Russian Markets Plunge as War Fears Mount

The Russian stock market took a dive Monday as war fears triggered a massive sell-off, with tens of billions of dollars wiped from the value of some of the country’s leading businesses.

As concerns mount that President Vladimir Putin is poised to order an invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the ruble also hit a 14-month low, prompting the Central Bank to intervene by halting its regular purchases of foreign currency to help prop up the ruble.

“The Bank of Russia has decided not to purchase foreign currency on the domestic market,” the bank said in a statement. “This decision was made in order to reduce the volatility of financial markets.”

The bank regularly converts the proceeds of the country’s oil and gas exports to avoid the ruble being impacted by swings in the value of global commodities.

The bank offered no details on when it would resume buying foreign currencies. The ruble was down 2.3% in early Monday trading but steadied after the bank’s announcement.

Meanwhile, the Russian stock market plunged more than 10% on Monday but was 7% down when trading concluded. Since the start of the Russian military buildup on the borders of Ukraine in October, the market has lost more than a quarter of its value.

Anders Aslund is chairman of the International Advisory Council at the Center for Social and Economic Research, a policy group in Warsaw, Poland. Aslund predicts the market could fall much further if the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and Western powers over Ukraine worsens.

“So far, the Russian RTS stock index in USD has only fallen 27% from its high point on October 27 before Putin started threatening Ukraine,” Aslund tweeted. “It has far more to fall. In 2008, it fell by 80% from May to October (Georgia war + global financial crisis).”

Meanwhile, the European stock markets have held fairly steady in recent weeks — a blitheness that’s not necessarily reassuring, analysts say, as the European stock markets didn’t miss a beat in the immediate wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, a slaying that triggered World War I. 

The London and Paris bourses were “slow to grasp why Sarajevo was different and unique,” noted Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, international business editor of The Telegraph.

European investors and traders appeared Monday to take greater note of the geopolitical maneuverings, and markets nudged down lower on the news that Britain was joining the United States in withdrawing some diplomats and their families from the embassies in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. 

The German and French stock markets were down about 2% in early trading, with analysts saying a New York Times report that U.S. President Joe Biden is considering deploying 5,000 troops to bolster the defenses of Ukraine’s NATO neighbors contributed to jitters.

The London stock market also traded lower. Some analysts suggested the dips were as much the result of traders watching what the U.S. Federal Reserve might do about tightening monetary policy than the unfolding Ukraine crisis.

With the crisis deepening, the attention of the markets and Western policy makers is turning to the possible energy implications for Europe, which gets about half of its natural gas supplies from Russia. Fears have been mounting that the Kremlin might retaliate by stopping gas exports in the event the West imposes fresh sanctions on Russia. The result would be an energy shock for a continent that is already mired in an energy crunch and experiencing soaring prices.

“Should tensions between Russia and the Ukraine escalate, the initial uncertainty around its impact on gas flows would likely lead the market to once again add a significant risk premium to European gas prices,” Goldman Sachs analysts told clients.

Last week, the Reuters news agency reported the U.S. State Department has been putting together a global strategy to increase supplies of liquefied natural gas to Europe in the event a Russian invasion of Ukraine leads to gas shortages.

Amos Hochstein, senior adviser for energy security at the State Department, has been holding talks with several Middle East and North African countries, as well as companies in Europe, about how to boost gas supplies if Russia seeks to weaponize energy.

In London Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters that the intelligence about Russian intentions was “gloomy” but added that a Russian invasion was not inevitable.

“The intelligence is very clear that there are 60 Russian battle groups on the borders of Ukraine. The plan for a lightning war that could take out Kyiv is one that everybody can see. We need to make it very clear to the Kremlin, to Russia, that that would be a disastrous step,” Johnson said.

He added, “We also need to get a message (to Moscow) that invading Ukraine, from a Russian perspective, is going to be a painful, violent and bloody business. I think it’s very important that people in Russia understand that this could be a new Chechnya.”

He was referring to the brutal wars fought between Russia and Chechen rebels in the 1990s that left tens of thousands of people dead. Chechnya had waged wars of independence against Russia.

Speaking as Britain started to withdraw some embassy staff from Ukraine, Johnson said, “We do think it prudent to make some changes now.”

your ad here

Germany Seen as Western Alliance’s Weak Link

Germany doesn’t appear to view Russian military threats against Ukraine with the same sense of urgency as the United States and some of its European allies, who have started to identify Berlin as a weak link in the Western alliance, say diplomats and analysts.

The country’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has added his voice to the stern Western warnings about massive consequences for Russia if President Vladimir Putin orders an invasion of Ukraine. But Germany has refused requests from Ukraine for military assistance, prompting exasperation in Kyiv.  Berlin has also blocked the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania from supplying Kyiv with German-made weapons.

Ukrainian dismay only deepened Saturday when the head of the German navy, Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, described Western fears of a Russian invasion as “nonsense” and called for Vladimir Putin to be given “the respect he demands — and probably deserves.” The German defense ministry quickly condemned the comments, and the admiral promptly resigned.

 

That has failed to quell Ukrainian fury. Kyiv believes the admiral’s remarks reflect the thinking of a chunk of the German establishment and has called on Berlin to change its whole position on the geopolitical conflict.

“Today, more than ever, the firmness and solidarity of Ukraine and its partners are important to curb Russia’s destructive intentions,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry.

Ukrainian officials point to a series of disappointing German positions amid rising Western fears that war momentum is building.

“Everything is moving towards armed conflict,” says Estonia’s defense chief Gen. Martin Herem. He and his counterparts in Central Europe are watching closely to see if Russian reservists are mobilized. They fear Putin has been rearming Russia the past decade for this moment and that he’s only waiting now for frigid weather to harden the ground more so Russian armor has an easier time rolling across Ukraine.

 

Berlin has remained ambiguous about whether it will be prepared in the event of war to shut down the just-completed Nord Stream 2 undersea pipeline, which will pump natural gas from Russia to Germany.

Responding to increasing domestic and international pressure, Scholz said last week Germany is ready to discuss closing the pipeline should Russia attack but has demurred from committing to anything more.

Scholz’s studied ambiguity is worrying many NATO members.

Berlin has pushed back on proposals that include cutting Russia off from the SWIFT international cross border payments system in any possible post-invasion sanctions package the Western allies announce. Last week, German officials told the country’s leading business newspaper that excluding Russia from SWIFT isn’t being considered.

The U.S. National Security Council has denied this, saying “no option is off the table.”

Baltic states have also expressed their frustration with Berlin’s reluctance to give the go-ahead for them to supply Ukraine with German-made military equipment. Germany’s defense minister Christine Lambrecht told the newspaper Welt am Sonntag Saturday that arms deliveries to Ukraine are “currently not helpful.” The Ukrainians have been lobbying Berlin furiously to secure vessels to defend their coasts on the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.

Some analysts say Scholz is in a tricky position in terms of Germany’s domestic politics and that much of what is being interpreted by outsiders as pulling in a different direction from allies should be seen more as strategic ambiguity required to keep together his three-party coalition government, which is deeply split on relations with Russia.

Scholz’s own party, the Social Democrats (SPD), the coalition’s senior partner, has a powerful left-wing which advocates closer ties with Moscow, and its parliamentary leader, Rolf Mützenich, has championed a new “European peace order including Russia.”

And even moderate SPD luminaries are reluctant to pursue a tough Russia policy; they favor détente and dialogue. Germany’s defense minister Lambrecht and the SDP’s secretary-general, Kevin Kühnert, are opposed to shutting down the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, saying it should be kept separate from the unfolding geopolitical crisis.

 

They want to see the pipeline, which is awaiting regulatory approval, up and running. More than 60 percent of Germans agree with them, according to an opinion poll published last week by state broadcaster ARD.

The Greens and the center-right Free Democrats want Germany to pursue a much more forthright policy towards Russia. But to further complicate matters, the Greens, whose origins lie in the anti-nuclear peace movement of the 1970s and 1980s, are ideologically opposed to the export of weapons to conflict zones.

“Since the new coalition government entered office in December, confusion has reigned about who is now setting the direction of its policy on Russia – the SPD-led Chancellery or the Green-led Foreign Office? This naturally includes the role and importance of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which still awaits approval to operate from German and EU regulators,” comments Jana Puglierin, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a policy research organization.

The “cacophony of different voices” doesn’t present “a picture of clear German leadership,” she adds.

Divisions within the German coalition are likely to be exacerbated, Puglierin says, in the coming weeks as fears mount about the country’s economic vulnerability to any fallout from the unfolding geopolitical confrontation. Germany exports machinery, vehicles and vehicle parts to Russia and the country’s politically influential auto-manufactures fear blowback.

The imposition of new wide-ranging and punishing Western sanctions on Russia will likely have major economic consequences for Germany, especially if Moscow retaliates by suspending natural gas supplies to Germany.

Like other Western European nations, Germany is battling an energy crunch and soaring energy prices. According to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, Germany buys 50 percent to 75 percent of its natural gas supplies from Russia. 

Ten other EU members, including Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Latvia and Hungary, also get more than three-quarters of their natural gas imports from Russia. 

Ukrainian officials — and Germany’s NATO allies — fear any wavering by such a key player as Germany risks being seen by the Russian president, who has been adept exploiting European divisions in the past, as evidence that the alliance against him isn’t as united as Washington and Kyiv would wish.  They fear that could prompt the Russian leader to make a big military gamble.

“That’s why Berlin’s decision on Friday to stop Estonia selling German-made weapons to Ukraine was a mistake,” according to Tom Tugendhat, a British lawmaker and chairman of the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

your ad here

Assange Wins First Stage in Effort to Appeal US Extradition

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Monday won the first stage of his effort to overturn a U.K. ruling that opened the door for his extradition to U.S. to stand trial on espionage charges.

The High Court in London gave Assange permission to appeal the case to the U.K. Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court must agree to accept the case before it can move forward.

“Make no mistake, we won today in court,” Assange’s fiancee, Stella Moris, said outside the courthouse, noting that he remains in custody at Belmarsh Prison in London.  

“We will fight this until Julian is free,” she added.

The Supreme Court normally takes about eight sitting weeks after an application is submitted to decide whether to accept an appeal, the court says on its website.  

The decision is the latest step in Assange’s long battle to avoid a trial in the U.S. on a series of charges related to WikiLeaks’ publication of classified documents more than a decade ago.

Just over a year ago, a district court judge in London rejected a U.S. extradition request on the grounds that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions. U.S. authorities later provided assurances that the WikiLeaks founder wouldn’t face the severe treatment his lawyers said would put his physical and mental health at risk.  

The High Court last month overturned the lower court’s decision, saying that the U.S. promises were enough to guarantee Assange would be treated humanely.

Those assurances were the focus of Monday’s ruling by the High Court.  

Assange’s lawyers are seeking to appeal because the U.S. offered its assurances after the lower court made its ruling. But the High Court overturned the lower court ruling, saying that the judge should have given the U.S. the opportunity to offer the assurances before she made her final ruling.

The High Court gave Assange permission to appeal so the Supreme Court can decide “in what circumstances can an appellate court receive assurances from a requesting state … in extradition proceedings.”

Assange’s lawyers have argued that the U.S. government’s pledge that Assange won’t be subjected to extreme conditions is meaningless because it’s conditional and could be changed at the discretion of American authorities.

The U.S. has asked British authorities to extradite Assange so he can stand trial on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse linked to WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents.

Assange, 50, has been held at the high-security Belmarsh Prison since 2019, when he was arrested for skipping bail during a separate legal battle. Before that, he spent seven years holed up inside Ecuador’s Embassy in London. Assange sought protection in the embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.

Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed.

American prosecutors say Assange unlawfully helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal classified diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later published, putting lives at risk.  

Lawyers for Assange argue that their client shouldn’t have been charged because he was acting as a journalist and is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees freedom of the press. They say the documents he published exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

your ad here

UNESCO: World Failing to Provide Quality Education for Children

A United Nations report released Monday said the world is failing to insure that by 2030 all children are receiving an “inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities.” 

The indicators used to determine a participating country’s success included: early childhood education attendance; drop-out rates; completion rates; gender gaps in completion rates; minimum proficiency rates in reading and mathematics; trained teachers; and public education expenditure. 

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, said countries were already failing their children “even before taking into account the potential consequences of COVID-19 on education development.”  

This failure “is a wakeup call for the world’s leaders,” UNESCO’s report said, “as millions of children will continue to miss out on school and high-quality learning.” 

The education benchmarks are included in Sustainable Development Goal 4 – one of 17 goals set up in 2015 by the U.N. General Assembly. The goals are intended to be achieved by 2030. 

your ad here

Taliban Talks in Norway Raise New Debate About Recognition

A Taliban delegation led by acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi on Sunday started three days of talks in Oslo with Western officials and Afghan civil society representatives amid a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan.

The closed-door meetings were taking place at a hotel in the snow-capped mountains above the Norwegian capital and are the first time since the Taliban took over in August that their representatives have held official meetings in Europe.

The talks were not without controversy, however, reigniting the debate over whether they legitimize the Taliban government, especially since they were being held in Norway, a NATO country involved in Afghanistan from 2001 until the Taliban take over last summer. 

Speaking at the end of the first day of talks, Taliban delegate Shafiullah Azam told The Associated Press that the meetings with Western officials were “a step to legitimize (the) Afghan government,” adding that “this type of invitation and communication will help (the) European community, (the) U.S. or many other countries to erase the wrong picture of the Afghan government.”

That statement may irk the Taliban’s Norwegian hosts. Earlier, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks were “not a legitimation or recognition of the Taliban.”

On Sunday, 200 protesters gathered on an icy square in front of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry in Oslo to condemn the meetings with the Taliban, which has not received diplomatic recognition from any foreign government.

“The Taliban has not changed as some in the international community like to say,” said Ahman Yasir, a Norwegian Afghan living in Norway for around two decades. “They are as brutal as they were in 2001 and before.”

Taliban leaders met with some women’s rights and human rights activists on Sunday, but there was no official word about those talks.

Starting Monday, Taliban representatives will meet with delegations from Western nations and will be certain to press their demand that nearly $10 billion frozen by the United States and other Western countries be released as Afghanistan faces a precarious humanitarian situation.

“We are requesting them to unfreeze Afghan assets and not punish ordinary Afghans because of the political discourse,” said Shafiullah Azam. “Because of the starvation, because of the deadly winter, I think it’s time for the international community to support Afghans, not punish them because of their political disputes.”

The United Nations has managed to provide some liquidity and allowed the Taliban administration to pay for imports, including electricity. But the U.N. has warned that as many as 1 million Afghan children are in danger of starving and most of the country’s 38 million people are living below the poverty line.

Faced with the Taliban’s request for funds, Western powers are likely to put the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan high on their agenda, along with the West’s recurring demand for the Taliban administration to share power with Afghanistan’s minority ethnic and religious groups. 

Since sweeping to power in mid-August, the Taliban have imposed widespread restrictions, many of them directed at women. Women have been banned from many jobs outside the health and education fields, their access to education has been restricted beyond sixth grade and they have been ordered to wear the hijab. The Taliban have, however, stopped short of imposing the burqa, which was compulsory when they previously ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The Taliban have increasingly targeted Afghanistan’s beleaguered rights groups, as well as journalists, detaining and sometimes beating television crews covering demonstrations.

A U.S. delegation, led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West, plans to discuss “the formation of a representative political system; responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises; security and counterterrorism concerns; and human rights, especially education for girls and women,” according to a statement released by the U.S. State Department.

your ad here

US Orders Departure of Family Members of Ukraine Embassy Staff

The State Department on Sunday ordered the departure of eligible family members from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and authorized the voluntary departure of U.S. direct hire employees due to the continued threat of Russian military action against Ukraine.

The State Department also is asking U.S. citizens in Ukraine to consider departing the country now using commercial or other privately available transportation options.

The State Department reissued its Level 4 Travel Warning for Ukraine, saying “Do not travel to Ukraine due to the increased threats of Russian military action and COVID-19.”  Previously, the travel warning had also been at Level 4, due to COVID-19.

The State Department also reissued a travel advisory Sunday night regarding travel to Russia: “Do not travel to Russia due to ongoing tension along the border with Ukraine, the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens, the embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia, COVID-19 and related entry restrictions, terrorism, harassment by Russian government security officials, and the arbitrary enforcement of local law.”

Asked about the timing of these actions on Sunday evening in Washington, a senior State Department official told reporters they come against the backdrop of reports Russia is planning significant military action against Ukraine. 

The State Department official said security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders, in Russia-occupied Crimea and in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and can deteriorate with little notice. 

The official said President Joe Biden has said a Russian military invasion of Ukraine could happen at any time, and if there is an invasion, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv would have limited ability to assist Americans who might want to leave the country.

The State Department officials who briefed reporters declined to give any estimates of the number of Americans working at the embassy in Kyiv or of the number of Americans living in Ukraine.

The State Department officials said these orders are being taken as a “prudent precaution” that in no way undermines U.S. support for the government of Ukraine, and the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv will continue to operate.

The State Department also asked all U.S. citizens in Ukraine to complete an online form so that the State Department may better communicate with them, saying this is especially important for citizens who plan to remain in Ukraine.

Earlier Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russia that Washington knows “all of the tactics and techniques” that Moscow can deploy to undermine the Ukrainian government but will continue to engage in diplomatic talks in hopes of easing tensions in eastern Europe.

Watch related video by Arash Arabasadi:

“It is certainly possible that the diplomacy the Russians are engaged in is simply going through the motions and it won’t affect their ultimate decision about whether to invade or in some other way intervene, or not in Ukraine,” Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” show. “But we have a responsibility to see the diplomacy through for … as far and as long as we can go because it’s the more responsible way to bring this to a closure.” 

In a separate interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” show, Blinken ruled out the United States immediately imposing severe economic sanctions on Moscow, which it has vowed to do if Russian President Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine. Russia has massed 127,000 troops just across its border with Ukraine, a former Soviet republic. 

“If they’re triggered now,” Blinken said of the possible sanctions, “you lose the deterrent factor.” 

Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, following Blinken on CNN, accused the administration of President Joe Biden of a “doctrine of appeasement” in dealing with Russia over threats to Ukraine. 

“The sanctions need to be imposed now,” Ernst said. “President Putin only understands strength and power. We need to have firm resolve.” 

Blinken declined to comment on a British intelligence report that Russia was seeking to replace Ukraine’s government with a pro-Moscow administration. Moscow rejected the claim. 

“The disinformation spread by the British Foreign Office is more evidence that it is the NATO countries, led by the Anglo-Saxons, who are escalating tensions around Ukraine,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on the Telegram messaging app. “We call on the British Foreign Office to stop provocative activities, stop spreading nonsense.” 

Blinken, on NBC, said that aside from the world’s awareness of Russia’s massive troop deployment near Ukraine, “It’s also important that people around the world, whether it’s in Europe, the United States or beyond, understand the kinds of things that could be in the offing: a false flag operation to try and create a false pretext for going in. It’s important that people know that that’s something that’s in the playbook too,” as well as cyberattacks and other disruption targeting Ukraine. 

The top U.S. diplomat said that aside from diplomatic engagement with Russia, “We are building up defense, we’re building up deterrence; we’ve now provided to Ukraine more security assistance this year than in any previous year.”  

 

Some material in this report came from the Associated Press. 

your ad here

US Weighs Options on Ukraine

The United States began shipments of lethal aid to Ukraine after U.S. President Joe Biden recently said that any Russian troop movement into Ukraine would be considered an invasion. President Biden’s comments come as Russian President Vladimir Putin stations more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border. Russian and U.S. diplomats so far have agreed to keep working to lower tensions. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi has more.

your ad here

US Warns It Knows Russia’s Tactics to Undermine Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russia on Sunday that Washington knows “all of the tactics and techniques” that Moscow can deploy to undermine the Ukrainian government but will continue to engage in diplomatic talks in hopes of easing tensions in eastern Europe. 

“It is certainly possible that the diplomacy the Russians are engaged in is simply going through the motions and it won’t affect their ultimate decision about whether to invade or in some other way intervene, or not in Ukraine,” Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” show. “But we have a responsibility to see the diplomacy through for … as far and as long as we can go because it’s the more responsible way to bring this to a closure.” 

In a separate interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” show, Blinken ruled out the United States immediately imposing severe economic sanctions on Moscow, which it has vowed to do if Russian President Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine. Russia has massed 127,000 troops just across its border with Ukraine, a former Soviet republic. 

“If they’re triggered now,” Blinken said of the possible sanctions, “you lose the deterrent factor.” 

Watch related video by Arash Arabasadi:

Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, following Blinken on CNN, accused the administration of President Joe Biden of a “doctrine of appeasement” in dealing with Russia over threats to Ukraine. 

“The sanctions need to be imposed now,” Ernst said. “President Putin only understands strength and power. We need to have firm resolve.” 

Blinken declined to comment on a British intelligence report that Russia was seeking to replace Ukraine’s government with a pro-Moscow administration. Moscow rejected the claim. 

“The disinformation spread by the British Foreign Office is more evidence that it is the NATO countries, led by the Anglo-Saxons, who are escalating tensions around Ukraine,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on the Telegram messaging app. “We call on the British Foreign Office to stop provocative activities, stop spreading nonsense.” 

Blinken, on NBC, said that aside from the world’s awareness of Russia’s massive troop deployment near Ukraine, “It’s also important that people around the world, whether it’s in Europe, the United States, or beyond, understand the kinds of things that could be in the offing: a false flag operation to try and create a false pretext for going in. It’s important that people know that that’s something that’s in the playbook too,” as well as cyberattacks and other disruption targeting Ukraine. 

The top U.S. diplomat said that aside from diplomatic engagement with Russia, “We are building up defense, we’re building up deterrence; we’ve now provided to Ukraine more security assistance this year than in any previous year.” 

On Saturday, Blinken said he had authorized the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to send U.S.-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. 

“I expedited and authorized, and we fully endorse transfers of defensive equipment @NATO Allies Estonia Latvia Lithuania are providing to Ukraine to strengthen its ability to defend itself against Russia’s unprovoked and irresponsible aggression,” Blinken said in a post on Twitter. 

“We are preparing massive consequences for Russia if it invades Ukraine again,” Blinken told NBC. “So, you have to do both at the same time. You build up your defense, you build up your deterrence on the one hand; you engage in diplomacy and dialogue on the other. That’s the way that I think it makes the most sense to carry this forward. Ultimately, we’ve given Russia two paths; it has to choose.” 

“The Russians have put concerns on the table that they say they have about their security,” Blinken said. “We’ve exchanged some ideas. We’ll be sharing with the Russians in writing not only our concerns, but some ideas for a way forward that could enhance mutual security on a reciprocal basis.” 

“So, look, that is clearly the preferable path forward for everyone,” he said. “It’s the responsible thing to do. And we’ll pursue it as long as we can. At the same time, we’ll continue to build up other defenses and deterrents that are necessary.” 

Some material in this report came from the Associated Press. 

your ad here

French Soldier Killed After Attack on Mali Military Base 

A French soldier has died after a rocket attack on the French army base in Gao, Mali.  

The French Armed Forces Ministry released a statement Sunday morning saying the attack occurred on the Gao, Mali, Operation Barkhane military base on Saturday.

The statement claimed the attack was carried out by “terrorists.” 

Operation Barkhane, France’s counterinsugency military operation in the Sahel, has operated in Mali since 2014. It replaced Operation Serval, the French army’s operation to regain control of northern Mali, which had been taken over by Islamists in 2012.

This year, after what French President Emmanuel Macron called a drawdown of the French military presence in Mali, Barkhane forces were withdrawn from northern Mali’s Tessalit, Kidal and Timbuktu military bases. The Gao base continues to serve as the center of Operation Barkhane.

Popular opposition to the French military presence in Mali has increased dramatically in recent years. France has backed recent sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States that were imposed following a 2026 presidential election plan proposed by Mali’s current military government.

Thousands of Malians took to the streets in cities across the country this month to denounce the sanctions, with most also denouncing France’s presence in Mali.

 

your ad here

Migrants at Hungary Border Become Part of Election Campaign

A group of migrants huddles beside a small, smoky fire inside an abandoned building in northern Serbia, the last moments of warmth before they set out into the driving snow toward the razor wire, cameras and sensors of Hungary’s electrified border fence.

A few hours later, they return, their efforts to cross through Hungary and toward Western Europe thwarted by the 3-meter fence and heavy Hungarian police patrols which, after intercepting them, escorted them back across the border into Serbia.

“I’m going to Austria, I’m going to Germany, I’m going to the Netherlands,” says Muhtar Ahmad, a 26-year-old from Aleppo, Syria, who is squatting with around 35 other migrants in the makeshift camp outside the Serbian village of Majdan, less than 2 kilometers from the Hungarian border.

“I’m not staying in Hungary. What’s the problem?”

As migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries embark on the last stretch of their long journeys toward Europe’s wealthier nations, their efforts to cross irregularly into the European Union through Hungary — and the country’s contentious practice of returning them to Serbia when they are caught — have made them part of a political campaign with which Hungary’s nationalist leader hopes to win an upcoming general election.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who polls suggest will face his closest election in more than a decade in April, is campaigning on a strict anti-immigration platform and is keen to use the prospect of a wave of migrants amassing at Hungary’s border as a means to mobilize his conservative voter base.

“Just this year we stopped and detained … more than 100,000 people,” Orban claimed at a rare appearance before journalists in December. “If the Hungarian fence had not stood there, more than 100,000 more illegal migrants would be now first in Austria, then in Germany.”

One of the most outspoken opponents of immigration in Europe, Orban has said that migration threatens to replace the continent’s Christian culture, and that illegal migrants are responsible for bringing infections like COVID-19 variants into his country.

“We do not want to be an immigrant country,” Orban said during an interview with state radio this week.

As the April 3 election approaches, he has portrayed current migration pressures as higher than in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of refugees came into the EU fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere, and when he ordered the construction of the country’s border barrier.

But figures released by Serbian officials and the EU’s border and coast guard agency suggest that far fewer individuals are attempting to enter Hungary than the right-wing leader claims.

 

“It’s a little bit bigger number than, let’s say, two years ago, but these are not big numbers. It’s a small rise,” said Nemanja Matejic, chief officer at a migrant reception center in the northern Serbian city of Subotica, of the current level of migrants along Hungary’s border.

While Hungarian police put the number of migrants intercepted by Hungarian authorities at more than 122,000, data from EU border agency Frontex showed that there were 60,540 illegal border crossing attempts last year on the Western Balkan migration route, which includes the Hungary-Serbia border.

What’s more, since most migrants are making repeated attempts to cross, the number of individuals involved is far smaller still.

Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration reports that there are 4,276 migrants residing in reception centers in Serbia and another 1,000 sleeping rough.

Frontex has noted that most Western Balkan crossings “can be traced back to people who have been in the region for some time and who repeatedly try to reach their target country in the EU.”

Hikmad Serat, 20, from Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, took shelter in a remote abandoned building near the Serbian border town of Horgos this month as a cold snap brought temperatures to -10 C.

 

Serat said he has been in Serbia for 15 months and has lost count of the number of times he has crossed into Hungary and been returned by police.

“Many times I try, 100 times, more than 100 times … Every time, police arrest me and deport back to Serbia,” Serat said.

This practice — where police deny migrants the right to apply for asylum and escort them back across national borders — is known as a “pushback.” It has been declared unlawful by the EU’s top court and is in violation of international asylum treaties.

Matejic, the chief of the reception center, said that migrants making dozens of crossing attempts is “typical.”

“Sometimes a guy tries one time and goes, he has luck … Sometimes they try over 50 times … They try and try again,” he said.

Many migrants have reported abuse by police after they leave Serbian territory for Hungary, or for Croatia or Romania. This includes having mobile phones destroyed or stolen, being made to sit or kneel in the snow for hours and receiving beatings — allegations which are very difficult to independently confirm.

Romanian police didn’t respond to questions from The Associated Press. But Hungary’s National Police Headquarters wrote in an email that they “strongly reject unsubstantiated allegations” of abuse of migrants.

Yet Matejic said 150 cases of broken limbs were recorded by the Subotica reception center in 2019.

“Sometimes they break their phones, the police. Sometimes they take their money. Sometimes they break their legs. It’s a different experience for everybody,” Matejic said.

Orban has asked the EU to reimburse Hungary for at least half of the costs related to building, maintaining and patrolling its border fence, which he has said have amounted to $1.9 billion over the past six years.

Ever at odds with the EU’s more liberal member states, he has also threatened to “open up a corridor along which migrants can march up to Austria, Germany and Sweden and whoever needs them.”

Despite the dangers, Faris al-Ibrahimi, a Moroccan migrant in the Subotica reception center who intends to travel on to Spain, said he was undeterred after being pushed back 27 times by Hungarian police.

“I’m still going to try. I will not give up now … I will try until I succeed,” he said. “It’s an adventure. We cross, we go, they catch us, we come back, we go again. It’s like a game for us.” 

 

your ad here

Humanitarian Aid Tops Agenda as Taliban Meet Western Officials

Human rights and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where hunger threatens millions, will be in focus at talks opening Sunday in Oslo between the Taliban, the West and members of Afghan civil society.

In their first visit to Europe since returning to power in August, the Taliban will meet Norwegian officials as well as representatives of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and the European Union.

The Taliban delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi.

On the agenda will be “the formation of a representative political system, responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises, security and counter-terrorism concerns, and human rights, especially education for girls and women,” a U.S. State Department official said.

The hardline Islamists were toppled in 2001 but stormed back to power in August as international troops began their final withdrawal.

The Taliban hope the talks will help “transform the atmosphere of war… into a peaceful situation,” government spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP on Saturday.

No country has yet recognized the Taliban government, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks would “not represent a legitimization or recognition of the Taliban.”

“But we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster,” Huitfeldt said.

‘Have to involve the government’

The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated drastically since August.

International aid, which financed around 80% of the Afghan budget, came to a sudden halt and the United States has frozen $9.5 billion in assets in the Afghan central bank.

Unemployment has skyrocketed and civil servants’ salaries have not been paid for months in the country already ravaged by several severe droughts.

Hunger now threatens 23 million Afghans, or 55% of the population, according to the United Nations, which says it needs $4.4 billion from donor countries this year to address the humanitarian crisis.

“It would be a mistake to submit the people of Afghanistan to a collective punishment just because the de facto authorities are not behaving properly”, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated Friday.

A former U.N. representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, told AFP: “We can’t keep distributing aid circumventing the Taliban.”

“If you want to be efficient, you have to involve the government in one way or another.”

The international community is waiting to see how the Islamic fundamentalists intend to govern Afghanistan, after having largely trampled on human rights during their first stint in power between 1996 and 2001.

While the Taliban claim to have modernized, women are still largely excluded from public employment and secondary schools for girls remain largely closed.

‘Gender apartheid’

On the first day of the Oslo talks held behind closed doors, the Taliban delegation is expected to meet Afghans from civil society, including women leaders and journalists.

A former Afghan minister for mines and petrol who now lives in Norway, Nargis Nehan, said she had declined an invitation to take part.

She told AFP she feared the talks would “normalize the Taliban and … strengthen them, while there is no way that they’ll change.”

“If we look at what happened in the talks of the past three years, the Taliban keep getting what they demand from the international community and the Afghan people, but there is not one single thing that they have delivered from their side,” she said.

“What guarantee is there this time that they will keep their promises?” she asked, noting that women activists and journalists are still being arrested.

Davood Moradian, the head of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies now based outside Afghanistan, meanwhile criticized Norway’s “celebrity-style” peace initiative.

“Hosting a senior member of the Taliban casts doubt on Norway’s global image as a country that cares for women’s rights, when the Taliban has effectively instituted gender apartheid,” he said.

Norway has a track record of mediating in conflicts, including in the Middle East, Sri Lanka and Colombia. 

your ad here

Turkey Detains TV Journalist, Accuses Her of Insulting President

Turkey has detained a well-known television journalist for comments she made on air about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, her lawyer said Saturday.

Police detained Sedef Kabas at her home at 2 a.m. Saturday, just hours after she aired the comments and then posted them on Twitter to her 900,000 followers.

She was formally arrested after appearing in court.

The crime of insulting the president carries a jail sentence of one to four years in Turkey.

“A so-called journalist is blatantly insulting our president on a television channel that has no goal other than spreading hatred,” Erdogan’s chief spokesperson, Fahrettin Altun, said on Twitter.

“I condemn this arrogance, this immorality in the strongest possible terms. This is not only immoral, it is also irresponsible,” Altun said.

But the Turkish journalists union called Kabas’ arrest a “serious attack on freedom of expression.”

Rights groups routinely accuse Turkey of undermining media freedom by arresting journalists and shutting down critical media outlets, especially since Erdogan survived a failed coup in July 2016.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 153rd out of 180 in its 2021 press freedom index. 

your ad here

Norway Killer Breivik Tests Limits of Lenient Justice System

Convicted mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik spends his days in a spacious three-room cell, playing video games, exercising, watching TV and taking university-level courses in mathematics and business. 

Halfway through a 21-year sentence and seeking early release, Breivik, 42, is being treated in a way that might seem shocking to people outside Norway, where he killed eight in an Oslo bombing in 2011, and then stalked and gunned down 69 people, mostly teens, at a summer camp. 

But here — no matter how wicked the crime — convicts benefit from a criminal justice system that is designed to offer prisoners some of the comforts and opportunities of life on the outside. 

Still, Breivik’s extreme case is testing the limits of Norway’s commitment to tolerance and rehabilitation. 

“We have never had anyone in Norway who has been responsible for this level of violence before. And there has been debate here about whether part of the justice system should be changed for someone like him,” said Erik Kursetgjerde, who survived the slaughter on Utoya island as an 18-year-old. However, he advises a slow approach that does not bend to Breivik’s desire to subvert the system. 

Nazi salute

During a three-day parole hearing this week that was broadcast to journalists, Breivik renounced violence, but also flashed a Nazi salute and espoused white supremacy, echoing ideas in a manifesto he released at the time of his killing spree. The outburst was familiar to Norwegians who had watched him deliver rambling diatribes during his partially televised criminal trial.

“Obviously this has been extremely trying for survivors, the bereaved and Norwegian society as a whole,” said Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, professor of law at the University of Oslo, adding that there is debate in Norway over whether parole regulations should be overhauled in a bid to prevent this type of grandstanding. 

In 2016, Breivik successfully sued the Norwegian government for human rights abuses, complaining about his isolation from other prisoners, frequent strip searches and the fact that he was often handcuffed during the early part of his incarceration. He also complained about the quality of the prison food, having to eat with plastic utensils and not being able to communicate with sympathizers.

While Breivik’s human rights case was ultimately overturned by a higher court, the episode showed just how far the Norwegian criminal justice system could bend in favor of prisoners’ rights and living conditions.

“His conditions according to Norwegian standards are excellent,” said his prison psychiatrist, Randi Rosenqvist. She testified at the parole hearing that Breivik is still a public threat. 

Even after Breivik’s outbursts at this week’s parole hearing, Norwegian authorities show no sign of wavering from treating him like any other inmate at Skien prison.

‘Deprivation of liberty’

“In a Nordic prison sentence, the main punishment is deprivation of liberty. All the Nordic countries have systems based on a lenient and humane criminal policy that starts from the mutual understanding that punishment should not be any stricter than necessary,” said Johan Boucht, a professor from the University of Oslo Department of Public and International Law, who has also worked in Sweden and Finland. “The second aspect is rehabilitation, and the principle that it is better in the long run to rehabilitate the inmate than create a factory for criminals.”

Until about 50 years ago, Norway’s justice system focused on punishment. But in the late 1960s there was a backlash to the harsh conditions of prisons, leading to criminal justice reforms that emphasized kinder treatment and rehabilitation. 

Norwegian sentencing and prison conditions are sharply at odds with those of other European countries such as France, where the worst criminals can face life imprisonment, with the possibility of an appeal only after 22 years. 

Relatively few French defendants get the longest sentence, but among those facing it are Salah Abdeslam, who is the only surviving member of the Islamic State cell that attacked Paris in November 2015. Abdeslam has complained bitterly about his conditions in the Fleury-Mérogis prison, where he is under 24-hour surveillance in solitary confinement, the furniture is fixed to the floor of his tiny cell and he can exercise for one hour daily.

Breivik’s comparatively lenient treatment inside prison does not mean he’ll get out anytime soon, or even in 2032, when his sentence ends. 

While the maximum prison sentence in Norway is 21 years, the law was amended in 2002 so that, in rare cases, sentences can be extended indefinitely in five-year increments if someone is still considered a danger to the public.

Let him prove he’s reformed, lawyer urges

Breivik’s lawyer, Øystein Storrvik, said in his closing arguments at the parole hearing that Breivik should be released to prove that he is reformed and no longer a threat to society. It’s not possible, while he is in total isolation, to prove that, the lawyer said. 

But Breivik’s behavior during this week’s parole hearing was proof enough to some that he should never again see freedom.

Kristine Roeyneland, who leads a group for the families of Breivik’s victims and survivors, said his comfortable prison conditions and ability to spread extremist views through publicized parole hearings are reprehensible.

Whatever the outcome of Breivik’s request for early parole, which will be decided by a three-judge panel in coming weeks, some take an enlightened view of the Norwegian government’s apparent commitment to treat him like any other prisoner. 

“People might be afraid that he’s using the law as a stage,” said Sandvik, the law professor. “But you can also say that, you know, he is being used by the law. He’s a megaphone for the rule of law.” 

your ad here

Blinken Authorizes Baltic Countries to Send US Weapons to Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday he authorized the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to send U.S.-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, a move that comes amid Ukraine’s rising tensions with neighboring Russia.

“I expedited and authorized, and we fully endorse transfers of defensive equipment @NATO Allies Estonia Latvia Lithuania are providing to Ukraine to strengthen its ability to defend itself against Russia’s unprovoked and irresponsible aggression,” Blinken said in a post on Twitter. 

Blinken also thanked the former Soviet Republics and NATO members, “for their longstanding support to Ukraine.”

Blinken’s announced approval of the arms shipments came one day after the U.S. and Russia appeared to make little progress in the increasingly high-stakes standoff over Ukraine, each side leaving the latest round of high-level talks Friday promising only to keep talking.

Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met for about an hour and a half in Geneva, with both officials refusing to budge on core demands.

The United States and Russia appeared to make little progress in the increasingly high-stakes standoff over Ukraine, each side leaving the latest round of high-level talks Friday promising only to keep talking.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met for about an hour and a half in Geneva, with both officials refusing to budge on core demands.

Blinken, in particular, described the impasse in stark terms.

“If any of Russia’s military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion. It will be met with a swift, severe and a united response from the United States and our partners and allies,” Blinken told reporters after the meeting.

The West is demanding that Russia pull its troops and weapons away from the Ukraine border while Moscow is pushing for NATO to curtail its operations in eastern and central Europe and insisting that the Western military alliance reject Ukraine’s membership bid.

Blinken said the U.S. and its allies are prepared to address Russia’s concerns, though not without conditions.

“The United States, our allies and partners are prepared to pursue possible means of addressing them in a spirit of reciprocity, which means simply put that Russia must also address our concerns,” Blinken said.

“There are several steps we can take, all of us, Russia included, to increase transparency, to reduce risks, to advance arms control, to build trust,” Blinken added.

U.S. officials say Russia has amassed nearly 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, including in Belarus and in occupied Crimea. Blinken warned earlier this month that Moscow could “mobilize twice that number on very short order.”

“They have a significant force posture there and that hasn’t decreased. In fact, it has continued to increase. And we remain concerned about that,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Friday.

Despite such concerns from the U.S. and its allies, Lavrov on Friday sought to paint Ukraine as the aggressor.

“No one is hiding the fact that weapons are being handed over to Ukraine, that hundreds of military instructors are flocking to Ukraine right now,” Lavrov said.

Still, the Russian foreign minister called the talks “constructive and useful.” 

Lavrov also said talks would continue over the Kremlin’s security demands and that both Russia and the U.S. had committed to put their concerns in writing for further discussion.

Both Lavrov and Blinken said there is a possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden could talk, if both sides feel it might be helpful.

However, some of Russia’s renewed demands drew a sharper response from U.S. allies and partners, including NATO.

“NATO will not renounce our ability to protect and defend each other, including with the presence of troops in the eastern part of the alliance,” spokesperson Oana Lungescu said in a statement Friday, rejecting demands that NATO pull troops from Bulgaria and Romania.

“We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense,” she said. 

The U.S. also sought to reassure allies, including Kyiv.

Blinken “reaffirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” in a phone call Friday with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, the State Department said.

Amid the tensions and ongoing political maneuvering, the head of the United Nations appealed for calm.

“It is clear that my message is that there should not be any military intervention in this context,” said Secretary-General António Guterres. “I hope that this, of course, will not happen in the present circumstances. I am convinced it will not happen and I strongly hope to be right.”

But in a joint statement late Friday, the defense ministers of the three Baltic states said they “stand united in our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in face of continued Russian aggression.”

The statement said Estonia would provide Ukraine with anti-tank weapons, while Latvia and Lithuania were transporting anti-aircraft missiles and other equipment to strengthen Ukraine’s defensive military capabilities. It was not immediately clear when the weapons and equipment would arrive in Ukraine.

The German government said Friday it was considering Estonia’s request to send Ukraine Soviet-made howitzers that East Germany once owned. Estonia acquired them from Finland, which purchased them from Germany’s military surplus in the 1990s.

Margaret Besheer at the UN in New York, Wayne Lee in Washington contributed to this report. Some material in this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters.

your ad here

Putin, Following in Steps of Peter the Great?

Three hundred and forty kilometers east of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, lies the city of Poltava. 

At its heart is a semi-circular square with a cast-iron column and nearly two dozen eighteenth-century Swedish cannons captured in the 1709 Battle of Poltava, a decisive encounter in the Great Northern War, waged between Russia’s Peter the Great and Sweden’s Charles XII for supremacy in eastern Europe. 

Russia’s tsar won. 

Nearly four centuries later, the Ukrainian town located on a bank of the Vorskla River could soon find itself making history again. That is if Russia’s Vladimir Putin decides to mount a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and orders Russian forces to drive deep into the country, as some Western leaders fear he might. 

Poltava lies across the route to Kyiv and may become a factor if Putin opts to punch out from the Russian-controlled oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, and has other forces cross the border near Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine, said Robert Fry, a former commandant general of Britain’s Royal Marines.

It was at Poltava in 1709 that “Peter made the first step towards the sobriquet ‘Great’ — a path the Russian president may have ambitions to follow,” the retired British general noted in a military assessment for The Article, a British commentary site. 

 

Fry, though, suspects Putin will be in no hurry to forgo the advantages he has in continuing with hybrid warfare, extracting the Western concessions he has demanded and not courting the dangers of a full-scale invasion with the risks of having to pacify Europe’s second-largest country and counter a likely Ukrainian insurgency. 

“The dexterity with which Russia manipulates the threat of escalation has become one of the defining characteristics of its military/diplomatic playbook and it is yards ahead of the West in this respect. If the mortgage was at stake, I would put it on a ferment of sub-threshold activity backed up by lots of conventional military posturing, stopping short of live conflict,” he wrote. 

Russian officials say they have no plans to attack Ukraine once again, and armed forces chief Valery Gerasimov has denounced reports of a planned invasion as a lie. NATO’s secretary general has warned the risk of conflict is real and U.S. President Joe Biden this week said his guess is Russia will move in, either with an invasion or a more limited assault.

But what any “move in” might entail is unclear and many Russia watchers suspect Putin has not made up his mind. Ukrainian leaders say it is unhelpful to distinguish between a full-bore invasion and a more limited land grab in eastern and southeastern Ukraine, perhaps with Russia seizing Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and Odessa on the Black Sea.

“Speaking of minor and full incursions or full invasion, you cannot be half-aggressive,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday.

Whatever Putin decides to do, he has the forces in place for a major attack and could quickly ramp up his forces for a deeper assault on Ukraine, say Western officials. Russia began massing troops along the borders with Ukraine last year and by December around 100,000 had been deployed, according to U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence assessments. 

 

Artillery, advanced weapons systems and armor have also been deployed, and so, too, have field hospitals and the logistics needed to support tactical battle groups. 

Western military officials estimate Russia would need around 175,000 troops to mount a huge assault and some Ukrainian intelligence officials suggest that number may have been reached. Their U.S. counterparts say the force numbers are still below 175,000. But Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, said Thursday that Putin had “plans in place to increase that force even more on very short notice.” 

 

Midweek the Kremlin was reported to have moved some forces within 30 kilometers of Ukraine’s border in Belarus. The Kremlin says the forces are taking part in joint military drills with their Belarusian allies, but that places a sizable Russian force just 80 kilometers from the Ukrainian capital. It is large enough to cut off the bulk of Ukraine’s land forces, which are stationed along the frontlines in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. 

The Russian military has overwhelming superiority over Ukraine’s armed forces. Ukraine has around 209,000 troops on active service compared to Russia’s 900,000; and Ukraine’s reserve forces number 900,000, while Russia has 2 million. 

 

Ukraine’s annual military expenditure is $4.3 billion, while Russia’s spending is $43.2 billion. Russia has 2,840 tanks compared to Ukraine’s 858; and 4,648 artillery pieces compared to 1,818. The massive advantage continues when it comes to combat aircraft — 1,160 compared to 125. All the figures come from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British-based research organization that publishes an annual report on the composition of global military forces. 

If the Kremlin does decide to attack, the operation at its most limited would likely be a repeat of 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and seized Donetsk and Luhansk, using mainly armed proxies. “Russian forces could expand the fighting in Donbass to draw Ukraine into a conventional conflict,” warned Neil Melvin of the Royal United Services Institute, a defense policy group in London.

Others assess Putin’s ambitions may be bigger.

“Putin has begun exploring coercive options beyond the annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbass, neither of which has given him what he wants,” according to Michael Kimmage and Liana Fix of the German Marshall Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization.

Their assessment: “Perhaps war is the course Putin has already chosen. If so, it cannot be a minor war. A minimal objective would be to topple the Ukrainian government — not necessarily through overt military force — and to install a puppet leader. A more ambitious objective would be to divide the country in two, with the line between Russia and a rump Ukrainian state one of Putin’s choosing. The most expansive goal would be to conquer Ukraine entirely and then either to occupy it or to demand that its independence be negotiated on Putin’s terms.” 

your ad here

‘Impunity Persists’ in Case of Slain Turkish-Armenian Journalist

Thousands gathered in Istanbul this week to demand full justice for high-profile Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was killed 15 years ago.

Placards reading “We are all Hrant, We are all Armenian” and “For Hrant, For Justice” were waved as the crowd gathered outside the building where a teenage gunman in 2007 shot Dink.

Candles and red carnations were placed next to a commemorative plaque, and Turkish and Armenian songs played in the background. The facade of the building, which was once home to Dink’s media outlet, was covered with a large poster of the journalist and the words: “15 missing years.”

“The beautiful thing is that after 15 years, so many people do not forget Hrant Dink and the message he gave,” Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told VOA.

Peace advocate

As the founder and editor-in-chief of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos, Dink was a leading advocate for peace between the Turkish and Armenian communities. 

But his writing and speeches on Armenian identity and calls for reconciliation made him a target of nationalists in Turkey.

He was prosecuted several times during his journalism career, including a lawsuit in 2005 in which Dink was convicted of “publicly insulting and degrading Turkishness.”

At the time of his death, Dink was awaiting trial as part of a lawsuit over his use of the word “genocide” to describe attacks in 1915 that Armenia says left 1.5 million dead.

The U.S. and some other countries recognize it as a genocide. Turkey acknowledges killings during the Ottoman Empire but denies any genocide.

In early January, special envoys from Turkey and Armenia met in Moscow to try to normalize an otherwise strained relationship.

Search for justice

In 2011, Ogun Samast was sentenced to nearly 23 years in prison by a juvenile court on charges including premeditated murder for shooting Dink.

Since then, 76 other suspects accused of involvement in Dink’s killing have been tried. In March 2021, a court in Istanbul sentenced several former high-ranking public and police officers to life in prison for convictions on several charges, including premeditated murder and violating the constitution.

The Turkish government believes a network linked to Fethullah Gulen was behind the attack and that those involved have been brought to justice. The U.S.-based Gulen, whom Turkey also accuses of being behind a failed attempted coup, denies the accusations.

Omer Celik, spokesperson for the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), paid tribute to Dink on Twitter, saying: “Hrant defended brotherhood in this country and resisted those who tried to bring hostility to this country from outside.”

Dink’s family and colleagues, however, believe a wider network was involved in the killing and do not believe everyone has been brought to justice. Lawyers for the family appealed the March 2021 court decision and asked for further investigation.

“Impunity still persists,” said RSF’s Onderoglu, who followed the trial closely. “The Hrant Dink case is not out of our agenda, even if it is out of the hands of the court.”

“We will continue our struggle until the end, until those who targeted Hrant Dink, those who incited them, and the structures that killed him are brought to justice,” he added.

‘15 missing years’

In a column published the day he died, Dink said he felt “dovelike disquiet” because of the death threats and legal cases he faced.

“Doves live their lives in the hearts of cities, amid the crowds and human bustle. Yes, they live a little uneasily, a little apprehensively — but they live freely too,” Dink wrote.

Images of doves were projected onto the building facade a night before the commemoration.

The memorial shows Dink’s lasting impact on the Turkish-Armenian community, even on those who were too young at the time to understand what was happening.

Sila Pakyuz, 20, a Turkish-Armenian university student, told VOA she came to the commemoration with her non-Armenian friends.

“Hrant was shot when we came out of kindergarten. I am an Armenian from Turkey, and I was unaware that I was the ‘other’ in Turkey. I was only a child who spoke Armenian,” Pakyuz said.

“When I got home, my grandmother was crying, ‘Hrant was killed.’ As I got older, I understood what it means to be an Armenian in Turkey. I was living in a bubble,” she said.

At the memorial, Dink’s widow, Rakel, addressed the crowd, speaking about the detention of lawyers, journalists and Kurdish politicians in Turkey.

“Let us not dash any hopes,” Rakel Dink said. “The voice of indignation, rebellion and objection that roared up right from here as we buried you has never kept silent, and it shall never remain silent.”

This story originated in VOA’s Turkish Service.

your ad here

‘Minor Incursion’ Into Ukraine by Russia Could Complicate West’s Response

Short of an all-out invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin could take less dramatic action in Ukraine that would vastly complicate a U.S. and allied response. He might carry out what President Joe Biden called a “minor incursion” — perhaps a cyberattack — leaving the U.S. and Europe divided on the type and severity of economic sanctions to impose on Moscow and ways to increase support for Kyiv.

Biden drew widespread criticism for saying Wednesday that retaliating for Russian aggression in Ukraine would depend on the details. “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do,” he said.

Biden and top administration officials worked Thursday to clean up his comments. Biden stressed that if “any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion” and it would be met with a “severe and coordinated economic response.”

But even if the “minor incursion” remark was seen as a gaffe, it touched on a potentially problematic issue: While the U.S. and allies agree on a strong response to a Russian invasion, it’s unclear how they would respond to Russian aggression that falls short of that, such as a cyberattack or boosted support for pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was among those expressing concern about Biden’s “minor incursion” remark.

“We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones,” he tweeted.

‘Deeply troubling’

Complaints came quickly that Biden had made clear to Putin where and how to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies, by using only a portion of the large military force he has assembled near Ukraine’s borders to take limited action. Russian officials have said they have no intention of invading Ukraine, but the deployment of a large combat force along its borders, estimated at 100,000 troops, has raised fears of a crippling land war.

“Deeply troubling and dangerous,” Representative Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican and a crucial ally of Democrats on some issues, tweeted about Biden’s remark.

 

“A green light for Putin,” said Republican Representative Mike Garcia of California, one of many to use that phrase.

Among the possibilities for limited Russian military action: Putin could move much of the Russian ground force away from the border but further bolster the separatists who control the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. That conflict has killed more than 14,000 people in nearly eight years of fighting.

Biden noted Thursday that “Russia has a long history of using measures other than overt military action to carry out aggression — paramilitary tactics, so-called gray zone attacks and actions by Russian soldiers not wearing Russian uniforms.”

European allies have largely been united with the United States in demanding that Putin not move farther into Ukrainian territory and promising a tough response if he does. But the allies appear not to have united on what political and financial penalties to enact, or even what would trigger a response.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “any kind of incursion into Ukraine on any scale whatever” would be a disaster for Russia and for the world, but he didn’t specify a Western response. Likewise, his defense minister, Ben Wallace, told Parliament, “There is a package of international sanctions ready to go that will make sure that the Russian government is punished if it crosses the line,” but he didn’t define that line, other than warning against “any destabilizing action” by Russia in Ukraine.

 

Asked Thursday about Biden’s comment on a “minor incursion,” a French diplomat insisted it didn’t prompt any rethinking of the “European consensus” that any new attack on Ukrainian sovereignty would have “massive and severe consequences.” But the diplomat, commenting after meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken as he conferred with European counterparts on the Ukraine crisis, wouldn’t elaborate on those consequences or what would constitute such an attack.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss his government’s take.

Putin faced limited international consequences after he seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014 and backed the separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. His central demand to the West is that NATO provide a guarantee that Ukraine never be allowed to join the alliance — a demand that Washington and its allies have roundly rejected.

Sanctions come with risks

Biden on Wednesday noted that coordinating a sanctions strategy is further complicated by the fact that penalties aimed at crippling Russian banking would also have a negative effect on the economies of the United States and Europe.

“And so, I got to make sure everybody is on the same page as we move along,” he said.

Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the leaders of a bipartisan congressional delegation that visited Ukraine last weekend, said she had seen no signs of a rift with the Europeans over how far Russia would have to go to trigger a response.

In an analysis of the Ukraine crisis, Seth Jones, a political scientist, and Philip Wasielewski, a former CIA paramilitary officer, cited several possible scenarios short of an all-out Russian invasion. This could include Putin sending conventional troops into the Donbass breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as “peacekeepers” and refusing to withdraw them until peace talks end successfully, they wrote in their analysis last week for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“All other options bring major international sanctions and economic hardship and would be counterproductive to the goal of weakening NATO or decoupling the United States from its commitments to European security,” they wrote.

Among those other options: seizing Ukrainian territory as far west as the Dnieper River, which runs south through Kyiv to the Black Sea near the Crimean Peninsula. Putin might seek to use this as a bargaining chip or incorporate this territory fully into the Russian Federation, Jones and Wasielewski wrote. 

your ad here

UN Weekly Roundup Jan. 15-21, 2022

Editor’s note: Here is a fast take on what the international community has been up to this past week, as seen from the United Nations perch. 

UN chief calls for action in 2022 on urgent challenges 

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Friday that the world is facing “a five-alarm fire” that requires urgent and united global action to be extinguished. 

Guterres sees opening in resolving Ethiopia conflict 

Secretary-General Guterres expressed hope that there could be an opening to resolve the more than year-long conflict in northern Ethiopia, which has left millions on the brink of starvation. 

Concerns grow over Taliban treatment of Afghan women 

A group of United Nations human rights experts alleged the Islamist Taliban government was attempting to steadily erase Afghanistan’s women and girls from public life. 

In brief 

The U.N. Security Council met January 20 to discuss North Korea’s recent missile launches, which violate council resolutions. Among the rockets fired, Pyongyang says it successfully test-fired some hypersonic missiles. Read more about these sophisticated rockets here: 

The South Pacific island nation of Tonga was hit by a tsunami on January 15, after an underwater volcanic eruption. The United Nations and neighboring countries have been trying to assess the population’s needs and send aid but are facing challenges. 

The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution on January 20 against Holocaust denial. The resolution calls on states as well as social media companies to take active measures against denial and distortion of the Holocaust. Israel and Germany worked together to draft and guide the resolution through the assembly, where 114 countries co-sponsored it. It was adopted on the 80th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, the gathering of Nazi government officials that planned the rounding up and extermination of Jews and other minorities. 

The General Assembly also adopted a call for an Olympic truce. The winter Olympics get under way next month in Beijing, but the Games have been controversial because of China’s dismal human rights record against Uyghur and other minorities. Despite that, U.N. chief Guterres has said he will attend the opening ceremony at the invitation of the International Olympic Committee, saying the Games “must be an instrument of peace in the world.” 

Some good news 

COVAX delivered its 1 billionth global dose of COVID-19 vaccine as part of a shipment of 1.1 million doses that arrived in Rwanda this week. 

Quote of note

“I am convinced it will not happen, and I strongly hope to be right.” 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at a news conference on January 21, when asked about rising tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border and whether he thinks Moscow will invade. 

What we are watching next week 

The mandate for the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) will expire on January 31, when a four-month technical extension agreed to by the Security Council runs out. Decisions need to be made about the mission’s mandate and leadership in order to help the country hold postponed elections later this year. But council unity is lacking, and negotiations for a new resolution could be difficult. 

Did you know? 

The U.N. Security Council met for the first time on January 17, 1946, in London: 

 

 

your ad here