Tom Arms’ World Review

United States

The Ukraine aid bill is starting to inch its way through the American House of Representatives. Up until this week the $60 billion much-needed package has been blocked by Speaker Mike Johnson’s refusal to allow Congress a vote on the issue.

He also tied the aid bill (which also includes money for Israel and Taiwan) to tougher laws on immigration.

This has clearly been done in collusion with Donald Trump who opposes aid to Ukraine and wants to delay any agreement on immigration so that he can make it his key election issue.

Senate Republicans have already passed the Ukraine aid bill and have been piling the pressure on Speaker Johnson to allow a vote. This week he agreed. But with several huge caveats. For a start, aid to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan will be voted on separately. Next, he wants to change the wording of the legislation from “aid” to “loan” or possibly “lend-lease.”

Johnson also wants to explore the possibility of applying the profits from $300 billion of frozen Russian assets to the aid that Ukraine needs. This would involve something called the REPO Act or, The Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity for Ukraine Act which authorizes the President to seize Russian assets.

The problem with the REPO Act is that it specifies that the seized assets should be used for reconstruction. Ukraine needs money to fight. Reconstruction comes after the fighting.

There are other problems with Johnson’s apparent change of heart. To start with, separating out the different clauses and turning aid into a loan will seriously delay the bill. Next, because it is substantially changed the bill will have to go back to the Senate and, finally, both houses of Congress are about to start their 22-day Easter recess.

Mike Johnson’s change of heart may actually be a change of delaying tactics.

European Union

Meanwhile the Europeans are trying to fill the gap and smooth over their differences over Ukraine. The last few weeks have seen French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olof Scholz sniping at each other over who is more generous to the brave Ukrainians.

Macron talked about the possibility of sending troops to Ukraine and urged Scholz to provide Volodomyr Zelensky with long-range Taurus missiles. The more cautious Scholz delivered a firm “nein” to sending troops and ruled out the despatch of Taurus because German soldiers would be needed to operate the system. Scholz also pointed out that Germany was providing a lot more money than France and that if the French leader wanted to help Ukraine he should put his money where his mouth is.

Enter Donald Tusk, former European Commission president and current prime minister of Poland. He called a meeting of the leaders of the EU’s two biggest countries to smooth out difficulties that were threatening to derail EU support for Ukraine.

The biggest and most immediate problem facing Ukraine is the lack of artillery shells. Russia is being well-supplied by North Korea and its own factories. Ukraine relies on the West. American aid is held up by Speaker Mike Johnson. Europe is willing but unable to fill the shortfall because its post-Cold War defense industries have been neglected.

The EU, however, does have the money. But, as Mr Tusk said: “Ukraine needs ammo, not money.” So the Tusk-Macron-Scholz meeting came up with a possible solution: Buy the necessary weaponry on the global markets. They should have no problem finding arms merchants prepared to sell them shells or almost anything else.

EU heads of government are meeting this weekend to discuss how much to pledge from both national and EU coffers to what is being called a “capacity coalition” to arm Ukraine. As well as buying shells on the global market, the Europeans will be discussing using the profits from frozen Russian assets, ramping up defence production and improving military cooperation between EU members.

Meanwhile it is worth noting that there was no press conference following the Tusk-Scholz-Macron summit. Differences remain and could easily surface again.

Russia

Democracy works in Russia, according to re-elected President Vladimir Putin. Yes, it does. It works for Putin. He managed to gather 87.23 percent of the vote. Such a margin has not been achieved since the days of one-party communist rule.

Congratulations were definitely required. And they came in from all the usual suspects: China, Venezuela, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, United Arab Emirates and Iran. Hungary’s Viktor Orban broke ranks with his EU colleagues to join the list of dictators and autocrats. India’s Narendra Modi, leader of the world’s alleged largest democracy, also cabled a “well done Vladimir.” He can be excused because of India’s foreign policy of piggy-in-the-middle playing Russia and China off against each other.

Virtually all of the rest of the world dismissed the elections as a pointless sham.

Sham is right. Pointless is wrong. The elections provided Putin with a platform to enunciate his policies and plans for the Ukraine War (oops, I mean “Special Military Operation). It also allows the Russian leader to claim electoral legitimacy—even if it is based on a false premise. This legitimacy in turn allows Putin to step up his war in Ukraine and against the West in general.

Putin will undoubtedly soon organise another round of conscriptions. He has to in order to replace the estimated 350-500,000 casualties that Russia has so far suffered in the Ukraine War. Russian overseas opponents should also be watching their backs as he will claim that the start of his fourth presidential term justifies a fresh round of assassinations.

Militarily, the focus will continue to be on Ukraine but Moldova and Georgia are worried.  Putin could also stir up trouble between Serbia and Kosovo and Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are already voicing their concern, but they have the NATO shield. So does new Alliance member Finland whose 830-mile border with Russia now has fresh troops on the Russian side.

Also expect an increase in disinformation and cyber wars, especially in the November presidential elections in the US and the European Parliament elections in June. Ukraine will be target number one for the Russian hackers. Last year they launched 2,554 cyber-attacks Ukrainian targets.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong needs foreign investment. China needs Hong Kong, especially now that a combination of tariffs, de-risking policies and sanctions has led to a flight of foreign capital from Mainland China on top of faltering growth and the collapse of the property sector.

Which is why it is difficult to understand why Hong Kong’s Legislative Council has shot itself in the economic foot with a fresh round of anti-dissent regulations.

This Tuesday the one-party unicameral legislature passed Article 23 which lists new and tougher laws related to treason, espionage, theft of state secrets, sedition and foreign interference. New restrictions are placed on all foreign entities—government, non-government, media and businesses—and all Hong Kong residents who interact with them.

Foreign correspondents are already packing their bags. Hong Kong has long been a popular base for journalists covering China and elsewhere in the region. Now they are moving to Singapore, Taiwan or Japan.

The media helped to attract businessmen who needed to be close to their information sources. But more importantly, the businesses need to be free to speak to each other and government officials without fear of ending up in a Chinese court.

Xi Jingping says he wants foreign businesses to invest in Hong Kong and that Article 23 is designed to create “a secure and stable environment.” Hong Kong officials add that to attract foreign businesses, the legislative council has reduced property taxes and hosted an increasing number of well-attended trade fairs. True, but most of the participants are from Mainland China.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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5 Comments

  • Peter Martin 25th Mar '24 - 10:12am

    “So the Tusk-Macron-Scholz meeting came up with a possible solution: Buy the necessary weaponry on the global markets. ”

    Wow! Why did this need a high powered meeting? Everyone knows that we can bake a loaf ourselves if we need to but usually it is cheaper and easier to just buy one in.

    In any case, the shells will still have to be paid for regardless of who makes them.

  • Peter Hirst 25th Mar '24 - 4:58pm

    How much movement has there been from Hong Kong to Taiwan? It seems Taiwan might benefit from the strengths of the people of the former. Is it allegiance to locality or to values that is more important?

  • Helen Dudden 27th Mar '24 - 11:45am

    Another point. How long does the war continue until enough is enough?

  • Zachary Adam Barker 27th Mar '24 - 10:05pm

    “Another point. How long does the war continue until enough is enough?”

    Until the Russians have been pushed back to their actual borders.

  • @Zachary Adam Barker
    “Until the Russians have been pushed back to their actual borders”

    Problem is, the war is now in a phase where the Russians are slowly but remorselessly pushing the Ukrainians back, even before the start of the rumoured major Russian offensive that is expected to begin in the next month or so.

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