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The World This Week
Escalation and de-escalation in the Ukraine crisis

  GP Team

The World This Week #156, Vol. 4, No. 05

Ashwin Immanuel Dhanabalan

Escalation and de-escalation in the Ukraine crisis
What happened?
On 03 February, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He was stated to have discussed the importance of strategic balance in Europe to maintain order and guarantee security and the need to "accelerate" the peace process in Eastern Ukraine. According to a Kremlin statement: "The substantive dialogue on the situation around Ukraine and issues related to the Russian initiative to develop long-term legally binding security guarantees for the Russian Federation was continued. The leaders exchanged views on the current state of affairs, including in the context of recent contacts with several international partners and France's Presidency at the EU Council. Vladimir Putin again emphasized the provocative statements and actions of the Kiev leadership, which run counter to the Minsk agreements."

On the same day, the Pentagon's press secretary, in a press briefing, mentioned: "Russians are likely to want to fabricate a pretext for an invasion, which again, is right out of their playbook. One option is the Russian government…is planning to stage a fake attack by Ukrainian military or intelligence forces against Russian sovereign territory or against Russian-speaking people the - to therefore justify their action. As part of this fake attack, we believe that Russia would produce a very graphic propaganda video, which would include corpses and actors that would be depicting mourners and images of destroyed locations."

On 2 February, the Pentagon Press secretary said in a briefing: "Our commitment to NATO Article 5 and collective defense remains ironclad. As part of this commitment and to be prepared for a range of contingencies, the United States will soon move additional forces to Romania, Poland and Germany." 

Earlier, on 01 February, in a press conference in Moscow, Putin accused the US of ignoring the Russian proposals put forward by Moscow. He was not satisfied with the US' response to Russian demands on NATO's troops and infrastructure removal from Eastern Europe and barred Ukraine from entering NATO. Putin mentioned how: "It's already clear … that Russia's principal concerns were ignored." There was also a call by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for governments to adhere to the 1999 agreement, the violation of which was the basis of the Ukraine crisis.

On 31 January, at the UNSC council meeting, the US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said: "The threats of aggression on the border of Ukraine ... is provocative. Our recognition of the facts on the ground is not provocative." The UNSC experienced a spillover of the tensions at the Ukrainian border as the countries accused each other of being provocative. She further stated how: "The provocation's from Russia, not from us or other members of this council." Russia's UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia responded: "Our Western colleagues are talking about the need for de-escalation. However, first and foremost, they themselves are whipping up tensions and rhetoric and are provoking escalation." Nebenzia also disputed the number of troops stationed at the border.

What is the background?
First, returning to the Normandy format. The return of the Normandy format talks can be seen as the last attempt after the failure of talks at the US-Russia talks, NATO-Russia Council (NRC) meet, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) special plenary meeting, and the recent Geneva talks that were held between US and Russia. The Normandy format seems hopeful in de-escalating the tensions and bringing progress to the situation in Ukraine.

Second, the failure of the Geneva talks. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on 21 January. The talks were called helpful and agreed to maintain dialogue to resolve the crisis. However, there were no positive responses from either side. After the negotiations, the US did not respond to the Russian proposal; in retrospect, it appears the Blinken-Lavrov talks in Geneva failed to make a breakthrough.

Third, the military escalation. The US announced its redeployment of 1,000 troops and an additional 2,000 troops to Poland, Germany, and Romania had instigated Moscow as they called it a "destructive" step, which heightened tension and reduced the scope for a political solution. Moreover, even NATO has scheduled to extend its Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) units in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, further increasing its military escalation in the region. Furthermore, the US embassy in Kyiv, Washington, had also sent "close to 200,000 pounds of lethal aid, including ammunition for the front line defenders of Ukraine".

What does it mean?
With the revival of the Normandy format talks, one could also revisit the Minsk Protocol, a set of agreements signed in 2014 and 2015. Last week witnessed both escalation and de-escalation; the revival of the Normandy format is essential in this context. 

Also, in the news...
By Ashwin Dhanabalan, Angkuran Dey and Meghna Manoj

East and Southeast Asia This Week
China: 2022 Winter Olympics kicks off
On 4 February, the lighting of the seven Olympic rings brought an end to the grand opening ceremony as the XXIV Winter Olympics in Beijing was declared open. The opening ceremony saw athletes from 91 National Olympic Committees (NOC's) participating together. On this occasion, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach stated: "You have arrived here after overcoming so many challenges, living through great uncertainty. But now your moment has come: the moment you have been longing for – the moment we all have been longing for."  

China: President Xi meets President Putin
On 4 February, on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics' inauguration, the two Presidents of China and Russia met. According to a Kremlin release, a "joint Russia-China statement and a package of documents have been adopted within the framework of the visit. They include an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in anti-monopoly legislation and competitive policy and several other interdepartmental documents, such as the agreement on cooperation in ensuring compatibility and interoperability of GLONASS and BeiDou navigation satellite systems in terms of the system time scales; a joint statement on the completion of a roadmap for high-quality development of Russian-Chinese trade in goods and services; and a plan of consultations between the foreign ministries of Russia and China in 2022. In addition to that, the sides have signed a memorandum of understanding between the Russian Economic Development Ministry and the Chinese Ministry of Commerce to promote investment cooperation in sustainable (green) development, and a joint statement between the relevant ministries on holding the Russian and Chinese years of cooperation in physical education and sports in 2022–2023."

China: Foreign Minister Wang Yi virtually meets his Russian counterpart
On 3 February, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi virtually met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Wang Yi stated: "China is ready to work with Russia to deepen the time-honoured friendship and comprehensive strategic coordination between the two countries, uphold international fairness and justice and bring more benefits to the people of the two countries and the world at large." Lavrov acknowledged China's efforts to enhance bilateral cooperation and spoke about Moscow's interest to work with Beijing on several fronts, such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Belt and Road initiative.

North Korea: Pyongyang's long-range missile launch and the US condemnation
On 30 January, North Korea fired a long-range missile test that covered the longest distance since 2017. The missile covered a distance of 800 kilometres, reaching an altitude of 2,000 kilometres before landing in the sea. The test marks North Korea's seventh-round weapons launch since the new year. The US military's Indo-Pacific command said: "The United States condemns these actions and calls on [North Korea] to refrain from further destabilizing acts."

Japan: PM Fumio Kishida requests Saudi Arabia's cooperation to balance the oil market
On 4 February, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held a telephonic conversation with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and sought increased participation to stabilize crude oil prices. Kishida referred to Saudi Arabia as a "strategic partner" and conveyed his desire to bolster the bilateral ties. The talks happened due to the oil shortages and geo-political tensions occurring across the region. According to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, the Crown Prince acknowledged Kishida's concerns and mentioned the possibility of cooperating with Japan beyond the energy sector. 

Myanmar: Silent strikes mark one year of the coup
On 1 February, Myanmar witnessed the first anniversary of the coup since the military took over. People protested against the military regime by staying at home and holding a silent strike. The silent strike resulted in deserted streets and abandoned shops across the towns and cities of Myanmar. Pro-military supporters took to the streets in a few regions, shouting pro-regime slogans. Even Mandalay, the second-largest town usually bustling with customers, saw none as the people were afraid to go out even after the protest. 

Myanmar: 11th corruption charge against Suu Kyi
On 4 February, the military regime placed the 11th corruption charge against Aung San Suu Kyi for allegedly receiving a USD 550,000 donation as charity. The donation was received by the charity foundation named after her mother. Each corruption charge carries a possible 15-year jail term, and so far, Suu Kyi is facing more than 150 years in prison. Her next round of indictments will commence in mid-February on the charges of influencing the country's election commission in the 2020 elections. 

ASEAN: Myanmar's top diplomat barred from attending the forthcoming foreign ministers' meeting
On 3 February, ASEAN announced to bar Myanmar's top diplomat Wunna Maung Lwin from attending an upcoming Foreign Ministers meeting. Cambodia's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Chum Sounry said: "Since there has been little progress in carrying out ASEAN's Five-Point Consensus, the ASEAN member states did not reach a consensus to invite Myanmar SAC's foreign minister to participate in the upcoming foreign ministers' retreat." He additionally said that the group had asked Myanmar to send a non-political representative. 

South Asia This Week
Afghanistan: US treasury permits aid 
On 3 February, the US treasury announced that aid for humanitarian purposes and payments of aid groups had been permitted. The announcement assured the pay of teachers and healthcare workers who work at state-run institutions, as the Islamic Emirate had sanctions imposed on them. Aid groups can also ship cash to Afghanistan to run humanitarian operations and direct payments to their project staff. Earlier, International banks were wary of the sanctions, due to which funders were discouraged from sending money for aid or humanitarian operations. 

Afghanistan: Claims of progress in acquiring international recognition
On 4 February, Afghanistan's Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi mentioned about the progress the Islamic Emirate had made in gaining worldwide recognition. He stated: "...Our understanding and talks that we have had with everyone, we have had good achievements and that is a progress, we have come closer to that goal." The statement was made after the Afghan delegation held a series of meetings with delegations from the US, the European nations, and the EU. Muttaqi went ahead and invited countries to set up their embassies in Kabul and called for normalizing relations. 

Nepal: MoU with India to construct a bridge on the Mahakali river
On 1 February, India and Nepal signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for constructing a motorable road on the Mahakali river. A statement released by the Indian embassy in Kathmandu stated: "This is in line with the priority shared by both the governments to expand cross-border connectivity for streamlining commercial, cultural and people-to-people exchanges."

Sri Lanka: India's EXIM bank to extend USD 500 million 
On 3 February, India's Export-Import Bank (EXIM) signed an agreement with the Sri Lankan government to extend the USD 500 million line of credit to the cash-strapped country. Sri Lanka faces significant fuel shortages and is reeling under an economic crisis. An official statement released by the Ministry of External Affairs of India stated: "This critical support comes in the wake of a virtual meeting between the External Affairs Minister of India S. Jaishankar and Sri Lanka's Minister of Finance Basil Rajapaksa, held on 15 January." 

Central Asia, Middle East and Africa This Week 
Azerbaijan: The EU looks to Baku for increasing gas supplies 
On 4 February, the European Union's Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson met with the Azberjaini President Ilham Aliyev to discuss ramping gas supply from the region. In a press conference after the talks, Simson said: "we want the volume of gas exported from Azerbaijan to Europe to reach ten billion cubic meters." The statement comes when the EU looks to diversify its energy sources and reduce extensive dependency on Russian gas. The joint statement released by both parties focused on reaffirming the strategic energy partnership based on long-term energy security goals. 

UAE: France extends support to bolster the Emirate's defence system
On 4 February, Paris declared its decision to boost Abu Dhabi's air-defence system following the attacks launched by Houthis from Yemen. The Minister of the Armed Forces of the French Republic, Florence Parly, mentioned: "In order to show our solidarity with this friendly country, France has decided to provide military support, in particular, to protect the airspace against any intrusion." A permanent French military base in the United Arab Emirates and the recent transfer of 80 Rafale fighter jets to the UAE indicates strengthening relations between the two. The Al-Dhafra air base is expected to provide refuelling and surface-to-air capabilities as a part of the counter operations. 

Mali: The EU places sanction on the transitional government 
On 4 February, the EU placed sanctions targetting senior leaders of the transitional government over the delay in holding elections and bringing in reforms. A statement released by the EU stated: "The five designated people are subject to a travel ban, which prevents them from entering or transiting through EU territories, and an asset freeze." In addition, the Prime Minister of the transitional government, Choguel Maiga has been accused of failing to abide by the agreement for a new presidential vote scheduled for 27 February. The sanctions come after the military government made its intentions clear about staying in power until 2025. 

Nigeria: Oil vessel explosion triggers environmental concern
On 4 February, a vessel carrying an estimated amount of 2,000 barrels of oil exploded, setting off significant concerns of casualties and the resulting environmental damage. The ship was located along the coast of the Niger Delta region, which is famous for its oil reserves. Oil company SEPCOL's Chief Executive Ikemefuna Okafor stated: "At this time there are no reported fatalities but we can confirm that there were 10 crewmen onboard the vessel prior to the incident". Moreover, the flare-up has increased worries among environmental activists and local communities since the Niger Delta region witnesses oil spills frequently. 

Guinea-Bissau: President Embaló survives a coup attempt
On 3 February, the President of Guinea-Bissau Umaro Sissoco Embaló said that he survived a coup attempt after the government palace came under heavy fire for five hours. The local media has reported at least six deaths, including four attackers and two guards. The Guine-Bissau President, in a statement, stated: "When I was elected President of the republic, I promised to [fight] two things: corruption and drug trafficking. And this is also linked to that, and I knew what the price was, but the fight continues."

Europe and the Americas This Week 
The UK: Sue Grey's report on PM Johnson's party gate scandals
On 1 February, civil servant Sue Grey released her report on Prime Minister Boris Johnson's party gate scandals. She said she found "failures of leadership and judgement" on Johnson's part. However, the report did not live up to its expectations as it provided little details about the 16 parties held. Additionally, there was a jurisdictional issue as 12 parties were not held in government buildings and are yet to be investigated by London's Metropolitan Police as a subject of criminal investigation. 

The UK: 50 years since the Bloody Sunday
On 30 January, Northern Ireland marked its 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday massacre. During the massacre, British troops killed 13 unarmed protesters who were marching through the city of Londonderry for their civil rights 1972. The anniversary comes at the time when the region faces post-BREXIT woes. To date, no one has been convicted for the murders. The killings led to an increase in recruitment with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which then stepped up its campaign of terror in the region and abroad until 1998. 

The UK: Post-BREXIT creates a power vacuum in Northern Ireland 
On 4 February, Northern Ireland's First Minister Paul Givan announced his resignation in protest against the post-BREXIT trade rules. His announcement came after Northern Ireland's Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots tried to block the inspection of goods arriving from the other parts of the UK. His resignation has resulted in a power vacuum as Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill of pro-Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein also lost her position due to the power-sharing arrangements between the two regions. The other members can continue with their posts but they cannot take any significant decisions. 

Iceland: Reykjavík to end whaling by 2024
On 4 February, Iceland decided to stop whaling with the region's dwindling demand for whale meat. A member of the Green Party Svandis Svavarsdóttir stated: "There are few justifications to authorize the whale hunt beyond 2024. There is little proof that there is an economic advantage to this activity." Iceland is one of those few countries, along with Norway and Japan, that still hunt whales commercially. However, with Japan returning to commercial whaling in 2019 after its pullout from the International Whaling Commission, the demand for Icelandic whale meat has dropped drastically, and whaling has become too expensive to sustain. 

Italy: President Mattarella gets re-elected
On 30 January, Italian President Sergio Mattarella withdrew his retirement plans and got elected as President at the end of the eighth round of voting. Mattarella was ready to move out of the Presidential Quirinale Palace quarters to a new apartment in Rome. But, he recalled his decision to retire in the wake of a potential power vacuum in Italy. Mattarella said: "I had other plans, but if needed, I am at your disposition."

Portugal: Antonio Costa wins an absolute majority 
On 30 January, Portugal held snap general elections, and the ruling socialist party secured an absolute majority. Prime Minister Antonia Costa said: "An absolute majority doesn't mean absolute power. It doesn't mean to govern alone. It's an increased responsibility, and it means to govern with and for all Portuguese." Even though one-tenth of the country had been isolated, they were requested to go in the final hours of the poll to vote.

Ecuador: Oil spill endangers the Amazon 
On 2 February, an oil spill caused by a ruptured pipeline leaked 6,300 barrels of oil into an environmental reserve. The pipeline is owned by the Oleoducto de Crudos Pesados (OCP), who said they were using people and machines to collect traces of crude oil that spilled into the river. The pipeline was damaged by a boulder due to the heavy rains and landslides in the region and has affected the Cayambe-Coca nature reserve. This is the second oil leak South America is facing after the oil spill off the coast of Peru. 

The US: Warning to Chinese firms on helping Russia amidst potential sanctions
On 3 February, the US issued a warning to Chinese firms regarding the consequences of evading export controls in the case of a Ukrainian invasion by Russia. The US, along with other Western countries, has said that an invasion of Ukraine would bring sanctions on Moscow. The US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price stated: "We have an array of tools that we can deploy if we see foreign companies, including those in China, doing their best to backfill US export control actions, to evade them, to get around them."        

About the authors
Ashwin Dhanabalan is a Research Assistant at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Angkuran Dey, and Meghna Manoj are Postgraduate scholars at the Center for South Asian Studies at Pondicherry University. 

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