MS Risk Blog

COVID 19 – Highlighting Weak Land Borders in Vietnam and Thailand

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At the time of writing both Thailand and Vietnam have kept COVID 19 under control relative to other countries in the region, however two high-profile outbreaks may be challenging their recent success. Both incidents stem from low-paid migrant workers bypassing local quarantine laws. As the Lunar New year approaches these incidents are likely to be exasperated by large numbers of migrant workers attempting to return home to visit their families.

Vietnam’s COVID success is closely linked to the closing of its borders in March of 2020. Apart from “rescue flights” returning overseas Vietnamese nationals, and limited flights for foreign diplomats and expert workers, the country has strictly controlled who is allowed to arrive in Vietnam. All people entering are subject to strict quarantine rules in either government-controlled facilities or selected hotels. However, as the pandemic continues, and flights are restricted, more and more people are crossing the land borders illegally. Many are low-paid migrant workers either unwilling, or unable, to spend two-weeks in quarantine.

Recent cases have included groups smuggled over the northern border with China and a Vietnamese worker from Myanmar who travelled undetected through Thailand. These cases highlight the porous nature of Vietnam’s land borders and the risk that returning migrant workers pose. Both of the above-mentioned cases have led to COVID infections in the community, and, because of the method of entry, many have been reluctant to seek medical help when they first notice signs of illness (one person was reported to the police by his own mother once he began showing COVID symptoms). On January 1st the Vietnamese government reported there had been 343 illegal entrances attempted in just 3 days from Cambodia and China.

Thailand, in comparison to Vietnam, has been relatively relaxed, allowing tourists and workers to enter the country at various stages in the last year. But a recent outbreak may change that. The outbreak has been traced to a fish market in Samut Sakhon. The market is often used by migrant workers and has been linked to over 1,500 cases at the time of writing. With the cases traced back to three Burmese workers. This has led to an outpouring of anti-migrant sentiment in Thailand, with many workers from Myanmar and Laos facing discrimination.

Lunar New Year begins in the second week of February and millions of Vietnamese, Chinese, Koreans will attempt to return home. Burmese, Cambodian, Laotian and Thai New Year’s follow in April. Many of the workers traveling home will not be able to afford two-weeks away from work to quarantine so it is likely that illegal border crossing attempts will increase as people attempt to return home for the holidays.

How authorities in Southeast Asia respond to this threat is likely to determine how the countries fight against COVID 19 progresses in 2021. So far, Southeast Asia, has fared well but the next few months will pose a harsh test. Air borders are obviously much easier to police comprehensively than land borders, and countries like Vietnam and Thailand, who share long borders with less developed neighbours are likely to see both legal and illegal traffic increase in coming months.

Iran’s New Shahid Roudaki Warship: Does This Mean Conflict Is on the Horizon?

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On 19 November 2020, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) added an auxiliary warship to its Naval Fleet. The ship was named after the recently assassinated former IRGC Navy Commander, Admiral Abdollah Roudaki. The ships introduction comes at a time where Iran is experiencing tensions with a number of regional players. Improving one’s armed forces is an oftentimes clear indicator of preparing for war. Therefore, would it be right to assume conflict is on the horizon?

The ‘Shahid Roudaki’ will be used as a “marine city,” with the capacity to carry out a wide range of missions such as combat, logistics and reconnaissance, and has the capability of carrying aircraft, drones and missile launchers. The ship also carries an advanced air defence system of the Som Khardad variety, and thus it has both offensive and defensive capabilities. Last month Iran’s Rear Admiral, Hossein Khanzadi emphasised that Iran’s naval power – now strengthened by this warship – will serve maritime security in both the region and the world, and will help to defend the waters and interests of Iran.

But the ship’s launch comes in the wake of heightened tensions between Iran and the United States, which first began to arise in April 2018 when the United States stepped up its sanctions against Iran. Tensions reached peak levels when the outgoing US President Donald Trump withdrew his country from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (also known as the Iran nuclear deal). In the same year, Ayatollah Khamenei – who has the final say on all matters of state in Iran – banned direct talks with the United States, invoking previous failed talks between the two nations.

In the following year there were tensions in the Gulf of Oman, when the United States accused Iran of sabotaging four foreign ships (oil tankers and other vessels) in the Strait of Hormuz – a location in the Gulf of Oman that borders Iran). The US saw the incident as an attack on its interests, as most of the ships belonged to two of its allies in the region (Saudi Arabia and UAE). The fallout was the US deploying its warships in the Gulf – so as to stave off any further or future attacks from Iranian forces. Introducing the new ship could be its way of flexing its military might in the face of US aggression, but could also indicate Iran is preparing to go to war with the United States – sooner rather than later.

In early 2020, the United States killed former head of the IRGC, Qasem Soleimani in an airstrike ordered by the President. The Pentagon claims Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers (along with coalition troops), and the wounding of thousands of others. US officials also claimed that Soleimani was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and troops in Iraq and in the region before he was killed. Last month President Trump explored attacking Iranian nuclear facilities but ultimately decided against doing so – with top US military advisors warning him of the potential outbreak of a long-war with Iran. Iran responded to such plans by warning the US that any attacks on Iran would be met by a “crushing” response. Such incidents illustrate the potential of both countries to go to war. If it is true that Iran had been planning attacks on US targets, it is entirely possible that the IRGC Navy could be planning to use the new warship to bring to life such plans.

It is more plausible that the new warship could be used to instead carry out further attacks against US interests in the region. As past precedence shows, Iran has the potential to carry out attacks on vulnerable allies of the United States who operate in the Gulf of Oman or the Persian Gulf. The ship could though be Iran’s attempt to level the playing field – by acquiring a warship that can rival the US’s 5th Fleet in the Gulf. Meanwhile on 27 November the US Navy ordered its USS Nimitz to return to the Persian Gulf – approximately one month after it set off to participate in naval exercises with the Indian Navy. The supercarrier and its strike group were asked to return to provide defensive cover for US troops during the drawdown from Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon has said that this move has ensured the US has “sufficient capability” to respond to any threats or to deter any of the US’s enemies from acting against US troops during its drawdown in the region. The US claims such action was not triggered by the recent tensions with Iran as per the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Motivations aside, on 6 December the top US Navy official in the Middle East, Vice Adm. Sam Paparo recently remarked that the US and Iran have reached “an uneasy deterrence,” after months of attacks and sea seizures – suggesting war is not on the horizon.

Shahid Roudaki’s launch also comes at a time of great tension between Iran and Israel. Iranian state authorities have blamed Israel for much – most recently for the assassination of senior Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran at the end of November. Israel has long theorised Iran is developing a covert nuclear programme – which Israel fears would be used against it should Iran be allowed to acquire its own nuclear weapons. Israel along with other international parties believe there is evidence to suggest Fakhrizadeh was at the helm of Iran’s covert nuclear programme. Additionally, Israel has been attacking Iranian targets in Syria for a number of years, over the course of the Syrian Civil War – with the Israel Defense Forces having confirmed they launched over 200 airstrikes against Iranian targets between 2017 and 2018. Since then, Israel has been thwarting attacks within its territory, and has been pre-emptively more Iranian targets inside Syria with its air force. In light of past history, Iran believes Israel is responsible for Fakhrizadeh’s killing, and is seeking revenge for it.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei has already called for “definitive punishment” for the culprits – said to be Israel’s Mossad – and Khamenei’s top advisor has said there will be a “calculated response” to his killing. Other hardliners who blame Israel have called for rocket attacks on Israel’s north-western city of Haifa, presumably via Syria. With the warship now in play, it is quite possible that Iran will use it against Israel. The IRGC Navy has already expressed it is ready to dispatch its vessels into “international waters” – with one of its nearest international bodies of water being the Red Sea (notably Israel’s southern-most point is the Gulf of Aqaba, located at the northern tip of the Red Sea). Time will tell if Iran will veer towards the direction of Israel.

In the meantime Israel has welcomed its own corvette warship to its naval fleet on 2 December – docking in its Mediterranean Haifa Port. The ship is the first of its four German-made ‘Saar 6’ vessels from its “Project Magen”, with the other three scheduled to arrive over the course of the next two years. The Saar 6 vessels are 90-metres in length, and are equipped with missile and rocket defence systems; torpedoes; anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, and upgraded attack helicopter launching pads. This corvette along with the others will be fitted with electronic countermeasures to cope with cruise missiles, and will also contain a maritime version of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system – which will aid them in shooting down high-angle rockets coming their way. The ship will also bring 15 new missile boats to Israel’s naval fleet – which already carries out operations in the Gulf.

The IDF’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi has heralded these ships as “a significant leap forward” in ensuring Israel’s military strength – primarily at a naval level. Israel sees such ships as an effective means of securing its natural gas assets in the north – which have persistently been under fire from Iranian-backed Hezbollah operating inside in Lebanon. Israeli security officials though theorise Iran will use Hezbollah by proxy to target such sites – sites Iran would likely perceive to be ‘prestige’ targets, which Iran would risk attacking without provoking escalation of the conflict. The timing of the first ship’s arrival is certainly interesting – especially in the context of Iran’s new warship. Whilst Israel has not said whether it did so in response to Iran’s new Shahid Roudaki warship, it is likely not a coincidence that it has added the ship to its arsenal now. What can be said with the introduction of such ships under this project is that Israel is now better prepared to defend itself in any kind of war it should find itself in within the region.

Moldavia Towards EU and Russia’s Reaction

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The newly elected Moldavian President Maia Sandu’s policies, internally and externally, are expected to be challenged by Russia’s interest in the region. Notwithstanding the Russian strategic interest, an opportunity is present, and the Moldavian political landscape has the momentum to exploit it. As the Kremlin seeks reassurances that the country will not accede to re-unite with Romania and implicitly with the EU, Moscow will try to follow a patten consistent with its overall strategy towards the West – focusing on disinformation and bellicose statements. Despite Russia’s military prowess posture, President Putin is facing instability all around from the Caucasus to Belarus. As a result, President Putin might be deterred from venturing into a new armed conflict in Moldova, inadvertently opening the possibility for President Maia to implement pro-EU policies. The COVID-19 pandemic crisis might be just the opening that Moldavia needs to swerve free out of Russia’s sphere of influence. Fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, Western sanctions, and a low petrol price, Russia’s 2020 GDP growth is projected to contract by 7 percent, an eleven-year low, with a moderate recovery in 2021-2022. Factoring in also the Nagorno-Karabakh peace deal, where Russia must commit new forces, and with a tensed eye on how the Belarus social unrest is developing, the emergence of a new Moldavian conflict is something that Russia will do everything in its power to avoid. The avoidance policy that Russia will embrace will inadvertently create a space for a compromise.

President Maia Sandu’s latest public statement that Russia should withdraw its peacekeeping force from the self-proclaimed Transnistria republic caught Moscow by surprise. The wake-up call ring, from Moldavia’s pro EU leaderships, betrays the Kremlin’s policymakers lack of interest in the matter. Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin Press Secretary, stated that an abrupt departure of the Russian troops will create the conditions for ethnic violence and argued that dialogue must be resumed, and no sudden movements of personnel were advisable. His remark was not as intransigent as Moldavia expected shaping therefore a positive communication channel. Furthermore it can also be translated in a possibility of a phased orderly departure of the military contingent.

Russian-speakers of Transnistria nominally seceded from Moldova in 1990, one year before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, fearing the country might shortly merge with Romania, whose language and culture it broadly shares. The separatist region fought a brief war with Moldova in 1992 and declared itself an independent state, though it remains unrecognised by any country, including Russia. Some pro-Kremlin hawks still fear that Romania may one day try to absorb Moldova, and that President Sandu’s win will inevitably see Russian influence weaken. Moscow keeps about 1,500 troops in the so-called Operative Group of Russian Troops (OGTR) whose mission is to guard the biggest ammunition depot in Southeast Europe, containing about 20,000 tonnes or ammunition left there since the Soviet times. The military presence of Russia in the region has supported the existence of the secessionist regime in the Transnistria region for more than 28 years. In 1999, Russia agreed to withdraw its troops from the region, but it never did. Besides OGTR soldiers, Russia keeps another 500 peacemakers in Transnistria in a trilateral peacekeeping mission with Moldovan and Transnistrian soldiers and refuses to allow this mission to be replaced by a civilian one acting under an international mandate. Moscow and Chisinau have been conducting a dialogue on this with varying success for all 25 years that have passed since the end of the war on the Transnistria. There are several problem points in this negotiation process. It resumes only when political forces friendly to Moscow are in power in Moldova. This was the case in the early 2000s – the Party of Communists headed by Vladimir Voronin was in power, and in four years almost 50% of weapons, equipment and ammunition were removed or destroyed. Negotiations took place in recent years when the socialist Igor Dodon was president in Chisinau. However, when politicians who are pro-European come to power in Chisinau, or when such parties receive a majority in parliament, they traditionally raise the issue of withdrawing Russian peacekeepers from the region, believing that they pose a threat to the security of Moldova, resulting in the Russian negotiation team moving into a frozen state.

This trend, we assess with certitude, to continue, as it favours the Kremlin local strategy of delaying and maintaining a frozen conflict ready to be ignited on its own terms. Moscow propaganda spins around the ideology that it will never abandon its Russian speaking population in the face of Western expansion, which presumably threatens its traditional orthodox way of life. The military contingent underscores this very ideology. The Russian state leverages through this small military force its capability and commitment for its Russian speaking population who was left outside its borders after the fall of the USSR.

All things considered we analyse that the next three judgments will shape the future. First, that Russia does not care about Transnistria per se; its support for the separatist republic has been no more than one of many tools by which to achieve its overall objective of maintaining influence in Moldova. Second, that Russian policy has been primarily reactive, responding to events rather than proactively driving them. And third, that despite its apparent position as the dominant regional power, Russia has had a limited ability to influence events on the ground in both Moldova and Transnistria. This is no longer the year 2014, and Transnistria is not Ukraine or Crimea, neither by its geographical position nor by its strategic and political importance. Russia is surrounded by unstable countries and political crises; the last thing President Putin needs is further problems with the international community. His cautious and prudent approach to the Belarus crisis is proof of this.

Saudi Arabia in Yemen

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During the month of November, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Houthi rebels have been constantly escalating and the number of assaults remains high. A series of incidents such as the detection and dismantling of five Iranian-type mines on November 24, the strike on a Greek-operated tanker on November 25 and the killing of 8 Saudi soldiers on November 30 have further degraded the relations between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Recently, on November 23, a fire broke out in the Red Sea port of Jeddah, after a rocket attack on a Saudi oil storage facility, of which Houthi rebels claimed responsibility. Brigadier General Yahya Sarea, military spokesman for the Iran-allied fighters, posted on Twitter that the assault came as retaliation for the continuous and aggressive intervention of Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s civil war. Firefighting teams rallied to the place and extinguished the fire with no significant damages and no casualties. In response, Saudi Arabia mounted air raids, targeting the camps of Houthi rebels in Yemen on November, 27. Drone attacks on Saudi oil fields on August 16 and September 14 proved that modus operandi hasn’t changed significantly, however the violence has increased. The crisis has only deteriorated and is not expected to ease any time soon.

Yemen has been locked in a civil war since late 2014. The impoverished Arab country experienced the Revolution of Dignity in 2011, which forced the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign and hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. When the transition government failed to deal with instability, caused, inter alia, by corruption, unemployment, opposing groups and jihadist attacks, the northern Yemeni-based Houthi movement took over the capital Sanaa in 2014. Over 7,700 Yemenis were killed during 2014 due to armed clashes, according to a study published by a Yemeni NGO. President Hadi eventually fled to Saudi Arabia and called for international intervention. Saudi Arabia stepped up and established a coalition in 2015, made of Arab states, including UAE and Kuwait, aiming to restore Hadi’s government and confine Iran’s influence in the region. The coalition mounted Operation Decisive Storm on March 26 of that year, attacking Houthi targets in Yemen and since then, Yemen has suffered a devastating humanitarian crisis, its infrastructures have been damaged, while more than 130,000 Yemenis have been killed.

It is important to evaluate the nature of Saudi intervention with caution. Houthi rebels are aligned with and supported by Iran, a Shia state, on the basis of the common enemy of Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-state, which supports pro-government forces. Saudis construed the Houthi’s power takeover as an Iranian-controlled puppet regime and therefore, an immediate threat to the Kingdom’s border. Therefore, a seemingly civil war has turned out to be more of a proxy war, within the framework of the longlasting dispute between Shia and Sunni for regional superiority. But things are even more convoluted. In summer 2019, forces aligned with the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), claiming an independent south, seized the city of Aden, base of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s government. This is the case of a civil war within a civil war, where Saudi Arabia and UAE while being allies against Houthi, they were also rivals in the dispute between STC and the internationally recognised Republic of Yemen government (ROYG). Although the two parties signed the power-sharing Riyadh agreement in November 2019, tensions and the clashing of interests keep going, signifying the complexity of this particular conflict in the Arab state.

The Yemen civil war and the Saudi regional intervention has been harshly criticized by the international community. The European Union condemned the Saudi-led military intervention. It adopted a controversial resolution in Strasbourg in July 2015, through which the EU acknowledges the Hadi government as the legitimate one and denounces Houthi’s aggressiveness against civilians, while it condemns the Saudi Arabian-led coalition for air raids in Yemen, violating the international humanitarian law and resulting in thousands of deaths. The EU stressed that military operations would only worsen the on-going crisis, with further unfavorable consequences for the region. The oxymoron is the fact that while the EU condemns both parties, according to the latest report on French arms exports, munitions sales to Saudi Arabia have been registered throughout 2019, accounting for €1.4 billion. Currently, in light of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the escalated tensions in Yemen, United Nations also criticized Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing, targeting Houthi targets, but causing many civilian deaths. UN condemns these acts as being against international law. On the other hand, Unites States, although a major pillar of UN, provides Saudi Arabia with sensitive intelligence data, which would enable the decision makers to form a more concise picture of the battlefield and the state of play with the Houthi forces. On the contrary, Russia has not been currently involved in the dispute, and in fact, maintains good relations with both sides.

For the time being, significant developments are yet to occur. The incident of 23rd of November simply constitutes another act of hostility that indicates a state of fragmentation in the region of Yemen, which will almost certainly continue to suffer from turmoil during the next months. In fact, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made clear the U.S. is strengthening its ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in view of the two countries longstanding alliance. Should Pompeo stick to his words, and given the resistance Houthi project to any assaults waged by Saudi-Arabia coalition, it is highly unlikely that military disputes in Yemen will halt any time soon. Saudi Arabia will continue to receive munitions supplementation, in order to counter assaults led by Iran-backed Houthi movement. Even during the month of November a series of mutual airstrikes and mining in Saudi and Yemeni soil were reported. The Houthis have suffered several notable casualties, but no shift in their strategic plans is expected. Admittedly, Houthi movement constitutes a very cheap opportunity for Iran to combat its biggest rival in the region, Saudi Arabia. While this is true, Houthis and Iran do not share the same ideology and beliefs, but they rather chase the accomplishment of their individual goals through coordinative practices. That being said, even if Iran withdraws from Yemeni civil war, it is likely that Houthi rebels will continue to fight for their own objectives, which is international recognition, along with the establishment of stability and transparency in the country.

Peru Faces a New Era of Protests

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November has been a tumultuous month for Peru. It is not new knowledge that Peru has been rocked with protests due to a political crisis that has shaped the stability of the country for a long time. However, 2020 has been a particular exception due to the current global pandemic, the economic downturn and due to the removal of President Martin Vizcarra on 9 November. President Martin Vizcarra was elected as president in 2018 by the local majority in order to combat corruption within the country. With the decline of the Peruvian economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic, President Vizcarra faced a lot of political pressure from Manuel Merino’s congress. This increased when Vizcarra proposed a referendum to remove parliamentary immunity, which infuriated, even more, the congress proposing to remove immunity from the president. Vizcarra was ultimately removed from power with the alleged acts of corruption and impeached by the congress majority. Following this event, crowds started protesting causing a national coup on 9 November. Protests started spreading across different cities of Peru to show the outrage of the president’s ousting and to reject the inauguration of president Manuel Merino, who had formed a far-right government upon taking office.

These ongoing protests are the largest demonstrations over the past twenty years and have been organised by grassroots groups of you people in Peru helped with the spreading phenomenon of social media. However, protests degenerated and resulted in hundreds of wounded, two killed by authorities and several reported missing. Protesters have marched against Merino’s government to demand his resignation, which only happened after the reports of the two deaths. This also pushed the resignation of multiple government officials. Merino’s government lasted for less than five days and it has been followed by the inauguration on 17 November of the new president Francisco Sagasti. President Sagasti has been elected to cover the presidential role for the next five months before the presidential elections in April 2021. Although Peruvians remain alert and vigilant of the new President’s actions, Sagasti is reaching out to the people in order to placate the ongoing protests by giving public speeches and establishing conciliatory gestures.

Unfortunately, public protests could go on for a longer time, which is concerning due to protest violence and due to the fast-spreading COVID-19 virus. Although protective measures are being taken as people continue to march down the streets, this is undoubtedly risking the current Presidency and government stability. Peruvians have been tired of their political system as they have long been disillusioned with widespread corruption and undemocratic measures taken by their own representatives.

The November 2020 protests in Peru have demonstrated the people’s ability to organise large-scale and persistent mobilisations across the country. Peruvians have raised without centralised leadership. Conversely, they have exploited social media to show their political engagement. The police repression has not been a hindrance but has rather motivated them with a new sort of requirement for police reform and supervision and a new Constitution. These demands are now entering the political debate leading up to the April 2021 presidential election.

The protests also encouraged several initiatives to investigate politicians’ corruption claims and deliver meticulous information on candidates before the election. Now, the decision is up to politicians to stop undervaluing the electorate and meet the citizens’ demands for a better representation.