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Is There A Diplomatic Exit From Ukraine -- Or Is It Another 'Forever War'?

Ukraine is obviously a powder keg. With each passing day, in fact, the war there poses new threats to the world order. Only recently, Vladimir Putin’s Russia intensified its attacks on civilian targets in that beleaguered land, while threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons and adding Ukraine’s neighbor Belarus to its side on the battlefield. And don’t forget the Russian president’s decision to draft hundreds of thousands of additional civilians into his military, not to speak of the sham referendums he conducted to annex parts of Ukraine and the suspected cyberattack by a pro-Russian group that disrupted airline websites at hubs across the United States.

President Joe Biden has repeatedly pledged not to enter the war. As he wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times last May (and has continued to signal): “So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces.” Washington has instead carved out a cautious but decidedly engaged response to the war there.

So far, that conflict has not posed a threat to this country and the Biden administration has held fast to the president’s commitment not to engage directly in that fight. But the war does continue to escalate, as do the taunts of an increasingly desperate Putin. To date, the U.S. has pledged $15.2 billion in military assistance to Ukraine and its neighbors, an investment that has included arms, munitions, equipment, and training. The Biden administration had also imposed sanctions against more than 800 Russians as of June with additional ones announced in late September, while blocking oil and gas imports from that country.

At such a moment of ever-increasing international tension, however, it seems worthwhile to recall what lessons the United States learned (or at least should have learned) from its own wars of this century that fell under the rubric of the Global War on Terror, or GWOT.

Lessons Learned?

We certainly should have learned a great deal about ourselves over the course of the war on terror, the global conflicts that followed al-Qaeda’s devastating attacks of September 11, 2001.

We should have learned, for instance, that once a war starts, as the war on terror did when the administration of George W. Bush decided to invade Afghanistan, it can spread in a remarkable fashion — often without, at least initially, even being noticed — to areas far beyond the original battlefield. In the end, the war on terror would, in its own fashion, spread across the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, with domestic versions of it lodging in both European countries and the United States in the form of aggressive terrorism prosecutions, anti-Muslim policing efforts, and, during the Trump administration, a “Muslim ban” against those trying to enter the U.S. from many largely Muslim countries.

In the process, we learned, or at least should have learned, that our government was willing to trade rights, liberties, and the law for a grim version of safety and security. The trade-off would, in the end, involve the indefinite detention of individuals (some to this very day) at that offshore prison of injustice, Guantánamo; torturing captives at CIA black sites around the world; launching “signature drone strikes” which regularly made no distinction between civilians and combatants; not to mention the warrentless surveillance that targeted the calls of staggering numbers of Americans. And all of this was done in the name of keeping ourselves safe, even if, in the end, it would help create an America in which ever less, including democracy, seems safe anymore.

Finally, we should have learned that once a major conflict begins, its end can be — to put the matter politely — elusive. In this way, it was no mistake that the war on terror, with us to this day in numerous ways, informally became known as our “forever war,” given the fact that, even today we’re not quite done with it. (U.S. troops are, for instance, still in Iraq and Syria.) According to the Costs of War Project at Brown University, that conflict has cost this country at least $8 trillion — with an additional estimated $2.2-$2.5 trillion needed to care for the veterans of the war between now and 2050.

Given all of this, there are, at least, three lessons to be taken from the war on terror, each sending a strong signal about how to reckon with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Beware Mission Creep

The war on terror was in large part defined by mission creep. What started as an incursion into Afghanistan to rout al-Qaeda and the perpetrators of 9/11 grew exponentially into a global set of conflicts, including a full-scale invasion of Iraq and the use (largely) of air power in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and other countries across Africa and the Middle East. This was all deemed possible thanks to a single joint resolution passed by Congress a week after the attacks of September 11th, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which included neither geographical areas nor specific adversaries other than those who conspired to bring about (or supported in some fashion) the 9/11 attacks. It was, in other words, so vague as to allow administration after administration to choose its enemies without again consulting Congress. (A separate 2002 authorization would launch the invasion of Iraq.)

The war in Ukraine similarly continues to widen. The 30 nations in NATO are largely lined up alongside that country against Russia. On October 11, the Group of Seven, or G7, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, pledged “financial, humanitarian, military, diplomatic, and legal support… for as long as it takes.” On that same day, the U.N. met to consider responses to Russia’s escalating missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian cities as well as its claim to have won a referendum supposedly greenlighting its annexation of four Ukrainian regions.

Meanwhile, the U.S. commitment to support Ukraine has grown ever more geographically extensive. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained during a visit to Kyiv in September, the American mission encompasses an effort “to bolster the security of Ukraine and 17 of its neighbors; including many of our NATO Allies, as well as other regional security partners potentially at risk of future Russian aggression.” Moreover, the United States has acted on an ever more global scale in its efforts to levy sanctions against Russia’s oligarchs, while warning of retribution (of an undefined sort) against any nation that provides a haven for them, as did China when it allowed a superyacht owned by a Russian oligarch to dock in Hong Kong’s harbor.

When it comes to Ukraine, the imperative of defining and limiting the scope of American involvement — whether in the areas of funding, weapons supplied, training, or even the deployment of U.S. troops near Ukraine or secret operatives in that country — couldn’t (in the light of GWOT) be more important. So far, Biden has at least kept his promise not to send U.S. troops to Ukraine. (In fact, just before the Russian invasion, he actually removed national guardsmen who had been stationed there in the late fall of 2021.)

It is perhaps a sign of restraint that the Biden administration has so publicly specified just what weaponry it’s providing to that country and which other countries it’s offering assistance to in the name of security concerns over the war. And in making decisions about which munitions and armaments to offer, the administration has insisted on deliberation and process rather than quick, ad-hoc acts. Still, as the GWOT taught us, mission creep is a danger and, as Putin’s Russia continues to expand its war in Ukraine, it’s important to keep a watchful eye on our expanding involvement, too.

Honor the Law

Notably, the war has been defined by Russia’s escalating abuses of international law and human rights. To begin with, that country violated international law with its unprovoked invasion, an act of straightforward aggression. Since then, reports of atrocities have mounted. An Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine issued a report last month to the U.N.’s Commissioner for Human Rights citing the use of explosives in civilian areas; evidence of torture, rape, and brutal executions; and the intentionally cruel treatment of those in custody. The massacre of civilians in the Ukrainian towns of Bucha and Izyum signaled Russia’s intent to continue its gruesome violations of the laws of war despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s appeal to the U.N. for accountability.

That this is the road to lasting problems and an escalating threat environment is a lesson this country should have learned from its own war on terror in this century. The atrocities carried out by terrorist groups, including 9/11, led top officials in the Bush administration to calculate that, given the threat facing the country, it would be legitimate, even imperative, to ignore both domestic and international legal restraints. The greatest but hardly the only example of this was the willingness of the Central Intelligence Agency to use torture, which it relabeled “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, exposure to extreme cold, sleep deprivation, and painful, prolonged forms of shackling at CIA black sites scattered around the world. That brutal program was finally laid out in 2014 in a nearly 600-page executive summary of a Senate investigation. Other illegal actions taken during the war on terror included setting up Guantánamo offshore of American justice and the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq based on a lie: that autocrat Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

When it comes to Ukraine, the war-on-terror experience should remind us of the importance of restraint and lawfulness, no matter the nature of the Russian threat or the cruel acts Putin has countenanced. “Russian forces were likely responsible for most casualties, but so too Ukrainian troops — albeit to a far lesser extent,” the U.N. commissioner for human rights said in a video message last spring. In August, Amnesty International issued a report which held that “Ukrainian forces have put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals.”

Plan for an Ending

Despite Vladimir Putin’s predictions that the war would end quickly with a Russian triumph and despite his continuing escalation of it, there has been no dearth of scenarios for such an ending. Early on, observers saw the possibility of a negotiated peace in which Ukraine would agree not to seek future membership in NATO, while Russia withdrew its troops and dropped its claims to Ukrainian territory (Crimea excepted). Soon thereafter, another scenario forecast “a new iron curtain” after Russian gains in eastern and southern Ukraine left “two antagonistic blocs staring each other down over a lengthy militarized border.” Others have predicted endless further escalation, including a possible Russian tactical nuclear strike in that country causing the West to retreat — or counter with its own nuclear gesture.

Only recently, almost eight months into the war, 66 nations at the U.N. General Assembly called for its end, while even retired American Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “I think we need to back off [the war] a little bit and do everything we possibly can to try to get to the table to resolve this thing.” Others agree that the conflict should be ended sooner rather than later.

And for good reason! This country’s war on terror should be an apt reminder that planning for an ending is imperative, sooner rather than later. From the beginning, you might say, the forever war had no sense of an ending, since Congress’s authorization for the use of force lacked not only geographical but temporal limits of any sort. There was, in fact, no sense of what an end to hostilities might involve. Not even the killing of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, in 2011 was seen as ending anything, nor was the death of autocrat Saddam Hussein imagined as a conclusion of that American war. To this day, that 2001 authorization for war remains in place and one of the main symbols of the excesses of the war — Guantánamo Bay — remains open.

Right now, despite any calls by former warriors like Mullen or diplomats for an end to the war in Ukraine, it’s proving a distinctly elusive proposition not just for Vladimir Putin but for the U.S. and its NATO allies as well. As a senior administration official told the Washington Post recently, speaking of Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons and his draft of new Russian conscripts, “It’s definitely a sign that he’s doubling down, that we’re not close to the end, and not close to negotiations.”

In a speech delivered at the U.N. in late September, Secretary of State Antony Blinken caught the forever-war mood of the moment on all sides by expressing doubts about diplomacy as a cure-all for such a war. “As President Zelensky has said repeatedly,” Blinken told the Security Council, “diplomacy is the only way to end this war. But diplomacy cannot and must not be used as a cudgel to impose on Ukraine a settlement that cuts against the U.N. Charter, or rewards Russia for violating it.”

Given the lessons of the war on terror, casting doubt on the viability of future negotiations risks setting the stage for never-ending warfare of a distinctly unpredictable sort.

The Stakes

Though the war in Ukraine is taking place in a different context than the war on terror, with a different set of interests at stake and without the non-state actors of that American conflict, the reality is that it should have yielded instructive lessons for both sides. After all, America’s forever war harmed the fabric of our political life in ways almost too numerous to name, many of them related to the ever-expansive, extralegal, never-ending nature of that conflict. So imagine what this war could do to Russia, to Ukraine, and to our world.

The war in Ukraine offers Washington an opportunity to push the international community to choose a new scenario rather than one that will expand into a frighteningly unknown future. It gives the Biden administration a chance to choose law over lawlessness and emphasize a diplomatic resolution to that still-escalating crisis.

This time around, the need to exercise restraint, caution, and a deep respect for the law, while envisioning how the hostilities might actually end, could not be more important. The world of our children lies in the balance.

Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and author most recently of Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump (Princeton University Press). Julia Tedesco conducted research for this article.

Copyright 2022 Karen J. Greenberg

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

US Diplomats Returning To Kyiv As Blinken And Austin Pledge $700m In Aid

Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) - United States diplomats will begin a gradual return to Ukraine this week, Washington's secretary of state and defence chief said Monday, as they announced $700 million in military aid during their first war-time visit to Kyiv.

The trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin -- which the United States confirmed only after the two had left Ukrainian territory -- came as the invasion enters its third month, with thousands dead and millions displaced.

Presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky met the US officials Sunday, as the port city of Mariupol's defenses were "on the brink of collapse" and Kyiv was in dire need of offensive weapons.

Washington ordered the withdrawal of its diplomats in the weeks prior to Russia's February invasion of Ukraine, but has been a leading donor of financial aid and weaponry to the country, and a key sponsor of sanctions targeting Moscow.

"Since the start of hostilities, we've had a team across the border in Poland who's been handling this work for us," the official told reporters waiting for Blinken and Austin on the Polish side of the border.

"Starting this week, members of that team will be able to do day trips instead into Ukraine," he said.

"Ultimately, (they will) resume presence in Kyiv."

The visiting envoys also pledged another $700 million in military aid to Ukraine, including some $300 million to allow the country to purchase necessary weapons.

The rest of the money will go to Ukraine's regional allies who need to resupply after sending weapons to their neighbour.

The United States has sent some $4 billion in military aid since Biden's term began last year, and already announced Thursday a new $800 million aid package to bolster Ukraine in their fight against Russian troops in the country's east.

But it has been reluctant to intervene militarily, for fear of entering a conflict against nuclear-armed Russia, and officials Monday poured water over claims the visit represented a major escalation of US involvement in Ukraine.

"This visit does not portend actual involvement by US forces," a senior defence official said.

"The president has been very clear there will be no US troops fighting in Ukraine and that includes the skies over Ukraine."

Somber Easter

The highly sensitive trip by two of President Joe Biden's top cabinet members coincided with Easter celebrations in the largely Orthodox country.

As Ukrainians marked a sombre Easter, with many braving bombardment for blessings, Russian forces showed no sign of easing attacks.

Five civilians were killed and another five wounded in Donetsk on Sunday, the besieged eastern region's Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said. Authorities also reported a death in northeastern Kharkiv.

The day before, a missile strike on the southern city of Odessa left eight dead and at least 18 wounded, according to Zelensky, who said five missiles hit the city.

Russia's defence ministry said it had targeted a major depot stocking foreign weapons near Odessa.

Zelensky accused Russia of being a terrorist state, one that has devastated the port city of Mariupol with weeks of unrelenting bombardment.

And with thousands of its fighters and civilians in Mariupol facing increasingly dire conditions, Kyiv said Sunday it had invited Moscow to talks near the sprawling Azovstal steel plant, where Ukrainian soldiers are still holding out.

"We invited Russians to hold a special round of talks on the spot, right next to the walls of Azovstal," the last Ukrainian stronghold in the strategic port, said Arestovych.

There was no immediate response from Russia. Its president, Vladimir Putin, had ordered his forces not to assault the plant, but the Ukrainians say the attacks continue unabated.

'Very Difficult'

Mariupol, which the Kremlin claims to have "liberated", is pivotal to Russia's war plans to forge a land bridge to Russian-occupied Crimea -- and possibly beyond, as far as Moldova.

On Sunday, the United Nations' Ukraine crisis coordinator Amin Awad called for an "immediate stop" to fighting in the city to allow trapped civilians to leave.

"The lives of tens of thousands, including women, children and older people, are at stake in Mariupol," Awad said in a statement after the latest attempt to evacuate civilians from Mariupol failed.

"We need a pause in fighting right now to save lives."

In a message posted on social media Sunday, Sviatoslav Palamar -- deputy commander of the far-right Azov Regiment, which is sheltering in a warren of tunnels under the steel plant -- said Russian forces continued to rain down fire on Azovstal.

"The enemy continues air strikes, artillery from the sea... enemy tanks continue to strike and infantry is trying to storm," said Palamar.

Ukrainian commander Sergey Volyna described the situation in the complex as "very difficult" and reiterated calls for the international community to help those remaining escape.

"We will not have time to wait for a military solution to the situation, the situation is very critical. Very heated. I don't know how much time we have," he said in an interview.


Ukrainian Refugees Near 1.5 Million As Russian Invasion Enters 11th Day

By Pavel Polityuk and Aleksandar Vasovic

LVIV/KYIV, Ukraine (Reuters) - The number of Ukrainian refugees was expected to reach 1.5 million on Sunday as Russia continued its attack 11 days after invading Ukraine and Kyiv pressed for further Western action, including more sanctions and weapons.

Moscow and Kyiv traded blame over a failed ceasefire plan that would have let civilians flee Mariupol and Volnovakha, two southern cities besieged by Russian forces. Another round of talks was tentatively planned for Monday as Ukrainians who could escape spilled into neighboring Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and elsewhere.

In a televised address on Saturday night, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on people in areas occupied by Russian troops to go on the offensive and fight.

"We must go outside and drive this evil out of our cities," he said, vowing to rebuild his nation. "My confidence in this is reinforced by the energy of our resistance, our protest."

Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier reiterated that he wanted a neutral Ukraine that had been "demilitarised" and "denazified," and likened Western sanctions "to a declaration of war," adding: "Thank God it has not come to that."

Ukraine and Western countries have decried Putin's reasons as a baseless pretext for the invasion he launched on Feb. 24 and have imposed sweeping sanctions aimed at isolating Moscow and crippling its economy.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, after meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Ukraine-Poland border, said he expected new sanctions and weapons for Ukraine in coming days.

The United States has said it would give Ukraine more weapons and has repeatedly warned it could escalate sanctions, with President Joe Biden seeking $10 billion in emergency funding to respond to the crisis.

Washington is working with Poland as Warsaw considers whether to provide fighter jets to Ukraine, a White House spokesperson said late on Saturday, adding that the United States could replenish Poland's supply of jets if they did, although challenges remain given the contested airspace.

Zelensky had asked for help securing aircraft from European allies in a video call with U.S. lawmakers earlier on Saturday. He also called again for more lethal aid, a ban on Russian oil, a no-fly zone and an end to Visa Inc and MasterCard Inc privileges in Russia, U.S. media reported.

Biden spoke with Zelenski for about 30 minutes on Saturday evening in Washington as Sunday dawned in Ukraine, the White House said. They discussed security, financial support for Ukraine and the continuation of sanctions against Russia, Zelensky wrote on Twitter.

NATO, which Ukraine wants to join, has resisted Zelenskiy's appeals to impose a no-fly zone over his country, saying it would escalate the conflict outside Ukraine.

Seeking to mediate, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Putin at the Kremlin on Saturday and later spoke to Zelensky, Bennett's spokesperson said.

"We continue dialogue," Zelensky tweeted after the call.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued a six-point plan to respond to Russia's invasion ahead of meetings with leaders from Canada, the Netherlands and Central Europe in London next week.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is expected to talk with Putin on Sunday. Turkey, a NATO member, shares a maritime border with Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea.

Ukrainian negotiators said a third round of talks with Russia on a ceasefire would go ahead on Monday, although Moscow was less definitive.

Fierce Fighting

Russia's Defense Ministry said its forces were carrying out a wide-ranging offensive in Ukraine and had taken several towns and villages, Russian news agency Interfax said.

Ukraine's military said armed forces "are fighting fiercely to liberate Ukrainian cities from Russian occupiers," counter-attacking in some areas and disrupting communications.

The general staff of Ukraine's armed forces said the military shot down two Russian planes and five helicopters on Saturday and also carried out air strikes against 15 motorized brigades. Reuters had no way to corroborate the claim.

In Kherson, southern Ukraine, the only regional capital to have changed hands since the invasion, several thousand people demonstrated on its main square on Saturday, chanting "Kherson is Ukraine" and demanding Russian forces withdraw.

Eyewitnesses cited by Interfax said Russian troops fired automatic rifles into the air in an unsuccessful attempt to disperse the crowd and later left.

Concerns over nuclear dangers remained after Russia seized Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, with a top U.S. official saying on Friday that Russian troops were 20 miles (32 km) from Ukraine's second largest nuclear facility.

Russia was warning the EU and NATO again to stop the "pumping of state-of-the-art weapons systems" into Kyiv, foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, according to RIA.

Putin, in one of several decrees signed on Saturday, also gave his government two days to draw up a list of nations engaged in "unfriendly acts" towards Russia, its news agencies reported.

Visa, Mastercard Exit Russia

The International Monetary Fund warned the conflict would have a "severe impact" on the global economy, driving up energy and grain prices. It said it would weigh Kyiv's request for $1.4 billion in emergency financing as early as next week.

Many Russians, reeling from a 30% fall in the rouble's value, money transfer curbs and the exit of a growing number of Western companies, have expressed fear for their economic future.

Both Visa and Mastercard on Saturday said their credit card operations would be suspended in Russia.

Elon Musk promised to deliver more Starlink satellite internet terminals to Ukraine next week, Zelenskiy said on Saturday, adding he had spoken to the SpaceX chief executive. That could help shore up Ukraine's internet access but also poses potential security risks, experts say.

'Help Us If You Can'

Heavy shelling was heard in the background as residents of Volnovakha tried to flee the fighting.

"Help us if you can, we all want to live, we have kids, husbands, we are mothers and fathers, we are also people," said one local, Larisa. "Where shall I go? What's on me and a bag of things is all I got. That's all I have."

Blinken, following a meeting in Brussels of counterparts from NATO, the G7 and the European Union, met refugees staying in a disused shopping mall in Poland, which has taken in the vast majority of the Ukrainians forced to flee their country.

Ksenia Tymofeeva, 41, worked in a bank in Kyiv until she fled two days ago, leaving behind her husband, also a bank worker, who stayed to fight the Russian invaders.

"He doesn't have any military experience, but it's our homeland," she said at the site near the Poland-Ukraine border.

More refugees crossed into Moldova, Blinken's next stop.

The World Health Organization said 249 civilians had been killed so far and 553 injured as of March 3. It put the number of refugees at 1.2 million and said another 160,000 people had been internally displaced.

"The human cost is likely much higher as access and security challenges make it difficult to verify the actual number of deaths and injuries," it said in a statement.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets, Aleksandar Vasovic in Ukraine, Simon Lewis at the Polish-Ukraine border; Olzhas Auyezov in Almaty, Matthias Williams in Medyka, Guy Faulconbridge and William Schomberg in London, John Irish in Paris, Francois Murphy in Vienna, David Ljunggren in Ottawa, Jarret Renshaw, Idrees Ali and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington and other Reuters bureaus; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Biden Warns Russia Is Preparing Pretext To Invade Ukraine Within Days

By Dmitry Antonov and Pavel Polityuk

MOSCOW/KYIV (Reuters) - President Joe Biden said on Thursday there was now every indication Russia was planning to invade Ukraine in the next few days and was preparing a pretext to justify it, after Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow rebels traded fire in eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin accused Biden of stoking tension and released a strongly worded letter that said Washington was ignoring its security demands and threatened unspecified "military-technical measures".

Moscow also ordered the expulsion of the number two official from the U.S. embassy.

Early morning exchanges of fire between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists - who have been at war for years and where a ceasefire is periodically violated - triggered alarm. Western officials who have long warned that Moscow could try to create a scenario to justify an invasion said they believed that was now unfolding.

"We have reason to believe they are engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in. Every indication we have is they're prepared to go into Ukraine and attack Ukraine," Biden told reporters at the White House.

"My sense is this will happen in the next several days."

Biden ordered Secretary of State Antony Blinken to change his travel plans at the last minute to speak at a United Nations Security Council meeting on Ukraine.

Blinken outlined to the Council what he said were possible scenarios Russia could create to justify an invasion.

"This could be a violent event that Russia will bring on Ukraine, or an outrageous accusation that Russia will level against the Ukrainian government," Blinken said.

"It could be a fabricated so-called terrorist bombing inside Russia, the invented discovery of a mass grave, a staged drone strike against civilians, or a fake - even a real - attack using chemical weapons. Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing, or a genocide."

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin said Blinken's comments were regrettable and dangerous and that some Russian soldiers were returning to home bases. Russia also distributed a letter to U.N. Security Council members accusing Ukrainian authorities of "exterminating" civilians in the east.

'Hysteria'

Russia denies planning to invade its neighbor and has accused Western leaders of hysteria. This week it said it was pulling back some of the more than 100,000 troops it has massed near the frontier with Ukraine and on Thursday it said some had returned to bases from Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Washington says Russia is not withdrawing, but in fact sending more forces. White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said on Thursday Washington had confirmed that Russia had added 7,000 troops to its presence at the Ukrainian border over the past 24 hours, a cause of "serious concern".

"We see them fly in more combat and support aircraft. We see them sharpen their readiness in the Black Sea," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at NATO headquarters in Brussels. "We even see them stocking up their blood supplies."

"I was a soldier myself not that long ago. I know firsthand that you don't do these sorts of things for no reason," said Austin, a retired Army general. "And you certainly don't do them if you're getting ready to pack up and go home."

Russia's defence ministry released video it said showed more Russian units leaving the area near the border.

Maxar Technologies, a private U.S. company that has been tracking the build-up, said satellite images showed that, while Russia has pulled back some military equipment from near Ukraine, other hardware has arrived.

Donbass Shelling

Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels gave conflicting accounts of shelling across the front in the Donbass separatist region. The details could not be established independently, but reports from both sides suggested an incident more serious than the routine ceasefire violations that are often reported in the area.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was "seriously concerned" about the reports of an escalation. Russia has long accused Kyiv of planning to provoke escalation as an excuse to seize rebel territory by force, which Ukraine denies.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the pro-Russian forces had shelled a kindergarten, in what he called a "big provocation". Video footage released by Ukrainian police showed a hole through a brick wall in a room scattered with debris and children's toys.

"Some provocations were planned for today, we expected them and thought that a war had begun," Dmytro, a resident of the village of Stanytsia Luhanska, told Reuters.

The separatists, for their part, accused government forces of opening fire on their territory four times in the past 24 hours.

Neither account could be verified. A Reuters photographer in the town of Kadiivka, in Ukraine's rebel-held Luhansk region, heard the sound of some artillery fire from the direction of the line of contact, but was not able to determine details.

'Forced To Respond'

Russia delivered a letter to the U.S. ambassador accusing Washington of having ignored its security demands, which include promising never to allow Ukraine to join NATO.

"In the absence of the readiness of the American side to agree on firm, legally binding guarantees of our security from the United States and its allies, Russia will be forced to respond, including through the implementation of military-technical measures," the document said.

Blinken said Washington was evaluating the letter and that he had earlier sent a letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposing a meeting next week in Europe to try to resolve the crisis.

Such a meeting would be the latest in a flurry of high-level talks in recent weeks to avert an escalation into war.

The U.S. State Department said the ejection of Deputy Chief of Mission Bart Gorman from the U.S. embassy in Moscow was unprovoked and it was considering its response.

Russia said it had ordered the diplomat out in response to the U.S. expulsion of a senior official at the Russian embassy in Washington, who it said was forced to leave before a replacement could be found as part of a U.S. "visa war".

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux. Writing by Peter Graff, Mark Trevelyan and Philippa FletcherEditing by Alex Richardson, Gareth Jones and Frances Kerry)

Biden And Putin To Speak Saturday As Ukraine Warnings Mount

By Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin will speak on Saturday as Western nations warned a war in Ukraine could ignite at any moment.

Putin requested the telephone call between the leaders to take place on Monday, a White House official said, but Biden wanted to conduct it sooner as Washington detailed increasingly vivid accounts of a possible attack on Ukraine.

Australia and New Zealand on Saturday joined the countries urging their citizens to leave Ukraine, after Washington said a Russian invasion, including a possible air assault, could occur anytime.

Moscow has repeatedly disputed Washington's version of events, saying it has massed more than 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border to maintain its own security against aggression by NATO allies.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed hope that Putin would choose diplomacy but said Washington would impose swift economic sanctions if Moscow invades.

"I continue to hope that he will not choose the path of renewed aggression and he'll chose the path of diplomacy and dialogue," Blinken told reporters after a meeting with Pacific leaders in Fiji. "But if he doesn't, we're prepared."

Putin, jostling for influence in post-Cold War Europe, is seeking security guarantees from Biden to block Kyiv's entry into NATO and missile deployments near Russia's borders.

Washington regards many of the proposals as non-starters but has pushed the Kremlin to discuss them jointly with Washington and its European allies.

Still, Biden, who will join the weekend call from the mountainside presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland, has long believed that one-on-one engagement with Putin may be the best chance at a resolution.

Two calls in December between Biden and Putin produced no breakthroughs but set the stage for diplomacy between their aides. The two leaders have not spoken since, and diplomats from both sides have struggled to find common ground. Four-way talks in Berlin between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France on Thursday made no progress.

Putin also plans to speak with French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday, according to Russia's TASS news agency.

Gathering Force

U.S. intelligence believes a rapid assault on Kyiv is possible and that Putin could order an invasion before the Winter Olympics end on Feb. 20, Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Friday, adding it remains unclear whether such a command has been given.

He said they had gathered sufficient troops near the border to invade the country and that they may initiate an aerial bombing.

On Twitter, Russia's Deputy U.N. Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy accused Washington of fanning "hysteria" and mounting a "panic campaign."

Ukrainian officials have tried to tamp down Washington's assessment an invasion could be imminent.

Nonetheless, Washington planned to send 3,000 extra troops to Poland, Ukraine's western neighbor, in coming days to try and help reassure NATO allies, four U.S. officials told Reuters. They are in addition to 8,500 already on alert for deployment to Europe if needed.

Meanwhile, Russian forces gathered north, south and east of Ukraine as six Russian warships reached the Black Sea and more Russian military equipment arrived in Belarus. Commercial satellite images from a U.S. firm showed new Russian military deployments at several sites near the border.

Ahead of the talks with Putin, Biden spoke about the crisis with the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Poland and Romania, as well as the heads of NATO and the EU. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke with Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba.

"Our support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering," Blinken said after the call on Friday.

Washington also expressed concern that Russia and China were cooperating at the highest level, with a senior administration official saying on Saturday the two were "working to undermine us."

A partnership agreement between Moscow and Beijing shows they are in "fundamental alignment" that is growing closer, and a meeting between Putin and China's President Xi Jinping shows Beijing sees Moscow's moves regarding Ukraine as "legitimate," the official told reporters accompanying Blinken on a flight from Australia to Fiji.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by William Mallard and Lincoln Feast.)

US Will Boost Sanctions, Military Presence If Russia Invades Ukraine

Washington (AFP) - The United States will impose "severe economic harm" on Russia and boost its military presence in Eastern Europe should Moscow invade Ukraine, the White House warned Monday, laying out the high stakes on the eve of talks between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin.

The US president will also quickly inform his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky of the details of his discussion with Putin, taking place by videoconference Tuesday, as tens of thousands of Russian troops were positioned near the Ukraine border, a senior US official told reporters.

The official said the White House does not know if Putin has made a decision to launch his military forces against Ukraine -- and stopped short of threatening direct intervention of American military force should he do so.

But Biden will make clear that there "will be genuine and meaningful and enduring costs to choosing to go forward should (Russia) choose to go forward with a military escalation," the official said, on grounds of anonymity.

The United States and European allies are prepared to take "substantial economic countermeasures ... that would impose significant and severe economic harm on the Russian economy" if Russia attacks, the official said.

In addition, Biden will make clear that if Putin "moved in, there would be an increasing request from eastern flank allies and a positive response from the United States for additional forces and capabilities and exercises," they said.

Coordinated Response

The US official said that Biden will be speaking Monday with key European allies to coordinate their stances, and that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would also talk to Zelensky beforehand.

Underscoring the close coordination between Washington and Kiev, Biden will brief Zelensky after the call, the official said.

Ukraine has estimated that Russia has around 100,000 troops near its border.

Moscow denies any bellicose intentions and accuses the West of provocation, particularly with military exercises in the Black Sea, which it sees as part of its sphere of influence.

And Putin wants a promise from the West that Ukraine would not become a part of NATO, the transatlantic alliance created to confront the former Soviet Union.

Asked if the United States was prepared to send troops into Ukraine if Russia attacks, the official said they are "not seeking to end up in a circumstance in which the focus of our countermeasures is the direct use of American military force."

Such talk, the official added, "would be precipitous conflict saber-rattling, and we'd prefer to keep those communications with the Russians private."

The Pentagon made clear it was taking the Russian troop buildup as a serious threat.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin "did chair a meeting this morning with key departmental leaders, including the Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and General (Tod) Wolters out at EUCom (the US European Command) to discuss the situation in Ukraine and of course, in western Russia," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Monday.

"He is staying very keenly and closely informed by senior military and policy leaders here at the department about what we continue to see, " Kirby said.

The Kremlin said earlier Monday that Moscow is not expecting "breakthroughs" from the call.

"Although our bilateral relations are still in a very sad state, there is still a revival; dialogue is beginning in some areas," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the United States still believes that the Minsk agreements between Russia and the West on implementing a ceasefire in Ukraine's war with pro-Russia separatists were viable.

"We believe there is an opportunity, a window before us to resolve this diplomatically," Price said.

But if Russia does not show interest in that, he said the United States is prepared to apply "high-impact economic measures that we've refrained from using in the past."


Hinting Rebuke Of China, U.S. Praises South Africa's Detection Of New COVID Strain

Washington (AFP) - The United States praised South Africa Saturday for quickly identifying the new Covid strain called Omicron and sharing this information with the world -- a barely veiled slap at China's handling of the original outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with South Africa's international relations and cooperation minister, Naledi Pandor, and they discussed cooperation on vaccinating people in Africa against COVID-19, the State Department said.

"Secretary Blinken specifically praised South Africa’s scientists for the quick identification of the Omicron variant and South Africa’s government for its transparency in sharing this information, which should serve as a model for the world," the statement said.

First under Donald Trump and now under President Joe Biden, the United States has repeatedly criticized China as not being forthcoming on the origins of the coronavirus, which was first detected in December 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan before spreading around the world. It has now killed nearly 5.2 million people.

In August of this year the US intelligence community released a report in which it said it could not reach a firm conclusion on the origins of the virus -- among animals or in a research lab were top scenarios -- because China had not helped in the US probe.

The U.S. has also accused Beijing of waiting too long before sharing crucial information about the outbreak, saying that a more transparent handling could have helped halt the spread of the virus.

After the U.S. report was issued this summer, Biden accused Beijing of stonewalling.

"The world deserves answers, and I will not rest until we get them," Biden said in a statement after that unclassified report came out.

"Responsible nations do not shirk these kinds of responsibilities to the rest of the world."

The pandemic is one of many sources of acute tension today in US-China relations, as the two great powers clash over trade, human rights, and the prickly issue of Taiwan, among other matters.

Murdoch Media, GOP Fabricate Tale Of White House Cutting Biden’s Mic

Reprinted with permission from American Independent

The Republican Party and two media outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch pushed a false story about President Joe Biden that made its way into questioning of Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.

During Blinken's appearance, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the committee, asked him about a video clip shared the day before by the Republican National Committee on both its RNC Research Twitter feed and GOP War Room YouTube account and picked up by Fox News and the New York Post.

On Monday, Biden met with federal and state fire officials to receive a briefing at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The video clip shared by the RNC, which it titled "White House feed cuts out as Biden starts to ask a question," was taken from the White House feed of that meeting and shows the president asking a question, in the middle of which the feed ends.

The clip was included later that day in a story published by Fox News with the headline "White House abruptly cuts feed of Biden mid-sentence as he asks question at wildfires briefing."

The New York Post ran the story under the headline "White House livestream cuts Biden mid-sentence as he goes off script."

Risch told Blinken, "Look, we've all seen this, we saw it as recently as yesterday — somebody in the White House has authority to press the button and stop the president, cut off the president's speaking ability and sound. Who is that person?"

Laughing, Blinken responded, "I think anyone who knows the president, including members of this committee, knows that he speaks very clearly and very deliberately for himself. No one else does."

Risch persisted, asking, "Are you saying that there's no one in the White House that can cut him off, because yesterday that happened, and it's happened a number of times before then. It's been widely reported that somebody has the ability to push the button and cut off his sound and stop him from speaking. Who is that person?"

"There is no such person," Blinken replied.

After the exchange, having previously amplified the video from the Republican Party, Fox News then broadcast Risch's questioning of Blinken about it.

"It's come to the point, John, where senators are now asking about this in hearing rooms," noted host Sandra Smith on the program America Reports.

"It does seem to happen a lot," replied host John Roberts.

But the entire series of events, from the Republican Party to Fox News to the Senate hearing and back to Fox News, is based on the false premise that the video feed cutting off during an event involving the president is unusual.

In Biden's schedule from Monday the video feed of his briefing with federal and state fire agencies in Idaho is designated as "Out-of-Town Pool Spray at the Top."

That means that the video presented online and fed to television outlets was always intended to include only the comments from Biden and other officials made before the start of the event, not the entirety of the meeting.

"Translation of 'pool spray at top' -- reporters will hear some opening remarks and then leave as the president begins to engage in the briefing," noted Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler.

CNN fact checker Daniel Dale tweeted, "Prompted by a Republican National Committee tweet, right-wing media covered this like the White House was nervously censoring Biden as he went off script. In fact, as you've probably seen, it's entirely normal for the press to be ushered out/the cam to be shut off mid-meeting."

Observers noted the circularity of the entire episode: the Republican Party claiming that ordinary operations are somehow an example of a White House feeling the need to shield the president from his own words; right-wing outlets Fox News and the New York Post boosting the false claim; a Republican senator calling the false story "widely reported" and asking a Cabinet secretary to confirm it during a Senate hearing; and Fox then picking up the hearing as news.

Wrote Kessler, "It's especially dismaying that a senior senator like Risch would fall prey to such nonsense and waste valuable time on it during an important national security hearing."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.