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Biden talks down Russia, spurs allies in bid to back Putin into a corner

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U.S. President Joe Biden and Russia's President Vladimir Putin arrive for the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland June 16, 2021. Saul Loeb/Pool via REUTERS

US President Joe Biden on his first foreign foray sought to cast Russia not as a direct competitor to the United States but as a bit player in a world where Washington is increasingly pre-occupied by China, write Trevor Hunnicutt and Simon Lewis.

Aides said Biden wanted to send a message that Putin was isolating himself on the international stage with his actions, ranging from election interference and cyber-attacks against Western nations to his treatment of domestic critics.

But Biden could struggle in a parallel attempt to stop the rot in US-Russia relations and deter the threat of nuclear conflict while also talking down Russia, some observers said.

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"The administration wants to de-escalate tensions. It's not clear to me that Putin does," said Tim Morrison, a national security adviser during the Trump administration. "The only cards he has to play are those of the disruptor."

Officials on both sides had played down the chances of major breakthroughs at the talks, and they were right. None materialized.

But the two leaders pledged to resume work on arms control as well as cyber security and to look for areas of possible cooperation, signs of some hope for a relationship between two countries with little common ground of late.

Ties were already frayed when Biden, at the start of his administration, repeated his description of Putin as "a killer". That deepened a diplomatic rift that saw both countries withdraw their ambassadors from each others' capital.

Echoing an approach by former President Barack Obama, who called Russia a “regional power” after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Biden sought to cast Russia not as a direct competitor to the United States.

Speaking after his meeting with Putin, Biden said Russia wants "desperately to remain a major power".

"Russia is in a very, very difficult spot right now. They are being squeezed by China,” Biden said before boarding his plane out of Geneva, quipping that the Russians “don't want to be known as, as some critics have said, you know, the Upper Volta with nuclear weapons". Biden was referring to the former French West African colony, which changed its name to Burkina Faso.

Biden also pointed to the troubles of Russia’s economy and called out Putin on Russia’s detention of two Americans, and threats toward US government-funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

American businessmen “don’t want to hang out in Moscow”, he said.

Matthew Schmidt, associate professor at the University of New Haven and a specialist on Russian and Eurasian affairs, said Biden was seeking to undermine Putin's importance on the global stage.

"The strategy is very simply to push Putin's buttons, but with some real facts," Schmidt said. "Backlash will happen anyways, regardless."

Putin, a former agent in Russia’s KGB security agency, lived through the fall of the Soviet Union, a humiliation for the nation that he has sought to right with increasingly aggressive foreign policy, as seen in the Crimea move and Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Biden arrived at the lakeside villa in Geneva where he met Putin on Wednesday on the back of meetings of the G7 group of nations and the NATO alliance.

A senior administration official said Biden’s approach to Russia was more likely to be successful because Biden met Putin straight after rallying allies around the principle of upholding a “rules-based international order” at a G7 meeting in Britain and talks with NATO members in Brussels.

“There was strong alignment on the basic proposition that we all need to defend … this order, because the alternative is the law of the jungle and chaos, which is in no one's interest,” the official said.

At home, Biden's Republican opponents quickly criticized Biden for failing to block a major Russian-backed natural gas pipeline being built in Europe.

US Senator Lindsay Graham, a frequent Republican critic of Biden, said he was disturbed to hear the president suggest Putin would be troubled by how other countries view him.

“It is clear to me that Putin could care less about how he's viewed by others and, quite frankly, would enjoy the reputation of being able to successfully interfere in the internal matters of other countries,” the South Carolina senator said.

Kremlin

Kremlin politics: MEPs call for EU strategy to promote democracy in Russia

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The Foreign Affairs Committee says the EU must push back against Russia’s aggressive policies while laying groundwork for co-operation with a future democratic country, AFET .

In a new assessment of the direction of EU-Russia political relations, MEPs make clear the Parliament distinguishes between the Russian people and President Vladimir Putin’s regime. The latter is, they say, a “stagnating authoritarian kleptocracy led by a president-for-life surrounded by a circle of oligarchs”.

MEPs stress, however, that Russia can have a democratic future and that the Council must adopt an EU strategy for a future democratic Russia, encompassing incentives and conditions to strengthen democratic domestic tendencies.

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The text was approved by 56 votes in favour, nine against with five abstentions.

Work with like-minded partners to strengthen democracy

MEPs state the EU must establish an alliance with the U.S. and other like-minded partners to counterbalance the efforts of Russia and China to weaken democracy worldwide and destabilise the European political order. It should foresee sanctions, policies to counter illicit financial flows, and support for human rights activists.

Support to Russia’s’ neighbouring countries

On Russia’s aggression and influence over the EU’s eastern neighbourhood, the EU must continue to support so-called “Eastern Partnership” countries, to promote European reforms and fundamental freedoms, MEPs say. These efforts should also serve to encourage Russians to support democracy.

MEPs also suggest using the Conference on the Future of Europe to prepare the EU institutions for a renewed momentum in European integration of the EU’s eastern neighbourhood.

Reduce the EU’s energy dependency on Russia, fighting “dirty money” at home

The text further states that the EU needs to cut its dependency on Russian gas and oil and other raw materials, at least while President Putin is in power. The European Green Deal and the boosting of new resources will play a crucial geopolitical role in this regard.

MEPs say the EU must also build its capacity to expose and stop the flows of dirty money from Russia, as well as to expose the resources and financial assets of the Russian regime’s autocrats and oligarchs hidden in EU member states.

Worries ahead of the 2021 parliamentary elections in Russia

Members conclude by saying that the EU must be prepared to withhold recognition of the Russian parliament, if the 2021 parliamentary elections are considered to have been conducted in violation of democratic principles and international law.

“Russia can be a democracy. The EU has to work out a comprehensive set of principles, a strategy, based on the fundamental values the EU is promoting. Defending ‘Democracy First’ in EU relations with Russia is our first task. The EU and its institutions have to work on the assumption that change is possible in Russia. It also needs more courage in taking a strong stance vis-a-vis the Kremlin regime when it comes to defending human rights; this is what strategic engagement with the Russian people is all about. It is about ending domestic repression, returning the choice to the people, and freeing all political prisoners,” said rapporteur Andrius Kubilius (EPP, Lithuania) after the vote.

Next steps

The report will now be submitted to a vote in the European Parliament as a whole.

More information 

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France

Russia touts Britain, France for wider nuclear talks

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US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (L) and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov pose in front of their national flags before a meeting at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Geneva, Switzerland July 28, 2021. U.S. Mission Geneva/Handout via REUTERS

Russia has said that it wanted Britain and France to be included in wider nuclear arms control talks with the United States, while it said that Washington wanted China to be included, write Maria Kiselyova and Tom Balmforth. China, Reuters.

Senior US and Russian officials met in Geneva on Wednesday to restart talks to ease tensions between the world's largest nuclear weapons powers with ties at post-Cold War lows. Read more.

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Russia's ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, said it was inevitable the powers would eventually have to discuss broadening the arms control talks to include more powers and that Moscow saw Britain and France as priorities in that regard.

"This question has taken on particular relevance in light of London's recent decision to increase the maximum level of nuclear warheads by 40% - to 260 units," Antonov said in comments published by the foreign ministry on Thursday.

In separate comments, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that the United States wanted China to be included in wider talks on nuclear arms control, the Interfax news agency reported.

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International Space Station

International Space Station thrown out of control by misfire of Russian module - NASA

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The Nauka (Science) Multipurpose Laboratory Module is seen docked to the International Space Station (ISS) on July 29, 2021. Oleg Novitskiy/Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS
The Nauka (Science) Multipurpose Laboratory Module is seen during its docking to the International Space Station (ISS) on July 29, 2021. Oleg Novitskiy/Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS

The International Space Station (ISS) was thrown briefly out of control on Thursday (29 July) when jet thrusters of a newly arrived Russian research module inadvertently fired a few hours after it was docked to the orbiting outpost, NASA officials said, write Steve Gorman and Polina Ivanova.

The seven crew members aboard - two Russian cosmonauts, three NASA astronauts, a Japanese astronaut and a European space agency astronaut from France - were never in any immediate danger, according to NASA and Russian state-owned news agency RIA.

But the malfunction prompted NASA to postpone until at least 3 August its planned launch of Boeing's (BA.N) new CST-100 Starliner capsule on a highly anticipated uncrewed test flight to the space station. The Starliner had been set to blast off atop an Atlas V rocket on Friday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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Thursday's mishap began about three hours after the multipurpose Nauka module had latched onto the space station, as mission controllers in Moscow were performing some post-docking "reconfiguration" procedures, according to NASA.

The module's jets inexplicably restarted, causing the entire station to pitch out of its normal flight position some 250 miles above the Earth, leading the mission's flight director to declare a "spacecraft emergency," U.S. space agency officials said.

An unexpected drift in the station's orientation was first detected by automated ground sensors, followed 15 minutes later by a "loss of attitude control" that lasted a little over 45 minutes, according to Joel Montalbano, manager of NASA's space station program.

Flight teams on the ground managed to restore the space station's orientation by activating thrusters on another module of the orbiting platform, NASA officials said.

In its broadcast coverage of the incident, RIA cited NASA specialists at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, as describing the struggle to regain control of the space station as a "tug of war" between the two modules.

At the height of the incident, the station was pitching out of alignment at the rate of about a half a degree per second, Montalbano said during a NASA conference call with reporters.

The Nauka engines were ultimately switched off, the space station was stabilized and its orientation was restored to where it had begun, NASA said.

Communication with the crew was lost for several minutes twice during the disruption, but "there was no immediate danger at any time to the crew," Montalbano said. He said "the crew really didn't feel any movement."

Had the situation become so dangerous as to require evacuation of personnel, the crew could have escaped in a SpaceX crew capsule still parked at the outpost and designed to serve as a "lifeboat" if necessary, said Steve Stich, manager of NASA's commercial crew program.

What caused the malfunction of the thrusters on the Nauka module, delivered by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, has yet to be determined, NASA officials said.

Montalbano said there was no immediate sign of any damage to the space station. The flight correction maneuvers used up more propellant reserves than desired, "but nothing I would worry about," he said.

After its launch last week from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome, the module experienced a series of glitches that raised concern about whether the docking procedure would go smoothly.

Roscosmos attributed Thursday's post-docking issue to Nauka's engines having to work with residual fuel in the craft, TASS news agency reported.

"The process of transferring the Nauka module from flight mode to 'docked with ISS' mode is underway. Work is being carried out on the remaining fuel in the module," Roscosmos was cited by TASS as saying.

The Nauka module is designed to serve as a research lab, storage unit and airlock that will upgrade Russia's capabilities aboard the ISS.

A live broadcast showed the module, named after the Russian word for "science," docking with the space station a few minutes later than scheduled.

"According to telemetry data and reports from the ISS crew, the onboard systems of the station and the Nauka module are operating normally," Roscosmos said in a statement.

"There is contact!!!" Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, wrote on Twitter moments after the docking.

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