Friday News Roundup — November 5, 2021

Virginia’s Election, CIA Director in Moscow, Japan’s Election, Drone Proliferation, Results Needed from COP26


Friday greetings from Washington, D.C., where we are watching the House of Representatives move on President Biden’s Build Back Better plan, as well as the bipartisan infrastructure deal. This comes after the party reacts to a loss in Virginia and a narrow, narrow victory in New Jersey.

Focusing on the Commonwealth for a moment, Democrats’ depressed enthusiasm was reflected in turnout, while Governor-elect Youngkin’s campaign walked the tightrope between the Trump and moderate wings of the GOP, focused on issues of education and the economy. Virginia also showed that 45-days of voting can work to both parties’ advantage, and Governor and First Lady Northam meeting with Governor-elect and Mrs. Youngkin demonstrates how democracies vote and carry out a peaceful transfer of power. Youngkin may have created a blueprint for how a Republican can get elected in a purple state, post-Trump, but will he govern more in the mold of Northeast Republican governors Charlie Baker, Phil Scott, and Larry Hogan, or more like his Sunbelt counterparts Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott?

In a Hill op-ed, Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs, Joshua C. Huminski, called for the White House to adopt a realistic perspective on Russia and a measure of strategic humility on what it can achieve vis-a-vis Moscow in the anticipated National Security Strategy.

Huminski, in a piece for Breaking Defense, also discussed the need for the national security space enterprise to adopt a more robust approach to “assured access” and diversify its launch portfolio by incorporating both large and small classes of launch vehicle.

This week, Senior Fellow Robert Gerber dives deeper into the ramifications of Virginia’s vote, while Joshua analyzes the meetings of CIA Director Burns in Moscow. Hidetoshi Azuma breaks down what the election in Japan tells us, and Ethan Brown looks at the proliferation of drones in the Middle East. CSPC Fellows alumna Ivana Del Río Benitez Landa calls for bold action at COP26. As always, we wrap with news you may have missed.

What Virginia’s Elections Tell us About the Biden Agenda and the State of American Democracy

Robert W. Gerber

Governor-elect Youngkin campaigning

Virginia’s statewide elections are fun to watch for two reasons. First, they occur on four-year cycles, where incumbents are term limited to one term. Second, Virginia is a so-called “swing state” with shades of blue near urban areas and many traditionally red districts in rural, coastal, and mountain areas.

On November 2, Virginians elected Republican candidates for governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General. Democrats also lost control of the State House of Delegates. In the aftermath of the election, Democrats are pointing out that the party that is not in control of the White House usually wins the Virginia governorship. Republicans are pointing out that they won the governorship in a state where Donald Trump lost by 10 points in 2020.

What does the election say about the Biden agenda?

Clearly the Democrats’ Virginia defeat is not a good signal for the Biden agenda. Some Democrats will argue they would have performed better if their party had been able to pass signature legislation. They will blame moderates like Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who have curbed progressives’ legislative ambitions. Democrats complained that Manchin signaled two days before the election that he wasn’t pleased with the latest compromise. Others would say Democrats’ overreach, in the form of overly ambitious and expensive social programs, created a voter backlash. The left-leaning New York Times blamed the Virginia loss on COVID and recommended Democrats now double down on their sprawling policy agenda, citing the general popularity of programs in reconciliation bill (Note: survey respondents tend to favor increased government benefits). The Wall Street Journal opined that the smart move would be for Democrats to settle for the bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill, and “recalibrate” to win more bipartisan victories and protect swing seats in 2022. The Journal wrote, “In a state where Mr. Biden beat Mr. Trump by 10 percentage points, a majority of voters… disapproved of the current president’s performance. Nearly two-thirds of voters said the country is headed in the wrong direction.” The Washington Post wrote, “A new round of upheaval over the party’s priorities and strategies appeared imminent. In races across the country, there were signs that voters see the party as having moved too far to the left, even as its progressive wing has been flexing its muscles.” CNN stated, “Election night sent serious warning signs that President Biden’s party has misjudged the nation’s mood.”

But the Virginia vote was not wholly a referendum on Democratic Party federal-level priorities. Not surprising for a state governor’s race, hybrid issues like jobs/economy/inflation and local issues like education and crime appeared to play a prominent role in the motivation of Virginia voters. (The coronavirus was, notably, behind economic issues on the list of top concerns.)

What did the election say about the health of democracy in America, which Freedom House said in March was in a state of decline?

On the negative side of the ledger, both parties employed fear-based negative ads and some degree of fact manipulation to sow seeds of doubt in their opponent. And the McAuliffe and Youngkin campaigns spent a combined $100 million in their effort to win the governorship. On the positive side, with 45 days of early voting Virginia saw strong voter participation for a non-federal election, and talk of voter disenfranchisement or the credibility of electoral systems — topics that dominated 2020 headlines — did not feature as prominently in this year’s election. One day after the election, President Biden told the press, “We all have an obligation to accept the results of this election.” This message contrasted with President Trump’s effort to discredit the 2020 vote count. Speaking of President Trump, his influence in the election will be debated. But arguably, Youngkin’s win was a victory for moderation within the Republican party: “Mr. Youngkin, a mild-mannered private equity tycoon, sought to appeal to moderates by keeping Mr. Trump at arm’s length, while tapping into the former president’s supporters in the state.” was how the BBC put it. Whether the Democrats also take away a lesson on the utility of moderation remains to be seen. Either way, voters deserve political leaders who can work together to tackle the urgent and long-term challenges — domestic and foreign — that the country faces.

CIA Director Travels to Moscow

Joshua C. Huminski

Nikolai Patrushev, Russian Security Council secretary, and US CIA director William Burns (left and right, respectively) meet in Moscow

Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Ambassador William Burns, travelled to Moscow this week, making him the fourth senior official to travel to Russia since July. During his two-day visit, Burns met with Nikolai Patrushev, the Secretary of Russia’s Security Council, who previously served as head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB. Burns also met his Russian counterpart, ​​Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence arm, the SVR.

Since President Joseph Biden met with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin in Geneva in June, the United States has undertaken a forward-leaning approach to engagement, seeking to find areas of common ground with the Kremlin. In addition to the four senior visits to Moscow, multiple lower-level meetings have taken place in Finland and Switzerland, ostensibly neutral grounds for discussions.

The fact that Burns’ visit was publicized to the degree it was suggests that the White House is keen to demonstrate that it is engaging with Russia, despite continued tensions. The discussions have taken place against a muddled geopolitical background with NATO expelling Russian diplomats in response to charges of espionage, Moscow suspending its NATO presence, a recent build-up of forces near Ukraine’s border, and recent cyber attacks originating from Russian criminal organizations as well as state-led cyber espionage campaigns.

While the engagements have not, thus far, produced any tangible results, that they are occurring at all is a positive development, provided the administration maintains a clear-eyed understanding of Russia and its interests. Moscow and Washington are working through well-established channels on key issues such as arms-control and mutual legal assistance treaties on cyber-crime, but on both it remains to be seen what progress is actually achieved. Discussing issues such as North Korea, Afghanistan, climate change is productive, provided expectations are measured and constrained.

Critics have unfairly suggested that talking with Moscow is a reward. In fact, it is neither a reward, nor is withholding engagement a punishment. It is the fact of doing the business of the state. Communication helps establish redlines and avoid misunderstandings, leading to a measure of stability even if those discussions do not lead to formal agreements. Withholding dialogue as a punishment for Russia’s malign behavior (and there are plenty of reasons for withholding engagement) merely raises the likelihood of a misunderstanding or miscalculation.

It is true that this is seen by Moscow as a recognition of its importance on the world stage in spite of its malign activity. Yet, this is not about winning or losing and it needs to stop being framed as such. Of course, the fact that American officials are traveling to Moscow and talking with key officials such as Patrushev is seen as a victory by and for the Kremlin, but that is of considerably less value and consequences of a misunderstanding by not talking with Moscow.

It is, however, important, that Washington negotiate and discuss from a position of strength and it is here that the White House is likely found wanting. The White House’s toolkit, thus far, is limited to sanctions and little else. Washington needs to think asymmetrically about how to confront and contain Russia’s malign behavior rather than merely tit-for-tat expulsions or reflexive sanctions. Here, this means encouraging European states to continue increasing their defense spending and strengthening their security posture, among other things. Moscow retains the ability to escalate its activities considerably more than Washington’s ability to constrain the Kremlin in response. Moscow understands this and understands Biden’s interest in pivoting almost exclusively to China on the international stage and domestic priorities overall. Yet, Biden can ill-afford to ignore Moscow in favor of Beijing.

Dialogue and discussion are better than the absence thereof, but it is critical that Washington retain a realistic perspective about the art of the possible when it comes to Russia.

All Not So Quiet on Japan’s Election Front

Hidetoshi Azuma

The latest general election for Japan’s Lower House on October 31 was a de facto national referendum on the country’s establishment politics, including the newly-formed administration led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. While the ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), predictably secured the supermajority yet again, new political dynamics driven by the growing use of social media for mobilization shaped the contours of a new era of domestic Japanese politics. As the Kishida administration begins in earnest, the newfound political reality in Tokyo would likely constrain its ability to implement many of its ambitious agendas, particularly economic security.

The general election in Japan last week was essentially a national referendum on the country’s political establishment. The election confirmed the long-term political undercurrent eroding the Cold War-era political system known as the 1955 system led by the LDP. While the LDP’s seemingly unrivaled hold on power, including the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s unprecedented eight-year term, appears to perpetuate the 1955 system, its continuity is more due to the perennially weak opposition than a popular mandate. While a handful of powerful kingmakers all but determined the election of Kishida as the LDP president in September, the Lower House reshuffle last week underscored a newfound popular consensus on the state of domestic Japanese politics.

In particular, social media played a decisive role in shaping the trajectory of the general election. Indeed, social media has upset the traditional political dynamics where lawmakers rely on special interests for election mobilization. Social media has given rise to new, technology-savvy players, such as Taro Kono, who has leveraged Twitter for direct engagement with constituents. The upshot is the ongoing tectonic shift in domestic Japanese politics toward more populist dynamics where the activities of the Diet come under increased public scrutiny.

One prominent example of such emerging dynamics is the defeat of the former LDP Secretary-General Akira Amari. Amari was once Japan’s top negotiator for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and recently shared the rank as a veteran kingmaker along with Abe and the former Prime Minister Taro Aso, leading the three to earn an appellation, “3A,” who largely determined the election of Kishida as the LDP president. Under the Kishida administration, Amari used his new party post to aggressively push for bolstering Japan’s economic security to counter China’s unrestricted challenges. In traditional domestic Japanese politics, Amari’s victory would have been presumed. Yet, despite his stellar career, his past campaign finance violations came under serious public scrutiny during the general election, leading to a coordinated negative campaign on social media against the then-incumbent LDP Secretary-General. The anti-Amari campaign exhibited many of the disinformation traits unique to influence operations by adversarial state actors, most likely China. Amari’s unexpected defeat underscores the emerging generational shift in domestic Japanese politics.

The new political reality in Tokyo would likely pose challenges to Kishida’s ambitious agendas. Indeed, Amari’s humiliating resignation from his LDP Secretary-General post would be a serious setback for his signature economic security initiative. Amari’s successor, the former foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi, oversaw the signing and ratification of the Beijing-led RCEP as well as many other pro-China initiatives under the former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration, leading to serious questions as to his commitment to economic security. Moreover, while the opposition considerably weakened after the general election with the defeat of the chief of the Constitutional Democratic Party, Yukio Edano, Kishida would likely need to contain renewed infra-party power struggles led by Abe and his protégés, including the LDP Councillor for Policy Management Sanae Takaichi.

The new Lower House in Japan reflects the country’s long-term political dynamics. Against the backdrop of the LDP’s newfound supermajority status, Kishida looks to implement his visions for a new Japan. Yet, the post-election reality on the ground would likely constrain his ability to carry out his agenda. While Kishida’s premiership itself is largely a product of backroom dealings in Nagatacho, he is directly answerable to the public in maintaining his Diet seat. This is the paradox of parliamentary democracy. Democracy is alive and well in Japan, but the true test for Kishida is its ability to preserve a democratic system while fulfilling geopolitical imperatives. Amari’s downfall augurs ill for Kishida’s economic security policy and other important national security agendas, including enhancing the US-Japan alliance. After the disruptive general election last week, the urgent task for Kishida would be to work with his American counterpart to institutionalize and integrate his vision for Japan’s national security policy into the US-Japan alliance.

Remote warfare emerging as Middle East power lever

Ethan Brown

An Iranian Simorgh RPA near the Persian Gulf (AFP/Getty Images via BreakingDefense)

Last week, a new phase of hostilities emerged as Middle East antagonists continue to vie for influence in the war-ravaged region of Eastern Syria and beyond. Reports indicate that the recent attack on Al Tanf garrison, which still hosts U.S., British, and French military personnel (about 350 total), was conducted with as many as five drones equipped with explosive charges. The drones were not launched from Iranian airspace — even Tehran’s propaganda machine couldn’t diffuse the kind of international tensions that would arise from crossing sovereign borders with lethal technology — but Israeli intelligence and government spokespersons stated that the drones were operated by Iran-backed proxy militias inside Syrian territory.

Remote weapons systems — readers of this space should know by now my personal and professional distaste for use of the term ‘drones’ — are becoming increasingly prolific in state arsenals for conflict and competition. The attack on Al Tanf by proxy forces is but one of a series of Iran-related aggressions in recent months that highlights how the beyond-line-of-sight systems are growing in preponderance and lethality. The U.S. government issued sanctions against the Iranian republican guard UAV unit commander, Maj. General Hossein Salami, after a conclusive intelligence linked the same unit to a remote-strike on the Mercer Street vessel in the Gulf of Oman, resulting in two civilian casualties. The UAV attack came within days of another attempted hijacking of a commercial vessel piloting the Gulf, also attributed to Iranian proxy forces.

Rocket attacks from Lebanon into Israel are not a new phenomena, but recent barrages were tied to the rise of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who is a staunch hardliner and outspoken supporter of Hezbollah and their ongoing conflict with the Israeli government. Thus, the rocket attacks against Israel in recent days (with no casualties, thanks to the Iron Dome) and the uptick in proxy use of remote-weapons systems should be seen as components of the whole, and not isolated incidents. Israeli security expert Mordechai Kedar addressed the recent events through the prism of increased Iranian activities in Syria, saying that “[Iran is] now flooding the southern part of Syria near to the border with Israel with militia members, and that is something Israel cannot accept”. Poignantly timed with the rise of Raisi to the Tehran seat of power, Iran has signed a security cooperation agreement with Syria’s Assad regime, with Iran’s chief military officer Mohammad Bagheri arriving in Damascus to participate in the signing of the treaty.

Syria is not the only hotbed of Iranian influence and activities. Yemen remains a proving ground for proxy tactics, where the Iran-sponsored Houthi rebels are reportedly equipped with an extensive array of long-range UAVs of the Samad-3 class, capable of 1800km ranges while carrying 45kg warheads; the same were used to great effect during Houthi attacks in 2018 (Abu Dhabi) and 2019 (Riyadh), and an Israeli cargo ship in the nearby gulf, resulting in two deaths. If it seems odd that Russian involvement hasn’t been mentioned here, it is only because I’m just now coming to that point. Last month, a summit between President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was scarcely productive in stemming the increase in violence, with Russia’s leader condemning Israeli strikes in retaliation to any Iranian-backed hostilities. My very first Roundup contribution two years ago pointed to the shifting power-brokerage in the Middle East, with puppet strings being pulled from Moscow’s shadows, and sometimes one almost hates being right.

With the above serving as context, let us return to the topic at hand — ‘drones’ and their increasing use as tools of influence and low-intensity conflict. Iran is not alone in fielding lethal remote-technology, as the U.S. Navy partnered with Bahrain for its first combined exercise, dubbed “New Horizon”, which will integrate remote-piloted systems and artificial intelligence into this new security partnership. The exercise will include unmanned surface vessels to increase patrol capabilities in the Gulf while vectoring more sensors into the Strait of Hormuz — the narrow inlet dominated by Iran that all commercial ships must transit as they exit the tiny Persian Gulf for the international shipping routes beyond. It’s noteworthy here that Bahrain and Israel have only just normalized relations in the past year, which makes this exercise awash with intrigue as the current spate of shadow conflict between Iran and Israel is warming to a simmer and has been for some time.

What do these remote-piloted systems offer military decision makers? For one thing, ‘throw-away’ technology makes casualty sustainment much easier for commanders to stomach. Human lives always remain in the equation, in and out of the shadow conflicts that be, but losing a drone boat or quadcopter due to adversary intercept is an acceptable move if it results in either deteriorating targeted capabilities, or intelligence collection on those intercept techniques. In the case of Iran’s use, even though most of the world and open-source intel can confidently make attributions, proxy militias give Tehran that cushion of deniability. But the use of remote-systems is only limited by the user/developer’s imagination. For those who might wish to discount the viability of unmanned systems, look no further than the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020: Azerbaijan absolutely ran away with the conflict after putting on a clinic of throw-away drone strikes combined with loitering munitions, resulting in still-undetermined scores of Armenian deaths.

Remote systems are cost-effective, which means concrete bang-for-the-buck for those who employ them to foment disorder and upset stability — precisely what Iran has been pushing through its fringier security apparatus. It’s an odd right v. left hand strategy, especially considering the recent discussions for the United States to re-enter the Iran nuclear agreement which the Trump administration withdrew from early in its tenure. The bottom line is, the chaos borne on the wings of these remote systems benefits Iran, which benefits Syria and Lebanon, and ultimately, Russia is enjoying the instability that its puppet state is causing as the United States and Israel continue to strive for some form of lasting security in the Middle East.

Opportunity and ambition at COP26 and Beyond

Ivana Del Río Benitez Landa

The signatories of the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) have met periodically since 1995, but this year’s event known as COP26 and held in Glasgow, Scotland, marks a key political moment for climate action. The conference is a successor of the Paris Agreement, with a mandate to monitor the five-year progress of National Determined Contributions (NDCs). It will also consider the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the most up-to-date evidence on climate science, which was published in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic. Signatories have atimely opportunity to demonstrate their commitments to agreed climate goals. And, they can finally reach an agreement on the unresolved Paris Agreement Rulebook –rules and procedures for implementing the agreement such as those governing international carbon markets. Other important decisions awaiting COP26 relate to climate fair share, climate finance, loss and damage, and the “race to zero campaign.”

Still, the return of the United States to multilateral climate negotiations is the biggest milestone of COP26, and the Biden Administration wants to demonstrate to the international community their political commitment to addressing climate change. Biden aims to be “the climate President” by starting new NDC implementation, signing executive orders on climate crisis and finance, and hosting a Leaders’ Climate Summit last April. At Glasgow 2021, the United States has something to win or lose: credibility. They must showcase their efforts since all eyes will be focused on them. The United States should speak with high fidelity at COP26; at a moment where all ears will be pending on their words. Most importantly, as an economic superpower and the largest historical contributor to greenhouse gases, the United States should bear in mind the role they can play in accelerating global action against climate change.

As the first COP to be held since the United States rejoined the Paris Agreement and after four years of limited climate action from the White House, a lot is expected from the United States. If they want to fulfill expectations, the U.S. delegation (which includes Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen) must: demonstrate ambition at the high-level plenary. This means persuading large emitters like India, the PRC, and Australia to update NDCs, advocate for Africa’s vulnerability (as the continent warms 50% more than the global average), mobilize climate finance, emphasize scientific consensus and knowledge-sharing, construct a bilateral agenda with the PRC — the world’s largest polluter — on low carbon and energy policies, address climate justice and health-harming, increase institutional capacities for measurement, reporting and verification system on mitigation and adaptation programs, and implement a multilevel governance approach to climate change.

Moreover, meaningful actions post-COP26 are equally important. According to Arostegui of the Environmental Defense Fund, for the United States to regain international climate leadership beyond COP26, they should continue setting an example at home. For example, the ability of the United States to meet its 2030 NDC depends in large part on Congressional action on the “Build Better Act,” which would be the single largest investment in climate action ever made by the U.S. government. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken measures to reduce climate pollution: (i) set a goal to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030, a super potent greenhouse gas with roughly 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, critical for slowing the rate of warming, (ii) started a phasedown of hydrofluorocarbons, which will be equivalent to eliminating 4.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2050; and (iii) creating new transportation emissions standards, which could alleviate respiratory diseases. Besides these actions, President Biden seeks to double international climate aid to $11.4 billion a year by 2024, which would demonstrate U.S. seriousness with developing countries.

Given the scope of work, it is really difficult to predict outcomes for this COP, but world leaders have an opportunity to make significant progress given the implications of their actions. For President Biden, his shift to domestic and foreign climate policy has raised worldwide hopes and may motivate other leaders to do so. He can also show that the United States has actionable plans to catalyze global climate action on the part of developed and developing countries, and civic society. During these two weeks, the United States and the rest of the international community need to demonstrate they can deliver results; because COP26’s success does not rely on commitment, but in implementation that can have a lasting impact in future generations.

Ivana Del Río Benitez Landa is an aluma of the CSPC Presidential Fellows Program. She is a feminist and environmentalist with her BA in International Relations and Political Science. She is Technical Secretary at ICLEI– Local Governments for Sustainability (Secretariat for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean) and a Member of the Research and Innovation Working Group of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy.

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First pill to treat Covid gets approval in UK

The molnupiravir tablet is the first pill treatment for Covid-19 to be approved. The pill will be an oral treatment given twice a day to vulnerable patients. The National Health Service is expected to receive its first deliveries of the treatment this month. The UK’s Health Secretary Sajid Javid is optimistic that the pill will greatly reduce the impact that Covid-19 has on vulnerable groups, and will also be lifesaving as new variants develop. In the US, Pfizer is currently doing trials on two different tablets.

Concerns of Return to Ethnic Violence as Bosnian Serbs Re-Arm

The UN High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Christian Schmidt reported to the Security Council that Bosnia and Herzegovina faced an “existential threat” as the Serb factions in the country threaten to withdraw from the joint Serb-Muslim military and rearm. Such a rearmament would violate the 1995 Dayton Accords, and Schmidt’s report comes as the Security Council looks to extend the European EUFOR peacekeeping deployment in Bosnia. Bosnian Serb leaders threaten to call for Serbia and Russia to intervene, while Russia is also delaying the EUFOR extension — aiming to sideline Schmidt’s role overseeing compliance with the accords.

The views of authors are their own and not that of CSPC.



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