Ukraine Expects Continued Diplomatic Efforts to Address Russia Conflict

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Thursday Ukraine is not planning any offensive actions and that he expects diplomatic efforts to address the crisis along the Russia-Ukraine border to continue.

“We are committed to [a] diplomatic track and we are ready to engage with Russia at different levels in order to find [a] diplomatic solution to the conflict,” Kuleba said at a news conference.  “However, if Russia decides to fight, we will fight back. This is our country and we will defend it.”

Officials from Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany held talks Wednesday in Paris and agreed to another round of talks in Berlin.

“Nothing has changed, this is the bad news,” Kuleba told reporters.  “The good news is that advisers agreed to meet in Berlin in two weeks, which means that Russia for the next two weeks is likely to remain on the diplomatic track.”

Russia said Thursday the United States had not addressed its main security demand in a letter it sent as another part of the push to head off armed conflict.

 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there is room for continued dialogue, and that it will take the Russian side time to fully review the U.S. response.

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 United States has dismissed those demands as nonstarters, demanding Russia pull back its forces from the border with Ukraine and instead offering dialogue with Moscow on issues including military exercises and transparency, as well as the placement of missiles.

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, described by officials as a few pages in length.

 

Officials portrayed the responses as a way to address the Kremlin’s concerns while also giving all sides a chance to further pursue diplomacy.

“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 told reporters during a press conference.

“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.”

Blinken said he expected to speak to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the coming days after the Russian side had a chance to discuss the U.S. response.

“As I’ve said repeatedly, whether they choose the path of diplomacy and dialogue, whether they decide to renew aggression against Ukraine, we’re prepared either way,” Blinken told reporters.

U.S. officials would not elaborate on specifics, though they expressed hope Washington and Moscow still could find consensus and even make progress on issues such as arms control related to missiles in Europe.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters Wednesday there is a growing sense of urgency, calling on Moscow to “withdraw its forces from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, where they are deployed without these countries’ consent.”

“We face a critical moment,” he said, warning that Russia now has positioned more than 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, with additional deployments already underway.

“We see also more troops not only in and around Ukraine, but also now in Belarus, where Russia is in the process of deploying thousands of combat troops, hundreds of aircraft, S-400 air defense systems, and a lot of other very advanced capabilities,” Stoltenberg added.

“We have listened to Russian concerns. We have listened also to the Russian call for a written response,” he said. “This is about whether there’s a will to engage in good faith and to try to sit down and find common ground.”

 

Wednesday Kyiv had no objections to the U.S. responses to Russia, acknowledging the threat from the number of Russian troops massed along his country’s borders as well as in Ukrainian territories occupied by Russian forces.

Still, Kuleba insisted there was no need for panic to take hold.

“At the moment, as we speak, this number is insufficient for the full-scale offensive against Ukraine along the entire Ukrainian border,” he said

While the United States 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 Boulegue, 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 “unpredictable” security situation that “can deteriorate with little notice.”

Since 2014, the United States has committed more than $5 billion in both security and nonsecurity assistance to Ukraine, including more than $351 million in assistance to those displaced or affected by “Russia’s aggression,” according to Sherman.

VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report, which contains some information from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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Prince Andrew Renews Attempt to Get Giuffre Suit Dismissed

Prince Andrew’s lawyers asked a U.S. court again Wednesday to throw out a lawsuit accusing him of sexual abuse, citing multiple legal defenses.

Among them: The lawyers said that if any sexual activity did occur between the prince and Virginia Giuffre, it was consensual.

The court filing made clear that Andrew wasn’t admitting sexual contact with Giuffre. But it said if the case wasn’t dismissed, the defense wants a trial in which it would argue that her abuse claims “are barred by the doctrine of consent.”

Attorney David Boies, representing Giuffre, responded in a statement asserting Andrew “continues his approach of denying any knowledge or information concerning the claims against him, and purporting to blame the victim of the abuse for somehow bringing it on herself.”

The defense request was filed in federal court in Manhattan, where Giuffre sued Andrew in August. The American accused the British royal of sexually abusing her when she was 17 while she traveled with financier Jeffrey Epstein.

Andrew has strenuously denied Giuffre’s allegations and attempted to get the lawsuit tossed. Earlier this month, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan rejected his attempt to win an early dismissal, allowing depositions and other evidence gathering by both parties to move forward.

Wednesday’s response was filed by Los Angeles attorneys Andrew Brettler and Melissa Lerner. They say the suit should also be dismissed on several other grounds, arguing the civil litigation against the prince should be barred because Giuffre is a permanent resident of Australia and bound by a settlement between Epstein and Giuffre.

Giuffre asserted that she met Andrew while she traveled frequently with Epstein between 2000 and 2002, when her lawyers maintain she was “on call for Epstein for sexual purposes” and was “lent out to other powerful men,” including Andrew. Her lawsuit said she still suffers significant emotional and psychological distress and harm.

In the wake of the judge’s decision earlier in January, Prince Andrew — who had already stepped back from royal duties — was stripped of his honorary military titles.

Epstein, 66, took his own life in a Manhattan federal lockup in August 2019 while he awaited trial on sex trafficking charges. Giuffre has also leveled allegations at Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s longtime companion, but was not part of the criminal case that ended recently with Maxwell’s conviction on sex trafficking charges.

The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they choose to come forward publicly, as Giuffre has. 

 

 

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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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Україна хоче отримати 3-5 млрд доларів допомоги від стратегічних партнерів – ОП

Такі пакети допомоги стали б «додатковою подушкою» і могли б гарантувати стабільність фінансової системи України «незалежно від того, як розвиватиметься ситуація», вважають в Офісі президента

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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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Ляшко анонсував «покарання» керівників лікарень за недоплати лікарям і медсестрам

«Ситуація, коли на рахунках лежать десятки мільйонів гривень залишку, а медичний колектив працює за мінімалку – абсолютно неприпустима», заявив міністр

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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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