Your Wednesday Briefing: Biden Bans Russian Oil

We’re covering the U.S. ban on Russian oil and South Korea’s tightly contested presidential election.

President Biden spoke at the White House on Sunday.Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

U.S. bans Russian oil imports

President Biden announced a ban on imports of Russian oil and natural gas into the U.S., an escalation of economic penalties that could have consequences at home and around the world.

The move could raise domestic gas prices past their record-high national average of $4.17 per gallon and was coordinated with Britain, which announced that it would phase out imports of Russian oil by the end of the year.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, signed a package of measures aimed at mitigating the pain of sanctions and the departure of international businesses. They include bolstered pensions and the easing of regulations for small- and medium-size businesses.

In Ukraine: According to the U.N., two million people have fled the country in what it has called the fastest-growing refugee crisis in decades. After days of failed evacuation efforts because of Russian attacks, at least one humanitarian corridor lasted long enough to allow hundreds of civilians to escape the war-battered city of Sumy, east of Kyiv.

Russia continues to advance on the critical city of Dnipro, threatening to isolate Ukrainian forces fighting in the Donbas region in the east. Here’s a map of troop movements.

The Ukrainian military said early Tuesday that it shot down three Russian fighter jets and a cruise missile. If confirmed, it would signal that Ukraine’s air-defense systems and air force are still functioning nearly two weeks into the war.

In Russia: With virtually all media now under state control, the invasion of Ukraine can be called neither an “invasion” nor a “war.” Nearly every bit of reporting is sanitized to align with the Kremlin’s message.

Western view: European militaries that once feared Russia said they were now less intimidated by its ground forces, but experts expected Russia to eventually subdue Ukraine’s army. The director of the C.I.A. testified that Putin’s increasing isolation and insulation have made him “extremely difficult to deal with,” and a top U.S. intelligence official said that Putin “perceives this as a war he cannot afford to lose.”

The banners of presidential candidates in downtown Seoul in February.Credit…Woohae Cho for The New York Times

A tight race for South Korean president

South Koreans go to the polls today to elect their 20th president amid wide voter discontent over issues like North Korea, bleak job opportunities and growing generational divides.

Of the 14 candidates, Lee Jae-myung, from the progressive Democratic Party, and Yoon Suk-yeol, from the conservative People Power Party, are the clear front-runners. The fractious race between the two is tight, though their ideological differences are vast and neither is very popular. Some voters have called the election “a contest between the unlikable.”

Lee is a firebrand former human-rights lawyer who built his reputation as a governor by expanding social benefits for young, jobless citizens. Yoon is a former prosecutor who resigned and began harshly criticizing Moon Jae-in, the outgoing president.

Young, broke and angry swing voters, frustrated over housing prices, a lack of job opportunities and a widening income gap, will most likely cast the decisive votes.

Major issues: Housing affordability has become one of the most pressing problems for South Koreans, and both candidates promise to supply millions of new homes. Lee favors a New Deal-like approach with expanded welfare and universal basic income. Yoon prefers deregulation and market-based solutions.

Quotable: “The key point to watch in this election is whether the progressives will cede power after five years,” said Heo Jin-jae, a research director at Gallup Korea.

Migrants being smuggled near Zaranj, Afghanistan, in November.Credit…Kiana Hayeri

A boom for Afghan smugglers

In the desolate Nimruz Province of Afghanistan, which straddles the country’s borders with Iran and Pakistan, smugglers have long dominated the economy. Now, as hundreds of thousands of Afghans try to flee their Taliban-controlled homeland, business has flourished for the kingpins of the trade.

Times reporters spent 24 hours with one of a handful of leading smugglers, referred to only as H. because of the illegal nature of his business. His efforts to transport migrants into Iran showcased the frenetic atmosphere that has recently energized this southwest region of Afghanistan.

Fearing an influx of Afghans after the Taliban seized power, Iran bolstered its security forces at the border. The Taliban, too, have tried to shut down H.’s route, raiding safe houses and patrolling the desert. Still, smugglers are undeterred.

“The Taliban cannot shut down our business. If they tighten security, we will just charge more and get more money,” H. said. “We’re always one step ahead.”

Atmosphere: With migrants regularly looking to flee from the Taliban or the country’s economic collapse, Zaranj, a city in which nearly everyone is connected to the smuggling trade, is lively. Newcomers buy kebabs from street vendors, peruse shops and sit around plastic tables, eager to learn more about the grueling journey ahead.


Covid News

Garensha John, a teacher trained in phonics, leading a first-grade class in Bridgeport, Conn.Credit…Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times
  • As the coronavirus pandemic enters its third year, a cluster of new studies shows that young children in the U.S. are far behind in reading.

  • Moderna said that its first African vaccine production factory would be built in Kenya.

  • Hawaii remains the only U.S. state that is not lifting its indoor mask mandate.

Around the World

Police officers patrolling a square last year in front of a mosque in Kashgar, in Xinjiang, where China has been accused of human rights abuses.Credit…Thomas Peter/Reuters
  • The top U.N. human rights official said that China would allow her to visit the country in May. Officials in her position have not visited China in 22 years.

  • The man suspected of being the would-be 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks was repatriated to Saudi Arabia for mental health care. He was tortured so badly by U.S. interrogators that he was ruled ineligible for trial.

  • The U.S. military announced that it would permanently close a Navy fuel-storage depot in Hawaii that leaked petroleum into the local drinking-water supply last year.

A Morning Read

Credit…Ruth Mcdowall for The New York Times

Tāne Mahuta, an ancient, 177-foot-tall tree named after the god of forests in Māori mythology, is threatened by the slow creep of an incurable disease. Here’s how Māori researchers stepped in to save it.


Hollywood loves bad entrepreneurs

Tales of tech titans and corporate greed often get the Hollywood treatment — the 2010 Facebook movie “The Social Network” could be the poster child of the genre. Now, it seems as if every streaming service has its own ripped-from-the-headlines take on a troubled entrepreneur, writes Amanda Hess, a critic at large for The Times.

“Super Pumped” on Showtime documents the rise and fall of the Uber founder Travis Kalanick. “The Dropout” on Hulu stars Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes, the turtleneck-wearing Theranos founder. “WeCrashed” on Apple TV+ follows WeWork’s often-shoeless founder Adam Neumann, played by Jared Leto.

The shows’ central figures share rise-and-fall trajectories and “self-aggrandizing comparisons to Steve Jobs,” Hess writes. The new consensus is that there is indeed something wrong with these people, who are drawn to start-ups because they are ruthless egomaniacs.

And the appetite for tech disaster is growing: Holmes’s case has been recreated in a book, multiple podcasts and an HBO documentary. A movie starring Jennifer Lawrence is in the works.


What to Cook

Credit…Linda Xiao for The New York Times

Baked Thai curry risotto with squash is an easy weeknight meal.

What to Watch

In the thoughtful sci-fi movie “After Yang,” Colin Farrell plays a father who tries to repair the family’s caretaker-android.

Ask Well

If one strawberry is moldy, should you throw out the whole box?

Now Time to Play

Play the Mini Crossword, and a clue: Take a breather (four letters).

Here’s today’s Wordle. (If you’re worried about your stats streak, play in the browser you’ve been using.)

And here is the Spelling Bee.

You can find all our puzzles here.

That’s it for today’s briefing. Tell us what you think about this newsletter in this short survey. See you next time. — Matthew

P.S. The Times is temporarily removing its journalists from Russia in the wake of new legislation that effectively outlaws independent reporting on the invasion of Ukraine.

The latest episode of “The Daily” is about Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine.

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

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