loss of purchasing power over time, meaning your dollar will not go as far tomorrow as it did today. It is typically expressed as the annual change in prices for everyday goods and services such as food, furniture, apparel, transportation costs and toys.

Americans found themselves with a lot of money in the bank, and as they spent that money on goods, demand collided with a global supply chain that was too fragile to catch up.

Virus outbreaks shut down factories, ports faced backlogs and a dearth of truckers roiled transit routes. Americans still managed to buy more goods than ever before in 2021, and foreign factories sent a record sum of products to U.S. shops and doorsteps. But all that shopping wasn’t enough to satisfy consumer demand.

stop spending at the start of the pandemic helped to swell savings stockpiles.

And the Federal Reserve’s interest rates are at rock bottom, which has bolstered demand for big purchases made on credit, from houses and cars to business investments like machinery and computers. Families have been taking on more housing and auto debt, data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows, helping to pump up those sectors.

But if stimulus-driven demand is fueling inflation, the diagnosis could come with a silver lining. It may be easier to temper consumer spending than to rapidly reorient tangled supply lines.

People may naturally begin to buy less as government help fades. Spending could shift away from goods and back toward services if the pandemic abates. And the Fed’s policies work on demand — not supply.

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Supply Chain Woes Could Worsen as China Imposes Covid Lockdowns

WASHINGTON — Companies are bracing for another round of potentially debilitating supply chain disruptions as China, home to about a third of global manufacturing, imposes sweeping lockdowns in an attempt to keep the Omicron variant at bay.

The measures have already confined tens of millions of people to their homes in several Chinese cities and contributed to a suspension of connecting flights through Hong Kong from much of the world for the next month. At least 20 million people, or about 1.5 percent of China’s population, are in lockdown, mostly in the city of Xi’an in western China and in Henan Province in north-central China.

The country’s zero-tolerance policy has manufacturers — already on edge from spending the past two years dealing with crippling supply chain woes — worried about another round of shutdowns at Chinese factories and ports. Additional disruptions to the global supply chain would come at a particularly fraught moment for companies, which are struggling with rising prices for raw materials and shipping along with extended delivery times and worker shortages.

China used lockdowns, contact tracing and quarantines to halt the spread of the coronavirus nearly two years ago after its initial emergence in Wuhan. These tactics have been highly effective, but the extreme transmissibility of the Omicron variant poses the biggest test yet of China’s system.

Volkswagen and Toyota announced last week that they would temporarily suspend operations in Tianjin because of lockdowns.

Analysts warn that many industries could face disruptions in the flow of goods as China tries to stamp out any coronavirus infections ahead of the Winter Olympics, which will be held in Beijing next month. On Saturday, Beijing officials reported the city’s first case of the Omicron variant, prompting the authorities to lock down the infected person’s residential compound and workplace.

If extensive lockdowns become more widespread in China, their effects on supply chains could be felt across the United States. Major new disruptions could depress consumer confidence and exacerbate inflation, which is already at a 40-year high, posing challenges for the Biden administration and the Federal Reserve.

“Will the Chinese be able to control it or not I think is a really important question,” said Craig Allen, the president of the U.S.-China Business Council. “If they’re going to have to begin closing down port cities, you’re going to have additional supply chain disruptions.”

thrown the global delivery system out of whack. Transportation costs have skyrocketed, and ports and warehouses have experienced pileups of products waiting to be shipped or driven elsewhere while other parts of the supply chain are stymied by shortages.

For the 2021 holiday season, customers largely circumvented those challenges by ordering early. High shipping prices began to ease after the holiday rush, and some analysts speculated that next month’s Lunar New Year, when many Chinese factories will idle, might be a moment for ports, warehouses and trucking companies to catch up on moving backlogged orders and allow global supply chains to return to normal.

But the spread of the Omicron variant is foiling hopes for a fast recovery, highlighting not only how much America depends on Chinese goods, but also how fragile the supply chain remains within the United States.

American trucking companies and warehouses, already short of workers, are losing more of their employees to sickness and quarantines. Weather disruptions are leading to empty shelves in American supermarkets. Delivery times for products shipped from Chinese factories to the West Coast of the United States are as long as ever — stretching to a record high of 113 days in early January, according to Flexport, a logistics firm. That was up from fewer than 50 days at the beginning of 2019.

The Biden administration has undertaken a series of moves to try to alleviate bottlenecks both in the United States and abroad, including devoting $17 billion to improving American ports as part of the new infrastructure law. Major U.S. ports are handling more cargo than ever before and working through their backlog of containers — in part because ports have threatened additional fees for containers that sit too long in their yards.

Yet those greater efficiencies have been undercut by continuing problems at other stages of the supply chain, including a shortage of truckers and warehouse workers to move the goods to their final destination. A push to make the Port of Los Angeles operate 24/7, which was the centerpiece of the Biden administration’s efforts to address supply chain issues this fall, has still seen few trucks showing up for overnight pickups, according to port officials, and cargo ships are still waiting for weeks outside West Coast ports for their turn for a berth to dock in.

work slowdowns and shipping delays.

“If you have four closed doors to get through and one of them opens up, that doesn’t necessarily mean quick passage,” said Phil Levy, the chief economist at Flexport. “We should not delude ourselves that if our ports become 10 percent more efficient, we’ve solved the whole problem.”

Chris Netram, the managing vice president for tax and domestic economic policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, which represents 14,000 companies, said that American businesses had seen a succession of supply chain problems since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Right now, we are at the tail end of one flavor of those challenges, the port snarls,” he said, adding that Chinese lockdowns could be “the next flavor of this.”

Manufacturers are watching carefully to see whether more factories and ports in China might be forced to shutter if Omicron spreads in the coming weeks.

Neither Xi’an nor Henan Province, the site of China’s most expansive lockdowns, has an economy heavily reliant on exports, although Xi’an does produce some semiconductors, including for Samsung and Micron Technology, as well as commercial aircraft components.

Handel Jones, the chief executive of International Business Strategies, a chip consultancy, said the impact on Samsung and Micron would be limited, but he expressed worries about the potential for broader lockdowns in cities like Tianjin or Shanghai.

stay away from any vehicle collisions involving Olympic participants, to avoid infection.

Last year, terminal shutdowns in and around Ningbo and Shenzhen, respectively the world’s third- and fourth-largest container ports by volume, led to congestion and delays, and caused some ships to reroute to other ports.

But if the coronavirus does manage to enter a big port again, the effects could quickly be felt in the United States. “If one of the big container terminals goes into lockdown,” Mr. Huxley said, “it doesn’t take long for a big backlog to develop.”

Airfreight could also become more expensive and harder to obtain in the coming weeks as China has canceled dozens of flights to clamp down on another potential vector of infection. That could especially affect consumer electronics companies, which tend to ship high-value goods by air.

For American companies, the prospect of further supply chain troubles means there may be another scramble to secure Chinese-made products ahead of potential closures.

Lisa Williams, the chief executive of the World of EPI, a company that makes multicultural dolls, said the supply chain issues were putting pressure on companies like hers to get products on the shelves faster than ever, with retailers asking for goods for the fall to be shipped as early as May.

Dr. Williams, who was an academic specializing in logistics before she started her company, said an increase in the price of petroleum and other raw materials had pushed up the cost of the materials her company uses to make dolls, including plastic accessories, fibers for hair, fabrics for clothing and plastic for the dolls themselves. Her company has turned to far more expensive airfreight to get some shipments to the United States faster, further cutting into the firm’s margins.

“Everything is being moved up because everyone is anticipating the delay with supply chains,” she said. “So that compresses everything. It compresses the creativity, it compresses the amount of time we have to think through innovations we want to do.”

Ana Swanson reported from Washington, and Keith Bradsher from Beijing.

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Joe Biden’s low point: can the president revive his sinking popularity?

Even for a White House familiar with roadblocks and frustration, Thursday’s setbacks on vaccine mandates and voting rights came as hammer blows.

Aside from the immediate derailing of two key policy tenets of Joe Biden’s administration, the vaccine ruling by the supreme court, which quickly followed Democratic senator Kyrsten Sinema’s public assassination of his voting reform efforts, prompted a new round of questions over whether his presidency was doomed.

Crucially, serious agonizing is now going on about what Biden’s woes might mean for the Democratic party’s fortunes in midterm elections later this year, when Republicans are tipped to seize back control of both chambers of Congress.

With Biden’s public popularity sinking – in one poll this week to a new low of 33% – and with another centrist Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, having already capsized the president’s flagship $1.75tn Build Back Better domestic spending plan, some analysts say time is running short to impress voters ahead of the November polls.

“The whole first year is gone. And in the end, nothing,” said Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia’ Center for Politics, referring to the lengthy but fruitless discussions with Manchin over the make-up of the plan. “Manchin led him down the rosy patch then threw him into the briar patch. ‘Would you change that? You changed that, well, I don’t like this thing over here. Oh, you changed that, well, there’s these two things …’”

Sabato added: “But the voting rights debacle is the worst of all because why was Biden elected other than that people wanted to get rid of Trump? It was because he was seen as experienced and competent. What’s the experience gotten us exactly? I just don’t understand how we got here.”

Several of Biden’s misfortunes, Sabato said, are not directly of his own making. He has made repeated efforts to change the minds of both Manchin and Sinema, most recently in seemingly unsuccessful late-night talks at the White House on Thursday in an attempt to salvage his agenda.

Kyrsten Sinema blocks filibuster reform as Biden continues ‘fight’ for voting rights – video
Kyrsten Sinema blocks filibuster reform as Biden continues ‘fight’ for voting rights – video

But Sabato also believes that the president’s handling of various situations, and poor direction from advisers, particularly over the Covid-19 pandemic, runaway inflation, and last year’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, have combined to leave Biden exposed.

About inflation, Sabato says: “Biden’s team simply missed it badly, they got it very, very wrong, and they’re continuing probably to get it wrong. They’re downplaying it and they’re going to tame it by mid-year. Maybe, but I’ll be surprised.”

On Afghanistan, Sabato said, Biden “threw it away again”.

“It could have been a big plus had it been handled correctly because just about everybody – Democrat, Republican – was more than willing to get out of Afghanistan. It was a very bad performance by his team. They couldn’t know what was gonna happen? He’s responsible for his advisers, so he can be blamed for it.”

On Friday, the White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced that the president would hold a rare, formal press conference next Wednesday to mark his first year in office. As well as answering difficult questions about the administration’s failures, Biden will talk up its successes, namely the $1tn infrastructure bill he signed in November, and the $1.9tn Covid relief plan from last spring.

Having appeared fatigued by Thursday’s rejections, a more buoyant Biden followed up with his own briefing on Friday afternoon, accompanied by Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor he appointed to oversee the implementation of the infrastructure act.

“There’s a lot of talk about disappointments and things we haven’t gotten done. We’re going to get a lot of them done, I might add,” Biden said. “But this [infrastructure] is something we did get done, and it’s of enormous consequence to the country.”

Some analysts suggest the touting of past glories displays a lack of confidence in what can still be achieved in the almost 10 months until the midterms, something Biden seemed to acknowledge on Thursday when he said: “I don’t know whether we can get this done,” after a Capitol Hill meeting with Democrats over voting rights.

Biden hails ‘monumental step forward’ as Democrats pass infrastructure bill – video
Biden hails ‘monumental step forward’ as Democrats pass infrastructure bill – video

The obstacles ahead of Biden are certainly substantial. They range from Democrats’ internal divisions between progressives and moderates, stonewalling by Republicans in Congress and the Donald Trump-created conservative super-majority on the supreme court that has already delivered several blows, and appears poised this summer to overturn five decades of abortion rights.

Yet Biden is committed to trying to salvage what he can from what promises to be a testing few months. “Like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try it a second time,” he told reporters about voting rights efforts.

Similarly, he is also likely to attempt to get through Congress individual elements of the Build Back Better plan that are acceptable to Senate moderates, including universal pre-kindergarten education, subsidized child care and a number of climate provisions.

“They may try to get pieces of Build Back Better, or build back something as we now call it, but everyone’s going to describe it as crumbs from the table,” Sabato said.

“If they’d started with that, people would say, ‘Wow, that’s incredible, pre-K for everybody’, or whatever piece they decided to pick, it didn’t really matter which one. But now it will appear to people as this tiny piece of what the president started out with, [and] tremendous disappointment in Democratic ranks. By the end of the story you won’t even know what passed.”

In November last year, Biden, who will be 81 at the time of the 2024 presidential election, announced his intention to run for a second term.

Publicly at least, he retains the support of his party, but the Washington Post reported in December rumblings of discontent in Democratic circles about his leadership. An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal this week, citing the unpopularity of both Biden and Vice-president Kamala Harris, even floated the idea of a comeback for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee beaten by Trump in 2016, to fill what its authors called a “leadership vacuum”.

In the wake of this week’s disappointments, the possibility of an alternative Democratic ticket for 2024 emerged again, the Washington Post columnist and political analyst Perry Bacon Jr suggesting there were “plenty of strong candidates” if Biden or Harris do not run.

“Biden hasn’t cracked some magic political code. Despite his white maleness and appeals to unity, Washington is gridlocked, Republican voters hate the president and his party is poised to do poorly in the midterms,” Bacon wrote on Friday. “It seems entirely possible that Biden runs in 2024 and loses to a Republican challenger. Democrats simply might be better off with someone new.”

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For Retail Workers, Omicron’s Impact Isn’t Just About Health

Long checkout lines. Closed fitting rooms. Empty shelves. Shortened store hours.

Plus the dread of contracting the coronavirus and yet another season of skirmishes with customers who refuse to wear masks.

A weary retail work force is experiencing the fallout from the latest wave of the pandemic, with a rapidly spreading variant cutting into staffing.

While data shows that people infected with the Omicron variant are far less likely to be hospitalized than those with the Delta variant, especially if they are vaccinated, many store workers are dealing with a new jump in illness and exposures, grappling with shifting guidelines around isolation and juggling child care. At the same time, retailers are generally not extending hazard pay as they did earlier in the pandemic and have been loath to adopt vaccine or testing mandates.

“We had gotten to a point here where we were comfortable, it wasn’t too bad, and then all of a sudden this new variant came and everybody got sick,” said Artavia Milliam, who works at H&M in Hudson Yards in Manhattan, which is popular with tourists. “It’s been overwhelming, just having to deal with not having enough staff and then twice as many people in the store.”

said last week that it would shorten store hours nationally on Mondays through Thursdays for the rest of the month. At least 20 Apple Stores have had to close in recent weeks because so many employees had contracted Covid-19 or been exposed to someone who had, and others have curtailed hours or limited in-store access.

At a Macy’s in Lynnwood, Wash., Liisa Luick, a longtime sales associate in the men’s department, said, “Every day, we have call-outs, and we have a lot of them.” She said the store had already reduced staff to cut costs in 2020. Now, she is often unable to take breaks and has fielded complaints from customers about a lack of sales help and unstaffed registers.

“Morale could not be lower,” said Ms. Luick, who is a steward for the local unit of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Even though Washington has a mask mandate for indoor public spaces, “we get a lot of pushback, so morale is even lower because there’s so many people who, there’s no easy way to say this, just don’t believe in masking,” she added.

Store workers are navigating the changing nature of the virus and trying their best to gauge new risks. Many say that with vaccinations and boosters, they are less fearful for their lives than they were in 2020 — the United Food and Commercial Workers union has tracked more than 200 retail worker deaths since the start of the pandemic — but they remain nervous about catching and spreading the virus.

local legislation.

More broadly, the staffing shortages have put a new spotlight on a potential vaccine-or-testing mandate from the Biden administration, which major retailers have been resisting. The fear of losing workers appears to be looming large, especially now.

While the retail industry initially cited the holiday season rush for its resistance to such rules, it has more recently pointed to the burden of testing unvaccinated workers. After oral arguments in the case on Friday, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority expressed skepticism about whether the Biden administration had legal authority to mandate that large employers require workers to be vaccinated.

The National Retail Federation, a major industry lobbying group, said in a statement last week that it “continues to believe that OSHA exceeded its authority in promulgating its vaccine mandate.” The group estimated that the order would require 20 million tests a week nationally, based on external data on unvaccinated workers, and that “such testing capacity currently does not exist.”

When the top managers at Mr. Waugh’s Stop & Shop store began asking employees whether they were vaccinated in preparation for the federal vaccine mandates that could soon take effect, he said, a large number expressed concern to him about being asked to disclose that information.

“It was concerning to see that so many people were distressed,” he said, though all of the employees complied.

Ms. Luick of Macy’s near Seattle said that she worked with several vocal opponents of the Covid-19 vaccines and that she anticipated that at least some of her colleagues would resign if they were asked to provide vaccination status or proof of negative tests.

Still, Macy’s was among major employers that started asking employees for their vaccination status last week ahead of the Supreme Court hearing on Friday and said it might require proof of negative tests beginning on Feb. 16.

“Our primary focus at this stage is preparing our members for an eventual mandate to ensure they have the information and tools they need to manage their work force and meet the needs of their customers,” said Brian Dodge, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which includes companies like Macy’s, Target, Home Depot, Gap and Walmart.

As seasonal Covid-19 surges become the norm, unions and companies are looking for consistent policies. Jim Araby, director of strategic campaigns for the food and commercial workers union in Northern California, said the retail industry needed to put in place more sustainable supports for workers who got ill.

For example, he said, a trust fund jointly administered by the union and several employers could no longer offer Covid-related sick days for union members.

“We have to start treating this as endemic,” Mr. Araby said. “And figuring out what are the structural issues we have to put forward to deal with this.”

Kellen Browning contributed reporting.

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Live Updates: U.S. and Russia Meet Amid Fears of War in Ukraine

ImageU.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and her Russian counterpart, Sergei A. Ryabkov, at the United States Mission in Geneva on Monday.
Credit…Denis Balibouse/Reuters

GENEVA — With the threat of Russian military action in eastern Ukraine stirring concern across Europe, American and Russian officials met on Monday to try and find a diplomatic path to ease tensions and avoid the potential for bloodshed.

The official delegations, led by a Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei A. Ryabkov, and the American deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, sat down at the U.S. Mission in Geneva just after 9 a.m. local time, the State Department said.

Minutes earlier, the police escorted a convoy of black sedans and silver minibuses carrying Russian officials into the sprawling American diplomatic compound on a hill above Lake Geneva.

The talks — the first in a series of discussions that will take place across Europe this week — revolve around the demands for “security guarantees” from Western powers that the Kremlin made in a remarkable diplomatic offensive late last year.

Monday’s negotiations were expected to take up much of the day, with American and Russian officials scheduled to brief reporters separately afterward, in the early evening.

In December, Russia published a proposal for two agreements with the United States and NATO that would roll back Western military activity in Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, in essence re-establishing a sphere of Russian influence in what used to be parts of the Soviet Union.

Many of the proposals appeared to be nonstarters for Western officials, who insist that Cold War-style regions of influence are a relic of the past and that countries should be able to choose their own alliances.

But an ominous Russian military buildup near the country’s border with Ukraine that analysts see as a preparation for a potential invasion has seized the attention of the West; the Biden administration agreed to engage with Russia to try to find some common ground.

On Sunday evening, Ms. Sherman met Mr. Ryabkov for a preliminary, two-hour dinner meeting in a nondescript residential building on the Geneva lakefront. “The deputy secretary affirmed that the United States would welcome genuine progress through diplomacy,” the State Department said in a statement.

Mr. Ryabkov described the dinner meeting as “businesslike” and predicted that Monday’s negotiations would not be a waste of time.

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, said on Monday that Western allies “are aiming for an agreement on a way forward” and repeated his warnings to Russia of “severe costs — economic, political costs — if they once again use military force against Ukraine.”

He spoke before a meeting of the NATO-Ukrainian Commission, timed for the day of the Geneva talks, that included the foreign minister of Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba, and Olga Stefanishyna, one of Ukraine’s four deputy prime ministers. Ms. Stefanishyna said that “any discussions on the security guarantees should start with the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory.”

Appearing on Sunday talk shows in the United States, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the negotiations could also possibly revive the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned the deployment, in Europe or in Russia, of medium-range nuclear missiles. Both the Obama and Trump administrations accused Moscow of violating the accord, and the United States left the treaty in 2019.

But Russia insists that its demands go well beyond arms control, and involve a wholesale redrawing of the security map in Europe, which the Kremlin claims the West forced upon a weak Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

If Russia does not get what it wants, President Vladimir V. Putin said last month, the Kremlin is prepared to resort to military means to achieve its aims.

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Kazakhstan Protests Lead President to Crack Down: ‘Fire Without Warning’

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — The authoritarian leader of Kazakhstan said Friday that he had authorized the nation’s security forces to “fire without warning” as the government moved to bring an end to two days of chaos and violence after peaceful protests descended into scenes of anarchy.

“We hear calls from abroad for the parties to negotiate to find a peaceful solution to the problems,” President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said in an address to the nation. “This is just nonsense.”

“What negotiations can there be with criminals and murderers,” he said. “They need to be destroyed and this will be done.”

The government said that order had been “mainly restored” across the country as Russian troops joined with the country’s security forces to quell widespread unrest.

the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

This is the first time in the history of the alliance that its protection clause has been invoked.

Even as Russian paratroopers from the elite 45th Guards Spetsnaz Brigade landed in Almaty, gunbattles raged in the streets late into the night, according to video from a BBC correspondent on the scene.

lifted price caps for liquefied petroleum gas, a low-carbon fuel that many Kazakhs use to power their cars. But the frustration among the people runs deep in regards to social and economic disparities.

“The United States and, frankly, the world will be watching for any violations of human rights,” said Ned Price, a State Department spokesman. “We will also be watching for any actions that may lay the predicate for the seizure of Kazakh institutions.”

Meanwhile, China expressed full support for the Kazakh leader.

“You decisively took effective measures at critical moments to quickly calm the situation, which embodies your responsibility as a politician,” China’s authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping, said in a message to Mr. Tokayev, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.

Kazakhstan has been expanding its ties with China in recent years. The country plays a central role in Mr. Xi’s signature infrastructure program, known as “One Belt, One Road,” which aims to revive the ancient Silk Road and build up other trading routes between Asia and Europe to pump Chinese products into foreign markets.

In his message, Mr. Xi condemned any efforts to undermine Kazakhstan’s stability and peace, as well as its relationship with China. He told Mr. Tokayev that Beijing “resolutely opposes external forces deliberately creating turmoil and instigating a ‘color revolution’ in Kazakhstan,” the news agency said.

The Xinhua report did not elaborate on what Mr. Xi was referring to, but the Chinese Communist Party has often invoked the theme of foreign meddling to explain unrest, including in Hong Kong.

The protests in Kazakhstan started on Sunday with what appeared to be a genuine outpouring of public anger over an increase in fuel prices and a broader frustration over a government widely viewed as corrupt — with vast oil riches benefiting an elite few at the expense of the masses.

In a concession, the government on Thursday announced a price cap on vehicle fuel and a halt to increases in utility bills.

However, as the protests swelled, both the government and even some supporters of the protests said they had been co-opted by criminal gangs looking to exploit the situation.

Over the past two days, oil prices have risen 4 percent, partly driven by worries over Kazakhstan, a major petroleum producer. Futures in Brent crude, the international benchmark, were trading at $82.95 a barrel on Friday, close to seven-year highs that were reached in October.

Chevron, the second largest U.S. oil company, said there has been some disruption to oil production at their key Tengiz field in Kazakhstan. The issue appears to be difficulty in loading some petroleum products from the field onto rail cars.

The market is also responding to geopolitical tensions, including over Ukraine, and to production problems in Nigeria, Angola, Libya and elsewhere.

The huge destruction of public property in Kazakhstan — including the torching of Almaty’s City Hall and the burning and looting of scores of other government buildings — has been met with a strong show of force by security personnel.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement on Friday that 26 “armed criminals” had been “liquidated” and 18 security officers killed in the unrest.

Ivan Nechepurenko reported from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Valerie Hopkins from Moscow, and Marc Santora from Chatel, France. Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington, Stanley Reed from London, and Gillian Wong from Seoul.

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Putin Demands Quick Answers on Russian Security Concerns

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia delivered sharp criticism of the West on Thursday for rising military tensions in Eastern Europe, saying that Moscow was not to blame for talk of “war, war, war” because it was merely defending historically Russian territories.

He said that the Biden administration had agreed to hold talks with Russia on Moscow’s security concerns starting in January, calling it a positive sign, but added that Russia would expect quick answers on its demands.

“It was the United States that came with its rockets to our home, to the doorstep of our home,” he said, referring to NATO expansion. “And you demand from me some guarantees. You should give us guarantees. You! And right away, right now.”

Mr. Putin’s comments, at a traditional year-end news conference, were being closely watched after a drumbeat of warnings from Moscow about a potential escalation of military conflict in Ukraine. Two days earlier, Mr. Putin told a gathering of security officials that he was ready to take “military technical measures,” a reference to a possible use of force, if Russia’s security requests went unmet.

detailed their demands on Eastern Europe — including a written pledge from NATO not to expand east — in two ultimatums last week directed at the United States and the alliance.

rejected the demand to close its doors to new members, the Biden administration has agreed to negotiate broadly, offering a possible path to unwinding the tensions.

Analysts have also weighed the possibility that Mr. Putin is looking for concessions on a range of issues, even some not directly tied to security. These include energy and pipeline negotiations in Europe.

That means that what Russia wants, exactly, has become something of a guessing game — leaving diplomats and security analysts hanging on every word from Mr. Putin this winter.

Mr. Putin’s marathon year-end news conferences are a longtime tradition, meant to demonstrate his stamina and authority as he answers questions for hours on end. They have also been a stage for policy pronouncements.

In his remarks on the pandemic, Mr. Putin said he had no plans to impose fines on or to criminally prosecute people hesitant to be vaccinated, though Russia has one of the lowest levels of vaccination in Europe, at 56 percent of the population. The government has not introduced vaccine mandates, and Mr. Putin said on Thursday that mandates would be counterproductive.

“We need to relate to people with respect, despite their positions,” he said, “and to patiently explain” the need to inoculate.

Possibilities for an escalation with Ukraine abound. Mr. Putin, speaking at an event with Defense Minister Sergey K. Shoigu on Tuesday, ruminated on the possibility that the United States had long-term plans to deploy hypersonic missiles in Ukraine, something that the United States has never suggested it intends to do.

“What they are now doing on the territory of Ukraine, or trying to do, or planning to do, is not thousands of kilometers from our national borders,” Mr. Putin said. “It’s on the doorstep of our home. They just have to understand that we have nowhere left to retreat.”

Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow, and Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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Biden’s Covid Vaccine Mandate Reinstated for Large Businesses

But Judge Joan L. Larsen, a Trump appointee, dissented, arguing — as had the Fifth Circuit panel before her — that the agency had exceeded its legal authority.

“The mandate is aimed directly at protecting the unvaccinated from their own choices,” Judge Larsen wrote. “Vaccines are freely available, and unvaccinated people may choose to protect themselves at any time. And because the secretary likely lacks congressional authority to force them to protect themselves, the remaining stay factors cannot tip the balance.”

All of the judges on the Fifth Circuit panel that had blocked the rule were conservative Republican appointees.

Challengers to the decision could appeal directly to the Supreme Court, which is controlled by a conservative bloc of six Republican appointees. (The Supreme Court this month refused to block New York’s requirement that health care workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus even when they cite religious objections.)

Challengers could also appeal to the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Of its 16 sitting judges, five were appointed by Democrats and 11 were appointed by Republicans. (However, one of the Republican appointees, Judge Helene N. White, was originally a nominee of a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, before being renominated by a Republican one, George W. Bush, as part of a political deal.)

Conditions on the ground are rapidly changing, with new cases surging, apparently because of the more-infectious Omicron variant. The Justice Department last month warned that keeping the mandate from coming into effect “would likely cost dozens or even hundreds of lives per day, in addition to large numbers of hospitalizations, other serious health effects and tremendous costs.”

The OSHA rule, alongside a separate requirement for federal contractors, has helped drive a number of large companies to announce a form of vaccine mandate, including Procter & Gamble, IBM and American Airlines. Others, like Tyson Foods and Google, introduced mandates on their own, in the face of the rising risk of the Delta variant.

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Ukraine Commanders Say a Russian Invasion Would Overwhelm Them

KYIV, Ukraine — On the 30th anniversary of the founding of Ukraine’s armed forces this week, the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, donned a helmet and flak jacket to tour the trenches and announced with great fanfare the delivery of new tanks, armored vehicles and ships to frontline units engaged in fighting Russian forces and Kremlin-backed separatists.

While the weapons systems may help to maintain parity in the slow-moving war of attrition that has prevailed for years, neither they nor anything else the Ukrainian military can now muster would be sufficient to repel the full-on Russian assault that Ukrainian and Western officials say Moscow appears to be preparing. With nearly 100,000 troops now massed across Ukraine’s eastern, northern and southern borders and more on the way, even the Ukrainian officials responsible for their country’s defense acknowledge that without a significant influx of resources, their forces do not stand much of a chance.

“Unfortunately, Ukraine needs to be objective at this stage,” said Gen. Kyrylo O. Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service. “There are not sufficient military resources for repelling a full-scale attack by Russia if it begins without the support of Western forces.”

General Budanov outlined his nightmare vision of a Russian invasion that would begin with airstrikes and rocket attacks aimed initially at ammunition depots and trench-bound troops. Very quickly, he said, the Ukrainian military would be incapacitated, its leadership unable to coordinate a defense and supply the front. After that, he said, responsibility would fall to frontline commanders to carry on the fight alone.

a video call with President Biden on Tuesday, Mr. Putin dismissed concerns about the troop buildup on Ukraine’s border, shifting blame to the United States and NATO, which he accused of threatening Russia’s security by supporting Ukraine’s military with arms and training.

“The Russian troops are on their own territory,” an adviser to Mr. Putin, Yuri V. Ushakov, said in a briefing with reporters after the presidents had spoken. “They don’t threaten anyone.”

Still, the amassing of troops and heavy weaponry on the border has forced Ukrainian officials to face some hard truths in recent weeks. The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Russia has devised plans for an offensive involving 175,000 troops.

delivered about 88 tons of ammunition, part of a $60 million military aid package pledged by the Biden administration.

On Wednesday, President Biden ruled out deploying U.S. forces to Ukraine to deter Russia. But there are more than 150 U.S. military advisers in Ukraine, a combination of U.S. Special Forces and National Guard, currently the Florida National Guard’s 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, according to two U.S. Defense Department officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive troop deployments. About a dozen other NATO countries also have military advisers in Ukraine now, the officials said.

delivering a new cache of missiles in October. John F. Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday that there were no conditions or restrictions placed on the Javelins, except that the Ukrainian forces use them “responsibly” and “in self-defense.”

interview with Radio Liberty this month, Gen. Oleksandr Pavlyuk, the commander of the Joint Operation Forces fighting the separatists, said the Javelins had already been deployed to military units in eastern Ukraine. A senior Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military issues, confirmed that Javelin missiles had been deployed to frontline military units a month ago, but had not yet been fired in battle.

“The Javelins are there, and if our enemies employ tanks they will be used,” the official said.

The Biden administration has remained vague about how else it might come to Ukraine’s defense in case of invasion.

In his video call with Mr. Putin on Tuesday, President Biden looked his counterpart in the eye and warned the United States would go beyond the economic punishments imposed on Russia after the 2014 seizure of Crimea should Mr. Putin decide to order military action, according to an account by Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser. What those penalties might be were left unclear, though few expect the United States to commit significant military assistance beyond what has already been provided.

The lack of firm commitments from Ukraine’s Western backers are a source of consternation for Ukrainian officials.

“They need to decide, either we’re allies as they declare — and in that case allies help one another — or they need to say that this is not exactly the case,” said General Budanov, the military intelligence chief. “If the civilized world wants to avoid catastrophe — and this will be a catastrophe for everyone — we need military technical support now, not tomorrow, not the day after tomorrow, not in year. Now.”

Those who understand that such a level of support is unlikely have begun to speak darkly of popular armed resistance against any Russian occupation. In an interview, General Pavlyuk noted that Ukraine had up to half a million people with military experience. If the West does not come to Ukraine’s aid, he said, “we’ll start a partisan war.”

“Eight years have passed and there are very many people with military experience who are prepared with weapons in their hands to fight,” he said.

One senior Ukrainian military official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that if all else failed, the military would simply open its weapons depots and allow the Ukrainian people to take whatever they need to defend themselves and their families.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

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Travelers to U.S.: Can They Get Their Tests Back in Time?

LONDON — Deborah Tudhope was growing anxious. An American lawyer living in London, she was hoping to fly back to the United States in two weeks to see her 96-year-old mother, who lives in a retirement home in Maine. But the Omicron-driven travel restrictions announced on Thursday by the White House have her worrying that the trip may not happen.

Ms. Tudhope, 72, has had to reschedule her required coronavirus test for the day before her flight, which the airline had already pushed back a day. With the rules seemingly shifting by the hour, she said she faced multiple hurdles: getting out of Britain, getting into the United States and visiting her mother in the home.

“I don’t know how this whole thing is going to work out,” said Ms. Tudhope, who described herself as disheartened, if not surprised, by the turmoil. “But I did make sure the flights are re-bookable.”

Such private dramas are playing out all over the world, as thousands of people — Americans living abroad and foreigners hoping to visit the United States — grapple with the new complexities of holiday travel in the age of Covid.

Biden administration shortened the time frame for international travelers to the United States to take a Covid test within a day before departure, regardless of vaccination status.

That has left would-be travelers nervously calculating whether they will get test results back in time to make their flights or worrying that their home countries could impose more stringent travel bans while they are away.

new pandemic strategy that includes hundreds of family-centered vaccination sites, booster shots for all adults, new testing requirements for international travelers and insurance reimbursement for at-home tests.

Officials in Italy said the country was well-prepared to handle a surge in tests for passengers bound for the United States. In the weeks since the government began requiring frequent, negative tests for all unvaccinated Italian workers, pharmacies have processed up to one million rapid tests a day.

“The prospect of more rapid swabs for travelers to the U.S. is not a problem for pharmacies here,” said Marco Cossolo, president of Italy’s largest association of private pharmacies, Federfarma.

South Korea built up the capacity to administer an average of 68,000 P.C.R. tests a day in November, according to Seung-ho Choi, the deputy director of risk communication at the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Center. Results almost always come within 24 hours, he said, though travelers catching early-morning flights when clinics are closed might have to seek out hospitals that administer tests.

Britain is among several countries that have recently required tests for incoming travelers within a day or two after arriving. Randox Laboratories, a British company that provides Covid tests for travel, said on Thursday that since the changes were announced for travelers entering Britain last weekend, it had ramped up P.C.R. testing capacity to its pandemic peak of 180,000 tests per day.

That would also help with processing tests for travelers to the United States, the company said.

For Europeans with ties to the United States, the new rules are merely the latest wild card in a life already lived perpetually in flux.

“What a nightmare — enough!” said Alice Volpi, 28, when told of the impending American restrictions.

An Italian who was living in New York at the outset of the pandemic, Ms. Volpi recounted how she could not return home to Italy for several months because of her country’s travel ban. When she finally got home, a travel ban imposed by the United States prevented her from returning to see her boyfriend in New York.

“The most frustrating part is that you can never make a plan more than one week in advance because everything can change every day,” said Ms. Volpi, who insisted she would press on with plans to visit her boyfriend at Christmas. “That doesn’t allow me to be serene.”

For some Americans living abroad who fear that borders may close again if Omicron proves to be a lethal threat, the solution is to move up their travel timelines. The testing requirements are stressful, they said, but not as much as the possibility that the Biden administration might eventually cut off travel pathways completely.

“That’s what I’m most worried about — not getting to see my family,” said Sarah Little, 25, who moved from New York to London in September to study. She had originally planned to fly home closer to Christmas, but is now trying to book a flight early next week.

“It would just be devastating if I couldn’t get home,” Ms. Little said.

Gaia Pianigiani and Emma Bubola contributed reporting from Rome; Saskia Solomon and Isabella Kwai from London; Aurelien Breeden from Paris; John Yoon from Seoul and Sheryl Gay Stolberg from Washington.

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