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But this weekend’s two phone calls with Putin — the first sought by Lukashenko after days of unprecedented protest following a highly contested presidential election and police violence — mark a turning point. And it is one fraught with a geopolitical risk significantly bigger than the attention the crisis is currently getting in European capitals and inside the Beltway. Reminiscent of the violent protests in 2014 in Kiev, it is a moment when a relatively localized moment of dissent could plunge Europe into crisis.

In their Saturday call, the two autocrats agreed to “regular contacts at various levels and the disposition to strengthen allied relations.” But however much Lukashenko insisted on Belarus’s autonomy afterwards, this was the moment he stopped his erratic courtship of the European Union, and directly turned to his harsher eastern neighbor to bail him out. The next move is Putin’s. But it is not obvious, or easy. Here are some of his options.

1. A full-scale Russian military intervention into Belarus

The nuclear option and pretty unlikely. Putin could decide the insertion of little green men seen in Ukraine, or even Russian uniformed troops or police, would settle finally his control of the vital neighbor. Belarus is essential to Putin’s sense of regional security. In defense, it is a territorial buffer between NATO in Poland. In offense, it provides access to the Suwalki Gap — the stretch of flat land from Belarus to Russian-controlled Kaliningrad — that NATO planners often fret Russia could swarm with tanks, cutting off the military alliance’s Baltic members from the rest of the European western mainland.

Military manoeuvers is something Putin has shown himself instinctively comfortable with, if the likely cost is limited. He may calculate — perhaps incorrectly — that Belarusians feel enough proximity to their overbearing neighbor, that Moscow’s men can “liberate” Belarus of Lukashenko, dubbed “Europe’s last dictator.” But that would bring two huge risks. The first being that Russian troops could simply inflame the anti-government protests, and be left with a blunt military hammer to flatten the delicate wave of female-only protests and tractor-factory strikes. That’s not a good look domestically for the superannuated Russian regime, wary of its own unpopularity and periodic protests in major cities.

The second is the risk of sanctions and a Western response, where the Russian march towards the Suwalki Gap would ring huge NATO alarm bells. US President Donald Trump may be seen as suspiciously pro-Putin in much of what he does. But Putin may also assess, rightly, that the Kremlin shouldn’t risk making retaliatory Russia-bashing a central plank of the November presidential race. The Russian economy wouldn’t handle further pressure well. In short, there’s probably more to lose from the coarse march of Russian armor on Minsk than there is to gain.

Protesters demonstrate against presidential election results outside Belarusian state TV headquarters in Minsk on August 15, 2020.

2. Be a bit smarter than tanks

The Kremlin is the master of the slow game, and the unexpected, underhand move. The release of more than 30 Russian prisoners by Belarus, accused of being mercenaries, came with the Kremlin comment the two countries’ “relevant departments” — read intelligence services — were now working closely together. Putin could dispatch his spooks, practiced as they are in shutting down social media, picking up the right individual rather than beating up a crowd, and crushing dissent. Over the coming months, this silent brutality, coupled with a slow drop in protest enthusiasm, may win out.

3. Tell Lukashenko it’s time to go, and try to own the aftermath

This is hugely risky. The Kremlin would essentially be empowering the Svetlana Tikhanovskaya-led opposition here, and may hope that enduring ties with Russia, to which Belarus is intimately tied economically and societally, would mean any future government would seek warm relations with Moscow. But the larger crisis at stake would be that yet another dictator had fallen on Russia’s borders. Putin cannot afford that message of people-power right now. Any new Belarusian government would likely also look West to the EU for immediate assistance and ratification. The last time a Russian neighbor looked West so fast was Ukraine, and the Kremlin invaded. There are too many likely drawbacks and risks to make dropping Lukashenko, without a carefully planned alternative, appealing.

Demonstrators stage a "die-in" as part of protests against the results of Belarus' presidential election in Berlin, Germany on August 15, 2020.

4. Call for new elections, and insert Russia’s own, new candidate

Over a decade ago, this may have been Putin’s favored option. Moscow were masters of creating and forcing through a local election victory for their preferred option, often a technocrat conjured seemingly out of nowhere.

Belarus leader calls Putin to reaffirm mutual cooperation, later rejects foreign mediation offers

New elections would calm the protests, and a third option candidate for president could assuage the Belarusian security services and elite that they might still keep a grip on the levers of power. Yet Moscow may also be wary that giving concessions such as a new vote to a protest crowd may encourage them to broader demands. Another, new vote that the protesters might also conclude could be rigged, would set the crisis back to square one.

5. Do nothing, for a week or two

Let the pressure build on Lukashenko, and the dysfunction escalate, as protests begin to affect ordinary life. Other protest movements have ebbed over time, once the violence of the riot police has calmed, the protesters’ bruises faded, and ordinary concerns become more important. Practical concerns dominate over ideology when a population has dealt with corrupt and repressive government for decades. The importance of jobs and salaries will hove into view when the euphoria of free expression and revolt begins to fade. The protesters’ leader is currently in Lithuania, and so over time the crowds may lack focus and motivation. Given how imperfect the other four above options are, this may be Putin’s first choice.

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Nearly 100 whales die in mass stranding in New Zealand

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Some 97 whales and three dolphins died in the stranding, which conservation department staff were alerted to around midday local time on Sunday.

A power outage and the remote location of New Zealand’s most eastern islands, around 500 miles east off the country’s South Island, meant Department of Conservation rangers did not arrive at Waitangi West Beach until 3 p.m., officials said.

“Only 26 of the whales were still alive at this point, the majority of them appearing very weak, and were euthanized due to the rough sea conditions and almost certainty of there being great white sharks in the water which are brought in by a stranding like this,” biodiversity ranger Jemma Welch said in a statement.

Pilot whales — small, toothed whales with a bulging forehead, a short snout and pointed flippers — are sociable creatures, and live in groups of dozens, hundreds or even thousands.

Two more whales were stranded on Monday and also had to be euthanized, the Department of Conservation said, adding that the whales will be left to decompose naturally.

Sri Lanka rescues 100 beached whales after mass stranding

Representatives from the Indigenous Hokotehi Moriori Trust and Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri Iwi Trust performed a karakii/karakia — a prayer, or incantation — to honor the spirit of the whales on Sunday, the department added.

Mass strandings are common on the Chatham Islands, according to the department, which said that up to 1,000 animals died in a stranding in 1918.

In September, more than 450 pilot whales beached in Tasmania, Australia, in that state’s largest ever beaching. At least a third died during rescue attempts.

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Rubio calls Biden’s national security team ‘polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline’

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In recent days Biden has announced plans to nominate Antony Blinken as secretary of State and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — jobs whose occupants require Senate confirmation. The president-elect has also named Jake Sullivan as his national security adviser, a White House role on which the Senate has no say.

Blinken, Thomas-Greenfield and Sullivan join a handful of other high-profile nominees — former Secretary of State John Kerry among them — who have thus far been light on surprises and heavy on experienced hands and veterans of the Obama administration. Biden has not yet announced his pick for Defense secretary, a centerpiece of the national security apparatus, despite widespread speculation that the job would go to Michèle Flournoy.

Rubio ran for president in 2016 and remains one of the GOP’s highest-profile lawmakers. The Florida senator, a child of Cuban immigrants, has been especially vocal on issues related to foreign policy, and his concern about the U.S. relationship with China dovetails with one of the Trump administration’s basic international relations tenets.

Biden has vowed to counter China’s growing influence on the world stage while breaking from President Donald Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign affairs — especially with regard to the United States’ traditional allies, whom Trump at times has alienated and cajoled.

But the president-elect has to walk a fine line with his choices for administration posts that need Senate approval given the razor-thin margins in the chamber and the likelihood that nominees will need to garner Republican support to win confirmation. Some Republican senators have recently indicated a willingness to sign off on Biden’s Cabinet selections — while warning they will sink nominees they believe to be out of the political mainstream — potentially defusing what would be an early standoff in Biden’s presidency.

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The Finance Watchdog Says There’s “Evidence” Neither Ministers Or Businesses Are “Fully Prepared” For Brexit

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Chancellor Rishi Sunak made no mention of Brexit in his economic update


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The Office for Budget Responsibility has warned there is “evidence” that ministers and businesses are not prepared for “imminent changes” to the economy from Brexit.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has come under fire for failing to mention the potential impact of Brexit on the nation’s finances during the spending review, despite the OBR warning a no-deal outcome was a “material risk”.

The watchdog, which modelled a 11.3% contraction of the economy, said the figures were based on a presumption that ministers would strike a free trade deal with Brussels ahead of the 31 December deadline.

But it said the “unresolved nature” of the talks meant that “other outcomes are possible, including that no agreement is reached and the UK defaults to trading with the EU on World Trade Organization (WTO) terms from 1 January 2021.”

The finance watchdog concluded that under that scenario the UK’s GDP would be reduced by a further 2% in 2021, “due to various temporary disruptions to cross-border trade and the knock-on impacts”.

It added: “As these abate, the longer-term effects of lower trade instensity continue to build such that output is 1.5% lower than our central forecast after five years, and 2% lower in the long run…”

The analysis also found that a no-deal scenario would see borrowing likely rise by a further 0.5% of GDP from 2021-22.

And under its worst case scenario, which would also see vaccines failing to control the pandemic, the OBR predicted the additional impacts of a no-deal would lead to national debt reaching 126.3% of GDP by 2025-26.

“The degree of near-term disruption to economic activity associated with defaulting to WTO terms depend in part upon the preparedness of the Government and businesses to manage any additional administrative, regulatory, and customs requirements,” the report said.

“While both have had more time to prepare than when we last considered these issues in our [earlier report], they have also been distracted by the need to deal with the disruption caused by the virus.

“This is likely to have taken up personnel and resources at some businesses that would have otherwise been used to prepare for a no deal Brexit, while also running down cash reserves and inventories making them more vulnerable to shocks,” it went on.

Meanwhile, pointing to work carried out by business groups, the OBR said there was “evidence” that ministers and businesses were still not prepared for Brexit related disruption, even if a deal is signed.

The watchdog added: “We continue to assume that the UK and EU conclude a free-trade agreement (FTA) and that there is a smooth transition to the new trading relationship after the transition period ends on 31 December 2020. However, there is evidence that neither the government nor businesses are fully prepared for the imminent changes even if a deal is agreed.”

Hitting out at Mr Sunak’s failure to address Brexit during his economic update, shadow chancellor Anneliesse Dodds, said: “In less than 40 days, we’re due to leave the transition period. Yet the chancellor didn’t even mention that in his speech.

“There’s still no trade deal. So does the chancellor truly believe that his government is prepared and that he’s done enough to help those businesses that will be heavily affected?”

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