Blinken - Lavrov meet over Ukraine crisis | Daily News

Blinken - Lavrov meet over Ukraine crisis

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

The crisis situation in Ukraine remains a major threat to world peace, with Russia and its allies and the Western states led by the US continuing diplomatic efforts to prevent a major armed clash in Europe.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday in Geneva, in hopes of securing a “diplomatic off-ramp” to the Ukraine crisis, despite Moscow rejecting fresh talks on Ukraine unless the West responded to its demands.

With tens of thousands of Russian troops massing on Ukraine's borders, efforts have intensified to prevent a conflict and Blinken flew to Kyiv for talks with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, on Wednesday. His trip, which will also take him to Berlin for meetings with European allies, is the latest in a flurry of diplomacy to prevent the tensions over Ukraine from escalating into a new war in Europe.

“Secretary Blinken is 150 percent committed to see if there is a diplomatic off-ramp here and that really is the impetus behind this engagement with Foreign Minister Lavrov.” This is really an opportunity for the US to share its major concerns with Russia and to see where there might be an opportunity for Russia and the United States to find common ground, White House sources said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologised to Parliament for being at a Downing Street Garden Party during the COVID-19 lockdown.

The White House said Russia was poised for a potential attack on Ukraine that could come at “any point”, warning the US response would include all options. “No option is off the table,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters, warning of an “extremely dangerous situation”.

Talks in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna last week failed to ease fears, with Russia insisting its demands for sweeping security guarantees – including a permanent ban on Ukraine joining NATO – be taken seriously.

In a call with Lavrov ahead of his trip, Blinken “stressed the importance of continuing a diplomatic path to de-escalate tensions,” the State Department said.

Russian Foreign Ministry sources said Lavrov told Blinken that Moscow needs “concrete article-by-article” answers to its demands “as soon as possible”. He called on Blinken “not to replicate speculation about the allegedly impending ‘Russian aggression'.”

Earlier Lavrov said there would be no further negotiations until the West gave it proper answers.

“We are now awaiting responses to these proposals – as we were promised – in order to continue negotiations,” he said at a joint press conference with visiting German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

Washington has outright rejected the demands, which also include limits on allied deployments in former Warsaw Pact allies like Poland and the ex-Soviet Baltic states that joined NATO after the Cold War.

NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg also left the door open to more talks, saying he had invited Russia and NATO allies to a series of discussions in the NATO-Russia Council “in the near future”.

The aim is to “address our concerns but also listen to Russia's concerns, and to try to find a way forward to prevent any military attack against Ukraine,” Stoltenberg told a news conference in Berlin.

Blinken went to Berlin on Thursday for four-way talks with Britain, France and Germany on the Ukraine crisis. The four countries will discuss joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine, including allies’ and partners’ readiness to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia.

Ukraine, the United States and European countries have all raised deep concerns over the Russian troop build-up, despite repeated denials from Moscow that an invasion is planned.

Kyiv has been at war with pro-Moscow separatists in the east of the country since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine after demonstrations ousted a Kremlin-aligned leader.

Adding to the tensions, Russia and Ukraine's neighbour Belarus have launched snap military exercises. The Belarusian Defence Ministry said it was hosting the combat readiness drills because of the continuing “aggravation” of military tensions “including at the Western and southern borders of the Republic of Belarus.” Ukraine borders Belarus to the south and NATO member Poland to the west. NATO member Turkey has also warned Moscow against invading Ukraine, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday that he intends to discuss rising tensions with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I don't see Russia's invasion of Ukraine as a realistic option because it is not an ordinary country. Ukraine is a powerful country,” Erdogan told reporters in Albania.

Turkey has supplied combat drones to Ukrainian Forces, drawing fierce criticism from Moscow.

Russian negotiators met separately this month with delegations from the United States, NATO and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), in meetings that failed to produce any concrete results.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced in Parliament on Monday that Britain is sending weapons to Ukraine as part of a package that would help Kyiv secure its borders.

The types of equipment being sent “are not strategic weapons and pose no threat to Russia,” he said, describing them as “light, anti-armour, defensive weapon systems”.

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday described the announcement of the shipments as “extremely dangerous” and “not conducive to reducing tensions”.

France - European ‘collective security’

French President Emmanuel Macron had urged Europe to invest in its collective security at the European Parliament on Wednesday. France currently holds the EU's rotating six-month presidency.

Macron said Europeans needed to build their own collective security pact and re-arm themselves, after Russia prompted fears of a Ukraine invasion with a significant troop buildup on the border.

“Europe needs to finally build its own collective security framework on our continent,” he told lawmakers in Strasbourg in Eastern France. “Security on our continent requires strategic rearmament,” he said, adding that “frank and demanding” talks with Russia were also required.

At the heart of the framework would be principles agreed with Russia 30 years ago, Macron said – including rejecting the use of force or coercion, giving states the “choice to accede to alliances or bodies that they wish to” and the “rejection of spheres of influence”.

“We, in Europe, need to stand up for these inherent rights,” Macron said.

Macron said France and Germany were working to revive the format for talks between Russia and Ukraine that had been aimed at ensuring full respect of a 2015 peace agreement between the two countries.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

France and Germany’s efforts in 2015 helped end large-scale hostilities in Eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian Forces have been fighting Russia-backed separatists since 2014. But the conflict, which has left around 14,000 dead, has simmered.

“We will ensure that Europe’s voice is heard, unified and strong, on the question of strategic weapons, the control of conventional weapons, the transparency of military activities and the respect of the sovereignty of all European states, regardless of their history,” Macron said.

Addressing relations with Britain, which have been sorely tested in the months since Brexit, Macron said the EU must remain firm. “Europe and the UK must find their way back to a point of confidence,” he said, adding: “Let us be firm and clear so that commitments can be kept; this is the condition for being able to stay friends.”

Macron said the EU must also rethink its relationships with Western Balkan countries and the African continent, adding that France will organise a summit in February aimed at rebuilding partnerships between Europe and Africa. He conceded that growing inequality on the European continent meant that a new model was needed to meet climate and digital challenges, underlining the need to limit the power of internet giants. Observers saw Macron’s speech was designed to burnish Macron's international credentials as he faces re-election in April. Since he entered office in 2017, the French President has positioned himself as a pro-European leader, in contrast to the nationalist and populist leanings of some of his political opponents.

UK: Rising opposition to Johnson

The mood of Conservative MPs was hardening against Boris Johnson this week, with open talk of how to oust the Prime Minister and who should succeed him, as he gave an interview claiming not to have lied over Downing Street parties.

Many Tory MPs, from various ranks and wings of the party, said they believed there would be enough letters to trigger a leadership contest, after the publication of the Sue Gray report into allegations of lockdown breaches, with some reports on Tuesday night that it could come sooner.

Johnson was trying to shore up his support in the Parliamentary party after it emerged a group of a dozen or so of the 2019 intake had met to discuss his future as Prime Minister. After the meeting one MP said there were about 20 letters, “some sent, some in draft”. There needs to be 54 letters submitted to trigger a confidence ballot against the Prime Minister.

With MPs plotting his demise, Johnson emerged from isolation in No 10 to defend himself against claims from Dominic Cummings, his former aide, that he lied to Parliament about believing a garden party in the first lockdown was a work event.

The Prime Minister said “no one warned” him that May 20, 2020 “bring your own booze” party he attended alongside 30-40 staff was against the rules, and confirmed he had given his account of events to the inquiring officer.

“I can’t believe we would have gone ahead with an event that people said was against the rules … nobody warned me it was against the rules, I am categorical about that – I would have remembered that,” he told Sky News. In his recent interview, Johnson refused several times to rule out resigning and some Tory MPs believe he could agree to step down rather than go through a confidence ballot of the Parliamentary party.

One Tory MP, Christian Wakeford, has defected to Labour, piling more pressure on Boris Johnson as growing numbers within his own party call on the Prime Minister to resign.

Just minutes before Prime Minister’s questions, Wakeford – elected as the MP for Bury South in 2019 – crossed the floor to sit with Keir Starmer’s party, declaring in a letter to Johnson resigning the Conservative whip that he was “incapable of offering the leadership and government this country deserves”.

Tonga: Volcanic disaster

Australia and New Zealand are dispatching aid to Tonga, following an undersea volcanic eruption and tsunami in the surrounding seas, with threats spreading even to Japan.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

New Zealand has dispatched two naval vessels with relief supplies onboard. Defence Minister Peeni Henare said they were expected to arrive in four days, though could arrive as soon as Friday if the weather holds.

“Obviously [their number one task] will be to look towards how they can supply water. That’s been their number one priority,” he said. The number of deaths following the volcanic eruption remains unknown. Initially three deaths were confirmed, but with more than 100 islands in the Tonga, the fears are of many more deaths from the population of over 100,000 spread on the islands.

The Australian Red Cross, said the organisation was among a coalition of aid groups sending critical supplies for the relief effort, with a ship expected to leave from Australia on Wednesday.

The HMAS Adelaide left Sydney for Brisbane on Tuesday and was due to depart for Tonga on Wednesday, with supplies including material to help provide temporary shelter and clean drinking water which may have been contaminated by the ash cloud.

Tonga Red Cross is leading the local response and has prepared supplies stockpiled to support 1,200 households, but Ford said these will need to be replenished in the coming days and weeks to sustain the effort.

A senior Tongan diplomat in Canberra, Curtis Tuihalangingie, told the ABC that there were concerns of “a tsunami of COVID hitting Tonga” as humanitarian relief came to the country. Tonga has only one recorded case of COVID-19 throughout the pandemic and has maintained a strict quarantine control regime out of caution.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday afternoon he had not yet managed to speak to Tonga’s Prime Minister to receive a formal request for assistance, saying a telecommunications breakdown and ash clouds have made for a “very difficult environment to be operating in”.

An international mobile phone network provider has set up a temporary system on Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island, using the University of South Pacific’s satellite dish.

It is expected the undersea cable will take four weeks to be repaired, leaving the country's telecommunications system operating at 10% of its usual capacity.

A statement released late on Tuesday night from the office of Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni confirmed the deaths of the three people and the destruction of every home on Mango Island, home to 50 people. Only two houses remained on the neighbouring island of Fonoifua.

It described the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai undersea volcano, 40 miles (65km) north of Tonga’s capital, as an “unprecedented disaster” that resulted in 15m waves.

Yemen - Saudi attacks

Houthi Forces who control much of Northern Yemen say about 20 people have died in Saudi-led coalition airstrikes on the capital, Sana’a, a day after a Houthi drone attack killed three people in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s coalition partner.

Neighbours and doctors said about 14 people were killed when coalition planes struck the home of a high-ranking Houthi military official, including his wife and son. A Houthi official tweeted that in all, about 20 people had died. Early on Tuesday, the coalition said it had begun strikes against strongholds and camps in Sana’a belonging to the Houthi group.

Global leaders have rallied around the UAE since the drone attack, which killed three migrant workers and wounded six others. Emirati officials said they were weighing a response to what they labelled a “sinister criminal escalation”, as satellite images were published revealing damage to an oil plant in Abu Dhabi.

Houthi officials earlier said they had used two drones and several cruise missiles in an unprecedented strike at the Emirati capital, which drew condemnation from Arab states, Washington, London, and the UN.

Liz Truss, the UK Foreign Secretary, said on Twitter: “I condemn in the strongest terms the Houthi-claimed terrorist attacks on the United Arab Emirates,” while the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and the White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, also denounced the attacks and promised to coordinate a response with Emirati officials.

In the Middle East, reactions ranged from surprise and indignation to justification for the strike at the heart of the Emirati capital. The attack came at a critical juncture in regional talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as talks in Vienna, where Iranian officials are due to meet their US counterparts in an attempt to recommit to the nuclear deal.

The Houthis are heavily backed by Iran and are seen as one of the proxy forces for the Iranian revolutionary guards. Another Iranian proxy in Iraq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, praised the attack, with its leader, Abu Ali al-Askari, saying: “God was able to strike fear in the hearts of Bin Zayeds by the hands of the mujahideen and brave people of Yemen.”

Before Monday’s strike, several pro-militia groups in Iraq had posted social media images purporting to show Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower being struck by missiles fired from drones, a response to what it said was UAE meddling in Iraqi affairs.

The messages have been perceived in the Emirates as a coordinated effort by Iran to destabilize the UAE. In recent weeks, a UAE-backed ground force has repelled Houthi advances near the government stronghold of Marib in Yemen, where Abu Dhabi has significantly scaled back its own troops but retains substantial influence over proxies.

The war in Yemen, after years of destruction, dislocation and, more recently, stalemate, has become the most potent proxy arena in the region. Saudi troops and its Air Force remain dominant players in the conflict. On the Houthi side, Hezbollah plays a significant role, with its senior members known to have trained local forces in Yemen and to have helped import weapons from Iran.

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, on Tuesday “expressed his concern and deplored the recent Saudi-led Coalition’s airstrikes in Sana’a that resulted in numerous civilian casualties,” his office said, adding that he called on all sides to return to the negotiating table.

Oil Price rise

Benchmark oil prices climbed to their highest since 2014 on Tuesday as possible supply disruption after attacks in the Mideast Gulf added to an already tight supply outlook.

Brent crude futures rose by US $0.74, or 0.9%, to US $87.22 a barrel at 1446 GMT. U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures jumped US $1.07, or 1.3%, to US $84.89. Both benchmarks touched their highest since October 2014 earlier on Tuesday.

Supply concerns have risen this week after Yemen's Houthi group attacked the United Arab Emirates, escalating hostilities between the Iran-aligned group and a Saudi Arabian-led coalition. After launching drone and missile strikes that set off explosions in fuel trucks and killed three people, the Houthi movement warned it could target more facilities, while the UAE said it reserved the right to “respond to these terrorist attacks”.

Also adding to geopolitical price premiums are rising tensions between Ukraine and OPEC member Russia.

In addition, some producers within the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are struggling to pump at their allowed capacities under an agreement with Russia and allies to add 400,000 barrels per day each month.

OPEC will release its January oil market report at 1230 GMT.

“The consensus is that the situation will not improve in the foreseeable future and oil demand growth together with supply constraints is inevitably leading to a tighter oil balance,” said PVM analyst Tamas Varga.

Goldman Sachs analysts said they expect oil inventories in OECD countries to fall to their lowest since 2000 by the summer, with Brent oil prices rising to US $100 later this year.

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