Biden, Putin set video call Tuesday as Ukraine tensions grow

US President Joe Biden (L) meets with Russian President Valdimir Putin at the 'Villa la Grange' in Geneva on June 16, 2021. (AFP)
US President Joe Biden (L) meets with Russian President Valdimir Putin at the 'Villa la Grange' in Geneva on June 16, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 05 December 2021

Biden, Putin set video call Tuesday as Ukraine tensions grow

US President Joe Biden (L) meets with Russian President Valdimir Putin at the 'Villa la Grange' in Geneva on June 16, 2021. (AFP)
  • Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, recently charged that a group of Russians and Ukrainians planned to attempt a coup in his country and that the plotters tried to enlist the help of Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov

MOSCOW: Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin will speak in a video call Tuesday, the White House and Kremlin said, as tensions between the United States and Russia escalate over a Russian troop buildup on the Ukrainian border that’s seen as a sign of a potential invasion.
Biden will press US concerns about Russian military activities on the border and “reaffirm the United States’ support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Saturday, confirming the planned call after first word came from Moscow.
Putin will come to the call with concerns of his own and intends to express Russia’s opposition to any move to admit Ukraine into the NATO military alliance. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “the presidents will decide themselves” how long their talk will last.
The last known call between the leaders was in July, when Biden pressed Putin to rein in Russia-based criminal hacking gangs launching ransomware attacks against the United States. Biden said the US would take any necessary steps to protect critical infrastructure from such attacks.
Ransomware attacks have continued since then, though perhaps none has been as alarming as the one from May that targeted a major fuel pipeline and resulted in days of gas shortages in parts of the US
Russia is more adamant than ever that the US guarantees that Ukraine will not be admitted to the NATO military alliance. But NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, said this past week that Russia has no say in expansion plans by other countries or the alliance. Numerous former US and NATO diplomats say any such Russian demand to Biden would be a nonstarter.
US intelligence officials, meanwhile, have determined that Russia has massed about 70,000 troops near its border with Ukraine and has begun planning for a possible invasion as soon as early next year, according to a Biden administration official who was not authorized to discuss that finding publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The risks for Putin of going through with such an invasion would be enormous.
US officials and former American diplomats say while the Russian president is clearly laying the groundwork for a possible invasion, Ukraine’s military is better armed and prepared today than in the past, and that sanctions threatened by the West would do serious damage to the Russian economy.
“What I am doing is putting together what I believe to be, will be, the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do,” Biden said Friday.
Ukrainian officials have said Russia could invade next month. Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said the number of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Russia-annexed Crimea is estimated at 94,300, and warned that a “large-scale escalation” is possible in January.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, recently charged that a group of Russians and Ukrainians planned to attempt a coup in his country and that the plotters tried to enlist the help of Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov.
Russia and Akhmetov have denied that any plot is underway, but the Russians have become more explicit recently in their warnings to Ukraine and the United States.
Biden is also expected to speak with Zelenskyy in the coming week, according to a person close to the Ukrainian leader. This person was not authorized to comment publicly before the announcement of the call and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The Kremlin said Friday that Putin, during his call with Biden, would seek binding guarantees precluding NATO’s expansion to Ukraine. Biden tried to head off the demand in comments to reporters Friday before leaving for a weekend stay at Camp David.
“I don’t accept anyone’s red line,” Biden said.
Psaki said in a brief statement Saturday that Biden and Putin will discuss a range of topics in the US-Russia relationship, “including strategic stability, cyber, and regional issues.”
She said Friday that the administration would coordinate with European allies if it moved forward with sanctions. She alluded to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that had been under Ukraine’s control since 1954. Russia has also backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in a 7-year conflict that has cost over 14,000 lives.
“We know what President Putin has done in the past,” Psaki said. “We see that he is putting in place the capacity to take action in short order.”
US-Russia relations have been rocky since Biden took office.
His administration has imposed sanctions against Russian targets and called out Putin for the Kremlin’s interference in US elections, cyberactivity against American companies and the treatment of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned last year and later imprisoned.
When Putin and Biden met in Geneva in June, Biden warned that if Russia crossed certain red lines — including going after major American infrastructure — his administration would respond and “the consequences of that would be devastating.”


New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern isolates after virus exposure

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern isolates after virus exposure
Updated 10 sec ago

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern isolates after virus exposure

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern isolates after virus exposure
  • The exposure came on a flight from the town of Kerikeri to the largest city of Auckland
  • Officials said genome sequencing would be completed Sunday and was expected to show the infected person had the omicron variant
WELLINGTON, New Zealand: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said late Saturday she is self-isolating after coming into close contact with a person infected with the coronavirus.
The exposure came on a flight from the town of Kerikeri to the largest city of Auckland. New Zealand’s Governor-General Cindy Kiro was also on the Jan. 22 flight and has also gone into isolation.
Both women had been in the Northland region to do some filming ahead of New Zealand’s national day, Waitangi Day, on Feb. 6.
“The Prime Minister is asymptomatic and is feeling well,” her office said in a statement. “In line with Ministry of Health advice she will be tested immediately tomorrow and will isolate until Tuesday.”
Health officials listed a dozen flights as exposure events late Saturday, a possible indication that one or more of the flight crew was infected.
Officials said genome sequencing would be completed Sunday and was expected to show the infected person had the omicron variant.
New Zealand has managed to stamp out or contain the virus for much of the pandemic, and has reported just 52 virus deaths among its population of 5 million. But an outbreak of the omicron variant is starting to take hold and is expected to rapidly grow over the coming weeks.
About 77 percent of New Zealanders are fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data. That figure rises to 93 percent of those aged 12 and over, according to New Zealand officials.

Third COVID wave looms in Indonesia as omicron spreads

Third COVID wave looms in Indonesia as omicron spreads
Updated 29 January 2022

Third COVID wave looms in Indonesia as omicron spreads

Third COVID wave looms in Indonesia as omicron spreads
  • Bed occupancy rates in the capital, Jakarta, the epicenter of the country’s omicron outbreak, rose from 5 percent in early January to 45 percent on Saturday

JAKARTA, Indonesia: Indonesia is bracing for a third wave of COVID-19 infections as the highly transmissible omicron variant drives a surge in new cases, health authorities and experts said Saturday.
The country reported 9,905 new infections and seven deaths on Friday in the latest 24-hour period. It was the highest daily caseload since August last year when the country was struggling to contain a delta-driven wave.
Indonesia had recovered from last year’s spike in cases and deaths that was among the worst in the region, and daily infections had fallen to about 200 by December. But cases are rising again just weeks after the country reported its first local omicron case.
Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said the next few months will be critical because omicron is spreading “rapidly and massively.”
“Its upsurge will be extremely fast ... We will see a sharp rise in the near future,” he told a news conference Friday, adding that the current wave would likely peak at the end of February or in early March.
The government has prepared mitigation measures to deal with a potential surge, including dedicating more hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, ensuring adequate tracing and testing measures, strictly enforcing health protocols and intensifying vaccination efforts in all regions, Sadikin said.
Bed occupancy rates in the capital, Jakarta, the epicenter of the country’s omicron outbreak, rose from 5 percent in early January to 45 percent on Saturday, said Jakarta Deputy Governor Ahmad Riza Patria. He said “omicron is moving too quickly” in the city, where more than 80 percent of the 10 million residents have been vaccinated.
Pandu Riono, an Indonesian epidemiologist and academic adviser to the government, said Indonesians are still traumatized from the delta variant when many died in isolation at home or while waiting to receive emergency care as hospitals were swamped.
During last year’s surge, hospitals erected plastic tents to serve as makeshift intensive care units, and patients waited for days before being admitted. Oxygen tanks were rolled out on the sidewalk for those lucky enough to receive them, while others were told they would need to find their own supply.
Riono said a third wave would be unlikely to push Indonesia’s health care system to the brink of collapse because omicron generally causes less-severe symptoms than delta.
President Joko Widodo on Friday urged asymptomatic patients to self-isolate at home for five days and to use telemedicine services through which they can access doctors, medicines and vitamins for free, or to visit a community health center.
“This is important so that our health care facilities can focus on treating patients with more severe symptoms or patients of other diseases that need intensive care,” Widodo said.
Some health experts doubt the measures will be enough, given the lax enforcement.
Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist at Griffith University in Australia, said a third wave of infections is inevitable as long as a large portion of Indonesia’s population remains unprotected against COVID-19. As of Friday, only 61 percent of Indonesia’s 208 million people eligible for shots were fully vaccinated.
Overall, Indonesia, a vast archipelago nation that is home to 270 million people, has reported more than 4.3 million infections and 144,268 deaths from COVID-19.


One injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s deep south

One injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s deep south
Updated 29 January 2022

One injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s deep south

One injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s deep south
  • As with most attacks in Thailand’s deep south, there was no claim of responsibility for the Friday bomb attacks

BANGKOK: At least one person was injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s southern province of Yala, police said on Saturday.
At least 13 small explosions struck the town of Yala late on Friday, mostly on roadsides in front of convenience stores, shops, a market, an animal hospital and a car care shop, said deputy police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen.
Police on Saturday found at least three unexploded improvised explosive devices, made of spray cans and metal pipes with timers attached.
Kissana said police suspect the explosions were aimed at causing a disturbance more than damage or injuries.
A decades-old separatist insurgency in predominantly Buddhist Thailand’s largely ethnic Malay-Muslim provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat has claimed the lives of more than 7,300 people since 2004, according to the Deep South Watch group which monitors the violence.
Rebel groups have called for independence for these provinces bordering Malaysia, which were part of a sultanate called Patani annexed by Thailand in 1909 as part of a treaty with Britain.
Friday’s bombing came just weeks after the Thai government restarted a peace dialogue with the main insurgent group after a two-year break of talks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As with most attacks in Thailand’s deep south, there was no claim of responsibility for the Friday bomb attacks.
The main rebel group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment.


Thai beach declared disaster area after oil spill

Thai beach declared disaster area after oil spill
Updated 29 January 2022

Thai beach declared disaster area after oil spill

Thai beach declared disaster area after oil spill
  • The leak from the pipeline owned by Star Petroleum Refining Public Company Limited (SPRC) started late on Tuesday
  • About 150 SPRC workers and 200 navy personnel had been deployed to clean up the beach and oil boom barriers had been set up

BANGKOK: A beach in eastern Thailand was declared a disaster area on Saturday as oil leaking from an underwater pipeline in the Gulf of Thailand continued to wash ashore and blacken the sand.
The leak from the pipeline owned by Star Petroleum Refining Public Company Limited (SPRC) started late on Tuesday and was brought under control a day later after spilling an estimated 50,000 liters (13,209 gallons) of oil into the ocean 20 km (12 miles) from the country’s industrialized eastern seaboard.
Some of the oil reached the shoreline at Mae Ramphueng beach in Rayong province late on Friday after spreading over 47 sq km (18 sq miles) of sea in the gulf.
The navy is working with SPRC to contain the leak and said the main oil mass was still offshore with only a small amount washing up on at least two spots along the 12-km-long beach.
About 150 SPRC workers and 200 navy personnel had been deployed to clean up the beach and oil boom barriers had been set up, the navy said.
Twelve navy ships and three civilian ships along with a number of aircraft were also working to contain the spill at sea with booms and dispersant spray.
“We and the company are still working at sea to reduce the amount of oil by cornering the spill and sucking up the oil and spraying dispersant,” Rear Admiral Artorn Charapinyo, deputy commander of the first Naval Area command, told reporters.


South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing

South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing
Updated 29 January 2022

South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing

South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing
  • The number of Chinese-flagged vessels in the south Pacific has surged 13-fold from 54 active vessels in 2009 to 707 in 2020, according to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization

MIAMI, US: Negotiators from the US, China and 13 other governments failed to take action to protect threatened squid stocks on the high seas off South America amid a recent surge in activity by China’s distant water fishing fleet.
The South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization, or SPRFMO, is charged with ensuring the conservation and sustainable fishing off the west coast of South America.
At the SPRFMO’s annual meeting that ended Friday, Ecuador and the European Union proposed measures that would require all ships to have observers on board by 2028 and mandate they unload their catches only in ports instead of at sea to giant refrigerated vessels — both considered key tools in limiting illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
There were also competing proposals, one of them from China, to limit the amount of squid that could be caught.
However, none of the proposed measures were adopted during the closed-door meeting, thwarting the efforts of environmentalists and some seafood importers in the US and Europe who have been pushing for restrictions of fishing on the high seas that make up about half of the planet.
CALAMASUR, a group made up of squid industry representatives from Mexico, Chile, Peru and Ecuador, attended the four-day virtual meeting as an observer and said it was deeply disappointed by the results, which it said expose the SPRFMO to being seen as “non-cooperative” in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,
“This situation cannot be accepted as an outcome,” the group said in a statement.
Craig Loveridge, the executive secretary of the New Zealand-based SPRFMO, did not respond to a request for comment.
The number of Chinese-flagged vessels in the south Pacific has surged 13-fold from 54 active vessels in 2009 to 707 in 2020, according to the SPRFMO. Meanwhile, the size of China’s squid catch has grown from 70,000 tons in 2009 to 358,000.
Biologists warn that the boom has left the naturally bountiful Humboldt squid — named for the nutrient-rich current found off the west coast of South America — vulnerable to overfishing, as has occurred in Argentina, Mexico, Japan and other places where squid stocks have disappeared in the past.
An investigation by The Associated Press and Spanish-language broadcaster Univision last year revealed how the traditionally lawless area has become a magnet for some of the seafood industry’s worst offenders, many of them Chinese-flagged vessels with a history of labor abuse accusations and convictions for illegal fishing.