US and Russia chief diplomats show ‘readiness’ to talk despite escalating tensions

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and US Secretary of State Tillerson have met for lengthy talks amidst rising tensions between the two nations. Their meeting follows fresh US sanctions and Russia’s US diplomat expulsion.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Manila

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Sunday that despite tensions with Washington, he believed his US colleagues were prepared to keep communication lines open with Moscow.

“We felt the readiness of our US colleagues to continue dialogue. I think there’s no alternative to that,” Lavrov told reporters after what he said was a lengthy meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (above photo).

Watch video01:17

Russian-German ventures to be hit by US sanctions

Lavrov said his US counterpart asked him extensively about Russia’s decision to expel US diplomats in retaliation for Washington’s latest round of economic sanctions on Moscow.

Read more: Donald Trump signs Russia sanctions bill into law

“He was primarily interested … in details of those decisions that we grudgingly made in response to the law on anti-Russian sanctions,” Lavrov said. He said he shared with Tillerson how Russia planned to carry out the expulsions but didn’t provide details to reporters.

Tillerson emerged from the meeting an hour after it started without taking questions or giving remarks to reporters.

Ukraine talks expected soon

In addition to discussing issues with North Korea and cooperation on cybercrime, Lavrov said Moscow and Washington’s envoys were set to discuss Ukraine.

US President Donald Trump’s special representative for Ukraine negotiations will soon make his first visit to Moscow to discuss the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Read more: US sanctions on Russia could endanger energy security for EU

Watch video01:44

Ongoing tensions between US, Russia

Lavrov also said that Tillerson agreed to resume talks between US Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. The channel of communication was initially created to discuss hot spots, but it was suspended after the US imposed tighter sanctions on Russia.

Strained ties

On Thursday, Trump reluctantly signed into law sanctions that target the Russian energy sector and place new limits on US investment in Russian companies.

Lawmakers in Congress passed the bill as a response to Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election, its involvement in the Syrian conflict and its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Read more: Relations with Trump and Putin – What’s the next move?

Russia said the sanctions amounted to a full economic war and ordered Washington to cut 755 of its 1,200 embassy and consulate staff in Russia. They also seized two US diplomatic properties.

There has been some confusion regarding the cuts as the US is believed to have far fewer than 755 American employees working in the country.

Russia has repeatedly rejected allegations that it interfered in the US election while Trump has denied any collusion with Moscow.

rs/tj (AP, AFP, Reuters)



  • Courtesy DW

North Korea drought threatens famine and instability

As N. Korea suffers its worst drought since 2001, experts warn that food shortages will lead to more internal instability. Outside aid is critical, even as Pyongyang continues to test missiles. Julian Ryall reports.

Düre in Nordkorea (picture alliance / dpa)

According to a report released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on July 20, prolonged dry weather in the central and southern cereal-producing provinces in North Korea has led to “serious concerns” about the final production of the internationally isolated country’s main cropping season.

Extreme drought in these critical growing regions since late April could drastically effect yields of staple crops and put millions of people at risk of malnutrition. The FAO report also states that Pyongyang will need to import more than 500,000 tons of cereal to stave off famine.

“If rains do not improve soon, the 2017 cereal output may decrease significantly, further worsening the local food security situation,” the report stated. “Immediate interventions are needed to support the affected farmers and prevent negative coping strategies for the most vulnerable households.”

The report specifically outlines how crops of rice, corn, potatoes and soybeans have been hit along with herds of cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and poultry being severely affected.

North Korea’s agricultural sector is also hampered by a low level of mechanization, poor irrigation and a shortage of fertilizers, all of which are long-term problems for the North’s farmers.

Another ‘arduous march?’

Welthungerhilfe Nordkorea (Getty Images)A malnourished N. Korean child receives food supplied by the UN in 2004

A new food crisis in North Korea also has the potential to stir discontent among the country’s middle class, who still remember the four-year famine in the mid-1990s that the regime euphemistically refers to as the “Arduous March.”

According to the South Korea-based Daily NK news website, the price of high-quality rice in the three key markets of Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan increased 10 percent in June alone.

It was the third consecutive month in which the price of this staple foodstuff increased and there are reports of people stockpiling out of concern for what the future holds.

Read:Dissidents reveal famine in homeland

“It has been reported that the North Korea government has recently cut the daily food ration for everyone,” Rah Jong Yil, a former head of South Korean intelligence, told DW.

“And while things are not as bad as during the ‘Arduous March’ period, there are some very small signs of discontent with the regime,” he said. “There are more conversations among close friends who are asking if the regime is over-doing the threats against the international community.”

The intelligence expert also said that it seems North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un is sensing discontent.

“In one of his most recent speeches, he expressed his ‘contrite heart’ for not meeting all the demands of the people,” Rah said. “He has also called on people to ‘tighten their belts for the sake of the revolution,’ suggesting that food shortages are on the horizon.”

Biting the hand that feeds

But provocations towards countries that have in the past provided life-saving food aid continue.

Given that Kim’s regime fired a ICBM this weekend and has threatened to launch nuclear attacks against the US mainland and to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire,” it is unlikely that the primary aid donors of the past will hurry to assist Pyongyang again this time.

In the mid-1990s, South Korea, China, the US, Japan and the European Union all provided food to the North Korean people, with shipments peaking in 2001 at 1.5 million tons. Nevertheless, it is estimated that 3 million North Koreans starved to death.

According to a statement from the Russian embassy in Pyongyang, in mid-July, Russia delivered around 5,200 tons of flour to North Korea via the World Food Program.  The aid was unloaded at the port of Chongjin before being sent to be processed into cookies “for the needy.”

Moscow already donated nearly 5,000 tons of flour earlier in the year and an additional 2,700 tons is expected to be delivered in the coming weeks.

The total figure, however, is a fraction of what is needed and very few other countries are showing any indications of providing assistance to a regime that prefers to develop weapons of mass destruction instead of feeding its own people.

Kim lives comfortably

Critics point out, for example, that as well as spending heavily on weapons, the Kim family and the “elite” of his entourage live very comfortably, despite sanctions.

The country has traditionally been funded by the overseas sale of synthetic narcotics, fake currency, hacking attacks against foreign financial institutions and the export of cheap laborers.

Other revenue comes from the sale of coal and minerals, although those sources of income have been dramatically curtailed by international sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.

The North’s missile technology has also been purchased by other nations, including Iran, and the Bank of Korea estimated in its last statement on Pyongyang’s economic situation that the gross domestic product grew by 3.9 percent last year, the fastest growth since 1999.

Watch video01:46

UN warns that 20 million face starvation



  • Courtesy: DW

ICBM tests force South Korea to get tough on North

With Pyongyang rejecting or ignoring all attempts by Seoul to build bridges, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is under pressure to take a firmer line against Kim Jong Un’s regime in North Korea. Julian Ryall reports.

South Korean President Moon Ja-in (left) with US President Donald Trump in Washington

In the nearly three months since he assumed office in Seoul, President Moon Jae-in has done everything in his power to build bridges with the regime in North Korea and reduce tensions that bedevil the Korean Peninsula. At every turn, Moon’s overtures have been rebuffed or simply ignored . If anything, his olive branches have been met with more rhetoric, belligerence and missile launches.

North Korea’s recent launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range that puts most of the continental United States within reach of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons may, however, prove to be a turning point in Moon’s approach to dealing with Kim Jong Un.

Nordkorea Kim Jong Un Freude nach dem Test der Hwasong-14 Rakete (Reuters/KCNA)Moon’s overtures have been rebuffed or simply ignored by North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un

“The latest missile launch could lead to fundamental changes in the northeast Asian security structure,” Moon said in an emergency meeting of the National Security Council on Saturday, July 29. Moon added that South Korea should “consider our own sanctions” against Pyongyang.

THAAD deployment

Within hours of the ICBM launch, Moon also announced that his administration had decided to deploy the four remaining US Army Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile systems. That was a reversal of a decision announced only 16 hours previously that the deployments would not go ahead until extensive environmental impact assessments could be carried out, a procedure that could take several months to complete, in order to placate local residents.

Moon’s attempts to build a working relationship with North Korea have come under fire in the South Korean media, with popular tabloids in particular calling for him to take a firmer line.

The Chosun Ilbo newspaper ran an editorial on July 18 headlined “Seoul seems hell-bent on being duped again by North Korea,” in which it criticized the government’s decision to ask for talks between military officials from North and South to avoid provocations on the border, as well as discussions between representatives of the Red Cross about the resumption of reunions of families separated since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

The editorial accused Moon of “begging” the North for links to resume and pointed out that any meeting would only serve as an opportunity for the North to make demands of the South while the North continues with the development of nuclear weapons and missiles.

“Why on earth does the government expect that the North will change if it offers a few concessions?” the article asked.

Watch video00:32

North Korea claims successful ICBM launch

‘Fundamental shift’

“A fundamental shift in the North’s attitude is necessary to achieve denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula, and neither North Korea nor any other autocratic regime has ever made any fundamental changes without strong and continued pressure from the international community,” it concluded.

And while South Korea’s presidential Blue House officials have underlined in recent days that the administration remains committed to a twin-track approach of seeking talks while applying pressure, the emphasis may have shifted marginally from one to the other.

“I do not believe it would be correct to say that Moon has changed his mind on North Korea; I would say that after three months as president, he has become alive to the hard facts of life when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang,” said Rah Jong-yil, a former head of South Korean intelligence.

“After trying many things, he is now being compelled to make choices and decisions that he would not have done previously because this is the reality of our relationship with the North,” he told DW.

“Many leaders have come to power in Seoul with firm plans of how they are going to advance the relationship with the North, how they are going to communicate with the various Kim regimes, but sooner or later they all become disillusioned.”

– North Korea drought threatens famine and instability

– US & Japan vow action on ‘growing direct’ North Korea threat

Different response

“Moon cannot just keep repeating his plans for better ties in the face of what is happening in the North,” he said. “He has to react differently. But I do believe that if he did get a different response from the other side, then he would again be ready to talk.”

Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Daito Bunka University, said that Moon is not performing a sea change in his policies toward Pyongyang, but is instead “hedging.”

“When he came in, Moon said he did not want the THAAD system to be deployed, but now he is putting in the second lot of missiles and he clearly believes that it is better to have missile defense than not to,” Mulloy told DW. “But I would say this is Moon hedging his policies rather than hardening them.”

“He will continue his efforts at detente but he also knows that he needs a contingency plan that he can show to his constituents – particularly the left, which supported him and his position on THAAD in the election,” Mulloy said. “So he needs to make it clear that he is making efforts to achieve his aims through both the soft and the hard approaches.”

Read: Is Trump using North Korea threat as trade leverage with South?

Watch video01:56

My picture of the week | Frightening message from North Korea



Courtesy: DW

Russia tells hundreds of US diplomatic staff to leave

President Vladimir Putin has ordered US diplomatic missions in Russia to reduce staff by 755 people. The move came in response to a new US sanctions package against Moscow that was passed by the US Congress.

Russland US Botschaft in Moskau (picture alliance/dpa/Y. Kochetkov)

President Vladimir Putin warned on Sunday that bilateral relations with Washington appeared to be headed for a prolonged period of gridlock after the US Congress passed a new round of sanctions on the Kremlin. 

“We had hoped that the situation will somehow change, but apparently if it changes, it won’t be soon,” Putin said on state television, apparently referring to the hope that Russia-US relations would improve under President Donald Trump.

Putin said that in retaliation for the new sanctions, which Trump has said he would sign, the US would have to cut staff at its embassy and consulates by 755 people.

“More than a thousand people were working and are still working” at the US embassy and consulates, Putin said in an interview with Rossiya-24 television. “Seven hundred and fifty-five people must stop their activities in Russia.”

In addition to the embassy in Moscow, there are three consulates in Russia with Americans and Russians working in the diplomatic offices.

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald TrumpPutin met Trump at the G20 summit in Hamburg earlier in July.


It was unclear how Putin came up with the number. It is also unclear how the reductions would be split between US and Russian staff.

The US embassy in Moscow and the three consulates are staffed by both US diplomats and technical staff, as well as Russian local staff. Diplomatic missions also often hire as staff US and Russian contractors and spouses of diplomats.

Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, pointed out on Sunday that there are not even 755 American diplomats in Russia, meaning that the staff reductions are likely to hit Russian staff as well.

The cuts would likely affect how quickly the US is able to process Russian applications for visas, McFaul said. “If these cuts are real, Russians should expect to wait weeks if not months to get visas to come to [the] US,” he said.

The US State Department said it did not comment on the number of US officials serving abroad.

It called the decision “a regrettable and uncalled for act.”


On Friday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry had demanded that the US slash its diplomatic presence in Russia to 455 diplomats and technical staff by September 1 – the same number of Russian diplomats accredited to work in the United States.

It also announced the freezing of two US embassy compounds – a Moscow summer house and a storage facility in the city – as of August 1.

The decision came in retaliation for former US President Barack Obama last December kicking out 35 Russian diplomats from the United States in response to Russian election meddling.

The United States also seized two Russian embassy summer houses that Washington said were being used by Moscow for espionage. At the time, Russia held off from retaliating as it awaited the new Trump administration but the issue has been a sore spot in relations.

Senate toughens Russian sanctions

On Thursday, the US Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill to toughen sanctions against Russia for allegedly meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and for its annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Senate vote followed an equally strong vote in the House of Representatives.

The bill also strips US President Donald Trump of the authority to end sanctions against Moscow on his own. Iran and North Korea are also targeted in the sanctions bill.

The next legislative step is the presidential signature. Trump had campaigned on a platform of closer ties with Russia but said he would sign the bill.

There are veto-proof majorities backing the legislation in both the House and Senate. The White House is facing congressional probes and an investigation by special prosecutor, former FBI director Robert Mueller into the nature of links between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.

cw/bik/rc (AFP, Reuters, AP, dpa)



Courtesy: DW

Kremlin tells US to cut diplomatic staff in sanctions row

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has told the US to cut the number of its diplomats in Russia, responding to anti-Russian sanctions endorsed by the US Senate. Moscow accused the US of hiding behind “exceptionalism.”

Russian police officers patrols in front of the US embassy building in Moscow (Getty Images/AFP/K. Kudryavtsev)

The decision to boost sanctions against Russia showed the “extreme aggression” of the US in the international arena, the Russian Foreign Ministry said while detailing its counter-measures in a Friday statement.

Moscow called on the US to reduce the number of its diplomatic staff in Russia to 455 in order to match the number of Russian diplomats in the US. Russia will also “mirror” any further expulsions of Russian diplomats, the ministry added.

Also, Russian authorities said they would seize a dacha (a vacation home) used by American diplomats outside of Moscow, as well as warehouse in the Russian capital.

Read more: Do EU sanctions really work?

Russian officials also slammed the US sanctions, saying they are motivated by “absolutely imaginary allegations of Russian involvement in their internal matters.”

“While hiding behind its ‘exceptionalism,’ the US is haughtily ignoring other countries’ positions and interests,” they said.

Watch video00:46

US Senate passes sanctions against Russia

US ‘blackmail’ to limit cooperation with Europe

Both chambers of the US Congress approved the sanctions bill earlier this week. The document is designed to target, among other things, Russia’s key energy sector and other segments of the Russian economy.

The bill has triggered concern in the EU, as the sanctions could also hit European companies working with the Russians on energy projects, including the major Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. On Wednesday, the German Foreign Ministry warned that Berlin “could not accept” the US using sanctions against Russia as a tool of industrial policy.

EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker also warned that the sanctions bill might have an impact on Europe’s “energy security interests” and said that the European bloc was ready to respond with measures of its own.

“America first cannot mean that Europe’s interests come last,” he said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also decried US lawmakers for using “political tools in order to create an unfair advantage for the US in global economy.”

“This blackmail, aimed at limiting cooperation of Russia with its international partners, carries a threat to many countries and international business,” the said on Friday.

Watch video01:43

US sanctions on Russia could hit German companies

Trump pressed by Congress on Russia

The countermeasures follow a Thursday vote in the US Senate, where senators from both parties overwhelmingly backed the sanctions bill. It still needs to signed by President Donald Trump. Trump might choose to veto it and send it back to Congress, but the lawmakers are likely to overrule such a decision.

The bill includes a section that requires Trump to seek permission from Congress before lifting the sanctions,limiting his ability to maneuver diplomatically.

Russian president Vladimir Putin approved the Russian counter-measures, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday. Peskov added that the Kremlin did not wait for Trump to sign the bill before responding, as the bill was “almost fully defined” after going through the US Senate.

Read more: Germany wary of US sanctions against Russia

On Thursday, Putin decried the “boorish” behavior of the US and said that sanctions against his country were illegal.

“It is very regrettable that Russian-American ties are being sacrificed to issues of American internal policy,” he said during a diplomatic visit to Finland.

The sanctions punish Russia for alleged meddling in the US presidential elections as well as military intervention in Ukraine.

dj/ng (AFP, Reuters, Interfax)




US bill on Russia sanctions prompts German, Austrian outcry

A US Senate bill to toughen sanctions on Russia and Iran has been slammed by German and Austrian Social Democrats. Sigmar Gabriel and Christian Kern say it will warp Europe’s natural gas network in favor of US suppliers.

Deutschland Siegmar Gabriel trifft Christian Kern ARCHIV (picture alliance/dpa/M. Skolimowska)

The bill passed by US senators 98-2 and forwarded to the US House Representatives prompted a joint outburst Thursday from Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister, and Kern, Austria’s chancellor.

The nub is Nord Stream 2, apipeline project to pump Russian natural gas via the Baltic Sea to landfall in Germany – involving Russia’s Gazprom and European energy firms, including Wintershall of Germany and ÖMV of Austria.

“Europe’s energy supply is a matter for Europe, and not for the United States of America!” wrote Gabriel and Kern, both center-left Social Democrats.

To threaten European firms also active in the US with sanctions, if they took part in Nord Stream 2, thrust “a completely new, and very negative dimension into European-American relations,” the pair wrote.

“In noticeable frankness, the draft US legislation describes what it’s really about: the sale of American liquefied petroleum gas and the squeezing out of of Russian natural gas from the European market,” said Kern and Gabriel, who was previously economy minister in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition cabinet comprising her conservatives and Social Democrats.

Two years ago, European Baltic nations aired misgivings because the pipeline would lie on the seabed, bypassing their territories.

Additions to deter Trump, Russia

The US bill, opposed only by Republican Rand Paul and independent Bernie Sanders, was originally introduced in the US Senate to slap new sanctions on Iran but ended up with its bipartisan amendment on Russia.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said the add-on was intended to stop “Russia’s meddling in our election” and give Congress the final say should President Donald Trump in the future want to ease sanctions, originally imposed by former president Barack Obama.

“Any idea of the president’s that he can lift sanctions on his own for whatever reason are dashed by this legislation,” Schumer said.

Charles Schumer Washington USA Atom Iran (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Walsh)Schumer wants Trump overruled, should he want to lift sanctions.

“Today, the United States Senate is asserting its responsibilities regarding foreign policy,” added Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, a Republican.

The White House subsequently stated that existing sanctions against Russia were effective enough.

Legislative passage unfinished

The bill would penalize key sectors of Russia’s economy, including mining, metals, shipping and railways. Individuals identified as hackers who carried out cyberattacks on behalf of the Russian government would also be targeted.

To become law, the bill must still be passed by the House of Representatives and be signed by Trump.

The legislative addition came with Trump’s White House embroiled in a allegations that his campaign team colluded with a Russia effort to sway the United State’s 2016 presidential election – a charge leveled by US intelligence chiefs but denied by Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

The Senate legislation would impose sanctions on persons involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program and Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard for alleged terrorism.

ipj/msh (dpa, AP, Reuters, AFP)


US Senate adopts amendment on more sanctions against Russia

US Senate adopts amendment on more sanctions against Russia
A measure codifying into law the US sanctions against Russia was approved in the Senate by a veto-proof majority of 97 to 2. The amendment requires congressional review before any sanctions are lifted, and allows for new ones.

Amendment 232 has been attached to Bill 722 imposing sanctions against Iran, which the Senate is currently debating.

Known as the Crapo Amendment, after Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, the measure was endorsed by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Maryland).

The sanctions against Russia are “in response to the violation of the territorial integrity of the Ukraine and Crimea, its brazen cyber-attacks and interference in elections, and its continuing aggression in Syria,” according to the sponsors.

The Senate adopted amendment #232 as modified (Russia sanctions) to S. 722, Iran Sanctions, 97-2.

Under the amendment, any executive sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration cannot be lifted without congressional review.

The amendment also allows “broad new sanctions on key sectors of Russia’s economy, including mining, metals, shipping and railways” and authorizes “robust assistance to strengthen democratic institutions and counter disinformation across Central and Eastern European countries that are vulnerable to Russian aggression and interference.”

New sanctions would be imposed on “corrupt Russian actors” and those “involved in serious human rights abuses,” anyone supplying weapons to the Syrian government or working with Russian defense industry or intelligence, as well as “those conducting malicious cyber activity on behalf of the Russian government” and “those involved in corrupt privatization of state-owned assets.”

Senators Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) voted against the amendment, while Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) abstained.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told lawmakers that US allies around the world had asked Washington to improve relations with Russia, and warned that further measures against Moscow could hinder ongoing progress in the fight against terrorism in Syria.

“I have yet to have a bilateral, one-on-one, a poolside conversation with a single counterpart in any country: in Europe, Middle East, even South-East Asia, that has not said to me: please, address your relationship with Russia, it has to be improved,” Tillerson said on Tuesday, testifying before the Senate appropriations subcommittee about the proposed State Department budget.

‘Pre-emptive strike against Trump’

The executive director of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, Daniel McAdams, told RT he believes that sanctions were imposed under “ridiculous pretexts” and are ultimately designed to hinder any attempts of the current US administration to improve Russia-US ties.

“[Members of] Congress try to tie the president’s hands, trying to remove his ability to make foreign policy, and they are doing it for a simple reason – they do not want the relations with Russia to improve,” McAdams told RT. He added that by striking an agreement with the Democrats on the issue “Republicans are launching a pre-emptive strike against their own president.”

As far as the formal justification of yet another anti-Russian move is concerned, McAdams believes that “the whole pretext of the sanctions is absurd,” in particular, the refrain of Russia’s alleged meddling in the US elections.

“Nobody would go down to the Senate of the House floor and say what exactly did they do, how did they meddle in our relations, because nobody knows,” McAdams said.

A US intelligence report, from which stem the bulk of allegations implicating Russia could not be regarded as “an entire inter-agency intelligence community review” as claimed, he noted, because it was compiled by a “few hand-picked analysts who had come to this conclusion.”

Citing Russia’s alleged “aggression” in Syria as one of the reasons to roll over a new round of sanctions is another example of the inadequacy of the measure, McAdams argued.

“Who is in Syria illegally occupying territory, who is violating Syrian sovereignty?… The US military,” he said, dubbing the sanctions “a reflection of lack of any creativity” in the Senate.