The Week That Was
The Real Threat Lurking Beneath the Hyperbole in North Korea
Last week began with a win for the United States over U.N. sactions on North Korea. It ended, however, with hyperbolic promises of "fire and fury" from the U.S. president and strikingly specific threats from North Korea.
The U.N. sanctions made for great theater, as Washington managed to secure support from Beijing and Moscow. But they won't slow North Korea's path to a nuclear deterrent. Pyongyang, in fact, followed up tough talk from President Donald Trump on Aug. 8 with news that its military leadership was drafting a plan for firing a four-missile salvo into the waters near Guam. The statements included an unusual level of detail and promises that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would have the plans in his hands by mid-August to deploy if and when he sees fit. The timing lines up with the annual U.S.-South Korea Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises, which North Korea wants to end and China wants to suspend in the interest of curbing tensions.
There are many factors to consider if North Korea proceeds with the strike. Its missiles could fail, revealing the weakness of Pyongyang's deterrent. On the other side, the United States would have to decide whether to intercept the missiles. Refraining would enable Washington to emphasize Pyongyang's role as an aggressor an escalator. Shooting them down, moreover, carries with it the risk of failure. The U.S. decision would likely come down to the trajectory and status of the North Korean devices. At the very least, though, North Korea's threat about Guam has signaled that it can to escalate the cost and likelihood of conflict to spur South Korea, China and Russia to redouble their efforts at dialogue.
In all of this, the chance still looms that the missiles could strike Guam, triggering the U.S. military intervention that North Korea (and the surrounding region) fears most. The United States, after all, has not backed off from flying B-1B bombers around the island, though Pyongyang specifically cited the flights in its threat. That puts the ball back in North Korea's court.
As the Trump administration deliberates over a strategy for the war in Afghanistan, former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince made headlines last week with a controversial solution. Prince proposed sending 5,500 private security contractors, with backing from a 90-airplane fleet and under the direction of a "viceroy" or presidential envoy, to oversee all Afghan operations. The plan — which won the support of Trump's chief strategist, Steven Bannon, but rankled the administration's military leadership, including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis — aims to centralize the war effort and cut annual expenses by $45 billion. It even suggests making use of a cellphone app to coordinate air strikes. The plan's implementation is by no means guaranteed, but it would mark a significant shift in U.S. military strategy. By expanding the role of contractors into a combat capacity, the United States would open up a host of issues governing the ethics of warfare and the effectiveness of such a strategy in Afghanistan, where U.S. forces have been for nearly 16 years.
Contentious Votes in Africa
Two big votes took place in Africa on Aug. 8, each with an unsettling outcome for the incumbent. The Kenyan presidential election pitted President Uhuru Kenyatta against his principal challenger, Raila Odinga. Ethnic divisions, accusations of electoral rigging and an alleged hacking attack stoked tensions in the country and increased social unrest, in which at least a dozen protesters have been killed so far. The opposition's insistence that Kenyatta won the vote fraudulently will keep the risk of further violence high in the days ahead.
South African President Jacob Zuma, meanwhile, survived yet another no-confidence vote in his country's parliament. The embattled leader weathered an unprecedented secret ballot and the defection of at least 30 members of his ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. Already, signs of a witch hunt in the ANC have emerged in the vote's wake as Zuma's allies try to strengthen their hand in the lead-up to December's crucial party congress.
In Pakistan, a Militant Foray Into Politics
The Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a charity organization linked with the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, launched the Milli Muslim League party last week in a bid to enter politics ahead of the 2018 national elections. The new party's president outlined an Islamic populist platform, taking aim at the dynasticism of Pakistani politics and decrying the country's deviation from the Islamic principles outlined in the 1973 Constitution. By allowing the JuD to form a political party, Islamabad seems to be trying to offer Lashkar-e-Taiba an alternative avenue for pursuing its goals beyond militancy. The JuD is still under U.N. sanctions, and its leader is under house arrest with a $10 million bounty on his head from the United States.
Building Up to Zapad
As Russia and Belarus prepare for this year's Zapad military exercises in September, countries on the front lines of Moscow's standoff with the West are bracing themselves for what may well be the largest drills in years. Estonia announced Aug. 8 that the United States will send a company of its 173rd Airborne Brigade consisting of around 150 soldiers to the Baltic state at the end of the month for the duration of the Zapad excercises. Lithuania has said that NATO would double its air policing mission in the Baltics during the drills, and Ukrainian officials have sounded the alarm over the planned use of air defense systems at its border with Belarus in the war games. Nearby countries are nervous that Russia will use Zapad as a pretext for more dramatic actions, such as an invasion of Belarus or incursions into their territory.
Quote of the Week
"Washington tends to make others responsible for the things, which should actually be done on its own. This is a kind of a behavioral algorithm. It can be compared to a naughty, spoiled child, who falls on the floor and bursts out crying and kicking, when he or she failed to do something or when some toy was not given immediately after the child asked to buy it."
- Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on the U.S. leaning on China to pressure North Korea
The specificity of the North Korean threat has raised concerns, and it follows a statement by the Strategic Force a day earlier by that they were "carefully examining the operational plan for making an enveloping fire at the areas around Guam" as a response to the frequent flights of U.S. strategic bombers from Andersen Air Force Base on Guam to the Korean Peninsula. The statement said North Korea would consider a launch of missiles as "a serious warning signal to the U.S." Both statements — and the purported preparation of the new operational plan — come shortly ahead of the annual large-scale Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises between South Korea and the United States, which begin at the end of August.
War isn't what it used to be. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in Russia's ongoing struggle with the West for influence, which now seems to take place in the shadows as often as it does in plain view. With the dawn of the digital age, conflicts between great powers have spread from battlespace to cyberspace, something the Kremlin has embraced with open arms by honing its capabilities in hybrid warfare.
Russia's Communists Pursue a Red Revival
Though it probably won't allow Navalny's bid for office, the Kremlin may have other challengers to worry about. The Communist Party — a political opponent that operates within the government's system — is starting to make its own plans for the future. The Russian public has long viewed the Party as a relic of bygone times, the last trace of the Soviet system that flew the red banner and venerated Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin. Since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, the Party has been best known for organizing street protests for elderly retirees who long for the old days, lending credence to the assumption that the movement would soon die out. But today, the political conditions may be right for Russia's Communist Party to stage a comeback.
The Week Ahead
Watching North Korea
North Korea is our big watch item for the coming week, given the heightened threats surrounding the country and region. While keeping an eye out for signs that Pyongyang is preparing a missile launch — or that the United States and Japan are preparing their defenses — we will also need to monitor the diplomatic front closely. South Korea is on edge about the potential for a premature military clash, and China will be working hard to convince Seoul to back off its upcoming exercises with the United States. At the same time, Washington and Tokyo will be shoring up their defense strategies. The U.S. defense and foreign affairs chiefs will meet with their Japanese counterparts in Washington on Aug. 17 to discuss strengthening Japan's defenses. Tokyo's desire to enhance its missile defense systems will figure prominently in the talks.
A More Radical Opposition Is Emerging in Venezuela
As Venezuela's government tries to consolidate its power by rewriting the country's constitution, a more radical opposition is steadily emerging. Though Caracas has largely neutralized civilian opposition in the Democratic Unity Roundtable, President Nicolas Maduro and his allies still face a threat from dissidents in the armed forces who are dissatisfied with the government's handling of the economic crisis. A group of former military personnel entered Fort Paramacay in Valencia on Aug. 6 to steal weapons, a brazen demonstration of their dissent. A few of the attackers have been arrested and some of the weapons appear to have been recovered, but, nevertheless, the risk remains that a more serious backlash against Maduro's administration could build in the military. Units in the armed forces still loyal to the government will meet attempts by military dissidents to threaten the constitutional rewrite with force, raising the risk of more frequent, violent clashes between the two camps.
The Vice President Goes to Latin America
The political situation in Venezuela will be a topic of discussion when U.S. Vice President Mike Pence heads to Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Panama on Aug. 14-18. Drug trafficking and trade cooperation will top his agenda during the visit. But the vice president will raise the subject of Venezuela as well, most notably with Argentina and Colombia, to discuss what regional states can do to respond to Maduro's bid at rewriting the constitution.
NAFTA Negotiations Kick Off
The first round of negotiations to update the North American Free Trade Agreement will begin in Washington on Aug. 16. Canada, Mexico and the United States will use this round of negotiations, set to wrap up Aug. 20, to lay out their demands, and conclusive decisions will probably take several months to materialize. In the meantime, matters such as Washington's demands to change the deal's dispute settlement mechanism or to improve Mexico's labor standards and boost wages could stir controversy among the bloc's members.
Moscow and Tokyo Hash Out the Kurils
Diplomats from Russia and Japan will hold the next round of talks over the disputed Kuril Islands on Aug.17. Both sides will try to focus on economic cooperation in the islands; Japan, for example, is proposing a common digital currency for its joint projects with Russia. As tensions over North Korea mount, however, the standoff with Pyongyang will be yet another obstacle in Tokyo and Moscow's path toward a reconciliation.
Fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria
Iraqi forces are about to embark on clearing the Islamic State out of the northwestern Iraqi city of Tal Afar. Along Lebanon's northeastern border with Syria, meanwhile, the Lebanese army is getting ready to rout a pocket of the group's militants after Hezbollah forces pushed members of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, from the adjacent territory. The cooperation between Hezbollah and the Lebanese army is aggravating political strife in Beirut, in part because it defies an implicit condition of the United States' offer of financial support to Lebanon's armed forces.
The following is an internal Stratfor document listing significant meetings and events planned for the next week. Stratfor analysts use this to stay informed of the activities and travel of world leaders and to guide their areas of focus for the week.
- Aug. 14-18: The British government is expected to publish several position papers on Brexit.
- Aug. 15: German Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to attend an electoral meeting ahead of parliamentary votes on September 24.
- Aug 12-14: Belarusian Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov will pay a working visit to Kazakhstan.
- Aug. 15-17: Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov will travel to Kyrgyzstan for a working visit.
- Aug. 17: Russia and Japan will hold consultations over the disputed Kuril Islands.
- Aug. 15: North and South Korea will celebrate National Liberation Day, marking the Allied victory over Japan in World War II.
- Aug. 15: Thailand's central bank will hold a monetary policy committee meeting.
- Aug. 19-30: The Southeast Asian Games will take place in Kuala Lumpur.
- Aug. 20-24: Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim will attend the Vietnam and Singapore Business Forums.
- Aug. 14-15: Pakistan and India will each observe the 70th anniversary of their independence.
- Aug. 14-17: Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang will travel to Nepal for a four-day visit.
- Aug. 15: Officers from China's army will meet with counterparts from India at five designated points along the countries' border to commemorate Indian Independence Day.
Middle East/North Africa
- Aug. 14: Exiled Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan's second in command will visit Gaza to discuss security with Hamas officials.
- Aug. 15: Jordan will hold local elections.
- Aug. 15: Yemen's parliament will convene in Aden.
- Aug. 15: Members of the Syrian opposition's High Negotiations Committee will meet in Riyadh.
- Aug. 16: An Iraqi court will hold a hearing related to whether the Kurdistan Regional Government can fly the Kurdish flag over government buildings in Kirkuk.
- Aug. 16-27: Syria will hold the Damascus International Fair, an international investment expo, for the first time in six years.
- Unknown date: The offensive to oust the Islamic State from the Iraqi city of Tal Afar could kick off.
- Aug 14-18: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will visit Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Panama.
- Aug 15: Brazil's National Congress will vote on political reform.
- Aug. 16-20: The first round of renegotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement will take place in Washington.
- Aug. 17: The Japanese foreign and defense ministers will travel to Washington meeting with their U.S. counterparts.
- Aug. 15: Kenya's election committee must release the final tally of the Aug. 8 presidential election by this date.
- Aug. 15: This date is the deadline the opposition has set for Mali's government to stop a referendum on reorganizing regions, providing more power to the president and recognizing the Tuareg homeland.
- Aug. 17-19: The Dalai Lama will visit Botswana despite pressure from China, a major trade partner for the southern African country.