2018 spelled some dramatic changes in political landscapes all around the world. We take a look at the events that will shape international politics for years.
The outgoing year has made the world much more turbulent, with a major conflict brewing in the Middle East, a radical change of government in one of world’s largest democracies, and a change of guard in the European leadership. On the bright side, there was no war in Korea.
Russia’s new weapons
Russia this year has sent a clear ‘don’t mess with us’ message to NATO members. In a keynote speech in March, President Vladimir Putin unveiled several weapon systems meant to ensure that Russian nuclear deterrence would not be nullified in the foreseeable future. The idea behind ‘investing a lot of money into hardware never meant to be used’ is simple: no Western leader should have even a hint of hope of winning an all-out war against Russia. However, in the West, Putin’s message was met with a mixture of outrage about Russia’s ‘posturing’ and skepticism about the weapons described.
Nuclear treaty termination
Moscow’s fears of NATO military encroachment were fueled by Washington after an announcement that the US was going to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Of the three cornerstone nuclear deals between the US and Russia, one – the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty – was scrapped by George W Bush. INF seems almost certain to follow suit next year. Some officials in the US are talking about pulling out of New START too. Moscow’s response to the looming new arms race is making its nukes invulnerable.
The Skripal affair
The West has doubled down on portraying the Kremlin as the secret mastermind behind everything bad happening to them. Mass protests hit France? Russia is definitely behind it! As the State Department spokeswoman soon to represent the US at the United Nations once put it, “Russia has long arms and lots of tentacles.”
The most bizarre case for Russia being bad came this year from Britain, where according to London, a couple of Russian secret agents tried to assassinate a turncoat with a nerve poison, which failed to kill him despite being ‘military-grade.’ Diplomatic relations between Moscow and London are now reduced to No. 10 shouting “you’re guilty” and Kremlin residing in perpetual confusion and denial. The scandal also gave us RT’s most talked about interview of the decade.
Korea’s Olympic truce and beyond
In 2017, the world was bracing for a new shooting war in the Korean Peninsula – an event that would likely cause tens of thousands of civilian casualties in the first few days alone and possibly would see the use of nuclear weapons for the first time since World War II. But this didn’t happen.
Instead, South Korea hosted the Winter Olympic Games, with a Northern delegation present and wowing the world with their highly-coordinated rooting routines. Trump met Kim, Kim met Moon, and everybody was saying the crisis was averted. Experts however say it was simply postponed, because the basis for the conflict in the region persists. For all we know, officials in Seoul and Pyongyang are simply waiting for a time when they could speak openly about their differences without risking some rash decisions from the 45th US President.
US crackdown on Iran
Washington’s warmongering rhetoric shifted from Pyongyang to Tehran. The neocon dream team in the White House flipped the finger at the world and pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran. As other signatories were scrambling to salvage it, the US re-imposed economic sanctions that had been lifted under its terms. As European governments were assuring their businesses that Iranian market was still OK, the Americans were twisting the arms of the likes of Airbus and SWIFT and succeeded in scaring them off.
Trump is yet to honor the long tradition that says each US president has to start at least one new war. He does seem determined to compensate threefold in international trade. Washington exchanged tit-for-tat tariff salvos with Beijing throughout the year, and neither side seems willing to give up. Trade wars are not as easy to win as the US President claimed once on Twitter. But at least he got an ostensibly new trade deal with Mexico and Canada to brag about.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the UK this year tried to get favorable divorce terms from Brussels, but the shark lawyers on the continent prove to be faster, smarter and meaner. PM Theresa May finally decided not to test the Brexit deal in a vote at home this year, and the potential of a no-deal break-up seems all too realistic.
The cabinet has been stumbling between counting resignation letters and fending off no-confidence votes by reassuring the public that thousands of soldiers were ready to keep Britain from becoming a post-Apocalyptic nightmare. Keep calm and blame Russia, as they say.
‘Saudi reformist’ turns ‘Mr. Bone Saw’
Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, went on a charm offensive in the West this year, having consolidated his power at home in 2017. The smiling royal came with driving licenses for women and domestic tickets for ‘The Emoji Movie’ in his right hand, and multibillion dollar arms contracts in his left. Paid lobbyists and wine-and-dined journalists marched in lockstep, and the few anti-war protesters failed to rain on the parade.
Then came the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, with all its denials, cover-ups and leaked grisly details. The acronym MBS, as the crown prince is often referred to, was mockingly deciphered as “Mister Bone Saw” by critics. And that was such a bummer for so many people. How do you tell your voters that your government respects liberal values and still sell arms to a Mister Bone Saw? How do you make readers forget you wrote all those sweet things about the reformist prince, who likely ordered a fellow columnist slaughtered? Well, maybe some good will come out of it if the outrage brings about an end to the bloodbath in Yemen.
Merkel wraps up political career after reelection
Last year, veteran German leader Angela Merkel secured her fourth term as chancellor. The victory was somewhat Pyrrhic, however. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party who had not won a single seat in 2013, jumped to become the third most represented party in the Bundestag, and has gained ground in all German states. Their surge stems to a large degree from Merkel’s decision to keep doors open for asylum-seekers, who came to Europe in their hundreds of thousands in 2015.
So this year after a bitter political crisis in summer, Frau Bundeskanzlerin announced that the current term would be her last. Merkel is set to retire in 2021 as one of Germany’s three longest-serving chancellors. And it will be without any doubt an end of an era for the entire continent, where Germany under Merkel was an unofficial leader.
Macron vies for EU leadership, gets Yellow Vests
As Germany left the international limelight to deal with domestic problems, France under Emmanuel Macron made a bid for the vacant position. The French president became a leading voice in publicly opposing Trump’s nationalism and advocating European integration.
But this international agenda may be undermined by Macron’s shrinking popularity at home. His painful economic reforms, a scandal involving his security aide, and occasional tone-dead statements have contributed to growing resentment in France. The anti-Macron mood erupted by year’s end as the so-called Yellow Vests mass protest, which started as an expression of contempt over a fuel price hike and became a violent riot against the man at the helm. The presidency seems to have survived only through small concessions and a strong police response.
Dictator-parsing president, black apartheid, Orthodox schism
In Latin America, a crucial election in world’s fifth-largest democracy this year became symbolic for the continent’s apparent turn away from socialism. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new president, is the latest world leader who “speaks what he thinks” and thinks a lot of things that could have sunk a politician’s career in another country. He thinks Brazil’s military dictators were wimps because they jailed opponents instead of shooting them, for example. Whether he would translate the inflammatory rhetoric into actual dictatorial policy is yet to be seen.
Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president for a decade, resigned from office this year, and his replacement brought the country to international headlines for a very dubious reason. Cyril Ramaphosa wants to take land away from white farmers and redistribute it in a way that would even out the ills of colonial past. If he has his way, the white farmers won’t even get compensation. It’s not clear how a modern injustice would cancel out a historic injustice, but South Africa seems determined to try. The irony that this happens in the country that fought and beat apartheid is palpable.
Petro Poroshenko, the president of Ukraine, managed to trigger the biggest schism in world Orthodoxy as part of his reelection campaign. The territory of Ukraine had been under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church for centuries. Poroshenko managed to convince Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to challenge the status quo for the sake of creating an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine. The Moscow patriarchy took this as basically an act of war and cut all diplomatic and spiritual ties with Constantinople in response. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has also warned that Kiev’s initiative that might see Orthodox religious communities diminished in Ukraine and lead to violence.
What will 2019 bring? As US president Trump is fond of saying, “let’s see what happens.” Stay tuned to RT.com.