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NATO outlines ‘deterrence’ plan as tensions with Russia soar

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BRUSSELS (AP) — Tensions soared Monday between Russia and the West, with NATO outlining a series of potential troop and ship deployments and Ireland warning that upcoming Russian war games off its coast would not be welcome while concerns abound that Moscow is planning to invade Ukraine.

The Western alliance’s statement summed up moves already announced by individual member countries — but restating them under the NATO banner appeared aimed at showing the alliance’s resolve. It was just one of a series of announcements that signaled the West is ramping up its rhetoric in the information war that has accompanied the Ukraine standoff.

Russia has massed an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border and is demanding that NATO promise it will never allow Ukraine to join and that other actions, such as stationing alliance troops in former Soviet bloc countries, be curtailed. Some of these, like any pledge to permanently bar Ukraine, are non-starters for NATO — creating a seemingly intractable standoff that many fear can only end in war.

Russia denies it is planning an invasion, and has said the Western accusations are merely a cover for NATO’s own planned provocations. Recent days have seen high-stakes diplomacy that failed to reach any breakthrough and maneuvering on both sides.

On Monday, NATO said that it is beefing up its “deterrence” in the Baltic Sea area. Denmark is sending a frigate and deploying F-16 war planes to Lithuania; Spain is sending four fighter jets to Bulgaria and three ships to the Black Sea to join NATO naval forces; and France stands ready to send troops to Romania. The Netherlands also plans to send two F-35 fighter aircraft to Bulgaria from April.

Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance will “take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies.” He said: “We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov charged that it was NATO and the U.S. who were behind “tensions escalating” in Europe, not Russia.

“All this is happening not because of what we, Russia, are doing. This is happening because of what NATO, the U.S. are doing,” Peskov said during a conference call with reporters. He also cited U.S. media reports suggesting that Russia is evacuating its diplomats from Ukraine, something officials in Moscow denied.

The NATO announcement came as European Union foreign ministers sought to put on a fresh display of unity in support of Ukraine, and paper over concerns about divisions on the best way to confront any Russian aggression.

In a statement, the ministers said the EU has stepped up sanction preparations and they warned that “any further military aggression by Russia against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs.”

Separately, the EU also committed to increase financial support for embattled Ukraine, vowing to push through a special package of 1.2 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in loans and grants as soon as possible.

The West is nervously watching Russian troop movements and war games in Belarus for any signs that a new invasion of Ukraine is imminent. Russia has already invaded Ukraine once, annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Moscow has also supported pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists fighting the Kyiv government in the Donbass region. Fighting in eastern Ukraine has killed around 14,000 people and still simmers.

Asked whether the EU would follow a U.S. move and order the families of European embassy personnel in Ukraine to leave, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said: “We are not going to do the same thing.” He said he is keen to hear from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken about that decision.

Britain on Monday also announced it is withdrawing some diplomats and dependents from its embassy in Kyiv. The Foreign Office said the move was “in response to the growing threat from Russia.”

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Oleg Nikolenko, said the U.S. decision was “a premature step” and a sign of “excessive caution.” He said that Russia is sowing panic among Ukrainians and foreigners in order to destabilize Ukraine.

Germany has issued no order, but it has announced that the families of embassy staffers may leave if they wish. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stressed that “we must not contribute to unsettling the situation further; we need to continue to support the Ukrainian government very clearly and above all maintain the stability of the country,”

Arriving at the EU meeting, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said he would inform his counterparts that Russia plans to holds war games 240 kilometers (150 miles) off Ireland’s southwest coast — in international waters but within Ireland’s exclusive economic zone.

“This isn’t a time to increase military activity and tension in the context of what’s happening with and in Ukraine.” Coveney said. “The fact that they are choosing to do it on the western borders, if you like, of the EU, off the Irish coast, is something that in our view is simply not welcome.”

Some of the member countries closest to Russia — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — have confirmed that they plan to send U.S.-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, a move endorsed by the United States.

But questions have been raised about just how unified the EU is. Diverse political, business and energy interests have long divided the 27-country bloc in its approach to Moscow. Around 40% of the EU’s natural gas imports come from Russia, much of it via pipelines across Ukraine — and many are skittish about being cut off from that supply in winter, with prices already soaring.

The EU’s two major powers appear most cautious. French President Emmanuel Macron has renewed previously rejected calls for an EU summit with Putin.

Late on Saturday, the head of the German navy, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach, resigned after coming under fire for saying that Ukraine would not regain the Crimean Peninsula, and for suggesting that Putin deserves “respect.”

Still, diplomats and officials said hard-hitting sanctions are being drawn up with the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission. They were reluctant to say what the measures might be or what action by Russia might trigger them, but said they would come within days of any attack.

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This story has been updated to correct that France has said it is ready to send troops to Romania, not Bulgaria. ___

Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, Dasha Litvinova in Moscow, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Mike Corder in The Hague, and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.

Lorne Cook, 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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