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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrive for security talks at the Hotel President Wilson.

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS

What We’re Watching: Ukraine diplomacy, India’s no-campaign election, Italian presidential conclave, Burkina Faso coup, Russia moves on crypto

Ukraine diplomatic blitz. The US and the UK have withdrawn some staff from their embassies in Kyiv, and NATO countries put more troops on standby amid an ongoing flurry of diplomacy to stop Russia from invading Ukraine. After playing defense for his boss over Joe Biden’s controversial remarks about Russia and Ukraine, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned of a severe response if any Russian forces cross the border. However, Blinken — who is trying to shore up a united front with Europe while keeping the Russian dialogue open — turned down Ukraine’s demand for preemptive sanctions against Russia. Also, the UK accused the Russians of planning to install a pro-Moscow leader in Kyiv. Meanwhile, on the ground both sides continue to beef up their military presence. While the first US weapons arrived in Ukraine, across the border Russia moved troops and equipment to Belarus, Ukraine’s northern neighbor and a staunch Moscow ally. Blinken is expected to continue talks this week with the Russians, but there’s an X factor: China. Xi Jinping, whom Vladimir Putin now calls his “old friend”, probably doesn’t want the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics to be marred by a hot war in Europe, so perhaps he’ll try to talk his pal out of an invasion.

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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives for an European Union Summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium December 16, 2021.

Kenzo Tribouillard/Pool via REUTERS

What We’re Watching: EU vs twin threats, Hong Kong’s “election”, a Sicilian miracle

EU vs Omi-Kremlin. EU leaders met on Thursday to craft a response to the two major challenges of the moment for the bloc. The first is the surging number of COVID infections driven by the new omicron variant. An EU-wide approach has already been undermined as several countries — Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and Greece — moved unilaterally to tighten entry restrictions. The EU is expected to redouble its efforts to accelerate vaccination campaigns: currently about 60 percent of adults have received two jabs, but that number falls below 50 percent in much of Eastern Europe. With omicron infections doubling every two days, there isn’t much time to get ahead of the winter wave. The other big challenge is Russia, which continues to mass as many as 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border. Vladimir Putin says he wants guarantees that NATO won’t expand eastward any more, and the EU and US are worried he’s about to invade Ukraine to underscore the point. Brussels is warning severe economic consequences if that happens, which could potentially involve mothballing the Nord Stream 2 Russian gas pipeline to Europe. But here too, the EU is divided — some smaller Eastern member states want Brussels to slap sanctions ASAP as a deterrent, while France and Germany worry about provoking the Kremlin into war.

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Annie Gugliotta

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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Ian Bremmer: Looking Ahead to a Post-Merkel Europe | Quick Take | GZERO Media

Looking ahead to a post-Merkel Europe

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here. Happy week to all of you and thought I'd talk a little bit about Germany and Europe. Because of course, we just had elections in Germany, 16 years of Angela Merkel's rule coming to an end - by far the strongest leader that Germany has seen post-war, Europe has seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And indeed in many ways, the world has seen in the 21st century. Xi Jinping, of course, runs a much bigger country and has consolidated much more power, but in terms of the free world, it's been Angela Merkel.

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After Merkel, Who Leads Europe? | Europe In :60 | GZERO Media

After Merkel, who leads Europe?

Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective from Europe:

Who's going to be the leading voice politician in Europe after Angela Merkel leaves?

Well, that remains to be seen. First, we need to wait for the outcome of the German election, and then it's going to take quite some time to form a government in Germany to see who's going to be chancellor. And then of course we have elections coming up in France in the spring. Macron is likely to win, but you never know. So by next summer, we'll know more about that. And then there are other personalities there. There's Mario Draghi, prime minister of Italy, who has a strong personality. Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, as long as he's there. So it's going to take quite some time for this to be sorted out.

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Demonstrators holding placards against the government's Bitcoin law while making gestures, during the protest. Thousands of Salvadorans took to the streets on El Salvador's Bicentennial Independence Day against El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele and his government's policies

Camilo Freedman / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

What We’re Watching: Salvadorans protest Bitcoin, meet Aukus, no COVID pass no job in Italy

Salvadorans protest Bukele, Bitcoin: Thousands of people took to the streets of El Salvador's capital on Wednesday, the 200th anniversary of the country's independence, to protest against President Nayib Bukele's increasingly authoritarian streak and his embrace of risky cryptocurrency. Last May, Bukele ended the Supreme Court's independence; perhaps unsurprisingly, the court then decided to lift the constitutional ban on presidential term limits — presumably so Bukele can run for reelection in 2024. Meanwhile, last week El Salvador became the first country in the world to accept Bitcoin as legal tender, but the rollout was, to put it mildly, messy. The protesters resent Bukele's dictator vibes and warn that Bitcoin could spur inflation and financial instability. The tech-savvy president, for his part, insists that crypto will bring in more cash from remittances and foreign investment, and remains immensely popular among most Salvadorans. Still, Bukele's Bitcoin gamble could erode his support if the experiment fails.

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US Most Unequal, Least Vaccinated in G7 | Quick Take | GZERO Media

US most unequal, least vaccinated in G7

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi everybody, Ian Bremmer here. Welcome to your week, happy to be back in the offices, of course, in New York City. And by the way, and what do I have at my desk here? A fan sent me a Moose the dog cookie, which how does one eat that? You can't eat that because it's Moose, you just keep it! But that's pretty awesome, a Norfolk Terrier in a cookie right there, very talented. Thank you so much.

And let's get started. So what I was thinking about as I saw over this weekend, today. Not only is the United States today the most economically-unequal of the G7 advanced industrial democracies, and the most politically divided, but we're also now in terms of first jabs of the COVID vaccine, we are the least vaccinated of the G7, which is annoying because we were the most vaccinated of the G7 months ago. And of course, all of this speaks to the fact that the United States is enormously wealthy, enormously powerful, there are so many great things about this country, but the politics are deeply, deeply screwed up. And the problems we have are self-inflicted.

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Enrico Letta on Italian Politics: “Houston, We Have a Problem” | GZERO World

Enrico Letta on Italian politics: “Houston, we have a problem”

Why is Italy's political scene so unstable and what are the odds that its newest Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, can pull it out of a tailspin? Since 1989 the country has had 18 prime ministers, six in the last decade alone. One of those six prime ministers to have resigned in the last ten years is Enrico Letta, who shares his perspective in a conversation with with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World.

Watch the episode: Italy in Europe's spotlight: insights from former PM Enrico Letta

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