Indonesians protest against plan to delay 2024 election. Shehbaz Sharif becomes Pakistan’s leader. Emmanuel Macron holds slim lead heading into presidential runoff election. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Russian forces ready for new offensive in eastern Ukraine

A woman walks down a street of bombed houses in Mariupol, Ukraine.
A woman walks along a destroyed street in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol last week.
Credit: Maximilian Clarke / SOPA Images via Getty Images

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: Russia amassed troops in eastern Ukraine this week ahead of a looming military offensive that is expected to be the bloodiest since the invasion began.

As further reports emerged of horrific Russian war crimes, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed on Tuesday that his goal for the war had narrowed to seizing and consolidating territory in the Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014.

“Our goal is to help the people who live in the Donbas, who feel their unbreakable bond with Russia,” he told reporters during a visit to a spaceport to mark Cosmonauts’ Day.

Russia has pulled back forces from around Kyiv, the capital, but has continued to indiscriminately fire missiles and artillery at areas that it no longer is trying to control.

Ukraine’s government signalled it will strongly resist the Russian push in the Donbas region, saying the coming war will “remind you of the Second World War”.

Accounts of executions, mass rapes and torture continued to emerge this week from areas that were occupied and vacated by Russian forces. The crimes allegedly included a case in the town of Bucha, outside Kyiv, in which 25 women and girls were kept in a basement and repeatedly raped for 25 days.

In the besieged port city of Mariupol, the mayor, Vadym Boychenko, said more than 20,000 civilians had died due to Russian shelling and its refusal to allow humanitarian aid into the city. He claimed Russia had brought mobile crematoria to the city to dispose of the bodies. Some Ukrainian troops said Russia had used chemical weapons but these reports were not confirmed.

Boychenko said more than 100,000 civilians in the city were waiting to be evacuated.

The United States and the International Criminal Court have begun investigating possible war crimes.

US President Joe Biden this week accused Russia of conducting a genocide, saying Putin was “trying to wipe out the idea of even being Ukrainian”.

“We’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies, but it sure seems that way to me,” he told reporters.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responded on Twitter: “Calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil.”

Putin said the reports of atrocities in Bucha were fake and were deliberately concocted by his international opponents.

“What is happening in Ukraine is a tragedy,” he said. “They just didn’t leave us a choice. There was no choice.”

The neighbourhood

Indonesia: Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, has promised to step down – as required – at the end of his second term in 2024 after senior figures in his government began pushing to delay the next election.

In recent months, several ministers and leaders of parties in the ruling coalition have called for Widodo’s term to be extended, saying he should be given more time to lead the recovery from the pandemic and to oversee his ambitious plan to move the capital to the island of Borneo.

But critics, including commentators and student groups, condemned the push to change the election date as a backwards step for democracy. On Monday, university students held demonstrations to denounce the plan as well as to protest rising food prices.

Widodo, who was elected in 2014 and 2019, had been criticised for not directly opposing the calls to extend his term. His office released a statement last weekend saying he had committed to hold an election on February 14, 2024.

“This needs to be explained so that there are no rumours circulating among people that the government is trying to postpone the election,” he said.

Despite Widodo’s strong approval ratings, a recent poll by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting found that more than 70 per cent of Indonesians opposed extending his term.

Democracy in retreat

Pakistan: Imran Khan, the former cricketer who became prime minister in 2018 after transforming himself into a devout anti-poverty populist, has failed in his bid to become the country’s first leader to serve a full term.

The 69-year-old lost a no-confidence vote in parliament after the opposition blamed him for the nation’s flailing economy, including soaring inflation. He also appears to have lost the favour of Pakistan’s army and intelligence services. The military feuded with Khan over the appointment of a new head of intelligence but was also reportedly concerned about his refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Khan has been replaced by the opposition leader, Shehbaz Sharif, who pledged to boost economic ties with China and to lift the minimum wage. Sharif, the brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, is also expected to improve ties with the US and Europe, rejecting Khan’s confrontational approach to the West.

Khan blamed his downfall on a US plot – a claim that helped to rally his supporters but failed to sway his political opponents. On Monday, he demanded immediate elections, claiming he was removed “through a foreign-instigated regime change”. More than 100 MPs from his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party have resigned from parliament.

Sharif, who is 70 years old, must now try to repair the economy while keeping his shaky coalition intact until the next election due in July 2023.

Spotlight: Macron v Le Pen

French President Emmanuel Macron is struggling to hold a slim lead in opinion polls against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen ahead of a runoff election next Sunday.

Le Pen, who lost to Macron in 2017, has gained momentum after campaigning on rising cost-of-living expenses and energy prices rather than on her strident opposition to immigration. Although she continues to push for tough border controls and a ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves, she has softened some of her previous positions.

Known as an open admirer of Vladimir Putin, this week Le Pen said she supported international sanctions against Russia since the invasion of Ukraine but opposed cutting imports of oil and gas because this would impose a heavy burden on the French public. She is no longer pushing for “Frexit” – a French withdrawal from the European Union – but has indicated she may allow a Brexit-style referendum on the issue.

In the first round of voting, Macron, who is 44 years old, won 28 per cent of ballots, compared with 23 per cent for Le Pen, who is 53. This was seen as a decent result for Macron, who has won praise for boosting employment and steering France’s economic recovery during the pandemic. But the race is tightening. In 2017, Macron received 66 per cent of the second-round vote, compared with 34 per cent for Le Pen. As of Tuesday, Macron led Le Pen by 53 per cent to 47 per cent in opinion polls.

Macron, who has been criticised for focusing on the war in Ukraine rather than campaigning, travelled this week to France’s industrial north where Le Pen has strong support. “I see the divisions and anger in the country and I hear the voices of those who have voted for the extremes,” he said.

At the presidential debate in 2017 – labelled the most torrid in French history – Le Pen called Macron a pro-Islamist “smirking banker”, and he warned she was a corrupt hatemonger who could ignite a civil war. The pair will debate on Wednesday. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "Russian forces ready for new offensive in eastern Ukraine".

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