Your Thursday briefing


Russia has responded to the West’s escalating arms supplies and economic sanctions by suspending national gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria and threatening further unspecified reprisals. It was the toughest response yet against the US-led alliance that has accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of waging a proxy war after the invasion of Ukraine. Follow the latest updates.

The lockdown was clearly a warning sign that Germany — hugely dependent on Russian gas — could be next. Russia is sending the message that it can hurt Europe a lot without firing a shot. European natural gas prices rose by as much as 28 percent yesterday and the euro fell to its lowest point against the dollar in five years.

The EU had been preparing for the possibility that Russia would stop supplying natural gas, said Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission. Nevertheless, she said, the Russian move was an attempt to “use gas as a blackmail tool.” Poland and Bulgaria receive gas from EU countries, but have sufficient supply for the time being.

Defense: The stated reason for stopping gas supplies was Poland’s and Bulgaria’s refusal to pay in rubles, a new demand Russia announced last month, despite the fact that its foreign contracts generally require payment in dollars or euros. Compliance would undermine the EU’s financial sanctions against Russia and help keep the battered ruble afloat.

There is growing concern in Washington and European capitals that the conflict in Ukraine could soon escalate into a wider war — spreading to neighboring countries, cyberspace and NATO countries suddenly facing a Russian gas shutdown. In the long run, such an expansion could turn into a more direct conflict reminiscent of the Cold War.

Talks of a diplomatic resolution or even a ceasefire — attempted at various points by the leaders of France, Israel and Turkey among others — have died down, and both Ukrainian and Russian forces are digging in for the long haul. There are other factors that could widen the conflict, including possible applications from Sweden and Finland to join NATO.

The US Defense Secretary has called for an effort to reduce the Russian military’s ability to prevent further invasions. At the same time, the Russians are increasingly reminding the world of the power of their nuclear arsenal. These signals seem to be meant to make it clear that the West should not go too far.

Analysis: Germany has long tried to prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin from provoking, said Ulrich Speck, a German analyst. There is concern in Berlin that “we shouldn’t push Putin too hard against the wall,” he added, “so he can get desperate and do something really irresponsible.”

Anger and concern over a stern lockdown in Shanghai, now in its fourth week, posed a rare challenge to China’s powerful propaganda apparatus, which is central to the Communist Party’s ability to suppress dissent.

As the Omicron variant continues to spread across the country, officials have defended their use of widespread, heavy-handed lockdowns, pushing a triumphant narrative of their Covid response. But as people become more aware of the cost of life and death of that approach, another tale of anger, frustration and despair finds an audience.

If not contained, the anger could pose the biggest political test to China’s leadership since the outbreak began. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has put his legitimacy on the line for the successful containment of the pandemic, a message that has only been reinforced ahead of this fall, when he is expected to claim an unprecedented third term.

Implications: The harsh measures in Shanghai have led to food shortages, delayed medical care, poor quarantine conditions and even physical fences around residents’ homes. Critical videos and posts have been censored by officials, who have instead flooded the state media with positive stories — only fueling citizens’ anger.

In other pandemic news:

A $25 million giveaway and 30,000 unopened letters: In 1970, 21-year-old margarine heir Michael James Brody Jr. that he would give his fortune away to anyone who asked. Thousands signed up to claim it.

A disco ball revival is underway, writes Lia Picard for The Times. Relegated to kitschy party decor or retro bars, disco balls can now be found at weddings, TikTok home decor videos, and homewares that span the gamut from high-end to low-end.

According to Etsy, searches for “disco ball” have increased nearly 400 percent in the past three months compared to the same period last year. “People are looking for ways to celebrate again,” said Matthew Yokobosky, who curated the 2020 exhibition “Studio 54: Night Magic” at the Brooklyn Museum. “They are looking for moments of joy.”

Although mirror balls are often associated with the 1970s, they were used in 1920s nightclubs as an inexpensive way to create atmosphere, Yokobosky said. “You have a disco ball, you shine a light on it and suddenly the whole room is covered with moving dots,” he added. “So you get a lot of bang for your buck for your little disco ball.”

Read more about the return of the disco ball.

That was it for today’s briefing. See you tomorrow. — Natasha

PS Join us on May 2 for a live chat with Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, about the long-term effects of the war in Ukraine. You can respond here.

The latest episode of “The Daily” centers on a school prayer case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

You can reach Natasha and the team at

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