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Happy Thursday World readers. We're back with a 1,714-word (6-minute) trip around the world.

  • Thanks for joining me! Please tell your friends and colleagues to sign up, and I'd love your tips and feedback: lawler@axios.com.

Situational awareness: Axios World will be coming to you next week from London. I have no idea what will happen with Brexit and Boris, but I'm excited to find out up close!

1 big thing: Putin announces Russia's return to Africa

Putin plays host. Photo: Sergei Chirikov/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Vladimir Putin is signaling to the world this week that Russia has returned to Africa, hosting representatives of all 54 African nations, including 43 heads of state or government, at his retreat in Sochi.

The big picture: Russia is already Africa’s top arms supplier and is deepening relationships in areas like mining and security. But Putin’s primary objective with the inaugural Russia-Africa Summit was to “rattle the U.S. and Europe, which have taken Russia’s decades-long absence from Africa for granted,” contends Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Endowment.

  • “The foreign policy Russia is pursuing in Africa today is driven largely by opportunism — a departure from the ideological approach of the USSR, which invested heavily … to create client regimes among revolutionary and post-colonial leaders,” Stronski writes for Axios Expert Voices.
  • Meanwhile, Stronski argues, “the U.S. and its allies have disengaged from Africa, creating vacuums Moscow can exploit.”

W. Gyude Moore, a former Liberian minister of public works now at the Center for Global Development, tells Axios that few African leaders will have worried much about U.S. reaction to their presence in Sochi.

  • “That is simply a reflection of the decline of American influence on the continent,” he says.
  • For a number of African countries, he adds, America has already been surpassed by China as the most important external player.

As for Russia, while they “don’t have the checkbook of China or the United States,” he says, “they have specific competencies a number of African countries need.”

  • “If you’re a Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Mali, you’re dealing with insurgencies in your country. And seeing what Russia has done in Syria, maybe it makes sense to have a relationship with Russia on that front."
  • "If you are Rwanda, if you are South Africa, you have significant problems with power. Russia is selling nuclear power."
  • "If you’re Egypt, the price of bread and cereals is a national security issue. Well, 27% of Russia’s exports to Egypt are cereals.”

Russia is also willing to provide diplomatic support, and even mercenaries, to regimes treated as pariahs by other powers.

“They’re really, really savvy at positioning themselves as not the U.S., not the EU — as treating you as equals, responding to your needs as they are and not imposing their own ideas of what your country should do."
— W. Gyude Moore

The flipside: Russia simply doesn't have the economic might to match the investments and trade coming from China, the U.S., "and even many lesser powers," Stronski writes.

  • "It's deepest inroads are in highly troubled countries, such as the Central African Republic, or pariah states such as Sudan and Zimbabwe that are often under UN sanctions."
  • "Limited resources and risk appetite have left Russia falling back on tools like sending Kremlin-connected mercenaries to conflict zones or offering consulting services to autocratic regimes on election manipulation."

What to watch: "This gathering was more symbolic than substantive. But if Moscow expands its Africa policy after the summit and under the West's inattentive watch, it could be a far greater worry," Stronski concludes.

2. Part II: The view from Africa

Putin meets with Guinean President Alpha Condé. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin\TASS via Getty

I asked Moore what his considerations would be in dealing with Russia were he still serving in government.

  • It's one thing to write about and debate these issues from Washington, he says. But when you're in office, "you have to deliver."
  • "Usually, wherever you can get resources to be able to deliver, that's what you do. That’s what countries do."

Why it matters: Moore says that's part of why America's declining influence in Africa is so "dangerous."

  • "American involvement comes with American values: protection of minorities, freedom of speech, open societies, free trade. And so when the U.S. engages with a country, those are the terms on which it engages."

The bottom line: "Russia is not going to advocate for those. Neither will China.”

3. Elections in the Americas: Watch them run

Supporters and opponents of Bolivia's Evo Morales clash in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Photo: Daniel Walker/AFP via Getty Images

1. Bolivian President Evo Morales claims to have won Sunday's election by the 10% margin needed to avoid a runoff — despite indications of foul play and condemnation from international monitors.

  • Flashback: I noted in Monday's edition that official results had stopped coming in from Bolivia with Morales up by around 7%. When the results resumed, he was leading by exactly 10%.
  • Morales, who was on the ballot despite losing a 2016 referendum over whether he could seek a fourth term, has declared a state of emergency to fend off what he describes as a coup attempt.
  • Protests against him have already grown violent, and the situation looks likely to escalate.

2. Canada's Justin Trudeau says he'll form a minority government rather than seek a formal power-sharing deal, setting up a weaker and likely less stable government than the one he led for the last four years.

  • Trudeau’s Liberals will be easily the biggest party in Parliament after Monday’s election, but they narrowly lost the popular vote to the Conservatives and were ejected entirely from Alberta and Saskatchewan.
  • The results once again divide oil-rich western Canada — a field of Conservative blue — from the rest of the country. That's heating up secessionist fervor in Alberta, notes Axios Chief Wexitologist (Western-exit) Shane Savitsky.

3. Argentina goes to the polls on Sunday and is all but certain to return the Peronists — a populist, left-wing movement — to power.

  • President Mauricio Macri came to power four years ago promising business-friendly economic reforms, but the economy has slumped dramatically on his watch.
  • He blames his predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. She’s now running for vice president alongside the more pragmatic Alberto Fernández.
  • Polls give him a 20 point lead over Macri. He’ll need to win with at least 45% of the vote, or 40% with a 10-point margin, to avoid a runoff.

Go deeper with a great FT piece on Peronism

4. Middle East: Danger remains in northern Syria

Russian military police on patrol in northern Syria. Photo: Delil Soulseiman/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump gave a triumphant statement from the White House yesterday, removing sanctions on Turkey and claiming his decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria resulted in a "great outcome."

Reality check: The ceasefire remains fragile despite a deal reached between Russia and Turkey. That deal, meanwhile, solidified the diplomatic marginalization of the U.S. in an area where it had been a stabilizing force, Hardin Lang of Refugees International writes for Axios Expert Voices:

What to watch:

  • The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) is not party to the agreement, and its fighters are unlikely to voluntarily abandon Syrian Kurds who live in border towns and villages within six days, as the deal mandates.
  • It's not clear that the Bashar al-Assad regime and Russia are in a position to directly compel their withdrawal (Damascus and Moscow are already in the midst of a campaign next door in Idlib province).
  • Despite its assurances to Trump, Turkey is still poised to press its invasion of northeast Syria. If it tries to fully clear the YPG from the border area, Turkey would once again employ its Syrian proxy militia, which has committed horrific abuses against Kurdish civilians.

The bottom line: Renewed conflict in northeast Syria is increasingly likely. Further violence could pave the way for ethnic cleansing, forcing hundreds of thousands of additional Kurdish civilians to flee their homes and letting Turkey resettle the safe zone mainly with Syrian Arab refugees.

Go deeper: War crimes committed in Turkish offensive, U.S. envoy says

5. China: Lafite and meat but nothing to play

Mahjong in Xi'an. Photo: Getty

Three stories on a changing China that caught my eye this week.

1. The makers of perhaps the most legendary of French wines — Château Lafite Rothschild — recently released the first vintage to bear a surprising note on its revered label: Made in China.

  • The name "Lafite" is synonymous with the high life in China, used in the names of apartment complexes and restaurants, the NYT's Amy Qin reports.
  • The winemakers established an estate in Shandong Province 10 years ago, hoping the patriotic and increasingly affluent population would embrace a world-class wine made from Chinese soil.
  • But since then, President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption offensive has driven down sales of pricey wines — long "a favorite gift among the nation’s political and business leaders."

2. China's fast-growing appetite for meat "threatens Latin American forests and Arctic ice caps alike, as cattle-rearing prompts land-clearing and emits greenhouse gases," per the Economist, which also notes health and economic concerns.

  • "To be fair, China’s 1.4bn people are being asked to show a self-restraint unknown in the gluttonous West. Even now, in a China where children yawn at dishes their grandparents once saw only at weddings and high holidays, meat consumption per person is only half of America’s."
  • Less than 2% of the population is vegetarian, though. "Alternative lifestyles are a hard sell in China" and "China was too poor, too recently" to engage in "showy self-denial," the author concludes.

3. Police in Yushan in southeastern China prompted "panic" over the weekend by announcing a ban on mahjong parlors, the BBC reports.

  • Authorities said they were concerned about gambling (players often wager small amounts), gangs and noise ("the heavy tiles often make clacking sounds as they are shuffled around").
  • But for many older Chinese people, the game is a daily pastime. Police appeared to backtrack soon after the announcement, but other cities have also been cracking down.
6. Asia: What India is watching

Narendra Selfie: Indian actor Vivek Oberoi at the premiere of PM Narendra Modi. Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images

There's been a marked rise in "patriotic — some would say nationalistic — themes in Indian television and cinema," from low-brow action films to prestige TV dramas, the FT's Nirpal Dhaliwal writes.

  • Films like "PM Narendra Modi" and "Uri: The Surgical Strike," "based on an attack in Pakistani-administered Kashmir by the Indian military in retaliation for a terrorist outrage," were massive money-makers.
  • Why it matters: "Among India’s critics and reviewers, there is some alarm at the growing trend for flag-waving."
    • "India, in my opinion ... has historically been an ‘emasculated’ country — third-world, emaciated, struggling, not ‘man enough’ to stand on its own. Modi and his cohorts have given the majority something to hold on to," says critic Tanul Thakur.

The big picture: The creators of such shows and movies are responding to popular demand. But the Indian government is also in no mood to be criticized, Foreign Policy's Ravi Agrawal and Kathryn Salam write.

  • Modi's government is now considering censoring platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video — catching up with censorship already in place on TV and print media.
  • They're also considering using trade to retaliate against Malaysia for criticism over the lockdown in Kashmir.
  • The bottom line: "Ultimately, the success of India’s moves to prevent other countries — or companies — from criticizing it is linked to the size and power of its market. Or at least that’s the lesson India can draw from China."
7. Stories we're watching

Displaced children play in Idlib, near the Syria-Turkey border. Photo: Aaref Watad. Photo: AFP via Getty

  1. Boris Johnson offers Brexit delay for snap elections
  2. Scoop: The grandees headed to Saudi Arabia's "Davos in the Desert"
  3. Global protest wave riles capital markets
  4. Benny Gantz gets his chance to form Israel's next government
  5. Hong Kong revokes extradition bill that triggered protests
  6. Ukraine felt early Trump pressure and knew of military aid freeze
  7. Pence blasts NBA in speech on China

Quoted:

"I really enjoyed my conversation with General @MazloumAbdi. He appreciates what we have done, and I appreciate what the Kurds have done."
— Donald Trump today, on Twitter, praising the Kurdish commander of the SDF
"There is a red notice on him. The U.S. should deliver him to us."
— Recep Tayyip Erdogan today, referring to the same commander as a "wanted terrorist" Go deeper.