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Archive for: April 2022 - DIGEST UKRAINE

Monthly Archives: April 2022

Learning to identify and defuse explosives is something Anastasiia Minchukova never thought she would have to do as an English teacher in Ukraine. Yet there she was wearing a face shield, armed with a landmine detector and venturing into a field dotted with danger warnings.

Russia’s war in Ukraine took Minchukova, 20, and five other women to Kosovo, where they are attending a hands-on course in clearing landmines and other dangers that may remain hidden across their country once combat ends.

“There is a huge demand on people who know how to do demining because the war will be over soon,” Minchukova said. “We believe there is so much work to be done.”

The 18-day training camp takes place at a range in the western town of Peja where a Malta-based company regularly offers courses for job-seekers, firms working in former war zones, humanitarian organizations and government agencies.

Kosovo was the site of a devastating 1998-99 armed conflict between ethnic Albanian separatists and Serbian forces that killed about 13,000 people and left thousands of unexploded mines in need of clearing. Praedium Consulting Malta’s range includes bombed and derelict buildings as well as expanses of vegetation.

Instructor Artur Tigani, who tailored the curriculum to reflect Ukraine’s environment, said he was glad to share his small Balkan nation’s experience with the Ukrainian women. Though 23 years have passed, “it’s still fresh in our memories, the difficulties we met when we started clearance in Kosovo,” Tigani said.

Tigani is a highly trained and experienced mine operations officer who served as an engineer in the former Yugoslav army during the 1980s. He has been deployed in his native Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda and Kenya, and conducted training missions in Syria and Iraq.

During a class last week, he took his trainees through a makeshift minefield before moving to an improvised outdoor classroom featuring a huge board with various samples of explosives and mines.

While it is impossible to assess how littered with mines and unexploded ordnance Ukraine is at the moment, the aftermaths of other conflicts suggest the problem will be huge.

“In many parts of the world, explosive remnants of war continue to kill and maim thousands of civilians each year during and long after active hostilities have ended. The majority of victims are children,” the International Committee of the Red Cross testified at a December U.N. conference.

“Locating (unexploded ordnance) in the midst of rubble and picking them out from among a wide array of everyday objects, many of which are made of similar material is a dangerous, onerous and often extremely time-consuming task,” the Red Cross said.

Mine Action Review, a Norwegian organization that monitors clearance efforts worldwide, reported that 56 countries were contaminated with unexploded ordnance as of October, with Afghanistan, Cambodia and Iraq carrying the heaviest burdens, followed by Angola, Bosnia, Thailand, Turkey and Yemen.

Thousands of civilians are believed to have died in Ukraine since Russia invaded Feb. 24. Russian forces have bombed cities and towns across the country, reducing many to rubble.

Military analysts say it appears Russian forces have employed anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, while Ukraine has used anti-tank mines to try to prevent the Russians from gaining ground.

With Ukrainian men from 18 to 60 years old prohibited from leaving their country and most engaged in defending it, the women wanted to help any way they could despite the risks involved in mine clearing.

“It’s dangerous all over Ukraine, even if you are in a relatively safe region,” said Minchukova, who is from central Ukraine.

Another Ukrainian student, Yuliia Katelik, 38, took her three children to safety in Poland early in the war. She went back to Ukraine and then joined the demining training to help make sure it’s safe for her children when they return home to the eastern city of Kramatorsk, where a rocket attack on a crowded train station killed more than 50 people this month.

Katelik said her only wish is to reunite with her family and see “the end of this nightmare.” Knowing how to spot booby-traps that could shatter their lives again is a necessary skill, she said.

“Acutely, probably as a mother, I do understand that there is a problem and it’s quite serious, especially for the children,” Katelik said.

Minchukova, wearing military-style clothes, said she was doubtful that normal life, as they all knew it before the war, would ever fully return.

“What am I missing? Peace,” she said. “I’m dreaming about peace, about sleeping in my bed not worried about going to bomb shelters all the time. I miss the people I lost.”

The Kosovo training center plans to work with more groups of Ukrainian women, both in Peja and in Ukraine.

“We’re planning as well to go to Ukraine very soon and start with delivery of courses there, on the theater” of war, Tigani said.

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Prices for Russian credit default swaps — insurance contracts that protect an investor against a default — plunged sharply overnight after Moscow used its precious foreign currency reserves to make a last-minute debt payment Friday.

The cost for a five-year credit default swap on Russian debt was $5.84 million to protect $10 million in debt. That price was nearly half the one on Thursday, which at roughly $11 million for $10 million in debt protection was a signal that investors were certain of an eventual Russian default.

Russia used its foreign currency reserves sitting outside of the country to make the payment, backing down from the Kremlin’s earlier threats that it would use rubles to pay these obligations. In a statement, the Russia Finance Ministry did not say whether future payments would be made in rubles.

Despite the insurance contract plunge, investors remain largely convinced that Russia will eventually default on its debts for the first time since 1917. The major ratings agencies Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s have declared Russia is in “selective default” on its obligations.

Russia has been hit with extensive sanctions by the United States, the EU and others in response to its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and its continuing military operation to take over Ukrainian territory.

The Credit Default Determination Committee — an industry group of 14 banks and investors that determines whether to pay on these swaps — said Friday that they “continue to monitor the situation” after Russia’s payment. Their next meeting is May 3.

At the beginning of April, Russia’s finance ministry said it tried to make a $649 million payment due April 6 toward two bonds to an unnamed U.S. bank — previously reported as JPMorgan Chase.

At that time, tightened sanctions imposed for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prevented the payment from being accepted, so Moscow attempted to make the debt payment in rubles. The Kremlin, which repeatedly said it was financially able and willing to continue to pay on its debts, had argued that extraordinary events gave them the legal footing to pay in rubles, instead of dollars or euros.

Investors and rating agencies, however, disagreed and did not expect Russia to be able to convert the rubles into dollars before a 30-day grace period expired next week.

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A sandy-colored tower glints in the sunlight and dominates the skyline of the Swedish town of Skelleftea as Scandinavia harnesses its wood resources to lead a global trend towards erecting eco-friendly high-rises.

The Sara Cultural Center is one of the world’s tallest timber buildings, made primarily from spruce and towering 75 meters over rows of snow-dusted houses and surrounding forest.

The 20-story timber structure, which houses a hotel, a library, an exhibition hall and theater stages, opened at the end of 2021 in the northern town of 35,000 people.

Forests cover much of Sweden’s northern regions, most of it spruce, and building timber homes is a longstanding tradition.

Swedish architects now want to spearhead a revolution and steer the industry towards more sustainable construction methods as large wooden buildings sprout up in Sweden and neighboring Nordic nations thanks to advancing industry techniques.

“The pillars together with the beams, the interaction with the steel and wood, that is what carries the 20 stories of the hotel,” Therese Kreisel, a Skelleftea urban planning official, tells AFP during a tour of the cultural center.

Even the lift shafts are made entirely of wood. “There is no plaster, no seal, no isolation on the wood,” she says, adding that this “is unique when it comes to a 20-story building.”

Building materials go green

The main advantage of working with wood is that it is more environmentally friendly, proponents say.

Cement — used to make concrete — and steel, two of the most common construction materials, are among the most polluting industries because they emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

But wood emits little CO2 during its production and retains the carbon absorbed by the tree even when it is cut and used in a building structure. It is also lighter in weight, requiring less of a foundation.

According to the U.N.’s IPCC climate panel, wood as a construction material can be up to 30 times less carbon intensive than concrete, and hundreds or even thousands of times less than steel.

Global efforts to cut emissions have sparked an upswing in interest for timber structures, according to Jessica Becker, the coordinator of Trastad (City of Wood), an organization lobbying for more timber construction.

Skelleftea’s tower “showcases that is it possible to build this high and complex in timber,” says Robert Schmitz, one of the project’s two architects.

“When you have this as a backdrop for discussions, you can always say, ‘We did this, so how can you say it’s not possible?'”

Only an 85-meter tower recently erected in Brumunddal in neighboring Norway and an 84-meter structure in Vienna are taller than the Sara Cultural Centre.

A building under construction in the U.S. city of Milwaukee and due to be completed soon is expected to clinch the title of the world’s tallest, at a little more than 86 meters.

‘Stacked like Lego’

Building the cultural center in spruce was “much more challenging” but “has also opened doors to really think in new ways,” explains Schmitz’s co-architect Oskar Norelius.

For example, the hotel rooms were made as prefabricated modules that were then “stacked like Lego pieces on site,” he says.

The building has won several wood architecture prizes.

Anders Berensson, another Stockholm architect whose material of choice is wood, says timber has many advantages.

“If you missed something in the cutting you just take the knife and the saw and sort of adjust it on site. So it’s both high tech and low tech at the same time,” he says.

In Stockholm, an apartment complex made of wood, called Cederhusen and featuring distinctive yellow and red cedar shingles on the facade, is in the final stages of completion.

It has already been named the Construction of the Year by Swedish construction industry magazine Byggindustrin. 

“I think we can see things shifting in just the past few years actually,” says Becker.

“We are seeing a huge change right now, it’s kind of the tipping point. And I’m hoping that other countries are going to catch on, we see examples even in England and Canada and other parts of the world.” 

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Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who holds this year’s G-20 presidency, has invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the group’s summit in Bali later this year, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to attend. However, Zelenskyy’s invitation may not be enough to secure the attendance of U.S. and other Western leaders keen on isolating Moscow. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has this report.

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First came a court summons alleging Mikhail Samin had discredited the Russian army. Then came the threatening calls.

Samin, a 22-year-old from Moscow who has been posting commentary about the war in Ukraine on social media, shared details of those chilling calls with VOA.

In one expletive-laden call, a man warned that Samin had 24 hours to delete his posts, saying that only then, “you may sleep peacefully.”

When Samin tried to reason with the caller, saying that people, children, were dying in Ukraine, the caller replied, “If you don’t stop being stupid, we will throw you off the balcony.”

The legal action and threats are becoming the new normal for those in Russia who defy the strict censorship around the war in Ukraine. Moscow in March passed a law to limit coverage of the military and invasion, and a mix of fines and website blocks has resulted in most independent news outlets being forced out.

Risky work

With traditional media limited, citizen journalists and activists like Samin are filling the void, but at great personal risk. Samin and student Ilya Kursov have both faced legal action for posts about the war and protests.

That new law was cited by authorities when Samin was summoned to court for “discrediting” the Russian army.

He had condemned the invasion in a March 6 Facebook post.

“A terrible thing is happening right now on behalf of [Russian] people,” Samin had posted. “My compatriots — brainwashed or following criminal orders — have invaded the territory of a foreign country, destroying houses and killing people. Thousands of people are dying and suffering needlessly. There can be no justification for this. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, who started this war, cannot be justified.”

For Samin, the death threats were more concerning than the threat of prison.

The door to his apartment was defaced with the letter Z, a pro-Kremlin symbol of war against Ukraine. Samin’s sister was scared when she saw the mark as she left to walk the dog.

Samin was at a loss for words when describing his view of Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

“Nothing discredits the armed forces of the Russian Federation more than the war crimes they commit, like torturing people, killing civilians,” he told VOA.

“There was a feeling of some unreality of what was happening because, before that, I was convinced that Putin would not do this,” said Samin. “It was apparent that this [war] would immediately destroy the future of Russia.”

Police pressure

When Ilya Kursov heard details of an anti-war protest in Barnaul, a city in the Altai Krai region of Siberia, at the end of February, the 24-year-old student shared the information on Instagram.

His post quickly came to the attention of police.

“I was abducted at 8 a.m. by [Russian police], right from my bed in the dormitory,” said Kursov, who was studying at the Altai State Pedagogical University.

At the police station he was questioned about the social media post. The police officers pressured him, threatening him with a prison term, Kursov said. He wasn’t allowed to call either his parents or lawyer and his laptop was confiscated.

The student believes the authorities are reacting so aggressively to any protest activity because, despite what the propaganda suggests, many Russians disapprove of the war.

Although many residents were afraid to join the protest openly, people approached the anti-war activists and spoke out for peace with Ukraine, he said.

Like Samin, Kursov is accused of “discrediting” the Russian army. Under the law, if the offense is repeated within a year, it can result in criminal prosecution, with a maximum punishment of up to 15 years in prison.

But the posts cited by police in Kursov’s case were published before the law was enacted.

“I have two fines for 50,000 rubles [approximately $700],”said Kursov.

The fine is about 1½ times the median monthly income for his city, according to the Federal Service for State Statistics in Russia.

The student said that in court documents he saw, authorities had flagged more of his social media posts on the war.

“I am afraid the prosecutors would have an opportunity to use it against me, which leads to a criminal case,” he said.

Both he and Samin have since left Russia, fearing for their safety.

‘Next to be targeted’

With independent media blocked off in Russia, ordinary citizens like Samin and Kursov have become a key source of war information in Russia, media freedom experts said.

“After this huge blow against independent media, the next to be targeted are the citizen journalists,” said Jeanne Cavelier, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders.

“We can draw a parallel with what happened in Belarus, because when all major independent media were blocked and journalists were in prison or exile, the Belarusian authorities started to target citizen journalists,” Cavelier told VOA.

Another factor is the chilling effect. As well as making arrests and blocking platforms, Russia wants to extend its foreign agents law to citizens as well as media.

“It frightens people; it makes them think twice before sharing any information, even if they feel very strong in their opinions or their criticism of the Russian authorities, so that’s always a downside of any crackdown and repressive measures,” said Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

But while Kursov and Samin have been forced to leave their homes, both are adamant they will keep using social media to inform Russians about the war.

This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service.

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Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has put the websites of two major French broadcasters back online in Mali, after the country’s military government pulled the broadcasters off the air in March and officially banned them from the Malian airwaves this week.

RSF put the sites back online Thursday, creating mirrors of the sites that can be accessed in Mali and are updated in real time.

Using a virtual private network had previously been the only way to access those websites in Mali since the military government blocked them and took their corresponding TV and radio stations off the air March 17. 

Arnaud Froger, head of the RSF Africa desk, said that the action is part of the organization’s work toward media freedom.

He said RSF has been getting banned media websites back online since 2015, so far having put 47 websites back online in 24 countries, most recently in Russia. 

“It’s basically restoring your right to access to information that has been wrongfully denied by this censorship,” Froger said.

On Wednesday, France Medias Monde, the parent company of RFI and France 24, said it was notified of the decision of Mali’s High Communication Authority to definitively ban the two stations in the country.

The High Communication Authority is the communication regulatory body in Mali, whose website says its primary mission is to protect “freedom of information and communication” and “freedom of the press.”

RFI and France 24 were taken off the air in March after RFI reported on alleged human rights abuses by Mali’s army around the town of Diabaly. Mali’s government said the report contained false allegations aimed at “destabilizing” the government. 

In late March, after the French broadcast ban, Human Rights Watch and several media outlets reported on a Mali army operation in the town of Moura, where witnesses said 300 civilians were killed. 

Tensions have been running high between the Malian and French governments.  This month, France accused Russian mercenaries of staging a mass grave in Gossi, Mali, in order to blame it on French forces who had recently handed over a military base in Gossi to the Malian army. 

Mali’s government then accused France of spying, but did not mention or refute the claim that Russian mercenaries are working with the Malian army.

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Mountainous and remote, the Greek-Bulgaria border once formed the southern corner of the Iron Curtain. Today, it’s where the European Union is redrawing the region’s energy map to ease its heavy reliance on Russian natural gas.

A new pipeline — built during the COVID-19 pandemic, tested and due to start commercial operation in June — would ensure that large volumes of gas flow between the two countries in both directions to generate electricity, fuel industry and heat homes.

The energy link takes on greater importance following Moscow’s decision this week to cut off natural gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria over a demand for payments in rubles stemming from Western sanctions over the war of Ukraine.

The 180-kilometer (110-mile) pipeline project is the first of several planned gas interconnectors that would give eastern European Union members and countries hoping to join the 27-nation bloc access to the global gas market.

In the short term, it’s Bulgaria’s backup.

The new pipeline connection, called the Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria, will give the country access to ports in neighboring Greece that are importing liquefied natural gas, or LNG, and also will bring gas from Azerbaijan through a new pipeline system that ends in Italy.

It’s one of many efforts as EU members scramble to edit their energy mixes, with some reverting back to emissions-heavy coal while also planning expanded output from renewables.

Germany, the world’s biggest buyer of Russian energy, is looking to build LNG import terminals that would take years. Italy, another top Russian gas importer, has reached deals with Algeria, Azerbaijan, Angola and Congo for gas supplies.

The European Union wants to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas by two-thirds this year and to eliminate it completely over five years through alternative sources, the use of wind and solar power, and conservation.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to accelerate changes in the EU’s long-term strategy as the bloc adapts to energy that is more expensive but also more integrated among member nations, said Simone Tagliapietra, an energy expert at the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel.

“It’s a new world,” he said. “And in this new world, it’s clear that Russia doesn’t want to be part of an international order as we think of it.”

Tagliapietra added: “The strategy — particularly by Germany — over the last 50 years was always one of engaging with Russia on energy. … But given what we are seeing in Ukraine and given Russia’s view of international relations, it’s not the kind of country with which we would like to do business.”

EU policymakers argue that while Eastern European members are among the most dependent on Russian gas, the size of their markets makes the problem manageable. Bulgaria imported 90% of its gas from Russia but only consumes 3 billion cubic meters annually — 30 times less than lead consumer Germany, according to 2020 data from EU statistics agency Eurostat.

The Greece-Bulgaria pipeline will complement the existing European network, much of which dates to the Soviet era, when Moscow sought badly needed funds for its faltering economy and Western suppliers to help build its pipelines.

The link will run between the northeastern Greek city of Komotini and Stara Zagora, in central Bulgaria, and will give Bulgaria and neighbors with new grid connections access to the expanding global gas market.

That includes a connection with the newly built Trans Adriatic Pipeline, which carries gas from Azerbaijan, and suppliers of liquefied natural gas that arrives by ship, likely to include Qatar, Algeria and the United States.

As many as eight additional interconnectors could be built in Eastern Europe, reaching as far as Ukraine and Austria.

The 240 million-euro ($250 million) pipeline will carry 3 billion cubic meters of gas per year, with an option to be expanded to 5 billion. It received funding from Bulgaria, Greece and the EU, and has strong political support from Brussels and the United States.

On the ground, the project faced multiple holdups because of supply chain snags during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Receiving specialized parts and moving personnel after construction got underway in early 2020 soon became increasingly difficult, said Antonis Mitzalis, executive director of Greek contractor AVAX, which oversaw the project.

Construction of the pipeline finished in early April, he said, while work and testing at two metering stations and software installation are in the final stages.

“We had a sequence in mind. But the fact that some materials did not arrive made us rework that sequence, sometimes with a cost effect,” Mitzalis said.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis missed a tour of the site last month after contracting COVID-19. He spoke Wednesday with his Bulgarian counterpart, Kiril Petkov, to provide assurances of Greek support.

“Bulgaria and Greece will continue to work together for energy security and diversification — of strategic importance for both countries and the region,” Petkov later tweeted. “We both are confident for the successful completion of the IGB on time.”

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A Turkish court on Friday acquitted 33 people, including two Bloomberg reporters and other journalists from local media, of spreading false information about the economy in an article and tweets at the height of a currency crisis in 2018.

The case followed a criminal complaint filed in August 2018 by the BDDK banking watchdog over an article by Bloomberg about the effects of a sharp decline in the lira and how authorities and banks were responding.

Fercan Yalinkilic and Kerim Karakaya were on trial over the article, while other defendants in the case, including journalists Sedef Kabas and Merdan Yanardag, as well as economist Mustafa Sonmez, were tried for their tweets about the economy.

Turkey’s lira plummeted in 2018 on concerns over President Tayyip Erdogan’s influence on monetary policy and deteriorating ties between Ankara and Washington. In August 2018, it fell to 7.24 against the dollar, its lowest at the time.

At the end of last year, another currency crisis sparked by series of rate cuts requested by Erdogan saw the lira fall as low as 18.4 before rebounding. The currency crisis stoked inflation, which hit 61% in March.

The defendants had always denied the charges.

The court ruled on Friday that the defendants’ actions did not constitute a crime and acquitted 33 defendants.

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The United States has not seen many signs that Russia-Ukraine negotiations are “proving fruitful” as Moscow’s war on the country enters its third month, said a senior State Department official.

“The Russians don’t seem to be willing to negotiate in a particularly meaningful way,” State Department Counselor Derek Chollet told VOA in an interview Thursday.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrived in Ukraine on Thursday after a stop Tuesday in Moscow, where he met for nearly two hours with President Vladimir Putin.

Chollet said that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Guterres before his trip to Moscow and Kyiv, and that the U.S. looks forward to hearing from the U.N. chief to see whether there is a way forward toward peace.

In Congress, proposed legislation scrutinizing China’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday. If adopted, the Assessing Xi’s Interference and Subversion Act would require the State Department to submit ongoing reports.

The U.S. has not witnessed China providing weapons and supplies to Russia, but it is watching closely, American officials said.

“China will pay a price if it is seen as assisting Russia — either providing a direct assistance, particularly military assistance, or assisting Russia in evading sanctions,” Chollet told VOA.

He warns that the “cooperation space” between the U.S. and China is “dwindling,” just as Blinken is expected to elaborate on a U.S. approach toward China “in coming days.”

The excerpts from VOA’s interview with Chollet have been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: Today, President Biden announced a proposal to hold Russian oligarchs accountable. He’s also asking Congress for additional money to help Ukraine. … What makes today’s announcement unique from previous ones?

Chollet: This is a historic announcement of support from the United States. President Biden (asked) Congress for over $30 billion in U.S. support for Ukraine. Twenty billion of that will be towards security and defense assistance. And then there will also be humanitarian assistance and economic support. So this is yet another example of United States commitment to a strong, secure and independent Ukraine.

VOA: Also today, congressional members are voting … (on the) Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022.

Chollet: Well, what the U.S. is focused on right now is getting the supplemental assistance through the Congress that the president has just proposed, and the $30 billion is the kind of scale and scope of assistance that we think reflects (that) it’s in our interests to have a safe and secure Ukraine.

What’s been critical throughout this crisis is the bipartisan support we’ve had from Congress. And Congress has been working very closely with the administration to get Ukraine the significant support that we’ve received thus far. But again, we’re going to be quadrupling in the coming weeks if we get this $30 billion, which we believe we will, from the Congress.

VOA: Does the U.S. have an assessment on Putin’s health?

Chollet: We don’t. We obviously don’t deal with him much in person nowadays. And so we do not have an assessment on his health.

What we do have an assessment of is of the consequences of the decisions he’s making. He has made the wrong decision, we believe clearly, in prosecuting this brutal war against Ukraine. We gave him every opportunity to choose another path over many months, but we also made very clear to him that Russia and he would pay a high price if he pursued a war against Ukraine.

VOA: Has the U.S. talked to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres after his meeting with Putin on Tuesday?

Chollet: We have been in very close touch with the secretary-general throughout this crisis. Secretary Blinken had an opportunity to speak with him on the phone before his trip to Moscow and Ukraine. I’m not sure if colleagues have spoken to him, since the secretary (Blinken) has not yet. But we, of course, will look forward to staying in touch with the secretary-general to hear about his trip, and if there is a possibility for a way forward on peace. We’re doubtful. We have not seen (many) signs (of) hope that negotiations are proving fruitful. The Russians don’t seem to be willing to negotiate in a particularly meaningful way.

VOA: Moving on to China’s role in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Could China face secondary sanctions if it provides material or financial support to Russia?

Chollet: Well, the United States has been very clear — President Biden in his conversations with President Xi (Jinping), Secretary Blinken in his conversations with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang (Yi) — that China will pay a price if it is seen as assisting Russia, either providing a direct assistance — particularly military assistance — or assisting Russia in evading sanctions.

China knows very well the economic consequences that it could face if it’s seen as helping Russia. China itself is suffering because of the sanctions we have placed on Russia. So we are hoping that the Chinese make a decision not to support Russia.

VOA: Is Secretary Blinken’s China speech before or after the US-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit?

Chollet: Well, I don’t want to get ahead of the secretary’s speech. He, of course, places a very high priority on our strategy towards China. We’ll look forward to speaking to that in the coming weeks.

VOA: What is the U.S. approach to PRC (People’s Republic of China)? Can (the) two countries work together after Russia’s war in Ukraine?

Chollet: The US-China relationship is a very complicated relationship. There are elements of it that are conflictual, clearly are areas where the U.S. and China are going to fundamentally disagree. There are areas of that relationship that are competitive, and the United States welcomes the competition with China as long as we are playing by the same set of rules. And there are areas of the relationship that we think, by necessity, have to be cooperative. For example, on an issue like climate change, where we are not going to be able to address the consequences of warming climate if the United States and China can’t find a way to work together. Unfortunately, that’s a dwindling space in terms of the cooperation space.

VOA: As Washington is hosting a special summit with ASEAN in May, what is the U.S. pitch to ASEAN on Ukraine?

Chollet: This ASEAN special summit … will be a historic summit. It will be the first time that ASEAN leaders have been able to meet here in Washington and will be the largest meeting of leaders here in Washington since before the pandemic. … Our pitch to our ASEAN allies and friends is the same pitch we make to all of our allies and friends around the world: There’s a clear side that we all should be on against what Russia has been doing in Ukraine. We want ASEAN friends to stand with us when it comes to isolating and punishing Russia.

VOA: How about the reported military drill between Vietnam and Russia, announced by Russian state media?

Chollet: I can’t comment specifically on that drill. I was in Hanoi a few weeks ago, had long conversations with Vietnamese Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry officials about the U.S.-Vietnam relationship, which we believe has tremendous potential, and also our genuine concerns about Russia and the way forward with Russia.

Our point that we made to our Vietnam friends, which I believe they see merit in, which is that Russia is a far less attractive partner today than it was even four months ago. Russia is going to be more isolated in the world. It’s going to have an economy that’s destroyed. And frankly, its military has shown its vulnerability.

And so, if a country like Vietnam, for many decades, has had a relationship with Russia, and before that the Soviet Union. So, we realize that maybe perhaps some of the policy changes we’re asking for aren’t going to happen instantly. But nevertheless, we believe that those countries need to assess the relationship with Russia, and we’re willing to be a partner with them as they’re thinking through their security in the future.

VOA: Myanmar’s military government is showing support for Russia. Speaking of it, do you have anything on the conviction of Aung San Suu Kyi?

Chollet: This was a sham judicial process, and it’s just yet another example of the junta in Myanmar that unlawfully took power in February of 2021 to use the judicial system to try to go after their political enemies. What we need to see in Myanmar is a cessation of violence. We need to see a return to democratic governance. And until we see that happen, the United States is not going to be engaging with the junta. The junta representatives will not be part of the ASEAN special summit here in Washington.

Myanmar will be represented at a nonpolitical level, like it has been in ASEAN meetings, and the junta in Myanmar knows what it needs to do. It needs to adhere to the ASEAN 5-Point Consensus and get Myanmar back on the track to democracy, not use its judiciary to have sort of sham sentences against democratically elected leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi.

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