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Senior U.S. Official Says Washington 'Ready Either Way' In Russia-Ukraine Crisis

"If Russia wants to go down the path of invasion and escalation, we're ready for that, too, with a robust response," White House national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said. 

The United States will in the coming days lay out its future steps in the standoff with Russia over the latter's troop buildup near the border with Ukraine, national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said on January 16, following a week of talks that failed to ease concerns of a possible conflict.

Sullivan, in an interview with CBS, said Washington was "ready either way."

"We're in close touch with our allies and partners, including the Ukrainians," Sullivan, who is the top adviser to President Joe Biden, said. "We're coordinating closely on next steps. And we'll have more to share in terms of the next steps into the diplomacy early next week.

"But the key point here is that we're ready either way. If Russia wants to move forward with diplomacy, we are absolutely ready to do that in lockstep with our allies and partners."

The United States says Russia has deployed up to 100,000 soldiers along the border with Ukraine and has accused Moscow of seeking to provoke a "pretext" for a possible offensive.

"If Russia wants to go down the path of invasion and escalation, we're ready for that, too, with a robust response," Sullivan said.

The United States and its NATO allies held talks this week with Russia focusing on the tensions over Ukraine and the European security architecture, but all three rounds of negotiations -- in Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna -- failed to make significant progress.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on January 13 that Moscow saw no reason to hold a new round of security talks with the West.

On January 16, the Kremlin warned that the West and Russia are on "totally different tracks" despite the week of intense diplomacy.

"There are some understandings between us. But in general, in principle, we can now say that we are staying on different tracks, on totally different tracks. And this is not good. This is disturbing," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview with CNN.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued a series of demands for security guarantees in Europe, including NATO not accepting new members like Ukraine and Georgia, and limits on allied deployments in Eastern European NATO members.

Western officials say Russia’s combative rhetoric and troop buildup near Ukraine is an attempt to pressure the United States and European allies to bend toward the Kremlin's wish list.

Moscow insists its military deployment is a response to what it sees as the growing presence of NATO in its sphere of influence and denies it plans to invade Ukraine.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP

Ukrainian Ministry Accuses Russia Of Being Behind Cyberattack

A message left by the attackers in the January 14 mass web defacement told Ukrainians to “be afraid and expect the worst.” (file photo)

Ukraine on January 16 accused Russia of being behind a cyberattack that disabled government websites, adding that Moscow has been waging an increasingly intense “hybrid war” against its neighbor.

On January 14, the Ukrainian government was targeted in an attack that forced many of its websites offline, included those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Energy, and the Ministry of Civil Protection.

“All evidence indicates that Russia is behind the cyberattack. Moscow continues to wage a hybrid war and is actively building up its forces in the information and cyberspaces,” the Ministry of Digital Development said in a statement on January 16.

We've been warning for weeks and months, both publicly and privately, that cyberattacks could be part of a broad-based Russian effort to escalate in Ukraine."
-- U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan

The cyberattack comes as the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine looms after Moscow massed some 100,000 troops near the border with its neighbor and talks to resolve the tense standoff appear stalled.

A message left by the attackers in the January 14 mass web defacement told Ukrainians to “be afraid and expect the worst.”

U.S. tech giant Microsoft said in a blog post on January 15 that its security experts discovered malware on dozens of government computers in Ukraine that could render them unusable.

Although the malware disguised itself as ransomware, its true purpose was to be able to destroy data on the command of hackers, Microsoft said.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement.

But U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan on January 16 voiced skepticism about Russia's denial, telling CBS, "We've been warning for weeks and months, both publicly and privately, that cyberattacks could be part of a broad-based Russian effort to escalate in Ukraine."

Sullivan added that the United States was working with Ukraine to beef up its cyberdefenses, while also coordinating with U.S. firms like Microsoft on ways to prevent future cyberattacks.

Sullivan added that U.S. experts had yet to positively confirm Russian responsibility for the cyberattack against Ukrainian targets.

However, he added, "It would not surprise me one bit if it ends up being attributed to Russia.

"If it turns out that Russia is pummeling Ukraine with cyberattacks and if that continues over the period ahead, we will work with our allies on the appropriate response," he said.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Almost 4,000 Iraqis Repatriated From Belarus's Borders, Baghdad Says

An Iraqi woman holds a child as migrants gather for their departure to Baghdad at the airport in Minsk. (file photo)

Iraq has repatriated up to 4,000 of its citizens who had been stuck on the border of Belarus and European Union members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia in recent weeks, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said on January 16.

Fuad, speaking at a press conference in Baghdad with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, said that since November 18, the Iraqi government has organized "10 flights from Baghdad to Belarus" to repatriate its citizens.

Separately, Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf later told AFP that "3,817 Iraqi migrants have been repatriated from Belarus and 112 from Lithuania."

Sahaf said some Iraqis were still stuck in Belarus but that "the difficult weather and the complex environment do not allow rescuers to determine their numbers."

The EU accuses Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime of funneling thousands of mostly Middle Eastern migrants to the borders of Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania as part of a “hybrid attack” to retaliate for Western sanctions that were imposed following Lukashenka's crackdown on those protesting his reelection in a controversial vote in August 2020 .

Belarus has denied the claim and criticized the EU for not taking in the migrants.

With reporting by AFP and ELTA

Iran Confirms Jailing Of French-Iranian Academic Again

Fariba Adelkhah (file photo)

Iranian authorities confirmed that they have re-incarcerated French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah for breaking house arrest restrictions.

The judiciary news website on January 16 quoted the deputy head of the judiciary, Kazem Gharibabadi, as saying Adelkhah, who had been furloughed with an electronic-monitoring bracelet, violated judicial restrictions “dozens of times.”

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The official claimed that Adelkhah, 62, violated the limits of her house arrest “despite repeated warnings from judicial authorities.”

On January 12, the French Foreign Ministry condemned Adelkhah's new imprisonment and demanded her immediate release, saying her case has negative consequences on the relationship between Paris and Tehran.

She holds both Iranian and French passports, but Iran doesn’t recognize dual nationality. Iranian officials insist that Adelkhah is an Iranian citizen and have denied French consular staff access to her.

Adelkhah, an expert on Iran and Shi’a Islam at France's prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies, was arrested on June 5, 2019, at Tehran airport.

Adelkhah was given a five-year sentence for conspiring against national security. Iranian authorities have not provided any solid evidence to back the charges.

In October 2020, she was allowed to live under house arrest at her sister’s home in Tehran, wearing an electronic-monitoring bracelet.

Adelkhah is one of at least a dozen Western nationals believed to be held in Iran. Rights groups accuse Iran of using foreign detainees as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West.

Iran denies it, though there have been such prisoner exchanges in the past. In March 2020, Iran released Adelkhah's French colleague and partner, Roland Marchal, in a prisoner exchange with France.

Marchal, who was arrested in June 2019 alongside Adelkhah, was swapped for Iranian engineer Jalal Ruhollahnejad.

Based on reporting by AFP and AP

Language Law For National Print Media Comes Into Force In Ukraine

Supporters of the law say it will strengthen national identity. Critics argue that it could disenfranchise the country’s native Russian speakers. (file photo)

A language law came into force in Ukraine on January 16 that requires all national print media to be published in the country’s official language, Ukrainian, in a bid to push back against the use of the Russian language in the public sphere.

The law, adopted in 2019, does not ban publication in Russian but stipulates that a parallel Ukrainian version of equal scope and circulation must be published, too. It’s not considered a profitable option for publishers in the shrinking market for print media.

The transition -- which comes amid an escalation of tensions between Ukraine and Russia -- is based on a controversial language law from 2019 that was passed just after former President Petro Poroshenko was voted out of office.

Poroshenko signed it just before current President Volodymyr Zelenskiy took office and a transitional period has been in place since then.

Supporters of the law say it will strengthen national identity. Critics argue that it could disenfranchise the country’s native Russian speakers.

The law stipulates that, starting in mid-May, news sites registered in Ukraine must at least offer an equivalent Ukrainian-language version of articles. It requires that the Ukrainian version must open first.

The Ukrainian language requirement will apply to regional media starting July 2024. Radio and television have already been under strict Ukrainian language quotas for years.

Ukraine’s State Language Law, which went into effect on July 16, declares that Ukrainian is "the only official state language" in the country.

Ukrainian is the native language of some 67 percent of Ukraine's almost 43.5 million population, while Russian is the native language of almost 30 percent. Russian is spoken mostly in urban areas. Almost 3 percent of Ukraine's inhabitants are native speakers of other languages.

Based on reporting by dpa, TASS, and RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service

Djokovic Deported From Australia After Court Upholds His Visa Cancellation

Novak Djokovic (left) walks in Melbourne airport before boarding a flight to Dubai on January 16.

Tennis world No. 1 Novak Djokovic has left Melbourne after Australia's Federal Court upheld a decision to deport the athlete over his coronavirus vaccination status.

The nine-time Australian Open champion was scheduled to play in the main stadium on Day 1 of the tournament, which begins on January 17.

But a three-judge panel on January 16 unanimously supported the decision made by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke to cancel Djokovic’s visa on public interest grounds because he is not vaccinated for COVID-19.

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Djokovic said in a statement that he was “extremely disappointed” by the ruling, which dashed the 34-year-old Serb’s hope to defend his Australian Open title for the fourth time in a row. But Djokovic added that he would comply and leave the country.

Australian federal agents escorted Djokovic and his team from the business lounge to the gate of the Melbourne airport, where he boarded a flight bound for Dubai.

Australian Open organizers declined immediate comment on the court's decision.

The ATP, the governing body for men's tennis, expressed regret that Djokovic -- “one of [the] sport’s greatest champions”-- can’t play at the upcoming tournament.

The ATP also pointed out that it “continues to strongly recommend vaccination to all players.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the court ruling, saying the decision will help "keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe."

In Serbia, Djokovic's family on January 16 claimed "politics" interfered with the decision and said they were "very disappointed" with Australian authorities' decision to revoke his visa and deport him from the country.

"We are very disappointed with the decision of the Federal Court and the fact that Novak has to leave Australia," the family said in a statement. "Despite the scandalous behavior towards Novak, we believed that the sport would win."

It also said the court ruling was related with "politics and all [other] interests."

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic criticized Australia’s government for what he called the "harassing and bullying [of]...the best tennis player ever."

Djokovic is hugely popular in his home country. Vucic said he told Djokovic after the court ruling "that we can’t wait to see him in Serbia, to return to his country, to come where he is always welcome.”

Djokovic was trying to use a medical exemption to get around the requirements that everyone at the Australian Open -- players, their support teams, spectators, and others -- be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Hawke admitted that Djokovic was at "negligible" risk of infecting Australians but argued his past "disregard" for COVID-19 regulations posed a risk to public health and discouraged people from getting boosters just as the country experiences an increase in omicron infections.

Djokovic has won a total of 20 Grand Slam singles trophies, tied with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most in the history of men’s tennis.

With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, and dpa

Serbs Block Major Highways In Latest Protest Against Lithium Mine Plans

Hundreds of people on January 15 blocked the main north-south highway in Belgrade for more than an hour.

BELGRADE -- Protesters blocked a major highway in the Serbian capital and other roads in the country in the latest in a series of public protests against a planned lithium mine.

Hundreds of people on January 15 blocked the main north-south highway in Belgrade for more than an hour. Other roads, including one by Serbia's border with Bosnia, also were blocked.

Highway Blocked In Serbia In Protest Against Lithium Mine
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Minor incidents were reported, with angry drivers trying to push their way through the crowds.

Environmental groups want the government to halt any lithium mining in western Serbia and have pledged to press on with demonstrations until their demands are met. Groups want the Rio Tinto mining company “expelled” from Serbia.

Thousands joined similar demonstrations several weeks ago, forcing the government to withdraw two laws that activists said were designed to speed up mining projects.

Rio Tinto, a London-based mining giant, has performed preliminary engineering work for a planned lithium mine, but environmental groups say the mine would devastate farmland, waters, and the area's entire ecosystem, and have called for its complete cancellation.

Environmental issues have become a public concern for Serbs amid bad air pollution, poor waste management, and other environmental problems that have accumulated after decades of neglect.

With reporting by AP

Ukrainian Official Says Belarusian Intelligence Likely Behind Cyberattack

Serhiy Demedyuk, deputy secretary of Ukraine's national security and defense council (file photo)

A top Ukrainian official says a Belarusian intelligence agency is likely behind the hacking of several Ukrainian government websites this week.

Serhiy Demedyuk, deputy secretary of Ukraine's national security and defense council, spoke with Reuters on January 15, a day after Ukrainian websites were disabled and defaced with threatening messages.

Demedyuk said a group known as UNC1151 was behind the hack.

"This is a cyberespionage group affiliated with the special services of the Republic of Belarus," he said in a written comment to Reuters.

The cyberattack came as Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine's borders. The crisis, and the threat of a new invasion of Ukraine, brought diplomats from Washington, Moscow, and Europe together for three separate, high-level meetings this past week.

Ukrainian and other officials have also suggested that Russia was likely involved in the hack, but provided no proof.

Belarus is a close ally of Russia, which has dismissed such fears as "unfounded."

Belarusian officials did not respond to a request for comment.

"The group specializes in cyberespionage, which is associated with the Russian special services and which, for its attacks, resorts to recruiting or undercover work of its insiders in the right company," Demedyuk told Reuters.

The group UNC1151 has been tracked by cyberexperts in the past.

In November, the private company Mandiant published a report alleging UNC1151 was behind a campaign to steal government credentials and spread disinformation in Europe. Mandiant said it had "moderate confidence" that Belarus was "at least partially responsible" for the campaign known as Ghostwriter.

"We cannot rule out Russian contributions to either UNC1151 or Ghostwriter," Mandiant said.

Based on reporting by Reuters

Highway Blocked In Serbia In Protest Against Lithium Mine

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Hundreds of environmental activists in Serbia blocked a major highway in the capital, Belgrade, for about an hour on January 15 in the latest protest against London-based Rio Tinto's plans to develop a $2.4 billion lithium mine. The protests have been held in Serbia every Saturday since late November. The government has offered mineral resources to foreign investors, including China's Zijin copper mine and metals company Rio Tinto, as it seeks to boost economic growth. Activists say the projects will cause pollution. A cabinet decision on how to proceed is expected soon. The protests are seen as a factor ahead of April 3 national elections.

Negotiators In Iran Nuclear Talks Return Home For Consultations

Negotiators from Europe and Iran meet in Vienna in December.

Negotiators from Europe and Iran returned to their home countries for consultations as talks aimed at renewing the 2015 nuclear deal reached a key juncture point.

Iran's IRNA news agency said on January 15 that the negotiators would return to Vienna in two days but that expert discussions would continue through the weekend.

The landmark deal, which lifted crippling Western economic sanctions in exchange for curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions, began to unravel in 2018 after U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew and reimposed the sanctions.

That led Iran to later start rolling back its commitments and restarting some uranium enrichment activity, pushing the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to the verge of complete collapse.

Efforts to revive the deal resumed in mid-2021 but then were suspended for around five months as Iran elected a new, ultraconservative government.

Along with Iran and the United States, other parties to the deal include Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia.

The main aims of the negotiations are to get the United States to return to the deal and lift its sanctions and for Iran to resume full compliance.

On January 14, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said that a deal remained possible and that the talks were advancing in a "better atmosphere" than before Christmas.

A spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said last week that efforts by "all parties" to revive the deal had resulted in "good progress."

Based on reporting by AFP, IRNA, and AP

Moscow Court Orders Arrest Of Three More Linked To REvil Ransomware Group

Mikhail Golovachuk in a Moscow courtroom on January 15.

A Moscow court ordered the arrest of three more people allegedly linked to the ransomware group REvil, one day after Russian security agents said they had raided several apartments and seized cash and computer equipment.

The news, announced by the Tverskoi District Court on January 15, brings the number of those arrested in the operation to five.

Russia's Federal Security Service said the January 14 raids were done at the request of U.S. authorities -- something that U.S. officials confirmed later.

It appeared to be a rare demonstration of U.S.-Russian collaboration at a time of soaring tensions between Washington and Moscow.

The Moscow court identified the three new men ordered into custody as Mikhail Golovachuk, Ruslan Khansvyarov, and Dmitry Korotayev.

In its announcement, the security service, known as the FSB, said that its agents had searched 25 addresses and detained 14 people in all. Among the assets the FSB said it had seized were 20 luxury cars.

It wasn't immediately clear when and if the other unnamed individuals detained would be formally arrested.

In November, the United States said it was offering a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to the identification or location of anyone holding a key position in the REvil group.

A senior U.S. administration official told reporters that one of the individuals detained was allegedly behind the May ransomware attack against Colonial Pipeline, which caused a major disruption of gasoline supplies up and down the U.S. East Coast.

At their first summit meeting in June, U.S. President Joe Biden called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to go after cybercriminals operating from inside Russia who target businesses around the world, especially in the United States.

Russia-based hackers are believed to be behind a significant proportion of global ransomware attacks.

However, the Kremlin has historically turned a blind eye to their activities as long as they don’t target Russian companies and individuals, experts say.

The two men ordered arrested on January 14 were identified as Andrei Bessonov and Roman Muromsky.

With reporting by Interfax and TASS

Two Of Nazarbaev's Sons-In-Law Pushed Out Of Key Energy Posts In Wake Of Kazakh Unrest

Kairat Sharipbaev is reportedly out as chief executive of the state oil pipeline firm KazTransOil.

Two sons-in-law of former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev have been pushed out of top jobs at two major state companies, Kazakh officials said.

The announcement, made on January 15 by the country’s sovereign wealth fund, comes in the wake of last week’s unprecedented political turmoil and was the latest indication that the current government of President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev was moving to purge or squeeze members of Nazarbaev’s extended family.

In a statement, the sovereign wealth fund, called Samruk-Kazyna, said that Kairat Sharipbaev had resigned as chief executive of natural-gas pipeline operator QazaqGaz. Dimash Dosanov, meanwhile, left his position as CEO of state oil pipeline firm KazTransOil.

Samruk-Kazyna gave no reasons for their resignations.

Both companies play a key role in the country's oil and gas industry, an industry that fueled Kazakhstan's economic growth for decades.

Sharipbaev is widely known to be married to Nazarbaev’s eldest daughter, Darigha, though neither Sharipbaev nor Darigha Nazarbaeva have ever commented on their relationship.

Dosanov is the husband of Nazarbaev's youngest daughter, Aliya.

The announcement came just days after Toqaev publicly criticized a lucrative car-recycling company that is owned by Aliya Nazarbaeva, indicating authorities were moving to take control of it.

Toqaev has said publicly he wanted Nazarbaev's associates to share their wealth with the public by making regular donations to a new charity foundation.

The unrest, which started with a protest in the remote western region of Manghystau over a sharp rise in car fuel prices, exploded into nationwide protests in major cities and towns. The violence was worst in the commercial capital, Almaty.

Amid the unrest, Toqaev moved to push Nazarbaev out of his position on the National Security Council, a position Nazarbaev had retained after resigning in 2019 and essentially handing the presidency to Toqaev.

Nazarbaev, who had ruled Kazakhstan since the Soviet collapse, has not been seen in public since December 28, and rumors have circulated that he had fled the country or was in ill health.

His spokesman has denied that Nazarbaev, 81, had left the country, saying only that he was in the capital, Nur-Sultan.

Kazakh officials have said that almost 10,000 people were arrested during the nationwide protests. Prosecutors said on January 15 that 225 people had been killed in total nationwide, including 19 police or security officers.

Toqaev has blamed rights activists and independent journalists for "inciting" the protests, which also led to the arrest of several reporters in towns and cities across the country.

On January 15, authorities said they had detained a deputy energy minister and several other officials who they believe were responsible for the "unjustified" fuel increase that led to the protests.

In related news, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that the Russian troops who had deployed to Kazakhstan during the recent unrest have returned home. The troops, which were requested by Toqaev, were part of a force sent by the Collective Treaty Security Organization, a Russia-led alliance of six former Soviet states.

More than 2,000 troops in total were sent to Kazakhstan, mainly Russian soldiers, but also small contingencies from other member states Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on January 15 that all of its planes carrying troops had returned. It was not clear whether troops from other alliance countries remain in Kazakhstan.

With reporting by Reuters

Iran, China Launch Cooperation Pact, As Beijing Slams U.S. Sanctions On Tehran

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (file photo)

China has repeated its opposition to U.S. sanctions against Iran while announcing that Beijing and Tehran have launched a 25-year cooperation deal aimed at bolstering economic and political ties.

In a meeting on January 14 in the city of Wuxi, in Jiangsu Province, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also backed efforts to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between major powers and Iran.

A summary of the meeting between Wang and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was posted on China's Foreign Ministry website on January 15.

Wang said the United States was primarily to blame for the ongoing difficulties with Tehran, having unilaterally withdrawn from a 2015 nuclear deal between the major powers and Iran.

Under the terms of that deal, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in return for the lifting of international sanctions.

The United States reimposed sanctions that badly damaged Iran's economy after withdrawing from the nuclear pact in 2018, saying the terms did not do enough to curb Iran's nuclear activities, ballistic-missile program, and regional influence.

A year later, Iran began to gradually breach the accord, rebuilding stockpiles of enriched uranium, refining it to higher fissile purity, and installing advanced centrifuges to speed up output.

China and Iran, both subject to U.S. sanctions, signed the 25-year cooperation agreement in March 2021, bringing Iran into China's Belt and Road Initiative, a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure scheme intended to stretch from East Asia to Europe.

The project aims to significantly expand China's economic and political influence and has raised concerns in the United States and elsewhere.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry summary said the agreement would deepen Sino-Iranian cooperation in areas including energy, infrastructure, agriculture, health care, and culture, as well as cybersecurity and cooperation with other countries.

The announcement of the implementation of the pact comes as talks continue in Vienna on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

A source close to the negotiations said on January 14 that many issues in several areas remain unresolved in indirect talks between Iran and the United States.

"In every single part of the [unfinished] paper [outlining a deal], there are issues that are still under consideration," the source told reporters, adding that while negotiations are moving in the right direction, they "do not have all the time in the world.”

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Djokovic Back At Detention Hotel As Australian Court Weighs Appeal Of Visa Revocation

Novak Djokovic practices a serve ahead of a court hearing on his appeal of the revocation of his visa.

Tennis star Novak Djokovic is back at the same detention hotel in Australia where he was held last week after authorities canceled his visa for a second time.

The 34-year-old Serb, who is unvaccinated against COVID-19, arrived at the Melbourne hotel on January 15 and will stay overnight ahead of a scheduled hearing in a federal court on January 16 on his appeal against deportation.

The hearing is expected to determine whether the tennis star can stay in Australia and compete for his 10th Australian Open title and record his 21st Grand Slam trophy.

The world No. 1 and defending champion is still scheduled to play in the tournament, which starts on January 17, but the wrangling in the court of law has left his chances of actually being able to compete up in the air.

His challenge was moved to a higher court after Immigration Minister Alex Hawke blocked his visa, which was originally revoked when he landed at a Melbourne airport last week, touching off the saga, which has angered the Serb government and many Serbians.

A judge on January 10 reinstated his visa on procedural grounds after it was revoked the first time, but Hawke on January 14 said that he was using his discretionary powers on visa issues to cancel Djokovic’s visa “on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so.”

The minister now says Djokovic's continued presence in the country could "foster anti-vaccination sentiment" and even spark an "increase in civil unrest."

Hawke admitted that Djokovic is at "negligible" risk of infecting Australians but argued his past "disregard" for COVID-19 regulations may pose a risk to public health and discourage people from getting boosters just as the country experiences an increase in omicron infections.

Djokovic's lawyers argue the government "cited no evidence" to support their claims and are appealing against what they called an "irrational" judgment.

The player was granted a medical exemption on the grounds that he contracted COVID-19 in mid-December. But according to his own account, he failed to isolate despite knowing he was positive.

Djokovic's cause was not helped by a mistake on his entry declaration on which a box was ticked stating he had not traveled abroad in the two weeks before arriving in Australia. In fact, he had traveled between Spain and Serbia.

Some players have lamented that the controversy has overshadowed the buildup to the year's first Grand Slam event.

Sixth-ranked Rafael Nadal told reporters in Melbourne on January 15 that it would be good if everything is clarified soon.

"I really respect him, even if I [do] not agree with a lot of things that he did the last couple of weeks," said Nadal.

Nadal, a longtime rival of Djokovic who also holds 20 Grand Slam titles, said he wished him "all the very best" but wanted more details about his case.

"From my point of view, [there] is a lot of questions that need to be answered," the Spaniard said.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic again spoke out in support of Djokovic on Instagram.

"If you wanted to ban Novak Djokovic from winning the 10th trophy in Melbourne, why didn't you return him immediately? Why didn't you tell him, 'It is impossible to obtain a visa'?" Vucic said. "Novak, we stand by you!"

Australian Prime Minister Morrison backed the decision, saying: "Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected."

With reporting by AP, AFP, and the BBC

U.S. Deports Second Russian Hacker After Long Prison Term Ends

Russian citizen Aleksandr Panin, the primary developer of the SpyEye malware.

The United States has sent another Russian hacker back home after serving years in U.S. prison.

Aleksandr Panin, the primary developer of a prolific malware known as SpyEye, was deported to Russia on January 5, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a statement to RFE/RL.

Panin was released on November 8 after serving more than eight years in a Mississippi prison and turned over to ICE custody for deportation, the agency said.

Panin, who is from Tver, was arrested in July 2013 at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia.

He pleaded guilty a year later to a charge of conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud.

He was sentenced in April 2016 to 9 1/2 years in prison, including the time he spent in pretrial detention.

Panin sold his malware -- a successor to the notorious Zeus software that ravaged banks more than a decade ago -- to criminals on online forums for up to $8,500, according to court documents.

U.S. prosecutors say SpyEye affected more than 10,000 bank accounts at 253 financial institutions.

Panin's deportation comes four months after the United States deported Aleksei Burkov, a hacker who was the subject of a years-long extradition battle, to Russia after he served more than five years of a nine-year term.

Burkov’s early release from prison came amid the restart of U.S.-Russia cybertalks, leading to speculation that it may have been part of a deal with Moscow, something Washington denied.

Burkov was detained in Israel in December 2015 at the request of the United States on cybercrime charges.

Russia also submitted an extradition request, claiming Burkov was wanted at home, sparking a tug-of-war between Moscow and Washington for the hacker.

Burkov was eventually extradited to the United States in 2019. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in 2020 to nine years in prison, including time served since 2015.

Burkov may have been released early from prison for providing help to U.S. investigators, defense attorneys told RFE/RL at the time. His lawyer declined to comment.

Federal criminal procedure rules allow courts to reduce defendants' prison terms if within a year of their sentencing they provide “substantial assistance” to investigators.

Burkov’s partner, Ruslan Yeliseyev, a Ukrainian, received a similar reduction in his sentence and was deported back to his home country in 2020.

U.S. Accuses Russia Of Preparing 'False-Flag' Operation In Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers walk along a trench on the front line near the village of Travneve in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine in December.

The White House has accused Russia of sending saboteurs into eastern Ukraine in order to stage an incident that could provide a pretext for an invasion if Moscow's security demands are not met.

Spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on January 14 that U.S. intelligence indicates that Russia "has prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false-flag operation in Ukraine. The operatives are trained in urban warfare and using explosives to conduct acts of sabotage.”

Our intelligence indicates that Russian influence actors are already starting to fabricate Ukrainian provocations in state and social media to justify a Russian intervention..."
-- White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki

The comments come after a week of high-stakes talks in Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna between U.S. and European officials with Russian diplomats who have essentially demanded a whole-scale reorganization of Europe’s security structure.

Russia has deployed nearly 100,000 troops to areas along Ukraine’s borders, prompting Western intelligence officials to warn that Moscow could be poised to conduct a new invasion of Ukraine.

"Our intelligence also indicates that Russian influence actors are already starting to fabricate Ukrainian provocations in state and social media to justify a Russian intervention and sow division in Ukraine,” Psaki said.

"The Russian military plans to begin these activities several weeks before a military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February," she added.

In Moscow, the U.S. intelligence assessment, which was earlier announced by unnamed U.S. officials, was derided.

"Until now, all these statements have been unfounded and have not been confirmed by anything," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by state news agencies as saying.

As the United States and its Western allies have raised alarms over a massive Russian troop buildup near Ukraine, Russia has asked for written guarantees that the NATO military alliance will not admit former Soviet states such as Ukraine, among other demands.

Washington and its NATO allies held three rounds of talks with Russia in an attempt to defuse the situation, but while expressing openness to dialogue they have made clear that NATO's open-door policy for sovereign states is not negotiable.

Moscow, which has denied that it is planning to invade Ukraine, has said it could not wait indefinitely for a written Western response to its security demands.

“We have run out of patience,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during his annual foreign policy conference on January 14. “We expect a written response from our Western colleagues on our proposals.

“We are convinced that, if there is a will to compromise, one can always find mutually acceptable solutions,” he said.

Earlier, a U.S. official who discussed the alleged “false-flag” operation said the U.S. intelligence was based on intercepted communications and observations of the movements of people.

Fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists who control parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions has killed more than 13,200 people since April 2014.

Several Ukrainian government website were hit by hackers overnight, disabled and defaced by poorly worded cybergraffiti that made threats about Ukraine’s sovereignty. As of the evening of January 14, more than 12 hours after going down, the Foreign Ministry’s website and several others remained out of service.

Ukraine's Security Service said in a statement late on January 14 that its criminal investigation revealed some signs of the involvement of "hacker groups associated with the special services of the Russian Federation."

No group has taken responsibility for the attack, but Russian hackers linked to Moscow have repeatedly been blamed for cyberattacks on Ukrainian government websites and infrastructure in the past.

U.S. officials have threatened Russia with "massive and severe" sanctions and other measures if a new invasion of Ukraine does occur. Among the measures floated publicly include cutting Russia out of the SWIFT global system for bank messaging and major new export restrictions of technology to Russia.

New legislation making its way through the U.S. Senate threatens new restrictions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany, as well as personal sanctions against President Vladimir Putin if an invasion occurs.

With reporting by The New York Times and Reuters

U.S. Welcomes Russia's Arrest Of Alleged Hackers, Including Suspect In Pipeline Ransomware Attack

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, ransomware payments in the United States so far have reached $590 million in the first half of 2021, compared to a total of $416 million in 2020.

WASHINGTON -- The United States has welcomed Russia’s move to arrest alleged members of a notorious hacking group, including the individual suspected of being behind last year's ransomware attack on a U.S. pipeline operator.

“We're pleased with these initial actions,” a senior administration official said on January 14, adding the United States expects Russia to prosecute the alleged hackers.

Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) earlier in the day announced it had arrested 14 suspected members of Sodinokivi/REvil at the request of the United States.

The suspects were apprehended in Moscow, St. Petersburg, as well as other regions through a joint investigation by the FSB and the Interior Ministry.

One of the individuals arrested is alleged to have been behind the May ransomware attack against Colonial Pipeline, the senior U.S. administration official said.

The ransomware attack forced the company to preemptively shut down its pipeline, which stretches from Texas to New Jersey and delivers nearly half of the transport fuels for the Atlantic Coast, causing a temporary fuel shortage.

It helped propel cybersecurity to the top of the agenda of the summit a month later between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva.

During the summit, Biden called on Putin to go after cybercriminals operating from inside Russia who target businesses around the world, especially in the United States, through ransomware attacks.

Russia-based hackers are believed to be behind a significant proportion of global ransomware attacks. However, the Kremlin has historically turned a blind eye to their activities as long as they don’t target domestic companies and individuals, experts say.

Biden and Putin agreed in June to set up a working group on cybersecurity.

The senior administration official said the United States has given Russia information on the alleged hackers through that working group channel.

Among the 14 individuals detained by the FSB were two hackers alleged to have been behind July’s ransomware attack on the Florida-based software firm Kaseya. That attack affected businesses around the world and may have prompted a call days later between Biden and Putin.

A Moscow court on January 14 moved to arrest the two alleged Kaseya hackers, Andrei Bessonov and Roman Muromsky, and hold them in pretrial detention.

Both Muromsky and Bessonov have been charged with the illegal use of currencies and placed in custody until March 13, according to a court spokesperson.

Overall, the FSB raided more than 25 locations tied to the 14 suspects and netted more than $5.6 million, including cryptocurrencies, as well as luxury cars and computer equipment.

Western Countries Urge Kosovo To Allow The OSCE To Collect Serb Referendum Votes

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has said that ethnic Serbs in Kosovo "should be able to exercise their right to vote" in the upcoming referendum in Serbia. (file photo)

Five Western nations, including the United States, have welcomed Serbia’s upcoming referendum on judicial reforms but expressed regret that Kosovo will no longer allow the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to collect the ballots of eligible Serb voters living there.

The January 16 referendum on amendments to the constitution aims to depoliticize the appointment of prosecutors and judges to help qualify Serbia for eventual accession to the European Union.

The proposed changes are a “key step to strengthen the independence of the judiciary and to enhance the transparency and effectiveness of the country’s rule of law institutions,” France, Germany, Italy, Britain, and the United States said in a statement issued on January 14 by the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.

The five nations also expressed regret that Kosovo has not allowed the OSCE to collect the ballots of eligible voters living there, which had been the case previously.

“We call on the Kosovo government to allow Serbs in Kosovo to exercise their right to vote in elections and electoral processes in accordance with this established practice,” they said in the statement.

A day earlier, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a post on Twitter that he had discussed the issue with both Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. He said that “people should be able to exercise their right to vote.”

Kurti countered by saying, “A referendum in the sovereign territory of another state is not a practice accepted by any democratic country.”

“Serbs in Kosovo with dual citizenship can vote in Serbia’s referendum by mail or in the liaison office in Pristina”, Kurti said in a tweet on January 12.

Vucic told Serbia’s state-run RTS TV channel on January 12 that there would be "greater and far-reaching consequences than expected" if polling stations were not opened in Kosovo, so Serbs could participate in the referendum.

The Western Balkan country is a candidate for EU membership but to achieve that goal it must strengthen the independence of the judiciary and improve the rule of law.

In November, the Council of Europe, the EU’s rights watchdog, said its constitutional advisory body concluded that most of the proposed amendments were made in line with its recommendations.

The plebiscite will be held under a new referendum law which abolished a minimum 50 percent turnout threshold.

That law was condemned by environmental groups who said it may be used by the government to give free rein to foreign mining companies in the country.

Watchdog Slams Bulgarian Court Ruling As 'Judicial Harassment' Of Journalists

Award-winning Bulgarian journalist Boris Mitov (file photo)

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned as “judicial harassment” a recent court ruling in Bulgaria where two journalists and a website were found guilty of defamation for articles they published in 2018.

The Sofia City Court (SCC) found that Boris Mitov, now a journalist for RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service, and Stoyana Georgieva, had caused physical and mental anguish to Svetlin Mihailov, a former chairman of the SCC, and ordered them and the website that published the articles four years ago to pay him damages amounting to 60,000 Bulgarian lev ($34,659).

In 2018, Mitov was covering Mihailov’s bid to become head of the SCC, Bulgaria's largest district court, for the news website Mediapool. At the time, Georgieva was the editor in chief of Mediapool.

Four of those articles were examined by the court, and Judge Daniela Popova ruled on December 21 that they contained “defamatory allegations against [Mihailov].”

Lawyers for Mitov and Georgieva argued that the articles in question contained information about Mihailov, including questions about his sizable wealth and property, that had appeared at the time and since then in other publications.

In her ruling, Popova did not specify exactly what extracts from the articles in question she found “indecent, vulgar, and cynical.”

Popova ordered the two journalists and Mediapool to each pay Mihailov 20,000 lev ($11,553).

“This gag-verdict could set a dangerous precedent for press freedom in Bulgaria,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk, in a statement issued on January 14. “The disproportionate amount of damages that the journalists have been ordered to pay could have a chilling effect on media covering matters of public interest.”

“We urge the Sofia appeal court to overturn this decision. At the same time, we call on the government to adopt concrete provisions so that abusive lawsuits can no longer muzzle press freedom in Bulgaria,” Szalai added.

Popova took over the case only two months before issuing her final ruling, replacing another judge who had been dealing with it for nearly a year, Reporters Without Borders noted.

Her decision, the media monitoring group said, makes no mention of the fact that the plaintiff is a public figure and was, moreover, the court’s former president.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly had called the court’s decision “outrageous” and said it was meant to intimidate some of Bulgaria’s finest investigative journalists for reporting publicly known facts.

“The public has a right to accountability, and intimidation tactics like this will not keep RFE/RL from informing its audience about issues of public interest,” Fly said in a statement.

Lawyers for the two journalists and Mediapool have appealed the ruling.

Former President Poroshenko Not Worried He'll Be Arrested Upon Return To Ukraine

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (file photo)

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has been out of the country since December, says he will return to Ukraine despite rumors he will be immediately arrested on charges of suspected treason.

Poroshenko told Current Time in an interview that the case investigators have been trying to build against him for allegedly helping separatists sell some 1.5 billion hryvnyas ($54 million) worth of coal to Kyiv in 2014 and 2015 targets "the fate of all Ukraine."

"I will not end up behind bars, they will not have enough courage, forces, or will for that," he said when discussing what he thinks will happen upon his return to Ukraine, expected on January 17.

"I am coming back not to defend myself from [President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy, but to defend Ukraine... We must defend Ukraine from [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, defend the country from the incompetent, rotten, and absolutely corrupt authorities," Poroshenko added.

In December, Ukraine's State Investigation Bureau said Poroshenko had been placed under formal investigation for high treason, accusing him of "facilitating the activities" of separatists fighting government forces in a conflict that has claimed more than 13,200 lives since April 2014. Poroshenko rejected the accusations as politically motivated.

On January 6, Ukrainian authorities said that a court in Kyiv had frozen Poroshenko's property as part of a formal investigation into alleged high treason, which he has rejected.

The 56-year-old former president, who is now a lawmaker and the leader of the opposition European Solidarity party, has denied the allegations while accusing Ukrainian authorities of crossing "a red line" by bringing treason charges against a former head of state.

Last month, prosecutors asked a Ukrainian court to arrest Poroshenko with bail set at 1 billion hryvnia ($37 million).

Poroshenko faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted of the treason charges.

'We Have Run Out Of Patience': Lavrov Calls For West To Respond Quickly To Kremlin Demands

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on January 14.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Moscow has "run out of patience" with the West and expects a written response to its demands for security guarantees within a week after diplomatic talks with NATO and the United States failed to make headway on the issue amid a buildup of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine.

Diplomats have offered a dire assessment of a week of high-level diplomacy that included bilateral talks between Washington and Moscow, and separate rounds of discussions with NATO and the the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) against the backdrop of Western concerns that Russia's military buildup on Ukraine's doorstep may be a prelude to an invasion.

Speaking at his annual foreign policy news conference on January 14, Lavrov said the Kremlin wouldn’t wait indefinitely for the Western response to Moscow’s demands that NATO neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet states, which the Kremlin has said were key to diplomatic efforts to defuse soaring tensions over Ukraine.

“We have run out of patience,” Lavrov said at the news conference.

Washington and its allies have firmly rejected Moscow's demand for security guarantees precluding NATO's expansion and warned of "massive consequences" if Russia renews its aggression against Ukraine. U.S. officials have cast Russia's combative rhetoric and buildup of some 100,000 troops near Ukraine as a pressure tactic and said that the United States, while open to dialogue, will never submit to blackmail or allow such threats to be rewarded.

NATO has also stated clearly that it would not compromise on core principles, including the right for sovereign nations to decide what kinds of security arrangements they want to be part of.

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith said earlier this week that no alliance member was willing to budge on NATO's open-door policy, while reiterating a commitment to meaningful reciprocal dialogue with Russia.

Lavrov said Russia, too, wants the standoff over security in Europe to be resolved with mutual respect and a balance of interests, but has warned it will consider various options to respond if the West spurns Russia's security proposals.

The White House has said that the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine remains high and on January 14 announced it had intelligence suggesting Russia had sent saboteurs into eastern Ukraine to stage an incident that could be used as a pretext to justify an invasion in the event its demands in negotiations are not met. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the assessment was based on "unfounded" information.

Lavrov’s comments came hours after Kyiv reported a massive cyberattack on several government websites.

"Some say the cyberattack could be the prelude for other activities, military activities," Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg told reporters at a meeting of the bloc's top diplomats in the French city of Brest.

The standoff with Russia "is serious, more serious than anything we've seen in recent years," Schallenberg added.

Referring to the cyberattack on Ukraine, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde added that this is "exactly the kind of thing that we have warned of and that we are afraid of.”

"If there are attacks against Ukraine, we will be very harsh and very strong and robust in our response," Linde said.

Despite the increased tensions, Russia and the West have agreed to leave the door open to possible further talks on arms control and confidence-building measures intended to reduce the potential for hostilities.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on January 14 that she will travel to Moscow next week for talks over the Ukraine crisis, even though she admitted a quick solution is unlikely to be found.

"It is a characteristic of diplomacy in a crisis that it takes a lot of persistence, patience and strong nerves ... This is why it is so important to intensively make use of varying channels of communications," she said from an informal meeting of European Union foreign ministers in the French port city of Brest.

In related news, the Russian Defense Ministry announced on January 14 that troops stationed in eastern Siberia and the Far East region have been scrambled for movement across the country as part of snap drills to check their “readiness to perform their tasks after redeployment to a large distance.”

The ministry noted that “special attention will be given to the assessment of the country's transport infrastructure to ensure the movement of troops,” adding that the troops will conduct drills involving firing live ammunition after the redeployment.

Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and supported separatist clashes in Ukraine’s east after anti-government protests toppled Ukraine's Russia-friendly former president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February 2014.

Fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists who control parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions has killed more than 13,200 people since April 2014.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP

Navalny Associates Volkov, Zhdanov Placed On Russia's 'Terrorist' List

Leonid Volkov (right), a top strategist for Aleksei Navalny, with his colleague Ivan Zhdanov (file photo)

Ivan Zhdanov and Leonid Volkov, two of jailed Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's closest associates, have been placed on the country's list of "extremists and terrorists."

The entries for the two appeared in the register of Rosfinmonitoring on January 14, putting them on the same level as right-wing nationalist groups and foreign terrorist organizations such as the Taliban and the Islamic State extremist group.

According to the Russian law, the bank accounts of individuals added to the list must be frozen immediately.

Both Volkov, the 41-year-old former coordinator of the now-defunct network of Navalny’s teams across Russia, and Zhdanov, the ex-chief of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), left the country last year and currently reside abroad.

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Russia announced last year that it had placed the two activists on an international wanted list.

Zhdanov, 33, told Current Time that the move by Rosfinmonitoring was expected and characterized it as another of the "Russian state's fascist methods."

"We will continue our activities. We will not stop them in any way," he said.

"It is a pleasure to feel that our activities are considered as problematic, a thorn for them.... Repression [in Russia] has became something extremely massive with really serious consequences," Zhdanov said, adding that the "key problems" faced by Russia today originate from the actions and policies of President Vladimir Putin.

The FBK has relentlessly targeted senior government officials over the past decade with widely watched videos detailing corruption allegations that were distributed via the Navalny LIVE channel.

Navalny's political network has been instrumental in implementing a "smart voting" strategy -- a project designed to promote candidates most likely to defeat Kremlin-linked figures.

Last year, the Moscow City Court declared the FBK and other groups related to Navalny as extremist, preventing people associated with Navalny and his network of regional offices across Russia from seeking public office.

The ruling also carries possible lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with the organizations.

Navalny himself has been in prison since February 2021 after he was arrested the month prior upon returning to Russia from Germany, where he had been undergoing treatment for a near-fatal poisoning with a Novichok-type nerve agent that he says was ordered by Putin.

The Kremlin has denied any role in Navalny's poisoning.

Last year, Zhdanov's father, Yury, was handed a suspended prison sentence last month in a corruption case that critics say is politically motivated.

Earlier this week, he was placed in a detention center for allegedly violating sentence restrictions imposed on him.

Ivan Zhdanov has accused the Kremlin of trying to pressure him by arresting his father.

With reporting by Ekho Moskvy and Interfax

U.S. Offers Support After Ukraine Hit By Massive Cyberattack

The United States has offered to provide Ukraine "whatever help it needs to recover" from a massive cyberattack that Kyiv has said appears to have links to hacker groups associated with Russian intelligence services.

The cyberattack, which targeted several Ukrainian government websites on January 14, came amid increased tensions between the West and Russia, which has massed troops and military equipment near the border with Ukraine.

The news was first reported early on January 14 by Ukraine's Education and Science Ministry on its Facebook page. Kyiv later said the cyberattack, which took place on the night of January 13-14, had not changed the content of any of the government websites targeted and that no personal data had been leaked.

Ukraine's Security Service said in a statement late on January 14 that its criminal investigation revealed some signs of the involvement of "hacker groups associated with the special services of the Russian Federation."

The Culture and Information Policy Ministry had earlier said that "initial data" indicated that the attack originated in Russia. The ministry added that its experts had suggested that the attack might be related to the failure of recent talks between Washington and Moscow over Russia's troop buildup, as well as the Kremlin's demands that NATO not admit any former Soviet states, such as Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden was briefed on the incident, a White House National Security Council spokesperson said on January 14.

"We will provide Ukraine with whatever support it needs to recover," the spokesperson said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg "strongly condemned" the attack and said that cyberexperts from member countries were exchanging information with and "supporting the Ukrainian authorities on the ground."

Josep Borrell, the European Union's top diplomat, also condemned the attack and said the EU's political and security committee and cyberunits would meet to see how to respond and help Kyiv.

In a statement, Ukraine's government said that a number of other state websites had been suspended to prevent the attack from spreading, though most of the affected state resources had already been restored.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell: "It's difficult to say [who is behind it]. I can't blame anybody as I have no proof, but we can imagine."
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell: "It's difficult to say [who is behind it]. I can't blame anybody as I have no proof, but we can imagine."

During the cyberattack, a message appeared on the website of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry written in Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish, warning Ukrainians to “be afraid and expect the worst.”

On some of the websites, a text appeared in the same three languages saying all data of Ukrainians uploaded to the network had become public.

"We are going to mobilize all our resources to help Ukraine to tackle this cyberattack. Sadly, we knew it could happen," Borrell told reporters at an EU foreign ministers meeting in the western French port city of Brest. "It's difficult to say [who is behind it]. I can't blame anybody as I have no proof, but we can imagine."

Stoltenberg said NATO and Ukraine would strengthen cybercooperation in the coming days.

“NATO and Ukraine will sign an agreement on enhanced cybercooperation, including Ukrainian access to NATO's malware information-sharing platform. NATO’s strong political and practical support for Ukraine will continue,” Stoltenberg said.

No group has taken responsibility for the attack, but Russian hackers linked to Moscow have repeatedly been blamed for cyberattacks on Ukrainian government websites and infrastructure in the past.

The West has accused Russia of deploying tanks, artillery and about 100,000 soldiers on Ukraine's war-torn eastern border in recent weeks, in what NATO says is preparation for an invasion.

Moscow says it has no plans to invade Ukraine.

In December, Russia unveiled proposals to contain the United States and NATO in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, saying that the US-led alliance should not admit Ukraine or Georgia as new members.

This week the United States and its NATO allies held talks with Russia in an attempt to ease tensions, but all three rounds of negotiations -- in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna -- failed to make significant progress.

On January 13, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow saw no reason to hold a new round of security talks with the West following a lack of progress.

In October 2020, the United States charged six Russians with carrying out cyberattacks on Ukraine's power grid, the 2017 French elections, and the 2018 Winter Olympics.

At the time, the U.S. Justice Department said the six were current or former members of the GRU -- Russian military intelligence -- and were also accused of staging a malware attack called "NotPetya," which infected computers of businesses worldwide causing nearly $1 billion in losses.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Djokovic Battling In Legal Court To Stay In Australian Open

Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic had been in training in Melbourne ahead of the Australian Open.

Australia has canceled the visa of unvaccinated world tennis No. 1 Novak Djokovic and a court has ordered him to report to an immigration detention hotel, leaving the Serbian tennis star's chances of defending his title at the
Grand Slam tournament in Melbourne up in the air just days before play starts.

A Federal Court judge said late on January 14 that the 34-year-old tennis star must report to the detention center by 8 a.m. local time the next day after Djokovic's lawyers requested an injunction to stop the revocation of his visa, as ordered hours earlier by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke.

The Serb had been hoping to begin his quest for a record 21 st Grand Slam title when play begins in Melbourne on January 17. Instead, his next court date has been set for January 15 for an immigration hearing to stay in the country.

But that came to a screeching halt when Hawke issued a statement on January 14 saying that he was using his discretionary powers on visa issues to cancel Djokovic’s visa “on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so.”

“This decision followed orders by the Federal Circuit and Family Court on 10 January 2022, quashing a prior cancellation decision on procedural fairness grounds,” Hawke’s statement said.

“In making this decision, I carefully considered information provided to me by the Department of Home Affairs, the Australian Border Force and Mr. Djokovic.”

Djokovic's legal team said the decision to revoke the visa was based on the argument that allowing Djokovic to stay would excite anti-vaccination sentiment. They countered that while he has publicly opposed compulsory vaccination, he has not campaigned against vaccination in general, making Hawke's decision "patently irrational."

The news came after Djokovic had practiced serving and returning on a court at Melbourne Park with no spectators present.

Djokovic had been included in the tournament’s draw as the top seed, but he had remained in limbo as Hawke considered whether to cancel his visa for a second time over COVID-19 entry regulations.

Australia's pandemic response has been seen as very restrictive, including an insistence for those entering the country to be double-vaccinated or show acceptable proof they cannot be vaccinated to enter quarantine-free.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended the visa cancelation saying it was carried out on the basis of public interest.

"Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected," he said in a statement.

"That is what the (immigration) minister is doing in taking this action today...Our strong border protection policies have kept Australians safe, prior to COVID and now during the pandemic," he added.

Djokovic, a vaccine skeptic, traveled to Melbourne with a medical exemption to Australia’s requirements for visitors to be inoculated against COVID-19.

He appeared eager to defend his title and vie for a record-breaking Grand Slam trophy when the tournament gets under way on January 17.

His troubles started immediately upon arrival in Melbourne when the Australian Border Force decided his exemption was invalid and put him in an immigration detention hotel.

On January 10, an Australian judge reinstated Djokovic's visa and allowed him out of detention. Since then the matter has been before Hawke, whose spokesman said earlier this week that "lengthy further submissions" from Djokovic's legal team had delayed a decision.

The situation has caused an outcry in Australia, which has endured some of the world's longest lockdowns and is now experiencing runaway cases attributed to the omicron variant. Serbia, on the other hand, has rallied behind the player, with some Serbs expressing anger over his treatment.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham defended the government’s policies on January 14, saying they were "crystal clear."

They require noncitizens who enter Australia to be double dose vaccinated “unless they have a clear and valid medical exemption against that," Birmingham said on Australian television.

"That policy has not changed, and we will continue to apply that policy rigorously," Birmingham said.

Djokovic's cause was not helped by a mistake on his entry declaration on which a box was ticked stating he had not traveled abroad in the two weeks before arriving in Australia. In fact, he had traveled between Spain and Serbia.

Djokovic blamed the error on his agent and acknowledged that he also should not have done an interview and photoshoot for a French newspaper on December 18 while infected with COVID-19.

Some tennis players say Djokovic should be allowed to play, but not all have been supportive.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, ranked fourth in the world, criticized his behavior, telling Indian broadcaster WION, “For sure he has been playing by his own rules."

With reporting by Retuers and AFP

Republican Bill To Impose Sanctions On Nord Stream 2 Businesses Fails In U.S. Senate

Sponsored by U.S. Republican Senator Ted Cruz. the proposed bill was defeated by 11 votes. (file photo)

Democrats in the U.S. Senate have defeated a bill that would have slapped sanctions on businesses involved in the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.

The bill, sponsored by Senator Ted Cruz (Republican-Texas), needed at least 60 votes to pass. It was defeated by a vote of 55-44 on January 13.

Lawmakers from both parties have opposed the pipeline, but Democrats said Cruz's bill would have harmed relations with Germany at a time when the U.S. is seeking to present a united front against Russia and its troop buildup near the border with Ukraine.

Cruz said the 55-44 vote showed a majority of senators support fast action on the pipeline.

"Only immediately imposing sanctions can change [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's calculation, stop a Ukrainian invasion, and lift the existential threat posed by Nord Stream 2," Cruz said.

Other Republicans accused Democrats of being timid in standing up to Putin.

Putin “can smell the weakness,” Senator John Barrasso (Republican-Wyoming) said before the vote. “Stopping this pipeline should be an area of bipartisan agreement.”

The $11 billion undersea pipeline was completed in September but has not yet received regulatory approval from Germany.

Critics say Nord Stream 2 will increase Europe’s energy reliance on Russia, while enabling Moscow to reroute gas exports around Ukraine, depriving the country of billions of dollars a year in transit fees.

Democrats emphasized that much of the work on the pipeline was done under the administration of former President Donald Trump.

“This is the Trump-Putin pipeline,” said Senator Robert Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey) and sponsor of a rival bill to impose sanctions on Russia if it invades Ukraine. That bill has yet to come up for a vote.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AP

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