US to Russia: No Change on NATO, Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the ball is now in Russia’s court after the U.S. hand delivered its written response to Moscow’s stated security concerns over NATO and Ukraine. As VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports, Blinken made clear there will be no change to NATO’s open-door policy to new members, as Russia had demanded.
Producer: Kimberlyn Weeks

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UK Police Arrest 2 More in Texas Synagogue Attack

British police said Wednesday they were holding two more men in connection with an armed hostage-taking at a Texas synagogue by a man from northwest England. 

Malik Faisal Akram took four people, including a rabbi, hostage on January 15 at the synagogue in the small town of Colleyville.

He was shot dead by the FBI after a 10-hour siege during which he demanded the release of a female al-Qaida supporter imprisoned for attempted murder. 

His hostages escaped unharmed. 

In Texas, authorities have arrested the man suspected of selling Akram the semi-automatic handgun used in the attack. 

In Britain, the Counter Terrorism Policing force for northwest England said it had arrested two men in the city of Manchester. 

“They remain in custody for questioning,” the force said in a statement. 

The arrests bring to six the number of people held by British police over the hostage-taking, which renewed concern over an increase in anti-Semitic attacks on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. 

Three men are being questioned by police in Manchester, and another in the central English city of Birmingham. 

Akram had planned the attack for at least two years. It was staged in an apparent bid to win the release of Pakistani woman Aafia Siddiqui, who has been jailed in Texas for the attempted murder of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. 

Akram was reportedly investigated in 2020 by Britain’s domestic security agency MI5 after he spent six months in Pakistan. 

But the probe was ended after just more than a month and he was able to travel to the United States without being flagged as a risk.

Meanwhile, authorities in Texas announced the arrest of a man who they said sold Akram a semi-automatic Taurus G2C pistol two days before the synagogue attack. 

The FBI said they had linked Henry “Michael” Williams to Akram through phone records, and that Williams confirmed that he had sold the gun to Akram. 

Williams, 32, has a record of convictions on assault, weapons and drug-related charges. 

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State Department Recap: January 20-26, 2022 

Here’s a look at what U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top diplomats have been doing this week:

US, Russia, Ukraine

Following consultations with various European partners as well as Ukraine, the United States and NATO provided written responses to Moscow addressing Russia’s renewed security demands — the latest moves in diplomatic maneuvering aimed at heading off armed conflict.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan delivered the document in person Wednesday to Russia’s Foreign Ministry. Separately, NATO transmitted to Russia its own responses regarding European security in a document described by officials as a few pages in length.

US Responds to Russia’s Security Demands, Renewing Call for Diplomacy 

Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman assessed that China’s hosting of the Winter Olympics early next month was a factor in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculation of military actions against Ukraine.

“We all are aware that the Beijing Olympics begin on February 4 — the opening ceremony — and Putin is expected to be there,” Sherman said. “I think that probably President Xi Jinping would not be ecstatic if Putin chose that moment to invade Ukraine. So, that may affect his timing and his thinking.”

On Sunday, the State Department 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 amid the continued threat of Russian military action against Ukraine. The State Department also asked U.S. citizens in Ukraine to consider departing the country via commercial or other privately available transportation options.

US Orders Departure of Family Members of Ukraine Embassy Staff ​

Burkina Faso

The State Department said it was watching closely “the fluid situation” in Burkina Faso, where a military junta ousted President Roch Marc Christian Kabore. But the U.S. said it was “too soon” to officially characterize the events in Burkina Faso as a coup.

“We call for the immediate release of President Kabore and other government officials, and for members of the security forces to respect Burkina Faso’s constitution and civilian leadership. We urge all sides in this fluid situation to remain calm and to seek dialogue as a means to resolve grievances,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said this week during a press briefing.

Burkina Faso Soldiers Say They Deposed President

US-Iran

The United States warned Iran was just weeks from developing the capacity to make a nuclear weapon. The alarm came amid indirect negotiations between the two countries seeking a mutual return to compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal.

“[Iran] is getting to the point where its breakout time, the time it would take to produce fissile material for a bomb, is getting down to a matter of a few weeks,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a virtual event Monday. How the U.S. and its allies would deal with the risks will be decided soon, Blinken said, adding that “given what Iran is doing, we can’t allow this to go on.”

As Iran Nears Uranium Breakout Capacity, US Mulls Bomb-Making Scenarios

Human trafficking 

On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department released its annual “Trafficking in Persons Report.” Blinken called for other countries to improve “collective efforts to comprehensively address human trafficking,” as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem.

State Department Releases Annual Trafficking in Persons Report

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US Responds to Russia’s Security Demands, Renewing Call for Diplomacy

The United States has provided its written response to Russia’s security demands after consulting with NATO allies and European partners, including Ukraine, while renewing calls for U.S.-Russia diplomatic talks. 

“The document we’ve delivered includes concerns of the United States and our allies and partners about Russia’s actions that undermine security — a principled and pragmatic evaluation of the concerns that Russia has raised, and our own proposals for areas where we may be able to find common ground,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday at a press conference. 

U.S. officials have said Washington and Moscow could still find consensus and see potential for progress, including on issues such as arms control related to missiles in Europe. 

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan delivered the document in person to Russia’s Foreign Ministry. NATO separately transmitted to Russia its own paper about European security, described by officials as a few pages in length. 

U.S. officials declined to elaborate on specifics. Moscow’s security demands include a pause of NATO’s eastward expansion, especially in Ukraine and Georgia, as well as a rollback of NATO troops in Eastern Europe. The U.S. has dismissed those demands as nonstarters while offering dialogue with Russia on issues including military exercises and transparency, as well as the placement of missiles. 

“We’ve addressed the possibility of reciprocal transparency measures regarding force posture in Ukraine, as well as measures to increase confidence regarding military exercises and maneuvers in Europe,” Blinken said. “We are acting with equal focus and force to bolster Ukraine’s defenses and prepare a swift united response to further Russian aggression.” 

The U.S. has laid out its grave concerns over possible further Russian military aggression against Ukraine while requesting a follow-up discussion between Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. 

Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Wednesday said Ukraine had no objections to the U.S. responses to Russia, which are seen as part of negotiations to avert Moscow’s military escalation against Kyiv. Kuleba added that Russia was trying to sow panic in Ukraine. 

“The number of Russian troops massed along the border of Ukraine and in the occupied territories of Ukraine is large (and) … poses a threat,” Kuleba said ​during a Wednesday press briefing. “However, at the moment, as we speak, this number is insufficient for the full-scale offensive against Ukraine along the entire Ukrainian border.” 

While the U.S. would not rule out an imminent military move by Russia against Ukraine, a senior State Department official noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin may not want to upset China when the country is hosting the opening ceremony of Winter Olympics. 

“We certainly see every indication that (Putin) is going to use military force sometime perhaps now and middle of February,” said Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on Wednesday during a virtual event with Yalta European Strategy, a European security forum. 

“We all are aware that the Beijing Olympics begin on February 4 — the opening ceremony — and Putin is expected to be there,” added Sherman. “I think that probably President Xi Jinping would not be ecstatic if Putin chose that moment to invade Ukraine. So that may affect his timing and his thinking.” 

Some analysts agreed with the assessment, noting Russia’s military logistics “have not yet been fully activated to start massive military operations.” 

“The Winter Olympics in China, to be held between 4-20 February, might offer some respite,” said Mathieu Boulègue, a research fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program of London-based Chatham House. “To safeguard relations with Beijing, Moscow may avoid repeating its actions of August 2008, when Russia took military action against Georgia, literally during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympics.” 

In Kyiv, the U.S. embassy is urging American citizens in the country to consider departing now, citing an “unpredictable” security situation that “can deteriorate with little notice.” 

Earlier on Wednesday, Russian officials rejected the prospect of U.S. sanctions against Putin, one of several proposed responses if Russian forces were to invade neighboring Ukraine. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that such sanctions would be “destructive” but not politically painful. 

U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday warned of “severe” and “enormous” consequences for Putin — including personal sanctions against Putin himself — if the Russian leader mobilizes troops standing ready to strike along the Ukrainian border. Ukrainian intelligence officials put troop estimates at 127,000. 

VOA’s Patsy Widakuswara, Anita Powell and Carla Babb contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. 

 

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Ex-Irish Soldier Justified Jihad Before Joining IS, Witness Says

A former Irish army soldier justified jihad suicide bombings while attending a mosque in Ireland before she joined the Islamic State group in Syria, a Dublin court was told Wednesday.

Lisa Smith, 39, is on trial accused of being a member of the Islamist extremists after traveling to war-ravaged Syria in 2015.

She has pleaded not guilty to membership of an unlawful terrorist group between October 28, 2015, and December 1, 2019.

She has also denied funding terrorism by sending $900 to aid medical treatment for a Syrian man in Turkey.

But Carol Karimah Duffy, who introduced Smith to a mosque in Dundalk before she left for Syria, said she made attendees there uncomfortable.

“There was a lot of talk about justifying why the suicide bombs were happening,” Duffy told the Special Criminal Court of Smith’s conversations with others at the mosque.

“That we were being attacked so we were attacking back. It was us and them,” Duffy said. “Then there was talk of jihad and it was her version of jihad, which would have been the holy war jihad.”

Duffy added that Smith also said she wanted to find a husband who would be willing to die as a Muslim martyr.

Smith moved to IS-controlled territory in October 2015 after buying a one-way ticket from Dublin to Turkey, and from there crossing the border to Syria.

The court was told on Tuesday that she lived in Raqqa, the capital of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s self-styled caliphate, and unsuccessfully attempted to get her husband to join her.

He refused and she divorced him in 2016. Some months later, she married a U.K. national who had moved to Syria and been involved in patrols on the Iraq border.

When Raqqa fell to allied forces in 2018, she moved to Baghouz, the group’s last remaining stronghold.

After that too fell in March 2019, she eventually returned to Ireland and was arrested on arrival with her young daughter at Dublin airport on December 1.

Prosecutor Sean Gillane said Smith had “enveloped herself in the black flag of ISIS” in response to a call to arms from Baghdadi.

In doing so, she had self-identified as a member of the proscribed group, he told the three judges at the court in the Irish capital who will rule on the case.

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Russia Rejects Biden Warning of ‘Severe’ Actions if it Invades Ukraine

Russia on Wednesday rejected the prospect of U.S. sanctions against President Vladimir Putin, one of several proposed responses if Russian forces were to invade neighboring Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that such sanctions would not be politically painful, but would be “destructive.”

U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday warned of “severe” and “enormous” consequences for Putin — including personal sanctions against Putin himself — if the Russian leader mobilizes the estimated 127,000 troops who stand ready to strike along the Ukrainian border.

 

“I have made it clear early on to President Putin that if he were to move into Ukraine, that there would be severe consequences, including significant economic sanctions as well as I’d feel obliged to beef up our presence, NATO’s presence, on the eastern front, Poland, Romania, etc,” Biden said, adding: “If he were to move in with all those forces, it would be the largest invasion since World War II. It would change the world.”

He also stressed that none of the 8,500 U.S. troops put on high alert this week would be moved into Ukrainian territory, and they would be deployed as part of a NATO operation, not a sole U.S. operation. He did not say when he might decide to order those troops into theater.

Biden said the United States has a “sacred obligation” to come to the aid of NATO allies that face threats. Ukraine is not a member of NATO — though it wants to be. However, neighboring Russia sees possible NATO membership as a threat and has demanded that the security alliance bar Ukraine from membership. Putin has said he has no intention to invade Ukraine but sees NATO’s eastward expansion as a threat.

“And I’ve spoken with every one of our NATO allies … virtually, and we’re all on the same page,’ Biden said. “We’ve got to make it clear that there’s no reason for anyone, any member of NATO, to worry whether or not … we — NATO — would come to their defense.”

Efforts to resolve the situation diplomatically involved talks last week among Russia, the United States, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

 

Russia is awaiting a written response to its proposals, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told lawmakers Wednesday that if “the West continues its aggressive course, Moscow will take the necessary retaliatory measures.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy used a televised address Tuesday to urge calm at home.

“There are no rose-colored glasses, no childish illusions, everything is not simple. … But there is hope,” Zelenskiy said. “Protect your body from viruses, your brain from lies, your heart from panic.”

Zelenskiy said plans are being made for him to meet with the leaders of Russia, Germany and France. Officials from the four countries were due to hold talks on Wednesday in Paris.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday he would seek clarification about Russia’s intentions during a phone call with Putin scheduled for Friday.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, in a response to a question from VOA, said Tuesday that Russian forces have grown “consistently” but not “dramatically.”

“We have seen a consistent accumulation of combat power by the Russians in the western part of their country around the borders with Ukraine and Belarus,” Kirby said.

 

Earlier in the day, the United States warned Russia it would face faster and far more severe economic consequences if it invades Ukraine than it did when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

“We are prepared to implement sanctions with massive consequences that were not considered in 2014,” a national security official told reporters in Washington. “That means the gradualism of the past is out. And this time, we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there.”

The security official, speaking anonymously, said the United States is “also prepared to impose novel export controls” to hobble the Russian economy.

“We use them to prohibit the export of products from Russia,” the official said. “And given the reason they work is if you … step back and look at the global dominance of U.S.-origin software technology, the export control options we’re considering alongside our allies and partners would hit Putin’s strategic ambitions to industrialize his economy quite hard, and it would impair areas that are of importance to him, whether it’s in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, or defense or aerospace or other key sectors.”

The United States and its allies imposed less severe economic sanctions against Moscow after its Crimean takeover, but they ultimately proved ineffective, and the peninsula remains under Russian control.

Russia’s demand that Ukraine be barred from NATO has been dismissed by the West, where leaders have said they won’t give Moscow veto power over who belongs to the 30-country military alliance that was founded to counter Soviet aggression after World War II.

VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell and VOA Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report. Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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Russian, Ukrainian Officials Take Part in Paris Talks Amid Tensions

Officials from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France are holding talks Wednesday in Paris amid tensions at the Russia-Ukraine border.

Western nations have expressed concern about the deployment of more than 100,000 Russian troops in the area and the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia denies it has such plans and has sought guarantees that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will not expand in Russia’s direction.

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday that he hopes from the Paris talks “a good, open conversation will take place with the maximum possible result.”

Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, tweeted Wednesday that he hopes for a “constructive dialogue” in Ukraine’s interests.

The meeting follows several rounds of talks last week involving Russia, the United States, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Russia is awaiting written responses to some of its demands. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told lawmakers Wednesday that Russia would take “necessary retaliatory measures” if the West continues what he called an “aggressive course.”

Wednesday’s talks come as Russia said it was sending more troops and equipment to Belarus as those two countries prepare to hold military drills next month.

Peskov also said applying sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin would be counterproductive.

“Politically, it’s not painful, it’s destructive,” he told reporters Wednesday.

U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday that Russia would face “severe consequences” if it invades Ukraine, including economic sanctions that could include Putin himself.

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

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Explainer: What Post-unrest Reforms Is Kazakhstan Proposing?

Kazakhstan’s leader has trumpeted ambitious economic reforms following the worst unrest in the country of 19 million in three decades. The measures are aimed at reducing the state’s deep involvement in the economy, bridging the gap between the wealthy minority and the struggling majority — and eliminating triggers for further turmoil. 

Experts say the announced changes look good on paper, but they question whether the new government in the energy-rich former Soviet state will implement them. 

A look at the causes of discontent and the government’s promised reforms: 

What’s roiling Kazakhstan? 

On January 2, small protests broke out in an oil city in western Kazakhstan where residents were unhappy about a sudden spike in prices for liquified gas, which is widely used as automotive fuel. 

The demonstrations soon spread across the vast country, reflecting wider public discontent with steadily decreasing incomes, worsening living conditions and the authoritarian government. By January 5, the protests descended into violence, with armed groups storming government buildings and setting cars and buses on fire in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. 

To quell the violence, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requested help from a Russia-led security alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The bloc of six former Soviet states sent more than 2,000 troops. 

Authorities arrested thousands of people, and more than 220 — mostly civilians — were killed. About a week after the protests began, order was largely restored.

Why were gas prices such a sore point?

The price of gas soared to $0.27 (120 tenge) per liter, a significant increase in the country where, according to Tokayev’s own admission, half the population earns no more than $114 (50,000 tenge) a month. The spike came about as the government moved away from price controls as part of efforts to build a market economy. 

Analysts say the increase came as a complete surprise. 

“All these decisions were made without transparency. … People woke up to a new gas price that was 2½ times higher,” said Kassymkhan Kapparov, an economist in Kazakhstan and founder of the Ekonomist.Kz think tank. 

The western region of Kazakhstan where the protests started also produces oil and gas. Residents were outraged that the price increased while their salaries remained stagnant, said Rustam Burnashev of the Kazakh-German University in Almaty, an expert on regional security in Central Asia. 

“They were saying, ‘Guys, we’re producing it, and now we (have to) buy it at astronomical prices?’ They agree that gas prices (all over the world) grow, but in that case (they say) that our salaries should too,” Burnashev said. 

How did Kazakhstan end up in this situation? 

Kazakhstan became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In the first post-independence years, the country saw rapid economic growth and rising prosperity. For almost three decades, it was dominated by Nursultan Nazarbayev, its last Communist Party leader at the time of independence. 

The country profited from its natural resources, most notably oil. Foreign investors were welcome, money flowed into state coffers, and social spending helped keep abject poverty low. But key sectors such as mining, telecommunications and banking were dominated by state-owned companies and a few figures connected to Nazarbayev, either politically or through family ties. 

As time went on, Nazarbayev increasingly monopolized the country’s politics, suppressing opposition and introducing a highly personalized form of rule as “Elbasy,” or “leader of the nation.” Nazarbayev resigned in 2019 but until recently remained head of the ruling Nur Otan party and chair of the Security Council. Tokayev, the chair of the upper house of parliament, was appointed president and renamed the capital of Astana to Nur-Sultan, to honor his predecessor. 

What are the issues behind the public discontent? 

Discontent among ordinary people goes way beyond gas prices. People are aware of the immense economic privilege of those around Nazarbayev and the country’s striking level of inequality, in which 162 people control more than half the country’s wealth.

Meanwhile, the average monthly wage is around $558 (243,000 tenge), according to government statistics, although the cost of living is relatively low compared with that of Western countries. 

A recent report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project found that a charitable foundation created by Nazarbayev held assets worth $7.8 billion, including stakes in banking, shopping centers, logistics firms and food production. 

British authorities issued “unexplained-wealth orders” to Nazarbayev’s daughter and grandson, demanding the two reveal where they obtained funds for three London properties worth more than $108 million (80 million pounds). A judge threw out the orders. 

What approach is the current president taking?

Tokayev publicly acknowledged Kazakhstan’s rampant inequality and initially tried to quell the protests with a few concessions: He capped gas prices for 180 days, named a new Cabinet and ousted Nazarbayev from the National Security Council. 

The president outlined future reforms to “reset” the economy, remarking, “We need to define new ‘rules of play’ — fairer, more transparent and just.” 

Some of the ambitious measures he touted included reducing the government’s involvement in and oligarchs’ influence on business; reforming the Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund, which owns major companies; and ensuring fair competition, a better investment climate and the integrity of private property, in part by overhauling the country’s justice system. 

What chance of success do the proposed reforms have?

Kapparov, the economist, said important questions remain about the Samruk-Kazyna fund and its companies. 

“Will there be a privatization? On what scale? In which time frame?” he asked. “Will it be open to everyone, including foreign investors? These issues haven’t been mentioned.” 

The inner circle’s power and influence raise serious obstacles to any wide-ranging reform that would be required to privatize state companies and allow outside interests to compete in key sectors, said former World Bank official Simon Commander, now managing partner at emerging markets advisory firm Altura Partners. Tokayev’s speech, while interesting, is “certainly more radical than is likely to be possible. … Let’s hope he turns out to be a genuine reformer.” 

But he added: “I’m very skeptical. Their economic and political structure hems them in.” 

What about political reforms? 

During his years in office, Tokayev has also promised limited political reforms, including local elections. 

But the crackdown on protesters suggests authorities don’t intend to allow genuine political opposition, and without political reform, economic reform is difficult to imagine. 

Greeting discontent with more than 12,000 arrests “is a pretty good metric for how the regime thinks it needs to respond,” Commander said. 

 

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Energy Contingency Plan in Motion Amid Russia-Ukraine Crisis 

The Biden administration has been working with European countries and energy producers around the world on ways to supply fuel to Western European countries should Russian President Vladimir Putin slash oil and gas exports in retaliation for sanctions imposed for an invasion of Ukraine. 

“We’ve been working to identify additional volumes of non-Russian natural gas from various areas of the world from North Africa and the Middle East to Asia and the United States,” a senior administration official said in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday. 

The contingency plan is aimed to reassure European allies concerned about the impact of Russia weaponizing its energy supply. Moscow provides approximately 40% of Europe’s natural gas, and European energy stockpiles have been significantly lower in the past few months because of reduced Russian supplies. 

A second senior administration official underscored that oil and gas exports make up about half of Russia’s federal budget revenues, which means that Moscow is just as dependent on its energy revenue as Europe is on its supply. 

“If Russia decides to weaponize its supply of natural gas or crude oil, it wouldn’t be without consequences to the Russian economy,” the official said. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to confirm reporting that Qatar is one of the countries that the U.S. and European allies are turning to.

“Our approach is not about any one country or any individual entity,” she said while briefing reporters Tuesday, adding that the administration is engaging with major buyers and suppliers of liquefied natural gas to ensure flexibility in existing contracts to enable diversion to Europe if needed. 

President Joe Biden is set to meet with Amir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar at the White House on January 31. According to the White House, ensuring the stability of global energy supplies will be one of the topics discussed by the leaders. 

While having a contingency plan is important, analysts say it won’t be easy to substitute for existing infrastructure, particularly under the current global supply chain crisis. 

“Think of a gas pipeline as a faucet. … It’s super-efficient,” said Kristine Berzina, a senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States. Berzina told VOA that a contingency plan would be “more of a bucket than it is a faucet.” 

US-Europe unity 

On Monday, Biden said there was total unity among Western powers on the issue of Russia’s pressure on Ukraine. 

“I had a very, very, very good meeting — total unanimity with all the European leaders,” Biden told reporters shortly after a videoconference with European leaders on the escalating Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

Some analysts, however, say Biden maybe overplaying talk of unity. 

“In Europe, people are not as gung-ho and trigger-happy as they are here in the United States,” said Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at The New School, in New York. 

For months, the U.S. and European allies have warned of swift and severe economic consequences if Putin invades Ukraine. But some European allies have been nervous about the impact on their economies, including on the supply of Russian natural gas — particularly during the winter months. 

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

“Despite all this conversation of the united West over Russia, it’s not as united,” Khrushcheva said. “And Putin knows that.” 

On Tuesday, Biden reiterated his position. “I made it clear to Putin early on if he went into Ukraine there would be consequences,” he said.

But analysts say that in moving forward with his harsh rhetoric on Russian sanctions, Biden needs to be mindful of the political calculation for European leaders. 

“The Western European population isn’t necessarily willing to suffer for Ukraine,” Berzina said. 

On Monday, the U.S. put 8,500 troops on heightened alert for possible deployment to Eastern Europe, amid escalating tensions in the crisis along the Russia-Ukraine border, where Putin has deployed 127,000 troops, according to U.S. and Ukrainian estimates. 

The Russian troop deployment is similar to Moscow’s move ahead of its 2014 annexation of Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea, which triggered a series of international sanctions against Moscow but ultimately failed to deter Putin’s land grab. 

“They have not only shown no signs of de-escalating — they are in fact adding more force capability,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said about the Russian military buildup during a press briefing on Monday. 

Both countries stepped up their military preparations Tuesday, with Moscow conducting a series of military exercises and Washington delivering a fresh shipment of weapons to Ukraine. 

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US Warns Russia Economic Sanctions Would Be Sharper Than in 2014

The United States warned Russia Tuesday that it would face faster and far more severe economic consequences if it invades Ukraine than it did when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

“We are prepared to implement sanctions with massive consequences that were not considered in 2014,” a national security official told reporters in Washington. “That means the gradualism of the past is out. And this time, we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there.”

Later, President Joe Biden told reporters he could see himself personally imposing economic sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin if he invades Ukraine. 

The security official, speaking anonymously, said the U.S. is “also prepared to impose novel export controls” to hobble the Russian economy.

“You can think of these export controls as trade restrictions in the service of broader U.S. national security interests,” the official said.

“We use them to prohibit the export of products from Russia,” the official said. “And given the reason they work is if you … step back and look at the global dominance of U.S.-origin software technology, the export control options we’re considering alongside our allies and partners would hit Putin’s strategic ambitions to industrialize his economy quite hard, and it would impair areas that are of importance to him, whether it’s in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, or defense or aerospace or other key sectors.”

The U.S. and its allies imposed less severe economic sanctions against Moscow after its Crimean takeover, but they ultimately proved ineffective, and the peninsula remains under Russian control.

The U.S. is also working with energy producers around the world, another security official said, to supply fuel to Western European countries in the event Putin cuts off Russia’s flow of natural gas to the West.

One of the U.S. security officials echoed Biden in saying that the U.S. and its Western allies are “unified in our intention to impose massive consequences that would deliver a severe and immediate blow to Russia over time, make its economy even more brittle and undercut Putin’s aspirations to exert influence on the world stage.”

Tuesday’s White House warning came as Russia said it is watching “with great concern” as the U.S. on Monday put 8,500 troops on heightened alert for possible deployment to Eastern Europe.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated to reporters the Russian accusations that the United States is escalating tensions in the crisis along the Russia-Ukraine border, where Putin has deployed an estimated 127,000 troops.

 

Russia has demanded that NATO reject possible Ukraine membership, but the West has said it won’t give Moscow veto power over who belongs to the 30-country military alliance that has evolved since the end of World War II.

Biden met virtually Monday with key European leaders to discuss the ongoing threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“I had a very, very, very good meeting — total unanimity with all the European leaders,” Biden told reporters after hosting a secure video call with allied leaders from Europe, the European Union and NATO.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office released a statement that supported Biden’s summation, saying, “The leaders agreed on the importance of international unity in the face of growing Russian hostility.”

Biden has not decided whether to move U.S. military equipment and personnel closer to Russia. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in advance of the meeting with the European officials that the United States has “always said we’d support allies on the eastern flank” abutting Russia.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin placed 8,500 U.S. military personnel on “high alert” of being dispatched to Eastern Europe, where most of them could be activated as part of a NATO response force if Russia invades Ukraine.

“It’s very clear the Russians have no intention right now of de-escalating,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters. “What this is about, though, is reassurance to our NATO allies.”

Biden has ruled out sending troops to Ukraine if Russia invades the onetime Soviet republic.

 

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Putin ‘Playing Poker Rather Than Chess,’ Says Former UK Spy Chief

Why won’t Russia’s Vladimir Putin let Ukraine go? He might not be able to, according to a former head of Britain’s MI6 external intelligence agency, Alex Younger.  

In an interview Tuesday with the BBC, Younger said he cannot see how the Russian leader can back down as fears mount that Putin is poised to order a Russian invasion of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic.

Younger said the Russian president was “playing poker rather than chess” to create options for himself. But Younger added, “At the moment I cannot see a scenario where he can back down in a way that satisfies the expectations that he has created.”

He added, “It feels dangerous and it’s clearly getting more dangerous. It’s hard to see a safe landing zone given the expectations that President Putin has created.”

British officials Tuesday said elements of a “Russian military advance force” are already active inside Ukraine. “We are becoming aware of a significant number of individuals that are assessed to be associated with Russian military advance force operations and currently located in Ukraine,” said James Heappey, Britain’s armed forces minister.

His remarks coincided with Ukraine’s SBU security service saying in a statement it had broken up a group of saboteurs preparing a series of destabilizing attacks along Ukraine’s borders. The SBU said the saboteurs intended to target infrastructure “coordinated by Russian special services.”

Last week, the Pentagon accused Russia of preparing false flag attacks. “It has pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct what we call a false flag operation, an operation designed to look like an attack on them or Russian-speaking people in Ukraine as an excuse to go in,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington.

Russian officials deny any plans to invade Ukraine, despite their building up military forces along their neighbor’s borders, where Ukraine’s defense ministry estimates 127,000 troops have been deployed. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has dismissed accusations that Russia plans to stage an offensive, describing the charges as “hysteria.”

But as tensions soar in eastern Europe, some Western diplomats and analysts fear the geopolitical confrontation is approaching a point where it might be impossible to avoid conflict and Putin may have backed himself into a position where he has no off-ramp, if he is not to lose face.

Putin has long appeared set on challenging the outcome of the Cold War and eager to re-establish a Russian sphere of influence in eastern Europe. Maintaining influence over Ukraine and halting the country from joining NATO are crucial elements of that project.

“Vladimir Putin sees the current security architecture as both unacceptable and dangerous to Russia. It is unacceptable because it manifests a series of tightening military, political, and economic relationships between Ukraine and the West, and Putin sees the West as fundamentally hostile to Russia,” according to Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage of the German Marshall Fund, a Washington-based research group.

“What Putin wants is to unwind the tightening military, political, and economic relationships between Ukraine and the West. He realizes that this aim cannot be accomplished through persuasion alone,” they add.

Ukraine’s drift toward the West has long frustrated the Russian leader. In 2008, Putin told then-U.S. President George W. Bush, “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country.” He has not shifted his view since. After annexing Crimea, and as separatist agitation encouraged by the Kremlin in eastern Ukraine intensified, Putin said, “Russians and Ukrainians are one people. Kyiv is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Russia is our common source, and we cannot live without each other.”  

Last year the Russian leader wrote a 5,000-word tract, titled, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in which he argued Ukraine can only be sovereign in partnership with Russia and has been weakened by the West’s efforts to undermine Slav unity. One historian described the essay as a “call to arms.”

The rallying cry predates that essay, though. Back in November 2014 in Donetsk, newly arrived pro-Moscow fighters from Russia’s Caucasus region, mainly Chechens and Ossetians, were in no doubt as to why they were in Ukraine’s Donbas region, recently seized by a rag-tag collection of insurrectionists, separatists and unemployed youngsters.

As far as they were concerned, they were defending Mother Russia from NATO and reclaiming Ukraine. A bearded 28-year-old ethnic Ossetian, a bear of a man with a gnarled left ear and veteran of Russia’s 2008 five-day war against Georgia, told this correspondent, “Two of my grandparents were killed here in Ukraine during the Second World War fighting against the fascists, and I have to finish their work.”

He and his Ossetian comrades, seasoned combat fighters, claimed to be on leave from the Russian military. They said the Maidan uprising that toppled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of President Putin, nearly a decade ago, was the handiwork of NATO, the Americans and Europeans and all part of a plot against Russia.

“NATO bullied us in Georgia and now they are doing the same again here, and we have to stop them. This is the land of my ancestors, and I have to participate. If you don’t stop fascists, they grow, and when we have finished here in the Donbas, we will then go to Kyiv.”

The march on Kyiv never happened and the conflict remained limited to the Donbas, claiming from its outset more than 15,000 lives. Some fear Putin, who famously dubbed the collapse of the Soviet empire “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” might seriously be weighing an assault on Ukraine’s capital.

The Chechens, Ossetians and ethnic Russians arrived in large numbers in late 2014 to stiffen and organize local separatists and help them organize a pushback against a Ukrainian counter-offensive. They were parroting what they had heard from the Kremlin since Putin first took office in 1999, but which has led to a crescendo since 2008 that Russia is besieged by determined adversaries and was robbed when the Soviet Union collapsed, with the biggest theft being Ukraine.

That view, though, glides past the history of the breakup of the Soviet Union. It collapsed itself in the wake of a failed KGB coup to unseat Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev when Russia’s Boris Yeltsin and his counterparts in Ukraine and Belarus announced after meeting in December 1991: “the USSR as a subject of international law and geopolitical reality has ceased to exist.”

Western leaders had no hand in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, say authoritative historians, and it prompted the alarm of Western leaders, who worried about what would happen to the Soviet nuclear arsenal, which was spread out across Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Nonetheless, Putin “looks more determined than ever” to turn the clock back, says Frederick Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based research group. He sees Putin as an opportunist testing the West but with a clear direction.

“The problem isn’t the nature of Putin’s next move but rather the troubling trajectory behind it, one that has included Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, its 2014 annexation of Crimea,” he says.

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London Police Investigating Lockdown Parties at British PM’s Offices 

London police said Tuesday they were investigating Downing Street lockdown parties in 2020 to determine if U.K. government officials violated coronavirus restrictions, putting further pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

The Metropolitan Police Service has launched an inquiry into “a number of events” at Downing Street because they met the force’s criteria for investigating the “most serious and flagrant” breaches of COVID-19 rules, Commissioner Cressida Dick told the London Assembly, the capital’s local government council. 

Johnson is facing calls to resign amid revelations that he and his staff attended a series of parties during the spring and winter of 2020 when most social gatherings were banned throughout England, forcing average citizens to miss weddings, funerals and birthdays as friends and relatives died alone in hospitals. The gatherings are already being investigated by a senior civil servant Sue Gray whose report, expected this week, will be crucial in determining whether Johnson can remain in power. 

The Cabinet Office said Gray’s investigation would continue. But it wasn’t immediately clear whether Gray would have to delay the announcement of her findings because of the police investigation. 

Johnson has apologized for attending a party in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020, but said he had considered it a work gathering that fell within the social distancing rules in place at the time. 

In the latest revelation, ITV News reported late Monday that Johnson attended a birthday party in his Downing Street office and later hosted friends at his official residence upstairs in June 2020. His office denied that the gathering violated lockdown regulations, saying that the prime minister hosted a small number of family members outdoors, which was in line with rules at the time. 

London Mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the police investigation. 

“The public rightly expect the police to uphold the law without fear or favor, no matter who that involves, and I have been clear that members of the public must be able to expect the highest standards from everyone, including the Prime Minister and those around him,” Khan said in a statement. “No one is above the law. There cannot be one rule for the government and another for everyone else.” 

Police have previously faced criticism for suggesting that they wouldn’t investigate the “partygate” scandal because they don’t routinely investigate historical breaches of coronavirus regulations. 

But Dick told the assembly that an investigation was warranted in this case because there is evidence that those involved knew or should have known that what they were doing was illegal, not investigating would “significantly undermine the legitimacy of the law,” and there seems to be no reasonable defense for the conduct. 

“So in those cases, where those criteria were met, the guidelines suggested that we should potentially investigate further and end up giving people tickets,” she said. 

Fixed penalty notices at the time carried a maximum fine of 10,000 pounds (nearly $13,500).

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Severe Snowstorm in Greece Grows Into Political Crisis

A severe snowstorm battering Greece is growing into a political crisis with the main opposition leader calling on Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to resign and hold snap elections. The call comes after thousands of people were left trapped along a main highway near the capital, Athens. The Greek government’s response to the storm is being called a “fiasco.”  

Heart-wrenching appeals, like one by Christos, a 74-year-old motorist trapped in his car for 22 hours, have triggered public and political fury.

“Please, please, please,” Christos cried to a television presenter. “Please, show us some mercy. Tell them to open the road… to help us. We are freezing…. We have been left without any gasoline, nothing to tide us over,” Christos pleaded.

Rescue crews working through the night have so far managed to evacuate some 3,500 drivers on a key motorway that homeland security forces promised ahead of the storm to keep open, but didn’t, leaving thousands of motorists stranded in snow, with rescue crews blocked from accessing those in distress.

Despite efforts, about 1,200 others remain stuck on the Attiki Odos motorway that circles the Greek capital, and thousands more on other roads and highways snaking through Athens, which is home to half the country’s population of 11 million.

Fifteen passengers were injured when a rail transport vehicle tried to pull a train carrying more than 200 passengers in heavy snow on Monday. Much of the capital has also been left without heat and electricity, sending hundreds of families streaming to their cars to keep warm as temperatures dip below freezing.  

On Tuesday, Christos Stylianides, Greece’s climate crisis and civil protection minister, apologized, but he said it was not the time to enter into a blame game.

We are focused on managing this unprecedented crisis, he told a news briefing after back-to-back crisis talks with Mitsotakis.  

He reiterated the government’s apology for its failed response and for “troubling” thousands of people by extending a shutdown of schools, public services and banks for an extra day in three regions in Greece, including the capital.

But the public’s fury remains so intense, amid the failings of the system, that a public prosecutor has ordered an urgent investigation into why the nation’s most important motorway was left unattended for so long.

Alexis Tsipras, the main opposition leader, wants the government to resign and hold elections immediately. He said in a statement issued Tuesday that he laid blame squarely on Mitsotakis, and that the country would be better off “without him” and a government unable to manage a snowstorm.

Snowfall is common in the Greek highlands, but extremely rare in the center of Athens and the country’s islands.

Mitsotakis has refrained from making any comment, or even appearing at any distressed location. Aides to the prime minister tell VOA, though, that he is pushing to compensate trapped motorists with at least 2,000 euros each, or just more than $2,250.

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Slovenian Trade Group Reports Chinese Backlash After PM Praises Taiwan

A Slovenian business group has said its members are facing a Chinese backlash days after Prime Minister Janez Jansa publicly discussed his hopes for closer ties with Taiwan during an interview. It marks the latest case of China refusing to tolerate dissent on the issue of Taiwan’s autonomy.  

On January 17, Jansa told Indian media that he hoped Taiwan and Slovenia could open mutual representative offices. He also praised Taiwan’s COVID-19 response and said Taiwan should determine its relationship with China independently. Opening offices in Taiwan would bring Slovenia in line with the rest of the European Union, as it is one of only a handful of countries — including Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Malta, and Romania — without a Taiwanese mission.    

Swift criticism against Jansa came from the Chinese government describing his remarks as “dangerous.” China considers Taiwan a province and treats any discussion of its disputed political status as taboo. 

Moreover, within days of the interview, the Slovenian-Chinese Business Council said Chinese partners were already “terminating contracts and exiting the agreed investments,” according to the Slovenian Press Agency. The business group and its parent organization, the CCIS- Ljubljana Chamber of Commerce and Industry, did not immediately respond to VOA’s email inquiries. 

The statement has also drawn fire both from Slovenia’s opposition and businesses with links to China. In an email response to VOA, Sasa Istenic, the director of the Taiwan Study Center at the University of Ljubljana, said his remarks “were his personal position not in tune with the National Assembly and could severely harm Slovenia’s economic cooperation with China.”   

Business groups in Slovenia fear they could suffer the same fate as Lithuania, which is now under a Chinese trade embargo in retaliation for pursuing closer ties with Taiwan, Istenic said.

“The Chinese market remains important for Slovenian companies and [the] Slovenian government has certainly been paying attention to China’s retaliation measures directed toward Lithuania,” Istenic said. “We have yet to see how far China is willing to go in preventing the EU member states from upgrading their relationships with Taiwan.”    

The EU maintains the “One China Policy” which recognizes Taiwan as part of the Chinese nation, and has traditionally had a less tumultuous relationship with Beijing than has the United States. But dissent is growing within the EU and some countries in Central and Eastern Europe have also found that promises of Chinese investment have not panned out as previously hoped, according to a 2021 report by the Central and Eastern Europe Center for Asian Studies.    

China’s growing strength in the Asia-Pacific region has also alarmed both the EU and NATO. The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with Beijing’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, have raised questions about its suitability as a close partner.

These concerns have given Taiwan a wedge to improve its relationship with some countries in Europe such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and, most notably, Lithuania.   

Lithuania and Taiwan have grown closer during the pandemic, swapping donations of vaccines and emergency protective gear. But, in April, Lithuania exited the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries trade initiative, a group formed in 2012 to improve trade and investment and known colloquially as the “16+1.”    

In November, Taiwan opened a controversially named “Taiwan representative office” in Lithuania. The office angered Beijing as it broke with the tradition of Taiwan using more politically neutral names like “Taipei Economic and Cultural Office” or “Taipei Representative Office” that did not suggest it was an independent political entity.    

Aware of the economic cost of its closer ties, Taiwan has worked to offset some of the newfound economic pressure on Lithuania by pledging a combined $1.2 billion in investment across several sectors including industries like semiconductors, biotechnology and lasers.    

“[This] investment is meant to shape Taiwan’s image as a reliable partner and viable democratic alternative to China, so there is both a financial and a political dimension to these financial proposals for investment,” said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, postdoctoral researcher in Taiwan and former political adviser in the European Parliament, over email.  

Access to Taiwan’s advanced technology sector could also be an attractive pull for other European countries, including Slovenia, whose automotive manufacturing and metallurgical industries rely on industrial robots. 

Una Aleksandra Berzina-Cerenkova, a China scholar and head of the Asia program at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, said Slovenia’s plan to potentially upgrade ties with Taiwan is a sign that Europe has not lost interest in democracy despite coercive measures from Beijing.    

“It seemed that there was a bit of a loss of momentum when the Lithuania example was not being followed by others in terms of withdrawing from the 16+1 and then turning towards Taiwan,” said Berzina-Cerenkova by phone.  

“But we actually see that Lithuania is leading … against the backdrop of attracting all the heat to itself. The other Central and Eastern European countries are actually also exploring opportunities, and trying to ride this train of momentum in their relations with Taiwan, because Taiwan, of course, is an interesting partner.”    

Some sectors in Slovenia could have a lot more to lose, however, than Lithuania. While cumulative Chinese investment in Lithuania was just 82 million euros in 2020, according to the Central and Eastern Europe Center for Asian Studies, investment in Slovenia was valued at a far greater 1.5 billion euros over the same period. Much of that investment is represented by a single acquisition of a video game developer, the report said.   

Other countries in the EU may need more support to weather the Chinese economic backlash if they choose to strengthen ties with Taiwan. So far, said Ferenczy, that support has taken the form of statements of support and resolutions in the EU Parliament, but she said more is needed. 

“The EU’s toolbox is limited. It is in the process of drafting its anti-coercion instrument designed to reinforce its resilience. It will be key to ensure the instrument works effectively in order to make a difference in terms of pushing back against China’s coercion,” Ferenczy said. “So, whether Brussels will stand with Lithuania and jointly push back against such messaging all the way, is key for the EU’s credibility and its ambition to be able to defend its interests.” 

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White House Girds for Possible Russia Action in Ukraine

Washington has put 8,500 military personnel on heightened alert for possible deployment to Europe and will evacuate some embassy personnel from Ukraine, as tensions rise between Russia and NATO countries over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s continued mobilization of troops near the Ukrainian border. VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell reports from Washington.

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US, European Leaders in ‘Unity’ Against Russian Invasion Threat

U.S. President Joe Biden met virtually Monday afternoon with key European leaders about the ongoing threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine as he weighs sending several thousand U.S. troops to the Baltics and Eastern Europe. 

“I had a very, very, very good meeting — total unanimity with all the European leaders,” Biden told reporters after hosting a secure video call with allied leaders from Europe, European Union and NATO. 

Biden has not decided whether to move U.S. military equipment and personnel closer to Russia. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in advance of the meeting with the European officials that the U.S. has “always said we’d support allies on the eastern flank” abutting Russia. 

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin placed 8,500 U.S. military personnel on “high alert” of being dispatched to Eastern Europe, where most of them could be activated as part of a NATO response force in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

“It’s very clear the Russians have no intention right now of de-escalating,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “What this is about, though, is reassurance to our NATO allies.” 

Biden has ruled out sending troops to Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion of the onetime Soviet republic but vowed to impose quick and severe economic sanctions on Moscow. 

Kirby said the U.S. military is “keenly focused” on the Russian military’s 127,000-troop buildup along the Ukraine border and in Belarus. He said the U.S. is “taking steps to heighten readiness over Ukraine,” including for a NATO response force if the Western military forces are activated. 

U.S. and Russian officials have had four face-to-face meetings in the past two weeks over Western concerns about the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and Russian fears of NATO operations in Eastern Europe, and Biden has also talked directly with European allies. 

Biden was in the highly secure Situation Room for the call, which included European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Polish President Andrzej Duda and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

Earlier Monday, NATO said its members were sending more ships and fighter jets to Eastern Europe in response to Russia’s military buildup along its border with Ukraine. 

A NATO statement said additional troops and equipment could be sent from several countries, including Denmark, Spain, France, the Netherlands and the United States. 

“NATO will continue to take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies, including by reinforcing the eastern part of the alliance,” Stoltenberg said. ”We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense.”  

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov accused the United States and its NATO allies of escalating tensions.

The United States and Britain also announced orders for their embassy staff and family members in Kyiv to leave Ukraine, citing the potential for Russian military action.  

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry noted the U.S. move but expressed displeasure.  

“While we respect right of foreign nations to ensure safety & security of their diplomatic missions, we believe such a step to be a premature one & an instance of excessive caution,” spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko tweeted Monday. 

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday the EU was not planning any similar withdrawals. He spoke to reporters as he arrived for a meeting of EU foreign ministers, which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to join virtually. 

“We are not going to do the same thing, because we don’t know any specific reasons. But Secretary Blinken will inform us,” Borrell said. 

In addition to its order Sunday for the departure of eligible family members from the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, the State Department also authorized the voluntary departure of U.S. direct-hire employees, asked U.S. citizens in Ukraine to consider departing the country, and reissued travel advisories warning against traveling to either Ukraine or Russia. 

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 that 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 could deteriorate with little notice. 

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. 

Russia denies it plans to invade Ukraine and has sought guarantees against further NATO expansion in Eastern Europe. The U.S. and Russia are planning to exchange written statements this week about their demands of each other. 

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

 

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Biden Administration Considers Technology Sanctions if Russia Invades Ukraine

In the months since Russia began massing troops on the border of Ukraine, the Biden administration has, on multiple occasions, warned that any further aggression by Moscow toward its neighbor would be met with unprecedented levels of sanctions. Now, the White House appears to be dropping some specific hints about what those sanctions might look like. 

 

According to multiple confirmed media reports, the administration has begun laying the groundwork for a ban on the sale of high-technology products containing U.S.-made components or software to Russia.

 

The plan echoes steps the Trump administration took against the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in 2020, barring vendors from selling the company semiconductors it needed to produce mobile telephone handsets. The ban had devastating consequences for Huawei’s business. Once the world leader in smartphone sales, it has fallen to 10th overall since the ban was put in place. 

 

The extent to which the administration intends to cut off Russian supplies of high-tech gear is unclear, and that’s probably intentional, experts said. 

 

“As with any sort of major event, or crisis, or potential invasion, government leaders want options … from strongest to weakest and everything in the middle, in terms of actions that can be taken,” Kevin Wolf, a former assistant secretary of Commerce for export administration in the department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, told VOA. 

 

Wolf, now a partner with the law firm Akin Gump in Washington, said that the administration is unlikely to signal exactly what action it will take unless Russia forces its hand by trying to take over more of Ukraine’s territory.

 

In 2014, in an earlier invasion, Russia took control of Crimea, a region of Ukraine, and continues to support local militias that control parts of the country’s Donbass region. 

 

Extraterritorial reach 

The U.S. appears to be considering the application of a new doctrine, the foreign direct product rule, to Russia. First put forward under the Trump administration, the rule would make it illegal under U.S. law for any entity in the world to sell high-technology equipment to Russia if that equipment was made or tested using U.S. technology. 

 

Theoretically, that could apply to virtually any product in the world that contains semiconductors, given the prevalence of U.S. technology and software involved in the devices’ manufacturing process. 

 

The rule relies on the implicit threat that companies that rely on U.S. technology or software to produce their products — even if the physical components of the products themselves originate outside the U.S. — could find themselves cut off from crucial licenses or equipment if they refuse to honor the U.S. export ban. 

 

The extreme reach of the rule, into the business dealings of non-U.S. firms, makes it politically fraught, according to Jim Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

 

However, speaking with VOA, Lewis said, “Using force against Ukraine really justifies it.” 

 

‘No more iPhones for Russia’ 

The U.S. has a wide range of options when it comes to blocking the transfer of technology to Russia, both in terms of the entities within Russia that the sanctions affect and the companies outside Russia that would be subject to them. (The U.S. already has export controls in place that target Russia’s defense sector, so anything the Biden administration applies would be in addition to those existing sanctions.) 

 

At the more targeted end of the spectrum, the administration could identify specific companies, making it illegal to sell U.S. technology to them. More broadly, the U.S. could impose sectorwide restrictions, barring the export of technology to, for example, the Russian civil aviation industry.

 

At the far end of the spectrum would be a flat-out ban on the sale of all U.S.-related technology to Russia.

 

“If they go for the maximum approach, that means no more iPhones for Russia,” said Lewis, of CSIS. 

 

Pushing Moscow toward China? 

If the U.S. does move forward with extensive technological sanctions against Russia, it will be difficult for Moscow to fill the gap with domestic production, said Jeffrey Edmonds, a senior analyst at the security think tank CNA. 

“Russia has always been fairly weak when it comes to things like microchips, microelectronics and electronics in general,” Edmonds told VOA. “That’s coupled with the fact that Russia has a very weak entrepreneurial system, in that most of the technology companies in that whole sector are really run by government-sponsored organizations that are highly inefficient and subject to high levels of corruption.” 

 

The result could be to push Moscow toward China, which has already been working to create a domestic manufacturing base that, in the future, might be able to provide Russia with homegrown equipment that would render U.S. sanctions ineffective. 

 

In an email exchange with VOA, research analysts Megan Hogan and Abigail Dahlman, at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, pointed out that United Nations data indicate that Russia already imports some 68% of its consumer IT products from China. 

 

“In the short term, the application of the (foreign direct product) rule will provide the Chinese government with further evidence of Western powers, particularly the U.S., meddling in Eastern affairs, validating the Chinese government’s … anti-foreign sanctions measures and further straining U.S.-China relations,” Hogan and Dahlman wrote. “Chinese tech companies will likely be forced to choose between access to the U.S. market and access to the Chinese market, with penalties associated with either decision.” 

 

They continued, “In the long term, the U.S. risks expediting China’s development of its own domestic semiconductor industry. China’s largest chip manufacturer, SMIC (Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation), is currently years behind its competitors in terms of its manufacturing technology and capacity. While China is already making moves to improve its domestic semiconductor manufacturing (as is the U.S.), U.S. technology sanctions on Russia are likely to expedite the process at the cost of the American semiconductor industry.” 

 

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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.”

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