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Five Killed As Violence Flares Up In South Russia

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Four Russian security officials were killed in explosions and a shoot-out with suspected Islamic militants in the North Caucasus region of Daghestan, Itar-Tass news agency reported on August 10.

A suspected Islamist also died in the shootout with police who had stopped a car carrying three people in a rural area to check documents. Two policemen were killed and one seriously wounded in the incident, a police official said.

Another policeman was killed and two wounded later on August 10 when a bomb went off near a police station in the southeastern town of Derbent, a spokesman for local prosecutors said.

An explosion on a road outside Derbent killed a border guard and wounded a colleague traveling with him in a car, a spokesman for local prosecutors said.

As security in the neighboring republic of Chechnya has improved, instability has worsened elsewhere in the mainly Muslim North Caucasus and attacks against authorities by Islamic insurgents have increased.

Analysts say deep-rooted corruption and widespread poverty push many young men to join the ranks of insurgents.

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

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

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

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

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada, meanwhile, said it would expedite the delivery of more than 800 drones.

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

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

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

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

'They Keep Coming': Ukrainian Troops Build New Defenses As Moscow Looks Beyond Avdiyivka
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Ukrainian air defense forces said earlier that they had shot down all 23 drones launched by Russia at Ukraine's territory on February 20.

Air raid alerts were declared for the Kirovohrad, Kherson, Mykolayiv, Zaporizhzhya, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Poltava, and Kharkiv regions, the military and regional officials said.

The Prosecutor-General’s Office is also investigating the alleged shooting of Ukrainian prisoners of war by Russian soldiers, which would also constitute a war crime.

A drone video emerged in which three Ukrainian soldiers were allegedly seen being shot in the Zaporizhzhya region after surrendering.

Ukrainian prosecutors had already begun investigating two other alleged shootings of prisoners of war near Avdiyivka and the town of Vesele in the Donetsk region.

With reporting by AP and dpa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters
Updated

Russia Declares RFE/RL An 'Undesirable Organization'

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

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

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

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

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

The "undesirable organization" law, adopted in 2015, was a Kremlin-backed regulation on NGOs and others that receive funding from foreign sources. The label has been applied to dozens of foreign groups since Moscow began using the classification and effectively bans an organization outright.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reporting by TASS and Interfax

Ihar Lednik Is Latest Political Prisoner To Die In Belarusian Custody

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

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

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

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

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

Ukrainian Intelligence Confirms Death Of Noted Russian Defector In Spain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ukrainian Air Defense Repels Fresh Russian Drone Attack, Says Military

Smoke rises behind a World War II memorial in Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, on February 19.
Smoke rises behind a World War II memorial in Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, on February 19.

Ukrainian air-defense forces shot down all 23 drones launched by Russia at Ukraine's territory on February 20, the military said on Telegram. Earlier on February 20, an air-raid alert was declared for the Kirovohrad, Kherson, Mykolayiv, Zaporizhzhya, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Poltava, and Kharkiv regions, the military and regional officials said. There was no immediate information about casualties or damages. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Updated

Dual U.S.-Russian Citizen Arrested In Yekaterinburg On Suspicion Of 'Treason'

Washington has repeatedly criticized Russia for targeting and arresting U.S. citizens in order to exchange them for Russian nationals being held in U.S. prisons. (illustrative photo)
Washington has repeatedly criticized Russia for targeting and arresting U.S. citizens in order to exchange them for Russian nationals being held in U.S. prisons. (illustrative photo)

Russia's FSB security service said a woman holding both U.S. and Russian citizenship was arrested in the central city of Yekaterinburg on suspicion of treason after she was accused of raising funds for Ukraine's military.

The FSB said in a statement on February 20 that it had "suppressed the illegal activities of a 33-year-old resident of Los Angeles, who has dual citizenship of Russia and the United States and was involved in providing financial assistance to a foreign state in activities directed against the security of our country."

It added that since February 2022, the suspect allegedly had been collecting money spent mainly on "tactical medical supplies, equipment, weapons, and ammunition."

The FSB did not name the woman detained in Yekaterinburg, the city in the Urals where U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich was arrested last year on espionage charges that can carry a sentence of up to life in prison.

However, using information gleaned from a video the FSB published and social media, Russian news outlet Mediazona reported the woman's name is Ksenia Karelina.

Washington has repeatedly criticized Russia for targeting and arresting U.S. citizens in order to exchange them for Russian nationals being held in U.S. prisons.

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

A third U.S. citizen, RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, who also holds Russian citizenship, has been in pretrial detention on a charge of violating the so-called foreign agent law. The U.S. government and her employer say the charge is in reprisal for her work.

Indictments for treason reached a record number in Russia last year. According to official data, the courts have received 63 treason cases, 33 of which have already resulted in convictions.

Human rights activists say they expect the number will be even higher this year as Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine reaches the two-year mark on February 24.

Updated

In Video Message, Navalny's Mother Pleads With Putin To Return Her Son's Body

Standing outside the Artic prison where her son, Aleksei Navalny, died last week, Lyudmila Navalnaya made a video plea on February 20 to Russian President Vladimir Putin to release his body.
Standing outside the Artic prison where her son, Aleksei Navalny, died last week, Lyudmila Navalnaya made a video plea on February 20 to Russian President Vladimir Putin to release his body.

Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny's mother has made an impassioned plea to Russian President Vladimir Putin to release the body of her son, who died on February 16 in a remote Arctic penal colony, as outrage mounts over the authorities' handling of Navalny's death.

Russian authorities have repeatedly refused to return Navalny's body to his family, claiming an "investigation" of the causes of his death would take up to two weeks. They have blocked his mother and lawyers from accessing the morgue in the Arctic city of Salekhard where the body is reportedly being kept.

“Behind my back is the penal colony IK-3 Polar Wolf, where my son, Aleksei Navalny, died on February 16," Lyudmila Navalnaya said in the video, which shows her standing in the snow outside of a barbwire fence.

"I have not been able to see his body for five days. They have not handed it over to me and have not even told me where it is," Navalnaya says, before directly addressing Putin by name, without referring to him as president.

"I am turning to you, Vladimir Putin, because the solution to this problem depends only on you. Let me finally see my son. I demand that Aleksei's body be released immediately so that I can bury him in a humane way," Navalnaya says in the short video, which then focuses on the golden onion-shaped dome of a church in the background.

Nearly 70,000 Russian citizens have sent official notes -- the Dyatel (Woodpecker) service via the OVD-Info group that allows citizens to send official requests online -- to Russia's Investigative Committee demanding Navalny's body be returned to his family.

As public anger grows over the authorities' refusal and speculation swirls about whether Navalny's body showed signs of abuse, his widow, Yulia Navalnaya, claimed Russian authorities were delaying handing over his body until traces of Novichok poison disappeared from it.

The Kremlin critic's widow has publicly laid the blame for the death of her husband on Putin and vowed to continue his fight against the Kremlin and help make sure those responsible for his death are punished.

Navalny's Widow Vows To Continue His Work
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The EU, meanwhile, has called for an independent international investigation into Navalny's death.

The Kremlin rejected the call, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying at a daily news conference on February 20 that "we do not accept such demands at all."

Peskov also called Navalny's widow's accusation leveled against Putin "unfounded and vulgar," prompting a sharp rebuke by Yulia Navalnaya.

"I do not give a damn how the press secretary of a murderer comments on my words," Navalnaya, who has vowed to continue her husband's work, wrote on X.

"Give back Aleksei’s body and let him be buried with dignity. Don’t stop people from saying goodbye to him," she added.

When trying to access the account, users receive a message saying "Account suspended. X suspends accounts which violate the X Rules." Less than an hour later, the account was reactivated without explanation.

She created the account on February 19, three days after her husband's death.

Exclusive: Inmates Repeatedly Denied Medical Care At Navalny Prison, Documents Reveal
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Navalny's spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, said on X, formerly Twitter, on February 19 that Russian officials had told the family that it would take two weeks for their analysis of the body to be completed.

"The investigators told the lawyers and Aleksei's mother that they would not give them the body. The body will be under some sort of 'chemical examination' for another 14 days," Yarmysh wrote.

"They lie, buy time for themselves, and do not even hide it,” she said.

European Union foreign ministers in Brussels called for additional sanctions against Moscow to hold it responsible for the death of Navalny.

"Russia must allow an independent and transparent international investigation into circumstances of his sudden death," the ministers said in a statement.

"The EU will spare no efforts to hold Russia’s political leadership and authorities to account, in close coordination with our partners; and impose further costs for their actions, including through sanctions," the statement said.

Poland's Foreign Ministry on February 20 summoned Russia's ambassador over Navalny's death.

"The ministry called on Russian authorities to take responsibility for the death of Aleksei Navalny and conduct a full and transparent investigation to determine the circumstances and cause of his death," the ministry said in a statement.

Navalny is the latest on a significant list of Putin foes who have ended up dead under suspicious circumstances abroad or at home, where the Kremlin has clamped down ruthlessly on dissent and free speech since the Ukraine invasion began.

Since the announcement of his death on February 16, Russian police have cordoned off memorial sites where people were laying flowers and candles to honor Navalny and dispersed and arrested more than 430 suspected violators in dozens of cities.

European Countries Summon Russian Diplomats Over Navalny Death

People light candles at a vigil following the death of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, near the Eiffel Tower in Paris on February 19.
People light candles at a vigil following the death of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, near the Eiffel Tower in Paris on February 19.

A host of European governments on February 19 summoned Russian diplomats following the prison death of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne said during a visit to Argentina that Russia's ambassador in Paris would be summoned, while Norway's Foreign Ministry said it was calling on its top Russian diplomat "for a talk" about Navalny's death. Those moves followed similar announcements by Finland, Germany, Lithuania, Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands saying they have summoned diplomats from Russian embassies. London had done so earlier.

Ecuador Backtracks On Plan To Send Weapons To Ukraine After Moscow Goes Bananas

Ecuador's foreign minister, Gabriela Sommerfeld, told a congressional committee on February 19 that the country no longer planned to send Soviet-era weapons to Ukraine.
Ecuador's foreign minister, Gabriela Sommerfeld, told a congressional committee on February 19 that the country no longer planned to send Soviet-era weapons to Ukraine.

Ecuador's foreign minister on February 19 said the small Latin American country didn't plan to send Soviet-era weapons to Ukraine after the president's vow to do so sparked a spat with Moscow over banana and flower exports. "Ecuador will not send any war material to a country that is involved in an international armed conflict," Gabriela Sommerfeld told a congressional committee. President Daniel Noboa last month said Quito would exchange Russian military equipment that had become "scrap metal" for new U.S. weapons worth $200 million. Moscow slammed the "reckless" decision and banned the import of some Ecuadoran bananas and flowers, citing the detection of pests.

Ukraine Warns Of Economic Woes Amid Border Protests By Polish Truckers, Farmers

Polish farmers protest at the Dorohusk checkpoint in Poland on February 9.
Polish farmers protest at the Dorohusk checkpoint in Poland on February 9.

Kyiv warned of serious economic consequences as Polish truckers and farmers along the border continued to block Ukrainian cargo from entering the EU nation, with intensified protests expected on February 20. “Blocking transport on the Polish border will have serious social and political consequences for both countries,” Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukraine’s interior minister, posted on Facebook. Officials said Kubrakov held urgent talks with Jacek Siewiera, head of Poland’s National Security Bureau, regarding the blocking of traffic, particularly passenger transport. Tomasz Obszanski, head of the Polish Farmers Solidarity union, told RFE/RL that protesters’ demands center on calls to restrict imports of Ukrainian agricultural products entering Poland. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.

Finland Eyes Tougher Legislation To Boost Borders And National Security

Finnish border guards escort migrants at the border crossing with Russia at Salla on November 23, 2023. Finland has accused Russia of funneling migrants to its border.
Finnish border guards escort migrants at the border crossing with Russia at Salla on November 23, 2023. Finland has accused Russia of funneling migrants to its border.

Finland, which accuses Moscow of funneling migrants to its eastern border, plans to amend legislation to boost border and national security and fight what it calls "instrumentalized migration," the Interior Ministry said on February 19. Finland closed its long eastern border with Russia late last year after an unusually large inflow of people from countries including Syria and Somalia. The Kremlin has denied Finland's claims on funneling migrants to the border. The ministry said in a statement that the funneling was a Russian attempt to influence Finland's national security.

Belarusian Opposition Activist In Serbia Urges Belgrade To Reverse Extradition Ruling

The decision of the Court of Appeal in Belgrade is expected in the next month. (file photo)
The decision of the Court of Appeal in Belgrade is expected in the next month. (file photo)

Belarusian journalist and opposition activist Andrey Gniot has urged Serbian authorities not to extradite him back to his home country, where he says his "life will be ruined." Gniot was arrested on October 30, 2023, at Belgrade's airport at the request of Belarus, which has charged him with tax evasion, and has been in custody since. Belgrade’s high court ruled in December that conditions for his extradition had been met. He has denied the allegations, and his lawyers have appealed the court ruling. Since Belarus’s disputed 2020 presidential election, authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka has cracked down on dissent and civil society, jailing hundreds and forcing most of the country's opposition figures to flee. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.

Sweden Summons Russia Ambassador Over Navalny Death, Seeks New Sanctions

Protesters gather on February 16 in front of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm after the news that the Kremlin's most prominent critic, Alekesei Navalny, had died in an Arctic prison.
Protesters gather on February 16 in front of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm after the news that the Kremlin's most prominent critic, Alekesei Navalny, had died in an Arctic prison.

Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom summoned Russia's ambassador on February 19 over the death of imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and called on the EU to consider new sanctions against Russia, joining other Western nations making such moves. "The EU must take action against the political oppression in Russia. This is particularly important given the fact that on February 16, Aleksei Navalny died in Russian captivity," said the top diplomat of Sweden, which is expected to soon to become a member of NATO. He said new sanctions "would provide additional opportunities to take action against Russian government representatives and officials involved in human rights violations."

U.S. 'Encouraged' By First 100 Days Of Montenegro's Government, State Department Official Says

James O'Brien, U.S. secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, and Montenegro's prime minister, Milojko Spajic, met in Podgorica on February 19.
James O'Brien, U.S. secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, and Montenegro's prime minister, Milojko Spajic, met in Podgorica on February 19.

Washington is "very encouraged" by developments during the first 100 days of Montenegro's new government and optimistic about prospects for deeper European and Euro-Atlantic integration, James O'Brien, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said on February 19 during a visit to Podgorica. Montenegro's parliament on October 31 appointed a new government -- a coalition of pro-Europe and pro-Serbia/Russia-friendly parties -- expected to lead the country in its bid to join the EU. Prime Minister Milojko Spajic, who met with O'Brien, has said he supports "full membership" in the EU and "active, credible" membership in NATO, which Montenegro joined in 2017. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.

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