US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Asia-Pacific region to strengthen ties. A state of emergency is declared in Ottawa over ‘Freedom Convoy’. Iceland ends commercial whaling. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Moscow denies Macron’s claim of securing Ukraine pledge

Russian president Vladimir Putin (left) meets French president Emmanuel Macron in Moscow this week.
Russian president Vladimir Putin (left) meets French president Emmanuel Macron in Moscow this week.
Credit: Kremlin Press Office / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: At the end of a gruelling, five-hour meeting with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on Monday, French president Emmanuel Macron emerged to declare he had secured a Russian promise not to escalate tensions over Ukraine. But Moscow quickly rejected suggestions of a breakthrough, insisting only the United States could negotiate a lasting deal.

As leaders across Europe scrambled to seek a diplomatic solution, Macron called for international talks to address Russia’s security concerns but warned that the crisis could take months to resolve. He noted that Putin had approached the efforts at diplomacy with “an element of ingratitude” and was “pretty sure of himself and making his own arguments”.

From Moscow, Macron flew to Kiev to meet Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who expressed doubt about Putin’s willingness to compromise or to withdraw from Crimea or to end Russia’s support for a separatist war in eastern Ukraine in which about 14,000 people have died. “I do not really trust words,” Zelensky said.

Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesperson, denied an agreement had been reached with Macron to de-escalate tensions.

“So far, we don’t see and feel the readiness of our Western counterparts to take our concerns into account,” he said.

Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders, prompting warnings from Washington that an invasion is imminent. Putin has demanded Ukraine be barred from joining NATO and NATO that forces be withdrawn from all countries that were former Soviet states – demands that US President Joe Biden and European leaders have flatly rejected.

From Kiev, Macron flew to Berlin to meet with German chancellor Olaf Scholz and Polish president Andrzej Duda. The trio said they believed averting war could be achieved but that European leaders must act with a “common will”.

Scholz had signalled a more conciliatory approach than other European leaders, possibly due to Germany’s reliance on imports of Russian gas. The gas is due to flow through a new pipeline – Nord Stream 2 – that connects Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine.

After holding talks with Scholz in Washington this week, Biden said the pipeline will not proceed if Russia invades Ukraine. “We will bring an end to it,” he said.

Scholz insisted his position on the Ukraine crisis was identical to Biden’s but was noncommittal about the possibility of halting Nord Stream 2. Asked about the project, Scholz rolled his eyes but repeatedly refused to discuss it. “We are absolutely united,” he said.

The neighbourhood

Fiji: Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, was due to visit Fiji on Saturday to discuss climate change and to bolster America’s ties with Pacific states to counter China’s growing influence.

During his visit, Blinken and Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, were due to hold an online meeting with Pacific leaders to discuss the climate crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, disaster assistance and “ways to further our shared commitment to democracy, regional solidarity and prosperity”.

The visit will be the first by a US secretary of state since George Shultz travelled to Fiji in 1985 amid concerns about Soviet naval activities in the Pacific.

The US has become increasingly concerned about China’s business, development and diplomatic ties across the South Pacific. In 2019, Beijing succeeded in persuading both Kiribati and Solomon Islands to recognise China, rather than Taiwan.

Daniel Russel, a former US diplomat who handled Pacific affairs under Barack Obama, told Reuters this week: “The speed and extent of China’s outreach to the Pacific Islands has served as a wake-up call.”

Pacific leaders have made it clear that their main security priority is addressing climate change and that they do not share the US’s concerns about the threat posed by China. But Biden’s shift to prioritising climate policy has been warmly received by Pacific leaders. Welcoming the US move to rejoin the Paris climate agreement last year, Bainimarama said the White House could “save the planet as we know it”.

Democracy in retreat

Canada: On January 23, a convoy of Canadian truckers set out from Vancouver – horns blaring – and drove more than 4360 kilometres to the capital, Ottawa, to protest against a rule requiring truck drivers arriving from the US to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

The convoy, which received backing from Donald Trump and Elon Musk, began arriving in Ottawa on January 28 and quickly grew into a broader protest movement that attracted a range of conspiracy theorists, anti-government activists, climate change deniers and far-right extremists.

The protesters, describing themselves as a “Freedom Convoy”, have waved Confederate and Nazi flags and overrun parts of the city with trucks, cars and tractors that have driven on footpaths, blared horns and shot fireworks. Police have warned that there have been multiple threats against public figures, including the prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

On Monday, the mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson, who has declared a state of emergency, wrote to Trudeau to request security reinforcements. “People are living in fear and are terrified,” he wrote.

Trudeau this week addressed parliament and demanded an end to the protests. “This is a story of a country that got through this pandemic by being united,” he said. “A few people shouting and waving swastikas does not define who Canadians are.”

The protesters have been receiving support from right-wing figures and conspiracy theorists in other countries, including the US, Australia and Germany.

“Keep on truckin’ for freedom,” wrote Australian Coalition MP George Christensen in a recent post on Facebook.

Spotlight: Iceland ends whaling

Iceland is set to end whaling from 2024, which will leave Japan and Norway as the only countries that conduct commercial whale hunts.

The whaling industry in Iceland has struggled in recent years due to falling demand for its whale meat, especially since Japan resumed commercial whaling in 2019. The extension of no-fishing zones off Iceland’s coast has forced boats to hunt further offshore, making whaling more expensive. And consumer demand for whale meat in Iceland, Japan and elsewhere has plunged in recent decades.

Svandis Svavarsdóttir, Iceland’s fisheries minister, said there were “few justifications” to allow whale hunts beyond 2024. “There is little proof that there is any economic advantage to this activity,” she wrote in Morgunblaðið newspaper.

Iceland’s government has set yearly hunting quotas for 2019 to 2023 of 209 fin whales and 217 minke whales. But the country’s two main licence holders have suspended their hunts for the past three years due to declining profitability and Covid-19 restrictions, which led to shutdowns of meat-processing plants.

The last full hunting season was in 2018, when 146 fin whales and six minke whales were killed.

Iceland, Norway and Japan have effectively rejected a global moratorium on commercial whaling that was adopted in 1986.

Conservationists have argued that whale-watching in these countries is potentially far more lucrative than commercial hunting. In 2019, before the pandemic started, more than 360,000 tourists went whale-watching off the coast of Iceland. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 12, 2022 as "Moscow denies Macron claim of securing Ukraine pledge".

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