The middle-aged couple live in the shelled-out northern outskirts of the Russian-backed separatist rebels' de facto capital city of Donetsk in the eastern industrial heartland of the divided former Soviet state.
They speak Russian like those around them and think of the fighting that invaded their lives three years ago on Thursday as a permanent conflict that may splinter their homeland for good.
"It will be hard for us to be one with Ukraine again," 50-year-old Arkady told AFP without revealing his surname.
"Imagine if your neighbour attacked you with a knife and wounded you. Would you stay friends with that person and invite him over for tea?"
- Daily journal of grief -
Irina has kept a daily war journal that is filled with notes underscored with grief and pain from the first page to the last.
One of the bloodiest conflicts in Europe since the 1990s Balkans wars has killed more than 10,000 people and driven at least two million from their homes.
Irina fills in the details of those hard-to-fathom numbers.
One entry describes how her husband was picking apricots when shrapnel from a shell hit him in the head and broke one of his ribs.
"Over time, you tend to forget everything, especially when there is shelling every single day," the 48-year-old says of her diary.
The windows of their two-storey house have thick slabs of wood nailed over them to protect the glass through which icons peek out.
"Only 40 or 50 people still live here," she says of her Severniy suburb of Donetsk.
"Every home has been damaged. In March alone, they hit our neighbour's house six times. The shelling is more intense now than when the war started," Irina says.
Fellow Severniy resident Lidia said the latest fighting caused an electricity blackout -- something they have long ago grown used to.
"It feels like no one needs us," the 67-year-old pensioner says.
- 'Mutually beneficial war' -
The European Union and the United States fully back Kiev's claim that Russia started and supported the war in order to meddle and disrupt its Western neighbour's affairs after its February 2014 ouster of a Kremlin-backed regime.
Ukraine's subsequent embrace of the West was followed by Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the takeover of government buildings in the east in April by groups of armed men who swore allegiance to Moscow.
Kiev responded by launching a military offensive to win back the separatist region.
But Russia denies any involvement in the war to this day despite its soldiers being repeatedly captured or killed in the war zone and tanks and other heavy weapons being spotted crossing the border into Ukraine.
Arkady says he is disappointed by Kiev's deadly military tactics. But he also believes that Moscow has left his family and those like him out on a limb.
He notes that the Kremlin now recognises separatist-issued IDs which make it easier for those living in the war zone to visit their relatives and friends in Russia.
But Moscow has not supported the two rebel provinces' claim of independence from Kiev and has described the conflict as Ukraine's internal affair.
"It seems that the war is mutually beneficial to both sides," Arkady says.
"Otherwise, it would not have dragged on for so long."
As tensions rise on the Korean peninsula, Beijing appears alarmed by Trump's strident pronouncements as it tries to figure out how to manage the billionaire politician, who insists China handle the Pyongyang problem or suffer the consequences.
"President Trump's penchant for an unpredictable foreign policy does not sit well with Beijing, which calibrates its approach based on careful assumptions of US consistency," said Tiffany Ma of the DC-based National Bureau of Asian Research.
Trump's missile barrage on Syria last week and decision to drop the largest non-nuclear bomb ever deployed in combat on Afghanistan Thursday revealed his willingness to shake up strategy and conveyed an implicit warning that he is not afraid to use force.
"North Korea is a problem, the problem will be taken care of," Trump said after the "Mother of All Bombs" was dropped, amid reports of activity at a North Korean nuclear test site ahead of Saturday's 105th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder.
Beijing has long opposed dramatic action against Pyongyang, fearing the regime's collapse would send a flood of refugees across its borders and leave the US military on its doorstep.
But "the US has run out of patience," analyst Ma said.
Trump tweeted Tuesday that "if China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them!"
The stick was accompanied by a carrot, with Trump noting "I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!"
The next day, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke with Trump on the phone, calling for calm as a US Navy aircraft carrier-led strike group headed to the region in an unmistakable gesture.
- High stakes -
Trump's behaviour has clearly rattled Beijing, the North's sole major ally and economic lifeline, pushing it to take a tougher line against its neighbour, including suspending coal imports from the country for the remainder of the year.
"The US might itch to take action against North Korea on its own if Beijing chooses to do nothing. It seems to be a much better choice now for Beijing to get more actively involved," said University of Hong Kong historian Xu Guoqi.
Tensions on the peninsula have soared this week amid speculation of a possible sixth nuclear test, following two last year, as Pyongyang works to develop a long-range weapon that could strike the US.
"China likely recognises that Pyongyang's technical progress has increased Washington's threat perception and sense of urgency," Michael Kovrig of the International Crisis Group told AFP.
And there are signs that even Beijing is running out of patience.
An unusually blunt editorial in the state-run Global Times newspaper earlier this week warned Pyongyang that a new test would be a "slap in the face of the US government" and that Beijing would not "remain indifferent", adding any further provocations could see China restrict oil exports to the country.
- Better idea? -
While Trump's combination of threats and cajoling seems to have produced short-term results, it is not clear how effective it will be in the long-term.
Trump has said that he and Xi had excellent "chemistry" in their first meeting, telling the Wall Street Journal that the Chinese president explained the North Korea situation to him and "it's not so easy."
Beijing has repeatedly called for a "dual-track and suspension" approach where the North would stop its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the US and South Korea halting military exercises.
But Washington has rebuffed the proposal. Under the Obama administration, the US ruled out diplomatic engagement until Pyongyang made a tangible commitment to denuclearisation.
Although the Trump administration's policy remains unclear, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has echoed the stance.
Last month, a frustrated Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman suggested that "if the US or another country has a better plan, a better proposal, they can bring it out."
"China-US rivalry remains extremely high in the region, and there are reasons to doubt that such rivalry could be put aside to solve the Korean peninsula issue," said Alice Ekman, Head of China research at the French Institute of International Relations.
"On the contrary, the rivalry may crystallise further on the Korean peninsula issue and exacerbate existing tensions."
The battalion is one of four NATO is deploying for the first time to Poland and the Baltic states as tripwires against Russian adventurism on its eastern flank, a region formerly under Moscow's control and spooked by its actions in Ukraine.
"Generations of Poles have waited for this moment since the end of World War II, generations that dreamt of being part of the just, united, democratic and truly free West," President Andrzej Duda said at ceremonies in the northeastern Polish town of Orzysz.
Poland joined NATO in 1999, a decade after it peacefully shed communism as the Iron Curtain fell in 1989.
Speaking along side Duda, NATO Supreme Allied Commander US General Curtis Scaparrotti called the deployment "a clear demonstration of NATO's unity and resolve and sends a clear message to any potential aggressor."
"You now form NATO's eastern flank," he told troops.
Three similar NATO units, led by the Germany, Canada and Britain, are being deployed this year in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Each unit includes around 800 troops.
The countries requested them after Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
The Kremlin has denied any territorial ambitions and claims that NATO is trying to encircle Russia.
But Moscow's deployment last year of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles into its Kaliningrad exclave, which borders Lithuania and Poland, and frequent Russian military drills in the region have rattled nearby NATO members.
The Orzysz NATO base lies around 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the Kaliningrad exclave and a stone's throw from the strategically sensitive "Suwalki Gap", a land corridor critical to the security of the Baltic states.
The 65-kilometre stretch of border with Lithuania is sandwiched between Kaliningrad and Belarus.
Military strategists warn it is the Achilles' heel of NATO's eastern flank: its capture would amputate the alliance's three Baltic members and so shatter its credibility.
The freshly deployed NATO troops are expected to hold manoeuvres around the Suwalki Gap in June.
The decision by US President Donald Trump to sign off on the accession by the Balkan country to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation on Tuesday "reflects the logic of confrontation on the European continent and creates new dividing lines," the ministry said in a statement.
"We consider the course towards including Montenegro in NATO is deeply erroneous, goes fundamentally against the interests of people in this country and harms stability in the Balkans and in Europe as a whole," it said.
It added that the accession was forced upon Montenegro through what it called "puppet NGOs" that work to "create the illusion of public support for the one-sided policy of the Montenegrin authorities."
The population of Montenegro, on the Adriatic Sea, is mostly Orthodox Slavs and Moscow has long considered it to be in its sphere of influence.
The White House on Wednesday moved to accuse Moscow of being behind an attempted coup during Montenegro's October elections, which saw a group of Serbian nationals jailed last month.
The country hopes to become a NATO member later this year, which would reinforce the bloc's presence in the Balkans as Greece, Croatia and Albania are already members.
Tokyo ordered its jets to the skies 1,168 times in the fiscal year through March, the defence ministry said, with 73 percent of the missions against aircraft either known to be or believed to originate from China.
"Activities of Chinese jets are on the rise in terms of their frequency, area, and duration," said Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, head of Japan's joint chiefs of staff.
"Considering the modernising trend of the Chinese military, we expect this to continue," he told a press conference.
The total number of scrambles marked an increase of 295 from the year before, the ministry said, noting that none of the cases resulted in violations of Japan's airspace.
Japan and China are at odds over a set of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that sit in rich fishing grounds.
The islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China, are a running sore in Tokyo's relations with Beijing.
Japan has administrative control of the islets but China claims they have been part of its territory for centuries.
The two countries have clashed diplomatically over their ownership, with both sides sending ships and aircraft to nearby waters to assert their claims.
Japanese officials believe China has been trying to analyse the capacity and response patterns of Japan's defence and coastguard personnel.
The US president in recent days abandoned a series of campaign promises and strident world views that were held for months and, in some cases, years.
From China to Syria, trade to the dollar, a rapid succession of 180 degree reversals has left Washington, foreign capitals and Trump's own fans with a nasty case of political whiplash.
Just 87 days ago Trump declared NATO "obsolete." On Wednesday he proclaimed "it's no longer obsolete," a seemingly miraculous rediscovery of purpose for the usually slow-moving alliance.
After talks and a slice of chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago, China's Xi Jinping was no longer responsible for the "rape" of the US economy. Instead, Xi was a leader with whom Trump enjoyed good "chemistry" and "bonding."
Others were not so lucky -- falling on the wrong side of Trump's list of good guys and bad guys.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad went from tolerated leader to political dead man walking, after Trump saw images of toddlers suffocating from a suspected sarin attack blamed on Damascus.
"That's a butcher. That's a butcher," Trump said, adding there was no place for Assad in Syria's future politics.
"There is a moral affront and there is maybe a personal anger, even a humiliation for Trump," said Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's refusal to end his support for Assad has resulted in another dramatic about face.
It was "certainly possible" Putin knew about the sarin attack, Trump said.
"Right now, we're not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia," Trump said pensively.
He may have omitted the Cuban Missile Crisis and much of the Cold War, but it was an unmistakable message and a far cry from the praise Putin got from Trump during the campaign.
Almost simultaneously, Trump also reversed his opposition to the Export-Import Bank, said he might renominate Fed chair Janet Yellen after all and proclaimed the dollar too strong.
And his budget guru quietly declared that a promise to eliminate the deficit was just "hyperbole."
- The Trump doctrine? -
For White House spin doctors, these were not policy U-turns at all, but evidence Trump is bending the world to his will.
"If you look at what's happened, it's those entities or individuals in some cases, or issues, evolving towards the president's position," said White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
On issues like NATO turning its attention to terrorism to China abandoning currency manipulation -- from the White House perspective, things are just getting better in the Age of Trump.
In reality, China stopped weakening the yuan years ago and NATO has been fighting jihadist groups for the better part of a decade.
Part of the explanation for Trump's reversal may come from inside the White House, where radicals like Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn and KT McFarland have been sacked or notably sidelined.
At the National Security Council, HR McMaster has taken the reins and, according to insiders, is presiding over a more structured policy-making process that hews toward a more conventional fact-based approach.
In the West Wing, globalists like Trump's daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared Kushner and top economic advisor Gary Cohn are on the ascendency.
- Wheeling and dealing -
But the idiosyncrasies of a 70-year-old dealmaker may also explain some of his strategic gymnastics.
Trump's softer tone on Japan, China and NATO have all come after face-to-face meetings with their leaders, who each sought to mimic the businessman's transactional approach.
After meeting Trump, Xi refrained from blocking a UN vote condemning Assad, turned away North Korean coal ships and, according to officials, signaled market access may soon improve for US auto and agricultural firms.
All that was manna for the wheeling-dealing president, who promptly said China was not manipulating its currency -- despite promising to make that declaration on day one.
Trump also appears to be learning on the job. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, the political neophyte expressed his surprise at learning that China cannot dictate terms in North Korea.
"After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it's not so easy," Trump told the paper.
"I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power over North Korea," he said. "But it's not what you would think."
And if Trump has proven himself to be a dealmaker, he has also proven himself to be an opportunist.
His tougher lines on Syria and Russia are overwhelmingly popular. His overture to Beijing comes as Gallup reported that China is more popular in America than it has been in three decades.
Those looking for a "Trump doctrine" might have to wait, but those looking for explanations may look no further than the man himself.
Reversing some of his campaign rhetoric, Trump told a joint news conference that NATO "is no longer obsolete" and hailed its role in the fight "against terrorism."
But he renewed his argument that NATO's member states need to dedicate two percent of their gross domestic product to military expenditure.
"In facing our common challenges, we must also ensure that NATO members meet their financial obligations and pay what they owe," he said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he and Trump had agreed in their talk that "NATO is a bedrock of security, both for Europe and for the United States... and therefore I welcome the very strong commitment of the United States to the security of Europe."
Increased concerns among NATO's European states about Russian military activity on its eastern flank fed into a question to Trump about strained ties with Russia.
Trump replied that "it would be wonderful... if NATO and our country could get along with Russia."
He said "we may be at an all-time low in terms of our relationship with Russia," but said it would be "a fantastic thing" if the relationship could improve with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Top US lawmaker Ryan visits European NATO allies next week
Washington (AFP) April 12, 2017 - US House Speaker Paul Ryan will head a bipartisan delegation next week to Europe to meet with leaders of NATO allies including Estonia, his office said Wednesday, amid Russia's rising tensions with the West.
The delegation will travel to Britain, Norway, Poland and Estonia to "meet with government officials and military leaders to review and discuss evolving security threats facing Europe as well as opportunities for greater economic cooperation," Ryan's office said in a statement.
The speaker, the most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives and an ally of President Donald Trump, will be joined by House Armed Services Committee chairman Mac Thornberry and four other Republicans, along with two House Democrats.
As part of the trip, Ryan will deliver remarks at the Policy Exchange, a leading British think tank, on April 19.
The US delegation's mission will be seen as particularly poignant in Poland and Estonia, nations near the front lines of the Kremlin's increasingly sharp tone with the West.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization reinforced its eastern flank in March by deploying British troops and equipment in Estonia, where many citizens remain disturbed by Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin's sabre rattling in the Baltic region.
NATO decided at a July 2016 summit to deploy its troops to the Baltic states and Poland as a tripwire against Russian adventurism in states formerly under Moscow's control.
Tensions have risen following Trump's launch of an airstrike on a Syrian air base in retaliation for an apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians by the Syrian regime, a Russian ally.
Ryan's trip was preceded by a delegation to Italy and Portugal this week led by congressman Steve Scalise, the House's number three Republican.
Experts warn the exodus is leaving Poland short of experienced commanders as NATO sets up battalions there and in the Baltic states as tripwires against Russian adventurism in the region, formerly under Moscow's control and spooked by its actions in Ukraine.
President Andrzej Duda and NATO Supreme Allied Commander US General Curtis Scaparrotti launch a US-led NATO multinational battle group in the northeastern Polish town of Orzysz on Thursday.
Statistics show that around 90 percent of Poland's top military brass have either been replaced or left of their own accord amid an overhaul launched by Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz after his rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party took power in October 2015.
The figure translates to 34 generals and 484 colonels in a force of 106,000 soldiers, up from 96,000 in 2015.
Notable departures include former chief of staff General Mieczyslaw Gocul and top strategic commander General Miroslaw Rozanski.
"Senior military figures are leaving because there are decisions that have been forced upon them about their subordinates without their consent," a Warsaw-based senior political analyst told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"Objectively there aren't enough generals in the Polish army," he added.
"It will take a very long time to replace some of the people who have left, especially regarding their experience working with allies" since Poland joined NATO in 1999, the analyst said.
Macierewicz maintains he wants to stamp out all traces of the communist era by blocking promotions of servicemen who joined before the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, especially those who attended military schools in the Soviet Union.
- 'Good change' policy -
Defence ministry spokeswoman Anna Peziol-Wojtowicz told AFP that "despite personnel changes, continuity of command in all military components is being maintained".
But commentators, opposition parties and other critics have deep misgivings.
Many see the overhaul as part of the PiS's so-called "good change" policy of installing loyalists in key state posts. The government has replaced directors in a slew of state-controlled enterprises and public institutions like television and radio.
It has also pushed through personnel changes that critics insist undermine the independence of the Constitutional Court.
Jan Techau, director of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum at the American Academy in Berlin, calls what he terms the PiS's "politicisation" of the military as "a train wreck in the making."
"What is worrisome is that the military now seems to be the next part of the Polish state that the government has sought out for ideologisation," Techau told AFP.
"Politicising the military is never a good idea, as it undermines professionalism and also creates very unhealthy frontlines in society."
Techau however said he did "not think that there are any concerns about the Polish armed forces readiness, yet".
While other observers contacted by AFP agree that it is still too early to judge whether the changes in Poland's top brass affect its ability to cooperate effectively within NATO, they have little doubt that its allies are wary of Macierewicz himself.
- 'Terrible reputation' -
"There are concerns among allies about the predictability of the minister," the Warsaw-based analyst told AFP.
"Macierewicz has a terrible reputation. He has a hard time meeting his counterparts."
The 68-year-old former anti-communist dissident has raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic with a string of comments and actions.
He has been a leading proponent of the theory that far from being an accident, the deadly 2010 crash of a Polish presidential jet in Smolensk, western Russia, was caused by an explosion that was part of a Polish-Russian conspiracy.
He has also accused former Polish premier and current EU President Donald Tusk of "diplomatic treason" over an earlier probe into the crash that concluded it was an accident.
Last year Macierewicz launched a new paramilitary territorial defence force intended to recruit up to 53,000 civilian volunteers by 2019. Slated to cost 800 million euros ($862 million) critics warn it will syphon off funds desperately needed by the regular military for modernisation.
Warsaw's March move to reduce its role in the Eurocorps force, an intergovernmental European military body tasked with leading and coordinating multinational operations, could also not have gone ahead without his agreement.
Andrzej Zybertowicz, an advisor to Duda, told reporters that the force, seen by Warsaw as being focused primarily on defending Europe's "southern flank, does not interest us".
Putting harsh campaign rhetoric about China's "rape" of the US economy in the rear-view mirror, Trump went out of his way to praise Xi for help on North Korea and Syria.
Trump hosted China's leader -- the most powerful in decades -- at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida last week, and the pair spoke again by phone on Tuesday.
"We had a very good bonding. I think we had a very good chemistry together. I think he wants to help us with North Korea. We talked trade," Trump said in a Wednesday press conference.
"I was very impressed with President Xi and I think he means well and I think he wants to help. We'll see whether or not he does."
Trump and his top aides believe that the courtship, though in the early stages, is already paying off.
China on Wednesday refused to back Russia in vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Trump described as an "animal" and a "butcher."
"I think it's wonderful that they abstained," Trump said, adding he had spoken to Xi and was not surprised by China's decision.
"We're honored by the vote. That's the vote that should have taken place."
- Friendly in Florida -
Last week, Trump launched a military strike against one Assad airfield as punishment for a suspected sarin nerve agent attack against a village in central Syria.
Behind closed doors, a top Trump aide said China's abstention at the UN helped show how isolated the Assad regime and its Russian backers -- who vetoed the resolution -- were.
"It was the relationship which was solidified at Mar-a-Lago that helped make that possible," said the official, on condition of anonymity.
Trump also heralded China's decision to turn away North Korean coal shipments -- a vital export for the regime and a key part of much flouted UN Security Council resolutions.
"A lot of the coal boats have already been turned back -- you saw that yesterday and today -- they've been turned back. The vast amount of coal that comes out of North Korea going to China, they've turned back the boats. That's a big step, and they have many other steps that I know about," he said.
"We have a very big problem in North Korea," Trump said, alluding to serious US concerns that Pyongyang may be only months away from marrying nuclear and missile technology to build a nuke that can reach the US mainland.
"I really think that China is going to try very hard, and has already started."
Trump said he also told Xi that the "way you're (China is) going to make a good trade deal is to help us with North Korea."
- Grand bargain? -
That was the first of several hints of what could be a far-reaching grand bargain with America's most potent geopolitical and economic rival.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump was more specific and backed away from a campaign promise to tackle China for manipulating its currency to gain a trade advantage.
Trump had promised to label Beijing a currency manipulator on his first day in office, a designation that could have ended with punitive tariffs and a potential trade war between the world's two largest economies.
China for years was accused of keeping its currency artificially low to make its exports cheaper and more competitive compared to US goods.
"They're not currency manipulators," Trump said flatly, adding that Beijing had not been manipulating its currency for months -- a point economists have been making for a much longer time.
"'But you want to make a great deal? Solve the problem in North Korea.' That's worth having deficits," Trump said he told Xi, in the interview with The Wall Street Journal.
"And that's worth having not as good a trade deal as I would normally be able to make."
She will also visit China and India next week, her office said in a statement on Wednesday.
Most attention is likely to focus on her trip to Moscow on April 24, with ties in deep freeze over its support for pro-Russian rebels fighting an insurgency in eastern Ukraine and its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Adding to tensions, the European Union is pushing for a political solution in Syria without President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow's long-time ally.
The announcement of the trip comes just as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Moscow for talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to confront Russia over its support for the Assad regime.
Mogherini will also meet Lavrov to "discuss the most pressing foreign policy issues, in particular the conflict in Syria", the statement from her office said.
They will also discuss the situation in Libya, the Middle East peace process, Iran, Afghanistan and Ukraine, as well as EU-Russia ties.
Mogherini took office in 2014 with a reputation of being sympathetic to Russia when she was Italian foreign minister and said repeatedly she wanted to visit Moscow.
She tried to stabilise relations with Moscow, arguing that Russia was a huge neighbour that the EU had to learn to live with, but the deepening Ukraine crisis prevented any accommodation.
Mogherini will visit China on April 19 to chair the EU-China Strategic Dialogue with top Chinese foreign policy official Yang Jiechi in preparation for an EU-China summit later in Brussels, a statement said.
They will discuss global challenges, such as climate change, as well as regional and security issues, it said.
In India on April 21, Mogherini will hold similar talks with Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj.
Mogherini has led efforts to give the EU a high profile voice on the international stage as a major security player, with the bloc looking to a post-Brexit future.
"The Polish soldiers will leave as their individual contracts end, within three years at the latest," Colonel Vicente Dalmau told AFP, adding the the Polish government had made the decision "several months ago".
NATO member Poland, which has associate nation status and 120 soldiers in Eurocorps, was due to become the sixth full member -- joining Belgium, France, Germany, Spain and Luxembourg -- at the beginning of this year.
But Dalmau said that is no longer the case: "The Polish government has decided to reverse the previous government's decision to become a full Eurocorps member, and to remain an associate nation."
Poland's defence ministry confirmed the information, while denying that Warsaw was withdrawing from the group completely.
"Poland has only abandoned its application for full Eurocorps member status and will also gradually decrease its contribution in the coming three, four years," the ministry said in a statement.
"It will continue however to maintain associate nation status."
The ministry said the decision is notably due "to an increased burden on the armed forces resulting from the implementation of decisions taken at the NATO summits in Newport and Warsaw, including the decision to strengthen NATO's eastern flank."
"Our reduced involvement in the Eurocorps will not have negative effects on Poland's role in Europe's common security and defence policy," the ministry added.
Eurocorps was set up at the initiative of France and Germany and became operational in 1995.
Of its 6,000 troops that can be put at the disposal of NATO or the European Union, around 1,000 are based in Strasbourg, with the other 5,000 in the Franco-German Brigade, stationed mainly in Germany.
According to experts, there could be consequences for Poland at the European level because of the Eurocorps decision taken by its conservative and eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party.
"If Poland's soldiers leave within three years, then that means we will remain a Eurocorps member only on paper," said General Stanislaw Koziej, who was a security adviser to Poland's previous liberal president Bronislaw Komorowski.
"We're scaling back our commitment, which is bad," Koziej told AFP.
A European diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous, told AFP that "with these kinds of decisions, Poland risks being marginalised within the European Union."
Former Polish defence minister Tomasz Siemoniak also expressed concern over the decision.
"If true, this is bad news. A decision that is a blow to European cooperation in terms of defence and our ties to France and Germany," he told AFP.
The Eurocorps force, which also has contingents from Belgium, Spain and Luxembourg, can raise more than 60,000 soldiers, who normally remain based in their respective countries.
Associate members besides Poland include Greece, Turkey, Italy and Romania.
Eurocorps has served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Mali.
The ambassadors will discuss the crisis in Ukraine as well as Afghanistan's security, and terrorism in the region, a NATO official said.
"Following consultations with the members of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), I have invited them to a meeting at ambassadorial level," NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.
"The meeting will take place on 30 March at NATO headquarters in Brussels," he added.
The NRC had met regularly until the Ukraine crisis plunged relations with Moscow into the deep freeze in 2014, though this will be the fourth meeting since the forum resumed nearly a year ago.
NATO was alarmed when Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 and has accused Russia since of fuelling a rebellion in eastern Ukraine against the pro-Western government in Kiev.
US-led NATO has suspended all practical cooperation with Russia over its role in Ukraine but Stoltenberg has said political channels of communication have always remained open.
Russia's ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko and alliance counterparts will also discuss "military activities, reciprocal transparency and risk reduction in order to improve stability and security in the Euro-Atlantic area," the NATO official said on condition of anonymity.
The meeting comes on the eve of Tillerson's visit to Brussels for consultations with the other foreign ministers of the 28-nation alliance.
NATO rescheduled the meeting for Friday after Tillerson was unable to make the original date next week and sowed doubts about US President Donald Trump's commitment to an alliance he had dismissed as "obsolete."
Tillerson's decision to skip the initial NATO meeting and visit Moscow the same month instead also fuelled concerns among the alliance about Trump's admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ukraine has long sought supplies of US weapons, but was rebuffed by former president Barack Obama's administration, which sent US military personnel to train Ukrainian forces instead.
"I personally believe we need to consider lethal defensive weapons for Ukraine," Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, who is NATO's supreme allied commander and head of the US European Command, said.
In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Scaparrotti described the rebels as a "lethal tough enemy."
"The Russians provide some of their newest equipment in order to test it," he told the lawmakers.
The Russians notably have tested the use of drones to provide lethal targeting data to artillery units, he said.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of masterminding the rebellion, a charge that Moscow denies. Nearly 10,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in April 2014.
Scaparrotti's remarks came ahead of a meeting in Brussels Thursday between NATO ambassadors and the Russian envoy in a new bid to ease tensions, including over the crisis in Ukraine.
NATO has suspended all practical cooperation with Russia over its role in Ukraine.
On Friday, the foreign ministers of the 28-nation NATO alliance are scheduled to meet in Brussels, marking the first time US President Donald Trump's secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, will attend the talks.
The NATO operation will be conducted alongside pilots from Romania's air force. The planes will patrol the skies over the Black Sea, a move U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon says underscores his country's growing support for the alliance.
"The U.K. is stepping up its support for NATO's collective defense from the north to the south of the alliance," Fallon said in a press release. "With this deployment, RAF planes will be ready to secure NATO airspace and provide reassurance to our allies in the Black Sea region."
Britain's Royal Air Force 3 Squadron will lead the air policing mission. The U.K. is the first country to supply jets for the operation.
The upcoming deployment marks the U.K.'s latest venture into Eastern Europe, and comes a week after the country announced it would be sending around 120 soldiers to boost NATO's forward presence in Estonia.
Britain's Ministry of Defense said the deployment in Estonia is intended to bolster its forces to counter Russia's military aggression in the region.
Japan will lease a total of five surplus Beechcraft TC-90 planes to the Philippines, according to Manila's defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
Philippine military chief General Eduardo Ano said the new planes would be deployed over Benham Rise and the South China Sea.
Japan's attempt to bolster defence cooperation with Manila comes at a time of heightened regional concern over China's activities in disputed waters.
"As we are faced with many security-related issues in the Asia-Pacific, including those in the South China Sea, our cooperation with the Philippines for the regional security and stability is now even more significant," Japanese Defence Minister Kenji Wakamiya said at a ceremony to hand over the planes.
Japan, which has a territorial row with China over disputed islands in the East China Sea, has worked to strengthen ties with other countries in a bid to contain its regional rival.
China claims most of the sea, including waters close to the Philippine coast, despite the claim being declared as without basis last year by a United Nations-backed tribunal.
Beijing opposed the Philippines' lease of the planes almost as soon as it was announced last year under Manila's then-president Benigno Aquino, who took a tough stance on China's territorial ambitions.
However, Aquino's successor President Rodrigo Duterte has reversed this stance, openly courting China for trade and aid, while playing down the South China Sea dispute.
Earlier this month Duterte said he was open to sharing resources with Beijing in the flashpoint waters, saying he could not stop Beijing from building on a disputed shoal near his country's west coast, which China seized from the Philippines in 2012.
He also brushed aside concerns over Chinese survey ships that had been seen near Benham Rise -- waters east of the main Philippine island of Luzon that have been recognised by the United Nation as indisputably Philippine territory.
Parts of the South China Sea are also subject to competing claims by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
"Meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers moved forward to 31 March," NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said on Twitter on Monday.
The NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels had been planned for April 5 and 6, but that was thrown into chaos last week when Tillerson revealed he would not be attending due to other commitments.
The State Department has confirmed that Tillerson would attend the rescheduled NATO talks if they could be held this Friday.
Diplomats have worked frantically in recent days to make the new date, with Britain revealing Monday that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson will delay a visit to Moscow to fit in with Tillerson.
"We have unfortunately had to postpone the foreign secretary's visit to Russia planned this month due to rescheduling of the NATO foreign ministers meeting," a spokesman for Britain's Foreign Office said.
Johnson has spoken to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, "and looks forward to reinstating his visit as soon as possible," he added.
The rescheduling drama shows the importance attached to Tillerson's first visit to NATO headquarters, amid doubts about the commitment of President Donald Trump's administration to transatlantic ties.
The procedural step, which advanced on a 97-2 vote, sets up a final approval in the chamber in the coming days.
President Donald Trump's administration has encouraged lawmakers to back the small Balkan nation's bid.
"It is strongly in the interests of the United States that Montenegro's membership in NATO be ratified," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Senate leaders in a March 7 letter.
To date, 25 of NATO's 28 members have ratified Montenegro's accession, a country of 620,000 people seen as a geostrategic ally.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization holds its summit on May 25 in Brussels, where Trump will use the opportunity to reaffirm Washington's strong commitment to the alliance, according to the White House.
The Kremlin is opposed to Montenegro's accession, calling it a "provocation" that would reinforce the pro-Western military alliance's presence in the Balkans.
The US vote comes days after a Montenegrin special prosecutor accused "Russian state bodies" of involvement in an alleged coup plot during Montenegro's election last October.
Moscow branded the accusation "absurd."
Russia also stands accused of interfering in the US presidential election last year, when US intelligence agencies say it leaked hacked emails that damaged Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign.
Senator John McCain, among the move's strongest backers, framed Montenegro's accession as nothing less than a "test" of resolve against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"He attempted a coup" to overthrow the freely-elected Montenegro government," McCain told the Senate Monday.
"That coup failed. But I can assure that if we turn down Montenegro, it will not remain the democracy that it is today."
Senator Marco Rubio weighed in saying the Senate is "sending a clear message to Vladimir Putin that we will not accept the establishment of Russia's sphere of influence over countries that desire to ally themselves with the free and democratic community of nations."
As with all international treaties, a two-thirds majority is required for final Senate approval. Success is highly likely.
Republicans Rand Paul and Mike Lee voted against the measure.
Paul warned Washington against spreading itself too thinly when its military is involved in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, and said Montenegro in NATO will antagonize Russia while doing "nothing" to advance US national security.
"Most Americans can't find Montenegro on a map," Paul said in a sharply worded Senate speech. "Are you willing to send your kids there to fight?"
Besides the United States, the Netherlands and Spain have yet to ratify Montenegro's membership.
"We are currently planning to hold the meeting of NATO foreign ministers on 31 March. Consultations on scheduling among Allies are ongoing," a NATO official in Brussels said.
The NATO foreign ministers meeting had been planned for April 5-6, but that was thrown into chaos on Tuesday when Tillerson revealed he would not be attending.
Skipping the meeting was especially awkward because the former Exxon-Mobil CEO is to travel later in April to Russia, which has had fraught relations with NATO since the start of the Ukraine conflict in 2014.
So Tillerson will head to Brussels on Friday next week, a day after meeting in Ankara with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to "discuss the way forward with our campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq," acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
- Long-planned talks -
Officials suggested that a complicating factor for the NATO meeting might be the agenda of Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who might not be able to make it to Brussels on March 31.
"The date is almost certain. It's now mainly a question of timing," a diplomat in Brussels said Saturday.
The alliance's 28 member states have until Monday to work out the details of their plans.
The last minute preparations are not typical for NATO which normally has plans in place weeks ahead of time for these highly orchestrated meetings.
"The allies are trying to find a solution. It is understood that there are substantive reasons why Tillerson cannot come April 5 and 6," a diplomat told AFP.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to visit President Donald Trump in the United States in early April, and Tillerson would be expected to attend their meetings.
But his office has not confirmed that engagement, and word that Tillerson would stay away from the NATO talks stirred doubt about US commitment to its allies.
"Everyone is aware that this would send a bad message and people were not eager to have a meeting with a downgraded (US) representation," said the diplomat, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity.
After almost two months in the job, Tillerson has yet to appoint a deputy or any assistant secretaries, has largely avoided the media and works with a small inner circle of advisers.
The administration, meanwhile, has been scrambling to reaffirm its commitment to US military alliances after Trump called into question their usefulness during the presidential campaign.
Last week, after meeting Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump claimed Germany owes "vast sums of money to NATO and the United States," reviving his charge that allies do not pay their way.
- Obsolete alliance? -
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a former Marine general, has declared US support for NATO, and last week Tillerson reaffirmed ties with Asian allies Japan and South Korea.
The United States has worked with NATO to shore up support for the pro-western government in Kiev after Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support for a bloody uprising in eastern Ukraine.
Combined with economic sanctions, the deployment of more NATO troops from Western members to frontline Eastern allies in the Baltics and Poland was intended to send a signal to Moscow.
But during his presidential campaign, Trump raised eyebrows by expressing admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and dismissing NATO as "obsolete".
The sea is a source of growing regional tension, with Beijing insisting it has sovereignty over virtually all the resource-rich waters, which are also claimed in part by several other countries, and deemed international waters by most of the world.
"Even if there is a certain amount of defence equipment or facilities, it is for maintaining the freedom of navigation," Premier Li Keqiang told a press conference with Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Canberra.
"Because without such freedom, or without stability in the South China Sea, the Chinese side would be among the first to bear the brunt of it."
China "never has any intention to engage in militarisation in the South China Sea", he said, adding installations -- which include airstrips and missile batteries -- are "primarily for civilian purposes".
Li said aircraft and ships that transit through the South China Sea were from trading partners with Beijing, "so one can easily imagine how many Chinese interests are at stake here".
Sydney-based independent strategic consultant Tim Johnston said the nations involved in the dispute, including China and other claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines, were "being slightly disingenuous".
"You build up features in the South China Sea in disputed waters, you are likely to have to defend them, which implies some degree of militarisation," he told AFP.
"We have the photographs of what looks like military installations on a number of the islands that China occupies."
Li's comments that Beijing did not want to restrict navigation in the South China Sea was also to be expected as no country was seeking such an outcome, Johnston said.
Instead, it was China's need for a veto over activities in the waters that were contentious "in a region where nationalism is very raw and borders are undefined".
- Regional mistrust -
But he added the premier's remarks could be interpreted as an attempt "not to exacerbate the situation", at least for the current period.
"No-one is likely to back down publicly, but that's very different from not pushing forward. I think that's where we are.
Australia has followed key ally the United States in carrying out several so-called "Freedom of Navigation" over-flights and sail-bys in the region, which China previously described as "provocations".
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has also said the building of artificial islands and possible militarisation by China create regional mistrust.
Turnbull reiterated his call for all parties to resolve their differences peacefully under international law.
"We encourage all parties to refrain from taking any actions which would add to tensions, including actions of militarisation of disputed features," he added.
Beijing last year vehemently dismissed a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that there was no legal basis to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.
"As we have learned from relevant authorities, the report on establishing an environmental monitoring station is false. This is not true at all," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters at a regular briefing in Beijing.
The comments came after the committee secretary of China's Sansha city reportedly said his country was "continuing to carry forward early-stage work on environmental monitoring stations" on six reefs and shoals in the South China Sea including Scarborough Shoal -- which China seized from the Philippines in 2012.
The statement was deleted from the website of the provincial government, which administers China's claims to the islands, after being reported in Chinese media.
Beijing has already reclaimed large areas around several islets and reefs in the Spratly archipelago elsewhere in the South China Sea, and built airstrips and military facilities on some.
But analysts warn that building on Scarborough Shoal would radically change the situation since it is just 230 kilometres (143 miles) from the main Philippine island of Luzon.
Outposts on the shoal would put Chinese jet fighters and missiles within easy striking distance of military bases in the Philippines, some of which could host US troops.
The shoal also commands the northeast exit of the South China Sea, so a Chinese military outpost there could stop other countries' navies from using the waters.
On Sunday Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said in response to the Sansha reports that Manila could not prevent such construction because Beijing was too powerful.
"We cannot stop China from doing (these) things," Duterte told journalists.
"What do you want me to do? Declare war against China? I can't. We will lose all our military and policemen tomorrow and we (will be) a destroyed nation."
"This is essential for the continued strength of the transatlantic bond on which our alliance is founded," Stoltenberg said in NATO's 2016 annual report.
"For almost 70 years the unique partnership between Europe and North America has ensured peace and prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic," he said.
"That is an achievement we can never take for granted."
Trump caused dismay in Europe when he said on the campaign trail that NATO was "obsolete," and failing to meet the challenge posed by Islamic terror groups.
His administration has repeatedly pressed the allies to meet a pledge to spend two percent of GDP annually on defence by 2024.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO allies cut defence spending only to find themselves caught out by Russia's intervention in Ukraine and its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
NATO leaders, pressed by then US president Barack Obama, agreed the two percent target in 2014 and reaffirmed it at a 2016 Warsaw summit to counter a more assertive Russia.
The NATO annual report said only five countries met the two percent target -- the United States, Britain, Greece, Poland and Estonia -- while Washington still accounted for nearly 70 percent of combined alliance defence spending.
Overall, the US-led alliance reversed the downturn in 2015 and last year, defence spending rose 3.8 percent or $10 billion (9.3 billion euros), it noted.
"In 2017, we must redouble our efforts to sustain the positive momentum and speed up national efforts to keep our pledge," Stoltenberg said in the report.
Meeting the two percent target has caused some soul-searching in Europe over what the wider impact will be.
Critics cite the example of Germany, currently on 1.2 percent of GDP but an increase to 2.0 percent would put Berlin's defence budget on a par with Russia's at around 65 billion euros.
Trump has also called for a $54 billion hike in US defence expenditure, currently at more than $600 billion, winning broad support but also criticism that the money could be better spent elsewhere.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that Russia appears to have deployed special operations forces to an air base at Sid Barrani, which is located about 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of the Libyan border.
The official said the American military is monitoring the situation closely.
A Western diplomat, who also requested anonymity, confirmed reports that Russian forces are now at a western Egypt army "facility."
The move comes after forces of eastern Libya's military strongman Khalifa Haftar this month conceded the loss of a key oil export terminal they seized last year in ongoing fighting for the country's resource wealth.
The capture of Ras Lanuf and the other three eastern oil ports in September enabled Haftar to keep up his challenge to the authority of the UN-backed government in Tripoli and demand a major role in a replacement administration.
The Russian Defense Ministry denied special forces were in Sidi Barrani.
"There are no Russian special forces units in Sidi Barrani in Egypt," the ministry said in a statement.
"This is not the first time such leaks from anonymous sources in the Western media have excited the public."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had "no information" on any Russian troops being sent to Egypt, and he also denied Moscow had interest in deepening its activity in Libya.
Still, he added that Russia is interested in Libya's stabilization so the country "does not become a breeding ground for terrorist recruits."
Following the ouster and killing of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011, an array of rivals has been vying for control of Libya.
Adding to the chaos, the Islamic State group also established a presence in the North African country, though US-backed local forces expelled the jihadists from Sirte, the coastal city they once held.
Duterte also told reporters he did not want to have a "fight" with China over Benham Rise -- waters recognised by the United Nation as indisputably Philippine territory -- partly because he wanted Chinese economic help.
"They have no incursion because we have an agreement," Duterte told reporters when asked about the reported presence of Chinese surveillance ships at Benham Rise.
"Some people are just blowing it up. We previously agreed. It was a research ship. We were advised of it way ahead."
Duterte's comments came after his defence secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, said last week that Chinese surveillance ships had been seen in Benham Rise, which is believed to sit atop lucrative oil and gas deposits.
"The very concerning thing is they have several service ships plying this area, staying in one area sometimes for a month as if doing nothing. But we believe they are actually surveying the seabed," Lorenzana said.
"I have ordered the Navy that if they see this service ship this year, to start to accost them and drive them away."
Lorenzana said China may be "looking for a place to put submarines".
Duterte emphasised Monday the Philippines was set to enjoy billions of dollars in Chinese investments and grants, following his decision not to argue with China over another territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
"Let us not fight about ownership or sovereignty at this time because things are going great for my country," Duterte said in reference to China.
Benham Rise is an underwater landmass 250 kilometres (155 miles) off the east coast of the main island of Luzon.
In 2012, the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf approved the Philippines' undisputed territorial claim to Benham Rise.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said last week that although the UN had ruled in the Philippines' favour, this did not mean Benham Rise was part of its territory.
China and the Philippines have had a long-running dispute over competing claims in the South China Sea. Parts of that strategically vital waterway are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino, had forcefully challenged China in diplomatic and legal circles over the South China Sea dispute, leading to a sharp deterioration in bilateral relations.
Duterte, who took office last year, has reversed that policy, preferring instead to placate China in return for hoped-for billions of dollars worth of investments and grants.
The training, characterised by Japanese media essentially as a show-of-force exercise, coincided with renewed tensions in the region after North Korea's latest ballistic missile launches earlier this week.
The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and the guided missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer from the US Navy joined the Japanese destroyers Sazanami and Samidare in the East China Sea to "increase proficiency in basic maritime skills and improve response capabilities," the US Navy said in a statement.
Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force, the country's navy, said in a separate statement that the exercises focused on "tactical training", without elaborating
But Japan's conservative Sankei Shimbun newspaper said the drill was aimed at issuing a warning against nuclear-armed North Korea by "exhibiting the strength and deterrent power of the Japan-US alliance."
The joint drill commenced a day after North Korea launched four ballistic missiles on Monday, with three landing provocatively close to Japan, which the US is obligated to defend under a security treaty.
Pyongyang has claimed the launch was a training exercise for a strike on US bases in Japan and supervised by leader Kim Jong-Un.
Seoul and Washington are separately carrying out annual joint military exercises in South Korea.
The Japan-US training was also meant to display their joint presence in the East China Sea, where Japan and China are locked in a long-running dispute over uninhabited islets, the Sankei said.
In Japan they are known as the Senkakus, while China claims then as the Diaoyus.
Successive US administrations have assured Japan that the islands fall under their security treaty, meaning if they are attacked the US will defend them.
The Carl Vinson was expected to join the South Korea-US drills after the exercise with Japan, the Sankei said.
The two sets of exercises come as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to visit South Korea, Japan and China next week for his first trip to the region since he became President Donald Trump's top diplomat.
The US Pacific Command said Monday that the Americans had begun deploying the THAAD anti-system to South Korea, which is designed to defend the US ally from a North Korean attack.
The deployment has outraged Pyongyang ally China, which strongly opposes it as a challenge to its security ambitions in the region.
China responded that it was "firmly opposed" to the deployment and vowed to "resolutely take necessary measures" to defend its security interests.
China has argued that the deployment would further destabilise the situation on the Korean peninsula.
Here are the key issues at stake:
- Montenegro's NATO accession -
Montenegro's veteran leader Milo Djukanovic has officially transferred power to his successor Dusko Markovic, but the goal remains the same: to join NATO this year.
The pro-Western path is, however, disputed -- and even triggered violent protests in 2015 in the small country of 620,000 people, who are predominantly Orthodox Slavs.
Djukanovic accused Moscow of being behind the anti-NATO rallies and the demands for a referendum on the issue.
Many fear that demonstrations could resume in the spring when parliament is expected to convene to ratify NATO accession, a move that Russia has deemed a "provocation".
In a dramatic twist, a group of Serbian nationals were arrested on the eve of Montenegro's October 16 election, accused of plotting a coup and the assassination of Djukanovic.
A Montenegro prosecutor has accused "Russian state bodies" of involvement in the conspiracy -- a claim strongly denied by Moscow -- and the suspects include two pro-Russian lawmakers, plus two Russians on the run.
- Bosnia's unity -
Having held a referendum last year on Bosnian Serbs' right to celebrate their own controversial "national holiday", their leader Milorad Dodik regularly talks about a vote on the secession of Bosnia's Serb-run entity, Republika Srpska.
Once a darling of the west, Dodik now laces his speeches with ultranationalist Serb rhetoric, appears with his ally Russian President Vladimir Putin and expresses fear over an alleged increase in Islamism among Bosnia's Muslims.
He is sceptical about the longevity of Bosnia, calling it "a place that nobody desires".
For Bosnian Muslims -- and the West -- a referendum on secession would be a red line in the deeply-divided country, coming more than 20 years after the inter-ethnic war that claimed 100,000 lives.
An expert in blowing hot and cold, Dodik assures that he will stay away from any "irrational" decision. "But we will not give up that idea," he insists.
- The Kosovo issue -
A former Serbian province and the scene of a 1998-1999 war that claimed 13,000 lives, Kosovo unilaterally proclaimed independence in 2008.
While its sovereignty is now recognised by more than 100 countries, Belgrade and its ally Moscow remain firmly against the move. The Serbian constitution includes Kosovo as its southern province.
Belgrade and Pristina have made tangible progress in improving ties in negotiations brokered by the European Union. A telecommunications deal, for example, allows Kosovo to have its own country code.
But in the last several months talks have stalled. Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, who make up around 90 percent of the population, are reluctant to allow an association giving greater autonomy to Kosovo's Serb minority, as agreed with Belgrade.
In January, Belgrade sent a propagandist train towards Kosovo, painted in the colours of the Serbian flag and bearing the message "Kosovo is Serbia" in multiple languages, sparking a war of words between political leaders.
The arrest in France of Kosovo's former rebel commander and ex-premier Ramush Haradinaj, on a Serbian arrest warrant for war crimes, has also strained ties.
- A new cold war? -
EU President Donald Tusk said this week that "tensions and divisions have got out of hand" in the Western Balkans, "partly due to unhealthy external influences which have been destabilising several countries for some time".
For Milos Solaja, a professor of international relations in the northern Bosnian town of Banja Luka, Russia is "strengthening its position" while NATO wants to "be as close as possible to Russian borders".
On a visit in January to Sarajevo, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was "very closely" monitoring the "increased" influence of Russia in the Balkans.
But NATO remains the dominant regional force: Moscow can only count on the support of Serbs. Croatia, Albania, Bulgaria and Romania already belong to the western military bloc, and NATO-led troops have been deployed in Kosovo since the end of the war.
When Montenegro joins, NATO will cover the entire Adriatic coast. That "will bury Russia's dream, going back to tsarist era," of access to Mediterranean, says former Bosnian diplomat Hajrudin Somun.
Delfin Lorenzana said the ships were seen last year near Benham Rise -- a Philippine territory 250 kilometres (155 miles) off the east coast of the main island of Luzon -- as well as Reed Bank in the South China Sea, which is claimed by both Manila and Beijing.
"I have ordered the navy that if they see this service ship this year, to start to accost them and drive them away" from Benham Rise, Lorenzana said.
"The very concerning thing is they have several service ships plying this area, staying in one area sometimes for a month as if doing nothing. But we believe they are actually surveying the seabed," he told journalists.
Lorenzana's statement comes as President Rodrigo Duterte seeks warmer relations with Beijing, after ties soured under the previous administration because of conflicting claims in the South China Sea.
Asked why the ships might be surveying in Benham Rise, Lorenzana said he received information the vessels were "looking for a place to put submarines".
Benham Rise is an underwater landmass believed to be potentially rich in mineral and natural gas deposits.
In 2012, the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf approved the Philippines' undisputed territorial claim to Benham Rise.
The Philippines and China, along with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, have conflicting claims to the South China Sea.
China claims almost all of the vital sealane, including the Reed Bank, which is about 148 kilometres (92 miles) off the Philippine island of Palawan and which Manila considers as its territory.
Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino, had pressed the Philippines' claims leading to tensions with China.
But Duterte, who took office last year, has focused on boosting relations with Beijing, downplaying the territorial conflict while seeking financial and military aid.
"In 2016, money politics and power-for-money deals controlled the presidential election, which was full of lies and farces. There were no guarantees of political rights," Beijing's report said.
"Waves of boycotts and protests fully exposed the hypocritical nature of US democracy," it added, without mentioning restrictions on freedom of speech in China.
The report was issued by China's cabinet in response to the US State Department's annual survey of human rights in 199 countries released Friday. Beijing does not release rights reports on other countries.
Human rights are a longstanding source of tensions between China and the US, which imposed sanctions after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing left hundreds, by some estimates more than 1,000, dead.
Unlike the US, China does not have a democratic multi-party system. The Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly imprisoned those who openly challenge its right to rule or have protested publicly.
However, Beijing's report highlighted recent cases of police violence and racial discrimination in America to argue that the US is in no position to take the moral high ground.
The report relied heavily on coverage by US media outlets such as the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.
Meanwhile, Beijing is highly sensitive about critical coverage of its political system in the international press, with multiple journalists being denied authorisation to stay in China in recent years.
The US State Department's own report accused China of "repression and coercion" of civil society groups. It also noted encroachment on residents' liberties in the semi-autonomous regions of Hong Kong and Macau.
"We can state with confidence that our countries have returned to the path of a true multi-tiered cooperation between partners," Putin told a press conference after the two strongmen met at the Kremlin.
Relations between Moscow and Ankara hit rock bottom after Turkey's shooting down of a Russian warplane over the Syrian border in November 2015, which Putin then labelled a "stab in the back".
The two have reconciled since, notably cooperating on Syria and backing a ceasefire in December which significantly reduced violence in the war-wracked country.
"In the last few months, the steps we have taken together have meant we have closed the gap in normalising bilateral relations," said Erdogan.
"I believe the normalisation process has ended. We don't want to utter this phrase any longer," he said, adding he expected Russia to "completely lift the sanctions" imposed after the plane's downing.
The two leaders also signed a new economic cooperation plan and agreed to create an investment fund worth up to $1 billion (935 million euros), said Putin.
The Russian leader hailed the joint efforts on Syria, crediting the coordinated actions of Russia, Turkey and Iran for "considerably lowering the level of violence."
He said Russia and Turkey will "continue cooperation in the fight against terrorist groups, especially ISIL", using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State (IS) group.
"Be it in Syria or in Iraq, in both countries our main objective is territorial integrity," said Erdogan.
Earlier this week, top generals of Turkish, Russian and US militaries met in a bid to step up coordination in Syria and avoid clashes.
Turkey initially had threatened to strike former IS bastion Manbij unless the US-backed Kurdish militia pulled back from the city, but later retracted the claim.
Erdogan said Friday that Ankara wants to cooperate with US-backed coalition and Russian forces there.
"We will resolutely oppose and contain separatist activities for Taiwan independence," Li said in a speech opening the annual session of China's rubber-stamp National People's Congress.
"We will never tolerate any activity, in any form or name, which attempts to separate Taiwan from the motherland."
Trump raised eyebrows following his November election victory with a protocol-busting telephone conversation with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen.
He later threw doubt on the "One China" policy -- a tacit acknowledgement of China's claim to the self-ruled island -- suggesting that the decades-old diplomatic formulation was up for negotiation, which drew protests from China.
Li, however, extended the usual cautious olive branch across the Taiwan Strait, saying China would continue efforts to increase linkages with the island, which have included rising cross-strait investment, daily direct flights and increased tourism between the two territories.
"People on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should keep in mind the greater interests of the nation", and work towards the "reunification of China".
In Hong Kong, fears have grown that Beijing is increasingly interfering in the governance of the semi-autonomous financial hub, sparking calls by some activists for self-determination or even independence.
Such calls have riled Beijing, and Li shut down any hope of Hong Kong independence.
"The notion of Hong Kong independence will lead nowhere," he said.
Li's annual report to the highly choreographed congress is akin to a state-of-the-nation address highlighting key government priorities for the year, which are then typically parroted in subsequent delegate meetings.
The 10-day NPC session runs until March 15.
Shopkeeper Oxana Sevastidi, 46, was convicted in March 2016 over an SMS sent eight years earlier about a train carrying hardware towards neighbouring Georgia, months before Russia fought a brief war with the country.
The lengthy sentence sparked an outcry from rights activists, and Putin at his annual news conference in December last year called her sentence "quite a harsh approach."
The official pardon published by the Kremlin said it is motivated by "principles of humanity" and enters into force in five days' time.
Sevastidi, from the Black Sea city of Sochi, told Meduza news site in December that she photographed military equipment transported on a train in April 2008, months before the August conflict.
Sevastidi said she exchanged messages with a Georgian acquaintance about this.
"I just sent a text message," she told Meduza.
Sevastidi was detained by the FSB security service in January 2015 and convicted after a trial held behind closed doors in the southern city of Krasnodar.
Sevastidi's imprisonment only became public in 2016 after a team of rights lawyers took up her cause, believing she was wrongly convicted.
Russian rights group Memorial in February declared her a political prisoner, saying she was jailed for talking about what she saw on the street.
Her lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov hailed the pardon but insisted she would battle on until her conviction was quashed.
The Supreme Court is set to rule on her case on March 15, Smirnov told Interfax news agency. She is currently in Moscow's Lefortovo jail.
In a similar case, a woman in a small town outside Moscow was arrested in 2015 after calling the Ukrainian embassy to say soldiers had left a nearby base and could be heading to the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Russia denies military intervention.
The woman was held in jail for two months but was freed and had treason charges against her dropped after a public outcry.