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1. Ukraine has spent months assembling a dozen new assault brigades, training some 40,000 new troops to bolster its forces and replace the tens of thousands of troops cut down since Russia’s full-scale invasion began 14 months ago. It has also amassed an extensive arsenal of western weapons, from German battle tanks to US rocket launchers and UK long-range missiles, in preparation for a much-anticipated counter-offensive to wrest back territory occupied by Russia’s invasion forces. That counter-offensive is expected to come any day now — and some say it has already started — even though President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said this week that he would like to hold off until more western weapons arrive. A person with knowledge of Ukraine’s counter-offensive preparations said the president’s message could well have been a feint or part of a strategy to get the west to rush more weapons. But whenever their orders come down, Ukraine’s forces will need to be fully prepared as they are likely to face significant obstacles and very real resistance. For each day Ukraine has taken to prepare, Russia has had a day to shore up its own depleted forces and fortify its defences. Despite heavy losses, its armed forces still outnumber Kyiv’s. (Source: ft.com)
2. Sergey Radchenko:
It does not actually matter if (Yevgeny) Prigozhin’s rants are a part of some Kremlin conspiracy to rein in the military, or simply a reflection of Prigozhin’s own frustrations and ambitions. What matters is the image he is projecting. This image is not favorable to Putin. It is an image of bourgeoning chaos, weakness, and of Putin’s inability to reconcile competing interests of warring factions. It is an image of Putin in terminal decline.
Putin came to power on the promise to strengthen the Russian state. Early in his tenure he ruthlessly cut down the oligarchs, imposing what he called a ‘vertical of power’. Now, though, this vertical is beginning to strain and crack under stress. The elites know that the tsar has no clothes. The military doubt his wisdom. The people – the proverbial masses – look on passively, no longer certain of anything, tired of war, and generally unwilling to sacrifice themselves on the altar of Putin’s faded greatness.
It is this uncertainly that Prigozhin is now seeking to exploit for his sinister ends. For him, this is a one in a generation opportunity to make a play for power: not in the jungles of Africa, nor in the deserts of the Middle East, but right here at home, in the midst of the deepening darkness of post-Putin Russia. (Source: spectator.co.uk)
(W)hy is Prigozhin valuable to Putin?
The explanation lies in Putin’s complicated relationship with the Russian military. During his early years in power, one of Putin’s greatest challenges was keeping the military under control. As one of the world’s largest armies in a vast country where everything is done in-house, the military has a tradition of making sure that the outside world knows as little as possible about its activities. That means that the usual forms of government and public oversight—whether through Parliament, law enforcement, or the media—simply don’t take place in Russia. During his first decade in office, Putin sought to tighten his grip on the army by appointing the former KGB general and his trusted friend Sergei Ivanov as minister of defense. But Putin was forced to replace him in 2007 when it became clear that Ivanov’s efforts to launch a larger military reform had failed. Later, with Shoigu, another outsider to the military, Putin again attempted to gain more leverage.
But now, after more than a year of war in Ukraine, there is little evidence that Putin has succeeded with Shoigu any more than he did with Ivanov. Moreover, Putin understands that in wartime the military tends to gain more power within the state. He knows that the longer the war continues the more this power will grow, and the harder it may be for him to exercise control. And since he tends to view the world in terms of threats, the relative power of the military is something that concerns him—in some ways even more than the army’s performance on the battlefield.
As a result, Putin has resorted to increasingly unorthodox methods to rein in the generals. Starting in the fall 2022, for example, he encouraged the voenkors to publicize problems in the army. But even more important has been the role of Wagner as a counterbalancing force to the military. For Prigozhin, despite the extraordinary casualties suffered by his solders, this is a win-win situation. He recognizes that he will never pose a political threat to Putin because he has no other backing within the Russian ruling elite apart from Putin’s own patronage. And Putin has been careful to keep it that way.
With his special status—loosely managed by the GRU, tolerated by the military, and protected by Putin—Prigozhin hopes to keep his unique position in the Kremlin’s increasingly medieval court. (Source: foreignaffairs.com)
4. The Economist on China:
China’s navy surpassed America’s as the world’s largest around 2020 and is now the centerpiece of a fighting force that the Pentagon considers its “pacing challenge”. The question vexing Chinese and Western military commanders is this: can China continue on the same path, relentlessly expanding its capacity to challenge American dominance? Or does a slowing Chinese economy, and a more hostile, unified West, mean that China’s relative power is peaking?
In recent months, some American scholars have made the latter case, arguing that China might soon attack Taiwan, the self-governed island that it claims, as its relative advantages erode. “We live in an age of ‘peak China’,” write Hal Brands and Michael Beckley, two American political scientists, in a book released in August. “Beijing is a revisionist power that wants to reorder the world, but its time to do so is already running out.”
China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping, certainly faces severe challenges, including an aging population, runaway local-government debt and an American government bent on curbing the People’s Liberation Army’s access to advanced Western technology. America is also overhauling its armed forces and galvanising alliances to prepare for a war over Taiwan. Yet there is still plenty of evidence that, in military terms, Chinese power is far from topping out. (Source: economist.com)
5. Alex de Waal:
Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, is being destroyed in a fight to the death between two venal, brutal generals. This is a war of choice; allowing it to happen was a failure of international diplomacy. But if we look at the city’s 200-year history, the fighting shouldn’t be a surprise. Khartoum was founded on a command post built for the purposes of imperial robbery – and every subsequent regime has continued this practice. In ordinary circumstances, Sudan is run by a cabal of merchants and generals who plunder the darker-skinned people of the marchlands and bring their wealth to Khartoum, a relatively opulent city and a haven of calm. But the logic of kleptocracy is inexorable: when the cartel is bankrupt, the mobsters shoot it out. We saw this in Liberia and Somalia thirty years ago. The ransack of the Sudanese state today is ten times bigger. (Source: lrb.co.uk)
6. Sujah Nawaz:
Just when one imagined Pakistan could not sink further into an economic and political morass, its leaders, civil and military, appear to have come up with yet another unnecessary crisis. The use of the military to arrest former Prime Minister Imran Khan in the sacrosanct confines of the Islamabad High Court reflects the inability of Pakistani political leaders to provide a coherent strategy to fight its economic and political woes. It also represents the inability of its military leaders to resist political engineering.
If the ultimate aim is to rid Pakistani politics of Imran Khan, then the storm that appears to have been unleashed may produce unintended and unmanageable consequences. The military’s calculations appear to hinge on expectations of a declining trend of Khan’s popularity and an inflated view of its own ability to ride out street unrest. What it may not have calculated is the cumulative effect of unrest on the national economy, currently gasping for air and heading toward hyperinflation and default, as well on its own rank and file. Will schisms emerge within the military? Or, will the unrest and mayhem serve as an excuse to postpone, perhaps indefinitely, the provincial and national elections ordained by the Constitution? Pakistan can ill afford a coup on the Egyptian model. If that were to occur, the country would struggle to survive an extended period of chaos as an economic and political pariah. (Sources: atlanticcouncil.org, shujanawaz.com)
Alarmed by Iran’s progress in enriching uranium at close to weapons-grade levels, European countries are pressing the Biden administration to revive a diplomatic track with Tehran that they hope would help avoid a possible nuclear crisis.
After 18 months of negotiations, talks on reviving the 2015 nuclear accord collapsed in August when Tehran rejected a deal that would have largely restored the original pact’s terms. Iran is now amassing 60% highly enriched uranium and recently produced a small amount of near-weapons grade material, according to the United Nations atomic agency.
European officials say time is running out to diplomatically address an Iranian nuclear program that puts Tehran as little as several months away from being able to develop a nuclear weapon, but they are worried that the White House has shelved the issue until after the 2024 election. They acknowledged that any new effort to keep a lid on Iran’s nuclear advances may fail to stop Iran from eventually getting a weapon. (Source: wsj.com)
Turkey goes to the polls tomorrow with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan trailing his chief rival while another candidate's last-minute pullout raises the stakes in the toughest re-election battle of his career, analysts said.
The 69-year-old Erdogan, Turkey's longest-serving leader, is looking to extend his two-decade rule with the backing of a strong conservative and religious base across the Muslim nation.
But this weekend's presidential and parliamentary elections have become a referendum on his governing style and unorthodox economic policies. Many of Turkey's 64 million eligible voters are struggling with a cost-of-living crisis caused by runaway inflation.
Some earlier polls had shown Erdogan running neck-and-neck with his strongest challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a 74-year-old former civil servant and economist who is backed by Nation Alliance, a six-party coalition.
But on Thursday, a survey by Konda, Turkey's leading pollster, showed the left-leaning Kilicdaroglu outpacing Erdogan by 5.6 percentage points with a lead widened by nearly four percentage points since last month.
The closely-watched poll showed Erdogan, who heads the Justice and Development Party (AKP), with voter support of 43.7% nationally compared to Kilicdaroglu with 49.3%. (Source: asia.nikkei.com) (Ed. Note: polling in Turkey is not remarkably precise, to put it gently)
9. Nikkei Asia:
Thailand's top political parties yesterday rallied supporters in Bangkok, capping a two-month campaign that culminates tomorrow with a lower house election that could see the end of a pro-military government that has dominated the country for nearly a decade.
Prime ministerial candidates from all parties delivered messages that echoed their final campaign ads. The largest opposition party, Pheu Thai, leaned on nostalgia for its previous governments. Another opposition party, Move Forward, presented a message of hope and systemic change.
Meanwhile, incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's United Thai Nation party warned against changing institutions, such as the monarchy and military.
Pheu Thai, which is ahead in most polls, confirmed at Friday's rally that property tycoon Srettha Thavisin was its top nominee for prime minister. The party had nominated three candidates: Srettha, 60, along with Paetongtarn Shinawatra -- the daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra -- and Chaikasem Nitisiri. (Source: asia.nikkei.com)
Paetongtarn Shinawatra and Srettha Thavisi of Pheu Thai party take a selfie with supporters during a rally in Bangkok on May 12. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)
10. Extraordinary Measures:
The US Treasury Department said in a statement Friday that it had just $88 billion of extraordinary measures to help keep the government’s bills paid as of May 10.
That’s down from around $110 billion a week earlier and that means that just over a quarter of the $333 billion of authorized measures are still available to keep the US government from running out of borrowing room under the statutory debt limit.
The measures are a collection of various accounting gimmicks that enable the administration to keep selling debt even though it has run up against the $31.4 trillion borrowing ceiling imposed by Congress.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said earlier this month that the government is at risk of running out of headroom as soon as June 1 and Treasury markets have shifted to price in a default premium for securities maturing around that date. The cost of insuring US debt against non-payment has also soared.
A face-to-face meeting this week between President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy on the debt impasse produced little sign of movement, but negotiations between staffers are ongoing and the leaders are scheduled to meet again next week. (Source: bloomberg.com)
11. Niall Ferguson:
One can never rule out surprises in American politics. Perhaps Peggy Noonan is right that Robert F. Kennedy Jr, who is running for the Democratic nomination, can mount a real challenge to Biden. He has the magic name, after all, even if he is an anti-vaccine crank. Perhaps the West Virginia senator Joe Manchin was hinting at a presidential run when he issued a statement last week that declared: ‘Make no mistake, I will win any race I enter.’ But the lesson of history is clear – the Republican frontrunner usually wins the nomination, and a post-recession incumbent usually loses the presidential election. (Source: spectator.co.uk)
12. The inflation issue:
It was apparent to many of us that Trump’s best days in US politics were not necessarily behind him. This from July of 2021:
(A)s we learn again and again, the national popular vote isn’t evenly distributed across the Electoral College. State-by-state, the Electoral College is almost perfectly distributed to make GOP victories possible, even when the party loses the national popular vote by a substantial margin. (Biden beat Trump by 7 million votes in the 2020 general election, he won in the electoral college by a whisker.)
It’s also the case that Trump enjoys an advantage over Biden (or Harris or any Democrat, for that matter) on “cultural issues.” In the key Electoral College states (like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, to name three) general election voters align more comfortably with Trump’s views on cultural issues; on immigration especially, but also on crime, “defund the police,” the undoing of welfare reform, and the rise of Woke.
That’s enough to make him competitive, but probably not enough to put him over the top. He’s so toxic, he hits a ceiling. And the Democrats (and their media allies) will do everything in their power to make Toxic Trump the issue, above all others. They’ll borrow a line from the Reagan re-election campaign: “Why would we ever want to return to where we were, less than four short years ago?”
But what happens if Trump is not the issue? What happens if inflation is the issue? That would bring to mind the Carter re-election campaign, the one that ended in a GOP landslide at the state and local level and a 10-point win for Ronald Reagan (who received 50% of the national vote). Inflation destroyed Jimmy Carter’s presidency. It kicked him out of office.
What if Larry Summers is right and inflation is ready for launch and will likely take off next year? If Biden Administration policies are seen as the proximate cause of inflation, will “swing voters” view the administration as the best option for bringing inflation back under control? Probably not. Is inflation the kind of issue that can render Trump’s toxicity less salient? Yes it is. (Sources: larrysummers.com, cookpolitical.com, youtube.com, jellis41.medium.com. 7.26.21)