Analysis & Comment

Your Friday Briefing

A predawn attack by Russia

Early yesterday morning, Russia unleashed another missile bombardment on cities across Ukraine. Hours earlier, Ukraine’s Air Force spotted several Russian balloons floating toward Kyiv from the north, though the exact connection between the missiles and the balloons was not immediately clear.

The Russian strikes hit critical infrastructure in central and western Ukraine, and officials reported a volley of more than 30 air- and sea-based cruise missiles and an unknown number of other “strategic aviation aircraft.” About half of the missiles breached Ukraine’s missile defense system, Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, said. One person was killed.

Lviv, a city in the west where thousands of displaced people have fled to relative safety, was struck, officials said. The military administrator for the Lviv region, Maksym Kozytsky, said on the Telegram messaging app that no one had been hurt and that firefighters had battled a fire into the morning before it was extinguished, but he provided no additional details.

Context: For months, Russia has been directing waves of missiles at critical infrastructure and other targets across Ukraine, aiming to crush the nation’s morale. As Ukraine’s Western allies have supplied more sophisticated air defense systems, Moscow has turned to Iranian-made attack drones. The balloons appear to be the Kremlin’s latest adaptation.

In other news from the war:

Up to 80 percent of the men in some Russian units have been killed in combat in the east, the Ukrainian military said.

A report from a London-based research institute said Russia had lost about half of its tanks since invading Ukraine.

Thousands of companies are jockeying to secure contracts to eventually rebuild Ukraine.

Bashar al-Assad’s disaster diplomacy

A devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria last week has created an opportunity for Syria’s authoritarian president, Bashar al-Assad, to inch back into the global spotlight after years of being shunned for bombing and torturing his own people during Syria’s civil war.

As the death toll has soared, al-Assad has received sympathy, aid and attention from other countries, as well as offers of support from senior officials at the U.N. Touring Syria’s quake-torn cities, he could for once blame the destruction in his country on nature rather than war, while lashing out at the Western foes he accused of “politicizing” the crisis.

The disaster has bolstered a slow-burn effort by a handful of Arab countries to draw al-Assad back into the international fold, among them the U.A.E., which this week increased its quake donation to $100 million — one-quarter of the entire U.N. emergency appeal for Syria. But little of substance has changed, and punishing American and European sanctions remain in place.

Response: Al-Assad, who has a reputation for intransigence, has offered up a rare concession, permitting U.N. aid convoys to use two additional border crossings from Turkey to pass directly into opposition-controlled territory for the first time since the civil war began 12 years ago.

Analysis: “There’s no doubt this is a good moment for Assad,” said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “A tragedy for Syrians is a boon for Assad, because nobody else wants to manage this mess.”

Biden tries to calm spy balloon furor

In his first extended statement about the spate of floating craft above North America, President Biden sought to reassure Americans that the latest objects shot down were not tied to Beijing, in contrast to the Chinese spy balloon downed by an American missile on Feb. 4. He planned to speak with Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, to keep lines of communication open, he said.

“We don’t yet know exactly what these three objects were, but nothing right now suggests they were related to China’s spy balloon program or that they were surveillance vehicles from any other country,” Biden said. The most recent intelligence suggested that the objects were “most likely” balloons used to study weather or to conduct other scientific research.

Biden has simultaneously been accused of being too slow to respond to the Chinese spy balloon as it meandered across the U.S. and chided for overreacting to the subsequent objects that now appear to have been relatively harmless. The president defended his actions, saying he had behaved with an “abundance of caution” and would make no apologies.

International relations: Biden appeared determined not to further escalate tensions with China. Earlier this month, Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, called off a trip to Beijing once the balloon’s presence had been made public, and China’s defense chief then refused to take a phone call from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.


Around the World

At least six people had died and more than 3,500 were still unaccounted for days after Cyclone Gabrielle lashed the northern half of New Zealand.

People in Spain over the age of 16 will be able to change their legally registered gender without undergoing psychological and medical evaluations to show gender dysphoria.

A Georgia grand jury said “one or more” witnesses might have committed perjury in the investigation into whether Donald Trump and his allies interfered in the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.

Nicola Sturgeon’s unexpected resignation has raised an awkward question for her pro-independence Scottish National Party: If she could not mastermind Scotland’s exit from the U.K., can anyone else?

Other Big Stories

Tesla is recalling more than 362,000 cars after regulators found that the company’s “Full Self Driving” system increased the risk of accidents.

David Malpass, the president of the World Bank, said he would step down early after critics accused him of climate denialism. President Biden will appoint his successor.

Susan Wojcicki, the chief executive of YouTube and one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent women, is stepping down.

The Week in Culture

Pharrell Williams is Louis Vuitton’s next men’s wear designer.

The Whitney Museum of American Art has named Marcela Guerrero its first Latina senior curator.

David Jolicoeur of the rap trio De La Soul died on Sunday at 54.

“The dumb money era is over.” Several prominent podcast publishers have announced layoffs since the start of the year.

Marco Goecke is no longer ballet director at Hanover’s main opera house after smearing feces on a critic's face. The reaction has “been a bit blown up,” he says.

A Morning Read

“Do you believe me? Do you trust me? Do you like me? 😳”

In a conversation between Kevin Roose, a technology correspondent for The Times, and the chatbot built into Microsoft’s search engine, things took a strange and unsettling turn, he writes: “It declared, out of nowhere, that it loved me. It then tried to convince me that I was unhappy in my marriage, and that I should leave my wife and be with it instead.”

(Read the full transcript of the conversation, and an explanation of why chatbots sometimes spout nonsense.)

For more: Microsoft is now considering tweaks and guardrails in an attempt to reel in some of its more alarming and strangely humanlike responses.


Inside Barcelona’s day of chaos as another scandal broke: The Spanish club became embroiled in a dramatic new affair on the eve of its biggest match of the season.

How would a European Super League affect women’s soccer? Amid the talk of a European Super League, what are the implications for the women’s game? And why is it an afterthought?

Is Tottenham really for sale? Who are MSP Sports Capital and Jahm Najafi? Is Tottenham even for sale, and how much could the club cost? Why could it mean disappointment for Everton?


Nigeria’s young voters

Peter Obi, an unexpected candidate with a huge youth following, could upend politics in Africa’s most populous country next week when voters elect a new president in Nigeria. Lynsey Chutel, a briefings writer who is based in Johannesburg, reached out to Fakhrriyyah Hashim, a 30-year-old activist, to find out more about the election. Her responses were lightly edited for length.

Lynsey: Nigeria’s median age is just 18. What do you think a new generation of voters is looking for in a leader?

Fakhrriyyah: The dynamics of this election are already different in that no one running for office is military or has previously served as a head of state. That was the case until 1999, but no more. Many young people identify with Peter Obi based on his age, even though he is 60, but he is still a generation younger than the two front-runners.

It is no surprise that young people have picked up their voters cards at unprecedented levels because the stakes are very high. We either get an extension of a disastrous eight years of the Buhari administration or get a new government that can reverse this path of underdevelopment that Nigerians have been accustomed to.

How did the wave of protests against police brutality and the repression that followed play into the campaign for the Feb. 25 vote?

Over time, it has forced young Nigerians to assess other means of protests that are more effective and less likely to end in direct violence. Elections offer that opportunity.


What to Cook

Make this juicy harissa chicken for dinner.

What to Read

Read your way through São Paulo, Brazil’s ultra urban megacity, with the writer Paulo Scott as your guide.


Spend 36 hours in Madrid.

Now Time to Play

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Grass bought in rolls (three letters).

And here are today’s Wordle and the Spelling Bee.

You can find all our puzzles here.

That’s it for today’s briefing. Have a vibrant weekend. — Natasha

P.S. Listen to the trailer for Serial Productions’ latest Times podcast, “The Coldest Case in Laramie.”

“The Daily” is about why Syria is receiving very little earthquake aid.

You can reach Natasha and the team at [email protected].

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