Your Friday Briefing

Facing deeper isolation by the day over the war in Ukraine, Russia seemed to slightly recalibrate its stance, allowing greater humanitarian access to the devastated port city of Mariupol and apparently retreating from a payment confrontation with European gas customers. Fighting around Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, continued unabated. Follow the latest updates.

The population of Mariupol has for weeks been cut off from the outside world by heavy Russian bombardment and intense fighting. Thousands of civilians are believed to have died. Survivors have been trapped in basements without heat or electricity, and are desperately short of food, water and other essentials. A Red Cross team planned to enter the city on a rescue mission.

Russian officials scoffed at American claims that subordinates of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, were misleading him about how the war was going. “They do not understand President Putin,” said the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov. “They do not understand the decision-making mechanism, and they do not understand the efforts of our work.”

Quotable: “Russia maintains pressure on Kyiv and other cities, so we can expect additional offensive actions, bringing even more suffering,” the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said at a news conference.

Gas: Putin had demanded that European customers of his country’s natural gas pay in rubles or risk a cutoff, a condition that those governments rejected. But after speaking with the Russian leader, the prime minister of Italy, Mario Draghi, said that the Russian president would grant a “concession” to European countries.

In other news from the war:

  • As many in Europe have grappled with the shock of facing a war on their doorstep, teachers say they are facing tough questions about the conflict from worried children.

  • The White House announced a plan to release up to 180 million barrels of oil from U.S. strategic reserves.

  • European leaders are considering giving Ukraine security guarantees to enable an agreement with Moscow.

  • The U.N. appointed a commission to investigate allegations of Russian war crimes.

  • A European bank forecast that Ukraine’s economic output would contract by 20 percent this year and Russia’s by 10 percent.

Days before he stands for re-election against an unexpectedly organized opposition on Sunday, Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, is using the power of his office to shape the contours of the election more to his liking by unleashing a fresh round of changes to the country’s election laws that benefit his party, Fidesz.

The situation is considered so extraordinary that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental organization, is sending observers to monitor the elections. It is only the second time in the E.U.’s history that the group has started a full-scale monitoring operation on a member of the bloc.

Over more than a decade, Orban has not hesitated to use government power to erode democratic norms and cement one-party rule. He has rewritten the Constitution, remade the courts and used news outlets to advance his agenda or push misinformation about his rivals. Many of the largest independent outlets have also been taken over by his allies.

Details: Hungary is divided into 106 districts, each of which elects a member to Parliament. An additional 93 seats are awarded to political parties based on a unique formula. Orban changed the formula for handing out seats to benefit Fidesz.

A federal judge in Florida ruled that sections of the state’s year-old election law were unconstitutional and racially motivated. And he barred Florida from making similar legal changes in the next decade without the approval of the federal government.

It was the first time a federal court had struck down major elements of the wave of voting laws enacted by Republicans since the 2020 election.

“For the past 20 years, the majority in the Florida Legislature has attacked the voting rights of its Black constituents,” Judge Mark Walker wrote in the decision. He argued that the attacks by Republicans were “part of a cynical effort to suppress turnout among their opponents’ supporters.” The decision is certain to be appealed.

There’s a Swiss political party dedicated to opposing the use of PowerPoint. Some people believe Avril Lavigne died in 2003 and was replaced by a look-alike. And a stone in a museum in Taiwan uncannily resembles a slab of meat.

These quirky facts, and many others like them, come from @depthsofwikipedia, an Instagram account that shares bizarre and surprising snippets from Wikipedia. Some posts are wholesome — such as one about Hatsuyume, the Japanese word for one’s first dream of the year — while others are not safe for work (a post about panda pornography, for example).

Annie Rauwerda started the account in the early days of the pandemic, when others were baking sourdough bread and learning how to knit. “Wikipedia is the best thing on the internet,” she told The Times. “It’s what the internet was supposed to be. It has this hacker ethos of working together and making something.”

Zachary McCune, the brand director for the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates the online encyclopedia, said that @depthsofwikipedia is an extension of the site’s participatory ethos. “It’s a place where Wikipedia comes to life, like an after-hours tour of the best of Wikipedia,” he said.

Read more about the account.

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