MS Risk Blog

Zapad 2021

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The massive, Russo-Belarusian Zapad 2021 operational-strategic war games have ended. Zapad happens every four years and always rehearses the same scenario. A supposedly imaginary western coalition (aka NATO) is working with ‘terrorist’ elements to unseat the power in Belarus and take over parts of the country. The joint forces of the Union State, Russia and Belarus, must repel the invasion, defeat the enemy head-on and sustain a possibly longer-term regional war with a nuclear component towards the end. The live-fire elements of the Zapad-21 military exercises took place between 10-16 September across 14 training zones in Belarus and Russia. Western countries were not invited to observe the drills, nonetheless it featured hundreds of troops from “friendly” states like India and Kazakhstan, among others.

The Zapad drills have always been about rehearsing operational-strategic warfighting at the regional level against NATO, with a particular focus on force mobility, joint operations across army branches, and high-level Command and Control (C2).

Based on an outline of Russian major exercises in terms of mission, quantity of forces, readiness and C2, it is clear that Russia’s warfighting potential has increased in the past decade. Therefore we are able to draw at least two main conclusions.

First, Russia’s ambition for warfighting potential as mirrored in exercises has always been to carry out strategic-level warfighting operations against a peer adversary. That corresponds to a potential to fight at least a regional war with conventional forces.

Secondly, in the early 2010s, the available warfighting potential for Russian commanders was low. The level of participating forces, some tens of thousands, did not match the C2 scope of the exercises. That available potential in terms of forces corresponded more closely to the level of local war. Not anymore. The trend since 2014 is force participation in the hundreds of thousands, which arguably reflects the strategic-level ambition for warfighting potential much better.

Also on a further assessment it is important to note that with Belarus’ foreign policy options severely constrained with the West, Zapad-21 re-enshrined the military importance of the Union State and the increased military integration, if not the ‘merger’, between Russia and Belarus. In September, both countries signed yet another strategic partnership that opens the way to greater military-technical cooperation and arms sales. Russia will not have a permanent base in Belarus after all, but the debate has now shifted. In March, Russia announced the creation of three joint training centers, one of which will open in Grodno in Belarus.

Moreover, is it particularly relevant to underline that the proposed scenario of this year’s exercises was an initial act of aggression from a coalition of states vaguely resembling NATO territory, against which the Union State of Russia and Belarus had to defend. And ultimately repel by organizing a counter-offensive through a regional combat grouping of forces. The goal of the exercise is to show the ability of the Russian armed forces to move fast and well in a Western strategic direction. And while the Western Military District is the main actor in Zapad, it was also supported by troops from the Central Military District, reservists, and security forces such as Rosgvardia and the FSB.

Ultimately, Zapad signals to NATO and its allies that pre-emptive ‘enemy’ operations will be met with decisive Russian force, which therefore raises the cost of deterrence. Geopolitical propaganda aside, the Kremlin reportedly behaved this time and avoided the global positioning system (GPS) jamming and other provocative behaviours from four years ago. The glimmer of hope is that Russia might be more willing to avoid miscalculation and tactical errors with NATO and its allies.

Colombia-Venezuelan Border Still Faces Increased Tensions as Rival Armed Groups Broke a Years-long Truce

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President Iván Duque’s administration has launched a series of controversial military measures as part of its “Peace with Legality” policy, including a March airstrike on a rebel camp that killed two children, and the deployment of special forces in July to some of the country’s deadliest conflict zones. Criminal groups in Catatumbo recently attacked the presidential helicopter with small-arms fire as it passed overhead; planted mines in a landing strip where COVID-19 vaccines were to be delivered; and are accused of masterminding a car bombing at an army base in the regional capital, and Venezuelan migration hub, of Cúcuta that wounded 36 people.

Four years later, these foreigners from the National Liberation Army, or ELN, function as both a local government and a major employer in this town in the north-western state of Zulia, according to the educator and 14 other residents. All spoke on condition of anonymity and asked that their community not be named because they feared retaliation.

The guerrillas pay villagers, including children, to staff narcotics operations, extortion rackets and wildcat gold mines in both countries. Colombian security officials say the criminal proceeds are financing the guerrillas’ long-running insurrection against the Colombian government. The group’s recruiting has intensified over the past year as the coronavirus pandemic has deepened misery in Venezuela, where the economy was already reeling from years of hyperinflation and shortages. When the armed Colombians first arrived, they were flanked by local Socialist Party community leaders and proclaimed they were there to bring security with the blessing of President Nicolas Maduro.

But their brand of law and order quickly morphed into tyranny. The Colombians forbade residents from sharing information about the group’s activities, set a strict 6 p.m. curfew, outlawed firearms and controlled who entered the town

The Colombian government has long claimed Venezuela’s leadership grants safe harbour to anti-government Colombian rebels, and that Caracas allows cocaine to move through its territory for a cut of the profits. Maduro has denied the drug-trafficking accusations but expressed sympathy for the rebels’ leftist ideology and openly welcomed some guerrilla leaders.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to requests for comment about the guerrilla group’s activities in the country. Pablo Beltran, the ELN’s second in command, denied the group is involved in cocaine production, drug trafficking or other illicit activities, or that it recruits Venezuelans to work in such operations. He reported that the group does charge fees to criminal drug groups entering territory it controls in Colombia where coca is cultivated.

They are mainly ELN guerrillas and former fighters from another rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. These combatants reject the landmark 2016 peace deal reached between the FARC and the Colombian government. The FARC dissident groups could not be reached for comment. More than 1,000 members of the ELN alone are operating in Venezuela. The rebels have filled gaps in Venezuela’s crumbling institutions, handing out food and medicine, even approving infrastructure projects in some areas. The guerrillas steadily consolidate power over the past five years, expanding their illicit business activities while largely assuming the role of law enforcement.

Since the FARC disarmed and joined the government as part of the peace deal, other groups have moved into territory it formerly controlled, including in Catatumbo. While crime rates in urban centres such as Medellín and the capital, Bogotá, have fallen dramatically in recent years, violence in the countryside has risen. Mass killings soared in 2020 to levels not seen since the height of the civil war in 2012. As of 31 August, there had been 68 mass killings recorded so far in 2021 – heavily concentrated in the rural areas that were promised investment and infrastructure under the peace accord.

A total of 310 activists, social leaders, human rights defenders, and local political candidates were killed in 2020, compared to 210 in 2017 and 152 in 2016, according to Indepaz, a non-profit that monitors the peace process. Again, the vast majority of these killings occurred in rural areas. In Cauca, a different conflict zone in central Colombia, only five activists were killed the year the peace accord was announced. By 2019, that number was 72. Venezuelans, meanwhile, have been caught up in clashes between the Colombian and Venezuelan security forces and the rival armed groups – some of which use Venezuela as a safe haven. In May, some 5,000 Venezuelans became displaced and crossed into Colombia after Venezuelan forces attacked a FARC dissident group.

Thirty years later, the two countries continue to work together towards this same goal, but cocaine has been getting cheaper in the United States, coca fields keep expanding, violence continues to worsen, and, despite the militarisation, the Colombian state has no more real presence in places like Catatumbo than it did before the peace agreement in 2016.

China vs. QUAD

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In the past month, tensions have continued to grow between China and the Quad members over disputes such as Taiwan, Senkaku Islands, and growing alliances. There are concerns as to whether the disputes and continuous advances in military force in the region could lead to a potential conflict between China and the Quad members in the near future. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD and also known as QUAD), is a strategic dialogue formed in 2007 between the United States, India, Japan and Australia, which is maintained by talks between member countries.

This week Japan drew a red line around an island chain also claimed by China, pushing back at Beijing’s increasingly aggressive military posture, and setting the stage for a potential showdown between the region’s two biggest powers. The set of islands are called the Senkaku islands, and they have long been fought for by the two big powers. This week Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said he Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands in China, are unquestionably Japanese territory and would be defended as such, with Tokyo matching anyChinese threat to the islands ship for ship, and beyond if necessary. With that being said, Japan has expanded it’smilitary and defence forces in the region. The nation has added fighter jets, converted warships to aircraft carriers and has been building new submarines and missiles. Yet the countries defence forces are miniature compared to the Chinese increased military spending. On the other hand, Japan has its allies in the other Quad members, who have also claimed to rebuff China.

However, China is not backing down and is continuing to claim the region with more ships and by establishing new laws that give its coast guard expanded powers. According to Japanese authorities, Chinese Coast Guard vessels have ventured into Japanese territorial waters, or within 12 nautical miles of Japanese land, a total of 88 times between January 1 and the end of August 2021. Arguably, China is using its large and expanse military force and presence in the region to demonstrate authority, which could have worked. Yet, Japan and the Quad members aren’t backing away anymore. In fact, on the 8th of September a US destroyer sailed near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, days after China imposed new maritime identification rules that include the disputed body of water. On September 1, China instituted a new rule that requires many ships to identify their names, call signs, current positions, next ports of call and estimated times of arrival with Chinese authorities upon entering the country’s territorial waters. When the USS Benfold passed near the Spratly Islands without abiding by the new rule, China accused the US of “illegally” entering its waters, claiming it had driven away the ship. US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin has repeatedly said that China is the pacing challenge for the US military, as the Pentagon shifts from fighting the wars of the Middle East to meeting the threat of China’s growing assertiveness in the Pacific. Austin’s first international trip as secretary was to Southeast Asia, where he and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with their counterparts. In late July, Austin said that China’s “claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea has no basis in international law.” Arguably, the new growing active forces from both the Quad members and Chinaare a cause for concern. If the nations don’t come together and draw a peaceful conclusion over the waters andislands, then potential conflicts are inevitable in the near future. Yet, at the moment it seems neither side are willing to back down, especially as this week a new security alliance was formed between the US, UK and Australia in order to strengthen stability in the Indo-Pacific region as China expands its military might and influence. “This initiative is about making sure that each of us has the most modern capabilities we need to manoeuvre and defend against rapidly evolving threats,” the president said.

In addition to the conflict over the control of the Senkaku Islands, China and the Quad members are also arguing about Taiwan. Beijing continues to view Taiwan as an inseparable part of its territory even though the Chinese Communist Party never governed it. China has been stepping up its military pressure on Taiwan. In June, it sent over two dozen warplanes near the island, prompting Taiwan to alert its air defences. Chinese leader Xi Jinping says Taiwan must be brought under Beijing’s control and has not ruled out the use of force in making that happen. However, the Quad members have also said they are prepared to use force if China continues to actively claimTaiwan. Japan and Taiwan are actively linked, due to 90% of Japans imported energy coming from the seas surrounding the area. The island is the nation’s energy lifeline. Hence why the nation needs to protect the island from the control of Beijing.

Overall, tensions are continuing to increase with both sides actively growing their military presence and force in the region. Both sides need to create a peaceful conclusion or an inevitable war will occur in this region in the near future. Arguably with both sides not likely to back down and the increase in military force and alliances from both sides suggests they both see a conflict soon.

However, this will be like no war before because this time both sides have WOMD. Hence why peaceful and diplomatic conditions and arrangements should try to be made first in order for chaos to not occur in the region.

Western Europe Expected to Keep Out Afghan Refugees

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The Taliban pushed into the Afghanistan capital on August 15 after the government collapsed and the president fled the country. Heavily armed Taliban fighters fanned out across the city causing panic across the country and nations raced to get their citizens, diplomats, embassy personnel, and local Afghan staff out of the country. Western missions took place over the next 16 days as all troops had to be out of the country by August 31. Commercial flights were suspended, closing off a route available for fleeing Afghans that do not wish to live under Taliban rule. As the evacuation efforts continue and countries scramble to evacuate their local staff from Kabul, European countries have repeatedly brought up fears of reliving the 2016 refugee crisis. The takeover of Kabul has sent thousands of Afghans attempting to flee the country, but it has also panicked western European politicians who are terrified of a large Muslim refugee influx.

There is widespread concern for many western European nations, including France, Germany, and Austria. Many are fearing a refugee crisis mirroring that of 2016. Signalling an open-door policy for refugees has the potential to cause mass immigration for nations already battling the migrant influx due to the pandemic. There are key elections coming up in Germany and France, two nations whose far-right parties have gained popularity over the past years. The German and French governments are likely to push against Afghan refugees, particularity the next several months to convey a strong front against mass refugee movement.  There are worries the mass movement of Muslims will fuel the far-right movements that have gained popularity since 2015.

With German elections only a month away the far-right party Alternative for Germany will have the most to gain if the Merkel government allows any refugee flow, no matter how small. If Germany were to let in refugees, the announcement will likely come well after ballots have been cast. There are similar worries that a wave of arrivals could fuel the national Rally Party of Marine Le Pen in France and the League and the Brothers of Italy parties in Italy.

Officials in the Europe Union have been reluctant to welcome more Afghan refugees. To prevent refugees reaching Europe, EU interior ministers pledged to boost assistance to Iran, Pakistan, and other neighbouring countries. The UK has been criticised for agreeing to take in only 20,000 refugees over the course of five years, even though it is much more than neighbouring countries are accepting. French president Emmanuel Macron has faced criticism for saying France should “anticipate and protect itself from a wave of migrants”. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz mirrors the French president when he suggested that the people of Afghanistan should only be helped by their neighbouring states.

What most nations will allow are those who assisted their military forces and worked as local staff to be granted asylum in the respective country. However, this leaves out hundreds of thousands of people who fear living under Taliban rule with very few places to go. So far, no major efforts have been done to guarantee those individuals passage to another country. With key elections coming up governments will be hesitant to announce efforts as it could be portrayed as mass refugee movement. It is likely the response to retrieve local Afghan staff will be slower than what the anyone would like. Especially adding the additional complications with the Taliban not wanting Afghan citizens to flee the country. Not allowing refugees will lead to those in Afghanistan who fought alongside US allied forces to live in an Afghanistan that mirrors how life was in 2001. Although, the Taliban have repeatedly stated they will operate differently than their strict rule twenty years ago, little is expected for them to do so.

Haiti Earthquake

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On the morning of August 11th, Haiti was struck by a powerful earthquake with a death toll currently at 2,000 people. With mass levels of devastation and remote villages cut off from help, the situation in the country is under yet another major issue to be addressed. Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry described the country as “on its knees” with all that has occurred, as the long-term effects of the earthquake go on.

What has occurred has been seen as the deadliest earthquake of the year so far and the worst of its kind in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. Many buildings have been left damaged including churches and hotels. The prime minister Ariel Henry declared a month-long state of emergency, with the tremor being felt across neighbouring countries. The repercussion of this earthquake is likely to affect Haiti for the foreseeable future, with the political crises also ongoing adding to concerns within the country.

Nadesha Mijoba of the Haitian Health Foundation has said that they are preparing for a public health disaster as conditions worsen in Haiti, warning of a potential outbreak of cholera due to concerns around sanitation. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said rescue workers have had to contend with armed gang attacking aid convoys, but after negotiations they agreed to let aid through.

US aid agency USAID has said many roads have remained impassable due to mudslides in the mountains and remote areas being extremely difficult to access. In the village of Marceline, north of Les Cayes, has had one in six buildings collapsed and it was one of the worst affected towns by the earthquake. Its voodoo community centre caved in on itself causing more than 25 people having to be stuck under the rubble. The medical centre has also been flattened by the earthquake making it impossible for those in the town to gather supplies.

Officials in Haiti has estimated that there are still 600,000 people still in need of emergency assistance, with Unicef warning that half a million children have little access to safe water, food, or any form of shelter. What is also concerning is the destruction to schools as in just a few weeks they were planned to reopen for the school year. Due to the recent earthquake, classes for most students scheduled to start on the 6tth has been pushed back by 2 weeks. According to UNICEF, of the 2,800 schools in the 3 most affected areas 955 have been assessed by the government with support for UNICEF and results show that 15% have been destroyed and 69% damaged. With many students already having classes pushed back due to COVID 19 many have lost out in crucial months of education.

With the death toll still rising and many communities throughout the country affected, it is a sad reality that Haiti will be affected by this disaster for the foreseeable future. With the hope that aid can eventually arrive in hard-to-reach areas, only then can Haiti start recovering its people from this disaster.