearing of masks and were not discouraging people to do so if they wanted to. However, the conspiracy theories did not stop there as he was still sceptical of the masks Tanzanians should wear: “we have to be careful about which masks we wear” and encouraging people to either make their own masks or use masks that were produced locally.”

Impact on the Wider Region 

Tanzania’s refusal to provide COVID-19 data to the WHO and the refusal to secure vaccines puts the whole continent in danger as many countries share porous borders. It is difficult to predict the future trajectory of the virus and refusal to cooperate endangers everyone. So, as long as there are cases of coronavirus in Tanzania, it will be extremely difficult for neighbouring countries to be free of the virus.

President Magufuli was clearly denying the pandemic even before it got to Tanzania. Coupled with the current news about numerous countries halting the rollout of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, this is going to fuel further scepticism in the country. Tanzanians in border communities may have to resort to crossing over to neighbouring Rwanda, Malawi or Kenya to access vaccination programmes – increasing the risk of the spread of the virus.

Furthermore, with the lack of disease surveillance within Tanzania there is the risk of new variants emerging within the country, which tend to emerge due to uncontrolled spread. A new variant emerging from Tanzania could easily endanger the whole region and invalidate vaccines that may not be effective against a new variant. Tanzania’s current approach will make it that much harder for normality to return to the region as long as COVID-19 is not controlled and or subjected to surveillance.

Tanzania’s Future

The new president of Tanzania, Samia Suluhu Hassan, was sworn in on 19 March and she is the first female head of state in the country. There has been general debate of whether Hassan will continue Magufuli’s legacy or change course.

Apart from dealing with Tanzania’s hidden epidemic, she will be faced with the task of healing the country that became so polarised under Magufuli’s rule. Speaking on the issue of polarity within the country as well as the uncertainty that developed after Magufuli’s disappearance, Hassan said: “This is a time to bury our differences, and be one as a nation…This is not a time for finger pointing, but it is a time to hold hands and move forward together.”

She is described as a ‘soft-spoken consensus builder’, which is a stark contrast from Magufuli who earned the label “Bulldozer” for pushing through policies despite opposition. Hassan speaks fondly of Magufuli, stating that, “He taught me a lot, he was my mentor and prepared me sufficiently.” She also assured the citizens of Tanzania that all is well and that nothing will change within the country, also stating that she will continue to lead the nation in the same way as Magufuli had done.

President Hassan has not yet mentioned her plans for dealing with the pandemic. However, her silence is understandable: the former president, after all, was a genuinely famous leader, despite his landslide election victory last autumn being marred by accusations of voter fraud. Disavowing his policies quickly might be politically risky for Hassan.

The case of Magufuli and Tanzania may serve as a cautionary tale to other COVID-19 sceptics. The pandemic he persistently refuted outlived him and turned his presidency into a harsh example for the region and the continent. In his six years as president, the country became increasingly polarised through his treatment of the opposition, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the country also became increasingly isolated internationally.

Hassan’s international exposure could provide her with the kind of worldview needed to re-establish Tanzania’s diplomatic status. She talked about the importance of burying differences and showing unity as a country in her inaugural address on 19th March. Her forthrightness and rationality may be critical in pushing the country forward. She would need to act quickly to shift the country’s stance on COVID-19 and reach out to the opposition and other stakeholders in order to foster a national dialogue that is more inclusive.

Kremlin Warns that War with Ukraine on Brink of Escalation

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The Kremlin ramped its media to warn that the frozen war in eastern Ukraine was on the brink of dangerous escalation. Moscow and Kyiv blamed one another for a recent surge in violence where 10 Ukrainian soldiers were killed since 2021. Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, accused Kyiv’s forces of shelling in breach of the ceasefire agreement and entering areas where they were not meant to be. Ukraine accused pro-Russian forces, which are widely believed to be under Russian command, of shelling its troops to provoke retaliation. Mr Peskov said Russia, which officially denies deploying its own troops to the area, was using its influence to restrain pro-Russian forces and called on France and Germany to do the same for Ukraine.

We consider that a disinformation campaign is being conducted against Ukraine that could support renewed Russian offensive conventional operations later in 2021, but Russia is unlikely to launch an all-war offensive operation in the coming month. Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine deployed to full combat readiness on March 16. Despite the potential indicators of a possible operation, the Russian military is not postured to support an imminent large-scale offensive, nevertheless, the possibility of “blitzkrieg” tactical incursion by proxies cannot be excluded. The Kremlin’s disinformation campaign may be intended to pressure Ukraine into engaging in negotiations on unfavourable terms or to set conditions for a Russian escalation in late summer 2021 or both.

In February 2021, President Volodymyr Zelensky took off the air three pro-Russian television channels connected to the pro-Russian Opposition Platform–For Life party, which won 43 seats in the Verkhovna Rada in the 2019 Ukrainian parliamentary election. Kyiv also imposed sanctions on the leader of the pro-Russian opposition, Viktor Medvedchuk, who was accused of “financing terrorists”—paying the Donbas separatists money. Medvedchuk (66) is a Ukrainian oligarch and a personal friend of Putin’s. He fervently wants to see Ukraine stay clear of NATO, the US and the EU, while keeping close ties with “brotherly Russia”. In parallel the Ukrainian intelligence reported Russia’s proxy forces deployed to the highest degree of combat readiness, withdrew personnel from vacations early, and replenished ammunition for front line units on March 16. Russian proxies have also increased their pace of readiness drills since early March. Ukrainian intelligence and independent reporting confirmed that Russia’s proxies are currently improving their defensive positions.

We further analyse that despite Russia conducting an annual Russian Airborne (VDV) exercise in Crimea from March 16-19, 2021, involving 2,000 troops, the exercise was pre-planned and has occurred in mid-March every year since 2017. No reporting of any other Russian forces redeploying or conducting snap exercises near Ukraine in recent weeks were collected. Russia has not deployed additional combat assets into Donbas, such as artillery and armour units, to support a large-scale operation. Ukrainian intelligence characterizes ongoing Russian proxy activity as preparations for “provoking tension” and “provocative action,” not a new offensive. The increased readiness drills and improved defensive positions in the absence of necessary preparations for offensive action indicate that imminent escalation is unlikely.

Additionally, we are making allowances that the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign may be intended to pressure Ukrainian President Zelensky into renewed unfavourable negotiations with the Kremlin or direct engagement with Russian proxies. Kremlin representatives and media outlets have accused Ukrainian President Zelensky of preparing for an offensive due to his unwillingness to continue negotiations with Russia. Ukraine has refrained from direct engagement with Russia’s proxies in Donbas to avoid legitimizing them as independent actors through direct engagement. Russian envoy Gryzlov accused Ukraine of preparing an escalation to break the “impasse” on negotiations and claimed Ukraine’s only alternative to a military escalation is direct talks with Russian proxies. Lukashevich similarly accused Ukraine of preparing an escalation to avoid what the Kremlin frames as Kyiv’s “commitment” to begin direct engagement with Russian proxies in Donbas.

What cannot be excluded is the possibility that the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign may be setting conditions for its own kinetic escalation in later in 2021. The Kremlin routinely accuses Ukraine of refusing to consider Russia-favourable negotiations and of perpetuating the conflict in eastern Ukraine. However, claims emanating directly from the Kremlin overtly accusing Ukraine of preparing for an offensive are unusual. Russian claims of an Ukrainian offensive might indicate that Russian leaders intend to conduct a kinetic escalation, yet new military assets were not reported. The Kremlin likely intends to build its disinformation campaign over several months and may seek to provoke Ukrainian forces into acting against Russia, this framings will be used as a justification for a renewed offensive against Ukraine.

In conclusion, regardless of the Ukrainian officials attempts to counter the onslaught of belligerency in the Moscow media by announcing Ukraine is ready to meet an enemy attack even if it takes the form of a massive invasion, the risk of escalations is estimated to be low, be it from proxies of conventional Russian troops. The snow is just begging to melt on the East European. It is currently “Rasputitsa” or mud season, which is incredibly problematic for offensive manoeuvre warfare. Maybe six to eight weeks remain before belligerent rhetoric and sporadic bombardments in Donbas might truly transform into something much more ominous.

Qatar’s LNG presence in Asia under challenge

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A part of Qatar’s strategy to gear up to an ever-changing energy market, is well illustrated by a long-term LNG contract signed between the Gulf state and Pakistan on February 26, 2021. The 10-year agreement was signed on Friday by the Pakistani Energy Minister Omar Ayub Khan and his Qatari counterpart, Saad Sherida al-Kaabi, and aims to fulfill Pakistan’s energy needs with 3 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG). It also demonstrates how a traditionally leading power in the LNG market is now making sincere efforts to preserve its superiority, particularly in Asia, amid challenges originated from other LNG suppliers and new unconventional gas resources. Qatar seems to diversify and enhance its LNG network, by establishing long-term partnerships with prominent customers, as it witnesses a rapid emergence of Australia as a major LNG supplier to Asia, while the United States have dramatically increased their LNG exports since the shale gas revolution.

The 2021 deal between Qatar and Pakistan was a historic agreement signed by the two Muslim states, which share a warm and cordial enduring relationship. As a matter of fact, Pakistan will receive its supplies at an almost 31% cheaper price than the existing contract signed by the previous government with Doha in 2015. Mr. Nadeem Babar, Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Petroleum at Petroleum Division stressed that the agreement will begin in January, 2022, with two ships per month loading about 200mmcfd, which will later rise up to four ships of 400mmcfd at a rate of 10.2% of Brent. In comparison, the previous LNG contract was for a 15-year period, beginning with one ship per month of 100mmcfd and going up to 5 ships of 500mmcfd at a rate of 13.37% of Brent. He added that the new LNG agreement includes a provision of price renegotiation after 4 years. This is a significantly beneficial deal for Pakistan, as  the country would pay about $316million less annually when compared to same volume under the existing long term contract, which means that the country will save almost $3 billion in ten years. It will also provide $170 million letter of credit (LCs) under the existing contract compared to $84 million under the new deal, which is also almost half. Therefore, the provisions of the newly signed deal will ensure price stability for Pakistan along with supply security and an additional decrease of the country’s national budget.

Qatar’s economy is driven by exploitation of natural gas and petroleum resources, representing two-thirds of its GDP and almost 80% of export earnings. Qatar, with just one huge gas field, the North Field, holds about 12% of the world’s proven reserves of natural gas, the third largest reserves in the world, following Russia and Iran. However, the state-owned Qatar Petroleum Co. traditionally leads the LNG market, being the largest exporter worldwide, while in terms of natural gas pipeline exports, the kingdom has been ranked as the second major exporter after Russia. According to the data of the Planning and Statistics Authority (PSA), Northeast Asian markets including Japan, South Korea, India, account for 75% of Qatar’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports. Unfortunately, a number of formidable challenges have emerged in recent years, and it seems that their impact poses a threat to Qatari interests. The US and Australia are the major rivals in this race for leadership in the LNG market, particularly in the region of Asia, where the most valuable clients of Qatar are located.

Although the United States are not directly threatening Qatar’s dominance, the shale gas revolution, along with the results of advances in production techniques, has made it possible to extract gas at commercially viable rates from previously unyielding rocks. Indeed, U.S. gas production started rising dramatically and since 2011 it has been breaking new records every year. The extraction of shale gas in the U.S. reached over 23 trillion cubic feet in 2020, and is expected to note a further leap by 2040. It becomes apparent that such a growth rate could affect Qatar’s LNG exports in the coming years. Moreover, U.S LNG exports to China decreased during 2019 due to tariffs imposed by Beijing over 2018 and 2019 in retaliation for US tariffs on Chinese goods. However, China decided in February 2020, to accept applications for tariff exemptions on U.S LNG, from March 2, in a move that allowed it to meet purchase targets under the recent US-China trade deal. Therefore, LNG exports to Asia increased by 67% in 2020, accounting for almost half of all U.S. LNG exports. Exports to other major customers in Asia, including Japan, South Korea and India, also noted an increase in 2020 compared to previous years. Global demand for energy is rapidly increasing, particularly in Asia, due to population and economic growth, especially in large emerging countries such as Japan and China. The shale gas ‘revolution’ in the US has the potential to change the global gas picture, by effectively responding to this growing demand for energy. It seems likely that the US’s excess supply of natural gas will increasingly be exported to Europe and Asia in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG), affecting the composition of domestic markets in those regions and consequently Qatar’s interests.

Qatar’s top position in the LNG market is currently under challenge by another competitor. Australia is getting ever closer to overtake Qatar, as it exported a record 78.0 Mt of LNG in 2020, compared to 77.6 Mt of Qatar.Australia is a country with multiple sources of natural gas, between conventional and unconventional distributed in both North West and East shelves. The main client markets are the big ones in the Pacific basin, including China, Japan and South Korea, turning Australia into a strong competitor in East Asian markets. In contrast to Qatar, Australia holds the benefit of proximity, as it is located at the Asian Pacific basin. On top of that, between 2014 and 2016, Australia signed Free Trade Agreements (FTA) with Japan, China, and South Korea, eliminating tariffs on major exports, including natural gas. This provided greater certainty for Australia, which can offer more affordable prices, by reducing taxes from the total price of LNG to these major customers. In other words, Australia gained a competitive advantage over Qatar and the rest of LNG exporters in the Asian energy market.

This intense competition forced Qatar to come up with and adopt sufficient strategies and measures that would enable the Kingdom to reclaim and re-establish its status as the leading exporter worldwide. Qatar acknowledges that Asian countries will account for an ever-growing share of gas and LNG demand in the coming years. In an increasingly competitive LNG market, Qatar has an interest in solidifying ties with importing states in SouthEast Asia. Australia’s dominating status is set to change within the next decade, following Qatar’s approval of  the world’s largest LNG project in terms of capacity, North Field East Project (NFE). The state-owned Qatar Petroleum announced on February 8, 2020 it had taken the final investment decision to develop the North Field expansion project, which will raise the nation’s LNG production capacity from 77 Mtpa to 110 Mtpa and will put the country on track to return as the world’s largest LNG producer. The project is expected to start production in the fourth quarter of 2025. Qatar also plans a second expansion phase, the North Field South Project (NFS), set to further increase Qatar’s LNG production capacity from 110 Mtpa to 126 Mtpa by 2027, enough to meet the total import needs of both Japan and South Korea.

In addition to that, Qatar employs a segmented approach to LNG marketing, pursuing a steady price for long-term contracts, that will not be affected by any future shifts of demand. For example, Qatar Petroleum has already shown a preparedness to cut prices to secure deals, as it happened with Pakistan. LNG to Pakistan was priced at a 10.2% of Brent crude oil compared with a 13.37% of Brent of the previous 15-year deal signed in 2016. In fact, this is one of the lowest-priced deals ever signed. Last month, Qatar Petroleum entered into another long term sale and purchase agreement (SPA) with Vitol to supply 1.25Mtpa of LNG to Bangladesh, by offering competitive prices. In terms of Qatar’s marketing and pricing strategies, the Kingdom has exceptionally low LNG supply costs, very large scale plants, ships and marketing operations. The plants are already constructed so there is no exposure to rising costs or overruns. As the world’s lowest-cost producer of LNG, Qatar may be more able to endure lower prices than many of the new supply points operating. However, the advancement of US shale, offers the chance to the United States and possibly other suppliers to compete withQatar, undermining its ability to exercise pricing power. The increase in energy demands, paired with the availability of alternative gas producers will likely allow buyers in Asia to negotiate hard over long-term energy contracts, provided by Qatar, seeking shorter, more flexible agreements.

It goes without saying that significant developments and rules’ changes are yet to take place in the LNG industry. The recently signed agreement between Qatar and Pakistan denotes the Kingdom’s sound efforts to secure its network in the region of Asia and to reclaim its grip on the No. 1 position of the LNG market. Qatar, which is highly depending on natural gas exploitation and has successfully being active since 1997, is now confronting with a series of challenges, including more competitors entering the market and the emergence of new LNG-exporting hubs. It is safe to assess that Qatar, acknowledging the presence of emerging risks to its vital interests, will take all the proper steps not only to reverse dynamics that took place lately, but also to prevent greater alternations, that would likely threaten its status quo as the major LNG supplier. The key for Qatar in the long run is to ensure it maintained market share by adapting rapidly to changing market dynamics.