Saturday, March 2, 2024

Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 80: Ukraine says could win war by year-end

Russia, wary of NATO’s eastward expansion, began a military campaign in Ukraine on February 24 after the Western-leaning Kiev government turned a deaf ear to Moscow’s calls for its neighbor to maintain its neutrality. In the middle of the mayhem, Moscow and Kiev are trying to hammer out a peaceful solution to the conflict. Follow the latest about the Russia-Ukraine conflict here:

Russia denies responsibility, blames West for soaring food prices

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has blamed soaring food prices on Western sanctions, denying accusations that Moscow is fuelling a global hunger crisis.

“If you don’t understand that, it’s either a sign of stupidity or deliberately misleading the public,” Zakharova said on Telegram, addressing German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock.

Baerbock earlier accused Moscow of waging a “grain war” that endangers global food security at a G7 foreign ministers meeting.

Turkey does not close doors to Sweden’s, Finland’s accession to NATO: Ankara

Ankara does not close doors to accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO, but insists that other members of the alliance took Turkey’s national security concerns into account, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Saturday.

“We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey. What needs to be done is clear: they have to stop allowing PKK outlets, activities, organizations, individuals and other types of presence to […] exist in those countries,” Kalin stated, according to Reuters.

He claimed Turkey’s readiness to hold negotiations with Sweden on this issue.

“NATO membership is always a process. We will see how things go. But this is the first point that we want to bring to the attention of all the allies as well as to Swedish authorities. Of course we want to have a discussion, a negotiation with Swedish counterparts,” he noted.

“If they [Finland and Sweden] have a public concerned about their own national security, we have a public that is equally concerned about our own security,” he stated, adding, “We have to see this from a mutual point of view.”

Kalin announced that Russia’s sharp criticism of Finland and Sweden of their plans was not a factor in Turkey’s position.

Finland wants to keep border with Russia “peaceful”: FM

Finland wants to keep its border with Russia peaceful, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said on Saturday, affirming the need to maintain communication with the Kremlin as the Nordic nation inches closer to joining NATO.

“We have a 1,300-kilometer [about 800 miles] border with Russia,” he told reporters in Berlin, where he was invited to join a meeting of NATO foreign ministers.

“The border is peaceful and we want to maintain that border peaceful. It’s very important that we communicate with our neighbor,” he added.

Asked about Turkey being against Finland joining NATO, Haavisto noted he called Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Friday to “take the tensions down” and will continue discussions with him at the NATO meeting on Saturday.

He conceded that any NATO member could “block the process,” therefore it is important to maintain “good contacts” with everyone.

Turkey, which has presented itself as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine, has signaled an unfavorable view on Finland and Sweden possibly joining NATO, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accusing the nations of housing Kurdish “terrorist organizations.”

Nevertheless, Haavisto stated Saturday he is “confident that in the end, we will find a solution and Finland and Sweden will become members of NATO.”

We are behind Finnish, Swedish NATO membership: Norway tells Turkey

Norway has backed Finnish and Swedish plans to join NATO against criticism from Turkey.

“We don’t know what Turkey really means but from [the] Norwegian perspective, we are 100 percent behind Finland and Sweden if they decide to apply for membership in NATO,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeld stated as she arrived for a meeting with her NATO counterparts in Berlin.

“This will also strengthen the Nordic cooperation because we chose differently after World War 2, so I think that this is a historic moment right now,” she added.

Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra echoed her, saying it was important that all NATO members showed unity.

Hungary’s new president condemns Putin’s ‘aggression’

Hungary’s President Katalin Novak has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at her inauguration ceremony.

“We condemn [Vladimir] Putin’s aggression, the armed invasion of a sovereign state. We say eternally no to every effort aiming at the restoration of the Soviet Union,” Novak said.

Novak, a former Fidesz party lawmaker and ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, was elected to the largely ceremonial post of president in March. Orban has also condemned Russia’s invasion but has avoided personal criticism of Putin.

Turkey criticises Swedish and Finnish support for PKK at NATO meeting

Turkey’s foreign minister has criticised the “unacceptable and outrageous” support that prospective new NATO members Sweden and Finland give to the PKK Kurdish militant group, potentially complicating the alliance’s enlargement.

“The problem is that these two countries are openly supporting and engaging with PKK and YPG. These are terrorist organisations that have been attacking our troops every day,” Mevlut Cavusoglu said as he arrived in Berlin for a meeting with his NATO counterparts.

“Therefore it is unacceptable and outrageous that our friends and allies are supporting this terrorist organisation,” he stated.

“These are the issues that we need to talk about with our NATO allies as well as these countries,” he added.

Slovakia expects all NATO allies to back Nordic membership bids

Slovakia is confident that all 30 NATO allies will back plans by Finland and Sweden to join the alliance, Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok has said.

“Slovakia is absolutely ready to look at this request and support membership of these two countries,” he told reporters as he arrived in Berlin for a meeting with his NATO counterparts.

Korcok, who has advocated for further military aid for Ukraine, noted NATO should support Ukraine “until they win.”

“Russia has lost this war politically, it has achieved the contrary which Russia wanted to achieve,” he added.

Zelensky welcomes US Senate delegation led by Minority Leader to Kyiv

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed to Kyiv a congressional delegation led by US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Zelensky said on his Instagram account that the visit “is a strong signal of bipartisan support for Ukraine from the United States Congress and the American people.”

He added: “Thank you for your leadership in helping us in our struggle not only for our country, but also for democratic values and freedoms. We really appreciate it.”

Also seen meeting Zelensky in video and photographs on the president’s official social media accounts are Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas.

It’s unclear whether the meeting took place Saturday and whether the delegation is still in Kyiv.

Russia has deliberately extended its Ukraine invasion into a “grain war”: German FM

Russia has deliberately decided to extend the military war against Ukraine into a grain war, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said during the concluding press conference of the G7 Foreign Ministers Meeting in Germany.

“Russia’s actions are causing supplies to fail, prices to rise immeasurably — not only in our country but around the world — and the threat of brutal hunger,“ Baerbock stated.

“We must not be naïve — this is not collateral damage. It is a deliberately chosen instrument in a hybrid war that is being waged right now,“ she added.

“Russia is preparing the breeding ground for new crises in order to deliberately weaken international cohesion against Russia’s war,“ said Baerbock.

“Hunger, instability, energy insecurity, the creeping erosion of democratic values, but also of human rights through disinformation” are caused by the Russian aggression on Ukraine, Baerbock added.

Baerbock said she supports Finland’s and Sweden’s accession to NATO, despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s criticism.

“Each country is free to decide on its alliance membership. This also applies to Sweden and Finland,” Baerbock stated.

“It is not NATO that has pushed Sweden and Finland to join, but the actions of the Russian President have pushed Finland and Sweden, because they want to continue to live in peace with their neighbors, into this alliance, if they join together, which I would very much support,” Baerbock added.

Ukraine could win war by year-end: Kyiv intelligence chief

The war in Ukraine could reach a “breaking point” by August and end in defeat for Russia before the end of the year, Kyiv’s head of military intelligence has told the UK’s Sky News.

“The breaking point will be in the second part of August,” Major General Kyrylo Budanov told the news network.

“Most of the active combat actions will have finished by the end of this year,” he added.

“As a result, we will renew Ukrainian power in all our territories that we have lost including Donbas and the Crimea,” he said.

Ukraine presses counteroffensive on key Russian line of assault: Governor

Ukrainian forces are on the counteroffensive near the Russian-held town of Izyum, the governor of Kharkiv region has said, striking at a key axis of Russia’s assault on eastern Ukraine.

“The hottest spot remains the Izyum direction,” regional governor Oleh Sinegubov stated in comments aired on social media.

“Our armed forces have switched to a counteroffensive there. The enemy is retreating on some fronts and this is the result of the character of our armed forces,” he added.

A major and successful counteroffensive on that Russian line of advance would deal a serious setback for Moscow in the Battle for the Donbas, a region in Ukraine’s east that Russia has announced it wants to capture completely.

The Ukrainian military had claimed Russian troops are withdrawing from around Ukraine’s second-largest city after bombarding it for weeks.

Ukraine’s general staff said the Russians were pulling back from the northeastern city and focusing on guarding supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery and airstrikes in the eastern Donetsk province in order to “deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.”

Lavrov: All will suffer from West’s ‘total hybrid war’ on Russia

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that efforts by the West to isolate Russia were doomed to fail, while pointing to the importance of its relations with China, India, Algeria and Persian Gulf countries.

“The collective West has declared total hybrid war on us and it is hard to predict how long all this will last but it is clear the consequences will be felt by everyone, without exception,” he stated in a speech to mark 80th day since Moscow invaded Ukraine.

“We did everything to avoid a direct clash – but now that the challenge has been thrown down, we of course accept it. We are no strangers to sanctions: they were almost always there in one form or another,” he added.

Putin: Talks with Ukraine de facto on hold as Kiev not interested in dialogue

President Vladimir Putin stated that Moscow-Kiev negotiations are on ice during talks with his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto, the Kremlin announced.

“The leaders also discussed the situation in Ukraine. Putin, in particular, shared his opinion on the negotiation process between [the] Russian and Ukrainian sides, which was basically suspended by Kiev, as it does not show interest in a serious and constructive dialogue,” an official statement read.

Moscow and Kiev held several rounds of talks after the start of the Russian special operation in Ukraine without reaching any kind of agreement.

G7 ‘will never recognize’ borders changed by force by Russia

The Group of Seven industrialized nations said Saturday they would never recognize the borders Russia is trying to shift in its war against Ukraine and pledged enduring support for Kyiv.

“We will never recognize borders Russia has attempted to change by military aggression, and will uphold our engagement in the support of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea, and all states,” the G7 foreign ministers announced in a statement after three days of talks in northern Germany.

They also vowed to expand sanctions to include sectors on which Russia is dependent and keep supplying Ukraine with weapons to help it repel Russia’s invasion.

“We reaffirm our determination to further increase economic and political pressure on Russia, continuing to act in unity,” they added.

They have called on China not to help Russia, including by undermining international sanctions or justifying Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

Beijing should support the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, and not “assist Russia in its war of aggression,” they stressed.

Russian inflation spikes to 20-year record on war & sanctions

Russian inflation jumped to the highest level since 2002 as international sanctions imposed over Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine pressured prices and disrupted supply chains.

Price growth was 17.8% in April from a year earlier, the Federal Statistics Service announced. That was just below analyst estimates for 18%, according to a Bloomberg survey of 16 economists. The core rate, which excludes volatile components like fuel and produce, ran even higher at 20.4%.

Still, the Bank of Russia said this week that inflation, when adjusted for seasonal factors, has already peaked on a sequential basis now that the ruble has recovered its initial losses against the dollar and the panic buying that followed the imposition of sanctions in March faded. On a monthly basis, prices rose 1.6% in April, far below the 7.6% rise the previous month.

The central bank has already begun to unwind the emergency rate hike imposed in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, easing credit conditions as the economy heads into what may be the deepest contraction since the 1990s.

The Bank of Russia expects price growth to be 18%-23% in December from the year before.

Russia suspends electricity to Finland: Finnish grid operator

Russia has suspended electricity supplies to Finland overnight after its energy firm RAO Nordic threatened to cut off supplies over payment arrears, an official for Finland’s grid operator told AFP news agency.

“It is at zero at the moment, and that started from midnight as planned,” Timo Kaukonen, manager for operational planning at Fingrid, stated.

Canada’s FM: Sweden, Finland accession to NATO should be quick

While there should be consensus at NATO for Sweden and Finland to join the alliance, but that their accession should be quick, Canadian Foreign Minister has said.

“It is important that we have a consensus,” Melanie Joly told reporters on the sidelines of G7 meeting in northern Germany.

“We wish that there not only be an accession of Finland and Sweden, but a quick accession, which is fundamental in the circumstances as Finland and Sweden are looking for security guarantees,” Joly added.

Russia Has No Hostile Intentions Toward Finland, Sweden: Deputy FM

“All this fits into the all-too-common ‘search for an enemy’, which entails, in practical political [and] military sense, a demonisation of Russia, assigning to [Russia] hostile intentions against some countries, while Russia absolutely cannot be suspected of such intentions,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said.

The diplomat admitted that Moscow has some questions regarding the future of the non-nuclear status of Finland and Sweden, as by joining NATO, they will effectively abandon it.

“It is well known that Finland and Sweden were among those states that most actively advocated the prohibition and total destruction of the world’s nuclear weapons. But the alliance has declared itself nuclear, saying it will remain nuclear as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world. These countries will participate in the NATO Nuclear Planning Group,” Grushko added.

When asked if Russia could possibly deploy its nuclear capabilities in the Baltic, the diplomat stated that it is “too early to talk about this issue”.

No change in Putin since war started: German chancellor

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has not detected any change of heart on the part of Russian leader Vladimir Putin since the war began.

In an interview with news outlet t-online published, the chancellor said it was clear Russia had not achieved any of its stated war aims, one of which was to secure the territory of Ukraine as a buffer between Moscow and NATO expansion.

“For Putin’s insane idea of wanting to expand the Russian empire, Russia and the whole world are paying a very high price right now,” Scholz added.

Risk to EU ‘unity’ if ban on Russian imports blocked: Ukraine FM

In an interview with Al Jazeera’s Diplomatic Editor James Bays, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba says European Union’s “unity” on Russia will be broken if Hungary blocks a proposed EU ban on Russian oil imports.

“I believe it will cause a lot of damage to the European Union,” Kuleba stated in Weisenhaus, Germany, at a gathering of G7 nations.

Report: EU sanctions unlikely to include Russian oil ban

A sixth round of Ukraine-related anti-Russia sanctions is unlikely to include an oil embargo, several media outlets reported citing sources within the EU government.

According to Bloomberg, EU countries are still striving to agree on the sanctions package in full, and some member states believe that the decision on Russian oil should be postponed.

Representatives of Hungary, insist that the embargo will have devastating consequences on their country’s economy.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban recently urged that any option for an oil embargo should be discussed at a summit of EU leaders.

EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell on Friday announced that work on the oil ban has so far reached no results.

“If there is no agreement at the level of ambassadors, then on Monday the ministers when they gather they have to provide the political impetus… I am sure we will have an agreement. We need it and we will have it. We have to get rid of the oil dependency from Russia,” he said, as cited by Reuters.

EU sanctions require the unanimous support of all 27 nations, but ambassadors have been unable to reach an agreement on the sixth package of sanctions, which includes a draft of an oil embargo, for nine days now.

The European Commission proposed to ban the import of Russian crude oil starting six months after the entry into force of the sixth sanctions package, and on the import of Russian petroleum products starting from 2023. At the same time, the EC offered to allow Hungary and Slovakia, which are highly dependent on Russia, to purchase oil from Moscow until the end of 2024.

According to sources, however, the EC has already had to go back on a number of its proposals on the timing of the embargo, its specifications and possible exceptions.

Hungary strongly opposes banning Russian oil, with Prime Minister Orban slamming it as a “nuclear bomb” on Hungary’s economy. Budapest has the support of other EU countries who believe that the damage from this measure will be catastrophic for the bloc.

According to Politico magazine, in order to persuade Budapest, the EC has drafted plans to offer financial compensation to Hungary if it signs up to the proposed embargo. Citing three EU officials, the publication reports that this money could be “channeled to Budapest as part of the bloc’s new energy strategy, which is due to be set out next week, to end its reliance on Russian fossil fuels.”

In addition to oil, the new sanctions package is reported to target three more Russian banks, which are to be disconnected from the SWIFT international payment system. EU foreign ministers are scheduled to discuss the package next on May 16.

Ukrainian military says Russian retreat in Kharkiv continues

The Ukrainian armed forces claimed that Russian forces are focused on ensuring the withdrawal of troops from the Kharkiv region.

Those troops have come under growing pressure from Ukrainian counter-attacks along a wide front to the west of their supply lines.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said there had been more artillery shelling of Ukrainian held territory as the Russians tried to make progress towards Sloviansk, a key objective. The village of Nova Dmytrivka had come under fire, it said, as it has done since late April.

It also added that there had been airstrikes around Dolyna, which is 20 kilometers (more than 12 miles) north of Sloviansk and nearby Adamivka. Airstrikes in the area earlier this week damaged two religious’ sites, according to Ukrainian authorities.

In the Luhansk region, a Russian attack on the town of Zolote had been repulsed, the General Staff said, adding that more cross-border shelling was reported far from the current area of hostilities in the northeastern region of Sumy as well as an airstrike against a village in the region.

Mariupol defenders will hold out ‘as long as they can’

The deputy commander of the Azov Regiment has said his soldiers – holed up in the Azovstal steelworks – will hold out “as long as they can” despite shortages of ammunition, food, water and medicine.

Speaking during an online session of the Kyiv Security Forum, Sviatoslav Palamar said Russian forces continued to attack the plant, the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in the southern city.

“We continue to resist and follow the order of our senior political leaders to hold the defence. We are holding the defence and continue fighting despite everything,” he added, according to The Associated Press news agency.

Speaking to a panel that included a number of senior US generals, Palamar appealed for the United States to help evacuate about 600 wounded soldiers from the plant.

Zelensky: Ukraine has retaken over 1,000 settlements from Russian forces

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated Ukraine has retaken six settlements from Russian forces on Friday, and 1,015 overall since the start of the conflict in February.

”We continue to restore the de-occupied territories of Ukraine. As of today, 1,015 settlements have been de-occupied, which is plus six in the past 24 hours,” he said in his nightly address.

It is unclear exactly how much territory those settlements constitute. Zelensky did outline other gains by Ukraine’s military in those areas.

“We return electricity, water supply, communications, transport, social services there,” he added.

He also stated that “the gradual liberation of Kharkiv region” proves that Ukraine “will not leave anyone to the enemy.”

Hungary must “play its part” & decide if it wants to join EU in Russia sanctions: Senior EU diplomat

Hungary still has to “play its part” and decide whether it wants to display unity with the European Union in sanctioning Russia as the bloc works on its sixth round of proposals, a senior EU diplomat said on Friday.

Speaking during a news briefing in Brussels to journalists, the diplomat stated the proposed sixth round of sanctions would include an oil embargo with the purpose of “having a lasting impact on Russia’s capacity to earn money and to inflict the heavy costs.”

The diplomat noted the proposal still needed to be fine-tuned, as most European countries “need to phase out from oil, and obviously there are realistic economic considerations that should be taken into account and the availability of alternatives are obviously different from member state to member state.”

“So, we need to solve … these concerns one way or the other,” the diplomat added.

The diplomat said they understood that there is an “existential oil dependency on Russia as far as Hungary is concerned.”

“The commission is coming up with proposals, and at a certain point, you have to bite the bullet, you know, and see where you want to be in this, and we hope Hungary will be more forthcoming,” the diplomat continued.

Hungary has been offered “reasonable proposals,” the diplomat stated, adding that the country will have to decide where it stands “so that we can continue to have this important EU unity and send out the same signals to Russia that it should stop the war effort.”

“Negotiations are ongoing every day, including the weekends. So I don’t know where this will end,” the diplomat continued.

On Wednesday, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said Hungary will only vote for EU sanctions on Russian oil if the bloc comes up with solutions to issues it would start.

“We have made it clear to the European Commission that we can only vote for this proposal if Brussels offers a solution for the problems Brussels would create,” Szijjártó added.

“We are expecting a solution not only relating to the transformation of our refineries that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, not only relating to the capacity increase of the oil pipeline [that runs] across Croatia to Hungary that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars but also with regard to the future of the Hungarian economy, as, like I said before, this current proposal is like ‘an atomic bomb’ for the Hungarian economy,” Szijjártó continued.

No one can predict length of war: Zelensky

President Volodymyr Zelensky has said although Ukrainians are doing everything they can to drive out Russians forces, “no one today can predict how long this war will last”.

“This will depend, unfortunately, not only on our people, who are already giving their maximum,” he stated in his nightly video address to the nation.

“This will depend on our partners, on European countries, on the entire free world,” he continued.

He added that he was thankful to all those who are working to strengthen sanctions on Russia and increase military and financial support to Ukraine.

Zelensky has said Russia is provoking a “large-scale food crisis” by blocking Ukraine’s ports.

“The world has already recognised that Russia’s blockade of our ports and this war are provoking a large-scale food crisis,” he added.

“Russian officials are also openly threatening the world that there will be famine in dozens of countries. And what could be the consequences of such a famine? What political instability and migration flows will this lead to? How much will you have to spend then to overcome the consequences?” he asked.

Ukraine ready to return bodies of Russian soldiers: Official

Ukrainian military authorities have loaded the bodies of Russian soldiers collected after fighting in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions onto refrigerated rail cars.

Volodymr Lyamzin, the head of Ukraine’s civil-military cooperation, said his country was acting in accordance with international law and was ready to return the bodies to Russia.

“According to the norms of international humanitarian law, and Ukraine is strictly following them, after the active phase of the conflict is over, sides have to return the bodies of the military of another country,” he continued, adding, “Ukraine is ready to return the bodies to the aggressor.”

Ukraine appears to have ‘won the Battle of Kharkiv”: IOW

The Institute for the Study of War (IOW) announced it appears that Ukraine has “won the Battle of Kharkiv” with evidence suggesting Russia has “likely decided” to withdraw fully from its positions around city because of the strength of Ukrainian counter-attacks and a lack of reinforcements.

In its latest assessment of the position on the ground, IOW says Russia looks to be “conducting an orderly withdrawal and prioritizing getting Russians back home”.

In other areas, it adds:

  • Russian troops tried to advance from Izyum but made little progress
  • Russian military appears focused on encircling Severodonetsk and Lysychansk from the north and south
  • Ukrainian forces trying to regain control of Snake Island

Ukraine readying war crimes cases against Russian soldiers: Prosecutor

Ukraine’s prosecutor general has announced her office is readying 41 war crimes cases against Russian soldiers.

“We have 41 suspects in cases with which we will be ready to go to court,” Iryna Venediktova said in a live briefing on Ukrainian TV.

“All of them concern Article 438 of the [Ukrainian] criminal code on war crimes, but different types of war crimes. There is the bombing of civilian infrastructure, the killing of civilians, rape and looting,” she added.

It was not immediately clear how many of the suspects would be tried in absentia.

Ukraine has held the first war crimes prosecution of a member of the Russian military in Kyiv, as a 21-year-old Russian soldier went on trial for the killing of an unarmed Ukrainian civilian in the early days of the war. Venediktova noted that two more of the suspects, who are physically in Ukraine, are likely to face preliminary hearings next week.

Talks with Russia on getting defenders out of Azovstal very difficult: Ukraine

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk has stated negotiations with Russia on getting defenders out of the besieged Azovstal plant in Mariupol were “very difficult” but did not give details.

“The result may not be to everyone’s liking, but our task is to evacuate our boys. All of them. Alive,” she said in an online post, adding, “God willing we will rescue them all.”

Turkey’s standing in NATO unchanged despite comments on Finland, Sweden: Pentagon

The United States is working to clarify Erdogan’s comments about Finland and Sweden but Ankara’s standing in the NATO alliance had not changed because of them, the Pentagon has announced.

“Nothing changes about their standing in the NATO alliance … we’re working to better clarify [their] position,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

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