New Efforts To Break Russia-Ukraine Gas Deadlock
Paolo Scaroni, chief executive of Italian energy giant Eni said late on January 15 that a consortium would provide gas necessary for technical reasons to get pipelines and pumping stations working again.
The move could allow gas supplies to Europe to get under way immediately, leaving the question of reimbursement for the consortium's gas on hold until an agreement between Ukraine and Russia on their price dispute is reached.
Scaroni said the consortium would include E.ON, Gaz de France Suez, and an Austrian company.
Eni is Europe's leading gas operator and largest user of the Ukraine pipeline. Scaroni, who said the involvement of the firms would begin on January 16, discussed the consortium idea with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on January 15.
Putin and Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko plan to meet in Moscow on January 17 to try to resolve the gas row, which has cut supplies to 18 states in the depths of winter, forcing many factories to close and leaving householders shivering.
There was little enthusiasm in Brussels for a separate Moscow meeting with importers proposed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. But the EU executive said it and the Czechs -- holders of the rotating EU Presidency -- would attend if Russian and Ukrainian leaders were there too.
Senior East European officials will hold talks in Kyiv on January 16 on the disruption in gas supplies, the office of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said.
Frustration is growing in the EU at the failure of Russia and its former Soviet vassal Ukraine to resolve the row over how much Kyiv should pay Moscow for gas, or at least allow gas to flow to Europe while they argue it out.
"It is clear today, even if they turn on the taps tonight and gas starts to flow, there has been irreparable, irreversible damage done, a loss of confidence in both Russia and Ukraine," said Martin Riman, the Czech industry and trade minister.
An EU-brokered deal was supposed to get supplies of Russian gas moving to Europe via Ukraine on January 13 despite the pricing dispute. EU monitors are in place to ensure Ukraine does not siphon off gas, as Moscow has alleged it has done.
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Iranian Court Confirms Long Prison Sentence For Espionage For French National Briere
A court in Iran has denied an appeal by French citizen Benjamin Briere and confirmed his prison sentence of eight years and eight months for espionage, a charge he and his family have rejected.
Briere’s Iranian lawyer, Saeid Dehghan, announced on Twitter on June 28 that the court had declared France a "hostile state."
The 37-year-old French tourist had traveled to Iran in a van in May 2020 and was arrested after flying a drone on the plains near the Iran-Turkmenistan border.
The trial lasted until February last year, when the Islamic republic's judiciary finally sentenced him to eight years and eight months in prison on charges of "espionage" and "propaganda against the regime."
At the time, Dehghan stated that he had been "accused of collaborating with governments hostile to Iran," while his client "was unaware of his new charge."
AFP quoted Briere's sister, Blandine, as saying the trial was "a masquerade" and part of a geopolitical game Tehran is playing.
Briere is one of more than a dozen foreign nationals or people with dual Iranian citizenship being held in Iran. Two other French nationals -- 37-year-old Cecile Kohler and her 69-year-old partner, Jacques Paris -- have also been detained in Iran, accused of seeking to foment labor unrest in the country.
Western countries have repeatedly charged that Iran is trying to take advantage of foreign countries by taking dual and foreign nationals hostage.
The verdict also comes as Iran and world powers are seeking to reach agreement on reviving the 2015 deal over Tehran's nuclear program.
Negotiators from the United States and Iran are expected to hold indirect talks in Qatar on June 29 as they look to overcome hurdles to reaching a final agreement.
With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi
Iran Nuclear Talks In Qatar Proceeding, Iran Says, Denying Report They'd Ended
The Iranian Foreign Ministry says indirect talks between Tehran and Washington in Qatar are continuing, denying an Iranian media report that they had ended.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani said the two-day talks were not over and that another meeting would be held later on June 29 between Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, and Enrique Mora, the European coordinator of the talks.
"Talks continue in a serious and businesslike atmosphere," Kanani said.
The talks are aimed at overcoming differences over how to salvage a 2015 nuclear pact between Iran and world powers.
Iran's semiofficial Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), reported earlier that the negotiations in Doha had ended without result.
The talks started on June 28 with Mora as the coordinator shuttling between Kani and U.S. special envoy Robert Malley.
"What prevented these negotiations from coming to fruition is the U.S. insistence on its proposed draft text in Vienna that excludes any guarantee for Iran's economic benefits," Tasnim said, citing informed sources at the talks.
“Washington is seeking to revive the [deal] in order to limit Iran without economic achievement for our country,” the report claimed.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on June 27 that the talks would focus on the lifting of U.S. sanctions.
The talks are separate from broader EU-mediated negotiations that have taken place in Vienna between Iran and major powers.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last week traveled to Tehran in a push to resuscitate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. EU countries have been forced to find oil suppliers other than Russia as they seek to lower their reliance on Russian energy amid the war in Ukraine.
Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to limits on its controversial nuclear program in exchange for relief from punitive sanctions imposed by the West. But the arrangement began to fall apart in 2018 when then- U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the deal.
Washington subsequently reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, while the Iranian government backed away from some of the commitments laid out in the deal.
Iran has been engaged for more than a year in negotiations in Vienna with Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China directly -- and the United States, indirectly -- to revive the deal.
Negotiators were reportedly close to a new agreement in March, but the talks abruptly stalled in April, with Tehran and Washington blaming each other for failing to take the necessary political decisions to settle remaining issues.
One of them is Tehran's insistence that Washington remove the IRGC from its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
Moscow City Court Rejects Opposition Politician Kara-Murza's Appeal Against Pretrial Arrest
The Moscow City Court has rejected an appeal filed by prominent Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza against a lower court decision to place him in pretrial detention after he was arrested for allegedly spreading false information about the Russian Army.
Kara-Murza tweeted on June 29 that the hearing was held behind closed doors under the pretext that the judge did not want to disclose information about the politician's family residing abroad. Journalists were present only for the handing down of the court's decision.
The 40-year Kremlin critic was detained in April and sentenced to 15 days in jail on a charge of disobedience to police. He was later charged with spreading false information about the Russian Army and placed in pretrial detention for two months.
On June 8, the Basmanny district court extended Kara-Murza's pretrial detention until at least August 12.
Russia's Investigative Committee is conducting a probe into allegations that Kara-Murza distributed false information about the army while speaking to lawmakers in the U.S. state of Arizona.
Kara-Murza has rejected the charge, calling it politically motivated.
His arrest came amid a mounting crackdown by Russian authorities on opposition figures and any dissent to the ongoing war in Ukraine that Moscow launched against its neighbor on February 24.
In early March, President Vladimir Putin signed a law that calls for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations.
The law envisages sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of "deliberately false information" about the Russian Army that leads to "serious consequences" is 15 years in prison.
It also makes it illegal "to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia" or "for discrediting such use" with a possible penalty of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calls for sanctions against Russia.
A close associate of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Kara-Murza is best known for falling deathly ill on two separate occasions in Moscow -- in 2015 and 2017-- with symptoms consistent with poisoning.
Tissue samples smuggled out of Russia by his relatives were turned over to the FBI, which investigated his case as one of "intentional poisoning."
U.S. government laboratories also conducted extensive tests on the samples, but documents released by the Justice Department suggest they were unable to reach a conclusive finding.
Russian Lawmakers OK 'Foreign Agent' Amendment Making It Easier To Target Domestic Critics
The Russian parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, has approved a bill that would allow it to define any person who receives financial assistance from abroad as a "foreign agent," a change making it easier for the state to target its domestic critics.
The bill, approved on June 29, must still pass through parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, before it is signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.
Russia has used the so-called "foreign agent" law for the past decade to label and target critics who it feels are engaged in political activity and receive foreign funding.
The new law tweaks that to say all individuals who receive financial support from abroad or who "are under foreign influence" can be defined as "foreign agents." It also broadens the definition of political activities to include a vague clause covering any activities that "contradict the national interests of the Russia Federation."
Individuals who are officially labeled as "foreign agents" will no longer be able to receive state grants for creative activities, work as teachers, organize public events, or work at structures that distribute information.
Russia already maintains multiple lists of individuals and entities it considers to be working as "foreign agents."
Among other things, the designation requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance, and which are considered by the government to be engaged in political activities, to register as "foreign agents," to identify themselves as such, and to submit to cumbersome audits.
They also must label any content they produce with an intrusive disclaimer or face criminal fines for not doing so. Kremlin critics say the "foreign agent" designation brings up Soviet-era connotations that are intended to stigmatize any independent civic activity in Russia.
The "foreign agent" law has been increasingly used by officials to shutter civil society and media groups in Russia.
The original 2012 legislation targeted NGOs and rights groups but has since been expanded to target media organizations, individual journalists, YouTube vloggers, and virtually anyone who receives money from outside of Russia and, in the eyes of the Kremlin, voices a political opinion.
RFE/RL has 18 Russian-national journalists on the government's "foreign agents" list.
The U.S. government-funded independent broadcaster suspended its operations in Russia in March after local tax authorities initiated bankruptcy proceedings against its Russian entity and police intensified pressure on its journalists.
The bankruptcy proceedings stemmed from the company's refusal to comply with the labeling mandate or pay the millions of dollars in fines that have piled up for not adhering to the law.
RFE/RL has rejected the “foreign agent” label, saying it connotes that it is an enemy of the state.
Kazakh Official Says Six People Arrested After January Unrest Were Tortured To Death
NUR-SULTAN -- Kazakhstan's deputy prosecutor-general, Aset Shyndaliev, says six people were tortured to death after being arrested for taking part in January anti-government protests that led to the removal of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his relatives from the oil-rich Central Asian nation's political scene.
Shyndaliev said in a statement on June 29 that 232 individuals died during the protests, which were violently dispersed by law enforcement and armed forces. The previous death toll provided by the authorities was 230, including 19 law enforcement officers.
Shyndaliev added that eight officers of the Committee of National Security (KNB) and a police officer had been arrested on a charge of torturing suspects. Overall, he said, 15 officers are suspected of using torture and illegal methods of interrogation on people arrested during and after the unrest.
The Prosecutor-General's Office said earlier that 25 people were officially considered victims of torture by hot irons, which investigators used on them during interrogations related to the deadly unrest.
Shyndaliev's comments come amid demands by rights activists and some who survived the brutality for more transparency to get justice for the victims in ongoing probes over the use of torture.
Thousands of people were detained by officials during and after the protests, which President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said were caused by "20,000 terrorists" from abroad, a claim for which authorities have provided no evidence.
The unrest occurred after a peaceful demonstration over a fuel-price hike in the tightly controlled nation's western region of Manghystau on January 2 led to widespread anti-government protests.
Human rights groups say the number of people killed was much higher than any of the figures provided by officials. The groups have provided evidence proving that peaceful demonstrators and people who had nothing to do with the protests were among those killed by law enforcement and military personnel.
The government has not published the names of those killed during and after the unrest and has rejected calls by domestic and international human rights organizations to launch an international probe into the deaths.
Zelenskiy Asks NATO Allies For Modern Heavy Weapons, More Financial Support
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has told NATO leaders that his country needs more advanced heavy weapons and additional financial support to stave off Russia's unprovoked invasion, warning that Moscow's ambitions won't stop with Ukraine.
"We need to break the Russian artillery advantage...We need much more modern systems, modern artillery," Zelenskiy told a NATO summit in Madrid via a video link on June 29, adding that financial support was "no less important than aid with weapons."
"This is not a war being waged by Russia against only Ukraine. This is a war for the right to dictate conditions in Europe -- for what the future world order will be like," Zelenskiy said.
He also pressed the allies for more financial aid, saying that Ukraine needs $5 billion monthly for its defense and protection against Russia's aggression.
He also rhetorically asked why NATO's ties with Kyiv have not been closer: “Hasn’t our contribution to defending Europe and the entire civilization been sufficient? What else is necessary?”
Zelenskiy called for more sanctions on Russia that will prevent from getting the money to pay for the war.
"Russia still receives billions every day and spends them on war. We have a multibillion-dollar deficit, we don't have oil and gas to cover it," Zelensky said.
Three Belarusian 'Railway Guerrillas' May Face Death Penalty
MINSK -- Three Belarusian activists who were arrested for allegedly damaging railways in the country to disrupt Russian arms and troops supply to war-torn Ukraine may face the death penalty if convicted.
The Investigative Committee said on June 29 that a probe launched into the case of the three activists in the southeastern region of Homel had been completed, with the suspects expected to face trial in the near future.
The three men were among some 60 activists arrested for their alleged involvement in damaging Belarus's railways to impede the progress of Russian troops and arms to Ukraine as part of Moscow's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The other cases are still being investigated.
The Investigative Committee did not identify the trio, giving only their ages -- 29, 33, and 51 -- and calling them 'traitors of the motherland."
The Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) human rights center has identified the men as Dzmitry Ravich, Dzyanis Dzikun, and Aleh Malchanau, all from the southeastern city of Svetlahorsk.
They have been charged with being members of an extremist group, carrying out a terrorist act, inflicting premeditated damage to communication lines, and high treason.
The campaign called "railways war" was initiated in Belarus by a group called BYPOL. Those involved in the campaign have been nicknamed "railway guerrillas."
Belarus is not a direct participant in the war in Ukraine, but it has provided logistical support to Russia for the invasion by allowing Russian forces to enter Ukraine via Belarusian territory.
Western nations have slapped Belarus, like Russia, with an ever-increasing list of financial sanctions in response to the Kremlin's war on Ukraine, and for Belarus's efforts to aid the Russian invasion.
Belarus is the only country in Europe that still uses the death penalty.
In May, the country's authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed a controversial law amending the Criminal Code that allowed the use of capital punishment for "attempted terrorist acts."
Britain Announces New Russia Sanctions List That Includes Potanin And Putin's Cousin
The United Kingdom has announced new sanctions aimed at Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle, including his close ally Vladimir Potanin, the country's second-wealthiest man with an estimated net worth of more than $30 billion.
The British Foreign Office said in a statement on June 29 that Potanin "continues to amass wealth as he supports Putin’s regime, acquiring Rosbank, and shares in Tinkoff Bank in the period since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine."
The sanctions include an asset freeze, travel ban, and transport measures that make it a criminal offence for any Russian aircraft to fly or land in the United Kingdom, and give the government powers to remove aircraft belonging to designated Russian individuals and entities from the U.K. aircraft register, even if the sanctioned individual is not on board.
The statement added that Anna Tsivileva, Putin’s cousin and president of the prominent Russian coal mining company, JSC Kolmar Group, has also been sanctioned. Tsivileva’s husband, Sergey Tsivilev, is the governor of the coal-rich Kemerovo region.
The couple have "significantly benefitted" from their relationship with Putin. JSC Kolmar Group is also being sanctioned, the statement said.
"As long as Putin continues his abhorrent assault on Ukraine, we will use sanctions to weaken the Russian war machine. Today’s sanctions show that nothing and no one is off the table, including Putin’s inner circle," the statement quoted a government spokesperson as saying.
The statement said that the British government is also sanctioning a group of Russian individuals and companies for their involvement in "repressing civilians and supporting" the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria -- "exposing Russia’s malign activity across the globe."
Since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Britain has sanctioned more than 1,000 people and over 120 businesses.
Kyrgyz TV Station Director Detained Over Report On Ukraine War Faces Additional Charge
BISHKEK -- The director of the NEXT television channel in Kyrgyzstan, who is currently under arrest over the airing of a controversial report in which an interviewee alleged the existence of an agreement between Bishkek and Moscow to send troops to assist Russian armed forces in the war against Ukraine, now faces an additional charge.
Taalaibek Duishembiev's lawyer, Timur Sultanov, said on June 29 that his client faces another charge of inciting ethnic hatred over an unspecified report posted on Instagram in early March.
A day earlier, a court in Bishkek extended Duishembiev's pretrial detention until at least August 3.
Duishembiev was arrested and charged with inciting interethnic hatred in early March.
The initial charge stemmed from a report by the channel that quoted the exiled former chief of the Committee for National Security of neighboring Kazakhstan, Alnur Musaev, as saying that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had agreed to support Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by sending troops to help Russia.
NEXT officials have insisted the report was balanced as it quoted Musaev directly while giving other people's views on the issue as well.
There has been no evidence of Tajik or Kyrgyz troops fighting in Ukraine since the invasion was launched on February 24.
The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry has rejected the report and called on local media outlets to base their reporting on the ongoing war in Ukraine solely on official government statements.
Domestic and international human rights organizations have demanded Duishembiev's release, saying that his arrest violates freedom of expression.
Biden Says U.S. To Strengthen European Posture In Face Of Russian Aggression
President Joe Biden says the United States will change its military posture in Europe because of threats resulting from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking as he was greeted by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at a summit of the alliance on June 29, Biden said the United States would raise the number of destroyers it has in Spain from four to six. He also said Washington will send two additional F-35 squadrons to Britain and establish a 5th Army headquarters in Poland.
The alliance is needed more today "than it ever has been," Biden said, adding that NATO will be "strengthened in all directions across every domain -- land, air and sea."
Moscow-Imposed Administration Plans Referendum In Ukraine's Kherson On Joining Russia
The Moscow-installed military administration ruling the area around the occupied Ukrainian city of Kherson said it is preparing to hold a referendum on joining Russia.
"Yes, we are preparing for a referendum -- and we will hold it," Kirill Stremoussov, the deputy head of Kherson's military and civil administration, said in a video published on Telegram.
Stremoussov said Kherson should become "a full-fledged member" of Russia.
Russian-installed officials said earlier that their security forces had detained Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev on June 28 after he refused to follow Moscow's orders. A local official said the mayor was kidnapped.
Kherson, an important port on the Black Sea, has been fully under Russian control since early March, just weeks after Moscow launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Russian Missile Strike Kills At Least Three In Mykolayiv Residential Building
A missile strike killed at least three people in a residential building in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolayiv on June 29 in an attack that Russia said was meant to destroy a training base for foreign fighters.
Mykolayiv Mayor Oleksandr Senkevych said eight Russian missiles had struck the city, including an apartment block. Photographs showed smoke billowing from a four-story building with its upper floor partly destroyed.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement quoted by TASS that its forces carried out strikes on a military training base for "foreign mercenaries" near Mykolayiv.
Mykolayiv, a river port and shipbuilding center just off the Black Sea, has been a Ukrainian stronghold against Russia's westward push in the direction of Odesa.
The Mykolayiv strike took place just two days after Russia hit a commercial center in Kremenchuk in central Ukraine, killing at least 18 people. Dozens of people were still missing on June 29.
Russian Blogger Finally Allowed To Enter Georgia, Immediately Flies From Tbilisi To Lithuania
A blogger from Russia's North Caucasus facing terrorism charges that she says are an attempt to stop her investigative reporting has been allowed to enter Georgia after being stranded for more than two weeks in a neutral zone at the Russian-Georgian border.
Insa Lander, also known as Insa Oguz, told RFE/RL on June 29 that she had gone to Georgia and then flew on to Lithuania after Georgian authorities allowed her to enter the country on July 27.
Lander, who fled her native Kabardino-Balkaria region on June 12, was stuck in a neutral segment of the border as Georgian authorities refused to allow her to enter the country, saying she had given "controversial information about the goal of her visit to the country." They never explained what that meant.
Amid an outcry by human rights groups, Georgia's Foreign Ministry then tried to justify its hesitance to allow the blogger to enter the country by saying that she was facing terrorism-related charges at home.
Lithuania's ambassador to Tbilisi, Andrius Kalindra, said at the time that Vilnius was ready to provide Lander with a visa if she was allowed to enter Georgia.
Lander, who resided in Moscow for many years, was arrested in Kabardino-Balkaria in December when she came to visit relatives. She was charged with recruiting a person to a terrorist group. The charge was based on an online chat she had with an acquaintance.
Lander and her supporters have rejected the charge, saying the case was fabricated to stop her from investigating possible corruption at a charity foundation led by a top official in Kabardino-Balkaria.
NATO Officially Declares Russia A 'Significant And Direct Threat' To Members' Peace And Security
NATO has declared Russia the "most significant and direct threat” to its members’ peace and security amid Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The Western military alliance made the declaration in a statement as its leaders met in Madrid on June 29 to confront what NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg called the biggest security crisis since World War II.
NATO's declaration underscores how dramatically Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unsettled Europe’s post-Cold War security order.
The alliance also promised to “step up political and practical support” to Ukraine in the face of Russia’s invasion.
Stoltenberg said Ukraine is fighting for its independence but also for Western values and security.
But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in a video address to the summit, chided NATO for not embracing his embattled country more fully and asked for more weapons to defeat Moscow's forces.
Zelenskiy told NATO leaders that Ukraine needs more advanced heavy weapons and additional financial support to stave off Russia's invasion, warning that Moscow's ambitions won't stop with his country.
"We need to break the Russian artillery advantage.... We need much more modern systems, modern artillery," Zelensky told a NATO summit in Madrid via video link on June 29, adding that financial support was "no less important than aid with weapons."
"This is not a war being waged by Russia against only Ukraine. This is a war for the right to dictate conditions in Europe -- for what the future world order will be like," Zelenskiy said.
The statement also said that NATO leaders agreed on June 29 to formally invite Finland and Sweden to join the alliance after Turkey struck a deal with the Nordic duo to drop its objections.
"Today, we have decided to invite Finland and Sweden to become members of NATO and agreed to sign the Accession Protocols," a declaration from a summit in Madrid said.
Russia's war on Ukraine raised fears in Finland and Sweden, prompting them to seek to join the 30-member alliance. Finland's long border with Russia means the Russian-NATO border will expand dramatically.
Finland and Sweden applied to join the military alliance last month, but their bids were held back by Turkey, which has accused both nations, particularly Sweden, of offering a safe haven to Kurdish militants who have been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state.
Stoltenberg also said he expected a swift ratification of Sweden and Finland joining the military alliance.
Earlier, President Joe Biden said during the summit that the United States is strengthening its military presence in Europe in the face of new threats posed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Biden said the alliance will be "strengthened in all directions across every domain -- land, air, and sea."
Biden said at a meeting with Stoltenberg that Washington was boosting the fleet of U.S. naval destroyers from four to six in Rota, Spain, and would establish a permanent headquarters in Poland of the 5th Army Corps.
It will also send an "additional rotational brigade" to Romania, consisting of "3,000 fighters and another 2,000 personnel combat team" and will enhance rotational deployments in the Baltic countries, Biden said.
Two additional squadrons of the F-35 stealth plane will be sent to Britain and more air defense and other capabilities will be placed in Germany and in Italy.
"We're sending an unmistakable message...that NATO is strong, united, and the steps we're taking during this summit are going to further augment our collective strength," Biden said.
"We mean it when we say an attack against one is an attack against all," he told reporters at the start of a working session of NATO leaders.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and Time
'Fighting Everywhere' In Lysychansk As Russia Steps Up Attacks Across Ukraine
Russian forces continue to press ahead with their assault on Lysychansk, with regional officials saying the situation was "very difficult" in the last Ukrainian holdout in the east as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy again called on the West to deliver more advanced heavy weapons to allow his forces to stave of Moscow's artillery onslaught.
Ukraine's Armed Forces General Staff said on June 29 that Russian troops were trying to surround the hilltop city of Lysychansk, a key battleground in Moscow's attempt to conquer Ukraine's industrial heartland of Donbas.
The head of the military administration in Luhansk, where Lysychansk is situated, reported increased military action, saying there was "fighting everywhere" around the city.
"The Russians are using every weapon available to them...and without distinguishing whether targets are military or not -- schools, kindergartens, cultural institutions," Serhiy Hayday said.
"The situation in Lysychansk is very difficult," Hayday said on television.
"Everything is being destroyed. This is a scorched-earth policy."
He added that the situation in Lysychansk resembles that in its twin city Syevyerodonetsk where Russian forces started destroying building after building. Syevyerodonetsk fell to Russia on June 25.
British intelligence said that Russian forces continue to make progress in their efforts to encircle Lysychansk. It said that, since June 25, Russian forces have advanced a further 2 kilometers near the Lysychansk oil refinery, south of the town.
Meanwhile, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told NATO leaders who have gathered for a crucial summit in Madrid that Ukraine needs more advanced heavy weapons and additional financial support to stave off Russia's unprovoked invasion, warning that Moscow's ambitions won't stop with his country.
"We need to break the Russian artillery advantage...We need much more modern systems, modern artillery," Zelenskiy told a NATO summit in Madrid via video link on June 29, adding that financial support was "no less important than aid with weapons."
He also accused Russia of intentionally targeting civilians in Kremenchuk, where at least 18 people were killed and dozens are still missing after a missile attack on a crowded commercial center.
"A Russian missile hit this location precisely. De-li-be-ra-te-ly...It is clear that Russian killers received those exact coordinates," Zelenskiy said in his regular evening video address. "They wanted to kill as many people."
Britain's Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence bulletin on June 29 that there is a "realistic possibility" the missile strike on the Kremenchuk shopping center was intended to hit a nearby infrastructure target.
It said that Russia’s lack of accuracy in conducting long-range strikes has previously resulted in mass civilian casualty incidents, including at the Kramatorsk railway station on April 9.
The British report said it was "highly likely" that Russian strikes will continue to cause further civilian casualties given Russia’s shortage of more modern precision strike weapons and the professional shortcomings of their targeting planners.
The mayor of the southern city of Mykolayiv, Oleksandr Senkevych, said a missile strike killed at least three people in a residential building in the city on June 29 in an attack that Russia said was meant to destroy a training base for foreign fighters.
In the Dnipropetrovsk region, toward Ukraine's east, the head of the regional administration, Valentyn Reznychenko, said on June 29 that the bodies of a man and a woman had been found buried under the rubble of a building that was hit by a Russian missile the previous day..
He had earlier said that Russia had fired six missiles in the region on June 28, three of which were shot down.
Separately, the Moscow-installed military administration ruling the area around the occupied Ukrainian city of Kherson said it is preparing to hold a referendum on joining Russia.
"Yes, we are preparing for a referendum -- and we will hold it," said Kirill Stremoussov, the deputy head of Kherson's military and civil administration in a video published on Telegram.
Stremoussov said Kherson should become "a full-fledged member" of Russia.
Earlier, the Russia-installed officials said their security forces had detained Kherson city Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev on June 28 after he refused to follow Moscow's orders. A local official said the mayor was kidnapped.
Kherson, a port city on the Black Sea, is located northwest of the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, CNN, and BBC
Bulgaria Expels 70 Russian Embassy Staff Accused Of Working Against Sofia's Interests
Bulgaria has ordered 70 Russian diplomatic staff out of the country, claiming that they have been working against Sofia's interests.
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Irena Dimitrova summoned Russian Ambassador Eleonora Mitrofanova on June 28 to inform her of the expulsions, a Foreign Ministry statement said.
The statement said the first reason for the expulsions was "reciprocity” and the second was because Bulgarian authorities have determined that the Russian officials' "activity” is incompatible with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told reporters on the sidelines of a National Assembly session that the diplomats “worked against our interests."
"I want to tell all foreign countries, not only Russia, that all those who work against the interests of Bulgaria will be sent back to the country they came from," Petkov was quoted as saying by state news agency BTA.
He declined to give more details about the Russians' activities, saying the information was confidential.
"I can say that most of them worked directly for foreign services and their diplomatic role was just a cover," Petkov said.
He added that the 70 people affected, who have been given until July 3 to leave, held various official roles in the Russian Embassy but performed uncharacteristic activities for their diplomatic positions.
The move is not meant as an aggression against the Russian people, Petkov said.
"It's just that when foreign governments try to work and interfere in Bulgaria's internal affairs, we have clear institutions that will counter this type of action. And on Sunday (July 3) we expect a full plane with 70 seats to go back to Moscow," Petkov added.
European countries have expelled hundreds of Russian diplomatic staff since Moscow launched its unprovoked war against Ukraine on February 24. Russia has reciprocated by sending home diplomats from numerous EU countries.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Wives Of Russian Officers Urge Buryatia Leader To Return Their Husbands From Ukraine
More than a dozen women in Russia's Republic of Buryatia have recorded a video statement urging the head of the Siberian region to recall their husbands from Ukraine where they are serving with the Russian armed forces.
One of the women, Vera Partilkhayeva, told RFE/RL on June 28 that the women's husbands were deployed in what were officially called military drills in January. But since February, they have been taking part in what Russian officials call the "special military operation" in Ukraine.
"Since February 24, they have been taking part in the special operation. They have been exhausted both morally and physically. All of them have suffered light- and medium-level contusions," the women said in the video statement, adding that many of the men were sick due to their living conditions.
Partilkhayeva wrote on her social network accounts that region head Aleksei Tsydenov will be personally responsible for every death of local residents in the ongoing war in Ukraine.
According to her, the video statement was recorded by the wives of military personnel of the Fifth Tank Brigade of Tatsin. At least 30 officers and soldiers of that military unit have been confirmed killed in Ukraine.
The exact number of Russian troops killed in Ukraine in more than four months of the war remains unknown.
Ukrainian authorities claim that more than 35,000 Russian troops have been killed, while the Russian Defense Ministry last commented on the subject in March, saying that 1,351 of its personnel had died.
Putin Arrives In Tajikistan For First Stop On Trip To Central Asia
DUSHANBE -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has started a one-day visit to Tajikistan, where he is holding talks with his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, as Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine continues to raise concerns in Central Asia.
Rahmon greeted Putin at the Dushanbe international airport on June 28 and the two leaders immediately left for talks.
Rahmon's spokesman Abdufattoh Sharifzoda told RFE/RL that no documents will be signed during Putin's visit, the Russian president's first public foreign trip since the start of the war in February. Sharifzoda added that Putin is on a working trip and all talks will be held face-to-face.
Sharifzoda also said that the two presidents will discuss "bilateral ties, the development of cultural and economic relations, and regional and global issues, especially the situation in Afghanistan."
Putin aide Yury Ushakov was quoted by Russian media as saying that Putin and Rahmon will also discuss "issues related to military cooperation and Tajik migrant workers in Russia."
Ushakov said they also would discuss measures to improve security along Tajikistan's porous 1,357-kilometer border with Afghanistan.
Moscow has stationed about 7,000 troops from Russia’s 201st Motor Rifle Division at three facilities that are considered part of a Russian base in Tajikistan.
On July 29, Putin will leave Tajikistan for the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, where he will attend a summit of countries bordering the Caspian Sea, which include Azerbaijan, Iran, and Kazakhstan.
Putin's visit to the two Central Asian nations comes days after he told another ally, Belarus's authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, that Moscow will supply Minsk with an Iskander-M mobile missile system with a range of up to 500 kilometers as the standoff between Russia and the West over the war in Ukraine escalates.
Russia, Belarus, and Tajikistan, along with Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Earlier this month, while attending an economic forum in St. Petersburg, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev pushed back against Moscow's narrative of the invasion of Ukraine, rejecting recognition for "quasi-states" such as the regions in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
He also vowed that Kazakhstan wouldn't break international sanctions imposed against Russia over its actions in Ukraine.
With reporting by AFP and AP
Moscow Court Fines Airbnb, Twitch, UPS, Pinterest For Refusing To Localize User Data
A court in Moscow has fined the holiday rental company Airbnb, video streaming service Twitch, United Parcel Shipping (UPS), and the Pinterest image sharing and social media service for failing to localize the storage of the personal data of their users amid a government campaign to gain more control over the Internet in Russia.
The Magistrates Court in Moscow’s Taganka district ordered Twitch, Airbnb, and Pinterest on June 28 to pay 2 million rubles ($37,500) each for failing to abide by a law that requires the local storage of user data. The court ordered UPS to pay a fine of 1 million rubles on the same charge.
President Vladimir Putin has accused international tech giants of flouting the country's Internet laws, including Moscow's efforts to force foreign firms to open offices in Russia.
In recent months, Moscow courts have fined Google, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram, and TikTok over the personal data issue, as well as for refusing to delete content deemed to have been banned under Russian law.
Many critics say Russia's efforts to police online content have nothing to do with "Internet integrity" and instead they have accused the authorities of trying to impose more control over the media in the wake of Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax
New U.S. Sanctions Target Russian Defense Industry, Gold Imports
The United States on June 28 imposed sanctions on 70 entities, including Russian defense firm Rostec, and 29 individuals in a move that it said aimed to "strike at the heart of Russia’s ability to develop and deploy weapons."
The new sanctions, which also ban imports of Russian gold, were announced by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and they implement agreements reached during the Group of Seven (G7) summit this week.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement that the United States reaffirmed its commitment to work with partners and allies “to impose additional severe sanctions in response to Russia’s war against Ukraine.”
“Broad multilateral commitments and actions by G7 members this week further cut off the Russian Federation’s access to technology that is critical to their military,” Yellen said. “Targeting Russia’s defense industry will degrade [President Vladimir] Putin’s capabilities and further impede his war against Ukraine, which has already been plagued by poor morale, broken supply chains, and logistical failures.”
The sanctions on Rostec announced on June 28 build on previously announced sanctions against the state aerospace and defense conglomerate. The Treasury Department said that Rostec's "management umbrella includes more than 800 entities across a wide range of sectors" and that all entities owned 50 percent or more by Rostec are blocked.
This includes United Aircraft Corporation, the maker of Russia's MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets. The Treasury Department said this aims to "weaken Russia's ability to continue its aerial assault on Ukraine."
The ban on gold imports, which the Treasury Department said is Russia's biggest nonenergy export, was also agreed by Britain, Canada, and Japan during the G7 summit.
In addition to targeting Rostec and other industries critical to the defense sector, the sanctions take aim at military units and officers implicated in human rights abuses in Ukraine, the OFAC said.
The Treasury Department's enforcement arm also issued a joint alert with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security advising vigilance against Russian and Belarusian export control evasion, the statement said.
Separately, the U.S. State Department announced visa restrictions on more than 500 military officers "for threatening or violating Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, or political independence."
The department has also taken steps to impose visa restrictions on 18 Russian nationals in relation to the suppression of dissent, including politically motivated detentions, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
Washington is also increasing tariffs on more than 570 groups of Russian products worth approximately $2.3 billion.
The U.S. Commerce Department took complementary actions, adding several entities to its so-called Entity List for continuing to do business with Russia even after its invasion of Ukraine.
The additions to the Entity List "demonstrate the United States will impose stringent export controls on companies, including those in third countries, in order to deny them access to items they can use to support Russia’s military and/or defense industrial base," Blinken said.
With reporting by AP, AFP and Reuters
Jailed Kyrgyz Ex-President Atambaev Acquitted In 2020 Mass Disorder Case
BISHKEK -- A court in Bishkek has acquitted former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev in a case related to mass protests that swept the Central Asian nation in 2020.
The Birinchi Mai district court found Atambaev and his six co-defendants not guilty on June 28 of organizing and taking part in mass disorder, the illegal possession of firearms, and threatening law enforcement.
Earlier in the day, prosecutors asked the court to convict Atambaev and sentence him to 12 years in prison. They sought terms of between 7 and 9 years for his co-defendants.
Atambaev is currently serving an 11-year prison term he was handed in 2020 for his role in the illegal release of notorious crime boss Aziz Batukaev in 2013.
The anti-government protests in October 2020 were sparked by a controversial parliamentary election seen by many as rigged.
Atambaev was released during the protests and joined in them along with several other politicians. He was later rearrested and returned to prison.
The 65-year-old is currently involved in another trial that is linked to two days of violence at his compound near Bishkek sparked by his refusal to obey three summonses to appear at the Interior Ministry for questioning about Batukaev’s release.
The 2019 standoff between security forces and his supporters resulted in the death of a senior security officer and more than 170 injuries -- 79 of them sustained by law enforcement officers.
In that case, the former president and 13 others are charged with murder, attempted murder, threatening or assaulting representatives of authorities, hostage taking, and the forcible seizure of power.
Earlier this month Atambaev was additionally charged with abuse of office over deadly ethnic clashes in 2010 that claimed almost 450 lives. At that time, Atambaev led an interim government following violent anti-government protests that toppled then President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
Russian Officials Detain Mayor Of Ukrainian City After He Refuses To Collaborate
Russian officials occupying the Ukrainian city of Kherson have detained Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev after he refused to work with them.
Kolykhayev's adviser, Halyna Lyashevska, wrote on Facebook that officers of Russia's National Guard searched the mayor's office and detained him on June 28.
According to Lyashevska, Kolykhayev likely was arrested because of his open refusal to collaborate with the occupying Russian authorities.
The governor of the Kherson region, Hennadiy Lahuta, confirmed Kolykhayev’s detention.
No further details were immediately available.
After Russian troops took over the city of Kherson in early March, Kolykhayev remained there and continued to work as the mayor while refusing to cooperate with the occupying forces.
In late April, Russia appointed its own so-called heads of military-civilian administrations in the city and the areas around the Kherson region that Russian troops had taken over during their ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Media reports in Ukraine said on June 28 that occupying Russian forces also detained an official in the Ukrainian city of Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhya region last week.
Relatives Fear Tajik Activist Faces Torture, Prison At Home As Russia Considers Extradition
DUSHANBE -- Russian authorities have detained a Tajik activist residing in the Kursk region and plan to extradite him to Tajikistan, where he may face torture and imprisonment, his relatives and colleagues say.
Emomali Kholov's relatives and colleagues told RFE/RL that the 30-year-old father of 11 was detained on June 26 in the Kursk region.
Kholov's close associate, Suhrob Jahon, quoted his friend's lawyer as saying that Tajik authorities had requested Russian officials extradite the activist after a criminal case was launched against him in March 2021 on extremism charges.
Kholov used to work as a volunteer at the Center of Tajiks in Russia.
The center was led by Izzat Amon, before he was deprived of Russian citizenship and forced to return to Dushanbe in March 2021 at the request of Tajik authorities, who accused him of financial fraud.
Amon was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison in October. Earlier this month, a court in Dushanbe handed Amon an additional six years in prison on a separate fraud charge that his relatives have called politically motivated.
Activists and rights groups say President Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled Tajikistan since 1992, has used various levers of power to suppress rights groups and dissent.
Amon's nonprofit organization in Moscow helped Tajik migrant workers find jobs, obtain work and residency permits, and get legal advice.
It was shut down after his arrest and several of its employees and volunteers have complained of being put under pressure by Russian authorities since.
Russian Lawyer Detained After Criticizing Ukraine Shopping-Mall Strike
The chairman of the attorneys chamber in Russia's Udmurtia region, Dmitry Talantov, has been detained after he criticized the government and military forces over a deadly strike on a shopping mall in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk.
Talantov wrote on Facebook that he was detained on June 28 and taken handcuffed to the Investigative Committee for questioning.
The Society of Russian Lawyers wrote on Telegram that Talantov was detained as he was trying to fly to Moscow.
No official reason has been given for Talantov's detention.
On June 27, when news of the deadly missile attack broke, Talantov condemned the strike, calling the Russian authorities "scumbags."
Talantov also is the lawyer for Ivan Safronov, a prominent former Russian journalist who is on trial in Moscow on a high-treason charge widely considered to be politically motivated.
At least 18 people died in the missile strike in Kremenchuk, which leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) called "a war crime."
Russia has denied it targeted the mall, saying it launched a "high-precision strike" on a nearby munitions depot and that subsequent explosions from the attack sparked the blaze at the shopping center.
G7 Leaders Wrap Up Summit Condemning Russian Invasion, Pledge Support For Ukraine
Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies have condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine as "illegal and unjustifiable," and pledged to hold an international conference to raise funds for the country's postwar reconstruction.
A final statement from the G7 meeting in Germany that ended on June 28 also addresses the issue of global food security, which has been shaken by Russia's blockade of Ukrainian ports, keeping grain stocks from one of the world's largest producers from being exported.
"We, the leaders of the Group of Seven...were joined by the leaders of Argentina, India, Indonesia, Senegal, and South Africa, as well as Ukraine," the statement says.
"We reemphasize our condemnation of Russia's illegal and unjustifiable war of aggression against Ukraine."
The three-day summit of leaders from the world's leading democracies has already pledged to keep sanctions on Russia for as long as necessary and to intensify international economic and political pressure on President Vladimir Putin and his supporters in ally Belarus.
By the end of the meeting, they had strengthened that pledge and condemned Russia for an "abominable" attack on a shopping center in central Ukraine, calling it a "war crime," while vowing Putin will "be held to account" for Moscow's actions.
"We are strongly committed to supporting Ukrainian reconstruction through an international reconstruction conference," the G7 said, adding that members had agreed to spend $4.5 billion on addressing food-security issues around the globe exacerbated by rising grain and food costs following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The White House added that the United States would pitch in $2.76 billion toward that effort, which will assist 47 countries and regional organizations dealing with food insecurity and malnutrition.
Officials have said during the summit that leaders of the major economies are working on plans to pursue a price cap on Russian oil, raise tariffs on Russian goods and impose other new sanctions, though no final deal was reached in Germany and further discussions beyond the summit are expected.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP
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