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February 24, 2022

Hello, Thursday. Smart Brevity™ count: 1,443 words ... 5½ minutes. Edited by Noah Bressner.

Situational awareness: Oil prices broke $100 a barrel for the first time since 2014, stock markets slumped and the ruble hit a record low on the invasion news. (Reuters)

1 big thing: Putin shakes world

A woman and child peer out of a bus as they leave Sievierodonetsk, Luhansk region, in eastern Ukraine, today. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine — including attacking the capital, Kyiv — in an overnight barrage that was swift, broad and ruthless. The attack was exactly in line with President Biden's dire forecasts.

  • Why it matters: The world is waking up to a new era of global upheaval, with huge potential ramifications for the power dynamics of the superpowers, the U.S. and China.

Russia's buildup was no feint, with Ukraine coming under massive aerial assault overnight, Axios national security reporter Zachary Basu reports.

  • It quickly became clear that a "special military operation" announced by Putin was in fact a full-scale attack on the entire country.
  • Explosions were reported across Ukrainian cities moments after Putin finished speaking.

The latest: Putin is attacking Ukraine from the north, south and east.

  • The Russian military says it's targeting military installations and air bases. But images flooding social media have already shown civilian casualties and thousands of Ukrainians trying to flee.
Kyiv this morning. Photo: Emilio Morenatti/AP

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was cutting off diplomatic relations with Russia and tweeted: "Russia treacherously attacked our state in the morning, as Nazi Germany did in World War II years."

President Biden said Putin's "premeditated war ... will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering."

  • U.S. intelligence had warned a large-scale invasion "could leave up to 50,000 civilians killed or wounded, decapitate the government in Kyiv within two days, and launch a humanitarian crisis with up to 5 million refugees fleeing the resulting chaos," The Washington Post reported Feb. 5.
Screenshot: ABC News

Zoom out: "Russia’s audacious military assault ... is the first major clash marking a new order in international politics, with three major powers jostling for position in ways that threaten America’s primacy," The Wall Street Journal's Michael R. Gordon writes (subscription).

  • "Putin is demanding that the West rewrite the post-Cold War security arrangements for Europe," Gordon adds, "and demonstrated that Russia has the military capability to impose its will despite Western objections and economic sanctions."

🎧 Listen here for my pre-dawn conversation with Niala Boodhoo, host of our daily podcast, "Axios Today."

2. A nuclear warning

Screenshot: Fox News

Rarely in our lifetimes has the world heard more chilling and ominous words: Vladimir Putin said nations "will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history" if they interfere in his invasion of Ukraine.

  • Why it matters: This is a rare overt threat of nuclear attack.

Between the lines: The world is witnessing the most consequential invasion in Europe since World War II, but with a scary twist:

  • Madman Putin is sitting on a massive nuclear arsenal and seems impervious to pressure, sanctions or threats.

Putin said in announcing the invasion:

To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside: If you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history. All relevant decisions have been taken. I hope you hear me.

3. Living history

Screenshot: MSNBC

NBC's Erin McLaughlin told viewers live throughout prime time about explosions from both sides of her in Kyiv. She was live on MSNBC at 12:05 a.m. ET (7:05 a.m. in Ukraine) when she heard the first sirens going off.

  • "People are waking up absolutely terrified," she said. "People are waking up to their windows shaking."
Screenshot: CNN

CNN's Matthew Chance was talking live with Don Lemon in U.S. prime time, from a roof in central Kyiv, when Chance said he heard "a big bang ... big explosions."

  • As viewers watched, the correspondent scrambled to don a flak jacket. It muffled his microphone till he readjusted.

Watch the incredible video.

Screenshot: MSNBC from AP video

Above: Cars flee the capital.

🗞️ Time capsule ...

4. New data: Global democracy declines

Freedom in the World index, 2022
Reproduced from Freedom House. Map: Axios Visuals

Freedom around the world declined in 2021 for the 16th consecutive year, Axios World author Dave Lawler writes from an annual report from Freedom House, which warns that countries including China and Russia are exporting authoritarianism.

  • Why it matters: "The leaders of China, Russia, and other dictatorships have succeeded in shifting global incentives," says the report, "while encouraging more authoritarian approaches to governance."

Undemocratic regimes are growing even more undemocratic as they bend institutions to their will — and spread that model abroad.

  • So are established democracies like the U.S., where "internal forces have exploited the shortcomings in their systems, distorting national politics to promote hatred, violence, and unbridled power."

According to the index, "Freedom in the World 2022":

  • 38% of the global population lives in countries that are "not free" — the highest percentage since 1997. 20% live in "free" countries and 42% in "partly free" countries.
  • There was better news from Ecuador, which moved into the "free" column after a smooth presidential transition ... Chile, where democracy has held firm and arguably deepened amid social upheaval ... and the Ivory Coast, which held relatively free parliamentary elections last spring.

The bottom line: Finland, Norway and Sweden are the freest countries.

  • Eritrea, North Korea, South Sudan, Syria and Turkmenistan are the least free.

Read the report ... Share this story.

5. Exclusive: Democracy group targets Hungary

Viktor Orbán meets with President Trump in 2019. Photo: Chris Kleponis/Pool via Bloomberg

A pro-democracy group advised by top historians, diplomats, journalists and a former NATO supreme allied commander launches today with an initial focus on Hungary, casting it as the "next battleground state in the global fight to defend democracy," Axios' Zachary Basu reports.

  • The executive director of Action for Democracy told Axios he views the nonprofit as a counterweight to the "cabal of autocrats and dictators" that has grown in strength in recent years — and which has found sympathizers among a strain of U.S. conservatives.

Critics of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who will seek a fourth consecutive term in parliamentary elections on April 3, have accused him of dismantling democratic institutions, pursuing anti-LGBT and anti-immigrant policies, and curbing media freedoms.

  • His supporters abroad, including Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson and other right-wing populists in the U.S, view Orbán's pursuit of "illiberal democracy" as a model to be exported elsewhere.
  • CPAC will host an event in Budapest in support of Orbán next month.

Action for Democracy's advisory council is chaired by Hungarian-American journalist Kati Marton, and includes writer Anne Applebaum, historian Timothy Snyder, political scientist Francis Fukuyama and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Wesley Clark.

6. New Omicron subvariant

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The spread of an even more transmissible Omicron subvariant is making some experts nervous as states lift mandates, Axios' Tina Reed writes.

  • Why it matters: The new subvariant is a "reminder we very well may not be done here and there may be others coming," Matt Craven, a partner at McKinsey who specializes in public health and infectious disease, said yesterday during a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event.

The WHO reiterated this week that the subvariant, BA.2, is a "variant of concern" while also saying it would continue to be classified as Omicron.

  • Health officials are examining whether BA.2 may slow declines or even cause an increase in cases, WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove told The Wall Street Journal (subscription).

The subvariant is believed to be 30% more transmissible than the original strain, WHO reported — but may not cause more severe disease than the original Omicron strain.

7. Our weekly map: COVID in freefall

Change in reported COVID-19 cases per 100k people in the last two weeks
Data: N.Y. Times. (Maine case counts are lagging due to an ongoing data anomaly.) Cartogram: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

COVID case rates remained in freefall over the last two weeks, Axios' Tina Reed and Kavya Beheraj report.

  • The U.S. is now averaging roughly 82,000 new COVID cases per day — a 64% drop over the past two weeks.

Only one state, Washington, has reached transmission considered "low" at six cases per 100,000 people.

  • Reality check: There still are roughly 2,000 deaths from COVID in the U.S. a day. But that's down 24% from two weeks ago.

Share this map.

8. Tamales and the blues

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Legend has it that Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil for supernatural guitar talent. He went on to record songs in the 1930s about cars, the crossroads — and tamales, Axios' Russell Contreras writes.

  • Johnson's famous homage to tamales in "They're Red Hot" (YouTube) points to regularly neglected Latino connections to Black American music and cuisine scholars are just now working to uncover.

The tamale was a common food in the Mississippi Delta and parts of Tennessee, where a Southern version of the dish had evolved, music historian Elijah Wald told Axios Latino: "There were tamales all over the Black South."

  • Mississippi Delta tamales can be made of cornmeal or masa, with pork, turkey or greens and can be wrapped in corn shucks or parchment paper.

There's even a catfish tamale.

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