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EXPLAINER: Ukraine not joining NATO so why does Putin worry?

WASHINGTON (AP) — At the core of the Ukraine crisis is a puzzle: Why would Russian President Vladimir Putin push Europe to the brink of war to demand the West not do something that it has no plan to do anyway?

Russia says NATO, the American-led alliance that has on its hands the biggest European crisis in decades, must never offer membership to Ukraine, which gained independence as the Soviet Union broke apart about 30 years ago. Ukraine has long aspired to join NATO, but the alliance is not about to offer an invitation, due in part to Ukraine’s official corruption, shortcomings in its defense establishment, and its lack of control over its international borders.

Putin’s demands go beyond the question of Ukraine’s association with NATO, but that link is central to his complaint that the West has pushed him to the limits of his patience by edging closer to Russian borders. He asserts that NATO expansion years ago has enhanced its security at the expense of Russia’s.

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The Russians demand a legal guarantee that Ukraine be denied NATO membership, knowing that NATO as a matter of principle has never excluded potential membership for any European country — even Russia — but has no plan to start Ukraine down the road toward membership in the foreseeable future. The principle cited by NATO is that all nations should be free to choose whom they align with.

Why, then, is Moscow making an issue of Ukraine’s relationship with NATO now? The answer is complicated.

Trump’s GOP: Party further tightens tie to former president

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — In 2016, Donald Trump overtook the Republican National Committee through a shock and awe campaign that stunned party leaders. In 2020, the party was obligated to support him as the sitting Republican president.

Heading into 2024, however, the Republican Party has a choice.

The RNC, which controls the party’s rules and infrastructure, is under no obligation to support Trump again. In fact, the GOP’s bylaws specifically require neutrality should more than one candidate seek the party’s presidential nomination.

But as Republican officials from across the country gathered in Utah this week for the RNC’s winter meeting, party leaders devoted considerable energy to disciplining Trump’s rivals and embracing his grievances. As the earliest stages of the next presidential contest take shape, their actions made clear that choosing to serve Trump and his political interests remains a focus for the party.

“If President Trump decides he’s running, absolutely the RNC needs to back him, 100%,” said Michelle Fiore, an RNC committeewoman who has represented Nevada since 2018. “We can change the bylaws.”

In Beijing, Olympic ideals coexist with authoritarian rule

His collar turned up against the cold, the head of the International Olympic Committee looked out over the stadium and spoke of the ideals that had brought together athletes from all over the world.

“In our fragile world, where division, conflict and mistrust are on the rise, we show the world that it is possible to be fierce rivals while at the same time living peacefully and respectfully together,” Thomas Bach, a gold-medalist fencer nearly 40 years ago, said Friday at the Winter Games’ opening ceremony.

The Olympic mission is clear, he said: “Always building bridges, never erecting walls.”

Critics of Bach and the IOC say those ideals are nonsense, and talk of respect and bridge-building is overshadowed by Olympic officials cozying up to some of the world’s most powerful authoritarian rulers. Starting with holding this year’s Games in a country accused of widespread human rights violations.

The IOC knows that Beijing has locked up hundreds of thousands of minority Uyghur Muslims, those critics say, and arrested countless people who dared voice criticism of the government.

Olympic Updates: Norway wins gold in biathlon mixed relay

BEIJING (AP) — The Latest on the Beijing Winter Olympics:

Norway has won gold in the biathlon mixed relay, beating France and the Russian team in the first biathlon event of the Beijing Olympics.

Johannes Thingnes Boe of Norway, Quentin Fillon Maillet of France and Eduard Latypov of the Russian team left the range close together after the last round of shooting and raced for position until the final stretch, when Boe sprinted for the win.

Norway, which came into the relay as the World Cup leader, also got strong performances from Marte Olsbu Roeiseland and Tarjei Boe. But they trailed early in the race when Tiril Eckhoff struggled.

Analysis: As Mideast wars encroach on UAE, US gets drawn in

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The wars of the wider Middle East that long surrounded the United Arab Emirates now have encroached into daily life in this U.S.-allied nation, threatening to draw America further into a region inflamed by tensions with Iran.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels have launched missile and drone attacks since January targeting the Emirates, a federation of seven sheikhdoms home to oil-rich Abu Dhabi and the skyscrapers and beaches of Dubai. American forces at Al-Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi, home to some 2,000 U.S. troops, twice have opened fire with their own Patriot missiles to help intercept the air assaults by the Iranian-backed Houthis.

The two incidents represent the first time since 2003 that the U.S. has fired the Patriot in combat — a nearly 20-year span. It also comes after the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and its declared end to the American combat mission in Iraq.

Though overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. now says it is committing more advanced fighter jets to the Emirates, as well as sending the USS Cole on a mission there. This spillover of Yemen’s yearslong war into the UAE puts American troops in the crosshairs of the Houthi attacks — and raises the risk of a regional escalation at a crucial moment of talks in Vienna to potentially restore Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

The Emirates since its founding in 1971 has been an otherwise safe corner of the Mideast. During the bloody 1980s war between Iran and Iraq, Dubai’s massive Jebel Ali port repaired ships damaged in the so-called Tanker War. The 1991 Gulf War saw Kuwaitis flee into the Emirates and gave birth to the close military ties America has with the country today.

CDC backs Moderna COVID-19 shots after full US approval

NEW YORK (AP) — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday continued its endorsement of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine for adults, now that U.S. regulators have given the shots their full approval.

The decision has little practical effect. Tens of millions of Americans have already gotten Moderna shots, following its emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration more than a year ago.

Earlier this week, the FDA gave the product full licensure, following the kind of rigorous, time-consuming review given to other vaccines.

While the FDA licenses vaccines, the CDC makes recommendations about how they should be used. So the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices took up the matter on Friday.

The panel heard summaries of medical studies that showed the vaccine is working against the coronavirus and there is no evidence of new safety concerns. It voted unanimously to continue to endorse the shots, and the agency’s director later signed off on the recommendation.

Pence: Trump is ‘wrong’ to say election could be overturned

Former Vice President Mike Pence has directly rebutted Donald Trump’s false claims that he somehow could have overturned the results of the 2020 election, saying that the former president was simply “wrong.”

In a speech to a gathering of the conservative Federalist Society in Florida Friday, Pence addressed Trump’s intensifying efforts this week to advance the false narrative that, as vice president, he had the unilateral power to prevent President Joe Biden from taking office.

“President Trump is wrong,” Pence said. “I had no right to overturn the election.”

Pence’s declaration marked his most forceful response yet to Trump, who has spent his post-presidency fueling the lie that the 2020 campaign was stolen from him. And it comes as Pence begins laying the groundwork for a potential run for president in 2024, which could put him in direct competition with his former boss, who is also teasing a comeback run.

The relationship between the two men took on a new dynamic this week as Trump escalated his attacks on Pence.

UN experts: Darfur rebel groups make money in Libya

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. experts say rebel groups in Darfur that signed a peace agreement with the Sudanese government in 2020 continue to operate in Libya and profit from opportunities provided by the civil war and lack of government control in the oil-rich north African nation.

In a report to the U.N. Security Council circulated Friday, the panel of experts monitoring sanctions against Sudan stemming from the 2003 Darfur conflict said several sources in the rebel movements said they have no intention of completely withdrawing from Libya because they get most of their financing and supplies including food and fuel from engagements there.

They quoted one commander as saying: “We will have one foot in Darfur and one foot in Benghazi,” the main city in eastern Libya which is the stronghold of forces loyal to military commander Khalifa Hifter.

Libya plunged into turmoil after a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. It then became divided between rival governments — one in the east, backed by Hifter, and a U.N.-supported administration in the capital Tripoli, each supported by different militias and foreign powers.

In April 2019, Hifter and his forces, backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, launched an offensive to try and capture Tripoli. His campaign collapsed after Turkey stepped up its military support of the U.N.-supported government with hundreds of troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries.

‘Someone else’s festival’: No North Korea at ally’s Olympics

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — During the last Winter Games, North Korea basked in the global limelight in South Korea, with hundreds of athletes, cheerleaders and officials pushing hard to woo their South Korean and U.S. rivals in a bid for diplomacy that has since stalled.

Four years later, as the 2022 Winter Olympics come to its main ally and neighbor China, North Korea isn’t sending any athletes and officials — ignoring the International Olympic Committee’s suggestion that individual athletes could potentially compete despite a ban on the country. And though the country again finds itself on the world stage, this time it is because of belligerence, not charm, in the shape of a fast-paced string of increasingly powerful missile tests.

These tests are likely an attempt to do two things at once: perfect still-incomplete weapons systems that the North feels it needs to protect itself from its enemies, while also using the worry over those improving systems to wrest outside concessions and sanctions relief from the United States and South Korea.

Even if Pyongyang pauses or curtails those tests during the 17-day sporting spectacle that opened Friday — in a nod to its benefactor Beijing — experiments on bigger weapons, including ICBMs and nuclear bombs, could follow the Games, experts say. That’s especially true as South Korean presidential elections, U.S.-South Korean military drills and several important North Korean anniversaries are approaching.

“For North Korea, the Beijing Olympics are still someone else’s festival, and what’s important now is furthering their own interests,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea. “North Korea thinks it doesn’t need to promote a peaceful image any longer through the Olympics as the United States will only notice them when they display a hardline posture by missile launches.”

Venezuela upholds long jail sentences for US oil executives

MIAMI (AP) — A court in Venezuela has upheld long prison sentences for six American oil executives detained in the South American country on corruption charges for more than four years.

Venezuela’s supreme court announced the ruling late Friday, disappointing family members who had hoped the surprise decision last fall to hear the appeal, and a recent jailhouse visit by a top State Department official, signified President Nicolás Maduro’s government was looking to release the men as part of a gesture to engage the Biden administration in talks over U.S. sanctions.

The court didn’t provide any information on its decision, and the order itself was not immediately available. Venezuela’s judicial system is stacked with pro-Maduro officials who routinely issue decrees in accordance with the president’s viewpoints.

The men known as the Citgo 6 — for the Houston oil company where they worked — were lured to Caracas around Thanksgiving in 2017 to attend a meeting at the headquarters of Citgo’s parent, state-run oil giant PDVSA. Once there, heavily armed masked security officers stormed the conference room where they were gathered and hauled them away. Later they were charged with corruption in connection to a never-executed plan to refinance billions in bonds.

The executives appeared in November before a three-judge appeals panel in the same week as the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention took up the case of Tomeu Vadell, one of the six detainees. Five of the men are dual Venezuelan-American nationals who had lived in the U.S. for many years, while one, former Citgo president Jose Pereira, is a permanent U.S. resident.

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