What we’re watching: Ukrainian diplomacy, India’s campaignless national election, Italy’s presidential conclave, a mutiny in Burkina Faso, Russia goes crypto
Blinken’s Ukrainian diplomatic blitz. US and UK diplomats are upping the ante as Russia bolsters its military presence on the border near Ukraine. After defending his boss against Joe Biden’s controversial remarks about what, exactly, would make America react to Russian action there, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned on Sunday against a harsh response if any Russian forces cross the border. However, Blinken – who is trying to consolidate a united front with Europe while keeping Russian dialogue open – disagreed with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s demand that preemptive sanctions be imposed on Russia. Moreover, in a dramatic late-night announcement on Saturday, the UK accused the Russians of planning to install a pro-Moscow leader in Ukraine. Meanwhile, on the ground, both sides have continued to build up their military presence. The American Embassy in Kiev announced the arrival of American weapons. Across the border, Russia is planning naval exercises and has moved troops and equipment to Belarus, Ukraine’s northern neighbor and a staunch ally of Moscow. Blinken is expected to continue talks this week with the Russians, but there is an X factor: China. Xi Jinping, who Vladimir Putin now calls his ‘old friend’, probably doesn’t want the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing to be marred by a hot war in Europe, so maybe he’ll try to talk his friend out of it. an invasion.
India is debating elections or infections. Elections in the world’s largest democracy are quite a spectacle. These are massive logistical undertakings, marked by weeks of colorful campaigns and festivals. But COVID restrictions on large gatherings have dampened the mood for upcoming polls in five states. One of them is Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India. As daily infections have surged from under 10,000 to over 300,000 in just one month, many Indians have been feeling a sense of deja vu since spring 2021 when India suffered a devastating second pandemic wave also preceded national elections. Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who at the time falsely claimed India had defeated the virus – campaigned relentlessly and allowed religious holidays to turn into superspreader events, only to catch fire for his mishandling of the public health crisis. But for the February elections, the electoral commission and the courts have spoken: yes to democracy, no to the countryside.
The Italian presidential “election”. More than 1,000 Italian MPs and regional delegates begin voting on Monday in a complex process with serious papal conclave vibes to select a new president. Candidates need a two-thirds majority to win in the first three rounds, then 50% of the votes. There is no clear favorite to replace incumbent Sergio Matarella as president, a largely ceremonial role but also with the power to choose prime ministers, call snap elections and sign/veto laws. Silvio Berlusconi, the 85-year-old former prime minister and king of ‘bunga bunga’, initially threw his hat into the ring, but gave up at the last moment. Current Prime Minister Mario Draghi is said to be interested, although most Italian political parties would prefer him to continue leading the Italian unity coalition government until the general elections scheduled for next year. Draghi, a popular and respected former head of the European Central Bank, has ambitious plans to cut Italian bureaucracy to inject 192 billion euros ($218 billion) in pandemic relief money from the EU in the economy. Will “Super Mario” agree to stay in his current position to do the job?
Mutineers, militants and mines. On Sunday, rebel soldiers from the West African country Burkina Faso took over some barracks, demanding the government give them more resources to fight jihadists, sack army and intelligence chiefs and ensure the well-being of their wounded. Burkinabe’s military has long struggled to combat Islamic State-linked militants who are increasingly using the country to make inroads in the wider Sahel region. Although the government rejected the idea of a coup, civilian protesters tried to join the mutiny amid wider popular discontent with President Roch Kaboré. Kaboré, who was re-elected in 2020 for a second term, failed to defeat the insurgency, which is causing one of the world’s least reported humanitarian disasters. Moreover, Burkina Faso is full of gold mines whose foreign investors are fed up with jihadist attacks. Will the former French colonial power intervene as it did before in the region? Unlikely, given that Paris has begun withdrawing its 5,100 counterinsurgency troops from neighboring Mali.
Russia against crypto. Russia’s central bank wants to ban cryptocurrency in all its forms and uses. The general ban would include transactions as well as crypto mining. Even though Russia is one of the world’s largest bitcoin miners, the central bank says the crypto is a speculative asset, a “pyramid scheme” that undermines regulators and threatens Russia’s climate policies because mining mining is very energy intensive. The proposal comes as the EU makes its own bid to get rid of crypto mining, also citing environmental concerns. Last summer, crypto markets fell but rose again after a similar ban by China triggered a global selloff. But this time, amid the increased integration of crypto assets, Bitcoin prices do not appear to have been affected by the Russian proposal. Still, Moscow isn’t exactly done defining its digital monetary policy: the Russians could allow the use of gold-backed “stablecoins” and some government-controlled crypto-mining activities.