Russian Troop Movements and Talk of Intervention Cause Jitters in Ukraine

MOSCOW — Armored personnel carriers bristling with weapons line a highway in southern Russia. Rows of tanks are parked beside major roads. Heavy artillery is transported by train.

Videos of military movements have flooded Russian social media for the past month, shared by users and documented by researchers.

And Western governments are trying to find out why. The movements appear to be the largest deployment of Russian land forces toward the border with Ukraine in seven years, according to the U.S. government.

Whether it is a test of how the Biden administration might respond, retaliation against Ukraine for curbing Russian influence in domestic politics in Kyiv, or preparation for actual cross-border military action has divided analysts of Russian policies.

said Russia would intervene to prevent ethnic cleansing of Russian speakers by the Ukrainian government, a risk he compared to the ethnic massacres of the 1990s Balkan wars, though there are no signs that such violence is imminent in Ukraine today.

said Kyiv “lives with an illusion of a possible forceful settlement” of the conflict.

wrote, led Mr. Putin to warn in a speech given to the Davos Forum of an “increase in the risk of unilateral use of military force,” refraining from mentioning which country might be using that force.

published in the Insider, a Russian investigative news site.

A wide range of weaponry has been on public display. In March, for example, a train hauling Msta-C self-propelled howitzers rumbled over a bridge across the Kerch Strait separating Russia’s mainland from Crimea.

The Russian airwaves, too, have been chockablock with reports of a possible resumption of war in eastern Ukraine.

“Bad news from Ukraine,” the commentator Dmitry Kiselyov said in opening his Sunday talk show this week on state Channel 1. “The talk in Ukraine is increasingly about war.”

Mr. Kiselyov mocked war jitters in Ukraine, where the government has been trying to portray a calm resolve; the president, Volodymyr Zelensky, visited the front on Thursday.

The Russian state television report lingered on an incident in the Ukrainian Parliament this month when a lawmaker, Anna Kolesnik, after hearing a presentation from a military commander on the scale of Russia’s forces massed at her nation’s border, wrote a phone message to an acquaintance saying, “it’s time to split from this country.”

Mr. Kiselyov noted that in Ukraine, “the fear is inflating.”

Michael Kofman, a senior researcher at CNA, an analytical organization based in Arlington, Va., said the Russian buildup seems targeted more at shifting Ukraine’s stance in settlement talks than countering U.S. sanctions.

“Saber-rattling is an oversimplification,” he said. “It is coercive diplomacy with a purpose,” though for now that purpose is unstated and left open to interpretation by Ukraine and Western governments. “That is the situation we are in.”

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The New Taiwan Tensions

When Henry Kissinger secretly traveled to Beijing in 1971 to negotiate the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and China, he came bearing multiple requests — about the Vietnam War, nuclear arms, the Soviet Union and more. Kissinger’s Chinese counterpart, Zhou Enlai, had only one focus: Taiwan.

The U.S. needed to recognize the government in Beijing, not Taipei, as the only legitimate China, and the United Nations needed to expel Taiwan, Zhou said. Kissinger agreed to those terms, and President Richard Nixon triumphantly visited China the next year.

Still, the U.S. did not abandon Taiwan. Even as it refused to recognize Taiwan, it continued selling arms to its government and implicitly warned Beijing not to invade. The policy is known as “strategic ambiguity,” and it has endured since the 1970s.

Now some U.S. officials and foreign-policy experts worry that it has become outdated, as my colleague Michael Crowley explains. They think that President Biden may need to choose between making a more formal commitment to Taiwan’s defense or tempting China to invade.

released a statement saying, “Similar exercises will be conducted on a regular basis in the future.” Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic has suggested that a Chinese invasion “could happen at any moment” and that Biden should be prepared.

A military conflict still seems unlikely. Then again, military conflicts often seem unlikely until the moment they begin.

China’s current leaders view Taiwanese reunification much as Zhou did in 1971: urgent and vital. “Fast forward half a century, and the same issue — Taiwan — remains Beijing’s No. 1 priority,” as Niall Ferguson of Stanford University writes in a Bloomberg Opinion piece. To Beijing, Taiwan continues to be a source of embarrassment, the island where the losers in the country’s civil war fled in 1949 and whose government is propped up by foreign powers.

Just as important, though, is what has changed in recent decades. China has transformed itself from a poor country that endured the chaos of civil war, famine and the Cultural Revolution during the 20th century into one of the world’s leading powers. It has become the only serious rival to the U.S., economically and militarily.

severe human rights violations. It has crushed dissent in Hong Kong over the past year. Taiwan remains the only part of greater China that’s outside of Beijing’s grip.

“Xi seems to see the U.S. as weakened and distracted,” Michael Crowley told me, “but also focusing more and more on the China threat — leading to concern that he may see a window of opportunity that moves him to action in the near future.”

Biden and his foreign-policy team have decided to take a fairly tough approach to China. They do not believe Donald Trump’s specific policies, like his tariffs, were effective, but Biden’s team has accepted Trump’s view that Barack Obama and his predecessors were too soft on China, mistakenly hoping it would become friendlier as it became richer.

Even within this hawkish framework, though, the most effective approach to Taiwan is not obvious. Some Americans — including Robert Gates, a former defense secretary; Senator Rick Scott, a Florida Republican; Barney Frank, a Democratic former House member; and Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations — argue that while “strategic ambiguity” worked when China was weak, it no longer does. Today, they say, the U.S. must provide clarity, to prevent a thriving, affluent democracy of 24 million people from being overrun.

Other experts argue that a formal change in U.S. policy would be so confrontational as to force Beijing to choose between humiliation and war. “For Taiwan, strategic ambiguity remains a relatively successful policy,” Lu Yeh-chung of National Cheng-chi University in Taipei told The Times. Advocates for the status quo say that China’s leaders understand that an invasion of Taiwan could bring global condemnation, tough economic sanctions and a needless risk to China’s continuing rise.

Michael Crowley’s news analysis or Niall Ferguson’s history-laden Bloomberg essay.

business is booming for interior decorators: “We work for the one-half of the one-half of the 1 percent.”

Lives Lived: After a failed documentary project, Sharon Matola found herself in Belize looking after a jaguar, two macaws and 18 other half-tamed animals. The zoo she established there became a popular attraction, and Matola an outspoken advocate for animals. She died at 66.

Tokyo Olympics are set to begin in July, with the Paralympics scheduled to start in August. Years of planning — and billions in television dollars — mean Olympic organizers are keen to hold the event without postponing again.

But polling in Japan has trended strongly against the Games, as Motoko Rich and Hikari Hida report in The Times. Thousands of athletes and other participants will be heading to Tokyo, and less than 1 percent of Japan’s population has been vaccinated, CNBC reports. The country’s experience of the pandemic has been comparatively mild, with the level of infections and deaths far below that of the United States or Europe. But that’s not guaranteed to continue.

Though organizers have said that vaccinations will not be mandatory, the International Olympic Committee will supply vaccines for any competitors who need them. Some countries, like India and Hungary, are prioritizing Olympic athletes for vaccinations at home. Organizers are also barring spectators from overseas, and cheering is forbidden at the Olympic torch relay, which kicked off in Fukushima Prefecture last month.

One thing that is staying the same: The Games will still be called Tokyo 2020, reflected in heaps of T-shirts, mugs, signage and other branded merchandise.

slice of Florida lime pie.

People in their 20s and 30s are turning to Botox. Why?

“Shiva Baby,” a tense comedy about a young woman at the shiva of a family friend, mixes “big laughs with gut-wrenching discomfort,” Jason Bailey writes in a review.

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Iran Releases South Korean Oil Tanker

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A South Korean oil tanker held for months by Iran amid a dispute over billions of dollars seized by Seoul left port early Friday after the ship and its captain were released, just hours ahead of further talks between Tehran and world powers over its tattered nuclear deal.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said the MT Hankuk Chemi left an Iranian port around 6 a.m. local time after completing an administrative process, and data from MarineTraffic.com showed the tanker leaving Bandar Abbas in the early morning hours.

A spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Saeed Khatibzadeh, later confirmed that Iran had released the vessel. “At the request of the owner and the Korean government, the order to release the ship was issued by the prosecutor,” Khatibzadeh was quoted as saying by the state-run IRNA news agency.

The Hankuk Chemi had been traveling in January from a petrochemicals facility in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates when armed troops from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps stormed the vessel and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran.

Iran in February released much of the ship’s crew.

The Yonhap news agency in South Korea, quoting an anonymous Foreign Ministry official, suggested that Seoul could pay off Iran’s United Nations dues that had been in arrears.

In January, the United Nations said Iran topped a list of countries that owed money to the world body, and the country risks losing its voting rights if the debt issue is not resolved.

The development came as Iran and world powers were set to resume negotiations in Vienna on Friday to break the standoff over U.S. sanctions against Iran and Iranian breaches of the nuclear agreement.

The 2015 nuclear accord, which President Donald Trump abandoned three years later, offered Iran sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.

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Myanmar’s Ambassador to the U.K. Was Locked Out of London Embassy

LONDON — Myanmar’s ambassador to Britain, Kyaw Zwar Minn, was locked out of his own embassy on Wednesday, apparently in retaliation for criticizing the country’s military, which seized power in February and has since launched a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

In a statement, Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said that it was “seeking further information” following the episode, which drew a small crowd of protesters outside the Myanmar Embassy in London.

“I have been locked out,” the ambassador told the Reuters news agency, calling the actions of diplomatic colleagues who prevented him from entering the building as a “kind of coup in the middle of London.”

Diplomatic sources confirmed that he had been excluded from the embassy and British media reports suggested that the ambassador’s deputy, Chit Win, had taken charge of the building with the help of a military attaché.

no longer represented the country.

On Wednesday, London’s Metropolitan Police confirmed that a protest had taken place outside the Myanmar Embassy and that officers were on the scene to keep order, but said that no arrests had been made.

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Myanmar Envoy Who Critiqued Coup Is Locked Out of London Embassy

LONDON — Myanmar’s ambassador to Britain, Kyaw Zwar Minn, was locked out of his own embassy on Wednesday, apparently in retaliation for criticizing the country’s military, which seized power in February and has since launched a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

In a statement, Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said that it was a “seeking further information” following the episode, which drew a small crowd of protesters outside the Myanmar Embassy in London.

“I have been locked out,” the ambassador told the Reuters news agency, calling the actions of diplomatic colleagues who prevented him from entering the building as a “kind of coup in the middle of London.”

Diplomatic sources confirmed that he had been excluded from the embassy and British media reports suggested that the ambassador’s deputy, Chit Win, had taken charge of the building with the help of a military attaché.

no longer represented the country.

On Wednesday, London’s Metropolitan Police confirmed that a protest had taken place outside the Myanmar Embassy and that officers were on the scene to keep order, but said that no arrests had been made.

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Reversing Trump, Biden Restores Aid to Palestinians

A senior Palestinian official welcomed the move but said the Palestinian leadership, based in Ramallah, still hoped Mr. Biden would reverse several other measures carried out by the Trump administration.

“This is a positive, important and constructive step in the direction of rectifying Palestinian-American relations, which the Trump administration destroyed,” said Ahmad Majdalani, the social development minister of the Palestinian Authority. “We believe it can be built upon by dealing with some other outstanding issues.”

Senator Jim Risch of Idaho and Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, both Republicans, criticized the move in a joint statement, saying that “resuming assistance to the West Bank and Gaza without concessions from the Palestinian Authority undermines U.S. interests.”

They added that they would scrutinize the package to ensure it did not breach the Taylor Force Act, which prohibits the United States from providing direct economic aid to the Palestinian Authority until it stops payments to families of Palestinians who commit violence against Israelis or Americans.

Ned Price, the State Department’s spokesman, said on Wednesday that the funding was “absolutely consistent” with American law. He indicated that any aid going to the West Bank and Gaza would be done through “development partners” and “not through governments or de facto government authorities.”

Many humanitarian groups criticized the Trump administration for having denied the United Nations agency money that it had been expecting, which hurtled it into financial crisis. Other countries helped plug some of the shortfall, but the agency has continued to operate under severe financial constraints.

United Nations officials were clearly primed for news of the resumption of aid before it was officially announced. Asked about the Biden administration’s plan, a United Nations spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said that “there were a number of countries that had greatly reduced or halted contributions,” and that “we hope the American decision will lead others to rejoin as UNRWA donors.”

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Two Presidents Visited Turkey. Only the Man Was Offered a Chair.

Either way, it came a “terrible time,” said Nigar Goksel, the top Turkey expert at the International Crisis Group, especially because of the recent withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention.

According to data gathered by U.N. Women, the United Nations agency for women’s rights, 38 percent of Turkish women experience violence from their partner at least once in their lifetime, and more than one in 10 was subjected to domestic violence in the last 12 months. In the 2021 Global Gender Gap report, an annual review by the World Economic Forum that covers economics, politics, education and health, Turkey ranked 133 among 156 countries.

The protocol fail in Tuesday’s meeting comes at a crucial time in Turkey’s relations with the European Union.

In recent months, Turkey has emphasized a desire to improve relations with the bloc and to revive its process for joining. The meeting was intended to build momentum in a relationship that has been fraught with disagreements in recent years on issues like migration, maritime borders and customs arrangements.

“Whatever the realities on the protocol side, the incident clearly underscores the fact that Turkey was blind to the optics of how this would appear,” said Mr. Lesser of the German Marshall Fund. Those optics, he added, “will only underscore the sense that Europe is not on the same page when it comes to values, when it comes to diversity, inclusion and gender equality.”

That point was not lost on the offended party.

Ms. von der Leyen “seized the opportunity to insist on the issues related to women’s rights in general and to the Istanbul Convention in particular,” Mr. Mamer, her spokesman, said. “It would have been discussed certainly in any case, but obviously this sharpened her focus on the issue.”

Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels, and Carlotta Gall from Istanbul. Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting from Brussels.

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How Debt and Climate Change Pose a ‘Systemic Risk to the Global Economy’

How does a country deal with climate disasters when it’s drowning in debt? Not very well, it turns out. Especially not when a global pandemic clobbers its economy.

Take Belize, Fiji and Mozambique. Vastly different countries, they are among dozens of nations at the crossroads of two mounting global crises that are drawing the attention of international financial institutions: climate change and debt.

They owe staggering amounts of money to various foreign lenders. They face staggering climate risks, too. And now, with the coronavirus pandemic pummeling their economies, there is a growing recognition that their debt obligations stand in the way of meeting the immediate needs of their people — not to mention the investments required to protect them from climate disasters.

The combination of debt, climate change and environmental degradation “represents a systemic risk to the global economy that may trigger a cycle that depresses revenues, increases spending and exacerbates climate and nature vulnerabilities,” according to a new assessment by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and others, which was seen by The Times. It comes after months of pressure from academics and advocates for lenders to address this problem.

downgraded its creditworthiness, making it tougher to get loans on the private market. The International Monetary Fund calls its debt levels “unsustainable.”

nearly $600 billion in debt service payments over the next five years. Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are important lenders, but so are rich countries, as well as private banks and bondholders. The global financial system would face a huge problem if countries faced with shrinking economies defaulted on their debts.s

“We cannot walk head on, eyes wide open, into a debt crisis that is foreseeable and preventable,” the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, said last week as he called for debt relief for a broad range of countries. “Many developing countries face financing constraints that mean they cannot invest in recovery and resilience.”

The Biden administration, in an executive order on climate change, said it would use its voice in international financial institutions, like the World Bank, to align debt relief with the goals of the Paris climate agreement, though it hasn’t yet detailed what that means.

flurry of proposals from economists, advocates and others to address the problem. The details vary. But they all call, in one way or another, for rich countries and private creditors to offer debt relief, so countries can use those funds to transition away from fossil fuels, adapt to the effects of climate change, or obtain financial reward for the natural assets they already protect, like forests and wetlands. One widely circulated proposal calls on the Group of 20 (the world’s 20 biggest economies) to require lenders to offer relief “in exchange for a commitment to use some of the newfound fiscal space for a green and inclusive recovery.”

debts soared, including to China, and the country, whose very existence is threatened by sea level rise, pared back planned climate projects, according to research by the World Resources Institute.

The authors proposed what they called a climate-health-debt swap, where bilateral creditors, namely China, would forgive some of the debt in exchange for climate and health care investments. (China has said nothing publicly about the idea of debt swaps.)

sinking under huge debts, including secret loans that the government had not disclosed, when, in 2019, came back-to-back cyclones. They killed 1,000 people and left physical damages costing more than $870 million. Mozambique took on more loans to cope. Then came the pandemic. The I.M.F. says the country is in debt distress.

Six countries on the continent are in debt distress, and many more have seen their credit ratings downgraded by private ratings agencies. In March, finance ministers from across Africa said that many of their countries had spent a sizable chunk of their budgets already to deal with extreme weather events like droughts and floods, and some countries were spending a tenth of their budgets on climate adaptation efforts. “Our fiscal buffers are now truly depleted,” they wrote.

In developing countries, the share of government revenues that go into paying foreign debts nearly tripled to 17.4 percent between 2011 and 2020, an analysis by Eurodad, a debt relief advocacy group found.

Research suggests that climate risks have already made it more expensive for developing countries to borrow money. The problem is projected to get worse. A recent paper found climate change will raise the cost of borrowing for many more countries as early as 2030 unless efforts are made to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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Syrian Refugees in Rebel Controlled Idlib Are Stuck in Limbo

IDLIB, Syria — Among the millions of Syrians who fled as the government bombed their towns, destroyed their homes and killed their loved ones are 150 families squatting in a soccer stadium in the northwestern city of Idlib, sheltering in rickety tents under the stands or in the rocky courtyard.

Work is scarce and terror grips them whenever jets buzz overhead: New airstrikes could come at any time. But the fear of government retribution keeps them from returning home. More than 1,300 similar camps dot Syria’s last bastions under rebel control, eating up farmland, stretching along irrigation canals and filling lots next to apartment buildings where refugee families squat in damaged units with no windows.

“People will stay in these places with all the catastrophes before they go live under the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” said Okba al-Rahoum, the manager of the camp in the soccer stadium.

On a rare visit to Idlib Province, examples abounded of shocked and impoverished people trapped in a murky and often violent limbo. Stuck between a wall to prevent them from fleeing across the nearby border with Turkey and a hostile government that could attack at any moment, they struggle to secure basic needs in a territory controlled by a militant group formerly linked to Al Qaeda.

bused them here after conquering their towns. They drove in with trucks piled high with blankets, mattresses and children. Some arrived on foot, with few possession besides the clothes they wore.

Last year, an offensive by the Syrian government, backed by its Russia and Iran, pushed nearly a million more people into the area.

About 2.7 million of the 4.2 million people in the northwest, one of the last of two strips of territory held by a rebel movement that once controlled much of Syria, have fled from other parts of the country. That influx has transformed a pastoral strip of farming villages into a dense conglomeration of makeshift settlements with strained infrastructure and displaced families crammed into every available space.

SHINE, an education organization, urged a group of women at an event in Idlib to refuse polygamous marriages, which are permitted under Islamic law.

The next day, gunmen closed SHINE’s office and threatened to jail its manager, Ms. Kisar said.

a cease-fire between Russia and Turkey has stopped outright combat in Idlib, but on one day last month there were three attacks. A shell hit a refugee camp; an airstrike ignited a fuel depot on the Turkish border; and three artillery shells struck a village hospital in Al Atarib, killing seven patients, including an orphan boy who had gone for a vaccination, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, which supports the facility.

While the area’s displaced struggle to survive, others try to provide simple pleasures.

In the city of Idlib, the Disneyland restaurant entices visitors to dine on salads and grilled meat, and to forget their woes with video games, bumper cars, air hockey and stuffed animal claw machines.

The basement storeroom doubles as a shelter when the government shells nearby, and the terrace is enclosed with plastic sheeting instead of glass so it doesn’t shatter on diners if something explodes nearby.

The manager, Ahmed Abu Kheir, lost his job at a tourist restaurant that shut down when the war began, he said, so he opened a smaller place that was later destroyed by government shelling.

He opened another restaurant, but left it behind when the government seized the area last year and he fled to Idlib.

Like all of Idlib’s displaced, he longed to take his family home, but was glad to work in a place that spread a little joy in the meantime.

“We are convinced that normal life has to continue,” he said. “We want to live.”

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