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Headed to Disaster? US, Russia Harden Stances in Talks

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The failure of last week’s high-stakes diplomatic meetings to resolve escalating tensions over Ukraine has put Russia, the United States and its European allies in uncharted post-Cold War territory, posing significant challenges for the main players to avoid an outright and potentially disastrous confrontation.

Unlike previous disagreements that have arisen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the current Ukraine crisis and seemingly insurmountable differences between Washington and Moscow carry real risks of debilitating economic warfare and military conflict that are exacerbated by the dangers of miscalculation and overreaction.

For the U.S. and its NATO and other European allies, nothing less than a vast pullback of the roughly 100,000 Russian troops now deployed near the Ukrainian border will prove that Russian President Vladimir Putin has any intention of negotiating in good faith. For the Russians, the West’s absolute refusal to consider a ban on NATO expansion and the withdrawal of troops from Eastern Europe is proof of its perfidy.

Potential concessions are complicated by the fact neither Putin nor President Joe Biden wants to be seen as backing down before either domestic or foreign audiences.

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The refusal thus far by each side to climb down from what the other regards as unrealistic and maximalist demands has left the prospects for diplomacy in limbo, with the U.S. and its allies accusing Russia of stoking tensions for no legitimate reason and the Russians complaining again that the Americans are the aggressors.

Some believe the situation will have to become even more dire before the impasse can be broken.

“The gap in perceptions is so broad that a new and dangerous escalation could be necessary to make the parties open up their imagination and search for agreements,” Fyodor Lukyanov, the head of the Moscow-based Council for Foreign and Defense Policies, observed in a commentary.

For Western analysts, it seems a situation in which Putin will have to compromise if conflict is to be avoided. Some think Putin’s focus on NATO, which has struggled for years with questions about its relevance, may have given the alliance a new lease on life.

“This is an extremely uncertain and tense period without an obvious way out unless Putin backs down,” said Jeff Rathke, a Europe expert and former U.S. diplomat who is currently president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

“He’s talked himself into a frenzy that is hard to walk away from if he doesn’t get the fundamental redrawing of the European security architecture that he claims to want. He’s shown he’s ready to play chicken with the threat of massive military force to bring that about and he’s certainly gotten everyone’s attention, but he hasn’t changed anyone’s views,” Rathke said.

U.S. officials from Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan to chief negotiator Wendy Sherman have said it is Russia that faces a “stark choice.” De-escalate or face punishing sanctions and the opposite of what it wants: an increased NATO presence in Eastern Europe and a more well-armed Ukraine.

Yet in Russia, officials say the shoe is on the other foot. They have cast their demands as an “absolute imperative” and have argued that the Western failure to meet them makes talks on other issues irrelevant.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that Russia had vainly tried for years to persuade the U.S. and its allies to engage in talks on the non-deployment of intermediate-range missiles to Europe, limits on war games and rules to avoid dangerously close encounters between Russian and allied warships and aircraft until the U.S. and NATO expressed willingness to discuss those issues this week.

He attributed the change in approach to a U.S. desire to shift attention away from Russia’s main demands, adding that Moscow will focus on NATO non-expansion. And he insisted that it’s the U.S. that’s formulating the position in talks while other allies just march on its orders.

“To be frank, everyone understands that the prospect for reaching a deal depends on the U.S.,” Lavrov said. He said whatever the U.S. says about the need to consult allies in negotiations “are just excuses and attempts to drag the process out.”

Thus, the stalemate.

The West’s approach has been to have “as much diplomatic effort as possible to de-escalate,” said Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research in Washington and Moscow on Russia and Eurasia.

“The problem we’ve got is that the Russians mean business, and they’ve shown us in a bunch of cases, in 2014, in 2008, that they’re prepared to go to war to get these things, and we’re not,” he said. “And that’s the challenge.”

The tough and uncompromising Russian positions have led some to believe that Moscow will only up the ante after receiving what all sides expect will be formal, written refusals from the U.S. and NATO to accede to its demands.

Indeed, the chief Russian negotiator in the talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, suggested Thursday that Moscow might respond to rejections by escalating matters outside of Europe through the potential deployment of troops to Cuba and Venezuela. The U.S. has called such a suggestion “bluster” and said it would respond decisively if it happened.

“The lack of a diplomatic solution logically leads to the further exacerbation of the crisis,” wrote Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, in an online analysis.

Trenin predicted that a set of “military-technical measures” that Putin said Russia would take if the West rejects its demands could include “a broad array of moves … from the deployment of new weapons systems in various regions to much stronger military ties with Belarus and a closer coordination with the Chinese partners.”

Still, there’s a risk that by focusing his ire on NATO, Putin may have inadvertently strengthened its hand, especially with its newer members like the Baltic states, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

“For countries that have joined NATO since the Cold War, you can definitely say that NATO is more relevant to them now than it was a year ago or in 2014,” Rathke said. “Anyone who thought that NATO was no longer relevant to European security has been taught a lesson in the last few months. And it’s only going to get worse.”

___

Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.

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Despite virtual classes, students pack the Watsco center against UNC

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UM students packed the Watsco Center on Tuesday, January 18 to support the men's basketball team in their win over North Carolina.
UM students packed the Watsco Center on Tuesday, January 18 to support the men’s basketball team in their win over North Carolina. Photo credit: Alex Carnochan

More than 100 students stood lined up outside the Watsco Center, clamoring to get in to catch the end of the first half.

Miami men’s basketball, now 6-1 in the ACC, tore through North Carolina 85-57 at home Tuesday night, the same night classes started, virtually.

UM students, though extremely appreciative to be allowed inside the Watsco Center to cheer on the Canes, expressed a degree of confusion.

“I’m confused as to why I’m not allowed to go into an academic setting wearing a mask with my peers but I am allowed to go into an athletic school-spirit setting doing the same thing, because it seems to me like both things are important but at the core level of what this school is about, shouldn’t we be focusing on academics?” said Jack St. Hilaire, a senior majoring in computer science, during halftime of the game.

President Julio Frenk announced in December that the first two weeks of classes would be conducted exclusively online because of COVID-19, with students allowed to move into their on-campus dorms anytime during that period. The dining halls on campus currently are available for take-out only, but the Wellness Center is operating with no added restrictions. All indoor activities for the first two weeks were moved to a virtual format and student organizations are only allowed to hold meetings virtually.

However, Tuesday night, roughly 1,200 students packed the student section of the Watsco Center.

“I’m a little confused why the only thing in South Florida that I can’t do is go to class in-person,” said senior Brett Nemetz.

Frenk reiterated many times in the fall semester that COVID-19 transmission in classrooms is essentially nonexistent.

“Working together, we have achieved zero in-classroom transmission and have found effective ways to manage cases on campus so we can provide an enriching experience for our students, faculty, staff and community,” Frenk said in an email to students on Dec. 14, 2021.

The decision to have virtual class the first two weeks upset many students that were hoping for a continued sense of normality after a relatively uneventful fall-2021 semester.

“It seems like their messaging is really confusing and makes the decision to go online seem unsure,” said Katie Devore, a senior majoring in marine science and mathematics.

This Saturday, the Canes take on Florida State at the Watsco Center in a highly-anticipated rematch of their first matchup on January 11, which the Seminoles won 65-64 in Tallahassee. There will undoubtedly be more students in attendance at that game than Tuesday’s game.

Miami’s players and coaches acknowledge how much of a difference it makes to play a game when there’s a big student section.

“That makes a huge difference for our players to have the support from the community and the student body,” Miami head men’s basketball coach Jim Larrañaga said after the win over North Carolina. “I give a lot of credit to the student body, they were terrific. Our players went into the stands to thank them for that.”

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A Canadian restaurant had to close its dining room because it accepted dog photos in lieu of proof of vaccination, negative Covid tests

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(CNN) — A restaurant in Alberta was forced to briefly close its dining room after the health department found patrons were showing photos of dogs instead of proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test, as mandated by the Canadian province.

Alberta Health Services ordered The Granary Kitchen in Red Deer to temporarily close last Friday after the department received complaints and launched an investigation January 11.

During the investigation, the health department sent two test shoppers at different times and both were able to enter and dine in after showing a photo of a dog and personal identification, in lieu of meeting requirements, the health agency said.

As part of the Restrictions Exemption Program, restaurants and bars are required to ask Albertans 12 and older to show proof of vaccination, a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of service or documentation of a medical exemption.

Canada has seen a steep rise in cases as the Omicron variant spreads. The country recorded 294,437 new cases for the week ending January 9, according to Johns Hopkins University figures, its highest weekly total of the pandemic.

“In both instances, facility staff used a tablet to make it appear as if they were scanning a QR code when in fact the staff member was presented with a photograph of a dog,” the Alberta Health Services order said. “The staff member then proceeded to ask the test shopper for personal identification and offered dine in services.”

The Granary’s indoor dining area was ordered to remain closed until the owners took steps to ensure that the restaurant would implement the Restrictions Exemption Program in full compliance, provide training to all staff on how to implement the program with written confirmation that training had been complete and to attend an administrative hearing with Environmental Public Health to demonstrate that all steps have been completed.

“To our valued guests, we had an unfortunate circumstance at our front door which involved one of our underage hostesses, and the requirements for the REP program,” The Granary Kitchen wrote on Facebook on Friday. “We are taking the weekend to retrain and regroup. We look forward to serving you again as soon as we are ready to reopen.”

“In closing we would like to remind everyone of the tremendous pressure being placed on front staff, and please remember to be kind.”

Alberta Health Services rescinded the closing order Monday, according to a letter from the department, and the Granary Kitchen reopened its dining room the same day. Patrick Malkin, one of restaurant’s owners, told CNN on Wednesday that Alberta Health Services was “very pleased” with the actions taken to move forward.

“These are difficult time for restaurants in Canada and abroad,” Malkin said. “We look forward to better days ahead for the industry as a whole.”

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Amazon is opening a clothing store next to Nordstrom and JC Penney

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(CNN) — Amazon has a new venture outside of e-commerce, cloud computing, content streaming, smart devices, Whole Foods, cashier-less technology or anything else you’ve come to associate with one of the most successful companies in American history.

It’s a physical clothing store. Like, you know, a real brick-and-mortar space where you go try on stuff, buy it and then bring it home. An IRL store. Google it if you’ve never been to one.

Amazon announced Thursday that it will open Amazon Style, its first clothing, shoe and accessories’ store later this year at a posh shopping complex in Los Angeles. The 30,000-square-foot store’s next door neighbors will be some of the traditional clothing and department stores Amazon has pressured over the last decade — Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, J. Crew, H&M and others. There’s a JCPenney across the street, one of the most prominent casualties of the transformation of US retail spurred by Amazon.

It may seem surprising that Amazon, which has grown to become the largest clothing retailer in America since it started selling clothing in 2002, wants to open a physical store. But in-store purchases still make up more than 85% of US retail sales, and shoppers often want to see how clothes look, feel and fit before they buy. It can also be more difficult to find new clothing brands and styles browsing online than in person.

“Customers enjoy doing a mix of online and in-store shopping. And that’s no different in fashion,” Simoina Vasen, the managing director of Amazon Style, said in an interview. “There’s so many great brands and designers, but discovering them isn’t always easy.”

There are some novelties to Amazon Style and ways the company hopes will make shopping quicker and more personalized for customers. However, many of the ideas Amazon is using in the store are not new to the retail industry.

Most of the clothing will be kept in the back of the store and only one sample of each item will be displayed on the sales floor. To buy it, customers will scan a QR code using a mobile Amazon shopping app and then retrieve it at the pickup counter. If they want to try it on first, they can get it sent to a fitting room, which has touchscreens where customers can request different sizes or colors. As customers browse the store and scan items, Amazon’s algorithms will recommend other items they may be interested in buying.

Vasen said the store is a “truly unique experience,” but similar technology can be found at other retailers. At Nike flagship stores, for example, Nike app members scan codes on sneakers and clothes and those items are sent directly to a fitting room. Clothing brand Reformation displays only one of each item in its showrooms, and whatever customers want to try is delivered straight to dressing rooms that have different lighting options. American Eagle and others have tested interactive fitting rooms, where shoppers can request different sizes and styles on a tablet located in the room.

Amazon Style will offer a mix of hundreds of well-known brands (Vasen didn’t specify which) and its own private-label brands. Retail analysts have said a brick-and-mortar presence in clothing could help Amazon reach customers who want to shop in person and also drive growth of Amazon’s more profitable— but lesser-known — private labels.

Other advantages to a physical store: Customers can also drop off their Amazon returns at the store, or order online and pick them up there.

Amazon has been working on this clothing initiative for years, said Vasen, who has helped build out Amazon’s physical store presence and also directed Amazon’s Prime Now grocery delivery service. She did not say when the first Amazon Style store will open this year or how many Amazon plans to add in the future.

Amazon Style will be the company’s latest attempt to move into physical retail, an area it has struggled to crack.

In 2015, Amazon opened its first physical store, Amazon Books, in Seattle. Two years later, Amazon bought Whole Foods’ 471 stores for $13.7 billion. The company also has dozens of 4-Star stores, where it sells its highest-rated merchandise, and Amazon Go cashier-less convenience stores. It’s building a new, separate line of grocery stores, called Amazon Fresh, to chase a mid-market shopper, different from Whole Foods’ high-end customer base.

As of December 31, 2020, Amazon had 611 physical stores in North America, including Whole Foods, according to its latest annual filing.

Amazon has not enjoyed the same level of success with physical stores as it has online. Sales at Amazon’s physical stores dropped 0.18% in 2019 from the year prior to $17.2 billion and 5.6% in 2020 as more shoppers ordered online in the pandemic.

During its latest results in the nine months ending September 30, Amazon’s sales at physical stores ticked up 1.5% from the same stretch a year prior.

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