John Shimkus, during an interview with WILL in 2013.
(Jeff Bossert/WILL)
October 09, 2014

Shimkus: Time To Support Allied Action In Russia

Congressman John Shimkus says the US and Russia are in another Cold War.  The Republican said he’s prepared to vote on military action to support Ukraine against Russian-backed separatists.

Shimkus says U.S.-imposed sanctions are having a significant impact, but he believes Russian leaders don’t care. 

 “The President’s done well in talking about Article 5 protection under the NATO treaty for those who are NATO allies, and I would seriously consider moving allied troops into the countries of Georgia and Ukraine based on their request," he said.

Ukraine is a NATO partner, but not a member of the alliance. Hundreds of people have died in fighting in Ukraine since a cease-fire was signed last month. That’s according to the United Nations.

Shimkus is a delegate to the NATO parliamentary assembly.

The Collinsville Republican faces Mahomet Democrat Eric Thorsland in his bid for re-election next month.


May 22, 2014

Russia And China Block Move To Investigate War Crimes In Syria

A U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes in Syria has failed, after Russia and China voted against the measure.

The resolution seeking accountability for wartime atrocities was introduced by France and had the backing of the U.S.

For our Newscast unit, NPR's Michele Kelemen reports:

"Although more than 60 countries supported the resolution, Russia dismissed the vote as a publicity stunt , once again shielding Syrian leader Bashar al Assad's regime.

"U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson says for three years now, the council has been unable to end this 'extraordinarily brutal war.'

" 'If members of the Council continue to be unable to agree on a measure that could provide some accountability for the ongoing crimes, the credibility of this body and of the entire organization will continue to suffer,' Eliasson says.

"More than 160,000 people have been killed in Syria. U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power says that because of the Russian veto the Syrian people will continue to see crime, not punishment."


A worker turns a valve at an underground gas storage facility near Striy on Wednesday. Russia has said state-controlled exporter Gazprom will supply China with natural gas via a Siberian pipeline beginning in 2018.
(Gleb Garanich/Reuters/Landov)
May 21, 2014

Russia, China Secure Nearly Half-Trillion-Dollar Gas Deal

In an agreement reminiscent of the early days of the Cold War, Russia has agreed to supply China with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of natural gas via a pipeline from Siberia pipeline to begin pumping in four years.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Shanghai that in 2018, Russia will begin sending 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas to China each year through the pipeline. Over the life of the 30-year contract, 1 trillion cubic meters would be delivered.

Frank says that Alexey Miller, the chief executive of the Russian company, Gazprom, has said the exact price was a commercial secret, but that the deal is estimated at $400 billion total. Gazprom shares rose 2 percent on the news.

"This is the biggest contract in the history of the gas sector of the former USSR," said Russian President Vladimir Putin, after the agreement was signed in Shanghai between Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC).

"Our Chinese friends are difficult, hard negotiators," he said.

"Both sides were in the end pleased by the compromise reached on price and other terms," Putin said.

The move comes as Russia has been increasingly isolated by Europe and the United States as a result of its annexation of Crimea and continuing unrest in eastern Ukraine. China, too, has been at odds with Washington over confrontations with its maritime neighbors in the South China Sea.

But Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that there was no link between the crisis in Ukraine and the gas deal.

"We don't see any relationship whatsoever to an agreement with respect to gas and energy supplies between Russia and China that they've been working on for 10 years, for 10 years," Kerry told a news conference during a visit to Mexico City.

"This isn't new. This isn't a sudden response to what's been going on," he added.

Frank says that the deal, cemented during Putin's visit to Shanghai this week for an Asian security summit, "is most important to Russia, as its economy slows and it looks for new gas markets."

Reuters says:

"China had the upper hand as talks entered the home stretch, aware of Putin's face-off with the West.

"But both sides could take positives from a deal that will directly link Russia's huge gas fields to Asia's booming market for the first time - via thousands of miles of new pipeline across Siberia that form part of the package."

The BBC notes that "Turkmenistan is now China's largest foreign gas supplier, and last year [Beijing] started importing piped natural gas from Myanmar."


Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi, on Monday.
(Mikhail Klimentyev /AFP/Getty Images)
May 19, 2014

Russia Says It Has Ordered Its Troops Away From Ukraine Border

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops amassed along the Ukrainian border to return to their permanent bases, the president's office announced in a statement on Monday.

USA Today translated that statement as saying:

"In connection with the completion of the planned spring phase of training troops ... on the ground in Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions ... the Russian President gave the command to the Minister of Defense to return the troops who took part in the exercises."

This is the second time Putin has issued this kind of order. He made a similar statement on May 7, but NATO tells CNN that just like the last time they have seen no sign of "substantial changes in the distribution of Russian forces along the border."

Samuel Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London, tells our Newscast unit even if troops do withdraw from the Ukrainian border, the move could quickly be undone.

"I think all the decisions being made right now are very short term and are meant to keep Russia's position balanced and to keep everybody else off balance," Greene said.

Reuters reports that Putin also took a more conciliatory tone, today, when he welcomed talks between the Ukrainian government in Kiev and the opposition in the Russian-speaking east.

"Putin also reiterated Russia's demand that Kiev end what the Kremlin calls a 'punitive operation' against the separatists and pull back its troops, suggesting the pro-Western government is to blame for the violence," Reuters adds.

And just in case you haven't been paying attention this is a CliffNotes version of how we got here: This whole conflict started after violent protests ended in the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Seizing on the opportunity and instability, Russia annexed Crimea, a peninsula with long, historical ties to Russia. The government in Kiev and some of its international partners — including the U.S. — are now worried that Russia is poised for further incursion into Ukrainian territory. Russia has denied this, but it has said it retains the right to defend Russians inside Ukraine.


NASA Astronaut Mike Hopkins
(Sean Powers/WILL)
May 17, 2014

NASA Astronaut Mike Hopkins To Deliver Commencement Address

NASA Astronaut Mike Hopkins delivers the commencement address on Saturday at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Hopkins graduated from the U of I in 1991 with a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering. He was aboard with the International Space Station for six months until his return to Earth in March.

He said he hopes his experiences will be helpful to this year’s graduating class.

“None of this came easy,” Hopkins explained. “None of it was handed to me, and I think hopefully there’s some lessons learned that I had as I’ve gone through my career and my experiences that I can share with them that they’ll find useful.”

NASA retired the space shuttle fleet in 2011, and has relied on Russia to carry astronauts to space.

Russian officials recently said the country plans to quit the Space Station partnership after 2020, a move that could kill the program.

Hopkins said 2020 is a long way off, and in the meantime, he said, the countries' space agencies continue to work together as usual.

“Obviously there’s some political tension between the two countries at the moment, but fortunately at the level of the space program, we’re still working together very well," he said. "I think that will continue. So, we’ll see what’ll happen beyond 2020.”

Hopkins said he wants to return to space, and plans to work to help NASA again send astronauts to orbit from American soil within the next few years.

Listen

May 12, 2014

Separatists Vote To Split From Ukraine; Russia 'Respects' Decision

A referendum on independence from Ukraine shows strong support for secession, according to separatist leaders in the districts where Sunday's vote was held. Kiev and Western governments say the vote is illegitimate.

Russia, which has been accused of orchestrating the unrest in eastern Ukraine, says it "respects the expression of will of the population of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions." But the Kremlin's statement also called for dialogue with Kiev, not violence.

Majorities of Ukrainians — in its east, its west, and among Russian speakers — want the country to remain unified, according to recent surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center. Overall, support for keeping the current borders ran at 77 percent.

A "round table" meeting between Ukraine's government and leaders of civil groups is slated for Wednesday, Reuters reports. Ukraine plans to hold presidential elections on May 25.

From Donetsk, NPR's Jessica Golloher reports for our Newscast unit:

"Pro-Moscow demonstrators here in Donetsk are declaring victory in a referendum to secede from Ukraine. It's unclear if the declaration of self-rule means the Luhansk and Donetsk regions will stay independent or possibly join Russia.

"Donetsk elections commissioner Roman Lyagin says 89 percent voted in favor of seceding from Ukraine. A representative from the Luhansk region says more than 94 percent of residents voted in favor of the referendum as well.

"Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier urged pro-Russian demonstrators to delay the vote, saying it could create dialogue with Kiev. The Kremlin now says it hopes the practical implementation of the referendum results will take place in a civilized way and without violence."

A referendum on independence from Ukraine shows strong support for secession, according to separatist leaders in the districts where Sunday's vote was held. Kiev and Western governments say the vote is illegitimate.

Russia, which has been accused of orchestrating the unrest in eastern Ukraine, says it "respects the expression of will of the population of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions." But the Kremlin's statement also called for dialogue with Kiev, not violence.

Majorities of Ukrainians — in its east, its west, and among Russian speakers — want the country to remain unified, according to recent surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center. Overall, support for keeping the current borders ran at 77 percent.

A "round table" meeting between Ukraine's government and leaders of civil groups is slated for Wednesday, Reuters reports. Ukraine plans to hold presidential elections on May 25.

From Donetsk, NPR's Jessica Golloher reports for our Newscast unit:

"Pro-Moscow demonstrators here in Donetsk are declaring victory in a referendum to secede from Ukraine. It's unclear if the declaration of self-rule means the Luhansk and Donetsk regions will stay independent or possibly join Russia.

"Donetsk elections commissioner Roman Lyagin says 89 percent voted in favor of seceding from Ukraine. A representative from the Luhansk region says more than 94 percent of residents voted in favor of the referendum as well.

"Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier urged pro-Russian demonstrators to delay the vote, saying it could create dialogue with Kiev. The Kremlin now says it hopes the practical implementation of the referendum results will take place in a civilized way and without violence."

 
Listen

President Obama speaks during a joint news conference with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, on Monday. Obama said the U.S. and EU were planning new economic sanctions against Russia.
(Carolyn Kaster/AP)
April 28, 2014

U.S. Announces New Sanctions On Russia Over Ukraine Unrest

The White House announced sanctions Monday against seven top Russian officials with links to President Vladimir Putin, including freezing their assets and banning them from obtaining U.S. visas. 

It also threatened to impose more economic sanctions on key sectors of Russia's economy if there is evidence of further Kremlin involvement in the unrest in eastern Ukraine.

The Associated Press reports:

"The White House says it is prepared to 'impose still greater costs' if Russia continues its provocations in Ukraine.

"In addition to the sanctions, the U.S. is revoking export licenses for high-technology items that it says could contribute to Russia's military capabilities."

The U.S. Treasury Department released a statement from Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen in which he says:

"In the April 17 Geneva Joint Statement, Russia agreed to take concrete steps to deescalate the situation in Ukraine, but has thus far utterly refused to do so. From the very outset of Russia's illegitimate and unlawful actions in Ukraine, we have been clear: The United States, acting on its own and alongside our international partners, will impose increasing costs on Russia if it persists in its efforts to destabilize Ukraine and will hold Russia accountable for its provocative actions."

Cohen said the seven targeted officials include two key members of the Russian leadership's inner circle.

Reuters reports that Russia's Volga Group, one of the entities targeted by the sanctions, says Washington's measures are "politically motivated statements and decisions." (Update at 10:40 a.m. ET)

Here's our original post:

President Obama on Monday confirmed that the United States and the European Union were planning new economic sanctions against Russia for Moscow's alleged involvement in eastern Ukraine.

Speaking in the Philippines, where Obama is visiting as part of an Asia-Pacific tour, he said the sanctions are not aimed directly at Russian President Vladimir Putin, but are intended to "change the calculus" on the effects any new moves by the Kremlin might have on the Russian economy. The full list of new sanctions was expected to be announced later Monday.

According to The AP:

"Obama said the targets of the sanctions would include high-technology exports to Russia's defense industry. The full list of targets will be announced by officials in Washington later Monday and are also expected to include wealthy individuals close to Putin.

"The European Union is also planning more sanctions, with ambassadors from the bloc's 28 members to meet Monday in Brussels to add to the list of Russian officials who have been hit by asset freezes and travel bans."

Meanwhile, on the ground in eastern Ukraine, armed militants have seized yet another government building

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Donetsk that "masked separatists armed with automatic weapons stormed the main government building in Kostyantynivka, taking over city hall and other administrative offices. The town is near Slovyansk, where separatists are holding European military monitors captive."

The building houses the City Hall and the City Council in Kostyantynivka, just 100 miles from the Russian border, the AP reports. The news agency says the building was seized by masked men armed with automatic weapons and that about 15 armed men, some wearing the insignia of the pro-Russia movement, are now guarding the building.

Pro-Russian separatists also control government and police buildings in 10 other cities, Soraya reports, and are demanding a referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine.

Russian and Ukrainian media are also reporting that the mayor of Kharkov — Ukraine's second-largest city — was shot in the back while bathing at a spa. He has undergone surgery. A spokeswoman said the mayor's wounds are considered life-threatening.

On Sunday, the pro-Russian rebels paraded Western military observers as hostages, according to The Wall Street Journal:

"The self-appointed, pro-Russia rebel mayor of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, trotted out seven Western military inspectors from Germany, Poland, Denmark, Sweden and the Czech Republic and their translator, all seized late Friday at a makeshift checkpoint in nearby Kramatorsk. One of the inspectors was later released.

"The inspectors are members of their home countries' militaries and part of an inspection team that arrived in Ukraine under an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe pact called the Vienna Document, which sets out guidelines for exchanging military information and hosting inspections. They aren't part of the OSCE special monitoring mission, which is made up of civilians and also operates in southeast Ukraine."


April 17, 2014

Putin Tells Snowden That Russia Doesn't Do Mass Surveillance

Saying that because they're both former spies they can speak the same language, Russian President Vladimir Putin told "NSA leaker" Edward Snowden on Thursday that his nation does not have a "mass system" that collects data about Russian citizens' phone calls and other electronic communications.

The exchange between the young American who has leaked information about U.S. surveillance efforts and the Russian leader came during Putin's annual appearance on Russian TV in which he takes questions from the public. Snowden, who has been given temporary asylum in Russia, connected via video link and asked Putin: "Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?"

Putin began his response by telling Snowden that "you are a former agent, a spy. I used to work for an intelligence service [the KGB]. We are going to talk one professional language."

Then the Russian president, who in recent weeks has claimed he did not send troops into Crimea only to now admit that he did and insists there are no Russian military personnel in eastern Ukraine even though reporters have heard at least one man there introduce himself as a Russian officer, made the case that:

"You have to get court permission to stalk a particular person. We don't have a mass system of such interception, and according to our law it cannot exist."

Russia's RT.com has posted video of the Snowden-Putin exchange here, with English interpretation.


President Obama and other leaders met in The Hague. Clockwise from bottom left: European Union Council President Herman Van Rompuy, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Obam
(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
March 25, 2014

Putin's Out Of The Club For Now: G-8 Is Back To Being The G-7

Russia's 20 years of having a seat at the table when leaders of the world's most powerful industrialized nations meet came to at least a temporary end.

President Obama and his counterparts from six other major nations announced in The Hague that because of Russia's actions in Crimea, "we will suspend our participation in the G-8."

The announcement was not a big surprise. It was already clear that the other leaders would not attend the next scheduled meeting of the G-8, which had been set for June in Sochi, Russia. The U.S. and European Union have also tried to punish Russia by aiming some financial and travel sanctions at members of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle.

But by saying that "Russia's actions in recent weeks are not consistent" with the beliefs and responsibilities of major nations and that their nations won't take part in any G-8 activities "until Russia changes course," the leaders are trying to send yet another message to Putin about their objections to the way Russia has taken Crimea from Ukraine.

Putin's foreign minister, though, pooh-poohed the other nations' announcement. "If our Western partners believe the format has exhausted itself, we don't cling to this format. We don't believe it will be a big problem if it doesn't convene," Sergei Lavrov told reporters.

Obama and the other leaders in the newly reconstituted G-7 said they will hold a summit in Brussels instead of Sochi in June.

As this official history spells out, world leaders have been meeting in annual group summits since 1975, when French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing hosted the G-6. The other five countries that sent their leaders that year were Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.S. and the U.K.

Canada joined the club in 1977, creating the G-7.

As the Iron Curtain started to come down, the former Soviet Union was invited to attend — but not to be a member — in 1991. In 1994, the group was renamed the G-7+1 and in 1997 it became the G-8 when Russia became a full-fledged member.

The crisis in Ukraine, though, has for the first time led to a member nation's exclusion from the group.

Background

As the crisis in Ukraine has developed over recent weeks, we've tracked developments. Here's a recap:

Crimea has been the focus of attention as the ripple effects of the protests that led to last month's ouster of Yanukovych have spread.

Summing up the history and importance of Crimea to Russia and Ukraine isn't possible in just a few sentences, of course. The Parallels blog, though, has published several posts that contain considerable context:

Crimea: 3 Things To Know About Ukraine's Latest Hot Spot

Crimea: A Gift To Ukraine Becomes A Political Flash Point

Why Ukraine Is Such A Big Deal For Russia

Shortly after Yanukovych was deposed and fled Ukraine, Russia moved to take control of Crimea by sending thousands of troops there to secure strategic locations. Along with "local defense forces," those soldiers surrounded Ukrainian military facilities.

Last week, after Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation, Putin signed a treaty to annex the region. The U.S. and European Union have objected, calling that action a violation of international law. Putin says he is supporting Crimeans' right to "self-determination."

We've recapped what set off months of protest in Kiev and ultimately led to Yanukovych's dismissal by his nation's parliament last month this way:

"The protests were sparked in part by the president's rejection of a pending trade treaty with the European Union and his embrace of more aid from Russia. Protesters were also drawn into the streets to demonstrate against government corruption."

It was after Yanukovych left Kiev and headed for the Russian border that troops moved to take control of strategic locations in Crimea.


Crimean Tatars during funeral of Reshat Ametov
(Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters /Landov)
March 22, 2014

A Tatar's Death Chills Those Who Suffered Under Russia Before

Amid all the of necessary analysis of what Russia's move into Crimea means geopolitically and strategically, it might also be good to remember Reshat Ametov.  Mr. Ametov was buried this week. He was 39 years old, married and the father of three young children.

He was last seen at a demonstration on March 3 in Simferopol, where he joined other Crimean Tatars held a silent protest before the pro-Russian armed men in unmarked uniforms who surrounded the cabinet ministers building.

Tatars make up more than 10 percent of Crimea's population. Many Tatars, who are primarily Sunni Muslim, were brutally deported by Joseph Stalin in the 1940s, and scattered over the deserts of central Asia and Siberia. As many as 200,000 Tatars died in that government removal. Some Tatar families began to come back after Ukraine became independent in the 1990s.

Video from ATR, a local Crimean television channel, shows two armed men in green uniforms, and one in a black uniform, surrounding Reshat Ametov, taking him by the arms, and leading him away. "He was just standing there and they took him away," Ametov's mother, Refika Ametova, told the Kyiv Post, an independent newspaper. "He stood there for about an hour and a quarter, and I suppose they were waiting for him to leave. But he didn't."

His family called the police, who said they could find nothing. Two weeks later, people in a village about 28 miles away found a man's body in a nearby forest. Local media reports suggested there was clear tape wrapped around his head and hands, and signs of torture.

Reshat Ametov's wife identified the body as her husband's.

Human Rights Watch has called for an investigation into Reshat Ametov's disappearance and death, and they're concerned the crime is not isolated.

"For weeks, armed, masked men who refuse to identify themselves have harassed and intimidated people," says Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. And Crimean Tatars living in Brooklyn and Queens told the New York Daily News that relatives in Crimea report that X's have been slashed in paint on the doors of some Tatar families.

Enver Ablakimov was at Reshat Ametov's funeral. He is 21 years old and told the Kyiv Post, "There were always people here who didn't like us, but before, they hid it. Now with the appearance of the Russian army, they feel protected and understand that no one will do anything."

It's that past that may make Tatars in Crimea apprehensive about the future.


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