France says Russia and Ukraine to meet soon, sees ‘path to de-escalation’

The Wednesday meeting in Paris, yet to be confirmed by Moscow, was reported by AFP citing the Élysée on Monday

Officials from Moscow and Kiev will meet in Paris on Wednesday, an aide to French President Emmanuel Macron told AFP on Monday on the condition of anonymity, adding that he sees a “path to de-escalation” ahead of the expected “Normandy Four” meeting between France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine.

Macron “thinks there is space for diplomacy, a path to de-escalation,” the aide told AFP on Monday. He added that Macron would speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin “in the coming days,” but did not specify if it would happen before or after the Paris meeting.

The meeting itself would see one of Russia’s deputy prime ministers and a senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sitting down at the negotiating table together with diplomatic advisers to Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, according to the aide. Moscow has not confirmed whether it’s taking part in the talks and who would be representing Russia there at the time of writing.

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© Getty Images / pvachier
EU urges against ‘nervous breakdown’ over Ukraine

The French official told journalists that Paris is “very worried” about Russia supposedly building up troops on the border with Ukraine and would very much like to “avoid creating any ambiguity or creating any additional volatility.”

According to the aide, France has a diplomatic “solution” to the ongoing tense situation in Europe. It would involve the Ukrainian parliament delaying a legislation on the status of the breakaway eastern Ukrainian territories, which Moscow says violates Kiev’s previous commitments under the Minsk Agreements. 

Russia, in turn, is expected to back some “humanitarian measures,” such as prisoner exchanges between Ukraine and the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, which have been de-facto independent from Kiev ever since the civil war of 2014, but not officially recognized.

Paris would also push for a “public statement from the Russians about their intentions that reassures everyone,” the French official said. Moscow has repeatedly denied harboring any plans of attacking Ukraine –  something that Washington and its European allies have been accusing Russia of over the recent months.

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EU responds to US evacuation from Ukraine

However, after Washington and London ordered the evacuation of their embassies’ staff in Kiev on Monday, top Ukrainian officials went on the record to say there was “no panic” and that there was no evidence of an impending all-out invasion.

Kiev has confirmed it will take part in the meeting in Paris over the weekend. The head of the Ukrainian president’s office, Mikhail Podolyak, told the Ukrainian UNIAN news agency on Saturday that the sides had agreed to hold the “Normandy Four” meeting on January 26.

While Moscow has not officially confirmed the talks, a source within the Russian presidential administration told TASS news agency that the administration’s deputy head, Dmitry Kozak, might take part in the talks.

The news comes as Russia is still waiting for a written US response to its security proposals aimed at easing the tensions in Europe. Washington is expected to present the response later this week, according to the US State Department.


Pentagon reveals number of US troops on higher alert over Ukraine

Some 8,500 US troops have been told to be ready, but no decision to deploy them yet, the Pentagon said

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has placed 8,500 troops on “heightened preparedness to deploy” to Europe in case NATO decides to activate its rapid-response force over the ongoing situation in Ukraine, the Pentagon said Monday.

The troops have been placed on “higher alert only” and “no final decision has been made to deploy them,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

The deployment may happen if and when NATO decides to activate its rapid response force (NRF), which consists of about 40,000 troops from various member countries. Kirby said the US maintains “significant combat capable forces forward in Europe to deter aggression.”

Earlier in the day, the New York Times reported that the White House was considering a plan to send between 1,000 and 5,000 troops to the Baltics and Eastern Europe as a way to deter Russia from “invading” Ukraine. US intelligence has claimed an invasion was imminent since late October. Moscow has dismissed the accusation as “fake news.”

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FILE PHOTO: Members of the US Army 173rd Airborne Brigade disembark upon their arrival by plane at a Polish air force base in Swidwin, Poland. © Sean Gallup / Getty Images
Massive US troop deployment plans revealed – media

While there is no specific mission for the troops that have been alerted, Kirby said the Pentagon hopes to be able to deploy “additional brigade combat teams, logistics personnel, medical support, aviation support, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” if required.

Meanwhile, the US has sent more military aid to Ukraine last week than ever before in a single year, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters. He added that the US will submit its written response to Moscow’s security proposals sometime this week. 

Though the US hopes to work together with Russia in some unspecified areas, Price said there was “no trade space, absolutely none” on the issue of further NATO expansion. This was the key “red line” in Moscow’s proposal, however.

As the US and UK began evacuating some staff and dependents from their embassies in Kiev, the government of Ukraine said Monday there was “no need to panic” and that there was, in fact, no threat from a Russian invasion in the near future.


EU urges against ‘nervous breakdown’ over Ukraine

Nothing to suggest ‘imminent’ Russian invasion, says top diplomat

The EU strongly supports the government in Kiev against the alleged impending Russian invasion, but there is no reason to believe one is imminent, the bloc’s top diplomat told reporters after consultations with Washington.

There are “no new elements” that would raise fears of an imminent attack by Russia, EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said Monday. He spoke to reporters after the EU Council of Foreign Ministers meeting, in which they were briefed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Now is not the time for a “nervous breakdown” over Ukraine, the EU diplomat said. He also noted that the US secretary of state clarified media reports about “evacuations” from Kiev to his European colleagues.

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EU responds to US evacuation from Ukraine

“Blinken told us it was not an evacuation. It was non-essential staff being told they are free to decide to leave the country if they want to,” Borrell said. The EU said earlier it had no plans to evacuate its diplomats from Kiev.

US President Joe Biden is expected to hold a secure video call on the topic of Ukraine, with leaders of EU, France, UK, Germany, Italy, and NATO on Monday afternoon.

Blinken “consulted” his EU colleagues on the written response the US is preparing to deliver to Russia regarding Moscow’s proposals for European security, Borrell said. 

He also told reporters that a group of European Parliament members will travel to Kiev on January 30, and that the EU is considering holding a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers there as well, “to show our solidarity and commitment to Ukraine.”


Google accused in new lawsuit of ‘invading’ user privacy

The attorneys general for three states and Washington DC claim the tech giant used “deceptive and unfair” practices

The attorneys general for Texas, Indiana, Washington, and the District of Columbia have filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming it  used “deceptive and unfair” practices in obtaining users’ location data. 

Karl A. Racine, attorney general for the District of Columbia, announced in a statement on Monday that the lawsuit was seeking to end Google’s “illegal use of ‘dark patterns’” and to “claw back profits made from location data.”

Racine claims Google has surveilled users’ information since 2014, regardless of their privacy settings, creating a deceptive illusion that data is not being tracked. The lawsuit claims that if Google users turned off their location data, they were sent notifications that tried to trick them into sharing it again. 

“By repeatedly ‘nudging’ users to enable Google Account settings, Google increases the chances that a user will enable the setting inadvertently or out of frustration,” the lawsuit states. 

READ MORE: Apple fined over dating apps

It also accuses the tech company of deploying “misleading, ambiguous, and incomplete descriptions” of certain privacy settings and updates, leading many to share data without the knowledge they are doing so. 

These practices “harm consumers who wish to protect their sensitive location information” from Google and its advertising companies, the attorneys general wrote. 

Google has denied the accusations, saying the lawsuit presents “inaccurate claims and outdated assertions about our settings.” They promised to “vigorously” defend themselves against the charges. 


Vaccinated Zlatan weighs in on Djokovic row

The football icon got shots because 'the vaccine protects me'

Embattled tennis superstar Novak Djokovic should only have taken a Covid vaccine because he felt it would protect him, Sweden football legend Zlatan Ibrahimovic has argued.

Unvaccinated Djokovic found himself at the center of a diplomatic storm as the Australian government succeeded with its second attempt to cancel his visa following his arrival for the Australian Open under the belief that he would be granted a medical exemption from vaccination requirements.

The reigning champion was banished from Australia without being able to defend his title in Melbourne after Minister for Immigration Alex Hawke's intervention was controversially upheld by a court.

Former Manchester United and Inter Milan talisman Ibrahimovic believes Djokovic's predicament is an example of the need for people not to be forced into taking vaccines in order to work.

That has been a thorny topic in places such as New York, where private sector employers in the city are required to enforce a mandatory vaccination policy for workers in a country where president Joe Biden's ruling administration has repeatedly urged citizens to take shots.

"People shouldn't be forced to get vaccinated just to get to work," said Ibrahimovic, who was lauded by Djokovic as a symbol of the "Balkan mentality" last year and an example of a veteran extending their career at the top level, speaking to Le Journal du Dimanche.

"Those who get a vaccine do it because they believe in it, because they think it is effective against the disease.

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Reigning champion Novak Djokovic is absent in Melbourne. © Getty Images
Aussie politician shuts down Djokovic return, claims ‘great success’ without Serb

"Everyone has their own opinion. I got vaccinated because I think the vaccine protects me, not to be able to play football. They are two different situations."

Former Paris Saint-Germain striker Ibrahimovic was asked why PSG have not won the Champions League yet and gave his opinions on boss Mauricio Pochettino, who is in charge of a galaxy of stars including Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe in attack.

"Coaching and managing such a talented squad is not easy," he reasoned. "From what I can see, PSG is doing what it has to do.

"Leading the world is not done in twenty-four hours. It's a marathon with ups and downs. Chelsea took [nine years to win the Champions League] after being bought by Roman Abramovich."

The AC Milan forward had a typically self-assured soundbite to offer about a potential return to the Ligue 1 leaders, saying: "The day I want to be sporting director of PSG, I will be."


Military claims power in Burkina Faso coup

Members of the African nation’s military say they’ve deposed the president, seized control, and suspended the constitution

Members of Burkina Faso’s military appeared on state television channel, RTB, on Monday, claiming to have seized control of the West African nation. The soldiers said that they had suspended the constitution due to the failure of Kaboré to unite the country and stop a wave of nationwide jihadist attacks.

Kaboré’s whereabouts are currently unknown, but he was reportedly detained by the soldiers on Sunday night, the AFP news agency reported. Although heavy gunfire was reported throughout the capital, Ouagadougou, on Sunday night, the government denied a coup attempt was underway or that Kaboré had been detained. A news headline on RTB on Sunday described the gunfire as isolated “acts of discontent by soldiers,” and insisted that “the military hierarchy is working to restore calm and serenity in the barracks,” according to the AP news agency. 

Some of the soldiers told AP they had planned the mutiny since August, and were angered by the apparent failure of Kaboré to commit more manpower and resources to the fight against jihadism. As gunfire rang out in Ouagadougou, civilians reportedly protested in solidarity with the soldiers.

In a statement released on Monday, Kaboré’s political party, the People's Movement for Progress, claimed the president had survived an “aborted assassination attempt” during the coup, and that his home had been ransacked. The party gave no further information as to his whereabouts.

Kaboré has led Burkina Faso since 2015, when he was elected to replace ousted president Blaise Compaoré, who had been in power since 1987. Kaboré was re-elected in November 2020, but has come under increasing pressure since then to tackle the jihadist violence that has plagued Burkina Faso and the wider Sahel region since 2016, predominantly led by Boko Haram and local offshoots of Al-Qaeda.


Politician named by Britain as future Ukrainian leader responds to claims

The politician named by British spooks as a “potential candidate” in the event of a Russian coup will take legal action

Evgeniy Murayev, a Ukrainian politician whom the British government has accused of conspiring with Moscow to take over the country in the event of a full-blown invasion, has called the allegation an “absurd but very damaging fantasy,” and said he will take legal action.

Speaking to London’s The Independent this weekend, Murayev said that UK authorities had not presented any evidence to support their accusation, and that he was prepared to travel to Britain to take legal action to defend his name, and to publicly debate the claim with British ministers.

The former MP, who also owns media assets in Ukraine, told the newspaper that when he first got wind of the allegation, he thought it was “fake news.”

READ MORE: Ruble tumbles as Ukraine tensions rumble

“But I woke up in the morning to discover that I am now supposedly the man who would be leading a Ukrainian government after a Russian invasion,” he went on. “This raises lots of questions. Will I still remain sanctioned by Russia while leading their government in Kiev? Will I get to meet Mr Putin, who I have never met in my life? Or will I get arrested if I arrive in Moscow while still under sanctions?”

“This is all fantasy of course,” Murayev continued. “But it is dangerous and divisive when people are trying hard to prevent a war. Personally these accusations have led to hundreds of threats on social media against my life and that of my family.”

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A Ukrainian flag flies at the top of the parliament in Kiev. © AFP / Sergei Supinsky Sergei Supinsky
UK accuses Russia of working to install pro-Moscow leader in Ukraine

The politician said he did not know why Britain had made the accusations, but speculated that the Foreign Office had been given “misinformation by some elements in Ukraine.” Murayev has been known for his criticism of current Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, and has appeared on his own television networks to speak out against the current government. In 2019, he failed to earn a seat in parliament when his party didn’t pass the 5% nationwide vote threshold.

RT published the bombshell allegations from British officials on Saturday, citing a leaked memo in which London accused the Kremlin of plotting to install Murayev or another supposedly Russia-friendly leader as the head of a new government in Kiev. The allegations are said to be based on declassified intelligence and authorities did not provide details on the source of the information or how they thought Russia was plotting to carry out the plan.

Moscow’s Foreign Ministry has since responded, accusing the UK of “spreading nonsense” and exacerbating difficulties in Ukraine. “The disinformation spread by the UK Foreign Office is yet more evidence that it is NATO countries, foremost the Anglo-Saxons, who are escalating tensions around Ukraine,” the ministry wrote in a statement.

Ukrainian and Western leaders have been warning for months that they fear Russia is planning an imminent invasion of its neighbor, which the Kremlin has repeatedly denied. Moscow, meanwhile, has asked for written security guarantees, including promises that NATO, the US-led military bloc, will not expand into Ukraine, and has threatened unspecified “military-technical measures” if its demands are not met.


NBA icon suspended by college team for refusing mask mandate

Hall-of-famer John Stockton has been barred from attending games at his former college team for his opposition to a mask mandate

John Stockton, the former Utah Jazz standout and ten-time NBA All-Star, has been banished from watching his former college team, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, due to his refusal to obey a school rule which requires attendees to wear a face covering at all times. 

Stockton, whose famous number 12 jersey has been 'retired' by the school in an official nod to his achievements on the basketball court, told The Spokesman-Review that a "congenial" but "not pleasant" conversation had taken place with Gonzaga athletic director Chris Standiford.

The 59-year-old, who played his entire 19-year professional career with the Jazz and helped his team qualify for the playoffs in every season he was with the team, had previously come under fire for speaking in a video in which he made clear his opposition to various restrictions put in place in the United States to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

"Basically, it came down to they were asking me to wear a mask to the games – and being a public figure, someone a little bit more visible, I stuck out in the crowd a little bit," Stockton said. 

"And therefore they received complaints and felt like from whatever the higher-ups – those weren't discussed, but from whatever it was higher up – they were going to have to either ask me to wear a mask or they were going to suspend my tickets."

The school and its athletic director have refused to comment specifically on suspending Stockton's tickets to attend games indefinitely, but said in a statement that any actions taken are to safeguard the health and safety of attendees – who are required to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test from the previous 72 hours to gain entry to their arena.

"We will not speak to specific actions taken with any specific individuals," Gonzaga announced in a statement.

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Dr Anthony Fauci and Joe Biden have issued warnings about wearing masks on planes © Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters
Police met NBA legend off flight over mask saga following Fauci warning – report

"We take enforcement of Covid-19 health and safety protocols seriously and will continue to evaluate how we can best mitigate the risks posed by Covid-19 with appropriate measures.

"The recent decision to suspend concessions in McCarthey Athletic Center is an example of this approach. Gonzaga University places the highest priority on protecting the health and safety of students, employees and the community."

Stockton, meanwhile, added that he felt the furor has strained his relationship with the school where he played for four years and still holds the record all-time steals and steals per game.

"I've been part of this campus since I was probably five or six years old," he reflected. "I was just born a couple blocks away and sneaking into the gym and selling programs to get into games since I was a small boy.

"So it's strained but not broken and I'm sure we'll get through it – but it's not without some conflict."


Ireland protests about Russian warship plan

Ireland’s says it cannot stop the drills, which are to take place in its exclusive economic zone

Russia’s intention to deploy warships in marine exercises off the Irish coast has come under fire from Dublin, with the nation’s foreign minister arguing they are a step too far when tensions across Europe are so high.

Speaking to reporters on Monday in Brussels, Simon Coveney said he had warned the Russian ambassador that the training exercises were not “welcomed” by the Irish government. However, he acknowledged that officials “don’t have the power to prevent this happening.”

The Russian battleships will participate in live-fire sea drills that are part of a wider series of separate exercises in the Mediterranean and North Seas, and the Northeast Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. More than 140 warships and support vessels and around 10,000 troops are expected to take part.

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Credit: Russia’s Ministry of Defense
Russian Navy warships embark on ‘long-distance’ mission amid NATO tensions (VIDEO)

While the diplomat acknowledged that February’s exercises 240km (150 miles) off the southwest coast of Ireland will take place in international waters, it noted that those waters fall within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

“Russia, under the International Law of the Sea, can of course undertake military exercises in international waters, but it’s the fact that they’re choosing to do it on the western borders, if you like, of the EU off the Irish coast,” Coveney continued.

“This isn’t the time to increase military activity and tension in the context of what’s happening with Ukraine at the moment, and so I think it’s important that I brief my colleagues on those intentions,” he said.

The minister said the European Union was ready to impose a “severe” range of sanctions and restrictions on Moscow in the event of its armed forces staging an incursion into Ukraine.

Coveney’s remarks come amid concerns expressed by Western officials in recent weeks that Russia is amassing its troops and hardware along the shared border ahead of invading its neighbor, which the Kremlin has repeatedly denied.

Instead, Moscow has accused the West of creating a precarious situation in the Eastern European nation. In November, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that, in Ukraine, “more and more forces and equipment are being accumulated on the line of contact in the Donbass, supported by an increasing number of Western instructors.”


Ukraine reveals new plan for its spies

Volodymyr Zelensky has urged his intelligence services to get on the front foot

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said his government’s counterespionage operations have been refined, and it’s now time for foreign intelligence to take “offensive action” to protect the nation’s interests.

Zelensky made the announcement in an address on Monday, the country’s annual Foreign Intelligence Day, praising the efforts of Ukrainian spies and encouraging them to set their sights even higher.

“Today our government is combating incredibly dangerous threats, including threats to our sovereignty, our territorial integrity, and our unity,” the president stated. “Effective intelligence has played an extremely important role during this decisive period.”

“We have learned how to fight back against foreign aggression effectively enough,” he continued. “I am convinced that now is the time to move on to offensive action to protect our national interests. You have the experience and the opportunity to enact this strategy. Intellect, the ability to find unconventional solutions to difficult problems, courage, and selflessness will continue to be every intelligence officer’s instruments in working for the benefit of our government.”

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FILE PHOTO. © Sean Gallup / Getty Images
Russia responds to British ‘coup’ allegations

Zelensky emphasized the importance of collecting quality intelligence, saying that “our citizens are united by the goal of returning our territory and the wish for peace for our independent government. Therefore, much depends on you: Our information must be accurate and up-to-date.”

The remarks come as Ukrainian intelligence services, together with Western officials, have been warning for months that they fear imminent invasion by Russia, an accusation that the Kremlin has repeatedly denied. Moscow, meanwhile, has accused the West of using “Russian aggression” as an excuse to increase NATO activity in the region.

This weekend, the British government announced that it had uncovered a Kremlin plot to stage a coup in Kiev and install a Russian-friendly leader. The UK did not provide details of its sources for the accusation or how Moscow would put the plan into action. Russia’s Foreign Ministry described the claim as “nonsense” and accused the West of intentionally escalating tensions.


Roscosmos reveals carnage of Tonga eruption in before & after photos

A Russian satellite captured the scale of the devastation from space, showing an island completely obliterated

An image posted online by Russian space agency Roscosmos has revealed the devastation caused by the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai volcano last week, comparing the border of the two islands before and after the disaster.

A satelite view shows the remains of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Haʻapai following a volcanic eruption © Roscosmos

Located 65km (40 miles) south of Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu, Hunga Tonga and Hunga Haʻapai were two separate islands connected by land that formed when a powerful submarine volcano erupted in 2015. However, following last week’s explosive eruption, Roscosmos’ imagery shows only a fraction of both islands remains, with significant chunks of both isles, plus the volcanic land in between, wiped out.

NASA said the eruption, which devastated Tonga and sent tsunami waves as far as California, was “hundreds of times” more powerful than the atomic bomb that flattened Hiroshima in 1945.

READ MORE: ‘Worst ecological disaster’ triggered by Hunga Tonga volcano off Peru coast

“This is a preliminary estimate, but we think the amount of energy released by the eruption was equivalent to somewhere between 4 to 18 megatons of TNT,” the chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Jim Garvin, said in a post on the agency’s website.

Such an explosion is “hundreds of times the equivalent mechanical energy of the Hiroshima nuclear explosion,” NASA stated.


Washington urges US citizens to avoid Russia

Americans should not visit “due to ongoing tension along the border with Ukraine”

Americans should avoid visiting Russia because of the current Ukrainian crisis, Covid-19, and alleged “harassment by Russian government security officials,” among other reasons, the US State Department said on Sunday.

The agency issued a “Do Not Travel” advisory message, noting that the US government’s ability “to provide routine or emergency services” is “severely limited.”

“Due to Russia’s heightened military presence and ongoing military exercises along the border region with Ukraine, US citizens located in or considering travel to the districts of the Russian Federation immediately bordering Ukraine should be aware that the situation along the border is unpredictable and there is heightened tension,” the State Department’s advisory states, also noting a potential risk of terrorism, harassment, and “the arbitrary enforcement of local law.”

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EU responds to US evacuation from Ukraine

Washington has also put Ukraine on its “Do Not Travel” list “due to the increased threats of Russian military action and COVID-19.” The families of US diplomats have been ordered to leave Ukraine, while some embassy staffers were authorized to depart on a “voluntary” basis.

The US warning comes as tensions between Russia and Ukraine remain at an all-time high. In recent months, Western media outlets and politicians have accused Moscow of concentrating troops and military equipment on the border with Ukraine, allegedly with a view to launching an offensive in the near future.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied the claims, stating that Russia is simply moving its armed forces within its territory and that reports of an attack are groundless.


Russian TikToker explains why she showed her toddler to a giant bear (VIDEOS)

Police are investigating starlet Lera Izumrud for animal cruelty and endangering a child

Moscow Region prosecutors announced on Monday they are investigating social media star Lena Izumrud, real name Valeria Tatarintseva, over videos that showed her leading a muzzled bear into her apartment block to entertain her one-year-old son Mark.

The investigation will probe Tatarintseva for potential animal mistreatment and child endangerment offenses.

In a series of videos posted to her TikTok account but since deleted, Tatarintseva the beast through the streets of the suburb of Mytishchi and into her apartment. 

“Finally, the day has come! Today, a real bear in my house!” she exclaims. “I can’t believe that! He’s so cool and kind!... let’s look at Mark’s reaction, I hope he likes it!"

Once inside, Tatarintseva hugs the bear as the 200kg creature rolls around on its back and mouths her arms, claws inches from the vlogger’s face.

The video gained hundreds of thousands of views, but also attracted the attention of law enforcement, as well as her neighbors. “This is a wild animal, it does not belong in an apartment building,” one neighbor told “If something provokes the animal, it could lead to terrible consequences.”

With an investigation looming and TikTok deleting her videos, a tearful Tatarinseva took to the video-sharing platform to express remorse that she couldn’t give her viewers what they wanted, which was apparently videos of the bear making itself at home in the apartment.

“Guys, sorry for my tears. I’m just very upset. I promised you to bring a bear to my home, and I delivered. I put the video on TikTok, it scored 700K views and then the counter stopped,” she said, claiming that the videos had been marked as “dangerous” by TikTok and hidden for all but her most “active” subscribers.


Minister says ‘thank you & goodbye’ over Covid-19 row

Conservative minister Lord Theodore Agnew quit suddenly on Monday, citing the government’s “lamentable” handling of Covid-19 loan fraud

Lord Theodore Agnew, who has served as UK minister for efficiency and transformation in the Treasury and Cabinet Office since February of last year, announced his resignation in the House of Lords on Monday. Agnew criticized particular departments for failures to combat pandemic loan fraud and declared, “thank you and goodbye,” to applause from the house. 

The peer’s decision was spurred on by what he claims is the lack of action by government departments on combating fraudulent Covid-related loans. Agnew had been tasked with heading the efforts to combat Covid loan fraud, but said on Monday that he cannot defend the government’s “lamentable track record” on the issue. 

“Given that I am the minister for counter fraud, it would be somewhat dishonest to stay on in that role if I am incapable of doing it properly,” he said. “It is for this reason that I have sadly decided to tender my resignation as a minister across the Treasury and Cabinet Office with immediate effect.”

The government’s Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS) supported over one million businesses with more than £47 billion (over $63bn) in payments during the pandemic in an effort to offset losses caused by shutdowns. 

“The oversight by both [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] and the British Business Bank of the panel lenders of BBLS has been nothing less than woeful,” Agnew said. “They have been ably assisted by the Treasury, who appear to have no knowledge or interest in the consequences of fraud to our economy or society.”

READ MORE: UK scrapping Covid tests for some travelers

Officials have predicted there could be as much as £20 billion (nearly $27bn) in losses from Covid loan schemes due to business defaults or fraud, the majority of it relating back to BBLS. 

In his resignation letter to Boris Johnson, Agnew said his resignation was “not an attack on the prime minister” and was not related to any other controversies connected to the Tory leader. Instead, the outgoing minister focused his criticism on the bureaucratic workings of Whitehall. 

“It has certainly not been through want of trying, but the government machine has been almost impregnable to my endless exhortations,” Agnew wrote, revealing only two fraud officials were hired at the beginning of the pandemic, and both lacked experience in the area. He also alleged there was a refusal to cooperate with the Cabinet Office’s team engaged in counter fraud. The government has been “desperately inadequate” in the handling of the pandemic loans and their efforts on fraud, Agnew added. 


UFC phenom Chimaev shows off intense ‘boot camp’ in minus ten degrees (VIDEO)

Khamzat Chimaev has been preparing for his next UFC test in the Swedish wilderness

Chechen-born Swede Khamzat Chimaev is poised for an assault on the UFC welterweight championship in 2022 and, ahead of what is expected to be a serious uptick in competition this year, the undefeated superstar has shown off exactly what he is doing to ready himself to take on the top fighters at 170lbs.

Chimaev is a perfect 4-0 since debuting with the UFC on 'Fight Island' in the summer of 2020 and enhanced his already glowing reputation even further with a shutdown win against tough Chinese striker Li Jingliang in October 2021 in his most recent Octagon assignment – a submission victory which broke him into the top 15 welterweight rankings for the first time.

The 27-year-old, though, remains one of the most avoided fighters in the division – with UFC boss Dana White even saying that he understands why the likes of Nate Diaz have scoffed at the idea of being the next man up for the sensation who has not been taken beyond the fourth minute of a bout since making his UFC bow.

"What do you think?" White told TMZ last month when asked if Diaz's refusal to fight Chimaev was because he is a 'rookie', as Diaz claimed, or if the Stockton fight veteran avoided the content for reasons more likened to self-preservation.

"Listen, man. Khamzat is a straight murderer. He’s a killer, he’s an absolute savage and I don’t blame anybody for not wanting to fight Khamzat Chimaev," White added of the fighter who won twice in ten days after joining the promotion and added another knockout to his resume less than two months later.

"Everybody in this company is here because they belong here. There are no real rookies per se here.

"There are guys with more experience and some guys with less experience. Khamzat Chimaev is one of those guys that’s willing to fight anybody in multiple weight classes, on short notice. He’s doing wrestling matches.

"If it’s a fight, he’s in, and he wants to fight you. And that’s the reality. People can spin Khamzat however they want, and I don’t blame them."

And with those statements in mind, it is of little surprise that Chimaev currently doesn't have an opponent lined up. 

Leon Edwards was linked – and even signed – to a fight that fell through due to various Covid mishaps.

Neil Magny is another who has talked up a potential showdown and exchanged Twitter taunts with Chimaev, although reports last week suggested that the American is set to face Max Griffin at UFC Columbus on March 26 2022.

The latest name mooted is that of former title challenger Gilbert Burns. Again, though, there is nothing concrete to speak of for the "rookie's" next fight.

Read more

Khamzat Chimaev © Mike Roach / Zuffa LLC
UFC star Chimaev agrees to face ex-title challenger

But that fight will eventually come, and it will be another another step towards the crown currently worn by the outstanding American wrestler Kamaru Usman. 

And judging by the footage you can see above, Chimaev and training parter Reza Madadi are leaving no stone unturned – quite literally – in their pursuit of excellence. 

"It's very cold," UFC vet Madadi says in the brief clip which shows the pair running and shadowboxing in the Swedish wilds on Christmas Day 2021. "It's Russian cold," he adds.

"Brother, nothing can stop us. It's Christmas time. We have one goal. You need to work hard for it."

The full video, which can be seen on Chimaev's YouTube channel launched by the fighter last week, shows the pair driving into the woods to meet members of his team from the Allstars Training Center where he is based in Sweden, with Chimaev describing Madadi as his coach.

After Chimaev says the temperature is minus ten degrees, Madadi explains that the group are about to run three kilometers five times, stopping at a series of 'stations' to perform exercises along the way.

'Borz', who is currently training with Russian fighter Petr Yan in Thailand, ends the video by throwing snowballs at Professional Fighters League welterweight Sadibou Sy, who was part of the group, and Madadi while they are sitting in cars, as well as advising his fans to "smash somebody".

The footage appears reminiscent of Rocky Balboa's training montage in the film 'Rocky V' – except, and to borrow that analogy a little further, this time it is Ivan Drago out pushing himself to his limits in freezing conditions.

How would Rocky have fared in that matchup if their training roles were reversed?

We might just get a glimpse the next time Khamzat sets foot in the UFC Octagon.


‘Fight Club’ has a different ending in China

Fincher’s cult classic film gets a new anti-climatic ending upon release in China

David Fincher’s cult-classic ‘Fight Club’ has seen an official online release in China on the Tencent Video streaming platform, but it’s not exactly the movie westerners might remember. Most imported films in China go through a censorship filter, making sure that the films are in line with the Communist party’s ideals and portray law enforcement as the ultimate force for good, always triumphing over the villains. If that’s not the way the original story goes – it gets changed, and the censors don’t seem to really care about preserving the plot or maintaining coherence of the films they edit, and the changes are often drastic. 

The latest film to get adapted is the 1999 classic ‘Fight Club.’ The original ending saw the main character (spoilers, if you haven’t seen the film), who suffers from a split identity disorder, shoot himself in the face to kill his alter ego, Tyler Durden, and then proceed to watch a bunch of corporate buildings explode, sending an anarchistic message about the dangers and trappings of a society obsessed with consumerism.

In the Chinese version, however, this ending is completely cut out and the viewer is instead informed that the police saved the day and stopped all the bombs from exploding. All of this is delivered in a simple caption that reads: “Through the clue provided by Tyler, the police rapidly figured out the whole plan and arrested all criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding. After the trial, Tyler was sent to lunatic asylum receiving psychological treatment. He was discharged from the hospital in 2012.” 

The film was released on Tencent Video and it's unclear if the edit was the result of self-censorship on the part of the streaming service or the result of direct orders from the Chinese government, as neither has commented on the matter as of yet. However, a source familiar with the matter, according to Vice, said the film was edited by the copyright owner, and was sold to streaming sites after receiving government approval.

Released in 1999, most Chinese viewers seem to have already seen ‘Fight Club’ before, and after screenshots of the new ending went viral on Chinese social media, many have mocked the blatant censorship and said it is the main reason why most Chinese viewers prefer bootleg copies of foreign films.


Apple fined over dating apps

A Dutch watchdog has said the Big Tech firm failed to comply with an order on alternative payment methods

US tech giant Apple has been hit with a €5 million ($5.65 million) fine for failing to comply with an order previously made by the Netherlands Authority for Consumers & Markets (ACM).

The order, made by the Dutch antitrust regulator in December, concerned Apple’s failure to allow dating app providers to use alternative payment methods in the Netherlands, thus breaking competition laws.

Apple will continue to be subject to a weekly fine, ranging from €5 million to €50 million ($56.5 million) until it complies, the ACM told Reuters.On January 15, Apple claimed it had complied with the mandate, but the ACM disagreed on Monday. 

READ MORE: New Covid variants ‘not far away’ – WHO envoy

“Apple has failed to satisfy the requirements on several points,” it said in a statement.

“The most important one is that Apple has failed to adjust its conditions, as a result of which dating-app providers are still unable to use other payment systems. At the moment, dating-app providers can merely express their ‘interest’,” the statement added.

The US tech giant has yet to comment, but is appealing December’s decision.On Friday, Apple said it would charge a commission on purchases, despite making changes to allow links to third-party in-app payment providers.


‘Depraved’ Playboy founder accused of bestiality and grooming

Even Bill Cosby's name showed up in the explosive documentary, which paints Hugh Hefner as a predator

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner may have passed on in 2017 at the age of 91, but there are still plenty of people with much to say about the man, evidenced in a new documentary in which he is accused of everything from sexual assault to bestiality.

The 10-part A&E documentary series titled ‘Secrets of Playboy’, which premieres on Monday night, features many figures from Hefner’s life, including former Playmate models, as well as ex-girlfriend Sondra Theodore, who described the infamous cigar-smoking, pajama-wearing media mogul as a “predator” who groomed young women. 

Theodore herself said she began dating Hefner when he was 50 and she was 19. She said he plied her with alcohol when she was under the legal age and later introduced her to drugs.

Read more

FILE PHOTO: A young woman walks towards a stage to be photographed while applying for a job as a Playboy bunny during a casting in Monterrey, Mexico, August 7, 2013 © Reuters / Daniel Becerril
Playboy’s gay male cover star is a sign the magazine should have died with dignity a long time ago

Perhaps the most shocking claim is Hefner’s supposed preference later in life for the company of animals. 

“I walked in on him with my dog and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ I was shocked,” Theodore told the New York Post, claiming she caught Hefner performing a sexual act with the animal. “He made it seem like it was just a one-time thing, and that he was just goofing off. But I never left him alone with my dog again.”

Another woman claimed that adult film actress Linda Lovelace was coaxed with drugs by Hefner and other men to perform a sexual act on a dog at a party. That incident was recalled by former Playboy employee PJ Masten, who was for many years in charge of the Playmate models. 

“She was drunk and drugged…They got her so messed up that they made her give the German Shepherd oral sex. You wanna talk about depravity? This is despicable,” Masten said.

Hefner also apparently had a penchant for snuff films and he was accused of filming sexual acts without consent, drugging woman and coercing them into sexual encounters.

Masten also accused Hefner’s “good friend” Bill Cosby of assaulting her. Cosby has been accused of sexual assault by numerous women whose stories cover the span of most of his career.

Former associates of Hefner claim he used the Playboy Mansion as a way to gather dirt on celebrities, models, and even law enforcement in an attempt to keep his alleged misconduct hidden from public view. 

In a public statement responding to the documentary earlier this month, Playboy acknowledged there are “elements” of the company’s past they find “unworthy of our principles.” They added that the Hefner family is “no longer associated with Playboy.” 

Hugh Hefner’s son, Cooper, has meanwhile defended his father, saying this week on Twitter that Hugh Hefner “was not a liar” and chalked up “salacious stories” about him as “regret becoming revenge.”


Crypto market loses $130 billion in one day amid Ukraine tensions

Major digital assets drop to multi-month lows

The world’s number one cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, has declined to nearly $33,000 on Monday, marking a daily drop of nearly 5%, according to data tracked by CoinDesk. The second most popular crypto, Ethereum, plunged 9.3% to $2,209 in a 24-hour span. 

Earlier in the day, both tokens fell to their lowest since July, each dropping more than 50% from their all-time highs.

The major sell-off wiped nearly $130 billion off the value of the entire cryptocurrency market, and spread across the stocks, which extended losses recorded earlier this year, posting the worst week since March 2020.

Riskier assets like technology stocks and digital currencies have seen a heavy sell-off due to increased geopolitical risks related to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, as well as the latest push by the US Federal Reserve for tightening monetary policy at a faster pace than expected. 

Read more

Bitcoin drops 50% from its peak value

Moreover, investors are assessing the impact of further regulatory steps towards the cryptocurrency market across the world. Last week, the Central Bank of Russia’s proposed ban on the use and mining of digital currencies. Last year, the Chinese authorities prohibited cryptocurrency mining in the Sichuan Valley, triggering an adverse impact on the market.

“Bitcoin and crypto have been reacting much more violently, given the nature of the asset class, and we’re likely to test $30,000-$32,000 given current sentiment and momentum,” Vijay Ayyar, vice president of corporate development and international expansion, told CNBC.

For more stories on economy & finance visit RT's business section


OPEC’s shrinking capacity could send oil above $100

Oil market realizing many OPEC producers may not have the capacity to boost output much further

As the OPEC+ group unwinds its production cuts, the oil market has realized that not only do many producers in the pact lack the capacity to boost output further, but those who can pump more are reducing the global spare production capacity, thus exposing market balances to unexpected supply disruptions, and oil prices to further spikes.  Most of the world’s global spare capacity is currently held by OPEC’s Middle Eastern members Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Those two producers have the potential to raise their output as OPEC+ continues to unwind the cuts, but they are doing so at the expense of declining spare capacity.  

Low spare production capacity could set the stage for a prolonged oil price rally because the world would have a lower buffer to offset sudden supply disruptions, which are always lurking in the global oil market. 

The unrest in Kazakhstan and the blockade in Libya in the past month highlighted the challenge that the oil market will be facing if spare capacity continues to shrink. And shrink it will—that is, if OPEC+ continues to add 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) to its production quota every month until it unwinds all the cuts. 

Higher OPEC+ Production Means Lower Spare Capacity 

The problem with OPEC+ is that only a handful of producers can keep some capacity in reserve while raising production. The few who can include OPEC’s top producer and the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and to some extent, Kuwait and possibly Iraq. Iran, under US sanctions, has over 1 million bpd that could return to the market. But Iran will be able to tap that capacity only if the ongoing nuclear talks are successful—a development that many analysts doubt will occur anytime soon. 

Read more

Crude hits 7-year high on low supply

With Iran currently out of the equation, it’s mostly up to the Arab Gulf states to produce more oil and at the same time have some spare capacity left. The other issue is that the nameplate spare capacity may not be equal to the producers’ ability to pump oil—the limit of spare capacity has never been tested, even in Saudi Arabia. 

Sure, the United States, Canada, and Brazil—all of which are outside OPEC+ pacts—are expected to raise their oil production this year as high prices and growing demand incentivize more activity and drilling. In the US shale patch, however, capital discipline continues to be a key theme, so annual production increases are not expected to be anywhere near the 2018-2019 surge in output. 

With demand expected to exceed pre-Covid levels this year, the low spare capacity and the low upstream investment in recent years are setting the stage for even higher oil prices. 

OPEC+ will see its spare capacity reduced to just 2.3 million bpd by July 2022, at the height of the driving season, according to Bloomberg estimates. This would be the lowest spare capacity since the end of 2018. Most of it will be held by the Arab Gulf producers—the only ones thought to be able to pump to their OPEC+ quotas throughout this year. 

Even Russia is struggling. Russia has seen setbacks recently in its attempt to pump to its quota, and will likely continue to lag in the coming months, analysts tell Bloomberg. Russia may be able to raise its output by 60,000 bpd each month in the first half of 2022—just over half of the monthly production growth of 100,000 bpd it is entitled to, according to analysts polled by Bloomberg. 

Triple-Digit Oil  

Russian supply will level off in the next two months, Francisco Blanch, head of global commodities at Bank of America, told Bloomberg last week, saying that triple-digit oil “is in the works” for the second quarter this year.

Demand is recovering meaningfully, while OPEC+ supply will start leveling off within the next two months, Blanch said, noting that it will be only Saudi Arabia and the UAE that can produce incremental barrels to add to the market. 

Moreover, OPEC+ has been undershooting its collective production targets for months and will likely continue to do so in the months ahead.  

Even OPEC officials admit that the OPEC+ group will struggle to increase supply as much as the nameplate monthly increase allows, and prices could spike to $100 a barrel, some officials from OPEC producers have recently told Reuters. 

Apart from Bank of America, other major Wall Street banks also predict that declining spare capacity and the inability of OPEC+ producers—except for just a few—to boost production will lead to triple-digit oil prices. 

Read more

US proved oil reserves diminished by fifth

Oil prices could hit $100 this year and rise to $105 per barrel in 2023 on the back of a “surprisingly large deficit” due to the milder and potentially briefer impact of Omicron on oil demand, Goldman Sachs said last week. Due to gas-to-oil substitution, supply disappointments, and stronger-than-expected demand in Q4 2021, OECD inventories are set to dip by the summer to their lowest levels since 2000, Goldman’s analysts note. Moreover, OPEC+ spare capacity is also set to decline to historically low levels of around 1.2 million bpd. 

“At $85/bbl, the market would remain at such critical levels, insufficient buffers relative to demand and supply volatilities, through 2023,” Goldman Sachs said in a note. 

JP Morgan, for its part, expects the falling spare capacity at OPEC+ to increase the risk premium in prices, and sees oil hitting $125 a barrel this year and $150 a barrel next year. 

“We see growing market recognition of global underinvestment in supply,” the bank said in a note carried by Reuters.  

For more stories on economy & finance visit RT's business section