Left Out of High-Level Talks Ukraine Tries Other Diplomatic Channels

Peace negotiations are usually thought to involve two sides brought together by a mediator trying to tease out possible compromises, far from the anger and destruction of the battlefield.

But the latest talks on the eight-year-old war in Ukraine are different. The conflict — and an overtly threatened Russian invasion that the talks are intended to forestall — is in Ukraine. Ukraine, however, will be missing from two of the three negotiating sessions scheduled for this week.

Such a limited role for Ukraine in the talks has clearly unnerved the government in Kyiv. Fearing the talks will yield little or nothing, and with President Biden’s statement that the United States will not intervene militarily if Russia invades, Ukraine has quietly pursued its own negotiating track with Moscow.






















































The latest threat of invasion began last month, when Russia massed more than 100,000 troops along its borders with Ukraine and demanded wide-ranging — and, to Western analysts, impossible — concessions from the United States and NATO on matters of European security.

Those were laid out in two draft treaties proposed by Moscow that the government in Kyiv — because it is not a member of the alliance — has no say over. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia subsequently threatened to launch an invasion of Ukraine if the talks on its proposals should fail.

In effect, that made Ukraine “the hostage,” of Russia, said Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, a former Ukrainian ambassador to the European Union.

Moscow’s sidelining of Ukraine and its demand for direct talks with the United States and NATO were intentional, Mr. Yelisieiev said.

One of Russia’s key demands is that NATO exclude any possibility of Ukraine’s membership in the alliance — NATO has already rejected that demand — and halt all military cooperation with the country. Russia also insisted that the alliance halt all military activities throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The talks got off to a rocky start on Sunday when a senior Russian official warned that the United States had a “lack of understanding” of the Kremlin’s security demands, and the United States voiced doubts over whether Russia was “serious” about de-escalating the crisis in Ukraine.

In remarks reported by Russian news agencies, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei A. Ryabkov said he was intent on negotiating “dynamically, without pauses,” to prevent the West from “putting the brakes on all this and burying it in endless discussions.”

In appearances on Sunday morning’s network news shows, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the United States was “not about making concessions” under the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, eight years after it annexed Crimea.

“It’s about seeing whether, in the context of dialogue and diplomacy, there are things that both sides, all sides can do to reduce tensions,” he said on CNN. “We’ve done that in the past.”

The current threat to Ukraine follows eight years of low-level conflict. Russia intervened militarily in Ukraine in 2014, annexing the Crimean Peninsula and fomenting separatist uprisings in two eastern provinces, leading to the deaths of more than 13,000 people.

“The issues concern all of Europe, including Ukraine, but Putin suggests discussions between Russia and the United States,” Mr. Yelisieiev said. “Russia in this way made an announcement of a sphere of influence. ‘You leave us the former Soviet space and do what you want elsewhere.’”

A Ukrainian delegation will take part in the third of the three rounds of talks, scheduled for Thursday in Vienna under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The United States has said it is coordinating closely with the authorities in Kyiv, and Mr. Biden spoke on the phone with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine a week ago.

“No decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine,” the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, posted on Twitter last week, noting he will also meet with NATO officials in Brussels. “Part of a wide diplomatic effort to deter further Russian aggression.”

Given the stakes for Ukraine, the Zelensky government has decided not to rely wholly on the U.S.-led negotiations. Mr. Zelensky announced a separate, Ukrainian diplomatic initiative with Russia in late December, the specifics of which were later published in the Russian newspaper Kommersant.

A Saudi princess, a critic of her country’s government who was jailed nearly three years ago after publicly questioning government policy, has been released, a legal adviser to her family said on Sunday.

The princess, Basmah bint Saud, returned home on Thursday with her daughter Suhoud al-Sharif, who was imprisoned with her, according to the legal adviser, Henri Estramant.

But it remained unclear whether the women would be allowed to travel abroad, a pressing issue because Princess Basmah needs medical care not available in Saudi Arabia for a heart condition, Mr. Estramant said.

Princess Basmah was among a number of prominent Saudi activists, dissidents and members of the royal family either jailed or put under house arrest during the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has consolidated his grip on the kingdom since his father, King Salman, ascended to the throne in 2015.

Prince Mohammed is one of the most divisive rulers in Saudi history. He has earned plaudits at home and abroad for loosening social restrictions and seeking to diversify the economy away from oil. But also punctuating his rise have been a disastrous military intervention in Yemen and a disregard for human rights, including the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

The detentions of figures like Princess Basmah have fueled these criticisms.

Among those detained were women who campaigned for the right to drive, which was granted in 2018, and members of the royal family whom Prince Mohammed, often referred to by his initials, M.B.S., may have considered obstacles on his path to the throne.

Some detainees have been released, but many continue to be barred from traveling abroad, apparently because the government fears they could discuss their cases with foreign journalists or representatives of other governments.

A number of prominent people, including two sons of the previous monarch, King Abdullah, remain in detention, according to their associates, and information continues to come to light about the mistreatment of some detainees.

The most prominent is Mohammed bin Nayef, a former interior minister whom Prince Mohammed ousted as crown prince in 2017 to claim the title for himself.

After his removal, Mohammed bin Nayef was put under house arrest until March 2020, when he was arrested and detained.

At the start of his detention, Mohammed bin Nayef was held in solitary confinement, deprived of sleep and suspended upside down by his ankles, according to two people briefed on his situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Last fall, he was moved to a villa inside the complex surrounding the king’s Al-Yamamah Palace in Riyadh, the capital, where he remains, the people said.

Mohammed bin Nayef is kept by himself with no television or other electronic devices and receives only limited visits from his family, the people said. He appears to have sustained lasting damage to his ankles from his treatment in detention and cannot walk without a cane.

The government has not filed formal charges against him or explained why he is detained. Most Saudi experts assume that it is because Prince Mohammed fears he could impede Prince Mohammed’s quest to become the next Saudi king.

A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment about Princess Basmah or Mohammed bin Nayef.

Princess Basmah, 58, who was released with her daughter, Ms. al-Sharif, last week, never held a government position nor had any power. The youngest daughter of King Saud, Saudi Arabia’s second king, Princess Basmah spent much of her time in London and was best known for occasionally offering opinions about Saudi Arabia to the news media, which was rare for royals, especially women.

She criticized the kingdom’s legal system, which is based on Shariah law, and called for the country to adopt a constitution that protected citizens’ rights, statements for which she faced no consequences.

But speaking to BBC Arabic in 2018, Princess Basmah accused Prince Mohammed, albeit without naming him, of refusing to accept those who did not support his overhaul plans, known as Vision 2030.

“He has a vision, Vision 2030, and I see that in that vision, there is a direction toward a type of isolation of all those who do not agree with that vision,” she said.

In March 2019, the police arrested Princess Basmah and Ms. al-Sharif, who is around 30, from their home in the Saudi city of Jeddah.

Mr. Estramant said that the two women were accused of undefined “criminal offenses” and held in Al Ha’ir Prison, near Riyadh, but were never formally charged with any crimes.

Saudi officials have not commented publicly on Princess Basmah’s case, but in 2020, the Saudi Mission to the United Nations in Geneva told a United Nations body that she had been “accused of criminal offenses involving attempting to travel outside the kingdom illegally.” It said Princess Basmah had not stood trial.It was quite a bash for a Monday night. More than 170 people, many of them members of Hong Kong’s political elite, gathered at a tapas restaurant to celebrate the birthday of a local delegate to China’s rubber-stamp legislature.

The festivities went on for six hours. The red wine flowed; the karaoke warbled. Guests were given purple face masks but did not always wear them.

Until quite recently, such laxity might have been understandable in Hong Kong, a city that has largely kept the coronavirus at bay with rigorous border controls. But even as the politicians partied, the Omicron variant was stalking through the community. By the time it emerged, days later, that at least one Covid-infected person had been at the party, the city was bracing for a new round of restrictions, with bars and gyms closing, nighttime dining in restaurants banned and flights from eight countries halted.

The backlash to the news of the party — accompanied by photos of unmasked politicians singing and chatting — was immediate. Social media surged with complaints about the hypocrisy of officials who had spoken publicly about the need to fight the virus.

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