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WRAP-UP: 13 April 2021

Joshua and Hugh's fortnightly highlight of news from around the world. Join us as we discuss:

- Will Russia invade Ukraine?

- North Korea faces its “worst-ever situation”.

- A mass prison break in Nigeria.

- Is Hong Kong trading democracy for big business?

Topic #1 - Possible Russo-Ukrainian War

*Audio from Russian President Putin*

Hugh: Well Josh, this time I’ve got some pretty consequential news to bring to you and it comes from Eastern Europe - specifically the border between Ukraine and Russia. In the past weeks, we’ve started seeing large scale Russian military deployments to the border with Ukraine in scenes that are very much reminiscent of Moscow’s now-infamous invasion of Crimea. According to Ukrainian officials, Russia has now deployed at least 28 battalions to the occupied territory of Crimea and its eastern border with Ukraine, and it’s alleged that Moscow might be moving a further 25 battalions to those regions. In total, that would bring Russia’s deployment up to around 53 battalions, which includes armoured, logistics, air defence and artillery contingents. Naturally, Ukraine is seeking to match those deployments, with videos posted to Twitter allegedly showing large numbers of Ukrainian assets being moved eastwards to the border region as well.

And to make matters worse, we’ve witnessed a significant escalation of rhetoric on both sides. For its part, the Kremlin has made a number of very threatening remarks about Ukraine’s strategic alignment with the EU and NATO, as well as about the Ukrainian Donbass region, which is occupied by Russian-backed separatists.

The Kremlin’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Dmitry Kozak, said that if Ukraine began hostilities in the Donbass, it would be the beginning of the end of Ukraine. He also threatened military intervention, saying that Moscow would defend Russian-speaking civilians in the region if push came to shove. As for Ukraine, its President has begun making unprecedented remarks about Ukrainian membership in NATO - which has long been a red line for officials in the Kremlin. So I think we can safely say that the situation represents the highest level of tension that we’ve seen between Russia and Ukraine since 2014.

Josh: That’s a huge escalation and to be honest, with such a large deployment, it feels like Russia might be trying to fabricate a crisis here. But what are Moscow’s motivations in all of this?

Yeah, that’s certainly been the focal point of debate between international analysts. Right off the bat, it’s worth stating that Russia isn’t necessarily going to invade. Its current deployment to the Ukrainian border wouldn’t be enough to push into Ukrainian territory, especially given the improvements the Ukrainian military has undertaken since 2014. But that doesn’t mean Russia’s forces aren’t being used to promote the Kremlin’s interests.

One motivator might be Putin’s fall from domestic grace. Russia has been rocked by protests in the last year in light of the Covid pandemic and the unprecedented activism of Alexi Navalny - and this has all taken an immense toll on Putin’s support. Putin won immense support from his population after annexing Crimea in 2014, so he might be trying to win some of that back by playing the strong man against Ukraine.

Another motivation could lie in Washington and Kyiv. The Kremlin might be trying to test US President Biden’s resolve in Eastern Europe in an effort to see how far he is willing to go to resist Moscow’s advances. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Zelensky has been very active in shutting down pro-Russian TV stations and challenging pro-Russian oligarchs in Ukraine - so Moscow might be trying to retaliate against his systematic unwinding of Russian influence in the country as well.

And of course, at a strategic level, as Washington, Brussels, Ankara and Beijing chip away at Russia’s interests across Eurasia, this could also simply be an exercise in Moscow reasserting itself in its geographic neighbourhood.

Josh: That’s all very ominous. Do you have any predictions as to what will happen?

Well unless Moscow significantly increases its deployment to the region, it’s unlikely to launch an all-out invasion of Ukraine. I should note that one of the reasons we know so much about the movement of Russian troops towards Ukraine is because the Kremlin appears to have taken no active steps to stop its citizens from filming the movement of military equipment across the country. There’s really been no secrecy to these deployments.

And that suggests that Russia could simply be posturing. If that's the case, it would certainly fit a number of the motivations I just discussed, particularly around wanting to intimidate NATO and Ukraine and shore up domestic support for Putin.

But the other possibility is a limited intervention on Russia’s part. Moscow certainly does have enough forces already in place to move into the separatist-controlled Donbass region in the name of peacekeeping, and recent rhetoric from the Kremlin would certainly suggest that that’s something they’d consider. Russia could claim that Ukraine was aggressively targeting Russian speakers in the region and formally move its forces into Donbass for the outward purpose of protecting them, which would obviously be a significant escalation of the conflict. So all in all, this is something to keep an eye in the days and weeks to come. And the question is, what will Putin do?

Topic #2 - North Korea’s worst-ever situation 

Josh: Hugh, that particular song was the intro to one of North Korea’s news bulletins, presented by Ri Chun-hee, the infamously enthusiastic newsreader.

*Audio from Pyongyang Broadcast Service - D.P.R of Korea*.

Although she officially retired in 2018, she tends to reappear for major announcements. On this occasion, she was reporting on the Sixth Conference of Cell Secretaries, which is a major political event held every few years in North Korea.

Party officials gather across the country to hear from leader Kim Jong Un. As usual, there was a lot of pomp and ceremony, with Kim Jong Un getting quite the entrance.

But in contrast to all the cheering and the triumphant music, Kim’s message itself was not very upbeat. He warned that the country was facing its worst-ever situation ’. Now those are pretty stark words, coming from a country that has a brutal history and that’s notoriously secretive.

Hugh: Definitely. What’s this situation he’s referring to?

He was referring to the economic crisis currently engulfing North Korea. And to give you an idea of how serious this crisis is, Kim Jong Un compared it to the ‘Arduous March’, which was a famine in the 1990’s that was brought on by the collapse of the economy.

It’s estimated that between 240,000 and 3.5 million died in that famine. In his speech, Kim said that party secretaries should prepare for another, more difficult Arduous March.

Hugh: That doesn’t sound good - why is North Korea in this situation?

There are multiple causes -- but there’s no prize for guessing the main one - Covid-19.

When the virus first appeared, Kim Jong Un ordered North Korea to shut its borders -- and this was no ordinary border closure. It’s thought that Kim took such a hardline approach because he was worried the country's dilapidated healthcare system would be overwhelmed by Covid-19.

And according to the evidence that we have, the approach looks to have been successful - there hasn’t been a major outbreak that we know of. But, the border closures have had a massive side effect. They’ve effectively destroyed the economy -- and that’s because North Korea depends on trade - mostly with China - to survive.

Its main source of income comes from exporting goods to China, including coal, wigs and soccer balls. Chinese tourists also visit ski and spa resorts in North Korea, giving the country valuable tourist dollars. What’s more, North Korea’s imports a lot of its food, consumer goods and medicines from China. So with the border sealed, all of that has been cut off.

To give you an idea of how significant the effect has been, the value of North Korean exports to China dropped by 96% - down from $15 million dollars a month, to just $600,000 dollars. The ban on imports has also caused extreme shortages of food and basic goods.

And despite the fact that this could turn into a very serious humanitarian crisis, North Korea shows no signs of opening its border. This past week, it announced that it had withdrawn from the Olympics because of the risks that its athletes would bring the virus back home with them.

Hugh: Yeah, I heard that in the news! But what are the other reasons for the crisis?

It’s a real mix. On top of Covid, extreme weather has wiped out crop harvests. That’s only added to the country’s farming problems. North Korea’s economy has also been plagued by corruption and mismanagement for decades, so it has very little capacity to bounce back from these types of shocks.

What’s more, it’s really starting to feel the effect of sanctions imposed by the UN in retaliation for the country’s nuclear program.

Hugh: So, are there any clues as to how the world is likely to respond to this?

Not yet. Interestingly, South Korea has asked the UN to relax some of the sanctions and send humanitarian aid to North Korea. But, it’s unclear whether major countries like the US will agree to that.

You see, despite its financial problems, North Korea has started to ratchet up its missile tests. Last month, it launched short-range missiles off its east coast. 

It also issued threats to US President Joe Biden. That prompted Biden to warn North Korea that they would suffer consequences if they continued.

*Audio from NBC News - President Biden Speaks Out On North Korea*

As you can see, Biden is taking a very different approach to Trump, who (as I’m sure we all remember) had quite a colourful relationship with Kim Jong Un.

* Audio from President Trump Speech on Kim Jong Un - "We fell in love"*

So, overall, I wouldn’t count on any sanctions relief for North Korea -- unless it significantly dials down its nuclear and missile program.

What that means for the North Korean people, though, is unclear. No one wants to see a repeat of the 1990’s famine.  But, unless the borders reopen soon or sanctions lift, it's hard to see how a crisis could be prevented.

Hugh: Do you think it’s possible the economic crisis could snowball into a leadership crisis for Kim Jung Un?

I think it’s unlikely that we’re going to send the end of Kim’s reign any time soon. You’ve got to remember that the regime has emerged unscathed from similar, if not worse, crises before. What’s more, it has the help of some powerful friends.

China has been propping up the North Korean regime for a long time now, for various strategic reasons. If things get really bad, I think it's likely China will step in to financially support Kim’s government.

Topic #3 - Nigerian mass prison break 

Hugh: Unfortunately, to this day, it’s not uncommon for major news stories about conflict in Africa to slip under the radar, and I’ve got a really great example of a story you might have missed which comes from Nigeria. You see, last week in the Nigerian city of Owerri, more than 1 thousand, 8 hundred inmates were broken out of prison by militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.

*Audio from news bulletin -Gunmen Attack Imo Prison, Free Inmates And Burn Facility*

Josh: 1,800 - that’s huge! Why has this happened?

Well actually, the attack on Owerri’s prison was one of several coordinated assaults throughout the city. And in addition to the prison attack those assaults targeted police and military facilities across town. According to local police, the militants even attempted to gain entry into the main police armoury, where large amounts of weaponry and ammunition are stored, but they were apparently stopped from doing so.

As for the prison break, while a very small number of prisoners have voluntarily returned, the vast majority are still at large, and while Nigerian police have vowed to find them and return them to custody, clearly the security situation on the ground is pretty out of control.

Josh: Absolutely. So do we know who is to blame for this?

From what we’ve heard from the Nigerian state authorities, the attacks were allegedly launched by a group called the Eastern Security Network, or ESN for short. And the ESN essentially acts as the armed paramilitary wing of an outlawed separatist group known as the Indigenous People of Biafra, or IPOB.

And for anyone with knowledge of Nigeria, the name Biafra might ring a bell, because that’s the name of the breakaway state which unsuccessfully fought for independence against the Nigerian Government in the 1960s and 70s.

That conflict is now known as the Nigerian Civil War, and tragically it led to the deaths of over 2 million people - so it’s a rather significant moment in Nigerian and West African recent history.

Josh: Wow. So why is conflict flaring up again in 2021?

That’s a good question. The first thing to remember is that Nigeria is a truly interethnic society, much like Ethiopia, which we’ve also explored on the Wrap-Up. But essentially, in this case, the IPOB represents the Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria. Biafra itself was an Igbo-dominated breakaway state, and the modern-day Nigerian state of Imo, where the prison break took place, is also almost entirely populated by the Igbo people. So like the Civil War, this conflict is occurring in the Igbo heartland of Nigeria.

And in recent months, there’s been a real uptick in violence between the Igbo ESN forces and the forces of the Nigerian state, which is dominated by another ethnic group called the Fulani. The recent conflict really flared up in January, and it’s seen local curfews, alleged torture, airstrikes against the ESN, many attacks on police stations and really an all-out insurgency in the local countryside.

Josh: Does that mean we’re seeing a resumption of the Nigerian Civil War?

Hopefully not. The last thing Nigeria needs is anything close to a repeat of such an awful period, but in some ways, many of the same disputes which started the first war are still ongoing. 

There are still many social, political and economic disparities across Nigeria’s ethnic groups and interestingly, Nigeria’s current President, who comes from the Igbo’s rival ethnic group, the Fulani, was actually an officer in the civil war and a decade after the conflict he even briefly ran Nigeria as a military dictatorship, so as you can imagine trust is pretty low between Igbo separatists and the central government right now. 

My one hope is just that we’re not seeing a repeat of the Civil War.

Topic #4 - Hong Kong’s anti-democratic revival 

*Audio from Hong Kong protests*.

Josh: What you just heard there were the sounds of nearly two million protestors taking to the streets in Hong Kong back in 2019. 

I’m sure many of us remember the extraordinary violence...

*Audio from Hong Kong police vs protesters at train station video*.

...and the desperation of the protestors, as they sought to prevent China from taking away Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms.

Since those protests, Beijing has escalated the crackdown.  More than 10,000 protestors have been arrested or prosecuted, and new laws have effectively outlawed the Hong Kong independence movement.

All of this had begun to tarnish Hong Kong’s reputation as a global business hub. After all, it was its democratic history that made it a safe, reliable destination for investors. With that now threatened, workers and businesses have begun to flee the city

That is really worrying to the Chinese government. Chinese companies rely on Hong Kong’ to get access to global investors and overseas markets. So China is doing everything it can to convince businesses to stay in Hong Kong.

Hugh: What’s the government doing?

Its primary strategy is tax cuts -- and these are no ordinary cuts.  They pretty much exclusively benefit hedge funds and investors. It’s also reducing disclosure laws, allowing companies to avoid revealing their ownership structure and financial activities.

Hugh: And is it working?

It seems to be. In March, Cambridge Associates, which is a $30 billion investment fund, said it planned to open an office in the city. More than 100 new investment companies have been set up in Hong Kong in recent months. Major US banks like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America are actually increasing their Hong Kong staff. Credit Suisse has said it would triple the amount of people it hires this year.

So in the midst of a huge political crackdown, it seems Hong Kong is experiencing a business revival.

Hugh: But surely all the benefits being given to these companies come at a price?

Yeah, they do.  These companies will have to pay with their silence. It’s pretty clear that the Chinese government expects them to stay out of the political arena. As one prominent Hong Kong banker said to the media recently: “you may have political views, but you’re not a political activist”.

Hugh: So if businesses are going to remain silent, where does this leave the independence movement in Hong Kong?

I think it leaves the movement increasingly isolated -- within Hong Kong at least. While there’s international support for the protestors, there’s very little that foreign governments can do to improve conditions.

They’re mostly limited to issuing diplomatic statements or offering support to Hong Kong residents who want to flee. For example, the UK announced last week that it would set aside 43 million pounds to help Hong Kongers emigrate to Britain.

But, meanwhile, China continues to tighten its grip on those who remain. In March, it passed laws to reduce the number of Hong Kong MP’s who will be elected by the public.  Instead, they’ll be chosen by officials in Beijing. We also saw numerous high-profile activists convicted by the Hong Kong courts last week for their role in the 2019 protests. They could face up to 5 years in prison.

So in that context, it's interesting to see some business doubling down on their Hong Kong activities. And I think it reflects a global conversation that’s going on at the moment about the role that businesses should play when it comes humanitarian and societal issues.  Is their primary purpose to make a profit for their shareholders, or do they have broader responsibilities?

Hugh: Well, on that complicated ethical note, that’s all for this Wrap-Up. Next week, we’ll be bringing you a Trailblazer episode. Gen will be sitting down with Yasmin Poole to discuss her success as a speaker, writer and youth advocate.

Josh: And follow us, The Young Diplomats Society, on Facebook or Instagram for more great analysis and content. 

We’re also recruiting audio editors for Global Questions, so if you want to be involved in the podcast, now’s your chance. You can find the details in the description for this episode.

Hugh: We’ll see you next week. Bye!

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