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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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What We're Watching: Poland threatens the EU

Poland and the EU are at it again. It’s clear that there’s no love lost these days between Warsaw and Brussels, who have been at loggerheads in recent years over rule-of-law issues, particularly a spate of reforms in Poland that undermine the judiciary’s independence. Poland upped the ante Sunday, saying it would withhold payments to the EU budget and veto EU laws if Brussels follows through on a previous threat to delay COVID relief funds after Poland’s top court ruled that its own constitution trumps EU law. The EU has said that disbursement of funds to “illiberal” member states Hungary and Poland is contingent on domestic democratic reforms — a mechanism that the two Eastern European states have now challenged in court. Poland is legally obligated to pay its EU dues in order to reap the bloc’s benefits, but clearly Warsaw is banking on Brussels acquiescing in the near term. However, the EU knows that Poland might not want to push the boundaries much further because a majority of Poles want to remain part of the EU. Who will cave first?

Anti Polexit banner is seen during 'We're staying in EU' demonstration at the Main Square in Krakow, Poland on October 10, 2021.

Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto

What We're Watching: EU-Poland judicial fight, Turkey joins Haiti prez murder probe, Pfizer’s COVID pill deal

EU vs Poland (yes, again). The EU's top court on Tuesday ruled that Poland's recent judicial reforms, which give the government leeway to appoint sympathetic justices, violate EU rule-of-law norms. Warsaw claims that its own constitutional court has already decided that Polish law supersedes EU law, so the stalemate continues. The EU and Poland have been fighting over this issue for years, but Brussels has recently begun showing its frustration with Poland — and Hungary too — over these issues. While the "illiberal" governments of both countries are popular, the EU also knows that most Hungarians and Poles want to stay in the 27-member union, and Brussels' ability to delay badly-needed EU pandemic relief money is a strong point of leverage. Defying Brussels is already starting to get expensive for Warsaw — in a separate judicial dispute, the EU is fining Poland 1 million euros ($1.1 million) per day until it abides by the bloc's rule-of-law norms.

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Polish service members and police officers are seen behind a barbed wire fence as hundreds of migrants gather on the Belarusian-Polish border in an attempt to cross it in the Grodno region, Belarus November 9, 2021.

Leonid Scheglov/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS

The EU’s big Eastern problems

Let's take a trip along the eastern fringes of the EU today, where two big problems are brewing at a time when Brussels seems particularly unable to respond effectively.

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A person wearing a Sudan's flag stand in front of a burning pile of tyres during a protest against prospect of military rule in Khartoum, Sudan October 21, 2021.

REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

What We’re Watching: Sudanese protesters vs each other, NBA vs China, EU vs Poland

Protests in Sudan: Protests are again shaking the Sudanese capital, as supporters of rival wings of the transitional government take to the streets. Back in 2019, after popular demonstrations led to the ouster of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir, a deal was struck between civilian activists and the army, in which a joint civilian-military government would run the country until fresh elections could be held in 2023. But now supporters of the military wing are calling on it to dissolve the government entirely, while supporters of the civilian wing are counter-protesting. Making matters worse, a pro-military tribal leader in Eastern Sudan has set up a blockade which is interrupting the flow of goods and food to the capital. The US, which backs the civilian wing, has sent an envoy to Khartoum as tensions rise, while Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are all vying for a piece as well.

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A carnival float depicting leader of the ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the traditional "Rosenmontag" Rose Monday carnival parade in Duesseldorf, Germany, February 12, 2018.

REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen

The EU takes a swing at Poland and Hungary

The European Union is, for better or worse, the most ambitious experiment in human history in institutionalized multinational cooperation. Its success depends on the willingness of its members to abide by its rules.

In recent years, the populist-nationalist governments of former Communist bloc members Hungary and Poland have flouted some of those rules in order to boost their own popularity with citizens suspicious of the EU's liberal values on issues like immigration and minority rights. In response, the EU has scolded these "illiberal" governments and threatened forceful action – so far without much effect.

The fight between EU institutions and Poland and Hungary has escalated.

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What We're Watching: Turkey's Afghanistan play, Indonesia as COVID epicenter, EU's rule of law report

Turkey's Afghanistan play: With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan nearly complete, many countries (and non-state actors) are vying for influence there. The latest player to enter the stage is Turkey, with president Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposing that Turkish troops defend and operate Kabul's international airport when the US is gone. Erdogan said that to make the plan work, the US would need to hand over logistical facilities to Ankara, and has called on Washington to back Turkey in ongoing diplomacy in Afghanistan, which it says is crucial to securing Kabul's airport, the main way into the country for the international community. The Americans, for their part, appear to be open to the idea. That's because it would mean handing over the headache of securing Afghanistan's only international airport to a fellow NATO member, reducing the likelihood of Afghanistan becoming completely shut off from the rest of the world in the (likely) event of a Taliban takeover. From Turkey's perspective, taking a more active role in stabilizing Afghanistan might earn it some goodwill from Washington and Brussels at a time when relations with both are at historic low points. The Taliban, meanwhile, said Turkey's pitch was "reprehensible."

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What We're Watching: Hariri throws in the towel, China calls for Pakistan blast probe, Poland hits EU over judiciary

Lebanon's PM-designate resigns: Things continue to deteriorate in crisis-ridden Lebanon. On Thursday, veteran politician and prime minister-designate Saad Hariri resigned eight months after being tapped to form a technocratic government after a series of crises and disasters, chief among them the devastating explosion at a Beirut port last August. Lebanon's Hezbollah-aligned President Michel Aoun refused to accept any of Hariri's proposals, because he said they did not reflect the country's sectarian power-sharing requirements. But Hariri pushed back, saying that Aoun wanted too many government spots for his allies. The Lebanese pound dipped to a new low after Hariri called it quits Thursday, reaching 21,000 to the US dollar. It's unclear who will step in now to form a government, a prerequisite to releasing billions of dollars in aid from former colonizer France and others. Meanwhile, the EU has said it'll impose sanctions on Lebanese officials if progress remains static.

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