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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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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett

Abir Sultan via REUTERS

​Will Bennett ditch Ukraine peace talks to focus on domestic terror?

Israel is facing its worst domestic terror wave in nearly a decade after 11 people were killed in three cities in just one week.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who’s been focused on high-stakes international diplomacy in recent weeks, is now mounting a full-court press to contain the deteriorating security situation at home.

What are the domestic and international implications of the brutal terrorism plaguing Israel?

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Naftali Bennett Visits UAE | Elon Musk, Time Person of the Year? | World In :60 | GZERO Media

Elon Musk, Time Person of the Year? Naftali Bennett visits UAE

Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week with a look at Naftali Bennett's first official visit to the UAE, China's response to recent US sanctions, and Elon Musk's chances at Time Person of the Year.

How did Naftali Bennett's first official visit to the UAE go?

Went extremely well. This was probably President Trump's largest and most unexpected foreign policy success, The Abraham Accords, which meant opening diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE, in addition to other countries in the region. Now we have the prime minister of Israel touching down on an official visit in the UAE, where he met with Mohammed bin Zayed, who is the defacto ruler of all of the Emirates, as well as a lot of other leaders. We're seeing more investment, more tourism, and we're also seeing more intelligence cooperation, especially around issues like Iran, where frankly, both the Arab governments and the Israelis have problems. Big question everyone's watching out for is when are the Saudis going to open up to Israel? The Saudis are really reluctant in part because they feel like that would seed too much ground to Iran on the Palestinian question, and also lead to much more pushback given a much more conservative Saudi population. The UAE is one of the most cosmopolitan populations out there, frankly.

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What We're Watching: Israel finally gets a budget, US expands vax mandate, Portugal elections loom

Israel's political breakthrough. Israel's government has passed a budget for the first time in more than three years. This might sound boring, but it's actually a big deal: for years, former PM Benjamin Netanyahu refused to do it for political reasons, resulting in a lengthy stalemate with four divisive elections in just two years. Getting it done is a big win for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who managed to get his ideologically-diverse coalition of eight parties to agree on the 2021 budget. Failure to pass it by November 14, as per the coalition deal, would have resulted in yet another election, likely a death knell for the current government which only came together this summer at the eleventh hour. The bill includes $10 billion for Arab communities over five years demanded by Mansour Abbas, head of Ra'am, an independent Arab party that serves in the coalition. For now, Bennett and his main partner, the centrist Yair Lapid, are proving wrong the naysayers who warned that the diverse coalition was doomed to collapse. Negotiations now continue over next year's budget ahead of the March 2022 deadline, but passing the 2021 budget has made a fresh vote — and Netanyahu's dream of returning to power — even less likely.

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What to expect at the Biden-Bennett meeting at the White House

For the first time since assuming their posts, Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and US President Joe Biden will meet Friday for a face-to-face meeting at the White House. (Fun fact: Joe Biden was elected to the US Senate in 1972, the year Naftali Bennett was born.)

What's on the agenda — what likely isn't — and why does this meeting matter now?

Iran, obviously. Bennett may embrace a more conciliatory tone than his predecessor Bibi Netanyahu, but when it comes to Iran policy, he too thinks that a return to the nuclear deal would be catastrophic for Israel. For the Israelis, delivering that message feels all the more pressing given that their security establishment now warns that Tehran is only two months away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon.

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What We're Watching: Israel's awkward new government, Novavax is ready to play, Spaniards protest pardons

Is Israel's new government too awkward to survive? Israel's new government was sworn in on Sunday, and for the first time in 12 years, it is not led by someone named Benjamin Netanyahu. Though Netanyahu will remain head of the opposition bloc and leader of Likud, the biggest party in the Knesset, the new government, one of the most ideologically diverse in the nation's history, represents a massive political shift in the crisis-ridden country. The new government's representatives include right-wing nationalists — like Naftali Bennet, Israel's new prime minister — and centrists like Yair Lapid who heads the influential Yesh Atid party and is responsible for bringing the coalition together. For the first time in two decades, the far-left Meretz party will also sit in the government, as will a conservative Arab party, headed by Mansour Abbas, who reversed a decades-old position by agreeing to serve in government with Jewish Zionists in the hopes of delivering for his community. There are plenty of reasons to doubt the longevity of the new government given its incoherent alliances, but on the flip side, these factions — most of which are small and would likely not have made the cut to sit in government without Lapid's deal-making — have incentives to make the government work. The first item on the agenda will be passing a national budget, the first in two years. But with a slim coalition of only 61 out of 120 Knesset seats, pulling this off won't be easy.

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Israel's historic (and fractious) post-Bibi government

After four elections in two years, Israel is finally on the brink of forming a new government. But for the first time in 12 years it won't be headed by someone named Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu.

The new power-sharing coalition is likely to be one of the most ideologically-diverse in the country's history. How, after years of dysfunction and deadlock, did we get here, and how might this new government shape Israeli politics and policymaking?

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