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Pakistan Claims 60 Militants Killed In South Waziristan Offensive

The offensive targets Taliban militants in one of their strongholds.
The offensive targets Taliban militants in one of their strongholds.
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Pakistani forces have exchanged heavy fire with Taliban defending their heartland a day after launching an offensive aimed at bringing the writ of the state to lawless lands on the Afghan border.

The army said 60 militants and five soldiers had been killed in the first 24 hours of a long-awaited offensive on the global Islamist hub of South Waziristan. Soldiers were securing territory while some militants were fleeing, it said.

There was no independent verification of militant casualties.

The offensive follows a string of brazen militant attacks in different parts of the country, including an assault on army headquarters, in which more than 150 people were killed.

About 28,000 soldiers are battling an estimated 10,000 hard-core Taliban, including about 1,000 tough Uzbek fighters and some Arab Al-Qaeda members.

The militants have had years to prepare their defenses in the land of arid mountains and sparse forest cut by dried-up creeks and ravines.

The army says it has surrounded the militants in their main zone, a wedge of territory in the north of South Waziristan, and soldiers backed by aircraft and artillery are attacking from the north, southwest, and southeast.

Government forces pushing down from the north were clashing with militants in Nawaz Kot town, intelligence officials and residents said.

"There was heavy firing until midnight and in the morning I saw tanks moving in and Taliban were firing rocket-propelled grenades," said villager Gul Nawaz, who lives near Nawaz Kot.

The army has launched brief offensives in South Waziristan before, the first in 2004 when it suffered heavy casualties before striking a peace pact.

Security officials said soldiers advancing from the southwest met dogged resistance as they tried to push into the Taliban-held town of Khaisora early on October 18. Seven militants and one soldier were killed there, they said.

Soldiers moving from the southeast captured a Taliban stronghold at Spinkai Raghzai on October 17 after the militants withdrew from their fortifications and took refuge in nearby mountains, officials said.

"It is a flat area so whenever they tried to put up resistance, the helicopter gunships fired at them so they decided to flee," said a senior government official in the northwest.

In a show of unity before the offensive, government and political party leaders gave the military full backing on October 16, vowing to weed out militants.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan has been under U.S. pressure to crack down on Islamist militancy as President Barack Obama considers a boost in troop numbers fighting in neighboring Afghanistan.

Many Al-Qaeda and Taliban members fled to northwest Pakistan after U.S.-led troops ousted the Taliban in Kabul in 2001 and the region has become a global hub for Islamist militancy.

The offensive could be the army's toughest test since the militants turned on the state and it will be hoping Afghan Taliban factions elsewhere in South Waziristan and in North Waziristan stay out of the fight.

Up to 100,000 civilians have fled from South Waziristan in anticipation of the offensive, the army said, while the United Nations said 500 people were leaving every day.

Security forces are on alert across the country in case of retaliatory strikes.

Pakistani Taliban made advances towards Islamabad early this year, raising fears about the stability of the U.S. ally.

But significant military gains in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, have reassured the United States and other allies about Pakistan's commitment to the fight.

The United States needs Pakistani help to disrupt militant attacks into Afghanistan, where U.S.-led forces are struggling against an increasingly potent insurgency.

U.S. officials in Washington said on October 16 the Pentagon was ramping up delivery of military equipment long sought by the Pakistani army to fight militants.

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Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Challenges U.S. Buzz On Possible Nuclear Space Weapon

A Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile is launched from Plesetsk in Russia's northwest. (file photo)
A Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile is launched from Plesetsk in Russia's northwest. (file photo)

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov says the United States has not shown any evidence for accusations that Moscow wants to put nuclear weapons in space, following U.S. media reports and official hints of concern at emerging Russian capabilities in space-based weapons.

The White House said on February 15 that Russia has obtained a "troubling" emerging anti-satellite "capability" but said it has not yet been deployed and posed no immediate threat.

In his statement carried by Russian state news agency RIA and quoted by Reuters, Ryabkov said contacts with U.S. officials had been "completely unproductive."

Reuters reported recently that U.S. intelligence thinks Russia's military might be working on nuclear-powered technology "to blind, jam, or fry the electronics inside satellites."

"I can confirm that it is related to an anti-satellite capability that Russia has developed," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said of the concerns. Kirby said that while Russia’s "pursuit of this particular capability is troubling, there is no immediate threat to anyone's safety."

The White House confirmation came a day after the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Mike Turner (Republican-Ohio), urged the Biden administration to declassify information about what he called a serious national security threat.

Kirby suggested the timing of Turner's statement "regrettable" as reviewing and declassification processes were ongoing.

Moscow called the claims a tactic to encourage U.S. Congress to back aid for Ukraine.

Turner said he was asking Biden to declassify "all information relating to this threat so that Congress, the Administration, and our allies can openly discuss the actions necessary to respond."

Sullivan said it is Biden's decision whether or not to declassify any information.

The New York Times said the intelligence Turner referred to was related to Russia’s attempts to develop a space-based anti-satellite nuclear weapon. This would potentially violate an international space treaty, to which more than 130 countries have signed onto, including Russia.

With reporting by Reuters

U.S. Sanctions Russia's Largest Shipper As It Says Oil Price Cap Enforcement Bearing Fruit

A crude oil tanker owned by Russia's leading shipping company Sovcomflot transits the Bosphorus in Istanbul in 2020.
A crude oil tanker owned by Russia's leading shipping company Sovcomflot transits the Bosphorus in Istanbul in 2020.

WASHINGTON -- The United States said on February 23 that it is targeting Russia’s largest state-owned shipping company and fleet operator for sanctions, saying at the same time that a price cap on Russian sea-borne oil imposed in December 2022 is serving its "twin goals" of limiting Kremlin profits from the sale of oil while promoting stable energy markets.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said in a news release that the targeting of Sovcomflot was the "next step" after the price cap.

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"We are entering the next phase of increasing Russia’s costs in a responsible manner to mitigate risks," Adeyemo said, adding that in addition to the designation of Sovcomflot, the treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has identified 14 crude oil tankers as property in which Sovcomflot has an interest.

OFAC said it issued a general license authorizing the offloading of crude oil or other cargo from these 14 vessels for a period of 45 days. In addition, OFAC is issuing a general license authorizing transactions with all other Sovcomflot-owned vessels at this time. Nothing in these general licenses changes any of the restrictions imposed by the price cap sanctions regime.

The Treasury Department earlier on February 23 released an analysis showing that Russia is selling its oil at a steeper discount to global prices since Western governments in October stepped up enforcement of its sanctions regime.

Russia sold its oil at an average discount of $19 last month compared with $12-$13 in October, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a February 23 statement. The Treasury Department oversees U.S. sanctions enforcement.

The United States and the European Union in December 2022 imposed a $60-per-barrel price cap on Russian oil shipped with the use of Western service providers -- such as transportation and insurance firms -- to curtail the Kremlin’s ability to finance its war.

Chris Weafer, the founder of Macro-Advisory, a consulting firm focusing on the countries of the former Soviet Union, said the oil price cap is hard to enforce because the shadow Russian tankers change their names, registrations, and ownership to avoid detection by the United States and EU.

"It is a cat-and-mouse game with the mouse sailing rings around the cat," he said, adding there are dozens or hundreds of small companies owning these shadow tankers.

Russia is the world’s second-largest oil exporter, and foreign sales of the fossil fuel account for more than a third of its federal budget. Most of its sea-borne oil exports used Western service providers prior to the sanctions. The wider discount means Russia is losing out on tens of millions of dollars a day in revenue.

The price cap initially had an immediate effect, driving down the price of Russian oil. However, in the ensuing months, as traders and buyers adjusted to the sanctions regime and as Russia scooped up its own shipping vessels, the discount shrank and Russia’s average selling price surpassed $60.

In response, the United States and Europe in October announced they were stepping up enforcement to curtail cheating. Experts said that market participants were artificially inflating the cost of shipping to hide the fact that Russia’s net price was above the cap. Russia had also purchased hundreds of vessels to avoid using Western service providers.

That month the United States slapped sanctions on two entities and put a freeze on two vessels for violating the Russian oil price cap, a move seen as a warning to other participants.

In January, it sanctioned a United Arab Emirates-based shipping company with 18 vessels that repeatedly made calls to Russian ports.

In its statement, the Treasury Department said the market for Russian oil continues to be highly opaque. It said it will continue to implement "creative solutions" to combat Russia's continuous attempts to avoid the price cap.

U.S. Senators Promise To Pressure House Speaker To Bring Aid Bill Up For Vote During Visit To Ukraine

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov, Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskiy, and Senators Michael Bennet and Maggie Hassan visit the Cemetery of the Defenders in Lviv, Ukraine, on February 23.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov, Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskiy, and Senators Michael Bennet and Maggie Hassan visit the Cemetery of the Defenders in Lviv, Ukraine, on February 23.

A U.S. Senate delegation visiting Ukraine led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promised to pressure the leader of the House of Representatives to bring a bill that includes military aid up for a vote.

"We are going to do everything we can to tell him [Speaker Mike Johnson] what we have learned and openly pressure him to make the right decision," said Schumer after a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

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Schumer, who was part of a delegation of five senators that held talks with Zelenskiy in Lviv, said Johnson (Republican-Louisiana) should "do the right thing," adding that he and the other senators are confident it will pass.

Schumer (Democrat-New York) also said Zelenskiy told the delegation that without the aid Ukraine will lose the war.

The Senate last week passed a military aid package that includes $61 billion for Ukraine. President Joe Biden has urged the House to approve it, but Johnson sent members home for a two-week recess without bringing the measure up for a vote.

Johnson, an ally of Republican former President Donald Trump, voted against bills to provide assistance to Ukraine before he became speaker.

Schumer said that if Ukrainian forces during the defense of Avdiyivka had had more weapons and ammunition, the result would have been different. Ukrainian forces last week withdrew from the Donetsk city after months of heavy fighting.

"If Ukraine does not receive help, Putin may be right on the Polish border sooner or later," Schumer said, adding that the delegation had been told by almost everyone during its visit -- representatives of the military, politicians, diplomats -- that if Ukraine gets help, it will win the war.

Another member of the delegation, Senator Jack Reed (Democrat-Rhode Island), said that the United States must make a decision to help Ukraine in order to avoid having to send its own troops.

"As Senator Schumer beautifully said to Speaker Johnson: If you come to Ukraine, you will see the cemetery that we saw today, if you go to the wall in Kyiv, which I visited to lay flowers there, you will see people of all ages who died in support of democracy,” Reed said.

“You will have no choice, America has no choice. Pay now by supplying arms to the brave warriors who bleed and die, or our young men and women will bleed and die on the battlefields of Europe.”

Reed pledged to work for additional support, including military aid, for Ukraine.

With reporting by Reuters

French Defense Chief Visits Armenia, Signs Defense Deals Amid Deepening Ties

The defense ministers of Armenia and France take part in a joint press conference in Yerevan on February 23.
The defense ministers of Armenia and France take part in a joint press conference in Yerevan on February 23.

France will provide more weapons and other military assistance to Armenia to help the South Caucasus country defend its territory, French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu said during his first visit to Yerevan on February 23.

"Threats hanging over Armenia force us to move forward faster," Lecornu told Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. "It is very important for us to react and take necessary steps quickly."

Speaking after talks with Armenian Defense Minister Suren Papikian earlier in the day, Lecornu confirmed that Armenia took delivery the previous night of the first batch of French night-vision devices commissioned last year. The Armenian military will also soon receive air-defense radar systems and more armored personnel carriers from French manufacturers, he said.

The French defense group Thales signed with the Armenian Defense Ministry a contract for the supply of three GM200 radars during Papikian’s visit to Paris last October. Papikian and Lecornu signed at the time a letter of intent on Armenia’s future acquisition of short-range surface-to-air missiles manufactured by another French company.

Lecornu expressed France’s readiness to also sell more long-range systems to Armenia and announced that a French military adviser specializing in air defense will be deployed in Armenia to help it neutralize "possible strikes by potential aggressors."

"Nobody can reproach the Armenian Army for boosting its defense capacity," Lecornu told a joint news conference with Papikian, clearly alluding to Azerbaijan’s strong criticism of French-Armenian military cooperation.

The Armenian minister emphasized that Yerevan is acquiring these and other weapons for solely defensive purposes. In an apparent reference to Azerbaijan, he spoke of a "visible threat" to Armenia’s territorial integrity.

Neither minister shed light on a number of documents that they signed after their talks. AFP reported that the Armenian side also signed a supply contract with the French company PGM, maker of sniper rifles. It said no details of the deal were made public.

The defense cooperation is part of a deepening of French-Armenian relations cemented by the existence of an influential Armenian community in France. It comes amid mounting tensions with Russia, Armenia’s longtime ally, and as neighboring Iran signals unease over the pro-Western tilt in Armenia’s foreign policy.

"Our Iranian partners respect our cooperation with other partners, and I think our Russian and other partners should do the same because Armenia has no taboos when it comes to cooperation to the benefit of Armenia," Papikian said.

Armenia is "turning to partners that are truly providers of security," Lecornu said when asked to comment on the tensions between Yerevan and Moscow.

With reporting by Astghik Bedevian

At Invasion's Two-Year Mark, Kyiv And Western Leaders Unite In 'Clear Message' To Russia

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (center), standing alongside representatives of more than 50 countries, reads a joint statement on the second anniversary of Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine, in New York City on February 23.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (center), standing alongside representatives of more than 50 countries, reads a joint statement on the second anniversary of Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine, in New York City on February 23.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrived in Kyiv early on February 24 along with other foreign leaders and dignitaries eager to send a defiant message on the second anniversary of Russia's launch of its all-out invasion of Ukraine, while Moscow sought to capitalize on its recent gains by announcing a visit by Russia's defense minister to occupied Ukrainian territory.

Von der Leyen traveled to the Ukrainian capital from Poland by train along with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, according to a statement by the Italian government.

Meloni is scheduled to host a videoconference involving Group of Seven (G7) democracy leaders during which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is expected to encourage ongoing support to beat back Europe's first full-scale military invasion since World War II.

On her arrival, von der Leyen said alongside a photo of herself on a train platform in Kyiv that she was there to mark the grim anniversary "and to celebrate the extraordinary resistance of the Ukrainian people."

"More than ever, we stand firmly by Ukraine," she said, "Financially, economically, militarily, morally...[u]ntil the country is finally free."

Before arriving in Ukraine, Trudeau shared his Foreign Minister Melanie Joly's sentiment via X, formerly Twitter, that Canada and its allies were "sending a clear message to [Russia]: Ukraine will not be defeated in the face of Putin’s illegal war."

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz urged in a statement to mark the anniversary that by attacking Ukraine Russia is "also destroying peace in Europe." He urged Germans and all Europeans to "do even more -- so that we can defend ourselves effectively."

Scholz said that Germany was completely fulfilling its NATO target of 2 percent investment of total economic output into its military for the first time in decades.

The visit comes one day after the United States and European Union announced new rounds of hundreds of sanctions targeting Russia and officials responsible for the war, but with Ukrainian officials desperately pleading with the international community to avoid cutoffs in support or a "depletion of empathy."

Ukrainians have battled fiercely since a Russian invasion of hundreds of thousands of troops began on February 24, 2022, after Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to cast doubt on Ukrainian nationhood and eventually said Moscow's goal was the "denazification" and demilitarization of Ukraine's government.

But it was also the culmination of a land grab that had begun eight years earlier in 2014, when Russia covertly invaded and then annexed Crimea from Ukraine and began intensive support of armed Ukrainian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The United Nations has overwhelmingly voted to back Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty.

WATCH: Current Time correspondents Borys Sachalko, Andriy Kuzakov, and Oleksiy Prodayvod reflect on their wartime experiences together with the cameramen and drivers who form a critical part of their reporting teams.

Two Years Into War, Current Time Correspondents Reflect On Covering Ukraine's Front Line
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But a massive assistance package proposed by U.S. President Joe Biden's administration has been blocked primarily by Republicans in Congress.

The European Union managed to pass its own $54 billion aid package for Ukraine earlier this month despite reluctance from member Hungary and talk of Ukraine fatigue.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a recorded statement for the anniversary that "the situation on the battlefield remains extremely serious" and "President Putin's aim to dominate Ukraine has not changed, and there are no indications that he is preparing for peace. But we must not lose heart."

Earlier this week, Stoltenberg told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that the alliance was an advantage that neither Russia nor China could match.

At the UN General Assembly on February 23, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said "Russia's aim is to destroy Ukraine and they are quite outspoken about it," adding that "The only reason for this war has been and remains Russia's denial of Ukraine's right to exist and its continued colonial conquest."

Russian forces last week captured the mostly destroyed eastern city of Avdiyivka as remaining Ukrainian troops withdrew amid reported ammunition shortages to hand Moscow its first significant gain of territory in nearly a year.

The Russian military said on February 24 that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited troops in occupied Ukraine in a clear effort to send a message to Ukraine and its defenders, as well as to a Russian public subjected to heavy censorship and punishments for anti-war dissenters as the "special military operation" has ground on.

"Today, in terms of the ratio of forces, the advantage is on our side," officials quoted Shoigu as telling troops at a Russian command center.

The Russian military further said its troops were on the offensive after having taken Avdiyivka, in the Donetsk region.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy used an interview on the conservative Fox News channel to urge the U.S. Congress to pass a $60 billion aid package to help his country defend itself, saying it is cheaper than the consequences of a Russian victory.

Zelenskiy echoed warnings among Russia's other neighbors that Putin will push further into Eastern Europe if he conquers Ukraine.

Zelenskiy was speaking from a bombed-out building in the eastern city of Kharkiv with explosions sounding in the background.

"Will Ukraine survive without Congress's support? Of course. But not all of us," Zelenskiy said.

The Ukrainian military said it had destroyed a Russian A-50 surveillance aircraft after a new round of Russian drone and missile strikes on several Ukrainian regions on February 23, which if confirmed would mark the loss of the second A-50 in just over a month.

The general appointed recently by Zelenskiy as commander in chief of Ukraine's armed forces, Oleksandr Syrskiy, said on February 24 that he is "convinced that unity is our victory."

"It will definitely happen," he said, "because light always conquers darkness!"

Noting the two-year mark in the invasion, Ukraine's General Staff asserted that Russia had suffered troop casualties of around 409,000 since February 24, 2022.

Both sides classify casualty figures, and RFE/RL cannot confirm the accuracy of accounts by either side of battlefield developments in areas of heavy fighting or of casualty claims.

With reporting by dpa, AFP, and Reuters

Head Of UN Atomic Watchdog Calls For 'Restraint' After Blasts Near Ukrainian Nuclear Plant

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi (file photo)
International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi (file photo)

UN atomic watchdog chief Rafael Grossi called on February 23 for "maximum military restraint" after a string of powerful explosions occurred near Ukraine's Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant this week.

Experts with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stationed at the Zaporizhzhya plant reported hearing explosions every day over the past week, including one on February 16 that appeared to occur close to the plant itself, Grossi said in a statement released by the Vienna-based organization.

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“There were also several explosions yesterday (February 22). One of them was unusually loud, indicating very close proximity to the site,” the statement said.

The large explosion on February 22 was part of “field training,” plant officials said. The plant itself was not damaged and there were no injuries. It was not possible to conclusively determine the origin or direction of the other blasts, which Gross said “shook windows” at the plant.

In addition, the IAEA was told that a mine exploded outside the site perimeter on February 22 but it did not cause any damage or injury.

The Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant was captured by Russian forces in March 2022 and has been shut down but requires electrical power to run coolant and other safety systems. IAEA experts have been at the site to monitor its functions since September 2022. During the course of the war both Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of compromising its safety.

Grossi has warned numerous times about the dangers posed by the risk of the plant being caught in the cross fire.

"I remain deeply concerned about the nuclear safety and security situation at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, located on the frontline of the war,” Grossi said. “The reports of our experts indicate possible combat action not far away from the site.”

He also urged the restoration “as soon as possible" of the plant's back-up power line for off-site power.

The plant is still receiving the electricity it needs for reactor cooling and other safety functions, but it currently has no back-up options available for off-site power, Grossi said.

With reporting by AFP

Families Demand Release Of 39 Afghans Detained In Turkey

Turkey hosts one of the largest refugee communities worldwide, with some 3.6 million Syrians and more than 300,000 people from other countries, the majority of whom are Afghan. (file photo)
Turkey hosts one of the largest refugee communities worldwide, with some 3.6 million Syrians and more than 300,000 people from other countries, the majority of whom are Afghan. (file photo)

The families of 39 Afghan citizens detained in Turkey after they reportedly tried to reach Europe on a migrant route have called for the release and the safe return of their relatives.

The Afghan migrants were hiding inside a truck carrying boxes of tissue when they were arrested in the Çilimli district of the northwestern Duzce Province, Turkey's state-run news agency reported on February 22.

All 39 Afghans were taken to the Immigration Department, and the truck driver was also arrested on charges of human trafficking, Anadolu reported.

Their relatives said they were attempting to reach Europe via Turkey to seek better opportunities.

The father of one of the Afghans detained in Turkey told Radio Azadi that he told his son he didn't have money for the journey, but he left anyway and reached Turkey after staying in Iran for a month.

The man, who identified himself as Sediqullah, a resident of Nangarhar, said he now has sent his 18-year-old son money so he can return to Afghanistan.

His son is among a wave of migrants who are fleeing Taliban persecution and a country that is reeling from one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises.

Some Afghans who have been detained by the Turkish police in the past claim that they were tortured by the security forces during their detention.

“They electrocuted, tortured, and brutalized the Afghans,” said 23-year-old Rahman Heydari, an Afghan who was recently deported from Turkey.

Earlier this month, Abdul Rahman Rashid, the Taliban's deputy minister of refugees, said some 1,600 Afghans currently languish in Turkish prisons. He said that Ankara has released more than 600 Afghans, who returned to their country.

Last year the number of Afghans deported by Turkey was in the thousands. In November alone the number was 4,000. The number of Afghans expelled by Turkey was even higher in 2022 when Ankara deported 50,000 back to their country.

According to the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, Turkey hosts one of the largest refugee communities worldwide, with some 3.6 million Syrians and more than 300,000 people from other countries, the majority of whom are Afghan.

In a 2022 report, global rights watchdog Human Rights Watch criticized Ankara for routinely pushing tens of thousands of Afghans -- many of whom are undocumented -- back to its border with Iran or deporting them directly to Afghanistan “with little or no examination of their claims for international protection.”

Neighboring Iran and Pakistan forced more than 1 million Afghans to return to their country in the past year.

Ecuador Calls Off Arms Exchange With U.S. Over Plan To Send Weapons To Ukraine

Ecuadorean President Daniel Noboa (file photo)
Ecuadorean President Daniel Noboa (file photo)

Ecuador has canceled a plan to trade outdated Soviet weapons for new arms from the United States, President Daniel Noboa said on February 23 after learning that the old weapons would have been sent to Ukraine. Noboa, who is grappling with a sharply deteriorated security situation in the South American country, said in January that Washington would give his country $200 million of new weaponry in exchange for "junk" arms. But he told CNN that Ecuador “can't go ahead with it" after learning that the weapons would go to “the armed conflict in Ukraine, in which we do not want to take part."

Residents Of Russia's Ingushetia Mark 80th Anniversary Of Deportation To Central Asia

Ingushetia residents mark the 80th anniversary of the deportation of Ingush and Chechens from the North Caucasus in 1944 on February 23.
Ingushetia residents mark the 80th anniversary of the deportation of Ingush and Chechens from the North Caucasus in 1944 on February 23.

Residents of Russia's North Caucasus region of Ingushetia have been marking the 80th anniversary of the deportation of Ingush and Chechens from the North Caucasus to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Hundreds of people, including the region's leader, Makhmud-Ali Kalimatov, lawmakers, government members, public organizations, and youth groups gathered near the Memorial of Memory and Glory in Ingushetia's largest city, Nazran, on February 23, where a mass prayer was performed to honor the victims of the deportation.

Kalimatov issued a statement on his official website, calling the February 1944 deportation "a terrible crime."

"The years of repressions failed to liquidate or diminish the beauty of our people's soul; the peculiar, beautiful Ingush culture is alive. And the years spent in alien lands proved again the capability of our people to unite, to have an unbreakable faith and strong national culture," Kalimatov’s statement said.

For the second year in a row, Kalimatov did not directly accuse Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and his regime of carrying out the deportation.

From February 23, 1944, to March 9, 1944, Soviet authorities deported almost all Ingush and Chechens -- an estimated 650,000 people -- to Central Asia, mostly to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, claiming they were collaborating with Nazi Germany.

As many as half of the deportees died either on the journey or due to the harsh conditions they were forced to endure.

Soviet authorities liquidated the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic at the time, distributing the ethnic republic’s territories among neighboring administrative units and republics.

In 1957, four years after Stalin's death, the republic was re-installed, and survivors were allowed to return to the North Caucasus.

In neighboring Chechnya, February 23 was not officially marked with any public event.

In 2012, the Moscow-backed authoritarian leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, moved the Day of Grief and Remembrance from February 23 to May 10, the anniversary of the burial of his father, Akhmat Kadyrov, who was killed in a bomb attack in Grozny in 2004.

With reporting by Ingushetia

Poland Opts Not To Meet Ukrainian Delegation Sent To Border To Discuss Farmers' Blockade

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said that Kyiv was "ready to help in solving" the impasse over Ukrainian food imports in Poland. (file photo)
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said that Kyiv was "ready to help in solving" the impasse over Ukrainian food imports in Poland. (file photo)

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said a meeting with Polish government officials on the border between the countries did not take place on February 23 as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had requested.

Ukrainian government officials, including the deputy prime minister and the interior minister, went to the border to meet with Polish officials, but “unfortunately, such a meeting…did not take place today," Shmyhal said on Facebook, posting a photo showing himself and 10 other government officials standing in front of one of the checkpoints at the Ukrainian-Polish border.

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"We understand the difficulties faced by the Polish government. And we are ready to help in solving this situation,” Shmyhal said, predicting that a meeting eventually will take place to negotiate a compromise to resolve tension over Polish farmers' protests over an increase in Ukrainian food imports since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

The farmers in recent weeks have blocked Ukrainian transport vehicles on the Polish side of the border, complaining that the increase in food and other goods from Ukraine is impacting prices for their own produce.

The situation escalated this week when a freight train was stopped at the Medyka-Shehyniy border crossing and its grain was spilled onto the tracks. Ukrainian Border Service spokesman Andriy Demchenko told RFE/RL at the time that six of the nine border crossings for trucks between the two countries remained blocked.

Shmyhal said Ukraine wants a resolution to the blockade that for the past six months has affected the Ukrainian economy and its ability to defend itself against the war.

Earlier on February 23, Zelenskiy said that a delegation of the Ukrainian government would arrive at the border ready to negotiate. However, he said he did not know whether any representatives of the Polish government would be there.

Zelenskiy appealed earlier to Poland and the European Commission regarding the situation at the border and asked Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk "to come to the border as well."

Tusk responded by saying that Polish and Ukrainian government members would hold talks in Warsaw on March 28.

Zelenskiy wants the matter to be treated more urgently, saying in his nightly video address on February 22 that it is a matter of national security which should be addressed in the coming days.

Tusk this week said that border crossing points with Ukraine will be considered critically important infrastructure "to ensure a 100 percent guarantee that military and humanitarian aid will reach the Ukrainian side without any delays."

In addition to demanding a ban on the import of agricultural products from Ukraine, the Polish protesters oppose a European Union agricultural policy that aims to implement a so-called "green system" that includes a number of environmental and climate requirements.

Poland Extradites Ukrainian Citizen Accused Of Drug-Related Crime To Kazakhstan

According to the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office, investigators confiscated illegal drugs that were worth $3.3 million and weighed more than one ton. (file photo)
According to the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office, investigators confiscated illegal drugs that were worth $3.3 million and weighed more than one ton. (file photo)

Kazakh authorities said on February 23 that Poland extradited a Ukrainian citizen, whose identity was not disclosed, to the Kazakh capital, Astana, where he is wanted for allegedly organizing the illegal production and distribution of psychotropic drugs. According to the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office, investigators confiscated illegal drugs that were worth $3.3 million and weighed more than one ton. They were allegedly produced by the suspect's group, which was established in Kazakhstan in 2022. If convicted, the Ukrainian citizen faces up to 20 years in prison. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Latvia's Hockey Federation Suspends Licenses Of 7 Who Took Part In Tournament In Russia

The suspended Latvian hockey players took part in a tournament that had been officially opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin. (file photo)
The suspended Latvian hockey players took part in a tournament that had been officially opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin. (file photo)

Latvia's Hockey Federation said on February 22 that it had suspended the licenses of several ice hockey players who took part in the Games of the Future tournament, which was officially opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 21 in Russia's Republic of Tatarstan. Seven Latvian athletes -- Ervins Mustukovs, Kirils Tambijevs, Pavels Goroskovs, Martins Lavrovs, Aleksejs Popovs, Alisers Mubaraksins, Nikita Zantmans, and Artems Kuvsinovs -- took part in the hockey event as members of the Baltic Select team. Latvian sports federations decided earlier to boycott sports events in Russia over Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

Romanian Presidency Tight-Lipped On Reports Of Iohannis Aiming For NATO Top Job

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis (file photo)
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis (file photo)

The Romanian presidency has refused to comment on media reports that Bucharest has proposed President Klaus Iohannis for the post of NATO Secretary-General. Quoting NATO diplomats, Bloomberg and Politico reported on February 22 that Romania had notified the alliance that Iohannis, who ends his term in December, was interested in the position, which incumbent Jens Stoltenberg is leaving in October. Asked for comment by RFE/RL, the Romanian presidency said it "does not comment on rumors." The United States, Britain, Germany, and France back outgoing Dutch premier Mark Rutte for the job. However, Rutte is viewed with skepticisim by eastern members like Romania and Bulgaria. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Romanian Service, click here.

Updated

Navalny's Mother Alleges Desecration As Russian Officials Withhold Dissident Son's Body

Lyudmila Navalnaya
Lyudmila Navalnaya

An ally of the late Aleksei Navalny shared an image on February 24 showing that a lawyer for the opposition leader's mother has appealed to investigators in the Yamal region where he was said to have died in prison a week ago to demand a criminal desecration case because Navalny's body has not been turned over for eight days.

Ivan Zhdanov, the former head of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, shared the photograph of Lyudmila Navalnaya's lawyer's appeal to the Yamal Investigative Committee citing an article in the law on burials. It was dated February 23.

"In accordance with Orthodox canons, it is customary to bury the body of the deceased on the third day. As of today, 8 days have passed since Navalny’s death, but to date the body has not been buried," the text argued.

Word of the challenge follows the expiry of a purported three-hour deadline that former Navalny colleagues say his mother was given by Yamal investigators to force her to agree to a secret memorial with no word on whether officials would hand over the body or bury it at the Arctic prison where officials say he fell unconscious during a walk.

Russia's Investigative Committee reportedly relayed the demands to Lyudmila Navalnaya as President Vladimir Putin's administration appears eager to prevent public mourning and anti-Kremlin sentiment in any farewell to the 47-year-old anti-corruption crusader.

Kira Yarmysh, the former press secretary of the Kremlin critic, said Navalnaya refused to negotiate with the official, saying the Investigative Committee has no legal right to decide where and how her son should be buried. Navalnaya wants to hold a funeral and farewell ceremony in accordance with traditions, Yarmysh wrote.

RFE/RL could not immediately verify whether an ultimatum had been given. Neither the prison authorities nor the Investigative Committee have publicly commented on the matter.

Russian law states that authorities must turn over a body to family members within two days after the cause of death is officially established. Yarmysh said Navalnaya demanded that the authorities adhere to the law and release her son's body by February 24, when the two-day period expires.

A day earlier, Lyudmila Navalnaya said in a video posted to social media that investigators had allowed her to see her son's body late on February 21 in the Arctic city of Salekhard, but refused to hand it over for burial.

Navalnaya said she signed her son’s death certificate.

Family and friends have said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is responsible for Navalny's death. His wife, Yulia Navalnaya, said Putin murdered her husband.

'Proper Farewell'

Navalnaya said she wants her son's burial to be public so that all his supporters can bid a proper farewell to the anti-corruption crusader.

Navalnaya has been trying to get access to her son’s body since his death in the harsh Arctic penitentiary was announced on February 16. Prison officials said the 47-year-old died after he collapsed while on a daily walk outside of his cell.

On February 21, Navalnaya filed a lawsuit in a Russian court demanding the release of her son's body. A closed-door hearing into the complaint is scheduled for March 4, which roughly coincides with the time frame authorities have said they need to perform "chemical forensics" on Navalny's body.


Rights groups and Navalny's associates have accused authorities of holding the body to allow them to hide the cause of death.

Earlier on February 23, Navalny's associates published video statements of many leading Russian public figures urging authorities to immediately release Navalny's body.

The group included 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Dmitry Muratov, prominent Latvian-American ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, a founding member of the Pussy Riot protest group, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, writers Mikhail Zygar and Viktor Shenderovich, historian Tamara Eidelman, television journalist Tatyana Lazareva, popular rock musician Andrei Makarevich, rapper Noize MC (Ivan Alekseyev), businessman Yevgeny Chichvarkin, and many other noted public figures, nearly all of whom are living in exile.

Ivan Zhdanov, the former head of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, said in an interview with Current Time on February 23 that the authorities are refusing to hand over the Kremlin critic's body above all else to hide evidence of his murder. But he also said they fear a public funeral will attract a "massive" crowd of Navalny supporters who come, flowers in hand, to say their last goodbyes.

“They don't want to see it, they don't want it to happen,” Zhdanov said.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a self-exiled leading Russian opposition figure, agreed with that assessment, saying a public funeral could trigger “large-scale confrontations” between Navalny supporters and law enforcement.

“The authorities do not want people to grasp how many of them oppose Putin. The main task of Putin’s propaganda is to convince people that if they are against Putin, they are on the margins,” the former oil tycoon said in a February 23 interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

“If people see that there are really a lot of them…then the situation can change in seconds,” he said.

Khodorkovsky: 'Putin Afraid' Navalny Funeral Could Spark Protests
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Navalny was Russia’s most popular opposition leader with a large, dedicated following around the country. He had organized some of the biggest public protests in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Tens of thousands of citizens would heed his calls to demonstrate against Putin’s rule despite the threat of arrest.

In 2013, Navalny ran for mayor of Moscow, the nation’s capital and largest city, receiving more than a quarter of the vote despite censorship by state television.

Diplomatic pressure on Moscow continues to mount over Navalny's death as well.

The United States and the European Union on February 23 announced fresh sanctions on Russia in retaliation for Navalny's death ahead of the second anniversary of Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Russian officials have said no foul play was involved and called the international outrage over Navalny's death in custody "hysterical."

Hungary Blocks Common EU Statement To Mark Second Anniversary Of Ukraine Invasion -- Sources

European Union flags fly outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels (file photo)
European Union flags fly outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels (file photo)

Hungary has blocked a statement that the European Union had been supposed to issue on February 23 to mark the second anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, EU sources told RFE/RL. The EU is now instead working on a statement to be issued on behalf of the three presidents of the main European institutions -- EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, European Parliament chief Roberta Metsola, and European Council President Charles Michel. To issue a statement on behalf of the EU, all 27 member states need to consent. Budapest objected to the statement without offering a concrete explanation, sources told RFE/RL.

Iran Tries To Tighten Grip On Internet By Officially Outlawing VPN Use

Iran has long faced criticism for its extensive Internet restrictions, with many citizens relying on VPNs to access blocked content including social media and instant messaging platforms. (file photo)
Iran has long faced criticism for its extensive Internet restrictions, with many citizens relying on VPNs to access blocked content including social media and instant messaging platforms. (file photo)

Iran has officially outlawed the use of tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs) designed to bypass Internet censorship following a directive from the country's Supreme Council of Cyberspace that was endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The secretary of the council, Mohammad Amin Aqamiri, announced the enforcement of the decree, which was initially approved by Khamenei, signaling a significant move to control Internet access within the country.

Under the new regulation, the use of VPN tools is banned unless explicitly authorized by authorities, further tightening the government's grip on Internet access.

Iran has long faced criticism for its extensive Internet restrictions, with many citizens relying on VPNs to access blocked content including social media and instant messaging platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, and WhatsApp, as well as many streaming websites such as HBO, YouTube, and Netflix.

Local media reports have also surfaced suggesting that elements within the government or its affiliates have profited from the VPN trade, raising questions about the motives behind the crackdown.

The specifics of how the government plans to enforce the ban or grant exceptions remain unclear, adding to the uncertainty surrounding digital usage in Iran.

Communications technology expert Mohammad Keshvari said that the prohibition of VPNs is "not new, but the latest decree fails to clarify the consequences for those who defy it.”

He added that, from a technical viewpoint, completely preventing VPN use is not feasible.

The criminalization of VPN use was notably absent from the decree, which analysts said reflects the legislative duties of the parliament, which had previously removed such provisions from proposed legislation.

Iran has come under international scrutiny over its digital repression, with a report from Freedom House marking the country as having the worst decline in Internet freedom globally in 2023.

Iran was home to 2023’s sharpest drop in online access and freedom, the report said, as authorities shut down Internet service, blocked the WhatsApp and Instagram social media apps, and increased surveillance during a crackdown on anti-government protests last year sparked by the death of a young woman -- 22-year-old Mahsa Amini -- while in police custody.

The situation underscores the ongoing tensions between government control and digital rights in Iran, posing significant challenges for access to information and freedom of expression within the country.

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

EU Announces 13th Russia Sanctions Package On Eve Of Second Anniversary Of Ukraine Invasion

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (file photo)
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (file photo)

The European Union announced a fresh package of sanctions against Russia on February 23, on the eve of the second anniversary of its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

"Today, we are further tightening the restrictive measures against Russia's military and defense sector," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a press release.

“We remain united in our determination to dent Russia’s war machine and help Ukraine win its legitimate fight for self-defense.”

The 13th Ukraine-related sanctions package targets Russia's defense industry and slaps assets freezes and travel bans on 106 individuals and 88 organizations, bringing to 2,000 the total number of people and groups sanctioned by the 27-member bloc for "undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine."

The newly sanctioned individuals include dozens of Russian officials including "members of the judiciary, local politicians and people responsible for the illegal deportation and military re-education of Ukrainian children," the statement said.

They also impose restrictions on companies from India, Sri Lanka, China, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Thailand, and Turkey suspected of exporting to Russia dual-use products for "supporting Russia's military and industrial complex."

The restrictions also expand on components for the development and production of aerial drones.

The names of the companies will be published in the EU’s official journal in several days.

In response to the EU move, the Russia Foreign Ministry announced on February 23 that it had drastically expanded a list of the bloc's officials and politicians banned from entering Russia.

"The European Union is continuing its fruitless attempts to put pressure on Russia through unilateral restrictive measures," the ministry said in a statement.

While the bloc's 27 members agreed on the sanctions package, a statement to mark February 24 ran aground when Hungary refused to sign on, EU sources told RFE/RL. Budapest objected to the statement without offering a concrete explanation, the sources said.

In the end, the EU issued a statement on February 23 signed by the presidents of the three main European institutions -- EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, European Parliament chief Roberta Metsola, and European Council President Charles Michel -- instead of the entire bloc.

"Russia and its leadership bear sole responsibility for this war and its global consequences, as well as for the serious crimes committed. We remain determined to hold them to account, including for the crime of aggression," the statement reads.

"Russia and its leaders will pay a growing price for their actions. Together with partners, we have imposed unprecedented sanctions against Russia and those complicit in the war and remain ready to increase the pressure on Russia to limit its ability to wage war. We have also taken the first concrete steps towards directing extraordinary revenues stemming from Russian immobilized assets to support Ukraine. We will continue our targeted actions to further isolate Russia in international fora."

Three Tajik Public Figures Handed Prison Terms Over Book

Abdukhalil Kholiqzoda and Abduqodiri Rustam (file photo)
Abdukhalil Kholiqzoda and Abduqodiri Rustam (file photo)

Tajikistan's Supreme Court has handed prison terms to three well-known public figures for writing, editing, and publishing a book that highlights some of the challenges faced by those living in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic, which the authorities ordered cleared from bookstores.

Several sources told RFE/RL on February 23 that the court sentenced Abdukhalil Kholiqzoda to 6 1/2 years, Abduqodir Rustam to 4 1/2 years, and Suhrob Rajabzoda to one year in prison after finding them guilty of inciting hatred.

There was no official announcement of the verdicts and sentences as the trial was held behind closed doors within a detention center in Dushanbe.

Lawyers and relatives of the three defendants refused to comment, while Supreme Court officials confirmed to RFE/RL that the trial session was held on February 22, but they could not comment, saying the trial judge was not available for comment.

It remains unclear if Kholiqzoda, Rustam, and Rajabzoda will appeal the sentences.

The men were arrested in August 2023 and went on trial on January 19.

The charges against them stemmed from their roles in publishing a book titled Stories Of My Life that, among other things, focused on everyday developments in modern Tajikistan, including corruption, migration, and cultural challenges faced in the Central Asian country.

The authorities confiscated all copies of the book from bookstores after the three men were arrested. The book's author is businessman Kholiqzoda, while Rustam edited it, and Rajabzoda's Er-Graf publishing house published it.

Self-exiled Tajik intellectuals and opposition figures condemned the arrests and the sentencing of the three men, calling the case against them a crackdown on freedom of expression.

Meanwhile, amid a lack of transparency in the country, speculation has risen that the case might be connected to a power struggle among the elite.

President Emomali Rahmon, who has run Tajikistan for almost 30 years, has been criticized by international human rights groups over his administration's policies toward independent media, religious freedoms, civil society, and political pluralism.

In recent years, several Tajik journalists, rights activists, and opposition politicians have been handed lengthy prison terms on charges seen by rights groups as trumped-up and politically motivated.

Jailed Kyrgyz Blogger Transferred To House Arrest

Batmakan Jolboldueva (file photo)
Batmakan Jolboldueva (file photo)

A court in the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad ruled on February 22 to transfer local blogger Batmakan Jolboldueva from a pretrial detention center to house arrest. The State Committee for National Security said in early February that Jolboldueva was arrested and charged with extortion after she was caught receiving 25,000 soms ($280) from a person in exchange for withholding a sensitive report from being published. It remains unclear how Jolboldueva pleaded. She refused to elaborate on the charges when asked by RFE/RL to talk about the details of her case. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Putin Fears Navalny Funeral Could Trigger Mass Demonstrations, Khodorkovsky Says

Formerly Russia's richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 on fraud charges that he says were trumped up by Putin and his allies and spent a decade in prison. (file photo)
Formerly Russia's richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 on fraud charges that he says were trumped up by Putin and his allies and spent a decade in prison. (file photo)

The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely refusing to release the body of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who died suspiciously in prison on February 16, because it fears a massive outpouring of grief and support just ahead of the March presidential election, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a leading Russian opposition figure, said.

"There could be large-scale confrontations in Moscow," the exiled former oil tycoon said in an interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

"The authorities do not want people to understand how many of them oppose Putin. The main task of Putin’s propaganda is to convince people that if they are against Putin, they are on the margins…. If people see that there are really a lot of them...then the situation can change in seconds."

Khodorkovsky: 'Putin Afraid' Navalny Funeral Could Spark Protests
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Russian authorities have yet to release Navalny's body to his family, while his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, said on February 22 they were pressing her to hold a private funeral "without any farewell ceremonies."

Khodorkovsky, who lives in London in exile and funds various projects aimed at promoting democracy in Russia, said that if Navalny's family rejected the government's demands, his body likely would not be released until after the March 17 presidential election, which the Kremlin hopes to use as a show of national unity in support of Putin and the ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

A large show of support for Navalny would be "a very serious signal to the elite," Khodorkovsky told Current Time.

Khodorkovsky described Navalny's widow, Yulia Navalnaya, who has pledged to continue her husband's work, as "a person who is acceptable to the majority of opposition leaders" and said he was ready to coordinate with her and "join forces in tackling certain issues."

However, he said the democratic Russian opposition was too diverse to unite around a single figure "even the smartest, most brilliant, and best person imaginable."

He added that Putin’s government was "pushing us toward revolution" by replacing politics with government violence.

"The more it uses violent methods and the harsher it is with the opposition, the greater the likelihood that the opposition will become radicalized and adopt responses that are rather harsh and radical," he said. "And after that, one should expect that Russia will become a democratic country. That is just objective reality."

Khodorkovsky also urged the West not to recognize the legitimacy of the March presidential election and to deal with Putin from a position of strength.

"The West’s weakness gives Putin a free hand," he said, encouraging him to continue his aggression.

"What can stop him is a show of force," he said. "If you have the power, show it. If you don't, then just wait until he kicks in your door."

He said he believes adopting further sanctions against Russia would have little effect, but that existing sanctions need more rigorous enforcement. Many of the advanced weapons systems Russia is deploying in Ukraine contain Western-made components, he said, which encourages Putin not to consider sanctions a serious problem.

Formerly Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky, 60, was arrested in 2003 on fraud charges that he says were trumped up by Putin and his allies to punish his political activity, bring influential tycoons to heel, and put the oil assets of his company, Yukos, into state hands.

He spent just over a decade in prison before being pardoned and flown out of the country in December 2013.

Russian Appeal Against Olympic Suspension Rejected

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) says it has dismissed an appeal by the Russian Olympic Committee against its suspension by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Lausanne, Switzerland-based CAS said in a decision released on February 23 that it had set aside the appeal after Russia was suspended by the IOC over its decision to include sports bodies representing regions of eastern Ukraine -- Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhya -- which Moscow illegally annexed. The IOC's suspension "did not breach the principles of legality, equality, predictability, or proportionality," the CAS said.

Public Figures Urge Russia To Release Navalny's Body To His Family

Demonstrators hold a portrait of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny during a rally in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw on February 16.
Demonstrators hold a portrait of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny during a rally in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw on February 16.

A group of leading Russian public figures has urged the authorities to immediately release the body of outspoken Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny to his family after he died in prison a week ago.

Navalny's associates published video statements on their Komanda Navalnogo (Navalny's Team) Telegram channel on February 23 that show celebrities, musicians, actors, writers, and scholars all demanding Navalny's body be handed to his family, which has been told it may not be until the end of the month or later before it is released.

The group includes 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov; prominent ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov; a founding member of Pussy Riot protest group, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova; writers Mikhail Zygar and Viktor Shenderovich; historian Tamara Eidelman; television journalist Tatyana Lazareva; popular rock musician Andrei Makarevich; rapper Noize MC (Ivan Alekseyev); businessman Yevgeny Chichvarkin; and many other noted public figures.

A day earlier, Navalny's mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, said that investigators had allowed her to see her son's body late on February 21 in the Arctic city of Salekhard, but refused to hand it over for burial.

Navalnaya said she signed the death certificate, pointing out that the authorities were breaking the law by not releasing her son's body.

She also accused them of trying to force her to agree to bury her son secretly. She said she wanted her son's burial to be public so that all his supporters can bid a proper farewell to the anti-corruption crusader.

Navalnaya has been trying to get access to her son’s body since his death in a special-regime prison, the harshest type of penitentiary in Russia, was announced on February 16. Prison officials said the 47-year-old died after he collapsed while on a daily walk out of his cell.

On February 21, Navalnaya filed a lawsuit in a Russian court demanding the release of her son's body. A closed-door hearing into complaint is scheduled to be held on March 4, which roughly coincides with the time frame authorities have said they need to perform "chemical forensics" on Navalny's body.

Rights groups and Navalny's associates have accused authorities of holding the body to allow it to hide the cause of death.

WATCH: A Russian doctor who was involved in efforts to diagnose Aleksei Navalny after he was poisoned in 2020 says traces of poison can be removed from a dead body, and there was no reason for the Russian authorities not to hand over the body.

Former Navalny Doctor Says Poison Could Be Removed From Body
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The White House said on February 22 that U.S. President Joe Biden met with Navalny's widow and daughter, Yulia and Dasha Navalnaya, in California "to express his heartfelt condolences."

Dasha Navalnaya is currently studying at Stanford University just outside of San Francisco.

During the meeting, Biden expressed his admiration for Navalny's "extraordinary courage and his legacy of fighting against corruption and for a free and democratic Russia in which the rule of law applies equally to everyone," the statement said.

Biden later announced major new sanctions against Russia in response to Navalny's death, Russia's repression, and aggression and its war in Ukraine.

Updated

Biden Announces More Than 500 Fresh Russia Sanctions, Warns House 'History Is Watching'

U.S. President Joe Biden said that by launching the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin "miscalculated badly." (file photo)
U.S. President Joe Biden said that by launching the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin "miscalculated badly." (file photo)

U.S. President Joe Biden has announced a fresh package of more than 500 sanctions against Russia for its war on Ukraine and for the death of Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny, while urging the House of Representatives to pass a desperately needed aid package for Kyiv.

"These sanctions will target individuals connected to Navalny's imprisonment as well as Russia's financial sector, defense industrial base, procurement networks, and sanctions evaders across multiple continents," Biden said in a statement issued by the White House on February 23, on the eve of the second anniversary of Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The sanctions "will ensure [Russian President Vladimir ] Putin pays an even steeper price for his aggression abroad and repression at home," Biden said.

The statement also announced that Washington was imposing export restrictions on nearly 100 entities that are helping Russia evade trade sanctions and are "providing backdoor support for Russia's war machine."

The list includes three Serbian companies that an RFE/RL investigation in November found were exporting dual-use goods that can be used for both military and civilian purposes to Russia.

It also designates two Kazakhstan-based companies that were named in an RFE/RL investigation in June that revealed that the companies exported sanctioned dual-use technology to Russian suppliers of the Kremlin’s war machine.

Biden’s announcement said further measures were being taken to diminish Russia’s energy revenues, and he says he's directed his team "to strengthen support for civil society, independent media, and those who fight for democracy around the world."

Biden also said Ukraine's U.S.-led allies remain committed to providing critical assistance to Kyiv, but Ukrainians, despite fighting with immense courage, are running out of ammunition. The president again urged Congress to pass $61 billion in aid to Ukraine that has been stalled in the Republican-led House of Representatives despite being passed in the Senate in an overwhelming bipartisan vote.

"Ukraine needs more supplies from the United States to hold the line against Russia’s relentless attacks, which are enabled by arms and ammunition from Iran and North Korea," Biden said.

"That’s why the House of Representatives must pass the bipartisan national security supplemental bill, before it’s too late.... History is watching," Biden warned.

The U.S. Treasury Department's sanctions target nearly 300 people and entities, while the State Department hit more than 250 people and entities, and the Commerce Department added more than 90 companies to the Entity List.

The combined actions comprise the largest number of sanctions imposed since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Treasury Department said in a news release.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the anniversary of the war and Navalny’s death in Russian custody are “stark reminders of Putin’s disregard for human life,” noting the suffering of Ukrainians and “those who dare to expose the corrupt abuses that fuel his regime.”

She said Russia’s economy and military-industrial base are showing signs of weakness, in part due to the sanctions and other actions taken by the United States and its allies.

Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov said the new round of sanctions is an attack on Russia's core interests but said Moscow will continue protecting them.

"The new illegitimate restrictions are yet another brazen and cynical attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of the Russian Federation," Antonov said, according RIA Novosti.

The sweeping U.S. sanctions take aim at the state-owned National Payment Card System, the operator of the Mir payment system whose cards became more widely used after U.S. companies suspended operations in Russia. The sanctions also target dozens of Russian banks, investment firms, venture capital funds, and fintech companies.

In the energy sector, the Treasury Department broadened sanctions against the Arctic LNG 2 project in Siberia, and the State Department targeted Russia's Zvezda shipbuilding company, which it said is involved in the construction of highly specialized LNG tankers intended for use in support of Arctic LNG 2 exports.

The new sanctions also target the network Russia has used to acquire and produce drones and a wide array of individuals and entities in Russia’s military-industrial base -- “from Russia’s flagship defense companies to machine tool importers, third-country sanctions evaders to semiconductor manufacturers,” the Treasury Department said.

The State Department said it imposed sanctions on three individuals in connection with Navalny's death -- the prison warden, regional prison head, and the deputy director of the Federal Penitentiary Service.

The sanctions freeze any property the individuals and entities hold in U.S. jurisdiction and block people and entities in the United States from dealing with them.

Updated

Pashinian Says Armenia Freezes Membership In Russian-Led Security Alliance

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (file photo)
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (file photo)

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has said his country has frozen its membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as Yerevan continues to distance itself from Moscow amid a souring of bilateral relations.

Pashinian said in an interview with France 24 television channel on February 22 that the move comes after Moscow began several months ago to openly call on Armenian citizens to overthrow his government, and that the deluge of propaganda against him "has never stopped."

The Pashinian government has long criticized the CSTO for its "failure to respond to the security challenges" facing Armenia.

Armenian authorities have accused Russian peacekeepers deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 of failing to stop Azerbaijan's lightning offensive in September that ended with Baku regaining control over the breakaway region that for three decades was under ethnic Armenians' control.

Moscow has rejected the accusations, arguing that its troops didn’t have a mandate to intervene and charging that Pashinian had effectively paved the way for the collapse of separatist rule in the region by previously acknowledging Azerbaijan's sovereignty over it.

Still, Pashinian declined to attend a CSTO summit in Minsk in November and said in a televised Q&A session then that any decision about Yerevan's continued membership in the grouping -- which includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- would be based on Armenia's "own state interests."

In the interview, the Armenian prime minister also expressed concern over the detention in Armenia in November of Russian citizen Dmitry Setrakov, who was mobilized to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Rights watchdogs said at the time that Setrakov was detained by Russian military police, but Yerevan has not commented on the situation and Setrakov is said to have since appeared in police custody in Russia.

When asked about the possible closure of Russia's military base in the northwestern Armenian city of Gyumri, Pashinian said that "that issue is not on the agenda" at this point.

Pashinian told France 24 that Setrakov's detention was "an abduction" and that "we cannot tolerate illegal actions on our territory."

Armenia has been on edge since the Azerbaijan regained control of Nagorno-Karabakh amid fears Baku remains hostile toward the country.

Pashinian said he thinks Azerbaijan considers Armenia "Western Azerbaijan" and plans to attack Armenia and seize other Armenian territories.

Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry issued a statement on February 23 calling Pashinian's words about Baku's plans to attack Armenia "unfounded allegations...intended to inflict another blow to the peace process by deliberately inflaming tensions in the region."

Hungary To Sign Defense Deal With Sweden, Orban Says

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (right) welcomes Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in Budapest on February 23.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (right) welcomes Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in Budapest on February 23.

Hungary will sign a defense-industry deal with Sweden, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said ahead of a meeting with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in Budapest on February 23, as Hungary prepares to finally ratify Sweden's NATO bid. "We will close all pending issues, and we will sign a defense-industry deal, a serious one considering Hungary's size, and we will also lay down some decisions or...goals about military cooperation," Orban told state radio. Orban and Kristersson will hold a press conference on February 23, before parliament is due to approve Sweden's NATO membership bid in a vote on February 26.

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