First Thing: Biden threatens Putin with personal sanctions over Ukraine

·8 min read
<span>Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP</span>
Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

US makes preparations to avoid European gas crisis if flow from Russia is cut, while talks aimed at defusing tensions continue. Plus, 224 new species found


Good morning.

Joe Biden has said he will consider personal sanctions against Vladimir Putin if Russia invades Ukraine, as western leaders step up military preparations and make plans to shield Europe from Russian gas being cut off.

The rare sanctions threat came as Nato placed forces on standby and reinforced eastern Europe with more ships and fighter jets in response to Russia’s troop buildup near its border with Ukraine.

If Russia attacked, Biden said, it would be the largest invasion since the second world war and would “change the world”. The president said he would consider adding direct sanctions on Putin to a raft of measures being drawn up.

“Yes. I would see that,” Biden said when asked by reporters in Washington about targeting Putin, whom opponents have long accused of holding gigantic secret wealth.

  • Why are Germany and France at odds with the Anglosphere over how to handle Russia? The differences reflect not just different short-term assessments on intelligence, but a deep fissure going back decades about what Germany and France, as opposed to the Anglosphere, regard as the best way to handle Russia.

Boris Johnson braces himself for release of report on parties during lockdown

Boris Johnson departing 10 Downing Street
Boris Johnson departing 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

The British prime minister is facing the most perilous time of his premiership, with exasperated Conservative MPs due to see an official report on allegations of Downing Street parties that have now triggered a criminal inquiry.

The report could lead to a vote of no confidence in Johnson, and in turn to a Tory leadership election and potentially a new prime minister for the UK. Or Johnson may choose to simply resign, although it is said he intends to fight.

The Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, announced yesterday that her officers were investigating allegations of law-breaking at the heart of government on the basis of evidence unearthed during the inquiry by the senior civil servant Sue Gray.

Former No 10 staffers have told the Guardian that the police inquiry will uncover evidence that has not yet been submitted to Gray. One senior Tory said the Scotland Yard inquiry was a “different ballgame”, adding: “Officials who don’t tell Sue Gray the whole truth will not hold back from the cops.”

  • What’s happening today? Johnson faces MPs in the weekly prime minister’s question time today. You can follow along here. Last week during the fixed session, some of his own MPs called for him to resign.

  • Did Johnson have a birthday party in lockdown? Apparently so, although one Tory MP claimed it wasn’t a proper party and that Johnson was “ambushed with a cake”. Social media erupted with mockery at the MP’s remarks.

US Coast Guard searches for 39 people after boat capsizes off Florida

An image provided by the Coast Guard shows a capsized vessel approximately 45 miles east of Fort Pierce inlet, Florida
An image provided by the Coast Guard shows a capsized vessel. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The US Coast Guard has been searching for 39 people missing for several days after a boat believed to be used for human smuggling capsized off Florida’s coast en route from the Bahamas.

A good Samaritan called the Coast Guard early on Tuesday after rescuing a man clinging to the boat 45 miles (72km) east of Fort Pierce, the maritime security agency reported on Twitter.

The man said he had been with a group of 39 others that left the island of Bimini in the Bahamas on Saturday night. He said the boat had capsized in severe weather and that no one was wearing a lifejacket.

The Coast Guard is calling it a case of human smuggling. The agency tweeted earlier yesterday about the search and then later posted a picture of the stranded man.

  • What has the agency said? “Navigating the seas in overloaded & less than seaworthy vessels is extremely dangerous and can result in loss of life,” it said on Twitter. It has been searching by air and sea over a roughly 135-mile area extending from Bimini to the Fort Pierce Inlet.

Out-of-control SpaceX rocket on collision course with moon

The moon
Space observers believe the Falcon 9 rocket is on course to hit the moon in a matter of weeks. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

A SpaceX rocket is on a collision course with the moon after spending almost seven years hurtling through space, experts say.

The booster was originally launched from Florida in February 2015 as part of an interplanetary mission to send a space weather satellite on a million-mile journey. Space observers believe the rocket – about four metric tonnes of “space junk” – is on course to intersect with the moon at a velocity of about 2.58km/s in a matter of weeks.

Bill Gray, who writes software to track near-Earth objects, asteroids, minor planets, and comets, has said the Falcon 9’s upper stage will very likely hit the far side of the moon, near the equator, on 4 March.

  • Has anything like this happened before? “This is the first unintentional case [of space junk hitting the moon] of which I am aware,” Bill Gray, who writes software to track near-Earth objects, asteroids, minor planets, and comets, said.

  • Will the collision be visible from Earth? Gray says it will probably go unobserved. “The bulk of the moon is in the way, and even if it were on the near side, the impact occurs a couple of days after new moon.”

In other news …

The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaks via a video link from prison
The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaks via a video link from prison. Photograph: Evgeny Feldman/AP
  • A documentary film about Alexei Navalny, who narrowly survived an apparent poisoning attempt with novichok, has premiered at the Sundance film festival. The 90-minute film, simply titled Navalny, was filmed during the several months he spent in Germany in late 2020 as he recovered from the poisoning.

  • Seattle’s cement workers are striking over unfair labor practices, accusing their employers of refusing to negotiate in good faith. The striking workers fear employers want to purge unionized workers from the area’s construction industry and attempt to bankrupt the union through litigation.

  • Cardi B has been awarded $4m in damages in a libel lawsuit against a celebrity gossip blogger who claimed that the rapper was a prostitute who used cocaine and had contracted sexually transmitted infections. Cardi B, born Belcalis Almánzar, sued the blogger known as Tasha K in 2019.

  • Joe Manchin, a darling of the US coal industry, has attracted global anger over the climate crisis. The West Virginia senator’s name is reviled on the streets of Bangladesh and other countries facing climate disaster as he blocks Joe Biden’s effort to curb planet-heating gases.

Stat of the day: ghostly monkey and slug snake among 224 new species found in Mekong region

A popa langur
A popa langur is among 224 new species listed in the World Wildlife Fund’s report on the Mekong region. Photograph: AP

A monkey with ghostly white circles around its eyes is among 224 new species listed in the World Wildlife Fund’s latest update on the greater Mekong region. The conservation group’s report, released on Wednesday, highlights the need to protect the rich biodiversity and habitats in the region, which includes Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. There are also dozens of newly identified reptiles, frogs and newts, fish and 155 plant species.

Don’t miss this: could a ‘fun-tervention’ improve my life – in just one month?

Elle Hunt trying out the piano at the Assembly House, Norwich.
The keys to enjoyment? Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

The author of a new book The Power of Fun says having more fun builds resilience and will help get us through the next stage of the pandemic. Fun, Catherine Price argues, is not something that’s nice to have, but actually essential to a happy, healthy life – and it’s possible to have more of it, even during a pandemic. But can she get the Guardian writer Elle Hunt out of her funk?

Climate check: Xi Jinping warns China’s low-carbon ambitions must not interfere with ‘normal life’

Xi Jinping
China is worried about the risk to jobs and growth. Photograph: EyePress News/Rex/Shutterstock

China, the world’s biggest source of climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions, has been under pressure to “enhance ambition” and take more drastic action to tackle global warming. However, President Xi Jinping has said China’s ambitious low-carbon goals should not come at the expense of energy and food security or the “normal life” of ordinary people, signalling a more cautious approach to climate change as the economy slows.

Last Thing: eerie ‘iceberg’ was a wonder of nature – just not an iceberg

Clear winter skies and the promise of a recent evening’s beautiful sunset led the photographer Simone Engels to a nearby park on Vancouver Island. But as she trained her lens on the pinkish hue of the landscape of the Pacific coast, she was shocked to see a large, iceberg-like shape on the horizon. “It was this huge, shiny, three-dimensional tubular structure,” she said. “It looked so real.” She later learned that the mysterious iceberg was really a mirage.

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