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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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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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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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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UK Government Holds Breath as It Awaits ‘Partygate’ Report

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is bracing for the conclusions of an investigation into allegations of lockdown-breaching parties, a document that could help him end weeks of scandal and discontent, or bring his time in office to an abrupt close. 

Senior civil servant Sue Gray could turn in her report to the government as soon as Wednesday. Johnson’s office has promised to publish its findings, and the prime minister will address Parliament about it soon after. 

Gray’s office wouldn’t comment on timing, and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the Conservative government hadn’t yet received the report Wednesday morning. 

“I expect we won’t have much longer to wait,” she told the BBC. 

Truss said she couldn’t guarantee the government would publish the full report, saying there could be “security issues that mean parts of it are problematic to publish. But we will absolutely publish the findings of the report.” 

Allegations that the prime minister and his staff flouted restrictions imposed on the country to curb the spread of the coronavirus have caused public anger, led some Conservative lawmakers to call for Johnson’s resignation and triggered intense infighting inside the governing party. 

Wednesday’s headlines provided more bad news for Johnson, whose popularity in opinion polls has plunged amid the scandal. The Guardian’s front-page headline spoke of “PM’s peril,” while the left-leaning Daily Mirror said bluntly: “Number’s up, PM.” The right-of-center Daily Mail differed, declaring Britain: “A nation that has lost all sense of proportion.” 

Johnson has urged his critics to wait for Gray’s conclusions, but his “wait and see” defense weakened Tuesday when police said they had opened a criminal investigation into some of the gatherings. 

London’s Metropolitan Police force said “a number of events” at Johnson’s Downing Street office and other government buildings met the force’s criteria for investigating the “most serious and flagrant” breaches of coronavirus rules. 

Gray is investigating claims that government staff held late-night soirees, boozy parties and “wine time Fridays” while Britain was under coronavirus restrictions in 2020 and 2021. 

The “partygate” allegations have infuriated many in Britain, who were barred from meeting with friends and family for months in 2020 and 2021 to curb the spread of COVID-19. Tens of thousands of people were fined by police for breaking the rules. 

Johnson and his allies have tried, without much success, to calm a scandal that is consuming government energies that could be better spent confronting the international crisis over Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine and a far-from-finished coronavirus pandemic. 

Johnson has apologized for attending one event, a “bring your own booze” gathering in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020, but said he had considered the party a work gathering that fell within the rules.

His office and supporters have also defended a June 2020 surprise birthday party for the prime minister inside Downing Street. 

Loyal lawmaker Conor Burns said Johnson didn’t know about the gathering in advance. 

“It was not a premeditated, organized party … He was, in a sense, ambushed with a cake,” Burns told Channel 4 News. 

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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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