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Can Blinken Defuse Ukraine Tensions?

After prior talks with Moscow resulted in deadlock, Washington is attempting to chart a diplomatic path forward.

By , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.
Antony Blinken speaks in Delaware.
Antony Blinken speaks in Delaware.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken speaks in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 24, 2020. Mark Makela/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken travels to Europe to defuse tensions over Ukraine, China’s Olympics app comes under scrutiny, and Sudan’s anti-coup protests escalate.

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Blinken Travels to Europe to Defuse Tensions

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken travels to Europe to defuse tensions over Ukraine, China’s Olympics app comes under scrutiny, and Sudan’s anti-coup protests escalate.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Blinken Travels to Europe to Defuse Tensions

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew to Europe this week in an urgent effort to defuse tensions over Ukraine, after weeks of strained negotiations with Russia resulted in an impasse.

We’re now at a stage where Russia could at any point want an attack in Ukraine,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. “What Secretary Blinken is going to do is highlight very clearly there is a diplomatic path forward.”

Blinken will first meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock before concluding his trip in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Previous talks with the Kremlin ended inconclusively, with Russian officials dismissing the negotiations as a “dead end.” In recent days, Moscow has deployed more troops to Belarus and evacuated its embassy staff from Ukraine, an ominous move that could be a ruseor signal a worrying future. 

With Moscow’s continued security demands, the United States is “fundamentally not on the same page as the Russians,” said Rachel Rizzo, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Diplomatic offramps are becoming less likely, and European and American policymakers need to prepare for the worst.” 

Some of these potentially dire outcomes have already materialized. Last week, a sweeping cyberattack—which Kyiv has attributed to Moscow—forced key Ukrainian government websites offline for an extended period of time. U.S. officials have also received intelligence that Moscow is planning a false-flag operation in Ukraine to justify war, FP’s Amy Mackinnon, Jack Detsch, and Robbie Gramer reported. 

Experts warn that these attacks are just a sampling of what could come if negotiations deteriorate. “That was very much a taste of the kind of gray-zone attacks and aggression we may face from the Russians,” said Daniel Fried, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and former U.S. ambassador to Poland. “I think we’ll get more of this, and it’ll get worse.”

As the threat of invasion grows, Washington is now planning for a high-profile U.N. showdown to spotlight Russia’s diplomatic isolation, FP’s Colum Lynch reported last week. U.S. officials are also preparing to sanction at least four pro-Russian agents in Ukraine, an action that may help deter Moscow from invading. 

Rizzo cautioned that much of the foreseeable future will hinge on the outcome of Blinken’s trip. “The worry is that if these talks happen on Friday and nothing comes of it, I don’t know where we go from here,” she said. 


What We’re Following Today

Olympic security concerns. When thousands of athletes arrive in Beijing for the Winter Olympics in February, they will be required to download MY2022, an app that tracks COVID-19 test results, health data, and travel information. But the app may have major security flaws: According to the Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity watchdog, the mobile app contains encryption vulnerabilities that leave users’ personal data largely unprotected from hackers. 

Several governments have now reportedly advised athletes to leave their phones at home, while the cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0 has recommended that all attendees bring burner phones.

Sudan’s continued unrest. After anti-coup protests rocked Sudan on Monday, security forces fired back with bullets, tear gas, and sound bombs, killing at least seven people and injuring more than 100 others. The deadly clashes added to a mounting death toll: Since the Sudanese military seized power in the October 2021 coup, 71 civilians have died in ongoing demonstrations against its rule. 

Pro-democracy groups have now been striking for two days. Their walkouts come as David Satterfield, the new U.S. Horn of Africa envoy, and Molly Phee, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, visit the country to encourage a democratic transition. 


Keep an Eye On

Israel’s spyware scandal. For years, Israeli authorities have reportedly used spyware to hack the cellphones of Israeli citizens, according to an investigation by the Israeli newspaper Calcalist. The military-grade spyware, which was developed by the NSO Group, allowed police to target leading activists who opposed former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israeli authorities have rejected the allegations.

Boris deflects blame. Amid mounting pressure to quit, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted on Tuesday that he did not lie to Parliament about the Downing Street lockdown party scandal. While apologizing for his “misjudgments,” he denied knowingly breaking any rules. “Nobody warned me that it was against the rules,” Johnson said. “I would have remembered that.”

Nazarbayev speaks out. Weeks after protests first swept Kazakhstan, the country’s former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, emerged Tuesday to publicly support his successor and quell rumors of internal political disputes. Nazarbayev, who held power for roughly three decades, was largely absent during the demonstrations, fueling rumors that he had fled the country. 

“President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has full power,” he said. “There is no conflict or confrontation in the elite. Rumors on this subject are absolutely groundless.”


Odds and Ends 

Egregious human rights abuses include forced starvation, torture, and … flushing the toilet loudly at night, according to Italy’s top court. In La Spezia, Italy, one pair of neighbors has spent nearly two decades feuding over a notably thunderous toilet that produced “intolerable noises”—ones so loud that they impeded one couple’s nightly rest. 

The court agreed it was a serious problem. The appellate judge ruled that the booming sound undermined the couple’s right to freely exercise their daily habits, as enshrined under the European Convention on Human Rights. 


SitRep Live: Is There a Biden Doctrine?

War looms in Ukraine. The pandemic continues its deadly spread. Tensions with China escalate. And Washington seems more dysfunctional than ever. U.S. President Joe Biden has had crises thrown his way from Kabul to Kyiv. Amid the chaos, has a coherent foreign policy emerged? 

FP’s Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer give their report card on Biden’s first year, drawing on interviews with dozens of foreign dignitaries and experts.

Register to attend here.

Christina Lu is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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