The World This Week

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The World This Week
Half a million COVID deaths in Coronavirus, Russian bounties to Taliban and Putin to remain President till 2036

  GP Team

The World This Week # 74, 4 July 2020, Vol 2 No 27

Harini Madhusudan, Sukanya Bali, Sourina Bej and Rashmi BR

Six months on, deaths from COVID-19 pandemic cross half a million globally
What happened?
On 29 June, marking six months since the first reports of the pandemic, the Director-General of WHO in a media brief announced that the global deaths due to the pandemic have crossed half a million (500,000). With the total number of cases at 11,191,810, the current casualty across the world stands at 5,29,127, which is eight per cent of the total number of cases. Approximately 6,330,816 are reported to have been discharged or recovered. 

Across the different regions, North America has the highest number of cases, followed by Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, and Oceania. Europe leads the statistics on casualties along with North America, and South America. These countries have collectively reported over 1,00,000 deaths. 

What is the background?
In six months, the impact of the coronavirus as a pandemic was felt in almost all parts of the world and is continuing to unfold against the following background:

First, the economies begin to open despite an increase in cases. The USA, Russia, Brazil, and India are the top four countries with the maximum number of cases, and yet these countries have also begun to ease the lockdown measures or never really followed a lockdown. Setting a dangerous trend in opening up their economic hubs without flattening the curve, these countries have contributed to the rising global number of cases.   

Second, the multiple waves and the late waves. The impact of the pandemic has varied in different parts of the globe owing to the different intensity of the virus. To a large extent, the region of Asia and Africa, with a higher population and low medical expertise, have consistently reported lesser cases of virus compared to Europe or America. Some regions are still struggling to contain the spread from the first wave. While countries like China and South Korea have reported signs of a second wave. And then, after an initial lull, there is a late wave in Latin America during the recent weeks.  

Last, the failure to generate a global/regional cooperation regime. Though the 'globalized world' led to the spread of the pandemic, the systems that are representative of globalization have not managed to bring collective mechanisms to fight the virus. Countries responded to the COVID-19 at individual capacities. Apart from the global call for the search for the vaccine, the large gap in the success and failures of pandemic management has also impacted the global increase in the cases. 

What does it mean?
First, through the first half of 2020, the pandemic has brought to light the ongoing failures of the existing systems and the inconsistencies that have been leading the spread of the virus at an unpredictable rate. On 3 July alone, the world reported 2,09,028 cases. This indicates until a global strategy to combat the pandemic collectively or the existing systemic fault lines are revisited, the rising numbers will be difficult to arrest. 

Second, multiple labs across the globe have announced to be working on the development of a vaccine, many in the third stage of testing. These show that the following weeks will be crucial for the spread, the resurgence of cases, and the vaccine development.  

Taliban received Russian bounties to kill US troops, claims American news report 
What happened?
On 26 June, the New York Times published a report claiming that American intelligence has confirmed that the Taliban received bounties from the Russian military intelligence agency, for killing the US and NATO forces. They concluded so, after recovery of large amounts of American cash at a Taliban outpost. 

In response, President Donald Trump had claimed that he was never briefed about the intelligence report, denied any knowledge of Russian bounties, and has called it a 'hoax.' The communications director at the White House, Alyssa Farah, called the report "uncorroborated."

Representatives in the US Congress had however asked the President to, "immediately expose and handle this, and stop Russia's shadow war," and has also accused him of "ignoring" it.

The Russian embassy, in a series of tweets, has denied the same saying, "there is no evidence related to the claims about Moscow's collusion with the Taliban" and are only 'groundless accusation' against them.

What is the background?
First, an increase in Russian engagement in Afghanistan. The news report comes amid a background where Russia has been increasingly creating a role for itself in the conflict in Afghanistan.  This was evident  in May 2019, when the Putin administration invited senior members of the Afghan government and the Taliban to celebrate "100 years of Russo-Afghan friendship." Soon after the US-Taliban agreement, Russia along with the US issued a joint statement on not recognizing the Taliban's designation as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. 

Second, Russia's apprehension on the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Russia doesn't want the presence of the Islamic State neither in Central Asia, nor near its southern borders through Afghanistan. This apprehension has been the ground pushing Russia to increase its strategic footprint in Afghanistan and also in its fight against the Islamic State in Syria to prevent its spread elsewhere. 

Third, the historical background. Russia seeks to re-evaluate its past experience of the 1980s when the US supported the Afghan-Arab mujahideen against the erstwhile Soviet Union. 

What does it mean?
First, the exit from Afghanistan will now be hard for the US troops, if the Taliban continues to receive support from Russia. This also means that violence in the country will only increase, making the US withdrawal all the more bloody. 

Second, the news report has now led to increased tension within the US government. Trump's position against Russia and the rationale of the US-Taliban agreement will now be increasingly questioned. 

Last, this will also bear an impact on the upcoming elections. If Trump fails to address the Russia-Taliban collusion, the US-Taliban deal may lose its significance as his upcoming election campaign strategy.

'Long Live the President': Russian constitutional reform votes allow Putin power till 2036    
What happened? 
The era of strongmen politics now stands strongly consolidated as Russia votes in favour of the constitutional reforms, thereby allowing Vladimir Putin to nominally seek and secure office for two more terms till 2036. With these new changes, Putin is likely to surpass Joseph Stalin as the longest-serving head of the state. Along with allowing Putin to run for Presidency for two more six-year terms, the Russians in a week-long referendum overwhelmingly upheld the set of constitutional amendments like anti-gay rights and economic reforms. After the public voting, preliminary results released by the Election Commission showed that almost 78  per cent of voters endorsed the amendments, while 21 per cent voted against them and some 65 per cent voters had turned up to cast their ballots. 

What is the background? 
First, the culmination of Putin's pursuit for legacy amid opposition. The Russian Constitution bars more than two consecutive presidential terms. Since 2000 when Putin became the President for the first time, he started his pursuits to remain in power. After his first two presidential term he has swapped the Presidency with Dmitry Medvedv and remained the centre of power as a Prime Minister. After Medvedv stepped down in completing one term, Putin assumed his Presidency again. He is now into his second term that is set to expire in 2024. With an aim to be in power for life, Putin brought about the new constitutional changes that theoretically doesn't change the two-term limit but in practice resets the clock on Putin's terms so that after his term ends he can start afresh. Putin's desire to run again is not public yet, but if he chooses to run for Presidency, his political clout will let him remain in hegemony till 2036 when he will be 83 years old. 

Second, the domestic show of Putin's power amid Coronavirus mishandling. The moment when Putin had announced his intention to reset the presidential term limits, it was never in doubt that Russian public voting will make any difference. Hence this referendum was aimed at driving home a political purpose. It was aimed at a domestic audience who was fast losing its faith on a President who has mishandled the pandemic, led to the suicides of doctors, reduced political freedoms, high standard of living and degraded the rule of law. Putin's amendments did not secure a majority support in Moscow and St. Petersburg, two largest cities with a strong middle-class opposition to 'Putinism.' Rather this urban political discontent was balanced by the support for Putin from the suburban town and rural areas. Kremlin's campaign made a point of directing the attention of these Russians to the promises of an expanded social security net contained in some constitutional amendments.

What does it mean? 
First, with a likely scenario of Putin as the eternal President, the domestic political landscape looks at a strongman politics that is here to stay. It also marks a continuation of a global trend that of rubber stamp exercise of extending the rule of strong leaders as single seats of power. In 2018, the National People's Congress amended the Chinese constitution to remove a two-term cap on the Presidency allowing Xi Jinping to remain President forever thereby returning to the world the era of Lenin, Stalin and Chairman Mao. 

Second, this likely Presidency will not be devoid of challenges. Putin faces global criticism on his leadership and global strategic footprints. From its alleged role in Afghanistan, Libya to the fights in Syria, the position of Putin as a deep-seated proxy leader has been criticized heavily. Russia's relation with West Europe has also come under the scanner for its role in expanding its energy footprint beyond the Baltic. Within the domestic audience, the disconnect between the polity and the public demands will be a challenge for Putin to address. Just like the post-Soviet Russia, these constitutional amendments create an illusion of a modernized, law-based state, but it is as detached from Russian reality as was the 1993 constitution of the then Soviet life.


India and China decide to hold more talks over the LAC standoff
The third round of talks at the Corps Commander level this week, emphasized on the need for more talks between India and China, in order to resolve the tiff at the LAC. It was decided that the talks would continue, in accordance with the agreement between the external affairs ministers of both the countries. Meanwhile, PM Modi, along with the Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat, visited Ladakh and interacted with the Army, Airforce and ITBP personnel, and condemned the neighbour's 'expansionist policy' without taking China's name. 

WTO agrees for a dispute panel over India's import duties
The WTO agreed for setting up an adjudication panel to discuss India's import duties on ICT products. The panel was set up on the second request of the European Union after India blocked the complaints of Japan and Chinese Taipei over the issue. India had blocked EU's request for a panel in February and thus was unable to block it for the second time. China, the US, Russia, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Pakistan, Indonesia, Canada, Turkey, South Korea, Brazil and Norway have reserved rights to participate in the proceedings. 

India and Japan conduct a naval exercise in the Indian Ocean
The Indian Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force conducted a joint training exercise in the Indian Ocean. Aimed at promoting mutual understanding and trust, the exercise revolved around tactical training and communication training. INS Rana and INS Kulush from the Indian Navy, and JS Kashima and JS Shimayuki from the JMSDF participated in the exercise. The timing of the exercise coincides with the prolonged standoff between India and China at the LAC and ASEAN's statement stressing the role of international law in the South China Sea dispute. 

Setback for Macron in French municipal elections
The municipal elections in France witnessed a 'green wave', as the environmentalist Greens won big across major cities of the country. Even in Paris, La République en Marche (LREM) candidate was a distant third with 13 per cent of the vote. The result, in many ways, is a setback for Macron. General discontentment of the public expressed through protests, coupled with the manner in which COVID-19 was handled, showed clearly that Macron's popularity was dwindling. 

Protests engulf Hong Kong, first arrests made under the new National Security Law
Protests erupted soon after Beijing passed the new National Security Law for Hong Kong. On 1 July, a man was detained for holding Hong Kong Independence Flag in Causeway Bay. This was the first arrest under the new law. Since then, ten people were arrested for breaching the law, and 360 others were detained. The UK, on the other hand, has said that up to three million Hong Kong residents will be accommodated in the country and will be provided with a chance for applying for citizenship. 

Russia sends troops to Libya to support Haftar's forces
Russia has been sending more troops and reinforcements to support Khalifa Haftar's forces. According to European and Libyan sources, Russian private military contractors helped Haftar's forces to take control of the country's crucial oil field. The Libyan army and the US also stated that Russian planes transported personnel including Syrian mercenaries, Pantsir air defence system, ammunition and weapons to al-Ghardabiya Airbase in Sirte. 

About the Authors
Harini Madhusudan and Rashmi B R are PhD scholars with the Science Diplomacy Programme at School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. Sukanya Bali and Sourina Bej are Project Associates at National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS).  

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