Adrian Olivier,

Sunday 23 April – Sunday 30 April

On Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden finally and formally announced his running for a second term as President of the United States in the 2024 general election to “finish the job”. The announcement, 18 months out from the November 2024 election comes at a time when Biden’s approval ratings are in the low 40s – tied with former President Trump’s approval ratings at the same time in his presidency. His ratings plummeted after the chaotic American military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Joe Biden is the oldest American president in history at 80 years old, while Donald Trump is 76. In the Democratic Party primary he will face the nephew of JFK, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – however Biden, barring some further mental deterioration or health issue, will be the Democrat nominee. Biden will keep the same circle of top advisors that he has relied on since the 2020 election season. 

On Wednesday, with South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol on a state visit to the White House, the United States and South Korea announced that they had agreed to a key nuclear weapons deal to counter North Korea’s nuclear threats. The deterrence deal known as the “Washington declaration”, is the result of months of negotiations between officials which will see the U.S for the first time in 40 years periodically deploy nuclear-armed submarines and nuclear-capable bomber aircraft to South Korea. The U.S. will also allow the South into its nuclear planning operations and discussions, as part of a Nuclear Consultive Group, which were previously considered too secret to share with the South. Even though the U.S. is obligated under a treaty to come to the South’s defence should North Korea attack, many in South Korea have come to doubt American sincerity about the South’s defence and have been pushing for the South to develop its own nuclear weapons. In January Yoon alarmed Washington when he publicly discussed the idea of a nuclear-armed South Korea – the first South Korean president to do so in decades. With Yoon making it clear he expected “tangible” progress with the nuclear issue, it became clear to Washington they could no longer expect reassuring words or gestures to be enough to dissuade the South from pursuing nuclear weapons. The new deal will prevent South Korea from developing nuclear weapons by ensuring American nuclear response should the North attack. Also on Wednesday Biden remarked that “A nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of whatever regime were to take such an action.”

North Korea has been developing tactical nuclear weapons – smaller weapons that can be used on the battlefield to achieve military breakthroughs – as well as launching multiple missile tests, some of which can reach the U.S. mainland. China has expressed its displeasure, warning the move is “deliberately stirring up tensions, provoking confrontation and playing up threats”. North Korea gave its first response to the Washington declaration on Saturday when Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong – a powerful and important spokeswoman for the regime – warned that the Washington declaration would lead to “more serious danger” and that North Korea’s nuclear deterrent “should be brought to further perfection”. Kim Yo-Jong is a senior official in the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and is considered close to her brother. Making her announcement through the state broadcaster Korean Central News Agency, she warned further that “The more the enemies are dead set on staging nuclear war exercises, and the more nuclear assets they deploy in the vicinity of the Korean peninsula, the stronger the exercise of our right to self-defence will become in direct proportion to them.” The Hermit Kingdom has for years developed its nuclear capabilities and missile programs – in 2022 declaring itself an “irreversible nuclear power”. Beginning in 2022, there has been a massive uptick in weapons testing and development – more than 100 missiles have been test fired, and according to some experts it is possible that the North will once again perform a nuclear test. Most significantly, this year Kim’s military tested its first solid-fuel ballistic missile in a key breakthrough. Solid-fuel missiles have the advantage of always being ready to fire – meaning that can be launched at a moments notice, whereas liquid-fuelled rockets require time to fuel before launch. This can be seen on satellite footage and would give the U.S. and South Korea advanced warning of an incoming attack. 

Speaking of President Biden, Kim Yo Jong called Biden’s criticisms of her country “nonsensical…from the person in his dotage…[who is] not capable of taking the responsibility… an old man with no future”. She also called South Korean President Yoon a fool. The South’s Unification Ministry responded to these measured North Korean remarks, saying they reflect “its nervousness and frustration at the drastically strengthened nuclear deterrence of the Korea-US alliance.” Tensions are expected to drastically escalate. 

On Thursday Iranian forces captured a fuel tanker in the Gulf of Oman, likely in response to U.S. authorities ordering the Suez Rajan oil tanker carrying Iranian crude oil to redirect towards the U.S. The Advantage Sweet tanker, a Marshall Islands-flagged, Chinese-owned, and Turkish operated oil tanker was bound for Houston, Texas carrying Kuwaiti crude oil for the American oil and energy company Chevron. This is at least the fifth such commercial ship seized by Iran in the last two years according to the U.S. Navy. After it moved through the Strait of Hormuz, Iran says the tanker collided with an unidentified Iranian vessel hours before its seizure, leading to several injuries, crew members falling overboard and missing persons. The tanker then apparently fled the scene and ignored radio calls for eight hours before it was seized by Iranian navy commandos empowered by a court order. The Iranian army “repeatedly called on the vessel to stop so we can conduct a more comprehensive investigation, but there was no cooperation”. On Friday, Iranian state television broadcast footage of the navy boarding Advantage Sweet from helicopters. The cause of this action – the U.S. redirecting a ship carrying Iranian oil to China – was taken by Washington to prevent sanctions busting by Iran. The Suez Rajan was accused last year of taking a cargo of Iranian crude oil to China after a ship-to-ship oil transfer near Singapore. The Suez Rajan tanker – also Marshall Islands-flagged – was last reported to be in position near Southern Africa before its seizure by U.S. authorities a few days prior to Iran’s seizure of Advantage Sweet. Last year a similar situation occurred when the U.S. seized a tanker carrying Iranian oil near Greece. In response Iran seized two Greek tankers and held them for months. Ultimately all cargoes were released after the Greek Supreme Court ordered the release of the Iranian oil cargo. Iran has been circumventing the embargoes placed on it by the United States and the international community for its nuclear program and steadily boosting its oil sales. After the seizure, twelve U.S. senators on urged President Biden to remove policies that prevent American authorities from seizing more Iranian oil shipments. This move will raise tensions in the region. 

On Thursday, U.S. first quarter GDP numbers were released. The US economy expanded at an annualised rate of 1.1% in the first quarter of 2023, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis’ (BEA) first estimate showed. This reading followed the 2.6% growth recorded in the last quarter of 2022 and came in worse than the market expectation for an expansion of 2%. The economic slowdown is expected to be more evident in the second quarter, with economists forecasting GDP to grow at a pace of 0.2%.

Turning to Ukraine where the conflict entered its 61st week. On Friday Russia launched a new wave of air strikes in cities across Ukraine, killing at least 25 people. It was the first such attack in months and the capital Kiev was also targeted for the first time in 51 days, though there were no reports of any casualties there. Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has threatened to withdraw his troops from the key battle for Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine as casualty rates mount due to a lack of artillery ammunition – Wagner has been receiving only 800 of the 4,000 shells per day that they had requested from Russia’s Ministry of Defence. Wagner, which has been experiencing losses “five times higher than necessary because of a lack of artillery ammunition” has been struggling to take the city for months. “If the ammunition deficit is not replenished, we are forced – in order not to run like cowardly rats afterwards – to either withdraw or die,” he said. Russian forces have been unable to cut Ukrainian supply routes into the city and were levelling entire buildings using converted gliding bombs to push back Ukrainian resistance, a tactic against which there was little defence.

As the Battle for Bakhmut rages, Ukrainian forces seem to have begun the first stages of what might be a “phased approach” to a counter-offensive. On Monday, their troops have successfully crossed the Dnipro river and reinforced their positions on a poorly-defended part of the riverine coast of Kherson in southern Ukraine. On Tuesday they carried out artillery strikes on the southern Ukrainian town of Tokmak, situated between Zaporizhzhia and Melitopol. The town is occupied by the Russians and sits at a strategic crossroads which would be perfectly suited for an offensive in the southeast. Ukrainian forces managed to cross the Dnipro River before at the same crossing point in November 2022, shortly after regaining the town of Kherson. The most recent crossing “is not a massive advance with all the material necessary to establish a bridgehead in the region. It’s small, highly mobile units that have crossed the river,” noted Tack. In other words, the activity could constitute “the first phase of the counteroffensive”, said Tack

As part of this phased approach to the counterattack, the first steps will likely be the targeting of Russian logistics. In the Crimean port of Sevastopol a drone strike caused a fire at a fuel storage facility sending a massive plume of smoke into the sky. The strike caused between four and 10 oil reservoirs to explode. The drone, apparently a Mugin-5 was launched from the Ukrainian port city of Odessa 250 kilometres (155 miles) to the west. The fire was extinguished. 

In the week ahead:

The Federal Reserve will meet on May 2-3. It is expected they will raise interest rates again.

Read more at Adrian’s Substack – or Twitter @MIASubstack