What We're Watching: Draghi's departure, Russian annexation plans, two-way race for British PM
Draghi throws in the towel
Italy's embattled Prime Minister Mario Draghi finally stepped down on Thursday for a second time in a week, hours after winning a vote of confidence in the upper house of parliament on Wednesday evening. This time, President Sergio Mattarella didn't reject his resignation but asked him to continue as caretaker PM, presumably until a fresh election is held.
The vote of confidence was partly hijacked by mass abstentions from three of the top parties in his coalition: the populist 5-Star Movement, the far-right Lega, and the center-right Forza Italia. The no-shows broke Draghi’s hopes of keeping together a strong majority, and in the end he kept his promise to stay on as PM only if he held the coalition together. That was impossible since both Lega and Forza Italia wanted to ditch 5-Star, which they blame for the government’s collapse after rejecting Draghi's energy crisis relief plan.
The PM's departure puts an end to 18 months of a fragile unity coalition government, and ushers in a period of deep uncertainty for Italy and Europe at a critical time. Inflation and energy costs are both surging, and Draghi didn't have time to pass the reforms necessary to unlock EU pandemic relief funds. Also, the next government might be led by the Euroskeptic far-right party Brothers of Italy, out of the coalition and whose leader Georgia Meloni celebrated the exit of "Super Mario".
Russia wants more of Ukraine
The US has feared for months that Russia aimed to annex Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. But having already seized much of the Donbas, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that Moscow also intends to gobble up the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces in southern Ukraine, along with a “number of other territories.” American officials now believe Russia plans to illegally swipe sovereign parts of Ukrainian territory by introducing the ruble and forcing residents to get Russian passports — a new twist on Vladimir Putin’s 2014 playbook in Crimea, where the Kremlin held a bogus referendum on "joining Russia” prior to annexation. Since peace talks with Kyiv collapsed this spring, Putin likely thinks the odds of a negotiated settlement are slim, so he might as well take as much of Ukraine as he can before the Ukrainians get enough Western weapons to mount a counteroffensive. That would allow Putin to link Crimea by land to the Russian mainland and could boost his popularity at home. But there's a big downside: he’ll need to spend lots of troops and rubles on pacifying hostile populations and propping up battered economies.