In advance of the talks, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan bluntly warned China to avoid helping Russia evade punishment from global sanctions that have hammered the Russian economy. “We will not allow that to go forward,” he said.
The prospect of China offering Russia financial help is one of several concerns for President Joe Biden. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said that in recent days, Russia had requested support from China, including military equipment, to press forward in its ongoing war with Ukraine. The official did not provide details on the scope of the request. The request was first reported by the Financial Times and The Washington Post.
The Biden administration is also accusing China of spreading Russian disinformation that could be a pretext for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces to attack Ukraine with chemical or biological weapons.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put China in a delicate spot with two of its biggest trading partners: the U.S. and European Union. China needs access to those markets, yet it also has shown support for Moscow, joining with Russia in declaring a friendship with “no limits.”
In his talks with senior Chinese foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi, Sullivan will indeed be looking for limits in what Beijing will do for Moscow.
“I’m not going to sit here publicly and brandish threats,” he told CNN in a round of Sunday news show interviews. “But what I will tell you is we are communicating directly and privately to Beijing that there absolutely will be consequences” if China helps Russia “backfill” its losses from the sanctions.
“We will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from these economic sanctions from any country anywhere in the world,” he said.
In brief comments on the talks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian did not mention Ukraine, saying that the “key issue of this meeting is to implement the important consensus reached by the Chinese and U.S. heads of state in their virtual summit in November last year.”
“They will exchange views on China-U.S. relations and international and regional issues of common concern,” Zhao said in comments posted on the ministry’s website late Sunday.
The White House said the talks will focus on the direct impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine on regional and global security.
Biden administration officials say Beijing is spreading false Russian claims that Ukraine was running chemical and biological weapons labs with U.S. support. They say China is effectively providing cover if Russia moves ahead with a biological or chemical weapons attack on Ukrainians.
When Russia starts accusing other countries of preparing to launch biological or chemical attacks, Sullivan told NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “it’s a good tell that they may be on the cusp of doing it themselves.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, on ABC’s “This Week,” said “we haven’t seen anything that indicates some sort of imminent chemical or biological attack right now, but we’re watching this very, very closely.”
The striking U.S. accusations about Russian disinformation and Chinese complicity came after Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova alleged with no evidence that the U.S. was financing Ukrainian chemical and biological weapons labs.
The Russian claim was echoed by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who claimed there were 26 bio-labs and related facilities in “which the U.S. Department of Defense has absolute control.” The United Nations has said it has received no information backing up such accusations.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the claims “preposterous.”
There is growing concern inside the White House that China is aligning itself with Russia on the Ukraine war in hopes it will advance Beijing’s “vision of the world order” in the long term, according to a person familiar with administration thinking. The person was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Sullivan told “Face the Nation” on CBS that the Russian rhetoric on chemical and biological warfare is “an indicator that, in fact, the Russians are getting ready to do it and try and pin the blame elsewhere and nobody should fall for that.”
The international community has assessed that Russia used chemical weapons in attempts to assassinate Putin detractors such as Alexei Navalny and former spy Sergei Skripal. Russia also supports the Assad government in Syria, which has used chemical weapons against its people in a decadelong civil war.
China has been one of few countries to avoid criticizing the Russians for its invasion of Ukraine. China’s leader Xi Jinping hosted Putin for the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, just three weeks before Russia invaded on Feb. 24.
During Putin’s visit, the two leaders issued a 5,000-word statement declaring limitless friendship.
The Chinese abstained on U.N. votes censuring Russia and has criticized economic sanctions against Moscow. It has expressed its support for peace talks and offered its services as a mediator, despite questions about its neutrality and scant experience mediating international conflict.
But questions remain over how far Beijing will go to alienate the West and put its own economy at risk. Sullivan said China and all countries are on notice that they cannot “basically bail Russia out … give Russia a workaround to the sanctions,” with impunity.
Chinese officials have said Washington shouldn’t be able to complain about Russia’s actions because the U.S. invaded Iraq under false pretenses. The U.S. claimed to have evidence Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction though none was ever found.
On CNN, Sullivan said the administration believes China knew that Putin “was planning something” before the invasion of Ukraine. But he said the Chinese government “may not have understood the full extent of it because it’s very possible that Putin lied to them the same way that he lied to Europeans and others.”
Sullivan and Yang last met for face-to-face talks in Switzerland, where Sullivan raised the Biden administration’s concerns about China’s military provocations against Taiwan, human rights abuses against ethnic minorities and efforts to squelch pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong.
That meeting set the stage for a three-hour long virtual meeting in November between Biden and Xi.
Sullivan is also to meet Luigi Mattiolo, diplomatic adviser to Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, while in Rome.
US Reacts to Death of American Journalist in Ukraine
Despite the White House promising consequences for Russia, circumstances surrounding Brent Renaud’s shooting are still unclear
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CBS News on Sunday that the US would consult the Ukrainian government to determine how American war correspondent Brent Renaud was killed in Irpin, near Kiev. Ukrainian sources blame Russian forces, but details of the incident remain unclear.
“I will be consulting with my colleagues, we’ll be consulting with the Ukrainians to determine how this happened and then to measure and execute appropriate consequences as a result of it,” Sullivan told CBS.
“This is part and parcel of what has been the brazen aggression on the part of the Russians where they have targeted civilians… and they have targeted journalists,” he said.
It remains unclear what kind of response the US is considering. President Joe Biden remains insistent that the US will not engage Russia militarily in Ukraine, and Sullivan echoed this sentiment on Sunday, but added that “If Russia attacks, fires upon, takes a shot at NATO territory, the NATO alliance would respond to that.”
News of Renaud’s death was first reported by Kiev Region Police chief Andrei Nebytov, who shared images of a New York Times press pass belonging to Renaud and a bloodied corpse – allegedly the journalist’s. Nebytov accused Russian forces of killing the reporter.
The Times issued a statement shortly afterwards saying that Renaud was not on assignment in Ukraine, and had last worked for the newspaper in 2015.
Renaud’s colleague, a Colombian-American photographer named by The Guardian as Juan Arredondo, was wounded, and told another reporter in hospital that they were fired upon after they were driven past a checkpoint to film refugees leaving Irpen. He did not say who fired, or whether himself and Renaud were being driven in a military or civilian vehicle. Several Western reporters were nearby at the time of the shooting.
The International Federation of Journalists blamed Russia for Renaud’s death, claiming that he “died after coming under Russian fire.” The Committee to Protect Journalists meanwhile called on Renaud’s killers to be brought to justice, but admitted that it was “unable to immediately confirm the source of the gunfire.”
US Makes NATO Threat After Russia Strikes Base Near Polish Border
Washington has said the US-led military alliance would ‘respond’ even to accidental fire from Russia
Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser to US President Joe Biden, has warned Russia that NATO would go “full force” if any strike was recorded on NATO territory – intentional or not – after Moscow attacked a Ukrainian military base near the Polish border.
In an appearance on CBS’ ‘Face the Nation’ on Sunday, Sullivan was asked by host Margaret Brennan whether the current US policy was “that any strike into Polish territory or airspace, intentional or unintentional” would be considered an attack on NATO.
“The president has been clear repeatedly that the United States will work with our allies to defend every inch of NATO territory, and that means every inch,” Sullivan responded, explaining that “if there is a military attack on NATO territory, it would cause the invocation of Article Five, and we would bring the full force of the NATO alliance to bear in responding to it.”
Asked whether NATO would go “full force” against Russia even if such a strike was accidental, Sullivan said, “Look, all I will say is that if Russia attacks, fires upon, takes a shot at NATO territory, the NATO alliance would respond to that.”
Russian forces conducted an airstrike against The Yavoriv military range, also known as the International Center for Peacekeeping and Security, roughly ten miles away from the Polish border on Sunday. Kiev said that 35 were killed and 130 injured in the attack, while the Russian military claimed that “up to 180 foreign fighters” were killed in a strike carried out by “high-precision” weapons. Kiev rejected that claim.
Responding to the incident, Poland’s Deputy Foregn Minister called for more NATO troops and equipment to be placed on its border with Ukraine in an effort “to show Russia that we are strong enough to deter.”
Washington’s warning comes several days after a reconnaissance drone flew all the way from Ukraine and crash-landed in Zagreb, Croatia, prompting the country to accuse the US-led military alliance of a “slow” response. Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic called the incident, which did not lead to any damage or casualties, a “pure and clear threat.” The origin of the drone is unclear, however, and both Ukraine and Russia denied launching it. Croatia has been a NATO member since 2009.
Putin Rejected Every US off-ramp in Ukraine Conflict, Blinken Says
Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected every off-ramp offered by the United States to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine and has, on the contrary, stepped up his military campaign, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday (Mar 9).
“We’ve sought to provide possible off-ramps to President Putin. He’s the only one who can decide whether or not to take them. So far, every time there’s been an opportunity to do just that, he’s pressed the accelerator and continued down this horrific road that he’s been pursuing,” Blinken said at a joint news conference with his British counterpart Liz Truss.
“He has a clear plan right now to brutalise Ukraine but to what end?” Blinken said, adding that Ukrainians have shown that they would not accept any “puppet regime” that Putin might try to install to replace the elected Ukrainian government.
“If he tries to enforce such a puppet regime by keeping Russian forces in Ukraine, it will be a long, bloody, drawn-out mess,” Blinken said.
Senior US defense officials last month assessed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is designed to ‘decapitate’ Ukraine’s government.
More than 2 million people have fled Ukraine since Putin launched the land, sea and air invasion on Feb 24. Moscow calls its action a “special military operation” to disarm its neighbor and dislodge leaders it calls “neo-Nazis.”
The war has swiftly cast Russia into economic isolation as well as drawing almost universal international condemnation. The United States on Tuesday banned imports of Russian oil, while Western companies are rapidly pulling out of the Russian market.
Russian forces hold territory stretching along Ukraine’s northeast border, the east and the southeast. Fighting has taken place in the outskirts of the capital Kyiv, while Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv is under bombardment.
Blinken has also slammed Russia for not allowing safe passage to civilians stuck in cities under heavy bombardment.
“The Kremlin’s proposals to create humanitarian corridors leading into Russia and Belarus are absurd,” he said.
Russia earlier this week had offered Ukrainians escape routes to Russia and its close ally Belarus, a proposal that a spokesperson for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said was “completely immoral.”
US Hints at What Happens if Zelensky is Killed
Washington confirms “continuity of government” plans exist for Ukraine.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Sunday that the Ukrainian government has “plans in place” to ensure the “continuity of government” should President Volodymr Zelensky be killed. Zelensky insists he is still in Kiev, but western officials have already reportedly planned to set him up as a leader in exile.
“The Ukrainians have plans in place that I’m not going to talk about or get into any details on to make sure that there is what we would call continuity of government one way or another,” Blinken told CBS News when asked about the prospect on Sunday, adding “let me leave it at that.”
The US’ top diplomat then called Zelensky and his cabinet the “embodiment of these incredibly brave Ukrainian people.”
Blinken, President Joe Biden, and a broad array of NATO and Western leaders have offered Zelensky similar messages of support, as well as shipments of arms and humanitarian aid. However, decision makers in Washington and Europe have explicitly ruled out direct military intervention, and refused to implement a “no-fly zone.” The latter, which Zelensky has repeatedly requested, would see the US and NATO commit to shooting down Russian aircraft over Ukraine, a move that Moscow has said it would consider an act of war.
Although Zelensky’s military is receiving a steady stream of western weapons, Russia has been advancing through Ukraine in the 11 days since its forces first crossed the country’s borders. Some cities have been taken by Russian troops and others – including Kharkov, Mariupol, Volnovakha and Kiev – are currently encircled.
This encirclement has given rise to speculation that Zelensky might have already fled Kiev. While the president has appeared in nondescript surroundings during most of his recent video addresses, he released a video on Instagram on Friday purportedly shot in his Kiev office, saying that “nobody has fled anywhere.”
Despite Zelensky’s declared commitment to the fight, US officials have already brainstormed plans to extricate the Ukrainian leader. Days into the conflict, Zelensky was reportedly offered an evacuation from Kiev, which he said he refused. According to reports in multiple American news outlets over the weekend, Western officials have discussed supporting a possible Zelensky government in exile, as the Trump administration attempted to do with Venezeulan opposition leader Juan Guaido in 2019.
Plans mooted reportedly include Zelensky governing from the western Ukrainian city of Lvov, or from another European country. Some political figures in the US and Europe, most notably former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have suggested supporting a possible Ukrainian insurgency against Russian forces in this evantuality.
Covid-19 Makes Biden’s 1st White House Christmas Less Merry
So long eggnog, shrimp cocktail and pet-shaped sugar cookies.
It’s been a less merry holiday scene at the White House this year under COVID-19′s shadow. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden have replaced the packed parties and overflowing buffet tables of the past with food-free open houses, face masks and testing for the unvaccinated.
Beyond the impact on Biden’s first Christmas in office, the virus and its variants largely put the kibosh on the entire White House social scene for 2021, starting with an inauguration that positioned flags in place of people on the National Mall.
“I think it’s been really tough on them,” said Philip Dufour, who was Vice President Al Gore’s social secretary. He noted that many events were not held while the president and first lady did others over Zoom.
Major social events scrubbed from the calendar included the White House ball for the nation’s governors and the Easter Egg Roll, the second straight year that springtime ritual has been canceled.
The Democratic president also has yet to toast a foreign counterpart at a glitzy White House state dinner because he has yet to invite a world leader for a state visit. In fact, months passed before Biden was able to welcome a foreign leader to the Oval Office for even lower-key talks.
Still, the White House managed to pull off some events despite the pandemic, such as bill-signing and Medal of Honor ceremonies. The Bidens also hosted large receptions for Hanukkah and for artists recognized by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
But the pandemic’s biggest blow to the calendar came at Christmas, forcing the White House to overhaul its holiday entertaining — and trim the guest list.
“Anyone who knows the Bidens knows how much they enjoy hosting and celebrating the holidays,” Michael LaRosa, the first lady’s spokesperson, said in announcing a limited number of open houses for invited guests to ooh and aah over the Christmas trees and other decorations.
“It is disappointing that we cannot host as many people as the Bidens would like to, but as we have done since Day 1 of the Biden Administration, we will continue to implement strong COVID protocols, developed in consultation with our public health advisers,” LaRosa said.
In addition to fewer people passing through for the open houses, thousands of other people didn’t get a close-up look at how Jill Biden decked out White House hallways and public rooms for the holidays because public tours of the mansion remain on indefinite hold.
“The White House is never as beautiful as it is at Christmas. It’s just gorgeous,” said Jeremy Bernard, who oversaw holiday decorating and event planning as President Barack Obama’s social secretary. “It’s a shame that more people can’t go through, but it’s the reality of being in a pandemic.”
In part to make up for the lack of access, photos and an interactive tour of the decorations were uploaded to the White House website, and the first lady tweeted video of herself describing the decor and theme in each of the rooms and public spaces.
She revived the long tradition — which had lapsed under the previous administration — of opening the executive mansion for the PBS series, “In Performance at the White House.” A holiday-themed installment aired Tuesday night featuring Andrea Bocelli, Billy Porter, Norah Jones, The Jonas Brothers and others performing from different rooms in the White House.
The first lady also taped a children’s tour of the White House with characters from PBS KIDS.
In pre-pandemic times, presidents and first ladies spent many December evenings in the run-up to Christmas hosting nearly two dozen holiday parties and receptions, sometimes two per day, where they stood in line for hours posing for photos with ecstatic guests.
Eggnog and adult beverages flowed freely, partygoers piled dinner plates with shrimp and cocktail sauce, and dessert tables offered cookies decorated in the image of White House dogs — some of which were slipped into purses and pockets for the trip home.
All of that was scrapped this year.
Instead, the Bidens invited groups of up to 100 people to holiday open houses, giving them half an hour — instead of the usual two — to tour the decorations on the ground and state floors. There was no food and drink. Nor was there picture-taking with the Bidens, who didn’t attend.
Guests had to attest to their vaccination status before showing up, wear a face mask at all times on the White House grounds and practice social distancing. Anyone not vaccinated had to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours of the event.
The final open houses were held this week.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., suggested on Twitter that the White House was guilty of hypocrisy with the open houses and shouldn’t have held them at all.
“The Biden White House’s decision to cancel their ‘holiday party’ and instead hold a ‘holiday open house’ tracks right along with the Democrats’ tendency to virtue signal while simultaneously creating loopholes for themselves,” Blackburn said in a written statement.
Jennifer Pickens, an event planner who wrote a book about Christmas at the White House, said holiday traditions can provide comfort and a feeling of normalcy, and argued that the White House should continue to welcome visitors during the pandemic.
Events “can be smaller in scale and done safely, but they need to continue,” she said in an email. Pickens said the White House is the People’s House, ”so the people should be there.”
Dr. Leana Wen, the former Baltimore health commissioner, said the open houses seemed safe given the safety steps required by the White House and the absence of eating and drinking.
“That’s exactly the right thing to do,” Wen said. AP
Pentagon Issues Rules Aimed at Stopping Rise of Extremism
Warning that extremism in the ranks is increasing, Pentagon officials issued detailed new rules Monday prohibiting service members from actively engaging in extremist activities. The new guidelines come nearly a year after some current and former service members participated in the riot at the U.S. Capitol, triggering a broad department review.
According to the Pentagon, fewer than 100 military members are known to have been involved in substantiated cases of extremist activity in the past year. But they warn that the number may grow given recent spikes in domestic violent extremism, particularly among veterans.
Officials said the new policy doesn’t largely change what is prohibited but is more of an effort to make sure troops are clear on what they can and can’t do, while still protecting their First Amendment right to free speech. And for the first time, it is far more specific about social media.
The new policy lays out in detail the banned activities, which range from advocating terrorism or supporting the overthrow of the government to fundraising or rallying on behalf of an extremist group or “liking” or reposting extremist views on social media. The rules also specify that commanders must determine two things in order for someone to be held accountable: that the action was an extremist activity, as defined in the rules, and that the service member “actively participated” in that prohibited activity.
Previous policies banned extremist activities but didn’t go into such great detail, and also did not specify the two-step process to determine someone accountable.
What was wrong yesterday is still wrong today, said one senior defense official. But several officials said that as a study group spoke with service members this year they found that many wanted clearer definitions of what was not allowed. The officials provided additional details about the rules on condition of anonymity because they were not made public.
The military has long been aware of small numbers of white supremacists and other extremists among the troops. But Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other leaders launched a broader campaign to root out extremism in the force after it became clear that military veterans and some current service members were present at the Jan. 6 insurrection.
In a message to the force on Monday, Austin said the department believes that only a few service members violate their oath and participate in extremist activities. But, he added, “even the actions of a few can have an outsized impact on unit cohesion, morale and readiness – and the physical harm some of these activities can engender can undermine the safety of our people.”
The risk of extremism in the military can be more dangerous because many service members have access to classified information about sensitive military operations or other national security information that could help adversaries. And extremist groups routinely recruit former and current service members because of their familiarity with weapons and combat tactics.
The number of substantiated cases may be small compared to the size of the military, which includes more than 2 million active duty and reserve troops. But the number appears to be an increase over previous years where the totals were in the low two-digits. But officials also noted that data has not been consistent so it is difficult to identify trends.
The new rules do not provide a list of extremist organizations. Instead, it is up to commanders to determine if a service member is actively conducting extremist activities based on the definitions, rather than on a list of groups that may be constantly changing, officials said.
Asked whether troops can simply be members of an extremist organization, officials said the rules effectively prohibit membership in any meaningful way — such as the payment of dues or other actions that could be considered “active participation.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters that “there’s not a whole lot about membership in a group that you’re going to be able to get away with.” He added, “In order to prove your membership you’re probably going to run afoul of one of these criteria.”
Kirby also said that commanders will evaluate each case individually, so simply clicking “like” on one social media post, for example, might not merit punishment depending on all the circumstances involved.
He also noted that the Pentagon does not have the ability or desire to actively monitor troops’ personal social media accounts. Those issues would likely come up if reported to commanders or were discovered through other means.
The regulations lay out six broad groups of extremist activities and then provide 14 different definitions that constitute active participation.
Soon after taking office, Austin ordered military leaders to schedule a so-called “stand-down” day and spend time talking to their troops about extremism in the ranks.
The new rules apply to all of the military services, including the Coast Guard, which in peacetime is part of the Department of Homeland Security. They were developed through recommendations from the Countering Extremist Activities Working Group. And they make the distinction, for example, that troops may possess extremist materials, but they can’t attempt to distribute them, and while they can observe an extremist rally, they can’t participate, fund or support one.
The rules, said the officials, focus on behavior, not ideology. So service members have whatever political, religious or other beliefs that they want, but their actions and behavior are governed.
In addition to the new rules, the Pentagon is expanding its screening for recruits to include a deeper look at potential extremist activities. Some activities may not totally prevent someone from joining the military, but require a closer look at the applicant.
The department also is expanding education and training for current military members, and more specifically for those leaving the service who may be suddenly subject to recruitment by extremist organizations.
More than 650 people have been charged in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, including dozens of veterans and about a half dozen active duty service members. AP
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