Blinken warns Central Asia of dangers from war in Ukraine
The Biden administration on Tuesday pledged to support the independence of the five Central Asian nations, in a not-so-subtle warning to the former Soviet states that Russia’s value as a partner has been badly compromised by its year-old war against Ukraine. In Kazakhstan for meetings with top Central Asian diplomats, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said no country, particularly those that have traditionally been in Moscow’s orbit, can afford to ignore the threats posed by Russian aggression to not only their territory but to the international rules-based order and the global economy. In all of his discussions, Blinken stressed the importance of respect for “sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.” The Central Asian states have hewed to a studied position of neutrality on Ukraine, neither supporting Russia’s invasion nor U.S. and Western condemnations of the war. “Ever since being the first nation to recognize Kazakhstan in December of 1991, the United States has been firmly committed to the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Kazakhstan and countries across the region,” Blinken said after meeting in Astana with the foreign ministers of the so-called C5+1 group, made up of the U.S. and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Also Read: Blinken tours Turkey’s earthquake zone, pledges $100M in aid “In our discussions today, I reaffirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Kazakhstan, like all nations, to freely determine its future, especially as we mark one year since Russia lost its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in a failed attempt to deny its people that very freedom,” Blinken told reporters at a news conference with Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi. Tileuberdi thanked Blinken for the U.S. commitment to Kazakhstan’s freedom, but signaled that his country was unlikely to adopt either a pro-Russian or pro-Western position. Tileuberdi said Kazakhstan would continue to act in its own national interest given “the complex international situation.” “Our country continues a balanced multilateral foreign policy,” he said. Tileuberdi noted that while Kazakhstan has very close and historic ties with both Russia and Ukraine, it would not allow its territory to be used for any Russian aggression or sanctions evasion. He added that even though Kazakhstan shares the world’s longest land border with Russia, it did not see a threat from Moscow. Blinken also held separate meetings in Astana with the foreign ministers of Kyrgyzstan, Tajiistan and Turkmenistan. After visiting Kazakhstan, Blinken arrived in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, on his first trip to Central Asia as secretary of state. None of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia, traditionally viewed as part of the Kremlin’s sphere of influence, publicly backed the Russian invasion. Kazakhstan welcomed tens of thousands of Russians fleeing from the military call-up last fall. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has spoken by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy three times since Russian troops rolled into Ukraine last February, calling for a diplomatic resolution of the conflict in accordance with the U.N. charter and international law. However, all five Central Asian republics, along with India, which Blinken will visit next after Uzbekistan, abstained in a vote to condemn the invasion as a violation of core international principles last week at the U.N. General Assembly, on the first anniversary of the war. “If we allow (those principles) to be violated with impunity, that does open the prospect that Russia itself will continue to consider further aggression against other countries, if it sets its sights on them, or other countries will learn the wrong lesson and would-be aggressors in every part of the world will say ’well, if Russia can get away with this, then we can too,’” Blinken said. “That’s a recipe for a world of conflict, a world of instability, a world that I don’t think any of us want to live in.” “So, that’s why it’s been so important for so many countries to stand up and say, no we don’t accept this,” he said. The U.S. has for decades sought — without great success — to wean the former Soviet nations of the region from Moscow’s influence. Some, notably Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, assisted the U.S. logistically during its 20-year conflict in Afghanistan, but their ties to Russia remain deep and extend to the economic, military and diplomatic spheres as members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Moscow-dominated grouping of ex-Soviet nations.
Resettlement of only a few Rohingyas in the US not a solution: Momen
Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen on Thursday said resettlement of a few Rohingyas in the US is not a solution; rather the solution is repatriation to their homeland in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. “…this is not the solution. The key solution is that they will have to return to their homeland. It’s a process,” he told reporters in Cox’s Bazar after attending a programme there. Momen said the United States is taking a few Rohingyas as a follow up to his discussion with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. There has been a list of 62 Rohingyas and 24 of them are being taken to the USA in the first batch, said the Foreign Minister. The Foreign Minister said Bangladesh is requesting big countries to take at least 100,000 Rohingyas each, to share Bangladesh’s burden. “Some of them are going as part of family reunification. They have their relatives there. I think that’s how the list of 62 came. But it is up to them,” Momen said. The Biden administration announced on September 27 that the cap on refugee admissions for Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 would be 125,000—the same as the cap for FY 2022. Read more: Outgoing Chinese Ambassador Li Jiming hopes Rohingya repatriation will start next year The admission of up to 125,000 refugees to the United States during Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 is justified by humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest, according to the White House. The admissions numbers shall be allocated among refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States in accordance with the following regional allocations – Africa -40,000, East Asia 15,000, Europe and Central Asia 15,000, Latin America/Caribbean 15,000, Near East/South Asia 35,000 and unallocated reserve 5,000. The 5,000 unallocated refugee numbers shall be allocated to regional ceilings, as needed. US Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, Julieta Valls Noyes, on Tuesday met Foreign Minister Momen and discussed a “comprehensive approach” to the protracted Rohingya crisis with international support. Momen said the Bangladesh government wants a better life for the Rohingyas. Asked about relocation of some Rohingyas in the United States, Momen said it is “just a drop in the ocean”, as Bangladesh is hosting over 1.1 million Rohingyas. He said the US did not mention any exact number but he hinted the number could be 62 only in the beginning. Read more: US diplomat for ‘comprehensive approach’ to deal with Rohingya crisis “The United States is proud to be able to support resettlement in our country of the very vulnerable Rohingya. This is a priority of President Biden. We are discussing with other governments and with other partners. We will be working together with the international community,” US Assistant Secretary Noyes said, thanking Momen for Bangladesh’s life-saving support for the Rohingyas.
Blinken: China should not hold global concerns 'hostage'
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday that China should not hold hostage talks on important global matters such as the climate crisis, after Beijing cut off contacts with Washington in retaliation for U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan earlier this week. Blinken spoke in an online news conference with his Philippine counterpart in Manila after meeting newly elected President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and other top officials, as relations between Washington and Beijing plummeted to their worst level in years. Pelosi’s trip to the self-governed island outraged China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory to be annexed by force if necessary. China on Thursday launched military exercises off Taiwan’s coasts and on Friday cut off contacts with the U.S. on vital issues, including military matters and crucial climate cooperation, as punishments against Pelosi’s visit. “We should not hold hostage cooperation on matters of global concern because of differences between our two countries,” Blinken said. “Others are rightly expecting us to continue to work on issues that matter to the lives and livelihood of their people as well as our own.” Also read: Blinken: China military drills are 'significant escalation' He cited cooperation on climate change as a key area where China shut down contact that “doesn't punish the United States — it punishes the world.” “The world’s largest carbon emitter is now refusing to engage on combatting the climate crisis,” Blinken said, adding that China's firing of ballistic missiles that landed in waters surrounding Taiwan was a dangerous and destabilizing action. “What happens to the Taiwan Strait affects the entire region. In many ways it affects the entire world because the Strait, like the South China Sea, is a critical waterway,” he said, noting that nearly half the global container fleet and nearly 90% of the world’s largest ships transit through the waterway. China shut “military-to-military channels, which are vital for avoiding miscommunication and avoiding crisis, but also cooperation on transnational crimes and counter-narcotics, which help keep people in the United States, China and beyond, safe,” he said. Despite China's actions, Blinken said he told his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on Friday in Cambodia, where they attended an annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, that the U.S. did not want to escalate the situation. Also read: China sanctions Pelosi, sends 100 warplanes to Taiwan drills “We seek to deescalate those tensions and we think dialogues are a very important element of that,” he said, adding the U.S. would “keep our channels of communication with China open with the intent of avoiding escalation to the misunderstanding or miscommunication.” Blinken is the highest ranking American official to visit the Philippines since Marcos Jr. took office on June 30 following a landslide election victory. In his brief meeting with Blinken, Marcos Jr. mentioned he was surprised by the turn of events related to Pelosi's visit to Taiwan this week. "It just demonstrated it — how the intensity of that conflict has been,” Marcos Jr. said based on a transcript released by the presidential palace. “This just demonstrates how volatile the international diplomatic scene is not only in the region,” he added. Marcos Jr. praised the vital relationship between Manila and Washington, which are treaty allies, and U.S. assistance to the Philippines over the years. Blinken reiterated Washington’s commitment to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines and “to working with you on shared challenges.” Blinken told journalists he also discussed with Marcos Jr. strengthening democracy and U.S. commitment to work with the Philippines to defend the rule of law, protect human rights, freedom of expression and safeguard civil society groups, “which are critical to our alliance." Describing the Philippines as ”an irreplaceable friend," he said he reiterated to the president that an armed attack on Filipino forces, public vessels or aircraft in the South China Sea “will invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments.” Blinken arrived Friday night in Manila after attending the ASEAN meetings in Cambodia, where he was joined by his Chinese and Russian counterparts. ASEAN foreign ministers called for “maximum restraint” as China mounted war drills around Taiwan and moved against the U.S., fearing the situation “could destabilize the region and eventually could lead to miscalculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers.” In Manila, Blinken was also scheduled to visit a vaccination clinic and meet groups helping fight coronavirus outbreaks and then go to a clean energy fair and meet U.S. Embassy staff before flying out Saturday night. Shortly before Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, as speculation rose that her aircraft might stop over briefly at the former U.S. Clark Air Force base north of Manila for refueling, Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian said in a TV interview he hoped “the Philippine side will strictly abide by the one-China principle and handle all Taiwan-related issues with prudence to ensure sound and steady development of China-Philippines relations.” Huang’s remarks drew a sharp rebuke from opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who said “the ambassador shouldn’t pontificate on such policies, especially considering that his country stubbornly and steadfastly refuses to recognize a decision rendered by an international arbitral court and ignores and flouts international law in the West Philippine Sea when it suits her interest.” Hontiveros was referring to a 2016 arbitration ruling on a Philippine complaint that invalidated China’s vast territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea. She used the Philippine name for the disputed waters. China has dismissed that ruling, which was welcomed by the U.S. and Western allies, as a sham and continues to defy it.
Olena Zelenska, Ukraine first lady, on high-profile US trip
Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday as she began a series of high-profile appearances in Washington that will include a session with U.S. counterpart Jill Biden. Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags flew alongside American ones on Pennsylvania Avenue as Zelenska headed for her first announced event in the United States, the meeting with Blinken. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the secretary of state assured Zelenska of the United States' commitment to Ukraine. Blinken also commended her for her work with civilians dealing with trauma and other damage from the war. The first lady also met Monday with Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Power's agency has given billions of dollars to support Ukraine's government and to humanitarian needs, and is working to ease a global food shortage aggravated by Russia's war. Also read: Amid Russia shelling, Ukraine aims to strengthen government The State Department announced and then canceled a planned brief appearance by Blinken and Zelenska before photographers there. The low-key arrival reflects that Zelenska is not traveling as an official representative of the government of her husband, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Zelenska studied architecture in college but worked as a comedy scriptwriter, including for Zelenskyy, who was a comedian with a popular television show before winning the presidency in 2019. During the war, Zelenskyy has won admiration from Ukrainians and Ukraine's supporters abroad by staying put in the capital, Kyiv, after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his attack on Ukraine i n February. Zelenska largely disappeared with the couple's two children during the first months after the invasion. In an interview with Time magazine this month, she described the war forcing her to shelter away from Zelenskyy for security reasons from the first hours of Russia's bombing. Their children, like other Ukrainians, largely have seen Zelenskyy since then in nightly video addresses he makes to the country. Zelenska emerged from seclusion May 8 to greet Jill Biden, who was making an unannounced visit to western Ukraine. The two first ladies met then at a school, where they hugged, talked, and joined schoolchildren making tissue-paper bears as gifts for Mother's Day. Zelenska has taken a higher public profile since that meeting. That includes giving more newspaper interviews about Ukraine's struggles and about her projects during the conflict. She has promoted counseling for the millions of Ukrainians now dealing with grief and trauma. Also read: Ukraine's Zelenskyy fires top security chief and prosecutor She meets with Jill Biden at the White House on Tuesday and will speak in the congressional auditorium at the Capitol to lawmakers on Wednesday. Her husband received standing ovations from congressional members in a video address to lawmakers in the same auditorium earlier in the war. Ukrainian officials did not immediately respond to questions Monday about the schedule of her visit.
Zelenskyy meets top-level US delegation, gets aid promises
The U.S. secretaries of state and defense met Sunday night with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the highest-level visit to the country’s capital by an American delegation since the start of Russia’s invasion. The secretive meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin came as Ukraine pressed the West for more powerful weapons against Russia’s campaign in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where Moscow’s forces sought to dislodge the last Ukrainian troops in the battered port of Mariupol. Blinken and Austin told Ukraine’s president, Volodomyr Zelenskyy, and his advisers that the United States would provide more than $300 million in foreign military financing and had approved a $165 million sale of ammunition. They also said that U.S. President Joe Biden would soon announce his nominee for ambassador to Ukraine and that American diplomats who left Ukraine before the war would start returning to the country this coming week Reporters who accompanied Austin and Blinken to Poland were barred by Pentagon and State Department officials from reporting the Kyiv visit until the two men physically left Ukraine. U.S. officials cited security concerns. Before the session with Blinken and Austin, Zelenskyy said he was looking for the Americans to produce results, both in arms and security guarantees. “You can’t come to us empty-handed today, and we are expecting not just presents or some kind of cakes, we are expecting specific things and specific weapons,″ he said. Zelenskyy’s last face-to-face meeting with a top U.S. official was Feb. 19 in Munich with Vice President Kamala Harris, five days before Russia’s invasion. While the West has funneled military equipment to Ukraine, Zelenskyy has stressed repeatedly that his country needs more heavy weapons, including long-range air defense systems and warplanes. In an apparent boost for Ukraine, polling agencies said French President Emmanuel Macron would win reelection over far right candidate Marine Le Pen, who has faced questions about her ties to Moscow. Read: In Kyiv, Blinken and Austin announce aid, diplomatic surge The result was hailed by France’s allies in the European Union as a reassuring sign of stability and continued support for Ukraine. France has played a leading role in international efforts to punish Russia with sanctions and is supplying weapons systems to Ukraine. Zelenskyy’s meeting with U.S. officials took place as Ukrainians and Russians observed Orthodox Easter. Speaking from Kyiv’s ancient St. Sophia Cathedral, Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, highlighted its significance to a nation wracked by nearly two months of war. “The great holiday today gives us great hope and unwavering faith that light will overcome darkness, good will overcome evil, life will overcome death, and therefore Ukraine will surely win!” he said. Still, the war cast a shadow over celebrations. In the northern village of Ivanivka, where Russian tanks still littered the roads, Olena Koptyl said “the Easter holiday doesn’t bring any joy. I’m crying a lot. We cannot forget how we lived.” The Russian military reported hitting 423 Ukrainian targets overnight, including fortified positions and troop concentrations, while its warplanes destroyed 26 Ukrainian military sites, including an explosives factory and several artillery depots. Since failing to capture Kyiv, the Russians have aimed to gain full control over the eastern industrial heartland, where Moscow-backed separatists controlled some territory before the war. Russian forces launched fresh airstrikes on a Mariupol steel plant where an estimated 1,000 civilians are sheltering along with about 2,000 Ukrainian fighters. The Azovstal steel mill where the defenders are holed up is the last corner of resistance in the city, otherwise occupied by the Russians. Zelenskyy said he stressed the need to evacuate civilians from Mariupol, including from the steel plant, in a Sunday call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is scheduled to speak later with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Arestovych, the Zelenskyy adviser, said Ukraine has proposed holding talks with Russia next to the sprawling steel mill. Arestovych said on the Telegram messaging app that Russia has not responded to the proposal that would include establishing humanitarian corridors and the exchange of Russian war prisoners for the fighters still in the plant. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is scheduled to travel to Turkey on Monday and then Moscow and Kyiv. Zelenskyy said it was a mistake for Guterres to visit Russia before Ukraine. “Why? To hand over signals from Russia? What should we look for?” Zelenskyy said Saturday. “There are no corpses scattered on the Kutuzovsky Prospect,” he said, referring to one of Moscow’s main avenues. Read: China promotes coal in setback for efforts to cut emissions Mariupol has endured fierce fighting since the start of the war because of its location on the Sea of Azov. Its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, free up Russian troops to fight elsewhere, and allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. More than 100,000 people — down from a prewar population of about 430,000 — are believed to remain in Mariupol with scant food, water or heat. Ukrainian authorities estimate over 20,000 civilians have been killed. Recent satellite images showed what appeared to be mass graves to the west and east of Mariupol. Children in an underground bunker were seen receiving Easter presents in a video released Sunday by the far-right Azov Battalion, which is among the Ukrainian forces at the steel plant in Mariupol. The group’s deputy commander, Sviatoslav Palamar, said the video was shot at the plant. One toddler is seen wearing homemade diapers made of cellophane and people are seen hanging laundry on makeshift hangers. “Please help us,” one woman in the video said through tears, appealing to world leaders. “We want to live in our city, in our country. We are tired of these bombings, constant air strikes on our land. How much longer will this continue?” Mykhailo Podolyak, another presidential adviser, tweeted that the Russian military was attacking the plant with heavy bombs and artillery while accumulating forces and equipment for a direct assault. Zelenskyy over the weekend accused Russians of committing war crimes by killing civilians and of setting up “filtration camps” near Mariupol for people trying to leave the city. He said the Ukrainians — many of them children — are then sent to areas under Russian occupation or to Russia itself, often as far as Siberia or the Far East. The claims could not be independently verified. Zelenskyy highlighted the death of a 3-month old girl in a Russian missile strike Saturday on the Black Sea port of Odesa. The baby was among eight people killed when Russia fired cruise missiles at Odesa, Ukrainian officials said. Ukrainian news agency UNIAN, citing social media, reported that the infant’s mother, Valeria Glodan, and grandmother also died when a missile hit a residential area. Zelenskyy promised to find and punish those responsible. “The war started when this baby was 1 month old,″ Zelenskyy said. “Can you imagine what is happening? They are filthy scum; there are no other words for it.” For the Donbas offensive, Russia has reassembled troops who fought around Kyiv and in northern Ukraine. The British Ministry of Defense said Ukrainian forces had repelled numerous assaults in the past week and “inflicted significant cost on Russian forces.” A fire erupted early Monday at an oil depot in Russia near its border with Ukraine, but Russia’s Tass news agency gave no immediate cause for the blaze in oil storage tanks. NASA satellites that track fires showed something burning at coordinates that corresponded to a Rosneft facility some 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of the Ukrainian border. Moscow previously has blamed Ukraine for attacks on the Russian region of Bryansk, which borders Ukraine. The spiritual leaders of the world’s Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics on Sunday appealed for relief for Ukraine’s suffering population.
Bangladesh, US relations to reach new heights: Blinken to Momen
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the relations between Bangladesh and the United States will reach new heights in the next 50 years. Secretary Blinken said this in his letter sent to Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Monday. He described the celebrations of 50 years of diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and the United States as a milestone in the two countries’ growing partnership. The close cooperation between the two countries in protecting people from the scourge of terrorism, human trafficking and illicit drug trafficking is commendable, Blinken said. Highlighting key issues in the Biden administration's foreign policy, Blinken welcomed the continuation of the dialogue on labor rights, religious freedom, human rights and good governance, highlighting key issues in the Biden administration's foreign policy. Also read: Biden sees stronger Dhaka-Washington ties in future The United States and Bangladesh will continue to work closely on strengthening economic ties, investing in development, addressing the challenges of climate change, regional security, peacekeeping operations, and finding a lasting solution to the Rohingya crisis, he mentioned in the letter. Blinken said the United States stood by the people of Bangladesh by providing 61 million doses of Covid vaccine to make the 50th anniversary of the two countries' partnership meaningful. “I look forward to seeing what our people will build together in the decades ahead as we continue to follow that star of freedom,” he said in a video message celebrating five decades of diplomatic ties between the two countries. Secretary Blinken thanked Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen and Bangladesh Ambassador to the US M Shahidul Islam “for being the latest stewards of this crucial” relationship. The United States recognized Bangladesh on April 4, 1972, in a press statement from Secretary of State William Rogers. Also read: Ties between Bangladeshis, Americans deeper, more intertwined: Secretary Blinken In addition, Herbert Spivack, the principal U.S. officer in Dhaka, delivered a message from President Richard Nixon to Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman informing him that the United States government wished to establish diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level.
FM reaches Washington; meeting with Blinken Monday
Bangladesh and the United States want to “enhance and deepen” their ties as the two countries will mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations on Monday.Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen reached Washington on Sunday, a day before holding a bilateral meeting with his US counterpart Antony Blinken at the US State Department.Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen, Bangladesh Ambassador to the US M Shahidul Islam will also join the meeting that will begin at 1pm (Washington DC). Also read: Dhaka to seek Washington’s wider, diversified cooperationDuring his official visit to the US at the invitation of Secretary Blinken, Momen will meet USAID Administrator Samantha Power.Meanwhile, US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas on Sunday visited the Liberation War Museum to pay tribute to the memory of the martyrs of 1971 and re-affirmed Dhaka-Washington friendship.The United States recognized Bangladesh on April 4, 1972, in a press statement from the then Secretary of State William Rogers.In addition, Herbert Spivack, the then principal U.S. officer in Dhaka, delivered a message from President Richard Nixon to Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman informing him that the US government wished to establish diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level, according to Office of the Historian. Also read: Dhaka invites more investments from SeoulThe United States and Bangladesh cooperate closely on a range of issues, including economics, security, governance and development.
US offers no concessions in response to Russia on Ukraine
The Biden administration and NATO told Russia on Wednesday there will be no U.S. or NATO concessions on Moscow’s main demands to resolve the crisis over Ukraine. In separate written responses delivered to the Russians, the U.S. and NATO held firm to the alliance’s open-door policy for membership, rejected a demand to permanently ban Ukraine from joining, and said allied deployments of troops and military equipment in Eastern Europe are nonnegotiable. “There is no change, there will be no change,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. Also not up for negotiation will be the U.S. and European response to any Russian invasion of Ukraine, he said, repeating the mantra that any such incursion would be met with massive consequences and severe economic costs. The responses were not unexpected and mirrored what senior U.S. and NATO officials have been saying for weeks. Nonetheless, they and the eventual Russian reaction to them could determine whether Europe will again be plunged into war. There was no immediate response from Russia but Russian officials have warned that Moscow would quickly take “retaliatory measures” if the U.S. and its allies reject its demands. Read: Russia toughens its posture amid Ukraine tensions Seeking possible off-ramps that would allow Russia to withdraw the estimated 100,000 troops it has deployed near Ukraine’s border without appearing to have lost a battle of wills, the U.S. response did outline areas in which some of Russia’s concerns might be addressed, provided it de-escalates tensions with Ukraine. Speaking to reporters in Washington, Blinken said Russia would not be surprised by the contents of the several-page American document that U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan delivered Wednesday to the Russian Foreign Ministry. “All told it sets out a serious diplomatic path forward. should Russia choose it,” he said. “The document we’ve delivered includes concerns of the United States and our allies and partners about Russia’s actions that undermine security, a principled and pragmatic evaluation of the concerns that Russia has raised, and our own proposals for areas where we may be able to find common ground.” Blinken said he hoped to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about the response in the coming days. But he stressed the decision about pursuing diplomacy or conflict rests with Russia and, more specifically, with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We’ll see how they respond,” he said. “But there’s no doubt in my mind that if Russia were to approach this seriously and in a spirit of reciprocity with a determination to enhance collective security for all of us, there are very positive things in this in this document that could be pursued. We can’t make that decision for President Putin.” Shortly after Blinken spoke, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels that the alliance had sent a separate reply to Russia with an offer to improve communications, examine ways to avoid military incidents or accidents, and discuss arms control. But, like Blinken, he rejected any attempt to halt membership. “We cannot and will not compromise on the principles on which the security of our alliance, and security in Europe and North America rest,” Stoltenberg said. “This is about respecting nations and their right to choose their own path.” “Russia should refrain from coercive force posturing, aggressive rhetoric and malign activities directed against allies and other nations. Russia should also withdraw its forces from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, where they are deployed without these countries’ consent,” he said. While flatly refusing to consider any changes to NATO’s open-door policy, its relationship with non-ally Ukraine, or allied troop and military deployments in Eastern Europe, Blinken said the U.S. is open to other ideas to ease Russia’s stated concerns. The U.S. proposals, echoed in the NATO document, include the potential for negotiations over offensive missile placements and military exercises in Eastern Europe as well as broad arms control agreements as long as Russia withdraws its troops from the Ukrainian border and agrees to halt inflammatory rhetoric designed to deepen divisions and discord among the allies and within Ukraine itself. Moscow has demanded guarantees that NATO will never admit Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations as members and that the alliance will roll back troop deployments in former Soviet bloc nations. Some of these, like the membership pledge, are nonstarters for the U.S. and its allies, creating a seemingly intractable stalemate that many fear can only end in a war. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied it has plans to attack Ukraine, but the U.S. and NATO are worried about Russia massing its troops near Ukraine and conducting a series of sweeping military maneuvers. As part of the drills, motorized infantry and artillery units in southwestern Russia practiced firing live ammunition, warplanes in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea performed bombing runs, dozens of warships sailed for training exercises in the Black Sea and the Arctic, and Russian fighter jets and paratroopers arrived in Belarus for joint war games. Speaking to Russian lawmakers Wednesday before the U.S. and NATO responses were delivered, Lavrov said he and other top officials will advise Putin on the next steps. “If the West continues its aggressive course, Moscow will take the necessary retaliatory measures,” Lavrov said. But he indicated Russia wouldn’t wait forever. “We won’t allow our proposals to be drowned in endless discussions,” he said. Amid the tensions, the U.S., Britain, Australia, Germany and Canada have moved to withdraw some of their diplomats and dependents from Kyiv, a move President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sought to play down Tuesday as part of a “complex diplomatic game.” Read: Britain says Russia seeking to replace Ukraine government On Wednesday, the U.S. urged Americans in Ukraine to consider leaving, saying the security situation “continues to be unpredictable due to the increased threat of Russian military action and can deteriorate with little notice.” In 2014, following the ouster of a Kremlin-friendly president in Kyiv, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in the country’s eastern industrial heartland. Fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels has killed over 14,000 people, and efforts to reach a settlement have stalled. Envoys from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany met Wednesday for more than eight hours in Paris on the separatist conflict. Although there was no breakthrough, they promised to meet for new talks in two weeks in Berlin. The French president’s office said afterward in a statement that the parties support “unconditional respect” for a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. The talks focused on the 2015 Minsk peace agreement aimed at ending the conflict, and the statement didn’t address the current concerns about a Russian invasion of Ukraine. “Those are different issues, and we didn’t discuss it,” said Kremlin envoy Dmitry Kozak. The Ukrainian representative, Andriy Yermak, was cautiously optimistic about Wednesday’s talks, which he said marked the first major advance since December 2019. He also acknowledged they did not directly address current tensions at the border or resolve past differences. “Of course, I wouldn’t be honest if I said that we all want faster and bigger results,” Yermak said. “And of course there is nothing bigger than the desire of Ukrainian people to stop the war, to bring back our territories and our people.” Yermak also said the Ukrainians repeatedly raised the issue of troops now massed on the border. “This is the real threat,” he said. “I have clearly said today that we expect de-escalation not only around occupied territories but also in general de-escalation around Ukrainian borders.” Kozak said varying interpretations of the Minsk agreement have remained a major stumbling block. He said the the four parties will make another attempt to reach consensus on the issue in two weeks. Kozak reaffirmed that Russia isn’t a party to the conflict and emphasized that Ukraine is reluctant to engage in talks with separatists as stipulated in the Minsk document. He said there has been no progress on key aspects of the agreement that Ukraine must grant special status to the rebel regions, followed by elections.
Blinken pushes back on GOP criticism of Afghan withdrawal
Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed back Monday against harsh Republican criticism of the handling of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying the Biden administration inherited a deal with the Taliban to end the war, but no plan for carrying it out. In a sometimes contentious hearing Monday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Blinken sought to blunt complaints from angry GOP lawmakers about the administration’s response to the quick collapse of the Afghan government and, more specifically, the State Department’s actions to evacuate Americans and others. Read: Blinken claims progress in effort to boost Gaza truce Blinken echoed White House talking points blaming the Trump administration for the situation that President Joe Biden inherited in Afghanistan. “We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan,” he said, maintaining that the administration had done the right thing in ending 20 years of war. “We made the right decision in ending America’s longest-running war,” said Blinken, who will testify on Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Republicans savaged the withdrawal process as “a disaster” and “a disgrace.” And while some Democrats allowed that the operation could have been handled better, many used their questions to heap criticism on former President Donald Trump. The State Department has come under heavy criticism from both sides for not doing enough and not acting quickly enough to get American citizens, legal residents and at-risk Afghans out of the country after the Taliban took control of Kabul on Aug. 15. Some seeking to leave remain stranded there, although Blinken could not provide an exact number. He said roughly 100 U.S. citizens remain along with about “several thousand” green card holders. Read: Blinken heads to Egypt to shore up Gaza cease-fire efforts “This was an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions,” said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the committee. He said the abrupt withdrawal along with leaving some Americans and Afghans behind had “emboldened the Taliban” and other U.S. adversaries. “I can summarize this in one word: betrayal.” His GOP colleagues Steve Chabot of Ohio and Lee Zeldin of New York were even more blunt. “This is a disgrace,” Chabot said. “This was fatally flawed and poorly executed,” said Zeldin. “I believe that you, sir, should resign. That would be leadership.” The chairman of the committee, New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, urged his colleagues to keep politics out of their criticism. But he acknowledged that there had been problems. “Could things have been done differently? Absolutely,” he said.
US says 1,500 Americans may still await Kabul evacuation
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that as many as 1,500 Americans may be awaiting evacuation from Afghanistan, a figure that suggests the U.S. may accomplish its highest priority for the Kabul airlift — rescuing U.S. citizens — ahead of President Joe Biden’s Tuesday deadline despite growing concerns of terror threats targeting the airport. Untold thousands of at-risk Afghans, however, still are struggling to get into the Kabul airport, while many thousands of other Afghans already have been flown to safety in 12 days of round-the-clock flights. On Wednesday, several of the Americans working phones and pulling strings to get out former Afghan colleagues, women’s advocates, journalists and other vulnerable Afghans said they have seen little concrete U.S. action so far to get those Afghans past Taliban checkpoints and through U.S-controlled airport gates to promised evacuation flights. “It’s 100% up to the Afghans to take these risks and try to fight their way out,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director with the International Refugee Assistance Project. Read: Biden holds to Kabul Aug. 31 deadline despite criticism Blinken, echoing Biden’s earlier declarations during the now 12-day-old evacuation, emphasized at a State Department briefing that “ evacuating Americans is our top priority. ” He added, “We’re also committed to getting out as many Afghans at-risk as we can before the 31st,” when Biden plans to pull out the last of thousands of American troops. On Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a security alert warning American citizens away from three specific airport gates, but gave no further explanation. Senior U.S. officials said the warning was related to ongoing and specific threats involving the Islamic State and potential vehicle bombs, which have set U.S. officials on edge in the final days of the American drawdown. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss ongoing military operations. Blinken said the State Department estimates there were about 6,000 Americans wanting to leave Afghanistan when the airlift began Aug. 14, as the Taliban took the capital after a stunning military conquest. About 4,500 Americans have been evacuated so far, Blinken said, and among the rest “some are understandably very scared.” The 6,000 figure is the first firm estimate by the State Department of how many Americans were seeking to get out. U.S. officials early in the evacuation estimated as many as 15,000, including dual citizens, lived in Afghanistan. The figure does not include U.S. Green Card holders. About 500 Americans have been contacted with instructions on when and how to get to the chaotic Kabul airport to catch evacuation flights. In addition, 1,000 or perhaps fewer are being contacted to determine whether they still want to leave. Blinken said some of these may already have left the country, some may want to remain and some may not actually be American citizens. “We are providing opportunity,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said of those Afghans, who include dual Afghan-American citizens. “We are finding ways to get them to the airport and evacuate them, but it is also their personal decision on whether they want to depart.” On a lighter note, the U.S. military said an Afghan baby girl born on a C-17 military aircraft during the massive evacuation will carry that experience with her. Her parents named her after the plane’s call sign: Reach. She was born Saturday, and members of the 86th Medical Group helped in her birth aboard the plane that had taken the family from Kabul to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Two other babies whose parents were evacuating from Afghanistan have been born over the past week at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the U.S. military hospital in Germany. In Washington on Wednesday, Blinken emphasized that the U.S. and other governments plan to continue assisting Afghans and Americans who want to leave after next Tuesday, the deadline for Biden’s planned end to the evacuation and the two-decade U.S. military role in Afghanistan. “That effort will continue, every day, past Aug. 31,” he said. Read:Biden says US-led evacuation from Kabul is accelerating Biden has cited what he U.S. says are rising security threats to U.S. forces, including from an affiliate of the Islamic State terror group, for his determination to stick with Tuesday’s withdrawal deadline. Germany has said Western officials are particularly concerned that suicide bombers may slip into the crowds surrounding the airport. The U.S. Embassy has already been evacuated; staff are operating from the Kabul airport and the last are to leave by Tuesday. Biden said this week he had asked his national security team for contingency plans in case he decides to extend the deadline. Taliban leaders who took control of Afghanistan this month say they will not tolerate any extensions to the Tuesday deadline. But Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted that “people with legal documents” will still be able to fly out via commercial flights after Tuesday. U.S. troops are anchoring a multinational evacuation from the airport. The White House says the airlift overall has flown out 82,300 Afghans, Americans and others on a mix of U.S., international and private flights. The withdrawal comes under a 2020 deal negotiated by President Donald Trump with the Taliban. Refugee groups are describing a different picture than the Biden administration is when it comes to many Afghans: a disorganized, barely-there U.S. evacuation effort that leaves the most desperate to risk beatings and death at Taliban checkpoints. Some Afghans are reported being turned away from the Kabul airport by American forces controlling the gates, despite having approval for flights. U.S. military and diplomatic officials appear to still be compiling lists of eligible Afghans but have yet to disclose how many may be evacuated — and how — private Americans and American organizations said. “We still have 1,200 Afghans with visas that are outside the airport and haven’t got in,” said James Miervaldis with No One Left Behind, one of dozens of veterans groups working to get out Afghans who worked with the U.S. military during America’s nearly 20 years of combat in the country.. “We’re waiting to hear from the US. government and haven’t heard yet.” Marina LeGree of Ascend, a U.S.-based nonprofit that worked to develop fitness and leadership in Afghan girls and young women, described getting calls from U.S. officials telling the group’s interns and staffers to go to the airport for evacuation flights, only to have them turned away by American forces keeping gates closed against the throngs outside. One Afghan intern who went to the airport with her family saw a person killed in front of them, and a female colleague was burned by a caustic agent fired at the crowd, LeGree said. “It’s heartbreaking to see my government fail so badly,” said LeGree, the group’s American director, who is in Italy but in close contact with those in Kabul. Read: Biden vows to evacuate all Americans — and Afghan helpers U.S.-based organizations, speaking on background to discuss sensitive matters, cite accounts from witnesses on the ground as saying some American citizens, and family members of Afghans with green cards, still were having trouble pushing and talking their way into the Kabul airport for flights. Kirby said the U.S. military will preserve as much airlift capacity at the airport as possible in the coming days, ahead of Tuesday’s deadline. The military will “continue to evacuate needed populations all the way to the end,” he said. But he added that in the final days and hours there will have to be a balance in getting out U.S. troops and their equipment as well as evacuees. Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, the deputy director of regional operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. forces had conducted another helicopter mission beyond the perimeter of the airport to pick up people seeking to evacuate. The number of U.S. troops at the airport has dropped by about 400, to 5,400, but the final withdrawal has not begun, Kirby said Wednesday.