NATO leaders concluded their three-day meeting in Madrid Thursday with the Western security alliance strengthening its defense against Russian aggression, warning of global challenges posed by China and inviting neutral countries Finland and Sweden into the group.
U.S. President Joe Biden described the summit as “historic.”
“The last time NATO drafted a new mission statement was 12 years ago,” Biden said, referring to a document also known as the alliance’s Strategic Concept.
“At that time, it characterized Russia as a partner, and it didn’t mention China. The world has changed, changed a great deal since then, and NATO is changing as well. At this summit, we rallied our alliances to meet both the direct threats that Russia poses to Europe and the systemic challenges that China poses to a rules-based world order. And we’ve invited two new members to join NATO,” Biden said.
Biden reiterated that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has only strengthened NATO.
“He tried to weaken us, expected our resolve to fracture but he’s getting exactly what he did not want,” Biden said. “He wanted the ‘Finland-ization’ of NATO. He got the ‘NATO-ization’ of Finland.”
On Wednesday Putin dismissed the imminent expansion of the Western alliance.
“With Sweden and Finland, we don’t have the problems that we have with Ukraine. They want to join NATO, go ahead,” Putin told Russian state television.
“But they must understand there was no threat before, while now, if military contingents and infrastructure are deployed there, we will have to respond in kind and create the same threats for the territories from which threats towards us are created,” he warned.
As it sets to expand, NATO leaders agreed on a massive increase in troop deployments across Europe. A total of 300,000 soldiers will be placed at high readiness across the continent starting next year to defend against potential military attacks by Moscow on any member of the alliance – what Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg characterized as “the most serious security crisis” since the Second World War.
To bolster NATO’s defense, the United States is also set to establish a permanent headquarters for the U.S. 5th Army Corps in Poland, add a rotational brigade of 3,000 troops and 2,000 other personnel to be headquartered in Romania, and send two additional squadrons of F-35 fighter jets to Britain.
Reaffirming commitments made by other Western leaders, Biden said the U.S. will stand firm against Russia’s aggression. He offered little indication the conflict would conclude anytime soon, suggesting that Americans would have to bear high gas prices longer.
“As long as it takes, so Russia cannot in fact defeat Ukraine and move beyond Ukraine,” he said.
Biden said the summit has brought together “democratic allies and partners from the Atlantic and the Pacific” to defend the rules-based global order against challenges from China, including its “abusive and coercive trade practices.”
NATO leaders have also called out the “deepening strategic partnership” between Beijing and Moscow as one of the alliance’s concerns.
Beijing is not providing military support for Russia’s war on Ukraine, but Chinese leader Xi Jinping has stated support for Moscow over “sovereignty and security” issues. The country continues to purchase massive amounts of Russian oil, gas and coal.
Biden noted that for the first time in the transatlantic alliance’s history, Asia Pacific leaders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea participated at the summit.
With the reemergence of great power conflict, a strategic competitor sitting in each region, and an evolving Russia-China relationship, there are many common challenges that European and Asia-Pacific partners must discuss together, said Mirna Galic, senior policy analyst on China and East Asia at the United States Institute of Peace.
Galic told VOA these include issues already being worked on, such as cyber defense, maritime security and space, as well as those that will require some new thinking, such as intermediate-range nuclear forces, missile defense, inter-theater deterrence and defense, and how to push back on great power use of force in contravention of international norms.
“The last is certainly relevant to the Russian invasion of Ukraine but also has parallels with China and Taiwan, which is why Ukraine is seen as more than a European security issue,” Galic said.
In his remarks at the end of the NATO summit, Biden also touted the West’s latest counter to China’s multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
“We also launched what started off to be the Build Back Better notion, but it’s morphed into a Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment,” he said referring to the “Build Back Better World” initiative announced at the 2021 meeting of the Group of Seven leaders in Cornwall, UK and relaunched earlier this week as the PGII at the G-7 summit of leading industrialized nations in Krün, Germany.
Officials say PGII will offer developing nations $600 billion in infrastructure funding by 2027 and be a better alternative to China’s BRI that critics have characterized as “debt trap diplomacy.”
A Britain-based group says its latest study of worldwide free expression rights shows only 15% of the global population lives where people can receive or share information freely.
In its 2022 Global Expression Report, Article19, an international human rights organization, said that in authoritarian nations such as China, Myanmar and Russia, and in democracies such as Brazil and India, 80% of the global population live with less freedom of expression than a decade ago.
The report said authoritarian regimes and rulers continue to tighten control over what their populations see, hear and say.
While mentioning Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the report singles out China’s government for “exerting ultimate authority over the identities, information and opinions” of hundreds of millions of people.
The annual report examines freedom of expression across 161 countries using 25 indicators to measure how free each person is to express, communicate and participate in society, without fear of harassment, legal repercussions or violence. It creates a score from zero to 100 for each country.
This year, the report ranks Denmark and Switzerland tops in the world, each with scores of 96. Norway and Sweden each have scores of 94, and Estonia and Finland both scored 93. The study said the top 10 most open nations are European.
Article 19 ranks North Korea as the most oppressive nation in the world with a score of zero. Eritrea, Syria and Turkmenistan had scores of one, and Belarus, China and Cuba had scores of two.
The United States ranked 30th on the scale. In 2011, it was 9th in the world. The U.S. has seen a nine-point drop in its score, putting the country on the lower end of the open expression category. It was globally ranked in the lowest quartile in 2021 in its scores for equality in civil liberties for social groups, political polarization and social polarization, and political violence.
The report said that over the past two decades, there have been more dramatic downward shifts in freedom of expression around the world than at any time. Many of these occur as the result of power grabs or coups, but many more nations have seen an erosion of rights, often under democratically elected populist leaders.
Article 19 takes its name from the article under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry announced on Wednesday that 144 of the country’s fighters were freed from Russian captivity via “an exchange mechanism” and that nearly 100 of the freed fighters had participated in the defense of the Ukrainian coastal city of Mariupol.
Earlier, a leading Ukrainian parliamentarian told VOA that Kyiv and Moscow were undergoing a process of prisoner exchange and that Roman Abramovich, a Russian businessman with ties to Putin, was playing “an active role” in the talks.
Hours later, in his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the development “optimistic and very important.” Zelenskyy said 59 of the soldiers that returned to Ukraine were members of the National Guard, followed by 30 servicemen with the Navy, 28 who had served in the Army, 17 with Border Guards and 9 who fought as territorial defense soldiers and one had been a policeman.
“The oldest of the liberated is 65 years old, the youngest is 19,” he said in the video broadcast. “In particular,” Zelenskyy added, “95 Azovstal defenders return[ed] home.”
The defense of Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol stood out as a particularly fierce struggle between Ukrainian and Russian forces from March to May. It ended with an unknown number of casualties on Ukraine’s side and close to 2,500 Ukrainian fighters in Russian captivity, according to figures released by the Russian side.
Wednesday’s news came on the heels of an announcement a day earlier that 17 Ukrainians, including 16 servicemen and one civilian, were freed from Russian captivity in an exchange that saw 15 Russians released and that the bodies of 46 fallen Ukrainian soldiers returned home. In return, Ukraine handed Russia 40 of their fallen servicemen. Among the 46 fallen Ukrainian fighters, 21 took part in the defense of Azovstal, according to the Ukrainian government.
David Arakhamia, leader of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People Party in the Ukrainian parliament, told VOA during a visit to Washington earlier this month that Abramovich was playing “an active role” in prisoner exchange talks between Kyiv and Moscow.
“As a human being, I think he has [the] intention to stop the war, he doesn’t like the idea that Russia invaded Ukraine,” Arakhamia said of Abramovich.
As negotiations are concerned, “He’s trying to play the neutral role, but for us, we treat him as a Russian representative. He’s closer to Mr. Putin [than to the Ukrainian side], of course,” Arakhamia said, adding that Ukraine sees Abramovich as a “messenger” who could deliver messages to Russian President Vladimir Putin “in their original form.”
Abramovich was the owner of the British football club, Chelsea. He made arrangements for its sale in the aftermath of Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions put in place by Britain, the United States and other western nations against Russian businessmen believed to have benefited from close ties with the Russian government and Putin.
On Wednesday, Zelenskyy concluded his nightly address to the nation by thanking those who played a part in securing the return home of 144 Ukrainian fighters from Russian captivity.
“I am grateful to the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine and to everyone who worked for this result. But let’s talk about this later. We will do everything to bring every Ukrainian man and woman home,” Zelenskyy said.
As the war enters the fifth month, the exact number of prisoners held by each side has not been made public. Little is known about how they are treated or precisely where they’re held.
The United States will strengthen its forces in Europe as NATO faces up to the threat from Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. President Joe Biden announced the deployments at the NATO summit in Madrid — from where Henry Ridgwell reports.
Camera: Henry Ridgwell
Indirect talks between Tehran and Washington aimed at breaking an impasse about how to salvage Iran’s 2015 nuclear pact have ended without the progress “the EU team as coordinator had hoped-for,” EU’s envoy Enrique Mora tweeted Wednesday.
“We will keep working with even greater urgency to bring back on track a key deal for non-proliferation and regional stability,” Mora said.
The talks began Tuesday with Mora as the coordinator, shuttling between Iran’s Ali Bagheri Kani and Washington’s special Iran envoy Rob Malley.
“What prevented these negotiations from coming to fruition is the U.S. insistence on its proposed draft text in Vienna that excludes any guarantee for Iran’s economic benefits,” Iran’s semi-official Tasnim said, citing informed sources at the talks.
Then-U.S. President Donald Trump ditched the pact in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy. A year later, Tehran reacted by gradually breaching the nuclear limits of the deal.
More than 11 months of talks between Tehran and major powers to revive their nuclear deal stalled in March, chiefly over Tehran’s insistence that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), its elite security force, from the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list.
The lone survivor of a team of Islamic State extremists was convicted Wednesday of murder and other charges and sentenced to life in prison without parole in the 2015 bombings and shootings across Paris that killed 130 people in the deadliest peacetime attacks in French history.
The special court also convicted 19 other men involved in the assault following a nine-month trial.
Chief suspect Salah Abdeslam was found guilty of murder and attempted murder in relation to a terrorist enterprise. The court found that his explosives vest malfunctioned, dismissing his argument that he ditched the vest because he decided not to follow through with his attack on the night of Nov. 13, 2015.
Abdeslam, a 32-year-old Belgian with Moroccan roots, was given France’s most severe sentence possible.
Of the defendants besides Abdeslam, 18 were given various terrorism-related convictions, and one was convicted on a lesser fraud charge. They were given punishments ranging from suspended sentences to life in prison.
During the trial, Abdeslam proclaimed his radicalism, wept, apologized to victims and pleaded with judges to forgive his mistakes.
For victims’ families and survivors of the attacks, the trial has been excruciating yet crucial in their quest for justice and closure.
For months, the packed main chamber and 12 overflow rooms in the 13th century Justice Palace heard the harrowing accounts by the victims, along with testimony from Abdeslam. The other defendants are largely accused of helping with logistics or transportation. At least one is accused of a direct role in the deadly March 2016 attacks in Brussels, which also was claimed by the Islamic State group.
The trial was an opportunity for survivors and those mourning loved ones to recount the deeply personal horrors inflicted that night and to listen to details of countless acts of bravery, humanity and compassion among strangers. Some hoped for justice, but most just wanted tell the accused directly that they have been left irreparably scarred, but not broken.
“The assassins, these terrorists, thought they were firing into the crowd, into a mass of people,” said Dominique Kielemoes at the start of the trial in September 2021. Her son bled to death in one of the cafes. Hearing the testimony of victims was “crucial to both their own healing and that of the nation,” Kielemoes said.
“It wasn’t a mass — these were individuals who had a life, who loved, had hopes and expectations,” she said.
France was changed in the wake of the attacks: Authorities declared a state of emergency and armed officers now constantly patrol public spaces. The violence sparked soul-searching among the French and Europeans, since most of the attackers were born and raised in France or Belgium. And they transformed forever the lives of all those who suffered losses or bore witness.
Presiding judge Jean-Louis Peries said at the trial’s outset that it belongs to “international and national events of this century. ” France emerged from the state of emergency in 2017, after incorporating many of the harshest measures into law.
Fourteen of the defendants have been in court, including Abdeslam, the only survivor of the 10-member attacking team that terrorized Paris that Friday night. All but one of the six absent men are presumed to have been killed in Syria or Iraq; the other is in prison in Turkey.
Most of the suspects are accused of helping create false identities, transporting the attackers back to Europe from Syria or providing them with money, phones, explosives or weapons.
Abdeslam was the only defendant tried on several counts of murder and kidnapping as a member of a terrorist organization.
The sentence sought for Abdeslam of life in prison without parole has only been pronounced four times in France — for crimes related to rape and murder of minors.
Prosecutors are seeking life sentences for nine other defendants. The remaining suspects were tried on lesser terrorism charges and face sentences ranging from five to 30 years.
In closing arguments, prosecutors stressed that all 20 defendants, who had fanned out around the French capital, armed with semi-automatic rifles and explosives-packed vests to mount parallel attacks, are members of the Islamic State extremist group responsible for the massacres.
“Not everyone is a jihadi, but all of those you are judging accepted to take part in a terrorist group, either by conviction, cowardliness or greed,” prosecutor Nicolas Braconnay told the court this month.
Some defendants, including Abdeslam, said innocent civilians were targeted because of France’s policies in the Middle East and hundreds of civilian deaths in Western airstrikes in Islamic State-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq.
During his testimony, former President François Hollande dismissed claims that his government was at fault.
The Islamic State, “this pseudo-state, declared war with the weapons of war,” Hollande said. The Paris attackers did not terrorize, shoot, kill, maim and traumatize civilians because of religion, he said, adding it was “fanaticism and barbarism.”
During closing arguments Monday, Abdelslam’s lawyer Olivia Ronen told a panel of judges that her client is the only one in the group of attackers who didn’t set off explosives to kill others that night. He can’t be convicted for murder, she argued.
“If a life sentence without hope for ever experiencing freedom again is pronounced, I fear we have lost a sense of proportion,” Ronan said. She emphasized through the trial that she is “not providing legitimacy to the attacks” by defending her client in court.
Abdeslam apologized to the victims at his final court appearance Monday, saying his remorse and sorrow is heartfelt and sincere. Listening to victims’ accounts of “so much suffering” changed him, he said.
“I have made mistakes, it’s true, but I am not a murderer, I am not a killer,” he said.
A U.N. investigator warns that systematic and widespread repression in Belarus is eroding peoples’ civic and political rights. The investigator’s report was presented Wednesday at a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Belarus boycotted the meeting.
Special Rapporteur Anais Marin says the human rights situation in Belarus has gone from bad to worse. She says authorities are enacting laws that are stripping the rights and freedoms of their citizens.
She says the criminal code has been amended to restrict freedom of expression, the right to peacefully assemble and other fundamental rights. She says the new laws retroactively criminalize activities that previously were only considered administrative offenses.
Speaking through an interpreter Wednesday in Geneva, she warned the action raises the troubling prospect of potential abuse resulting from the arbitrary application of very restrictive legislation.
“Emblematic in that respect is that the scope of the death penalty in Belarus has been expanded by including cases of planning or attempts to plan terrorist acts. Terms that are not clearly defined moreover. This paves the way for abusive application of the death penalty, even if no crime has been committed.”
Investigator Marin says the deterioration of the human rights situation in Belarus has resulted in the significant shrinking of civic space. She says the government is pursuing a deliberate policy to eradicate all media and expression of dissent.
Marin says 1,214 people are imprisoned in Belarus on politically motivated charges. She says the climate of fear and impunity in Belarus has forced tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of repressed and intimidated Belarusians into exile. She speaks through an interpreter.
“Let me add that my mandate has been informed of severe repression by the authorities against anti-war protesters in Belarus, but also difficulties and cases of discrimination and hate speech that certain Belarussians have been forced to leave their country have endured since the start of the Russian armed aggression in Ukraine.”
Marin urges the international community to support and protect the human rights of those Belarussian nationals that have been forced into exile due to repression and intimidation by the state.
Belarus boycotted Wednesday’s meeting, renouncing its right of reply. Contacted by VOA after the meeting, the Belarussian U.N. mission in Geneva said it had no comment.