WITH every day that passes the war in Ukraine deepens and its ram­ifications widen. Around the same time on Friday that Russian president Vladimir Putin was announcing his “claimed annexation” of four regions of Ukraine and ranting against the West, Russian forces were facing another major battlefield defeat in the key north-eastern city of Lyman.

I use the word “claimed” in ­reference to Putin’s announcement because ­annexations are only such if ­generally recognised and this is not the case ­internationally in this instance. ­Speaking just a few days ago United Nations ­secretary-general Antonio Guterres was at pains to underline that very point.

“Any decision to proceed with the ­annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, ­Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine would have no legal value and ­deserves to be condemned,” said ­Guterres, before warning that it would also mark a ­“dangerous escalation” in the war and jeopardise any prospects for peace.

Guterres is right too when he says that Russia’s claimed annexation moves have “no place in the modern world”. To ­begin with it makes a mockery of the UN ­Charter. As one of five permanent ­members of the UN Security ­Council, Russia is mandated to uphold the ­charter which prohibits the threat or use of force and champions the principle of ­sovereignty and territorial­integrity.

As if it were already not enough of an international pariah, Russia on Friday further compounded that status after it forces launched a rocket strike on a ­civilian convoy that left dozens killed and wounded on the edge of the city of ­Zaporizhzhia.

Attacking civilian targets has been an ugly hallmark of the Russian forces’ ­engagement in this war much the same as an ignominious series of defeats on the battlefield when faced with Ukrainian forces.

Following their rapid counteroffensive this month that completely blindsided the Russian military and liberated thousands of square milies in Kharkiv, Ukrainian units have pushed further east and have nearly surrounded the town of Lyman.

The capture of Lyman in the north of Donetsk region could pave the way for Ukraine to make inroads into the ­adjacent Luhansk province, foiling ­Putin’s goal of seizing all of the industrial Donbas ­region.

Back in Moscow there has been an almost palpable sense of alarm among Russian military bloggers, propagandists and nationalist commentators given that Lyman is the jumping off point for ­Russian forces in their campaign to capture the rest of the province of Donetsk Oblast.

With Ukrainian forces advancing from three directions west, north and south of Lyman there is now the real ­possibility that several thousand Russian troops could be surrounded and trapped there.

Clearly a key battlefield victory like ­cutting of Lyman would give Kyiv ­another boost and provide the best possible riposte to Putin’s swaggering claim of annexing four regions of Ukraine some of which are in fact still under Kyiv’s control.

Speaking to the Financial Times, ­Oleksandr V Danylyuk, head of the Kyiv-based think-tank Centre for Defence ­Reforms, highlighted just how significant a psychological blow to the Kremlin the taking of Lyman would be.

“It would undermine mobilisation. It would be a big problem for the ­personal reputation of Putin and of (Russian ­defence minister) Shoigu,” Danylyuk said. “It is important to show the Russian leadership who expect us to be scared of their (nuclear) blackmail… it would be a very powerful message that we don’t care.”

Putin has said Moscow could use ­nuclear weapons to defend what he now deems Russian territory ­following the sham referenda and claims of ­annexation in the four regions.

His “strategy” is clear, aimed as it is in the hope that ­“annexation” will cause Ukraine’s ­supporters to fear that the risk has been cranked still higher, to a level where the West’s resolve will crack.

But Kyiv is determined that it won’t be swayed by such threats and will press ahead with its plans to drive all Russian forces out of Ukraine.

Now then is not the time for Ukraine nor the West to ease up on the military pressure and support that has pushed Russia onto the backfoot.

If the risk of escalation is growing, then it’s because Putin is losing the war. ­Upping the ante has always been ­Putin’s way when his back is to the wall.

But sometimes too at such moments his bluff has been called forcing him to back down.

This is precisely one of those moments, albeit a nerve wracking one for many.


The National: Women have been demonstrating in Iran during the past weekWomen have been demonstrating in Iran during the past week (Image: PA)

IT’S a story that has been overshadowed by other global events elsewhere. As ever, too, its one difficult to penetrate for much of the Western media given the way the authoritarian regime in Tehran shuts down the flow of information when it feels threatened.

But the violent death of Mashsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman, who was beaten by so-called morality police in Tehran last week for “improper hijab” has unleashed a new revolution of sorts that has broken through Iran’s media restrictions to reach the outside world. This time it is women who are leading from the front, challenging one of the main pillars of the Islamic Republic of Iran; compulsory hijab. Having taken to the streets, they are demanding an end to what the Iranian journalist and women’s rights campaigner Masih Alinejad described in the Washington Post as a “system of gender apartheid”.

It was back in 1981, two years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran that the hijab became compulsory. Back then too it triggered protests but these were quickly crushed by the new authorities. Other protests since have suffered a similar fate such as the spontaneous mass demonstrations that erupted in 2009 when the Green Movement took to the streets in opposition to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in what is sometime dubbed the Persian Spring. The question now is whether the latest opposition to Iran’s autocratic rulers will also be suppressed or will it build in momentum to pose a bigger threat?

Some commentators, like the Iranian American journalists and writer Roya Hakakian maintain that for the current wave of protesters the fight for women’s freedom of choice is now synonymous with a desire to end the rule of the ayatollahs.

“No one in Iran today is setting fire to effigies of Uncle Sam or the US flag. Instead, women are burning their headscarves in the street, on bonfires that men light for them. They don’t object to the hijab itself; they object to not having the right to choose whether to wear it,” wrote Hakakian in The Atlantic magazine last week. Other commentators, though, remain sceptical about the capacity of the latest protests to bring about real change given the entrenched nature of Iran’s security apparatus.

A collapse of the Islamic Republic may seem remote in the near term, but there is a distinct sense of nervousness and disarray among Iran’s leaders right now in how to respond.

Those courageous women who have thrown down the latest challenge are a reminder to Iran’s regime that the thirst for rights and freedoms is unquenchable.


The National: Jair Bolsonaro could 'subvert democracy'Jair Bolsonaro could 'subvert democracy' (Image: PA)

IT was always going to get nasty. What else can you expect from an incumbent president whose sense of political self-preservation makes Donald Trump look apathetic?

As Brazil goes to the polls in today’s presidential election many observers believe the country is facing the most serious challenge to its democracy since its inception 37 years ago.

The root of the concern lies in what President Jair Bolsonaro, might do should he be defeated by left-wing rival, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Not that this is a foregone conclusion by any means given that the first round of voting takes place today and 11 candidates are running, making it possible that neither Bolsonaro nor Lula will win at least 50% of the vote as required. If that happens, a runoff will occur on October 30.

That said, Lula currently has taken a dominant lead with polls suggesting he is within the margin of error for a first-round victory. If things pan out that way, then all eyes will be on whether Bolsonaro may contest the results after losing. In a bitter election campaign that has polarised the country already there have been sporadic acts of violence and growing unease that Bolsonaro’s hard-core right-wing base could take to the streets in the event of a Lula victory. Some election watchers have even suggested that what’s at stake is the future of Brazilian democracy.

Bolsonaro for months now has been making unfounded allegations that Brazil’s electronic voting system is vulnerable to widespread fraud leading many rights groups to fear he may be setting the stage for disputing the results to stay in power. It’s a political gambit many in the US will already be familiar with and unsurprisingly has led to Bolsonaro being referred to as “Tropical Trump” in a recent Washington Post headline. Three scenarios now loom.

The first is that Bolsonaro could say the election was stolen but hold back from trying to stop the transition of the presidency. The second is that he could bring his supporters on to the streets allowing at best a messy and potentially volatile transition. The doomsday scenario however would be all out political violence drawing in the Brazilian military and a subversion of democracy in a country no stranger to anti- democratic coups and plots.

Given the current unprecedented climate of tension in the country it would take little to light the fuse on this political tinderbox.

Uncertain days lie ahead in Brazil.

Burkina Faso

THERE was a touch of the Groundhog Day about events that unfolded on Friday in Ouagadougou the capital of Burkina Faso. Appearing before the television cameras the country’s new leader army captain Ibrahim Traore stood surrounded by soldiers, some masked, as he announced that the government was dissolved, the constitution suspended and the borders closed. It was only in January earlier this year that the man Traore was now deposing Paul-Henri Damiba stood on the same spot announcing the same things as he took over the country in a coup to become president. These however are not the only things both men have in common and indeed share with President Roch Kabore the man who preceded both of them Each one of the recent coups that have occurred in Burkina Faso have according to their instigators been carried because the incumbent had failed to deal with the threat posed by Islamists linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group (IS).

And here in a nutshell is why events of the past few days in Burkina Faso, a country perhaps little known to many outside the region of West Africa, are worth paying attention to right now. For the simple fact is that Burkina Faso has fast become the epicentre of violence carried out by groups linked to Islamist inspired terror organisations that began in neighbouring Mali in 2012 and has spread to other West African countries south of the Sahara Desert.

In a world where both al-Qaeda and IS might appear a thing of the past and a threat considerably diminished, the influence of Islamist insurgents in West and Central Africa over the past few years is a growing cause of international concern. Mali, Chad, and Guinea are among the other countries in the region that have all seen coups since 2020, raising fears of a backslide towards military rule in a region that up until now had made democratic progress over the past decade.

In the arid expanse of the western Sahel region alone there has been a quadrupling in the number of militant Islamist group incidents since 2019. The 2800 violent events projected for 2022 represent a doubling in the past year with the violence expanding in intensity and geographic reach. It’s against this backdrop that coups like the one in Burkina Faso on Friday are enacted and enable military rulers to come to power while undermining democratic governance.

It’s a timely reminder, too, that the threat of groups such as al-Qaeda and IS far from being consigned to history is still very current and their capacity to cause transnational instability has not gone away.