Sweden, Finland move closer to joining NATO; Ukraine warns of new Russian offensive

Sweden, Finland move closer to joining NATO; Ukraine warns of new Russian offensive
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In this May 19, 2022, photo, Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö speaks about his country's' bid to join NATO while US President Joe Biden (L) and Sweden’s PM Magdalena Andersson (R) listen. (AFP)
Sweden, Finland move closer to joining NATO; Ukraine warns of new Russian offensive
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Ukrainian soldiers pack sandbags to be used as fortifications in the eastern Donetsk region on Aug. 3, 2022. (AP Photo)
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Updated 04 August 2022

Sweden, Finland move closer to joining NATO; Ukraine warns of new Russian offensive

Sweden, Finland move closer to joining NATO; Ukraine warns of new Russian offensive
  • US, Italy approve Finland, Sweden accession to NATO
  • Strike force aimed at president’s hometown, says Ukraine

KYIV/WASHINGTON: Ukraine said Russia had started creating a military strike force aimed at President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih, as NATO moved closer to the most significant expansion of the alliance in decades as it responds to the invasion of Ukraine.
The US Senate and the Italian parliament both approved on Wednesday Finland and Sweden’s accession to the 30-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Under NATO membership, which must be ratified by all 30 member states, an attack on one member is an attack against all.
“This historic vote sends an important signal of the sustained, bipartisan US commitment to NATO, and to ensuring our Alliance is prepared to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement.
Russia, which invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, has repeatedly warned Finland and Sweden against joining NATO.
NATO’s 30 allies signed the accession protocol last month, allowing them to join the US-led nuclear-armed alliance once its members ratify the decision.
Ratification could take up to a year.
Ukraine on Wednesday dismissed suggestions by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder that Russia wanted a “negotiated solution” to the five-month war and said any dialogue would be contingent on a Russian cease-fire and withdrawal of its troops.
Tentative attempts at peace talks in March went nowhere.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on Thursday that Ukraine was seeking an opportunity to speak “directly” with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help end the war.
In an interview with SCMP, Zelensky urged China to use its political and economic influence over Russia to bring an end to the fighting.
“It’s a very powerful state. It’s a powerful economy … So (it) can politically, economically influence Russia. And China is (also a) permanent member of the UN Security Council,” the report quoted Zelensky as saying.

New southern offensive
Ukraine on Wednesday night said Russia was engaged in considerable military activity in the east, northeast and south of the country and warned that Moscow could be preparing new offensive operations in southern Ukraine.
Dmytro Zhyvytsky, governor of Sumy region on the border with Russia, said three towns had been shelled by Russian forces on Wednesday, with a total of 55 missiles fired. There were no injuries, but homes and commercial premises were damaged.
He said eight artillery shells hit residential parts of Krasnopilska community.
Reuters was not able to verify battlefield reports.
Russia denies it targets civilians, but many towns and cities have been destroyed and thousands of civilians killed in the biggest conflict in Europe since World War Two. Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russian forces of war crimes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops in Ukraine in what he said was a “special military operation” to rid the country of fascists. Ukraine and the West said Putin launched an unprovoked “imperial” land grab.
The war has sparked a global energy and food crisis. Russia and Ukraine produce about one third of global wheat and Russia is the main energy supplier to Europe.
An agreement between Moscow and Kyiv, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, to allow safe passage of grain ships from Ukraine has been hailed as a rare diplomatic success in the war.
The first ship carrying Ukrainian grain since the war started passed through the Bosphorus Strait on Wednesday.
The ship, Razoni, left Odesa on the Black Sea early on Monday carrying 26,527 tons of corn to the Lebanese port of Tripoli.
A senior Turkish official said three ships could leave Ukrainian ports daily following the Razoni’s departure, while Ukraine’s infrastructure minister said 17 more ships had been loaded with agricultural produce and were waiting to set sail.


US Senate approves $12 billion in new aid for Ukraine

US Senate approves $12 billion in new aid for Ukraine
Updated 58 min 30 sec ago

US Senate approves $12 billion in new aid for Ukraine

US Senate approves $12 billion in new aid for Ukraine
  • It provides $4.5 billion for Kyiv to keep the country's finances stable and keep the government running
  • It comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to declare the annexation of parts of Ukraine

WASHINGTON: The US Senate approved $12 billion in new economic and military aid for Ukraine Thursday as part of a stopgap extension of the federal budget into December.
The measure, agreed by senators of both parties, includes $3 billion for arms, supplies and salaries for Ukraine’s military, and authorizes President Joe Biden to direct the US Defense Department to take $3.7 billion worth of its own weapons and materiel to provide Ukraine.
It also provides $4.5 billion for Kyiv to keep the country’s finances stable and keep the government running, providing services to the Ukrainian people.
It comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to declare the annexation of parts of Ukraine occupied by Russian troops on Friday.
“Seven months since the conflict began, it’s crystal clear that American assistance has gone a long way to helping the Ukrainian people resist Putin’s evil, vicious aggression,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
“But the fight is far from over, and we must, we must, continue helping the brave, valiant Ukrainian people.”
The Ukraine aid is part of a short-term extension of the federal budget, which is to expire at the end of the fiscal year on September 30 without the parties in Congress having agreed to a full-year allocation for fiscal 2022-23.
The extension, or continuing resolution, will keep the government running into December, but it has to first be approved by the House of Representatives to avoid shutting down parts of the government on Monday.


US charges ex-Army major and his wife over alleged plot to leak military health data to Russia

US charges ex-Army major and his wife over alleged plot to leak military health data to Russia
Updated 29 September 2022

US charges ex-Army major and his wife over alleged plot to leak military health data to Russia

US charges ex-Army major and his wife over alleged plot to leak military health data to Russia
  • The indictment alleges that the plot started after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine
  • Prosecutors said the pair wanted to try to help the Russian government by providing them with data

WASHINGTON: A former US Army major and his anesthesiologist wife have been criminally charged for allegedly plotting to leak highly sensitive health care data about military patients to Russia, the Justice Department revealed on Thursday.
Jamie Lee Henry, the former major who was also a doctor at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and his wife, Dr. Anna Gabrielian, were charged in an unsealed indictment in a federal court in Maryland with conspiracy and the wrongful disclosure of individually identifiable health information.
The indictment alleges that the plot started after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.
Prosecutors said the pair wanted to try to help the Russian government by providing them with data to help the Putin regime “gain insights into the medical conditions of individuals associated with the US government and military.”
The two met with someone whom they believed was a Russian official, but in fact was actually an FBI undercover agent, the indictment says.


Putin says conflicts in Ukraine, ex-USSR are ‘result of Soviet collapse’

Putin says conflicts in Ukraine, ex-USSR are ‘result of Soviet collapse’
Updated 29 September 2022

Putin says conflicts in Ukraine, ex-USSR are ‘result of Soviet collapse’

Putin says conflicts in Ukraine, ex-USSR are ‘result of Soviet collapse’
  • In the past month, the region has seen clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and Armenia and Azerbaijan
  • Putin has regularly made nostalgic speeches about the USSR and served in the Soviet security services (KGB)

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that conflicts in countries of the former USSR, including Ukraine, are the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“It is enough to look at what is happening now between Russia and Ukraine, and at what is happening on the borders of some other CIS countries. All this, of course, is the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Putin said in a televised meeting with intelligence chiefs of former Soviet countries.
In parallel to the military operation in Ukraine, armed conflicts have returned to various parts of the former Soviet empire.
In the past month the region has seen clashes between the two Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Putin pointed fingers at the West, saying it was “working on scenarios to fuel new conflicts” in the post-Soviet space.
Putin spoke a day before he is due to formally annex four Moscow-occupied Ukrainian regions, in a move that is expected to escalate the Ukraine conflict.
“We are witnessing the formation of a new world order, which is a difficult process,” Putin said, echoing earlier statements about the waning influence of the West.
Putin, who turns 70 next week, has regularly made nostalgic speeches about the USSR and served in the Soviet security services (KGB).
His statement comes during an exodus of Russian men fleeing a mobilization, including to ex-Soviet countries like Kazakhstan, whose president vowed to shelter Russian draft dodgers.


In Pakistan’s northwest, rise in extortion demands signals advance of Taliban

In Pakistan’s northwest, rise in extortion demands signals advance of Taliban
Updated 29 September 2022

In Pakistan’s northwest, rise in extortion demands signals advance of Taliban

In Pakistan’s northwest, rise in extortion demands signals advance of Taliban
  • Arab News interviewed traders who had received extortion demands in recent months
  • Most of them said the callers identified themselves as militants belonging to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan

PESHAWAR: Soon after a grenade struck his house in Peshawar city three months ago, Ihsan Khan, a well-known trader in the capital of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, received a phone call.

“Next time, the entire home will be blown up if you don’t pay Rs300 million ($1.2 million),” the voice on the other end said.

The menacing call was taken seriously in a northern pocket of the country where the Pakistani Taliban, or the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, have carried out some of the deadliest attacks in Pakistan in past years and where officials as well as local residents widely say the militants are attempting to regain a foothold.

Over the next few days, Khan held a series of phone negotiations with the caller and finally brought the demand down through the help of intermediaries, subsequently paying a smaller sum.

Last week, Arab News interviewed at least seven traders, transporters and businesspeople who had received demands for protection money in recent months. Six said the callers had identified themselves as militants belonging to the TTP. It was unclear how many paid up.

The increasing demands for cash have stirred fears of the comeback of insurgents to the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province amid a stalled peace deal with Islamabad and drawn-out negotiations that began last year.

On Sept. 20, the TTP said it was not linked to the extortion demands and issued a statement calling on the public not to pay up.

“If anyone asks you…in the name of the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), please contact us so we can unmask them,” the statement said, offering a contact number.

In comments to Arab News, Abu Yasir, the head of the TTP’s grievance commission, said the group had a “clear-cut and strong stance” against extortion.

“We have neither allowed nor will we allow anyone to do so,” Yasir said. “We have stopped many. And in some cases, members of the Tehreek have also done it on an individual basis, but we have stopped them…We have stopped our colleagues and asked others as well when a complaint has been lodged with us.”

‘TIP OF THE ICEBERG’

Attacks and threats of violence have been a part of life in northern Pakistan since at least 2010, including the attempted assassination of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai in 2012 and an attack on an army-run school in 2014 in which at least 134 children were killed.

Though thousands of Pakistanis have been killed in militant violence in the last two decades, attacks declined in the last few years after a series of military operations that pushed most TTP insurgents in Pakistan’s northwest to find shelter in neighboring Afghanistan.

But many analysts and officials warn militants are attempting to return and are busily conducting kidnappings and extortion to stockpile cash for the fight ahead if peace talks with Islamabad fail. Their reach and their ability to carry out attacks were chillingly demonstrated earlier this month when eight people were killed in a roadside bombing that targeted an anti-Taliban village elder’s vehicle in Swat Valley, in what was the first major bombing in the area in over a decade. 

Taliban militants this month also kidnapped 10 employees of a telecom company and demanded Rs100 million for their release, according to a police report filed with the local counterterrorism department.

Concerns of a TTP resurgence have grown since August 2021, when the Afghan Taliban took over Kabul following the departure of US and other foreign forces. Pakistani officials have since variously spoken of fears of fighters from the Pakistani Taliban group, which is separate but affiliated with the Afghan Taliban, crossing over from Afghanistan and launching lethal attacks on its territory.

The Afghan Taliban have reassured their neighbor they will not allow their territory to be used by anyone planning attacks on Pakistan or any other country. Still, the TTP has managed to step up attacks in recent months, and both police and government officials as well as locals report that hundreds of insurgents have returned — as have demands for extortion.

Mohammed Ali Saif, a spokesperson for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, said anonymous calls demanding protection money were being made both from Afghanistan and within Pakistan.  

“Different people have received calls for extortion, some have registered FIRs [police reports] and others have not,” Saif told Arab News, saying the Counter-Terrorism Department and police took immediate action whenever such cases were reported.  

Not all calls, he said, were from TTP militants.

“Some calls are also made by criminals and extortionists,” the spokesperson said.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Inspector General of Police Moazzam Jah Ansari, CTD chief Javed Iqbal Wazir, and spokespersons for the Pakistani Foreign Affairs Ministry and army and Afghanistan’s Information Ministry did not respond to phone calls and text messages seeking comment.

But a Peshawar-based senior police official with direct knowledge of the issue, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the provincial police department had been registering at least four extortion cases a day in the city since July.

“This is just the tip of an iceberg,” he said. “Previously, traders, transporters and businessmen used to be the targets. Now, members of national and provincial assemblies as well as government officials are also asked to pay protection money…The situation is very bad and it’s deteriorating with each passing day.”  

Another police official based in Swat Valley said: “Well-off people, including lawmakers, receive phone calls on a regular basis. Few report it and a majority of them pay the money.”

Since the start of August, Swat police have registered four cases of extortion, naming the TTP as suspects in their reports. In one such case, the Swat official said, militants were paid Rs25 million as protection money by a provincial lawmaker.  

“Militants asked the lawmaker to remove CCTV cameras from his home before they arrived to collect the money at midnight,” the official said. “The lawmaker opted not to report the incident.”  

‘PREDICTABLE PHENOMENON’

Malik Imran Ishaq, president of the Industrialists’ Association Peshawar, said militancy and extortion had caused “severe damage” to the business fraternity in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.  

In Peshawar, extortionists targeted wealthy families, he said, with residents regularly finding small bombs outside their homes or businesses.

“Many of our association’s members have received extortion calls and many of them have been hit, targeted by rocket launchers and hand grenades,” the industrialist said.

Police had increased patrolling in the Hayatabad industrial estate area of the city, but it had not resolved the issue, Ishaq said.

“I am clueless about how this issue will be resolved,” he said, lamenting that businesses worth billions of rupees in the Hayatabad industrial estate were on the verge of closure.

“Twenty-eight of our members have shut their industrial units in Peshawar and moved to Punjab to set up factories there,” Ishaq said, blaming the move on a resurgence of militancy and a rise in Taliban demands for cash.

“There has been an evident surge during the last year, particularly the last couple of months.”  

The crime wave means the government and military could face a well-armed insurgency if the TTP is able to fully return to the country’s northern belt, experts warn.

Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based militancy expert, said an increase in demands for protection money was a telltale sign that the militants were making serious attempts to regain control in Pakistan’s northwest.

“Militants require financial support for their operations,” he said, “and in this context, the rise of extortion incidents in these areas is a predictable phenomenon.”

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Germany to seek EU sanctions on Iran over protests crackdown: foreign minister

Germany to seek EU sanctions on Iran over protests crackdown: foreign minister
Updated 29 September 2022

Germany to seek EU sanctions on Iran over protests crackdown: foreign minister

Germany to seek EU sanctions on Iran over protests crackdown: foreign minister
  • “Within the framework of the EU, I am doing everything I can to get sanctions under way”

BERLIN: German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Thursday said she was pushing for EU sanctions on Iran over the Islamic republic’s lethal crackdown on protests sparked by the death of a young woman in police custody.
“Within the framework of the EU, I am doing everything I can to get sanctions under way against those in Iran who are beating women to death and shooting demonstrators in the name of religion,” Baerbock wrote on Twitter.