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Analysis: Putin’s Ukraine gambit seen as part of play for new Biden summit

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November 24, 2021

By Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin’s re-positioning of tens of thousands of troops closer to Ukraine is part of a Russian push to land another summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, say two people close to official Russian foreign policy circles.

The other big aim is to signal to the West that it should stop helping Ukraine upgrade its military and that Kyiv should avoid escalating a grinding conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, the two people said.

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U.S., NATO and Ukrainian officials have raised the alarm in recent weeks over what they say are unusual Russian troop movements closer to Ukraine, suggesting that Moscow may be poised to launch a new attack on its neighbour, accusations Russia has rejected as fear-mongering.

Russia’s intentions remain unclear, and East-West tensions are running high with Ukraine, Russia and NATO all conducting military drills and Moscow accusing Washington of rehearsing a nuclear attack on Russia earlier this month.

While Putin’s Ukraine gambit has multiple goals and an attack on Ukraine cannot be ruled out, one of Moscow’s priorities is to get Biden’s attention so that he will agree to another summit at which he and Putin can discuss Russian concerns over Ukraine, said the two people.

“Putin needs another summit meeting with Biden,” said Andrey Kortunov, head of RIAC, a foreign policy think-tank in Moscow close to the Foreign Ministry.

“Apparently he now believes that the Europeans cannot really do much without the Americans and that the U.S. President has the final decision on European security measures on behalf of the Western alliance.”

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Putin has said he is worried about U.S. and NATO military aid to Ukraine and is fed up with what he says is the Western military alliance’s expansion eastwards.

He has also made clear he wants the West to ensure that Kyiv does not escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian government forces since 2014. Major fighting there ended with a ceasefire in 2015, freezing in place a front where deadly clashes persist.

Kyiv wants the territory back, but says it is focused on its own defence and is not planning to launch an offensive. It accuses Moscow of plotting new aggression.

The Kremlin has said behind-the-scenes talks are under way with the White House over a possible Putin-Biden meeting, and Russia’s Kommersant newspaper reported this month that such a meeting could take place in early 2022.

“There is an understanding that a meeting is needed, that communication between the two presidents should be continued,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said.

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‘NEW CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS’

White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said this week she had no information on any plans for such a summit, but that Washington has been discussing Ukraine with Russian officials.

“We continue to have serious concerns about Russian military activities and harsh rhetoric toward Ukraine. We call on Moscow to deescalate tensions.”

Putin already got the attention of Biden’s White House once this year by massing troops closer to Ukraine. In April, Russia re-positioned its forces in a similar way in what it would later say was a military exercise but which at the time raised fears of a Russian attack on Ukraine. A month, later the White House announced Biden would hold a summit with Putin in Geneva.

“Obviously, since April Moscow has discovered that a new Cuban Missile Crisis over Ukraine could be very effective in getting Biden’s attention and inflaming his desire for a personal engagement with Putin,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat in the United States who is now a foreign policy analyst.

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“Of course, Moscow uses this as political leverage over the U.S., since the last thing Biden needs at this point is another ‘war in Ukraine’ crisis to distract him from China.”

In a speech last week, Putin said Moscow had no appetite for war, but suggested that Russia’s posture in eastern Europe was paying some dividends and making its adversaries take heed.

“Our recent warnings have had a certain effect: tensions have arisen there anyway,” Putin said. “It is important for them to remain in this state for as long as possible, so it does not occur to them to stage some kind of conflict on our western borders… we do not need a new conflict.”

The Kremlin leader then ordered Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to push for serious long-term guarantees from the West that he said could ensure Russia’s security.

For years, Moscow’s red line was preventing Ukraine from achieving its ambition to join the NATO alliance, still widely seen as a long way off. But Frolov said other forms of Western support for Kyiv meant Moscow now has new concerns.

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U.S. supplies of anti-tank missiles and ammunition, British help for Ukraine’s Navy, and Turkish sales of strike drones to Ukraine have all irked the Kremlin.

“Russia’s red lines have shifted: it is no longer Ukraine in NATO that is a red line, but NATO in Ukraine that is a new red line,” Frolov said.

Kortunov said Russia wanted a new European security architecture where no decisions that might affect Russia’s security would be taken without it.

(Editing by Peter Graff)

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Three missionaries released in Haiti following October kidnapping

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December 7, 2021

By Katharine Jackson

(Reuters) – Three missionaries who were kidnapped in Haiti in October have been released, the U.S. State Department and the Ohio-based missionary group that organized the group’s trip to the Caribbean nation said on Monday.

“We are thankful to God that three more hostages were released last night. Those who were released are safe and seem to be in good spirits,” Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries said in a statement.

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U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday confirmed the release, adding that the United States is continuing to work to secure the release of the others.

Haitian National Police spokesman Garry Desrosiers said the three were released on Sunday night. He declined to give additional details, citing the security of the remaining hostages.

Sixteen Americans and one Canadian, including five children, were abducted after visiting an orphanage. The incident has highlighted Haiti’s dire kidnapping problem, which has worsened in recent months amid economic troubles and political upheaval.

Two other ministry group members were released last month.

(Reporting by Katharine Jackson in Washington; Additional reporting by Gessika Thomas in Port-au-Prince; Editing by Susan Heavey and Matthew Lewis)

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Dutch court to rule on Palestinian’s case against Israeli defence minister

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December 7, 2021

By Stephanie van den Berg

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – An appeals court in the Netherlands rules on Tuesday in a case alleging war crimes against Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who is blamed by a Dutch Palestinian for the loss of six relatives in an Israeli air strike on Gaza in 2014.

Ismail Ziada filed the civil case against Gantz and another former senior Israeli military official, seeking unspecified damages under Dutch universal jurisdiction rules. His case was thrown out by a lower Dutch court in January 2020.

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Universal jurisdiction allows countries to prosecute serious offences such as war crimes and torture no matter where they were committed.

But the lower court ruled that the principles of universal jurisdiction could be applied for individual criminal responsibility, but not in civil cases.

Ziada appealed, arguing that universal jurisdiction should be applied in civil cases if the alleged conduct involved serious violations of international humanitarian law. He asked the appeals judges to reverse the decision, which effectively granted Gantz immunity from prosecution.

Gantz, a career soldier turned politician, was commander-in-chief of the Israeli armed forces during a war against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip in 2014, when the incident took place.

About 2,200 Palestinians are estimated to have been killed, up to 1,500 of them civilians, in the conflict, according to U.N. figures. Ziada said he lost relatives when his family home in Gaza was bombed during a June 2014 Israeli air strike. On the Israeli side, 67 soldiers and five civilians were killed.

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Gaza is controlled by the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement, regarded by the West as a terrorist organization. Israel says Hamas puts civilians in harm’s way by deploying fighters and weaponry inside densely populated areas of Gaza. 

    Human rights groups have accused both sides of war crimes in the 2014 conflict. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is currently investigating alleged war crimes committed on Palestinian territory since June 2014 by both Israeli defence forces and Palestinian armed groups.

(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg in The Hague with additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Mark Heinrich)

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Global finance system partly to blame for inequality – World Bank’s Malpass

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December 7, 2021

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – World Bank President David Malpass on Monday said fiscal and monetary policies were operating in “uncharted territory” since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and may be contributing to a sharp rise in global inequality and poverty.

Malpass told a roundtable hosted by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang the number of people in extreme poverty had increased by over 100 million since the beginning of the pandemic even as global spending has increased to an all-time record.

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Advanced economies have rebounded, while the poorest countries had seen only a weak rebound, or none at all, he said. This was causing “tragic reversals” in median incomes, women’s empowerment and nutrition, he said, and inflation, supply chain bottlenecks, and high energy prices were aggravating these trends.

“Part of the inequality problem is global finance itself and the unequal structure of the stimulus,” Malpass said, noting that prevailing sovereign debt, fiscal and monetary policies were adding to inequality.

Malpass said monetary policy in the advanced economies had long focused on reserve requirement ratios and limited growth in bank reserves to achieve stability in currencies and prices, an approach still used by China.

Other major central banks had switched to a “post-monetarism system” of using very large amounts of excess bank reserves to purchase and hold long-duration bonds and other assets, which he said provided price support for a highly select group of assets.

That approach, he said, excluded small businesses and developing countries, while restraining policy through regulation of liquidity and bank capitalization ratios.

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Fiscal policy was also channeling resources to narrow groups within major borrowers, while leaving others behind, and sovereign debt policies were contributing to inequality.

Malpass repeated his call for greater transparency in debt contracts and a freeze in debt payments for countries with unsustainable debt. He said creditors should move away from collateral and escrow arrangements.

“As one of the largest creditors of developing countries, China’s active participation and strong voice in debt reduction efforts are very much needed and would benefit all participants by encouraging sustainable investment and debt,” he said.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by David Gregorio)

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