For the night of 7 May 2014
Russia-North Korea: Russian President Putin has ratified an agreement to write off 90% of North Korea's outstanding debts. Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, approved the motion on 21 April.
According to RIA Novosti, North Korea currently owes Russia approximately US$11billion in Soviet era debts.
The remaining 10% is expected to be paid back in six month installments over the next 20 years.
Payment will be transferred from North Korea's Foreign Trade Bank to an account at the Russian Development Bank. Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak told the media last month that funds received by the North may be channeled into the construction of a railway or natural gas pipeline connecting Russia to South Korea via the North.
Comment: Russian action on the North Korean debt is the high point in a new Russian outreach to the Koreas to counter US policy initiatives in Asia. The Russians and North Koreans tend to find each other whenever they are under pressure.
Between 28 and 30 April, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Trutnev visited North Korea and proposed three-way economic cooperation between North Korea, South Korea, and Russia to promote development of the Russian Far East. Trutnev is the highest ranking Russian to visit North Korea since Kim Jong Un became leader.
The Russians would like to link South Korean railroads via eastern North Korea to the Trans Siberian Railway. Last month two freight trains tested successfully the 54km railroad section between the Russian station at Khasan and the North Korean port of Rason.
Vietnam-China: Since last weekend, Vietnamese and Chinese ships have been engaged in a confrontation near the Paracel Islands in the northern part of the South China Sea.
Chinese ships have intentionally rammed Vietnamese ships three times since 3 May and turned water cannons against the Vietnamese ships, according to Vietnamese officials. They told the press in Hanoi that China has deployed up to 80 ships, including seven military ships, to protect and to help install an oil rig.
The Vietnamese navy was trying to prevent the Chinese from setting up the rig because it is in an area both nations claim. During the daily Foreign Ministry briefing on Wednesday, Chinese officials said that the oil rig was within China's territorial waters. "The disruptive activities by the Vietnamese side are in violation of China's sovereign rights."
Philippines-China: Philippine authorities seized a Chinese fishing boat and detained its 11 crew in another disputed part of the South China Sea on Wednesday. A Philippine maritime official told the press that the Chinese fishing boat was being towed to shore and charges would be brought against the crew members for catching protected species, including sea turtles.
China's Foreign Ministry called the action provocative and demanded the immediate release of the fishermen, who have been taken to a Philippine port. Xinhua reported the fishing boat - named Qiongqionghai 09063 - had been seized by an "unidentified armed vessel. "Several armed men forced themselves on to the boat and fired four or five shots in the air. They then took control of the boat," Xinhua said.
Comment: In the aftermath of the US President's visit to Southeast Asia, Vietnam and the Philippines have been emboldened to challenge China's more assertive presence in the South China Sea. China behaves just as its spokesmen and leaders say, as the owner of the Sea. The others are finding Chinese behavior tiresome and threatening.
This security situation in the South China Sea region is on an escalatory path that will lead to armed confrontations. The Southeast Asians are counting on their understanding of US promises of support in their confrontations with China. Otherwise they would be less assertive.
Thailand: Update. The Constitutional Court on Wednesday dismissed caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office, ruling that she abused her power by transferring National Security Council chief Thawil Pliensri. The court ruled that the transfer of Thawil Pliensri from the post of National Security Council chief was unlawful, unconstitutional and unethical.
Nine Cabinet members involved in the unlawful transfer of Thawil also were stripped of their positions. "The Prime Minister's status has ended, Yingluck can no longer stay in her position acting as caretaker prime minister," a judge said in a live televised ruling. The remainder of the cabinet can continue working, the judge said.
Commerce Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan will become the interim prime minister.
Comment: Yingluck joins her brother Thaksin as a popularly elected, but ousted prime minister. Both supported progressive programs that are popular in the countryside, especially northern Thailand. Neither lost an election. However, both are disfavored by the Royal Family and the Bangkok political and military elite, which includes the judiciary.
Yingluck's supporters called the court's ruling a "judicial coup d'état." Expect protests.
Russia: What Putin said. Russian President Putin held talks with Swiss President Didier Burkhalter in the Kremlin today. Burkhalter is also the Chairman-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). At a joint press conference, President Putin made several important remarks that seem to have been mischaracterized by Western press.
"Russia believes that, in the crisis that started in Ukraine and is actively developing now in accordance with the most unfavorable scenario, the blame lies with those who organized the coup d'état in Kyiv on 22-23 February, and still have not taken care of disarming radical right-wing and nationalist elements."
"Nonetheless we have to look for a way out of the situation that has now taken shape. We are all interested in this, and above all, of course, Ukraine itself and the Ukrainian people themselves. We are all interested in the crisis being resolved, and resolved as quickly as possible, with due account of the interests of all the citizens of Ukraine, wherever they live."
"Our discussion with Mr. Chairman (President Burkhalter) showed that our approaches as to ways to resolve this crisis coincide to a large extent."
"Russia is addressing the Kyiv authorities with an insistent demand that they should immediately stop all military punitive operations in the southeast of Ukraine. This method for resolving an internal political conflict is not a reliable way towards settling all internal political arguments; on the contrary, it only aggravates the split."
"We welcome the release of the "people's governor of Donetsk Region" Hubarev from prison in Kyiv, but we await the release of all political prisoners."
"We believe that the most important thing is to establish direct dialogue, direct full dialogue between the current Kyiv authorities and representatives of the southeast of Ukraine, in the course of which representatives of the southeast of Ukraine could see for themselves that their legitimate rights in Ukraine would be guaranteed."
"And in this connection we ask representatives of the southeast of Ukraine, supporters of the federalization of the country, to postpone the referendum scheduled for 11 May this year, so as to create necessary conditions for this dialogue."
"I would like to stress that the presidential election planned in Kyiv is, in itself, a move in the right direction, but it will not resolve anything unless all citizens of Ukraine understand how their rights are guaranteed after this presidential election is held."
In response to allegations that Russia is to blame for the Ukraine crisis, Putin said,
"We have been told that our troops by the Ukrainian border are a concern - we have withdrawn them. They are now not near the border, but at locations where they conduct regular drills at ranges. This can be easily verified using modern intelligence techniques, including from space, where everything can be seen."
"We helped to secure the OSCE military observers' release and I think also made a contribution to defusing the situation."
Comment: President Putin did not say he backed the 25 May election. He called it a move in the right direction, provided it is inclusive and the rights of all Ukrainians are guaranteed. He did not say he was withdrawing Russian forces, he said he already withdrew them.
At this point there is no explanation for his request for a delay in the 11 May referendum on self-determination for eastern Ukraine. President Putin made no prior public comment about this.
One possible explanation is rooted in Soviet negotiating behavior in which the Soviets would make a generous offer that they knew would be unacceptable in order to strengthen Russia's original position. In this scenario, the delay request is a ploy that Russia knows will be rejected but will prove Russia's lack of control and honest intentions.
His remark about the release of the OSCE military observers is the first admission by a senior official that Russia helped.
Putin's talk with the OSCE Chairman looks like an attempt to exploit differences between Europe's interests in Ukraine and those of the US. Putin is trying to cut the US out of a solution. At least, that is how the Kyiv regime interpreted the remarks.
It is not clear from these remarks that Russian policy has changed. Putin has not said anything about the 25 May elections before now..
Kyiv regime's reaction. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement welcoming the "important role of the OSCE in international efforts aimed at de-escalating the situation" but said that Moscow was hiding "support for terrorist actions against Ukrainian citizens" behind the façade of a "good faith gesture."
"A full-scale national dialogue… is an absolute priority of the Government of Ukraine," the ministry's statement read. ."However, a dialogue with terrorists is impermissible and unconceivable. Protection of peoples' lives and elimination of terrorism which undermines any possibility of the dialogue is the goal of the anti-terrorist operation being conducted in certain locations in the east of our country."
The Kyiv regime also said a discussion of a peaceful settlement between Russia and the OSCE "without Ukraine is senseless and unacceptable."
Comment: The Kyiv regime essentially rejected Putin's comments and denounced his meeting with Burkhalter. It continues to label the eastern Ukrainians terrorists. Russian media today described them as pro-federation activists.
Eastern Ukrainian reaction. Donetsk area leader Denis Pushilin told RIA Novosti on 7 May, "Tomorrow, on 8 May, the people's council of the self-proclaimed Donetsk people's republic will consider Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposal to postpone the referendum on the status of the region"
"We respect Putin's stance. He is a balanced politician. Therefore we will submit his proposal to the people's council tomorrow," Pushilin said.
Comment: A separate Western report detailed the extensive preparations that the Donetsk authorities have made for holding the referendum, including printing ballots and information pamphlets. They probably will postpone the election, but that does not mean they will not hold one.
What is missing from Putin's remarks is any mention of the reason Russia wants a delay in the referendum. That raises suspicions that back room deals are being made and will become public soon.
Security. Fighting continued in and around Slovyansk. Regime forces recaptured city hall in Mariupol on the southeastern coast.
Nigeria: Update. Boko Haram fighters attacked another village in northeastern Nigeria, near the Cameroon border. In a 12-hour gunfight they killed 300 villagers.
End of NightWatch for 7 May.
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