May 29, 2024

China

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Police officers photographed from the rear in front of large apartment buildings.
Police officers stood outside several apartment buildings damaged after a drone attack in Moscow on Tuesday. Credit…Kirill Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A day after a drone strike on Moscow, Kremlin officials jumped on the refusal of Ukrainian allies to denounce the attack as proof that Russia’s real war was with the West.

The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said Russia “would have preferred to hear at least some words of condemnation” from Western capitals.

“We will calmly and deliberately think how to deal with this,” he said.

While none of Ukraine’s allies went so far as to endorse the drone attack, Britain’s foreign secretary said on Tuesday that Kyiv had “the right to project force beyond its borders.”

The U.S. response was more circumspect, but it stopped short of criticizing the first military strike to hit civilian areas in the Russian capital since the start of the war. Ukraine officials have said they were not “directly involved” in the drone strike.

From the outset of the conflict, Russia has portrayed the invasion of Ukraine as a defensive war provoked by the West, and on Wednesday it seized on the attack.

Dmitri A. Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s national security council and a former president, said Britain “de facto is leading an undeclared war against Russia” by providing Ukraine with military aid and called it “our eternal enemy.”

Known since the war began for staking out extreme positions, Mr. Medvedev argued that now any British official “can be considered as a legitimate military target.”

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A man sitting at a desk in front of papers, next to a flag.
Dmitri A. Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s national security council, accused Britain of “leading an undeclared war against Russia.”Credit…Ekaterina Shtukina/Sputnik

The Russian ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, called the U.S. refusal to condemn the attack “an encouragement for Ukrainian terrorists,” his embassy said on the Telegram messaging app.

Russia has repeatedly hit civilian areas of Ukraine over the course of the war, though it has denied targeting nonmilitary sites. And in recent weeks it has turned up the barrage of missiles and attack drones aimed at Kyiv, the capital. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians, including children, have been killed in Russian airstrikes and artillery bombardments, U.N. officials say.

Though the drone strike on Tuesday was unusual, it was not the first one on Russian soil since the war began. Drones have hit military air bases deep inside Russia, as well as an oil facility near an airfield in the province of Kursk. And this month, drones exploded over the Kremlin.

The incursions continued on Wednesday, when, the Russian authorities said, Ukrainian drones attacked two oil refineries in the region of Krasnodar. They also said that four people had been injured by shelling in the border region of Belgorod.

Russia has long accused the West of waging a proxy war against it. Those claims grew louder this month when a group of Ukraine-based Russian paramilitary members staged a multiday raid in Russia’s Belgorod border region — apparently with U.S. armored vehicles.

A New York Times analysis found that at least three of what appeared to be American-made MRAPs had been part of the attack. A leader of one of the groups claimed the weapons had not been provided by the Ukrainian military.

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Damaged armored military vehicles stand in mud after a fight.
The aftermath of a cross-border raid in Russia’s Belgorod region last week. The image was released by the Russian military.Credit…Russian Defense Ministry Press Service

Russian officials have said that NATO’s decision to send weapons, which have become increasingly advance as the war has worn on, raises the risk of a direct confrontation and a potential nuclear war.

On Tuesday, President Vladimir V. Putin also made an oblique reference to this threat, calling the drone strike on Moscow an attempt “to create a response reaction from Russia.” He accused unspecified forces of trying to sabotage a Ukrainian nuclear plant occupied by Russia or to use “a type of a dirty bomb related to the nuclear industry.”

Although Western governments initially focused their military support for Ukraine on bolstering its defenses, over time, the desire to hasten an end the war has led to growing deliveries of offensive weapons to Kyiv.

Tensions between Moscow and Western capitals have worsened since the invasion, as have the economic sanctions imposed on Russia as penalty.

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The Russian president standing in an office with flags.
President Vladimir V. Putin said the drone strike in Moscow was an attempt “to create a response reaction from Russia.”Credit…Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik

At a security conference on Wednesday in Slovakia, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, said that Western allies must give Ukraine “tangible and credible” security guarantees in its battle against Russia.

“If we want a credible, durable peace, if we want to hold our own against Russia, if we want to be credible with the Ukrainians, we must give Ukraine the means to prevent any new aggression and to include Ukraine in any new security architecture,” he said in a speech.

Mr. Macron was criticized early in the war over his insistence on not antagonizing Russia, but his approach toward Mr. Putin has hardened. He also expressed regret that France and other Western European countries had failed to heed warnings from countries on the European Union’s eastern edge about Russian belligerence.

On Wednesday, Germany said it had ordered four of the five Russian Consulates in the country to close after Moscow limited the number of German diplomatic staff allowed in Russia, the latest in an escalating tit-for-tat diplomatic dispute between the two countries.

The Russian Foreign Ministry was told to start shutting down its consulates in Germany immediately and to finish by the end of the year, said Christofer Burger, a spokesman for Germany’s Foreign Ministry.

One Russian Consulate and the Russian Embassy in Berlin will be allowed to remain open.

In Sweden, the U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken met with European officials on Wednesday to discuss trade and technology issues, cracking down on exports that could aid Russia.

On Thursday, Mr. Blinken is scheduled to meet with NATO foreign ministers to discuss the alliance summit planned for July, as well as the war in Ukraine and the prospects for Swedish membership in the alliance.

In February, an oil tanker transmitted a signal showing it was sailing west of Japan.

But the tanker’s path was highly unusual. Over the course of a day, its signals showed erratic behavior as the ship rapidly changed position.

satellite image, taken during this time, deepened the mystery: There was no ship there at all.

The Cathay Phoenix was sending a fake location signal. This is known as “spoofing.”

In reality, the ship was 250 miles north loading oil at the Russian port of Kozmino, part of a journey to China that likely caused a breach of U.S. sanctions.

Sources: Planet Labs, Copernicus Sentinel-2, Maxar Technologies, ESRI, GEBCO, Spire Global, MarineTraffic

The Cathay Phoenix is not a lone rogue ship, but one of at least three tankers identified by The New York Times taking extraordinary steps to hide their true activity, a practice that helps them to elude U.S. government oversight and puts their American insurer at risk of violating recent sanctions on Russian crude oil.

For years, ships wanting to hide their whereabouts have resorted to turning off the transponders all large vessels use to signal their location. But the tankers tracked by The Times go beyond this, using cutting-edge spoofing technology to make it appear they’re in one location when they’re really somewhere else.

During at least 13 voyages, the three tankers pretended to be sailing west of Japan. In reality, they were at terminals in Russia and shipping oil to China.

The vessels are part of a so-called dark fleet, a loose term used to describe a hodgepodge array of ships that obscure their locations or identities to avoid oversight from governments and business partners. They have typically been involved in moving oil from Venezuela or Iran — two countries that have also been hit by international sanctions. The latest surge of dark fleet ships began after Russia invaded Ukraine and the West tried to limit Moscow’s oil revenue with sanctions.

“The type of spoofing we are seeing is uncommon and sophisticated,” said David Tannenbaum, a former sanctions compliance officer at the U.S. Treasury, referring to the tankers identified by The Times. “It definitely looks like evasion on all parts.”

To date, it’s been rare to prove the true location of a ship pretending to be somewhere else. But a Times analysis of publicly available shipping data, satellite imagery and social media footage helped clearly establish that the tankers were not where they claimed to be.

The ships most likely sell their Russian oil to China above a price limit set by the sanctions. Since neither country recognizes the sanctions, the tankers themselves are not in violation by spoofing or carrying the oil.

But the tankers still have motive to spoof: to maintain their insurance coverage, without which they cannot operate in most major ports. The only insurers financially able to cover tankers are mostly based in the West and bound by the sanctions. If a client ship were to carry Russian oil that’s sold above the price limit, the Western insurer would be in violation of the sanctions and must drop its coverage.

“It’s significant when you look at dollar terms,” said Samir Madani, co-founder of TankerTrackers.com, which monitors global shipping, who first alerted The Times to several of the suspicious ships. “It’s around $1 billion worth of oil that is going under the radar while using Western insurance, and they’re using spoofing in order to preserve their Western insurance.”

In addition to the three tankers transporting oil, Times reporters tracked another three vessels spoofing while off the coast of Russia, though it’s unclear what cargo they carried.

All six tankers are insured by a U.S.-based company, the American Club. The Times provided the company with the names of the tankers, as well as details about the voyages on which they spoofed.

In an emailed response, Daniel Tadros, the American Club’s chief operating officer, said he could not comment on any potential investigations because of legal and privacy requirements. “Insurance cover is automatically excluded in the event of sanctions’ violations,” he said.

The U.S. has also created so-called safe harbor provisions to protect insurers from liability if they inadvertently cover ships violating sanctions. As of May 30, a regularly updated list of American Club’s clients posted on its website showed the company is most likely still insuring the six tankers.

There has been at least one change since The Times approached the company with evidence of spoofing. The website had said the Cathay Phoenix’s current policy would expire in February 2024. But recently, the expiration date suddenly shifted much earlier to June 2023. The company would not comment on the reason for the change.

Performances across the country were canceled last week

A person walks in front of a building with bright yellow facade and a sign saying “You are part of the show.”The cancellations rippled across the country: A Japanese choral band touring China, stand-up comedy shows in several cities, jazz shows in Beijing. In the span of a few days, the performances were among more than a dozen that were abruptly called off — some just minutes before they were supposed to begin — with virtually no explanation.

Just before the performances were scrapped, the authorities in Beijing had fined a Chinese comedy studio around $2 million, after one of its stand-up performers was accused of insulting the Chinese military in a joke; the police in northern China also detained a woman who had defended the comedian online.

Those penalties, and the sudden spate of cancellations that followed, point to the growing scrutiny of China’s already heavily censored creative landscape. China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has made arts and culture a central arena for ideological crackdowns, demanding that artists align their creative ambitions with Chinese Communist Party goals and promote a nationalist vision of Chinese identity. Performers must submit scripts or set lists for vetting, and publications are closely monitored.

On Tuesday, Mr. Xi sent a letter to the National Art Museum of China for its 60th anniversary, reminding staff to “adhere to the correct political orientation.”

Mr. Xi’s emphasis on the arts is also part of a broader preoccupation with national security and eliminating supposedly malign foreign influence. The authorities in recent weeks have raided the corporate offices of several Western consulting or advisory companies based in China, and broadened the range of behaviors covered under counterespionage laws.

Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, sent a letter to the National Art Museum of China on Tuesday reminding staff there to “adhere to the correct political orientation.

Many of the canceled events were supposed to feature foreign performers or speakers.

It was only to be expected that Beijing would also look to the cultural realm, as its deteriorating relationship with the West has made it more fixated on maintaining its grip on power at home, said Zhang Ping, a former journalist and political commentator in China who now lives in Germany.

“One way to respond to anxiety about power is to increase control,” said Mr. Zhang, who writes under the pen name Chang Ping. “Dictatorships have always sought to control people’s entertainment, speech, laughter and tears.”

While the party has long regulated the arts — one target of the Cultural Revolution was creative work deemed insufficiently “revolutionary” — the intensity has increased sharply under Mr. Xi. In 2021, a state-backed performing arts association published a list of morality guidelines for artists, which included prescriptions for patriotism. The same year, the government banned “sissy men” from appearing on television, accusing them of weakening the nation.

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A bookstore in Zibo, China. Literature is closely regulated by the authorities.Credit…Qilai Shen for The New York Times

Officials have also taken notice of stand-up comedy, which has gained popularity in recent years and offered a rare medium for limited barbs about life in contemporary China. The government fined a comedian for making jokes about last year’s coronavirus lockdown in Shanghai. People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, published a commentary in November that said jokes had to be “moderate” and noted that stand-up as an art form was a foreign import; the Chinese name for stand-up, “tuo kou xiu,” is itself a transliteration from “talk show.”

The recent crackdown began after an anonymous social media user complained about a set that a popular stand-up comedian, Li Haoshi, performed in Beijing on May 13. Mr. Li, who uses the stage name House, had said that watching his two adopted stray dogs chase a squirrel reminded him of a Chinese military slogan: “Maintain exemplary conduct, fight to win.” The user suggested that Mr. Li had slanderously compared soldiers to wild dogs.

Outrage grew among nationalist social media users, and the authorities quickly piled on. In addition to fining Xiaoguo Culture Media, the firm that manages Mr. Li, the authorities — who said the joke had a “vile societal impact” — indefinitely suspended the company’s performances in Beijing and Shanghai. Xiaoguo fired Mr. Li, and the Beijing police said they were investigating him.

Within hours of the penalty being announced on Wednesday, organizers of stand-up shows in Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and eastern Shandong Province canceled their performances. A few days later, Chinese social media platforms suspended the accounts of Uncle Roger, a Britain-based Malaysian comic whose real name is Nigel Ng; Mr. Ng had posted a video poking fun at the Chinese government on Twitter (which is banned in mainland China).

But the apparent fallout was not limited to comedy. Scheduled musical performances began disappearing, too, including a stop in southern China by a Shanghai rock band that includes foreign members, a Beijing folk music festival and several jazz performances, and a Canadian rapper’s show in the southern city of Changsha.

The frontman of a Buddhist-influenced Japanese chorus group, Kissaquo, said last Wednesday that his concert that night in the southern city of Guangzhou had been canceled. Hours later, the frontman, Kanho Yakushiji, said a performance in Hangzhou, in eastern China, had been canceled, too. And the next day, he announced that Beijing and Shanghai shows had also been called off.

“I was writing a set list, but I stopped in the middle,” Mr. Yakushiji, whose management company did not respond to a request for comment, wrote on his Facebook page. “I still don’t understand what the meaning of all this is. I have nothing but regrets.”

Organizers’ announcements for nearly all of the canceled events cited “force majeure,” a term that means circumstances beyond one’s control — and, in China, has often been used as shorthand for government pressure.

Stand-up show organizers did not return requests for comment. Several organizers of canceled musical performances denied that they had been told not to feature foreigners. An employee at a Nanjing music venue that canceled a tribute to the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto said not enough tickets had been sold.

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A Chinese rock band concert in Qinhuangdao, China, last year. Scheduled musical performances have been canceled, with organizers citing “force majeure.”Credit…Wu Hao/EPA, via Shutterstock

Some of the foreign musicians whose shows were canceled have since been able to perform in other cities or at other venues.

But a foreign musician in Beijing, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said his band was scheduled to play at a bar on Sunday and was told by the venue several days before that the gig was canceled because featuring foreigners would bring trouble.

Lynette Ong, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Toronto, said it was unlikely that the central government had issued direct instructions to spur the recent cultural crackdowns. Local governments or venue owners, conscious of how the political environment had changed, were likely being especially cautious, she said.

“In Xi’s China, people are so scared and fearful that they become extremely risk-averse,” she said. “Overall, it’s a very paranoid party.”

In the past, when nationalism has gone to extremes, or local officials overzealously enforced the rules, the central government would eventually step in to cool down the rhetoric, in part to preserve economic or diplomatic relationships. But Professor Ong said Beijing’s current emphasis on security above all would give it no reason to intervene here.

“If people don’t watch comedy, there’s no loss for the party,” she said.

Joy Dong and Li You contributed research.

Vivian Wang is a China correspondent based in Beijing, where she writes about how the country’s global rise and ambitions are shaping the daily lives of its people. @vwang3

ek after Beijing began investigating a stand-up comedian. Cultural Crackdown in China Shuts Comedy and Music Shows