Russia-Ukraine Tensions on Agenda for OSCE Talks

Efforts to de-escalate tensions along the Russia-Ukraine border shift Thursday to Vienna and a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Permanent Council. The session follows a bilateral meeting between Russia and the United States in Geneva on Monday and talks Wednesday in Brussels between Russia and NATO. U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters that after Thursday’s meeting, the parties involved would reflect on the discussions and “determine appropriate next steps.” Price said Wednesday the United States expects the Russian delegations to the three sets of meetings will “have to report back to [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin, who we all hope will choose peace and security, and knowing that we are sincere, and that we are steadfast when we say we prefer the course of diplomacy and dialogue.” The United States and its NATO allies have urged Russia to de-escalate tensions and for the situation to be resolved diplomatically, and on Wednesday offered ideas for reciprocal actions to reduce risks, improve transparency and communication and arms control. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who led the U.S. delegation in Brussels, said the NATO-Russia meeting ended with “a sober challenge” for Moscow to reduce tensions and “choose the path of diplomacy, to continue to engage in honest and reciprocal dialogue so that together we can identify solutions that enhance the security of all,” during a press conference. After the nearly four-hour meeting on Wednesday, Sherman said, “there was no commitment to de-escalate, nor was there a statement that there would not be.” She added Russia heard loudly and clearly it is very hard to have diplomacy when 100,000 of its troops are massed along the Ukrainian border, and as live fire exercises are being conducted.   NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he has proposed the …

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Europeans Feel Excluded From US-Russia Security Talks 

As the United States and Russia met for talks in Geneva this week, the future security of Europe was at stake. But absent from the negotiating table was the European Union, to the clear frustration of the bloc’s officials. “On this dialogue, there are not two actors alone. It’s not just U.S. and Russia. If you want to talk about security in Europe, Europeans have to be part of the table,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters January 5. Borrell made the comments following a visit to the front lines of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed rebels continue to fight Ukrainian forces nearly seven years after Moscow’s forceful annexation of Crimea. Latecomers The EU is late to the table, says analyst Liana Fix, a resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington. “The problem here is that the European Union has not been involved formally in talks in 2014 when the Ukraine crisis started. Back then we had Germany and France in the Normandy format [talks] and no official EU representative,” Fix told VOA. “On the other side, the European Union should make it clear what it can contribute to the discussion,” she said. “Within the European Union, the question is: Who is more powerful — the member states or the EU as an institution itself? And on the other hand, in Moscow, the EU is not taken seriously.” There are fears the smoldering war in eastern Ukraine could be about to reignite. In recent months, Russia has massed over 100,000 troops close to the Ukrainian border, prompting Western fears of an imminent invasion. Meanwhile, Moscow complains of a NATO military buildup in Eastern Europe and has warned of the dangers of confrontation. Those tensions came to a diplomatic head this week. But neither the …

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Kazakh Unrest Seen Boosting Russia at US Expense

Kazakhstan’s political turmoil erupted at precisely the moment the U.S. and Russia began to negotiate deep disagreements over Ukraine, NATO and European security. The deployment of 2,500 “peacekeepers” by the Kremlin-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) struck many Washington experts as a shift in Kazakhstan’s foreign policy that strengthens Russia’s hand.  But on January 11, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who leads a country that has long claimed to pursue a balanced “multivector” foreign approach, announced that CSTO forces would begin departing as early as this week and should be completely gone by the end of January. Still, argued the Atlantic Council’s John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan, “President Vladimir Putin’s goal of restoring Russian influence in the post-Soviet space is not limited to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova; Tokayev’s invitation gives Moscow the chance to do just that in Central Asia’s richest country.” Herbst adds that Tokayev had another option for external support — the China-backed Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO — which also includes Russia, but chose the CSTO, showcasing the tilt toward Moscow. Despite growing cooperation in opposing U.S. policies globally, China and Russia, he says, are “competitors” in Central Asia. Jennifer Murtazashvili, of the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Endowment, says the early departure of the Russian troops changes little “because Tokayev needed Russia to help him win an internal battle” that he claims was an attempted coup. With or without boots on the ground, “the effects of Russian intervention will likely last for a long time.” “Kazakhstan is beholden to Russia in a way that it wasn’t before, limiting the scope of Kazakhstan’s multi-vectored foreign policy. So, it is not the length of the Russian deployment, but the fact that Kazakhstan’s leadership needed to call upon outsiders to protect the country that makes …

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Sex Abuse Case Against Prince Andrew to Move Forward 

A civil lawsuit filed in a U.S. court by a woman who says she was sexually abused by Britain’s Prince Andrew when she was 17 will move forward, following a judge’s ruling Wednesday. U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan said lawyers for Prince Andrew failed to challenge the constitutionality of the case brought by Virginia Giuffre in August. Andrew’s lawyers also had argued the allegations were vague. Kaplan wrote “Giuffre’s complaint is neither ‘unintelligible’ nor ‘vague’ nor ‘ambiguous.’ It alleges discrete incidents of sexual abuse in particular circumstances at three identifiable locations. It identifies to whom it attributes that sexual abuse.” Andrew’s lawyers had also tried to dismiss the suit, arguing it violated a confidential settlement Giuffre reached with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein in 2009. Earlier this month, the agreement was unsealed and it revealed Epstein paid Giuffre $500,000 in return for dropping the case without him having to admit fault. In the settlement, she also agreed to “remise, release, acquit, satisfy and forever discharge” parties and “any other person or entity who could have been included as a potential defendant.” Andrew was not specifically mentioned. Giuffre asserts she was trafficked by Epstein and his longtime companion Ghislaine Maxwell, who was recently convicted of sex trafficking. Giuffre says the two forced her to perform sexual acts with Andrew. Andrew denies the charges. In 2019, Epstein was found dead in a Manhattan jail while he awaited another trial for sex trafficking. His death was ruled a suicide. Neither lawyers for Andrew nor Buckingham Palace have commented on the Wednesday ruling. Some information in this report comes from The Associated Press. …

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Aside from Kyiv, No One in Rush for Ukraine to Join NATO

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeted during a NATO summit he attended in June that Western leaders had confirmed his country “will become a member of the Alliance.”  The Ukrainian leader’s tweet, seen by some Western diplomats as ill-timed and intended to goad Russia, drew a predictably furious response from Kremlin officials. They have long warned that the accession of Ukraine to NATO is unacceptable to Moscow, the crossing of a red line which would be met by retaliatory measures.  Despite — or because of — Kremlin threats, and a Russian military buildup along the borders of Ukraine, President Zelenskiy has continued to press for Ukraine to be admitted into NATO as soon as possible, saying it is the only way to deter further Russia aggression. Others, including some Western leaders, fear it would do the reverse — invite more Russian aggression.  At the June summit, Zelenskiy did not get an admission date. And U.S. President Joe Biden, who has been a strong champion in the past for Ukraine to join the Atlantic alliance, scotched talk of an impending admission. “School’s out on that question. It remains to be seen,” he said when reporters asked him about Ukraine joining.  “In the meantime, we will do all we can to put Ukraine in a position to be able to continue to resist Russian physical aggression,” he said. Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued a series of increasingly insistent demands for guarantees that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO. Some observers question whether what they see as a tamping down by Biden, and senior U.S. and European officials, of Ukraine’s NATO ambitions, is evidence that Russia may already have achieved one of its key goals — namely, to prevent Ukraine from joining the Western alliance. At best, the White House and …

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UK’s Johnson Apologizes for Attending Lockdown Party

Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologized Wednesday for attending a garden party during Britain’s coronavirus lockdown in 2020, saying there are things his government “did not get right.” Johnson is facing a tide of anger from public and politicians over claims he and his staff flouted pandemic restrictions by socializing when it was banned. Some members of his Conservative Party say he should resign if he can’t quell the furor. Johnson acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that he went to the May 2020 garden party at his Downing Street office, though he said that he had considered it a work event to thank staff for their efforts during the pandemic. “I want to apologize. … With hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside,” Johnson told lawmakers in the House of Commons. Opponents and allies alike have been demanding Johnson come clean about the “bring your own booze” party, held when Britain was under a strict lockdown imposed by Johnson to curb the spread of the coronavirus. An invitation to the “socially distanced drinks” gathering was emailed to about 100 people by a senior prime ministerial aide. At the time, people in Britain were barred by law from meeting more than one person outside their household. Johnson’s lunchtime appearance at the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions session in the House of Commons was his first public appearance since details of the party emerged.  The prime minister struck a tone of contrition, but urged people to await the conclusions of an investigation by senior civil servant Sue Gray into several alleged parties by government staff. Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said Johnson’s statement was “the pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road. “His defence … that he didn’t realize he was at a party is so ridiculous that it’s actually offensive to the British public,” …

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IAE: Russia Undermining European Gas Supply Amid Ukraine Standoff

Russia is contributing to an undersupply of natural gas to Europe, the head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) Fatih Birol said on Wednesday, noting it comes amid a standoff between Moscow and the West over Ukraine.  The Paris-based IEA, energy watchdog for developed countries, warned that the high energy prices and consumer pain wrought by the gas crunch makes the case for future mandatory storage quotas for European companies.  “We believe there are strong elements of tightness in Europe’s gas markets due to Russia’s behavior,” Birol told reporters, noting “today’s low Russian gas flows to Europe coincide with heightened geopolitical tensions over Ukraine.”  Russian gas company Gazprom reduced exports to Europe by 25% year-on-year in the fourth quarter of 2021 despite high market prices and reduced spot sales while other exporters boosted them, Birol said.  “The current storage deficit in the European Union is largely due to Gazprom,” he added. “The low levels of storage in company’s EU-based facilities account for half of the EU storage deficit although Gazprom facilities only constitute 10% of the EU’s total storage capacity.”  Russian energy exports have been in focus amid a standoff between Russia and the West as Russia has built up its troop presence near neighboring Ukraine, which is trying to forge closer ties with NATO.  Some European Union lawmakers have accused Russia, which supplies more than 30% of the bloc’s natural gas, of using the crisis as leverage while Russia and NATO hold talks in Brussels on Wednesday.  Moscow has denied this and Gazprom has said it has fulfilled European contracts in full.  Yet Birol said Russia could increase deliveries to Europe by at least one-third through abundant spare capacity, the equivalent of 10% of the EU’s average monthly gas consumption or a full LNG vessel every day via commercially …

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World Bank Warns Coronavirus Pandemic Could Worsen Global Economic Slowdown

The World Bank warned Tuesday the spread of omicron and other new coronavirus variants threatens to worsen its projected global economic slowdown, particularly in developing countries, and cause more income inequality. In its latest semi-annual forecast, the bank cut its forecast for global economic growth by 0.2% from estimates released in June. The report predicts world economic growth will “decelerate markedly” to 4.1% this year from 5.5% last year. The global economy is also expected to decelerate an additional 3.2% in 2023 as pent up demand for goods and services dissipates and governments wind down large relief programs provided early in the pandemic, the report said. The bank lowered its growth forecasts for the United States, the Euro area and China and cautioned that high debt levels, rising income inequality and new strains of coronavirus variants threatened recovery in developing countries. “Various downside risks cloud the outlook, including simultaneous omicron-driven economic disruptions, further supply bottlenecks and a de-anchoring of inflation expectations,” said the report, which warned the risks could cause a further 0.7% deceleration in global growth. World Bank President David Malpass told reporters the pandemic, now in its third year, is inflicting a “huge toll” on developing countries that could have lasting adverse effects. “We’re seeing troubling reversals in poverty, nutrition and health.” he said. “I’m very worried about the permanent scar on development.” The report expects advanced economies to grow 3.8% in 2022, significantly lower than 5% in 2021, before decelerating to 2.3% in 2023. Economic growth in emerging and developing economies is forecast to decelerate to 4.6% in 2022 from 6.3% in 2021 and slow to 4.4% in 2023. Unstable and conflict-affected economies are expected to remain 7.5% below their pre-pandemic levels, while small island states, hard-hit by the collapse of tourism, are forecast to stay below …

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Conflict Along Ukraine Border Focus of NATO-Russia Talks

Russia and NATO are meeting Wednesday in Brussels with a focus on reducing tensions along the border between Russia and Ukraine.  NATO objects to Russia troop buildups along the border, saying they undermine European security. For its part, Russia is seeking security guarantees such as limiting the expansion of the 30-member NATO alliance, arguing the inclusion of a country like Ukraine on its border represents a threat.  U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith told reporters ahead of Wednesday’s talks that the NATO side is committed to seeing if diplomacy can de-escalate the situation, and that the overall themes of the discussion would be about “risk reduction, transparency, arms control, and various ways in which we communicate with each other.”  Smith expressed U.S. solidarity with Ukraine, adding that “Russian actions have precipitated this crisis” and NATO allies were ready to deter further Russian aggression.   “Should Russia follow the path of confrontation and military action, we’ve made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high-impact economic measures,” Smith said. “As an Alliance, we are prepared to reinforce NATO’s defense on the eastern flank, and we are prepared to impose severe costs for further Russian aggression in Ukraine.”  Wednesday’s meeting is the second of three opportunities this week for U.S. and European diplomats to speak directly with Russian officials about the situation with Ukraine. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meets Thursday in Vienna.  In Geneva on Monday, U.S. and Russian diplomats held their own session, with both sides signaling afterward no major progress.  Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday the talks in Geneva were “open, comprehensive and direct,” an assessment echoed by Washington. But Peskov said it was the result that ultimately matters. “So far, let’s say we see no significant reason …

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Russia, US Spar Again Over Ukraine, Security Issues

The Kremlin said Tuesday it has little optimism about a breakthrough on talks with the United States this week about its European security concerns, while Washington said Moscow’s massive troop buildup along the Ukraine border is at the root of current tensions.  After a day of talks with U.S. diplomats Monday in Geneva, Moscow said it would wait for the outcome of more meetings set for Wednesday in Brussels and Thursday in Vienna before deciding whether it’s worth it to continue negotiations with Washington officials.  But in the U.S., Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs, told reporters, “We haven’t seen the slightest hint of de-escalation” on Russia’s part. “It is Russia that created this crisis out of whole cloth” by deploying 100,000 troops just across from Ukraine’s eastern border.  At the Geneva talks, Russia demanded guarantees, rejected by Washington, that the West’s 30-country NATO military alliance halt further eastward expansion toward Russia and curb military deployments in Eastern Europe.  “NATO poses no threat to Russia. It is a defensive alliance whose sole purpose is to protect its members,” Nuland said.  Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the first day of talks in Geneva were “open, comprehensive and direct,” an assessment echoed by Washington. But Peskov said it was the result that ultimately matters.  “So far, let’s say we see no significant reason for optimism,” he said in a conference call with reporters. NATO and Russia are holding talks in Brussels, while the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is meeting in Vienna.  “There are still several rounds [of talks] ahead of us, which will allow us to work out a clearer understanding, a clearer picture of where we stand with the Americans,” Peskov said.  He said Russia is not setting deadlines for the talks but also would not …

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Erdogan Sticks with Economic Policy as Turkey’s Inflation Rises, Currency Sinks

Turkey’s economy had a difficult year, with its currency depreciating and inflation skyrocketing. Experts warn that unless President Recep Tayyip Erdogan changes course and reverses his controversial monetary strategy, the situation could worsen.  Last week, the country’s official Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK) reported inflation increased to 36% last month, the highest figure in Turkey for nearly two decades.  Opposition parties claim the real situation is worse than the official number shows. Following a series of interest rate cuts by the Turkish Central Bank last year, Turkey’s currency lost over half its value before recovering slightly following a package of measures announced by the government in the last weeks of 2021.  Finance experts both inside and outside Turkey, as well as opposition parties, blame Erdogan’s insistence on continuing to cut interest rates. Most economists believe to halt rising inflation, central banks should raise interest rates. But Erdogan has rejected that strategy, arguing that lower interest rates reduce inflation and encourage growth, despite mounting evidence his policy is not working. Experts predict a higher level of inflation  In an effort to defend the collapsing lira, the government announced a plan to shield lira deposit holders from possible losses due to the currency’s depreciation. In December, it also boosted the minimum wage by over 50%.  Despite the government’s efforts, Turkey began the year with price increases on everything from electricity and natural gas to road and bridge tolls and taxi charges. Electricity costs increased by about 125% for commercial customers and 50% for residential customers. The cost of public transportation in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, has increased by more than 30%.  Erdogan recently stated that the worst had passed and that it is now time to reap the benefits of the government’s efforts. However, experts speaking to Voice of America predict that will …

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WHO Warns Half of Europe Could Become Infected with Omicron in Coming Weeks

Europe could see half of its population infected with the omicron variant over the coming weeks, the World Health Organization said Tuesday. “At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts that more than 50% of the population in the region will be infected with omicron in the next six to eight weeks,” said Hans Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe during a virtual press conference. The combination of omicron and delta variants has caused more than 7 million new infections in the first week of 2022, he said. “Today the omicron variant represents a new west-to-east tidal wave, sweeping across the region on top of the delta surge that all countries were managing until late 2021,” he said. The WHO says omicron spreads more rapidly than delta, but there is not a scientific consensus about how much serious illness and death it causes relative to other variants. It does appear to infect fully vaccinated people. The rising number of cases has begun to put stress on countries’ health systems. “The rapid increase in cases will lead to an increase in hospitalizations, may pose overwhelming demands on health care systems and lead to significant morbidity, particularly in vulnerable populations,” the organization said. …

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Russia’s Putin Says Western Leaders Broke Promises, But Did They?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his senior aides have repeatedly claimed that Western powers broke promises they made not to expand NATO as the Soviet Union collapsed. In his annual end-of-year press conference in Moscow in December, Putin accused NATO of deceiving Russia by giving assurances in the 1990s that it would not expand “an inch to the East” — promises made to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during negotiations between the West and the Soviet Union over German unification, the Russian leader said. “They cheated us — vehemently, blatantly. NATO is expanding,” Putin said. He cited former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker as Exhibit One in his indictment and quoted a remark Baker made to Gorbachev in 1990, saying, “NATO will not move one inch further east.”  The Russian leader has made the claim frequently about NATO skullduggery, accusing Western powers of taking advantage of a weakened, disoriented Russia as the Soviet Union fell apart. And the West’s supposed trickery and violation of a solemn pledge not to expand has figured prominently as an important component in a Putin foreign policy narrative which presents Russia as a victim and aggrieved party. In a speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, he asked, “What happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact?” And then again in a Kremlin speech after Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, he accused Western leaders of having “lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed before us an accomplished fact. This happened with NATO’s expansion to the East.” After that speech, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer said in an essay, “Western leaders never pledged not to enlarge NATO,” but that the story “fits so well with the picture …

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Russia-Ukraine Tensions Put Pressure on Turkey

With tensions high over the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, analysts say Turkey has a pivotal role as the enforcer of an international convention governing naval access to the Black Sea. As Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul, Ankara is aware any conflict will bring pressure from both Moscow and Turkey’s NATO partners in its role as gatekeeper to the Black Sea. Producer: Rod James …

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EU Parliament President Sassoli has Died – Spokesperson

European Parliament President David Sassoli died on Tuesday in hospital in Italy where he was admitted on Dec. 26, his spokesperson and office said.  Sassoli, 65, died at 1.15 a.m. his spokesperson, Roberto Cuillo, said on Twitter.   Sassoli, an Italian socialist and former journalist from Florence, had been hospitalized last month due to a “serious complication” related to his immune system, his office had said on Monday.  He had been president of the 705-seat parliament since 2019.    In his inaugural speech, Sassoli had urged Europeans to counter the “virus” of extreme nationalism and called for a reform of EU rules on migration and political asylum.  His term in the predominantly ceremonial role had been due to end this month.  Due to illness, he had been unable to chair the Strasbourg-based parliament in recent weeks and had missed the European Commission’s annual state of the union event in September.  …

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US, Russia Hold ‘Frank and Forthright’ First Day of Talks Amid Ukraine Tensions

The U.S. and Russia have launched “frank and forthright” discussions aimed at de-escalating tensions between the two powers as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to station an estimated 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, the White House said Monday. “There are two paths for Russia to take at this point, for President Putin to take,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “He can take the path to diplomacy. There’s two more rounds of talks this week. We’ve seen them as a package of three, which I think they also reiterated from their side. Or there’s a path of escalation. We are surely hopeful, that the path to diplomacy is the path that they will take.”  Biden is asking Putin to order the troops back to barracks. The White House said, in several recent statements, that the U.S. “will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine.”  “We explained to our colleagues that we have no plans, no intentions to ‘attack’ Ukraine,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters after the talks ended Monday. “There is no reason to fear any escalation in this regard.” The Kremlin is concerned about the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The collective security alliance was founded to counter the former Soviet Union. Ukraine, a former Soviet state, has been seeking to join NATO, over Moscow’s opposition. Putin says the current troop buildup is necessary for self-defense against an aggressive West, and that he does not plan to invade. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Monday, “We’ve seen no major changes to the force posture by the Russians in the border areas around Ukraine. There continues to be a sizable element there. … If the Russians are serious about de-escalating, they can start by starting to remove some of those troops, decreasing some …

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