Concerns over deep-sea mining. Deadly clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Cheetahs return to India. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Ukraine regains territory as Russia holds referendums

Damaged Russian tanks on a road near Izium, Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine, following the withdrawal of Russian forces.
Damaged Russian tanks on a road near Izium, Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine, following the withdrawal of Russian forces.
Credit: Metin Aktas / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: Four Russian-held regions in Ukraine declared on Tuesday that they would hold referendums on joining Russia – a move that would allow the Kremlin to view attacks on the area as direct attacks on Russia.

Russian-backed officials in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk plan to complete their referendums by Tuesday, September 27. These two regions have been occupied since 2014 by Russian-backed separatists, who previously oversaw referendums that allegedly showed overwhelming support for becoming independent from Ukraine. The votes were widely seen as a sham.

Two other southern areas, in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, which were seized this year, are also due to hold votes this week.

The move follows a recent Ukrainian counteroffensive that regained vast swaths of Russian-held territory and raised questions about the morale and capability of Russian forces.

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilisation” that will involve conscription of about 300,000 reservists. He accused the West of “nuclear blackmail” and signalled that he was willing to use nuclear weapons. “This is not a bluff,” he said in a televised address. Russia’s Duma separately introduced increased penalties for desertion and evading conscription. Putin’s address prompted a rush to buy one-way flights out of Russia and sparked protests across the country that led to the arrests of more than 1200 people.

Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s security council, said on Telegram the four referendums had “huge significance” and meant that Russia would be able to “use all the forces of self-defence”.

NATO described the move as a “further escalation in Putin’s war”.

At the United Nations General Assembly this week, a range of world leaders condemned Russia’s invasion and the proposed referendums. France’s President Emmanuel Macron told the assembly: “There are Russian troops in Ukraine and, as far as I know, there are no Ukrainian troops in Russia.” 

The neighbourhood

Nauru: A plan to trial deep-sea mining in the Pacific has been approved despite concerns that the process, which involves using robots to collect rocks from the ocean floor, could cause irreversible environmental damage.

The trial, which has split Pacific nations, is being conducted by a Canadian firm, The Metals Company, and will reportedly involve scooping up about 3600 tonnes of material in waters between Hawaii and Mexico.

The exploration is being supported by Nauru, which has notified the International Seabed Authority, a United Nations-affiliated agency, that it wants the authority to finalise regulations that would allow deep-sea mining.

But other Pacific nations, including Fiji and Papua New Guinea, have opposed deep-sea mining because of concerns about the potential harm to marine ecosystems. A petition signed by more than 650 marine scientists and experts from around the world has called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until there is enough information about the risks.

The mining could potentially collect rocks that contain nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese, which are used in technology such as electric batteries.

Gerard Barron, the chief executive of The Metals Company, told ABC News last week that the evidence from its explorations was that “we can collect these rocks … at a fraction of the environmental and societal impacts compared to land-based alternatives”.

Asked if his firm had attempted to influence the Nauruan government, he said: “If you’ve ever met anyone from Nauru, you will know that no one pulls their strings as a nation.”

Democracy in retreat

Kyrgyzstan: At least 100 people have been killed in clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, marking the second outbreak of violence in recent weeks between former Soviet states.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which are both Russian allies, have engaged in skirmishes over their poorly demarcated border for decades, but the latest conflict was one of the worst.

Both sides accused the other of using tanks, artillery and assault drones. Hundreds were reported injured, and Kyrgyzstan said about 136,000 residents were evacuated from villages near the border.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin spoke to the leaders of both nations last weekend and urged them to “resolve the situation as soon as possible”. By Monday, tensions appeared to have eased.

The clash followed separate fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which belongs to Azerbaijan but whose population is mostly Armenian. The violence, which left 286 people dead, was the worst between the two neighbours since they fought a 44-day war in 2020.

Azerbaijan, which is backed by Turkey, has been accused of starting the attacks in the hope that Armenia, whose ally is Russia, would receive little help from Moscow due to the war in Ukraine.

Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the United States house of representatives, visited Armenia last weekend and condemned Azerbaijan for initiating the fighting. “We are amidst a battle between democracy and autocracy,” she said. Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said Pelosi’s comments were “unsubstantiated and unfair”.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, this week hosted a meeting between the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia, who were in New York to attend United Nations events.

Azeri foreign minister Jeyhun Bayramov told reporters: “We are always open for meetings.”

Spotlight: Cheetahs return to India

In 1947, the Maharaja of Surguja, in central India, was driving at night when he saw three cheetahs. A prodigious hunter, the Maharaja stopped his car, kept the cheetahs in the glare of his headlights, and shot them. These were the last known cheetahs of India, which were officially declared extinct in 1952.

But Indian authorities are now trying to reintroduce the species. Eight cheetahs arrived from Namibia last week and were placed in a compound in a national park, where they will spend a month in quarantine before being released. Another 42 are to be relocated from Africa during the next five years.

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, oversaw the return of the cheetahs last weekend to celebrate his 72nd birthday.

“A long wait is over,” he said on Twitter.The demise of India’s cheetahs was largely due to hunting and habitat loss. Authorities had proposed schemes to bring them back for decades.

But some conservationists have criticised the latest project, warning that the cheetahs could be attacked by leopards or by people. There are also concerns that the African cheetah may not be suited to conditions in India.

Prerna Singh Bindra, a conservationist, told IndiaSpend: “India has lost about 90 to 95 per cent of its grasslands … so where will the cheetah roam, if it were ever returned to the wild?”

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are 6517 remaining mature cheetahs. All are in Africa, except for 50 Asiatic cheetahs in Iran.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2022 as "Ukraine regains territory as Russia holds referendums".

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