The World This Week

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The World This Week
US, Russia and the Geneva talks on Ukraine

  GP Team

The World This Week #154, Vol. 4, No. 03

D Suba Chandran

The US-Russia talks on Ukraine: "Useful, honest, direct and businesslike"

What happened?

On 21 January, Antony Blinken (the US Secretary of State) and Sergey Lavrov (the Russian Foreign Minister) met in Geneva. The discussions focussed on the following: tensions over Ukraine relating to the threat of war, Russian troops along the Ukraine border, the West's military presence in Eastern Europe, and a written response to Russia's demands. Blinken and Lavrov were quoted to have stated that the talks were "direct, businesslike" and "useful, honest discussion", respectively. Blinken, in an interview, immediately after the talks, stated: "We didn't expect any breakthroughs to happen today…But I believe we are now on a clearer path in terms of understanding each other's concerns."

On the same day, in the introductory remarks to the meeting, Lavrov said: "What we expect is concrete answers to our concrete proposals in the vein and in compliance with the obligations that were adopted at the highest level within the OSCE. I'm referring particularly to the principle of indivisibility of security, as well as the obligation of countries not to strengthen their own security at the expense of security of others. We would very much be interested to listen to how the US interprets these obligations and these principles." Blinken said: "I come from consulting with allies and partners, as well as from Ukraine itself. That too is part of an ongoing effort to work closely, coordinate with, consult with all of our allies and partners who share our deep concerns about the moment we're in. We are – all of us – equally committed to the path of diplomacy and dialogue to try to resolve our differences."

On the same day, immediately after the meeting, in an interview, Blinken shared the following with the media on what he conveyed to Russia: The discussion today with Minister Lavrov was frank and substantive. I conveyed the position of the United States and our European allies and partners that we stand firmly with Ukraine in support of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. We've been clear: If any Russian military forces move across Ukraine's border, that's a renewed invasion. It will be met with swift, severe, and a united response from the United States and our partners and allies." In his interview, Blinken also made a point on how the West looks at the Russian strategy: "We also know from experience that Russia has an extensive playbook of aggression short of military action, including cyberattacks, paramilitary tactics, and other means of advancing their interests aggressively without overtly using military action. Those types of Russian aggression will also be met with a decisive, calibrated, and again, united response." On the talks, Lavrov said: "I can't say whether we are on the right path or not. We will see when we get the American responses." 

On 22 January, the Russian news agency TASS referred to a foreign ministry note, quoted: "It was made clear to Antony Blinken that further ignoring Russia's legal concerns, first of all, those linked with the United States' and its NATO allies' advance in Ukraine amid the large-scale deployment of the alliance's forces and weapons near our border, will have the most serious consequences...It can be avoided if Washington positively responds to our draft agreements on security guarantees. We expect to receive the American side's written article-by-article response next week."

What is the background?

First, the Russian endgame in Ukraine. Moscow has massed troops along the Ukraine border; using satellite photos and intelligence inputs, reports indicate the presence of more than 100,000 Russian troops. There have been reports about cyberattacks in Ukraine and an effort to destabilize Ukraine's present government to install a pro-Russian regime in Kyiv. These are strategies aimed at Kyiv not falling into the sphere of Europe's influence and does not join the EU or NATO. They are also aimed at pressurizing the US and its allies in Europe to prevent any further direct expansion of the EU and NATO into eastern Europe. Russia also wants to have a legal guarantee from the West on the above; one of the outcomes of the Geneva meeting was related to a written American response to the Russian proposal in December 2021 on the above issues.

Second, the US endgame in Ukraine. The US wants to prevent any further Russian expansion in eastern Europe; Washington also does not want Kremlin to regain the influence it had lost in the region after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The US also wants to strengthen the military alliance in Europe and is the primary reason for Blinken's meeting in Berlin with the partners a day before meeting the Russian foreign minister in Geneva. The US also wants to prevent any military engagement in Europe; despite the rhetoric of swift responses, a war in Europe is not in the US interest.

Third, Europe's endgame in Ukraine. Europe's approach towards Ukraine is not monolithic. As a region (Europe), a regional organization (EU) and a military alliance (NATO), the approaches amongst the European countries towards Ukraine and Russia has been nuanced. The eastward expansion of the EU and NATO is not a given. So is the European approach towards Russia; it is also not monolithic. Despite the threats against Moscow, European countries need Russia primarily to address their energy demands. Besides, a section within Europe would want an independent approach outside what the US wants. President Macron's statement last week referred to the Normandy format to have an independent dialogue between Europe and Russia. During his speech at Strasbourg, marking the start of France's six month EU presidency, President Macron was quoted to have stated: "I think that it is good for there to be coordination between Europe and the US but it is vital that Europe has its own dialogue with Russia."

What does it mean?

First, the crisis over Ukraine has been postponed but not resolved. Both Blinken and Lavrov have agreed to continue the diplomatic approach towards Ukraine; if there is a success, they have also agreed to explore another summit-level meeting at the highest level between Biden and Putin. 

Second, the meeting points between the US and Russia. Outside Ukraine, there are a few other issues, including arms control and Nord Stream, where Washington and Moscow have differences. Ukraine is not the only issue in Europe between the US and Russia. 

Third, while the White House would want to maintain the status quo in Europe, Kremlin sees an opportunity and reassert its sphere of influence, especially in Eastern Europe, and prevent any further expansion of the EU and NATO. Fourth, Putin is willing to take risks, whereas Biden wants to avoid them. Putin is engaged in salami slicing. Biden wants to create a larger template. Ukraine explains the asymmetry between the two.

Also, in the news...

By Ashwin Dhanabalan, Angkuran Dey and Meghna Manoj

East and Southeast Asia This Week

China: Civil aviation regulator assures safety with the implementation of 5G telecom services
On 21 January, China's civil aviation regulator assured that the application of 5G deployments near airports would not disrupt flight operations. The regulator's comments came after the US had raised concerns about a possible disruption caused by C band signals interfering with sensitive wireless instruments on certain aircrafts. He further commented that Chinese civil aviation adopted the application of 5G in a combination of safety and non-safety communications different from the 5G phone networks. Furthermore, regarding secure communications, both the aviation 5G and the network 5G used by telecom operators are isolated from each other. 

Taiwan: Taipei acknowledges Czech Republic's resolution
On 19 January, Taiwan's Foreign Affairs Ministry conveyed their gratitude to the Czech Republic's Senate's Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Security for passing a resolution against China's economic harassment. The Czech Republic urged the European Union and the Council of the EU to take necessary actions. The Committees Chairman, Pavel Fischer, highlighted China's financial pressure on Lithuania. Taiwan's MOFA said: "The passing of this resolution once again demonstrates the importance of democracies uniting in solidarity with Lithuania and jointly resisting undue political pressure." Taiwan also called the Czech Republic, a like-minded partner of the country. 

Japan and the US: Tokyo and Washington discuss China's growing military assertiveness 
On 21 January, US President Joe Biden met with the Japanese counterpart Prime Minister Fumio Kishida virtually to discuss China's growing assertiveness in the Pacific. They also discussed the crackdowns on democracy in Hong Kong and the forced labor practices in Xinjiang. Furthermore, Kishida expressed his concerns about China's intentions in the South China Sea as it had stepped up its military presence in the region. In addition, the Senkaku islands or the Diaoyu islands has continued to remain a bone of contention between the two countries. Kishida said: "President Biden and I were able to exchange views frankly…which I believe will lead to further strengthening of the Japan-US alliance."

Tonga: Supply planes land a week after the volcanic eruption
On 20 January, the first foreign aid supply planes landed in Tonga, carrying essential supplies. The military planes from New Zealand could arrive only after the ash was cleared from the runway. Australian supply planes also landed after a few hours. Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton tweeted about it, saying: "…Tonga is a very important member of our Pacific family and we have committed to supporting them however we can." 

Cambodia: PM Hun Sen calls remarks of Malaysian Foreign Minister as arrogant and impolite 
On 21 January, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen explicitly called Malaysia's Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah arrogant and impolite. His comments came after Saifuddin had raised concerns on Hun Sen's visit to Myanmar on 7 January. Saifuddin suggested that the ASEAN chair should have sought inputs from ASEAN members before visiting the country as Hun Sen's visit could be interpreted as a medium to recognize the military regime's legitimacy. Hun Sen defended himself by saying he went to Myanmar "to plant trees, not to cut down trees."

Indonesia: New capital approved by the House 
On 18 January, Indonesia's House of Representatives approved the legal framework for relocating the Indonesian capital to Nusantara, a Javanese word for 'archipelago'. Jakarta has been reeling with over-population pollution and is one of the world's fastest-sinking cities. Planning Minister Suharso Monoarfa, on the approval of the bill, stated: "The new capital has a central function and is a symbol of the identity of the nation, as well as a new centre of economic gravity." The relocation is scheduled between 2022 and 2024, with an approximate cost of USD 30 billion.

Myanmar: TotalEnergies and Chevron to disinvest 
On 21 January, oil companies TotalEnergies and Chevron decided to withdraw from their gas projects in Myanmar, citing the worsening humanitarian situation. The companies were partners in a joint venture that operated the Yadana gas project off Myanmar's southwestern coast. TotalEnergies released a statement saying: "The situation, in terms of human rights and more generally the rule of law, which have kept worsening in Myanmar since the coup of February 2021, has led us to reassess the situation." The announcement was made as Western countries had decided to pull out of Myanmar after the 2021 military coup.

Thailand: State Railway to build connectivity between Nong Khai province and Laos 
On 14 January, Thailand's cabinet ordered the State Railway of Thailand to build connectivity between Nong Khai province and Laos. The connectivity would include a second bridge to help the current railway line connect directly to the China-Laos railway line. The railway line would cross the Mekong River from Nong Khai and facilitate cargo transportation between the three countries. The transnational railway would cut cargo costs between China and Thailand via Laos by about 30-50 per cent. 

South Asia This Week
Afghanistan: The EU reopens its embassy in Kabul
On 21 January, the EU resumed its embassy and limited services in Kabul to emphasize a "minimal presence" for smoother movement of humanitarian aid. The EU Foreign Affairs spokesperson made a statement: "Our minimal presence in Kabul must not in any way be seen as recognition of the Taliban government there." The primary objective is to make it easier for the international European delegation staff to monitor the deteriorating humanitarian crisis.

India: German frigate docks at the Mumbai port 
On 21 January, the German frigate 'Bayern' reached Mumbai port, making it the first German warship to visit the Indian shores since 2012. Before sailing back home, the frigate would be conducting a naval exercise with the Indian Navy. The visit signals the strengthening of maritime relations between the two countries and Germany's role in the Indo-Pacific. Germany's Ambassador Walter J Lindner, who was present at the occasion, stated: "We need free maritime routes, peace in the pacific region is important. All 32 countries should respect international law, it's not a routine visit."    

The Maldives: Indian teachers face the heat of the "India Out" campaigns
On 19 January, reports highlighted the harassment faced by Indian origin teachers in the Maldives due to the intensified "India Out" protests. The Education Ministry of Maldives confirmed two cases of teachers facing harassment on the streets by anti-India groups. However, the Maldivian government reassured India, saying: "India has always been the Maldives' closest ally and trusted neighbour, extending constant and consistent support to the people of Maldives on all fronts." The government also said it would take decisive action against spreading false information regarding India out protests on social media. 

Pakistan: Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks to President Putin  
On 17 January, Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telephonic conversation. They discussed bilateral cooperation regional and international issues. Khan appreciated Putin's emphatic statement on how freedom of speech could not be used to abuse the Prophet. The two leaders also discussed the situation in Afghanistan and the need for the country to be peaceful and stable for regional stability. Khan even mentioned how: "He (Putin) is the first Western leader to show empathy & sensitivity to Muslim sentiment for their beloved Prophet."

Sri Lanka: New Delhi and Colombo extend S&T cooperation
On 21 January, Sri Lanka and India decided to extend their cooperation on science and technology (S&T) for another three years. India's Department of Science and Technology Advisor and Head SK. Varshney said the two countries shared a relationship based on collective culture, religion, and interaction for over 2,500 years. However, with the advancement of other sectors, science and technology areas are the next area of critical cooperation between the countries. The platform is said to create opportunities for discussions and collaborations on S&T. Sri Lankan Secretary of Ministry of Skills Development Vocational Education Research & Innovations Deepa Liyanage welcomed the cooperation with India and mentioned how the partnership would boost scientific knowledge in the country.

Central Asia, Middle East, and Africa This Week
UAE: UNSC council condemns terrorist attacks on Abu Dhabi
On 21 January, the UAE envoy to the UNSC appreciated the Council's condemnation of the terrorist attacks on Abu Dhabi. In addition, the Council held the Houthi militia in Yemen accountable for its crimes and called for measures to prevent future attacks by the militia. The 15 council members released a joint statement saying: "The members of the Security Council condemn in the strongest terms the heinous terrorist attacks in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Monday, 17 January, as well as in other sites in Saudi Arabia." The Council discussed the attacks under "Threats to International Peace and Security". They also stressed the need to hold "perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of these reprehensible acts of terrorism accountable". 

Sudan: The US to halt financial assistance
On 20 January, the US embassy in Khartoum released a statement saying Washington would not resume its economic assistance to Sudan. It also informed the military government that the aid would only continue after a civilian government is restored and violence ends. The US has halted its USD 700 million emergency assistance since the military took over the country in October 2021. 

Mali: Former President Keïta dies at 76
On 16 January, the former President of Mali Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta passed away in Bamako. He died less than 18 months after being deposed in a coup. The military government of Mali held a state funeral for the leader, as thousands of his supporters gathered at his residence to pay their last respects. Former Minister Amadou Koita, who had held ministerial positions under Keïta, spoke about his generosity and his role in passing the law on gender and giving administerial berths to women.    

Europe and the Americas This Week
Europe: European Parliament adopts resolution on Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, and Sudan
On 20 January, the European Parliament adopted resolutions on violation of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, and Sudan. The Parliament condemned the deteriorating fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong as the government had imposed severe restrictions on various facets of human rights. The Parliament also denounced the political situation in Kazakhstan as the protests saw widespread violence in the region. The Parliament has urged the Kazakh government to respect human rights and release protestors and activists. The Parliament also condemned the political crisis in Sudan that resulted in the deaths of many Sudanese demonstrators by the country's security services and armed groups. 

Austria: First vaccine mandate passed in the EU 
On 20 January, Austria became the first EU country to legislate a vaccine mandate. On 01 February, the mandate will come into effect, requiring all adults to be inoculated against COVID-19. Austrian Citizens who deny the vaccinations will be fined up to EUR 3,600 from mid-March. Chancellor Karl Nehammer commented on the mandate: "Vaccination is an opportunity for our society to achieve lasting and continuous freedom because the virus cannot restrict us any further." Individuals with severe health conditions and pregnant women will be exempted from the mandate. The mandate comes when 72 per cent of Austrians have already been fully vaccinated, and the country seeks to reduce hospitalizations. 

France: Parliament condemns Uighur genocide
On 20 January, the French Parliament condemned the genocide executed against Uighurs in the Xinjiang region, an ethnic minority in Han-dominated China. A non-binding motion with 169 votes for and one vote against received support from the Socialist Party and other opposition parties. The motion advised the government to protect all Uighur citizens staying in France from any form of the Chinese threat. In a statement on their website, The Chinese embassy stated: "The sensationalist allegations concerning Xinjiang such as 'genocide' are pure lies based on prejudices and hostility towards China." Beijing has constantly denied any human rights abuses in Xinjiang and claimed only the presence of vocational camps to fight extremism.

France: Macron suggests Normandy format talks to deal with the Ukraine crisis
On 19 January, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that the EU open its talks with Russia rather than relying on the US. Macron currently holds the Presidency of the EU and hopes to revitalize the four-way talks through the Normandy format between Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine. Macron said: "I think our credibility vis-a-vis Russia lies primarily in entering into demanding dialogue." 

Germany: Chancellor Olaf Scholz at Davos 
On 19 January, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz raised his concerns regarding the territorial integrity of Ukraine at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He stated how Russia should not be allowed to change national borders by force and also mentioned: "After years of growing tensions, silence is not a reasonable option." Scholz talked about the possible escalation and emphasized cooperation than military confrontation. He also discussed global vaccinations and stated how: "we will soon run out of letters in the Greek alphabet to name new virus variants."

Russia: Iran's President Raisi meets President Putin in Moscow 
On 19 January, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi met the Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin for the first time since 2017. During the three-hour-long meeting, significant regional and international issues were discussed. One of the prominent points addressed in the meeting was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), wherein Putin stated to Raisi: "it is very important for me to know your opinion on the JCPOA." Putin also expressed his desire for Iran to play a more significant role in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and create a free-trade zone. In addition, Raisi mentioned their "shared experience" in Syria regarding their support for the Bashar Al-Assad regime. And Raisi also expressed how they could extend it towards "combating terrorism" in Afghanistan and the Caucasus. 

Serbia: Belgrade cancels lithium mining plans 
On 20 January, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić announced the cancellation of the Rio Tinto lithium mine plans after weeks of protests. The move was also influenced by the souring diplomatic ties between Belgrade and Canberra over the deportation of tennis player Novak Djokovic from Australia. The protestors had taken to the streets as they were concerned about the environmental ramifications of the mine in the lithium-rich western Serbian region. The country had witnessed weeks of protests against the government and the Anglo-Australian company. Rio Tinto has warned of legal consequences as they review the legal basis of this decision. 

The UK: Lawmakers challenge Boris Johnson to resign over lockdown parties 
On 19 January, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson received challenges to resign from lawmakers over allegations regarding the lockdown parties. He won the office with a massive majority in 2019, but his recent scandals and accusations led to questioning his authority. Johnson tried to defend his case by citing various reasons, but the opponents have called for him to resign. The 54 Members of the Parliament will have to submit a no-confidence vote to the Chairman of the party's committee to bring about a challenge to leadership. It is speculated that about 20 conservative lawmakers have planned to submit a no-confidence vote, among others. 

Peru: Climate emergency declared in the backdrop of an oil spill
On 20 January, Lima declared an environmental emergency as several beaches on the Pacific coast were contaminated due to an oil spill. The spill was caused by an Italian flagged ship suspected of having spilled nearly 6000 barrels of oil into the waters. The ship was in the process of emptying the oil into the refinery when strong waves struck the Peruvian coast as an after-effect of the volcanic eruption in Tonga. Peru President Pedro Castillo declared the formation of a committee to look into the environmental crisis and suggest possible solutions. Prime Minister Mirtha Vásquez claimed that the United Nations would send its team of experts to provide the country with further help. 

The US: Supreme Court allows the release of records on 6 January 2021 Capitol riots
On 19 January, the Supreme Court rejected former President Donald Trump's request to block the White House records from being sent to a House select committee. The committee was investigating the 6 January 2021 Capitol riots. Democrats and Republicans on the House committee reacted by saying: "The Supreme Court's action tonight is a victory for the rule of law and American democracy." In 2020 Trump appealed to use the federal court's assistance to block the panel from accessing the documents by invoking executive privilege to prevent disclosure of the records. Trump appealed for the same in his Supreme Court application, but incumbent President Joe Biden declined his request. 

About the Authors
D Suba Chandran is a Professor and Dean at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Ashwin Dhanabalan is a Research Assistant at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Angkuran Dey and Meghna Manoj are postgraduate scholars at the Center for South Asian Studies at Pondicherry University.

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