The World Today for December 01, 2023

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NEED TO KNOW

Faltering Resolve

UKRAINE/ RUSSIA

The admission shocked Ukrainians who have shown little but resolute courage as they tried to fend off the Russian forces that invaded their country in February last year. In an interview with the Economist, the commander of Ukraine’s forces, General Valery Zaluzhny, confessed that the tragic conflict between the two former Soviet republics was becoming frozen in place.

“Just like in the First World War we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate,” Zaluzhny said in the November 1 story in the British magazine. “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”

The general and other Ukrainian leaders fear that Russia can manufacture more weapons systems and munitions, or procure more from allies like North Korea, while also sacrificing more soldiers to the meat grinder of war, wrote ABC News.

Many Ukrainians were crestfallen to think their soldiers would not prevail despite the painful sacrifices that their nation has made since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian province under the suzerainty of Moscow, and occupied Donetsk and other regions of eastern Ukraine.

“We cannot afford any stalemate,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said at a press conference after the general’s interview, according to Radio Free Europe. “If we want to end the war, we must end it. End with respect so that the whole world knows that whoever came, captured, and killed, is responsible.”

But a 35-year-old Ukrainian soldier on the front was not surprised. The Ukrainians must gain territory from the Russians – or tolerate the unthinkable prospect of a bullying neighbor occupying their land. “I’ve been saying that for some time now already,” said the soldier, speaking to Agence France-Presse using a pseudonym, “Mudryi,” or “Wise.” “The longer this static war continues, the worse it is for us.”

To be sure, the Russians weren’t advancing either, noted the New York Times. Modern technology and precision weapons like drones – and drone jamming – have stopped each other’s advances. Zaluzhny called on Ukraine’s allies to help create new systems and tactics to break the technological logjam and inaugurate Ukraine’s victory of reclaiming their territory from an aggressor.

Geopolitical analyst Ian Bremmer believed this new, trench-warfare-style of an impasse between Ukraine and Russia could last a year. Writing in Time magazine, Bremmer noted how Putin was doing well of late. Ukraine’s spring counteroffensive came and went with little success. Hamas’ attacks in Israel diverted American attention and, potentially, American military aid from Eastern Europe.

This grinding war will likely grind on.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Who’ll Let the Dogs Out?

SOUTH KOREA

Dog farmers staged a protest in the South Korean capital Thursday to oppose the government’s plan to ban dog meat consumption, a centuries-old tradition in the country, Time reported.

About 200 protesters rallied near the presidential secretariat in Seoul, where they tried to release 100 dogs. Police stopped the truck carrying the animals, preventing the farmers from completing their scheme.

Nonetheless, the Korea Dog Meat Farmers’ Association continues to raise the prospect of unleashing the two million dogs they are raising near government buildings and residences of lawmakers who worked on the legislation.

In a politically consensual move seldom seen, the bill would require businesses involved in the dog meat trade to provide their plan to phase out of the trade, while the state would provide a three-year buffer period and financial support. Those who refuse to comply could face a fine of $38,000 and up to five years in prison.

The Farmers’ Association said the proposed aid was inadequate and added that lawmakers failed to consult them, Reuters reported.

The ban proposal follows a series of failed efforts of its kind – but comes within the context of public opinion having shifted paradigms. A 2022 Gallup Korea poll showed that two in three Koreans frowned upon the practice of eating dogs. From 27 percent of respondents declaring they had eaten dog meat in 2015, the number fell to eight percent last year.

More than six million Korean households own dogs as pets rather than livestock.

With the rise of Korea’s soft power – through the popularity of K-pop and K-dramas – the opposition argued that increased international attention is another reason for the country to move on from dog meat consumption, reported Time.

Other advocates of the ban include animal rights activists, who called it a “dream come true.”

They told Time that, while plummeting rates of dog meat consumption are already jeopardizing the industry and pressuring farmers to transition to other forms of trade, groups protesting the ban represented only a small minority going against the interests of their peers.

Next Best Thing

ALGERIA

Algeria’s upper house of parliament passed a new media law this week that officials described as a victory for the country’s journalists, a move that comes amid ongoing concerns about press freedoms during President Abdelmajid Tebboune’s initial term in office, the Associated Press reported.

The new legislation will repeal the North African country’s “press offense” law that was previously used as a pretext to silence and imprison journalists critical of the government.

It will enshrine new protections for journalists to ensure they do not face arrest or imprisonment for doing their jobs. The bill’s author, Minister of Communications Mohamed Laagab, called it “the best law in the history of independent Algeria regarding the journalism industry.”

Many journalists welcomed the legislation, but others questioned its timing and expressed caution.

Retired journalist and activist Ahmed Khezzana suggested that the new law came a year before Algeria’s presidential elections, when Tebboune is expected to run for reelection.

The discussion around repealing Algeria’s “press offense” law has gone on in parliament for more than a decade.

Lawmakers first enshrined it into national law in 2011, but it was temporarily suspended as the government continued to prosecute dissenting journalists, especially during the 2019 mass protests that resulted in the removal of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Still, observers noted that two prominent journalists remain imprisoned and the laws that authorities have used to prosecute journalists – including one banning foreign funding for media outlets – remain on the books.

One of the imprisoned journalists is Ihsane El Kadi, the owner of a media company, who was jailed on charges related to threatening state security and taking foreign funds for his outlets. His lawyer said the new legislation will not affect El Kadi’s seven-year sentence that was handed down in April.

Whatever the Cost

SLOVENIA

Slovenia started refunding fines imposed during Covid-19 lockdowns to more than 60,000 citizens this week, in an effort to reconcile the public with the state, the BBC reported.

The move was an electoral promise made by the left-wing Prime Minister Robert Golob, who won last year’s general election. The government led by his right-wing predecessor, Janez Janša, had implemented strict measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Between 2020 and 2022, authorities handed out fines totalling $6.6 million to people for breaching Covid rules, including the obligation to wear a mask both in- and outdoors, a ban on protests, and night-time curfews.

Enforcement of these measures sometimes reached extreme points. A well-known symbol of that period was the $440 fine given to a food delivery courier who lowered his mask to have a snack in the capital Ljubljana. Following the new legislation, he will receive his money back and have his criminal record cleared.

Janša’s decrees lacked a legal basis, an activist told the BBC. So thought the Constitutional Court, which annulled them last year.

By following up on the Court’s decision, the government hopes to restore trust in the rule of law. Justice Minister Švarc Pipan said the new law would address “the abuse of criminal law and unconstitutional and excessive encroachment on human rights” carried out by the previous administration, Euractiv reported.

Nonetheless, the refund campaign faced protests from the opposition, who argued the fines were necessary to respond to the health crisis and satisfy requirements from the European Union and the World Health Organization. One lawmaker said it “spits in the face” of health workers.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

This week, Russian forces increased their attacks in eastern Ukraine, particularly in the industrial town of Avdiivka, as they seek territorial gains before the year’s end, Agence France-Presse noted. Avdiivka is strategically important but is surrounded on almost three sides by Russian troops. Ukrainian forces, resisting bombardment, continue to control a vital supply road. Recent weeks reportedly saw some of the highest Russian casualty rates. The conflict’s human toll is escalating, with Moscow seemingly willing to deploy “unlimited” soldiers. In a separate claim, Russia asserted control over Khromove, near Bakhmut, while both sides reported downing enemy drones and missiles. Despite minimal shifts in the frontline in 2023, the fighting remains fierce. Meanwhile, Ukraine anticipates increased attacks on its energy infrastructure, fearing a repeat of last winter’s tactics. State-owned electricity transmission operator Ukrenergo reported an electricity shortage amid efforts to reconnect villages after recent storms. On the diplomatic front, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed ongoing support for Ukraine during a NATO meeting, addressing concerns about wavering Western commitment.

Also this week:

  • Russia launched its biggest drone strike on the Ukrainian capital since it began its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, an attack that came as Kyiv was commemorating the Holodomor famine, the BBC reported. More than 75 drones of Iranian manufacture were fired over a period of six hours. Russia’s missile stocks are decreasing, so Moscow is now using cheaper but slower drones. In last week’s attack, these were all intercepted by Ukrainian air defense, except for one, injuring five people, Kyiv’s mayor Vitaliy Klitschko said. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy remarked that the drone attack took place as the country commemorated the 1932-1933 Great Famine, known as the Holodomor, under Joseph Stalin’s authoritarian rule over the Soviet Union that led to the death of more than four million Ukrainians.
  • Russia plans to require foreign visitors to sign an agreement forbidding them from criticizing the country’s history and government as well as behaviors breaching so-called “family values,” Reuters reported. The draft bill introducing a “loyalty agreement” comes as Moscow prepares for next year’s presidential election, where President Vladimir Putin is expected to campaign on the framing of the Ukraine war as a battle of ideologies with the West’s “decadence.” Should the law pass, foreigners will be not able to discuss either the Soviet Union’s wrongdoings or the current government’s domestic and foreign policies. While it is unclear which visitors this would concern and what sanctions they would face, a lawmaker said the legislation was at an advanced stage.
  • Russia’s Supreme Court has declared the “international LGBT public movement” to be an extremist organization, banning its activities nationwide, the BBC wrote. The decision follows a motion from the justice ministry, despite the absence of such an organization as a legal entity. The closed-door hearing resulted in a ban on the movement’s activities in Russia, escalating concerns about the rights of the country’s LGBTQ community. Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has adopted conservative ideologies, depicting LGBTQ activism as a Western threat and arguing that suppressing LGBTQ activities is necessary to protect Russia’s moral fabric. Critics argue this action is linked to the upcoming presidential election in March, with authorities creating an artificial enemy to appeal to conservative and anti-Western sentiments. The ban adds to a series of measures against the LGBTQ community in Russia, including laws prohibiting the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations” and the removal of references to LGBTQ people from various forms of media.

DISCOVERIES

Mind Over Matter

Past research has shown that human-made noise pollution is making it harder for animals to behave naturally, including communicating with each other, foraging and reproducing.

Urban-dwelling Australian magpies are not excluded from this impact, but scientists recently found evidence that smarter birds are better at handling the hustle and bustle of the city, Psychology Today reported.

In a new paper, a research team studied how differences in cognitive abilities affect individual responses to noise in a population of Australian magpies living in Perth, Western Australia.

The research involved observing 75 magpies in the presence of human-made noise, conducting playback experiments with alarm calls, and administering a cognitive test.

Their findings showed that loud noises – such as traffic and planes – altered the birds’ behavior, making them forage less and be more vigilant. Specifically, plane noise made it harder for magpies to respond to their alarm call used to warn others of predators.

However, the team noticed that avians that performed better in cognitive tests were able to properly respond to the alarm calls, regardless of the cacophony.

This means that smarter birds have fewer difficulties in overcoming the adverse effects of noise pollution.

“This is the first time that cognition has been linked to the ability of an animal to deal with human-made noise and it shows that cognition may be able to help animals respond to environmental change,” said lead author Grace Blackburn.

Blackburn and her colleagues are still not clear on the mechanism – or mechanisms – that allow magpies to handle the noise.

Even so, she explained that the study can help us understand how cognition in other animals allows them to adapt to human-induced environmental changes.

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