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TWO VISITS FROM THE EAST: PUTIN AND XI

TWO VISITS FROM THE EAST: PUTIN AND XI

Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin touched down in Crimea to celebrate five years since Moscow seized the peninsula from Ukraine. Later this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to Europe, where Italy is expected to sign on to Beijing's trillion-dollar Belt and Road global infrastructure plan.

Our thought bubble: Each of these visits speaks to a different way that the world order – once dominated, for better or for worse, by the Euro-Atlantic "West" – is now rapidly shifting.

Russia tearing things down: Back in 2014, President Putin justified the annexation of Crimea by rattling off 20 years worth of grievances with the West, finishing with this warning: "if you compress a spring to its limit, it will snap back hard." Russia in the years since has been in snapback mode – keen to defend what it sees Moscow's sphere of influence (Ukraine), force the US to reckon with Moscow as a global player again (Syria), and to accelerate the political fragmentation of the West along nationalist/populist lines (using its cyber capacity to exacerbate underlying social and political polarization in Europe and the US).

China building things up: But where Russia is concerned primarily with accelerating the decline of an old order, China is looking to create a new one of its own – building new Chinese-led global financial structures, exporting Chinese technological standards and norms, particularly in the development of 5G, and broadening economic and trade relationships left to languish by a less trade-friendly US. Critics worry that Chinese loans will create debt traps, or that Chinese technology companies will muscle out Western competitors while creating national security liabilities. But dozens of countries are eager to tap into lavish Chinese financing for much-needed infrastructure, and to gain better access to that billion-strong export market.

The Belt and Road initiative, which already includes some 80 countries, is a centerpiece of President Xi Jinping's plan for China to "take center stage in the world." Until now, the that strategy has focused primarily on Africa, Asia, Latin America, and smaller countries on Europe's fringes – but if Italy signs on, it would be the first G7 country to join. That would mark a major new milestone in Beijing's global rise.

The big picture: US President Donald Trump has certainly upended long-standing assumptions about American support for a certain kind of global order. But that's only part of a much larger story in which a rising China and a rankled Russia are challenging and remaking the international landscape. In sum: it ain't all Trump.

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On September 23, GZERO Media — in partnership with Microsoft and Eurasia Group — gathered global experts to discuss global recovery from the coronavirus pandemic in a livestream panel. Our panel for the discussion Crisis Response & Recovery: Reimagining while Rebuilding, included:

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  • Jeh Johnson, Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP and former Secretary of Homeland Security.
  • John Frank, Vice President, UN Affairs at Microsoft
  • Susan Glasser, staff writer and Washington columnist, The New Yorker (moderator)

Special appearances by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde, and comedian/host Trevor Noah.

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Our panel will discuss where things really stand on vaccine development, the political and economic challenges of distribution, and what societies need to be focused on until vaccine arrives in large scale. This event is the second in a series presented by GZERO Media in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Eurasia Group.

Apoorva Mandavilli, science & global health reporter for the New York Times, will moderate a conversation with:

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The long-simmering conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over a region called Nagorno-Karabakh erupted over the weekend, with more than 50 killed (so far) in the fiercest fighting in years. Will it escalate into an all-out war that threatens regional stability and drags in major outside players?

What's the background? For years, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at odds over the rugged highlands of Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies between them. In the dying days of the USSR, the two sides fought a bloody six-year war to control the enclave, which was part of Muslim-majority Azerbaijan but mainly populated by ethnic Armenian Christians.

The conflict ended in 1994 with over 30,000 dead, more than one million displaced, and a fragile truce that left Nagorno-Karabakh as a de facto independent state, recognized and supported by Armenia but not by most other countries, including Azerbaijan. Low-level clashes have persisted ever since — including deadly skirmishes in 2016 — and both governments often use the conflict to stoke nationalist flames at home.

Although the trigger for the latest violence is still unclear, bilateral tensions have been rising since mid-July, when 16 soldiers died in border clashes. That violence sparked an uproar in Azerbaijan, where thousands of Azeris took to the streets calling for the army to "recapture" Nagorno-Karabakh. Now, both sides are accusing each other of throwing the first punch, and have declared martial law.

A war over the enclave would resonate far beyond the region. The South Caucasus, where Armenia and Azerbaijan are located, has enormous strategic importance because it is crossed by two major energy pipelines that carry Azeri oil and Caspian Sea gas to Turkey and Europe.

Two outside players — Turkey and Russia — are on opposite sides of the conflict. Turkey has close relations with fellow Turkic Azerbaijan, and historically there is little love lost between Ankara and the Armenians. Moreover, Azerbaijan is Turkey's main oil supplier. Turkey has denied reports that it has sent 4,000 Syrians to fight on behalf of the Azeri army, but Turkish President Recep Erdogan's moves here merit close attention.

Russia is the dominant player in the region. But although it sells weapons to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, Moscow keeps troops garrisoned in Armenia and is, technically, treaty-bound to defend the country. If things escalate further, Vladimir Putin will have to decide whether to honor that obligation. Doing so could quickly put Ankara and Moscow on opposite sides of another nasty war (they already back different sides of the civil war in Libya.)

Finally, Iran also as a stake. It borders both countries, and Azeris are Iran's largest ethnic minority. Although Tehran has traditionally backed Yerevan, and often bickers with Baku over energy and security in the Caspian Sea, the Iranians offered to mediate when the latest tensions began two months ago. Will they try again now?

62: In a referendum over the weekend, nearly 62 percent of Swiss voters said they wanted to preserve freedom of movement between the European Union and Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU. The right-wing Swiss People's Party had proposed imposing migration quotas at the border, saying that the current frontier is basically a... (okay, they didn't actually say it's a "Swiss cheese" but still).

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