Pregnant New Zealand journalist allowed emergency quarantine. Myanmar stages ‘silent strike’ to mark coup anniversary. Gray report on Downing Street parties identifies leadership and judgement failures. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Kremlin accuses US of inciting Ukraine ‘hysteria’

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a press conference in Moscow this week.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at a press conference in Moscow this week.
Credit: Yuri Kotchetkov / Reuters

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: Vladimir Putin accused the United States of trying to “contain” Russia this week as a fiery meeting of the United Nations Security Council failed to defuse tensions over a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In his first public comments this year about the crisis, the Russian president rejected Washington’s response to his demands that Ukraine be barred from joining NATO and that NATO troops and equipment be withdrawn from all former Soviet-bloc states.

“It is already clear that fundamental Russian concerns ended up being ignored,” Putin told reporters at the Kremlin. “It seems to me that the United States is not so much concerned about the security of Ukraine … The main task is to contain Russia’s development.”

The US and NATO have delivered private written responses to Russia’s demands and are awaiting a written reply from Moscow.

Russia has amassed more than 120,000 troops around Ukraine, prompting warnings from US President Joe Biden that Putin plans to invade. The US and European countries have been planning fresh sanctions and have been bolstering Ukraine’s defences.

On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, and warned that an invasion would be a disaster for Russia and the world.

Standing alongside Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, Johnson denied he was “trying to big this up” or exaggerate the threat facing Ukraine. “We see preparations for all kinds of operations that are consistent with an imminent military campaign,” he said.

In 2014, Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine and has backed a separatist war in eastern Ukraine in which more than 13,000 people have died.

At the UN this week, Russia’s ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, refused to confirm that it had amassed troops on Ukraine’s borders and accused the US of “whipping up hysteria”.

However, Moscow and Washington both signalled they were committed to further dialogue. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, said: “We do not want confrontation. But we will be decisive and swift … should Russia further invade Ukraine.”

The neighbourhood

New Zealand: Charlotte Bellis, a New Zealand journalist, initially caught the world’s attention after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan last year, when she attended the new regime’s first press conference and asked whether it would protect the rights of women.

This week, Bellis again made international headlines after she revealed she had been forced to take refuge in Afghanistan after New Zealand refused to let her enter due to its Covid-19 border closures. She also revealed she is six months pregnant.

“When the Taliban offers you – a pregnant, unmarried woman – safe haven, you know your situation is messed up,” she wrote in a column for The New Zealand Herald.

Bellis had been working in Qatar when she and her partner unexpectedly discovered they were having a child. They decided to leave Qatar, where it is illegal to be unmarried and pregnant, but were unable to secure a quarantine place in New Zealand, where quarantine facilities have struggled to cope since the Omicron outbreak. The country has created a lottery system to provide places, which has left thousands stranded abroad.

Following a public outcry, New Zealand said on Tuesday that Bellis and her partner would be allowed to enter as part of its provision of emergency quarantine places. The deputy prime minister, Grant Robertson, said the decision was not prompted by the media attention.

Bellis said she will continue to fight for others affected by the strict border controls, including other pregnant women. The country’s High Court is due to hear a legal challenge against the rules later this month.

In her column, Bellis said she had been told by doctors that she could not have children but she became pregnant a week after the Taliban press conference.

Democracy in retreat

Myanmar: The streets of Myanmar were deserted on Tuesday as people stayed indoors to observe a “silent strike” to mark the anniversary of a military coup that has left the country facing civil war.

Despite the regime’s threats to arrest and jail anyone who closed businesses or took part in the strike, images on social media showed streets and markets in cities such as Yangon, Mandalay and Magway were eerily quiet. Some shopkeepers left their stores open but unattended.

In the year since the military ousted the elected National League for Democracy party and jailed its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other MPs and officials, the country has descended into chaos. A popular opposition movement has held protests and mass strikes despite a violent crackdown by the military. Armed groups have also attacked the military. Estimates indicate some 12,000 people have died and a further 12,000 have been arrested.

Unemployment and poverty have risen to catastrophic levels, and power outages are common.

The US, the European Union, Britain and several other countries have imposed targeted sanctions on Myanmar’s military leaders and senior officials. But Australia has refused to join in, preferring to follow the more quietist approach of South-East Asian nations.

Spotlight: Boris’s lockdown parties

Britain: On Monday, Sue Gray, a senior British civil servant, released a snippet of the findings from her long-awaited investigation into parties held in Downing Street during Britain’s Covid-19 lockdowns. Gray did not release her full report because police are currently investigating eight of the events. Still, her 12-page “update” was damning.

It revealed that, at a tragic time for Britain, when people were barred from attending funerals or visiting dying relatives, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, and other government figures held regular alcohol-fuelled “gatherings” at Downing Street and Whitehall. The social events allegedly included “bring your own booze” office parties, birthday celebrations and “wine time Fridays”.

Gray lamented that she could only reveal “extremely limited” details about the gatherings but noted that there had been “failures of leadership and judgment”.

“When the government was asking citizens to accept far-reaching restrictions on their lives, some of the behaviour surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify,” her report said.

Police said they had collected more than 300 photos and 500 documents during their investigation into the events, which included a party held in Johnson’s apartment.

Several members of the ruling Conservative party declared they had lost confidence in their leader. A Conservative MP, Aaron Bell, described attending his grandmother’s funeral in May 2020 at which only 10 people could attend and he was barred from hugging his parents or siblings. “Does the prime minister think I’m a fool?” he said.

In response to Gray’s update, Johnson apologised, saying he accepted the findings and understood the public anger. But he refused to resign.

“I want to say sorry,” he told parliament. “I get it and I will fix it.”

But Johnson’s future remains uncertain. Gray’s full report, which will be released after the police investigation is complete, could reveal that he misled parliament, or broke the law, or both.

“I will secure storage and safekeeping of all the information gathered until such time as it may be required further,” she wrote. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 5, 2022 as "Kremlin accuses US of inciting Ukraine ‘hysteria’".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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