Monthly Risk Spotlight: March 2022


Prospects for US/Venezuelan Relations Amid Rising Energy Prices
On March 5, high-level US officials met with Venezuelan President, Nicolás Maduro, in Caracas’s Presidential Palace for most strategic discussions between the US and Venezuela in over two years. Topics discussed included the ongoing detainment of nine US citizens/permanent residents of Venezuela and “regional energy security.” Just the meeting alone marks a significant shift in relations between the two countries since 2019. In 2019, the US placed aggressive sanctions on Venezuelan oil and took the unorthodox step of indicting the President and several of his allies on narcoterrorism charges alleging his administration has colluded with FARC dissident groups involved in cocaine trafficking. A 15 million USD reward was offered connected to the charges for information leading to his arrest.

The US delegation to the 5 March talks included top Biden administration LATAM advisor Juana Gonzalez, Ambassador to Venezuela James Story, and Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens. The delegation’s trip to Venezuela was additionally notable for the fact that it reportedly included no face-to-face contact with opposition leader Juan Guaidó. In the days following the meeting, two US detainees were released including one of the six Citgo Petroleum executives detained in 2017. No official results of the talks have been released as pertains to Venezuelan oil or potential easing of US sanctions; however, unconfirmed reports are that the discussions focused on the matter and that the US tied any potential easing of sanctions to guarantees of direct shipments of Venezuelan oil exports to the US.

All of this happened in the context of the US decision Tuesday, March 8 to ban all Russian energy imports into the US as it continues to apply pressure following Russia’s late February invasion of Ukraine. The decision has led to increased oil prices in the US and the Biden administration is actively exploring ways to alleviate this pressure by identifying alternative sources. The potential reproachment has the additional potential benefit of changing Venezuelan calculus regarding its relationship with Russia, traditionally a close ally. Russia has actively supported Venezuela and the Maduro administration, notably in Spring 2019 when much of the international community weighed in on the side of an attempted uprising by opposition leader Juan Guaidó called Operación Libertad.

Separating Venezuela from Russia would be a significant achievement in ongoing efforts to isolate and punish Russia without resorting to direct force, but US domestic response to reproachment has not been all positive. Following reports of the March 5 meeting groups of both Republican and Democrat lawmakers in the US Congress published statements demanding the Biden administration not remove sanctions on Venezuelan oil. Venezuela under the Maduro administration has become increasingly autocratic with elections consistently rigged, media heavily censured, and government food programs tied to political party affiliation. Current reports indicate a move to lift sanctions on Venezuelan oil could result in significant political backlash for a President and Democratic Party looking with concern to November midterm elections. Whether this calculus changes is dependent on a number of factors, including most importantly if the US is joined by its European allies in banning Russian energy imports. European countries are significantly more dependent on Russian oil and such a ban by them would have significantly harsher implications for the global energy market. European leaders remain reticent to take this step, but it would have immediate and significant impacts on the oil prices facing US consumers if they do. US policymakers are likely to be sensitive to domestic opinion in regard to Venezuelan sanctions, but domestic opinion is also highly sensitive to sharp rises in the price of basic commodities like oil. Should prices continue to climb opinion and thus policymaker preferences may well shift too.


Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Could Spark a Food Shortage in The Middle East
While Europe and other Western powers focus on stopping Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is bracing for a possible food shortage. Russia is the world’s number one wheat exporter and the third largest producer in the world. Similarly, Ukraine is among the top five wheat exporters. The conflict is already having widespread effects on the food supply chain due to increased costs and shipping problems. Authorities in the Middle East and North Africa now face challenges subsidizing bread at its current price levels while the cost of unsubsidized bread is increasing significantly.

Most economies in the Arab world are dependent on wheat imports. The annual wheat harvest typically starts in July and experts warn that the war in Ukraine could affect this year’s harvest. SWIFT banking system’s removal of some Russian banks could also impact Russia’s exports. Ukraine exports 95% of its grain products through the Black Sea and in 2020, more than half of its wheat exports went to the MENA region. Lebanon imports 50% of its wheat from Ukraine. The country plunged into an economic crisis back in 2019 and conditions continue to deteriorate. Rising bread prices will only add to the disaster as 78% of Lebanon’s population lives below the poverty line.

Tunisia is already experiencing a widespread shortage of grain products as the government has been unable to pay for incoming wheat imports. Almost 60% of Tunisia’s wheat imports come from Ukraine. Should wheat and grain imports become severely impacted, Tunisia could quickly spiral into an economic crisis, similar to what’s seen in Lebanon now. Libya, Turkey, and Egypt are also dependent on imports from Ukraine and Russia. Approximately 43% of Libya’s wheat imports come from Ukraine and 85% of Turkey’s imports come from Ukraine and Russia. In addition to wheat production and distribution, other agricultural products are expected to be impacted as Ukraine and Russia account for 80% of the world’s supply of sunflower oil and 30% of the world’s barley supply.

Of the 14 countries that rely on Ukraine’s imports for more than 10% of their wheat consumption, most already suffer food insecurities. Yemen is one example. The country is heavily reliant on wheat imports, and it is already in dire circumstances as over five million people in Yemen are on the brink of famine.

Turkey implemented the 1936 Montreux Convention on February 27. This allows Turkey to limit naval transit of its Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits during wartime. Turkish authorities have warned the international community against passing warships through these straits. While the pact restricts warships from passing through the straits, other maritime vessels are permitted. If the war escalates further or a blockade of the Black Sea is implemented, it could limit the agricultural products available to MENA and could potentially spark a food crisis in the region.


Taiwan Watches as Ukraine Fights for Freedom
Tensions in Taiwan have increased drastically since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is due to the major parallels the island sees with its ongoing threat of invasion and absorption from China, a nation that has long pushed territorial claims on the democratic island. Taiwanese citizens have not only taken to the streets and social media to denounce Russia’s invasion, but also to express concerns of their safety and sovereignty as the phrase, “Today, Ukraine, tomorrow, Taiwan!” ricochets through the society.

Though the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan has been present for over 77 years, the threat has increased since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For example, the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, there were both verbal and physical Chinese threats made to Taiwan. On February 24, eight Chinese J-16 fighter jets and one Y-8 reconnaissance aircraft flew just northeast of the Taiwan-controlled Pratas islands and through the Strait between Taiwan’s main island and China. The aircrafts did not fly in Taiwan’s sovereign airspace, which would have been a significant hostile act, but they were very close to it. Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense responded quickly to the presence and issued radio warnings to Chinese pilots and deployed their missile defense systems. Two days after the fly by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged to advance relations with Taiwan towards “reunification” and that the Chinese government firmly opposed any separatist activities or foreign interference.

The Chinese Government has commented on the correlation between Ukraine and Taiwan by arguing that the latter has always been a part of China. This is an incredibly concerning ideology, even more so given that Taiwan is not internationally recognized as a sovereign nation which under international law does not make it an official state and it does not have powerful allies in case of an invasion. Much like the current situation in Ukraine, though it is fluid, the current international efforts are mainly in the form of sanctions directed toward Russia. Ukraine is not a part of NATO and does not have the benefit of military support from allies. Regardless of allies, statehood, and support, there is a threat regarding nuclear weapons. Both Russia and China are nuclear-armed countries, as is the United States, whose military has been called on to support both Ukraine and Taiwan. If nuclear-armed countries go to war against each other, it could escalate to nuclear war. Due to an understood mutually assured destruction, there is hesitance around any involvement in conflicts, especially the invasion of nations, which puts Taiwan in danger of the same devastating situation as Ukraine.


Conflict in Mali Leads to Strategizing of Security Approach in Africa
An early March Jihadist attack on a military camp in central Mali killed 27 soldiers and left 33 injured. A military source disclosed that Jihadists attacked the army base in Mondoro, early in the morning, seizing 21 vehicles, including tanks. At least seven soldiers are still missing following the ambush. The Malian government declared a three-day national mourning period afterward, as residents fear for their future. The Mondoro base is near Mali’s border with Burkina Faso and has been targeted by rebel groups in the past. Around 50 soldiers died in an attack on the same base and other nearby camps in the fall of 2019.

Since 2012, Mali has been facing an armed rebellion with Al-Qaeda- linked fighters who have seized control of the country’s northern areas. The insurgency resulted in intervention by former colonial power France and the European Union, that following year, to drive rebel forces back. Since the start of the conflict, thousands of people have been killed and over two million have been displaced. Despite continuous French military presence, rebel groups have expanded into neighboring countries like Niger and Burkina Faso, carrying out violent attacks in increasingly large numbers. Just last year alone, over 800 deadly attacks were carried out by armed groups in the region.

Although France and French-led EU forces have been fighting jihadists in the region since 2013, the country’s relationship with Mali has deteriorated since Mali’s military seized power in spring of 2021. The attack on Mondoro’s army base takes place as the military landscape in the region shifts, following France’s announcement to withdraw troops from Mali, in late February, due to further degradation in their alliance. France’s pullout from Mali has been dreaded in Paris, as it represents a huge failure on their part. What began as a popular operation aimed at clearing rebel groups in the country’s north, has turned into a prolonged conflict doing more harm than good to the region’s stability and governance. The shift in presence of French troops in the Sahel region has raised questions about the future of the EU’s missions across Africa. Beyond the Sahel region, the European Union is countering rebel groups in other countries like Libya and Somalia.

Experts have since called on the EU to readjust its security approach in Africa by focusing on structural drivers of insecurity and building capacities of local security actors instead of putting international boots on the ground. Experts believe that moving forward, security discussions should start from the local level to recreate trust between civilians and security actors and ensure that international support caters to the needs of the African people.


Information Warfare in Ukraine Conflict
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been accompanied by a flood of disinformation from both sides of the conflict. The viral “Ghost of Kyiv” video footage of a Ukrainian fighter pilot who allegedly shot down six Russian planes turned out to be footage from a video game. The 13 Ukrainian border patrol officers on the Black Sea who were said to have been killed after shouting obscenities at Russian forces were later discovered to be captured and kept prisoner. Russia’s propaganda campaign refuses to use the word “invasion” and has spread multiple reasons for its “special military operation” such as the alleged discovery of bioweapons and a Nazi-controlled government. In the days following the invasion, Moscow has implemented a media crackdown forbidding news outlets from posting anything that does not align with Putin’s verbiage about the war. Access to most social media and external news outlets has since been blocked.

Disinformation campaigns have targeted specific social media demographics during most armed conflicts over the past 10 years, often taking the form of political memes or carefully edited video clips with dramatic sound bites and captions. The content creators of this disinformation typically remain anonymous, but the content quickly spreads. One example is a video that was posted by the DNR People’s Militia Telegram channel that appears to show an attack on a sewage plant in eastern Ukraine by Polish-speaking militants. The video was then featured on two major Russian news networks and was shared among several Russian Telegram feeds. Open-Source investigators later analyzed the metadata of this video and determined that it had been filmed several days before the attack had allegedly occurred, and it had been edited with sound from a military exercise video from YouTube.

A new version of information warfare has emerged from this routine. On March 3, 2022 a video began circulating around the Russian Telegram app and Twitter titled “How Ukrainian fakes are made.” The post displayed two videos of urban explosions. The first video displayed Russian captions explaining that it was Ukrainian propaganda claiming proof of a Russian missile strike in Kharkiv. The second video explained that the footage was pulled from an arms depot explosion in 2017. While the purpose of the post appeared to serve as a warning not to trust Ukrainian and western “fake news,” further analysis revealed that the original video never appeared on social media feeds prior to the debunking video. Several “fact-checking” videos like this have appeared in the weeks following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, indicating a pattern of disinformation.

These “fact-checking” videos are effective because they replicate legitimate fact- checking posts, and because mainstream and social media is currently very restricted in Russia. The posts circulate online and then are featured on Russian state-run news channels as examples of Ukrainian disinformation online. It is not yet clear who is posting these videos, but their message lines up with the Kremlin’s message to Russian citizens that the special military operation is going according to plan, that civilians are not being targeted, and that Ukraine’s claims of war crimes by the Russian military are all fake news.


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