Kamala Harris at climate summit: World must ‘fight’ those stalling action

DUBAI — The vast, global efforts to arrest rising temperatures are imperiled and must accelerate, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris told the world climate summit on Saturday. 

“We must do more,” she implored an audience of world leaders at the COP28 climate talks in Dubai. And the headwinds are only growing, she warned.

“Continued progress will not be possible without a fight,” she told the gathering, which has drawn more than 100,000 people to this Gulf oil metropolis. “Around the world, there are those who seek to slow or stop our progress. Leaders who deny climate science, delay climate action and spread misinformation. Corporations that greenwash their climate inaction and lobby for billions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies.” 

Her remarks — less than a year before an election that could return Donald Trump to the White House — challenged leaders to cooperate and spend more to keep the goal of containing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach. So far, the planet has warmed about 1.3 degrees since preindustrial times.

“Our action collectively, or worse, our inaction will impact billions of people for decades to come,” Harris said.

The vice president, who frequently warns about climate change threats in speeches and interviews, is the highest-ranking face of the Biden White House at the Dubai negotiations.

She used her conference platform to push that image, announcing several new U.S. climate initiatives, including a record-setting $3 billion pledge for the so-called Green Climate Fund, which aims to help countries adapt to climate change and reduce emissions. The commitment echoes an identical pledge Barack Obama made in 2014 — of which only $1 billion was delivered. The U.S. Treasury Department later specified that the updated commitment was “subject to the availability of funds.”

Meanwhile, back in D.C., the Biden administration strategically timed the release of new rules to crack down on planet-warming methane emissions from the oil and gas sector — a significant milestone in its plan to prevent climate catastrophe.

The trip allows Harris to bolster her credentials on a policy issue critical to the young voters key to President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign — and potentially to a future Harris White House run. 

“Given her knowledge base with the issue, her passion for the issue, it strikes me as a smart move for her to broaden that message out to the international audience,” said Roger Salazar, a California political strategist and former aide to then-Vice President Al Gore, a lifetime climate campaigner. 

Yet sending Harris also presents political peril. 

Biden has taken flak from critics for not attending the talks himself after representing the United States at the last two U.N. climate summits since taking office. And climate advocates have questioned the Biden administration’s embrace of the summit’s leader, Sultan al-Jaber, given he also runs the United Arab Emirates’ state-owned oil giant. John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, has argued the partnership can help bring fossil fuel megaliths to the table.

Harris has been on a climate policy roadshow in recent months, discussing the issue during a series of interviews at universities and other venues packed with young people and environmental advocates. The administration said it views Harris — a former California senator and attorney general — as an effective spokesperson on climate. 

“The vice president’s leadership on climate goes back to when she was the district attorney of San Francisco, as she established one of the first environmental justice units in the nation,” a senior administration official told reporters on a call previewing her trip. 

Joining Harris in Dubai are Kerry, White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi and John Podesta, who’s leading the White House effort to implement Biden’s signature climate law. 

Biden officials are leaning on that climate law — dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act — to prove the U.S. is doing its part to slash global emissions. Yet climate activists remain skeptical, chiding Biden for separately approving a series of fossil fuel projects, including an oil drilling initiative in Alaska and an Appalachian natural gas pipeline.

Similarly, the Biden administration’s opening COP28 pledge of $17.5 million for a new international climate aid fund frustrated advocates for developing nations combating climate threats. The figure lagged well behind other allies, several of whom committed $100 million or more.

Nonetheless, Harris called for aggressive action in her speech, which was followed by a session with other officials on renewable energy. The vice president committed the U.S. to doubling its energy efficiency and tripling its renewable energy capacity by 2030, joining a growing list of countries. The U.S. also said Saturday it was joining a global alliance dedicated to divorcing the world from coal-based energy. 

Like other world leaders, Harris also used her trip to conduct a whirlwind of diplomacy over the war between Israel and Hamas, which has flared back up after a brief truce.

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Harris would be meeting with “regional leaders” to discuss “our desire to see this pause restored, our desire to see aid getting back in, our desire to see hostages get out.”

The war has intruded into the proceedings at the climate summit, with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas both skipping their scheduled speaking slots on Friday. Iran’s delegation also walked out of the summit, objecting to Israel’s presence.

Kirby said Harris will convey “that we believe the Palestinian people need a vote and a voice in their future, and then they need governance in Gaza that will look after their aspirations and their needs.”

Although Biden won’t be going to Dubai, the administration said these climate talks are “especially” vital, given countries will decide how to respond to a U.N. assessment that found the world’s climate efforts are falling short. 

“This is why the president has made climate a keystone of his administration’s foreign policy agenda,” the senior administration official said.

Robin Bravender reported from Washington, D.C. Zia Weise and Charlie Cooper reported from Dubai. 

Sara Schonhardt contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.



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Israel’s appetite for high-tech weapons highlights a Biden policy gap

Within hours of the Hamas attack on Israel last month, a Silicon Valley drone company called Skydio began receiving emails from the Israeli military. The requests were for the company’s short-range reconnaissance drones — small flying vehicles used by the U.S. Army to navigate obstacles autonomously and produce 3D scans of complex structures like buildings.

The company said yes. In the three weeks since the attack, Skydio has sent more than 100 drones to the Israeli Defense Forces, with more to come, according to Mark Valentine, the Skydio executive in charge of government contracts.

Skydio isn’t the only American tech company fielding orders. Israel’s ferocious campaign to eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip is creating new demand for cutting-edge defense technology — often supplied directly by newer, smaller manufacturers, outside the traditional nation-to-nation negotiations for military supplies.

Already, Israel is using self-piloting drones from Shield AI for close-quarters indoor combat and has reportedly requested 200 Switchblade 600 kamikaze drones from another U.S. company, according to DefenseScoop. Jon Gruen, CEO of Fortem Technologies, which supplied Ukrainian forces with radar and autonomous anti-drone aircraft, said he was having “early-stage conversations” with Israelis about whether the company’s AI systems could work in the dense, urban environments in Gaza.

This surge of interest echoes the one driven by the even larger conflict in Ukraine, which has been a proving ground for new AI-powered defense technology — much of it ordered by the Ukrainian government directly from U.S. tech companies.

AI ethicists have raised concerns about the Israeli military’s use of AI-driven technologies to target Palestinians, pointing to reports that the army used AI to strike more than 11,000 targets in Gaza since Hamas militants launched a deadly assault on Israel on Oct 7.

The Israeli defense ministry did not elaborate in response to questions about its use of AI.

These sophisticated platforms also pose a new challenge for the Biden administration. On Nov. 13, the U.S. began implementing a new foreign policy to govern the responsible military use of such technologies. The policy, first unveiled in the Hague in February and endorsed by 45 other countries, is an effort to keep the military use of AI and autonomous systems within the international law of war.

But neither Israel nor Ukraine are signatories, leaving a growing hole in the young effort to keep high-tech weapons operating within agreed-upon lines.

Asked about Israel’s compliance with the U.S.-led declaration on military AI, a spokesperson for the State Department said “it is too early” to draw conclusions about why some countries have not endorsed the document, or to suggest that non-endorsing countries disagree with the declaration or will not adhere to its principles.

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program, said in an interview that “it’s very difficult” to coordinate international agreement between nations on the military use of AI for two reasons: “One is that the technology is evolving so quickly that the description constraints you put on it today may no longer may not be relevant five years from now because the technology will be so different. The other thing is that so much of this technology is civilian, that it’s hard to restrict military development without also affecting civilian development.”

In Gaza, drones are being largely used for surveillance, scouting locations and looking for militants without risking soldiers’ lives, according to Israeli and U.S. military technology developers and observers interviewed for this story.

Israel discloses few specifics of how it uses this technology, and some worry the Israeli military is using unreliable AI recommendation systems to identify targets for lethal operations.

Ukrainian forces have used experimental AI systems to identify Russian soldiers, weapons and unit positions from social media and satellite feeds.

Observers say that Israel is a particularly fast-moving theater for new weaponry because it has a technically sophisticated military, large budget, and — crucially — close existing ties to the U.S. tech industry.

“The difference, now maybe more than ever, is the speed at which technology can move and the willingness of suppliers of that technology to deal directly with Israel,” said Arun Seraphin, executive director of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Institute for Emerging Technologies.

Though the weapons trade is subject to scrutiny and regulation, autonomous systems also raise special challenges. Unlike traditional military hardware, buyers are able to reconfigure these smart platforms for their own needs, adding a layer of inscrutability to how these systems are used.

While many of the U.S.-built, AI-enabled drones sent to Israel are not armed and not programmed by the manufacturers to identify specific vehicles or people, these airborne robots are designed to leave room for military customers to run their own custom software, which they often prefer to do, multiple manufacturers told POLITICO.

Shield AI co-founder Brandon Tseng confirmed that users are able to customize the Nova 2 drones that the IDF is using to search for barricaded shooters and civilians in buildings targeted by Hamas fighters.

Matt Mahmoudi, who authored Amnesty International’s May report documenting Israel’s use of facial recognition systems in Palestinian territories, told POLITICO that historically, U.S. technology companies contracting with Israeli defense authorities have had little insight or control over how their products are used by the Israeli government, pointing to several instances of the Israeli military running its own AI software on hardware imported from other countries to closely monitor the movement of Palestinians.

Complicating the issue are the blurred lines between military and non-military technology. In the industry, the term is “dual-use” — a system, like a drone-swarm equipped with computer-vision, that might be used for commercial purposes but could also be deployed in combat.

The Technology Policy Lab at the Center for a New American Security writes that “dual-use technologies are more difficult to regulate at both the national and international levels” and notes that in order for the U.S. to best apply export controls, it “requires complementary commitment from technology-leading allies and partners.”

Exportable military-use AI systems can run the gamut from commercial products to autonomous weapons. Even in cases where AI-enabled systems are explicitly designed as weapons, meaning U.S. authorities are required by law to monitor the transfer of these systems to another country, the State Department only recently adopted policies to monitor civilian harm caused by these weapons, in response to Congressional pressure.

But enforcement is still a question mark: Josh Paul, a former State Department official, wrote that a planned report on the policy’s implementation was canceled because the department wanted to avoid any debate on civilian harm risks in Gaza from U.S. weapons transfers to Israel.

A Skydio spokesperson said the company is currently not aware of any users breaching its code of conduct and would “take appropriate measures” to mitigate the misuse of its drones. A Shield AI spokesperson said the company is confident its products are not being used to violate humanitarian norms in Israel and “would not support” the unethical use of its products.

In response to queries about whether the U.S. government is able to closely monitor high-tech defense platforms sent by smaller companies to Israel or Ukraine, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said it was restricted from publicly commenting or confirming the details of commercially licensed defense trade activity.

Some observers point out that the Pentagon derives some benefit from watching new systems tested elsewhere.

“The great value for the United States is we’re getting to field test all this new stuff,” said CSIS’s Cancian — a process that takes much longer in peacetime environments and allows the Pentagon to place its bets on novel technologies with more confidence, he added.



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The longer Israel thinks, the more time Washington has to calm its wrath

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

BEIRUT — “Once you break it, you are going to own it,” General Colin Powell warned former United States President George W. Bush when he was considering invading Iraq in the wake of 9/11.

And as the invasion plan came together, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blocked any serious postwar planning for how Iraq would be run once the country’s ruler Saddam Hussein had gone. As far as he was concerned, once “shock and awe” had smashed Iraq, others could pick up the pieces.

British generals fumed at this. And General Mike Jackson, head of the British army during the invasion, later described Rumsfeld’s approach as “intellectually bankrupt.”

That history is now worth recalling — and was likely on U.S. President Joe Biden’s mind when he urged the Israeli war cabinet last week not to “repeat mistakes” made by the U.S. after 9/11.

Despite Biden’s prompt, however, Israel still doesn’t appear to have a definitive plan for what to do with the Gaza Strip once it has pulverized the enclave and inflicted lasting damage on Hamas for the heinous October 7 attacks.

Setting aside just how difficult a military task Israel will face undertaking its avowed aim of ending Hamas as an organization — former U.S. General David Petraeus told POLITICO last week that a Gaza ground war could be “Mogadishu on steroids” — the lack of endgame here suggests a lack of intellectual rigor that disturbingly echoes Rumsfeld’s.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told lawmakers Friday that the country didn’t have plans to maintain control over Gaza after its war against Hamas had concluded, saying Israel would end its “responsibility for life in the Gaza Strip.” Among other minor matters, this raises the issue of where the coastal enclave of 2.3 million people will get life-sustaining energy and water, as Israel supplies most utility needs.

Israeli and Western officials say the most likely option would be to hand responsibility to the West Bank-based Palestinian National Authority, which oversaw the enclave until Hamas violently grabbed control in 2007. “I think in the end the best thing is that the Palestinian Authority goes back into Gaza,” Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid said last week.

But it isn’t clear whether Mahmoud Abbas — the Palestinian Authority president and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is dominated by his Fatah party — would want Gaza on those terms, or whether he has the power to do much of anything with the enclave in the first place.

Abbas is already struggling to maintain his authority over the West Bank. He’s an unpopular leader, and his government is seen to be not only appallingly venal, but is perceived by many as ceding to the demands of the Israeli authorities too easily. 

Israel now controls 60 percent of the West Bank, and its encroaching settlements in the area — which are illegal under international law — haven’t helped Abbas. Nor have Israeli efforts to hold back the West Bank from developing — a process dubbed “de-developing” by critics and aimed, they say, at restricting growth and strangling Palestinian self-determination.

In West Bank refugee camps, Abbas’ security forces have now lost authority to armed groups — including disgruntled Fatah fighters. “It is unclear whether Abbas would be prepared to play such an obvious role subcontracting for Israel in Gaza. This would further erode whatever domestic standing the PA has left,” assessed Hugh Lovatt, a Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But it isn’t only Gaza — or the West Bank — that risks breaking in the coming weeks.

Neighboring countries are watching events unfold with growing alarm, and they fear that if more thought isn’t given to Israel’s response to the savage Hamas attacks, and it isn’t developed in consultation with them, they’ll be crushed in the process. If Israel wants the support of these countries — or their help even — in calming the inevitable anger of their populations once a military campaign is launched, it needs their buy-in and agreement on the future of Gaza and Palestinians, and to stop using the language of collective punishment.

Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah — Hamas’ ally — has been intensifying its skirmishes along the border with Israel, is currently the most vulnerable. And Lebanese politicians are complaining they’re being disregarded by all key protagonists — Israel, the U.S. and Iran — in a tragedy they wish to have no part in.

Already on its knees from an economic crisis that plunged an estimated 85 percent of its population into poverty, and with a barely functioning caretaker government, the Lebanese are desperate not to become the second front in Iran’s war with Israel. Lebanon “could fall apart completely,” Minister of Economy and Trade Amin Salam said.

But the leaders of Egypt and Jordan share Lebanon’s frustrations, arguing that the potential repercussions for them are being overlooked. This is why Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called Saturday’s Cairo summit of regional and international leaders.

El-Sisi focused the conference on a longer-term political solution, hopefully a serious effort to make good on the 2007 Annapolis Conference’s resolution to set up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Egypt has much to lose if the war escalates — and the country’s officials are fuming at what they see as a careless attitude from Israel toward what happens to Gaza after Hamas is subjugated, potentially leaving a cash-strapped Egypt to pick up some of the pieces.

More than that, Egypt and Jordan harbor deep suspicions — as do many other Arab leaders and politicians — that as the conflict unfolds, Israel’s war aims will shift. They worry that under pressure from the country’s messianic hard-right parties, Israel will end up annexing north Gaza, or maybe all of Gaza, permanently uprooting a large proportion of its population, echoing past displacements of Palestinians — including the nakba (catastrophe), the flight and expulsion of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians in 1948.

This is why both el-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II are resisting the “humanitarian” calls for displaced Gazans to find refuge in their countries. They suspect it won’t be temporary and will add to their own security risks, as Gazans would likely have to be accommodated in the Sinai — where Egyptian security forces are already engaged in a long-standing counterinsurgency against Islamist militant groups.

And both countries do have grounds for concern about Israel’s intentions.

Some columnists for Israel Hayom —a newspaper owned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close friend, American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson — are already calling for annexation. “My hope is that the enemy population residing there now will be expelled and that the Strip will be annexed and repopulated by Israel,” wrote Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who served 30 years in prison for spying for Israel before emigrating.

And last week, Gideon Sa’ar, the newly appointed minister in Netanyahu’s wartime government, said that Gaza “must be smaller at the end of the war . . . Whoever starts a war against Israel must lose territory.”

Given all this, there are now signs the Biden administration is starting to take the risks of the Gaza crisis breaking things far and wide fully on board — despite widespread Arab fears that it still isn’t. By not being fast enough to express sympathy for ordinary Gazans’ suffering as Israel pummels the enclave, Biden’s aides initially fumbled. And while that can easily be blamed on Hamas, it needs to be expressed by American officials loudly and often.

In the meantime, the unexplained delay of Israel’s ground attack is being seen by some analysts as a sign that Washington is playing for time, hoping to persuade the country to rethink how it will go about attacking Hamas, prodding Israel to define a realistic endgame that can secure buy-in from Arab leaders and help combat the propaganda of Jew-hatred.

Meanwhile, hostage negotiations now appear to be progressing via Qatar, after two American captives were freed Friday. There have also been reports of top Biden aides back-channeling Iran via Oman.

So, despite Arab condemnation, the Biden administration’s approach may be more subtle than many realize — at least according to Michael Young, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center. He said it was always inevitable that Washington would publicly back Israel but that a primary aim has been to “contain Israel’s reaction” to the Hamas attacks, while seemingly deferring to the country.

And time will help. The longer Israel thinks, the more opportunity Washington has to reason, to calm, and to explain the trail of cascading wreckage Israel risks leaving behind if it is unrestrained and fails to answer — as Biden put it — “very hard questions.”

But that might not be sufficient to prevent everything spinning out of control. Israel morally and legally has the right to defend itself from barbaric attacks that were more a pogrom, and it must ensure the safety of its citizens. There are also others — notably Iran — that want the destruction of the Jewish state, and even a scaled down response from Israel may trigger the escalation most in the region fear.



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Spain election repeat more likely after expat vote count

Spain’s already complicated electoral landscape just got a lot more complex.

On Saturday, the count of the 233,688 ballots deposited by Spaniards living abroad — which are tallied five days after the in-person vote is held — led to the redistribution of seats in the Spanish parliament. As a result, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Party lost one of the spots it was allocated in Madrid, which will now go to the center-right Popular Party.

The Popular Party is now set to have 137 MPs in the next legislature; together with the far-right Vox party’s 33 MPs and the single MP belonging to the affiliated Navarrese People’s Union (UPN), the right-wing bloc is set to control at least 171 seats the same number as Sánchez and his preferred partners. Should the Canarian Coalition revise its stated position, which is against backing any government that includes Vox, the conservative bloc could add another seat to its tally.

Those numbers do not improve conservative leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo’s chances of becoming prime minister. Even with an additional seat under Popular Party control, he still does not have enough support to overcome the crucial simple majority vote that a candidate must win in parliament in order to form a government.

But with the technical tie created by the reallocation of seats, Prime Minister Sánchez’s already narrow path to victory has become much more precarious, making the possibility of new elections in Spain more likely.

Prior to the loss of the seat in Madrid, Sánchez’s options for remaining Spain’s head of government involved persuading nationalist and separatist MPs to back a left-wing coalition government formed by his Socialist Party and the left-wing Sumar group. The combined forces of those parties and the 153 Socialist and Sumar MPs would have enabled Sánchez to count on 172 favorable votes, slightly more than the 170 the right-wing bloc was projected to control. As long as he convinced the Catalan separatist Junts party to abstain, Sánchez would have had more yeas than nays and been able to form a new government.

But now, with only 171 votes in its favor, the left-wing bloc will be facing at least an equal number of right-wing MPs capable of rejecting Sánchez’s bid to remain Spain’s prime minister. Getting Junts to abstain is no longer enough — Sánchez will need one or potentially two of the separatist party’s MPs to vote in his favor.

A hard circle to square

If getting Junts to abstain was already unlikely, getting the party to explicitly back the Socialist candidate seems virtually unthinkable right now.

Since 2017 the party’s founder, former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, has been pursued by the Spain’s judiciary for his role in the Catalan independence referendum. As a member of the European Parliament, Puigdemont has been able to sidestep Madrid’s efforts to extradite him from Belgium, where he lives in self-imposed exile. But in June a top EU court stripped him of his immunity and just days ago Spanish prosecutors called for a new warrant to be issued for his arrest.

Earlier this week Junts said that it would only negotiate with Sánchez if he agrees to declare a blanket amnesty for everyone involved in the 2017 referendum and commits to holding a Catalan independence vote.

“The party that needs our support will have to be the one to make the effort,” said incumbent Junts MP Míriam Nogueras. “These negotiations need to be held from one nation to another … Things are not going to be as they have always been.”

Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister María Jesús Montero was quick to reject both demands, saying on Tuesday that the Socialist Party could only negotiate “within the margins of legality set out within the Spanish constitution.”

SPAIN NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Holding new national elections would almost certainly hurt separatist parties. With the exception of Basque group EH Bildu, all of them lost seats in last Sunday’s vote, and they’re likely to lose even more support if they force electors to go back to the polls in December or January.

On Saturday, Raquel Sans, spokesperson for the Republican Left of Catalonia party, admitted that her group had begun to hold discreet talks with Junts with the goal of forging “strategic unity” among Catalan separatists and avoiding repeat elections that “are not in the interest of the public.”

The tie between the two blocs may allow conservative leader Feijóo to press Spain’s King Felipe VI to name him as his candidate to be the next prime minister when parliament is reconvened next month.

Although there is no chance that Feijóo will be able to win the required support from fellow MPs, a failed bid in parliament will allow him to momentarily quiet the dissenters in his ranks who have been calling for him to step down in the aftermath of last Sunday’s result, in which the Popular Party won the most votes in the election but failed to secure the seats needed to form a government.

There is still the possibility, however, that enough party leaders will tell the king that they back Sánchez’s bid and that he has a viable path to form a coalition government. While the now-caretaker prime minister is keeping a low-profile this week, Socialist Party representatives are said to be hard at work, holding informal chats with partners with the objective of stitching up that support in the coming weeks.

Regardless of whether the candidate is Feijóo or Sánchez, the moment one of them fails their first investiture vote, a two-month deadline will begin counting down, at the end of which the Spanish constitution dictates that the king must dissolve parliament and call new elections. That new vote must be held 54 days after the legislature concludes, so if no deal is struck in the coming months, Spaniards would go to the polls again at the end of this year or, more likely, at the beginning of 2024.



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Moldova ramps up EU membership push amid fears of Russia-backed coup

CHIȘINĂU, Moldova — Tens of thousands of Moldovans descended on the central square of the capital on Sunday, waving flags and homemade placards in support of the country’s push to join the EU and make a historic break with Moscow.

With Russia’s war raging just across the border in Ukraine, the government of this tiny Eastern European nation called the rally in an effort to overcome internal divisions and put pressure on Brussels to begin accession talks, almost a year after Moldova was granted EU candidate status.

“Joining the EU is the best way to protect our democracy and our institutions,” Moldova’s President Maia Sandu told POLITICO at Chișinău’s presidential palace, as a column of her supporters marched past outside. “I call on the EU to take a decision on beginning accession negotiations by the end of the year. We think we have enough support to move forward.”

Speaking alongside Sandu at what was billed as a “national assembly,” European Parliament President Roberta Metsola declared that “Europe is Moldova. Moldova is Europe!” The crowd, many holding Ukrainian flags and the gold-and-blue starred banner of the EU, let out a cheer. An orchestra on stage played the bloc’s anthem, Ode to Joy.

“In recent years, you have taken decisive steps and now you have the responsibility to see it through, even with this war on your border,” Metsola said. “The Republic of Moldova is ready for integration into the single European market.”

However, the jubilant rally comes amid warnings that Moscow is doing everything it can to keep the former Soviet republic within its self-declared sphere of influence.

In February, the president of neighboring Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, warned that his country’s security forces had disrupted a plot to overthrow Moldova’s pro-Western government. Officials in Chișinău later said the Russian-backed effort could have involved sabotage, attacks on government buildings and hostage-taking. Moscow officially denies the claims.

“Despite previous efforts to stay neutral, Moldova is finding itself in the Kremlin’s crosshairs — whether they want to be or not, they’re party of this broader conflict in Ukraine,” said Arnold Dupuy, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

“There’s an effort by the Kremlin to turn the country into a ‘southern Kaliningrad,’ putting in place a friendly regime that allows them to attack the Ukrainians’ flanks,” Dupuy said. “But this hasn’t been as effective as the Kremlin hoped and they’ve actually strengthened the government’s hand to look to the EU and NATO for protection.”

Responding to the alleged coup attempt, Brussels last month announced it would deploy a civilian mission to Moldova to combat growing threats from Russia. According to Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, the deployment under the terms of the Common Security and Defense Policy, will provide “support to Moldova [to] protect its security, territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

Bumps on the road to Brussels

Last week, Sandu again called on Brussels to begin accession talks “as soon as possible” in order to protect Moldova from what she said were growing threats from Russia. “Nothing compares to what is happening in Ukraine, but we see the risks and we do believe that we can save our democracy only as part of the EU,” she said. A group of influential MEPs from across all of the main parties in the European Parliament have tabled a motion calling for the European Commission to start the negotiations by the end of the year.

But, after decades as one of Russia’s closest allies, Moldova knows its path to EU membership isn’t without obstacles.

“The challenge is huge,” said Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “They will need to overcome this oligarchic culture that has operated for 30 years where everything is informal, institutions are very weak and large parts of the bureaucracy are made viable by vested interests.”

At the same time, a frozen conflict over the breakaway region of Transnistria, in the east of Moldova, could complicate matters still further. The stretch of land along the border with Ukraine, home to almost half a million people, has been governed since the fall of the Soviet Union by pro-Moscow separatists, and around 1,500 Russian troops are stationed there despite Chișinău demanding they leave. It’s also home to one of the Continent’s largest weapons stockpiles, with a reported 20,000 tons of Soviet-era ammunition.

“Moldova cannot become a member of the EU with Russian troops on its territory against the will of the Republic of Moldova itself, so we will need to solve this before membership,” Romanian MEP Siegfried Mureșan, chair of the European Parliament’s delegation to the country, told POLITICO.

“We do not know now what a solution could look like, but the fact that we do not have an answer to this very specific element should not prevent us from advancing Moldova’s European integration in all other areas where we can,” Mureșan said.

While she denied that Brussels had sent any official signals that Moldova’s accession would depend on Russian troops leaving the country, Sandu said that “we do believe that in the next months and years there may be a geopolitical opportunity to resolve this conflict.”

Ties that bind

Even outside of Transnistria, Moscow maintains significant influence in Moldova. While Romanian is the country’s official language, Russian is widely used in daily life while the Kremlin’s state media helps shape public opinion — and in recent months has turned up the dial on its attacks on Sandu’s government.

A study by Chișinău-based pollster CBS Research in February found that while almost 54 percent of Moldovans say they would vote in favor of EU membership, close to a quarter say they would prefer closer alignment with Russia. Meanwhile, citizens were split on who to blame for the war in Ukraine, with 25 percent naming Russian President Vladimir Putin and 18 percent saying the U.S.

“Putin is not a fool,” said one elderly man who declined to give his name, shouting at passersby on the streets of the capital. “I hate Ukrainians.”

Outside of the capital, the pro-Russian ȘOR Party has held counter-protests in several regional cities.

Almost entirely dependent on Moscow for its energy needs, Moldova has seen Russia send the cost of gas skyrocketing in what many see as an attempt at blackmail. Along with an influx of Ukrainian refugees, the World Bank reported that Moldova’s GDP “contracted by 5.9 percent and inflation reached an average of 28.7 percent in 2022.”

“We will buy energy sources from democratic countries, and we will not support Russian aggression in exchange for cheap gas,” Sandu told POLITICO.

The Moldovan president, a former World Bank economist who was elected in 2020 on a wave of anti-corruption sentiment, faces a potentially contentious election battle next year. With the process of EU membership set to take years, or even decades, it remains to be seen whether the country will stay the course in the face of pressure from the Kremlin.

For Aurelia, a 40-year-old Moldovan who tied blue and yellow ribbons into her hair for Sunday’s rally, the choice is obvious. “We’ve been a part of the Russian world my whole life. Now we want to live well, and we want to live free.”



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Serbia’s far right seizes on Putin’s war to push retaking Kosovo

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BELGRADE — Serbia’s ultra-nationalists are using Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to galvanize their campaign against Kosovo’s independence — and anti-war activists are getting caught in the crossfire.

Politicians on Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić’s right flank have sniffed out an opportunity to tie Russia’s war on Ukraine to their desire to swallow up Kosovo, even as Vučić engages in EU-brokered negotiations to partially normalize relations with Kosovo, the independence of which neither Belgrade nor Moscow recognize.

A victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine is a stepping stone to Serbia regaining Kosovo, according to Miša Vacić, the leader of the highly nationalistic, pro-Kremlin Serbian Right political party.

“We must be patient and must wait to finish in Ukraine, and after that we will have enough time,” he told POLITICO.

More than 200,000 Russians have arrived in Serbia since the beginning of the invasion. As one of just a handful of European countries offering visa-free entry to Russian passport-holders, it provides safe harbor for those seeking an exit for reasons ranging from economic to ideological.

Vacić, who in September traveled to Russian-occupied Donetsk to observe the so-called referendum to join Russia that was widely slammed by Western governments as a sham, claims Russian liberal activists in Serbia are a threat to realizing his ideal society, if they join forces with their local counterparts. 

“It is a real revolution of liberals,” Vacić said, adding that even if only 10 percent of the new Russian arrivals were committed liberal activists, Serbia would still be flooded with at least 20,000 of his political enemies. “They think they must liberate Serbia from Serbs, from traditional Serbian values.”

Violent threats

Among the Russians who have arrived in Belgrade since Putin launched his full-scale invasion last year is Ilya Zernov. The 19-year-old political activist from Tolyatti in southwestern Russia sought sanctuary in Belgrade last March — his anti-war protests prompted a police search of his student dormitory in Kazan.

“I realized that I would not be able to continue my studies, and would not be able to be in Russia for a long time,” Zernov told POLITICOadding that the police who searched his dorm threatened him with violence and imprisonment.

Zernov is an active participant in the Russian Democratic Society (RDS), an anti-war organization founded last year in Belgrade with the stated goal of supporting Ukrainian victory. It has since emerged as one of the most visible pro-Ukraine advocacy groups in Serbia, regularly organizing protests in the streets.

But in a country where Putin enjoys significant support amid an increasingly assertive ultra-nationalist movement, anti-war activists are a target.

A Russian Democratic Society (RDS) event on February 24, 2023 | Bennett Murray for POLITICO

Zernov reported to the police last month that Vacić had assaulted him. The attack, which Zernov said occurred after he attempted to paint over anti-Ukrainian graffiti on the side of a Belgrade apartment block, left him with a perforated eardrum. Vacić denies assaulting Zernov.

Threats of violence also overshadowed plans to hold two anti-war rallies on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion.

“The police warned us that they had information that some kind of violent provocations were being planned by these extreme-right people,” said RDS co-founder Peter Nikitin, whose group organized one of the protests.

Nikitin also rejected Vacić’s claims that his group, and those like it, are seeking to campaign on social issues in Serbia.

“Our only purpose is to show the world and the Serbian public what is happening, and to mobilize public opinion for Ukraine,” he said, adding that it is Vacić who wants to make Serbia subservient to foreign interests. “[Vacić] is pushing Russian interests and Putin’s interests in Serbia very directly, and he’s the one trying to turn Serbia into Russia.”

Rallying around ‘Z’

As the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approached last month, tensions simmered in Belgrade.

A far-right rally in mid-February ended with participants attempting to break into President Vučić’s office. Damjan Knezevic, the leader of the People’s Patrol far-right network, gave a fiery speech to a crowd of around 1,000 calling for Vučić to be overthrown, amid a heated national debate over the proposal to resolve the Serbia-Kosovo dispute.

Many in attendance waved Russian flags or sported pro-war symbols, including the letter “Z” used by the Russian military to mark its vehicles in Ukraine, and the skull and crosshairs logo of the Wagner Group, a private mercenary force that has been backing Moscow’s military in the war.

Police arrested Knezevic and two other associates the following day on charges of inciting violence. On the day of the rally, another People’s Patrol member was also arrested in Serbia’s second city Novi Sad on weapons charges after being discovered with a rifle, optic sight and ammunition. 

The arrests spurred yet more outrage among People’s Patrol followers, who doubled down on plans to hold a pro-war rally on February 24, adjacent to RDS’ anti-war protest. While authorities refused to issue a permit for the People’s Patrol rally, officials feared riots would ensue.

When the first year anniversary of the invasion arrived, RDS held a scaled-back version of its planned events, per police advice. It proceeded without incident.

A man wearing a patch with a “Z” on it at a rally on February 15, 2023 | Bennett Murray for POLITICO

Natalia Taranushchenko, an organizer for Belgrade-based Ukrainian association Cini Dobro who is originally from Ukraine’s Vinnytsia region, told POLITICO that while Serbia is generally welcoming, “There are still symbols of Russian aggression, letter Z on the streets of Belgrade, and we still hear that Ukrainians are ‘Nazis’ and a lot of other Russian propaganda.”

Still, there’s some hope for the Ukrainians and anti-war Russians seeking safety in Serbia: Putin’s stalled offensive has also deflated the ultra-nationalists here.

“Serbs were very passionate because they were expecting that Putin would overthrow Ukraine in three days, and after that they thought he would say that we need to get back Kosovo for Serbia,” said Čedomir Stojković, a Belgrade-based lawyer who investigates covert Russian influence in his country. 

“But over time, as the war did not happen the way people expected, those expectations started to change, and now because there is cognitive dissonance, there is no passion,” he said.



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To go or not to go? Von der Leyen’s COVID committee dilemma

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There won’t be any severed horses’ heads but the European Commission president may soon receive an offer that she can’t refuse — at least without causing an institutional dust-up.

Last week, the coordinators of the European Parliament’s special committee on COVID-19 voted to invite Ursula von der Leyen to appear in front of the panel to answer their questions on vaccine procurement. 

It’s not a courtesy call. EU lawmakers want to shine a light on exactly what happened during those hectic months at the height of the pandemic in 2021, when the bloc was frantically searching for vaccine doses to protect its population from the coronavirus.

The committee’s chair, Belgian MEP Kathleen Van Brempt has said she wants full transparency on the “preliminary negotations” leading up to vaccine purchases — a reference to the Commission president’s unusual personal role in negotiating the EU’s biggest vaccine contract, signed with Pfizer and its partner BioNTech. An appearance would refocus attention on von der Leyen’s highly contentious undisclosed text messages with Pfizer’s chief executive.

It’s a topic von der Leyen has so far fiercely resisted opening up about but the COVI committee invite could put the Commission president in a sticky situation.

All bark, no bite? 

On the face of it, von der Leyen could just say no. European Parliament committees don’t have many formal powers. They have no rights to compel witnesses to appear or to get them to tell the truth — and there’s no recourse if someone refuses to appear or lies in front of the committee.

Indeed, Pfizer’s Chief Executive Albert Bourla — with whom von der Leyen is reported to have conducted personal negotiations via text message — thumbed his nose at the committee more than once, and sent one of his employees instead.

Even when the Parliament does reel in a big name, the performance can be lackluster — like in the case of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who agreed to show up but then avoided answering most questions. That’s a far cry from how the U.S. Senate’s commerce and judiciary committees grilled the tech titan for hours. 

And the Commission president has already shown a penchant for being evasive when it comes the Pfizer negotiations, earning the Commission a verdict of maladministration from the European Ombudsman for its lack of transparency.

However, the fact that von der Leyen is an inter-institutional figure gives the Parliament more bite than with external guests — and may help tip the balance in the committee’s favour.

First, there’s precedent. While the Commission President usually appears in front of all MEPs at a plenary session such as in the annual State of the European Union speech, Commission presidents have appeared in front of committees in the past. Von der Leyen’s predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, for example, appeared in front of a special committee to answer uncomfortable questions over his role in making Luxembourg a tax haven. 

Secondly, the European Parliament is tasked with overseeing the EU’s budget. With billions of euros spent in the joint purchase of the vaccines, and part of those funds coming straight from the EU’s pockets, it’s hard to argue that there aren’t important financial considerations at play, and ones that the elected representatives of the EU should be allowed to scrutinize.

Then there’s Article 13 of the EU’s founding treaty, which calls for “mutual sincere cooperation” between the EU’s institutions. It’s a point that’s repeated in an inter-institutional agreement between the Parliament and the Commission, which states that the EU’s executive should also provide lawmakers with confidential information when it’s requested — like, for example, the contents of certain text messages.

The Commission has so far been tight-lipped. When asked last week about Ursula von der Leyen’s upcoming invite to the COVID-19 committee, a Commission spokesperson said “No such invitation has been received.”

Don’t shoot the messenger 

And, in fact, it’s now up to European Parliament president Roberta Metsola to decide whether the invite will ever reach von der Leyen’s hands. The request is on her desk and, per protocol, any invitation to appear must come from the president’s office.

Metsola, who belongs to the same political group as von der Leyen (the center-right European People’s Party), confirmed to POLITICO that she has received a letter from the COVI committee and “will look at it.” “I cannot pre-empt what my reply will be to that committee,” she said.

As long as proper form is followed, Metsola should “pass on the message,” said Emilio De Capitani, a former civil servant who for 14 years was secretary of the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee (LIBE).

“The question isn’t abusive,” said De Capitani.  

In theory, von der Leyen, who was elected to her role by the Parliament, relies on its mandate to stay there.

“There’s nothing strange about meeting with an organ of the Parliament,” the former Parliamentary official added. “Then it will be up to von der Leyen to ask whether the hearing is in public or, behind closed doors. She could also choose to address it in plenary.” 

For political operatives such as Metsola and von der Leyen, the optics of their actions are likely to play a major role in any decision. And this invite comes at the same time as the biggest scandal in the European Parliament’s history.

An assistant for one of the MEPs in the COVI committee said the drive for transparency produced by the unfolding “Qatargate” influence scandal gave extra force to the invite.

“It wouldn’t have had the same result without Qatargate,” said the assistant. “If she says no, it will only make the problem worse.” 

Not everyone agrees. Detractors say the Parliament has lost its moral standing. And that even if none of the MEPs in the COVID-19 committee are implicated, the institution is still weakened on the whole.

“I think this [Qatargate] will make it less likely for von der Leyen to cooperate with the Parliament,” said Camino Mortera-Martinez, head of the Brussels office at the think tank Centre for European Reform. She said the Commission president is riding high after weathering a pandemic, and now the war in Ukraine.

“The European Parliament in theory could force von der Leyen to appear by threatening to dismiss her — but how can they do that in the current climate?”

This article was updated Friday morning to include comment from Roberta Metsola.

Eddy Wax contributed reporting.



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