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G7 ministers meet on Russia, Iran and North Korea threats

TORONTO: The foreign ministers of the Group of Seven industrialized nations met in Toronto on Sunday seeking a common front against what they see as aggression from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The envoys were also keen to glean clues from their US colleague about whether President Donald Trump will tear up the Iran nuclear deal and how he will handle a planned summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

The ministers from the world’s most powerful democracies are meeting to plan for June’s G7 summit of rich-world leaders in Charlevoix, Quebec — but Russia and North Korea will never be far from their minds.

Canada’s Chrystia Freeland opened the meeting with a gathering to honor female foreign ministers and was later to host her G7 colleagues plus the European Union’s representative at a working lunch to discuss the crisis in Russia and Ukraine.

Acting US Secretary of State John Sullivan’s first bilateral meeting was with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, and he “reaffirmed the United States’ ironclad support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.”

Deadly nerve agent

G7 capitals are also worried about Russia’s role in supporting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s regime in his country’s brutal civil war and alleged attempt to kill a defector with a nerve agent on British soil.

On Monday, the foreign ministers issued a joint statement urging the Kremlin to address “all questions related to the incident” and to make a “full and complete disclosure of its previously undeclared Novichok program.”

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Novichok is a group of deadly chemical compounds reportedly developed by the Soviet government in the 1970s and 80s and which Britain suspects was used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in March.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who meets Trump on Monday at the White House, said in an interview that the West must stand up to Putin’s attacks on western democracy, including the spreading of “fake news.”

“He’s strong and smart. But don’t be na├»ve. He’s obsessed by interference in our democracies,” Macron told Fox News Sunday. “That’s why I do believe that we should never be weak with President Putin. When you are weak, he uses it.”

After their lunch, the ministers will also hold a meeting on North Korea and nuclear non-proliferation.

Last month, in one of the most surprising twists in world affairs for decades, Trump accepted an invitation from Pyongyang’s eccentric autocrat Kim to a summit to discuss to discuss his nuclear disarmament.

Tougher nuclear controls

The G7 members, including frontline state Japan, support efforts to convince Kim to end his efforts to develop a strategic nuclear missile arsenal, but are also keen to hear more from the US side.

Kim is sure to have demands of the West and allies are keen to ensure that Trump does not give too much away to secure a historic deal.

The North Korea meeting will be followed by one of the so-called “Quad” — the United States plus France, Britain and Germany, the Western partners who, with Russia and China, signed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Trump has threatened to tear up the agreement unless European capitals agree to supplement it with tougher controls on Iran’s missile program and future ability to return to nuclear fuel enrichment.

But his partners continue to believe the core agreement represents the best way to prevent Tehran from seeking the atomic bomb, and will not miss a chance to lobby Sullivan to convince Trump to reverse course.

“We’ve been negotiating with the Europeans,” a senior US official told reporters ahead of the talks. “We’ve made a great deal of progress but we’re not there yet.”

Ahead of the meeting the US official briefed reporters that the talks would focus on the way forward in Syria, Iran’s alleged “malign activities” in the Middle East region and North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

The ministers would also, he said, discuss maritime security in the context of protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in the face of China’s moves to reinforce its disputed claim on the waters.

After Sunday’s foreign affairs meetings the ministers will be joined on Monday by their domestic security counterparts and the discussions will be widened to encompass counter-terrorism and cyber security.

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