Author: Fworld

Blinken to VOA: Russia Has a Clear Choice to Make

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke in Kyiv Wednesday with VOA’s Eastern Europe bureau chief Myroslava Gongadze about his talks with Ukrainian leaders and the prospects for heading off a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. The following is a transcript of that interview. It has been edited for clarity.  Watch the video here.

 

QUESTION: “Good afternoon. Today we are in Ukraine. It’s been invaded and threatened by Russia. Putin is demanding the West to leave Ukraine for its Russian sphere of influence. Today, we have a chance to talk about the crisis with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Thank you. Thank you for this opportunity and for your time…”   

   

U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: “It’s good to be with you.”   

   

Q: So, your administration said that Russia can invade at any moment. What is your administration ready to do to defer Russian aggression? And what would be the three major steps you’re ready to do if Russia will invade tomorrow?”   

   

BLINKEN: “Well, first, we’ve, we’ve offered Russia a clear choice, a choice between pursuing dialogue and diplomacy on the one hand, or confrontation and consequences on the other hand. And we’ve just been engaged in an intensive series of diplomatic engagements with Russia, directly between us through the strategic stability dialogue at NATO, with the NATO Russia Council at the OSCE, the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe, and my hope remains that Russia will pursue that diplomatic path. It’s clearly preferable.”   

   

Q: “Still, what are US…”   

   

BLINKEN: “But, but to your point, we’ve also – we’ve equally made clear that if Russia chooses to renew its aggression against Ukraine, we – and not just we, the United States, we, many countries, throughout Europe, and even some beyond – will respond very forcefully and resolutely and in three ways. First, we’ve been working intensely on elaborating extensive sanctions, financial, economic, export controls, and others….”   

   

Q: “Doesn’t that include…”   

   

BLINKEN: “I’m not going to get into the details what they are, but we’re doing that in very close coordination with European allies and partners. A second consequence would almost certainly be further assistance, defensive military assistance, to Ukraine. And third, it’s almost certain that NATO would have to reinforce its own defenses on its, on its eastern flank. And you know, what’s so striking about this is that, when you think about it, President Putin, going back to 2014, has managed to precipitate what he says he wants to prevent, because among other things, NATO had to reinforce itself after Russia invaded Ukraine, seized Crimea, the Donbass after that happened. So, we’ve laid out the consequences clearly for Russia, but also, also the far preferable path of resolving differences diplomatically. And we’ll see which path President Putin decides to take.”   

   

Q: “It’s still the question of, is the Swift – cutting Russia from Swift is on the table, and personal sanctions against, personally, Putin and his family is on the table?”   

   

BLINKEN: “What I can tell you is this, and it’s not just me saying this. The G7, the leading democratic economies in the world, the European Union, NATO have all each declared as institutions, as a collection of countries, that there will be and I quote, ‘massive consequences’ for Russia, if it renews its aggression against Ukraine. We’ve also said that the measures that we’re looking at go well beyond steps that we’ve taken in the past including in 2014. I’m not going to detail them here or telegraph the steps we take. But I can tell you, the consequences will be severe. But again, I want to insist on the fact that it would be far preferable not to have to go down that path. We’re fully prepared to do it. But the preference is to see if we can resolve differences, address concerns in both directions through diplomacy.”   

  

Q: “Russia asked for a written response to demand never to accept Ukraine into NATO,  – are you preparing such a written response, and what kind?”   

   

BLINKEN: “So, we had the last week of these important engagements, as I, as I noted, and we now have an opportunity, both Russia and, and all of us – the United States our European partners – to take back what we heard from each other. The Russians have gone back and, presumably, are consulting with President Putin. We’ve done the same, in my case, with President Biden. The Europeans have done the same with their leaders. And the next step in this process is for me to have a chance to meet with Foreign Minister (Sergey) Lavrov in Geneva on Friday, and to see what how, how Russia has responded to what’s already been, been discussed. They’ll hear, they’ll hear from us. Before that though, I was determined to – President Biden’s instruction to come here to Kyiv, to consult with our Ukrainian partners. And then tomorrow in Berlin to meet with some of our closest European partners. That’s exactly how we proceeded all along. We’ve done everything in very close consultation before and after any of our engagements with Russia.

 

Q: “However, you didn’t answer my question about, are you preparing the written response to Russian?”    

 

BLINKEN: “Right now the next step is to meet with Prime Minister Lavrov. Let’s see where, where we are after Friday, and we’ll take it from there.”   

 

Q: “And I had that question about Mr. Lavrov, you’re, you’re scheduled to meet him. Did you see any signs that the Kremlin is changing its position at this point?”   

 

BLINKEN: “I can’t say that I see any, any direct evidence of that? Unfortunately, we can see, we continue to see Russia having amassed very significant forces on Ukraine’s borders, that process seems to continue. On the other hand, the fact that we are meeting in Geneva, the fact that we will be discussing the conversations and exchanges that we’ve had over the last 10 days, also suggests to me that diplomacy remains an open possibility, one that we’re determined to pursue as long and far as we can. We want to leave no diplomatic stone unturned, because, again, that’s just a much better and more responsible way to deal with these problems.”   

 

Q: “The Minsk agreement is seen as the only valuable solution for this crisis. However, Russia and Ukraine have a different reading of the agreement. What has to be done to implement the agreement or is it time to renegotiate?”   

 

BLINKEN: “I don’t think there’s any, any need to renegotiate, because, as you say, there’s an agreement. In fact, there are actually three of them because Minsk evolved 2014-2015. And there are a number of very clear steps that both of the parties have to take. I think it’s fair to say, looking back that many of those steps Ukraine has either implemented or begun to implement, there are some that hasn’t yet tackled. I think, unfortunately, it’s equally fair to say that Russia has done virtually nothing in terms of the steps required in the Minsk agreement. So, the first question is whether Russia is serious about resolving the Donbass through the Minsk process, if it is, I agree with you, I think that’s the best and right now really the only way forward. France, Germany, are an important part of this so-called Normandy format. And they’re supposed to be upcoming meetings in that process. And, again, it’s a test of whether Russia is serious about it. The one positive sign that we’ve seen in the last few weeks when it comes to Minsk is a loose ceasefire that is clearly an improvement over where things were, that takes us back to where we were in 2020. But the real question is, is Russia serious about implementing Minsk? If it is, we’re prepared to facilitate that, we’re prepared to support that, we’re prepared to engage in that but in support of this Normandy process that France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine are engaged in.”   

 

Q: “Since you mentioned Germany—you mentioned Normandy Format. There’s a lot of talks about U.S. joining that, that Normandy Format, is there any reconsideration of U.S. doing so?”   

 

BLINKEN: “I don’t think it’s a question about us joining the format, the question is whether it’s useful for us to try to facilitate things, to support it in any way that we can. If the answer to that is yes, we’re fully prepared to do that. And we, of course, shared that with our allies and partners France and Germany. But we’ve also said that to Russia, and of course to Ukraine.”   

 

Q: “The U.S. National Security Advisor recently said that if Russa wants Nord Stream to start operating, it will have to stop aggression in Ukraine. Is the United States ready to accept the completion, and activation of the pipeline for Russia to withdraw troops from the borders?”   

 

BLINKEN: “We continue to oppose the pipeline for reasons that are well known and long known. We think that it actually undermines Europe’s energy security and obviously does tremendous potential damage to Ukraine, including giving Russia the option to avoid the existing pipeline through Ukraine. That results in a lot of transit fees for Ukraine, and the list goes on. Having said that, the pipeline is actually complete, the construction has been completed. It’s not operational, and to Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor’s point, right now that pipeline is as much, if not more leveraged, for us as it is for Russia because the idea that if Russia commits renewed aggression against Ukraine, gas would flow through that pipeline is highly, highly improbable. So that’s an interesting factor to see whether it affects Russia’s thinking as it’s deciding what to do. ”  

   

Q: “And I have two questions on domestic agenda, Ukraine’s domestic agenda if I may. President Zelenskiy promised President Biden personally to fight corruption. He promised to appoint the special anti-corruption prosecutor before the end of 2021. However, many Ukrainians argue that there is sabotage, of anti-corruption reform. Is the United States as a Ukraine strategic partner satisfied with the reform progress in Ukraine? And is Ukraine at risk of losing the U.S. support if the government does not meet its commitment to reform?”  

   

BLINKEN: “I had a chance to spend time with President Zelenskiy today, we had a very good conversation about virtually all of these issues, including the question of reform, and President Zelenskiy has been pursuing reform, including most recently, judicial reform. But there are other things that need to happen, including, finally the appointment of this Commissioner, that should and could take place anytime, so we are looking for that to see that happen. It’s challenging, there are external pressures, there are internal pressures, but he has been on the path of reform. And ultimately, Ukraine’s progress, which we are determined to support, is contingent on reform so we look to the president to continue those efforts, we very much support him in those efforts, and will continue to support Ukraine as it makes those efforts.”  

   

Q: “Thank you so much. They’re showing me that I have to cut. I have one more question. Across from the building where we’re doing this interview today, on the court hearing treason charges brought against the former President Poroshenko, many experts, and former Russian politicians expressed their concern, and some say the charges are politically motivated. Do you think these charges and the process is justified at the time?”  

   

BLINKEN: “Well, I can’t get into the details of this, of this particular case. All I can say is this. It’s very important that in any proceeding, whether it’s this one or any other, that things go forward through an independent judiciary, pursuant to the rule law, and as we would say, without fear or favor, no selective prosecutions. That’s a general rule that we would apply anywhere and everywhere. Second, this is a time where there’s a premium on national unity precisely because of the threat that Russia is posing.  And it’s important for Ukrainians to come together, whatever political differences they may have. One of Russia’s methods is to try to divide, to create divisions, to create distractions. And it’s important for Ukrainians to come together to resist that and to deal with the challenge posed by Russia as one, as one country with an incredible future that the United States strongly supports but one that’s being challenged.” 

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Britain to Drop COVID-19 Restrictions

Britain is ending COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates, working from home and vaccine passports, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Wednesday.

The measures had been introduced to slow the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant of the virus.

“Many nations across Europe have endured further winter lockdowns … but this government took a different path,” Johnson told lawmakers, citing a decreasing number of people being admitted to intensive care because of the virus.

“Our scientists believe it is likely that the omicron wave has now peaked nationally … because of the extraordinary booster campaign,” Johnson said, adding that restrictions also had slowed the spread.

Some scientists disagree with the move.

“Removing (the) measures in the face of extremely high levels of infection is a risk,” University of Warwick virologist Lawrence Young said. 

“Perhaps it would have been wiser to wait for another couple of weeks before removing the advice to work from home and the face coverings mandate. There’s no guarantee that infection levels will continue to fall.” 

Britain has seen 152,513 deaths since the virus emerged from China in early 2020. 

Johnson is currently facing a political crisis, including criticism from his own party, for hosting parties during the peak of lockdowns in the country. 

Some say the easing of restrictions is an attempt by Johnson to shore up support among conservatives who disagreed with them. 

Johnson said despite the moves, “We must all remain cautious during these last weeks of winter,” adding that hospitals still could see increased cases. 

“The pandemic is not over,” he cautioned.

Some information in this report comes from Reuters and Agence France-Presse. 

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Six Dead, 17 Injured in Spain Nursing Home Fire

Fire officials in Spain say six nursing home residents died and at least 17 were injured in a fire at a retirement home in a suburb of Valencia early Wednesday.

The Valencia regional fire department said the fire started late Tuesday at a publicly-owned senior residence in the town of Moncada, about 12 kilometers north of Valencia. The fire department said on Twitter it took two hours to bring the fire under control. Several area fire departments responded.

Valencia fire chief Jose Bassett told Spanish media flames and smoke affected an entire wing of the residence, He said officials believe the fire has started in a room on the first floor, where two residents were found dead.

Fire fighters say about 25 of the at least 70 residents of the facility had to be rescued. Regional health officials say five the victims died at the scene and a sixth died at the hospital. They say at last 17 residents were hospitalized with injuries, two of them in serious condition.

Bassett said officials believe a faulty electrical mechanism with an oxygen tank may have started the fire, but the exact cause is under investigation.

Moncada city officials called for a moment of silence and three days of mourning for those who died in the fire.  

Spanish President Pedro Sanchez tweeted he heard news of the fire and expressed his condolences to the families of the deceased and his concern for the injured.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press and Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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Ukraine: What We Know 

Russia’s buildup of an estimated 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, along with military exercises in Belarus, has raised concern that Russia could be planning an invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s positions include troops, tanks and artillery to Ukraine’s north, south and east.

Until 1991, Ukraine was part of the Russia-led Soviet Union. Current tensions with Russia date to 2014, when Russia invaded and seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, a move not recognized by the European Union or United States. Russia has also backed separatists who control a swath of territory bordering Russia in eastern Ukraine. 

Recent meetings with Russia involving the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe yielded little tangible result as Ukraine’s allies called for Russia to de-escalate the situation. 

Russia has dismissed allegations of a planned invasion and has sought certain security guarantees, including that NATO will not expand further along its border such as by admitting Ukraine to the Western military alliance. The U.S. and NATO have rejected such requests, saying NATO has an open-door policy and Ukraine is free to make its own decisions about joining alliance. 

Western allies of Ukraine have pledged to punish Russia with harsh economic sanctions if it does make an assault on Ukrainian territory. 

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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Blinken Visits Ukraine as He Urges Russia to De-escalate Border Tensions

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Kyiv for talks Wednesday with Ukrainian leaders as part of what he called a “diplomatic effort to de-escalate tensions surrounding unprovoked Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders.” 

The stop in Kyiv includes meetings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, as well as visiting with personnel at the U.S. Embassy. 

“We are now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack on Ukraine,” a senior State Department official told reporters during a call briefing on Tuesday, adding that the United States continues to “prepare for a different outcome” if Moscow does decide to pursue further military aggression against Ukraine.  

Russia has continued its troop buildup and its harsh rhetoric against Ukraine, moving Russian forces into Belarus over the weekend.  

“Diplomacy is not dead,” the senior State Department official said, adding that “the U.S. side believes the only way to solve this conflict successfully is through diplomacy.”

Wednesday’s visit to Ukraine is the first leg of a quickly arranged trip that will take Blinken to Berlin on Thursday to meet with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock “to discuss recent diplomatic engagements with Russia and joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine,” the State Department said. 

Blinken is then set to urge Russia to “take immediate steps to de-escalate” tensions along the border as he meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday. 

Blinken spoke with Lavrov on Tuesday to stress “the importance of continuing a diplomatic path to de-escalate tensions surrounding the deeply troubling Russian military buildup in and near Ukraine,” the State Department said in a statement about the conversation.    

“The secretary reiterated the unshakable U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and underscored that any discussion of European security must include NATO Allies and European partners, including Ukraine,” the statement added.       

The buildup of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s eastern border has raised fears that Moscow is planning military action against its neighbor, which was once part of the Russian-led Soviet Union.  Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.      

Blinken’s trip follows talks in Geneva last week between Russian and U.S. officials aimed at settling differences over Ukraine and other security issues. No progress was reported. 

Russia has demanded guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO.      

Last week, the Biden administration accused Moscow of preparing a “false flag operation” for use as a ploy for intervention in Ukraine, a charge Russia has angrily denied.       

A U.S. delegation visited Kyiv on Monday to show support for Ukraine amid the standoff with Russia.      

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, told VOA’s Ukrainian Service, “We have Democrats and Republicans of very different political views here to say we stand with Ukraine. And if Vladimir Putin chooses to take this treacherous anti-democratic path of invading this country, there will be severe and swift sanctions.”          

U.S. Senator Kevin Cramer, a Republican, told VOA, “The United States won’t just sit idly by and be a bystander if something happens. What we would like to do is prevent it from happening. We want to be a deterrent. We want to be part of the solution before fighting commences.”    

Chris Hannas contributed to this report. Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press. 

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Why Did Russian Troops Go to Kazakhstan?

To quell widespread protests, Kazakhstan sought military help from Russia. Why did it turn to Moscow?

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Russia Moves More Troops Westward Amid Ukraine Tensions

Russia is a sending an unspecified number of troops from the country’s far east to Belarus for major war games, officials said Tuesday, a deployment that will further beef up Russian military assets near Ukraine amid Western fears of a planned invasion. 

Amid the soaring tensions, the White House warned that Russia could attack its neighbor at “any point,” while the United Kingdom delivered a batch of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. 

Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said the joint drills with Belarus would involve practicing a joint response to external threats.

Ukrainian officials have warned that Russia could launch an attack on Ukraine from several directions, including from its ally Belarus.

The United States again stressed its concern Tuesday, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki describing the Russian forces’ move into Belarus as part of an “extremely dangerous situation.” 

“We’re now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack in Ukraine,” she said. 

A series of talks last week between Russia, the U.S. and NATO failed to quell the tensions over Ukraine. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday in another attempt to defuse the crisis. 

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday it has received a shipment of anti-tank weapons from the U.K., noting that they will help “strengthen our defense capability.”

Russia already has started moving troops for the war games in Belarus. Fomin said it would take through February 9 to fully deploy weapons and personnel for the Allied Resolve 2022 drills, which are expected to take place February 10-20.

Fomin didn’t say how many troops will be involved but mentioned that Russia will deploy a dozen Su-35 fighter jets and several air defense units to Belarus. The deployment would bolster an estimated 100,000 Russian troops with tanks and other heavy weapons who are already amassed near Ukraine. 

WATCH: Why Did Russian Troops Go to Kazakhstan?

Russia has denied an intention to attack its neighbor but demanded guarantees from the West that NATO will not expand to Ukraine or other ex-Soviet nations or place its troops and weapons there. Washington and its allies firmly rejected Moscow’s demands during Russia-U.S. negotiations in Geneva and a related NATO-Russia meeting in Brussels last week. 

Fomin said the drills in Belarus, which involve an unspecified number of troops from Russia’s Eastern Military District, reflect the need to practice concentrating the country’s entire military potential in the west. 

“A situation may arise when forces and means of the regional group of forces will be insufficient to ensure reliable security of the union state, and we must be ready to strengthen it,” Fomin said at a meeting with foreign military attaches. “We have reached an understanding with Belarus that it’s necessary to engage the entire military potential for joint defense.” 

Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, said the joint maneuvers will be conducted on Belarus’ western border and also in the country’s south, where it borders Ukraine. Lukashenko, who has edged increasingly close to Russia amid Western sanctions over his government’s crackdown on domestic protests, has recently offered to host Russian nuclear weapons. 

A senior Biden administration official said the Russian troop deployment to Belarus raises concerns that Moscow may be planning to stage troops there in order to stretch thin Ukraine’s defenses with an attack from the north. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, noted that the movement may also indicate Belarus’ willingness “to allow both Russian conventional and nuclear forces to be stationed on its territory.” 

Amid the tensions, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday it was speeding up efforts to form reserve battalions that would allow for the rapid deployment of 130,000 recruits to expand the country’s 246,000-strong military.

The United States and its allies have urged Russia to de-escalate the situation by calling back the troops amassed near Ukraine.

“In recent weeks, more than 100,000 Russian troops with tanks and guns have gathered near Ukraine without an understandable reason, and it’s hard not to understand that as a threat,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told reporters Tuesday after talks in Moscow with her Russian counterpart, Lavrov. 

Lavrov responded by restating Moscow’s argument that it’s free to deploy its forces wherever it considers necessary on its territory. 

“We can’t accept demands about our armed forces on our own territory,” Lavrov said. “We aren’t threatening anyone, but we are hearing threats to us.” 

Baerbock emphasized that the West was ready “for a serious dialogue on mutual agreements and steps to bring everyone in Europe more security.” 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin on Tuesday. He said “the main task now is to make progress on the political way forward” to prevent a military attack against Ukraine. 

“NATO allies are ready to meet with Russia again, and today I have invited Russia and all the NATO allies to attend a series of meetings in the NATO-Russia Council in the near future to address our concerns but also listen to Russia’s concerns,” Stoltenberg said.

He added that NATO “in the near future” will deliver its written proposals in response to Russian demands and “hopefully we can begin meeting after that.”

“We need to see what Russia says, and that will be a kind of pivotal moment,” the NATO chief said.

Lavrov, meanwhile, reaffirmed that Russia wants a quick Western answer to its demand for security guarantees that would preclude NATO’s expansion to Ukraine and limit its presence in Eastern Europe. He repeated that in a phone conversation with Blinken, who will visit Ukraine on Wednesday and meet with Lavrov on Friday. 

Speaking on a visit Tuesday to Ukraine, Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly denounced the Russian troop buildup as unacceptable. She noted Canada’s efforts to help train Ukraine’s military, adding that it’s currently considering Ukraine’s demand to provide it with military equipment and will make “a decision in a timely manner.” 

Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 after the ouster of Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly leader and also threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency that took over large sections in eastern Ukraine. More than 14,000 people have been killed in nearly eight years of fighting there. 

 

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Turkish Court Acquits German Journalist Mesale Tolu

A Turkish court on Monday acquitted German journalist Mesale Tolu of terrorism charges, she said on Twitter, in a case that lasted nearly five years and added to strains between Ankara and Berlin at the time of her detention.

Tolu was detained in April 2017 as part of a crackdown following a coup attempt in July 2016 and was held in jail for eight months before being released. She had been accused of publishing terrorist propaganda and membership of a terrorist organization.

“After four years, eight months and 20 days: acquitted on both charges!” she tweeted.

“In a state of law, such a trial would not have taken place in the first place. The verdict cannot make up for the repression and the time in prison,” Tolu added.

Relations between the NATO partners soured after Germany condemned Turkey’s arrests following the failed coup of some 50,000 people, and the suspension or firing of 150,000 others, including teachers, judges and soldiers.

Around a dozen people who hold German citizenship were also jailed in Turkey under the crackdown. Germany is home to some 3 million people of Turkish heritage.

Ties improved again after Turkey released German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel in 2018 and lifted a travel ban against Tolu months after her release.

 

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Blinken, Russian Counterpart Speak as Top US Diplomat Heads to Ukraine and Germany

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov Tuesday as Blinken headed to Ukraine for talks with the country’s president, amid continued fears Russia is planning to invade its neighbor.

“The secretary stressed the importance of continuing a diplomatic path to de-escalate tensions surrounding the deeply troubling Russian military build-up in and near Ukraine,” the State Department said in a statement about the conversation. 

“The secretary reiterated the unshakable U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and underscored that any discussion of European security must include NATO Allies and European partners, including Ukraine,” the statement added.

The State Department said earlier Tuesday the quickly arranged trip has Blinken scheduled to meet Wednesday in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. 

Blinken will then travel on to Berlin to with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock “to discuss recent diplomatic engagements with Russia and joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine,” the State Department said.

The buildup of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s eastern border has raised fears Moscow is planning military action against its neighbor, which was once part of the Russian-led Soviet Union.  Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Blinken’s trip follows talks in Geneva last week between Russian and U.S. officials aimed at settling differences over Ukraine and other security issues.  No progress was reported. 

 

Russia has demanded guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO.

Last week the Biden administration accused Moscow of preparing a “false flag operation” for use as a ploy for intervention in Ukraine, a charge Russia has angrily denied. 

 

A U.S. delegation visited Kyiv on Monday to show support for Ukraine amid the standoff with Russia.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, told VOA’s Ukrainian Service, “We have Democrats and Republicans of very different political views here to say we stand with Ukraine, and if Vladimir Putin chooses to take this treacherous anti-democratic path of invading this country, there will be severe and swift sanctions.”

U.S. Senator Kevin Cramer, a Republican, told VOA, “The United States won’t just sit idly by and be a bystander if something happens. What we would like to do is prevent it from happening. We want to be a deterrent. We want to be part of the solution before fighting commences.”

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press.

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‘Power of Siberia 2’ Pipeline Could See Europe, China Compete for Russian Gas

As winter bites, Europe is facing a gas shortage – with lower volumes of gas exports from Russia forcing a big spike in prices. But the volatility of Russia’s gas supply could be about to get worse – as Moscow plans to build a new pipeline to China, which could give Russia the power to sell gas to the highest bidder. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

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Ex-Ukrainian Leader Poroshenko Returns to Face Treason Charges

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is due back in a Kyiv court Wednesday as a judge considers whether to grant him bail or order his arrest in a treason case he says is politically motivated.

Poroshenko, who led Ukraine from 2014-19, returned to the country Monday to face the charges, and told supporters at the airport that he had come back to help Ukraine face the “growing threat of Russian invasion.”

He added to that message in a series of tweets Tuesday, saying with the help of its international partners, Ukraine “will stand our ground.”

“My sincere gratitude go for the extraordinary attention paid today to the support of Ukraine, especially of our fight against the ongoing aggression of the Kremlin, by our allies in Washington and London, in Berlin and Paris, in Brussels and Ottawa, in the entire European Union, NATO,” Poroshenko posted.

Prosecutors accuse Poroshenko of treason for allegedly using illegal coal sales to finance Russian-backed separatists from 2014-15. If convicted, he could face 15 years in prison.

He was in court Monday for a hearing that ran nearly 12 hours, with the court deferring until Wednesday the decision whether to grant Poroshenko bail or order his arrest. Prosecutors have requested bail be set at $35 million.

Poroshenko’s return comes as Ukraine faces a tense standoff with neighboring Russia. Tens of thousands of Russian troops have amassed near the border with Ukraine, prompting the United States to express concern that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be planning an invasion.

A U.S. delegation visited Kyiv on Monday to show support for Ukraine amid the standoff.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, told VOA’s Ukrainian Service, “We have Democrats and Republicans of very different political views here to say we stand with Ukraine, and if Vladimir Putin chooses to take this treacherous anti-democratic path of invading this country, there will be severe and swift sanctions.”

U.S. Senator Kevin Cramer, a Republican, told VOA, “The United States won’t just sit idly by and be a bystander if something happens. What we would like to do is prevent it from happening. We want to be a deterrent. We want to be part of the solution before fighting commences.”

Poroshenko came to power in 2014 after street protests ousted then-President Viktor Yanukovych. He is credited with strengthening Ukraine’s army after Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine. Poroshenko, however, lost elections in 2019 following a corruption scandal and charges that he had not done enough to implement political reforms.

Poroshenko owns a confectionery empire and is often called Ukraine’s “chocolate king.” Forbes magazine estimates his fortune at $1.6 billion.

VOA’s Ukrainian Service contributed to the report. Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. 

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No Vaccine, No French Open for Djokovic as Rules Tighten

Novak Djokovic risks being frozen out of tennis as he chases a record 21st Grand Slam title, with rules on travelers who are unvaccinated against COVID-19 tightening in the third year of the pandemic and some tournaments reconsidering exemptions. 

The Serbian, who has not been vaccinated, was deported from Australia on Sunday ahead of the Australian Open after losing a court case to have the cancellation of his visa overturned. 

Under Australian law, Djokovic cannot get another visa for three years – denying him the chance to add to his nine titles at Melbourne Park – but the government has left the door open for a possible return next year. 

The world number one, however, faces more immediate hurdles in his bid to overtake Swiss Roger Federer and Spaniard Rafael Nadal, with whom he is tied on 20 major titles, as he could be barred from the French Open as things stand. 

The French Sports Ministry said on Monday there would be no exemption from a new vaccine pass law approved on Sunday, which requires people to have vaccination certificates to enter public places such as restaurants, cafes and cinemas. 

“This will apply to everyone who is a spectator or a professional sportsperson. And this until further notice,” the ministry said. 

“As far as Roland-Garros is concerned, it’s in May. The situation may change between now and then and we hope it’ll be more favorable. So we’ll see but clearly there’s no exemption.” 

The ministry’s stance was welcomed by Germany’s world number three Alexander Zverev. 

“At least it’s clear what’s going to happen,” he told reporters after winning his opening match at Melbourne Park on Monday. “At least they’re saying, ‘OK, no unvaccinated players are allowed to play in the French Open.’ 

“We know that now in advance, and I can imagine there’s not going to be any exemptions, and that’s OK.” 

Next up 

The next tournament on Djokovic’s calendar is likely to be the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, February 21-26. 

A spokesperson for the event told Reuters that all players would need to provide negative PCR tests before being allowed into the United Arab Emirates. 

“(Players) will then need to adhere to the testing protocols and processes stipulated by the ATP and the WTA,” the spokesperson added. 

Organizers of the Monte Carlo Masters, which Djokovic has won twice, are awaiting French government guidelines for the next edition in April, while Wimbledon organizers AELTC are also yet to finalize safety arrangements for the major. 

However, England’s Lawn Tennis Association said entry requirements for its events, some of which serve as Wimbledon warm-ups, would be determined by the government. 

Currently, unvaccinated people can enter England but must isolate for 10 days. 

Entering US

A U.S. Open representative said last week that the year’s final major would follow New York City Department of Health guidelines. 

Djokovic could have trouble getting into the United States, because foreign air travelers have had to be fully vaccinated since November and provide proof before boarding flights, with limited exceptions. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said there are no exceptions for vaccine requirements “for religious reasons or other moral convictions.” 

That rule could also affect Djokovic’s participation in U.S. hardcourt tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami in March. 

The Serbian, who is among three ATP players in the top 100 yet to be vaccinated, could also face issues ahead of the Italian Open in Rome in May due to tough COVID restrictions in Italy. 

Madrid Mayor Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida told La Sexta TV station on Monday that it would “be great” to have Djokovic play in the April 26-May 8 Madrid Open, which he has won three times, though the government would be the arbiter. 

Spain requires visitors to prove they have been vaccinated, had a recent negative test or have immunity based on recovery. 

 

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French Court Finds Far-Right Politician Guilty of Hate Speech

A French court found far-right French presidential candidate and political commentator Éric Zemmour guilty Monday of inciting racial hatred and ordered him to pay more than $11,000 in fines.

Zemmour told a group of foreign correspondents that he stood by his controversial words, insisting he could not have been inciting racial hatred “insofar as unaccompanied minor migrants are not from a separate race.”

Monday’s case focused on comments that Zemmour made in September 2020 during an interview on French television network CNews about children who migrated to France without parents or guardians.

“They don’t belong here,” Zemmour had said about the children. “They are thieves. They are murderers. They are rapists. That’s all they are. They should be sent back. They shouldn’t even come.”

Speaking at a news conference Monday, Zemmour stood by his comments and said he would appeal, adding that the court was condemning him for expressing his views. 

The former TV pundit, who is running in April’s presidential election, is drawing fervent audiences with his anti-Islam, anti-immigration views.

For several weeks last year, opinion polls showed that Zemmour, who has earlier convictions for inciting racial hatred, was coming close to placing second in the presidential poll and facing French President Emmanuel Macron in a runoff. He now ranks fourth in many polls.

 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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UK’s Johnson Fights to Salvage His Premiership From ‘Partygate’ 

Britain’s rebellious Prime Minister Boris Johnson has seldom come across a rule he hasn’t wanted to break — and in many ways his political ascendancy has been because of his flouting of ordinances with voters thrilling to his audacity and readiness to defy conventions and norms.

His rule-breaking, though, is turning into a liability rather than an electoral asset — even among populist-minded voters who liked the idea of a break with the past and wanted him to shake up British politics.

Britain’s Conservative lawmakers returned to London Monday from their constituencies with rebukes still stinging their ears from voters furious with seemingly endless revelations about numerous impromptu and bibulous Downing Street parties held last year as the coronavirus pandemic death toll mounted. The parties were in breach of a strict nationwide lockdown, when social gatherings were banned and thousands were prohibited from visiting family members dying in hospital wards from COVID-19.

The newspaper front pages have been withering in their criticism about what they have dubbed as “Partygate” and so has been the public reaction as more revelations emerge of a culture of partying at Downing Street with aides resupplying with wine and beer purchased from a supermarket near the House of Commons and transported back in a suitcase. Calls for Johnson to resign have mounted — including from some Conservative lawmakers. Cabinet rivals have been jockeying behind the scenes to position themselves to replace him.

Last week, Johnson offered a half-apology in parliament for the breaches of lockdown rules, but said he thought a “bring your own booze” garden party he attended was a genuine work meeting. Later in the parliamentary tea rooms, he suggested to Conservative lawmakers the scandal was a storm in a teacup.

Government aides had hoped the storm would blow over and tasked a senior civil servant to investigate.

On Friday, the scandal worsened when it emerged one party took place at Downing Street the night before the funeral of Prince Philip. Tabloid newspapers — and opposition lawmakers — were quick to note the contrast with the behavior of the rule-observant monarch, Queen Elizabeth. She mourned the passing of her husband of more than 70 years at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, sitting alone in the pews, distanced from her grieving relatives.

The government apologized to the queen.

A survey conducted by the Grassroots Conservatives group reported Sunday that 40 percent of its supporters want Johnson to resign. Conservative MPs said they confronted enormous anger from their local associations when visiting their districts Saturday and Sunday. Lawmaker Robert Syms told reporters, “I’ve had emails from what I would call Christian, decent, honest, honorable types of Tory voters, who say they feel embarrassed about voting Conservative with Boris Johnson.”

Oliver Dowden, Conservative Party chairman, toured TV studios Sunday, saying Johnson is “both very contrite and deeply apologetic for what happened” and plans to overhaul the “culture” at No. 10. “He is determined to make sure that this can’t be allowed to happen and that we address the underlying culture in Downing Street,” he said.

In his attempt to salvage his premiership, Johnson is reportedly planning to dismiss much of his inner circle of aides and advisers, in what The Times of London newspaper described Monday as a bid to “save his own skin.” He is also planning to announce a series of populist measures, including ending pandemic curbs.

Nadhim Zahawi, the education minister, claimed the prime minister is safe in his job; however, around 20 to 35 Conservative lawmakers are said to have submitted formal letters to party authorities requesting a leadership vote. Fifty-four letters would trigger such a vote. Dowden said it would be wrong for Johnson to step down as prime minister, and that a leadership contest was not what the public wanted.

With Johnson’s poll numbers plummeting, the country’s top pollster, John Curtice, a professor at the University of Strathclyde, said Monday he doubts the prime minister can recover from “Partygate.” Conservative lawmakers “have to ask themselves whether or not the prime minister is likely to recover from a situation where around a half of the people who voted for him thinks he should go,” he said.

While it might seem odd that a series of parties would topple a British prime minister, pollsters say, the scandal might be the breaking point for voters. They say voters have become enraged by the toxic mix of government chaos, abrupt policy reversals and corruption allegations. The cavalier partying has cut through to them, they say.

Johnson’s showmanship, once widely seen as an attribute, has also been misfiring as the public mood sours. In November, a rambling speech at a conference of the country’s top business leaders led to widespread criticism. In the speech, Johnson lost his notes, had to apologize for losing his way and extensively praised an amusement park, known as Peppa Pig World, while comparing himself to Moses and imitating the noise of an accelerating sports car.

Just before Christmas, David Frost, Johnson’s Brexit minister and close ally, quit the Cabinet, citing pandemic restrictions and the government’s “direction of travel.” Frost, who had been handling Britain’s post-Brexit negotiations with the European Union, voiced dissatisfaction, saying he was worried Britain wasn’t taking advantage of its exit from the EU to chart a new course of limited government, lower taxes and reduced regulation.

Johnson recently suffered one of the most significant parliamentary rebellions in modern British history, when more than 100 of his Conservative lawmakers voted against the reimposition of tough pandemic restrictions. The embattled prime minister was further rocked by a humiliating parliamentary by-election defeat in a seat in the English Midlands that had been held continuously by the Conservatives since 1832. 

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UN Chief: Global Economic Recovery Uneven

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged international business leaders and economists on Monday to do their part to make post-COVID19 economic recovery equitable across the globe. 

“At this critical moment, we are setting in stone a lopsided recovery,” he told the World Economic Forum, which normally meets in Davos, Switzerland, but is virtual this year due to the pandemic. 

“The burdens of record inflation, shrinking fiscal space, high interest rates and soaring energy and food prices are hitting every corner of the world and blocking recovery — especially in low- and middle-income countries,” Guterres said. 

The U.N. chief said recovery remains “fragile and uneven” as the pandemic lingers, and poorer countries are seeing their slowest growth in a generation and need debt relief and financing. He urged reforms to the global financial system so it works for all countries. 

“The last two years have demonstrated a simple but brutal truth — if we leave anyone behind, in the end we leave everyone behind,” he said of the lifespan of the pandemic so far. 

The World Health Organization said on Thursday that 90% of countries have not met the goal of vaccinating 40% of their population by the end of 2021. In Africa alone, about one billion people have not received a single vaccine dose. 

“If we fail to vaccinate every person, we give rise to new variants that spread across borders and bring daily life and economies to a grinding halt,” Guterres warned. 

He said more must also be done to support developing countries to fight climate change. 

“To chart a new course, we need all hands on deck — especially all of you in the global business community,” he said, urging a 45% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. To accomplish that, he reiterated his call to phase out coal and cease building new coal plants. 

“We see a clear role for businesses and investors in supporting our net-zero goal,” he added, referring to the global target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. 

Guterres told the forum that in economic recovery and climate action, the world cannot afford to repeat the inequalities that continue to condemn millions to poverty and poor health. 

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Ex-leader Poroshenko Returns to Ukraine to Appear in Court

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Monday returned to Ukraine to face court on treason charges he believes are politically motivated. 

At the Kyiv airport, where he arrived on a flight from Warsaw on Monday morning, Poroshenko was greeted by several thousand cheering supporters. Some carried banners reading “We need democracy,” and “Stop repressions.” 

From the airport, Poroshenko is expected to head straight to court, which will rule on whether to remand him in custody pending investigation and trial. 

A prosecutor has alleged that Poroshenko, owner of the Roshen confectionery empire and one of Ukraine’s richest businessmen, was involved in the sale of large amounts of coal that helped finance Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014-15. 

Poroshenko’s assets have been frozen as part of its investigation into the allegations of high treason. The former leader of Ukraine faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted. 

Poroshenko insists that he is innocent. He accuses his successor, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, of seeking to discredit him politically to distract from Ukraine’s widespread problems, including economic woes and rising deaths from COVID-19. 

The charges are the latest in a string of accusations leveled against Poroshenko since he was defeated by Zelenskyy in 2019. The allegations have generated concerns of undemocratic score-settling in Ukraine and also alarmed Ukraine’s allies. They come as Russia has built up troops along the Ukraine border and the United States has voiced concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be planning an invasion of Ukraine. 

Poroshenko was defeated by voters following a corruption scandal and a mixed record on reforms, but he emerged with strong patriotic credentials for his work in rebuilding the Ukrainian army as it fought Russian-backed insurgent fighters in the east. 

Zelenskyy says he is waging a fight against oligarchs that is aimed at reducing their influence in Ukraine’s political and economic life. 

Poroshenko has been outside of Ukraine for weeks, meeting with leaders in Brussels, Berlin and other European capitals. 

His supporters view charges against him as politically motivated. “It is a revenge of the authorities and an attempt by Zelenskyy to eliminate his biggest rival in Ukraine’s politics,” Anton Ivashchenko, 42, told The Associated Press at the airport. “Persecution of Poroshenko sows animosity and discord among those who push for … Ukraine’s closer ties with the West.” 

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Alekos Fassianos, Known as ‘Greek Picasso,’ Dies at Age 86

Greek artist Alekos Fassianos, whose work drew on his country’s mythology and folklore, died Sunday at the age of 86, his daughter Viktoria told AFP.

Described by some admirers as a modern-day Matisse and by others as the Greek Picasso, his works, which included paintings, lithographs, ceramics and tapestries, have been shown around the world.

While he resisted comparison with Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, he admired both artists, but insisted he had drawn on many different influences.

Fassianos, who had been bedridden at his home in the suburbs of Athens for several months, died in his sleep, Viktoria Fassianou said. 

Ill health had forced the artist to put down his paintbrushes in 2019.

“All the work of Fassianos, the colors that filled his canvases, the multidimensional forms that dominated his paintings, exude Greece,” Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said in a statement.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis paid tribute to Fassianos as a painter who “always balanced between realism and abstraction.”

Fassianos, he added, “leaves us a precious heritage.”

The artist split his time between Greece and France, where he studied lithography at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris.

The website devoted to his work says his style was forged in the 1960s and that his main themes have always been man, nature and the environment. 

From Paris to Munich, Tokyo to Sao Paolo, Fassianos’s works were shown around the world. Examples of his work can be found in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris and in the Pinacotheque in Athens.

“Greekness has always been his inspiration, from mythology to contemporary Greece,” the artist’s wife, Mariza Fassianou, told AFP during a visit to his home last year. “He has always believed that an artist should create with what they know.”

Her husband would work on the floor or even scratch the corner of a table, she said. “He destroyed what he didn’t like.”

An Athens museum devoted to his work will open in autumn 2022 and display some of the works that currently adorn his home.

His friend, architect Kyriakos Krokos, entirely redesigned the central Athens museum that will showcase his work, collaborating with Fassianos himself.

France has bestowed upon him some of its top awards, including the Legion of Honor (Arts and Letters) and he is also an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Arts.

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North Macedonia Gets New Prime Minister

The North Macedonia’s parliament late Sunday elected Social Democrat technocrat Dimitar Kovacevski as prime minister after more than two months of political turmoil in the country.

Kovacevski, a former deputy finance minister, succeeds Zoran Zaev, who stepped down last month following his party’s heavy defeat in municipal elections.

The new coalition Cabinet, led by Kovacevski’s Social Democrats (SDSM), was backed by 62 MPs of those present in the 120-seat parliament. Forty-six lawmakers voted against.

Presenting his agenda to the parliament on Saturday, Kovacevski had said a key goal of his government would be “higher and sustainable economic growth.”

He also promised to address the country’s energy crisis and to try to bring it closer to the European Union.

Kovacevski, 47, assumed leadership of the SDSM helm last month.

He takes over as prime minister after the previous government, also SDSM-led, survived a no-confidence vote in November after weeks of negotiations with smaller parties.

Ever since however, the opposition has accused the government of lacking legitimacy and has called for early elections. Kovacevski insists the elections will be held as scheduled in 2024.

As deputy finance minister Kovacevski, who holds a PhD in economics, kept a low profile.

Political analysts have questioned whether he will be able to negotiate the challenges the nation faces.

At home, they say, he will have to face the complex relations within the ruling coalition and the corruption crippling the country’s economy.

His biggest foreign policy challenge is thought to be getting progress on EU membership talks, which are stalled because of the opposition of Bulgaria.

In 2019, the country added the geographical qualifier “North” to its official name to distinguish it from the Greek province of Macedonia.

The change enabled North Macedonia to join NATO and was a precondition for paving the way for its possible EU membership.

But Bulgaria stands in the country’s path to EU membership because of a dispute over historical issues and the origin of the Macedonian language.

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French Parliament Approves COVID Vaccine Pass

France’s parliament gave final approval on Sunday to the government’s latest measures to tackle COVID-19, including a vaccine pass contested by anti-vaccine protesters.

Lawmakers in the lower house of parliament voted 215-58, paving the way for the measure to enter force in the coming days.

The new law, which had a rough ride through parliament with opposition parties finding some of its provisions too tough, will require people to have a certificate of vaccination to enter public places like restaurants, cafes, cinemas and long-distance trains.

Currently, unvaccinated people can enter such places with the results of a recent negative COVID-19 test. Nearly 78% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the Health Ministry on Saturday.

President Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to seek a second term in an April election, told Le Parisien paper this month that he wanted to irritate unvaccinated people by making their lives so complicated they would end up getting the COVID vaccine.

Thousands of anti-vaccine protesters demonstrated in Paris and some other cities on Saturday against the law, but their numbers were down sharply from the week before, just after Macron’s remarks.

France is in the grips of its fifth COVID-19 wave with daily new cases regularly hitting record levels over 300,000. Nonetheless the number of serious cases putting people in ICU wards is much lower than the first wave in March-April 2020.

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Ex-President Poroshenko to Return to Ukraine to Face Treason Charges

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says he is returning to Ukraine to fight treason charges — even though he views them as politically motivated — because he believes that fighting them is part of his defense of national unity.

Poroshenko spoke Sunday at a news conference in Warsaw hours before he is to fly Monday from the Polish capital to Kyiv, Ukraine, where he is to face the allegations in court.

A prosecutor has alleged that Poroshenko, one of Ukraine’s richest businessmen, was involved in the sale of large amounts of coal that helped finance Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014-15. He is owner of the Roshen confectionery empire. The Kyiv court has already frozen Poroshenko’s assets as part of its investigation into the allegations of high treason.

Poroshenko insists that he is innocent. He accuses his successor, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, of seeking to discredit him politically to distract from Ukraine’s widespread problems, including economic woes and rising deaths from COVID-19.

“I will return to Ukraine to fight for Ukraine,” Poroshenko said, adding that he considers fighting the “politically motivated” charges to be part of his patriotic fight for the nation.

Despite the seriousness of the charges, Poroshenko seemed upbeat Sunday. When asked by a reporter if he expects to be arrested upon his return home, he answered, “Definitely not.”

The charges are the latest in a string of accusations leveled against Poroshenko since he was defeated by Zelenskiy in 2019. The allegations have generated concerns of undemocratic score-settling in Ukraine and alarmed Ukraine’s allies. They come as Russia has built up troops along the Ukraine border and the United States has voiced concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be planning an invasion of Ukraine.

Poroshenko said he sees charges he faces as harmful for the country at such a time. He said Ukraine’s leadership is responsible for national unity, and what “Russia is really looking for is disintegration and conflict inside the country.” 

“I think this is a very irresponsible action of the current leadership to disintegrate the country and ruin the unity,” he said. 

Poroshenko was defeated by voters following a corruption scandal and a mixed record on reforms, but he emerged with strong credentials a patriot for his work in rebuilding the Ukrainian army as it fought Russia-backed insurgent fighters in the east.

For his part, Zelenskiy says he is waging a fight against oligarchs that is aimed at reducing their influence in Ukraine’s political and economic life.

Poroshenko has been outside of Ukraine for weeks, meeting with leaders in Brussels, Berlin and other European capitals.

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