U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday “urged Russia to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine” in a 50-minute call with his Russian counterpart, the White House said. A senior administration official added that President Vladimir Putin made no concrete promises about the tens of thousands of Russian troops massed along the Ukrainian border.
Biden “made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.
A top Kremlin official told journalists that during the call, Biden again warned Putin that the U.S. and its allies would exert serious economic sanctions if Russia invaded Ukraine. Putin responded with a warning of his own: Such a move could lead to a complete rupture in U.S.-Russia relations.
Psaki added that the two nations would participate in three separate rounds of talks next month: first through bilateral talks scheduled to start January 10, and then through two sets of multiparty talks with the NATO-Russia Council and at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“President Biden reiterated that substantive progress in these dialogues can occur only in an environment of de-escalation rather than escalation,” she added.
For months now, Putin has built up troops along the Russia-Ukraine border. U.S. intelligence officials have estimated, from looking at satellite photos, that as many as 100,000 troops are in the area. Meanwhile, Ukraine has been building up its own defenses on its side of the border.
For years, the former Soviet state has been seeking entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, alongside the U.S. and other Western nations. Russia strongly opposes that move.
Putin foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov said the Kremlin was pleased with the talks, but he also said that Putin pushed Biden for concrete results from the upcoming security talks. Russia’s demands include that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and that the security alliance reduce its deployments in Central and Eastern Europe. White House officials have declined to discuss their terms publicly.
This was the second time this month that the two men had held direct talks. According to Leon Aron, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, it was the eighth time that the U.S. and Russian leaders have met in one year. That, he said, is “a record in the entire history of U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Soviet relations.”
Biden administration officials said that the two had a “serious and substantive” discussion. But a senior administration official said that Putin made “no declarations as to intentions.” The two presidents will not participate in the high-level talks set for January 10 in Geneva.
Although analysts seem to doubt Putin will invade Ukraine, they worry that tens of thousands of battle-ready troops in the region could accidentally or intentionally spark a war.
“If he is bluffing, then it is a very serious bluff, which entails particular risks to Putin, because he has to make sure that 100,000 troops-plus are occupied and ready – but not taking the initiative themselves before an order is given,” said Will Pomeranz, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. ”So I think that it is just simply a situation that is fraught with peril on both sides.”
The White House has said repeatedly that there will be “significant consequences” if Russia invades, including harsh economic sanctions and increased security support for Ukraine. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, tweeted Wednesday that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed “full [U.S.] support for [Ukraine] in countering Russian aggression.”
“Both presidents essentially have their backs against the wall,” Aron told VOA. “Putin’s ultimatum is no more expansion of NATO, withdrawal of NATO troops from the Baltics and, most importantly, a promise to never have Ukraine inside NATO. In essence, on all those three, Biden said, ‘No.’ So the question is: Will they arrive at some sort of compromise?”
And like many analysts, he postulated that Putin is posturing, projecting strength ahead of key elections in two years.
“Putin successfully creates a sense of emergency, if you notice the language is almost the same: He’s about to start a war, he’s about to invade Ukraine,” he said. “And apparently, the White House goes for it. I wouldn’t, because, I wrote, and I also spoke about this, Putin is not going to invade Ukraine at this time. He’s playing to his domestic audience. And all of this is a part of the game that Putin is playing, and I think will continue to play at least until his elections in 2024.”
Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse.
For the second time in a month, US President Joe Biden has spoken directly to his Russian counterpart and urged him to de-escalate, as President Vladimir Putin continues to amass soldiers near the border with Ukraine. But administration officials said Putin provided no assurances of his intentions. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Washington.
Gazprom, Russia’s giant state-owned energy company, is slated to finalize an agreement in 2022 for a second huge natural gas pipeline running from Siberia to China, marking yet another stage in what energy analysts and Western diplomats say is a fast-evolving gas pivot to Asia by Moscow.
They see the pivot as a geopolitical project and one that could mean trouble for Europe.
Known as Power of Siberia 2, the mega-pipeline traversing Mongolia will be able to deliver 50 billion cubic meters of Russian gas to China annually. It was given the go-ahead in March by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and when finished it will complement another massive pipeline, Power of Siberia 1, that transports gas from Russia’s Chayandinskoye field to northern China.
Power of Siberia 2 will supply gas from Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula, the source of the gas exported to Europe. Western officials worry that the project could have serious geopolitical implications for energy-hungry European nations before they embark in earnest on a long transition to renewables and away from fossil fuels.
For months Western leaders and officials have been accusing Russia of worsening an energy crunch that’s hit Europe this year and threatens to deepen during the northern hemisphere winter. Gazprom has shrugged off urgent European requests for more natural gas. In the past few weeks Gazprom has at times even reduced exports, say industry monitors.
The energy giant maintains it has been meeting the volumes of gas it agreed to in contracts, but Gazprom has been accused by the International Energy Agency and European lawmakers of deliberately not doing enough to boost supplies to Europe as the continent struggles with unprecedented price hikes and the increasing risk of power rationing and plant stoppages.
The new Sino-Russian energy project, which Putin discussed with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, during a December 18 video conference, will give Moscow even more leverage when price bargaining with Europe and boost China as an alternative market for gas, according to Filip Medunic, an analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“Russia remains Europe’s main gas supplier, but Europeans urgently need to understand the changes it is currently making to its energy transport infrastructure—as these changes could leave Europe even more at Moscow’s mercy,” he outlined in a study earlier this year.
Speaking after his conference call with Xi Jinping, the Russian president told reporters that the pipeline’s route, length and other parameters have been agreed to, and a feasibility study will be completed in the next several weeks.
The Kremlin has been eager to expand its energy market in China, which will need more gas in coming years to substitute for an eventual phasing down of coal, according to Vita Spivak, an energy analyst at Control Risks, a global consulting firm. Spivak told a discussion forum earlier this month that Kremlin officials are anxious to “exploit the opportunity” especially “considering there is a good working relationship between the two capitals.”
The Power of Siberia 2 pipeline has been championed by Putin, she said.
McKinsey, the strategic management consulting firm, estimates Chinese demand for gas will double by 2035. That will be a godsend for Russia. European governments are already setting out plans on how to transform their energy markets—how they will generate, import and distribute energy and shift to renewables and, in some cases, nuclear power. Russia needs to diversify into Asia to prolong its profits from its vast natural gas resources as Europe slowly weans itself off Gazprom supplies.
But Europe will remain dependent on Russian gas in the near future and Moscow has been busy re-ordering its complex network of pipelines, shaping them for wider economic and political purposes, say energy and national security analysts. Currently it supplies Europe through several pipelines—Nord Stream I, TurkStream and another from Yamal that terminates in Germany after transiting Belarus and Poland.
And it has just completed the controversial Nord Stream 2 underwater pipeline, which connects Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, circumventing older land routes through Ukraine. Nord Stream 2 has yet to receive final approval by German authorities.
Washington has long warned of the risk of Nord Stream 2 making the EU in the short term even more dependent for its energy needs on Russia and potentially vulnerable to economic coercion by the Kremlin. The planned Power of Siberia 2 pipeline will be able to pump into China around the same amount that Nord Stream 2 would be able to transport to Europe, giving the Kremlin more options about who gets the gas and at what price.
A senior European diplomat told VOA that Gazprom’s refusal to come up with additional supplies during the current energy crunch already “demonstrates Russia’s questionable motives about how ready it is to use the energy market for purely political purposes.” He added, “As it diversifies to China, it will give the Kremlin more opportunities to turn off and on supplies to Europe but reduce considerably any financial risks for Russia.”
A few days after Vladimir Putin was reelected his country’s president in 2018, a former top Kremlin official outlined to VOA how perilous relations had become between the West and Russia. In a wide-ranging conversation, almost foretelling the high-stakes clash developing now between the Kremlin and NATO over Ukraine, he said Putin believed the fracture between Russia and Western powers was irreparable.
And he identified NATO’s eastward expansion as the key reason. The final blow came for Putin, he said, with the 2013-14 popular Maidan uprising in Ukraine that led to the ouster of his ally, then Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych.
The Kremlin insider, who occupied a senior position in former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s government and went on to become a core member of Putin’s team, blamed the West for a collapse of trust and the lack of common ground. “Maybe all that can be done is to do smaller things together to try to recreate trust,” he said. “If we can’t do that, maybe we will wake up one day and someone will have launched nuclear missiles.”
Fast forward and Kremlin officials have been openly threatening in recent days to deploy tactical nuclear weapons amid rising fears that Putin is considering a further military incursion into Ukraine. This would be a repeat of Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its seizure of a large part of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, bordering Russia.
“There will be confrontation,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said shortly after U.S. President Joe Biden and Putin held a two-hour video conference Dec. 18, aimed at defusing a burgeoning crisis over Russian military movements near Ukraine’s borders and an amassing of around 100,000 troops.
Ryabkov warned that Russia would deploy weapons previously banned under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, an arms control deal struck in 1987 by then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, which expired in 2019.
Last week, in remarks broadcast by Russian media, Putin said, “If the obviously aggressive line of our Western colleagues continues, we will take adequate, retaliatory military-technical measures [and] react toughly to unfriendly steps.”
For Western leaders and officials, the Kremlin’s grievances and fears over NATO’s expansion are delusional at best, or at worst a pretext to redraft the security architecture of Europe with Putin as the deciding architect.
Western officials say it is nonsensical for Russia to paint the West as the aggressor, considering the hybrid warfare and hostile acts they accuse the Kremlin of conducting against the West for years. They see these as revanchist steps seeking to turn the clock back to when Russia controlled half of Europe.
Western officials cite cyber-attacks targeting American and European nuclear power plants and other utility infrastructure, a nerve gas assassination on British soil of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, disinformation campaigns seeking to meddle in Western elections and politics and the funding of disruptive far-right and far-left populist parties as part of an effort to destabilize the European Union.
“Facts are a funny thing and facts make clear that the only aggression we are seeing at the border of Russia and Ukraine is the military build-up by the Russians and the bellicose rhetoric by the leader of Russia,” Jen Psaki, U.S. President Joe Biden’s spokeswoman, told reporters last week.
But for Kremlin officials, the blame rests with the Western powers for their failure to heed the building Russian frustration over NATO’s enlargement since the end of the Cold War. There have been waves of new admissions to the Western military alliance since 1999, bringing in a dozen central European and Baltic states that were once members of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact.
At times as the enlargement proceeded, ugly behind-the-scenes clashes erupted, notably over Western objections to Russia “establishing closer ties” with its former Soviet republics. The issue triggered a face-to-face argument between Putin and then-White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice during a meeting in Sochi. Rice maintained that the former Soviet republics were independent states and should determine their future without what she saw as Russian intimidation.
And Kremlin aides have been adamant that the Maidan protests were Western-fomented and not a popular uprising. The blaming of the West for the return of Cold War-like enmity, and the sense of pessimism Russian officials have been displaying about East-West relations, illustrates how difficult it will be to bridge the rift.
Putin’s pent-up resentment spilled out last week at his end-of-the-year press conference in Moscow during which he demanded an immediate answer to his demand that NATO withdraw its forces from central and eastern Europe. The Russian leader said he was running out of patience. “You must provide guarantees. You must do that at once, now, and not keep blathering on about this for talks that will last decades,” he said.
His demands include not only troop withdrawals from former communist states that are members of NATO but a promise that Ukraine will not one day become a member of the Western alliance. In effect, it would mean the West recognizes former Soviet states and ex-communist countries as part of the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.
Nina Khrushcheva, a professor at The New School in New York, remains pessimistic about the prospects for planned talks next month among the United States, NATO and Russia. In a commentary this week, Khrushcheva, a great-granddaughter of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, says Russia has a “special-nation” mindset and warns Putin isn’t alone among Russians who “want not to revive the USSR, but rather to preserve their country’s status.”
How that can be done, how Russian Cold War resentment can be soothed, while at the same time not denying the rights of other, smaller sovereign states to decide their own paths, will be the key challenge facing Western negotiators when they hold talks in January.
President Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin will speak Thursday as the Russian leader has stepped up his demands for security guarantees in Eastern Europe.
The two leaders will discuss “a range of topics, including upcoming diplomatic engagements,” National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said in a statement announcing the call.
The talks come as the U.S. and Western allies have watched the buildup of Russian troops near the border of Ukraine, growing to an estimated 100,000 and fueling fears that Moscow is preparing to invade Ukraine.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Blinken “reiterated the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders.”
Price said the two discussed efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine and upcoming diplomatic engagements with Russia.
Putin said earlier this week he would ponder a slew of options if the West fails to meet his push for security guarantees precluding NATO’s expansion to Ukraine.
Earlier this month, Moscow submitted draft security documents demanding that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back its military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe.
In a court filing Tuesday, lawyers for Prince Andrew say a lawsuit by an American who claims he sexually abused her when she was 17 might have to be thrown out because she no longer lives in the United States.
Attorneys Andrew Brettler and Melissa Lerner said they recently discovered that Virginia Giuffre has lived in Australia all but two of the last 19 years and cannot claim she’s a resident of Colorado, where she hasn’t lived since at least 2019.
In an August lawsuit filed in federal court in New York, Giuffre claimed the prince abused her on multiple occasions in 2001.
The prince’s lawyers in October asked Judge Lewis A. Kaplan to throw out the lawsuit, saying the prince “never sexually abused or assaulted” Giuffre. The lawyers acknowledged that Giuffre may well be a victim of sexual abuse by financier Jeffrey Epstein, who killed himself in 2019 while awaiting a sex trafficking trial.
A message seeking comment from Giuffre to the latest filing by the prince’s lawyers was sent to a spokesperson for her lawyers.
Last month, Kaplan said a trial in Giuffre’s lawsuit against the prince could be held between September and December 2022.
But the prince’s lawyers say the new information about Giuffre’s residence should result in the suspension of any progress in the lawsuit toward trial, including depositions of Andrew and Giuffre, until the issue is settled as to whether her foreign residence disqualifies her from suing the prince in the U.S.
They asked the judge to order Giuffre to respond to written legal requests about her residency and submit to a two-hour deposition on the issue.
The lawyers wrote that Giuffre has an Australian driver’s license and was living in a $1.9 million home in Perth, Western Australia, where she has been raising three children with her husband, who is Australian.
“Even if Ms. Giuffre’s Australian domicile could not be established as early as October 2015, there can be no real dispute that she was permanently living there with an intent to remain there as of 2019 — still two years before she filed this action against Prince Andrew,” the lawyers wrote.
The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they choose to come forward publicly, as Giuffre has.
In his Nobel speech, Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov described journalism as the “antidote to tyranny.”
The editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta and his staff face frequent threats because of the independent paper’s investigative, hard-hitting coverage. Several of its journalists and contributors have been killed, including Anna Politkovskaya, who reported on human rights abuses in Chechnya.
A memorial to Politkovskaya was vandalized in December, just a few days after Muratov and Philippine journalist Maria Ressa were handed the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.
In an exclusive interview with VOA’s Russian Service, Muratov spoke about the struggle to defend and uphold media freedom in Russia and how the threat of violence and legal action affects reporting.
This interview has been translated from Russian and edited for length and clarity.
Question: In your Nobel speech, you called journalism an antidote to tyranny. But in Russia, 15 years of freedom after the end of the Soviet Union have given way to censorship, persecution and killings, and a rollback of civil liberties and democracy. Why is this antidote not working in Russia?
Dmitry Muratov: Society allowed it, the country allowed it, the people allowed it. I reread a book by American researcher Olga Velikanova about the (Soviet) constitution of 1936. This constitution, “Stalin’s constitution,” was unique in its set of freedoms: equal voting rights, no more persecution of “kulaks” (wealthy members of the peasant class). It was considered the most progressive European constitution.
Stalin submitted it (nationwide) for discussion — but hundreds of thousands of letters poured in, saying, “We don’t want your freedoms. We don’t want those put in labor camps to come back. They may claim their property, but now it’s ours. Why do you give voting rights to collective farmers?”
I agree with Velikanova when she says that Stalin (soon) realized that people were ready for nonfreedom, for repression.
It seems to me that in many ways this story is happening again, of people not being ready to take responsibility for themselves. If that’s the case, then they are not ready to resume responsibility for this basic value of freedom of speech.
Question: Do you think that people are deterred from demanding change because of an awareness of what may happen if they do?
Muratov: I would divide this question into two parts.
In the last century (the Soviet Union and Communism) lost about 100 million people. So how can we judge the country after that? Every family was orphaned in some way, everyone lost someone. Yet the only thing left that people could rely on was the state (even when it was responsible for their loss.)
The second part of the question is more complicated. There was a moment in the 1990s when it seemed like we had freedom. Where did it all go?
I don’t have an answer to that question. But for the first time in our history, money became an issue. Under socialism, everyone earned roughly the same, from 114 to 350 rubles. Members of the Politburo received 520.
Now you have to pay the mortgage, otherwise the family can be evicted. Largely, in my country, money did not come to mean personal freedom, the freedom to choose. Rather it meant dependence, dependence on the state.
I’m not willing to condemn people … for not prioritizing freedom of speech, because for them, the freedom to feed their family is the priority.
Question: What support do Russian journalists need from colleagues, from human rights activists, or even foreign countries?
Muratov: Readers’ support is very important. Nobody in the parliament represents the people. Only the authorities are represented. Therefore, the media have become a kind of parliament for readers by representing the interests of the people.
Ten years ago, a wonderful slogan was left at Bolotnaya Square (in Moscow). I wish I could give an award to the author of this slogan.
It read “Вы нас даже не представляете,” which translates as “You do not even represent us” or “You are incapable of envisioning who we are.”
(Editor’s note: the Russian word “представляете” has multiple meanings including “represent” and “envision,” which gives the slogan a double meaning.)
The Duma (parliament) still does not represent the people, but the media do. The media are a parliament of readers, and this is the most important thing.
In the past two and a half months alone, more than a hundred people have been declared a “foreign agent.” Let’s not pretend that is not the same as “enemy of the people.” Yes, in the Stalinist connotation — and in Russia it is the Stalinist connotation that is back in circulation right now — a “foreign agent” is an “enemy of the people.”
I am grateful to countries that have taken up the noble mission of taking in our journalists, human rights defenders, leaders of nongovernmental organizations.
Those countries have given us the opportunity to live and work, and to preserve the dignity of our professional journalists.
Question: Does foreign support increase the risk that a journalist in Russia will be designated as a “foreign agent”?
Muratov: The current financial monitoring system, which exists not only in our country but also in other countries, can see every penny from a foreign source. The safety of journalists depends on support, but if that support comes in the form of a dollar or a ruble, it certainly increases risks.
Those risks pose a huge threat to journalists, so I think that those countries we call democratic should think about how they can help and do no harm in the process.
Question: Some people criticized your Nobel speech for not mentioning the Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who harassed Novaya Gazeta. Some said that mentions of President Vladimir Putin were not critical enough. What is your response?
Muratov: You know, I don’t follow social media much. I run a professional media outlet. But I understand those people who criticized me, because they were forced to leave their country, otherwise they would have been imprisoned, arrested.
I can have my own opinion about Leonid Volkov (chief of staff for jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny), but I also understand perfectly well that if he had stayed, he would have been put in jail. How can I judge him, or (Navalny team members and supporters) Lyubov Sobol, for example, or Georgy Alburov? They’ve been pushed out of the country.
They have a high pain threshold, and they believe that there needs to be a different degree of outrage about what led to Navalny being a hostage in prison for over 300 days. Navalny has become a political prisoner based on false charges.
So at first I thought, “Are you stupid or something, don’t you get it?” and then I thought, “Maybe it’s me who doesn’t get something.”
If someone is disappointed (by my speech), I certainly will not apologize, I have nothing to apologize for. But next time, I promise to consider their feedback.
Question: What is more dangerous for journalists in Russia: direct violence or repressive laws?
Muratov: (There is) a hybrid war of the state against the media. It is a hybrid war waged by different people who consider themselves representatives of the state. The nature of hybrid war is such that you can be killed and not even know who did it.
However, if we are talking about which threat is greater for a journalist, the law or violence, the threat of physical violence, as usual, is greater.
(Vandals) desecrated the plaque to Politkovskaya on our building. Before that, they poured toxic liquid everywhere and made it impossible to work for a week. During a parade of Kadyrov’s troops (in Chechnya) they said that Putin should close (Novaya Gazeta) or they’ll take matters into their own hands.
We’ve been sent powders and a severed pig’s head, with an SS Nazi dagger stuck in it. By the way, I still have not found out who tortured the poor pig.
Then they sent us sheep. Ten sheep in a cage, to be exact, delivered near the entrance to the office. We saved the sheep, we gave them to a farm, and they are thriving. They thrive, as do the knuckleheads who wage a hybrid war against us, because they think they captured the state’s frame of mind.
Question: The Russian Constitution prohibits censorship. Could journalists appeal in court against what they consider censorship and win?
Muratov: Journalists cannot win in a Russian court. They can win in the European Court of Human Rights; we win all the time. But we always lose in Russian courts. That’s how things are now. We don’t need to pretend otherwise.
We have created a caste state, a corporate state. The ruling caste lives by one set of laws, while the rest of the people live by another. We live by the laws they made for us. Under these laws, we can’t do anything, can’t work, can’t fully perform our duties as journalists.
This article originated in VOA’s Russian Service.
The U.S. State Department called Tuesday for Russia to release Paul Whelan, who was detained by Russian authorities three years ago.
Whelan, 51, was in Russia as a tourist and was arrested at a Moscow hotel. He was convicted of espionage charges and is currently serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor at a prison camp in Mordovia.
The former U.S. Marine and former security executive denies the charges, which the U.S. State Department called “false.”
The State Department also called for the release of Trevor Reed, who is serving a nine-year sentence for allegedly assaulting Russian police officers after a night of drinking in Moscow in 2019. Reed, also a former Marine, said he does not remember the incident and pleaded not guilty.
Reed’s lawyers were critical about the harshness of the sentence.
In November, Reed reportedly went on a weeklong hunger strike to protest repeatedly being put in a “punitive isolation ward,” his lawyers said.
U.S. officials have said Russia is holding the two as bargaining chips for a possible prisoner swap with the U.S.
“Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken has been very clear about the need for Russia to release U.S. citizens Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed unconditionally and immediately so they can be home with their families,” the State Department said in a news release.
Mali’s military government has denied hiring Russian mercenaries from the controversial Wagner Group, which has been sanctioned by the European Union for rights abuses. France and 15 other Western nations last week condemned what they said was Russia’s deployment of Wagner fighters to Mali. Mali’s transitional government says it is only engaged with official Russian military trainers. Analysts weigh in on Russia’s military involvement in Mali as French troops are drawing down.
Mali’s transitional government this month denied what it called “baseless allegations” that it hired the controversial Russian security firm the Wagner Group to help fight Islamist insurgents.
Western governments and U.N. experts have accused Wagner of rights abuses, including killing civilians, in the Central African Republic and Libya.
The response came Friday after Western nations made the accusations, which Mali’s military government dismissed with a demand that they provide independent evidence.
A day earlier, France and 15 other Western nations had condemned what they called the deployment of Wagner mercenaries to Mali.
The joint statement said they deeply regret the transitional authorities’ choice to use already scarce public funds to pay foreign mercenaries instead of supporting its own armed forces and the Malian people.
The statement also called on the Russian government to behave more responsibly, accusing it of providing material support to the Wagner Group’s deployment, which Moscow denies.
The Mali government acknowledged what it called “Russian trainers” were in the country. It said they were present to help strengthen the operational capacities of their defense and security forces.
Aly Tounkara is director of the Center for Security and Strategic Studies in the Sahel, a Bamako-based think tank.
He says it’s hard to tell if the Russian security presence is military or mercenary but, regardless, would likely be supporting rather than front-line fighting.
This could allow the Malian army to have victories over the enemy that will be attributed to them, says Tounkara, which was not the case with the French forces. He says the second advantage is that victories over extremists could allow Mali’s military to legitimize itself. We must remember, says Tounkara, that one of the reasons for the forced departure of President Keita, was that the security situation was so bad.
Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was overthrown in an August 2020 coup led by Colonel Assimi Goita after months of anti-government protests, much of it over worsening security.
Goita launched a second coup in May that removed the interim government leaders, but has promised to hold elections in 2022.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been pushing Mali’s military government to hold elections.
ECOWAS in November expressed concern over a potential Wagner Group deployment to Mali after unconfirmed reports that the military government was in talks with the mercenary group.
Popular protests in Bamako have called for French forces to leave Mali and last year some protesters were seen calling for Russian ones to intervene.
Since French forces first arrived in Mali in 2013, public opinion on their presence has shifted from favorable to widely negative.
The French military has been gradually drawing down its anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane forces from the Sahel region.
French forces this year withdrew from all but one military base in northern Mali, saying the Malian armed forces were ready to take the lead on their own security.
But analysts say one consequence of the French leaving is that the Malian army is seeking other partners.
Boubacar Salif Traore is director of Afriglob Conseil, a Bamako-based development and security consulting firm.
“Official Russian cooperation would be very advantageous for the Malian army in terms of supplying equipment,” he says. “Mali, and many African countries, notably the Central African Republic, have concluded that France does not play fair in terms of delivering arms. Every time these states ask for weapons, either there’s an embargo or there is a problem in procuring these weapons. Russia can provide these weapons without constraints and it’s precisely that which interests Mali.”
In September, Mali received four military helicopters and other weapons bought from Russia.
The Malian transitional government’s statement Friday did not elaborate on what the Russian trainers would be doing in Mali.
When asked to comment, a government spokesman would not elaborate and referred questions to the ministry of foreign affairs, which does not list any contact numbers on its website.
Prominent historians and human rights activists were shocked by a Russian Supreme Court ruling Tuesday to close Memorial International, which chronicled historical abuses of the former Soviet Union and identified victims of former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s purges.
The human rights group, which has long drawn the ire of Russian officials, was found guilty of breaking a law requiring nongovernmental organizations and other groups to register as foreign agents if they receive foreign donations. Kremlin critics said the organization was targeted for political reasons.
Memorial International’s sister organization, the Memorial Human Rights Center, which campaigns on behalf of political prisoners in modern-day Russia, is also under legal threat. Prosecutors in Moscow Wednesday will call for its closure on claims it has been justifying terrorism and condoning extremism in its publications.
“A power that is afraid of memory, will never be able to achieve democratic maturity,” Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum director Piotr Cywiński tweeted on Tuesday. Other historians said on social media that the ruling capped a year of crackdowns on Kremlin critics not seen since the Soviet days.
In a joint statement, the German branch of Amnesty International, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation decried the ruling, saying the Russian government “wants to monopolize individual and collective memory.”
Memorial International has chronicled the horrors of the Communist era since it was co-founded in 1987 by Nobel laureate and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, four years before the end of the Soviet Union. Memorial historians located execution sites and mass graves of Stalin’s “Great Terror,” also known as the “Great Purge,” and tried to identify as many victims as possible.
Several historians associated with Memorial International have been imprisoned in recent years, including Karelia-based gulag chronicler Yury Dmitriyev, who this week was sentenced to 15 years in a penal colony for allegedly abusing his adopted daughter.
Other historians say the charge against Dmitriyev was trumped up and leveled to silence him. Two other Gulag chroniclers also have been jailed on sex-related charges.
Kremlin authorities repeatedly have accused Memorial International of distorting history. Before Tuesday’s ruling, state prosecutor Alexei Zhafyarov said, “It is obvious that Memorial creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state.” Zhafyarov claimed the extensive lists of victims of Stalinist repression compiled by the organization also included “Nazi offenders with blood of Soviet citizens on their hands.”
“This is why we, the descendants of (WWII) victors, are forced to watch for attempts to rehabilitate traitors of the motherland and Nazi collaborators,” he added.
Stalin’s image has slowly been rehabilitated since Vladimir Putin came to power in the late 1990s, a rehabilitation that has included new statues and memorials being built, and officials no longer embarrassed to hang Stalin’s portraits.
Memorial historians say they are on the front line in a battle over history and the chronicling of the communist past.
“The very act of remembrance is frowned on,” St. Petersburg-based historian Anatoly Razumov told VOA in a recent interview. He said officials under Putin see the memorializing as unpatriotic, an act undertaken by fifth columnists to the benefit of Western foes.
Razumov said researching the Great Terror has always been difficult, even during the thaw years (the period after Stalin’s death in 1953) of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s predecessor. He said 1997 marked the beginning of the end of the thaw when it comes to the history of the Great Terror. In a presidential decree, Yeltsin declared 1997 as the Year of Reconciliation.
“After 1997, the topic was meant to go quiet. As far as the authorities were concerned, the topic was finished,” Razumov told VOA.
Memorial historians say Kremlin-backed academics have put a lot of effort into adding details to the story of the horrors that Russia endured during World War II at the hands of the German Nazis.
Last year, Russian prosecutors summoned surviving Red Army veterans to recall their battlefield experiences to help identify Nazis and their collaborators who carried out war atrocities in the Soviet Union.
The probe was linked by some observers to Putin’s renewed interest in historical memory. The Russian leader and former KGB officer has complained loudly that the Soviet Union’s huge wartime role and its losses have been downplayed for propaganda purposes by Western politicians and historians.
Putin has asserted Western popular culture overlooks Soviet sacrifices and focuses instead on events such as the Normandy landings of 1944. Some Western historians sympathize with Putin’s claim and his insistence the Soviet sacrifice in lives and treasure was much greater than the Western allies. But they question Putin’s rigid selectivity.
Timothy Snyder, a Yale University historian and author of “The Road to Unfreedom,” has accused Putin of taking “certain points from the past to portray them as moments of righteousness” while everything in between those moments is discarded.
Last year, Putin labeled those who disagree with the Kremlin’s version of history as Western “collaborators.” And the Investigative Committee of Russia has established a department to investigate “falsifications of history,” which rights campaigners and historians fear will be used to further stifle free inquiry.
United Nations Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor warned last month any dissolution of Memorial would be “a new low for human rights defenders in Russia,” whose “criticism of historical and contemporary human rights abuses has for many years made them the target of a government that is ever diminishing the space for public debate.”
As Europe rang in the New Year 20 years ago, 12 of its nations said goodbye to their deutschmarks, French francs, liras and pesetas as they welcomed the euro single currency.
On January 1, 2002, euro notes and coins became a reality for some 300 million people from Athens to Dublin, three years after the currency was formally launched in “virtual” form.
Here is a recap of the event, drawn from AFP reporting at the time:
In a far cry from the austere New Year’s celebrations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic 20 years later, fireworks, music and lights blazed at midnight into the early morning of January 1, 2002, to mark the biggest monetary switch in history.
AFP reported that many people passed on their traditional New Year’s Eve parties, choosing instead to queue up at cash dispensers in their enthusiasm to get hold of the first pristine euro notes.
In Berlin, Germans said hello to the euro and goodbye to their beloved mark at a special ceremony at the Brandenburg Gate, as up to 1 million people thronged the streets for the traditional giant New Year’s Eve street party there.
The euro cash was also a hit in the coffee shops and red-light district of Amsterdam.
Irish revelers were, however, less in a hurry to welcome the euro, continuing to pay for Guinness, Ireland’s favorite tipple, in the national currency, leaving the headache of the changeover until the next day.
As many feared, the euro switch provoked sporadic price hikes across Europe.
From Spanish bus tickets, which jumped by 33%, to a Finnish bazaar, where “everything for 10 markka (1.68 euros)” was now “everything for two euros,” many price tags were a bit heftier since the single currency became legal tender.
The European Central Bank president at the time, Wim Duisenberg, who warned merchants not to take advantage of the euro launch to increase prices, said he had not seen signs of widespread abuse.
“When I bought a Big Mac and a strawberry milkshake this week it cost 4.45 euros, which is exactly the same amount as I paid for the same meal last week,” Duisenberg told reporters.
Europe surprised itself with the almost glitch-free transition to the single currency, AFP reported.
The Germans — reputedly skeptical about the single currency and nostalgic for their mark — turned out to be among the most enthusiastic.
An editorial in the popular German tabloid Bild proclaimed: “Our new money is moving full speed ahead. No problems whatsoever in saying adieu to the mark, no tears to be shed.”
Initial “europhoria” was, however, tempered as a few hiccups appeared, such as cash shortages and long lines in banks, post offices and at toll booths.
France urged citizens to not rush all at once to the banks with their savings, often hoarded under mattresses and in jam jars, since they had until June 30 to get rid of their francs at commercial banks and until 2012 at the Bank of France.
And the European Commission reported minor problems in getting small euro bills and coins distributed in most countries.
Duisenberg said, however, he was sure that January 1, 2002, would be written into history books as the start of a new European era.