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New Biden administration expected to focus on US-Russia relations

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The election of Joe Biden as the next US president will trigger significant changes across a whole range of foreign policy issues. Russia, decried as the US enemy, could bear the biggest brunt of the White House’s foreign policy agenda. 

Troubled by the four chaotic years of the departing Trump administration, Biden's team from its first days will likely proceed by delivering more consistency in policy matters and restoring American advocacy for democratic values.

Clearly, this doesn't bode well for the autocratic regimes and their agents worldwide that have been able to bolster their authority over the past few years – especially since Biden, a career politician, represents a more traditional American school of international relations. And even if there is widespread anticipation of returning to the Obama years' foreign policy, it’s equally true that many impulses of the US approach to global affairs will be rather different under a president Biden.

While policy towards China is likely to to remain similar in practice– if not necessarily in rhetoric – the US attitude towards one country in particular is set for a wholesale change: Russia. The Kremlin and its well documented kleptocracy have been handled with velvet gloves under Trump, as was made clear once again in the context of the recent cyber-attack against US institutions. Trump  contradicted his Secretary of State and other top officials when he suggested - without evidence - that China, not Russia, may be behind one of the largest cyber-attacks in US history.

Biden’s tone was markedly different, even if he did not mention Russia by name. "A good defence isn't enough," Biden said in a statement about the cyber hack and vowed to impose "substantial costs on those responsible for such malicious attacks, including in coordination with our allies and partners."

However, it’s evident that the incoming administration will not only punish Russia for the cyberattack and other issuesignored by the Trump administration, including the poisoning of Alexey Navalny – it will also proceed with more significantdiplomatic and legal pressure. This impact may be felt most profoundly by government agencies and their staff, but it is likely it will notably impact private citizens as well. Consequently, sanctions are set to remain  a significant part of the US toolkit for dealing with Russia, although their utilization will likely occur alongside other tools.

One of the potential areas that the Biden administration could take a more concerted effort would be to disrupt money-laundering operations by Russian citizens in the US, in line with the US National Security Strategy of December 2017, which identified Russian dark money laundered in the US as “a key element of domestic security, not only foreign policy.”  Indeed, shady Russian funds have been pouring into offshores and Western nations for decades. In a notable instance, Yegor Gaidar, a reformist Russian prime minister in the earliest post-communist days, asked the United States for help hunting down the billions that the KGB had carted away.

Whereas the exact amount of Russian money with unproven origin in the U.S. remains unknown, the problem’s scale could be bigger than originally thought.

In the altered environment which is likely to result from Biden's election, and the greater willingness to pay attention to those guilty of financial crime, it is possible that the presence of such individuals in the United States will come under increased scrutiny. This is especially true given Trump’s own alleged ties to Vladimir Putin and his cronies, which requires a far-reaching re-evaluation of what Russia’s illicit money flows into the US really man for the country.

Indeed, the issue goes way beyond mere diplomatic relations. In the end, this is a matter of national security for the United States and poses the question over whether individuals should be allowed to use the United States as a safe haven from legitimate scrutiny of their illegitimate business practices and also somehow manage to exert influence over the U.S. politicians. In a post-Tump America, that question should be answered with a resounding 'No'.

EU

Europeans push IAEA Iran resolution despite warnings by Russia and Tehran

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Britain, France and Germany are pressing ahead with a US-backed plan for a resolution by the UN nuclear watchdog’s board criticising Iran for curbing co-operation with the agency, despite Russian and Iranian warnings of serious consequences, writes Francois Murphy.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors is holding a quarterly meeting this week against the backdrop of faltering efforts to revive Iran’s nuclear deal with major powers now that US President Joe Biden is in office.

Iran has recently accelerated its violations of the 2015 deal in an apparent bid to raise pressure on Biden, as each side insists the other must move first.

Tehran’s breaches are a response to the US withdrawal from the deal in 2018 and the reimposition of U.S. sanctions that had been lifted under it.

The latest breach was to scale back co-operation with the IAEA last week, ending extra inspection and monitoring measures introduced by the deal, including the power given to the IAEA to carry out snap inspections at facilities not declared by Iran.

The three European powers, all parties to the 2015 deal, circulated a draft resolution for the Vienna meeting voicing “serious concern” at Iran’s reduced cooperation and urging Iran to reverse its steps.

The draft, sent to IAEA board members and obtained by Reuters, also expresses “deep concern” at Iran’s failure to explain uranium particles found at three old sites, including two that the IAEA first reported on last week.

Iran has bristled at the prospect of such criticism, threatening to cancel a deal struck a week ago with the IAEA to temporarily continue many of the monitoring measures it had decided to end - a black-box-type arrangement valid for up to three months and aimed at creating a window for diplomacy.

Diplomacy, however, is making limited progress. Iran said on Sunday it would not take up a European Union proposal to hold a meeting with other parties to the deal and the United States.

It is unclear how many countries would support a resolution. In a position paper obtained by Reuters before Iran’s announcement, Russia warned that a resolution could hurt efforts to revive the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and that it would oppose it.

“Adoption of the resolution will not help the political process of returning to the normal comprehensive implementation of the JCPOA,” Russia’s note to member states said.

“On the contrary it will hugely complicate those efforts undermining the prospects for the restoration of the JCPOA and for normal cooperation between Iran and the Agency.”

Asked about the tussle, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi said he did not want anything to jeopardise his inspectors’ work in the Islamic Republic.

“What I hope is that the work of the agency will be preserved. This is essential,” he told a news conference, before taking an apparent swipe at Iran over its threat.

“The inspection work of the IAEA should not be put in the middle of a negotiating table as a bargaining chip.”

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coronavirus

Russian scientists say Sputnik V performs well against COVID mutations

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A Russian trial testing the effectiveness of revaccination with the Sputnik V shot to protect against new mutations of the coronavirus is producing strong results, researchers said on Saturday (27 February), writes Polina Ivanova.

Last month President Vladimir Putin ordered a review by March 15 of Russian-produced vaccines for their effectiveness against new variants spreading in different parts of the world.

“(A) recent study carried out by the Gamaleya Centre in Russia showed that revaccination with Sputnik V vaccine is working very well against new coronavirus mutations, including the UK and South African strains of coronavirus,” said Denis Logunov, a deputy director of the centre, which developed the Sputnik V shot.

Results of the trial are expected to be published soon, but this was the first indication of how the tests are going. No further details were available yet.

So-called viral vector shots - such as Sputnik V and a shot developed by AstraZeneca - use harmless modified viruses as vehicles, or vectors, to carry genetic information that helps the body build immunity against future infections.

The revaccination used the same Sputnik V shot, based upon the same adenovirus vectors. The trial indicated this did not impact effectiveness, Logunov said in a statement to Reuters.

Some scientists have raised the possible risk that the body also develops immunity to the vector itself, recognising it as an intruder and trying to destroy it.

But developers of Sputnik V disagreed this would pose long-term problems.

“We believe that vector-based vaccines are actually better for future revaccinations than vaccines based on other platforms,” Logunov said.

He said that the researchers found that antibodies specific to the vectors used by the shot - which could generate an anti-vector reaction and undermine the work of the shot itself - waned “as early as 56 days after vaccination”.

This conclusion was based on a trial of a vaccine against Ebola developed earlier by the Gamaleya Institute using the same approach as for the Sputnik V shot.

Vector immunity is not a new issue but has come under renewed scrutiny as companies including Johnson & Johnson anticipate regular COVID-19 vaccinations, like annual influenza shots, may be needed to combat new variants of the coronavirus.

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Armenia

Armenian PM warns of coup attempt after army demands he quit

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Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan (pictured) warned of an attempted military coup against him on Thursday (25 February) and called on his supporters to rally in the capital after the army demanded he and his government resign, writes Nvard Hovhannisyan.

The Kremlin, an ally of Armenia, said it was alarmed by events in the former Soviet republic, where Russia has a military base, and urged the sides to resolve the situation peacefully and within the framework of the constitution.

Pashinyan has faced calls to quit since November after what critics said was his disastrous handling of a six-week conflict between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and surrounding areas.

Ethnic Armenian forces ceded swathes of territory to Azerbaijan in the fighting, and Russian peacekeepers have been deployed to the enclave, which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but populated by ethnic Armenians.

Pashinyan, 45, has repeatedly rejected calls to step down despite opposition protests. He says he takes responsibility for what happened but now needs to ensure his country’s security.

On Thursday, the army added its voice to those calling for him to resign.

“The ineffective management of the current government and the serious mistakes in foreign policy have put the country on the brink of collapse,” the army said in a statement.

It was unclear whether the army was willing to use force to back the statement, in which it called for Pashinyan to resign, or whether its call for him to step down was just verbal.

Pashinyan responded by calling on his followers to rally in the centre of the capital, Yerevan, to support him and took to Facebook to address the nation in a livestream.

“The most important problem now is to keep the power in the hands of the people, because I consider what is happening to be a military coup,” he said.

In the livestream, he said he had dismissed the head of the general staff of the armed forces, a move that still needs to be signed off by the president.

Pashinyan said a replacement would be announced later and that the crisis would be overcome constitutionally. Some of his opponents said they also planned to rally in the centre of Yerevan later on Thursday.

Arayik Harutyunyan, president of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, offered to act as a mediator between Pashinyan and the general staff.

“We have already shed enough blood. It’s time to overcome the crises and move on. I’m in Yerevan and I’m ready to become a mediator to overcome this political crisis,” he said.

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