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Thursday briefing: Zelenskiy hangs hopes on Ukraine triple summit

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Top story: ‘A grimmer phase of the war’

Good morning to you. Warren Murray with the stories at the top of Thursday’s agenda.

Today marks one month since the start of the Russian war against Ukraine. Shaun Walker writes that much still hangs in the balance: “The initial Russian plan, it seems, was for a slightly bloodier version of its 2014 Crimea annexation, with pockets of resistance mopped up and a Russian puppet regime taking control. The plan, which could only have been based on shockingly flawed intelligence about the mood in Ukraine and the state of its army, was quickly shown to be hopeless. … Even in the few cities where the Russians have established control bloodlessly, their forces face angry crowds and have had few successes in co-opting local politicians. The lack of success has led to a grimmer phase of the war … Russia showed itself willing to submit Mariupol, Kharkiv and other Russian-speaking cities to ruthless artillery and air bombardment.”

Today, world leaders are to hold a series of emergency summits in Europe that aim to ratchet up pressure on the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to end the war. In Brussels, Joe Biden will take part in back-to-back Nato, G7 and European Union summits that will bring pledges of more lethal weapons for Ukraine, more punishing sanctions on Russia and warnings about further escalation. In its latest update, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) said Ukraine had increased pressure on Russian forces north-east of Kyiv, while carrying out successful counterattacks against Russian positions in towns on the outskirts of the capital. The MoD noted there is a “realistic possibility” that Ukrainian forces will be able to encircle Russian units in Bucha and Irpin. The Kyiv mayor, Vitali Klitschko, said that “the small city of Makariv and almost all of Irpin is already under the control of Ukrainian soldiers”.

Play Video 1:12 ‘We will see who is a friend and who has betrayed us’, Zelenskiy says of summits – video

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has called for citizens worldwide to take to the streets “in the name of peace” and hold global protests against Russia’s bloody war. Zelenskiy said Ukraine was “waiting for meaningful steps” from the Nato, EU and European Council meetings today, and listed some so far unheeded requests, such as a no-fly zone, aircraft and tanks. “At these three summits we will see: who is a friend, who is a partner, and who betrayed us for money.” Zelenskiy, who will speak to Nato members by video on Thursday, said he is asking the alliance to provide “effective and unrestricted” support to Ukraine, including any weapons the country needs to fend off the Russian invasion. Nato has announced it will double its troops along the alliance’s eastern flank, beginning the deployment of four new battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. The UK will double the number of missiles it sends to Ukraine and is urging western allies to step up provision of lethal aid.

Help for those better off – Britain’s most vulnerable households will face the full force of the biggest squeeze on living standards on record after Rishi Sunak targeted better-off workers for help in his £9bn mini-budget package of tax and duty cuts. There will be a 5p cut in fuel duty and a £3,000 increase in the national insurance contributions threshold, but the chancellor failed to shield pensioners and those dependent on state benefits from the cost-of-living crisis. Sunak announced a 1p cut in income tax to 19p, coming into force in April 2024, just ahead of the anticipated general election.

Play Video 1:53 Spring statement 2022: Sunak lifts national insurance threshold and cuts fuel duty – video

The independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) said the spring statement had given back only a sixth of the tax increases announced by Sunak during his two years as chancellor and that even after these measures, living standards would fall by more than 2% this year – the steepest drop since records began in the 1950s. Use our tool to work out how you fare. It comes as some vulnerable people using food banks decline items such as potatoes because they cannot afford the energy to boil them, according to the boss of the supermarket Iceland. Meanwhile there has been a chorus of criticism from businesses and lobby groups who said Sunak had done little to alleviate cost inflation steeper than anything faced by British businesses since the 1990s.

‘Putin is small and pale’ – Madeleine Albright, who came to the US as a refugee and made history as the first woman to be secretary of state, has died aged 84 from cancer. Joe Biden saluted Albright as “a force for goodness, grace, and decency – and for freedom … Hers were the hands that turned the tide of history.” Bill Clinton, the president Albright served, paid tribute to “one of the finest secretaries of state, an outstanding UN ambassador, a brilliant professor and an extraordinary human being”.

Facebook Twitter Madeleine Albright meeting Vladimir Putin in 2000. Photograph: Mikhail Metzel/AP

Recently as Vladimir Putin amassed Russian forces on the border with Ukraine, Albright wrote in the New York Times of meeting him in Moscow in 2000. “Flying home,” she wrote, “I recorded my impressions. ‘Putin is small and pale,’ I wrote, ‘so cold as to be almost reptilian.’ He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. ‘Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.’”

US-UK trade deal far off – A bilateral trade deal between the US and the UK is “desirable” but will not progress while the Northern Ireland peace deal is used for domestic political purposes, the American congressmen Richard Neal has warned. The chairman of the House ways and means committee told the Guardian: “We will not entertain a trade agreement if there is any jeopardy to the Good Friday agreement.” Neal is a key figure in US trade deals and negotiated the US-Mexico-Canada agreement. His committee writes trade bills and without its support a deal will not be approved. The US trade representative Katherine Tai has dashed hopes of any imminent post-Brexit free-trade deal, saying it was not worth spending “years and a lot of blood, sweat and tears” over.

‘We had no role to play’ – Two of the five officers involved in the traumatic strip search of a 15-year-old black girl at her Hackney school have been removed from frontline duties, the Metropolitan police has confirmed. At an online community meeting, Hackney’s Basic Unit commander, Marcus Barnett, said the Met had a problem with officers viewing inner London children as “adults”, and what happened to Child Q would probably not have happened in the Cotswolds. Officers were called due to a teacher wrongly suspecting that she had cannabis. Barnett said the school “probably should not have called us and we should probably have understood very quickly that we had no role to play there”. Chanel Dolcy, a solicitor for the family, said Child Q had launched civil proceedings against the force and her school.

Small orchards in peril – There are 80% fewer small “traditional” orchards, regarded as important for flora and fauna, in England and Wales compared with in 1900. Traditional orchards are defined as sites with at least five trees managed in a low-intensity way, the floor grazed or mowed with little or no chemical input. As well as those lost in the regions, the National Trust says the expansion of cities and towns has cost them most of their orchards, with London having only 3% left.

Facebook Twitter Apple tree in blossom at Cotehele, Cornwall. Photograph: NTPL/Ross Hoddinott

Kent has the highest total coverage but only because of large commercial orchards. John Deakin from the trust said: “Traditional orchards and the blossom they bring create valuable early nectar sources for insects which are often foraging for scarce resources in the early spring.” The trust has committed to planting 4m blossom trees in England, Wales and Northern Ireland by 2030 and to set up more traditional orchards on its land. There is a scheme to bring more orchard trees into Birmingham, once known as a city “ringed with blossom”.

Today in Focus podcast: Escape from Mariupol

For weeks the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol has been under constant bombardment from Russian artillery. With the city in ruins, residents who risked everything to escape can now tell their stories.

Today in Focus Escape from Mariupol Sorry your browser does not support audio – but you can download here and listen https://audio.guim.co.uk/2022/03/23-71765-202203241TIFmariupol.mp3 00:00:00 00:34:19

Lunchtime read: The queen of crime-solving

Forensic scientist Angela Gallop has helped to crack many of the UK’s most notorious murder cases. But today she fears the whole field – and justice itself – is at risk.

Facebook Twitter Angela Gallop, forensic scientist. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Sport

England captain Joe Root is hoping to secure a morale-boosting series win in the final Test against West Indies to put “a very difficult winter” behind the team. In the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup, England have progressed after beating Pakistan with 30 overs to spare. Lotte Wubben-Moy scored late on to rescue a 1-1 draw for Arsenal Women at home to Wolfsburg in their Champions League quarter-final first leg. In the Women’s Super League, Manchester City moved level on points with third-placed Manchester United after repeating their FA Cup win over Everton. Ash Barty’s decision to retire on Wednesday at the age of just 25, as the No 1 player in the world and during such a beautiful moment in her career, is a shock on the surface, but the manner of her departure fits perfectly with the way she has conducted her career, writes Tumaini Carayol.

Steve Clarke has admitted to serious doubts that Scotland’s World Cup play-off semi-final against Ukraine will take place on its rescheduled early June date. Chelsea have had the terms of the licence imposed by the government after the sanctioning of Roman Abramovich eased further, with the club now allowed to sell tickets to fans for away fixtures. Russia has been warned off bidding to host the men’s European Championship in 2028 after it submitted an unexpected declaration of interest in staging the tournament. And Owen Farrell is primed to make his rugby return on Saturday for Saracens after a four-month absence.

Business

The cost of living squeeze highlighted in the spring statement was underlined by inflation figures yesterday showing that prices rose 6.2% last month, driven by the rising cost of petrol and diesel and a wide range of goods from food to toys and games. Fuel prices could rise even higher as well after Vladimir Putin said Russia would demand payment for gas and oil in roubles. The news pushed British gas prices up 11% yesterday although Brent crude has dropped a little today to $121.01. The FTSE100 is tracking to lift 0.3% this morning while the pound is $1.318 and €1.200.

The papers

Facebook Twitter UK newspaper front pages on Thursday 24 March. Composite: Various

Rishi Sunak’s attempt to cast himself as a tax-cutting chancellor despite Britain facing the biggest drop in living standards since the 1950s is met with scorn on the front of many of Thursday’s papers. The normally pro-Tory government Express says “The forgotten millions say: what about us?” as it reports millions of Britons have been “left without a helping hand” by Sunak’s mini-budget. The Guardian’s lead is “Cost of living surges: and Sunak squeezes poorest”, saying that better-off workers will benefit most from the chancellor’s cut in petrol duty while Sunak ignored the case for help to cut energy bills to help poorer households. The Telegraph’s front page says “‘The biggest fall in living standards on record’” and reports on the unease of many Tory MPs at Sunak’s failure to take their advice and scrap the national insurance increases.

Facebook Twitter Guardian front page, 24 March 2022.

The Mail has a different spin on the Tory reaction with the headline “Now slash taxes even further”. The FT makes more of the fact that by proceeding with the NI rise in the face of backbench opposition, Sunak is trying to give himself room to cut income taxes before the next general election. “Sunak banks windfall for pre-election tax cut as cost of living crisis hits home”. The Mirror goes with “Thanks for nothing”, saying there was “nothing for energy bills, nothing for pensioners, and nothing to stop worst fall in living standards since the 50s”. Inside it lists 13 cost of living blows that Sunak has not addressed, from energy bills to mortgage rates.

The Times has “Biggest fall in living standards since 1950s”, while the i says much the same: “Biggest hit to living standards since age of rationing”. The Metro says “No heat to eat”, and reaches even further back into history to report that the tax burden is the highest it’s been since the 1940s. The reaction of regional titles is much more pointed with the Northern Echo asking “Is that it?”. “Sunak told he must do more for millions facing poverty” says the Yorkshire Post. The Herald in Scotland has a more upbeat line however, reporting “Sunak pledges tax break to two million Scots workers”.

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