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Ukrainian fighters from the Azov Regiment searched and guarded by Russian troops in Mariupol.

EYEPRESS via Reuters Connect

What We’re Watching: Putin’s propaganda, new Iran-Israel feud, Title 42 tussle

Putin’s new (propaganda) weapon

Since Russia’s invasion on February 24, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, not Russia’s Vladimir Putin, has waged a winning “information war.” Zelensky’s video speeches to foreign governments, the UN, and on Monday to the World Economic Forum at Davos have brought his country substantial military, economic, and political support. Stories like Monday’s anti-war resignation of a senior Russian diplomat and the highly publicized conviction of a Russian soldier for a war crime further boost Ukraine’s momentum. But last week’s surrender of hundreds of Ukrainian fighters from a Mariupol steel plant gives Russia a new propaganda weapon Putin could use for weeks or months to come. Many of the captured fighters belong to the Azov Regiment, a group with a history of ultra-nationalist, white-supremacist politics. While Ukraine’s government says it wants to recover these soldiers in exchange for captured Russians, a leader of pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists said Monday that all these prisoners should be tried for war crimes in Donetsk. A highly publicized trial of Ukrainians as right-wing war criminals won’t change many minds on either side about the war itself, but it could provide Putin a powerful distraction from a season of bad news for Russia.

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Pro-Russia protesters burn a Ukrainian flag outside the district council building in Donetsk.

REUTERS/Marko Djurica

What We’re Watching: Russian annexation fears, Russia-Israel drama, Mali breaks from France

Will Russia annex more of Ukraine?

The US is warning that Russia plans to formally annex the Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, along with the city of Kherson, which Moscow has controlled since early March and where it has introduced the ruble. This wouldn't be the first time Russia illegally swiped a chunk of Ukraine – the Kremlin has run Crimea since holding a bogus referendum there on “joining Russia” in 2014. Washington believes Moscow will soon announce similar votes in the Donbas and Kherson — perhaps as soon as Russia’s Victory Day (a World War II celebration) on May 9. This major Russian holiday has become even more important now that the Kremlin frames its war in Ukraine as a fight against “Nazism.” Symbolism aside, why would Putin do this? For one thing, he needs to show something for his war effort, and he may want to make these territories bargaining chips in any eventual talks with Kyiv. But there's a downside for him, too: successfully holding these areas will mean pacifying hostile populations and supporting battered economies. Does Russia really have the military and financial wherewithal to do all that?

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Putin greets Orbán during their meeting at the Kremlin in 2018.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS

What We’re Watching: Hungary hearts Russian gas, Israeli government in trouble, Ukrainian exodus

Hungry for Russian gas, Budapest will pay in rubles

Fresh off his decisive election victory last weekend, Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán broke with the rest of the EU on a key point of pressure against Moscow on Wednesday, saying he’s ready to pay for Russian natural gas in rubles if the Kremlin asks him to. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently threatened to cut off gas entirely to the EU — which relies on Russia for 40 percent of its supplies — unless member states pay for the stuff using Russian currency. Although the Brussels says no way, it’s ultimately up to each individual country to decide what it wants to do. Orbán, among the most Russia-friendly leaders in the EU, also runs a country that depends entirely on Kremlin-exported gas. Still, while Budapest may be going rogue against the rest of the EU on this, it wouldn’t make much of a financial difference for Moscow: Hungary accounts for just 3% of Russia’s gas exports to the continent. Meanwhile, stricter US sanctions — which include Russia’s largest bank since Wednesday — are pushing the country closer to a technical default on its sovereign debt.

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Why Israel Now Supports an Iran Nuclear Deal | GZERO World

Why Israel now supports an Iran nuclear deal

Israel fiercely opposed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but now is not so against it as it was before.

Why?

Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, says the Israelis have realized that a no-deal scenario doesn't serve the country's interest — and that the Trump administration's 2018 withdrawal was a mistake because it brought Iran closer to getting the bomb.

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Iran Nuclear Deal 2.0? | GZERO World

Iran nuclear deal 2.0, or war?

Since taking office, the Biden administration has worked hard for the US to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Donald Trump walked away from in 2018.

Now, reaching an agreement is more urgent than ever because the Iranians are closer to getting the bomb than they've ever been. But Russia's war in Ukraine has complicated things, and some fear that even if a deal happens, the US may withdraw again with a Republican president in 2025.

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Podcast: Iran on the verge: why you don’t want the nuclear deal to fail, according to Iran expert Ali Vaez

Listen: Renewing the Iran nuclear deal is more urgent than ever for the Biden administration. Iran is closer to getting the bomb, with the breakout time to enrich enough uranium for a single nuclear weapon reportedly less than two weeks. On the GZERO World podcast, Ian Bremmer speaks to Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, who says the odds of reaching an agreement in the short term are 50/50.

There are domestic political risks for Biden either way, but a new deal would significantly delay Iran’s ability to enrich enough uranium for a weapon. It's also now clear that the real effect of pulling out of the deal in 2018 was that it boosted Iran's nuclear program. Vaez also digs into Israel's strategic interest in a deal, which they have long opposed, and Russia's role in the negotiations with Iran.

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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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Service members of pro-Russian troops seen on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine.

REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Watching the War: Turkey ups peace hopes, Zelensky wants Israeli help, Mariupol siege drags on, hypersonic missiles

A glimmer of hope. Russia and Ukraine are close to reaching an agreement on four key points in peace talks brokered by Turkey, the Turkish foreign minister said on Sunday. The Russians want Kyiv to drop plans to join NATO, demilitarize and declare itself neutral, lift restrictions on the use of the Russian language, and “de-nazify.” In exchange, Moscow would presumably observe a cease-fire and withdraw its troops to the positions they held before the February 24 invasion. Sounds promising, but Vladimir Putin could simply be buying time to regroup his forces and is unlikely to compromise without a big win that he can sell to the Russian people. Although Ukraine agreeing to never join NATO falls into that category, that won't go down well with Ukrainians, the majority of whom want to join the alliance — especially after being attacked by Russia.

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