Putin Threatens US with New Weapons if Missiles Deployed to Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin says Moscow plans to target the United States with new hypersonic weapons if Washington deploys intermediate-range missiles in Europe.

 

“Russia will be forced to create and deploy weapons that can both be used on the territories from which the direct threat to us originates, as well as the territories where the centers of decision-making are located,” Putin said during his 15th State of the Nation address before the federal assembly in Moscow on Wednesday.

Putin’s frequent references to the moribund 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty came amid record-low approval ratings for the fourth-term Russian leader.

 

Putin rejected U.S. assertions that Washington’s decision to withdraw from the landmark arms control pact was triggered by Russian violations of the agreement. He charged that the U.S. made false accusations against Russia to justify its decision to opt out of the deal.

 

“The U.S. directly and crudely violated the rules of the [INF] agreement; they have had launchers in Romania for a long time,” he said, repeating a well-worn Kremlin talking point that refers to a Romania-based U.S. anti-ballistic missile system capable of firing Tomahawk medium-range cruise missiles.

 

The United States has long said that system is designed to defend against “rogue” states such as Iran and provides no protection against Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

 

“Russia doesn’t intend to deploy new missiles in Europe first,” Putin added. “If the U.S. really is going to deploy missiles on the European continent, it will exacerbate the international situation and create a genuine danger for Russia, as there will be missiles with a 10-12 minute flight time to Moscow.”

 

He then seemed to taunt the U.S., calling on leaders to calculate the range and speed of Russia’s most advanced weapons.

 

“It’s their right to think how they want,” he said about U.S. leaders. “But can they count? I’m sure they can. Let them count the speed and the range of the weapons systems we are developing.

“The tests of Poseidon, an unmanned submarine with unlimited range, are going well… This hasn’t previously been said, but today I can say that by the spring of this year, the first atomic submarine will have been launched into the water.

 

“We are ready for disarmament talks, but we are no longer going to knock on a closed door,” he later said.

 

Russia began voicing skepticism about the value of a sustained bilateral arms treaty more than 10 years ago, when Kremlin officials asked the administration of then-President George W. Bush to consider expanding the treaty to bring rising nuclear powers such as China into compliance.

 

The majority of China’s nuclear arsenal is classified as intermediate range, meaning Chinese compliance with the INF would be tantamount to a wholesale forfeiture of its arsenal.

 

In December, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced U.S. plans to withdraw from the INF, he gave Russia 60 days to come back into compliance with the terms of the nuclear weapons pact, leaving the door open to reverse the withdrawal process.

 

“Russia has not taken the necessary steps to return to compliance over the last 60 days,” Pompeo said in a prepared statement on February 1. “It remains in material breach of its obligations not to produce, possess, or flight-test a ground-launched, intermediate-range cruise missile system with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

 

“The United States has gone to tremendous lengths to preserve the INF Treaty, engaging with Russian officials more than 30 times in nearly six years to discuss Russia’s violation, including at the highest levels of government,” he added.

According to terms of the original INF agreement, Moscow and Washington are obligated to six months of negotiations over differences, which, if unresolved, constitute full withdrawal from the treaty.

 

If the U.S. puts additional weapons in European host countries, Putin warned that Russia would not only target those nations, but field new weapons that will target “U.S. decision-making centers.”

 

Some information for this report is from AP and Reuters.

 

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US Investor Detained in Russia May Be Denied Consular Access

Michael Calvey, an American businessman who was detained in Moscow five days ago on fraud charges, has not yet had consular access, according to the head of a US-Russian trade organization.

“I’ve spoken to [Calvey’s] colleagues, but not him, since the detention,” said U.S. national Alexis O. Rodzianko, president of the Moscow-based American Chamber of Commerce in Russia. Calvey is the founding partner of the Moscow-based private equity firm Baring Vostok.

Speaking with VOA Tuesday evening in a Moscow hotel, Rodzianko, who had just left discussions about Calvey’s detention with various Russian, American and European members of Moscow’s financial community, said: “I understand [Calvey] has met with his lawyers; I understand that he has not yet had consular contact — that’s as of lunchtime today.”

According to terms of the Vienna Convention, consular access must be provided within a 72-hour window from the time of arrest, meaning that a member of the U.S. government should have visited Calvey in detention by now.

A State Department spokesman declined to confirm Rodzianko’s assertion, citing privacy concerns, but seemed to indicate that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow is still seeking access to the businessman.

“We are aware that a U.S. citizen was arrested on February 14, 2019, in Russia,” said the spokesperson, who spoke on condition of not being identified. “The U.S. Embassy in Moscow is aware of the case and will be following it closely, and will provide all appropriate consular assistance. We have no higher priority than the protection of U.S. citizens abroad.”

Calvey is the second American citizen to face prosecution in Russia since Dec. 31, when Paul Whelan, a former Marine, was jailed on accusations of spying. Russia announced Whelan’s detention on Dec. 31, some 24 hours after his arrest.

Whelan’s family sharply criticized Russia’s handling of the announcement, noting that security officials divulged his arrest hours into the start of New Year’s Eve, which in Russia marks the start of a week-long national holiday. Delaying the announcement, they said, drastically decreased Whelan’s chances of securing access to legal and consular resources within the mandated 72-hour window.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. was finally permitted to meet with Whelan six days after his arrest.

Fraud charges

Calvey is facing fraud charges stemming from a protracted dispute with shareholders of Vostochny Bank, of which Baring Vostok owns 52.5 percent. He was detained along with five others, including three Baring Vostok employees, according to the Russian state news agency, RIA Novosty.

A coalition of lobby groups representing European businesses active in Russia has issued a joint statement expressing concerns about the arrest of Calvey and his colleagues.

“The detention of Baring Vostok’s top management has sent shock waves through the country’s business community and can potentially seriously damage the investment climate and attractiveness of Russia for foreign direct investments,” it said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to make a passing reference to Calvey’s case during his annual State of the Nation address to the federal assembly on Wednesday.

“Good-faith business shouldn’t feel threatened by the law or constantly feel the risk of criminal or even administrative punishment,” Putin said.

If convicted, Calvey faces up to 10 years in a Moscow prison.

Pete Cobus is VOA’s acting Moscow correspondent.

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Meghan Markle Spotted in NYC for Rumored Baby Shower

Meghan Markle has been spotted at several swanky venues in New York City, cradling her baby bump as she visited friends for what is rumored to be a baby shower. .

Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, was seen Tuesday entering The Mark hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, at a restaurant on the ground floor of The Met Breuer and at The Surrey Hotel.

The Duchess, who’s 37, wore sunglasses, a dark gray coat and neutral high heels with a matching bag.

As photographers waited outside the Mark, a high-end boxed crib and pink flowers were delivered.

Abigail Spencer, a co-star on Markle’s former TV show “Suits,” was spotted at one of the Markle gatherings.

Markle and her husband Prince Harry announced the pregnancy in October.

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Environmentalists Seek Tougher EU Curbs on Balkan Coal Power Plants

Environmentalists urged EU policymakers on Tuesday to take a tougher stance on air pollution from coal power plants in the Western Balkans, blaming the fumes for 3,900 deaths across Europe each year.

The 16 Communist-era plants with 8 gigawatts (GW) capacity emitted the same amount of sulphur dioxide in 2016 as 250 coal-fired plants with 30 times more capacity in the rest of the European Union, five environmentalist groups said in a report.

Lignite, the most polluting coal, is widely available in the region, providing a cheap energy resource and the major source of energy for Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro.

The countries are members of the Energy Community, which had a commitment to implement EU rules to curb pollution by 2018.

But investments in new power plants or technology to cut emissions have largely been delayed, the report said.

“Air pollution knows no borders and is still an invisible killer in Europe,” said Vlatka Matkovic Puljic, senior health and energy officer at HEAL and the report’s lead author.

“It is high time that EU policymakers step up efforts to clean up the air and decarbonize the power sector,” she said.

The report said the West Balkan power plants caused pollution across the EU and beyond that caused health care costs of up to 11.5 billion euros ($13.02 billion) a year.

The region plans to add 2.7 GW of new coal plant capacity in the next decade, mainly financed by Chinese banks, the report said, adding that most plants would not meet the EU’s pollution control rules.

Governments in the region say they need to expand coal power generation to meet rising demand and ensure energy security and say that new coal plants would emit less greenhouse gases.

The report called for stricter rules to be imposed on the Energy Community and said the European Commission should make meeting those regulations a requirement for joining the EU.

For now, the countries in the Energy Community do not face any penalties if targets are not met.

“Rather than investing in yet more outdated coal power plants, Western Balkan leaders need to … increase the share of sustainable forms of renewable energy,” said Ioana Ciuta, Energy Coordinator at CEE Bankwatch, one of the five groups behind the report.

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Juncker: Hungary’s Ruling Party Doesn’t Belong in Europe’s Center-right

The party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban should leave the mainstream European center-right grouping, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said, comparing Orban to French far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

The unusually sharp comments, made at a public meeting in Stuttgart, Germany, came after the Hungarian government unveiled a new poster campaign accusing Juncker and philanthropist George Soros of wanting to flood Hungary with migrants.

“Against lies there’s not much you can do,” Juncker replied, adding that Manfred Weber, the European Peoples Party’s lead candidate for the upcoming European elections, would certainly be asking himself “if I need this voice” in the EPP.

Calls have been growing for Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party to be expelled from the EPP, which groups Christian Democratic and center-right parties in the European Parliament, because of Fidesz’s stridently anti-immigration campaigns.

Fidesz’s domestic strength, however, means it has a large delegation in the European legislature, and its removal from the EPP umbrella could erode the center-right’s current dominance of the Strasbourg parliament.

Juncker, previously the longtime center-right prime minister of Luxembourg, said he had called for Fidesz’s exclusion from the EPP.

“They didn’t vote for me in the European Parliament,” he said. “The far right didn’t either. I remember Ms. Le Pen, she said ‘I’m not voting for you.’ I said: ‘I don’t want your vote.’ There are certain votes you just don’t want.”

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Thousands Decry Anti-Semitism in France After Spike in Attacks

Thousands of people rallied across France after a surge of anti-Semitic attacks in recent weeks that culminated on Tuesday with vandals daubing swastikas and anti-Jewish slogans on dozens of graves in a Jewish cemetery.

Political leaders from all parties, including former Presidents Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, gathered in Paris filling the Place de la Republique, a symbol of the nation, to decry anti-Semitic acts with one common slogan: “Enough!” People also lined the streets of cities from Lille in the north to Toulouse and Marseille in the south.

President Emmanuel Macron paid respects at one of the 96 desecrated graves in the village of Quatzenheim, near the eastern city of Strasbourg.

“Whoever did this is not worthy of the French republic and will be punished… We’ll take action, we’ll apply the law and we’ll punish them,” he said, walking through a gate scarred with a swastika as he entered the graveyard.

Macron later visited the national Holocaust memorial in Paris with the heads of the Senate and National Assembly.

France is home to the biggest Jewish community in Europe – around 550,000 – a population that has grown by about half since World War II, but anti-Semitic attacks remain common.

Government statistics released last week showed there were more than 500 anti-Semitic attacks in the country last year, a 74 percent increase from 2017.

“Some people are provoking the authority of the state. It needs to be dealt with now and extremely firmly,” Sarkozy told reporters. “It’s a real question of authority. Violence is spreading and it needs to stop now.”

Among incidents in recent days, “yellow vest” protesters were filmed hurling abuse on Saturday at Alain Finkielkraut, a well-known Jewish writer and son of a Holocaust survivor.

Artwork on two Paris post boxes showing the image of Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and former magistrate, was defaced with swastikas, while a bagel shop was sprayed with the word “Juden”, German for Jews, in yellow letters. A tree in a Paris suburb in memory of Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 2006, was cut in two.

The series of attacks has alarmed politicians and prompted calls for action against what some commentators describe as a new form of anti-Semitism among the far-left and Islamist preachers.

“I call on all French and European leaders to take a strong stand against anti-Semitism,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video message recorded in Hebrew. “It is an epidemic that endangers everyone, not just us.”

A rabbi and three children were killed at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 by an Islamist gunman, and in 2015 four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris were among 17 people killed by Islamist militants.

 

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Pressure Grows on Europe to Back Venezuelan Opposition Leader

Pressure is growing on the European Union to formally back Venezuela’s opposition, after three EU lawmakers were refused entry into the country Sunday.

The Venezuelan government accused them of having “conspiratorial aims,” and forced them back on a plane to Madrid. The three had been invited by Venezuelan members of parliament to visit the country.

“[It was] very unpleasant and a pure demonstration that Venezuela is a country held hostage by a power that is almost like North Korea,” Esteban Gonzalez Pons, a senior member of the European Parliament, told reporters on his arrival in Madrid Monday.

The diplomatic snub has triggered calls for Brussels to take a stronger stand against the government of disputed President Nicholas Maduro. The United States and many allies have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, after accusations of vote rigging in last year’s election.

The EU lawmakers have demanded that the bloc now abandon the International Contact Group or ICG, an EU initiative among European states and four Latin American countries, that is seeking a political way forward in Venezuela. The group met in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, earlier this month.

Europe’s foreign policy chief rejected pulling out of the ICG Monday.

“On the contrary, all member states have reaffirmed how crucial it is to have this instrument, which is currently probably the only one that we can use, to be at the same time in contact with relevant stakeholders and clear on the objective, which is a democratic, peaceful, and early election outcome for the crisis,” Federica Mogherini said in a press conference.

At the Munich Security Conference Saturday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said the European Union must recognize the American-backed interim president.

The Netherlands was among the EU member states that followed Washington’s lead. Foreign Minister Stef Blok spoke to VOA following Pence’s speech.

“Twenty-two European countries did recognize Guaido as the interim president. And of course I would have preferred to see the European Union united,” Blok said.

The EU, however, is divided. Spain, which retains the closest links to its former colony, rejected Washington’s demands.

“Mr. Pence can’t ask us to not accept the constitutional law of Venezuela,” Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell, said at the Munich conference.

Borrell’s French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drain, is insisting on new elections.

“The only way out of the political crisis in Venezuela is a presidential election with democratic guarantees,” Le Drian said.

The Dutch government has agreed that its overseas territory of Curacao, an island off Venezuela, can be used as an aid hub.

“In order to get the aid toward Venezuela, we will need the consent of the Venezuelan authorities,” Blok told VOA.

As the diplomatic debate intensifies over how to end Venezuela’s political crisis, hundreds of tons of foreign aid remain stranded on the country’s borders — and the Venezuelan people continue to suffer.

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Seven British MPs Quit Labor Party Over Brexit, Anti-Semitism

Seven British lawmakers have quit the main opposition Labor Party over the leadership’s approach to Brexit and anti-Semitism allegations in the ranks.  

The seven moderate members of parliament say they will form an independent group. Their defection is the biggest split in the Labor Party since four senior members quit in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party.  

The group told reporters in London’s County Hall Monday that the Labor Party has changed since leader Jeremy Corbyn came to power in 2015 and said the party no longer tolerates center-left views.

 “The bottom line is this — politics is broken. It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s change it,” said Chuka Umunna, one of the lawmakers.  

Chris Leslie, another defector, said: “Marxism is now masquerading as the Labor Party. It has the Labor brand, but it is a machine that has taken over.”  

In a direct challenge to Corbyn, the seven centrist parliament members say they are courting other lawmakers to join their group.  

One of the group’s chief complaints is that the Labor Party has been complicit in facilitating Brexit. Corbyn has come under fire by some party members for not doing enough to oppose Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for leaving the EU and for not pushing hard enough for a second referendum.  

The Labor Party has been divided by the Brexit vote, with many traditional voters, particularly in northern England, having chosen to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum, while a majority of Labor MPs had supported staying in.

 Brexit has also divided the country’s Conservative Party into pro-Brexit and pro-EU wings. Britain’s departure from the EU — the terms of which are still up in the air — is set for March 29.

The seven lawmakers also accused Corbyn Monday of failing to tackle anti-Semitism in the party, a charge that has previously been leveled at the Labor leader.

A longtime supporter of Palestinian rights and a critic of the Israeli government, Corbyn denies the allegations, saying he is stamping out anti-Semitism in the party.

Luciana Berger, one of the seven MPs who defected, said Labor has become “institutionally anti-Semitic.” Berger, who is Jewish, said in leaving the Labor Party, “I am leaving behind a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation.”

Corbyn said he was “disappointed that these MPs have felt unable to continue to work together for the Labor policies that inspired millions at the last election and saw us increase our vote by the largest share since 1945.”

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Ukraine Pitches for More EU Aid for Southeast as Elections Near

Ukraine’s foreign minister asked the European Union on Monday for hundreds of millions of euros in loans and aid for infrastructure and businesses in its troubled east and south, regions he said Russia was trying to “suffocate.”

EU foreign ministers were discussing increasing support for Ukraine, which holds a presidential election next month in tough conditions. Russia annexed its Crimea peninsula in 2014 and backs armed separatists in its eastern industrial Donbas region.

The EU is also moving to put more Russians under sanctions over Moscow’s standoff with Kiev in the Azov Sea, to the southeast of Ukraine.

“We need targeted… support for the Ukrainian south, to work with us on infrastructure… Further Russian attempts to destabilize Ukraine’s south would be very detrimental for European security,” Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told reporters in Brussels.

“[There is] an attempt to suffocate the whole Ukrainian Donbas… We need infrastructure, it’s about roads and railways. And to support people… help them to launch new small and medium businesses because we need to fundamentally reshuffle the whole economic model there,” he added.

President Petro Poroshenko, elected amid high hopes for change in Ukraine after street protests ousted his pro-Russian predecessor in 2014, is in an uphill battle for re-election after his popularity plunged over graft and sliding living standards.

Klimkin accused Russia of turning the Donbas region – which remains outside the control of the Kiev government – into a “big [money] laundering machine”. He also said Kiev could “under no circumstances” allow Russians to be part of an OSCE election monitoring mission.

The EU’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, who chaired Monday’s ministerial meeting, stressed the bloc’s “unwavering support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty” but also urged Kiev to press on with economic and political reforms.

Despite Western pressure, Moscow has vowed never to return Crimea to Ukraine. A peace plan for eastern Ukraine, sponsored by Germany and France, has helped put an end to heavy fighting there but has since largely stalled.

Relations between the EU and Russia plunged to fresh lows last year over the poisoning of a former Russian double agent in Britain. But the EU is divided over how hard to punish Moscow – or how far to support Kiev – as some would prefer to prioritize business ties with Russia.

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‘Digital Gangsters’: UK Wants Tougher Rules for Facebook

British lawmakers issued a scathing report Monday that calls for tougher rules on Facebook to keep it from acting like “digital gangsters” and intentionally violating data privacy and competition laws.

The report on fake news and disinformation on social media sites followed an 18-month investigation by Parliament’s influential media committee. The committee recommended that social media sites should have to follow a mandatory code of ethics overseen by an independent regulator to better control harmful or illegal content.

 

The report called out Facebook in particular, saying that the site’s structure seems to be designed to “conceal knowledge of and responsibility for specific decisions.”

 

“It is evident that Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws,” the report states. It also accuses CEO Mark Zuckerberg of showing contempt for the U.K. Parliament by declining numerous invitations to appear before the committee.

“Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like ‘digital gangsters’ in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law,” the report added.

 

U.K. parliamentary committee reports are intended to influence government policy, but are not binding. The committee said it hopes its conclusions will be considered when the government reviews its competition powers in April.

 

And while the U.K. is part of the 28-country European Union, it is due to leave the bloc in late March, so it is unclear whether any regulatory decisions it takes could influence those of the EU.

 

Facebook said it shared “the committee’s concerns about false news and election integrity” and was open to “meaningful regulation.”

 

“While we still have more to do, we are not the same company we were a year ago,” said Facebook’s U.K. public policy manager, Karim Palant.

 

“We have tripled the size of the team working to detect and protect users from bad content to 30,000 people and invested heavily in machine learning, artificial intelligence and computer vision technology to help prevent this type of abuse.”

 

Facebook and other internet companies have been facing increased scrutiny over how they handle user data and have come under fire for not doing enough to stop misuse of their platforms by groups trying to sway elections.

 

The report echoes and expands upon an interim report with similar findings issued by the committee in July . And in December , a trove of documents released by the committee offered evidence that the social network had used its enormous trove of user data as a competitive weapon, often in ways designed to keep its users in the dark.

Facebook faced its biggest privacy scandal last year when Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct British political data-mining firm that worked for the 2016 Donald Trump campaign, accessed the private information of up to 87 million users.

 

 

 

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