The battle behind the scenes in Ukraine

🦺 Wearable airbags | 🖼 AI game | 🪙 Vanishing pennies

In the headlines

Russia’s defence ministry claims that 74 people, mostly Ukrainian prisoners of war, have been killed after a military plane went down near the border between the two countries. Kyiv says the aircraft was actually carrying missiles, and that Russian claims about POWs are an attempt to “save face”. Donald Trump won the New Hampshire primary last night, further cementing his grip on the Republican presidential nomination. His last major challenger, Nikki Haley, said she wouldn’t drop out before the next vote, in a month’s time in her home state of South Carolina. A group of foul-mouthed parrots is being transferred to a bigger flock in the hope it will clean up their language. Lincolnshire Wildlife Park said it took the decision after five African greys taught three more birds to swear, but acknowledged it was a risk: “We could end up with 100 swearing parrots.”

Some of the potty-mouthed parrots at Lincolnshire Wildlife Park


A sign outside a polling station during local “elections” in occupied Donetsk in September. AFP/Getty

The battle behind the scenes in Ukraine

While the West squabbles over how much aid to send to Ukraine, says David Lewis in Foreign Affairs, Russia has been “quietly consolidating” its control over the roughly 18% of the country that it now occupies. An “army of technocrats” is overseeing the complete absorption of these territories, in an effort to “create facts on the ground” that make it impossible for Kyiv to wrest back control, either militarily or in peace negotiations. And the Russians are doing a remarkably effective job. More than half the pre-war population of newly occupied regions fled when Russia invaded, but almost 90% of the remaining residents – around three million people – now have Russian passports.

Russian visitors report “quiet hostility” from the locals, and every few weeks news of a car-bombing aimed at Russian officers or local collaborators reminds the public that an armed resistance persists. But for most Ukrainians, every decision is perilous. Show too little enthusiasm for the occupiers and you risk ending up in “the basement” – the local term for Russian detention. But if you’re too keen, you could be pinned as a collaborator after the war. Schools have switched to the Russian curriculum, taught in Russian, with Ukrainian “reduced to an optional second language”. Pupils sing the Russian national anthem every week, and older kids are taught from new history textbooks that say Kyiv is run by neo-Nazis. Moscow is betting that, in the long term, “Ukrainian children in these areas will become socialised as patriotic Russians”. It may be proved right.

Tomorrow’s world

A Chinese startup has invented a “wearable airbag”, says My Modern Met. The snappily named Suzhou Yidaibao Intelligent Technology Co says the idea is to stop older folks from hurting themselves when they fall over. The protective outerwear, which looks a bit like a bulletproof vest, uses special sensors to predict whether a sudden movement is going to result in a fall, and deploys the airbags if it decides you’re on your way down. Get yours here.

On the money

Despite Western sanctions, British firms are finding ways to profit from the trade that funds Vladimir Putin’s war machine, says The New Statesman. Since the Ukraine invasion, companies in the UK have insured the shipping of “more than €120bn in Russian oil and oil products”, often on “dark” vessels registered in opaque jurisdictions such as Panama or the Marshall Islands. One London shipping broker was heard at a Christmas party “boasting about the number of tankers he’d sold to Russian-backed entities”.

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Gone viral

This video of an excitable penguin waking a sea lion from its slumber – and then scarpering, sharpish – has racked up more than 168,000 views on X (formerly Twitter).


Trump welcoming India’s PM to the 2019 “Howdy, Modi” event in Texas. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

Here’s something populist leaders get right

One uncomfortable fact liberals must accept about Donald Trump, says Janan Ganesh in the FT, is that he oversaw a non-inflationary economic boom as president. Sure, this was partly an “accident of timing”: he inherited a benign economy and was long gone before the invasion of Ukraine gummed up global trade. But he didn’t squander his luck – four years of “rule-breaking and mob-rousing” didn’t lower US living standards. It’s a similar story with Narendra Modi, under whom India’s economy has gone from being the 10th largest in the world to the fifth largest. Again, that growth might have happened anyway. But as with Trump, “Modi’s alleged authoritarianism didn’t stop it”.

“This is the liberal nightmare: not that populists abolish democracy to remain in power, but that they perform well enough not to have to.” Populism, after all, should be “bad economics”. It sets itself against people and ideas traditionally conducive to growth: immigrants, who expand the workforce; judges, who enforce the rule of law; technocrats, who set interest rates; and free trade. Yet here we are. With the possible exception of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, there are very few examples of populists defined by economic failure. Italy is doing fine under Giorgia Meloni; Benjamin Netanyahu has been “feted” for Israel’s economic performance. For many of us, this poses a significant “ideological challenge”. It was awkward enough that China managed to become rich without becoming a democracy. “If existing democracies become authoritarian without getting poorer, even the sunniest liberal will feel night closing in.”


Twin Pics is a new game where players have to use AI to recreate an image as precisely as possible – by describing it using just 33 characters. There are then two opportunities to “tweak” the prompt to get closer to the target picture, after which the game presents a final score. Try for yourself here.

On the way out

The 1p coin, which inflation is turning into an irrelevance. When British currency was decimalised in 1971, says The Economist, the spending power of the penny was about 10 times what it is today. Other challenges include contactless payments replacing the use of physical money, and retailers increasingly ending prices with zeros and fives rather than the once ubiquitous “99”. In the 2000s, more than half a billion pennies were minted annually; in 2022, only 30 million were.


Snapshot answer

It’s an AI-powered hologram set-up at Loughborough University, which allows professors to be beamed into lectures from miles away. Loughborough is the first university in Europe to trial the tech, and already has plans to invite sports scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to deliver long-distance talks. Students “absolutely love” the device, according to one professor, and have been “begging for selfies”.


“The most awful thing of all is to be numb.”
Elizabeth Taylor

That’s it. You’re done.