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First Thing: Russian pledge to withdraw met with scepticism

Russian Military Drill, Opuk, Crimea - 15 Feb 2022. Image grab from footage by Moscow shows tanks from the units of the Western Military District are returning to their points of permanent deployment (bases) from undisclosed location near Ukraine.
Joe Biden has claimed that 150,000 Russian troops remain in a “threatening position” around Ukraine, despite Russian claims of a withdrawal. Photograph: EyePress News/Rex/Shutterstock

Good morning.

A video of a handful of screeching tanks and lumbering armoured vehicles mounting a transport train in Crimea accompanied the Russian defence ministry’s trumpeted announcement that some of the forces that have been encircling Ukraine will “head for their garrisons”, writes Dan Sabbagh.

Such evidence is clearly far too tentative to amount to anything definitive, however, and many are sceptical about the pledge to withdraw. The Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said this morning the alliance had not seen any evidence of a Russian withdrawal.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden has claimed that 150,000 Russian troops remain in a “threatening position” around Ukraine, despite Russian claims of a withdrawal, and warned that an invasion “remains distinctly possible”.

On Wednesday morning, Stoltenberg said Russia was building up its military forces on Ukraine’s border with more troops on their way, contradicting Moscow’s claims of a drawdown.

  • What else did Biden say in his speech on Ukraine? Biden addressed the American people directly, telling them he was not going to “pretend this will be painless” and that they would feel it at the petrol pump.

  • What’s happening today? Nato defence ministers are meeting in Brussels today. The US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, will join Stoltenberg and others to consider next steps amid tensions in eastern Europe.

Prince Andrew’s ‘arrogance’ prevented earlier settlement, lawyers say

Prince Andrew in September 2019.
Prince Andrew in September 2019. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

US attorneys representing victims of Jeffrey Epstein have hailed Tuesday’s settlement between Prince Andrew and Virginia Giuffre as a “victory” for survivors, with one claiming the royal’s “arrogance” stood in the way of settling sooner.

Giuffre filed a civil lawsuit against the Duke of York in New York last year, accusing the prince of sexually abusing her when she was 17. The move represents a remarkable turnaround for the duke, who has always denied having a sexual relationship with Giuffre and had vowed to clear his name in court.

“It’s another banner day for the survivors,” Robert Lewis, a New York-based lawyer for Sarah Ransome, who was abused at the age of 22 and settled a lawsuit with Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell in 2018, told the Guardian.

  • Meanwhile, Prince Andrew is facing fresh calls to be stripped of his Duke of York title. The Queen last month stripped Andrew of his military affiliations and royal patronages in an attempt to distance the royal family from the allegations. However, he has kept his Duke of York title.

  • Here’s how the British press reacted to the news of the settlement, which gives an indication of how people in the UK feel.

Capitol attack investigators target Trump circle over fake elector ploy

Protesters clash with Capitol police on 6 January.
Protesters clash with Capitol police on 6 January. Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The House select committee investigating the Capitol attack issued subpoenas yesterday to top Trump campaign and Republican officials involved in the scheme to send false electors for Donald Trump in states won by Joe Biden, as it examines the coordination behind the effort.

The panel sent subpoenas to six individuals who were involved in a brazen attempt to meet and submit fake electoral college certificates that formed the backbone of a Trump-connected scheme to have Congress return the former president to office.

Congressman Bennie Thompson, the chairman of the select committee, suggested in a statement that the subpoenas aimed to compel cooperation from the key actors about whether the Trump White House oversaw the effort to have “alternate electors” participate in the scheme.

  • What did Thompson say? He said: “We’re seeking records and testimony from former campaign officials and other individuals in various states who we believe have relevant information about the planning and implementation of those plans.”

In other news …

  • Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin lost her libel lawsuit against the New York Times when a jury rejected her claim that the newspaper had maliciously damaged her reputation by erroneously linking her campaign rhetoric to a mass shooting.

  • Rental prices across the US have soared over the past year, with some cities experiencing average price rises of up to 40%, leaving many renters stunned and grappling with either having to move to be able to afford rent or pay significantly more.

  • New Zealand has banned conversion practices after all but eight National party members voted in favour of the law. Conversion “therapy” refers to the practice, often by religious groups, of trying to “cure” people of their sexuality or gender expression.

  • The International Olympic Committee has dismissed claims that a double standard was applied to US sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson compared with the Russian skater Kamila Valieva after both tested positive for a banned drug.

Stat of the day: US sea level to rise as much in next 30 years as in past century – study

A man walks his bicycle through a street flooded by Hurricane Sally in Pensacola, Florida, in September 2020
A man walks his bicycle through a street flooded by Hurricane Sally in Pensacola, Florida, in September 2020. Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

The vast US coastline is being assailed by rapidly encroaching oceans, with up to 1ft of sea level rise expected in the next 30 years – an increase that equals the total rise seen over the past century, a major US federal government report has found. The seas are rising significantly faster around the US than the global average, a situation that will cause a “dramatic increase” in disastrous flooding.

Don’t miss this: how complicit are the wives of dictators?

Dictator’s Wife
Does the fixation on the glamour of leaders’ wives help disguise the darkness of their husbands’ deeds? Illustration: Rita Liu/The Guardian

The Dictator’s Wife is a debut novel by Freya Berry which explores how tyrants deploy glamorous spouses to soften their image: velvet gloves to their iron fists. The book poses an important question: to what extent should such women be judged as complicit in their husbands’ regimes? They are often survivors of brutal patriarchy and lack genuine political power. But do they, too, have blood on their hands?

Climate check: US west ‘megadrought’ is worst in at least 1,200 years, study says

Houseboats are moored on Lake Oroville reservoir during the California drought emergency in Oroville, California, on 25 May 2021.
Houseboats are moored on Lake Oroville reservoir during the California drought emergency in Oroville, California, on 25 May 2021. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

The American west has spent the last two decades in what scientists are now saying is the most extreme megadrought in at least 1,200 years. In a new study, published on Monday, researchers also noted that human-caused climate change is a significant driver of the destructive conditions and offered a grim prognosis: even drier decades lie ahead. Turning up the temperature – the result of human-caused heating – has played a big part.

Last Thing: Scientists build robotic fish powered by human heart cells

Biohybrid fish is powered by human heart stem cells
The experiment, which went swimmingly, marks a hopeful step in the advancement of heart treatments such as pacemakers. Photograph: Michael Rosnach, Keel Yong Lee, Sung-Jin Park, Kevin Kit Parker/Havard

Scientists at Harvard University have engineered an artificial fish whose flapping tail is powered by cells from a human heart, a groundbreaking project that has ignited hopes for the future of cardiac research. The scientists, in collaboration with Emory University, built the “biohybrid fish” using paper, plastic, gelatin and two strips of living heart muscle cells, the contractions of which pulled the fish’s tail from side to side and allowed it to swim.

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