Morning Brief

Did Putin Just Extend His Rule?

After a sudden constitutional shake-up, the Russian president is poised to keep a leading role in the country’s politics.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federal Assembly in Moscow on Jan. 15.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federal Assembly in Moscow on Jan. 15. ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Russian President Vladimir Putin sets a plan in motion to retain his grip on power after 2024, various foreign ministers meet in London today to discuss legal action against Iran after it mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian airliner, and the U.S. Senate is expected to pass Trump’s replacement of NAFTA.

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Putin Could Stay in Power Past 2024

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sudden constitutional shake-up on Wednesday appears to set him up to maintain his grip on power after he leaves the presidency in 2024. In his annual State of the Nation address, Putin unexpectedly proposed changes to the constitution to weaken the presidency and strengthen the prime minister’s powers. Hours later, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the government cabinet had resigned.

Putin has led Russia either as president or prime minister continuously since 1999. Though he is required to step down as president in 2024, Wednesday’s move charts a path for him to keep leading, FP’s Reid Standish reports. Under the proposed reforms, Putin could serve again as a powerful prime minister or as the head of a new State Council. Putin said the reforms would be put to a national vote, though it’s not clear when that would happen.

Why now? It’s not totally clear why Putin decided to announce the constitutional changes now, though he has been facing growing domestic pressure over Russia’s economy and endemic corruption. The decision comes after a year in which Putin’s approval ratings hit a 13-year low and mass anti-government protests disrupted Moscow after opposition candidates were stopped from running in city council elections.

Who is the new PM? Putin has nominated Mikhail Mishustin, an unknown technocrat with little political experience or clout—certainly not someone who was predicted to succeed Medvedev. Mishustin has led the Federal Tax Service since 2010. Russia’s lower house of parliament votes today on whether to approve the nomination.

What We’re Following Today

Countries mull legal action after Tehran plane disaster. The foreign ministers of five countries whose citizens were killed when Iran’s military mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet last week are in London today to discuss potential legal action against Iran and demands for compensation. All 176 passengers on board died, including many people of Iranian descent and at least 57 Canadian citizens. Iran said the plane flew outside its normal route—a claim that Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko called “nonsense.” On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked Germany for political support to seek justice for the victims’ families.

Canadian investigators visited the site of the crash in Tehran on Wednesday, but they have not yet been given access to the flight data recorders. Meanwhile, some Iranians have called for more anti-government protests, though a regime crackdown seems to have slowed the unrest.

What new impeachment evidence shows. Evidence released by U.S. House Democrats on Wednesday appears to show that people associated with U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani surveilled then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch last year, FP’s Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer report. A State Department official called the notes and messages submitted as evidence “Not just insane, but deeply chilling.” The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has promised to investigate the messages, which will be presented during the Senate impeachment trial set to begin next week.

U.S. Senate votes on North American trade deal. The Senate votes today on the Trump administration’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which is expected to pass overwhelmingly before heading to the president’s desk. After months of deliberations, the bill won bipartistan support after Democrats added changes regarding labor, the environment, and rules on prescription drugs. Trump has indicated he’ll sign the deal next week, though it won’t enter into force until Canada’s Parliament ratifies it.

Keep an Eye On

Turkey’s next Gulenists. After the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, the government blamed the Gulenist sect and purged thousands of Gulenists from its ranks. Now, suspicions that the government is allotting top jobs to members of another sect—the Menzil—have captivated Turkey’s media. There is now concern that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might not have learned from his mistakes, Killian Cogan argues in FP.

China’s mystery virus. The severe respiratory virus that emerged in Wuhan, China, has recorded its first case abroad, after a Chinese woman with the illness was quarantined in Thailand. With the Lunar New Year approaching—when hundreds of thousands of Chinese visitors travel to Thailand—authorities there have been put on high alert.

Who’s voting for Germany’s AfD. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is seen as a xenophobic, nativist force in the country’s politics, but one of its key constituencies is foreign-born: Support for the AfD is particularly strong among Russian Germans, who tend toward social conservatism, Philip Decker writes in FP.

Odds and Ends

Japan’s environmental minister, Shinjiro Koizumi, announced that he will take two weeks off when his child is born soon—marking the first time a Japanese cabinet member has ever taken paternity leave. In Japan, both parents are allowed up to one year of parental leave when a child is born, though men rarely take it. Koizumi, the son of a former prime minister, is seen as a possible future leader of Japan.

That’s it for today. 

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Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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