What We’re Watching: Biden’s omicron message, Ukraine invasion rumblings, Haitian migrants sue US, China hearts US natural gas

U.S. President Joe Biden listens to a question as he speaks about the country's fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 21, 2021

Biden’s omicron message to America. It’s fair to assume that many Americans were anxious to hear what President Biden had to say at a presser Tuesday about the omicron variant ripping through US cities. So what did the commander-in-chief tell the huddling masses? First, he stuck to the White House script, reiterating that vaccinations, boosters, and masks are crucial to minimizing risk from omicron. Second, he reassured parents that schools will stay open despite the surge. There’s other good stuff in the works too: 1,000 military personnel will be deployed to help strained hospitals, and the government will purchase half a billion COVID tests that Americans will be able to order to their homes for free. That’s great, but this scheme won’t be ramped up until January, several weeks into a surge that many analysts say was highly predictable and that the White House should have prepared for. Current testing failures have been particularly problematic in hard-hit New York City, where cases have risen 80 percent in two weeks. But the Biden administration has still failed to offer guidance for 15 million Americans who received an initial single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot, which scientists say doesn’t offer much protection against omicron. Biden’s message was clear: this isn’t March 2020, go celebrate the holidays with your families. But did he convince millions of very worried Americans?


US-Russia standoff: Rattling or Rolling? Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that if NATO continues to be “obviously aggressive” in Ukraine, the Kremlin would respond with unspecified “military-technical means,” stressing that Russia’s sovereignty is at stake. On the same day, his Defense Minister warned that the US was planning a false flag chemical weapons attack in Ukraine. For a while now, Russian state TV has been riling up nationalist sentiment in evening news monologues. That all seems bad… And yet it seems that beneath the headline fury, diplomacy is slowly wheeling onwards. The US and Russia are set for bilateral talks in January, and there will be NATO-Russia and Russia-EU engagements alongside that. Those talks will focus on what, precisely, Putin is doing with the 100,000 troops he’s massed along the Ukrainian border, and whether there is any agreement to be teased out on the basis of the Kremlin’s recently-released list of maximalist demands from NATO. Those demands would all but turn back the clock to 1997, before NATO expanded into the former Soviet sphere, and deny the right of countries in Eastern Europe to join the alliance if they wish. Those are non-starters for the alliance, but the demands seem to have been an opening position rather than a final one. The US and EU are still threatening to impose crippling economic and financial sanctions on Russia if Moscow does decide to invade Ukraine again. This story will be a big one in January. Hopefully no holiday surprises.

Haitian asylum-seekers vs US government. You might recall these confronting images of US border agents on horses in the Texas border town of Del Rao, using their reins as whips to corral Black migrants trying to enter the US from Mexico. Now a group of Haitian asylum-seekers has filed a lawsuit against the US government for poor treatment and denial of due process, accusing the Biden administration of unfairly keeping in place a Trump-era policy of expelling most migrants on elastic public health grounds. The plaintiffs also say they weren’t given enough food and water while in the US’ care. The accusers, who were deported, are requesting that they be allowed to stay in the US while their applications are processed. Central American migrants have been arriving at the US southern border in record numbers this year because of pandemic-related economic hardships – as have Haitians who are trying to flee a collapsing state. Immigration has been a lightning-rod issue for President Biden during his first year: while most Americans support his tough-on-border approach, it has alienated progressives, a key part of his broad constituency.

China bullish on American natural gas. Even though the US and China continue to clash over broader trade issues, Chinese energy giants are buying a lot of liquified natural gas from America lately. Since October, Chinese energy firms have signed seven big deals to purchase LNG from US suppliers, suggesting that energy is another area — apart from climate — where the world's two largest economies can still scratch each other's back. (The US will next year become the world's top LNG exporter, while China is expected to surpass Japan as the number one importer by the end of the decade.) What's more, Chinese companies are purchasing American LNG at a 25-percent premium due to China’s retaliatory tariffs against US natural gas. Still, US Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to restrict LNG exports to curb rising natural gas prices in the US. American natural gas execs, for their part, warn that'll be bad for the climate because many countries are looking to replace coal-fired electricity plants with plants powered by natural gas. The latter emit less carbon dioxide than burning coal, but leak methane, which warms the planet way faster.
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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COVID at the Beijing Winter Olympics

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