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Factal Forecast: U.S. fighter jets shoot down UFOs, Carnival returns to Rio de Janeiro, and UNSC meets on Somalia

A massive crowd assembles in a town square to see Joe Biden speak to the people of Poland. Biden is in the distance standing at a podium with the flags of the US and Poland framing him.

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.

U.S. fighter jets have shot down at least four unidentified objects flying over North America since Feb. 4, including a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon off the South Carolina coast. In this week’s Factal Forecast podcast, Senior Editor Jimmy Lovaas and Editor Joe Veyera discuss the likely reasons behind the sudden spike in sightings as well as the impact on air travel and the United States’ relationship with China. 

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Week of February 17-24
A Look Ahead

Feb. 17 – Carnival begins in Rio de Janeiro

Starting on Friday, Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro and multiple other cities around the world will celebrate carnival over the next week.

What’s happened so far 
After three years without a carnival due to coronavirus measures, the famed street parades return to Rio de Janeiro, where around 5 million people are expected to participate through Saturday, Feb. 25. Multiple other cities across the world celebrate their own versions of the event through different parades and traditions.

The impact 
The Rio carnivals are known worldwide for their music, dance and costumes, but after such a long pause, this year’s event comes at a time when Brazil is changing politically following the country’s coronavirus pandemic, which killed around 700,000 people. Large crowds also mean a large police presence across Rio de Janeiro, other Brazilian cities and international locations that also celebrate the festival. While mostly preoccupied with low-level scams and crimes, police will still be monitoring for any further escalations or violent incidents that may happen. 

Feb. 17 – Munich Security Conference begins  

The 59th edition of the Munich Security Conference starts Friday in Germany.

What’s happened so far 
The main topic of this year’s meeting will be the Russian occupation of Ukraine (member’s link), with the first anniversary of the invasion coming just days after the conference. Hundreds of representatives from the private sector, civil society, NGOs and world leaders will attend the event to engage in high-level discussions on foreign policy and security challenges in the current context of war. Participants will analyze opportunities for political collaboration toward the restoration of peace following the war in Ukraine, according to the report released by the organization on Feb. 13

The impact 
The position of global south countries during the conference will play a significant role in the results of the meeting, as representatives from nations heavily impacted by the effects of economic recession, fuel shortages, environmental disasters and skyrocketing food prices denounce a power imbalance and decision-making processes to tackle the effects of the war heavily centered around the needs and interests of the west.

Feb. 17 – China, U.S. participate in new debt roundtable

The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and India will co-chair a virtual meeting on global debt issues on Friday, ahead of a gathering of G20 finance officials in Bengaluru, India, next week.

What’s happened so far 
Ghana, Ethiopia, and Sri Lanka are among the borrowing nations reportedly set to take part in the discussions, alongside creditors like France, the United Kingdom, and Japan. An IMF spokesperson said the aim of the meeting is to bring together “key stakeholders … to address the current shortcomings,” in debt restructuring.

The impact 
The meeting is the latest effort from officials to head off cuts to social services in “heavily indebted nations,” which have the potential to spur social unrest.

Feb. 17 – Libya’s Arab Spring Revolution anniversary

Friday will mark 11 years since the NATO-backed toppling of Libya’s four-decade ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

What’s happened so far 
Amid a series of pro-democracy movements in early 2011 across the Middle East and North Africa, thousands of anti-government protesters gathered on Feb. 15, 2011, in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city. Following months of fighting between internationally-backed rebel fighters and pro-regime forces, Colonel Gaddafi was killed in October 2011 in his hometown of Sirte by rebel forces. A UN-brokered ceasefire was eventually agreed upon on Oct. 23, 2020, but to this day the country has experienced a political vacuum evidenced by a continuing dual government led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh in Tripoli and Fathi Bashagha in Tobruk.

The impact 
More than a decade following the revolution, the country’s east-west divide continues to fuel political instability, with no new date in sight for presidential elections since they were postponed indefinitely on Dec. 24, 2022. Both governments continue to be backed by rival militias and foreign governments, with sporadic fighting nearing the capital Tripoli continuing amid both parties’ unwillingness to cede power.

Feb. 20 – Taiwan reopens travel to Hong Kong and Macau

Taiwan will remove its coronavirus-related border restrictions on Hong Kong and Macau residents on Monday, three years after first implementing them.

What’s happened so far 
For the first time since February 2020, when the first coronavirus restrictions were introduced, residents from the two territories will be able to visit the island independently. Since late last year, only tour groups from Hong Kong and Macau were allowed to travel to Taiwan. The nation reopened to the wider world in October 2022 after strict quarantine guidelines during the pandemic.

The impact 
When announcing the travel resumption plans, officials explained mainland China would not be included in the list given the “high level of uncertainty” around its coronavirus situation, despite having recently removed mandatory testing from Chinese travelers. China has remained unclear about the real number of cases and deaths caused by coronavirus. It has also continued to impose restrictions on people coming from Taiwan for tourism purposes. With its restrictions now scrapped, Taiwan aims to restore tourist arrivals to pre-pandemic levels of 10 million per year by 2024.

Feb. 20 – President Biden travels to Poland  

U.S. President Joe Biden will meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda and deliver remarks on Monday, just ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

What’s happened so far
The United States and Poland have a particularly strong military relationship, dating back to outsized Polish involvement in the Iraq War. Biden last visited Poland at the end of March 2022. Since then, Russia has given up on taking Kyiv and had their territorial gains chipped away in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions. Many credit the shifting tides of the war to ever expanding weapons transfers from NATO, which is mostly transmitted to Ukraine via Poland. The number of “boots-on-the-ground” has also escalated, with Biden committing to a new permanent U.S. military base in Poland over the summer and American troops now numbering 10,000 in the key NATO ally country. 

The impact 
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Biden’s one-year anniversary address will focus on “the importance of the international community’s resolve and unity in supporting Ukraine for now going on a year.” With the controversy over whether or not the U.S. and Germany would provide advanced battle tanks to Ukraine settled, the conversation has now shifted to fighter jets. While France did not rule out the possibility of sending F-16’s, Biden recently answered the same question with a resounding “no.” Nevertheless, it is likely there will be some sort of additional material commitment to Ukraine before winter ends and fighting heats back up. 

Feb. 21 – Putin to deliver state of the nation address  

Russian President Vladimir Putin will address his country’s Federal Assembly next Tuesday.

What’s happened so far 
Last year’s state of the nation didn’t take place, amid the backdrop of the early stages of Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine, with Tuesday’s speech marking the first since April 2021. Previous addresses marked notable shifts in Russian policy, such as Putin’s infamous 2018 speech during which he unveiled a spate of new nuclear weapon systems and chastised the West. Feb. 21 also marks the one-year anniversary of Putin’s televised address during which he lambasted the concept of Ukrainian statehood and confirmed that Russia would recognize the sovereignty of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics in the days prior to the Feb. 24 invasion.

The impact 
Putin’s speech comes within the backdrop of Russia’s steadily intensifying offensive along the contact line with Ukraine as Moscow floods additional forces into Ukraine to aid multiple offensives, most notably one closing in on the key Donetsk city of Bakhmut. While some observers have argued that Russia’s widely anticipated offensive has begun in earnest, there remains additional room for escalation with additional mobilized manpower staged around Ukraine, leaving open the possibility that Putin announces the beginning of a large-scale push in Ukraine’s east, which would likely coincide with missile strikes on numerous targets beyond the frontlines. The possibility also exists that Putin will announce a second wave of mobilization to buttress expected losses from the first wave that will factor heavily into a Russian offensive.

Feb. 22 – UN Security Council meeting on Somalia  

The UN Security Council will hold a meeting Wednesday to discuss the security situation in Somalia against the backdrop of ongoing instability due to al-Shabab and militia fighting in the breakaway Somaliland region.

What’s happened so far 
The Somali government ramped up operations against al-Shabab in late 2022 and, in January this year, seized control of several significant towns in the Galmudug region previously controlled by the militant group. Al-Shabab has responded by staging attacks targeting civilians in the capital Mogadishu. Separately, fighting has broken out in the town of Laascaanood between breakaway Somaliland authorities and local militia groups, killing dozens and creating instability in an otherwise peaceful portion of the country. 

The impact 
Somalia and neighboring Kenya continue to urge the UN to drop an arms embargo, in place since 1992, to allow the country to better equip itself in operations against al-Shabab. The Security Council is also likely to discuss the funding drive to support Somalia through the longest and most severe drought in its history, with the UN’s country humanitarian coordinator warning famine is a “strong possibility” this summer.

What Else Matters

On the deck of a large ocean vessel there is a crate with a deflated balloon being pushed into it. Two U.S. Navy sailors are watching.
Sailors prepare material recovered in the Atlantic Ocean from a high-altitude balloon for transfer to a base in Virginia Beach. (Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ryan Seelbach)

UFOs in United States

Debris from a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that flew over the United States and was downed by fighter jets off the coast of South Carolina has been recovered by salvage teams, raising new questions about its purpose and technical capabilities. Three other objects have since been shot down since Feb. 4, with a downing over northern portions of Alaska, another in Canada’s remote Yukon, and an extended search over the Great Lakes leading to an interception over Lake Huron last weekend.

Watch for: China’s response so far had been muted, with protests that the United States had downed a weather balloon, but has turned confrontational, accusing Washington of flying balloons over its own territory. It remains unclear how much information the U.S. government will release on what the capabilities of the first and other objects were, but the Biden administration will likely want to prove they were a sophisticated attempt to collect intelligence, which could deepen the rift between the two countries. The White House also added that there’s no evidence of extraterrestrial activity surrounding the mysterious objects.

Cyclone Gabrielle in New Zealand 

New Zealand’s government has declared a rare state of emergency after Cyclone Gabrielle brought severe flooding, power cuts and landslides to eastern and northern areas of the country. At least five people have died, 2,500 more have been displaced and tens of thousands are without power and may remain in the dark for “days or weeks.” The full scale of damage caused remains unclear, with areas of the North Island still unreachable and cut off from telecommunications.

Watch for: New Zealand’s meteorology office said while the cyclone is slowly moving southeast away from the country, people should remain alert as heavy rain is expected to continue to impact parts of central New Zealand until Thursday. The national state of emergency is set to last for seven days until Feb. 20.

Extended Outlook

What’s on our radar in the coming weeks…

Feb. 17-24

Feb. 17

  • Libya’s Arab Spring revolution anniversary
  • Munich Security Conference begins
  • China, U.S., participate in new debt roundtable
  • Carnival starts in Rio de Janeiro

Feb. 18

  • Nigeria general election
  • Crypto exchange Coinbase halts Japan operations

Feb. 19

  • British Academy Film Awards
  • US Secretary Blinken will visit Incirlik Air Base in Turkey

Feb. 20

  • Australia to expand rollout of fifth coronavirus vaccine shot
  • Taiwan reopens travel to Hong Kong and Macau
  • Biden travels to Poland to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Feb. 21

  • EU energy ministers meet in Stockholm
  • Mardi Gras
  • Putin to deliver state of the nation address

Feb. 22

  • United Nations Security Council to meet on Somalia
  • Russian government meeting on legal integration of “new regions”

Feb. 23

  • Deadline for Moldova government formation

Feb. 24

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will visit New York to speak at UN General Assembly

Feb. 25-March 3 

Feb. 25 

  • Nigerian election
  • India presidential and national assembly elections
  • 2023 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Finance and Central Bank Deputies’ Meeting

Feb. 26

  • SpaceX Crew-6 launches to International Space Station

Feb. 27

  • Human Rights Council meeting
  • Elections in Nagaland and Meghalaya, India
  • Japan Upper House to hold confirmation hearings on new BoJ leaders

Feb. 28

  • Chicago municipal election
  • U.S. Supreme Court begins hearing oral arguments in student loan forgiveness case
  • California’s state of emergency for coronavirus ends
  • NFL Scouting Combine begins in Indianapolis

March 1

  • G20 foreign ministers meeting in New Delhi
  • EU defense ministers meet in Stockholm
  • Conservative Political Action Conference begins in Washington, D.C.

March 4-10

March 5

  • Estonian Parliament election

March 7

  • Congress of the Federated States of Micronesia Election
  • France pensions reform strike

March 8

  • Portuguese doctors’ strike

March 10

  • British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will visit France for British-French summit

March 11-17

March 11

  • India governorship and state assembly elections

March 15

  • British Finance Minister Jeremy Hunt presents the UK government’s budget

March 17 

  • OSCE foreign ministers will meet in Vienna, Austria
  • St. Patrick’s Day

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