What We’re Watching: Russia-Belarus drills, US inflation, Quad meeting, Libyan PM defiant, South African speech

Russian troops arrive in Belarus for a joint response force exercise.

Russian Defence Ministry/TASS

War games in Belarus. On Thursday, more than 30,000 Russian troops, supported by surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets, begin 10 days of active military drills in Belarus. NATO says it’s the Kremlin’s biggest deployment there since the end of the Cold War, and it comes amid Putin’s military buildup on Ukraine’s doorstep. Western capitals worry the drills could be a smokescreen for action against Kyiv, though it’s unlikely Putin would bust a move that steals the spotlight from his pal Xi Jinping during the Winter Olympics. Still, with US troops deploying to the region and Russian warships steaming into the Black Sea, there’s a lot of firepower and room for error at a time when trust between Russia and the West is badly frayed. Any miscalculation could quickly spin out of control.


US inflation report. Most economists are bracing for the Thursday release of inflation data from January. Consumer goods prices are expected to have grown by 7.2% during the last year, which would be the biggest annual price leap in the US since Olivia Newton-John topped the charts with Joan Jett and Survivor in the early 1980s. As voters’ pandemic concerns recede, inflation is emerging as a bigger concern, particularly for independents — which concerns the Democrats, who are trying to hang on to Congress in midterm elections this fall. President Joe Biden’s problem? There’s only so much he can do about it. The Fed will doubtless raise interest rates at its March meeting, but a lot of the price growth stems from global supply chain bottlenecks beyond Washington’s control. The politics of the American economy are about to get physical, Joe.

Quad hangout in Melbourne. US Secretary of State Tony Blinken is in Australia to attend a meeting of the Quad, a US-led group of four countries including the Aussies, India, and Japan that aims to counter China's rising influence in the Indo-Pacific. The last Quad meeting in September was upstaged by AUKUS, a deal for Australia to get US/UK tech for nuclear-powered subs that could lurk in the South China Sea. China is not fond of AUKUS and disses the Quad as a NATO-style alliance. This time, though, the Quad reps will also zero in on China's growing bromance with Russia, which has big implications for Ukraine and Taiwan. More broadly, this week’s meeting will set the agenda for a Quad summit later this year in Japan.

Libyan power struggle. Libya’s parliament convenes on Thursday to pick a new prime minister. The term of the interim one, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, ended on December 24, when the country was supposed to hold presidential elections. But the vote was first delayed and later put indefinitely on hold as rival political factions bickered over the rules and candidates allowed to run. Now, Dbeibah — whom his rivals blame for the failed election — refuses to step down and is threatening street protests if he’s removed. Bad news for Libya, which needs a permanent PM in place ASAP in order to go to the polls by the end of the year. Will political infighting again ruin the country's brief democratic experiment?

South African speech. When President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his annual State of the Nation address on Thursday, South Africa’s leader could drop two economic policy bombs. First, a new law to bar non-nationals from working in some sectors — a nod to the Put South Africa First movement to tackle high unemployment by reserving certain jobs for locals (which critics say discriminates against migrants). Second, a guaranteed basic income for the jobless and unpaid caregivers — which falls short of UBI but would be a big deal for a country with 35% unemployment. With the ruling ANC Party in a funk since losing the majority of the vote for the first time in October’s local elections, Ramaphosa likely thinks doing something bold will help get his mojo back.
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