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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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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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What We're Watching: Ethiopia's opposition groups join forces

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.

What We’re Watching: Ethiopian emergency, Euro bubbly war, US Fed vs inflation

Things go from bad to worse in Ethiopia. Ethiopia's embattled PM Abiy Ahmed has imposed a state of emergency and called on ordinary citizens to take up arms, after a swift advance by the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front put the rebels within striking distance of the capital, Addis Ababa. For a year now, Abiy's forces have been at war with the TPLF over the militant group's demands for the Tigray region to have more autonomy from the central government. The TPLF ran all of Ethiopia for decades, but they lost power after a popular uprising led to Abiy's appointment in 2018. The current conflict has seen possible war crimes by all sides, but the allegations against Ethiopian government forces in particular have prompted the US to revoke the country's preferential trade status, effective next year. All of this puts Abiy in a very tough position: last November he launched what he thought would be a quick war to squelch the TPLF, but now he is losing ground badly and could soon lose a critical source of economic support. Does he pull out the peace pipe or look for bigger guns? It seems like ages ago this guy won a Nobel Prize, but no heroes are safe these days. And with neighboring Sudan in political turmoil as well, things are looking dicey in the strategically-significant Horn of Africa.

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What We're Watching: COP26 begins, SCOTUS abortion ruling, Tigrayans advance towards Ethiopian capital

COP26 kicks off. COP26 kicked off in Glasgow with high-minded comments from world leaders. Unlike his predecessor, US President Joe Biden delivered all the right talking points, in particular by calling for tougher action on emission-reduction targets. France's Emmanuel Macron said much the same, as did the UK's Boris Johnson, the summit's host. UN chief Antonio Guterres said that current emissions pledges don't go far enough. But for all the progress being made – including a significant pledge by the G20 over the weekend to end overseas funding for coal plants – current promises fall short of the Paris Climate Accord goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Xi Jinping of China, the world's largest carbon emitter, is not attending the summit, and he recently announced an emissions target that is no more ambitious than the one he set six years ago in Paris. Similarly, the US, the next largest emitter, has set an ambitious goal of reducing emissions by 50 percent by 2030. But the Biden administration has so far failed to get Congress to approve the spending for its plans. Other leaders of coal-producing countries like Australia's PM Scott Morrison and India's PM Narendra Modi have shown up in Glasgow only to face criticism for their less-than-lofty climate goals.

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