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Ukraine crisis: Why Russia-US talks may prove crucial

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Senior diplomats from the US and Russia are meeting in the Swiss city of Geneva for the first of a series of crunch talks aimed at defusing tension over Ukraine.

The stakes for these talks on Monday are high. But both sides hold wildly different expectations. The US and other Western powers want to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine.

But Russia wants to talk about its maximalist demands for Nato to retreat from eastern Europe. It’s calling for Nato to pull its forces out of former Soviet countries, end any eastern expansion and rule out Ukraine joining the alliance.

Some US officials fear these demands are deliberately unrealistic, designed to be rejected and used as a pretext for military action. Other diplomats believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is aiming high to squeeze concessions out of a Western alliance that is willing to give ground to avoid war.

They say the Russian president is effectively demanding an end to Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture and the establishment of a Russian “sphere of influence”.

A high price

Given this, the US and Nato have dismissed most of Russia’s demands as “non-starters”. And the US has categorically denied reports it is considering possible troop reductions.

But American officials have said they are willing to look at curbs on military exercises and missile deployments.

One idea is a partial revival of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that the US abandoned in 2019 after Russia was accused of breaching its provisions. Other ideas are more measures to build confidence and greater transparency between Russia and the US.

The fear among some European allies is that even this would be too much of a reward for Russia, too high a price for trying to avoid conflict in Ukraine.

They fear the US might be willing to concede too much so it can focus more on China and domestic challenges, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy.

The US is aware of these fears and repeatedly insists it will not agree anything about Ukraine or European security without those countries involved.

Either way, President Putin has already made some gains, winning a platform this week to air his grievances and force the US and Europe to engage with his agenda of Nato reform.

Both sides are playing down expectations of an immediate deal. But that does not mean this week’s talks are not important.

A crucial staging post

At best, the talks could shed more light on Mr Putin’s intentions and reveal if he is serious about engaging in diplomacy.

At worst, a breakdown could lead to war, allowing Mr Putin to claim to his domestic audience that the West was not willing to talk and agree to his demands, and he was thus forced to act to ensure Russia’s security.

Western diplomats say they are ready for what they see as this false narrative: hence the Nato Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, insisting the alliance is ready for any Russian military action, and the firm warnings from the US and Europe that any invasion would be met with massive economic sanctions.

So, this week’s talks could prove a crucial diplomatic staging post, with the fate of Ukraine and Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture in the balance.

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Ursula von der Leyen offers speedy response to Ukraine’s bid to join EU

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European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the civilian deaths in the Ukrainian town of Bucha showed the “cruel face” of Russia’s army and pledged to try to speed Ukraine’s bid to become a member of the European Union.

During a visit to Bucha on Friday, where forensic investigators started to exhume bodies from a mass grave, Von der Leyen looked visibly moved by what she saw in the town northwest of Kyiv where Ukrainian officials say hundreds of civilians were killed by Russian forces.

Russia denies targeting civilians and has called the allegations that Russian forces executed civilians in Bucha while they occupied the town a “monstrous forgery”.

As EU officials were about to arrive in Kyiv, at least 50 people were killed and many more wounded in a missile strike at a railway station packed with civilians fleeing the threat of a major Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine.

At a news conference, Von der Leyen condemned what she called “the cynical behaviour” of those who wrote “for our children” on the weapons found near the scene.

Saying the EU could never match the sacrifice of Ukraine, Von der Leyen offered it a speedier start to its bid for bloc membership.

Handing the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a questionnaire which will form a starting point for a decision on membership, she said: “It will not as usual be a matter of years to form this opinion but I think a matter of weeks.”

Zelenskiy told the same news conference he would come back with answers in a week.

“Russia will descend into economic, financial and technological decay, while Ukraine is marching towards the European future, this is what I see,” Von der Leyen said.

Earlier in Bucha, she told reporters: “The unthinkable has happened here. We have seen the cruel face of Putin’s army. We have seen the recklessness and the cold-heartedness with which they have been occupying the city.”

Von der Leyen’s trip to Kyiv was aimed at offering Zelenskiy moral and some financial support.

She pledged her support for Ukraine to “emerge from the war as a democratic country”, something, she said, the European Union and other donors would help with.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, said he hoped the EU could allocate a further €500m (£420m) to Ukraine for arms purchases in a couple of days.

Zelenskiy has urged Brussels to do more to punish Russia, including banning purchases of Russian oil and gas, and has called on the EU to accept Ukraine as a full member.

Earlier, Borrell said oil sanctions were “a big elephant in the room“, with some concerns that a move to cut out Russian crude could cause a spike in prices that would be painful to European economies. He said a decision on exports would be raised on Monday in Brussels.

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Dutch officials drop case against Rijksmuseum over ‘racist’ word

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The director of the Rijksmuseum said he was “happy” as Dutch prosecutors announced they would not proceed with an investigation into complaints over a newly opened exhibition on Indonesian independence, the first of its kind in Europe.

The exhibition, Revolusi! Indonesia Independent, at the Netherlands’ national museum, has been a source a controversy since one of its curators, Bonnie Triyana, said the term “bersiap”, or stand by, would not be used in reference to the violent upheaval that followed a declaration of independence from the Dutch state.

Triyana claimed that use of the word, a battle cry for young Indonesians seeking independence, “takes on a strongly racist connotation” in the Netherlands today that “always portrays primitive, uncivilised Indonesians as perpetrators of the violence”. He said: “The team of curators has decided not to use the word bersiap as a common term referring to the violent period in Indonesia.”

In a sign of the ongoing sensitivity in Dutch society over the country’s colonial history, the comments drew a furious response in some quarters, with the head of the Federation of Dutch Indonesians, Hans Moll, accusing the Rijksmuseum of genocide denial by ignoring that “thousands of Dutch people were brutally tortured, raped and murdered by Indonesians because of their Dutch or European ethnicity”.

Complaints were made to the general prosecutor last month but Taco Dibbits, the Rijksmuseum’s director, said he had learned on the eve of the exhibition’s opening on Thursday that the justice ministry would not be proceeding with the case.

“I’m happy and had expected the decision that the case is not viable,” he said. “But I think it is very good that there is discussion about these concepts. It is our duty to broaden our view of history.”

Dibbits said the exhibition did make reference to the term bersiap but put it in the context of violence endured by a large range of people, and that the show explored the entire period from 1945 to 27 December 1949 when the Dutch withdrew.

He said: “The term ‘bersiap’ is used in the Netherlands by different communities that had to flee Indonesia and were repatriated during the revolution. It marks a very specific moment in time in the four and a half years of the revolution, the moment of the fall of 1945, when Indonesia has just declared itself independent and groups of insurgents executed extreme violence against several groups: Indo-Europeans, Moluccans on the Dutch side, and Chinese and others they thought were on the Dutch side. It takes place in the chaos just after the declaration of independence.

“We explain the source of the word, which started to be used in the Netherlands in the 1980s, and give it a historical context, but also speak about the violence against other groups during the revolution. We speak about violence in a much broader sense.”

Dibbits said he felt it was a “pity” that complaints had been made to the prosectors before the exhibition had opened. A second complaint, which is also not being pursued, was filed with prosecutors after Dibbits clarified before the opening that the bersiap concept would be referenced.

Dibbits said: “One claimed that not using the term was against history and the second complaint said the using of the term was against history.”

Indonesia became a member of the United Nations in 1950 and today the country counts about 270 million inhabitants across more than 17,000 islands.

The exhibition explores the personal stories of independence fighters, artists, diplomats, politicians, journalists and those seeking to maintain Dutch hold over the territory by displaying more than 200 objects, including privately owned keepsakes and paintings.

Dibbits said among the most powerful artefacts was a bundle of baby clothes made out of book covers, belonging to a young woman called Julia Nelisse. She had given birth to a daughter, Merani, in a leper colony in Pelantungan, modern-day Java, on 6 September 1947.

Corpses of fighters and civilians were regularly washing up on the river shore, which Nelisse laid out on cloth shrouds. Due to the lack of remaining cloth, she had to take the covers from books in the abandoned colony library to make into clothes. On show is a vest, a pillow and a nappy. “It is very emotional to see and brings it very close,” Dibbits said.

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Heidelberg shooting: One dead in gun attack on German students

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A lone gunman has killed one person and seriously injured three others inside a lecture hall at Heidelberg University in the south-west of Germany, before shooting himself dead.

He was an 18-year-old German student.

German police said the shooter, who was armed with two guns, had used a “long gun”, and fired shots around the amphitheatre “wildly”.

The bloodshed triggered a large operation at the university’s campus in the Neuenheimer Feld area.

Police asked people to avoid the area so rescue workers and emergency services could move around freely.

German media reported that the gunman appeared to have no religious or political motive.

Police have searched his flat in the city of Mannheim, and found a WhatsApp message he had sent shortly beforehand, in which he spoke of punishing people.

Heidelberg is a university town with about 160,000 inhabitants.

The country has some of the strictest gun laws in Europe, and school shootings are rare. Anyone under 25 is required to pass a psychological evaluation before getting a gun licence.

Police initially said four victims had been wounded, with a later update confirming one had died in hospital.

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