North Korea: The academic group 38 North published an update on North Korean activity at the nuclear test site in northeastern North Korea. The imagery is dated 23 April. The analysts at 38 North judge that increased vehicle activity near test tunnels and the presence of command and control vehicles at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site are probably preparations for a detonation.
Comment: The similarity of the latest activity with that prior to the February 2013 nuclear test supports the judgment that test preparations are in progress. The timing for a test cannot be determined based on the latest imagery.
Pakistan: Tension is high between the Pakistan Army and the government and the press over the treason trial against former chief of army staff and president Musharraf.
A prominent journalist and TV talk show host, Hamid Mir who has been critical of the Army, barely survived an assassination attempt from a drive-by shooting in Islamabad on 19 April. His brother, also a journalist, blamed the attack on Pakistan's Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) and claims to have proof.
In retaliation, the Army has banned at all military posts the TV station owned by the journalist's employer, which owns The News and Geo TV. In addition, Chief of Army Staff General Rahid Sharif visited ISI headquarters yesterday in a show of solidarity against any entity that would impugn the dignity of the Army. The Army leadership reportedly was upset that the Nawaz Sharif government did not defend the ISI against the press accusation.
Pakistani media features reputable commentaries that blame the government for provoking the Army by continuing the treason suit and the media for criticizing the Army; other op ed pieces advise the government to make peace with the Army by letting Musharraf travel abroad; and still other authoritative opinions that insist that the Army is not above the law.
Comment: The political atmosphere is charged. Former Chief of Army Staff General Kayani kept Army sentiment in check through his public commitment to civilian government and his refusal to comment on the charges against Musharraf, his former boss. General Sharif does not share Kayani's sensibilities.
General Sharif has now twice stated his concern in public that the dignity of the Army has been tarnished by the Musharraf trial and the government's and the media's handling of it. All politically astute Pakistanis recognize the conditions as being conducive to a military action against the government in coming months, if not sooner. The Pakistan Army has overthrown the elected civilian government four times since 1947. Senior military officers have governed Pakistan for half its existence.
Iran: President Hassan Rouhani announced the next phase of reforms to the country's subsidy system on Monday in the form of a cut to the gasoline subsidy. News services reported that Iranians have rushed to gas stations to fill their cars before the cuts went into effect at midnight on Thursday.
The amount of the subsidy cut has not been announced. During this Watch, news services reported a 75% jump in the cost of gasoline after midnight in Tehran. Police are on heightened alert against protests, but none have been reported.
Comment: Attempts to reduce subsidies on food and energy have been tried repeatedly in the past decade. In 2007 an attempt to ration gas as a way of reducing subsidies led to riots at gas stations.
In 2010 parliament enacted a sweeping law to reduce subsidies on food and energy over a five-year period. President Ahmadi-Nejad's initial attempt to enforce the cuts did not lead to riots. However it started a rise in inflation from 8.8% to 40% by the time he left office last June, partly because of price increases and partly because of the effect of Western sanctions over the nuclear program.
In February, Rouhani tried a partial program to substitute some cash subsidies with baskets of food for low-income Iranians. The program was unpopular; food lines were long and hardliners criticized Rouhani's timing in pushing economic reform. He made a public apology on state TV.
Economic growth turned negative in 2012 and 2013, for the first time in two decades as the result of reduced income from oil sales owing to Western sanctions. Iran continues to suffer from double-digit unemployment and underemployment and high inflation..
The state subsidy program is massive and a large burden on state finances, but efforts to cut entitlements always risk a popular backlash.
Ukraine: Another clash in Slovyansk. The Kiev regime's Interior Ministry said its forces backed by the army had removed three checkpoints manned by pro-Russia armed groups in Slovyansk, reportedly killing five.
Media sources witnessed a Ukrainian detachment with five armored personnel carriers take over a checkpoint on a road north of Slovyansk in the late morning after it was abandoned by the pro-Russia defenders. "During the armed clash up to five terrorists were eliminated," it said in a statement, adding that one person had been wounded on the side of the government forces.
The Ukrainian defense ministry said the troops involved were airborne units with experience in international peacekeeping missions. However, two hours later the troops pulled back after Ukrainian intelligence warned of a dramatic increase in the risk of Russian troops crossing the border, Kiev Post reported
Farther south, Ukrainian security forces claimed to have cleared activists from the Mariupol City Council building in the Donetsk region along the coast.
The Donestk People's Republic declared on 24 April the general mobilization of personnel in eastern Ukraine in response to the Kiev regime's operation near Slovyansk.
The Russians reacted politically and militarily. In St Petersburg, Russian President Putin said that if the authorities in Kiev had used the army in eastern Ukraine, this would be a very serious crime against its own people.
"It is just a punitive operation and it will of course incur consequences for the people making these decisions and on our interstate relations," Putin said in a televised meeting with regional media.
Russia's Defense Minister Shoygu said Russia had begun new military drills near the border with Ukraine in response to "Ukraine's military machine" and NATO exercises in Eastern Europe.
"Apart from that, the air force will conduct flights to train for maneuvers along the state borders," Shoygu said.
Comment: The renewed exercises could be a cover for final preparations for military intervention. They might also be a show of force to intimidate and test the Ukrainians. Compared to Putin's mild public response to today's clash, the new military maneuvers look like an overreaction, unless Russia is engaging in deception. Russian media did not report the ethnicity of the deceased activists, which is unusual.
The NightWatch working hypothesis is that Russia is engaging in propaganda deception to hide its intentions. If the activists were ethnic Russians, Readers should expect Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine.
End of NightWatch
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