What We’re Watching: US-Russia nuclear talks, Spanish PM faces the music, Thai protests continue

Art by Gabriella Turrisi

US and Russia buy time to talk arms control: Americans and Russians are close to agreeing on a one-year extension of their last remaining nuclear arms control agreement. For months the two sides have been unable to settle on terms to extend the New START treaty, an agreement limiting long-range nuclear weapons that was hammered out by the Kremlin and the Obama administration back in 2011, and expires next February. One of the main points of contention was the Trump administration's insistence that Russia bring China into any new arms control pact. But Beijing has no interest in capping its nuclear arsenal at levels far lower than what the US and Russia have, while the Kremlin says that if China is part of it, then other Western nuclear powers like the UK and France should join as well. But those disputes will be shelved now, as Moscow and Washington have agreed to freeze their nuclear arsenals for one year and to keep talking about an extension in the meantime. Of course, the Kremlin — which proposed the one-year extension as a stopgap — can't be sure just whom they'll be talking to on the US side after January…


Spain's no-confidence vote: Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez faces a no-confidence vote in parliament over his minority coalition government's alleged mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis. Infections have already surpassed one million, while Spain is suffering the worst pandemic-related economic crisis in the European Union. Although Sánchez has (just barely) enough votes to stay in power, the move will give Santiago Abascal, the firebrand leader of the increasingly popular far-right Vox party, an opportunity to blame the PM for all of Spain's problems. But his real target is the establishment center-right Popular Party, which Abascal is painting as too weak to lead a true conservative opposition. The PP, for its part, will vote against removing Sánchez — but only because the no-confidence mechanism was brought by an extremist party. Moreover, the PP is also under pressure from its moderate wing to support the leftist government on declaring a second nationwide state of emergency against COVID-19. Will the urgency of dealing with the public health crisis bring some badly-needed compromise to increasingly toxic Spanish politics?

Thailand lifts protests ban: Thai leader Prayuth Chan-ocha has lifted the state of emergency he declared days ago to stop young pro-democracy activists from protesting against his government and the all-powerful king... after the youngsters completely ignored the ban on public gatherings. Since the rallies started months ago, Prayuth has shied away from launching a harsh crackdown against the peaceful protesters, despite calls by hardliners and royalists to unleash the military on them. But lately the former army chief and 2014 coup leader has focused on fighting the activists on the internet by censoring social media, blocking critical news sites, and shutting down an independent online TV network. Prayuth has also detained a handful of the most prominent pro-democracy activists, but the arrests have done little to cow a movement that remains defiant. So, what's the way out for both sides? Years ago the beloved former Thai king would have already intervened to calm things down — we're watching to see whether his less-revered son and successor will follow dad's playbook.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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