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What to make of the French exit from Mali? | Opinions

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On February 17, France and its European allies announced that they will begin withdrawing their troops from Mali after nearly 10 years. The move came on the back of growing tensions between France and the West African country’s military-led government, and signalled a major shift in the former colonial power’s engagement with the restive region.

France had been Mali’s primary partner in its fight against armed unrest since 2013. But the relations between the two countries started to deteriorate after Mali’s army led by Colonel Assimi Goita staged a coup in August 2020 and ousted democratically elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Initially, while pressuring the military junta for a swift return to civilian rule, France opted to continue its cooperation with Malian forces. However, the situation took a turn for the worse eight months later, when Goita staged a second coup and pushed out a civilian-led government appointed to oversee a transition period. In response, France first suspended its joint military operations with Malian forces and then announced its decision to “draw down” its counterinsurgency campaign in Mali, known as Operation Barkhane.

This marked the beginning of a vicious diplomatic battle between the two nations, which saw Mali publicly accuse France of training “terrorist groups” in the Sahel, deploy Russian Wagner mercenaries to the country and eventually expel the French ambassador.

Meanwhile, Mali’s ruling military announced its intention to remain in power for up to five years, and started accusing its critics, including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which imposed a trade embargo on the country in response to the move, of trying to “sabotage” Mali’s transition. It firmly turned public opinion against France by accusing its former partner of working with ECOWAS to undermine Goita’s efforts to rebuild institutions and stabilise the country. As a result, France found itself with no option but to withdraw its troops from Mali and relocate them elsewhere.

Barkane’s failure and the trouble with foreign military interventions

While Mali’s military government escalated its criticism of France and its counterinsurgency campaign in the past year, as part of a populist effort to legitimise its power grab, discontent with Operation Barkhane was simmering beneath the surface for much longer in Mali.

It is undeniable that since its start in August 2014, Barkhane has been very influential in the Sahel. As a force that was 5,100 strong at its peak, running operations in a vast region covering five countries, Barkhane has been a key partner of not only regional armies but also MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission active in Mali since 2013.

Over the last few years, however, these French-led counterterror operations in Mali and the wider region have also been causing much frustration and anger, due to their apparent inability to decisively defeat armed groups and shield civilians from violence.

Long before Malian authorities started to define France and Operation Barkhane as a destructive force in the Sahel, populations across the region were voicing their discontent with the counterinsurgency effort. This widespread frustration with Barkhane was on full show in November 2021, when first in Burkina Faso’s northern Kaya region and then in Tera in western Niger, protesters obstructed a 100-vehicle Barkhane convoy on its way to a military base in Mali. In Niger, French soldiers had to fire weapons to free the convoy, killing three protesters and injuring more than a dozen.

Several interconnected factors turned the Malian public and other populations against Operation Barkhane and led to the failure of the French-led counterinsurgency efforts in the Sahel.

First of all, many Sahelians did not expect their national armies to suffer high casualties against armed groups while being supported by the French military. Similarly, they assumed the French military presence in the region would prevent civilian casualties or widespread displacement. As this did not happen, and Sahel nations continued to suffer high levels of instability and violence, disappointment transformed into disillusionment and anger. In the end, people started to question the sincerity of French efforts and accused Barkhane of doing more harm than good.

The ever-increasing number of international and regional military coalitions and counterinsurgency programmes also contributed to the failure of Operation Barkhane. Over the years, countless formations, from MINUSMA, G5 and Takuba to the European Union Training Mission, Coalition for the Sahel and P35, crowded the region. As this multi-headed military architecture repeatedly failed to bring stability and peace to the region, local populations started to lose faith in all existing interveners, and especially their apparent leader – France.

Beyond all this, however, the failure of Operation Barkhane was also a consequence of the failure of French policies in the Sahel. In its engagement with the region, France repeatedly put its geostrategic and economic interests first, and applied different governance principles in different countries, losing the trust of local governments and populations alike,

A significant portion of the Malian citizenry rejected Operation Barkhane and French-led counterinsurgency efforts in general because rigid foreign policy stances by France constrained the policy options of the Malian government – especially when it came to reducing violence by negotiating with armed groups.

So, in the end, the coups in Mali did not cause but only sped up the failure of Operation Barkhane and the withdrawal of France from the region. The accession to power of a new group of Malian elites, some of whom are Russophiles who studied in the Soviet Union, and others who are willing to talk to insurgents to end the bloodshed, only accelerated what was inevitable: a rift between Mali and France and a redrawing of the French military presence in the Sahel.

What’s next, for Mali, France and the region?

With more than 18,000 personnel, MINUSMA is currently the largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world, but also the deadliest one, having sustained more than 260 fatalities. Facing operational challenges in a vast and sparsely populated country, the UN force benefitted from the logistical support of Barkane, with whom it shared some facilities. With Barkane and Takuba – a smaller, European special operations force – leaving Mali, it remains to be seen how MINUSMA will adjust and continue to operate. There is also a chance that the masses who rallied against the French military presence may now focus their attention on pushing out the UN peacekeeping mission. A study conducted in 2019 showed that Malians felt that MINUSMA “is no longer able to improve peace and stability in Mali”.

For France, leaving Mali does not equate to leaving the Sahel, obviously. With a plan to relocate troops to Niger’s capital Niamey, their strong presence in Chad and continued operations in Burkina Faso, this is a mere reshuffling of the French deployment in the region – a deployment that has been continuous since 1960 in Chad. For their part, the Nigerien authorities are already preparing for this pivot, with a possible vote by the National Assembly to authorise the deployment of Barkane and Takuba in their territory. Among the Nigerien population, however, the support for a French military presence is also weak.

What is certain is that the withdrawal of French troops from Mali marks a geopolitical shift, in which French military presence is contested not only by the state but also by the national citizenries across the Sahel. The deployment of Russian troops in Mali is symbolic of this loss of influence and grasp on the political and security developments in the region. Now the question is how the Malian transitional authorities and the Sahelian governments writ large will navigate this new era.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



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Ukraine-Russia live news: Fears grow for Azovstal POWs | Russia-Ukraine war News

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  • Russia’s forces are intensifying efforts to capture Severodonetsk, the final Ukrainian strongpoint in the Luhansk region.
  • Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says his country is prepared to exchange its troops who surrendered at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol for Russian prisoners.
  • A Russia negotiator says Moscow will consider exchanging prisoners from Ukraine’s Azov battalion for Viktor Medvedchuk, a wealthy Ukrainian businessman close to President Vladimir Putin. He did not specify the number of prisoners considered for the exchange.
  • Russian energy giant Gazprom says it had stopped all natural gas supplies to Finland as it had not received payment in roubles.

INTERACTIVE Russia Ukraine War Who controls what Day 87
Here are all the latest updates:

Ukraine will likely become ‘federation’: Russian official

A Russian politician and Putin’s appointed representative to the annexed region of Crimea says Ukraine is unlikely to continue to exist in its current form, Russia’s state news agency RIA reports.

Georgy Muradov suggested Ukraine would likely become a federation, or a group of states.

He added that no country that respects itself would tolerate a flagrant violation of the rights of its own people in neighbouring states, invoking the argument Moscow commonly uses for having invaded Ukraine.

“And even more so if these attempts result in outright extermination of people, as happened in recent years with regard to Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine, where they lived for centuries in their native land,” he said.


Ukraine’s first lady in rare interview with Zelenskyy

Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska has given a rare interview with her husband on Ukrainian television, only the second time the couple have been seen together since the beginning of the war.

Zelenska described the night she woke up hearing “weird sounds outside” and saw her husband wasn’t near her. She said she walked into the next room and “he was already dressed in a suit, but without a tie”.

“I asked him what was going on and he said, ‘It has started’,” Zelenska recalled.

“Our family was torn apart as every other Ukrainian family,” she said, adding the two hadn’t seen each other for two and a half months and spoke only be telephone.

US First Lady Jill Biden greets Olena Zelenska, wife of Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, outside a public school in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, May 8, 2022
US First Lady Jill Biden greets Olena Zelenska, wife of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, outside a public school in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, May 8, 2022 [Susan Walsh/Pool via Reuters]

Poland’s Duda to deliver speech to Ukraine’s parliament

Poland’s president will be the first foreign head of state since the start of the war to speak directly to Ukraine’s parliament.

Andrzej Duda is due to deliver a speech to Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada on Sunday, Interfax reports.


Sanctions ‘practically broken’ logistics in Russia: Minister

Russia’s transport minister has said that international sanctions have “practically broken” logistics in the country, the state news agency TASS has reported.

“The sanctions imposed on Russia… have practically broken all logistics in our country. And we have to look for new logistics corridors,” Vitaly Savelyev, said on a visit to Russia’s southern port city of Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea

The new corridors for moving goods include a north-south route through two Caspian Sea ports: Olya and Makhachkala.

The minister’s comments were a rare admission from the Kremlin that sanctions intended to cripple Russia’s economy are having a significant effect.


Russia labels two high-profile critics as ‘foreign agents’

Russia has added two Kremlin critics, former chess champion Garry Kasparov and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to its long list of “foreign agents”.

The designation applies to many independent media companies, journalists and NGOs. Everyone on the list is obliged to mark their publications with a disclaimer noting their “foreign agent” status.

Soviet-born former world chess champion Kasparov is a longtime opponent of Putin and has lived in the US for almost a decade.

Khodorkovsky, one of Russia’s most powerful businessmen in the 1990s, spent ten years in Russian prison on what many see as falsified charges, before going into exile.


Russia again accuses Ukraine of firing on Kursk region

The governor of Russia’s Kursk region has again accused Ukraine of firing on its settlements, TASS news agency reports.

“Tetkino and nearby residential areas were subjected to Ukraine’s fire once again,” Roman Starovoit said on Saturday, adding he would provide further details on the situation later.

The governor said there were no casualties or damage to infrastructure as a result of the attack.


Ukraine’s army deterring Russia’s attacks on Slovyansk, Severodonetsk: Zelenskyy

Zelenskyy has said that Ukraine’s army has for days been deterring Russia’s advances on Slovyansk and Severodonetsk.

“The situation in Donbas is extremely difficult. As in previous days, the Russian army is trying to attack Slovyansk and Severodonetsk. The Armed Forces of Ukraine are deterring this offensive,” Zelenskyy said in his nighttime address.

Russia’s defence minister said on Friday that Moscow’s forces had almost taken full control of Luhansk. Russia is intensifying its offensive on Severodonetsk, which is the last Ukrainian stronghold in the region.


Russian separatist says six men died at Azovstal during surrender

A Russian separatist leader has said that six Ukrainian fighters were killed at the Azovstal steel plant during an evacuation procedure in which the fighters were surrendering to the Russians in groups.

The self-proclaimed leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, said that this happened due to Ukrainian men blowing up their own caches of ammunition.

“It is unclear who did this, no one is assuming responsibility, but after the main group walked out… someone ordered to blow up ammunition caches… six people died immediately, and, as far as I know, four were injured,” Pushilin said on the Soloviev Live YouTube channel on Saturday.

Pushilin also said that an unknown number of Ukrainian servicemen could still be at the Azovstal plant, adding that they had some stocks of food and water, but were short on medicines.


Russia has blocked 22 m tonnes of Ukraine’s food exports: Zelenskyy

Zelenskyy has said that Russia has blocked Ukraine from exporting 22 million tonnes of food products.

Speaking with media after a meeting with Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa, Zelenskyy said if the global community didn’t help Ukraine unblock its ports, the energy crisis would be followed by a food crisis.

“You can unblock them in different ways. One of the ways is a military solution. That is why we turn to our partners with inquiries regarding the relevant weapons,” he added.


Nearly 60 people evacuated from Luhansk region: Governor

The Luhansk governor has said 57 people were evacuated from the region on Saturday, adding that it was very “hot” in Severodonetsk, Lysychansk and the village of Bilohorivka.

“The shelling does not stop even for an hour. The Russians use artillery day and night,” Serhey Haidai said.

“Every life of the 57 rescued from these communities is important to us today. They are intact and already safe,” he added.

A partially collapsed school building in the village of Bilohorivka, Luhansk
A partially collapsed school building in the village of Bilohorivka, Luhansk, Ukraine, May 8, 2022 [Luhansk Regional Military-Civil Administration/Handout via Reuters]

Ukraine says agreeing to ceasefire with Russia will only escalate war

Ukraine’s presidential advisor has dismissed as “very strange” calls in the West to negotiate an urgent ceasefire with Russia that would involve its forces remaining in territory they have occupied in Ukraine’s south and east.

Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters making concessions would backfire on Ukraine because Russia would hit back harder after any break in fighting.

“Any concession to the Russian Federation would instantly lead to an escalation of the war. So the war will not stop. It will just be put on pause for some time,” he said.

“After a while, with renewed intensity, the Russians will build up their weapons, manpower and work on their mistakes, modernise a little, fire many generals… And they’ll start a new offensive, even more bloody and large scale, taking into account all mistakes,” Podolyak added.


Russian forces intensify efforts to capture Severodonetsk: Think-tank

Russian forces have intensified efforts to encircle and capture Ukraine’s Severodonetsk city in Luhansk Oblast and will likely continue to do so in the coming days, the Institute for the Study of War has said.

“Russian troops in Luhansk will likely move to capitalise on recent gains made in the Rubizhne-Severodonetsk-Luhansk-Popasna arc to encircle and besiege Severodonetsk – the final Ukrainian strongpoint in Luhansk Oblast,” the US-based think-tank said.

According to ISW, Russian military bloggers are hypothesising on the success of Russian tactics in the area and have dubbed it the “Battle of Severodonetsk”.


Ukrainian director denounces Russian presence at Cannes

Ukrainian director Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk has criticised the Cannes Film Festival for including a Russian director in its line-up.

The festival has banned official Russian delegations from attending, but Russian dissident Kirill Serebrennikov, who has spoken out against the invasion of Ukraine, premiered his in-competition film “Tchaikovsky’s Wife” at the festival on Wednesday.

“When he’s here, he is part of the Russian propaganda, and they can use him,” Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk told Reuters.

The Russian director Serebrennikov had said earlier this week that Russian culture should not be boycotted, saying that his culture “has always promoted human values”.

The Ukrainian director Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk described the sensation of being in Cannes while his country fights against a Russian invasion as “alien”.


Women among Azovstal fighters now prisoners of Russia: TASS news agency

There are 78 women among the people captured by Russian forces from the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, a pro-Russian separatist leader said.

Russia’s TASS news agency reported the Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin as saying there were also foreigners among those taken prisoner from the Azovstal steelworks. He did not state how many foreigners were taken prisoner.

“They had enough food and water, they also had enough weapons,” Pushilin told TASS.

“The problem was the lack of medicine,” he said, referring to the Ukrainian forces that had held out at the steel plant.


Moscow may swap Ukraine prisoners for Putin ally Medvedchuk: Negotiator

Moscow will consider exchanging prisoners from Ukraine’s Azov battalion for Viktor Medvedchuk, a wealthy Ukrainian businessman close to President Vladimir Putin, a Russian negotiator has said.

“We are going to study the possibility,” said Leonid Slutsky, a senior member of Russia’s negotiating team on Ukraine, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Slutsky did not say the number of Azov fighters Moscow was considering for exchange.  A separatist leader in eastern Ukraine has said nearly 2,500 Ukrainian fighters were in custody and were sure to face tribunals.

Medvedchuk, 67, is a politician and one of Ukraine’s richest people and is known for his close ties to Putin. He escaped from house arrest after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February but was re-arrested by Ukrainian forces in mid-April.

Viktor Medvedchuk
Pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk in handcuffs after he was detained by security forces in Ukraine in April 2022 [Press service of the State Security Service of Ukraine/Handout via Reuters]

Russian troops responsible for 7 civilians’ deaths: Ukraine governor

Ukraine says Russian forces are responsible for the deaths of seven civilians in the area of Donetsk in the east of the country that is under Moscow’s control.

Three people were killed in the town of Lyman alone, regional governor Pavlo Kirilenko wrote on Telegram.

Meanwhile in Kherson, occupied by Russian forces, local administrators accused Ukraine of killing three civilians and injuring 10 in the village of Biloserka, in a statement on Telegram.


Ukraine ready to exchange its soldiers for Russian prisoners of war: Zelenskyy

Zelenskyy says his country is prepared to exchange its troops who surrendered at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol for Russian prisoners.

In an interview with a Ukrainian television channel, Zelenskyy said the most important thing for him was to save the maximum number of people and soldiers. “We will bring them home,” he said.

Russia claims to have taken full control of the besieged city of Mariupol after the last group of Ukrainian soldiers surrendered.​​


Zelenskyy talks to Italian PM, urges more Russia sanctions

Zelenskyy has said he talked to Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and stressed the importance of more sanctions on Russia and unblocking Ukrainian ports.

Zelenskyy tweeted that he had also thanked Draghi for his “unconditional support” of Ukraine’s bid to become a member of the EU. Draghi had initiated the call, he said.


Hello and welcome to Al Jazeera’s continuing coverage of the war in Ukraine.

Read all the updates from Saturday, May 21 here.





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US envoy meets Taliban foreign minister, raises women’s rights | Taliban News

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US special envoy on Afghanistan stresses international opposition to Taliban’s treatment of women and girls.

The US special envoy on Afghanistan has met the Taliban’s acting foreign minister in the Qatari capital Doha and stressed international opposition to the group’s expanding curbs on women and girls.

“Girls must be back in school, women free to move & work w/o restrictions for progress to normalised relations,” US Special Representative on Afghanistan Thomas West wrote on Twitter on Saturday after meeting Amir Khan Mutaqi.

Since returning to power last August, the Taliban has imposed a slew of restrictions on civil society, many focused on reining in the rights of women and girls, that are reminiscent of their last rule in the 1990s.

Girls’ schools are yet to open, more than eight months since the Taliban came to power. The group has insisted that it wants girls to get back to school, but justified the delay on reasons ranging from infrastructure to lack of resources due to the economic crisis.

When the Taliban took power in August, the armed group promised to uphold the rights of girls and women. But its actions since have worried the international community.
Earlier this month, Afghanistan’s supreme leader ordered women to cover up fully in public, including their faces, ideally with the traditional burqa.

 

During the last few months, Taliban leaders, particularly from the Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, have announced many new restrictions, even as criticism and international pressure mounts against them.

In December, the ministry, which replaced the Afghan Ministry of Women Affairs, imposed restrictions on women from travelling further than 72km (45 miles) without a close male relative.

This restriction was further expanded to include travelling abroad, and several solo women travellers were reportedly stopped from boarding flights. Similar bans were also introduced in several healthcare centres across the country, forbidding women to access healthcare without a mahram (male chaperone).

In January, a group of 36 UN human rights experts said that Taliban leaders in Afghanistan are institutionalising large-scale and systematic gender-based discrimination and violence against women and girls.

A surprise U-turn in March, in which the group shuttered girls’ high schools on the morning they were due to open, drew the ire of the international community and prompted the US to cancel planned meetings on easing the country’s financial crisis.

A Ministry of Education notice said on March 23 that schools for girls would be closed until a plan was drawn up in accordance with Islamic law and Afghan culture, according to Bakhtar News Agency, a government news agency.

Economic stabilisation

West also said that the two discussed economic stabilisation in Afghanistan and concerns about attacks on civilians.

The country is teetering on the verge of economic disaster after the West froze Afghanistan’s assets held abroad and cut off aid.

“Dialogue will continue in support of Afghan people and our national interests,” West, the US envoy, said in his post.

The country has been reeling from a humanitarian crisis with more than half of the population facing hunger. The Taliban has struggled to revive the aid-dependent economy, which is in freefall due to sanctions and exclusion from international financial institutions.

In December, the Biden administration issued what it called “broad authorisations” to ensure that the United Nations, American government agencies and aid groups can provide humanitarian relief to Afghanistan without running foul of sanctions against the Taliban.





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Erdogan speaks to Stoltenberg over Finland, Sweden NATO bid | NATO News

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Turkey’s President tells NATO chief Sweden and Finland must address Ankara’s concerns before it could support their membership bid.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday said Ankara would not look “positively” on Sweden and Finland’s NATO bids unless its concerns were addressed, despite broad support from other allies, including the United States.

Turkey has long accused Nordic countries, in particular Sweden which has a strong Turkish immigrant community, of harbouring outlawed Kurdish rebels as well as supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the US-based preacher wanted over the failed 2016 coup.

Erdogan’s opposition has thrown a major potential obstacle in the way of the likely membership bids from the hitherto militarily non-aligned Nordic nations since a consensus is required in NATO decisions.

“Unless Sweden and Finland clearly show that they will stand in solidarity with Turkey on fundamental issues, especially in the fight against terrorism, we will not approach these countries’ NATO membership positively,” Erdogan told NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg in a phone call, according to the presidency.

On Twitter, Stoltenberg said he spoke with Erdogan “of our valued ally” on the importance of “NATO’s Open Door”.

“We agree that the security concerns of all Allies must be taken into account and talks need to continue to find a solution,” he said.

On Thursday, Stoltenberg said Turkey’s “concerns” were being addressed to find “an agreement on how to move forward”.

Erdogan speaks to leaders of Sweden and Finland

Erdogan, who refused to host delegations from Sweden and Finland in Turkey, held separate phone calls with the two countries’ leaders – Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson – on Saturday, urging them to abandon financial and political support for “terrorist” groups threatening his country’s national security.

Erdogan called upon Sweden to lift defensive weapons export restrictions it imposed on Turkey over Turkey’s 2019 incursion into northern Syria, a Turkish presidential statement said.

The Turkish leader also said he expected Stockholm to take “concrete and serious steps” against the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, and other groups which Ankara views as “terrorists”.

Andersson tweeted that Sweden looked “forward to strengthening our bilateral relations, including on peace, security, and the fight against terrorism”.

The PKK has waged a rebellion against the Turkish state since 1984 and is blacklisted as a “terrorist organisation” by Turkey and Western allies like the European Union – which includes Finland and Sweden.

Erdogan told Finish President Sauli Niinisto “that an understanding that ignores terrorist organisations that pose a threat to an ally within NATO is incompatible with the spirit of friendship and alliance”, the statement added.

In return, Niinisto praised “an open and direct phone call” with Erdogan.

“I stated that as NATO allies Finland and Turkey will commit to each other’s security and our relationship will thus grow stronger,” he tweeted.

“Finland condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. Close dialogue continues.”

Sweden and Finland, while solidly Western, have historically kept a distance from NATO as part of longstanding policies aimed at avoiding angering Russia.

But the two nations moved ahead with their membership bid in shock over their giant neighbour’s invasion of Ukraine, which had unsuccessfully sought to join NATO.

On Thursday, Niinisto and Andersson visited Washington, where they spoke with US President Joe Biden about their bids to join NATO in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Biden said “Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger”, and offered the “full, total, complete backing of the United States of America”.



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