Western states launch more sanctions on Russian oil

The G7, EU and Australia have agreed to impose another set of sanctions on Russian oil, in the form of a price cap on remaining Russian oil exports. The upper limits of $100 per barrel for diesel, and $45 per barrel on oil products selling for less than crude oil are aimed at reducing the Kremlin’s revenues from energy exports, and their ability to fund their invasion of Ukraine. The new sanctions add more pressure on Russian energy exports after a similar cap on Russian crude oil of $60 per barrel was put into force in December last year.

Both price caps are enforced by banning Western insurance firms from dealing with ships carrying Russian oil products priced above the limit. Global shipping rules require that all tankers have insurance; since British and EU insurers dominate the market, the cap has worked effectively for participating countries. However, states like India, China and Turkey have not signed up to the cap and have imported more Russian oil since its imposition, though pressuring Russia to do so at discounted rates of up to 40%.

From the start of the invasion in February the price of Russian oil, known as Urals Oil, has increasingly diverged from the Western equivalent Brent Crude, with Urals prices sinking down to 32% below Brent in January 2023. Since December 2022 the price of Urals has nearly consistently traded below the $60 per barrel cap implemented on 3 December, a significant drop compared to the peak of $111 in March last year. As the price of Russian oil exports have fallen, so has the Kremlin’s revenue. In October fossil fuel revenues fell below pre-war levels for the first time, and did so again in December.

Analysts point to the worsening conditions of Russia’s budget as evidence that the price cap is working, draining the Kremlin’s war chest. However, Russia has vowed to cut oil production by 500,000 barrels per day, a 5% decrease, to try and drive up prices and increase the pain on European economies. As the ground war in Ukraine bogs down to a stalemate, the economic battle between Russia and the West continues to heat up.

Chinese spy balloon shot down by US

On 1 February an alleged Chinese spy balloon was spotted over the US state of Montana, before finally being shot down by the US Air Force off the East Coast three days later. The Chinese government has maintained that the balloon was a meteorological “airship“. The US, which has begun a recovery effort of the balloon’s debris, reported that the balloon carried a payload with antennae, and had surveillance capabilities. The Biden administration asserts that they shot it down over the sea out of concern for ground safety, and that for the duration of its flight across the US it was monitored and assessed by the North American Aerospace Defence Command, a Canadian-US body that monitors and defends North American airspace.

Just on Friday, another unidentified “high-altitude object” of unknown origin was shot down over Alaska. Suspicions are naturally raised towards China, and the events have heightened US-China tensions. Before the spotting of the balloon, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to head to China for talks aimed to ease tensions, in what would have been the first Biden cabinet official to visit the country. However, Blinken cancelled the visit, lambasting China’s decision to fly the balloon as “unacceptable and irresponsible“. Over the past year, US-China relations have heated up amid China’s ambivalence to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US ban on microchip exports to China, and Beijing’s increasing assertiveness towards Taiwan.

The US has alleged that the Chinese balloon is but one of a large surveillance fleet that has flown to over 40 countries. A second balloon was spotted over Columbia, which China admits flew over Latin American and Caribbean states. In retaliation, the US has blacklisted six Chinese entities linked to Beijing’s aerospace programme. Amid soaring US-China tensions, any prospect of genuine detente appears to be just hot air for now.

Zelensky asks for military aid during tour of Europe.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called on EU leaders to supply fighter jets and other arms for the fight against Russia, on his second trip outside of Ukraine since the war began. After his trip to the EU parliament in Brussels, where the President received a standing ovation, Mr Zelensky said that positive agreements had been made that were yet to be public, and presidential office adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak later told Ukrainian TV that long-range missiles and attack aircraft would be supplied this year, although it was still up for some negotiation. Many in the EU are keen to avoid having the debate being played out in public, while there is also concern about escalation and playing into Russian narratives. Adding to these concerns, the Kremlin warned on Thursday that the line between direct and indirect Western involvement in the conflict was disappearing.

On Wednesday, Zelensky made a surprise trip to the UK to speak in Westminster Hall and meet King Charles at Buckingham Palace. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said “nothing is off the table” after Zelensky urged the UK to supply Ukraine with fighter jets. The UK said no decision on providing jets in the long term had yet been made but it would provide training for Ukrainian pilots on the aircraft they already had. While Zelensky expressed thanks for the support already received, he warned that supplies were “running out” and that this could result in “stagnation” in the conflict. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is investigating what aircraft the UK could potentially offer, but emphasised this was “a long-term solution” and that training pilots could take years.

Uganda closes down its human rights office

Campaigners accused the Museveni regime of evading international scrutiny after a shocking move to end the agreement with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). A letter from Uganda’s foreign ministry leaked this week said the U.N. office was no longer needed because the government is capable of upholding human rights. Rights activists in the country strongly disagree and have condemned the Ugandan government’s decision to shut down the country’s UN human rights office, describing it as “shameful”.

In a letter to the OHCHR in Uganda dated 3 February, the foreign affairs ministry said it will not renew the host country agreement it signed with the UN, which established its initial mandate in the country in 2005. The development comes less than three months after the UN’s committee against torture adopted the concluding observations on Uganda, which raised concerns that torture and ill-treatment continued to be frequently practised. Adrian Jjuuko, executive director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum tweeted: “The closure of the @UNHumanRightsUG office proves that [the] government has lost all sense of shame. It no longer wants any close international scrutiny of its human rights record”.

Earthquake Hits Turkey and Syria

On Monday, the 6th of February, a deadly earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Moment Magnitude Scale (Mw), hit southern Turkey and northern Syria. The earthquake has resulted in huge damage and loss of life with the death toll currently having passed 33,000. The tremors of the earthquake were felt even in countries as distant as Cyprus and Israel. Southern Turkey and Northern Syria are situated where two tectonic plates meet (the Arabian and Anatolian tectonic plates) and consequently there have been earthquakes in the region in the past. The earthquake itself was followed by several aftershocks with an aftershock of 7.5 magnitude occurring shortly after the initial shock. 

The death toll is high, owing to a mix of factors, including the magnitude of the earthquake itself, the fact that it occurred in the early morning hours when people were at home sleeping, and the fact that infrastructure in southern Turkey and northern Syria is not well-protected against earthquake tremors. An earthquake of magnitude 7.8 is considered a serious threat to life and property. In comparison, earthquakes of magnitude 9 or over have occurred in the recent past such as the earthquake off the coast of Japan in 2011 that led to the Fukushima disaster and the 9.1 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia that triggered a tsunami killing 228,000 people.

After the earthquake, there has been a rush to find survivors buried under the rubble, but hopes have diminished, as time has worn on. Austrian and German rescuers recently suspended rescue operations due to security concerns in the region, but they will resume once the Turkish authorities deem it safe to do so. Unrest and a rise in lawlessness and disorder have also been reported, particularly in the Hatay region of Turkey, with 48 people having been arrested for looting and Turkish President, Recep Erdogan, having declared a state of emergency.

Hong Kong: National Security Trial of Democracy Activists

The trial of 47 pro-democracy activists has begun in Hong Kong, with 16 of the activists pleading not guilty to the charges. They are accused of organising and participating in an unofficial primary election which aimed to subvert the authority of the government in Hong Kong in July 2020. Most of these protesters have already been detained for the past two years on security grounds and their prosecution is due to the controversial national security bill. 

Those accused come from a variety of political activist backgrounds and advocate for Hong Kong’s independence from mainland China. The defendants include a professor from the University of Hong Kong, a former journalist, and a former lawmaker. They represent a cross-section of the opposition in Hong Kong, and they claim that they are not all guilty. 

This landmark trial is taking place due to the national security law in Hong Kong which makes it easier to prosecute protesters and reduces the city’s autonomy. The law criminalised actions such as terrorism, collusion with foreign or external force, and subversion, which is on trial in this case. The law has increased the number of protestors, activists, and former opposition lawmakers within Hong Kong.