I have to admit that, in covering global security and foreign affairs over the past two decades, I’ve grown accustomed to U.S. power usually having its way. I recall just the uttering of concern by the U.S. Treasury Department about North Korea’s money laundering at a Macau bank caused Pyongyang’s entire global financial network to seize up in the late 2000s. The Obama administration, during its first term, decimated the value of the Iranian rial in a single day by cracking down on a Dubai oil-trading firm.
China, Russia and its allies have clearly been studying this dynamic. And that’s why last week’s summit of the BRICS countries in Johannesburg — which included South Africa, Brazil, and India — could serve as a real watershed in global power politics. Washington’s adversaries, and even many of its friends, no longer want to be dominated by the U.S. dollar and are seeking to create an alternative financial system. This might not happen overnight. But the fact that BRICS announced last week that six new members will be joining next year, and 40 other countries have applied for membership, shows that the balance of power is shifting. The likes of Moscow, Tehran, and Pyongyang may be able to blunt the exercise of American power in the future.
Also in today’s newsletter: I explore Iranian state media’s fixation on Robert Malley, the State Department’s suspended special envoy to Iran, and its confounding access to U.S. government deliberations. I also profile the Russian general who might replace Wagner Group Commander Yevgeny Prigozhin in Africa, and also might have had a hand in his death.
Zaporizhzhia. Ukraine’s counter-offensive is inching forward. Its defense ministry on Monday said it liberated the southeastern hamlet of Robotyne as part of its push towards the Sea of Azov that’s aimed at splitting the lines of occupying Russian forces. The next target is Tokmak, a key rail and road hub.
Niamey. Niger’s mutinous military is digging in to safeguard its coup d’état. The junta placed its forces on maximum alert this weekend — and called for support from Mali and Burkina Faso — to guard against threats made by neighboring West African nations to forcibly reinstall President Mohamed Bazoum. Niger’s military is also demanding the departure of France’s ambassador in Niamey, whom Paris is refusing to recall.
Damascus. Israel continues to destroy Syrian infrastructure. Damascus’s state media on Monday said Israeli aircraft hit Aleppo’s international airport and disabled a runway. Israel’s Air Force has regularly launched operations to disrupt the flow of arms from Iran to militant groups, such as Hezbollah, that are hostile to Israel.
The coalition aiming to counter American influence
MARCO LONGARI/Pool via REUTERS
A new world order may be forming faster than Washington expected.
The convening last week of the five original members states of the BRICS geopolitical bloc — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — and the announcement in Johannesburg of the inclusion of six more countries next year, will challenge U.S. and Western positions on a range of military, economic, and technology issues in short order, current and former U.S. officials and international analysts told Semafor. The preeminent role of China and Russia in growing this coalition, and their successful wooing of both U.S. partners, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, and adversaries, like Iran, was almost unthinkable until recently.
The Kremlin’s war in Ukraine will likely be the first place where the BRICS’s influence will be felt, according to these officials and analysts. The Biden administration and Europe have been seeking to forge a united front with developing countries, often referred to as the global south, to isolate Moscow economically and diplomatically to force Vladimir Putin to end the war. But this effort has been resisted by the BRICS’s three original democratic members — Brazil, South Africa, and India. And this significant expansion of BRICS will give countries even more space to resist American and Western pressure. (Host South Africa said 40 additional countries are seeking membership.)
BRICS’s emergence will have a significant impact on multiple other strategic fronts in the coming years as well, said these officials and analysts. The attendees at last week’s Johannesburg summit were particularly focused on forging a financial system far less dependent on the U.S. dollar and Western institutions like the World Bank. Success on this front will help shield incoming BRICS members, such as Iran, who are heavily sanctioned by the U.S. for their national security policies, such as the pursuit of nuclear technologies.
China, Russia, and Iran have also signaled their desire to expand their military alliance to include other non-Western countries. Beijing and Moscow have been conducting expansive joint-naval exercises in recent months, and Iran has been providing drones and munitions for Russia’s war efforts. These countries could seek to turn BRICS, along with the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, into a security forum in the coming years, potentially to challenge NATO.
“Any hitching of strategic wagons to China and Russia will have significant consequences for these countries and their relationships with the U.S. and Europe,” said Richard Goldberg, who served as a senior official on the Trump administration’s national security council. “The question is: What will BRICS actually try to do?”
The BRICS countries have been clear about their desire to develop a multipolar world, in which the U.S. — or two Cold War camps — can’t dominate strategic and economic matters globally. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the summit’s host, told attendees: “The BRICS are starting a new chapter.” But forging this multipolar world is easier said than done.
The U.S. and its allies have put in place over the past 75 years military and financial systems that limit, in many ways, countries’ freedom of action. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Brazil all appear intent to play both sides in the growing competition between Washington and the West on one side and Beijing and Moscow on the other. But the challenges to this approach are already appearing.
Take American sanctions. The Treasury Department has established so-called secondary powers: This means Washington can penalize any country doing business with entities blacklisted by the U.S. As BRICS grows, its members will be committed to integrate countries like Iran and Russia economically. But this could place Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo squarely in the crosshairs of U.S. sanctions. On the other extreme, it could cause the U.S.’s sanctions architecture to collapse.
U.S. military cooperation could also be at risk. The U.S. sells weapons systems, in part, to bind foreign militaries to the Pentagon and make their systems interoperable. But as U.S.-partnered countries forge security arrangements with China and Russia — unilaterally or potentially through BRICS — the U.S. runs the risk that its military technologies and intelligence will leak to American adversaries. That’s why the Biden administration was alarmed last month when China announced it was conducting joint-air missions with the UAE, which uses many American weapons systems.
The case of Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s suspended special envoy on Iran, keeps getting stranger.
On Sunday, an Iranian state news outlet, the Tehran Times, published what appears to be a highly sensitive State Department document. In an April 21st letter to Malley, the director of the Department’s Diplomatic Security Office, Erin E. Smart, informed the diplomat that, for the time being at least, he couldn’t be trusted with handling classified U.S. government documents and intelligence.
Her office “received information regarding you that raises serious security concerns and can be disqualifying” under a number of U.S. government guidelines, Smart wrote, according to the published copy of the letter. She added: “Your national security eligibility, including your Top Secret security clearance, is suspended pending an ongoing investigation.”
The publishing of the letter in an Iranian news organ, and the State Department’s refusal to comment on it, raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill and across Washington on Monday. Republican lawmakers have been demanding answers on Malley’s status — without success — ever since he announced in late June that he’d been suspended and had his security clearance revoked. The timing of the Diplomatic Security Office’s letter is raising questions on Capitol Hill of whether Malley continued to perform some of his duties as special envoy even after the revocation of his security clearance. A spokesman for the Department on Monday told Semafor: “We have nothing further to share at this time due to privacy considerations,” but didn’t challenge the authenticity of the letter.
Malley, rather than fading into the shadows after the April letter, however, has maintained his presence in diplomatic and academic circles — again raising questions about his future and status. On August 10th, he messaged from his private X account praise for a prisoner swap the U.S. government initiated with Iran, and which he played a part in negotiating. Princeton University also announced this month that Malley will be a visiting professor teaching diplomacy during the fall term, even as the FBI investigates him.
Staffers on Capitol Hill are also raising concerns about the Iranian government’s access to State Department communications and deliberations. The Tehran Time’s article is just the latest in a string of scoops the outlet has published about the Malley affair, including U.S. government documents, audio recordings of the diplomat, and dates and reasons tied to his departure. So far, most have proven to be accurate.
“The State Department needs to do a top to bottom security review, because I’m concerned they have a leak,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement Monday night.
Master Sgt Andrew Jackson/USAF/U S National Guard/UPI/Shutterstock
⋉ ADVANCE: Blaze patrol: The Pentagon is seeking to snuff out Maui’s fires for good. Nearly 600 military personnel are now deployed on the island, including Army and National Guard, who are engaged in firefighting, search-and-rescue and forensics. More than 200 people remain missing in Hawaii, with 155 already declared dead.
⋊ RETREAT: Border patrol: Wagner Group commander Yevgeny Prigozhin may be dead, but his forces in Belarus remain a concern. Poland and the Baltic states warned Minsk on Monday they will shut down their borders if a “critical incident” occurs. Poland’s interior minister cited military operations conducted by Wagner or Belarusian forces or a flood of illegal migrants.
Major General Andrey Averyanov of Russia’s Military Intelligence Unit
The death last week of Wagner Group Commander Yevgeny Prigozhin has left a huge hole in the Kremlin’s overseas military and espionage operations. Speculation is now growing in the West that a feared Russian spy chief is getting ready to fill the gap — one he may have had a hand in creating.
Maj. Gen. Andrey Averyanov runs clandestine international projects for Russian military intelligence, the GRU. He specifically heads Unit 29155, which has been accused of assassinating Kremlin opponents in Europe and attempting to overthrow governments in the former Soviet states. The Wall Street Journal noted on Saturday that Gen. Averyanov met last month with Moscow’s top African allies during a conference in St. Petersburg, just weeks after Prigozhin’s failed attempt to overthrow Russia’s senior military command. European officials told the paper that the GRU veteran is now a central player in President Vladimir Putin’s plans to wrestle control of the Wagner Group’s lucrative military and business operations in Africa.
Turmoil in the continent is providing Russia with a unique opportunity to supplant American and European influence in a corridor of Central and North African countries. Wagner has provided support in recent weeks — both materially and rhetorically — to coup leaders in Sudan and Niger. Prigozhin also deployed his mercenaries in the Central African Republic, Mali, and Burkina Faso where they engaged in gold mining, site protection, and political influence operations.
Western intelligence officials have said in recent days that Gen. Averyanov may have been directly involved in killing Prigozhin. Senior U.S. and European officials said they believe Putin called for the Wagner boss’s assassination in retaliation for his June mutiny. Gen. Averyanov has the experience in conducting sabotage operations that may have been involved in taking down Prigozhin’s business jet last Wednesday north of Moscow. “This could have been a special joint operation of the GRU,” an exiled Kremlin official told the Daily Mail.