Posts Tagged ‘Ukraine’

Trump Administration plan sees deterrence in new nuclear firepower

January 14, 2018

WASHINGTON (AP) — With Russia in mind, the Trump administration is aiming to develop new nuclear firepower that it says will make it easier to deter threats to European allies.

The plan, not yet approved by President Donald Trump, is intended to make nuclear conflict less likely. Critics argue it would do the opposite.

The proposal is spelled out in a policy document, known officially as a “nuclear posture review,” that puts the U.S. in a generally more aggressive nuclear stance. It is the first review of its kind since 2010 and is among several studies of security strategy undertaken since Trump took office.

In many ways it reaffirms the nuclear policy of President Barack Obama, including his commitment to replace all key elements of the nuclear arsenal with new, more modern weapons over the coming two decades.

It says the U.S. will adhere to existing arms control agreements, while expressing doubt about prospects for any new such pacts. The Trump nuclear doctrine is expected to be published in early February, followed by a related policy on the role and development of U.S. defenses against ballistic missiles.

Where the Trump doctrine splits from Obama’s approach is in ending his push to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy. Like Obama, Trump would consider using nuclear weapons only in “extreme circumstances,” while maintaining a degree of ambiguity about what that means. But Trump sees a fuller deterrent role for these weapons, as reflected in the plan to develop new capabilities to counter Russia in Europe.

The Huffington Post published online a draft of the nuclear policy report Thursday, and The Associated Press independently obtained a copy Friday. Asked for comment, the Pentagon called it a “pre-decisional,” unfinished document yet to be reviewed and approved by Trump, who ordered it a year ago.

Russia, and to a degree China, are outlined as nuclear policy problems that demand a tougher approach.

The administration’s view is that Russian policies and actions are fraught with potential for miscalculation leading to an uncontrolled escalation of conflict in Europe. It specifically points to a Russian doctrine known as “escalate to de-escalate,” in which Moscow would use or threaten to use smaller-yield nuclear weapons in a limited, conventional conflict in Europe in the belief that doing so would compel the U.S. and NATO to back down.

The administration proposes a two-step solution.

First, it would modify “a small number” of existing long-range ballistic missiles carried by Trident strategic submarines to fit them with smaller-yield nuclear warheads.

Secondly, “in the longer term,” it would develop a nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile — re-establishing a weapon that existed during the Cold War but was retired in 2011 by the Obama administration.

Together, these steps are meant to further dissuade “regional aggression,” which means giving Russia greater pause in using limited nuclear strikes.

Interest in the condition and role of U.S. nuclear weapons has grown as North Korea develops its own nuclear arsenal it says is aimed at the U.S.

The Trump administration views the North Korean threats, along with what it sees as provocative nuclear rhetoric from Russia, as evidence that security conditions no longer support the idea that the U.S. can rely less on nuclear weapons or further limit their role in national defense.

The nuclear report also makes rare mention of a newer Russian weapon: a nuclear-armed drone torpedo that could travel undersea to far-off targets.

Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons specialist at the Federation of American Scientists, questions whether the administration is overstating the Russian threat and responding with the right solution. But he said it is clear that Moscow has raised fears in the West by its aggression in Ukraine.

“Clearly, the Russia situation is much more of a direct confrontational situation,” he said. “The gloves are off.”

Bruce Blair, a former nuclear missile launch officer who co-founded Global Zero, which advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons, called the report “basically a status quo document” except for the plan to develop new nuclear options for countering Russia. He worries these could lead the U.S. into “blundering into a nuclear war with Russia.” Blair based his comments partly on knowledge of the report’s content before it appeared online.

“The Pentagon’s underlying motivation,” Blair said, “is fear of Russia’s new option for striking U.S. and Western European civilian infrastructure — financial, energy, transportation and communications — with cyber and conventional forces.”

Moscow developed this doctrine in recent years to exploit vulnerabilities in vital Western infrastructure, such as communications networks, he said. This falls into a category of threat the Trump administration calls “non-nuclear strategic,” meaning it could inflict unacceptably high numbers of casualties or costs.

Authors of the Trump nuclear doctrine argue that adding new U.S. nuclear capabilities to deter Russia in Europe will lessen, not increase, the risk of war. They worry the nuclear-capable aircraft that are currently the only Europe-based nuclear force to counter Russia have become less credible, in part because they may be vulnerable to Russian air defenses. Thus, the focus on adding sea-launched U.S. nuclear weapons to the mix.

“This is not intended to, nor does it, enable ‘nuclear war-fighting,’” the draft report said. Instead, the goal is to make nuclear conflict less likely by ensuring that “potential adversaries” see no possible advantage in escalating a conventional conflict to the nuclear level.


Russia deploys more surface-to-air missiles in Crimean build-up

January 13, 2018

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia deployed a new division of S-400 surface-to-air missiles in Crimea on Saturday, Russian news agencies reported, in an escalation of military tensions on the Crimean peninsula.

Russian annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, triggering economic sanctions by the European Union and United States and a tense stand-off in the region.

The U.S. said in December it planned to provide Ukraine with “enhanced defensive capabilities”, which officials said included Javelin anti-tank missiles..

Image result for russian military, ukraine, photos

Moscow’s latest deployment represents the second division armed with S-400 air defense systems on the peninsula, after the first in the spring of 2017 near the port town of Fedosia.

The new division will be based next to the town of Sevastopol and will control the airspace over the border with Ukraine, the RIA news agency reported.

The new air defense system, designed to defend Russia’s borders, can be turned into combat mode in less than five minutes, Interfax news agency quoted Viktor Sevostyanov, a commander with Russia’s air forces, as saying.

Russia’s defense ministry says the S-400 systems, known as “Triumph”, can bring down airborne targets at a range of 400 kilometers and ballistic missiles at a range of 60 kilometers.

They were first introduced to the Russian military’s arsenal in 2007, the ministry said.

Writing by Polina Ivanova; Editing by Alexander Smith

Germany’s Gabriel fears escalation in Iran

January 3, 2018


KIEV (Reuters) – Germany is worried about the situation in Iran escalating, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Wednesday.

Speaking to reporters on a visit to Ukraine, Gabriel also said he was skeptical that a decision by the United States to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine would help lead to a resolution of the Donbass conflict.

Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; writing by Matthias Williams


Outrage in Ukraine over activist lawyer’s slaying

January 2, 2018


© AFP | An Orthodox priest holds a picture showing murdered Ukrainian lawyer Iryna Nozdrovska as he together with the other few hundreds activists rally outside the Kiev police headquarters on January 2, 2018


The murder of a lawyer who helped convict her sister’s well-connected killer sparked public outrage in Ukraine Tuesday and a warning from the foreign minister that the slaying marked “a challenge to the state”.

Lawyer and activist Iryna Nozdrovska spent two years working on the case against Dmytro Rossoshansky — a Kiev judge’s nephew convicted of driving under the influence in the fatal September 2015 car crash.

Rossoshansky was jailed in June 2017 but immediately filed an appeal.

The high-profile case was seen a test of the Ukrainian justice system’s ability to fairly prosecute people with links to the upper echelons of power who had seemed untouchable prior to Ukraine’s pro-EU revolution in 2014.

“She had succeeded in demonstrating to the court that there was plenty of evidence that Rossoshansky had been under the influence of drugs when he caused the accident,” the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group said in a statement.

Rossoshansky was sentenced in June to a seven years behind bars.

The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group said Nozdrovska, 38, had received constant threats during the trial “from Rossoshansky himself, and from his mates”.

A Kiev court turned down Rossoshansky’s appeal last Wednesday and ordered him to remain in a detention centre for another 60 days while the case underwent further hearings.

Kiev police said Nozdrovska was reported missing on Friday and that her body was discovered on Monday.

“Iryna Nozdrovska’s body, reportedly naked, was found in a river in the Vyshhorod district near Kiev,” the rights group said.

Parliament member Mustafa Nayyem — a prominent leader of the 2014 street protests that pulled Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit — wrote on Facebook that Rossoshansky’s father “warned Irina during (Friday’s) hearing: This won’t end well for you.”

The Kiev region’s police chief Dmytro Tsenov denied having received any reports of intimidation or other complains from Nozdrovska.

But more than 100 people rallied outside the Kiev police headquarters shouting “shame” and demanding an impartial investigation into Nozdrovska’s death.

Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin underscored the national significance of Nozdrovska death by calling it “a challenge to the state”.

This is “a test of our society’s ability to protect female activists and to ensure justice as a whole”.

Tillerson Discusses Conflict Zones in Call With Russia

December 28, 2017

Tensions over Ukraine, North Korea reflect a broader debate over East-West dialogue

A pro-Russia separatist guarded a bus carrying prisoners released in a swap by Ukrainian authorities in Horlivka, eastern Ukraine, on Wednesday.  U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a call to Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, urged Russia to moderate its stance toward Ukraine.
A pro-Russia separatist guarded a bus carrying prisoners released in a swap by Ukrainian authorities in Horlivka, eastern Ukraine, on Wednesday. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a call to Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, urged Russia to moderate its stance toward Ukraine. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

The U.S. and Russia aired disagreements this week over key world conflict zones, framing differences that spell increasing uncertainties for the start of 2018 in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a call to Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, urged Russia to moderate its stance toward Ukraine, the State Department said Wednesday, while Mr. Lavrov exhorted the U.S. to back away from confrontation with North Korea.

Tensions surrounding both Ukraine and North Korea, however, have only escalated over recent days, a development that comes as U.S. allies debate whether to push for expanded diplomatic contacts with Moscow or keep expert-level discussions frozen over complaints of Russian interference in Ukraine.

In eastern Ukraine, fighting intensified as Russia backed away from a cease-fire monitoring effort over the past week. Mr. Tillerson urged Russia on the call, held Tuesday, to rejoin the joint Ukrainian-Russian monitoring effort. But the U.S. also has taken steps to prepare for the possibility of a deeper confrontation, agreeing late last week to provide Kiev with powerful antitank weaponry.

On North Korea, meanwhile, the United Nations agreed last week to take unprecedented new steps to cut off the bulk of Pyongyang’s outside supplies of oil and petroleum products, which the government of Kim Jong Un called an “act of war.”

Intensifying the pressure, the U.S. on Tuesday imposed new sanctions on additional North Korean officials. It also has urged the U.N. Security Council to blacklist 10 ships that have violated longstanding sanctions, including several that American officials say delivered North Korean coal to a Russian port this year.

The State Department said Messrs. Tillerson and Lavrov agreed on the need to forge a diplomatic solution that would lead to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. But the Russian Foreign Ministry, in an account posted to its website, said Mr. Lavrov complained that “Washington’s aggressive rhetoric about Pyongyang” and “war preparations” were escalating tensions in the region.

Rex Tillerson, pictured at the United Nations on Dec. 15, asked Russia to return its representatives to a joint Ukrainian-Russian center monitoring the truce in eastern Ukraine.
Rex Tillerson, pictured at the United Nations on Dec. 15, asked Russia to return its representatives to a joint Ukrainian-Russian center monitoring the truce in eastern Ukraine. PHOTO: JUSTIN LANE/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK

The two diplomats also discussed Syria, both sides said, where the U.S. and Russia have held deep differences over the future of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, with the U.S. insisting he eventually step aside from a future Syrian government.

U.S. President Donald Trump has called for closer ties with Moscow and has held several phone calls and meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But American diplomatic and military officials continue to clash with Russian counterparts, finding common ground elusive. Mr. Trump’s new national security strategy also casts relations with Moscow in a more dangerous light, saying it is engaging in subversive tactics to advance its interests around the world.

With an uptick in fighting in eastern Ukraine and negotiations over the future of the country at a stalemate, Russia’s decision last week to withdraw its representatives from the monitoring effort formally known as the Joint Center for Control and Coordination has heightened concerns in the West that security in the region could deteriorate.

In one sign of a possible easing of tensions, Kiev and Russia-backed separatists agreed on a prisoner exchange, swapping more than 300 war detainees Wednesday, the largest such trade since 2014. Both Kiev and the rebels have said a successful exchange could lead to further prisoner swaps.

But Mr. Tillerson in his call pointed to U.S. concern “with the rising violence in eastern Ukraine,” and asked Mr. Lavrov to return Russian representatives to the joint monitoring center and work to reduce violence, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

The U.S. recently agreed to provide Javelin antitank missiles to Ukraine. Officials said the move was consistent with Washington’s strategy of increasing pressure on Moscow to try to resolve conflicts that look intractable.

Proponents say the move, recommended by State Department and Pentagon officials, will raise the cost to Russia of any further aggression in the conflict and will provide the West with more diplomatic leverage. Russia’s deputy foreign minister has asserted the decision will lead to an escalation in fighting.

Neither the State Department nor the Russian Foreign Ministry account of Tuesday’s call mentioned the decision.

The continuing tensions are emblematic of an unsettled international debate over whether to intensify dialogue between the East and West. After Russia moved to annex Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization began deploying troops to reinforce Europe’s Russian border.

NATO suspended cooperation with Moscow and in practice, though not officially, halted diplomatic meetings for about a year. In May 2016, the alliance yielded to demands of some members that it resume high-level diplomacy and restarted ambassador-level meetings of the NATO-Russia Council.

Tillerson Discusses Conflict Zones in Call With Russia

The debate inside NATO over how to talk with Russia, however, has remained critical to the larger issue of how to defend the alliance.

NATO-Russia Council gatherings during the past 20 months have addressed important subjects such as military exercises and near-miss air incidents over the Baltic Sea. But officials say the meetings are dominated by one-sided lecturing on topics such as Ukraine and Afghanistan.

Meetings with Russians at NATO, one Western official said, are “like talking to the radio.”

Alexander Grushko, Russia’s ambassador to the alliance, said he wouldn’t complain about the quality of the discussions. “But in some areas, concrete results could be achieved only through resumption of a normal dialogue,” he said.

Russia has proposed restarting working groups of military officials to tackle technical issues, including air safety and defensive exercises. Mr. Grushko said NATO officials have said they want a broader discussion of military activity and work in preventing potential accidents. Meetings of experts would advance that, he said, but the alliance is unwilling.

NATO officials say any experts-level talks would look too much like a return to the old level of engagement that took place before 2014. Resuming such a dialogue, officials said, wouldn’t be appropriate as long as the war in Ukraine—and Russia’s support for separatists in the country’s east—continues.

NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said allies haven’t seen a change in Russia’s aggressive stance toward its neighbors, most notably Ukraine, that would allow them to have a more robust engagement. A return to expert-level discussions could “blur the lines,” she said, adding that the alliance will “make clear there can be no return to business as usual while Russia persists with its current behavior.”

Skeptics say resuming such talks would reward Russia and risk legitimizing its annexation of Crimea.

Germany’s ambassador to NATO, Hans-Dieter Lucas, recently wrote that the alliance “remains open to dialogue” and recent meetings have allowed the two sides “to openly exchange views on difficult and controversial issues.”

For months, Germany has been the most vociferous supporter of diplomatic outreach to Moscow. Its diplomats have said they believe intensified talk can result in political progress and defuse tensions. Eastern allies have been far more wary, skeptical that Russian diplomats have the power to make progress or that Moscow is truly interested in easing tensions.

Historians say that talking is sometimes useful to reduce misunderstandings and build trust. “Diplomats are seen in certain circumstances as a waste of time, and that is dangerous,” said Margaret MacMillan, a World War I historian. “Diplomacy is very important—the constant effort to try and communicate is very important.”

Ms. MacMillan said that before World War I, military measures that were meant to keep the peace ended up helping trigger the conflict. “There is always a problem when nations don’t trust each other,” she said. “What will look defensive from your point of view, will look threatening from another.”

Write to Julian E. Barnes at

Appeared in the December 28, 2017, print edition as ‘U.S., Russia Clash on Hot Spots.’

Rex Tillerson: I Am Proud of Our Diplomacy (New York Times Op-Ed)

December 28, 2017

Rex Tillerson at the United Nations this month. Credit Drew Angerer/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Over the past year, the United States has faced immense challenges in its dealings with North Korea, China and Russia, and in its efforts to defeat international terrorism. But Americans should be encouraged by the progress the State Department and United States Agency for International Development have made in pushing for global peace and stability.

When President Trump took office, he identified North Korea as the United States’ greatest security threat. He abandoned the failed policy of strategic patience. In its place we carried out a policy of pressure through diplomatic and economic sanctions. This year, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted three of the strongest sanctions resolutions in history, including bans on a wide array of North Korean exports such as coal, iron, seafood and textiles.

The United States has asked allies and partners to exert unilateral pressure against North Korea in order to force the regime to change its behavior. Many have responded with positive steps like shutting down trade, severing diplomatic ties and expelling North Korean laborers. Our peaceful pressure campaign has cut off roughly 90 percent of North Korea’s export revenue, much of which is used to fund illegal weapons development.

We hope that this international isolation will pressure the regime into serious negotiations on the abandonment of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. A door to dialogue remains open, but we have made it clear that the regime must earn its way back to the negotiating table. Until denuclearization occurs, the pressure will continue.

A central component of our North Korea strategy is persuading China to exert its decisive economic leverage on Pyongyang. China has applied certain import bans and sanctions, but it could and should do more. We will also continue to pursue American interests in other areas of our relationship, including trade imbalances, intellectual property theft and China’s troubling military activities in the South China Sea and elsewhere. China’s rise as an economic and military power requires Washington and Beijing to consider carefully how to manage our relationship for the next 50 years.

Defeating terrorism remains one of the president’s highest priorities. The administration’s aggressive strategy to counter the Islamic State delegates greater authority to American military commanders on the battlefield, giving our forces more freedom and speed to do what they do best, in partnership with indigenous fighting forces. As a result, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS has accelerated operations and has recaptured virtually all of previously held Islamic State territory in Iraq and Syria. While our military was helping clear Iraq and Syria of Islamic State forces, our diplomats were following up with humanitarian aid and assistance, such as clearing land mines, restoring water and power, and getting children back in school.

A commitment to stopping Islamist terrorism and extremism also motivated the administration’s decision to adopt a new South Asia strategy, which focuses on Afghanistan. That country cannot become a safe haven for terrorists, as it was in the days before the Sept. 11 attacks. Pakistan must contribute by combating terrorist groups on its own soil. We are prepared to partner with Pakistan to defeat terrorist organizations seeking safe havens, but Pakistan must demonstrate its desire to partner with us.

On Russia, we have no illusions about the regime we are dealing with. The United States today has a poor relationship with a resurgent Russia that has invaded its neighbors Georgia and Ukraine in the last decade and undermined the sovereignty of Western nations by meddling in our election and others’. The appointment of Kurt Volker, a former NATO ambassador, as special representative for Ukraine reflects our commitment to restoring the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Absent a peaceful resolution of the Ukraine situation, which must begin with Russia’s adherence to the Minsk agreements, there cannot be business as usual with Russia.

While we are on guard against Russian aggression, we recognize the need to work with Russia where mutual interests intersect. Nowhere is that more evident than in Syria. Now that President Vladimir Putin has committed to the United Nations-backed Geneva political process for providing a new future for Syria, we expect Russia to follow through. We are confident that the fulfillment of these talks will produce a Syria that is free of Bashar al-Assad and his family.

Lastly, the flawed Iran nuclear deal is no longer the focal point of our policy toward Iran. We are now confronting the totality of Iranian threats. Part of this strategy entails rebuilding alliances with our partners in the Middle East, and in November we helped re-establish diplomatic ties between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. We will continue to work with our allies and with Congress to explore options for addressing the nuclear deal’s many flaws, while building a like-minded effort to punish Iran for its violations of ballistic missile commitments and its destabilizing activities in the region.

I am proud of what our State Department and Agency for International Development teams around the world have accomplished this year, and our progress will continue in 2018 and beyond. To that end, we have undertaken a redesign of the State Department to strengthen our teams’ ability to deliver on our mission.

Our redesign doesn’t involve simply shifting boxes on an organizational chart. Our changes must address root problems that lead to inefficiencies and frustrations. By making changes like streamlining our human resources and information technology systems, better aligning personnel and resources with America’s strategic priorities, and reforming duplicative processes, we are giving our people more opportunities to flourish professionally and spend more time confronting the global problems they have dedicated their careers to solving.

When I wake up each morning, my first thought is, “How can I and my colleagues at the State Department use diplomacy to prevent people around the world from being killed, wounded or deprived of their rights?” In spite of the challenges, I remain optimistic about the power of diplomacy to resolve conflicts and advance American interests. My confidence comes from the knowledge that our efforts are carried out daily by patriotic and dedicated State Department employees who make sacrifices to serve with patience and persistence and who, by advancing democratic values the world over, are protecting our citizens’ rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Tillerson Defends U.S. Foreign Policy During Trump’s First Year

December 28, 2017


By Daniel Ten Kate

  • Former Exxon Mobil CEO hails gains in New York Times op-ed
  • Top U.S. diplomat has clashed with Trump repeatedly in 2017
Rex Tillerson.

Photographer: Patrick Doyle/Bloomberg

Rex Tillerson defended U.S. foreign policy during his first year as secretary of state, touting gains in pressuring North Korea, battling Islamic State and supporting Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.

In an op-ed titled “I am Proud of Our Diplomacy” published in the New York Times on Wednesday evening, Tillerson said Americans should be encouraged by progress made in pushing for global peace and stability. He also said a redesign of the State Department would allow diplomats to “flourish professionally” and spend more time solving global problems.

“In spite of the challenges, I remain optimistic about the power of diplomacy to resolve conflicts and advance American interests,” Tillerson wrote.

The former chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp. has had a bumpy year as the U.S.’s top diplomat. He’s clashed with President Donald Trump on issues from North Korea to Qatar, and faced criticism from the wider foreign-policy community for failing to fill key positions and sidelining career diplomats.

Trump rejected reports earlier this month that he was about to replace Tillerson as “FAKE NEWS,” saying that despite some disagreements “we work well together.” In the op-ed, Tillerson lauded “patriotic and dedicated” State Department employees who are “protecting our citizens’ rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Tillerson Highlights

He also made the case that the administration’s foreign policy is working:

* North Korea: Tillerson said the U.S. has cut off 90 percent of the country’s export revenue, and that pressure would continue until Kim Jong Un’s regime shows it’s serious about abandoning its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

* China: Tillerson called on China to do even more to pressure North Korea, and said the U.S. would continue to pressure leaders in Beijing on trade imbalances, intellectual property theft and “troubling military activities” in the South China Sea.

* Terrorism: Tillerson said the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State has recaptured “virtually all” of the territory held by the group in Syria and Iraq, and called on Pakistan to combat terrorist groups seeking safe haven on its soil and in Afghanistan.

* Russia: Tillerson said the U.S. is on guard against election meddling and would keep up pressure on Vladimir Putin’s regime until there is a peaceful resolution of the Ukraine situation. At the same time, he said the U.S. would work with Russia in places like Syria “where mutual interests intersect.”

* Iran: Tillerson said the nuclear deal is “no longer the focal point of our policy toward Iran.” Instead, he wrote, the U.S. is “confronting the totality of Iranian threats” through rebuilding alliances in the Middle East, addressing flaws in the nuclear deal and punishing Iran for violating ballistic missile commitments.

Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels swap prisoners

December 27, 2017

Image result for prisoner exchange, Ukraine, Photos

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have begun a major prisoner swap, Russian news agencies reported on Wednesday.

The exchange was reported to be the largest since a pro-Russian uprising erupted in eastern Ukraine in 2014, sparking a conflict in which more than 10,000 people have been killed.

Under the terms of the deal, Kiev will hand over 306 prisoners to the rebels and receive 74 prisoners in return, the Interfax news agency reported.

Writing by Polina Ivanova; Editing by Andrew Osborn

Trump claims he’s boosting U.S. influence, but many foreign leaders see America in retreat

December 26, 2017
DEC 26, 2017 | 3:00 AM
| WASHINGTONThe Los Angeles Times
Trump claims he's boosting U.S. influence, but many foreign leaders see America in retreat
President Trump and his wife, Melania, join Saudi King Salman (center) and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Sisi in May in Riyadh. It was Trump’s first overseas trip as president. (EPA / Saudi Photo Agency) 

China has now assumed the mantle of fighting climate change, a global crusade that the United States once led. Russia has taken over Syrian peace talks, also once the purview of the American administration, whose officials Moscow recently deigned to invite to negotiations only as observers.

France and Germany are often now the countries that fellow members of NATO look to, after President Trump wavered on how supportive his administration would be toward the North Atlantic alliance.

And in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S., once the only mediator all sides would accept, has found itself isolated after Trump’s decision to declare that the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

In his wide-ranging speech on national security last week, Trump highlighted what he called the broadening of U.S. influence throughout the world.

But one year into his presidency, many international leaders, diplomats and foreign policy experts argue that he has reduced U.S. influence or altered it in ways that are less constructive. On a range of policy issues, Trump has taken positions that disqualified the United States from the debate or rendered it irrelevant, these critics say.

Even in countries that have earned Trump’s praise, such as India, there is concern about Trump’s unpredictability — will he be a reliable partner? — and what many overseas view as his isolationism.

“The president can and does turn things inside out,” said Manoj Joshi, a scholar at a New Delhi think tank, the Observer Research Foundation. “So the chances that the U.S. works along a coherent and credible national security strategy are not very high.”

As the U.S. recedes, other powers including China, Russia and Iran are eagerly stepping into the void.

One significant issue is the visible gap between the president and many of his top national security advisors.

Trump’s national security speech was intended to explain to the public a 70-page strategy document that the administration developed. But on key issues, Trump’s speech and the document diverged. The speech, for example, included generally favorable rhetoric about Russia and China. The strategy document listed the two governments as competitors, accused the Russians of using “subversion” as a tactic and said that countering both rival powers was necessary.

Russia reacted angrily: America continues to evince “its aversion to a multipolar world,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said.

At the same time, Trump’s refusal to overtly criticize Russia, some diplomats say, has emboldened Putin in his military actions in Ukraine, where Russian-backed rebels are battling a pro-West government in Kiev. Kurt Volker, the administration’s special envoy for Ukraine, said that some of the worst fighting since February took place over the past two weeks, with numerous civilian casualties. Volker accused Russia of “massive” cease-fire violations.

Nicholas Burns, who served as a senior American diplomat under Republican and Democratic administrations, said the administration’s strategy was riddled with contradictions that have left the U.S. ineffective.

Trump “needs a strong State Department to implement” its strategy, he said. “Instead, State and the Foreign Service are being weakened and often sidelined.”

Trump’s “policy of the last 12 months is a radical departure from every president since WWII,” Burns said in an interview. “Trump is weak on NATO, Russia, trade, climate, diplomacy. The U.S. is declining as a global leader.”

The most recent example of U.S. isolation came with Trump’s decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, delighting many Israelis, but angering Palestinians and reversing decades of international consensus.

On Thursday, an overwhelming majority of the U.N. General Assembly, including many U.S. allies, voted to demand the U.S. rescind the decision.

For the last quarter-century, successive U.S. governments have held themselves up as an “honest broker” in mediating peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Trump insisted he is not giving up on a peace deal, but most parties involved interpreted his announcement as clearly siding with Israel.

“From now on, it is out of the question for a biased United States to be a mediator between Israel and Palestine,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a summit of more than 50 Muslim countries that he hosted in Istanbul. “That period is over.”

Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, said that if a peace deal is to be made now, “it won’t be from American policy.”

“Trump took himself and the administration out of the peace process for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Trump had boasted of his ability to convene Muslim leaders during his trip to Saudi Arabia in May, but that would seem far less possible today. In Jordan, arguably Washington’s closest Arab ally in the Middle East, government-controlled television has started 24-hour broadcasts of invitations to follow a Twitter account whose hashtag roughly translates as “Jerusalem is ours … our Arabness.”

Regional leaders and analysts also say that for all of Trump’s tough rhetoric, they see few concrete steps by the U.S. to counter Iran’s steady expansion of its military, economic and political influence, a perception that Iranian leaders are happy to exploit.

“Trump is ranting and making empty threats,” said Hamid Reza Taraghi, a conservative Iranian politician with close ties to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “Russia, China and Iran are gaining ground in the Middle East, and America is losing ground and influence.”

That view is also shared by Iranian moderates, with whom the Obama administration thought it could work.

“The reality on the ground in the Middle East is that the American administration has failed to form an efficient coalition against its self-proclaimed enemies,” said Nader Karimi Juni, an independent Iranian analyst who writes for reformist dailies and magazines.

“Now Russia is celebrating its victory in Syria, and America is watching as an onlooker,” Juni said.

In Syria and Iraq, the U.S. under Trump has succeeded in helping its allies drive Islamic State militants out of their strongholds. But Washington has opted to take a back seat in the other conflicts roiling the two countries.

This month, another round of U.N.-mediated and U.S.-backed peace talks on Syria wrapped up in Geneva without any progress. Instead, a Russia-led process is gaining traction.

Even some longtime opponents of Assad quietly acknowledge that Sochi, the Black Sea resort where Russia aims to convene a “Syrian people’s congress” next year, and not Geneva, will be the focus of efforts to bring an end to the war.

Trump has won praise in parts of South Asia, a region his team has re-dubbed the “Indo-Pacific” and where it is favoring India and Afghanistan over Pakistan. The administration has asked Congress for $350 million in aid to Pakistan for 2018, not quite one-tenth the amount Washington provided five years ago.

Afghan officials say they are encouraged by Trump’s renewed pressure on neighboring Pakistan to take “decisive action” to stop militant groups operating from its soil.

“Our partnership, which reflects a renewed U.S. commitment, will set the conditions to end the war and finally bringing peace to Afghanistan,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office said in a statement.

But even there, officials say they worry that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric will strengthen China’s status as a power broker.

China has also benefited from Trump’s refusal to join other nations to work against climate change. Even as Trump removed climate change from the list of threats menacing the United States, China announced it would begin phasing in an ambitious program to curb carbon emissions by establishing the world’s largest market for trading emissions permits.

Trump was not invited to an international climate summit hosted earlier this month by French President Emmanuel Macron because of his decision to pull the United States out of 2015 international climate deal.

“You cannot pretend to be the guarantor of international order and get out of [an accord] as soon as it suits you,” Macron told France 2 TV.

Staff writers Zavis and Bengali reported from Beirut and Mumbai, respectively. Special correspondents Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran, Omar Medhat in Cairo and Samir Zedan from Bethlehem, West Bank, contributed to this report.

Russia’s Lavrov tells Tillerson U.S. ‘aggressive rhetoric’ on Korea unacceptable

December 26, 2017


MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday that “Washington’s aggressive rhetoric” had heightened tension on the Korean peninsula and was unacceptable, the Russian foreign ministry said.

In a phone call, the two men also discussed further steps towards resolving the Syrian crisis and the situation in Ukraine, it added.

Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; editing by Andrew Roche