Category Archives: News

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Biden Says He has a Plan to Protect Ukraine from Russia

U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters Friday he has been developing a set of initiatives that will make it “very, very difficult” for Russia to escalate the situation at its border with Ukraine, where Moscow has been building up troops and equipment for weeks.

The situation at Ukraine’s eastern border has raised fears Moscow is planning to invade its neighbor. Russian aggression was the focus this week of a NATO foreign ministers meeting, with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warning Russia any escalation of the situation would come at a high price.

Earlier Friday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Russia has now massed more than 94,000 troops near Ukraine’s border, suggesting to him they could be preparing for a large-scale military offensive at the end of January.

When asked about the situation during remarks Friday at the White House, Biden told reporters he has been in constant contact with U.S. allies in Europe, and with Ukraine. He said Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have been engaged extensively.

Biden said his administration is “putting together what I believe to be will be the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for (Russian President Vladimir) Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do. But that’s in play right now.”

The president offered no details of what his initiatives might be.

Diplomatic efforts have been underway to ease tensions in the region this week. Blinken met in Stockholm on Thursday with both Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

The Kremlin said Friday arrangements are also being made for a video call between Biden and Putin in the coming days.

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse.

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China Deepens Informal Alliance With Russia

China and Russia have strengthened their political, economic and military relations this year, despite their uneasy history in the past, as both countries say they resent what they call growing pressure from the West.

So far this year, the two have held a series of military exercises and issued joint diplomatic statements aimed at Western countries. On November 27, for example, an essay by both countries’ ambassadors to Washington protested the upcoming U.S.-led Summit for Democracy for creating divisions in the world. Neither Russia nor China appeared on the list of 110 invitees.

Russia depends on China’s massive industrial economy for oil and gas exports as environmental rules in the European Union complicate energy imports there, said Vassily Kashin, senior fellow at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

He said two-way relations were at their strongest since the 1950s.

“Most importantly, we have a common position concerning the global order, which is that we don’t like the U.S. global order, so this close partnership is based on common opposition to the U.S.-led global order,” Kashin said.

Western democracies from the United States to Australia and throughout Europe have strengthened their own ties this year at a time of concern about China’s policies. Western governments have signaled opposition to Beijing’s aggressive language on Taiwan, its crackdown on dissenters in Hong Kong and its policies targeting a Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang region.

Countries, including the West and some in Southeast Asia, further resent China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” approach that has seen China’s Communist Party become more vocal about promoting its views among overseas audiences. In foreign relations, experts say Beijing has been using “increasingly assertive tactics” to “aggressively defend their home country,” often in the cyber world.

China and Russia in turn hope to stop a return to U.S.-driven soft power of the Barack Obama-George W. Bush presidencies, when smaller countries saw the United States as “more acceptable leaders” among great powers, said Alan Chong, associate professor at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Chinese soft power, Chong said, “has taken a hit” because of President Xi Jinping’s comments that make him sound strong at home at the expense of solidarity and friendship overseas. China sees U.S. President Joe Biden as “a very tough opponent,” he added.

Western governments have called out China this year particularly over its perceived aggression toward Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing calls its own. A U.S. official also warned Russia last month about troop buildup near Ukraine.

Evidence of stronger Sino-Russian ties

With the world’s second-strongest military, after the United States, Russia holds occasional military exercises with China — five made public to date — while selling arms to its giant neighbor to the south.

In October, China and Russia held their 10th annual “Maritime Interaction” naval drills with the Russian Pacific Fleet’s anti-submarine ship Admiral Panteleyev, the Moscow-based Sputnik news service reported. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy sent several destroyers and a diesel submarine.

The two navies drill together to strengthen “combat capabilities” in case of “seaborne threats,” Sputnik said.

Russia and China held five days of military exercises in a remote region of central China in August, drawing more than 10,000 service personnel, aircraft, artillery and armored vehicles.

China and Russia also began operating a space weather center this month in Beijing and Moscow, the Chinese state-run China Daily reported. In June, they agreed to extend their 20-year-old Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation to strengthen relations by respecting each other’s interests and sovereignty, the Daily said.

Russia looks to China for support of its goal in occupying parts of Ukraine, as well as a conduit to show Moscow can “still play a role” in Asia, in the region,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan.

China needs Russian weapons, energy and support against Western pressure, Yang said. Russia agreed in 2015 to sell China 24 combat aircraft and four S-400 surface-to-air missile systems for about $7 billion. On the economic side, China became Russia’s No. 1 trading partner in 2017. Two years ago, Xi and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, agreed to fuse each side’s efforts to open trade routes by building infrastructure in other countries.

“I think this is the traditional, old-fashioned balance of power,” Yang said. “They consider if China and Russia can join together, they can also regulate the regional security issues.”

Limits to Sino-Russian cooperation

Cold War-era distrust between China and Russia is likely to limit cooperation to broad or informal actions rather than a signed pact, analysts say. Sino-Russian relations faded in the 1960s when the two Communist parties split over ideology and border conflicts ensued.

The two sides could set up a military technology sharing deal like the AUKUS pact involving Australia, Britain and the United States, said Nguyen Thanh Trung, a faculty member at Fulbright University Vietnam. Earlier goals haven’t been met, he told VOA.

“Over the last two years, China and Russia have signed a lot of agreements, but I don’t see a lot of concrete progress in their agreements,” Nguyen said.

Western allies need not worry about China-Russia cooperation unless the two powers sign a formal agreement, Chong said.

“If you see an MOU [memorandum of understanding] where they would state, explicitly, [that] they would stage X number of military exercises, they would establish some sort of integrated military command or something, then there’s cause for worry, but as they go at the moment, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about,” he said.

This week the Pentagon announced as part of a regular review of its forces around the world that it would reinforce deployments and bases directed at China and Russia, while still maintaining forces in the Middle East to deter terrorist groups and Iran.

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German Minister Warns Omicron Could Make Bad Situation Worse 

Top German health officials Friday warned that the omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was likely to worsen the fourth wave of infections the nation is facing and was threatening to overwhelm the health care system. 

German Health Minister Jens Spahn and Lothar Wieler, president of the  Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases, spoke with reporters in Berlin. 

Spahn said that at the current rate of infection, Germany will almost certainly have more than 5,000 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units in coming weeks, with the number likely to peak around Christmas.

The two health officials spoke a day after federal and state leaders announced tough new restrictions on unvaccinated people, preventing them from entering nonessential stores, restaurants, and sports and cultural venues. It was the same day Germany reported its first case involving the omicron variant. 

Wieler said the nation should be prepared for the possibility omicron could lead to even more cases than the delta variant in a shorter period of time. He said restrictions announced Thursday must also be implemented nationwide to prevent infections from collapsing the health system.

The German parliament is expected to consider a vaccine mandate. If approved, it would take effect in February. 

Spahn noted that the share of unvaccinated residents who are infected and seriously ill is much higher than their share of the overall population.

He said there was good news on the vaccination front: The nation is likely to meet its goal of administering 30 million booster doses before Christmas. He told reporters 10 million doses had already been injected, 10 million had been delivered and 10 million more were to be delivered next week.

Spahn said the important thing now was to vaccinate more people each week until the end of the year. 

The Koch Institute on Friday reported 74,352 new COVID-19 cases and 390 additional deaths. 

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

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Austria’s Ruling Party Names New Chancellor

Austria’s ruling party on Friday named Interior Minister Karl Nehammer to lead the conservative camp and the country after the shock resignation of former chancellor Sebastian Kurz as party head caused fresh political upheaval.

“I wanted to announce that today I was unanimously appointed by the OeVP (People’s Party) leadership as party head and at the same time as the chancellor candidate,” Nehammer told reporters.

The meeting of the party’s top brass came a day after Kurz, implicated in a corruption scandal, said he was quitting as party boss.

Alexander Schallenberg, who took over as chancellor in October, said on Thursday that he was ready to resign as “the posts of chancellor and head of the party… should quickly be taken on by the same person”.

It will now be up to Austria’s president to accept Nehammer’s nomination and swear him in, but this is mostly a formality.

Kurz’s announcement that he would quit politics to dedicate time to his family, especially his new-born son, came just two months after he resigned as national leader.

This followed his implication in a corruption scandal, bringing down a spectacular career, which saw him become the world’s youngest democratically elected head of government in 2017 at just 31.

Besides naming Nehammer, the conservative party also nominated fresh faces for several other portfolios, the interior minister said.

This includes a new finance minister after Kurz ally Gernot Bluemel also resigned on Thursday.

Former army officer

Born in Vienna in 1972, Nehammer worked in the army for several years before becoming a communications advisor.

He became a lawmaker in 2017 and interior minister in January 2020 and faced the first jihadist attack in Austria, which killed four people.

The interior ministry was strongly criticized for having failed to monitor the Austrian gunman responsible for the killings, even though they had been alerted to the danger.

The scandal bringing down Kurz erupted in early October when prosecutors ordered raids at the chancellery and the finance ministry.

They are probing allegations that Kurz’s inner circle used public money to pay for polls tailored to boost his image and ensure positive coverage in one of the country’s biggest tabloids.

Kurz has denied any wrongdoing, saying he hopes to have his day in court to prove his innocence.

Kurz, now 35, wrested control of the OeVP in 2017 and with his hard stance on immigration led it two to election victories.

The OeVP’s first coalition with the far-right collapsed in 2019 when its junior partner became engulfed in a corruption scandal, leading to fresh elections.

Those returned Kurz as chancellor, this time heading an administration with the Greens.

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Blinken Dismisses Russian Claims It Is Threatened by Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with both the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers in Stockholm on Thursday, amid concerns over troops amassed at their common border. Blinken stressed America’s strong commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and called on both sides to seek a diplomatic solution, as VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports.

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Serbia Sentences 4 Former Intelligence Officers in Journalist’s 1999 Murder

A Serbian court Thursday jailed four former intelligence officers for up to 30 years over the brutal 1999 murder of journalist Slavko Curuvija, a fierce critic of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

The special court sentenced Serbia’s former secret police chief, Radomir Markovic, and the head of Belgrade’s intelligence branch, Milan Radonjic, to 30 years in prison, the Beta news agency said.

Two other intelligence officers, Ratko Romic and Miroslav Kurak, were each given 20 years in prison. Kurak was sentenced in absentia.

According to Serbian media outlet Cenzolovka, the group was convicted of premeditated murder “for the purpose of protecting the regime.”

The four had been found guilty in 2019, but the decision was overturned and a retrial ordered.

Shot 13 times

Curuvija was one of the most critical voices in Serbia in the 1990s, attracting a wide readership as the owner and editor of two leading independent publications.

He was shot 13 times in front of his Belgrade home during the NATO bombing campaign that was a response to the Milosevic government’s brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in the late 1990s.

The journalist was killed just days after pro-government media outlets accused him of being a “traitor” and after he was accused on state media of calling on NATO to bomb.

Journalists have long been targeted in Serbia, where reporters and editors critical of authorities have been assaulted and intimidated.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who served as information minister under Milosevic, regularly berates reporters during his near-daily public addresses.

In 2020, 32 journalists were physically attacked and almost 100 reported threats, according to the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia.

Press freedom groups called the sentences a victory, even though they remain subject to appeal.

“The verdict is an important step in the right direction by Serbian authorities in breaking the cycle of impunity in crimes committed against journalists,” Attila Mong, of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, told VOA.

Pavol Szalai, the head of the European Union and Balkans desk for the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, said threats continue against journalists throughout the region.

“Before he was murdered, Slavko Curuvija was surveilled by the state, pressured by politicized judiciary, verbally attacked by politicians and subjected to a smear campaign in the pro-government media,” Szalai said.

“These are all issues which Serbian journalists are still threatened with,” he said. “If the Serbian authorities can definitively bring justice for Slavko Curuvija, there is a hope they can avoid another murder.”

Reporter Milan Nesic of VOA’s Serbian Service contributed to this report.

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Can Europe Compete With China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

The European Union this week launched a $340 billion fund to boost global infrastructure — which analysts say is aimed a rivaling China’s Belt and Road initiative. But can it compete? Henry Ridgwell has more.

Camera: Henry Ridgwell

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Two South Sudanese Migrants Rescued at Sea Tell of Dreams, Hopes

The tale of two South Sudanese brothers recently rescued in the Mediterranean Sea is a common one among the many African migrants seeking better lives in Europe. The two men left Libya on a flimsy boat, but the engine broke down and they were eventually picked up by the Ocean Viking rescue ship. Reporter Ruud Elmendorp was on board the rescue vessel and has their story. 

Producer: Rob Raffaele. Camera: Ruud Elmendorp.

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US, EU, UK and Canada Announce New Belarus Sanctions

The United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada have announced a new round of sanctions against Belarus officials and entities, citing the government’s “ongoing attacks on democracy, human rights, and international norms, and for their brutal repression of Belarusians both inside and outside the country,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

The U.S. is targeting 32 officials and entities, including state-owned enterprises that support the government of President Alexander Lukashenko. Also sanctioned is Lukashenko’s son, Dmitry.

The U.S. also placed restrictions on the Belarus government’s ability to borrow money. 

Lukashenko has been cracking down on political dissent since the August 2020 elections, which the U.S. and EU called fraudulent. It is also accused of using migrants as political weapons against its neighbors, such as Poland.

“Today’s actions demonstrate our unwavering determination to act in the face of a brutal regime that increasingly represses Belarusians, undermines the peace and security of Europe, and continues to abuse people seeking only to live in freedom. These sanctions are also in response to the Lukashenka regime’s callous exploitation of vulnerable migrants from other countries in order to orchestrate migrant smuggling along its border with EU states,” Blinken said.

The EU sanctions are against officials involved in the migrant crisis, as well as against two airlines — state airline Belavia and Syrian airline Cham Wings — which it says are bringing migrants to Belarus to make the crisis worse.

The U.K. announced it will freeze assets of state-owned OJSC Belaruskali, a large manufacturer of potash fertilizer. Canada said it would sanction the 32 individuals and entities named by the U.S.

“Our position is clear,” Blinken said. “The United States calls on the Lukashenko regime to end its crackdown on members of civil society, independent media, the political opposition, athletes, students, legal professionals and other Belarusians; to immediately release all political prisoners; to engage in a sincere dialogue with the democratic opposition and civil society; to fulfill its international human rights obligations; to stop its coercion of vulnerable people; and to hold free and fair elections under international observation.”

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