Saturday, the 11th of December

Talking Points

Third time's the charm. PHOTO: AP
  1. A test indicated three Pfizer shots are effective against Omicron
  2. Buffalo Starbucks workers formed the company's first-ever union
  3. The UK government reeled over Christmas party breaches
  4. Finland's PM was criticised for clubbing until 4am
  5. Olaf Scholz was sworn in as German Chancellor
  6. A case of mistaken identity embarrassed French authorities
  7. Chinese developers Evergrande and Kaisa defaulted on debt
  8. Indonesia touted mass relocations after Mt Semeru erupted
  9. India's farmers ended their year-long protest in victory
  10. Aung San Suu Kyi was jailed by Myanmar courts

Dive deeper

A Russian amphibious landing drill. PHOTO: Bloomberg

Artillery arranged along a muddy front line, thirty years of mistrust, and a two-hour presidential phone call. This week we're back in the eastern Ukraine, peering over the border at what looks like an invasion force.

A Cold Peace

Let's start with a reading from Alexei K Pushkov, Mikhail Gorbachev's former speechwriter. This is an excerpt from a piece titled 'Don't Isolate Us' in the American journal The National Interest . "If NATO military structures were to approach Russian borders and its troops were to appear on the territories of new member-states, Russia would be forced to adjust these challenges to its security. New tensions caused by enlargement would spoil the post-Cold War political climate in Europe, destroy mutual trust, revive old fears, and throw the relationship between Russia and the West back into the past." This was written in 1997. Today, in late 2021, the predicament Pushkov enunciated is clear to see. The post-Cold War political climate feels like the "Cold Peace" that Boris Yeltsin once warned of, mutual trust is scarce, old fears have risen, and there is talk of war.

The breakaway eastern Ukraine region of Donbass is ground zero. Separatists backed by Russia and the Western-armed Ukrainian army have fought to a standstill in and around Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014. But behind the static frontlines, great manoeuvres are afoot. US intelligence has claimed repeatedly that Russia is planning to go all-in on behalf of their separatist cat's paws as early as next year. Infantry, armour, and anti-aircraft weapons are building up around Voronezh and Smolensk. Reports suggest that as many as 175,000 soldiers could be amassed by the end of January. Russia's Foreign Ministry meanwhile has blasted NATO for "pumping weapons into the country", and Kyiv for "building up its contingent on the line of contact in Donbass". The appearance of heavy artillery — which can hit targets 20km away – on the Ukrainian side is a significant statement.

Walk it like I talk it

This week, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin settled in for a two-hour chat with the aim of avoiding open conflict in Ukraine. There was no last-minute breakthrough that Biden could offer. From reports, much of the call comprised the two men reiterating their positions. Washington's position is, sensibly, to avoid direct confrontation with Moscow: sending US troops to Ukraine is "not on the table". A raft of heavy sanctions and multilateral pressure must stand in for boots on the ground. One option being mulled is cutting Russian banks off from the SWIFT international banking payment system. Another is to deny them the ability to convert rubles into dollars . These would be unprecedented hammer blows to the Russian economy. Likewise, there have been vague gesticulations in the direction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but any action against it will have dire consequences across Europe.

Possibilities abound all around in the diplomatic sphere. But back in Donbass the outlook is more grounded: if a war were to start tomorrow, Russia would win. The head of Ukraine's military intelligence gave this prediction of his country's front-line commanders, "They will hold up as long as there are bullets. They'll be able to use what they have in their hands, but believe me without delivery of reserves, there's not an army in the world that can hold out."

The fog of war

In the days following the summit, a chorus of warnings has sounded across Western Europe. Notably, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has spoken of severe, long-lasting consequences for Russia. But a counter-point quickly comes to mind: does Russia look like it is suffering from the consequences of the Crimean annexation? Still, our goal is not to argue about empty threats from Wallace but to understand the changing dynamic between Russia and NATO member-states. The NATO Secretary has disregarded Russian claims of encirclement — "only 6% of the Russian land border is bordered by NATO countries" — and pointed to the fact that it's not up to Moscow who joins its alliance. The statement offers more than is apparent at first glance. At a base level it is simply a silly thing to say because the 6% of the land border that Russia does share with NATO countries is home to an extreme concentration of offensive weaponry (pointing both ways). More importantly, it is also an admission that the tenuous agreements struck in the early post-Soviet years are all but gone.

Thirty years ago, Boris Yeltsin struck a deal with Western leaders: Russia would recognise Eastern bloc borders, so long as NATO kept its paws off former Soviet republics . But that's not what happened. Almost immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, the new Russia began nibbling away at its neighbours. That playbook has remained unchanged for decades not least because of its great success. The Kremlin sends money and material support into breakaway regions of its neighbouring former allies. This causes small-scale conflicts to build up. Then, at the critical juncture, Moscow sticks its thumb on the scales. Abkhazia in 1992. South Ossetia in 2008. Even, the seizure of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 — the largest to date. These were all your garden variety annexation. But Donbass may be different. This is the first occasion on which the tried and tested methodology for rebuilding buffer zones is being met with significant opposition. What's missing from much of the discussion is that NATO too has not kept its side of Yeltsin bargain: it offered memberships to both Ukraine and Georgia back in 2008.

Can war be averted?


Governments come for their pound of flesh. PHOTO: Getty

More money, more problems

There are those who turn up fashionably late to a party. And then there are others who rock up hours later, with a packet of cigarettes, when everyone is vaping. Like e-cigarettes, cryptocurrencies are smoking hot right now. And governments are having a hard time working out how to regulate them. This week, Australia became the latest country to propose a crackdown on crypto scammers and dodgy exchange platforms . India’s lower house is set to debate a bill to limit private cryptocurrency transactions. And China’s September crackdown on tech companies effectively outlawed the trading and mining of cryptocurrency. Meanwhile in Washington, the leading cryptocurrency companies are starting to throw their weight around like the banks, tech giants and oil companies. That is, by asking for regulation — on their own terms .

But regulation won’t be simple — and that’s kind of the point. Crypto disciples love to point out that digital coins are decentralised: they are created and traded as blocks of information on a massive public ledger, rather than being issued and controlled by a single central entity. Understandably, China’s heavily centralised government has gone cold on the concept. But effectively banning cryptocurrency would require a global regulator who could consistently regulate international exchanges. Changpeng Zhao, founder of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange (Binance), isn’t too worried about the incursion of regulators: ‘Different regulators in different countries care about different things.’ India, which for a while looked like emulating China’s outright ban, has turned its attention towards imposing tougher requirements on exchange platforms while it works to develop its own centralised digital currency. Money-laundering and cybercrime are genuine fears. More pressing is the issue of how governments protect their citizens (and economies) from a new and highly volatile market which is fast approaching $3 trillion.

The adults may finally be arriving at the crypto trading party, but venture capital already has one eye set on the Next Big Thing. Venture capitalists have poured USD$27 billion into crypto start-ups in 2021 — more than the previous 10 years combined . They are betting on the potential of the blockchain technology that undergirds these cryptocurrencies to create a new internet (‘web3’ in the new industry lingo) — and make them very rich in the process. But what, you ask, about all those ideals espoused by crypto’s biggest mouthpieces? Whence the decentralisation, the wealth distribution, the democratic potential? This wasn’t how it was meant to go. Well, tough luck. Or as Charles Hoskinson, Ethereum and Cardano Blockchain creator, put it: ‘They’re always going to get their pound of flesh before everybody else.’ The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Aotearoa is NOT flavour country. PHOTO: The Guardian

You know that's bad for you, right?

The jury has been in on tobacco smoking for quite some time. And it's not like this news hasn't filtered through to the 1.3bn people still punching darts globally. It's just that the verdict isn't convincing enough. The whole stick with cancer sticks is that they are highly addictive — so all your facts don't really figure in the conversation. Which is why public health authorities have pushed for all manner of anti-smoking measures that go beyond the usual advertising and education campaigns. Plain-packaging. Graphic representations of the physical repercussions of smoking. Vastly inflated prices. Everything short of James Dean and Marlboro Man holograms begging for forgiveness.

In New Zealand, 11% of all adults smoke (this figure rises to 22% in the Maori community). The numbers are dropping, but slowly. Given that 50% of all smokers will die from it, the country's Deputy Health Minister Dr. Ayesha Verrall has come up with a novel circuit-breaker: don't give young people the chance to become addicted in the first place. From 2027, anyone aged 14 or younger will not be allowed to purchase cigarettes. Ever. A generational ban gets around the stumbling blocks of trying to deprive today's smokers of their lung toffee. The "smoke-free generation" plan aims to cut the smoking rate to just 5% by 2030. At the same time, the number of tobacco retailers will also be curbed, and the potency of tobacco products will be lowered.

Libertarians will see this as just another government trying to butt in. But it's also possibly the most promising way to butt out.

The best of times

There are worse ways to teach programming skills. PHOTO: MTV

Doja Cat is going to teach your daughter computer science

The education non-profit Girls Who Code have turned Doja Cat's Woman music video into a choose-your-own adventure code game to boost the declining numbers of women in the field. Don't understand anything in that sentence? Just smile, nod, and rest assured that it's a good thing.

A novel Alzheimer's treatment

Researchers in Cleveland have trawled through the insurance claims data of 7 million Americans to locate any drugs that may correlate with a lowered risk of dementia . One stood out: viagra. Men using the little blue pill experienced 69% reduced risk to Alzheimer's. Leave your jokes at the door; this a family newsletter.

The worst of times

Myanmar's military is struggling to enforce control in the regions. PHOTO: Reuters

A massacre in Myanmar

Yet another nauseating mass killing in Myanmar has made its way out past the conflict zone. The military's grip on rural areas is tenuous at best. And an age-old counter-insurgency tactic has emerged: if you can't find rebels, shoot the villagers. On Tuesday morning, the army entered the hamlet of Don Taw in Sagaing province . When they left that afternoon, 11 unarmed locals had been shot and burned.

A very full closet

Chilean presidential frontrunner José Antonio Kast is once again mired in discussions about his family's links to fascists. The Kasts, from the country's Christian right-wing, have deep sympathies with Pinochet's military dictatorship. The candidate bragged that the old autocrat would vote for him. A recently-surfaced identification card shows that his German-born father voluntarily joined the Nazi party in 1942. Another South American right-winger with swastikas on the family heirlooms? Ach, nee!

Weekend Reading

The image

Australian soccer icon and Chelsea striker Sam Kerr executes a textbook hip-and-shoulder on a pitch invader. These are much more commonly seen in the national code of her birthplace. Image supplied by Indy100.

The quote

"Whether they come or not nobody cares."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin gives a typically forthright response to the news that Australia would follow the US diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics. We'd venture a guess that, on this matter, the Australia populace is in complete agreement with the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

The numbers

1 break and 30,000 complaints

- Amazon Web Services suffered an outage this week. Everything from Disney+ to Tinder was briefly out of action across the eastern United States and parts of Europe and Asia. Because of Amazon's market share in cloud computing most of the entire internet breaks when it has a technical fault.


- Rohingya refugees have brought class action lawsuits against Meta in the US and UK. They claim Facebook failed to remove hate-speech that incited violence during Myanmar's genocidal expulsion. Facebook's inability to stem the torrent of hate-speech has been well-documented over the last decade.

The headline

"Tesla Drivers Can Now Play Video Games Even With Car Moving" – The New York Times.

The special mention

Our prestigious Special Mention for Worst Actor goes to none other than Jussie Smollett .

A few choice long-reads

  • This is a really, really long read from the Financial Times: Disney chief on his war on Netflix, irking the talent and breaking with the past.
  • Businessweek tracks the quixotic scientific adventure to discover a single shot that will not just beat omicron — but all coronaviruses.
  • Foreign Affairs here with a fascinating piece on the literal cost of America's secrets.

Tom Wharton and Angus Thomson