- A U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan over the weekend killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's top leader and a key mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks 21 years ago.
- The strike that killed Zawahiri took place in a nice neighborhood in downtown Kabul. On the one hand, that showed that the Pentagon can still fight terrorists from afar and without a large ground deployment, but on the other, it raised serious questions about what a terrorist mastermind was doing in downtown Kabul (short answer: apparently enjoying comfortable refuge at the home of a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani).
- The UN has drawn concerning links between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and Long War Journal pointed out that Zawahiri's taking up refuge with a government official in Kabul's Sherpur neighborhood would have afforded him close contact with top Taliban leaders. The Taliban government's efforts to bar investigations into the strike and its aftermath seem to further suggest it's trying to conceal links with Al Qaeda.
- The Taliban even objected to the strike, claiming that the U.S. violated its end of the peace deal by carrying out a military operation in Afghanistan. Of course, the U.S. claims the Taliban violated its end by letting a terrorist like Zawahiri enter Afghanistan and live in its capital in comfort.
- Russia appears to have deliberately - and successfully - targeted Oleksiy Vadatursky, one of Ukraine's richest men and largest grain exporters, the day before Ukrainian grain shipments resumed.
- The timing of his death was not just a symbolic blow to the Ukrainian grain industry; it seems to have been chosen to stall the resumption of exports: Vadatursky's company built much of Ukraine's export infrastructure.
- Another 16 grain ships are waiting to leave Odesa in the next few days, but experts say it'll take a lot more than that to alleviate the world's food crisis - which the UN thinks could last for years.
- Russia's Gazprom coyly blamed "artificial difficulties" from "illegal sanctions and restrictions" for the equipment issues keeping the Nord Stream 1 pipeline down to 20% of its normal capacity, and said there was little it could do to improve gas flows ahead of winter.
- Interestingly, the manufacturer of the equipment that Russia says needs to be repaired claims it hasn't heard any reports from Gazprom about malfunctions, and thus assumes the turbines in question are operating normally.
- An Economist article pasted below calls the Russian cuts to EU gas supplies blackmail, and The Economist separately predicted that some EU countries - including Germany - could run out of their winter gas stores by March if Gazprom keeps Nord Stream 1 running at just 20% of capacity.
- Russia may have poisoned another critic in Europe. Anatoly Chubais, a former senior Russian official who resigned and fled the country in March - reportedly over objection to Putin's war in Ukraine - suddenly fell ill in an unnamed western European country with odd nervous system symptoms.
- According to Russian opposition media, specialists in hazmat suits investigated the room where he became sick, suggesting suspicion that a chemical or nerve agent may have been used against him.
- Both U.S. and Taiwanese officials unofficially confirmed that Speaker of the House Pelosi will indeed visit Taiwan on her Asia tour - even though both Pentagon and Chinese officials had warned against a possible visit.
- Pelosi would be the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan since her pre predecessor as Speaker, Newt Gingrich, but U.S. officials are trying to downplay the significance of her visit to temper China's reaction. China's not buying it, though: Beijing has warned it would react with "strong and resolute measures."
Vladimir Putin wants to blackmail Europe into dropping sanctions
The news from the Bundesnetzagentur was grim. “The situation is tense and a further worsening...cannot be ruled out,” Germany’s energy regulator announced on July 26th. Gazprom, Russia’s state-run gas provider, had just said it would further cut deliveries of natural gas through Nord Stream 1 (ns1), a pipeline from Russia to Germany. ns1 was already at 40% of capacity, and has now dropped to 20%. Gazprom blamed turbine trouble: the first of the cuts was attributed to a part sent to Canada for maintenance. That was a pretext. Canada has returned the turbine to Germany, and it could be shipped to Russia any day.
Rather, the cuts are blackmail, aimed at forcing Europe to drop sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Pundits had expected the Kremlin to tighten the screws, but not so quickly. If ns1 remains at 20% of capacity Germany will not be able to reach the government’s goal of filling 95% of its gas-storage tanks by November. They are now two-thirds full.
The eu reacted with unusual speed. On July 26th, 26 of its 27 member states agreed to cut gas consumption by 15% compared with the average of the last five years. (Hungary opposed the deal.) How they achieve this goal is up to them. The agreement comes into force on August 1st and runs until the end of March. But it is a watered-down version of the European Commission’s initial proposal. Countries that use little Russian gas, including Poland, Portugal and Spain, resisted the mandatory cuts pressed by countries like Germany and Austria, which use lots of it.
The ensuing horse-trading led to many carve-outs. Hopefully Europeans will reduce consumption voluntarily, says Simone Tagliapietra of Bruegel, a think-tank in Brussels, since the eu deal contains too many exemptions from obligatory targets. It does have a “union alert” that can be triggered if there are severe supply shortages, in which case the targets become mandatory. But even then, the list of derogations is so long and detailed that cuts will remain voluntary in practice.
Russia’s pressure tactics may yet work. Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, said she had to overcome objections from Canada to allowing the turbine to be returned to Russia. But if Germany’s gas were to be cut off, she continued, “we won’t be able to provide any support for Ukraine at all, because we’ll be busy with popular uprisings.” German voters feel powerless in the face of high inflation and fears about energy shortages and a looming recession.
The Kremlin could cut off gas exports to Europe at any time. If it wants to maximise Europeans’ suffering and anxiety, it might close the taps on a cold day in winter. The eu estimates that a complete shut-off could shave as much as 1.5% from the bloc’s gdp, if the winter is cold and no preventive measures are taken.
Yet calculations by four economic think-tanks published on July 26th by Handelsblatt, a business daily, gave worried Germans some reassurance. Even if Russia continues to pipe gas through ns1 at just 20% of its capacity, Germany would very probably have sufficient gas this winter and next, said analysts at iwh Halle, rwi Essen, ifw Kiel and Ifo München. A few years ago the prospect of ns1’s flow being cut back to 20% would have been a horror scenario. Now it is the optimistic one.