Ukraine, Russia: Useful idiots
Also: Pakistan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Azerbaijan.
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UKRAINE. RUSSIA. Useful idiots
Two presidents move their pieces on the board.
Volodymyr Zelensky announced Thursday the replacement of Valery Zaluzhny as head of Ukraine's armed forces. Vladimir Putin gave an interview to television pundit Tucker Carlson, outlining his philosophies and reasons for the war.
INTELLIGENCE. Putin and Zelensky are improbable presidents. The former was a middling official, given unusual trust by Boris Yeltsin. The latter was an entertainer, given fame through a show about an improbable president. Still, they have played weak hands well, though Zelensky’s latest move is high risk. Zaluzhny has been replaced by ground forces chief Olexander Syrsky. Unpopular, and with family still in Russia, his appointment shocked many Ukrainians.
FOR BUSINESS. Zelensky likely judges Syrsky will prove more loyal than Zaluzhny, whose airing of contrarian views had shaken faith in Kyiv. Yet Zaluzhny’s sacking has enraged not just soldiers, but many of the elites Zelensky needs to keep the war effort going. That effort was dealt a propaganda blow by Carlson’s interview. Just as Joe Biden had been described as an “elderly man with a poor memory” in a special counsel report, Putin looked lucid and confident.
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PAKISTAN. PTI shot the Sharif
Supporters of an outlaw ex-PM take a shock polling lead.
Politicians aligned to Imran Khan’s heavily curtailed Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party were in a surprise lead early Friday evening following general elections on Thursday marred by violence, delays, and mobile communication outages.
INTELLIGENCE. The military-dominated elite’s lawfare against Khan has backfired. A series of increasingly draconian steps – from the banning of the PTI’s cricket bat logo to a trumped-up jail sentence over irregularities in his marriage – only seems to have encouraged more of his supporters to the ballot box. The establishment, which has coalesced around another formerly jailed ex-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, may now need to take even more extreme measures.
FOR BUSINESS. After failing to completely usurp Pakistan’s fragile democracy, a (fourth) military coup can’t be ruled out. Either way, hopes for an economic revival under Sharif look misplaced. The political fallout, whatever now happens to Khan and the PTI, looks set to further destabilise an already febrile environment. And Pakistan is not just dealing with a fiscal crunch, or a polarised electorate, but rising violence along its borders with Iran and Afghanistan.
MYANMAR. Spillover effect
Fleeing soldiers and refugees worry the neighbours.
340 Myanmar border guards and troops had fled into Bangladesh after fighting a rebel militia, Dhaka said Thursday. India announced it would end its longstanding policy of visa-free movement across its 1,640km border with Myanmar.
INTELLIGENCE. India’s mountainous border with Myanmar is difficult to control. The region is also home to ethnic groups which are prepared to fight to continue their way of life. The border with Bangladesh is shorter, but has already been crossed by over 1 million Rohingya – an ethnic group related to Bangladesh's majority. Driven out by both Myanmar's military and the Rakhine rebels it is now fighting, the Rohingya are unlikely to ever return to Myanmar.
FOR BUSINESS. Bangladesh, already facing domestic unrest at home after sham elections, says it will not allow any more Rohingya in. India, dealing with a restive population in the north-eastern state of Manipur, is taking a similar stance. But sealing Myanmar’s borders will just push refugees onto the water. Thousands have crossed to Malaysia and Indonesia. Others are escaping via Thailand, which is expected to open a humanitarian corridor next month.
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THAILAND. Pattani on the back
A breakthrough in a 20-year insurgency.
Thailand's National Security Council approved Thursday a Malaysia-brokered plan for peace with Malay-Muslim insurgents in Thailand's south. The deal would see a ceasefire spanning Ramadan and Songkran over March and April.
INTELLIGENCE. It remains to be seen if a permanent solution can be found to the 20-year conflict. But Thailand’s new government is keen to stabilise its Muslim-majority south, which is located close to the tourist hub of Phuket and one of the potential locations for a mooted Chinese-backed canal across the Isthmus of Kra. It would also help the business case for a long-proposed Chinese high-speed train link between Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
FOR BUSINESS. A Kra canal would reduce shipping times between the Andaman and South China Seas by two to three days, cutting out the Malacca Strait transit via Singapore. Yet the canal's feasibility – debated since the 17th century – would need more than just peace in Pattani and nearby provinces. The canal’s proponents assume it would save the shipping industry $500 million per year in fuel, but at a projected $20 billion cost, that is a big assumption.
AZERBAIJAN. Baku on the rails
Aliyev moves quickly to redraw the map.
Western monitors slammed the results on Thursday of Azerbaijan's snap presidential poll, where President Ilham Aliyev won a fifth term with 94% of the vote. Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan quickly called to send “brotherly” congratulations.
INTELLIGENCE. Having retaken the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2023 and positioned Azerbaijan as the southern Caucasus’ preeminent power, Aliyev is genuinely popular, though probably not by 94%. Either way, he has renewed his mandate to press forward with plans to place Azerbaijan at the centre of an intermodal 'Middle Corridor' between Europe and China, as well as a north-south route between Russia and the Indian Ocean.
FOR BUSINESS. With the support of China, Turkey and now Russia, Azerbaijan may yet reach its goals. Relations with Armenia remain cold (though many there are also keen on more connectivity), but a peace deal is in the works. Relations with Iran are more complicated. On the one hand, Tehran wants more links to Moscow as much as anyone. On the other, it distrusts Baku’s influence on Iran’s often restive ethnic Azeris, who make up a fifth of Iran’s population.