Ukraine said Saturday one of its soldiers was killed in fighting with pro-Moscow separatists, as the US again warned Russia against any attacks on the country.
US President Joe Biden was due to speak to his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday, after warning Russian President Vladimir Putin for the second time of a tough response should he invade Ukraine.
In his New Year’s Eve address, Zelensky said ending the war in the east remains his “main goal”.
“One serviceman of the Joint Forces was fatally wounded,” the army said in a statement, adding that separatists had launched three attacks within 24 hours, using grenade launchers and small arms.
In a forested area just outside Ukraine’s capital Kiev, mock Russian troops ambush camouflage-clad army reservists.
The would-be Ukrainian soldiers, who include architects and researchers in their ranks, return fire with replica Kalashnikovs as imitation smoke grenades explode around them.
“I believe that every person in this country should know what to do… if the enemy invades their country,” Daniil Larin, a 19-year-old university student, told AFP during a short break from the exercises.
Larin was one of about 50 Ukrainian civilians who drove from Kiev to an abandoned Soviet-era asphalt plant on a recent weekend afternoon to train for how to defend their country in the event of a Russian invasion.
Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine’s army reserves in recent months, as fears have mounted that Russia — which Kiev says has massed around 100,000 troops on its side of the border — is plotting to launch a large-scale attack.
Ukraine’s army, which totals 215,000 soldiers, has been battling a Moscow-backed insurgency in two breakaway regions since 2014 in a long-simmering conflict that has claimed over 13,000 lives.
While Moscow has denied it is planning an invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin has not excluded a military response should the US-led NATO alliance — which Ukraine wants to join — expand eastward.
The Ukrainian reservists, who have ballooned to about 100,000 members, have been learning “how to handle weapons, how to behave in a battle environment, how to defend cities,” Larin told AFP.
Living with war
Marta Yuzkiv, a 51-year-old doctor, believes that the Russian army is “far superior” to Ukraine’s and the risk of a full-scale invasion is “high enough” to have joined the reserves.
“Only if everyone is ready to defend our land, then there will be a chance,” she said.
Since joining up in April, when Russia first deployed around 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, Yuzkiv has trained for several hours every Saturday in providing tactical medicine, shooting automatic rifles and deploying checkpoints.
While the army provided her with a military uniform, she spent her own money on a helmet, bulletproof jacket and tactical goggles.
The trainees are part of reservist battalions set up to protect Kiev in the event of an attack on Ukraine’s largest city.
One battalion commander, Vadym Ozirny, said that after mobilising at a rendezvous point, the reservists will get to work protecting administrative buildings and critical infrastructure as well as helping residents evacuate.
“These people must arrive, receive weapons and carry out command assignments, defend their home,” Ozirny told AFP.
Denys Semyrog-Orlyk, one of the most experienced reservists in the unit, said he is ready to counter a real offensive.
“I have been living for the eighth year with the thought that until we give Russia a good blow in the face, they will not leave us alone,” the 46-year-old architect told AFP.
“I clearly understand that I am a serviceman. I might be called up and I must act fully as a serviceman.”
Russia announced Saturday that more than 10,000 troops had finished month-long drills near Ukraine, amid Western accusations that Moscow was plotting an invasion of its ex-Soviet neighbour.
The defence ministry said in a statement that the drills for Southern Military District forces had taken place in a host of southern regions including Rostov, Krasnodar and Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
But the drills also took place further afield, including in Stavropol, Astrakhan, North Caucasus republics and even in Russia’s Caucasus ally Armenia.
The defence ministry said the troops were returning to their permanent bases and that stand-by units would be readied for the New Year’s holidays.
Western countries have accused Russia of massing upwards of 100,000 troops near Ukraine ahead of a possible winter invasion.
According to Kiev’s estimates, the number of Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders has increased from around 93,000 troops in October to 104,000 now.
Russia says it is free to move its forces on its territory how it sees fit and denies that it is planning a large-scale attack.
It has presented the West with sweeping security demands, saying NATO must not admit new members and seeking to bar the United States from establishing new bases in former Soviet republics.
Tensions reached a boiling point on Wednesday when President Vladimir Putin said Russia would take “appropriate retaliatory” military steps in response to what he called the West’s “aggressive stance”.
But he lowered the volume the next day, saying he had seen a “positive” reaction from the United States to Russia’s security proposals and said talks would take place next month.
In an interview on Friday, a senior Ukrainian security official told AFP that there is no risk of an imminent Russian invasion.
Kiev has been battling pro-Russia separatists since shortly after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 in a conflict that has claimed over 13,000 lives.
The content was not specified, but Russia regularly takes legal action for not removing content it labels illegal, such as pornographic material or posts condoning drugs and suicide.
“We’ll study the court documents and then decide on next steps,” Google’s press service told AFP.
Interfax news agency said that the massive fine was calculated as a percentage of Google’s annual earnings and was the maximum penalty for a repeated violation.
Meta — which has a hearing in court later today on the same charges — has also been threatened with a revenue-based fine.
On Thursday, Twitter was handed its latest fine of three million rubles ($40,000) after authorities started throttling its services in the spring.
In the past few years, the Russian government has used the pretext of protecting minors and fighting extremism to control the Russian segment of the web and began developing a so-called sovereign internet.
Fines and Threats
Ahead of parliamentary elections in September, Russia’s media watchdog blocked dozes of websites linked to jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, whose organisations have been banned in Russia as “extremist”.
The regulator also ordered Google and Apple to remove an app dedicated to Navalny’s “Smart Voting” campaign which advised supporters who to vote for to unseat Kremlin-aligned politicians.
The Silicon Valley giants complied, with sources telling AFP the decisions came after authorities threatened to arrest local staff.
Russia’s media regulator has also blocked dozens of websites linked to Navalny.
Earlier, during protests in January in support of Navalny, authorities accused platforms including Google’s YouTube and Twitter of meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs by not deleting posts calling for people to join the rallies.
President Vladimir Putin that same month complained that large technology companies were competing with states.
Russia has already blocked a number of websites that have refused to cooperate with authorities, such as the video platform Dailymotion and LinkedIn.
As part of broad efforts to bend foreign tech under its control, Russia in September banned six major VPN providers including Nord VPN and Express VPN.
Russia also introduced a new law demanding that smartphones, computers and other gadgets sold in the country come with pre-installed domestic software and apps.
Russia’s opposition accuses the Kremlin of using such regulations to further stifle freedom of speech and clamp down on online dissent.
Russia said Wednesday it had delivered its proposals for legal security guarantees over NATO’s expansion to a top US diplomat after President Vladimir Putin said he wanted talks to start immediately.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov discussed Russia’s insistence to spell out in writing that NATO would halt its eastward expansion with Karen Donfried, US assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Moscow said.
“A detailed discussion of the issue of security guarantees took place in the light of ongoing attempts by the United States and NATO to change the military-political situation in Europe in their favour,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Speaking to reporters later Wednesday, Putin’s foreign policy advisor Yury Ushakov said Russian officials had handed over to Donfried a set of Moscow’s proposals during the meeting.
He did not provide further details.
Last week, Putin and US leader Joe Biden held two hours of talks, with the Kremlin chief demanding that the West put in writing guarantees that Ukraine would not become a NATO launchpad.
Donfried said in a video statement that she would “take these ideas back to Washington and also share them with our allies and partners”.
She added that during meetings she had raised “concerns regarding Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine and reinforced the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
After the high-profile talks the Russian foreign ministry published a list of demands, pressing for NATO to formally scrap a 2008 decision to open its door to Georgia and Ukraine, among other conditions.
Ushakov was speaking to reporters after a video call between Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday, saying Xi told Putin he “fully supports our initiative”.
Putin for his part expressed hope that American and NATO officials would give a “positive evaluation” to Moscow’s proposals, Ushakov said.
He added that he himself would also discuss the issue with a US official later Wednesday.
Putin said Tuesday he wants “immediate” talks with the United States and NATO over security guarantees, as tensions soar between Moscow and the West over Ukraine.
Donfried visited Kiev on Tuesday in a gesture of support in the face of Russia’s troop buildup on the border.
Russia has seen a rise in attacks on schools in recent years but incidents at religious premises are rare.
The interior ministry said the teenager entered “the Orthodox gymnasium next to the Vvedenskiy Vladychniy convent and blew himself up.”
The convent is in the city of Serpukhov, 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Moscow.
Ten children were wounded, said Ksenia Mishonova, the children’s rights ombudswoman for the Moscow region.
“One teenager was hospitalised. The rest of the children are in hospitals in the Moscow region,” she said on Telegram.
“There is no threat to their lives”.
The Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, said it opened a criminal case into attempted murder and the illegal handling of explosives.
Denis Ryabov, a pupil at the school, said he was praying with his classmates when the incident took place.
“I smelt burning, the teacher said there had been an explosion,” he said as he left the convent accompanied by his mother.
“A door was blown off. Some children were crying.”
The school has pupils from the ages of 7 to 16.
State news agency TASS, citing a police source, said that the teenager wanted the device to go off during morning prayers, but it detonated at the entrance to the school.
Authorities said they were working to establish the motives behind the attack.
The Interfax news agency said the teenager could have wanted to take revenge for being bullied by nuns in the convent.
Vladimir Legoida, a Russian Orthodox Church spokesman, said the church will provide assistance to “all those affected.”
“Wherever such attacks take place, they cause the same grief and desire to prevent this from happening in the future,” he said in a statement on messaging app Telegram.
Since President Vladimir Putin first came to power in 2000, the Russian church has extended its clout on traditionally secular institutions such as schools, with lessons on religion and clerics lobbying for conservative textbooks.
In September, a student killed six people and wounded dozens on a university campus in the Urals city of Perm.
In May, a 19-year-old opened fire in his old school in the central city of Kazan, killing nine people.
In October 2018, another teenage gunman killed 20 people at a Kerch technical college in Crimea, the peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
He was shown in camera footage wearing a similar T-shirt to Eric Harris, one of the killers in the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in the US, which left 13 people dead.
The attacks have led some in Russia to call for stricter gun control in the country and for reinforced security in schools.
US President Joe Biden warned President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday of “strong” Western economic blowback against any Russian attack on Ukraine, while the Kremlin leader demanded guarantees that the NATO alliance keep clear of Russia.
The two leaders met by video link in a two-hour summit seen as a vital chance to defuse tension on the Russian-Ukrainian frontier, where Russia has deployed up to 100,000 troops, sparking fears of a major war in Europe.
Russia denies planning to invade Ukraine, where it already seized swaths of territory in 2014. However, Biden made clear that economic pain, perhaps including “risk” to Russia’s new Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline supplying Europe, would follow if it does.
“President Biden voiced the deep concerns of the United States and our European allies about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine,” the White House said in a statement.
Biden “made clear that the US and our allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation.” The US leader also “called for de-escalation and a return to diplomacy,” the statement said.
In its own readout, the Kremlin said Putin blamed NATO for tensions in Ukraine and insisted on “legal guarantees” against the Western military alliance expanding its forces any closer to Russia.
Reflecting the tense atmosphere, Biden was shown in an official photograph sitting behind closed doors with the secretary of state and national security advisor in the White House’s Situation Room. Putin, at his resort residence in Sochi, was pictured alone at a long table in front of the video screen.
The United States says it doesn’t know for sure what Russia intends in Ukraine. Russia already supports a powerful separatist rebellion across swaths of eastern Ukraine and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Kiev in 2014.
Moscow describes accusations that it is preparing to invade as “hysteria.”
“Russian troops are on their territory, they are threatening no one,” Putin’s top foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov told reporters after the video summit.
Instead, Putin says that he sees Ukraine’s growing alliance with Western nations as a threat to Russian security — and that any move by Ukraine to join NATO or to host NATO missiles would be unacceptable.
“Russia is seriously interested in obtaining reliable legal guarantees that will exclude NATO’s eastward expansion and the deployment of offensive strike weapons in countries adjacent to Russia,” the Kremlin said.
While Ukraine is nowhere near being able to join NATO, the United States and NATO say Russia cannot be given a veto over Ukraine’s Western-leaning ambitions.
Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, told reporters that Biden “made no such commitments or concessions.”
Pipeline in crosshairs?
There is no Western appetite for sending US or European troops into direct military conflict with Russia, leaving limited options for pressuring Moscow.
Sullivan said there were sanctions that Washington had held off from in 2014 but was “prepared to do now.”
One clear target could be the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which has yet to begin delivering natural gas to Germany. Sullivan said the pipeline’s future was at “risk” if Russia does invade Ukraine.
“It is leverage for the West, because if Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine,” he said.
Sullivan said that an attack on Ukraine would also prompt calls from NATO’s eastern European members for increased US military commitments, and the White House would “respond positively to those things.”
Biden talked with the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Italy after he finished with Putin.
They “underscored their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the need for Russia to reduce tensions.” the White House said.
Biden was due to reach out to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday.
Zelensky to the front
Clad in a combat uniform, Zelensky visited troops fighting pro-Moscow separatists in the country’s east on Monday.
“Thank you for protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Zelensky told the soldiers, according to a statement released by Kiev.
The conflict has claimed more than 13,000 lives, and while Ukrainian forces are deadlocked against their separatist opponents, they would likely be overwhelmed by Russian regular troops.
Russia has registered its first two cases of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus in its nationals returning from South Africa — where the variant was first detected — the country’s health agency said on Monday.
“Two citizens who returned to Russia from South Africa have been diagnosed with the Omicron coronavirus strain,” the Rospotrebnadzor health agency said in a statement.
The agency said that all Russians returning from South Africa and its neighbouring countries are tested at the border and placed in special observatories.
Any people exhibiting symptoms or testing positive after a PCR test are then quarantined in infectious disease hospitals, Rospotrebnadzor said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday gave his government a week to prepare an action plan for fighting the new variant, which is more transmissible than the dominant Delta strain of the virus.
Last week the backers of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine said that development was already under way on an Omicron booster, with fears growing that earlier vaccines will be less effective against the variant.
Russia, one of the worst-hit countries by the pandemic in the world, has in recent weeks come out of its latest surge of the coronavirus driven by Delta.
The country has reported more than 9.8 million infections and 282,462 deaths from the virus — the highest toll in Europe.
But Russia’s statistics agency, which counts Covid deaths based on a broader definition, says fatalities passed 520,000 by the end of October.
Despite developing several homemade vaccines, Russia has struggled to inoculate its population, with jab scepticism running high.
As of Monday, just 40 percent of Russians were fully inoculated.
Russian authorities have also refrained from re-introducing the kind of strict lockdowns seen in Europe in a bid to support Russia’s economy, contributing to the high toll from the virus.
Washington and Kiev say Moscow has massed troops near Ukraine’s borders and accuse Russia of planning an invasion.
Russia has denied any bellicose intentions and accused the West of provocation, particularly with military exercises in the Black Sea, which it sees as part of its sphere of influence.
Biden and Putin had been expected since Friday to hold a video call.
Biden told reporters in Washington he was putting together “the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do”.
Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has since backed separatists fighting Kiev in the east of the country. The conflict has left more than 13,000 dead.
Moscow meanwhile wants to see an end to NATO’s eastward expansion, after much of eastern Europe joined the alliance following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday called on his US counterpart Antony Blinken to provide “security guarantees” that NATO would not come closer to Russia’s borders.
Despite increased contacts between the two rivals since Putin and Biden met for the first time at a summit in Geneva in June, tensions remain high.
As well as the Ukraine conflict, Russia and the United States continue to argue over cyberattacks and the staffing of their embassies, after several waves of diplomatic expulsions.
China and Russia reacted furiously Wednesday to US President Joe Biden’s planned democracy summit, which will exclude them, with Beijing angered over an invitation for Taiwan and the Kremlin branding it divisive.
The global conference was a campaign pledge by the US president, who has placed the struggle between democracies and “autocratic governments” at the heart of his foreign policy.
The inclusion of Taiwan, and not China, led to an angry rebuke from Beijing, which said it “firmly opposes” the invitation to “the so-called Summit for Democracy.”
Beijing claims self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory to be retaken one day, by force if necessary.
Around 110 countries have been invited to the virtual summit, including the United States’ major Western allies but also Iraq, India, and Pakistan.
But Russia said the guest list, released Tuesday on the State Department website, showed that the United States “prefers to create new dividing lines, to divide countries into those that — in their opinion — are good, and those that are bad.”
“More and more countries prefer to decide themselves how to live,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, adding that Washington is “trying to privatise the term ‘democracy’.”
“That can’t do so and should not do so,” he said.
The invitation is a major coup for Taipei at a time when China is ramping up its campaign to keep Taiwan locked out of international bodies.
Taiwan said the gathering would be a rare opportunity to burnish its credentials on the world stage.
“Through this summit, Taiwan can share its democratic success story,” presidential office spokesman Xavier Chang told reporters.
Only 15 countries officially recognise Taipei over Beijing, although many nations maintain de facto diplomatic relations with the island.
The US does not recognise Taiwan as an independent country but maintains it as a crucial regional ally and opposes any change to its status by force.
China baulks at any use of the word “Taiwan” or diplomatic gestures that might lend a sense of international legitimacy to the island.
“I agree Taiwan more than qualifies — but it does seem to be (the) only democratic govt invited that the US govt does not officially recognise. So its inclusion is a big deal,” tweeted Julian Ku, a Hofstra University law professor whose specialties include China.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it would be represented at the summit by its de facto US ambassador Bi-khim Hsiao and digital minister Audrey Tang, who is one of the world’s few openly transgender national politicians.
Scrutinised Guest List
The long-advertised meeting will take place online on December 9 and 10 ahead of an in-person meeting at its second edition next year.
India, often called “the world’s biggest democracy”, will be present, despite increasing criticism from human rights defenders over democratic backsliding under Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
So too will Pakistan, despite its chequered relationship with Washington.
Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was dubbed an “autocrat” by Biden, did not make the list.
Neither did the city-state of Singapore, or Bangladesh, one of the world’s most populous democracies.
In the Middle East, only Israel and Iraq were invited. The traditional Arab allies of the US — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates — are all absent.
Biden also invited Brazil, which is led by controversial far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
In Europe, Poland is represented, despite recurring tensions with Brussels over respect for the rule of law, but Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban is not.
On the African side, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, and Niger are invited.
‘Decline of Democracy’
“For this kick-off Summit… there’s a case for getting a broad set of actors into the room: it provides for a better exchange of ideas than setting a perfect bar for qualification,” Laleh Ispahani of the Open Society Foundations told AFP.
Rather than using the summit as an anti-China meeting, Ispahani urged Biden to address “the serious decline of democracy around the world — including relatively robust models like the US.”
This summit is being organised as democracy has suffered setbacks in countries where the US had placed great hopes.
Sudan and Myanmar have experienced military coups, Ethiopia is in the midst of a conflict that could lead to its “implosion,” according to US diplomats, and the Taliban took power in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US troops after two decades.
Croatia secured their place at the 2022 World Cup with a 1-0 win over Russia on Sunday, a late own goal from Fedor Kudryashov swinging the game in their favour after a hard-fought battle in boggy conditions in Split.
Finalists at the last World Cup in 2018, Croatia looked bound for the play-offs for much of Sunday’s game, as they toiled on a waterlogged pitch against a resolute Russian defence.
But Kudryashov’s error saw them snatch top spot from the visitors eight minutes from time and secure their passage to next year’s tournament in Qatar.
“It was a difficult match from the beginning because of the rain. We never gave up, we were patient and I think we won deservedly. We are the best team in this group,” Croatia captain Luka Modric was quoted as saying by the UEFA website.
An early header from Andrej Kramaric set the tone for a first half in which Croatia had the lion’s share of possession and piled on the pressure in search of an opener.
Marcelo Brozovic also shaved the bar with a long-range effort, before both he and Josip Juranovic forced saves from Russian keeper Matvey Safonov.
Safonov beat away another Kramaric header with a reflex save just after the break, before denying substitute Bruno Petkovic on the hour mark.
The conditions made it harder and harder for Croatia as the second half progressed, with the pitch becoming ever more boggy under the heavy rain.
The chances had all but dried up when Borna Sosa sent a hopeful ball into the box on 82 minutes.
Though under no pressure, Kudryashov struggled to control the ball as it skidded on the wet ground, and watched helplessly on as it bounced off his knee and inside the post.
While Croatia qualify automatically as Group H winners, Russia can still make it through via the play-offs.