Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: In Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko claims Russian military is prepared to support him, Bahrain and Oman may follow the UAE in normalizing relations with Israel, and negotiations over the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam resume this week.
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Lukashenko Claims Russian Military Backing as Protests Rage
Protests against longtime Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko continue to grip the country as he hints that Russia has offered to provide military support if the situation continues to escalate. On Sunday, the largest anti-government demonstrations since Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in the country’s presidential elections on Aug. 9 rocked the capital of Minsk, bringing an estimated 200,000 people to the streets to demand that Lukashenko step down.
Sounding the alarm. Speaking at a rival demonstration of his supporters, Lukashenko claimed that NATO was building up its military presence near Belarus, positioning tanks and planes just 15 minutes from the country’s western border. These accusations followed a decision by Lukashenko on Saturday to deploy a brigade of paratroopers to the border region of Grodno, citing concerns over NATO.
NATO officials pushed back on Lukashenko’s claims, saying there was no buildup in the region but that they were watching developments closely. Belarusian forces will conduct military exercises along the country’s border with Poland and Lithuania—both NATO member states—in the coming days, according to Russian state media.
The bear in the room. Once considered a staunch Russian ally, Lukashenko’s relationship with Moscow worsened considerably in the months leading up to the election. During the campaign, he claimed that Moscow was plotting to incite a revolution to overthrow him. Now, as the threat to his power becomes more acute, Lukashenko appears to be leaning on Russia to save his presidency.
On Saturday, he spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin over the phone, telling reporters afterward that he had received a commitment from Putin that the Russian military could be used to bolster his government, in accordance with a mutual defense pact. “We agreed that at our very first request, comprehensive help will be given to ensure the security of Belarus,” he said in a statement.
The Kremlin denied it offered military assistance to Lukashenko, but some influential voices in Russia echoed Lukashenko. Margarita Simonyan, chief editor of the state-affiliated Russia Today news agency, called for Russia to invade Belarus to restore order.
August 16-18. Senior U.S. and Russian diplomats convene in Vienna to discuss strategic stability and nuclear arms.
August 17. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will join the Atlantic Council think tank for a discussion on the key foreign policy priorities facing the next U.S. administration.
August 17-20. The Democratic National Convention will take place this week to formally nominate former Vice President Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris as the party’s candidates for president and vice president. The week’s events will feature several high-profile speakers, including Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
August 17-20. The long-awaited peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government are due to begin this week.
August 18. Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt will resume talks today aimed at resolving their dispute over Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam project.
August 18-21. The seventh round of negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union over the former’s withdrawal from the bloc take place.
August 19-21. Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi hosts peace talks with the country’s armed ethnic groups. It is the first such session since July 2018.
What We’re Following Today
Normalizing ties with Israel. Israel’s historic agreement normalizing diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates seems to have opened the way for other Gulf states to do the same. On Sunday, Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen said that Israel is exploring similar agreements with several countries in the Middle East and North Africa, suggesting that Bahrain and Oman were at the top of the list. Both countries praised the accord shortly after it was publicized, but have not confirmed whether similar deals with Israel were in the works.
The Israeli-UAE agreement represents a major change in the regional political landscape, as well as Israel’s place within it. It suggests Arab countries are shifting their strategic priorities away from fighting Israel over the Palestinian issue to cooperating against Iran. Although it has been hailed by many observers as a major win for Israel’s government, Albert Wolf warns in FP that the deal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—and comes with major risks.
Washington isolated on Iran. An attempt by the United States to extend the arms embargo on Iran was struck down by U.N. Security Council on Friday after China and Russia voted against the proposed resolution and 11 countries, including key European allies, abstained. Backed by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, Washington has been pushing to extend the arms embargo, which is due to expire in October, despite opposition from several EU countries.
In response to the resolution’s failure, U.S. President Donald Trump again threatened to trigger the “snapback” of the 2015 nuclear deal, a mechanism that reimposes all pre-2015 sanctions on Iran. “We’ll be doing a snapback,” he said. “You’ll be watching it next week.” But the United States is no longer a party to the nuclear deal, so its ability to trigger the snapback is legally dubious. “Given that the US unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA … We consider that the US is not in a position to resort to mechanisms reserved for JCPOA participants,” said one EU official.
Challenging the monarchy in Thailand. More than 10,000 people took to the streets of Bangkok in protests against the monarchy on Sunday, representing the largest demonstrations the country has seen since a military coup overthrew the civilian government in 2014. Defying the country’s draconian laws against criticizing the monarchy, protesters demanded limits to the monarchy’s wide-ranging powers, a new constitution, and new elections.
Public discontent has been growing in Thailand since last year’s election of junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister. Accusations of corruption coupled with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic heightened tensions, and protests against the government have taken place almost every day for the past month.
Nile dam disputes continue. Negotiations between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over Ethiopia’s controversial Renaissance Dam project will resume on Tuesday as representatives of the three countries have agreed to present their proposals for the management of the dam. The decision came on Sunday during multilateral talks led by the African Union.
The dam, which will sit on one of the Nile’s major tributaries, is considered essential for the continued economic development of Ethiopia, but it will severely threaten the fresh water supply of the two downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan. The governments of both countries have pushed back strongly on the dam since construction first started in 2011, but tensions reached a tipping point in July after Ethiopia announced it had started filling the reservoir. Foreign Policy’s Kathryn Salam gathered our best coverage of the controversy.
Mauritius oil spill. A cargo ship that ran aground off the coast of Mauritius has broken apart, threatening to dump the rest of its oil cargo into one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems. The MV Wakashio hit a coral reef on July 25, immediately leaking around 1,000 of its 4,000 ton oil load into the surrounding waters. International cleanup efforts were initially hampered by strong winds, but local Mauritians undertook the burden and constructed makeshift devices to help clean up the spill. Although most of the vessel’s remaining oil had been pumped out by authorities, there are still an estimated 166 tons on board.
A massive wildfire in northern California created a rare but extremely dangerous weather phenomenon known as a fire tornado—or “firenado.” Large wildfires can sometimes heat the surrounding air so much they produce clouds specific to combustion events. In the presence of strong wind gusts, and as the intensity of the heat pulls in dirt and smoke, the clouds can rotate and produce a tornado.
Unsurprisingly, these weather events can be deadly. A 2018 firenado in northern California claimed the lives of two people, and it was later determined that it reached wind speeds of up to 143 miles per hour. It is unclear if the recent firenado killed anyone, but its accompanying wildfire has grown to 20,000 acres and had not been contained as of Sunday morning.
That’s it for today.
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Photo credit: Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Sputnik/Getty Images