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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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Podcast: Cyber Mercenaries and the digital “wild west"

Listen: The concept of mercenaries, hired soldiers and specialists working privately to fight a nation’s battles, is nearly as old as war itself.

In our fourth episode of “Patching the System,” we’re discussing the threat cyber mercenaries pose to individuals, governments, and the private sector. We’ll examine how spyware used to track criminal and terrorist activity around the world has been abused by bad actors in cyber space who are hacking and spying activists, journalists, and even government officials. And we’ll talk about what’s being done to stop it.

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A badge on a uniform of a foreign fighter from the UK arrived in Lviv, Ukraine.

REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

The promise and peril of foreign fighters in Ukraine

Less than 48 hours after Russia invaded Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to foreign volunteers for their help. He also established a new military unit, the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine, for them to join. Visa restrictions were temporarily lifted, and a slick recruitment website went up. Some compared the foreign volunteers to those who signed up to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War, as captured in Ernest Hemingway’s masterpiece, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

But with the war entering its fourth week, the implication of thousands of foreign fighters entering the fray – some from as far away as Florida and as close as Belarus – is less than romantic. What’s more, Russia is now deploying its own foreign recruits, and Vladimir Putin has given the go-ahead to dole out advanced weapons systems to foreigners willing to take up arms for Moscow.

Such an influx of foreign fighters to Ukraine, experts warn, will have both short- and long-term consequences for the war, the region, and beyond.

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US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC.

REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

What We're Watching: SCOTUS wades into abortion minefield, mercs in Libya, Chinese kids learn how Xi thinks

SCOTUS lights the fuse on a culture war bomb: Texas imposed a near complete ban on abortion on Wednesday, hours after the US Supreme Court declined to rule on whether a law that prohibits the procedure after doctors can detect a fetal "heartbeat" is constitutional. Pro-choice Americans say the law, written by the Republican-controlled Texas legislature, violates the provisions of the landmark 1973 Roe vs Wade, in which the Supreme Court ruled that abortion is, with some caveats, a constitutional right. The law would make it illegal to abort as early as six weeks into pregnancy, in effect outlawing some 85 percent of elective abortions in the state. Although President Biden says he opposes the law and would protect Roe v Wade, he has yet to take any concrete action. SCOTUS could still rule on the law, but the debate around it is certain to be a major third-rail issue in US politics as the 2022 midterms approach. A majority of Americans say abortion should be legal in almost all cases, but the split is sharply partisan: 80 percent of Democrats agree, compared to only 35 percent of Republicans.

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A protester holds a placard during a protest in defense of free media in Gdansk, Poland.

Tomasz Zasinski / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

What We’re Watching: Polish coalition on the ropes, Ethiopian PM’s call to arms, Russian mercs in Libya

Polish government in trouble: Poland's rightwing coalition government is on the ropes after PM Mateusz Morawiecki fired his deputy, Jaroslaw Gowin, for opposing two key pieces of legislation: a raft of tax reforms that Morawiecki says will help the middle class but Gowin fears will actually hurt them, as well as a proposed new law restricting foreign media ownership, which critics say is meant to silence unfriendly reporting by a US-owned TV network. Without the support of Gowin's small center-right Agreement party, the coalition government — formed by the ruling PiS and the far-right United Poland — could lose its slim majority in parliament, which in turn would force Morawiecki to call an early election. If he does so, he'll face a tough rival in a familiar face for Poles: former PM and European Commission top honcho Donald Tusk, who wants to run for his old job.

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