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EU May Offer Georgia Visa-Free Travel, Delay On Ukraine

BRUSSELS -- The European Commission appears ready to offer visa-free travel to Georgia, but could postpone a similar offer to Ukraine.

In December, the European Commission said both countries had fulfilled the criteria to qualify for visa-free travel through the passport-free Schengen zone.

The commission said it would send a proposal to that effect to EU member states and the European Parliament in the beginning of 2016.

However, unnamed EU officials tell RFE/RL that Brussels is not convinced Ukraine has done enough to fight corruption, and therefore should not be grouped together with Georgia in the proposal.

Officials also fear including Ukraine could negatively impact a referendum in April in the Netherlands on the EU-Ukrainian Association Agreement.

Any proposal to allow Georgia or Ukraine to enjoy visa-free travel within the Schengen zone will need to be approved by the European Parliament and the 28 EU member states.

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak

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Biden Signs U.S. Ratification Document On NATO Membership For Sweden, Finland

U.S. President Joe Biden -- alongside Vice President Kamala Harris (left), Swedish Ambassador to the United States Karin Olofsdotter (second from right), and Finnish Ambassador to Washington Mikko Hautala -- signs ratification documents for the Nordic countries to join NATO in Washington on August 9.

U.S. President Joe Biden has signed ratification documents endorsing bids by Finland and Sweden to join NATO.

Biden said the two Nordic countries’ expected entry into the alliance once they receive the backing of all 30 members will be “a watershed moment” for NATO and “for the greater security and stability not only of Europe and the United States but of the world."

Biden signed the documents -- formally called the instrument of ratification -- in a ceremony at the White House on August 9.

Sweden and Finland applied for NATO membership in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. They completed accession talks with the alliance just last month.

The U.S. Senate backed the expansion by a vote of 95-1 last week. Both Democrats and Republicans strongly approved the measure, describing Sweden and Finland as important allies whose modern militaries already worked closely with NATO.

Biden said the two countries would become "strong, reliable highly capable new allies" by making the "sacred commitment" to mutual defense in the transatlantic alliance.

Biden handed the pens he used to sign the documents to Sweden's ambassador to the U.S., Karin Olofsdotter, and Finland's ambassador to the U.S., Mikko Hautala, who witnessed the signing along with members of Congress and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Biden said Finland and Sweden both have "strong democratic institutions, strong militaries, and strong and transparent economies" that would now bolster NATO.

He also praised NATO as "the foundation of American security" and said the United States is committed to it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's Russia on the other hand "shattered peace and security in Europe" by invading Ukraine. "Putin thought he could break us apart…Instead, he is getting exactly what he did not want."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the United States appreciates the swift action of the NATO allies that have already ratified the accession protocols "and encourages all to complete the process soon."

As of last week seven member countries -- the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, and Turkey -- had yet to formally agree to the entry of the two countries. Only Turkey has formally raised a challenge, demanding certain concessions from Finland and Sweden to back their memberships.

Blinken also said the commitment among NATO members to Article 5 of the organization's founding treaty remains "ironclad."

Article 5 says NATO members must consider an attack on one member of the alliance as an attack on all, committing each member to defend all others in what NATO calls a spirit of solidarity within the alliance.

"Allies are united in their shared mission to defend the Euro-Atlantic community, deter aggression, project stability, and uphold NATO’s values of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law," Blinken said. "We also remain firmly committed to NATO’s Open Door policy and to further strengthening our bilateral defense and security cooperation."

Russia cited Ukraine's ambitions to join NATO as a key reason for launching the war in February. Putin said in May that, while Russia does not see Finland and Sweden's decision to join NATO as a threat, deployment of military infrastructure in the countries may trigger a response from Moscow.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

U.S. Calls For 'Immediate Steps' To Reduce Tensions In Nagorno-Karabakh

U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Courtney E. Austrian (file photo)

Washington is closely following the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and urges immediate steps to reduce tensions and avoid further escalation, the U.S. mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said on August 9.

In a statement delivered to the OSCE Special Permanent Council in Vienna, U.S. mission Chargé d’Affaires Courtney E. Austrian also said that “the United States expresses its deep concern over the reports of intensive fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh, including casualties and the loss of life.”

“We are closely following the situation [in Nagorno-Karabakh] and urge immediate steps to reduce tensions and avoid further escalation,” Austrian said.

“As we have said many times at the Permanent Council, the United States emphasizes the importance of a negotiated, comprehensive, and sustainable settlement of all remaining issues related to or resulting from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” she added.

The diplomat noted that last week U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken personally engaged Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev “to urge de-escalation and direct contacts to reduce tensions.”

“The United States is ready to engage bilaterally, with like-minded partners, and through our role as an OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair to facilitate dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan and help achieve a long-term political settlement to the conflict,” Austrian said.

At least one Azerbaijani and two ethnic Armenian soldiers were killed during the most recent escalation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, which took place on August 1-3. The two sides blame each other for the violence.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for years.

The mostly Armenian-populated region, which had the status of an autonomous oblast within Soviet Azerbaijan, declared its independence from Baku amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, triggering a 1992-94 war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

The war ended in a Russia-brokered cease-fire, leaving Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenians in control of most of the region as well as several adjacent districts of Azerbaijan proper.

Internationally mediated negotiations with the involvement of the OSCE Minsk Group -- co-chaired by the United States, Russia, and France -- failed to result in a resolution before another large-scale war broke out in September 2020.

The 44-day conflict, which killed more than 6,500 people, ended in a Moscow-brokered cease-fire with Azerbaijan regaining control of all districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as well as large swaths of territory inside the former autonomous oblast itself.

Some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers were deployed in the region to oversee the truce.

With reporting by By Heghine Buniatyan

Russian Border Guards Set Up Road Checkpoints In Southern Armenia

After media reports about the installation of new Russian checkpoints near Meghri, the Russian Federal Security Service's Border Guards Department in Armenia explained that it was done in coordination with Yerevan to prevent smuggling, illegal migration, and other offenses. (file photo)

Citing increased drug trafficking and other illegal cross-border activities, Russian border guards controlling Armenia’s frontier with Iran have set up checkpoints along several roads in the country’s southern Syunik Province.

Images of the checkpoints along the road linking Meghri to other towns appeared on the Internet earlier this week, raising speculation about possible preparations for the opening of transit routes for Azerbaijan via the strategic mountainous region.

Syunik is the Armenian province through which Azerbaijan expects to get a highway and railroad connection with its western exclave of Nakhichevan under the terms of the Russia-brokered 2020 cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh. Under the terms of that arrangement, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) is to ensure the security of traffic along transport routes in Armenia for Azerbaijan.

Yerevan insists that it should maintain sovereignty over the roads, while Baku is seeking an extraterritorial status for them amounting to a corridor similar to the Russian-controlled Lachin corridor that connects Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh.

At a government session on August 4, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian again implicitly rejected the corridor logic for the unblocking of regional transport routes, saying that Azerbaijan even today can use all parts of Armenia, not only Syunik, for transit purposes in accordance with Armenian legislation.

“We have been saying all the while that we are ready to provide this connection between the western districts of Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan. We are ready to ensure this connection even today, but it is Azerbaijan that does not use these opportunities offered by us,” Pashinian said.

Pashinian spoke after the latest escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh in which at least two Armenian soldiers and one Azerbaijani soldier were killed in fresh fighting near the Lachin corridor where Russian peacekeepers are deployed under the terms of the 2020 cease-fire.

Amid the escalation, ethnic Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh announced that several Armenian villages along the current corridor would be evacuated until September when Armenians are to start using an alternative road connecting Armenia and the Armenian-populated region.

Bagrat Zakarian, the mayor of Meghri, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on August 9 that the Russian checkpoints recently spotted in Syunik were actually set up several months ago. In total, he said, five such checkpoints were placed at roads leading from Meghri to several towns and villages in Syunik.

After media reports about the installation of new Russian checkpoints near Meghri, the FSB Border Guards Department in Armenia explained that it was done in coordination with Armenian authorities to prevent smuggling, illegal migration, and other offenses.

According to the FSB, a tense situation has been observed recently at the Meghri section of the Armenian-Iranian state border due to increased attempts to smuggle drugs from Iran to Armenia. Violations of the border by representatives of extremist and terrorist groups were also recorded.

Armenian government officials have not yet commented on the presence of Russian checkpoints along the roads in Syunik.

Meghri’s mayor acknowledged that the checkpoints create certain problems for local tourism.

“Tourists have to go through passport control procedures before they can visit several rural areas here,” Zakarian said.

With reporting by Artak Khulian

On Second Anniversary Of Disputed Belarusian Presidential Poll, Tsikhanouskaya Names 'Interim Cabinet'

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya (center) and her "transitional cabinet" Valer Sakhashchyk (left), Alyaksandr Azarau (second from left), Paval Latushka (second from right) and Valer Kavaleuski (composite file photo)

VILNIUS -- On the second anniversary of the disputed presidential election in Belarus, exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, whom many consider the winner of the August 2020 vote, has named an interim government of the country.

Tsikhanouskaya said on August 9, the final day of a two-day conference of Belarusian democratic movements and groups held in Vilnius, Lithuania, that many opposition figures had demanded that she create "a united interim government" and she said she has now established one.

The interim government consists of Paval Latushka, who is responsible for the transition of power, Alyaksandr Azarau, who will take care of the restoration of law and order, Valer Kavaleuski, who will focus on foreign affairs, and Valer Sakhashchyk who will represent the interim government on issues related to defense and national security, Tsikhanouskaya said. She also called on all Belarusians who want to contribute to the transition of Belarus to a democratic country to join her team.

After the presidential election on August 9, 2020, Belarus was hit by a wave of protests against the results of the poll, which handed victory to authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka despite claims by opposition leaders that the vote was rigged.

Many of Belarus's opposition leaders have been arrested or have been forced to leave the country, while Lukashenka has refused to negotiate with opponents of his regime.

Security officials have cracked down hard on any dissent against Lukashenka's rule, arresting thousands, including dozens of journalists, some of whom are RFE/RL correspondents.

Several protesters have been killed, and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture by security officials against some of those detained.

Belarusian authorities have also shuttered several media outlets, including the Polish-funded Belsat television channel, the popular Nasha Niva newspaper, the Minsk office of RFE/RL, and dozens of regional publications for their independent coverage of Lukashenka's regime.

On August 9, RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly again condemned the imprisonment of RFE/RL correspondents in Belarus who were arrested over their coverage of the disputed poll and its aftermath.

“Two years ago, Alyaksandr Lukashenka stole not only an election, but the futures of our colleagues Ihar Losik, Aleh Hruzdzilovich, and Andrey Kuznechyk,” Fly said in a statement.

“We condemn the Belarusian government’s relentless campaign to criminalize independent media, and demand the immediate release of our journalists imprisoned for reporting the truth.”

The European Union, the United States, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and a brutal police crackdown.

Tsikhanouskaya, 39, emerged as the face of the opposition to Lukashenka after facing off against the strongman because her husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, had been detained to prevent him from running. He is serving an 18-year prison sentence.

Russia Extradites Belarusian Activist Despite Torture Fears

The Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center has recognized Yana Pinchuk as a political prisoner and demanded her immediate release. (file photo)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Russian authorities have extradited activist Yana Pinchuk back to her native Belarus where she faces charges for protesting the disputed August 2020 presidential election that kept authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in power despite opposition accusations that the voting was rigged.

Pinchuk supporters said on August 9 that she was extradited to Belarus.

Pinchuk's lawyer, Maria Belyayeva, confirmed the supporters' statement, adding that her client’s exact current whereabouts are unknown.

In former Soviet countries, convicts and suspects are usually transferred in special trains, and the transfer may last for weeks or even months as the transported individuals stop for an uncertain time in detention centers in towns and cities they pass.

Last month, a court in Russia's second largest city, St. Petersburg, upheld the decision to extradite Pinchuk even after the 25-year-old activist said she may face torture if returned to custody in Belarus.

Pinchuk is wanted in Belarus on several charges, including inciting national hatred, calls for activities that damaged national security, and slander. If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison.

Police in St. Petersburg arrested Pinchuk on November 1 last year at the request of Belarus.

Belarusian authorities accuse Pinchuk of administering the Vitsebsk97% Telegram channel, which had been critical of Lukashenka's regime and has been labeled as extremist in Belarus.

Pinchuk has rejected all of the charges saying she immediately closed the Telegram channel after it was officially designated as extremist.

She is one of many Belarusians who have faced multiple charges linked to the mass protests following Lukashenka's contested reelection.

Thousands have been arrested and much of the opposition leadership has been jailed or forced into exile. Several protesters have been killed and there have also been credible reports of torture during a widening security crackdown.

Belarusian authorities have also shut down several nongovernmental organizations and independent media outlets.

The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and the crackdown.

In December, the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center recognized Pinchuk as a political prisoner and demanded her immediate release.

EU Envisions 'Very Quick' Responses On 'Final Text' Of Iran Nuclear Deal

EU top negotiator Enrique Mora (left) sits with Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani during the latest round of talks in Vienna.

The European Union says that the United States and Iran are likely to respond "very quickly" to a "final text" that has emerged to revive a crippled nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.

EU foreign policy chief and negotiations coordinator Josep Borrell said on August 8 that the 25-page draft had been delivered to the capitals involved for decisions on acceptance.

"We have a final text. So it's the moment for a decision: yes or no. And we expect all participants to take this decision very quickly," Peter Stano, Borrell's spokesman, told reporters on August 9.

"There is no more space for negotiations," Stano said.

A State Department spokesman has said that the United States is ready to "quickly conclude a deal" to revive the 2015 agreement based on the EU proposals.

The spokesman said Washington will wait to see if Tehran's "actions match their words" following repeated signals that Iranian officials might endorse the deal.

Iran has said it is considering the draft amid "more comprehensive discussions in Tehran."

Enrique Mora, the European Union’s top negotiator, has said he's “absolutely” optimistic about the talks’ progress.

Iran struck the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 with the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia, and China. The deal saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium under the watch of UN inspectors in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Washington unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear pact under then-President Donald Trump in 2018. Iran reacted by gradually backtracking on its obligations under the deal, such as uranium enrichment.

Negotiators from Iran, Russia, and the EU -- as well as the United States, indirectly -- resumed talks over Tehran’s nuclear deal on August 4 after a monthslong standstill in negotiations.

Based on reporting by Reuters

Explosions Hit Military Airport In Ukraine's Russia-Annexed Crimea, Killing One Person

The explosions occurred at a military airfield near the village of Novofedorivka.

Moscow-imposed authorities in Ukraine's Crimea that was illegally annexed by Russia say explosions hit a military airport near the village of Novofedorivka, killing one person.

The Russian-appointed head of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, wrote on Telegram on August 9 that one person was killed and expressed condolences to the victim's relatives. He did not identify the victim.

Meanwhile, local health officials said that five people, including one child, were injured.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement earlier that the detonation of aviation ammunition caused the explosions without clarifying who or what triggered the blast.

The ministry's statement implied that the airfield was not targeted in an attack and said that no one was injured.

The primary cause appeared to be a “violation of fire safety requirements,” the ministry said, according to an unidentified ministry source quoted by TASS. The ministry said no warplanes were damaged.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said it did not know what caused the explosions but suggested that Russia may use the incident as propaganda.

An adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine is not taking responsibility for the explosions.

Mykhaylo Podolyak, asked by the Dozhd online television channel whether Kyiv was taking responsibility, replied: "Of course not. What do we have to do with this?"

Zelenskiy responded to the attack by vowing to retake Crimea from Russia.

“This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea — its liberation,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address. “Today it is impossible to say when this will happen. But we are constantly adding the necessary components to the formula for the liberation of Crimea.”

Hours earlier, videos appeared on social media purporting to depict the blasts.

Last week, five Russian Navy staff members were wounded by an explosion after a presumed drone flew into the courtyard of Russia's Black Sea fleet in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol.

Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Dozens Of Iranian Activists Condemn Islamic Republic's Oppression Of Baha'i Community

Buildings belonging to Baha'is in Roshankooh, northern Iran, are destroyed earlier this month.

A group of 70 political and civil activists, university professors, artists, and human rights activists from Ian and abroad have condemned in a joint statement the Islamic Republic's treatment of the Baha'i community following a spike in restrictions and pressure on its members.

"The arbitrary suppression and arrest of Baha'i citizens in various cities has intensified in recent days as more Baha'i students have been deprived of education," the signatories said.

"These crimes are part of the chain of tyranny and the attempt to destroy and eliminate religious minorities and dissidents."

Baha'is -- who number some 300,000 in Iran and have an estimated 5 million followers worldwide -- say they face systematic persecution in Iran, where their faith is not officially recognized in the constitution.

Iranian security forces have arrested dozens of Baha'i followers in recent weeks and raided the homes of hundreds of others.

Among the signatories of the statement are Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi and Iranian-American movie star Shohreh Aghdashloo.

Since the Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979, hundreds of Baha'is have been arrested and jailed for their beliefs. At least 200 have been executed or were arrested and never heard from again.

Thousands more have been banned from receiving higher education or had their property confiscated, while vandals often desecrate Baha'i cemeteries.

The statement said the ruling autocratic ideology of Iran is the result of religious apartheid, which has deprived millions of Baha'is of their civil rights because of their religious beliefs.

Iran' Ministry of Intelligence accused a number of Baha'is who were arrested recently that they are "directly connected with the Zionist center known as Bayt al-Adl located in occupied Palestine."

Bayt al-Adl (The Universal House of Justice), located in Haifa, is the nine-member supreme ruling body of the Baha'i Faith.

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has on several occasions called the Baha'i faith a cult and issued a religious fatwa in 2018 forbidding contact, including business dealings, with followers of the faith.

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

Russia Says Ukraine Suspended Oil Flows To Europe Due To Sanctions

Transneft says that the situation had affected deliveries to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia. (file photo)

Ukraine has suspended Russian oil flows to three European nations as of August 4 because the transit payment cannot be processed due to sanctions, Russia's pipeline monopoly company said.

Transneft said on August 9 that the situation had affected deliveries to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, Western military aid, worldwide reaction, and the plight of civilians and refugees. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

According to the company, it made payments for the August oil transit to Ukraine's pipeline operator Ukrtransnafta on July 22, but the payment did not go through and, therefore, the money bounced back.

Gazprombank, which handled the payment, said the money was returned because of European Union restrictions, adding that oil deliveries to Poland and Germany via Belarus were under way "as usual."

Russia has already reduced gas pipeline flows to many EU member-states, citing problems with turbine maintenance on the Nord Stream 1 pipeline as well as sanctions against some buyers whom Moscow has officially recognized as "unfriendly."

Since the Kremlin launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the West has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia, cutting the country off from international financial institutions.

The European Union has been looking for ways to reduce its dependence on Russian energy resources and has agreed to ban more than two-thirds of Russian oil imports.

The United States banned Russian oil and gas days after Russia launched its wide-scale aggression against Ukraine.

Based on Reporting by Interfax, TASS, Reuters, and AFP

Kremlin Lashes Out At European Leaders For Supporting Visa Ban For All Russians

Barring all Russians would also impact the tens of thousands of people who have left that country out of protest or disagreement with the actions of Putin and his administration. 

The Kremlin has lashed out at European critics including leaders of EU states and besieged Ukraine over their calls for all Russians to be banned from the West until their country ends its invasion of Ukraine along with the underlying mindset.

The sharp response follows encouragement by the Finnish and Estonian prime ministers for a ban on visas to Russians and news that the French military has banned Russian nationals from a medieval fortress and touristic site outside Paris that houses military archives.

Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has killed tens of thousands of troops and civilians since it was launched in late February, sparked unprecedented financial and other sanctions, flight and airspace bans, and contributed to a global food crisis.

Some EU countries, including Latvia, have already stopped issuing visas to Russians, citing the war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose defiant leadership has included nightly video messages imploring international assistance, this week urged the West to ban all Russians to discourage Moscow from trying to annex more territory.

Zelenskiy told The Washington Post that "whichever kind of Russian" should be made to "go to Russia."

But Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said on August 9 that "the irrationality of thinking" behind calls for such bans "is off the charts."

Amid increasing tensions with the West, poisonings abroad allegedly ordered by senior Russian officials, and the creep of Russian troops and proxy fighters from Georgia to Ukraine to Syria and central Africa, Putin and other Russian officials have complained of growing "Russophobia."

Peskov said the fresh calls to ban Russians "can only be viewed extremely negatively" and warned that "any attempt to isolate Russians or Russia is a process that has no prospects."

EU members and Russia neighbors Finland and Estonia have hinted they're willing to try a visa ban.

Finland Prime Minister Sanna Marin told Finnish broadcaster YLE on August 8 that "it is not right that while Russia is waging an aggressive, brutal war of aggression in Europe, Russians can live a normal life, travel in Europe, be tourists."

Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas followed with a call for countries to "stop issuing tourist visas to Russians."

"Visiting #Europe is a privilege, not a human right," Kallas tweeted. "Air travel from RU is shut down. It means while Schengen countries issue visas, neighbors to Russia carry the burden (FI, EE, LV – sole access points). Time to end tourism from Russia now."

Barring all Russians would also impact the tens of thousands of people who have left that country out of protest or disagreement with the actions of Putin and his administration.

"They'll understand then," the Ukrainian president told The Washington Post. "They'll say, 'This [war] has nothing to do with us. The whole population can't be held responsible, can it?' It can. The population picked this government and they're not fighting it, not arguing with it, not shouting at it."

"Don't you want this isolation?" Zelensky added, speaking as if he were addressing Russians directly. "You're telling the whole world that it must live by your rules. Then go and live there. This is the only way to influence Putin."

The French military has imposed a ban on Russians visiting the storied Chateau de Vincennes, once the residence of French kings and a venue for tours and concerts as well as part of the French armed forces' historical archives.

AFP quoted two Russian women denied entry by French guards after showing their documents and being told they couldn't get in "because you're Russian."

Putin has spent the decades since taking office in 1999 consolidating and otherwise tightening the country's grip on media, including strictures in the past decade like laws on "foreign agents" and "undesirable" designations to punish activists, journalists, and any other perceived enemies.

Since the full-scale war in Ukraine was launched, criminal procedures and other punishments have been imposed for criticism of the Russian military or even just describing the conflict as a war, rather than the Kremlin's preferred term, a "special military operation."

With reporting by AFP and AP

Putin, Israeli Counterpart Discuss Jewish Agency Case In Call

Israeli President Isaac Herzog was chairman of the Jewish Agency before he took over as president. (file photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli President Isaac Herzog discussed the strained relations between their countries and the situation of the Jewish Agency in Russia in a phone call on August 9.

The Russian Justice Ministry has moved to disband the agency's Russian arm, which promotes emigration to Israel, despite protests from Israel.

Russia accuses the organization of violating the country's laws and, according to media reports, unlawfully collecting personal data from Russian citizens.

Some Israelis have seen this as retribution for Israel's criticism of Russia's military campaign in Ukraine.

The case against the Jewish Agency is due to be heard on August 19.

The discussion was "open and honest," Herzog's office said, adding that Herzog spoke at length about the activities of the agency.

Herzog was chairman of the Jewish Agency before he took over as president.

"The two presidents emphasized the important areas of cooperation between Israel and Russia, and agreed to stay in touch," Herzog's office announced.

Putin, he said, had stressed his personal commitment to remembrance of the Holocaust and the fight against anti-Semitism.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that the phone call also touched upon the Jewish Agency. Both sides had agreed that "contacts on this will continue along the responsible authorities of both countries," he said.

Peskov rejected reports that the dissolution of the organization was intended to prevent the departure of bright minds from Russia.

Based on reporting by dpa and Reuters

Bulgarian Court Orders Extradition Of Russian Protester Over Tax-Evasion Charge

A protest against Aleksei Alchin's extradition to Russia took place outside the district court in Varna on August 8.

A Bulgarian court has ordered the extradition of a Russian man accused at home of large-scale tax evasion in a case complicated by the suspect's burning of his Russian passport during an antiwar protest in the Black Sea resort of Varna.

The suspect, 46-year-old Aleksei Alchin, has argued that Russian authorities are persecuting him for his political leanings and criticism of Russia's war on Ukraine.

Alchin says he has been living in Bulgaria for five years.

He was declared a fugitive by Russian prosecutors in April 2018 following an investigation into alleged tax evasion.

He took part in a protest in Bulgaria two days after the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24 in which he demonstratively burned his Russian passport.

Months later, Bulgarian authorities were notified by Russian officials that Alchin was the target of an international manhunt and a formal extradition request followed.

He was detained by Bulgarian authorities last week and his extradition case was heard on August 8 by a district court in Varna, in eastern Bulgaria.

Alchin's wife, friends, and others protested outside the court for his release.

But the court ruled that the tax-evasion charges against him were of a sufficient magnitude to warrant his extradition.

Through its press service, the Bulgarian court also cited an assurance from a Russian deputy prosecutor-general, Pyotr Gorodov, that Alchin won't be tortured or otherwise abused and that he will be allowed counsel.

Russia's heavily prosecutor-friendly legal system leads to convictions in around 99 percent of all cases, and allegations are widespread of detainee and inmate abuse.

The Varna court also cited a guarantee by Russian prosecutors that Alchin will only be investigated for tax evasion and that, if he is convicted, he will be allowed to leave Russia after serving any possible sentence.

Alchin can appeal the first-instance ruling within seven days.

It is unclear what sort of leverage officials in Bulgaria -- a NATO and EU member whose relations with Moscow have markedly worsened since Russia's military invaded Ukraine -- might have if Russian authorities abandon their pledges concerning Alchin.

Alchin requested political asylum in Bulgaria only after being detained in connection with the extradition request, which prosecutors said hurt his chances of success.

Russian authorities have sought him internationally since February 2020.

Alchin has described past employment in Russia that includes work for a State Duma committee that he says he left "due to the high level of corruption in the system."

He said he fled Russia after being warned that his metals company had attracted interest from elites and he might be accused of tax crimes.

He also said he'd never received any subpoenas, as lawyers he approached before fleeing came under "pressure" and refused to represent his interests.

Belarus Air Force Starts Exercises At Home And At Russian Base

Paratroopers attend a military exercises at the Ashuluk military base in southern Russia. (file photo)

Belarus' air force is holding exercises on its territory and at a military training base in Russia, the Belarusian Defense Ministry said on August 9.

According to the ministry, the drills involve live fire and are to be held in two phases: the first from August 9 to August 11 in Belarus, while the second one on August 22-25 will take place at Russia's Ashuluk military training base located in Russia's southwest near the border with Kazakhstan.

Belarus' authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has openly supported Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that was launched in late February.

Although Belarusian troops have not taken part in the invasion, Belarusian authorities allowed Russia's military to use the country's territory to enter Ukraine and shell Ukrainian towns and cities from Belarus.

Based on reporting by Interfax, TASS, and Reuters

Russia-Appointed Deputy Mayor Of Ukrainian Town Detained On Criminal Charges

A screen shot from the first days of the invasion in Kherson in February, when Russia occupied the region.

The Moscow-appointed deputy mayor of the occupied Ukrainian city of Nova Kakhovka, Vitaliy Efymenko, has been detained on criminal charges.

Russia-imposed authorities in the city in Ukraine's southeastern region of Kherson said on August 8 that they confiscated illegal weapons and tens of millions of rubles from Efymenko, who is also a local businessman.

According to the so-called Temporary Directorate of the Russian Interior Ministry in the region, Efymenko is suspected of being a member of a gang that conducted at least two attacks against two local businessmen in recent weeks.

After Russia occupied the Kherson region in the first days of its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine launched in late February, he was appointed by occupying forces as Nova Kakhovka's first deputy mayor.

Last week, Efymenko survived an apparent car-bomb assassination attempt.

Ukrainian media reports cited sources at the time as saying that Efymenko was a criminal kingpin.

On August 6, another deputy mayor of Nova Kakhovka, Vitaliy Hura, was shot dead by an unidentified assailant while leaving his home.

On August 5, Russian news agencies reported that the Russia-appointed governor of the Kherson region, Volodymyr Saldo, had been hospitalized. Some reports said then that he may have been poisoned.

On June 24, a car bomb in Kherson killed the Russia-appointed head of the directorate for youth policies at the Kherson region's administration, Dmytro Savluchenko.

With reporting by Kommersant

Disinformation Trackers Say Myth-Spreading Sites Doubled After Russian Invasion Began

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the headquarters of the RT television channel in Moscow. The European Commission has banned distribution or advertising support for "propaganda sites" like RT and Sputnik News. (file photo)

The number of websites spreading Russia-Ukraine disinformation has more than doubled since Russia's unprovoked invasion was launched in late February, says a New York-based group that rates trustworthiness across media.

NewsGuard said on August 9 that its experts have identified 250 websites publishing disinformation related to those two combatant states, versus 116 in March.

It said digital platforms like Google, Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok have imposed "temporary measures in some countries against well-known Russian propaganda outlets such as RT and Sputnik News, after the European Commission prohibited distribution or advertising support for these Kremlin-funded and operated propaganda sites."

"However," it added, "the large number of other sites identified by NewsGuard continue to spread myths freely on the Internet."

It cited 54 leading myths being spread by those outlets about the five-month-old conflict or its roots in eight years of fighting between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists.

They include "claims that the U.S. operates labs in Ukraine to develop bioweapons, that Russian troops were not responsible for the massacre of civilians in Bucha in March, and that Russian did not attack the railway station in Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine," the group said.

Many of the sites avoid disclosing ownership or control but claim -- without evidence -- to be independent think tanks or other nonprofits.

European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova recently described disinformation as "a growing problem in the EU, and we really have to take stronger measures."

NewsGuard launched a Russia-Ukraine Disinformation Tracking Center in March, days after tens of thousands of Russian troops rolled across Ukraine's border.

With reporting by Reuters

Russia Launches Iranian Satellite Into Orbit

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket carrying the Khayyam satellite blasts off from a launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kyrgyzstan on August 9.

A Russian rocket successfully launched an Iranian satellite into space on August 9 amid accusations that Moscow might use it to improve its surveillance of military targets in Ukraine.

The remote sensing satellite, called Khayyam, was launched by a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan, at 08:52 a.m. Moscow time on August 9, according to a video broadcast by Russia's space agency on YouTube.

The Washington Post reported last week that U.S. officials are worried by the incipient space cooperation between Russia and Iran and fear the satellite will not only help Russia in Ukraine but also provide Iran "unprecedented capabilities" to monitor potential military targets in Israel and the Middle East.

Iran says the satellite is designed for scientific research including radiation and environmental monitoring for agricultural purposes and no other country will have access to information it gathers.

Russia has sought to deepen its ties with Iran since it invaded Ukraine in February.

Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Iran in his first international trip outside the former Soviet Union since the war.

Based on reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Rights Group Says 'Bogus' New Charge Targets Russian Dissident Kara-Murza

A close associate of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Kara-Murza fell deathly ill on two separate occasions in Moscow -- in 2015 and 2017-- with symptoms consistent with poisoning. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Russia's "spurious" new charge against opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza is "a thinly veiled threat to the Russian public not to engage in dissent," as authorities there accelerate their long-running clampdown amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Kara-Murza's lawyer announced last week that his client had been charged with carrying out activities of an "undesirable" organization.

HRW demanded in an August 8 statement that Russian officials drop all charges against Kara-Murza and repeal the "abusive" law that underpins the latest accusation.

"It is now a pattern for the Kremlin to throw its critics behind bars on spurious charges and then continue to add new bogus charges against them to keep them there," HRW quoted its Europe and Central Asia director, Hugh Williamson, as saying. "The new charge against Kara-Murza is a blatant attempt to instill more fear among Russia’s civil society and deter it from mobilizing against the Kremlin and its war against Ukraine."

A longtime Kremlin-critic who has survived at least two apparent poisonings, Kara-Murza was already in jail after he was arrested in April for allegedly spreading false information about the Russian Army's activities in Ukraine.

On August 9, a Moscow court extended his detention until October 12, Interfax reported quoting the court's press service, on a charge of deliberately disseminating false information in a speech on March 15 to Arizona lawmakers.

According to his lawyer Vadim Prokhorov, Kara-Murza is now charged with holding a Moscow conference in October to support Russian political prisoners that was sponsored by the foreign-based Free Russia Foundation. That group has been recognized as "undesirable" in the country.

The new charge carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison, according to HRW.

"The fake charges against Kara-Murza are purely politically motivated, and he should be immediately and unconditionally released, as should the many other Russians prosecuted on outrageous 'fake news,' 'undesirable,' and similar charges," Williamson said. "The Russian authorities need to stop misusing and manipulating the justice system in their desperate efforts to stomp out dissent and opposition."

The "undesirable organization" law, adopted in 2015, was part of a series of regulations pushed by the Kremlin that squeezed many nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that received funding from foreign sources -- mainly from Europe and the United States.

Russian lawmakers have since dramatically widened the scope of the law, including to bar Russian nationals and organizations anywhere in the world from taking part in activities of such "undesirable" groups.

A close associate of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Kara-Murza fell deathly ill on two separate occasions in Moscow -- in 2015 and 2017-- with symptoms consistent with poisoning.

Tissue samples smuggled out of Russia by his relatives were turned over to the FBI, which investigated his case as one of "intentional poisoning."


U.K. Says Russian Advances 'Less Than Planned' As Kyiv Cites Invaders' Ongoing Offensive

Ukrainian soldiers from the Fireflies reconnaissance team ride in a pickup truck to their position at the front line in the Mykolayiv region on August 8.

Russia has been "reinforcing defenses" in southern Ukraine while keeping up attacks on Ukrainian positions in the eastern Donetsk region but has only managed to advance about 10 kilometers in the past month on its "most successful axis" there, according to U.K. military intelligence.

In its latest regular assessment, on August 9, British Defense Intelligence said Russian forces had not advanced more than three kilometers elsewhere in Donetsk, one of the two eastern regions where Russia-backed separatists have held large swaths of territory for the past eight years.

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Such a pace is "almost certainly significantly less than planned," the intelligence added.

"Despite its continued heavy use of artillery in these areas, Russia has not been able to generate capable combat infantry in sufficient numbers to secure more substantial advances," it said.

British intelligence previously warned on August 8 that Russia was using anti-personnel mines in an effort to defend and hold its defense lines, with resulting risks to both the military and local civilian populations.

The Ukrainian Army's General Staff said early on August 9 that a Russian offensive is continuing toward the hub cities of Bakhmut and Avdiyivka in the eastern Donetsk region as the enemy tries to inflict "maximum losses" on Ukrainian forces.

It said the Russian Air Force was bombarding military facilities in the direction of Donetsk in support of artillery and other ground operations aimed at dislodging Ukrainian units from the front lines.

Battlefield reports from either side in the rapidly developing conflict are difficult to confirm.

But Kyiv's military planners said their forces had repelled reconnaissance and offensive operations in a handful of settlements around Ivano-Daryivka, Bakhmut, and Zaitseve.

They said Russian forces had withdrawn after unsuccessful pushes around Avdiyivka and Krasnohorivka.

WATCH: German-Built Howitzers Pound Russian Targets In Ukraine

German-Built Howitzers Pound Russian Targets In Ukraine
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Kyiv said two Russian warships armed with Kalibr cruise missiles are poised for battle off Ukraine's Black Sea coast.

Meanwhile, international concern persisted over the weekend shelling of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant over potential for disaster at Europe's largest atomic facility.

The head of the Ukrainian nuclear power company Enerhoatom has urged that Zaporizhzhya be declared a military-free zone to avoid nuclear catastrophe.

Zaporizhzhya was seized early in the five-month-old invasion but continues to be manned by Ukrainian staff.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that "any attack to a nuclear plant is a suicidal thing" in calling on August 8 for international inspectors to be given access to Zaporizhzhya.

The Russian-installed head of the local administration was quoted by Interfax as saying on August 8 that the facility was operating "in normal mode."

Washington and the World Bank announced more support for Ukraine on the heels of U.S. President Joe Biden's committing this week to the single largest package of security assistance under his so-called drawdown authority with $1 billion in aid that includes long-range weapons and medical transport vehicles.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said on August 8 that Washington would provide $4.5 billion more in economic funding, nearly doubling the budgetary support so far since Russia's invasion began in February.

The World Bank said it will implement the U.S. grant, which it said is aimed at urgent needs including health-care, pensions, and social payments.

Also, Reuters cited a document in which Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and the United Nations pledged to ensure a 10-nautical-mile buffer zone for ships exporting Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea.

The long-awaited procedures are part of intense international efforts to unblock millions of tons of grain stuck at Ukrainian ports since the invasion began.

With reporting by Reuters

Russia Freezes U.S. Inspections Of Its Nuclear Arsenal Under New START

A rocket launches from a missile system as part of a ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile test launched from the Plesetsk facility in northwestern Russia in December 2020.

Russia has informed the United States of a freeze on U.S. inspections of its nuclear weapons under the New START arms control treaty, claiming Western sanctions have hampered similar inspections of U.S. facilities by Russian monitors.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the sanctions on Russian flights imposed by the United States and its allies over Russia's invasion of Ukraine along with visa restrictions and other obstacles have effectively made it impossible for Russian military experts to visit U.S. nuclear weapons sites.

It said the conditions "create unilateral advantages for the United States and effectively deprive the Russian Federation of the right to conduct inspections on American territory."

The United States had no immediate response to the move.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the freeze is temporary and allowed under the pact "in exceptional cases."

It noted that Russia "highly values" the New START treaty and said it remains "fully committed" to complying with all its provisions.

It also said that after the problems are resolved Russia will "immediately lift the exemptions from inspection activities that we have announced."

The ministry also urged a "thorough study of all existing problems in this area, the successful settlement of which would allow a return to full-scale application as soon as possible of all verification mechanisms of the treaty."

The New START treaty, signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.

Just days before the New START was due to expire in February 2021, Russia and the United States agreed to extend it for another five years.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Turkey Warns Armenia Against 'New Provocations' Over Nagorno-Karabakh

The village of Vanq in the Nagorno Karabakh region

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has called on Armenia to "refrain from new provocations" several days after Yerevan and Baku traded accusations over an escalation of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh that left at least three people dead.

Speaking at a gathering of Turkish diplomats in Ankara on August 8, Cavusoglu reiterated his country’s vision of peace in the South Caucasus region.

"Since the end of the war, Turkey continues to make efforts to ensure peace in the region," Cavusoglu said, alluding to the deadly six-week war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas that ended with a Moscow-brokered cease-fire in November 2020.

Backed by Turkey, an archfoe of Armenia, Azerbaijan gained control of swathes of territory that had been controlled by ethnic Armenians since the former Soviet republics fought a war over Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s.

"Now we are talking not about Azerbaijan's occupied territories, displaced people, refugees, and a conflict that can start again at any moment, but about regional peace and cooperation," Cavusoglu said. "We again call on Armenia to refrain from participating in new provocations [against Azerbaijan in Karabakh]."

On August 3, ethnic Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh said that two Armenian soldiers were killed and nearly two dozen others wounded in what they described as an attack by Azerbaijani forces against their military positions along the Lachin corridor conducted with the use of drones, mortars, and grenade launchers.

The Lachin corridor connects Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh and is currently controlled by Russian peacekeepers under the terms of the 2020 cease-fire.

Baku, for its part, said the operation was in retaliation for the killing of one Azerbaijani soldier by ethnic Armenian forces in the area on August 1.

Azerbaijan also claimed to have captured some strategic heights in the mountainous region overlooking the Lachin corridor.

Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian leader Arayik Harutiunian ordered a "partial mobilization" of army reservists in the wake of the incidents. However, the situation did not further escalate amid reported agreements that ethnic Armenians would be leaving several villages along the Lachin corridor that are to be handed over to Azerbaijan as part of the cease-fire agreement.

Despite what appears to be a deescalation of conflict in keeping with calls by Russia, the United States, and the European Union, the situation in and around Nagorno-Karabakh remains relatively tense as Armenians and Azerbaijanis continue to accuse each other of regular cease-fire violations.

Armenia said one of its soldiers was wounded along the border with Azerbaijan on August 6, a claim denied by Azerbaijan but confirmed by the Russian Defense Ministry in its latest news bulletin on the Nagorno-Karabakh peacekeeping operation.

Turkey, which is Azerbaijan's top military and political ally and has no diplomatic relations with Armenia, has been engaged in a normalization process with Yerevan since late last year.

Ankara, however, has made it clear that establishing diplomatic relations and opening borders with Armenia depends on Yerevan's acceptance of Baku's key demands.

Commenting on the prospect of normalizing Turkish-Armenian relations in July, Cavusoglu said that Yerevan should specifically negotiate a peace accord sought by Baku and open a land corridor to Azerbaijan's Nakhichevan exclave.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a conflict over Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh for years.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been populated mainly by ethnic Armenians, declared independence from Azerbaijan amid a 1988-94 war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Internationally mediated negotiations with the involvement of the OSCE's so-called Minsk Group -- co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States -- failed to result in a resolution before war broke out again in September 2020.

In the aftermath of the war that killed more than 6,500 people, Armenia agreed to hand over three districts ringing Nagorno-Karabakh that had been under Armenian control since the 1990s, including the Lachin corridor, and Russia deployed some 2,000 peacekeepers to oversee the truce.

With reporting by RFE/RL Armenian Service correspondent Armen Koloyan

U.S. Seeks To Seize $90 Million Jet Belonging To Russian Oligarch

State Duma member Andrei Skoch has been designated for sanctions since 2018 for alleged "long-standing ties to Russian organized criminal groups."

The United States has obtained a warrant to seize an Airbus jet owned by Russian oligarch Andrei Skoch, the Justice Department says.

The aircraft, valued at $90 million, is currently in Kazakhstan, according to an affidavit in support of the seizure warrant.

The warrant was signed by a U.S. district judge in New York after a federal agent submitted the affidavit, which also said Skoch was the owner of the Airbus "through a series of shell companies and trusts tied to his romantic partner."

Skoch, who is a member of the Russian State Duma, has been designated for sanctions since 2018 for alleged "long-standing ties to Russian organized criminal groups."

Further sanctions were imposed on him and his assets following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The Justice Department said after the Treasury Department designated Skoch in 2018 and continuing through 2021, U.S. dollar transactions were made to pay for the registration of the Airbus in Aruba and for aviation insurance premiums -- each necessary to maintain and operate the Airbus.

The United States and European Union have stepped up a crackdown on Russian oligarchs following Russian leader Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

They have moved to seize luxury estates, superyachts, and aircraft of Russian billionaires known to have ties to Putin in an effort to pressure people close to him and in turn influence his decisions on the war.

The United States had already revealed it was seeking to seize a $156 million superyacht belonging to Skoch. The 98-meter yacht is registered in the Cayman Islands but has most recently been docked at Port Rashid in Dubai.

With reporting by AFP and AP

Ally Of Armenian PM Downplays Armenian-Russian 'Differences' Over Peacekeepers

Vigen Khachatrian, a member of the ruling Civil Contract faction, denied speculation about a growing rift between Yerevan and Moscow.

An Armenian pro-government lawmaker has denied any major differences between Yerevan and Moscow over the role of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh following deadly clashes in the disputed region last week.

Vigen Khachatrian, a member of the ruling Civil Contract faction led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, said on August 8 that there was no "tension" or "differences" with the Russian peacekeeping operation that has overseen a Moscow-brokered cease-fire between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces since November 2020.

The deadly clashes broke out between ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in early August along the Lachin corridor, an area that links Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh and which is under the control of Russian peacekeepers as part the trilateral cease-fire deal that ended a six-month war in 2020 between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions.

Following the renewed fighting last week that reportedly left two Armenian and one Azerbaijani soldier dead, Armenia accused Azerbaijan of violating the cease-fire, and Pashinian on August 4 called for "adjusting" the Russian peacekeeping operation.

Azerbaijan has denied any cease-fire violations in or around Karabakh and accused Armenia of violating the agreement. The situation in the Lachin corridor and the "line of contact" monitored by Russian peacekeepers had been relatively calm since March.

Pashinian in particular suggested that the Russian contingent could be given a "broader international mandate."

"If we see that solutions are not possible in a trilateral [Russian-Armenian-Azerbaijani] format, we will have to think about activating additional international mechanisms," Pashinian said on August 4.

The following day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow had not received any concrete proposals for any changes to the peacekeeping mandate from Pashinian and said that Russian peacekeepers were "making every effort to stabilize the situation on the ground."

However, Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vahan Hunanian said later on August 5 that in February 2021 the Armenian side submitted written concerns about the activities of the Russian peacekeeping contingent to Russia's top leadership, with the aim of improving efficiency and avoiding conflict in the future.

Armenia’s Foreign Ministry has not yet disclosed details of the 2021 document it says was submitted to Russia.

The exchange between the Armenian and Russian officials gave rise to speculation about a growing rift between Yerevan and Moscow.

Civil Contract lawmaker Khachatrian, however, said on August 8 it was more a lack of understanding.

"I don't think that the Foreign Ministry should publish the contents of every document. What was said is as much as could be said," he said.

Later on August 8, the Kremlin said in a statement that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pashinian had discussed the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh by telephone.

Gegham Manukian, a member of the opposition Hayastan parliamentary faction who last year joined calls for Pashinian to step down following Armenia's defeat in the 2020 war, said it was unclear how the Armenian side envisions ways of raising the effectiveness of the Russian peacekeeping operation.

However, he did outline how his faction sees the situation.

"We should first discuss the issue of raising the number of Russian peacekeepers [deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh]," he said. "Secondly, we should reconsider the way the Russian force is deployed."

Baku and Yerevan have been locked in a conflict over Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh for years.

Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that killed some 30,000 people. Diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict between the two former Soviet republics brought little progress.

A multinational peacekeeping operation was discussed as part of the peace process before the renewed outbreak of war in 2020. But after Russia brokered the cease-fire, fellow OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs the United States and France welcomed Moscow's peacekeeping operation.

With reporting by Naira Nalbandian of RFE/RL's Armenian Service

U.S. Announces Billions In Military, Budgetary Aid To Ukraine

'It Was Hell Here': Ukrainian Troops Say U.S.-Supplied HIMARS Make A Difference
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The United States has announced another $1 billion in new military aid for Ukraine, pledging what will be the largest delivery yet of rockets, ammunition, and other arms from Defense Department stockpiles to Ukrainian forces.

The Pentagon announcement on August 8 came as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) pledged an additional $4.5 billion to Ukraine's government for basic services such as electricity flow to hospitals and the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Ukrainians.

The military aid includes additional rockets for high-mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS), which Ukraine says have been effective in helping its forces on the battlefield.

In addition to rockets for the HIMARS, the aid includes thousands of artillery rounds, mortar systems, Javelins, and other ammunition and equipment, the Pentagon said in a statement.

The aid is the 18th drawdown of equipment from Department of Defense inventories for Ukraine since August 2021.

"In total, the United States has now committed approximately $9.8 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden administration," acting Pentagon spokesman Todd Breasseale said in the statement.

Until now, the largest single security-assistance package announcement was for $1 billion on June 15. That aid included $650 million under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative in addition to a drawdown of $350 million.

USAID said the aid it announced on August 8 brings its total budgetary support since Russia's February invasion to $8.5 billion.

The funding, coordinated with the U.S. Treasury Department through the World Bank, will go to Ukraine's government in tranches, beginning with a $3 billion disbursement in August, USAID said in a news release.

The new funds are to help it maintain essential functions, including social and financial assistance for poor people, children with disabilities, and millions of internally displaced persons.

The World Bank estimates that 55 percent of Ukrainians will be living in poverty by the end of 2023 as a result of the war and the large numbers of displaced persons.

That compares with 2.5 percent living in poverty before the start of the war.

With reporting by AP

Russian Activist Jailed For Repeatedly Violating Protest Law

Vadim Khairullin was charged last year after he staged three one-person pickets to support jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.

KALININGRAD, Russia -- A court in Russia's far western Kaliningrad exclave has sentenced an activist to one year in prison under a controversial law that criminalizes participation in more than one unsanctioned protest within a 180-day period.

Vadim Khairullin's lawyer, Maria Bontsler, told RFE/RL that her client was sentenced on August 8, emphasizing that the ruling will be appealed.

The case against Khairullin was launched in July 2021 after he staged three one-person pickets to support jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.

The law under which Khairullin was sentenced was adopted in 2014 and heavily criticized by rights defenders, who called it an attempt to suppress dissent. The legislation is known as Dadin's law after Ildar Dadin, the first person convicted under the statute.

Dadin served more than a year in prison after he was convicted of the same offense in December 2015.

Ukraine Jails Russian Soldier For 10 Years For Shelling Residential Building

The shelling caused no casualties but destroyed two private apartments and technical premises in the building. (illustrative photo)

A court in Ukraine has sentenced a Russian soldier from Siberia to 10 years in prison for shelling a residential building in Ukraine's northern city of Chernihiv in late February.

A court in Chernihiv sentenced Sergeant Mikhail Kulikov on August 8 after he pleaded guilty to shooting a tank cannon at a high-rise building on February 26, two days after Russia started its ongoing, unprovoked invasion.

Kulikov said at the trial that he followed the command of his superior, who shouted that there was a person with a grenade launcher in the building, which later turned out to be false.

The shelling caused no casualties but destroyed two private apartments and technical premises in the building.

"I want to say to all who were affected by what I did both morally and physically that I am sorry. I have regretted what I did from the very beginning to this day. I am really sorry. Forgive me. I just want to go home to my family. Thank you for everything," Kulikov said at the trial.

Sources in Kulikov's native town of Zarinsk in the Altai region told RFE/RL that the 31-year-old Kulikov served as a gunner in a tank unit in the town of Aleisk.

Earlier in May, another Russian soldier from Siberia, Vadim Shishimarin of Irkutsk, was sentenced to life in prison for shooting to death a civilian in Ukraine's northeastern region of Sumy. That sentence was later changed to 15 years in prison.

Also in May, a court in the northeastern town of Kotelva sentenced two Russian soldiers, Aleksandr Ivanov and Aleksandr Bobykin, to 11 1/2 years in prison each after finding them guilty of shelling and destroying several residential buildings in the town of Kozacha Lopan and a school in the town of Veterinarne in the eastern Kharkiv region on February 24, the first day of Russia's full-scale invasion.

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