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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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Beina Lesanjir, a woman who escaped gender based violence, participates in a traditional dance at the Umoja village, Kenya.

REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

Hard Numbers: A Kenyan “No man’s land”, Nicaragua strips critics, Eastern migrations soar, big money Bible

0: The defining feature of Umoja, a village in northeastern Kenya, is that it has precisely zero men. The town, which bans the Y-chromosome entirely (at least among adults), was set up decades ago as a refuge for women fleeing domestic violence, genital mutilation, or child marriage. Some 40 families now live there.

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A view shows Batman logo on a box of cocaine, said to be recovered by New Zealand Police.

New Zealand Police/Handout via REUTERS

Hard Numbers: Batman found on cocaine, Disney censors Simpsons, Nicaragua jails priests, Bard flub costs Google billions

3.2: In a possible indication that the Marvel universe is winning, Batman is now on cocaine. New Zealand’s navyintercepted a haul of 3.2 tons of the drug floating in the pacific. Many of the packets were labeled with the Dark Knight’s symbol, evidently a trademark of certain producers in South America.

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An armored convoy of pro-Russian troops moves along a road during in Mariupol, Ukraine.

REUTERS/Chingis Kondarov

What We’re Watching: Russian military on the ropes, panic-buying in Beijing, Nicaragua out of OAS

Depleted Russian forces?

As Moscow struggles to rack up battlefield wins — narrowing its focus to the Donbas and to building a land bridge to its forces in Crimea — it’s reasonable to wonder just how potent Russia’s military really is. Most media information on the war comes from the Russian and Ukrainian governments, both of which need to sell the idea of Russian military might. The Kremlin needs to maintain troop and civilian morale, and Ukraine needs to woo Western support. But independent military analysts stress the Russians’ current limitations. “Russian [battalions] have taken high casualties in the battle of Mariupol, are degraded, and are unlikely to possess their full complement of personnel,” according to the Institute for the Study of War. As for elsewhere in Ukraine? “Reporting on numbers of [battalions] without additional context and analysis of the combat power of these units is not a useful evaluation of Russian forces,” it said.

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Ukrainian soldiers during a funeral for a fellow service member in Lviv.

REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

What We're Watching: Ukrainian war morale, Nicaraguan opposition crackdown, Sinai summit

“On the brink of surviving war”

In wartime, all battlefield reports must be treated with large doses of skepticism. All of them. Propaganda and the “fog of war” are powerful forces. We do know that Russia’s military has captured very few of its most strategically important targets. To varying degrees, Ukraine’s largest cities have suffered terrible, lasting damage and a substantial number of both military and civilian casualties. In addition, a Russian media outlet reported on Monday that the country’s Defense Ministry has acknowledged that 9,861 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine in the past month. If true, that’s more than the number of American soldiers killed during the entire wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. (That report, which can’t be verified, was quickly pulled down, but it squares with Western intelligence estimates.) We’ve already written in Signal about the various problems, including low morale, that may be plaguing Russian soldiers.

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A man, wearing a face mask for protection against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), walks by a mural depicting Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, in Managua, Nicaragua March 30, 2020. Picture taken March 30, 2020.

REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

Nicaragua’s so-called “election”

On Sunday, Nicaragua will hold presidential and legislative elections in which President Daniel Ortega is all but guaranteed to win a fifth term. So, why does the vote even matter? We asked Eurasia Group analyst Yael Sternberg for her take.

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U.S. President Joe Biden arrives for the G20 leaders summit in Rome, Italy October 30, 2021.

Brendan Smialowski/Pool via REUTERS

What We’re Watching: Biden in Europe, Gulf states vs Lebanon, elections in Nicaragua, South Africa & Virginia

Biden's Euro trip. President Joe Biden is on a crucial Euro trip. It began in Rome at the G-20 Summit, where his idea for a global minimum tax rate was broadly endorsed by the group. Biden also visited Pope Francis at the Vatican — a get-together that produced decidedly less scary photos than when his predecessor held a papal visit — and met with France's President Emmanuel Macron to try to smooth over strained relations after the AUKUS debacle, which he now says had been "clumsy." The US president had another face-to-face with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, just a week after Ankara threatened to expel the US ambassador. But there's a domestic component at play too: Biden was hoping to have passed two infrastructure bills, which include money for climate change, before he attended the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, which kicked off on Sunday. Failure to close the deal on Capitol Hill would deal Biden's credibility a heavy blow just at the moment he wants to reinforce the US commitment to climate change reduction goals at this week's summit and to claim, yet again, that America is indeed back! But Democrats continue to wrangle over both what's in the bills and how to pay for them. Meanwhile, only a third of Americans now say that the US is headed in the right direction. Biden was hoping to have the wind at his back as he sailed into Europe. Instead, he is facing a strong political headwind.

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What We're Watching: Nicaragua's sham election

Nicaragua's fake vote. At the tail end of this week Nicaragua will hold a presidential "election." We're putting that in quotation marks because President Daniel Ortega, who has ruled the Central American country with a tight fist since 2011, has eliminated any serious (and even unserious) competition. He controls the electoral authorities, and since June, his goons have arrested at least a dozen prominent opposition figures. But things haven't been smooth sailing for Ortega, who led the left-wing Sandinistas during Nicaragua's bloody civil war in the 1980s and has since reinvented himself as a business-friendly devout Catholic. Back in 2018 a botched social security reform prompted protests that quickly spiraled into a challenge to his authoritarian rule. Although he crushed the uprising with brute force, rumblings of discontent continue. What's more, the US and other partners in the region are already readying a new round of sanctions in response to what will certainly be a sham vote on Sunday.

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