👋 Grüss Gott!*
Welcome to Thursday, where Ukraine lashed out at Biden’s prediction about Russian intentions, Austria is betting on a new incentive for the unvaccinated, and the Australian city of Adelaide is baffled by a mysterious spate of googly eyes. We also look at Russia’s latest efforts to dismantle the REvil hacking group, at Washington’s request, and what this means in the context of U.S.-Russia tensions over Ukraine.
[*Swabian - Germany]
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• Biden’s ambiguous comment on Western response over Russia: U.S. President Joe Biden said he thinks Russia will “move in” on Ukraine during a news conference, warning Russian President Vladimir Putin would pay a “serious and dear price” for invading, while acknowledging there would be a lower cost for a “minor incursion.” The comment sparked outcry in Kyiv, where officials have been meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken as Russian troops amass on Ukraine’s border. This Thursday marks one year since Joe Biden was inaugurated as president of the United States.
• COVID update: The UK will gradually lift COVID-19 measures including mandatory face masks in public places and coronavirus passports for large events, as infections level off in most parts of the country. Meanwhile, Austria’s government announced the launch of a national lottery to encourage unvaccinated citizens to get the jab, as the country is set on passing a bill introducing a national vaccine mandate.
• North Korea hints at restart of nuclear, missile tests: North Korea is considering resuming nuclear and long-range weapons tests as it prepares for “confrontation” with Washington, state news agency KCNA reported.
• Pakistani woman sentenced to death for WhatsApp “blasphemy”: A Pakistani court has sentenced a 26-year-old Muslim woman to death for sharing images on WhatsApp considered to be insulting to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and one his wives. Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws include a mandatory death penalty for insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
• First relief flights land in Tonga: The first foreign aid planes have arrived in Tonga, with much needed humanitarian supplies, five days after the South Pacific nation was devastated by a volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami. A state of emergency has been declared and international communications have been restored.
• France mourns death of actor Gaspard Ulliel: French actor Gaspard Ulliel, who gained international attention for his performances in Hannibal Rising and Saint Laurent, was killed in a skiing accident at the age of 37.
• Adelaide’s googly eyes bandit: Oversized googly eyes have been mysteriously appearing for days across the Australian southern city of Adelaide, on the faces of various mascots and of a colonial monument.
Peruvian daily El Comercio reports on the oil spill off the coast near Lima, caused by waves linked to Tonga’s eruption and tsunami. Authorities sealed three beaches near the capital and are demanding compensation to Spanish oil giant Repsol, which operates the refinery that leaked 6,000 barrels of oil, for what could be the worst ecological disaster to hit the country in recent history.
A new study revealed that a monster iceberg, also known as A68, was dumping more than 152 billion tons of freshwater in the ocean, every single day at the height of its melting. The A68 “megaberg” (when an entire mass of a glacier breaks off to form a gigantic iceberg) detached from Antarctica in 2017 and began an epic three-and-a-half year 4000-kilometer journey across the Southern Ocean. The ice mass received attention by Christmas 2020 as it approached the warmer climes of the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia, and by early 2021 what was once the world’s biggest iceberg had vanished.
REvil bust: Is Russian cybercrime crackdown just a decoy from Ukraine?
This past weekend’s unprecedented operation to dismantle the cybercriminal REvil network in Russia was carried out on a request and information from Washington. Occurring just as the two countries face off over the Russian threat to invade Ukraine raises more questions than it answers.
🇷🇺 🇺🇸 Russian security forces raided 25 addresses in St. Petersburg, Moscow and several other regions south of the capital in an operation to dismantle the notorious REvil group, accused of some of the worst cyberattacks in recent years to hit targets in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West. Russian online media Interfax revealed that this was initiated from a request and information coming directly from Washington. What does it mean that this development came just on the heels of the breakdown in talks between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin?
💻 Talks in prior months between Biden and Putin have previously touched on the topic of cyber security, with the former accusing his Russian counterpart of doing little to address the problem within his own borders. He called on Putin to take all necessary measures to stem these issues following the attack last July, otherwise, the U.S. would be prepared to shoulder the responsibility itself. So was this operation on REvil a sign that Moscow is ready to crack down on cybercriminals inside Russia? Or is its acting now linked to the showdown over NATO and the Ukraine border?
⚠️ The hope among Western law enforcement officials is that the move is ultimately not linked to the current geopolitical standoff. Yet there is the risk that the operation is ultimately a decoy in the larger battle brewing with the West. The timing, following the failed Biden-Putin negotiations, seems aimed at reminding Washington that such potential cooperation would cease if the United States and its allies impose new harsher sanctions in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
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There is now a demonstrable effort to make peace.
— The United Nations chief, Antonio Guterres expressed hope Wednesday there could be an opening to resolve the 14 months of conflict in northern Ethiopia, between government and Tigrayan forces. Though he offered no details, Guterres’ statement came after a call with former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who is the African Union’s chief envoy to the Horn of Africa.
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By shrugging aside Russia’s aggression, India has shown indifference to fears that China could follow Russia’s example.
NEW DELHI — India is wrong to dismiss Russia’s war in Ukraine as Europe’s problem. The illegality and destructiveness of the invasion, and consequential food and energy crises, have global ramifications.
This explains why 143 out of the 193 member-states of the UN General Assembly voted against recognizing Russia’s illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions after holding sham referenda there. Ninety-three voted in favor of expelling Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.
India has abstained from every vote in the UN condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The reason? Moscow is India’s top arms supplier and some 70% of India’s military platforms are of Russian origin.
This raises questions about India’s strategic autonomy – but such queries are like water off a duck’s back.
One world, one family?
Justifying India’s refusal to censure Russia’s unlawful assault on Ukraine at the GLOBSEC 2022 Bratislava Forum in Slovakia in June, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar contended that “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems”.
Who would have thought that the person wanting to create "One World, One Family, One Future" as president of the G20 over the next two years could brush off or be slow to recognize the global food and energy crises inflicted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Russia, not Western sanctions, precipitated the crises by blockading the first of many Ukrainian ports on March 3. The head of the African Union, President Macky Sall of Senegal and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, then heading the G20, met President Vladimir Putin last June to discuss the food, fertilizer and fuel crises caused by Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi met him for the first time since Moscow launched its invasion only in September 2022 — at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting, sponsored by Russia’s iron strategic partner, China.
East Asia spillover
By shrugging aside Russia’s aggression as Europe’s problem, India has also shown indifference to the fears — in and outside the Indo-Pacific — that China, the dominant partner in the Sino-Russian relationship, could follow Russia’s example and try to restructure Asia’s security architecture through war. China menaces the territorial sovereignty of many of its Asian neighbours, including India.
India’s strategic partner in the Quad, Japan, faces Chinese threats to its sovereignty and fears that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow”. Unsurprisingly, Japan has ended its 77-year-old pacifism. On Dec. 16, Japan announced its greatest military build-up since the end of the Second World War in 1945.
At the economic level, India has purchased unprecedented amounts of Russian crude at discount prices on the grounds that Europe’s energy imports from Russia have dwarfed New Delhi’s buys. New Delhi avows that its “moral duty” is to ensure the best deal for a country “with a per capita income of $2,000″. However, the common man has not benefited from India’s rising oil imports from Russia. Instead, the private companies which have snapped up cheap Russian oil have made huge profits by selling it abroad — even to Europe.
Meanwhile, the foreign minister of a war-ravaged but unconquered Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba, laments that it is “morally inappropriate” of India to argue that Europeans are also buying Russian energy. India is buying cheap Russian oil because of “our suffering”.
"Crisis Strike'' rally against climate crisis in Warsaw
New Delhi keeps silent about authoritarian Russia’s silence on China’s expansionism in India and Southeast Asia. In contrast, it has sharply criticized democratic Europe for being silent on China’s activities in Asia: “When the rules-based order was under challenge in Asia, the advice we got from Europe was to do more trade.”
Admittedly, the EU was strengthening its trading ties with China as Beijing displayed its expansionist intentions in the South and East China Seas after 2010. But so was India, whose trade with China has burgeoned to record heights despite border clashes in June 2020 — and again in December 2022.
True, the EU has no defense policy and cannot save "Asia" from China’s belligerence just because France and Germany send a few warships to the Indo-Pacific. But India cannot "defend Asia" from Chinese imperialism any more than the EU. Its GDP per capita of 2,256.6 and military spending of $76 billion are no match for China’s 12,556.3 and $293 billion respectively. So India focuses on securing its borders with China and Pakistan, and on countering China’s fierce economic and military competition in its immediate South Asian neighborhood.
Responding to Russia’s threat to wage nuclear war, India has wrongly sermonized that “nuclear weapons should not be used by any side in the Ukraine war”. And yet, Ukraine is not a nuclear state. In 1994 it chose to denuclearize because the US, Britain and Russia, in the Budapest Memorandum, promised to guarantee its security. By invading Ukraine in 2014 and 2022, Russia violated that commitment, imperiling European and global security.
India could learn something from the EU’s experience. Russia does not menace the sovereignty of any EU country at the moment. But by relying on a territorial spoiler for energy, even after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, democratic Europe has gone adrift in its strategic thinking.
As India confronts China’s land grabs, its dependence on Beijing for trade could be self-defeating, given China’s contempt for its slow progress.
Risks of Chinese imperialism
Meanwhile, what does New Delhi think of Putin’s assertion that it is “natural” that China’s “military might grows along with the rise in the economic potential”, and that China’s growing might “first of all… relates to its economic might… why should we follow third countries’ interests in building our policy?” Such is Russia’s applause for China’s imperialism.
At another level — amazingly — after supplying India with weapons for over five decades, Moscow has reportedly asked New Delhi for parts of cars, aircraft and trains. So where will that leave India’s dependence on Russian arms against China? At least EU countries are not in the incongruous and shaky position of being reliant on two enemies – Russia and the US – one of which could lose militarily in Ukraine.
The tangled legal, political and economic repercussions of Russia’s devastating war in Ukraine extend far beyond Europe. Unlike India, most members of the G20 — hailing from the Americas, across Europe to Asia — have voted against Russia’s transgressions of international law and human rights in Ukraine.
India will be able to provide constructive leadership to the G20 only if it recognizes their shock and despair at Russia’s blatant contraventions of international norms. Even as democratic Europe confronts the strategic fallout and human distress caused by Russia’s warmongering, it should step up its economic contribution to the well-being of Asia — and the rest of the developing world.
*Anita Inder Singh a Founding Professor of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi.