DarkSide seeks Robin Hood-like image with ransomware attacks

DarkSide seeks Robin Hood-like image with ransomware attacks

Emsisoft estimates cyberattacks cost between $5 billion and $20 billion

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An employee of Global Cyber Security Company Group-IB develops a computer code in an office in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin) ** FILE ** more >

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By Ryan Lovelace

The Washington Times

Thursday, May 13, 2021

The first time many Americans heard of DarkSide — a media-savvy outfit of cyber villains who are attempting to cultivate a Robin Hood-like heroic outlaw image — was when it hacked Colonial Pipeline, which led to the disrupted gasoline supply on the East Coast.

It is unlikely to be Americans’ last encounter with this gang that President Biden said is based in Russia but is not doing dirty work for the Kremlin.

DarkSide is among scores of cybercriminal organizations that span the globe and have goofy names that belie their nefarious and dangerous trade. These denizens of the dark web include state-backed threats such as Cozy Bear in Russia and Hafnium in China, as well as others like Babuk that allegedly hit the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.

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Part of what makes DarkSide stand out is its effort to craft a public image as a vigilante that robs the powerful to benefit the powerless.

“No matter how bad you think our work is, we are pleased to know that we helped change someone’s life,” the group wrote on the dark web as observed by the antivirus software company Emsisoft.

DarkSide published a list of entities it says its operators will not attack, including places such as schools and hospitals, and it has previously announced donations in bitcoin to charities, namely Children International and the Water Project, according to Emsisoft.

Such actions do not make its crimes any less painful for victims, but DarkSide’s tactics include a public relations component designed to recast its cartoonish name as a force for good.

DarkSide uses a ransomware-as-a-service model to extort money from victims. Its malicious software infects a system and then holds data hostage. The group then receives a cut of the ransom payment made by the victims to regain access to their data.

DarkSide raked in upwards of $30 million since it started operating last year, according to a Forbes estimate. The group’s partners get 25% of ransoms under $500,000 and collect 10% of ransoms exceeding $5 million, according to FireEye, the cybersecurity company that has assisted Colonial Pipeline per reports.

On Thursday, there were unconfirmed reports that Colonial Pipeline paid a ransom totaling $5 million. Both a business advisory firm for the company and Mr. Biden declined to comment on the purported payment.

Emsisoft’s Brett Callow said if the pipeline did pay up, that spells bad news for stopping the proliferation of ransomware attacks.

“If organizations didn’t pay, the attacks would stop. It’s as simple as that,” Mr. Callow said in an email. “And ransomware is indeed a massive problem. While high-profile attacks on government and large enterprises get the headlines, it’s small businesses that suffer most. There were more than 23,000 ransomware incidents in the U.S. last year, 7,000 of which involved home users and 16,000 private-sector companies and public organizations.”

Emsisoft estimates those cyber incidents cost between $5 billion and $20 billion when factoring in the cost of business interruptions.

DarkSide is far from the only ransomware family upending Americans’ daily lives.

The Babuk cyberattack on the D.C. police escalated on Thursday with the cyberattackers claiming to post 250 gigabytes of internal files they stole from the police department including data on criminal gangs and human resource files.

“This is kind of part of the formalization of cybercrime,” said Hank Schless, senior manager at information technology security company Lookout. “It’s no longer just a guy sitting in his basement saying, ‘I’m going to hack the D.C. police.’ It’s groups carrying out specific attacks with … repeatable blueprints.”

Mr. Schless said he thought there might prove to be an overlap between the cyberattackers using DarkSide and the ones using Babuk.

Major threats that could cripple a nation in the short term and give long-term advantages to America’s competitors reside outside the U.S. borders, particularly in Russia and China.

The U.S. government identified Cozy Bear, also known as the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service and Advanced Persistent Threat 29, as responsible for the hack of SolarWinds computer network management software. Mr. Biden imposed sanctions on Russia in response to the hack, which compromised nine federal agencies, but the full extent of the damage is yet to be determined.

Cozy Bear’s hack gave it the ability to “spy on or potentially disrupt more than 16,000 computer systems worldwide,” according to a White House fact sheet.

FireEye has assessed the Russian hackers to be one of the “most capable and evolved” threat groups. Its methods have included using cloud storage services and social media sites, including Twitter, to relay commands and extract data, per FireEye.

Russia is not alone in large-scale cyber espionage fixated on the U.S. Hafnium is an emergent threat identified by Microsoft as state-sponsored cyberattackers based in China that successfully hacked Microsoft Exchange servers.

The hack, disclosed in March, gave the hackers access to email accounts and the ability to install malware to ensure long-term access to their targets’ digital environments, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft said Hafnium sought to exfiltrate information from infectious disease researchers, law firms, higher educational institutions, defense contractors, think tanks and non-governmental organizations through the hack, which relied on leased virtual private servers inside the U.S.

Some villains breaching America’s defenses are operating at the direction of foreign adversaries. Others are given safe harbor by foreign foes.

To maintain their criminal enterprise, cyberattackers may choose to make compromises to survive. For example, DarkSide does not encrypt data in its attacks if it detects systems using certain languages, such as Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian, among several others, according to Mr. Callow.

Deterring nation-states is difficult and the attribution needed to effectively shame cyberattackers is often messy. The federal government is intent on fighting back, however, and Mr. Biden issued a cybersecurity executive order Wednesday seeking to bolster defenses of U.S. digital networks and cloud storage.

The Justice Department recently created a ransomware task force to review the issue with input from its criminal division, national security division and U.S. Attorney offices.

In January, the Justice Department disrupted NetWalker ransomware, which the department said found victims in hospitals, schools and companies. NetWalker also operates on a ransomware-as-a-service model with developers and affiliates.

Delivering a blow to cybercrime, the Justice Department recently indicted Sebastien Vachon-Desjardins, a Canadian national who allegedly netted more than $27.6 million through NetWalker ransomware schemes.

The department also announced seizing more than $450,000 in cryptocurrency from ransomware payments as part of its actions against NetWalker.

Future moves against cyberattackers likely will require international cooperation. The Justice Department, for example, partnered with Bulgaria in the NetWalker investigation.

Mr. Biden on Thursday said his administration is working on international standards to get countries to crack down on cybercriminals within their borders.

• Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.

Number of injured in Russia school shooting rises to 23

Number of injured in Russia school shooting rises to 23

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People pray next to the grave of Elvira Ignatieva, an English language teacher who was killed at a school shooting on Tuesday in Kazan, Russia, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Russian officials say a gunman attacked a school in the city … more >

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By Daria Litvinova

Associated Press

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) — Twenty-three people remained hospitalized on Wednesday following a school shooting in the Russian city of Kazan which killed nine people, including seven youngsters.

All 23 were in stable condition Wednesday morning, the authorities said, though at least eight people — three adults and five children — were to be transferred to Moscow for treatment.

A gunman on Tuesday morning attacked a school in Kazan, a city 430 miles (700 kilometers) east of Moscow, sending students hiding under their desks or running out of the building. Nine people – seven students and two school employees – were killed.

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The attacker, identified only as a 19-year-old, was arrested. The authorities gave no immediate details on a motive but said he legally owned a firearm.

Wednesday was declared a day of mourning in Tatarstan, the Russian region of which Kazan is the capital, with funerals of the victims expected to take place.

Russian media said the gunman was a former student at the school who called himself “a god” on his account on the messaging app Telegram and promised to “kill a large amount of biomass” on the morning of the shooting.

Attacks on schools are rare in Russia, and President Vladimir Putin reacted by ordering the head of the country’s National Guard to revise regulations on the types of weapons allowed for civilian use.

The deadliest school attack in Russia took place in 2004 in the city of Beslan, when Islamic militants took more than 1,000 people hostage for several days. The siege ended in gunfire and explosions, leaving 334 dead, more than half of them children.

In 2018, a teenager killed 20 people at his vocational school before killing himself in Kerch, a city in the Russian-annexed peninsula of Crimea. In the wake of that attack, Putin also ordered authorities to tighten control over gun ownership. But most of the proposed measures were turned down by the parliament or the government.

Russian lawmaker Alexander Khinshtein said on Telegram that the suspect in the Kazan attack received a permit for a shotgun less than two weeks ago and that the school had no security aside from a panic button. Authorities did not specify what kind of gun the attacker used.

Officials in Kazan said the school had a doorperson for security during day time, and she was the one who hit the panic button, alerting law enforcement about the attack.

Russian officials promised to pay families of those killed 1 million rubles (roughly $13,500) each and said that the payments will be wired by the end of day Wednesday.

Colonial Pipeline, hit by cyberattack, may be back up and running by end of week

Colonial Pipeline, hit by cyberattack, may be back up and running by end of week

White House preparing for 'contingencies' after ransomware assault on nation's energy supply

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Colonial Pipeline storage tanks are seen in Woodbridge, N.J., Monday, May 10, 2021. Gasoline futures are ticking higher following a cyberextortion attempt on the Colonial Pipeline, a vital U.S. pipeline that carries fuel from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast. … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Colonial Pipeline may be back up and running by the end of the week, the pipeline’s operator said Monday, while Biden administration officials said they are preparing for “multiple possible contingencies” to deal with any major disruptions to the nation’s energy supply.

The massive pipeline, which delivers roughly 45% of all fuel used on the East Coast, has been offline since Friday after a ransomware attack by the criminal cyber gang DarkSide. As authorities and intelligence agencies investigate the assault, the Colonial Pipeline Company said it has a plan to gradually bring its system back online.

“While this situation remains fluid and continues to evolve, the Colonial operations team is executing a plan that involves an incremental process that will facilitate a return to service in a phased approach,” the company said in a statement. “This plan is based on a number of factors with safety and compliance driving our operational decisions, and the goal of substantially restoring operational service by the end of the week. The company will provide updates as restoration efforts progress.”

SEE ALSO: FBI names pipeline cyberattackers as company promises return

The federal government already has taken some steps to minimize disruptions to the nation’s energy supply, such as issuing hours-of-service exemptions for vehicles transporting fuel. White House officials said they’re preparing other steps.

“We are preparing for multiple possible contingencies because that’s our job,” Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, White House deputy national security adviser, told reporters Monday afternoon. 

Meanwhile, the FBI confirmed DarkSide’s involvement on Monday and White House officials later said that U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating potential “ties to any nation-state actors,” such as Russia. The hacker group is believed to be based in eastern Europe, possibly Russia, though top Russian officials on Monday denied any involvement. 

In its own statement, DarkSide stressed it is not affiliated with any government.

Still, administration officials said the U.S. is looking for any such connections.

“At this time, we assess DarkSide is a criminal actor, but that is certainly something our intelligence community is looking into,” said Anne Neuberger, White House deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technologies. 

Ukraine says 2 soldiers killed in east amid Russia tensions

Ukraine says 2 soldiers killed in east amid Russia tensions

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Left to right, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Belgium’s Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn and Foreign Minister of Netherlands Stephanus Blok lay flowers at the Memorial Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in Russian-Ukrainian War in … more >

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By YURAS KARMANAU

Associated Press

Friday, May 7, 2021

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – The Ukrainian military said Friday two soldiers were killed and another was wounded under fire from Russia-backed separatist rebels in the country’s east, where hostilities have increased sharply in recent months.

According to Ukraine‘s military, 36 soldiers have been killed in the east this year. Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists have been fighting in eastern Ukraine since 2014. More than 14,000 people have died in the conflict and efforts to negotiate a political settlement have stalled.

Russia, which claims it has no military presence in eastern Ukraine, fueled new tensions this year by massing troops and conducting large-scale military exercises near its border with Ukraine. The Russian troop buildup raised alarms in the West.

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On Thursday, foreign ministers from Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg visited the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine in a show of support and on Friday met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.

“Dialogue is a way forward because nobody has any interest to see … the situation escalating in Donbas. And the Benelux and the EU are convinced that dialogue are the way to a solution and conflict resolution,” Sophie Wilmes, Belgium’s deputy prime minister, told a news conference after the meeting with Kuleba.

Zelenskyy, according to a statement released by his office, thanked the foreign ministers for starting their visit to Ukraine with a trip to the east.

“I think it’s important not to know what is happening there in words, but to see everything with your own eyes. I know that you were in the town of Shchastya in the Luhansk region. You saw for yourself our attitude towards Donbas. We are investing in infrastructure,” Zelenskyy was quoted as saying.

The foreign ministers’ meeting with Zelenskyy comes a day after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the Ukraine president in Kyiv and reaffirmed Washington’s support for Ukraine in the wake of the heightened tensions with Russia.

Both Zelenskyy and Blinken noted that while Russia has pulled back some of its forces from the border with Ukraine, a significant number of troops and equipment is still there, posing a threat.

Talks ‘intensify’ on bringing U.S. back to Iran nuclear deal

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Russia’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mikhail Ulyanov, has a cigarette break outside of the “Grand Hotel Wien” where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, Friday, May 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner) more >

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By David Rising and Philipp Jenne

Associated Press

Friday, May 7, 2021

VIENNA (AP) — World powers held a fourth round of high-level talks Friday in Austria aimed at bringing the United States back into the nuclear deal with Iran, with both sides signaling a willingness to work out the major stumbling blocks.

The talks began in early April and Russian delegate Mikhail Ulyanov tweeted following Friday’s meeting that “the participants agreed on the need to intensify the process.”

“The delegations seem to be ready to stay in Vienna as long as necessary to achieve the goal,” he wrote.

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The U.S. pulled out of the landmark 2015 deal in 2018 after then-President Donald Trump said the pact needed to be renegotiated. The deal had promised Iran economic incentives in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, and the Trump administration reimposed heavy sanctions on the Islamic republic in an unsuccessful attempt to bring Tehran into new talks.

Iran reacted by steadily increasing its violations of the deal, which is intended to prevent the country from obtaining nuclear weapons. Iran began enriching uranium to a greater purity, stockpiling more than allowed and beginning to use more advanced centrifuges in an attempt to pressure the world powers remaining in the deal – Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China – for economic relief.

U.S. President Biden says he wants to rejoin the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, but that Iran needs to return to compliance.

Iran, which insists it does not want to produce a nuclear bomb, has said it is prepared to reverse all of its violations but that Washington must remove all sanctions imposed under Trump.

On the other side is the question of what Iran’s return to compliance would look like. Delegates to the Vienna talks concede, for example, that Iranian nuclear scientists cannot unlearn the knowledge they acquired in the last three years, but it is not clear whether Iran’s new centrifuges would need to be destroyed, mothballed and locked away, or simply taken offline.

Because the U.S. is currently out of the deal, there was no American representation at the talks. Diplomats involved are shuttling between the Iranian side and a delegation from Washington elsewhere in Vienna.

Between the high-level meetings, expert groups have been meeting to try and come up with solutions to the outstanding issues.

Ahead of the talks, a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. position, said Washington has laid out the concessions it’s prepared to make and that success or failure now depends on Iran making the political decision to accept those concessions and to return to compliance with the accord.

The official said it remains possible to reach an agreement before Iran’s June presidential election, which some believe are a complicating factor in the discussions.

Iran’s delegate to the talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, told his country’s state-run IRNA news agency late Thursday that his team was trying to reach an agreement as soon as possible but would not act in haste and would act in Iran’s national interests.

“We are on a specified path about which there are, fortunately, agreements, but there are serious obstacles in the way as well,” Araghchi said.

Heading into the talks, Ulyanov tweeted that he saw positive signs from the Iranian minister’s statements.

“The head of the Iranian delegation is cautious in his assessment of the current state of affairs at the Vienna talks (very similar to assessments of the US colleagues),” he tweeted. “But both #Iran and #US refrain from pessimistic conclusions. This seems to be not a bad sign.”

_____

Matthew Lee in Washington and Amir Vahdat in Tehran contributed to this story. Rising reported from Berlin.

More than 200 NGOs call for UN arms embargo on Myanmar

More than 200 NGOs call for UN arms embargo on Myanmar

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – More than 200 global organizations urged the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar, saying the time for statements has passed and immediate action is needed to help protect peaceful protesters against military rule and other opponents of the junta.

A statement by the non-governmental organizations said the military “has demonstrated a callous disregard for human life” since their Feb. 1 coup, killing at least 769 people including 51 children as young as six years old and detaining several thousand activists, journalists, civil servants and politicians. Hundreds of others have disappeared, it said.

“No government should sell a single bullet to the junta under these circumstances,” the NGOs said. “Imposing a global arms embargo on Myanmar is the minimum necessary step the Security Council should take in response to the military’s escalating violence.”

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The organizations urged the United Kingdom, the Security Council nation in charge of drafting resolutions on Myanmar, “to begin negotiations on a resolution authorizing an arms embargo as soon as possible.” This “will demonstrate to the junta that there will be no more business as usual,” they said.

Myanmar for five decades had languished under strict military rule that led to international isolation and sanctions. As the generals loosened their grip, culminating in Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise to leadership in 2015 elections, the international community responded by lifting most sanctions and pouring investment into the country. The coup took place following November elections, which Suu Kyi’s party won overwhelmingly and the military contests as fraudulent.

The 15-member Security Council has issued several statements since the coup demanding the restoration of democracy and the release of all detainees including Suu Kyi, strongly condemning the use of violence against peaceful protesters and the deaths of hundreds of civilians and calling on the military “to exercise utmost restraint” and “on all sides to refrain from violence.”

It has also stressed “the need to fully respect human rights and to pursue dialogue and reconciliation,” and backed diplomatic efforts by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and U.N. special envoy Christine Schraner Burgener to find a solution.

“The time for statements has passed,” the NGOs said. “The Security Council should take its consensus on Myanmar to a new level and agree on immediate and substantive action.”

They said a U.N. global arms embargo against Myanmar should bar the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer of “all weapons, munitions, and other military-related equipment, including dual-use goods such as vehicles and communications and surveillance equipment.” Training, intelligence and other military assistance should also be banned, they said.

Amnesty International’s Senior U.N. Advocate Lawrence Moss told a virtual news conference launching the statement that many countries supply weapons to Myanmar.

Citing Amnesty’s research and information from other trusted sources, he said Russia has been supplying combat aircraft and attack helicopters to Myanmar while China has been supplying combat aircraft, naval weapons, armored vehicles, surveillance drones and aiding Myanmar’s indigenous naval industry. In addition, he said, Chinese weapons, small arms and armored vehicles have been diverted to ethnic armed groups, especially the Kachin Independence Army.

Moss said Ukraine has also supplied Myanmar’s military with armored vehicles and is involved in the joint production of armored vehicles in Myanmar, Turkey has provided shotguns and shotgun cartridges, India has provided armored vehicles, troop carriers and naval equipment including a submarine with torpedoes, and Serbia has recorded transfers of small quantities of artillery systems and small arms.

Israel had supplied frigates and armored vehicles to Myanmar along with police training but that stopped in 2017 though it may still be providing surveillance equipment, Moss said. South Korea transferred an amphibious assault system in 2019 but announced a halt to further military exports after the coup.

Human Rights Watch’s U.N. Director Louis Charbonneau said: “This is the beginning of what we hope will be an escalation of advocacy to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Security Council, wringing its hands, sticking with inaction and the occasional statement of concern.”

But getting the Security Council to adopt a resolution authorizing an arms embargo faces an uphill struggle, especially with China and Russia’s general opposition to sanctions.

China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun, whose country holds the council presidency this month, told a news conference Monday that China is “a friendly neighbor of Myanmar” and is putting more emphasis on diplomatic efforts. It is “not in favor of imposing sanctions” which may hinder diplomacy and lead to suffering of ordinary people, Zhang said.

Amnesty’s Moss countered that an “arms embargo would not hurt the ordinary people of Myanmar in any way, shape or form… and I hope that China will consider that.”

Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, said Myanmar’s “murderous, military-led regime” shouldn’t be allowed to buy bombs or even “camouflage underwear” and “should be treated like the pariahs that they are.”

“I think all of us share concern that the country could become a failed state, armed conflict could intensify, and so an arms embargo now is also a kind of preventive against a refugee crisis that flows across borders in the region, and an armed conflict which serves nobody’s interests,” Adams said.

Myra Dahgaypaw, managing director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma who recalled fleeing from past military airstrikes, said an arms embargo won’t solve all the country’s problems but “it will significantly increase the safety of the people on the ground, including the ethnic and the religious minorities.”

“Today I just want to tell the U.N. Security Council that the people of Burma need your help, and they need it urgently,” she said. “Please don’t let the efforts, the struggle and the resilience of the people on the ground who are trying to survive go in vain.”

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Adm. Philip S. Davidson, as Indo-Pacific Command chief, organized a letter in early 2020 asking for “ammunition in the ongoing war of narratives.” (Associated Press/File) more >

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Sixteen months after nine combatant commanders asked the director of national intelligence to help them counter Chinese and Russian disinformation, intelligence agencies have done little to respond.

The request was made in an unprecedented “36-star letter” signed by the commanders of the Indo-Pacific Command, European Command, Strategic Command, Special Operations Command, Africa Command, Space Command, Transportation Command, and Northern and Southern Commands on Jan. 15, 2020.

The six generals and three admirals, all wearing four stars on their shoulders, said China and Russia are using all instruments of power to wage political warfare and manipulate information to violate national sovereignty, coopt world bodies, weaken international institutions and splinter U.S. alliances.

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“Their efforts to reshape the world in their image, proliferate authoritarianism and advance their ambitions are provocative, dangerous and destabilizing,” the commanders said in the letter to then-acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire. A copy of the unclassified letter was obtained by Inside the Ring.

The letter urged the DNI to use intelligence to counter enemy coercion and subversion and help the American military “win without fighting” by engaging in similar gray zone warfare against China and Russia.

Specifically, the commanders asked for “ammunition in the ongoing war of narratives” by releasing intelligence that the military can use publicly.

“The main battlespace for this struggle is largely in the public domain,” says the letter, organized by then-Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. Philip S. Davidson. “Therefore we request a significantly upgraded effort to routinely inject intelligence derivatives into that arena.”

Past efforts have fallen short, the commanders said, noting missed opportunities to counter distortions, rebut false narratives and influence events “in time to make a difference.”

The commanders asked for the release of information on Chinese and Russian actions faster and with less red tape.

“We need a deeper magazine of fine-grain, persuasive evidence of red behaviors that can be either exposed surgically with key influencers or launched more broadly in public fora as an effective check on pernicious conduct,” the leaders wrote.

One way would be to take raw intelligence in all intelligence disciplines — human, electronic and others — and declassify material on “troubling Chinese and Russian behavior.”

Current procedures for release intelligence were described as “time-consuming and inadequate.” The generals and admirals want to use the information rapidly so they can effectively tailor messaging “with precision, richness and credibility.”

An ODNI spokeswoman said the agency, along with the undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, reviewed the memo early last year. Working groups met last year and made recommendations, the spokeswoman said.

However, most of what was disclosed about the response by ODNI did not address the release of intelligence, announcing instead a new training education program and new intelligence requirements on strategic messaging and malign influence.

Procedures for releasing information also were reviewed, and unspecified steps were taken to “maximize the utilization of publicly available information in partnership with the Open Source Enterprise,” the statement said.

In December, ODNI asked intelligence agencies to review procedures and improve support to combatant commands.

“The DNI and undersecretary are reviewing the agencies’ progress and emphasize that countering malign influence remains a top priority,” the statement said. The spokeswoman declined to answer questions about the apparent shortcomings in the ODNI response.

PENTAGON ON HYPERSONIC MISSILES

The Pentagon provided Congress with a look at military efforts to counter the growing threat posed by Chinese and Russian ultra-high-speed hypersonic missiles.

Melissa Dalton, acting assistant defense secretary for strategy plans and capabilities, told a House subcommittee last month that the military had put a priority on several new types of hypersonic missiles. Still, the Pentagon is limiting the development of hypersonics to conventionally armed hypersonics, while Russia and China have armed theirs with both conventional and nuclear warheads.

Ms. Dalton testified April 21 that hypersonic strike systems are central to modernizing the American military.

“For the United States, China and Russia are making concerted efforts to invest heavily in capabilities that are increasingly eroding traditional U.S. war-fighting and military technological advantages, driving the strategic and operational value of U.S. hypersonic capability,” she stated in prepared remarks.

In addition to hypersonic missiles, Moscow and Beijing are fielding or working on large numbers of anti-ship ballistic missiles, advanced cruise missiles, high-end integrated air and missile defense systems, anti-satellite weapons and new ballistic missiles.

“Hypersonic strike systems, including those that are nuclear-armed, are top national priority efforts for both states,” she said. “They are aggressively developing and fielding such systems, seeking to utilize the speed, altitude, and maneuverability of hypersonic weapons to further enhance the sophistication and density of their anti-access and area denial networks. Collectively employed, these systems create a highly contested future operating environment.”

Beijing and Moscow plan to use the arms to deny American forces the freedom to maneuver and to threaten U.S. forces, ports and airfields. Building non-nuclear hypersonic missiles is one key way to mitigate the threat, she stated.

“Hypersonic weapon systems offer clear and distinct operational advantages,” Ms. Dalton said. “They travel at speeds near and above Mach 5 (five times faster than the speed of sound), enabling long-range flight at the upper reaches of the atmosphere.”

The combination of speed, maneuverability and altitude “provides us with a rapid, highly survivable, long-range fires capability,” she noted. The missiles can strike high-value, time-sensitive targets and hit distant and heavily defended targets when other forces are unavailable or unable to get close.

“Simply put, hypersonic weapons allow us the ability to destroy critical enemy infrastructure and anti-access systems anywhere in the world within hours, enhancing the U.S. capability to create strategic effects, without crossing the nuclear threshold,” Ms. Dalton said.

The Army, Navy and Air Force are all building hypersonic weapons. The Army’s version is called Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, and the Navy is building what it calls the Conventional Prompt Strike. The Air Force system is the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon. All three missiles are on track for deployment by the early to mid-2020s.

The Air Force also is working on a hypersonic air-launched cruise missile.

“When fielded and operational, these programs will provide the department the ability to deliver hypersonic weapon systems by air, ground, or sea platforms, thus both modernizing and enhancing the credibility of the joint force’s long-range strike portfolio,” Ms. Dalton said.

Ms. Dalton said policymakers are working to minimize the risk that the strikes may be mistaken as a nuclear attack. That will involve declaring who has the weapons release authority and the posture of the missiles.

SOCOM ON WMD THREATS

The deputy commander of the Special Operations Command outlined for Congress the growing threats posed by the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs of adversaries, including China and Russia.

Vice Adm. Timothy Szymanski told a House Armed Services subcommittee on Tuesday that nuclear, chemical and biological threats have continued to evolve over the past year despite the pandemic.

Special Operations Command is responsible for conducting covert operations that would seize, attack or destroy weapons of mass destruction programs.

“We monitor and analyze the progression of existing and over-the-horizon WMD programs closely, with essential support from the Defense Intelligence Agency,” Adm. Szymanski said, noting that news headlines are a good indicator of the complexity and nature of current threats.

The COVID-19 pandemic affected nearly every enemy WMD program, although quantifying the impact is difficult, he said.

“The pandemic caused extensive delays in the shipping industry, which likely degraded global procurement activities,” Adm. Szymanski said.

One particular concern is China‘s integration of nuclear and conventional weapons. The Chinese practice of placing nuclear-capable weapons, such as missiles, within conventional forces “remains a concern,” the admiral said.

Beijing also is testing and deploying several hypersonic glide vehicles, Adm. Szymanski said, vehicles that can carry nuclear or conventional munitions and “are designed for high-speed maneuvers at altitudes where they pose challenges to U.S. missile defenses.”

On the biological weapons front, “China also sustained possible dual-use biological research, some of which raises concerns regarding its compliance with Article I of the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention,” he said.

Article 1 prohibits development or production of germ weapons or agents.

• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.

International official: Bosnian Serbs seek to split country

International official: Bosnian Serbs seek to split country

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The top international official in Bosnia warned Tuesday that ethnic Serb leaders are making a concerted effort to split the country, or failing that to roll back many reforms achieved during the last 25 years, and he called for “a decisive stand” to stop any division.

Valentin Inzko told the U.N. Security Council the challenge to Bosnia’s once multiethnic society comprising Serbs, Muslims and Croats is being led by the Bosnian Serbs’ top politician, Milorad Dodik, who is the Serb member of the country’s three-member presidency.

He said the Serbs’ campaign “could have political and security implications not only for the country, but also the region, and the rest of Europe.”

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In what he said is likely his last briefing to the council after 12 years as the international community’s “high representative” in Bosnia, Inzko strongly criticized what he called “the destructive long-term policy” of authorities in the Serb region, known as Republika Srpska.

The region’s National Assembly adopted a measure in March that leaves open the option “for the so-called `peaceful dissolution’ of the country,” Inzko said. In April, leaders of Republika Srpska’s governing coalition parties met and Dodik announced the formation of negotiating teams, making clear the region “reserves the right to finally decide on its future status.”

The Bosnia war – the worst carnage in Europe since World War II – was fueled by the Bosnian Serbs’ 1992 declaration of their own state within Bosnia, and their separatist ambitions remain strong.

Bosnia remains torn by divisions stemming from the 1992-95 war among Serbs, Croats and Muslims during the breakup of Yugoslavia. A U.S.-brokered peace deal signed in 1995 in Dayton, Ohio, divided Bosnia into a federation composed of two autonomous regions – Republika Srpska for Bosnian Serbs and one for Muslims and Croats.

The high representative oversees the civilian implementation of the Dayton agreement and is filled by the Peace Implementation Council, which consists of 55 nations.

Inzko stressed to the Security Council that “Dayton does not give the right to entities to secede.”

He said the Bosnian Serbs’ actions have “poisoned” the political atmosphere and sidelined reforms at a time when the country is “in the grip” of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bosnia should be firmly on the path to membership in the European Union, he said, “but here we are today and one of its political leaders is openly advocating dividing the country, disparaging and mocking the EU in the process.”

Inzko warned that even if a breakup is prevented, the Serbs’ aim is “a perpetually dysfunctional” country. That is already happening “in the near-paralysis of the highest institutions … including the presidency, the Council of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly,” he said.

He said Bosnia’s multiethnic and diverse society that existed before the war “has all but disappeared” and defending multiethnic spaces has become more difficult than creating single ethnicity ones.

“Hate speech, the glorification of war criminals, and revisionism or outright genocide denial, despite the verdicts of international judicial bodies, remain very common in political discourse,” he said.

“We must not allow this process to lead to further ethnic or territorial divisions,” Inzko said.

The divisions within Bosnia also reflect a mounting conflict between the West and Russia over the future of the Balkans. While the West wishes to see the still-volatile region reform and eventually join the EU and NATO, Russia has used its historic ties with Serbs to undermine this idea.

Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Anna Evstigneeva, accused Inzko of being “very misbalanced,” saying he blames Bosnian Serbs and Croats “for every difficulty in the way of national reconciliation” and engages in “scaremongering.”

She called the situation in Bosnia “rather stable,” saying “it poses no threat to the international peace and security.”

Evstigneeva said a resolution adopted by Republika Srpska’s parliament March 21 demanding that the Office of the High Representative close and hand its authorities to the national Bosnian government “cannot be ignored.” She reiterated Russia’s demand for the office’s “soonest closure.”

But several speakers said conditions adopted in 2008 for closure of the office have not been met, including constitutional reforms and other measures set by the EU.

The United States, EU member Ireland, the United Kingdom and other council members all strongly backed Bosnia remaining a single, united, multi-ethnic and democratic nation.

“There is no future for either of the entities outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said, stressing that now is the time for the country to meet the criteria to graduate from international supervision by the high representative.

“That means first and foremost tackling the rampant corruption that threatens the rule of law,” she said. “Right now, corrupt politicians, a judiciary under political influence, public offices that promote personal or party interests, and state-owned enterprises that prioritize patronage, all enable corruption to thrive. The result: The country is losing its talented young people.”

G7 foreign ministers meet face-to-face after pandemic pause

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Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, right, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attend a joint press conference at Downing Street in London, Monday, May 3, 2021, during the G7 foreign ministers meeting. (Ben Stansall/Pool Photo via AP) more >

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By JILL LAWLESS

Associated Press

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

LONDON (AP) – Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven wealthy industrialized nations gathered Tuesday in London for their first face-to-face meeting in more than two years, with the issue of whether to challenge or coax a surging China high on the agenda.

Host nation Britain is keen to show that the rich countries’ club still has clout in a fast-changing world, and has warned that the increasingly aggressive stances of Russia, China and Iran pose a challenge to democratic societies and the international rule of law.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the meeting “demonstrates diplomacy is back.”

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored the United States’ re-embrace of its international allies since President Joe Biden replaced his “America-first” predecessor, Donald Trump.

Blinken said engaging with China “from a position of strength … means actually working with allies and partners, not disparaging them.”

“It means leaning in and engaging in the vast array of multilateral and international organizations because that’s where so many of the rules are made. That’s where the norms are shaped,” he said. “And if we’re not leaning in, we know that Beijing is likely to be trying to do so in our place.”

At the two-day meeting, top diplomats from the U.K., the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan also were to discuss the military coup in Myanmar, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the Tigray crisis in Ethiopia and the precarious situation in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops and their NATO allies are winding down a two-decade deployment.

The U.K. Foreign Office said the group would also discuss “Russia’s ongoing malign activity,” including Moscow’s earlier troop buildup on the border with Ukraine and the imprisonment of opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

While the G-7 members likely can agree in broad terms to condemn Navalny’s imprisonment or Beijing’s repression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, there are differences over how to relate to countries such as China and Russia that will have to be smoothed out in any final communique on Wednesday.

Asked what message the group would send to authoritarian regimes, Raab said the G-7 believed “in keeping trade open. We believe in standing up for open societies, for human rights and democracy. We believe in safeguarding and promoting public good.”

The G-7 ministers will also try to agree on a way to make coronavirus vaccines available around the globe in the long term. But for now, wealthy countries are reluctant to give up precious stocks until they have inoculated their own people.

The ministers wore face masks and greeted one another with arm and elbow bumps as they arrived at Lancaster House, a grand former stately home in central London. Plastic screens between participants and on-site coronavirus tests were among measures intended to make the venue COVID-secure.

The British government, which holds the G-7 presidency this year, invited the foreign ministers of Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa to join parts of the meeting, including Tuesday evening’s formal dinner. The guest list was intended to underline the G-7’s support for democracies, as well as the U.K. government’s attempts to build stronger ties with Asia in the wake of the country’s departure from the European Union.

Britain’s Conservative-led government hopes the resumption of in-person G-7 meetings – after more than a year of disruption by the coronavirus pandemic – will give the group a jolt of energy and bolster attempts to forge a post-Brexit “Global Britain” role for the U.K.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to host the other G-7 leaders at a summit in Cornwall, England, in June.

Opposition politicians and international aid organizations say the goal of Britain playing a bigger role in world affairs is undermined by the government’s decision to slash its foreign aid budget from 0.7% of gross domestic product to 0.5% because of the economic hit from the pandemic.

Raab said the aid cuts were a “difficult decision” but insisted Britain would become “an even greater force for good in the world.”

US and UK reject reports of imminent prisoner deal with Iran

US and UK reject reports of imminent prisoner deal with Iran

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Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19, sits at a table during bilateral talks with United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on the sidelines of a G7 foreign ministers meeting, at … more >

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By PAN PYLAS

Associated Press

Monday, May 3, 2021

LONDON (AP) – The U.S. and the U.K. dismissed reports coming out of Iran that they are thrashing out a prisoner exchange deal with Tehran that could see the imminent release of a British-Iranian woman, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and four Americans, among others.

Iran was a key topic of discussions Monday between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his host in London, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. Their meeting took place a day before the first face-to-face meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Seven leading industrial nations in two years, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Iran, Ukraine, China, Russia, climate change and COVD-19 are expected to dominate the talks.

Blinken’s visit to London, his first since being appointed by President Joe Biden, comes amid mounting speculation of a prisoner swap deal with Iran. Such exchanges are not uncommon and were a feature of the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and the world’s leading powers. Biden has indicated he is looking to restart nuclear talks with Tehran after his predecessor, Donald Trump, pulled the U.S. out of the agreement in 2018.

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“The reports coming out of Tehran are not accurate,” Blinken said at a press briefing after their meeting, adding that he had “no higher priority” than bringing all detained Americans home.

“More broadly on this, we have to take a stand against the arbitrary detention of citizens for political purposes,” he said.

Raab also dismissed the prospects of an imminent breakthrough amid reports in Iran that Britain would pay a 400 million-pound ($550 million) debt to secure Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release. He insisted that the British government was working “very intensively” on the release of detained British citizens in Iran.

“I would say it’s incumbent on Iran unconditionally to release those who are held arbitrarily and in our view unlawfully,” Raab said.

In Britain, there’s particular interest in the well-being of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was last week sentenced to an additional year in prison on charges of spreading “propaganda against the system.”

The two diplomats discussed an array of subjects, such as sanctions on Russian citizens, climate change and Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan later this year, a process that began in earnest over the weekend. Russia and its aggressive actions toward Ukraine were also on the agenda, with Blinken set to travel to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Wednesday.

Biden is also set to take a new approach with regard to North Korea following a policy review completed last week. Blinken, who met in London with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts earlier Monday, said the new approach will be “practical and calibrated” and urged the leadership in Pyongyang to “take the opportunity to engage diplomatically.”

On Tuesday, the top diplomats from the full G-7 – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. – will meet along with their foreign minister colleagues from selected other countries, including Australia, India and South Africa.

Ahead of the gathering, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that “authoritarian states” around the world are “trying to play us against each other” and that breaches of international law have become commonplace.

“It is important that we hold our values of democracy, state of law, human rights and a global order based on rules against them, united and credibly,” he said.

Britain’s Foreign Office said the G-7 ministers will invest $15 billion in development finance over the next two years to help women in developing countries access jobs, build resilient businesses and recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

They are also expected to pledge to get 40 million more girls into school and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10 in poorer nations by 2026.

___

Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.

Diplomats from 5 nations resuming Iran nuclear talks

Progress noted at diplomats’ talks on Iran nuclear deal

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The ambassador of the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations, Wang Qun, leaves the “Grand Hotel Wien” where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, Saturday, May 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa … more >

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By Philipp Jenne and Kirsten Grieshaber

Associated Press

Saturday, May 1, 2021

VIENNA (AP) — High-ranking diplomats from China, Germany, France, Russia and Britain made progress at talks Saturday focused on bringing the United States back into their landmark nuclear deal with Iran, but said they need more work and time to bring about a future agreement.

After the meeting, Russia’s top representative, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeted that members of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, “noted today the indisputable progress made at the Vienna talks on restoration of the nuclear deal.”

“The Joint Commission will reconvene at the end of the next week,” Ulyanov wrote. “In the meantime, experts will continue to draft elements of future agreement.”

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“It’s too early to be excited, but we have reasons for cautious and growing optimism,” he added. “There is no deadline, but participants aim at successful completion of the talks in approximately 3 weeks.”

The three Western European countries involved in the talks struck a more restrained note.

“We have much work and little time left. Against that background, we would have hoped for more progress this week,” the senior diplomats said talking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be publicly named.

“We have yet to come to an understanding on the most critical points. Success is by no means guaranteed, but not impossible.”

Abbas Araghchi, Iran‘s deputy foreign minister, participated in the Vienna talks. 

“I can say that now our discussions have reached a maturity, both in the disputed topics and in the sections that we are agreed on,” he told Iranian state TV. “Although we cannot yet fully predict when and how we will be able to reach an agreement, it is moving forward, although slowly.” 

The U.S. did not have a representative at the table when the diplomats met in Vienna because former President Trump unilaterally pulled the country out of the deal in 2018. Trump also restored and augmented sanctions to try to force Iran into renegotiating the pact with more concessions. 

U.S. President Biden wants to rejoin the deal, however, and a U.S. delegation in Vienna was taking part in indirect talks with Iran, with diplomats from the other world powers acting as go-betweens.

The Biden administration is considering a rollback of some of the most stringent Trump-era sanctions in a bid to get Iran to come back into compliance with the nuclear agreement, according to current and former U.S. officials and others familiar with the matter.

Ulyanov said JCPOA members met on the side with officials from the U.S. delegation but the Iranian delegation was not ready to meet with U.S. diplomats.

The nuclear deal promised Iran economic incentives in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. The reimposition of U.S. sanctions has left the Islamic Republic’s economy reeling.

Tehran has responded by steadily increasing its violations of the deal, such as increasing the purity of uranium it enriches and its stockpiles, in a thus-far unsuccessful effort to pressure the other countries to provide relief from the sanctions. 

The ultimate goal of the deal is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, something it insists it doesn’t want to do. Iran now has enough enriched uranium to make a bomb, but nowhere near the amount it had before the nuclear deal was signed.

The Vienna talks began in early April and have included several rounds of high-level discussions. Expert groups also have been working on how to resolve the issues around the American sanctions and Iranian compliance, as well as the “possible sequencing” of the U.S. return. 

Outside the talks in Vienna, other challenges remain. 

An attack suspected to have been carried out by Israel recently struck Iran‘s Natanz nuclear site, causing an unknown amount of damage. Tehran retaliated by beginning to enrich a small amount of uranium up to 60% purity, its highest level ever.

___

Grieshaber reported from Berlin, Amir Vahdat contributed from Tehran, Iran.

Musicians blend jazz rhythms across Estonia-Russia border

Musicians blend jazz rhythms across Estonia-Russia border

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Russian saxophonist Alexey Kruglov performs in the Ivangorod Fortress on the Russian-Estonian border in Ivangorod, 130 km (80 miles) west of St.Petersburg, Russia, Friday, April 30, 2021. Musicians on the Estonian-Russian border held an unusual concert on Friday, with Estonian … more >

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By MARIS HELLRAND

Associated Press

Friday, April 30, 2021

NARVA, Estonia (AP) – Two jazz musicians gave an unusual concert Friday on the Estonia-Russia border, where Estonian guitarist Jaak Sooäär and Russian saxophonist Alexey Kruglov performed from castles on the opposing banks of the river that separates their countries.

The musicians combined rhythms on International Jazz Day as an act of friendship, despite the deteriorating relations between Russia and Estonia. The coronavirus pandemic has limited opportunities for cross-border contact.

“As the border stayed closed, I have friends on the other side of the border with whom I wanted to play with, so we decided to do it,” Sooäär said before the concert.

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For the predominantly Russian-speaking residents of Estonian border city Narva, the concert was a chance to reconnect with their foreign neighbors, albeit through music.

Few places in Europe illustrate the tensions between Russia and the West as strongly as Hermann Castle, the 14th century fortress of Narva, and the medieval fortress built across the river at the end of the 15th century in what is now the Russian town of Ivangorod.

Modern relations between the two sides deteriorated again this week when Russia added Estonia to its list of “unfriendly” nations following the expulsion of a Russian diplomat from Estonia.

But for the musicians, politics didn’t have a place at their performance.

“I don’t think politically at all about it. It’s about the music. It will be better for life on the planet. Let’s just celebrate International Jazz Day,” Sooäär said.

Blinken off to London, Kyiv as Ukraine questions resurface

Blinken off to London, Kyiv as Ukraine questions resurface

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken listens during the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 22, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) more >

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By MATTHEW LEE

Associated Press

Friday, April 30, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – Secretary of State Antony Blinken is headed to Europe next week for critical talks on Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Afghanistan and frayed transatlantic ties that the Biden administration hopes to repair, the State Department said Friday.

The department said Blinken will visit London starting on Monday for a meeting of foreign ministers of the Group of 7 industrialized democracies and will then travel on to Kyiv amid a burst of concern over U.S. relations with Ukraine, including an FBI raid on former President Donald Trump‘s lawyer Rudy Giuliani and new questions about Russia’s intentions there.

Blinken’s London trip is mainly designed to prepare President Joe Biden’s participation in a G7 leaders summit that Britain will host in June. But it’s also aimed at presenting a united front to address global challenges posed by China, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.

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In Kyiv, Blinken plans to reaffirm U.S. support for Ukraine against the ongoing challenge of Russian support for separatists in the country’s east and its recent buildup of troops along the border. But, he’ll also raise persistent U.S. concerns about corruption, a significant irritant in relations for years.

On Wednesday, federal investigators executed a search warrant on Giuliani’s home as part of a probe into his interactions with Ukrainian figures and whether he violated a federal law that governs lobbying on behalf of foreign countries or entities. Giuliani had led a campaign to press Ukraine for an investigation into Biden and his son, Hunter, but has insisted all of his activities were on Trump‘s behalf.

The G7 meeting in London is being held against the backdrop of the Biden administration’s desire to restore close, cooperative ties with U.S. allies, notably on confronting China, Russia and climate change. Yet it also comes at a time of widespread unease about Biden’s decision to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in September.

Blinken “is looking forward to discussing the democratic values that we share with our partners and allies within the G7,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. “The United States will discuss how we can work with other countries to address the key geopolitical issues we face as we build back better from this pandemic.”

Blinken’s discussions in London, which will include separate meetings with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, will also focus on economic growth, human rights, food security, gender equality, and women’s and girls’ empowerment, Price said.

After the G7 meetings on Monday and Tuesday, Blinken will visit Kyiv on Wednesday and Thursday for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other senior officials. He will “reaffirm unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression,” Price said.

But while Russian aggression will top the agenda, several other issues are likely to be addressed.

The first of those is rampant corruption, notably in Ukraine‘s energy sector, which has been a perennial problem and was at the center of Trump‘s first impeachment and Republican attacks on the Bidens. The issue resurfaced just this week with the State Department expressing “deep concern” over the government’s replacement of the board of Ukraine‘s leading energy company.

“This calculated move using a procedural loophole to oust well-regarded experts from the boards of several key state-owned enterprises reflects a disregard for fair and transparent corporate governance practices and complicates long-standing efforts to reform Ukraine’s energy sector and improve its investment climate,” Price said on Thursday.

US Embassy in Moscow limits services after Russia hiring ban

US Embassy in Moscow limits services after Russia hiring ban

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By

Associated Press

Friday, April 30, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) – The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said Friday it will sharply curtail its consular activities due to a Russian ban on hiring local residents to work there.

The embassy said in a statement that starting May 12, it will only provide emergency U.S. citizen services and a very limited number of immigrant visas for such life-or-death emergencies.

It noted that non-immigrant visa processing for non-diplomatic travel will cease and it will stop offering routine notarial services, consular reports of birth abroad or passport renewal services for the foreseeable future.

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Moscow has moved to ban the U.S. Embassy and consular offices from hiring Russian and third-country nationals as part of its retaliation to a set of new U.S. sanctions imposed over Russian interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and involvement in the SolarWind hack of federal agencies – activities Moscow has denied.

The U.S. ordered 10 Russian diplomats out, targeted dozens of companies and people and imposed new curbs on Russia’s ability to borrow money. Russia quickly retaliated by ordering 10 U.S. diplomats to leave, blacklisting eight current and former U.S. officials and tightening requirements for U.S. Embassy operations.

The U.S. Embassy warned that the provision of emergency services to U.S. citizens in Russia may also be “delayed or limited due to staff’s constrained ability to travel outside of Moscow.”

It said it was unable to answer specific questions about Russian residency or Russian visas and strongly urged any U.S. citizens present in Russia with expired visas to depart before a June 15 deadline set by the Russian government.

“We regret that the actions of the Russian government have forced us to reduce our consular workforce by 75%, and will endeavor to offer to U.S. citizens as many services as possible,” the embassy said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry commented on Facebook, charging that the decision to limit consular activities indicated that the U.S. diplomatic and consular activities are “archaic and inefficient.”

The ministry suggested that Washington expand its American staff to replace the local hires.

China nuclear buildup faster than expected, U.S. now believes

China nuclear buildup faster than expected, U.S. now believes

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In this Oct. 1, 2019, file photo spectators wave Chinese flags as military vehicles carrying DF-41 ballistic missiles roll during a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein) **FILE** more >

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Thursday, April 29, 2021

China’s military is advancing its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems so fast the Defense Intelligence Agency has had to move up its estimate of when Beijing will double its warhead stockpile, the general in charge of military intelligence told Congress on Thursday.

In wide-ranging testimony, DIA Director Army Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on global threats that China and Russia are actively using information warfare surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine Western governments.

The three-star general said the DIA last year estimated the People’s Liberation Army would double its stockpile of nuclear warheads, which the agency has said was in the “low 200s,” by the year 2030.

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“Since then, Beijing has accelerated its nuclear expansion and is on track to exceed our previous projection,” he said. “PLA nuclear forces are expected to continue to grow with their nuclear stockpile likely to at least double in size over this decade and increase the threat to the U.S. homeland.” No new estimate of the number of warheads was made public.

Gen. Berrier said the nuclear buildup is part of a “massive military modernization” by Beijing and is being “accelerated as a deterrent,” he added.

China’s nuclear forces include an array of ground-based mobile missiles, nuclear missile submarines and bombers that provide the Chinese government with a large nuclear force.

On the coronavirus, Gen. Berrier said its origin in China is unclear but DIA analysts believe the initial outbreak began either from infected animals or a laboratory accident. The pandemic will continue until up to 80% of the global population will either be infected or vaccinated, he predicted, and “several countries that had successfully slowed transmission are now reporting resurgences.”

So far, 263 COVID-19 vaccines are in development worldwide, and Gen. Berrier said both China and Russia are engaged information warfare programs during the pandemic “to undermine Western governments, attack coalitions and compel economic and political outcomes in their favor.”

China has attempted to divert international attention from its handling of early days of the pandemic outbreak in 2019 and 2020 by claiming the virus may have originated outside the country, including possibly at a U.S. Army laboratory. 

Russia has sought to undermine public confidence in the effectiveness of U.S. vaccines through disinformation campaigns. 

On the nuclear front, China is diversifying its arsenal with various weapons and systems in addition to increasing numbers, Gen. Berrier stated. The buildup grew out of military exercises that helped commanders understand which options-provide the most viable nuclear capabilities in the shortest amount of time.

The production speed up was mandated under a Chinese Communist Party communique issued in October 2020, which outlined plans for creating what the general described as “high-level strategic deterrence.”

Gen. Berrier said DIA analysts assess that  China is working to narrow the gap in the U.S. qualitative edge in nuclear forces, or to either match or exceed U.S. capabilities. 

China is also about to complete deployment for the first time of a nuclear triad with a new strategic bomber that will fire air-launched ballistic missiles, he said.

For submarines, Beijing has fielded six second-generation ballistic missile submarines that will be capable of doing continuous at-sea deterrent patrols with missiles that can strike the United States from areas of the South China Sea. 

Gen. Berrier said the new DF-17 hypersonic cruise missile also could be outfitted with a nuclear warhead.

“That poses a significant risk,” he said. “The speed at which those weapons travel makes it very, very difficult to track in their entire trajectory.”

Mark B. Schneider, a nuclear expert with the National Institute for Public Policy and former Pentagon official, said the low 200s warhead estimate is almost certainly too low, considering China’s missile expansion in recent years. 

He estimates that the combined nuclear and non-strategic warhead stockpile in China could be as high as 3,000.

China has traditionally been extremely secretive about its nuclear forces,” he said in a recent article in Real Clear Defense.Mr. Schneider said recent Strategic Command testimony indicates the warhead expansion is the result of deployments of China’s  DF-41 missiles, which  can carry up to 10 warheads each.

“A major reassessment of China’s nuclear capabilities is long overdue. If China has about 1,000 nuclear warheads in 2030, this would represent a very serious threat. If it already has about 1,000 nuclear warheads today and is increasing that number, this would be even more alarming,” Mr. Schneider said.

Beijing also has placed some of its nuclear forces on a higher alert status that Gen. Berrier described as “launch-on-warning.”

In the past, Chinese warheads had been stored separately from missiles.

The DIA testimony echoed the concerns raised last week in House testimony by Adm. Charles Richard, commander of the Strategic Command, who also warned about what he termed a “breathtaking” Chinese nuclear expansion.

“We are seeing this very rapid expansion of Chinese capabilities,” Adm. Richard said.

The worrying systems include increased numbers of road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, along with many new solid-fueled missiles in silos.

“A solid-fuel rocket is very responsive, and that, coupled with their new nuclear command and control, gives them a launch under warning or launch under attack capability that right now only the U.S. and the Russians possess,” he said.

Adm. Richard said the expansion is so rapid that he informed briefers at Strategic Command that any information on the Chinese nuclear forces that is more than a month old needs to be reassessed.

 

Nuclear deterrence for China needs upgrade

Nuclear deterrence for China needs upgrade

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The Pentagon is focusing too much on surprise nuclear attacks and not enough on scenarios with Russia or China, according to Senate testimony. (Associated Press/File) more >

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The American strategy for deterring nuclear war is outdated and needs to be revised to address more likely scenarios, such as nuclear conflict growing out of a conventional war with China or Russia, according to Paul Bracken, a political science professor at Yale University.

Mr. Bracken told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that too much attention is focused by military and defense officials on the most unlikely nuclear war scenarios. Some 90% of strategic military efforts today seek to deter surprise nuclear attacks from China or Russia, with 10% focused on an accidental war, he said.

“I believe that we have, relatively speaking, too much deterrence against the surprise attack,” Mr. Bracken said. “So I do not mind reducing deterrence of this in favor of increasing attention to other contexts and scenarios. That the United States could be fighting on the doorstep of nuclear weapon states — areas bristling with much larger numbers of weapons than today — is the real deterrence challenge.”

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The dangers of nuclear conflict have increased as the Cold War standoff between Washington and Moscow is now complicated by China‘s large-scale nuclear buildup, Russia’s new, exotic strategic arms and the expansion of other nuclear arsenals.

“We now are in a multipolar nuclear world,” Mr. Bracken said. “It isn’t just Russia with the bomb anymore. China is doubling its nuclear forces, according to the director of national intelligence. Pakistan could have 300 weapons in 10 years. If China and Pakistan expand, it is hard to believe that India will not respond accordingly.”

Russia, for its part, is building a high-speed underwater drone with a 100-megaton warhead that will be the largest nuclear bomb ever deployed, capable of creating tsunamis that can destroy cities and ports. Moscow and Beijing are building large forces of short- and medium-range nuclear missiles, upping the ante that a future conventional conflict will go nuclear.

North Korea is expected to have 150 nuclear weapons in 10 years, along with long-range missiles capable of ranging U.S. targets, and shorter-range systems targeting Japan and South Korea.

Mr. Bracken sees China‘s nuclear might as among the most worrying sources for inducing a future strategic war as China builds a triad of nuclear missiles, missile submarines and bombers. Academic studies of China‘s nuclear strategy misunderstood Beijing‘s relatively small nuclear warhead stockpile and its declared “no first use” policy.

“This narrow framing of the problem needs serious reconsideration,” Mr. Bracken said.

Mr. Bracken said it is not clear whether China has developed the doctrine and policies needed for the use of nuclear arms and whether they would be used if conflict breaks out over Taiwan or on the Korean Peninsula.

“Reading Chinese nuclear doctrine as I have convinces me that they haven’t thought this through,” he said. “China‘s declared nuclear doctrine doesn’t cover a wide range of possibilities beyond what it was narrowly written for.”

Beijing‘s vastly expanded nuclear power, he said, provides the Chinese Communist Party with new opportunities for political coercion and blackmail.

“It may be intended to deter U.S. conventional intervention by posing nuclear risks to offset new U.S. technologies like cyber and super-precision strike,” Mr. Bracken said.

Key to Beijing‘s strategic calculus is the 1958 Taiwan crisis, when Chinese communist and nationalist forces squared off at the islands of Quemoy and Matsu on the east coast of China across from Taiwan. The skirmish was China‘s Cuban missile crisis because the U.S. at the time had nuclear weapons on Taiwan.

Declassified documents from the crisis reveal that the U.S. Air Force was prepared to use nuclear weapons to counter a Chinese assault on the islands. President Eisenhower, however, rejected the use of nuclear arms, even if Beijing invaded the outer islands. The lack of backing from Moscow and the inability to deter a U.S. nuclear attack launched Beijing on its drive for a nuclear arsenal.

NAVAL EXPERT WARNS OF CHINA‘S ‘DECADE OF DANGER’

The next 10 years will be a period of intensifying conflict between the United States and China below the level of a kinetic war, according to Andrew S. Erickson, professor of strategy at the Naval War College. Beijing is engaged in extensive “gray zone” operations in the seas around China that have increased tensions.

“Fortunately, the United States and its allies and partners can likely avoid great power war with China,” Mr. Erickson told the newsletter The Wire China. “Instead, the situation we’re likely to face over the next few years — in what might be called a ‘decade of danger’ — are periods of friction, tension, and even crisis.”

Peacetime gray zone conflicts are reflected in China‘s drive to advance disputed maritime claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea, as well as undermining regional states’ rights and interests. Gray zone military and quasi-military operations are designed to avoid triggering a direct military conflict.

The operations take the form of incidents in international waters and in some cases are defused with little impact.

“At other times, China acquires control of additional physical territory or maritime zones in the process,” Mr. Erickson said.

The seizure of Scarborough Shoal in the Spratly Islands in 2012 is a key example. China used its coast guard and maritime militia forces to prevent the Philippine government from enforcing environmental regulations inside Manila’s exclusive economic zone.

The Obama administration failed to take any action against the Chinese for the Scarborough seizure, setting off a massive Chinese island-building campaign and maritime territory seizure campaign based on the Scarborough Shoal model.

Chinese harassment of U.S. Navy vessels has also highlighted the gray zone war.

The most serious incident was the 2009 harassment of the USNS Impeccable surveillance ship in the South China Sea that was confronted by five Chinese ships and forced to leave the area.

“Again, unfortunately, the U.S. apparently never imposed a cost for this unlawful, unacceptable PRC behavior,” Mr. Erickson said. “Nor did the U.S. government even publicly state that China‘s maritime militia had been involved.”

The Chinese maritime activities are part of a concerted effort by Beijing to control the region near its coasts by “winning without fighting.”

“It’s a gradual process. But over the course of years, combined with the fortification of the PRC’s South China Sea outposts, something very significant is happening over time,” Mr. Erickson said.

State Department spokesman Ned Price did not answer directly when asked this week whether the United States’ 40-year policy of engaging China in the hope of prompting liberalization of the communist regime had failed. The Trump administration undertook a major shift in U.S. policy by adopting a hard line on Beijing, and several of the Trump policies have been adopted for now by the Biden administration.

“We have always said is that it is a relationship that is multifaceted,” Mr. Price told reporters. “It is a relationship that will have competitive elements. It is a relationship that will have adversarial elements. And it is a relationship that will have some cooperative elements.”

Overall, the U.S.-Chinese relationship is “predicated on competition,” he said.

“Our goal in not only engaging with Beijing, but also with our partners and allies and also here at home, harnessing our domestic sources of strength, is to be able to compete and ultimately to outcompete with China,” Mr. Price said. “This is an approach that, while it has human rights at the center, it is not an approach that requires any rose-colored glasses about the nature of the PRC, the nature of its leadership.”

Pressed on whether conciliatory policies toward China were misguided, Mr. Price declined to say.

“I’m not going to speak to previous administrations. I’m going to speak to this administration’s approach, and that’s precisely our approach. It is a clear-eyed, principled approach to the PRC that recognizes competition at the center of that relationship.”

Mr. Price said the administration still hopes to cooperate with Beijing on some issues, including climate change, arms nonproliferation and Iran.

Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.

Russia rejects Ukraine’s push to revise 2015 peace deal

Russia rejects Ukraine’s push to revise 2015 peace deal

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks during a joint news conference with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard following their talks in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 28, 2021. Lavrov said in an interview published Wednesday that relations with the United States … more >

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By Vladimir Isachenkov

Associated Press

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia‘s foreign minister sternly warned Ukrainian officials Wednesday that Moscow would not accept their push to revise a peace deal for eastern Ukraine.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s comments followed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky calling Tuesday for a modification of the 2015 agreement and inviting other nations to help mediate the stalled talks on a political settlement of the conflict in Ukraine‘s east.

Fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists erupted in Ukraine‘s eastern industrial heartland, called Donbas, shortly after Moscow‘s 2014 annexation of Ukraine‘s Crimean Peninsula. More than 14,000 people have been killed during the seven-year conflict. 

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In recent weeks, increasing violations of a shaky cease-fire in eastern Ukraine a Russian troop buildup across the border drew Ukrainian and Western concerns about the potential for large-scale hostilities. Tensions eased last week after Moscow announced a pullback of its forces following massive drills.

The 2015 deal, which was brokered by France and Germany, marked a diplomatic coup for Russia, obliging Ukraine to offer broad autonomy to the separatist regions and amnesty for the rebels. It also stipulated that Ukraine would regain full control of its border with Russia in the rebel-held territories only after the election of local leaders and legislatures, the provisions resented by many Ukrainians as a betrayal of national interests.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of backing the separatist rebels in the east with troops and weapons, claims Moscow has denied. The Kremlin has insisted that Russia isn’t a party to what it described as an internal Ukrainian conflict.

Speaking in an interview with a Russian state TV host, Lavrov criticized the West for turning a blind eye to the failure of Ukrainian authorities to meet their obligations under the 2015 document that was signed in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, by then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

“The West either can’t or doesn’t want to encourage compliance with the Minsk agreement,” he said.

Lavrov categorically rejected the push by Ukrainian officials to reverse the sequence of steps stipulated by the Minsk deal and to make reclaiming control of the border with Russia in the rebel-controlled regions the first step.

“Control of the border is the very last move that comes only after those territories get a special status fixed in the Ukrainian Constitution and hold free elections acknowledged as such by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe,” the Russian minister said. “I believe that we mustn’t let Mr. Zelensky and his team get off the hook, even though they are trying hard to wriggle out.”

Zelensky has pushed for a meeting with Putin, but the Russian leader responded last week that Ukrainian authorities need to speak to the rebels to settle the conflict in Donbas. He added that if the Ukrainian president wants to discuss the normalization of ties with Russia, he’s welcome to come to Moscow.

Iran nuclear talks resume in Vienna amid new complications

Iran nuclear talks resume in Vienna amid new complications

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FILE – In this April 20, 2021 file photo Russia’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Mikhail Ulyanov smokes a cigarette in front of the ‘Grand Hotel Wien’ where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, … more >

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By DAVID RISING

Associated Press

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

BERLIN (AP) – World powers resumed high-level talks in Vienna on Tuesday focused on bringing the United States back into the nuclear deal with Iran, in their first session since comments surfaced from the Iranian foreign minister alleging that Russia once tried to scupper the pact.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has not responded to requests for comment on the remarks from Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, made in a seven-hour interview with a think tank associated with the Iranian presidency that leaked over the weekend.

Ahead of the main talks, Russia’s top representative Mikhail Ulyanov said he’d met on the side together with officials from Iran and China, but did not mention anything about Zarif‘s comments.

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“We compared notes and exchanged views on the way ahead towards full restoration of the nuclear deal,” he tweeted. “It was a very fruitful meeting.”

Following the main meeting with his counterparts from China, Germany, France, and Britain – the other parties to the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA – Ulyanov tweeted that they were “guided by the unity of purpose.”

“Which is full restoration of the nuclear deal in its original form,” he wrote. “It was decided to expedite the process.”

China’s delegate Wang Qun told reporters on his way out of the talks that discussions would continue on Wednesday.

The U.S. is not at the table because it unilaterally pulled out of the deal in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump, who restored and augmented American sanctions in a campaign of “maximum pressure” to try and force Iran into renegotiating the pact with more concessions. President Joe Biden wants to rejoin the deal, however, and there is a U.S. delegation in Vienna taking part in indirect talks with Iran, with diplomats from the other world powers acting as go-betweens.

The deal promises Iran economic incentives in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. The reimposition of American sanctions has left the country’s economy reeling, and Tehran has reacted by steadily increasing its violations of the restrictions of the deal, such as increasing the purity of uranium it enriches and its stockpiles, in a thus-far unsuccessful effort to pressure the other countries to provide relief.

The ultimate goal of the deal is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, something it insists it doesn’t want to do. Iran now has enough enriched uranium to make a bomb, but nowhere near the amount it had before the nuclear deal was signed.

The comments from Zarif, who himself helped negotiate the original 2015 nuclear deal, have the potential to complicate the Vienna talks, which are currently focused on how the U.S. would roll back its sanctions – and which ones – and how Iran would return to compliance.

In the interview, reviewed by The Associated Press, Zarif describes Russia as wanting to stop the nuclear deal before it was struck under the Obama administration in 2015, suggesting Moscow wanted to keep Iran at odds with the West.

Iran‘s Foreign Ministry has called the leak of the recording “illegal,” but hasn’t disputed its authenticity.

The Vienna talks began in early April, and there have been several rounds of high-level discussions, while expert groups have been working on proposals on how to resolve the issues around American sanctions and Iranian compliance, as well as the “possible sequencing” of the U.S. return.

The comments from Zarif are just the latest complication that the diplomats have to deal with.

Among other things, an attack suspected to have been carried out by Israel recently struck Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, causing an unknown amount of damage.

Tehran retaliated by beginning to enrich a small amount of uranium up to 60% purity, its highest level ever.

___

Philipp Jenne in Vienna, Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed to this story.

France’s Macron presses Putin over Navalny, Ukraine

France’s Macron presses Putin over Navalny, Ukraine

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Monday, April 26, 2021

PARIS (AP) – French President Emmanuel Macron urged Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday to cool tensions with Ukraine, and expressed “grave concern” about the health of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

In a conversation with Putin, the French president insisted on the need to respect Navalny’s “fundamental rights,” according to Macron’s office. Russian authorities on Monday ordered Navalny’s offices to halt their activities, as part of a legal battle amid a sweeping crackdown on Putin’s chief domestic foe.

Macron also urged Putin to “commit in good faith and in a sustainable way toward reducing tensions with Ukraine,” notably by withdrawing troops and heavy weaponry from the Ukrainian border. A Russian troop buildup in recent weeks has fueled fears of renewed hostilities and worried Ukraine and the West.

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The Russian defense ministry has said it’s started to withdraw the troops to their permanent bases, after completing sweeping maneuvers.

Macron sought to reach out to Putin earlier in his presidency and hosted Ukrainian peace talks in 2019 with Putin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But tensions have risen again recently between Russia and Europe.

Macron also expressed his support Monday for fellow European countries whose diplomats have been targeted by Russia in a series of tit-for-tat expulsions, according to Macron’s office.

World leaders pledge climate cooperation despite other rifts

World leaders pledge climate cooperation despite other rifts

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FILE – In this Feb. 1, 2021 file photo, emissions from a coal-fired power plant are silhouetted against the setting sun in Independence, Mo. President Joe Biden is convening a coalition of the willing, the unwilling, the desperate-for-help and the … more >

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By ELLEN KNICKMEYER and MATTHEW DALY and CHRISTINA LARSON

Associated Press

Thursday, April 22, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – The leaders of Russia and China put aside their raw-worded disputes with U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday long enough to pledge international cooperation on cutting climate-wrecking coal and petroleum emissions in a livestreamed summit showcasing America’s return to the fight against global warming.

Neither Vladimir Putin nor Xi Jinping immediately followed the United States and some of its developed allies in making specific new pledges to reduce damaging fossil fuel pollution during the first day of the two-day U.S.-hosted summit. But climate advocates hoped the high-profile – if glitch-ridden – virtual gathering would kickstart new action by major polluters, paving the way for a November U.N. meeting in Glasgow critical to drastically slowing climate change over the coming decade.

The entire world faces “a moment of peril” but also “a moment of opportunity,” Biden declared, speaking from a TV-style chrome-blue set for the virtual summit of 40 world leaders. Participants appeared one after the other onscreen for what appeared to be a mix of live and recorded addresses.

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“The signs are unmistakable,” Biden said. “The science is undeniable. The cost of inaction keeps mounting.”

Biden‘s new U.S. commitment, timed to the summit, would cut America’s fossil fuel emissions as much as 52% by 2030. It comes after four years of international withdrawal from the issue under President Donald Trump, who mocked the science of climate change and pulled the U.S. out of the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord.

Biden’s administration this week is sketching out a vision of a prosperous, clean-energy United States where factories churn out cutting-edge batteries and electric cars for export, line workers re-lay an efficient national electrical grid and crews cap abandoned oil and gas rigs and coal mines.

But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the administration’s plans as costly and ineffective.

“This is quite the one-two punch,” McConnell said in a Senate speech Thursday. “Toothless requests of our foreign adversaries … and maximum pain for American citizens.”

At the summit, Japan announced its own new 46% emissions reduction target and South Korea said it would stop public financing of new coal-fired power plants, potentially an important step toward persuading China and other coal-reliant nations to curb building and funding of new ones as well.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, one of the leaders shown watching summit proceedings in the coronavirus pandemic’s familiar Brady Bunch-style multibox conference screen, said his nation would up its fossil fuel pollution cuts from 30% to at least 40%.

Travel precautions under the pandemic compelled the summit to play out on livestream, limiting opportunities for spontaneous interaction and negotiation. Its opening hours were sometimes marked by electronic echoes, random beeps and off-screen voices.

But the summit also marshaled an impressive display of the world’s most powerful leaders speaking on the single cause of climate change.

China’s Xi, whose country is the world’s biggest emissions culprit, followed by the United States, spoke first among the other global figures. He made no reference to disputes over territorial claims, trade and other matters that had made it uncertain until Wednesday that he would even take part in the U.S. summit. And he said China would work with America in cutting emissions.

“To protect the environment is to protect productivity, and to boost the environment is to boost productivity. It’s as simple as that,” Xi said.

Putin and his government have been irate over Biden‘s characterization of him as a “killer” for Russia’s aggressive moves against its opponents, and he is under pressure this week over the declining health of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny. But he made no mention of those disputes in his own climate remarks.

“Russia is genuinely interested in galvanizing international cooperation so as to look further for effective solutions to climate change as well as to all other vital challenges,” Putin said. Russia by some measures is the world’s fourth-biggest emitter of climate-damaging fossil fuel fumes.

Climate efforts in recent years have proved a forum where even rival world leaders want to be seen as putting aside disputes to serve as international statesmen and women, even though the cumulative output of fossil fuel emissions is still hurtling the Earth toward disastrous temperature rises.

The pandemic made gathering world leaders for the climate summit too risky. So Biden‘s staff built a small set in the East Room that looked like it was taken from a daytime talk show.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris joined Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House climate envoy John Kerry at a horseshoe-shaped table set up around a giant potted plant to watch fellow leaders’ speeches.

The format meant a cavalcade of short speeches by world leaders, some scripted, some not. “This is not bunny-hugging,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said of the climate efforts. “This is about growth and jobs.”

The Biden administration’s pledge would require by far the most ambitious U.S. climate effort ever, nearly doubling the reductions that the Obama administration had committed to in the Paris climate accord.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was one of many allies welcoming the U.S. return after Trump..

“I’m delighted to see that the United States is back, is back to work together with us in climate politics,” Merkel declared in her virtual appearance. “Because there can be no doubt about the world needing your contribution if we really want to fulfill our ambitious goals.”

Pope Francis contributed a video from the Vatican, saying, “I wish you success in this beautiful decision to meet, walk together going forward and I am with you all the way.”

The new urgency comes as scientists say that climate change caused by coal plants, car engines and other fossil fuel use is worsening droughts, floods, hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters and that humans are running out of time to stave off catastrophic extremes of global warming.

Leaders of smaller states and island nations buffeted by rising seas and worsening hurricanes appealed for aid and fast emissions cuts from world powers.

“We are the least contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, but the most affected by climate change,” said Gaston Alfonso Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda. He called for debt relief and more international assistance to recover from storms and the pandemic to prevent a flow of climate refugees. His people he said, are “teetering on the edge of despair.”

Longtime climate policy experts, no strangers to climate summits with solemn pledges, watched some speeches with skepticism. After Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro promised an end to clearcutting in the Amazon, Dan Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch’s environmental programs noted, “It is going to be hard for anyone to take it seriously until they actually start taking steps.”

___

Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City. Associated Press writers Ashok Sharma in New Delhi, Joe McDonald in Beijing, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, David Biller in Rio de Janeiro, Nicole Winfield in Vatican City, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Aamer Madhani, Seth Borenstein, Lisa Mascaro and Alexandra Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.

Afghan president appoints 2 ministers, angers ruling partner

Afghan president appoints 2 ministers, angers ruling partner

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FILE – In this March 6, 2021, file photo, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during the opening ceremony of the new legislative session of the Parliament in Kabul, Afghanistan. Ghani has made two key Cabinet changes, evoking a strong response … more >

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By RAHIM FAIEZ

Associated Press

Saturday, March 20, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has made two key Cabinet changes, a move condemned on Saturday as “unacceptable” by his powerful governing partner, Abdullah Abdullah, at a time when the U.S. is ratcheting up the pressure to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban.

In May 2020, Ghani and political rival Abdullah signed a power-sharing agreement, two months after both declared themselves the winner of the September 2019 presidential election. Under the deal, Ghani remained president of the war-torn nation while Abdullah was named head of the country’s National Reconciliation Council, which has the authority to handle and approve all affairs related to Afghanistan’s peace process. Abdullah would also be able to appoint half of Ghani’s Cabinet and issue executive orders.

On Friday, Ghani dismissed Interior Minister Masoud Andarabi, appointing Hayatullah Hayat as caretaker minister. In recent years, Hayat had served as governor of southern Kandahar province.

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There was little explanation from the government for the changes, but the moves angered Abdullah. “This decision is against the interests of the country in the current situation and is unacceptable,” he said in a statement released Saturday.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Yasin Zia was appointed acting defense minister. He replaced Asadullah Khalid, who had been receiving treatment abroad for severe injuries sustained in a 2012 suicide bombing, according to an official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He said Khalid will be returning to Afghanistan sometime soon.

Khalid was head of Afghanistan’s intelligence at the time of the attack. He has received treatment in the United States and has periodically returned there.

The changes come as a May 1 deadline nears for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and America has increased pressure on both the national government and the Taliban to end decades-old fighting.

The Cabinet changes could be a sign that Ghani is pushing back against the U.S. and opposition’s increasing support for an interim administration. Ghani’s critics have accused him of clinging to power. He says he will leave office only through elections.

The statement from Abdullah’s office said the decision to remove Andarabi came “without consultation, without justifiable reason or reasons, was hastily (made) and in opposition to a political agreement between the two parties.”

The new appointments come as Afghanistan experiences a nationwide spike in bombings, targeted killings and other violence as peace negotiations in Qatar between Taliban insurgents and the Afghan government stall.

The Islamic State group’s local affiliate has claimed responsibility for some of the violence, but many attacks go unclaimed, with the Afghan government putting the blame on the Taliban. The insurgents have denied responsibility for most of the attacks.

On Thursday, Russia hosted the first of three international conferences aimed at jump-starting the peace process ahead of the May 1 deadline for the final withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from the country.

The Taliban warned Washington on Friday against defying the deadline, promising a “reaction” if it does, which could mean increased attacks by the insurgent group.

The talks in Qatar between the Afghan government and the Taliban have stalled, but Russia voiced hope that the talks in Moscow could help reinvigorate them.

Antony Blinken eyes pulling Iran, Russia into Afghan talks

‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’: Biden seeks a new way ahead for troubled talks

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks on foreign policy at the State Department, Wednesday, March 3, 2021 in Washington. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP) more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Monday, March 8, 2021

The Biden administration’s surprise diplomatic push in Afghanistan could serve a dual purpose: to lay the groundwork for a U.S. military presence in the country past a looming May 1 withdrawal deadline, and to create an opening to work with adversaries Iran, China and Russia, each of which has created major geopolitical headaches in the White House’s early days.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, revealed publicly over the weekend by Afghanistan’s TOLOnews, calls for a multinational conference to forge a comprehensive deal between the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and the insurgent Taliban, who hold tremendous sway over negotiations because of the vast territory they control and their demonstrated ability to survive and grow despite two decades of war with the U.S.

Seen by some regional analysts to be a last-ditch effort to save the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Mr. Blinken has proposed a meeting in Turkey that would bring the two Afghan parties together with representatives from the U.S., Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India. The proposal also reportedly calls for a power-sharing arrangement that would give the Taliban a major role in determining the future of the country.

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The meeting would call into question the point of U.S.-backed power-sharing talks between the Taliban and the Ghani government that began under President Trump. The negotiations, held in Doha, Qatar, have produced little progress.

The unexpected diplomatic moves may signal that the Biden administration is prepared to keep some U.S. troops in Afghanistan past the May 1 exit date laid out in a deal that Mr. Trump struck with the Taliban in early 2020. That pact, among other things, called for a major reduction in attacks by Taliban fighters and a complete break with terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. Virtually all observers believe the group has failed to meet those conditions.

The new round of multilateral negotiations could give Mr. Blinken, Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and other administration officials justification to keep roughly 2,500 American troops, as well as allied forces, in Afghanistan. In theory, it would give Washington more leverage as it pushes for concessions from Taliban leaders, who desperately want U.S. troops gone.

Although Washington’s interests clash with those of China, Russia and Iran on other fronts, none of the regional powers favors a return to harsh Taliban rule or to more violence, and instability in Afghanistan.

Critics say the administration faces long odds. Simply bringing more countries into the process, they say, does little to change the fact that the Taliban have not kept their word but are still on track to be rewarded with power and prestige.

“The Biden team is approaching Afghanistan with a naivete that makes pre-9/11 decision-making look quaint,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Bringing other countries in for cover doesn’t change the fact that Blinken and Khalilzad are empowering the Taliban.

“The proposed Islamic council to which the Taliban will appoint jurists will wield a veto over all laws,” he said. “In effect, Biden and Blinken are imposing on Afghans the Sunni version of Iran’s theocracy. This doesn’t mean the U.S. needs to stay forever, but if the goal is to leave, for God’s sake, don’t undercut and undermine the Afghan government on the way out.”

Mr. Ghani also has expressed skepticism, and the struggling government in Kabul seems wary of formally granting more power to the Taliban.

State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday would not confirm the authenticity of Mr. Blinken’s letter, though he seemed to suggest its broad strokes are correct. Officials have not disputed the letter’s contents.

“It is true that they are consulting and the department more broadly is consulting with allies, with our partners, with countries in the region. … But at the same time, everything, every idea we have put on the table, every proposal that is out there, certainly any proposal that we would endorse, we understand that this process at its core must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned,” Mr. Price said.

Seats at the table 

Early signs suggest that the U.S. could find willing negotiating partners in rivals Iran and Russia. Iran’s theocratic regime could enhance its standing in the theater if it plays a significant role in shaping the future of is neighbor. Officials in Tehran said Monday that the nation is open to joining talks.

Afghanistan is important to us and is not our bargaining card with anybody,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told Iranian media.

Multinational talks on Afghanistan would put the U.S. and Iran at the same negotiating table, which might improve the atmospherics as Washington and Tehran spar over reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that President Trump repudiated in 2018.

Russia, which has hosted officials from Kabul the Taliban, also appears open to participating. U.S.-Russian cooperation on the future of Afghanistan could help thaw a frosty relationship, further strained by U.S. economic sanctions on Moscow for the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and a massive hack of U.S. companies and government agencies largely believed to be the work of the Kremlin.

Russian officials have not publicly addressed Mr. Blinken’s letter, but top Kremlin leaders last week said the country wants a voice in the Afghanistan debate. China’s communist government has not commented on the specific proposal but may be willing to take part in the talks to flex its muscle and further prove itself to be an influential player in the region.

But the willingness of outside powers may matter little in the end. With the Afghan government skeptical at best of the proposal, Kabul could resent the pressure to enter into a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban, foreign policy analysts say.

“The U.S. political system is not exactly functioning in an exemplary fashion, but one wonders how President Biden would feel if a U.S. ‘ally’ circulated a plan that called for dumping the U.S. Constitution and setting up a ‘peace government’ requiring Biden to share power with the extremists who invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6th,” William Maley, emeritus professor at the Australian National University, wrote in a Monday analysis piece for TOLOnews.

Monday also brought fresh evidence of the chaos and danger in Afghanistan. An analysis from the open-source military intelligence firm Janes found that 2,373 attacks last year from “non-state armed groups” killed 6,617 people, a 15.9% increase over the previous year. Janes said “the increasing violence in Afghanistan was driven almost exclusively by Taliban attacks targeting the security forces” of the Afghan government.

U.S. military officials have stressed that diplomacy is the only real path forward in Afghanistan, but they also have made clear that the Taliban have failed to keep the commitments they made to reduce violence.

“Both parties have got to show that they’re willing to make the concessions that are going to be necessary to find a political path forward. And frankly, I remain concerned about the actions that the Taliban have taken up until this point,” Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, said last week during an event at the Middle East Institute.

⦁ Guy Taylor contributed to this report.

Syrian president, wife test positive for the coronavirus

Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife test positive for the coronavirus

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This file photo released on July 19, 2020, on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and his wife Asma voting at a polling station in the parliamentary elections, in Damascus, Syria. (Syrian … more >

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Associated Press

Monday, March 8, 2021

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife have tested positive for the coronavirus, the president’s office said Monday, with both having only mild symptoms of the illness.

In a statement, Assad’s office said the first couple did PCR tests after they experienced minor symptoms consistent with the COVID-19 illness. It said that Assad, 55, and his wife Asma, who is 10 years younger, will continue to work from home where they will isolate between two to three weeks.

Both were in “good health and in stable condition,” it added.

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Syria, which marks 10 years of war next week, has recorded nearly 16,000 virus cases in government-held parts of the country, including 1,063 deaths. But the numbers are believed to be much higher with limited amounts of PCR tests being done, particularly in areas of northern Syria outside government control.

The pandemic, which has severely tested even developed countries, has been a major challenge for Syria‘s health care sector, already depleted by years of conflict.

Syria began a vaccination campaign last week, but no details have been given about the process, nor have local journalists been allowed to witness the rollout. The health minister said the government procured the vaccines from a friendly country, which he declined to name.

The announcement came days after international and Israeli media reports revealed that Israel paid Russia $1.2 million to provide the Syrian government with coronavirus vaccines. It was reportedly part of a deal that secured the release of an Israeli woman held in Damascus. The terms of the clandestine trade-off negotiated by Moscow remained murky. Damascus denied it happened and Russia had no comment.

Israeli bankrolling of Syria’s vaccination efforts would be an embarrassment for Assad’s government, which considers Israel its main regional enemy.

It was not immediately clear if Assad, who has been in power since taking over from his late father in 2000, or any of his family members have been vaccinated.

Syria has been mired in civil war for the past 10 years since anti-government protests that began as part of Arab Spring uprisings turned to an insurgency in response to a military crackdown. A decade of fighting has resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.

Diplomats: UN fails to approve call to end Tigray violence

Diplomats: UN fails to approve call to end Tigray violence

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A medical clinic that was looted and vandalized in Zana, is seen in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. The United Nations in its latest humanitarian report on the situation in Tigray says the "humanitarian situation … more >

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Saturday, March 6, 2021

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – An attempt to get U.N. Security Council approval for a statement calling for an end to violence in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region and to spotlight the millions in need of humanitarian assistance was dropped Friday night after objections from India, Russia and especially China, U.N. diplomats said.

Three council diplomats said Ireland, which drafted the statement, decided not to push for approval after objections from the three countries.

The press statement would have been the first by the U.N.’s most powerful body on the Tigray crisis, which is entering its fourth month. Fierce fighting reportedly continues between Ethiopian and allied forces and those supporting the now-fugitive Tigray leaders who once dominated Ethiopia’s government and alarm is growing over the fate of Tigray’s 6 million people. No one knows how many thousands of civilians have been killed.

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On Tuesday, U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock warned that “a campaign of destruction” is taking place, saying at least 4.5 million people need assistance and demanding that forces from neighboring Eritrea accused of committing atrocities in Tigray leave Ethiopia.

The proposed statement made no mention of foreign forces or sanctions — two key issues — but did call “for an end to violence in Tigray.”

The draft statement also noted “with concern” the humanitarian situation in Tigray, “where millions of people remain in need of humanitarian assistance” and the challenge of access for aid workers. It called for “the full and early implementation” of the Ethiopian government’s statements on Feb. 26 and March 3 committing to “unfettered access.”

Council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because consultations were private, said China wanted the statement to focus only on the humanitarian situation, with no reference to the violence in Tigray. India only wanted a minor change, and Russia reportedly supported its ally China at the last minute, the diplomats said.

Accounts of a massacre of several hundred people by Eritrean soldiers in the holy city of Axum in Tigray have been detailed in reports by The Associated Press and then by Amnesty International. Federal government and regional officials in Tigray both believe that each other’s governments are illegitimate after elections disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Human Rights Watch echoed the reports on Friday, saying Eritrean armed forces “massacred scores of civilians, including children as young as 13,” in the historic town of Axum in Tigray in November 2020. It called on the U.N. to urgently establish an independent inquiry into war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in Tigray.

Myanmar cracked down brutally on protests. It may get worse.

Myanmar cracked down brutally on protests. It may get worse.

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In this Feb. 26, 2021, file photo, an injured protester is escorted as police tried to disperse a demonstration against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar. Myanmar’s security forces have killed scores of demonstrators protesting a coup. The outside world … more >

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By VICTORIA MILKO and FOSTER KLUG

Associated Press

Friday, March 5, 2021

TOKYO (AP) – Myanmar‘s security forces have killed scores of demonstrators protesting a coup. The new junta has jailed journalists – and anyone else capable of exposing the violence. It has done away with even limited legal protections. The outside world has responded so far with tough words, a smattering of sanctions and little else.

The slide from a nascent democracy to yet another coup, as rapid as it has been brutal, opens up a grim possibility: As bad as it looks in Myanmar now, if the country’s long history of violent military rule is any guide, things could get worse.

Protesters have continued to fill the streets despite violence that left 38 people dead one day this week – though they have turned out in smaller numbers than the weeks right after the Feb. 1 coup. They have used smartphones to capture the brutality. Recent videos show security forces shooting a person at point-blank range and chasing down and savagely beating demonstrators.

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The military, however, has the clear upper hand, with sophisticated weapons, a large network of spies, the ability to cut telecoms, and decades of fighting experience from civil conflicts in the country’s borderlands.

“We are at a crisis point,” Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations with long experience working with Myanmar, told The Associated Press, pointing to the arrests of journalists, including AP’s Thein Zaw, and the indiscriminate killing of protesters. “The international community needs to respond much more forcefully, or this situation will degenerate into complete anarchy and violence.”

So, will it?

Governments around the world, including the United States, have condemned the coup, which reversed years of slow progress toward democracy. Before that opening up began, Myanmar had languished under a strict military rule for five decades that led to international isolation and crippling sanctions. As the generals loosened their grip in the past decade, the international community lifted most sanctions and poured in investment.

Despite the flurry of recent global criticism, however, there’s not much hope that pressure from outside will change the course of events inside the country. For one thing, coordinated action at the U.N. – like a global arms embargo that the world body’s independent expert on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, called for – is unlikely. Russia and China, Myanmar’s most powerful supporter, are still selling arms to the military – and they each have a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and thus could veto any such measure. The Security Council will take up the crisis in Myanmar on Friday.

Myanmar‘s neighbors, the countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, are generally loath to “interfere” in one another’s affairs – a policy that means they are unlikely to do anything more than call for talks between the junta and the ousted government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

That leaves sanctions from the United States and other Western countries. Washington imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s top military leaders after the Feb. 1 coup. More pressure came after a U.N. envoy said security forces killed 38 people on Wednesday. Britain imposed sanctions on three generals and six members of the junta in response to the coup and the crackdown. The European Union is drawing up measures to respond to the coup.

But even tough sanctions from those countries are unlikely to yield anything, though they may weigh heavily on ordinary people. Myanmar has ridden out decades of such measures before, and the military is already talking about plans for “self-reliance.”

U.N. special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, told reporters this week that she had warned the military that tough sanctions may be coming – and the response was that the generals knew how to “walk with only a few friends.’”

Myanmar’s history suggests the military will use ever increasing brutality and violence in an attempt to put down the protest movement,” said Ronan Lee, a visiting scholar at the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London. “In the past, the military has been prepared to murder thousands to quell civil unrest or to meet its goals.”

In the face of such determination, some observers question how long the protest movement can last.

“While it may appear at first glance to be a battle of wills, the military has a substantial resource advantage over the average protester and has demonstrated that it’s willing to engage in extreme acts of violence and brutality to try to force compliance,” said John Lichtefeld, vice president of The Asia Group, a consulting firm.

It may get much worse, he said. The military “is an organization with tremendous institutional pride, and it’s possible that hardliners within the military who have been pushing for a more aggressive response are beginning to gain influence.”

The military has also gotten away with past abuse. In 2017 the army slaughtered thousands of minority Rohingya Muslims in massacres that U.N. officials have said bear the “hallmarks of genocide” with few consequences so far.

In a sign of how limited the options are to influence the junta, when asked what more Britain and other countries could do, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab responded: “We will continue to look at how we hold individual members of the regime to account.”

Myanmar’s military is banking on the world going no further than “harsh words, some economic sanctions and travel bans,” Lee, the scholar at Queen Mary University, said. In order to ensure that, it may exercise some restraint in its crackdown – to try to keep violence below a threshold that would compel action – or at least keep it hidden.

This is why, he said, authorities are targeting journalists. It suggests they “understand the value of international exposure to the protesters and are aggressively working to limit it.”

___

Milko reported from Jakarta, Indonesia. Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in London, Jamey Keaton in Geneva, Frances D’Emilio in Rome and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.

US: Russia blocks Syria chemical weapons use accountability

US: Russia blocks Syria chemical weapons use accountability

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Thursday, March 4, 2021

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The United States accused Syrian President Bashar Assad and his close ally Russia on Thursday of trying to block all efforts to hold Damascus accountable for using chemical weapons during attacks on civilians.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the U.N. Security Council that “the Assad regime has tried to avoid accountability by obstructing independent investigations and undermining the role and work of the OPCW,” the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons which is the international chemical weapons watchdog.

She accused Russia of defending Assad “despite its chemical weapons attacks,” obstructing independent investigations, and undermining efforts to hold the Syrian government accountable not only for using chemical weapons but for “numerous other atrocities.”

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OPCW investigators blamed three chemical attacks in 2017 on Assad’s government in April 2020. The OPCW Executive Council responded by demanding that Syria provide details. When it didn’t, France submitted a draft measure on behalf of 46 countries in November to suspend Syria’s “rights and privileges” in the global watchdog which means it would lose its vote. It will be considered at the April meeting of the OPCW’s 193 member states.

Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013, pressed by Russia after a deadly chemical weapons attack that the West blamed on Damascus. By August 2014, the Assad government declared that the destruction of its chemical weapons was completed. But Syria’s initial declaration of its chemical stockpiles and chemical weapons production sites to the OPCW has remained in dispute.

U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu told the council that issues related to Syria’s declaration “remain outstanding” including a chemical weapons production facility that the Syrian government declared “as never having been used for the production of chemical weapons.”

She said, however, that analysis of information and all materials gathered by the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team since 2014 “indicates that production and/or weaponization of chemical warfare nerve agents did, in fact, take place at this facility.”

The team asked Syria “to declare the exact types and quantities of chemical agents produced and/or weaponized at this site,” but no response has been received, Nakamitsu said.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused some countries, which he didn’t name, of repeatedly using the chemical weapons “card” as a tool to pressure the Syrian government, using grave accusations “backed up by unconvincing evidence like video footage on social media or `testimony’ of knowingly biased witnesses, or falsified facts.”

At the same time, he said, “they reject the counter-arguments provided not only by Russia and Syria, but also by independent experts and organizations, and do not give any coherent explanation as to why they do so.”

Nebenzia reiterated Russia’s accusations that the OPCW and its technical experts have become the “transmitter of anti-Syrian claims of the Western countries” — an allegation strongly denied by Nakamitsu, U.S. ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, and many other speakers.

“The root cause of the problem is that our Western colleagues have long turned Syria’s chemical file into a means of punishment of the unwanted authorities in Damascus,” the Russian ambassador said. “Therefore, attempts to establish the connection between the file and actual use or non-use of chemical weapons are absolutely senseless.”

Syria’s new U.N. ambassador, Bassam al-Sabbagh, who served as his country’s envoy to the OPCW for seven years after 2013, stressed the government’s condemnation of the use of chemical weapons and denial that it ever used chemical weapons.

He said Syria has made “tangible progress” in resolving issues in its initial declaration and expressed regrets that some countries “always see the glass half empty and don’t hesitate to criticize rather than applaud progress achieved.”

France’s U.N. Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere countered that “the Syrian regime is still lying, hiding the truth and evading its international obligations.” He emphasized “the need to fight impunity.”“

He sharply criticizedd “the unfounded accusations” against the OPCW, saying “they are undignified and, above all, they are irresponsible.”

“The Security Council has a historic responsibility for the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the re-emergence of chemical weapons in the world is a major threat,” De Riviere said. “We cannot allow these weapons to become commonplace.”

China uses global COVID-19 vaccine exports to one-up U.S.

China deploys unlikely weapon to muscle out U.S. on global stage: COVID-19 vaccine

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As vice president, Joseph R. Biden visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. He called for intimate U.S. economic and trade integration with the emerging communist power. (Associated Press/File) more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Biden administration says it is committed to strategically countering China on the global stage, but Beijing has already seized the public relations high ground in the soft-power fight to win friends and influence through strategically placed COVID-19 vaccine deliveries to countries in need.

Amid storied complaining that the world’s wealthier nations are hoarding precious stocks, China has grabbed the international spotlight by pledging roughly half a billion vaccine doses to more than 45 countries, with Russia and India also competing in the scramble to ship doses around the world.

The competition is hitting close to home. Across the southern U.S. border, Mexico has accepted shipments of Chinese and Russian vaccines to help fight the pandemic.

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Doubts over the efficacy of Chinese-made Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines are swirling among some scientists, who argue that the Biden administration is wise to avoid shipping U.S.-made vaccines anywhere before the U.S. stockpiles enough doses for its own residents. But others say the administration is asleep at the switch while Beijing exploits the pandemic to score a Cold War-style propaganda victory over the West.

“We are clearly losing on messaging and optics at the moment,” said Dr. Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University. “Right now, if you’re Peru or Mexico, where are you getting vaccines from? It’s not the U.S.; it’s from China or Russia.”

“I think countries are going to have long memories of who helped them in a time of crisis,” he said. For all the rhetoric about “reasserting U.S. engagement” around the world, the Biden administration is “losing a moment of opportunity to reassert U.S. leadership in the global arena” through vaccine distribution.

The Associated Press reported this week that Chinese vaccines have been shipped to more than 25 countries, with shots delivered to another 11, while only a small clutch of wealthy nations has managed to get the pricier, U.S.-produced Pfizer and Moderna shots.

With just four of China’s many vaccine makers able to produce at least 2.6 billion doses this year, the news agency reported, a large part of the world’s population will end up inoculated not with the fancy Western vaccines boasting headline-grabbing efficacy rates, but with China’s less-celebrated shots.

India, which is manufacturing two vaccines, started donating doses to a number of neighboring countries in January, while Russia has given doses of its Sputnik V vaccine to more than a dozen nations. Sputnik V has been registered or approved for emergency use in more than 40 countries around the world, and Russian ambassadors in countries such as Iran and Bolivia have made it a point to publicize heavily when the Sputnik V vaccine arrives for the locals.

Chinese officials publicly deny that they are waging a vaccine diplomacy race. They describe the vaccine as a “global public good.” Chinese experts also have rejected ties between vaccine distribution and any attempt by China’s communist regime to burnish its global image after facing widespread criticism for its handling of the first outbreaks of the virus in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.

But some can’t resist comparing what they say has been China’s generosity with American stinginess.

“By the end of February, China has provided vaccine assistance to 69 countries and two international organizations,” Wang Wenwen, an editor with the state-controlled Global Times, wrote Thursday. “It has also exported its vaccine to 28 countries.

“Meanwhile,” he added, “the U.S. is living in its self-built wall of unilateralism and the lingering ‘America First’ mentality.”

Focused on home

Biden administration officials have brushed aside questions about China’s COVID-19 diplomacy push, stressing that their focus at the moment is on vaccinating Americans.

When asked this week whether the administration is considering sharing part of the U.S. vaccine supply with Mexico, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki responded with a flat “no.”

Once the U.S. population is taken care of, she said, “we’re happy to discuss further steps.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also sidestepped questions about whether the White House fears it is ceding its leadership to China, even as the administration frames Beijing as the chief threat to the United States.

“I think as the months go on and as we vaccinate our own people and make sure that every American is protected, we’ll also be engaged in helping the world get vaccinated,” Mr. Blinken told PBS’s “Newshour.” “Because at the end of the day, we will not be fully secure until the world is vaccinated, not just Americans.”

He said the U.S. is “contributing billions of dollars to creating greater access to vaccines.”

Indeed, the Biden administration went to lengths in mid-February to highlight the decision to commit some $4 billion to COVAX, the international effort orchestrated by the World Health Organization to bolster the purchase and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to poorer nations.

Officials framed the commitment as a stark contrast with the Trump administration, which spurned both the WHO and the multinational COVAX effort. But even the $4 billion now authorized by Mr. Biden has strings attached.

The president told a virtual Group of Seven summit last month that Washington will deliver half upfront, with the rest contingent on other G-7 nations making good on their own pledges.

The U.S. record on supporting global vaccine efforts has drawn mixed reactions from experts.

“I believe in a modest form of vaccine nationalism,” said Arthur Caplan, a professor of medical ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. The Biden administration, he said, was wise to vaccinate key segments of the U.S. population such as health care workers first, even when there may be a diplomatic advantage to sharing doses with other nations in need.

“You’ve got to take care of the neediest folks in your own country first,” he said. “If you’re not in control of what’s going on in your own country, it’s hard to help others. … Think of it as the airplane mask rule: Put your own mask on before you help others.”

Mr. Caplan said much of what China, Russia and India have done to date amounts to “tokenism” because the total number of doses being shared isn’t enough to dramatically dent global COVID-19 rates.

“I don’t think the Chinese are giving enough to make a huge difference, and we don’t even know that their vaccines work that well,” he said. “I’m not overly worried that we’re getting outmaneuvered or somehow asleep at the international security switch.”

He added, “I think these are minor chess moves that are not going to have a long-term impact on foreign policy, because it’s too little in the way of help and it’s too obvious in terms of trying to curry favor. The bigger questions of help will be here soon, in say four or five months, when we have a lot of vaccines around and you could really do some serious distribution.”

A push to prepare

But others say the U.S. should be doing more now.

“As Americans get vaccinated, we need to do more to vaccinate others,” said Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

While Mr. Cronin told The Times that “President Biden’s commitment of $4 billion to the global vaccine fund is a demonstration of U.S. leadership,” he stressed that “even more should be done” and suggested a “bolder” move may be for the United States to “lift the patent on vaccine formulas.”

Others say the patent issue is sticky because few nations have the scientific expertise to quickly reproduce vaccines on their own.

In the interim, there are signs that the Biden administration is exploring a joint plan for distributing vaccines in Asia with allies Japan, India and Australia — member nations of the “Quad,” an informal alliance that U.S. officials have increasingly sought to promote as a counter to China.

Biden administration Indo-Pacific policy coordinator Kurt Campbell has spearheaded the effort, according to the Financial Times, which reported this week that Mr. Campbell has held several meetings with ambassadors from the Quad.

The White House has declined to comment on details of the behind-the-scenes effort, although a spokesperson told The Times on Thursday that “expanding global vaccination, manufacturing and delivery” are “issues the United States is regularly discussing with allies and partners like Australia, India and Japan.”

Duke’s Dr. Udayakumar, meanwhile, said reliance on “existing platforms like the Quad would make sense as part of overall strategy but doesn’t address needs and vaccine diplomacy efforts in Africa and Latin America.”

“It also leaves open the question of the role of COVAX relative to bilateral and other multilateral efforts,” he said, adding that the U.S. should be engaging in public diplomacy tied to an initiative for sharing vaccine doses in the near future.

“We will pretty confidently have vaccines in excess of our needs by July, so we need to start planning now for what we’re going to do with excess,” Dr. Udayakumar told The Times.

He added that the Biden administration may be holding back a more aggressive policy for delivering vaccines internationally because pushing such a policy at the current moment could complicate difficulties the administration is already having in getting Congress to pass a domestic COVID-19 relief bill.

But, Dr. Udayakumar said, “even if we were just talking about making doses available in June or July, that would be a lot better than the current story, which is that the U.S. is hoarding doses while India, China and Russia are sharing them.”

House members urge Russia once more to immediately release Trevor Reed, imprisoned Marine vet

House members urge Russia once more to immediately release Trevor Reed, imprisoned Marine vet

'They took him hostage. They had a kangaroo court trial.'

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The Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (Associated Press) more >

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By Andrew Blake

The Washington Times

Thursday, March 4, 2021

A resolution urging Russia to free imprisoned U.S. Marine Corps veteran Trevor R. Reed was reintroduced Wednesday by Republican members of the House of Representatives from his home state of Texas.

Rep. August Pfluger offered the bipartisan resolution with the support of two dozen co-sponsors, mostly fellow Texas Republicans, requesting the “immediate release” of Mr. Reed from Russian custody.

Mr. Reed, a Fort Worth native who attended school in California, is serving a nine-year prison sentence after being convicted of charges he drunkenly assaulted two police officers in Moscow in 2019.

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Mr. Reed has denied attacking the officers and described his conviction as politically motivated. His supporters in the U.S. State Department, House and Senate hold the same assessment.

“These charges were clearly politically motivated, and the entire process has been a sham,” Mr. Pfluger said in a statement. “We cannot tolerate American citizens being used as political pawns.”

“They took him hostage,” added Rep. Michael McCaul, another Texas Republican and the GOP’s ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “They had a kangaroo court trial,” he said on CNN.

In addition to Mr. Pfluger and Mr. McCaul, the House resolution is co-sponsored by 15 other Republican members of the Texas delegation, including Reps. Dan Crenshaw and Chip Roy, among others.

Additional co-sponsors of the resolution include seven Democrats — six from Texas and one from Hawaii — as well as House Republican Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California.

Mr. McCarthy said in a statement that Mr. Reed honorably served his country, adding that “the unjust way he has been brutalized by the Russian judicial system has been nothing short of cruel.”

The House passed a resolution last year calling on Russia to free Mr. Reed, although a companion resolution proposed in the Senate ultimately died in committee during the 116th Congress. Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, reintroduced that resolution last month, however.

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle jets used in strikes against Iran-backed militias, Pentagon says

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle jets used in strikes against Iran-backed militias, Pentagon says

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F-15E Strike Eagle from Seymour Johnson AFB N.C., demonstrates its maneuverability at the Charleston Air Expo, Joint Base Charleston S.C., April 9, 2011. The F-15E is a multirole fighter capable of air to surface and air to air combat. (U.S. … more >

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By Mike Glenn

The Washington Times

Friday, February 26, 2021

A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets dropped seven precision-guided munitions Thursday during airstrikes on a remote compound in eastern Syria used by Iranian-backed militias.

The strikes destroyed nine buildings in a compound along the border and damaged two others, Pentagon officials confirmed on Friday. The mission was in response to recent rocket attacks targeting American and allied forces in Iraq and to defend against ongoing threats from the Kait’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kait’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS) militant groups.

“This location is known to facilitate Iranian-aligned militia group activity,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. 

SEE ALSO: Russia, ally of Syria, fumes at U.S. airstrike against militia group

Mr. Kirby said he couldn’t confirm how many people on the ground were killed or wounded because the battle-damage assessment was still ongoing.

While some lawmakers have complained they didn’t know about the mission until afterwards, Pentagon officials said congressional leadership was notified before the strikes. Individual senators and U.S. representatives along with their staff were being briefed on Friday.

“There will be a full classified briefing early next week,” Mr. Kirby said.

Pentagon officials wouldn’t say where the U.S. mission originated. 

“The targets were chosen carefully — very deliberately — and struck in exactly the same manner,” Mr. Kirby said.

The Biden administration cited Article II of the Constitution — which identifies the president as commander-in-chief of the military — and Article 15 of the U.N. Charter in defending the mission’s legality under domestic and international law. 

“International law gives nations involved in operations the right to self defense,” Mr. Kirby said. “This really was a defensive strike meant to help protect in the future American forces and coalition partners given what we knew about what those structures were used for.”

The compound was a way station for militant groups like KH and KSS traveling from Syria into Iraq, officials said.

“We’re confident that these were legitimate targets that were utilized by groups associated with these recent attacks,” Mr. Kirby said.

The airstrikes were the end result of an investigation conducted by Iraqi military officials that began following a Feb. 13, 2021, barrage that landed three rockets in and around Erbil International Airport. The blast killed a civilian U.S. contractor — not an American citizen — and wounded a U.S. service member.

“It was very much a team effort. (Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin) was very sincere when he praised our Iraqi partners for the investigative and intelligence work that they did. There was some very good work done on the intelligence side that helped lead to this successful strike,” Mr. Kirby said. “We offered support and assistance. We were able to provide some information to their investigative process that helped.”

While U.S. officials say they’re confident Iran has been supporting the militia groups targeting American troops in Iraq, they said Thursday’s strike also was meant to send a broader message.

“We will defend ourselves. We will protect our interests and certainly act to protect our people and the forces of our allies and partners,” Mr. Kirby said. “That is an unambiguous and clear message to anyone in the region about what the stakes are if you’re going to continue to conduct attacks on our people and the Iraqi people,”

US urges Tanzania to embrace COVID-19 vaccines, share data

US urges Tanzania to embrace COVID-19 vaccines, share data

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By CARA ANNA

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – The United States praised Tanzania on Friday for finally acknowledging the resurgence of COVID-19 after claiming for months it had defeated the pandemic through prayer. But the U.S. urged the country to share infection data and accept vaccines.

“It has become clear that the virus variant has arrived in Tanzania,“ U.S. Ambassador Donald Wright, who is also a doctor, said in a statement. “I’ve been encouraged by recent statements from the Ministry of Health acknowledging COVID-19 as a public health priority in Tanzania and urging citizens to take basic precautions.“

Tanzania is one of Africa’s most populous countries, with some 60 million people, and during its long COVID-19 denial the director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that if the continent isn’t united, “it’s doomed.”

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High-profile deaths this month in the East African nation, including that of the vice president of the semi-autonomous island region of Zanzibar, appeared to lead populist President John Magufuli to acknowledge publicly in the past week that COVID-19 was back.

For weeks, Tanzanians had seen a rise in death notices citing breathing difficulties and cases of what health workers called “pneumonia.” But countries such as Oman reported Tanzanians arriving in their countries and testing positive for the virus.

Meanwhile, Tanzania‘s president openly questioned COVID-19 vaccines, without providing evidence. Tanzania is one of the very few countries in Africa that has not signed up for the global COVAX facility to provide vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. Now those vaccines have begun to arrive, in Ghana and Ivory Coast, with more on the way.

The U.S. ambassador’s statement urges Tanzania to “convene its health experts and review the evidence on vaccines.” He also notes “it is critical to collect and report information about testing and cases.“

Tanzania last updated its number of infections last April. That number remains at 509.

Then the ambassador turned to aid: “Here in Tanzania, we dedicated $16.4 million to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic since the first confirmed case was diagnosed in March of 2020. The United States stands ready to ramp up our efforts and we are committed to working side by side with Tanzania to defeat COVID-19.”

An embassy spokesman did not immediately respond to a question about whether further aid depends on Tanzania sharing pandemic data and embracing vaccines.

Tanzania, unlike other African countries, did not lock down during the pandemic and it has promoted that to tourists and others.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Tanzania‘s investment minister, Kitila Mkumbo, asserted that COVID-19 “has not been one of the major concerns of investors.” He added that American investors “are waiting for the pandemic to slow down so movement can begin.”

And the minister welcomed the Biden administration, saying he believed that the U.S. will once again “take global responsibility of supporting developing countries like Tanzania in many aspects, like health.”

___

Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak