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White House Says COVID-19 Tests Being Shipped 

The White House says some of the at-home, free COVID-19 tests it is offering to Americans have begun shipping via the U.S. Postal Service. 

During a Friday press briefing, Jeff Zients, White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said shipping started Thursday. 

He said demand has been high and added that there had already been millions of orders through the government website that was launched earlier this week. 

He would not provide specific numbers when asked, saying the White House was waiting on data. 

Americans are allowed to order four of the tests per household.

The Biden administration has faced criticism for a lack of tests during the omicron surge. 

During the briefing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said the average number of omicron cases was down nationally by about 5%, mostly in areas where it began to surge. She said there were about 744,600 cases per day on average in the past seven days. 

She warned that some parts of the country could still see an increase in infections. 

“In some parts of the country we are seeing the number of daily cases caused by the omicron variant beginning to decline,” she said. “The surge in cases started at different times in different regions and (we) may continue to see high case counts in some areas of the country in the days and weeks ahead.” 

Some information in this report came from Reuters.

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Експартнерові Руді Джуліані у США присудили рік в’язниці

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Синоптики розповіли про погоду на вихідні

У суботу у західних, північних та Вінницькій областях невеликий сніг, на решті території без істотних опадів. Температура вдень від 4° морозу до 1° тепла

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Болгарія і Румунія виступили із заявами щодо вимоги Росії вивести сили НАТО

Вимоги Росії до НАТО щодо «гарантій безпеки» в МЗС Румунії назвали неприйнятними і такими, що не можуть бути предметом переговорів

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Louie Anderson, Comic, Emmy Winner for ‘Baskets,’ Dies at 68

Louie Anderson, whose four-decade career as a comedian and actor included his unlikely, Emmy-winning performance as mom to twin adult sons in the TV series “Baskets,” died Friday. He was 68.

Anderson died at a hospital in Las Vegas of complications from cancer, said Glenn Schwartz, his longtime publicist. Anderson had a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Schwartz said previously.

“‘Baskets’ was such a phenomenal ‘second act’ for Louie Anderson. I wish he’d gotten a third,” Michael McKean said on Twitter. George Wallace wrote: “You’ll be missed, Louie. What an awesome friend. One in a million.” Gilbert Gottfried posted a photo of himself, Anderson and Bob Saget, who died Jan. 9, with the caption: “Both good friends that will be missed.”

“You were as gracious and kind as you were funny. Rest well!! Keep ’em laughing in Heaven,” Viola Davis said on Twitter.

The portly, round-faced Anderson used his girth and a checkered childhood in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as fodder for his early stand-up routines.

In a 1987 interview with The Associated Press, Anderson compared himself to another comedian who mined his childhood for comedy.

“Bill Cosby and I had similar goals,” Anderson told AP. “I wanted parents to be able to bring their children and children to be able to bring their parents to my concerts. I feel a family that can laugh about family problems is better off. The difference between Cosby and myself is that he sees it from an adult perspective and I tell it from a child’s viewpoint.”

He had a life-long battle with weight, but said in 1987 that he’d put a stop to using his size as stage material.

“I’ve always been big,” he said. “But I don’t do fat jokes anymore.”

In later years, his life as one of 11 children in a family headed by a troubled father and devoted mother was a deeper source of reflection and inspiration for Anderson, both in his screen work and in his best-selling books.

His latest book, 2018’s “Hey Mom,” was a tribute in letters to the lessons he learned from her and how-to tips on facing life’s challenges. He also gave the late Ora Zella Anderson a shout-out for the “Baskets” role.

“I just started writing with one letter, saying, ‘Hey Mom, I’m playing you on TV. I hope you see it. I hope you’re a part of it…” Anderson told AP that year.

He won the best supporting actor Emmy in 2016 for his portrayal of Christine Baskets, mother to twins played by Zach Galifianakis, in FX’s “Baskets.” Anderson, who received three consecutive Emmy nods for the role, played it with restraint and with specific touches he credits to his mom.

“Nuance is what I go for, tiny rather than bigger things. Mom did things with her eyes or her grimace or her disappointed lips — or her passive-aggressiveness,” he told the AP in 2015, laughing. “Rolling eyes were big in our family.”

Anderson, born March 24, 1953, was the 10th of 11 children for Ora and William Anderson. His father played trumpet with musical great Hoagy Carmichael and, Anderson has said, was an alcoholic.

After his father’s death, Anderson learned of how difficult his childhood had been and forgave him, he told People magazine in 2018.

Louie Anderson’s early jobs included counseling troubled children. He changed course after winning a 1981 Midwest comedy competition, where he was spotted by veteran comic Henny Youngman, who hosted contest, according to Schwartz.

Anderson worked as a writer for Youngman and then gained onstage experience while crisscrossing the United States. His big break came in 1984 when Johnny Carson, known for showcasing promising comedians on “The Tonight Show,” brought him on to perform.

He was a familiar face elsewhere on TV, including as host of a revival of the game show “Family Feud” from 1999 to 2002, and on comedy specials and in frequent late-night talk show appearances.

Anderson voiced an animated version of himself as a kid in “Life With Louie.” He created the Humanitas Prize-winning cartoon series, which first aired in prime time in late 1994 before moving to Saturday morning for its 1995-98 run. Anderson won two Daytime Emmy Awards for the role.

He made guest appearances in several TV series, including “Scrubs” and “Touched by an Angel,” and was on the big screen in 1988′s “Coming to America” and in last year’s sequel to the Eddie Murphy comedy.

In a magazine interview, Anderson recounted getting the role after he spotted Murphy, who he knew from working in comedy clubs, at a Los Angeles restaurant. Anderson said hello, then made a costly decision that paid off.

″Take Eddie Murphy’s check and put it on my credit card, but don’t tell him until after I leave,″ Anderson recalled telling a waiter. He ended up with a $600 charge, but Murphy called to thank him and offered to write a part for him in “Coming to America,” Anderson said.

His books included “Dear Dad – Letters From An Adult Child, ” a collection of letters from Anderson to his late father; “Good-bye Jumbo… Hello Cruel World,” a self-help book, and “The F Word, How To Survive Your Family.”

His survivors include sisters Lisa and Shanna Anderson.

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Taliban Rebuke Biden for Questioning Afghan Unity, Governance

The Taliban Friday sharply criticized U.S. President Joe Biden for declaring Afghanistan “not susceptible to unity,” and questioning the competence of the Islamist group’s ability to govern, asserting the humanitarian and economic crisis in their country had been precipitated by the U.S. sanctions.

Speaking to reporters during his Wednesday news conference at the White House, Biden said he makes “no apologies” for his August withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

“It’s been the graveyard of empires for a solid reason: It is not susceptible to unity,” he said.  

Biden argued that Washington was spending a billion dollars a week in Afghanistan for 20 years and nobody thought U.S. involvement would ever be able to unite Afghanistan.

“Not divided, but only ‘united’ nations cause the fall of invaders and great empires,” the Taliban foreign ministry responded Friday.

“Discord is an external phenomenon instigated by foreign invaders for their survival, however, Afghans defeated them with their shared Islamic beliefs, homeland & celebrated history, & are now taking strong leaps towards becoming an equal nation,” the statement read.  

Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s permanent representative-designate to the United Nations, told VOA he concurs with Biden’s view of Afghanistan being the graveyard of empires. However, the rest of the assertions made by the U.S. president are distant from the ground reality, he said.

“Afghanistan has always been and is united. Afghans across the country speak with one voice when it comes to supporting national interests and national unity,” Shaheen argued.  

Biden expressed regret, however, for changes that have taken place in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover five months ago.

“Now, do I feel badly [about] what’s happening as a consequence of the incompetence of the Taliban? Yes, I do,” the U.S. president said on Wednesday.

Michael Kugelman, the deputy Asia program director at the Wilson Center, described Biden’s comments about Afghanistan as “both defensive and defiant, and clearly meant to emphasize that withdrawal was the right decision despite how bad conditions have become in Afghanistan since the completion of the pullout.”   

“What was striking is that the reasons he gave for the withdrawal were different from those – a need to focus on higher priority issues, the achievement of U.S. goals – that he cited when he first announced his decision to depart [Afghanistan],” Kugelman said.

Shaheen said the current economic crisis and other upheavals facing Afghanistan stem not from the Taliban’s governance but from the financial sanctions the United States and other foreign entities have imposed, including the freezing of billions of dollars in Afghan central bank’s assets.

The international withdrawal led to the immediate suspension of the nonhumanitarian funding that made up more than 75% of the deposed Western-backed Afghan government’s national budget.

“The sanctions are hurting ordinary Afghans not our government. Today, if they release our more than $9.6 billion assets, if they lift the sanctions on our banking system to allow our traders to use routine financial channels for imports and exports, and money starts flowing the way it happens in America, it will pave the way for our economic recovery,” Shaheen said.

“If those sanctions are removed and the crisis still persists, it will certainly be our incompetence and inability to govern,” he added.

Since returning to power, the Taliban have reinstated social restrictions on women, barring most female government employees from returning to work, requiring women to wear hijabs and undertake long road trips only with a male relative. While secondary schoolboys were allowed to resume classes in September, most girls’ schools across Afghanistan remained shuttered.

Shaheen defended the Taliban government, saying it has brought peace and stability to the country in a short period and with limited resources.

The economic challenges have deepened an already bad humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, which is blamed on years of conflicts and natural disasters. The United Nations estimates more than 24 million Afghans, or 55% of the country’s population, face acute food shortages, with 9 million people one step away from famine.

Former Afghan diplomat Omar Samad viewed Biden’s assessment of Afghanistan as flawed because of his misreading of the ground situation and competing U.S. domestic and foreign policy agendas.

“The reality is that the U.S. is still responsible for the unfolding humanitarian disaster and needs to do its part to prevent chaos and instability by pushing for a new political arrangement and lifting of sanctions,” Samad, a senior fellow at Washington’s Atlantic Counci, said.

The U.N.  and the United States have pledged to organize, together with partners, the delivery of humanitarian aid to millions of Afghans who aid workers say are threatened with starvation.  

“We see assignment of blame between President Biden and Taliban. Clearly that is rhetorical talk for the political needs of each side,” said Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan official.

“But in all honesty, the people of Afghanistan didn’t have a say in these political games; why would they have to pay the heavy price of crippling sanctions on their livelihoods,” asked Farhadi.

No country has yet recognized the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. Foreign governments have pledged to send urgent relief aid to Afghans but at the same time they want to make sure it does not end up with the Taliban rulers.

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Biden-Kishida Talks to Touch on North Korea, China

President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida began their first formal talks on Friday as they face fresh concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program and China’s growing military assertiveness.

The virtual meeting comes after North Korea earlier this week suggested it might resume nuclear and long-range missile testing that has been paused for more than three years.

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un on Thursday presided over a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party at which officials set policy goals for “immediately bolstering” military capabilities to counter what were described as the Americans’ “hostile moves,” according to the Korean Central News Agency.

Both the U.S. and Japan also are concerned about China’s increasing aggression toward Taiwan. China claims self-governing Taiwan as its own territory, to be annexed by force if necessary. In recent months, it has stepped up military exercises near the island, frequently sending warplanes near Taiwan’s airspace.

Japan remains concerned about China intentions in the South China Sea, where it has stepped up its military presence in recent years, and the East China Sea, where there is a long-running dispute about a group of uninhabited islets administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing.

White House officials said the two leaders were also expected to discuss ongoing efforts in the COVID-19 pandemic and the brewing crisis in eastern Europe, where Russia has massed some 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine. Biden earlier this week said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to order a further invasion of Ukrainian territory but he did not think Putin wanted an all-out war.

Japanese officials said Kishida, who is from Hiroshima, on which the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb at the end of the World War II, is eager to discuss a “world without nuclear weapons” during the summit.

Biden and top aides have sought to rally the support of NATO partners and other allies to respond with harsh sanctions against Russia if it moves forward with military action.

On Thursday, in preparation for the leaders’ call, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Japanese counterpart, Takeo Akiba, held their own call to discuss North Korea, China and “the importance of solidarity in signaling to Moscow the strong, united response that would result from any attack” on Ukraine, according to the White House.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also held virtual talks earlier this month with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, where China’s military maneuvering and North Korea’s nuclear program were discussed.

Friday’s virtual meeting is the first substantial exchange between the leaders since Kishida took office in October. The leaders had a brief conversation on the sidelines of a climate summit in Glasgow in November. Biden was the first leader to call Kishida, on the morning of his first full day in office.

Biden, who has sought to put greater focus on the Indo-Pacific amid China’s rise as a world power, had built a warm relationship with Japan’s last prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, and is hoping to build a similar rapport with Kishida.

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Norway Says Taliban Team Expected in Oslo for Aid Talks

A Taliban delegation is expected to hold talks with Norwegian officials and Afghan civil society representatives in Oslo next week, the Norwegian foreign ministry said Friday.

The visit is scheduled from Sunday to Tuesday, and “the Taliban will meet representatives of the Norwegian authorities and officials from a number of allied countries,” for talks on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and human rights, the ministry said.

The ministry did not specify which allies would attend, but Norwegian newspaper VG said they would include Britain, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy and the United States.

“We are extremely concerned about the grave situation in Afghanistan, where millions of people are facing a full-blown humanitarian disaster,” said Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt.

“In order to be able to help the civilian population in Afghanistan, it is essential that both the international community and Afghans from various parts of society engage in dialogue with the Taliban,” Huitfeldt added.

Stressing that Norway would be “clear about our expectations,” particularly on “girls’ education and human rights,” Huitfeldt said the meetings would “not represent a legitimization or recognition of the Taliban.”

“But we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster,” Huitfeldt said.

The Taliban swept back to power in Afghanistan last summer as international troops withdrew after a two-decade presence. A U.S.-led invasion in late 2001 toppled the Taliban in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated drastically since August. International aid came to a sudden halt and the United States has frozen $9.5 billion (8.4 billion euros) in assets in the Afghan central bank.

Famine now threatens 23 million Afghans, or 55% of the population, according to the United Nations, which says it needs $5 billion from donor countries this year to address the humanitarian crisis in the country. 


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TotalEnergies to Leave Myanmar Over Human Rights Abuses

French oil giant TotalEnergies on Friday said it would withdraw from Myanmar over “worsening” human rights abuses committed since the country’s military took power in a February 2021 coup.

“The situation, in terms of human rights and more generally the rule of law, which have kept worsening in Myanmar… has led us to reassess the situation and no longer allows TotalEnergies to make a sufficiently positive contribution in the country,” the company said.

Total will withdraw from its Yadana gas field in the Andaman Sea, which provides electricity to the local Burmese and Thai population, six months at the latest after the expiry of its contractual period.

The company said it had not identified any means to sanction the military junta without avoiding stopping gas production and ensuing payments to the military-controlled Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE).

Around 30% of the gas produced at Yadana is sold to the MOGE for domestic use, providing about half of the largest city Yangon’s electricity supply, according to Total.

International diplomatic pressure and sanctions have been building against Myanmar’s military junta since last year’s coup ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The European Union has imposed targeted sanctions on the Myanmar military, its leaders and entities, while Norwegian telecoms operator Telenor this week sold its stake in a Burmese digital payments service over the coup.

More than 1,400 civilians have been killed as the military cracks down on dissent, according to a local monitoring group, and numerous anti-junta militias have sprung up around the country.

Suu Kyi this month was convicted of three criminal charges and sentenced to four years in prison and now faces five new corruption charges. 


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МОЗ: виробники кисню формують резерви на випадок стрімкого зростання потреби

«На сьогодні в Україні є 23 ліцензованих виробники медичного кисню. З ними вже проведено спеціальні перемовини»

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В Україні на Росію можуть чекати нові Афганістан і Чечня – очільниця британського МЗС

За словами Ліз Трасс, вторгнення покаже, що Кремль «не вивчив уроки історії»

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ГУР: в ОРДЛО із Росії приховано завезли танки, артилерійські установки, пальне

Крім того, російські сили проводять «активний набір найманців» через розгорнуту на території Росії мережу вербувальних центрів, кажуть у ГУР

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‘Bat Out of Hell’ Singer Meat Loaf Dies at 74

Meat Loaf, the U.S. rock star who rose to global fame with his Bat Out of Hell album, has died at the age of 74.

The American singer and actor, otherwise known as Michael Lee Aday, had a career spanning six decades, and sold more than 100 million albums worldwide.

His hits included the near 10-minute-long title track from Bat Out of Hell, Paradise by the Dashboard Light from the same album, and I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That) from 1993 album Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell.

“From his heart to your souls … don’t ever stop rocking!” the statement posted on his own Facebook page said.

“Our hearts are broken to announce that the incomparable Meat Loaf passed away tonight with his wife Deborah by his side.” 



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Blinken to Meet Russian Foreign Minister on Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Geneva, where he meets Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the fourth time in the last week that U.S. and Russian officials have engaged in direct talks.

The West is demanding that Russia pull its troops and weapons away from the Ukraine border while Moscow is pushing for NATO to curtail its operations in eastern and central Europe and insisting that the Western military alliance reject Ukraine’s membership bid.

Blinken vowed Thursday that the United States and its allies would inflict “swift and massive” costs on Russia if it invades Ukraine but said Russian President Vladimir Putin can still opt for a diplomatic solution to rising tensions in eastern Europe.

Blinken said the U.S. has been “very clear throughout” that if any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border “that they will be met with a swift, severe united response from the U.S, and our allies and partners.”

After meeting with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in Berlin, Blinken said Putin has a choice between “dialogue and diplomacy on the one hand and conflict and consequences on the other hand. He has to decide which course to take.”

Blinken said, “We’re at a decisive juncture,” referring to the standoff between Western countries and Moscow over Putin’s massing of 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern flank.

While the U.S. has been resolute in saying that a Russian military invasion of Ukraine would draw swift and significant economic sanctions, but no U.S. or NATO military response, it has been less clear what the West might do in the event of Russian cyberattacks or other actions against the Kyiv government.


At his news conference Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden made confusing remarks about the West’s response to what he called a “minor incursion.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki later said Biden “knows from long experience that the Russians have an extensive playbook of aggression short of military action, including cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics. And he affirmed today that those acts of Russian aggression will be met with a decisive, reciprocal, and united response.”

Biden’s comment about a “minor incursion” drew a sharp retort from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who said on Twitter, “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the president of a great power.”

Biden hedged on whether Putin will invade Ukraine, saying, “I’m not so sure he [is] certain what he’s going to do. My guess is he will move in. He has to do something.”

The U.S. leader said he does not believe Putin wants a “full-blown war” but does want to test the resolve of the United States and NATO.

Russia has denied it has intentions of invading Ukraine, while it seeks security guarantees, such as Ukraine not joining the NATO, the seven-decade-old military alliance formed after World War II.

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova alleged that Ukrainian and Western claims of an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine were a “cover for staging large-scale provocations of their own, including those of military character.”

“They may have extremely tragic consequences for the regional and global security,” Zakharova said.

She pointed to Britain delivering weapons to Ukraine in recent days, claiming that Ukraine perceives Western military assistance as a “carte blanche for a military operation” in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Some material in this report came from the Associated Press.


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Biden: Any Russian Troop Movement into Ukraine Would Trigger Severe Action

U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to clear up any misunderstanding surrounding remarks made Wednesday, saying he has made very clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that any movement of Russian troops across Ukraine’s border will be treated as an invasion and will trigger severe consequences. VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports.

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VOA Exclusive: US AFRICOM Commander Says Mercenaries in Mali Among Growing Threats in Africa

The head of the U.S. Africa Command says security threats are growing across the continent. In his first on-camera interview since taking command two years ago, Gen. Stephen Townsend spoke with VOA Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb about his increasing concerns, including the spread of violent extremist groups, the role of Russian mercenaries, military inroads by China and threats from Iran.

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VOA Exclusive: US AFRICOM Commander Says Russian Mercenaries in Mali

The U.S. has now confirmed reports that Russian mercenaries known as the Wagner Group have deployed in Mali and are supported by the Russian military.

“Wagner (Group) is in Mali. They are there, we think, numbering several hundred now,” General Stephen Townsend, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, told VOA in an exclusive interview Thursday via Skype from his headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

“Russian air force airplanes are delivering them. The world can see this happening, so it’s a great concern to us,” he added.

Townsend, who took over U.S. Africa Command in 2019, also said that China is the “most active” of America’s global competitors in Africa and is “intent on building a military air base and/or naval facility in Equatorial Guinea.”

“We’re not asking them (Equitorial Guinea) to choose between China and us. What we’re asking them to do is consider their other international partners and their concerns, because a Chinese military base in Equatorial Guinea is of great concern to the U.S. and all of their other partners,” Townsend said.

In addition to Chinese military expansion, Townsend said he was also monitoring a less obvious threat to U.S. interests on the continent — inroads from the “arm of the Iranian security apparatus that engages in malign activity in the Middle East,” a not-so-veiled description of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

“I think their inroads are going to be very malign in nature. It’s very nascent, but it’s happening now, and we’re watching,” he said.

A U.S. official later confirmed to VOA that the IRGC had plotted assassination attempts on American diplomats in Africa and was still looking for revenge plot targets there. Iran has denied the plot accusations, calling them baseless.

The official said that due to concerns about increased threats from Iran, China and others over the past year, the U.S. military has brought in new and improved defense systems and anti-drone weapons to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, its only military base in Africa.

In Somalia, where local and international partners are battling the al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabab, U.S. forces have continued to “commute to work” while leaving fewer than 100 troops in the war-torn country. Donald Trump ordered most of the 800 U.S. troops out of Somalia in 2020 in one of his last foreign policy moves as American president.

“We are working hard to get our tasks done. I think that there’s more effective and efficient ways to do that. We’ve provided those recommendations to the secretary of defense, and we’re waiting for decisions there,” Townsend said.


The U.S. is still training and building up Somalia’s vanguard Danab forces, which came under review late last year; albeit that work has slowed a bit while the threat from al-Shabab continues to grow, according to Townsend.

“If increased pressure is not applied to al-Shabab, I’m concerned there’s going to be a significant al-Shabab attack,” he told VOA.

Below is a transcript of the interview, edited for brevity.

VOA: We just had the Global Posture Review completed at the end of the year. I’m a little confused though because the Pentagon summary for Africa used about 40 words in their summary that told me next to nothing. So what have you seen change in U.S. Africa Command?

U.S. AFRICOM COMMANDER GEN. STEPHEN TOWNSEND: Well, quite frankly, I think the Global Posture Review, this is our third review in about three years. Before the Global Posture Review we had the “blank slate” review and before that we had a review called “optimization.” So we’ve been through a lot of reviews, and as a result, I think we are on pretty solid ground with what we’re doing in Africa, the tasks that America expects of us, the department expects of us, but also the resources that we have to do those tasks. And so the global review has basically ratified what AFRICOM is doing and what we’re doing.

VOA: OK, so just to get a little specifics, you mentioned still about 6,000 troops. You just told me that. What about the percent of Africa’s intelligence reconnaissance surveillance? What would you say is the percentage of your needs this being met right now?

TOWNSEND: Well, so it’s common knowledge, especially across the DOD enterprise and the government, that there’s never enough intelligence surveillance reconnaissance (ISR) assets to go around. So we don’t have all that I would like to have nor does any combatant commander. But we have what we must have. … There’s a DOD metric and it’s called a validated requirement. We’re probably at something like 25-30% of our validated requirement. But quite honestly, I think our validated requirement is probably a little inflated. And so I look at what my own assessment is of what we need and we have a much higher percentage.

VOA: OK, what about exercise funds? You had mentioned the need for more funds to exercise with partners. Did you get any more of that?

TOWNSEND: No. In fact, we’ve had a decrement in exercise funds. I know that the department is still reviewing the budget allocations for FY ‘22 and FY ’23. But I think that we’ve suffered a significant reduction in exercise funds and we’ve made the case to the department that that should be reconsidered, and I think it will be.

VOA: VOA had pointed out in a report earlier this month that airstrikes have been significantly reduced by AFRICOM, also by CENTCOM, but AFRICOM went from 72 airstrikes in 2020 to just 10 in 2021, and most of those occurred during the Trump administration in the month of January. So, tell us why the strikes have been reduced?

TOWNSEND: Well, the new administration has come in and they’ve re-evaluated the conditions and why we’re doing the strikes and how we’re doing the strikes, and some of those decisions are still being considered by the current administration, and I think that’s you got to let those decisions play out. I know this that right now we have the authorities we need to protect our American troops in Africa should that become necessary. And it’s not been necessary over the last 10 or 11 months. But if it becomes necessary, we have the authorities we need. … I’m expecting that what the administration is trying to do is get very comfortable and to be able to support what the president wants the U.S. military to do in the world. … That’s what I think is going on. And that’s painstaking and deliberate work. But I wouldn’t expect to see an elimination or an expansion, but I would think that we’ll get clear guidance on how to proceed in the interim there are procedures that we can rely on.

VOA: The last time we spoke I asked you about the threat of al-Shabab in Somalia and you said that the threat was higher, the threat is higher. And you had said that that was the reason for the increase in strike activity that we were seeing at the time. So kind of run through what is the threat of al-Shabab today.

TOWNSEND: I believe that the threat of al-Shabab has increased over about the last eight to 12 months or so, the threat of al-Shabab has increased. I think COVID certainly had an effect, but emerging out of COVID, I think the threat has gone up. And as you know, the last administration had us reposition U.S. forces largely out of Somalia where we are now we still have the same tasks to do there, to disrupt al-Shabab, al-Qaida’s largest, wealthiest and most kinetically active arm in the world, and they are a threat to the United States and the American people by their own aspiration. Their leadership charge their followers to attack Americans wherever they find them. So I think we ought to take that very seriously, and we are. I think that threat is growing because of the lack of counterterrorism pressure on al-Shabab over the last year That’s coming from a lot of factors. One of them is inactivity from AMISOM. Another one is because of COVID and other things. Another one is political friction and dysfunction. As you know, their president’s term expired. … There’s a lot of friction to try to get a new head of state elected. And so I think all of that is affecting the fight against al-Shabab, and our own our own posture is also calculates into that. So I think the threat of al-Shabab is growing. And if increased pressure is not applied to al-Shabab, I’m concerned that there’s going to be a significant al-Shabab attack. We’ve seen just suicide bombs going off in Mogadishu over the last two weeks to include one fairly large vehicle-borne IED, so I think they’re expanding and they’re growing.

VOA: Do we still have a few dozen on the ground? I know it was fewer than a hundred as of this around this time last year. Has it stayed that way? Have you been able to increase the presence? Have you asked for more troops to match the growing threat?

TOWNSEND: So what I’ve advised the administration will stay between me and the administration’s leaders right now because those decisions are still, we’re still awaiting decisions on those recommendations. But what the last administration required us to do is reposition our troops. We had only about 800 to 850 troops in Somalia at that time, and we were directed to reposition them out of Somalia. They are in bases in the region and we commute to work. And so who’s in Somalia every day is less than 100, and then our numbers go up as we commute to work at a couple of bases where we go in to work with our Somali and AMISOM partners. We have two of these engagements going on right now in Somalia. And so our numbers go up, and they stay that way for a while, and then they go down to again something less than 100 is sort of the steady state number.

VOA: How is that affecting the mission?

TOWNSEND: Well, I think that we are working hard to get our tasks done. I think that there’s more effective and efficient ways to do that. We provide those recommendations to the secretary of defense and we’re waiting for decisions there. But we’re constantly looking for ways to improve what we’re doing there.

VOA: The last question on Somalia. Questions arose with the Danab training back in October. Are U.S. forces still training the Danab? What was, basically, the result of that review on the training?

TOWNSEND: The elite force training, yeah, we still are training the Danab and for your audience, it may not know what the Danab is. Danab stands for Lightning Battalion, Danab Battalion, and it there are special light infantry formation Advanced Infantry Battalion, and we’re training them and they’re our counterterrorism partner there, and so they’re sort of, I would hesitate to use the word elite, but they sort of are the vanguard of Somali national army operations. And we’re still training them and we’re still building the Danab. That has slowed a bit and we’re looking for ways to accelerate that, but we’re still working with the Danab ,and it’s it’s been a successful program. The Somali people hold the Danab in very high regard and they are probably doing probably something like approaching 50% of the Somalis operations that YNAB are involved in, and they’re a very small force, only about 1,500 troops.

VOA: One quick question, last one on the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia, the U.N. has been warning for months about the intensifying conflict and they were concerned that this could you know if it gets to full blown civil war, it could threaten the entire stability of the Horn of Africa. Do you share those concerns? What do you see as concerns?

TOWNSEND: Yes, I do share those concerns with regards to Ethiopia. So Ethiopia has been, you know they’re the second-largest country in Africa. They’ve been a powerhouse economically and security wise in East Africa for decades. And they’re there what America has referred to as anchor state. However, the civil war has turned their focus inward, this war between the government and the Tigrayans. … They’re not an anchor state right now because they can’t because their turned inward, so I think we very much want to see the Ethiopians work through these disagreements and come to a peaceful resolution. The situation has stabilized there over the last few weeks and has calmed a bit, a significant bit from what it was right before Christmas. So, yeah, we’re worried about Ethiopia. Ethiopia is very important to the stability of the entire Horn of Africa, so we want to see Ethiopia work through this problem in a peaceful way.

VOA: Let’s switch over to West Africa. You know you’ve talked about a lot of problems in West Africa. One of them that’s in the middle of the media right now is Mali. Can you tell us, is the Wagner Group in Mali. What have you seen?

TOWNSEND: Mali has been in the news a lot. In less than probably the last nine to 12 months, as you know they’ve had two successive coups there, which are of great concern. So now there are military leaders leading that country. And then more recently, we’ve seen Mali’s coup government reach out to Russia and specifically to the Wagner private military company. And you probably saw a press release from our Department of State sometime last month about this, and so the United States and the international community are very concerned and so are the African neighbors very concerned about the Russians, Russia’s intervention into Mali. And I’ll be more specific about it, Wagner is in Mali. They are there, we think, and numbering several hundred now. They’re deploying there, supported by the Russian military, Russian Air Force airplanes are delivering them. The world can see this happening. So it’s a great concern to us. And the reason it concerns me and it concerns the neighbors there is we have watched Wagner, this mercenary outfit, work on the African continent. We’ve watched them in the Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya. They don’t follow anybody’s rules but their own. They will exploit the country. They will create, they will break laws. They will do a gross violations of human rights. They will kill innocents and civilians. And then when the Malian people get tired of them, they won’t leave. In fact, they’ll probably bring in proxy fighters. We saw them do this in Libya where they brought in over 2,000 Syrian fighters. And those Wagner and Syrian fighters are still in Libya and the Libyans can’t get them to go. And I predict, unfortunately, something very similar to that will likely happen in Mali. So if I were the neighbors of Mali and if I were the Malian people, I’d be very concerned about it. And if I were the neighbors, I’d be even more concerned about it.

VOA: What are they doing Are they training or are they protecting? Are they protecting, helping to protect the military? What’s going on there?

TOWNSEND: Well, it’s a little early in their deployment so we’re not exactly sure what they’re doing just yet. I know that they will do first, they will protect the regime there, which is a coup government, but they’ll make sure that that government is protected, first and foremost. Then, we probably expect, they will train and they will conduct operations. We haven’t seen that taking place just yet, but that’s what we expect will happen. I just think there’s going to be a lot of bad will intended.

VOA: OK, I have one more question on the Sahel and then I’ll go as long as you want to, I want to talk about China. So as long as you have the time, we’ll keep talking about China. But the last question on the Sahel, under your leadership, rankly combined joint task force, Operation Inherent Resolve was able to take down Islamic State in Libya, Syria, Iraq simultaneously. And now we’re seeing these violent extremists in Africa. So, you know frankly what do you need to help partners do it again? Because obviously the videos, the violent extremists, the attacks are increasing.

TOWNSEND: In the Sahel region, which is sort of local shorthand for a middle band across Africa, it’s between the Sahara Desert and the jungles in Central Africa, that region is called the Sahel. In the Sahel region, there are a number of violent extremist groups, three of which are of the greatest concern. The first one is a group called JNIM (Jamaat Nasrat al-Islam wal Muslimin) and they are the West Africa arm of al-Qaida, the Sahel arm of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. So they are part of corporate al-Qaida. They’re probably the strongest VEO (violent extremist organization) group right now in the Sahel region, and they are spreading from Mali into Burkina Faso, southwestern Niger and working towards the coastal states. And so we’re starting to see attacks emerge in the coastal states of West Africa, in the northern tiers of those states. Then the other groups that concern me are two ISIS groups There’s a group called ISIS Greater Sahara. They are sort of in the same battle space as JNIM and in competition with JNIM. And then further to the east, on the other side of Nigeria, the east side in the Lake Chad basin area, we see this group called ISIS West Africa, this group is large, powerful and growing. And recently they have competed with a group that your audience may be familiar with from a few years ago, Boko Haram, and Boko Haram has been largely overtaken by ISIS West Africa. So these groups are there. I can’t say that any of them are threats directly to the United States today. I don’t assess that they are they are definitely a threat to American interests in that part of the world. And they are now starting to threaten countries that the world should be even more concerned about as they move out of Mali into Burkina Faso and into the northern coastal states like Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Benin, Togo. All those states are now coming under threat of these violent extremist groups. So our role is mostly to support our African partners and our international partners. And the lead international partner has been France. And they’ve put their boots on the ground and we’ve been helping them and also helping all of those African partners in that region. So the United States is not leading there by any means, but we’re trying to support our partners while the African partners and European and other international partners help the Africans more directly dealing with this problem. Our contributions are pretty small, some training, some equipping, helping with some logistics, helping with some intelligence and some ISR (intelligence surveillance reconnaissance) that you mentioned earlier. That’s what we’re doing there to help our partners. The U.S. is not in the lead in West Africa.

VOA: OK, understood. Lastly, let’s turn to China. China’s had a lot of interest in Africa. So what specifically are you seeing China do on the Atlantic seaboard right now?

TOWNSEND: As I mentioned earlier, global competitors are very active in Africa, probably the one that’s the most active is China. China considers Africa to be their second continent. I’ve even heard the term fifth Island chain, those phrases ought to tell you what you need to know. China requires huge amounts of natural resources for their economy and their population, and they’re looking to Africa to get many of those resources, arable land, fishing, strategic minerals, etc., energy concerns, are all in Africa. And so China’s very actively competing there, economically primarily, but also militarily.

VOA: Do you think they’re trying to build a naval base in Gulf of Guinea still?

TOWNSEND: Yes, I think that China definitely has a plan, they would aspire to have a militarily useful base on the Atlantic coast of Africa. They’ve laid down bets from as far south as Namibia and all the way up to Mauritania, where we think they have the most traction today is Equatorial Guinea, which is on the Gulf of Guinea. And we think they are intent on building a base there, and there was a recent article in The Wall Street Journal about a month ago that talked about this. And I think that I think The Wall Street Journal got it about right China is intent on building a military, air base and/or naval facility in Equatorial Guinea.

VOA: When you say exhibits what do you mean by that? What specifically tangible things are they doing?

TOWNSEND: Yeah, no I think I said “placing bets.” So what they’re doing is they’re putting chips down in all of these countries on the Atlantic Coast. They know that they won’t get a yes in many cases from many of those countries, but by asking and trying to get a base in all these countries, one or two of them may say yes. And we think that the place that they’ve got traction right now is Equatorial Guinea. And I know that their African neighbors are very concerned about that. Our government has spoken to the Equatoguinean government about this. We’re not asking them to choose between China and us. What we’re asking them to do is consider their other international partners and their concerns, because a Chinese military base in Equatorial Guinea is of great concern to the U.S. and all of their other partners. And I would point out that the Equatoguinean economy is primarily fueled by oil investments. A lot of those are from the United States.

VOA: Can we just get a broad understanding of Chinese interest? How would you say the Chinese military interest is? Has it been a steady increase in Africa? Are you seeing exponential changes, would you consider them more active than ever right now? How would you characterize it?

TOWNSEND: Well as I said earlier, I think China’s primary mode of competition in Africa has been economic. They’ve invested a lot in economic concerns, and they’ve invested a lot in infrastructure. They’re doing that to a slightly lesser degree now. As far as their military investments go, I would say, I would not characterize them as exponential. I would characterize them as slow, steady, creeping strategic progress. That’s how I would characterize it. So they’ve got their first international base in Djibouti, they built that some years ago now, about seven years ago they built that base and they’re seeking other bases in Africa. We know that they would like to have multiple other bases in Africa. And so they’re just slowly chipping away at that and doing it in a way that doesn’t draw a lot of international attention.

VOA: You mentioned Djibouti, they basically used the playbook, it started off with antipiracy assistance and then they needed infrastructure to help with that antipiracy assistance to get the base in Djibouti. Are you seeing the same playbook, same tactics over in Guinea, where they’re starting to be more involved in the antipiracy? Are they trying to use the same playbook you think?

TOWNSEND: Yes I do. In fact, in the Gulf of Guinea, there is an illegal fishing problem there. There is a piracy problem there. The Chinese discuss those problems as a reason for a naval task force, a maritime task force in that region. And then of course, there’s a base that has to support that task force. I think that the West and African partners are starting to respond to a more coherent approach to the counter piracy, counter illegal fishing problem in the Gulf of Guinea. I would also point out that the No. 1 purveyor of the illegal fishing in the Gulf of Guinea are Chinese fishing.

VOA: And you mentioned the economic interest but would you have you seen China start to militarize its Belt and Road Initiatives? Are you seeing direct associations with the Chinese military on how they’re trying to expand upon those economic initiatives?

TOWNSEND: I think the Belt and Road Initiative and their military expansion plans are all linked, because I mean this is a state-controlled, party-controlled government and a state-controlled economy, so it’s all linked. That said, I can’t say that I’m seeing them, their first foot in the door is a Belt and Road and their second foot in the door is a military initiative, we don’t see that playing out. What we’ve seen them do a lot of belt and road activity across the African continent, much of which can be to the benefit of African partners, right. The recipients of those initiatives can also be a problem for them with, you know you’ve heard about debt-trap diplomacy and other things like that, but the military progress that we’re seeing is more strategic and patient, I think.

VOA: And thank you so much for speaking with Voice of America on a wide range of topics about what you’re dealing with in the African continent. My final question to you would be, since we’ve talked about China’s influence, Russia’s. Influence, the U.S., France, Europe has influence there, but are there any other state actors that are trying to make inroads in Africa that you’ve seen that we should be aware of?

TOWNSEND: Well, there are a number of countries that are active on the African continent, and in many ways these activities are very supportive of Africa and the African people. The only other country that I’m keeping my eye on right now in a negative way, negative thing is Iran. So Iran hasn’t had a lot of presence in Africa for a number of years, but we are starting to see them express increasing interest in Africa and starting to make some inroads there. I think their inroads are going to be malign in nature, and so we’re just keeping an eye on it. It’s very nascent. But it’s happening now and we’re watching.

VOA: Can you give us any examples?

TOWNSEND: I think I’d rather not, because these examples. Well, I’ll just say that they are intelligence related and the arm of the Iranian security apparatus that engages in malign activity in the Middle East is the same arm that’s now engaged on the African continent, so I won’t be more specific than that, but it’s not helpful to any African partner.

VOA: Thank you, General Townsend, the head of U.S. Africa Command, thank you so much for speaking with Voice of America.

TOWNSEND: Thanks, Carla, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to your audience today. 


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US Charges 4 Belarus Officials With Air Piracy in Reporter’s Arrest

U.S. prosecutors charged four Belarusian government officials Thursday with aircraft piracy for allegedly using a bomb threat ruse to divert a Ryanair flight last year in order to arrest an opposition journalist.

The charges, announced by federal prosecutors in New York, recounted how a regularly scheduled passenger plane traveling between Athens, Greece, and Vilnius, Lithuania, on May 23 was diverted to Minsk, Belarus, by air traffic control authorities in Belarus.

“Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have cooperated to keep passenger airplanes safe. The defendants shattered those standards by diverting an airplane to further the improper purpose of repressing dissent and free speech,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a news release announcing the charges.

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the pilots that there was a bomb threat against the jetliner and ordered them to land in Minsk. The Belarusian military scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet in an apparent attempt to encourage the crew to comply with the orders of the flight controllers.

In August, President Joe Biden levied sanctions against Belarus on the one-year anniversary of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s election, in a vote the U.S. and international community said was fraught with irregularities.

The arrested journalist and activist, Raman Pratasevich, ran a popular messaging app that helped organize mass demonstrations against Lukashenko. The 26-year-old Pratasevich left Belarus in 2019 and faced charges there of inciting riots.

Lukashenko was awarded a sixth term leading the Eastern European nation last year. Widespread belief that the vote was stolen triggered mass protests in Belarus that led to increased repressions by Lukashenko’s regime on protesters, dissidents and independent media. More than 35,000 people were arrested, and thousands were beaten and jailed.

Those charged in court papers were identified as Leonid Mikalaevich Churo, director general of Belaeronavigatsia Republican Unitary Air Navigation Services Enterprise, the Belarusian state air navigation authority; Oleg Kazyuchits, deputy director general of Belaeronavigatsia; and two Belarusian state security agents whose full identities weren’t known to prosecutors. 


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Macron’s Call for EU Talks With Kremlin Unnerves European Allies

French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for the European Union to pursue its own talks with the Kremlin is raising fears of a split developing in the Western response to the threat of a Russian invasion in Ukraine.

Macron has struggled in the past to convince his EU partners of the need for Europe to take regional security into its own hands and depend less on the United States. His speech to European lawmakers Wednesday, though, in which he called for the bloc to negotiate its own security and stability pact with the Kremlin, was welcomed by Russian state-owned media.

But some Central European and Baltic leaders said Macron’s comments were ill-timed and risk encouraging the Kremlin to try to play the U.S. and EU against each other, and cause a divide as the U.S. calls for Western unity.

Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, said he was at a loss to understand what Macron means about coming up with “a new order of security and stability.”

“These next few months, rather, seem to call for firm defense of the existing post-1989 order,” he tweeted.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said Russia could “attack at very short notice.” Also, there have been reports that Russia has moved Iskander short-range ballistic missiles to the border, placing them within striking range of Kyiv. Russia has deployed an estimated 127,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders, according to Ukrainian intelligence assessments.


Some Russian detachments currently in Belarus, a Russian ally, have been moved closer to the Ukrainian border, according to the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a group of independent Russian researchers, who say Russian military hardware has been spotted in Belarus’s Gomel region, a short distance from Ukraine. Russian officials deny they have any intention to attack Ukraine and that Russian forces are in Belarus for joint military exercises.

In his speech before the European Parliament, Macron said: “It’s good for Europe and the U.S. to coordinate, but it is vital that Europe has its own dialogue with Russia.” He said Europeans should build a new framework “between us, Europeans, share it with our allies in NATO, and propose it for negotiation to Russia,” he told EU lawmakers.

Additionally, Macron emphasized that borders should be inviolable, and that the EU must not allow Russia to veto Ukraine or any other state from joining NATO, a key Russian demand.

Macron’s floating of an EU security pact with Russia is “exactly the wrong thing to do,” tweeted Edward Lucas, of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a U.S.-based think tank, and author of the book “The New Cold War.”

EU officials say they were blindsided by Macron’s call for Europeans to conduct their own dialogue with the Kremlin that’s distinct from the United States. Western diplomats said the French leader had not consulted other national leaders before the speech. On Thursday, senior EU officials sought to reassure Washington.


Macron aides also scrambled to walk back some of the French leader’s comments, with one saying Paris is very much in favor of close coordination with the U.S. And he said Macron’s call for a new security framework would help reinforce “the unity of the NATO alliance.”

The EU has not been directly involved in the most substantive talks with the Kremlin over Ukraine and a series of other Russian demands, including an end to NATO enlargement and a rollback of any NATO military presence in the former Communist states of central Europe that have joined the Western alliance.

Russian officials held meetings last week with the U.S. and with NATO, though EU representatives participated in a meeting of the 57 states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Twenty-one of the EU’s 27 members also are NATO members.

Asked whether the European Commission backed Macron’s proposal for separate talks with Russia, a spokesperson said the EU was formulating is strategy “within the framework of the ongoing contacts and coordination, both within the EU and between the EU and the transatlantic partners such as the U.S., Canada, NATO and the OSCE.”

EU and NATO allies have been unanimous in rejecting Russian demands for Ukraine never to join the Western alliance, but there have been signs of divisions among them about how the West should seek to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine and what steps to take if Russia does so.


Current and former Western diplomats have told VOA that while there’s broad agreement among Western powers about sanctioning Russia in the event of a military incursion, there is not yet a final deal on the details.

And there have been disagreements between NATO allies on re-arming Ukraine, with Baltic NATO allies Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia pushing for weeks to be allowed to transfer American-made lethal weapons, including anti-armor and ground-to-air missiles, to Ukraine. Midweek they received a go-ahead from the U.S. State Department. But Germany is opposed to large arms transfers to Ukraine, fearing it risks escalating the East-West confrontation.

U.S. President Joe Biden hinted Wednesday at the challenge of keeping all the NATO allies united. Biden reiterated warnings that Russia would face devastating Western sanctions, if an attack went ahead. But at a press conference in Washington, he also said: “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and we [in NATO] end up fighting about what we should do, not do.”

Ukrainian officials reacted angrily to Biden’s comments, saying they fear the U.S. leader was inadvertently giving Russian leader Vladimir Putin the green light to mount an incursion short of a full-scale invasion. Ukrainian officials said they were surprised Biden distinguished between incursion and invasion.

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told the Wall Street Journal: “Speaking of minor and full incursions or full invasion, you cannot be half-aggressive. You’re either aggressive or you’re not aggressive.” He added: “We should not give Putin the slightest chance to play with quasi-aggression or small incursion operations. This aggression was there since 2014. This is the fact.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki issued a clarification amid the Ukrainian backlash, saying, “President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies.” 

At a joint press conference in Berlin on Thursday, neither Secretary Blinken nor his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock directly addressed Macron’s comments. Both foreign ministers emphasized the intensity of consultations between all Western allies

“The coordination and consultation amongst us allies couldn’t be more intensive than it is,” said Baerbock.

Blinken added: “All of these engagements are part of wide-ranging, ongoing consultations with our European allies and partners — more than a hundred in recent weeks alone, including with Ukraine, NATO, the European Union, the OSCE, the Bucharest Nine, as well as many bilateral conversations with individual countries — to ensure that we are speaking and acting together with one voice when it comes to Russia.”