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Italy becomes an energy power and the US is ready to confront Putin's new ideas

30-9-2022 |

Fresh - freshly squeezed news from the international press. We prepare it 2 times a week.

Politico: US prepares response to Russian annexation of Ukrainian territories

Western allies are rushing to formulate responses to the Kremlin’s pending forced annexation of parts of eastern Ukraine expected to be unveiled Friday, as Vladimir Putin pushes to consolidate dwindling gains in his faltering war.

Putin is slated to deliver a speech Friday announcing the annexation of four Russian-occupied regions, just days after his government held widely condemned referendums orchestrated to produce the results the Kremlin sought.

In Washington, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) unveiled legislation Thursday that would cut off military and economic aid to any country that recognizes the “annexed” territories as part of Russia. The legislation would also pressure the Biden administration to swiftly punish Russia, and could be attached to the annual defense policy bill in the coming weeks.

Blumenthal said: “It is a land grab. It’s a steal. And it is another craven, brazen tactic by Vladimir Putin to test the West’s support for Ukraine and we are having none of it.”

The move to lay claim to the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in Ukraine’s south and east was relatively costless for Putin. He played to his domestic base and seemingly added legitimacy to his illegal invasion, regional experts said. Putin knew this week’s sham votes would have little effect on the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they said.

The goal was “to have a similar situation to Crimea,” where Russians seized the peninsula after another sham referendum in 2014, said Jeffrey Edmonds, who handled the Russia portfolio in the Obama administration’s National Security Council. “No one agrees with it, but no one is going to do anything about it either. That would give him a revised victory — or enough of one — because he would have hobbled Ukraine.”

Concern is swirling within the Biden administration that Putin will consider any attack in the regions as an attack against Mother Russia — and could use it as a pretense to escalate the war effort.

One European diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the conflict threw some cold water on that idea, pointing out that Russian warnings about attacks on the annexed territories would ring hollow.

“Ukraine has hit Russian targets in Crimea several times, and Putin didn’t respond even though he claims Crimea is now part of Russia, too.”

The White House also remains on alert about Putin’s nuclear threats, but has seen no evidence that Russia has changed its nuclear posture after his speech last week, officials said.

U.S. intelligence officials also do not anticipate the nuclear posture will change after the announcement of the referendum results, the people say. The White House has warned Putin of catastrophic consequences if he were to use nuclear weapons, but has not specified what the response would be.


Photo: NBC News

The Biden administration does not believe Putin will declare victory over Ukraine after the annexation and use it as an “off ramp” to seek a negotiated peace.

Rather, the annexation — and the apparent sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines — appears to lock Russia into the war for the long term and also would likely further discourage Ukraine from negotiation.

“I see no letup whatsoever. None. If anything, strengthened determination,” Blumenthal said. “I think annexation is a ploy that will have no effect on Ukrainian will to fight and it should have no effect on our willingness to support that fight.”

The annexation will not be recognized by the vast majority of the international community. But internally, it will tie the Kremlin’s hands, requiring it to fight for the territories in Ukraine’s east that Kyiv has taken back in recent weeks. It could also be used to justify more brutal Russian tactics.

Putin “is in a really tough place,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told POLITICO. “And that, to me, increases the danger. If I had to predict, I think the most likely manifestation of that will be what amounts to carpet bombing of civilian areas in Ukraine — that’s been his pattern in Chechnya, Aleppo, etc.”

Whatever Putin’s rationale, his forced referendums and looming annexation will be met with stiff resistance from the U.S. and its allies.

“We are dead set against it,” one Western diplomat, who asked to speak anonymously before their government could formulate an official response, told POLITICO.

Putin’s latest gambit to scratch out some wins comes as Ukrainian forces claw back territory in the east and south. The Ukrainian gains this month came in a lightning counteroffensive around the city of Kharkiv. Their success appeared to surprise even Kyiv, but over the past two weeks, the advances have slowed to a steady grind inflicting heavy losses on Russia.

In retaliation for Ukraine’s gains, Russia is targeting critical civilian infrastructure, shelling dams and power generation stations and leaving millions without power.

The Pentagon assesses that the first of the soldiers called up in Putin’s partial mobilization have arrived on the battlefield “in small numbers.” But officials are skeptical that the Russian president will reach his goal of mobilizing 300,000, given his military’s dysfunction and the social unrest the call-ups have caused.

AP: Diversion in the Baltic Sea - modern economy under threat

The suspected sabotage this week of gas pipelines that tied Russia and Europe together is driving home how vital yet weakly protected undersea infrastructure is vulnerable to attack, with potentially disastrous repercussions for the global economy.

It isn’t known who detonated explosions, powerful enough to be detected by earthquake monitors across the Baltic Sea, that European governments suspect were the cause of multiple punctures in the Nord Stream pipelines. The leaks released frothing torrents of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

The Kremlin has denied involvement, calling suspicions that it sabotaged the pipelines “predictable and stupid.”

Analysts found that hard to believe, saying that gas-producer Russia seemingly had most to gain from driving up market prices with such a strike and to punish Europe, by creating fear and uncertainty, in retaliation for its switching to other gas suppliers because of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Because underwater sabotage is harder to detect and easier to deny than more readily visible attacks on the ground and in the air, the blasts also seemed to fit Russia’s military playbook for “hybrid war.” That’s the use of an array of means — military, nonmilitary and subterfuge — to destabilize, divide and pressure adversaries.


Photo: ua.depositphotos.com

Gas networks form just part of the globe’s dense mesh of undersea pipes and cables that power economies, keep houses warm and connect billions of people.

More than 1.3 million kilometers of fiber optic cables — more than enough to stretch to the moon and back — span the oceans and seas, according to TeleGeography, which tracks and maps the vital communication networks.

Without these cables, modern life could suddenly freeze, economies would crash and governments would struggle to communicate with each other and their troops, British lawmaker Rishi Sunak warned in a 2017 report, laying out the risks before he became the U.K.’s Treasury chief.

Power cables also run underwater. Lithuania alleged in 2015 that a Russian naval ship repeatedly tried to hinder the laying of an undersea power cable linking the country to Sweden. Lithuania’s energy minister was quoted as saying he regarded Russia’s actions as “hostile.”

The gas pipeline blasts showed that striking seabed infrastructure and escaping seemingly undetected is possible, even in the crowded Baltic Sea. Relatively shallow, with lots of maritime traffic and unexploded bombs on its floor from both world wars, the sea is viewed as a challenge to navigate undetected.

Even the Kremlin agreed it seemed unlikely to be the work of amateurs.

“It looks like a terror attack, probably conducted on a state level,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday.

After the Cold War, nations in the NATO military alliance shrank their anti-submarine warfare forces, trimming defense budgets and judging the threat from Russia diminished.

“The ability of many Western nations to reliably detect, track, deter, and counter Russian undersea activities has atrophied,” said a 2016 study, “Undersea Warfare in Northern Europe,” that was led by Kathleen Hicks, now No.2 in the U.S. Defense Department.

Retired French Vice Adm. Michel Olhagaray, a former head of France’s center for higher military studies, said Western nations “allowed themselves to fall asleep” and that they must now throw themselves into better protecting undersea cables and pipes that Russia has identified as both vital and vulnerable.

“The ocean floors are a far more important and obvious domain” than exploring space, Olhagaray added. “Rather than going to Mars, we should be better protecting the infrastructure.”

Reuters: New European Order - Italy wins and Germany is a fool

In the weeks after Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Claudio Descalzi, CEO of Italian energy major Eni, embarked on a whirlwind of trips to gas suppliers in Africa.

The visits included meetings with officials in Algeria in February plus talks in Angola, Egypt and Republic of Congo in March, with Descalzi often accompanied by senior Rome officials, according to company and government releases.


CEO of Eni Claudio Descalzi
Photo: Remo Casilli/Reuters

State-controlled Eni and Italy were able to leverage existing supply relationships with those nations to secure extra gas to replace a large part of the volumes it received from its top supplier Russia.

It's a nimble shift that many European countries have been unable to perform as Vladimir Putin's war jolts the continent into an alternate reality.

Take Germany. An economic powerhouse and long a byword for prudent planning, it has been caught wholly unprepared. It's on the brink of recession, its industry is preparing for gas and power rationing and it has just nationalised a major utility.

Italy, a country familiar with economic crises, is looking comparatively resilient. It has secured additional supplies and is confident it will not need to ration gas, with its government hailing the nation as the "best in Europe" on energy security.

Much of the region faces a winter supply crisis, with those heavily exposed including Germany, Hungary and Austria. Less-affected nations include France, Sweden and Britain, which haven't traditionally relied on Russia, as well as Italy.

The power crunch caused by the war has forced governments to confront the risks of over-reliance on a dominant supplier or region.

It bears echoes of the 1970s energy crisis that led to the West rethinking its dependence on Middle Eastern oil, a shift that spurred global exploration and a search for alternative suppliers such as Venezuela and Mexico.

ack in 2006, it was Italy running fastest to Russian gas, with Eni - the country's dominant gas importer - agreeing at that time the biggest-ever gas deal by a European firm with Moscow-controlled energy giant Gazprom.

But in the past eight years, the two countries have diverged: Germany has doubled down on Russian gas and became increasingly dependent while Italy has sought to hedge its bets.

Italy began charting a different course in 2014 when a new government replaced that of Silvio Berlusconi, who was a long-time friend of Putin, and Descalzi took the helm of Eni, according to three sources familiar with the country's energy strategy.

Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the ensuing Western sanctions, was a watershed moment.

Rome withdrew its support for Gazprom's $40 billion South Stream project - which was meant to transport gas from Russia to Hungary, Austria and Italy while bypassing Ukraine – also in response to the sanctions. South Stream was abandoned by Eni later that year, before it was mothballed by Moscow.

Italy instead turned its sights to the construction of the smaller Trans Adriatic Pipeline from Azerbaijan via Greece and Albania.

A major success came in Egypt in 2015, when Eni discovered the Mediterranean Sea's biggest gas field Zohr. As Descalzi pushed Eni to fast-track projects, the source added, Eni was able to start production at the Zohr in less than two-and-a-half years, a comparatively quick development in the industry.

In Algeria, where Eni has been present since 1981, the company clinched a deal in 2019 to renew gas imports until 2027.

Germany did not pare back its Russian exposure, though.

"Europe and Russia have built an energy partnership over four decades, and there has not been a single day in that time when gas has been used as a strategic weapon against the West," Johannes Teyssen, then-CEO of E.ON, said in 2014 in the wake of the annexation.

A day before Moscow invaded Ukraine, Klaus-Dieter Maubach, CEO of Uniper, Germany's largest importer of Russian gas, described Gazprom as a trustworthy supplier.

Seven months on, Uniper is preparing to sue Gazprom for damages over supply cuts.


Photo: ARIS OIKONOMOU/AFP via Getty Images

"We have relied too long and too heavily on energy supplies from Russia," German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in June. "The old equation that Russia is a reliable economic partner even in crises no longer applies."

France24: France decides to tighten rules for porn industry after huge scandal

French police arrested three men in Paris on Tuesday, thought to be actors linked to the adult video platform French Bukkake, as part of a sprawling investigation into sexual violence and human trafficking in the French pornography industry.

In response French senators have proposed a raft of measures including stronger regulations to block under-18s from accessing online porn.

The investigation, which began in October 2020, has allegedly uncovered widespread abuse of vulnerable women subject to sexual violence and coerced into performing sex acts on and off camera by actors, directors and producers, keen to satisfy consumer demand for an endless stream of new actresses and graphic video content.

Fifteen men who worked in the industry in France are potentially facing prosecution, with most in custody awaiting trial. Two French porn brands, Jackie & Michel and French Bukkake, are also under investigation. More than 40 alleged victims have joined as civil plaintiffs alongside activist groups.

The result is France’s biggest ever sexual violence investigation and a moment of reckoning for the pornography industry.

The French Senate on Thursday released a report entitled “Porn: Hell behind the scenes” listing 23 measures to improve conditions for workers in the pornography industry, introduce stricter controls for platforms hosting adult content and measures to prevent children and teenagers under 18 from viewing porn online.

“It’s like a #MeToo moment for the porn industry. You can feel these young women are being taken seriously when they talk about what they have been through."

Details of the investigation that have emerged in the French media paint a chilling picture of working conditions for women who appeared in explicit videos.

Those arrested face charges of rape, trafficking, torture, pimping, recording and sharing images that violate the right to integrity of the person.

“Some girls have said they were illegally confined, others say they were fed dog food,” Azougach says. “[The perpetrators] did everything they could to make the girls even more vulnerable and to wield power over them.”

Perpetrators are suspected of both trafficking women from Eastern Europe and preying on vulnerable women in France, convincing them first into prostitution and then into filming pornographic videos, dangling the promise that it would help relieve financial worries.

Police investigations found evidence in multiple online videos of women protesting against sex acts that they were then made to perform.

“They were forced to do things without their consent because, it seems, there was a demand for this type of film,” Azougach says. “We can’t describe them as fictional films because the women in them were subjected to rape.”

Messages between perpetrators seem to confirm that actresses were supplied with excessive amounts of drugs and alcohol on sets, frequently used for sex outside of filming, systematically provided with falsified negative tests for sexually transmitted diseases, pimped to other productions for a commission fee and extorted for thousands of euros for the removal of their videos on sites they had not consented to appear on.

For the women at the heart of the abuse scandal uncovered in France, the police investigation and a raft of measures from the Senate aiming to tackle the issue from all sides marks a significant step.

“France is more advanced than some countries in actually trying to get this legislation implemented,” says Media Professor Neil Thurman from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. “I can see some countries following France's lead, once we've got some evidence about how effective such legislation is.”

Picked and squeezed for you: Irina Iakovleva