Blinken Says Russia Looks 'On Brink' Of Ukraine Invasion, Says Biden Ready To Meet 'At Any Time'
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned on February 20 that current developments look like Russia is "on the brink" of invading Ukraine and an extension of joint Russia-Belarus military exercises nearby increases concerns.
He also said that U.S. President Joe Biden was prepared until the last minute to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin "at any time in any format."
In an allusion to Biden's warning two days ago that Putin had already decided to invade Ukraine, Blinken said Washington will do everything it can to deter Putin and persuade him to reverse his decision.
Speaking to CNN, Blinken said the United States and its allies have prepared a "massive package" of sanctions against Russia if it invades.
Western officials have warned that there are upward of 150,000 Russian troops massed near the Ukrainian border, with about 30,000 in Belarus and thousands more Russia-aligned separatists in Ukraine.
Belarusian Defense Minister Viktar Khrenin announced that Russia and Belarus were extending their joint military exercises due to end on February 20 "in connection with the increase in military activity near the external borders" of Russia and Belarus and because of rising tension in eastern Ukraine.
Blinken said imposing sanctions against Russia now -- as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged this weekend -- would reduce their effectiveness.
As soon as sanctions are triggered, Blinken told CNN, their deterrent impact is gone.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned earlier that the United States and Britain would seek to cut off Russian companies' access to U.S. dollars and British pounds if Russia attacks Ukraine.
Blinken said he still planned to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov next week in Europe, unless Russia invades before then.
Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP
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U.S. Lawmakers Say Plenty Of Bipartisan Support For Ukraine In Congress
Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives say bipartisan support for Ukraine remains strong in Congress, which last week passed another massive aid package for the country -- $40 billion worth of weapons and other aid to help the country in its fight against Russia.
Representative Michael McCaul (Republican-Texas) said members were aware of the horrific circumstances caused by the war and when they visit countries such as Romania, Poland, and Moldova, which have taken in millions of people who have fled the war, they always return "in a very bipartisan manner."
McCaul, top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Representative Gregory Meeks (Democrat-New York), the committee's chairman, spoke in an interview on May 25 at RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague.
The visit followed passage of the $40 billion bill to send military, economic, and food aid to Ukraine that President Joe Biden signed into law last week. It came two months after the passage of a $13.6 billion aid bill for Ukraine and passed the House overwhelmingly by a vote of 368-57.
But all no votes came from Republicans, fueling warnings about isolationist tendencies in the current election year.
McCaul denied that the vote revealed any fractures in the bipartisanship that Congress has shown for Ukraine. Some members had concerns about the size of the package, whose original price tag was $33 billion, he said. Others objected to the short amount of time they had to read it before voting.
"I think most of the no's on that bill were based on process and not substance," McCaul said. "So there's still very, very strong bipartisan support for Ukraine against the horrors of what Mr. Putin is doing."
McCaul said the people of Ukraine can rely on the U.S. Congress and even after the midterm elections in November there will still be enough votes among Democrats and Republicans to reach a majority.
"I think Ukraine's earned that," he said, adding that by many accounts Ukraine is "actually winning this war against what we though was a major world power."
Meeks said the $40 billion aid bill was passed to ensure that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the people of Ukraine have the military protection they need to save their country.
He said the United States was now working "in a in a fashion that is unprecedented" to move weapons as quickly as possible and coordinating closely with allies to ship the equipment that the Ukrainians have requested. He noted that the package included between $4 billion and $5 billion for humanitarian concerns.
Both lawmakers expressed concern about Ukrainian ports being blockaded by Russian forces.
Meeks said the situation was discussed during the congressmen's visit to Moldova, which is concerned about the situation along with other countries of the world.
“We're talking about the possibility of starvation in various other parts of the world, particularly on the continent of Africa and other underdeveloped areas,” Meeks said. “We're talking about the inclusion of inflation all over the world, the cost of food and bread.”
He said that’s why it’s important to give Ukraine what it needs to help it open those ports as the United States approaches problems caused by the war not thinking solely about itself but “the entirety of an interconnected world.”
U.S. Envoy Says Prospects For Reviving Iran Nuclear Deal 'Tenuous' At Best
The U.S. special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, says that the prospects of reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are "tenuous" at best, telling a Senate committee that it is more likely than not that talks will fail.
"As of today the odds of a successful negotiation are lower than the odds of failure and that is because of excessive Iranian demands to which we will not succumb," Malley told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 25.
Malley, who has led more than a year of indirect talks with Iran, said the United States still supports a return to the 2015 nuclear accord and is ready to lift sanctions if it secures an agreement.
But if the currently stalled talks to revive it fail, the United States is "ready to continue to enforce and further tighten" sanctions and "respond strongly to any Iranian escalation, working in concert with Israel and our regional partners."
While saying that "all options are on the table," Malley made clear that President Joe Biden does not support military action, saying "by far the best option is a diplomatic one."
He also said the United States would reject demands that go beyond the scope of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the original deal between Iran and six major powers is formally known.
One of Iran's demands is the removal of the U.S. designation of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization, a step Biden has rejected.
The Biden administration has been working to revive the JCPOA since taking office last year. Then-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and imposed sweeping unilateral sanctions, including on Iran's oil.
Malley said that Trump's "maximum pressure" approach had failed, and Iran had stepped up its nuclear program since the United States pulled out of the deal.
Senator Bob Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey) noted that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had warned in January that only "a few weeks" were left before Iran's program would advance to the point that the JCPOA was no longer beneficial.
"We continue to wait and hope. But hope is not a national security strategy," said Menendez, who opposed the original agreement and said he did not understand why the Biden administration is still willing to negotiate.
Other opponents of JCPOA argue that Iran's progress toward the ability to weaponize what it says is a civilian nuclear program means it's too late for any accord to block Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said last week that Iran had amassed about 40 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent purity, which is a short, technical step away from weapons-grade levels.
"I think we must prepare for the increasingly obvious reality we face in 2022 -- a return to the 2015 nuclear deal is not around the corner, and I believe it is not in the U.S. strategic interests," Menendez said.
"We need to tackle what comes next," he added.
Despite past U.S. statements that the time to resurrect the deal was running out, Malley said Washington would keep trying to revive it.
The technical assessments remain "that the nonproliferation benefits of the deal are worth the sanctions relief that we would provide," he said.
He also offered strong criticism of Iran's crackdown on recent protests against austerity measures.
"I don't think this is a strong regime that is basking in being able to circumvent sanctions," Malley said. "It is a regime under duress and that's because of its own mismanagement and our sanctions."
The Treasury Department on May 25 announced that it was broadening the sanctions to include a network backed by the IRGC Quds Force and Russian officials that it said had shipped hundreds of millions of dollars of oil in defiance of U.S. sanctions.
The oil-smuggling network "has acted as a critical element of Iran's oil revenue generation, as well as its support for proxy militant groups that continue to perpetuate conflict and suffering throughout the region," the Treasury Department said in a news release.
The United States will "continue to strictly enforce sanctions on Iran's illicit oil trade," even while it continues to seek a return to full implementation of the JCPOA, the Treasury said.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP
Moscow Journalist Who Protested Invasion Of Ukraine Receives Havel Rights Prize
A Moscow journalist who protested Russia's invasion of Ukraine by interrupting a live news broadcast on Russian state television in March has been awarded the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize.
In a ceremony in Oslo on May 25, Marina Ovsyannikova received the award, given annually by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to honor "outstanding" civil society action in the defense of human rights
Ovsyannikova, 43, burst onto the set of the Vremya news program on Russia's Channel One on March 14 while holding a poster reading in part "Stop the war. Don't believe propaganda. They are lying to you" in Russian. She also shouted in Russian: "Stop the war. No to war."
While it triggered a wave of support worldwide, the Kremlin condemned her action. She has been charged with "discrediting" the armed forces.
Since her protest, Ovsyannikova left Russia for Germany and was hired in April as a freelance correspondent for Die Welt.
Tajik Rights Defender 'Confesses' On State TV To Organizing Deadly Riots Despite Earlier Denial
DUSHANBE -- Tajik journalist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva and her husband, Kholbash Kholbashov, have been shown on state-run television "confessing" to organizing deadly unrests in the Gorno-Badakhshan region, despite saying days earlier that she had nothing to do with the protests.
Late on May 24, Mamadshoeva and Kholbashov were shown on the Tojikiston television channel saying that they, along with opposition politician Alim Sherzamonov, and an informal regional leader, Mahmadboqir Mahmadboqirov, had planned and organized the protests, which the authorities in the Central Asian country have called "terrorist actions."
It was not clear whether the statement was made under duress, but on May 17, a day before she was arrested, the 65-year-old Mamadshoeva, who is also a rights activist, told RFE/RL that she had nothing to do with the anti-government protests in the region's capital, Khorugh, and the Rushon district.
Authorities say in the footage showing the so-called "confessions" that an unspecified Western country was involved in organizing the unrest.
Mahmadboqirov was killed on May 22 in Khorugh. His relatives say law enforcement officers killed him, while the authorities insist he was killed "when criminal groups were settling scores."
Sherzamonov told RFE/RL that he had nothing to do with the planning of any riots in Gorno-Badakhshan, and that he suspects Mamadshoeva and Kholbashov were forced to make the statement on television.
Tajik authorities have said 10 people were killed and 27 injured during the clashes between protesters and police. Residents of the Rushon district, however, have told RFE/RL that 21 dead bodies had been found at the sites where the clashes took place.
Deep tensions between the government and residents of the restive region have simmered ever since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Still, protests are rare in the tightly controlled state of 9.5 million, where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled for nearly three decades.
Mahmadboqirov and other influential leaders in the region fought against the government during that conflict but were integrated into state structures as part of a peace deal that Russia helped broker.
The latest protests were initially sparked in mid-May by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Rizo Nazarzoda, the mayor of Khorugh.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old local resident Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting the authorities to launch what they called an "counterterrorist operation."
The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.
Gordo-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict in the 1990s.
While it occupies almost half of the entire country, its population is a mere 250,000. The region is difficult to travel around because of the mountainous terrain, while its economy is wracked by unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.
Date Set For Trial Of RFE/RL Freelance Correspondent In Belarus
MINSK -- A trial date has been set for RFE/RL freelance correspondent Andrey Kuznechyk, whose relatives and colleagues have not been informed about charges he faces since his arrest last year in Belarus.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists said on May 25 that Kuznechyk's trial will be held behind closed doors in the eastern city of Mahilyou on June 8.
Kuznechyk was initially sentenced to 10 days in jail on November 26, 2021, on hooliganism charges that he denies.
On December 6, when his sentence ended, he was not released and was handed another 10-day jail term, also on a hooliganism charge.
After serving that jail term, Kuznechyk was again not released and instead was charged with an unspecified crime.
The Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
Kuznechyk's relatives told RFE/RL at the time that the journalist continued to maintain his innocence.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has said the extension of Kuznechyk's sentence "on absurdly fabricated charges" should be considered a crime in itself.
"Andrey's state-sponsored kidnapping continues, all in furtherance of the Lukashenka regime's efforts to block independent information from reaching the Belarusian people. Andrey should be allowed to return to his family immediately," Fly said in a statement on December 6, referring to authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
On December 23, Fly again condemned the Belarusian government's actions against free media and stated that Kuznechyk was among "hostages taken by this lawless regime, not criminals. Factual reporting is not an 'extremist' activity, and journalism is not a crime."
Putin Signs Decree Allowing Residents Of Newly Occupied Ukrainian Territories To Get Russian Citizenship
President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree allowing residents of two Ukrainian regions, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya, parts of which have been occupied by Russian forces during Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, to obtain Russian citizenship.
The decree, signed on May 25, states that residents of the two regions can receive Russian passports through a simplified procedure that was introduced in 2019 for residents of parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions that were controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
After Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, its forces managed to take a huge part of the Kherson region, including the region's capital, Kherson, and about half of the Zaporizhzhya region, with the regional capital, Zaporizhzhya, remaining under Ukrainian control.
Putin and other Russian officials have insisted that the invasion's goal was not to occupy Ukraine.
Russian-imposed authorities in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula illegally annexed from Ukraine by Moscow in 2014, have said that they are ready to set up passport-issuance centers for Ukrainian citizens who choose to obtain Russian passports.
Meanwhile, Moscow says it is preparing measures to use against "unfriendly actions" by English-language media toward Russian media.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters in Moscow on May 25 that Russia "will always respond to all unfriendly actions against Russian media."
"We are currently working out a whole package of measures against media, journalists from Anglo-Saxon media outlets, taking into account repressive measures undertaken against Russia media outlets," Zakharova said, adding that Russia's responses might be asymmetrical.
She gave no further details.
After Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the European Union suspended the broadcasting activities of some Russian state-backed media, including the leading Russian external broadcaster, RT, questioning the impartiality of their coverage of the war.
Jailed Kyrgyz Ex-President Atambaev Transferred To Hospital In Bishkek
BISHKEK -- Jailed former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has been transferred from a prison to the National Cardiology Center in Bishkek for a medical check-up.
Atambaev's lawyer, Zamir Jooshev, told RFE/RL that his client was moved to the clinic on May 25 following a court decision last month.
Atambaev's son, Kadyr Atambaev, told RFE/RL that his father had back problems and often loses the feeling in his limbs.
Last month, Atambaev refused to take part in his trial on a charge of attempting to seize power during anti-government protests in October 2020, citing his medical condition. At times he disrupted proceedings in the courtroom.
The charge against Atambaev stems from his participation in anti-government rallies in October 2020 that were sparked by a controversial parliamentary election seen by many as rigged.
Atambaev, who was serving an 11-year prison term he was handed earlier that year for his role in the illegal release of a notorious crime boss, Aziz Batukaev, was released during the protests and joined them along with several other politicians. He was later rearrested.
The 65-year-old Atambaev, who denies any wrongdoing, was arrested in August 2019 after he surrendered to police following a deadly two-day standoff between security forces and his supporters.
The move to detain Atambaev was sparked by his refusal to obey three summons to appear at the Interior Ministry for questioning about Batukaev's release.
The standoff between security forces and his supporters resulted in the death of a senior security officer and more than 170 injuries -- 79 of them sustained by law enforcement officers.
Atambaev is also part of another trial linked to the 2019 violence.
He and 13 others are charged with murder, attempted murder, threatening or assaulting official representatives, hostage taking, and the forcible seizure of power.
Russian Duma Approves Bill Raising Age Limit For Military Personnel To 65
MOSCOW -- Russian parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, has approved a bill that would raise the upper age limit for military personnel serving in the Russian Army on a contractual basis.
According to the bill, which had all three readings approved on May 25, men up to age 65 will now be eligible to serve in the army. The new limit also applies to foreign nationals wishing to serve in the army as well.
Current law allows Russian men up to 40 years of age and foreigners up to 30 to serve in the army.
The bill's authors, lawmakers Andrei Kartapolov and Andrei Krasov, said the raised limit would help attract new specialists with "required skills," namely medical personnel and engineers.
The bill was approved amid Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, launched on February 24.
Russia has met fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces, with many Western intelligence officials saying Moscow expected a quick end to the fighting. Instead, they say, its troops have suffered thousands of casualties as the war got bogged down.
Russia has not recently revealed a death toll for the invasion. On March 25, it said 1,351 of its soldiers had been killed in the fighting.
Russia Warns Moldova Over Ex-President As Supporters Protest Detention
Russia has warned Moldova again that it will "closely" follow the case of pro-Russian ex-President Igor Dodon, who was detained on suspicion of treason and corruption, as his supporters took to the streets to demand his release.
Moldovan prosecutors on May 24 searched Dodon's home, office, and cars, during which luxury goods, foreign currency, receipts, and other documents were found.
They later announced that Dodon had been arrested for 72 hours as part of a judicial investigation into suspected treason, corruption, illicit enrichment, and illegal party financing.
Dodon says he has done nothing wrong and blamed President Maia Sandu for wanting to distract people from the country's economic woes.
Dodon, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was president of Moldova from 2016 to 2020. He was defeated in November 2020 by Sandu, a U.S.-educated politician who ran on a ticket of closer relations with the West.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko said that Dodon's detention was Moldova's "internal affair."
"At the same time, we would not like the current authorities to start settling scores with their former political rivals in the current situation," Rudenko told a news conference.
He said Russia would "closely monitor" the case to make sure that "all of Dodon's rights" are respected and that they comply with international standards.
It was the second day in a row that Moscow had cautioned Moldova about Dodon's treatment.
In Chisinau, dozens of members and sympathizers of Dodon's Party of Socialists, took to the streets on May 25 calling for his release and accusing the authorities of political persecution.
"Dear citizens, I want to assure you that for every element of interest to the prosecutors I have the necessary explanations that remove any suspicion of corruption or breaking the law," Dodon said in an online message.
"This politically motivated case is fabricated."
Sandwiched between Ukraine and EU and NATO-member Romania, Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has accepted hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees.
Chisinau has firmly backed Kyiv after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Moldova formally applied for European Union membership in March after Russia's unprovoked invasion.
With reporting AFP and AP
Kyrgyz Blogger Handed Suspended Sentence On Fraud Charge, Released From Custody
BISHKEK -- Gulzat Alymkulova, a well-known Kyrgyz blogger known online as Gulzat Mamytbek, has been handed a suspended sentence on a fraud charge and released from custody.
The Birinchi Mai district court in Bishkek found Alymkulova guilty of fraud and handed her a five-year prison term with the sentence suspended for three years.
The sentence means the blogger will live under parole-like restrictions for three years. Any violations of the terms of her sentence and she could be forced to serve the five-year prison term.
Alymkulova was arrested on October 25, 2021, upon her return to Bishkek from a trip abroad.
City police officials said at the time that seven Bishkek residents had filed lawsuits, accusing her of collecting some $110,000 from them in 2020 and promising quick gains on the sum before disappearing without a trace.
Neither Alymkulova, who has written about sensitive social issues in her blog posts, nor her representatives have commented on her arrest and the charge against her.
Nike, Marks & Spencer Leave Russia Over War In Ukraine
U.S. sports apparel giant Nike and venerable British multinational retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) say they are quitting the Russian market over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
Nike said it would not extend its franchise agreement with Russia's Inventive Retail Group (IRG), the largest retailer of Nike products in the country.
IRG Chief Executive Officer Tikhon Smykov said in a letter to employees on May 25 that "after all the goods are sold, IRG will have to shut down all of its shops that are under the [Nike] name."
In early March, Nike suspended online sales in Russia, and several days later temporarily closed all of its shops in the country, including those operating on franchise agreements. Nike was active on the Russian market for 28 years.
M&S, which specializes in the sale of clothing, beauty, home products, and food, announced on May 25 that it would fully cease its operations in Russia after suspending them in early March.
M&S said it was unable to import its goods to Russia because of the war in Ukraine.
Dozens of major international companies from a broad range of sectors have exited Russia since it launched its war against Ukraine on February 24.
Within the past 10 days, Starbucks Corp and McDonald's also announced they were quitting Russia.
With reporting by Vedomosti
Moscow Offers Safe Passage Of Ukrainian Food Exports In Exchange For Easing Of Sanctions
A senior Russian government official says Moscow could allow vessels carrying food to leave Ukraine's Black Sea ports in return for the lifting of some sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian ports have been blocked since Russia launched its war against Ukraine on February 24, leaving more than 20 million tons of grain stuck in silos in the country.
Russia and Ukraine account for almost one-third of global wheat supplies. Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn and sunflower, and the blockage of its ports is contributing to a growing global food crisis.
"We have repeatedly stated on this point that a solution to the food problem requires a comprehensive approach, including the lifting of sanctions that have been imposed on Russian exports and financial transactions," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko was quoted as saying by Interfax.
"And it also requires the demining by the Ukrainian side of all ports where ships are anchored. Russia is ready to provide the necessary humanitarian passage, which it does every day."
Russia is in touch with the United Nations on the issue, Rudenko was quoted as saying by another news agency, RIA.
However, Rudenko was also quoted by Interfax as warning against any possible escort by Western ships of Ukraine's vessels carrying grain, saying that it would "seriously exacerbate the situation in the Black Sea."
Rudenko also denied reports in the Western media that Russian forces are stealing grain from Ukrainian ports.
"We completely reject this. We don't steal anything from anyone," he told reporters.
CNN previously published satellite photos allegedly confirming that Russia is exporting grain from Ukraine through Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Moscow illegally annexed in 2014.
Based on reporting by Reuters and Interfax
Bishkek Court Cancels $3.2 Billion Fine Imposed On Centerra Over Kumtor Mine
BISHKEK -- A court in Kyrgyzstan has canceled a lower court decision to fine Canadian company Centerra Gold 261.7 billion soms ($3.2 billion) for what were described as violations of environmental laws when it ran the Kumtor gold mine.
The Bishkek City Court did not explain its decision when handing it down late on May 24.
In May 2021, the Oktyabr (October) district court in Bishkek found the Canadian gold miner guilty of indulging in the illegal practice of placing waste rock on glaciers.
The court ruling followed the passing of a bill by the Central Asian nation's lawmakers that allowed the federal government to temporarily seize the Kumtor mine.
Last month, Kyrgyzstan took over the mine after President Sadyr Japarov's government reached an out-of-court settlement with Centerra Gold.
On April 4, Centerra made the agreement public, showing it received all of its common shares held by the state-owned company Kyrgyzaltyn, while Kyrgyzaltyn got a 100 percent stake in the company’s two Kyrgyz subsidiaries, Kumtor Gold Company CJSC and Kumtor Operating Company.
Kumtor had been the target of financial and environmental disagreements for years before turning into the subject of a control battle between the Kyrgyz state and Centerra Gold.
Japarov's government insisted that Centerra's operations endangered human lives and the environment, which the company denied.
In May 2021, the Canadian firm said it had "initiated binding arbitration to enforce its rights under long-standing investment agreements with the government."
Many Kyrgyz lawmakers have expressed concern about an alleged lack of transparency at Kumtor since the Kyrgyz government took control of the gold mine.
Kazakh Banks Tighten Process Of Payment Card Issuance To Russians
NUR-SULTAN -- Kazakh banks have started to tighten procedures for issuing payment cards to Russian citizens amid sanctions imposed on financial institutions across Russia over Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Since Russia launched its war against Ukraine on February 24, banks in Kazakhstan have been flooded by tens of thousands of Russian citizens seeking to open bank accounts and obtain Mastercard and VISA credit cards after the global payment giants suspended operations in Russia due to the sanctions, which have crippled international financial transactions in the country.
Because of the deluge of applications, some Kazakh banks have started requesting proof of permanent residence or work permits from Kazakh citizens for Russian citizens who want to set up accounts.
Media reports cited several bank officials as saying that the uncontrolled issuance of payment cards to Russian citizens may lead to Western sanctions against them.
Arlen Moldabekov, a top official at Kazakhstan’s central bank said on May 25 in a televised interview that, although local laws allow nonresidents to open accounts at Kazakh banks, financial institutions have the right to request such documents from potential clients.
"When issuing payment cards, our banks follow legal requirements, as well as internal regulations and the requirements of the banks' compliance control systems. They also comply with the regulations of the international payments systems, of which they are members, and whose cards they issue," Moldabekov said.
After VISA and Mastercard suspended their partnership with Russian banks in March, Russian citizens rushed in droves to Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics seeking payment cards, among other things, at banks.
Last week, the Interior Ministry in Nur-Sultan said that 34,960 Russian citizens had obtained Kazakh Individual Identification Numbers (INN) in the period between February 24 and May 17, while 606 Ukrainian nationals obtained Kazakh INNs during the same period.
An INN allows individuals to get social benefits and simplifies the process of opening bank accounts in Kazakhstan. One of Russia's most-popular singers, Lev Leshchenko, was seen earlier this month at a social services office in Kazakhstan where he obtained an INN.
Kazakhstan's Agency of Financial Control has said about 9.2 billion tenges ($21.5 million) belonging to Kazakh citizens have been frozen in the branches of several Russian banks in Kazakhstan due to the international sanctions.
With reporting by KTK
Closer Ties With EU Cannot Replace Full Membership, Moldovan PM Says
Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita has welcomed moves to step up cooperation with the European Union, but says such initiatives cannot replace the actual process of joining the bloc.
Chisinau has pressed ahead with efforts to join the EU after Russia invaded Ukraine and launched a war that is threatening to spill over into Moldova.
"We welcome any mechanism for bringing us closer together, improving our cooperation, as long as this does not replace the path to membership," Gavrilita told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on May 25.
French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this month suggested that instead of offering full membership in the 27-member bloc, a parallel entity should be created that could appeal to aspiring countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova -- a "European political community" that would be open to democratic European nations adhering to the EU's core values.
But Gavrilita said that only full membership in the bloc would offer aspiring countries full benefits and a stable place in a value-shared community such as the EU.
"We strongly believe that membership in the European Union is actually what distributes this peace, stability, value-based prosperity, and we want to be part of the free world and of this EU family," she said.
With reporting by Reuters
Zelenskiy Says Europe Must Unify Fully Over Support For Ukraine In War Against Russia
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says the West, and Europe in particular, must tighten ranks and bolster support for Ukraine in the face of Russia's unprovoked war.
Speaking at a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on May 25, the Ukrainian leader said he was grateful for the financial and military aid given to Kyiv since Russia launched its attack in late February, but said cracks in Europe's unity are limiting the war effort.
He also reiterated Kyiv's stance that Ukraine does not want to lose any territory to Russia in the war.
"Unity is about weapons. My question is, is there this unity in practice? I can't see it. Our huge advantage over Russia would be when we are truly united," Zelenskiy said via video link.
Zelenskiy specifically thanked the United States for its support while singling out Hungary, which has ardently opposed an EU-wide embargo on Russian oil imports, for stalling Europe's ability to ratchet up pressure on Moscow.
"We are on the European continent and we need the support of a united Europe.... Hungary is not as united as rest of the EU," Zelenskiy said.
Zelenskiy said he was ready for talks, though only with Russian President Vladimir Putin, if Moscow withdrew its troops to the areas Russia-backed separatists were in before the war began on February 24.
"Ukraine will fight until it has all its territory back," Zelenskiy said.
With reporting by dpa and AFP
British Government Approves Abramovich's $5.3 Billion Sale Of Chelsea Soccer Club
The British government has granted a license allowing the $5.33 billion sale of the Chelsea soccer club by the sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich to a U.S. investment group.
U.K. Sports Minister Nadine Dorries said in a post on Twitter on May 24 that the government "is satisfied the proceeds of the sale will not benefit Roman Abramovich or other sanctioned individuals."
"Given the sanctions we placed on those linked to Putin and the bloody invasion of Ukraine, the long-term future of the club can only be secured under a new owner," she added.
After 19 years of ownership, Abramovich put the club up for sale in early March, weeks after Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine sparked waves of sanctions against Moscow, Russian oligarchs who benefitted from their relationships with President Vladimir Putin, and even on Putin's family members, among others.
The sale of the club, which had been operating under a government license after Abramovich's assets were frozen in March, to a consortium led by Los Angeles Dodgers baseball club co-owner Todd Boehly and backed by Clearlake Capital, had already been approved by owners of the Premier League.
All proceeds from the sale will be donated to charitable causes by Abramovich.
Moscow Throws Massive Resources Into Offensive; Ukraine Grain Exports Under Strain
Russia has continued to pour forces and equipment into its all-out offensive in eastern Ukraine, where it seeks to encircle Ukrainian troops in two cities, as Kyiv warns that the country is facing an existential battle that could determine its fate.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the situation in the Donbas was "extremely difficult" as Russia steps up its assault.
Russian forces were advancing from three directions to encircle the easternmost sector of the Ukrainian-held Donbas pocket, with focus on the the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, located on the eastern and western banks of the Siverskiy Donets River.
The fall of the two cities would leave the whole of the Luhansk region under Russian control, one of the Kremlin's goals in its war.
Fighting has reached the outskirts of Severodonetsk, Serhiy Hayday, governor of the Luhansk region, said earlier on May 25. "Russian troops have advanced far enough that they can already fire mortars" on the city, he said in a statement on social media.
Police in Lysychansk are collecting bodies of people killed to bury them in mass graves, Hayday said. Some 150 people have been buried in a mass grave in one Lysychansk district, he added.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskiy, said Russia's "army is having some tactical success, which is threatening to become an operational success in the direction of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk."
Severodonetsk and Bakhmut, a town to the southeast, were in danger of being encircled, Arestovych said. It's possible that settlements "will be abandoned," he said. "It's possible we will have heavy losses."
Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said on May 24 that battles being fought in eastern Ukraine could determine its future.
"Now we are observing the most active phase of the full-scale aggression which Russia unfolded against our country," Motuzyanyk told a televised briefing. "The situation on the [eastern] front is extremely difficult, because the fate of this country is perhaps being decided [there] right now."
The Russian Defense Ministry said on May 25 that it had finished demining the port of Mariupol and that foreign ships stuck there will be able to leave. Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told a press briefing that the port had started "to function normally."
The United Nations has urged Russian authorities to release grain stuck in Ukrainian ports to avert global food shortages.
Meanwhile, British intelligence warned that Russia's blockade of Ukraine's key port of Odesa has caused grain supply shortfalls that cannot be compensated by overland exports.
WATCH: Veronika from Ukraine's Donetsk Region lost her family in an attack on the high-rise residential building where she lived. Hit by shrapnel, she was left in a coma. Kira from Kharkiv was hit by shelling when she was walking in a park. Her friend was killed.
The British Defense Ministry assessed in its daily bulletin on May 25 that as long as the threat of Russia's naval blockade keeps deterring access by commercial shipping to Ukrainian ports, "the resulting supply shortfalls will further increase the price of many staple products."
On May 24, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen called for talks with Moscow on unlocking wheat exports trapped in Ukraine as a result of Russia's sea blockade.
"Russian warships in the Black Sea are blockading Ukrainian ships full of wheat and sunflower seeds," von der Leyen told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on May 24.
Russia is using food supplies as a weapon with global repercussions, just like it does in the energy sector, von der Leyen said.
The war and Western sanctions against Russia have sent the price of grain, cooking oil, fertilizer, and energy soaring.
Many countries, including some of the world's poorest, count on Russia and Ukraine, which together account for nearly one-third of the global wheat supply, for more than half of their wheat imports.
The Russian State Duma on May 25 approved a bill that would raise the upper age limit for military personnel serving in the Russian army on a contractual basis.
Zelenskiy said in his nightly address that the move showed that the Russians "no longer have enough young people" to fight the war as he again appealed for weapons.
"We still need the help of partners, especially weapons for Ukraine. Full help! No exceptions, no restrictions," the president said.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on May 25 urged governments and companies to "kill Russian exports" as a way to help push Moscow to end its war against Ukraine.
"My message is very simple. Kill Russian exports," Kuleba said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on May 25.
"Stop buying from Russia. Stop allowing them to make money which they can invest in the war machine that destroys, kills, rapes, and tortures people in Ukraine."
Dozens of major international companies from a broad range of sectors have exited Russia since it launched the war against Ukraine on February 24, while the European Union, the United States, and many Western allies have adopted harsh sanctions against Moscow, senior state officials, and President Vladimir Putin and the billionaires seen close to him.
But Kuleba said more must be done given the impact of the war on Ukraine is still far greater than the West's moves against Russia.
Ukraine's economy is "suffering more from the Russian destruction and attacks than the Russian economy suffers from sanctions."
"As long as Russia makes money on selling oil and gas, their pockets are pretty full," he added.
The European Union is currently working on a proposal to ban the import of Russian oil and gas across the 27-nation bloc, but several countries, especially Hungary, have said they will need help through aid and a phase-in period if they are to sign on to the measure.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, CNN, and the BBC
Germany's Former Chancellor Says He Won't Join Board Of Russia's Gazprom
Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will not accept a nomination to the board of Russian energy company Gazprom.
Schroeder said on May 24 on social media that he told Gazprom “some time ago” that he was not interested in the nomination.
Gazprom nominated Schroeder for a supervisory board position shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. The 78-year-old had been due to join Gazprom's supervisory board in June.
The longtime friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin has come under increasing international pressure to sever his ties with Russia's biggest energy companies since Moscow launched the invasion.
Within Germany, Schroeder, who was German chancellor from 1998 to 2005, has faced fierce criticism for years over his work for the companies.
Gazprom has a majority stake in the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany, which was halted by Chancellor Olaf Scholz in one of the West's first responses to the war in Ukraine.
Schroeder's announcement regarding Gazprom comes four days after his resignation from the board of directors of Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft.
German businessman Matthias Warnig also resigned from Rosneft on May 20.
Earlier this month, Schroder had his right to an office at the German parliament in Berlin removed. EU lawmakers separately called in a nonbinding resolution for sanctions against him if he refused to give up lucrative board seats at Russian companies.
With reporting by AFP, dpa, and Reuters
U.S. To End Russia's Ability To Pay Bondholders Through U.S. Banks
The United States will not extend a waiver set to expire on May 25 that allows Russia to pay U.S. bondholders through U.S. banks.
The U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement it would not extend a license that allows Russia to make payments on its sovereign debt.
The waiver had allowed Moscow to keep paying interest and principal and avert default on its government debt.
While the license only applies to U.S. persons, a default would make it very challenging for Russia to make payments to other holders given the part U.S. financial institutions play in the global financial system and the complexity of such payment processes.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said last week that the United States was unlikely to extend the waiver, but added that if Russia is unable to make the payments and it defaults, it would not represent a significant change in Russia's situation because the country is already cut off from global capital markets.
Washington and its allies have imposed heavy sanctions on Russia for launching the invasion of Ukraine, including locking Russia out of the international borrowing markets. A default would mean it could not regain access to those markets until creditors are fully repaid and any legal cases stemming from the default are settled.
The Kremlin appears to have foreseen the likelihood that the United States would not allow Russia to keep paying on its bonds. The Russian Finance Ministry on May 20 prepaid two of the payments that were due this month.
The next payments Russia must make on its debts are due on June 23 and it has a 30-day grace period on those payments.
Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said last week that Moscow would service its external debt in rubles if the United States blocked other options and would not consider itself in default as it had the means to pay.
Russia has not defaulted on its international debts since the revolution in 1917, when the Russian Empire collapsed and the Soviet Union was created.
Since coming to power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it a priority to reduce Russia's foreign debt, which he felt cuffed the country geopolitically.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
Orban Imposes New State Of Emergency In Hungary, Saying Ukraine War Poses 'Constant Danger'
BUDAPEST -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has imposed a new state of emergency in the country, citing the war in Ukraine, which he said “poses a threat to our physical security.”
Speaking in a video message posted on Facebook on May 24, Orban said no one can see an end to the war, which began three months ago when Russia invaded Ukraine.
“This war means a constant danger to Hungary. It poses a threat to our physical security. It threatens our economy and our families in terms of energy supplies and material security," Orban said.
The war and the sanctions imposed by the European Union have led to huge economic turbulence and drastic price increases, he said.
“The world is on the brink of an economic crisis. Hungary must stay outside of this war and must protect the families' material security," he added.
The state of emergency, which is to begin at midnight, enables the government “to react with all available instruments to protect Hungary and Hungarian families,” he said.
Hungary already is under a state of emergency that was declared because of COVID-19, but it is due to expire on May 31.
New rules that will be in effect under the change will be announced on May 25, Orban said.
Shortly before the announcement, the Hungarian parliament amended the constitution to allow for such a measure.
Orban's Fidesz party, which won reelection on April 3, commands a two-thirds majority in the chamber.
The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) denounced the declaration, saying the state of emergency "has become permanent."
The move gives Orban "more leeway than usual," allowing him to "restrict or simply suspend everybody's fundamental rights," TASZ said.
Orban, in power for 12 years, has been accused by his Western partners of abuses of power in his country, a member of both the European Union and NATO.
With reporting by AFP
Serbian Orthodox Church Recognizes Independence Of Orthodox Church In North Macedonia
The head of Serbia's Orthodox Church recognized the independence of the Orthodox Church in North Macedonia, signaling an end to a religious dispute dating back more than 50 years.
Patriarch Porfirije, the leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church, announced the decision to recognize the Orthodox Church in North Macedonia during a joint liturgy on May 24 in Skopje.
“Brothers and sisters, we are here to bring you joy," Porfirije said. “God is one, his church is one, and our faith is one. That is why we are rejoicing today. A miracle is happening before us. We are part of that miracle.”
Believers at the joint service and around St. Clement of Ohrid Cathedral greeted the announcement with joy and thunderous applause.
The rift dates back to 1967 when the Orthodox Church in North Macedonia unilaterally announced its independence, or autocephaly, from the Serbian Church. At the time, the two predominantly Orthodox republics were part of Yugoslavia.
Serbian religious leaders condemned the move, and the breakaway church was not recognized by other Orthodox churches.
As he announced the reversal, Porfirije said the synod of Serbia's senior bishops unanimously accepted the change, and an official proclamation of the church's independence is being prepared. The proclamation will be followed by an invitation of acceptance to be sent to other Orthodox churches.
Porfirije expects that all local churches will accept the autocephaly status of the church, whose formal name is the Macedonian Orthodox Church-Ohrid Archbishopric.
Formal recognition of the autocephaly of the church is expected to be officially announced by Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians.
Bartholomew earlier this month acknowledged the Macedonian Orthodox Church as the Church of Ohrid, and the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate followed suit last week.
“We have been waiting to hear this news for a long time. This is the day,” said Archbishop Stefan, head of the Orthodox Church in North Macedonia, as he thanked Bartholomew and Porfirije for their support.
"Once again, we thank you, your holiness, and the members of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church on behalf of the monasticism and the faithful people of the Macedonian Orthodox Church-Ohrid Archbishopric," Archbishop Stefan said.
The news was widely seen in North Macedonia as a historic event, and after the end of the joint liturgy the bells in the cathedral in Skopje continued to ring.
"It is good news that we are finally together after so many years, and the patriarch himself says in Serbian that this is a miracle that happened to us, so we thank God," said Blagica Blazeska, according to RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.
Donco Domazetovski, another worshiper, said it was “a miracle above the miracles” that the church’s autocephaly was recognized and its priests have the right to preach everywhere and build unity.
With reporting by AP and dpa
Poll Shows Near Even Split Among Ukrainians Over Joining NATO
A poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) shows that 39 percent of Ukrainians believe that joining NATO would guarantee the nation's security, while 42 percent believe that in the current environment settling for security guarantees may be acceptable.
The KIIS poll asked 2,000 people whether it would be acceptable not to join the alliance if Ukraine instead received security guarantees from NATO countries.
The poll was conducted May 13-18 via computer-assisted telephone interviews based on a random sample of mobile telephone numbers throughout the country, except in Russian-occupied Crimea.
Nineteen percent of respondents had no opinion or did not agree with either of the options.
Russia has opposed Ukraine becoming a member of NATO and cited the potential of NATO expansion as one of its reasons for launching its invasion three months ago. Kyiv has been working on joining the alliance for years.
As Russia continues its unprovoked invasion, the possibility of Ukraine not joining NATO or postponing the process has been raised at talks between Kyiv and Moscow.
The poll also showed that the population's readiness to abandon the idea of joining NATO and instead obtaining security guarantees from NATO countries is supported by 35 percent of the population in the country's west, which has been less affected by the war, and 50 percent in Ukraine's eastern regions.
At the same time, people who strongly support Ukraine joining NATO is 46 percent in western regions of Ukraine and 25 percent in the country's east.
In Tit-For-Tat Move, Russia Sanctions 154 Members Of Britain's House Of Lords
Russia says it is sanctioning 154 members of the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament, in retaliation for similar steps taken against Moscow's foreign envoys and lawmakers over the Kremlin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on May 24 that it had banned the British lawmakers -- including William Hague, a former foreign minister and leader of the Conservative Party in opposition -- from entering Russia.
In March, the British government imposed personal sanctions on "almost all the members" of the Russian parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, the Foreign Ministry said in justifying its move.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, the West slapped wide-ranging sanctions on Moscow, including the exclusion of several banks from the SWIFT messaging system, embargoes on Russian exports, restrictions on investments, asset freezes for government officials and their families, and travel bans for many senior officials.
Russia last month banned entry to 287 British MPs in another tit-for-tat move, saying it had chosen those who played "the most active part" in drawing up anti-Russian sanctions and contributed to "Russophobic hysteria."
The House of Lords has around 800 members.
Russian Court Issues Arrest Warrant For Food Blogger Over Posts On Ukraine War
A court in Moscow has issued an arrest warrant for a food blogger and magazine founder for allegedly "spreading fake news" about the Russian military.
The Basmanny district court announced its decision on May 24 to arrest Veronika Belotserkovskaya, who founded the St. Petersburg magazine and website Sobaka. Belotserkovskaya currently lives in France.
On March 16, Russia's Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against the Ukrainian-born Belotserkovskaya, who blogs under the name Belonika, for allegedly spreading false news about the Russian Army on her Instagram account, which has almost 950,000 subscribers.
She was accused of publishing several Instagram posts containing "deliberately false information about the armed forces of the Russian Federation's destruction of cities and civilians in Ukraine, including children, during a special military operation."
Some of the posts cited the coverage of the war by Western news agencies and media outlets.
Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has strictly limited access to information about the war in Ukraine launched by Russia on February 24 and directed media to describe events in Ukraine as a “special military operation” and not a war or an invasion.
On May 14, Russian authorities added Belotserkovskaya to the wanted list.
Following the opening of the criminal case against her in March, Belotserkovskaya transferred ownership of Sobaka to its employees.
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