Several European countries are advocating a more pragmatic relationship with Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron said the European Union needed to modernize its relations with Russia, particularly over security matters, to help ensure regional stability. Czech President Milos Zeman renewed calls to remove sanctions on Russia, saying they are detrimental to Europe as well. Slovakia, Austria, Hungary and Italy have all raised similar concerns. Perhaps more tellingly, a top transportation official in Estonia asked Russia’s deputy minister of transport to help facilitate planned railway transit between Changchun, China, and Estonia’s Paldiski port. Security, especially security from Russia, has always been a divisive issue in the EU, but its members have so far maintained the unanimity necessary to keep sanctions in place. The seams look like they are beginning to tear.
Argentina asked the International Monetary Fund for help sooner than it expected to. The government’s own efforts to stop the plunge of the peso were clearly not enough. The peso fell 7 percent on Wednesday, reaching a new low (for the second consecutive day) of roughly 34 to the dollar. So the Argentine government asked the IMF for a revised plan to access its $50 billion loan. The IMF agreed to support Argentina’s policies, to consider rephasing options for the loan, and to work with Buenos Aires to better insulate the economy from external shocks. So far this year, the government has sold nearly $13 billion in the foreign exchange market in an attempt to stabilize the currency. Argentina ranks among the most vulnerable to a strong dollar, so it has a lot to lose in a potential currency crisis.
Disagreements over the North Korea nuclear talks are beginning to spill into the public. In the past 24 hours, the U.S. government has issued contradictory statements. President Donald Trump said China was pressuring North Korea and that there was no reason to spend money on U.S.-South Korea war games. The Pentagon, however, said the U.S.-South Korean alliance remains iron clad, there was no change in the military posture and the forces maintain a high state of military readiness. Meanwhile, in South Korea, the government replaced its defense minister. The situation in North Korea hasn’t really changed. It seems as though Washington’s inability to agree on a strategy for managing it hasn’t either.
The war drums are banging in Idlib. After Wednesday’s reports of Turkish reinforcements being sent to the city, there are now reports that Syrian forces are doing the same. Turkey’s defense minister is reportedly discussing Syria with his Russian counterpart, while Turkey’s foreign minister is reportedly discussing Syria with his Iranian counterpart. Another worrying report said that the U.N. envoy for Syria called for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor to allow civilians to leave Idlib. It’s not entirely clear if fighting is imminent, but how the fighting shapes up will tell us a lot about the (admittedly malleable) alliances among Turkey, Iran, Syria, Russia, the Kurds and the U.S.
On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a televised address on the importance of pension reform. In recent weeks, Putin’s approval ratings have approached their lowest since the Ukraine crisis in part because of popular discontent with the possibility of pension reform. Putin is not cowed and is sticking to his reform plans, though he softened them somewhat: The retirement age for women was supposed to increase to 63 but will now increase to 60, for example. The particulars of the reforms Putin is endorsing are complex and will be addressed in a future analysis, but more important will be the domestic reaction to Putin’s doubling down on pension reform. If the Russian government can push through these changes, then it signals not only that Putin’s position is secure, but also that Russia possesses the capacity to undertake a difficult and costly reform.
- Lead negotiators from Canada and the U.S. said Friday is still the expected date for a trade agreement to be reached.
- Iran’s supreme leader said talks with Europe to preserve the country’s 2015 nuclear agreement should continue but did not rule out abandoning the agreement if it no longer serves the country’s interests.
- The leaders of Catalonia and Spain agreed to resume a bilateral commission to help reconcile their differences.
- Trump signed a decree to circumvent quotas on steel from South Korea, Brazil and Argentina and on aluminum from Argentina.
- Austria’s defense minister proposed using EU forces to help prevent the entry of undocumented migrants into the EU. They would be under the purview of the police.
- The EU is open to removing tariffs on all industrial products, including cars, as part of its trade talks with the U.S. It would be contingent on the U.S. doing likewise.
- South Africa’s parliament has withdrawn the current Expropriation Amendment Bill until further notice.