The Soapbox: Russian escalation, protests in Iran and Fiona’s fallout

The Soapbox is a weekly column by WSN’s news desk analyzing major developments in world news and rounding up the stories we think are worth the read this week. Global consciousness for a global university.

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Susan Behrends Valenzuela

The Soapbox is a weekly news column rounding up stories worth reading for a global university. (Staff Illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

Tori Morales, Deputy News Editor

In Russia, mobilization and referendums change the game

Russian officials in four occupied Ukrainian regions announced plans on Sept. 20 to hold referendums on annexation to Russia. The following day, in a similar escalation, Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered the mobilization of 300,000 reservists, which includes previous service members with combat experience or other specialized skills.

Both announcements follow Russia’s loss of more than 2,300 square miles of territory earlier in the month, resulting in the greatest gains for Ukraine since the war began on Feb. 24. The moves may signal an “increasingly desperate” Putin, according to analysts. 

The Kremlin’s strategy to maintain internal approval of the war has been to limit its effects on average Russians — something that may now be impossible as Putin faces public outrage. Following the mobilization announcement, protests began in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and have led to more than 1,300 arrests so far. As Russians flee the country in an attempt to avoid mobilization, flight prices have skyrocketed.

The referendums echo Russia’s actions in Crimea after the 2014 invasion, and if they pass, would allow Russia to claim any Ukrainian military action in Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson as aggression and act with the justification of self-defense. Votes will be held between Sept. 23 and 27. Putin emphasized his nation’s unyielding willingness to defend its borders, which may soon include up to 15% of Ukraine, in a Sept. 21 announcement.

“In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us,” Putin said. “This is not a bluff. The citizens of Russia can rest assured that the territorial integrity of our Motherland, our independence and freedom will be defended — I repeat — by all the systems available to us.”

In Iran, a woman’s death in morality police custody ignites women-led protests

Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, died in Tehran on Sept. 16 after being arrested by morality police three days prior for allegedly failing to wear her hijab properly. Although officials claim that she died of underlying health issues, her family believes she was beaten based on eyewitness accounts.

In the wake of Amini’s death, women-led protests supporting Amini and her family have spread across Iran and into Iranian communities in Istanbul. In these demonstrations, women remove their hijabs, chant slogans calling for the death of Iran’s supreme leader and wave signs with Amini’s image.

Iran’s morality police enforce modesty rules that were implemented after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and since 2019, have operated compulsory “re-education centers” teaching classes about Islam and the proper use of the hijab. The modesty rules primarily affect women.

Due to the protests, the Iranian government has limited internet access in Tehran and security forces have shot into crowds of protestors in the Kurdistan province. The Hengaw Organization for Human Rights reported that 15 people have died in the protests, with an additional 733 injured. United Nations human rights experts condemned Iran’s morality policies and urged the state to cease violence against protestors in a statement on Sept. 22.

Amini’s father, Amjad Amini, expressed his sorrow at losing his daughter and accused Iranian officials of covering up the abuse she may have suffered before her death. 

“They ignored me,” he told BBC on Sept. 22. “They are now lying. She wanted to be a doctor — that was a dream that never came true. Her mother is so sick, we all miss her. It would have been her 23rd birthday yesterday.”

In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Fiona echoes the missteps of Maria

Hurricane Fiona touched down in Puerto Rico on Sept. 19, and left the island without electricity or access to clean water. The U.S. territory had not fully recovered from Hurricane Maria’s devastating impact to the power grid in 2017 and now faces a long road to rebuilding. 

Fiona touched down as a Category 1 storm and caused flooding and landslides, leaving eight dead. Without power, water treatment plants are shut down and residents must endure long lines to access one of at least 18 government water trucks, or collect water from mountain runoff.

On the fifth anniversary of Maria, which left roughly 3,000 dead and many without power for almost a year, Fiona reminds Puerto Ricans of the U.S. government’s failure to effectively repair and weather-proof infrastructure in the wake of 2017.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration placed restrictions on funding that hampered the nation’s ability to rebuild. Though President Joe Biden made it easier for Puerto Ricans to access aid, less than 20% of the $28 billion allocated to Puerto Rico has been spent, and most of that has been spent on emergency relief instead of long-term infrastructure improvements.

“What we’re seeing right now is a direct consequence of that failure to act,” Sergio Marxuach, a policy director at a Puerto Rican think tank, told the Washington Post.

Contact Tori Morales at [email protected]