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Forecast: North Korea tests more missiles, NATO leaders discuss Ukraine, and Senate begins SCOTUS hearings

A worker is seen outside a coronavirus testing site in Schöneberg, Germany, in August 2021.

Welcome to Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories from the editors at Factal. We publish our forward-looking note each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead. If this email was forwarded to you, and you like what you see, you can subscribe for free.

A Look Ahead

March 17

MLB Spring Training games begin  

Baseball players will take the field in Arizona and Florida for the delayed start of Major League Baseball spring training games on Thursday, one week after the players union and owners ratified a new collective bargaining agreement. 

What’s happened so far 

Team owners voted to lock out the players on Dec. 1, after the expiration of the previous CBA. Limited talks over the next two-plus months warranted little progress, with the two sides far apart on several key economic issues, while player movement remained at a standstill. By reaching a deal last week, the league salvaged a full 162-game season, with opening day delayed one week to April 7.

The impact 

Players ultimately made notable gains in the new five-year CBA, with higher minimum salaries, a new $50 million bonus pool for young players who don’t qualify for arbitration and a $20 million increase in the competitive balance tax threshold. Owners, meanwhile, got their sought-after expanded 12-team playoff field and avoided the implementation of a salary floor. 

March 19

Timor-Leste presidential elections 

On Saturday, voters in Timor-Leste will take part in the country’s largest presidential elections to date, featuring a record number of candidates, people registered to vote and voting stations.

What’s happened so far 

A total of 16 candidates are running for the top job, with current President Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres running against former President José Ramos-Horta — supported by the country’s first president and former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão — and defense head Gen. Lere Anan Timur. Human rights lawyer Isabel Ferreira, the wife of current Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak, is also in the race.

The impact

This historic election will also involve a record number of observers, with 35 EU officials from 17 countries involved in the operation. In the case of a second-round of voting, the top two candidates will face off April 19. Inauguration of the new head of state is scheduled for May 20, the 20th anniversary of the country’s independence.

March 20

Germany to relax most coronavirus rules

Despite coronavirus figures remaining high, German officials are expected to end most restrictions on Sunday.

What’s happened so far 

Coronavirus hit Germany as hard as any European country, with more than 126,000 deaths in the last two years. It experienced a wave of the omicron variant later than most of its neighbors, due in part to restrictions put in place in December. A recent dip in the infection rate, however, along with the relaxation of coronavirus laws in nearby countries has led to Germany lifting its own restrictions.

The impact 

Saturday’s relaxations will likely end a push to instate a vaccine mandate for all adults. New German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he was in favor of such a mandate, but his coalition stalemated on the issue. It could also lead to increased coronavirus numbers. The country’s health minister warned that the pandemic is not over and hundreds of people will continue to die daily.

March 21

Syrian Constitutional Committee meeting

The seventh round of talks with the U.N.-led Syrian Constitutional Committee is scheduled to take place behind closed doors in Geneva, starting Tuesday and lasting five days.

What’s happened so far 

The last meeting between Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Republic and members of the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission was held in October 2021, with the aim of facilitating a peace process through the adoption of a new constitution and a U.N. Security Council resolution. U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, said these talks were a “big disappointment” with both parties “not managing to achieve what they had hoped.”

The impact 

As the Syrian conflict enters its 12th year, the country continues to be at a stalemate with no shifts in the frontline for two years. At the same time, humanitarian needs and socio-economic conditions continue to worsen. The U.N. has long emphasized the need for a  nationwide ceasefire and Pedersen said a diplomatic solution is “perfectly doable if the will is there” despite Assad remaining unwilling to engage in negotiations with opposition groups that insist on his resignation.

President Joe Biden and Supreme Court Justice nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson stand in the Oval Office in front of the desk.
President Joe Biden announced his nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson as the newest Supreme Court justice on Feb. 12. (Photo: White House / Twitter)

March 21

U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings 

The U.S. Senate is set to begin confirmation hearings on Monday for federal trial court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who President Joe Biden nominated last month to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

What’s happened so far 

There are early signs of a potentially smooth process, with Senate Republicans saying they will keep the hearings “respectful” with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, praising Biden’s pick but delaying her decision to support her nomination until after the hearings. One recurring issue likely to come up alongside Judge Jackson’s previous opinions is her defense of Guantanamo Bay detainees during her time as a public defender.

The impact 

With the hearings concluding Thursday, Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are hoping for no Democratic defections — and potentially some Republican support. This would pave the way for a speedy confirmation vote, possibly approving her nomination to the Supreme Court by the Senate recess scheduled for April 8. If confirmed, Judge Jackson would be the first Black woman on the top court and the sixth woman to become a Supreme Court justice in its history.

March 23

Blue Origin flight  

Jeff Bezos’ commercial space travel company Blue Origin will embark on another flight carrying celebrities into space Wednesday.

What’s happened so far 

The trip will mark Blue Origin’s fourth such crewed flight into space. The first was last July and carried the former Amazon CEO, his brother and two others into space for just over 10 minutes. This flight will again feature multiple celebrity passengers, including “Saturday Night Live” star Pete Davidson. 

The impact 

Davidson will be joined on the flight by five paying customers, according to Blue Origin. The price of admission was not disclosed, though competitors in the commercial space realm are offering similar services for at least $450,000. The launch, out of rural Texas, comes weeks after Blue Origin’s CEO noted the company needs to build more rockets to accommodate growing demand for space tourism.

March 24

NATO leaders meeting in Brussels 

U.S. President Joe Biden will travel to Europe for in-person talks regarding Ukraine (members’ link) with NATO leaders on Thursday.

What’s happened so far 

Biden is expected to discuss NATO’s ongoing defense efforts in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The United States and its allies have imposed broad sanctions against Russia, including on President Vladimir Putin and his associates, as well as coordinated humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine. The NATO meeting is scheduled for the same day as a planned European Union summit, which Biden will also attend. Aside from the two summits, further details on Biden’s trip have not been confirmed.

The impact 

Biden’s meetings with NATO and European leaders come as Russian forces continue their assaults (members’ link) on cities across Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv, that have killed scores of civilians and sent thousands fleeing the country. Despite Ukraine President Zelenskyy’s calls for a NATO-imposed no-fly-zone over Ukraine, both U.S. and U.K. officials ruled out such a measure for fear of being perceived by Russia as a military escalation.

March 24

EU summit in Brussels  

Leaders of EU nations will travel to Brussels on Thursday for a two-day summit.  

What’s happened so far 

Discussions on continual support for Ukraine and further punitive measures on Russia are expected to be at the top of the agenda at the summit. The EU has already passed four packages of sanctions, the latest of which included a ban on transactions with some Russian state-owned enterprises.  

The impact 

European leaders have so far been united and unwavering in their support for Ukraine and refugees fleeing the conflict, but have stopped short of committing to fast-tracking Ukrainian accession to the bloc, despite repeated pleas from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. It’s unlikely that position will change after Thursday’s summit, as the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte remains opposed to the proposal.

What Else Matters

North Korean leader Kim Jong un stands in front of the framework of a rocket launchpad. Besides him are maps and diagrams. He is holding a long stick as if ready to point at specific items.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground last week. During the visit, he said the country should “rebuild and modernize” its rocket launching facilities in the northwest. (Photo: KCNA)

Motion of no confidence against Pakistani prime minister

Last week, Pakistan’s opposition, led by Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), submitted a motion of no confidence against Prime Minister Imran Khan, accusing him of mismanaging the economy amid high inflation and depleting foreign reserves. The move came after Khan’s refusal to resign, a demand put forth by the PPP at the end of its long march in Islamabad on the same day. The opposition now requires a simple majority of 172 votes in the National Assembly to oust the premier. While the opposition claims it will have the required votes, Khan, who voluntarily sought a no-confidence vote from the National Assembly in March 2021 and won, remains confident. 

Watch for: Though the rules of the no-confidence motion require a National Assembly session to be convened within 14 days, PTI Senator Faisal Javed announced the vote will take place after the premier addresses a rally in Islamabad on March 27. Only two other Pakistani premiers have faced a no-confidence motion, with no prime minister in the country’s history ever removed from office through this process. If the motion passes, the National Assembly will be tasked with voting in a new premier, a year before the country’s next general elections

North Korean missile launches

North Korea has conducted a startling 10 rounds of weapons tests so far in 2022, including the country’s first intermediate-range missile launched since 2017 and a purported hypersonic missile. North Korea’s latest launch on Wednesday apparently failed shortly after takeoff, exploding in mid-air over Pyongyang, according to the South Korean military. The Pentagon said last week that it believes North Korea is preparing for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch. South Korea’s latest presidential election results will likely contribute to increased tension on the peninsula, with President-elect Yoon Seok-youl pledging to take a harder line against North Korea and to deepen relations with the United States. 

Watch for: South Korean news agency Yonhap has reported a full-range ICBM test from North Korea may be imminent, and that restoration work may be underway at the previously-demolished Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Analysts also say to expect increased activity from North Korea ahead of a major political anniversary on April 15, the birthday of state founder Kim Il Sung, who is also leader Kim Jong Un’s late grandfather. 

Extended Outlook

What’s on our radar in the coming weeks…

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Lead Photo: A worker is seen outside a coronavirus testing site in Schöneberg, Germany, in August 2021. The country is set to end most of its restrictions on Sunday. (Photo: Matthias Berg / Flickr)

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