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The State of Putin’s Nation

Today’s speech comes as Western nations warily eye a military buildup on the Ukrainian border and as pro-Navalny protests reignite.

By Colm Quinn, the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Attendees listen to the Russian national anthem.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, officials, and other attendees listen to the national anthem at the end of Putin’s annual state of the nation address in Moscow, on Feb. 20, 2019. Photo credit should read MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his state of the nation address, Derek Chauvin is found guilty of the murder of George Floyd, and Chad President Idriss Déby dies unexpectedly.

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Putin’s State of the Nation

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual state of the nation address to a joint session of lawmakers in Moscow today as the leader adjusts to a new political reality in Washington.

Putin is likely to remark on the topsy-turvy relationship he has developed with U.S. President Joe Biden since Biden took office in January. On the one hand, Biden and Putin have gotten off to a bad start: Biden roused the Kremlin’s indignation when he agreed with a journalist’s assertion that Putin was “a killer” in March. A new slate of sanctions announced last week against Russian entities and individuals over U.S. election interference and cyberattacks signaled a further chill.

However, Russia and the United States have still found room for cooperation. On their first phone call, the two leaders agreed to extend a key nuclear weapons treaty, New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The two sides have also been working together, if indirectly, at international talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal. Putin has also agreed to join this Thursday’s climate summit, hosted by the White House. The two are also likely to meet face to face soon as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his counterpart are working out the details.

Ukraine tensions. Putin is also likely to address the Russian military buildup near Ukraine’s border in today’s speech. Russia maintains the gathering of troops and equipment is merely a training exercise, although Ukraine—and NATO—worry about more sinister motives. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has characterized the buildup as “blackmail” and, on Tuesday, invited Putin to meet him in the Donbass region for talks.

Navalny rallies. Aside from foreign-policy concerns, Putin faces unrest at home. Thousands are expected to join anti-government demonstrations following Putin’s speech tomorrow. Protesters have been spurred on by associates of the jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, whose deteriorating health condition has alarmed international observers.

Russia’s vaccine rollout. The Russian president must also reckon with the country’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Despite developing its own much heralded—and, according to independent accounts, highly effective—Sputnik V vaccine, uptake has been slow. Just 5.5 percent of Russians have received a first dose of any vaccine, below the European Union average of 18.5 percent and far short of the United States, where more than 40 percent of the population has received at least one vaccine dose. Although Sputnik V has yet to lift off at home, the vaccine has already disrupted Eastern Europe’s governments, Dalibor Rohac writes in Foreign Policy.

What We’re Following Today

Chauvin found guilty. Former police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of the murder of George Floyd in a Minneapolis court on Tuesday, almost a year after Floyd’s death sparked global protests against racism and police violence. Chauvin was found guilty of all three charges against him—second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and manslaughter—following one day of jury deliberations.

Even as criminal convictions against the police remain rare, U.S. police lead the world’s democracies in the number of people they kill each year. Police in the United States killed 1,099 people in 2019. Canadian police, ranked second among democracies, killed 36 people.

As Kelebogile Zvobgo reflected in Foreign Policy, Tuesday’s verdict “brought accountability, it didn’t bring justice” as she expands on what steps U.S. policing policy must now take. 

Chad’s president killed. Chad’s president, Idriss Déby, has died of injuries suffered from his visit to the front lines as troops fought rebels in the north of the country, officials announced Tuesday. Déby, who became president in 1990, was one of the longest ruling leaders in Africa and a key ally to Western countries, which turned a blind eye to his dictatorial rule in their counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel. The news came hours after Déby had been projected to win a sixth term in elections held earlier this month, just as the army said it had fended off rebels advancing within range of Chad’s capital, N’Djamena.

Army spokesperson Azem Bermendao Agouna said a transitional military council will govern the country for the next 18 months under the interim presidency of Déby’s son, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno. Meanwhile, the rebel group, Front for Change and Concord in Chad, has sworn to continue its fight to seize N’Djamena. “Chad is not a monarchy,” it said in a statement on Tuesday. “There can be no dynastic devolution of power in our country.”

Super league collapse. A proposed European football super league has imploded, just days after it was announced, after fans, politicians, and players voiced opposition to the multibillion-dollar plan. As of Tuesday, 7 of the 12 founding clubs—including six based in England—had pulled out. A statement from the would-be league said it was considering “the most appropriate steps to reshape the project.”

Keep An Eye On

Xi joins climate summit. Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend a White House climate summit on Thursday, making the virtual event the first meeting between Biden and Xi since the U.S. presidential transition. The confirmation from China’s foreign ministry comes after Xi met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss climate policy and follows U.S. climate envoy John Kerry’s visit to Shanghai.

Peace summit postponed. Turkey has decided to postpone a U.N.- and U.S.-backed Afghan peace conference after the Taliban refused to attend. “The conference would be meaningless without the Taliban joining,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, suggesting the conference would be rescheduled at the conclusion of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Sheikha Latifa’s whereabouts. A United Nations panel of human rights experts has called on the United Arab Emirates government to provide “evidence of life” for Sheikha Latifa Al Maktoum, the daughter of Dubai’s leader who was reportedly abducted while trying to flee the UAE in 2018. UAE authorities, experts said, have failed to furnish proof of Sheikha Latifa’s safety after leaked footage emerged last February, when she said she was being held against her will. The statement issued by the Emirates authorities’ merely indicating that she was being cared for at home’ is not sufficient at this stage,” experts said.

Odds and Ends

Owning a racehorse is unlikely to be in the average person’s financial future, and due to the non-fungible token (NFT) gold rush, even owning a digital version will soon be out of reach. Digital horses on ZED Run, an online horse racing platform, originally sold for roughly $30, but as interest has increased, so has the price. As Sportico reports, the “horses” can now fetch $15,000 at auction, with one horse recently selling for $125,000. That the horses only exist virtually is of no consequence to ZED’s Australian co-founder Chris Ebeling, who plans to expand the platform to include live betting. “In my world, ZED is real,” Ebeling said.

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