Khan After Putin Visit: Pakistan to Import Wheat, Gas from Russia

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced Monday that his country will import about 2 million tons of wheat from Russia and buy natural gas as well under bilateral agreements the two sides signed last week during his official trip to Moscow.  

Khan pressed on with his two-day visit and met with President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on Thursday, hours after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, with Western countries pushing to isolate the Russian leader for his actions. 

On Monday, the Pakistani prime minister defended his trip and responded to critics in a televised speech to the nation, saying Pakistan’s economic interests required him to do so.  

“We went there because we have to import 2 million tons of wheat from Russia. Secondly, we have signed agreements with them to import natural gas because Pakistan’s own gas reserves are depleting,” Khan said.  

“Inshallah (God willing), the time will tell that we have had great discussions,” the Pakistani leader said, referring to his three-hour meeting with Putin. He shared no further details. 

Critics, however, are skeptical about Moscow-Islamabad economic collaboration, citing tougher international sanctions slapped on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.  

On Thursday, Putin warmly received Khan at the Kremlin in front of cameras, shook hands and sat just next to the visitor for what Pakistani officials said were wide-ranging consultations on bilateral, regional and international issues.  

“The Prime Minister regretted the latest situation between Russia and Ukraine and said that Pakistan had hoped diplomacy could avert a military conflict,” a post-meeting statement quoted Khan as telling Putin. 

Pakistani officials and Khan himself maintained that the Moscow visit was planned long before the Ukraine crisis erupted and was aimed solely at reviewing bilateral trade relations, including energy cooperation. 

Pakistan’s frosty relations with the United States, analysts say, have pushed the South Asian nation closer to its giant neighbors China and Russia in recent years. 

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who accompanied Khan on the visit, said after the delegation returned to Pakistan that Washington had contacted Islamabad ahead of the Moscow trip. 

“[U.S. officials] presented their position and we explained to them the purpose of the trip and went ahead with it,” Qureshi told reporters when asked whether the U.S. was opposed to the visit. “I’m convinced after the visit that we did the right thing.” 

Speaking on the eve of Khan’s trip to Russia, a U.S. State Department spokesman, when asked about it, said Washington believed that Pakistan, like “every responsible” country, would voice objection to Putin’s actions. 

But Pakistani leaders have avoided criticizing Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and stressed the need for seeking a negotiated settlement to the crisis.  

Islamabad also has developed close economic and military ties with Ukraine in recent years, with Pakistan being a major importer of Ukrainian wheat.  

Qureshi spoke to Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Sunday and reiterated Islamabad’s “serious concern at the situation, underscoring the importance of de-escalation, and stressing the indispensability of diplomacy.” 

Pakistan sided with the U.S. during the Cold War and played an instrumental role in arming as well as training Washington-funded resistance to the decadelong Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan in the 1980s.  

While Islamabad’s often uneasy relations with Washington have lately strained over the country’s backing of the Islamist Taliban in Afghanistan, ties between India and the U.S. have solidified in recent years due to shared concerns stemming from China’s growing influence in the region.  

India, Islamabad’s bitter foe, had close ties with Russia during the Cold War, as Moscow was a major arms exporter to New Delhi. 

Moscow has restored ties with Islamabad in recent years, however. The two countries routinely hold joint military exercises and are working to deepen energy cooperation to help Pakistan overcome shortages. 

Khan in his address Monday reiterated that Pakistan’s decision to join the U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan was an outcome of “the wrong foreign policy” of his predecessors.  

“I maintained from day one that we should not have taken part [in the U.S.-led war],” he said, adding that Pakistan suffered 80,000 casualties because of an Islamist retaliation and incurred billions of dollars in economic losses.  

“The most embarrassing part was that a country was fighting in support of a country that was bombing it,” Khan said, referring to U.S. drone strikes against suspected militant hideouts in Pakistani areas near the Afghan border. 

Khan also announced a cut in fuel and electricity prices to help offset a steep rise in the global oil market because of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

He promised to freeze the new prices until the next budget in June. Critics said the move could result from opposition protests over rising inflation that officials blame on the coronavirus outbreak and tough economic reforms the government is undertaking in line with a $6 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund. 


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US to Expel 12 Russian Diplomats at UN Mission for Spying

The United States said Monday that it was expelling 12 Russian diplomats based at Moscow’s U.N. mission in New York for engaging in espionage activities.

“The United States has informed the United Nations and the Russian Permanent Mission to the United Nations that we are beginning the process of expelling twelve intelligence operatives from the Russian Mission who have abused their privileges of residency in the United States by engaging in espionage activities that are adverse to our national security,” U.S. Mission to the United Nations spokesperson Olivia Dalton said in a statement. “We are taking this action in accordance with the U.N. Headquarters Agreement. This action has been in development for several months.”  

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told reporters that the U.S. gave them until March 7 to leave the country. He said that it is a “hostile action” by the U.S. government and violates Washington’s obligations as the host country of the United Nations.

Nebenzia also called the order “sad news” and said the U.S., the host country, was showing “gross disrespect” to its commitments “both under U.N. Charter and the Host Country Agreement, and Vienna conventions.” The Vienna Convention also applies to the treatment of diplomats.  

Nebenzia received the news in a phone call during a press conference about the Ukraine conflict. He said the U.S. had delivered a letter to Moscow’s New York mission with the decision.  

It is not the first time the U.S. has declared Russian diplomats at the U.N. persona non grata. Most recently, in 2018, the Trump administration expelled a dozen Russian diplomats from the U.N. mission on similar charges as tensions rose over a poisoning attack on a former Russian spy in Britain.  

Nebenzia also informed members of the U.N. Security Council of the development at the start of a meeting on the growing humanitarian crisis.  

“We keep being told about the need for diplomacy, diplomatic solutions. And at the same time, our opportunities to conduct this kind of activity are being restricted,” he said. “We deeply regret this decision and will see how events develop within the context of this decision.”  

U.S. envoy Richard Mills replied that the decision was taken in full accordance with the U.N. Headquarters Agreement.  


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Vatican Offers to Mediate End to Ukraine War

Pope Francis is suffering from acute knee pain and won’t preside over this week’s Ash Wednesday celebrations after his doctor ordered him to rest. Despite his health issues, the pope has launched efforts to mediate an end to the war in Ukraine.

Pope Francis will not be presiding over the customary mass for the start of Lent at the Basilica of Saint Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill this year.

The pope’s knee ailment also forced him to cancel travel plans for the first time in his papacy. Francis was scheduled to celebrate mass Sunday in Florence for the closing of a meeting of bishops and mayors from the Mediterranean region.

But knee pain has not stopped the Pope from repeatedly voicing his concern about the developments in Ukraine.

On Friday, he visited the Russian ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeev, to express those concerns in person.

The Pope has called for Ash Wednesday this week to serve as a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine.

His worries were voiced again Sunday when he said his “heart is broken” and called for arms to fall silent.

Referring to those in search of refuge as brothers and sisters, the pope made an impassioned appeal for humanitarian corridors to help refugees leave Ukraine.

The Vatican has now said it is prepared to assist in any negotiation aimed at ending the war in the eastern European country. The Vatican’s No. 2, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said in interviews published in Italian newspapers Monday that the Vatican is offering to facilitate dialogue with Russia. He said there is always space for negotiation.

Earlier, the head of the Italian Bishop’s Conference, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, announced the pope would not travel after speaking to the Holy Father on the phone.

Bassetti said the pope had given his strong backing to the “Mediterranean, Frontier of Peace” meeting in Florence and had wanted to attend but the doctor recommended that he take a “period of greater rest” for his leg.

It remains unclear whether the pope’s current knee problem is linked to previous sciatica conditions that have forced him to cancel some of his public appearances in recent times and has also caused him to limp. Only last month, the 85-year-old pontiff complained of a pain in his leg, saying it was worse when he remained standing.

Pope Francis underwent colon surgery in July in what was considered his most serious health issue since he was elected head of the Catholic Church in March 2013. After spending 10 days in a hospital, he appeared to recover well and soon returned to his daily activities.

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Ukraine President Appeals for Immediate EU Accession

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed Monday for the European Union to immediately admit Ukraine to the bloc, as the country battled a Russian invasion.

Zelenskyy posted photographs of himself on social media signing an application to join the 27-member nation EU. In a video, he said, “We appeal to the European Union for the urgent accession of Ukraine via a new special procedure.”

“We are grateful to our partners for being with us,” Zelenskyy said. “But our goal is to be together with all Europeans and, most importantly, to be on equal footing. I’m sure it’s fair. I’m sure we earned it. I’m sure it’s possible.”

It usually takes years for any country to officially join the EU, part of a multi-step process that often requires nations to make reforms to reach EU standards.

The head of Zelenskyy’s office, Andrii Sybiha, said on his official Facebook page that the documents requesting EU admission “are on the way to Brussels.”

The EU has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has offered military assistance to Kyiv as well as imposed tough economic sanctions on Russia and blocked Russian planes from EU skies.

Ukraine’s request comes after European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told Euronews in an interview Sunday of Ukraine: “They are one of us, and we want them in.”

However, Von der Leyen’s spokesperson, Eric Mamer, clarified Monday that the EU chief did not mean that Ukraine could join immediately.

He said Von der Leyen “specified that there is a process (for joining the EU). And I think that this is the important point.”

The application for Ukraine to join the EU, even if largely symbolic, is likely to anger Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long accused the West of trying to bring Ukraine under its influence.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.

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Women Join Cameroon Militias to Fight Boko Haram

In the last few years, villages along Cameroon’s northern border with Nigeria have formed militias to ward off Boko Haram militants and inform authorities about suspicious activities. These so-called vigilance committees were exclusively male until last year when a number of women joined. Anne Nzouankeu reports from Mora, Cameroon.

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South African Nonprofit Sues Health Ministry for Vaccine Transparency 

A South African activist group is suing the government to reveal details of its contracts with COVID-19 vaccine makers. The Health Justice Initiative says transparency is needed to ensure fair pricing and prevent corruption.

How much did South Africa pay for each unit of its COVID-19 vaccines and on what terms?

Those are some of the questions posed by health activists in a lawsuit filed last week against the country’s health department.

Fatima Hassan is the founder and director of the Health Justice Initiative.

“What we are arguing in our papers in the context of South Africa is that in a pandemic, when we had a state of disaster like we’ve had… there needs to be heightened checks and balances, we need to, you know, be able to hold the different decision makers to account,” she said.

She says freedom of information requests filed for the documents have gone unanswered.

Hassan says it’s not just a matter of what South Africa paid for vaccines, but also where the country falls in the context of the world’s response to the pandemic.

She wants to know if any stipulations were made that left some countries paying more or waiting longer for vaccines.

“What are the implications then for over agreements and contracts as almost, you know, every single country in the world has signed and put money on the table. Some people have had, you know, governments have had to borrow money. There’s also been a situation of, we believe, of like a case of double standards, where some countries are allowed to totally control the supplies,” she said.

South Africa’s health department spokesman Foster Mohale confirmed to VOA that its legal team is reviewing the court filing and will respond through legal channels.

Mohale said several contracts between the government and COVID-19 service providers have been released publicly. But, he added, contracts that include nondisclosure agreements cannot be released.

Legal experts say the necessity of nondisclosure agreements during the pandemic is hard to justify.

Geo Quinto is the director of the African Procurement Law Unit at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University.

“We know that there’s been nondisclosure agreements signed around the world dealing with the supply contracts — we don’t know why… There might be trade secrets contained in some of these contracts that would be detrimental to the business of the supplier, and that could justify the demand that those be kept confidential, but none of those reasons would justify a blanket confidentiality on contracts,” he said.

The Health Justice Initiative says nondisclosure of contracts leaves countries at risk of over-paying.

Fatima Suleman is a professor in the Discipline of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of KwaZulu Natal.

“There’s the ability for pharmaceutical companies to obscure information and then, you know, start at a much higher price than they need to rather than actually working with governments to ensure maximum access… Pharmaceutical companies are getting stock to those that can pay the highest, they’re obscuring prices, they’re making large profits for their shareholders and themselves. And it’s not a public health imperative anymore for these companies, it’s an investment opportunity,” she said.

South Africa has faced numerous scandals related to spending for its COVID-19 response.

The country’s special investigation unit implicated a former health minister for allegedly laundering money through fraudulent contracts.

The Health Justice Initiative is now waiting for the government’s response to the lawsuit.

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Ukraine, Pandemic, Economy, Political Divisions, to Dominate Biden’s 1st State of the Union Address   

Escalating conflict in Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic and — as always — the economy, are likely to dominate President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union speech on Tuesday.

The constitutionally mandated address is the rhetorical highlight of the year for the U.S. president. Joe Biden is no exception, but this year’s State of the Union — his first, although he has previously addressed a joint session of Congress — comes at an especially fraught time.

As if to underscore that, Capitol police said Sunday that they were taking extra precautions at the site of the speech.


“Out of an abundance of caution, and in conjunction with the United States Secret Service, a plan has been approved to put up the inner perimeter fence around the Capitol building for the State of the Union Address,” said United States Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger. “I have also requested support from outside law enforcement agencies as well as the National Guard to assist with our security precautions.”

Ukraine crisis

The White House says Biden is likely, during the Tuesday night speech, to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, his wider view of the world. But press secretary Jen Psaki stressed that the situation is rapidly changing — and the president’s words may evolve before he speaks in front of legislators.

“We are in the middle of an active invasion,” she said Friday. “So I just can’t give you a preview of what that will look like in the State of the Union. As it relates to how the president views his approach to foreign policy — you know, the president ran for president wanting to return America’s seat at the world, wanting to return to a time where other leaders around the world could trust the word and the commitments of the United States, and what you have seen over the last few months, is the president deliver on exactly that.”

In the past week, Biden has delivered three speeches on the escalating crisis in Ukraine; but, in his deeply politically divided nation, analysts say Biden should expect a frosty reception when talking about what he describes as the greatest threat to global security since World War II.

“The country generally rallies behind a president when we face an international crisis,’ said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “If you watch [Fox News TV host] Tucker Carlson, or listen to Donald Trump, or know what many Republicans in Congress have been saying, we’re not going to get that rallying around the president by a significant share of the population. The tribal divisions are there now, for even things that affect American national security.”

Recent public opinion polls indicate the president’s approval rating has dipped since the early days of his administration, when the Gallup survey reported 57% of Americans said they approved of the job he was doing. The same group’s poll conducted in the first half of February reported Biden now has a 41% job approval rating.

Trump, the former president, has been outspoken in his support of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his animus toward Biden. On Monday, Trump criticized Biden’s energy policy and said, “This war should never have started in the first place.”

Trump continues to maintain, in the face of overwhelming evidence otherwise, that the November 2020 election was rigged, and said that under his leadership, the U.S. “would right now continue to have record-low gas prices, as it was under my administration, and we would be supplying the world with oil and gas.”

It’s the economy, always

Presidents typically use this speech to sell Congress on their domestic agenda and bills they want to pass. And there is one topic every president is expected to cover in the State of the Union address, says Jeremi Suri, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin.

“He will argue that the economy is growing, that unemployment is low, and that we are going in the right direction and that inflation has to do with supply difficulties and pandemic difficulties, which he is working diligently to solve, and which will be resolved soon,” he said. “And every president comments on the economy because they all want to say the state of the economy is such that we are getting richer, we are doing better than ever before. The only exceptions when presidents don’t talk about the economy are when we are at war ourselves.”

One thing that is certain: America, and the world, will be listening to what he has to say. The address begins at 9 p.m. Washington time, on Tuesday.

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Ukraine Crisis: Will African Oil Producers Take Advantage of Increasing Oil Prices? 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the sanctions that followed, has pushed the price of oil to over $100 per barrel, the highest level in eight years. But, it’s also opened an opportunity for African oil producers like Nigeria, Angola, Libya, and Algeria to cash in with more crude oil exports. But a lack of refineries in Africa means crude oil exporters will also have to pay more for imported fuels.

The Brent crude oil prices hit $105 per barrel last week, it’s highest mark since 2014 and up by 47% since December, amid fears that supplies from Russia may be impacted by crisis.

Russia accounts for a significant amount of the world’s total crude oil output between 25-30% making it the second highest producer globally.

But experts say the crisis and sanctions slammed on Russia by Europe and America could significantly impact demand for Russian products and tip the odds in Africa’s favor.

“For Africa it’s a gain, it’s an opportunity, it presents that window of opportunity for African countries to see how they can increase their production capacity and meet the need of global demands of crude oil,” says Isaac Botti, a public finance expert.

However, Africa’s production combined accounts for less than a tenth of total global output. Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer of oil followed by Libya. Other notable producers are Algeria and Angola.

Experts predict oil prices will rise further but worry Nigeria could be facing a backlash.

“At the end of the day it’s going to hit on our economy. We may think that we’ll gain but remember we don’t refine out crude oil,” said economic analyst Paul Enyim.

Nigerian refineries have been shut down for about one year. The country depends on imports to meet it’s energy needs. Experts say prices paid for imported will also increase.

Authorities are also grappling with huge subsidies to keep pump price of oil products within affordable limits.

Last week Nigeria’s minister of state for Petroleum said authorities were not comfortable with the surge in prices of crude oil.

But this week, Algerian state-owned oil and gas giant said it would supply Europe if Russian exports dwindled as a result of the crisis.

Botti says it’s a good example for other African nations.

“We need to develop our capacity to produce locally, we need to look at various trade agreements that are existing,” he said.

For years African oil producers including Nigeria have been struggling to meet required daily output levels.

Experts however worry African producers may struggle to fit into the big market with increasing global demands for crude oil.

For weeks, Nigeria has been battling to normalize fuel supply in the country after authorities recalled millions of liters of adulterated petrol from circulation causing a major shortage in West Africa’s most populous nation.

As the crises between Russia and Ukraine lingers, experts say the shifting focus on Africa could be both a blessing and a burden.

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