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A service member of pro-Russian troops stands guard next to a combat vehicle, with the symbol "Z" seen on its side, in Mariupol, Ukraine.

REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

What We're Watching: A rare win for Putin, Chile drafts constitution, North Korea's COVID catastrophe

Putin enjoys rare win in Ukraine

This week brought more bad news for Vladimir Putin and his invasion. Ukrainian fighters have pushed Russians back from the city of Kharkiv, the fight for the Donbas appears to have stalled, and Russian commentators are becoming more open about their country’s military failures on the internet and even on state-controlled TV. But the surrender of hundreds of Ukrainian fighters from a Mariupol steel plant gives Russia a genuinely important win. First, it clears away the final obstacle to establishing a land bridge that connects Russian-occupied Crimea with the Russian border. Second, it’s a big propaganda win for Putin, who insists the war is aimed partly at “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. Many of those who surrendered belong to the Azov Battalion, a group with a history of ultra-nationalist, white-supremacist politics. Ukraine’s government says it hopes the now-captive troops can be traded for captive Russians, but Russia’s parliament may ban any release of Azov prisoners. Ultimately, Putin will decide their fate. Are they most valuable to him as trophies, or as pawns who provide him with an opportunity to appear magnanimous?

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Plumes of smoke rise after a fire erupts at an oil depot in Bryansk, Russia.

REUTERS

What We're Watching: Flames go up in Russia, UN-Russia summit, Kim Jong-un's parade

Flaming coincidences in Russia

Fires, explosions, train derailments, dead executives — there’s a lot of weird stuff happening in Russia lately. Earlier this week, two major oil depots went up in flames in the city of Bryansk, a major support hub for Russian forces just a few hours north of the Ukrainian border by car. Russia says it’s investigating, but top military analysts say the blaze looks like the result of sabotage or an attack by Ukraine. Just three days earlier, a locomotive derailed while traveling along a nearby stretch of rail used to supply the Russian army. That, meanwhile, happened on the same day that fires erupted at a major defense research institute and a chemical plant, both within 100 miles of Moscow. The research institute blaze, which was blamed on faulty wiring, claimed half a dozen lives. Fires in Russia’s poorly maintained Soviet-era buildings aren’t uncommon, but the chattering has begun: were these Ukrainian operations? Sabotage by disgruntled employees? False flag “attacks” staged to rally opinion against Ukraine? We’re watching to see if the trend continues. Meanwhile, another oddity: Russian executives turning up dead in apparent murder-suicides with their families. That fate recently befell former executives from energy giant Gazprombank and Novatek, Russia’s largest independent gas producer. Their deaths are among a number of high-profile oligarch deaths in recent weeks.

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Ukraine Edition: Kim Jong-un Will Not Be Ignored!! | PUPPET REGIME | GZERO Media

Ukraine edition: Kim Jong Un will not be ignored!!

As the Russian war on Ukraine intensifies, North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un is launching his own warning shots ... for attention.

Watch more PUPPET REGIME!

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What We’re Watching: Iran-Russia lovefest, East Jerusalem tensions, Kim Jong Un acting up

Iran and Russia heart each other. The presidents of Iran and Russia have little in common personally, but they share many geopolitical interests, including in Afghanistan and Syria. They also have a common resolve in countering "the West.” These issues are all on the agenda as Vladimir Putin and Ebrahim Raisi held their first in-person meeting in Moscow. Raisi is a hardline cleric who leads a theocracy with nuclear ambitions. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is a wily autocrat who enjoys provoking America and Europe, and has ambitions to return to the glory days of the territorially expansive Soviet Union — as seen with the Kremlin's recent provocations on the Ukrainian border. With the Iran nuclear talks on life support and Joe Biden already bracing for Russian troops crossing into Ukraine, Tehran and Moscow now have even more reasons to scheme and cooperate. Indeed, Moscow and Tehran have increasingly been cooperating on energy and security issues (Iran might be buying Russian military technology) as their respective relations with the West deteriorate.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a briefing on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Downing Street, London, Britain, January 4, 2022.

Jack Hill/Pool via REUTERS

What We’re Watching: BYOB Boris, Kim Jong Un’s new toys, China will lend less to Africa

“Bring your own booze.” It’s an old story: the damaging reveal that the political elite holds the public to a different standard than it holds its own leaders to. News emerged on Tuesday — courtesy of Dominic Cummings, the UK prime minister’s former political adviser turned bitter political foe — that Boris Johnson’s private secretary had invited more than 100 people to a "bring your own booze" party at the PM’s official residence… in the middle of a coronavirus lockdown in May 2020. Johnson and his wife have not denied they were there. To be clear, this is not the same party that his staff was caught on video laughing about during another lockdown over Christmas in 2020. Is the political ineptitude even more damaging than the hypocrisy? Either way, Johnson’s government is now in real trouble. The PM faces a parliamentary grilling on Wednesday, and may not survive a leadership challenge from within his Conservative Party later this year. At a time of bitterness over his handling of COVID and consumer pain from rising prices, this was not the story Britain’s prime minister needed.

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France's President Emmanuel Macron looks on during a joint press conference with Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz (not pictured) after an European Union (EU) summit at the European Council Building at the EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium December 17, 2021.

John Thys/Pool via REUTERS

What We’re Watching: France’s EU presidency, Kim Jong Un’s 2022 plans, NYC’s new mayor, Sudan’s PM steps down

France takes over EU presidency. France has assumed the EU's rotational presidency, which allows Paris to set the bloc’s agenda for the next six months at a very interesting time for both EU and French politics. French President Emmanuel Macron will want to make a big splash as he vies to become the bloc's de-facto leader after the departure of Angela Merkel. Macron's ambitious plans include reforming the EU's budget rules to allow member states to spend more than 60 percent of their annual GDP, which he’ll have a tough time selling to debt-averse Germany. He also will continue to push hard for the EU to develop a military capability independent from the US, and to embrace nuclear power as a green source of energy as Brussels just proposed. Also, in the run-up to the French presidential election in April, the centrist Macron will use the EU presidency to tell voters how France can benefit from a stronger Union led by France — particularly to fend off challenges from his right in fellow Europhile Valerie Pécresse, and his far right in Euroskeptics Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour. So far, Macron isn't off to a good start: he had to remove a giant EU flag perched on Paris’ Arc de Triomphe after his three main rivals called it an attack on French identity.

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The photo, provided on December 7, 2021, by the North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), shows a meeting of military educators from the Korean People's Army of the North, chaired by the chairman of the North Korean State Affairs Committee, Kim Jong-un, at the House of Culture on April 25, in Pyongyang.

Reuters

What would Kim Jong-un's dad think about North Korea today?

Later this week, it’ll be 10 years since Kim Jong Un inherited the reins of North Korea upon the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

But what would the elder Kim think about his son's decade in power, and about the Hermit Kingdom’s state of affairs today? Here’s a letter to the North Korean supreme leader from the ghost of his late dad.

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