Future of Vanuatu prime minister uncertain. Imran Khan banned from Pakistani politics. Xi Jinping’s latest purge. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Deadly Russian missile strikes follow Zelensky assassination plot

An elderly woman sits on a bed in her apartment. The windows have been smashed, and there is glass and rubble scattered across the floor.
A local resident sits in her destroyed flat, following Russian missile strikes in Pokrovsk, Ukraine.
Credit: Reuters / Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: Security agents in Ukraine revealed this week they had arrested a Ukrainian woman accused of trying to help Russia’s intelligence service as part of a plot to assassinate Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

The woman, a former saleswoman at a store on a Ukrainian military site, allegedly planned to give Russian agents a list of times and locations of a visit by Zelensky to the southern Mykolaiv region in late July, according to the SBU, Ukraine’s security service. The woman also allegedly drove around the region and took photographs of Ukrainian sites in an attempt to gather information on ammunition warehouses and electronic warfare systems.

The arrest came as Russia launched missile attacks across Ukraine, including a pair of strikes on Monday night that hit the city centre of the eastern city of Pokrovsk, killing at least nine people and wounding 81. Zelensky claimed the second missile was fired during a rescue operation that followed the initial strike and was “a conscious decision of terrorists to cause the most pain, the most damage”.

Separately, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force, said this week that as many as 7000 of its fighters were now stationed in Belarus. The group was allowed to take refuge in Belarus after it staged a brief mutiny against the Kremlin’s military leadership in June. Poland’s Border Guard this week requested a further 1000 troops be sent to the border with Belarus amid concerns about the presence of the Wagner Group.

The neighbourhood

Vanuatu: Alatoi Ishmael Kalsakau, Vanuatu’s prime minister, reshuffled his cabinet this week to try to secure support ahead of a no-confidence motion that threatened to topple his government.

A group of opposition MPs led by former prime minister Bob Loughman is seeking to oust Kalsakau, who was elected last November.

A no-confidence motion lodged by Loughman said Vanuatu’s “independence and impartiality” was being compromised by the government’s signing of a “security pact with a development partner” – an apparent reference to a deal Kalsakau signed with Australia in Port Vila last December. Some MPs in Vanuatu, including Loughman, have been pushing for closer ties with China.

The no-confidence motion warned that Kalsakau “[must] not allow our independent and sovereign nation to be sucked into a game it does not want and to be used inappropriately by competing nations to exert dominance in our region”.

The motion, which also referred to domestic issues such as a recent increase to the minimum wage, was filed last week with the support of 29 MPs in the 52-member parliament. But Kalsakau this week appointed two of the MPs as ministers, and reportedly won back the support of two other MPs. The motion is expected to be debated when parliament resumes this coming week. Ahead of the debate, both sides claimed to have a majority.

Democracy in retreat

Pakistan: Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan, was this week barred from politics for five years, days after he was jailed on corruption charges.

The 70-year-old former cricketer was arrested last Saturday at his house in Lahore over claims he illegally sold gifts that were given by heads of state, including an antique watch given to him by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. He has been sentenced to three years in prison.

Khan has denied the charges, saying he is the target of “political victimisation”.

On Wednesday, the Election Commission of Pakistan confirmed Khan would be banned from standing for office for five years due to the conviction – the maximum ban that can be imposed by the commission for convicted criminals.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf party said it planned to oppose the ban in the High Court.

“We knew this was inevitable,” Khan’s aide, Zulfikar Bukhari, told Reuters.

The conviction and the ban have made it unlikely Khan will be able to contest upcoming general elections, which were scheduled to take place by November. The government this week said the election could not take place until a new census was completed and constituency boundaries were redrawn, raising concerns it is seeking to cling to power to avoid facing a contest against Khan as his popularity grows amid the controversy around his imprisonment.

Khan, a populist who promised to combat corruption and presented himself as a champion of conservative Islam, was elected in 2018 with the support of the military. But he fell out with the military establishment, which led to him being toppled last year in a vote of no confidence.

No prime minister of Pakistan has ever completed a full term.

Spotlight: Xi Jinping’s latest purge

China: Last month, China watchers began to speculate about the whereabouts of Qin Gang – the country’s foreign affairs minister – after he failed to attend a summit in Indonesia. Apparently his absence was due to health reasons, but references to him quickly disappeared from media reports and official documents. Eventually, a governing council announced he had been dismissed, but no explanation was given. He was last seen at a meeting with his Sri Lankan counterpart in Beijing on June 25.

Now, two other senior figures – both generals – have been removed from their posts. Li Yuchao, the commander of the military’s Rocket Force, which oversees missile production, has reportedly been detained, along with his deputy, Liu Guangbin. The Rocket Force has a huge budget, and the most likely explanation for the disappearance of its leaders is that they were involved in corruption. Several other officers were also dismissed, and all have been replaced by officers promoted from outside the Rocket Force. 

A commentator for the publication Foreign Policy,  James Palmer, noted it was often possible to “get away with a lot of stealing in China and still keep one’s job” and that concerns about Li and Liu may have been prompted by a failure by the Rocket Force to meet its high-level goals. Others suggested the dismissals may be related to a recent United States report that included detailed information about the Rocket Force and its equipment.

The series of disappearances and dismissals appear to be part of a fresh purge of senior officials by Xi Jinping, China’s president. Xi famously conducted a massive purge as part of his anti-corruption campaign after he took office in 2013. The campaign was credited with wiping out corruption but also helped Xi to remove opponents and fill senior positions with loyalists.

Though the latest dismissals may demonstrate Xi’s strength and his commitment to eliminating corruption, they are also politically embarrassing as they involve removing prominent officials who are part of the apparatus he created. Xi is believed to have personally backed Qin’s rapid political ascent, and he created the Rocket Force in 2015, elevating Li only a year ago. Describing the Rocket Force dismissals, Arthur Ding, of National Chengchi University in Taipei, told SBS News this week: “Why is it awkward? Because they were all promoted by Xi Jinping. This becomes quite a loss of face for Xi Jinping.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2023 as "Deadly Russian missile strikes follow assassination plot".

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