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U.S. Demands IS Release Kidnapped Assyrian Christians

The United States has condemned militants of the radical Islamist group Islamic State (IS) "in the strongest possible terms" for attacking Assyrian Christian villages in Syria and abducting civilians "including women, children, priests, and the elderly."

In a statement on February 24, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said IS's "latest targeting of a religious minority is only further testament to its brutal and inhumane treatment of all those who disagree with its divisive goals and toxic beliefs."

She spoke after activists said IS militants abducted dozens of people from villages they raided in northeastern Syria at dawn on February 23.

"We demand the immediate and unconditional release of the civilians taken captive yesterday and of all those held" by Islamic State militants, Psaki said.

ALSO READ: Syria's Assyrian Community 'At Risk Of Extinction' At Hands Of IS Group

Syriac National Council of Syria head Bassam Ishak said on February 24 that the group, which represents several NGOs inside and outside the country, had "verified at least 150 people who have been abducted."

Karam Dole, a member of the political bureau of the Assyrian Democratic Organization in Syria Hasakah, told RFE/RL that IS militants had abducted 13 women, children, and elderly men after raiding the village of Tel Hormuz at dawn.

He said 70 to 90 people were unable to escape Tel Shamiram, another village overrun by the militants early on February 23, and were considered missing.

FOLLOW our 'Under The Black Flag' blog, which tracks Islamic State

Dola said residents of more than 30 villages on the Khabur river had fled to Hasakah, a city mainly held by Kurds.

Syrian Kurdish militia launched two offensives against the militants in northeast Syria on February 22, aided by U.S.-led air strikes.

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq/ Reuters, and AP

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Navalny's Mother Files Lawsuit Over Demanding Release His Body, Court Sets March 4 Hearing Date

Lyudmila Navalnaya, the mother of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, delivers a video address to Russian President Vladimir Putin as she stands near the Arctic Polar Wolf prison on February 20.
Lyudmila Navalnaya, the mother of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, delivers a video address to Russian President Vladimir Putin as she stands near the Arctic Polar Wolf prison on February 20.

Lyudmila Navalnaya, the mother of late opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, has filed a lawsuit in a Russian court demanding the release of her son's body as outrage mounts over the authorities' handling of Navalny's death in an Arctic prison.

A court in the Arctic region of Yamalo-Nenets said on February 21 that a hearing into complaint will be held on March 4. Navalny died in prison on February 16 but officials have repeatedly refused to return the body to his family claiming that an "investigation" into the cause of death would take up to two weeks.

If the full two weeks are taken to examine Navalny's body, it wouldn't be released until March 4.

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

The Salekhard City Court told TASS news agency that the March 4 hearing set for Navalnaya's lawsuit will be held behind closed doors. Navalny, 47, died in the town of Kharp near Salekhard.

On February 20, Navalnaya posted a video on social media taken from outside the so-called Polar Wolf prison's razor-wire topped fence pleading with President Vladimir Putin for his help.

"I'm reaching out to you, Vladimir Putin. The resolution of this matter depends solely on you. Let me finally see my son. I demand that Aleksei's body is released immediately, so that I can bury him like a human being," she said in the video.

A day before that, Navalny's widow, Yulia Navalnaya, accused Putin of killing her husband and accused officials of "cowardly and meanly hiding his body, refusing to give it to his mother and lying miserably.”

The Kremlin has rejected any accusations of a role or subsequent coverup in the death of Putin's most vocal critic.

Penitentiary officials told Navalnaya that her son's body was in a morgue in Salekhard, but the morgue turned out to be closed that evening, while its employees told Navalnaya that they do not have her son's body. A day later Navalnaya again came to the morgue, but was not allowed to enter it.

The Investigative Committee said the investigation of her son's death was extended as investigators were conducting "chemical forensics" on Navalny's body.

'Putin's Nemesis' Is Dead. Will Aleksei Navalny Still Figure In Russia's Future?
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Navalny's self-exiled associate Ivan Zhdanov said on February 19 that Navalny's body may be held by the authorities for a fortnight, adding that the goal of the investigation's extension was "to cover up the crime."

The OVD-Info human rights group, however, said Russian laws may allow the Investigative Committee to hold Navalny's body for up to 30 days.

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

Six residents of Russia's second largest city, St. Petersburg, who served several days in jail for laying flowers at a makeshift memorial honoring Navalny were handed written summons on February 21 saying they must report to a military recruitment center.

OVD-Info said that as of February 21, 397 people across 39 cities in Russia have been detained for commemorating Navalny since his death.

With reporting by TASS

Kazakh Lawmakers Approve In First Reading Bill On Life Imprisonment For Pedophiles, Child Murderers

The lower chamber of Kazakhstan's parliament, the Mazhilis (file photo)
The lower chamber of Kazakhstan's parliament, the Mazhilis (file photo)

Members of Kazakh parliament's lower chamber, Mazhilis, on February 21, approved the first reading of a bill that would allow life imprisonment for individuals convicted of pedophilia and/or the murder of children. The bill comes after President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev ordered in his address to the nation in September 2023 that such legislation was needed, the parliament's press service said. The bill also toughens the punishment for assaulting and beating children and "helpless" people. Toqaev initiated the bill amid an outcry by human rights groups about a rise in domestic violence in the Central Asian nation. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Jailed Kyrgyz Rights Defender Anvar Sartaev Transferred To House Arrest

Bishkek City Court (file photo)
Bishkek City Court (file photo)

The Bishkek City Court ruled to transfer to house arrest rights defender Anvar Sartaev, who was detained earlier on charges of calling for mass unrest, violent acts against citizens, and disobedience to the orders of authorities. On February 1, a lower court sent Sartaev to a pretrial detention center until at least April 1. It remains unknown what the charges stem from. Sartaev is known for his activities monitoring the rights of current and former military personnel. He unsuccessfully tried to get elected to the post of the country's ombudsman in 2015 and took part in parliamentary elections in 2017. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Britain Slaps Sanctions On Chiefs Of Arctic Prison Where Navalny Died

Britain's Foreign Secretary David Cameron
Britain's Foreign Secretary David Cameron

Britain on February 21 sanctioned six individuals running the Russian Arctic prison where the death of Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny was announced on February 16. Those sanctioned -- the camp's head, Colonel Vadim Kalinin, and his five deputies -- will be banned from Britain and have their assets frozen, the Foreign Office said. "Navalny suffered from being denied medical treatment, as well as having to walk in [minus] 32 [degree Celsius] weather while being held in the prison," the statement said. "Those responsible for Navalny’s brutal treatment should be under no illusion -- we will hold them accountable," Foreign Secretary David Cameron said.

Iran Blames Israel For Explosions At Gas Pipelines That Disrupted Supplies

The explosion of a gas pipeline in Iran earlier this month.
The explosion of a gas pipeline in Iran earlier this month.

Iranian Oil Minister Javad Owji has blamed Israel for a spate of recent explosions that disrupted gas transmission lines in two of Iran’s provinces, incidents that have heightened tensions further between the two rivals.

Speaking to reporters on February 21, Owji described the incidents as a deliberate act orchestrated by Israel, aimed at undermining Iran's domestic gas supply in major provinces. Owji provided no evidence to support his claims.

Israeli authorities have not made any public statements regarding the allegations.

The February 14 explosions targeted the country's national gas lines, leading to severe disruptions in the flow of gas to at least five Iranian provinces. The sound of the blasts was reported in Fars, Chaharmahal, and Bakhtiari provinces, with the national gas company characterizing the incidents as "sabotage and terrorist acts" targeting two main pipelines.

In a report on February 16, The New York Times cited two Western officials and a military expert linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as saying it was possible Israel was behind not only the pipeline explosions but also a separate incident at a chemical factory in west Tehran.

Israeli officials also have not commented on the factory incident.

Owji said the damaged gas lines have been repaired.

Iran and Israel have been engaged in a years-long shadow war. Tensions between Iran and Israel, its regional foe, have been exacerbated by the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

The collapse of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers has also added to regional tensions as Tehran reduces its commitments and expands its nuclear activities.

Talks to revive the deal that curbs Iran's sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions have been deadlocked.

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

Czechs Extradite Suspect In Iran-Backed Murder Plot To United States

Polad Omarov
Polad Omarov

The Czech Republic has extradited a man facing charges in the United States for plotting the murder of a prominent critic of Iran's government. The Czech Justice Ministry said Polad Omarov was handed to representatives of U.S. authorities at Prague's Vaclav Havel Airport on February 21 after the suspect had exhausted all options of appeal. Omarov was arrested in the Czech Republic in January 2023. The ministry said the justice minister had ruled in July last year in favor of extradition, but the action was delayed by the suspect's complaint with the Constitutional Court, which was rejected.

Azerbaijani Fitness Trainer Detained In Moscow At Yerevan's Request

Azerbaijani fitness trainer Kamil Zeynalli
Azerbaijani fitness trainer Kamil Zeynalli

Azerbaijani fitness trainer Kamil Zeynalli has asked Azerbaijani officials for help in a video on February 21 after he was detained at a Moscow airport at Armenia's request and faces extradition to Yerevan. Armenian Interior Ministry spokesman Narek Sarkisian told RFE/RL that Zeynalli is wanted in Armenia on murder charges. RFE/RL's Armenian Service cited sources as saying that Zeynalli is suspected of killing two people in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 during the war over the then-breakaway region. Azerbaijan recaptured Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023, 30 years after the breakaway region was taken under ethnic Armenian control. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, click here. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, click here.

EU Approves 'One Of Broadest' Sanctions Packages Against Russia So Far

The European Union has approved a new package of sanctions against Russia, its 13th since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago, in what the bloc's rotating president Belgium said was "one of the broadest approved by the EU."

The new package, agreed on February 21, will add nearly 200 more entities and individuals to the list and will include restrictions aimed at blocking the purchase of "drone components that end up in the Russian military complex and then on the battlefield in Ukraine," EU diplomats were quoted as saying, adding that the list includes several Russian companies, as well as third countries.

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 Belgian presidency said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that the package will be formally approved for February 24, the second anniversary of the start of Russia's invasion.

RFE/RL journalists who saw the sanctions lists as it was being prepared for publication said sectoral sanctions apply to 27 companies, among them some from China, India, Turkey, Serbia, and Kazakhstan.

The EU ambassadors also reportedly rejected an attempt by Hungary to strike down the names of three Russian oligarchs -- Alisher Usmanov, Vyacheslav Kantor, and Dmitry Mazepin, Jr. -- from the lists.

The list includes the names of 48 heads of military companies as well as more than 50 companies that produce heavy and light weaponry and their components as well as IT and logistics firms that cooperate with the Russian Defense Ministry and the firms' chiefs.

It also includes 12 individuals who hold self-styled positions of judges and ministers in the Russian-imposed institutions in occupied territories in Ukraine.

Among them is Valentina Lavryk, the so-called minister of education, science, and youth in occupied Crimea, who "controls the implementation of the militarization of education for Ukrainian children in...Crimea, as well as the suppression of the Ukrainian language and culture for these children," according to the document that justifies the sanctions.

Lavryk, the document adds, was "responsible for the coordination and supervision of the transfer of children from the illegally occupied regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya to camps located in Crimea," the document says.

The list also includes the so-called acting ministers of health, labor, education, youth policies, and industry of the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine's Kherson region.

With reporting by Reuters

Blogger Who Revealed Russian Military Losses In Avdiyivka Reportedly Commits Suicide

Friends of noted Russian blogger Aleksandr Morozov said on February 21 that he committed suicide after citing unnamed sources online saying that Russian troops might have lost up to 16,000 troops while fighting for the Ukrainian city of Avdiyivka. A day earlier, Morozov, who has been fighting along Russia-backed separatists and Russian troops in Ukraine's east since 2014, wrote on Telegram that his military commanders forced him to delete the post about Russian losses. On February 17, Ukrainian forces withdrew from Avdiyivka after four months of a brutal battle with Russian soldiers. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Russian Weekly Pays Tribute To Navalny, Prints His Image On Front Page

Aleksei Navalny
Aleksei Navalny

The Russian weekly Sobesednik has dedicated part of its latest issue, including the front page, to Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny, whose death in a remote Arctic prison camp was announced on February 16.

A photograph depicting a smiling Navalny has been printed on the front page accompanied by the caption, “...but there is hope!”

The articles include reports of the spontaneous commemorations of Navalny's death in several Russian cities and a commentary by 2021 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Dmitry Muratov.

Most printed media in Russia have ignored the news of the opposition leader's death.

More Than 45,000 Russian Soldiers Believed Killed Since Start Of Ukraine War

A dead Russian soldier at the front line in the Donetsk region on September 16
A dead Russian soldier at the front line in the Donetsk region on September 16

At least 45,123 Russian troops have been killed since the start of Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago, according to research by journalists from Mediazona and the BBC's Russian Service who have established the deceased soldiers' identities.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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Two-thirds of all confirmed dead -- volunteers, conscripts, ex-inmates, and fighters from private military companies -- were not connected to the military before the start of the invasion, researchers found.

The number includes 5,406 mobilized soldiers, 80 percent of whom were killed in the second year of the war.

Krasnodar, Sverdlovsk, Bashkortostan, and Chelyabinsk are the regions with the highest number of dead.

Journalists have identified 27,906 Russian soldiers killed last year -- 57 percent more than the confirmed losses in the first year of the invasion.

From October last year until this month -- roughly the period during which Russian forces advanced on the industrial city of Avdiyivka and in neighboring areas in the Donetsk region -- researchers confirmed the deaths of 6,614 Russian soldiers. Avdiyivka fell to Moscow's forces last week.

The journalists based their research on data from open sources such as obituaries in the media, messages on social networks by relatives of the victims, reports from local administrations, as well as data from cemeteries. The researchers say that the actual figures could be at least twice as high.

The Russian Defense Ministry does not disclose data on personnel losses and does not comment on figures reported by journalists.

In January, CIA Director Willam Burns said in an article published by the magazine Foreign Affairs that at least 315,000 Russian soldiers had been wounded or killed during the war in Ukraine.

Lukashenka Wants Armed Police Patrols In Belarusian Cities, Vows Measures Against 'Extremism'

Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka at a meeting with the leadership of the state security agencies in Minsk on February 20.
Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka at a meeting with the leadership of the state security agencies in Minsk on February 20.

Strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka has urged police forces to send out patrols armed "at least with pistols" in Belarusian cities to better protect citizens against "crimes of an extremist nature." "Today, this is the most important aspect of maintaining law and order -- stopping the actions of scumbags and preventing the 'misguided,'" Lukashenka said at meeting with Belarusian security bodies on February 20. According to official figures, more than 1,300 "extremism" cases were tried by courts last year in Belarus, dubbed by Western diplomats as Europe's last dictatorship. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.


Some 60 Russian Troops Reportedly Killed By Strike While Waiting In Formation

Smoke rises from the site of a Russian missile strike that hit a water purifying station in Kramatorsk on February 20.
Smoke rises from the site of a Russian missile strike that hit a water purifying station in Kramatorsk on February 20.

A Ukrainian strike on a training ground in Moscow-occupied Donetsk has killed at least 60 Russian troops, the BBC's Russian Service quoted sources as saying.

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.

Russian soldiers from the 36th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade had been lined up and were waiting for the arrival of Major General Oleg Moiseyev, the commander of the 29th Russian Army, when the strike occurred on February 20, the report said.

Ukraine has not commented on the report.

Pro-Russian social media outlets posted videos and photos purportedly showing dozens of uniformed dead bodies, accusing Moiseyev of making soldiers stand in line waiting for his arrival when they were hit. sian and Ukrainian services)

Meanwhile, three civilians were killed and 13 others were wounded by Russian shelling of three eastern Ukrainian regions, local authorities reported on February 21.

One person was killed in Kramatorsk, in the Donetsk region, while eight others were wounded, regional Governor Vadym Filashkin said.

In the Kharkiv region, two farmers were instantly killed when their car was struck in the village of Petropavlivka in the Kupyansk district, while one woman was wounded, regional Governor Oleh Synyehubov said.

In the Kherson region, four people were wounded in Russian shelling, mortar, and drone strikes, local authorities reported.

Air-defense forces shot down 13 out of 19 drones launched by Russia at four Ukrainian regions early on February 21, Ukraine's Air Force reported, adding that one S-300 missile and four Kh-22 cruise missiles were also destroyed.

The drones were downed in the Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya and Donetsk regions, the air force said.

It said that some of the remaining six drones did not reach their targets.

The four Kh-22 cruise missiles were shot down in the central Poltava region.

Rivals Of Pakistan's Ex-PM Khan Reach Agreement To Form Government

Shehbaz Sharif (file photo)
Shehbaz Sharif (file photo)

The political rivals of Pakistan’s imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan announced details of a power-sharing agreement late on February 20, naming Shehbaz Sharif as their candidate for prime minister. The announcement followed days of talks among the leadership of the Pakistan Muslim League, the Pakistan People’s Party, and other parties that did not gain enough seats in the February 8 vote to govern on their own. They said at a news conference that they had secured the required majority to form a coalition government.

Russian Foreign Minister Visits Venezuela, Reaffirms Support For Maduro

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (right) shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Caracas on February 20.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (right) shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Caracas on February 20.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reaffirmed his government’s support for the administration of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, expressing during a visit to Caracas on February 20 Moscow's commitment to strategic cooperation in numerous sectors. Lavrov’s meetings with Venezuela’s vice president and foreign minister took place as Venezuela's government and a U.S.-backed faction of the opposition negotiate conditions for a presidential election later this year. During the negotiation process, which has been guided by Norwegian diplomats, Russia has completely backed the Venezuelan government. In addition, unconditional support from Russia and China has allowed Venezuela to circumvent U.S. economic sanctions on Russia.

Estonia Detains 10 People Suspected Of Committing Sabotage On Orders From Russia

Estonian Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets
Estonian Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets

Estonia’s domestic security agency said on February 20 that it has apprehended 10 people suspected of sabotage in the Baltic country in a coordinated “hybrid operation” by Russia’s special services. Among the suspects detained since December are individuals believed to have broken the car windows of Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets and a journalist, the Estonian Internal Security Service said. Information collected thus far indicates that “the Russian special service had coordinated a hybrid operation against the security of [Estonia]” aimed at spreading fear and creating tension in society, the security service said.

Rights Group Says Number Of Christians Arrested In Iran On The Rise

Christians are recognized as one of three religious minorities in the Islamic republic's constitution. (file photo)
Christians are recognized as one of three religious minorities in the Islamic republic's constitution. (file photo)

The number of Christians arrested in Iran jumped sharply in the last six months of 2023, according to a religious rights group, which called on the government to “immediately and unconditionally” release all Christians detained on charges relating to their faith and religious activities.

The report, released by Article 18, a rights organization focused on the protection of Christians, showed 166 Christians were detained last year, an increase from the 134 arrests recorded in 2022.

The group said that while the first half of the year saw only a "handful" of arrests, a worrying trend was that from June to August there were 100 arrests and then "a further rash" of detentions around the Christmas period.

"Very few of those arrested agreed to publicize their cases, leading to an increasing number of faceless victims,” Article 18 said.

Christians are recognized as one of three religious minorities in the Islamic republic's constitution. Despite this, the report notes, the Iranian government has harshly punished Muslims who convert to Christianity or those involved in promoting and teaching religions other than Islam.

The findings are part of a collaborative 40-page investigation by Article 18, in partnership with global Christian organizations Middle East Concern, Open Doors, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

The report showed that in 2023 at least 17 Christians arrested during the summer had been sentenced to prison terms of three to five years. Others faced penalties including fines, whipping, and community service, it added.

Authorities appeared to target distributors of the Bible, with more than one-third of those detained found in possession of multiple copies of the publication.

The report urges the government to "immediately and unconditionally" release the jailed Christians and to ensure the freedom of worship for the faith's followers without the threat of arrest or legal action.

In the face of such pressures, numerous Christians, particularly new converts, have been compelled to flee Iran, seeking asylum in other nations to escape the restrictions and persecution faced at home.

This situation underscores the ongoing challenges faced by religious minorities in Iran amid calls for greater religious freedom and international scrutiny of the country's human rights practices.

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

Russia Adds Navalny's Self-Exiled Brother To Its 'Wanted List' Again

Oleg Navalny in 2018
Oleg Navalny in 2018

Russia's Interior Ministry on February 20 again added self-exiled Oleg Navalny, a younger brother of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who died in Russian prison last week, to it "wanted list" on unspecified charges.

The last time the ministry added Oleg Navalny to its wanted list was in January 2022 after penitentiary service officials demanded a one-year suspended prison term handed to Oleg Navalny in 2021 on a charge of violating COVID-19 prevention regulations be turned into a real prison term.

In February 2022, a Moscow court approved the penitentiary service officials' demand, but Oleg Navalny had fled Russia by that time. That request was canceled later, most likely because time ran out under the statute of limitations.

Oleg Navalny's current whereabouts are unknown. He was given the one-year suspended prison sentence after a court in Moscow in August 2021 found him guilty of publicly calling for the violation of coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

He and his supporters called the sentence politically motivated.

In 2014, Oleg and Aleksei Navalny were convicted of stealing about $500,000 from two Russian firms, one of which was affiliated with the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher, and of laundering some of the money.

Both were sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison, but Aleksei's sentence was suspended at the time. The brothers denied the charges, saying the case was politically motivated -- in part as an effort to turn Oleg Navalny into a "hostage" who could be used to blackmail his brother into refraining from his political and anti-corruption activism.

In late June 2018, Oleg Navalny was released from prison after serving a 3 1/2-year prison term.

His eldest brother, an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin and his government, died last week in a notorious Polar Wolf prison in the remote Yamalo-Nenets autonomous region in the Arctic, where he was transferred in December after a court extended his prison term to 19 years on extremism charges which Aleksei Navalny and his associates rejected, calling them politically motivated.

Best Way To Honor Navalny, NATO Chief Says, Is Ensuring Russia's Defeat In Ukraine

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg speaks to RFE/RL's Zoriana Stepanenko in Brussels.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg speaks to RFE/RL's Zoriana Stepanenko in Brussels.

BRUSSELS -- NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the death of Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and the first Russian gains on the battlefield in months should help focus the attention of NATO and its allies on the urgent need to support Ukraine.

According to excerpts from an interview Stoltenberg had in Brussels with RFE/RL on February 20, the NATO chief said the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from the city of Avdiyivka after months of intense fighting demonstrates the need for more military aid “to ensure that Russia doesn’t make further gains.”

The death of Navalny in an Arctic prison on February 16 under suspicious circumstances -- authorities say it will be another two weeks before the body may be released to the family -- adds to the need to ensure Russian President Vladimir Putin's authoritarian rule does not go unchecked.

“I strongly believe that the best way to honor the memory of Aleksei Navalny is to ensure that President Putin doesn't win on the battlefield, but that Ukraine prevails,” Stoltenberg said in the interview, a full version of which will be released on February 23.

Stoltenberg: Best Way To Honor Navalny Is To Make Sure Russia Does Not Win In Ukraine
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Ukraine’s allies have been focused on a $61 billion U.S. military aid package, Stoltenberg said, but while that remains stalled in the House of Representatives, other countries, including Sweden, Canada, and Japan, have stepped up their aid.

Sweden announced its 15th aid package and largest to date since Russia launched its full-scale invasion two years ago. Worth 7.1 billion Swedish kroner ($684 million), the package will provide combat boats, mines, artillery ammunition, and air-defense equipment, among other items, Sweden’s defense minister announced.

Canada's Defense Department said on February 19 it would expedite the delivery of more than 800 drones, adding in a statement that drones have become a critical capability for Ukraine in the war. They will cost more than $95 million Canadian ($70 million) and are part of a previously announced military aid package for Ukraine. Deliveries will start as early as this spring, the statement said.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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The additional aid from Tokyo amounts to $106 million to aid Ukraine’s reconstruction from war damages, including areas such as demining and infrastructure.

“Of course, we are focused on the United States, but we also see how other allies are really stepping up and delivering significant support to Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said.

On the question of when Ukraine will be able to deploy F-16 fighter jets, Stoltenberg said it was not possible to say. He reiterated that Ukraine’s allies all want them to be there as early as possible but said the effect of the F-16s will be stronger if pilots are well-trained and maintenance crews and other support personnel are well-prepared.

“So, I think we have to listen to the military experts exactly when we will be ready to or when allies will be ready to start sending and delivering the F-16s,” he said. “The sooner the better.”

Ukraine has actively sought the U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to help it counter Russian air superiority. The United States in August approved sending F-16s to Ukraine from Denmark and the Netherlands as soon as pilot training is completed.

It will be up to each ally to decide whether to deliver F-16s to Ukraine, and allies have different policies, Stoltenberg said. But at the same time, the war in Ukraine is a war of aggression, he said, and Ukraine has the right to self-defense, including striking legitimate Russian military targets outside Ukraine.

Asked about the prospect of former U.S. President Donald Trump returning to the White House, Stoltenberg said he believes that, regardless of the outcome of the U.S. election this year, the United States will remain a committed NATO ally because it is in the security interest of the United States.

Trump, the current front-runner in the race to become the Republican Party's presidential nominee, drew sharp rebukes from President Joe Biden, European leaders, and NATO after suggesting at a campaign rally on February 10 that the United States might not defend alliance members from a potential Russian invasion if they don’t pay enough for their own defense.

Stoltenberg said the United States is safer and stronger together with more than 30 allies -- something that neither China nor Russia has.

The criticism of NATO has been aimed at allies underspending on defense, he said. But Stoltenberg said new data shows that more and more NATO allies are meeting the target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, and this demonstrates that the alliance has come a long way since it pledged in 2014 to meet the target.

At that time, only three members of NATO spent 2 percent of GDP on defense; now it’s 18, he said.

“If you add together what all European allies do and compare that to the GDP in total in Europe, it's actually 2 percent today,” he said. “That's good, but it's not enough because we want [each NATO member] to spend 2 percent. And we also make sure that 2 percent is a minimum."


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.

KYIV -- 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 said a day earlier that it would expedite the delivery of more than 800 drones.

The announcements came as Russian drones killed more Ukrainian citizens and damaged private property.

Two people were killed and one was injured in the Kharkiv region on February 20 when a Russian drone hit a civilian car, said Oleg Synyehubov, head of the regional military administration.

The attack by a "kamikaze" drone occurred around 4:50 p.m. local time in the village of Petropavlivka. There were three passengers in the car -- a 38-year-old civilian driver and a 50-year-old civilian man, who died on the spot, and a 48-year-old woman, who was taken to a hospital, Synyehubov said on Telegram. The woman is the wife of the 50-year-old man.

According to Synyehubov, all three were local farm workers returning home after work.

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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The Ukrainian military dismissed a statement by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that Moscow's forces had secured full control over the village of Krynky on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River in the Kherson region.

A statement on Telegram by the Ukrainian military's southern district said Russian forces had made no headway on the eastern bank.

Russian troops abandoned the western bank of the Dnieper in the Kherson region in late 2022 but remain in areas on the eastern bank. Ukrainian forces captured some districts on the eastern bank last November.

With reporting by Reuters, 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

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.

Russia Declares RFE/RL An 'Undesirable Organization,' Threatening Prosecution For Reporters, Sources
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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."


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.

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