Welcome to Tuesday, where NATO and U.S. troops are on alert amid Ukraine tensions, there’s a new Boris Johnson party scandal and Beatles memorabilia will be sold as NFTs. Worldcrunch’s teleworking Carl-Johan Karlsson also takes a tour of countries mulling a bonafide legal right to work from home.
China-Russia alliance, how the West failed to see it coming
A resurgent, ambitious Russia is taking the West by surprise, just when the United States was pivoting and bracing itself to face down China, writes international affairs specialist Carlos Pérez Llana in Argentine daily Clarín.
After the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the biggest disruption of the Cold War was when communist China's ruler, Mao Zedong, received U.S. President Richard Nixon in Beijing. The diplomatic event was a bold, calculated gamble by the Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to divide the communist block, and paved the way for the Soviet Union's geopolitical depreciation. It also helped the United States mitigate its recent defeat in and withdrawal from Vietnam.
Has another, similar geo-strategic disruption just happened? Everything suggests there is an objective alliance between Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's leader, Xi Jinping. And this may push the United States into a trap to which it has itself helped set, with a string of mistakes that began all the way back with the Clinton administration in the 1990s.
Both the Republicans and Democrats have had mistaken assumptions. They thought Russia could not rebuild itself, and China would participate in a 'Sino-American' epoch of unstoppable progress toward free-market capitalism and democracy.
From President Barack Obama and onward, U.S. foreign policy pivoted toward containing China, and giving priority to Asia. Europe and Russia were seen as regional powers, absent from the global, strategic chessboard. Washington came to see NATO as an aging alliance and Russia, a power in decline. Policymakers overlooked the fact that Russia and China have a similar foreign-policy culture based on premises laid out by the historical leader of communist rule, Vladimir Lenin. Dissuade your enemies from acting, he propounded, divide them, take them to the brink of conflict, and from the weak democracies, extract concessions.
The broad idea is to win without fighting. The war must be won before it is engaged, and today this means murky methods, hybrid and cyber warfare. Evidently these are all feasible, in the absence of an international system to regulate crises.
The Sino-Russia alliance is also aided by differing timelines. China is taking its time as it pressures Taiwan. Putin however is moved by more a sense of urgency, as Russia's economic and demographic decline cannot be hidden.
There is a deadline to the age of fossil fuels, and Putin has yet to assure the country's energy transition. In China, the Communist Party rules while Russia is governed with a mix of authoritarianism and crony capitalism. While Xi entertains a more cogent goal, of unifying China and Taiwan, the dream of reconstituting the Soviet sphere is highly problematic.
At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin announced an action plan to which his audience paid little attention: rebuild the geopolitics of the Cold War. The plan has been unfolding in the invasions of Georgia and the Ukraine (2008 and 2014), and in Russia's recent mediation in fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Putin sees his political stability as tied to the project for a "Greater Russia." This is epitomized in his ambition to redefine the post-Cold War order, and includes the "Finlandization" of certain states, which are once more to become satellites beholden to Russia.
Putin wants NATO to return to its 1997 limits. That means 11 European states and NATO members abandoning the alliance and entering a gray zone, with Russian troops on their borders. The United States must also commit itself not to expand NATO nor station troops in those lands, including Ukraine but also Baltic and eastern European states. It is a throwback to the world of the Soviet heyday, which preceded its last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
To attain this goal, Russia must break the Atlantic alliance and sideline Europe as an international actor, which is why it has sought to negotiate directly with Washington, as it did in the Cold War. U.S. President Joe Biden cannot accept this ultimatum. Without assuring their security, the U.S. would be left without their European allies.
Likewise, its policy of containing China in Asia would fall apart. Without NATO, lesser alliances like QUAD (United States, India, Japan and Australia) or AUKUS become useless, and would pave the way for Chinese supremacy in Asia. This makes the Sino-Russian alliance an insurmountable element of the global equation.
What are the scenarios before Europe? Washington cannot accept the Russian ultimatum, but only discuss certain, minor aspects like arms supplies to Ukraine. America's short-term options are also limited to imposing sanctions on Russia and urgently working to free Europe from its gas dependency on Russia — a German legacy. In the absence of European strategic sovereignty, the United States is unready for military involvement in Ukraine.
A possible way out here is through Turkmenistan. It too wants to depend less on Russia and China, which it could do with a pipeline to export its gas to Europe through the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Turkey. The three states have observed events in Kazakhstan with unease, and Turkey is the one country that can dispute Russia's regional, military and economic predominance.
For the Biden administration, economic pressures and a threatened return of Trumpist conservatism have forced it to choose its priority with realism. It has decided that only Taiwan must be defended, and the real threat is in Beijing, not Moscow.
— Carlos Pérez Llana / Clarín
• U.S. puts 8,500 troops on alert amid Ukraine crisis: The U.S. Department of Defense said some 8,500 American troops have been put on “heightened alert,” awaiting orders to deploy to Eastern Europe should Russia invade Ukraine. NATO also announced it was putting forces on standby and reinforcing the area with more ships and fighter jets. In a bid to defuse tensions, Russian and Ukraine officials are set to meet Wednesday in Paris for talks with German and French counterparts.
• Birthday celebration for Boris Johnson sparks new row: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under renewed pressure to resign following revelations of a surprise birthday party organized for him in June 2020 in Downing Street, when social gatherings indoors were banned. The Metropolitan Police have launched an investigation into the several “potential breaches of COVID-19 regulations” at No. 10 over the past two years.
• COVID update: South Korea’s daily count of new infections topped 8,000 for the first time since the start of the pandemic, as the Omicron variant spreads. Meanwhile, at least 23 new COVID-19 cases have been detected on an Australian naval vessel en route to coronavirus-free Tonga to deliver humanitarian aid following the recent volcanic eruption and tsunami.
• At least 8 killed in stampede at Africa Cup of Nations: At least eight people were killed and 50 injured in a stampede outside an Africa Cup of Nations soccer game in Cameroon, as thousands of fans were trying to access the Paul Biya stadium in the capital Yaounde.
• Australian Open reverses Peng Shuai t-shirt ban: Organizers of the Australian Open have reversed a ban on “Where is Peng Shuai” t-shirts in support of the Chinese tennis player who had accused a senior Beijing official of sexual assault.
• Heaviest snowfall in decades paralyzes Turkey: Istanbul is facing its worst snowfall in years, paralyzing traffic and forcing Europe’s busiest airport to shut down after the roof on one of the cargo terminals collapsed under the snow.
• NFTicket To Ride: Items including John Lennon’s black cape in the film Help! and handwritten notes for the Beatles’ song Hey Jude will be sold as NFTs on Feb. 7 by Lennon’s oldest son Julian, who will keep the physical objects from his personal collection. Part of the proceeds from the sale will go to Julian Lennon’s White Feather Foundation.
Russian daily Kommersant devotes its front page to what it calls a “pre-war” situation looming between Ukraine and Russia as both the U.S. and NATO allies put troops on standby in case the crisis deteriorates further. The Kremlin pointed to the new deployments as evidence of NATO aggressive posturing and blamed the organization for the rise in tensions.
"There is no room for any positive opportunity for Lebanon in light of Iranian influence, international disarray, national division, sectarianism, and the collapse of the state."
— Lebanon's leading Sunni Muslim politician Saad al-Hariri announced in an emotional televised address his decision to “suspend any role in power, politics and parliament” and that he would not run in the upcoming parliamentary election. The announcement is shaking Lebanon’s political landscape, as the country faces a deep financial crisis. The son of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, Saad al-Hariri served himself as prime minister from 2009 to 2011 and 2016 to 2020.
Will there be a legal right to telework?
Silicon Valley firms are leading the way in corporate policy, while European countries like Germany are beginning to draw up laws to create a bonafide legal right to work from home.
⚖️ Two years into the pandemic, working from home appears bound to be a feature of our current existence that will be with us once COVID-19 is gone. But even as companies experiment with different policies, others are pushing to see it translated into law — in other words, to make working from home a right. The leading edge of the debate is undoubtedly in Europe, with a handful of countries considering changes to, or even already having altered, their labor laws in the wake of the first pandemic lockdowns.
💻 In Luxembourg, after a petition to recognize the right to telework was introduced in April 2020, the chamber of deputies published a new petition last month to make two days of remote work a week mandatory; In Poland, where eight in 10 employees indicate hybrid work as their ideal choice, a new bill regarding remote work was introduced last May; while in Spain, a new law was passed in September 2020 to regulate home working. But no country has yet gone as far as Germany, where Federal Minister of Labor Hubertus Heil recently announced plans to make the home office a legally protected part of German work culture.
❓ Of course, the always-connected internet reality also raises questions about the rights of workers in their off-hours, with Portugal passing a law last year that made it a crime to disturb employees when they’re not on the clock. Still, on both fronts, the most crucial question might be whether countries can manage to regulate digital working rights without an overly bureaucratic postiche and runaway corporate costs.
➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com
Australia's government has acquired copyright of the Aboriginal flag in a deal worth around 20 million Australian dollars ($14 million) so it can be freely used, ending a longstanding commercial dispute over the design. The red, black and yellow flag was created by Indigenous artist Harold Thomas in 1971, and has been recognized as an official flag of the country since 1995.
📸 PHOTO DU JOUR
Turkey has been hit by the worst snowfall in decades: paralyzing traffic but making for extra evocative images in Istanbul, like this one of Taksim Mosque.— Photo: Hakan Akgun/SOPA Images/ZUMA
✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet and Bertrand Hauger
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