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Models of oil barrels and a pump jack are seen in front of EU and Russia flag colors.

REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

What We’re Watching: Drawdown pledge, Europe veers away from Russia, Ethiopian peace hopes dashed, a Gulf non-starter

Fighting continues despite Russia’s drawdown pledge

The Pentagon said it believes the Kremlin was starting to reposition some of its troops away from Kyiv. But Russia continued to pound the Ukrainian capital with airstrikes and artillery while maintaining its ferocious bombardment of the besieged port city of Mariupol. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that bilateral peace talks were making “substantial progress,” but Ukrainian officials immediately disputed his claim that Kyiv had accepted the loss of Crimea and the Donbas as a “resolved question.” President Zelensky late Wednesday released a new video in which he said "we don't believe in fancy rhetorical constructions, we believe in what happens on the battlefield."

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What We’re Watching: Biden's omicron woes, a Tigrayan withdrawal, UK's new Brexit chief

What’s Biden omicron plan? The omicron variant has set up shop in the US, and COVID cases nationwide have risen 20 percent in the past two weeks. New York City is a hotspot with more than 20,000 new cases per day. President Biden will address the nation on Tuesday to detail the steps his administration will take to try to curb the spiraling outbreak. It’s already clear that he plans to double down on a messaging strategy centered on vaccines and boosters – having recently released a strongly worded warning that the unvaccinated should prepare for a “winter of severe illness and death.” But will Biden address — and rectify — more immediate challenges like testing capacity, which is buckling under the pressure of a surging caseload? What guidance will he give Americans about holiday travel just four days before Christmas? Biden promised to bring an end to the pandemic and get the US back to normal. With public confidence in his competency at a record low, public perception of his ability to manage this latest outbreak could make or break the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects in 2022 and beyond.

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Is Ethiopia's government about to fall?

Ethiopia's civil war has now reached a crucial moment. Anti-government forces are approaching Addis Ababa, the country's capital, and look set to take control there very soon. "The important question," warns Connor Vasey, Ethiopia analyst at Eurasia Group, "is on what terms they would do so: with the prime minister and his government conceding or with their violent removal."

The background: In 2018, Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia's prime minister, ending 30 years of rule by power brokers from the Tigrayan ethnic group. His pledge to bring Ethiopians of all ethnicities together, to build a modern national identity for his country, and his decision to end the country's long war with Eritrea won him the 2019 Nobel Prize.

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A man reacts during a rally to support the National Defense Force and to condemn the expansion of the Tigray People Liberation Front fighters into Amhara and Afar regional territories at the Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia August 8, 2021.

REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

What We're Watching: Everyone vs Ethiopian PM, Brazil ditches Huawei, (more) trouble in Sudan, Argentina's midterms, Iraqi powder keg

Opposition forces unite in Ethiopia's civil war. The Tigray People's Liberation Front, which has been locked in a brutal year-long civil war against Ethiopian government forces, has now teamed up with another powerful militant outfit that wants to oust Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The TPLF, now in alliance with the Oromo Liberation Army — which claims to represent Ethiopia's largest ethnic group — have swept towards the capital Addis Ababa in recent days, prompting the embattled Abiy to call on civilians to take up arms in defense of the city. The Tigray-Oromo alliance, called the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist Forces, has called for Abiy's immediate ouster, either by negotiation or by force, and for the prosecution of government officials for war crimes. The UN says all sides in the conflict have committed abuses. The US, which has threatened to suspend Ethiopia's trade preferences over the government's alleged war crimes, is currently trying to broker a cease-fire. When Abiy came to power after popular protests in 2018, he was hailed for liberalizing what was formerly an extremely repressive government (controlled, as it happens, by the TPLF). Now it's looking like he may have unleashed the very forces that could tear the country apart and drive him from office — or worse.

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Annie Gugliotta

What We’re Watching: Ethiopian emergency, Euro bubbly war, US Fed vs inflation

Things go from bad to worse in Ethiopia. Ethiopia's embattled PM Abiy Ahmed has imposed a state of emergency and called on ordinary citizens to take up arms, after a swift advance by the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front put the rebels within striking distance of the capital, Addis Ababa. For a year now, Abiy's forces have been at war with the TPLF over the militant group's demands for the Tigray region to have more autonomy from the central government. The TPLF ran all of Ethiopia for decades, but they lost power after a popular uprising led to Abiy's appointment in 2018. The current conflict has seen possible war crimes by all sides, but the allegations against Ethiopian government forces in particular have prompted the US to revoke the country's preferential trade status, effective next year. All of this puts Abiy in a very tough position: last November he launched what he thought would be a quick war to squelch the TPLF, but now he is losing ground badly and could soon lose a critical source of economic support. Does he pull out the peace pipe or look for bigger guns? It seems like ages ago this guy won a Nobel Prize, but no heroes are safe these days. And with neighboring Sudan in political turmoil as well, things are looking dicey in the strategically-significant Horn of Africa.

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What We're Watching: COP26 begins, SCOTUS abortion ruling, Tigrayans advance towards Ethiopian capital

COP26 kicks off. COP26 kicked off in Glasgow with high-minded comments from world leaders. Unlike his predecessor, US President Joe Biden delivered all the right talking points, in particular by calling for tougher action on emission-reduction targets. France's Emmanuel Macron said much the same, as did the UK's Boris Johnson, the summit's host. UN chief Antonio Guterres said that current emissions pledges don't go far enough. But for all the progress being made – including a significant pledge by the G20 over the weekend to end overseas funding for coal plants – current promises fall short of the Paris Climate Accord goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Xi Jinping of China, the world's largest carbon emitter, is not attending the summit, and he recently announced an emissions target that is no more ambitious than the one he set six years ago in Paris. Similarly, the US, the next largest emitter, has set an ambitious goal of reducing emissions by 50 percent by 2030. But the Biden administration has so far failed to get Congress to approve the spending for its plans. Other leaders of coal-producing countries like Australia's PM Scott Morrison and India's PM Narendra Modi have shown up in Glasgow only to face criticism for their less-than-lofty climate goals.

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What We're Watching: North Korean bluster, EU aid for Afghanistan, Tigray offensive

What We're Ignoring

Kim Jong Un's "invincible" military: North Korea's supreme leader is desperate for American attention these days. At the same time he's showing the South a little more love, Kim is lashing out at the US, now vowing to build an "invincible" army to defend his country from American hostility. The supreme leader, who just two weeks ago tested his first hypersonic missile, is doubling down on his strategy of getting more — and more powerful — weapons to convince President Joe Biden to stop ghosting him and return to the negotiating table. But it hasn't worked so far, and unless Kim has a bigger ace up his sleeve, the talks will remain frozen — as will North Korea's hopes of getting the US to lift economic sanctions in place because of Pyongyang's nuclear program.

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What We’re Watching: SCOTUS immigration ruling, Barbecue runs Haiti quake relief, Eritreans back in Tigray

SCOTUS brings back "Remain in Mexico" policy: The US Supreme Court has ordered the Biden administration to reinstate a Trump-era immigration rule that requires asylum-seekers who attempt to cross the US southern border to wait in Mexico until their applications get processed. This is bad news for Joe Biden for two reasons. First, he cancelled that policy because it failed to accomplish its stated goal of reducing processing backlogs, while leaving thousands of migrants stranded in Mexico in legal limbo. Second, Biden knows he can't actually implement the policy anew if Mexico doesn't agree to accept migrants whom the US wants to send back. More broadly, the ruling throws yet another wrench into an already testy US-Mexico relationship — with tens of thousands of vulnerable human beings caught in the middle. Biden, who's tied up with the Afghanistan fiasco these days, wants to avoid a tussle with the Mexicans amid record numbers of migrants arriving at the US border so far this year. The Mexicans, for their part, will probably want something in exchange (maybe COVID vaccines) to be helpful.

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