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Daily Memo: Russia’s Backyard, Iran’s Cabinet

All the news worth knowing today.

GPF Staff |July 19, 2018

It’s a relatively slow news day for us – a welcome reprieve from an eventful week that featured a Trump-Putin summit, an EU-Japan free trade agreement and rumors of opposition to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rule. But this is a trap. God is always in the details, and for every blockbuster headline in Helsinki, there’s another one someplace else. They may not be as sexy, but they are no less important.

Take the Caucasus. Relations between Russia and Armenia, Moscow’s stalwart ally in the region, are potentially deteriorating. Armenian media reported yesterday that villagers were frightened by recent Russian military drills carried out near their homes. The story grew legs. Armenia’s defense minister raised the issue with the commander of the Russian base and publicly urged Russia to work more closely with his ministry. Then, Armenia’s prime minister described the incident as a “provocation,” a serious blow to otherwise good relations. All things considered, this is a minor incident, and it may blow over soon enough. But this is Russia’s backyard we’re talking about, and the drills took place in Armenia, a country in which recent elections cast doubt on its continued diplomatic posture.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is hoping a Cabinet reshuffle will relieve pressure on his administration. His chief of staff told Iranian reporters late Wednesday that the president was considering major changes in this regard, and Iranian media of all stripes ran with the story. So far, Rouhani has been able to manage Iran’s simmering domestic unrest. But he may not be able to indefinitely, and Cabinet reshuffles such this may tell us something about the balance of power in Iran’s notoriously labyrinthine political system. What we know for certain is that the current government is feeling the heat. Amid all this, Russia dispatched an envoy to Iran to take stock of how the fallout from the Helsinki summit affects Tehran.

Last, Russia is showing off its weapons again. Back in March, President Vladimir Putin used his annual presidential address as an opportunity to call attention to Russia’s advances in military technology. The message was one of assurance, a reminder that Russia would remain a formidable global power. Russia’s Defense Ministry has now released a new batch of videos showing off some of the weapons Putin was bragging about. Russian news agency TASS has reported that production of the Avangard hypersonic missile complex has begun. It was never quite clear to us how Russia managed to produce so many advanced weapons systems; its economy is shaky, and it has already vowed to cut defense spending. The recent public outcry over pension reform only validates our skepticism. If the World Cup couldn’t distract from such issues, it’s hard to see how videos of missiles will.

Honorable Mentions

  • The U.S. and Mexico are having productive trade negotiations and may reach a preliminary deal by late August. It remains to be seen how Canada will react.
  • The European Commission says Kosovo has “fulfilled all the criteria of the guidelines for visa liberalization.” Albania’s president had a meeting with Croatia’s president. The Balkans continue to simmer.
  • It’s unclear whether South Sudan and Sudan will sign a peace deal on Thursday. Reports suggest the visit by Egypt’s president to Khartoum is gumming things up, but frankly that’s hard to believe.
  • The United Kingdom and Brussels are both posturing as if preparations are being made for a no-deal Brexit. Negotiations must be heating up nicely.