As the United States and the world continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the news coverage has rightfully centered on the constant changing situation that Americans face each day. The Foreign Policy Research Institute will continue to provide its coverage of the pandemic from a variety of angles, but we also believe that it is important for the public to be aware of other developing stories around the world. Perhaps the most important news story beyond COVID-19 this week is that Tom Brady has announced that he will not re-sign with the New England Patriots; I am sure this decision will have global repercussions and be the topic of a number of think tank panel discussions.
For our first “Beyond COVID-19” discussion, FPRI has convened a conversation between Thomas J. Shattuck, Research Associate in the Asia Program at FPRI; Aaron Stein, Director of the Middle East Program at FPRI; and Maia Otarashvili, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program at FPRI. The intention is to convene these conversations twice a week for the duration of the crisis (with occasional guests popping in), so that readers will not lose out on pertinent information and stories from the areas that FPRI covers.
General reminder to our readers to keep up to date with guidelines coming from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; continue to stay home as much as possible; and when you must leave your home and engage with people, be mindful of social distancing practices; and wash your hands frequently with soap for at least 20 seconds.
Tom Shattuck: Aaron and Maia, thanks for agreeing to this. The COVID-19 pandemic is not going anywhere anytime soon, but the world continues to turn, so there’s still plenty to talk about. Let’s start off with a general question: What stories in the Middle East and Eurasia should people be aware of and paying attention to during their self-quarantines?
Aaron Stein: I’m looking at Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
Maia Otarashvili: A lot has been happening in Russia and Ukraine.
Shattuck: It looks like we’ll have lots to discuss today! Aaron, escalation between the United States and Iran in Iraq seems to have continued to ratchet up despite both countries facing severe issues at home with COVID-19. What’s happening in Iraq right now and what can we expect to happen in the coming weeks?
Stein: Tom, thanks for doing this. It is a sign of our times that the United States bombing Iranian-backed militias in Iraq just sorta happened and then disappeared from the news cycle. For those interested, I would direct readers to the short analysis piece Fox Fellow Afshon Ostovar wrote about the latest Iranian-American flare up, which began with the killing of two Americans and one British soldier and ended in U.S. airstrikes. Since then, the United States is “repositioning” forces in Iraq. This means that the United States is pulling soldiers from far-flung forward operating bases (FOB) and consolidating troops at a few, hardened FOBs, which will be reinforced with air defense systems, most probably Patriot air and missile defense systems to protect U.S. forces from Iranian missiles.
What does the future entail? Honestly, I have no idea. Iran has been hit very hard by COVID-19 and, if estimates about our own country hold true, we will be mired in death and chaos pretty soon. However, despite this, the United States continues to maintain its pro-sanctions policy on Iran, with the State Department announcing sanctions on nine individuals and three entities linked to Iran’s petrochemical industry and to “deprive Iran of resources to fund destabilizing activities.”
Shattuck: Maia, it looks like we haven’t seen the last of our friend Vladimir Putin. Can you explain what’s going on with the constitution changes in Russia that will allow Putin to remain in power?
Otarashvili: Yes, the new constitutional reform in Russia is a serious development and merits our attention. The new bill has been approved by Duma, the Federation Council, and the Constitutional Court. So, now we wait for the April 22 referendum when the Russian people are supposed to vote on it. Here is what we need to know: the new bill puts limits on free speech about the secession of Russian territories; it defines marriage as between a man and woman only; and calls ethnic Russians the “foundation of the state.” It also cancels Putin’s presidential term limits, giving him a chance to run for reelection over and over, for the rest of his life if he so chooses—in typical Central Asian dictator style (if anyone needed a reminder that Putin’s Russia is not Europe, this is it). Putin could remain in power until 2036, if he’d like, and rule Russia for a total of 36 years—putting him way ahead of any recent leader of the country (Stalin ruled the USSR for 29 years). The last time someone was the leader of Russia for more than 36 years, his title was a Tsar and his name was Ivan (Ivan the Terrible ruled for 37 years, and Ivan III for 43 years).
Totally free and fair elections or referenda aren’t really something we can expect from Putin’s Russia nowadays, so we can rest assured that the referendum will go over in his favor. That’s if he’s not forced to cancel or postpone it, amid the COVID-19 pandemic concerns. Our BMB Russia team did an excellent job covering Russia’s “COVID action” in this week’s newsletter, and I highly recommend it to our readers.
Shattuck: The humanitarian crisis in Syria hasn’t stopped. The crisis in Idlib looks to be getting worse daily. Aaron, what’s going on in Syria: how are Russia and Turkey dealing with the new situation, without as much involvement by the United States?
Stein: They are not. Officially, the Bashar al-Assad regime says they have no COVID-19 cases. We all know this is a lie. But, looking beyond the COVID-19 issue, what we are seeing is considerable challenges implementing the terms of the recent Turkish-Russian ceasefire. If we think back to early March, which seems like forever ago even though it has been about two weeks, Ankara and Moscow agreed to terms to jointly patrol the M4 highway, after weeks of fighting between the regime, Turkish, and Turkish-backed forces ended on terms friendly to Russia (i.e., the Assad regime in control of Syria’s two main highways). In theory, Ankara is supposed to guarantee that the Syrian opposition acquiesce to joint patrols in a neutral zone along the M4, buffered by two 6km fighting free zones on either side of the highways. The opposition is none too happy with this arrangement and has thrown up roadblocks to prevent patrols. Russia has given Turkey “time” to sort this out, but it risks being the spark for another round of clashes in the near future.
But Tom, enough about the Middle East. I want to throw it back to you. China has made non-COVID-19 news. Fill us in.
Shattuck: The really big news this week was that Beijing announced that it is expelling journalists from the three largest American newspapers with a presence in China. Journalists for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal whose visas expire before the end of the year have ten days to leave the country. The booted reporters won’t be able to work from Hong Kong or Macau, either. This announcement will significantly limit the ability of American outlets to provide coverage of China since these three newspapers are the leaders in covering China from within. They have broken a number of stories on the abuses occurring in Xinjiang as well as the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in December.
This move is the culmination of over a month of increased tension between the United States and China. In February, Beijing expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters after a controversial headline appeared in an editorial on COVID-19 calling China “the real sick man of Asia.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry lashed out at the headline and then gave the three reporters five days to leave. Then, later in February, the U.S. government announced that China’s five largest media companies (People’s Daily, China Radio International, Xinhua, China Daily, and China Global Television Network) would be designated as “foreign missions” due to their close connections to the Chinese Communist Party. By invoking the Foreign Missions Act, the State Department will severely restrict these organizations’ capabilities in the country and essentially treat them like extensions of an embassy or consulate. The number of employees working for these state-sponsored outlets is capped at 100 Chinese citizens.
The question now is what comes next: will the Trump administration lower the cap in retribution? At one of his daily COVID-19 press conferences, he said that he wasn’t too happy with the Chinese government’s decision. Will the U.S. administration next limit Chinese students studying in the United States? We’re at an important inflection point in this under-the-radar, but very important, fight between the two countries.
Shattuck: Maia, I heard President Volodymyr Zelensky is not having a good week in Ukraine. What’s going on in Kyiv?
Otarashvili: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been facing a lot of criticism over the latest government reshuffle. As his ratings keep falling, he has come under a lot of domestic and international scrutiny for dismissing Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka, and replacing him with Iryna Venediktova. The trouble is that Riaboshapka was generally seen as an independent figure, and the office of the prosecutor general as one of the most important institutions when it comes to the country’s commitment to reforms. Sadly, Riaboshapka’s replacement is seen as a less-than-optimal choice for the job because of her track record in making questionable hiring decisions during her tenure at the State Bureau of Investigations (for example, she hired former President Viktor Yanukovych’s defense attorney as her first deputy). The concern here is that Venediktova is a political appointee, and she could easily compromise the independence of the Prosecutor General’s office by allowing the President to call the shots. Our BMB Ukraine team did an excellent job covering this issue in the March 18 edition, and I highly recommend reading it, and subscribing to the newsletter to stay on top of the latest news and analysis from Ukraine.
March 18 also marked six years since Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The shadow of Ukraine’s unresolved territorial disputes in both Crimea and Donbas looms large over the Zelensky presidency. Just last weekend, a mass protest broke out in Kyiv, opposing the president’s recent decision to form an advisory council that will oversee direct dialogue between Kyiv and Donbas on implementing the Minsk 2015 agreement. The critics of this approach believe that Zelensky is playing by Moscow’s rules; the dispute is between Ukraine and Russia, not between Kyiv and Donbas, and thus Russia is responsible for the war and settlement of the conflict. This has been a bad year for Zelensky so far, and it’s hard to tell whether or not things will improve for him any time soon.
Shattuck: Thanks for doing this, Maia and Aaron. We will reconvene next week for more discussion on developing stories around the globe.
The views expressed in this discussion are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.