Jacinda Ardern urges anti-vaxxers to quit parliament protest. France to withdraw troops from Mali due to military junta’s continuing control. Ethiopia’s great dam project pushes ahead despite Sudan and Egypt concerns. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Russia invades Ukraine as West applies sanctions

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a televised address on Thursday on Russian state TV in Moscow.

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: Shortly after 5am on Thursday, local time, Russia invaded Ukraine, launching the largest military offensive in Europe since World War II.

After amassing an estimated 190,000 troops around Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation”. As explosions were heard around the country, including in the capital, Kiev, Putin said in a televised address that his aim was the “demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine”.

“To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside: if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history,” he said. “All relevant decisions have been taken. I hope you hear me.”

As residents across Ukraine fled cities or rushed to bomb shelters, officials described Russia’s assault as a “full-scale invasion” that included missile strikes and deployments of troops around the country.

The United States president, Joe Biden, condemned the attack as “unprovoked and unjustified”. He had previously stated that he believed Putin would invade but that the US would not militarily defend Ukraine and would instead respond through “severe” sanctions.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law on Thursday, promising that the military would defend the country.

“I will be with you all the time,” he said. “Stay strong. We will win because we are Ukraine.”

Russian forces captured the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the north overnight on Thursday, reportedly taking staff at the disused power plant hostage.

Thousands of people defied police threats and protested against the invasion in cities across Russia, including Moscow and St Petersburg, with chants of "No to war!" More than 1700 arrests were made by Friday morning, according to monitors.

Early on Friday Zelensky said Ukraine had been "left alone" to defend against Russia. "Who is ready to fight alongside us? I don’t see anyone. Who is ready to give Ukraine a guarantee of NATO membership? Everyone is afraid," he said in a video address. 

In the lead-up to the invasion, Putin demanded Ukraine be barred from joining NATO and that NATO forces be withdrawn from former Soviet-bloc states in eastern Europe – demands that were rejected by the US and NATO.

On Monday, Putin announced that Russia was recognising two separatist-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine – Donetsk and Luhansk – as independent states. Russian-backed separatists have seized territory in the two regions during fighting since 2014 that has killed an estimated 14,000 people, but Putin was expected to try to expand the size of the so-called “republics”.

The US, the European Union and Britain imposed new rounds of sanctions this week. Other countries, including Japan, Canada and Australia, followed. Germany announced that it would halt the Nord Stream 2, a controversial pipeline that would allow gas to flow directly from Russia, bypassing Ukraine.

In a rambling, prerecorded hour-long speech on Monday, Putin attempted to justify his decision to recognise the republics and his broader grievances towards Ukraine, which he described as an “inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space”. He said Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO could lead to the US using Ukraine as a base for launching pre-emptive strikes against Russia.

“Ukraine is a US colony with a puppet regime,” he said.

The neighbourhood

New Zealand: On Tuesday, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, denounced anti-vaccine protesters who have occupied parliament’s grounds for more than two weeks, saying the demonstrators were “going too far … and need to leave”.

The protests, which were inspired by Canada’s horn-blaring trucker demonstrations, led to violent scenes outside parliament this week as a protester drove a car towards a group of police officers and others sprayed police with a “stinging substance”.

The occupation began as a show of opposition against the country’s strict border controls and vaccine mandates for teachers, doctors, nurses and other workers, but has broadened into an anti-government protest that has attracted conspiracy theorists, anti-Semites and far-right extremists.

“There are a group that are increasingly acting out in a violent way towards police officers who are only doing their job,” said Ardern. “What is happening in Wellington is not New Zealand.”

Ardern said this week the government will end mandates and vaccine passes after the country moves beyond the peak of the current outbreak of the Omicron strain. The peak is expected within the next three to six weeks. On Thursday, New Zealand recorded 6137 new cases.

Democracy in retreat

Mali: On Monday, Mali’s parliament voted to allow the nation’s military rulers to remain in power for up to five years, even though the regime had previously promised to hold elections by the end of February.

The military’s failure to hold elections has damaged ties with France, the former colonial power. French President Emmanuel Macron announced last week that France would withdraw its troops from Mali due to a breakdown in relations with the junta. France has almost 5000 troops in Mali and surrounding countries, where they have been fighting Islamist militants since 2013.

But the French deployment, which has been unable to quell the insurgency, has proved increasingly unpopular in Mali.

Hours after France announced its withdrawal, the Malian army attacked a base where rival militant groups had been operating. Eight soldiers and 57 militants were killed.

Mali’s military, led by Colonel Assimi Goïta, overthrew the elected president in 2020 and staged a second coup last year in which the interim civilian leaders were deposed. Goïta had promised to restore democracy and hold elections this year. The parliament’s bill this week set no date for a future election.

Spotlight: Ethiopia’s great dam

In 2011, Ethiopia began building one of the world’s largest dams as part of a massive hydroelectricity project on the main tributary of the Nile.

The $US4.2 billion dam, called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, could generate power for millions of homes. But the project has infuriated Sudan and Egypt, which are downstream and are worried about the impact on their water supplies. Egypt, in particular, has raised concerns, claiming that the dam could cause a war and demanding Ethiopia agree to a deal over the filling and operation of the enormous reservoir, which is about the size of London.

But the Ethiopians are pressing ahead.

Last week, the country’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, attended a ceremony to launch power production at the dam, initiating generation of 375 megawatts of electricity from one of its 13 turbines. He said the project would not affect the Nile’s water flows and denied rumours that “the Ethiopian people and government are damming the water to starve Egypt and Sudan”.

“Ethiopia’s main interest is to bring light to 60 per cent of the population who is suffering in darkness, to save the labour of our mothers who are carrying wood on their backs in order to get energy,” he said.

But Egypt accused Ethiopia of breaching a deal signed in Sudan in 2015 in which the three countries agreed not to act unilaterally.

Ethiopia, which has 111 million residents, expects the dam to double its electricity supply. It has already filled the dam twice.

Sudan hopes the dam may help to control flooding in the region but wants to ensure the project does not exacerbate droughts. Egypt, which depends on the Nile for about 97 per cent of its drinking and irrigation water, has demanded that Ethiopia commit to ensure guaranteed water flows.

The dam has taken on symbolic status in Ethiopia, which remains one of the world’s poorest countries. About 52 per cent of its population does not have access to electricity. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 26, 2022 as "Russia invades Ukraine as West applies sanctions".

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

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