Biden, Ukraine President to Speak Sunday Amid Tensions with Russia 

President Joe Biden plans to speak Sunday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a White house official said Friday, a day after Biden spoke with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on how to reduce tensions on the Ukraine-Russia border. 

Biden will reaffirm support for Ukraine, discuss Russia’s military build-up on its borders and review preparations for diplomatic efforts to calm the situation in the region, the official said Friday. 

The U.S. and Russian leaders exchanged warnings over Ukraine in Thursday’s call, but their countries voiced some optimism afterwards about planned security talks in January to address Russian military actions that drew the threat of sanctions from Washington and its allies. 

The leaders’ exchange set the stage for lower-level engagement between the countries that includes the U.S.-Russia security meeting on January 9-10, followed by a Russia-NATO session on January 12, and a broader conference including Moscow, Washington and other European countries on January 13. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to lay the groundwork for the talks Friday in calls with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and others, the State Department said. 

In conversations with the foreign ministers of Canada and Italy, Blinken discussed a united response to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine and their consensus to impose “severe costs” on Moscow for any such actions. 

 

 

Pope Attends Year-End Service but Does Not Preside as Expected

Pope Francis ended the year by attending a vespers service Friday where he praised those who responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with responsibility and solidarity rather than an attitude of “every person for themselves.” 

The pope did not preside at the service as had been expected, leaving that to a senior Vatican cardinal. 

The Vatican did not explain why the change was made, seemingly at the last minute because the program for the ritual said Francis, 85, was to preside. 

Francis, who walked in unassisted and appeared to be in good condition, used a white chair to the side, sitting for most of the service. 

He later walked to a podium and read his homily, both without apparent difficulty. 

Last year, Francis had to skip the service because of a flare up of a sciatica condition that causes pain in his leg. 

Presiding would have required standing, kneeling and holding aloft a monstrance, a heavy gold vessel used to hold the communion host during vespers. 

The pandemic loomed large at the service, with a cap of several hundred on the number of people allowed into St. Peter’s Basilica for the traditional year-end thanksgiving service known as the “Te Deum.” 

COVID-19 also forced the pope to cancel his traditional visit to the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square afterwards. 

The Vatican announced that change on Thursday, saying it was to avoid a causing a crowd to gather. 

In his homily, Francis said the pandemic had caused many to feel lost and that in some cases “a temptation of every person for themselves” had spread. 

“But we rose up again with a sense of responsibility,” he said. 

Italy reported a record 144,243 coronavirus related cases on Friday and has recently imposed new restrictions, including wearing masks outdoors. 

With Rome Mayor Roberto Gualteri behind him, Francis, who is also bishop of Rome, also used his homily to lament the decay of the Italian capital. 

For several years Romans have been living with a garbage collection crisis and with bins overflowing, particularly in residential areas. Herds of wild boars have invaded some neighborhoods to feast on the rubbish. 

“Rome is a wonderful city that never ceases to enchant. But for those who live here, unfortunately it is not always dignified,” Francis said. 

 

New Year’s Eve Muted by Omicron; Many Hoping for Better 2022

Good riddance to 2021. Let 2022 bring fresh hope.

That was a common sentiment Friday as people around the world got ready to welcome in the new year.

In many places, plans for New Year’s Eve celebrations were muted or canceled for the second straight year due to a surge of coronavirus infections, this time driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.

Even before omicron hit, many people were happy to say goodbye to a second grinding year of the pandemic. 

But so far, at least, the omicron surge hasn’t resulted in the same levels of hospitalizations and deaths as previous outbreaks — especially among vaccinated people — offering a glimmer of hope for 2022. 

In Japan, writer Naoki Matsuzawa said he would spend the next few days cooking and delivering food to the elderly because some stores would be closed. He said vaccinations had made people less anxious about the pandemic, despite the new variant.

“A numbness has set in, and we are no longer overly afraid,” said Matsuzawa, who lives in Yokohama, southwest of Tokyo. “Some of us are starting to take for granted that it won’t happen to me.”

Like many other people, Matsuzawa hopes that life will improve in 2022. 

“I hope the restrictions can disappear,” he said.

Across Japan, many people planned to take new year trips to spend time with their families. On New Year’s Eve, people thronged temples and shrines, most of them wearing masks.

Some appeared to be shrugging off virus fears, however, by dining and drinking raucously in downtown Tokyo and flocking to shops, celebrating not only the holidays but a sense of exhilaration over being freed from recent virus restrictions.

Because of where the international date line sits, countries in Asia and the Pacific region are among the first to usher in each new year.

 

Australia was planning to go ahead with its celebrations despite an explosion in virus cases. The centerpiece of festivities is the renowned fireworks display from the Sydney Harbor Bridge and Sydney Opera House.

Hours before the celebrations were due to begin, Australian health authorities reported a record 32,000 new virus cases, many of them in Sydney. Because of the surge, authorities were expecting far smaller crowds than in pre-pandemic years, when as many as 1 million revelers would crowd inner Sydney. 

In neighboring New Zealand, where there hasn’t been any community spread of omicron, authorities took a precautionary approach by canceling several fireworks displays, including a popular one from atop Auckland’s Sky Tower. Auckland instead will mark the new year with a light display projected onto the tower and other city landmarks.

In South Korea’s capital, Seoul, the annual New Year’s Eve bell-ringing ceremony was canceled for the second straight year due to a surge in cases.

Officials said a pre-recorded video of this year’s bell-ringing ceremony would instead be broadcast online and on television. The ceremony had previously drawn tens of thousands of people. Last year’s cancellation was the first since the ceremony began in 1953.

 

South Korean authorities also planned to close many beaches and other tourist attractions along the east coast, which usually swarm with people hoping to catch the year’s first sunrise. On Friday, South Korea said it will extend tough distancing rules for another two weeks.

In India, millions of people were planning to ring in the new year from their homes, with nighttime curfews and other restrictions taking the fizz out of celebrations in large cities including New Delhi and Mumbai. 

Authorities have imposed restrictions to keep revelers away from restaurants, hotels, beaches and bars amid a surge in cases fueled by omicron. 

But some places, including Goa, a tourist paradise, and Hyderabad, an information technology hub, have been spared from night curfews thanks to smaller numbers of infections, although other restrictions still apply.

Many Indonesians were also forgoing their usual festivities for a quieter evening at home, after the government banned many New Year’s Eve celebrations. In Jakarta, fireworks displays, parades and other large gatherings were prohibited, while restaurants and malls were allowed to remain open but with curfews imposed.

Vietnam also canceled fireworks shows and celebrations. In Hanoi, authorities closed off central streets, while in Ho Chi Minh City, audiences were banned from watching live countdown performances, which instead were to be shown on social media.

In Hong Kong, about 3,000 people planned to attend a New Year’s Eve concert featuring local celebrities including boy band Mirror. The concert will be the first big New Year’s Eve event held since 2018, after events were canceled in 2019 due to political strife and last year because of the pandemic.

In mainland China, the Shanghai government canceled events including an annual light show along the Huangpu River in the city center that usually draws hundreds of thousands of spectators.

There were no plans for public festivities in Beijing, where popular temples have been closed or had limited access since mid-December. The government has called on people to avoid leaving the Chinese capital if possible and requires tests for travelers arriving from areas where there are infections.

 

Popular temples in the eastern Chinese cities of Nanjing, Hangzhou and other major cities canceled traditional New Year’s Eve “lucky bell-ringing” ceremonies and asked the public to stay away.

But in Thailand, authorities were allowing New Year’s Eve parties and fireworks displays to continue, albeit with strict safety measures. They were hoping to slow the spread of the omicron variant while also softening the blow to the country’s battered tourism sector. New Year’s Eve prayers, which are usually held in Buddhist temples around Thailand, will be held online instead.

In the Philippines, a powerful typhoon two weeks ago wiped out basic necessities for tens of thousands of people ahead of New Year’s Eve. More than 400 were killed by Typhoon Rai and at least 82 remain missing. Half a million homes were damaged or destroyed.

Leahmer Singson, a 17-year-old mother, lost her home to a fire last month, and then the typhoon blew away her temporary wooden shack in Cebu city. She will welcome the new year with her husband, who works in a glass and aluminum factory, and her 1-year-old baby in a ramshackle tent in a coastal clearing where hundreds of other families erected small tents from debris, rice sacks and tarpaulins to shield themselves from the rain and sun. 

Asked what she wants for the new year, Singson had a simple wish: “I hope we won’t get sick.”

Biden Urges Putin to De-escalate Ukraine Tensions

U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday “urged Russia to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine” in a 50-minute call with his Russian counterpart, the White House said. A senior administration official added that President Vladimir Putin made no concrete promises about the tens of thousands of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border.

Biden “made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine,” press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Psaki said the two nations will participate in three separate rounds of talks next month: first through bilateral talks scheduled to start January 10, and then through two sets of multiparty talks with the NATO-Russia Council and at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

“President Biden reiterated that substantive progress in these dialogues can occur only in an environment of de-escalation rather than escalation,” she added.

For months now, Putin has built up troops along the Russia-Ukraine border. U.S. intelligence officials have estimated, from looking at satellite photos, that as many as 100,000 troops are in the area. Meanwhile, Ukraine has been building up its own defenses on its side of the border.

For years, the former Soviet state has been seeking entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, alongside the U.S. and other Western nations. Russia strongly opposes that move.

Kremlin pleased

Putin foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov said the Kremlin was pleased with the talks, but he also said that Putin pushed Biden for concrete results from the upcoming security talks. Russia’s demands include that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and that the security alliance reduce its deployments in Central and Eastern Europe. White House officials have declined to discuss their terms publicly.

This was the second time this month that the two men had held direct talks. According to Leon Aron, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, it was the eighth time that the U.S. and Russian leaders have met in one year. That, he said, is “a record in the entire history of U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Soviet relations.”

Biden administration officials said that the two had a “serious and substantive” discussion. But a senior administration official said that Putin made “no declarations as to intentions.” The two presidents will not participate in the high-level talks set for January 10 in Geneva.

Although analysts seem to doubt Putin will invade Ukraine, they worry that tens of thousands of battle-ready troops in the region could accidentally or intentionally spark a war.

“If he is bluffing, then it is a very serious bluff, which entails particular risks to Putin, because he has to make sure that 100,000 troops-plus are occupied and ready – but not taking the initiative themselves before an order is given,” said Will Pomeranz, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. ”So I think that it is just simply a situation that is fraught with peril on both sides.”

The White House has said repeatedly that there will be “significant consequences” if Russia invades, including harsh economic sanctions and increased security support for Ukraine. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, tweeted Wednesday that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed “full [U.S.] support for [Ukraine] in countering Russian aggression.”

A compromise?

“Both presidents essentially have their backs against the wall,” Aron told VOA. “Putin’s ultimatum is no more expansion of NATO, withdrawal of NATO troops from the Baltics and, most importantly, a promise to never have Ukraine inside NATO. In essence, on all those three, Biden said, ‘No.’ So the question is: Will they arrive at some sort of compromise?” 

And like many analysts, he postulated that Putin is posturing, projecting strength ahead of key elections in two years.

“Putin successfully creates a sense of emergency, if you notice the language is almost the same: He’s about to start a war, he’s about to invade Ukraine,” he said. “And apparently, the White House goes for it. I wouldn’t, because, I wrote, and I also spoke about this, Putin is not going to invade Ukraine at this time. He’s playing to his domestic audience. And all of this is a part of the game that Putin is playing, and I think will continue to play at least until his elections in 2024.”

Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse.

Azerbaijan Passes Media Bill Despite Protests from Journalists 

Azerbaijan’s parliament on Thursday adopted a new media law despite concerns from journalists who said it could further limit independent journalism. 

The law, which is due to go into effect on January 1 after being signed by the president, includes a registry for journalists and will apply to media outlets in the country as well as those who broadcast or publish to an Azerbaijani audience. 

Dozens of journalists gathered in the capital Baku this week to protest the law. At least one reporter was injured during the rally, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). 

Local media and rights groups have said that the law could allow the government to determine who is officially recognized as a journalist, and raised concerns that the registry will include details about reporters and their work contacts. 

The law will also make it harder for media outlets that work in exile to continue to report without registering in the country, and includes provisions that ban disseminating information from unofficial sources, rights groups including RSF said.  

Alasgar Mammadli, a media law expert based in Baku, told VOA that despite serious objections from the media, the law was adopted unchanged, except for two minor details. 

“We said the document had many problems and we proposed that parliament amend up to 40 articles based on those issues. Unfortunately, those suggestions were not taken into account,” Mammadli said. “I think this step by the government will not improve the situation for journalism and media freedom in Azerbaijan, it will make it worse.” 

Mammadli believes that journalists will have to raise problems related to the new law in the courts as soon as possible and may have to seek support from the European Court of Human Rights. 

Mehman Aliyev, director of the independent news agency Turan, also said he believes the law will be used to restrict the media. 

“[The law] testifies to the strengthening of state control over the information community. The new law means toughening of information relations between the Azerbaijani government and society,” Aliyev said. 

Lawmaker Aydin Mirzazade, a member of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, dismissed the media’s concerns, saying that the bill was widely discussed and that media representatives contributed to it. 

“I think that the law will regulate relations between the media and state and media and society as a whole. In other words, the law protects media independence, freedom of speech and does not impose any sanctions or restrictions on it, especially on social networks,” he said. 

He also dismissed claims by some analysts who said the law contradicts Azerbaijan’s constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. 

“If they consider the law unconstitutional, they have the right to indicate to the court which articles of the law are contrary to the constitution. There is a very simple solution to the problem, ”Mirzazade said. “On the one hand, they say that the law is reactionary; on the other hand, they can openly express their views. That is, their actions contradict what they say.” 

One of the biggest concerns cited by journalists and rights groups is that the law will give authorities power to decide who can work in journalism. 

Those with a previous criminal record will not be eligible for accreditation, and publishers have to be citizens and full-time residents, Eurasianet reported. 

While the accreditation process is voluntary, the new regulations would exclude journalists like investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova, who spent over 500 days in prison on what rights groups say were bogus charges in retaliation for her reporting on corruption.

Without the official press pass, reporters could find it harder to gain access to officials and some events. 

“I can probably do my research. But they [officials] will not answer my journalistic questions,” said Ismayilova. 

Another regulation that troubled media was the requirement that publishers live in Azerbaijan. That could impact independent news outlets that were set up outside the country because of an already repressive environment, according to reports. 

“Peppered with imprecise wording and contradictions, this law aims to step up control over the media and legalize censorship,” said RSF’s Jeanne Cavelier in a statement. 

“The state is overstepping its powers by interfering in the professional activities of journalists, without any consultation with independent media or experts specializing in freedom of expression.” 

RSF and others believe the law will add to an already repressive environment. Azerbaijan ranks 167 out of 180 countries, where 1 is freest on the world press freedom index. 

This article originated in VOA’s Azeri Service. 

Russia’s ‘Gas Pivot’ to China Poses Challenge for Europe

Gazprom, Russia’s giant state-owned energy company, is slated to finalize an agreement in 2022 for a second huge natural gas pipeline running from Siberia to China, marking yet another stage in what energy analysts and Western diplomats say is a fast-evolving gas pivot to Asia by Moscow.

They see the pivot as a geopolitical project and one that could mean trouble for Europe.

Known as Power of Siberia 2, the mega-pipeline traversing Mongolia will be able to deliver 50 billion cubic meters of Russian gas to China annually. It was given the go-ahead in March by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and when finished it will complement another massive pipeline, Power of Siberia 1, that transports gas from Russia’s Chayandinskoye field to northern China.

Power of Siberia 2 will supply gas from Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula, the source of the gas exported to Europe. Western officials worry that the project could have serious geopolitical implications for energy-hungry European nations before they embark in earnest on a long transition to renewables and away from fossil fuels.

For months Western leaders and officials have been accusing Russia of worsening an energy crunch that’s hit Europe this year and threatens to deepen during the northern hemisphere winter. Gazprom has shrugged off urgent European requests for more natural gas. In the past few weeks Gazprom has at times even reduced exports, say industry monitors.

The energy giant maintains it has been meeting the volumes of gas it agreed to in contracts, but Gazprom has been accused by the International Energy Agency and European lawmakers of deliberately not doing enough to boost supplies to Europe as the continent struggles with unprecedented price hikes and the increasing risk of power rationing and plant stoppages.

The new Sino-Russian energy project, which Putin discussed with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, during a December 18 video conference, will give Moscow even more leverage when price bargaining with Europe and boost China as an alternative market for gas, according to Filip Medunic, an analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Russia remains Europe’s main gas supplier, but Europeans urgently need to understand the changes it is currently making to its energy transport infrastructure—as these changes could leave Europe even more at Moscow’s mercy,” he outlined in a study earlier this year.

Speaking after his conference call with Xi Jinping, the Russian president told reporters that the pipeline’s route, length and other parameters have been agreed to, and a feasibility study will be completed in the next several weeks.

The Kremlin has been eager to expand its energy market in China, which will need more gas in coming years to substitute for an eventual phasing down of coal, according to Vita Spivak, an energy analyst at Control Risks, a global consulting firm. Spivak told a discussion forum earlier this month that Kremlin officials are anxious to “exploit the opportunity” especially “considering there is a good working relationship between the two capitals.”

The Power of Siberia 2 pipeline has been championed by Putin, she said.

McKinsey, the strategic management consulting firm, estimates Chinese demand for gas will double by 2035. That will be a godsend for Russia. European governments are already setting out plans on how to transform their energy markets—how they will generate, import and distribute energy and shift to renewables and, in some cases, nuclear power. Russia needs to diversify into Asia to prolong its profits from its vast natural gas resources as Europe slowly weans itself off Gazprom supplies.

But Europe will remain dependent on Russian gas in the near future and Moscow has been busy re-ordering its complex network of pipelines, shaping them for wider economic and political purposes, say energy and national security analysts. Currently it supplies Europe through several pipelines—Nord Stream I, TurkStream and another from Yamal that terminates in Germany after transiting Belarus and Poland.

And it has just completed the controversial Nord Stream 2 underwater pipeline, which connects Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, circumventing older land routes through Ukraine. Nord Stream 2 has yet to receive final approval by German authorities.

Washington has long warned of the risk of Nord Stream 2 making the EU in the short term even more dependent for its energy needs on Russia and potentially vulnerable to economic coercion by the Kremlin. The planned Power of Siberia 2 pipeline will be able to pump into China around the same amount that Nord Stream 2 would be able to transport to Europe, giving the Kremlin more options about who gets the gas and at what price.

A senior European diplomat told VOA that Gazprom’s refusal to come up with additional supplies during the current energy crunch already “demonstrates Russia’s questionable motives about how ready it is to use the energy market for purely political purposes.” He added, “As it diversifies to China, it will give the Kremlin more opportunities to turn off and on supplies to Europe but reduce considerably any financial risks for Russia.”

Times Square Show Will Go on Despite Virus Surge, Mayor Says

New York City will ring in 2022 in Times Square as planned despite record numbers of COVID-19 infections in the city and around the nation, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday.

“We want to show that we’re moving forward, and we want to show the world that New York City is fighting our way through this,” de Blasio, whose last day in office is Friday, said on NBC’s “Today” show.

After banning revelers from Times Square a year ago due to the pandemic, city officials previously announced plans for a scaled-back New Year’s bash with smaller crowds and vaccinations required.

While cities such as Atlanta have canceled New Year’s Eve celebrations, de Blasio said New York City’s high COVID-19 vaccination rate makes it feasible to welcome masked, socially distanced crowds to watch the ball drop in Times Square. “We’ve got to send a message to the world. New York City is open,” he said.

Thanks to the highly contagious omicron variant that was first identified as a variant of concern last month, new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have soared to their highest levels on record at over 265,000 per day on average. New York City reported a record number of new, confirmed cases — more than 39,590 — on Tuesday, according to New York state figures.

De Blasio said the answer is to “double down on vaccinations” and noted that 91% of New York City adults have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose.

The city’s next mayor, Eric Adams, will take the oath of office in Times Square early Saturday. Adams, a Democrat like de Blasio, planned a news conference later Thursday to outline his pandemic plan.

Cold War Resentment Has Been Building for Decades in Kremlin

A few days after Vladimir Putin was reelected his country’s president in 2018, a former top Kremlin official outlined to VOA how perilous relations had become between the West and Russia. In a wide-ranging conversation, almost foretelling the high-stakes clash developing now between the Kremlin and NATO over Ukraine, he said Putin believed the fracture between Russia and Western powers was irreparable. 

And he identified NATO’s eastward expansion as the key reason. The final blow came for Putin, he said, with the 2013-14 popular Maidan uprising in Ukraine that led to the ouster of his ally, then Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych.

The Kremlin insider, who occupied a senior position in former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s government and went on to become a core member of Putin’s team, blamed the West for a collapse of trust and the lack of common ground. “Maybe all that can be done is to do smaller things together to try to recreate trust,” he said. “If we can’t do that, maybe we will wake up one day and someone will have launched nuclear missiles.”

Fast forward and Kremlin officials have been openly threatening in recent days to deploy tactical nuclear weapons amid rising fears that Putin is considering a further military incursion into Ukraine. This would be a repeat of Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its seizure of a large part of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, bordering Russia.

“There will be confrontation,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said shortly after U.S. President Joe Biden and Putin held a two-hour video conference Dec. 18, aimed at defusing a burgeoning crisis over Russian military movements near Ukraine’s borders and an amassing of around 100,000 troops.

Ryabkov warned that Russia would deploy weapons previously banned under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, an arms control deal struck in 1987 by then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, which expired in 2019.

Last week, in remarks broadcast by Russian media, Putin said, “If the obviously aggressive line of our Western colleagues continues, we will take adequate, retaliatory military-technical measures [and] react toughly to unfriendly steps.”

For Western leaders and officials, the Kremlin’s grievances and fears over NATO’s expansion are delusional at best, or at worst a pretext to redraft the security architecture of Europe with Putin as the deciding architect.  

Western officials say it is nonsensical for Russia to paint the West as the aggressor, considering the hybrid warfare and hostile acts they accuse the Kremlin of conducting against the West for years. They see these as revanchist steps seeking to turn the clock back to when Russia controlled half of Europe.

Western officials cite cyber-attacks targeting American and European nuclear power plants and other utility infrastructure, a nerve gas assassination on British soil of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, disinformation campaigns seeking to meddle in Western elections and politics and the funding of disruptive far-right and far-left populist parties as part of an effort to destabilize the European Union.

“Facts are a funny thing and facts make clear that the only aggression we are seeing at the border of Russia and Ukraine is the military build-up by the Russians and the bellicose rhetoric by the leader of Russia,” Jen Psaki, U.S. President Joe Biden’s spokeswoman, told reporters last week.

But for Kremlin officials, the blame rests with the Western powers for their failure to heed the building Russian frustration over NATO’s enlargement since the end of the Cold War. There have been waves of new admissions to the Western military alliance since 1999, bringing in a dozen central European and Baltic states that were once members of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact.

At times as the enlargement proceeded, ugly behind-the-scenes clashes erupted, notably over Western objections to Russia “establishing closer ties” with its former Soviet republics. The issue triggered a face-to-face argument between Putin and then-White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice during a meeting in Sochi. Rice maintained that the former Soviet republics were independent states and should determine their future without what she saw as Russian intimidation.

And Kremlin aides have been adamant that the Maidan protests were Western-fomented and not a popular uprising. The blaming of the West for the return of Cold War-like enmity, and the sense of pessimism Russian officials have been displaying about East-West relations, illustrates how difficult it will be to bridge the rift.

Putin’s pent-up resentment spilled out last week at his end-of-the-year press conference in Moscow during which he demanded an immediate answer to his demand that NATO withdraw its forces from central and eastern Europe. The Russian leader said he was running out of patience. “You must provide guarantees. You must do that at once, now, and not keep blathering on about this for talks that will last decades,” he said.

His demands include not only troop withdrawals from former communist states that are members of NATO but a promise that Ukraine will not one day become a member of the Western alliance. In effect, it would mean the West recognizes former Soviet states and ex-communist countries as part of the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.

Nina Khrushcheva, a professor at The New School in New York, remains pessimistic about the prospects for planned talks next month among the United States, NATO and Russia. In a commentary this week, Khrushcheva, a great-granddaughter of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, says Russia has a “special-nation” mindset and warns Putin isn’t alone among Russians who “want not to revive the USSR, but rather to preserve their country’s status.”

How that can be done, how Russian Cold War resentment can be soothed, while at the same time not denying the rights of other, smaller sovereign states to decide their own paths, will be the key challenge facing Western negotiators when they hold talks in January.

Biden, Putin to Hold Call Over Stepped Up Security Demands

President Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin will speak Thursday as the Russian leader has stepped up his demands for security guarantees in Eastern Europe.

The two leaders will discuss “a range of topics, including upcoming diplomatic engagements,” National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said in a statement announcing the call.

The talks come as the U.S. and Western allies have watched the buildup of Russian troops near the border of Ukraine, growing to an estimated 100,000 and fueling fears that Moscow is preparing to invade Ukraine.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Blinken “reiterated the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders.”

Price said the two discussed efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine and upcoming diplomatic engagements with Russia.

Putin said earlier this week he would ponder a slew of options if the West fails to meet his push for security guarantees precluding NATO’s expansion to Ukraine.

Earlier this month, Moscow submitted draft security documents demanding that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back its military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe.

Amanda Gorman Writes End-of-Year Poem, ‘New Day’s Lyric’

Amanda Gorman is ending her extraordinary year on a hopeful note. 

The 23-year-old poet, whose reading of her own “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration made her an international sensation, released a new work Wednesday to mark the end of 2021. “New Day’s Lyric” is a five-stanza, 48-line resolution with themes of struggle and healing known to admirers of “The Hill We Climb” and of her bestselling collection “Call Us What We Carry,” which came out in early December: 

“What was cursed, we will cure. 

What was plagued, we will prove pure. 

Where we tend to argue, we will try to agree, 

Those fortunes we forswore, now the future we foresee, 

Where we weren’t aware, we’re now awake; 

Those moments we missed 

Are now these moments we make, 

The moments we meet, 

And our hearts, once all together beaten, 

Now all together beat.” 

Poets rarely enjoy the kind of attention Gorman received in 2021, but in an email to The Associated Press she reflected less on her own success than on the state of the country. Gorman wrote that the “chaos and instability” of the past year had made her reject the idea of going “back to normal” and instead fight to “move beyond it.” She mentioned Maya Angelou’s poem “Human Family” and added, “To be a family, a country, doesn’t necessitate that we be the same or agree on everything, only that we continue to try to see the best in each other and move forward into a shared future. Whether we like it or not, we are in this together.” 

 

Gorman offered an alliterative response when asked what inspired “New Day’s Lyric,” telling the AP that she “wanted to write a lyric to honor the hardships, hurt, hope and healing of 2021 while also harkening the potential of 2022.” 

“This is such a unique New Year’s Day, because even as we toast our glasses to the future, we still have our heads bowed for what has been lost,” she wrote. “I think one of the most important things the new year reminds us is of that old adage: This too shall pass. You can’t relive the same day twice — meaning every dawn is a new one, and every year an opportunity to step into the light.” 

World Struggles With Rising COVID-19 Infections

The United States recorded more than 512,000 daily new coronavirus cases Tuesday – the single highest one-day number of cases recorded since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data released by the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center

The one-day record coincides with a New York Times database showing the seven-day average of cases in the U.S. rose above 267,000 on Tuesday.

The recent surge is driven by a record number of children infected and hospitalized with COVID-19.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, lowered its previous estimate of new coronavirus cases driven by the rapidly spreading omicron variant. The federal health agency said Tuesday that omicron accounted for roughly 59 percent of all variants, far lower than the 73 percent figure it announced last week.

The surge of new infections in the United States has forced the cancelation of another postseason college football game. The Holiday Bowl was canceled Tuesday just hours before the game’s scheduled kickoff in San Diego, California, when UCLA (the University of California, Los Angeles) announced it would be unable to play against North Carolina State because too many players had been diagnosed with the infection.

Five postseason games have been canceled, while at least one bowl game is going ahead with a different team. Central Michigan will meet Washington State in Friday’s Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, after the Miami Hurricanes were forced to drop out. Central Michigan was supposed to play in the Arizona Bowl, but that game was canceled after Boise State withdrew.

Officials with the coming major college football championship playoffs have warned the four teams – Alabama, Cincinnati, Michigan and Georgia – that if they cannot play in Friday’s semifinal matchups, they may have to forfeit.

The U.S. is among several nations reporting record new numbers of infections. France on Tuesday reported a new one-day record of 179,807 new cases, making it one of the highest single-day tallies worldwide since the start of the pandemic.

Denmark, which has the world’s highest infection rate, with 1,612 cases per 100,000 people, posted a single-day record of 16,164 new infections on Monday.

Other European nations reporting new record-setting numbers of one-day infections Tuesday include Britain (138,831), Greece (21,657), Italy (78,313), Portugal (17,172) and Spain (99,671).

Australia is also undergoing a dramatic increase in new cases driven by omicron, posting nearly 18,300 infections Wednesday, well above Tuesday’s previous high of about 11,300.

New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, reported just over 11,200 infections Wednesday – nearly double the 6,602 new cases posted the previous day.

Worldwide, the number of recorded cases increased by 11% last week, according to the World Health Organization. The United Nations agency said Wednesday the risk posed by omicron remains “very high.”

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

9 Serbs Indicted for Killing Around 100 Muslims During Bosnian War 

A Bosnian war crimes prosecutor has indicted nine Bosnian Serbs for the killing of around 100 Muslim Bosniaks, including seven entire families, early in the 1992-95 war, the prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Wednesday. 

Twenty-six years after the end of its devastating war between Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks in which about 100,000 people had died, Bosnia is still searching for people who went missing and seeking justice against the suspected perpetrators. 

At the same time, the Balkan country is going through its worst post-war political crisis, with Bosnian Serb leaders’ threat of pulling out of Bosnia’s national institutions, including the joint armed forces, raising fears of a new conflict. 

The nine men, the former members and commanders of the Bosnian Serb wartime army, are accused of killing the Bosniak civilians from the area around the southeastern Bosnian town of Nevesinje, including dozens of women, elderly people and small children. 

The prosecutor’s office said seven families were among those killed in the summer of 1992. The remains of 49 people have been found while 47 people are still unaccounted for. 

Bosnia’s state court will need to confirm the indictment for the case to proceed.