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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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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.

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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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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What We're Watching: Nicaragua's sham election

Nicaragua's fake vote. At the tail end of this week Nicaragua will hold a presidential "election." We're putting that in quotation marks because President Daniel Ortega, who has ruled the Central American country with a tight fist since 2011, has eliminated any serious (and even unserious) competition. He controls the electoral authorities, and since June, his goons have arrested at least a dozen prominent opposition figures. But things haven't been smooth sailing for Ortega, who led the left-wing Sandinistas during Nicaragua's bloody civil war in the 1980s and has since reinvented himself as a business-friendly devout Catholic. Back in 2018 a botched social security reform prompted protests that quickly spiraled into a challenge to his authoritarian rule. Although he crushed the uprising with brute force, rumblings of discontent continue. What's more, the US and other partners in the region are already readying a new round of sanctions in response to what will certainly be a sham vote on Sunday.

What We’re Watching: Modi reshuffles cabinet, Iran enriches uranium metal, Ortega jails Nicaraguan opposition

Modi's makeover: After weathering months of criticism over his disastrous (mis)handling of the pandemic, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday undertook the biggest government reshuffle since he came to power seven years ago. At least a dozen cabinet ministers are out, including Harsh Vardhan, the health minister widely criticized for the devastating second wave of COVID infections that tore through the country earlier this year while India — the world's largest producer of vaccines — was unable to roll out jabs for its own people fast enough. The ministers of environment, education, and IT are also gone, and the new cabinet nearly triples the number of female ministers to 11. The move is a rare course correction for Modi, whose otherwise buoyant approval rating had plummeted nearly 15 points (to 63 percent) between January and June. India's economy is expected to roar back with 12.5 percent growth this year, but still barely 5 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

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What We're Watching: Israel's collapsing government, Nicaragua's opposition ban, new COVID strain goes global

Israel barrels towards another election: After failing to resolve a stalemate over the national budget, Israel's unwieldy Knesset (parliament) was on the verge of collapse Tuesday, making it all but certain that Israelis will head to an election on March 23, the fourth time in two years. But what's changed since Israelis voted less than a year ago? The once-competitive center-left Blue and White Party which gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party a run for its money, has hemorrhaged support since its leader Benny Gantz agreed to sit in a coalition government with the extremely divisive Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the defection of a long time Netanyahu ally, Gideon Saar — who recently left Likud to form his own right-wing party — spells big trouble for Netanyahu, whose popularity has nosedived amid accusations that he's fudged the pandemic response. The incumbent PM now faces a tough battle against a group of right-wing parties who are doing well in the polls and could band together to form a coalition that doesn't include Netanyahu for the first time in 11 years. The stakes couldn't be higher for the Israeli leader, who faces a host of legal troubles and is desperate to retain the top job so he can pass legislation that ensures his immunity from prosecution. Netanyahu is in for a tough battle come March.

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Coronavirus Politics Daily: Nicaragua's coverup, Russia's plea, Sweden's death toll

Is Nicaragua covering up COVID cases? As other countries across Latin America have imposed strict lockdowns to stem the spread of COVID-19, Nicaragua's nominally socialist strongman president Daniel Ortega has continued to encourage mass gatherings, citing the country's low caseload as justification for carrying on with business as usual. But Nicaraguans who have lost loved ones to respiratory illness in recent weeks say the government isn't counting them, and that their deceased relatives were whisked away for "express burials," accompanied by members of pro-government paramilitary groups. Taken together with reports that hospitals are packed with people showing coronavirus symptoms, the official toll of just 10 people is looking like a gross cover up. Meanwhile, although Ortega and his wife, the powerful vice president Rosario Murillo, have said the crisis is overblown, they haven't made a public appearance in months, a sign, critics say, that they are seeking to prevent their own exposure to the outbreak.
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