US Warns ‘Horrific’ Outcome Nearing in Ukraine if Moscow Eschews Diplomacy

The most senior U.S. military officer warns Russia will end up blazing a path of death and devastation, for all sides, should it decide to resolve its differences with Ukraine by using military force. 

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley issued the blunt admonishment Friday during a rare news conference at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, where both men insisted tragedy could be avoided if Moscow was willing to pull back from the brink. 

“Given the type of forces that are arrayed, the ground maneuver forces, the artillery, the ballistic missiles, the air forces, all of it packaged together, if that was unleashed on Ukraine, it would be significant, very significant,” Milley told reporters. 

“It would result in a significant amount of casualties. And you can imagine what that might look like in dense urban areas,” he said. “It would be horrific. It would be terrible. And it’s not necessary.” 

The U.S. warning Friday comes as the standoff between Russia and Ukraine appears to have reached a tipping point. 

Putin’s call with Macron 

Senior U.S. defense officials cautioned that Russia had amassed sufficient firepower to launch a full-scale invasion at any time, while Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron that the West had failed to adequately address Moscow’s security concerns. 

Putin, according to the Kremlin, told Macron that the most recent Western diplomatic responses did not consider Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion such as stopping the deployment of alliance weapons near Russia’s border and rolling back its forces from Eastern Europe.  

Separately, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Russian radio stations Friday that Russia did not want war with Ukraine but that it would protect its interests against the West if necessary.   

“If it depends on Russia, then there will be no war. We don’t want wars,” Lavrov said. “But we also won’t allow our interests to be rudely trampled, to be ignored.”   

Escalating tensions and rhetoric 

But the U.S. defense secretary pushed back, telling Pentagon reporters Friday that no one has done anything to lead Russia to encircle Ukraine with more than 100,000 troops. 

“There was no provocation that caused them to move those forces,” Austin said Friday at the Pentagon, calling out Moscow for a new wave of disinformation campaigns.

“Indeed, we’re seeing Russian state media spouting off now about alleged activities in eastern Ukraine,” he said. “This is straight out of the Russian playbook. And they’re not fooling us.” 

Austin also painted Moscow’s saber-rattling as counterproductive. 

“A move on Ukraine will accomplish the very thing Russia says it does not want — a NATO alliance strengthened and resolved on its western flank,” he said. 

But with no sign of give from any side — U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly rejected Russia’s demands — there are growing concerns that fear or hysteria could spread, making an already fragile situation more perilous. 

“We don’t need this panic,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told a news conference in Kyiv on Friday, accusing U.S. leaders of talking up the possibility of conflict.

“Are tanks driving here on our streets? No. But it feels like this (reading the media),” he said. “In my opinion, this is a mistake. Because those are signals of how the world reacts.”

Despite the disagreement over rhetoric, U.S. and European officials said they continue to hold out hope that diplomacy can prevail. 

One senior U.S. administration official, talking to reporters on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss developments, said remarks like those Friday by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov are a positive sign. 

“We welcome the message,” the official said. “We need to see it backed up by swift action.” 

The official added that Monday’s United Nations Security Council meeting on Ukraine will be “an opportunity for Russia to explain what it is doing, and we’ve come prepared to listen.” 

Ramping up military preparations 

    

While Russia and the U.S. and its allies have spent much of the past week trading demands, both sides have also ramped up military preparations.

Russia has launched military drills involving motorized infantry and artillery units in southwestern Russia, warplanes in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, dozens of warships in the Black Sea and the Arctic, and Russian fighter jets and paratroopers in Belarus.   

Ukraine’s military held artillery and anti-aircraft drills in the country’s southern Kherson region Friday near the border with Russian-annexed Crimea.

And the U.S., which has been providing Kyiv with anti-tank missiles, grenade launchers, artillery and ammunition, said another shipment arrived Friday to help bolster Ukrainian defenses. 

Also Friday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance has already bolstered its troop presence in Eastern Europe and continues to watch Russia’s military movements, including the positioning of aircraft and S-400 anti-aircraft systems in Belarus, closely. 

“The aim now is to try to reduce tensions,” Stoltenberg said, speaking online from Brussels at a Washington think-tank event. 

“We urge Russia, we call on Russia to engage in talks,” he said, adding that opting for the use of force will not work out well for Moscow.

“When it comes to Ukraine, I am absolutely certain that Russia understands they will have to pay a high price (for invading),” Stoltenberg said. “I am certain President Putin and Russia takes NATO very serious when it comes to our ability to protect and defend all allies.” 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.  

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UN Weekly Roundup: January 22-28, 2022

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

UN chief: We cannot abandon the Afghan people 

The U.N. secretary-general warned on Wednesday that Afghanistan is “hanging by a thread,” as the organization appealed for a total of $8 billion to scale up humanitarian assistance to more than 22 million Afghans this year. 

UN Chief: Afghanistan ‘Hanging by a Thread’ 

Norway hosts talks between Taliban and Afghan civil society

Norway hosted three days of talks in Oslo between a Taliban delegation and members of Afghan civil society. Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store said at the U.N. this week that the meeting did not confer recognition or legitimacy on the Taliban but was “a first step” in dealing with the de facto Afghan authorities to prevent a humanitarian disaster in that country. 

Norway Defends Hosting Talks with Afghan Taliban 

Military coup in Burkina Faso

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concern about the January 23 military coup in the West African nation of Burkina Faso that deposed President Roch Marc Christian Kabore and his government. Guterres said the role of militaries must be to defend their countries and people, not attack their governments and fight for power. 

The secretary-general’s special representative for West Africa and the Sahel, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, will travel to Burkina Faso this weekend on a good offices mission. 

West African Nations See String of Coups 

In brief

A U.N. team of experts arrived in Lima, Peru, on January 24 to assess the social and environmental impacts of an oil spill linked to the underwater volcanic eruption that triggered a tsunami in the Pacific island nation of Tonga. The team is specialized in contamination assessment and will advise authorities on how to manage and coordinate their response. 

Some good news

World Health Organization chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a meeting of the agency’s executive board on January 24 that if countries change the conditions driving the spread of coronavirus infections, it is possible to end the acute phase of the global pandemic this year. That includes vaccinating 70% of their populations, monitoring the emergence of new variants and boosting testing. 

A small but important glimmer of hope in Libya: the U.N. political chief told the Security Council on January 24 that the overall humanitarian situation improved in 2021. Rosemary DiCarlo said the U.N. recorded a 36% decrease in the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance, from 1.3 million at the start of 2021 to 803,000 by the end of the year. Additionally, about 100,000 of the more than quarter million displaced Libyans returned home last year. 

Quote of note

“Were we to observe a minute of silence for each victim, that silence would last more than eleven years.” 

— U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, addressing a virtual U.N. memorial ceremony marking the International Day for Holocaust remembrance on January 27. 

What we are watching next week

On January 31, the U.N. Security Council will hold an open meeting to discuss tensions between Russia and Ukraine. The meeting was requested by the United States, and Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters, “This is just one more step in our diplomatic approach to bring the Russians to de-escalate and look for an opportunity to move forward.” The meeting will take place one day before Russia assumes the rotating presidency of the 15-nation council for the month of February. 

 

Did you know? 

The ancient Greek tradition of an Olympic truce goes into effect on January 28. It starts seven days before this year’s Winter Olympics open in Beijing and continues for a week after the close of the Paralympic Games. The U.N. General Assembly endorsed the truce during a meeting on January 20. The U.N. secretary-general is headed to Beijing for the opening ceremony on February 4. 

 

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Officials Say Russia Moved Blood Supplies Near Ukraine, Adding to US Concern,

Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine has expanded to include supplies of blood along with other medical materials that would allow it to treat casualties, in yet another key indicator of Moscow’s military readiness, three U.S. officials tell Reuters.

Current and former U.S. officials say concrete indicators — like blood supplies — are critical in determining whether Moscow would be prepared to carry out an invasion, if Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to do so.

The disclosure of the blood supplies by U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, adds another piece of context to growing U.S. warnings that Russia could be preparing for a new invasion of Ukraine as it masses more than 100,000 troops near its borders.

These warnings have included President Joe Biden’s prediction that a Russian assault was likely and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s remarks that Russia could launch a new attack on Ukraine at “very short notice.”

The Pentagon has previously acknowledged the deployment of “medical support” as part of Russia’s buildup. But the disclosure of blood supplies adds a level of detail that experts say is critical to determining Russian military readiness.

“It doesn’t guarantee that there’s going to be another attack, but you would not execute another attack unless you have that in hand,” said Ben Hodges, a retired U.S. lieutenant general now with the Center for European Policy Analysis research institute.

The Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a written request for comment.

A White House spokesperson did not immediately comment on any Russian movement of blood supplies but noted repeated public U.S. warnings about Russian military readiness.

The Pentagon declined to discuss intelligence assessments. The three U.S. officials who spoke about the blood supplies declined to say specifically when the United States detected their movement to formations near Ukraine. However, two of them said it was within recent weeks.

Russian officials have repeatedly denied planning to invade. But Moscow says it feels menaced by Kyiv’s growing ties with the West.

Eight years ago, Russia seized Crimea and backed separatist forces who took control of large parts of eastern Ukraine.

Russia’s security demands, presented in December, include an end to further NATO enlargement, barring Ukraine from ever joining and pulling back the alliance’s forces and weaponry from eastern European countries that joined after the Cold War.

Putin said Friday the United States and NATO had not addressed Russia’s main security demands in their standoff over Ukraine, but that Moscow was ready to keep talking.

Biden has said he will not send U.S. or allied troops to fight Russia in Ukraine but told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a phone call Thursday that Washington and its allies stand ready to respond decisively if Russia invades the former Soviet state, the White House said.

The United States and its allies have said Russia will face tough economic sanctions if it attacks Ukraine.

Western countries already have imposed repeated rounds of economic sanctions since Russian troops seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014.

But such moves have had scant impact on Russian policy, with Moscow, Europe’s main energy supplier, calculating that the West would stop short of steps serious enough to interfere with gas exports.

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German Health Minister Says Omicron COVID-19 Wave ‘Well Under Control’

Germany’s health minister said Friday the omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is “well under control” in the nation, even though he said he expects the number of daily cases to double to nearly 400,000 cases before it begins to drop. 

Speaking at a news conference Friday in Berlin, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach explained that while the wave of infections itself cannot be controlled, the consequences can be minimized by taking the proper steps.

He said he expects daily cases to double to nearly 400,000 cases by mid-February, but he then expects them to drop, probably by the end of next month.

Cases are currently rising, with the country’s Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases, or RKI, reporting 190,148 new cases as of Friday. Speaking at the same news briefing, RKI President Lothar Wieler said about 890,000 new cases were reported – nearly “1 percent of the entire population in just one week.” 

The RKI reports the infection rate per 100,000 people, as of Friday, was 1,073. 

Lauterbach says the government’s goal is to get through the wave with as few elderly people falling ill and as few deaths as possible, and he says so far, they are succeeding.

The health minister sought to dissuade people of the notion that just because the omicron variant is believed to be less severe, that vaccinations were not needed, saying that is wrong and not helpful. He encouraged everyone to get vaccinated and all those eligible to get booster shots. 

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press and Reuters.

 

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Pope Denounces Fake News About COVID, Vaccines, Urges Truth

Pope Francis denounced fake news about COVID-19 and vaccines Friday, blasting the “distortion of reality based on fear” but also urging that people who believe such lies are helped to understand true scientific facts.

Francis met with Catholic journalists who have formed a fact-checking network to try to combat misinformation about the pandemic. Francis has frequently called for responsible journalism that searches for the truth and respects individuals, and his meeting with the “Catholic fact-checking” media consortium furthered that message.

“We can hardly fail to see that these days, in addition to the pandemic, an ‘infodemic’ is spreading: a distortion of reality based on fear, which in our global society leads to an explosion of commentary on falsified if not invented news,” Francis said.

He said access to accurate information, based on scientific data, is a human right that must be especially guaranteed for those who are less equipped to separate out the morass of misinformation and commentary masquerading as fact that is available online.

At the same time, Francis asked for a merciful, missionary approach to those who fall prey to such distortions so they are helped to understand the truth.

“Fake news has to be refuted, but individual persons must always be respected, for they believe it often without full awareness or responsibility,” he said. “Reality is always more complex than we think and we must respect the doubts, the concerns and the questions that people raise, seeking to accompany them without ever dismissing them.”

Some Catholics, including some conservative U.S. bishops and cardinals, have claimed that vaccines based on research that used cells derived from aborted fetuses were immoral, and have refused to get the jabs.

The Vatican’s doctrine office, however, has said it is “morally acceptable” for Catholics to receive COVID-19 vaccines, including those based on research that used cells derived from aborted fetuses. Francis and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI have both been fully vaccinated with Pfizer-BioNTech shots.

Francis has been one of the most vocal religious leaders speaking out in favor of vaccines and respect for measures to fight the pandemic. He has implied that people have a “moral obligation” to ensure the health care of themselves and others, and the Vatican recently required all staff to either be vaccinated or show proof of having had COVID-19 to access their workplaces.

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Pro-Russia Sentiment Grows in Burkina Faso After Coup

Some supporters of Burkina Faso’s military coup this week were seen celebrating with Russian flags and calling for their country to switch alliances from France to Moscow. While the extent of pro-Russia sentiment in Burkina Faso is unclear, there is no doubt many are fed up with French efforts to help fight gangs and Islamist militant groups.

Riding through the streets of Ouagadougou on Tuesday, two demonstrators flew a Russian flag, celebrating a military coup in the country a day earlier.

They also turned out in Ouagadougou’s Place de la Nation to celebrate the military takeover.

“No, we don’t want no more France,” one demonstrator told VOA. “We are here because we want the defense of Russia. France hasn’t done anything that gives us success.”

France has been giving military assistance to Burkina Faso during its six-year conflict with armed groups linked to Islamic State and al-Qaida.

Earlier this month, the leader of neighboring Mali, Colonel Assimi Goita, welcomed mercenaries into the country from the Russian private security company Wagner, which has close links to the Kremlin.

The mercenaries took over a military base in Timbuktu that was vacated by French troops in December.

Demonstrators in Burkina Faso carried pictures of Goita at this week’s demonstration and on Jan. 22, held a march in solidarity with Mali. Police broke up the gathering using flash bombs and tear gas.

Analysts say in recent months, there has been growing anti-French sentiment and a pivot toward Russia.

Analysts say Mali is using Russian involvement as a bargaining chip after the West African bloc ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) sanctioned the country for refusing to hold democratic elections within the next five years.

“The Malian military junta is trying to mobilize national feeling, if you like,” said Paul Melly, an analyst with London-based think tank Chatham House. “It seems to have brought the Russians in or sought to bring the Russians in as a sort of tool of leverage. It’s not entirely clear how much practical military impact it could actually bring.”

The Russian Embassy in Burkina Faso and the military junta both declined to give VOA an interview.

Bernard Bermouga, a Burkinabe political commentator, is pragmatic about the situation.

“Whether Burkina Faso aligns with France, Russia or another country,” Bermouga said, “it’s not out of generosity. It’s not free. They’ll want something in return. What is needed is someone who can help Burkina Faso get out of the situation in which it finds itself.”

Activist Francois Beogo from Burkina Faso, who attended the demonstration, said the French must let them work things out on their own. The demonstrators are not against France, he said, but France must manage their affairs and allow Burkinabe to manage theirs. Without France, he said, soldiers will have peace of mind and be able to reflect on how to organize and free the people.

Meanwhile, the Russian organization that trains troops in the Central African Republic has offered military support to Burkina Faso. It remains to be seen if Burkina Faso’s new de facto leader, Paul-Henri Damiba, will take up the offer.

 

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Pro-Russian Sentiment Grows in Burkina Faso After Coup

Some supporters of Burkina Faso’s military coup this week were seen celebrating with Russian flags and calling for their country to switch alliances from France to Moscow. While the extent of pro-Russian sentiment in Burkina Faso is unclear, there is no doubt many are fed up with French efforts to help fight gangs and Islamist militant groups. Henry Wilkins reports from Ouagadougou.
Camera: Henry Wilkins

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Biden: ‘Distinct Possibility’ Russia Will Invade Ukraine

U.S. President Joe Biden warned Thursday warned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy there is a “distinct possibility” that Russia could invade Ukraine next month, according to a White House statement.

“President Biden said that there is a distinct possibility that the Russians could invade Ukraine in February,” Emily Horne, the White House National Security Council spokesperson said. “He has said this publicly, and we have been warning about this for months.”

Russia said Thursday there was “little ground for optimism” that tensions would ease in Eastern Europe after the United States rejected its demand that Ukraine be banned from NATO membership and that the West pull back its troop deployment and weaponry from countries bordering Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the U.S. reply to its demands “contains no positive response,” but that some elements of it could lead to “the start of a serious talk on secondary issues.” The U.S. and its European allies have rejected the key Moscow demands as nonstarters.

The top Kremlin diplomat said officials will submit proposals to President Vladimir Putin. His spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said the Russian reaction would come soon, adding that “there always are prospects for continuing a dialogue. It’s in the interests of both us and the Americans.”

Biden talked Thursday with President Zelenskiy to reassure him of U.S. and allied support during the mounting tension. Afterward, the Ukrainian leader tweeted that he and Biden had also talked about additional financial support for Ukraine.

 

Officials from Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany held talks Wednesday in Paris and agreed to another round of talks in Berlin in the second week of February. The sides agreed to maintain an official cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, according to Dmitry Kozak, the Kremlin’s envoy.

“We need a supplementary pause. We hope that this process will have results in two weeks,” he said.

The February talks will take place at the same diplomatic level as the Paris talks. Not on the agenda is a summit with heads of state.

“Nothing has changed, this is the bad news,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. “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.”

The U.S. has called for a meeting Monday of the United Nations Security Council on Ukraine.

“More than 100,000 Russian troops are deployed on the Ukrainian border and Russia is engaging in other destabilizing acts aimed at Ukraine, posing a clear threat to international peace and security and the U.N. Charter,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Thursday in a statement. “This is not a moment to wait and see. The Council’s full attention is needed now, and we look forward to direct and purposeful discussion on Monday.”

Russia is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council and therefore has veto power over any resolution.

The meeting, Thomas-Greenfield said, will be about exposing Russia for its actions and isolating the Kremlin for its aggressive posture regarding Ukraine, according to Agence France-Presse.

 

The U.S. and its European allies, fearing an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine, continue to protest Russia’s massing of more than 100,000 troops along its border with the onetime Soviet republic, although Moscow says it has no intention of attacking.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the document the U.S. handed Russia “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.”

Biden, while ruling out sending U.S. troops to Ukraine, repeatedly has warned Russia that the West will impose crippling economic sanctions against it if it crosses the border and attacks Ukraine.

While Russia and the U.S. and its allies trade demands, both sides have ramped up military preparations. Russia has launched military drills involving motorized infantry and artillery units in southwestern Russia, warplanes in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, dozens of warships in the Black Sea and the Arctic, and Russian fighter jets and paratroopers in Belarus.

NATO said it was boosting its presence in the Baltic Sea region, and the U.S. has put 8,500 troops on heightened alert for deployment to Europe as part of a NATO operation.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said American forces currently in Europe, some already on heightened alert, could likewise be mobilized “to also bolster our NATO allies if they need that.

Kuleba said Ukraine is not planning any offensive actions, and 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.”

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Deutsche Welle, Agence France-Presse, and France 24.  

 

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Russia Says It’s Ready for More Talks on Ukraine

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says the U.S. has failed to address Moscow’s main security concerns over Ukraine in the written document delivered Wednesday, but he left the door open for more talks to ease simmering tensions. VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports. 

Produced by:  Bakhtiyar Zamano

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