BBC 2024-02-21 16:31:45

Ukraine war: Dozens of Russian troops ‘die in air strike’

At least 60 Russian troops have been killed after a training area in occupied eastern Ukraine was hit by two missiles, reports say.

Sources familiar with the situation told the BBC that troops had gathered at the site in Donetsk region for the arrival of a senior commander.

Video footage of the incident appeared to show large numbers of dead.

A Russian official confirmed that a strike took place but described the reports as “grossly exaggerated”.

The attack reportedly came hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin met his Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

At the meeting, Mr Shoigu claimed Russian successes in several areas of the front line and spoke of the recent capture of the town of Avdiivka, but made no mention of the Donetsk region incident.

Reports say members of the 36th motorised rifle brigade, normally based in the Transbaikal region of Siberia, were waiting for the arrival of Maj-Gen Oleg Moiseyev, commander of the 29th Army of the Eastern military region, at a training area near the village of Trudovske.

A soldier who survived the incident said during a video recording of the aftermath that the brigade’s commanders had made them stand in an open field.

They were reportedly hit by two missiles fired from the US-made HIMARS launch system.

This and other videos and stills show dozens of soldiers apparently lying dead in a field. Estimates, including by those who survived, suggest at least 60 have died.

The BBC is working to verify the footage.

Transbaikal governor Alexander Osipov indirectly confirmed the strike in his Telegram channel, but said that the reports about it were “inaccurate and grossly exaggerated”.

Without giving casualty figures, he said full and accurate information would be provided to the families of all the soldiers involved.

“No-one will be left without help or support,” he added.

There has been no word about the strike as yet from the Ukrainian authorities.

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In a separate development, several pro-Russian sources have reported that the military blogger Andrey Morozov, known as Murz, has killed himself.

Morozov, whose Telegram channel has some 100,000 subscribers, wrote in a series of apparently final posts that he had been forced by the military to take down a report about Russian losses in recent battles, including Avdiivka.

He had said about 16,000 troops had been killed or seriously injured in the campaign and 300 pieces of armour destroyed.

The blogger wrote that he had been shut down by propagandists from state TV, but that they were too cowardly to come and kill him.

“Well I’ll do it myself then,” he adds. “I’ll shoot myself if no-one dares to take on this trifling matter.”

The BBC is unable to verify reports of the blogger’s death or how he might have died.

Russia’s military rarely reports casualties, but some pro-Russian military bloggers have regularly done so. Ukraine has also spoken of thousands of Russian troops killed in recent battles.

And BBC Russian, in a joint project with the Mediazona website, recently updated its figures for confirmed deaths in the Russian military based on open sources in the two years since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.

Altogether, 45,123 are confirmed dead, including 6,614 since October last year. Since that date, there has been a sharp increase in average weekly deaths compared with previous months.

Additional reporting by Ilya Barabanov

Alexei Navalny: UK sanctions Russian prison chiefs after activist’s death

The UK has frozen the assets of six Russian prison bosses in charge of the Arctic penal colony where opposition leader Alexei Navalny died.

The sanctioned individuals will also be banned from travelling to the UK.

Western leaders say the blame for Navalny’s death lies with the Russian authorities, including President Putin.

“Those responsible for Navalny’s brutal treatment should be under no illusion – we will hold them accountable,” UK Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron said.

The UK is the first country to impose sanctions in response to his death, the Foreign Office says.

The US has also announced it will be unveiling its own package of sanctions against Russia over Navalny’s death and the ongoing war in Ukraine on Friday.

The British government has called for Navalny’s body to be released to his family immediately and for a full and transparent investigation to take place.

The appeal from the UK echoes similar calls from Navalny’s mother, who was filmed on Tuesday outside the colony where he died saying she had been trying to see him for five days but did not even know where he was.

Those sanctioned by the UK are:

  • Col Vadim Konstantinovich Kalinin – head of the penal colony
  • Lt Col Sergey Nikolaevich Korzhov – deputy head
  • Lt Col Vasily Alexandrovich Vydrin – deputy head
  • Lt Col Vladimir Ivanovich Pilipchik – deputy head
  • Lt Col Aleksandr Vladimirovich Golyakov – deputy head
  • Col Aleksandr Valerievich Obraztsov – deputy head

There was no suggestion any of the individuals were likely to travel to the UK before the sanctions against them.

Announcing the sanctions, Lord Cameron said it was “clear that the Russian authorities saw Navalny as a threat and they tried repeatedly to silence him”.

“No-one should doubt the oppressive nature of the Russian system,” he added.

“That’s why we’re today sanctioning the most senior prison officials responsible for his custody in the penal colony where he spent his final months.

“Those responsible for Navalny’s brutal treatment should be under no illusion – we will hold them accountable.”

  • Navalny’s widow faces daunting challenges in Russia
  • Body to be held for two weeks for ‘chemical analysis’
  • What do we know about Navalny’s death in Arctic Circle?

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the UK and its allies were considering “all options to hold Russia and Putin to account”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Navalny’s death was a “reminder that Putin has stolen not just the wealth but also the future and democracy of the Russian people”.

Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, said UK measures against Russia needed to “go a lot further”.

Navalny, who was the Russian opposition’s most significant leader for the last decade, had been serving a 19-year sentence on charges many viewed as politically motivated.

The Russian prison service said he died at the IK-3 Arctic penal colony on Friday after taking a walk and suddenly collapsing.

Navalny’s team alleges he was murdered on the orders of President Putin.

The family have been told his body will not be released for two weeks.

His mother was informed it was being held for “chemical analysis”, a representative for Navalny said.

There has been no confirmation of the whereabouts of the body from Russian authorities, while efforts to locate it have been repeatedly shut down.

Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, has alleged the body was being kept until traces of poisoning by the nerve agent Novichok had disappeared. Navalny survived an attempt to kill him using the poison in 2020.

Mr Putin has not directly commented on his death. The Kremlin did acknowledge his death and said the Russian president was aware.

Trident missile test fails for second time in a row

The test firing of a Trident missile from a Royal Navy submarine has failed, for the second time in a row.

The latest test of the UK’s nuclear deterrent was from HMS Vanguard and was seen by Defence Secretary Grant Shapps.

The missile’s booster rockets failed and it landed in the sea close to the launch site, according to the Sun, which first reported the malfunction.

Mr Shapps said he has “absolute confidence” in Trident’s submarines, missiles and nuclear warheads.

This is highly embarrassing for both the UK and the US manufacturer of the Trident missile.

British tests of Trident missiles are rare, not least because of the cost. Each missile is worth around £17m and the last test in 2016 also ended in failure when the missile veered off course. Test-fired missiles are not armed with their nuclear warheads.

  • What is Trident and how does it work?

Both Mr Shapps and the head of the Navy were on board HMS Vanguard when it fired the unarmed test missile in January.

The submarine had just had a more than seven-year refit.

In a written statement to Parliament, Mr Shapps confirmed “an anomaly did occur” during the test on 30 January this year, but said Trident is”the most reliable weapons system in the world”.

He said: “The test reaffirmed the effectiveness of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, in which the government has absolute confidence. The submarine and crew were successfully certified and will rejoin the operational cycle as planned.

“On this occasion, an anomaly did occur, but it was event specific and there are no implications for the reliability of the wider Trident missile systems and stockpiles.

“Nor are there any implications for our ability to fire our nuclear weapons, should the circumstances arise in which we need to do so.”

He added Trident remained “effective, dependable, and formidable.”

The missile was supposed to have flown several thousand miles before landing harmlessly in the Atlantic between Brazil and West Africa. Instead it dropped into the ocean near to where it was launched.

At the time of the failed 2016 test, the Sunday Times reported that it was launched from HMS Vengeance off the coast of Florida.

The paper said the Trident II D5 missile was intended to be fired 3,700 miles (5,954 km) to a sea target off the west coast of Africa but veered towards the US.

The cause of what went wrong remains top secret, the paper reported, but quoted a senior naval source as saying the missile suffered an in-flight malfunction after launching out of the water.

Dr Matthew Harries, director of proliferation and nuclear policy at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), said it was impossible to say how significant the test failure was.

He told BBC News: “There could be a variety of explanations for something going wrong in what HMS Vanguard was doing in test-launching this missile, and there isn’t enough information on what exactly that was.

“The missiles the UK uses are drawn from a common pool that the US and UK both use, and the US has conducted multiple tests without these kind of problems.

“Of course it is embarrassing when the launch is announced in advance and the defence secretary is on board. It doesn’t look good.”

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The Labour Party has called for assurances over the effectiveness of the nuclear deterrent.

Shadow defence secretary John Healey said: “Reports of a Trident test failure are concerning.

“The defence secretary will want to reassure Parliament that this test has no impact on the effectiveness of the UK’s deterrent operations.”

The Scottish National Party said spending on “weapons of mass destruction” came at the expense of tackling inequality and conventional military capabilities.

Martin Docherty-Hughes MP, the SNP’s defence spokesperson in the Commons, said: “This is the second failed test in a row of weapons that are costing us tens of billions – an embarrassing and scandalous fact that should serve as a wake-up call to the UK government.”

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) described it as an expensive failure following a reported £500m refit.

“We need to stop wasting our money on this,” the group said who campaign to get rid of nuclear weapons in Britain and worldwide.

In a statement the Ministry of Defence admitted an anomaly had occurred in the most recent launch. But it also said that HMS Vanguard and its crew had been “proven fully capable” in their operations and the test had “reaffirmed the effectiveness of the UK’s nuclear deterrent”.

The statement added that Trident was the “most reliable weapons system in the world” having completed more than 190 successful tests.

The last successful unarmed Trident missile test was in 2012, the MoD confirmed.

HMS Vanguard is one of four of the Vanguard-class nuclear submarines that have been on patrol since 1994, with one of the vessels continually at sea.

The submarines are based at Faslane Royal Navy base on the Firth of Clyde and carry US-built Trident 2 D5 missiles, while the nuclear warheads are stored at the nearby Coulport armaments depot on Loch Long.

Annual running costs are estimated at 6% of the defence budget – around £3bn for 2023/24, according to the House of Commons Library.

The V-class is due to be replaced by the bigger Dreadnought-class submarines in the 2030s.

Between £31bn and £41bn has been put aside for the wider programme of replacing the Vanguard-class submarines, the House of Commons Library said.

This film’s viral moment spotlights Oscars dark horse

The German actress Sandra Hüller has an Oscar nomination for her blistering performance in Anatomy of a Fall. The film’s viral moment could make her a contender for the top prize.

In two of this year’s most acclaimed – and Oscar-nominated – films, German actress Sandra Hüller plays two characters who in different ways are perceived as monsters. In the case of Hedwig, the wife of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, growing a garden and ignoring the death camp over the fence in Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest – this perception is more readily understood. But what about when the monstrous mantle is given to the confident, outspoken, bisexual writer Sandra, when she is accused of murdering her husband in French director Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall?

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Last month Hüller received a best actress Oscar nomination for this role, one of five in total for the film, which also took the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The Zone of Interest also received five Oscar nominations, putting the critical spotlight back on Hüller, eight years after she first received international acclaim for playing another woman seemingly indifferent to anyone’s opinion – Ines, in Maren Ade’s father-daughter drama comedy Toni Erdmann.

How does Hüller feel about her fictitious namesake Sandra being accused of being a monster? In the film’s lengthy courtroom scenes, the prosecution aggressively cross-examines her, using her own writing and marital infidelities as evidence to support its case. Sandra herself protests during the film, “I’m not a monster!”. Society’s judgement that, if guilty, she must be, seems already present.

Sandra’s just actually acting like a man and if that were the case no one would say anything about it – Sandra Hüller

“I find that so interesting,” she tells BBC Culture, from backstage at the International film festival in Rotterdam, where she gave a career talk.

“Even just today, a close friend of mine told me that ‘yes, Sandra’s just actually acting like a man and if that were the case no one would say anything about it’But the fact that she’s a woman and behaving that way seems to be scary for some people.”

Anatomy of a scene

The Sandra of Anatomy of a Fall is blunt, career-focused and doesn’t hide the fact she is more successful as a writer than her husband Samuel (played in the movie by Samuel Theis), who she’s accused of pushing to his death at their French chalet house. She’s also bisexual, and Hüller thinks all these characteristics add to the debate around her.

“Unfortunately, it’s rare to find female characters that have so much to tell and that are so true to themselves and that are so intelligent and so carefully written and that don’t have any clichés in them. It was really liberating to play a woman who knows a lot about herself. I think Sandra’s really done the work and I admire that very much.”

Anatomy contains a blazing marital argument that went viral earlier this year (Credit: Alamy)

The fictitious Sandra is neither a femme fatale nor frightened victim in the electrifying noir thriller-meets-courtroom drama written by Triet and her partner, Arthur Harari, who has co-written most of the films she’s directed. Anatomy contains surely one of the most blazing and memorable marital arguments ever seen in cinema. One particular scene went viral earlier this year, and currently has just under 10 million views on TikTok. When the film first premiered at Cannes, Justine Triet told the BBC that she had wanted to explore the tensions of a long-term relationship.

“I think it’s very complicated to live together,” she said at the time. “What do we owe each other, what do we give each other, what is love and how can we live together? It seems very simple, but in fact it is a question.”

Hüller agrees that the scene is “extraordinary” but thinks that’s down to the strength of Triet and Harari’s own relationship.

“It’s not because of us, it’s because of the writing. It helps that the people who wrote it are living together, and they wrote down their worst nightmare, how it could go really, really wrong,” she points out.

“They went into a place that was really uncomfortable, I think. And I can only thank them for that because it was brave. I’m often talking about bravery in filmmaking, but I do think it was really brave to write this as a couple; I’ve lots of respect for that.” 

An international success story

Anatomy of a Fall is an examination of the breakdown of a relationship through the lens of the courtroom, set against the formality of the French legal system, already portrayed in 2022 by Alice Diop in the film Saint Omer as inherently prejudiced towards women accused of emotive crimes.

In the witness box, Sandra is interrogated about her dedication as a wife and also as a mother to the couple’s young son Daniel (played by Milo Machado-Graner) who happens to be blind and also the main witness. Her marital infidelities with both men and women are exposed to the court.

Does Sandra’s bisexuality count against her in the courtroom, as some have debated? “It’s interesting that fact is frightening for some people,” Hüller replies. “Or that even makes her, I don’t know, less believable? I mean, let’s not even go there, it’s just ridiculous.”

Sandra is more successful than her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) – she’s accused of pushing to his death at their French chalet house (Credit: Alamy)

Hüller has so far spent much of her career working in theatre, which perhaps stood her in good stead for Anatomy’s long scenes, which were spoken in English and French, her second and third languages. It’s something the actress says she loved and wants to do more of. “There’s a lack of control in other languages that I enjoy very much because I can never do it right. There will always be an accent and little mistakes, and I really like that fact that I can focus so much more on what I say than how I say it,” she explains.

Triet and Hüller described themselves at Cannes as “sisters from another mister” as they’ve also worked together on the 2019 comedy drama Sibyl, about a psychotherapist-turned-writer who finds her latest patient is a tempting source of inspiration for her work. While Triet’s earlier works, like Sibyl or 2016’s In Bed with Victoria, have a comic undertone that Anatomy doesn’t have, all these heroines share a strong ownership of their sexuality.

The film’s success – it’s made more than $28m internationally – has propelled Triet into a different league: she’s now a Palme d’Or winner and one of only eight women filmmakers to be nominated for a best director Oscar.

“I don’t understand why it took so long,” says Hüller of Triet’s recognition. “I really don’t get it because even when I saw her first short film, I thought, ‘this is really something’. I think it’s remarkable what she’s doing, the way she’s thinking, the risks she’s taking. I really admire her very much.”

The film’s big unanswered question

The director also took a risk in fiercely criticising French film industry policy (about the suppression of pension protests) during her Palme d’Or acceptance speech, which resulted in her being called “ungrateful” by the French culture minister. It may also have been one of the reasons Anatomy of a Fall was passed over as the French Oscar entry for best international film – although if so, Triet may have had the last laugh.

As long as we recreate those narratives…almost that just one woman is allowed in there, it’s going to stay that way – Sandra Hüller

Now the filmmaker finds herself the only woman in a directing category that also includes The Zone of Interest’s Jonathan Glazer. Only once before, in 2021, have two women ever made it to that shortlist, and the exclusion of Greta Gerwig, who made the billion-dollar box office saviour Barbie, provoked well-publicised indignation, especially from Gerwig’s leading man, Ryan Gosling.

“I still think it’s a strange picture to see Justine in the middle of four men. I find it strange. And I would have loved to have seen Greta Gerwig nominated. Of course, I would,” says Hüller. “I think though as long as we recreate those narratives about maybe it’s just the way it is, almost that just one woman is allowed in there, it’s going to stay that way.”

Justine Triet (pictured with Hüller) is the only woman nominated in the Oscars’ best director category (Credit: Getty Images)

The actress describes her own Oscar nomination as “very nice on one level, and at the same time it’s very intimidating. There are a lot of things going on right now I have to process a bit, but I’m very happy.

“I’m lucky to receive any honour, but it’s out of my control. I can just continue to work and that’s what I’ve always done. I really try to create something that I agree with and not to do any favours to anyone. And sometimes it pays off.”

And will Sandra Hüller go off to the Oscars armed with the inside knowledge that most fans of Anatomy of a Fall are desperate to know – did she do it?

“I won’t tell because I don’t know,” she replies.

“I really don’t know! There are so many theories, and that’s the beautiful thing about this film, that everybody is making up their own story about it and everybody has their own judgment and then their own fantasy. Justine and I never discussed it and I also didn’t decide because the balance is very important for this film, that the audience is constantly moved from one side to the other. And I think it was easier to not know ourselves.”

Anatomy of a Fall is on release now. The 96th Academy Awards will be broadcast on ABC on Sunday 10 March at 7pm ET.

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Forget the 9-to-5: Embrace ‘chronoworking’ hack

The key to getting the most out of workers may be allowing them do their jobs when they feel like it.

Most days, Eloise Skinner is still working at midnight. The writer, fitness instructor and therapist opens her computer to check email around 11:00, takes the afternoon or early evening shift at the London gym where she runs workout classes, then sits down to tackle in-depth projects after 19:30. By that time, “the world has gone quiet”, she says, and she feels best able to concentrate.

The 32-year-old self-proclaimed “night owl” has been planning work around her biology for years, even across different jobs and time zones. “It sounds a bit extreme, but it just is a reflection of the fact that I really, really focus around 8, 9 or 10pm,” says Skinner. “That’s when I’m at my most productive.”

Amid a growing desire for flexible work post-Covid-19, workers are increasingly interested in the kind of set-up Skinner has, with many pushing their companies to adapt their working hours to natural energy levels for maximum productivity. The approach is called “chronoworking”.

Originally coined by journalist Ellen C Scott, chronoworking enables employees to ditch standard office hours and pick schedules that match their personal “chronotypes” instead – the natural time at which their bodies want to sleep.

There are four chronotypes, according to American clinical psychologist and “sleep doctor” Michael Breus. According to his surveys, 55% of people find peak productivity in the middle of the day (10:00 to 14:00); 15% are best suited to early-morning starts; 15% are better working late into the night; and 10% have a more erratic circadian rhythm, which can vary from day to day.

Despite these variations, however, the traditional 9-to-5, eight-hour workday – invented by US labour unions in the 1800s – is still the norm. As a result, many people must work outside their preferred hours of peak productivity; in one small January survey of nearly 1,500 American workers, 94% of respondents said this was the case, and 77% said mandated standard working hours impacted their job performance. To cope, nearly half take said they naps during the workday; 42% load up on caffeine to maintain energy levels; and 43% use stress-management techniques, like mindfulness.

Some workers find their peak productivity in the late-night hours, and want to work after most people have logged off (Credit: Alamy)

Chronoworking isn’t new, yet it has attracted more attention since the pandemic, as remote and hybrid work has mainstreamed, says Dirk Buyens, professor of HR management at Vlerick Business School in Brussels. “No longer do we all spend an hour or so on a commute between the set times of around seven to nine in the morning, and we can truly understand when we are most productive and how to get the most out of our job.”

Workers, especially younger ones, like the idea of suiting their schedules to their most productive hours – but companies also stand to benefit from chronoworking, adds Buyens. Allowing staff to work when they’re at their best could boost performance and wellbeing, with a knock-on positive effect on employee retention. “If workers are happy and that their managers allow them to work hours that suit their needs, they are going to be more likely to stay at the organisation,” he says.

It’s not a widespread phenomenon. Many companies still find it unconventional; and it simply can’t work for others, like customer-facing businesses or those tied to outside factors, like stock market hours. Yet some firms without these constraints – often with globally distributed workforces – are introducing it. 

None of the 17 employees at London-based jobs platform Flexa follow the same working pattern. Instead, says CEO Molly Johnson-Jones, they’re free to construct their days based on when they feel most productive. Some start as early as 07:30, while others don’t log on until 11:00, and work later into the evening.

It’s nonsensical that we all need to be working together all at one time. You get far more out of people if you operate around different chronotypes – Molly Johnson-Jones

It’s the right fit for the remote organisation, she says. “It’s nonsensical that we all need to be working together all at one time. You get far more out of people if you operate around different chronotypes.” The approach has the added benefit of normalising flexible hours for parents or those with other responsibilities that make it tricky to stick to 9-to-5 restrictions, she adds. “It levels the playing field.”

Chronoworking could create practical challenges, though, warns Buyens. As much as the approach grants workers independence and the ability to have a non-linear workday, team members still need at least some “crossover hours” for meetings and shared projects. They also need to be aware of each person’s individual working hours. Managers may struggle, both with overseeing staff output and also making sure they are available and supportive leaders at all times, he adds.

Yet for some of the companies adopting chronoworking, there are ways around these issues. For instance, Flexa requires all its staff to be online during the core hours of 11:00 to 15:00. This allows the team to “blitz through” shared tasks. Other companies use software to record meetings and share with those team members who didn’t join, helping bridge the gap of asynchronous work.

The benefits far outweigh the challenges, believes Johnson-Jones. “We’ll get more out of people and people will be more productive if they can operate around their own chronotypes,” she says. “Some people are morning people, some prefer the evening and some are bang in the middle. We’re all different, and so we can’t be expected to thrive in the same environment.”