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US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy meets Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.

EYEPRESS via Reuters Connect

What We're Watching: Tsai in California, Lukashenko in Moscow, no Easter in Nicaragua

After US speaker meets Taiwan's prez, all eyes on China

US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday met Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen in California, the last stop of her trip to the Americas. McCarthy is the most senior US official to meet a Taiwanese leader on American soil since 1979, when Washington officially recognized Beijing – rather than Taipei – as “China.”

The meeting was a bold move by the Taiwanese leader, given that China considers Taiwan part of its territory and is triggered by even the slightest hint of Americans normalizing ties with Taipei. And it definitely won’t help improve the US-China relationship. But so far, Beijing’s response has been more meow than growl.

Ahead of the tête-à-tête in California, China sent fighter jets and naval vessels near the Taiwan Strait, which separates Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. Beijing followed that up by dispatching an aircraft carries and announcing spot inspections of Taiwanese ships.

Still, it wasn’t quite the massive show of force put on by China right after Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan last August. Blame bad timing: Xi Jinping likely doesn’t want to freak out French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, who Xi is hosting this week at a very awkward time for China-EU relations.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk, Belarus.

Reuters

Putin’s muscle flex in Belarus

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is scrambling this week to project strength and confidence in support of a war effort in Ukraine that’s gone terribly wrong. Russian forces have continued their artillery strikes against critical infrastructure targets across Ukraine, temporarily knocking out heat and electricity for civilians in many Ukrainian cities. On Monday, Putin visited Minsk to meet with an ally, Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko.

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A Belarusian soldier during a shooting exercise.

EYEPRESS via Reuters Connect

What We’re Watching: War spillovers, Biden bolstering allies, Modi’s free-trade rethink, Russian defection

Ukraine war spillover

As President Joe Biden meets with EU and NATO leaders this week, they’ll be talking about how best to prevent the war in Ukraine from spilling across borders. But Russia’s President Vladimir Putin will have much to say about that, particularly as he tries to punish Ukraine’s Western backers for making the Russian military’s job in Ukraine much tougher and for waging war on Russia’s economy via sanctions. On Wednesday, Putin announced that “unfriendly countries” that want to buy Russian natural gas must pay for it in rubles. That would force Europeans hungry for Russian energy to boost Russia’s sagging currency, which would help Putin finance his war in Ukraine. There is already much behind-the-scenes discussion in Europe on how to avoid that problem.

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Lukashenko attends a press conference following a meeting with Putin in the Kremlin.

Mikhail Metzel/TASS

Will Belarus join the war?

Russia invaded Ukraine entirely on its own. Only a handful of authoritarian states have (diplomatically) defended Vladimir Putin’s war. One of them was Belarus, whose President Alexander Lukashenko has allowed Russian forces to attack Ukraine from Belarusian territory and passed a referendum to enable placing Russian nukes on Belarusian soil.

But Putin seems to be pushing Belarus to do more — perhaps even enter the war as a combatant, which would put Lukashenko in a very tough spot.

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Migrants walk towards the Bruzgi-Kuznica Bialostocka border crossing in an attempt to cross the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno Region, Belarus November 15, 2021.

Leonid Scheglov/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS

What We’re Watching: EU vs everyone, Austria vs the unvaccinated, India vs smog, Barbados vs real world

The EU targets "everyone!" The EU on Monday unanimously agreed to impose fresh sanctions on "everyone involved" in bringing migrants to the Belarus-Poland border, where a diplomatic and humanitarian crisis continues as thousands of asylum-seekers shiver in makeshift camps. Brussels says Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has deliberately created this crisis to strike back against existing EU sanctions that were imposed in response to his sham re-election last year and his hijacking of a RyanAir flight this summer. Reports show that Belarus loosened visa restrictions for migrants — largely from Iraq — to serve as a transit point for migrants hoping to cross the EU border to apply for asylum. Details of the new sanctions aren't yet decided, but they are likely to target political officials, travel agencies, and airlines. Lukashenko has vowed to fight back, but he won't cut off the Russian gas flows that traverse his country on the way to Europe — Vladimir Putin quickly slapped down that possibility after Lukashenko raised it over the weekend. The question remains: will EU sanctions change Belarus' behavior?

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Hundreds of migrants camp at the Belarus side of the border with Poland near Kuznica Bialostocka, Poland, in this photograph released by the Polish Defence Ministry, November 10, 2021.

MON/Handout via REUTERS

What We’re Watching: Eastern Europe border crisis, US-China climate pledge, Bolsonaro’s a centrist now

Migrants suffer as Eastern European deadlock deepens. The stalemate at the Polish-Belarusian border continues, with reports that several migrants languishing in freezing temperatures in the forest have recently frozen to death while waiting for asylum. The EU says Minsk is using the migrants as a political weapon against Brussels international heavyweights have intervened in recent days to try t chart a path forward. German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who's just days away from her retirement — has been appealing to Russian President Vladimir Putin to use his sway with Minsk to resolve the dispute. Putin, who's no doubt enjoying his clout and leverage, says that Brussels needs to negotiate directly with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko – but that has been a non-starter so far because the EU has cut off communication with the strongman since his rigged re-election last year. Feeling emboldened by the standoff, Lukashenko doubled down Thursday, saying that if the bloc slaps fresh sanctions on him, he would cut off the flow of gas that flows from Russia to Western Europe via Belarusian territory. That's a scary prospect indeed for a Europe which is already dealing with painful gas shortages as winter approaches.

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Belarus president exploiting migrants to pressure EU on sanctions
Lukashenko’s Exploiting Migrants To Pressure EU Over Sanctions | Europe In :60 | GZERO Media

Belarus president exploiting migrants to pressure EU on sanctions

Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective from Europe:

What's the nature of the migration crisis between Belarus and Poland?

Well, it's not a migration crisis, really. It's a question of the weaponization of the misery of people. Lukashenko wants to, sort of, exert pressure on Poland and on the European Union because of the sanctions that are imposed upon him for his undemocratic behavior. And that is importing miserable people from the Middle East, flying them into Minsk, probably at great expense to them, and then effectively forcing them over the border to Poland. That has to be stopped, and a number of measures are underway to do that. It's really an unacceptable way of exploiting people.

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Polish service members and police officers are seen behind a barbed wire fence as hundreds of migrants gather on the Belarusian-Polish border in an attempt to cross it in the Grodno region, Belarus November 9, 2021.

Leonid Scheglov/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS

The EU’s big Eastern problems

Let's take a trip along the eastern fringes of the EU today, where two big problems are brewing at a time when Brussels seems particularly unable to respond effectively.

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