Letter From the Editors

We have no way of knowing whether Putin ever watched any of the Karate Kid movies, but being a judo practitioner, it can’t be ruled out. When he set off for a tour of the Middle East in early ­December, many said it was to show the West he was hardly second-best. The UAE and Saudi Arabia, which were Putin’s stops along the way, are also feeling like they deserve a bigger slice of the pie – even though their relations with the reigning heavyweight, the US, remain cordial. This presented a certain risk for Putin, who has an ICC arrest warrant out for him, says Middle East expert Nikita Smagin. And while neither Abu Dhabi nor Riyadh have adopted the Rome Statute, this trip was still a riskier venture than the Russian president’s previous stops in the former Soviet republics or Iran.

The hobnobbing is hardly surprising, since the Middle East’s significance has risen sharply for Moscow in the last two years, says Smagin: “This is basically the second most important region [for Russia] after China.” For instance, the UAE is a source of electronic equipment for sanctions-restricted Russia. But let’s not forget the perpetual 800-pound gorilla in the room – the oil market. Russia and OPEC have long been trying to raise black gold prices, which play into balancing their respective budgets. The US, for its part, needs low oil prices as it heads into the 2024 electoral cycle, writes NG’s Mikhail Sergeyev. “So while Russia and Saudi Arabia are voluntarily cutting oil output, the US is actively ramping it up,” he writes. Talk about a tug of war!

All this tugging is hardly limited to the Middle East: Two more rivalries are playing out in the post-Soviet space. In Ukraine, it was Z vs. Z this week, as President Zelensky’s purported feud with Ukrainian Armed Forces Chief Valery Zaluzhny reached new heights. It first went public in early November, following Zaluzhny’s interview with The Economist. At the time, the general said that the war with Russia had reached a stalemate that could drag on for years. Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive became another bone of contention between Ukraine’s two top figures. Ukrainskaya pravda speculates that the president may replace Zaluzhny with Aleksandr Syrsky, Ukraine’s top general in the east. However, that would immediately catapult Zaluzhny to stardom, thus only exacerbating the problem for Zelensky, the publication adds. The gloves really came off when Kiev Mayor Vitaly Klitschko publicly supported Zaluzhny’s comments about the war, only fueling speculation about Z vs. Z.

Kyrgyzstan was another example of an ambitious No. 2 challenging the leader. After protests erupted in several markets across the country over allegations of unfair taxation, President Sadyr Zhaparov had to personally intervene to quell the unrest. While cabinet officials tried to sell the new accounting system as advantageous to merchants – and a step away from Kyrgyzstan’s “bazaar economy” – the street (or rather, the stall) did not agree.

According to expert Aleksandr Kobrinsky, while the protests themselves were spontaneous, they could be used by the ruling forces to weaken a contender whose star has recently been ascending – National Security Committee chief Kamchibek Tashiyev. Recently, Tashiyev has been touring the country in an almost electoral campaign fashion. He promises better roads and a brand-new airport in Dzhalal-Abad – all to be delivered in exactly two years, i.e., just in time for the next presidential election. Clearly, Tashiyev carries a lot of weight: “The chief law enforcer has taken control of the judiciary, declared war on organized criminal groups and raided brothels that have dirt on officials and deputies,” writes NG. So it makes sense that Zhaparov is starting to get a little nervous about the former’s ambitions. Clearly, much like Zaluzhny, Tashiyev is no longer satisfied with just carrying out orders.

Strongman-turned-leader is hardly a new scenario in the world – especially in its more turbulent regions. Both nations and officials will have to watch their backs in 2024, or risk being bested by those who are eager to move up from second place.