Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine has brought the world closer to “Armageddon” than at any time since the Cold-War Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. President Joe Biden said.
Putin celebrated his 70th birthday to a chorus of fawning praise from officials. But with his seven-month invasion unravelling, public events appeared more muted than just a week ago, when he staged a huge concert on Red Square to proclaim the annexation of nearly a fifth of Ukrainian land, Reuters reported.
In a clear repudiation of Putin’s record, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Russia’s most prominent human rights group, Memorial, which Moscow has shut down over the past year. A Ukrainian human rights group and a campaigner against abuses by the pro-Russian government in Belarus were also awarded.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Kyiv’s forces were swiftly recapturing more territory, including more than 500 sq km in the south where they burst through a second major front this week.
Russia’s failings on the battlefield have brought unusual public recrimination from Kremlin allies, with one Russian-installed leader in occupied Ukrainian territory going so far as to suggest Putin’s defence minister should have shot himself.
Biden said the prospect of defeat could make Putin desperate enough to use nuclear weapons, the biggest risk since U.S. President John Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev faced off over missiles in Cuba in 1962.
“We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis,” Biden said in New York. “For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat to the use of nuclear weapons, if in fact things continue down the path they’d been going.”
Putin was “not joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons, because his military is, you might say, is significantly underperforming,” Biden said.
Concern so far has been over the prospect of Russia deploying a so-called “tactical” nuclear weapon – a short-range device for use on the battlefield – rather than the “strategic” weapons on long-range missiles that Washington and Moscow have stockpiled since the Cold War.
But Biden suggested it made little difference: “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily (use) a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a vocal supporter of the war, led birthday tributes for Putin with a prayer for God to “grant him health and longevity, and deliver him from all the resistances of visible and invisible enemies”.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, a once-breakaway region Putin reconquered in war 20 years ago, congratulated “one of the most influential and outstanding personalities of our time, the number one patriot in the world, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin”.
Ukrainian forces have advanced swiftly since bursting through the Russian front in the northeast at the start of September, and in the south this week.
Since Putin proclaimed the annexation a week ago, Ukraine has recaptured the main Russian bastion in northern Donetsk, and a swath of territory on the west bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson.
Ukrainian rescuers had retrieved 11 bodies and rescued 21 people from the rubble of buildings destroyed in missile attacks there, the State Emergency Service said in a statement. Reuters journalists saw bodies being carried out of the rubble.
Russia’s RIA news agency reported that a Ukrainian missile had hit a bus in the Russian-controlled city of Kherson, killing four and wounding three civilians.
India raises defence budget to $72.6 bln amid tensions with China
India proposed on Wednesday 5.94 trillion rupees ($72.6 billion) in defence spending for the 2023-24 financial year, 13% up from the previous period’s initial estimates, aiming to add more fighter jets and roads along its tense border with China, Reuters reported.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman allocated 1.63 trillion rupees for defence capital outlays – an expenditure that would include new weapons, aircraft, warships and other military hardware, as she unveiled nearly $550 billion of total federal spending in the annual budget for 2023-24 starting in April.
She said 2.77 trillion rupees would be devoted to military salaries and benefits in 2023-24, 1.38 trillion on pensions for retired soldiers, and further amounts for miscellaneous items.
itharaman also revised the defence budget for the current financial year ending in March to 5.85 trillion rupees from earlier estimates of 5.25 trillion.
In the past few years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ramped up spending to modernise the military, while underlining his government’s commitment to boosting domestic production to supply forces deployed along two contentious borders, Reuters reported.
Laxman Behera, a defence expert at government-funded Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said the hike in the defence budget was “reasonable but not sufficient”, considering requirements for military modernisation.
“The government has tried to allocate reasonable funds for defence forces while balancing other priorities during the pre-election budget,” he said, noting India needed more funds in view of growing friction with China along disputed borders.
The total Indian defence budget, estimated at about 2% of GDP, is still lower than China’s 1.45 trillion yuan ($230 billion) in allocations for 2022, which New Delhi sees as posing a threat to neighbours including India and Japan, read the report.
“The overall increase in the armed forces’ budget is as anticipated, but likely lower than what they asked for to beef up operational capabilities,” said Amit Cowshish, former financial adviser for acquisitions at the Defence Ministry.
India plans to spend near 242 billion rupees ($3 billion) for naval fleet construction and 571.4 billion rupees ($7 billion) for air force procurements including more aircraft, the latest budget document showed.
The South Asian giant employs 1.38 million people in its armed forces, with large numbers deployed along borders with nuclear-armed rivals China and Pakistan.
Although the defence budget allocations fell short of military expectations, they are likely to grow as the economy recovers from two years of pandemic curbs, according to Behera.
India and China share a 3,500-kilometre (2,100-mile) frontier that has been disputed since the 1950s. The two sides went to war over it in 1962.
At least 24 soldiers were killed when the armies of the Asian giants clashed in Ladakh, in the western Himalayas, in 2020 but tensions eased after military and diplomatic talks, Reuters reported.
A fresh clash erupted in the eastern Himalayas in December last year but no deaths were reported.
Families seek loved ones after Pakistan mosque blast kills 100, all but 3 police
Distraught relatives thronged hospitals in Pakistan’s Peshawar on Tuesday to look for their kin a day after a suicide bombing ripped through a crowded mosque in a heavily fortified area of the city, killing 100 people, all but three of them police, Reuters reported.
The attack, in the Police Lines district, was the deadliest in a decade to hit this restive, northwestern city near the Afghan border and comes amid a surge in violence against the police.
“My son, my child,” cried an elderly woman walking alongside an ambulance carrying coffins, as rescue workers stretchered wounded people to a hospital emergency unit.
At least 170 people were wounded in the blast, which demolished the upper storey of the mosque as hundreds of worshippers performed noon prayers, read the report.
Riaz Mahsud, a senior local government official, said the casualty toll was likely to rise as workers searched through the debris.
“So far, 100 bodies have been brought to Lady Reading Hospital,” a spokesman for the largest medical facility in the city, Mohammad Asim, said in a statement.
Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah told parliament that 97 of the 100 were police officials.
Authorities say they do not know how the bomber managed to breach the military and police checkpoints leading into the Police Lines district, a colonial-era, self-contained encampment in the city centre that is home to middle- and lower-ranking police personnel and their families, Reuters reported.
Given the security concerns in Peshawar, the mosque was built to allow police to pray without leaving the area. Defence Minister Khawaja Asif said the bomber was in the first row in the prayer hall when he struck.
The attack is the deadliest in Peshawar since twin suicide bombings at All Saints Church killed scores of worshippers in September 2013, in what is the deadliest attack on Pakistan’s Christian minority.
Peshawar sits on the edge of the Pashtun tribal lands, a region mired in violence for the past two decades. The most active militant group in the area is the Pakistani Taliban, also called Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella group for Sunni and sectarian Islamist factions opposed to the government in Islamabad.
No group has officially owned the attack, but Sanaullah said a breakaway faction of the TTP called Khurasani had claimed responsibility.
The TTP denied responsibility, though it has stepped up attacks since withdrawing from a peace deal with the government last year, Reuters reported.
The policy to release militants under a amnesty as part of the deal has resulted in the bombing, Sanaullah said, adding that some of the militants who were set free also included some on death row.
The bombing took place a day before an IMF mission arrived in Islamabad for talks on a stalled $7 billion bailout.
US general says country will be at war with China in 2025
A U.S. general said in a memo on Friday that he believes the country will be at war with China by 2025, according to several news outlets that obtained a copy of the communication, The Hill reported.
“I hope I am wrong,” Gen. Mike Minihan, a four-star Air Force general who leads the Air Mobility Command (AMC), said in the memo to troops under his command, which was first reported by NBC News.
However, he added: “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025. [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] secured his third term and set his war council in October 2022. Taiwan’s presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a reason. United States’ presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a distracted America. Xi’s team, reason, and opportunity are all aligned for 2025.”
Minihan told AMC personnel to accept some increased risk in training as they prepare for the “China fight” and sometime in February to “fire a clip into a 7-meter target with the full understanding that unrepentant lethality matters most. Aim for the head.”
He also urged personnel in his command to get their personal affairs in order to “ensure they are legally ready and prepared” in March, The Hill reported.
However, a Defense Department spokesperson told NBC that Minihan’s comments “are not representative of the department’s view on China.”
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