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Models of oil barrels and a pump jack are seen in front of EU and Russia flag colors.

REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

What We’re Watching: Drawdown pledge, Europe veers away from Russia, Ethiopian peace hopes dashed, a Gulf non-starter

Fighting continues despite Russia’s drawdown pledge

The Pentagon said it believes the Kremlin was starting to reposition some of its troops away from Kyiv. But Russia continued to pound the Ukrainian capital with airstrikes and artillery while maintaining its ferocious bombardment of the besieged port city of Mariupol. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that bilateral peace talks were making “substantial progress,” but Ukrainian officials immediately disputed his claim that Kyiv had accepted the loss of Crimea and the Donbas as a “resolved question.” President Zelensky late Wednesday released a new video in which he said "we don't believe in fancy rhetorical constructions, we believe in what happens on the battlefield."

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Residents carry Ukrainian national flag as they gather in the Olympic Stadium to mark the Unity Day.

REUTERS

What We're Watching: US-NATO skepticism, EU rule of law ruling, US truckers' protests, atrocities in Tigray, guac wars

US-NATO skepticism and Ukrainian unity. The US and NATO aren’t yet buying claims by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin that some Russian troops have pulled back from the Ukrainian border. “We have good reason to believe the Russians are saying one thing and doing another … in an effort to hide the truth,” said a US State Department spokesman on Wednesday. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg then warned that NATO sees a continued buildup of Russian troops and that the alliance must prepare for a “new normal” in which “Russia is willing to contest some fundamental principles of our security.” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, continues to strike a delicate balance. On Wednesday, he tried rallying his war-weary country to celebrate a "Unity Day" with mixed results. He's urging both outsiders and Ukrainians not to exaggerate the threat of a Russian invasion that is stoking fears and hurting Ukraine’s economy. But he’s also moving forward with a bold plan to tackle Russia-friendly “oligarchs” at home. He announced on Monday that he will keep promises to tackle both corruption and Russian influence within Ukraine by stripping some of the country’s richest business owners of some of the wealth that Zelensky says gives them too much influence over the country’s policies and politics.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference following talks with Hungarian PM Viktor Orban in Moscow on February 1, 2022.

Yuri Kochetkov/Pool via REUTERS

What We’re Watching: Much ado about Ukraine, Myanmar anti-junta strike, Horn of Africa drought

Busy day for Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his diplomatic offensive on Tuesday with a press conference alongside Hungary’s Kremlin-friendly Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Putin previously spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian PM Mario Draghi in an ongoing effort to exploit divisions of opinion among European leaders over the future of NATO and Ukraine. Putin wants NATO to roll back from Eastern Europe and to guarantee that Ukraine will never join the alliance. He reiterated that Washington continues to “ignore” Moscow’s concerns about Russia’s national security. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is working on a new “partnership” with the UK and Poland. This appears to be little more than diplomatic window-dressing, since Britain and Poland have already pledged to supply Ukraine with weapons. Zelensky also unveiled a plan to expand Ukraine’s army by 100,000 troops over the next three years. Military action doesn’t appear imminent, but you can count on more posturing.

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What We’re Watching: Biden's omicron woes, a Tigrayan withdrawal, UK's new Brexit chief

What’s Biden omicron plan? The omicron variant has set up shop in the US, and COVID cases nationwide have risen 20 percent in the past two weeks. New York City is a hotspot with more than 20,000 new cases per day. President Biden will address the nation on Tuesday to detail the steps his administration will take to try to curb the spiraling outbreak. It’s already clear that he plans to double down on a messaging strategy centered on vaccines and boosters – having recently released a strongly worded warning that the unvaccinated should prepare for a “winter of severe illness and death.” But will Biden address — and rectify — more immediate challenges like testing capacity, which is buckling under the pressure of a surging caseload? What guidance will he give Americans about holiday travel just four days before Christmas? Biden promised to bring an end to the pandemic and get the US back to normal. With public confidence in his competency at a record low, public perception of his ability to manage this latest outbreak could make or break the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects in 2022 and beyond.

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What We’re Watching: NATO tries to deter Russia, Ethiopia’s war widens, India targets a laughable enemy

NATO looks to deter Russia, but how? With Russia having massed more than 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian frontier, NATO says it’s looking to deter the Kremlin from launching a potential attack. But how? Though both the EU and US back Ukraine economically and militarily, the country isn’t a NATO member – and won’t be soon – so there’s no automatic defense treaty in place. And while NATO’s toolkit includes options from increased defense operations, to cyber attacks on Russian targets, to the threat of retaliatory strikes on Russian forces, it has to play the deterrence game carefully: any consequences that it threatens must be both serious enough to scare Russia and credible. After all, Vladimir Putin loves to call bluffs, and it would be a massive fail for the world’s most powerful military alliance to draw a red line only to watch the Kremlin prove that NATO forces won’t defend it. Lastly, a NATO miscalculation could accidentally provoke the wider conflict everyone wants to avoid.

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What We're Watching: Biden's oil dilemma, Abiy Ahmed takes up arms, Iran nuclear talks on life-support

Biden's oil dilemma. The Biden administration says it will release some 50 million barrels of crude from US stockpiles in a bid to reign in soaring gasoline prices. Similar moves were made by Japan, South Korea, and China in recent days as global energy prices rise and supplies remain scarce in many places amid the ongoing economic recovery. Pain at the gas pump and broader inflation concerns in the US have contributed to Biden's tanking poll numbers. With Republicans poised to do well in next year's midterm elections, the president is under pressure to turn things around fast. But Biden has already come under fire from environmental groups, who say the president's move flies in the face of his Glasgow commitments to reduce rather than boost fossil fuel consumption. But in domestic politics, bread-and-butter issues are paramount, and if Biden doesn't "fix" the gas problem hurting American families, the Democrats could suffer a beating at the polls. What's more, Biden has also angered the 23-nation Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which worries that extra US oil on the market will bring down prices for their own crude. Now the organization is warning that it might renege on an earlier promise to produce more oil.

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Is Ethiopia's government about to fall?

Ethiopia's civil war has now reached a crucial moment. Anti-government forces are approaching Addis Ababa, the country's capital, and look set to take control there very soon. "The important question," warns Connor Vasey, Ethiopia analyst at Eurasia Group, "is on what terms they would do so: with the prime minister and his government conceding or with their violent removal."

The background: In 2018, Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia's prime minister, ending 30 years of rule by power brokers from the Tigrayan ethnic group. His pledge to bring Ethiopians of all ethnicities together, to build a modern national identity for his country, and his decision to end the country's long war with Eritrea won him the 2019 Nobel Prize.

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A man reacts during a rally to support the National Defense Force and to condemn the expansion of the Tigray People Liberation Front fighters into Amhara and Afar regional territories at the Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia August 8, 2021.

REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

What We're Watching: Everyone vs Ethiopian PM, Brazil ditches Huawei, (more) trouble in Sudan, Argentina's midterms, Iraqi powder keg

Opposition forces unite in Ethiopia's civil war. The Tigray People's Liberation Front, which has been locked in a brutal year-long civil war against Ethiopian government forces, has now teamed up with another powerful militant outfit that wants to oust Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The TPLF, now in alliance with the Oromo Liberation Army — which claims to represent Ethiopia's largest ethnic group — have swept towards the capital Addis Ababa in recent days, prompting the embattled Abiy to call on civilians to take up arms in defense of the city. The Tigray-Oromo alliance, called the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist Forces, has called for Abiy's immediate ouster, either by negotiation or by force, and for the prosecution of government officials for war crimes. The UN says all sides in the conflict have committed abuses. The US, which has threatened to suspend Ethiopia's trade preferences over the government's alleged war crimes, is currently trying to broker a cease-fire. When Abiy came to power after popular protests in 2018, he was hailed for liberalizing what was formerly an extremely repressive government (controlled, as it happens, by the TPLF). Now it's looking like he may have unleashed the very forces that could tear the country apart and drive him from office — or worse.

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