World

Australia and New Zealand concerned at China’s deal with Solomon Islands. The Taliban renege on education for women. Shanghai introduces split lockdown over rising Covid-19 cases. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Russia ‘scaling back’ yet shelling of Ukraine continues

Locals in the demolished town centre of Trostyanets after Ukrainian forces expelled Russian troops this week.
Locals in the demolished town centre of Trostyanets after Ukrainian forces expelled Russian troops this week.
Credit: Reuters / Thomas Peter

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: Russia declared it was scaling back its invasion of Ukraine this week and reducing attacks in the country’s north, marking an apparent recognition that its effort to seize the capital and oust the government has failed.

As peace talks showed the first signs of progress, Russian deputy defence minister Alexander Fomin said Russia would “drastically” reduce its military activity around Kyiv to “increase mutual trust”. The Kremlin also reportedly dropped its call for Ukraine to be “de-Nazified” and “demilitarised” – demands that Russian President Vladimir Putin made at the start of the invasion.

Ukraine, too, signalled that progress had been made, saying it was ready to become neutral and to abandon its plans to join NATO. It also reportedly said it was willing to hold talks over the next 15 years to discuss the future of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and of territory in eastern Ukraine claimed by Russian-backed separatists.

But United States and other Western officials were sceptical of Russia’s pledge to limit its advance. The Pentagon press secretary, John F. Kirby, said Russia was conducting “a repositioning, not a real withdrawal”. “They wanted Kyiv, and they didn’t get it,” he said.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said negotiations with Russia had been positive, but added: “These signals do not silence the explosion of Russian shells.”

In an address to the Australian Parliament on Thursday, Mr Zelensky explained: “Whatever is happening in our region because of the Russian aggression has been a real threat to your country and your people as well, because this is the nature of the evil. It can instantly cross any distance, any barriers and destroy lives.”

Russia’s military on Tuesday confirmed it had begun a new phase of the war, saying it would focus on eastern Ukraine, where it has been trying to expand the territory in the Donbas region that was already held by separatists.

“The combat potential of the Ukrainian armed forces has been significantly reduced, which makes it possible to focus … on achieving the main goal – the liberation of Donbas,” said Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister.

Despite Russia’s scaled-back plans, the devastation of Ukraine – the sieges, shelling, and mass exodus – continues. In Mariupol, authorities this week called for the evacuation of the remaining 160,000 residents as satellite images showed entire city blocks had been obliterated.

In a video released by Reuters a resident returning to her ruined apartment cries as she asks, “What now?” “I don’t want to leave Mariupol. But there’s nowhere to live here.” 

The neighbourhood

Solomon Islands: Manasseh Sogavare, the prime minister of Solomon Islands, this week dismissed Australian and New Zealand concerns about a proposed security deal with China, saying the country had no plans to pick sides in a “geopolitical power struggle”. 

According to a leaked draft, the deal would allow Chinese forces to be deployed to Solomon Islands to preserve order and could potentially allow China to set up a military base.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressed concern about the deal, saying it could militarise the Pacific.

“We see very little reason in terms of Pacific security for such a need and such a presence,” Ardern told Radio New Zealand.

Morrison painted the deal as a threat but insisted it had not come as a surprise.

Sogavare said on Tuesday that the deal would go ahead, dismissing claims that it would lead to a Chinese base as “misinformation”. “We find it very insulting, Mr Speaker, to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs,” he said. “There is no devious intention, nor secret plan.”

In 2019, Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. The move exacerbated tensions between the national government and Malaita, a province that supports Taiwan. Last November, these tensions led to deadly riots and protests in Honiara, the capital, including attacks on parliament and Chinatown. In response, Australia deployed peacekeeping forces. China later sent a team of police officers to provide anti-riot training.

Australia, the largest aid donor to Solomon Islands and its main security partner, has long been concerned about the prospect of a Chinese naval base in the Pacific.

Sogavare said Solomon Islands needed to “diversify” its security partners and was not pressured into the deal by China, which he referred to as “our new friends”.

Democracy in retreat

Afghanistan: A day after seizing control of Afghanistan last year, the Taliban promised that – unlike during its rule from 1996 to 2001 – it would allow girls to attend school.

“[Women] can get education from primary to higher education – that means university,” said Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesperson.

The Taliban has allowed girls to attend primary schools and was finally due to allow girls aged 12 and older to attend high schools from last Wednesday. But, hours after the first school day started, the Taliban closed all high schools for girls and ordered the students to go home. The government claimed it wanted to ensure the schools complied with Islamic law.

At a protest against the decision, a student in Kabul named Nawesa told reporters: “Even the Prophet said everyone has the right to education, but the Taliban have snatched this right from us.”

It also emerged this week that the Taliban had issued a separate order to airlines in Afghanistan to bar women from travelling unless accompanied by a male relative. In December, the Taliban barred women from travelling alone on road trips that are longer than 72 kilometres.

Spotlight: Shanghai’s split lockdown

On Monday, Shanghai, with a population of 26 million residents, began a two-stage lockdown, which started in the city’s east for four days and then switched to the west for a further four days.

The lockdown was the biggest in China since the start of the pandemic. In Shanghai’s financial district, banks and trading firms brought sleeping bags and food into office towers to try to ensure that the country’s most important financial hub did not shut down.

Shanghai recorded 5987 new cases of the Omicron strain on Wednesday, including 329 people who were symptomatic.

China has been determined to achieve zero Covid-19 cases amid concerns that a nationwide outbreak could cause a collapse of the health system and mass deaths. More than 130 million Chinese aged 60 and over are either unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated. In Hong Kong, a serious outbreak in recent weeks has led to thousands of deaths.

Chinese President Xi Xinping recently signalled a potential shift in his zero-Covid policy, saying that authorities should minimise disruptions to the economy and “pay the lowest price”. The split lockdown in Shanghai was imposed after a local Covid-19 taskforce member said a complete shutdown would cause serious financial damage and lead to “a lot of international cargo floating on the East China Sea”.

But the lockdown is still expected to affect manufacturing in the city, which has China’s largest port, and to disrupt global supply chains. And the lockdown and mass testing may not succeed in suppressing the outbreak, which could lead to further economic upheaval and a dire public health crisis in the world’s most populous country.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "Russia ‘scaling back’ yet shelling of Ukraine continues".

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

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