Long before the Kerch Strait incident in October 2018, Russia had already begun to strengthen the forces in its Southern Military District, which spans from near Volgograd to Russia’s border with Georgia and Azerbaijan. Naturally, that has caused concern in Kiev, since the district also abuts the restive eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas and is responsible for Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. One of Ukraine’s biggest worries has been Russia’s reactivation of the 150th Motorized Rifle Division in late 2016. Posted only 50 km from the border between Russia and Ukraine, it is equipped with an unusually large number of tanks. Its force structure includes two tank regiments, rather than the standard one; and each of its two motorized rifle regiments has an attached tank battalion. Russian media refers to the division as the “steel monster.”
In only a few days, President Trump and Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, will meet in Hanoi. Both need to bring home concrete results. North Korea is under the strictest sanctions regime it has ever faced, and, with some exceptions, both China and Russia seem to continue upholding the sanctions that ban the imports of North Korea’s most crucial export goods, and severely restrict its imports of oil and fuel.
The 2018 Velvet Revolution in Armenia that swept Serzh Sargsyan from power and brought Nikol Pashinyan to power as Prime Minister was surprising. Sargsyan had brutally repressed previous protests in 2008—in which ten people died—and had managed to successfully navigate broad protests in 2011 and 2013 by offering some largely cosmetic concessions. Few would have predicted that he could be pushed out of power in the space of less than two months. Even fewer would have predicted that snap elections in December 2018 would completely remove Sargsyan’s party from power—the Republican Party of Armenia did not win a single seat. At the same time, the form the revolution took—protests carried out by a broad coalition of individuals upset at the state of political affairs—was not surprising, given the nature of Armenian civil society.
Recent news reports from Thailand revealed that Royal Princess Ubolratana—a sister of King Vajiralongkorn—had accepted the nomination of a political party to be its candidate for Prime Minister in upcoming elections. A few hours later, the candidacy was terminated when the King announced that his sister’s proposed foray into electoral politics was “highly inappropriate.” For most Americans, this bit of news sounded like a bit of exotic trivia. Exotic, yes—but not trivial. The story provides a window into the complex political and cultural dynamics of another country—one where the U.S. has significant strategic equities.
Today, the storied bipartisan research and advocacy organization Freedom House releases its annual global survey of political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World, and the news is not good. For the 13th year in a row, more countries experienced overall declines in democratic performance than improvements during calendar year 2018.
With remarkably little fuss, the Japanese Diet approved the latest iteration of Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines in December 2018. The new guidelines pave the way for the conversion of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s two largest warships, the Izumo and Kaga, into aircraft carriers. Though officially classified as helicopter destroyers, the two ships already resemble light aircraft carriers and embark several anti-submarine warfare helicopters. What will ultimately complete their transformation into true aircraft carriers is Japan’s expected acquisition of up to 40 American F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing (STVOL) fighters, as the Yomiuri Shimbun reported in early 2018.
The Trump administration has decided it needs a win and thinks it can achieve one most easily via the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. According to President Donald Trump, he has already simplified the conflict by taking “Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table,” referring to the official U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and subsequent relocation of its embassy from Tel Aviv in 2018. Of course, the conflict that has confounded consecutive U.S. presidents and countless other world leaders must be simply waiting for a new American plan.