This is our last Daily Memo of 2018. We can’t help but be a little nostalgic, considering 2018 was the year we started this feature. We’re looking forward to covering daily geopolitical developments in this space in 2019, but in the meantime, there are still some developments in 2018 that need to be addressed.

Russia threatens retaliation … or does it? In an interview with Russian broadcaster Russia-1, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov threatened a tit-for-tat response to any U.S. deployment of new missiles in Eastern Europe. The interview has been attracting a lot of media attention – even the Russian Foreign Ministry published an excerpt on its website. But many haven’t noticed the second interview excerpt that appeared on the Russian Foreign Ministry site: In it, Lavrov said Russia understood that domestic politics had hijacked U.S. foreign policy toward Moscow and that Russia was “ready for an equal dialogue” when the U.S. was also ready for such talks. This was followed by a New Year’s letter from Russian President Vladimir Putin to U.S. President Donald Trump, in which Putin reiterated the sentiment that Moscow is open to dialogue with Washington. Most will focus on the threat, but it seems clear that what Russia really wants is de-escalation. The rest is posturing.

Beijing tries to make nice with Washington. U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a phone meeting over the weekend to discuss trade and U.S.-China relations. After the call, Trump insisted that the talks had been “long and good.” China’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, emphasized that Xi was aiming for a mutually beneficial agreement “as soon as possible.” If the trade war threw it off balance, the Chinese bureaucracy seems to have found its footing now as it presents a uniform desire for compromise and consensus through all channels. Even the Global Times, a Chinese state-run outlet that usually takes a harder line than the government does, viewed the call as a positive sign and told readers to have patience as the government in Beijing pursues the best possible deal. The questions going forward are just how much China can compromise, just how much the U.S. will ask it to, and whether the Chinese people will bide their time as the two sides try to come to a deal.

Drama in Belarus? On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko met and reportedly discussed further political and economic integration. Most Russian media focused on Putin’s insistence on implementing the 1999 Treaty on the Creation of a Union State of Russia and Belarus – setting off a firestorm on social media about Russia’s true intentions. As far as we can tell, they are the same as ever: Moscow wants to keep Belarus firmly aligned with Russia, and Belarus has no choice but to comply, even as it tries to use what leverage it has with the West to balance its negotiations with Russia over key issues. According to Belarusian state TV, the key issues in the meeting over the weekend related to compensation for Belarus from Russia’s changes to oil export taxes and to the creation of equal trade conditions by 2025.

What Israel’s newest political party actually means. Two leaders from Israel’s political right – Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett – have left the Jewish Home party to form a new one, which they’re calling the New Right. The move is mostly inside baseball; public broadcaster Kan said the two parties would run on separate tickets but unite as a single voting bloc after elections. What makes it interesting is that Shaked is a secularist while Bennett is a staunch religious nationalist, and together they are hoping to offer an alternative voice on the right to current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In that sense, Israel is experiencing what most countries in the region are: an ongoing public conversation about the appropriate relationship between religion and government. Over the weekend, the grandson of former Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini made some eye-opening comments about the future viability (or lack thereof) of Iran’s political system, and a Saudi TV director was fired for his role in broadcasting a Lebanese singer’s concert because the performance “did not suit” the country’s ethical standards. Turkey deals with similar issues on an almost daily basis. Israel always wanted to be a country like any other – perhaps it’s getting its wish.

Honorable Mentions

  • Eritrea unexpectedly closed down part of its border with Ethiopia. Neither side has provided an explanation.
  • In an interview with Sputnik, former Polish President Lech Walesa lamented the current state of Russia-Poland relations.
  • The United Arab Emirates condemned Iraq for allowing an opposition group from Bahrain to set up there, describing the move as interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs.
  • The Nepal Electricity Authority canceled a contract on a transmission line with two Chinese companies because they allegedly violated the terms of the original agreement.