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We’re covering a prisoner swap in Ukraine, a deadly attack in Mogadishu, and confusion over California’s new data privacy law.
Winning American support for those talks was a key reason that President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine — who had called ending the conflict his top priority — sought a White House meeting with President Trump. But Mr. Trump withheld $391 million in military aid and asked for investigations that could help discredit his political rivals.
Now three of our Washington-based reporters have the inside story of how and why Mr. Trump pursued the aid freeze over the objections of his top national security advisers.
Another angle: Russia said on Friday that it had deployed a hypersonic weapon capable of easily evading American missile defense systems. That may be part of an effort to pressure Mr. Trump to renew the last remaining arms-control treaty between the two countries, an agreement that limits strategic nuclear missile launchers and deployed warheads and that expires in early 2021.
Huawei’s future in Europe once looked shaky amid fears that its networks could be used for Chinese espionage. But even as those fears linger, the company has made dozens of deals to sell 5G hardware to European wireless carriers. And although the Trump administration has essentially blocked Huawei, neither the European Union nor its member states have moved to restrict Huawei’s access to their markets.
Details: Some European policymakers worry that American sanctions on Huawei — which says it has 12,000 employees, and 23 research and development centers in Europe — are merely a bargaining chip in Washington’s broader trade war with Beijing that could eventually be reversed.
When their men went missing, they stepped up to work
Many West African communities are reeling because local men who set out for Europe in search of work never returned. Some women there, realizing they might never see the money their husbands promised to send home, have turned to guiding animals, tilling the soil and other tasks that are traditionally seen as male roles.
On a trip to a drought-affected area of Senegal, our reporter Dionne Searcey met some of these women.
When Frode Berg, above, agreed to work as a courier for Norway’s military intelligence agency, he assumed it was low-risk spycraft. That was before Russian agents bundled him into a van and threw him in prison for two years.
Mr. Berg’s imprisonment in Moscow led to a prisoner swap in November. It has also prompted a heated debate in Kirkenes, the arctic seaport where he lives.
Kirkenes is strategically important for NATO because it lies near Russia’s powerful Northern Fleet and much of its nuclear arsenal. Yet Russian fishermen and consumers also help to drive the local economy, and some of Mr. Berg’s neighbors see his spying as a risky provocation of a friendly neighbor.
Here’s what else is happening
Somalia: The Shabab, a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda, was suspected after at least 79 people were killed by a truck explosion at a busy intersection in Mogadishu, the country’s capital, over the weekend. It was the worst attack there in years.
In memoriam: George Sakheim, 96, was a German refugee who served as an interpreter at the Nazi war crimes trials in Nuremberg.
“The Weekly”: Our TV show obtained combat footage, text messages and confidential interviews in which members of SEAL Team 7 tell Navy investigators of their platoon leader’s disturbing hunger for violence, which led them to report him. The Special Operations chief, Edward Gallagher, was acquitted of the most severe charges and has been welcomed to the White House.
News quiz: Revisit the toughest questions from 2019 in a special year-end quiz.
Italy: Growing a little marijuana for private use is not a crime, the country’s top court has said in a partial ruling.
Soccer: The game changed a lot in the 2010s, our correspondent writes in his latest column. Think superclubs, superplayers and a social media culture that has “proved capable of moments of beauty and brutality.”
What we’re reading: Variety’s list of the 10 most overrated films of the decade. “Fodder for some excellent party arguments,” writes the Briefings editor, Andrea Kannapell. “I mean, ‘Paddington 2’???”
Now, a break from the news
See: Phoebe Waller-Bridge and DaBaby are among the subjects of our favorite culture photographs from 2019.
Smarter Living: Whether you’re into New Year’s resolutions or not, there are a few ways our Styles desk recommends heading into 2020. Among them: Sleep until at least 6 a.m.
And now for the Back Story on …
We’re at peak fireworks. Giant displays are planned for New Year’s in Dubai, New York, London, Moscow and uncounted other cities.
The booms and starbursts have often prompted your Back Story writer to wonder: What if wars were decided by fireworks shows? Plenty of awe, and, if handled carefully, no deaths. My assumption was that fireworks had evolved from weaponry. But I had it backward.
The Chinese are credited with the first fireworks, discovering that roasting bamboo caused its closed cells to explode. The early use was to ward off evil spirits, an enduring idea.
China is also thought to be where the first gunpowder was mixed, upping bamboo’s explosive power with a blend of mainly potassium nitrate (a food preservative also known as Chinese snow or saltpeter), charcoal and sulfur. Military use followed within a few centuries.
When the technology spread into Europe, development accelerated. Germany took the lead on arms, Italy on fireworks.
China is still the world’s leading producer of fireworks, but its own biggest displays come at the Lunar New Year. That will be in a few weeks: Jan. 25, 2020.
That’s it for this briefing. Happy Hogmanay to Scots, and see you next time.
To Mark Josephson and Raillan Brooks for the break from the news. Andrea Kannapell, the Briefings editor, wrote today’s Back Story. You can reach the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• We’re listening to “The Daily.” Our latest episode revisits how family history websites have been used by U.S. law enforcement to track down suspects and win convictions.
• Here’s today’s Mini Crossword puzzle, and a clue: Buddy (three letters). You can find all our puzzles here.
• Our list of the most-read Times stories of 2019 has options to exclude politics or focus only on fun reads.
Orignially published in NYT.