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FirstFT: Biden hardens warning to Russia after Kyiv says no attack is ‘minor’

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Ukraine has hit back at Joe Biden’s suggestion that a “minor incursion” by Russian forces into the country might not prompt a severe allied response, forcing the US president to publicly reassure Kyiv that any attack by the Kremlin would trigger strong sanctions.

“We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations,” Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, said on Thursday.

The White House sought to clarify Biden’s remarks almost immediately at a Wednesday evening news conference. The president suggested allies may end up “having a fight” over sanctions if the Kremlin stopped short of a full-scale invasion. But after Zelensky’s rebuke and alarm in other allied capitals, Biden sought to walk back the comments himself, saying that any Russian incursion would spark sweeping sanctions.

“If any, any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border that is an invasion,” Biden said. “Let there be no doubt at all, if [Russian president Vladimir] Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price.”

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Thanks for reading FirstFT Europe/Africa. Here’s the rest of today’s news — Will

1. Fed opens debate over digital currency The Federal Reserve has launched what is expected to be a heated and consequential debate, its first, on the introduction of a central bank digital currency as it seeks to keep pace with financial innovation and maintain the supremacy of the dollar.

2. Horta-Osório attended Euros final during London Covid breach António Horta-Osório attended the European Championship football final in July the same day he breached Covid-19 rules to watch the Wimbledon men’s tennis final, according to people with knowledge of his movements. The former Credit Suisse chair, who resigned last weekend, took family members to both events.

3. UK state pension system ‘not fit for purpose’, MPs warn The UK’s state pension payment system should be urgently reformed to avoid a repeat of a £1bn underpayment scandal, according to parliament’s spending watchdog, which accused the Department for Work and Pensions of presiding over a “shameful shambles” dating back to 1985.

4. Britishvolt secures £1.7bn funding for North East battery plant The start-up, which hopes to build a UK battery factory in Blyth, has raised about £1.7bn from warehouse provider Tritax and investment group Abrdn to construct its factory in North East England. The investment was backed by a government grant understood to be about £100m.

5. US charges Belarus officials with piracy over diverted flight The US Department of Justice has charged four Belarusian government officials with aircraft piracy for forcing a Ryanair flight bound for Lithuania to land in Minsk last year so they could arrest a leading opposition activist.

Coronavirus digest

  • Australia has issued an urgent appeal for foreign backpackers after a crippling labour shortage forced store closures and squeezed the fresh fruit and meat supply.

  • Healthcare leaders warned that the return to offices and end of mandatory mask-wearing in England risked a second surge of the Omicron variant.

  • UK consumer confidence has dropped to its lowest level in 11 months on worries about surging inflation and fuel bills, suggesting that rising living costs could slow the household spending recovery.

  • FT readers shared their experiences with anti-vaxxers close to them.

Line chart of Index showing UK consumer confidence drops further in January

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The days ahead

Blinken meets Lavrov US secretary of state Antony Blinken meets his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov today in Geneva, following talks in Berlin yesterday with the German, French and UK foreign ministers.

WHO Covid update The World Health Organization will host a virtual press briefing with an update on Covid-19. The WHO last week said countries were “a way off” from treating coronavirus as endemic.

Economic data In the UK, the Office for National Statistics’ monthly retail sales figures for December are out, as are quarterly business confidence data from the CBI. The European Commission publishes flash consumer confidence figures for January.

What else we’re reading and watching

Permian Basin: oil prices breathe life into US shale Almost two years after the pandemic triggered one of the worst oil price crashes in history — and despite a president championing a transition away from fossil fuels — the heart of America’s oil industry is pumping more than ever before, with newfound optimism about the future of the industry.

Kazakhstan crisis challenges Beijing’s non-interference Beijing’s cautious approach to interventions in other countries’ affairs — a mainstay of its foreign policy — is increasingly coming into conflict with the need to protect its growing global interests, as it begins experimenting with security engagements abroad.

Post-Brexit hurdles A year after the end of the Brexit transition period, EU citizens in the UK, British citizens in the EU and those with families spanning the English Channel are adjusting to their new status and loss of freedoms. Liz Rowlinson examines some of the hurdles expats have faced in one of the most complex and confusing years for cross-border moves.

Life and death on Dover’s migrant front line On the edge of the Channel, those who live and deal with “the boat people” are long past crude headlines about the migrant crisis. Allowed anonymity, Dovorians most strongly feel compassion, and are extraordinarily dedicated and inspiringly effective in aiding those making the crossing, writes Horatio Clare.

A migrant is brought into the Port of Dover by a Border Force worker after being rescued while crossing the English Channel
Whisper it, but Dover is doing something extraordinary © Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Collectors, players and leagues cash in on sport NFTs The market for sports non-fungible tokens is set to reach $2bn in 2022. Early collectors, stars and even leagues stand to gain. But average consumers could lose money if the bubble bursts on this new asset class, warns FT Scoreboard’s Sara Germano, who talks to the people behind the craze.

Tech

Trying to fix your wireless earbuds will not go well. Stored in their charging boxes and laid side by side, it is estimated that all the earbuds sold in 2017 would stretch around the circumference of Earth. Neglected by recycling targets, the mass of plastic, copper, circuit boards, magnets and batteries join the trove of e-waste once they die. So Alexandra Heal resolved to try to fix her pair — and fell down a very tiny, very deep rabbit hole.

The Apple iPhone7 and AirPods
By 2026, a decade after Apple released the first mainstream wireless earbuds, nearly all of these 750m AirPods, Samsung Galaxy Buds and the rest will probably be defunct © Beck Diefenbach/Reuters

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