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Biden Expresses Strong Support For Finland, Sweden NATO Bids

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg holds up papers with the flags of Finland and Sweden in Brussels on May 18.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg holds up papers with the flags of Finland and Sweden in Brussels on May 18.

U.S. President Joe Biden has strongly backed the bids of Finland and Sweden to join NATO in the face of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and said the United States will remain vigilant against any threats to their security.

"I warmly welcome and strongly support the historic applications from Finland and Sweden for membership in NATO and look forward to working with the U.S. Congress and our NATO Allies to quickly bring Finland and Sweden into the strongest defensive alliance in history," Biden said in a statement on May 18.

The statement came after Finland and Sweden handed in their official applications for NATO membership, ending their longtime neutrality amid growing concerns over Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine.

Biden said while the bids are considered the United States "will work with Finland and Sweden to remain vigilant against any threats to our shared security, and to deter and confront aggression or the threat of aggression."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking earlier in Brussels, also welcomed the move.

"The applications you have made today are an historic step. Allies will now consider the next steps on your path to NATO," Stoltenberg said.

Both Sweden and Finland are members of the European Union, and the latter shares 1,340 kilometers of border with Russia.

The two Nordic countries' choice to join NATO marks a watershed in the current European security architecture.

Helsinki chose to remain neutral in the postwar era following two wars with the Soviet Union that saw Finland lose one-tenth of its territory, while Sweden has been traditionally nonaligned for the past two centuries.

The application has set in motion a process that is expected to move quickly, although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed reservations about Finland and Sweden joining.

Erdogan said on May 16 he could not agree to the accession of two countries that support "terrorist organizations," a reference to the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Kurdish militia People's Defense Units (YPG) in Syria.

But Turkey sent mixed signals after a meeting on May 18 between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

The Turkish minister affirmed his country's support for NATO's "open-door" policy and its understanding of Finland and Sweden's desire to join the alliance, but he also repeated Erdogan's demands.

"With regard to these candidate countries, we have also legitimate security concerns that they have been supporting terrorist organizations and there are also export restrictions on defense products," he said.

"We understand their security concerns but Turkey’s security concerns should be also met and this is one issue that we should continue discussing with friends and allies, including the United States," Cavusoglu said.

Blinken stressed that Washington would work to ensure the NATO expansion process is successful.

"Today we had Finland and Sweden submit their applications and this, of course, is a process and we will work through that process as allies and partners," Blinken said.

A joint statement released after the meeting did not mention Finland or Sweden and made only a passing reference to NATO.

The statement said the two men met "to reaffirm their strong cooperation as partners and NATO allies" and committed "to deepen bilateral cooperation through constructive and open dialogue."

If Turkish objections are resolved, the two Nordic countries could become members within a few months, fast-forwarding a process that usually takes eight to 12 months.

NATO wants to speed up the accession process given the two countries' proximity to Russia and Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, dpa, and AFP

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'Overwhelming Sorrow': Imprisoned Iranian Nobel Laureate Marks 9 Years Since Seeing Her Children

Kiana (left) and Ali Rahmani accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of their imprisoned mother in December 2023.
Kiana (left) and Ali Rahmani accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of their imprisoned mother in December 2023.

Kiana and Ali Rahmani were only 8 years old when they left Iran to reunite with their father, Taqi Rahmani, who had fled the country as the Iranian authorities sought to arrest him.

Their mother, activist Narges Mohammadi, could only imagine the scene from her jail cell as her children would be taken from her for an "unknown" period of time and endure a "separation that would make me a stranger to my children and them unfamiliar to me."

“I haven’t seen my mom in nine years. I have become used to growing up without a mother,” Kiana, now 17, told Roya Maleki of RFE/RL’s Radio Farda as she marked another anniversary of separation from her mother on July 16.

“My father is a good dad; he has been both a father and a mother,” she added.

In a statement posted on her website on July 16, Mohammadi recalled staying awake through the night in her prison cell on July 16, 2015, knowing her children would be on a plane to France soon.

The separation, she said, “felt like vanishing into a misty void of lost connections, tearing a mother and her children apart, leaving us in an indescribable abyss of heartache and longing.”

"A separation that would turn me into an unfamiliar woman to my children, bearing the name ‘mother’ in a ‘misplaced’ manner," she added.

Mohammadi, 52, has been campaigning for human rights in Iran for decades and has been in and out of prison in the last 20 years. She has been convicted five times since March 2021 and is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence.

She is currently in jail for “spreading propaganda” against the Islamic republic.

Kiana recalls that it was “difficult” going through adolescence as a young girl without her mother, forcing her to turn to her friends and other women for advice.

“I had to learn things that a mother should teach her daughter. I had to ask my friends or their mothers whenever I had a question because I did not have a mother,” she said.

Despite remaining behind bars for so long, Mohammadi has remained at the forefront of Iran's women's rights movement.

Her efforts were honored last October when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Her children accepted the award on her behalf in December.

Kiana said the award raised her mother’s spirits but worsened her conditions in prison because it led to further restrictions, such as limited visiting privileges and phone calls.

Despite not seeing their mother for half of their lives, Ali said they had learned from their mother to “defend our brothers and sisters” from the Middle East.

“We come from a place where there is little freedom and war is constant,” he added.

In her statement, Mohammadi bemoaned that not seeing her children for so long would make her a “stranger” to them.

“I hope my children understand that I, like all imprisoned mothers…was a loving mother whose heart still aches with overwhelming sorrow for her children,” she wrote.

Written by Kian Sharifi based on an interview by Roya Maleki of RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.

EU Sends Aircraft To North Macedonia, Bulgaria To Help Fight Forest Fires

Serbia has sent helicopters to North Macedonia to help fight forest fires.
Serbia has sent helicopters to North Macedonia to help fight forest fires.

The European Commission has decided to help North Macedonia and Bulgaria fight forest fires, European Commission spokesman Balazs Ujvari said on July 16. Ujvari said four helicopters and three firefighting planes were sent to North Macedonia, which has been in a state of crisis for 30 days. He said two firefighting helicopters were sent to Bulgaria from the Czech Republic. A complete ban on movement in the forests has been announced in North Macedonia due to the increased danger of forest fires, which have threatened hundreds of hectares of land. Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dacic emphasized that the helicopters provided by Belgrade are meant to extinguish the fire, not as a sign of military dominance. To read the original stories by RFE/RL’s North Macedonia Service, click here and here.

Ukraine, Czech Gunmaker To Build Ammunition Factory

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal (center) is flanked by Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (left) and Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala (right) in Prague on July 16.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal (center) is flanked by Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (left) and Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala (right) in Prague on July 16.

Ukrainian state company Ukroboronservice will work with Czech gunmaker Sellier & Bellot to build an ammunition factory in Ukraine, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on July 16. He also said Prague will facilitate the production of Colt CZ Group assault rifles in Ukraine. Both agreements were signed during Shmyhal’s visit to Prague, which Shymhal wrote would focus on “the supply of ammunition, integration into the EU and NATO, joint projects and production, infrastructure, and energy.” Prague has previously donated supplies to Kyiv, including ammunition. On July 13, Czech President Petr Pavel announced that Ukraine will receive 50,000 artillery shells by the end of the summer. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.

Moscow Court Sentences Self-Exiled Kremlin Critic Mark Feigin To 11 Years In Prison

Mark Feigin in Kyiv in 2019
Mark Feigin in Kyiv in 2019

A Moscow court on July 16 sentenced self-exiled former lawyer Mark Feigin to 11 years in prison in absentia on a charge of distributing "false" information about Russia's military. Feigin is an outspoken Kremlin critic who has openly condemned Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine and talked about alleged atrocities committed against Ukrainian civilians by occupying Russian armed forces. Feigin defended noted Russian and Ukrainian activists, politicians, and journalists until the Moscow Chamber of Attorneys disbarred him in 2018, citing alleged unethical behavior. Feigin now resides in a European Union member state. His Feygin Live YouTube channel has more than 2 million subscribers. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Former KLA Commander Sentenced To 18 Years By Kosovar Tribunal

Former KLA commander Pjeter Shala attends his trial in The Hague on July 16.
Former KLA commander Pjeter Shala attends his trial in The Hague on July 16.

The Hague-based Kosovo tribunal has sentenced former Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) commander Pjeter Shala to 18 years in prison for war crimes committed during Kosovo's war of independence from Serbia.

The tribunal handed down the sentence on July 16 after Shala, who has Belgian citizenship, was convicted of the murder of one person and the illegal captivity and torture of nearly 20 others in June 1999 at a metal factory in Kukes, Albania.

"Shala participated in the transfer under guard of one of the detainees in the factory, participated in the interrogation and mistreatment of the detainees, together with other members of the [UCK]," Judge Mappie Veldt-Foglia said.

"Shala was the first to hit some detainees. One of the detainees said that Shala hit him with a baseball bat and accused him of being a spy," she said in outlining the treatment of the captives, noting testimony from the victims was "vivid, detailed and convincing."

Shala, arrested two years ago in Belgium, had pleaded not guilty at the EU-backed Kosovo Specialist Chambers, which is based in the Netherlands but is part of Kosovo's legal system.

The U.S. attorney who heads the prosecutor's office argued to the three-judge panel that there was sufficient evidence to convict Shala despite what he called a climate of witness intimidation in Kosovo.

The Kosovo Specialist Chambers was established to investigate allegations that members of the UCK committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 1998-99 Kosovo War.

It operates under Kosovar law but is based in the Netherlands to shield witnesses from intimidation.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a decade after a war between ethnic Albanian rebels and Serbian forces, which ended after a 78-day NATO air campaign drove Serbian troops out and an international peacekeeping force moved in.

The conflict left more than 10,000 people dead -- most of them ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. More than 1,600 people remain unaccounted for.

Kosovo, which has a largely ethnic Albanian population, is recognized by many Western states but not Serbia or its allies Russia and China.

Kazakh Government, Moldovan Businessman Settle Longtime Legal Battle

Moldovan businessman Anatol Stati (file photo)
Moldovan businessman Anatol Stati (file photo)

The government of Kazakhstan said on July 16 that it had settled a longtime legal battle with Moldovan businessman Anatol Stati over energy-related assets.

"The parties are pleased to have reached an agreement on favorable terms, which will bring an end to all legal proceedings and the suspension of any ongoing claims across all jurisdictions," a government statement said, adding that the terms and conditions of the deal were confidential.

Stati, his son Gabriel, and two family-controlled companies, Ascom Group and Terra Raf Trans Trading, have been involved in legal battles with the Kazakh government for years.

The Statis, who invested in Kazakhstan's oil and gas industry, claimed they were subjected to significant harassment from the state aimed at forcing them to sell their investments cheaply.

The Statis refused to sell the assets to the government and found an alternative buyer. However, they claimed, that deal fell through after the government seized the oil fields.

In 2013, Anatol and Gabriel Stati and the two companies won an international arbitration award of around $500 million against the Kazakh government.

The Kazakh government has denied the allegations, refused to pay, and filed a civil racketeering lawsuit in a federal U.S. court against the Statis and their two firms in October 2017.

In December 2017, Bank of New York Mellon in the United States froze for more than a month $22.6 billion in assets owned by Kazakhstan's National Fund after Stati filed a lawsuit against the Kazakh government.

Stati said in January 2018 that he will demand the sale of a $5.2 billion stake in the Kashagan oil field in Kazakhstan if the Kazakh government refuses to pay an arbitration award.

In 2016, a community of investigative reporters known as RISE Moldova issued a report, saying that the Statis had been involved in controversial deals over the years and established multiple offshore companies to hide and rechannel their assets.

Ukrainian Court Grants Bail To Senior Military Officer Who Reportedly 'Coordinated' Nord Stream Sabotage

Western officials initially blamed Russia for the blasts, which all but destroyed the two Nord Stream pipelines. (file photo)
Western officials initially blamed Russia for the blasts, which all but destroyed the two Nord Stream pipelines. (file photo)

The Ukrainian law firm Katerynchuk, Moor & Partners said on July 15 that a court of appeals in the Kirovohrad region had granted bail of 9 million hryvnyas ($218,000) to Special Forces Colonel Roman Chervinskiy, who was described by The Washington Post in November as a "coordinator" in the 2022 attack on the Nord Stream natural-gas pipelines.

Chervinskiy was arrested in April last year on a charge of abuse of power. The charge was linked to the failed hijacking of a Russian plane, which, according to the investigation, led to a Russian missile attack on the Kanatove airfield in the Kirovohrad region in July 2022 that killed one Ukrainian military serviceman and wounded 17 others.

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Chervinskiy is accused of planning and implementing the hijacking without the permission of his supervisors, which Chervinskiy denies. He calls the case against him "political retaliation" for criticizing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

In November last year, The Washington Post described Chervinskiy as a decorated officer in the Ukrainian military with "deep ties" to the country's intelligence services, saying that he "played a central role" and was the "coordinator" of the attack on the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipelines.

The report alleged that Chervinskiy "took orders from more senior Ukrainian officials, who ultimately reported to General Valeriy Zaluzhniy," who was Ukraine's top-ranking officer at the time.

It quoted Ukrainian and European officials and "other people knowledgeable about the details of the covert operation."

The Washington Post said that, through an attorney, Chervinskiy had rejected accusations that he was involved in sabotage.

The explosive charges that were detonated on the pipelines in September 2022 caused massive leaks and were seen as a dangerous attack on European infrastructure half a year into Russia's full-scale invasion.

Western officials initially blamed Russia for the blasts, which all but destroyed the twin pipelines. Moscow blamed the United States and its allies saying it had no reason for blowing up an energy link vital to bringing its supplies westward.

Nord Stream is majority-owned by Russia's Gazprom and had supplied millions of Europeans with gas.

It was seen as a major effort by Moscow to bypass Ukraine in the transit of Russian gas westward.

The United States had warned for years that the pipelines were a security risk for Germany and other European nations, making the countries’ beholden to Russian energy exports.

With reporting by The Washington Post

Kazakh Supreme Court Denies Retrial Of Activists Convicted For Almaty Airport Unrest

Kazakh activist Aigerim Tileuzhan talking to journalists in July 2023
Kazakh activist Aigerim Tileuzhan talking to journalists in July 2023

Kazakhstan's Supreme Court on July 15 has denied a retrial for five activists who were handed prison sentences in July 2023 for "organizing mass unrest" at the airport in Almaty during unprecedented anti-government protests in January 2022 that turned deadly. Noted civil rights activist Aigerim Tileuzhan was sentenced to four years in prison, while the other activists -- Qalas Nurpeiisov, Nurlan Dalibaev, Ermukhamet Shilibaev, and Zhan-Aidar Karmenov -- each received eight-year sentences. Some were also charged with storming a building, vehicle hijacking, and robbery. All have denied any wrongdoing while taking part in the demonstrations. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Uzbek Blogger Sherali Komilov Arrested On Fraud, Slander Charges

Uzbek blogger Sherali Komilov
Uzbek blogger Sherali Komilov

Uzbek rights defender Abdurahmon Tashanov said on July 15 that police in the Tashkent region have arrested noted blogger Sherali Komilov from the southeastern region of Qashqadaryo on charges of fraud, slander, and causing insult. The probe against Komilov was launched last year. The 45-year-old told RFE/RL earlier that, despite a search being launched to find him, he was freely traveling across the country. It remains unclear what exactly the charges against Komilov stem from. A former law enforcement officer himself, Komilov has been known for his blogs questioning the contents of materials distributed by religious figures. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.

Ethnic Tajik Journalist Arrested In Uzbekistan Over Posting Song Online

Salim Inomzoda is an ethnic Tajik journalist in Uzbekistan who has been arrested over a song he posted on social networks.
Salim Inomzoda is an ethnic Tajik journalist in Uzbekistan who has been arrested over a song he posted on social networks.

Sources close to Uzbek law enforcement told RFE/RL that noted ethnic Tajik journalist, Salim Inomzoda, was arrested on July 13 over a song he placed on social media. Inomzoda was charged with the distribution of "materials threatening public safety." Investigators say the song performed by Tajik singer Afzalshoh Shodiev about Uzbekistan's ancient cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, which have a significant Tajik diaspora, is of "a religious character, and contains elements of separatism." If convicted, Inomzoda, 58, faces up to eight years in prison. Civil rights activists in Uzbekistan said administrators of Inomzoda's Tajiks of Uzbekistan Facebook account were summoned for questioning. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, click here.

Trial Date Of U.S. Journalist Gershkovich Brought Forward To July 18

Evan Gershkovich in a courtroom in Yekaterinberg on June 26.
Evan Gershkovich in a courtroom in Yekaterinberg on June 26.

The Sverdlovsk regional court in Russia's Urals city of Yekaterinburg said on July 16 that it has moved forward the resumption of the trial of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been in Russian detention for more than a year on espionage charges that he, his employer, and the U.S. government have rejected as politically motivated.

According to the court, the date was moved up from August 13 to July 18 at the request of Gershkovich's defense team. Since the trial, which started on June 26 and is being held behind closed doors, defense team arguments for the move were not disclosed.

Gershkovich was arrested in Yekaterinburg on March 29, 2023, during a reporting trip. He has been charged with trying to obtain military secrets to pass on to the CIA.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said in a statement on June 26 after the opening hearing of the trial that Russian authorities failed to provide any evidence to back up the charges and called for Gershkovich's immediate release. It also demanded that Moscow stop using U.S. nationals as leverage for political ends.

Gershkovich, the American-born son of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, is the first U.S. journalist arrested on spying charges in Russia since the Cold War.

He faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty, an outcome that is all but certain.

The Wall Street Journal and the U.S. government have firmly rejected the charges, saying Gershkovich, 32, was merely doing his job as an accredited reporter when he was arrested.

Gershkovich has been held in Moscow's infamous Lefortovo Prison ever since his arrest, and all his appeals for release have been rejected.

Gershkovich and another U.S. citizen, Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence also on espionage charges, have been designated by the U.S. government as "wrongfully detained."

Such a designation ensures that the case is assigned to the office of the special envoy for hostage affairs in the U.S. State Department, raising the political profile of their situation and allowing the U.S. administration to allocate more resources to securing the prisoners' release.

Gershkovich is one of two American reporters currently being held by Russian authorities. The other is Alsu Kurmasheva, an RFE/RL journalist who holds dual U.S.-Russian citizenship.

Kurmasheva, 47, was arrested in Kazan in October and charged with failing to register as a "foreign agent" under a punitive Russian law that targets journalists, civil society activists, and others. She’s also been charged with spreading falsehoods about the Russian military and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

RFE/RL and the U.S. government say the charges are reprisals for her work as a journalist for the broadcaster in Prague.

Minimal Health Care, No Room To Move: Jailed RFE/RL Journalist Describes Russian Prison
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Unlike Gershkovich and Whelan, Kurmasheva has not been designated as " wrongfully detained" despite repeated calls by her employer and family for this to happen.

Another U.S.-Russian citizen, Ksenia Karelina, went on trial in Yekaterinburg in June on a treason charge.

Karelina, 33, was arrested in February during a visit to her native Yekaterinburg after security officers accused her of sending $51.80 from her U.S.-based bank account to the Razom for Ukraine foundation, which helps Ukrainian civilians.

With reporting by TASS and Interfax

Death Toll After Afghan Floods Rises To At Least 45

Afghan villagers shovel mud on July 15 following flash floods after heavy rainfall in the Dara district of Panjshir Province.
Afghan villagers shovel mud on July 15 following flash floods after heavy rainfall in the Dara district of Panjshir Province.

The death toll from heavy rains and storms in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province has risen to 40, with 347 people injured, Sharafat Zaman, a spokesperson for the de facto Taliban government's Health Ministry said on July 16. Zaman said the storms have destroyed numerous houses, without providing specific numbers. Zaman said aid and health workers had arrived in the region and were coordinating relief efforts with international organizations. However, locals speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Azadi voiced frustration over the lack of official assistance. Panjshir and Kunar provinces were also hit by floods on July 15, with at least five dead in Kunar. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.


Top EU Officials To Boycott Meetings Held By Hungary; Orban Says Trump Ready To Act

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen (left) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen (left) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban

European commissioners will boycott informal meetings held by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and instead will be represented by lower-level bureaucrats for the duration of Budapest's six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, the European Commission announced, following Orban's unsanctioned meetings with Russian and Chinese leaders Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

"In light of recent developments marking the start of the Hungarian Presidency, the [European Commission] President [Ursula von der Leyen] has decided that the Commission will be represented at senior civil servant level only during informal meetings of the Council," Eric Mamer, von der Leyen's chief spokesperson, announced on X.

Furthermore, "the College visit to the [Hungarian] Presidency will not take place." Mamer added. The College is the European Commission's leadership and consists of the 27 commissioners.

Hungary protested the announcement, with Minister for European Affairs Janos Boka, accusing the commission of "cherry-picking" institutions and members states that it wants to work with.

"The EU Commission cannot cherry pick institutions and member states it wants to cooperate with. Are all Commission decisions now based on political considerations?" Boka wrote on X.

The commission's move comes after an unconfirmed report in Politico that EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell plans to convene the bloc's foreign ministers for his own "formal" council meeting at the same time that Hungary has scheduled a similar gathering in August.

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Orban, whose country took over the EU presidency on July 1, flew to Moscow on July 5 and then to China, without informing the bloc ahead of time, purportedly to discuss an end to the war in Ukraine with Putin and Xi.

Orban, who has maintained friendly relations with Putin, has been at odds with the rest of the EU, voicing his opposition to sanctions against Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine.

Following his talks with Putin at the Kremlin, Orban told a news conference that his trip represented a "first step to restore dialogue" between the warring parties.

On July 16, Orban sent a letter to EU leaders, a copy of which was seen by RFE/RL, saying that while the United States is "at the moment heavily preoccupied with the presidential campaign," former U.S. President Donald Trump is ready to act "immediately" as a peace broker if he beats incumbent Joe Biden in the November 5 vote.

"I can...surely state that shortly after his election victory, he will not wait until his inauguration, (Trump) will be ready to act as a peace broker immediately. He has detailed and well-founded plans for this," Orban, a longtime Trump supporter, wrote.

Orban added that Biden was "making immense efforts" to remain in the race and suggested he was "not capable of modifying the current U.S. pro-war policy." Meanwhile, a Trump victory would shift the financial burden between Washington and Brussels when it comes to supporting Ukraine, with Europe coming out on the worse end of the deal.

"Our European strategy in the name of transatlantic unity has copied the pro-war policy of the U.S. We have not had a sovereign and independent European strategy or political action plan up to now. I propose discussing whether the continuation of this policy is rational in the future. In the current situation we can find a window of opportunity with a strong moral and rational basis to begin a new chapter in our policy," Orban said.

Orban ended the letter by proposing discussions to initiate talks with China on the next Ukraine peace conference, reopening "direct lines of diplomatic communication with Russia," and the launch of a "coordinated political offensive towards the Global South whose appreciation we have lost concerning our position on the war in Ukraine resulting in the global isolation of the transatlantic community."

Orban's self-styled peace mission has been harshly criticized by both the EU and the United States.

“Appeasement will not stop Putin. Only unity and determination will pave the path to a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine,” von der Leyen wrote on X following Orban's trip to Moscow.

The White House joined in on the criticism, with press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saying the visit "will not advance the cause of peace and is counterproductive to promoting Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence.”

With additional reporting by Rikard Jozwiak

Russian Strikes, Heat Wave Force More Power Restrictions On Ukrainians

A Russian official said that a blaze at a low-voltage equipment plant in Korenovo was extinguished by fire crews.
A Russian official said that a blaze at a low-voltage equipment plant in Korenovo was extinguished by fire crews.

Ukraine's national electricity distributor Ukrenerho announced on July 16 that emergency shutdowns will continue in several regions amid difficulties caused by ongoing Russian attacks on power infrastructure and a spell of hot weather that has pushed consumption to record levels.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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Ukrenerho said that the equipment at one of its energy facilities failed overnight, further reducing production capacity.

Four rounds of electricity shutdowns are scheduled for July 16, with the first one starting at 10 a.m. local time, Ukrenerho said in a statement on Telegram.

"The emergency shutdowns are scheduled throughout the day in the Kharkiv, Sumy, Poltava, Zaporizhzhya, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kirovohrad regions," Ukrenerho said, adding that work was already under way to repair the affected energy facility, without specifying its location.

Ukrenerho stepped up the use of rolling blackouts to consumers as recently as last month with Russia increasingly targeting infrastructure using missile and drone attacks.

A heat wave that has seen temperatures of up to 40 Celsius and above in many places on the European continent has also impacted consumption in Ukraine.

The latest round of rolling blackouts comes a day after 446 cities, towns, and villages in six Ukrainian regions were cut off due to weather conditions.

Amid stepped-up Russian air attacks on power and cities, Ukrainian drones have struck deeper inside Russia, damaging energy facilities critical for Moscow's military effort, mainly oil installations.

On July 16, the interim governor of Russia's Kursk region, which borders Ukraine, Aleksei Smirnov, said a Ukrainian drone strike had set an electric equipment plant on fire in the town of Korenevo, located some 25 kilometers from the Ukrainian border.

"None of the workers were injured," Smirnov said, adding, that the blaze at the low-voltage equipment plant was extinguished by fire crews.

Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry said its air defenses shot down 13 Ukrainian drones overnight, including one drone over the Kursk region. Ukraine has not commented on the Russian claims.

In a separate development, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania announced on July 16 that their power-grid operators have signed an agreement to separate from the Soviet-era joint power grid known as BRELL, which is controlled by its Russian operators.

The agreement was announced by Lithuania's Energy Minister Dainius Kreivys.

Russian City Refuses Protected Monument Status For Sculpture Made In 'Hostile' Germany

The Deer sculpture in a Smolensk park by German artist Richard Friese
The Deer sculpture in a Smolensk park by German artist Richard Friese

An expert panel in the Russian city of Smolensk has refused to recognize the sculpture of a deer in one of the city's parks as a protected monument on the grounds that it was created in 20th-century Germany, which is deemed to have been a "hostile" country. A decision signed by Vitaly Kazepin, the panel head, said that protecting "a sculpture created in a hostile country that destroyed some of Russia's historical monuments would be unfair to other monuments." The sculpture, titled Deer, was created in 1910 by German artist Richard Friese and was brought to Smolensk at the end of World War II. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.


Trump Chooses Ohio Senator J.D. Vance, Opponent Of Ukraine Aid, To Be His Running Mate

Senator J.D. Vance has been a vocal critic of U.S. aid to Ukraine (file photo)
Senator J.D. Vance has been a vocal critic of U.S. aid to Ukraine (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has chosen Ohio Senator J.D. Vance, a vocal critic of U.S. aid to Ukraine, as his running mate, putting the 39-year-old political newcomer on the ticket for the November 5 U.S. election.

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Trump made the announcement on July 15 on his social media platform Truth Social as the Republican National Convention kicked off in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He had previously mentioned Vance, who has opposed aid to Ukraine, as a possible running mate.

“After lengthy deliberation and thought, and considering the tremendous talents of many others, I have decided that the person best suited to assume the position of Vice President of the United States is Senator J.D. Vance of the Great State of Ohio," Trump said.

Less than an hour after Trump announced his selection of Vance, Trump swept a majority of votes from national convention delegates, formally anointing him the party's nominee for the third consecutive election. He hit the necessary threshold with votes from his home state of Florida, announced by his son Eric.

Vance has been a vocal critic of U.S. aid to Ukraine and in April wrote an op-ed saying that Kyiv's challenge in passing a massive aid bill had more to do with mathematics than Republicans in the House of Representatives, who were resisting pressure from the White House to vote in favor of the aid.

"Ukraine needs more soldiers than it can field, even with draconian conscription policies. And it needs more materiel than the United States can provide," he wrote in The New York Times. "This reality must inform any future Ukraine policy, from further congressional aid to the diplomatic course set by the president."

He also wrote that the United States lacks the capacity to manufacture the amount of weapons Ukraine needs from the United States to win the war.

The convention in Milwaukee opened two days after a campaign rally shooting over the weekend that injured Trump and killed a supporter. Vance, a loyal Trump follower, stirred controversy after the shooting by posting a social media message saying that the shooting was not "just some isolated incident."

Vance's post on X said the Biden campaign's central premise "is that President Donald Trump is an authoritarian fascist who must be stopped at all costs" and the "rhetoric led directly to President Trump's attempted assassination."

He was heavily criticized for posting the message at a time when people from both parties were calling for unity and for the temperature of the campaign to come down.

Vance, 39, held no public office prior to being elected to the Senate in 2022. He is the author of the bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy in 2016 about his upbringing in a southwestern Ohio city whose factories were shuttered in the late 1980s and '90s, putting the region into an economic tailspin. The book, which also covered Vance’s military service and deployment to Iraq, was made into a movie in 2020.

After serving in the Marine Corps, Vance went on to graduate from The Ohio State University and Yale Law School. From there, he worked as a law clerk for a federal judge and then joined a Silicon Valley investment firm before returning to Ohio to enter into politics.

Vance’s story resonates with Republicans who believe the country has done too little to maintain its manufacturing base and perpetuated what Trump has called "endless wars." His background and positions could increase the odds of Trump supporters turning out for the November 5 election, including in the neighboring swing states of Pennsylvania and Michigan.

The choice of Vance also increases the probability that " extended into the next generation of the Republican Party," Chris Tuttle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told RFE/RL.

"J.D. Vance is a younger voice channeling increasing dissatisfaction in the United States that Trump has been a beneficiary of," Tuttle said.

Vance as an articulate amplifier of Trump's views and fulfills an "ideological consistency, which you always find in a vice presidential candidate," Tuttle added, saying the Vance's inexperience is an asset.

"In some ways, being in office for too long is a disadvantage. People view them as a creature of Washington, part of a sort of rotten game," he said.

Vance was not always a Trump disciple, however. He previously criticized Trump when the billionaire real estate mogul first ran for president in 2016, writing privately to an associate on Facebook that he alternates between "thinking Trump is a cynical asshole like [former U.S. President Richard] Nixon who wouldn't be that bad (and might even prove useful) or that he's America's Hitler."

When the comment was first reported in 2022, a spokesperson for Vance did not dispute it, but said it no longer represented Vance's views.

Trump likened the selection process to a "highly sophisticated version of The Apprentice," the TV reality show where contestants competed for a job at his company and helped turn Trump into a household name.

Trump suffered an injury to his right ear when a gunman identified by the FBI as 20-year-old Thomas Matthew Crooks fired at him and the crowd at a campaign rally from a nearby rooftop before he was killed by Secret Service officers on July 13. The FBI said it was still seeking a motive in the attack.

U.S. President Joe Biden, who is the presumptive candidate for the Democrats in the election, condemned the assassination attempt in a televised address to the nation from the White House late on July 14 and said he had ordered a review of how a man with an AR-15-style rifle got close enough to shoot at Trump despite U.S. Secret Service protection.

The FBI says it is not aware of any threats to the Republican convention and the Secret Service said it does not anticipate any changes to the security plan in Milwaukee.

With contributions from RFE/RL's Todd Prince in Washington and reporting by AP and Reuters

40 Dead, Hundreds Injured After Heavy Rain, Storms In Eastern Afghanistan

Heavy rains and storms have killed dozens in Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan.
Heavy rains and storms have killed dozens in Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan.

Thirty-five people have died and more than 230 others have been injured in heavy rains and storms in Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan, the provincial administration of the Taliban-led government said on July 15 in a statement. Earlier on July 15, five people died in heavy rain and floods in the eastern province of Kunar. The statement on the situation in Nangarhar Province said that heavy rain and strong winds contributed to the deaths there and said the number of victims is expected to increase. Officials also said financial losses and telecommunication interruptions are expected. The Meteorological Department of Afghanistan's Taliban-led government predicted heavy rains and floods in 12 Afghan provinces. To read the full story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.

Romania Doubles Quota For Legal Kills Of Brown Bears After Fatal Attack

Romania has an estimated 8,000 brown bears, the largest number in Europe outside of Russia.
Romania has an estimated 8,000 brown bears, the largest number in Europe outside of Russia.

The Romanian parliament on July 15 voted to more than double the quota of annual legal bear kills following a fatal bear attack on a 19-year-old woman in the Bucegi Mountains. The draft law provides a quota for the killing of 481 brown bears -- up from 220 in 2023 -- to prevent further attacks on people and property. The law relies on a 2021 ordinance that allows bears to be tranquilized, relocated, or shot when they endanger communities or come close to towns or villages. Romania has an estimated 8,000 brown bears, the largest number in Europe outside of Russia. To read the full story by RFE/RL's Romanian Service, click here.

China Denies Building Military Base In Tajikistan  

Large-scale military exercises held in the south of Tajikistan (file photo)
Large-scale military exercises held in the south of Tajikistan (file photo)

The Chinese Embassy in Dushanbe on July 15 denied media reports that Beijing is building a military base in Tajikistan, calling the reports “groundless.” The embassy responded to a story in The Daily Telegraph showing satellite photos of buildings and what the report claimed is a shelter for helicopters in the Shaymak region of Tajikistan, near the Afghan border. The Tajik Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Dushanbe and Beijing are “actively cooperating on issues of resistance to challenges and threats.” The statement said the countries are cooperating on controlling cross-border organized crime, drug trafficking, and cybercrime, but denied the existence of the base. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, click here. Reuters contributed to this report.

Kyrgyz Government Critic Loses Appeal Against 5-Year Prison Term

Oljobai Shakir in court on July 15
Oljobai Shakir in court on July 15

The Chui regional court in northern Kyrgyzstan on July 15 rejected an appeal filed by government critic and journalist Oljobai Shakir (aka Egemberdiev) against the five-year prison term he was handed in mid-May on a charge of making online calls for mass unrest. Shakir called the regional court's ruling "unjust." He was arrested in August 2023, days after he criticized the government's decision to hand four spa centers near Lake Issyk-Kul to Uzbekistan and called on President Sadyr Japarov and the chief of the State Committee of National Security, Kamchybek Tashiev, to participate in public debates with him. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Yandex Split Finalized As Russian Assets Sold In $5.4 Billion Deal

Yandex's logo on a laptop screen
Yandex's logo on a laptop screen

A deal to split the assets of Russian technology company Yandex was finalized on July 15, with a Russian consortium of investors buying the bulk of Yandex's businesses in a cash and shares deal worth around $5.4 billion. The split marks the end of foreign ownership in Yandex, often dubbed "Russia's Google," while potentially tightening the Kremlin's control of the Internet space in Russia. The move is the largest corporate exit from Russia since Moscow invaded Ukraine over two years ago. Yandex's Dutch parent company Yandex NV (YNV) said it had sold its remaining minority 28 percent stake as part of the deal's second closing. Yandex blazed a trail for Russian technology after setting up in the late 1990s dot-com boom.

Russian General Charged With Fraud Transferred To House Arrest

Major General Ivan Popov in a courtroom in May
Major General Ivan Popov in a courtroom in May

A military court in Moscow ruled on July 15 to transfer jailed Major General Ivan Popov from pretrial detention to house arrest. The 49-year-old Popov, the former commander of Russia's 58th Army who once complained about his forces' lack of support from Moscow, was arrested in May on fraud charges. He is one of several top military and Defense Ministry officials who have been arrested on corruption charges after President Vladimir Putin's dismissal of close ally Sergei Shoigu as defense minister. Former First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov was appointed to the post on May 12. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Gas Explosion Reportedly Kills 5 In Russia's Chechnya

Grozny, Chechnya
Grozny, Chechnya

Media reports in Russia said on July 15 that a gas explosion in the North Caucasus region of Chechnya killed five people. According to the reports, more than 20 people were injured after gas tanks exploded at a construction site in the village of Bashin-Kali. The injured were rushed to hospitals; six people in very serious condition were transported to the Chechen capital, Grozny, the reports said. Authorities in Russia have yet to confirm the reports. To read the original story by RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, click here.


Zelenskiy Says Ukraine Needs 25 Patriot Systems, Maps Out Plans For 2nd Peace Summit

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks to the media during a press conference in Kyiv on July 15.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks to the media during a press conference in Kyiv on July 15.

KYIV -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on July 15 that Ukraine needs 25 Patriot missile defense systems as he outlined three steps toward a second international peace summit at his first press conference since attending the NATO summit in Washington last week.

Zelenskiy described Patriot systems as the “most important” for Ukrainian air defense but also said Ukraine needs more F-16 fighter jets. At the NATO summit last week, officials announced that the delivery of F-16s to Ukraine had begun and would continue over the summer.

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"From the point of view of the structure of our air defense, in order to completely cover Ukraine, according to our military, we need 25 systems,” Zelenskiy said, referring to the U.S.-made Patriots. “I can't tell you how many we have or will have."

The NATO summit saw widespread pledges of additional military support for Ukraine, and on July 15, the Spanish Defense Ministry announced the donation of 10 Leopard 2A4 battle tanks, anti-tank missiles, and other equipment to Ukraine.

The ministry said the transfer of the tanks was already under way following repairs at a facility in Spain. They are expected to arrive in Poland by sea by the weekend and then be transferred by land to the Ukrainian armed forces.

Zelenskiy, speaking in Kyiv, said meetings on the preparation of the next peace summit will concern energy, freedom of navigation, and the release of prisoners.

Zelenskiy used the news conference to focus more on plans for an international peace summit than on Ukraine’s military growth. He said the second international peace summit should include officials from Russia.

During the first peace summit on June 15-16 in Switzerland, more than 90 countries focused on the most devastating conflict in Europe since World War II. As the delegations dispersed, participants lauded the launching of a process to keep the dialogue going and the prospect of a second summit in the near future.

But the fact that Moscow was not invited to the event and had derided it as a waste of time and effort cast doubts over the future of any peace process. While the summit’s final communiqué did not explicitly mention Russia, it noted that “reaching peace requires the involvement of and dialogue between all parties.”

At his news conference on July 15, Zelenskiy said, "I believe that Russia's representatives should be at the second summit."

Zelenskiy outlined three steps to a plan to a second international peace summit.

First, Zelenskiy said a meeting, most likely to be held in Qatar at the end of the month or in early August, would aim to resolve questions and prepare a plan around energy security.

That would be followed later in August by a meeting in Turkey to agree on a "fully developed" plan for food security, Zelenskiy said. A third meeting, to be held in Canada in September, is intended to create a plan on the exchange of prisoners and the return of children taken from Ukraine to Russia.

"I am setting a goal for us to have a fully ready plan in November. When the plan is ready, everything will be ready for the second summit," Zelenskiy told reporters.

Zelenskiy also responded to questions about the presidential candidacy of former U.S. President Donald Trump.

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"I think that if Donald Trump becomes president, we will work together. I'm not worried about this," Zelenskiy responded, but he did not elaborate.

He added that when he met with Republican governors while he was in Washington and was assured of the party's backing.

"There are hawks whose messages are more right-wing or more radical," Zelenskiy said on July 15. "But I want to tell you that the majority of the Republican Party supports Ukraine and the people of Ukraine."

In Washington, Zelenskiy met with several senior NATO officials and world leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, as the United States heads toward a November 5 presidential election.

Biden, a Democrat and the party's presumptive candidate, expressed strong support for Ukraine throughout his presidency. But Trump, who is expected to be formally nominated as his party's convention this week just days after surviving an assassination attempt, has opposed expanded aid to Ukraine and, according to critics, has expressed pro-Russia sentiments.

Trump also has suggested that if elected in November he will resolve the Russia-Ukraine conflict even before he takes office, without elaborating.

Georgia's President Challenges 'Foreign Agent' Law At Constitutional Court

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili at an event in June
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili at an event in June

President Salome Zurabishvili has filed a challenge with Georgia's Constitutional Court over the validity of the recently passed "transparency of foreign influence" law, which has driven a wedge between the government and a considerable segment of society and drawn angry repercussions from Tbilisi's Western partners.

In a statement on the presidency's official website announcing its first-ever lawsuit before the court, Zurabishvili aide Giorgi Mskhiladze adopted the language of protesters to describe the law passed in late May over a presidential veto as "the so-called Russian law."

The law is "unconstitutional" and it contradicts the Georgian Constitution's Article 78, he said, which orders constitutional bodies including the government to "take all measures within the scope of their competences to ensure the full integration of Georgia into the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

"The lawsuit also challenges a number of norms of the law, which violate a number of basic rights guaranteed by the constitution," the statement said. "With this lawsuit, the president requests the suspension of the mentioned law and its final cancellation."

Zurabishvili has had a dramatic falling out with the governing Georgian Dream party since it backed her candidacy for president in 2018, culminating in an embarrassing squabble over her right to represent Georgia abroad and then an ultimately failed impeachment in 2023.

The government's enactment of the law, which imposes tight controls on foreign-funded media and NGOs that get more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad, came one year after it originally abandoned a similar bill under public pressure.

This year's battle sparked massive street protests and intensified Zurabishvili's clash with the government over what she and demonstrators insist is fealty to their post-Soviet country's commitment to integration with the West.

When she vetoed the foreign-agent bill in mid-May, Zurabishvili called it "a Russian law in essence and spirit, which contradicts our constitution and all European standards" and "an obstacle on our European path."

Opponents have pointed to its similarity to legislation used by President Vladimir Putin to crush dissent in Russia and stifle independent institutions, prompting Georgians to refer to the measure as "the Russian law."

Georgian Dream and its alliance with the Democratic Georgia party hold 84 of the parliament's 150 seats. Lawmakers voted 84-4 to override Zurabishvili's veto in late May.

Brussels has paused ongoing EU accession negotiations with Tbilisi and the United States has undertaken a "comprehensive review" of relations with Georgia over the law's passage.

On July 15, Georgia's public defender, Levan Ioseliani, repeated his criticism of the "foreign influence" law and said his office would "definitely" be involved in the Constitutional Court's review.

Georgian Dream has insisted that it remains committed to joining Western institutions and the law was only meant to increase transparency on NGO funding.

Alongside the Constitutional Court challenge, Zurabishvili's office announced on July 15 the appointment of Kakha Tsikarishvili to the country's High Council of Justice, where the president gets to appoint one member.

Georgia's civil society has for years sought to move the country away from the influence of Russia, which still maintains thousands of troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway Georgian regions that Moscow recognized as independent states following a five-day war with Tbilisi in 2008.

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