World

Australian aid to Tonga hampered by Covid-19 on navy ship. The military stages Burkina Faso’s eighth coup. Children of foreign nationals being used as human shields in Syrian prison, warns Save the Children.

By Jonathan Pearlman.

Russian troop numbers build on Ukraine’s border

A Ukrainian serviceman from the 25th Air Assault Battalion stationed in Avdiivka, Ukraine, on Monday.
A Ukrainian serviceman from the 25th Air Assault Battalion stationed in Avdiivka, Ukraine, on Monday.
Credit: Wolfgang Schwan / Andalou Agency via Getty Images

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: In north-eastern Ukraine, icy temperatures this week froze part of the territory near the border and made it easier for Vladimir Putin, if he chooses, to invade.

The Russian president has amassed more than 120,000 troops around Ukraine. He says he does not plan to attack but has insisted the West meet a set of contentious demands, including banning Ukraine from joining NATO and withdrawing NATO forces from all former Soviet-bloc states.

On Wednesday, Washington presented a written response to Moscow, saying it had offered to negotiate but would not block countries from joining NATO.

If efforts at diplomacy fail, Putin would almost certainly aim to send his forces into Ukraine before the spring thaw in March, when the melting ice and snow will cause thick, muddy conditions that will make it difficult for Russian tanks and heavy vehicles to move across the border.

The United States president, Joe Biden, warned on Tuesday that a Russian attack would be the “largest invasion since World War II” and would “change the world”.

Biden this week put as many as 8500 US troops on alert for potential deployment to eastern Europe and despatched further military equipment to Ukraine to help it boost its defences. He also threatened massive financial sanctions against Russia, including personal sanctions on Putin and cutting Russia off from the SWIFT global payments system.

But Biden has said the US will not send forces to Ukraine, which is not a NATO member.

Other Western nations are also preparing for war. The US, Britain, Australia and Canada this week began withdrawing the families of embassy staff from Ukraine. The US has been looking for new sources of gas and oil for Europe, which would face mid-winter fuel shortages if a war cuts off Russian supplies.

Putin has long bristled at NATO’s growing reach across eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War and views Ukraine as a historic partner of Russia. In 2014, Putin annexed Crimea and backed pro-Russian separatists in a conflict in eastern Ukraine that has led to the deaths of about 14,000 people.

As diplomatic talks continued this week, Russia announced military exercises that involved sending further troops to areas around Ukraine. Some analysts believe planned drills with Belarus from February 10 could provide cover for Russia to mobilise the equipment and forces required for an invasion.

Nonetheless, the mood within Ukraine has remained calm. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave a televised address this week, saying that “everything is not simple” but urging people not to panic.

Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, told parliament that Russia’s current mobilisation was insufficient for an invasion. “Don’t worry, sleep well,” he said. “No need to have your bags packed.”

The neighbourhood

Tonga: Authorities in Tonga have been trying to deliver urgent medical and food supplies to areas recovering from the recent volcano eruption and tsunami while attempting to keep the country free of Covid-19.

Tonga’s government estimates almost 85 per cent of the country’s 106,000 residents were affected by the twin disasters. Three people died, and at least two villages were flattened.

Thick scatterings of debris and ash have been removed from runways and have begun to drift from the ocean surface, allowing for the arrival of water, food and medical and sanitation supplies as well as the resumption of commercial shipping.

But the government has been cautious about allowing international crews to enter and assist, due to the threat of Covid-19 infections. An Australian vessel, HMAS Adelaide, which was sent to provide humanitarian aid this week, recorded more than 20 Covid-19 cases among its 600-plus crew members. Australia’s Defence minister, Peter Dutton, said the ship could dock and deliver supplies in “a contactless way”.

NASA analysis found that the recent eruption of the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai volcano was equivalent to 4 to 18 megatons of TNT and hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the US in 1945.

Democracy in retreat

Burkina Faso: On Monday, the military in Burkina Faso – Africa’s most coup-stricken nation – interrupted a show on state television about the fish trade to confirm it had seized power and deposed the government.

The takeover followed growing concerns about the government’s failure to prevent attacks by Islamic extremists.

The military did not provide details about the fate of the toppled president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, a 64-year-old veteran politician who was elected in 2015 and again in 2020. His party said he had survived an assassination attempt.

Kaboré has struggled to combat an Islamist insurgency that has caused the deaths of at least 2000 people and displaced 1.5 million of the country’s 21 million residents since 2015.

Last November, militants believed to have links to Daesh and al-Qaeda attacked a security post in the country’s north, killing 49 military police officers and four civilians. In June last year, up to 160 people were killed in a massacre in a north-eastern village.

In recent months, the violence has led to protests and demands for Kaboré to resign. Following the coup, crowds cheered the military on the streets of Ouagadougou, the capital.

The coup is the eighth in Burkina Faso since it gained independence from France in 1960.

Spotlight: Daesh prison takeover

In March 2019, Daesh fighters were pushed out of the final remnants of its “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, but the group survived. For the past three years, as many as 10,000 Daesh militants have been based in mostly poorer, rural pockets of Iraq and Syria and have staged multiple daily attacks against local security forces.

On January 20, the group overran a prison in Hasakah in north-east Syria, freeing hundreds of jailed fighters. Since then, Daesh has besieged the prison, which holds more than 700 boys and teenage detainees. The group reportedly moved its fighters into the dormitories holding the boys, who are being used as human shields to prevent an attack by local Kurdish-led forces.

Save the Children, which has supported the young detainees for the past three years, urged the Kurdish and Daesh fighters to allow the evacuation of the children. But the organisation said foreign governments were to blame for failing to repatriate the children, many of whom were foreign nationals.

“Responsibility for anything that happens to these children also lies at the door of foreign governments who have thought that they can simply abandon their child nationals in Syria,” said Sonia Khush, the Syria response director for Save the Children.

A 17-year-old Australian, who has been in the prison for three years, sent his family audio recordings this week, saying there were dead bodies in front of him and nonstop shooting. The teenager reportedly travelled to the caliphate with his family as an 11-year-old.

“I’m Australian,” he said in the clips, obtained by ABC News. “I’m scared I might die any time … I really need help. I really want to come back home.”

Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said Australia did not have an embassy in Syria and she was seeking advice about the case. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "Russian troop numbers build on Ukraine’s border ".

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

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