In the coming week, Russia marks Constitution Day, an EU Summit discusses Ukraine energy and expansion, and the White House hosts the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. It's December 8, 2022, and time for The World Next Week. I'm Bob McMahon.
And I'm Jim Lindsay.
Jim, why don't we start in Russia? Next Monday will be Constitution Day. This commemorates the 1993 adoption of the Russian Constitution. There are expected to be fireworks, concerts. What's not clear is how much they will be referencing the now nine to ten-month-old war in Ukraine. What should we be looking for on Constitution Day, Jim?
Well, Bob, there are conflicting reports about whether or not President Putin will make an address to the nation on Constitution Day. If he does, the speech will almost certainly be about putting the best face forward on a terrible situation for Russia. The war continues to go badly for the Kremlin. The Russian army is going backward, not forward. Just this week, Ukrainian drones hit a Russian air base more than 300 miles from Ukraine. Fuel tanks at another Russian air base some eighty miles from the Ukrainian border were struck by Ukrainian drones. Now, none of these developments are militarily significant in and of themselves, but what they signal is, is that Russia is not invulnerable. Russia's, in fact, vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks. As we've discussed in the past, Putin is witnessing increasing dissent at home.
Now, some of the ultra nationalists who wanted to do more to fight the world to go harder against the Ukrainians seemed to have been brought back into the fold, in large part by Putin's decisions to give even more power to military commanders. But Putin faces some real problems with the Russian mothers.
There's often a story told about how to explain the end of Russia's occupation of Afghanistan, and the answer was, Russian mothers said, "Enough was enough." So I think it was significant that recently Putin sat down with a handpicked group of Russian mothers who had sons in Ukraine. He told them that he shares the pain of those who've lost their sons and told them not to believe in the lies told about the invasion of Ukraine. He also told one mother, let me quote him here, "Some people die of vodka and their lives go unnoticed, but your son really lived and achieved his goal. He didn't die in vain." Now, perhaps that sounds better in Russian, but it certainly sounds a little bit tone deaf from where I sit.
Russia's also facing increasing pressure from both the European Union and the G7. We spoke last week about the EU embargo and the G7 price cap. Also, there is signals from China, India, and other countries that are opposed to Putin rattling the nuclear saber. So I suspect that if Putin does give this speech, he's going to stress two points; first, that Russia is in this war for the long haul.
He recently argued that Russia has gained territory in his special operation in Ukraine, and he likened Russian success on the battlefield to the success that Peter the Great had in expanding the Russian Empire. In short, his message will be, "Stick with me and we will prevail." The other point he's likely to hit and hit hard is that the reason it is important for Russia to prevail is that it faces an existential threat from a West that is intent on destroying Russia, Russian civilization, and the Russian people. Now, our colleague, Steve Sestanovich, wrote a wonderful piece last week in Foreign Policy about how the Biden administration needs to do a better job debunking Putin's claim that the West is out to destroy Russia, as opposed to being focused on stopping its efforts to destroy Ukraine.
So Jim, whether or not Putin does use the occasion to give an address, following up some of your points, do we see a perceptible move towards him narrowing the goal of the Ukraine's "special operation" and as part of that potentially more willingness to negotiate? Those are long-standing issues that don't seem to be going anywhere.
Well, I wish I could tell you, Bob, that there were signs coming out of Moscow that the reverses on the battlefield have changed their calculations and that President Putin now wants to begin negotiations, and that's not the case. Yes, the Kremlin has said that President Putin will be willing to negotiate, but the clear follow-on to that is on his terms, provided the negotiation gives him what he's trying to achieve on the battlefield. Again, as they say in diplomatic circles, the time is not ripe for discussions. What Putin has been saying in his various appearances, interviews, discussions with foreign heads of state, is again, Russia is going to stick it out. It's in it for the long haul. Putin's calculation here seems to be that the West or Ukraine will break before Russia does.
Again, I think as you watch the way the Russians have conducted their military operations over the last three months, what they're seeking to do is to make the war as painful as possible for the people of Ukraine. Again, the people in Ukraine are going through a horrific winter. Electricity has been lost in many parts of the country. Commerce has been disrupted, and the idea is to basically inflict pain in hoping that the Ukrainians cry uncle. Likewise, the Russian policy toward the West is to try to impose as much economic pain on the countries of the West in this calculation that populist parties will rise up, demand political change, create a big division in the trans-Atlantic relationship, and then give Russia what it has been unable to achieve on the battlefield, that is abandonment of Ukraine by the West in an ultimate Russian victory.
I think this is going to be a very difficult winter. You're going to see Western solidarity tested and tested hard by the winter, by energy shortages, inflation, Russian behavior. I do think that Western leaders are very well aware of it, which is why one of the most interesting things last week was President Macron's visit to Washington, who was honored with a state visit. I think many people five months ago would've said that if Macron comes to Washington, the big issue would be Ukraine because he's taken some positions on Ukraine that suggests he's much more eager to negotiate with the Russians than I think most other Europeans are, and certainly, more so than the Biden administration. But at that meeting, Biden and Macron went out of the way without abandoning past statements they've made to make it clear they stood shoulder-to-shoulder on Ukraine.
We should also note that by marking Constitution Day, this doesn't have much relevance to how let's say, Western democracies would mark days to commemorate their constitutions, I do recall back in '93 when that constitution was approved, it was a different Russia. It was certainly chaotic. It was dangerous, but there was also a sense of opportunity and definitely freedom economically as well as people speaking their mind, media opening up and so forth, and that has pretty much been effectively quashed. I would imagine Constitution Day is a chance for Putin to reassert the legitimacy of the state of the leadership as it exists right now.
Oh, certainly Bob. I think if you look at the Russian constitution, it looks different today both in form and interpretation than it did 29 years ago. I'll also note that Constitution Day in Russia is what is known as a working holiday. Originally, everyone got the day off, but back in 2004 the Russian Duma voted to make it a regular workday. So it's a working holiday, which to me, seems to be the definition of an oxymoron.
But Bob, let's shift gears and let's move from Russia to Brussels. Next week, the European Council will meet. They set the direction and political priorities of the European Union. I suspect at least two issues are going to be on their agenda. One is Ukraine. The other is the potential expansion of the EU to include countries in the Balkans. What can you tell me about the meeting?
Well, Jim, some of this flows from what you were just saying about Putin testing Western resolve. I think so far, as you've indicated, the testing and the Russian punishment of Ukraine and the exacting of costs and so forth has increased resolve, and they've shown what's at stake by standing up to Russia. You have EU leaders now, it looks like they're going to be looking into whether or not to ramp up investment into defense industries, so improve the capability of European countries to not only create armaments and armaments that could be used to help support Ukraine, but also to coordinate. I think a lot of people don't realize how much this is uncoordinated in a lot of ways, that you still have European nations competing against each other, EU nations competing against each other for arms bids, driving up the cost and so forth, so I think there's a figure attached.They're looking to provide something like $8 billion worth of arms and military equipment to Ukraine.
Member states are being urged to team up on their purchases of arms to speed up infrastructure improvements so that they can modernize things like roads and bridges to provide military movement that's much swifter than currently is the case. This is not only for Ukraine, this is for NATO functioning itself, and this has been a longstanding desire. I think you're going to hear the phrase the EU's Military Mobility Project brought up as part of the discussions that play out next week. Also, while the energy issue in some ways has been sorted out for this winter, not that it's going to be an easy winter, but the reports indicate that for this 2022, '23 winter, natural gas and other supplies are sufficient enough that will heat EU countries through the winter. Next year is another story.
Because you have to bake in energy supply agreements well ahead of time, there's going to be serious discussion about how are they going to be able to make up for the shortfall, which is going to be precipitous, because let's face it, they're going to be heating themselves with Russian energy this winter that was stockpiled. So what is going to be the plan for next year? That's going to be very much an item for discussion, Jim. Then the one you referred to, which is the expansion of the EU. Again, this gets to Russia concerns in some ways. There was just a few days ago a Western Balkan Summit. This is six Balkan countries that have had ongoing conversation with the EU, Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. Four of those, so excluding Bosnia and Kosovo, already have formal accession talks underway, but they've been very frustrated at what they see as a slow walking of this process from the EU.
So the EU convened a summit with them in Albania in the capital on Tirana this past week, and very much was asserting that the EU was very much interested in keeping this process moving and moving in an expeditious way. Serbia, it should be noted, its leader showed up at the summit. There was some speculation that he wouldn't, he did. He did not take part in the declaration that condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine and ongoing aggression, but otherwise he was signed on to the accession aspect, and so continuing this tightrope walk that Serbia is doing. I should note Jim, we have a new backgrounder up on our website that looks at the longstanding Russian relationship with the Balkans and how what's currently playing out is a potential flashpoint, because Russia has long-standing interest in the area, especially with Serbia, but also with other countries.
It sees itself as having leverage in keeping these countries separated to some degree, while at the same time there is an enormous magnetic pull of the EU for these countries that really want to be part of the EU largess, but also, be part of the EU value system. One other thing I should add is whether or not they have serious discussions at this summit coming up, Jim, on Bosnia. There's talk that that is actually a formal agenda item. It would be rather extraordinary to start a process for Bosnia given the country's ongoing divisions and new fresh concerns of separatism. Our colleague Charlie Kupchan has been writing about this recently, and warning of this becoming a real problem where the Bosnian Serb entity, the Republika Srpska just kept pulling away and aligning itself with Russia becoming a real toxic situation in the region that it can ill afford. So another consequential EU summit and Russia is a heavy overtime.
Bob, I find the discussion in the EU about expansion to be fascinating, just given the challenges the EU faces right now with its existing expansion. You mentioned a key phrase, which was the EU value system. One of the things the EU does is it brings new members in, it makes demands on them, and historically, countries have changed their internal rules and regulations to comply with this EU value system. But what we found is some of the countries that joined, once they became members and got a vote, and again, the EU on many things operates essentially by unanimity, now don't want to go along. Classic case happening right now with Viktor Orbán in Hungary holding up a financial relief package for Ukraine. So why is the EU interested in bringing in countries in the Balkans that don't meet many of the standards that the EU has in terms of domestic laws and regulations, particularly bringing in a country like Bosnia, which is lovely, but as you point out, at best, has a cold peace 20 years after, 25 years after the end of the horrific fighting there?
I think there's a real concern, Jim, that, all those concerns, as you've laid out, are shared I think pretty widely in many European capitals. But I think there's concern now that status quo is no longer going to work for Bosnia. The status quo looks shaky even from the moment the ink was just drying on the Dayton Accords in 1995, but it should be said also ended an especially brutal bloody civil war in Bosnia. With the signs now of this fresh interest in pulling away of the Republika Srpska, the Serb run entity pulling away from the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina, that has raised real alarms that this could cause a greater unraveling and a greater triggering or a renewed triggering of ethnic animosities, so Muslims against Serbs, Croats being brought in. There's Russia is cultivating relationships with Croats in Bosnia as well, for example. So you have Catholic Croats, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Muslim, Bosniaks as they're called, all renewing animosities. You have Muslim Albanians, primarily Muslims living in Kosovo, which also has a minority Serb population. You start seeing the so-called Balkan powder keg starting to ignite again.
So I think the EU is trying to create the sense of momentum and a magnet, and let's face it, it's something like 14 criteria that Bosnia and Herzegovina are going to need to fulfill before accession talks can even begin and that's things like rule of law. Rule of law is a pretty wide series of things, but it's having your house in order on rule of law areas, public administration reform and so forth. I remember covering the international community's high representative who's been leading many of the affairs in Bosnia during my time at the United Nations, Jim, and there were constant problems and constant provocations that that official was dealing with there. But that official had this international writ granted by the UN Security Council to fire individuals, call in troops when necessary and so forth, and they've been trying to move away from that. Now Russia has been blocking on the Security Council the mandate of that official to have an impact. So I think the EU is measuring the landscape and deciding, "You know what? The lesser of evils is to try to at least try this succession process."
To your point again about the difficulties, their EU is also, it might come up in the summit, they're looking to block some of the Balkan countries that are in the EU already from the Schengen Accord. So they'll open the visa-free travel, so Romania and Bulgaria are very upset about that. It's considered in the two-tiered status. That's another thing. It's a time of major migration stresses throughout the EU. Then your reference to Hungary is really significant. There are votes coming up, might happen right before the summit, maybe they'll happen altogether. There's been talk of a four-part vote in which Hungary is being pressured to support an aid package for Ukraine or it will not get its own package of EU aid, which has been held up over concerns over corruption. So there's a big game going on right now, and Viktor Orbán has played it very successfully so far, but it might be coming to a head right at the time of this summit, Jim, at a really crucial moment.
Well, we'll see how that will play out. I have heard over the years numerous European officials saying, "This is the time we're going to stand up to Orbán in his taking us hostage." None of those predictions have come true. Maybe it will come true this time. We'll see.
No, he has played it masterfully by most accounts, but it does seem like there is a true line to be crossed right now, and I don't know if they'll want to draw another one in the near future.
But Jim, there's another kind of international meeting that's taking place next week at a summit level, and that's going to be here in Washington D.C. President Biden's going to host the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and the U.S. says this summit is to show an enduring commitment to Africa and the importance of U.S.-Africa cooperation. Why now though, Jim? Why focus on Africa at this moment?
Short answer, Bob, is because the United States is in a geopolitical competition with China. Biden wants to give African countries reasons to side with the United States rather than with China. The administration knows that China has been very active in Africa, both diplomatically and economically. Chinese leaders meet annually with African leaders and bilateral China-Africa trade is four times U.S.-Africa trade. The administration also knows that much of Africa has not followed the U.S. lead in imposing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with some countries, South Africa comes to mind blaming Washington for provoking the war. Now, the Biden Administration released its Africa strategy back in August. That's nineteen months after Biden took office, which says something about where Africa falls on the administration's foreign policy priority list.
The strategy document is long on praise for Africa's growing importance to world politics and it's replete with general promises to elevate the U.S.-Africa partnership, engage more African states and leverage the U.S. private sector. But the strategy was short on specific commitments, especially when it comes to putting more money on the table. Instead, the strategy talks about the need to, let me quote it here, "Refocus, renew, and strengthen existing programs." The summit itself looks like it's going to follow this heavy-on-generalities, light-on-specifics approach. It is significant that it is the first head-of-state gathering between African leaders and a U.S. president since 2014. But again, the Chinese have been hosting annual summits with African leaders ever since 2000.
The agenda for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit will feature discussions about improving trade ties, responding to COVID-19, food insecurity and human rights. China will not be a formal agenda topic, but all the leaders in the room know that the purpose of the summit is to woo them. Whether that wooing is going to succeed is a very big question mark. It doesn't appear that the Biden administration intends to put any new bold initiatives on the table. One obvious area for action would be trade. Fifty-five African countries just formed the African Continental Free Trade Area, which is the largest free trade area in the world by the number of members. But as we discussed in this podcast, Bob, Biden shows no interest in pursuing trade deals.
One odd thing about the summit is that U.S. officials say that Biden will not hold one-on-one meetings with any African leader. The rationale is that too many leaders are in town and meeting with some and not others would create hard feelings. So the administration seems to be acting on the principle that, "If we could not make everyone happy, we will make no one happy." That's not a principle, I should note that Biden has followed elsewhere in his diplomacy. Just last week, he honored French President Macron with the state visit, as I mentioned earlier, and it wasn't lost on leaders of other close U.S. allies like Britain, Germany, or Japan, that they didn't get the coveted invitation and that Macron was honored with the state visit just four years ago. So all-in-all, by not meeting separately with at least critical leaders in Africa, it seems that the Biden administration is missing an opportunity.
Jim, speaking of opportunities possibly missed, I haven't seen any reporting about the administration stepping up and helping African nations fill out their COVID vaccination efforts. I believe it's the continent with the least amount of vaccination coverage; whereas, a lot of the rest of the world has gotten vaccinated to some extent. Here is the country that hosts two companies with the vaunted mRNA vaccines that might be in a position to really help and provide some meaningful help, whether you want to call it health diplomacy or not. I'll note that the WHO's director is Ethiopian, a native who has spoken out on this issue quite a bit. I believe Kenya has been a country that's tried to host an effort to develop some facsimile of the Moderna vaccine. But I don't know if we see any prospects on that front.
Well, this is going to be one of the issues that will be discussed at the meeting. Again, I don't know whether the White House has a new initiative it intends to unveil I haven't heard any word of it. Typically, the White House leaks big initiatives, so news reporters can start writing pre-copy about it. I think this takes us back to the overall logic of the Biden strategy and foreign policy. On a meta level, it was we're facing a more competitive world, and the way to succeed in that more competitive world is for the United States to become more involved. That U.S. leadership is critical. The way Biden put it when he first took office was, "America is back." That was significant because America plays an outsized role.
It is a country that can actually mobilize others to act. While I agree with that general meta level strategy, on a number of levels, the administration is found difficult to translate the idea, the principle into on-the-ground action. Talking about vaccine diplomacy, what the administration did early on was to essentially hoard vaccines rather than trying to find ways to get vaccines on the ground in other countries. That was wise or would've been wise for two reasons. One, the diplomatic idea that you're helping others, but for the practical idea, it would help Americans because again, viruses don't stay in any one country. They travel, they evolve, they mutate, and so we've seen that over the past couple of years.
Now, eventually, I think the administration got better at that, but when historians sit down and write this period of history, I think they're going to be very critical of the administration for being relatively slow to seize this opportunity for both humanitarian and diplomatic strategic reasons. There's an irony here because the United States historically has done tremendous amounts for the world on the global health front, whether we're talking about polio, we're talking about AIDS, a whole variety of indigenous diseases that the U.S. government has poured tons of money into addressing. This would have seemed to have been a natural for the United States, and I'm not sure that we really hit the ball out of the park. In fact, I know we haven't.
No, that's a good point. I think it's, again, extremely important. The fact of the summit is important that it's taking place, but it's got to deliver more. So we'll see and we'll get a lot more media coverage than we would've gotten if it was taking place someplace else. So it should be interesting to follow.
Certainly will be, Bob. But let's pivot and discuss our audience figure of the week, which listeners can vote on every Tuesday and Wednesday at CFR_org's Instagram story This week, Bob, our audience selected "Iran's three-day strike." Tell me more.
Well, Jim, this is a new chapter in the ongoing protest in Iran that have entered their third month. There have been strikes going on at the retail level, so shop workers of various types in most of the big cities that we have seen reporting that has emerged. Again, Iran is under a news blackout for the most part, but reporting has merged credibly of markets shutting down as a sign of protest in capital Tehran, in Isfahan, in Shiraz. You've seen shuttered-up store fronts and so forth. There has been at the same time what appears to be a doubling down on a crackdown. There was the first reported execution of a protestor just a day ago, and there's great concern that this is going to be the first of a wave of executions as a new move by the regime to show it is serious and that is regarding the protestors as nothing more than rioters disrupting public affairs.
But at the same time, there was also a week in which we saw some muddling and some confusion over whether or not the regime had suspended or ended its morality police outright. It was announced by the country's attorney general that that was going to happen, and then another official seemed to corroborate it. Then the Supreme Leader's office said, "No, nothing of the sort has happened." I talked to our colleague, Ray Takeyh a bit about this, and he said, "At the very least, it shows that there is insider infighting going on. There are versions of policy coming out from multiple fronts now, which is something that could indicate a bit of dissembling in the regime itself." We'll have to see whether that takes place, Jim.
It has also been clear from a lot of the images coming out of Iran that women are more and more feeling emboldened to not wear a hijab. You're seeing photographs from across the country of that. At the same time, experts have pointed out that, "Well, it's not just a morality police that have cracked down on this in the past and don't expect it to be totally loosened up, there are all sorts of vigilantes in Iran as well as other security organizations that can step in and force us if they feel like it." So a test of wills continues, Jim. The strike is another chapter there. We'll see whether it creates any sort of a crimp in the regime, which has seemed to resort to doubling down whenever it's feeling threatened.
Well, that certainly seems to be the modus operandi that the regime is pursuing now, Bob. You mentioned the first execution. You have to consider how swiftly that case went from an arrest to an execution. I think it's very likely we're going to see more. I think the Western press grossly overplayed the news coming out about this supposed end to the morality police. I would take the Supreme Leader's word as dispositive on this score. They're not going anywhere. This is a regime that is going to do everything it can to stay in power. It has shown over the last 40 years that it's going to do what it needs to do to stay in power. It's going to sacrifice whomever it needs to sacrifice to stay in power. Again, for many of these people, the desire to maintain this theocracy is motivated not by religious principles, by economic self-interest, and a very real calculation that if this regime goes, they may not survive.
It's been pointed out also, Jim, that while some have tried to evoke what was happening before the '79 Revolution, where you had strikes that were significant and were considered part of the falling of the Shah's regime, the role of, let's say, the private sector, and then especially in this regard, the role of shops in the economy is much less potent by many accounts than it was under the Shah's reign. The state actually has more control in the economy than it had. The economy has been in a shambolic state for a number of years now, in great part because of U.S.-led sanctions driven by the Treasury Department.
That's true, Bob. I would just say looking at Iran, it is a regime at war with its own people. History suggests that regimes that are at war with their own people eventually collapse. The problem is it can take a very long time.
Well, that's our look at the turbulent world next week. Here's some other stories to keep an eye on. Japan and Australia hold meetings between their foreign and defense ministers, the UN Marks Human Rights Day, and Fiji holds general elections.
Please subscribe to The World Next Week on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, and leave us a review while you're at it. We appreciate the feedback. The articles mentioned in this podcast, as well as a transcript of our conversation are listed on the podcast page for The World Next Week on cfr.org. Please note that opinions expressed on The World Next Week are solely those of the hosts or our guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
Today's program was produced by Ester Fang, with Senior Podcast Producer Gabrielle Sierra. Special thanks to Sinet Adous and Elia Ching for their research assistants. Our theme music is provided by Miguel Herrero and licensed under Creative Commons. This is Jim Lindsay saying so long.
This is Bob McMahon saying goodbye and be careful out there.
Mentioned on the Podcast
Charles A. Kupchan, “Is Bosnia on the Verge of Conflict?,” CFR.org
James McBride, “Russia’s Influence in the Balkans,” CFR.org
Stephen Sestanovich, “It’s Time to Debunk Putin’s Existential Fallacy,” Foreign Policy