‘Pragmatic’ Biden-Putin summit agrees to resume arms talks, return envoys

Russian president Vladimir Putin shakes hands with US president Joe Biden during the US - Russia summit in Geneva, Switzerland on June 16, 2021. (AP)
Short Url
Updated 16 June 2021

‘Pragmatic’ Biden-Putin summit agrees to resume arms talks, return envoys

  • Putin called Biden, 78, a constructive, experienced partner, and said they spoke “the same language”
  • He added there had been no friendship, rather a pragmatic dialogue about their two countries’ interests

GENEVA: US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed at a “pragmatic” first summit on Wednesday to resume arms control talks and to return ambassadors to each other’s capitals after they were withdrawn earlier this year.
The discussions at the lakeside Villa La Grange in Geneva lasted less than four hours — far less than Biden’s advisers had said they expected.
Putin called Biden, 78, a constructive, experienced partner, and said they spoke “the same language,” but added that there had been no friendship, rather a pragmatic dialogue about their two countries’ interests.
He said it was “hard to say” if relations with the United States would improve, but that there was a “glimpse of hope” regarding mutual trust. There were no invitations to Washington or Moscow
The scheduling of separate news conferences meant there was none of the joviality that accompanied a 2018 meeting in Helsinki between Putin and Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, where Putin presented Trump with a soccer ball. There was also no shared meal.
Putin, 68, who was first to brief reporters, said the meeting had been constructive, without hostility, and had showed the leaders’ desire to understand each other.
He also said Russia and the United States shared a responsibility for nuclear stability, and would hold talks on possible changes to their recently extended New START arms limitation treaty.
But he showed little appetite for compromise on a range of other issues, dismissing Washington’s concerns about the arrest of opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny, about Russia’s increased military presence near Ukraine’s eastern border, and about US suggestions that unidentified Russians are responsible for a series of cyber-attacks in the United States.
Putin said Navalny had ignored the law and had known what would happen if he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had received treatment for an attempt inside Russia to kill him with poison. He also accused Kyiv of breaking the terms of a cease-fire agreement with pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The Kremlin leader said Washington and Moscow would start consultations on cybersecurity, adding that most cyber-attacks on Russia came from the United States.
He said Biden had raised human rights issues and also the fate of US citizens jailed in Russia. Putin said he believed some compromises could be found, although he gave no indication of any prisoner exchange deal.

ARMS CONTROL PROGRESS
Arms control is, however, one domain where progress has historically been possible despite wider disagreements.
In February, Russia and the United States extended for five years the New START treaty, which caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads they can deploy and limits the land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers to deliver them.
Both sides had said in advance of the summit that they hoped for more stable and predictable relations, even though they were at odds over everything from arms control and cyber-hacking to election interference and Ukraine.
Putin and Biden shook hands on arrival before going inside, and Biden flashed a ‘thumbs-up’ to reporters as he left the villa where the talks were held and got into his limousine.
The first round of talks — which included Biden, Putin, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — lasted almost two hours, officials said.
Talks resumed after a break at around 4 p.m. (1400 GMT), with Moscow’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, who was recalled to Russia in March, among those present. That round ended at 5:05 p.m. (1505 GMT).
Relations between Moscow and Washington have been deteriorating for years, notably with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, its 2015 intervention in Syria and US charges — denied by Moscow — of meddling in the 2016 election that brought Donald Trump to the White House.
They sank further in March when Biden said he thought Putin was a “killer,” prompting Russia to recall Antonov to Washington for consultations. The United States recalled its ambassador in April.
Putin said on Wednesday that he had been satisfied by Biden’s explanation of the remark.
Trump’s summit in 2018 with Putin in Helsinki had included a meeting accompanied only by interpreters, but Biden and Putin had no solo talks.
Standing beside Putin in Helsinki in 2018, Trump refused to blame him for meddling in the 2016 US election, casting doubt on the findings of his own intelligence agencies and sparking a storm of domestic criticism.


Russia, China, Pakistan willing to provide Afghanistan with aid, Moscow says

Updated 19 October 2021

Russia, China, Pakistan willing to provide Afghanistan with aid, Moscow says

  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says official recognition of the Taliban is not under discussion for now
  • The United States did not join this round of talks in Moscow but said it planned to do so in the future

MOSCOW: Russia, China and Pakistan are willing to provide aid to Afghanistan, the Russian foreign ministry said on Tuesday, but Moscow said it was not yet ready to recognize the Taliban government.
The promise of humanitarian aid and economic support came after talks between Russian, Chinese and Pakistani officials, who will be joined by representatives of Afghanistan’s Islamist rulers at a meeting in Moscow on Wednesday.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia was withholding recognition from the Taliban while waiting for them to fulfil promises they made when they took power, including on the political and ethnic inclusivity of the new government.
Critics say the former rebel movement is backtracking on pledges not to sideline women and minorities, or persecute foes.
“Official recognition of the Taliban is not under discussion for now,” Lavrov told reporters. “Like most of other influential countries in the region, we are in contact with them. We are prodding them to fulfil the promises they made when they came to power.”
RUSSIA SEEKS LEADERSHIP
In mid-August, the Afghan government collapsed as the United States and allies withdrew troops after 20 years on the ground, leading the Taliban to seize power in a lightning offensive.
Russia, which fought its own disastrous war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, is trying to seize the diplomatic initiative to avoid instability in the wider region that could damage its interests.
In particular it is worried by the possibility of Islamist militants seeping into the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, a region Moscow views as a defensive buffer.
Other Russian officials have tempered expectations for Wednesday’s talks. The United States said it would not join this round but planned to do so in the future.
Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin’s special representative on Afghanistan, said last week he did not expect any major breakthrough at the talks.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov described them as “an attempt to know what will happen in Afghanistan going forward.”


Portugal honors diplomat who saved thousands from Nazis

Updated 19 October 2021

Portugal honors diplomat who saved thousands from Nazis

  • The speaker of the Portuguese Parliament, Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues, said Sousa Mendes’ conduct lent prestige to Portugal
  • The ceremony marked the completion of Sousa Mendes’ 80-year journey from ostracized Portuguese civil servant to honored international personage

LISBON, Portugal: Portugal paid official homage Tuesday to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese diplomat who during World War II helped save thousands of people from Nazi persecution, by placing a tomb with his name in the country’s National Pantheon.
Leading Portuguese politicians and public figures attended the formal televised ceremony as the tomb was placed alongside other celebrated figures from Portuguese history at the landmark Lisbon building.
The speaker of the Portuguese Parliament, Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues, said Sousa Mendes’ conduct lent prestige to Portugal.
“People who at the decisive moment put their and their family’s safety at risk for the greater good are rare. Sousa Mendes was one of those people,” Ferro Rodrigues said in a speech.
The ceremony marked the completion of Sousa Mendes’ 80-year journey from ostracized Portuguese civil servant to honored international personage.
Perhaps Portugal’s most famous 20th-century diplomat, Sousa Mendes defied his superiors, including dictator António Salazar, when as consul in Bordeaux, France, in 1940 he handed out visas to many people who feared being hunted down by the Nazis.
The Portuguese visas allowed people, including Jews fleeing the Holocaust, to escape through neutral Portugal by air and sea to the United States and elsewhere.
The Portuguese diplomatic service was supposed to ask for the Lisbon government’s specific consent to grant visas to certain categories of applicants, as the country trod a careful path of neutrality, but Sousa Mendes gave out visas on his own initiative.
Leah Sills, a board director of the Sousa Mendes Foundation in the United States, said she flew in for the ceremony “to be able to honor the man that rescued my father and my grandparents” on May 24, 1940.
“It’s been just a beautiful experience,” she said.
Álvaro Sousa Mendes, a grandson of Aristides Sousa Mendes, said his family had seen an ambition fulfilled.
“This was a ceremony we had been requesting for a long time,” he said. “Finally he was recognized ... with National Pantheon honors.”
Breaking the rules got Sousa Mendes fired from the diplomatic service, with public shame attaching to his family at the time. He died in poverty in 1954.
Decades later, he won recognition for his key role in saving people from the Nazis.
In 1966, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, recognized Sousa Mendes as a “Righteous among the Nations.”
Last year, he drew praise from Pope Francis, and last March the US Senate in a motion saluted “the humanitarian and principled work” of Sousa Mendes.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that he earned recognition in Portugal, with authorities posthumously granting him accolades.
In 2017, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa bestowed Portugal’s highest honor, the Grand Cross of the Order of Liberty, on Sousa Mendes.
Last year, the Portuguese parliament voted to honor the former diplomat at the National Pantheon by placing there a plaque and a tomb without his body. Sousa Mendes wanted to be buried at his birthplace near Viseu, in northern Portugal.
Of the 19 historical figures entombed at the National Pantheon, 12 contain the person’s remains.


More Middle East personalities could be next Madame Tussauds Dubai wax models

Updated 19 October 2021

More Middle East personalities could be next Madame Tussauds Dubai wax models

  • The museum opened its 25th branch in Dubai last week

DUBAI: Additional Middle East personalities could join the list of famous Arab figures on display at Madame Tussauds Dubai.

“We listen to our customers; we listen to their feedback. So, we will always be updating the figures and enhancing the products,” Sanaz Kollsrud, general manager of Madame Tussauds Dubai, told Arab News.

The museum opened its 25th wax attraction in the city on Oct.14, making it the brand’s first branch in the Middle East. 

The famous attraction has a total of 16 figures from the Middle East region. These include talents from the music industry — such as Lebanese singers Nancy Ajram and Maya Diab — and athletes that were made exclusively for the branch in Dubai.

“At the moment, Madame Tussauds has 25 wax attractions around the world, including the US, Europe, and Asia. I’m sure that the brand will look at opportunities to expand at a later stage,” Kollsrud said.

Dubai has been a perfect choice for the Middle East branch, as it is a global tourist destination. The general manager said the museum is also located near a major attraction in the city, Ain Dubai, and is surrounded by a variety of retail and dining options.

 Donald and Melania Trump at Madame Tussauds Dubai. (AN Photo)

When asked how the museum chooses the figures it wants to display, Kollsrud said there is a lot of research behind figure selection, including customer research.

“It took about 18 months to put together a figure list, during which we looked at the popularity of the celebrities regionally and globally, especially within the UAE,” she said.

To keep the figures clean and protected, a team of artists works daily to make sure the statues are in perfect shape, the general manager said.

Lewis Hamilton at Madame Tussauds Dubai. (AN Photo)

She added that a team of 20 artists completes one wax figure within four to seven months. 

They even insert real hair strands, which can cost $190,605.

"There is a sitting involved with the talent, where they come and we do around 500 measurements, including head to toe," Kollsrud said.

The tourist destination consists of seven themed rooms and includes over 60 lifelike wax figures.

Chinese President Xi Jinping at Madame Tussauds Dubai. (AN Photo)

 


15 dead as heavy rains batter northern India

Updated 19 October 2021

15 dead as heavy rains batter northern India

  • The Indian Meteorological Department extended and widened its weather alert on Tuesday
  • Television footage and social media videos showed residents wading through knee-deep water near Nainital lake

DEHRADUN: At least 15 people died and over a dozen were missing after landslides and flash floods triggered by several days of heavy rain hit northern India, officials said Tuesday.
Forecasters have also warned of more heavy rains in the coming days in the southern state of Kerala where floods have already killed at least 27 people since Friday.
Officials in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand said 10 people were killed in fresh landslides on Tuesday after five died in similar incidents on Monday.
Five of the deceased were killed after a cloudburst — an ultra-intense deluge of rain — triggered a landslide, completely burying a house along with its inhabitants in the town of Nainital early Tuesday.
“We have recovered five bodies from the disaster site and a further search is on,” local official Prateek Jain told AFP.
Another landslide in the northern Almora district left five people dead after huge rocks and a wall of mud demolished and engulfed their home.
The Indian Meteorological Department extended and widened its weather alert on Tuesday, predicting “heavy” to “very heavy” rainfall in the region for the next two days.
The weather office said several areas were drenched by more than 400 mm (16 inches) of rainfall on Monday, causing landslides and flooding.
Authorities ordered the closure of schools and banned all religious and tourist activities in the state.
Television footage and social media videos showed residents wading through knee-deep water near Nainital lake, a tourist hotspot, and the Ganges bursting its banks in Rishikesh.
More than 100 tourists were also stuck inside a resort in Ramgarh after the overflowing Kosi river deluged several localities.
Landslides are a regular danger in India’s Himalayan north, but experts say they are becoming more common as rains become increasingly erratic and glaciers melt.
Experts also blame construction work on hydroelectric dams and deforestation.
In February, a ferocious flash flood hurtled down a remote valley in Uttarakhand, killing around 200 people. At least 5,700 people perished there in 2013.
In the south, large parts of Kerala have been battered by floods and landslides since late last week, leaving at least 27 people dead.
Many dams in the state were nearing the danger mark and authorities were evacuating thousands to safer locations as major rivers overflowed.
India’s weather office said heavy rains will lash the state in the next two days after a brief reprieve on Tuesday.


Khalilzad, US special envoy who brokered Afghan exit, quits

Updated 19 October 2021

Khalilzad, US special envoy who brokered Afghan exit, quits

  • Steeped in Afghanistan’s language and customs, Khalilzad was rare US envoy able to develop cordial rapport with Taliban 
  • US secretary of state says Khalilzad’s deputy and longtime Biden aide Thomas West would take over as special envoy

WASHINGTON: Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran US envoy whose months of patient hotel-ballroom diplomacy helped end the US war in Afghanistan but failed to prevent a Taliban takeover, resigned on Monday.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Khalilzad defended his record but acknowledged that he came up short and said he wanted to step aside during the “new phase of our Afghanistan policy.”
“The political arrangement between the Afghan government and the Taliban did not go forward as envisaged,” he wrote. “The reasons for this are too complex and I will share my thoughts in the coming day and weeks.”
Born in Afghanistan, the dapper 70-year-old academic turned US diplomat took senior positions as part of the inner circle of former president George W. Bush, becoming the US ambassador to Kabul and then Baghdad and the United Nations.
As former president Donald Trump itched to end America’s longest war in Afghanistan, he brought back Khalilzad, who led exhaustive talks with the Taliban — without including the US-backed government in Kabul.
Those talks led to a February 2020 agreement in which US troops would leave the following year.
But peace negotiations between the Taliban and the leadership in Kabul failed to gain traction, and the government that the United States built over 20 years crumbled within days as US troops left.
Steeped in Afghanistan’s language and customs, Khalilzad was a rare US diplomat able to develop a cordial rapport with Taliban leaders whose regime was toppled by the United States after the September 11, 2001 attacks over its welcome to Al-Qaeda.
Khalilzad, despite his Republican affiliation, was kept in place when Democratic President Joe Biden defeated Trump and decided to go ahead with the withdrawal.
Khalilzad soon became a lightning rod for criticism, with even his superiors in the Biden administration — while voicing respect for him personally — faulting the diplomacy behind the 2020 agreement.
Blinken said that Khalilzad’s deputy, Thomas West, would take over as the special envoy.
West is a longtime aide to Biden, serving on his staff when he was vice president. West has worked for years on South Asia policy including on the US-India civilian nuclear deal.
Shortly before Khalilzad’s resignation became public, the State Department said the United States would not be able to attend a new session called Tuesday by Russia that also includes China and Pakistan, historically the Taliban’s primary backer.
After Trump ended US opposition to speaking to the Taliban, Khalilzad engineered the release from a Pakistani jail of the group’s co-founder Mullah Baradar, seen as a figure who could deliver on promises, and spent months with the largely rural rebels in a luxury hotel in the Qatari capital Doha.
But pictures of him smiling with the Taliban earned him heated criticism in Kabul where some in the now-fallen government as well as newly Western-oriented elite berated him and accused him of selling out Afghanistan.
In interviews last month, Khalilzad said that he had reached a deal with the Taliban in which the insurgents would stay out of Kabul and negotiate a political transition.
But Khalilzad said the deal collapsed when president Ashraf Ghani fled the country on August 15 and the Taliban saw a security vacuum.
Speaking to Foreign Policy, Khalilzad said that the Taliban fulfilled key parts of the February 2020 agreement including not attacking the departing US troops.
“I respect those who say we shouldn’t have negotiated with the Talibs without the government being there. But we don’t know how much more fighting would have taken for the Talibs to agree to that,” he said.
But with no appetite in the United States for another surge of troops in its longest war, “each year we were losing ground to the Talibs,” he said.
“Time was not on our side.”
Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington who is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said that Khalilzad failed in that he “equated US withdrawal with peace.”
“Khalilzad handed the keys of Kabul to the Taliban in return for promises everyone knew the Taliban would not keep,” Haqqani said.