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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.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a speech via video conference on the occasion of International Day of Yoga.

DPA

What We’re Watching: Modi reshuffles cabinet, Iran enriches uranium metal, Ortega jails Nicaraguan opposition

Modi's makeover: After weathering months of criticism over his disastrous (mis)handling of the pandemic, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday undertook the biggest government reshuffle since he came to power seven years ago. At least a dozen cabinet ministers are out, including Harsh Vardhan, the health minister widely criticized for the devastating second wave of COVID infections that tore through the country earlier this year while India — the world's largest producer of vaccines — was unable to roll out jabs for its own people fast enough. The ministers of environment, education, and IT are also gone, and the new cabinet nearly triples the number of female ministers to 11. The move is a rare course correction for Modi, whose otherwise buoyant approval rating had plummeted nearly 15 points (to 63 percent) between January and June. India's economy is expected to roar back with 12.5 percent growth this year, but still barely 5 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

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What We're Watching: Israel's collapsing government, Nicaragua's opposition ban, new COVID strain goes global

Israel barrels towards another election: After failing to resolve a stalemate over the national budget, Israel's unwieldy Knesset (parliament) was on the verge of collapse Tuesday, making it all but certain that Israelis will head to an election on March 23, the fourth time in two years. But what's changed since Israelis voted less than a year ago? The once-competitive center-left Blue and White Party which gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party a run for its money, has hemorrhaged support since its leader Benny Gantz agreed to sit in a coalition government with the extremely divisive Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the defection of a long time Netanyahu ally, Gideon Saar — who recently left Likud to form his own right-wing party — spells big trouble for Netanyahu, whose popularity has nosedived amid accusations that he's fudged the pandemic response. The incumbent PM now faces a tough battle against a group of right-wing parties who are doing well in the polls and could band together to form a coalition that doesn't include Netanyahu for the first time in 11 years. The stakes couldn't be higher for the Israeli leader, who faces a host of legal troubles and is desperate to retain the top job so he can pass legislation that ensures his immunity from prosecution. Netanyahu is in for a tough battle come March.

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