More of the latest: European economy under threat by gas cuts, Mariupol soldier holed up in steel plant, Finland poll on joining, Russia pulls out mercenary troops from Libya, U.S. considers labeling Russia sponsors of terrorism, and more...
The recent series of explosions occurring in part of Transnistria, a breakaway territory within Moldova that has housed Russian troops for decades, have sparked fears that this region may be where Vladimir Putin will take his expansionist war next.
The inhabitants of Transnistria, considered to be pro-Russian, insist they want to be left out of the conflict, reports Tonia Mastrobuoni reports for Italian daily La Repubblica. “We want peace and want to be left in peace,” one of several residents interviewed who refused to give their name.
Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu insisted that the situation in Transnistria is "more or less calm," though in the past 36 hours there have been a series of explosions that no one has taken responsibility for — and which Ukraine says could be used by Moscow as a pretext to move into Moldova.
The sliver of land that separates Ukraine from the rest of Moldova includes 20% of the population that holds a Ukrainian passport, and 20,000 Ukrainian refugees who have fled since the beginning of the Russian invasion.
But for international observers, Moldova and Transnistria are just one potential theater for the war to expand. As pressure grows on Moscow, economically and militarily, Russian President Vladimir Putin may lash out with an invasion in any number of directions, including both NATO and non-NATO countries. There have even been veiled references to Moscow’s nuclear capabilities.
Putin renewed his aggressive words to the West on Thursday : “If someone plans to interfere in events or creates unacceptable threats to Russia, they should know that our strikes in response will be lightning fast. We have all the instruments for that, of a kind that no one can boast about. And we will use them if necessary.”
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova later added: "I don't advise you to test our patience further."
Seth G. Jones, who directs the European Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told The New York Times on Wednesday that “the risk of a widening war is serious right now.”
Ukrainian Military Leader Reports From Mariupol Steel Plant Refuge
Azov/Handout via REUTERS
A top Ukrainian military commander of the last unit defending Mariupol said the strategic port city is still not in Russian hands. Speaking by Zoom in an exclusive interview with Reuters, Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, 39, a deputy commander of Ukraine's Azov Regiment said: "as long as we're here and holding the defense... the city is not theirs,"
Speaking from the Azovstal steel plant, the last bastion of Ukrainian control, Palomar, 39, said “the situation is difficult, but we’re going to battle and fight for as long as we have to.”
He also urged world leaders to find a way to save civilians and the hundreds of troops trapped by the Russian siege.
Europe’s Economy At Risk By Russian Gas Cutoff
Already struggling with rising inflation, Europe’s economy faces a potential deeper crisis if Russia decides to cut off gas to other countries following energy giant Gazprom’s decision to halt energy deliveries to Poland and Bulgaria.
French daily Les Echos reports that in the event of Russia shutting off gas, “Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Austria and Slovakia are the most at risk, followed by Germany, Hungary, Poland, Greece and Lithuania," according to a report cited by Julien Marcilly, chief economist at Global Sovereign Advisory.
Still in the short term, neither Poland or Bulgaria says it anticipates immediate gas rationing. Poland in particular is well positioned to weather the storm thanks to high gas storage and the planned opening of a new pipeline with Norway.
However, the Kremlin’s standoff with the EU is a blow for neighboring Eastern European countries. Rising gas prices will lead to even higher inflation, rising interest rates and reduced purchasing power, offsetting a delicate post-COVID recovery in the region. Inflation is expected to hit 14% in Poland next year, while the Central Bank of Hungary raised interest rates to 5.4%.
Some Eastern European countries are expected to experience recession as early as this year. Hard hit by supply disruptions to its auto-manufacturing industry, the Czech Republic is likely to see its GDP decline in the second quarter of the year. And Baltic countries that trade heavily with Ukraine and Russia will also struggle.
All eyes will be on whether Russia could cut off its gas supply to economic heavyweight Germany, which buys more than half its gas from Russia.
However, Alexander Mihaliov, an economist who studied the rise and fall of communism, has argued that Europe will adapt from its heavy dependence on Russian energy. He writes that while there will be short-term energy shortages, the Kremlin’s move will backfire as it will speed up the transition to alternative energy sources.
Will Finland Join NATO? Popular Support Is GrowingFinland Flag Sky - Free photo on Pixabaypixabay.com
Since the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the possibility has be reopened that Finland might join NATO, after decades of refusing in order not to provoke Moscow. Finns have long been solidly against membership in the Atlantic alliance, but the latest opinion polls indicate 62% of the public now favors joining NATO.
An overwhelming majority of members of the 200-seat parliament must vote in favor of initiating the process in joining the North Atlantic Alliance.
Russia Pulling Troops Out Of Libya, As Ukraine War Strains Moscow’s Global Deployment
Russian military’s foreign presence is hardly limited to Ukraine with troops spread around the world. Now, according to a Financial Times exclusive report Thursday, more than 1,000 Syrian and Russian mercenaries working for the Kremlin in Libya have left the war-torn North African country. “It is one the first signs that the invasion of Ukraine is straining Moscow’s foreign deployments,” the London-based daily writes.
There are still an estimated 5,000 Moscow-backed soldiers in Libya. But the personnel pulled out of Libya in recent weeks, according to Libyan and Western sources, include some 200 Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, the infamous Kremlin-financed private military outfit, and about 1,000 Syrians whom Russia had deployed alongside them in Libya. The Syrian fighters are believed to have links with Moscow following Russia’s intervention in that country in recent years.
U.S. Considers Recognizing Russia As A “Sponsor Of Terrorism”
The United States says it has reliable information that the Russian military executed Ukrainians who tried to surrender in the southeastern region of Donetsk. The announcement came during a meeting of the UN Security Council by US Special Envoy for International Justice Beth Van Shaak, who declared: "Our simple message to the Russian military and political leadership and ordinary members is that the world is watching and you will be held accountable."
The growing reports of atrocities is prompting calls for the U.S. to recognize Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. Andriy Yermak, an aide to Ukraine’s president, said on Thursday that US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told him that Washington is considering recognizing Russia as a sponsor of terrorism.
Governments that Washington has labeled as a sponsor of terrorism have "repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism" and currently include four: Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Syria.
Russian-occupied Region Of Ukraine Forced To Start Using RubleFile:Обычные российские банкноты 2020 г.jpg - Wikimedia Commonscommons.wikimedia.org
Pro-Russian authorities of the temporarily occupied Kherson province in southern Ukraine announced that the region would "move into the ruble zone" on May 1, Kyiv-base Livy Bereg reports. She noted that "the transition period will take up to four months."
Prisoner Exchange Deal Between Russia and U.S.
Russia and the United States have made a deal to exchange prisoners: Moscow handed over to Washington, former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, in exchange for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.
New Accusations Of Propaganda, From Both West And Russia
Russian cartoon Masha and the Bear
The West and Russia have stepped up their mutual accusations of propaganda. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it will create a council to counter disinformation related to homeland security. The move comes after the European Union banned the broadcasting of the RT channel and the work of the Sputnik agency on March 2.
Meanwhile, Russian news agency TASS reports that the West is mobilizing NGOs to spread false information about the situation in Ukraine, including the atrocities in the city of Bucha.
Even the cartoon Masha and the Bear, a popular Russian export, has been drawn into the debate around propaganda. One conflicted parent in Germany writes for Die Welt that while the children’s TV show is not necessarily pro-Putin, it does raise troubling questions for parents.