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Archive for October, 2020

Azerbaijan Wins

28 October 2020

The month-old war between Azerbaijan and Armenia is so low on everybody else’s list of concerns that when Azerbaijan won the war last Monday morning, hardly anybody in the media elsewhere even noticed.

Shortly after 8am local time on Monday, Azeri troops gained control of the road through the Lachin Pass. That is the sole land route between Armenia proper and Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave inside the borders of Azerbaijan that the whole war is about.

A new road further to the north, offering a quicker link between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, was opened in 2017, but it has been closed since 1 October, shortly after the war started, “for the safety of civilians (i.e. because of shelling from Azerbaijani territory).

Until Monday the Lachin road was crowded with Armenian refugees fleeing west to safety and Armenian troops and military supplies heading east to the war. Apart from one or two big strikes by Israeli-made LORA quasiballistic missiles (hypersonic, 400-km. range, GPS and television terminal guidance), the road was fairly safe.

But now there are Azerbaijani armoured vehicles across the Lachin road, and all of Nagorno-Karabakh is cut off: no more reinforcements, and more than half the Armenian civilian population of 146,000 people still there, trapped under constant shellfire and drone attacks. At least 2,000 people, most of them Armenians, have been killed in the fighting.

The outcome of the war was inevitable once it became clear that Russia was not going to intervene militarily to help Armenia, despite the fact that both countries are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Azerbaijan is clearly the aggressor in this round of fighting, but it is a CSTO member too, so Russia had to make a choice.

Azerbaijan has three times Armenia’s population and a great deal of oil, and Armenia is of no great strategic value, so Russia restricted itself to mediating futile ceasefires. The Azeris signed each time, but they knew they were winning and they never stopped their advance.

The most recent (third) ceasefire was actually negotiated with the help of the United States, and was supposed to come into effect at 8 am on Monday morning, but the Azeris broke that one too. As usual, they blamed the Armenians for having broken it within five minutes of its coming into effect (that is, at 8.05 am) – but they tweeted their protest at 5 am, which rather undermined its plausibility.

The Azeris did not commit to an all-out offensive until about ten days ago, confining themselves to probing attacks and random shelling until they were certain that the Russians would stay out. Then they sent an armoured column west along the Iranian border through territory that had been emptied of its Azeri inhabitants in the 1994 war.

The Armenians, outnumbered, overstretched and outgunned, did what they could, but by 22 October the Azeris had reached the Hakari river valley. There they turned right and headed north up the valley – and on the 26th they took Lachin. End of game.

It was a move that they would never have risked against a more mobile and better equipped enemy. The Hakari runs through the narrow strip of territory that separates Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia proper, so they had Armenian-held territory on both sides of them, and a 100-km supply line behind them that was overlooked by Armenian troops on the right-hand side all the way.

Fortune favours the bold, but it’s easier to be bold when you have total air superiority – Armenia has nothing to match Azerbaijan’s Turkish-built drones and Israeli-supplied missiles – and massive firepower on the ground. So now Azerbaijan holds the Lachin Pass, and all that remains is for Armenia to negotiate the return of Nagorno-Karabakh to its legal Azeri rulers (probably minus its Armenian residents).

That will be very painful for Armenians after a quarter-century of holding the territory, but they have no way of taking it back. They were bound to lose it in the end unless they could more or less match Azerbaijan’s military spending, and they couldn’t; the Azeri military budget was at least five times bigger, maybe more.

Like the Balkan wars of the early 20th century, nobody is in the right in the various wars that have been waged in the Caucasus since the old Soviet Union collapsed. The ethnic groups were already numerous and hopelessly intertwined, and Soviet policy deliberately made the situation even more complex.

The Armenians drove over half a million Azeris out of the territory of Nagorno- Karabakh and large adjacent entirely Azeri provinces in the 1992-94 war. Now the Azeri refugees will go home and 150,000 Armenians will have to seek new homes in Armenia proper. None of it is fair, but that’s how it still works in much of the world.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“A new…territory”; and “The most…plausibility”)

The Unfrozen Arctic

25 October 2020

It’s the last week of October, and the main nursery of new Arctic Ocean sea ice has not yet started to refreeze. Hardly surprising, since 2020 is on course to be the second-warmest year on record, but it’s still a matter of concern. It should have started refreezing about five weeks ago.

Historically the Arctic Ocean would freeze right out to its edges (the northern coasts of Canada, Greenland, Russia and Alaska) each winter – 14 million sq. km. of ice — and then melt back to about half that area over the following summer. Not this year.

The summer melt season ended on 15 September, with just over a quarter of the winter ice left (3.74 million sq. km.). That’s the second-lowest ever, but normally the ice cover would have begun expanding again right away. This year it didn’t.

The edge of the ice north of Scandinavia and European Russia stayed where it was, and the ice on the Laptev Sea (north of central Siberia) actually retreated further north. It will probably start refreezing soon now, but it has already set alarm bells ringing throughout the scientific community.

However, it is making the shipping community very happy. A 2019 conference of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s International Transport Forum gleefully discussed the prospect that the ice is shrinking and thinning so fast that ships may soon be able to sail straight across the Arctic Ocean rather than creeping around the edges.

If the sea ice completely disappears for even one year, in all later years the old thick, multi-year ice will be gone. At worst ships would only have to make their way through new, thin single-year ice even at the North Pole, so there would be no need for ice-breakers even in winter. Hooray!

These foolish people should not be hugging themselves with delight. They should be shivering in fright, because an ice-free Arctic Ocean could be an event big enough to tip the world’s climate into much faster, irreversible warming. That’s what we really have to be afraid of: the sudden lurch, the ‘non-linear change’ that delivers us into a world of hurt.

The Arctic sea ice, in midwinter covering an area half again as big as the United States, is like a giant mirror reflecting the sun’s heat back into space. Replace it with open water that absorbs the sun’s rays, and you have created a giant new global warming engine that you cannot turn off.

It could happen next year, it might not happen for another twenty years, but the train has already left the station. It’s greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the warming, but no amount of emissions reduction now will stop it: there’s already enough CO2 in the air to melt all the sea ice in the foreseeable future.

That would be catastrophic, so some climate scientists are now thinking seriously about the logical next step. The Arctic is warming three times as fast as the rest of the planet, so Dr Hugh Hunt of the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge University is prepared to take that step.

“Three years ago if you had asked me, I’d have said I hope we don’t have to do any of this geoengineering crap. It’s not what you’d want to do, but now I just can’t see this predicament going in any other direction. I really hope we do proper government-funded work on how these geoengineering techniques work, because sure as eggs is eggs we’re going to have to do ‘em.”

Very reluctantly, Hunt would now be willing to consider putting an aerosol (probably sulfur dioxide) into the stratosphere over the Arctic Ocean to reflect enough incoming sunlight to hold the local temperature down. It would be less of a challenge technically than doing it elsewhere, because the stratosphere over the Arctic is only half as high as it is at the equator and existing aircraft could deliver the aerosol.

He knows there are lots of questions that need to be answered before this was done. Would the effects of the aerosol be confined to the Arctic region? Otherwise you’d need the consent of the whole planet to do it, not just the eight members of the Arctic Council (who probably would be in favour if it was safe, because they definitely have a dog in this fight).

But if the research said it was safe, then Hugh Hunt would be prepared to do it. “There is something to be said for tipping the Arctic back into refreezing mode a bit more every winter than it melts in the summer. Maybe a bit of stratospheric aerosol injection could nudge it in the right direction.”

He is not alone in that judgement. The alternative is probably a great deal worse.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“Historically…year”; and “If the sea…

Nigeria: Inter-Generational War

21 October 2020

The young Nigerians who were protesting at Lekki Toll Plaza in Lagos on Tuesday night were not the African touring company of ‘Les Misérables’. Lekki is one of the poshest suburbs of Lagos, full of gated communities, and most of the protesters were literate, media-savvy youths who reeked of urban cool.

The army killed them anyway. Or maybe it killed them precisely because of who they were.

IZZY@theleventh, who does not explicitly say he was there, tweeted: “They removed the cameras 2 hours before, turned off the street light and the LED billboard and deployed soldiers to open fire at the crowd singing the national anthem…they brought tanks!! Over 78 people are dead. The Nigerian army then began to put the dead bodies in their trucks.”

The numbers may be exaggerated: one eyewitness told the BBC he had counted about 20 bodies and at least 50 injured after the soldiers opened fire. Official sources have denied that anybody was killed, or that the army was even there. But Channels Television has video showing men in Nigerian army uniform walking calmly up to the barricade and firing into an angry but non-violent crowd.

The massacre comes after two weeks of protests, mostly in southern Nigeria, that were initially targeted on the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Almost all Nigerian police forces are corrupt and brutal, but SARS specialised in robbing, torturing and sometimes murdering prosperous and trendy young people.

If you were young, had hair of a different colour or tattoos, and were in a flash car, you stood a statistically significant chance of having an unpleasant encounter with SARS. The protests began two weeks ago after pictures allegedly showing a man being beaten to death by SARS circulated on social media.

Muhammadu Buhari, a military dictator 35 years ago and now back at 77 as Nigeria’s elected president, recognised the danger and acted fast. Within two days he abolished SARS, promising it to replace it with a kinder, gentler force – but the protesters had heard that story before, and besides they had already moved on to broader targets.

Nigeria is a powder keg at the best of times, and with lengthy lockdowns this is not the best of times. Protests exploded across southern Nigeria, and not all were non-violent. On Monday a mob burned a police station in Yaba, another upscale suburb of Lagos, and 120 km to the east in Benin City armed crowds freed more than a thousand prisoners from two jails.

The state claims that the protests have been infiltrated by criminals, and in some places that is clearly true, but that’s not why the ruling political class is panicking. That’s not why they shot down well-educated, trendy but law-abiding young people in Lekki. It’s because those in power fear a youth revolt that could not only transform the country, but split it in half.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation (200 million people), is really two countries. The southern, mostly Christian half, with all the oil and ports and most of the industry, is around 95% literate. Only one of the 19 northern, mostly Muslim states is over 50% literate, and half the young women in the northern region have no formal education whatever.

Naturally, relative prosperity shows the same disparity. Only 27% of southerners live below the poverty line; 72% of northerners do. Yet it is young southerners who are on the brink of revolt, because it is the political domination of the north that keeps the ruling kleptocracy in power.

It starts with the army, whose officer corps has been dominated by Muslim northerners since colonial times. That is why Muslim military dictators and elected presidents from the north have ruled Nigeria for 38 of the 60 years since independence, but even Christian presidential candidates from the south are in hock to northern interests.

The traditional rulers and religious authorities of the north control the big banks of voters that can be sold to the highest bidder, and it is in their interest to keep those voters ignorant and obedient.

The southern kleptocrats who buy the votes have an equally strong interest in the system, as it lets them go on stealing: one-third of Nigeria’s oil revenues over the past 50 years have ended up in foreign bank accounts.

The young men and women in the streets of Lagos may not realise that their rebellion could endanger this entire system, but those who benefit from it certainly do – which is why their response has been so extreme.

What happens next matters a lot, because 25 years from now Nigeria will have overtaken the United States in population and become the third biggest country in the world. It would be nice if by then it was a stable, well-educated democracy where prosperity extended beyond the south.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 15. (“Nigeria…jails”; and “The young…extreme”)

UK-EU: Pantomime Crisis, Real Risk of a Crash

19 October 2020

The British pantomime is a traditional Christmas entertainment in which stock characters face imaginary dangers and audience participation is encouraged (“He’s behind you!”), but the play never frightens the children and it always has a happy ending.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could be a pantomime character: he blusters and rages, he takes the most awful risks, and he seems to get away with it. After his latest move, a senior British diplomat remarked wearily that “we’re getting used to being part of Johnson’s pantomime.” But it may not end happily this time.

“Trade talks are over,” Johnson’s spokesman said on Saturday. “The EU (European Union) have effectively ended them by saying they do not want to change their negotiating position.” The spokesman didn’t mention it, of course, but Johnson doesn’t want to change his negotiating position either.

Most negotiations, including the current UK-EU talks to decide on the post-Brexit trading relationship between the former partners, involve a game of chicken towards the end of the proceedings. One party, usually the one that isn’t doing very well in the talks, threatens to blow everything up and walk away.

With Johnson, it was practically guaranteed. He’s well known for setting deadlines and making empty threats about what will happen if he doesn’t get his way by then. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, even mocked him for it last week. “It is the third unilateral deadline that Johnson has imposed without agreement,” Barnier said. “We still have time.”

A post-Brexit trade deal, not great for Britain but far better than nothing, is still quite possible. The problem is that Johnson won the election last December by saying he could “absolutely guarantee” that he would get a “fantastic” free trade agreement. Indeed, it was “oven-ready”.

Johnson must have known that was sheer fantasy even at the time. But it means that he must now have a couple of high-profile ‘wins’ to obscure the fact that the trade deal after Britain’s ‘transitional year’ ends on December 31st (if there is one) will be a miserable little thing, not remotely comparable to the completely free trade that the UK enjoyed as an EU member.

So Johnson is trying to shake loose a symbolic victory or two by threatening to walk out without a deal. This is very unlikely to succeed, because he is playing chicken with an adversary who is driving a very large truck (EU population 450 million people, GDP $16 trillion), while he is driving a Mini (UK pop. 68 million, GDP $2.8 trillion).

In trade negotiations, it’s the bigger economy that calls the tune, so the EU negotiators assume that Johnson is just bluffing. After all, they called a quite similar bluff of his last year and he crumbled. Surely, they reckon, he’ll just make a brief show of defiance, and then come round again like he did last time.

In theory they should be right, because Britain would suffer far more harm than the EU if there is no trade deal. However, Johnson’s prime ministership is safe no matter how disappointed and angry the electorate gets, because he has a big majority in parliament and the next election is four years away.

His hold on the office is not secure, however, if the fanatical Brexiters in his own party decide that he has failed. His final decision will be driven by which outcome does him more harm politically within his own party, and that is a question of appearances.

As the grown-ups in the room, the European Union’s diplomats should now be devising a way for Johnson to disguise his defeat, but there is little sign that this is happening. Their contempt for Johnson’s tactics may mean that they fail to throw him a lifeline – and Johnson, who is famous for dithering, may delay so long that time runs out.

Time is tight, and there are many competing demands on every government’s attention. Almost every country in Europe faces surging Covid-19 infections, and the UK government is already distracted by a growing revolt against its incompetent handling of the pandemic. The UK-EU trade talks will continue, with time-outs for bad behaviour, but they may not make it under the wire.

The end-December deadline is real. If there is no agreed trade deal by New Year’s Eve, the immense daily flow of food, medicines, just-in-time manufacturing components and other goods across the EU-UK borders will judder to a halt as customs barriers go up, and it will be a very grim winter in the United Kingdom.

Johnson’s political survival strategy then would be to demonise the EU as treacherous and anti-British, poisoning the well for any future cooperation. The grown-ups really need to get their act together, because Johnson isn’t going to.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“Time…wire”)