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Russia Is 'Poised To Strike' Ukraine, Says U.S. Defense Secretary

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (left) poses for photographers with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda in Vilnius on February 19.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on February 19 that Moscow's military was "poised to strike" Ukraine, even as he voiced hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin would step back from the brink of war.

Austin vowed that Washington would stand with its Baltic allies during a visit to Lithuania amid growing fears in the region of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia denies planning any attacks.

"I want everyone in Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia to know -- and I want President [Vladimir] Putin in the Kremlin to know -- that the United States stands with our allies," Austin told a news conference in Vilnius, after talks with Lithuanian leaders.

Live Briefing: Ukraine In The Crosshairs

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

Alongside Austin, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the Russian troop buildup around Ukraine was "a direct military threat to Ukraine but it also poses a threat to the entire region.”

"The battle for Ukraine is a battle for Europe. If he is not stopped there, he will go further," Landsbergis said, referring to Putin.

The security tensions in the region have rattled the formerly Soviet-ruled Baltic states, which all have borders with Russia.

Austin said he agreed with U..S President Joe Biden that Putin had "made the decision" to invade.

"There are significant combat forces forward, those forces are now beginning to uncoil and move closer to the border, that facilitates their onward movement," he said.

"Having done this before, I can tell you that is exactly what you need to attack and the stance that you need to be in to attack," Austin said.

He said conflict was "not inevitable", adding that Putin "can choose a different path."

Russia has amassed more than 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s border over the past four months, a number that U.S. and NATO officials have said continues to grow despite Russia’s claims it has begun sending some troops back to their barracks.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

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Serbs Take To Streets In Sixth Anti-Government Protest Since Mass Shootings Last Month

Protesters rally against violence in Belgrade on June 9.

Tens of thousands of people marched on June 9 in another anti-government protest in Belgrade criticizing the government's response to two mass shootings last month in which 18 people died.

The protesters called for the resignation of President Aleksandar Vucic and stuck messages to the door of the government building, including one that said, "Enough is enough."

Cardboard figures depicting Vucic and Prime Minister Ana Brnabic in black-and-white striped prison suits were also left in front of the government building.

The march was the sixth "Serbia against violence" protest since the first shooting on May 3, and, like the others, blamed a culture of violence for the shootings. The key demand of the protesters is "stopping the promotion of violence in public space."

Actor Milan Maric addressed the crowd, saying that while the victims' lives cannot be returned, "we can make sure that this doesn't happen again. We want Serbia without violence, Serbia with hope."

Serbia was rocked by unprecedented back-to-back mass shootings last month. The May 3 shooting was at a school in Belgrade and claimed 10 lives. A teenage boy who attended the school was arrested at the scene. The second mass shooting occurred the following day and left eight people dead. A 21-year-old man was arrested in that shooting.

In addition to calling for Vucic to resign, the protesters demanded the resignation of Interior Minister Bratislav Gasic and security agency chief Aleksandar Vulin, whom they blame for failing to bring criminal groups to justice.

Vucic previously rejected the dismissal of Gasic but did not comment on Vulin.

The protesters also want the withdrawal of national broadcast licenses for television channels Pink TV and Happy TV and a ban on some tabloids they blame for promoting violence. A change of the management of the Radio Television of Serbia was also mentioned as a demand.

The protesters vowed to start "new actions" if their demands are not met by the end of next week.

Brnabic on June 7 said the protesters' demands were political. She offered to resign but also invited the opposition parties -- which have backed the protests --- to take part in dialogue.

Protest leaders have said that they will not speak with the government until all their demands are met.

Vucic said on June 7 that it was clear that there would be extraordinary parliamentary elections and that it was only a matter of choosing the month they will be held. Early elections, however, are not on among the protesters' demands.

Vucic told Reuters on June 9 that his government was not at fault.

"Is the government to blame for crimes that happened? I cannot accept that."

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Pakistan Targets Fiscal Deficit Of 6.54 Percent In Budget Closely Watched By IMF

Pakistani Finance Minister Ishaq Dar (file photo)

Pakistan's government will target a budget deficit of 6.54 percent of economic output in the fiscal year starting on July 1, the finance minister said on June 9. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar announced the target during his budget speech to the national legislature. The budget must satisfy the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to secure the release of bailout money. Dar reiterated that the government hoped to get an agreement with the IMF soon, echoing comments made earlier in the day by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif as he addressed his cabinet. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

IS-K Claims Afghan Attack On Taliban Official's Funeral

Relatives accompany the bodies of slain victims in an ambulance after an explosion at the Nabawi mosque in the Hesa-e-Awal area of Fayzabad district, Badakhshan Province, on June 8.

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for an explosion inside a mosque during a funeral service for a Taliban official in the northern Afghanistan province of Badakhshan. Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) claimed responsibility in a statement on June 9. The blast occurred on June 8 and killed at least 19 people, including the former Taliban security commander in the city of Baghlan, and wounded 38 others. The funeral was for the Taliban's provincial deputy governor, Nissar Ahmad Ahmadi, who was killed along with his driver in a suicide car bombing three days earlier. IS-K also claimed responsibility for that attack. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.

U.S. Charges Two Russians In Hack Of Mt. Gox Cryptoexchange

The United States has charged two Russian nationals related to the 2011 hack of the cryptocurrency exchange Mt. Gox and the operation of the illicit cryptocurrency exchange BTC-e. The two Russians – Aleksei Bilyuchenko, 43, and Aleksandr Verner, 29, -- are charged with conspiring to launder approximately 647,000 Bitcoins from their hack of Mt. Gox, which ceased to exist after the theft, the U.S. Justice Department said on June 9. Bilyuchenko is also charged with conspiring with Aleksandr Vinnik to operate BTC-e, which was shut down in 2017. The whereabouts of Bilyuchenko and Verner are unknown. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Iranian Activist Says Authorities Trying To Push Him Out Of The Country

Hossein Ronaghi (file photo)

Prominent Iranian civil activist Hossein Ronaghi says he won't leave the country despite moves by the government to ratchet up pressure on him, including the freezing of his bank accounts and the violation of his civil rights.

Ronaghi said in a tweet on June 8 that the Information Ministry had requested he be forced into exile.

"Attacks and sending messages containing death threats are a sign of being pressured to leave the country," he wrote.

"But as I clearly stated before, I will not leave Iran, and if you think I have committed a crime, you can arrest me. But you cannot force me to leave my homeland."

Ronaghi was arrested during recent protests that are rocking the country over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was taken into custody by morality police for allegedly improperly wearing a head scarf, or hijab.

Security agents stormed Ronaghi's house and arrested him in September as he was giving an interview to London-based Iran International TV. He was released on bail in November after going on a weekslong hunger strike.

Several other political and civil activists have reported similar experiences after being released from custody, stating that they were repeatedly urged to leave Iran by their interrogators.

Since September 2022, thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets to demand more freedoms and women's rights, with the judiciary, backed by lawmakers, responding to the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution with a brutal crackdown.

Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others. At least seven protesters have been executed after what rights groups and several Western governments have called "sham" trials.

Several more remain on death row and senior judiciary officials have said they are determined to ensure those convicted and sentenced have their punishments meted out.

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

Putin Says Transfer Of Tactical Nuclear Weapons To Belarus Will Start Next Month

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Sochi on June 9.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on June 9 during talks with Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka that the transfer of tactical nuclear weapons from Russia to Belarus will begin immediately after the construction of facilities is finished on July 7-8. The move would be the Kremlin's first deployment of such warheads outside Russia since 1991, spurring concerns in the West. Russian authorities have repeatedly raised the specter of the potential use of nuclear weapons since launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Russian In Omsk Detained On Treason Charge

Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said on June 9 that a resident of the Siberian city of Omsk had been detained on a charge of high treason amid a growing number of such cases in recent months. According to the FSB, the suspect, whose identity was not disclosed, allegedly passed classified information related to his former employer -- an industrial facility producing military equipment -- to German intelligence in exchange for German citizenship. In the last five months, 21 treason probes have been launched in Russia, while in 2022, that number was 22. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

Uzbek Official Calls For Scrapping Talks With Russia On Constructing Nuclear Power Plant

Rasul Kusherbaev (file photo)

Rasul Kusherbaev, an adviser to Uzbekistan's natural resources minister and a former lawmaker, has warned against signing of a deal with Russia on the construction of a long-discussed nuclear power plant. In a statement on June 9, Kusherbaev said the idea of a nuclear plant in Uzbekistan was "disastrous" in general, but even if the decision to build it is made, it should not be done with Moscow's involvement, as "Russia is neither a reliable partner, nor a reliable friend, but a bully, an aggressor, a blackmailer who invades someone's territory at any time." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.

Families, Rights Groups Accuse Iranian Government Of Intimidation Tactics By Desecrating Graves

The grave of Majid Kazemi, who was killed during an anti-government protest in Isfahan, was defiled.

A series of attack on the graves of protesters killed during nationwide protests in Iran have sparked accusations from activists and families of the dead that the government is engaging in a broad pattern of intimidation and disrespect to quell any further unrest following the death of a woman while in police custody in September 2022.

According to reports from the families of the deceased, the gravesites of Majid Kazemi in Isfahan, Abolfazl Adinehzadeh in Mashhad, and Milad Saeedianjou in Izeh have been andalized in recent days.

These come amid other recent reports of the graves of protesters killed during demonstrations beng desecrated, reportedly by Iranian government forces and security personnel.

The government has not commented on the accusations.

Mohammad Hashemi, a relative of Kazemi, said security forces contacted his family on June 7 and said the family had "no right to go to Majid's grave for his [31st] birthday."

Later that night, he added, agents went to the cemetery and set Majid's grave on fire.

The graves of Adinehzadeh and Saeedianjou were also vandalized under the cover of darkness, while in another case, the grave of Majidreza Rahnavard in Mashhad's Behesht Reza cemetery was subjected to multiple attacks, according to family members.

Mahsa Amini's family has also accused security forces of vandalizing the grave of their daughter, whose death ignited nationwide protests that have turned into one of the biggest threats to the Islamic republic's leadership since it took power in 1979.

Rights groups say officials, by concealing burial sites, inhibiting mourning ceremonies, and preventing families from installing tombstones or decorating their relatives' graves with flowers, pictures, badges, or memorial messages, are violating their rights under the International Covenant On Economic, Social, And Cultural Rights.

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

U.S. Concerned That Iran Building Drone Factory Inside Russia

Ukrainian air defenses intercept an Iranian-made Shahed drone in midair during a Russian attack on Kyiv on May 30.

The United States says it has information that Iran intends to build a drone-manufacturing facility inside Russia that could become operational next year as Moscow and Tehran step up their military cooperation, posing an increased danger to Ukraine, the Middle East, and to the international community.

White House National Security Council (NSC) spokesman John Kirby said on June 9 that while Iran continued to supply Russia with drones that Moscow uses against Ukrainian civilians in its illegal war in Ukraine, the two countries now were taking steps to bring the drone production closer to the war zone by building a drone factory some 1,000 kilometers east of Moscow.

"We have information that Russia is receiving materials from Iran needed to build a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) manufacturing plant inside Russia. This plant could be fully operational early next year," Kirby said as the NSC released a satellite image of what it said was the location of the factory in Russia's Alabuga Special Economic Zone.

Kirby said that as of last month, Iran had shipped hundreds of suicide drones as well as drone-production-related equipment to Russia using a route across the Caspian Sea.

"The drones are built in Iran, shipped across the Caspian Sea, from Amirabad, Iran, to Makhachkala, Russia, and then used operationally by Russian forces against Ukraine," Kirby said, as the NSC also released a graphic of the route.

Moscow in turn has been providing Iran -- a country that, like Russia, has been under biting international sanctions -- with military equipment on a level that Kirby said was more complex and more expensive than ever.

"Russia has been offering Iran unprecedented defense cooperation, including on missiles, electronics, and air defense," Kirby said, adding that Tehran announced a deal this year to buy Su-35 fighter jets from Russia.

"Iran is seeking to purchase additional military equipment from Russia, including attack helicopters, radars, and YAK-130 combat trainer aircraft. In total, Iran is seeking billions of dollars' worth of military equipment from Russia," Kirby said.

As the drone transfers put both Moscow and Tehran in violation of the arms embargo stated in UN Resolution 2231, the United States and its allies will continue to use all available means to discontinue a partnership that was damaging for the rest of the world," Kirby said.

"This is a full-scale defense partnership that is harmful to Ukraine, to Iran’s neighbors, and to the international community. We are continuing to use all the tools at our disposal to expose and disrupt these activities including by sharing this with the public -- and we are prepared to do more," he said.

"We will continue to impose sanctions on the actors involved in the transfer of Iranian military equipment to Russia for use in Ukraine," Kirby said, adding that the United States, Britain, and the European Union have imposed new restrictions "to prevent electronic components found in Iranian drones from being able to make their way onto the battlefield in Ukraine."

The U.S. government later on June 9 issued a new advisory to help businesses and other governments better understand the risks posed by the Iranian drones and the illegal means that Iran uses to obtain components for the manufacturing of drones.

"And, critically, we are working with allies and partners to ensure Ukraine has what it needs to defend and rebuild itself, including by providing Ukraine with air defense systems to help Ukraine protect its people," Kirby concluded.

Romanian Sets Herself On Fire To Protest Stagnating Probe Of 1989 Deaths

An armed civilian chases the supposed Securitate secret police agents during street fighting in downtown Bucharest in December 1989.

A 66-year-old Romanian woman died last month after setting herself on fire in a mountain resort near the central city of Brasov, Romanian media reported on June 9.

Ileana Negru, whose 12-year-old son, Florin, was killed in Brasov in 1989 during the uprising that ousted communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, committed suicide reportedly to protest the lack of progress in the official investigation of the more than 1,100 people killed in December 1989.

Negru set herself on fire on May 25, but authorities only reported her death officially on June 9 following inquiries by journalists.

The investigation into the 1989 deaths has been repeatedly stalled. In February, Romania's highest court finally ruled to send the case to a Bucharest appeals court.

Out of the 1,116 people killed during the so-called Romanian Revolution, 159 died at the hands of Ceausescu's security forces across Romania before he fled by helicopter on December 22.

The other almost 1,000 deaths were registered during fighting that broke out on December 23 amid calls addressed to civilians by the new authorities led by former communist apparatchik Ion Iliescu to support the army against unidentified gunmen allegedly still loyal to Ceausescu.

Confusion triggered by contradictory orders and appeals broadcast live on Romanian television led to deadly incidents of friendly fire in Bucharest and other places, while in cities such as Brasov, unidentified gunmen opened fire on unarmed celebrating crowds, killing dozens.

Gunfire stopped abruptly on Christmas Day after the newly installed authorities broadcast a video of the execution of Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, following a highly controversial and hasty trial in a kangaroo court.

Iliescu, who subsequently served as president of Romania for three terms, is among those indicted in the case. Now 93, Iliescu has rarely been seen in public recently.

Negru's self-immolation is the second to occur in Poiana Brasov, a ski resort some 10 kilometers from Brasov.

In 1989, just months before the fall of the communist regime, protester Liviu Babes set himself on fire on a ski slope in plain view of Western tourists to protest Ceausescu's repression.

With reporting by G4media.ro and Digi24.ro
Updated

NATO Condemns Russia's Decision To Quit Treaty On Conventional Armed Forces In Europe

(illustrative photo)

NATO has condemned Russia’s decision to quit the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, saying it "further demonstrates Moscow's continued disregard for arms control."

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on June 9 that Moscow will withdraw from the treaty, known as the CFE, on November 7.

The statement said all countries involved in the treaty had been informed about the move.

It added that Finland's recent accession to NATO and Sweden's plans to join the alliance "significantly disrupted the secure and stable balance of conventional armed forces in Europe's north and was the last straw that made it necessary for Russia to leave the treaty."

Moscow signaled the move in May, when it said that the treaty was contrary to Russia's security interests "due to the changed situation."

NATO said in a statement that the allies condemned Russia's decision the withdraw from the treaty, calling it a “cornerstone of Europe’s security architecture."

"Russia’s decision to withdraw from the CFE Treaty is the latest in a series of actions that systematically undermines Euro-Atlantic security," the statement said.

Russia announced in 2015 that it was completely halting its participation in the treaty by withdrawing from a consultative group. It had already suspended its participation the treaty 2007, saying NATO's expansion plans made it impossible to realize the terms of the treaty.

The treaty was signed in 1990 to establish equal limitations on major armaments for NATO and the Warsaw Pact, a collective defense treaty between the then-Soviet Union and seven Eastern European countries. The objective of the CFE was to reduce the possibility of a surprise attack and the triggering of a major offensive in Europe.

The NATO statement on June 9 said the alliance had repeatedly called on Russia to comply with the CFE treaty, but Russia had "not engaged constructively, and has not taken steps towards full compliance."

The alliance also urged Russia to implement its commitments and obligations and to use the remaining time before its withdrawal to reconsider its decision, the statement said.

It said member states “remain united in our commitment to effective conventional arms control as a key element of Euro-Atlantic security.”

With reporting by Reuters

HRW Calls On Kyrgyz Lawmakers To Withdraw Controversial 'Foreign Agents' Bill

HRW called on the EU, the United States, and the UN to publicly express their concern over the bill and urge President Sadyr Japarov (pictured) not to sign it into law should it pass the parliament, which may take up the bill as early as next month.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Kyrgyz lawmakers to withdraw a controversial "foreign agents" bill, calling it "a highly repressive draft law" that is intended to "discredit and stigmatize" civil society groups that receive foreign funding similar to a law in Russia that has had a chilling effect on nongovernmental organizations.

“The draft law is incompatible with international human rights obligations, restricting freedom of association and expression, as well as introducing in some cases criminal liability for nongovernmental organizations and their staff members,” HRW's Central Asia researcher Syinat Sultanalieva said in the statement on June 9.

According to the bill in question, nongovernmental organizations that receive financial or other sorts of support from foreign organizations must officially register as "foreign representatives." Failure to do so will lead to a suspension of an NGOs' activities, including its banking operations, for up to 6 months or until it is registered.

"This requirement is clearly intended to discredit and stigmatize groups that receive foreign funding and could have a chilling effect on the country’s civil society at a time when it is already under attack," HRW's statement said, adding that the bill's vague and broad definition of political activity as “actions aimed at changing state policy and shaping public opinion for these purposes” poses a particular risk for civic activism in the Central Asian nation.

In addition to mandatory audits, organizations deemed foreign representatives would have to justify all expenditures to the Kyrgyz government and even consent to the presence of government officials at their events.

The draft law also prescribes punishments of up to five years in prison for representatives of NGOs that are judged to be responsible for "violence against citizens, or other harm to their health or inducing citizens to refuse to perform civil duties."

HRW called on the European Union, the United States, and the United Nations, to publicly express their concern over the bill and urge President Sadyr Japarov not to sign it into law should it pass the parliament, which may take up the bill as early as next month.

“If passed, this draft law will have a chilling effect on Kyrgyzstan’s civil society organizations, limiting their ability to advocate for human rights, provide social services, and contribute to the development of a robust and inclusive society,” Sultanalieva said.

Russia's own law on the designation of foreign agents was passed in 2012. The legislation originally targeted NGOs and rights groups but has since been expanded to target media outlets and individuals, especially journalists.

Attempts to introduce a foreign agents law in Kyrgyzstan come amid a widening crackdown on civil society in the Central Asian nation. Since coming to power in 2020, President Sadyr Japarov has also targeted his political opponents and the free media, his critics say.

More than one-third of lawmakers in the 90-seat parliament have backed a draft bill that was submitted for public consideration last month. However, some Kyrgyz lawmakers have withdrawn their support of the legislation in recent days.

Baktybek Choibekov, Emil Jamgirchiev, and Emil Toktoshev, who co-authored the bill, have announced in separate statements that they have quit the group that initiated the legislation in May, acknowledging it may damage democratic institutions and human rights in the country that once was called "the island of democracy in Central Asia."

Self-Exiled Russian Journalist Added To Wanted List On Charge Of Distributing Fakes About Military

Sergei Podsytnik, the editor of Protokol, an online newspaper in the city of Samara, appeared in the wanted persons registry on June 9.

Russia's Interior Ministry has added journalist Sergei Podsytnik to its wanted list on unspecified charges. The editor of Protokol, an online newspaper in the city of Samara, appeared in the wanted persons registry on June 9. Podsytnik's parents said earlier that their son was under investigation for the alleged distribution of false news about Russia's armed forces involved in Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Podsytnik left Russia last year. His colleagues have suggested that the charge against him stems from his report about Russian troops' shelling of the Ukrainian eastern city of Makiyivka in late December. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

Jailed Kazakh Journalist Charged With Financing Extremism, Faces 12 Years

Duman Mukhammedkarim is currently serving a 25-day jail term on charge of violating regulations for public gatherings. He was sentenced on May 28, just two days after he had finished serving a similar sentence. 

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Jailed Kazakh journalist Duman Mukhammedkarim, who has been on hunger strike for 10 days to protest against his 25-day jail term, has been charged with financing an extremist group, a crime punishable by up to 12 years in prison.

Mukhammedkarim's lawyer, Ghalym Nurpeisov, told RFE/RL on June 9 that his client had already been charged with taking part in the activities of an extremist group, adding that both charges are linked to fugitive banker and outspoken Kazakh government critic Mukhtar Ablyazov and his Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement that was labeled as an extremist group in the country in March 2018.

Mukhammedkarim is currently serving a 25-day jail term on charge of violating regulations for public gatherings. He was sentenced on May 28, just two days after he had finished serving a similar sentence.

The charges stemmed from a video on Mukhammedkarim's YouTube channel that called on Kazakhs to defend their rights and his online calls for residents in the Central Asian largest city, Almaty, to rally against the government's move to introduce visa-free entrance to Kazakhstan for Chinese citizens.

Last week, Mukhammedkarim’s father, Almaz Tilepov, joined his son's hunger strike, demanding his immediate release. This week, he continued his hunger strike in front of the building of the prosecutor's office in Almaty but had to stop the hunger strike due to a medical condition.

Rights watchdogs have been criticizing the authorities of the tightly controlled former Soviet republic for persecution of dissent, but Astana has shrugged the criticism off, saying there are no political prisoners in the country.

Kazakhstan was ruled by authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbaev from its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 until current President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev succeeded him in 2019.

Over the past three decades, several opposition figures have been killed and many jailed or forced to flee the country.

Toqaev, who broadened his powers after Nazarbaev and his family left the oil-rich nation's political scene following the unprecedented deadly antigovernment protests in January 2022, has promised political reforms and more freedoms for citizens.

However, many in Kazakhstan, consider the reforms announced by Toqaev, cosmetic, as crackdown on dissent has continued even after Toqaev announced his "New Kazakhstan" program.

Ukraine's GDP Falls 10.5 Percent In First Quarter Of 2023

A Ukrainian national flag flies in front of the government building in central Kyiv. (file photo)

Ukraine's gross domestic product fell 10.5 percent in the first quarter of the year compared with the same period a year ago, the Economy Ministry said on June 9. The ministry said in a statement the fall was less than it had initially expected, indicating that the economy was adapting to events following Russia's invasion more quickly than expected. The ministry said it had initially expected GDP to fall 14.1 percent in the first quarter of 2023. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Siberian Activist Hospitalized After Falling Ill At Her Trial

Rights activist Natalya Filonova is accused of attacking four police officers when they dispersed a rally in September 2022 against the military mobilization announced by President Vladimir Putin.

A rights activist in Russia's Siberian region of Buryatia, Natalya Filonova, has been hospitalized after she fell ill during her trial on a charge of assaulting police that she and her supporters reject as politically motivated. Filonova's lawyer, Andrei Sokov, says an ambulance was called to assist his client in the courtroom on June 8. Physicians said Filonova was unable to take part in the trial as she had an extremely high pressure and needed immediate hospitalization. Filonova is accused of attacking four police officers when they dispersed a rally in September 2022 against the military mobilization announced by President Vladimir Putin. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

Dutch Supreme Court Upholds Decision Ordering Return Of Crimean Gold Artifacts To Ukraine

Objects on display in the exhibition Crimea: Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea at the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam in 2014

The Dutch Supreme Court on June 9 upheld lower court decisions ordering the return of ancient Crimean gold artifacts to Ukraine, marking the end of a long legal process. The artifacts had been on display at the Allard Pierson Museum in the Netherlands when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and Ukraine and museums in Russian-controlled Crimea had demanded their return. "This decision ends this dispute. The Allard Pierson Museum must return these artistic treasures to the State of Ukraine and not to the museums in Crimea," the ruling said. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Hungary Says EU Refugee Reform Deal 'Unacceptable'

Hungary installed a border fence to prevent migrants from entering the country in Hercegszanto, in the vicinity of the border between Serbia and Hungary.

Hungary on June 9 slammed as "unacceptable" a European Union agreement to revise the bloc's rules on member states hosting asylum seekers and migrants. "Brussels is abusing its power. They want to relocate migrants to Hungary with force. This is unacceptable, they want to forcefully turn Hungary into a migrant country," government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs, quoting Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban, wrote on Twitter.

Updated

Ukraine Claims Audio Proves Russia Behind Destruction Of Dam

A member of Russia's Emergencies Ministry and a local resident carry an elderly woman during the evacuation of residents from a flooded area in the town of Hola Prystan in the Kherson region of Russian-controlled Ukraine on June 8.

Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) says it intercepted telephone communications between Russian military personnel that "confirm" Russia's involvement in the destruction of the Kakhovka dam as Norway's seismological institute said it had detected a possible "explosion" around the time of the dam's breaching.

The SBU released an audio recording on June 9 on its Telegram channel that it claims occurred between Russian military personnel acknowledging that the breach of the dam was the result of the actions of a "saboteur group" aiming to disrupt the Ukrainian military.

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 counteroffensives, 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 recording has yet to be independently verified.

"It was not them [Ukrainians] who struck it. It was our saboteur group there. They wanted to scare [Ukrainians] with the dam. It didn't go as they planned; it turned out to be larger than they planned," a Russian military officer allegedly says on the call.

Another person on the call seems surprised at the claim about Russian forces, who have occupied the dam since the early days of Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The SBU did not give details on those who were on the call, nor did it give any more information on what was said or when. It has, however, opened a criminal investigation into war crimes and "ecocide" over the dam.

"By blowing up the [Kakhovska] dam, the Russian Federation definitively proved that it is a threat to the entire civilized world," SBU chief Vasyl Malyuk was quoted as saying in the social media post.

Russia has steadfastly rejected accusations it was behind the incident, and has repeatedly claimed Ukraine was at fault for destroying the dam and unleashing mass floods on the area that have forced thousands of people from their homes while creating a major environmental catastrophe.

Moscow has yet to comment on the Ukrainian claim over the audio interception.

Norway's seismological institute, however, said it had analyzed seismic signals from regional stations in connection with the collapse of the dam and found that "clear signals" of seismic activity that coincide with media reports of the dam's destruction.

"The signals indicate that there was an explosion. The magnitude estimate is between 1 and 2," it said.

WATCH: The video has been seen all around the world: a Ukrainian military drone drops bottled water to a family stranded by floodwaters after the breach of a dam in Russian-occupied territory. Now, the mom and her son have spoken to Current Time about how they were rescued -- and how Russian forces left them to their fate.

Rooftop Rescue: Ukrainian Mom Recounts Flood Ordeal
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The news surrounding the dam's breach comes amid reports of heavy fighting in eastern and southern Ukraine as analysts watch to see if Kyiv finally announces it has begun its long-awaited counteroffensive.

Russian officials reported pitched battles in the Zaporizhzhya region, while Ukraine says it is making minor gains around the city of Bakhmut, which Russia claimed last month to have captured after a protracted battle that reportedly killed thousands.

In the Bakhmut region, Colonel Serhiy Cherevatiy, spokesman for the Ukraine's eastern forces, said troops were moving forward, though he did not comment on whether the counteroffensive was officially under way.

"We are taking advantage of the fact that the enemy is conducting rotational operations, and those new units that are entering, they do not fully know the area... Over the previous day, our units advanced up to 1,200 meters in some areas," Cherevatiy said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailed the heroism of his armed forces.

"For our soldiers, for all those who are in particularly tough battles these days. We see your heroism, and we are grateful to you for every minute of your life," Zelenskiy said in his evening address.

Ukrainian officials have said their forces are ready for a counteroffensive to reclaim territory in the east and south, but that there would be no formal announcement when it begins.

Zelenskiy made no direct reference to the counteroffensive, saying, "We focus our attention on all directions where our actions are needed and where the enemy may suffer certain defeats."

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the counteroffensive had started but that the Ukrainian troops "did not achieve their goal in any area," adding that the still retain "offensive potential."

Ukraine's General Staff said Russian troops were concentrating their main efforts on attempts to fully occupy the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. In its evening briefing on June 9, it said 27 combat clashes took place in the regions during the day.

Overnight, at least one person was killed and three were wounded as Russia unleashed a fresh wave of drone and cruise missile strikes on military and civilian infrastructure targets across Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Air Force said on June 9 that Russia launched 16 Iranian-made attack drones and six cruise missiles.

The drones were launched from southern Russia while the missiles were fired from Tu-95 strategic bombers from the Caspian Sea region, the air force said, adding that Ukrainian air defenses shot down 10 drones and four cruise missiles, the air force said.

The Zhytomyr region, west of the capital, Kyiv, was the most affected, emergency services and regional officials reported.

One person was killed and three were wounded by falling debris in the city of Zviagel, Zhytomyr Governor Vitaliy Bunechko said.

Across the region, four houses were destroyed by falling rocket fragments, and another 30 were damaged, the State Emergency Service said on Telegram.

WATCH: Ukrainian troops attacked enemy positions with a captured Russian tank and retook land north of Bakhmut. Current Time correspondent Andriy Kuzakov spoke with the Ukrainian soldiers about the assault and what the recaptured land means for future maneuvers.

Ukrainian Forces Storm Russian Trenches North Of Bakhmut
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Meanwhile, the governor of Russia's Voronezh region, Aleksandr Gusev, said three people suffered shrapnel wounds when a drone crashed into a residential building in the city of Voronezh.

He added that an emergency regime has been introduced in the city, while the Investigative Committee said it had opened a criminal case against "persons acting in the interests of the military-political leadership of Ukraine."

Amid an increase in air attacks on Ukraine, the U.S. Department of Defense announced a new $2.1 billion security-assistance package for Ukraine on June 9 that includes "critical air defense and ammunition capabilities."

The Defense Department said capabilities in the announcement include additional munitions for Patriot air-defense systems, HAWK air-defense systems and missiles, 105mm and 203mm artillery rounds, Puma unmanned aerial systems, laser-guided rocket-system munitions, and support for training and maintenanceactivities.

"The United States will continue to work with its Allies and partners to provide Ukraine with capabilities to meet its immediate battlefield needs and longer-term security assistance requirements," it said.

Hungary said on June 9 it had received 11 Ukrainian prisoners of war from Russia, an announcement that appeared to catch Ukrainian officials off-guard.

The POWs were from the western part of Ukraine near the border with Hungary, Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen said in a post on his website.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said it welcomed the news but was not aware the release was happening and has asked Budapest to grant it immediate access to the group while stressing "the need to coordinate cooperation on such sensitive issues."

Updated

Life 'Broken' In Dozens Of Settlements Near Breached Ukrainian Dam, Zelenskiy Says

A view of a flooded neighborhood in Kherson, Ukraine, on June 8.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been struggling to get drinking water after major flooding in southern Ukraine following the destruction earlier this week of the Kakhovka dam on the Dnieper River, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, as rescuers continued efforts to bring as many people as possible to safety.

"The evacuation is ongoing," Zelenskiy said on his Telegram channel on June 9. "Wherever we can get people out of the flood zone, we do so."

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"In more than 40 settlements, life is broken. For hundreds of thousands of people in many towns and villages, access to drinking water has been greatly hampered," Zelenskiy said, reiterating that Ukraine holds Russia responsible for the destruction of the dam.

"We are establishing more details about the damage Russia has caused by this disaster. Russia must be held accountable for this deliberate crime against people, nature, and life itself," Zelenskiy said.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said on June 9 that at least five people died and 13 are missing in the flooding that has extended to an area of some 600 square kilometers.

Klymenko said that 34 settlements were flooded on the right bank of the Dnieper that is under Ukrainian control and 14 more were inundated on the left bank, which is under Russian occupation. As of June 9, 2,400 people had been rescued in Kherson, Klymenko said.

In the neighboring Mykolayiv region, 23 settlements were flooded and over 800 people were evacuated, he said.

Vladimir Saldo, the Moscow-installed head of Kherson region, said eight people died and 5,800 were rescued on the Russian-occupied part of the region.

"A total of 22,273 houses in 17 settlements were flooded in the region, Saldo wrote on Telegram, adding that the water may not subside for about 10 days.

IN PHOTOS: Rescuers are struggling to reach Kherson's most vulnerable people who are trapped by flooding following the breach of a dam in Russian-occupied territory.

Earlier the Ukrainian governor of Kherson, Oleksandr Prokudin, said in a video message on June 9 that water levels are beginning to drop in the areas of the region that saw major flooding following the destruction of the dam.

"We can already see that the water has receded by 20 centimeters overnight," Prokudin said.

"In the morning, the water level in the region is 5.38 meters; in Kherson city, 5.35 meters," Prokudin said, adding that on the morning of June 9, a total of 3,624 houses in 32 settlements across the Kherson region were flooded.

Prokudin added that 2,352 people had already been evacuated from the flooded areas, although the rescue teams' efforts to bring people to safety were hampered by constant Russian shelling from across the Dnieper.

On June 8, Russian forces shelled the Kherson area shortly after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited the southern region.

An RFE/RL correspondent on the ground reported explosions Kherson’s Korabel district as rescuers in rubber dinghies continued to evacuate people who had yet to leave the disaster area.

Prokudin said Russians shelled Kherson's coastal areas and the center of the city of Kherson.

The Red Cross warned that the flooding would have disastrous effect on efforts to locate land mines that had been planted in the region.

Dislodged mines transported by the water could pose serious dangers both to the local people and the rescuers, the Red Cross warned.

WATCH: RFE/RL visited a village in the Kherson region of Ukraine, which was flooded after a large dam broke on the Dnieper River.

Ukrainian Village Underwater After Dam Breach
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On the battlefield, Ukrainian defenders repelled more Russian assaults around the Bakhmut area in the eastern region of Donetsk over the past 24 hours, the General Staff of the Ukrainian military said in its morning report on June 9.

Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Maryinka saw 43 combat clashes, the military said, adding that Russian artillery indiscriminately pounded Maryinka.

Zelenskiy said in his nightly address on June 8 that he was grateful to the Ukrainian fighters who achieved "results" on the battlefield after the military said the previous day that Ukrainian forces advanced more than one kilometer in Bakhmut after months of putting up a stark defensive.

"Well done in Bakhmut. Step by step," he said. Zelenskiy referred to other areas where fighting is going on but provided no details.

His statement came amid expectations of the start of a long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive to retake regions occupied by Russia since the invasion that started in February last year.

Early on June 9, the military said that in the Zaporizhzhya and Kherson areas Russian troops were on the defensive, amid reports on social media of a limited Ukrainian counterattack in the Orikhiv area of Zaporizhzhya.

The Ukrainian military has not commented on the reports.

With reporting by Aleksander Palikot in Kherson, AP, AFP, and Reuters

As Ukraine Assesses Flood Damage After Dam Breach, IAEA Says Nuclear Plant Still Getting Cooling Water It Needs

Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant (file photo)

The Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in Ukraine is still receiving water needed to cool its reactors despite the rupture of the Kakhovka dam, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on June 8 as Ukraine assessed the damage caused by flooding and as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressed activists about the environmental impact.

"Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is continuing to pump cooling water from the Kakhovka reservoir," the IAEA said in a statement.

The statement came after the head of Ukraine's Ukrhydroenerho energy company, Ihor Syrota, said the water level at the reservoir had gone "below the critical point of 12.7 meters."

This means the reservoir could no longer supply "the ponds at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power station to cool the plant," he said on Ukrainian television.

But the IAEA said its experts had been informed that the plant had assessed that it should be able to pump water from the reservoir after its level falls below 12.7 meters.

"So far, the results indicate that the pumps can likely still be operated even if the level drops to around 11 meters or possibly lower," the IAEA said.

The dam on the Dnieper River forms a reservoir that provides the cooling water for the nuclear power station located about 150 kilometers upstream. The plant's reactors have been shut down, but they still need water to keep them cool and prevent a nuclear disaster.

Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of being behind the breach that both say was caused by an explosion. The dam has been under Russian control since the early days of the invasion.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi said in the statement that alternatives to the reservoir, including a large pond next to the plant, can provide the required cooling water for the plant "for several months."

Grossi, who plans to travel to the plant next week, added however that the general safety and security situation around the plant remains “very precarious and potentially dangerous."

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said on June 8 that a total of 32 settlements and 3,625 houses were flooded in southern Ukraine on the right bank of the Dnieper River due to the destruction of the dam.

According to the ministry, 2,339 people, including 120 children, have been evacuated, while another 563 people were rescued, including 28 children.

As the water level began to decrease, Zelenskiy addressed more than 30 global environmental activists and international experts regarding the consequences of the destruction of the dam and hydroelectric power plant.

The disaster “is not a natural disaster or a manifestation of the climate crisis. This disaster is Putin,” Zelenskiy told the meeting, referring to the Russian president.

"For hundreds and thousands of people in many cities and villages, access to drinking water has been significantly complicated due to the destruction of the dam, fuel storage facilities, chemical warehouses, fertilizer warehouses, and animal burial grounds have been flooded," Zelenskiy said.

Zelenskiy told the meeting that a special expert group will be created in Ukraine to deal with the issues of bringing Russia to justice for crimes of ecocide on Ukrainian territory.

Among the participants in the online meeting was Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who posted her reaction to the destruction of the dam on Twitter.

The Russians “must be held accountable for their crimes," she said.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Tech CEOs Urged To Create Alliance Of 'Engineers Against Dictators' To Open Online Space In Russia

The initiative is supported by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. (file photo)

Representatives of Russia’s independent media and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have asked leading technology companies to create an alliance of “engineers against dictators” to prevent the total shutdown of Russia’s online informational space.

The media representatives and RSF wrote an open letter on June 8 to the CEOs of Apple, Meta, Microsoft, Google, Twitter, and other companies to ask them to consider forming the alliance, which they said could help Russian citizens get access to uncensored information and prevent the Kremlin from disconnecting Russians from remaining independent media still operating in the country.

They said there is an urgent need to “reconnect Russian citizens with pluralistic information and with the rest of the world” especially with a presidential election scheduled to take place next year.

“The Russian authorities are preparing for Vladimir Putin's reelection in 2024. They will become increasingly intolerant of any discourse that contradicts the Kremlin’s official narrative,” the letter says.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February last year, most major social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have been banned in Russia and the websites of other independent media outlets severely restricted.

An alliance of “engineers against dictators” could develop technical solutions to bring back the platforms, search engines, and apps that are the gateways to information, the letter says.

“It is essential to reinstate them; otherwise, Russian citizens will find themselves locked in the dark alone with their president,” the letter says.

The initiative is supported by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

“Freedom of speech today is technology,” Muratov said in backing the "engineers against dictatorship" alliance.

Muratov said dangerous attempts were being made to destroy the means of delivering content to citizens, and an alliance of engineers could help reverse this.

The letter notes that most independent journalists have left Russia out of fears that their reporting risked breaking new anti-media laws, which call for harsh prison sentences for spreading "disinformation" about the Russian military.

It says that two major platforms remaining, through which Russian journalists try to inform their fellow citizens about the war in Ukraine, are Telegram and YouTube, and there are “strong suspicions” that they could be totally blocked in Russia as soon as this autumn.

The letter also suggests that the companies could allow domain fronting within cloud solutions to help Russians bypass censorship. Domain fronting diverts traffic to enable access to online media in case they are blocked.

Russian corporations still use the cloud for business, so Russian authorities would not be able to block domain fronting without incurring financial damage.

Another suggestion is promoting access to the companies’ blocked websites through the Tor browser by distributing the platforms’ URLs in ads. This would be “an excellent way to help Russian citizens access an uncensored online space,” the letter said.

Moscow Court Sends Several Anti-War Activists To Pretrial Detention On Extremism Charges

Many members of the Vesna youth movement have fled Russia in recent months. (file photo)

A court in Moscow on June 8 sent four activists from the Vesna (Spring) youth movement to pretrial detention until at least August 5 on charges of creating an extremist group, public calls for actions aimed against Russia's national security, and distributing false information about Russian armed forces involved in Moscow's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The charges against Yan Ksenzhepolsky, Vasily Neustroyev, Valentin Khoroshenin, and Yevgeny Zateyev stem from the activists’ online posts condemning the war in Ukraine and criticizing President Vladimir Putin. Many Vesna members have fled Russia in recent months. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Romania Tells Russia To Reduce Staff At Embassy In Bucharest

The Russian flag flies over the Moscow's embassy in Bucharest. (file photo)

The Romanian government has informed Russia that it must reduce the number of diplomats and administrative staff at its embassy in Bucharest by 51 positions. The Romanian Foreign Ministry said on June 8 that the reduction roughly halves the number of positions at the embassy, bringing it in line with the number of Romanians in the same roles in Russia. The ministry said the decision reflects the current low in bilateral relations, which have declined since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. Russia has 30 days to implement the decision. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Romanian Service, click here.

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