Severe Snowstorm in Greece Grows Into Political Crisis

A severe snowstorm battering Greece is growing into a political crisis with the main opposition leader calling on Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to resign and hold snap elections. The call comes after thousands of people were left trapped along a main highway near the capital, Athens. The Greek government’s response to the storm is being called a “fiasco.”  

Heart-wrenching appeals, like one by Christos, a 74-year-old motorist trapped in his car for 22 hours, have triggered public and political fury.

“Please, please, please,” Christos cried to a television presenter. “Please, show us some mercy. Tell them to open the road… to help us. We are freezing…. We have been left without any gasoline, nothing to tide us over,” Christos pleaded.

Rescue crews working through the night have so far managed to evacuate some 3,500 drivers on a key motorway that homeland security forces promised ahead of the storm to keep open, but didn’t, leaving thousands of motorists stranded in snow, with rescue crews blocked from accessing those in distress.

Despite efforts, about 1,200 others remain stuck on the Attiki Odos motorway that circles the Greek capital, and thousands more on other roads and highways snaking through Athens, which is home to half the country’s population of 11 million.

Fifteen passengers were injured when a rail transport vehicle tried to pull a train carrying more than 200 passengers in heavy snow on Monday. Much of the capital has also been left without heat and electricity, sending hundreds of families streaming to their cars to keep warm as temperatures dip below freezing.  

On Tuesday, Christos Stylianides, Greece’s climate crisis and civil protection minister, apologized, but he said it was not the time to enter into a blame game.

We are focused on managing this unprecedented crisis, he told a news briefing after back-to-back crisis talks with Mitsotakis.  

He reiterated the government’s apology for its failed response and for “troubling” thousands of people by extending a shutdown of schools, public services and banks for an extra day in three regions in Greece, including the capital.

But the public’s fury remains so intense, amid the failings of the system, that a public prosecutor has ordered an urgent investigation into why the nation’s most important motorway was left unattended for so long.

Alexis Tsipras, the main opposition leader, wants the government to resign and hold elections immediately. He said in a statement issued Tuesday that he laid blame squarely on Mitsotakis, and that the country would be better off “without him” and a government unable to manage a snowstorm.

Snowfall is common in the Greek highlands, but extremely rare in the center of Athens and the country’s islands.

Mitsotakis has refrained from making any comment, or even appearing at any distressed location. Aides to the prime minister tell VOA, though, that he is pushing to compensate trapped motorists with at least 2,000 euros each, or just more than $2,250.

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South Sudan Holds Peace Olympics to Foster Reconciliation

South Sudan has held a peace Olympics to help reconcile communities divided by conflict. The “Twic Olympics” this year marked its 20th anniversary in Twic County. 

At this Olympics opening ceremony, a spiritual leader blesses athletes to protect them from injury while a goat represents the belief that power comes from nature. 

This is not the winter Olympics in Beijing. It’s the Twic Olympics in northern South Sudan. 

The annual two-weeks of games in January attracts athletes from six communities to compete in traditional Olympic and team sports.  The aim: to reduce communal conflict. 

Volleyball player Ring Aguek Ring knows violence firsthand. 

“In May they came to raid our cattle and in the process of protecting them I was shot and at last I succeeded to get my cows back. As I am still in the games, I am an injured person but who still can play because I see it as a unifying factor,” Ring said.

More than 700 athletes participated in this year’s 20th anniversary games, which also promoted health issues such as preventing COVID, HIV, and waterborne diseases.   

Twic Olympics founder Acuil Malith Banggol says the games have a mission. 

“Peace does not come without agenda.  You cannot tell people to remain peaceful without them being active on something that is keeping them away from bad activities.  We are building an avenue for communicating and interacting with the youth,” Banggol said.

South Sudan is the world’s youngest country at 11 years of independence, but it has never been fully at peace.   

Twic Olympics Association secretary Chol Ajing says involving youth in the games can help end conflicts.    

“In South Sudan, the crises of 2013 and 2016 were fueled because young people responded,” Ajing said. “What about if young people didn’t engage in activities like this and do not think about joining the politicians and fuel the war?” 

These South Sudanese athletes prefer ‘Tug of War,’ and are urging those still fighting real battles to drop their weapons and join them in the glory of sport. 

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Report: Anti-corruption Fight Is Stalled, COVID Not Helping

Most countries have made little to no progress in bringing down corruption levels over the past decade, and authorities’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic in many places has weighed on accountability, a closely watched study by an anti-graft organization found Tuesday.

Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures the perception of public sector corruption according to experts and business people, found that “increasingly, rights and checks and balances are being undermined not only in countries with systemic corruption and weak institutions, but also among established democracies.”

Among other issues over the past year, it cited the use of Pegasus software, which has been linked to snooping on human rights activists, journalists and politicians across the globe.

The report said the pandemic has “been used in many countries as an excuse to curtail basic freedoms and sidestep important checks and balances.”

In Western Europe, the best-scoring region overall, the pandemic has given countries “an excuse for complacency in anti-corruption efforts as accountability and transparency measures are neglected or even rolled back,” Transparency said. In some Asian countries, it said, COVID-19 “also has been used as an excuse to suppress criticism.” It pointed to increased digital surveillance in some nations and authoritarian approaches in others.

The report ranks countries on a scale from a “highly corrupt” 0 to a “very clean” 100. Denmark, New Zealand and Finland tied for first place with 88 points each; the first two were unchanged, while Finland gained three points. Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany completed the top 10. The U.K. was 11th with 78.

The United States, which slipped over recent years to hit 67 points in 2020, held that score this time but slipped a couple of places to 27th. Transparency said it dropped out of the top 25 for the first time “as it faces continuous attacks on free and fair elections and an opaque campaign finance system.”

Canada, which slid three points to 74 and two places to 13th, “is seeing increased risks of bribery and corruption in business,” the group said. It added that the publication of the Pandora Papers showed Canada as “a hub for illicit financial flows, fueling transnational corruption across the region and the world.”

The index rates 180 countries and territories. South Sudan was bottom with 11 points; Somalia, with which it shared last place in 2020, tied this time with Syria for second-to-last with 13. Venezuela followed with 14 — then Yemen, North Korea and Afghanistan tied with 16 apiece.

Transparency said the control of corruption has stagnated or worsened in 86% of the countries it surveyed in the last 10 years. In that time, 23 countries — including the U.S., Canada, Hungary and Poland — have declined significantly in its index, while 25 have improved significantly. They include Estonia, the Seychelles and Armenia.

Compiled since 1995, the index is calculated using 13 different data sources that provide perceptions of public sector corruption from business people and country experts. Sources include the World Bank, the World Economic Forum and private risk and consulting companies.

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Slovenian Trade Group Reports Chinese Backlash After PM Praises Taiwan

A Slovenian business group has said its members are facing a Chinese backlash days after Prime Minister Janez Jansa publicly discussed his hopes for closer ties with Taiwan during an interview. It marks the latest case of China refusing to tolerate dissent on the issue of Taiwan’s autonomy.  

On January 17, Jansa told Indian media that he hoped Taiwan and Slovenia could open mutual representative offices. He also praised Taiwan’s COVID-19 response and said Taiwan should determine its relationship with China independently. Opening offices in Taiwan would bring Slovenia in line with the rest of the European Union, as it is one of only a handful of countries — including Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Malta, and Romania — without a Taiwanese mission.    

Swift criticism against Jansa came from the Chinese government describing his remarks as “dangerous.” China considers Taiwan a province and treats any discussion of its disputed political status as taboo. 

Moreover, within days of the interview, the Slovenian-Chinese Business Council said Chinese partners were already “terminating contracts and exiting the agreed investments,” according to the Slovenian Press Agency. The business group and its parent organization, the CCIS- Ljubljana Chamber of Commerce and Industry, did not immediately respond to VOA’s email inquiries. 

The statement has also drawn fire both from Slovenia’s opposition and businesses with links to China. In an email response to VOA, Sasa Istenic, the director of the Taiwan Study Center at the University of Ljubljana, said his remarks “were his personal position not in tune with the National Assembly and could severely harm Slovenia’s economic cooperation with China.”   

Business groups in Slovenia fear they could suffer the same fate as Lithuania, which is now under a Chinese trade embargo in retaliation for pursuing closer ties with Taiwan, Istenic said.

“The Chinese market remains important for Slovenian companies and [the] Slovenian government has certainly been paying attention to China’s retaliation measures directed toward Lithuania,” Istenic said. “We have yet to see how far China is willing to go in preventing the EU member states from upgrading their relationships with Taiwan.”    

The EU maintains the “One China Policy” which recognizes Taiwan as part of the Chinese nation, and has traditionally had a less tumultuous relationship with Beijing than has the United States. But dissent is growing within the EU and some countries in Central and Eastern Europe have also found that promises of Chinese investment have not panned out as previously hoped, according to a 2021 report by the Central and Eastern Europe Center for Asian Studies.    

China’s growing strength in the Asia-Pacific region has also alarmed both the EU and NATO. The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with Beijing’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, have raised questions about its suitability as a close partner.

These concerns have given Taiwan a wedge to improve its relationship with some countries in Europe such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and, most notably, Lithuania.   

Lithuania and Taiwan have grown closer during the pandemic, swapping donations of vaccines and emergency protective gear. But, in April, Lithuania exited the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries trade initiative, a group formed in 2012 to improve trade and investment and known colloquially as the “16+1.”    

In November, Taiwan opened a controversially named “Taiwan representative office” in Lithuania. The office angered Beijing as it broke with the tradition of Taiwan using more politically neutral names like “Taipei Economic and Cultural Office” or “Taipei Representative Office” that did not suggest it was an independent political entity.    

Aware of the economic cost of its closer ties, Taiwan has worked to offset some of the newfound economic pressure on Lithuania by pledging a combined $1.2 billion in investment across several sectors including industries like semiconductors, biotechnology and lasers.    

“[This] investment is meant to shape Taiwan’s image as a reliable partner and viable democratic alternative to China, so there is both a financial and a political dimension to these financial proposals for investment,” said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, postdoctoral researcher in Taiwan and former political adviser in the European Parliament, over email.  

Access to Taiwan’s advanced technology sector could also be an attractive pull for other European countries, including Slovenia, whose automotive manufacturing and metallurgical industries rely on industrial robots. 

Una Aleksandra Berzina-Cerenkova, a China scholar and head of the Asia program at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, said Slovenia’s plan to potentially upgrade ties with Taiwan is a sign that Europe has not lost interest in democracy despite coercive measures from Beijing.    

“It seemed that there was a bit of a loss of momentum when the Lithuania example was not being followed by others in terms of withdrawing from the 16+1 and then turning towards Taiwan,” said Berzina-Cerenkova by phone.  

“But we actually see that Lithuania is leading … against the backdrop of attracting all the heat to itself. The other Central and Eastern European countries are actually also exploring opportunities, and trying to ride this train of momentum in their relations with Taiwan, because Taiwan, of course, is an interesting partner.”    

Some sectors in Slovenia could have a lot more to lose, however, than Lithuania. While cumulative Chinese investment in Lithuania was just 82 million euros in 2020, according to the Central and Eastern Europe Center for Asian Studies, investment in Slovenia was valued at a far greater 1.5 billion euros over the same period. Much of that investment is represented by a single acquisition of a video game developer, the report said.   

Other countries in the EU may need more support to weather the Chinese economic backlash if they choose to strengthen ties with Taiwan. So far, said Ferenczy, that support has taken the form of statements of support and resolutions in the EU Parliament, but she said more is needed. 

“The EU’s toolbox is limited. It is in the process of drafting its anti-coercion instrument designed to reinforce its resilience. It will be key to ensure the instrument works effectively in order to make a difference in terms of pushing back against China’s coercion,” Ferenczy said. “So, whether Brussels will stand with Lithuania and jointly push back against such messaging all the way, is key for the EU’s credibility and its ambition to be able to defend its interests.” 

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At Least Eight People Dead in Stampede at Cameroon Sports Stadium 

Several people are dead in Cameroon after football fans crammed the gates of a new stadium to watch the home country play a match in the African Cup of Nations tournament. 

State broadcaster CRTV says eight people were killed as thousands of fans attempted to enter Yaounde Olembe Stadium in the capital Yaounde Monday to see Cameroon take on Comoros in a round of 16 game. 

Scores of other people were injured in the stampede and taken to nearby hospitals. 

The Confederation of African Football, which runs the African Cup, issued a statement saying it is “currently investigating the situation in order to obtain more details” about the stampede, and was in “constant communication” with Cameroonian authorities. 

Officials had intended to cap the amount of people allowed inside the 60,000-seat stadium to around 80 percent capacity due to concerns about the COVID-19 concerns.  

Monday’s tragedy comes just a day after at least 17 people were killed and eight others injured  in a nightclub fire in Yaounde.   

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.  

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Головне на ранок: бойова готовність НАТО та США та новий пакет допомоги Євросоюзу для України

Чотири країни готові евакуювати своїх дипломатів з України, але НАТО, Євросоюз та інші організації евакуації наразі не планують

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White House Girds for Possible Russia Action in Ukraine

Washington has put 8,500 military personnel on heightened alert for possible deployment to Europe and will evacuate some embassy personnel from Ukraine, as tensions rise between Russia and NATO countries over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s continued mobilization of troops near the Ukrainian border. VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell reports from Washington.

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US, European Leaders in ‘Unity’ Against Russian Invasion Threat

U.S. President Joe Biden met virtually Monday afternoon with key European leaders about the ongoing threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine as he weighs sending several thousand U.S. troops to the Baltics and Eastern Europe. 

“I had a very, very, very good meeting — total unanimity with all the European leaders,” Biden told reporters after hosting a secure video call with allied leaders from Europe, European Union and NATO. 

Biden has not decided whether to move U.S. military equipment and personnel closer to Russia. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in advance of the meeting with the European officials that the U.S. has “always said we’d support allies on the eastern flank” abutting Russia. 

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin placed 8,500 U.S. military personnel on “high alert” of being dispatched to Eastern Europe, where most of them could be activated as part of a NATO response force in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

“It’s very clear the Russians have no intention right now of de-escalating,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “What this is about, though, is reassurance to our NATO allies.” 

Biden has ruled out sending troops to Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion of the onetime Soviet republic but vowed to impose quick and severe economic sanctions on Moscow. 

Kirby said the U.S. military is “keenly focused” on the Russian military’s 127,000-troop buildup along the Ukraine border and in Belarus. He said the U.S. is “taking steps to heighten readiness over Ukraine,” including for a NATO response force if the Western military forces are activated. 

U.S. and Russian officials have had four face-to-face meetings in the past two weeks over Western concerns about the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and Russian fears of NATO operations in Eastern Europe, and Biden has also talked directly with European allies. 

Biden was in the highly secure Situation Room for the call, which included European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Polish President Andrzej Duda and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

Earlier Monday, NATO said its members were sending more ships and fighter jets to Eastern Europe in response to Russia’s military buildup along its border with Ukraine. 

A NATO statement said additional troops and equipment could be sent from several countries, including Denmark, Spain, France, the Netherlands and the United States. 

“NATO will continue to take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies, including by reinforcing the eastern part of the alliance,” Stoltenberg said. ”We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense.”  

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov accused the United States and its NATO allies of escalating tensions.

The United States and Britain also announced orders for their embassy staff and family members in Kyiv to leave Ukraine, citing the potential for Russian military action.  

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry noted the U.S. move but expressed displeasure.  

“While we respect right of foreign nations to ensure safety & security of their diplomatic missions, we believe such a step to be a premature one & an instance of excessive caution,” spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko tweeted Monday. 

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday the EU was not planning any similar withdrawals. He spoke to reporters as he arrived for a meeting of EU foreign ministers, which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to join virtually. 

“We are not going to do the same thing, because we don’t know any specific reasons. But Secretary Blinken will inform us,” Borrell said. 

In addition to its order Sunday for the departure of eligible family members from the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, the State Department also authorized the voluntary departure of U.S. direct-hire employees, asked U.S. citizens in Ukraine to consider departing the country, and reissued travel advisories warning against traveling to either Ukraine or Russia. 

Asked about the timing of these actions on Sunday evening in Washington, a senior State Department official told reporters they come against the backdrop of reports that Russia is planning significant military action against Ukraine. 

The State Department official said security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders, in Russia-occupied Crimea and in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and could deteriorate with little notice. 

The State Department officials who briefed reporters declined to give any estimates of the number of Americans working at the embassy in Kyiv or of the number of Americans living in Ukraine. 

Russia denies it plans to invade Ukraine and has sought guarantees against further NATO expansion in Eastern Europe. The U.S. and Russia are planning to exchange written statements this week about their demands of each other. 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. 


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Biden Administration Considers Technology Sanctions if Russia Invades Ukraine

In the months since Russia began massing troops on the border of Ukraine, the Biden administration has, on multiple occasions, warned that any further aggression by Moscow toward its neighbor would be met with unprecedented levels of sanctions. Now, the White House appears to be dropping some specific hints about what those sanctions might look like. 


According to multiple confirmed media reports, the administration has begun laying the groundwork for a ban on the sale of high-technology products containing U.S.-made components or software to Russia.


The plan echoes steps the Trump administration took against the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in 2020, barring vendors from selling the company semiconductors it needed to produce mobile telephone handsets. The ban had devastating consequences for Huawei’s business. Once the world leader in smartphone sales, it has fallen to 10th overall since the ban was put in place. 


The extent to which the administration intends to cut off Russian supplies of high-tech gear is unclear, and that’s probably intentional, experts said. 


“As with any sort of major event, or crisis, or potential invasion, government leaders want options … from strongest to weakest and everything in the middle, in terms of actions that can be taken,” Kevin Wolf, a former assistant secretary of Commerce for export administration in the department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, told VOA. 


Wolf, now a partner with the law firm Akin Gump in Washington, said that the administration is unlikely to signal exactly what action it will take unless Russia forces its hand by trying to take over more of Ukraine’s territory.


In 2014, in an earlier invasion, Russia took control of Crimea, a region of Ukraine, and continues to support local militias that control parts of the country’s Donbass region. 


Extraterritorial reach 

The U.S. appears to be considering the application of a new doctrine, the foreign direct product rule, to Russia. First put forward under the Trump administration, the rule would make it illegal under U.S. law for any entity in the world to sell high-technology equipment to Russia if that equipment was made or tested using U.S. technology. 


Theoretically, that could apply to virtually any product in the world that contains semiconductors, given the prevalence of U.S. technology and software involved in the devices’ manufacturing process. 


The rule relies on the implicit threat that companies that rely on U.S. technology or software to produce their products — even if the physical components of the products themselves originate outside the U.S. — could find themselves cut off from crucial licenses or equipment if they refuse to honor the U.S. export ban. 


The extreme reach of the rule, into the business dealings of non-U.S. firms, makes it politically fraught, according to Jim Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 


However, speaking with VOA, Lewis said, “Using force against Ukraine really justifies it.” 


‘No more iPhones for Russia’ 

The U.S. has a wide range of options when it comes to blocking the transfer of technology to Russia, both in terms of the entities within Russia that the sanctions affect and the companies outside Russia that would be subject to them. (The U.S. already has export controls in place that target Russia’s defense sector, so anything the Biden administration applies would be in addition to those existing sanctions.) 


At the more targeted end of the spectrum, the administration could identify specific companies, making it illegal to sell U.S. technology to them. More broadly, the U.S. could impose sectorwide restrictions, barring the export of technology to, for example, the Russian civil aviation industry.


At the far end of the spectrum would be a flat-out ban on the sale of all U.S.-related technology to Russia.


“If they go for the maximum approach, that means no more iPhones for Russia,” said Lewis, of CSIS. 


Pushing Moscow toward China? 

If the U.S. does move forward with extensive technological sanctions against Russia, it will be difficult for Moscow to fill the gap with domestic production, said Jeffrey Edmonds, a senior analyst at the security think tank CNA. 

“Russia has always been fairly weak when it comes to things like microchips, microelectronics and electronics in general,” Edmonds told VOA. “That’s coupled with the fact that Russia has a very weak entrepreneurial system, in that most of the technology companies in that whole sector are really run by government-sponsored organizations that are highly inefficient and subject to high levels of corruption.” 


The result could be to push Moscow toward China, which has already been working to create a domestic manufacturing base that, in the future, might be able to provide Russia with homegrown equipment that would render U.S. sanctions ineffective. 


In an email exchange with VOA, research analysts Megan Hogan and Abigail Dahlman, at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, pointed out that United Nations data indicate that Russia already imports some 68% of its consumer IT products from China. 


“In the short term, the application of the (foreign direct product) rule will provide the Chinese government with further evidence of Western powers, particularly the U.S., meddling in Eastern affairs, validating the Chinese government’s … anti-foreign sanctions measures and further straining U.S.-China relations,” Hogan and Dahlman wrote. “Chinese tech companies will likely be forced to choose between access to the U.S. market and access to the Chinese market, with penalties associated with either decision.” 


They continued, “In the long term, the U.S. risks expediting China’s development of its own domestic semiconductor industry. China’s largest chip manufacturer, SMIC (Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation), is currently years behind its competitors in terms of its manufacturing technology and capacity. While China is already making moves to improve its domestic semiconductor manufacturing (as is the U.S.), U.S. technology sanctions on Russia are likely to expedite the process at the cost of the American semiconductor industry.” 


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Russian Markets Plunge as War Fears Mount

The Russian stock market took a dive Monday as war fears triggered a massive sell-off, with tens of billions of dollars wiped from the value of some of the country’s leading businesses.

As concerns mount that President Vladimir Putin is poised to order an invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the ruble also hit a 14-month low, prompting the Central Bank to intervene by halting its regular purchases of foreign currency to help prop up the ruble.

“The Bank of Russia has decided not to purchase foreign currency on the domestic market,” the bank said in a statement. “This decision was made in order to reduce the volatility of financial markets.”

The bank regularly converts the proceeds of the country’s oil and gas exports to avoid the ruble being impacted by swings in the value of global commodities.

The bank offered no details on when it would resume buying foreign currencies. The ruble was down 2.3% in early Monday trading but steadied after the bank’s announcement.

Meanwhile, the Russian stock market plunged more than 10% on Monday but was 7% down when trading concluded. Since the start of the Russian military buildup on the borders of Ukraine in October, the market has lost more than a quarter of its value.

Anders Aslund is chairman of the International Advisory Council at the Center for Social and Economic Research, a policy group in Warsaw, Poland. Aslund predicts the market could fall much further if the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and Western powers over Ukraine worsens.

“So far, the Russian RTS stock index in USD has only fallen 27% from its high point on October 27 before Putin started threatening Ukraine,” Aslund tweeted. “It has far more to fall. In 2008, it fell by 80% from May to October (Georgia war + global financial crisis).”

Meanwhile, the European stock markets have held fairly steady in recent weeks — a blitheness that’s not necessarily reassuring, analysts say, as the European stock markets didn’t miss a beat in the immediate wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, a slaying that triggered World War I. 

The London and Paris bourses were “slow to grasp why Sarajevo was different and unique,” noted Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, international business editor of The Telegraph.

European investors and traders appeared Monday to take greater note of the geopolitical maneuverings, and markets nudged down lower on the news that Britain was joining the United States in withdrawing some diplomats and their families from the embassies in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. 

The German and French stock markets were down about 2% in early trading, with analysts saying a New York Times report that U.S. President Joe Biden is considering deploying 5,000 troops to bolster the defenses of Ukraine’s NATO neighbors contributed to jitters.

The London stock market also traded lower. Some analysts suggested the dips were as much the result of traders watching what the U.S. Federal Reserve might do about tightening monetary policy than the unfolding Ukraine crisis.

With the crisis deepening, the attention of the markets and Western policy makers is turning to the possible energy implications for Europe, which gets about half of its natural gas supplies from Russia. Fears have been mounting that the Kremlin might retaliate by stopping gas exports in the event the West imposes fresh sanctions on Russia. The result would be an energy shock for a continent that is already mired in an energy crunch and experiencing soaring prices.

“Should tensions between Russia and the Ukraine escalate, the initial uncertainty around its impact on gas flows would likely lead the market to once again add a significant risk premium to European gas prices,” Goldman Sachs analysts told clients.

Last week, the Reuters news agency reported the U.S. State Department has been putting together a global strategy to increase supplies of liquefied natural gas to Europe in the event a Russian invasion of Ukraine leads to gas shortages.

Amos Hochstein, senior adviser for energy security at the State Department, has been holding talks with several Middle East and North African countries, as well as companies in Europe, about how to boost gas supplies if Russia seeks to weaponize energy.

In London Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters that the intelligence about Russian intentions was “gloomy” but added that a Russian invasion was not inevitable.

“The intelligence is very clear that there are 60 Russian battle groups on the borders of Ukraine. The plan for a lightning war that could take out Kyiv is one that everybody can see. We need to make it very clear to the Kremlin, to Russia, that that would be a disastrous step,” Johnson said.

He added, “We also need to get a message (to Moscow) that invading Ukraine, from a Russian perspective, is going to be a painful, violent and bloody business. I think it’s very important that people in Russia understand that this could be a new Chechnya.”

He was referring to the brutal wars fought between Russia and Chechen rebels in the 1990s that left tens of thousands of people dead. Chechnya had waged wars of independence against Russia.

Speaking as Britain started to withdraw some embassy staff from Ukraine, Johnson said, “We do think it prudent to make some changes now.”

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Lone Gunman Opens Fire at Germany’s Heidelberg University

A gunman at a German university on Monday killed one and wounded three during a lecture in the school’s auditorium before fatally shooting himself.  

The incident took place at the University of Heidelberg in southwestern Germany, and police say the man appears to have acted alone.  

“We assume that there was only one perpetrator. At this stage we see no further danger to the public,” police said.

The suspect, who was reportedly a student, reportedly used a rifle and also had other firearms.

No motive has been determined.

“My sympathy in this terrible situation. So terrible. I am shocked,” tweeted lawmaker Franziska Brantner, who is from the area.

Heidelberg has about 160,000 inhabitants and is located to the south of Frankfurt. The university is Germany’s oldest and best known.

Some information in this report comes from The Associated Press.

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To Stream or Not to Stream? COVID Turns Film Industry Upside Down

Just as studios were resuming theatrical releases at the end of last year, the omicron variant of the coronavirus rolled in, forcing a return to streaming or a theater release-streaming hybrid. Now that the traditional way of viewing new releases has changed, the film industry faces a crucial question: In the era of COVID-19, how does one measure box office success? Penelope Poulou has more.

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Germany Seen as Western Alliance’s Weak Link

Germany doesn’t appear to view Russian military threats against Ukraine with the same sense of urgency as the United States and some of its European allies, who have started to identify Berlin as a weak link in the Western alliance, say diplomats and analysts.

The country’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has added his voice to the stern Western warnings about massive consequences for Russia if President Vladimir Putin orders an invasion of Ukraine. But Germany has refused requests from Ukraine for military assistance, prompting exasperation in Kyiv.  Berlin has also blocked the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania from supplying Kyiv with German-made weapons.

Ukrainian dismay only deepened Saturday when the head of the German navy, Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, described Western fears of a Russian invasion as “nonsense” and called for Vladimir Putin to be given “the respect he demands — and probably deserves.” The German defense ministry quickly condemned the comments, and the admiral promptly resigned.


That has failed to quell Ukrainian fury. Kyiv believes the admiral’s remarks reflect the thinking of a chunk of the German establishment and has called on Berlin to change its whole position on the geopolitical conflict.

“Today, more than ever, the firmness and solidarity of Ukraine and its partners are important to curb Russia’s destructive intentions,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry.

Ukrainian officials point to a series of disappointing German positions amid rising Western fears that war momentum is building.

“Everything is moving towards armed conflict,” says Estonia’s defense chief Gen. Martin Herem. He and his counterparts in Central Europe are watching closely to see if Russian reservists are mobilized. They fear Putin has been rearming Russia the past decade for this moment and that he’s only waiting now for frigid weather to harden the ground more so Russian armor has an easier time rolling across Ukraine.


Berlin has remained ambiguous about whether it will be prepared in the event of war to shut down the just-completed Nord Stream 2 undersea pipeline, which will pump natural gas from Russia to Germany.

Responding to increasing domestic and international pressure, Scholz said last week Germany is ready to discuss closing the pipeline should Russia attack but has demurred from committing to anything more.

Scholz’s studied ambiguity is worrying many NATO members.

Berlin has pushed back on proposals that include cutting Russia off from the SWIFT international cross border payments system in any possible post-invasion sanctions package the Western allies announce. Last week, German officials told the country’s leading business newspaper that excluding Russia from SWIFT isn’t being considered.

The U.S. National Security Council has denied this, saying “no option is off the table.”

Baltic states have also expressed their frustration with Berlin’s reluctance to give the go-ahead for them to supply Ukraine with German-made military equipment. Germany’s defense minister Christine Lambrecht told the newspaper Welt am Sonntag Saturday that arms deliveries to Ukraine are “currently not helpful.” The Ukrainians have been lobbying Berlin furiously to secure vessels to defend their coasts on the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.

Some analysts say Scholz is in a tricky position in terms of Germany’s domestic politics and that much of what is being interpreted by outsiders as pulling in a different direction from allies should be seen more as strategic ambiguity required to keep together his three-party coalition government, which is deeply split on relations with Russia.

Scholz’s own party, the Social Democrats (SPD), the coalition’s senior partner, has a powerful left-wing which advocates closer ties with Moscow, and its parliamentary leader, Rolf Mützenich, has championed a new “European peace order including Russia.”

And even moderate SPD luminaries are reluctant to pursue a tough Russia policy; they favor détente and dialogue. Germany’s defense minister Lambrecht and the SDP’s secretary-general, Kevin Kühnert, are opposed to shutting down the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, saying it should be kept separate from the unfolding geopolitical crisis.


They want to see the pipeline, which is awaiting regulatory approval, up and running. More than 60 percent of Germans agree with them, according to an opinion poll published last week by state broadcaster ARD.

The Greens and the center-right Free Democrats want Germany to pursue a much more forthright policy towards Russia. But to further complicate matters, the Greens, whose origins lie in the anti-nuclear peace movement of the 1970s and 1980s, are ideologically opposed to the export of weapons to conflict zones.

“Since the new coalition government entered office in December, confusion has reigned about who is now setting the direction of its policy on Russia – the SPD-led Chancellery or the Green-led Foreign Office? This naturally includes the role and importance of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which still awaits approval to operate from German and EU regulators,” comments Jana Puglierin, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a policy research organization.

The “cacophony of different voices” doesn’t present “a picture of clear German leadership,” she adds.

Divisions within the German coalition are likely to be exacerbated, Puglierin says, in the coming weeks as fears mount about the country’s economic vulnerability to any fallout from the unfolding geopolitical confrontation. Germany exports machinery, vehicles and vehicle parts to Russia and the country’s politically influential auto-manufactures fear blowback.

The imposition of new wide-ranging and punishing Western sanctions on Russia will likely have major economic consequences for Germany, especially if Moscow retaliates by suspending natural gas supplies to Germany.

Like other Western European nations, Germany is battling an energy crunch and soaring energy prices. According to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, Germany buys 50 percent to 75 percent of its natural gas supplies from Russia. 

Ten other EU members, including Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Latvia and Hungary, also get more than three-quarters of their natural gas imports from Russia. 

Ukrainian officials — and Germany’s NATO allies — fear any wavering by such a key player as Germany risks being seen by the Russian president, who has been adept exploiting European divisions in the past, as evidence that the alliance against him isn’t as united as Washington and Kyiv would wish.  They fear that could prompt the Russian leader to make a big military gamble.

“That’s why Berlin’s decision on Friday to stop Estonia selling German-made weapons to Ukraine was a mistake,” according to Tom Tugendhat, a British lawmaker and chairman of the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

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Assange Wins First Stage in Effort to Appeal US Extradition

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Monday won the first stage of his effort to overturn a U.K. ruling that opened the door for his extradition to U.S. to stand trial on espionage charges.

The High Court in London gave Assange permission to appeal the case to the U.K. Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court must agree to accept the case before it can move forward.

“Make no mistake, we won today in court,” Assange’s fiancee, Stella Moris, said outside the courthouse, noting that he remains in custody at Belmarsh Prison in London.  

“We will fight this until Julian is free,” she added.

The Supreme Court normally takes about eight sitting weeks after an application is submitted to decide whether to accept an appeal, the court says on its website.  

The decision is the latest step in Assange’s long battle to avoid a trial in the U.S. on a series of charges related to WikiLeaks’ publication of classified documents more than a decade ago.

Just over a year ago, a district court judge in London rejected a U.S. extradition request on the grounds that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions. U.S. authorities later provided assurances that the WikiLeaks founder wouldn’t face the severe treatment his lawyers said would put his physical and mental health at risk.  

The High Court last month overturned the lower court’s decision, saying that the U.S. promises were enough to guarantee Assange would be treated humanely.

Those assurances were the focus of Monday’s ruling by the High Court.  

Assange’s lawyers are seeking to appeal because the U.S. offered its assurances after the lower court made its ruling. But the High Court overturned the lower court ruling, saying that the judge should have given the U.S. the opportunity to offer the assurances before she made her final ruling.

The High Court gave Assange permission to appeal so the Supreme Court can decide “in what circumstances can an appellate court receive assurances from a requesting state … in extradition proceedings.”

Assange’s lawyers have argued that the U.S. government’s pledge that Assange won’t be subjected to extreme conditions is meaningless because it’s conditional and could be changed at the discretion of American authorities.

The U.S. has asked British authorities to extradite Assange so he can stand trial on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse linked to WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents.

Assange, 50, has been held at the high-security Belmarsh Prison since 2019, when he was arrested for skipping bail during a separate legal battle. Before that, he spent seven years holed up inside Ecuador’s Embassy in London. Assange sought protection in the embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.

Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed.

American prosecutors say Assange unlawfully helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal classified diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later published, putting lives at risk.  

Lawyers for Assange argue that their client shouldn’t have been charged because he was acting as a journalist and is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees freedom of the press. They say the documents he published exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Президентка Єврокомісії анонсувала пакет допомоги Україні на 1,2 мільярда євро

«Більш того, ми незабаром почнемо другу, довготермінову програму з макрофінансової допомоги на підтримку зусиль України з модернізації»

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