Legislators call for showdown with Russia at sea

Navy demonstrations could make Putin back down in Ukraine, lawmakers claimed

American sailors should be prepared to take on Russia and show their strength as the country goes “head to head” with Moscow amid fears of a possible invasion of Ukraine, two US legislators have demanded.

Senator Richard Blumenthal and Representative Joe Courtney, both Democrats from Connecticut, said that the Navy will be play a major role in any future confrontation with Russia. The pair were speaking as part of an appearance on Monday at a virtual event hosted by General Dynamics Electric Boat, the largest submarine builder in the country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin “will test us in every single place that he can,” Blumenthal said. “He’s doing it right now in Ukraine: he wants to restore the hegemony over countries that formerly were part of the Soviet Union; bring back Ukraine into Mother Russia; conduct a hybrid war of military actions, cyber-attack and misinformation. And part of his overall strategy is to bolster undersea warfare and thereby push the United States, try to divide allies, and create instability.”

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© Ministry of Defence of Russia / Ruptly
Ireland protests about Russian warship plan

Blumenthal said that he agreed with President Joe Biden that the US should not send soldiers to fight in Ukraine, but insisted that increasing NATO capabilities in the region would be an important part of showing strength “around the world in other areas where we go head-to-head with the Russians.”

In particular, he pointed to the role submarines can play in confronting Moscow. “Undersea warfare – because we’re talking about the Mediterranean, about the Black Sea as potential areas of tension and conflict – is very much in play even though it isn’t directly involved in the confrontation in the Eastern Ukraine area or Crimea or in the northern borders of Ukraine, which represent perhaps the greatest immediate threat in Belarus, where Putin is amassing forces right now.”

Russia announced last week that it would be holding naval drills in several locations around the world, and Moscow has also been sending troops to Belarus for joint military exercises. Officials in Washington and Kiev have been warning for months that they fear Russia could be planning an imminent invasion of Ukraine, which the Kremlin has repeatedly denied.

On Monday, Alexey Danilov, Secretary of Kiev’s National Security Council, said that the threat of Russian aggression had been overhyped, calling it “panic” fomented for “geopolitical and domestic” reasons in the West. “The buildup of Russian troops isn’t as rapid as some claim,” he insisted, adding that the risk of escalation still remains.


Congress seeks to spend $500 million of taxpayers’ money on Ukraine

Democrats to fast-track bill giving Kiev more military aid and sanctioning Russia in case of “significant escalation”

The US House of Representatives is rushing a bill that would impose a series of sanctions on Russia and give Ukraine $500 million in military aid, skipping the committee mark-up process entirely, The Intercept reported on Tuesday, citing sources in Congress.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) reportedly told members on a caucus call that she wants the Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act of 2022 up for a floor vote as soon as next week. The bill was introduced in the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week by its chair Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and co-sponsored by 13 other Democrats.

Meeks is currently en route to Ukraine with 11 other members of Congress, only three of them Republicans. His bill doesn’t have any GOP co-sponsors just yet. It is the House version of the bill introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), which was endorsed by 41 Democratic senators as well as the White House.

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A Russian soldier during a military exercise near Moscow, January 18, 2022. © Konstantin Morozov/Twitter
US backtracks on talk of Russian invasion

The Meeks bill would more than double the amount of military aid to Kiev, from $248 million sent under the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program in 2020 to $500 million. Only Israel and Egypt currently get more – $3.3 billion and $1.3 billion, respectively.

Under the Democrats’ proposal, if President Joe Biden declares that Russia has engaged in “significant escalation in hostilities” to disrupt Ukrainian sovereignty, the White House would be able to issue sanctions against President Vladimir Putin personally, Russian financial institutions, anyone tied to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and even Americans wanting to trade in Russian government bonds.

Senate Democrats cited the Menendez bill to filibuster the sanctions proposal by Ted Cruz (R-Texas) earlier this month. However, the Republicans are unlikely to block the Menendez-Meeks bill, as their own proposal in the House wants to give Ukraine $450 million from the FMF and impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 right away, without waiting for any Russian action.


NATO won't send combat troops to Ukraine – Stoltenberg

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says NATO will not send combat troops to Ukraine, but no compromise on bloc’s expansion

NATO is finalizing its own response to Moscow’s proposal about European security, and will send it “later this week” in parallel with Washington, the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said in an interview on Tuesday.

The alliance is willing “to sit down and discuss arms control, disarmament, transparency on military activities, risk reduction mechanisms and other issues which are relevant for European security,” Stoltenberg told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

“We are also willing to sit down and listen to Russian concerns. But we are not ready to compromise on core principles, including the right for every nation in Europe to choose its own path, including what kind of security arrangements it wants to be part of,” he added.

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© Getty Images / uschools
US says it will refuse all security concessions proposed by Russia

Stoltenberg also reportedly said NATO will not send “combat” troops to Ukraine. A number of NATO members already have troops in the country bordering Russia, however, engaged in “training” Ukrainian government forces in how to use weapons systems supplied by the alliance.

The Russian proposal, sent over to the US and its allies last month, includes legally binding guarantees that NATO will not expand to any more former Soviet republics – including Ukraine and Georgia, which the alliance has eyed since 2008 – or deploy offensive weapons along the Russian border, among other things. 

The proposals are “not a menu from which one can pick and choose this or that. They are complementary and must be considered as a whole,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told journalists at the time.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said the demand for NATO to end expansion was “unconditional” and that the documents were made public so it would “not be swept under the rug.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called that particular issue “a matter of life and death” for Russia.

While the US has not sent its response yet, the State Department said on Monday that any moves by Washington would not be “concessions,” and that it would reject “security proposals we have heard from Moscow that are simply non-starters,” such as a ban on NATO expansion.


Black man sues police after he was mistaken for white suspect, arrested

The man says two police departments mixed him up with a white suspect twice his age

A Nevada man is suing two US police departments after he was arrested for a firearms offense he didn’t commit. The police had mistaken him for another man, despite one being black and the other white.

Shane Lee Brown, now 25, was arrested by Henderson, Nevada, police at a traffic stop in January 2020. He didn’t have his license with him, so he told the officers his name and social security number. When the police ran the information, they reportedly discovered that he apparently had a felony bench warrant for possession of a firearm. Brown was jailed by Henderson cops for two days, before being handed over to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD).

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However, Brown was not wanted on a firearms charge. When the police at the traffic stop searched for ‘Shane Brown’, they discovered a file on Shane Neal Brown, who was 49 years old at the time and had a criminal record dating back to before Shane Lee Brown was born. Unlike Shane Lee Brown, who is black, Shane Neal Brown is white.

According to ABC News, Brown attempted to inform the officers of their mistake, to no avail. Likewise, the LVMPD wasn’t “bothered to review its own records to determine whether Shane Lee Brown was the subject of the warrant,” according to the lawsuit.

Brown was eventually freed by a Clark County District Court judge six days after his arrest.

He is now seeking damages of $500,000 under federal law and at least $50,000 under state law, with his lawsuit alleging civil rights violations, false imprisonment, negligence, and other wrongful conduct by both police departments.

“Had any of the LVMPD police or corrections officers performed any due diligence, such as comparing Shane Lee Brown’s booking photo against the existing mugshot belonging to the white ‘Shane Brown’ named in the warrant, they would have easily determined that Shane Lee Brown has been misidentified,” the lawsuit read.

Yet, in another twist to the story, the Henderson Police Department said that Brown’s arrest was actually lawful, as he had been driving on a suspended license and was wanted for failing to pay a fine issued by Henderson Municipal Court. However, Brown’s attorney told ABC News that the police still arrested him on the wrong warrant, and that Brown had arranged a court date to clear up his own legal trouble.

"From one standpoint, yes, they could have arrested him and be rightfully arrested for traffic,” the attorney, E. Brent Bryson, said. “He was wrongfully detained and arrested, however … for the felony possession of a firearm."


Chairman of notorious spyware firm quits amid major snooping row

The departure comes after recent allegations that Pegasus software was being used to monitor domestic dissidents since 2013

More alleged victims of Israeli spyware Pegasus were identified as the firm’s chairman resigned on Tuesday, only a week after reports that the software was used to spy on domestic protesters.

NSO Chairman Asher Levi resigned effective Tuesday, though he told the Associated Press his departure from the company had been planned for some time and is unrelated to the troubles brewing over its domestic activities.

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A view of the Israeli cyber company NSO Group. © Amir Levy / Getty Images
Police used notorious spyware to snoop on citizens – media inquiry

The firm is currently under investigation by Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, following the claims from business outlet Calcalist that police were using the flagship spyware Pegasus to monitor protest leaders and anti-government activists for nearly a decade. 

Police used the globally-condemned software sometimes without securing the required warrants and even monitored some politicians, including mayors, according to the report.

As well as the AG’s probe into the allegations, the parliamentary public security committee also announced plans to convene this week to question police. Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev has insisted the police were not spying illegally, though he acknowledged on Saturday to Channel 12 that they were indeed using some “advanced technology.” 

Levi insisted his reasons for leaving NSO were unrelated to the current investigation, explaining to the Associated Press that he had been appointed by the company’s previous owners and submitted his resignation when new owners took control of the company.

Two more alleged victims of Pegasus spying were named on Tuesday by online rights advocacy group Citizen Lab, which has been digging into NSO’s activities for months to uncover its software’s abuse by authoritarian governments. 

The two latest additions are Michal Kolodziejczak, an agrarian Polish political leader who has thus far been blocked by the courts from creating a political party despite popular appeal, and Tomasz Szwejgiert, who was allegedly hacked a whopping 21 times while co-authoring a book about the head of Poland’s secret services. 

READ MORE: Israeli spyware giant NSO group added to US trade blacklist along with three others

Pegasus allows a target’s phone to be remotely accessed via microphone and camera without their knowledge and has been discovered on the phones of journalists, activists, and political dissidents from the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Mexico, and other countries within the last few years. 

NSO was blacklisted by the US Department of Commerce last November for engaging in practices that “threaten the rules-based international order.” It was also discovered that 11 State Department officials in Uganda were among Pegasus targets.


Shots fired in Ukrainian capital (VIDEO)

Local anti-corruption activists had been staging a demonstration in a currency exchange office close to the sensitive government building

A security guard has opened fire outside the Security Service (SBU) building in Kiev, Ukraine during an incident involving NGO activists, eyewitnesses have confirmed.

READ MORE: Outcry as Ukrainian bankers ‘ASSAULT’ American state-run media reporters, allegedly seizing cameras & deleting interview footage

According to preliminary reports by local media, the man fired several warning shots in response to what he thought could be a potential attack against a currency exchange office.

The perceived threat is said to have turned out to be an attempt by activists of the anti-corruption Ukrainian Flag NGO to place stickers on the office’s walls. The organization has confirmed its involvement in the incident, saying its activists “have been attacked by armed people.”

No injuries have been reported as a result of the incident, and law enforcement has said it is investigating the situation.

The SBU is Ukraine's successor to the Soviet-era KGB security agency and maintains an imposing headquarters in the center of Kiev.


Khabib signs UFC legend Sonnen as pundit

Eagle FC has secured the services of MMA icon Chael Sonnen as a commentator and analyst, the promotion has confirmed

Newly-turned promoter Khabib Nurmagomedov's burgeoning Eagle Fighting Championship (EFC) has announced that another UFC legend, Chael Sonnen, will join the organization as a commentator and analyst.

Forty-nine bout Sonnen was known for his trash-talking during a fighting career in which he challenged for the light-heavyweight and middleweight UFC belts, earning a reputation for his sharp-tongued wit as he tangled with fellow stars including Wanderlei Silva and Michael Bisping.

The American had already gained ample experience behind a microphone by the time he retired from Bellator MMA in June 2019, having fought five times for the promotion following a hiatus of more than three years after he left the UFC in 2013.

Broadcaster ESPN, Global Force Wrestling, the World Series of Fighting and Bellator have all previously employed charismatic Sonnen on analytical duties.

EFC, which has been known almost exclusively for its all-action events in Russia until now, is expanding into the US from a new base in Miami, and Nurmagomedov said he hoped the promotion would be prolific at putting on shows during 2022.

Ex-UFC fighter and occasional Nurmagomedov critic Kevin Lee formally joined EFC in December 2021, when the Russian held a press conference announcing the creation of two new weight divisions at 165lbs and 175lbs alongside his ambitious plans for the promotion.

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Khabib Nurmagomedov is starting life as a promoter with Eagle FC. © RIA Novosti
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Lee is expected to debut in March for EFC, which will launch its events in the US for the year when veteran MMA favorite Sergei Kharitonov faces boxing and kickboxing powerhouse Tyrone Spong on January 28.

Astute businessman Nurmagomedov will be keenly aware of Sonnen's huge profile and popularity in the US, where he has even run for political positions and appeared on hit reality TV show The New Celebrity Apprentice.

Sonnen is closing in on one million followers on his YouTube channel, where he regularly holds forth on the latest MMA news and events, accompanied by clips on his Instagram page followed by more than 570,000 fans.

The 44-year-old has frequently voiced his opinion on Nurmagomedov, most recently when he claimed the Dagestani had shown mercy on final UFC opponent Justin Gaethje.

According to Sonnen, Nurmagomedov opted not to break Gaethje's arm in his swansong victory at UFC 254 in October 2021.

Announcing Sonnen's signing by using one of his nicknames, EFC posted on social media: "The Bad Guy hits South Beach."


Russia warns of consequences across Europe if it’s cut off from SWIFT

Trading partners risk being deprived of key imports, including oil and gas

Suspending Russia from SWIFT – an international system of financial transactions between banks operated by a Belgium-based company – could massively backfire on the West, Deputy Speaker of the Russian Senate Nikolay Zhuravlev warned on Tuesday.

“SWIFT is a payment system. It’s a service,” Zhuravlev told journalists. He added that cutting Russia off would mean that Moscow could not process payments in foreign currencies. That may leave Russia’s trading partners – primarily Western Europe – unable to receive goods they import from Russia.

It means that Russia’s oil, gas, and metals, as well as other “important imported products” would be unable to  reach West European market, the official warned. “Do theyneed that? I doubt it,” Zhuravlev added.

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Britain to back suspension of Russia from SWIFT – reports

The Senate’s deputy speaker also said he believes a decision by Washington and London might not be enough to push SWIFT into cutting Russia off from its services. He particularly noted that nations that have a sizable amount of trade with Russia would hardly take such pressure from the US and the UK lightly.

Russia has been one of the EU’s top five trading partners, according to the EU Commission’s 2020 report. It supplied more than 5% of the bloc’s imports, worth over €95 billion ($107 billion).

“It’s a European company; an association of many nations,” Zhuravlev said, referring to SWIFT and adding that it would need “a unanimous decision by all member states” for a nation to be cut off from it.

Last Sunday, the British media reported that London considers supporting Russia’s suspension from SWIFT in case of its hypothetical military conflict with Ukraine. In mid-January, the German  newspaper Handelsblatt reported that Western leaders had ruled out such a move and Washington itself had given up on the idea. The US denied this was the case by saying that “no option is off the table.”

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File photo: Moscow City international business center, Russia, 20. October 2021
Western governments drop plans to cut Russia off from SWIFT – media

SWIFT is a limited liability cooperative owned by its shareholders that elect the board of 25 'independent directors' governing the company and overseeing the management. The current board composition mostly includes members from Western nations but also has one member from Russia and one from China.

According to the company’s website, “SWIFT’s international governance and oversight reinforces the neutral, global character of its cooperative structure.” The US arguably influenced SWIFT’s decision on disconnecting Iranian banks from its services back in 2012 when the US Senate Banking Committee approved sanctions against companies dealing with the blacklisted banks.

Back in 2014, SWIFT refused to consider disconnecting Russia from its services in response to calls it had received at that time.

Although SWIFT is a “convenient and fast” financial transaction instrument, it is by no means unique, Zhuravlev noted. Russia and China have already created their own systems of financial transactions. Russia’s one, which is called SPFS, already has over 400 institutions – mostly banks – within its network.


Djokovic set for swift return

The world number one will reportedly be back on court three weeks after the Australian Open finishes

Exiled Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic appears to have agreed when his competitive return to tennis will be – and he looks likely to attempt to lift a fifth title at a tournament he skipped when the pandemic started.

Thwarted Djokovic was forced to leave Australia hours before the start of his defense of his Melbourne title after Australian Minister for Immigration Alex Hawke succeeded in a second attempt to cancel the Serb superstar's visa.

While all the talk has been around whether Djokovic will be banned from Australia for three years under border rules enforced by Scott Morrison's government, the most feared player on the circuit has purportedly already been able to look ahead to a swift return to action.

Djokovic is said to be ready to return in Dubai, where he flew to on a flight that was the most tracked in the world at the time after leaving Australia escorted by security personnel following a court ruling over his medical exemption.

The 34-year-old had arrived in Australia on the understanding that a positive Covid test in December 2019 would entitle him to be freely allowed in without being vaccinated against the virus.

His professed joy at being able to compete without the treatment turned to despair as he headed for the long flight to the country where he has reportedly been entered for the ATP 500 tournament.

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic (right) and Novak Djokovic meet in Paris in 2013 © Mustafa Yalcin / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
Vaccinated Zlatan weighs in on Djokovic row

The frustration Djokovic will feel at not featuring in the Australian Open final could be tempered by the prospect of being back in action at a showpiece that begins little more than three weeks later, on February 21.

Organizers are yet to confirm the male lineup for the event, which offers a total prize fund of almost $1.9 million and a payday of almost $150,000 for the champion, according to Perfect Tennis.

The 20-time Grand Slam champion won when he last competed at the tournament, beating Stefanos Tsitsipas, who was also at the center of a vaccine row involving the Greek government at the height of the pandemic, in the 2019 final.

Russian Aslan Karatsev, who Djokovic beat in the Australian Open semifinals in 2021, won in Dubai in the same year as part of a meteoric surge up the rankings.

Karatsev will be seeded seventh in a star-studded list of players headed by Djokovic, tennis expert Michal Samulski has said.

Andrey Rublev, the Russian world number six, will be the second seed ahead of Felix Auger Aliassime, who faces world number two Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open quarterfinals.

A tennis source in the Middle East claimed the official announcement of Djokovic's participation would be made on Tuesday evening, pitting him against seven other male players in the top 20.

Nine of the world's top ten-ranked women will take part at the hotel-based tournament, running until February 26 2022.


1st Asian country decriminalizes marijuana

Questions still remain about the legal status of recreational marijuana use

Thailand has become the first country in Asia to decriminalize marijuana use. The health minister called on people to use the drug for their “benefit” rather than “to cause harm.”

Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, a longtime supporter of marijuana legalization, announced in a lengthy Facebook post that the Narcotics Control Board has “finally” agreed to exclude all parts of the cannabis plant from the government’s list of controlled drugs.

The change will enter into force 120 days after its announcement in the government gazette.

Calling the announcement “good news,” Charnvirakul noted that the “rules and frameworks” for planting and using marijuana need to be established to make sure that cannabis will be used for “for the benefit of the people in medicine, research, education.”

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First EU country moves to legalize cannabis for personal use

The rules will be part of the Marijuana and Hemp Act, which Charnvirakul pledged to propose in Parliament on Wednesday, and which greenlights the growing of cannabis at home after first notifying the local government. Licenses will be required to use marijuana for commercial purposes

Please do not use it to cause harm,” Charnvirakul said.

However, the minister did not clarify how the changes will affect the legal status of the drug’s recreational use, which is currently a grey area. The Associated Press reported that local police and lawyers are unsure if possession of marijuana remains an offense subject to arrest.

Marijuana was first legalized for medical use and research in Thailand in 2020.


Italy’s exiled royals want their jewels back

Descendants of Italy’s last king have formally requested that the state return their priceless jewels.

Lawyers representing the descendants of Italy's last monarch will meet with representatives of the Bank of Italy and the government on Tuesday, in an attempt to negotiate the return of the crown jewels to the Savoy family, which have been held by the bank since 1946. Should they fail to reach an agreement, the Savoys plan to sue the state, Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper reported.

One way or another, “the Savoy family will get the jewels back,” the family’s lawyer stated.

Encompassing more than 6,700 diamonds and 2,000 pearls mounted on necklaces, bracelets, tiaras, and brooches, the collection is valued somewhere between €18 million ($20.3 million) and €300 million ($338 million). No evaluation has been carried out, and the jewels haven’t been in royal hands for more than 75 years.

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© Instagram / @alrosadiamonds
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Italians voted to abolish the country’s monarchy in June 1946, and King Umberto II, who had ruled for just over a month at that point, was banished into exile shortly afterwards. However, Umberto had sent the jewels to the Bank of Italy for safekeeping before leaving Italy, where they have remained to the present day.

The jewels were never formally confiscated by the Italian government, a fact that Umberto’s descendants in the House of Savoy are hoping will count in their favor when asking for them back. Additionally, a delivery report that accompanied the jewels to the bank in 1946 stated that they were to be kept available to those with the “right” to them.

The Savoys first made an informal request for the return of the jewels in November, which was rebuffed by the bank. The family have not yet taken any formal action to get the collection back, and male descendents of Umberto were only allowed back into Italy in 2002. Beforehand, they had spent 65 years in exile between Portugal and Switzerland.

Upon his return to Italy in 2003, Umberto’s son, Vittorio Emanuele, claimed that he no longer wanted the jewels, suggesting they be put on display instead, something that never happened.


From peacemaker to warmonger: Tragic downfall of Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky

The president of Ukraine came to power calling for peace, but continued his predecessor's militaristic policies

Something truly amazing happened in Ukraine in 2019. A country traditionally split into two practically equal parts almost uniformly chose the same president, casting 73.22% of the votes for famed comedian Volodymyr Zelensky of the Kvartal 95 Studio. By electing the entertainers, the Ukrainian people showed that they were tired of career politicians and, most importantly, wanted peace for the Donbass region.  

His predecessor Petro Poroshenko was tied to the civil war in the eastern regions of the country, while showman Zelensky was a fresh face who dropped a few flashy lines, painted a couple of vivid pictures, and was able to convince the people that he was a peacemaker. However, to quote a Ukrainian saying, “it didn’t turn out the way they thought it would.” While in office, the ‘kind clown’ turned into a real-life warmonger who is even tougher than Poroshenko in some respects. How and when did this happen? 

An illusion of an alternative  

Presidential candidate Zelensky ran his campaign as a spectacular political show, employing his acting skills and the help of his colleagues in the business. “I am not your opponent, I am your sentence,” he said in his professionally trained voice to Poroshenko during a debate, and this line resonated with the deepest aspirations of the Ukrainian people. There he was, a new candidate without any prior experience in politics who promised to prosecute Poroshenko and other corrupt politicians, strip MPs of immunity, and end the war in the Donbass region. His campaign promises inspired the hope that with the old elites gone, the established political practices would be toast as well.  

Ukrainians had their reasons to hope that it all would work out well. Zelensky is Jewish, he comes from the traditionally pro-Moscow southeastern Ukraine and speaks Russian as his mother tongue – and so he was perceived as someone who would oppose warmongering, xenophobia, and religious extremism. People thought that he would denounce Poroshenko’s ‘army, language, and faith’ triad. The voters wanted to believe someone, and Zelensky seemed to fit the part. 

The legend of Zelensky the peacemaker was also propagated by an interview he gave in January 2019 while he was a still a presidential candidate. When asked what he would say to Russian President Vladimir Putin if it came to it, Zelensky was quick to answer, “First and foremost, I want the shooting to stop.” This line was as important and symbolic as “I am your sentence” thrown at Poroshenko. The voters felt like they didn’t need to hear anything further.

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A BTR-82A armored personnel carrier lands from a large landing ship during an exercise in the amphibious landing on an unimproved shore held by army corps and naval infantry units of the Russian Black Sea Fleet at the Opuk range, in Crimea, Russia. © Sputnik / Konstantin Mihalchevskiy
Ukraine dismisses suggestions of imminent Russian invasion

However, later that same month, the ‘peacemaker’ claimed that he was not going to follow through on the Minsk peace plan. “These agreements aren’t very complicated,” Zelensky said and went on to suggest that since the agreements were not working, it was time to bring in other countries into the process. He also refused to pardon people involved in the Donbass fighting, which is part of the Minsk Accords. “They were killing our people. What do you mean? Of course, I won’t do that. I am against anyone dictating us, an independent country, who to pardon. They can’t demand full amnesty. No one will do that!” Zelensky said.  

Another promise by Zelensky that won him people’s support in Ukraine was to revise the law ‘On ensuring the functioning of Ukrainian as the state language’, which was adopted by Petro Poroshenko during his last days in the office. “Once I assume the office of the President of Ukraine, this law will be studied and analyzed to make sure it takes care of all the constitutional rights and interests of all citizens of Ukraine. Then, depending on the outcome, I will invoke my powers as the President of Ukraine to act accordingly in the interests of Ukrainian citizens as prescribed by the Constitution.” However, the situation has not changed since then. Ukraine’s official language policies continue to disregard the interests of its Russian-speaking population. In January 2022, further restrictions were introduced requiring all national print media to be published in Ukrainian, which effectively outlawed most of the Russian-language newspapers in the country. 

As soon as he assumed office, Zelensky began to sound much more like his predecessor Poroshenko while exploiting the immense nationwide trust and support he’d already won. His Servant of the People party won an early parliamentary election by a simple majority of votes. Under Ukraine’s law, it meant that the president and his allies were free to enjoy power without the need to enter into any political coalition, so the faction could define Ukraine’s policies as they saw fit. On the other hand, this made them ultimately responsible for the situation in the country. 

© Oleksandr Rupeta / NurPhoto via Getty Images

The new Ukrainian leader enjoyed a very cordial reception on the global scene too. Moscow was no exception. Despite Zelensky’s belligerent rhetoric, constant talk about ‘Russian aggression’, demands to return Donbass and Crimea to Ukraine, calls on the NATO countries to exert more pressure on Russia through economic sanctions and other Poroshenko-style statements, the first telephone call between the new Ukrainian president and Vladimir Putin took place as early as in July 2019. It helped put the prisoner exchange process on a faster track. However, this was the last thing Zelensky ever did as a peacemaker. 

Zelensky is above Minsk II agreements 

The change of power in Ukraine has revived the Normandy Format talks that had been on hold since 2016. In an interview with Germany’s Deutsche Welle in the run-up to the Normandy Four meeting, Zelensky said, “You are well aware that I didn’t sign the Minsk Accords, and neither did anyone on my team. However, we are prepared to take the steps stipulated in the document toward complete fulfillment of all Minsk agreements in order to finally achieve peace.” 

Amidst preparations for the Normandy Four summit, the parties returned to the formula proposed by Frank-Walter Steinmeier and adopted back in 2016. The proposal German FM Steinmeier had come up with included Ukraine enacting temporarily the law on special local self-governance regimes in Donetsk and Luhansk regions. It was to come into effect temporarily following the local elections in the said regions and then permanently, once the elections were confirmed to have been fair and free by the OSCE. This course of action was re-confirmed by the parties at the Normandy Format summit of December 9, 2019 in Paris. 

But Zelensky did not plan on sticking to the agreement, as it turned out. On October 1, 2019, two months before the summit, Zelensky said, “With any external presence there, no elections will be held. We will never allow elections if there are troops present there. If there are any troops there, you see, any troops at all, there will be no elections.” So in fact, Kiev only signed Steinmeier’s formula as a formality, just to be able to claim the credit for participating in the summit.

Zelensky’s first steps as Ukrainian president should be under scrutiny. It's important to highlight when and how exactly he actually abandoned all plans to settle the conflict in the Donbass. Since the Minsk Accords were signed a long time ago and so much speculation has been generated around them, ordinary people are getting only more and more confused about what is true and what is false in this story, and which actions have violated the agreement and how Zelensky has been sabotaging its implementation. 

Read more

Kay-Achim Schönbach © Bernd Wüstneck / picture alliance via Getty Images
No respect for Putin: How a call for cooperation with Russia ended a vice-admiral’s career

Let’s start by recapping some facts. The Minsk Accords, endorsed by the UN Security Council Resolution 2022 of February 12, 2015, prescribe a series of steps to be taken in a particular order toward a peaceful settlement of the eight-year-old Donbass issue. According to the document, on day one of the withdrawal [of Ukraine’s troops, since the only other force in the area represents the new self-proclaimed republics] the talks were to begin about holding local elections under the Ukrainian law ‘On interim self-government order in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions’. The elections were to be discussed with representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR respectively). The law would also give the regions the right to linguistic self-determination and allow their organs of local self-government to participate in the appointment of heads of public prosecution offices and courts, as well as to create the people’s police units and develop cross-border cooperation with Russia.  

Item five of the document requires that pardon and amnesty is ensured, and item six dictates to release and exchange prisoners of war. Reinstating full control of the state border throughout the conflict area by the government of Ukraine is way down the list, under item nine, and is in order only after holding local elections and carrying out a constitutional reform to decentralize the country. 

Plain and simple, one would say. And yet, during the joint press conference after the summit, Zelensky said, “We will never agree to federalization of Ukraine by way of amending our Constitution. We will tolerate no external influence on Ukraine’s self-governance. Ukraine is an independent country that chooses its policies independently,” thus basically denying the Minsk II agreements. 

Zelensky the ‘peacekeeper’ thus did exactly what Petro Poroshenko was doing, namely changing the order of steps in the document: border control first, elections later. In an interview with the Financial Times, Zelensky also refused to hold talks with the representatives of Donbass saying, “I’m not holding talks with terrorists, this is impossible in my position.” He also went back on the amnesty requirement in his address to parliament in October 2020: “The dreadful word ‘amnesty’ is not about everyone and not about avoiding responsibility. It is about millions of our citizens whose hands are not coated with blood.” 

Militarization instead of peace 

Immediately after Zelensky was elected, he began traveling around the world in an attempt to get more weapons for Ukraine. He talked to Canada, Germany and the United States, among others. Military aid received by Ukraine from these powers between 2014 and 2021 amounted to US$2.5 billion. Ukraine’s plea for NATO membership has been getting more and more persistent. 

Under Zelensky’s rule, militarization of society has been encouraged and military rhetoric got to enjoy massive support. Ukraine’s recently adopted Military Security Strategy calls for combat readiness to actually fight Russia, not only defend itself in case of the need – for example, in case of a border conflict between Russia and its neighbors or if Russia attempts to hold Belarus on its political orbit. Ukraine’s Foreign Policy Strategy is equally ambitious and calls for “fighting Russia” even in Africa. 

At the same time, Zelensky’s administration continues to militarize the country much in the same spirit as Albania’s Enver Hoxha. The country’s Defense Ministry has followed up on the law ‘On the fundamentals of national resistance’ by mandating each region and each city with over 900,000 residents to form local defense brigades and setting the total headcount objective for this force at 130,000 people. This force is to be deployed outside combat areas, but the president may give it other assignments. 

Women weren’t spared by the decree. The Defense Ministry now wants all women from 18 to 60 on military record until the end of the year, including pregnant women and mothers with many children. Starting from 2023, women who ignore their ‘military duty’, as well as their employers will be slapped with fines. The website of Ukraine’s presidential office has published a petition to reinstate the list of jobs introduced by the Ukrainian government on October 14, 1994. Over 37,000 people have digitally signed it. 

Zelensky’s other initiative to grant Ukrainian citizenship to foreign nationals who participated in action against Donbass iquestionable from the standpoint of international law that prohibits the use of mercenaries in armed conflict. It can also create additional risks for Ukraine and its neighbors by legalizing some very questionable individuals, possibly even terrorists who might take their chances of hiding from their crimes under a Ukrainian passport. 

© Oleksii Kivaliov / Ukrinform / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

There have been a lot of escalation incidents in Donbass during Zelensky’s presidency. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reports that the number of ceasefire violations in the conflict zone went up considerably between February 1, 2021 and July 31, 2021, causing the death of 62 civilians. That is 51% more deaths than in the previous six months. The UN has also reported a 369% increase in the number of registered ceasefire violations. From February 1, 2021 to July 31, 2021, the OHCHR registered 27 cases of artillery damage to civil targets, with 22 (81%) of these incidents taking place on the territory controlled by the Donbass fighters and five (19%) on the government-controlled territory. Thus, the Ukrainian forces keep shelling the facilities of the self-proclaimed republics producing the majority of casualties, the UN data says. And let’s not forget that all of this happened before the recent military hysteria and public lamentations about the pending ‘Russian invasion’. 

Russia’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova recently said, “the tragic figures [on the contact line in Donbass] have been growing again recently, and it’s a sad fact. After a short break, the average daily number of shelling incidents rose to a higher level compared to the previous month and even the previous year.” 

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The suffering of the civilian population in Donbass didn’t escape the watchful eye of the OSCE either. During her visit to the Zolotoye-5 settlement in the  LPR, coordinator of the Humanitarian Working Group, Charlotta Relander, was shocked by the regular shelling. “It’s very scary to see what I’ve seen here. I didn’t know this was even happening, and this is a large school as I understand. Many, many students here depend on the school to come here to study. And of course, in general, there should not be anything targeting a structure like a school. It’s a civilian structure,” she said. 

While the supposed ‘Russian invasion’ and the news of Moscow's troops apparently amassing on the border with Ukraine keep making headlines, no one seems to care to mention Ukraine gathering a force on the border with the rogue regions that is several times bigger than that of the rebels, as has been reported recently by head of the DPR, Denis Pushilin.  

Meanwhile, the West keeps pumping weapons into Ukraine. On Tuesday, January 18, 2022, the Ukrainian Army received a batch of light anti-tank missiles. Not only did the White House authorize the Baltic nations to send the US-made anti-tank and air defense systems to Kiev, but it is also going to provide Ukraine with five Mil Mi-17 transport helicopters, according to the Wall Street Journal. A 200-strong spec-ops unit from Canada has been deployed under the pretense of protecting the Canadian embassy. The UK has sent over 30 Special Operations Brigade troops of its own, thus adding to the hundreds of foreign military instructors in Ukraine already training Kiev’s special forces. Among them, reportedly, are some CIA operatives. 

The reasons for Zelensky’s transformation  

Now let us go back to Zelensky and try to figure out why he missed his chance to bring peace to Ukraine. His talent as an entertainer implies he is good at reading the audience, which is what helped him come to power using the rhetoric of peace, if only to immediately discard it once elected.  

To be fair, there were certain attempts to kick off the peace process with the Donbass. Donetsk-born Sergey Sivokho, who served as the adviser to the head of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, set up the National Platform for Reconciliation and Unity. The platform later introduced a bill on the principles of reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. 

Even though the bill went only halfway, dispensing with the full amnesty stipulated by the Minsk Agreements yet giving the Donbass the right to determine their own language policy, it triggered a backlash. Both neo-Nazis and Zelensky’s own faction accused the president of “high treason” and “capitulation,” while Sivokho was assaulted by fighters of the Azov Battalion, which is recognized as a neo-Nazi organization even in the US. 

Having no enforcement resources of his own, Zelensky chose to go with the easiest option, since any attempts to negotiate with the self-proclaimed republics incurred the wrath of the extremist groups who have proven they could carry out attacks on the president’s office with impunity. 

The pressure exerted by the right-wing radicals has affected Zelensky’s foreign and domestic policy. For example, the president has never kept his promise to revise the discriminatory legislation on language and education. Gabor Stier, a prominent Hungarian political analyst, has pointed out that there were certain problems with protecting the interests of Hungarians in Ukraine, saying that “Zelensky is wary of nationalists, and so he has very little room for maneuver on this domestic issue.” 

Meanwhile, forced Ukrainization is not only costing Zelensky support in Ukraine, but also drawing criticism from the international players. As of late December 2021, Zelensky’s approval rating is down from the triumphant heights of 2019 to a mere 24%. Ukraine still hasn’t complied with the PACE resolutions demanding the country’s laws to be brought in line with European standards. It’s true that these laws had been adopted before Zelensky took office, but the law on the indigenous peoples, for example, was penned by his administration.  

In December 2019, the Venice Commission published an opinion report criticizing Ukraine’s policies on ethnic minorities and minority languages. The report highlights that “a hierarchy is created at secondary school level, with indigenous peoples potentially treated more favorably than national minorities which speak an official language of the EU, and national minorities which speak an official language of the EU treated more favorably than other national minorities.”

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Despite the fact that the Commission believed this to be discriminatory, Ukraine – home to over 130 ethnicities – dubbed only Crimean Tatars, Karaites, and Krymchaks indigenous, ignoring thousands of people that belong to Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Jewish and other large communities. 

It might have been his falling approval rating that made Zelensky crack down on the opposition and the media. Through the National Security and Defense Council, he started to close TV channels and introduce sanctions against Ukrainian citizens, including journalists Anatoly Shariy and Igor Guzhva. This didn’t go unnoticed by the UN Human Rights Office, which stated the following in its 32nd report: “OHCHR is concerned that individual sanctions imposed against Parliamentarian Taras Kozak and his eight companies, which led to the closure of television channels 112 Ukraine, ZIK and NewsOne, are not in line with international standards on the right to freedom of expression.” Again, Ukraine paid no heed, introducing sanctions against Shariy and Guzhva, as well as sanctions against a number of media outlets such as Moskovsky Komsomolets, Vedomosti, and Nash TV channel, after the report came out.  

The UN also condemned the Ukrainian president’s attack on the rule of law. In the same report, OHCHR said that it “remains concerned about the constitutional crisis caused by the suspension, dismissal and criminal prosecution of two judges of the Constitutional Court, jeopardizing the independence of the judiciary and rule of law in the country.” 

The most recent exciting development on that front is the attempt to convict Zelensky’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko of high treason for buying coal from the Donbass region. Since the Ukrainian authorities believe it to be part of Ukraine, where was the crime in that? Is it a crime to purchase coal domestically instead of importing it from South Africa, or is this about Poroshenko’s popularity putting him second to Zelensky? 

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky © Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Earlier this year, another Ukrainian opposition leader, Viktor Medvedchuk was placed under arrest, allegedly for committing treason in dealings with Crimea. Just like Poroshenko, Medvedchuk's Opposition Platform – For Life had polled ahead of Zelensky's faction before he was prosecuted. 

Medvedchuk has also claimed the case against him is clearly politically motivated.

In August, his lawyer, Rinat Kuzmin, revealed that the politician had filed a petition to the European Court of Human Rights over his right to “a fair trial, and of liberty and personal security.”

So far it looks like Zelensky has been violating democratic norms to stay in power, though it’s unlikely it will help. Let’s look at the recent political history of Ukraine. Viktor Yushchenko, who pursued a similar policy, was elected in 2004 with 51.99% of votes and failed to get reelected in 2010, securing a miserable 5.45%. Poroshenko got 54.7% of votes in 2014 and only 24.45% in the next election. Zelensky’s approval rating now seems to be following the same pattern. 

As the phrase attributed to Albert Einstein goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Could it be that the solution for Zelensky actually lies not in stoking the militarist hysteria, but in stopping the war, ensuring the rights of ethnic minorities, finally crushing corruption, establishing the rule of law, and creating a growing economy? 


The Rock teases movie based on ‘one of the biggest, most badass games’

Dwayne Johnson says he is working on a new movie based on a popular game, but doesn’t share details

Having finished filming for the upcoming DC film ‘Black Adam’, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has revealed in a recent interview with Men’s Journal that he is now working on bringing a video game character to the big screen and promised there would be an announcement sometime this year, saying, “We’re going to bring one of the biggest, most badass games to the screen – one that I’ve played for years.”

He added that he plans to “do right by our gamer friends” and that “really we’re just going to make a great movie.” However, Johnson did not share any further details or provide any other hints as to what the game in question is, leading many fans to speculate.

Although Johnson mentioned playing a lot of ‘Madden’ in the interview, most fans doubt it would be a film centered around a sports game. Many were quick to assume it could be a ‘Mass Effect’ film; however, considering that game is already reportedly being developed into a series, that theory doesn’t seem to hold up very well. Some fans believe that since the game in question is one that Johnson has “played for years,” it could be part of a long-running franchise such as ‘Gears of War’, ‘Call of Duty’, or ‘Halo’, while others have suggested characters that simply look like Johnson, such as Kratos from ‘God of War’.

But whatever the game actually is, Johnson would have his work cut out for him, as video game movies are notorious for often being huge disappointments, both critically and financially. Look no further than The Rock’s own past attempts at video game movies with ‘Doom’ and ‘Rampage’, both of which received mixed reviews at best. 

Although there have been some relatively successful projects in recent years, like ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ and ‘Detective Pikachu’, there are still a lot of hurdles to overcome when adapting a video game to the big screen, but Hollywood seems to be determined to give video game films a shot, as several TV projects like ‘Mass Effect’, ‘The Last of Us’, and ‘Fallout’ have all been lined up for cinematic adaptation in the near future.

The Rock is currently set to appear in the upcoming ‘Black Adam’ film, and is expected to reprise his roles in ‘Jungle Cruise 2’ and two ‘Red Notice’ sequels alongside Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot.


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Proposed US sanctions may cost Russia $50bn – media

Ukraine-related penalties may include the banning of Russian arms sales as well as curbing energy exports

The US is reportedly trying to convince its allies to impose new sanctions against Russia if a war with Ukraine breaks out. These would target arms and energy exports, costing Moscow around $50 billion, German tabloid Bild reported citing unnamed sources.

The drastic step was reportedly proposed by William Burns, the head of the CIA, during his visit to Berlin. US officials reportedly asked the German government to ban imports of Russian raw materials and block the launch of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Berlin assured the US that in the event of an invasion of Ukraine, Russian gas would not go through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the sources told the media. However, the chancellor’s office voiced doubts over completely abandoning the vital pipeline. The remark caused irritation in Washington, Bild reported.

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Over the past few months, a wide range of Western media outlets, along with multiple US officials, have been spreading speculation about an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Washington and some of its allies threatened the Kremlin with a new round of ‘crippling’ sanctions if this happens, citing the movement of Russian troops within the country’s vast Western territory as evidence of the plan. Moscow has consistently rejected the accusations, saying it has a right to carry out military maneuvers as it pleases within its borders.

For more stories on economy & finance visit RT's business section


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