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US follows EU with further Crimea sanctions

In a statement, President Obama said: “The United States will not accept Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea.” Obama also authorized the US Treasury Department to impose sanctions on individuals and companies operating in the region, which included 24 Ukrainians and Russians, as well as several companies thought to be contributing to destabilizing Ukraine. On Thursday, similar measures were implemented by the European Union (EU). A day later, Canada also added new sanctions, targeting separatist leaders and the Russia’s oil and gas sector. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned, however, that further US sanctions “could undermine the possibility of normal cooperation between our countries for a long time.” As a result of the sanctions and low oil prices, Russia is currently under growing financial pressure. Despite a massive interest rate hike by Russia’s central bank, the ruble continued to plunge against the dollar and euro this week. On Tuesday the currency lost more than 20 per cent of its value in a single day. Since the annexation of Crimea in March, the Kremlin has also come under fire for the alleged supply of weapons and manpower to separatist rebels in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk – claims which Moscow has continually denied. The United Nations (UN) believes the daily battles have killed more than 4,700 people and driven nearly a million people from their homes (Source: Deutsche Welle).

Obama orders US trade ban on Crimea over Russia 'occupation'

US President Barack Obama imposed a sweeping trade ban on Russia-annexed Crimea on Friday with an executive order prohibiting US exports of goods or services to the contested peninsula and barring Crimean imports. “The executive order is intended to provide clarity to US corporations doing business in the region and reaffirm that the United States will not accept Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea,” Obama said in a statement about the measure that also allows sanctions on people and companies operating in Crimea (Source: France24).

Ukraine's Prime Minister: Putin 'Needs New Annexations' to Remain Popular at Home

The West’s room for maneuver vis-a-vis Putin is limited. It is positive that the United States and the European Union show a great deal of unity. Putin did not expect that. He thought he could split the EU, but the opposite happened: The EU imposed sanctions and even scaled them up. Of course we need more financial and military aid, the supply of lethal weapons is of crucial importance to us. A military solution would not be the best. My aim is not to start a new offensive against Russian soldiers, but to deter Russia from further aggression. The thing is that the EU is always playing by the rules. Putin is always playing with the rules. At the beginning, many thought that, after annexing Crimea, the beast would calm down. But he continued by supporting the so-called separatists in eastern Ukraine. When we started our anti-terror operation, Putin sent in regular troops. Appeasement has never worked and it won’t work with Putin. Of course one can argue that Crimea belonged to the Czarist Empire two centuries ago. One can quarrel over what territory, historically, belongs to whom. But that does not give Russia the right to violate Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. For a long time we have been trying to win the hearts of the people in Donetsk and Luhansk. My government was ready to devote additional powers to the regions. In addition, taking into account the interest of the Russian minority, we have not moved to implement the decision by parliament on the language law and have restored the possibility for the regional councils to grant special status to regional languages, including the Russian language. But when we were attacked militarily it was our duty to defend our country (Source: Der Spiegel).

Russia and the US Need to Get Along. The World's Safety Depends on It

In September 2013, following the conclusion of the CTR program, the U.S. Department of Energy signed an agreement providing for unprecedented cooperation between U.S. and Russian scientists in areas from civilian nuclear power to mitigating the threat from asteroids. The agreement allowed Russian scientists’ access to the Los Alamos and Livermore nuclear laboratories here in the U.S., while U.S. government scientists received permission to explore the most sensitive Russian atomic facilities. But this past April, barely six months after the agreement was originally signed, the DOE performed an about-face, banning Russian scientists from visiting any of its labs and denying permission for U.S. government scientists to attend meetings in Russia, effectively freezing implementation of this agreement. Most recently, the “Cromnibus” bill which Congress just past cut all funding for nuclear security in Russia. Moscow has taken its own steps to curtail cooperation on nuclear proliferation. In November, Russia announced it would boycott President Obama’s planned 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington aimed at preventing global proliferation. Russia then announced that no new non-proliferation projects would be undertaken in Russia “in the current environment.” Make no mistake: cooperation remains essential. Though it has made tremendous progress in improving its nuclear security, “Russia continues to have the world’s largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons, separated plutonium, and highly enriched uranium (HEU), in the world’s largest number of buildings and bunkersand a variety of vulnerabilities remain that a sophisticated conspiracy could exploit,” according to a recent DOE advisory report (Source: The New Republic).

Pope's Latin American brains trust was behind Cuba deal

Argentine Pope Francis and a trio of top Vatican officials who helped broker the historic deal between the United States and Cuba represent an unprecedented brain trust in Latin American affairs at the Holy See. The collective expertise in America’s southern hemisphere is a shift from the largely Europe-oriented foreign policy priorities of the Vatican under previous popes, particularly Polish-born Pope John Paul II, who is credited with helping bring down the Iron Curtain. The Vatican’s deep involvement in the Cuba deal also highlights the current pope’s tighter grip over the Vatican’s sprawling administration. Under the retired Pope Benedict, the Vatican administration – and particularly the secretariat of state – operated largely without oversight and was marked by confusion, bickering and leaks that hampered its diplomatic abilities. Pope Francis – who wrote a book about Cuba in the 1990s – praised the work of people involved in Vatican diplomacy on the day after the Cuba deal was announced.  “The work of an ambassador is a labor of small steps, of small things, but they always end up in peace making, bringing the hearts of people closer to each other, sowing brotherhood among peoples,” the pontiff said in an address to a new group of envoys to the Holy See. The negotiations that led to Wednesday’s deal were already well underway last March when U.S. President Barack Obama visited the pope and discussed Cuba (Source: Reuters).

Belarus' Lukashenko to Meet With Ukraine's Poroshenko This Week

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko will meet on Sunday, Belarus’s official news agency Belta reported. A  spokesman for Poroshenko the meeting between the two men in Kiev “was entirely unrelated” to the international contact group seeking to resolve the separatist conflict in east Ukraine. Belarus is a close ally of Russia but also has a solid relationship with Ukraine. It hosted hosted a round of peace talks in September of the contact group of envoys from Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. A new round of talks in the same format is also scheduled for Sunday in Minsk. A cease-fire agreed in the September meeting was repeatedly flouted by both sides (Source: The Moscow Times).

Turkey backs UN plan for Syria while reiterating its demand for Bashar al-Assad's removal

Turkey has extended cautious support to a United Nations plan to create “frozen zones” within Syria while noting its concerns with the proposals and reiterating its demands that any political recommendations include the removal of the Bashar al-Assad government. “The proposal is prepared with good will, but its practice should be secured,” Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu said Dec. 19 during a press conference with Croatian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic. At the same time, Çavuşoğlu said Turkey could begin training and equipping moderate Syrian opposition fighters before March 2015. “The framework of the train-equip program has been clarified” in talks with the U.S., he said. Speaking about the frozen zones, Çavuşoğlu said, “We support efforts by U.N. Special Syria Envoy Staffan de Mistura and his proposal of a frozen zone” in Aleppo. There are some deficiencies in the proposal, and Turkey has shared its views with de Mistura on the issue, the minister added. “Turkey will support any idea saving the lives of Syrians although the plan has some shortcomings.” In a recent meeting with de Mistura, Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu conveyed Turkey’s view on the plan, according to a Turkish diplomat. “The plan does not include a political process,” the diplomat said, noting that a plan addressing al-Assad had not been proposed (Source: Hurriyet Daily News).

Russia's ruble drop causes fear of devaluation in Belarus

Despite the fact that Belarusian ruble has mostly been stable in the last few months, citizens of Minsk rushed to exchange their money on Friday, fearing the consequences of the crisis in Russia. “We have become hostages of Russia,” said 45-year-old librarian Nadezhda Gorbyleva adding that she has been waiting in line for hours in order to buy foreign currency. “We are preparing for the worst.” Several foreign exchange offices were shut on Friday, after using up all of the available cash. The stock exchange was also closed. Economy of the former soviet republic Belarus is deeply intertwined with Russia, with 92 percent of transactions between Russian and Belarusian producers being conducted in Russian rubles. Russian economy is suffering under falling oil prices and the Western-imposed sanctions, and the Russian currency lost about half of its value since the beginning of 2014. In response to the turbulence, the Belarusian National Bank announced a “temporary” tax of 30 percent for both business and individuals using Belarus rubles to buy foreign currency. The bank officials also mandated all exporters to convert half of their foreign revenues into local currency, while interest rates were raised to encourage citizens to keep their savings in their bank accounts, according to a statement published Friday on the central bank’s website. President Alexander Lukashenko admitted Belarus’ economy had suffered a blow, but insisted that the country could stabilize in half a year “whatever happens” (Source: Deutsche Welle).

Qatar, Turkey take bold step for strategic cooperation by signing joint memorandum

Qatar and Turkey, whose bilateral and regional cooperation has become remarkably more visible to the eye in recent years, have taken yet another assertive step to deepen their bilateral relations by signing a series of agreements, including a joint memorandum to found a “Supreme Strategic Committee.” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, speaking at a joint press conference on Dec. 19 following talks with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani who paid a working visit to Turkey, underlined positive steps taken by his country, during his term in office as prime minister and then president, for improving relations with the Arab and Muslim world. “In these steps, Turkey and Qatar have never drifted apart. We have always been together, we have always been in solidarity and we have always designated standing by the oppressed people of the world as our common denominator. From now on, we will again continue our resolve in the same way,” Erdoğan said. The host president said they discussed affairs surrounding Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Libya, Tunisia and Cyprus, while also noting that their bilateral endeavors regarding these affairs would also continue with determination. Ahead of the press conference, in the presence of the emir and the president, Turkish Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz and Qatari Defense Minister Maj.-Gen. Hamad bin Ali al-Attiyah signed an agreement for military cooperation. In a show of the significance of the move, the joint memorandum to found a “Supreme Strategic Committee” between the two countries was signed by the emir and Erdoğan (Source: Hurriyet Daily News).

EU court orders Hamas removed from terrorist list

The European Union’s second highest court annulled on Wednesday the bloc’s decision to keep Hamas on a list of terrorist organizations, but temporarily maintained the measures for a period of three months or until an appeal was closed. The General Court of the European Union said the contested measures were not based on an examination of Hamas’s acts but on imputations derived from the media and the Internet. The court said it was nevertheless maintaining the effects of the measures in order to ensure that any possible future freezing of funds would be effective (Source: The Globe & Mail).