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18 Mar
2019

President Putin signs law incorporating Crimea into Russia five years ago

CRIMEA (WNF) - President Vladimir Putin formally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula into Russia on Mar 18, 2014, and shrugged off Western sanctions. Five years later he is paying a price that is reported to chafe: in January the head of global Orthodox Christianity, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul, granted Ukraine its own church, one independent of Russia.
Britain’s Financial Times describes the decision as a victory for Ukraine in a wider struggle against Russia that encompasses the annexation and Moscow’s continued support for separatists fighting against Kiev in the east of the country.

DW notes that the European Union and United States have imposed wave after wave of sanctions on Russia since the beginning of the Crimea crisis in 2014, but the Kremlin is sticking to its course and Putin’s power has only grown. The German broadcaster describes the sanctions as creating lots of noise and little impact on Russia. In November Russian ships attacked and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels after a skirmish, also with no apparent impact on Moscow.

The Russians, seething about the divorce of the Russian and Ukrainian churches, are threatening to break entirely with the mother church, possibly provoking what some are calling the greatest schism in Christianity since the East-West divide in 1054. That event precipitated the final separation between the Eastern Christian churches and the Western church. Mutual excommunications by the pope and the patriarch followed, and were not lifted until 1965.

While the European Union remains a stalwart on the sanctions, individual members are reported to wish they would disappear. Russia is bearing around 60 per cent of the trade losses, while the other 40 per cent is paid by the 37 different nations imposing the sanctions, according to a German study cited by DW. #22791 Updated: 02/17/2019 UPDATED FEB 17 TO REFLECT ORTHODOX CHURCH SPLIT

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21 Mar
2019

Iran to deploy warships to the Atlantic

IRAN (GN) - The Iranian navy will deploy warships in the Atlantic after the start of the Iranian new year, which begins on March 21.
Iran is set to deploy warships to the Atlantic Ocean in a five-month mission apparently aimed at to increase its operating range close to the waters of the United States.

Rear-Admiral Touraj Hassani, Iran’s naval deputy commander, said that the Sahand, a newly-built destroyer, would be among warships deployed to defend ally Venezuela to “thwart Iranophobia plots” and “secure shipping routes.”

Iranian media reports that the domestically-built vessel is equipped with a helicopter landing pad, surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft batteries and sophisticated radar and radar-evading capabilities.

Iran sees the presence of U.S. aircraft carriers in the Gulf as a security concern and the announcement is likely intended to boost its military image amid rising tensions with Washington, which in November reimposed all sanctions lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal.

In December, the U.S. deployed an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, the first since the U.S. withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. A day after its arrival, Iran launched a military drill in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the passageway for nearly a third of all oil traded by sea. #23000 Published: 02/16/2019

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21 Mar
2019

EU summit the last summit for Britain?

EUROPEAN UNION (WNF) - The big question over the first summit of the Romanian EU presidency, in Brussels, is whether it will be Britain’s last. The country is due to depart on Mar 29, but continuing arguments in Westminster about the terms of the exit open the possibility of a protracted delay. The non-Brexit issues for the summit include defense, trade warfare and migration.
NATO tensions have boosted Europe’s decades-long attempts to establish a European army. President Emmanuel Macron of France, a country that voted against the bloc’s plan in 1954 to create one, recently reiterated his call for a “true European army” – now. In his interview with Europe 1 on Nov 9, he stressed that the current international situation, where the U.S. has pulled out of several international treaties including the Paris climate change agreement and most recently the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF) arms treaty with Russia, meant Europe needed to look after itself. Germany has tentatively endorsed Macron’s proposals for a joint command structure for military interventions, and 25 countries have signed up to PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defense).

The latest of several attempts since the 1950s to bolster European security, PESCO, established in Dec 2017, is a “treaty-based framework and process to deepen EU defense cooperation,” according to the official description. In 2018 EU defense ministers added to the list of 17 military projects under the PESCO framework. Euractiv reports that they signed off on projects covering training and capability development, operational readiness on land, at sea and in the air, as well as cyber-defence. The March summit will hear a status report.

The bloc has fought back against U.S. President Donald Trump’s intended tariffs on steel and aluminum from EU countries, approving a scheme in January to limit imports of steel into the bloc. The move addresses EU producers’ concern that European markets could be flooded by steel products that are no longer being imported into the U.S.

On migration, Macron and Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz agreed in September that the issue tops their list of priorities. They are aiming for “better control of arrivals, protection of our borders by the reinforcement of Frontex and a dialogue in particular with the countries of transit and origin, but equally, by having an improvement in our policies of returning those who are intercepted.”

Euronews reports that previous weeks have seen the gulf between anti-immigration governments in eastern Europe and western members widen. #22820 Updated: 02/15/2019 UPDATED FEB 15 WITH BREXIT DEVELOPMENTS AND 23 PESCO MEMBERS CHANGED TO 25

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23 Mar
2019

New South Wales state vote another test for Australia’s governing coalition

AUSTRALIA (WNF) - The vote for the 57th Parliament of New South Wales looms as a second test for Australia’s governing Liberal-National coalition ahead of federal elections as early as May.
The Liberal Party’s image took a massive hit in Aug 2018 after its latest bruising leadership fight, when Malcolm Turnbull was ousted as Australian prime minister and replaced by Scott Morrison.

The state election in neighboring Victoria in November amounted to a first test since the August dustup, which painted the Liberals as dysfunctional. The governing Australian Labor Party increased its lead over the opposition Liberals. A win for opposition Labor in New South Wales in March will tell the Coalition that the negative image is still in view.

The reputation of New South Wales as the country’s best-performing economy might have helped to offset any lingering negative image, but Victoria snatched the lead in July. As infrastructure improvement has been a major part of its platform since its election in 2015, the Coalition can be expected to take some hit at the polls from unhappiness about the disruptive makeover of Sydney’s transportation system.

All 93 seats in the state’s Legislative Assembly and 21 of the 42 seats in the Legislative Council are at stake. Other parties aiming for seats include the Greens, One Nation, the Christian Democrats, Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party and Sustainable Australia. #22994 Published: 02/07/2019

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24 Mar
2019

Thai junta plans election after many delays and appears ready to follow through

THAILAND (GN) - The Thai regime has set this date for the long-delayed election, and appears ready to follow through. It is the first vote under a rewritten constitution.
The military claims the new charter, Thailand’s 20th, will purge the country of corrupt civilian politicians and restore stability after nearly a decade of political turmoil including two coups.

Critics argue that the changes boost military power and limit the influence of elected officials, potentially leading to political gridlock and even fresh unrest.

Thailand's military has seized power 12 times since 1932, the end of the absolute monarchy. Prayuth Chan-Ocha, now prime minister, led the 2014 coup, the most recent. The last general election was held in 2011. The junta repeatedly postponed the subsequent vote, citing constitutional and security issues.

Thais will elect the 500-seat lower house of parliament, the only popularly elected body under the constitution drafted by the junta and approved by voters in 2016. The 250-member upper house, or Senate, will comprise junta appointees and military brass.

Bloomberg news service notes that the generals also have another lever to play. In a typical parliamentary democracy, the leader of the party with the most seats in the lower house is tapped to head the government. In Thailand, any party that crosses the 5 per cent threshold can nominate a candidate -- and members of both chambers get to vote. So a junta-backed candidate theoretically could sweep the Senate and then need just 126 votes in the lower house to make it to 376. #21994 Updated: 12/31/2018 DATE UPDATED 23 JAN 2019

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24 Mar
2019

Images after Exxon Valdez oil spill for 30th anniversary deliver a warning

UNITED STATES (WNF) - Thirty years ago the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck Bligh Reef in Alaska’s pristine Prince William Sound and spilled 11 million gallons of crude. Until the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, it was the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The aftermath images serve as an environmental impact warning to the Trump Administration, which plans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
Initial attempts to contain the Exxon Valdez oil in the Sound failed. A storm blew in, spreading the crude along some 1,300 miles of coastline, killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds, otters, seals and whales. Though the oil has mostly disappeared from view, many Alaskan beaches remain polluted, with crude oil buried just inches below the surface.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management said in December that it intends to hold an oil and gas lease sale in 2019 that would open up exploration of the coastal plain on approximately 1.6 million acres of the 19.3-million-acre Arctic Refuge. The first lease sale would offer no fewer than 400,000 acres of “high-potential” land for bids, the bureau said.

The refuge has long been closed to oil and gas exploration despite great interest in the petroleum industry, with opponents blocking repeated attempts by Alaskans – and Republicans – to proceed. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 has provided the means to get around the restrictions, and the administration of President Donald Trump is reported to be cutting short the required studies and hearings to make sure it begins quickly.

“There’s no precedent for anything done this quickly for an environmental review of this scale,” Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, told the Los Angeles Times.

The Wilderness Society issued a report saying that the administration’s estimates of oil in the refuge “was based on outdated information and overly optimistic assumptions about how much oil exists in the region, the price of such oil and the speed with which it could be developed and taken to market.” #22997 Published: 02/07/2019

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25 Mar
2019

NASA issues deadline for private sector lunar probe bids

UNITED STATES (WNF) - In a hurry, NASA has invited private companies to submit bids for building a lunar probe by the March date. The agency is targeting 2024 for an unmanned lunar landing and 2028 for the next U.S. mission to land humans on the Moon.
China’s successful mission in 2018 has heated up the race to the Moon. Japan has announced plans to put a man on Moon by 2030, and Russia plans to set up a lunar colony by 2040. India and Israel have also entered the race.

The first selection for the U.S. probe is in May. Phys.org notes that it is a tight timeline for NASA, an agency whose past projects have run years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters in February that the agency plans to speed up its plans. “It’s important that we get back to the Moon as fast as possible,” he said in a meeting at NASA”s Washington DC headquarters. “This time, when we go to the Moon, we’re actually going to stay. We’re not going to leave flags and footprints and then come home to not go back for another 50 years,” he said.

The last person to walk on the Moon was Eugene Cernan in December 1972, during the Apollo 17 mission.

NASA plans to build a small space station, dubbed Gateway, in the Moon’s orbit by 2026. It will serve as a way-station for trips to and from the lunar surface. #23015 Published: 02/17/2019

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