House Panel Denies Aid To Afghanistan
The State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee said the $4 billion will be withheld until the U.S. government's audit office conducts a review of how aid money is spent in Afghanistan.
Chairwoman Nita Lowey said, "I do not intend to appropriate one more dime for assistance to Afghanistan until I have confidence that U.S. taxpayer money is not being abused to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords, and terrorists."
She said she had written to the federal auditors of the Government Accountability Office asking them to audit all U.S. aid to Afghanistan from the last three years.
The block of funding will not affect U.S. military or humanitarian aid spending in Afghanistan, but could affect infrastructure projects.
One congressman on the committee, Mark Kirk, worried the move could imperil important projects such as improvements to Kandahar's electrical system, which he said is an important step to winning over area residents to the U.S. mission.
The decision to block the $4 billion came as the same subcommittee approved Washington's larger plans to spend $53 billion in foreign aid worldwide in the upcoming budget year starting October 1.
Pressure On Kabul
The blockage of funds is the strongest expression yet of U.S. lawmakers' anger with persistent reports of rampant corruption in Afghanistan despite drives to curb it.
In the latest such report, "The Washington Post" reported on June 28 that top officials in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government "have repeatedly derailed corruption investigations of politically connected Afghans" and helped "the nation's elite move millions of dollars overseas."
The same day, "The Wall Street Journal" reported that more than $3 billion -- including large amounts of U.S. aid money -- had been flown out of Afghanistan in recent years.
The U.S. lawmakers' action is likely to increase pressure upon both U.S. President Barak Obama and Karzai to reign in corruption or risk seeing mounting U.S. public anger.
The congressional action on June 30 came on the same day that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder met Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul to discuss corruption and other issues.
"We have watched with interest from Washington the positive steps that President Karzai and his cabinet have taken to help improve governance and enforce the rule of law,” Holder told reporters in Kabul. “We applaud President Karzai for his actions and encourage him to continue his efforts as much work remains to be done."
The U.S. administration has consistently urged Karzai to make targeting corruption and Afghanistan's drug trade the priorities of his second term, saying both have helped fuel the resurgence of the Taliban.
Karzai has equally vowed to make cracking down on corruption a priority, including by strengthening the powers of investigators.
After signing a document on March 18 giving more authority to the High Office of Oversight and Anticorruption, Karzai called the move “a step forward toward fighting administration corruption, bribery, and embezzlement in Afghanistan's government system.”
“This will give more power and authority to Mr. Usmani [the anticorruption commission chief] and his administration, also more authority for justice and our judicial system. We are hopeful that this will be useful and for the benefit of the Afghan people," Karzai said.
But the latest media reports suggest that despite such anticorruption drives, there is little to show corruption is actually being curbed in Kabul.
"The Washington Post" report on June 28 quotes U.S. officials as saying privately that "above a certain level, people are being very well protected."
The newspaper quotes the unnamed U.S. officials as saying "Afghan prosecutors and investigators have been ordered to cross names off case files, prevent senior officials from being placed under arrest, and disregard evidence."
Afghan officials say they should not bear full responsibility for corruption in their country.
Afghan Finance Minister Hazrate Omar Zakhilwal told Radio Free Afghanistan that “the international donors have the right to criticize us about aspects of corruption and other shortcomings in government, and we are responsible for addressing their concerns. But putting the burden of every single wrongdoing on the Afghan government and considering the government responsible for all factors of corruption is obviously not acceptable."
He also said that Afghan officials have been among the first to expose corruption, including the reported outflow of billions of dollars from Afghanistan in recent years.
"Regarding the case of money flowing outside Afghanistan, this is our own finding, nobody else discovered this,” Zakhilwal said. “Some $4.2 billion flowed out of the country during the last 3 1/2 years just through Kabul International Airport. This is just the sum we discovered and we think the real sum is more than this.”
Corruption in Afghanistan is thought to not only enrich powerful officials but also to weaken ordinary Afghans' trust in the central government's legitimacy and efficiency.
At the same time, there are fears that a portion of the aid money sent to Afghanistan is directly helping to fund the Taliban in the form of bribes and protection payments.
The "Global Post" reported late last year that "in Afghanistan, one of the richest sources of Taliban funding is the foreign assistance coming into the country."
The news service noted that "virtually every project includes a healthy cut for the insurgents" as contractors pay the Taliban not to attack projects.
The report said that in some cases, projects are completed and the contractors are enriched only to see the projects later destroyed by the Taliban after the protection payment expires.
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In Surprise Kyiv Visit, Polish President Urges Ukraine To Resist Russia's 'Demands'
Polish President Andrzej Duda arrived on May 22 for a surprise visit to Kyiv and became the first head of state to address Ukraine’s parliament since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
In his speech to the Verkhovna Rada, Duda urged Ukraine not to give in to the “demands” of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Only Ukraine has the right to decide about its future,” he told lawmakers. “Nothing about you without you.”
He added that surrendering any Ukrainian territory would be a blow to the entire West and repeated Poland’s firm support for Ukraine’s membership in the European Union.
In April, Duda visited Kyiv for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as part of a delegation with the presidents of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
Zelenskiy on May 21 rejected a suggestion by French President Emmanuel Macron that Ukraine be invited to join some form of “associated” political community with the EU.
“We don’t need such compromises,” Zelenskiy said in Kyiv during a joint press conference with visiting Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa. “Because, believe me, it will not be a compromise with Ukraine in Europe. It will be another compromise between Europe and Russia.”
Duda’s visit came as Russian forces stepped up offensive operations across broad swathes of eastern Ukraine. There was heavy shelling around the northeastern cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, Ukraine’s military said.
Ukraine’s lead negotiator, presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak, told Reuters on May 21 that Kyiv had ruled out any cease-fire agreement with Russia that included ceding any Ukrainian territory.
“The war would not stop,” he said, in the event of such an agreement. “It would just be put on pause for a time. They’ll start a new offensive, even more bloody and large-scale.”
At the same time, Zelenskiy said in a video address to the nation the same day that the war “will only definitively end through diplomacy.”
Zelenskiy is scheduled to address the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, via video link on May 23.
With reporting by AP and Reuters
Amid Russian Calls For 'Tribunals,' Concerns Expressed Over Fate Of Azovstal Defenders
Concerns have been expressed over the fate of Ukrainian soldiers taken prisoner by Russian forces after abandoning the Azovstal steel-mill complex in the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol.
Prominent Russian lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia’s faction in the State Duma and chairman of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, said on May 22 that the fate of the captured soldiers, many of whom are members of the ultra-nationalist Azov Regiment, “should be determined by a tribunal.”
“My opinion remains unchanged: There must be no exchange of members of the Azov [Regiment], which is outlawed in Russia,” Slutsky wrote on his Telegram channel.
Ukrainian officials and relatives of the soldiers have urged Moscow to treat the men as prisoners of war. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshuk said on May 21 that Kyiv “will fight for the return” of every one of them.
The Russian Defense Ministry on May 20 asserted its forces had complete control of the massive factory following weeks of intense fighting in the city that has left thousands feared dead.
Ukraine has described the withdrawal from Azovstal as an authorized “evacuation,” rather than a surrender.
Russia has said some 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers have been taken into custody at the plant. Denis Pushilin, the head of a Russia-backed separatist group in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, said he thought the prisoners would face a “tribunal.”
The Kremlin has misleadingly portrayed its invasion of Ukraine as an effort to root out “Nazis” and other extremists.
The Azov Regiment is a far-right, volunteer group that is part of Ukraine’s National Guard. Formerly known as the Azov Battalion, it espouses an ultra-nationalist ideology that U.S. law enforcement authorities have linked with neo-Nazi extremism. But supporters see it as a patriotic and effective part of the country’s defense forces.
The Russian state news agency Interfax earlier reported that Moscow was considering exchanging Azovstal prisoners for pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, who is facing criminal charges in Ukraine.
The Russian Defense Ministry on May 21 released video purportedly showing Russian troops taking Serhiy Volynskiy, commander of the Ukrainian Navy’s 36th Special Marine Brigade, into custody.
An estimated 100,000 civilians remain in Mariupol and are facing a major health and sanitation catastrophe, officials say. Local officials have accused Russia of concealing atrocities -- including the bombings of a maternity hospital and a theater in which hundreds of civilians were sheltering -- by burying slain civilians in shallow mass graves. Satellite images released in April seemed to show possible mass graves on the outskirts of Mariupol.
“The city is on the verge of an outbreak of infectious diseases,” Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko posted on Telegram.
With reporting by Interfax, AP, and Reuters
Russia Bans 963 Prominent Americans From Entering Russia
Russia has published a list of 963 government officials and leading Americans who are banned from entering the country in retaliation for similar moves by Washington since the offensive in Ukraine.
The list, published on May 21, includes U.S. President Joe Biden, business leaders such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Jamie Fly, president of RFE/RL, along with several current or former members of the board that oversees RFE/RL.
The largely symbolic move names several top officials from the Biden administration, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
The list also includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat-California), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York), and the president's son, Hunter Biden.
Moscow had already announced sanctions targeting many of those on the list.
One exception is Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman, who had not previously been cited by Russian authorities. He is now accused by Moscow of having recorded a video in 2017 in which he claimed Russia was plotting against the United States.
Russia also banned three former senators who are deceased: John McCain (Republican-Arizona) Harry Reid (Democrat-Nevada) and Orrin Hatch (Republican-Utah).
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement the move was in response to "the constantly imposed anti-Russian sanctions" and said it aimed "to constrain the U.S. which is trying to impose a neocolonial 'world order' on the rest of the planet...to change its position and recognize new geopolitical realities."
It added that Moscow remained open to "honest dialogue" and drew a distinction between the people of the United States and authorities who it said have been "inciting Russophobia."
The ministry also said it also banned 26 more Canadians, including Sophie Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian prime minister.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and The Washington Post
Turkey Sets Conditions For Backing Swedish, Finnish NATO Membership
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has set out his conditions for Sweden and Finland to earn his backing for their NATO membership bids, saying they must abandon financial and political support for "terrorist" groups threatening Turkey's national security.
Erdogan spoke by phone separately on May 21 with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, telling Andersson that Stockholm must stop its "political, financial, and military support" for terrorist groups, according to Erdogan's office.
Longtime NATO member Turkey has been especially critical of Sweden for showing leniency toward the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey and its Western allies list as a terrorist group, and the followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara holds responsible for an attempted coup in 2016.
Erdogan has pressed for his concerns to be addressed as Sweden and Finland pursue membership in NATO, which requires the consent of all 30 current member states.
Turkey expects Sweden to "take concrete and serious steps" that show it shares Ankara's concerns over the PKK and its Iraqi and Syrian offshoots, Erdogan told Andersson, according to the presidency.
Erdogan also told Andersson to "lift restrictions imposed on Turkey in the defense industry," referring to an arms embargo in place since Sweden and Finland joined other countries in imposing restrictions after a Turkish military offensive in 2019 against the Kurdish militia People's Defense Units (YPG).
Addressing these areas would show that Stockholm shares Ankara's security concerns, Erdogan said, according to the statement.
Andersson said she appreciated the call and Sweden hoped to strengthen bilateral relations with Turkey.
"I emphasized that Sweden welcomes the possibility of cooperation in the fight against international terrorism and emphasized that Sweden clearly supports the fight against terrorism and the terrorist listing of the PKK," she said in a statement.
In his call with Niinisto, Erdogan said turning a blind eye to "terror" organizations posing a threat to a NATO ally was "incompatible with the spirit of friendship and alliance."
Erdogan also said it was Turkey's natural right to expect respect and support for its "legitimate and determined struggle against a clear threat to its national security and people," the presidency said.
Niinisto said he held "open and direct" talks with Erdogan and agreed to continue close dialogue.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February has shifted political opinion in both Nordic countries in favor of joining NATO.
The two countries shed their longtime neutrality this week by formally submitting applications to join the alliance, and Andersson and Niinisto were welcomed to the White House on May 19 by U.S. President Joe Biden, who strongly backed their bids.
Erdogan also spoke with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on May 21, telling him that Ankara will not look positively on Swedish and Finnish membership unless the two countries clearly show cooperation in the fight against terrorism and other issues.
Erdogan said in a statement after the call with Stoltenberg that he supported NATO's open-door policy.
Stoltenberg said on Twitter that he and Erdogan "agree that the security concerns of all Allies must be taken into account and talks need to continue to find a solution."
With reporting by Reuters, dpa, and AFP
EU Justice Official Says War Crimes in Ukraine 'Will Not Go Unpunished'
EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders has vowed that war crimes in Ukraine will be criminally prosecuted and that atrocities committed during the Russian invasion "will not go unpunished."
Reynders told the Italian daily La Stampa on May 21 that 11 EU member states were investigating war crimes in Ukraine with more than 600 suspects identified so far.
Reynders said investigations were proceeding in Ukraine but also in various other European countries with testimony from people who fled the violence.
He cautioned that evidence of war crimes must be collected correctly or else, "if you were to include false information or fake news, it would be a disaster."
Ukraine has accused Russia of committing atrocities during its unprovoked invasion and said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes.
Despite ample, concrete evidence of Russian attacks on civilian areas documented by reporters, including RFE/RL correspondents on the ground, Moscow denies targeting civilian areas. Russia also claims that evidence of atrocities presented by Ukraine was staged.
On May 19, prosecutors in Kyiv asked a court for a life sentence for the first Russian soldier to stand trial on accusations of committing a war crime in Ukraine.
With reporting by dpa
Britain's Truss Says Moldova Should Be 'Equipped To NATO Standard'
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss says Moldova should be "equipped to NATO standard" to protect itself against potential Russian aggression.
In an interview with The Telegraph published on May 21, Truss said talks were under way with allies about how to help smaller countries defend themselves, given Russian President Vladimir Putin's "ambitions to create a Greater Russia."
She said the aim was to ensure Ukraine is "permanently able to defend itself," and this also applies to other "vulnerable states" such as Moldova, which is also not a member of the NATO alliance.
"What we’re working on at the moment is a joint commission with Ukraine and Poland on upgrading Ukrainian defenses to NATO standard," Truss told The Telegraph.
Pressed on whether she wants to see Western weaponry and intelligence provided to Moldova, Truss said: "I would want to see Moldova equipped to NATO standard. This is a discussion we're having with our allies."
Asked if this is because Russia poses a security threat to Moldova, she said: "Absolutely. I mean, Putin has been clear about his ambitions to create a Greater Russia."
The Telegraph quoted an aide as saying "NATO standard" would involve members of the alliance supplying modern equipment to replace gear from the Soviet era, and providing training in how to use it.
Moldova and its tiny breakaway region of Transdniester share a roughly 1,200-kilometer border with Ukraine and fears of a spillover have intensified since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in late February.
Earlier this month, European Council President Charles Michel promised to boost military aid to Moldova, whose Moscow-backed separatist region of Transdniester has reported several incidents that led to accusations Russia is seeking to destabilize the former Soviet republic and possibly involve it in its war against Ukraine.
Russia still maintains some 1,500 soldiers in Transdniester who are said to be guarding a huge Soviet-era arms depot.
With reporting by Reuters and dpa
U.S., Others Reportedly Walk Out of APEC Talks Over Russia's Ukraine Invasion
Representatives of the United States and several other countries have walked out of an Asia-Pacific trade ministers meeting in Bangkok to protest Russia's invasion of Ukraine, officials and diplomats say.
Representatives from Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Australia joined the Americans in walking out of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting on May 21, two Thai officials and two international diplomats said.
The walkout took place while the Russian representative was delivering remarks at the opening of the two-day meeting of the group of 21 economies.
Another diplomat told Reuters the five countries that staged the protest wanted "stronger language on Russia's war" in the group's final statement to be issued on May 22.
World leaders have strongly condemned Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine that was launched on February 24.
In past weeks, the European Union, the United States, and several other Western allies have also slapped sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian economy, and many of the country's billionaires.
Based on reporting by Reuters
Ukraine Expects Positive Response From West To Request For More Sophisticated Weapons
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says he has "high expectations" for a second round of meetings scheduled for next week of the partner countries supplying weapons to Ukraine.
Zelenskiy told reporters on May 21 that he expects positive responses to his requests for multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) and U.S. jets at the meetings, scheduled to take place on May 23 online in a follow-up to a meeting of about 40 ministers from countries backing Ukraine militarily held last month at the U.S. air base at Ramstein, Germany.
"To be honest, we have high expectations. I would call it a long-awaited process. We are grateful for the great military support provided by various states. We expect a positive [response] on the supply of MLRS," Zelenskiy was quoted as saying in response to questions from reporters following talks with Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa in Kyiv.
"I have no secrets, we appeal to all countries -- from the United States to every European country on MLRS,"
He said the MLRS "just stand still" in other countries but would be "key" to Ukraine's ability to take the initiative and liberate its territory.
Zelenskiy also addressed reservations expressed by some countries that Kyiv will use rocket systems to attack Russia, saying those who have such concerns should consider that the war continues on Ukrainian territory, including the Donbas area.
"These are our territories, and we are going step by step to liberate them. We cannot pay the price of tens, hundreds of thousands of people. So please help us," he said.
Costa became the latest Western leader to visit Kyiv. In addition to meeting Zelenskiy, the Portuguese leader met Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and signed an agreement for unspecified financial support.
Kyiv also got another huge boost of aid from the United States when U.S. President Joe Biden signed a bill to provide nearly $40 billion in military, economic, and humanitarian aid to the country.
"Look forward to new, powerful defense assistance. Today it is needed more than ever," Zelenskiy said on Twitter.
Zelenskiy said earlier on Ukrainian television that his country could be victorious on the battlefield -- but that things could only come to a conclusive halt "at the negotiating table."
He warned that there will be more fighting but the conflict "will only definitively end through diplomacy.”
The developments in Kyiv came as Russia moved nearer to taking control over Ukraine's Donbas region, claiming victory in the monthslong battle for Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant while launching a major offensive in the eastern Luhansk region.
The last Ukrainian forces holed up in the Azovstal steelworks surrendered on May 20, Russia's Defense Ministry said.
It came after a devastating siege that has left Mariupol in complete ruins, with some 20,000 feared dead.
"The underground facilities of the enterprise, where the militants were hiding, came under the full control of the Russian armed forces," the ministry said in a statement.
It said 531 people were in the group that gave up most recently and that brought to 2,439 the total number of defenders who had surrendered in the past few days.
There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine, but Zelenskiy said earlier than the Azovstal defenders got a clear signal from military command that they could get out and save their lives.
Zelensky said in the television interview that the Ukrainian Army had inflicted serious damage on Russia's armed forces despite the fall of Mariupol, which Russia sought to capture to complete a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed in 2014.
Concern mounted for the fate of the Ukrainian defenders who held out at the steelworks for weeks and now are prisoners in Russian hands.
Denis Pushilin, the head of a Moscow-backed separatist group in the Donetsk region, said on May 21 that the Ukrainians were sure to face a tribunal.
"I believe that justice must be restored. There is a request for this from ordinary people, society, and, probably, the sane part of the world community," Russian state news agency TASS quoted Pushilin as saying.
He said on Russian state TV that some foreign nationals are among those who surrendered but did not provide further details.
Family members of the fighters who held out in the steelworks have pleaded for them to be given rights as prisoners of war (POWs) and eventually returned to Ukraine. The International Committee of the Red Cross said on May 20 it was registering them as POWs.
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said again on May 21 that authorities “will fight for the return of every soldier” captured from the Azovstal steelworks.
Meanwhile, Russia also launched what appeared to be a major assault to seize the last remaining Ukrainian-held territory in the Luhansk region.
"The Russian Army has started very intensive destruction of the town of Severodonetsk, the intensity of shelling doubled, they are shelling residential quarters, destroying house by house," Luhansk Governor Serhiy Hayday said on his Telegram channel.
In early hours of May 21, air-raid sirens were going off in much of Ukraine, including in the Kyiv region and the southern port of Odesa.
Ukraine's military General Staff said it had pushed back an offensive on Severodonetsk, part of what it described as major Russian operations along a stretch of the front line.
Russia had sought control of Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, to complete a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and to free up troops to join the battle for control of the Donbas region.
Zelenskiy said Russia should be made to pay for every home, school, hospital and business it destroys. He called on Ukraine's partners to seize Russian funds and property under their jurisdiction and use them to create a fund to compensate those who suffered.
Russia "would feel the true weight of every missile, every bomb, every shell that it has fired at us," he said in his nightly video address.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP
Russia Adds Chess Champion Kasparov, Former Tycoon Khodorkovsky To 'Foreign Agents' Registry
The Russian Justice Ministry has added Kremlin critics Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon, to its registry of "foreign agents."
The two prominent critics of the Russian government, both of whom live abroad, were labeled "foreign agents" for their connections to Ukraine, the ministry said on May 20.
The ministry said that Khodorkovsky, 58, and Kasparov, 59, had "sources" in Ukraine to finance their activities. Kasparov's ties to a U.S. human rights organization were also cited as a reason.
Those on the "foreign agents" registry must meet several requirements, including financial reporting and an obligation to label all posts on social media with a disclaimer. Violations are subject to administrative and criminal liability.
Russia has used the "foreign agents" label extensively against opponents, journalists, and human rights activists accused of conducting foreign-funded political activities.
Kasparov has lived in the United States for almost a decade. Khodorkovsky was one of Russia's most powerful businessmen in the 1990s before clashing with the Kremlin when President Vladimir Putin came to power. He spent 10 years in prison on charges widely seen as political revenge for challenging Putin politically and then moved to London.
For years, he helped to finance the Russian opposition organization Open Russia, which dissolved itself in May 2021 in the face of growing repression.
In addition, two online publications, Open Media and the MBKh news sites, and a legal aid group, Human Rights Postcards, backed by Khodorkovsky ceased operations in August after the sites were blocked by the Russian authorities.
Kasparov and Khodorkovsky, who actively oppose Putin and the war in Ukraine, participated in a conference organized by the Free Russia Forum on May 20 in Vilnius to discuss the consequences of the Kremlin's war in Ukraine for Russia and Europe.
Kasparov told reporters after a meeting with Lithuanian parliament speaker Viktorija Cmilyte-Nielsen that the Russian public does not yet understand that the war is heading toward defeat and "Putin's dictatorship will not survive."
According to the Baltic Times, Kasparov said sanctions against Russia should remain in place until it compensates Ukraine for war damage and those guilty of war crimes are brought to justice.
"Even if someone says the sanctions are not working, this is going to take time because the sanctions are actually stifling the Russian economy, and no Russian government can survive if the sanctions continue," he said.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and the Baltic Times
Russia Stops Gas Flow To Finland Over Refusal To Pay In Rubles
Russia's Gazprom has halted natural-gas exports to neighboring Finland, Finnish state-owned energy company Gasum said, the latest escalation of an energy payments dispute with Western countries.
Gazprom Export has demanded that European countries pay for Russian gas supplies in rubles because of sanctions imposed over Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, but Finland has refused to do so.
"Gas imports through Imatra entry point have been stopped," Gasgrid Finland said in a statement.
Imatra is the entry point for Russian gas into Finland.
Gazprom confirmed it had "completely stopped gas deliveries," as it had not received ruble payments from Finland's Gasum "by the end of the working day on May 20."
Gasum added that gas would instead be supplied from other sources through the Balticconnector pipeline, which connects Finland to Estonia.
The move follows Finland's decision earlier this week to apply to join NATO as it seeks to bolster its security in light of Russia's aggression against Ukraine.
Matti Vanhanen, the former Finnish prime minister and current speaker of parliament, said the effect of Moscow's decision to cut off gas after nearly 50 years since the first deliveries from the Soviet Union began was above all symbolic.
In a May 21 interview with the Finnish public broadcaster YLE, Vanhanen said the decision marked the end of "a hugely important period between Finland, the Soviet Union, and Russia, not only in energy terms but symbolically."
"That pipeline is unlikely to ever open again," Vanhanen told YLE, referring to the two parallel Russia-Finland gas pipelines that were launched in 1974.
Moscow has already cut off gas to other countries, including Bulgaria and Poland, after they refused to comply with the new payment terms.
The majority of gas used in Finland comes from Russia, but gas only accounts for about 5 percent of its annual energy consumption.
Finland also agreed on May 20 to charter a storage and regasification vessel from a U.S company to help replace Russian supplies. The vessel turns supercooled liquefied natural gas back into gas.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Wimbledon Stripped Of Ranking Points Over Ban On Russian, Belarusian Players
The women's and men’s professional tennis associations will not award ranking points for Wimbledon this year because of its ban on players from Russia and Belarus.
The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announced their decisions on May 20, one month after the organization that runs Wimbledon, the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC), decided to ban Russian and Belarusian players in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, making it the first major tennis tournament to do so.
The ATP said in a statement that the ban undermined its fundamental principle that players of any nationality may enter tournaments "based on merit, and without discrimination."
The WTA said that while it holds solidarity with the people of Ukraine and reiterated its condemnation of Russia's attack, the organization was "founded on the fundamental principle that all players have an equal opportunity to compete based on merit and without discrimination."
A statement from WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said, "The stance we are taking is about protecting the equal opportunities that WTA players should have to compete as individuals."
The AELTC said it was a "deep disappointment" that the ATP and WTA stripped the tournament of ranking points. The decisions, it said, were "disproportionate in the context of the exceptional and extreme circumstances of this situation."
In April the club defended the ban as necessary given the tournament's high profile, the importance of not allowing sport to be used to promote the Russian regime, and concerns for public and player safety.
It would be unacceptable for Russia "to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players” since launching its “unjustified and unprecedented military aggression," the AELTC said at the time.
It drew immediate criticism from the ATP and WTA and some prominent players, including defending champion Novak Djokovic.
Numerous Russian and Belarusian sports teams have been barred from global competitions over opposition to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. Russia also has been stripped of hosting various tournaments over its invasion of Ukraine.
The International Tennis Federation, however, still allows individual Russian and Belarusian players to play in tournaments, though without national flags.
Russian player Daniil Medvedev said earlier he would not sue Wimbledon over the tournament's ban.
"If I can't play, I'm not going to go to court for this one," Medvedev told reporters on May 20 ahead of the French Open in Paris, which begins on May 22.
In addition to Medvedev, the Wimbledon ban affects Russia’s other top player on the men’s side, Andrey Rublev, ranked eighth, and Belarusian women’s players Viktoria Azarenka, ranked 15th, and Aryna Sabalenka, ranked seventh.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Former German Chancellor Resigns From Board Of Russian Oil Giant Rosneft
Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and German businessman Matthias Warnig have announced their resignations from the board of directors of Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft, the company said.
Schroeder, chairman of Rosneft's board since 2007, and Warnig said it was impossible for them to extend their mandates on the board, Rosneft said in a statement, giving no further details.
A longtime friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Schroeder has come under increasing international pressure since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine in February.
Schroeder, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), was German chancellor from 1998 to 2005. He has faced fierce criticism in Germany for years over his work for state-controlled Russian energy companies.
Schroeder also has worked for Gazprom and holds leading positions in the Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 natural gas Baltic Sea pipelines for the delivery of Russian gas.
Warnig is also managing director of Nord Stream 2, which has been completed but its operations were switched off following Moscow's invasion. He was included on the U.S. sanctions list after the invasion.
Schroder's decision to step down from the board of Rosneft comes after he had his right to an office at the German parliament in Berlin removed. He is also facing calls to be sanctioned from the European Parliament.
Germany's current chancellor, Olaf Scholz of the SPD, has urged Schroeder to leave the party.
Scholz on May 20 backed the German parliament decision to shut down Schroeder's office and renewed a call for the ex-chancellor to give up all his Russian energy posts.
Based on reporting by AP and dpa
HRW Says Tehran Again Trying To Stifle Civil Groups Amid Growing Protests
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the Iranian government has once again resorted to suppressing dissent and detaining protesters as it looks to quell discontent over rising prices and workers' rights and low wages.
The rights watchdog said in a statement on May 20 that Iranian authorities have arrested several prominent activists since the protests broke out two weeks ago, including a prominent sociologist and four labor rights defenders.
"The arrests of prominent members of civil society in Iran on baseless accusations of malicious foreign interference is another desperate attempt to silence support for growing popular social movements in the country," said Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at HRW.
"Instead of looking to civil society for help in understanding and responding to social problems, Iran's government treats them as an inherent threat," she added.
Even though many Iranians are struggling to make ends meet amid a poor economy crushed by U.S. sanctions and years of mismanagement, President Ebrahim Raisi announced earlier this month a series of economic measures, including cutting subsidies and increasing the prices of several staples such as flour and cooking oil.
The move sparked protests in several cities across the country, with security forces arresting dozens of people. Reports say at least five demonstrators have died during the unrest.
Meanwhile, bus drivers and other employees of the Tehran Bus Company have held strikes since May 16, fueling a transportation crisis that has led the city to use police buses and drivers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a powerful branch of the military, to keep routes open.
The bus employees, angered by the government's failure to deliver fully on a promised wage hike and undeterred by the arrest of their union leader as well as 12 strikers, have vowed to continue their protests until municipal authorities pay up.
The bus strike is widely seen as separate from the street protests over the country's worsening economic situation, some of whom have chanted for the end of the clerical regime.
But observers have suggested that Tehran is eager to prevent the two protests from merging, and have questioned the veracity of the city's announcement on May 17 that it was closing schools and government offices due to high air-pollution levels.
Authorities have also cut Internet services in many areas to try and keep the protests from spreading further.
"Iranian authorities have long sought to criminalize solidarity among members of civil society groups inside and outside the country," Sepehri Far said.
"The intention is to prevent accountability and scrutiny of state actions that civil society provides."
G7 To Provide $9.5 Billion In New Aid To Support Ukraine's Economy
The Group of Seven (G7) leading economies have agreed to provide $9.5 billion in new economic aid to Ukraine to help Kyiv pay public-employee salaries and ensure the government can continue to function as it defends itself from Russia's invasion.
German Finance Minister Christian Lindner told reporters on May 20 that with the addition of the $9.5 billion pledged during a meeting of the G7 finance ministers and central bank governors in Germany this week, the support for Ukraine so far this year totals $19.8 billion.
"We agreed that Ukraine's financial situation must have no influence on Ukraine's ability to defend itself successfully," Lindner said. "We need to do our utmost to end this war."
The new pledges include $7.5 billion in grants from the United States and $1 billion in grants from Germany. The remaining $1 billion will be provided by the other G7 countries in the form of guarantees and loans, the German Finance Ministry said.
"We will continue to stand by Ukraine throughout this war and beyond and are prepared to do more as needed," the G7 ministers said in a communique at the end of the two-day meeting in Koenigswinter, a town outside Bonn.
Russia's invasion touched on almost every topic covered during the meeting of finance ministers and central-bank governors from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
"Russia's war of aggression is causing global economic disruptions, impacting the security of global energy supply, food production and exports of food and agricultural commodities, as well as the functioning of global supply chains in general," the statement says.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and other leaders spoke earlier about the need for allies to provide enough additional aid to help Ukraine "get through" the Russian invasion.
"All of us pledged to do what's necessary to fill the gap," Yellen said on May 19 after the first day of the meeting. "We're going to put together the resources that they need."
The International Monetary Fund's latest world economic outlook says Ukraine’s economy is projected to shrink by 35 percent this year and next.
With reporting by AP and Reuters
Canada Slaps New Sanctions On Russian Oligarchs, Including Formula One Driver Mazepin
Canada has announced new sanctions on 14 Russians -- including Formula One race-car driver Nikita Mazepin -- and a ban on the importing and exporting of certain luxury goods from Russia in response to what it called President Vladimir Putin's "continued aggression" against Ukraine.
"These new measures impose restrictions on 14 individuals including Russian oligarchs, their family members, and close associates of the Putin regime," Canada's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on May 20.
"These individuals have directly enabled Vladimir Putin's senseless war in Ukraine and bear responsibility for the pain and suffering of the people of Ukraine," it added.
Mazepin and his billionaire father, Dmitry Mazepin, a long-standing associate of Putin, headline the list of those hit with sanctions.
Following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, Nikita Mazepin and his father, a prominent racing-team sponsor with close ties to Vladimir Putin, were pushed out of Formula One, while governments around the world have been seizing the family's assets, including a villa in Italy estimated to be worth more than $110 million.
Yelena Timchenko, the wife of billionaire oligarch Gennady Timchenko, Ksenia Frank and Natalya Browning, Timchenko's daughter, and oil and gas magnate Farkhad Akhmedov, are also on the new list, among others.
The news measures also ban the importing of Russian goods including alcoholic beverages, seafood, and nonindustrial diamonds, while the export ban targets luxury goods such as footwear, luxury clothing, and jewelry.
Detention Of Khachaturov's Son Upheld On Assault Charge During Yerevan Protests
YEREVAN -- A court in Yerevan has upheld the detention of Igor Khachaturov, the son of the former chief of Armenia's armed forces, Yuri Khachaturov, after he was charged with assaulting a policeman during opposition protests this week seeking to force Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian from office.
"Based on the sufficient evidence obtained, Igor Khachaturov was charged with...violence against a government official and a motion was submitted to the court to detain him as a measure of restraint. This motion has been upheld," the Investigative Committee's Serious Crimes Investigation Division said on May 20.
Khachaturov, whose father is also the former secretary-general of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, was taken into custody on May 17 after he allegedly struck a policeman, knocking him out.
Khachaturov has denied the allegation, while opposition leaders have accused police of arresting demonstrators "on false, fabricated charges" to deter people from protesting.
Hundreds have been detained this week during demonstrations organized by the opposition over what they say are unacceptable concessions made by Pashinian during negotiations with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Opposition supporters continued their demonstrations on May 20, starting in front of the presidential palace, where the Armenian president was meeting his Lithuanian counterpart.
Another group of protesters gathered outside the venue where Armenian officials and Western diplomats were attending a democracy forum.
Pashinian has faced heavy criticism since he and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed last month in Brussels to begin drafting a peace treaty to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and set up a joint commission on demarcating their common border.
Azerbaijan wants the peace deal to be based on five elements, including the mutual recognition of each other’s territorial integrity.
Pashinian has publicly stated that the elements are acceptable to Yerevan in principle, fueling Armenian opposition claims that he is ready to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia lost control over parts of the region in a 2020 war with Azerbaijan that ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire that an estimated 2,000 Russian troops have been deployed to monitor.
Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
Pashinian, who said he had agreed to the 2020 cease-fire to avoid further losses, said he would not sign any peace deal with Azerbaijan without consulting ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Shoigu Says Russia To Strengthen Its Western Defenses In Response To NATO Growth
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu says Moscow will create new military bases in its western regions and form 12 new units and divisions in response to Sweden and Finland's move to join the NATO military alliance.
"Tension continues to grow in the zone of responsibility of the Western Military District. We are taking adequate countermeasures," Shoigu said at a meeting in televised remarks.
"By the end of the year, 12 military units and divisions will be established in there," Shoigu said, adding that the army expects to receive more than 2,000 units of military equipment and weapons.
Finland and Sweden formally applied to join the Western defense alliance NATO on May 18, renouncing their longtime neutrality status amid growing security concerns prompted by Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin said on May 16 that Swedish and Finnish NATO membership didn't pose a threat to Russia, but cautioned that Moscow would respond if the alliance boosted military infrastructure in the two countries.
The processing of the two Nordic countries' applications is expected to move quickly despite opposition from NATO member Turkey.
U.S. President Joe Biden has voiced strong backing for both NATO applications as he met with the leaders of the two countries at the White House on May 19, calling them two “great democracies" and "highly capable partners.”
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Russian Duma Mulls Scrapping Upper Age Limit Of 40 For Military Enrollment
Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, says it will discuss a draft bill that would remove the upper age limit and allow anyone over the age of 18 to sign up for the military, a possible sign that Moscow has suffered heavy personnel losses in its war against Ukraine.
According to current legislation, only Russians aged 18 to 40 and foreigners aged 18 to 30 are permitted to enroll as professional soldiers in the military.
The amendment, introduced by the head of the Duma's Defense Committee, Andrei Kartapolov, and his deputy, Andrei Krasov, does not mention any new upper age limit.
"For the use of high-precision weapons, the operation of weapons and military equipment, highly professional specialists are needed. Experience shows that they become such by the age of 40–45," the draft, placed on the State Duma website, said on May 20.
Western military experts have questioned how much longer Moscow will be capable of sustaining its offensive operations in Ukraine due to heavy losses it is suspected of having incurred since launching its invasion on February 24.
The amendment would also make it easier for Russia's armed forces to recruit civilian medics, engineers, and operations and communications specialists.
With reporting by Reuters
'I Did Not Want To Kill,' Russian Soldier Tells War Crimes Trial
KYIV -- A Russian soldier on trial for committing a war crime in Ukraine has told the court in his final statement that he didn’t want to kill an unarmed civilian as his unit moved through a small village in the north of the country.
Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin is accused of firing an assault rifle from a car at 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian Oleksandr Shelypov after being ordered to do so. He is the first Russian soldier to stand trial on accusations of committing a war crime in Ukraine.
The 21-year-old Russian has already pleaded guilty to the shooting death of Shelypov, who was killed while riding a bicycle in the village of Chupakhivka in the northeastern region of Sumy.
"I sincerely repent. I was nervous at the time. I did not want to kill.... It's just how it happened," Shishimarin told the Solomyanka district court in Kyiv on May 20.
Prosecutors have asked the court to sentence Shishimarin to life in prison. The judge is expected to hand down the 21-year-old tank commander’s punishment on May 23.
Viktor Ovsyannikov, Shishimarin’s lawyer, said in his closing argument that his client feared for his life after twice refusing to follow an order to shoot Shelypov.
"I personally think that it should not be this young man in the dock, but the senior leadership of the other country that I think is guilty of unleashing this war," Ovsyannikov said.
During the trial, the victim’s widow, Kateryna Shelypova, said she wants life in prison for the defendant but would agree to an exchange for Ukrainian soldiers captured by Russia troops.
Shishimarin, who comes from the Siberian region of Irkutsk, told the court that he understands it is impossible for Shelypova to forgive him, even though he was sorry.
The killing occurred just days after Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova last month identified 10 soldiers of the 64th Mechanized Infantry Brigade of the Russian armed forces, saying that they are suspected of "cruelty toward civilians and other war crimes," adding that Ukrainian investigators are continuing to gather evidence and that those named were just the first.
She also said at the time that investigations were under way to find out if the 10 Russians took part in the killing of civilians in Bucha.
The retreat of Russian forces from Bucha and other towns near Kyiv revealed harrowing evidence of brutal killings, torture, mass graves, and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians in the fighting.
On May 12, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) overwhelmingly approved a resolution to set up an investigation into allegations of abuses by Russian troops in areas of Ukraine they temporarily controlled.
The UNHRC's resolution cited apparent cases of torture, shootings, and sexual violence, along with other atrocities documented by a UN team on the ground.
With reporting by Reuters
UN Concerned About Situation In Restive Tajik Region After Deadly Protests
DUSHANBE – UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has expressed concern over reports of escalating tensions and violence, including casualties, in Tajikistan's restive region of Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAO).
Protesters have clashed with police in recent days, with reports of as many as 21 dead, including one police officer.
The protests were initially sparked several days ago 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 regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Rizo Nazarzoda, the mayor of the regional capital, Khorugh.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters -- 29-year-old local resident Zamir Nazrishoev -- was killed by police on May 16, prompting authorities to launch what they called an "anti-terrorist operation."
"The United Nations will monitor the situation closely," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told journalists late on May 19, adding that Guterres was calling on all sides to exercise restraint and make every effort to resolve the current situation peacefully.
Earlier on May 19, the diplomatic missions of the European Union, the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement expressing deep concern about the unrest and calling on all parties to "de-escalate, exercise restraint, and refrain from excessive use of force and incitement to violence."
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has demanded the Tajik government "strictly observe its obligations to respect and protect people’s rights to life, and freedom of assembly and the media in any military or law enforcement operations in Tajikistan’s autonomous region."
WATCH: One person died as police broke up a demonstration in Khorugh, the capital of Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan region, on the border with Afghanistan. Zamir Nazrishoev is believed to have died as security forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters calling for the resignation of political leaders in the region on May 16.
The situation in the restive region has been tense since November 2021 when security forces fatally wounded Gulbiddin Ziyobekov, a local man wanted on charges of kidnapping. Locals rallied at the time to demand a probe into Ziyobekov's death.
The protesters in GBAO have insisted their actions are peaceful and that they have a right to peacefully demonstrate. Opposition groups based abroad have called on Tajik authorities to stop what they called the "persecution of peaceful demonstrators in the GBAO."
Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million, where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled for nearly three decades.
Deeper tensions between the government and residents of the region have simmered ever since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
GBAO, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict. While it occupies almost half of the entire country, its population is a mere 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.
Russia Claims All Ukrainian Troops Out Of Steelworks In Mariupol
Russian troops are in full control of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol and all Ukrainian fighters that had been holed up there have surrendered, the Russian Defense Ministry says, as Moscow intensifies its assault on eastern Ukraine.
"The territory of the Azovstal metallurgical plant...has been completely liberated," the ministry said in a statement on May 20.
It said 531 people were in the group that gave up most recently and that brought to 2,439 the total number of defenders who had surrendered in the past few days.
The full abandonment of the bunkers and tunnels of the plant brings an end to most destructive siege of the war that started nearly three months ago.
There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine, but President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said earlier that the Azovstal defenders got a clear signal from military command that they could get out and save their lives.
Russia had sought control of Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, to complete a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and to free up troops to join the battle for control of the Donbas region.
Russia has intensified its assault on the region, relentlessly pounding it into what Zelenskiy says now resembles "hell."
After more than 12 weeks of fighting since Moscow launched its invasion, Ukrainian authorities said that "massive" artillery barrages by Russian forces continued to target civilian infrastructure, including residential districts.
Zelenskiy on May 20 sharply criticized one of those attacks, which struck a Ukrainian cultural center in the Kharkiv region.
Kharkiv regional Governor Oleg Sinegubov said eight people had been wounded, including an 11-year-old girl. A local health official had earlier put the number of wounded at seven.
Zelenskiy released a video on social media showing a large explosion hitting the newly renovated Palace of Culture in Lozova. The building was partly destroyed, and the roof caught fire, Ukraine's emergency services reported.
"The occupiers identified culture, education, and humanity as their enemies," Zelenskiy said. "What is in the minds of people who choose such targets? Absolute evil, absolute stupidity."
Sinegubov said there was no doubt the Russian forces targeted the cultural center, adding on Telegram that two of three missiles fired had been intercepted and the blaze that broke out at the center had been extinguished.
British intelligence on May 20 noted in its daily report on the situation in Ukraine that after securing the strategic Sea of Azov port following a monthslong siege that turned the city into ruins and killed thousands of civilians, Moscow is likely to redeploy troops to aid in the offensive in the east.
WATCH: The widow of a Ukrainian civilian killed by the first Russian soldier on trial for war crimes in Ukraine said he could have "missed" her husband instead of carrying out orders. The Russian soldier accused of killing him pleaded guilty in a Kyiv court on May 18.
Those soldiers who left Azovstal, including those who were wounded, were reportedly transferred to territory in eastern Ukraine that is controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said it is registering the hundreds of Ukrainian fighters who left the Azovstal plant in Mariupol as prisoners of war (POWs).
The ICRC says the registration of the fighters as POWs was "critical to ensure they’re accounted for & treated humanely and with dignity" and allows the organization to track those who have been captured and help them keep in touch with their families.
Kyiv has expressed hope that the fighters will be exchanged for Russian prisoners, but separatist authorities in the eastern Donetsk region suggested some of them could be put on trial.
In southeastern Ukraine, an estimated 1,000 vehicles carrying Ukrainian civilians were prevented from crossing into Ukrainian-held territory in Zaporizhzhya. The regional military administration said on May 20 that cars full of people trying to evacuate were stuck at a Russian checkpoint in the city of Vasylivka.
"In Vasylivka, the occupiers have not allowed more than 1,000 cars to enter the territory controlled by Ukraine for the fourth day in a row," the administration said in a Telegram post, adding that there are women and children in the cars, and that most of them no longer have money for food and water.
In Luhansk, local authorities said on May 20 that indiscriminate Russian bombardment had killed at least 13 civilians over the past 24 hours and caused substantial damage.
Twelve people were killed in the town of Severodonesk, where a Russian assault has been unsuccessful, said the regional governor, Serhiy Hayday. The town and the city of Lysychansk are in an area where Russian troops have launched an offensive.
In Donetsk, "the Russian enemy carried out massive artillery shelling of civilian infrastructure, including multiple-rocket launchers," Ukraine's General Staff said in a statement.
Ukraine's Prosecutor-General's Office said that as of May 20, 232 children had been killed and 427 wounded since the beginning of the Russian invasion.
In a regular address to the nation, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia had "completely destroyed" Ukraine's eastern Donbas region.
"It is hell there -- and that is not an exaggeration," Zelenskiy said in his nightly address, repeating his accusation that Russia is committing genocide, a claim Moscow has denied.
Zelenskiy also said that in the Chernihiv region north of Kyiv, the village of Desna was hit with Russian missiles on May 19 and that many were killed. Desna is some 70 kilometers from the border with Belarus.
Zelenskiy spoke on May 19 with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen about a range of issues, including financial aid to assist the shattered Ukrainian economy, agricultural exports, and "the evacuation of our heroes from Azovstal."
Shoigu said on May 20 that the "liberation of the Luhansk People's Republic" -- a territory in Ukraine recognized by Russia as independent and controlled by Moscow-backed separatists -- would be completed soon.
The minister also said Russia would beef up its western defenses with troops and 12 additional military bases in response to Sweden and Finland's bid to join NATO.
The two Nordic countries shed their longtime neutrality this week by formally submitting applications to join the alliance, saying the move was necessary because of security concerns sparked by Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, BBC, CNN, and TASS
Navalny Allies Urge U.S. Lawmakers To Spread Pain Of Sanctions To Mid-Level Russian Politicians
Members of Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s team were in Washington on May 19 to urge lawmakers to impose sanctions over the war in Ukraine to include figures lower down Russia’s political ranks.
The group is pressing for sanctions to be expanded to thousands of Russian government officials, mid-level politicians, and public figures, including Russian defense and security officials, members of parliament, and editors and managers at state-aligned media operations.
Vladimir Ashurkov, the executive director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), said in an interview with journalists during his visit to the U.S. Capitol that sanctions are “one of the few instruments available to the Western countries to affect what’s going on.”
Sanctions imposed so far are having an effect in Russia, he said, but the group seeks “the next wave” to reach beyond wealthy allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin to spread the financial pain to lower-level people more susceptible to the financial strain.
The list of new sanctions was an idea from Navalny himself, said another official involved with the group.
Navalny has been jailed since returning to Russia last year after being poisoned. Despite his imprisonment, Navalny remains “very much operational,” said Anna Veduta, FBK vice president.
Navalny last month urged President Joe Biden and other Western leaders “to urgently find a solution to crush Putin’s propaganda using the advertising power of social media.”
Even if ads were bought at full price, the cost would be “laughable compared to the price of this war,” Navalny said on Twitter on April 14.
The group met with Senator Jim Risch (Republican-Idaho), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Marco Rubio (Republican-Florida), and others.
The group also planned to meet with officials at the State Department, the Justice Department, and other offices in Washington.
Based on reporting by AP
Blinken Accuses Russia Of Blocking Exports Of Ukrainian Grain, Worsening World Food Crisis
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Russia of using food as a weapon in its war against Ukraine by blocking ports used to ship grain and other commodities.
"The Russian government seems to think that using food as a weapon will help accomplish what its invasion has not -- to break the spirit of the Ukrainian people," Blinken said in an address on May 19 to the UN Security Council.
"As a result of the Russian government's actions, some 20 million tons of grain sit unused in Ukrainian silos," he said. As global food supplies dwindle, prices skyrocket, causing more people around the world to experience food insecurity, he added.
Russia and Ukraine together account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies. Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn, barley, sunflower oil, and rapeseed oil.
Blinken appealed to Russia to stop blockading the ports so that food produced in Ukraine can begin flowing again.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said it was "absolutely false" that Russia was to blame for a crisis that he claimed has been ongoing for several years.
He accused Ukraine of refusing to cooperate with shipping companies to free up dozens of foreign freighters that are blocked in ports and said Ukraine has placed mines along the Black Sea coast.
Nebenzia also blamed Western sanctions imposed on Moscow for slowing Russian exports of food and fertilizer.
Blinken rejected Russian claims that sanctions were to blame for the food crisis.
"Sanctions imposed by the United States and many other countries deliberately include carve-outs for food, for fertilizer, and seeds from Russia," he said. "The decision to weaponize food is Moscow's and Moscow's alone."
Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP
U.S. Senate Gives Final Congressional Approval To $40 Billion Aid Package For Ukraine
The U.S. Senate on May 19 overwhelmingly approved a $40 billion package of military and economic aid for Ukraine, sending the legislation to President Joe Biden for his signature just three weeks after he proposed it.
The 86-11 vote gave final congressional approval to the package, which Biden is expected to quickly sign.
“Help is on the way, really significant help. Help that could make sure that the Ukrainians are victorious,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York).
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky) backed the measure, saying Ukraine’s defeat would jeopardize America’s European trading partners, increase U.S. security costs there, and embolden autocrats in China and elsewhere to grab territory in their regions.
“The most expensive and painful thing America could possibly do in the long run would be to stop investing in sovereignty, stability, and deterrence before it’s too late,” McConnell said.
A top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked the U.S. Senate after it approved the bill, which passed the House of Representatives last week.
"We are grateful for the historic decision of the U.S. Senate to provide Ukraine $40 billion in aid. Let's win together," Zelenskiy's chief of staff Andriy Yermak said on Twitter.
When Biden signs the bill into law, it will bring the total amount of U.S. aid approved for Ukraine to well over $50 billion since the Russian invasion began on February 24.
Schumer said on May 18 that he was not confident it would be the final measure to help Ukraine.
“They’re doing the fighting. They’re the ones getting killed. They’re the ones struggling and suffering. The least we can do is give them the weaponry they need,” he said.
The legislation contains around $24 billion for weapons, equipment, and military financing for Ukraine and to cover the cost of restoring U.S. weapons stocks sent to the region.
The rest includes economic aid to keep Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government functioning, food programs for countries that rely on Ukraine’s crop production, refugee assistance, and funds for Kyiv to investigate Russian war crimes.
Shortly after the Senate vote, Secretary of State Antony Blinken released another $100 million in previously approved funding for military assistance for Ukraine. It is the 10th "drawdown" of arms and is valued at $100 million, Blinken said in a statement.
The funding will include 18 new howitzers and some anti-artillery radar, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. The equipment will be in the hands of Ukrainian forces “very, very soon,” Kirby added.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the $40 billion package sent to Biden includes $7.5 billion in new economic aid.
Speaking to reporters in Germany after the first day of a meeting of Group of Seven (G7) finance ministers and central bank governors, Yellen said that the finance leaders agreed to provide Ukraine the financial resources it needs in its struggle against Russia's invasion.
Yellen said that funding pledges during the meeting exceeded the $15 billion that Kyiv has estimated it needs over the next three months to make up for the loss of revenue caused by the war.
The European Commission pledged 9 billion euros, and other countries, including Canada and Germany, pledged additional amounts, she said.
"The message was, 'We stand behind Ukraine. We're going to pull together with the resources that they need to get through this,'" Yellen said.
With reporting by AP and AFP
Ukrainian Lawmakers Outline Resolution Recognizing Putin As A 'War Criminal'
Ukrainian lawmakers have outlined a resolution that would designate Russian President Vladimir Putin as a war criminal over for his "aggressive" moves against the country, including launching an unprovoked invasion in February.
The draft resolution was prepared by parliamentary groups and committees and registered at the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council) on May 19.
The authors of the resolution linked Putin directly to "the aggressive war against Ukraine," including the ongoing invasion that he started on February 24, and the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of parts of Ukraine’s eastern regions in Luhansk and Donetsk in 2014.
The draft resolution, which now awaits the setting of a date for debate in parliament, says Putin is directly responsible for the aggression "in which millions of Ukrainians suffered damage to their health, in many cases death, lost movable and immovable property, and were forced to abandon their homes."
The resolution also mentions Putin’s open statements and activities "aimed at liquidating Ukraine's national culture, identity, and statehood."
"The goal of the resolution is to publicly confirm the crimes committed by the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, against mankind’s security and international law, and call on international institutions to investigate mentioned illegal acts and bringing Putin to account," the document says.
Before launching the invasion, which he calls a "special military operation," Putin explicitly denied that Ukraine had ever had “real statehood” and said the country was an integral part of Russia’s “own history, culture, [and] spiritual space.”
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says almost 3,800 civilians have been killed in the 12 weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine. The government in Kyiv has said that about 3,000 of the country's soldiers have died in the fighting, though the United States estimates the number to be at least double that.
Ukraine has accused Russia of committing atrocities during its unprovoked invasion and said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes. Russia denies targeting civilians and claims that evidence of atrocities presented by Ukraine was staged.
Earlier on May 19, prosecutors in Kyiv asked a court for a life sentence for the first Russian soldier to stand trial on accusations of committing a war crime in Ukraine.
Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, who went on trial on May 18, has already pleaded guilty in the shooting death of a 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian, Oleksandr Shelypov, who was shot while riding his bicycle in the village of Chupakhivka in the northeastern region of Sumy.
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