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NATO Top Commander To Work On Coronavirus Response

Foreign ministers representing the 30-nation alliance met to assess ways of coordinating pandemic response efforts more closely.
Foreign ministers representing the 30-nation alliance met to assess ways of coordinating pandemic response efforts more closely.

NATO foreign ministers have tasked the alliance’s top military officer to help boost the 30 allies’ response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made the announcement on April 2, after the ministers held talks by video conference -- a first in NATO's 70-year history -- because of restrictions on travel and physical interaction imposed to contain the virus.

Stoltenberg said the ministers had asked U.S. Air Force General Tod Wolters, who currently serves as NATO's supreme allied commander Europe (SACEUR), “to coordinate the necessary military support to combat the crisis, to speed up and step up assistance.”

"For instance, by identifying the airlift capacity to ensure that medical supplies are delivered, coordinating on any surplus capacity or stocks, and better matching requests for support with offers from allies and partners," Stoltenberg added.

Flights carrying equipment to help in the fight against the pandemic will be given priority in European airspace.

The ministers are to hold another video conference in mid-April to review the situation.

NATO has already helped deliver emergency supplies to its worst-hit members, such as Italy and Spain, while national armed forces are supporting domestic measures to combat the crisis.

At the same time, allies are concerned that NATO's adversaries such as Russia and terrorist groups could conduct hostile activities while member countries are focused primarily on combating COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

In a joint statement issued after their conference, the NATO ministers stressed that the allies remain ready to defend themselves against any threat.

"Our ability to conduct our operations and assure deterrence and defense against all the threats we face is unimpaired," they said.

The allies also urged the Taliban and all political actors in Afghanistan to play their part in brokering a deal that would put an end to the country’s 18-year conflict.

The ministers welcomed their 30th ally, North Macedonia, which joined the Western alliance last week.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and dpa

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Zelenskiy Expresses Hopes For Switzerland Peace Summit, Says 31,000 Ukrainian Troops Killed In War

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the February 25 news conference that he is "sure" a crucially needed aid package will eventually be approved in the U.S. Congress.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the February 25 news conference that he is "sure" a crucially needed aid package will eventually be approved in the U.S. Congress.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 25 said he hopes that a summit of world leaders will be held in Switzerland in the coming months and that a blueprint of the resulting vision for peace will be presented to Russia.

Zelenskiy also said that more than 31,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed in the war, which began on February 24, 2022. He said tens of thousands of civilians have also been killed.

"I hope it [a summit] will take place this spring. We must not lose this diplomatic initiative," Zelenskiy told a Kyiv news conference on February 25 to mark the two-year anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of his nation.

Zelenskiy said Ukraine's victory in the war depends on continued Western support, which has faced resistance mainly from Republican Party lawmakers in the United States.

He told the news conference that he is "sure" a crucially needed aid package will eventually be approved in the U.S. Congress.

Swiss President Viola Amherd on February 24 said neutral Switzerland hopes to host a senior-level peace conference in the next few months.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Reuters, and AFP

Russian Drone Forces Germany's Baerbock To Cut Short Waterworks Plant Visit In Ukraine

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and her Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, visit a Ukraine-Moldova border crossing point in the Odesa region on February 24.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and her Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, visit a Ukraine-Moldova border crossing point in the Odesa region on February 24.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock had to cut short her tour of a waterworks facility in southern Ukraine on February 25 when a Russian spy drone was sighted, a Foreign Office official said. Baerbock had been visiting the Ukrainian city of Mykolayiv over the weekend when members of the delegation were asked to quickly return to the armored vehicles in Baerbock's convoy after a Russian drone was spotted flying over the waterworks. Baerbock earlier announced that Germany will provide an additional 100 million euros ($108 million) in humanitarian aid to Ukraine to support the water supply, hospitals, and housing.

Afghan Girls Banned From Contacting Media In Eastern Province

The Taliban police in Afghanistan’s eastern Khost Province has banned local radio and television channels from accepting phone calls from girls, citing immorality. (file photo)
The Taliban police in Afghanistan’s eastern Khost Province has banned local radio and television channels from accepting phone calls from girls, citing immorality. (file photo)

The Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC) has reported that Taliban police authorities in the eastern Khost Province have banned girls from contacting local radio and television channels and warned local media outlets not to accept phone calls from girls.

Regional security head Abdul Rashid Omari cited the potential for spreading immorality as the reason for giving the order in a letter he sent to the Taliban's provincial Information and Culture department.

In the letter, published by the media watchdog AFJC's website on February 25, Omari alleged that some private media outlets were spreading corruption by way of "illegitimate contacts" with girls through their social and educational programs.

The letter alleged that such contacts led to "inappropriate behavior" that was in violation of the hard-line Taliban's strict interpretation of Islamic law.

It said that local media, some of which allegedly lacked the required permission to broadcast educational content, had been warned they could be summoned and prosecuted for violating the order.

Representatives of two media outlets in the province confirmed to RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that they had received warnings but declined to reveal their identities or to have the names of their outlets published out of fear of retribution by the Taliban.

Taliban officials in Khost Province did not respond to requests by Radio Azadi for comment.

Educational and social programs have emerged as a crucial outlet following the Taliban's banishment of education for girls past sixth grade.

AFJC communications head Samia Walizadeh told Radio Azadi that the order was in clear violation of media laws and the right for citizens to have free access to information and said the nongovernmental watchdog was demanding the order be rescinded so that "freedom of expression can be saved."

One woman from Khost Province who spoke to Radio Azadi on condition that her voice be altered for her protection said prohibiting girls from contacting the media shows that "women are slowly being removed from society as a whole."

According to the AFJC, which operates independently across Afghanistan under the country's mass media law, 15 private radio stations and three private television outlets are broadcasting in Khost Province, along with National Radio and Television under the control of the Taliban.

In August, women's voices were banned from being broadcast by media in the southern Helmand Province. That order warned that media outlets would face punishment and possibly be shut down if any women's voices were broadcast on air, including advertisements.

The Taliban has used its interpretation of Shari'a law to justify its consistent degradation of women's rights, including barring women from public spaces and education, and jailing women's rights activists who dare protest.

Despite promises to allow press freedom after returning to power, the Taliban has also shut down independent radio stations, television studios, and newspapers. Some media outlets have closed after losing funding.

The Taliban-led government has banned some international broadcasters while some foreign correspondents have been denied visas.

Iranian Labor Council Says State-Worker Wage Discussions Sidelined 'More Than Ever'

The Iranian Labor Council, according to the ILNA, said boosting wages by 100 percent would "still not be enough" to address skyrocketing inflation.
The Iranian Labor Council, according to the ILNA, said boosting wages by 100 percent would "still not be enough" to address skyrocketing inflation.

Iran's Supreme Labor Council, meeting ahead of the end of the Persian calendar year, said efforts to boost the minimum wage for state workers in next year's budget have yet to be discussed in negotiations with the government. The state-affiliated ILNA news agency on February 25 quoted the labor body as saying that "wage negotiations are on the sidelines more than ever," even though boosting wages by 100 percent would "still not be enough" to address skyrocketing inflation. According to the Supreme Labor Council, Labor Minister Solet Mortazivi is set on a wage increase of 20 percent despite inflation hitting 44 percent. To read the original story by Radio Farda, click here.

Updated

Top Ukrainian General, Defense Minister Look For Ways To Boost Frontline Defenses

Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov (left) and Commander in Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Oleksandr Syrskiy visit command posts in the Donetsk region on February 13.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov (left) and Commander in Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Oleksandr Syrskiy visit command posts in the Donetsk region on February 13.

Ukrainian Army chief Oleksandr Syrskiy has said he traveled with Defense Minister Rustem Umerov to the front line of Kyiv's effort to stave off invading Russian forces to analyze the situation and determine ways to boost defenses.

"During the visit, we analyzed the current situation in detail and discussed the necessary further steps, primarily the protection of troops from drones and air strikes by air-defense systems, as well as the strengthening of certain areas of the front," Sirskiy wrote on Facebook on February 25.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"The enemy regularly storms the positions of our troops. In many areas, the situation is complex and requires constant monitoring," Syskiy wrote, saying he had stressed the importance of coordinated military actions and protecting the lives of Ukrainian soldiers.

It was not clear when and where the visit to the front took place, but Syskiy's post came a day after the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, as Ukraine struggles to stave off Russian forces and is dealing with a critical shortage of weapons and ammunition.

Umerov recently said the shortage of artillery shells meant that Ukrainian forces were restricted to firing no more than 2,000 shells a day along the 1,500-kilometer front, while Russian forces were firing three times that amount.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said during a video address on February 13 that Syrskiy and Umerov had "visited all the hot spots of the front." Zelenskiy said the two were "solving existing problems," including troop shortages and management and that the front would be reinforced with the help of drones and other weaponry.

On February 23, Syrskiy and Umerov met with a delegation of U.S. senators to discuss the battlefield situation and the need for more weapons and ammunition.

The same day, U.S. President Joe Biden urged the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives to pass an emergency spending package to provide $60 billion to Ukraine "before it's too late."

The bill allowing Kyiv to purchase weapons and ammunition, support military training and intelligence sharing, and fund government operations was passed by the Democratic-led Senate, the upper house of the U.S. Congress, on February 13.

Ukraine has said it tripled its weapons production last year as it looks to boost arms production and innovation.

Strategic Industry Minister Oleksandr Kamyshin, speaking during a televised conference on February 25, said that 100 state and 400 private companies are involved the effort, and that Ukraine seeks to "considerably increase ammunition production."

Digital Transformation Minister Mykhaylo Fedorov the same day said 90 percent of the drones being used in the war are now produced in Ukraine.

Ukraine has called on its Western partners to boost the delivery of arms and funding and has received positive responses from the United Kingdom, Sweden, and others in recent days.

However, Ukrainian Defense Minister Umerov said on February 25 that half of the Western arms provided to Ukraine are delivered late.

Updated

Belarus Holds General Elections Amid High Security, Opposition Calls For Boycott

Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka speaks in Minsk on February 20.
Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka speaks in Minsk on February 20.

Belarus is holding tightly controlled parliamentary elections under heavy security at polling stations and amid calls for a boycott by the country's beleaguered opposition.

The February 25 elections are widely expected to solidify the position of the country's authoritarian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Only four parties, all of which support Lukashenka's policies, were officially registered to compete in the polls -- Belaya Rus, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the Party of Labor and Justice. About a dozen parties were denied registration last year.

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has claimed her victory over Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election was stolen, described the elections as a "farce" and called for a boycott.

"There are no people on the ballot who would offer real changes because the regime only has allowed puppets convenient for it to take part," Tsikhanouskaya said in a video statement from her exile in Lithuania, where she moved following a brutal crackdown on protests against the 2020 election results. "We are calling to boycott this senseless farce, to ignore this election without choice."

In a separate message posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, Tsikhanouskaya said on February 25 that her video address to the Belarusian people about the elections and Russia's invasion of Ukraine had been displayed on 2,000 screens in public spaces throughout Belarus. The action, she said, was organized by a coalition of former police and security forces officers.

The general elections are the first to be held in Belarus since the 2020 presidential election, which handed Lukashenka a sixth term in office. More than 35,000 people were arrested in the monthslong mass protests that followed the controversial election.

Ahead of the vote, the country's Central Election Commission (CEC) announced a record amount of early voting, which began on February 20. Nearly 48 percent of registered voters had already voted by February 24, according to the CEC, eclipsing the nearly 42 percent of early voting recorded for the contentious 2020 presidential election.

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on people to "boycott this senseless farce, to ignore this election without choice."
Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on people to "boycott this senseless farce, to ignore this election without choice."

Early voting is widely seen by observers as a mechanism employed by the Belarusian authorities to falsify elections. The Belarusian opposition has said the early voting process allows for voting manipulation, with ballot boxes unprotected for a five-day period.

The Viasna Human Rights Center alleged that many voters were forced to participated in early voting, including students, soldiers, teachers, and other civil servants.

"Authorities are using all available means to ensure the result they need -- from airing TV propaganda to forcing voters to cast ballots early," said Viasna representative Pavel Sapelka. "Detentions, arrests and searches are taking place during the vote."

The Belarusian authorities have stepped up security on the streets and at polling stations around the country, with Interior Ministry police conducting drills on how to deal with voters who might try to violate restrictive rules imposed for the elections.

For the first time, curtains have been removed from voting booths, and voters barred from taking pictures of their ballots -- a practice encouraged by activists in previous elections in an effort to prevent authorities from manipulating vote counts.

Polling stations will be guarded by police, along with members of a youth law-enforcement organization and retired security personnel. Armed rapid-response teams have also been formed to deal with potential disturbances.

Lukashenka this week alleged without offering proof that Western countries were considering ways to stage a coup and ordered police to boost armed patrols across the country in order to ensure "law and order."

For the first time, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were denied access to monitor the vote in OSCE-member Belarus.

In the run-up to the vote, rights organizations uncovered violations pertaining to how local election committees were formed. An expert mission organized by the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Viasna said in late January that the lower number of local election committees and their compositions could indicate higher control by the authorities over the election process and an effort to stack the committees with government loyalists.

Following the vote, Belarus is expected to form a new, 1,200-seat All-Belarus Popular Assembly that will have broad powers to appoint judges and election officials and to consider amendments to the constitution. The new body will include elected local legislators, as well as top officials, union members, and pro-government activists.

Polls opened for the general elections at 8 a.m., local time, and voting will continue until 8 p.m.

Dozens Mourning Navalny's Death, Expressing Solidarity With Ukraine Detained In Russia

A woman lays flowers to pay tribute to Aleksei Navalny at the monument to political prisoners with the Federal Security Service building in the background in Moscow on February 21.
A woman lays flowers to pay tribute to Aleksei Navalny at the monument to political prisoners with the Federal Security Service building in the background in Moscow on February 21.

At least 32 people mourning the death of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and marking the anniversary of Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine were detained in Russia on February 24. The OVD-Info human-rights monitor reported that the 32 people were detained during commemorations in nine Russian cities. Twenty-seven of those detained had laid flowers in memory of Navalny, who died under unclear circumstances on February 16 at a remote Arctic prison. Two wives of Russian soldiers, who were participating in rally by a group calling for fairer treatment for draftees, were detained along with three people protesting against the war. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Zelenskiy Meets With Swedish Defense Minister To Discuss Security, Weapons Production

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson meet in Kyiv on February 24.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson meet in Kyiv on February 24.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met with Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson in Kyiv on February 24, the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, to discuss a new Swedish military-aid package and the possibility of joint weapons production. "Today is the day this tragedy began, and it is very important for us that our friends are here," Zelenskiy said, describing Jonson's visit as "an important sign of his country's solidarity with Ukraine." On February 20, Sweden announced it would deliver $682 million in military aid to Ukraine, the Nordic country's 15th aid package since Russia's 2022 invasion. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

G7 Leaders Hold Virtual Summit On Anniversary Of Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen join the virtual G7 leaders' meeting from Kyiv on February 24.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen join the virtual G7 leaders' meeting from Kyiv on February 24.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) vowed on February 24 to support Ukraine for as long as needed in its war against Russia and said they would look for ways to make Moscow pay for the damage inflicted by its invasion.

The G7 leaders held a videoconference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to mark the second anniversary of the Russian invasion.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"As Ukraine enters the third year of this relentless war, its government and its people can count on the G7’s support for as long as it takes," the G7 leaders' statement said.

Zelenskiy told the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States that they "know very well" what Ukraine needs to protect its skies and strengthen its army on the ground.

"You know everything we need to support and continue our success at sea. And you well understand that we need all this in time. We are counting on you," Zelenskiy said, calling on the leaders to remember "that imperial ambitions and revanchism disappear only with the defeat of those who are infected by them."

This is historically what clears the way for real security and the development of democracy, he added.

"We hear at this time 'History is watching,' and this is absolutely true," he said, referring to the words of U.S. President Joe Biden in recent speeches imploring the House of Representatives to pass a bill that includes $61 billion in aid to Ukraine.

The first G7 summit in 2024 took place exactly two years after Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.

"I thank you for these two years together. That terrible day of February 24 and all the horror brought by Russia still did not deprive Ukraine of a normal future," Zelenskiy told the G7 leaders.

Zelenskiy signed security agreements earlier on February 24 with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who were in Kyiv along with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo to mark the war's two-year anniversary.

"The message I want to send today to...all the Ukrainian people is that they are not alone," Meloni said as she signed a 10-year defense pact with Zelenskiy.

Trudeau signed a similar accord and pledged some $2.25 billion in financial and military support this year.

"Every day since Russia’s invasion began, the G7 has stood with Ukraine. And today, together, we reaffirmed that support. We are united. We are unwavering. And we are not going to let Putin win," Trudeau said.

Zelenskiy also met with Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson to discuss the potential for joint arms production and future negotiations on signing a bilateral security agreement.

With reporting by Reuters

March In Belgrade To Mark War Anniversary Calls For Continued Support For Ukraine

The Support Ukraine march event, held at the invitation of the Ukrainian Embassy to mark the second anniversary since the start of the war, drew people into the streets waving the flags of Ukraine and the European Union and displaying messages in support of peace.
The Support Ukraine march event, held at the invitation of the Ukrainian Embassy to mark the second anniversary since the start of the war, drew people into the streets waving the flags of Ukraine and the European Union and displaying messages in support of peace.

People gathered in the center of Belgrade on February 24 and marched to Republic Square, where they lit candles and held a minute of silence for the victims of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The Support Ukraine march event, held at the invitation of the Ukrainian Embassy to mark the second anniversary since the start of the war, drew people into the streets waving the flags of Ukraine and the European Union and displaying messages in support of peace.

Ukrainian Ambassador to Serbia Volodymyr Tolkach took part in the march along with the head of the delegation of the European Union, Emanuele Giofre, and the ambassadors of Sweden and Britain.

Tolkach said Ukraine is grateful to the international coalition that has helped the country survive over the past two years.

“Russia is ready for long and arduous war that will exhaust Ukraine, and if we want to fight against dictatorship and totalitarianism, we need to improve our efficiency. We should not let Ukraine to lose this war,” Tolkach said.

Giofre repeated the EU’s determination to stand by Ukraine.

"We are here to first of all pay respect to the many Ukrainians who have lost their lives, their loved ones in this horrible war, but also to pay respect to the resilience of the Ukrainian people that are standing tall in these difficult times, and to express our commitment to stand by them in the months and moments to come," Giofre said.

Elsewhere in Serbia, the anniversary was marked in Novi Sad by a march and the laying of flowers at memorials to victims of the war. A walk for peace in Ukraine and a free Russia organized by the Russian Democratic Society was also held in Belgrade. The group is made up of critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin and opponents of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Since the start of the war, Russian and Ukrainian anti-war activists in Serbia have organized a series of protests against it, but there also have been rallies in support of Russia organized by ultra-right groups, and Belgrade has expelled or banned several anti-war activists who fled Russia after the invasion.

Serbia joined the United Nations resolutions condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine and has said it respects Ukraine's territorial integrity, but it has also resisted EU pressure to join Western sanctions to punish Moscow for the war.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told TASS on February 20 that Belgrade is under great pressure from the West to impose sanctions Russia.

"We will try to defend our position as long as possible. We have been doing this for two years and I hope we will be able to continue,” Vucic said.

Bulgarian Sanctioned By U.S., Britain For Corruption Elected To Leadership Role In Major Bulgarian Party

Delyan Peevski, a veteran member of parliament, was elected co-president of the party with Djevdet Chakarov.
Delyan Peevski, a veteran member of parliament, was elected co-president of the party with Djevdet Chakarov.

A Bulgarian lawmaker who has been sanctioned by the United States and Britain for alleged corruption, has been elected a co-president of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms at the party’s national convention in Sofia.

Delyan Peevski, a veteran member of parliament, was elected co-president of the party with Djevdet Chakarov, another veteran member of parliament and environment minister from 2005-09 when the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was in the governing coalition.

Peevski initially was the only candidate for president, but some members objected, prompting founder and honorary chairman of the party Ahmed Dogan to suggest Chakarov as co-president to please ethnic Turks. But it is clear to observers that Peevski is the party's main leader.

The move makes Peevski the first ethnic Bulgarian to lead the party, which has traditionally represented Bulgarian Turks and other Muslim communities in the country.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms was founded in 1990 after the Bulgarian Communist party changed the names of Bulgarian Turks and expelled thousands of them to Turkey. It has consistently held seats in Bulgaria's parliament and over the years has been in and out of the government.

Though it is not in the current governing coalition formed by Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria and GERB, it supports its pro-Western course and Peevski attends government majority meetings in parliament.

Nikolay Denkov’s government survived a no-confidence vote in October that was sought by three opposition parties, including the pro-Russian party Vazrazhdane, over plans for a transition to cleaner energy and other energy policies.

Movement for Rights and Freedoms joined members of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s GERB party and We Continue The Change – Democratic Bulgaria in support of the government, which Denkov's formed in July after five general elections within two years.

Denkov on February 24 issued a statement on the two-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, assuring Kyiv of Bulgaria’s continued support.

"Two years ago, the Kremlin reminded us that we must fight for peace and defend our values," the statement said. Bulgaria is defending these values by continuing to support Ukraine, Denkov said, while Russia is fighting against "the right to a free, happy and full life" for everyone in Europe.

Peevski, whose opponents describe as an oligarch with influence in politics, the judiciary, and the media, and Borisov dominated Bulgarian politics for much of the past 14 years.

Peevski, who is believed to be one of Bulgaria's richest men, was sanctioned for corruption in 2021 under the U.S. Magnitskiy Act, and Britain followed suit one year later.

With reporting by dpa

Ukrainians Honor Fallen Soldiers With Exhibition, Religious Service

Ukrainians Honor Fallen Soldiers With Exhibition, Religious Service
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An ecumenical prayer service was held in Zaporizhzhya on February 24. Locals joined church dignitaries near an outdoor exhibition that features photos and names of soldiers killed in the defense of Ukraine. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, the eastern city of Zaporizhzhya was near the front line. Russia controls a nearby nuclear power plant to this day.

Ukraine Signs Bilateral Security Agreement With Canada, Zelenskiy Says

Left to right: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo pose for a photo at Maryinsky Palace in Kyiv on February 24.
Left to right: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo pose for a photo at Maryinsky Palace in Kyiv on February 24.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 24 said he signed a bilateral security agreement with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Kyiv. The 10-year agreement "strengthens the position of our people, particularly our soldiers," Zelenskiy said on X. Canada joins Italy, Britain, Germany, France, and Denmark in concluding security agreements intended to shore up Ukraine's security until it can reach its aim of becoming a member of NATO. Zelenskiy said signing the agreement was "a strong and timely decision that will significantly strengthen our resilience."

Ukraine And Italy Sign Bilateral Security Agreement, Zelenskiy Says

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 24 signed a bilateral security agreement with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 24 signed a bilateral security agreement with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 24 signed a bilateral security agreement with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Italy joined Britain, Germany, France, and Denmark in concluding a 10-year security deal with Kyiv -- agreements intended to shore up Ukraine's security until it can reach its aim of becoming a member of NATO. Meloni is on a visit to Kyiv to underline continued support as Ukraine marks the second anniversary of the start of Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Zelenskiy Aide Downplays Prospect Of Early Peace Talks, Swiss Say Russia Unlikely At Start

Senior aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said "there are no other options to end the war besides the collapse of the front line and tactical defeats of Russia. Everything else is fiction." (file photo)
Senior aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said "there are no other options to end the war besides the collapse of the front line and tactical defeats of Russia. Everything else is fiction." (file photo)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's senior aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said on February 24 that it's impossible to predict when the war might end and suggested Zelenskiy's office is not currently in favor of peace talks with Russia as it would mean the "gradual death of Ukraine."

Podolyak acknowledged a need to audit available resources and weaponry but said "there are no other options to end the war besides the collapse of the front line and tactical defeats of Russia. Everything else is fiction."

The remarks come as Kyiv and its backers seek to send a defiant message to Moscow on the second anniversary of the unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Swiss President Viola Amherd was quoted by Neue Zuercher Zeitung on February 24 as saying Russia was unlikely to participate at the start of a senior-level peace conference that neutral Switzerland hopes to host in the next few months.

The remarks followed Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis telling the United Nations that the idea was broached in January and Bern hoped for such a conference "by this summer."

With additional reporting by Reuters

Imprisoned Nobel Laureate Mohammadi Urges Boycott, Sanctions, Condemnation Of Iran Elections

Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi has previously described the clerically led Iranian leadership "criminal" and has long been a vocal critic of conditions for political and other prisoners in Iran. (file photo)
Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi has previously described the clerically led Iranian leadership "criminal" and has long been a vocal critic of conditions for political and other prisoners in Iran. (file photo)

Imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi has urged a boycott alongside "national sanctions and global condemnation" of next month's legislative elections there, calling the moves "a political necessity and a moral duty."

"Sanctioning elections under a despotic religious regime is not just a political move but also a moral obligation for freedom-loving and justice-seeking Iranians," Mohammadi said on social media on February 24.

Mohammadi has previously described the clerically led Iranian leadership "criminal" and has long been a vocal critic of conditions for political and other prisoners in Iran.

She pledged that "I, alongside the informed and proud people from all over Iran, from Sistan and Baluchestan to Kurdistan, from Khuzestan to Azerbaijan, will stand to declare the illegitimacy of the Islamic Republic and the divide within the oppressive regime and its people through the sanctioning of sham elections."

In January, an Iranian court extended the 51-year-old Mohammadi's prison sentence by 15 months for “spreading propaganda” against the Islamic republic while in jail. It was her fifth conviction since March 2021 and the third for activities from prison, where she was sent for alleged actions against national security and propaganda against the state.

In her February 24 post, she criticized Iranian authorities' "ruthless and brutal suppression, the killing of young people on the streets, the executions, and the imprisonment and torture of men and women."

A number of prominent Iranians outside the country and some political and civil activists in Iran have already called for a boycott of the March 1 voting.

Officials routinely vet to exclude large numbers of candidates who are critical of the regime from elections to fill seats at all nearly all levels of government.

"Transition from the despotic religious regime is a national demand and the only way for the survival of Iran, Iranians, and our humanity," Mohammadi said.

Mustafa Tajzadeh, a jailed former reform-minded politician, said in a letter he published on February 29 from Tehran's Evin Prison that the leadership's strategic mistakes are "making elections meaningless and making elected institutions ineffective...especially the parliament."

Elections for the parliament, the Majlis, are scheduled for March 1 along with voting to fill the Assembly of Experts, with a majority of would-be candidates already disqualified.

Some government polls also indicate that there is waning interest in the votes.

The Iranian Students' Opinion Center (ISPA) said research in February suggested only 36 percent of Iranians were aware of the upcoming elections.

A brutal crackdown on dissent followed widespread protests and unrest that broke out after the death in custody in September 2022 of 22-year-old student Mahsa Amini after she was detained for a dress-code violation and, according to eyewitnesses, beaten by the morality police.

Iranian officials this week officially outlawed the use of tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs) designed to bypass Internet censorship following a directive from the country's Supreme Council of Cyberspace that was endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Pakistani Police Detain Dozens At Postelection Protest In Karachi

Tehrik-e Labbaik Pakistan activists protest against Supreme Court Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa in Karachi on February 23.
Tehrik-e Labbaik Pakistan activists protest against Supreme Court Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa in Karachi on February 23.

Pakistani police on February 24 detained dozens of political workers in Karachi who staged protests outside the provincial assembly in the southern Sindh Province against alleged fraud in February's general elections.

Protesters had gathered in front of the assembly building ahead of the swearing-in of newly elected members.

The police also baton-charged the protesters.

Out of 168 members of the Sindh provincial assembly, 148 took their oath.

The Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), PTI and Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM-Haqiqi) had announced plans for a joint protest outside the Sindh assembly.

Sindh's provincial government on February 23 invoked Section 144 of the criminal code in anticipation of the protest, citing concerns about security and order. That section prohibits gatherings of five or more people and bans public assemblies, gatherings, protests, processions, or demonstrations.

The Sindh showdown comes against a backdrop of national political tension following a power-sharing agreement to allow rivals of imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan to pick a candidate for prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, and president.

The Pakistan Muslim League, the Pakistan People’s Party, and smaller parties after the February 8 vote announced on February 20 that they had secured a majority to support a coalition government.

Ex-President Medvedev Says Moscow Will Seek 'Revenge' For Western Sanctions

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow on February 23.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow on February 23.

Russia's ex-President Dmitry Medvedev, a leading hawk on the Ukraine offensive, said on February 24 that Moscow will seek "revenge" for massive Western sanctions. A day earlier, the United States and the European Union unveiled fresh sanctions on the eve of the second anniversary of Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and after the death in prison of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. "The reason [behind the sanctions] is clear: The worse it is for Russian citizens, the better it is for the Western world," Medvedev said on social media. "We all just need to remember this and take revenge on them wherever possible. They are our enemies."

Daughter Of Assassinated Kremlin Foe Nemtsov Says Putin Fears 'Dead Navalny No Less Than Living Navalny'

A protester (center) holds images depicting Aleksei Navalny and Russian President Vladimir Putin at demonstration outside the Russian Embassy in Belgrade on February 16, following the news of Navalny's death at an Arctic prison.
A protester (center) holds images depicting Aleksei Navalny and Russian President Vladimir Putin at demonstration outside the Russian Embassy in Belgrade on February 16, following the news of Navalny's death at an Arctic prison.

The exiled daughter of assassinated Kremlin political foe Boris Nemtsov has called the treatment of the body of recently deceased opposition leader Aleksei Navalny by Russian officials "absolutely terrifying, surreal" and a "monstrous, inhumane story" that demonstrates just how deeply President Vladimir Putin fears Navalny's legacy of dissent.

"Vladimir Putin is afraid of the dead Navalny no less than he was afraid of the living Navalny," Zhenna Nemtsova told Current Time in a televised interview a week after Russian authorities said Navalny died after collapsing at an Arctic prison.

Zhanna Nemtsova
Zhanna Nemtsova

Nemtsova's father was a popular post-Soviet politician who became a vocal Putin critic who, like Navalny, produced in-depth reports of corruption before his death.

Boris Nemtsov was shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin in Moscow in February 2015, weeks after publicly expressing fears that Putin might have him killed.

Nemtsova said Russian state TV initially "covered my father very favorably but everything changed...when there was a funeral march" that demonstrated her father's popularity with tens of thousands of Russians taking to the streets even for "a political corpse."

Russian authorities subsequently discouraged expressions of mourning or looked the other way as ultranationalists bullied the slain sympathizers.

Mourners surround the coffin at the funeral of Russian leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov in Moscow in 2015.
Mourners surround the coffin at the funeral of Russian leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov in Moscow in 2015.

"They understand that the same thing will happen with Aleksei Navalny" if public memorials are allowed, Nemtsova said.

She told Current Time she is "absolutely convinced that millions of people in Russia and outside Russia are deeply concerned and mourning the murder of [Navalny] in prison." She predicted hundreds of thousands would attend if a funeral were held for him even amid the current repression.

Russia has doubled down on tools like "foreign agent" and "undesirable" designations in addition to brutal beatings and detentions to minimize public dissent since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began two years ago.

Still, police detained hundreds across the country in the days after Navalny's death and quickly eliminated makeshift memorials that sprung up in dozens of cities.

Navalny's widow and his mother have accused Putin of responsibility for his death, as have U.S. President Joe Biden and some other Western officials.

Russian officials deny foul play but have not released the remains and reportedly demanded a private memorial before they would hand over his body to Navalny's mother.

"I believe that Aleksei was killed on Putin's orders, and they are afraid that in the run-up to the elections, hundreds of thousands of people will come to say goodbye to Aleksei," Nemtsova said.

Putin is seeking to win a fifth presidential term in a carefully controlled March 15-17 vote in which election officials have already disqualified the only seemingly authentic anti-war aspirant.

Nemtsova said Putin's administration is trying to "dehumanize" in a similar way to what followed the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and her father's assassination a year later, including through accusations that Kremlin critics are "traitors."

"[B]ecause you must first dehumanize, and then you deal with your enemy, and people don’t feel sorry for the person they consider a traitor," she said. "The same thing has been tried for years."

U.K. Pledges 245 Million Pounds To Boost Ukraine Artillery Reserves

British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps said Ukraine's armed forces "against all odds" had recaptured large parts of the land seized by Russia in its 2022 invasion. (file photo)
British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps said Ukraine's armed forces "against all odds" had recaptured large parts of the land seized by Russia in its 2022 invasion. (file photo)

Britain announced on February 24 a new 245 million-pound ($311 million) defense package to help boost the production of "urgently needed artillery ammunition" for Ukraine, two years after full-scale war broke out with Russia. Defense Secretary Grant Shapps said Ukraine's armed forces "against all odds" had recaptured large parts of the land seized by Russia in its 2022 invasion. "But they cannot win this fight without the support of the international community -- and that's why we continue to do what it takes to ensure Ukraine can continue to fight toward victory," he added.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Challenges U.S. Buzz On Possible Nuclear Space Weapon

A Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile is launched from Plesetsk in Russia's northwest. (file photo)
A Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile is launched from Plesetsk in Russia's northwest. (file photo)

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov says the United States has not shown any evidence for accusations that Moscow wants to put nuclear weapons in space, following U.S. media reports and official hints of concern at emerging Russian capabilities in space-based weapons.

The White House said on February 15 that Russia has obtained a "troubling" emerging anti-satellite "capability" but said it has not yet been deployed and posed no immediate threat.

In his statement carried by Russian state news agency RIA and quoted by Reuters, Ryabkov said contacts with U.S. officials had been "completely unproductive."

Reuters reported recently that U.S. intelligence thinks Russia's military might be working on nuclear-powered technology "to blind, jam, or fry the electronics inside satellites."

"I can confirm that it is related to an anti-satellite capability that Russia has developed," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said of the concerns. Kirby said that while Russia’s "pursuit of this particular capability is troubling, there is no immediate threat to anyone's safety."

The White House confirmation came a day after the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Mike Turner (Republican-Ohio), urged the Biden administration to declassify information about what he called a serious national security threat.

Kirby suggested the timing of Turner's statement "regrettable" as reviewing and declassification processes were ongoing.

Moscow called the claims a tactic to encourage U.S. Congress to back aid for Ukraine.

Turner said he was asking Biden to declassify "all information relating to this threat so that Congress, the Administration, and our allies can openly discuss the actions necessary to respond."

Sullivan said it is Biden's decision whether or not to declassify any information.

The New York Times said the intelligence Turner referred to was related to Russia’s attempts to develop a space-based anti-satellite nuclear weapon. This would potentially violate an international space treaty, to which more than 130 countries have signed onto, including Russia.

With reporting by Reuters

U.S. Sanctions Russia's Largest Shipper As It Says Oil Price Cap Enforcement Bearing Fruit

A crude oil tanker owned by Russia's leading shipping company Sovcomflot transits the Bosphorus in Istanbul in 2020.
A crude oil tanker owned by Russia's leading shipping company Sovcomflot transits the Bosphorus in Istanbul in 2020.

WASHINGTON -- The United States said on February 23 that it is targeting Russia’s largest state-owned shipping company and fleet operator for sanctions, saying at the same time that a price cap on Russian sea-borne oil imposed in December 2022 is serving its "twin goals" of limiting Kremlin profits from the sale of oil while promoting stable energy markets.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said in a news release that the targeting of Sovcomflot was the "next step" after the price cap.

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"We are entering the next phase of increasing Russia’s costs in a responsible manner to mitigate risks," Adeyemo said, adding that in addition to the designation of Sovcomflot, the treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has identified 14 crude oil tankers as property in which Sovcomflot has an interest.

OFAC said it issued a general license authorizing the offloading of crude oil or other cargo from these 14 vessels for a period of 45 days. In addition, OFAC is issuing a general license authorizing transactions with all other Sovcomflot-owned vessels at this time. Nothing in these general licenses changes any of the restrictions imposed by the price cap sanctions regime.

The Treasury Department earlier on February 23 released an analysis showing that Russia is selling its oil at a steeper discount to global prices since Western governments in October stepped up enforcement of its sanctions regime.

Russia sold its oil at an average discount of $19 last month compared with $12-$13 in October, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a February 23 statement. The Treasury Department oversees U.S. sanctions enforcement.

The United States and the European Union in December 2022 imposed a $60-per-barrel price cap on Russian oil shipped with the use of Western service providers -- such as transportation and insurance firms -- to curtail the Kremlin’s ability to finance its war.

Chris Weafer, the founder of Macro-Advisory, a consulting firm focusing on the countries of the former Soviet Union, said the oil price cap is hard to enforce because the shadow Russian tankers change their names, registrations, and ownership to avoid detection by the United States and EU.

"It is a cat-and-mouse game with the mouse sailing rings around the cat," he said, adding there are dozens or hundreds of small companies owning these shadow tankers.

Russia is the world’s second-largest oil exporter, and foreign sales of the fossil fuel account for more than a third of its federal budget. Most of its sea-borne oil exports used Western service providers prior to the sanctions. The wider discount means Russia is losing out on tens of millions of dollars a day in revenue.

The price cap initially had an immediate effect, driving down the price of Russian oil. However, in the ensuing months, as traders and buyers adjusted to the sanctions regime and as Russia scooped up its own shipping vessels, the discount shrank and Russia’s average selling price surpassed $60.

In response, the United States and Europe in October announced they were stepping up enforcement to curtail cheating. Experts said that market participants were artificially inflating the cost of shipping to hide the fact that Russia’s net price was above the cap. Russia had also purchased hundreds of vessels to avoid using Western service providers.

That month the United States slapped sanctions on two entities and put a freeze on two vessels for violating the Russian oil price cap, a move seen as a warning to other participants.

In January, it sanctioned a United Arab Emirates-based shipping company with 18 vessels that repeatedly made calls to Russian ports.

In its statement, the Treasury Department said the market for Russian oil continues to be highly opaque. It said it will continue to implement "creative solutions" to combat Russia's continuous attempts to avoid the price cap.

U.S. Senators Promise To Pressure House Speaker To Bring Aid Bill Up For Vote During Visit To Ukraine

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov, Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskiy, and Senators Michael Bennet and Maggie Hassan visit the Cemetery of the Defenders in Lviv, Ukraine, on February 23.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov, Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskiy, and Senators Michael Bennet and Maggie Hassan visit the Cemetery of the Defenders in Lviv, Ukraine, on February 23.

A U.S. Senate delegation visiting Ukraine led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promised to pressure the leader of the House of Representatives to bring a bill that includes military aid up for a vote.

"We are going to do everything we can to tell him [Speaker Mike Johnson] what we have learned and openly pressure him to make the right decision," said Schumer after a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

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Schumer, who was part of a delegation of five senators that held talks with Zelenskiy in Lviv, said Johnson (Republican-Louisiana) should "do the right thing," adding that he and the other senators are confident it will pass.

Schumer (Democrat-New York) also said Zelenskiy told the delegation that without the aid Ukraine will lose the war.

The Senate last week passed a military aid package that includes $61 billion for Ukraine. President Joe Biden has urged the House to approve it, but Johnson sent members home for a two-week recess without bringing the measure up for a vote.

Johnson, an ally of Republican former President Donald Trump, voted against bills to provide assistance to Ukraine before he became speaker.

Schumer said that if Ukrainian forces during the defense of Avdiyivka had had more weapons and ammunition, the result would have been different. Ukrainian forces last week withdrew from the Donetsk city after months of heavy fighting.

"If Ukraine does not receive help, Putin may be right on the Polish border sooner or later," Schumer said, adding that the delegation had been told by almost everyone during its visit -- representatives of the military, politicians, diplomats -- that if Ukraine gets help, it will win the war.

Another member of the delegation, Senator Jack Reed (Democrat-Rhode Island), said that the United States must make a decision to help Ukraine in order to avoid having to send its own troops.

"As Senator Schumer beautifully said to Speaker Johnson: If you come to Ukraine, you will see the cemetery that we saw today, if you go to the wall in Kyiv, which I visited to lay flowers there, you will see people of all ages who died in support of democracy,” Reed said.

“You will have no choice, America has no choice. Pay now by supplying arms to the brave warriors who bleed and die, or our young men and women will bleed and die on the battlefields of Europe.”

Reed pledged to work for additional support, including military aid, for Ukraine.

With reporting by Reuters

French Defense Chief Visits Armenia, Signs Defense Deals Amid Deepening Ties

The defense ministers of Armenia and France take part in a joint press conference in Yerevan on February 23.
The defense ministers of Armenia and France take part in a joint press conference in Yerevan on February 23.

France will provide more weapons and other military assistance to Armenia to help the South Caucasus country defend its territory, French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu said during his first visit to Yerevan on February 23.

"Threats hanging over Armenia force us to move forward faster," Lecornu told Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. "It is very important for us to react and take necessary steps quickly."

Speaking after talks with Armenian Defense Minister Suren Papikian earlier in the day, Lecornu confirmed that Armenia took delivery the previous night of the first batch of French night-vision devices commissioned last year. The Armenian military will also soon receive air-defense radar systems and more armored personnel carriers from French manufacturers, he said.

The French defense group Thales signed with the Armenian Defense Ministry a contract for the supply of three GM200 radars during Papikian’s visit to Paris last October. Papikian and Lecornu signed at the time a letter of intent on Armenia’s future acquisition of short-range surface-to-air missiles manufactured by another French company.

Lecornu expressed France’s readiness to also sell more long-range systems to Armenia and announced that a French military adviser specializing in air defense will be deployed in Armenia to help it neutralize "possible strikes by potential aggressors."

"Nobody can reproach the Armenian Army for boosting its defense capacity," Lecornu told a joint news conference with Papikian, clearly alluding to Azerbaijan’s strong criticism of French-Armenian military cooperation.

The Armenian minister emphasized that Yerevan is acquiring these and other weapons for solely defensive purposes. In an apparent reference to Azerbaijan, he spoke of a "visible threat" to Armenia’s territorial integrity.

Neither minister shed light on a number of documents that they signed after their talks. AFP reported that the Armenian side also signed a supply contract with the French company PGM, maker of sniper rifles. It said no details of the deal were made public.

The defense cooperation is part of a deepening of French-Armenian relations cemented by the existence of an influential Armenian community in France. It comes amid mounting tensions with Russia, Armenia’s longtime ally, and as neighboring Iran signals unease over the pro-Western tilt in Armenia’s foreign policy.

"Our Iranian partners respect our cooperation with other partners, and I think our Russian and other partners should do the same because Armenia has no taboos when it comes to cooperation to the benefit of Armenia," Papikian said.

Armenia is "turning to partners that are truly providers of security," Lecornu said when asked to comment on the tensions between Yerevan and Moscow.

With reporting by Astghik Bedevian

At Invasion's Two-Year Mark, Kyiv And West Pledge Ongoing Resistance To Russian Aggression

Left to right: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo attend a ceremony at the Wall of Remembrance in Kyiv on February 24.
Left to right: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo attend a ceremony at the Wall of Remembrance in Kyiv on February 24.

EU and other Western leaders and dignitaries were in Kyiv on February 24 to send a defiant message on the second anniversary of Russia's launch of its all-out invasion of Ukraine that they intend to continue supporting Ukraine against Moscow's aggression.

The anniversary came with the Ukrainian military in need of equipment and supplies, especially ammunition, and Moscow looking to extend its recent battlefield gain in the Donetsk region, where its forces recaptured the mostly destroyed city of Avdiyivka.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told his countrymen in a recorded video address from a Kyiv-area airport that was a scene of intense fighting early in the invasion that two years of bitter fighting means "we are 730 days closer to victory."

"Two years ago, we met an enemy landing force here with fire," Zelenskiy said, before adding references to the array of foreign leaders who were in Ukraine to mark the anniversary. "Two years later, we meet here our friends, our partners."

He added that it was important that the war end "on our terms."

Zelenskiy later welcomed European Commission President Von der Leyen, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, whose country currently holds the rotating EU Presidency.

Meloni and Trudeau signed security agreements with Zelenskiy during their visit, and Meloni hosted a videoconference of the Group of Seven (G7) at which Zelenskiy spoke, telling the leaders he is counting on them to continue helping Ukraine.

On her arrival, von der Leyen said alongside a photo of herself on a train platform in Kyiv that she was there to mark the grim anniversary "and to celebrate the extraordinary resistance of the Ukrainian people."

"More than ever, we stand firmly by Ukraine," she said, "Financially, economically, militarily, morally...[u]ntil the country is finally free."

Before arriving in Ukraine, Trudeau shared his Foreign Minister Melanie Joly's sentiment via X, formerly Twitter, that Canada and its allies were "sending a clear message to [Russia]: Ukraine will not be defeated in the face of Putin’s illegal war."

Protesters rallied in Berlin, London, Paris, Belgrade, and other European cities as people gathered to show support by waving the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag and demanding that Russian President Vladimir Putin put an end to the war.

Words of support poured in from Western leaders.

U.S. President Joe Biden praised the determination of Ukrainians and said "the unprecedented 50-nation global coalition in support of Ukraine, led by the United States, remains committed to providing critical assistance to Ukraine and holding Russia accountable for its aggression."

"The American people and people around the world understand that the stakes of this fight extend far beyond Ukraine," he said.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz urged Germans and all Europeans to "do even more -- so that we can defend ourselves effectively."

Scholz said that Germany was completely fulfilling its NATO target of 2 percent investment of total economic output into its military for the first time in decades.

Recently installed Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk cited "Two years of Ukrainian heroism. Two years of Russian barbarism. Two years of disgrace of those who remain indifferent."

Maia Sandu, the president of Ukraine's neighbor Moldova, where concerns are high and a long-standing contingent of Russian troops has refused to depart, thanked "Ukrainians for their tireless fight for freedom and for protecting peace in Moldova too."

"In these two years, the free world has shown unprecedented solidarity, yet the war persists; our support must endure fiercely," she said on X.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said "We must renew our determination…on this grim anniversary. This is the moment to show that tyranny will never triumph and to say once again that we will stand with Ukraine today and tomorrow."

The anniversary came one day after the United States and European Union announced new rounds of hundreds of sanctions targeting Russia and officials responsible for the war, but with Ukrainian officials desperately pleading with the international community to avoid cutoffs in support or a "depletion of empathy."

Ukrainians have battled fiercely since Russia invaded on February 24, 2022, after Putin, angered by Ukraine's aspiration to join NATO, tried to cast doubt on Ukrainian nationhood and eventually said Moscow's goal was "denazification" and demilitarization of Ukraine.

It was a new phase in a land grab that had begun eight years earlier in 2014, when Russia covertly invaded and then annexed Crimea from Ukraine and began intensive support of armed Ukrainian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The United Nations has overwhelmingly voted to back Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty.

WATCH: Current Time correspondents Borys Sachalko, Andriy Kuzakov, and Oleksiy Prodayvod reflect on their wartime experiences together with the cameramen and drivers who form a critical part of their reporting teams.

Two Years Into War, Current Time Correspondents Reflect On Covering Ukraine's Front Line
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But a massive assistance package proposed by U.S. President Joe Biden's administration has been blocked primarily by Republicans in Congress.

The European Union managed to pass its own $54 billion aid package for Ukraine earlier this month despite reluctance from member Hungary and talk of Ukraine fatigue.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a recorded statement for the anniversary that "the situation on the battlefield remains extremely serious" and "President Putin's aim to dominate Ukraine has not changed, and there are no indications that he is preparing for peace. But we must not lose heart."

Earlier this week, Stoltenberg told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that the alliance was an advantage that neither Russia nor China could match.

At the UN General Assembly on February 23, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said "Russia's aim is to destroy Ukraine and they are quite outspoken about it," adding that "The only reason for this war has been and remains Russia's denial of Ukraine's right to exist and its continued colonial conquest."

Russian forces last week captured the mostly destroyed eastern city of Avdiyivka as remaining Ukrainian troops withdrew amid reported ammunition shortages to hand Moscow its first significant gain of territory in nearly a year.

The Russian military said on February 24 that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited troops in occupied Ukraine in a clear effort to send a message to Ukraine and its defenders, as well as to a Russian public subjected to heavy censorship and punishments for anti-war dissenters as the "special military operation" has ground on.

"Today, in terms of the ratio of forces, the advantage is on our side," officials quoted Shoigu as telling troops at a Russian command center.

The Russian military further said its troops were on the offensive after having taken Avdiyivka, in the Donetsk region.

Zelenskiy used an interview on the conservative Fox News channel this week to urge the U.S. Congress to pass a $60 billion aid package to help his country defend itself, saying it is cheaper than the consequences of a Russian victory.

Zelenskiy echoed warnings among Russia's other neighbors that Putin will push further into Eastern Europe if he conquers Ukraine.

"Will Ukraine survive without Congress's support? Of course. But not all of us," Zelenskiy said.

On February 24, senior Zelenskiy aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said Ukraine was auditing its "available resources" and said it's impossible to predict when the war might end without a good idea of the amount of weapons and ammunition Kyiv will have at its disposal.

He also suggested the Ukrainian president's office is not currently in favor of peace talks with Russia as it would mean the "gradual death of Ukraine."

Separately, Swiss President Viola Amherd was quoted as telling the Neue Zuercher Zeitung newspaper that Russia was unlikely to participate at the start of a senior-level peace conference that neutral Switzerland hopes to host in the next few months.

The remarks followed Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis telling the United Nations that the idea was broached in January and Bern hoped for such a conference "by this summer."

Russia currently is thought to control around one-fifth of Ukraine's territory.

The Ukrainian military said it had destroyed a Russian A-50 surveillance aircraft after a new round of Russian drone and missile strikes on several Ukrainian regions on February 23, which if confirmed would mark the loss of the second A-50 in just over a month.

The general appointed recently by Zelenskiy as commander in chief of Ukraine's armed forces, Oleksandr Syrskiy, said on February 24 that he is "convinced that unity is our victory."

"And it will definitely happen," he said, "because light always conquers darkness!"

Noting the two-year mark in the invasion, Ukraine's General Staff asserted that Russia had suffered troop casualties of around 409,000 since February 24, 2022.

Both sides classify casualty figures, and RFE/RL cannot confirm the accuracy of accounts by either side of battlefield developments in areas of heavy fighting or of casualty claims.

With reporting by dpa, AFP, and Reuters

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