China identifies roots of US crackdown on TikTok

The White House’s decision to ban TikTok from federal devices represents an attempt to use the power of the state to “suppress foreign companies,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday. The world’s leading superpower should not fear a popular youth app, the ministry stated.

The White House Office of Management and Budget issued guidance on Monday giving all federal agencies 30 days to wipe TikTok from employees’ devices.

Mandated by Congress, the move follows similar guidance by the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department, all of which cited alleged data harvesting by the Chinese-developed app.

“How unsure of itself can the world’s top superpower be to fear a favorite app of young people like that?” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told a press briefing on Tuesday.

  • “The US has been over-stretching the concept of national security and abusing state power to suppress foreign companies,” she continued.

“We firmly oppose those wrong actions. The US government should respect the principles of market economy and fair competition.”

More than a billion people worldwide use TikTok every month, and the video-sharing platform is currently the most-downloaded social media app in the US, according to analysis from SimilarWeb.

Accusations of espionage have dogged its developer, ByteDance, since its international launch in 2017, and the Trump administration mulled a national ban in 2020.

  • While the ban was stalled by a court order and eventually nixed by President Joe Biden, accusations persisted, and FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress last year that “the Chinese government could use [TikTok] to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations.”

The Chinese government and TikTok have repeatedly denied using the app for surveillance or intelligence-gathering purposes.

  • The Canadian government announced on Monday that it too would ban TikTok from government devices, and both bans came several days after the European Commission ordered its employees to uninstall TikTok from work devices.

Source: RT

NATO a ‘distant prospect’ for Ukraine – Stoltenberg

The member states of NATO have already agreed to accept Ukraine into their ranks, but the issue of membership is not a priority at the moment, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday.

  • Speaking to journalists during a visit to Finland, the head of the US-led military bloc noted that although Kiev’s membership is welcomed, it is “a distant prospect” because the priority right now is to make sure Ukraine “prevails as a sovereign and independent state.”

He also added that after the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia ends, it is necessary to “ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.”

To that end, the NATO chief insisted that the bloc needs to “strengthen the military capabilities of Ukraine” and establish frameworks that would prevent Russia from launching any more attacks against Kiev.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who spoke alongside Stoltenberg, also proclaimed that the future of Ukraine is to be part of the European Union and NATO and stressed the need to continue providing military aid to Kiev.

  • “The faster and the sooner we can give them more heavy weapons, the sooner the war will end,” Marin stated.

Meanwhile, Moscow has once again blasted the collective West for rejecting security talks and insisted that the US and its allies must change their approach to global security and take Moscow’s concerns into consideration.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists on Tuesday that Russia’s relations with the US and Europe “changed radically” when Moscow presented its draft security treaties to Washington, Brussels and Vienna in late 2021, all of whom stated they were “not ready to talk about anything.”

Peskov said the US and Europe “could have sat down at the negotiating table” long before the conflict in Ukraine started.

  • “There would have been very complex, positional, sometimes irreconcilable talks, but they would have been under way. But they refused,” he said.

Now, NATO is fully involved in the hostilities, “their intelligence is working against us 24 hours a day,” and their weapons are supplied to Ukraine for free to shoot at Russia’s military and Ukrainian citizens, he said.

“The moment when NATO de facto became a participant in the conflict in Ukraine, the situation changed,” the spokesman added.

“In fact, the NATO bloc is no longer acting as our conditional opponent, but as our enemy.”

Source: RT

Hungary calls for justice over pipeline sabotage

Hungary needs to watch out for potential sabotage on pipelines that deliver Russian natural gas to the country, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Monday, pointing to the September 2022 blasts on the Nord Stream pipelines connecting Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea.

  • “The blowing up of the Nord Stream was a simple act of terrorism,” Orban said in a speech to parliament in Budapest.

“What we need to know is, if they did it in the north just to stop the Russian gas coming to Europe … then they could do it in the south as well.”

Orban said that Hungary, together with neighboring Serbia, must “make clear that if this were to happen, it would not be easy to get away with, like they are doing now with the Nord Stream explosions.”

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto this week called for the UN to investigate the “scandalous” attack on the pipelines.

Budapest wants to know “who committed it and why,” the minister said.

  • Hungary and Serbia, whose economies heavily depend on Russian oil and gas, have opposed sanctions that would have prevented them from receiving supplies from Moscow. Both nations have also refused to impose any restrictions of their own.

On Thursday, US state-run news outlet RFE-RL reported that South Stream Transport, which operates the TurkStream gas pipeline, would not be able to repair the infrastructure in the event of damage, as the Dutch government has revoked its license.

The Black Sea pipeline delivers Russian gas to Hungary and Serbia.

Veteran US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has claimed that the Nord Stream sabotage was orchestrated by Washington with help from Norway.

The US has denied any involvement, and rejected the allegations as “complete fiction.”

Russia has also called for a thorough investigation into the “terrorist attack.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Western countries last week of trying to bury the issue.

Source: RT

Inflation in France and Spain accelerates

Consumer prices in France and Spain resumed their upward trend in February, driven by higher food and energy costs, official statistics showed on Tuesday.

In France, the consumer price index increased by 6.2%, up from 6.0% in January, according to preliminary data from the statistics bureau Insee.

  • The report noted that food inflation edged higher to 14.5% from 13.3%, services prices were up to 2.9% from 2.6%, while prices of manufactured goods rose slightly to 4.6% from 4.5%, with the end of winter sales. Energy prices jumped 14.0% on year in February, Insee said.
  • The EU-harmonized index stood at 7.2% compared to 7% in January.

Meanwhile in Spain, which succeeded in containing price growth in the second half of 2022, inflation has now risen for two consecutive months in annual terms.

Consumer prices increased 6.1% year-on-year in February, the National Statistics Institute (INE) reports.

  • Preliminary data showed that higher electricity and food prices were the key drivers of the increase.

Core inflation, which excludes volatile fresh food and energy prices, stood at 7.7% year-on-year, up from 7.5% recorded in January.

Consumer prices, harmonized for comparison with other European Union countries, rose to 6.1% in February in annual terms from 5.9% in the previous month.

  • “The increase in Spain’s headline EU harmonized inflation is another reminder that the path of price growth will be choppy and sticky on its way down, as underlying price pressures remain strong,” Bloomberg economist Ana Andrade said. “While base effects will dominate over the next few months, bringing inflation meaningfully down by the summer, we still expect it to end the year at above 5%,” she added.

Economists project inflation in Spain and France will continue rising in the coming months, prompting more interest rate hikes by the European Central Bank.

  • The ECB has already promised to raise rates by 50 basis points to 3% in March, to get soaring inflation in the 20-nation Eurozone under control. It may still need to raise interest rates significantly beyond March, as inflation remains too high, Bundesbank President Joachim Nagel warned earlier.

Source: RT

Reason for air traffic halt over St. Petersburg revealed

Russian air defense forces held drills aimed at enhancing cooperation with civilian authorities in the country’s western military district on Tuesday, the Defense Ministry has announced.

Earlier in the day, the airspace over St. Petersburg, the country’s second-largest city, was closed for around an hour before flights fully resumed. The local authorities confirmed that Pulkovo International Airport had stopped receiving aircraft but did not reveal the reason behind the move.

  • Meanwhile, reports in the media claimed the restrictions had been introduced after an unidentified flying object was spotted near the city.
  • The Defense Ministry issued a statement a short time later, saying on-duty air defense units attached to the western military district had been training to identify and intercept a simulated aerial intruder as part of drills in the area.

The other goal of the exercises was to enhance cooperation with civilian security agencies and emergency services in the event of an actual incursion in Russia’s airspace, the statement read.

Fighter jets were scrambled as part of the exercise, the Defense Ministry added, confirming reports by the locals who claimed to have heard warplanes flying overhead.

The western military district, which has its headquarters in St. Petersburg, covers the city itself and the surrounding Leningrad Region.

Also on Tuesday, Governor of Moscow Region Andrey Vorobyov said a drone had crashed near the town of Kolomna, some 114km (71 miles) southeast of the capital Moscow.

  • The UAV, which was suspected to be Ukrainian, may have been aiming to attack a gas facility in the area, but failed to reach its target, Vorobyov suggested. There were no injuries or damage as a result of the incident, he added.

Earlier in the day, the Defense Ministry reported that Ukraine had also attempted to use drones to attack civilian infrastructure in the southern region of Krasnodar and the Republic of Adygea.

  • The UAVs were suppressed by electronic warfare units and failed to cause any damage, it added.

Source: RT

Unidentified drone crashes near Moscow

An unmanned aerial vehicle has crash-landed near a Gazprom gas facility in the Kolomna region near Moscow, Governor Andrey Vorobyov reported on Tuesday.

According to the official, the unidentified drone came down near the village of Gubastovo and appears to have been targeting civilian infrastructure, but failed to cause any damage or casualties.

The governor added that security services and other agencies are investigating the incident and that there is no danger to the population.

Earlier media reports also stated that emergency services and bomb squads had been dispatched to the area.

  • Gazprom has also confirmed the incident, with the management of the Voskresensk gas compressor station telling Russian media that the “drone fell near us, but did not affect our operation at all.” They added that the issue is currently under the jurisdiction of the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Photos allegedly depicting the drone in question have started circulating on social media, however there has yet to be any official confirmation of the authenticity of these images.

The news comes after Russia’s Defense Ministry reported on Tuesday that Kiev attempted to use drones to attack civilian infrastructure in the southern region of Krasnodar and the Republic of Adygea.

It’s noteworthy that the UAVs were suppressed by the electronic warfare units of the Russian Armed Forces. According to the ministry, both drones lost control and deviated from their flight paths, failing to cause damage to any civilian infrastructure facilities.

Source: RT

Header: Unverified photo posted on social media allegedly showing drone that crashed in Moscow region on Tuesday.

EU nation backs Chinese peace plan

Hungary’s government supports Beijing’s peace plan for the ongoing conflict in Ukraine,

  • Prime Minister Viktor Orban told parliament on Monday. The 12-point plan released by China last week calls for resuming peace talks and respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations while condemning unilateral sanctions.

“We also consider China’s peace plan important and support it,” Orban told the lawmakers.

  • In his half-hour-long speech, Orban insisted that the ongoing conflict was “bad for Ukrainians, Russians, Hungarians, Europe, and it is becoming increasingly clear [that] it is bad for the whole world.” The prime minister then maintained that Budapest should stay out of the conflict, as was decided through a “national consultation.”

The prime minister also criticized some opposition parties for being seemingly overzealous in their support for Kiev to the point where they barely “differentiated” between Ukraine and Hungary, but said that he agreed there should be a country between Russia and Hungary.

  • “We respect the Ukrainians, we help the Ukrainians,” Orban said, adding, however, that “the interests of Ukraine can never precede the interests of Hungary.”

He also admitted that Ukraine was likely to eventually join NATO “sooner or later” while arguing that the bloc’s further expansion to the east “must be reconsidered ten thousand times.”

At the same time, Orban supported the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO. He also described the military bloc as a guarantor of security, while admitting that he was not enthusiastic about everything that happens within NATO.

Meanwhile, Kiev’s backers in the West have brushed off Beijing’s proposals.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that China didn’t “have much credibility” in this issue as it refused to condemn Russia’s actions and join the Western sanctions.

Moscow earlier welcomed Chinese efforts aimed at resolving the ongoing conflict through peaceful means. Last Sunday, the Kremlin said, however, that it saw no opportunity for a political resolution of the conflict at the moment.

  • Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky recently maintained that there was “nothing to talk about” with Russia and “no one” in Moscow Kiev could talk to.

His words came amid reported attempts by his Western backers, including France, Germany and the UK, to encourage Ukraine to engage in talks with Russia.

Source: RT

White House: No definitive conclusion on origin of COVID-19

The White House on Monday downplayed and would not confirm a report that the Department of Energy has determined a lab leak was the most likely cause of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • “The intelligence community and the rest of the government is still looking at this,” John Kirby, a White House national security spokesperson, said at a press briefing, as quoted by The Hill.
  • “There’s not been a definitive conclusion, so it’s difficult for me to say, nor should I feel like I should have to defend press reporting about a possible preliminary indication here,” he continued.
  • “What the president wants is facts. He wants the whole government designed to go get those facts. And that’s what we’re doing, and we’re just not there yet.”

The comments came a day after media reported that the US Department of Energy had “low confidence” that the COVID-19 virus accidentally escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China.

Intelligence agencies can make assessments with either low, medium or high confidence. A low confidence assessment generally means that the information obtained is not reliable enough or is too fragmented to make a more definitive analytic judgment or that there is not enough information available to draw a more robust conclusion.

Both Kirby and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Monday would not weigh in on those reports or confirm them, instead insisting that the wider government was still looking into how the pandemic started.

“The president made trying to find the origins of COVID a priority when he came into office, and he’s got a whole government effort designed to do that,” Kirby said, according to The Hill.

  • “There is not a consensus in the US government about how COVID started. There is not an intelligence community consensus.”

The US began exploring the possibility that COVID-19 spread in a laboratory as early as April 2020, though the intelligence community has noted repeatedly that a lack of cooperation from Beijing has made it difficult to get to the bottom of the question.

A recent World Health Organization (WHO) investigation into the origins of the pandemic was roundly criticized for failure to penetrate into the opaque Chinese system.

The delegation sent to China was not granted access to any of the sites or researchers it needed to examine in order to conduct anything even vaguely resembling a genuine inquiry.

Source: Arutz Sheva

In video: Russians marines storming the city of Ugledar

The city of Ugledar remains under control of Ukrainian forces. After the recent offensive attempt of the Russian military, the fighting turned into positional battles.

After the Russian breakthrough to the Nikolsky dachas district located in the east of the city, the forces of the 72nd separate mobilized brigade of the AFU went on the defensive, and Russian marines of the 155 brigade of the Pacific Fleet are fighting in the dachas area near Ugledar.

The city and its outskirts are suffering heavy damage as a result of artillery duels.

Source: Southfront

Western leaders privately admit can’t win the war in Ukraine

The Wall Street Journal, which reported on the private remarks to Zelenksy, said:

  • “The public rhetoric masks deepening private doubts among politicians in the U.K., France and Germany that Ukraine will be able to expel the Russians from eastern Ukraine and Crimea, which Russia has controlled since 2014, and a belief that the West can only help sustain the war effort for so long, especially if the conflict settles into a stalemate, officials from the three countries say.
  • ‘We keep repeating that Russia mustn’t win, but what does that mean? If the war goes on for long enough with this intensity, Ukraine’s losses will become unbearable,’ a senior French official said.
  • ‘And no one believes they will be able to retrieve Crimea.’

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told Zelensky at an Élysée Palace dinner earlier this month that he must consider peace talks with Moscow, the Journal reported.

According to its source, the newspaper quoted Macron as telling Zelensky that “even mortal enemies like France and Germany had to make peace after World War II.”

  • Macron told Zelensky “he had been a great war leader, but that he would eventually have to shift into political statesmanship and make difficult decisions,” the newspaper reported.

A Return to Realism

At the Munich Security Conference last week, Gen. Petr Pavel, the Czech Republic’s president-elect and a former NATO commander, said:

  • “We may end up in a situation where liberating some parts of Ukrainian territory may deliver more loss of lives than will be bearable by society. … There might be a point when Ukrainians can start thinking about another outcome.”

Even when he was a NATO commander Pavel was a realist in regard to Russia. During controversial NATO war games with 31,000 troops on Russia’s borders in 2016 — the first time in 75 years that German troops had retraced the steps of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union — Pavel dismissed hype about a Russian threat to NATO.

  • Pavel, who was chairman of NATO’s military committee at the time, told a Brussels press conference that, “It is not the aim of NATO to create a military barrier against broad-scale Russian aggression, because such aggression is not on the agenda and no intelligence assessment suggests such a thing.”
  • The German foreign minister at the time, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, also embraced realism towards Russia, saying: “What we shouldn’t do now is inflame the situation further through saber-rattling and warmongering. Whoever believes that a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is mistaken.”

Instead of an aggressive NATO stance towards Russia that could backfire, Steinmeier called for dialogue with Moscow.

  • “We are well-advised to not create pretexts to renew an old confrontation,” he said, saying it would be “fatal to search only for military solutions and a policy of deterrence.” Under U.S. leadership NATO clearly did not follow that advice, as it continued to deploy more troops to Eastern Europe and to arm and train Ukraine (under cover of pretending to back the Minsk Accords).
  • Before its intervention in Ukraine, Russia cited NATO’s eastward expansion, the deployment of missiles in Romania and Poland, war games near its borders and the arming of Ukraine as red lines that the West had crossed.

After a year of war, Western leaders appear now to be turning to a realist approach. Macron, for instance, at the Munich Security Conference dismissed any talk of regime change in Moscow.

No US Reaction

Washington has not commented on the Journal‘s story about the peace talks-for-arms proposal.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month discussed with The Washington Post arming Ukraine post-war but he did not say that Ukraine should seek peace talks.

  • “We have to be thinking — and we are — about what the postwar future looks like to ensure that we have security and stability for Ukrainians and security and stability in Europe,” Blinken told the conference in Munich.

The proposal to bring Ukraine even closer to NATO than it already is, with greater access to weapons after the war, should be on the agenda at NATO’s annual meeting in July, said Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister, at the Munich conference.

  • “The NATO summit must produce a clear offer to Ukraine, also to give Zelensky a political win that he can present at home as an incentive for negotiations,” a British official told the Journal.

The deal with NATO would not include membership with its Article 5 protection, the newspaper reported. “We would like to have security guarantees on the path to NATO,” Zelensky told a press conference on Friday.

In the meantime, Macron, according to the WSJ report, said that Ukraine should press forward with a military offensive to regain territory in order to push Moscow to the peace table.

  • There has been no reaction from Moscow about the proposal. Political analyst Alexander Mercouris, in his video report on Saturday, said Russia would likely be incentivized to continue fighting rather than enter peace talks with the knowledge that Ukraine would be heavily armed by NATO after the war.
  • “The Russians are never going to agree with something like this,” Mercouris said.
  • “They must be saying to themselves that instead of agreeing to this plan, it actually makes more sense … to continue this war because one of [Russia’s] objectives is the total demilitarization of Ukraine.”

What the Western powers are proposing is the opposite, he said. Given that Russia considers it is winning and “there seems to be a general acknowledgment amongst Western governments that Ukraine can’t win this war, …where is the incentive for … Russia to even consider this plan?”

For Moscow, Mercouris said, Ukraine’s demilitarization is an “absolute, existential matter.”

If Ukraine is going to get even more advanced weapons from NATO after the war as opposed to what it would get “whilst the war is still underway, then it makes even less sense” for Russia “to stop the war and agree to this plan.”

  • Russia is facing a “weakening adversary now,” Mercouris said, and Moscow clearly prefers that to facing a “strengthened adversary later.”

Source: Southfront

Ex-White House doctor warns of Biden danger

Former White House physician and Republican Representative Ronny Jackson has hit out against US President Joe Biden, arguing that his declining mental state poses a danger to the entire country.

“It’s TERRIFYING for our country that Biden is our commander-in-chief,” Jackson wrote on Twitter on Saturday.

  • “He doesn’t know where he’s at half the time and every day he brings us closer to an all-out war with Russia and China. His cognitive decline is going to get people KILLED!!”

Jackson, who served as the White House Physician to the President under Barack Obama and Donald Trump until 2018, has previously criticized the current US administration for failing to disclose the truth about Joe Biden’s mental health.

Earlier this month, the White House issued a summary on the status of Biden’s health based on a medical history review and a “detailed physical examination,” which found that the president was a “healthy, vigorous, 80-year-old male” who was fit to execute his duties.

  • Replying to the president’s health report, Jackson stated that the medical exam was a “joke” and a “cover up.”

He also pointed out that Biden, unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump, had not taken a cognitive test and argued that the sitting president’s “ability to think and reason is gone” and that he should not be in office.

According to a recent Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll conducted earlier this month, some 57% of Americans have doubts about Biden’s mental fitness, with 67% thinking he seems to be too old to lead the country.

Speculations about the president’s cognitive abilities have only continued to grow due to his numerous recurring gaffes, the latest of which was him proclaiming that “more than half the women in my administration are women.”

Source: RT

Dozens dead after migrant shipwreck off Italy

The bodies of more than 40 migrants have been found washed up on a beach in southern Italy after a vessel which was believed to be carrying in excess of 100 people broke apart off the coast on Sunday in rough weather.

  • Initial reports say the bodies of 43 migrants – believed to be from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan – were found on the shore at Steccato di Cutro in the southern Italian province of Crotone, in Calabria. Further bodies were seen to be still in the water, while Italian media are reporting that as many as 70 people remain unaccounted for and around 80 have been rescued.

Rescue attempts have been complicated by emergency services not having reliable information regarding the number of migrants on the vessel, but the death toll will “certainly” rise, according to the ANSA news agency – with a months-old baby being reported among the dead.

  • Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has expressed her “deep sorrow for the many human lives cut short by human traffickers” following the incident, while also asking people not to “speculate” as to the number of people who lost their lives.

She added that it was “inhuman [for traffickers] to exchange the lives of men, women and children” for money under the pretense of a safe journey for migrants to Europe.

  • Mayor of Cutro Antonio Ceraso added that the area had never before encountered an incident as tragic as this. “In the past there had been landings,” he said. “But never such a tragedy.”

Further updates are expected from Italian authorities on Sunday as a large search-and-rescue operation continues.

  • In addition to the firefighters and the coast guard, border police were also involved in the rescue operation, as were divers and aquatic rescuers.

The origin of the ship remains unclear, but migrants arriving in southern Italy often depart from either Türkiye or Egypt.

Italy and Spain are popular destinations for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe.

Estimates suggest that in excess of 100,000 migrants arrived in Italy in 2022, with these people predominantly coming from Egypt, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Syria and Afghanistan.

Source: RT

Putin reveals Moscow’s main issue with US

Moscow is striving to create a multipolar world rather than one that is centered around the US, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said.

  • In an interview with Rossiya-1 TV channel on Sunday, he argued that Washington was trying to mold the world exclusively to fit its own agenda.
  • Putin suggested that America’s “satellite states” are also well aware of these “egoistic” intentions. However, for the time being, they have chosen to turn a blind eye to this due to “various reasons connected first and foremost with huge dependence in the economic sphere and defense,” the Russian leader said.

Some of Washington’s allies also see confrontation with Russia as a unifying cause, eclipsing any differences between them and the US, he added.

As an example, Putin cited the US government’s efforts to attract European businesses to American soil, as well as a submarine deal last summer, which saw Canberra abruptly exit a contract with a French manufacturer in favor of a US competitor. That incident was humiliating for Paris, the president said.

  • Putin emphasized that Moscow “cannot and will not behave like this.”

In the end, such a stance – the fight for a multipolar world, for respect for each and everyone in the international arena, for taking into account everyone’s interests – I don’t have the slightest doubt, will prevail.

Putin also claimed that Western elites will only be satisfied and prepared to “admit us into the so-called family of civilized nations” if Russia disintegrates into several independent states.

In such a scenario, he said, the West would “place [the resulting countries] under its control.” He added that the disintegration of Russia in such circumstances would call into question the existence of the Russian people in its current form.

Moscow is striving to create a multipolar world rather than one that is centered around the US, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said. In an interview with Rossiya-1 TV channel on Sunday, he argued that Washington was trying to mold the world exclusively to fit its own agenda.

Some of Washington’s allies also see confrontation with Russia as a unifying cause, eclipsing any differences between them and the US, he added.

In the end, such a stance – the fight for a multipolar world, for respect for each and everyone in the international arena, for taking into account everyone’s interests – I don’t have the slightest doubt, will prevail.

Putin also claimed that Western elites will only be satisfied and prepared to “admit us into the so-called family of civilized nations” if Russia disintegrates into several independent states. In such a scenario, he said, the West would “place [the resulting countries] under its control.” He added that the disintegration of Russia in such circumstances would call into question the existence of the Russian people in its current form.

  • Commenting on his decision earlier this week to suspend Russia’s participation in the New START Treaty – the last remaining nuclear accord between Moscow and Washington – Putin argued that the move was required to safeguard Russia’s security as well as its “strategic stability.

According to the Russian president, he opted for this course of action in light of a more aggressive NATO, which “has announced as its prime goal” Russia’s strategic defeat.

Source: RT

The ‘Great Game’ in Asia: A new struggle between China, the US and India is unfolding in Nepal

Washington is bending over backwards to lure the newly-formed Communist coalition government of Nepal, which came to power at the end of December, away from its two biggest neighbors — India and China.

  • Both nations are locked in a “Great Game” over the tiny Himalayan nation, which has become collateral in this diplomatic game of football, where the US is trying to make inroads as a third power.

US officials’ scramble

  • At the beginning of this year, Nepalese diplomats had a lot of work to do. US Undersecretary for State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland visited Kathmandu on January 29-30, with Samantha Power, administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), following a week later, from February 7 to 9.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Afreen Akhter arrived in Kathmandu on February 13, in what was purportedly a “low-key affair”.

Nepalese officials have indicated that the US National Security Council’s Senior Director for South Asia, Rear Admiral Eileen Laubacher, is also expected to visit Kathmandu.

Most recently, Nepal’s government barred a visit by CIA Director William J Burns because “the timing of the trip was not seen as so conducive”.

He was to fly in from Sri Lanka on February 15 for an 18-hour stay in Kathmandu, however the government stated that permission for the visit had to be withheld in light of the upcoming presidential election on March 9.

  • Each of the US officials has their work cut out as they try to ascertain the political mood in Kathmandu. Washington’s actions will definitely have an impact on the confrontation between Beijing and New Delhi, which is unfolding in the Himalayas.

Nepal sails away from India

Nepal, one of 46 least developed countries (LDCs) in the world, has often leveraged its geo-strategic importance to calibrate its “equidistant” foreign policy as a buffer state sandwiched between the Asian superpowers.

  • Kathmandu has enjoyed historic ties with New Delhi – as the only erstwhile Hindu kingdom in the world – based on the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship.
  • However New Delhi’s bilateral ties with Kathamdu have worsened over long-standing border disputes and accusations of “Big Brother bullying tactics.”
  • Nepal is pivoting away from India. Bilateral ties experienced a new chill shortly after the country was devastated by a horrific earthquake in 2015, which claimed over 9,000 lives.
  • The standoff started after New Delhi imposed a “punishing” four-month economic blockade, which came into effect a few months after the earthquake.

The restrictions followed protests against the country’s new constitution by the Madhesis, who are ethnically and socially close to Indians across the border.

  • Their primary grievances were discrimination and lack of acceptance by the Nepalese state, which has always been a preserve of upper-caste Hindus.

It was thought that the people of the hills looked down upon those from the Terai, or the southern plains of the country. The Madhesis, who comprise about 30% of Nepal’s estimated 30 million people, cited certain citizenship measures that they felt would disproportionately affect them because of cross-border marriages with India.

  • India’s Nepal policy has largely been seen through the Madhesi prism. But such a myopic neighborhood strategy has often led to escalating tensions between lowlanders and highlanders, who have migrated there in the past decades.
  • In a diplomatic tit-for-tat, Kathmandu ratcheted up tensions by publishing a new map that exacerbated the contentious border disputes in 2020. Kathmandu effectively claimed Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh, which is part of India’s hill state of Uttarakhand, as part of its sovereign territory. New Delhi took umbrage, dubbing the map “artificial and unacceptable.”
  • This aggravation proved to be even more painful for India in the context of triangular relations, where China has emerged as the elephant in the room.

China ‘checkmates’ India

China, Nepal’s northern neighbor, is cashing in on India’s weakening grip over Kathmandu. Beijing has been raining cash on Nepal for massive infrastructure development in the mountainous nation, tackling both inaccessible terrain and an economy which is heavily dependent on remittances and tourism.

  • Beijing has been suggesting to Kathmandu that the Himalayas may not be a barrier for rail-based trade with the rest of Asia or Europe, or even maritime trade through the South China Sea.
  • The landlocked country is now actively considering alternatives to India’s sea ports such as Kolkata and Visakhapatnam, eyeing instead China’s sea and dry ports such Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang, and Zhanjiang Lanzhou, Lhasa, and Xigatse, respectively, which will be more accessible once road and rail links are established under Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

India needs to deepen trade facilitation for Nepal to keep the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) relevant as a maritime sub-regional grouping.

But that policy move has hit a roadblock, because Beijing has always considered Nepal as the soft underbelly of southern Tibet and has been consistently looking to ramp up its trade engagement with Kathmandu.

  • Data shows that China in 1995 accounted for a negligible 0.7% of Kathmandu’s trade and the remaining 99.03% was with India. Almost three decades on, the corresponding figure shows that Nepal’s trade with India has fallen to around 64%.

China has become the new India for Nepal.

  • In 2019, China accounted for around 40% of new foreign direct investments (FDIs) in Nepal, against India’s 30%.

Besides, from the mid-1990s, the Chinese Communist Party has been pledging $11.65 million per year to Nepal under an economic and technical cooperation program to implement infrastructure development projects.

  • But now Beijing is generously loosening its purse strings for massive infrastructure projects in the country, estimated to amount to $15 billion.

An impoverished Nepal has no option but to curry favor with China, even at the risk of becoming another Sri Lanka.

Nepal, a ‘flawed’ democracy

  • The nation is in the throes of a massive exodus of its youth bulge due to lack of economic opportunities. GDP is around $30 billion and has further dwindled since the COVID-19 pandemic, amid heightened political instability since the abolition of the monarchy in 2008.

On average, 3,000 young people leave the country daily either on work or student visas, and most are unlikely to return.

Remittances of over $9 billion and around 25% of GDP, and tourism at over $2 billion and an estimated 7% of GDP, are the major revenue sources, besides foreign aid, which tops $2 billion annually.

Nepal’s tryst with a “flawed” democracy began in 1990. Following a popular uprising the country became a constitutional monarchy.

  • There have been 28 prime ministers since 1990 and several of them, including Girija Prasad Koirala, Surya Bahadur Thapa, Deuba and now Prachanda (real name Pushpa Kamal Dahal), have occupied the office multiple times in a game of musical chairs. None have completed the five-year term since 1990.

Significantly, New Delhi was caught out by Prachanda becoming PM for a third time, having backed his opponent Deuba to assume office for a record sixth time, after his Nepali Congress party emerged as the largest after federal elections last year.

Can New Delhi fix its oversight?

India is trying to address its Nepal oversight while China appears to be winning hands down in a new “Great Game.”

Earlier this month, India’s Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra and and Nepal’s Prime Minister Pachandra discussed a raft of bilateral issues, including energy, trade and connectivity in Kathmandu.

Kwatra, who had served as Indian envoy to Nepal, is familiar with the country’s fickle political landscape.

He held wide-ranging talks with a cross-section of Nepal’s politicians from various parties during his two-day visit that concluded on Tuesday.

The meetings were held close on the heels of high-level US delegation visits to Nepal.

The US gaze

  • Nepal is also key to the US putting a spanner in the works of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
  • During her recent visit to Nepal, Victoria Nuland was entrusted with political and diplomatic engagement while Samantha Power emphasized economic cooperation and partnership in key areas, where Kathmandu is in dire need of assistance.

Afreen Akhter’s trip laid out the contours of troubled regional issues, where India and China are at odds over Beijing’s occupation of Tibet in 1959 and its bid to make Kathmandu dance to its tune.

  • The US wants to emerge as a force to reckon with, having looked at Nepal primarily through the prism of aid. However, Washington is shifting gears and trying to win over Kathmandu, which has been showing a more pronounced pro-Beijing tilt, and could further embrace China under Prachanda’s dyed-in-the-wool Communist ideology.

Nuland announced that Washington would invest more than $1 billion in clean energy, electrification, and small businesses led by women and under-represented communities in Nepal over the next five years.

Power, too, highlighted US largesse, such as a $58.5-million grant to strengthen “inclusive democracy and support civil society organizations” and extended an invitation from US President Joe Biden to participate in the Summit for Democracy in March.

  • The visits assume significance because they directly impact US-Nepal relations, including the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a $500-million grant for infrastructure development, which was endorsed by Kathmandu last year amid intense debate. Subsequent ratification by Nepal’s parliament also upset China.
  • Initially, Prachanda, then a key Opposition figure, appeared to be in two minds over the MCC, but later backed the initiative.

US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu had turned up the heat on Kathmandu ahead of the ratification, even threatening to ‘revisit’ bilateral ties, if Nepal reneged on ratifying the MCC, which the Washington sees as its move to counter Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The US is even more keen to woo Nepal after Kathmandu rejected the State Partnership Program (SPP), an exchange program between the US National Guard and foreign militaries.

Amid a changing world order, Kathmandu is a critical jigsaw piece in Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which has raised China’s hackles.

The high-level US visits to Nepal have become routine. However, China is apprehensive that a proactive Washington could be a part of a strategy to destabilize Asia’s biggest economy.

  • Interestingly, Deuba was the last Nepalese prime minister to visit the US, in 2002.
  • However, despite Prachanda’s anticipated trip to Washington, his first official foreign visit will be to India, expected after the election of Nepal’s new president and vice-president on March 9 and 19, respectively.

Fresh turmoil in Nepal’s politics

In a clear “breach of understanding,” Prachanda ditched coalition partner the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN (UML)) over its choice of presidential candidate. In a meeting presided over by former prime minister KP Oli, the CPN (UML) decided to back party vice-chairman Subhas Nembang in the upcoming poll.

  • However, Nepal’s eight political parties, including Prachanda’s Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC), back Ram Chandra Poudel for the country’s top job. Poudel, 78, is favourite to succeed incumbent Bidya Devi Bhandari as the next president because of the overwhelming support he is likely to receive from across the eight parties, the majority of which are backed by New Delhi and eschew Beijing.

However Prachanda’s U-turn over the backing of the presidential candidate may lead to the CPN (UML) withdrawing support from the federal government and the ruling coalition after the election.

Prachanda, with a deft touch of opportunist politics that has been his hallmark throughout a chequered career, had agreed to restore the NC-led electoral alliance including the CPN (Maoist Center), CPN (Unified Socialist), Socialist Party of Nepal and other fringe parties. Such a coalition would be connected with New Delhi gaining a temporary edge in decision-making as Beijing plots its next move to play kingmaker, while the US haplessly watches from the sidelines.

  • What should Kathmandu do?

Can Nepal strike a balance between India and China? Or should it choose a bear hug with the US and incur China’s wrath while maintaining cordial ties with India, which is still a lifeline for most of its trade and transit?

US Ambassador to Nepal, Dean R Thompson, laid out a possible roadmap for Kathmandu’s foreign policy last month and rejected allegations of US interference in Nepal’s internal affairs.

  • Thompson, who assumed tenure last October, said, “Nepal should be able to make its own (foreign policy) decisions,” stressing that “the country’s location has made it geopolitically important.”
  • However, he rejected claims that the various political and financial projects are a preamble for the arrival of American troops in Nepal.

The envoy also claimed that Washington did not view Kathmandu through New Delhi’s lens, to keep Beijing at bay.

But the diplomatic assertions must be borne out by how Prachanda has been trying to strike a diplomatic balancing act amid a dwindling state exchequer, political instability and popular disenchantment with “opportunist” politicians.

For the moment, it appears to be advantageous to India. But in the unfolding ‘Great Game,’ China is likely to have the last word as Washington tries to decode the rough and tumble of Nepali politics, where alliances have lost their relevance and cast doubt over a nation’s integrity and test of character.

Thus, the current state of affairs has been created by rank opportunism by a motley crew of wily politicians with an insatiable hunger to cling to power.

Source: Joydeep Sen Gupta – RT

Header: FILE PHOTO. Nepal’s newly-elected Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known as Prachanda, (C), greets supporters as he leaves the Parliament Building in Kathmandu on August 3, 2016. ©  Sunil Pradhan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

White House distances itself from COVID-19 ‘lab-leak’ theory

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan has rejected a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report which stated that a US Department of Energy study concluded that the COVID-19 pandemic was likely the result of a failure of safety practices at a laboratory in China, stating that there is “not a definitive answer” as to the true origins of the virus.

  • The paper claimed on Sunday that the Department of Energy had viewed “new intelligence” which led them to believe that COVID-19 wasn’t naturally produced in the environment, but rather the result of a so-called ‘lab-leak’ – but it added that it has “low confidence” in its findings.

Responding to the WSJ report, Sullivan said that President Joe Biden has ordered a full investigation into the potential origins of COVID-19 but he stressed the various governmental bodies looking into the matter have yet to reach a unanimous verdict.

“President Biden has directed, repeatedly, every element of our intelligence community to put effort and resources behind getting to the bottom of this question,” Sullivan told CNN on Sunday.

  • “If we gain any further insight or information, we will share it with Congress, and we will share it with the American people. But right now, there is not a definitive answer that has emerged from the intelligence community on this question.”

The virus was first reported to have been discovered in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, an area which also features a prominent virology institute which is an active research center for the study of coronaviruses.

  • The FBI has also backed the lab-leak theory but four other US agencies have determined that natural transmission was the more likely source of the virus. Two other agencies are currently undecided, according to the WSJ.

Last year, extensive studies conducted by the peer-reviewed ‘Science’ journal determined that the initial virus was very likely transmitted to a human from an animal at one of Wuhan’s wet markets.

  • Further studies into the lab-leak theory are expected to take place in the US in the coming weeks and months, after several Republican lawmakers included investigations into the pandemic’s origins among the key pledges on the campaign trail ahead of last November’s midterm elections.

Source: RT

Energy crisis to cost Germany $1 trillion – Bloomberg

Germany’s government will have to allocate more than $1 trillion by 2030 to deal with the risks and challenges that have arisen due to the energy crisis, Bloomberg reported on Sunday, citing its primary research service.

The enormous costs are expected to include investments in modernization of the country’s power grids and a planned phase-out of its nuclear and coal plants.

Berlin will reportedly face growing demand from electric vehicles and heating systems. Moreover, the German authorities are obliged to meet climate commitments.

  • The increase in power demand by some 30% from the country’s current consumption will take to about 250 gigawatts the new capacity projected to be installed by 2030, according to data provided by the country’s network regulator and think tank Agora Energiewende, as quoted by Bloomberg.
  • The planned transition is also expected to require the installation of solar panels covering the equivalent of 43 soccer fields and 1,600 heat pumps every day, according to the news agency’s analysts.

On top of this, the nation’s ambitious plan would need to see 27 new onshore and four offshore wind farms built per week.

Earlier this month, Brussels-based think tank Bruegel reported that EU nations had splashed out nearly €800 billion (nearly $846 billion) on support measures as the region continues to reel from climbing energy costs.

  • According to the analysis, €681 billion was allocated for subsidizing households and businesses to help them in covering soaring electricity costs. Germany reportedly topped Bruegel’s spending chart, having set aside nearly €270 billion, while the next three highest, UK, Italy and France, each spent around €150 billion.

Source: RT