Author: Irina KHALTURINA
The passing year can be called relatively calm due to absence of any major conflicts and crises in international relations. Yet it will be remembered for its atmosphere of deep distrust. Scepticism was a by-product present in any top-level contacts, be they bilateral or within various organisations. The validity of many international agreements has been violated, alarmingly by the strongest world power, the United States. At the same time, the methods of global information war, which, apparently, becomes increasingly difficult to control even by those who create its main tools, were constantly improved.
Russia - USA
The first full-blown meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in July in Helsinki was the major event in Russian-American relations. The dialogue was not fruitful in terms of any serious agreements and practical benefit. In the following six months, Moscow and Washington have had even more heated discussion. Attempts to have another meeting of the leaders failed - Putin and Trump exchanged only a few words “on the move” during the G20 summit in Argentina. Over the past year, Washington has imposed / tightened sanctions against Russia several times both against companies and individuals. Although it seems that the White House and the Kremlin are not in the state of Cold War, the existing format of discussions shows many similarities. In spring, during his regular address to the Federal Assembly, Putin gave a presentation on the previously secret newest systems of Russian strategic weapons, capable, according to him, of overcoming the American missile defence system. In October, Trump announced his country’s intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty, due to non-compliance with its terms by the Russian side. Experts warn that mutual distrust between Moscow and Washington may undermine the nuclear deterrence system and increase the military presence of both the US and Russia along the European borders.
USA - China
It is assumed that the main reason behind the US’s withdrawal from the INF is the expansion of its nuclear potential. To deter Beijing, Washington needs to be able to deploy new weapons in the countries of the Asia-Pacific region. In 2018, the US-China relations have been tested by trade wars. Apparently, on December 1, Trump and Xi Jinping agreed on the margins of the G20 summit not to make particularly sharp movements, since there can be no definite winner if this fight goes further. Americans are annoyed with many things Chinese, such as the One Belt - One Way project, the import substitution program and the development of Chinese high-tech production line Made in China-2025. In 2018, the Chinese company Huawei became even stronger as a serious competitor to American technology manufacturers. The United States is pushing hardly through Donald Trump, while China is not at all going to give up. Perhaps the outcome of this dispute will determine the future of humanity in the coming decades.
The Korean Crisis
Mostly focused on China, last year Trump tried, albeit unexpectedly, to solve the Korean issue. The meeting of the American president with his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un in Singapore in June was rightly called historic. Two months before that, Pyongyang had announced the suspension of nuclear tests and the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles. In turn, the US suspended joint military exercises with Seoul. Considering Trump’s previous impolite statements about Kim during the election campaign, threating North Korea with the extreme measures, these moves of both leaders, obviously, subsided the tensions between the two countries. This is the main outcome of talks, perhaps the last one. Now Pyongyang and Washington accuse each other of practical prevarication and cannot agree on the next meeting. In fact, warming of relations between Koreas looks much more promising. Kim Jong-un and the South Korean president Moon Jae-in have already met several times and are taking concrete steps towards each other.
Without exaggeration, the American president was the main newsmaker of the world media in 2018. Everyone was particularly interested in the outcome of the November mid-term congressional elections for the incumbent host of the White House. Since the elections were viewed as a vote of confidence in Trump, things are going pretty well for him. Democrats gained control in the House of Representatives, but did not win seats in the Senate, while the Republicans even managed to consolidate their position. Trump stubbornly bent his line on the world stage as well. He promised and, despite global discontent, took the US out of the Paris Climate Accord, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), and the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan on the Iranian nuclear program, while restoring sanctions against Tehran. The EU, Russia and China disagree with Washington’s actions regarding Iran, and Brussels has even developed a scheme for circumventing American measures against Iran. It is expected that the Iranian-American confrontation may become the main source of international instability in 2019.
Proxy war in Syria
Perhaps Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, which he has announced towards the end of the year, is connected with Iran. Some media suggested that the Americans have developed a new strategy for waging war in Syria, the main purpose of which will be to push Iranian troops and the forces under their control out of Syria. On the other hand, Trump’s statement does not mean anything specifically. The US has promised many times to finally leave Afghanistan and Iraq, but in fact they are still there, same as Russia. Announcement of the victory over the ISIS does not anything specific either. The most brutal terrorist group in the Middle East, ISIS, was seemingly forgotten in 2018, albeit unconvincingly. On the one hand, it is reported that the terrorists were defeated in Syria, but on the other hand, it seems that they are still there and can even regain potential. In short, the proxy war in Syria continues successfully. The passing year will be also remembered for occasional military incidents over the Syrian skies, where Russian, American, Iranian, Turkish and Israeli air fleets operate. In April, the coalition led by the US launched a massive missile attack on Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma and Eastern Ghouta. The US accused the Syrian government forces of this incident. Major military operations took place in the north (Afrin and Idlib), and the south of the country (Deir ez-Zor and East Ghouta). Turkish armed forces continued the fight against Kurdish militia in northern Syria. In late December, Turkish President Recep T. Erdogan announced the readiness of the Turkish army to launch a military operation against the Syrian Kurdish self-defence forces east of the Euphrates River. At the same time, Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, which are considered main allies of Kurds in the country, was praised by the Turkish president as a very “positive signal”.
Russia has lived the entire year under ‘spyware’ and ‘hacker-trolling’ accusations. In the Hague, Russian citizens were accused of cyber espionage against the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and in the US, a Russian woman Maria Butina was accused of conspiracy as a foreign agent. However, the worst scandal of the year was the Salisbury case, when a former GRU officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned. The nerve agent A234 once developed in the USSR and also known as Novichok became known all over the world. British Prime Minister Theresa May called the involvement of Russian authorities in this case "very likely", albeit categorical denial of Moscow. The Salisbury Case provoked a massive expulsion of diplomats from both countries. At the same time, the case of the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections has remained relevant in the US.
Charges against IT giants
Even the IT giants like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon have been under attack due to Russia's alleged involvement in Western election campaigns through social networks. According to BBC, the intervention of Russian ‘factory of trolls’ in American politics has been a massive event - only on Facebook, at least, every third American could see Russian messages. In general, in 2018, IT companies were often scolded blatantly, including for the spread of computer addiction, manipulation, monopoly, and the planned obsolescence of products. These topics caused heated discussions during the World Economic Forum in Davos, where the Indian and British premieres Narendra Modi and Theresa May and even the billionaire George Soros made furious statements against IT companies. In March, the federal court of California filed the first lawsuit against Facebook due to data leakage. Discussions around large-scale distribution of fake news caused no less confusion. Obviously, there is not much pleasure in living in a world teeming with uncertainties where international relations may well fall a victim of an ordinary joker behind a computer.
Murder of the year
Technological progress in 2018 was also the ‘key witness’ of the major murder of the year. In October, journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who emigrated to the United States, disappeared in Istanbul in the consulate of Saudi Arabia. Working as a columnist for The Washington Post, he has been famous for his harsh criticism of the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. The details of Khashoggi’s murder, who was tortured, strangled and dismembered, became known thanks to the Apple Watch, which Khashoggi put into audio recording mode. Turkish President Recep T. Erdogan claimed that those close to the Saudi crown prince were involved in the murder of the journalist. Saudi authorities have long denied the fact of the murder, and then promised to punish the guilty, but, of course, they deny Bin Salman's involvement. The incident provoked a stormy reaction of the international community. It was assumed that there would be serious consequences for the region. The world community was especially interested in the reaction of the main ally of Saudi Arabia in the region - the US. However, the American administration did not take any measures. Along with several other journalists, Khashoggi became Man of the Year, according to the Time magazine.
Russia - Ukraine
By the end of 2018, Russian-Ukrainian relations have gained serious potential for a crisis. Ukrainians view the November incident in the Kerch Strait as an open attack on their sovereignty. President Poroshenko has even declared martial law, while the Russian side called the incident a provocation and an attempt of the Ukrainian president to raise his rating before the elections in March 2019. The situation has aggravated further after the establishment in December of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which became independent from Moscow. Only two archbishops of the Moscow Patriarchate were present at the unifying council, and it is still unknown how the ‘flock’ loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate will gather. This issue becomes particularly relevant in terms of the division of significant material values of the church. Also in December, Poroshenko effectively terminated the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between Ukraine and Russia.
Protest of the Year
In December, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the introduction of an emergency economic and social situation in France following the protests of the ‘yellow vests’ - a spontaneous protest movement without a pronounced leader. Initially, the protesters have declared the increase in the price of fuel as the main cause of manifestations, but the demands have soon become politically motivated. Considering that the demands are mostly declared by the ultra-left, the protest action to some extent resembles a new manifestation of the class struggle.
The new year will inherit almost all the main events of 2018. Given their potential to provoke conflicts, 2019 will clearly not be a calm year. The last issue of the Economist has only intensified the fears with its traditional encrypted cover image, forecasting the arrival of the four infamous horsemen of the Apocalypse. At the same time, Bloomberg’s The Pessimist’s Guide predicts fires, floods and famine for the humanity in 2019.