Cyril Ramaphosa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday blamed NATO for the war in Ukraine and said he would resist calls to condemn Russia, in comments that cast doubt over whether he would be accepted by Ukraine or the West as a mediator.

“The war could have been avoided if NATO had heeded the warnings from amongst its own leaders and officials over the years that its eastward expansion would lead to greater, not less, instability in the region,” Ramaphosa said, a view also maintained by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ramaphosa did, however, say South Africa “cannot condone the use of force and violation of international law.”

Ramaphosa also revealed that Putin had assured him personally that negotiations were making progress. The South African leader said he had not yet talked with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

On Friday, Ramaphosa’s office said South Africa had been asked to mediate in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and that he had told Putin it should be settled through negotiations. He did not say who had asked him to intervene.

“There are those who are insisting that we should take a very adversarial stance against Russia. The approach we are going to take (instead) is insisting that there should be dialogue,” Ramaphosa added. “Screaming and shouting is not going to bring an end to this conflict.”

UK Fails To Secure Promise Of More Oil From Saudi Arabia, UAE

UK PM Boris Johnson’s bid to secure the assistance of Middle East oil exporters in pressuring Russian President Vladimir Putin has come up empty, failing to win any immediate pledges from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to increase crude production.

Johnson ended his trip to the Arabian Peninsula on Wednesday after meetings with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi. He came away without persuading the kingdoms to announce any ramp up of oil supplies as the UK, U.S. and their allies try to persuade the world to cut off their imports from Russia to punish Putin.

Asked by a reporter whether Saudi Arabia would boost output, he replied, “I think you need to talk to the Saudis about that. But I think there was an understanding of the need to ensure stability in global oil markets and gas markets and the need to avoid damaging price spikes.”

While Johnson’s attempt at oil diplomacy brought no immediate results, he at least was able to get an audience with the Saudi and UAE leaders. The White House was reportedly unable to even arrange phone calls for President Joe Biden with the two crown princes.

The UK prime minister assured reporters that he would lecture the two OPEC titans about human rights, but those talks apparently went over no better than his efforts to secure more oil supplies. Saudi Arabia reportedly executed three more people during the short time Johnson was in Riyadh.

Russia Presents New Evidence From U.S.-Funded Ukraine Biolabs

Moscow believes that laboratories in Ukraine funded by the U.S. military were making biological weapons components, but that local staff was being kept in the dark about their research, a senior Russian general said on Thursday.

Lieutenant-General Igor Kirillov, who commands the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection Forces of Russia, presented documents and imagery showing why the military has come to such a conclusion.

“We believe that components of biological weapons were being made on the territory of Ukraine,” said Kirillov.

He noted that the documents he was presenting “have the signatures of real officials and are certified by the seals of organizations,” for those journalists and experts in the West doubting their veracity.

One document, dated March 6, 2015 confirms the “direct participation of the Pentagon in the financing of military biological projects in Ukraine,” Kirillov said.

The U.S. officially funded the projects through the Ukrainian Ministry of Health, according to the Agreement on Joint Biological Activities. However, the evidence shows that the real recipients of some $32 million in funds were Ukrainian Defense Ministry laboratories in Kiev, Odessa, Lvov and Kharkov.

These facilities were chosen by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Threat Reduction Administration (DTRA), and the contractor Black and Veatch, to carry out the U-P-8 project, aimed at studying the pathogens of Crimea-Congo hemorrhagic fever, leptospirosis, and hantaviruses, Kirillov said, pointing to a slide with the Pentagon’s request.

“From our point of view, the interest of U.S. military biologists is due to the fact that these pathogens have natural foci both in Ukraine and in Russia, and their use can be disguised as natural disease outbreaks,” the general said.

According to the evidence, the labs isolated three bacterial pathogens (causing plague, brucellosis and leptospirosis) and six families of viruses, including coronaviruses, all of which were drug-resistant and spread rapidly from animals to humans. A number of documents confirmed the samples taken in Ukraine to other countries – Georgia, Germany, and the UK.

Kirillov showed official documents confirming the transfer of 5,000 samples of blood serum taken from Ukrainian citizens to the Pentagon-backed Richard Lugar center in Tbilisi, Georgia. Another 773 biological assays were transferred to the UK, while an agreement was signed for the transfer of “unlimited quantities” of infectious materials to the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, Germany’s leading center for animal diseases.

However, the analysis of the obtained evidence suggests that Ukrainian specialists were not aware of the potential risks of transferring these materials, and may have been kept in the dark about the true goal of the ongoing research, Kirillov noted.

Documents from Project P-781, a study of ways of transmitting diseases to humans through bats, showed it was carried out by the Kharkov laboratory and the Lugar Center in Georgia, but Ukraine received most of the $1.6 million grant for the project. Kirillov said that “systematic” research in this area has been carried out since 2009, under the supervision of US specialists – referencing projects P-382, P-444 and P-568.

As one of the key people involved, Kirillov named the head of the DTRA office at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, Joanna Wintrol. “May be she is worth talking to journalists?” he said.

Wintrol left Kiev in August 2020. In her parting interview, she insisted no U.S. scientists worked in Ukrainian biolabs and accused Russia of spreading “false information” about the program.

Kirillov pointed to mass outbreaks of avian flu in Russia and the EU in 2021, causing billions in damages, while the Kharkov Institute of Veterinary Medicine was studying wild birds as transmission vectors and assessing conditions under which the spread could cause economic damage and food insecurity. Evidence now shows the institute collected strains of avian flu capable of jumping species, Kirillov said, calling for an international investigation into the matter.

Some of the documents at the Kherson laboratory appear to be missing and may have been destroyed, Kirillov said, suggesting it was related to the 2018 outbreak of a mosquito-borne parasitic disease in that region, and a possible cover-up.

Four cases of dirofilariasis were detected in February that year, which is not typical for mosquito life cycles, the general said. Pentagon representatives visited the local hospitals in April, collecting medical records and getting briefed on the epidemiological investigation. However, “no documentary evidence regarding this outbreak has been found in the Kherson laboratory,” leading the Russian military to believe that “the urgency of destroying such documentary evidence is explained by the desire to prevent access to them by Russian specialists.”

There was also an outbreak of drug-resistant tuberculosis in 2018, among the citizens of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, with 70 cases detected around the village of Pesky – on the frontline with Ukrainian troops – alone.

“This may indicate a deliberate infection, or an accidental leakage of the pathogen from one of the biological laboratories located on the territory of Ukraine,” Kirillov said.

The Russian general brought up the long history of US conducting banned biological research in other countries, noting as an example that in 2010 Washington apologized for syphilis experiments in Guatemala.

“We will continue the evidence and inform the global community about the illegal activities of the Pentagon and other U.S. government agencies in Ukraine,” Kirillov said.

European Consumer Prices Climb At Highest Rate On Record

February consumer price inflation in Europe accelerated by 5.9% compared to last year’s 0.9% per annum, marking the fastest annual jump on record, Eurostat statistics agency said on Thursday.

The indicator rose sharply from 5.1% in January. Prices spiked most in Lithuania (14.0%), Estonia (11.6%) and the Czech Republic (10.0%). The lowest annual price rise rates were registered in Malta and France (both 4.2%), and Portugal, Finland, and Sweden (all 4.4%). According to the agency’s data, inflation fell in only two EU member states, while spiking in 25.

The highest spikes were recorded in the energy sector, followed by services, food, alcohol, tobacco, and non-energy industrial goods.

Experts warn that prices are only going to grow. Berlin-based energy provider GASAG said this month that the average German family will see its gas bill increase by at least 26% starting in May. Prices at gasoline pumps in Europe have nearly doubled in March to around €2 per liter ($8.25/gallon).

This comes as Russia begins to retaliate against EU sanctions to keep the country’s economy running. Russia recently banned exports of more than 200 items to “unfriendly states,” including telecom, medical, auto, agricultural, electrical, and tech equipment, among other items, until the end of 2022. The Russian government also “suspended the export of several types of timber products to states that are undertaking hostile actions against Russia.”

The major question remains whether Russia will move to cut its oil and gas supplies to European states, which, analysts say, would propel energy prices and push the region’s economy into recession.

Germany’s Parliament Heard Zelensky, Then Voted On Birthdays

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the German Parliament in Berlin Thursday morning. The Bundestag is not known as an exciting place under normal conditions, yet, if anything, the circumstances were even more dramatic than of Zelenky’s appearance before Congress: Proceedings were briefly delayed, apparently because a rocket attack on Kyiv interrupted the video link.

The tone of Zelensky’s speech was different from his U.S. remarks, too. While he called America to realize its ideals, Zelensky chided Germans for shirking their responsibilities and re-enacting a painful past.

Zelensky insisted Nord Stream 2, the controversial gas pipeline that connects Russian and Germany “is a weapon.” “You always said, ‘It is business, business, business,'” he continued, but Ukraine knew better. Now, Zelensky concluded, Ukrainian and other critics had been proved right: The pipeline was “cement for the wall” separating free Europe from the zone of Russian domination, and German opposition to European Union membership for Ukraine was yet “another brick.”

As in Congress, Zelensky received sustained applause from his audience. But after brief parliamentary maneuvering, the Bundestag quickly returned to its scheduled agenda, which included official recognitions of birthdays and instructions on mask wearing. The contrast between the gravity of Zelensky’s speech and the apparent indifference of the Bundestag is playing badly in the German press. It also suggests German politicians are far from ready for a permanent defense policy shift — let alone war.

Dollar In Doldrums

The U.S. dollar headed for its first down week in six versus major peers on Friday, languishing near a one-week low, as investors continued to assess the impact of the start of the Federal Reserve’s rate tightening cycle this week.

The safe-haven greenback also lost traction – while the euro benefited – as traders stayed optimistic for an end to the war in Ukraine as talks continued between Moscow and Kyiv, although progress on Thursday was elusive.

Sentiment also improved after Russia avoided default on dollar-denominated debt.

The yen remained near a six-year low after the Bank of Japan left its ultra-accommodative policy settings unchanged on Friday.

“A more favorable diplomatic backdrop between Russia-Ukraine appears to developing and there’s more (dollar index) downside to be had if momentum moves toward a ceasefire,” Westpac strategists wrote in a client note.

However, the index still looks headed to 100 and above as the Fed’s hiking cycle progresses, they said.

The dollar index paused for breath on Friday, standing at 98.104 after declining every other day this week, and set for a 1.03% loss over the period. It slipped to 97.724 on Thursday for the first time since March 10.

The dips came despite the Federal Open Market Committee raising rates on Wednesday and signaling the equivalent of a quarter-point increase at each of its six remaining policy meetings this year, leaving investors racing to work out how much monetary tightening the economy can handle.

Burger King Russia Partner ‘Refused’ To Shut Shops

Burger King has 800 stores in Russia

The owner of Burger King said the operator of its 800 stores in Russia has “refused” to close the sites despite demands to suspend trading.

Restaurant Brands said it had contacted its local partner, Alexander Kolobov, to shut the shops following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But it said “complicated” contracts with overseas partners mean it is unable to “walk away” from these deals.

In a letter to staff, Restaurant Brands International president David Shear said: “We contacted the main operator of the business and demanded the suspension of Burger King restaurant operations in Russia.

“He has refused to do so.”

Shear added that making any changes to its local Burger King business “would ultimately require the support of Russian authorities on the ground and we know that will not practically happen anytime soon”.

Burger King entered the Russian market 10 years ago. It trades there through a joint venture partnership with Kolobov – who is the main day-to-day operator of the business – as well as with Russia’s VTB Capital and a Ukrainian investment firm.

VTB Capital is an affiliate of VTB Bank, Russia’s second largest financial institution which has been sanctioned by the US, UK and other European countries.

Shear said Restaurant Brands owns a minority stake of 15% in the Russian joint venture which it is in the process of unwinding.

In the meantime, Restaurant Brands has stopped supporting the supply chain, operations and marketing for Russia. It will also reject new pitches for investment and expansion in Russia.

Western companies remain under pressure to withdraw from Russia following its attack on Ukraine. On Thursday, a group of four Ukrainian MPs highlighted to UK PM Boris Johnson that M&S is still open in Russia.

Complex franchise agreements have prevented some Western brands from shutting their stores in Russia.

Marks & Spencer stores are operated by a Turkish company called FiBA, which has held the rights to sell the retailer’s products across Eastern Europe, since 1999.

M&S said it has suspended shipments of its goods to FiBA which runs Marks’ 48 stores in Russia.

German carmaker Audi has warned that the war in Ukraine will cause “tremendous interference” to supply chains.

Poland Wants To Urgently Buy U.S. Reaper Drones

Poland wants to buy MQ-9 Reaper drones from the United States in the near future and is eyeing further procurements at a later date amid rising security concerns three weeks into a Russian invasion of its neighbor Ukraine.

“We are planning to urgently procure the first MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial systems,” Lieutenant Colonel Krzysztof Platek, a spokesperson for the Defence Ministry’s Armament Agency, said on Wednesday.

While the first drones would be ordered under an accelerated procedure, Poland was also pursuing the Zefir program under which the purchase of MALE-class unmanned aerial vehicles is being negotiated, Platek told Reuters.

He declined to specify which drones might be ordered.

Poland hopes to receive the first drones before the end of the year. The value of the planned acquisition was not disclosed by the ministry.

“This order is an answer to … security situation, particularly in central and eastern Europe,” Platek said, referring to the war in Ukraine, Europe’s biggest armed conflict since World War Two.

Last May, Poland bought 24 Bayraktar drones from Turkey, becoming the first NATO member to buy drones from Ankara. The same drones were used by Ukraine against invading Russian forces.

Lithuania Threatens To Stop Using Russian Oil And Gas

Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nauseda said the country was willing to stop Russian oil and gas imports.

“It would create some problems, but those problems would not be critical,” Nauseda said.

Lithuania got about 63% of its oil imports from Russia in 2019.

Nauseda told the BBC: “Of course, it depends on time: How long we would need to adjust [to cutting Russian imports].

On 3 March, the owner of Lithuania’s Mazeikiai refinery, Orlen Lietuva, said it had agreed a deal with Saudi Aramco for five additional tankers of the commodity taken out of the North Sea.

That, it said, would ensure alternative supplies for Lithuania, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Four days later, the company said that given the situation in Ukraine, it was “prepared for any scenario, including the complete suspension of supplies from the eastern direction.”

Electricity independence, though, is still a work in progress, President Nauseda said.

“We still are connected with the so-called Brell system of the former Soviet Union and this connection does not allow a switch to different [European] systems [at present].

However, he said the process switching Lithuania away from Brell “will be completed in 2025”.

“Now we will try to speed up this process to disconnect faster,” he added.

He said the country had increased defence spending including on military equipment. And he believes in the NATO military alliance.

Russia draws up 15-point ceasefire peace plan

Moscow and Kyiv have lifted hope of a potential breakthrough in Ukraine after three weeks of war.

Ukraine’s president Zelenskyy said negotiations were becoming “more realistic”, while Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the proposals now being discussed were “close to an agreement”.

The marked change in tone came as Vladimir Putin, who said Moscow was ready to discuss neutral status for its neighbor.

Ukraine’s chief negotiator, Mykhailo Podolyak, said Kyiv was seeking direct talks between Zelenskyy and Putin, but he dismissed an earlier report in the Financial Times that the two sides had already drawn up a draft 15-point peace plan.

Three people close to the talks told the newspaper that the deal included a ceasefire being declared; the Ukrainian government declaring neutrality; Kyiv accepting limits on its armed forces; and Putin’s forces withdrawing from the country.

It would also require Kyiv to formally drop its ambition to join NATO and not host foreign military bases or weaponry. In exchange, they would get protection from allies, such as the US, UK and Turkey.

Podolyak rejected the claims via Twitter, saying: “Briefly. FT published a draft, which represents the requesting position of the Russian side. Nothing more. The Ukraine side has its own positions.”

He did confirm some elements of the draft deal, including “a ceasefire, withdrawal of Russian troops and security guarantees from a number of countries”.

Speaking on the third straight day of talks, Lavrov confirmed there was “some hope for compromise”, and highlighted two key points being put on the table:

  • Russia seeks to ensure Ukraine maintains a neutral status, meaning it would never join NATO.
  • Ukraine seeks security guarantees that are “legally verified”.

Zelenskyy has appeared to acknowledge that Ukraine will not become a NATO member in one of the key elements of the negotiations. Ukraine’s chief negotiator Podolyak added that, instead, the country could agree only to “a special version of neutrality with legally verified and non-protocol security guarantees”.

Putin has previously demanded Ukraine indefinitely rule out the possibility of joining NATO.

The Kremlin said the sides were discussing a status for Ukraine similar to that of Austria or Sweden, members of the European Union that are outside the NATO military alliance.

Lavrov also said of the talks: “The negotiations are not easy for obvious reasons. But nevertheless, there is some hope of reaching a compromise.”

“Neutral status is now being seriously discussed along, of course, with security guarantees,” he added.

“Now this very thing is being discussed in negotiations – there are absolutely specific formulations which in my view are close to agreement.”

On Wednesday Putin doubled down, claiming the “special military operation” was “going to plan”.

In a televised speech to government ministers, Putin claimed the West was trying to “cancel Russia” with an “economic Blitzkreig” of sanctions, but said the nation could bear the brunt.

Putin also claimed that the war – which has displaced millions of people – has been used by the West to impose sanctions because “they just do not want a strong and sovereign Russia”.

Adding that the West’s actions would “only strengthen” Russia, he added: “The West does not even bother to hide the fact that its aim is to damage the entire Russian economy, every Russian.”

Ukrainian officials have expressed hope this week that the war could end sooner than expected.

U.S. Still Engaging With Russia On Iran Deal Despite Ukraine

The U.S. continues to engage with Russia on reviving the Iran nuclear deal, a senior U.S. State Department official said on Tuesday, saying Moscow may now grasp that Ukraine-related sanctions should not affect the accord’s implementation.

Washington would not sanction Russian participation in nuclear projects that are part of the deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), when it is fully implemented, the official said on condition of anonymity.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday said U.S. suggestions that Moscow was blocking efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal were untrue, following talks with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian in Moscow.

Lavrov said Russia had received written U.S. assurances that sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine would not hinder cooperation within the framework of the deal, which lifted sanctions on Tehran in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

“We continue to engage with Russia on a return to full implementation of the JCPOA,” the senior U.S. State Department official said when asked about Lavrov’s comments. “We would of course not sanction Russian participation in nuclear projects that are part of resuming full implementation of the JCPOA.”

“We cannot provide assurances beyond that to Russia and have no comment on (Foreign Minister) Lavrov’s publicly reported remarks,” the official added. “Perhaps it is now clear to Moscow that, as we have said publicly, the new Russia-related sanctions are unrelated to the JCPOA and should not have any impact on its implementation.”

Russia said on Tuesday it has written guarantees it can carry out its work as a party to the Iran nuclear deal, suggesting Moscow could allow a revival of the tattered 2015 pact to go forward.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s comments appeared to signal Moscow may have backed off its previous view that Western sanctions imposed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine were an impediment to salvaging the nuclear deal.

Lavrov on March 5 unexpectedly demanded sweeping guarantees that Russian trade with Iran would not be affected by the Ukraine-related sanctions – a demand Western powers have said was unacceptable and Washington has insisted it will not accept.

“We have received written guarantees – they are included in the very text of the agreement on reviving the JCPOA, and in these texts there is a reliable defence of all the projects provided for by the JCPOA and those activities – including the linking up of our companies and specialists,” Lavrov said.

Speaking at a news conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian in Moscow, Lavrov also denied that Russia was an obstacle to reviving the 2015 agreement.

“I have heard how the Americans have every day tried to accuse us of delaying the agreement – that is a lie. The agreement is not finally approved in several capitals, and the Russian capital – Moscow – is not one of them.”

Oil prices fell more than 6%, pulled down by Lavrov’s comments that Moscow was in favor of the nuclear deal resuming as soon as possible, and by doubts about Chinese demand following surging COVID-19 cases in China.

However, Western officials said they were not sure if Russia was satisfied by guarantees it could carry out nuclear projects under the 2015 deal or if it wanted a “right to free and full trade, economic and investment cooperation and military-technical cooperation” with Iran that Lavrov sought on March 5.

Amirabdollahian said the pause in the Vienna talks could help resolve several of the outstanding issues and suggested that Russia was no impediment.

Russian Government Sites Facing Unprecedented Cyber Attacks

Russian government websites are facing unprecedented cyber attacks and technical efforts are being made to filter foreign web traffic, the TASS news agency cited the digital ministry as saying on Thursday.

Russian government entities and state-owned companies have been targeted over events in Ukraine, with the websites of the Kremlin, flagship carrier Aeroflot and major lender Sberbank among those to have seen outages or temporary access issues in recent weeks.

The ministry was working to adjust to the new conditions, it said, as cyber attacks ratchet up.

“If previously their power at peak moments reached 500 gigabytes, then now it is at 1 terabyte,” the ministry said. “That is two to three times more powerful than the most serious incidents of this kind that have been previously reported.”

The Russian government has proposed a raft of measures to support the IT sector, among others.

Technology firms will have access to preferential tax and lending conditions and the digital ministry has previously suggested Russian IT companies discuss a phased transfer of technical support components with foreign firms.

Citing draft government documents, Interfax reported late on Wednesday that the digital ministry had proposed allocating 14 billion roubles ($134.30 million) to support IT companies in the form of grants.

China Rejects Blinken Accusation That China Not Acting In Line With UN Charter

The Chinese foreign ministry said on Thursday that it firmly rejects U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken’s comment that China’s unwillingness to condemn Russia is inconsistent with China’s position on the U.N. charter.

China always believes the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states should be upheld, said Zhao Lijian, spokesperson at the Chinese foreign ministry, at a regular press conference.

Rally Around Putin To Save Russia, Gazprom Chief Says

The head of Gazprom called on the gas giant’s 500,000 employees to rally around Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin to preserve Russia as a great power in the face of foreign attempts to break her, according to a letter published on Thursday.

After the West slapped sanctions on Russia, Putin said that the U.S. had declared economic war and was plotting to rip apart Russia in an attempt to enforce its global hegemony.

Alexei Miller, the head of Gazprom, said there were many examples of failed attempts to break Russia so people should be alert to destructive attempts to sow discord that might split the Russian people.

“Today, like never before, it is important to remain committed to the common cause, to rally around our president,” said Miller, a close ally of Putin since they worked together in the early 1990s in the mayor’s office in St Petersburg.

Rallying around Putin, Miller said, would “preserve Russia as we know it and love it” and keep the motherland as a “great power.”

The letter, dated March 5 and confirmed as genuine by a company spokesman on Thursday, did not explicitly mention the war in Ukraine which the Kremlin casts as a “special military operation”.

Gazprom, the world’s largest natural gas company by production, wields considerable influence both in Russia and beyond as it supplies around 40% of Europe’s gas.

Putin Says Russia Will Achieve Goals In Ukraine, Won’t Bow To West

President Putin said on Wednesday that Russia would achieve its goals in Ukraine and would not submit to what he called a Western attempt to achieve global dominance and dismember Russia.

Putin said Russia was ready to discuss neutral status for Ukraine, three weeks into a war that has killed thousands of people and forced millions of Ukrainians to flee their homes.

He said that what Russia calls its special military operation was “going to plan”.

In a televised speech to government ministers, Putin went further than before in acknowledging the pain that Western sanctions were inflicting on the economy, but insisted that Russia could withstand the blow.

There was no sign of any softening in his bitter invective against the West and Ukraine.

“In the foreseeable future, it was possible that the pro-Nazi regime in Kyiv could have got its hands on weapons of mass destruction, and its target, of course, would have been Russia,” Putin said.

Putin has consistently described the democratically elected leaders of Ukraine as neo-Nazis bent on committing genocide against Russian-speakers in the east of the country – a line that the West denounces as baseless war propaganda.

He said Western countries wanted to turn Russia into a “weak dependent country; violate its territorial integrity; to dismember Russia in a way that suits them”.

If the West thought that Russia would break down or back down, “they don’t know our history or our people”, Putin said on the 21st day of the war.

“Behind the hypocritical talk and today’s actions of the so-called collective West are hostile geopolitical goals. They just don’t want a strong and sovereign Russia.”

He said Russia was ready to discuss Ukraine’s neutral status in talks:

“The question of principle for our country and its future – the neutral status of Ukraine, its demilitarisation, and its denazification – we were ready and we are ready to discuss as part of negotiations.”

In his most explicit acknowledgment of the pain inflicted by Western sanctions, Putin said inflation and unemployment would rise, and structural changes to the economy would be needed. But he promised support to families with children.

He said the West had in effect declared Russia in default as part of its sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine, but that the conflict had been only a pretext for the West to impose those sanctions.

“The West doesn’t even bother to hide that their aim is to damage the entire Russian economy, every Russian,” Putin said.

India’s Oil Deal

India, the world’s biggest oil importer behind China and the United States, has agreed to purchase 3 million barrels of Russian oil at a heavy discount, an Indian official said Thursday. The purchase, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, is relatively small given Russia’s production and Indian demand. But the volume could increase in the coming months and reinforce a growing perception that India is determined to preserve its extensive trade and military ties with Moscow, even as the United States and its allies urge governments around the world to isolate Russia.

Aside from the oil deal, the Indian government is also exploring ways to maintain trade with Russia by reviving a Cold War-era arrangement called the rupee-ruble trade, according to two other Indian officials with knowledge of the matter. The mechanism, which would be akin to a ledger of trade between the two countries, would let Indian and Russian firms do business while bypassing the need to use U.S. dollars — the predominant currency of international trade — and lowering the risk of potential U.S. sanctions.

The three Indian officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. “Eighty-five percent of India’s oil comes from imports, so we always look for good options,” one of the officials said. “If that includes a good package coming from the Russian side, and there’s no bar on buying from Russia, then let’s accept that.”

The Indian officials characterized the ruble-rupee ledgers, which will probably be set up at Russian and Indian banks that are not exposed to the U.S. financial system, as a solution to help the Indian economy and its exporters rather than a way to evade potential U.S. sanctions. India trades with Iran, another country under U.S. sanctions, using a similar rial-rupee trade arrangement.

In recent weeks, India has drawn condemnation from some U.S. lawmakers after it repeatedly abstained from criticizing Russia at the UN. But Biden administration officials have often stopped short of criticizing an Asian giant that is seen as a crucial part of its strategy to counter China.

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters she did not believe that Indian purchases of Russian oil would violate existing U.S. sanctions.

India’s special relationship with Russia was highlighted this month when the Russian military gave India “special input” about when and to where its stranded citizens should flee the besieged Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, while Russian military officers offered to fly Indians, specifically, out of the war zone.

India is not the only country maintaining trade relations with Russia. Many European countries, including U.S. allies in NATO, continue to purchase Russian energy even though the U.S. and Britain have announced domestic bans.

Russia’s most important customers are Europe and China; India accounted for about 3 percent of Russia’s exports in 2021 and sources most of its oil from the Persian Gulf, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights.

But the two countries’ cooperation in the energy sector has deepened in recent years. In 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Putin oversaw a $13 billion deal between Rosneft and a refinery in Modi’s home state of Gujarat that represented India’s largest-ever injection of foreign investment and Russia’s largest-ever outbound deal. Indian energy companies, meanwhile, have invested $16 billion in Siberian oil fields.

As talk about the oil purchase ramped up last weekend, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak called Indian Oil Minister Hardeep Singh Puri to express Russian interest in “further attracting Indian investment to the Russian oil and gas sector and expanding Russian companies’ sales networks in India,” according to a statement issued by the Kremlin.

Puri said in the Indian Parliament this week that the Modi administration was working hard to keep gas prices low and that he was in talks with “all levels” of the Russian government about a deal. The Indian Oil Ministry has otherwise not publicly commented about the matter.

Many Indian industry executives and observers say it would be unfair for the West to pressure India to quit Russian oil.

Large countries that depend on Russia, such as Germany, have not immediately cut imports.

“Has Europe or any other significant taker of Russian oil and gas reduced its consumption yet?” said Subhash Kumar, the former chairman of the Indian state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, the country’s largest crude-oil company. If India, which is not involved in the Ukraine conflict, did not buy discounted Russian oil, there would be other takers on the market, he said.

In the coming months, India’s trade with Russia is likely to continue in another crucial realm besides oil: defense. Largely as a legacy of the Cold War — when the Soviet Union gave India everything from help setting up steel plants to blueprints for MiG fighter jets — around 85 percent of Indian weapons today came from the Soviet Union or Russia, according to a 2021 analysis by the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

Amit Cowshish, a retired Indian defense ministry official who previously oversaw India’s military acquisitions, said the armed forces would be badly crippled within a year if India could not trade with Russia.

“There’s ammunition, subassemblies, critical licenses, all of which would run out, and it wouldn’t be in the U.S. interest to see an Indo-Pacific partner be crippled or alienated by sanctions,” he said.

So far, Biden administration officials have avoided criticizing India’s continued relationship with Russia. During a House Armed Services Committee hearing last week, lawmakers asked Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs who has argued for a tougher U.S. posture against Beijing, why India was not siding with the West on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“We recognize that India has a complicated history and relationship with Russia,” Ratner responded.

Reported Draft Peace Plan With Ukraine

“Significant progress” in the peace talks was reported by the Financial Times on Wednesday, with the newspaper claiming the two sides were discussing a 15-point draft plan, involving the withdrawal of Russian troops and Ukraine becoming a neutral state under the protection of Western allies.

The report, however, was refuted by Moscow, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissing it as a false one and promising to update the public should any actual breakthrough in the negotiations be reached. Kiev dismissed the FT report as well, with Podolyak claiming the 15-point plan reflected Moscow’s demands and nothing more.

U.S.-Supervised Ukraine Lab Studies Disease Transmission Via Bats

A Xinhua report said on March 17, 2022:

A laboratory in Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkov has studied transmitting diseases to humans through bats under US control, the Russian Defense Ministry said Thursday.

“Specialists of the Russian Radiation, Chemical and Biological Defense Forces have studied original documents revealing the details of the U.S. implementation of a secret project to study the ways of transmitting diseases to humans through bats in a laboratory in Ukraine’s Kharkov,” the ministry’s spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.

“According to the documents, these studies were carried out on a systematic basis and under direct supervision of U.S. specialists for many years,” he told a briefing.

The Russian Defense Ministry will publish a new package of documents on the developments of Ukrainian biological laboratories, which were received from lab employees, he added.

Russia has expressed grave concerns over US-funded biological laboratories in Ukraine, where various kinds of dangerous viruses were stored and studied.
Last week, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland testified before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Ukraine, admitting “Ukraine has biological research facilities.”
“We are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces should they approach,” she said.

Who’s repressing media? US, Russian embassies take war of words to China’s Weibo

“The West’s repression of Russian media has lasted for years. What do they have to say about freedom of speech and the freedom of access to information?” Russian Embassy in China asked on Thursday on China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo as a response to the U.S. Embassy in China’s accusation of Russia’s so-called repression of media.

“The U.S., Canada and the Europe Union have removed Russia Today (RT) from their broadcast network. Apple and Google have banned users from downloading apps of RT and Sputnik News Agency, and YouTube blocked channels of Russian media around the world,” the Russian embassy pointed out in a post on Weibo on Thursday, forwarding a post of the U.S. Embassy in China a day before.

The response came after the U.S. embassy, in its post on Weibo, accused Russian state-controlled media of spreading disinformation about Russia-Ukraine conflict. The US embassy also claimed the Kremlin is “intensifying its crackdown on independent media” to prevent “the truth” from reaching the Russian public.

“The West’s suppression of Russian media did not just start now. It has lasted years. What do they have to say about freedom of speech and free access to information?” the Russian embassy asked.

The issue has soon caught Weibo users’ attention, triggering heated discussion.

Some netizens said that the U.S. is in no position to accuse others of repressing media while its own media smears other countries – such as smearing China over the origin of the novel coronavirus – and its own social media platforms blocked voices that are not in U.S.’ interest.

Against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, RT America, the Russian state-funded media outlet, has been shut, with more than 100 staffers laid off. Some US internet companies, such as Meta, the parent company of Facebook, have also blocked voices from Russian official accounts.

Lee Camp, who had hosted a satire comedy show Redacted Night for eight years, was one of the staffers of RT America who had lost their jobs.

“Not only did my show end because RT America was shut down, but all of the old Redacted Tonight videos – over 1,000 videos – were banned on YouTube. And they’re not just banned in America. Apparently they’re banned in almost all countries,” Camp told the Global Times on Thursday in an exclusive interview.

Camp agreed that, with a ban on Russian media, the US government would mislead the American public with one-sided information.

“The U.S. government, I think it’s pretty clear, wants this war to go on as long as possible. They view it as good for them to keep the war going, to keep Russia dragged down in a long-term war to harm Russia’s economy,” Camp said.

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