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Putin Faces the Press at the End of a Mixed Year

As the Russian president faces his end-of-year press conference, the Biden administration’s new challenge is coming into view.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the G-20 summit hosted by Saudi Arabia via video conference on Nov. 21, 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the G-20 summit hosted by Saudi Arabia via video conference on Nov. 21, 2020. NIKOLSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Russian President Vladimir Putin faces his end-of-year press conference, Brexit talks narrow down to fishing policy, and Sudan and Ethiopia border tensions increase.

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Putin Faces Grilling After a Rough Year

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Russian President Vladimir Putin faces his end-of-year press conference, Brexit talks narrow down to fishing policy, and Sudan and Ethiopia border tensions increase.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Putin Faces Grilling After a Rough Year

Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts his annual end-of-year press conference today, a chance for Russian and international media to put one of the world’s most powerful men on the spot.

Like most world leaders in a pandemic year, Putin has had a mixed 2020. On the positive side of the ledger, he succeeded in making changes to Russia’s constitution—allowing him to run for two more terms as president if he so wishes. Russia also continued its opportunistic foreign policy in Libya and in Nagorno-Karabakh, proving kingmaker in the latter conflict.

Other developments cast a shadow, however. Falling oil prices depressed the country’s economy and could spell more trouble if global demand remains low. Months of protests in Belarus against President Aleksandr Lukashenko showed the weakness of a key ally. Closer to home, a challenge to Moscow’s leadership in the southeastern city of Khabarovsk over the summer revealed that all is not well on the country’s periphery.

Still out in the cold. The poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, allegedly carried out by Russian security forces, won’t make it any easier for the West to accept Russia back into the fold. International sanctions will likely persist.

Putin will also have to face up to a new U.S. president in Joe Biden, whose focus on rebuilding international ties may come at the expense of the Russian leader. In an interview with 60 Minutes in October, Biden named Russia as “the biggest threat to America right now in terms of breaking up our security and our alliances.”

Reset 2.0? Olga Oliker, the director of the Europe and Central Asia Program at International Crisis Group, says another attempt to start anew with Putin is unlikely.

“Biden’s team will be walking a careful line of sticking to values in places like Belarus, where there’s little room to actually do much; trying to support Ukraine, which has and presents its own problems; and finding a way to rationalize sanctions without looking weak—all while trying to move forward on arms control and lessen tension,” Oliker told Foreign Policy.

Biden’s attention is likely to be on domestic issues, Oliker notes, meaning the Russia relationship may have to take a backseat to other priorities.

Writing in Foreign Policy, David J. Kramer doesn’t think Biden should overthink Russia policy. “As long as Putin remains in power, there is little point in spending precious U.S. diplomatic and presidential time and effort in trying to improve U.S.-Russian relations,” Kramer writes. Other than urgent nuclear arms control talks, Kramer sees a policy of containment as the most effective U.S. approach in dealing with Putin’s Russia.

What We’re Following Today

Spoiler fish. The debate over fishing rights remains an obstacle to a final deal in Brexit negotiations, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament on Wednesday.

Von der Leyen added that the other outstanding issues of governance and the so-called level playing field have largely been resolved, meaning the emotional issue of access to Britain’s waters is all that remains.

Downing Street Press Secretary Allegra Stratton said that a no-deal Brexit was still the most likely outcome, although it was announced that British Parliament would return from its Christmas recess to ratify a deal should one be agreed.

Sudan-Ethiopia tensions. Sudan reported that an unspecified number of its troops were killed by Ethiopian military and militia forces on Tuesday in a confrontation on the border between the two countries.

The news comes just three days after Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok met with his Ethiopian counterpart Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa. That trip was cut short to mere hours despite Sudan’s announcement that it would be a two-day visit.

Qatar boycott. The Saudi-led boycott of Qatar by Gulf states may soon end as the rescheduling of an annual regional summit from December to January suggests rapprochement is at hand.

Reuters reports that the summit was moved to give time to settle the dispute so that the countries could present a united front in January. January’s deal is unlikely to end tensions between Qatar and Gulf states immediately, but is expected to provide an off-ramp to a policy widely seen as ineffective since it was instituted in 2017.

Keep an Eye On

Hunger in the U.K. UNICEF is to fund relief operations in the United Kingdom for the first time in its history, as roughly 2.4 million children face food insecurity in the country. The U.N. agency will grant roughly $33,000 to a London-based food delivery charity that operates in the south of the city.

Children’s access to food in the United Kingdom was given new voice earlier this year by professional soccer player Marcus Rashford, whose campaign to reverse a government decision to end free school meals eventually led to the British government backing down.

Phrenology meets technology. Chinese software giant Alibaba has backtracked from a claim on a company website that said its software can be used to identify the faces of Uighurs and other minorities. A report by IVPM  found that Alibaba touted “is it Uighur?” as a facial recognition option among other attributes like age, gender, and smile detection available on its Cloud Shield service. When asked by the New York Times about the service, the company removed the posting from the website and claimed the feature was only ever considered in a testing environment, and not ever sold to customers.

Trickle up economics. As countries seek ways to boost their economies post-pandemic, a new report found that one oft-proposed solution will not help: tax cuts for the rich. Researchers at the London School of Economics and King’s College London looked at 50 years of tax policy favoring the rich across 18 OECD countries and found that the benefits remained with the wealthy while poorer citizens saw little improvement in the form of jobs or economic growth.

“Policymakers shouldn’t worry that raising taxes on the rich to fund the financial costs of the pandemic will harm their economies,” David Hope, one of the report’s authors, told Bloomberg.

Odds and Ends

Pincer movement. Having largely defeated the coronavirus, Australians are now feasting on lobster. However, the reasons behind the popularity of the shellfish are a cause for concern down under.

Australian lobsters were effectively banned from the Chinese market in November after Canberra’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus angered Beijing. Normally, 90 percent of lobster exports would go to China, but with exports slashed, the Australian market faces a glut and a resulting price drop. Australian supermarkets have even begun placing a limit on the number of lobsters shoppers can buy in order to manage stocks, the Washington Post reports.

Australia’s loss is a gain for the United States, where Boston lobster has largely made up the shortfall in the Chinese market. The import ban could be seen as bad news for Chinese fishmongers, though: Boston lobster usually sells at a fraction of the price of its tougher, fishier Australian cousin.

That’s it for today. 

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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