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Putin Ends the Year on Center Stage in Annual Press Call

Tensions over Ukraine are likely to dominate the Russian president’s annual press conference.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during press conference in Sochi on Dec. 8.
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during press conference in Sochi on Dec. 8.
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during press conference in Sochi on Dec. 8. Valery Sharifulin/Sputnik/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts annual press conference, studies on omicron point to milder symptoms than previous COVID-19 variants, and the U.N. Security Council agrees to ease Afghan aid access.

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts annual press conference, studies on omicron point to milder symptoms than previous COVID-19 variants, and the U.N. Security Council agrees to ease Afghan aid access.

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Putin Faces the Press 

What is Russia’s next move? How much of its list of demands are negotiable? Is an invasion of Ukraine imminent or just a bargaining chip?

Only Russian President Vladimir Putin knows, and he may reveal more of this thinking Thursday as he hosts his annual marathon press conference, his 17th as president.

With an ongoing civil society and press crackdown as well as a surging coronavirus caseload, the event is unlikely to be a free-for-all. The usual guest list of 1,000 reporters has been cut to 500, while unfriendly publications—such as the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize-winning Dmitry Muratov’s Novaya Gazeta—have not been invited.

On Ukraine, the Russian leader gave a taste of what to expect in a speech to military officials on Tuesday, accusing the West of backing Russia into a corner and warning of “military technical measures” in response to any “unfriendly steps.” The speech was described by former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul as “truly striking” and “scary.”

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu added more strong words, accusing U.S. military contractors of sneaking “tanks with unidentified chemical components” into Ukraine’s Donetsk region. U.S. Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby has called Shoigu’s comments “completely false.”

While the rhetoric heats up, diplomacy is still breaking through. On Wednesday, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe announced that Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine had agreed to restore a July 2020 cease-fire agreement that had been subject to repeated breaches.

Meanwhile, talks between the United States and Russia are set to begin early in the new year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday. The discussions will call for a delicate balancing act from U.S. officials as they seek to calm tensions while not appearing to move out of step with NATO allies—and at the same time placate a more hawkish U.S. Congress eager to arm Ukrainian forces.

As Sergey Radchenko writes in War on the Rocks, the lessons of history suggest negotiations, even fruitless ones, have their own value.

While Putin takes questions from the press, the future of Russia’s oldest nongovernmental organization, the human rights-focused Memorial, will be considered by a Moscow court. Prosecutors allege the organization has supported extremism, but as Alexander Baunov writes in Foreign Policy, the case is about much more than that: “The real issue is the rivalry over memory, which the Kremlin would like to monopolize.”


What We’re Following Today

Omicron update. Almost a month after its discovery, new data from researchers in the United Kingdom and South Africa on the impact of the omicron variant may offer some good news: It appears that infections lead to less severe symptoms compared with previous variants. The findings track with initial assessments of omicron’s effects in South Africa, although its impact on populations yet to be vaccinated or exposed to COVID-19 is not well known.

Nevertheless, omicron’s higher transmissibility means hospitals may still see an increase in patients in the coming weeks as overall caseloads balloon. In the United States, those suffering severe illness may have a better chance of survival after the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday authorized Pfizer’s coronavirus treatment pill, which had shown promising results in trials.

Refugees drown in Greece. At least three migrants have died and more than 30 others are missing after a boat carrying them capsized in the Aegean Sea near the Greek island of Folegandros. The Greek Coast Guard rescued 12 people, who are being treated for hypothermia on the nearby island of Santorini. Survivors told rescuers that there were as many as 50 passengers on board before the boat sank.


Keep an Eye On

Iran negotiations. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has warned Iran that U.S. patience is wearing thin as negotiations in Vienna over a U.S. return to the 2015 nuclear deal stall. “We’re not circling a date on the calendar in public, but I can tell you that behind closed doors we are talking about timeframes, and they are not long,” Sullivan said on his recently concluded visit to Israel. His comments follow Friday’s joint statement from the United Kingdom, France, and Germany that talks are “rapidly reaching the end of the road.”

Afghan aid. The U.N. Security Council has unanimously approved a resolution allowing aid to enter Afghanistan without running afoul of sanctions against ruling Taliban officials. The measures, which are in place for one year, follow “broad authorizations” issued by the Biden administration the same day freeing U.S. government officials and international agencies to work with the Taliban and Haqqani network to ease humanitarian aid.


Odds and Ends

While other public transport systems are moving toward contactless digital payment systems, Berlin’s transport company BVG wants commuters to remain blissfully analogue with its latest innovation: edible, hemp oil-infused tickets. Although moves to legalize cannabis under Germany’s new government seem possible, the tickets will only offer trips of the mundane kind, with the company at pains to point out that hemp oil contains no intoxicating substances.

BVG’s marketing ploy to “simply swallow your Christmas stress along with your ticket” follows a 2018 promotion when the company launched a limited-edition pair of Adidas sneakers that doubled as an annual metro ticket.

Colm Quinn was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2020 and 2022. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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