Tag Archives: russia

EU wants to reduce Russian energy dependency. Here’s how they plan to do it

Few places are as exposed as the European Union (EU) to Russia’s oil and gas in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. The EU gets about 40% of its gas from Russia at a cost of over $110 million a day. Moving with a surprising speed, the EU has now introduced a strategy to cut its reliance on this fuel source by two-thirds within a year — and this could mean a lot both economically and environmentally.

Image credit: PxHere.

The REPowerEU plan hopes to make Europe independent of Russian fossil fuels by 2030, placing initial efforts just on gas. The roadmap proposes to find alternative supplies of gas in the next few months, as well as increasing energy efficiency and doubling down on renewable energy sources in the medium to longer term.

“We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us. We need to act now to mitigate the impact of rising energy prices, diversify our gas supply for next winter and accelerate the clean energy transition,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement. “We’ll work swiftly to implement these ideas.”

The road ahead

The new proposal will make it a legal requirement for EU countries to make sure they have a minimum level of gas storage. The objective is to have gas stocks at 90% capacity by Autumn, up from about 30% now. Discussions are already taking place with existing gas suppliers such as Norway and Algeria to increase flows and compensate for the crackdown on Russian gas. Environmentally, this won’t make a substantial difference as just the source of the gas will end.

The Commission pictures ending reliance on all fossil fuels from Russia “well before” 2030. In the short term, gas would be imported from the US and Africa and some countries might have to increase the use of coal in the months ahead. While this will mean higher carbon emissions, the longer-term goal is a shift to renewable energy — which will make a difference environmentally.

Another area of focus for the EU in the coming months will be higher imports of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from suppliers including the US, Qatar, and Australia. Germany has already announced plans for two new LNG terminals to increase supplies, which has raised concerns among experts over a longer dependency on fossil fuels.

Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans asked to “dash into renewable energy at a lightning speed,” as they are cheaper, cleaner, and a potentially endless source of energy. The Russian invasion shows the urgency of accelerating Europe’s energy transition to cleaner energy sources, Timmerman said.

As well as finding new gas supplies, the Commission argued the reliance on Russia will be eased because of new renewable energy projects that will soon come online. Countries should consider using the revenues they raised from the Emissions Trading Scheme, the world’s largest carbon market, to pay for further green energy sources, the Commission said. Solar energy will be a particular point of focus, with a 4-stage plan aimed at delivering 1TW by 2030:

  1. Multiply rooftop PV development through mandatory solar on new buildings, bans on fossil-fuel boilers, and significant investment.  
  2. Facilitate utility-scale development by freezing grid connection fees, and mandating member states to identify suitable solar PV sites, aiming to fast-track developments. 
  3. Pave the way for smart solar and hybrid projects using dedicated funding.  
  4. Accelerate the deployment of EU solar PV manufacturing capacity with€ 1bn. 

 The proposal says renewable energy projects have to be fast-tracked, with a large potential in domestic rooftop solar power. Up to a quarter of the EU’s electricity consumption could be obtained from panels on buildings and farms, the Commission said – also calling for a large increase in the use of biogas, made from agricultural and food waste.

EU leaders will meet in Versailles, France, later this week to discuss the plan, which won’t be cheap and might lead to some dissenting voices. Meanwhile, campaigners are asking governments to ensure the poorest are protected. Europe is already facing an energy poverty crisis and no one should have to choose between heating and heating, the NGO Global Witness said in a statement.

Russian forces seize control of Europe’s largest nuclear plant

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeast Ukraine was seized by Russian forces amid heavy fighting that caused a huge blaze in a building at the site. Authorities said the fire was extinguished and that the plant was working normally, with no further fighting in the area and Russia still holding control of the plant.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

An official at Energoatom, Ukraine’s state company that runs the country’s nuclear plants, told Reuters that the plant was working normally, with personnel on their working stations. However, he added Energoatom lost contact with the plant’s managers and control over the radiation situation after the Russian take-over.

Russia’s Defense Minister also said the nuclear plant was working normally, saying a “monstrous attack” by Ukrainian saboteurs caused the fire. Even with the possibility of a nuclear disaster seemingly averted, Russia’s control on a plant that provides over a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity was a big development after nine days of the invasion.

The attack on the plant came as Russia continued its attack on the city of Zaporizhzhia and gained ground in their objective to cut off Ukraine from the sea. Leader nuclear authorities were concerned about potential damage to the nuclear station, triggering calls between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and US President Joe Biden.

“Europeans, please wake up. Tell your politicians – Russian troops are shooting at a nuclear power plant in Ukraine,” Zelensky said in a video address. Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Russia to immediately quit their attack, as the “reckless actions” of President Putin could threaten the safety of all of Europe.

The military administration of Zaporizhzhia said measurements taken on Friday morning showed radiation levels in the region “remain unchanged and don’t endanger the lives and health of the population.” The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the American Nuclear Society agreed, saying the fire didn’t affect essential equipment and the situation is stable.

The head of IAEA, Rafael Grossi, said the Russian attacks compromised the security of the plant and that the world was lucky no radiation was released. He said the situation was fragile and unstable and that he was in constant communication with Ukrainian authorities, leaving the door open to travel soon to Ukraine to follow the latest developments.

A massive nuclear plant

Built between 1984 and 1995, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is the largest one in Europe and the ninth-largest in the world. It has six reactors with a total output of 5,700MW, which is enough to power roughly four million homes. In normal times, Zaporizhzhia produces half the energy generated by Ukraine’s nuclear power plants.

The plant is on the banks of the Kakhovka Reservoir on the Dnieper River, about 550 kilometers southeast of Kyiv. The first report of a fire came from an employee at the plant, who posted on Telegram that there was “a real threat of nuclear danger.” Ukraine’s Foreign minister confirmed this, saying the fire had broken out in the plant.

A short time later, the Ukrainian emergency services said radiation levels were “within normal limits” and that the fire happened in a building outside the power plant. Early reports of the incident affected financial markets in Asia, with oil prices surging further. Ukrainian authorities finally said, “nuclear safety is now guaranteed.”

Thousands are believed to have been killed or wounded and over one million refugees have fled Ukraine since February 24th, when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the attack. Russian forces moving have sieged Ukrainian cities and attacked them with artillery and airstrikes. The invasion is still unfolding and the situation in Ukraine is critical.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has Kremlin battling for hearts and minds at home

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is locked in a vicious struggle not only to subjugate Ukraine, but also to keep his own citizens united in support of Kremlin policy. But as Ukrainian fighters capture the admiration of the world in Twitter posts and TikTok videos, even the illusion of Russian unity is beginning to crumble.

A generational struggle is breaking out across Russia. Often, it pits those who believe in the stories of state-run television against their own children, many currently living and working abroad. The latter are turning to social media to express their shock and shame at the war, and to challenge the narrative of the Putin regime.

This is a reality I am experiencing in my personal life, and not just as a scholar of Russian history and media. When my two stepdaughters, aged 28 and 29, phoned their grandmother in Moscow to ask about Russia’s invasion, the response was tears: “How could you ask such a question? Russia does not start wars. Russia does not invade other countries.”

The family’s consensus was that the young women had “totally changed” since becoming American citizens 15 years ago.

The Kremlin tightens its media grip

Inside Russia, the government has been broadcasting pro-Russian messages designed to fill viewers with either pride in their homeland or anger toward purported outside foes. Kremlin-controlled television reports – in very slick, believable stories full of interviews and on-site video – details alleged atrocities committed by neo-Nazi Ukrainians against Russian civilians. Russian correspondents in Ukraine’s Donbas region speak of “mass graves” and “genocide,” displaying what they claim are human bones.

Roskomnadzor, the state censorship agency, has forbidden all media, even independently owned newspapers and radio stations, from using the word “war” instead of “special operation.” Outlets have been ordered to stop spreading “unreliable” information and instructed to rely only on Russian government sources. On state-run television, Ukraine is referred to as a “territory,” not an independent state.

When material began circulating on Twitter that contradicted official pronouncements, the Kremlin limited citizen access. When Facebook fact-checkers challenged the accuracy of certain state media stories, the Kremlin similarly blocked many of Russia’s estimated 70 million Facebook users from logging into the platform.

On March 1, the government announced that it was shutting down legendary radio station Echo Moscow and taking the one remaining independent TV station Rain off the air. The government accused both of violating rules about coverage and disseminating “fake news.”

Official stories

Official accounts of Russia’s surprise invasion seek to justify Kremlin actions. A Feb. 27 report on TV station Russia-1 titled “Ukraine: How It Was” described the current conflict as originating in an alleged U.S. betrayal of Russia in 2014.

Putin is shown explaining, in old footage, how Western leaders begged him at the time to stop the pro-Russian president of Ukraine from using violence to disperse protesters gathered in Kyiv’s central square. As Putin tells it, he kept his word, only to have the protesters oust the elected president, and the U.S. applaud the “coup” as a valorous, democratic act.

Such productions are clever, well-produced, and very convincing. A government polling organization claims that 68% of Russians support the country’s actions in Ukraine. Many citizens told reporters of their gratitude for Russian “assistance” in the breakaway Ukraine republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Nevertheless, the government cannot totally control the story. On Feb. 26, RIA Novosti, a state-run news agency, and several other outlets accidentally published an essay by a pro-Putin ideologue prematurely celebrating what turned out to be a nonexistent Russian victory. It praised Putin for “settling the Ukrainian question forever” and heralded the dawn of “a new world” now that “Russia unity” has been “restored.”

Fighting for a different story

As fighting continues, many outlets seem unsure of what and how much to say. Sergey Aleksashenko, Russia’s former deputy finance minister during the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin, expressed shock that on Feb. 27 the influential business newspaper Kommersant had managed to avoid any mention of the mobilization against Ukraine. “There’s [coverage of] anti-war protests, but no war,” he tweeted.

Meanwhile, younger Russian journalists are using social media to spread a different story, as are many of the almost 2 million Russians – out of a population of 145 million – who emigrated to the West during the Putin era.

Many are incredulous about both the war and the domestic crackdown. “It’s like everyone in Russia went to sleep Wednesday night in their own country and woke up the next morning in North Korea,” said a former Moscow resident working as an IT administrator in New York City who wished to remain anonymous due to concern for his relatives.

Online Russian journalist Ksenia Sobchak filmed a special report on Feb. 24 directed toward a Russian domestic audience that was designed to expose government lies. It included live Skype interviews with actor Sean Penn and, for Russians, another renowned celebrity, Ukrainian music video producer Alan Badoev. Both men were separately in Kyiv, separately experiencing bombardment. Both were near tears.

Daring to disagree?

Under Putin, public criticism of government policy can qualify as a crime. But a few people inside Russia are using social media to speak out against both the government’s external war in Ukraine and its internal war against freedom of speech.

Vlogger Yury Dud has posted to his 4.9 million Instagram followers examples of courageous Russians voicing opposition to the war. He’s also referenced the silencing of dissent, deploring what he calls the “suppression of the human will in Russia” under the Putin regime.

Russian painter Vasily Vereshchagin dedicated this 1871 painting ‘to all great conquerors, past, present and to come.’ Gandalf’s Gallery/FlickrCC BY-NC-SA

Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery has posted an Instagram photo that looks, at first glance, like an ordinary museum tour, but contains a strong, if coded, message. The guide is pictured standing in front of a painting by Vasily Vereshchagin of a mountain of human skulls, entitled “The Apotheosis of War.” The 19th-century artist dedicated his work “to all great conquerors, past, present and to come.” For educated Russians, the allusion to Putin is obvious.

As elites in Russia such as former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev make professions of support for Putin, some of their children have signaled doubt. A daughter of Kremlin Press Secretary Dimitri Peskov posted a “No War in Ukraine” message on her Instagram page on the day the invasion was announced. The man engaged to the daughter of Russia’s defense minister posted that what he most wanted for his birthday (that same day) was peace.

All these postings have since been taken down. But according to Instagram, approximately 50,000 pictures with the hashtag #nowar or its Russian equivalent #нетвойне were posted between Feb. 26 and 27 alone and by Feb. 28 totaled over 330,000. A study by The Economist has found anti-war posts on social media originating in Russia’s 50 largest cities and 91 other countries.

The western town of Pskov projected “No To War” in lights onto its Kremlin walls, on March 1, the 22nd anniversary of a battle in Chechnya that killed most of a paratrooper unit based in the region. The town government posted images of the illumination on Twitter.

But social media is simultaneously seeing an apparent upsurge in Russian patriotism. Also on March 1, the top Twitter hashtag of the past 24 hours was the pro-Russian #ДаПобеде meaning “Yes To Victory.”

People are protesting, but scores of police are also still willing and able to arrest them – so far more than 5,000. Popular opinion in Russia remains divided.The Conversation

Cynthia Hooper, Associate Professor of History, College of the Holy Cross

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Apple carts Crimea as part of Ukraine, halts sale of products and services to Russia

A recent Apple Maps update lists Crimea as Ukrainian territory. It’s the first time since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 that Apple seems to recognize Crimea as Ukrainian.

Russia’s military forces swiftly invaded Ukrainian Crimea in 2014, occupying it and claiming it as theirs. Initially, Apple refused to regard Crimea as belonging to any country, but in 2019, after pressure from Russia, the tech giant labeled the peninsula as Russian.

The State Duma, the Russian parliament’s lower house, hailed this move as something that gives legitimacy to its occupation: “Crimea and Sevastopol now appear on Apple devices as Russian territory,” the Duma said in a statement, adding that after months of discussion, it convinced Apple to fix this “inaccuracy” and was happy with the outcome.

“There is no going back,” said Vasily Piskaryov, chairman of the Duma security and anti-corruption committee, in 2019. “Today, with Apple, the situation is closed – we have received everything we wanted.”

But there was going back.

Now, after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, most of the world has come together to condemn the actions carried out by the Russian state, and Apple has apparently joined in.

Apple has paused the sale of products and services in Russia, tech giant was said it was “deeply concerned” about the Russian invasion and stands with those “suffering as a result of the violence”. Apple Pay and Apple Maps have also been limited in Russia. Now, the Maps update suggests that Apple no longer recognizes Russian legitimacy in Crimea — though it also shows that this recognition is reversible.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine, says he’s contacted Apple executives to enact further sanctions:

It’s extraordinarily rare for Apple to take such a stand, and it shows that the chorus of giant companies against Russian aggression is growing stronger.

However, the move also had an unexpectedly negative consequence: after Russia’s crackdown on the last free journalists in the country, there was no way for publishers to circumvent the censorship — because Apple also blocked software updates.

For now, the situation in Ukraine remains critical, and the Russian crackdown inside its own borders shows signs of intensifying. While it’s important for companies (especially big tech) to stand up against aggression, big tech companies also have a responsibility of ensuring a free flow of information — with Russian authorities trying to censor the information coming through, this has never been more important.

Can crypto help Russia evade sanctions?

Credit: Canva.

The most ardent proponents of cryptocurrencies claim that, among their many supposed advantages over fiat money, crypto is very challenging if not impossible to regulate by governments. That’s because Bitcoin and other currencies like it are transacted over a peer-to-peer network. The decentralized nature of Bitcoin means that a centralized authority like the US government cannot control financial transactions, and users are free to exchange their tokens with anyone on the network, no matter their geographical location as long as they have an internet connection.

With the recent unprecedented financial sanctions that were imposed on Russia, chiefly by the United States and the European Union, many have wondered if Putin’s administration and his cronies could simply circumvent these rules using a clever laundering scheme involving cryptocurrencies.

Some of the harsh sanctions enacted upon Russia include banning a number of select banks from SWIFT, an international bank-to-bank transfer system, as well as freezing hundreds of billions in foreign currency held by Russia’s central bank overseas. These are the most important economic sanctions, and together they isolate Russia from the global financial system.

In the case of the US sanctions, it becomes illegal for American nationals and businesses to  do business with Russia and individuals connected to the Kremlin regime in ways the U.S. government considers material — and foreign individuals can face sanctions of their own if they don’t comply.

Key to enforcing these sanctions are the banks, which can see who is transferring money through their system, where it’s coming from, and where it’s heading. In order not to get hit by heavy fines or shut down, banks are careful to monitor and block any transactions linked to entities on a black list.

In this heavily restricted environment, cryptocurrency seems like a safe haven and the obvious choice for a sanctioned entity to continue running its business. After all, before the crypto space ballooned a few years ago, Bitcoin was widely used by criminal groups to receive payments for their illegal activities with great success. Why would it be different for a petrol state like Russia?

While Russian criminal organizations, some of which are suspected to receive the Kremlin’s blessing, have made hundreds of millions using hacking techniques like ransomware, it seems unlikely that such tactics could help fill the very deep pockets that a huge state like Russia needs filled.

In a twitter thread, Jake Chervinsky, head of policy at the Blockchain Association, makes his case clear: crypto won’t save Putin.

Chervinsky adds that many huge businesses across the world, not just in the US, are barred from dealing in any way with sanctioned Russian entities, and there’s no reason to convince them that crypto would help them do business without getting caught. While it may be technically possible to launder money and route it to Russia, the risks are huge. Besides, the last sanctions Russia faced when it annexed Crimea in 2014 led to losses amounting to at least $50 billion. That’s peanuts compared to the debacle they’ve gotten themselves into, and that’s not counting the cash they’re bleeding to sustain their war effort, estimated at €20 billion per day.

To support their shambling economy, Russia would need to launder crypto potentially in the hundreds of billions. This kind of liquidity is simply not available on any crypto market at the moment. Then you run into the trouble of somehow converting that crypto asset into fiat (i.e. US dollars, euros, yuan, etc.) in order to sustain your day to day operations. Printing more rouble that nobody wants anyway is obviously not a solution, unless Putin wants to mirror another infamous petrostate, Venezuela.

Another important point is that, contrary to popular belief, crypto transactions are very difficult to mask, even for sophisticated state actors. All crypto transactions are public on a digital ledger, which cannot be doctored or destroyed since the records are stored on the P2P network. You might erase the data on a computer in London, but there are millions more that have the original record. Crypto forensics have also gotten very good at spoofing laundering techniques. For instance, the Justice Department seized $3.6 billion worth of stolen Bitcoin from hackers who had stolen the lot more than six years ago from the Hong Kong-based Bitfinex, one of the world’s largest virtual currency exchanges.

Crypto is likely part of Putin’s plan to evade sanctions and cushion some of the blow dealt by the West — but it’s not the main tool. The Kremlin will probably unleash unprecedented ransomware attacks in order to attract foreign capital, but they can hope for a few billion at most in revenue. That’s woefully insufficient to keep them afloat.

Instead, Russia will likely count on its foreign reserves held in China as well as more trade in the future with its eastern ally. The price of oil is at its highest it’s been in more than a decade, currently around $111 a barrel, which will help a lot. Russia also has a super solid debt-to-GDP ratio of only 18% (the figure is 133% for the US) and a current account surplus, which could help keep the country stable even if it borrows money — for instance, from China — at exorbitant interest rates.

Although Putin seems unstable — he certainly looks that way to me — this invasion has been planned for years most likely. This gave them plenty of time to plan for sanctions, although they may have been much more severe than they bargained for. I don’t know what Plan B looks like, but they most certainly have one and they look prepared to wait this out for years if they have to. It’s just that crypto won’t play a major role in this plan. 

Russian electrical vehicle chargers get hacked: “Putin is a dickhead”

Chargers along one of Russia’s most important motorways are not working and are displaying messages like “Putin is a dickhead” and “Glory to Ukraine. Glory to the heroes.”

Image credits: Instagram user Oleg Moskovtsev.

The M11 Motorway in Russia, which connects the country’s two biggest cities (Moscow and St. Petersburg) is one of the busiest roads in the country. But for the few people driving electric cars in the country, it’s become virtually unusable.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the electric car chargers along the motorway were hacked. The Russian energy company Rosseti admitted the problem but claimed it’s not an external hack, but rather an internal one.

Reportedly, some of the main components in the chargers come from a Ukrainian company. A Facebook statement from Rosseti claims the Ukrainian company left a backdoor access to the pumps, shutting them down and displaying the scrolling anti-Putin messages.

“Charging stations installed on the M-11 route were purchased in 2020 according to the results of an open purchase procedure. The chargers were provided by the LLC “Gzhelprom” (Russia). It was later discovered that the main components (incl. A. the controller) are actually produced by the company Autoenterprise (Ukraine), and the Russian supplier produced a open assembly.”

“The manufacturer left a “marketing” in the controller, which gave him the opportunity to have hidden internet access. According to our information, data controllers are widely used on power charging stations exported by Ukraine to Europe.”

AutoEnterprise’s Facebook page re-posted a video showing the pumps, but it’s not clear if they claimed responsibility for this or if they were just happy to see it.

As its troops continue to bomb Ukraine and march in on its main cities, Russia has been increasingly under cybernetic attack, with hackers from all around the world hitting at Russian websites and even television.

The Russian state-funded television was hacked by the activist group Anonymous, displaying anti-war messages and urging the Russian people to act to stop the water. Russian TV channels were also attacked and made to play Ukrainian music and display uncensored news of the conflict from news sources outside Russia.

Ultimately, it’s unlikely that any of these actions will have a major impact on Russia’s military attack, but they could help spread more information inside Russia about the events in Ukraine. Russian authorities are actively censoring the situation and for years, they have tried to censor and control what the Russian people get to hear — not shying away from detaining journalists or even worse.

Cyber attacks will likely continue to escalate on both sides, involving both state and non-state actors. War is no longer fought only on the front lines — nowadays, it’s fought online as well.

Stanislav Petrov – the man who probably saved the world from a nuclear disaster

As Vladimir Putin is forcing the world to contemplate nuclear war once again, it’s time to remember one time when one Soviet military may have saved the world from disaster.

It was September 26, 1983. The Cold War was at one of its most tense periods ever. With the United States and the USSR at each other’s throat, they had already built enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other (as well as the rest of the world) a couple times over — and the slightest sign of an attack would have lead to a worldwide disaster, killing hundreds of millions of people.

Stanislav Petrov played a crucial role in monitoring what the US was doing. In the case of an attack, the Soviet strategy was to launch an all out retaliation as quickly as possible. So a few minutes after midnight, when the alarms went on and the screens turned red, the responsibility fell on his shoulders.

The Soviet warning software analyzed the information and concluded that it wasn’t static; the system’s conclusion was that the US had launched a missile.  But the system however, was flawed. Still, the human brain surpassed the computer that day; on that faithful day, Stanislav Petrov put his foot down and decided that it was a false alarm, advising against retaliation – and he made this decision fast.

He made the decision based mostly on common sense – there were too few missiles. The computer said there were only five of them.

“When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles,” he remembered thinking at the time. “You can do little damage with just five missiles.”

However, he also relied on an old fashion gut feeling.

“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” Petrov said. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”

There’s also something interesting about that night. Petrov wasn’t scheduled then. Somebody else should have been there; and somebody else could have made a different decision. The world would probably have turned out very different.

What is SWIFT and why banning Russia from it is a big deal

The world watched in shock as Russian troops launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. After initial hesitations, countries around the world seem to be mobilizing and are starting to impose economic sanctions on Russia. Among these severe sanctions is also Russia’s exclusion from a system called SWIFT — but what is SWIFT, and how impactful would be such a ban?

If you’re reading this, the odds are that at some point you’ve sent money to another country. Maybe you bought something, maybe you subscribed to some service or donated to a charity. If you’ve done this, you’ve probably used SWIFT.

The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) is a society whose main goal is to serve as the messaging network for initiating international payments. Think of SWIFT as a key component of the international payment system, an intermediary for international bank transfers. It does not manage accounts and it does not hold funds from third parties, but if you want to send money internationally, there’s a good chance you’ll need it.

In 2019, over 11,000 SWIFT member institutions sent a whopping 33.6 million transactions per day through the network. Over half of all high-value cross-border payments worldwide use SWIFT, and the number continues to grow. Around 1% of these transactions are thought to involve Russian payments.

So banning a country from the system would make it much more difficult to make international transactions. In some instances, it would make it almost impossible.

Is Russia actually getting banned from SWIFT? Not just an empty threat…

SWIFT has been used in sanctions before. In 2012, the US pushed for the removal of Iranian banks from SWIFT, a move that was opposed at the time by most European governments — even though Iran is a much smaller economy than Russia. Nevertheless, ultimately, countries agreed to shut down Iran from the system, though after a few years, several Iranian banks were allowed back in.

Russia was threatened with a SWIFT ban once before: in 2014 when it annexed Ukrainian Crimea. At that time, Russia tried intimidating world leaders by saying the move would be tantamount to a declaration of war. The ban didn’t happen at the time, but now, it seems bound to.

“Putin embarked on a path aiming to destroy Ukraine, but what he is also doing, in fact, is destroying the future of his own country,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.

Initially, the US, UK, and some European countries supported this expulsion, while other European countries (most notably, Germany and Italy) were hesitant, especially considering that Russia provides an important chunk of their oil and gas imports. But after seeing the invasion unfolding in Ukraine, everyone is on board now.

Now, it’s official: at least some select Russian banks will be banned from the SWIFT system. The ban is expected to come into full effect in the following days.

The fine print of the sanctions is still being ironed out, it’s not clear if all Russian banks will be banned eventually and for how long — but if the ban is enforced quickly, it would put a massive strain.

“You deny Russia access to SWIFT and Russia has been completely isolated from the global economy,” says Edgardo Pappacena, Professor of Strategy & International Business at Florida International University’s Graduate School of Business who also worked as a senior partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Pappacena sees Russia’s expulsion from SWIFT as one of the two sanctions that could really hurt Russia and erode Putin’s domestic support (the other being blocking Russia’s fossil fuel exports). Any sanctions that don’t include these would embolden Putin and essentially serve as an invitation for more military aggression, he adds.

Sanctions are a double-edged sword, Pappacena adds. They will hurt Russia, but there will be an economic recoil to those imposing sanctions as well. However, serious problems call for serious measures, and this is the price we have to pay if we want to obtain peace.

Can’t Russia simply bypass SWIFT?

A Swift expulsion would be very disruptive to Russia. There is an alternative system called SPFS that Russia set up after they annexed Crimea in 2014, but it hasn’t been popular. China also has a secondary system called the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System or CIPS.

Many fear that expelling Russia from SWIFT may push it closer to China and may solidify a China-Russia alliance against the west. However, China seems unwilling at this stage to help Russia and is unlikely to get involved in any economic war that doesn’t serve its interests directly.

Even as US and European officials are working to keep Russia’s oil and gas exports out of the sanctions, this expulsion from SWIFT would be one of the toughest levied on a nation in modern times. It would hurt Russia — a lot.

Perhaps even more damaging to Russia is another move announced by the European Union, the US, and Japan to cut out Russia’s central bank, essentially preventing it from using its $630bn foreign currency reserves to support the ruble. The U.S. The Treasury Department announced on Monday that it would immobilize Russian Central Bank assets that are held in the United States and impose sanctions on the Russian Direct Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth fund that is run by people in Putin’s inner circle.

The effects are already being seen even before the big sanctions come into effect. The ruble lost more than 30% of its value to the dollar in a single day, and the Moscow stock market was closed to prevent a complete collapse. Basically, as sanctions start slamming Russia’s economy, a financial meltdown becomes more and more likely.

Coupled with measures to cut off Putin and his inner circle’s “war chest“, these measures could be a strong deterrent against future escalation, and a way to limit Putin’s current and future military expansion.

These are severe measures and it’s the Russian population that will, unfortunately, bear the brunt of this economic damage. But according to Pappacena, it’s high time for something like this to happen.

We’re at a stage where we need to start thinking about preventing global conflicts, and economic action is preferable to military action. We’re at a stage where even a global war, a “worst nightmare” possibility, is on the table, Pappacena concludes.

“Unfortunately, I see some patterns that remind me of how World War Two actually started with the UK wanting to appease Hitler instead of taking a strong stance against him. And as we know, that led to the invasion of Czechoslovakia Poland,” the geopolitics expert says.

Make science, not war. Russian scientists and journalists speak up in open letter

“Yesterday I was detained during an anti-war rally,” one researcher who signed the letter told ZME Science.

Amid anti-war rallies in Moscow and other cities in Russia, many have decided to speak up against Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – including scientists, science journalists, and public figures. Several open letters are already circulating with hundreds of signatures from prominent researchers, while a group of media outlets also declared their opposition to the war.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Over 600 Russian scientists and scientific journalists signed an open letter against Russian military action in Ukraine, which they described as “unfair and frankly meaningless.” It’s a fatal step that is causing human losses and undermining the foundations of international security, with Russia solely to blame, they argued.

“There is no rational justification for this war. Attempts to use the situation in Donbass (a region in Ukraine) as a pretext for launching a military operation do not inspire any confidence. It is clear that Ukraine does not pose a threat to the security of our country. The war against her is unfair and frankly senseless,” the letter reads.

The scientists and journalists said Ukraine is a close country to them, with relatives, friends, and colleagues living there. Starting a war because of Russia’s geopolitical ambitions means betraying the memory of Russians and Ukrainians who fought together against Nazism. All problems between countries can be solved in peace, they wrote.

Russia is “dooming itself to international isolation” and to the position of a pariah country,” they argued. For the scientists, this means that they won’t be able to do their jobs normally anymore. Doing science research is impossible without full cooperation from colleagues from other countries. Russia’s isolation will lead to cultural and technological degradation, they wrote.

Anna Dybo, a Russian linguist and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences who signed the letter, told ZME Science that it’s “an extremely bad and dangerous idea to bomb Kyiv, Mariupol, or Voronezh (all cities in Ukraine currently attacked by Russian military) in order to stop the shelling of Donetsk.” Dybo, who was detained during an anti-war rally yesterday, said “shooting tends to diverge in circles for a long distance and for many years.”

Further calls for peace

Elena Chernenko, a business reporter at the Kommersant (a daily newspaper), collected at least 100 signatures from fellow journalists in an anti-war petition, distributed through the Telegram messaging service. The signatories include journalists from state-run Russian media outlets TASS and Russia TV, as well as from private ones such as Snow, The Bell, and Novaya Gazeta.

“We, Russian media correspondents and experts who write about Russia’s foreign policy, condemn the military operation launched by the Russian Federation in Ukraine. War has never been and never will be a method of resolving conflicts and there is no justification for it,” the letter reads, which is still open for further signatures.

Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the Novaya Gazeta and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2021, posted a video on YouTube questioning the war and announcing the newspaper’s next edition will run in both Russian and Ukrainian. “Only the anti-war movement of Russians can save life on this planet,” Muratov said on the video.

Simultaneously, a group of 30 independent Russian media outlets published a declaration opposing the “massacre” started by the Russian leadership. They promised to “be honest” in their reporting and wished “resilience and strength” to Ukraine people “resisting aggressions” and to those in Russia resisting “military madness.”

“Pain, anger and shame are three words that reflect our attitude to what is happening,” they wrote. “This will bring grief to the families of thousands of people in Ukraine and Russia. The world has never been so close to a global catastrophe. We hope the funeral won’t come to your house. But there can be no certainty.”

Artists have also expressed their rejection of the war. Yelena Kovalskaya, director of the Meyerhold Theater Center, resigned from the state theater, writing in a Facebook post that “it’s impossible to work for a murderer.” Meanwhile, renowned author Sergei Lebedev said the “soviet crimes went unpunished in Russia, and so they recur.”

All is loud on the eastern front: Ukraine is getting bombarded with fake videos

Everyone’s eyes are set on battered Ukraine right now after Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the order to invade the Eastern European country in the early hours of Thursday. According to American sources, Russian forces began their attack with an onslaught of over 100 missiles from both land and sea, along with 75 fixed-wing bombers, targeting arms and ammunition depots, air defense systems, military headquarters, airports, and other strategically-significant targets.

But as if the bombs raining down from the sky weren’t enough, terrified Ukrainian civilians have to deal with another type of bombing: fake news through the airwaves.

These include false videos shared on social media and messaging apps like Telegram, a popular instant messaging service in Eastern Europe, meant to sow confusion about the reality on the ground.

Both sides are employing the usual wartime propaganda, but the Kremlin seems to be more active and effective at spreading false information.

Many of this fake footage is posted by anonymous social media users, which could be either agents directly connected to the Kremlin or internet trolls that get off sowing chaos and racking thousands of likes. The information war is now in full swing, with propaganda operations mustered well before the war started as Russia filmed and shared staged provocations meant to paint Ukraine as an aggressor to the Russian public.

Fake: Russian paratroopers

One of the most widely shared videos featured what looked like hundreds of Russian soldiers parachuting over Ukraine. The video, however, is from 2016, part of a Russian military exercise. However, this didn’t stop the video from raking over 22 million views in its first day making the rounds on Twitter and TikTok.

Like other fake videos, it has been picked up by legitimate international news outlets which should have known better before publishing unverified footage.

https://twitter.com/Shubham_RSS_/status/1496812048868515847

Video game posing as wartime footage

One of the widely shared videos since the conflict began supposedly shows live attacks on Ukraine Russia, with a jet dodging heavy antiaircraft fire. But the footage is actually from Arma III, a realistic video game. This particular fake video was shared over 25,000 times before it was taken down from Facebook and Twitter, although it keeps popping up from various sources.

Another viral video shows Ukraine firing anti-aircraft missiles into the night. But in reality, it was another animated footage from the video game War Thunder.

It’s not the first time that a video game has posed as genuine wartime footage. In 2018, Russian Channel One TV aired a program praising the country’s military action in Syria. The program used gun-sight footage of a truck being attacked by Russian forces, but the images were, yet again, from Arma III.

Russian plane downed over Ukraine was actually shot down over Libya in 2011

A video shared on Facebook on February 24 shows a plane falling from the sky and bursting into flame, with the headline “REPORTED AS: Ukrainian army shot down a Russian jet.” The video later made the rounds on YouTube and Twitter, where it generated hundreds of thousands of views.

Although the footage is real, it was captured in Benghazi, Libya, more than a decade ago. “Libyan rebels shot down a warplane that was bombing their eastern stronghold Benghazi on Saturday, as the opposition accused Moammar Gadhafi’s government of defying calls for an immediate cease-fire,” the Associated Press reported at the time.

This destroyed jet has nothing to do with the current conflict in Ukraine.

Another fake image that went viral shows a Russian jet at the exact moment it is being destroyed. It’s a spectacular image, which explains why it was shared thousands of times. But by now you’ve spotted a pattern: this is actually an old picture from 2017 during an airshow accident.

Fact or fiction: more challenging than ever

Although the internet can be a great tool for fact-checking, the reality is that most people exposed to emotionally appealing content fail to do their own research. Seeing hundreds of soldiers parachuting over the sky is a shocking image, and it’s understandable that people feel the urge to share such footage with the world. But that’s the exact behavior that nefarious agents are banking on, looking to dupe unwitting social media users into sharing falsehoods.

This is why it’s important to think critically and assess whether the information in front of you is accurate and comes from a credible source. It always helps to take just a few moments and Google something before sharing it.

Unfortunately, the current online environment leaves a lot of room for sketchy sources to fill the void. For Ukrainian people, this problem is exacerbated by internet outages experienced across several parts of the country. Some of these outages are caused by shelling, airstrikes, and other damages to critical internet infrastructure, while others are part of a concentrated effort by Russian forces to disrupt communications and sow panic.

In order to protect yourself from misinformation, it’s good to remember one thing about social media posts: they’re designed to get a reaction, especially the viral kind. Although footage showing violence and bloodshed is nerve-wracking and tempting to post online for others to share the outrage, it’s better to calm down for a second and wonder: am I just being duped here?

Russia just destroyed a satellite with a space missile strike — and it’s a problem

While we were all focused on the climate change summit in the UK, another environmental problem was unfolding in space. Russia sent a missile to destroy a Soviet satellite as part of a test. In the process, it created a lot of space junk and debris that can cause problems for the International Space Station (ISS) or other satellites.

It’s not the first time this happens and it won’t likely be the last one.

Image credit: Flickr / Stevep

Much of the scientific community and the United States government condemned the anti-satellite test, describing it as reckless and dangerous. Meanwhile, Russia said the thousands of pieces of debris don’t represent a threat to space activity, arguing the debris cloud moved away from the ISS orbit, which is about 400 kilometers above Earth. 

The test created about 1,500 pieces of debris, according to the US Space Command. Still, it’s not the first time a country does this sort of thing and blasts its own satellite. Back in 2007, China also tested its missile system against weather satellites in orbit – creating more than 3,000 pieces of debris the size of a golf ball and more than 100,000 much smaller pieces.

As a legacy of over 60 years of space activity, there’s now a jungle of junk floating around space – from flecks of paint from space vehicles to old rocket bodies and satellites. The European Space Agency estimates there are about 10,000 tons of debris objects orbiting our planet, plenty of which are defunct. 

According to a report published by NASA earlier this year, about 26,000 of the pieces of debris are the size of a softball or even larger, more than 500,000 are marble-sized and over 100 million are the size of a grain of salt. And as these fragments crash into each other as they float in space they can also create more pieces of smaller size, posing even more of a threat for other satellites. 

All this junk travels at several kilometers per second, which is enough to become damaging projectiles to an operational space mission. In fact, this was the case in 2009 when an active communications satellite run by a US company and a defunct Soviet-era communications satellite clashed in orbit. Imagine the risk if a human mission would be involved. 

Tension at the ISS

The cloud of debris passed close to the International Space Station, raising the alarm among crew members – who were told to put their spacesuits and shelter in the Crew Dragon and the Soyuz spacecrafts. In case the ISS was damaged by fragments from the Russian satellite, they could detach and come back to Earth without any major risks.

Nevertheless, Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, posted a message on Twitter downplaying the danger to the ISS from the debris.  “The orbit of the object, which forced the crew today to move into spacecraft according to standard procedures, has moved away from the ISS orbit. The station is in the green zone,” Roscosmos wrote.

The astronauts at the ISS, four Americans, one German, and two Russians, spent two hours in the spacecrafts, emerging from time to time to close and reopen hatches to the ISS’ individual labs on every orbit. In a statement, the Russian military said the test wasn’t dangerous and it was part of their efforts to fortify its defense capabilities. 

The explanation didn’t seem sufficient for the other governments. France described the missile test as “destabilising, irresponsible and likely to have consequences for a very long time in the space environment and for all actors in space,” while the German government said to be “very concerned” and asked for new rules on space behaviour. At the moment, there are no clear regulations on managing satellites and clearing out space junk.

Operation Beluga — or how a Soviet ice breaker played music to whales to save them from starving

The Soviet Union (USSR) is a thing most people today know only from memory or history books. And many parts of its history are unsavory, to say the least. But Operation Beluga (‘Belukha’ in Russian) isn’t one of those. Operation Beluga involved them sending an ice-breaker, and blasting classical music at full volume, in order to save a pack of thousands of whales that were iced-in in the Chukchi Peninsula.

A beluga whale at the Oceanografic de Valencia, Spain. Image credits Salva Barbera via Flickr.

In 1959, the Finish company Wärtsilä delivered the ice-breaker Moskva to the USSR. The contract for this ship was signed three years prior, and as part of its stipulations, the ship was equipped with one of the most powerful diesel-electric engines at the time. It would go on to help hundreds of ships navigate the (iced-over) Northern Sea Route, which spans from Murmansk to Vladivostok, cutting the travel time down to an average of 10 days — which was quite fast for the day. Moskva’s powerful engines allowed it to break through thicker ice than its peers at the time, which effectively extended the shipping season possible along this route.

Crowned with shipping glory, the Moskva was later stationed in Vladivostok and sent to escort ships along the eastern stretches of the Northern Sea Route. But as fate would have it, this would not be the last time we heard of the Moskva’s adventures — ‘we’ here meaning us, as well as beluga whales.

Iced in, iced out

Every good heroic story needs someone in need, and in around December 1984, thousands of such someones were found.

Along the frigid landscape of the Chukchi Peninsula (this is the bit of Russia that’s across the pond from Alaska) lives the Chukchi or Chukchee, an indigenous people closely related to the original inhabitants of the Americas. Their traditions and lifestyle hadn’t changed much until 1920 when the Soviet government organized (state-run) schools and industries in the area. Even after this point the Chukchi relied heavily on local wildlife for food and provided raw materials for some of those newly-minted industries in the form of fishing, hunting of marine mammals, or reindeer herding. Subsistence hunting (i.e. for the purpose of obtaining food) is still practiced by the Chukchi to this day, although it’s greatly reduced in scope.

In late December 1984, a Chukchi hunter or hunting party — it’s not known exactly how many people were present at that point — happened upon the motherlode of prey: roughly 3,000 beluga whales trapped in the frozen waters of the peninsula’s Senyavin Strait. The hunter realized they were trapped because the whales (a prime local source of food) were flocking around small pools of open water dotting the strait, desperate to catch a breath of air.

Faced with such a sight, those present were likely very excited at the prospect of easily-captured meat. As they inched closer, however, the magnitude of what they were actually seeing started to sink in: the straight hold around 3,000 whales.

To this day, we’re still not sure how they got there, especially in such huge numbers. One running theory is that the whales — either as a whole or as several smaller groups — chased after prey, most likely a bank of cod, right into the straight. Powerful winds then filled the straight with chunks of drift ice up to 12 ft (4 meters) thick. This was way too strong for the whales to break through, leaving only small openings between the chunks of ice for the whales to breathe through. Now, the whales could swim under this ice to freedom, but the distance was too long for them to make the trip on a single breath of air — which was a risky endeavor. So, they stayed put.

Needless to say, finding thousands of whales stranded in a straight is the kind of thing you tend to report to authorities, which the hunter did. Experts and helicopters were dispatched to survey the scene, and locals even brought frozen fish to feed the trapped whales.

Enter the Moskva

The Moskva, photographed while being built in dry dock. Image via Wikimedia.

The teams sent to the site quickly concluded that the only way to save the whales was to clear a path through the ice for them to escape. Four-meter-thick ice is hardly a trivial barrier, and due to this (alongside the close proximity of Vladivostok), the Moskva was eventually sent to break the whales free.

According to Whalescientists, when the Moskva first reached the area (in February 1985), its captain A. Kovalenko, whose full first name I’ve been unable to find, wanted to call the mission off. The ice was simply too thick. He seems to have changed his mind “after dozens of whales started to perish”. However, there are also some reports of up to 500 whales being carried off by local hunters; whether these were hunted or taken after their deaths, we don’t know. But Whalescientists adds that the helicopters were used to feed the whales during this time. So, there were genuine efforts to keep these animals alive being made at this time, despite the obvious conflict of interests between a community that practices subsistence hunting to this day, and a big, trapped pack of animals.

Still, after this initial delay, the crew weighed down the ship with as much fuel as it could carry, and forced it through the ice. At first, however, it didn’t go quite the way they expected.

The whales seemed very excited for the new space made available to them, going out through the large gaps in the ice to feed and rest. They were happy to be out of the water and recovering, even “playing, whistling, squealing, snorting” according to a Russian state newspaper cited by The New York Times.

But they didn’t come close to the ship or the passage it was clearing. The icebreaker moved “to and from the herd”, making no progress — then “someone” recalled that beluga whales reacted well to music. So they turned up the speakers on the Moskva’s deck and tried it, discovering that classical music seemed to attract the whales. It was a Pied Piper moment.

In the end, the crew made repeated forays through the ice, going back and forth towards the whales, to make them understand. The animals eventually started following them “kilometer by kilometer” on the passage the ship created. In this way, the many trapped whales (around 2,000) finally found their way to freedom.

A whale of a time

Now, not everyone reading this has had the ‘pleasure’ of living under totalitarian regimes, as the USSR was. Given that our primary sources for these events were state-controlled — as virtually all official news outlets were — and that states have a vested interest in painting themselves as kind, generous, just, and therefore legitimize themselves, we can assume that certain elements of the story were done up a bit, or that other unsavory details never made it in the published story. So don’t take everything here at face value.

But overall, Operation Beluga definitely happened. It’s a very heartwarming story of how humanity can foster and protect our cousins in the wild. It also showcases how behaviors that evolve over thousands of years can serve a species in general but fail them in particular situations they simply weren’t designed to deal with. In such conditions, our technology and ability to think on our feet can help solve the issue.

I personally enjoy thinking that humanity will, one day, take on the role of fostering the natural world around us. Stories like this one show how all of us stand to benefit: we get aww-inducing feel-good stories, feelings of fulfillment, and healthy ecosystems. The whales get to not starve to death. Definitely a win-win.

Mammoth remains possibly butchered by human hunters found on Arctic Island near Siberia

Part of the mammoth skeleton found by the Russian researchers. Credit:  I.S. Pavlov.

Russian paleontologists were stunned by the discovery of an almost complete mammoth skeleton on Kotelny Island, located in the Arctic close to the Siberian coast, which had thousands of cut marks on it. These marks, as well as stone objects embedded within some of the fossils, indicate that the ancient beast might have been slain and butchered by human hunters.

The extraordinary mammoth skeleton came to the attention of Russian researchers completely by accident. In 2019, Innokenty Pavlov, a field worker and taxidermist, was on an expedition in the north of Kotelny Island —  part of the New Siberian Islands in the eastern Arctic and home to a major Russian military base — to dig up the carcass of another known mammoth in the area. However, the melting snow flooded the site of the carcass, making excavations impossible. But as luck had it, they were informed by local fishermen that there was another mammoth site, just 10 kilometers away.

Indeed, the site proved to be genuine, and it is here that Pavlov, along with researchers led by Albert Protopopov, head of the Department for Study of Mammoth Fauna, Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Yakutia, found the intriguing mammoth bones.

Three lumbar vertebrae belonging to the “Pavlov mammoth”. Credit: I.S. Pavlov.

Immediately, the researchers noticed marks on the bones and began to wonder whether these were evidence of human hunting.

All of the bones from the almost complete skeleton bore marks on them, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they were made by human cutting tools. Scavengers biting the carcass, as well as natural processes such as the shifting of sediments and geological pressure may also explain the cut marks.

Speaking to Gizmodo, Olga Potapova, a paleontologist with The Mammoth Site in South Dakota and an associate researcher with the Academy of Sciences of Yakutia and the Russian Academy of Sciences, makes a case that these marks were anthropogenic. She says that the fossils have a large number of long and very thin cuts clustered in a parallel fashion. Cuts made by natural processes look more like random scratches.

Researchers also found embedded stone objects in the tusk, as well as a bone object lodged into the scapula (shoulder bone). These may have been the remnants of a weapon made from bone, Potapova says.

The mammoth scapula with a bone object embedded inside it. Credit:Innokentiy Pavlov.

The skull of the mammoth was broken in a similar fashion to the skulls of 32 mammoths from a site in the Russian Plain known as the “Yudinovo” site. Previously, researchers concluded that the mammoth skulls were fractured by human hunters who consumed the animals’ brains for food.

But in the absence of adjacent human artifacts or some other kind of direct evidence of human intervention, the contention that the Kotelny mammoth was butchered by human hands is still speculative.

To learn more, the researchers hope to return to the island soon, where they hope to uncover evidence of Paleolithic hunters at the site.

Fuel tank collapses in Russia, leaking 20,000 tons of diesel in Arctic river

Nearly 20,000 tons of diesel fuel leaked into a river within the Arctic Circle in Russia, following the collapse of a fuel tank at a power plant. Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency as environmental organizations warned over the impacts of the massive spill.

Credit Flickr

The accident happened on May 29 at the city of Norilsk, one of the world’s most polluted places due to its industrial activity. The oil leaked from a tank in a plant managed by a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest producer of palladium and one of the largest producers of nickel, platinum and copper.

“The accident took place at the industrial site of the Nadezhdinski Metallurgical Plant, and part of the spilled petrochemicals, a considerable amount actually, seeped into the Ambarnaya River,” Putin said as he discussed the incident with officials on Wednesday, according to the Kremlin

The region’s governor, Alexander Uss, had earlier told President Putin that he became aware of the oil spill on May 31st after “alarming information appeared in social media.” The two-day delay from the onset of the spillage led to Putin harshly criticize the head of the company.

“Why did government agencies only find out about this two days after the fact?” Putin asked the subsidiary’s chief, Sergei Lipin. “Are we going to learn about emergency situations from social media?” Putin has ordered an investigation into the accident. A manager at the power plant was arrested.

Nevertheless, the president’s claims were dismissed by the company responsible for the spill. Emergency teams were “immediately” sent after the accident to start to clean up, Norilsk Nickel said on its website – adding that the spill happened in a remote area and that no local community had been impacted.

“A regional emergency situation was declared in the city of Norilsk and Taymir region. An emergency response team was set up chaired by the city mayor of Norilsk,” the company said, claiming it was trying to limit damage to the local environment – a challenging task according to environmental organizations.

The second-largest environmental accident in modern Russian history

Alexei Knizhnikov, an expert from the World Wildlife Fund, told AFP that the accident is believed to be the second-largest in modern Russian history in terms of volume. Greenpeace has compared it to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska and warned it will be difficult to clean it up due to its size and the geography of the river.

“There has never been such an accident in the Arctic zone,” said Oleg Mitvol, former deputy head of Russia’s environmental watchdog Rosprirodnadzor. According to Mitlov, the clean-up could cost about 100bn roubles ($1.5 billion) and take between five and 10 years.

Meanwhile, the government is looking for solutions. Russia’s minister of natural resources, Dmitry Kobylkin, dismissed the possibility of burning off the fuel oil due to its size, proposing instead to dilute the oil with reagents. He also suggested pumping the oil on to the adjacent tundra, something dismissed by Putin.

For Russia, it’s not all about coronavirus, as large parts of Siberia are on fire

For Russia, the main concern now isn’t just being one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus epidemic, although 166,000 cases and over 1,500 deaths have been confirmed so far.

A satellite photo from NASA shows the extent of the fires. Credit NASA

Massive areas of Siberia are now on fire, as spring has brought high temperatures across the country. While this happens every year, the number of fires is much larger than usual, and the government is focused on dealing with the coronavirus.

A total of 3,339 fires were recorded at the end of April, much higher than the 1,960 registered on the same time last year. They now cover 477,000 hectares, while last year they only reached 382,000, according to Russia’s Federal Forest Agency.

Nine Siberian regions have been affected by these wildfires, with clouds of smoke sweeping across the Siberian landscape. The fires in the Amur region have consumed one and half times more territory than last year, while in Transbaikal the blaze is three times larger.

Nevertheless, the worst-hit region so far is Krasnoyarsk — the third largest city in Siberia — where the blaze has engulfed 10 times more territory than April last year, according to Russian Emergencies Minister Evgeny Zinichev.

“A less snowy winter, an abnormal winter and insufficient soil moisture are factors that create the conditions for the transition of landscape fires to settlements,” Zinichev told President Vladimir Putin, according to Siberian Times.

The primary causes of the fires are unauthorized and uncontrolled agriculture fires. But extreme heat is also expanding the flames. In recent days, temperatures have reached spikes of as much as 36 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius), way above what’s normal for this time of year.

The coronavirus could also be making matters even worse. Russia’s lockdown started with a focus on Moscow in late March and has since spread to the rest of the country. It’s also been extended until May 11. Many city residents left for the countryside to have more space and have been ignoring fire safety rules, according to the Siberian Times. Sergei Anoprienko, head of the federal forest agency, directly blamed the coronavirus lockdown for the rise in fires.

“People self-isolated outdoors and forgot about fire safety rules. In some regions, the temperature is already around 30ºC, and people just can’t keep themselves in their apartments,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told regional and emergency officials that they must be ready for emergencies on wildfires. “All the efforts are now primarily concentrated on countering the spread of the coronavirus. However, this must not divert our attention from other potential threats to people’s lives and safety,” he said.

What’s happening in Siberia could be a preview of what’s to come in other parts of the world. The Amazon’s dry season is about to get started and could be worse than last year’s dangerous fire season. In western North America, wildfire season is also just around the corner.

Coronavirus in Russia — live updates, cases, and news

Coronavirus cases and fatalities in Russia

The number is based on confirmed diagnostic tests. It is very likely that the true number of COVID-19 cases is higher as many cases are asymptomatic.

New COVID-19 cases and fatalities per day in Russia

This is a good indicator of “flattening the curve” — when there is a steady decreasing trend, it is an indicator that the spread of the disease is slowing down.

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If you’d like to use these graphs and maps on your site or articles, please e-mail us.

What are coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause infection in humans and various animals, including birds and mammals such as camels, cats and bats. Some animal coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are communicable from animals to humans. To date, it has been confirmed that seven coronaviruses can also cause infection in humans. When animal coronaviruses evolve, infect humans and spread between humans, this can lead to outbreaks such as MERS-CoV and SARS.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

The symptoms range from mild to severe respiratory disorders with fever, coughing and breathing difficulties. The elderly and people with existing chronic conditions appear to be more vulnerable to serious symptoms. Certain population groups are considered to be more at risk; they are more vulnerable to developing serious symptoms. These are mainly people over 65 years of age and people suffering from serious chronic diseases.

Coronavirus in Russia News:

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Shigir idol.

Wood-carved idol retrieved from Russian bog is, incredibly, older than the Pyramids

A tall human-like sculpture discovered in Russia in the late 1800s is more than twice as old as the Egyptian pyramids, a new paper reports.

Shigir idol.

The head of the wooden Shigir sculpture (1-6) and anthropomorphic face on fragment (7-10).
Credit: E.F. Tamplon; Antiquity 2018

The first pieces of the towering wooden construct, dubbed the Shigir Idol, were discovered by gold miners working in the eponymous peat bog in the Urals sometime in 1894. In the late 1990s, the Idol was radiocarbon dated for the first time, revealing it was about 9,900 years old — making it the oldest wooden monumental sculpture in the world.

However, this dating wasn’t reliable, as it was performed on material samples harvested from only two pieces of the idol. Now, more exhaustive dating efforts have revealed that the Shigir Idol is much older than previously thought. At an impressive 11,500 years of age, the sculpture is over twice as old as the Great Pyramid and was likely sculpted at the end of the last ice age.

In addition to more accurately establishing the idol’s age, the team also report finding a previously-unknown face carved into its surface, said study co-researcher Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the State Agency for Heritage Service of Lower Saxony, in Hannover, Germany.

Credit: Learning Mind.

Credit: Learning Mind.

Researchers first began studying the figure, carved from several pieces of larch wood after it was first recovered from the Shigir peat bog. Put together, they stood more than 5 meters (17 feet) in height. Some of its sections have since been lost, so the idol now stands about 3.4 m (11.1 feet) high, Terberger said. The human-like figure is currently on public display at the Sverdlovsk Regional Museum.

“When I visited the Sverdlovsk Regional Museum for the first time, I was completely surprised by seeing this large wooden sculpture on display in the exhibition,” Terberger told Live Science. “If you come closer to the sculpture, you will notice that the ‘body’ is decorated by geometric ornamentation and a few small human faces.”

Research in the early 1900s recorded the pieces’ shapes and sizes in illustrations, which noted the five faces carved along its surface. Svetlana Savchenko, a co-author of the current paper and researcher at the Sverdlovsk Regional Museum identified a sixth, animal-like face carved into the wood back in 2003. Working alongside Mikhail Zhilin, first author of the current paper, Savchenko then discovered a seventh face carved in the wood in 2014.

Credit: V.Y. Tolmachev, Public Domain.

Credit: V.Y. Tolmachev, Public Domain.

The carved faces suggest that the early peoples of Eurasia were deliberately creating art, possibly spiritual or religious in nature, during the early Mesolithic. Its sheer size meant it was easily visible to the community, although it’s difficult to prove its exact purpose or the mythology it was a part of.

The team says that while many researchers scour the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East in hopes of understanding early humans, the Shigir Idol stands as proof that the search should be widened.

The paper “Early art in the Urals: new research on the wooden sculpture from Shigir” has been published in the journal Antiquity.

Russia on the brink of HIV crisis as AIDS denial runs rampant through the country

Less than half of Russians with HIV are taking the necessary antiretroviral drugs, in part due to a conspiracy theory that’s running rampant through the country. Basically, many Russians refuse to believe HIV and AIDS are real, instead choosing to believe that they are a myth invented by the West.

Antiretroviral Drugs to Treat HIV Infection. Credits: NIAID.

As the world marks the World Aids Day on 1 December, many people have been fooled by a cruel conspiracy theory. HIV/AIDS denialism is the belief — thoroughly contradicted by conclusive medical and scientific evidence — that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) does not cause acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The conspiracy theory comes with slight variations, with some believing that HIV doesn’t exist at all, while others claiming that HIV exists but it does nothing to cause AIDS. In South Africa especially, AIDS denialism has been prevalent, with researchers attributing over 300,000 AIDS-related deaths, along with 171,000 other HIV infections and 35,000 infant HIV infections, to the South African government’s former embrace of HIV/AIDS denialism. Now, this worrying trend is picking up steam elsewhere in the world.

In Russia, 900,000 Russians are living with HIV today, with 10 new cases emerging every hour. While globally, HIV rates have been slowly going down, in Russia (and much of Eastern Europe), they are growing alarmingly fast. National health interventions have been almost non-existent, and public awareness and support are very low, as is the national trust in doctors. Within this unfortunate social situation, a pseudoscience cult has started to emerge. People often don’t even learn about proper treatment options and sometimes refuse treatment altogether.

“It’s unacceptable in our day and age that children are dying while a range of treatment is available,” said Alexey Yakovlev, head doctor of the Botkin hospital in Saint-Petersburg, where a 10-year-old girl died in August after her religious parents repeatedly refused to treat her.

HIV cases have dropped worldwide, but in some parts of the world, things are starting to get worse. Credits: NIAID.

A positive diagnosis handled badly is how denialism most often begins. Without psychological support and often seeing the diagnosis as a “you only have a few years to live” sentence, patients often turn to alcohol and drugs — but even more often, they turn to the internet. As you’ve probably happened to see in your day to day life, the internet isn’t really a regulated space where you’re guaranteed to find accurate, scientific information. Quite the contrary: proper science and pseudoscience often emerge side by side, and sometimes, all you need to convince people on the internet is scream loud enough. So instead of reading accurate information about HIV, AIDS, and treatment options, you might read that AIDS is a divine punishment or something that derives from anal sex. You might learn that you need a silver enema or to put jade eggs in your vagina. Perhaps there’s a “miracle cure,” usually something simple like a fruit. In short, you might read all sorts of crap on the internet, and when you’re under the tremendous pressure which comes with a harsh diagnosis, you might fall for it. Things only get worse when celebrities start advocating such pseudoscience.

In Russia, one such celebrity is Olga Kovekh, a former military doctor, currently employed as a physician in a clinic in Volgograd. According to The Independent, she’s expressed doubts about the existence of pneumonia, vaccines, and even suggested that TB could be treated with proper administration of ham sandwiches. Of course, she addressed HIV too, reportedly stating that HIV drugs are poison.

“One goal of the AIDS myth is decreasing the planet’s population to two billion by establishing total control” through vaccinations, she said. Along with similar-minded people, she presents HIV as an American invention, something which only happens to “druggies” and “gays.” This only helps fuel denial. If you believe the propaganda, you’re not a druggie and you’re not gay, you might have a hard time understanding how this happened to you — and like a vicious cycle, it goes on and on.

“The biggest reason (for people becoming denialists) is lack of consultation,”said Yekaterina Zinger, director of the Svecha foundation in Saint-Petersburg.. “People don’t get enough information and begin to think that somebody is hiding something from them.”

“The temptation to believe that it’s a myth is very high,” she said, especially for heterosexual people that are not in risk groups commonly associated with HIV that “don’t understand how it happened to them”.

With proper medication, many cases of HIV infection can result in normal or almost normal life expectancy years. But without it, the disease can be indeed a sentence. Russia is one of the leaders when it comes to HIV testing, with 25 million tests administered last year. But with a shortage of available treatment, and with pseudoscience running amok, the country might be on the verge of a health crisis.

Moscow posters.

Facebook turns over 3,000 Russian-bought ads featuring rifles, anti-immigrant messages

On Monday, Facebook handed some 3,000 ads over to congressional investigators, as the tech giant believes they were purchased for Russian propaganda. The ads, as well as the accounts and pages involved, haven’t been made public yet, but their purpose seems to be “to sow discord and chaos, and divide us from one another.”

Moscow posters.

Propaganda posters in Moscow.
Image credits Peggy Lachmann-Anke, Marco Lachmann-Anke.

Most of these ads don’t support a specific candidate, but instead cluster around heated topics in American society with the purpose of fueling debate and division. In particular, these ads bring up issues regarding immigration and race relations. Facebook reports that they were disseminated through multiple pages and profiles, 470 of which have been linked to the Internet Research Agency, or, IRA. IRA is the so-called “troll farm” based in Saint Petersburg, a company which uses fake accounts to engage in online influence and disinformation operations on behalf of the Russian government. IRA is known to have meddled in the 2016 US Presidential campaign in the favor of then-candidate Donald Trump.

Rock bottom and then some

More often than not, these ads appear unassuming, and the propaganda stems from places that seem quite distant from political spheres. The Washington Post recently reported that one of the paid ads showcased a black woman “dry firing” an unloaded rifle. The purpose of this ad is unclear, though it did hit the web amid a period of racial tensions in the US. The New York Times, in turn, traced Russian propaganda back to a variety of groups including a “Defend the 2nd” group “festooned with firearms and tough rhetoric,” a gay rights group named “LGBT United,” even an animal-lover page plastered with pictures of puppies.

CNN reported several ads in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which appeared to be targeted specifically to Ferguson and Baltimore during the protests. The material itself wasn’t as much about supporting the movement as it was about “portraying the group as threatening to some residents.”

Facebook hasn’t identified which ads were purchased by Russian-based entities thus far, but it also hasn’t prevented from leaking. The Daily Beast, for example, has recovered and reported content from accounts it believes are associated with Russian interests, such as the United Muslims of America. According to the Daily Beast, “Russians impersonated real American Muslims to stir chaos on Facebook and Instagram.”

“These ads are significant to our investigation as they help demonstrate how Russia employed sophisticated measures to push disinformation and propaganda to millions of Americans online during the election, in order to sow discord and chaos, and divide us from one another,” Representative Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told ABC News.

These ads make me sick, so I won’t show them here — all the pieces I’ve linked have plenty. They’re equal parts ignorant and infuriating, with strange yellow font and typos peppered throughout. The Committee has gained possession of the ad,s and Schiff hopes to release a “representative sampling” of them to the public.

Facebook said it will strive for greater transparency in the future. Towards this end, they will hire about 1,000 more ad reviewers in the near future, and will request groups running political ads to post copies of these ads publicly.

The first line of defense here isn’t policy, or a company that may or may not have a conflict of interest in limiting ad sales; it’s each and every one of us. These ads are trying to influence your opinion; somebody is paying money to try and change your mind. Don’t give them the satisfaction. Never hate because you’re told to hate. Don’t accept conflict in lieu of cooperation, especially when cooperation looks difficult, even impossible. Don’t allow lines to be drawn for you, separating an arbitrary “us” from a just-as-arbitrary “them”. Just because it’s on the Internet, it doesn’t mean it’s true. Especially when somebody is shelling money at Facebook so you’ll see what they have to say.

Never hate because you’re told to hate. Don’t accept conflict in lieu of cooperation, especially in cases when cooperation looks difficult, or even impossible. Don’t allow lines to be drawn for you, which separate an arbitrary “us” from a just-as-arbitrary “them”. Just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true, especially when someone is shilling money at Facebook so you’ll see what they have to say.

Worthy causes spread by themselves. Propaganda spreads by paying for ads.

NASA and Russia to work on new Lunar Space Station

It’s time to move on to the next stage in mankind’s space exploration.

Artistic depiction of the station. Credits: NASA.

The Cold War will definitely remain one of the darker pages of mankind’s history, but it brought an unexpected upside: the Space Race. The rivalry between the USSR and the United States sent us to unprecedented heights. First, we sent a man to space. Then, mankind rushed to the Moon, accomplishing what few people thought possible, with what today we see as incredibly simple technology. After the Cold War, we built a research station in orbit — the International Space Station has greatly improved our understanding of space, and science in general. Now, it’s time to take things to the next level and mix the two up and set up a station in the near-Moon orbit. That the US and Russia, the two old rivals, are teaming up to do this, is the cherry on the cake.

Rumors about this started about one week ago when Popular Mechanics reported that the head of Roscosmos State Corporation, Igor Komarov, will announce a new partnership with NASA to build a near-Moon station. Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin also expressed support for such a project.

“We will discuss what we will do on the Moon, near the Moon, and the lunar orbital station,” Komarov was quoted as saying, “It is important how (near-lunar station) will develop, what would be the contribution from each country, and what will be our participation.”

Now, things are official, as Komarov himself has noted, and NASA has confirmed.

“We [Roscosmos and NASA] have agreed to join the project to build a new international Deep Space Gateway station in [the] moon’s orbit,” Roscosmos head Igor Komarov said, as cited by Interfax.

The project is called Deep Space Gateway and is regarded by NASA as a stepping stone towards longer missions, especially to Mars. Basically, NASA wants to use this new outpost to test the systems needed for challenging missions to deep space destinations. The near-Moon environment offers a deep-space environment suitable for such tests, and is also relatively accessible from Earth. This deep space gateway would have a power bus, a small habitat to extend crew time, docking capability, an airlock, and serviced by logistics modules to enable research.

This is not a US-Russia project only. Among others, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa are expected to participate.

“I envision different partners, both international and commercial, contributing to the gateway and using it in a variety of ways with a system that can move to different orbits to enable a variety of missions,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA. “The gateway could move to support robotic or partner missions to the surface of the moon, or to a high lunar orbit to support missions departing from the gateway to other destinations in the solar system.”