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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference following talks with Hungarian PM Viktor Orban in Moscow on February 1, 2022.

Yuri Kochetkov/Pool via REUTERS

What We’re Watching: Much ado about Ukraine, Myanmar anti-junta strike, Horn of Africa drought

Busy day for Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his diplomatic offensive on Tuesday with a press conference alongside Hungary’s Kremlin-friendly Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Putin previously spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian PM Mario Draghi in an ongoing effort to exploit divisions of opinion among European leaders over the future of NATO and Ukraine. Putin wants NATO to roll back from Eastern Europe and to guarantee that Ukraine will never join the alliance. He reiterated that Washington continues to “ignore” Moscow’s concerns about Russia’s national security. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is working on a new “partnership” with the UK and Poland. This appears to be little more than diplomatic window-dressing, since Britain and Poland have already pledged to supply Ukraine with weapons. Zelensky also unveiled a plan to expand Ukraine’s army by 100,000 troops over the next three years. Military action doesn’t appear imminent, but you can count on more posturing.

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Annie Gugliotta & Jess Frampton

Top Risks 2022

Every year, Eurasia Group, our parent company, produces its list of the top 10 geopolitical risks for the coming year. The report is authored by Eurasia Group's president, Ian Bremmer, and its chairman, Cliff Kupchan.

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Annie Gugliotta

What We’re Watching: Iran nuke talks resume, Myanmar massacres civilians, Ukraine laughs it all off, Taliban confusion continues, Kashmir gerrymandering

Iran nuclear talks are back on. After a brief holiday break, negotiations to end Iran's nuclear program in exchange for removing economic sanctions against Tehran resume on Monday in Vienna. What are the prospects? About as dim as the last time we wrote about this. Western powers say time is running out because the Iranians are slow-walking the talks so they can continue to enrich uranium well beyond the limits in the original agreement, while the Iranians are playing hardball by demanding that all sanctions be lifted first. Iran also wants a guarantee that the US won't ditch a new deal the way Donald Trump did with the old one in 2018. If Iran keeps enriching uranium at the current pace, the current terms being discussed could soon be obsolete. However, should the talks fail in the end, the US says it has military options to prevent the Iranians from getting the bomb.

Massacre of civilians in Myanmar. Myanmar experienced its worst single case of state-sponsored violence since the February coup on Christmas Eve, when the army gunned down more than 30 civilians — including women and children — and torched their vehicles in Kayah state. Several people are still missing, including two aid workers from Save the Children. It's unclear what prompted the attack, but it took place amid heavy fighting between the military and armed resistance groups in the area. Two weeks ago, soldiers had 11 civilians burned alive because they were suspected of belonging to an anti-junta guerrilla army. Both massacres show that the generals are not backing down in their campaign to wipe out those who oppose their takeover, which ended Myanmar's brief experiment with democracy after decades of military rule. The fighting has also recently intensified along the border with Thailand, whose hardline PM is one of the junta's few foreign friends but doesn't want a refugee crisis on his doorstep (and has already sent back thousands of migrants).

Ukraine's comedian cabinet. As Russia threatens to invade, Ukraine's president is looking to defend his homeland... with a bit of humor. In recent months Volodymyr Zelenskiy — who was a famous comedian before he entered politics, and even played the role of president in a TV series before his 2019 election — has hired members of his old comedy troupe to occupy top positions in his government, including intelligence chief. Zelenskiy is known to crack jokes in moments of extreme tension, and last summer mocked Vladimir Putin for writing a long essay describing Russia and Ukraine as a fraternal single nation. While supporters say Ukraine's president wants his former buddies because they'll be loyal, critics argue that the bad optics of a government being run by comedians who may be out of their depth when faced with a master political strategist like Vladimir Putin. With 100,000 Russian troops at their border, the last thing the Ukrainians need is a bad joke, or even worse an amateur mistake that Putin can use to his advantage.

Will the real Taliban please stand up? The Taliban seem to be adopting a classic one-step-forward-two-steps-back approach to governance. Last week, at a conference attended by dozens of foreign ministers from across the Islamic world, their top diplomat claimed that all government departments had resumed operations. But on Sunday, the new rulers of Afghanistan announced the shutdown of the main election commissions and the ministries of parliamentary affairs and peace, calling them “unnecessary.” Confusion ensues: evacuee flights have been stalled, but the passport office has been reopened. In addition, every day turns up new bizarre and oppressive regulations, such as women not being allowed to travel alone over 45 miles in a cab, which must be driven by a driver with a beard. And there is evidence that the Taliban continue to both attract jihadists and threaten regional peace. At the same time, they are also engaging officially with Iran, despite their anti-Shia stance, and have even set up a WhatsApp hotline to fight pollution. Which Taliban are running Afghanistan? Are they at all?

India (further) dividing Kashmir. You've probably heard about Democrats and Republicans tweaking US congressional districts to ensure easy wins, yet make the electoral map overall less competitive. Now India is doing something similar to favor Hindus over Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir, a region long disputed with Pakistan. Majority-Muslim Kashmir — besides being the title of Led Zeppelin’s third greatest song — is bigger, has more natural resources, and has been the center of much of the decades-old insurgency against Delhi. But smaller Jammu has a slim Hindu majority, which PM Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government wants to give more parliamentary power than their official population merits by redrawing electoral maps. This has triggered a new communal divide in a historically tense area, which two years ago was stripped of its autonomy by Modi. Since then Kashmir has “welcomed” over half a million Indian troops and imprisoned more politicians than ever before, but gerrymandering could be a step too far. Even Kashmiri officials who have historically sided with Delhi are speaking against the measures, warning of further unrest if such divisive policies are implemented.

A member of the people's defence forces is seen holding a gun during the military training at the forest of Kayin State.

Kaung Zaw Hein / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

What We're Watching: Myanmar massacre

Massacre of civilians in Myanmar. Myanmar experienced its worst single case of state-sponsored violence since the February coup on Christmas Eve, when the army gunned down more than 30 civilians — including women and children — and torched their vehicles in Kayah state. Several people are still missing, including two aid workers from Save the Children. It's unclear what prompted the attack, but it took place amid heavy fighting between the military and armed resistance groups in the area. Two weeks ago, soldiers had 11 civilians burned alive because they were suspected of belonging to an anti-junta guerrilla army. Both massacres show that the generals are not backing down in their campaign to wipe out those who oppose their takeover, which ended Myanmar's brief experiment with democracy after decades of military rule. The fighting has also recently intensified along the border with Thailand, whose hardline PM is one of the junta's few foreign friends but doesn't want a refugee crisis on his doorstep (and has already sent back thousands of migrants).

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds talks with U.S. President Joe Biden via a video link in Sochi, Russia December 7, 2021.

Sputnik/Sergey Guneev/Pool via REUTERS

What We’re Watching: Biden vs Putin, Rohingya vs Facebook, Peruvian congress vs president

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin agree to disagree. But what a disagreement it is…. From what we know, during their Tuesday video call, the Russian president made clear that NATO’s flirtations with Ukraine are a red line, and that Moscow is prepared to defend its sphere of influence. The Kremlin also wants to see movement on the 2015 Minsk peace plan, which would give Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine broad autonomy. Biden meanwhile stressed that if Russia stirs up fresh trouble in Ukraine, the US is prepared to impose more severe economic sanctions. The US president also told Putin that Washington doesn’t accept the idea that Ukraine’s interests are subordinate to Russia’s. All of that leaves us more or less where we were before the call: Russia with more than 100,000 troops camped out on the Ukrainian border, and the US sounding the alarm about a possible invasion.

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What We're Watching: Suu Kyi's verdict in Myanmar

Suu Kyi's first verdict handed down. On Monday, a Myanmar court sentenced deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi to four years in prison for breaking COVID rules and incitement. Suu Kyi faces 11 charges in total, including corruption and leaking state secrets – which could land her in prison for more than 100 years. The UN has said the charges are a sham meant to secure the military junta’s hold on power. To date, the trial has been closed to the media, while Suu Kyi’s lawyers have also been banned from making public statements. Suu Kyi, who is seen by many in Myanmar as the only politician that can steer the country’s full democratic transition, has not been seen in public since the coup. Since then, the military has been accused of human rights violations for cracking down on peaceful anti-junta demonstrators, resulting in at least 1,200 deaths. Just this past weekend, the military rammed vehicles into a group of demonstrators, injuring dozens. The UN has warned that armed groups are training in jungles to overthrow the military, and that the country is on the cusp of full-blown civil war.

Myanmar's junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who ousted the elected government in a coup on February 1, presides at an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2021.

REUTERS

What We’re Watching: ASEAN shuts out Myanmar, Russian hackers strike again, Afghans risk winter starvation

ASEAN gets tough(ish) with Myanmar: The leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations meet Tuesday for their annual summit with one notable absence: the head of Myanmar's military junta. It's a rare snub from ASEAN, a regional bloc that's gotten a lot of heat in the past for giving tyrants a free pass. The junta says ASEAN violated its traditional principles of deciding by consensus by disinviting its leader, and non-interference in domestic affairs for demanding the bloc's special envoy meet detained former leader Aung San Suu Kyi. For their part, the other ASEAN members have grown visibly alarmed at Myanmar's rapidly deteriorating political and economic situation since the February coup, and they're worried about the spillover effects of Myanmar becoming a failed state. More importantly, Myanmar is a big thorn in ASEAN's side as it walks a fine line between keeping warm ties with the US — which most members want cash and security from — and getting along with China, one of Myanmar's few remaining friends and viewed with suspicion by most ASEAN members over its South China Sea shenanigans.

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Jonas Gahr Støre of the Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet) during the Norwegian Parliamentary Election on September 13, 2021 in Oslo

Jon Olav Nesvold / BILDBYRÅN

What We’re Watching: Left wins Norway’s climate vote, everyone wants India’s jabs, junta denied Myanmar’s UN seat

Norway's climate election result: Most votes have now been counted from Norway's parliamentary election, and the left-leaning Labour party, headed by former FM Jonas Gahr Støre, has reaped 46 out of 168 seats up for grabs, ousting the conservative government led by PM Erna Solberg. Støre will now try to form a coalition government that's expected to include the agrarian Centre Party as well as the Socialist Party. The election was broadly seen as a referendum on climate change policy, given that oil accounts for more than 40 percent of Norway's exports and employs 7 percent of the entire workforce — though Norway itself has rolled out an ambitious green agenda at home. Støre says that he'll limit new oil explorations, but has ruled out getting rid of fossil fuels, saying that oil revenues could help fund the transition away from oil in the long run. Importantly, the Greens, the only political party that called for an end to all oil exploration, reaped only 4 percent of the vote, and is therefore unlikely to yield enough (or any) influence. Regardless, Støre may need to incorporate some smaller left-wing parties in his coalition that could force him to take a more forceful stance on climate change, like raising carbon taxes.

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