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Hungary chooses between regime and money, while Facebook fights the carrot

16-9-2022 |

Fresh - freshly squeezed news from the international press. We prepare it 3 times a week.

Politico: How Europe is training the Ukrainian army

They come to the U.K. in their thousands — Ukrainians from every walk of life, in urgent need of military training to protect their homeland.

From lawyers to bricklayers, they are flown in from across Ukraine. The aim is to turn the new recruits into soldiers in just five weeks, providing basic military skills — infantry tactics; weapons handling; patroling; first aid; evacuation — before they return to fight on the frontline.

Since June, the U.K. has trained nearly 5,000 Ukrainian early recruits under Operation Interflex, a program that aims to support 10,000 new soldiers within a year across a network of British training camps.

Interflex is the successor to a longer-running British program, Operation Orbital, which trained up more than 22,000 Ukrainians between 2015 — shortly after Russia’s initial occupation of Crimea — and May of this year.

New recruits to the Ukrainian army are trained by U.K. army specialists at a military base near Manchester, 2022

Now in its third iteration, Interflex has been repeatedly redrawn to Ukraine’s evolving military needs. The scheme has been deemed sufficiently effective that more than half a dozen military allies — Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Lithuania, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand — have all sent trainers to the U.K. to accelerate its delivery.

On the other side of the English Channel, the picture is very different.

France — western Europe’s other great military power — has decided against launching a mass training scheme of Ukrainian soldiers, an adviser to the French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu said, in line with French President Emmanuel Macron’s “wish to remain a ‘balancing power.’”

According to official French government figures, France has trained a grand total of 40 Ukrainian soldiers since the war began, chiefly on the use of French Caesar self-propelled guns.

“Emmanuel Macron was very clear — Ukraine will and must win, but Russia must not be humiliated,” the adviser said. “Our line is to show our solidarity with Ukraine to help her towards victory — but if not, to be able to play a role when the conflict stops.”

The adviser said France has chosen a more discreet approach to supporting Ukraine, citing Macron’s negotiations on protecting Zaporizhzhya, Europe’s largest nuclear power station, as an example of the role France can play.

The official also hinted that other “specialized” French-led training might be taking place in the shadows.

“The U.K. has chosen to forge ahead with basic training. We are doing more specialized training,” he said. “We are not going to tell you everything that we do.”

Ukraine’s training needs are enormous, and the British initiative by itself won’t be enough to satisfy demand, according to a military official working for a Western ally involved in training.

Despite its recent military breakthroughs, Ukraine’s army — still considerably smaller than that of Russia — is in desperate need for more troops and precision weapons to make up the difference.

Specialist training is already taking place in some European countries such as Poland, where Ukrainian troops are being trained to use anti-aircraft defense missiles donated by the British government.

In July, the Polish government said it was ready to invite the Ukrainian military for anti-mining training. Details of these missions, however, are kept as secret as possible due to security concerns.

There have also been discreet talks about the prospect of NATO setting up its own training framework — but some allies are wary such a scheme could give wings to the Kremlin’s claim that NATO isn’t merely a defensive alliance.

The Guardian: What kind of hybrid is this? Hungary is losing its status as a democracy

Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy, the European parliament has said in a powerful symbolic vote against Viktor Orbán’s government.

In a resolution backed by 81% of MEPs present to vote, the parliament stated that Hungary had become a “hybrid regime of electoral autocracy”, citing a breakdown in democracy, fundamental rights and the rule of law.

Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, the French MEP who drafted the resolution, described the conclusions as clear and irrevocable.

“Hungary is not a democracy. It was more urgent than ever for the parliament to take this stance, considering the alarming rate at which the rule of law is backsliding in Hungary.”

While the vote has no practical effect, it heightens pressure on EU authorities in Brussels not to disburse billions in EU cash to Hungary that is being withheld over concerns about corruption.

Hungary is battling to persuade the European Commission to release €4.64bn in Covid recovery funds, frozen for more than a year. Budapest is also trying to stave off a separate legal procedure that could lead to deductions from €24.3bn of cohesion funds, money for infrastructure and economic development.

Hungary will be given until mid-November to get its house in order. After a charm offensive in Brussels, Hungary’s government is expected next week to propose a raft of laws to combat corruption. Critics fear the commission is ready to accept cosmetic changes to defuse the conflicts over EU funds.

CNN: Putin admits Beijing's concern over the course of the war in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday praised China’s “balanced position” on the Ukraine war, though he conceded Beijing had “questions and concerns” over the invasion, in what appeared to be a veiled admission of their diverging views over the protracted military assault.

Putin made the comments when meeting Chinese leader Xi Jinping in person for the first time since the invasion at a regional summit in Uzbekistan, days after Russia suffered a series of major military setbacks in Ukraine. Russian troops are retreating en mass, having lost more territory in a week than they captured in five months.

China has so far refused to outright condemn Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine while stepping up economic assistance to its neighbor, boosting bilateral trade to record levels in a boon to Russian business amid Western sanctions.

“We highly appreciate the balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis. We understand your questions and concerns in this regard,” Putin said in an opening speech of the meeting. “During today’s meeting, of course, we will explain in detail our position on this issue, although we have spoken about this before.”

Xi said China would “work with Russia to extend strong mutual support on issues concerning each other’s core interests” and “play a leading role in injecting stability and positive energy into a world of change and disorder,” according to a readout from the meeting provided by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Xi also said he appreciated “Russia’s adherence to the one-China principle and stressed that Taiwan is a part of China.”

The two authoritarian leaders have emerged as close partners in recent years, propelled by growing conflict with the West and a strong personal bond.

China has offered tacit support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, while Moscow has backed Beijing and criticized Washington over US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August.

The White House sought to downplay the meeting between Putin and Xi on Thursday, saying Beijing had not yet violated Western sanctions on Moscow nor provided direct material assistance to Russia.

“Our message to China, I think, been consistent: that this is not the time for any kind of business as usual with Mr. Putin, given what he’s done inside Ukraine. This is not the time to be isolated from the rest of the international community, which has largely condemned what he’s doing in Ukraine and not only condemned it, but stepped up to help the Ukrainians defend themselves and their territorial integrity,” National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby told CNN.

Kirby said Putin was “very much under strain and stress".

"In Ukraine, his army is not doing well, and I think it certainly behooves the Kremlin to want to cozy up to Beijing with respect to what’s going on there.”

BBC: Carrot has become the symbol of the anti-vaxxers

Facebook groups are using the carrot emoji to hide anti-vax content from automated moderation tools.

The BBC has seen several groups, one with hundreds of thousands of members, in which the emoji appears in place of the word "vaccine".

Facebook's algorithms tend to focus on words rather than images.

The groups are being used to share unverified claims of people being either injured or killed by vaccines.

Once the BBC alerted Facebook's parent company, Meta, the groups were removed.

"We have removed this group for violating our harmful misinformation policies and will review any other similar content in line with this policy. We continue to work closely with public health experts and the UK government to further tackle Covid vaccine misinformation," the firm said in a statement.

However, the groups have since re-appeared in our searches.

One group we saw has been around for three years but rebranded itself to focus on vaccine stories, from being a group for sharing "banter, bets and funny videos" in August 2022.

The rules of the very large group state: "Use code words for everything". It adds: "Do not use the c word, v word or b word ever" (covid, vaccine, booster). It was created more than a year ago and has more than 250,000 members.

Marc Owen-Jones, a disinformation researcher, and associate professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, was invited to join it.

"It was people giving accounts of relatives who had died shortly after having the Covid-19 vaccine", he said. "But instead of using the words "Covid-19" or "vaccine", they were using emojis of carrots.

"Initially I was a little confused. And then it clicked - that it was being used as a way of evading, or apparently evading, Facebook's fake news detection algorithms."

The platforms have already come under fire for failing to block or remove emojis of monkeys and bananas when posted as a racist gesture on the accounts of black footballers.

If the Online Safety Bill comes into law in the UK, the tech giants will face steep penalties for failing to identify and quickly removing harmful material on their platforms. But there are concerns that tools currently in use are not good enough to cope with the sheer volume of content that is posted, and the nuance and cultural differences that can cloud meaning.

Picked and squeezed for you: Irina Iakovleva