BBC 2024-02-22 16:31:49

Rosenberg: How two years of war in Ukraine changed Russia

As I stood watching Russians laying flowers in memory of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a young man shared his reaction to Mr Navalny’s death in prison.

“I’m in shock,” he told me, “just like two years ago on 24 February: when the war started.”

It made me think about everything that has happened in Russia these last two years, since President Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

It is a catalogue of drama, bloodshed, tragedy.

  • Russia’s war has brought death and destruction to Ukraine. The Russian military has suffered huge losses, too.
  • Russian towns have been shelled and come under drone-attack;
  • Hundreds of thousands of Russian men were drafted into the army;
  • Wagner mercenaries mutinied and marched on Moscow. Their leader Yevgeny Prigozhin later died in a plane crash.
  • The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russia’s president for alleged war crimes.
  • Now Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critic is dead.

24 February 2022 was a watershed moment.

But looking back the direction of travel had been clear. It was in 2014 that Russia had annexed Crimea from Ukraine and first intervened militarily in the Donbas; Alexei Navalny had been poisoned with a nerve agent in 2020 and jailed in 2021. Domestic repression in Russia pre-dates the invasion of Ukraine, but it has accelerated since.

As for Vladimir Putin, two years into this war he sounds increasingly confident and determined to defeat his enemies at home and abroad. He rails against America, Nato and the EU and presents Russia’s war in Ukraine as a war on Russia by the “collective West”, an existential battle for his country’s survival.

How and when will it end? I can’t predict the future. I can, however, recall the past.

In a cupboard at home recently I found a dusty folder with copies of my Russia despatches from more than 20 years ago: the early Putin years.

Sifting through them, it was like reading about a different galaxy light-years away.

  • Russia accused of executing prisoners of war in Avdiivka
  • Is Russia turning the tide in Ukraine?

“According to a recent poll, 59% of Russians support the idea of Russia joining the European Union…” I wrote on 17 May 2001.

“Nato and Russia are actively seeking closer cooperation: a sign to both sides that the real threat to world peace lies not with each other…” [20 November 2001]

So, where did it all go wrong? I’m not the only person wondering.

“The Putin I met with, did good business with, established a Nato-Russia Council with, is very, very different from this almost megalomaniac at the present moment,” former Nato chief Lord Robertson told me recently when we met in London.

“The man who stood beside me in May of 2002, right beside me, and said Ukraine is a sovereign and independent nation state which will make its own decisions about security, is now the man who says that [Ukraine] is not a nation state.”

Lord Robertson even recalls Vladimir Putin contemplating Nato membership for Russia.

“At my second meeting with Putin, he said explicitly: ‘When are you going to invite Russia to join Nato?’ I said, ‘We don’t invite countries to join Nato, they apply.’ And he said, ‘Well, we’re not going to stand in line beside a bunch of countries who don’t matter.’

Lord Robertson said he does not think that Putin really wanted to apply for Nato membership.

“He wanted it presented to him, because I think he always thought – and increasingly thinks – that Russia is a great nation on the world stage and needs the respect that the Soviet Union had,” he told me.

“He was never going to comfortably fit inside an alliance of equal nations, all sitting round the table debating and discussing interests of common policy.”

‘Growing ego’

Lord Robertson points out that the Soviet Union was once recognised as the second superpower in the world, but Russia can’t make any claims in that direction today.

“I think that sort of ate away at [Putin’s] ego. Combine that with the feebleness, sometimes, of the West and in many ways the provocations that he faced, as well as his own growing ego. I think that changed the individual who wanted to cooperate with Nato into somebody who now sees Nato as a huge threat.”

Moscow sees things differently. Russian officials claim it was Nato enlargement eastwards that undermined European security and led to war. They accuse Nato of breaking a promise to the Kremlin, made allegedly in the dying days of the USSR, that the alliance wouldn’t accept countries previously in Moscow’s orbit.

“There was certainly nothing on paper,” Lord Robertson tells me. “There was nothing that was agreed, there was no treaty to that effect. But it was Vladimir Putin himself who signed the Rome Declaration on 28 May 2002. The same piece of paper I signed, which enshrined the basic principles of territorial integrity and non-interference in other countries. He signed that. He can’t blame anybody else.”

In the town of Solnechnogorsk, 40 miles from Moscow, the last two dramatic years of Russia’s history are on display in the park.

I spot graffiti in support of the Wagner mercenary group.

There are flowers in memory of Alexei Navalny.

And there’s a large mural of two local men, Russian soldiers, killed in Ukraine. Painted alongside is a Youth Army cadet saluting them.

In the town centre, at a memorial to those killed in World War Two and the Soviet war in Afghanistan, a new section has been added:

“To soldiers killed in the special military operation.”

Forty-six names are etched into stone.

I ask Lidiya Petrovna, passing by with her grandson, how life has changed in two years.

“Our factories are now making things we used to buy abroad. That’s good,” Lidiya says. “But I’m sad for the young men, for everyone, who’ve been killed. We certainly don’t need war with the West. Our people have seen nothing but war, war, war all their lives.”

When I speak to Marina, she praises Russian soldiers she says are “doing their duty” in Ukraine. Then she looks across at her 17-year-old son Andrei.

“But as a mother I’m frightened that my son will be called up to fight. I want peace as soon as possible, so that we won’t fear what comes tomorrow.”

Israel-Gaza: On board the plane evacuating injured Palestinians

Two very different flights in 24 hours, each with the same aim: to alleviate Gaza’s suffering.

The first is the less perilous: an Etihad Airways passenger plane, flight EY750 from Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. The Boeing 777 has been converted into a virtual flying ambulance with seats in economy turned into hospital beds.

Its mission, paid for by the government of the UAE, is to return civilians who had previously got out after being trapped in Rafah in southern Gaza, in some cases for months, and to evacuate wounded Palestinian children who had crossed from Gaza to al-Arish in Egypt’s northern Sinai.

After hours on the ground, the first evacuees start to make it on board. There is relief on their faces as they make it across the airfield to the plane, but uncertainty too. Many have left family members behind in Gaza.

  • Gaza: How life has changed in four months

Among them is 58-year-old Hanaa Hasan Abu Namous. Her hand is badly injured. She says 25 members of her family were killed in an Israeli air strike on their home in the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza.

“During the war they were displaced,” she tells me. “Thirty or 50 of them would come to our house. We are civilians. We never have and never will fight.”

She holds a picture on her phone of shroud-wrapped bodies. They had to be buried together, four or five to a coffin, she says.

Sitting a few rows forward is 13-year-old Yazan Wajih Barhum, whose left foot has been partially amputated. He was at a neighbour’s house in Rafah when an Israeli bomb hit, he says.

His seven-year-old brother, Yamen, was hit with shrapnel in the eye and is already in Abu Dhabi. When I ask him when they last saw each other he answers, quick as a flash, “58 days ago”. What are his hopes for the future, I ask.

“To be able to walk on my legs again, get back to how I was, play football with my friends, and for the war to end so I can go back to my country”, he says.

The crew on board, regular airline staff, hand the 25 injured children backpacks with games and a SpongeBob blanket. The kids who are able sit watching cartoons on the entertainment system; some are on stretchers at the back of the plane.

Kiran Sadasivan, the cabin manager, welcomes the children and their chaperones on board, taking pictures with their phones and distributing meals. “This is my tenth mission flight,” he tells me. “And I’ll be on the next one in a few days.”

Also on board is Dr Maha Barakat, the UAE’s assistant foreign affairs minister. A UK-trained doctor, she does not rest during the 20-hour evacuation mission, checking on the patients and medical team and liaising with the Egyptian authorities on the ground.

“The actual day today was clearly a more challenging day than usual,” she says. “There was a particular girl that we were trying to get through – she was in urgent medical need. And she wasn’t able to make it to the border. However, we will have another plane coming in the next few days.”

Not all the Palestinians on the plane are leaving Gaza. Sitting alone, wearing a dark red headscarf and with a small leather handbag at her side is mother-of-three Zahra Mohammed Al-Qeiq. She has leukaemia, and left Gaza a few months ago for treatment in Abu Dhabi. Now she is returning to Rafah.

Isn’t she scared, I ask her.

“The whole period I spent in the Emirates, my kids were crying on calls asking me to come back, saying ‘come back; we will die in Gaza’. I had to stop my treatment and go back to my children,” she says.

Emirati doctors have given her six months of chemotherapy drugs. “I cried every night I was away from home. I have to go back, they are my children,” she says.

First UK aid airdrop

Twenty-four hours later, a Royal Jordanian Airforce cargo plane – “Guts Airline” painted on its side – heads for Gaza at sunset.

The aircrew on board have done this flight a dozen times. As they reach 17,000ft (5,200m), they put on oxygen masks and make final precise adjustments for the drop.

For the first time, the cargo on board is British: four tonnes of supplies, including fuel, medical gear and food rations, to resupply the Jordanian-run field hospital in Gaza City.

Until now Britain has only sent aid by land and sea, but northern Gaza has become almost entirely unreachable. The World Food Programme has suspended deliveries there because its convoys have endured “complete chaos and violence”, it said.

There is a heavy Israeli military presence on the ground. The Jordanian authorities will not disclose what co-ordination is made with Israel to allow the plane to fly overhead without incident.

Israel maintains a tight grip on the aid going into Gaza. Britain and others have complained that only a fraction of the aid needed is making it into the strip. Everything is subject to stringent Israeli checks, to prevent supplies making it inside that would aid Hamas.

Most of the people in this once densely packed part of Gaza have been driven out by Israeli forces, but some 300,000 remain, barely surviving in the most desperate of circumstances. The UN has been warning for months of the threat of famine in northern Gaza.

I watch as the cargo doors opened and the first two pallets of supplies fly off into the black night. The plane banks sharply and turns, and the second two pallets are launched. The Jordanian crew give a thumbs-up and head for home.

It is a small drop in the chasm of Gaza’s need. But this aid sent into the night at least manages to get through; the crew confirms it has landed right on target.

Rust armourer on trial after Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins

Samantha Granville

Reporting from court

The judge has just re-entered the courtroom.

As we wait
for the jury to be seated, let’s look back at jury selection yesterday, which
surprisingly wrapped in one day.

There was a
first pool of 70 potential jurors, most of whom were familiar with the Rust shooting.

And a little after 17:00 local time, seven men and five women were chosen.

As with any
jury selection, some jurors expressed the personal and life difficulties that
serving on a jury would pose.

One woman
said her dog was having surgery and it couldn’t be rescheduled.

to jurors were focused on their thoughts on gun laws and culture. They were
also asked about any underlying sympathies for Hannah being a young, inexperienced woman in a male dominated industry.

One man
told the judge he thought Hannah got a raw deal. He was dismissed.

At the end
of a long day of waiting and more waiting, jurors were annoyed with all the
waiting around.

But hey,
that’s jury duty!

Why plov is the ultimate Silk Road dish

Uzbekistan’s beloved national dish, plov, is widely believed to have aphrodisiac qualities and so it’s traditionally eaten on Thursdays – a popular day for conceiving children.

Plov – a medley of rice, vegetables, meat and spices – is popular throughout the countries of the Silk Road, but it’s most closely associated with Uzbekistan. Widely consumed at least once a week, it’s the country’s national dish and is considered an indispensable part of family celebrations, served at births, weddings and funerals and to honour Muslims returning from Hajj.

According to legend, plov was first invented for Alexander the Great, who ordered the creation of a satisfying meal to sustain his army during their campaigns in Central Asia. “We don’t have historical records to prove that, but what we do know is that by the 9th and 10th Centuries, plov had become very popular here,” said Nilufar Nuriddinova, an Uzbek tour guide who is passionate about food history. “Rice has been a staple crop in this region for more than 1,000 years. It requires hard physical work to grow, as does harvesting crops and raising livestock. So, plov would’ve been an ideal high-calorie, nutrient-rich dish for the largely agricultural society.”

Plov is now considered such a vital part of the country’s culinary traditions that it was recently inscribed on Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List. “It is more than just a meal,” Nuriddinova explained. “It creates social bonds and encourages friendship; it brings our nation together.”

She told me even the word is an important part of the Uzbek language. “It appears in many everyday expressions such as, ‘If you know you have only one day left on Earth, spend it eating plov,'” she said. “It means that afterwards you can die happy. In Uzbekistan, life without plov is unthinkable.”

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

There are more than 100 types of plov in Uzbekistan. Recipes differ according to the region and the season, but each variation contains key ingredients whose initials gave the dish its full name, osh palov: “o” for ob (water in Persian), “sh” for sholi (rice), “p” for piyoz (onion), “a” for ayoz (carrot), “l” for lamh (meat), “o” for olio (fat or oil), and “v” for vet (salt).

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

The country’s most famous plov restaurant is Besh Qozon (also known as the Central Asian Plov Centre), located in the Yunusabad neighbourhood of the capital, Tashkent. Thought to be one of the largest plov restaurants in Central Asia, Besh Qozon serves between 5,000 and 8,000 customers daily, with plov made in nine vast wood-fired cauldrons known as kazan.

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

According to Uzbek tradition, every plate of plov must be accompanied by non (bread). Besh Qozon’s resident nonvoy (baker) is Shokirjon Nurmatov. Like all kitchen staff, he performs a special ritual before beginning work: he purifies himself, joins his hands together in the shape of a bowl and asks for a dua (blessing from Allah) to do his job successfully. Only then can he begin producing his daily batch of more than 3,000 loaves.

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

In the family home, plov is traditionally made by women; in restaurants (and on special occasions), it’s the reserve of a male chef known as an oshpaz. “That’s because it’s tough physical work to produce huge quantities,” said Fayzullah Sagdiyev, the oshpaz at Besh Qozon. “My largest kazan can hold up to three tonnes of food.” He told me he faces other even greater pressures. “If a guest doesn’t finish their plov because they don’t like the taste, it’s considered so shameful that the oshpaz may consider taking their own life,” he said. “Thankfully, it’s never happened to me.”

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

The process of cooking plov follows a strict order: it begins with the browning of meat (a mix of mutton and beef), before the addition of white and yellow carrots, onion, rice, water and spices. Sagdiyev uses a mix of salt, pepper, turmeric and principally cumin – which first arrived in Uzbekistan from India along the Silk Road. A local touch to Besh Qozon’s chaykhana plov is the addition of chickpeas and kishmish (a sour raisin)before it is slow-cooked for four hours.

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

Thursdays and Sundays are considered the most popular days to make and eat plov in Uzbekistan. “It’s likely because in ancient times, people from the countryside could only travel to the city bazaars to sell their goods twice a week,” Nuriddinova explained. “So, they had more money on Thursdays and Sundays to be able to afford to buy all the necessary ingredients.”

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

Sagdiyev told me that plov’s prevalence on a Thursday is also because it is thought to have strong qualities as an aphrodisiac, and so is perfect to eat on what is a popular day for conceiving children. He went on to tell me that some men joke that the word plov actually means foreplay, that oil from the bottom of the kazan is sometimes drunk as a form of natural Viagra and that many oshpaz will reserve the best meat for Thursdays to give male customers extra sexual power.

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

The tradition of conceiving on Thursdays is linked to the country’s strong Islamic beliefs. “It is thought that the Prophet Muhammad was conceived on a Thursday,” Sagdiyev said. “So, if you want your baby to be intelligent, well behaved, be blessed by the angels and have a heart open to receiving God, this is a good day to do it. But only after eating a plate of plov.”

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Odysseus: The mission to prevent ‘spaceship sandblasting’

A US private company’s first Moon mission is due to touch down on Thursday. Its missions could help a new generation of lunar astronauts in the future.

Lunar exploration is heating up once more, and it is also changing. Intuitive Machines, a firm based in Houston, Texas, is hoping to become the first commercial company to successfully land on the Moon on Thursday, 22 February.

The strikingly tall, hexagonal cylinder Nova-C lander, named Odysseus, launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on 15 February and successfully entered lunar orbit on 21 February. It is aiming to soft-land in the crater Malapert A in the region of the Moon’s south pole at around 22:30GMT (16:30CT) 22 February.

If successful, the mission will be the first American lunar landing in more than 50 years, since the crewed Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. It’s part of Nasa’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative intended to support the agency’s Artemis programme that is aiming to send astronauts back to the Moon and even build a permanent base there. An earlier attempt to land on the Moon by the Peregrine mission from Astrobotic under the same initiative in January was unsuccessful.

But landing on the lunar surface is only the beginning. Odysseus will then begin a suite of experiments that will hopefully provide data useful for a wave of future missions and help to ensure the safety of humans when they eventually return to set foot on the lunar regolith.

A set of four tiny cameras funded by Nasa are installed around the base of Odysseus. These cameras, or the Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (Scalpss), are designed to collect still frame and video footage of the landing and how the exhaust plume from Odysseus’s landing engines interact with the dusty lunar surface. Teams of scientists back on Earth will then use the data to build 3D models of the landing site, before and after landing, measuring how the landscape changes. While small, these instruments will help with the work needed to make sustained lunar exploration safe.

The lander will touch down on the Malapert-A crater near the Moon’s South Pole (Credit: Nasa)

While the Apollo missions provided a treasure trove of information and insights about the Moon, they also uncovered issues that still need to be answered before humanity returns.

When Apollo 12 landed on the Moon in November 1969, it set down within 200m (656ft) of an earlier visitor to our planet’s celestial neighbour. Astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean walked to Surveyor 3, a robotic lander that had been on the lunar surface for two and a half years, cut pieces off and brought them back to Earth. Resulting analysis revealed that the Apollo 12 landing had sandblasted Surveyor 3.

“The rocket exhaust itself is typically going about three or four kilometres per second (6,710-8,947mph),” says Phil Metzger, a former Nasa scientist who is now a planetary physicist at the University of Central Florida. “And the smallest particles will be accelerated up to that velocity… That’s like five times the speed of a bullet.”

With no atmosphere to stop it or slow it down, the dust and rocks blown off the Moon travel far and fast.

“It goes literally globally around the Moon and even blows completely off the Moon and can sandblast spacecraft that are in orbit,” says Metzger.

It becomes a question of how much damage is acceptable – Phil Metzger

The US-led Artemis programme is intended to be more sustainable than the “flags and footprints” approach of earlier missions. Setting up an Artemis Base Camp on the Moon means making frequent precise landings – and launches from the lunar surface – in close proximity to each other. This will have to be done while keeping both hardware and astronauts safe.

Sandblasting your lunar setup thus becomes a big issue, and could impact landing site selection, the design of spacecraft and mission planning.

“It becomes a question of how much damage is acceptable,” says Metzger. “If you have sensitive instruments, or if you have hardware that’s going to be exposed to many sandblasting events, such as at a lunar outpost, where you’ll be having spacecraft landing and departing frequently, then we need to manage the amount of damage.”

Landing pads, berms, curtains or other structures could be used to block streams of accelerated lunar dust. The current mission may help designers work out what material they should be made of.

The lander’s technologies include cameras to capture how much moondust is blasted into space when the lander fires its rocket exhausts (Credit: Intuitive Machines)

It’s an issue that will require international coordination and collaboration. China is leading its own group of countries for another lunar exploration project: the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). One precursor mission, Chang’e-7, slated for 2026, aims to land near Shackleton crater at the lunar south pole, an area also under consideration for Nasa’s crewed Artemis 3 landing. (Read more about why there’s a rush to explore the Moon’s enigmatic South Pole.)

Damaging another country’s spacecraft when landing your own could cause problems – or even an international incident. Knowing how far away a mission should land from another, and agreeing on this internationally, would be an important step.

“That’s where missions like this Intuitive Machines landing become very helpful, because we can get data that will enable us to solve the physics,” Metzger says. “Then, once we have a better grasp of the science, that can inform policy decisions going forward.”

Another instrument aboard Odysseus is a small laser retroreflector. Developed by Nasa, the tiny Laser Retroreflective Array (LRA) could once again play an outsized role in lunar exploration. An LRA is a passive aluminium hemisphere just 5cm (2in) in diameter weighing just 20g (0.7oz). On this hemisphere are eight fused silica glass retroreflectors designed to reflect light directly back to its source. A spacecraft shining a laser can thus bounce light off an LRA and measure the time taken to receive a pulse back to determine the distance between them.

Navigation and communications satellites will play a role in supporting Artemis operations on the Moon

“Lasing from Earth to specific points on the surface to identify their exact location can be part of the process of how we generate a precise model of where everything is on the Moon. This is needed to be able to navigate,” says James Carpenter, the European Space Agency’s (Esa) discipline lead for planetary sciences.

LRAs can act as markers to help orbiting satellites to establish navigation and positioning services similar to the Global Positioning System (GPS) that has become part of our everyday lives back on Earth. The more of these there are, the easier and quicker it is for a spacecraft to determine its position in orbit. Navigation and communications satellites will play a role in supporting Artemis operations on the Moon, allowing both coordination and and tracking of movement on the surface.

Surveyor 3 was inspected by astronauts from Apollo 12 and was found to have been “sandblasted” by dust kicked up by the lander touching down (Credit: Nasa)

Retroreflectors have been used before, on Apollo missions and a couple of Soviet-era Luna spacecraft. These have been targeted by powerful Earth-based lasers to make precise measurements of the distance between the Earth and Moon. (Find out how reflectors left by Apollo astronauts have revealed the Moon is drifting away from the Earth.)

“The current reflectors are located across a very limited range of latitudes and longitudes, which limits what we can measure. If we can extend the range of locations where these reflectors are located then it will give us much better measurements and we can look deeper,” says Carpenter.

Nasa’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully tested the new LRA recently by “pinging” India’s Chandrayaan-3 lander.

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Having LRAs dotted around the Moon on landers such as Odysseus could also help spacecraft with range-finding and making precision landings needed to build up lunar infrastructure. It could also help spacecraft land in otherwise dark places, such as close to permanently shadowed regions, or patches where the Sun never shines near the lunar south pole, the region in which Odysseus aims to land.

Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus is just one of a number of lunar missions this year alone. But if its mission is a success, it could help could help pave the way for more advanced, safe, and efficient Moon missions – and eventually a lunar settlement.

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