Iran Calls Fresh EU Sanctions Irrational

A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Amini, a young Iranian woman who died after being arrested in Tehran by the Islamic Republic’s morality police, on Istiklal avenue in Istanbul on September 20, 2022. (Photo by Ozan KOSE / AFP)

 

Iran on Tuesday strongly criticised and threatened to respond to new European Union sanctions targeting it over a crackdown on protests.

“With their dependence on sanctions the Europeans lose all rationality and seriousness,” foreign ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani said in a statement carried by the official IRNA news agency.

“Iran will respond effectively and forcefully to Europe’s unconstructive actions,” he added.

On Monday, the EU announced further sanctions on Iran in response to the crackdown on protests sparked by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini on September 16.

The visa bans and asset freezes apply to 29 Iranian officials, including the country’s interior minister, along with three institutions.

Among those organisations was Iran’s state-owned broadcaster Press TV, accused by the EU of screening “forced confessions of detainees”.

The EU’s “wrong approach… reduces the scope of its relations”, Kanani said.

The list of European Union sanctions against Iran has reached 126 people and 11 institutions.

AFP

Indian Watchdog Fine Google $162m Over Market Dominance

In this file photo taken on February 20, 2015, the Google logo features the Eiffel Tower at the Google campus in Mountain View, California. AFP

 

Google has been fined more than $160 million by India’s anti-trust watchdog after a probe found the tech behemoth was abusing its commanding position in the local smartphone market.

The California-based company’s Android mobile operating system is by far the dominant player in India and is run on 95 percent of all the country’s smartphones, according to research agency Counterpoint.

But the Competition Commission of India (CCI) said the operating system was configured to unlawfully crowd out rivals to YouTube, web browser Chrome and other popular Google apps.

Android had a suite of Google apps pre-installed on its phones, including the company’s own search engine, “which accorded significant competitive edge to Google’s search services over its competitors”, a CCI statement said late Thursday.

“Markets should be allowed to compete on merits and the onus is on (Google) that its conduct does not impinge this competition on merits,” it added.

The commission levied a fine of 13.4 billion rupees ($162 million) and instructed the company to allow Android users to remove pre-installed Google apps.

It also told Google not to enter into any agreement with smartphone makers that would encourage them to only sell Android-based devices or exclusively use its software.

Google faced a similar anti-trust ruling in the European Union that found the company had imposed “unlawful restrictions” on smartphone makers to benefit its search engine.

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Last month the EU’s second-highest court upheld a $4.1 billion fine against the company.

Global regulators have followed suit, with Google facing a barrage of cases in the United States and Asia based on similar accusations.

India is home to the second-highest number of smartphone users in the world, after China.

Its smartphone market grew 27 percent year on year in 2021, according to Counterpoint, with annual sales exceeding 169 million units.

More than 60 percent of phones sold in the country come from leading Chinese manufacturers including Xiaomi and Oppo.

Apple remains a minor player in the budget-conscious market but has seen some inroads in recent years, and the company last month announced plans to locally manufacture its flagship iPhone 14.

AFP

EU To Ban Products Made Using Forced Labour, Risking China Anger

European Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis (L) and Czech Finance Minister Zbynek Stanjura address a joint press conference during the EU Informal Meeting of Economic and Financial Affairs Ministers and Central Bank Governors in Prague, Czech Republic on September 9, 2022. (Photo by Michal Cizek / AFP)

 

The European Union said Wednesday it will ban products made from forced labour as China faces rising criticism that the Uyghur people in the Xinjiang region are being forced into slave labour.

The plan by Brussels does not specifically mention China, but will instead focus on all products made from forced labour — including those made within the bloc.

“This proposal will make a real difference in tackling modern-day slavery, which affects millions of people around the globe,” said the EU’s trade commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis.

“Our aim is to eliminate all products made with forced labour from the EU market, irrespective of where they have been made,” he added.


READ ALSO: OPEC+ Agrees Oil Output Cut To Prop Up Prices


The proposal will require the ratification by EU member states and the European Parliament before entering into force two years later.

The idea differs from an explicit ban by the United States on imports from Xinjiang that presumes products from the region involve forced labour and are therefore stopped at the border unless businesses can prove otherwise.

Still, the EU proposal risks eliciting a strong reaction from Beijing if seen as linked to allegations of rights violations against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the far-western region.

Xinjiang is one of the world’s largest producers of cotton and a key supplier of materials for solar panels.

The EU plan will allow national customs authorities to launch investigations on products “for which there are well-founded suspicions that they have been made with forced labour”, a statement said.

Investigators will be empowered to carry out checks and inspections, including in countries outside the European Union.

China has been accused for years of detaining more than one million Uyghurs and other Muslims in the region. Beijing insists it is running vocational centres designed to curb extremism.

The European Union’s diplomacy chief Josep Borrell earlier this month welcomed a damning United Nations report into China’s crackdown on the Uyghur people in the Xinjiang region.

The Chinese government has condemned the report by the Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as the work of a “thug and accomplice of the US and the West”.

Another recent study by the UN’s agencies for labour and migration along with the Walk Free Foundation found that at the end of last year, 28 million people around the world were in forced labour.

AFP

It’s Impossible To Isolate Russia, Putin Vows Oil Supply Cuts

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a BRICS Plus session involving the leaders of several invited states during the 14th BRICS summit - in virtual format via a video call at the Novo-Ogarevo state residence, outside Moscow, Russia on June 24, 2022. Mikhail Metzel / Sputnik / AFP
FILE: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a BRICS Plus session involving the leaders of several invited states during the 14th BRICS summit – in virtual format via a video call at the Novo-Ogarevo state residence, outside Moscow, Russia on June 24, 2022.
Mikhail Metzel / Sputnik / AFP

 

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday it was “impossible” to isolate Moscow and vowed to cut gas and oil deliveries to countries imposing a price cap on supplies.

Speaking at an economic forum, over six months after Moscow sent troops into Ukraine, the Russian leader sought to pivot towards allies in Asia, the Middle East and Africa as his country faces a barrage of Western sanctions.

“No matter how much someone would like to isolate Russia, it is impossible to do this,” Putin told the Eastern Economic Forum in Russia’s Pacific port city of Vladivostok.

He said the coronavirus pandemic has been replaced by other global challenges “threatening the whole world”, including “sanctions fever in the West”.

Putin has repeatedly said Russia’s economy is weathering the barrage of sanctions well, as the Kremlin’s ties with the West sink to new lows.

On Wednesday, he vowed to cut off any countries imposing price caps on oil and gas exports, just as the European Union proposed to do just that.

Capping prices “would be an absolutely stupid decision”, Putin said.

“We will not supply anything at all if it is contrary to our interests, in this case economic (interests),” he said.

“No gas, no oil, no coal, no fuel oil, nothing.”

Europe, which is heavily dependent on Russian supplies, has accused Moscow of using energy as a weapon and on Wednesday, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen proposed that member states agree a price cap.

G7 industrialised powers pledged Friday to move urgently towards implementing a price cap on Russian oil imports, in a bid to cut off a major source of funding for Moscow’s military action in Ukraine.

“Those who are trying to impose something on us are in no position today to dictate their will,” Putin said.

“They should come to their senses.”

Von der Leyen’s remarks come days after Russia closed the key Nord Stream pipeline to Europe, saying it would be under repair for an indefinite period of time.

“They say that Russia uses energy as a weapon. More nonsense! What weapon do we use? We supply as much as required according to requests” from importers, Putin told the economic forum.

“Give us a turbine, we will turn Nord Stream on tomorrow,” Putin said.

The Kremlin insists sanctions have prevented the proper maintenance of Russian gas infrastructure and, in particular, blocked the return of a Siemens turbine that had been undergoing repairs in Canada.

Russian energy giant Gazprom said Wednesday the EU nations had reduced Russia’s gas deliveries by 48 percent since the start of 2022, with the reduction reaching 49 percent if Britain is included in the total.

– ‘Colossal new opportunities’ –
Putin’s participation in the forum in the Far East — a region with close geopolitical and economic ties to Russia’s neighbours in Asia — comes a day after the Russian president oversaw large-scale military drills there.

The week-long Vostok-2022 manoeuvres, were concluding Wednesday and involved several Kremlin-friendly countries, including troops sent by Beijing.

As Moscow seeks to bolster ties with Asia — especially key ally China — Putin welcomed the growing role of the Asia-Pacific region in global affairs.

“The role… of the countries of the Asia-Pacific region has significantly increased,” he said at the forum, adding that partnerships will create “colossal new opportunities for our people”.

Putin was joined at Wednesday’s forum by China’s top legislator Li Zhanshu — who ranks third in the Chinese government hierarchy — with a bilateral meeting scheduled for later in the day.

The Russian leader is expected next week to hold an in-person meeting with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, who has not left China since 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The two leaders will meet at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) held in Uzbekistan on September 15 and 16, a Russian diplomat said Wednesday.

Beijing and Moscow have drawn closer in recent years, ramping up cooperation as part of what they call a “no limits” relationship, acting as a counterweight to the global dominance of the United States.

Beijing has refused to condemn Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, while Moscow was in full solidarity with Beijing during the visit in August of US House speaker Nancy Pelosi to self-ruled Taiwan, which China considers its territory.

In a sign of further rapprochement, Russia announced Tuesday that China will be switching from US dollars to the national currencies of the two countries — yuan and rubles — to pay for deliveries of Russian natural gas.

AFP

Ukraine War: EU Extends Budget Rule Suspension

European Union, Ogbonnaya Onu, Science and technology

 

 

The European Union on Monday extended through 2023 its suspension of rules against overspending by the bloc’s governments, prolonging a pandemic-era reprieve because of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Heightened uncertainty and strong downside risks to the economic outlook in the context of war in Ukraine, unprecedented energy price hikes, and continued supply chain disturbances warrant the extension,” the EU’s executive, the European Commission, said.

The EU suspended the public spending rules for national governments in March 2020 as the 27-nation bloc sank into its deepest recession since World War II because of Covid-19 restrictions.

Known as the Stability and Growth Pact, the EU rules limit deficit spending to three percent of a country’s overall economy and debt to 60 percent.

The pact was supposed to be reactivated on January 1, 2023, with the return of solid growth but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed the situation.

The commission said the rules would now be reimposed “as of 2024”.

“This provides a space for national fiscal policies to react quickly if and when needed,” said Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis.

The pledge to restore the rules will hopefully reassure Germany and its “frugal” allies in northern Europe, who are fervent defenders of budgetary rigour.

The war and the impact of sanctions against Russia pushed Brussels last week to drastically reduce its GDP growth forecasts for the EU and the eurozone this year.

It is now counting on 2.7-percent expansion, down from four percent at the beginning of the year, and does not rule out a further deterioration.

The economy is suffering from soaring commodity prices, which are spreading from energy to food prices. The conflict and Covid shutdowns in China have increased problems in supply chains and increased uncertainty for both businesses and households.

Ukraine Says Wants Spot ‘Reserved’ In EU

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky gestures as he speaks during a press conference following his talks with President of the European Council in Kyiv on April 20, 2022.
Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP

 

 

 

Ukraine wants a spot reserved in the European Union, even if obtaining full membership could take time, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Thursday in Berlin. 

“It is not about the fastest possible membership for Ukraine in the EU. But what is very important for us is for this spot to be reserved for Ukraine,” he told German broadcaster ARD.

“We hear often that Ukraine belongs in Europe, belongs in the European family, and now it’s about reserving this place,” he added.

French President Emmanuel Macron warned early this week that it would take “decades” for a candidate like Ukraine to join the EU.

Macron suggested instead that a broader European political community could be created to include members like Ukraine or post-Brexit Britain.

Kuleba said he did not have sufficient details to weigh up Macron’s suggestion for a wider European club.

But he said that “as far as we understand, the French proposal doesn’t contradict granting Ukraine EU candidacy status”.

The contrary would go against public statements made by EU leaders on how Ukraine is part of the European family, he warned.

“I can tell you right away that no alternative to European integration of Ukraine will be acceptable,” Kuleba added, speaking to journalists after he met leaders of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats.

Kuleba, who is in Berlin to meet political leaders of Europe’s biggest economy before heading to Weissenhaus to attend talks with counterparts from the G7 most industrialised nations, also took pains to smooth over any remaining tensions with German leaders.

He noted that Germany was now stepping up in the response against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.

“We see that Germany has currently taken the leading role,” he said.

Kuleba said he will discuss further sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Another key topic, the minister said, is the battle against global food shortages sparked by the war.

UK Defence Minister Takes A Swipe At Putin, Says He Has ‘Gone Full Tonto’

A handout picture released by the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) shows Britain’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace (C) hosting a meeting of the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) Defence Ministers meeting at at Belvoir Castle near Grantham, central England on February 22, 2022. (Photo by Sgt Jimmy Wise / MOD / AFP)

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has “gone full tonto” by ordering his troops into two rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine, Britain’s defence secretary said Wednesday in unguarded comments to military officials.

Ben Wallace made the candid comments suggesting Putin had lost his mind while also comparing the Russian leader to Tsar Nicholas I, who struggled for allies during the Crimean War in the mid-19th century.

“We’ve got a busy adversary now in Putin, who has gone full tonto,” Wallace — a former army officer — told serving personnel in a government building in Westminster, Britain’s Press Association news agency reported.

“Tsar Nicholas I made the same mistake Putin did… he had no friends, no alliances.

“The Scots Guards kicked the backside of Tsar Nicholas I in 1853 in Crimea — we can always do it again,” Wallace, who served in the same regiment, was overheard saying.

READ ALSO: Germany Can Do Without Russian Gas, Minister Says

The minister’s unvarnished assessment came after Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday said Putin was in an “illogical and irrational frame of mind”.

Asked about Wallace’s reported assessment, Johnson’s official spokesman told reporters: “The defence secretary is more astute to make that judgment than I.”

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss meanwhile said Putin was “highly likely” to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and attack Kyiv.

Britain and the US have repeatedly cited intelligence as indicating that Moscow is planning such a move.

However, Truss noted London does not yet have “the full evidence” that Russian troops have crossed into Ukrainian territory, including rebel-held areas, calling the current situation “ambiguous”.

– ‘Defensive weapons’ –

Meanwhile in parliament, Johnson confirmed Britain would send further military supplies to Ukraine “in light of the increasingly threatening behaviour” from Russia.

“This will include lethal aid in the form of defensive weapons and non-lethal aid,” he told MPs.

The UK last month deployed some 2,000 anti-tank weapons to Kyiv along with military trainers — who have since left the country — as Western nations stepped up their support for Ukraine.

London is ready to guarantee up to $500 million (£368 million) in loans to Kyiv to promote economic stability and reforms, the foreign office said ahead of Johnson’s comments.

READ ALSO: Gas Prices ‘In God’s Hands’, Producers Warn As Ukraine Crisis Sparks Surge

In December, it increased the amount of financial support available to Ukraine to £3.5 billion and signed a treaty on modernising its navy.

Earlier this month it also announced £100 million in extra assistance to be provided over three years to help the ex-Soviet country boost the economy and reduce dependency on energy imports.

The latest commitments come a day after Britain slapped sanctions on five Russian banks and three billionaires, in what Johnson branded “the first barrage” of measures in response to the Kremlin’s actions.

However, he faced criticism from numerous lawmakers, including from within his ruling Conservatives, that the measures were woefully insufficient.

He and his ministers have insisted tougher measures are set to follow but depend on Moscow’s actions.

Johnson also announced Wednesday that his culture minister had asked media regulator Ofcom to review the UK broadcasting licence of Kremlin-backed television channel RT.

In a leaked letter to Ofcom, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries urged the agency to take “timely and transparent” action against RT, which she warned seeks to spread “harmful disinformation”.

An Ofcom spokesperson confirmed receipt of the letter to AFP, adding: “All licensees must observe Ofcom’s rules, including due accuracy and due impartiality.

READ ALSO: Pope Warns Of ‘Increasingly Alarming Scenarios’ In Ukraine

“If broadcasters break those rules, we will not hesitate to step in. Given the seriousness of the Ukraine crisis, we will examine complaints about any broadcaster’s news coverage of this issue as a priority.”

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova hit back on Telegram saying “If Britain turns its threat towards Russian media into a reality, retaliatory measures will not take long to come.

“British journalists can ask their German colleagues what this looks like,” she said.

German broadcaster Deutsche Welle closed its Moscow bureau at the start of this month after Russia shut the outlet’s local operations to punish Germany for banning a service of a Russian state TV network.

EU Warns Of Economic Uncertainty After Russia’s Ukraine Moves

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Russia’s recognition of breakaway regions of Ukraine will “strongly increase” economic uncertainty for the EU, the bloc’s economy commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said on Tuesday.

“Uncertainty remains around us. And the violation of international law through Russian recognition of two separatist territories in Ukraine will strongly increase this uncertainty,” Gentiloni told a Brussels conference.

Gentiloni was speaking as EU ambassadors met to agree on sanctions against Russia for its recognition a day before of two separatist regions in Ukraine that have been militarily supported by Moscow for the past eight years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered troops into those separatist regions, breaking international agreements he had signed on to. He portrayed the incursion as a “peacekeeping” mission.

The European Union was expected to unveil limited and targeted economic punishment, both to keep its sanctions powder dry should Russia push further into Ukraine and because of the pain it would feel too from sectoral sanctions.

READ ALSO: US Announces First Sanctions After Russia Recognizes Ukraine Separatists

Russia supplies more than a third of the EU’s natural gas supplies, and energy prices are already spiking to uncomfortable levels for European consumers and governments.

Gentiloni, speaking at an EU conference on the bloc’s economic situation, noted that the growth forecasts for this year had already been revised down earlier this month to 4.0 percent, and up to 2.8 percent for next year.

Conflict or tough sanctions on Russia that blowback into Europe could add to the downward pressure on the Covid-hit economy.

AFP

Russian Navy Launches Major Black Sea Drills

One of three Russian ships, an Ivan Gren class large landing ship the “Pyotr Morgunov” sails through the Bosphorus Strait en route to the Black Sea past the city Istanbul on February 9, 2022.
PHOTO: Ozan KOSE / AFP

 

Russia’s navy on Saturday launched large-scale exercises in the Black Sea even as Moscow dismissed as “hysteria” a US warning that a Russian attack on Ukraine could begin within days.

“Over 30 vessels from the Black Sea fleet took to the sea from Sebastopol and Novorossiysk in accordance with the exercise plan,” the Russian defence ministry said Saturday morning.

“The aim of the exercise is to defend the coast of the Crimea peninsula, the bases of the forces of the Black Sea fleet as well as the country’s economic sector … from possible military threats,” the ministry added.

The move comes after the US on Friday gave its starkest warning yet of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying that it could take place “any day now.”

READ ALSO: Russia All Set For Military Move On Ukraine, Says Norway

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters that such an attack would likely begin with airstrikes and missile attacks and urged Americans in Ukraine to leave the country “as soon as possible.”

A number of EU countries have also urged their nationals to leave Ukraine.

Moscow poured scorn on the US warnings.

“The White House’s hysteria is more revealing than ever. The Anglo-Saxons need a war. At all cost. The provocations, disinformation and the threats are their favourite method for resolving their own problems,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Telegram.

Russia’s ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov told Newsweek magazine that the US warnings were “alarmist” and repeated that his country was “not going to attack anyone.”

Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops along Ukraine’s borders in recent months, raising fears that it is planning to invade its former Soviet neighbour, eight years after it seized the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine.

Russia has denied any such plans while making a series of demands of the West, including a ban on Ukraine joining the Western defence alliance NATO.

In the midst of the furore, Russia last month announced a series of naval exercises in the Atlantic Ocean, the Arctic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea as well as in “waters and seas adjacent to Russian territory.”

The exercises involve over 140 warships and support vessels, over 60 aircraft, 1,000 pieces of military hardware and over 10,000 troops in total, the defence ministry said Saturday.

Tensions have been running high in the Black Sea in recent years, with Moscow accusing Ukraine’s pro-Western government and Western powers of threatening its security in waters off Crimea.

In June last year, Russian forces fired warning shots at a British destroyer that it accused of entering its waters, claims denied by Britain.

As well as the naval exercises, large-scale Russian military drills are underway with the country’s authoritarian ally Belarus, which lies just north of Ukraine and which also borders the European Union.

AFP

EU Leaders Vow Unity As Macron Sees Path On Easing Russia Tensions

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European leaders on Tuesday pledged unity in their goal of averting war on the continent, as France’s President Emmanuel Macron said he saw a path forward on easing tensions with Russia over Ukraine after an urgent round of shuttle diplomacy.

Arriving in Berlin after two days of talks in Kyiv and Moscow, Macron urged continued “firm dialogue” with Russia as the only way to defuse fears Russia could invade its ex-Soviet neighbour.

The French leader, who on Monday had a five-hour meeting with Vladimir Putin, said the Russian president had told him that Russia “would not be the source of an escalation”, despite amassing more than 100,000 troops and military hardware on Ukraine’s border.

Macron said he now saw the “possibility” for talks involving Moscow and Kyiv over the festering conflict in eastern Ukraine to move forward, and “concrete, practical solutions” to lower tensions between Russia and the West.

“We must find ways and means together to engage in a firm dialogue with Russia,” he said in Berlin, where he was to debrief German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Polish leader Andrzej Duda on his Kremlin meeting and his talks with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv.

Standing alongside Macron and Duda, Scholz stressed the trio “are united by the goal of maintaining peace in Europe through diplomacy and clear messages and the shared will to act in unison”.

The Polish leader said he believed war could still be averted.

“We have to find a solution to avoid war,” said Duda. “I believe that we will achieve it. In my opinion what’s most important today is unity and solidarity.”

EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell was cautiously optimistic, saying Macron’s visit to Moscow brought “an element of detente” but “has not produced a miracle”.

“As far as people are willing to sit at the table and talk I think that there is a hope for not going into military confrontation,” he told reporters at the end of a visit to Washington.

– ‘Compromises’ –

The focus will now turn to separate talks involving high-ranking officials in Berlin on Thursday that Zelensky said could pave the way for a summit with the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany aimed at reviving the stalled peace plan for Kyiv’s conflict with Moscow-backed separatists.

Putin, who has demanded sweeping security guarantees from NATO and the United States, said after his talks with Macron that Moscow would “do everything to find compromises that suit everyone”.

He said several proposals put forward by Macron could “form a basis for further steps” on easing the crisis over Ukraine, but did not give any details.

At the same time as sending its military hardware to Ukraine’s borders, Putin has issued demands the West says are unacceptable, including barring Ukraine from joining NATO and rolling back alliance forces in eastern Europe.

The French presidency said Macron’s counterproposals included an engagement from both sides not to take any new military action, the launching of a strategic dialogue and efforts to revive the peace process for Ukraine’s conflict.

It also said an agreement would ensure the withdrawal of some 30,000 Russian soldiers from Belarus at the end of joint military exercises later this month.

The Kremlin insisted it never intended to leave the troops permanently on Belarusian territory.

The West faces a tough task trying to convince a wary Zelensky to accept any compromises.

Kyiv has laid out three “red lines” it says it will not cross to find a solution — no compromise over Ukraine’s territorial integrity, no direct talks with the separatists and no interference in its foreign policy.

Moscow is pressuring Ukraine to offer concessions to the Russian-backed rebels who have been fighting Kyiv since 2014 in a conflict that has claimed more than 13,000 lives.

Ukraine says the Kremlin wants to use the two breakaway eastern regions Russia supports as leverage to keep the country under Moscow’s sway.

– Russia sends warships –

Russia has denied it is planning an invasion — but the United States warns it has massed 70 percent of the forces it would need for a large-scale incursion.

Moscow kept bolstering its forces around Ukraine on Tuesday as it announced six warships were heading to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean as part of previously planned global maritime manoeuvres.

Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told local television that Kyiv was planning to hold its own exercises involving Western-supplied anti-tank missiles and Turkish combat drones in response to the Russian-Belarusian drills.

On Monday, US President Joe Biden ramped up the pressure on Moscow by warning he would “end” the controversial new Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Europe if tanks rolled into Ukraine.

Biden’s declaration was the bluntest so far on the fate of the massive pipeline, which is complete but has yet to begin funnelling natural gas.

Compulsory Vaccination Rules Come Into Force In Austria

Medical staff, with protective clothing, stands at an entrance where patients are filtered at Kaiser-Franz-Josef-Spital (KFJ) hospital in Vienna. PHOTO: GEORG HOCHMUTH /APA /AFP.

 

From Saturday, Austrians over the age of 18 must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or face the possibility of a heavy fine, an unprecedented measure in the European Union.

The new measure, adopted on January 20 by Parliament, was signed into law by President Alexander Van der Bellen on Friday, the culmination of a process that began in November in the face of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

The government decided to pursue its new tougher approach despite criticism within the country.

READ ALSO: Canada Protests Against COVID-19 Measures Set To Increase

“No other country in Europe is following us on compulsory vaccines,” said Manuel Krautgartner, who has campaigned against the new approach.

In neighbouring Germany, a similar law championed by the new Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz was debated last month in the Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, but has not made progress yet due to divisions within the political class.

 

– Checks from mid-March –

Despite the threat of such a drastic measure, the vaccination rate in Austria has still failed to take off, languishing below the levels seen in France or Spain.

Vienna vaccination centres remain relatively quiet.

“We are far from reaching maximum capacity, things are completely stagnating,” Stefanie Kurzweil, of the humanitarian association, Arbeiter Samariter Bund, which oversees one of these sites, told AFP a few days ago.

Melanie, a 23-year-old waitress who preferred not to give her second name at the centre to get her booster jab, said she was mainly there to avoid ending up “locked up at home”.

Non-vaccinated people are currently excluded from restaurants, sports and cultural venues.

But from now on they will also be subject to fines, which Melanie said was “unhealthy”.

The law applies to all adult residents with the exception of pregnant women, those who have contracted the virus within the past 180 days and those with medical exemptions.

Checks will begin from mid-March, with sanctions ranging from 600 to 3,600 euros ($690-$4,100).

They will, however, be lifted if the person fined gets vaccinated within two weeks.

 

– Protect against new variants –

Waiting in the queue, others say they are in favour of vaccination for all.

“We would have finished a long time ago (with the pandemic) if everyone had been vaccinated”, said legal worker, Angelika Altmann.

More than 60 per cent of Austrians support the measure, according to a recent survey, but large swathes of the population remain strongly opposed.

For several weeks after the announcement of the new law, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against what they regard as a radical and draconian policy.

Critics have also questioned the need for compulsion given the far milder nature of the Omicron variant.

Conservative Chancellor Karl Nehammer, who leads the Alpine country with the environmentalist Greens, also announced at the same time a relaxation of earlier Covid-19 restrictions.

But for Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein, compulsory vaccination is aimed at both protecting the country against new waves and fighting new variants.

Vaccination passes are now a reality in an increasing number of countries for certain professions or activities.

In Ecuador, it is compulsory, including for children over the age of five, a world first.

Before that, two authoritarian states in Central Asia — Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — mandated vaccination, as did Indonesia, even if less than half the population is actually vaccinated.

AFP

EU Sanctions Russian Mercenary Outfit, Warns Against Invasion Of Ukraine

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European foreign ministers slapped sanctions on Russian mercenary outfit Wagner on Monday and touted what they warned would be an unprecedented economic response to any military assault on Ukraine.

Following a meeting of G7 ministers in Liverpool at the weekend, where the US and major allies warned the Kremlin of “massive” consequences if it invades, the 27 EU ministers met Monday in Brussels.

They first approved a list of eight names and three companies associated with Russia’s private military company Wagner to be added immediately to existing sanctions regimes.

Next, they signalled their readiness to impose huge new measures targeting Russia’s economy if a troop build-up near the Ukrainian border leads to direct military action.

“Allow me to say, once again, firmly that the European Union is standing united in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Borrell told reporters after the talks.

“The ministers — all of them — have been very clear today that any aggression against Ukraine will come with political consequences and with a high economic cost for Russia.

“We are globally coordinating with our transatlantic and like minded partners,” he added,

Before the talks Lithuania’s Gabrielius Landsbergis stressed that the sanctions threat was a deterrent but that, if they proved necessary, they would have to be on an “unprecedented scale”.

The meeting on Monday was the first EU foreign affairs council for Germany’s new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, a Green politician who came to office last week in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s new coalition.

Pipeline warning

Berlin holds one of the most important cards in the sanctions deck, if it decides that President Vladimir Putin’s actions warrant blocking the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

Asked about the threat to Ukraine before heading to Brussels, Baerbock told ZDF television that “in the event of further escalation, this gas pipeline could not come into service.”

After the Brussels meeting, Baerbock insisted that Germany’s position on the pipeline had been made clear, without repeating it, and said “any action by Russia would have severe diplomatic consequences.”

Separately, in a sign of Brussels’ determination to address what it sees as the Kremlin’s efforts to “destabilise” Ukraine, Syria, Libya and several African countries, sanctions were slapped on Wagner.

Wagner is said to be financed by 60-year-old Saint Petersburg businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has already been hit with EU and US sanctions for destabilising Libya and meddling in US elections.

In addition to the Wagner firm and three linked companies, the sanctions list targeted eight individuals, including the group’s alleged commander.

Those sanctioned included:

Dmitry Utkin, a 51-year-old former lieutenant colonel in Russian military intelligence, once decorated by Putin and now said to be Wagner’s commander and responsible for mercenary operations in Ukraine.

Utkin is accused of extrajudicial killings, including allegedly ordering a Syrian deserter to be tortured to death and filmed.

Alexander Kuzentsov, a 44-year-old Russian said to lead Wagner’s 1st Attack and Reconnaissance Company under the call sign “Ratibor”, accused of threatening the peace and security of Libya.

Retired colonel Andrei Roshev, 68, a founding executive director of Wagner now commanding mercenary troops in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime under the call sign “Siedoy”.

United front

The talks on Monday will also help prepare for the EU leaders’ meeting with the “Eastern Partnership” — Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan — on Wednesday.

Belarus left the group after the EU accused strongman Alexander Lukashenko of rigging his re-election, but opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is in Brussels.

The EU wants to present its eastern neighbours with a united front against what it sees as Russia’s destabilising meddling in the region, a senior European diplomat told AFP.

But on the question of China — accused of persecuting the Uyghur minority, threatening Taiwan and cracking down on freedoms in Hong Kong — there is less agreement between EU capitals.

The United States and some of Washington’s allies have announced that they will not send diplomats or top officials to the Winter Olympics in Beijing, in protest against China’s actions.

But Europe is divided — with France dismissing talk of a diplomatic boycott as a small and useless measure — and in the end the ministers did not find time to address the issue.