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A woman displays her electricity bill during a protest against high energy prices in Ankara.

REUTERS/Cagla Gurdogan

Hard Numbers: Turkish inflation soars, Nicaraguan NGO crackdown, Taiwan rejects pricy US choppers

70: Turkey's monthly inflation rate skyrocketed to almost 70% in April, a two-decade high. Critics blame President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who continues to baffle economists by lowering interest rates to combat rising prices.

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An armored convoy of pro-Russian troops moves along a road during in Mariupol, Ukraine.

REUTERS/Chingis Kondarov

What We’re Watching: Russian military on the ropes, panic-buying in Beijing, Nicaragua out of OAS

Depleted Russian forces?

As Moscow struggles to rack up battlefield wins — narrowing its focus to the Donbas and to building a land bridge to its forces in Crimea — it’s reasonable to wonder just how potent Russia’s military really is. Most media information on the war comes from the Russian and Ukrainian governments, both of which need to sell the idea of Russian military might. The Kremlin needs to maintain troop and civilian morale, and Ukraine needs to woo Western support. But independent military analysts stress the Russians’ current limitations. “Russian [battalions] have taken high casualties in the battle of Mariupol, are degraded, and are unlikely to possess their full complement of personnel,” according to the Institute for the Study of War. As for elsewhere in Ukraine? “Reporting on numbers of [battalions] without additional context and analysis of the combat power of these units is not a useful evaluation of Russian forces,” it said.

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Ukrainian soldiers during a funeral for a fellow service member in Lviv.

REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

What We're Watching: Ukrainian war morale, Nicaraguan opposition crackdown, Sinai summit

“On the brink of surviving war”

In wartime, all battlefield reports must be treated with large doses of skepticism. All of them. Propaganda and the “fog of war” are powerful forces. We do know that Russia’s military has captured very few of its most strategically important targets. To varying degrees, Ukraine’s largest cities have suffered terrible, lasting damage and a substantial number of both military and civilian casualties. In addition, a Russian media outlet reported on Monday that the country’s Defense Ministry has acknowledged that 9,861 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine in the past month. If true, that’s more than the number of American soldiers killed during the entire wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. (That report, which can’t be verified, was quickly pulled down, but it squares with Western intelligence estimates.) We’ve already written in Signal about the various problems, including low morale, that may be plaguing Russian soldiers.

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Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, attends a ceremony to mark the second anniversary of the killing of senior Iranian military commander General Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. attack, in Tehran, Iran January 3, 2022.

Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

Hard Numbers: Iranian revenge for Suleimani, China back in Nicaragua, German bleats for vaccines, Turkish inflation explodes

2: On the second anniversary of the US assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad, Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi vowed to avenge his death unless former president Donald Trump and other American officials are tried in court. At the time, Tehran hit back by attacking US military bases in Iraq.

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Gabriella Turrisi

What We’re Watching: G7 warns Russia, Israeli PM in UAE, Blinken in Southeast Asia, Nicaragua ditches Taiwan, Poland may stiff EU

Russia’s big plans for Ukraine. G7 foreign ministers warned Sunday of “massive consequences” if Russia invades Ukraine. It was the first joint statement by the group of rich democracies since recent satellite images revealed a significant buildup of Russian troops and military equipment on the border with Ukraine. Indeed, according to reports, the force that Moscow is massing near Ukraine is larger than the one it used to annex Crimea in 2014. This comes after the Pentagon said that Russia could have 175,000 troops on the border by the end of January in order to invade the former Soviet republic. In an attempt to lower the temperature last week, President Biden and Vladimir Putin held a long video call, but the Russian president was not deterred by Biden’s threat of more economic sanctions if Russia escalates further. Putin says he wants NATO not to expand membership any further into the former Soviet Union, and to stop military cooperation with Ukraine. Moscow will reportedly send a proposal for a security arrangement this week. But Putin, who has already indicated his willingness to threaten European energy markets, also knows all too well that while Washington talks a tough game, it is not willing to send in troops to defend Ukraine.

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Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu and Nicaraguan representative Laureano Ortega attend the signing ceremony of the joint communique on the resumption of diplomatic relations between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Nicaragua, in Tianjin, China December 10, 2021.

Yue Yuewei/Xinhua via REUTERS

What We're Watching: Nicaragua says hello China, goodbye Taiwan

Taiwan’s decreasing diplomatic traction. Nicaragua is the latest country to drop recognition of Taiwan in favor of the People's Republic of China, which considers the self-governing island as part of its territory. Beijing has long lobbied aggressively for the diplomatic isolation of Taiwan with both carrots (mostly promising a lot of cash to those who switch sides) and sticks (like downgrading ties with Lithuania for allowing Taiwan to open a de-facto embassy in Vilnius). China's efforts are paying off: today only 13 mostly small nations plus the Vatican still recognize Taiwan and not the People’s Republic, down from 21 just five years ago. But in Central America the tilt towards Beijing also has to do with US sanctions against the authoritarian leaders of first El Salvador — which ditched Taiwan to embrace China three years ago — and now Nicaragua. Meanwhile, China continues to invest big in the region, and will likely spend more money in Nicaragua very soon. Ironically, Washington’s actions to aid democracy in Central America may actually bring some of its countries closer to America's authoritarian rival.

A man, wearing a face mask for protection against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), walks by a mural depicting Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, in Managua, Nicaragua March 30, 2020. Picture taken March 30, 2020.

REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

Nicaragua’s so-called “election”

On Sunday, Nicaragua will hold presidential and legislative elections in which President Daniel Ortega is all but guaranteed to win a fifth term. So, why does the vote even matter? We asked Eurasia Group analyst Yael Sternberg for her take.

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U.S. President Joe Biden arrives for the G20 leaders summit in Rome, Italy October 30, 2021.

Brendan Smialowski/Pool via REUTERS

What We’re Watching: Biden in Europe, Gulf states vs Lebanon, elections in Nicaragua, South Africa & Virginia

Biden's Euro trip. President Joe Biden is on a crucial Euro trip. It began in Rome at the G-20 Summit, where his idea for a global minimum tax rate was broadly endorsed by the group. Biden also visited Pope Francis at the Vatican — a get-together that produced decidedly less scary photos than when his predecessor held a papal visit — and met with France's President Emmanuel Macron to try to smooth over strained relations after the AUKUS debacle, which he now says had been "clumsy." The US president had another face-to-face with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, just a week after Ankara threatened to expel the US ambassador. But there's a domestic component at play too: Biden was hoping to have passed two infrastructure bills, which include money for climate change, before he attended the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, which kicked off on Sunday. Failure to close the deal on Capitol Hill would deal Biden's credibility a heavy blow just at the moment he wants to reinforce the US commitment to climate change reduction goals at this week's summit and to claim, yet again, that America is indeed back! But Democrats continue to wrangle over both what's in the bills and how to pay for them. Meanwhile, only a third of Americans now say that the US is headed in the right direction. Biden was hoping to have the wind at his back as he sailed into Europe. Instead, he is facing a strong political headwind.

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