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Annie Gugliotta

What We're Watching: World War Z, US-Venezuela thaw

What’s Z deal with that Russian symbol?

Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak was widely criticized for taking to the podium of a World Cup event over the weekend with the letter “Z” taped to his leotard. Why? Well, since Putin ordered his armies into Ukraine two weeks ago, the Roman letter Z — often rendered in a paintbrush style — has become a symbol of support for the invasion and for Putin’s regime. In Russia, it’s been slapped on cars, drawn on lapels, and even emblazoned on the sweatshirts of the guys in this super chill “non-fascist” video in support of the war. Where does the Z come from? The clearest answer is that it’s the symbol the Russian military has slapped onto its trucks and tanks in Ukraine to distinguish them from the same Soviet-era hardware that the Ukrainians also have. The Russian Ministry of Defense’s Instagram account has all kinds of uses for the Z now: Za Pobedu! (For Victory!), DenaZification! DemilitariZation! Still, why not use a Cyrillic letter? Then again, after all the sanctions and boycotts, the Roman letter Z might soon be the only Western thing left in Russia.

US meets with Venezuela’s Maduro

With fears that the war in Ukraine could push global energy prices even higher, Washington has brought an olive branch to an unlikely shore. US officials recently met with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to discuss conditions for repealing the crippling US sanctions in place against the South American oil producer. Washington, which broke off relations in 2019 over Maduro’s rigged elections and crackdowns on opposition protests, is reportedly demanding free and fair presidential elections and extensive reforms to the Venezuelan oil sector. Maduro, for his part, wants an end to US sanctions on Venezuelan oil and to be readmitted to the SWIFT global financial platform (see our explainer on SWIFT here.) Venezuela is, of course, a close ally and partner of Russia. With Moscow itself now under crushing economic and financial sanctions, the US is surely gauging whether there’s room to drive a wedge between Caracas and Moscow.

The Graphic Truth: Russia's forex war chest

He prepared for a standoff with the West. President Vladimir Putin has built up his country’s foreign currency reserves to the tune of over $640 billion to insulate the Russian economy. It was a solid plan until the US, EU and global partners announced stinging sanctions against Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine. This includes a plan to ban some Russian banks from SWIFT — a global network for payments between banks — as well as sanctioning Russia’s central bank, which will make it hard for the Kremlin to tap into some of the reserves needed to prop up the crashing rouble. We take a look at Russia’s forex war chest since Putin came to power in 2000.

Destroyed armored personnel carrier on the roadside in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

REUTERS/Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy

Watching the War: Ukrainians resist, West triggers SWIFT sanctions

Russia vs. Ukraine. The war in Ukraine is escalating, with Russian troops now fighting Ukrainian soldiers in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city. Meanwhile, in the battle for the capital, Kyiv, the Ukrainians have so far resisted the Russian onslaught, but the mayor says Russian troops have surrounded the city. While President Vladimir Putin no doubt hoped to declare a swift victory, Ukrainian forces are giving him a run for his money. As former CIA chief David Petraeus told Ian Bremmer: “If [Ukrainian forces and partisan brigades] want to put up resistance, it would be a very difficult situation for the Russians.” Russia has roughly 50,000 troops involved, or two-thirds of its massed forces, but US defense officials warned Sunday that Putin has more combat power up his sleeve.

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SWIFT logo displayed on a phone screen with Russian flag in the background.

Jakub Porzycki/NurPhot

A SWIFT explanation

You’re probably hearing and reading a lot about SWIFT these days. Those who want stronger sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine say that the US and Europe should exclude Russia from SWIFT. Others caution against taking a step that is considered a nuclear option (economically speaking!).

So, what is it? SWIFT is the acronym for Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, a global network for payments between banks. It’s sort of like a gigantic messaging system. Some 11,000 banks, in just about every country in the world, use SWIFT to facilitate money transfers across borders. The system processes roughly 42 million transactions a day.

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Putin and Xi meet in Beijing for the first time since late 2019.


What We’re Watching: China’s Ukraine dilemma, Russian sanctions avoid SWIFT

How China sees Ukraine. One man’s invasion is another man’s … what, precisely? China apparently prefers not to define Russia’s attack on Ukraine as an invasion, a point reflected in Assistant Foreign Minister Hua Chunying’s repeated dodging of the question in a Thursday press conference. The invasion — yep, we’re calling it like we see it — puts Chinese leadership in a tricky spot. Earlier this month, at the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin pointedly closed ranks against the West. But even Xi is unlikely to condone Russian actions that end up destabilizing the world economy (Thursday's markets were all over the place). Instability, after all, is Xi’s bugbear, and China had already softened its support for Putin’s aims in Ukraine even before the Russian assault began. While China is unlikely to join the US-led allies in sanctioning Moscow — perhaps because Xi is worried he could face similar economic punishment should he someday decide to move on Taiwan — a new Cold War is the last thing a country focused on economic growth and global commercial power wants. Even Hua admitted, dryly: “What you are seeing today is not what we have wished to see.”

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