Great power rivalry
Ukraine: The United States this week led a 40-nation push to send massive military support to Ukraine and signalled that the aim was not merely to resist the invasion but to “weaken” Russia – a move that prompted the Kremlin to warn the conflict could lead to nuclear war.
Following a meeting of defence ministers in Germany, countries around the world pledged to send additional munitions to Ukraine. Germany, which had previously been reluctant to supply heavy weapons, said it would send 50 anti-aircraft systems. Others to make pledges included Lithuania, Canada and Australia, which said it will send six howitzers and ammunition to oppose “Russia’s brutal, unrelenting and illegal invasion”.
US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said the 40 countries were aiming to strengthen Ukraine for “the long haul”. In an apparent widening of Washington’s goals, he said Russia should not be allowed to quickly reproduce the forces and equipment it lost in Ukraine. “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” he told reporters in Poland.
Asked about Austin’s comment, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said: “I think the secretary said it very well.”
But Russia stepped up its threat to countries that have been supporting Ukraine, including moving to cut gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria.
Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, told state television NATO was effectively at war with Russia and that the risk of a nuclear war was “considerable”. “NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy,” he said. “The danger [of nuclear war] is serious, real. And we must not underestimate it.”
Russia continued to build up forces as part of its offensive in eastern Ukraine. In the besieged southern city of Mariupol, Russia was accused of shelling a humanitarian corridor set up to allow civilians to leave a steel plant where up to 2000 Ukrainian troops and some civilians have been holding out.
Russian President Vladimir Putin this week met with the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, and agreed “in principle” to allow the UN and the Red Cross to assist with evacuating citizens from the plant. Mariupol’s city council said that at least three mass graves have been identified in Russian-controlled areas around the city.
Before the invasion on February 24, Ukraine had 44 million residents. According to the UN, five million residents have since fled abroad, 7.7 million are internally displaced, and 13 million are stranded in conflict zones.
Indonesia: Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, banned palm oil exports this week to protect domestic supplies but the move could exacerbate a global shortage of cooking oils and cause further food price inflation.
Shortages of food staples in Indonesia in recent months have led to nationwide protests. Widodo said banning palm oil exports would ensure local supplies remained accessible and affordable for local consumers.
Indonesia accounts for almost 60 per cent of the global supply of palm oil, the world’s most consumed edible oil.
Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Indonesia’s finance minister, acknowledged that the ban could cause shortages in countries that are big consumers of Indonesian palm oil, such as India and China. “We know that this is not going to be the best result,” she told Reuters.
Global vegetable oil prices have been soaring due to droughts in South America, supply chain problems caused by the pandemic, and the invasion of Ukraine, which is a major supplier of sunflower oil.
Democracy in retreat
France: Emmanuel Macron’s decisive victory against Marine Le Pen in the French presidential runoff election last weekend has been seen in Europe as part of a much-needed pushback against the forces of ultranationalist illiberalism.
Macron, a 44-year-old centrist, won 58.5 per cent of the vote, becoming the first president to win a second term since 2002. Le Pen, a far-right populist who softened some of her more extreme anti-migrant and anti-European Union rhetoric during the campaign and focused on cost-of-living concerns, won 41.5 per cent of the vote, up from 34 per cent in 2017. But her consecutive losses raised speculation that the dominance of far-right politics in France by her and her Holocaust-denying father may be ending.
Pascal Perrineau, a political scientist, told the Financial Times: “If the far right are to take power, they will need a new person to embody the movement. But for now it’s still hard to see who that person will be.”
On the same day as the French election, Slovenia’s prime minister, Janez Janša, an ardent nationalist and admirer of Donald Trump, was soundly defeated in parliamentary elections by a new centrist party.
The results in France and Slovenia were viewed as a significant defeat for anti-EU, anti-migrant populism in Europe. The elections follow the landslide win in early April for Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, a self-declared illiberal democrat and strong backer of Le Pen and Janša, who expressed hope that right-wing Christian “patriotic politics” will come to power across Europe. Orbán’s ties with fellow right-wing leaders such as Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński have frayed over Orbán’s continued close ties to Vladimir Putin since the invasion of Ukraine.
Following the revelations of atrocities by Russian troops in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, Kaczyński told Poland’s Radio Plus: “When Orbán says that he cannot see what happened in Bucha, he must be advised to see an eye doctor.”
Spotlight: Elon Musk buys Twitter
Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, is a notoriously prolific Twitter user whose 17,500 tweets have earnt him corporate fines, defamation and shareholder lawsuits, and once led to $US14 billion being wiped off the value of Tesla after he tweeted that its stock price was “too high imo”.
He has about 87 million followers, making him the seventh-most followed person (excluding Donald Trump, whose account has been deactivated). Like Trump, he is obsessed with the platform; unlike Trump, he can afford to buy it.
The firm’s board announced this week that it had agreed to a takeover offer from Musk, which valued the platform at $US44 billion. His offer of $US54.20 a share was widely seen as a reference to cannabis and recalled his proposal in 2018 to take his firm Tesla private at $US420 a share (“four-twenty” refers to smoking marijuana).
In a statement this week, Musk said he wanted to promote free speech and make the platform’s algorithms open source, and was interested in “defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans”.
Musk’s comments about free speech raised speculation that he may reactivate Trump’s account, which was removed last year over concerns about incitement of violence. Trump told Fox News on Monday that he would not return to Twitter if his ban is lifted and will instead support his new platform, Truth Social.
Musk’s purchase comes as social media platforms face growing scrutiny over whether they are doing enough to counter the spread of misinformation. The EU resolved last week to impose huge fines on firms that fail to properly monitor dissemination of content that could disrupt elections or promote gender-based violence.
Musk’s Twitter deal earnt him a new round of followers this week and helped him to overtake Lady Gaga, who has 84.5 million followers.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "Macron’s win seen as defeat for anti-migrant populism".
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