US Weighs Options on Ukraine

The United States began shipments of lethal aid to Ukraine after U.S. President Joe Biden recently said that any Russian troop movement into Ukraine would be considered an invasion. President Biden’s comments come as Russian President Vladimir Putin stations more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border. Russian and U.S. diplomats so far have agreed to keep working to lower tensions. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi has more.

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Taliban Talks in Norway Raise New Debate About Recognition

A Taliban delegation led by acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi on Sunday started three days of talks in Oslo with Western officials and Afghan civil society representatives amid a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan.

The closed-door meetings were taking place at a hotel in the snow-capped mountains above the Norwegian capital and are the first time since the Taliban took over in August that their representatives have held official meetings in Europe.

The talks were not without controversy, however, reigniting the debate over whether they legitimize the Taliban government, especially since they were being held in Norway, a NATO country involved in Afghanistan from 2001 until the Taliban take over last summer. 

Speaking at the end of the first day of talks, Taliban delegate Shafiullah Azam told The Associated Press that the meetings with Western officials were “a step to legitimize (the) Afghan government,” adding that “this type of invitation and communication will help (the) European community, (the) U.S. or many other countries to erase the wrong picture of the Afghan government.”

That statement may irk the Taliban’s Norwegian hosts. Earlier, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks were “not a legitimation or recognition of the Taliban.”

On Sunday, 200 protesters gathered on an icy square in front of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry in Oslo to condemn the meetings with the Taliban, which has not received diplomatic recognition from any foreign government.

“The Taliban has not changed as some in the international community like to say,” said Ahman Yasir, a Norwegian Afghan living in Norway for around two decades. “They are as brutal as they were in 2001 and before.”

Taliban leaders met with some women’s rights and human rights activists on Sunday, but there was no official word about those talks.

Starting Monday, Taliban representatives will meet with delegations from Western nations and will be certain to press their demand that nearly $10 billion frozen by the United States and other Western countries be released as Afghanistan faces a precarious humanitarian situation.

“We are requesting them to unfreeze Afghan assets and not punish ordinary Afghans because of the political discourse,” said Shafiullah Azam. “Because of the starvation, because of the deadly winter, I think it’s time for the international community to support Afghans, not punish them because of their political disputes.”

The United Nations has managed to provide some liquidity and allowed the Taliban administration to pay for imports, including electricity. But the U.N. has warned that as many as 1 million Afghan children are in danger of starving and most of the country’s 38 million people are living below the poverty line.

Faced with the Taliban’s request for funds, Western powers are likely to put the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan high on their agenda, along with the West’s recurring demand for the Taliban administration to share power with Afghanistan’s minority ethnic and religious groups. 

Since sweeping to power in mid-August, the Taliban have imposed widespread restrictions, many of them directed at women. Women have been banned from many jobs outside the health and education fields, their access to education has been restricted beyond sixth grade and they have been ordered to wear the hijab. The Taliban have, however, stopped short of imposing the burqa, which was compulsory when they previously ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The Taliban have increasingly targeted Afghanistan’s beleaguered rights groups, as well as journalists, detaining and sometimes beating television crews covering demonstrations.

A U.S. delegation, led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West, plans to discuss “the formation of a representative political system; responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises; security and counterterrorism concerns; and human rights, especially education for girls and women,” according to a statement released by the U.S. State Department.

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French Soldier Killed After Attack on Mali Military Base 

A French soldier has died after a rocket attack on the French army base in Gao, Mali.  

The French Armed Forces Ministry released a statement Sunday morning saying the attack occurred on the Gao, Mali, Operation Barkhane military base on Saturday.

The statement claimed the attack was carried out by “terrorists.” 

Operation Barkhane, France’s counterinsugency military operation in the Sahel, has operated in Mali since 2014. It replaced Operation Serval, the French army’s operation to regain control of northern Mali, which had been taken over by Islamists in 2012.

This year, after what French President Emmanuel Macron called a drawdown of the French military presence in Mali, Barkhane forces were withdrawn from northern Mali’s Tessalit, Kidal and Timbuktu military bases. The Gao base continues to serve as the center of Operation Barkhane.

Popular opposition to the French military presence in Mali has increased dramatically in recent years. France has backed recent sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States that were imposed following a 2026 presidential election plan proposed by Mali’s current military government.

Thousands of Malians took to the streets in cities across the country this month to denounce the sanctions, with most also denouncing France’s presence in Mali.

 

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US Warns it Knows Russia’s Tactics to Undermine Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russia on Sunday that Washington knows “all of the tactics and techniques” that Moscow can deploy to undermine the Ukrainian government but will continue to engage in diplomatic talks in hopes of easing tensions in eastern Europe. 

“It is certainly possible that the diplomacy the Russians are engaged in is simply going through the motions and it won’t affect their ultimate decision about whether to invade or in some other way intervene, or not in Ukraine,” Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” show. “But we have a responsibility to see the diplomacy through for … as far and as long as we can go because it’s the more responsible way to bring this to a closure.” 

In a separate interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” show, Blinken ruled out the United States immediately imposing severe economic sanctions on Moscow, which it has vowed to do if Russian President Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine. Russia has massed 127,000 troops just across its border with Ukraine, a former Soviet republic. 

“If they’re triggered now,” Blinken said of the possible sanctions, “you lose the deterrent factor.” 

Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, following Blinken on CNN, accused the administration of President Joe Biden of a “doctrine of appeasement” in dealing with Russia over threats to Ukraine. 

“The sanctions need to be imposed now,” Ernst said. “President Putin only understands strength and power. We need to have firm resolve.” 

Blinken declined to comment on a British intelligence report that Russia was seeking to replace Ukraine’s government with a pro-Moscow administration. Moscow rejected the claim. 

“The disinformation spread by the British Foreign Office is more evidence that it is the NATO countries, led by the Anglo-Saxons, who are escalating tensions around Ukraine,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on the Telegram messaging app. “We call on the British Foreign Office to stop provocative activities, stop spreading nonsense.” 

Blinken, on NBC, said that aside from the world’s awareness of Russia’s massive troop deployment near Ukraine, “It’s also important that people around the world, whether it’s in Europe, the United States, or beyond, understand the kinds of things that could be in the offing: a false flag operation to try and create a false pretext for going in. It’s important that people know that that’s something that’s in the playbook too,” as well as cyberattacks and other disruption targeting Ukraine. 

The top U.S. diplomat said that aside from diplomatic engagement with Russia, “We are building up defense, we’re building up deterrence; we’ve now provided to Ukraine more security assistance this year than in any previous year.” 

On Saturday, Blinken said he had authorized the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to send U.S.-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. 

“I expedited and authorized, and we fully endorse transfers of defensive equipment @NATO Allies Estonia Latvia Lithuania are providing to Ukraine to strengthen its ability to defend itself against Russia’s unprovoked and irresponsible aggression,” Blinken said in a post on Twitter. 

“We are preparing massive consequences for Russia if it invades Ukraine again,” Blinken told NBC. “So, you have to do both at the same time. You build up your defense, you build up your deterrence on the one hand; you engage in diplomacy and dialogue on the other. That’s the way that I think it makes the most sense to carry this forward. Ultimately, we’ve given Russia two paths; it has to choose.” 

“The Russians have put concerns on the table that they say they have about their security,” Blinken said. “We’ve exchanged some ideas. We’ll be sharing with the Russians in writing not only our concerns, but some ideas for a way forward that could enhance mutual security on a reciprocal basis.” 

“So, look, that is clearly the preferable path forward for everyone,” he said. “It’s the responsible thing to do. And we’ll pursue it as long as we can. At the same time, we’ll continue to build up other defenses and deterrents that are necessary.” 

Some material in this report came from the Associated Press. 

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Migrants at Hungary Border Become Part of Election Campaign

A group of migrants huddles beside a small, smoky fire inside an abandoned building in northern Serbia, the last moments of warmth before they set out into the driving snow toward the razor wire, cameras and sensors of Hungary’s electrified border fence.

A few hours later, they return, their efforts to cross through Hungary and toward Western Europe thwarted by the 3-meter fence and heavy Hungarian police patrols which, after intercepting them, escorted them back across the border into Serbia.

“I’m going to Austria, I’m going to Germany, I’m going to the Netherlands,” says Muhtar Ahmad, a 26-year-old from Aleppo, Syria, who is squatting with around 35 other migrants in the makeshift camp outside the Serbian village of Majdan, less than 2 kilometers from the Hungarian border.

“I’m not staying in Hungary. What’s the problem?”

As migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries embark on the last stretch of their long journeys toward Europe’s wealthier nations, their efforts to cross irregularly into the European Union through Hungary — and the country’s contentious practice of returning them to Serbia when they are caught — have made them part of a political campaign with which Hungary’s nationalist leader hopes to win an upcoming general election.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who polls suggest will face his closest election in more than a decade in April, is campaigning on a strict anti-immigration platform and is keen to use the prospect of a wave of migrants amassing at Hungary’s border as a means to mobilize his conservative voter base.

“Just this year we stopped and detained … more than 100,000 people,” Orban claimed at a rare appearance before journalists in December. “If the Hungarian fence had not stood there, more than 100,000 more illegal migrants would be now first in Austria, then in Germany.”

One of the most outspoken opponents of immigration in Europe, Orban has said that migration threatens to replace the continent’s Christian culture, and that illegal migrants are responsible for bringing infections like COVID-19 variants into his country.

“We do not want to be an immigrant country,” Orban said during an interview with state radio this week.

As the April 3 election approaches, he has portrayed current migration pressures as higher than in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of refugees came into the EU fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere, and when he ordered the construction of the country’s border barrier.

But figures released by Serbian officials and the EU’s border and coast guard agency suggest that far fewer individuals are attempting to enter Hungary than the right-wing leader claims.

 

“It’s a little bit bigger number than, let’s say, two years ago, but these are not big numbers. It’s a small rise,” said Nemanja Matejic, chief officer at a migrant reception center in the northern Serbian city of Subotica, of the current level of migrants along Hungary’s border.

While Hungarian police put the number of migrants intercepted by Hungarian authorities at more than 122,000, data from EU border agency Frontex showed that there were 60,540 illegal border crossing attempts last year on the Western Balkan migration route, which includes the Hungary-Serbia border.

What’s more, since most migrants are making repeated attempts to cross, the number of individuals involved is far smaller still.

Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration reports that there are 4,276 migrants residing in reception centers in Serbia and another 1,000 sleeping rough.

Frontex has noted that most Western Balkan crossings “can be traced back to people who have been in the region for some time and who repeatedly try to reach their target country in the EU.”

Hikmad Serat, 20, from Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, took shelter in a remote abandoned building near the Serbian border town of Horgos this month as a cold snap brought temperatures to -10 C.

 

Serat said he has been in Serbia for 15 months and has lost count of the number of times he has crossed into Hungary and been returned by police.

“Many times I try, 100 times, more than 100 times … Every time, police arrest me and deport back to Serbia,” Serat said.

This practice — where police deny migrants the right to apply for asylum and escort them back across national borders — is known as a “pushback.” It has been declared unlawful by the EU’s top court and is in violation of international asylum treaties.

Matejic, the chief of the reception center, said that migrants making dozens of crossing attempts is “typical.”

“Sometimes a guy tries one time and goes, he has luck … Sometimes they try over 50 times … They try and try again,” he said.

Many migrants have reported abuse by police after they leave Serbian territory for Hungary, or for Croatia or Romania. This includes having mobile phones destroyed or stolen, being made to sit or kneel in the snow for hours and receiving beatings — allegations which are very difficult to independently confirm.

Romanian police didn’t respond to questions from The Associated Press. But Hungary’s National Police Headquarters wrote in an email that they “strongly reject unsubstantiated allegations” of abuse of migrants.

Yet Matejic said 150 cases of broken limbs were recorded by the Subotica reception center in 2019.

“Sometimes they break their phones, the police. Sometimes they take their money. Sometimes they break their legs. It’s a different experience for everybody,” Matejic said.

Orban has asked the EU to reimburse Hungary for at least half of the costs related to building, maintaining and patrolling its border fence, which he has said have amounted to $1.9 billion over the past six years.

Ever at odds with the EU’s more liberal member states, he has also threatened to “open up a corridor along which migrants can march up to Austria, Germany and Sweden and whoever needs them.”

Despite the dangers, Faris al-Ibrahimi, a Moroccan migrant in the Subotica reception center who intends to travel on to Spain, said he was undeterred after being pushed back 27 times by Hungarian police.

“I’m still going to try. I will not give up now … I will try until I succeed,” he said. “It’s an adventure. We cross, we go, they catch us, we come back, we go again. It’s like a game for us.” 

 

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Turkey Detains TV Journalist, Accuses Her of Insulting President

Turkey has detained a well-known television journalist for comments she made on air about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, her lawyer said Saturday.

Police detained Sedef Kabas at her home at 2 a.m. Saturday, just hours after she aired the comments and then posted them on Twitter to her 900,000 followers.

She was formally arrested after appearing in court.

The crime of insulting the president carries a jail sentence of one to four years in Turkey.

“A so-called journalist is blatantly insulting our president on a television channel that has no goal other than spreading hatred,” Erdogan’s chief spokesperson, Fahrettin Altun, said on Twitter.

“I condemn this arrogance, this immorality in the strongest possible terms. This is not only immoral, it is also irresponsible,” Altun said.

But the Turkish journalists union called Kabas’ arrest a “serious attack on freedom of expression.”

Rights groups routinely accuse Turkey of undermining media freedom by arresting journalists and shutting down critical media outlets, especially since Erdogan survived a failed coup in July 2016.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 153rd out of 180 in its 2021 press freedom index. 

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Humanitarian Aid Tops Agenda as Taliban Meet Western Officials

Human rights and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where hunger threatens millions, will be in focus at talks opening Sunday in Oslo between the Taliban, the West and members of Afghan civil society.

In their first visit to Europe since returning to power in August, the Taliban will meet Norwegian officials as well as representatives of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and the European Union.

The Taliban delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi.

On the agenda will be “the formation of a representative political system, responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises, security and counter-terrorism concerns, and human rights, especially education for girls and women,” a U.S. State Department official said.

The hardline Islamists were toppled in 2001 but stormed back to power in August as international troops began their final withdrawal.

The Taliban hope the talks will help “transform the atmosphere of war… into a peaceful situation,” government spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP on Saturday.

No country has yet recognized the Taliban government, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks would “not represent a legitimization or recognition of the Taliban.”

“But we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster,” Huitfeldt said.

‘Have to involve the government’

The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated drastically since August.

International aid, which financed around 80% of the Afghan budget, came to a sudden halt and the United States has frozen $9.5 billion in assets in the Afghan central bank.

Unemployment has skyrocketed and civil servants’ salaries have not been paid for months in the country already ravaged by several severe droughts.

Hunger now threatens 23 million Afghans, or 55% of the population, according to the United Nations, which says it needs $4.4 billion from donor countries this year to address the humanitarian crisis.

“It would be a mistake to submit the people of Afghanistan to a collective punishment just because the de facto authorities are not behaving properly”, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated Friday.

A former U.N. representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, told AFP: “We can’t keep distributing aid circumventing the Taliban.”

“If you want to be efficient, you have to involve the government in one way or another.”

The international community is waiting to see how the Islamic fundamentalists intend to govern Afghanistan, after having largely trampled on human rights during their first stint in power between 1996 and 2001.

While the Taliban claim to have modernized, women are still largely excluded from public employment and secondary schools for girls remain largely closed.

‘Gender apartheid’

On the first day of the Oslo talks held behind closed doors, the Taliban delegation is expected to meet Afghans from civil society, including women leaders and journalists.

A former Afghan minister for mines and petrol who now lives in Norway, Nargis Nehan, said she had declined an invitation to take part.

She told AFP she feared the talks would “normalize the Taliban and … strengthen them, while there is no way that they’ll change.”

“If we look at what happened in the talks of the past three years, the Taliban keep getting what they demand from the international community and the Afghan people, but there is not one single thing that they have delivered from their side,” she said.

“What guarantee is there this time that they will keep their promises?” she asked, noting that women activists and journalists are still being arrested.

Davood Moradian, the head of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies now based outside Afghanistan, meanwhile criticized Norway’s “celebrity-style” peace initiative.

“Hosting a senior member of the Taliban casts doubt on Norway’s global image as a country that cares for women’s rights, when the Taliban has effectively instituted gender apartheid,” he said.

Norway has a track record of mediating in conflicts, including in the Middle East, Sri Lanka and Colombia. 

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UK Accuses Kremlin of Trying to Install Pro-Russian Leader in Ukraine

Britain on Saturday accused the Kremlin of seeking to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine and said Russian intelligence officers had been in contact with several former Ukrainian politicians as part of plans for an invasion. 

The British foreign ministry declined to provide evidence to back its accusations, which came at a time of high tension between Russia and the West over Russia’s massing of troops near its border with Ukraine. Moscow has insisted it has no plans to invade. 

The British ministry said it had information the Russian government was considering former Ukrainian lawmaker Yevheniy Murayev as a potential candidate to head a pro-Russian leadership. 

‘Deeply concerning,’ US says

“We will not tolerate Kremlin plot to install pro-Russian leadership in Ukraine,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Twitter. “The Kremlin knows a military incursion would be a massive strategic mistake & the UK and our partners would impose a severe cost on Russia.” 

The British statement was released in early Sunday, Moscow and Kyiv time, and there was no immediate statement from the Kremlin. 

A foreign ministry source said it was not the usual practice to share intelligence matters, and the details had only been declassified after careful consideration to deter Russian aggression. 

“This kind of plotting is deeply concerning,” U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement. “The Ukrainian people have the sovereign right to determine their own future, and we stand with our democratically elected partners in Ukraine.” 

Unpopular politicians

Murayev, 45, is a pro-Russian politician who opposes Ukraine’s integration with the West. According to a poll by the Razumkov’s Centre think tank conducted in December 2021, he was ranked seventh among candidates for the 2024 presidential election with 6.3% support. 

“You’ve made my evening. The British Foreign Office seems confused,” Murayev told Britain’s Observer newspaper. “It isn’t very logical. I’m banned from Russia. Not only that but money from my father’s firm there has been confiscated.” 

Britain, which this week supplied 2,000 missiles and a team of military trainers to Ukraine, also said it had information that Russian intelligence services were maintaining links with “numerous” former Ukrainian politicians, including senior figures with links to ex-President Viktor Yanukovich. 

Yanukovich fled to Russia in 2014 after three months of protests against his rule and was sentenced in absentia to 13 years in jail on treason charges in 2019. 

“Some of these [former Ukrainian politicians] have contact with Russian intelligence officers currently involved in the planning for an attack on Ukraine,” the British foreign office statement said. 

British pressure

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Downing Street office also said the British leader was planning to ramp up pressure on Russia this week by calling for European counterparts to come together with the United States to face down Russian aggression. 

Earlier, RIA news agency reported that Truss would visit Moscow in February to meet her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, while Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his British counterpart Ben Wallace have also agreed to hold talks.

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German Navy Chief Resigns Over Putin, Ukraine Remarks 

Germany’s navy chief stepped down on Saturday after drawing criticism for saying Russian President Vladimir Putin deserved respect and that Kyiv would never win back annexed Crimea from Moscow. 

“I have asked Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht to relieve me from my duties with immediate effect,” Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach said in a statement. “The minister has accepted my request.” 

Schoenbach made the remarks to a think-tank discussion in India on Friday, and video was published on social media. The comments came at a sensitive time as Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s borders. 

Diplomatic efforts are focused on preventing an escalation. Russia denies it is planning to invade Ukraine. 

Speaking in India

In New Delhi, Schoenbach, speaking in English, said Putin seeks to be treated as an equal by the West. 

“What he (Putin) really wants is respect,” Schoenbach said. 

“And my God, giving someone respect is low cost, even no cost. … It is easy to give him the respect he really demands, and probably also deserves,” Schoenbach said, calling Russia an old and important country. 

Schoenbach conceded Russia’s actions in Ukraine needed to be addressed. But he added that “the Crimea Peninsula is gone, it will never come back, this is a fact,” contradicting the joint Western position that Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 cannot be accepted and must be reversed. 

Before Schoenbach’s resignation, the defense ministry publicly criticized his remarks, saying they did not reflect Germany’s position in either content or wording. 

Schoenbach apologized for his comments. 

“My rash remarks in India … are increasingly putting a strain on my office,” he said. “I consider this step (the resignation) necessary to avert further damage to the German navy, the German forces, and, in particular, the Federal Republic of Germany.” 

Ukraine rejects comments

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry had called on Germany to publicly reject the navy chief’s comments. Schoenbach’s comments could impair Western efforts to de-escalate the situation, Ukraine said in a statement. 

“Ukraine is grateful to Germany for the support it has already provided since 2014, as well as for the diplomatic efforts to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict. But Germany’s current statements are disappointing and run counter to that support and effort,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said separately in tweet. 

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Norway Killer Breivik Tests Limits of Lenient Justice System

Convicted mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik spends his days in a spacious three-room cell, playing video games, exercising, watching TV and taking university-level courses in mathematics and business. 

Halfway through a 21-year sentence and seeking early release, Breivik, 42, is being treated in a way that might seem shocking to people outside Norway, where he killed eight in an Oslo bombing in 2011, and then stalked and gunned down 69 people, mostly teens, at a summer camp. 

But here — no matter how wicked the crime — convicts benefit from a criminal justice system that is designed to offer prisoners some of the comforts and opportunities of life on the outside. 

Still, Breivik’s extreme case is testing the limits of Norway’s commitment to tolerance and rehabilitation. 

“We have never had anyone in Norway who has been responsible for this level of violence before. And there has been debate here about whether part of the justice system should be changed for someone like him,” said Erik Kursetgjerde, who survived the slaughter on Utoya island as an 18-year-old. However, he advises a slow approach that does not bend to Breivik’s desire to subvert the system. 

Nazi salute

During a three-day parole hearing this week that was broadcast to journalists, Breivik renounced violence, but also flashed a Nazi salute and espoused white supremacy, echoing ideas in a manifesto he released at the time of his killing spree. The outburst was familiar to Norwegians who had watched him deliver rambling diatribes during his partially televised criminal trial.

“Obviously this has been extremely trying for survivors, the bereaved and Norwegian society as a whole,” said Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, professor of law at the University of Oslo, adding that there is debate in Norway over whether parole regulations should be overhauled in a bid to prevent this type of grandstanding. 

In 2016, Breivik successfully sued the Norwegian government for human rights abuses, complaining about his isolation from other prisoners, frequent strip searches and the fact that he was often handcuffed during the early part of his incarceration. He also complained about the quality of the prison food, having to eat with plastic utensils and not being able to communicate with sympathizers.

While Breivik’s human rights case was ultimately overturned by a higher court, the episode showed just how far the Norwegian criminal justice system could bend in favor of prisoners’ rights and living conditions.

“His conditions according to Norwegian standards are excellent,” said his prison psychiatrist, Randi Rosenqvist. She testified at the parole hearing that Breivik is still a public threat. 

Even after Breivik’s outbursts at this week’s parole hearing, Norwegian authorities show no sign of wavering from treating him like any other inmate at Skien prison.

‘Deprivation of liberty’

“In a Nordic prison sentence, the main punishment is deprivation of liberty. All the Nordic countries have systems based on a lenient and humane criminal policy that starts from the mutual understanding that punishment should not be any stricter than necessary,” said Johan Boucht, a professor from the University of Oslo Department of Public and International Law, who has also worked in Sweden and Finland. “The second aspect is rehabilitation, and the principle that it is better in the long run to rehabilitate the inmate than create a factory for criminals.”

Until about 50 years ago, Norway’s justice system focused on punishment. But in the late 1960s there was a backlash to the harsh conditions of prisons, leading to criminal justice reforms that emphasized kinder treatment and rehabilitation. 

Norwegian sentencing and prison conditions are sharply at odds with those of other European countries such as France, where the worst criminals can face life imprisonment, with the possibility of an appeal only after 22 years. 

Relatively few French defendants get the longest sentence, but among those facing it are Salah Abdeslam, who is the only surviving member of the Islamic State cell that attacked Paris in November 2015. Abdeslam has complained bitterly about his conditions in the Fleury-Mérogis prison, where he is under 24-hour surveillance in solitary confinement, the furniture is fixed to the floor of his tiny cell and he can exercise for one hour daily.

Breivik’s comparatively lenient treatment inside prison does not mean he’ll get out anytime soon, or even in 2032, when his sentence ends. 

While the maximum prison sentence in Norway is 21 years, the law was amended in 2002 so that, in rare cases, sentences can be extended indefinitely in five-year increments if someone is still considered a danger to the public.

Let him prove he’s reformed, lawyer urges

Breivik’s lawyer, Øystein Storrvik, said in his closing arguments at the parole hearing that Breivik should be released to prove that he is reformed and no longer a threat to society. It’s not possible, while he is in total isolation, to prove that, the lawyer said. 

But Breivik’s behavior during this week’s parole hearing was proof enough to some that he should never again see freedom.

Kristine Roeyneland, who leads a group for the families of Breivik’s victims and survivors, said his comfortable prison conditions and ability to spread extremist views through publicized parole hearings are reprehensible.

Whatever the outcome of Breivik’s request for early parole, which will be decided by a three-judge panel in coming weeks, some take an enlightened view of the Norwegian government’s apparent commitment to treat him like any other prisoner. 

“People might be afraid that he’s using the law as a stage,” said Sandvik, the law professor. “But you can also say that, you know, he is being used by the law. He’s a megaphone for the rule of law.” 

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Blinken Authorizes Baltic Countries to Send US Weapons to Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday he authorized the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to send U.S.-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, a move that comes amid Ukraine’s rising tensions with neighboring Russia.

“I expedited and authorized, and we fully endorse transfers of defensive equipment @NATO Allies Estonia Latvia Lithuania are providing to Ukraine to strengthen its ability to defend itself against Russia’s unprovoked and irresponsible aggression,” Blinken said in a post on Twitter. 

Blinken also thanked the former Soviet Republics and NATO members, “for their longstanding support to Ukraine.”

Blinken’s announced approval of the arms shipments came one day after the U.S. and Russia appeared to make little progress in the increasingly high-stakes standoff over Ukraine, each side leaving the latest round of high-level talks Friday promising only to keep talking.

Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met for about an hour and a half in Geneva, with both officials refusing to budge on core demands.

The United States and Russia appeared to make little progress in the increasingly high-stakes standoff over Ukraine, each side leaving the latest round of high-level talks Friday promising only to keep talking.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met for about an hour and a half in Geneva, with both officials refusing to budge on core demands.

Blinken, in particular, described the impasse in stark terms.

“If any of Russia’s military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion. It will be met with a swift, severe and a united response from the United States and our partners and allies,” Blinken told reporters after the meeting.

The West is demanding that Russia pull its troops and weapons away from the Ukraine border while Moscow is pushing for NATO to curtail its operations in eastern and central Europe and insisting that the Western military alliance reject Ukraine’s membership bid.

Blinken said the U.S. and its allies are prepared to address Russia’s concerns, though not without conditions.

“The United States, our allies and partners are prepared to pursue possible means of addressing them in a spirit of reciprocity, which means simply put that Russia must also address our concerns,” Blinken said.

“There are several steps we can take, all of us, Russia included, to increase transparency, to reduce risks, to advance arms control, to build trust,” Blinken added.

U.S. officials say Russia has amassed nearly 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, including in Belarus and in occupied Crimea. Blinken warned earlier this month that Moscow could “mobilize twice that number on very short order.”

“They have a significant force posture there and that hasn’t decreased. In fact, it has continued to increase. And we remain concerned about that,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Friday.

Despite such concerns from the U.S. and its allies, Lavrov on Friday sought to paint Ukraine as the aggressor.

“No one is hiding the fact that weapons are being handed over to Ukraine, that hundreds of military instructors are flocking to Ukraine right now,” Lavrov said.

Still, the Russian foreign minister called the talks “constructive and useful.” 

Lavrov also said talks would continue over the Kremlin’s security demands and that both Russia and the U.S. had committed to put their concerns in writing for further discussion.

Both Lavrov and Blinken said there is a possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden could talk, if both sides feel it might be helpful.

However, some of Russia’s renewed demands drew a sharper response from U.S. allies and partners, including NATO.

“NATO will not renounce our ability to protect and defend each other, including with the presence of troops in the eastern part of the alliance,” spokesperson Oana Lungescu said in a statement Friday, rejecting demands that NATO pull troops from Bulgaria and Romania.

“We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense,” she said. 

The U.S. also sought to reassure allies, including Kyiv.

Blinken “reaffirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” in a phone call Friday with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, the State Department said.

Amid the tensions and ongoing political maneuvering, the head of the United Nations appealed for calm.

“It is clear that my message is that there should not be any military intervention in this context,” said Secretary-General António Guterres. “I hope that this, of course, will not happen in the present circumstances. I am convinced it will not happen and I strongly hope to be right.”

But in a joint statement late Friday, the defense ministers of the three Baltic states said they “stand united in our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in face of continued Russian aggression.”

The statement said Estonia would provide Ukraine with anti-tank weapons, while Latvia and Lithuania were transporting anti-aircraft missiles and other equipment to strengthen Ukraine’s defensive military capabilities. It was not immediately clear when the weapons and equipment would arrive in Ukraine.

The German government said Friday it was considering Estonia’s request to send Ukraine Soviet-made howitzers that East Germany once owned. Estonia acquired them from Finland, which purchased them from Germany’s military surplus in the 1990s.

Margaret Besheer at the UN in New York, Wayne Lee in Washington contributed to this report. Some material in this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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‘Impunity Persists’ in Case of Slain Turkish-Armenian Journalist

Thousands gathered in Istanbul this week to demand full justice for high-profile Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was killed 15 years ago.

Placards reading “We are all Hrant, We are all Armenian” and “For Hrant, For Justice” were waved as the crowd gathered outside the building where a teenage gunman in 2007 shot Dink.

Candles and red carnations were placed next to a commemorative plaque, and Turkish and Armenian songs played in the background. The facade of the building, which was once home to Dink’s media outlet, was covered with a large poster of the journalist and the words: “15 missing years.”

“The beautiful thing is that after 15 years, so many people do not forget Hrant Dink and the message he gave,” Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told VOA.

Peace advocate

As the founder and editor-in-chief of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos, Dink was a leading advocate for peace between the Turkish and Armenian communities. 

But his writing and speeches on Armenian identity and calls for reconciliation made him a target of nationalists in Turkey.

He was prosecuted several times during his journalism career, including a lawsuit in 2005 in which Dink was convicted of “publicly insulting and degrading Turkishness.”

At the time of his death, Dink was awaiting trial as part of a lawsuit over his use of the word “genocide” to describe attacks in 1915 that Armenia says left 1.5 million dead.

The U.S. and some other countries recognize it as a genocide. Turkey acknowledges killings during the Ottoman Empire but denies any genocide.

In early January, special envoys from Turkey and Armenia met in Moscow to try to normalize an otherwise strained relationship.

Search for justice

In 2011, Ogun Samast was sentenced to nearly 23 years in prison by a juvenile court on charges including premeditated murder for shooting Dink.

Since then, 76 other suspects accused of involvement in Dink’s killing have been tried. In March 2021, a court in Istanbul sentenced several former high-ranking public and police officers to life in prison for convictions on several charges, including premeditated murder and violating the constitution.

The Turkish government believes a network linked to Fethullah Gulen was behind the attack and that those involved have been brought to justice. The U.S.-based Gulen, whom Turkey also accuses of being behind a failed attempted coup, denies the accusations.

Omer Celik, spokesperson for the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), paid tribute to Dink on Twitter, saying: “Hrant defended brotherhood in this country and resisted those who tried to bring hostility to this country from outside.”

Dink’s family and colleagues, however, believe a wider network was involved in the killing and do not believe everyone has been brought to justice. Lawyers for the family appealed the March 2021 court decision and asked for further investigation.

“Impunity still persists,” said RSF’s Onderoglu, who followed the trial closely. “The Hrant Dink case is not out of our agenda, even if it is out of the hands of the court.”

“We will continue our struggle until the end, until those who targeted Hrant Dink, those who incited them, and the structures that killed him are brought to justice,” he added.

‘15 missing years’

In a column published the day he died, Dink said he felt “dovelike disquiet” because of the death threats and legal cases he faced.

“Doves live their lives in the hearts of cities, amid the crowds and human bustle. Yes, they live a little uneasily, a little apprehensively — but they live freely too,” Dink wrote.

Images of doves were projected onto the building facade a night before the commemoration.

The memorial shows Dink’s lasting impact on the Turkish-Armenian community, even on those who were too young at the time to understand what was happening.

Sila Pakyuz, 20, a Turkish-Armenian university student, told VOA she came to the commemoration with her non-Armenian friends.

“Hrant was shot when we came out of kindergarten. I am an Armenian from Turkey, and I was unaware that I was the ‘other’ in Turkey. I was only a child who spoke Armenian,” Pakyuz said.

“When I got home, my grandmother was crying, ‘Hrant was killed.’ As I got older, I understood what it means to be an Armenian in Turkey. I was living in a bubble,” she said.

At the memorial, Dink’s widow, Rakel, addressed the crowd, speaking about the detention of lawyers, journalists and Kurdish politicians in Turkey.

“Let us not dash any hopes,” Rakel Dink said. “The voice of indignation, rebellion and objection that roared up right from here as we buried you has never kept silent, and it shall never remain silent.”

This story originated in VOA’s Turkish Service.

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Putin, Following in Steps of Peter the Great?

Three hundred and forty kilometers east of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, lies the city of Poltava. 

At its heart is a semi-circular square with a cast-iron column and nearly two dozen eighteenth-century Swedish cannons captured in the 1709 Battle of Poltava, a decisive encounter in the Great Northern War, waged between Russia’s Peter the Great and Sweden’s Charles XII for supremacy in eastern Europe. 

Russia’s tsar won. 

Nearly four centuries later, the Ukrainian town located on a bank of the Vorskla River could soon find itself making history again. That is if Russia’s Vladimir Putin decides to mount a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and orders Russian forces to drive deep into the country, as some Western leaders fear he might. 

Poltava lies across the route to Kyiv and may become a factor if Putin opts to punch out from the Russian-controlled oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, and has other forces cross the border near Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine, said Robert Fry, a former commandant general of Britain’s Royal Marines.

It was at Poltava in 1709 that “Peter made the first step towards the sobriquet ‘Great’ — a path the Russian president may have ambitions to follow,” the retired British general noted in a military assessment for The Article, a British commentary site. 

 

Fry, though, suspects Putin will be in no hurry to forgo the advantages he has in continuing with hybrid warfare, extracting the Western concessions he has demanded and not courting the dangers of a full-scale invasion with the risks of having to pacify Europe’s second-largest country and counter a likely Ukrainian insurgency. 

“The dexterity with which Russia manipulates the threat of escalation has become one of the defining characteristics of its military/diplomatic playbook and it is yards ahead of the West in this respect. If the mortgage was at stake, I would put it on a ferment of sub-threshold activity backed up by lots of conventional military posturing, stopping short of live conflict,” he wrote. 

Russian officials say they have no plans to attack Ukraine once again, and armed forces chief Valery Gerasimov has denounced reports of a planned invasion as a lie. NATO’s secretary general has warned the risk of conflict is real and U.S. President Joe Biden this week said his guess is Russia will move in, either with an invasion or a more limited assault.

But what any “move in” might entail is unclear and many Russia watchers suspect Putin has not made up his mind. Ukrainian leaders say it is unhelpful to distinguish between a full-bore invasion and a more limited land grab in eastern and southeastern Ukraine, perhaps with Russia seizing Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and Odessa on the Black Sea.

“Speaking of minor and full incursions or full invasion, you cannot be half-aggressive,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday.

Whatever Putin decides to do, he has the forces in place for a major attack and could quickly ramp up his forces for a deeper assault on Ukraine, say Western officials. Russia began massing troops along the borders with Ukraine last year and by December around 100,000 had been deployed, according to U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence assessments. 

 

Artillery, advanced weapons systems and armor have also been deployed, and so, too, have field hospitals and the logistics needed to support tactical battle groups. 

Western military officials estimate Russia would need around 175,000 troops to mount a huge assault and some Ukrainian intelligence officials suggest that number may have been reached. Their U.S. counterparts say the force numbers are still below 175,000. But Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, said Thursday that Putin had “plans in place to increase that force even more on very short notice.” 

 

Midweek the Kremlin was reported to have moved some forces within 30 kilometers of Ukraine’s border in Belarus. The Kremlin says the forces are taking part in joint military drills with their Belarusian allies, but that places a sizable Russian force just 80 kilometers from the Ukrainian capital. It is large enough to cut off the bulk of Ukraine’s land forces, which are stationed along the frontlines in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. 

The Russian military has overwhelming superiority over Ukraine’s armed forces. Ukraine has around 209,000 troops on active service compared to Russia’s 900,000; and Ukraine’s reserve forces number 900,000, while Russia has 2 million. 

 

Ukraine’s annual military expenditure is $4.3 billion, while Russia’s spending is $43.2 billion. Russia has 2,840 tanks compared to Ukraine’s 858; and 4,648 artillery pieces compared to 1,818. The massive advantage continues when it comes to combat aircraft — 1,160 compared to 125. All the figures come from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British-based research organization that publishes an annual report on the composition of global military forces. 

If the Kremlin does decide to attack, the operation at its most limited would likely be a repeat of 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and seized Donetsk and Luhansk, using mainly armed proxies. “Russian forces could expand the fighting in Donbass to draw Ukraine into a conventional conflict,” warned Neil Melvin of the Royal United Services Institute, a defense policy group in London.

Others assess Putin’s ambitions may be bigger.

“Putin has begun exploring coercive options beyond the annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbass, neither of which has given him what he wants,” according to Michael Kimmage and Liana Fix of the German Marshall Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization.

Their assessment: “Perhaps war is the course Putin has already chosen. If so, it cannot be a minor war. A minimal objective would be to topple the Ukrainian government — not necessarily through overt military force — and to install a puppet leader. A more ambitious objective would be to divide the country in two, with the line between Russia and a rump Ukrainian state one of Putin’s choosing. The most expansive goal would be to conquer Ukraine entirely and then either to occupy it or to demand that its independence be negotiated on Putin’s terms.” 

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‘Minor Incursion’ Into Ukraine by Russia Could Complicate West’s Response

Short of an all-out invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin could take less dramatic action in Ukraine that would vastly complicate a U.S. and allied response. He might carry out what President Joe Biden called a “minor incursion” — perhaps a cyberattack — leaving the U.S. and Europe divided on the type and severity of economic sanctions to impose on Moscow and ways to increase support for Kyiv.

Biden drew widespread criticism for saying Wednesday that retaliating for Russian aggression in Ukraine would depend on the details. “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do,” he said.

Biden and top administration officials worked Thursday to clean up his comments. Biden stressed that if “any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion” and it would be met with a “severe and coordinated economic response.”

But even if the “minor incursion” remark was seen as a gaffe, it touched on a potentially problematic issue: While the U.S. and allies agree on a strong response to a Russian invasion, it’s unclear how they would respond to Russian aggression that falls short of that, such as a cyberattack or boosted support for pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was among those expressing concern about Biden’s “minor incursion” remark.

“We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones,” he tweeted.

‘Deeply troubling’

Complaints came quickly that Biden had made clear to Putin where and how to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies, by using only a portion of the large military force he has assembled near Ukraine’s borders to take limited action. Russian officials have said they have no intention of invading Ukraine, but the deployment of a large combat force along its borders, estimated at 100,000 troops, has raised fears of a crippling land war.

“Deeply troubling and dangerous,” Representative Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican and a crucial ally of Democrats on some issues, tweeted about Biden’s remark.

 

“A green light for Putin,” said Republican Representative Mike Garcia of California, one of many to use that phrase.

Among the possibilities for limited Russian military action: Putin could move much of the Russian ground force away from the border but further bolster the separatists who control the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. That conflict has killed more than 14,000 people in nearly eight years of fighting.

Biden noted Thursday that “Russia has a long history of using measures other than overt military action to carry out aggression — paramilitary tactics, so-called gray zone attacks and actions by Russian soldiers not wearing Russian uniforms.”

European allies have largely been united with the United States in demanding that Putin not move farther into Ukrainian territory and promising a tough response if he does. But the allies appear not to have united on what political and financial penalties to enact, or even what would trigger a response.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “any kind of incursion into Ukraine on any scale whatever” would be a disaster for Russia and for the world, but he didn’t specify a Western response. Likewise, his defense minister, Ben Wallace, told Parliament, “There is a package of international sanctions ready to go that will make sure that the Russian government is punished if it crosses the line,” but he didn’t define that line, other than warning against “any destabilizing action” by Russia in Ukraine.

 

Asked Thursday about Biden’s comment on a “minor incursion,” a French diplomat insisted it didn’t prompt any rethinking of the “European consensus” that any new attack on Ukrainian sovereignty would have “massive and severe consequences.” But the diplomat, commenting after meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken as he conferred with European counterparts on the Ukraine crisis, wouldn’t elaborate on those consequences or what would constitute such an attack.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss his government’s take.

Putin faced limited international consequences after he seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014 and backed the separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. His central demand to the West is that NATO provide a guarantee that Ukraine never be allowed to join the alliance — a demand that Washington and its allies have roundly rejected.

Sanctions come with risks

Biden on Wednesday noted that coordinating a sanctions strategy is further complicated by the fact that penalties aimed at crippling Russian banking would also have a negative effect on the economies of the United States and Europe.

“And so, I got to make sure everybody is on the same page as we move along,” he said.

Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the leaders of a bipartisan congressional delegation that visited Ukraine last weekend, said she had seen no signs of a rift with the Europeans over how far Russia would have to go to trigger a response.

In an analysis of the Ukraine crisis, Seth Jones, a political scientist, and Philip Wasielewski, a former CIA paramilitary officer, cited several possible scenarios short of an all-out Russian invasion. This could include Putin sending conventional troops into the Donbass breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as “peacekeepers” and refusing to withdraw them until peace talks end successfully, they wrote in their analysis last week for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“All other options bring major international sanctions and economic hardship and would be counterproductive to the goal of weakening NATO or decoupling the United States from its commitments to European security,” they wrote.

Among those other options: seizing Ukrainian territory as far west as the Dnieper River, which runs south through Kyiv to the Black Sea near the Crimean Peninsula. Putin might seek to use this as a bargaining chip or incorporate this territory fully into the Russian Federation, Jones and Wasielewski wrote. 

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UN Weekly Roundup Jan. 15-21, 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 calls for action in 2022 on urgent challenges 

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Friday that the world is facing “a five-alarm fire” that requires urgent and united global action to be extinguished. 

Guterres sees opening in resolving Ethiopia conflict 

Secretary-General Guterres expressed hope that there could be an opening to resolve the more than year-long conflict in northern Ethiopia, which has left millions on the brink of starvation. 

Concerns grow over Taliban treatment of Afghan women 

A group of United Nations human rights experts alleged the Islamist Taliban government was attempting to steadily erase Afghanistan’s women and girls from public life. 

In brief 

The U.N. Security Council met January 20 to discuss North Korea’s recent missile launches, which violate council resolutions. Among the rockets fired, Pyongyang says it successfully test-fired some hypersonic missiles. Read more about these sophisticated rockets here: 

The South Pacific island nation of Tonga was hit by a tsunami on January 15, after an underwater volcanic eruption. The United Nations and neighboring countries have been trying to assess the population’s needs and send aid but are facing challenges. 

The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution on January 20 against Holocaust denial. The resolution calls on states as well as social media companies to take active measures against denial and distortion of the Holocaust. Israel and Germany worked together to draft and guide the resolution through the assembly, where 114 countries co-sponsored it. It was adopted on the 80th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, the gathering of Nazi government officials that planned the rounding up and extermination of Jews and other minorities. 

The General Assembly also adopted a call for an Olympic truce. The winter Olympics get under way next month in Beijing, but the Games have been controversial because of China’s dismal human rights record against Uyghur and other minorities. Despite that, U.N. chief Guterres has said he will attend the opening ceremony at the invitation of the International Olympic Committee, saying the Games “must be an instrument of peace in the world.” 

Some good news 

COVAX delivered its 1 billionth global dose of COVID-19 vaccine as part of a shipment of 1.1 million doses that arrived in Rwanda this week. 

Quote of note

“I am convinced it will not happen, and I strongly hope to be right.” 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at a news conference on January 21, when asked about rising tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border and whether he thinks Moscow will invade. 

What we are watching next week 

The mandate for the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) will expire on January 31, when a four-month technical extension agreed to by the Security Council runs out. Decisions need to be made about the mission’s mandate and leadership in order to help the country hold postponed elections later this year. But council unity is lacking, and negotiations for a new resolution could be difficult. 

Did you know? 

The U.N. Security Council met for the first time on January 17, 1946, in London: 

 

 

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Little Progress Apparent in Ukraine Standoff, but Talks to Continue

The United States and Russia appeared to make little progress in the increasingly high-stakes standoff over Ukraine, each side leaving the latest round of high-level talks Friday promising only to keep talking.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met for about an hour and a half in Geneva, with both officials refusing to budge on core demands.

Blinken, in particular, described the impasse in stark terms.

“If any of Russia’s military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion. It will be met with a swift, severe and a united response from the United States and our partners and allies,” Blinken told reporters after the meeting.

The West is demanding that Russia pull its troops and weapons away from the Ukraine border while Moscow is pushing for NATO to curtail its operations in eastern and central Europe and insisting that the Western military alliance reject Ukraine’s membership bid.

Blinken said the U.S. and its allies are prepared to address Russia’s concerns, though not without conditions.

“The United States, our allies and partners are prepared to pursue possible means of addressing them in a spirit of reciprocity, which means, simply put, that Russia must also address our concerns,” Blinken said. 

“There are several steps we can take, all of us, Russia included, to increase transparency, to reduce risks, to advance arms control, to build trust,” Blinken added. 

U.S. officials say Russia has amassed nearly 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, including in Belarus and in occupied Crimea. Blinken warned earlier this month that Moscow could “mobilize twice that number on very short order.” 

“They have a significant force posture there and that hasn’t decreased. In fact, it has continued to increase. And we remain concerned about that,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Friday. 

Despite such concerns from the U.S. and its allies, Lavrov on Friday sought to paint Ukraine as the aggressor. 

“No one is hiding the fact that weapons are being handed over to Ukraine; that hundreds of military instructors are flocking to Ukraine right now,” Lavrov said.

Still, the Russian foreign minister called the talks “constructive and useful.”

Lavrov also said talks would continue over the Kremlin’s security demands and that both Russia and the U.S. had committed to put their concerns in writing for further discussion.

Both Lavrov and Blinken said there is a possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden could talk, if both sides feel it might be helpful.

However, some of Russia’s renewed demands drew a sharper response from U.S. allies and partners, including NATO.

“NATO will not renounce our ability to protect and defend each other, including with the presence of troops in the eastern part of the alliance,” spokesperson Oana Lungescu said in a statement Friday, rejecting demands that NATO pull troops from Bulgaria and Romania.

“We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense,” she said.

The U.S. also sought to reassure allies, including Kyiv.

Blinken “reaffirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” in a phone call Friday with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, the State Department said.

Amid the tensions and political maneuvering, the head of the United Nations appealed for calm.

“It is clear that my message is that there should not be any military intervention in this context,” said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “I hope that this, of course, will not happen in the present circumstances. I am convinced it will not happen and I strongly hope to be right.” 

VOA’s Margaret Besheer and Wayne Lee contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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WHO Recommends Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine for 5-11-Year-olds

A World Health Organization ((WHO)) advisory panel Friday recommended extending the use of a smaller dose of the Pfizer – BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to children ages 5 to 11.

The recommendation follows a meeting this week by the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts ((SAGE)) on immunization to evaluate the company’s vaccine. The WHO had previously recommended the vaccine for use in people ages 12 years and older.

During a virtual briefing Friday, SAGE Chairman Alejandro Cravioto told reporters the committee said the 5-11 age group should be a low priority for vaccination except for those children with underlying medical conditions who are in the high priority group.

The recommended dosage for the younger population is 10 micrograms instead of 30 micrograms.

Cravioto said the panel is also recommending that booster doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine should be administered to adults 4 to 6 months after receiving an original series of shots. He said older adults along with health and other front-line workers should be prioritized for the boosters.

U.S. and European health and drug regulators approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for young children and for boosters late last year.

Some information for this report was provided by Reuters. 

 

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Norway Says Taliban Team Expected in Oslo for Aid Talks

A Taliban delegation is expected to hold talks with Norwegian officials and Afghan civil society representatives in Oslo next week, the Norwegian foreign ministry said Friday.

The visit is scheduled from Sunday to Tuesday, and “the Taliban will meet representatives of the Norwegian authorities and officials from a number of allied countries,” for talks on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and human rights, the ministry said.

The ministry did not specify which allies would attend, but Norwegian newspaper VG said they would include Britain, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy and the United States.

“We are extremely concerned about the grave situation in Afghanistan, where millions of people are facing a full-blown humanitarian disaster,” said Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt.

“In order to be able to help the civilian population in Afghanistan, it is essential that both the international community and Afghans from various parts of society engage in dialogue with the Taliban,” Huitfeldt added.

Stressing that Norway would be “clear about our expectations,” particularly on “girls’ education and human rights,” Huitfeldt said the meetings would “not represent a legitimization or recognition of the Taliban.”

“But we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster,” Huitfeldt said.

The Taliban swept back to power in Afghanistan last summer as international troops withdrew after a two-decade presence. A U.S.-led invasion in late 2001 toppled the Taliban in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated drastically since August. International aid came to a sudden halt and the United States has frozen $9.5 billion (8.4 billion euros) in assets in the Afghan central bank.

Famine now threatens 23 million Afghans, or 55% of the population, according to the United Nations, which says it needs $5 billion from donor countries this year to address the humanitarian crisis in the country. 

 

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TotalEnergies to Leave Myanmar Over Human Rights Abuses

French oil giant TotalEnergies on Friday said it would withdraw from Myanmar over “worsening” human rights abuses committed since the country’s military took power in a February 2021 coup.

“The situation, in terms of human rights and more generally the rule of law, which have kept worsening in Myanmar… has led us to reassess the situation and no longer allows TotalEnergies to make a sufficiently positive contribution in the country,” the company said.

Total will withdraw from its Yadana gas field in the Andaman Sea, which provides electricity to the local Burmese and Thai population, six months at the latest after the expiry of its contractual period.

The company said it had not identified any means to sanction the military junta without avoiding stopping gas production and ensuing payments to the military-controlled Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE).

Around 30% of the gas produced at Yadana is sold to the MOGE for domestic use, providing about half of the largest city Yangon’s electricity supply, according to Total.

International diplomatic pressure and sanctions have been building against Myanmar’s military junta since last year’s coup ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The European Union has imposed targeted sanctions on the Myanmar military, its leaders and entities, while Norwegian telecoms operator Telenor this week sold its stake in a Burmese digital payments service over the coup.

More than 1,400 civilians have been killed as the military cracks down on dissent, according to a local monitoring group, and numerous anti-junta militias have sprung up around the country.

Suu Kyi this month was convicted of three criminal charges and sentenced to four years in prison and now faces five new corruption charges. 

 

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Biden: Any Russian Troop Movement into Ukraine Would Trigger Severe Action

U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to clear up any misunderstanding surrounding remarks made Wednesday, saying he has made very clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that any movement of Russian troops across Ukraine’s border will be treated as an invasion and will trigger severe consequences. VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports.

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US Charges 4 Belarus Officials With Air Piracy in Reporter’s Arrest

U.S. prosecutors charged four Belarusian government officials Thursday with aircraft piracy for allegedly using a bomb threat ruse to divert a Ryanair flight last year in order to arrest an opposition journalist.

The charges, announced by federal prosecutors in New York, recounted how a regularly scheduled passenger plane traveling between Athens, Greece, and Vilnius, Lithuania, on May 23 was diverted to Minsk, Belarus, by air traffic control authorities in Belarus.

“Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have cooperated to keep passenger airplanes safe. The defendants shattered those standards by diverting an airplane to further the improper purpose of repressing dissent and free speech,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a news release announcing the charges.

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the pilots that there was a bomb threat against the jetliner and ordered them to land in Minsk. The Belarusian military scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet in an apparent attempt to encourage the crew to comply with the orders of the flight controllers.

In August, President Joe Biden levied sanctions against Belarus on the one-year anniversary of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s election, in a vote the U.S. and international community said was fraught with irregularities.

The arrested journalist and activist, Raman Pratasevich, ran a popular messaging app that helped organize mass demonstrations against Lukashenko. The 26-year-old Pratasevich left Belarus in 2019 and faced charges there of inciting riots.

Lukashenko was awarded a sixth term leading the Eastern European nation last year. Widespread belief that the vote was stolen triggered mass protests in Belarus that led to increased repressions by Lukashenko’s regime on protesters, dissidents and independent media. More than 35,000 people were arrested, and thousands were beaten and jailed.

Those charged in court papers were identified as Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, director general of Belaeronavigatsia Republican Unitary Air Navigation Services Enterprise, the Belarusian state air navigation authority; Oleg Kazyuchits, deputy director general of Belaeronavigatsia; and two Belarusian state security agents whose full identities weren’t known to prosecutors. 

 

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Macron’s Call for EU Talks With Kremlin Unnerves European Allies

French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for the European Union to pursue its own talks with the Kremlin is raising fears of a split developing in the Western response to the threat of a Russian invasion in Ukraine.

Macron has struggled in the past to convince his EU partners of the need for Europe to take regional security into its own hands and depend less on the United States. His speech to European lawmakers Wednesday, though, in which he called for the bloc to negotiate its own security and stability pact with the Kremlin, was welcomed by Russian state-owned media.

But some Central European and Baltic leaders said Macron’s comments were ill-timed and risk encouraging the Kremlin to try to play the U.S. and EU against each other, and cause a divide as the U.S. calls for Western unity.

Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, said he was at a loss to understand what Macron means about coming up with “a new order of security and stability.”

“These next few months, rather, seem to call for firm defense of the existing post-1989 order,” he tweeted.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said Russia could “attack at very short notice.” Also, there have been reports that Russia has moved Iskander short-range ballistic missiles to the border, placing them within striking range of Kyiv. Russia has deployed an estimated 127,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders, according to Ukrainian intelligence assessments.

 

Some Russian detachments currently in Belarus, a Russian ally, have been moved closer to the Ukrainian border, according to the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a group of independent Russian researchers, who say Russian military hardware has been spotted in Belarus’s Gomel region, a short distance from Ukraine. Russian officials deny they have any intention to attack Ukraine and that Russian forces are in Belarus for joint military exercises.

In his speech before the European Parliament, Macron said: “It’s good for Europe and the U.S. to coordinate, but it is vital that Europe has its own dialogue with Russia.” He said Europeans should build a new framework “between us, Europeans, share it with our allies in NATO, and propose it for negotiation to Russia,” he told EU lawmakers.

Additionally, Macron emphasized that borders should be inviolable, and that the EU must not allow Russia to veto Ukraine or any other state from joining NATO, a key Russian demand.

Macron’s floating of an EU security pact with Russia is “exactly the wrong thing to do,” tweeted Edward Lucas, of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a U.S.-based think tank, and author of the book “The New Cold War.”

EU officials say they were blindsided by Macron’s call for Europeans to conduct their own dialogue with the Kremlin that’s distinct from the United States. Western diplomats said the French leader had not consulted other national leaders before the speech. On Thursday, senior EU officials sought to reassure Washington.

 

Macron aides also scrambled to walk back some of the French leader’s comments, with one saying Paris is very much in favor of close coordination with the U.S. And he said Macron’s call for a new security framework would help reinforce “the unity of the NATO alliance.”

The EU has not been directly involved in the most substantive talks with the Kremlin over Ukraine and a series of other Russian demands, including an end to NATO enlargement and a rollback of any NATO military presence in the former Communist states of central Europe that have joined the Western alliance.

Russian officials held meetings last week with the U.S. and with NATO, though EU representatives participated in a meeting of the 57 states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Twenty-one of the EU’s 27 members also are NATO members.

Asked whether the European Commission backed Macron’s proposal for separate talks with Russia, a spokesperson said the EU was formulating is strategy “within the framework of the ongoing contacts and coordination, both within the EU and between the EU and the transatlantic partners such as the U.S., Canada, NATO and the OSCE.”

EU and NATO allies have been unanimous in rejecting Russian demands for Ukraine never to join the Western alliance, but there have been signs of divisions among them about how the West should seek to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine and what steps to take if Russia does so.

 

Current and former Western diplomats have told VOA that while there’s broad agreement among Western powers about sanctioning Russia in the event of a military incursion, there is not yet a final deal on the details.

And there have been disagreements between NATO allies on re-arming Ukraine, with Baltic NATO allies Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia pushing for weeks to be allowed to transfer American-made lethal weapons, including anti-armor and ground-to-air missiles, to Ukraine. Midweek they received a go-ahead from the U.S. State Department. But Germany is opposed to large arms transfers to Ukraine, fearing it risks escalating the East-West confrontation.

U.S. President Joe Biden hinted Wednesday at the challenge of keeping all the NATO allies united. Biden reiterated warnings that Russia would face devastating Western sanctions, if an attack went ahead. But at a press conference in Washington, he also said: “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and we [in NATO] end up fighting about what we should do, not do.”

Ukrainian officials reacted angrily to Biden’s comments, saying they fear the U.S. leader was inadvertently giving Russian leader Vladimir Putin the green light to mount an incursion short of a full-scale invasion. Ukrainian officials said they were surprised Biden distinguished between incursion and invasion.

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told the Wall Street Journal: “Speaking of minor and full incursions or full invasion, you cannot be half-aggressive. You’re either aggressive or you’re not aggressive.” He added: “We should not give Putin the slightest chance to play with quasi-aggression or small incursion operations. This aggression was there since 2014. This is the fact.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki issued a clarification amid the Ukrainian backlash, saying, “President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies.” 

At a joint press conference in Berlin on Thursday, neither Secretary Blinken nor his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock directly addressed Macron’s comments. Both foreign ministers emphasized the intensity of consultations between all Western allies

“The coordination and consultation amongst us allies couldn’t be more intensive than it is,” said Baerbock.

Blinken added: “All of these engagements are part of wide-ranging, ongoing consultations with our European allies and partners — more than a hundred in recent weeks alone, including with Ukraine, NATO, the European Union, the OSCE, the Bucharest Nine, as well as many bilateral conversations with individual countries — to ensure that we are speaking and acting together with one voice when it comes to Russia.”

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