Pawns Of Power - With Ukrainian Troops In Crimea

Ukrainian soldiers inside the Belbek military air base on March 16
Ukrainian soldiers inside the Belbek military air base on March 16
Julia Smirnova

PEREVALNE — While Russian flags fly in Simferopol and people celebrate the “return home” in the main square, a few miles away in the village of Perevalne a strange calm has descended.

For weeks now, the Ukrainian military regiments here have been surrounded by Russian forces, and armored vehicles have patrolled the streets. Pro-Russian activists warm their hands around the campfire, letting no one through the gate that leads to the military base.

The Russian soldiers by the fence wear uniforms without the national emblem — but they still carry submachine guns. At another entrance they stand around smoking with Ukrainian soldiers who are nice enough to charge their phones for them in the checkpoint. This kind of informal contact has sprung up between the two armies over the past weeks; the Russian troops say they all go to the sauna together.

Uncertainty reigns

On Sunday it was announced that the Ukrainian military had reached a temporary ceasefire with the Russian army. Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenkhov was quoted by his country’s media as saying, “Until March 21 there will be no measures taken against the blockades on our military bases.” At first this was interpreted as meaning that Russian troops would retreat from surrounding Ukrainian military bases, but this has not happened. Moscow has still not even officially acknowledged that the soldiers are Russian.

According to press reports Wednesday, pro-Russian forces have broken into the main Ukrainian naval base in Sevastopol.

The situation of the Ukrainian army in Crimea after the referendum remains uncertain. The new Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Askyonov said last week that Ukrainian soldiers could either leave the region or join the Russian army. Parliamentary spokesperson Vladimir Konstantinov announced that all Ukrainian military units in Crimea had been dissolved, but such declarations are just as divorced from reality as the Ukrainian announcement dissolving the Crimean parliament.

For Ukrainian soldiers, the situation is unbearable. “We need official decisions — not this declaration from the new Crimean government,” says Major Alexei Nikoforov, leader of a Ukrainian military unit in Kerch, in eastern Crimea. When we talk on the phone, he tells us about the Russian soldiers stationed at his base. “They say they’re protecting us, but from whom? From ourselves. Their situation is no better than ours. They’re here illegally and their commanders are shocked too.”

Nikoforov interprets the ceasefire as meaning that Ukrainian bases won’t be stormed before March 21, but he still hasn’t heard any official announcement from Kiev. “The only help we get is from ordinary people who send us packages and transfer money to our accounts.” They used the donated money to buy a satellite dish so that they could watch Ukrainian TV, which was blocked in Crimea in the build-up to the referendum.

A difficult choice

The uncertainty is made all the more difficult by the fact that most of the soldiers live in Crimea and must now decide whether to move to Ukraine or join the Russian army. “I was born in Russia. My mother and my wife’s relatives live in Ukraine. I’ve lived in Kerch for years. So where do I belong?” asks Nikoforov. “A people has a right to self-determination but there are many different peoples in Crimea.”

On the day of the referendum, all soldiers from Nikoforov’s unit were allowed to go home and vote. “I spent the day with my family,” he says. “I don’t want to be involved in such nonsense.”

Nikoforov tells us that the cook from his unit gave his passport to his daughter so that she could vote for him. “At the polling station, they told her that was allowed as long as she voted for Russia.”

Defense Minister Tenyukh declared on Monday that “Crimea was and is Ukrainian territory and the units stationed there will remain there. The whole world is on our side and the question is being resolved diplomatically. But if necessary the army will carry out its duty.”

It is not only the situation in Crimea that is preoccupying the Ukrainian army, but also the fear that Putin and his troops will move on to Eastern Ukraine next. Last week several people died in pro-Russian demonstrations in the eastern cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk and the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed concerns about the safety of ethnic Russians in the region — a statement that sounded alarmingly similar to its earlier pronouncements about Crimea.

Cursed generation

According to Tenyukh, around 60,000 Russian soldiers have been stationed on Ukraine’s eastern border. In response, the Ukrainian parliament authorized partial mobilization of troops on Monday, calling up 20,000 reservists and 20,000 soldiers in a new national guard. However, the Ukrainian forces are woefully ill-prepared.

“Our equipment is old, much of it comes from the Soviet era,” 23-year-old Alexei tells us through the fence at his base at Belbek airport, near Sevastopol.

Alexei has no intention of risking his life. “I’m going back to Ukraine as soon as possible,” he says. He wants to leave the army but doesn’t know what to do next. His family lives in Lugansk on the Russian border and they worry that their region will soon be under Moscow’s control.

Alexei passes money through the fence so that 16-year-old Sergei can buy him supplies at the shop. Sergei’s parents work here at the Belbek unit and he hopes to join the Russian army. “I want to stay here and later study in Russia,” he says.

At the control points in Belbek, lower-ranking officers try to lighten the mood with a few jokes. “We’ll fight to the last cartridge, we’re Russian and Russians don’t give up,” laughs 40-year-old Yuri. He was born in Ukraine but is an ethnic Albanian. On his ancient record player, he listens to hits from the Perestroika era while his friends drink instant coffee with condensed milk.

“We all come from the USSR,” Yuri says. He doesn’t know what he wants to do in the future; it seems that every soldier has to make the decision for himself.

Andrei, in his late 30s, is still unsure, but his family wants to stay in Crimea. “We’re a cursed generation,” he sighs. “In the 90s we were too honest to earn big money like the rest of them, and now we have to start again from scratch.”

He goes to the map of Ukraine on the wall and points to a stretch from Kharkov in the east to Odessa in the south. “Putin will just take this whenever he wants,” he says. “Sometimes I think that Ukraine is just a laboratory for political experiments. And we have to live through it.”

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How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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