Why Putin Wants to Change the Russian Constitution

Vladimir Putin Dmitri Medvedev
Russian president Vladimir Putin speaks with his prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, at his country residence outside Moscow, January 25, 2016 (Kremlin)

Russian president Vladimir Putin has called for a referendum to approve constitutional changes that would nominally hand more power to parliament.

The changes, if approved, might improve Russia’s rating in the Freedom House index, but democracy is probably not on his mind.

Only hours after his yearly address to the combined Federal Assembly, in which he made his proposals, Putin accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and replaced him with the little-known head of the Federal Tax Service, Mikhail Mishustin.

The moves have left both Russians and Russia experts wondering: what’s happening? And what’s next? Read more “Why Putin Wants to Change the Russian Constitution”

From Zero Problems with Neighbors to Zero Friends

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attends a conference in Sochi, Russia, November 22, 2017 (Kremlin)

Ten years ago, Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy was all the rage. I went so far as to predict Ahmet Davutoğlu, the foreign minister at the time, could be remembered as the architect of Turkey’s return to preeminence in the Middle East.

Miguel Nunes Silva saw things more clearly, writing for the Atlantic Sentinel in 2012 that Turkey’s policy of antagonizing its allies and befriending its rivals merited little praise.

Turkish appeasement of Bashar Assad and Muammar Gaddafi meant little when those dictators turned their guns on their own people. Turkish appeasement of Iran was rewarded by unwavering Iranian support for Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and Assad in Syria, two strongmen Turkey opposed.

Silva also recognized the on-again, off-again nature of Turkish diplomacy with Russia, which has only grown worse. Turkey and Russia back opposite sides in the Syrian War. Turkey even shot down a Russian attack aircraft near its border in 2015. Yet Turkey has also bought missile defense systems from Russia and is helping Russia build a natural gas pipeline into Europe that circumvents Ukraine. Both decisions were strongly opposed by Turkey’s nominal NATO allies. The United States kicked Turkey out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

To form, Turkey has also allowed the construction of a competing European pipeline from Azerbaijan to Greece. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan still — somehow — convinced his American counterpart, Donald Trump, to withdraw from Syria, clearing the way for him to invade and attack the Kurds.

Trump’s memory may be short. He responded with sanctions on Turkish officials and tariffs on steel, which he respectively lifted and halved only a week later. But not everyone is so forgiving. Turkey’s tendency to play all sides, far from giving it more freedom in foreign policy, has hamstrung its diplomacy. It now has to use force to get its way. Read more “From Zero Problems with Neighbors to Zero Friends”

America’s Rigid Two-Party System Is What Its Founders Feared

Washington DC
The sun sets on Washington DC (Shutterstock)

Lee Drutman, a political scientist, argues in The Atlantic that America has become the rigid two-party system its founders feared.

The authors of America’s Constitution wanted to make it impossible for a partisan majority to ever unite and take control of the government, which they could then use to oppress the minority.

The fragile consent of the governed would break down, and violence and authoritarianism would follow. This was how previous republics had fallen into civil wars and the Framers were intent on learning from history, not repeating its mistakes.

They separated powers across competing institutions to prevent any one faction from dominating others. But they did not plan for the emergence of political parties, let alone just two parties. Read more “America’s Rigid Two-Party System Is What Its Founders Feared”

Trump’s Presence Will Be Felt When Merkel and Putin Meet

Vladimir Putin Angela Merkel
Russian president Vladimir Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel attend a conference in Moscow, November 16, 2012 (Bundesregierung)

German chancellor Angela Merkel is traveling to Moscow on Saturday, officially to discuss the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Ukraine, as well as the tension between Iran and the United States, with Vladimir Putin.

Hanging over the meeting will their countries’ deteriorating relations with the United States. Read more “Trump’s Presence Will Be Felt When Merkel and Putin Meet”

Russian-Ukrainian Gas Deal is a Trilateral Victory

Vladimir Putin Emmanuel Macron Angela Merkel Volodymyr Zelensky
Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Volodymyr Zelensky, the leaders of Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine, attend a summit in Paris, December 9, 2019 (Bundesregierung)

Russia and Ukraine have agreed to secure the flow of natural gas to Europe for the next five years. A deal between the two countries satisfies the economic needs of all three parties involved. Russia guarantees the export of its gas, Ukraine continues to benefit financially from transiting the gas, and the EU receives a steady supply of gas for the immediate future.

Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, will pipe 65 billion cubic metres of gas into Europe in 2020. The amount will fall to 40 billion over the next four years. The agreement mentions the possibility of extending the contract by another ten years upon maturity.

Ukraine will receive up to $7 billion in transit fees, which would be around 5 percent of its national budget.

An agreement has not (yet) been reached on direct gas supplies to Ukraine. For the time being, it only stands to benefit financially.

Naftogaz, the Ukrainian gas company, will also receive $2.9 billion from Gazprom in overdue transit payments following an arbitration court ruling in Sweden. In return, Ukraine has agreed to drop $12.2 billion in additional legal claims. Read more “Russian-Ukrainian Gas Deal is a Trilateral Victory”

Erdoğan-Putin Deal Tests Russian, Turkish Influence in Libya

Vladimir Putin Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey meet in Saint Petersburg, August 9, 2016 (Kremlin)

Days after sending military aid to prop up the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, Turkey’s strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has done a deal with Russia’s Vladimir Putin to halt the fighting in Libya.

Russian mercenaries fight on the side of warlord Khalifa Haftar, who controls the bulk of the country, including its oil industry.

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates also support Haftar, who has reportedly received Chinese-made drones and Russian-made air defenses from the UAE.

The Arab states see Haftar as a bulwark against Islamist influences, including the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is part of the Tripoli government. Egypt’s generals overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood in their country with the backing of most Arab monarchs in 2013.

It is unclear what, if any, effect the Erdoğan-Putin deal will have. Artillery and missile strikes were reported on the outskirts of Tripoli in the early hours of Thursday. The promised ceasefire could be a test of Turkey’s and Russia’s influence on their proxies in Libya. Read more “Erdoğan-Putin Deal Tests Russian, Turkish Influence in Libya”

Democratic Primary News

Elizabeth Warren
Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts visits a high school in Des Moines, Iowa, October 21, 2019 (Phil Roeder)
  • Julián Castro has thrown his support behind Elizabeth Warren. This has helped Warren move up in the endorsement primary, which tracks support from prominent party actors. She is now in second place, behind Joe Biden but ahead of Bernie Sanders.
  • Although Sanders has raised the most money in total, Biden is ahead in donations from people who also give to the Democratic Party. This is perhaps unsurprising given that Sanders, who isn’t even formally a Democrat, is running as much against the Democratic establishment as he is against the Republicans. Warren and Pete Buttigieg share second place in big-dollar donations from politically engaged Democrats, but neither is far behind Biden, suggesting there isn’t a consensus among donors yet.
  • Biden continues to lead the polls with 25-30 percent support nationwide. Biden shares first place in the Iowa polls with Buttigieg and Sanders. Each has around 20 percent support. Warren is at 15. It’s a similar picture in New Hampshire, where Sanders — from neighboring Vermont — is slightly more popular. Nevada and South Carolina haven’t been polled since November, but at the time Biden was ahead in both states.
  • California shows a three-way race between Biden, Sanders and Warren. Texas has Biden in the lead. Both states will vote on March 3, Super Tuesday, and together send 644 out of 3,979 pledged delegates (16 percent) to the convention in July.
  • Michael Bloomberg has moved into fifth place with 5-6 percent support nationally. He has also hired some 500 new staffers across thirty states, bringing his total campaign staff to 800 — more than any other candidate. Read more “Democratic Primary News”

Everything You Need to Know About the Labour Leadership Election

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn attends a conference of European socialist parties in Paris, France, July 8, 2016
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn attends a conference of European socialist parties in Paris, France, July 8, 2016 (PES)

After leading the British Labour Party into its worst electoral defeat since 1935, Jeremy Corbyn is stepping down as leader.

The contest to succeed him will take three months and pit defenders of Corbyn’s legacy against centrists who believe the party must change.

Here is everything you need to know. Read more “Everything You Need to Know About the Labour Leadership Election”

Soleimani Assassination Divorced from Strategy

Donald Trump
American president Donald Trump answers questions from reporters in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, July 18, 2019 (White House/Shealah Craighead)

The killing of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani in Iraq could turn out to be a brilliant gamble that in the long term stabilizes the greater Middle East.

More likely, it will be a major political and strategic problem for the region and the United States broadly speaking within the context of renewed great-power competition, particularly with respect to Sino-American competition. Read more “Soleimani Assassination Divorced from Strategy”

Price of Brexit May Be United Kingdom Itself

The British flag flies over the Houses of Parliament in London, England
The British flag flies over the Houses of Parliament in London, England (Unsplash/Matt Milton)

Britain’s Conservatives won the election this month, but it may come at the expense of the union of the United Kingdom their party — which has “Unionist” in its name — is sworn to protect.

Conservatives neglected their responsibility to the union by calling the EU referendum in the first place. David Cameron hoped to resolve an intraparty dispute over Europe. He ended up dividing the four nations of the UK. Majorities in Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the EU. They were outvoted by majorities in England and Wales.

Rather than attempt a “soft” Brexit that might appease Scots and prevent either a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland or regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, Cameron’s successors Theresa May and Boris Johnson negotiated a hard break: leaving the European customs union and single market in order to regain full control over immigration and economic policy.

The price could be Scottish independence and Irish unification, making Britain smaller than it has been in three centuries — and making a mockery of Brexiteers’ aspiration to lead a “Global Britain” outside the EU. Read more “Price of Brexit May Be United Kingdom Itself”