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EU Ministers Weigh Strategic Partnerships

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton (bottom, center) poses for a family photo with European Union foreign affairs ministers on the first day of an informal meeting at the Egmont Palace in Brussels on September 1
BRUSSELS -- EU foreign ministers have adjourned after spending much of a two-day, informal meeting in Brussels debating the principles underlying the bloc's choice of strategic partners.

Alongside China, India, and Brazil, diplomats say the meeting also focused strongly on Turkey, reflecting the EU's increasing concerns in its own neighborhood.

The ministers also discussed Serbia's future and relief efforts to flood-stricken Pakistan.

The discussions on strategic partnerships reflect a desire within the bloc to get its common foreign policy off to a new start in the wake of the adoption of the constitutional Lisbon Treaty in December.

Speaking at the end of the meeting, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said all partnerships were being reviewed. The process, she added, will continue next week at a summit meeting of EU leaders in the EU capital.

"[The ministers discussed] our relationships with strategic partners -- those big economic and political relationships that have the potential to change our lives, one way or the other, and how we take those forward," Ashton said. "So, a chance for ministers to begin a debate that will continue at the European Council [summit on September 16] with heads of government that will enable us to think about our relationships with the main countries that we call our strategic partners."

Formally, China, India, and Brazil were intended to serve as examples of the EU's strategic partnerships, but diplomats said much of the debate in fact focused on the underlying principles which guide the choice of strategic partners.

While Ashton and most continental Western European governments favor a pragmatic approach to the choice of partners, emphasizing shared interests, other capitals appear to put greater stress on shared values and actual prospects of meaningful cooperation.

Global Goals

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet observed after the meeting that "strictly speaking, in this sense the EU only has two strategic partners: the United States and Turkey."

Ashton also highlighted Turkey's potential role after the meeting, noting that the EU's own neighborhood will eventually be seen by the rest of the world as the touchstone of the bloc's ability to pursue global goals.

"Turkey is an important candidate, it's an important partner in some of the areas that we're involved in [in the world]," Ashton said. "If we think about Bosnia, one can see the influence and value, of course, in having our connections and our partnership with Turkey."

Relations with Iran, for instance, are increasingly regarded as a crisis with potentially global repercussions in which Turkey's role could prove crucial.

On September 8, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Finnish counterpart Alexander Stubb published a joint article in the "Financial Times" suggesting the EU should include Turkey in some of its foreign policy deliberations.

Diplomats warn, however, that many in the EU are skeptical about making concessions to Turkey before it normalizes its relations with member states Cyprus and Greece and meets EU conditions in the accession process.

The Kosovo Question

Ashton said the meeting also touched on relations with Serbia.

She said the EU had shown itself "at its best" in getting Serbia to tone down a resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly on Kosovo last week. Although Serbia has said it will not recognize Kosovo, Belgrade dropped initial plans to seek outright UN condemnation of the 2008 declaration of independence of its erstwhile province -- a move which would have put Serbia on a collision course with most of the EU's larger powers and the United States.

Ashton said the EU now wants Belgrade and Pristina to launch direct talks.

"What we want to see next is the beginning of dialogue," Ashton said. "It's for the two parties, for Serbia and Kosovo, to decide who and how and when. I have offered that we will be very happy to facilitate those talks, to host them here, but it's for the parties to do it."

EU officials say possible talks between Belgrade and Pristina would steer clear of controversial issues such as Kosovo's future status and focus on practical cooperation on issues such as energy provisions, infrastructure, and economic development.

Ashton is expected to ask EU governments in October to ratify the Stabilization and Association Agreement with Serbia. But the protracted coalition talks in the Netherlands -- traditionally a staunch opponent of concessions to Serbia -- could delay the process.

EU sources say most governments in the bloc agree the EU must quickly reward Serbia for its "exemplary cooperation" last week which has put the government in Belgrade under considerable domestic pressure.

In Brussels, the ministers also discussed ways of providing economic assistance to Pakistan in the wake of last month's devastating floods. Among other measures, Ashton said the EU was looking at "practical and quick measures" to lift tariffs on Pakistani import goods.

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Iranian Ebrahimi Wins Cannes Best Actress Prize For Holy Spider Role

Iranian actress Zar Amir-Ebrahimi receives the Best Actress award for her role in the film Holy Spider on May 28.

Iranian Zar Amir Ebrahimi has won the Best Actress award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival for her role as a journalist helping to catch a serial killer in the thriller Holy Spider.

Ebrahimi is an actor and assistant director as well as a photographer of socially relevant issues, and is believed to reside in France.

"I have come a long way to be on this stage tonight," she told the audience at the final award ceremonies in Cannes.

"It was not an easy story. It was humiliation, it was solitude but there was cinema, it was darkness but there was cinema. Now I'm standing in front of you on a night of joy," Ebrahimi said.

She was previously best known for her role in one of Iranian TV's longest-running drama series, Nargess.

Ebrahimi won the best lead actress in an international film award in Nice four years ago for her role in the film Bride Price vs. Democracy.

Holy Spider is based on a real-life case in which a family man killed women in a religiously motivated effort to rid the city of Mashhad of prostitutes in the 2000s. He became known as the Spider Killer.

It was directed by Danish-Iranian Ali Abbasi.

Based on reporting by AFP

Russia Announces Hypersonic Zircon Missile Test

A Zircon hypersonic cruise missile is launched from the Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov during a previous test in the White Sea.

Russia announced on May 28 that its navy had conducted a further test of one of several hypersonic missiles in development against the backdrop of Moscow's war in Ukraine and the resulting international isolation.

The Defense Ministry said that a Zircon cruise missile was launched from the Admiral Gorshkov, a Russian North Sea frigate, in the Barents Sea, at a target in the White Sea about 1,000 kilometers away.

Russian officials have claimed the sea-based Zircon can evade all existing anti-missile systems, although such a claim is impossible to confirm.

President Vladimir Putin has suggested such missiles' deployment on Russian frigates, cruisers, or submarines on the high seas could enable strikes on "decision-making centers" within minutes.

Russia has announced previous tests of the Zircon, whose hypersonic speeds are purported to reach nine times the rate of sound.

Russia's military has taken a pounding since its troops rolled across its and Belarus's borders into Ukraine on February 24 into staunch resistance from professional and volunteer Ukrainian fighters supported by Western weapons and reportedly intelligence.

Last month, Russian officials test-launched a new nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile, the Sarmat.

Based on reporting by The Washington Post, Reuters, and AP

'Final' Agreement Makes Abramovich Sale Of Chelsea Soccer Club Highest Ever

There were shows of solidarity with Ukraine at the February 27 Carabao Cup Final, featuring Chelsea vs. Liverpool, at Wembley Stadium in London.

English Premier League club Chelsea said on May 28 that a "final and definitive agreement" concluded overnight should clear the way for the sports world's highest-ever team sale amid sanctions on Chelsea's billionaire Russian owner.

AP reported a $3.2 billion sale price for oligarch Roman Abramovich's stake in Chelsea in a deal the club said would be formalized on May 30.

"Chelsea Football Club can confirm that a final and definitive agreement was entered into last night to sell the Club to the Todd Boehly/Clearlake Capital consortium," the team said in a statement. "It is expected that the transaction will be completed on Monday."

The purchaser is a consortium fronted by Boehly, a part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team.

The sale is a response to unprecedented Western sanctions against Abramovich and other Russian elite and Moscow interests that have followed President Vladimir Putin's launch of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine three months ago.

Abramovich is a former Chukotka governor who has parlayed his acumen and contacts into one of Russia's biggest fortunes, estimated by Forbes at around $14.5 billion just a few years ago.

His purchase of Chelsea in 2003 was among the first of a wave of Russians' deals to acquire major stakes in Western sports teams.

"It has been nearly three months since I announced my intention to sell Chelsea FC," Abramovich acknowledged in a farewell message hinting at the sanctions put in place after Russia's invasion began on February 24.

Abramovich has suggested the proceeds from the Chelsea sale should go to a charity to support victims of the Russian war on Ukraine, but the British government was reportedly demanding assurances that the money would not go to Abramovich or his relatives.

With reporting by AP and si.com

UN Rights Commissioner Concludes China Trip Saying She Urged Beijing 'Rethink' On Uyghurs, Others

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet (left) attends a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Guangzhou on May 25.

The UN's human rights commissioner said at the end of a six-day visit to China on May 28 that she had urged Beijing to rethink policies that may impact negatively on human rights including Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China, but her cautious language highlighted controversy around the visit.

U.S. officials and international rights groups had expressed concerned that the images of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet standing alongside Chinese officials would undermine criticism of policies including the forced internment of more than 1 million Uyghurs in the western province of Xinjiang.

Bachelet's office last year accused Chinese authorities of unlawfully arresting and mistreating Uyghurs in Xinjiang and using them for forced labor.

"I have raised questions and concerns about the application of counterterrorism and deradicalization measures under broad application, particularly the impact on the rights of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities," Bachelet told an online press briefing on May 28.

She stressed that her intention during the trip was not to investigate the allegations of widespread abuse, although it did include a visit to Xinjiang.

“It provides an opportunity for me to better understand the situation in China, but also for the authorities in China to better understand our concerns and to potentially rethink policies that we believe may impact negatively on human rights,” Bachelet said.

The secretary-general of human rights group Amnesty International, Agnes Callamard, challenged the idea that the first trip to China by a UN high commissioner for human rights in 17 years helped encourage the release of arbitrary detainees and an end to systematic attacks on ethnic minorities.

“The high commissioner’s visit has been characterized by photo opportunities with senior government officials and manipulation of her statements by Chinese state media, leaving an impression that she has walked straight into a highly predictable propaganda exercise for the Chinese government," Callamard said in a press release.

The United Nations has said an estimated 1 million ethnic Uyghurs and other mostly Turkic-speaking Muslim indigenous people of Xinjiang, including Kazakhs, were being held in what it described as counterextremism centers in Xinjiang.

Beijing denies abuses, saying it is reeducating Uyghurs to prevent radical Islam and terrorism.

Successive U.S. administrations have described Beijing's actions in Xinjiang as genocide.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said it was "a mistake [for Bachelet] to agree to a visit under the circumstances."

Based on reporting by Reuters and AP

Iran Says Crews Of Greek Tankers Seized By IRGC In Good Health

A Revolutionary Guard patrols the deck of a ship in the Persian Gulf. (illustrative photo)

Iranian maritime authorities said on May 28 that the crews of two Greek tankers they seized a day earlier are aboard the vessels and in good health, according to the semiofficial Iranian news agency Tasnim.

Troops from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) seized the Delta Poseidon and another Greek-operated tanker in what appears to be a tit-for-tat punitive action as shipping seizures mount amid rising international tensions with Iran and in the Gulf region.

The Iranian actions follow Greece's impounding of an Iranian-flagged, Russian-crewed tanker called the Pegas (formerly the Lana) last month.

The IRGC cited unspecified violations by the Greek tankers.

Nur News, a website with links to Iran's Supreme National Security Council, had suggested Iran planned a punitive action over the Pegas seizure.

At least seven of the two Greek vessels' crew members are Greek nationals, with no public information on the nationalities of the others.

Greece's Foreign Ministry protested to the Iranian ambassador in Athens over the “violent taking over of two Greek-flagged ships” in the Persian Gulf. “These acts effectively amount to acts of piracy."

It demanded the immediate release of the vessels and their crews, warning of "particularly negative consequences" in relations with Athens and the European Union.

The Greeks' seizure of the Pegas with 19 Russians aboard was based on U.S. and EU sanctions targeting Russian oil amid Moscow's war on Ukraine, and the United States later confiscated its oil cargo before the vessel was released.

Iran and world powers continue to joust diplomatically as efforts founder to revive a nuclear deal abandoned by the United States in 2018 that exchanged nuclear concessions by Tehran for relief on U.S. and UN sanctions.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AP

Russian Commander In Kherson Bars Ukrainians From Fleeing To Pro-Kyiv Regions

An aerial view of the Ukrainian city of Kherson on May 20.

Residents of a southern region of Ukraine captured by Russian troops have confirmed Russian reports that the military commander put in charge of the area has banned Ukrainians from departing for regions controlled by Ukraine.

The residents of Kherson, who spoke to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, did not wish to be identified for safety reasons.

They said civilians were only being allowed to flee to Russian-occupied Crimea or the part of the Zaporizhzhya region controlled by Russian troops.

An earlier RIA Novosti report attributed the ban to Kirill Stremousov, the Russian military's appointed overseer in the area.

Stremousov said the decision to ban travel to the nearby Mykolayiv and Dnipropetrovsk regions was based on danger due to constant shelling, which he blamed on Ukrainian forces, although there was no way to confirm that accusation.

Parts of Kherson, which lies on the Dnieper River and the Black Sea, have been under Russian control since early in the full-scale invasion that began on February 24.

For months, Russian occupation forces have conducted interviews and other filtration measures to assess fleeing civilians' loyalties, and tens of thousands of Ukrainians are thought to have been forced to flee to Russia or Russia-controlled areas.

Kyiv and international observers have described the forced departures as among the growing list of war crimes being committed by Russian forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said after launching the all-out invasion aimed at demilitarizing and subduing the much smaller post-Soviet neighbor that his goal is not to occupy Ukrainian territory.

But Moscow-controlled administrations have been formed with ostensible leaders in Kherson and other regions arguing that their areas should be accepted into Russia.

On May 25, Putin signed a decree to simplify the conferral of Russian citizenship on residents of the Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions of Ukraine.

Mykhaylo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential adviser, countered that Putin's decree was legally invalid and intended to contribute to domestic propaganda in the conflict.

On May 14, the British Defense Ministry warned that the civilian administration which Russian occupiers put in charge of the Kherson region was likely to ask Moscow to include it into the Russian Federation.

The British Defense Ministry warned that any purported referendum carried out by the region's pro-Moscow authorities would almost certainly be manipulated to show a clear majority wanting to leave Ukraine.

With additional reporting by dpa

Putin Ties Ukraine Grain Flow To Sanctions Relief; Macron And Scholz Urge Serious Peace Effort

A combine harvests wheat in a field in the Kyiv region. (file photo)

Russia's president seemingly conditioned a potential reopening of Ukraine's grain exports on a relaxation of Western sanctions imposed after Russia invaded Ukraine, while his French and German counterparts responded with the need for a Russian withdrawal and "serious" peace efforts from Moscow.

In a telephone call on May 28, Russian President Vladimir Putin told French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that "Russia is ready to help find options for the unhindered export of grain, including the export of Ukrainian grain from the Black Sea ports," according to a Kremlin account of the conversation.

But he tied relaxing Russia's blockade of Ukraine's ports to the West removing biting sanctions it slapped on Moscow after its invasion.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meanwhile told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that the United Kingdom and its G7 partners are working intensively to help Ukraine resume its grain exports.

"[Johnson] said that the U.K. would work with G7 partners to push for urgent progress" on grain exports, London's readout of the Johnson-Zelenskiy call said. "The leaders agreed next steps and the imperative for Russia to relax its blockade and allow safe shipping lanes."

But the Kremlin signaled a contingency between international sanctions and any easing of Russia's embargo in Putin's call with Macron and Scholz.

"An increase in the supply of Russian fertilizers and agricultural products will also help reduce tensions on the global food market, which, of course, will require the removal of the relevant sanctions," the Kremlin said.

Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil, but Russian forces are currently blocking Ukraine's Black Sea ports, endangering world food supplies.

The international community has been calling on Russia, which is also a major wheat exporter, to unblock the ports and allow the export of Ukrainian grain.

Putin also warned Macron and Scholz against ramping up arms supplies to Ukraine, saying they could further destabilize the situation.

The continuing arms supplies to Ukraine were dangerous, the Kremlin quoted Putin as saying, warning "of the risks of further destabilization of the situation and aggravation of the humanitarian crisis."

Berlin's account of the 80-minute phone call stressed that Scholz and Macron urged Putin to engage in serious direct negotiations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and find a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

The Ukrainian and Russian sides have not met in person for publicly acknowledged peace talks since late March, five weeks after the large-scale invasion began.

Scholz's office said he and Macron insisted on an immediate cease-fire and a withdrawal of Russian troops, who analysts say are currently focusing much of their effort on wresting territory in eastern Ukraine.

The French president's office said he and Scholz also urged Putin to free thousands of Ukrainian fighters captured after weeks of Russian bombardment at a metals plant that was the last holdout in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

"The president of the Republic and the German chancellor asked for the release of some 2,500 defenders of Azovstal made prisoners of war by the Russian forces," Champs-Elysees said.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

Ex-President Poroshenko Says Blocked From Leaving Ukraine

Former President Petro Poroshenko was due to travel to a NATO parliamentary assembly meeting in Lithuania as part of the Ukrainian delegation and had received official permission to travel. (file photo)

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on May 28 that he was barred from leaving the country and accused the government of breaking a so-called political cease-fire in place since Russia invaded on February 24.

Poroshenko was in power from 2014 to 2019, and his European Solidarity party is the second-biggest party in Ukraine's parliament after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's ruling Servant of the People party.

Poroshenko was elected as the head of a pro-Western government after popular protests in 2014 ousted Russia-backed former President Viktor Yanukovych.

Zelenskiy crushed Poroshenko in a 2019 election on a campaign to fight corruption and curb the influence of oligarchs.

In January, Poroshenko was charged with treason in a case that he and his supporters reject as politically motivated.

The accusations against Poroshenko, one of Ukraine's richest men, are linked to the alleged sale of coal to help finance Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014-2015, while he was in office.

The case has raised international concern, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken appealing to Ukrainians in February to “stick together” as the threat of a Russian invasion loomed.

After Russia invaded, Ukraine's parliament banned several pro-Russian parties and allowed others to still operate under a tacit deal under which all parties would put aside domestic political disagreements to unite against the war.

But on May 28, Poroshenko's office said he "was refused to cross the border of Ukraine," accusing the government of violating the agreement.

"There is a risk that by this decision, the authorities have broken the 'political ceasefire' in place during the war...which one of the pillars of national unity in the face of to Russian aggression," his office said.

Poroshenko was due to travel to a NATO parliamentary assembly meeting in Lithuania as part of the Ukrainian delegation and had received official permission to travel.

He was due to meet in Vilnius with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda and a group of European parliamentarians.

He was then to travel to Rotterdam in the Netherlands for a summit bringing together European political parties.

With reporting by AFP, AP, dpa, and Reuters

Denmark, U.S. Sending Kyiv Harpoon Missiles And Howitzers, Says Ukrainian Defense Minister

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Harpoon shore-to-ship missiles would be operated alongside Ukrainian Neptune missiles to defend Ukraine's Black Sea, including the southern port of Odesa. (file photo)

Ukraine has started receiving Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Denmark and self-propelled howitzers from the United States, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on May 28.

"The coastal defense of our country will not only be strengthened by Harpoon missiles -- they will be used by trained Ukrainian teams," Reznikov wrote on his Facebook page.

He said Harpoon shore-to-ship missiles would be operated alongside Ukrainian Neptune missiles to defend Ukraine's Black Sea, including the southern port of Odesa.

The Harpoon is an all-weather, over-the-horizon, anti-ship missile that uses active radar homing and flies just above the water to evade defenses. It can be launched from ships, submarines, aircraft, or coastal batteries.

Russia has blockaded Ukrainian ports, hampering vital grain exports, and used its Black Sea fleet to launch missile attacks against Ukrainian cities.

Reznikov said Ukraine had also received a range of heavy artillery pieces, including modified U.S.-made M109 self-propelled howitzers that will allow the Ukrainian military to strike targets from longer distances.

Ukraine has said it wants to secure deliveries of U.S.-made long-range M270 multiple-rocket launchers (MLRS) to beef up its defense in the east, where Russia has been mounting an increasingly aggressive offensive backed by indiscriminate artillery fire that has provoked huge damage and killed hundreds of civilians.

With reporting by Reuters

Gunmen Reportedly Kill Iranian Police Officer In Restive Southeast

Gunmen shot dead a policeman and wounded his wife in Iran's restive southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, while two police officers were wounded in a separate shooting incident in Tehran, state media reported May 28.

"Last night...police captain Abbas Rahanjam was martyred and his wife was wounded" after they were shot by armed attackers while traveling on the road from Delgan to Iranshahr, two cities in the province, Khodabakhsh Pakirshahi, a deputy governor of the province's Delgan county, was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

Assailants using Kalashnikov rifles fired at the police officer's car and ran away from the scene, said provincial police chief Ahmad Taheri, according to the ISNA news agency.

Sistan-Baluchistan, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, has seen frequent attacks and clashes between security forces and armed groups, generally involving smuggling gangs as well as separatist and extremist groups.

Three members of the police, including a colonel, were killed in clashes with an armed group in the province in November, state media reported at the time.

In a separate incident, two police officers were wounded by a gunman in a shooting outside a building in Tehran housing the Martyr Foundation, an association of veterans from the 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq.

Fars News Agency reported that the gunman was arrested, but no further details were immediately available.

In recent months, veterans of the conflict and their families have repeatedly protested in front of the Martyr Foundation building in Tehran, calling on authorities to address their demands, especially regarding their living conditions.

With reporting by AFP

Iranian Security Forces Tear-Gas Protesters After Building Collapse

Hundreds of protesters turned out on the streets of Abadan for the past three nights calling for justice for those responsible for the collapse of the 10-story Metropol building earlier this week.

Security forces fired in the air and used tear gas to disperse protesters in the southwestern city of Abadan, the capital of the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan, where the collapse of a high-rise building earlier this week killed 28 people, local media reported on May 28.

The collapse of a large section of the 10-story Metropol building, which was under construction, was one of Iran's deadliest disasters in years.

Protesters gathered on May 27 for the third consecutive night in Abadan and other cities of the province, which borders Iraq, local media reported.

Security forces in Abadan "used tear gas and shot in the air near the collapse site" to disperse hundreds of protesters who were mourning the lives lost and demanding justice for the perpetrators of the incident, Fars news agency said.

Protesters chanted "Death to incompetent officials" and "Incompetent officials must be executed," Fars reported.

In the city of Bandar-e Mahshahr, protesters chanted while banging on traditional drums and hitting cymbals, it added.

Protests also took place in the central Iranian cities of Isfahan, Yazd, and Shahin Shahr, where participants expressed sympathy with the victims of the tragedy.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, who is in Abadan, said on May 28 two more bodies had been recovered and sent for identification, raising the death toll to 28, according to state news agency IRNA.

Khuzestan's provincial judiciary said on May 28 that 13 people have been arrested in connection to the incident, including the current mayor and two former mayors, IRNA said.

In a statement posted on his official website on May 26, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for those responsible to be prosecuted and punished.

But amateur videos posted online also showed demonstrators chanting slogans against Khamenei, with some saying, “We don’t want an incompetent leader.”

The protests came amid reports of Internet disruptions with the web monitoring group Netblocks confirming “a disruption of Internet connectivity across Iran.”

First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber told state television that "widespread corruption existed between the contractor, the builder, the supervisor, and the licensing system."

With reporting by AFP

Russians Press Ahead In Donbas Pocket As Ukrainian Forces On Retreat, Officials Say

A Russian tank sits in front of a damaged apartment building in the town of Popasna in Ukraine's Luhansk region on May 26.

Russian forces reportedly made further gains in the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the eastern Donbas region, as Kyiv admitted that it may have to abandon Syevyerodonetsk, one of the two main cities still under its control but which Russians appear close to surrounding.

Britain meanwhile said Moscow was in acute need of a victory in the Donbas region as a political justification for its unprovoked war against Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called the current situation in the region "very difficult."

"Russian forces have concentrated their efforts in the Donbas, using maximum artillery fire and missile strikes as Ukrainian forces protect our land in the way that our current defense resources allow," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.

Russian troops seeking to regain momentum in the three-month-long war have been pressing a rapid advance in the Luhansk region with a focus on the cities of Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk.

Russia's Defense Ministry said on May 28 that its forces together with Moscow-backed separatist fighters had taken Lyman, a strategic railway hub west of Syevyerodonetsk.

Earlier, the British Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence bulletin on May 28 that Russian forces had likely captured most of Lyman in what appears as a preliminary operation for the next stage of Russia’s offensive.

In Syevyerodonetsk, the relentless and indiscriminate Russian artillery fire almost completely destroyed the city and killed hundreds of civilians, officials said.

Serhiy Hayday, the governor of Luhansk, said on May 28 that he estimates there are some 10,000 Russian troops in the region and that Russians are already in parts of Syevyerodonetsk.

"It is possible that in order not to be surrounded, they (Ukrainians) will have to leave," Hayday said the previous night.

Syevyerodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said at least 1,500 people have been killed in his city since the start of Russia's invasion in late February. About 12,000 to 13,000 remain in the city -- down from a prewar population of about 100,000, he said.

The British intelligence report estimated Russia is likely to prioritize forcing a crossing of the Siverskiy Donets River that separates Syevyerodonetsk from its twin city, Lysychansk.

Moscow has made seizing the whole eastern Donbas region a key objective of the invasion after being pushed back from Kyiv.

In its bulletin, Britain assessed that "if Russia did succeed in taking over these areas, it would highly likely be seen by the Kremlin as a substantive political achievement and be portrayed to the Russian people as justifying the invasion."

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on May 27 that Ukraine needed long-range multiple-launch rocket systems to resist the Russian onslaught.

"I'm afraid that Putin, at great cost to himself and to the Russian military, is continuing to chew through ground in Donbas," he told Bloomberg. "He's continuing to make gradual, slow, but I'm afraid palpable, progress and therefore it is absolutely vital that we continue to support the Ukrainians militarily."

Ukraine is pleading for a long-range weapons system to halt the Russian advance, but Washington has so far not offered one.

On the diplomatic front, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed a possible prisoner swap and blocked shipments of Ukrainian grain during a phone call on May 27.

Nehammer, who spoke to reporters after the 45-minute call, said Putin told him that Moscow is ready to discuss a prisoner swap with Ukraine but the question is complex. The Austrian leader said his impression during the call was that Putin wants to create facts on the ground that he can take into negotiations.

Zelenskiy said earlier that he must hold talks with Putin in order to safeguard Ukraine's sovereignty and existence.

Zelenskiy also accused Russia, which has said it would allow Ukraine to resume its grain exports by sea if the West lifts some sanctions imposed on it for starting the war, of weaponizing the global food supply crisis.

The last known face-to-face talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators were held on March 29. Negotiations continued online for a while, but both sides now say they have stopped.

According to a Kremlin statement, Putin informed Nehammer about actions that Russia is taking to secure safe passage for vessels in the Azov and Black seas.

Putin told Nehammer that attempts to blame Russia for difficulties shipping grain worldwide were unfounded and said Western sanctions were responsible instead, according to the Kremlin.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, CNN, and BBC

Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Loyal To Russia Since 2019 Schism, Now Cuts Ties Over War

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left), Russian Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (right), and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu talk while visiting a marine church in St. Petersburg. (file photo)

The leaders of Orthodox churches in Ukraine that have been affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church on May 27 adopted measures to sever ties with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine in a significant move against the Russian Orthodox Church and its spiritual leader.

The leaders of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church -- Moscow Patriarchate made the announcement in a statement on Facebook after holding a council in Kyiv focused on “issues that arose as a result of the military aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine."

"We disagree with the position of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow...on the war in Ukraine," said the statement.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church -- Moscow Patriarchate has until now formally pledged allegiance to Russia's Patriarch Kirill, who has expressed clear support for President Vladimir Putin's offensive in Ukraine.

Church spokesman Archbishop Kliment said the council stressed its "complete rejection" of Kirill's position regarding the war.

"Not only did he fail to condemn Russia's military aggression but he also failed to find words for the suffering Ukrainian people," the archbishop told AFP.

In recent weeks, hundreds of Ukrainian Orthodox priests signed an open letter calling for Kirill to face a religious tribunal over the war.

The statement said it condemns war as “a violation of God's commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill!' and expresses condolences to all those who suffer in the war."

It said relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Moscow leadership had been "complicated or absent" since the war began, and that the council had approved amendments testifying "to the full independence and autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”

The statement also appealed to both Ukraine and Russia to "continue the negotiation process" and find a way to "stop the bloodshed."

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church -- Moscow Patriarchate remained subordinate to Russia after a schism that formed the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. It broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church over the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in the Donbas region and in 2019 was granted autocephaly, or independence.

Putin's invasion and Kirill's support for it had placed the Moscow-backed branch of the church in Ukraine in an increasingly precarious position.

It is unclear whether clerics of the Moscow Patriarchate will join ranks with those who broke away in 2019 and who now pledge allegiance to Istanbul-based Patriarch Bartholomew, who is considered the leader of the worldwide Orthodox community.

With reporting by AFP

Ukraine Calls On Germany To Cut Natural Gas Flows Through Nord Stream 1 Pipeline

Ukraine says it is willing and able to provide an alternative transport route to the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which runs under the Baltic Sea

Ukraine has demanded that Germany either halt or severely curtail natural gas flows through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, the head of Ukraine’s gas system operator said on May 27.

Serhiy Makogon said the Ukrainian gas transmission system and Ukraine's state energy company Naftogaz have sent an appeal to the German Economy Ministry and the German regulator on the suspension of gas from Nord Stream 1.

Ukraine is willing and able to provide an alternative transport route to the pipeline, which runs under the Baltic Sea, Makogon said on Ukrainian television.

Germany has already halted the Nord Stream 2 gas project as punishment for Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Construction on Nord Stream 2, half owned by Russia’s state-owned Gazprom in a consortium with European energy companies, was designed to double shipments of Russian gas to Germany.

European countries have been under pressure to reduce their energy dependence on Russia, which is using revenues from sales of gas, oil, and coal to help fund the war.

Slovakia announced on May 27 that it has considerably reduced its dependence on gas supplies from Russia. The country has reduced its dependence by 65 percent, said Economy Minister Richard Sulik.

Slovakia was able to do this by signing several gas supply contracts, including one with Norway and others to supply liquefied gas delivered by tankers.

Prime Minister Eduard Heger also announced the start of test operations of a gas pipeline connecting Poland and Slovakia at a new natural gas compressor station in eastern Slovakia.

The pipeline, built with EU funding, will enable Slovakia to also obtain gas from Norway and overseas, he said.

Based on reporting by Reuters and dpa

Battles In Ukraine's East 'Very Difficult;' Governor Says Troops May Have To Retreat To Defend Themselves

Ukrainian forces faced "very difficult" battles in Donbas region on May 27.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called the current situation in the Donbas region "very difficult" as Russian forces and Moscow-backed separatists attacked the last Ukrainian strongholds in the eastern Luhansk region.

Russian forces have concentrated their efforts in the Donbas, Zelenskiy said, using maximum artillery fire and missile strikes as Ukrainian forces "protect our land in the way that our current defense resources allow."

The fighting on May 27 focused on the cities of Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk -- the last areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk.

Serhiy Hayday, the governor of Luhansk region, said that Ukrainian forces are engaged in a "fierce defense" of Syevyerodonetsk, which is two-thirds surrounded by Russian forces.

"The Russians will not be able to capture Luhansk region in the coming days as analysts have predicted," Hayday said on Telegram, referring to Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk, which lies across the Siverskiy Donets River.

"We will have enough strength and resources to defend ourselves. However, it is possible that in order not to be surrounded we will have to retreat," he said.

He said earlier that "very strong" shelling has destroyed 90 percent of the housing in the city.

The Defense Ministry says the current phase of the war is the most active full-scale military aggression thus far.

The Ukrainian military reported that eight attacks by Russian troops had been repulsed in Donetsk and Luhansk during the day, while fighting continued at five locations.

Zelenskiy said Russian forces are trying to achieve some success by next week when the 100th day of the war will be marked.

"The occupiers are trying to achieve in 100 days of war those goals that they hoped to achieve in the first days after February 24," Zelenskiy said in his nightly address.

Syevyerodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said that at least 1,500 people have been killed in his city since the start of Russia's invasion in late February. About 12,000 to 13,000 remain in the city -- down from a prewar population of about 100,000, he said.

Moscow-backed separatists on May 27 also claimed full control of the important battlefield town of Lyman, some 60 kilometers west of Syevyerodonetsk, but the Ukrainian Defense Ministry denied that the major railway hub had fallen, saying in a statement that its forces continue to counteract Russian attempts to overrun it.

Lyman has been a front line target as Russian forces press down from the north, one of three directions from which they have been attacking Ukraine's industrial Donbas region.

On the diplomatic front, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer says he and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed a possible prisoner swap and blocked shipments of Ukrainian grain during a phone call on May 27.

Nehammer, who spoke to reporters after the 45-minute call, said Putin told him that Moscow is ready to discuss a prisoner swap with Ukraine but the question is complex. The Austrian leader said his impression during the call was that Putin wants to create facts on the ground that he can take into negotiations.

Zelenskiy said earlier that he must hold talks with Putin in order to safeguard Ukraine's sovereignty and existence.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the major developments on Russia's invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians, and Western reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Zelenskiy said in an address on May 27 to an Indonesian think tank that Ukraine was not longing to talk to Putin, but that it has to face the reality that this will likely be necessary to end the war that Moscow launched against it on February 24.

"There are things to discuss with the Russian leader. I'm not telling you that our people are eager to talk to him, but we have to face the reality of what we are living through," Zelenskiy said.

"What do we want from this meeting?...We want our lives back...We want to reclaim the life of a sovereign country within its own territory," he said, adding that Russia did not appear to be ready yet for serious peace talks.

Zelenskiy also accused Russia -- which has said it would allow Ukraine to resume its grain exports by sea if the West lifts some sanctions imposed on it for starting the war -- of weaponizing the global food supply crisis.

The last known face-to-face talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators were held on March 29. Negotiations continued online for a while but both sides now say they have stopped.

According to a Kremlin statement, Putin informed Nehammer about actions that Russia is taking to secure safe passage for vessels in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea.

Putin told Nehammer that attempts to blame Russia for difficulties shipping grain worldwide were unfounded and pointed to Western sanctions being responsible instead, according to the Kremlin.

"Detailed explanations have been given of the real causes of these problems, which have emerged due to anti-Russian sanctions by the United States and the European Union, among other things,” the statement said.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Mirziyoev Says New Railway Linking Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, China Will Start Being Built Soon

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (file photo)

BISHKEK -- Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev says his country, Kyrgyzstan, and China plan to start construction of a new railway line connecting the three Asian nations.

Speaking at the online economic forum of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEC) on May 27, Mirziyoev said the project will "open new opportunities for transport corridors linking our region with markets in the Pacific Ocean area. The move will add to the widening of existing railway routes connecting East with West."

The EEC consists of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia. Its economic forum is being chaired by Kyrgyzstan this year.

Last week, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Akylbek Japarov said the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway line will start being built this autumn, calling it "the largest project in Kyrgyzstan's history."

Chinese Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Du Dewen said earlier that the railway project had been on the agenda of talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov when they met in Beijing in early February.

Moscow Court Extends Pretrial Detention Of Cybersecurity Company Chief Charged With Treason

Ilya Sachkov, Group-IB Founder and CEO, a member of cyber crime expert committees at the Russian State Duma, Foreign Ministry, the Council of Europe, and OSCE, Co-Chairman of the RAEC

A court in Moscow has extended the pretrial detention of the head of a leading Russian cybersecurity company who was arrested last September on charges of state treason.

An official for the Lefortovo district court told the state-controlled TASS news agency that it had ruled on May 27 that Ilya Sachkov's pretrial detention was being prolonged until at least July 28.

Sachkov is the founder of Group-IB, a company known for its work in tracking down hackers and fighting theft and cyberfraud.

Sachkov, 35, is one of a group of prominent people, including scientists and cybersecurity officials, to be arrested in Russia on treason charges in recent years. Moscow has faced numerous allegations of being behind cyberattacks on Western countries -- which it has consistently denied.

Investigators said Sachkov was suspected of passing classified information to a foreign country. No other details were given by officials.

Sachkov was arrested and charged after police searched his company's offices in Moscow on September 28. He denies any wrongdoing.

Group-IB, founded in 2003, has grown markedly in recent years as cybercrimes increase globally.

In addition to Moscow, the company has offices in Singapore, London, New York, and Dubai.

Based on reporting by TASS

Finland, Latvia To Host 2023 Ice Hockey Championships That Were Pulled From Russia

This year's Ice Hockey World Championship was originally meant to have been held in St. Petersburg. (file photo)

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has chosen Finland and Latvia to jointly host the 2023 Ice Hockey World Championships after the tournament was pulled from St. Petersburg following Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The IIHF said in a statement on May 27 that the Finnish city of Tampere will be the main venue for the tournament, with the Latvian capital, Riga, hosting one preliminary round group and two quarter-finals.

The tournament was taken away from St. Petersburg on April 26, when the IIHF said the "decision to relocate the event was taken primarily out of concern for the safety and well-being of all participating players, officials, media, and fans."

It had earlier stripped the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship from the Russian cities of Omsk and Novosibirsk citing similar reasons.

Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Russian Court Rejects Belarusian Activist's Asylum Appeal Paving Way To Extradition

Belarusian activist Yana Pinchuk with her husband. (file photo)

A court in Russia has rejected an appeal filed by Belarusian activist Yana Pinchuk against Moscow's refusal to grant her political asylum, paving the way for her extradition home where she faces charges for protesting the disputed August 2020 election that kept authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in power.

The Belarusian human rights group Vitsebskaya Vyasna said that, as a result of the May 26 decision by the Smolny district court in St. Petersburg, Pinchuk will very likely be extradited to Belarus with a hearing on the issue scheduled for June 1.

Police in St. Petersburg arrested Pinchuk on November 1 at the request of Belarus.

Pinchuk is wanted in Belarus on several charges, including inciting national hatred, calls for activities that damaged national security, and slander.

Belarusian authorities accuse Pinchuk of administering the Vitsebsk97% Telegram channel, which had been critical of Lukashenka's regime and has been labeled as extremist in Belarus.

Pinchuk rejects all the charges and says she immediately closed her Telegram channel after it was officially labeled as extremist.

In December, the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center recognized Pinchuk as a political prisoner and demanded her immediate release.

Pinchuk is one of many Belarusians who have faced multiple charges linked to the mass protests against Lukashenka following the controversial presidential election.

Thousands have been arrested and much of the opposition leadership has been jailed or forced into exile. Several protesters have been killed and there have also been credible reports of torture during a widening security crackdown.

Belarusian authorities have also shut down several nongovernmental organizations and independent media outlets.

The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and the crackdown.

Zelenskiy Says Talks With Putin Needed To Get 'Our Lives Back'

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said that he must hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to safeguard Ukraine's sovereignty and existence.

The last known face-to-face talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators were held on March 29. Negotiations continued online for a while but both sides now say they have stopped.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the major developments on Russia's invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians, and Western reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

In an address to an Indonesian think tank on May 27, Zelenskiy said Ukraine was not longing to talk to Putin, but that it has to face the reality that this will likely be necessary to end the war Moscow launched against it on February 24.

"There are things to discuss with the Russian leader. I'm not telling you that our people are eager to talk to him, but we have to face the reality of what we are living through," Zelenskiy said.

"What do we want from this meeting?... We want our lives back... We want to reclaim the life of a sovereign country within its own territory," he said, adding that Russia did not appear to be ready yet for serious peace talks.

Zelenskiy also accused Russia -- which is has said it would allow Ukraine to resume its grain exports by sea if the West lifts some sanctions imposed on it for starting the war -- of weaponizing the global food supply crisis.

In response, the Kremlin said on May 27 that it was unclear what Kyiv wanted.

"The Ukrainian leadership constantly makes contradictory statements. This does not allow us to fully understand what the Ukrainian side wants," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a call with reporters.

With reporting by Reuters and TASS

Exiled Belarusian Opera Singer's Parents Fined, Were Asked By Police To Make Video Against Her

Marharyta Lyauchuk (left) and Andrey Pavuk recorded several joint singing sessions critical of Lukashenka and his government and posted them on YouTube.

A well-known Belarusian opera singer and political activist says her parents have been fined for "disobeying police orders" after their house was searched and they refused to record a video calling on their daughter to stop her political activities.

Marharyta Lyauchuk said her parents were detained on May 26 in the western region of Brest and then ordered to pay 2,240 rubles ($660) each for what the judge said was refusing to follow police orders. It was not clear which orders they refused to follow.

Lyauchuk earlier told RFE/RL that before detaining her parents, police searched their house in the village of Stradzech in the western Brest region.

According to Lyauchuk, her parents' neighbor, who was present when officers searched her parents' house, told her that her parents were handcuffed and taken away.

Last July, Belarusian authorities launched a criminal case against Lyauchuk, accusing her of "desecrating the national flag." The charge stemmed from a video on Lyauchuk's YouTube channel.

Police also searched the home of Volha Pavuk, the former wife of noted opposition blogger and singer Andrey Pavuk, on May 26.

Pavuk, his former wife, and their children left the country in the wake of anti-government protests questioning the official results of an August 2020 presidential poll that handed a sixth consecutive term in office to strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

He was charged in absentia with publicly insulting a prosecutor and disclosing the personal data of a prosecutor’s aide. He denies the charges.

Lyauchuk and Andrey Pavuk recorded several joint singing sessions critical of Lukashenka and his government and posted them on YouTube.

Both are on the Interior Ministry's list of wanted persons.

Russian Forces Advance Deeper Into Ukraine's Donbas

HRW Urges Tajik Government To Stop Repression Of Protesters

The rallies intensified after a protester was killed by police on May 16.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Tajikistan's government to refrain from abusing participants in the protests that erupted earlier this month in the restive Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region.

The protests were initially sparked by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Rizo Nazarzoda, the mayor of the regional capital, Khorugh.

The rallies intensified after a protester was killed by police on May 16, prompting the authorities to launch what they called a "counterterrorist operation" during which as many as 40 people were killed by the security forces, according to Fernand de Varennes, the UN special rapporteur on minority issues.

As government forces dispersed the protests, the authorities also cut Internet and mobile connectivity in the autonomous region.

"Tajik citizens in the autonomous region were peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly to protest abuses against their community when the police engaged in excessive force," HRW's Syinat Sultanalieva said in a statement on May 26.

"Tajik authorities should immediately stop harassing protesters, investigate the abuses against them, and restore communications in the region to allow citizens access to information," the statement said.

"The authorities should also immediately end abuses against protesters in the towns of Khorugh and Rushan, whom central Tajik authorities have labeled 'militants' and 'members of terrorist groups,'" the statement added.

Gorno-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region whose residents identify themselves as "Pamiri," was home to rebels who opposed government forces during the Tajik civil war in the 1990s.

Although it occupies almost half of the entire Central Asian country, it has a population of only 250,000. The region is difficult to travel around because of the mountainous terrain, while its economy is wracked by unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.

The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.

In Rare Display Of Dissent, Lawmakers In Russia's Far East Urge Putin To Stop Ukraine War

Cars pass by destroyed Russian tanks in a recent battle against Ukrainians in the village of Dmytrivka, close to Kyiv.

In a rare display of political protest in Russia, a group of lawmakers representing the Communist Party in the Far Eastern region of Primorye have called on President Vladimir Putin to stop military operations in Ukraine and withdraw all troops from the country.

Leonid Vasyukevich, a member of the regional Legislative Assembly, read out the statement at a session held by lawmakers on May 27.

The statement said that as Russian troops are suffering significant losses in Ukraine, there is no way to get any success by military means.

"We understand that if our country does not stop the military operation, there will be more orphans in the country. During the military operation, young men are dying or becoming disabled, while they could be very useful for our country," the statement said.

Vasyukevich said that the statement was signed by him and his colleagues Gennady Shulga, Natalya Kochugova, and Aleksandr Sustov.

The region's governor, Oleg Kozhemyako, who was at the session, ordered Vasyukevich and Shulga, who vocally supported the statement, to be removed from the premises.

"The action defames the Russian Army and our defenders who are fighting against Nazism. You are a traitor," Kozhemyako said, addressing Vasyukevich.

The lawmakers then deprived Vasyukevich and Shulga of their right to take the floor at the session. The leader of the Communist lawmakers, Anatoly Dolgachyov, said the deputies' action will have "very severe repercussions."

Vasyukevich, Shulga, and Kochugova did not respond to an RFE/RL request for comment on the situation.

Sustov told RFE/RL that he had "my personal thoughts about the special military operation [in Ukraine,] but I did not sign the statement," contradicting Vasyukevich's statement.

The Interfax news agency reported that Kochugova said at the session that she did not sign the statement either.

Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and has met with much stiffer-than-expected resistance from Ukrainian troops.

Ukrainian and Western officials say thousands of Russian soldiers have died during the war.

Moscow has said little on the death toll. In its last official statement, the Defense Ministry said on March 25 that 1,351 of its soldiers had been killed in the fighting.

With reporting by Interfax, Kommersant, and NewsBox.24

Russia Expels Five Croatian Diplomats Over 'Unfriendly Actions'

Protesters gather in front of the Russian Embassy in Zagreb to demonstrate against the invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Russia says it is expelling five Croatian diplomats over "unfriendly actions" taken by Zagreb against Moscow, including the expulsion of 24 Russian diplomats from Croatia in April.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement on May 27 that it had summoned Croatia's ambassador to Moscow to inform him of the move, taken "in connection with the groundless attempts of the Croatian authorities to blame Russia for war crimes in Ukraine and the provision of military assistance by the Croatian side to the neo-Nazi Kyiv regime."

The statement did not say how long the diplomats had to leave Russia.

Croatia expelled the Russian diplomats in April in response to Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

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