Warnings of Russian attack on Ukraine | Daily News

Warnings of Russian attack on Ukraine

NATO foreign ministers on Tuesday called on Russia to de-escalate the situation via Ukraine, warning they stand in solidarity with Ukraine.

Speaking from Riga, Latvia, where NATO foreign ministers gathered for a summit, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the build-up of Russian troops and military equipment near the Ukrainian border “is unprovoked and unexplained.”

“We see Russian military build-up, we see heavy armour, we see drones, and combat-ready troops…Russia needs to be transparent, and they need to reduce tensions, and de-escalate,” he added.

He stressed that although Ukraine is not a NATO ally — and therefore does not fall under Article 5 for Collective Defense — it is “a highly valued partner”.

“We provide support, political, practical support. Allies provide training, capacity building, equipment, and I am absolutely certain that allies will recommit and reconfirm their strong support to Ukraine also during the meeting today,” he said.

‘Serious consequences’

Ahead of the NATO meeting, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington is “very concerned about the movements we’ve seen along Ukraine’s border. We know that Russia often combines those efforts with internal efforts to destabilise a country. That’s part of the playbook, and we’re looking at it very closely.”

“Any renewed aggression would trigger serious consequences,” Blinken warned ahead of talks in Riga, Latvia, with his counterparts in the 30-country military organisation NATO.

The US has shared intelligence with European allies warning of a possible invasion of Ukraine. European diplomats acknowledge the Russian troop movements, but some countries have played down the threat of any imminent invasion ordered by Moscow.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the NATO ministers will “together send an unmistakable message to the Russian government: NATO’s support for Ukraine is unbroken and its independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty are not up for discussion.”

“Russia would have to pay a high price for any form of aggression,” Maas said. “Honest and sustainable de-escalation steps, which can only go via the route of talks, are all the more important now. I will not tire of stressing that the door to such talks is still open to Russia.”

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 after the country’s Moscow-friendly president was driven from power by mass protests. Weeks later, Russia threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency that broke out in Ukraine’s east. Moscow says that Russians who joined the separatists were volunteers.

The conflict in the Donbas region has killed more than 14,000 people and episodic bouts of fighting continue despite a 2015 peace agreement brokered by France and Germany.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said last week that his country’s intelligence service had uncovered plans for a Russia-backed coup d’état. Russia denied the allegation and rejected the assertion that it is planning to invade Ukraine.

Russia’s ‘Red Line’

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, on Tuesday warned NATO against deploying its troops and weapons to Ukraine, saying it represents a red line for Russia and would trigger a strong response.

Commenting on Western concerns about Russia’s alleged intention to invade Ukraine, he said that Moscow is equally worried about NATO drills near its borders.

Speaking to participants of an online investment forum, the Russian president said that NATO’s eastward expansion has threatened Moscow’s core security interests. He expressed concern that NATO could eventually use the Ukrainian territory to deploy missiles capable of reaching Russia’s command centers in just five minutes.

“The emergence of such threats represents a ‘Red Line’ for us,” Putin said. “I hope that common sense and responsibility for their own countries and the global community will eventually prevail.”

He added that Moscow has been forced to counter the growing threats by developing new hypersonic weapons.

“What should we do?” Putin said. “We would need to develop something similar to target those who threaten us. And we can do that even now.”

EU to rival China investments

The European Union has revealed a global investment plan widely seen as a rival to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The plan will set out “concrete” ideas on digital, transport, climate and energy schemes, and is seen as part of the West’s efforts to counter Chinese influence in Africa and elsewhere.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen presented the “Global Gateway” initiative on Wednesday, which revealed details of a €300bn global investment plan, described as a “true alternative” to China’s Belt and Road strategy. She said the Global Gateway scheme should become a trusted brand.

China has funded rail, roads and ports but has been accused of leaving some countries saddled with debt.

The Commission chief said countries need “trusted partners” to design projects that are sustainable. The EU is looking at how it can leverage billions of euros, drawn from member states, financial institutions and the private sector. This will largely take the form of guarantees or loans, rather than grants.

Mrs. von der Leyen said the EU wanted to show that a different, democratic approach could deliver on projects that focused on tackling Climate Change as well as global health security and sustainable development for developing countries.

Projects had to be of high quality, with a high level of transparency and good governance, and had to deliver tangible results for the countries involved, she explained.

At a briefing last month, China’s ambassador to the EU, Zhang Ming, said Beijing welcomed the EU’s Global Gateway strategy if it was open and could “help developing countries”. But he also warned “any attempt to turn infrastructure projects into a geopolitical tool would fail the expectation of the international community and harm one’s own interests”.

Belt and Road has been a centre-piece of Chinese foreign policy. While it has developed trade links by ploughing money into new roads, ports, railways and bridges, it has also been criticised as a means of providing “predatory loans” in what is labelled “debt-trap diplomacy”.

Iraq Polls

Iraq’s Shiite Muslim firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr was Tuesday confirmed the biggest winner of last month’s Parliamentary election that had sparked charges of voter fraud from pro-Iranian factions.

Sadr’s movement won 73 out of the assembly’s 329 seats, the election commission said, after a lengthy manual recount of hundreds of ballot boxes.

A distant second in the Shiite camp with 17 seats was the Fatah (Conquest) Alliance, the political arm of the pro-Iran Hashed al-Shaabi former paramilitary force, which is now integrated into Iraq’s state security apparatus.

Hashed leaders had rejected the preliminary result, which was sharply down from their 48 seats in the outgoing assembly, as a “scam”, and their supporters have held street protests chanting “No to fraud”.

Analysts have warned that -- in a country still recovering from decades of war and chaos, and where most parties have armed wings -- political disputes could spark a dangerous escalation.

The formation of Iraqi governments has involved complex negotiations in the multi-confessional and multi-ethnic country ever since a US-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Posts and ministries have typically been handed out according to compromises reached by the main blocs in backroom talks, rather than to reflect the numbers of seats parties have won.

Sadr, a former leader of an anti-US militia who has often surprised observers with his political manoeuvres, has called for a “majority” government which, analysts say, could include Sunni and Kurdish parties.

Iraq, an oil-rich country of 40 million, is still recovering from years of conflict and turmoil. Major fighting has stopped since a military alliance including the Hashed defeated the Islamic State jihadist group in 2017, but sporadic violence continues.

Military bases housing US troops have been targeted with dozens of missile and drone strikes which Washington blames on pro-Iran factions.

Afghan food crisis

The Afghanistan population is facing major shortages of food and there is a rising fear of starvation among large sections of the population.

On Wednesday, a United Nations report said Afghanistan and its population of roughly 40 million people have suffered an “unprecedented fiscal shock” since the Taliban takeover, and the decision by the international community to withdraw billions in humanitarian aid.

The report predicts an economic contraction of around 20 percent of GDP “within a year, a decline that could reach 30 percent in following years”.

“It took more than five years of war for the Syrian economy to experience a comparable contraction. This has happened in five months in Afghanistan,” United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Asia Director Kanni Wignaraja told AFP.

For decades now Afghanistan’s economy has been undermined by war and drought. But it was propped up by international aid, which represented 40 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP and financed 80 percent of its budget. That was frozen when US-led international forces left the country and the Taliban took control.

“The sudden dramatic withdrawal of international aid is an unprecedented fiscal shock,” Wignaraja said.

Adding to the crisis are the Western economic sanctions taken against the Taliban, including the freezing of $9.5 billion in assets of the Afghan Central Bank, which can no longer intervene to support the economy.

The Afghan economy is slowing down and unemployment is soaring. According to the UN, 23 million Afghans, more than half the population, are threatened by famine this winter. “Afghanistan is in a humanitarian and development crisis that is becoming grave and needs to be immediately addressed to save lives,” says the UNDP report, which estimates that $2 billion in emergency aid is needed just to bring the entire population back to the poverty line.

In Doha, where the Taliban and the Americans are negotiating this week, the Taliban have again asked the Americans to release frozen funds to allow the economy to recover. Washington has not responded to these requests, and has urged the Taliban to respect human rights and to give women and girls access to employment and education.

Depriving women of paid employment could drive GDP down by up to five percent, UNDP said, calling their jobs “vital to mitigate the economic catastrophe”.

In addition, there is a loss in consumption -- women who no longer work no longer have a salary and can no longer buy as much as before to feed or equip their homes - which could reach $500 million per year, according to the UNDP.

Afghanistan “cannot afford to forfeit this”, Wignaraja said, adding that young Afghan women must be allowed a post-secondary education so they can work and contribute to the economy later.

Mandatory COVID Vaccine - EU

The EU must consider mandatory vaccination in response to the spread of the “highly contagious” Omicron COVID variant across Europe, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has said.

In a call to arms, Von der Leyen said the EU’s 27 member states should rapidly deploy booster doses and a commission communique backed countries that opted to temporarily enforce pre-travel PCR tests even within the bloc’s borders.

Asked whether she supported the Greek government in imposing a €100 (£85) monthly fine on those aged 60 and over who failed to get a COVID jab, Von der Leyen argued that the spread of the disease and lack of vaccine take-up in parts of the EU meant mandatory vaccination had to be on the table as a policy response.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Von der Leyen, who practised as a doctor before her political career, said: “If you’re asking me what my personal position is, two or three years ago, I would never have thought to witness what we see right now that we have this horrible pandemic.

“We have the vaccines, the life-saving vaccines, but they are not being used adequately everywhere. And this costs … This is an enormous health cost coming along.

“If you look at the numbers, we have now 77% of the adults in the European Union vaccinated or if you take the whole population, it’s 66%. And this means one-third of the European population is not vaccinated. These are 150 million people.

“This is a lot, and not each and every one can be vaccinated – children, for example, or people with special medical conditions – but the vast majority could and therefore, I think it is understandable and appropriate to lead this discussion now.

“How we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union, this needs discussion. This needs a common approach, but it is a discussion that I think has to be met.”

There is a growing momentum behind mandatory vaccination among the EU member states. It has been reported that Germany’s Chancellor-to-be, Olaf Scholz, supports the policy and neighbouring Austria is debating how to enforce obligatory jabs from February.

On Tuesday, Greece said it would make COVID vaccinations mandatory for people aged 60 in order to protect its faltering health system. About 63% of Greece’s 11 million population are fully vaccinated but there are 520,000 people over the age of 60 who have failed to get a jab.

Von der Leyen said that BionTech/Pfizer and Moderna were set to deliver 360 million more doses by the end of March ensuring there was sufficient supply for booster jabs. “That is good news. So go get it,” she said.

In the event of the vaccines failing to offer the current level of protection in the light of the Omicron variant, researchers believed it would require around 100 days to adjust their products, she added.

But Von der Leyen said the world was in a “race against time” and that the onus had to be on getting jabs into arms now. “Scientists tell us we have to do everything possible to make the best out of the time we have till we have certainty about the characteristics of transmissibility and severity of Omicron”, she said. “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best”.

Earlier concerns

Much earlier, The World Health Organisation (WHO) called for a halt on COVID-19 vaccine boosters at the end of September, WHO Head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the gap between vaccinations in wealthy and poor countries widens.

High-income countries administered around 50 doses for every 100 people in May, and that number has since doubled, according to WHO. Low-income countries have only been able to administer 1.5 doses for every 100 people, due to lack of supply.

“We need an urgent reversal from the majority of vaccines going to high-income countries to the majority going to low-income countries,” Tedros said.

To counter the spread of the Delta variant, some countries have begun to use or started weighing on the need for booster doses even as scientists debate over whether or not extra shots are needed.

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has sharply criticised the “wildly uneven and unfair” distribution of COVID vaccines, saying 10 countries have administered 75% of all vaccinations and demanding a global effort to get all people in every country vaccinated as soon as possible.

The UN chief earlier told a high-level meeting of the UN Security Council that 130 countries had not yet received a single dose of vaccine.

“At this critical moment, vaccine equity is the biggest moral test before the global community,” said.

Guterres called for an urgent global vaccination plan to bring together those with the power to ensure equitable vaccine distribution – scientists, vaccine producers and those who can fund the effort.

He called on the world’s major economic powers in the Group of 20 to establish an emergency taskforce to establish a plan and coordinate its implementation and financing. He said the taskforce should have the capacity “to mobilise the pharmaceutical companies and key industry and logistics actors”.

The WHO’s Covax programme, a project to buy and deliver coronavirus vaccines for the world’s poorest people, has already missed its own goal of beginning coronavirus vaccinations in poor countries at the same time that shots were rolled out in rich countries. WHO says Covax needs $5bn in 2021.

The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has told the council the Biden administration “will work with our partners across the globe to expand manufacturing and distribution capacity and to increase access, including to marginalised populations”.

China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, criticised the growing “immunity divide” and called on the world to “come together to reject ‘vaccine nationalism,’ promote fair and equitable distribution of vaccines, and, in particular, make them accessible and affordable for developing countries, including those in conflict”.

India’s External Affairs Minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, also called for a halt to “vaccine nationalism” and encouragement for internationalism. “Hoarding superfluous doses will defeat our efforts towards attaining collective health security,” he warned.

India - Delhi Climate

India’s capital Delhi recorded its worst November air in at least six years, according to official data.

The city recorded 11 days of “severe” pollution, up from 10 days in November 2016.

Data also showed that the residents of Delhi didn’t experience even one “good” day of air quality through the month.

Experts blame the burning of crop stubble in neighbouring states and the festival of Diwali for the alarming levels of pollution in November.

The numbers are the worst Delhi has seen since 2015, when the Central Pollution Control Board started recording air quality data.

A prolonged monsoon pushed the stubble burning and Diwali into November, Dr. Gufran Beig, founder of air quality forecast agency SAFAR, told local media.

“This is the major reason why November saw poorer air quality this year as compared to the last few years,” he said.

Satellite data from NASA shows that there were 90,984 fires from stubble burning in three states - Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh - between October 1 and November 28. This was the highest number in five years, according to a report from the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW).

Air quality in Delhi had also dipped to hazardous levels the day after Diwali as people defied a ban to burst firecrackers for hours.

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