British Man Admits Treason Over Crossbow Plot Against Queen

A British man who broke into Windsor Castle Christmas Day 2021 and threatened Queen Elizabeth with a crossbow has pleaded guilty to treason charges Friday in a London court.

Appearing before London’s Old Bailey Court via video link, 21-year-old Jaswant Singh Chail of South Hampton pleaded guilty to an offense under the British Treason Act of 1842, and to threatening to kill the queen. Charges under the act are rare, the last person to plead guilty under the act was in 1981.

Prosecutors say Chail was arrested shortly after 8 a.m. Christmas Day 2021 by a royal protection officer on the private grounds of Windsor Castle. Queen Elizabeth, who died in September 2022 at age 96, then-Prince Charles and other family members were staying at the castle during the holidays. Chail was never near the royal family.

At the time of his arrest Chail was dressed in black clothing and wearing a hood, a metal mask, gloves and carrying a powerful crossbow. He reportedly told the protection officer, “I am here to kill the queen.”

Prosecutors said Chail had recorded a video and posted it to the social media platform Snapchat before he entered the grounds of the castle. In it, he said he was sorry for what he was about to do. He said it was revenge “for those who died in the 1919 massacre.”

He was apparently referring to an incident when British colonial troops opened fire on unarmed civilians protesting a colonial law in their holy city of Amritsar in northwestern India. Nearly 400 Sikh Indians were killed in what has become known as the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. India has long demanded an apology for the incident.

In court Friday, Judge Jeremy Baker scheduled sentencing for Chail on March 31, and the court ordered medical reports regarding Chail’s mental state to be provided.

Some information for this report was provided by Reuters.

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Cherokee People Demand US Fulfill 200-Year-Old Promise

Nearly 200 years ago, the U.S. government promised the Cherokee people a seat in Congress in exchange for their homelands. So far, it has not delivered. Today, the Cherokee people are calling for Congress to fulfill that promise, but there is disagreement over which of three Cherokee tribes should get the delegate seat. Maxim Moskalkov has the story. Camera: Dana Preobrazhenskaya

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US Postpones Blinken’s China Trip After Spy Balloon Discovery

The U.S. State Department says it is postponing a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing, after a Chinese balloon was discovered hovering over American airspace.

Blinken was expected to travel to Beijing for meetings with China’s leader Xi Jinping and other top officials in the coming days. Officials did not say when they expect it to be rescheduled.

China acknowledged Friday the balloon that U.S. officials tracked from Alaska and down to Montana in recent days was theirs, although they said it was a weather balloon that had inadvertently strayed off course.

The U.S. Defense Department has said it is monitoring the balloon, which is traveling high above commercial air traffic. Officials said it does not pose a military or physical threat to people on the ground.   

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Ukraine’s Zelenskyy Meets with European Leaders

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is meeting with European leaders in Kyiv on Friday. He is hoping to extract a fast-track promise for his country’s entry into the European Union and gain the imposition of more sanctions on Russia at the summit.

Analysts, however, say that his hopes of an expedited path into the EU will likely be dashed, despite his country’s dire need for the alliance’s support during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While the EU has been supportive of Ukraine, it has not shown any indication that it is willing to speed up the membership process.

Ahead of Friday’s summit, Zelenskyy met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. In his daily address Thursday, Zelenskyy thanked von der Leyen, “her colleagues and our friends in the EU for their tangible support on the path of integration and in protecting our country and people.”

Meanwhile, Britain’s Defense Ministry said Friday that the Wagner Group’s recruitment of convicts has dropped “significantly.”  The ministry said the Russian Federal Penal Service experienced a decrease of just 6,000 inmates since November.  In comparison, the penal service had reported a drop of 23,000 inmates from September to November 2022. “Wagner recruitment was likely a major contributing factor to this drop,” the British ministry said.

Russia launched new airstrikes on residential areas in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk on Thursday, even as top European Union officials gathered in Kyiv in a new show of support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s nearly yearlong invasion.

An attack on Kramatorsk late Wednesday killed at least three people and injured another 21, authorities said, with a search under way for at least one more victim thought to be under the debris caused by a missile strike.

“Kramatorsk again shattered by explosions — the Russians made two more rocket strikes,” regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko wrote in a Telegram post.

He said at least five civilians were wounded in the latest strikes that hit residential buildings as well as a children’s clinic and a school in the heart of the city, a major hub for the Ukrainian military in the east. Russia has frequently struck apartment buildings in the war that it launched Feb. 24, while denying it is targeting residential structures.

The Ukrainian presidential office said overall in the last day, Russian shelling in Ukraine had killed at least eight civilians and wounded 29 others.

US sanctions

The United States on Wednesday blacklisted more business officials linked to Russia’s war on Ukraine, targeting an arms dealer, his son and a group of proxy companies across Asia, Europe and the Middle East for trying to help Moscow obtain more weapons for its nearly yearlong fight.

The U.S. Treasury Department unveiled sanctions against Russian arms dealer Igor Zimenkov, his son Jonatan and companies connected to “the Zimenkov network” in Singapore, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Israel, among other countries.

“Russia’s desperate attempts to utilize proxies to circumvent U.S. sanctions demonstrate that sanctions have made it much harder and costlier for Russia’s military-industrial complex to resupply [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war machine,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said.

Treasury named 22 people and organizations it said were linked to the sanctions-evasion network supporting Russia’s military-industrial complex. Over the last year, the department said it had sanctioned more than 100 people and entities engaging in activities to circumvent international sanctions and export controls imposed on Russia.

The blacklisting blocks any U.S. accounts they may own and prohibits them from doing business in the United States and with Americans.

“Targeting proxies is one of many steps that Treasury and our coalition of partners have taken, and continue to take, to tighten sanctions enforcement against Russia’s defense sector, its benefactors and its supporters,” Adeyemo said.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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NATO Urges Russia to Comply With Last US Nuclear Treaty

NATO on Friday expressed concern that Russia was failing to comply with its last remaining nuclear arms control treaty with the United States. 

As tensions soar over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leading NATO power the United States has accused Moscow of not meeting its commitments under the decade-old New START pact. 

On Tuesday, Washington slammed Russia for suspending inspections under the treaty and cancelling talks but did not accuse its Cold War rival of expanding its nuclear warhead arsenal beyond agreed limits.

“NATO allies agree the New START treaty contributes to international stability by constraining Russian and US strategic nuclear forces,” the 30-strong alliance said in a statement. 

“Therefore, we note with concern that Russia has failed to comply with legally binding obligations under the New START treaty.”

NATO member states said they “call on Russia to fulfil its obligations” by allowing inspections and returning to talks. 

Russia has hit back at Washington by accusing it of destroying weapons control agreements between the two countries. 

Diplomacy between the two powers has ground to a bare minimum over the past year as the United States leads a drive to sanction Russia and arm Ukraine with billions of dollars in weapons. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons, reviving Cold War era fears.

Moscow announced in early August that it was suspending U.S. inspections of its military sites under New START. It said it was responding to American obstruction of inspections by Russia, a charge denied by Washington.

The Kremlin then indefinitely postponed talks under New START that had been due to start on November 29 in Cairo, accusing the United States of “toxicity and animosity.” 

New START, signed by then President Barack Obama in 2010 when relations were warmer, restricted Russia and the United States to a maximum of 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads each — a reduction of nearly 30 percent from the previous limit set in 2002. 

It also limits the number of launchers and heavy bombers to 800, still easily enough to destroy human life on Earth.

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VOA’s Firsthand Look at US Troops Closest to Ukraine Fight

On a freezing, windy day in eastern Romania, U.S. Army Sergeant Chase Williams is urging a team of soldiers to jump out of a hovering Blackhawk and rappel 25 meters to the snow-covered ground below.

“You know you just got to get over that fear. You just got to get over that ledge the first time,” Williams says of the 101st Airborne Division’s Air Assault course, a grueling program that some soldiers refer to as “the 10 toughest days in the Army.”

Williams and his fellow trainers have taught the 10-day program several times since last summer when 4,700 troops with the 101st Airborne Division deployed across eastern Europe, but the iteration completed this week was unique. For the first time ever, soldiers in the division offered their punishing air assault course to partners on European soil.

Graduates from the course at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base included U.S., Romanian, Dutch, French and Slovak soldiers.

It’s the latest example of how the division, deployed to Europe for the first time since World War II, is bolstering NATO’s eastern flank in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In Romania, U.S. troop numbers have tripled from approximately 1,000 troops in January 2022 to about 3,000 today. A high-end missile launched from Russian-controlled Crimea could reach the soldiers based along the Black Sea in about seven minutes, according to U.S. Army Colonel Ed Matthaidess, commander of the 101st’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

“We are the closest U.S. Army formation to the fight in Ukraine right now,” Matthaidess told VOA.

Since their arrival, the 101st has spread out to fortify its positions across the country, and in other nations on NATO’s eastern flank.

“We’ve prepared our force for whatever eventuality, so we’ve reinforced protection around Mihail Kogalniceanu. We’ve dispersed our forces so we’re not a single target,” Matthaidess said.

During a helicopter ride along Romania’s coastline to the border with Ukraine, Matthaidess showed VOA how U.S. forces are holding the line with NATO allies.

“We’re taking it as close as we can to combat, right? So, we’re preparing for large-scale operations,” he said. “We’re exercising on the ground with which we might fight if we have to defend NATO.”

At a forward operating post just a few kilometers away from Ukrainian territory, several Humvees — some capable of carrying TOW antitank missiles, others equipped with a heavy machine gun or heavy grenade launcher — were gathering at a range for target practice.

Further south at an outpost filled with old farm buildings, U.S. soldiers trained Romanians on how to maneuver in urban terrain, going door-to-door clearing the area.

Matthaidess said the U.S. team has been watching Russian tactics in neighboring Ukraine “closely” and has adapted their training with partners to better suit what they see on the battlefield.

“We just got done with a big series of live fires, where we were attacking some trench lines that look very similar to what you might see across the border,” he told VOA.

The team also started incorporating small drones in some exercises, shooting down systems “very similar to what’s flooding the battlefield right now” in Ukraine, he added.

The 2nd Brigade Combat Team will leave Romania in a couple of months, but the Pentagon recently confirmed that the U.S. military’s increased presence in the country will continue at least through this year. The 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team is set to replace Matthaidess’ team in what is expected to be a nine-month deployment.

That’s reassuring to Major General Ciprian Marin, chief of the Romanian military’s Operations Directorate, who says he wants more U.S. troops and more partnered training.

During the 101st Airborne Division’s deployment, Romanian forces have been honing their existing defense skills with the Americans, while in the case of the air assault course, acquiring a new capability that Romanian ground forces didn’t have before this week.

“With war, it’s about life and death, and [working together] makes the difference between failure and success. So, if you want to be successful, we are to be together, to stick together, and build this interoperability,” Marin said.

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Taiwan Legislator Criticizes China Response to Possible Taipei Visit by US Official

The president of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan is calling China’s response to the possibility of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s visiting Taiwan “excessive,” saying that exchanges between Taiwan’s unicameral legislature and the legislatures of the United States, Europe, Japan and other countries are the norm in democracies.

Washington’s Punchbowl News, which specializes in political news, reported on Jan. 23, citing officials familiar with the matter, that the Pentagon was making preliminary preparations for McCarthy’s travels this year, including a visit to Taiwan this spring. Because former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August triggered China’s large-scale military drill focused on Taiwan, planning for McCarthy’s visit would need to consider China’s possible response as well as more routine security and logistical arrangements.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Monday, “China opposes any form of official interaction between its Taiwan region and countries having diplomatic ties with China. We hope U.S. lawmakers will abide by the one-China principle and the three China-US joint communiqués and refrain from doing things detrimental to China-US relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” China sees self-governing Taiwan as a rebellious province.

You Si-kun, who was in Washington to deliver a speech on Taiwan’s democratic journey at the 2023 International Religious Freedom Summit (IRFS) on Wednesday and the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday said after the first event that Beijing’s reactions “are very excessive. Sometimes they [China] say they are a democratic country, but in a democratic country, congressional exchanges are very normal. Their reaction, on the contrary, proves that they are not a democratic country.”

He continued, “Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan maintains very close communication with the U.S. Congress and American executive officials. Not only that, but Taiwan also maintains close communication with the European Congress and Japan. Any communication or visits by U.S. congressional members or the speaker to Taiwan is very normal in democratic politics.”

He also stressed Taiwan’s strategic importance at the center of key global sea lanes and as an important producer of semiconductors.

“So it’s very important to safeguard Taiwan, especially its democracy,” he said.

“If Taiwan falls into the sphere of influence of CCP, then the beacon of democracy will be destroyed. And China may invade the first island chain, and will cause a threat to the entire world,” You said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party and its ambitions in the Pacific region.

You said China will react to whatever Taiwan does. He said during a recent visit to Europe, the Chinese embassies protested his presence at each stop because if they hadn’t, they would “be unable to survive or get promoted.”

You told VOA Mandarin that he will continue, as he has since 2018, to advocate in favor of the U.S. recognizing Taiwan and establishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan. He said this idea is gaining ground among members of Congress.

There is growing bipartisan support for the United States to sign a bilateral trade agreement with Taiwan, and in September, President Joe Biden approved $1.1 billion in arms sales to Taiwan, a move that China condemned.

At the religious freedom summit, You said Taiwan’s political development has made the island a “beacon of democracy for Chinese-speaking peoples.” He contrasted that with sentiment attributed to former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, holding that “human rights and democracy are imported from the West and not suitable for Asian countries.”

“Taiwan has shown that democracy, born of the West, can indeed flourish in Chinese-speaking regions,” You said.

During his speech, You criticized the CCP’s persecution of religious minorities and said the international community should pay attention to China’s lack of religious freedom, because it’s the cornerstone of human rights and the core of democratic values.

Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s representative to the U.S. who accompanied You, said exchanges between Taiwan’s Yuan and other countries’ legislatures have been going on for decades, and are in line with international standards.

Hsiao also said it is important to keep peace in the Taiwan Strait.

“The people of Taiwan — and I believe the people of the U.S. as well — feel strongly that our freedom and democracy must be guaranteed. We need an environment of peace, an environment that does not allow the use of force to change the status quo. I think that is a very important part in our common interest.”

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Italian Mafia Killer Arrested in France at Pizza Parlor

The downfall of a convicted mafia killer, on the run since 2006, came about in a French pizza parlor.

Edgardo Greco was so confident in his alias as Paolo Dimitrio that he felt free to do an interview with a local Saint-Etienne newspaper in 2021 and even allowed the paper to take and publish a photograph of him.

Greco’s interview about the wonderful Italian cooking at his restaurant in the French newspaper was the beginning of the end for him. The 63-year-old mobster, alleged to be a member of the infamous ‘Ndrangheta organized crime mob, was convicted in an Italian court of the 1991 murders of two brothers whose bodies were never found and the attempted murder of another man.

Italian and French authorities worked together with Interpol, and Greco was identified and arrested.

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US Reunites Nearly 700 Kids Taken from Parents Under Trump

A Biden administration task force designed to reunite children separated from their families during the Trump administration has reconnected nearly 700 children with their families, officials said Thursday.

President Joe Biden issued an executive order on his first day in office to reunite families that were split up under Trump’s widely condemned practice of forcibly separating parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border to discourage illegal immigration. Thursday marked the two-year anniversary of the task force.

According to figures released by the Department of Homeland Security, 3,881 children were separated from their families from 2017 to 2021. About 74% of those have been reunited with their families: 2,176 before the task force was created and 689 afterward.

But that still leaves nearly 1,000 children. Of those, 148 are in the reunification process. The department pledged to continue the work until all separated families that can be found have the opportunity to reunite with their children.

The Trump administration separated thousands of migrant parents from their children as it moved to criminally prosecute people for illegally crossing the southwestern border. Minors, who could not be held in criminal custody with their parents, were transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services. They were then typically sent to live with a sponsor, often a relative or someone else with a connection to the family.

Hundreds of families have sued the federal government.

Families can register for reunification services through a website and can get help with steps such as applying for humanitarian parole that would allow them to come to the U.S., as well as for behavioral health services to help them.

During a meeting Thursday with reporters, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas discussed efforts to address “the wounds” the separations had caused.

He described meeting the mother of a teenager who had been separated from her mom when she was 13 and then reunited with her when she was 16. But Mayorkas said, the woman relayed how her teenage daughter “still could not understand how her mother would let her be separated. She didn’t understand the force behind the separation.”

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Don’t Underestimate Xi’s Ambitions Toward Taiwan, CIA Says

CIA Director William Burns said Thursday that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitions toward Taiwan should not be underestimated, despite him likely being sobered by the performance of Russia’s military in Ukraine.

Burns said that the United States knew “as a matter of intelligence” that Xi had ordered his military to be ready to conduct an invasion of self-governed Taiwan by 2027.

“Now, that does not mean that he’s decided to conduct an invasion in 2027, or any other year, but it’s a reminder of the seriousness of his focus and his ambition,” Burns told an event at Georgetown University in Washington.

“Our assessment at CIA is that I wouldn’t underestimate President Xi’s ambitions with regard to Taiwan,” he said, adding that the Chinese leader was likely “surprised and unsettled” and trying to draw lessons by the “very poor performance” of the Russian military and its weapons systems in Ukraine.

Russia and China signed a “no limits” partnership last February shortly before Russian forces invaded Ukraine, and their economic links have boomed as Russia’s connections with the West have shriveled.

The Russian invasion had fueled concerns in the West of China possibly making a similar move on Taiwan, a democratic island Beijing claims as its territory.

China has refrained from condemning Russia’s operation against Ukraine, but it has been careful not to provide the sort of direct material support that could provoke Western sanctions like those imposed on Moscow.

“I think it’s a mistake to underestimate the mutual commitment to that partnership, but it’s not a friendship totally without limits,” Burns said.

As Burns spoke, news came from U.S. officials that a suspected Chinese spy balloon had been flying over the United States for a few days, and that senior U.S. officials had advised President Joe Biden against shooting it down for fear the debris could pose a safety threat.

Burns made no mention of the episode but called China the “biggest geopolitical challenge” currently faced by the United States.

“Competition with China is unique in its scale, and that it really, you know, unfolds over just about every domain, not just military, and ideological, but economic, technological, everything from cyberspace, to space itself as well. It’s a global competition in ways that could be even more intense than competition with the Soviets was,” he said.

There was no immediate comment from China’s Washington embassy about the remarks from Burns or the balloon flight.

On other topics, Burns said the next six months will be critical for Ukraine, where Moscow has been making incremental gains in recent weeks.

He also said Iran’s government was increasingly unsettled by affairs within the country, citing the courage of what he described as “fed up” Iranian women. 

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France Seeks Strategy as Nuclear Waste Site Risks Saturation Point

At a nuclear waste site in Normandy, robotic arms guided by technicians behind a protective shield maneuver a pipe that will turn radioactive chemicals into glass as France seeks to make safe the byproducts of its growing reliance on atomic power.

The fuel-cooling pools in La Hague, on the country’s northwestern tip, could be full by the end of the decade and state-owned Orano, which runs them, says the government needs to outline a long-term strategy to modernize its aging facilities no later than 2025.

While more nuclear energy can help France and other countries to reduce planet-warming emissions, environmental campaigners say it replaces one problem with another.

To seek solutions, President Emmanuel Macron, who has announced plans to build at least six new reactors by 2050, on Friday chairs the first of a series of meetings on nuclear policy that will discuss investments and waste recycling.

“We can’t have a responsible nuclear policy without taking into account the handling of used fuel and waste. It’s a subject we can’t sweep under the rug,” a government adviser told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We have real skills and a real technological advantage, especially over the United States. Russia is the only other country that is able to do what France does in terms of treatment and recycling.”

La Hague is the country’s sole site able to process and partially recycle used nuclear fuel.

France historically has relied on nuclear power for around 70% of its energy, although the share is likely to have fallen last year as the nuclear fleet suffered repeated outages.

Since the launch of the site at La Hague in 1976, it has treated nearly 40,000 tons of radioactive material and recycled some into nuclear fuel that can be reused. The waste that cannot be recycled is mixed with hardening slices of glass and buried for short-term storage underground.

But its four existing cooling pools for spent fuel rods and recycled fuel that has been reused risk saturation by 2030, according to French power giant EDF, which runs France’s 56-strong fleet of reactors, the world’s second biggest after the United States.

Should saturation happen, France’s reactors would have nowhere to place their spent fuel and would have to shut down — a worst-case scenario that led France’s Court of Audit to designate La Hague as “an important vulnerability point” in 2019.

Cool pools and deep clay

EDF is hurrying to build an extra refrigerated pool at La Hague, at a cost of $1.37 billion, to store spent nuclear fuel — a first step before the waste can be treated — but that will not be ready until 2034 at the earliest.

Meanwhile, France’s national agency for managing nuclear waste last month requested approval for a project to store permanently high-level radioactive waste.

The plan, called Cigéo, would involve placing the waste 500 meters below ground in a clay formation in eastern France.

Construction is expected in 2027 if it gets approval. Among those opposed to it are residents of the nearby village of Bure and anti-nuclear campaigners.

Jean-Christophe Varin, deputy director of the La Hague site, told Reuters Orano could be flexible to ensure more recycling is done at the facility and there were “several possible scenarios.”

However, he said they could not be worked on in detail in the absence of a strategic vision. Orano, for which EDF accounts for 95% of its recycling business, says it needs clear direction from the government no later than 2025, to give it time to plan the necessary investments.

The costs are likely to be high. Just keeping up with current operations at La Hague costs nearly $330 million a year.

Options EDF and Orano are considering include finding a way to recycle the used fuel more than once, but critics say the recycling itself creates more radioactive waste and is not a long-term solution. For now, the backup plan is to fit more fuel containers into the existing pools.

After being cooled in a pool for about seven years, used nuclear fuel is separated into non-recyclable leftovers that are turned into glass (4% of the material), plutonium (1%) to create a new nuclear fuel called MOX, on which around 40% of France’s reactors can run, and reprocessed uranium (95%).

The uranium in the past was sent to Russia for reenrichment and return for use in some EDF reactors, but EDF stopped doing that in 2013 as it was too costly.

In spite of the war in Ukraine, which has made many in the West avoid doing business with Russia, EDF is expected to resume sending uranium to Russia this year as the only country able to process it. It declined to confirm to Reuters it would do so.

The facility at La Hague, with its 1980s-era buildings and Star Wars-style control rooms, has its limitations.

“If we had to process MOX fuel in large quantities, the facility today isn’t adapted for it,” Varin said. “For multicycle recycling, the technology is not the same, so the modernization or replacement of installations” would require “significant” investments, he said.

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Russia Developing Weapons to Target Critical Subsea Cables, Pipelines

Western naval forces are having to adapt to a new threat as Russia and other military powers develop new capabilities to target critical undersea infrastructure such as pipelines and cables.

The vulnerability of such infrastructure has long been recognized. Those concerns turned to reality in September last year, as the Nord Stream pipelines that carried gas from Russia to Germany ruptured spectacularly on the Baltic seabed near the Danish island of Bornholm, sending huge volumes of gas bubbling to the surface.

Swedish investigators found traces of explosives at the site. The West suspects Russia of sabotage. The Kremlin denies this and accuses Western nations of staging the attack.

“There has been a growing awareness of the vulnerability of critical national infrastructure, but the event in the Baltic Sea certainly brought the issue into sharp relief,” said analyst Sidharth Kaushal of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, author of a recent report titled Navies and Economic Warfare.


Subsea defense

Days after the incident, Britain announced plans to enhance its undersea defense capabilities.

“Our internet and energy are highly reliant on pipelines and cables,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said October 2. “Russia makes no secret of its ability to target such infrastructure. So for that reason, I can announce we’ve recently committed to two specialist ships with the capability to keep our cables and pipelines safe.”

The first of those vessels is being fitted out by the British navy at a shipyard outside Liverpool and is due to enter service this year. It is designed to act as a “mother ship,” operating remote and autonomous systems for underwater surveillance and seabed warfare.

Millions of kilometers of undersea cables and pipelines carry the energy and data that power the global economy, Kaushal said. “A number of challengers to the West, Russia most notably, are developing bespoke capabilities to target precisely these vulnerabilities, things like special purpose submarines,” he told VOA.

Russia denies sabotaging the Nord Stream pipelines. But observers say the Kremlin increasingly sees Western subsea infrastructure as a vulnerability. In December, President Vladimir Putin oversaw the launch of four new naval vessels, including two nuclear-powered submarines. “They have highly accurate weapons and robotic complexes,” Putin announced.


Faced with that threat, NATO and the European Union last month launched a joint task force on protecting critical infrastructure. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg outlined the alliance’s posture at a meeting of defense ministers in October.

“Any deliberate attack against allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response. … Hybrid and cyberattacks can trigger Article 5 [on collective self-defense], can constitute an armed attack against a NATO ally,” Stoltenberg said October 11.

The West must clarify its rules of engagement, analyst Kaushal said.

“What does one actually do when one observes, for example, a submarine tampering with critical national infrastructure, but not in a way that necessarily leads to an immediate loss of life?” Kaushal said.

“So actually, it’s more a question of how you change organizational practices to deal with this sort of activity.”

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Russia Developing Weapons to Target Critical Subsea Cables, Pipelines

Western naval forces are having to adapt to a new threat as adversaries develop new capabilities to target critical undersea infrastructure such as gas pipelines and cables. Henry Ridgwell reports.

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Biden to Give Second State of the Union Address Before Less Friendly Audience

Will President Joe Biden’s second State of the Union speech be a rerun of the first, or will he cover new ground? Analysts lay out what they expect to hear from him. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Washington.

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Eye Drops Recalled After US Drug-Resistant Bacteria Outbreak

U.S. health officials said Thursday a company is recalling its over-the-counter eye drops that have been linked to an outbreak of drug-resistant infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week sent a health alert to doctors, saying the outbreak included at least 55 people in 12 states. One died and at least five others had permanent vision loss.

The infections, including some found in blood, urine and lungs, were linked to EzriCare Artificial Tears. Many said they had used the product, which is a lubricant used to treat irritation and dryness.

The eye drops are sold under the name EzriCare and are made in India by Global Pharma Healthcare. The Food and Drug Administration said the company recalled unexpired lots of EzriCare Artificial Tears and another product, Delsam Pharma’s Artificial Tears.

The FDA recommended the recall based on manufacturing problems including lack of testing and proper controls on packaging. The agency also blocked import into the United States.

The infections were caused by a bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Investigators detected it in open EzriCare bottles, but further testing was underway.

EzriCare, the company that markets the eye drops in the U.S., said it is not aware of any evidence definitively linking the outbreak to the product, but that it has stopped distributing the eye drops. It also has a notice on its website urging consumers to stop using the product.

Infections were diagnosed in patients in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Nevada, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin. A person in Washington died with a blood infection.

The outbreak is considered particularly worrisome because the bacteria driving it are resistant to standard antibiotics.

Investigators found the bacteria were not susceptible to any antibiotics routinely tested at public health laboratories. However, a newer antibiotic named cefiderocol seemed to work.

How could eye drops cause infections in the blood or lungs? The eye connects to the nasal cavity through the tear ducts. Bacteria can move from the nasal cavity into the lungs. Also, bacteria in these parts of the body can seed infections at other sites such as in the blood or wounds, CDC officials said.

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Russian Imports Rebound as Economy Looks Set for Growth

After struggling through much of 2022 under heavy international sanctions, the Russian economy has rebounded in recent months, as importers found new avenues of trade to bring consumer goods and other products into the country.

An International Monetary Fund report issued this week said the Russian economy would likely grow by 0.3% in 2023, rather than shrinking by 2.3% as it had previously projected.

The United States and its allies reacted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 with a harsh regime of sanctions and export controls that many expected to collapse the Russian economy. In addition, many international businesses sharply reduced their sales to Russia, while others ceased doing business in the country entirely.

New research suggests that alternate supply routes and the ability to substitute goods made in Russia-friendly countries, like China, for Western-made alternatives have brought Russian imports back to prewar levels.

Experts noted that the need to “transship” Western products through friendly third countries has driven up the prices Russians pay for many goods. Additionally, in many cases, Russians are being forced to settle for some lower-quality substitutes, especially in the consumer electronics space.

However, the possibility that widespread shortages within Russia will force the Kremlin to give up on its invasion of Ukraine in the near term looks increasingly remote.

Main goal of sanctions

Western sanctions on Russia were aimed primarily at the Russian military and were meant to make it difficult for the Kremlin to access the supplies and equipment, particularly advanced technology like microprocessors, necessary for the war effort in Ukraine.

“The Russian sanctions are not comprehensive,” Jeffrey J. Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told VOA. “They are designed to impair Russia’s military capability and make it difficult for the Russian regime to continue its military effort, both because of lack of resources over time, and because of growing civilian discontent.”

Russia has been allowed to continue selling many of its main export goods into the global market, including oil, gas, coal, fertilizers, uranium and food, providing cash to fund imports.

In addition to export controls on specific products, the U.S. and its allies levied significant sanctions on the Russian financial sector. This had the effect of complicating many trade-related transactions for products that were not, themselves, subject to sanctions.

Experts said that much of the rebound in trade volume has been the result of merchants finding viable workarounds that allow them to finance the flow of non-sanctioned goods.

Rebounding imports

A recent report from the Silverado Policy Accelerator, a Washington nonprofit, found that while Russian imports plummeted in the months immediately after the invasion, the dollar value of imports had rebounded to near pre-war levels by September.

In the 12 months beginning in October 2021, exports to Russia from the European Union fell by $4.6 billion, or 52%. The U.S. and the United Kingdom, which had far less trade with Russia to begin with, nevertheless cut their exports to the country by 85% and 89%, respectively.

According to Silverado, the difference was made up by a number of countries that dramatically increased their exports to Russia, including China, Belarus, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Uzbekistan.

Additionally, the report found, “Exports from many other countries rebounded from their spring 2022 lows, and some post-Soviet states increased their trans-shipments of goods produced by multinational firms that no longer export the goods directly to Russia.”

For example, the report documents that after Apple and Samsung, two of the world’s largest makers of smartphones, stopped delivering their products to Russia, orders for their products eventually surged in Armenia and Kazakhstan, with the phones being shipped on to Russia.

‘Leakage’ expected

Experts said that while Russian imports of consumer goods may be approaching prewar levels, the blockade on military goods and advanced technology is still working reasonably well, if not perfectly.

Schott, of the Peterson Institute, said that sanctions are not “waterproof” and that all sanctions regimes experience some “leakage.”

“The longer sanctions are in place, the more time there is to try to figure out and negotiate workarounds — that happens everywhere,” he said. “If there’s enough economic incentive, people will take risks to profit from sanctions evasion.”

However, when it comes to military and high-tech gear, Schott said, “I’m not sure the leakage is comparable to what has happened in previous cases that have existed over time. I haven’t seen evidence of extensive violation of the sanctions.”

Measuring effectiveness

Bryan Early, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Albany, told VOA that even if some sanctioned products are making it through to Russia, the sanctions appear to have been broadly effective in that they have made it more difficult and expensive for Russia to acquire what it needs to continue to prosecute the war.

“Sanctions are never going to be perfect,” he said. “Your baseline is not, ‘Do they disrupt everything?’ It’s, ‘If the sanctions weren’t in place, how easily would these transactions be taking place? And how much more cheaply would they be taking place? And how much more reliable would those trade networks actually be?’”

Early referred to U.S. intelligence reports from last year that said Russia had been scavenging microchips from household appliances for use in military equipment.

“If one of the ways that the Russian government is getting around the multilateral sanctions on semiconductors is by importing additional washing machines through third parties, like Georgia, to use in their military products, yes, that’s a sign that sanctions are being evaded,” he said.

“But it’s also a sign that the sanctions are working very, very well, if the world’s second-largest largest military is importing semiconductors from washing machines through small regional neighbors,” he said.

New sanctions

On Wednesday, in a sign of some sanctions “leakage,” the U.S. Treasury Department barred trade with 22 individuals and companies that it accused of helping Russia’s military evade sanctions. The move was part of an ongoing effort “to methodically and intensively target sanctions evasion efforts around the globe, close down key backfilling channels, expose facilitators and enablers, and limit Russia’s access to revenue needed to wage its brutal war in Ukraine,” the department said in a press release.

Among others, the sanctions targeted Russian arms dealer Igor Zimenkov and his son, Jonatan Zimenkov, as well as several entities the department characterized as “front companies” that do business with the Zimenkovs.

“Russia’s desperate attempts to utilize proxies to circumvent U.S. sanctions demonstrate that sanctions have made it much harder and costlier for Russia’s military-industrial complex to resupply Putin’s war machine,” said Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “It has become increasingly difficult for Russia’s military-industrial complex to resupply the Kremlin’s war machine, forcing it to rely on nefarious suppliers, such as Iran and the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]. By trying to use proxies to circumvent U.S. sanctions, Russia demonstrates that our sanctions are having impact. Our work will continue.”

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House Republicans Vote to Oust Democrat Omar From Major Committee

The Republican-led House of Representatives voted after raucous debate Thursday to oust Democrat Ilhan Omar from the chamber’s Foreign Affairs Committee, citing her anti-Israel comments, in a dramatic escalation after Democrats last session booted far-right Republican lawmakers over incendiary remarks.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was able to solidify Republican support against the Somali-born Muslim woman in the new Congress, although some Republican lawmakers had expressed reservations. Removal of lawmakers from House committees was essentially unprecedented until the Democratic ousters two years ago of hard-right Republican Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona.

The 218-211 vote, along party lines, came after a heated, voices-raised debate in which Democrats accused Republicans of targeting Omar based on her race. Omar defended herself on the House floor, asking if anyone was surprised she was being targeted, “because when you push power, power pushes back.” Democratic colleagues hugged and embraced their colleague during the vote.

“My voice will get louder and stronger, and my leadership will be celebrated around the world,” Omar said in a closing speech.

Republicans focused on six statements Omar has made that, “under the totality of the circumstances, disqualify her from serving on the Committee of Foreign Affairs,” said Representative Michael Guest, a Mississippi Republican.

“All members, both Republicans and Democrats alike who seek to serve on Foreign Affairs, should be held to the highest standard of conduct due to the international sensitivity and national security concerns under the jurisdiction of this committee,” Guest said.

The resolution proposed by Republican Representative Max Miller of Ohio, who was a Trump administration official, declared, “Omar’s comments have brought dishonor to the House of Representatives.”

‘Political revenge’

Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York said Omar has at times “made mistakes” and used antisemitic tropes that were condemned by House Democrats four years ago. But that’s not what Thursday’s vote was about, he said.

“It’s not about accountability, it’s about political revenge,” Jeffries said.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, went one step further, saying that the Republicans’ action was one of the “disgusting legacies after 9/11,” a reference to the September 11, 2001, attack — “the targeting and racism against Muslim Americans throughout the United States of America. And this is an extension of that legacy.”

She added, “This is about targeting women of color.”

Omar is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. She is also the first to wear a hijab in the House chamber after floor rules were changed to allow members to wear head coverings for religious reasons.

She quickly generated controversy after entering Congress in 2019 with a pair of tweets that suggested lawmakers who supported Israel were motivated by money.

In the first, she criticized the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she wrote, invoking slang about $100 bills.

Asked on Twitter who she thought was paying members of Congress to support Israel, Omar responded, “AIPAC!”

The comments sparked a public rebuke from then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats who made clear that Omar had overstepped.

She soon apologized.

“We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me about my identity,” Omar tweeted. “This is why I unequivocally apologize.”

Democrats rallied in a fiery defense of Omar and the experiences she brings to the Congress. Black, Latino and progressive lawmakers in particular spoke of her unique voice in the House and criticized Republicans for what they called a racist attack.

“Racist gaslighting,” said Representative Cori Bush, a Missouri Democrat. A “revenge resolution,” said Democratic Representative Primila Jayapal of Washington state, the chair of the progressive caucus.

“It’s so painful to watch,” said Michigan Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib, who joined Congress with Omar in 2019 as the first two female Muslims elected to the House.

“To Congresswoman Omar, I am so sorry that our country is failing you today through this chamber,” Tlaib said through tears. “You belong on that committee.”

Her ‘worldview of Israel’ challenged

Omar’s previous comments were among several remarks highlighted in the resolutions seeking her removal from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The chairman of the committee, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, argued for excluding Omar from the panel during a recent closed-door meeting with fellow Republicans.

“It’s just that her worldview of Israel is so diametrically opposed to the committee’s,” McCaul told reporters in describing his stance. “I don’t mind having differences of opinion, but this goes beyond that.”

McCarthy has already blocked Representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both California Democrats, from rejoining the House Intelligence Committee once the GOP took control of the chamber in January. While appointments to the intelligence panel are the prerogative of the speaker, the action on Omar required a House vote.

Several Republicans skeptical of removing Omar wanted “due process” for lawmakers who face removal. McCarthy said he told them he would work with Democrats on creating a due process system, but acknowledged it’s still a work in progress.

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Zimbabwe Hopes to Boost Agriculture Sector With Help From Belarus

Zimbabwe is attempting to boost its agricultural sector with support from controversial partner Belarus, which is under sanctions for supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko visited Zimbabwe this week on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa. Columbus Mavhunga reports from Harare, Zimbabwe. Camera: Blessing Chigwenhembe.

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