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

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team on the latest developments related to the Omicron variant in the Roosevelt Room in the White House in Washington, U.S., December 16, 2021

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.


An opening for peace in Ethiopia? Tigrayan militants who have spent the past year at war with the central government say they have now withdrawn from several regions beyond their home territory. The move, coming after recent gains by Ethiopian forces, could open the way to fresh ceasefire talks. The war, which started in November 2020 over the Tigray region’s refusal to postpone elections during a power struggle with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has claimed thousands of lives, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and led to alleged war crimes committed by both sides. In recent months, battlefield fortunes have swung wildly — at one point the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front were within striking distance of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, but government forces have taken back swaths of territory in the past few weeks. The TPLF says it hopes that pulling its forces back will encourage the international community to push for negotiations. The Ethiopian government, for its part, is facing stricter US economic sanctions in the new year unless progress toward peace can be made.

The UK's new Brexit minister. British PM Boris Johnson's tailspin continues. After a week of scandal over government violations of its own COVID lockdown protocols, a Tory rebellion against his new COVID restrictions, and his Conservative Party's loss of a parliamentary seat it had held for most of the past 200 years, Johnson’s Brexit Minister, Lord Frost, resigned. Frost, a hardline Brexiteer who has led post-Brexit negotiations with the EU, had reportedly been at odds with Johnson over taxes (too high) and environmental policy (too ambitious), but the last straw was Johnson's imposition of new measures to contain the pandemic. Frost's replacement will be current Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who is popular within Tory circles and is seen as a potential successor to Johnson, particularly if he should stumble further next year. But handing her the Brexit portfolio is a challenge and a half: the pragmatic and diplomatically inclined Truss will need to resolve the ongoing dispute with the EU over the status of Northern Ireland — without alienating the Tory's hard Brexiteer right wing, on the one hand, or provoking a crippling cross-channel trade war on the other.

People working at computers in a room labeled Malware Lab

Microsoft observed destructive malware in systems belonging to several Ukrainian government agencies and organizations that work closely with the Ukrainian government. The Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) published a technical blog post detailing Microsoft’s ongoing investigation and how the security community can detect and defend against this malware. Microsoft shared this information over the weekend to help others in the cybersecurity community look out for and defend against these attacks. To read more visit Microsoft On the Issues.

President Vladimir Putin

No one knows whether Russian President Vladimir Putin plans on invading Ukraine. But the president of the United States sure seems to think this is a real possibility, saying Wednesday that Putin will likely "move in" in the near term. Biden, prone to political gaffes, was then forced to awkwardly walk back comments that Russia would face milder consequences from the West in the event of a "minor incursion."

The timing of this blunder is... not great. It comes just as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepares to meet his Russian counterpart on Friday in hopes of lowering the temperature after recent diplomatic efforts in Geneva were deemed a failure by Moscow.

Indeed, with the Kremlin having amassed at least 100,000 troops surrounding Ukraine on three sides, the growing threat is impossible to ignore. So what would a Russian military offensive into Ukraine actually look like, and how might the West respond?

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Omicron has arrived. It's more contagious, but less severe. Some parts of the world are even looking forward to the pandemic becoming endemic.

Not China. Xi Jinping's zero-COVID strategy has worked wonders until now, but it's unlikely to survive omicron, explains Ian Bremmer on GZERO World.

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Chilling at the beach, retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel is so over politics. Or is she?

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi everybody. Happy Tuesday after the long weekend for those of us that had a long weekend. I thought I would kick us off with the first major foreign policy crisis of the Biden administration. And that is of course, Russia-Ukraine. Afghanistan, of course, was a debacle, but not exactly a global crisis. This of course has the potential to really change the way we think about European security and about US relations with the other major nuclear power in the world. So, I would say that the level of concern is even higher and there are a lot of things we can say.
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What We’re Watching: Xinjiang at the Beijing Olympics, Boris in deep(er) trouble, Indonesia’s new capital

Selling Xinjiang. Xi Jinping — a man well known for both his grand vision of China’s future, and for his willingness to get large numbers of people to do things they might not otherwise do — said in 2018 that he wanted 300 million Chinese people to participate in winter sports. The Chinese government announced this week that this goal has been met in honor of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, which open in China’s capital on February 4. Multinational companies are consistently impressed by the commercial opportunities created when 300 million people decide to try new things. But it’s an inconvenient truth that most of China’s most abundant snow and best ski slopes are found in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, a place where Western governments and human rights organizations have accused Beijing of imprisoning more than one million minority Uyghurs in re-education camps. In these prisons, critics say inmates have experienced “torture, and inhumane and degrading treatment.” As China’s government opens new profit opportunities in Xinjiang, multinational corporations will face pressure from multiple directions not to invest there.

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Hard Numbers: Tongan emergency fundraising, EU docks Poland pay, new Colombian presidential hopeful, Turkey gets UAE lifeline

345,000: As of Wednesday afternoon ET, Tonga's Olympic flag-bearer has raised more than $345,000 online to help the victims of Saturday's volcanic eruption and tsunami. Pita Taufatofua, a taekwondo fighter and cross-country skier, has not yet heard from his father, governor of the main Tongan island of Haapai.

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Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week, discussing Boris Johnson's tenuous status as UK PM, US Secretary of State Blinken's visit to Ukraine, and the volcano eruption in Tonga:

Will Boris Johnson resign?

It certainly looks that way. He's hanging on by his fingernails. He's losing members of Parliament. He's giving shambolic media interviews. In fact, I think the only people that don't want him to resign at this point is the Labour Party leadership, because they think the longer he holds on, the better it is for the UK opposition. But no, he certainly looks like he's going. The only question is how quickly. Is it within a matter of weeks or is it after local elections in May? But feel pretty confident that the days of Boris Johnson are numbered.

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