MS Risk Blog

The U.S. drone collision with Russian fighter jets over the Black Sea has led to an increase in tensions between the two powers and America’s response has opened an opportunity for Russia to become more emboldened

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The collision between the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone and the two Russian Su-27 fighter jets on 14 March over the Black Sea has led to a significant increase in tension between the two countries. This is the first time the countries have directly come into contact since the Ukraine war began in February 2022. Neither country has decided to take action against the other for the incident, however Russia completely blames the U.S. for the incident claiming that the drone was within Russian temporary airspace. The Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu has since released a statement that Russia will be considerably more hostile towards such actions in the future. It can be inferred from the statement that Russia’s retaliation should an incident like this happen again will be severe. In response to the collision and Russia’s statement the U.S. have opted to fly other surveillance drones farther south over the Black Sea to avoid further souring of relations and avoid an incident that could lead to direct conflict between the two nations. This response has been met with criticism and concerns that Russia may become emboldened in the future as a result. Russia is finding ways to avoid the current sanctions imposed on them by the U.S. The Russia’s response to the collision as well as the ineffectiveness of U.S. sanction may pressure them in the future into taking direct action.

U.S.-Russia tensions have persisted since the Cold War over the second half of the twentieth century. The Ukraine War is only the latest of a disagreement between the two nations. However, whilst the U.S. has provided support to Ukraine in terms of training of personnel and financial aid, they have not moved to further engage in the conflict. Following the end of the Cold War the U.S. were open to the possibility of co-operation with Russia. The last time the two leaders of the nation’s having met been in 2021 at Villa La Grange in Geneva. However, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the U.S. have revoked their views of potential co-operation with the superpower and are now focused on displacing the nation as one of the great world powers.

The collision is the first time the two parties have directly encountered each other since the Ukraine war began two years ago. The U.S. Department of Defence says the Su-27s acted recklessly and continually dumped fuel on the drone whereas the Kremlin has continually denied involvement in the incident. The debate between the two nations stems primarily on whether the drone was acting within international airspace or otherwise. Russia claims the drone was operating in airspace that was too close to Crimea to be considered ‘international’. Russia cited threats of U.S. intelligence gathering using the spy drone to be used to help the Ukrainian military in the war. There has been no compromise in agreement over the events so far.

On 16 March, two days after the collision, the Pentagon released a video showing the events of the collision. In the video it is shown that a Su-7 makes two passes in front of the drone, spraying fuel in front of it. This is a harassment tactic the US experts say they have not seen before. Upon the second pass the image becomes pixelated, indicating a collision and upon camera recovery a bent propeller wing can be seen, damage serious enough for the US Air Force to force the drone down. The video cannot confirm the pilots intent however the video does appear to confirm that the collision was not an accident, giving credibility to the U.S. accusations of Russia. Since the videos release Russia continues to deny involvement in the incident whilst also placing blame on the U.S. Following the release of the video, Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu went on to present the two Su-27 pilots awards for preventing the drone from violating temporary Russia airspace on 17 March. Despite attempts to prevent relations between the two nations declining from the U.S. defence minister Lloyd Austin via talking to Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, they appear to have failed. The statement he received from Shoigu said that Russia “will in future react in due proportion.” This statement highly suggests that Russia has become considerably more hostile and wary of U.S. intentions than they once were.

U.S. response appears to exercise due caution in their future actions. Since the collision, U.S. officials have decided to move the drones further South to avoid another incident such as this and further conflict. This will limit U.S. intelligence gathering from the drones. U.S. response has not been met with much praise. Despite video evidence displaying Russia as the aggressors, the U.S. have appeared to quell in response to the statement issued by Shoigu to Austin. This response will likely encourage Russia to become emboldened in the future. Washington continues to insist it wishes to avoid direct conflict with Russia. Therefore, it appears they will continue to operate using their current policy of placing sanctions and export control over Russia. Russia has already been subject to heavy sanctions and export controls from the U.S. government over the past two years. They have grown closer to other countries sanctioned by the U.S., such as China and Iran, to avoid the effects of sanctions. Shortly after the collision, President Xi Jinping visiting Russia on 20 March and praising Putin’s “strong leadership” in the Ukraine war. This visit was planned before the drone collision so is not a response to the collision itself. China has also recently helped repair diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia. There is the possibility therefore that the nations could be forming an unofficial economic alliance. Should they succeed in forming this economic block, the U.S. will be unable to effectively impose sanctions on Russia. Therefore, they may have to push for direct involvement in the Ukraine war to prevent its extended continuation or Russian victory.

El Salvador: a mega-prison for a prolonged state of emergency

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The state of emergency decreed on 27 March 2022 by President Nayib Bukele was once again renewed without difficulty by the authorities on 16 March, and while the 40,000-seat mega-prison, opened to cope with the constant influx of suspects, received its first prisoners on 24 February, raising concerns on the part of observers and NGOs as to the regime’s respect for human rights, and this in spite of convincing results in the fight against crime and gangs in the country. It is highly likely that the state of emergency will be renewed again in the near future, as the opposition to this radical measure seems to be inaudible.

On 26 March 2022, the country experienced an impressive wave of violence, police recording 62 homicides on that day alone. The murders, attributed to the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, one of the most dangerous gangs in El Salvador along with its rival Barrio-18, prompted President Bukele’s government to take a radical and equally dramatic step the next day: declare a state of emergency. Renewable if necessary, it allows the arrest and detention of suspects without warrants. According to the Salvadoran Constitution, a state of emergency can be declared “in case of war, invasion of the territory, rebellion, sedition, catastrophe, epidemic or other general calamity, or serious disturbance of public order”. This measure has since led to the arrest of nearly 66 000 suspects, when the number of MS-13 and Barrio 18 members is estimated by the government to be between 76 000 or 118 000 by some experts. Only 5% of inmates detained under the state of emergency have been released. As the Minister of Justice and Security, Héctor Gustavo Villatoro, announced on 15 February, the state of emergency to combat gangs will continue until all criminals are arrested, which suggests that this supposedly exceptional measure will last.

To cope with the influx of inmates, and while El Salvador’s prisons are already stretched beyond their capacity, the authorities opened on 31 January a 40 000-capacity Terrorism Confinement Center (TCC), better known in the media as a mega-prison, guarded by nearly 600 soldiers and 250 police. Less than a month later, on 24 February, the prison received its first 2 000 inmates. The TCC was quickly denounced by human rights NGOs and by some South American government leaders, including Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who did not hesitate to compare it to a concentration camp. A large majority of the 66 000 suspects arrested, 57 000 are still awaiting trial by the judicial authorities, which makes NGOs fear that cases will not be properly handled by Justice. In addition to arbitrary arrests, deaths in custody, extreme overcrowding in prisons, abuse and torture are reported, according to some testimonies. The UN reported at least 90 deaths since the measure came into force a year ago, and are concerned about the authorities’ lack of transparency in investigations. Beyond these exceptional measures, the government does not seem to be looking for long-term solutions other than lifting the rights of the suspected and arbitrary arrests. No plan to reduce social inequalities or fight corruption has been proposed. Worse, the government is cracking down on the press, while some media such as El Faro and Revista Factum, which have taken a stand against corruption, were targeted by the government on 15 February, accusing them of false reporting or money laundering. Others claim that the authorities use Pegasus spyware to monitor opponents and journalists, or paid trolls to attack reputations, although both have yet to be proven. These events could suggest that the regime is sinking into authoritarianism.

Nevertheless, the state of emergency is proving popular with the population, which is 95% in favor of it according to a poll in March, and effective since on 10 March the police recorded the 319th day without murders. While the homicide rate per 100 000 inhabitants in 2021 was 18.1%, or 1 147 murders over the year, one of the highest in the world outside war zone, in 2022 it was 7.8% for 495 murders over the year, and it is estimated at 2.6% in 2023, with 40 homicides between January and March. These results seem to give a free hand to President Bukele’s regime, which does not foresee an end to the state of emergency in the coming months.

Democratic backsliding and economic crisis in Tunisia: a new flashpoint in North Africa?

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Tunisia is in the midst of an escalating political and economic crisis. President Kais Saied has continued unraveling what was previously described as the Arab Spring’s only democratic success, while internal and global issues are significantly destabilizing the Tunisian economy. In response to mounting domestic unrest and international criticism, Saied has so far responded with more intransigence and repression, pointing towards increasing turmoil in the North African country, while outside actors seem unwilling to intervene.

The Arab Spring protests that toppled former authoritarian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 failed to resolve fundamental political and economic issues that have long plagued Tunisia. In July 2021, taking advantage of widespread discontent, Saied suspended the parliament and replaced the government, proceeding to rule by decree. A new constitution pushed by the president was approved by referendum in July 2022, shifting Tunisia’s government system from parliamentary to presidential, and concentrating executive, legislative, and judicial powers in Saied’s hands. Although the constitution was approved by 94,6% of the vote, only 30,5% of eligible voters participated. The increasing apathy of ordinary Tunisians was confirmed by the two-round election for a significantly weakened parliament, both rounds of which saw a mere 11% voter turnout in December 2022 and January 2023.

The main cause of this sentiment is likely the fact that Saied’s promises to “purge” Tunisia of corruption and improve the living standards of the population have so far proved a disappointment for most Tunisians, relatively few of whom protested his 2021-2022 constitutional “coup”. The country’s economy has been steadily deteriorating, due to a combination of the lack of reforms, corruption, a bloated public sector, high debt, and the impact of the Ukraine war: inflation has reached 11%, youth unemployment stands at 34,5%, and citizens are facing significant shortages of essential goods. As discontent with his policies increased, Saied moved against his domestic opponents. Starting between 11 and 15 February and continuing through March, authorities launched a wave of arrests of Saied’s critics, having arrested more than 20 influential individuals so far. Those arrested include leaders of opposition parties and movements, journalists, trade unionists, businesspeople, and lawyers. The Tunisian president accused those arrested of being “terrorists” and “traitors” who had been “conspiring against the state”. He also blamed his opponents for causing rising prices and shortages.

Furthermore, in another apparent bid to distract the population from economic issues and democratic backsliding, Saied resorted to racist attacks against minorities. In a speech on 21 February, he asserted that migration from sub-Saharan Africa was a conspiracy aimed at shifting Tunisia’s demographics in order to make it “a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations”. He also ordered security forces to halt illegal immigration and deport illegal migrants. In the days following Saied’s speech, local journalists and international media reported large numbers of racially-motivated abuse and attacks, including by police officers, against African migrants and Black Tunisians, who constitute between 10% to 15% of the country’s population. In response to the increased racial violence, the embassies of African countries such as Ivory Coast, Mali, and Gabon rushed to repatriate hundreds of their nationals from Tunisia.

Saied’s policies, combined with the country’s economic crisis, have triggered reactions both within and outside Tunisia. Opposition movements and activists boycotted parliamentary elections and staged protests against the president. The million-strong Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the country’s largest trade union and an influential factor in Tunisian politics, has also adopted an increasingly confrontational stance towards Saied. The UGTT had largely acquiesced to Saied’s power grab in 2021. But as authorities intensified their crackdown against the president’s critics and mulled over the implementation of unpopular economic reforms in order to secure a $1,9 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund, as part of an October 2022 preliminary agreement, the union turned against the president. After a UGTT official was arrested in February for organizing strikes, the organization accused Saied of declaring “war” against it. UGTT organized a large protest against the president in Tunis on 4 March, vowing that it will not accept the “suppression of freedoms” in Tunisia.

International reactions also ensued. US officials said that they were “deeply concerned” about the wave of arrests in Tunisia. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that Washington was “alarmed” by an “escalating pattern” of repression in Tunisia, while Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf also accused Saied of weakening “foundational principles of checks and balances”, expressing the US’ “enormous concerns” about the country’s trajectory. The EU also stated that it is monitoring developments in Tunisia with “great concern”. The African Union expressed its “shock” over Saied’s remarks about migrants, calling them “racialized hate speech” and postponing a Tunis conference scheduled for March.

So far, the Tunisian president has refused to back down, continuing to attack his domestic opponents and labeling them “enemies of democracy”. Responding to international criticism, he also rejected “interference” in Tunisia’s domestic affairs, comparing it to colonization. Protests against the president do not yet seem to have escalated to a point that they will seriously threaten Saied’s position, and opposition movements remain fractious and divided, without having defined a coherent common agenda. Furthermore, the Tunisian military, whose decision not to intervene in support of Ben Ali sealed his ouster in 2011, has so far remained loyal to Saied. As for international reactions, despite verbal criticism, the EU and the US have refrained from imposing serious costs on Saied, fearing that Tunisia’s destabilization will intensify the terrorist threat in North Africa and trigger a large migrant influx toward Europe. Still, the economic and cost-of-living crisis shows no sign of abating, as citizens face increasing hardship and the global economy remains in turmoil. Fearing further backlash, Saied seems unwilling to implement potentially painful reforms necessary to get access to IMF funds, and talks over the $1,9 billion package are stalled. Deprived of other options, the Tunisian government has opted for increased interest rates and higher taxes, which intensify the difficulties facing Tunisians. Combined with the government’s refusal to make any concessions and Saied’s insistence on his one-man rule, it is likely that his popularity will continue fading and popular discontent will keep increasing. Further domestic unrest and destabilization are likely in Tunisia in the following months under current circumstances.

In conclusion, Saied seems determined to continue his policy of consolidating power and extinguishing what remained of Tunisia’s post-2011 democracy. But his authoritarianism is triggering reactions from increasing parts of the population, while the president has limited options for improving the country’s deteriorating economy. With both sides in Tunisia apparently set on a course of confrontation, and Tunis’ main partners unwilling to intervene so far, intensified unrest seems the most likely short-term course, although it is probably too early to tell if a second Arab Spring-type revolution is in the offing.

Brazil: A weakened but resilient democracy

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Democracy in Brazil does not seem to be in danger despite the upheavals of 8 January and it is highly unlikely that a coup d’état supported by the Brazilian army will take place in the coming months despite the democratic concerns expressed internationally. Jair Bolsonaro’s announcement in a newspaper on 14 February that he will return to Brazil in March, while raising fears of further splits in an already divided population, should not have a significant short or medium-term impact on Lula Da Silva’s government.

On 30 October 2022, Leftist Lula Da Silva, who had already held the post twice from 2003 to 2011, was elected for a third time President of Brazil by defeating the far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro with only 50.90% of the vote. Jair Bolsonaro had not admitted his defeat and sowed doubt in the electoral process, as his supporters demonstrated around the country. Nevertheless, he never asked the Supreme Court or Congress to intervene to overturn the results. Some time afterwards, on 26 December, the police arrested George Washington, suspected of having planted a bomb to commit an attack near Brasilia airport, a few days before the presidential inauguration. This situation worried observers who feared that the inauguration of Lula Da Silva on 1 January 2023 would be disrupted, or even that there was a deeper plot. No disruptive events were observed on that day, apart from the absence of Jair Bolsonaro himself who refused to participate in the transfer of power by flying to Florida (US) at the end of December.

Nevertheless, on 8 January, several hundred demonstrators supporting the former farright president invaded and degraded high places of power in the capital such as the Congress, the Presidential Palace and the Supreme Court. The demonstrators later asked the army to intervene because they felt despoiled by the elections. The ease with which the protesters were able to act raised fears of collusion on the part of the security services. Quickly after what happened, nearly 1,500 people were arrested by the authorities, including several high ranking officials, such as Ibaneis Rocha, the governor of Brasilia, Anderson Torres, former head of Brasília’s public security, and Colonel Fábio Augusto Vieira, police commander. On 11 February, Major Flávio Silvestre de Alencar, Colonel Jorge Eduardo Naime, Captain Josiel Pereira Cesar and Lieutenant Rafael Pereira Martins, all involved in the infrastructure security during the riots, were also arrested. Lula Da Silva had publicly attacked Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of being involved in the outbursts. The latter denied any responsibility. The former president is known for its close relationship with the police and especially the army, which is favourable to him and has played a large role in the country’s history, and still has influence even after the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. This proximity has led to fears that the military may become involved, as some of the pro-Bolsonaro protesters asked the army to intervene. These riots shocked the international community but also the Brazilians themselves, 76% of whom said they were against these excesses. The population as a whole remains in favour of safeguarding democratic institutions. There is no indication of a possible coup, as the army has even ignored calls from protesters to intervene in the country’s politics.

On 14 February, Jair Bolsonaro indicated that he wanted to return to Brazil in March to resume politics, raising fears of a new surge of demonstrations and tension in an already politically divided Brazil. But the far-right politician should expect legal proceedings from the authorities on his return, as the Supreme Court included him in the list of suspects for its investigations into the uprisings. Moreover, the former president is accused of corruption in multiple cases, including of crime against the indigenous people, whom he did not protect during his mandate. Indeed, on 6 February, Marina Silva, Environment Minister, declared that former President Jair Bolsonaro should be investigated for genocide, while the authorities declared a state of medical emergency in the Yanomami reserve, near the border with Venezuela. Indigenous people under Jair Bolsanaro’s term have suffered from a lack of governmental security involvement that has led to an increase in violence, sometimes resulting in rape or murder from criminal gangs. These additional charges, despite his relative popularity, could well harm his ability to credibly lead an opposition to Lula Da Silva.

The shooting down of Chinese spy balloons in U.S. airspace

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The recent shooting down of Chinese spy balloons that were discovered over North American airspace have led to the U.S. and Canada increasing their national security measures against China. China have responded to these shootings by challenging U.S. global influence, leading them to feel threatened. It is highly likely the Biden administration’s policy in 2022 the catalyst that has called for the shooting down of these balloons. Because of this, NORAD have recalibrated their radar scans to pick up smaller, slower moving objects, which led to the detection of these balloons. The U.S. and Canada have threatened to implement bans on the social media app TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, on government phones as a measure to increase their national security.  Since the incident China has challenged the U.S. global influence through the recent agreement between Saudi-Arabia and Iran. The U.S. has shown reluctant support for China’s diplomatic achievements, but it is highly likely that they believe their global influence is at risk. China’s upcoming talks with Russia suggest that they are going to continue to further seek to expand their global influence over the next year.

The threat of spy balloons over foreign airspace is not a new phenomenon. The chair and founder of Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance said that these kinds of objects have always been in U.S. airspace, but they chose to tolerate them. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) claims that because of the objects smaller and slower moving nature they were harder to spot. Previously they searched for faster, larger object such as drones and planes. It is likely due to an increase in global tension from the Ukraine war that NORAD was tasked with recalibrating their sensors to pick up these smaller, slower objects. It is also somewhat likely that NORAD had received some intelligence reporting of the balloons’ existence, however at this time we are unable to confirm this.

It is highly likely that the sudden increase for the shooting down of these U.F.Os stems from the Biden Administrations 2022 policy towards China. This policy seeks to increase U.S. competition with China economically to maintain transatlantic unity. However, this has led to increased animosity from China. The President’s tough stance on China has likely only been exacerbated with the current Republican dominated House of Representatives. It is likely that the pressures from the House of Representatives combined with the already tough stance on China increased the measures in which to counter possible threats from China in the U.S. airspace. An example of this is the threats from the Biden administration, beginning in early March until present, to ban the Chinese made social media app ‘TikTok’ on government phones if China’s stake in the company who created the app, ByteDance, is not sold. This has not only been occurring in the U.S. but other governing bodies such as the EU Commission and most recently the United Kingdom on Thursday 16 March announced plans to ban the app on government devices. The measure has been introduced due to fear of the Chinese government lifting data off cellular devices through the app, which is a concern that has been raised by American officials for years. We can expect to see further European nations follow suit due to a similar fear of security breaches from China over the course of the year.

On 5 February, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s response to the shootings of the air balloons were that it was “a violation of international practice,” expressing full dissatisfaction and protest towards the incident. China have not made any hostile moves towards the U.S. following the incident. However, since the shootings China have recently held talks with Saudi Arabia and Iran during the week of 6-10 March. The outcome of these talks brokered a deal between long-time rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran which has led to the two nations restoring diplomatic relations. The importance of this for China is that it has established themselves as having global influence that can rival the U.S. There have been no explicit statements that this move was made as a direct challenge to the U.S. resulting from the shooting down of the air balloons, however, the timing of the deal coming shortly after these incidents strongly suggest that China is pushing to challenge the U.S. as the most influential country in the world. The U.S. have shown reluctant support for China’s diplomatic achievement on March 10 in a brief public statement from U.S. officials, however this is likely to avoid an increase in tension following the shooting of the spy balloons. Their reluctance in expressing their support strongly suggest that the U.S. feels that their position is being threatened by China.

The shooting of the Chinese spy balloons, which was likely spurred on by Biden’s tough stance on China, has had a significant impact on both North America and China. We can see that the U.S. and Canada have put an increased focus on National Security, recalibrating NORAD radar scanners to detect new threats and the threats to ban TikTok on government devices, on which the European governing bodies have followed suit. In contrast China has responded by challenging the U.S. position as the leading influential power in the world, especially in the Middle East with their success in beginning the restoration of the relationship between Saudi-Arabia and Iran.