Two wars, the consequences for America’s standing

The recent speech by United States Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer calling for a new government in Israel was the equivalent of a political earthquake hitting U.S.-Israel ties that are becoming increasingly fragile. The Democratic Senator is himself Jewish and has had one of the longest relationships with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who he has now charged with “too willing to tolerate the civilian toll” in Gaza.

Earlier, after meeting former U.S. President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Mr. Trump had told him that he would suspend military aid to Ukraine when he came to power. His campaign staffers have noted that Mr. Trump would seek to “quickly negotiate an end to the Russia-Ukraine war” and that the former President believed that the Europeans should pay more for the cost of the conflict.

The U.S. and the Ukraine war

The Israel-Hamas and the Ukraine wars are two important global issues which are playing out in unforeseen ways even as the U.S. is hurtling towards its epochal presidential elections eight months from now. To what extent they will be driven by election-year politics or their own future course is unclear. But, for better or for worse, the U.S. is playing a key role in both of them and their outcomes could have consequences for the standing of the country, regardless of who wins in November 2024.

The U.S. has provided some $75 billion in military and civil aid to Ukraine since February 2022. Most of the aid has been used in weapons purchases, keeping the government functional and its humanitarian requirements. Observers say that the bulk of the military aid has been spent in the U.S. to purchase equipment ranging from Stinger missiles to the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) weapons systems and artillery ammunition.

But, since the end of last year, an additional $60 billion assistance has been stuck in the wrangling of the U.S. Congress. The Administration and the Pentagon have been left scrounging for funds to ensure that Ukraine gets some military equipment. But soon this is also likely to run dry. The European Union (EU) has committed some €144 billion in aid to Ukraine. Of this some €93 billion is financial and economic support, €33 billion in military support and €17 billion in supporting refugees within the EU; another €12 billion is in financial, economic and humanitarian support by individual EU States. But the Europeans are nowhere near providing the level of military assistance that the U.S. has. It is unlikely that the U.S. will send further military aid in 2024, though the Senate has approved a new package, but it needs to pass the fractious House of Representatives.

The U.S. is in a strange place with regard to Ukraine. It obviously does not want a Russian victory, but it also does not want the war to expand or to drag on. Speaker Mike Johnson knows that if he brings the Senate bill to vote in the House of Representatives, it will pass with the help of traditional Republicans. But the Make America Great Again (MAGA) Republicans would thereafter vote for his removal.

The situation on the ground is none too good for Ukraine. With the failure of its summer offensive last year, it has not been able to find a viable strategy to counter the Russians. Shortages and poor tactics have led to a highly publicised defeat in Avdiivka.

After blundering in the initial invasion of Ukraine, the Russians have learnt their lessons well. They have used their superiority in numbers and equipment to stymie the Ukrainians. They have a clear edge in electronic warfare and artillery, and are using their Unified Gliding and Correction Module (UMPK) Glide bombs to devastating effect on the war front. On the other hand, the Ukrainians are short of key artillery ammunition, with a substantial portion of it having been diverted for Israeli use by the Americans last October.

Israel and its Gaza actions

The other uncomfortable issue is Israel’s war on Hamas. The U.S. remains, perhaps, the only major country backing Israel. But now, very publicly, U.S. President Joe Biden himself and Mr. Schumer are raising issues about Israeli strategy, or the lack of it. Former U.S. official Richard N. Haass, who is also Jewish, wrote in The Wall Street Journal recently, “Israel’s actions have left it worse off, at a great cost to itself and its relationship with the US and in the lives of innocent Palestinians.” These actions and comments reflect that change in public sentiment towards Mr. Netanyahu in the Democratic Party and the liberal Jewish-American community.

Having destroyed most of Gaza, Israeli forces are now threatening the last corner of the strip — Rafah. Mr. Biden has warned that an attack there would be to cross the U.S. redline because it would most certainly result in a large number of civilian casualties. But Mr. Netanyahu seems to be motivated by just one impulse — his own political survival.

Israel has so far demonstrated what it could do militarily, but under the right wing Netanyahu government, it has refused to put forward any political alternative for the Palestinians. Israel needs to articulate a future that leads to a sustainable peace in the region and an Israel-Palestinian reconciliation. A Palestinian state, even with limits on its sovereignty is the only path to that goal. Indeed, Mr. Netanyahu’s strategy of supporting Hamas in the past was aimed at splitting the Palestinian opinion and using the fear of Hamas to shape Israeli public perceptions.

On both Ukraine and Israel, the future U.S. approach appears to be clouded. Though we know the trajectory of the Biden policy and its shape, it is still difficult to predict the future because the earlier bipartisan approach to foreign, especially security policy is now history. Whether it is political parties, or demographies, changes are taking place in the manner with which the U.S. views the world. For example, younger Americans are less positively inclined to Israel than the older ones. Indeed, last October a YouGov poll found that more people between the ages of 18 to 29 empathised with Palestinians than with Israelis.

The Trump factor

But the bottom line here is that we are still eight months away from the U.S. election and, as of now, neither the U.S. or Ukraine is about to throw in the towel. Both sides remain committed and need each other. Besides hardware, Ukraine is receiving substantial intelligence support from the U.S. in the form of real-time information on Russian deployments. The way the Americans see it, the Ukrainians are weakening one of their major adversaries. The massive loss of personnel and equipment will without doubt temper Moscow’s future policies towards the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

But without doubt a victory of Mr. Trump would be majorly disruptive. This would definitely affect U.S. policy towards Ukraine. As for Israel, Mr. Trump is likely to remain a strong supporter that he has always been. One must recall that it was he who decided to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in the place of Tel Aviv.

But a Trump victory, which will change the political calculus in Washington DC, has implications for Ukraine and the NATO alliance. The Europeans are rushing to fill the American breach, but it is a case of too little and too late. The momentum in the war is with the Russians right now and if Ukraine is not able to regain it, there is every possibility of a Ukrainian collapse if the U.S. decides to step aside.

This would have wider consequences such as undermining the role of the U.S. as a guarantor of European security. American unreliability will also affect its alliance relationships in the Indo-Pacific — with South Korea, Japan and the Philippines, and its growing partnership with India.

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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Ahead of election, President Vladimir Putin’s programmes occupy most of TV shows in Russia

Thousands of Russians braved the cold for hours earlier this month to honour the Opposition politician Alexei Navalny after his funeral. They chanted anti-war slogans and covered his gravesite with so many flowers that it disappeared from view.

It was one of the largest displays of defiance against President Vladimir Putin since he invaded Ukraine, and happened just weeks before an election he is all but assured to win. But Russians watching television saw none of it.

A leading state television channel opened with its host railing against the West and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO.) Another channel led with a segment extolling the virtues of domestically built streetcars. And there was the usual deferential coverage of Mr. Putin.

Since coming to power almost 25 years ago, Mr. Putin has eliminated nearly all independent media and the Opposition voices in Russia — a process he ramped up after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin’s control over media is now absolute.

State television channels cheer every battlefield victory, twist the pain of economic sanctions into positive stories, and ignore that tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine.

Some Russians seek news from abroad or on social media using tools to circumvent state restrictions. But most still rely on state television, which floods them with the Kremlin’s view of the world. Over time, the effect is to whittle away their desire to question it.

“Propaganda is a kind of drug and I don’t mind taking it,” said Victoria, 50, from Russian-occupied Crimea. She refused to give her last name because of concerns about her safety.

“If I get up in the morning and hear that things are going badly in our country, how will I feel? How will millions of people feel? … Propaganda is needed to sustain people’s spirit,” she said.

Vladimir Putin’s broken promises

When Mr. Putin first addressed Russians as their new President on the last day of 1999, he promised a bright path after the chaotic years that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse.

“The state will stand firm to protect freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of mass media,” he said.

Yet just over a year later, he broke that promise: The Kremlin neutered its main media critic, the independent TV channel NTV, and went after the media tycoons who controlled it.

In the following decades, multiple Russian journalists, including investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, were killed or jailed, and the Russian parliament passed laws curbing press freedoms. The crackdown intensified two years ago after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

New laws made it a crime to discredit the Russian military and anyone spreading “false information” about the war faced up to 15 years in prison. Almost overnight, nearly all independent media outlets suspended operations or left the country. The Kremlin blocked access to independent media and some social media sites, and Russian courts jailed two journalists with U.S. citizenship, Evan Gershkovich and Alsu Kurmasheva.

“The Putin regime is based on propaganda and fear. And propaganda plays the most important role because people live in an information bubble,” said Marina Ovsyannikova, a former state television journalist who quit her job at a leading Russian state television channel in an on-air protest against the war.

The Kremlin regularly meets with the heads of TV stations to give “special instructions on what can be said on air,” said Ms. Ovsyannikova.

Every day, TV stations serve up a mix of bluster, threats and half-truths — telling viewers the West wants to destroy their country, that sanctions make them stronger and that Russia is winning the war.

The Kremlin’s goal is to squeeze out any Opposition so that citizens “remain inert and compliant,” said Sam Greene, a director at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington.

The strength of the Kremlin’s grip on the media means that while Navalny’s death in an Arctic penal colony was major news in the West, many Russians didn’t know about it.

One out of five Russians said they had not heard about his death, according to the independent Russian pollster Levada Center. Half said they only had vague knowledge of it.

The most memorable event for Russians in February, the polling found, was the Russian military’s capture of the eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka.

By trumpeting military victories, the Kremlin is focussed on creating a “happy feeling,” ahead of the elections, said Jade McGlynn, an expert on Russian propaganda at King’s College London.

Anti-war candidates are banned from the ballot, and there is no significant challenger to Mr. Putin. State television broadcasts dull debates between representatives of Mr. Putin’s opponents.

President Putin is not openly campaigning but is frequently shown touring the country — admiring remote tomato farms or visiting weapons factories.

The idea that Russia is thriving under Mr. Putin is a potent message for people who have seen their living standards fall since the war — and sanctions — began, driving up prices for food and other staples.

The war has also pushed Russia’s defence industry into overdrive, and people like Victoria from Crimea have noticed.

“If they tell me that new jobs have appeared, should I be happy or sad? Is this propaganda or truth?” she asked.

“Granules of truth”

Russian propaganda is “sophisticated and multi-faceted,” said Francis Scarr, a journalist who analyses Russian television for BBC Monitoring.

There is some “outright lying,” he said, but often Russian state media “takes a granule of truth and massively over-amplifies it.” For example, while unemployment in Russia is at a record low, news reports don’t explain it’s partly because tens of thousands of Russians have been sent to fight in Ukraine or have fled the country.

Many Russians know this, yet the idea that Russia is prospering – even if it contradicts what they see with their own eyes – is still attractive.

“The greatness of Russia tends to be measured throughout history in the greatness of the state and not in the greatness of the quality of life for its people,” said McGlynn of King’s College London.

Ahead of the election, state TV is ramping up that nationalistic theme, telling viewers it is their patriotic duty to vote. The Kremlin, experts say, is worried Russians may not come out in large numbers.

Videos released on social media – but not directly linked to the Kremlin – are aimed at combating apathy, especially among younger voters.

In one, a woman berates her husband for not voting. “What difference does it make? Will he not get elected without us,” the husband asks, indirectly referring to Mr. Putin. To which his wife warns him: inaction could leave their child without maternity payments.

The Kremlin wants high voter turnout, experts say, to lend an aura of legitimacy to Mr. Putin, whose re-election would keep him in power through at least 2030.

“No Opposition in modern Russia”

People can bypass government restrictions by using special links to foreign websites or accessing the Internet over private networks.

But it’s questionable whether many Russians — especially those living in Mr. Putin’s conservative heartland — even want to hear news conveyed in the language of the liberal West.

To “break through to the people who are not putting flowers on Navalny’s grave, they’re going to have to meet those viewers where they are and speak to them in a language that they understand,” said Greene. That means striking a balance between criticism of Mr. Putin’s regime and pride in the nation.

Even those soothed by the Kremlin’s propaganda also could long for a real choice at the polls.

“I don’t see any Opposition in modern Russia,” said Victoria, pointing out that the candidates running alongside Mr. Putin all have the Kremlin’s approval. “I don’t plan to vote in the elections,” she added.

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Leaders from South American Nations Challenge Developed Countries to Stop Amazon Destruction at Belem Summit

View of the forest cut by the Combu Creek, on Combu Island on the banks of the Guama River, near the city of Belem, Para state, Brazil. Belem is playing host to the Amazon Summit – IV Meeting of the Presidents of the States party to the Amazon Cooperation Treaty, with the participation of Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Guyana, French Guiana, Ecuador, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela.
| Photo Credit: AP

Leaders from South American nations that are home to the Amazon challenged developed countries on August 8 to do more to stop the massive destruction of the world’s largest rainforest, a task they said can’t fall to just a few when the crisis has been caused by so many.

Assembling in the Brazilian city of Belem, the members of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, or ACTO, also sought to chart a common course on how to combat climate change, hoping a united front would give them a major voice in global talks.

The calls from the Presidents of nations including Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia came as leaders aim to fuel much-needed economic development in their regions while preventing the Amazon’s ongoing demise “from reaching a point of no return,” according to a joint declaration issued at the end of the day. Some scientists say that when 20% to 25% of the forest is destroyed, rainfall will dramatically decline, transforming more than half of the rainforest to tropical savannah, with immense biodiversity loss.

“The forest unites us. It is time to look at the heart of our continent and consolidate, once and for all, our Amazon identity,” said Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “In an international system that was not built by us, we were historically relegated to a subordinate place as a supplier of raw materials. A just ecological transition will allow us to change this.”

The two-day summit ending on August 9 reinforces Mr. Lula’s strategy to leverage global concern for Amazon’s preservation. Emboldened by a 42% drop in deforestation during his first seven months in office, he has sought international financial support for forest protection.

The Amazon stretches across an area twice the size of India. Two-thirds of it lie in Brazil, with seven other countries and one territory share the remaining third. Governments have historically viewed it as an area to be colonized and exploited, with little regard for sustainability or the rights of its Indigenous peoples.

All the countries at the summit have ratified the Paris Climate Accord, which requires signatories to set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But cross-border cooperation has historically been scant, undermined by low trust, ideological differences and the lack of government presence.

Aside from a general consensus on the need for shared global responsibility, members of ACTO— convening for only the fourth time in the organization’s existence— demonstrated on August 8 that they aren’t fully aligned on key issues. This week marks the first meeting of the 45-year-old organization in 14 years.

Forest protection commitments have been uneven previously and appeared to remain so at the summit. The “Belem Declaration,” the gathering’s official proclamation issued on August 8, didn’t include shared commitments to zero deforestation by 2030. Brazil and Colombia have already made those commitments. Mr. Lula has said he hopes the document will be a shared call to arms at the COP 28 climate conference in November.

A key topic dividing the nations on August 8 was oil. Notably, leftist Colombian President Gustavo Petro called for an end to oil exploration in the Amazon— an allusion to the ambivalent approach of Brazil and other oil-producing nations in the region— and said that governments must forge a path toward “decarbonized prosperity.”

“A jungle that extracts oil — is it possible to maintain a political line at that level? Bet on death and destroying life?” Mr. Petro said. He also spoke about finding ways to reforest pastures and plantations, which cover much of Brazil’s heartland for cattle ranching and growing soy.

Mr. Lula, who has presented himself as an environmental leader on the international stage, has refrained from taking a definitive stance on oil, citing the decision as a technical matter. Meanwhile, Brazil’s state-run Petrobras company has been seeking to explore for oil near the mouth of the Amazon River.

Despite disagreements among nations, there have been encouraging signs of increased regional cooperation amid growing global recognition of the Amazon’s importance in arresting climate change. Sharing a united voice— along with funnelling more money into ACTO— could help it serve as the region’s representative on the global stage ahead of the COP climate conference, leaders said.

“The Amazon is our passport to a new relationship with the world, a more symmetric relationship, in which our resources are not exploited to benefit few, but rather valued and put in the service of everyone,” Mr. Lula said.

Bolivian President Luis Arce said the Amazon has been the victim of capitalism, reflected by the runaway expansion of agricultural borders and natural resource exploitation. And he noted that industrialized nations are responsible for most historic greenhouse gas emissions.

“The fact that the Amazon is such an important territory doesn’t imply that all of the responsibilities, consequences and effects of the climate crisis should fall to us, to our towns and to our economies,” Mr. Arce said.

Mr. Petro argued that affluent nations should swap foreign debt owed by Amazon countries for climate action, saying that would create enough investment to power the Amazon region’s economy.

Signed by officials from eight nations, the Belem Declaration also:

1. Condemns the proliferation of protectionist trade barriers, which signatories said negatively affects poor farmers in developing nations and hampers the promotion of Amazon products and sustainable development.

2. Calls on industrialized nations to comply with their obligations to provide massive financial support to developing nations.

3. Calls for the strengthening of law enforcement cooperation. Commits authorities to exchanging best practices and intelligence about specific illicit activities, including deforestation, human rights violations, trafficking of fauna and flora and the sale and smuggling of mercury, a highly toxic metal widely used for illegal gold mining that pollutes waterways.

Colombia’s Petro also called for the formation of a military alliance akin to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, saying such a group could be tasked not only with protecting the Amazon but tackling another major problem for the region: organized crime.

Few border areas are policed seriously and there has been scant international cooperation as rival organized crime groups compete for drug-trafficking routes. Drug seizures have increased in Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and Peru over the past decade, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported in June. Mr. Lula previously announced a plan to create an international police center in Manaus.

Also attending the summit on August 8 were Guyana’s Prime Minister, Venezuela’s Vice President and the Foreign Ministers of Suriname and Ecuador.

On August 9, the summit will welcome representatives of Norway and Germany, the largest contributors to Brazil’s Amazon Fund for sustainable development, along with counterparts from other crucial rainforest regions: Indonesia, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. France’s ambassador to Brazil will also attend, representing the Amazonian territory of French Guiana.

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