Weekend Reading: May 8-10 Edition

May 8, 2015

It’s Friday, which means it’s time to kick back, relax, and maybe try your hand at mixing yourself a Caipirinha. And of course, we’re hear to help fill a bit of your free time with some of the best reads we’ve come across in the past week.


This spring’s hottest European fashion? Increased defense spending. After years of European defense budgets that made NATO’s two-percent-of-GDP spending targets seem increasingly irrelevant, a new trend appears to be emerging: European governments announcing cash injections into their planned defense spending. France, Sweden, and Germany are the latest to promise increased funds, driven in large part by threats of Islamist violence and fears over Russian adventurism. While most NATO countries will still fall short of the two percent target, write RUSI’s Elizabeth Quintana and Henrik Heidenkamp, “the recent developments might therefore be regarded as being indicative of a substantial change in the countries’ defence discourse both at the political level and within the broader public debate.” However, conspicuously absent from the defense spending bandwagon, they note, is the United Kingdom.

The United States wants to “put Russia on its knees.” Or so says Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff. Gerasimov gave a speech at last month’s Moscow Conference on International Security. Russia analyst (and WOTR contributor) Dmitry Gorenburg was in attendance for the speech, in which the general systematically explained how U.S. and NATO actions threaten Russian security. This week, Gorenburg wrote up an excellent summary (along with photos of Russian slides depicting the Western offensive threat). So, how does Gerasimov predict the conflict in Ukraine will end? It’s tough to tell, he says, since “we don’t know what directives Ukrainian leaders will receive from their Western ‘curators’ and where Kiev’s aggression may be directed in the future.”

Hey Pyongyang, we say this because we care — we think you have a drug problem. At Overt Action, Soo Kim dives into a growing issue in North Korea: meth. Not only is domestic consumption on the rise, but increased production for trafficking and sale abroad is also potentially providing a revenue stream that is not only difficult to trace, but also very likely to be finding its way to what Kim diplomatically calls the “not-so-honorable activities” of Kim Jong Un’s regime. North Korean diplomats have also reportedly been caught up in the drug game, with a large narcotics shipment sent to one of its embassies in Eastern Europe. “Each diplomat was expected to raise $300,000 … to prove his loyalty to the regime.”

How did African soldiers end up fighting in Yemen? That’s the question Peter Fabricius asks (and answers) in a piece for ISS Africa. The Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels includes troops from four African countries: Egypt (least surprising), Sudan and Morocco (interesting), and Senegal (yes, from all the way on Africa’s western shores). An array of motives has been flung about, but the real reason, according to Fabricius: it’s all about the Benjamins (or the Ibn Sauds, as it were). He argues that the African nations’ decisions to send troops were heavily influenced by promises of much-needed money — and a lot of it.

That Dam Islamic State! ISIL fancies itself a state, but to be taken seriously as one among locals, it needs to effectively provide essential services. In the Middle East, arguably the most essential of these is water. At CFR’s Power, Politics, and Preventive Action blog, Allyson Beach examines the ways in which water (and its infrastructure) has played into ISIL’s strategy. From the group’s short-lived takeover of the Mosul Dam, to its flooding of the route of approaching Iraqi army forces, to its ongoing effort to leverage control of this scarce resource to maintain popular support — water matters. And it could indeed be key to its longevity. “If [ISIL] could only maintain services,” according to one Mosul resident, “then people would support them until the last second.”

The other secret, quiet helicopter. The world got a glimpse of the stealthiest helicopter in the U.S. government hangar when one of two sent on the mission that killed Osama bin Laden crashed at the target location. But it was not the first time an American operation depended on surreptitious infiltration by a specially-developed rotary-wing aircraft. At War is Boring, Joseph Trevithick explores the story of a 1972 mission to travel into North Vietnamese territory and tap the phone lines of key figures. “But getting into the heavily fortified country was far from easy,” he writes. “Natural barriers and one of the most elaborate air defense networks on earth — which Hanoi had expanded to try and blunt the U.S.’s fearsome bombing campaigns — made it hard for agents to creep in unnoticed.” Enter the Advanced Research Project Agency’s Quiet Helicopter Program.