What We’re Watching: EU vs twin threats, Hong Kong’s “election”, a Sicilian miracle

What we’re watching:  EU vs twin threats, Hong Kong’s “election”, Sicilian miracle

EU vs Omi-Kremlin. EU leaders met on Thursday to craft a response to the two major challenges of the moment for the bloc. The first is the surging number of COVID infections driven by the new omicron variant. An EU-wide approach has already been undermined as several countries — Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and Greece — moved unilaterally to tighten entry restrictions. The EU is expected to redouble its efforts to accelerate vaccination campaigns: currently about 60 percent of adults have received two jabs, but that number falls below 50 percent in much of Eastern Europe. With omicron infections doubling every two days, there isn’t much time to get ahead of the winter wave. The other big challenge is Russia, which continues to mass as many as 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border. Vladimir Putin says he wants guarantees that NATO won’t expand eastward any more, and the EU and US are worried he’s about to invade Ukraine to underscore the point. Brussels is warning severe economic consequences if that happens, which could potentially involve mothballing the Nord Stream 2 Russian gas pipeline to Europe. But here too, the EU is divided — some smaller Eastern member states want Brussels to slap sanctions ASAP as a deterrent, while France and Germany worry about provoking the Kremlin into war.


What We’re Ignoring

Hong Kong’s (s)election. Hong Kong is set to hold legislative elections on Sunday, the first since Beijing last year passed a sweeping security law that all but snuffs out the city-state’s political independence from the People’s Republic. And, surprising just about no one, the authorities have highly curated the candidate list, vetting everyone via a “patriots only” approvals process. As a result, only three of the more than 150 candidates on the ballot identify as pro-democracy. And it’s not just us who are ignoring this election: barely half of Hong Kongers themselves plan to vote, the lowest expected turnout in three decades.

What We’re Miraculously Seeing

Vitrines in Sicily. A 40-year-old Italian man was arrested and charged with fraud this week after authorities determined that he could do one very important thing: see. Since 2008, the man has collected a quarter of a million dollars in disability benefits on account of supposedly being blind. But after he renewed his driver’s license a few years ago, the fuzz jumped on the case. A series of stakeouts showed him cruising through malls window-shopping, teaching his daughter to ride a bike, and whizzing around on a scooter without (gasp!) insurance. The man, with a previous fraud conviction for staging fake traffic accidents, has appealed the case. Let’s see how it turns out.
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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