Tue. Feb 27th, 2024
Ukrainian flag in blue and yellow, wrapped over sky and grain

The important news today is that Ukrainian and Russian negotiators are meeting in Turkey for face-to-face talks, with Kyiv seeking a ceasefire without compromising on territory or sovereignty. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan welcomed delegations from both sides saying that “stopping this tragedy” was up to them. Ukrainian television reported the talks had begun with “a cold welcome” and no handshake between the delegations.

Since the last in-person talks were held on March 10, when Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said a ceasefire was not even on the agenda, momentum on the battlefield has shifted in Ukraine’s favour, giving Ukrainian officials some hope that Russia could be prepared to negotiate an end to fighting.

“We have destroyed the myth of the invincible Russian army. We are resisting against the aggression of one of the strongest armies in the world and have succeeded in making them change their goals,” Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said.

Russia’s military signalled last week it would concentrate on expanding separatist-held territory in southeastern Ukraine. Kyiv says Russian troops continue to try to surround the capital, although Ukrainians have been pushing them back there, in the south and in the northeast.

The sides have held talks via video link in recent weeks and both have publicly discussed a formula under which Ukraine might accept some kind of neutral status.

But neither side has budged over Russia’s territorial demands, including Crimea, which Moscow seized and annexed in 2014, and eastern territories known as the Donbas, which Moscow demands Kyiv cede to pro-Russian separatists.

Ukraine and the United States hold little hope of a breakthrough at the meeting later on Tuesday, the first direct talks between the two sides in more than two weeks, even though Russia’s invasion appeared to have stalled on several fronts.

More than a month into the war, the biggest attack on a European nation since World War Two, more than 3.8 million people have fled abroad, thousands have been killed and injured, and Russia’s economy has been pummelled by sanctions. In the besieged southern port city of Mariupol nearly 5,000 people have been killed, including about 210 children, according to figures from the mayor. Survivors have told harrowing tales of people dying from lack of medical treatment, bodies being buried wherever space could be found, and women giving birth in basements.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said of the talks in Turkey: “We are not trading people, land or sovereignty. The minimum programme will be humanitarian questions, and the maximum programme is reaching an agreement on a ceasefire,” he said on national television.Ukrainian interior ministry adviser Vadym Denysenko said that he doubted there would be any breakthrough.

A senior U.S. State Department official said Russian President Vladimir Putin did not appear ready to make compromises to end the war. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said talks so far had not yielded any substantial progress but it was important they continued in person. He declined to give more information.

Lockdown parties: fines issued

Police said on Tuesday they would be recommending an initial 20 fixed penalty notices are issued over breaches of coronavirus lockdown rules at gatherings in Johnson’s offices and residence. They are (belatedly) investigating 12 gatherings held at Downing Street and the Cabinet Office after an internal inquiry found Johnson’s staff had enjoyed alcohol-fuelled parties, with the British leader attending a few of the events himself.

“We will today initially begin to refer 20 fixed penalty notices to be issued for breaches of Covid-19 regulations,” the Metropolitan Police said in a statement, adding that the fines would be issued by the ACRO Criminal Records Office. “We are making every effort to progress this investigation at speed and have completed a number of assessments. However due to the significant amount of investigative material that remains to be assessed, further referrals may be made to ACRO if the evidential threshold is made.”

Fixed penalty notices are issued to people deemed to have broken COVID rules. The penalty for participating in a gathering of more than 15 people is an £800 fine.

The police said they would not confirm which events the fixed penalty notices referred to as it could lead to the identification of the individuals involved. Revelations of the gatherings, many of which took place when people could not attend funerals or say farewell to loved ones dying in hospital due to strict COVID-19 lockdown rules, sparked widespread anger.

The economy in Europe: what other countries are doing

Reuters reports that France and Germany saw bigger than expected drops in consumer confidence this month as government measures to help with rising inflation and fuel costs offered little relief in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, surveys showed on Tuesday. The crumbling of consumer morale in the euro zone’s two biggest economies shattered hopes for a bounce back after COVID-19 restrictions were eased.

“In February, hopes were still high that consumer sentiment would recover with the easing of pandemic-related restrictions. However, the war in Ukraine caused these hopes to vanish into thin air,” GfK consumer expert Rolf Buerkl said in a statement.

In Germany, the GfK institute said its consumer sentiment index, based on a survey of around 2,000 people, tumbled to -15.5 points heading into April from a revised -8.5 points a month earlier and the lowest since February 2021.

Economists polled by Reuters had on average expected the index to drop to -14.0.

In France, the INSEE official stats agency said its consumer confidence index fell to 91 points from 97 in February, falling short of economists’ expectations in a Reuters poll for 94. The result, the lowest since February 2021, flew in the face of an improving trend usually observed ahead of previous presidential elections when optimism runs high a new political order will translate into improved standards of living.

With French voters due to head to the polls next month, the government has put together a package of measures worth 25 billion euros ($27 billion) to soften the pain of high energy prices and inflation. Contrast this with what we have been offered here – and out economic situation is worse that in the EU!

But that did little to ease inflation fears with the proportion of households expecting inflation to increase jumping 50 points to the highest level since INSEE’s survey began in 1972.

As part of the government measures, France has capped increases in gas and power prices, made one-off anti-inflation payouts to low-income households and offered a rebate on fuel prices.

In Germany, the ruling coalition agreed last week a second package of measures in as many months to give people some relief from soaring power, heating and fuel costs. 

Under the 17 billion euro package,German workers and families will receive extra cash, cheaper petrol and cut-price public transport tickets to help them shoulder soaring power and heating costs after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany’s ruling coalition said on Thursday. The deal between Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD), the ecological Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), struck after talks that ran deep into the night, should ease tensions over how to respond to ballooning energy costs that are squeezing households and companies.

Finance Minister Christian Lindner said the volume of the planned measures should be similar to a first package of tax relief agreed last month, which he most recently said was worth 16 billion euros ($17.6 billion).”The coalition believes that we, the people and the economy, must protect ourselves in the short term and for a limited time in the face of these enormous price increases,” Lindner said.

Under the agreement, workers who pay income tax will receive a one-off energy price allowance of 300 euros ($330) as a supplement to their salaries. In addition, families will receive a one-time bonus of 100 euros per child, which doubles for low-income families.

The price of public transport tickets will be slashed to 9 euros a month for three months. The tax on fuel will be reduced to the European minimum rate for three months, which Lindner said should cut prices at pumps by 30 euro cents for petrol and by 14 cents for diesel.

The deteriorating consumer confidence is far from limited to France and Germany. Based on a flash estimate last Wednesday, euro zone sentiment collapsed in March to 18.7 points, the lowest level since the start of the COVID-19 crisis in April and May 2020. Italy, the euro zone’s third-largest economy, also saw a bigger than expected decline in consumer confidence, the national statistics office said last week. In Belgium, the Ukraine war caused the steepest decline in consumer confidence since records began in 1985. Consumer expectations on the general state of the economy is at an all-time low and their views on their own financial situation and their ability to save have fallen sharply.

It is, of course, far worse here . . .

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