In early March, Venezuela released two U.S. citizens who had been jailed for corruption and terrorism offenses. One is named Gustavo Cárdenas, who is one of a group of six imprisoned oil executives known as the “Citgo 6,” jailed in 2020. The other is Jorge Alberto Fernández, who was arrested last year in Venezuela and accused of terrorism.
Their release appears to signal shifting relations between the Biden administration and President Nicolás Maduro’s. It is seen as a gesture of goodwill by the Venezuelan government, since the U.S. citizens’ release followed shortly after the first visit by the U.S. government to Caracas in many years. Maduro gave comment to state media that the meeting in the capital lasted two hours, without specifying the topics discussed or who the U.S. delegates were. He said that talks would continue, without offering a date. Sources told Reuters that the U.S. delegation was led by Juan Gonzalez, the White House’s top adviser on Latin America, U.S. Ambassador James Story, as well as Roger Carstens, the United States’ presidential special envoy for hostage affairs. The White House said that the purpose of the trip was to discuss a number of issues, including “energy security” and the cases of nine U.S. citizens who are in prison in Venezuela. U.S. diplomats have been working to find energy supplies worldwide that can help compensate for disruption to Russian oil and gas exports caused by sanctions and war in Ukraine.
The visit represents a significant potential shift in U.S. policy toward Venezuela. The U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Caracas back in 2019. It is one of over 50 countries that backed Juan Guaidó when he declared himself President, since the U.S. considers the May 2018 presidential elections which declared Maduro as the winner to have been fraudulent. The Trump Administration imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., or PdVSA), central bank, and government in 2019 in efforts to force Maduro from power. Now, the Biden administration is allegedly willing to lift these sanctions in order to shore up alternative energy supplies for the U.S. It appears strategy toward Venezuela is changing. Officials have signalled that the Biden administration will continue to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader, but, in a recent interview with America’s Quarterly, White House advisor Gonzalez said the administration is focused on negotiations, rather than on toppling Maduro. He explained, “whereas the previous administration’s theory of change was based on regime collapse, ours is … that only a negotiation will lead to concrete and sustainable change in Venezuela toward democratic order.”
This begs the question, what does this mean for Maduro, Guaidó, for the government and people of Venezuela? Analysts suggest that this thawing of relations with the U.S. is bolstering Maduro. It seems that U.S. efforts to force him from power will lose momentum, and if sanctions are indeed lifted, leverage required to oust Maduro would be lost. Maduro’s government has already been increasing its hold on power in recent months. Though the opposition has seen some success in 2022 with a win in the gubernatorial election for Barinas state in January, this victory is seen as largely symbolic, since Maduro’s side still controls the majority of governorships in the country. The Socialist party has extended its dominance overall in local government, and also now controls Venezuela’s National Assembly. The National Assembly was the last institution in the country that had been in opposition hands. Meanwhile, according to Venezuela polling firm Datanalisis, Guaidó’s popularity has dropped from about 60% three years ago to under 15% by February this year. His movement also faces internal divisions. With the Venezuelan economy showing some signs of improvement and the opposition losing momentum, analysts suggest that Maduro has little incentive to make concessions in talks with the opposition. It appears increasingly likely that Maduro will retain power in the medium term.
In a quickly-changing international environment, China has had some intense last weeks. The winter Olympics held in Beijing were closured on 20 February, and the invasion of Ukraine started on 24 February. China now has both an opportunity and a threat for its role as a superpower. Beijing seeks three goals simultaneously: a strategic partnership with Russia, a commitment to longstanding foreign policy principles of territorial integrity and non-interference, and a desire to minimise collateral damage from EU and US sanctions. But China cannot reconcile these three conflicting goals and will either have to ditch one or the other, or uncomfortably change its position under international scrutiny. This situation has encouraged the international community to closely monitor China’s reactions to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, one of its main allies. This brief will analyse the upsides and downsides of this world crisis for China and how the country could navigate the following weeks.
China has benefited from Ukraine’s invasion in four ways: China’s new role as international mediator, US diverting its attention out of the Asia-Pacific theatre, Russia’s dependency, and for internal propaganda. Beijing maintains the balance between its camaraderie with Putin and the fear of sanctions for its economy if it supports an invasion condemned by most countries in the world. China is in a unique position: it has endorsed Russia’s “legitimate security concerns”, due to NATO’s enlargement to the east, but even the head of EU diplomacy, Josep Borrell, acknowledged that China was the best actor to act as mediator. In fact, the Chinese MFA has stated that China was “ready” to take a role in the Ukrainian crisis and act as a mediator to end the war, and that China had already interceded and “provided some advice,” Wang said, citing the conversation between Putin and Xi the day after the invasion began, in which the Chinese President expressed his desire to promote peace talks.
The conflict moreover diverts the attention of the United States and key European powers from the Indo-Pacific region. From a geopolitical perspective, this temporal distraction gives Beijing more of a free hand to deal with its concerns in the region. In addition, China’s influence over Russia has been increased thanks to the invasion: Russia is highly constrained by international sanctions and it is now more dependent than ever on Chinese economic support to lessen the impact of Western sanctions. Moreover, China could offer Russia the use of its CIPS interbank payment system to bypass the SWIFT blockade. Despite these close ties, it is key to remark that trade between Russia and China only makes up to 2% trade volume, while the EU and the US have much larger shares.
Despite these advantages for China, they don’t imply that China would necessarily be happy to support any risky military moves made my Moscow. A final advantage for Beijing is that this war has been portrayed by Chinese state media as yet another example of the West’s failings, portraying the United States and NATO as refusing to respect the sovereign right of other countries, such as China and Russia, to defend their territories. In sum, it has been used as a chance to weaken America’s soft power, tarnish the credibility and appeal of liberal institutions, and discredit the open media inside China.
However, China’s role in the world is being damaged in two ways: economic disruptions and increase in tensions with Taiwan. China’s economy will be directly affected by the war because of grain supplies and the risk to its infrastructure projects in Ukraine. Until 2014, Russia was Kiev’s main and undisputed trading partner. However, the Government decided to abandon its economic dependence on a country with which it had major diplomatic problems. Then came China, which is currently the country to which Ukraine exports the most products. The war could disrupt grain security in the country: China bought more than 8 million tons of barley product from Ukraine in 2021, more than 30% of its total imports, making it an important partner for its supply. In fact, on 6 March President Xi Jinping said that China had to rely on its domestic market for grain security considering the current disruptions. Other products that China imports from Ukraine are iron, and sunflower and corn.
Apart from this grain-supply disruption, the biggest Chinese bet in the war-affected area is not the purchase of its products, but its powerful investment in infrastructure. Xi Jinping’s idea is to create a route that connects Beijing with Madrid in a land route, China with Russia (passing through Afghanistan) and, from Moscow, with Western Europe, passing through Belarus and Poland. However, Ukraine has joined the project at the last minute with a very important role in this project. China’s idea is to strongly reinforce Ukraine’s infrastructure to serve as a parallel route and to be able to reinforce shipments. In this sense, in 2018 China spent 7,000 million dollars on projects of this type in Ukraine, in particular in various expansions and construction of ports in the Black Sea. Three years later, the Ukrainian route has become an equal or more important bet than the Polish one and both governments have intensified their commercial relations. In 2021, the Zelensky government signed an infrastructure agreement by which both executives would actively collaborate on various projects throughout the country. At the signing of this agreement, the Ukrainian President promised that Kiev would be “the bridge to Europe”. For his part, Xi Jinping himself stated that China “supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine”, a statement that the Chinese foreign minister repeated exactly right when the Russian invasion began. The war and the destruction of infrastructures would be a risk for China’s intercontinental project and would mean the loss or the postponement of this lucrative project. Apart from the direct impact on the grain supply and Chinese infrastructure projects, China would also be indirectly affected by the war in the economic sense. An escalation of conflict, whether it is in Ukraine, in North Korea or anywhere else would affect China’s plans for economic growth. China’s economy, already harmed by the government’s zero-tolerance covid policy, could be affected by the war to a certain extent. In 2022 President Xi Jinping will seek a third leadership term, so he has to make sure that his management of the economy is good enough to have legitimacy and be re-elected. A final disadvantage of this war for China are the constant parallelisms with Taiwan made by media and analysts. The war unleashed by Russia has raised concerns in Taiwan, where there have been public displays of support for Ukraine such as “Ukraine Now, Later Taiwan”. Even if a hypothetical long-term military operation is not ruled out, an assault in the near future seems unfeasible. Moreover, a conflict in the Taiwan Strait would have a greater effect on the world’s economy than that of Ukraine, given the great manufacturing and logistics importance of the area, including Taiwan’s great power in semiconductors, keys to the production of automobiles, and computer and electronic equipment. Moreover, China is more exposed internationally than Russia and the reaction of antagonism and nervousness among its neighbours would be stronger. Despite this, Beijing has been building a financial and commercial world parallel to the one led by the United States, which would cushion Western sanctions and make their exports more irreplaceable for the world than those of the Russians. China will adjust and re-adjust its approach towards Russia in the following weeks. For now, Beijing is willing to play “a constructive role” in promoting an agreement to end the war in Ukraine while ensuring that its economy is affected as little as possible.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent shockwaves through Europe and the rest of the world, no more so than in the Balkans, where a slight action can spark ethnic and political war. The region maintains close ties with the U.S. and Europe, and is aligning their judgement on the situation accordingly, condemning Russia, and supporting Ukraine. However, Russia’s influence stretches far and its ally, Serbia, is not participating in sanctions even after condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions.
Serbia is the largest country in the Balkans and holds significant power over the region. That power is now being tested as Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić balances Serbia’s loyalties to Russia with Serbia’s ambition to join the European Union. When Kosovo announced its independence from Serbia in 2008, Putin stood by Serbia in denouncing Kosovo and not recognising the country as a sovereign state. Serbia has also been buying military equipment from Russia including tanks, helicopters, and missiles to counter the arms being sold to Croatia by the U.S., making Serbia a well-equipped Russian ally. What Serbia does with those weapons will decide the fate of the region.
Bosnia and Herzegovina are also at a crucial juncture, the tripartite government is close to falling apart, with pro-Serbian and pro-Russian Republika Srpska president Milorad Dodik sowing the seeds for a fallout of the likes of 1991. The Bosnian Croat arm of the tripartite government has too joined in, albeit on a much less war provoking level, demanding greater representation in national institutions by changing an election law, or they will start the process of forming their own region in Bosnia. If Bosnia breaks apart again it will leave the Muslim Bosnians at the mercy of Croat Bosnians and their ally Croatia, and Serb Bosnians and their ally Serbia. With that much ethnic tension, and Croatia and Serbia being armed by the most powerful nations in the world, we could see a return to the Bosnian war but with much scarier consequences for Europe.
Russia has also provoked Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia by claiming that these countries have been sending mercenaries, sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause, to fight against the separatist rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk region before the conflict broke out and then also to Ukraine during the invasion. These countries denied the accusations, but Putin could spin this in such a way as claiming aggression against Russians in Ukraine. If Putin finds any evidence of foreign troops helping Ukraine against Russia, especially those in the Balkans, it could have massive consequences for the region economically.
Every one of the countries in this region remembers what it was like to have war in Europe, the destruction of their families and homes. Anti-Russian sentiment is at an all-time high everywhere, but the Balkans remains as polarised as ever. Although there is a much greater proportion of people supporting Ukraine, and all but Serbia have implemented sanctions against Russia, there are still those who think the NATO expansion towards Russia is a violation and protests have also been seen that promote Putin and Russia.
These sanctions against Russia will put the Balkan nations in a very difficult situation because of Eastern Europe’s reliance on Russian gas, oil, and food exports. Prices were already high in the Balkans but now it is nearly impossible for people, with some of the lowest average wages in Europe, to afford their necessities. Although currently people are sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause, it will not be long for people to start reeling about their own situations. In these cases, blame will become commonplace, and many will compare their lives with Russian oil and gas against their lives without. Blame will be pointed towards the western countries and then will turn to political struggles and with ethnic tensions already high, it will not be long before the potential for a further escalation in the region to return.
There are already factors in place that could transpire to start another war, like the one we saw in 1991. Serbia is stuck between siding with Russia and its own desires in Europe and it will not be long before Serbia’s loyalties are tested. Bosnia is already struggling to keep itself together, with the invasion of Ukraine and pro/anti-Russia sentiment spreading, it will not be long before the politicians reveal which side they are on and how they will help their own ethnic group. Time will tell how hard the sanctions will affect the Balkans, but as prices of essential supplies skyrocket, so will tensions in one of the most tumultuous regions in Europe, one with a storied history of violence and one that the rest of the world must look to stabilise before it’s too late.
Since 2012, Somalia has been recovering slowly from nearly 23 years of civil war. Within the government system, is the current electoral college which is designed to facilitate a peaceful transfer of power between outgoing and incoming governments. In recent months the President of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo and Prime Minister Mohamed Hussain Roble have been at the centre of a constitutional battle which has had wide reaching repercussions for national security.
With both figures commanding support from their own (regionally and ethnically loyal) elements of the Somali national security services, military and police, the disagreement between the two has unnecessarily drained resource and time away from the battle against Al-Shabaab and its affiliates. With neighbouring nations such as Kenya typically offering military and strategic support to Somalia, owing to its shared border and continual risk of attack from Al-Shabaab, the political impasse has seen a general rise in Al-Shabaab opportunism both domestically and in Kenya.
The Current situation
Despite a deepening political crisis in Somalia, in which the divide between the President and Prime had been worsening, the two leaders have announced that the previously postponed elections will now take place in February. In a move that will be seen internationally as a positive step to healing the divide, domestically it will likely allow for Somali defence forces and police to return their attention to fighting Al-Shabaab within their borders.
Al-Shabaab, continues to operate in the background of any political process. The group, which has been attempting to topple the country’s federal government for over a decade provides a continual destabilising affect through terrorism, intimidation and their ongoing propaganda efforts. While the group is known for disrupting the country’s election process, the current political uncertainty and a distracted government have amplified the impact and frequency of their attacks.
Future Prospects and Projections
It is in our best judgement that owing to the IMF threatening to cancel a four hundred million dollar package which pays for Somali military wages, there will be no more delays to elections. A cut of this size would be a disaster for Mohamed, Roble and Somali’s regional leaders, which threaten their control of the military. Owing to this, Somalia is likely on the road to holding the long-awaited elections this month, provided that a way through the current impasse can be reached. Further pressure from third party states will likely be applied to those who persist with actions that undermine Somalia’s stability and the prospects of getting to a quick election. Any failed attempt to control the forces and drivers acting against this, will likely prevent the successful journey to a democratic vote.
With the exception of Al-Shabaab and its affiliates, it is primarily in the Somali public’s highest interest at this time to see democratic elections take place. The population has dealt with severe drought and through the course of the COVID-19 pandemic has been increasingly marginalised.
Regardless of the outcome of any elections this month, we judge it highly likely that continued violent fighting between Mohamed, Roble and their affiliated groups will continue. The likeliness of this will increase if Mohamed loses these elections. Voting delays and subsequent infighting will likely continue into future elections unless Somalia’s electoral system undergoes significant reform.
Prime Minister of Peru Héctor Valer Pinto resigned on 5 February, after it emerged that police complaints had been lodged against him in 2016 for domestic violence. He denies having assaulted his wife and child. With Valer’s resignation, President Pedro Castillo’s administration has now seen the departure of three prime ministers within six months.
It is just the latest issue facing Castillo since he won the presidency in July 2021, symptomatic of wider problems. So far in his tenure, Castillo’s administration appears to be paralysed. He does not say or do much, and has not attempted to implement any significant policy changes. Castillo is an inexperienced politician, an almost completely unknown former teacher before his surprise election last summer. Castillo has been plagued by various accusations of corruption that he claims are part of a right-wing plot against him. There was an attempt by Congress to impeach Castillo in December, which he survived since votes fell short of the number required. He faces problems both with the right who are trying to impeach him, and with the left who are dissatisfied with his cabinet appointments. In spite of appearances that the odds are stacked against Castillo remaining president much longer, according to the Financial Times, analysts predict the most likely short-term outcome is stalemate. The opposition in Congress still likely lacks the necessary votes for impeachment.
The uncertainty around the government’s future appears unlikely to have a large effect on Peru’s economy. The Peruvian sol fluctuated in response to Castillo’s cabinet reshuffles the past few months, but not significantly. Precedent shows that Peru’s economy has remained stable even in periods of political crises. Since 2017, there have been repeated impeachment motions filed against successive presidents. In 2020, the country had three presidents in five days. Yet throughout, Peru’s economy has remained relatively stable. This economic stability masks the social problems around unequal wealth distribution, that Castillo was elected for promising to change. As indicators of this, in 2020, informal employment in Peru was around 68%. Just under 48% of the population faced moderate or severe food insecurity (13% higher than Argentina, 23% higher than Brazil). Certain regions are disproportionately affected, with child malnutrition peaking at 33.4% in remote rural areas in the Sierra and Amazon regions where indigenous populations reside.
One such social problem Castillo had pledged to address is the conflict around mining projects, and the inequality around who these bring greatest economic benefit to. The government does not appear to be well equipped to handle this issue. Mining protests have increased since Castillo came to office, according to the non-profit Observatory of Mining Conflicts. Reuters claim that Castillo’s election has emboldened Andean communities in Chumbivilcas province, since he had promised to distribute profits from the mining sector more fairly. Communities in the area have blocked access roads to Las Bambas mine in protests on multiple occasions, and mine operator MMG said it would have to halt production again by 20 February if an agreement is not reached. Copper output has dipped at Las Bambas, which is responsible for 2% of the world’s copper. Other mines in Peru such as Constancia, Antapaccay and Antamina have also seen protests. If these conflicts are not resolved, there is a risk of higher prices or shortages of these resources.