Pence Rebukes Europe Over Iran, Venezuela, Russia Links

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence strongly criticized European allies Saturday for their stance on Iran and Venezuela, in a speech at the Munich Security Conference in Germany.

“The time has come for our European partners to stop undermining U.S. sanctions against this murderous, revolutionary regime. The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal,” Pence told delegates.

He also called on allies to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela. More than 20 European states have done so, but the European Union has stopped short of fully recognizing Guaido as president. Disputed president Nicholas Maduro is widely accused of vote-rigging to win last years’ election, while the country is mired in poverty and hyperinflation.

“Once more the Old World can take a strong stand in support of freedom in the New World. Today we call on the European Union to step forward for freedom and recognize Juan Guaido as the only legitimate president of Venezuela,” Pence said.

China repeatedly was singled out by the vice president as a threat to the United States and its allies.

“The United States has also been very clear with our security partners on the threat posed by Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies, as Chinese law requires them to provide Beijing’s vast security apparatus with access to any data that touches their network or equipment.”

Pence repeated Washington’s calls for European NATO allies to do more to meet their military spending targets — and cautioned against developing economic links with Moscow, such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline currently under construction between Russia and Germany.

“We cannot ensure the defense of the West if our allies grow dependent on the East,” Pence said.

Moscow’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took the stage later Saturday, and said Europe was losing out because of its stance on Russia.

“At a time when the Europeans allowed to draw themselves into a senseless standoff with Russia and incurred multi-billion-dollar losses from the sanctions pushed for from overseas, the world is rapidly changing. Actually, the EU has lost its monopoly on the regional integration agenda,” Lavrov said.

China’s senior delegate did not respond directly to the accusations made by Vice President Pence, but instead he offered a defense of multilateralism.

“Our world stands at a crossroads and faces a consequential choice between unilateralism and multilateralism, conflict and dialogue, isolation and openness,” Yang Jiechi, a senior member of the politburo and a former Chinese ambassador to the U.S., told delegates.

Those sentiments were earlier echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who strongly criticized U.S. President Donald Trump’s claims that Europe was taking advantage of America on trade.

The Munich Security Conference is seen as a key annual forum for world leaders to discuss global security concerns and conflicts — both in public and in private — in dozens of closed-door meetings taking place inside the venue.

The atmosphere this year is one of apprehension, according to analyst Florence Gaub of the European Union Institute for Security Studies.

“There is still a lot of grief over the old order being gone where everything was much more predictable, or at least appeared to be more predictable. So that’s slowly setting in,” said Gaub.

The tone of the conference speeches suggests that even among allies, tensions over a changing world order are no closer to being solved.


Vatican Expels Former US Cardinal McCarrick

The Vatican said Saturday that Pope Francis has defrocked disgraced former U.S. cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

In July of last year, Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals following allegations he had sexually abused minor and adult seminarians over a period of decades.

The Vatican said in a statement that in January 2019 it had found McCarrick guilty of “. . . solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.” (The Sixth Commandment says ‘Thou shall not commit adultery’ and is one of the Ten Commandments the Bible says were given by God.  The Commandments are fundamental to Judaism and Christianity.)

McCarrick appealed the decision expelling him from the priesthood, but it was upheld and McCarrick was notified of the decision Friday. .

The Vatican statement said its decision “is definitive and admits of no further recourse or appeal.”

McCarrick had been a highly respected and longtime ambassador of the Catholic Church was was a confident of popes and U.S. presidents.

The 88-year-old McCarrick was ordained a priest in 1958.  His appointments included:  auxiliary bishop of New York, bishop of Metuchen, archbishop of Newark, and archbishop of Washington.  

In 2001, McCarrick became a cardinal.


Moscow Court Extends Arrest of US Investor Accused of Fraud

A Russian court has decided to prolong the detention of American investor Michael Calvey, founder of Baring Vostok Capital Partners, a Moscow-based private equity group.

Late Friday the court moved to extend Calvey’s arrest for at least 72 hours and called for a second hearing Saturday.

Four other defendants in the case have been ordered to remain in pretrial custody for two months.

A spokeswoman for the Moscow district court Friday announced that Calvey had been detained along with other members of the firm Thursday on suspicion of stealing $37.5 million (2.5 billion rubles), a charge that carries of a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Private equity group partner

Calvey, 51, is a senior partner who founded Baring Vostok in 1994. According to the firm’s website, the private equity group holds more than $3.5 billion in committed capital and is a controlling shareholder in Russia’s Vostochny Bank, which focuses on Siberian and Far Eastern markets.

A statement on the Baring Vostok website said the company “believes that the detention of its employees and the charges that have been brought are a result of a conflict with shareholders of Vostochniy [sic] Bank. We have full confidence in the legality of our employees’ actions and will vigorously defend their rights. Baring Vostok’s activities in the Russian Federation are fully compliant with all applicable laws.”

Before launching Baring Vostok, Calvey worked for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and for Salomon Brothers. Since arriving in Moscow in the mid-1990s, he’s become a prominent and highly visible member of Moscow investment community. He is a board member of the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

​Pleas from investment community 

The announcement of Calvey’s detention sent shockwaves through the international investment community, prompting numerous pleas for his immediate release.

Herman Gref, head of Sberbank, Russia’s biggest state bank, issued a statement calling Calvey a “decent, honest man,” while Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s $10 billion sovereign wealth fund and a close contact of Russian President Vladimir Putin, described Calvey as “committed to the highest ethical standards accepted in the investment community.”

Kremlin officials Friday said Putin wasn’t aware of the charges being brought against Calvey.

“We are aware that a U.S. citizen was arrested on February 14, 2019, in Russia, a State Department spokesperson said Friday. “We have no higher priority than the protection of U.S. citizens abroad. Due to privacy considerations, we do not have any additional information at this time.”

Calvey is the third Westerner to face prosecution in Russia since Dec. 31, when American citizen Paul Whelan, a former Marine, was jailed on accusations of spying. Last week a Russian court sentenced Dennis Christensen, a Danish adherent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion, to six years in prison for “organizing the activity of an extremist organization.”

Although Russia has jailed foreign investors who were vocal opponents of the Kremlin, Calvey has no such record of public political opinions.

Russia is “a do-it-yourself market,” Calvey told The Washington Post in 2011. “You can’t rely on outside service providers.”

In that interview, Calvey said his group operates with 20 investors, four full-time lawyers and three government relations managers, along with a host of accountants and administrative support. At that time, all 10 of his partners were Russian nationals.

“International firms aren’t equipped for Russia,” he told the Post. “And they usually have a low tolerance threshold for uncertainty and no sense of humor for Russian surprises,” which he described as surprise audits, seizure of assets for back taxes, and sudden, sometimes seemingly arbitrary, business license reviews.

‘The final straw’

Vocal Kremlin critic and Hermitage Capital co-founder Bill Browder was denied entry into Russian in 2005 after his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, began investigating governmental misconduct and corruption in response to suspicious tax evasion charges brought against Hermitage by Russia’s Interior Ministry.

Magnitsky died under suspicious circumstances in Russian custody in 2009.

“The arrest of Mike Calvey in Moscow should be the final straw that Russia is an entirely corrupt and [uninvestable] country,” Browder said in a tweet Friday. “Of all the people I knew in Moscow, Mike played by their rules, kept his head down and never criticized the government.”

Pete Cobus is VOA’s acting Moscow correspondent. State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributed reporting from Washington. Some information is from Reuters.


Bombshell Book Alleges Vatican Gay Subculture, Hypocrisy

A gay French writer has lifted the lid on what he calls one of the world’s largest gay communities — the Vatican, estimating that most of its prelates are homosexually inclined and attributing much of the current crisis in the Catholic Church to an internecine war among them.

In the explosive book, In the Closet of the Vatican, author Frederic Martel describes a gay subculture at the Vatican and calls out the hypocrisy of Catholic bishops and cardinals who in public denounce homosexuality but in private lead double lives.

Aside from the subject matter, the book is astonishing for the access Martel had to the inner sanctum of the Holy See. Martel writes that he spent four years researching it in 30 countries, including weeks at a time living inside the Vatican walls. He says the doors were opened by a key Vatican gatekeeper and friend of Pope Francis who was the subject of the pontiff’s famous remark about gay priests, “Who am I to judge?”

Martel says he conducted nearly 1,500 in-person interviews with 41 cardinals, 52 bishops or monsignors, and 45 Vatican and foreign ambassadors, many of whom are quoted at length and in on-the-record interviews that he says were recorded. Martel said he was assisted by 80 researchers, translators, fixers and local journalists, as well as a team of 15 lawyers. The 555-page book is being published simultaneously in eight languages in 20 countries, many bearing the title Sodom.

The Vatican didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Culture of secrecy

Martel appears to want to bolster Francis’ efforts at reforming the Vatican by discrediting his biggest critics and removing the secrecy and scandal that surrounds homosexuality in the church. Church doctrine holds that gays are to be treated with respect and dignity, but that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.”

“Francis knows that he has to move on the church’s stance, and that he will only be able to do this at the cost of a ruthless battle against all those who use sexual morality and homophobia to conceal their own hypocrisies and double lives,” Martel writes.

But the book’s Feb. 21 publication date coincides with the start of Francis’ summit of church leaders on preventing the sexual abuse of minors, a crisis that is undermining his papacy. The book isn’t about abuse, but the timing of its release could fuel the narrative, embraced by conservatives and rejected by the gay community, that the abuse scandal has been caused by homosexuals in the priesthood.

Martel is quick to separate the two issues. But he echoes the analysis of the late abuse researcher and psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe that the hidden sex lives of priests has created a culture of secrecy that allowed the abuse of minors to flourish. According to that argument, since many prelates in positions of authority have their own hidden sexual skeletons, they have no interest in denouncing the criminal pedophiles in their midst lest their own secrets be revealed.

‘Gossip and innuendo’

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of Building a Bridge about how the Catholic Church should reach out more to the LGBT community, said that based on the excerpts he had read, Martel’s book “makes a convincing case that in the Vatican many priests bishops and even cardinals are gay, and that some of them are sexually active.”

But Martin added that the book’s sarcastic tone belies its fatal flaw. “His extensive research is buried under so much gossip and innuendo that it makes it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction.”

“There are many gay priests, bishops and cardinals in ministry today in the church,” Martin said. “But most of them are, like their straight counterparts, remaining faithful to a life of chastity and celibacy.”

In the course of his research, Martel said he came to several conclusions about the reality of the Holy See that he calls the “rules,” chief among them that the more obviously gay the priest, bishop or cardinal, the more vehement his anti-gay rhetoric.

Martel says his aim is not to “out” living prelates, though he makes some strong insinuations about those who are “in the parish,” a euphemism he learns is code for gay clergy.

Martin said Martel “traffics in some of the worst gay stereotypes” by using sarcastic and derogatory terms, such as when he writes of Francis’ plight: “Francis is said to be ‘among the wolves.’ It’s not quite true: he’s among the queens.”

Martel moves from one scandal to another — from the current one over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington to the priest-friendly gay migrant prostitute scene near Rome’s train station. He traces the reasons behind Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation and the cover-up of the Mexican founder of the Legion of Christ, the pedophile Rev. Marcial Maciel. In each, Martel parses the scandal through the lens of the gay-friendly or homophobic prelates he says were involved.

Gay rights advocate

Equal parts investigative journalism and salacious gossip, Martel paints a picture of an institution almost at war with itself, rife with rumor and with leaders struggling to rationalize their own sexual appetites and orientations with official church teachings that require chastity and its unofficial tradition of hostility toward gays.

“Never, perhaps, have the appearances of an institution been so deceptive,” Martel writes. “Equally deceptive are the pronouncements about celibacy and the vows of chastity that conceal a completely different reality.”

Martel is not a household name in France, but is known in the French LGBT community as an advocate for gay rights. Those familiar with his work view it as rigorous, notably his 90-minute weekly show on public radio station France Culture called Soft Power. Recent episodes include investigations into global digital investment and the U.S.-China trade war.

As a French government adviser in the 1990s, he played a prominent role in legislation allowing civil unions, which not only allowed gay couples to formalize their relationships and share assets, but also proved hugely popular among heterosexual French couples increasingly skeptical of marriage.

His nonfiction books include a treatise on homosexuality in France over the past 50 years called The Pink and the Black (a sendup of Stendhal’s classic The Red and the Black), as well as an investigation of the internet industry and a study of culture in the United States.

Martel attributes the high percentage of gays in the clergy to the fact that up until the homosexual liberation of the 1970s, gay Catholic men had few options. “So these pariahs became initiates and made a strength of a weakness,” he writes. That analysis helps explain the dramatic fall in vocations in recent decades, as gay Catholic men now have other options, not least to live their lives openly, even in marriage.


Spain to Get 3rd Government in 4 Years as PM Calls for Early Election

Spain will elect its third government in less than four years after Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s fragile socialist government acknowledged Friday its support had evaporated and called an early general election.

Sanchez’s eight-month-old administration met its end after failing to get parliament’s approval for its 2019 budget proposal earlier this week, adding to the political uncertainty that has dogged Spain in recent years.

“Between doing nothing and continuing without a budget, or giving the chance for Spaniards to speak, Spain should continue looking ahead,” Sanchez said in a televised appearance from the Moncloa Palace, the seat of government, after an urgent Cabinet meeting.

The ballot will take place on April 28. It is expected to highlight the increasingly fragmented political landscape that has denied the European Union country a stable government in recent elections.

The 46-year-old prime minister ousted his conservative predecessor Mariano Rajoy last June, when he won a no-confidence vote triggered by a damaging corruption conviction affecting Rajoy’s Popular Party.

But the simple majority of Socialists, anti-austerity parties and regional nationalists that united against Rajoy crumbled in the past week after Sanchez broke off talks with the Catalan separatists over their demands for the independence of their prosperous northeastern region.

Sanchez saw the Catalan separatists join opposition lawmakers to vote down his spending plans, including social problems he had hoped would boost his party’s popularity.

Sanchez had the shortest term in power for any prime minister since Spain transitioned to democracy four decades ago.

Without mentioning Catalonia directly, Sanchez said he remained committed to dialogue with the country’s regions as long as their demands fell “within the constitution and the law,” which don’t allow a region to secede. He blamed the conservatives for not supporting his Catalan negotiations.

Popular Party leader Pablo Casado celebrated what he called the “defeat” of the Socialists, attacking Sanchez for yielding to some of the Catalan separatists’ demands.

“We will be deciding [in this election] if Spain wants to remain as a hostage of the parties that want to destroy it,” or welcome the leadership of the conservatives, Casado said.

Catalonia’s regional government spokeswoman, Elsa Artadi, retorted that “Spain will be ungovernable as long as it doesn’t confront the Catalan problem.”

Opinion polls indicate the April vote isn’t likely to produce a clear winner, a shift from the traditional bipartisan results that dominated Spanish politics for decades.

Although Sanchez’s Socialists appear to be ahead, their two main opponents — the Popular Party and the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) — could repeat their recent coalition in the southern Andalusia region, where they unseated the Socialists with the help of the far-right Vox party.

Vox last year scored the far-right’s first significant gain in post-dictatorship Spain, and surveys predict it could grab seats in the national parliament for the first time.

Vox’s leader, Santiago Abascal, vowed to use the election to “reconquer” the future, a term that refers back to how Spanish Catholic kings defeated Muslim rulers in 15th-century Spain.

Meanwhile, the Socialists are unlikely to be able to form a new government even if they come to a coalition deal with the anti-establishment Podemos [We Can] party, so a third partner will likely be needed.

Sanchez’s options are limited. On the right, a deal with the Citizens party seemed off the table, as its leader Albert Rivera has vetoed any possible agreement with a Socialist party led by Sanchez himself.

And the prospect of Catalan nationalists joining any ensuing coalition is remote, both in the light of the recent failed talks and the ongoing trial of a dozen Catalan politicians and activists for their roles in an independence bid two years ago.

“The Socialists don’t want an election marked by Catalonia because the issue creates internal division, but right-wing parties will use it as a weapon,” said Antonio Barroso of the Teneo consulting firm.

He said polls have erred in recent elections and that clever campaigning could swing the vote significantly.

“The only certainty … is that fragmentation is Spain’s new political reality,” he said.


Women Recall ‘Hell’ of Soviet War in Afghanistan

Sitting in her living room, 65-year-old Tatyana Rybalchenko goes through a stack of black-and-white photos from more than 30 years ago. In one of them, she is dressed in a nurse’s coat and smiles sheepishly at the camera; in another, she shares a laugh with soldiers on a road with a mountain ridge behind them.

The pictures don’t show the hardships that Rybalchenko and 20,000 Soviet women like her went through as civilian support staff during the Soviet Union’s 1979-1989 invasion of Afghanistan. Although they did not serve in combat roles, they still experienced the horrors of war.

As Russia on Friday marked the 30th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the memories are still fresh for the nurses, clerks and shopkeepers, predominantly young, single women who were thrust into the bloody conflict.

Rybalchenko enlisted on a whim. In 1986, she was 33, working in a dead-end nursing job in Kyiv, the capital of Soviet Ukraine, and was going through a breakup. One day, she joined a colleague who went to a military recruitment office. The recruiter turned to Rybalchenko and asked if she would like to work abroad — in Afghanistan.

She recalls that she was fed up with her life in Kyiv, “so I told him: ‘I’d go anywhere, even to hell!’ And this is where he sent me.”

Family and friends tried to talk her out of it, telling her that Afghanistan is where “the bodies are coming from.” But it was too late: She had signed the contract.

At least 15,000 Soviet troops were killed in the fighting that began as an effort to prop up a communist ally and soon became a grinding campaign against a U.S.-backed insurgency. Moscow sent more than 600,000 to a war that traumatized many young men and women and fed a popular discontent that became one factor leading to the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Rybalchenko, who worked as a nurse at a military hospital in Gardez, was stunned by the many casualties — men missing limbs or riddled with shrapnel. But there was so much work that she found herself shutting off her emotions.

“At the end, I did not feel anything anymore. I was like a stone,” Rybalchenko said, shedding her normally perky persona.

Friendships helped, and she befriended a young reconnaissance officer, Vladimir Vshivtsev.

He once confided to her that he was not afraid of losing a limb, but he would not be able to live with an injury to his eyes. She recalled him saying “if I lose eyesight, I’ll do everything to put an end to it.”

In November 1987, the hospital was inundated with casualties from a Soviet offensive to open the road between Gardez and the stronghold of Khost, near the Pakistani border.

One of the wounded was Vshivtsev, and Rybalchenko saw him being wheeled into the ward with bandages wrapped around his head. She unwrapped the dressing and gasped when she saw the gaping wound on his face: “The eyes were not there.”

She persuaded her superior to let her accompany him to a bigger hospital in Kabul as part of a suicide watch. She stayed friends with Vshivtsev, and he later became a leading activist in the Russian Society for the Blind. Decades later, he briefly served in the Russian parliament.

Raising awareness

Alla Smolina was 30 when she joined the Soviet military prosecutor’s office in Jalalabad near the Pakistani border in 1985. It wasn’t until 20 years later that Smolina started having nightmares about the war.

“The shelling, running away from bullets and mines whizzing above me — I was literally scared of my own pillow,” she said.

She put her memories on paper and contacted other women who were there, telling the stories of those who endured the hardships of war but who are largely absent from the male-dominated narratives.

She is trying to raise awareness of the role the Soviet women played in Afghanistan, believing they have been unfairly portrayed or not even mentioned in fiction and nonfiction written mostly by men.

The deaths of Soviet women who held civilian jobs in Afghanistan are not part of the official toll, and Smolina has written about 56 women who lost their lives. Some died when a plane was shot down by the Afghan mujahedeen, one was killed when a drunken soldier threw a grenade into her room, and one woman was slain after being raped by a soldier.

In an era when the concept of sexual harassment was largely unfamiliar in the Soviet Union, the women in the war in Afghanistan — usually young and unmarried — often started a relationship to avoid unwanted attention from other soldiers.

“Because if a woman has someone, the whole brigade won’t harass you like a pack of wolves,” Rybalchenko said. “Sometimes it was reciprocal, sometimes there was no choice.”

She said she found boyfriends to “protect” her.

Denied war benefits

While the war grew unpopular at home, Soviet troops and support staff in Afghanistan mostly focused on survival rather than politics. While Afghans largely saw Moscow’s involvement as a hostile foreign intervention, the Soviets thought they were doing the right thing.

“We really believed that we were helping the oppressed Afghan nation, especially because we saw with our own eyes all the kindergartens and schools that the Soviet people were building there,” Smolina said.

After Rybalchenko came home, she could hardly get out of bed for the first three months, one of thousands with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.

When she asked officials about benefits for veterans and other personnel in Afghanistan, she faced hostility and insults. She said one told her: “How do I know what you were actually up to over there?”

In 2006, Russian lawmakers decided that civilians who worked in Afghanistan were not entitled to war benefits. Women have campaigned unsuccessfully to reinstate them.

Rybalchenko eventually got an apartment from the government, worked in physiotherapy and now lives in retirement in Moscow, where her passion for interior decorating is reflected by the exotic bamboo-forest wallpaper in her home.

Smolina, who lives in Sweden, is wary of disclosing all the details about her own Afghan experiences after facing a backlash from other veterans about her publications.

“Our society is not ready yet to hear the truth. There is still a lingering effect from the harsh Soviet past,” she said. “In Soviet society, you were not supposed to speak out.”


Transatlantic Rift Laid Bare as US Rebukes EU Allies Over Iran Deal

The United States has called on Europe to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which Washington pulled out of last year.

At a two-day conference in Warsaw, attended by more than 60 nations Thursday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence accused European allies of trying to break American sanctions against what he called “Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime.”

“The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and join with us as we bring economic and diplomatic pressure necessary to give the Iranian people, the region and the world the security, peace and freedom they deserve,” Pence said at a news conference.

​Pompeo adds pressure

Also attending the conference, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said global pressure was mounting on Tehran.

“No country spoke out and denied any of the basic facts that we all have laid out about Iran, the threat it poses, the nature of regime. It was unanimous,” Pompeo said.

Unanimous, perhaps, among those countries attending the conference. Some U.S. allies, however, were notable for their absence, including the foreign ministers of France and Germany. Britain’s representative left the summit early.

All three allies have voiced strong support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and have launched a payment system to bypass U.S. sanctions on Tehran in an attempt to keep the agreement alive.


WATCH: U.S. Rebukes EU Allies Over Iran Deal

US-European divide

Warsaw-based analyst Piotr Buras of the European Council on Foreign Relations says summit host Poland and some other European states appear closer to Washington’s approach and the United States sees an opportunity.

“I have the feeling that the Trump administration doesn’t care much about Europe’s unity, or even more perhaps it really tries to exploit some divisions within Europe, or even deepen them,” he said.

Jonathan Eyal of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute argued Washington’s approach is in fact aimed at bridging transatlantic divides with European allies.

“The United States is willing to re-engage with them on a Middle East policy, especially on a very sensitive issue like the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran where the gulf between Europe and the U.S. is very big,” he sad. “And secondly it is also another attempt by the State Department to remind the White House that the friends in Europe are irreplaceable when it comes to most of America’s foreign policy objectives.”

The summit was attended by Israel and several Sunni Gulf states. Qatar, Turkey and Lebanon declined to take part. Iran, which did not attend the meeting, dismissed it as “dead on arrival.”


Transatlantic Rift Laid Bare as U.S. Rebukes EU Allies over Iran Deal

The United States has called on Europe to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which Washington pulled out of last year. At a conference in Warsaw attended by more than 60 nations, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence accused European allies of trying to break American sanctions against what he called Iran’s ‘murderous revolutionary regime.’ Several EU states have refused to attend the meeting, as Henry Ridgwell reports.


Ireland Under Pressure Over Border Plans for No-Deal Brexit

The European Union will give Ireland some leeway to establish new border arrangements with Northern Ireland in case of a no-deal Brexit, sources in the bloc’s political hub Brussels said.

But they said Dublin would soon have to come up with a plan to ensure the integrity of the EU’s single market or face checks on its own goods coming into the rest of the bloc.

“Ireland can get transition periods or some temporary opt-outs on the border in the worst-case scenario,” a senior EU diplomat said.

“But soon enough it will have to face up to the fact that either there is a border on the island or a border between Ireland and the rest of the EU,” the person added.

EU diplomats and officials dealing with Brexit admit it is impossible to set up full border controls overnight as should theoretically be the case if the United Kingdom leaves the bloc without a divorce settlement on March 29.

The issue of a “hard border” on the island of Ireland has hung over Brexit negotiations from the start and is threatening to sink the divorce deal put together over months of painstaking EU-U.K. talks as the British parliament opposes the Irish “backstop” part of it.

The “backstop” is meant as a last resort, a way to prevent full-blown border controls on goods crossing between EU-state Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

But without a U.K.-EU free trade deal, yet to be negotiated, that would tie the latter to the bloc’s trade rules — anathema to hardline pro-Brexit supporters in Britain and British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Northern Irish allies who say it would weaken the province’s links with the rest of the country.

Many in Britain, Ireland and the rest of the EU also fear the return of border checks could reignite violence and make checkpoints a target.

In 1998, Britain and Ireland made the Good Friday Agreement to end 30 years of sectarian violence over whether Northern Ireland should remain British or join the Irish Republic. With both states in the EU, checks along the 500-km (300-mile) land border ended.

“The Irish-Irish border is a European border. The Brexit issue is not a bilateral question between the Republic of Ireland and the U.K. It’s a European issue,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said after talks with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in Brussels this month.

Asked to comment on the matter in the Irish parliament Thursday, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said: “Deal or no deal, there is an obligation on the Irish and British governments, and the EU to try and work together to find a way of avoiding physical border infrastructure on this island.”

Hard choice

But an EU official familiar with the bloc’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit said: “In a no-deal scenario, Ireland would have to choose between setting up a physical border with Northern Ireland and de facto leaving the single market.

“If there is no physical border, the customs checks would have to take place on all goods coming from Ireland.”

The EU has made a point of publishing contingency plans for areas from transport to social benefits to university exchanges as the risk of an abrupt split grows. But it has kept silent on the Irish border.

Varadkar’s stark warning last month that the army may have to be deployed to the border “if things go very wrong” highlighted the risks.

The threat that Ireland could lose at least some access to the EU market is not lost on Varadkar who in Brussels spoke of Dublin’s readiness to protect the bloc’s common economic area.

“It’s core to our economic and industrial strategy, core to our prosperity,” he said standing side-by-side with Juncker, promising Ireland would not become a “back door” to the EU.

But while Ireland is promising the EU it would implement border checks, Varadkar also said: “We are making no preparations, no plans for physical infrastructure on the border.”

EU and Irish sources say the only way to ensure customs controls while avoiding border infrastructure is the backstop.

It envisages that many checks would be carried out away from the actual frontier — in market places or production sites.

“It is not possible to erect a border. It’s just impossible and a different solution needs to be found,” said a second EU official dealing with Brexit. “The backstop is our template. It is a solution that is ready and it works.”


US Clashes With Iran in International Arena

The United States clashed with Iran in the international arena Tuesday. The U.S. is hosting a Middle East conference in Poland with a focus on countering Iran’s influence in the world. An international court based in the Netherlands ruled Tuesday that Iran can proceed with a bid to unfreeze assets in the United States. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.


Pushing for US Exit, Increasingly ‘Fragile’ Astana Trio Poised to Map Syria’s Future

The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey are meeting in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi Thursday to discuss the conflict in Syria for the first time since the United States announced its troop withdrawal.

Although the Kremlin hasn’t divulged details, a number of observers say questions about the strategic implications of a U.S. pullout and differences between Moscow and Ankara on a political settlement in northern Syria are likely to predominate.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Monday made an unexpected visit to Ankara, where he met with Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar to resolve several issues ahead of the so-called Astana trio gathering — particularly recent developments in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, which borders southern Turkey.

WATCH: Russia, Turkey, Iran Discuss Syria’s Postwar Future

Russia and Turkey cut a deal in September to establish an Idlib demilitarized zone to avert a Syrian government offensive, but the agreement was imperiled last month when al-Qaida-linked Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham militants took control there from Turkish-backed rebels.

While Russia and Iran are close allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey, like the United States, supports differing Syrian rebel factions.

Earlier this week Turkey and Russia jointly called for “decisive measures” to retake control of Idlib, though the statement contained no specifics.

Turkey’s foreign minister recently said Ankara might agree to a limited Russian-backed Syrian offensive to seize Idlib, but that would prove a strategic setback for Ankara, which seeks to capitalize on the U.S. troop withdrawal by retaking oil-rich northeastern provinces held by Kurdish fighters, whom Ankara considers terrorists.

Turkey’s long-term plan to create a buffer zone on the Syria-Turkey border, which has long been bolstered by the U.S. forces, would now require Russian support to enforce.

In the Idlib region where Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham has expanded its reach, any kind of massive military assault would likely mean large-scale civilian casualties and a refugee exodus into Turkey.

​Reconstruction investments

On the premise that an unstable Syria will only increase migrant flows to northern Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin began soliciting postwar reconstruction investment from European counterparts in late 2018.

Rebuffed by European leaders who are unwavering in their conviction that Syria’s estimated $250 billion postwar reconstruction bill belongs solely to Assad, Putin, according to Oxford University analyst Samuel Ramani, has been looking to Saudi Arabia and China as potential investment partners, a move that would put Moscow at financial odds with Tehran, with whom it is militarily partnered in Syria.

“Concerns about competition between Russian and Iranian businesses involved in the reconstruction of Syria came to a head in February 2018, when Moscow beat out Tehran for a major 50-year deal in Syria’s phosphate industry,” he recently wrote in a think piece for the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Although their mutual interest in safeguarding Assad’s rule may allow Tehran and Moscow to see past financial differences throughout the Sochi talks, he wrote, “tensions could flare up between Russia and Iran once their joint military operations in Syria come to a close.”

Senior Iranian figures last week called Syria a top foreign policy priority and a situation where American troops should have no role whatsoever.

On Sunday, Tehran’s Deputy Defense Minister Reza Talai-Nik warned that “all U.S. bases there are within the range of our cross-border weapons, and if these fail, we’ll strike them from within Iran,” according to a report by the semi-official Tasnim News Agency.

​Moscow as sole broker

As the Astana trio impatiently awaits a full U.S. withdrawal from Syria, some observers say the absence of American boots on the ground may prove a complicating factor for Moscow, which has long sought to assert itself as a broker of global affairs.

“The first question in Sochi is likely to be, who replaces the American presence?” said Alexey Malashenko of the Moscow-based Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute. “And here, there is a misunderstanding between Russia and Turkey, because Turkey has repeated several times that this American place must come to be occupied by Turks, and Russia is against this. So, from that point of view, I think the meeting in Sochi will be very, very difficult for both of those countries.”

Asked if the Astana leadership is even confident in White House plans for withdrawal — President Donald Trump’s statements on the U.S. pullout, which contained no timetable, have been contradicted by members of his own Cabinet — Malashenko said it doesn’t matter.

“Regardless of the specifics, just the possibility of an American withdrawal creates additional problems for Russia,” he said. “In the Kremlin they constantly speak about America as an adversary that creates problems in the Middle East. But if Americans withdraw, what will Russia do? Because for Putin and the Kremlin, the situation with the American presence was at least more or less clear. Now this situation is becoming more and more unclear by the day.”

In his assessment, a sustained U.S. presence would only benefit the Kremlin.

“Maybe it’s a paradox, yes, but I think that’s the case,” he said, adding that a U.S. pullout also leaves Moscow to act as an on-the-ground arbiter between Iran, Syria and Israel.

“Before last year we spoke a lot about the multipolar situation of Tehran, Ankara and Moscow,” he said. “But now it seems that triangle is becoming more and more fragile.”

Putin approval ratings in the balance

Russia’s ability to stabilize Syria in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal also has potential consequences for Putin’s domestic approval ratings, which have been at a low point since late 2018.

Thursday’s summit will start just three days after a survey released by Moscow’s independent Levada Center polling organization showed that more than 50 percent of Russians say top officials are lying to them about the true state of affairs in the country.

Less than a week ago, Reuters published an investigation alleging that the Kremlin covered up mass casualties on the ground in Syria at a time when it is expanding its military activities in the Middle East and Africa.

The Higher School of Economics in Moscow recently published data showing that disposable income has decreased since 2014 and is predicted to drop further this year, which marks the fifth anniversary of U.S. and European Union sanctions resulting from Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

Several rounds of negotiations over recent years have failed to end the fighting, which has claimed the lives of more than 400,000 people, displaced millions, and devastated many historic sites across the country.

President Trump has received criticism from Republicans, Democrats, and some foreign officials for what they have called a hastily planned withdrawal of the 2,000 U.S. troops, with many saying it leaves Kurdish allies at the mercy of the Turks and hands a victory to Russia and Iran.

Turkey has threatened to attack the United States’ Kurdish allies fighting Islamic State militants in Syria. In January, Trump threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if Ankara attacks the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.

Thursday’s talks will be 12th conference organized by Moscow, Ankara and Tehran, including nine held in Astana. The trio last met in November.


Russia, Turkey, Iran Discuss Syria’s Postwar Future

The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey meet Thursday in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi to talk about the way forward in Syria as the conflict comes to an end. All three nations have adversarial relations with the United States and have welcomed U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement that he plans to withdraw American troops from Syria. But as Ricardo Marquina in Moscow tells us in this report narrated by Jim Randle, there are big questions about what will happen after a U.S. pullout.