RUSSIA and China have opened a new cross-border bridge in the Far East that they hope will further strengthen trade as Moscow reels from sweeping Western sanctions imposed over its actions in Ukraine.
The bridge linking the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk to the Chinese city of Heihe across the Amur River – known in China as the Heilongjiang – is about 1km long and cost 19 billion roubles ($342m), the RIA news agency reported on Friday.
Amid a fireworks display, freight trucks from both ends crossed the two-lane bridge festooned with flags in the colours of both countries, video footage of the opening showed.
Russian authorities said the bridge would bring Moscow and Beijing closer together by boosting trade after they announced a “no limits” partnership in February, shortly before President Vladimir Putin sent his forces into Ukraine.
“In today’s divided world, the Blagoveshchensk-Heihe bridge between Russia and China carries a special symbolic meaning,” said Yuri Trutnev, the Kremlin representative in the Russian Far East.
China wants to deepen practical cooperation with Russia in all areas, Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua said at the opening.
Russia’s Minister of Transport Vitaly Savelyev said the bridge would help boost bilateral annual trade to more than one million tonnes of goods.
Cutting journey time
The bridge had been under construction since 2016 and was completed in May 2020, but its opening was delayed by cross-border COVID-19 restrictions, said BTS-MOST, the firm building the bridge on the Russian side.
BTS-MOST said freight traffic on the bridge would shorten the travel distance of Chinese goods to western Russia by 1,500km (930 miles).
Vehicles crossing the bridge must pay a toll of 8,700 roubles ($150), a price that is expected to drop as toll fees begin to offset the cost of construction.
Russia said in April it expected commodity flows with China to grow and trade with Beijing to reach $200bn by 2024.
China is a major buyer of Russian natural resources and agricultural products.
China has declined to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine and has criticised the Western sanctions on Moscow.■
A dust cloud from the desert could see ‘blood rain’ fall across the country as it mixes with incoming thunderstorms, forecasters have said.
Wednesday night brought heavy rainfall to most regions with a yellow warning for thunderstorms being issued by the Met Office.
The showers, lightning and strong winds could continue into the week as residual clouds and rain clearing past the southeast of England.
Wind and rain are expected across the northwest, edging towards Northern Ireland on Thursday evening, with some patches of rain in southern England.
It comes after Britons basked in the country’s hottest day of the year on Tuesday, after temperatures in the southeast peaked at 27.5C (81.5F).
Met Office meteorologist Richard Miles said: “There are some dust concentrations in the atmosphere above the UK at present which might well be washed out in the rain [on Wednesday night], but it’s likely to be relatively small amounts on the whole.”
“There’s a warning out for thunderstorms for the southeastern third of England tonight, and a squally cold front will bring wind and sometimes heavy rain to Northern Ireland and northwest Scotland this evening.
Red rain – known colloquially as blood rain could fall in part of the country as high concentrations of dust lifted from the Sahara Desert mixes with water droplets.
Proper blood rain, which actually appears red in colour, is relatively rare in the UK with the rainfall often being more orange or brown in colour.
Cars and windows may be covered in a thin layer of dust after the water has evaporated.
The rest of the week will see a band of rain moving across Northern Ireland and west Scotland before turning showery over the rest of the UK on Friday.
Saturday is seemingly mild with sunny spells to start, but rain spreading into northwestern areas, with showers expected in the southeast on Sunday.■
ONE day in the early Noughties, Roman Abramovich found himself pining for a plate of sushi from his favourite Japanese restaurant Ubon in London’s Canary Wharf.
Unfortunately he was in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, approximately 2,500 miles away.
But when you’re a Russian oligarch with billions in the bank such petty obstacles are easily overcome.
And so an aide was instructed to place an order for £1,200-worth of delicacies for the boss and his friends.
This consignment was then picked up by chauffeur-driven limousine, ferried to Luton airport, loaded on to a private jet and whisked across Europe to the place where Abramovich was waiting, chopsticks in hand.
At an estimated total cost of £40,000, it must rank as the most expensive takeaway in history.
When you’ve been living this sort of cartoonishly opulent lifestyle for more than two decades, it must come as quite a blow to have the silver spoon snatched away.
But that is just what has happened to the embattled owner of Chelsea FC following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
With his assets frozen by both the UK and the EU because of his links to the Kremlin, Abramovich, 55, has found himself cut off from the bulk of his £6.4 billion fortune (down from £11.1 billion at the start of the war).
Indeed, it has been reported this week that things have become so bad he has been reduced to asking friends for loans.
Abramovich has reportedly approached a range of wealthy contacts in the U.S., from the Hollywood producer Brett Ratner to members of the plutocratic Rothschild family, asking for $1 million apiece to enable him to pay his $750,000 weekly staff bill — although the oligarch denies these claims.
Because, of course, one of the downsides of owning a portfolio of homes around the world, a five-strong fleet of superyachts and at least three private jets is the massive cost of maintaining them.
The salary of a top-notch yacht captain alone can set you back £220,000 a year, then there’s the army of officers, engineers, deck-hands, stewardesses and chefs that make up the crew. The 550ft Eclipse, with its 24 cabins and brace of helipads, has a crew of no fewer than 70.
Mansions, meanwhile, require housekeepers, butlers, cleaners and gardeners.
Private jets need pilots and cabin crew. And this complex superstructure has to be controlled and administered by a team of accountants. And Abramovich is by no means the only oligarch feeling the pinch.
His old friend Petr Aven, the man on whose yacht Abramovich was first introduced to his late partner Boris Berezovsky in 1995, has been whining to anyone who’ll listen about the rigours of being a member of the nouveau pauvre.
Aven, 67, a director of Russia’s biggest private bank who made his £4.5 billion fortune from oil investments, never learned to drive and is now being forced to contemplate life without a chauffeur.
While his wife toured London’s cashpoints taking out as much money as she could before sanctions hit, that nest egg won’t last for long.
‘Will I be allowed to have a cleaner, or a driver?’ Aven wailed in an interview last month.
‘I don’t drive a car . . . maybe my stepdaughter will drive. We don’t understand how to survive.’
Before we allow our empathy- ometers to go into overdrive, however, let’s bear in mind that he was saying this while sitting at a table laden with fruit and snacks in his penthouse apartment in the exclusive St James’s area of Westminster in London.
A few miles away in Surrey’s Virginia Water, Aven — who was raised in a communal apartment in Moscow with a kitchen and bathroom shared by eight families — has an even more salubrious property, a neo-Palladian mansion set in 8.5 acres of green lawns. In the grounds, ‘Reclining Figure’, an 8ft-long bronze nude by the late British sculptor Henry Moore, which he bought for £19 million, has pride of place.
Inside the house, Aven’s multimillion pound art collection, includes paintings by Russian masters such as Kandinsky and Chagall.
Not that he can sell off any of these assets to raise a little pocket money, of course.
Sanctions prohibit it.
Aven’s business partner Mikhail Fridman — worth £11.9 billion at the last count — has also been bellyaching about his new life on the breadline.
Speaking to Spanish newspaper El Pais, he said: ‘The authorities in the UK should give me a certain amount so I can go in a taxi and buy food, but it will be a very limited amount in relation to the cost of living in London.
‘I can’t even pay in a restaurant. I have to eat at home and I am practically under house arrest.’
Still, if you are going to be confined to quarters, Athlone House on the edge of Hampstead Heath in North London is as good a place as any.
Apart from the usual amenities, the mansion Fridman bought for £65 million in 2016 has an underground swimming pool, wine cellar, cigar room, and yoga room.
London-based Russians are not the only ones feeling hard done by.
Many living on home soil are feeling resentful about being denied access to their Italian shopping trips and French beach holidays after being added to the EU’s list of sanctioned individuals. Take Russian state-television host Vladimir Solovyev, who owns two luxury villas on Italy’s Lake Como, where George Clooney has a $100 million estate.
Solovyev, who is known for his strident attacks on the West, flew into a rage over the impact of sanctions on his Italian properties, said to be worth a combined total of £6.7 million.
‘I was told that Europe is a citadel of rights, that everything is permitted, that’s what they said . . . I know from personal experience about the so-called “sacred property rights”,’ he ranted on air, in an emotional diatribe against his tormentors.
‘I bought it, paid a crazy amount of taxes, I did everything. And suddenly someone makes a decision that this journalist is now on the list of sanctions.
‘And right away it affects your real estate. Wait a minute. But you told us that Europe has sacred property rights!’
If Solovyev was angry then, he’s going to be even more furious now.
On Wednesday morning, Italian firefighters were called to put out a fire at his villa in the village of Menaggio.
His other villa, a magnificent, salmon-pink edifice that sits in a prime spot on the lakefront, had the words ‘Killer’ and ‘No war’ daubed in spray-paint on its facade and entrance way. Red paint was also poured into the water in his swimming pool.
What Putin’s poodles and the dozens of oligarchs who have profited greatly from their relationship with him have learned — to their cost — over the past month or so is that even into the most gilded life a little rain must fall.
As for the rest of us: is there anything more deliciously satisfying than the sweet taste of Schadenfreude?
Roman’s massive weekly payroll
The revelation that Abramovich is having trouble paying his staff has thrown the spotlight on his enormous outgoings on personnel. According to the New York Post, he spends $750,000 (£575,000) a week on staff wages — that’s almost £30 million a year.
But when you assess the scale of his property holdings and the extent of his collection of boys’ toys, it becomes clear that he requires an army of — often highly paid — staff to run them. His superyachts alone have 176 crew members. And, as Abramovich has discovered this week, it all adds up.
Britain: Abramovich’s British property portfolio is made up of around 70 homes, buildings and plots of land. His prime acquisitions are a £170 million 15-bedroom mansion on Kensington Palace Gardens, and a £30 million three-storey penthouse in Chelsea Harbour.
US: £38 million ranch in the Rocky Mountains.
Caribbean: £54 million, 70-acre estate on Gouverneur’s Bay, St Barts.
Israel: £52 million home in Herzliya district of Tel Aviv, £17 million beach-front hotel in Neve Tzedek, £46 million office block on the Tel Aviv seafront.
Russia: Abramovich’s holding company, Millhouse Capital, owns more than £760 million of assets in his homeland, including Four Winds Plaza, an office and residential block in Moscow, and the recently acquired Kristall hotel in the Black Sea resort of Gelendzhik.
Key household staff: House manager (£50,000 a year), chef (£50,000), butler (£47,500), chauffeur (£40,000), cleaner (£23,000), gardener (£21,000).
Abramovich has a fleet of five yachts. (The annual running costs of a 50-75-metre yacht is estimated to be 3-5 per cent of the vessel value — excluding provisioning, mooring fees, fuel and major works — while for vessels of 80m-plus they are 5-7 per cent.)
NIGERIA, Ghana, Cameroon are among West African Countries that abstained from voting on United Nations resolution moved to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council over reports that Russian forces killed civilians while retreating from towns near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
On Thursday 7th April, the UN General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council over reports of “gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights” by invading Russian troops in Ukraine.
The resolution received a two-thirds majority of members voting, minus abstentions in the 193-member Assembly. 93 votes in favour, 24 against, and 58 abstentions. Other African countries like South Africa, Kenya, South Sudan also abstained from the vote.
58 countries abstained from the process.
Nigeria’s latest stance on UN’s resolution targeting Russia deviates from its previous position where it joined 140 other nations at the UN General Assembly to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Syria and Vietnam were among those who voted against.
Those countries which abstained include: India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba thanked the UN members who voted in favour of suspending Russia from the Geneva-based 47-member council, which is the UN’s leading human rights organisation.
The General Assembly, which elects members of the Human Rights Council, has suspended only one other country: Libya, in March 2011.
The meeting marked the resumption of a special emergency session on the war in Ukraine and followed reports of violations committed by Russian forces.
Following the outcome of the resolution, Moscow, according to a Reuters news report, has announced it was quitting the body.
Speaking after the vote process, Russia’s Deputy UN Ambassador Gennady Kuzmin described the move as an “illegitimate and politically motivated step ” and then announced that Russia has decided to quit the Human Rights Council altogether.
“You don’t submit your resignation after you are fired.” Ukraine’s UN Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya told reporters.
Russia says it is carrying out a ‘special military operation’ that aims to destroy Ukraine’s military infrastructure and denies attacking civilians. Ukraine and allies say Moscow Invaded without provocation.
Russia, which had been a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is now the first permanent member of the UN Security Council to have its membership revoked from any organ of the world body.
The Putin administration had been serving its second year of a three-year term on the human rights council. The suspension would bar Moscow’s delegation from speaking and voting, but its diplomats could still attend debates.■
<SUNBIGHT>~Europe~Nkwo~17th March,2022 @ 00:02 WAT
RUSSIA on Wednesday ceased to be a member of the Council of Europe after over a quarter of a century of membership in the pan-European rights body, the council said in a statement.
Moscow announced Tuesday that it was quitting the council, ahead of the formal decision taken Wednesday by the body’s committee of ministers to expel Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
In a hugely symbolic moment, the flag of Russia was lowered and removed from its staff outside the Council of Europe headquarters in Strasbourg, eastern France, at around 1430 GMT.
The flags of the 46 remaining member states were kept flying.
The committee of ministers, the body’s main decision-making organ, decided “the Russian Federation ceases to be a member of the Council of Europe as from today, after 26 years of membership”.
Russia joined the Council of Europe on February 28, 1996.
On Tuesday, the council’s Parliamentary Assembly had agreed that Moscow could no longer be a member of the body, hours after Russia announced it would pull out.
The Russian foreign ministry said it had “no regret” about leaving and claimed that EU and NATO member states had turned the organisation into an “instrument for anti-Russian policies”.
The so-called “Ruxit” from the Council of Europe means that Russia will no longer be a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, and its citizens will no longer be able to file applications to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
The leaders of the Council of Europe, including Secretary General Marija Pejcinovic Buric, said in a statement that Russian authorities were depriving “the Russian people of the benefit of the most advanced human rights protection system in the world”.
It is only the second time in the history of the council that a member state has announced its exit, after Greece walked out temporarily in the late 1960s.
Russia was suspended from all its rights of representation a day after tens of thousands of troops entered Ukraine on February 24.
Not using the death penalty is a precondition of COE membership, and former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy national security council chief, had evoked bringing back capital punishment if Russia left the body.■
<SUNBIGHT>~Europe~Nkwo~17th March,2022 @ 23:06 WAT
Moscow and Kyiv give the brightest assessment yet of progress in talks.
RUSSIA has been open to holding negotiations with Ukraine in Jerusalem, a senior diplomatic source said on Saturday, soon after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke on the phone.
“At present, it’s not constructive to hold meetings in Russia, Ukraine or Belarus,” Zelensky said earlier Saturday. “These are not the places where we can agree to stop the war… Do I consider Israel, Jerusalem in particular, to be such a place? I think the answer is yes.”
Russia has not rejected the idea of negotiations in Jerusalem, but Israel is not sure it should host the talks, the diplomatic source said.
“We know from our experience that negotiations that don’t have a chance lead to a worse situation on the ground,” the source said.
“We have to see if we can really be helpful,” the source added. “If there can be a breakthrough, we’ll do anything.”
Regarding Bennett’s mediation between Russia and Ukraine, “we aren’t forcing anything,” the source said.
The remark came after Kyiv and Jerusalem denied a report that Bennett told Zelensky to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer to end the war.
“People need to understand that we will never pressure Zelensky in either direction,” the source said. “It’s the wrong thing to do… The president of Ukraine and the Ukrainians have to make the decision, and they will have our support.”
“This isn’t Bennett’s initiative,” the source said, adding that Zelensky had asked to speak to Bennett on Saturday and has long sought Israel as a mediator with Russia.
Bennett’s view is that he will always take Zelensky’s calls and try to help if he can, the source said.
The source cited recent statements by Zelensky that he is willing to give up on Ukraine’s attempt to join NATO and by Russia apparently no longer demanding a full demilitarization of Ukraine. This shows that the Russians “aren’t trying to bring Ukraine to its knees,” the source said, adding that these are indications that Ukraine and Russia are gradually moving in the direction of an agreement.
Meanwhile, Russian and Ukrainian officials gave their most upbeat assessments yet on Sunday of progress in their talks on the war in Ukraine, suggesting there could be positive results within days.
Separately, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Russia was showing signs of willingness to engage in substantive negotiations about ending a conflict in which thousands have died, and more than 2.5 million people have fled.
Ukraine has said it is willing to negotiate but not to surrender or accept any ultimatums.
“We will not concede in principle on any positions,” Ukrainian negotiator and presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said in a video posted online. “Russia now understands this. Russia is already beginning to talk constructively.”
“I think that we will achieve some results literally in a matter of days,” he said.
Russia’s state-run RIA news agency quoted Russian delegate Leonid Slutsky as saying the talks had made substantial progress.
“According to my personal expectations, this progress may grow in the coming days into a joint position of both delegations, into documents for signing,” he said.
Neither side indicated what the scope of any agreement might be.
Their public comments were issued almost at the same time. They came on the 18th day of the war, which began when Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24 in what the Kremlin terms “a special military operation.”
In a tweet, Podolyak said Russia was carefully listening to Ukraine’s proposals.
“Our demands are the end of the war and the withdrawal of [Russian] troops,” he said. “I see the understanding, and there is a dialog.”■
UKRAINE President Volodymyr Zelensky said Tuesday that his country should accept that it will not become a member of the US-led NATO military alliance, a key Russian concern it used to justify its invasion.
“Ukraine is not a member of NATO. We understand that. We have heard for years that the doors were open, but we also heard that we could not join. It’s a truth and it must be recognised,” Zelensky said during a video conference with military officials.■
<SUNBIGHT>~Europe~Nkwo~5th March, 2022 @ 08:58 WAT
RUSSIAN authorities have announced that they intend to block access to Facebook inside Russia, according to an announcement from Roskomnadzor, the government body responsible for censorship and media control.
“On March 4, 2022, a decision was made to block access to the Facebook network (owned by Meta Platforms, Inc.) in the Russian Federation,” the translated version of the announcement reads.
Russia has been increasingly limiting access to social media and shutting down what remained of its independent press since its invasion of Ukraine last week.
The announcement pointed to what it described as “discrimination” against Russian media by Facebook. It mentioned that Facebook has restricted access to accounts belonging to Russia Today, Sputnik, and a handful of other Russian sources.
The announcement claims Roskomnadzor has recorded 26 cases of such discrimnation since October 2020.
Ironically, the announcement on Roskomnadzor’s official website includes a button that allows users to share it directly on Facebook.
“Soon millions of ordinary Russians will find themselves cut off from reliable information, deprived of their everday ways of connecting with family and friends and silenced from speaking out.
We will continue to do everything we can to restore our services so they remain available to people to safely and securely express themselves and organize for action,” Nick Clegg, president of global affairs at Facebook parent company Meta, said in a tweeted statement.
When Motherboard accessed Facebook from a Moscow IP address shortly after the announcement, the site was still accessible.
Earlier this month, Russia partially blocked Facebook for restricting some Russian sources of information.■