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Crimea Marks 5 Years of Russian Annexation as Western Sanctions Bite

Residents and officials in Crimea have been staging events this week to mark the fifth anniversary of Russia’s forceful annexation of the region from Ukraine.

The United States and its allies imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Moscow following the invasion. Analysts say the economic impact is denting approval ratings for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Thousands of heavily armed fighters, dubbed “little green men” for their anonymous uniforms, stormed Ukrainian military installations and government buildings in February 2014. The fighters were clearly backed by Russia, but Moscow denied involvement.

On March 16, 2014, the new de facto authorities staged a referendum in which they claimed more than 95 percent of voters chose to return Crimea to Russian control. Putin hailed the annexation.

“After a hard, long, tiring trip, Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to their home port, to their native shore, homeward, to Russia,” Putin said in a ceremony in Moscow’s Red Square five years ago to mark the annexation, just weeks after the country hosted athletes from around the world at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

 

WATCH: Crimea Marks Anniversary of Russian Annexation

Putin returned to Crimea this week and praised the progress made.

New power stations have been built. A new bridge links Crimea to the Russian mainland, its limited height restricts shipping into Ukrainian ports. A rail service is to begin this year.

Crimea residents appear supportive.

“Well, it’s all good. Giant construction sites everywhere, you can see that,” one resident told VOA this month.

​Political cost

In the aftermath of the Crimean invasion, Putin’s approval ratings soared. They are now falling fast.

The U.S., Europe and several allies imposed economic sanctions in Moscow. Russian political analyst Maria Lipman said the economic noose has tightened.

“The Crimea syndrome, or Crimea consensus, is wearing out quite visibly,” Lipman said. “The announcement of the pension reform, and the raise of the retirement age, was a trigger when people began to realize — not that they hadn’t realized before — but they really began to feel that things were not right.”

Ukraine is about to hold presidential elections. The leading candidates have pledged to continue Kyiv’s path toward European Union and NATO membership. 

So, could Putin attempt further military action? Unlikely, said Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies.

“Russian politics is much exhausted with Ukraine. I definitely exclude any kind of military intervention, the closure of the Azov Sea, or military provocations in Donbas,” he said.

The U.S. and the European Union said this week that Crimea will always be considered part of Ukraine.

Critics say the West’s failure to confront Russia more robustly in 2014 led to Moscow’s intervention in other conflicts, including in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and in Syria.


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Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Marred Alaska 30 Years Ago

It was just after midnight March 24, 1989, when an Exxon Shipping Co. tanker ran aground outside the town of Valdez, Alaska, spewing millions of gallons of thick, toxic crude oil into the pristine Prince William Sound.

The world watched the aftermath unfold: scores of herring, sea otters and birds soaked in oil, and hundreds of miles of shoreline polluted. Commercial fishermen in the area saw their careers hit bottom.

It’s been 30 years since the disaster, at the time the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Only the 2010 Deep Water Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has eclipsed it.

The 986-foot (300-meter) Exxon Valdez tanker was bound for California when it struck Alaska’s Bligh Reef at 12:04 a.m. It spilled 11 million gallons (42 million liters) of crude oil, which storms and currents smeared across 1,300 miles (2,092 million kilometers) of shoreline.

The oil also extensively fouled spawning habitat in Prince William Sound for herring and pink salmon, two of its most important commercial fish species.

Fishermen and others affected by the spill dealt with ruined livelihoods, broken marriages and suicides. Exxon compensation checks, minus what fishermen earned on spill work, arrived too late for many.

Most of the affected species have recovered, but the spill led to wide-scale changes in the oil industry. Today, North Slope oil must be transported in double-hull tankers, which must be escorted by two tugs. Radar monitors the vessel’s position as well as that of icebergs.


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European, Canadian to Review Boeing 737 Max

Boeing’s grounded airliners are likely to be parked longer now that European and Canadian regulators plan to conduct their own reviews of changes the company is making after two of the jets crashed.

The Europeans and Canadians want to do more than simply take the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s word that alterations to a key flight-control system will make the 737 Max safer. Those reviews scramble an ambitious schedule set by Boeing and could undercut the FAA’s reputation around the world.

Boeing hopes by Monday to finish an update to software that can automatically point the nose of the plane sharply downward in some circumstances to avoid an aerodynamic stall, according to two people briefed on FAA presentations to congressional committees.

The FAA expects to certify Boeing’s modifications and plans for pilot training in April or May, one of the people said. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the briefings.

​Timetable in doubt

But there are clear doubts about meeting that timetable. Air Canada plans to remove the Boeing 737 Max from its schedule at least through July 1 and suspend some routes that it flew with the plane before it was grounded around the world last week.

American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, which are slightly less dependent on the Max than Air Canada, are juggling their fleets to fill in for grounded planes, but those carriers have still canceled some flights.

By international agreement, planes must be certified in the country where they are built. Regulators around the world have almost always accepted that country’s decision.

As a result, European airlines have flown Boeing jets with little independent review by the European Aviation Safety Agency, and U.S. airlines operate Airbus jets without a separate, lengthy certification process by the FAA.

That practice is being frayed, however, in the face of growing questions about the FAA’s certification of the Max. Critics question whether the agency relied too much on Boeing to vouch for critical safety matters and whether it understood the significance of a new automated flight-control system on the Max.

FAA’s word no longer enough 

The FAA let the Boeing Max keep flying after preliminary findings from the Oct. 29 crash of a Lion Air Max 8 in Indonesia pointed to flight-control problems linked to the failure of a sensor. Boeing went to work on upgrading the software to, among other things, rely on more than one sensor and limit the system’s power to point the plane’s nose down without direction from the pilots.

The FAA’s assurance that the plane was still safe to fly was good enough for the rest of the world until an Ethiopian Airlines Max 8 crashed. Satellite data suggests both planes had similar, erratic flight paths before crashing minutes after takeoff.

Patrick Ky, the executive director of the European regulator, said his agency will look “very deeply, very closely” at the changes Boeing and the FAA suggest to fix the plane.

“I can guarantee to you that on our side we will not allow the aircraft to fly if we have not found acceptable answers to all our questions, whatever the FAA does,” he said.

The message was the same from Canada’s Transport minister, Marc Garneau.

“When that software change is ready, which is a number of weeks, we will in Canada — even if it is certified by the FAA — we will do our own certification,” he said.

Other countries could also conduct their own analysis of how much pilot training should be required on the Max. Ky noted that one Lion Air crew correctly disabled the plane’s malfunctioning flight-control system, but not the crew on the next flight, which crashed. He said pilots under stress might have forgotten details of a bulletin Boeing issued in November that reminded pilots about that procedure.

Standing damaged

The FAA’s handling of issues around the Max jet have damaged its standing among other aviation regulators, said James Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The FAA will have to be more transparent about its investigation, and it should require that pilots train for the Max on flight simulators, Hall said, because “that is how pilots train today, not on iPads.”

John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chairman of an FAA research and engineering advisory committee, said separate approvals by Canada and the Europeans will reassure the public because those countries are seen as having no vested interest in the plane.

“It’s unfortunate because it will probably cause a delay, but it may be the right thing in the long haul,” Hansman said. He expects that the FAA will wait until other regulators finish their reviews before letting the Max fly again.

Meanwhile, the FAA is getting a new chief. The White House said Tuesday that President Donald Trump will nominate former Delta Air Lines executive and pilot Stephen Dickson to head the agency. Daniel Elwell has been acting administrator since January 2018.

Boeing too is shifting personnel. This week, the company named the chief engineer of its commercial airplanes division to lead the company’s role in the investigations into the Oct. 29 crash of the Lion Air jet and the March 10 Ethiopian Airlines crash. The executive, John Hamilton, has experience in airplane design and regulatory standards.


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Southern Thailand Voters Hoping for Democratic Outcome

In Southern Thailand, a high voter turnout is expected for Sunday’s election, where anti-military sentiment prevails in the region. But voters and opposition politicians are concerned that a government curb on voices of dissent will result in another term of military rule.


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Crimea Marks Anniversary Of Russian Annexation, As Western Sanctions Tighten Grip

This week marks the fifth anniversary of Russia’s forceful annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea. The United States and its allies imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Moscow following the invasion – and analysts say the economic impact is denting approval ratings for Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Henry Ridgwell reports.


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Trump Highlights Manufacturing in Ohio Despite Closed GM Plant

In Ohio Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump spotlighted the U.S. manufacturing industry, a key piece of his 2020 re-election strategy that is being undercut by the closure of a large GM auto plant in the state. Trump’s focus on manufacturing is lauded by his base, but is it actually helpful to the industry? White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara reports.


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Finland Is World’s Happiest Country

Finland ranked as the world’s happiest country for the second consecutive year, in a new United Nations report. The other Nordic countries, as well as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, New Zealand and Austria also made the top 10 in the happiness survey of 156 countries. South Sudan sank to the bottom, and other war-torn countries also ranked low. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke has more.


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New Zealand: Guns Used in Mosque Attack Banned Immediately

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced an immediate ban Thursday on semi-automatic and automatic weapons like the ones used in the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch that killed 50 worshippers.

“All semi-automatic weapons used during the terrorist attack on Friday 15 March will be banned,” she said.

The man charged in the attack purchased his weapons legally using a standard firearms license and enhanced their capacity by using 30-round magazines “done easily through a simple online purchase,” she said.

Ardern said she expects the new laws to be in place by April 11, but an interim measure means a ban on new purchases has for practical purposes already been enacted. A buy-back scheme will be established for banned weapons.

“Now, six days after this attack, we are announcing a ban on all military style semi-automatics (MSSA) and assault rifles in New Zealand,” Ardern said. “Related parts used to convert these guns into MSSAs are also being banned, along with all high-capacity magazines.”

Similar to Australia

Ardern said that similar to Australia, the new gun laws will allow for strictly enforced exemptions for farmers to conduct pest control and animal welfare.

“I strongly believe that the vast majority of legitimate gun owners in New Zealand will understand that these moves are in the national interest, and will take these changes in their stride.”

Federated Farmers, which represent thousands of farmers, said it supported the change.

“This will not be popular among some of our members but after a week of intense debate and careful consideration by our elected representatives and staff, we believe this is the only practicable solution,” Federated Farmers Rural Security spokesman Miles Anderson said in a statement.

One of New Zealand’s largest gun retailers, Hunting & Fishing New Zealand, said it supports “any government measure to permanently ban such weapons.”

“While we have sold them in the past to a small number of customers, last week’s events have forced a reconsideration that has led us to believe such weapons of war have no place in our business — or our country,” CEO Darren Jacobs said in a statement.

Regardless of the ban, the company would no longer stock any assault-style firearms of any category and would also stop selling firearms online, he said. 

​Mosque attack victims buried

Ardern’s announcement comes less than a week after the killings, as more of the dead were being buried. At least six funerals took place Thursday, including for a teenager, a youth soccer coach and a Muslim convert who loved connecting with other women at the mosque.

Cashmere High School student Sayyad Ahmad Milne, 14, was known as an outgoing boy and the school’s futsal goalkeeper. Tariq Rashid Omar, 24, graduated from the same school, played soccer in the summer and was a beloved coach of several youth teams.

Linda Armstrong, 64, a third-generation New Zealander who converted to Islam in her 50s, was also buried, as were Hussein Mohamed Khalil Moustafa, 70, Matiullah Safi, 55, and Haji Mohammed Daoud Nabi.

Families of those killed had been awaiting word on when they could bury their loved ones. Police Commissioner Mike Bush announced Thursday that authorities have formally identified and released the remains of all of the victims. Islamic tradition calls for bodies to be cleansed and buried as soon as possible.

​Friday prayer service

Meanwhile, preparations are underway for a massive Friday prayer service to be led by the imam of one of the two New Zealand mosques where worshippers were killed.

 

Imam Gamal Fouda said he is expecting 3,000 to 4,000 people at Friday’s prayer service, including many who have come from abroad. He expects it will take place in Hagley Park, a city landmark across from Al Noor mosque with members of the Linwood mosque also attending.

Al Noor workers have been trying feverishly to repair the destruction at the mosque, Fouda said.

 

“They will bury the carpet,” he said. “Because it is full of blood, and it’s contaminated.”

 

Fouda said that he expects the mosque to be ready to open again by next week and that some skilled workers had offered their services for free.

 

“The support we have been getting from New Zealand and the community has been amazing,” he said.

​Reuter and Agence France Presse contributed to this report.


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EU Leaders to Discuss Ways to Limit Chinese Influence at Summit Dinner

The European Union will discuss a more defensive strategy on China on Thursday, potentially signalling an end to the unfettered access that Chinese business has enjoyed in Europe but which Beijing has failed to reciprocate.

Caught between a new U.S.-Chinese rivalry for economic and military power, EU leaders will try to find a middle path during a summit dinner in Brussels, the first time they have discussed at the highest level how to deal with Beijing.

“We are fully open,” European Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen said of the EU’s economy. “China is not, and it raises lots of questions,” Katainen told Reuters, arguing that the world’s second-largest economy could no longer claim special status as a developing country.

Meeting as Chinese President Xi Jinping starts a tour of France and Italy, EU leaders – who have often been divided over China – want to present a united front ahead of an EU-China summit on April 9.

According to a draft April summit statement seen by Reuters, the EU is seeking to set deadlines for China to make good on trade and investment pledges that have been repeatedly pushed back, although Beijing must still agree to the final text.

That was a message delivered to State Councillor Wang Yi by EU foreign ministers on Monday. It marked a shift towards what EU diplomats say is a more “assertive and competitive mindset”.

“In the past, it has been extremely difficult for the EU to formulate a clear strategy on China, and past policy documents have not been strategically coherent,” said Duncan Freeman at the EU-China Research Centre at the College of Europe. “There is now a clear effort to do that.”

In a document to prepare the EU summit, the European Commission called China a “systemic rival”.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign to warn against Huawei telecommunications equipment in next-generation wireless networks has accelerated EU discussions about its position.

The deepest tensions lie around China’s slowness to open up its economy, a surge of Chinese takeovers in critical sectors and an impression that Beijing has not stood up for free trade.

 GERMANY IS KEY With over a billion euros a day in bilateral trade, the EU is China’s top trading partner, while China is second only to the United States as a market for European goods and services.

Chinese trade restrictions are more severe than EU barriers in almost every economic sector, according to research firm Rhodium Group and the Mercator Institute for China Studies.

Unlike the United States, which has a naval fleet based in Japan to wield influence over the region, the EU lacks any military power to confront China, so its approach is technical.

But any new EU policies could prove complicated to implement, as EU capitals continue to court Chinese investment.

Italy plans to join China’s multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure project, while free-traders Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands are wary of any restrictions on commerce.

Germany’s views will be important as Berlin has at times pressed for a tougher response to unfair competition from Chinese rivals but also championed a closer relationship with Beijing.

“Their position needs to stabilize. At the moment it changes on almost every day of the week,” the senior envoy said.


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Ukraine’s Night Train to the Front Lines

Ukraine is gearing up for presidential elections at the end of this month, a vote that holds huge implications for a country still at war with Russian-backed separatists. There are other issues on the agenda too – not least getting around this vast country. The dilapidated infrastructure means long night trains are the only practical transport. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell jumped on board to chat with some of the passengers heading east.


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Trump Accuses Twitter, Facebook, Google of Siding with ‘Radical Left Democrats’

U.S. President Donald Trump has accused social media outlets, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, of being biased, and suggested that the situation needs scrutiny. In answer to a reporter at the White House Tuesday, Trump said digital platforms tend to suppress Republican and conservative views. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.


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US Missile Defense Cuts Worry Analysts

The U.S. has proposed reducing its missile defense budget as adversaries Russia, China, Iran and North Korea continue to modernize and increase their missile capabilities. But as VOA’s Brian Padden reports, defense analysts argue more funding is needed to deal with the growing missile threat to the U.S. homeland.


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