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Biden says Putin will pay ‘dear price’ if he invades Ukraine

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden said he believes Vladimir Putin doesn’t want full blown war in Ukraine and would pay a “dear price” if he moves forward with a military incursion.

Biden, speaking at a news conference to mark his one-year anniversary in office, also said he believes that Russia is preparing to take action on Ukraine, though he doesn’t think the Russian president has made a final decision. He suggested that he would limit Russia’s access to the international banking system if it did further invade Ukraine.

“I’m not so sure that he is certain what is he going to do,” Biden said. He added, “My guess is he will move in.”

Biden’s comments came hours after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a visit to Kyiv accused Russia of planning to reinforce the more than 100,000 troops it has deployed along the Ukrainian border and suggested that number could double “on relatively short order.” Blinken did not elaborate, but Russia has sent an unspecified number of troops from the country’s far east to its ally Belarus, which also shares a border with Ukraine, for major war games next month.

The U.S. president said he believes the decision will “solely” be Putin’s and suggested he was not fully confident that Russian officials with whom top White House advisers have been negotiating are fully informed about Putin’s thinking.

“There’s a question of whether the people they’re talking to know what he’s going to do,” Biden said.

Biden also suggested a “minor incursion” would elicit a lesser response than a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, saying “it’s very important that we keep everyone in NATO on the same page.” Biden later in the news conference sought to clarify that he was referring to a non-military action, such as a cyberattack, that would be met with a similar reciprocal response.

Ukraine, meanwhile, said it was prepared for the worst and would survive whatever difficulties come its way. The president urged the country not to panic.

Blinken’s visit to the Ukrainian capital came two days before he is to meet in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. That follows a series of inconclusive talks last week that failed to ease rising tensions.

Russian military activity has been increasing in recent weeks, but the U.S. has not concluded whether Putin plans to invade or whether the show of force is intended to squeeze the security concessions without an actual conflict.

Biden, who spoke with Putin twice last month, said he’s made it clear to him that Russia would face severe sanctions. Still, he said the decision for Putin could come down to “what side of the bed” he wakes up on.

“He’s never seen sanctions like the ones I promised will be imposed if he moves, No. 1,” Biden warned. “This is not all just a cake walk for Russia,” Biden said. “They’ll pay a stiff price immediately” and in the medium and long term “if they do it.”

In Kyiv, Blinken reiterated Washington’s demands for Russia to de-escalate the situation by removing its forces from the border area, something that Moscow has flatly refused to do. And, Blinken said he wouldn’t give Russia the written response it expects to its demands when he and Lavrov meet in Geneva.

Meanwhile, a top Russian diplomat said Moscow would not back down from its insistence that the U.S. formally ban Ukraine from ever joining NATO and reduce its and the alliance’s military presence in Eastern Europe. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow had no intention of invading Ukraine but that its demands for security guarantees were non-negotiable.

The U.S. and its allies have said the Russian demands are non-starters, that Russia knows they are and that Putin is using them in part to create a pretext for invading Ukraine, which has strong ethnic and historical ties to Russia. The former Soviet republic aspires to join the alliance, though has little hope of doing so in the foreseeable future.

Blinken urged Western nations to remain united in the face of Russian aggression. He also reassured Ukraine’s leader of NATO support while calling for Ukrainians to stand strong.

Blinken told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that the U.S. and its allies were steadfast in backing his country and its democratic aspirations against Russian attempts to incite division and discord through “relentless aggression.”

“Our strength depends on preserving our unity and that includes unity within Ukraine,” he told Zelenskyy. “I think one of Moscow’s long-standing goals has been to try to sow divisions between and within our countries, and quite simply we cannot and will not let them do that.”

The Biden administration had said earlier it was providing an additional $200 million in defensive military aid to Ukraine. Blinken said more assistance is coming and that it would only increase should Russia invade.

Zelenskyy thanked Blinken for the aid, which was approved in late December but not confirmed until Wednesday.

“This (military) support not only speaks to our strategic plans of Ukraine joining the alliance, but more importantly to the level of our military, our military supplies,” he said, referring to Kyiv’s desire to join NATO.

“Your visit is very important,” Zelenskyy said. “It underlines once again your powerful support of our independence and sovereignty.”

Zelenskyy released a video address to the nation on Wednesday evening, urging Ukrainians not to panic over fears of a possible invasion. But he said the country has been living with the Russian threat for many years and should always be prepared for war. He called on all Ukrainians, especially the elderly, to “breathe” and “calm down.”

Ukraine’s president also gave assurances that the country was strengthening its defense capabilities and doing everything possible to resolve the crisis through diplomacy.

“Ukraine doesn’t want a war, but must always be prepared for it,” Zelenskyy said.

From Kyiv, Blinken plans a short trip to Berlin for talks with German and other European allies on Thursday before meeting with Lavrov.

On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron called on the European Union to draw up a plan to ease tensions with Russia, “We should build it among Europeans, then share it with our allies in the framework of NATO, and then propose it for negotiation to Russia,” he said.

Washington and its allies have kept the door open to possible further talks on arms control and confidence-building measures to reduce the potential for hostilities.

Ryabkov insisted, however, that there can’t be any meaningful talks on those issues if the West doesn’t heed the main Russian requests for the non-expansion of NATO with a formal response. He said the Russian demands are “a package, and we’re not prepared to divide it into different parts, to start processing some of those at the expense of standing idle on others.”

Blinken, though, said no such formal response was coming. “I won’t be presenting a paper at that time to Foreign Minister Lavrov,” he said. “We need to see where we are and see if there remain opportunities to pursue the diplomacy and pursue the dialogue.”

The Biden administration and its allies have accused Putin of creating the crisis and say it is up to him and the Russians to decide whether to invade and suffer severe economic consequences.

Russia has brushed off calls to withdraw its troops by saying it has a right to deploy its forces wherever it likes on its own territory. It also has rejected U.S. allegations that it’s preparing a “false flag operation” to use as a pretext for intervention. Russia has angrily denied the charge.

Before Blinken’s visit to Kyiv, a delegation of U.S. senators traveled to Ukraine to emphasize congressional support for the country.

Russia in 2014 seized the Crimean Peninsula after the ouster of Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly leader and also threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. More than 14,000 people have been killed in nearly eight years of fighting between the Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces in the country’s industrial heartland, called Donbas.

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Lee reported from Kyiv. Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv contributed to this report.

Matthew Lee And Aamer Madhani, The Associated Press

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International

DHS pauses disinformation board amid free speech questions

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Department of Homeland Security paused its new disinformation governance board Wednesday and its board’s director will resign, following weeks of criticism from Republicans and questions about whether the board would impinge on free speech rights.

While the board was not formally shuttered, it will be reviewed by members of a DHS advisory council that’s expected to make recommendations in 75 days. Nina Jankowicz, picked to lead the board, wrote in her resignation letter that the board’s future was “uncertain,” according to her letter, obtained by The Associated Press.

Federal and state agencies treat disinformation as a national security threat. But the new board was hampered from the start by questions about its purpose and an uneven rollout that further confused its mission. The phrase “Ministry of Truth” — a reference to George Orwell’s “1984” — has repeatedly trended online in discussions about the board.

Some of the attacks on Jankowicz have used sexist and anti-Semitic slurs. A Fox News personality recently questioned whether Jankowicz should have agreed to lead the board while pregnant.

The Washington Post first reported the board would be paused.

Conservative pundits and right-leaning media have often focused directly on Jankowicz, a researcher on Russian disinformation named to lead the board. Critics have pointed to statements made by Jankowicz that questioned the provenance of a laptop said to belong to Hunter Biden, the president’s eldest son, and replayed a TikTok video she taped about disinformation to the tune of a song from “Mary Poppins.”

DHS officials have described the board as an internal working group intended to study definitions of disinformation across the department. They have not explained why they chose Jankowicz, who is not a lawyer and had a well-known public profile.

Supporters of Jankowicz have accused the department of not doing enough to protect her from trolls and online attacks.

“It is deeply disappointing that mischaracterizations of the board became a distraction from the Department’s vital work, and indeed, along with recent events globally and nationally, embodies why it is necessary,” Jankowicz wrote in her resignation letter.

Russia has tried to influence the last two presidential elections by boosting false stories and using social media to inflame divisions in American society on issues like race and the coronavirus pandemic. It has continued to spread false and misleading narratives about its invasion of Ukraine. U.S. intelligence officials have also accused China and Iran of peddling disinformation to Americans.

Experts on disinformation warned the controversy around the board could hurt existing efforts to identify and stop the spread of false narratives about elections and hot-button issues in American society. DHS has several ongoing programs to counter disinformation, including the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s efforts to debunk claims of election fraud.

Some speculated the board was developed by DHS in response to billionaire Elon Musk’s plan to buy Twitter, driven in part by a desire to loosen the platform’s rules around tweets. Others put out false claims that Jankowicz planned to edit the tweets of everyday Twitter users.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced the creation of the board in late April, saying it would highlight Russian disinformation and false claims that encourage people to migrate to the U.S.-Mexico border. The board was immediately controversial, with Republican lawmakers questioning whether President Joe Biden’s administration was trying to police narratives it opposed.

The top Republicans on two key congressional oversight committees said they had a “complete lack of information about this new initiative.” And Mayorkas was attacked repeatedly over the board in recent appearances on Capitol Hill. Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, told Mayorkas the board was a “terrible idea” that “communicates to the world that we’re going to be spreading propaganda in our own country.”

DHS also faced the prospect of a lawsuit. Twenty Republican attorneys general, led by Jason Miyares of Virginia, threatened Mayorkas with legal action “unless you turn back now and disband this Orwellian Disinformation Governance Board immediately,” Miyares said in a statement.

Nomaan Merchant And Amanda Seitz, The Associated Press

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Crime

Buffalo suspect: Lonely, isolated — and a sign of trouble

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By Bernard Condon And Michael Hill in Conklin

CONKLIN, N.Y. (AP) — In the waning days of Payton Gendron’s COVID-19-altered senior year at Susquehanna Valley High School, he logged on to a virtual learning program in economics class that asked: “What do you plan to do when you retire?”

“Murder-suicide,” Gendron typed.

Despite his protests that it was all a joke, the bespectacled 17-year-old who had long been viewed by classmates as a smart loner was questioned by state police over the possible threat and then taken into custody and to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation under a state mental health law.

But a day and a half later, he was released. And two weeks after that, he was allowed to participate in graduation festivities, including riding in the senior parade, where he was photographed atop a convertible driven by his father and festooned with yellow-and-blue balloons and signs reading, “Congratulations” and “Payton Gendron.”

That account of Gendron’s brush with the law last spring, according to authorities and other people familiar with what happened, emphasized the same point school officials made in a message to parents at the time: An investigation found no specific, credible threat against the school or any individual from that sign of trouble.

That same young white man bought a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, traveled three hours to Buffalo and went on what authorities say was a racist, livestreamed shooting rampage Saturday in a crowded supermarket that left 10 Black people dead.

Gendron, now 18, was arraigned on a state murder charge over the weekend and a court-appointed public defender entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. He remained jailed under suicide watch as federal prosecutors contemplate hate-crime charges.

Even as the FBI swarmed the comfortable home where Gendron lived with his parents and two younger brothers, neighbors and classmates in this community of 5,000 near the New York-Pennsylvania line say they saw no inkling of the young man now being described on television.

And they say they saw nothing of the kind of racist rhetoric seen in a 180-page online diatribe, purportedly written by Gendron, in which he describes in minute detail how he researched ZIP codes with the highest concentrations of Black people, surveilled the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, and carried out the assault to terrorize all nonwhite, non-Christian people into leaving the country.

Classmates described Gendron as a quiet, studious boy who got high marks but seemed out of place in recent years, turning to online streaming games, a fascination with guns and ways to grab attention from his peers.

When school partially opened again early last year after COVID-19-related shutdowns, Gendron showed up covered head to toe in a hazmat suit. Classmate Matthew Casado said he didn’t think the stunt -– he called it “a harmless joke” — went down well with other students.

“Most people didn’t associate with him,” he said. “They didn’t want to be known as friends with a kid who was socially awkward and nerdy.”

Gendron excelled in sciences, once earning top marks in a state chemistry competition. But he was known for keeping to himself and not talking much. And when he did talk, it was about isolation, rejection and desperation.

“He talked about how he didn’t like school because he didn’t have friends. He would say he was lonely,” said Casado, who graduated with Gendron last year.

At one point last winter, Gendron’s mother called Casado’s mother with a request: Please have Matthew call Payton because he had no friends and needed to talk.

The two boys ended up going to flea markets together, watching YouTube videos and shooting guns on nearby state land over the next few months. Casado said that he had never heard his friend talk of anything violent.

“I didn’t think he would hurt a fly,” he said.

Some neighbors had a similar view, seeing the family as happy and prosperous, with both Paul Gendron and his wife, Pamela, holding stable jobs as civil engineers with the New York state Department of Transportation, earning nearly $200,000 combined, according to online records.

Dozens of their Facebook posts over the years show the parents and their three boys — often dressed in matching outfits — enjoying amusement park vacations, going on boat trips, shooting laser tag guns and opening presents on Christmas morning.

Carl Lobdell, a family friend who first met Gendron on a camping vacation a dozen years ago, said he was shocked that Payton was identified as the suspect in the mass shooting.

“He was very friendly, very respectable,” said Lobdell, adding that his family had grown so close to the Gendrons that they even attended Payton’s graduation party last year. “When I heard about the shooting … I just cried.”

The family did not respond to a request for comment over the weekend, nor did Gendron’s attorney. No one answered the door Monday at the family home, surrounded by a neat, spacious lawn. Near the front door was a tiny right hand pressed in concrete with a heart symbol and the words, “PAYTON 2008.”

One parent of a Susquehanna Valley High student said she was furious that the student who was investigated for making the threat last year — whom she later discovered was Gendron — was still allowed to participate in all graduation activities. The woman asked not to be identified because she feared harassment.

According to a recording of a conference call of federal and local law enforcement officials Monday that was obtained by The Associated Press, Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said Gendron’s comments he made in school in June 2021 were “generalized statements” and not targeted at anyone in particular or at a specific location, which is why no criminal charges were filed. He said the state police “did everything within the confines of the law.”

Gendron enrolled at Broome County Community College and later dropped out. The school wouldn’t say why. And according to online writings attributed to him, he began planning his assault on the Buffalo supermarket beginning at least in November, saying he was inculcated into his racist views online.

“I was never diagnosed with a mental disability or disorder, and I believe to be perfectly sane,” according to one passage.

A new, 589-page document of online diary postings emerged Monday that authorities have attributed to Gendron, and some of its passages tracked with the account AP’s sources gave of his high school threat investigation.

“Another bad experience was when I had to go to a hospitals ER because I said the word’s ‘murder/suicide’ to an online paper in economics class,” said one entry. “I got out of it because I stuck with the story that I was getting out of class and I just stupidly wrote that down. That is the reason I believe I am still able to purchase guns.”

“It was not a joke, I wrote that down because that’s what I was planning to do.”

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Condon reported from New York. Eric Tucker in Washington, Michael R. Sisak in New York and news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at [email protected]

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