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Johnson: Britain Sticking to Its Plan, Despite COVID Surge

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is resisting calls by some public health officials to implement new COVID-19 restrictions, despite a surge of new infections hitting the nation.

The Health Ministry reported 52,000 new infections on Thursday, with a daily average the past week of more than 44,000 — a 16% increase from the previous week.

The World Health Organization reported this week that Britain has among the highest number of daily new infections in the European region, the only part of the world that saw an increase in new cases last week.

Speaking to reporters, Johnson said the government is going to stick to a plan it laid out earlier this year which called for a series of steps to allow the country to reopen and lift the restrictions.

Johnson said officials are carefully watching the COVID-19 numbers and said while the figures are high, they are within the parameters that government experts predicted.

Johnson said the best thing people can do now is get a booster shot. Almost 80% of British residents 12 and older have been fully vaccinated, and everyone over 50 is being offered a booster.

Johnson said, “Ninety percent of the adult population has antibodies right now. But we must fortify ourselves further.”

Critics of the government plan say the booster campaign is moving more slowly than the infection. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Thursday the booster shot campaign is currently vaccinating about 165,000 people a day and that it should be closer to 500,000 per day.

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

 

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Man Charged Under British Terrorism Law in Death of Lawmaker

British authorities said Thursday that a British man has been charged in the fatal stabbing of lawmaker David Amess last week while he was meeting with constituents at a church. 

Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service said Ali Harbi Ali, a 25-year-old of Somali heritage, has been charged under the Terrorism Act.

The death of the longtime lawmaker has stunned Britain and particularly its politicians, who have a tradition of being accessible to constituents. His murder has sparked high level conversations about how Britain protects its leaders and confronts domestic extremism.

The 69-year-old Amess was a social conservative who opposed abortion and supported Britain’s exit from the European Union.

His killing came five years after Labour Party legislator Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist, the first British lawmaker to be killed since a peace agreement ended violence in Northern Ireland nearly three decades before.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press. 

 

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Europe’s Energy Crunch Set to Worsen as Russia Refrains From Boosting Gas Exports

A week ago, President Vladimir Putin said Russia would be prepared to increase natural gas exports to help Europe with an energy crunch that has triggered soaring prices. But there are no signs he will make good on promise of relief, say energy experts.

 

This week Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom appeared to have opted not to boost gas exports to Europe and refrained at auctions from reserving additional gas transit capacity on Ukrainian or Polish pipelines, according to Bloomberg data.

 

Last week, in an interview with American broadcaster CNBC, the Russian president dismissed suggestions the Kremlin was using gas as a geopolitical weapon, saying such talk was “politically motivated blather.”   

 

But Gazprom’s decision not to reserve additional capacity for gas exports to Europe has prompted anger from European leaders, who accuse the Kremlin of playing a political game.

 

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, told reporters in Brussels Monday that soaring gas prices have deep geopolitical roots. “It’s part of a geopolitical battle,” he said. But Borrell also acknowledged Russia has honored all its contracts. “It cannot be said that they are not delivering when they said they would, but it has not increased the quantities,” he said.

 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was more restrained in her language Wednesday when briefing the European Parliament, saying, “Gas prices are — and have always been — cyclical, and they are set by global markets. So, it is not a regional or local phenomenon, it is a global phenomenon.”

 

But she added she thought the Kremlin could do more to help, saying in previous years Gazprom had responded to higher demand.

 

Russia supplies 43% of the EU’s gas imports. Europe is heavily reliant on natural gas to generate much of its electricity. Gazprom exports actually fell in the first half of October.

Summit

EU national leaders are set to discuss the energy crunch at a two-day summit starting Thursday. In his summit invitation to national leaders, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said, “We will address the current hike in energy prices which is challenging the post-pandemic recovery and severely affecting our citizens and businesses.”

 

Some analysts say that while Russia may be seeking to exploit Europe’s energy crunch, the continent’s leaders have partly themselves to blame for their plight as they shifted away years ago from agreeing long-term contracts, preferring instead to opt for a system of market-based pricing, which can offer lower prices when supplies are in abundance but is highly volatile and can see prices skyrocket when there are shortages. Europeans have also done nothing to diversify suppliers.

 

The price jumps in natural gas are due largely to a surge in demand in Asia and low supplies of in Europe, which has seen an astonishing 280% increase in wholesale gas prices. Electricity prices are also soaring because natural gas is used across the continent to generate a substantial percentage of its electricity.

 

The International Energy Agency has called on Russia to boost gas exports. “The IEA believes that Russia could do more to increase gas availability to Europe and ensure storage is filled to adequate levels in preparation for the coming winter heating season,” it said in a statement earlier this month.

Nord Stream 2 and Ukraine  

 

There have long been fears, stretching back to the 1990s, that the Kremlin could use Europe’s dependence on Gazprom against it. A succession of U.S. presidents have urged European leaders to be wary and opposed the development of the just completed Nord Stream 2, NS2, natural gas pipeline, which will deliver energy from Russia to Germany while bypassing an older line running through Ukraine and Poland.

 

Some European politicians suspect the Kremlin is deliberately worsening Europe’s energy crunch as a tactic to pressure the EU into speeding up certification of the just completed NS2 pipeline.

Central European politicians have also opposed NS2 — which runs 1,200 kilometers from Vyborg, Russia, to Lubmin, Germany, snaking under the Baltic Sea — and not only because their countries will lose lucrative transit fees from the older pipeline, but because they feared the Kremlin was building the new pipeline for political reasons and not commercial ones.

 

“Nord Stream 2 is no ordinary business project,” according to Inna Sovsun, a former Ukrainian minister and now a lawmaker and professor at the Kyiv School of Economics. “On the contrary, it is a geopolitical weapon aimed at the heart of Europe that has been conceived since day one as a tool to isolate Ukraine and strengthen Russia’s position in its confrontation with the Western world,” she said earlier this year in a paper for the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank.

 

She added, “In recent months, Kremlin-controlled gas giant Gazprom has refused Ukrainian offers of additional pipeline capacity, despite surging European demand for gas due to a range of factors including maintenance on alternative Russian pipelines. Moscow prefers to wait for Nord Stream 2 to be commissioned and wants to send a clear message that it expects Russia’s European customers to facilitate this process without delay.”

 

European energy executives have warned of a difficult northern hemisphere winter ahead. Energy-intensive industries may have to slow down production, which could lead to shortages of fertilizers, steel, and food, they warn. Some energy companies have been trying all year to boost their gas stocks, which were depleted by last year’s exceptionally cold winter. Alfred Stern, CEO of Austria’s energy company OMV, says, “Everything will depend on how cold this winter is.”

 

On that score, the omens are not good. Meteorologists are forecasting a high risk of colder than normal winter weather this year. If those predictions play out, there will be even greater demand for natural gas and even higher energy prices, boosting overall European inflation which is running currently at 3.4%, the highest level since 2008.

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NATO Defense Ministers to Discuss Afghanistan, Russia Tensions

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is in Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense ministers Thursday and Friday to talk about security issues in Afghanistan, tensions with Russia and technology policy.

“I’m here to help advance NATO’s military adaptation, and ensure the alliance is prepared for the challenges of the future,” Austin tweeted after arriving Wednesday.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the defense ministers would discuss preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, and making sure Afghans evacuated during a massive airlift operation are able to resettle in NATO member states and not remain at transit centers.

“The most urgent role NATO has, and the most immediate task we are faced with, is to resettle Afghans who worked with us,” Stoltenberg told reporters ahead of the ministerial. “And NATO Allies and the NATO partners were able to get more than 120,000 people, many of them Afghans, out of Afghanistan. And we still, Allies and partners, are still working on how to get more people out.”

Austin traveled to Belgium from Romania, where he said Wednesday the Biden administration is committed to strengthening its Euro-Atlantic bonds while securing NATO’s eastern flank.

Speaking in Bucharest, Austin praised Romania for setting “an important example for allied commitment on sharing responsibility” and defense modernization.

Romania is one of the few NATO nations that spends more than 2% of its Gross Domestic Product on defense, with 20% of that spending going toward modernization — two key NATO spending goals.

The country also hosts about 1,000 rotational U.S. forces who help maintain security of the Black Sea region.

Austin’s visit to Romania followed stops in Ukraine and Georgia, two countries that aspire to join NATO and that are partially occupied by Russian and Russian-backed forces.

Tensions have risen between Russia and the longstanding alliance, with Russia announcing on Monday it was suspending its permanent mission to NATO in response to the alliance’s expulsion of eight Russians earlier this month.

Speaking in Kyiv Tuesday, Austin called Russia an “obstacle” to any peaceful resolution to the war raging in Ukraine’s east.

“We again call on Russia to end its occupation of Crimea, to stop perpetuating the war in Eastern Ukraine, to end its destabilizing activities in the Black Sea and along Ukraine’s borders,” Austin said.

Earlier this year, the largest number of Russian troops amassed near the Ukrainian border since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea from Kyiv. Russia soon pulled back its troops, however, after taking part in exercises near the Ukraine border.

Russia still occupies about a fifth of Georgia.

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Germany Detains Ex-soldiers for Allegedly Trying to Form Mercenary Group

German authorities on Wednesday detained two former soldiers who are alleged to have tried to form a mercenary group that would have intervened in the military conflict in Yemen.

Federal prosecutors said the men, identified only as Arend-Adolf G. and Achim A. in keeping with Germany privacy laws, were detained in southern Germany. Both are German citizens and former members of the Bundeswehr.

The men are accused of being ringleaders in the formation of a terror organization, prosecutors said in a statement.

Together, they allegedly decided in early 2021 to create their own mercenary group of between 100 and 150 former soldiers or members of the police.

The men’s primary motivation was to earn about 40,000 euros ($47,000) each per month by offering the group’s services to third parties, specifically Saudi Arabia, prosecutors said. The oil-rich kingdom has intervened in the conflict in neighboring Yemen against the Houthi rebel group.

Prosecutors said the men’s attempts to contact Saudi officials were unsuccessful.

The men were aware that their plans for military intervention in Yemen would inevitably require them to kill people, and they were aware that civilians might be injured and killed too, prosecutors said. 

Arend-Adolf G. is alleged to have won over at least seven people for the plan, they added.

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Regional Powers Back Aid for Afghanistan, Press Taliban on Inclusivity

An international Russia-hosted meeting Wednesday pressed the Taliban to form a “truly inclusive” government in Afghanistan and called for the United Nations to convene a donor conference as soon as possible to help avert a humanitarian catastrophe facing the war-torn country.

The huddle, known as the Moscow format consultations on Afghanistan, was held with the participation of leaders of the interim Taliban government and senior officials from Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, India, as well as five formerly Soviet Central Asian states.

“Participating countries call on the current Afghan leadership to take further steps to improve governance and to form a truly inclusive government that adequately reflects the interests of all major ethno-political forces in the country,” said a post-meeting joint statement.

The delegates expressed “deep concern” over the deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, stressing the need for the international community to mobilize efforts to provide assistance to the Afghan people.

Participants proposed to convene the U.N.-led donor conference “certainly with the understanding that the core burden of post-conflict economic and financial reconstruction and development of Afghanistan must be shouldered by troop-based actors which were in the country for the past 20 years.”

The statement pointedly referred to the United States and Western allied troops, whose abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years paved the way for the Taliban to regain control of the country in August. 

Washington also was invited to the Moscow talks, but U.S. officials cited technical reasons for not attending, though they promised to join future rounds.

While the West and world in general have refused to give official recognition to the Taliban government, Wednesday’s joint statement recognized the “new reality” of the fundamentalist group’s return to power in Kabul.

Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov while opening the meeting lauded the Taliban government’s efforts to improve the security and political situation. 

“[However], we see the formula for its successful solution mainly in the formation of a truly inclusive government, which should fully reflect the interests of all, not only ethnic, but also political forces of the country,” Lavrov said.

The head of the Taliban delegation, Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi, while addressing the meeting, renewed a call for the global community to recognize the new government in Kabul and again demanded the United States unfreeze about $10 billon in Afghan central bank in foreign reserves.

Hanafi defended his interim government as “already inclusive” and said they would not accept any deal under pressure and cautioned against “isolating” Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s return to power has raised concerns whether they will protect human rights of Afghans and whether they will prevent the country from becoming a terror sanctuary. The worries stem from the Islamist movement’s rule in the 1990s, when it hosted leaders of the al-Qaida network and barred women from public life and girls from receiving an education. 

The Taliban have dismissed those fears, saying they have opened government offices for both male and female staff to return to work and girls are gradually being allowed to resume education activities. 

But the hardline group is already under fire for reneging on some of its pledges to protect human rights and is being accused of persecuting members of the ousted Afghan government.

“I would like to remind you all that the people of Afghanistan have no intention of harming any country or nation in the world,” Hanafi assured Wednesday’s meeting. He said the Taliban government “stands ready to address all the concerns of the international community with complete clarity, transparency and openness.”

Hanafi’s speech to the meeting in the Russian capital came a day after Deputy U.S. Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said he sees no situation where the Taliban would be allowed access to its funds in the U.S. reserves.

“We believe that it’s essential that we maintain our sanctions against the Taliban but at the same time find ways for legitimate humanitarian assistance to get to the Afghan people. That’s exactly what we’re doing,” Adeyemo told the Senate Banking Committee.

The U.S. and other Western countries are working out how to engage with the Taliban without giving them the legitimacy they seek, while facilitating the flow of humanitarian aid to Afghans.

Adeyemo said the Treasury was taking every step it could within its sanctions program to make clear to humanitarian groups that Washington wants to facilitate the flow of aid into Afghanistan.

Russia says its diplomatic offensive to garner support for Kabul stems from concerns that continued instability would encourage terrorist groups to threaten the security of Afghanistan’s neighbors and the wider region. 

Lavrov highlighted those fears while opening Wednesday’s meeting and urged the Taliban to deliver on their pledge to prevent terrorist groups from threatening Russia’s “friends and allies.”

The Afghan branch of Islamist State, known as IS-Khorasan, has in recent weeks carried out dozens of bomb attacks, killing and injuring hundreds of people across Afghanistan, most of them civilians.

The violence is of major concern to neighboring countries and is raising questions about the Taliban’s ability to counter the growing terror threat.

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‘Rivers of Lava’ Still Flowing From La Palma Volcano

Spanish government geologists on Wednesday said the Cumbre Vieja on the Spanish island of La Palma is continuing to violently erupt with no signs of stopping or even slowing down. 

The geologist took video of huge pyroclastic blocks floating along a river of lava flowing from the volcano’s northern zone. Meanwhile, video filmed by the Volcanology Institute of the Canaries (INVOLCAN) showed the lava flows moving into the town of La Laguna approaching a gas station.

Officials say the station had been emptied of fuel and water in recent days in advance of the approaching flow.

Streams of red-hot lava have engulfed almost 800 hectares of land, destroying about 2,000 buildings and many banana plantations.

The volcano on one of the Canary Islands off northwest Africa has so far destroyed more than 1,800 buildings, mostly homes. Some 7,000 people have had to leave their homes.

The prompt evacuations have helped avoid casualties on the island of some 85,000 people. Scientists have seen no indication that the eruption is slowing, as rivers of lava continue flowing toward the sea.

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

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Queen Elizabeth Cancels Schedule, Accepts Medical Advice to Rest

Britain’s Buckingham Palace announced Wednesday that Queen Elizabeth has canceled a scheduled visit to Northern Ireland and “reluctantly” accepted medical advice to rest for the next few days.  

In a statement, the palace said, “Her Majesty is in good spirits and is disappointed that she will no longer be able to visit Northern Ireland, where she had been due to undertake a series of engagements” Wednesday and Thursday.  

The statement went on to say the queen sends her “warmest good wishes” to the people of Northern Ireland and looks forward to visiting them in the future.

The announcement comes days after Elizabeth was seen using a walking stick at a Westminster Abbey service marking the centenary of the Royal British Legion, an armed forces charity.

She reportedly had previously been photographed using a cane in 2003, but that was after she underwent knee surgery. The Associated Press cites a source saying the queen’s recent decision was not related to COVID-19.

The 95-year-old queen, who was widowed this year, is the world’s longest-reigning monarch. She maintains a busy schedule of royal duties. On Tuesday, she held audiences with diplomats and hosted a reception at Windsor Castle for global business leaders.

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

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US Coast Guard Trains Ukrainian Sailors

Ukrainian sailors who have been trained by the U.S. Coast Guard are now conducting exercises at sea. The sailors are using U.S. Coast Guard Island-class cutters that will later be passed on to the Ukrainian fleet. Ostap Yarysh has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.
Camera: Kostiantyn Golubchyk

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FBI Raids Washington, New York Homes Linked to Russian Oligarch Oleg Deripaska

FBI agents raided homes Thursday in Washington and New York City linked to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire with ties to the Kremlin and to Paul Manafort, the onetime chairman of Donald Trump’s 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

The agents carried boxes out of a mansion in one of Washington’s wealthiest neighborhoods, with yellow “CRIME SCENE DO NOT ENTER” tape across the front yard, and towed away a vehicle. 

A spokesperson for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation confirmed the agency was conducting a court-authorized law enforcement activity at the home, which The Washington Post has previously reported was linked to the Russian oligarch.

The specific reason for sealing off and searching the Washington mansion was not immediately clear, and the FBI spokesperson did not provide details. 

A representative for Deripaska said the home, as well as the one in New York, belong to relatives of the oligarch. Reuters could not immediately determine Deripaska’s whereabouts. 

A spokesperson for the FBI’s New York field office confirmed “law enforcement activity” at the home in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood but declined further comment.

Deripaska, 53, has been under U.S. sanctions since 2018. Washington imposed sanctions on him and other influential Russians because of their ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin after alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

Deripaska once employed Manafort, who was convicted in 2018 on tax evasion and bank fraud charges and was among the central figures scrutinized under investigations of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which Moscow denies.

Russia used Manafort and the WikiLeaks website to try to help Trump win that election, a Republican-led Senate committee said in its final review of the matter released last year. While still president last December, Trump pardoned Manafort.

The Senate report found Putin personally directed the Russian efforts to hack computer networks and accounts affiliated with the Democratic Party and leak information damaging to Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. 

The report also alleged Manafort collaborated with Russians, including Deripaska and a Russian intelligence officer, before, during and after the election. 

Deripaska owns part of Rusal via his stake in the giant aluminum producer’s parent company En+ Group. 

Washington previously dropped sanctions against both companies but kept them on Deripaska. Rusal’s Moscow-listed shares extended losses after the report of the raid on the Washington home, falling 6%. 

The representative for Deripaska, who declined to give their name because of company policy, confirmed the raid on both homes and said they belong to Deripaska’s family rather than the executive himself.

The representative said the searches were carried out on the basis of two court warrants related to the U.S. sanctions but provided no further details. 

 

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Pentagon Chief: No Country Has ‘Veto’ on Ukraine’s NATO Aspirations

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says no third country has a veto on Ukraine’s aspirations to join the NATO military alliance. 

“Ukraine…has a right to decide its own future foreign policy, and we expect that they will be able to do that without any outside interference,” Austin said during a visit to Kyiv on Tuesday, when asked about Russian objections to Ukraine’s entry into NATO.

Tensions have risen between Russia and the U.S.-led alliance, with Moscow announcing on Monday it is suspending its permanent mission to NATO in response to the alliance’s expulsion of eight Russians diplomats earlier this month.

Austin also called Russia an “obstacle” to any peaceful resolution to the war raging in Ukraine’s east.

“We again call on Russia to end its occupation of Crimea, to stop perpetuating the war in eastern Ukraine, to end its destabilizing activities in the Black Sea and along Ukraine’s borders,” Austin said.

“We will continue to do everything we can to support Ukraine’s efforts to develop the capability to defend itself,” he added.

Earlier this year, Russia massed the largest concentration of its troops near the Ukrainian border since it annexed Crimea in 2014. The troops pulled back after conducting exercises near Ukraine’s border.

Austin’s visit to Ukraine is his second stop in Europe this week. He visited Georgia on Monday. 

Bradley Bowman, a defense expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, called the stops in Georgia and Ukraine “an important and positive signal.”

“They’re important partners, and they’re partners that are literally, not metaphorically, literally on the front line against Russian aggression and invasion and continued occupation,” Bowman told VOA.

Russia still occupies about one-fifth of Georgia.

During his press conference Tuesday with his Ukrainian counterpart, Austin also urged Moscow to stop its “persistent cyberattacks and other malign activities” against the United States and its partners.

A White House official said last week Russia had taken “some steps” against ransomware groups operating from the country after President Joe Biden urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to tackle the groups in June.

Russian hackers were accused of being behind last year’s massive breach of several U.S. federal agencies through exploiting SolarWinds software and a string of ransomware attacks on U.S. infrastructure and businesses, including the Colonial Pipeline attack in May.

On Wednesday, Austin plans to visit Romania ahead of his participation at a NATO defense ministerial in Brussels. 

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EU Weighing Options for Poland Response

The European Commission is considering potential legal and financial responses after Poland’s constitutional court challenged the supremacy of EU law, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Tuesday. 

Speaking during a meeting of EU lawmakers in Strasbourg, von der Leyen said the Polish court’s ruling earlier this month was “a direct challenge to the unity of the EU.” 

“We cannot and we will not allow our common values to be put at risk,” she said. 

The judges for Poland’s highest court ruled that the national constitution had primacy over EU law. 

The increased tensions between Poland the EU fed speculation that Poland, which joined the bloc in 2004, could move toward withdrawing. 

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Tuesday that while his country will not be intimidated, it abides by EU treaties and expects a constructive dialogue on the issue. 

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

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Powell’s Legacy: Defender of European Alliances Who Missed Russia Opportunities, Analysts Say

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who died Monday at age 84, used his decades-long governmental and military career to defend traditional U.S. alliances with European nations, some analysts say.  

Family members say Powell died of COVID-19 complications. Doctors say he also suffered from multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that suppresses the body’s immune response, as well as Parkinson’s, a disease that, among other things, weakens the muscles. 

He first exerted influence over U.S. policy toward Europe as deputy national security advisor and then national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan from 1987 to 1989, and later as the top U.S. military officer under President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1993.  

“He was a key player in helping to shape U.S. policies in the 1980s and the early ’90s, during which we were able to put an end to the Cold War and erase some of the dividing lines across Europe,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and Russia, in an interview with VOA’s Russian Service. Vershbow, who later served as NATO deputy secretary general, is an analyst at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.  

Some of the policy-making in which Powell was involved in the 1980s and early ’90s included U.S. planning for the defense of U.S. allies in western Europe from a potential land assault by the Soviet Union.  

Charles Ries is a former U.S. ambassador to Greece and an analyst with RAND Corporation, a California-based policy research organization. Ries told VOA in a separate interview that he recalled Powell reflecting upon the U.S. plans for a possible Soviet tank invasion of the Fulda Gap a lowland corridor between then-Soviet-occupied East Germany and U.S.-allied and occupied West Germany. 

“What the planning gave Powell was quite a deep appreciation for what the alliance with the Europeans and NATO was all about,” said Ries, who also served under Powell as principal deputy assistant secretary of State for European Affairs from 2000 to 2004. Powell was appointed Secretary of State by President George W. Bush in 2001 and served in the post until 2005. 

As the top U.S. diplomat, Powell saw U.S. relations with some European allies fray in 2003 when Bush planned and authorized a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq against the advice of leaders in Paris and Berlin. Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld further angered France and Germany in January 2003 by labeling them “old Europe” in contrast to what at the time were new eastern European NATO members from the former Soviet bloc, whom he said were on the side of the U.S.  

“Powell didn’t directly take on that quote in public, but he showed in the way that he engaged with, listened to, operated with [then-]French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin that he wasn’t going to let U.S.-European relations get ruined by this very important disagreement about what to do about [Iraq],” Ries said. 

Bush sought to heal the Iraq war dispute with some of his European allies at a U.S.-EU summit in Ireland in June 2004. “It was clear from the summit that the U.S. still had the respect and engagement of the Europeans, despite a very troubled first year of the war,” Ries said. “I think that is very much a tribute to Powell’s engagement and personal diplomacy,” he added.  

Vershbow, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2001-2005, said Powell faced another challenge as Secretary of State in trying to maintain the momentum of Russian overtures toward NATO in the years after the Soviet Union’s 1991 demise.  

Vladimir Putin, who began his first term as Russian president in May 2000, appeared to extend the overtures in June 2002 when he attended a Rome summit with Bush and other NATO leaders and agreed to the creation of a NATO-Russia Council as a forum for cooperation.  

But Vershbow said the positive signals from Putin’s first term were short-lived, as the Russian leader evolved into one of the U.S.’s chief international adversaries.  

“Secretary Powell, like I did as ambassador to Russia, shared the frustration that the trends in that period were heading in the wrong direction,” Vershbow said. Current U.S.-Russia tensions “reflect some of the missed opportunities which we were trying to seize back at the time when Secretary Powell was the U.S. chief diplomat,” he added.

Vershbow said Powell and the Bush administration “missed opportunities” to cooperate with Putin on missile defense, adapting the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, and preventing terrorism.  

This article originated in VOA’s Russian Service.  

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US Defense Secretary Seeks to Reassure Georgia

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is warning Russia against distracting European leaders with new talks when it has yet to make good on previous commitments. 

“Russia, which currently occupies 20% of Georgia’s territory, should focus on honoring its 2008 cease-fire commitments before promoting any new discussion platforms,” Austin said Monday during a visit to Tbilisi, Georgia, to meet with the country’s prime minister and defense minister. 

“I’m here to reassure Georgia,” Austin added. “We have many shared interests, and of course, shared values, and we see a number of opportunities for security cooperation.” 

The visit to Georgia is the first stop of a European swing that will also take the U.S. defense secretary to Ukraine and Romania. 

Austin will also travel to Belgium to participate in a NATO defense ministers meeting. 

Russia recently floated the idea of a so-called 3+3 format for talks to resolve lingering issues with Georgia. The format would include Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as Iran and Turkey. 

According to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, the idea already has the support of Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkey. 

Georgia has been steadily expanding ties with the U.S. and other Western countries, and like Ukraine, it has been seeking to join NATO. 

 

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China Seeks to Cement Ties in Europe

Chinese President Xi Jinping aims to bolster relations in Europe, a traditional stronghold of support for the United States, as a buffer against shaky Sino-U.S. ties, analysts believe.

Xi spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last Wednesday and with European Council President Charles Michel on Friday. The council is a policymaking body for the European Union, an economic bloc of 27 nations including Europe’s largest countries.

China hopes to build trade and investment ties with individual European countries as it seeks partnerships that can counter a half decade of acrimony with its superpower rival the United States, said Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.

Western Europe has been staunchly U.S.-leaning since World War II, though differences do surface — for example, France’s anger over a U.S.-UK-Australia military technology sharing deal (AUKUS) of nuclear-powered submarines reached last month.

“We’re seeing the European Union and Germany converge with the U.S., and that convergence is something that China would like to stop, as soon as possible,” Nagy said.

Convergence could isolate China in the developed world, complicating its global political and economic goals.

Series of sore spots in China-U.S., China-EU relations

Beijing and Washington have disagreed strongly since 2018 on the use of internet technology, the rules of international trade and China’s expansion in Asia including the South China Sea. Washington is especially watching to see whether China attacks Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Chinese leaders call their own.

EU-China relations have deteriorated as well for the past year over Beijing’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority and support for Taiwan’s autonomy among leaders in Lithuania and the Czech Republic. 

On the economic front, movement and discussion toward ratification of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) has been “justifiably been frozen” in May because of China imposing sanctions “on several European individuals and entities,” according to the European Parliament.

France, Germany and the UK further irked China this year by sending military vessels into the South China Sea where they joined Washington in keeping an eye on Beijing’s movements. Four Southeast Asian states and Taiwan call parts of the resource-rich sea their own, but China claims 90% of it.

Multiple countries in Europe now “recoil at the PRC’s illiberal policies at home and overreach abroad”, said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York.

Up trend in China’s ties with individual European countries

While China-EU relations have been tense, China is still the EU’s No. 1 trading partner and the source of billions of dollars per year in direct investment, particularly in energy. Its relations vary from one member country to the next, with east-central European peers such as Hungary and Serbia eager to engage while Western European peers more skeptical – though seldom as harshly as the United States.

“Xi Jinping has presumably, and rightly, long seen the European Union as an easy mark and would doubtless be pursuing deeper relations there, whatever the state of Beijing’s ties with Washington,” King said. Beyond politics, he said, “the Communist Party of China surely craves access to European technology, markets, universities and think tanks.

In his video meeting with Merkel, head of Europe’s largest economy, Xi said both sides support trade and “believe that the common interests of China and the EU far outweigh contradictions and differences”, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. 

Beijing has been locked in a trade dispute with the United States since 2018, affecting $550 billion in two-way trade with an especially hard impact on Chinese exports.

China and the EU, “as two important forces in the world, have a responsibility to strengthen cooperation and work together to deal with global problems in the face of increasing global challenges and rising instability and uncertainty,” Xi said.

Xi said to the European Council President, it was “not surprising that competition and differences have emerged” between China and the EU, according to China’s CGTN news website. He suggested that the two sides work together more in technology and that China extend its multi-trillion-dollar, pan-Eurasia Belt and Road infrastructure building initiative.

Chinese leaders could attract European countries with open access to the Chinese market, where middle-class consumers still buy luxury brands from France and Italy, Nagy said. Trade “inducements” would appeal to the EU as it recovers economically from COVID-19, he said.

European nations want more investment in energy and clean technology, while both sides are looking for intellectual property protections, said James Berkeley, managing director of the advisory firm Ellice Consulting in London.

His 8-year-old consultancy does most of its business today with a U.S. focus, but it anticipates new interest in China if Sino-UK ties improve, Berkeley said. Chinese automotive companies, for example, may be able to refine intellectual property in Europe and reapply those rights in their home market, Berkeley said.

“There are Chinese investors that have an international perspective and they’re looking to deploy capital into businesses internationally in which they can build out the intellectual property and then reverse that intellectual property,” he said.

Brisker trade and investment ties won’t sway pro-U.S. European nations toward China politically, experts say. However, China may be able to improve ties with central and Eastern European countries and “split” the EU, Nagy said.

He likened that approach to Southeast Asia. Chinese aid on the Asian subcontinent has won the loyalty of Cambodia and Laos but missed that mark in Vietnam and the Philippines, where citizens have long distrusted China.

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Trial Opens of Alleged Killers of Dutch Reporter De Vries

Witnesses, security camera footage and forensic evidence all point to two men charged in the murder of Dutch crime reporter Peter R. de Vries, prosecutors said Monday as the trial of the suspects opened in Amsterdam.

De Vries, 64, was gunned down in July in the Dutch capital in a brazen attack that sent shockwaves through the Netherlands.

The suspected gunman is a 21-year-old Dutch man, identified under Dutch privacy rules only as Delano G. A 35-year-old Polish man, Kamiel E., is accused of being the getaway driver.

They both were arrested shortly after De Vries was shot July 6 on an Amsterdam street after making one of his regular appearances on a Dutch television show. He died nine days later.

Prosecutors said police found two weapons in the getaway car when the men were detained on a highway about 50 kilometers (30 miles) outside Amsterdam, a Heckler and Koch machine pistol and, in a Louis Vuitton bag, a blank-firing pistol that had been modified to take 9-millimeter rounds.

Prosecutors said forensic tests showed that a bullet found in De Vries’ head was likely fired by the modified gun.

Both suspects were present in court as the preliminary hearing got underway, along with relatives of De Vries.

Delano G. declined to make a statement in court and has refused to speak to police and prosecutors. Kamiel E., speaking in Polish with an interpreter translating his comments into Dutch, denied involvement in the shooting.

“Your honor, I didn’t kill anybody, I know nothing about the murder, I did not see a weapon,” he said.

The shooting sparked an  outpouring of grief — thousands lined up outside an Amsterdam theater to pay their last respects days after De Vries’ death — and condemnation in the Netherlands.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the shooting an “attack on a courageous journalist and also an attack on the free journalism that is so essential for our democracy, our constitutional state, our society.”

De Vries was the Netherlands’ most famous crime journalist, reporting on and writing a bestselling book about the 1983 kidnapping of beer magnate Freddy Heineken and campaigning tirelessly to resolve cold cases and clear the names of wrongfully convicted people.

De Vries recently had been an adviser and confidant for a witness in the trial of the alleged leader and other members of a crime gang that police described as an “oiled killing machine.” A lawyer representing the witness and the witness’ brother also have been murdered.

The suspected gangland leader, Ridouan Taghi, was extradited to the Netherlands from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in 2019. He remains jailed while standing trial along with 16 other suspects.

Prosecutors said that their investigations into who ordered De Vries’ murder is continuing.

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