Long stories short
- Mariupol rejected an ultimatum to evacuate its fighters by 4 am this morning in return for a promise of safe passage out of the city.
- The UN said 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced since Russia’s invasion.
- Sergiy Stakhovsky, who once knocked Roger Federer out of Wimbledon, told the Times from his post defending Kyiv with a Kalashnikov that Ukraine’s forces were like a needle piercing the invaders “straight in the heart”.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the world
Russia’s war has changed everything and continues to fuel a humanitarian disaster across Europe (see above and below). It has doomed Putin to permanent pariah status, galvanised heroic Ukrainian resistance and united and fortified the EU and Nato against him. It hasn’t stopped the clock on news elsewhere though. Here are four developing stories that on any normal day would warrant front-page attention:
Covid in China
More than 50 million people have been under lockdown in China following a surge in Covid cases caused by the Omicron variant. Several major cities and provinces have imposed restrictions and increased testing requirements on residents:
- Shenzhen: 17.5 million people
- Langfang: 5 million
- Jilin province: 24 million
- Dongguang: 10 million
New daily case numbers in China are lower than in the UK (5,000 compared with 80,000), but the spike is the highest the country has seen since the start of the pandemic and Chinese-made vaccines have shown only limited effectiveness against new variants.
China has stuck to a draconian “zero Covid” strategy throughout the pandemic, with strict lockdowns at the slightest sign of an outbreak – and spectacular results. At the weekend officials announced the first two Covid fatalities in the country since January 2021. The question is whether lockdowns would work against a new variant in a vast population with limited immunity from vaccines or exposure to the virus.
Hope in Vienna
A fortnight ago, Russia made demands that put efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal on life support and threatened to kill it off altogether. Moscow wanted guarantees that its future trade with Iran would not be affected by sanctions imposed following the invasion of Ukraine. Those demands were unacceptable for the other parties to the deal (the US, France, Germany, China, Russia and the UK) and the talks were suspended. But US officials briefed late last week that discussions were back on.
The Russians appear to have given way on their requests for sanctions relief and may be content with a written guarantee that they can still participate as a party to the Iran deal despite Western sanctions. The P5+1 negotiators are now ironing out final details with the Iranians. A deal could come later this week.
Lifting sanctions on Iran could bring down oil prices that have soared because of restrictions on Russian fossil fuel exports since the invasion. Iran exports a million barrels of oil a day and would plan to increase production if a deal is signed.
Fury in Corsica
The streets of Bastia have been filled with violent demonstrations and riots after a jailed Corsican nationalist was gravely injured in an attack by a fellow inmate. The unrest reignited calls for Corsica’s independence from France and prompted a visit to the island by Emmanuel Macron’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin. In an effort to quell the violence (and to stop images of burning tyres appearing on the covers of French newspapers weeks ahead of the presidential election) Darmanin told local reporters a Macron government would be willing to “go as far as autonomy” for Corsica.
Agony in Tigray
Intense fighting between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and Ethiopian national forces has deepened a humanitarian crisis that began in November 2020. For months a de facto blockade by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces has prevented aid trucks carrying food and medicines from entering the Tigray region. Even when supplies arrive, severe fuel shortages mean they can’t be distributed.
A communications blackout imposed by the Ethiopian government makes it hard to get information about the fighting but reports from the last few weeks paint a dire picture.
- Massacres: footage from 3 March appeared to show armed men, among them uniformed Ethiopian soldiers, burning an ethnic Tigrayan civilian alive in a massacre in which ten other men were slaughtered. Researchers estimate that 100,000 people have been killed in Tigray in the past 16 months.
- Aid blocked: vital humanitarian supplies have been blocked for months and shipments can only reach the region by air.
- 100 tonnes of supplies arrived in Tigray’s regional capital in the first week of March. That’s enough to help around 7,000 people but the World Food Programme says it needs to reach 870,000 people a week.
- A total of 5.2 million people, or 90 per cent of the population, need food aid.
- Health crisis: millions of Tigrayans need healthcare and medicines. As many as 100,000 people may have died in the last year and a half due to a lack of both.
- The WHO has delivered 117 tonnes of medical supplies since February, but a total of around 2,200 tonnes are needed.
- WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, himself from Tigray, said last week “there is nowhere on Earth where the health of millions of people is more under threat”.
Johnson wants to have his khaki and eat it
While staying out of the Ukraine conflict, the PM hopes to extract as much political profit from it as possible – in preparation for going to the polls.
CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE
Gas replacement rush
The ripple effects of Europe’s efforts to do without Russian gas are everywhere. Germany’s economy minister was in Doha yesterday finalising a long-term deal for Qatari liquified natural gas, which arrives in tankers for which two new terminals are being built at pace on the Baltic coast – where the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia comes ashore but may never be used. The UK’s chancellor, Rishi Sunak, signalled he would cut fuel duty in his spring statement on Wednesday to soften the impact of energy price spikes due to hit households on 1 April and again in October when price caps are lifted. And in Saudi Arabia, where Boris Johnson pleaded for more oil last week, there were signs he – and the world – might get it in the end. Saudi Aramco announced a doubling of profits last year and a 50 per cent increase in planned capital expenditure. Translation: yes, we’ll increase output, when we’re good and ready. In the meantime, the world’s biggest oil company is enjoying the highest oil prices in a decade.
CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING
Hell on Earth
The 300,000 people still cowering from Russia’s bombardment of Mariupol are having to drain water from radiators to drink and kill dogs for food. Stray dogs, in turn, pick at human corpses in the streets. Tanks were seen rolling towards the city centre at the weekend and heavy fighting is reported today in the central Theatre Square. Having rejected an offer of safe passage out of the city this morning – which Ukrainian officials said could not be trusted anyway – Mariupol’s defenders are now in a fight to the death. If the city falls Putin will have created his longed-for land bridge to Crimea. The FT’s Guy Chazan has a detailed report. Drone footage verified by the BBC shows the post-apocalyptic scenes Russian artillery has left.
TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THINGS
Putin first boasted in 2018 of a new, hypersonic Russian weapon capable of evading any missile defence system. Four years on his defence ministry is claiming it’s been used in combat for the first time, against a fuel depot in southern Ukraine and a weapons depot in the west of the country. At five to ten times the speed of sound, the Kinzhal (“dagger”) missiles don’t travel any faster than intercontinental ballistic missiles, but unlike them are launched from aircraft and can be guided to their targets. There is a lot of debate on Twitter this morning about whether footage released by Russia of a Kinzhal target is actually a farm; and about whether the use of these weapons means Moscow is running out of cheaper ones.
The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT
As of this morning, people in England aged 75 and over, residents in care homes and those with weakened immune systems can book a second booster jab. This follows similar rollouts earlier this month across Scotland and Wales. Five million people will be eligible, with the first 600,000 set to be invited this week. Boosters for younger groups are likely to come later this year. Although eyes are still on increasing case numbers – the ONS estimates one in 20 people in England had the virus in the week to 12 March – expect more focus on vaccines and less on testing as policy evolves. Similar moves to keep the booster doses coming are being made in the US. Pfizer’s CEO is putting pressure on the Food and Drug Administration to approve rollout of a fourth dose, saying protection against infection from initial jabs is already waning. Only 14.4 per cent of those in low-income countries have received a first dose. We will look at the state of progress – or lack thereof – towards vaccinating the world later this week.
covid by numbers
500 – million Covid vaccines shared globally by the US, free of charge.
Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics
Parts of eastern Antarctica are 40 degrees C warmer than usual for this time of year. That’s 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The event is unprecedented, as far as scientists know, and they’re “flabbergasted”, according to the WaPo. Vostok, the remote inland Russian base at what is known as the southern pole of cold, is supposed to be the coldest place on earth. In March it’s usually around minus 53C. On Friday it was minus 17.7C, the warmest for this time of year since record-keeping began 65 years ago. Weather experts think the heatwave has been caused by an atmospheric river of warm moisture straying over Antarctica, where such things seldom go, and being blocked there by a high-pressure system bringing temperatures five standard deviations above normal. To note: last year the actual South Pole recorded its coldest winter ever.
The week ahead
21/3 – Second booster jab rolled out to over 75s in England; senior Foreign Office officials Philip Barton and Nigel Casey scrutinised on Afghanistan policy by foreign affairs committee; man appears charged with murder of Sir David Amess, 22/3 – High Court hears challenge on widespread use of private email and WhatsApp by government ministers; CBI monthly industrial trends survey, 23/3 – Spring statement by chancellor Rishi Sunak; WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange marries lawyer Stella Moris in Belmarsh Prison; two years since UK Covid lockdown announced, 24/3 – Covid sick pay provisions and self-isolation support payments end; 25/3 – Andrew Bailey, governor of Bank of England, speaks at CBI event; pandemic ban on commercial evictions ends, Social Democratic and Labour party conference in Northern Ireland, 27/3 – Mothering Sunday; daylight saving time begins
21/3 – 56th session of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) begins virtually; President Joe Biden hosts calls with allies including Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; Moscow Exchange resumes trading government bonds; EU foreign affairs council meets in Brussels, 22/3 – new case against Alexei Nalvany verdict announced; gubernatorial and municipal elections in Jordan, 23/3 – World meteorological day; G7 trade ministers meeting; Biden visits Brussels for EU leaders’ summit and Nato meeting on Ukraine, 24/3 – European Central Bank’s general council meets in Frankfurt; US Covid death toll set to pass 1 million mark; world TB day, 25/3 – Friday’s for Future global climate strike; Feast of the Annunciation in the Roman Catholic Church, 26/3 – Earth Hour at 8.30pm GMT; Dubai World Cup at Meydan Racecourse; general election in Malta, 27/3 – Hong Kong’s chief executive elected by election committee; 94th Academy Awards held in LA
Thanks for reading and do share this around.
With additional reporting from Giles Whittell and Phoebe Davis.
Photographs Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images, Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Sebnem Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Pascal Pochard-Casabianca/AFP via Getty Images, Eduardo Soterase/AFP via Getty Images
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