Russian missile deployments. Russia deployed two short-range Iskander missile batteries and launchers to Krasnodar, near the Ukrainian border, and Ulan-Ude, near the Mongolian border. The deployment to Krasnodar places Sevastopol, a strategic port located in Crimea, firmly within range of the missiles. Russia may be preparing to defend Crimea in anticipation of unrest following the upcoming Ukrainian election. Russia may also be preparing to gain greater control over the Sea of Azov, its gateway to the Black Sea. Relatedly, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to allow German and French observers to monitor the Kerch Strait, where Russian naval forces fired on Ukrainian vessels in November. Germany and France reportedly tried to include Ukraine in the agreement, but Russia has so far refused.

A disputed election. After opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi was declared the winner of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s election, the African Union has asked the country to delay release of the final election results amid “serious doubts” about the outcome. A Radio France International investigation uncovered two sets of leaked data showing that another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, won by a landslide. The DRC has been prone to political instability, which often has major ramifications for other countries in the region. The Second Congo War, also known as the Great African War, was a continental conflict, involving Angola, Chad, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. (Some estimate that over 5 million people died in the war). Foreign powers, particularly China, have showed growing interest in many of these countries, especially the DRC, a critical supplier of cobalt, and Angola, a major recipient of Chinese investment.

Iraq caught in the middle. Citing an anonymous source in the Iraqi government, Russia Today’s Arabic service reported that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi that, if Israel were to attack Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, which were instrumental in defeating the Islamic State in Iraq, the U.S. would not intervene. In August, reports suggested that Iran may have supplied some PMF militias with ballistic missiles, which may be capable of reaching Israel. Iraq is increasingly getting caught up in growing U.S.-Iranian tensions. The U.S. is an important security ally for Iraq, but Iran is its largest trade partner and biggest supplier of electricity.

Saudi investments in a Shiite town. The Saudi government is spending some $300 million to rebuild Qatif, a Shiite-majority city, after years of neglect. In 2017, the city incurred substantial damage after a Saudi campaign to eliminate militants who the government believed were affiliated with Iran. Qatif is located on Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast, where many of the country’s Shiite residents live and where much of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves and refining facilities are located.

Honorable Mentions

  • The Islamic State claimed responsibility for two blasts that struck an apartment building and a minibus in the Russian city of Magnitogorsk on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, killing 39 people. IS said the operation was organized by its Caucasus branch, which was established in 2015. Russian investigators denied the claim, saying the explosion was likely the result of a gas leak.
  • The European Parliament voted 397 to 158 in favor of a plan to cut EU funds to member states that don’t uphold the rule of law. The measure targets countries like Hungary and Poland that have been accused of violating EU values.
  • Wholesale prices in Argentina shot up nearly 74 percent in 2018, the highest increase since 2002.
  • In 2019, 65 percent of Belarus’ foreign debt payments will go to Moscow.
  • Egypt’s parliament approved a $1.2 billion loan from China to build a railway connecting Cairo with its suburbs and exurbs.
  • During his trip to Serbia, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he shared Serbia’s concern about a Kosovo army. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said there can be no solution to the Kosovo issue without Russia.