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Azeris Detain Eight Over Alleged Plot To Attack Kindergarten, School

Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry has announced its detention of eight people who were allegedly planning to carry out attacks on a school and a kindergarten in the capital, Baku.

The ministry said the five men and three women were taken into custody on March 16.

One of the men is a resident of Russia's restive Chechen Republic, while the others were all Azerbaijani citizens.

The ministry said the group had illegally crossed into Azerbaijan from Georgia and had concealed weapons, ammunition, and explosives in the roof of a kindergarten and a school.

compiled from agency reports

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Russian Weekly Pays Tribute To Navalny, Prints His Image On Front Page

Aleksei Navalny
Aleksei Navalny

The Russian weekly Sobesednik has dedicated part of its latest issue, including the front page, to Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny, whose death in a remote Arctic prison camp was announced on February 16.

A photograph depicting a smiling Navalny has been printed on the front page accompanied by the caption, “...but there is hope!”

The articles include reports of the spontaneous commemorations of Navalny's death in several Russian cities and a commentary by 2021 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Dmitry Muratov.

Most printed media in Russia have ignored the news of the opposition leader's death.

More Than 45,000 Russian Soldiers Believed Killed Since Start Of Ukraine War

The body of a dead Russian soldier at the front line in the Donetsk region on September 16
The body of a dead Russian soldier at the front line in the Donetsk region on September 16

At least 45,123 Russian troops have been killed since the start of Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago, according to research by journalists from Mediazona and the BBC's Russian Service who have established the deceased soldiers' identities.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

Two-thirds of all confirmed dead -- volunteers, conscripts, ex-inmates, and fighters from private military companies -- were not connected to the military before the start of the invasion, researchers found.

The number includes 5,406 mobilized soldiers, 80 percent of whom were killed in the second year of the war.

Krasnodar, Sverdlovsk, Bashkortostan, and Chelyabinsk are the regions with the highest number of dead.

Journalists have identified 27,906 Russian soldiers killed last year -- 57 percent more than the confirmed losses in the first year of the invasion.

From October last year until this month -- roughly the period during which Russian forces advanced on the industrial city of Avdiyivka and in neighboring areas in the Donetsk region -- researchers confirmed the deaths of 6,614 Russian soldiers. Avdiyivka fell to Moscow's forces last week.

The journalists based their research on data from open sources such as obituaries in the media, messages on social networks by relatives of the victims, reports from local administrations, as well as data from cemeteries. The researchers say that the actual figures could be at least twice as high.

The Russian Defense Ministry does not disclose data on personnel losses and does not comment on figures reported by journalists.

In January, CIA Director Willam Burns said in an article published by the magazine Foreign Affairs that at least 315,000 Russian soldiers had been wounded or killed during the war in Ukraine.

Lukashenka Wants Armed Police Patrols In Belarusian Cities, Vows Measures Against 'Extremism'

Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka at a meeting with the leadership of the state security agencies in Minsk on February 20.
Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka at a meeting with the leadership of the state security agencies in Minsk on February 20.

Strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka has urged police forces to send out patrols armed "at least with pistols" in Belarusian cities to better protect citizens against "crimes of an extremist nature." "Today, this is the most important aspect of maintaining law and order -- stopping the actions of scumbags and preventing the 'misguided,'" Lukashenka said at meeting with Belarusian security bodies on February 20. According to official figures, more than 1,300 "extremism" cases were tried by courts last year in Belarus, dubbed by Western diplomats as Europe's last dictatorship. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

Updated

3 Civilians Killed By Russian Shelling In Eastern Ukraine

Smoke rises from the site of a Russian missile strike that hit a water purifying station in Kramatorsk on February 20.
Smoke rises from the site of a Russian missile strike that hit a water purifying station in Kramatorsk on February 20.

Three civilians were killed and 13 others were wounded by Russian shelling of three eastern Ukrainian regions, local authorities reported on February 21.

One person was killed in Kramatorsk, in the Donetsk region, while eight others were wounded, regional Governor Vadym Filashkin said.

In the Kharkiv region, two farmers were instantly killed when their car was struck in the village of Petropavlivka in the Kupyansk district, while one woman was wounded, regional Governor Oleh Synyehubov said.

In the Kherson region, four people were wounded in Russian shelling, mortar, and drone strikes, local authorities reported.

Meanwhile, air-defense forces shot down 13 out of 19 drones launched by Russia at four Ukrainian regions early on February 21, Ukraine's Air Force reported, adding that one S-300 missile and four Kh-22 cruise missiles were also destroyed.

The drones were downed in the Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya and Donetsk regions, the air force said.

It said that some of the remaining six drones did not reach their targets.

The four Kh-22 cruise missiles were shot down in the central Poltava region.

Rivals Of Pakistan's Ex-PM Khan Reach Agreement To Form Government

Shehbaz Sharif (file photo)
Shehbaz Sharif (file photo)

The political rivals of Pakistan’s imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan announced details of a power-sharing agreement late on February 20, naming Shehbaz Sharif as their candidate for prime minister. The announcement followed days of talks among the leadership of the Pakistan Muslim League, the Pakistan People’s Party, and other parties that did not gain enough seats in the February 8 vote to govern on their own. They said at a news conference that they had secured the required majority to form a coalition government.

Russian Foreign Minister Visits Venezuela, Reaffirms Support For Maduro

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (right) shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Caracas on February 20.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (right) shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Caracas on February 20.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reaffirmed his government’s support for the administration of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, expressing during a visit to Caracas on February 20 Moscow's commitment to strategic cooperation in numerous sectors. Lavrov’s meetings with Venezuela’s vice president and foreign minister took place as Venezuela's government and a U.S.-backed faction of the opposition negotiate conditions for a presidential election later this year. During the negotiation process, which has been guided by Norwegian diplomats, Russia has completely backed the Venezuelan government. In addition, unconditional support from Russia and China has allowed Venezuela to circumvent U.S. economic sanctions on Russia.

Estonia Detains 10 People Suspected Of Committing Sabotage On Orders From Russia

Estonian Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets
Estonian Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets

Estonia’s domestic security agency said on February 20 that it has apprehended 10 people suspected of sabotage in the Baltic country in a coordinated “hybrid operation” by Russia’s special services. Among the suspects detained since December are individuals believed to have broken the car windows of Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets and a journalist, the Estonian Internal Security Service said. Information collected thus far indicates that “the Russian special service had coordinated a hybrid operation against the security of [Estonia]” aimed at spreading fear and creating tension in society, the security service said.

Rights Group Says Number Of Christians Arrested In Iran On The Rise

Christians are recognized as one of three religious minorities in the Islamic republic's constitution. (file photo)
Christians are recognized as one of three religious minorities in the Islamic republic's constitution. (file photo)

The number of Christians arrested in Iran jumped sharply in the last six months of 2023, according to a religious rights group, which called on the government to “immediately and unconditionally” release all Christians detained on charges relating to their faith and religious activities.

The report, released by Article 18, a rights organization focused on the protection of Christians, showed 166 Christians were detained last year, an increase from the 134 arrests recorded in 2022.

The group said that while the first half of the year saw only a "handful" of arrests, a worrying trend was that from June to August there were 100 arrests and then "a further rash" of detentions around the Christmas period.

"Very few of those arrested agreed to publicize their cases, leading to an increasing number of faceless victims,” Article 18 said.

Christians are recognized as one of three religious minorities in the Islamic republic's constitution. Despite this, the report notes, the Iranian government has harshly punished Muslims who convert to Christianity or those involved in promoting and teaching religions other than Islam.

The findings are part of a collaborative 40-page investigation by Article 18, in partnership with global Christian organizations Middle East Concern, Open Doors, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

The report showed that in 2023 at least 17 Christians arrested during the summer had been sentenced to prison terms of three to five years. Others faced penalties including fines, whipping, and community service, it added.

Authorities appeared to target distributors of the Bible, with more than one-third of those detained found in possession of multiple copies of the publication.

The report urges the government to "immediately and unconditionally" release the jailed Christians and to ensure the freedom of worship for the faith's followers without the threat of arrest or legal action.

In the face of such pressures, numerous Christians, particularly new converts, have been compelled to flee Iran, seeking asylum in other nations to escape the restrictions and persecution faced at home.

This situation underscores the ongoing challenges faced by religious minorities in Iran amid calls for greater religious freedom and international scrutiny of the country's human rights practices.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Russia Adds Navalny's Self-Exiled Brother To Its 'Wanted List' Again

Oleg Navalny in 2018
Oleg Navalny in 2018

Russia's Interior Ministry on February 20 again added self-exiled Oleg Navalny, a younger brother of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who died in Russian prison last week, to it "wanted list" on unspecified charges.

The last time the ministry added Oleg Navalny to its wanted list was in January 2022 after penitentiary service officials demanded a one-year suspended prison term handed to Oleg Navalny in 2021 on a charge of violating COVID-19 prevention regulations be turned into a real prison term.

In February 2022, a Moscow court approved the penitentiary service officials' demand, but Oleg Navalny had fled Russia by that time. That request was canceled later, most likely because time ran out under the statute of limitations.

Oleg Navalny's current whereabouts are unknown. He was given the one-year suspended prison sentence after a court in Moscow in August 2021 found him guilty of publicly calling for the violation of coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

He and his supporters called the sentence politically motivated.

In 2014, Oleg and Aleksei Navalny were convicted of stealing about $500,000 from two Russian firms, one of which was affiliated with the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher, and of laundering some of the money.

Both were sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison, but Aleksei's sentence was suspended at the time. The brothers denied the charges, saying the case was politically motivated -- in part as an effort to turn Oleg Navalny into a "hostage" who could be used to blackmail his brother into refraining from his political and anti-corruption activism.

In late June 2018, Oleg Navalny was released from prison after serving a 3 1/2-year prison term.

His eldest brother, an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin and his government, died last week in a notorious Polar Wolf prison in the remote Yamalo-Nenets autonomous region in the Arctic, where he was transferred in December after a court extended his prison term to 19 years on extremism charges which Aleksei Navalny and his associates rejected, calling them politically motivated.

Best Way To Honor Navalny, NATO Chief Says, Is Ensuring Russia's Defeat In Ukraine

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg speaks to RFE/RL's Zoriana Stepanenko in Brussels.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg speaks to RFE/RL's Zoriana Stepanenko in Brussels.

BRUSSELS -- NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the death of Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and the first Russian gains on the battlefield in months should help focus the attention of NATO and its allies on the urgent need to support Ukraine.

According to excerpts from an interview Stoltenberg had in Brussels with RFE/RL on February 20, the NATO chief said the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from the city of Avdiyivka after months of intense fighting demonstrates the need for more military aid “to ensure that Russia doesn’t make further gains.”

The death of Navalny in an Arctic prison on February 16 under suspicious circumstances -- authorities say it will be another two weeks before the body may be released to the family -- adds to the need to ensure Russian President Vladimir Putin's authoritarian rule does not go unchecked.

“I strongly believe that the best way to honor the memory of Aleksei Navalny is to ensure that President Putin doesn't win on the battlefield, but that Ukraine prevails,” Stoltenberg said in the interview, a full version of which will be released on February 23.

Stoltenberg: Best Way To Honor Navalny Is To Make Sure Russia Does Not Win In Ukraine
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Ukraine’s allies have been focused on a $61 billion U.S. military aid package, Stoltenberg said, but while that remains stalled in the House of Representatives, other countries, including Sweden, Canada, and Japan, have stepped up their aid.

Sweden announced its 15th aid package and largest to date since Russia launched its full-scale invasion two years ago. Worth 7.1 billion Swedish kroner ($684 million), the package will provide combat boats, mines, artillery ammunition, and air-defense equipment, among other items, Sweden’s defense minister announced.

Canada's Defense Department said on February 19 it would expedite the delivery of more than 800 drones, adding in a statement that drones have become a critical capability for Ukraine in the war. They will cost more than $95 million Canadian ($70 million) and are part of a previously announced military aid package for Ukraine. Deliveries will start as early as this spring, the statement said.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

The additional aid from Tokyo amounts to $106 million to aid Ukraine’s reconstruction from war damages, including areas such as demining and infrastructure.

“Of course, we are focused on the United States, but we also see how other allies are really stepping up and delivering significant support to Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said.

On the question of when Ukraine will be able to deploy F-16 fighter jets, Stoltenberg said it was not possible to say. He reiterated that Ukraine’s allies all want them to be there as early as possible but said the effect of the F-16s will be stronger if pilots are well-trained and maintenance crews and other support personnel are well-prepared.

“So, I think we have to listen to the military experts exactly when we will be ready to or when allies will be ready to start sending and delivering the F-16s,” he said. “The sooner the better.”

Ukraine has actively sought the U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to help it counter Russian air superiority. The United States in August approved sending F-16s to Ukraine from Denmark and the Netherlands as soon as pilot training is completed.

It will be up to each ally to decide whether to deliver F-16s to Ukraine, and allies have different policies, Stoltenberg said. But at the same time, the war in Ukraine is a war of aggression, he said, and Ukraine has the right to self-defense, including striking legitimate Russian military targets outside Ukraine.

Asked about the prospect of former U.S. President Donald Trump returning to the White House, Stoltenberg said he believes that, regardless of the outcome of the U.S. election this year, the United States will remain a committed NATO ally because it is in the security interest of the United States.

Trump, the current front-runner in the race to become the Republican Party's presidential nominee, drew sharp rebukes from President Joe Biden, European leaders, and NATO after suggesting at a campaign rally on February 10 that the United States might not defend alliance members from a potential Russian invasion if they don’t pay enough for their own defense.

Stoltenberg said the United States is safer and stronger together with more than 30 allies -- something that neither China nor Russia has.

The criticism of NATO has been aimed at allies underspending on defense, he said. But Stoltenberg said new data shows that more and more NATO allies are meeting the target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, and this demonstrates that the alliance has come a long way since it pledged in 2014 to meet the target.

At that time, only three members of NATO spent 2 percent of GDP on defense; now it’s 18, he said.

“If you add together what all European allies do and compare that to the GDP in total in Europe, it's actually 2 percent today,” he said. “That's good, but it's not enough because we want [each NATO member] to spend 2 percent. And we also make sure that 2 percent is a minimum."

Updated

U.S. Ambassador To Ukraine '1,000 Percent Sure' Military Aid Will Continue, But Unsure When

Ambassador Bridget Brink during a press briefing in Kyiv on February 20.
Ambassador Bridget Brink during a press briefing in Kyiv on February 20.

KYIV -- U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink said on February 20 that she is fully confident that Congress will approve additional funding for Ukraine but that it is not possible to predict when it will happen.

"I am 100 percent -- 1,000 percent -- sure that we will continue to support you in this," Brink told journalists on February 20 in Kyiv.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

A critical $61 billion aid package has been stalled in Congress for months over political differences, despite warnings from President Joe Biden that failure by the Republican-led House of Representatives to authorize it would play into Russian President Vladimir Putin's hands.

"This is a very political issue that I cannot predict. But I can say that we all present the most compelling arguments why it is necessary, why this is not an open-ended request, why it is really important for you to succeed not only on the battlefield but also to have economic security and independence," Brink said.

She said she has spoken with House Speaker Mike Johnson (Republican-Louisiana) and knows that he supports Ukraine and "understands the importance of Russia losing the war."

Brink said Biden and all the U.S. diplomats working on the matter are pushing hard to move it forward as quickly as possible.

"My message is this: You can't waste time, you can't waste a single day, not a single hour, not a single second. People die here every day," she said, referring to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's comments over the weekend at the Munich Security Conference about the lack of weapons and the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from the city of Avdiyivka.

Zelenskiy said in his nightly video message on February 19 that delays in weapons deliveries had made the fight “very difficult” along parts of the front line and that Russian forces are taking advantage of the delays in weapons deliveries.

Putin on February 20 congratulated his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on capturing Avdiyivka and urged him to press Russia’s advantage.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov said he and Oleksandr Syrskiy, commander in chief of Ukraine's armed forces, discussed the situation at the front and ammunition supplies in a phone call with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Syrskiy "gave updates on the current dynamics on the front line," Umerov said on Facebook. "The common understanding of the situation and the action plan were discussed. The ammunition supply was in focus as well."

WATCH: In NATO, the United States can boast of an alliance that neither Russia nor China enjoys, says NATO's secretary-general. In an interview with RFE/RL in Brussels on February 20, Jens Stoltenberg said it is in Washington's interest to keep it that way, regardless of the outcome of the coming U.S. presidential election. He spoke to Zoriana Stepanenko of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

Stoltenberg: Best Way To Honor Navalny Is To Make Sure Russia Does Not Win In Ukraine
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On February 20, Sweden announced its biggest aid package since Russia launched its full-scale invasion two years ago -- worth 7.1 billion Swedish kroner ($684 million). Sweden’s 15th aid package to date will provide Ukraine with combat boats, mines, artillery ammunition, and air-defense equipment among other supplies, Defense Minister Pal Jonson said at a press conference in Stockholm.

Canada said a day earlier that it would expedite the delivery of more than 800 drones.

The announcements came as Russian drones killed more Ukrainian citizens and damaged private property.

Two people were killed and one was injured in the Kharkiv region on February 20 when a Russian drone hit a civilian car, said Oleg Synyehubov, head of the regional military administration.

The attack by a "kamikaze" drone occurred around 4:50 p.m. local time in the village of Petropavlivka. There were three passengers in the car -- a 38-year-old civilian driver and a 50-year-old civilian man, who died on the spot, and a 48-year-old woman, who was taken to a hospital, Synyehubov said on Telegram. The woman is the wife of the 50-year-old man.

According to Synyehubov, all three were local farm workers returning home after work.

Earlier on February 20 in the northern Ukrainian region of Sumy, a Russian drone struck a house, killing five members of the same family, the regional administration said.

A mother, her two sons, and two other relatives died as a result of the strike in Nova Sloboda, a village about 6 kilometers from the Russian border. The house was completely destroyed, Ukrainian officials said.

The Prosecutor-General’s Office in Kyiv announced a war crimes investigation.

WATCH: After withdrawing from Avdiyivka, Ukrainian units are scrambling to build new defensive positions west of the city.

'They Keep Coming': Ukrainian Troops Build New Defenses As Moscow Looks Beyond Avdiyivka
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The Ukrainian military dismissed a statement by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that Moscow's forces had secured full control over the village of Krynky on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River in the Kherson region.

A statement on Telegram by the Ukrainian military's southern district said Russian forces had made no headway on the eastern bank.

Russian troops abandoned the western bank of the Dnieper in the Kherson region in late 2022 but remain in areas on the eastern bank. Ukrainian forces captured some districts on the eastern bank last November.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and dpa

U.S. To Announce New Russia Sanctions After Navalny Death; EU Summons Russian Diplomat

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby

The United States will announce new sanctions on Russia on February 23 over the death of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, the White House said on February 20.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the “major sanctions package” will be announced “to hold Russia accountable for what happened to Mr. Navalny."

Kirby added that no matter what story Russia decides to tell the world about Navalny’s death, “it's clear President [Vladimir] Putin and his government are responsible."

The sanctions will also be in response to Russia’s actions in the “vicious and brutal war” in Ukraine, Kirby said.

Meanwhile, the European Union said on February 20 that it had summoned the Russian charge d'affaires in Brussels over Navalny's death.

The EU's managing director for Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia, Michael Siebert, summoned Kirill Logvinov and "called upon Russia to allow an independent and transparent international investigation into circumstances” of Navalny's death, a statement from the EU's diplomatic service said.

The EU also conveyed its outrage over Navalny’s death “for which the ultimate responsibility lies with President Putin and the Russian authorities,” and urged Russia to release his body to his family.

British, U.S. Law Enforcement Agencies Disrupt Ransomware Group Linked To Russia

U.S. and British officials on February 20 announced that they had infiltrated and disrupted a Russian-linked ransomware cybercrime group known as LockBit, arresting two Russian nationals in Poland and Ukraine, and indicting two others in the United States.

"We have hacked the hackers," Graeme Biggar, director-general of the National Crime Agency (NCA), said at a news conference in London, calling the LockBit ransomware syndicate "the world's most harmful cyber crime group” and saying it extracted $120 million from thousands of victims around the world in the four years since its founding.

Biggar said the NCA worked with the FBI, Europol, and agencies from nine other countries in Operation Cronos, which authorities said gained access to LockBit's systems by taking control of the gang's infrastructure and seizing their source code.

Hours before the announcement, the front page of LockBit's site on the so-called dark web was replaced with the words “this site is now under control of law enforcement” alongside the flags of Britain, the United States, and several other nations.

The United States on February 20 also unsealed an indictment against two Russian nationals, Artur Sungatov and Ivan Kondratyev, bringing to five the number of Russians it has indicted in connection with LockBit. The U.S. Treasury Department also imposed sanctions against Sungatov and Kondratyev.

In May 2023, the United States offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the arrest of one of the other indicted Russians, Mikhail Pavlovich Matveev. Two others have been taken into custody – one in Canada and one in the United States.

The U.S. Justice Department said the law enforcement agencies involved in Operation Cronos had seized control of numerous websites used by LockBit to connect to the organization's infrastructure and had taken control of servers used by LockBit administrators.

Lockbit was a "ransomware-as-a-service" operation, which cybersecurity experts say is a model that leases software and methods to others on the dark web, where they pitch their services for use in the extortion schemes.

In a typical ransomware cyberattack, the cybercriminals hack into an entity’s system and steal or freeze sensitive data, refusing to release it until a ransom is paid.

LockBit and its affiliates targeted governments, major companies, schools, and hospitals, causing billions of dollars of damage and extracting tens of millions in ransoms from victims, officials said.

Biggar said the network had been behind 25 percent of all cyberattacks in the past year. Those targeted have included Britain's Royal Mail, U.S. aircraft manufacturer Boeing, and a Canadian children's hospital.

Officials told reporters the gang targeted 2,000 victims worldwide, but also noted that the actual number is probably larger because victims generally resist admitting publicly that they have been targeted and have paid the ransom.

Biggar said a “large concentration" of the cybercriminals are in Russia and are Russian-speaking, indicating “some tolerance of cybercriminality within Russia." But he said law enforcement agencies had not seen any direct support for LockBit from the Russian state.

The NCA has previously warned that ransomware remains one of the biggest cyberthreats facing Britain and urges people and organizations not to pay ransoms if they are targeted.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters
Updated

Russia Declares RFE/RL An 'Undesirable Organization'

The now-shuttered Moscow bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in January 2021
The now-shuttered Moscow bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in January 2021

Russia has labeled Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as an "undesirable organization," according to a registry maintained by the country's Justice Ministry, exposing its journalists and others working with the organization, as well as its donors or those who are interviewed by it, to criminal charges.

The latest update of the registry shows RFE/RL was designated "undesirable," an escalation from its previous designation as a so-called “foreign agent,” as of February 2, with a ruling made to officially add it to the list on February 20. According to the entry, RFE/RL is the 142nd entity to be labeled as such.

RFE/RL President Stephen Capus said the designation is the latest example of how the Russian government views truthful reporting as an existential threat.

"Millions of Russians have relied on us for decades -- including record-breaking audiences over the past few days since the death of Aleksei Navalny -- and this attempt to stifle us will only make RFE/RL work harder to bring free and independent journalism to the Russian people,” Capus said in a statement.

Russia Declares RFE/RL 'Undesirable Organization,' Threatening Prosecution For Reporters, Sources
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The "undesirable organization" law, adopted in 2015, was a Kremlin-backed regulation on NGOs and others that receive funding from foreign sources. The label has been applied to dozens of foreign groups since Moscow began using the classification and effectively bans an organization outright.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Russian authorities have labeled dozens of media organizations “undesirable” since 2021.

The list includes several exiled and independent media outlets, including broadcaster Dozhd TV (TV Rain), Meduza, Novaya Gazeta Europe, iStories, The Insider, Bellingcat, and Proekt.

RFE/RL is a private, nonprofit American media corporation funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress through the United States Agency for Global Media. RFE/RL operates in 27 languages in 23 countries -- mainly for audiences in countries where media freedom is limited.

Websites and accounts on several social networks of RFE/RL's Russian-language projects, including the websites of RFE/RL's Russian Service, were blocked by Roskomnadzor, a federal agency that monitors Russian media, in the spring of 2022 for refusing to remove information about Russia's full-scale military invasion of Ukraine.

Despite the blocking, audience interest in the information provided by the editorial staff of RFE/RL and the Current Time TV channel remains significant, amounting to tens of millions of website visits and hundreds of millions of video views on YouTube and other platforms.

In March 2022, a Moscow court declared the bankruptcy of RFE/RL's operations in Russia following the company's refusal to pay multiple fines totaling more than 1 billion rubles ($14 million) for noncompliance with the "foreign agent" law, which allows authorities to label nonprofit organizations as "foreign agents" if they receive funding from abroad and are engaged in political activities.

Since 2012, Russia has used its "foreign agent" laws to label and punish critics of government policies. It has also been increasingly used to shut down civil society and media groups in Russia since the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

RFE/RL says the law amounts to political censorship meant to prevent journalists from performing their professional duties and is challenging the authorities' moves in Russian courts and at the European Court of Human Rights.

More than 30 RFE/RL employees have been listed as "foreign agents" by the Russian Justice Ministry in their personal capacity.

Reconstituted Wagner Group Expanding Russian Influence In Africa, Mideast, Report Finds

The report says that President Vladimir Putin saw the development of economic ties with Africa and the Middle East as a means to "sanction-proof" Russia.
The report says that President Vladimir Putin saw the development of economic ties with Africa and the Middle East as a means to "sanction-proof" Russia.

Russia is using unconventional methods to expand its influence, evade containment, and destabilize and disrupt its adversaries, including a rebranding of the private Wagner mercenary group that is making progress in forwarding the Kremlin's Africa policy to gain access to natural resources, according to a new report.

The report, published on February 20 by the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says that at a time when many Western states are trying to economically isolate Russia following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin saw the development of economic ties with Africa and the Middle East as a means to "sanction-proof" Russia.

RUSI said that Wagner, broken up in June last year after its leader, the late Yevgeny Prigozhin, led a short-lived revolt against Putin, was placed under control of the Russian military intelligence agency (GRU), which has since operated as the Expeditionary Corps that was tasked in Africa and the Middle East with "exploiting access for a more concerted attack on Western interests" in the region.

"The GRU has taken the Wagner Group’s functions in house and is aggressively pursuing the expansion of its partnerships in Africa with the explicit intent to supplant Western partnerships," the report says, noting Russia's "Entente Roscolonialism" is making progress "in several directions."

"Russia’s mandate is due to the West’s strategic neglect and its failure to address the problems that its partners face. Russia may also fail to do this, but for now frustration with the West in both Africa and the Middle East is high," it adds.

Prigozhin died in a suspicious plane crash several weeks after the failed insurrection, leading to questions over what would happen to the group, which had provided a crucial backbone to the Kremlin in its war against Ukraine.

The report also says that the leader of Russia's republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, is being used to build a broad network of influence among Chechen and Muslim populations in Europe and the Middle East, with the aim of contributing to the subversion of Western interests.

"The combination of social status and access to a range of constituencies – both secular and religious – makes Kadyrov a valuable proxy diplomat of the Russian Federation," the report says, noting that the refusal of several states to join international sanctions against Russia associated with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine "is partly shaped by Kadyrov’s diplomatic efforts."

Updated

X Account Of Navalny's Widow Temporarily Suspended For Unknown Reason

Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Aleksei Navalny, takes part in a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on February 19, the day she created her account on the X platform.
Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Aleksei Navalny, takes part in a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on February 19, the day she created her account on the X platform.

Social media platform X, formerly Twitter, temporarily suspended the account of Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of the late Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, without giving a reason. When trying to access the account, users received a message saying "Account suspended. X suspends accounts which violate the X Rules." However, less than an hour after being suspended, the account was reactivated without any explanation. She created the account on February 19, three days after her husband's death. The first post on the account was a video of Navalnaya saying she would continue her husband's work on revealing corruption.

Imprisoned RFE/RL Journalist Ihar Losik Held Incommunicado For One Year

Ihar Losik's parents say the last time they received a letter from their son, who was placed in a cell-type premises where letters, parcels from relatives, and visitations are banned, was on February 20, 2023.
Ihar Losik's parents say the last time they received a letter from their son, who was placed in a cell-type premises where letters, parcels from relatives, and visitations are banned, was on February 20, 2023.

The parents of RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik, who is serving 15 years term on charges that he, RFE/RL, and foreign governments have called politically motivated, say their son has been held incommunicado in a Belarusian prison for a full year.

Losik's parents say the last time they received a letter from their son, who was placed in a cell-type premises (PKT) where letters, parcels from relatives, and visitations are banned, was on February 20, 2023.

The 31-year-old was arrested in June 2020 and sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 2021 on several charges, including organizing mass riots, incitement to social hatred, and several other charges that remain unclear. He has maintained his innocence and calls all charges against him politically motivated.

Losik and some 150 other Belarusian political prisoners, including another RFE/RL journalist, Andrey Kuznechyk, and former would-be presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, are serving their terms in the same correctional colony No. 1 in the northern city of Navapolatsk.

Correctional colony No. 1 is known as one of the most restricted and notorious penitentiaries in the country.

Initially, the territory of the colony was occupied by a number of temporary houses built for workers at a then newly built oil refinery in 1958.

The territory was later turned into correctional colony No. 10, where mostly members of organized criminal groups, noted crime kingpins, and so-called thieves-in-law served their terms.

Belarusian authorities started sending political prisoners to the correctional colony in 2010, In 2017, the penitentiary changed its name to correctional colony No. 1.

In October last year, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found Belarus violated international human rights law by imprisoning Losik, concluding that his arrest and detention were "based solely on his journalistic activity and his exercise of the freedoms of expression and of association.”

The U.S.-based rights group Freedom Now said at the time that the conclusion was made in response to a legal petition it filed along with the international law firm Dechert LLP.

The husband of exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, as well as four other bloggers and opposition politicians and activists, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms along with Losik at the time.

In January 2023, Losik's wife, Darya Losik, was sentenced to two years in prison on a charge of facilitating extremist activity. The charge stemmed from her interview with the Poland-based Belsat television channel that has been officially labeled as an extremist group by Minsk.

The couple's 4-year-old daughter, Paulina, is currently in the custody of Darya Losik's parents.

The U.S. State Department, U.S. Helsinki Commission, Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, several U.S. and EU politicians have called several times for Losik’s immediate release.

Prosecutors Seek More Than Three Years In Prison For Russian Teen Over Koran Burning

Nikita Zhuravel, 19, who publicly burned a Koran in the Russian city of Volgograd, was charged with "insulting believers' feelings" and "religious hatred-based hooliganism."
Nikita Zhuravel, 19, who publicly burned a Koran in the Russian city of Volgograd, was charged with "insulting believers' feelings" and "religious hatred-based hooliganism."

Prosecutors in Russia's North Caucasus region of Chechnya asked a court in Grozny to sentence a young man to 3 1/2 years in prison for publicly burning a Koran. Nikita Zhuravel, 19, who publicly burned a Koran in the Russian city of Volgograd, was charged with "insulting believers' feelings" and "religious hatred-based hooliganism." In August, a video showing Adam Kadyrov, the 15-year-old son of Chechnya's authoritarian ruler Ramzan Kadyrov, beating Zhuravel caused public outrage. Rights defenders have questioned the legality of Zhuravel's trial being held in mostly Muslim-populated Chechnya instead of the Volgograd region, where he publicly burned the Koran. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

Moscow City Court Rejects U.S. Journalist Gershkovich's Appeal Against His Pretrial Detention

U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich stands inside a defendants' cage before a hearing at the Moscow City Court on April 18, 2023.
U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich stands inside a defendants' cage before a hearing at the Moscow City Court on April 18, 2023.

The Moscow City Court rejected another appeal by U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich over his pretrial detention on an espionage charge that he, his employer, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), and the U.S. government reject.

The February 20 hearing was held behind closed doors as, according to the court, the case materials contain classified documents. The court ruled that Gershkovich must stay in pretrial detention at least until March 30, which will be exactly one year since his initial arrest in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.

Gershkovich and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan are both being held in Russia on espionage charges they and the U.S. government reject as politically motivated. While Gershkovich is still in pretrial detention, Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020.

A third U.S. citizen, RFERL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, who also holds Russian citizenship, has been in pretrial detention for more than four months on charges that the U.S. government and her employer say are reprisals for her work.

Russian authorities accuse Gershkovich of collecting state secrets about the military industrial complex at the behest of the U.S. government.

In April last year, the U.S. State Department designated Gershkovich as wrongfully detained, which raises the profile of his case and gives the department grounds to act in the interests of the U.S. citizen's release.

Moscow has been accused of detaining Americans to use as bargaining chips to exchange for Russians jailed in the United States.

U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison for having a small amount of cannabis oil in her luggage as she traveled from the United States back to her team in Russia, was exchanged for the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence in a U.S. federal prison.

During a recent interview with U.S. commentator Tucker Carlson, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would be prepared to exchange the Wall Street Journal correspondent for Russians in captivity if an agreement with the United States could be reached. He didn't give any further details.

In 2018, Russia arrested a former U.S. Marine, a Michigan-based corporate security executive, Paul Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian, and Irish citizenship, claiming Whelan was caught with a flash drive containing classified information. In 2020, a Russian court convicted and handed him a lengthy sentence, rejecting his pleas of innocence and statements from Washington that Whelan was not a spy.

The detentions of U.S. citizens in Russia comes at a time when relation between Moscow and Washington are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War over the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

With reporting by TASS and Interfax

Ihar Lednik Is Latest Political Prisoner To Die In Belarusian Custody

The Vyasna human rights group said Ihar Lednik is the fifth political prisoner to die in a Belarusian prison in less than two years.
The Vyasna human rights group said Ihar Lednik is the fifth political prisoner to die in a Belarusian prison in less than two years.

The Belarusian Social Democratic Party said on February 20 that its member, Ihar Lednik, died at the age of 63 in a correctional colony where he was serving a three-year prison term on a charge of insulting the country's authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The cause of death is not known. Lednik's state of health significantly worsened in prison, where he had a surgery on his stomach, his colleagues said. The Vyasna human rights group said Lednik is the fifth political prisoner to die in a Belarusian prison in less than two years. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

Moscow Court Issues Arrest Warrant For Two Self-Exiled Kremlin Critics

Politician Leonid Gozman left Russia in September last year after serving two consecutive 15-day jail terms on charges of equating Soviet-era Russia with Nazi Germany.
Politician Leonid Gozman left Russia in September last year after serving two consecutive 15-day jail terms on charges of equating Soviet-era Russia with Nazi Germany.

A Moscow court on February 20 issued arrest warrants for two self-exiled Kremlin critics -- economist Konstantin Sonin and politician Leonid Gozman -- on a charge of spreading false information about Russian troops involved in Moscow's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Sonin was a senior official at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics and New Economic School. Since 2015, Sonin has been a professor at the University of Chicago. Gozman left Russia in September last year after serving two consecutive 15-day jail terms on charges of equating Soviet-era Russia with Nazi Germany. Both Sonin and Gozman have openly condemned Russia's war in Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Ukrainian Intelligence Confirms Death Of Noted Russian Defector In Spain

Russian pilot Maksim Kuzminov hijacked a Russian military Mi-8 helicopter for Ukraine in 2023. (illustrative photo)
Russian pilot Maksim Kuzminov hijacked a Russian military Mi-8 helicopter for Ukraine in 2023. (illustrative photo)

Ukrainian intelligence spokesman Andriy Yusov on February 19 confirmed to RFE/RL that Russian pilot Maksim Kuzminov, who hijacked a Russian military Mi-8 helicopter for Ukraine last year, was found dead in Spain. Yusov did not provide any details. Spanish media reports said Kuzminov's body was found last week with gunshot wounds. Kuzminov made headlines in August last year after the Ukrainian secret service said it had recruited him to fly the military chopper from Russia to Ukraine, a mission the man successfully carried out. Kuzminov's two copilots were "neutralized" during the operation. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Dutch Court Rejects Russia's Appeal Against Order To Pay Over $50 Billion To Defunct Yukos

A Yukos oil well in Prirazlomnoye, outside Nefteyugansk, Russia, in 2004
A Yukos oil well in Prirazlomnoye, outside Nefteyugansk, Russia, in 2004

The Amsterdam Court of Appeals on February 20 rejected Russia’s appeal against a 2014 order by an arbitration tribunal in The Hague to pay $50 billion, a sum that has risen to more than $60 billion with interest, to shareholders -- Hulley Enterprises, Yukos Universal, and Veteran Petroleum -- of the defunct Yukos oil group. In 2014, the arbitration tribunal in The Hague concluded that Russia carried out a "devious and calculated expropriation" of Yukos after its former owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was arrested in 2003 and spent 10 years in prison. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Putin Promotes Deputy Chief Of Russia's Prisons Days After Navalny's Death

An associate of Aleksei Navalny said Valery Boyarinev's promotion was "Putin's outright reward for torture" following the Kremlin critic's death in prison.
An associate of Aleksei Navalny said Valery Boyarinev's promotion was "Putin's outright reward for torture" following the Kremlin critic's death in prison.

Russian President Vladimir Putin promoted the Deputy Director of Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), Valery Boyarinev, to the rank of colonel general just three days after the death of Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny in a remote Arctic prison camp, an associate of Navalny said on February 20. Boyarinev's promotion on February 19 was "Putin's outright reward for torture," Ivan Zhdanov wrote on X, formerly Twitter, posting a photo of the promotion decree. "Boyarinev personally supervised the torture of Aleksei Navalny in prison. Restricting Aleksei's purchase of food, like all other tortures, was Boyarinev’s personal order from the FSIN," Zhdanov wrote. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Court Rejects RFE/RL Journalist Kurmasheva's Request For House Arrest

RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan, Russia, on February 1.
RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan, Russia, on February 1.

The Supreme Court of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan ruled on February 20 that RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, who has been held in Russian custody for more than four months on charges that she, her employer, and her supporters reject, will remain in pretrial detention.

Kurmasheva's lawyers requested their client to be transferred to house arrest due to her state of health, among other issues.

Judge Olga Migunova rejected the request but shortened Kurmasheva's pretrial detention term by one day, from at least until April 5 to at least April 4.

Kurmasheva took part in the hearing via a video-link from a detention center.

Kurmasheva, a Prague, Czech Republic-based journalist with RFE/RL who holds dual U.S. and Russian citizenship, has been held in Russian custody since October 18 on a charge of violating the so-called foreign agent law.

Despite spending more than four months in custody, the U.S. State Department has yet to designate her as wrongfully detained as it has other U.S. citizens held in Russia.

The designation would raise the profile of the case against Kurmasheva, effectively labeling it as politically motivated. Two other U.S. citizens held by Russia, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, have been designated as wrongfully detained.

Kurmasheva, who has worked for RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service for some 25 years, left the Czech capital in mid-May because of a family emergency in her native Tatarstan.

She was briefly detained while waiting for her return flight on June 2, 2023, at the Kazan airport, where both of her passports and phone were confiscated. After five months waiting for a decision in her case, Kurmasheva was fined 10,000 rubles ($108) for failing to register her U.S. passport with Russian authorities.

Unable to leave Russia without her travel documents, Kurmasheva was detained again in October and this time handed the failure to register as a foreign agent charge. Two months later, she was charged with spreading falsehoods about the Russian military.

Kurmasheva recently wrote from her prison cell in the Russian city of Kazan that her detention is "becoming slowly but surely less bearable."

Many critics and rights group say the so-called foreign agent law is used by the Kremlin to crack down on any dissent.

Moscow also has been accused of detaining Americans to use as bargaining chips to exchange for Russians jailed in the United States.

Last week, 23 countries nominated Kurmasheva for the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano 2024 World Press Freedom Prize.

The prize, created in 1997, is an annual award that honors a person or a group of people who make an "outstanding" contribution to the defense and promotion of press freedom across the globe despite the "danger and persecution" they face.

RFE/RL's jailed journalists (left to right): Alsu Kurmasheva, Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk, and Vladyslav Yesypenko
RFE/RL's jailed journalists (left to right): Alsu Kurmasheva, Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk, and Vladyslav Yesypenko

Kurmasheva is one of four RFE/RL journalists -- Andrey Kuznechyk, Ihar Losik, and Vladyslav Yesypenko are the other three -- currently imprisoned on charges related to their work. Rights groups and RFE/RL have called repeatedly for the release of all four, saying they have been wrongly detained.

Losik is a blogger and contributor for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service who was convicted in December 2021 on several charges including the “organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order” and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Kuznechyk, a web editor for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, was sentenced in June 2022 to six years in prison following a trial that lasted no more than a few hours. He was convicted of “creating or participating in an extremist organization.”

Yesypenko, a dual Ukrainian-Russian citizen who contributed to Crimea.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, was sentenced in February 2022 to six years in prison by a Russian judge in occupied Crimea after a closed-door trial. He was convicted of “possession and transport of explosives,” a charge he steadfastly denies.

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