Sunday, May 28

Friday briefing: Biden turns trade screws on Putin

Top story: Zelenskiy brands Russia ‘terrorist state’

Hello, Warren Murray with Friday’s top stories.

Joe Biden is expected to ratchet up the economic pressure on Vladimir Putin today by moving to end normal trade relations with Russia. Lawmakers in both houses of Congress have reportedly expressed support for removing Russia’s status of “permanent normal trade relations”, also known as “most favoured nation” status, because of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Biden will seek to do it in co-ordination with US allies and the G7 countries, sources have said. It comes on top of widespread sanctions and the banning of oil imports from Russia by the US and UK. A stream of leading international companies such as Apple, Shell, Ikea and McDonald’s have pulled out of Russia; the Kremlin is threatening to retaliate by seizing their corporate assets in Russia.

Zelenskiy says Russia is capable of chemical attacks – video
Zelenskiy says Russia is capable of chemical attacks – video

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has accused Russia of being a “terrorist state”, saying it prevented a delivery of food, water and medicine to the besieged city of Mariupol by attacking a humanitarian corridor with tanks. Zelenskiy has condemned Moscow’s relentless assault on cities – branding the attack on the corridor “outright terror … from experienced terrorists”. More than 400,000 people remain trapped in Mariupol, which is surrounded by Russian forces, and basic supplies are running out. Zelenskiy denied Russia’s accusation that Ukraine is preparing to use chemical or biological weapons. He echoed western leaders’ prediction that Russia is preparing to attack with such weapons and then blame it on Kyiv. Zelenskiy said: “We’ve been repeatedly convinced: if you want to know Russia’s plans, look at what Russia accuses others of.” The UN security council is expected today to discuss the unsubstantiated Russian claims.

Satellite images released by the US company Maxar appear to show the large Russian military convoy north-west of Kyiv has dispersed and fanned out through towns and forests, with artillery pieces moved into firing positions. The Ukrainian military said in its daily operational report on Friday morning that Russian troops were trying to regroup and replenish supplies. Stay up to speed on Ukraine developments at our live blog.

Calculation triples Covid deaths – The Covid-19 pandemic may have claimed 18.2 million lives around the world, more than three times official figures, a study suggests. A consortium of health researchers writing in the Lancet base their calculation on “excess deaths”: the difference between deaths recorded from all causes, and the number expected in that period based on previous patterns. For the UK, their estimate of Covid deaths (163,000 to 174,000) is close to the reported figure of 173,000. If the researchers’ findings are correct, the global rate of excess deaths due to the pandemic was 120.2 people per 100,000 of the population. In the UK, Boris Johnson has promised bereaved families will have their voices heard as he published wide-ranging terms of reference for the public inquiry into the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Frack busters on alert – Anti-fracking campaigners have vowed to give energy firms “no peace” if the government lifts the moratorium on fracking. A month ago fracking was declared effectively dead in Britain after Cuadrilla announced plans to concrete up its Blackpool wells. But after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and expected shortages of gas, some Conservative MPs and energy lobbyists are touting it as the solution.

Tina Rothery and Julie Daniels, founding members of the Nanas anti-fracking group
Tina Rothery and Julie Daniels, founding members of the Nanas anti-fracking group. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Tina Rothery says her Nana Samba Band – veterans of Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road fracking site – will be making a racket outside the Conservatives’ spring conference in Blackpool on 18 and 19 March. In Ryedale, Yorkshire, the Kirby Misperton site is no longer at risk of fracking after it was taken over by the renewable energy firm Wolfland Group. Steve Mason, an anti-fracking activist and one of Wolfland’s directors, said other energy companies still held licences to frack in Yorkshire and elsewhere, and protesters would be ready should the government lift its moratorium.

Mental illness strains schools – Schools and teachers in England are said to be “buckling under the strain” of supporting pupils with mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Education and health experts have said it is partly because only one in four of the 500,000 children and young adults are successfully referred every year to NHS mental health services – leaving them to fall back on teachers, only 40% of whom feel equipped to help. Rates of mental illness in under-18s are said to have risen by half in the past three years. The government said its response included offering training to senior mental health leads in every state school and college by 2025, and an additional £79m to expand children’s mental health services and accelerate the rollout of mental health support teams.

Fake attack actor jailed – The US actor Jussie Smollett has been sentenced to 30 months of probation, including 150 days of jail time, after his conviction for lying to police about a racist and homophobic attack that he orchestrated himself.

Jussie Smollett at his sentencing in Chicago.
Jussie Smollett at his sentencing in Chicago. Photograph: Brian Cassella/AP

Smollett had told police two men wearing ski masks beat him and hurled racial and homophobic slurs at him on a dark Chicago street and ran off. The 39-year-old was also ordered to pay $120,000 in restitution to the city of Chicago and fined $25,000.

Today in Focus podcast: Putin in power

What’s driving Vladimir Putin and his assault on Ukraine? The president’s attitude to power – in Russia and beyond – has changed steadily since 1999, says Sam Greene, the co-author of Putin v the People: The Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia.

Today in Focus

Putin in power

Lunchtime read: What if Russia can’t pay its debts?

Russia is close to being unable to pay its debts amid sanctions imposed by the west after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The World Bank’s chief economist, Carmen Reinhart, has warned that Russia and its ally Belarus are “mightily close” to default. A key test will come on Wednesday next week, when the Russian state has to make a $117m (£89m) payment on some of its debts denominated in US dollars.

Central Bank of Russia on Neglinnaya street, Moscow
Central Bank of Russia on Neglinnaya street, Moscow. Photograph: Kommersant Photo Agency/REX/Shutterstock

While Russia has relatively low debts and its financial system is less integrated with the rest of the world than other countries’, some analysts warn an imminent Russian debt default could have unforeseen consequences.


At the end of one of the strangest days in the history of English football, Thomas Tuchel suggested it was “business as usual” for Chelsea as the European champions eased to a 3-1 win against Norwich just a few short hours after the club had been placed in suspended animation by government sanctions. The Arsenal forward Vivianne Miedema says “action and not thoughts are needed” to help the victims of the war in Ukraine as she fronts an emergency response by Common Goal. Nkrumah Bonner made an obdurate 125 from 355 balls to help West Indies to a 62-run lead over England after the third day of the first Test in Antigua. England’s head coach Eddie Jones says his team have “one intention – that’s to go after Ireland” in Saturday’s Six Nations showdown, although he did not seem 100% confident about the fitness of Kyle Sinckler.

An opening round of 66 for Tommy Fleetwood at the Players Championship supplied evidence of a return to form for a golfer who hasn’t tasted victory since 2019. Mercedes have firmly rejected suggestions their new car for the Formula One season features any illegal components. The former England and Arsenal forward Kelly Smith expressed her delight at the number of girls taking part in the biggest football session in schools across the country on Wednesday, with numbers topping 90,000. And cricket is “facing a reckoning” as a result of the Azeem Rafiq affair and needs to take a long look in the mirror when it comes to discrimination, the chair of the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket has said.


The highest US inflation for 40 years has cast gloom over financial markets today and heightened speculation about how far the Federal Reserve will go in raising interest rates at next week’s meeting. Prices jumped 7.9% in the US in February and moves this week by Washington and London to ban Russian oil imports could bring further upward pressure on the cost of living. Asian stocks have seen hefty losses already although the FTSE100 looks set to open flat. The pound has fallen to $1.308 and €1.188. Brent crude fell again earlier but has levelled off at around $109.

The papers

The desperate situation in Mariupol leads today’s Guardian front page: “‘Medieval’ conditions in a city under constant attack”. Also on page one: “UK freezes assets of Chelsea FC owner over Putin links”. Ministers say Roman Abramovich, one of the world’s richest men, has “clear connections” to Vladimir Putin’s regime and is one of those with “blood on their hands”.

Guardian front page, 11 March 2022
Guardian front page, 11 March 2022.

That blood-on-hands line recurs on the front pages of the i, the Metro and the Times. The Mirror paints Abramovich and Putin as “Blood brothers”, superimposing their photos on to a hellish street scene in Irpin, near Kyiv. The Mail says “Abramovich’s dirty billions frozen at last” while its splash is “Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the war” – it says 4 million people have fled. “Putin takes revenge on the west” – the Express reports that the Russian ruler is “threatening to send global food prices soaring and imposing his own export bans”. It has a picture of a “tank ambush” by the Ukrainians against the Russians, written about here by our defence editor, Dan Sabbagh, with accompanying drone video.

“British public to be asked to take in refugees” says the Telegraph, which reports on year-long stays without a visa being granted to Ukrainians with no family links in the UK. Its downpage story is very interesting: “Russian state television broadcasts criticism of war”. Pundits referred to it as another Soviet invasion of Afghanistan “but even worse” as pro-Kremlin hosts struggled to silence them, the paper says. The Financial Times has “Half of Ukraine’s economy shut down as Mariupol counts war’s human cost”.

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