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Norwegian Massacre Suspect Pleads 'Not Guilty'

Norwegians Hold Minute Of Silence For Victims Of Attacks
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WATCH: Thousands of people observed a minute of silence in Oslo to mourn the victims of the July 22 attacks. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and other officials signed a book of condolences. Meanwhile, the man accused of the attacks, Anders Behring Breivik, left an Oslo district court after pleading guilty at a hearing closed to the public. (AP video)


Norway has mourned the victims of the twin attacks that killed at least 76 people with a minute of silence, while the 32-year-old Norwegian man arrested for the massacre appeared in court to explain his motives.

Although Anders Behring Breivik has reportedly admitted carrying out the July 22 attacks, he pleaded "not guilty" in the Oslo court, claiming he was not "criminally responsible."

Kim Heger, the Oslo district court judge in the case, ruled there is enough evidence to charge Breivik with intent to commit an act of terrorism.

"Despite the fact that the accused has acknowledged the actual circumstances, he has not pleaded guilty," Heger said. "According to what the court understands, the accused believes that he needed to carry out these acts to save Norway and Western Europe from, among other things, cultural Marxism and a Muslim takeover."

Heger also said Breivik claimed to have worked with "two more cells in the organization." He said police were probing the claim.

Police meanwhile revised the death toll from the attacks downward from 93 to 76. Eight people were said to have died in the car-bomb attack near government headquarters in Oslo, while 68 died in the gun attack hours later on a political youth camp at Utoeya Island.

Police spokesman Oystein Maeland told reporters that the earlier, erroneous figure emerged while police focused on helping survivors and securing the area.

He warned, however, that the death toll could rise again as the search for bodies continued.

Tens of thousands of people, including Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, gathered in the capital, Oslo, in the hours after the suspect's court appearance to attend a memorial for the victims.

People, including relatives of a victim, gather to observe a minute's silence on a campsite jetty on the mainland across the water from Utoeya Island on July 25.

Judge Heger ordered Breivik to be held in custody for eight weeks, including four weeks of solitary confinement, while preparations for the trial continued. Heger ruled there was a risk that Breivik would tamper with evidence if he were released on bail.

Heger also blocked media from attending the hearing -- effectively preventing Breivik from using the court as a political platform to air what has been described as an extreme right-wing and anti-Muslim ideology.

"The objective of the attacks was to give a 'sharp signal' to the people," Heger said. "The accused wishes to induce the greatest possible loss to the Labor Party so that it will limit new recruitment in the future. The accused explained that the Labor Party has failed the country and the people, and the price of their treason is what they had to pay yesterday."

Breivik's lawyer said Breivik wanted to tell his country and the world why he carried out a bomb attack in Oslo and then went on a shooting rampage at a summer camp for Labor Party youth.

Suspect Anders Behring Breivik (left), the man accused of the bomb attack and killing spree, is transported from the courthouse in Oslo on July 25.

According to his lawyer, Geir Lippestad, Breivik believes the killings were justified, that "the actions were atrocious, but that in his head they were necessary."

The prosecutor in the case, Christian Hatlo, said Breivik had said during interrogation that he was prepared to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Anti-Islam Extremist

A picture of Anders Behring Breivik taken from a book downloaded from a link posted on the Norwegian discussion website, and titled "2083 -- A European Declaration of Independence"
Ahead of the court hearing, the memory of the victims was honored across Norway by a minute of silence.

Meanwhile, the stunned nation is trying to come to terms with how a person could kill so many of his fellow countrymen with no apparent remorse.

The profile of Breivik that is emerging from local media reports is of a right-wing Christian extremist who opposes multiculturalism and Islam, and who is angry about the growing number of Muslims in Europe.

Police told the daily "Aftenposten" that Breivik blames the Labor Party's Gro Harlem Brundtland -- prime minister for three terms between 1981 and 1996 -- for pluralist immigration policies that have led to the growing presence of Muslims in Norway.

They say Breivik admitted he wanted to kill Brundtland while she was making a speech on Utoeya Island on July 22. Brundtland, who is often called "mother of the nation," left the island before Breivik arrived.

Other press reports from Oslo are quoting excerpts from a 1,500-page manifesto that Breivik published just hours before the shooting rampage.

That manifesto called for a crusade against Muslim immigration to Europe. It also chronicled the events in Breivik's life that deepened his contempt for Muslims and "Marxists," whom he blamed for making Europe multicultural.

According to prosecutor Hatlo, Breivik read from the manifesto during the July 25 closed hearing.

Norway's police security service has revealed it was alerted in March to a suspicious chemical purchase by Breivik from a Polish firm, but said it didn't have enough evidence to investigate at the time.

Did He Act Alone?

"Compared to other countries, I will not say that we have a big problem with right-wing extremists in Norway. But we have had some groups," Stoltenberg said over the weekend.

"We have followed them before and our police is aware that there are some right-wing extreme groups -- or at least have been some of that kind -- in Norway."

Stunned mourners crowd around a flower tribute on July 24 to the victims of the attacks one earlier.

Journalists also have been researching Internet postings made by Breivik in recent years that show critical views about Islam and Norway's immigration policies.

Correspondents note that part of Breivik's manifesto was taken almost word-for-word from the first few pages of the anti-technology manifesto written by Ted Kaczynski, the so-called "Unabomber" who is in U.S. federal prison for sending mail bombs in the United States that killed three people and injured 23 others from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Breivik has claimed that he acted alone and was not part of a larger right-wing extremist group. But police in Oslo say they are still investigating the possibility that Breivik had help from others to plan the attack, or that he has ties to other militant right-wing extremists in the country.

On July 25, police briefly detained six people for questioning in a series of raids in Oslo aimed at finding bomb-making equipment linked to Breivik. None of those raids turned up weapons or evidence justifying the continued detention of those six people.

based on agency reports

All Of The Latest News

Iranian Convicted Of 1992 Murder Of Dissidents Calls For Pressure On Sweden To Release Nouri

Kazem Darabi, an Iranian sentenced to life in prison over the murder of four Iranian dissidents (file photo)

Kazem Darabi, an Iranian sentenced to life in prison over the 1992 murder of four Iranian dissidents, has called on President Ebrahim Raisi to pressure the Swedish government for the release of former Iranian official Hamid Nouri, who is on trial in Stockholm over the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners.

In an interview with the hard-line Fars news agency, Darabi, who was released in 2007 after serving 15 years in prison in Germany, claimed Nouri, an alleged former deputy prosecutor and member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), was put on trial with “no logic nor evidence.”

Nouri is charged with international war crimes and human rights abuses in connection with the murders of more than 100 people at a prison in Karaj.

Swedish prosecutors are seeking life imprisonment for Nouri, who has been held in custody in Sweden since his arrest in Stockholm in November 2019. The Stockholm District Court has said that a verdict in the case is expected on July 14.

Tehran has threatened to execute Swedish-Iranian national Ahmadreza Djalali, who is currently being held in Iran and is accused of spying for Israel.

Iranian officials have claimed that the two cases, which have strained relations between Sweden and Iran, are not related.

Darabi whose case sparked a diplomatic crisis between Berlin and Tehran, said the trial with Nouri and other similar court proceedings, are to put “the Islamic republic on trial.”

Iran’s clerical establishment has been accused of having threatened and assassinated dozens of political opponents outside the country.

Iranian officials have denied the accusations.

After the trial of Darabi and four others that lasted more than 3 years, a German court in 1997 concluded that Iranian government was "directly involved" in the 1992 killings of three top members of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and one of their supporters at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin.

Darabi who had worked as a grocer in Berlin and has steadfastly claimed his innocence, was identified as an agent of the Iranian government who organized the killings.

Finnish, Swedish Lawmakers To Debate NATO Membership As Moscow Warns Nordic NATO Plans A 'Grave Mistake'

The flags of Finland and NATO (file photo)

Finnish and Swedish lawmakers on May 16 are debating applying for NATO membership as Russia again warned that the admission of the two Nordic neighbors into the alliance would be a "grave mistake" that would have "far-reaching consequences."

Finland, which has been neutral for decades, and traditionally non-aligned Sweden have moved closer to joining NATO amid growing concern at home over Russia’s military aggession.

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told parliament at the start of the debate that she sees “a historic change in our country’s security policy line, adding that the country was acting together with neighboring Finland.

The debate is expected to be a formality as there is a clear majority of lawmakers in favor joining NATO.

The Swedish government is expected to announce its intention to seek membership in the 30-member military alliance later May 16.

In Finland, which has lost a large chunk of territory to the Soviet Union after the two sides fought two conflicts during World War II, President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin have said that after consulting parliament, the country intends to rapidly apply for NATO membership.

While no formal date is expected to be announced immediately for when accession could take place, NATO will hold a summit in Madrid on June 28-29.

NATO officials have indicated that the accession protocols for Finland and Sweden could be signed at that time if the formal applications landed on NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s desk by the end of May.

In response to the news, Stoltenberg said their entry would be "smooth and swift."

U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on May 16 that the U.S. Congress will seek to ratify Finland's application to join the Western military alliance NATO before going on holiday in August.

"Certainly we hope to achieve it before the August recess when Congress typically goes out of session," McConnell told reporters in Helsinki after meeting with Niinisto.

McConnell said there was broad bipartisan support among U.S. lawmakers for the Finnish membership.

Meanwhile, Russia reiterated its warnings on May 16 against the two Nordic neighbors' becoming part of the Western alliance.

The admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO would be a "grave mistake with far-reaching consequences," said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, adding that military tensions would increase as a result.

Finland and Sweden "should have no illusions that we will simply resign ourselves to this," Ryabkov said.

On May 14, in a telephone conversation with Niinisto, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke of "a mistake" by Helsinki, and insisted Russia posed no threat to Finland.

Russian exports of power to Finland were down to zero early on May 16, flow data showed, after Russian utility firm Inter RAO said last week it would halt them because it had not been paid.

Finnish grid operator Fingrid said on May 14 that the suspension of Russian transmission was due to restrictions on payments imposed by Western nations. But is added that it can replace Russian supplies with Swedish power and by boosting domestic production.

Noted Georgian Journalist Gvaramia Sentenced To Lengthy Prison Term

Georgian opposition journalist Nika Gvaramia is seen in court during his trial on corruption charges.

TBILISI -- Noted Georgian opposition journalist Nika Gvaramia has been sentenced to a lengthy prison term on corruption charges that he and his supporters reject as politically motivated.

The Tbilisi City Court sentenced the 45-year-old journalist and lawyer to 3 1/2 years in prison on May 16, after finding him guilty of abuse of power related to his activities as director general of the Rustavi 2 television channel in 2019.

Judge Lasha Chkhikvadze also found Gvaramia guilty of embezzlement and ordered him to pay a 50,000 laris ($16,300) fine on that charge.

Gvaramia, however, was acquitted on charges of money laundering, bribery, and forgery.

"Good job!" Gvaramia shouted out in the courtroom in reaction to the judge's ruling.

The court found Gvaramia's co-defendant Kakhaber Damenia, former financial director of the Rustavi 2 television channel, guilty of embezzlement and ordered him to pay a 50,000 laris fine as well. Another co-defendant, the director of the Inter Media Plus news agency, Zurab Lashvili, was acquitted of all charges.

Gvaramia left Rustavi 2 in 2019 after the European Court of Human Rights upheld a verdict by Georgia's Supreme Court on restoring the ownership of the country's then main opposition channel to its previous owner, Kibar Khalvashi, who was seen as close to the government.

Transparency International-Georgia condemned Gvaramia's conviction, calling it a case of retaliation by the authorities for his journalistic activities.

"Based on the case study and observation of the process, we can conclude that the case is politically motivated with the aim of punishing Nika Gvaramia and disrupting the activities of his TV channel as it was critical of the authorities." Transparency International-Georgia said.

"The use of the justice system for media censorship and intimidation is a dangerous message for other critical media outlets as well."

"At the same time, this verdict is a continuation of the political persecution that has been carried out against the state opponents for years," Transparency International-Georgia concluded.

Georgia ranked 89th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders 2022 World Press Freedom Index. In 2019 it ranked 60th.

Renault Divests Russian Auto Holdings, But Keeps Option To Buy Back AvtoVAZ

The Renault automobile plant in Moscow (file photo)

French car maker Renault says it has reached an agreement to sell its Russian holdings, including its controlling interest in AvtoVAZ, the maker of Lada vehicles, due to Moscow's unprovoked war against Ukraine.

Renault said in a statement on May 16 that it is selling its 100 percent stake in Renault Russia to the city of Moscow, while its 67.69 percent interest in AvtoVAZ will be sold to the state-owned NAMI research institute (the Central Research and Development Automobile and Engine Institute), with a provision to buy back that stake "at certain times during the next 6 years."

"Today, we have taken a difficult but necessary decision; and we are making a responsible choice towards our 45,000 employees in Russia, while preserving the Group's performance and our ability to return to the country in the future, in a different context," Luca de Meo, the chief executive officer of Renault Group said in the statement.

Dozens of major international companies from a broad range of sectors have exited Russia since it launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Financial details of the transactions were not revealed, but Renault has said it would record a non-cash adjustment charge of $2.3 billion related to Russia in its 2022 first-half results.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said after the announcement that production of passenger cars under the Moskvich brand will resume at the Moscow Renault plant as "we cannot allow thousands of workers to be left without work."

Russian truck manufacturer KamAZ will become a technical partner at the plant. he said.

Lithuania Says One Country Holding EU 'Hostage' On Russian Oil Embargo

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis (file photo)

The European Union's plans to impose an oil embargo on Russia were being blocked by just one of the bloc's 27 members, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said on May 16.

"The whole union is being held hostage by one member state ... we have to agree, we cannot be held hostage," Landsbergis said as he arrived for a meeting with his counterparts.

EU diplomats quoted by Reuters said the country Landsbergis was referring to is Hungary.

A sixth round of EU sanctions including a ban on Russia oil has been drawn up by experts in the European Commission, but Hungary and other member states, including Slovakia and the Czech Republic, have voiced reservations.

With reporting by Reuters

Lukashenka Performs Balancing Act On Ukraine, Britain's Defense Ministry Says

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka appears careful to avoid direct involvement in Russia's war in Ukraine out of concern about potential further economic reprisals, retaliation from Kyiv, and possibly discontent among his own armed forces, British intelligence said on May 16.

The West has imposed biting sanctions on Belarus following a 2020 election which the opposition says was heavily rigged in favor of Lukashenka, who subsequently unleashed a harsh crackdown on protesters, activists, and the media.

Isolated and economically weakened, Lukashenka has again turned to long-time ally Vladimir Putin for support, and once Moscow invaded Ukraine, he allowed Russia to launch attacks and supply forces from Belarusian territory.

However, despite early speculation, Belarus has not been directly involved in the conflict, the Ministry said in its daily intelligence bulletin on Twitter on May 16.

Belarus announced the deployment of special forces along the Ukraine border following military maneuvers earlier this month, a move that Britain's Ministry of Defense said was likely to force Ukraine to keep a number of troops in the border area and prevent their deployment in the east.

But Lukashenka is "likely balancing support for Russia’s invasion with a desire to avoid direct military participation with the risk of Western sanctions, Ukrainian retaliation and possible dissatisfaction in the Belarusian military," the bulletin concluded.

Ukraine Braces For Fresh Russian Attacks In East, NATO Says Kyiv Can Win War

A Ukrainian serviceman walks past a destroyed Russian APC north of Kharkiv (file photo)

Ukraine on May 16 prepared for a renewed Russian assault in the east as NATO said that Moscow's invasion was not going to plan and its push to capture the Donbas has ground to a halt.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's military said its counterattack around Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city, gained momentum and its forces pushed Russian troops back to the border in the region around Kharkiv.

"The 227th Battalion of the 127th Brigade of the Territorial Defense Forces of the Kharkiv Armed Forces drove out the Russians and went to the state border," the Ukrainian Defense Ministry statement said in a statement posted on Facebook on May 16.

Ukraine's claim could not be immediately verified.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly address late on May 15 that Ukrainian forces were "preparing for new attempts by Russia to attack in Donbas, to somehow intensify its movement in the south of Ukraine."

"The occupiers still do not want to admit that they are in a dead-end and their so-called 'special operation' has already gone bankrupt," he added.

Presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Russian troops were being transferred in the direction of Donbas after withdrawing from Kharkiv following the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The Russian invasion has been met with stiff Ukrainian resistance and has had numerous logistical issues.

Moscow's initial objective appeared to be a large-scale occupation of Ukraine and the toppling of its government.

But Russia has been forced to withdrawn from areas around the capital Kyiv after failing to capture it and since mid-April has been focusing its efforts on eastern Ukraine.

Russia lost large numbers of men and much military equipment and was hit by economic sanctions, while Western states have provided Ukraine with military aid.

Ukraine has deployed many of its newly received U.S. howitzers at the front lines, and Washington has delivered all but one of the 90 artillery pieces they were due to send, the U.S. embassy in Kyiv said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, meeting with top diplomats from the alliance in Berlin on May 15, said the war “is not going as Moscow had planned."

"They failed to take Kyiv, they are pulling back from around Kharkiv, their major offensive in Donbas has stalled. Russia is not achieving its strategic objectives," Stoltenberg said

In Estonia, NATO kicks-off some of the largest-ever exercises later on May 16. The scheduled exercise, codenamed Hedgehog, will last two weeks and involve 15,000 troops from 10 countries, including Britain, the United States, and non-members Finland and Sweden.

Finnish and Swedish lawmakers are set on May 16 to debate applying for NATO membership.

Finland announced May 15 that it was seeking to join the alliance, while several hours later, Sweden’s governing party backed Stockholm's bid for membership, which could lead to an application in days.

Russia on May 16 again warned that the admission of the two Nordic neighbors into the alliance would be a "grave mistake" that would have "far-reaching consequences."

In Brussels, foreign ministers from the 27-member European Unio meet on May 16 to discuss the situation in Ukraine and Russian sanctions. The meeting will be attended by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba.

On the ground in Ukraine, bitter fighting continued throughout the country.

In the western city of Lviv on May 15, regional governor Maksym Kozytsky said four Russian missiles hit military infrastructure near the border with Poland -- the first time the city has been struck since May 3.

No casualties were reported, and Ukrainian armed forces said they destroyed two cruise missiles over the region.

In the south, the mayor of the southern city of Mykolaiv said blasts had been heard early May 16.

In the southeastern city of Mariupol, about 600 Ukrainian troops remained holed up in underground tunnels and bunkers under a steelworks there, fighting a rear-guard battle.

In his address, Zelensky said "very complicated and delicate negotiations to save our people" in the vast Azovstal plant continued daily.

The defenders' wives have said there is very little water at Azovstal and their husbands have to drink service water previously used for the plant's operation.

UN Working Group Concludes Turkmenistan Violated Human Rights Laws In Arresting Lawyer

Police officers patrol Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat (file photo)

A UN working group has concluded that Turkmenistan violated international human rights laws when it detained a lawyer who was organizing a pro-democracy rally.

Police in the tightly controlled Central Asian nation arrested Pygamberdy Allaberdyev, a lawyer at a state oil company, in September 2020 for “hooliganism” after a man attacked him near a grocery store in the western city of Balkanabat.

Officers for Turkmenistan’s National Security Ministry immediately took over the case and charged Allaberdyev with having ties with the activists abroad.

He was sentenced later that month to six years in prison after a closed-door, two-hour trial during which he had no legal representation.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention last week determined that Allaberdyev was arrested for exercising his freedom of expression and association, according to the human rights group Freedom Now, which is helping Allaberdyev.

“We welcome the Working Group’s recognition that Pygamberdy Allaberdyev is wrongfully detained,” Freedom Now Legal Officer Adam Lhedmat said in a May 13 statemnt.

“Allaberdyev’s imprisonment is indicative of Turkmenistan’s intolerance of dissent and its strategy of using fabricated charges to silence its citizens. We call on the Turkmen government to comply with the United Nations’ decision and immediately and unconditionally release Allaberdyev.”

Prison officials have denied family and legal representatives access to Allaberdyev since his sentencing.

Allaberdyev was accused of having links to Turkmen activists residing abroad who had staged a number of rallies in the United States, Turkey, and Northern Cyprus to protest against constitutional amendments.

Allaberdyev had denied any links to the activists.

The protesters in the United States at the time suspected autocratic leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov of using the constitutional amendments to secure his lifetime presidency and its eventual succession to his son and grandchildren.

Berdymukhammedov's son, Serdar Berdymukhammedov, in March won a presidential election in a unfair contest widely viewed as a formality to the transfer of political power within the family.

It is unclear what, if any, effect the UN working group decision will have on Allaberdyev’s fate.

More Russian Military Enlistment Buildings Targeted In Possible Sign Of War Protest

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24 at least 10 enlistment offices have been attacked.

Unidentified individuals have attempted to set fire to military enlistment offices in two locations in Russia in a possible sign of protest against the war in Ukraine.

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24 at least 10 enlistment offices have been attacked, according to Russian news portal Baza.

In the early morning hours of May 15, individuals tried but failed to set fire to an office in the village of Pronsk in Ryazan region, located about 270 kilometers southeast of Moscow, the news agency reported.

Around the same time, a fire broke out at an office in the city of Volgograd in Russia's south.

Police believe a Molotov cocktail was tossed through the window. The fire damaged about 20 square meters.

On May 13, a military enlistment office in the town of Gukovo in the southern Rostov region was partially burned. A Molotov cocktail is also believed to be the cause of that fire, which was quickly put out.

Military enlistment offices in the northern Khanty-Mansi region in and Volgodonsk region in the south have also been attacked.

Finland, Sweden Move Closer To Joining NATO Amid Russian Aggression

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto (file photo)

Finland and Sweden have moved closer to joining NATO, ending decades of neutrality, amid growing concern at home over Russia’s military aggression.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced at a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki on May 15 that the country intended to apply for NATO membership.

"Today, the president of the republic and the government's Foreign Policy Committee have jointly agreed that Finland will apply for NATO membership, after consulting parliament. This is a historic day. A new era is opening," they said.

Last week, the president and prime minister said they both favored NATO membership, in a major policy shift prompted by the war in Ukraine.

Sweden's ruling Social Democratic Party said later the same day it is in favor of joining NATO. The party will seek parliament's backing on May 16, with Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson's cabinet expected to make an announcement afterward.

"The best thing for the security of Sweden and the Swedish people is to join NATO," Andersson told a news conference following the party's decision.

Sweden has repeatedly accused Russia of violating its airspace over the years.

Finland shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia and has remained militarily nonaligned for 75 years.

But political and public opinion within Finland swung dramatically in favor of membership after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in late February.

Putin's actions have raised fears among his neighbors that he may seek to further redraw Europe's borders. Moscow invaded Finland in 1939, seizing part of its territory.

Russia has said it would be a mistake for Helsinki to join the transatlantic alliance and that it would harm bilateral ties.

Earlier this week, Niinisto told reporters that "joining NATO would not be against anyone." He said his response to Russia would be: "You caused this. Look in the mirror."

The Finnish parliament is expected to endorse the decision in the coming days, but it is considered a formality.

In Sweden -- which has been militarily nonaligned for more than two centuries -- support for NATO membership has also risen dramatically, to around 50 percent, with about 20 percent against.

NATO Meeting

NATO diplomats met in Berlin on May 15 to discuss membership expansion as well as additional aid to Ukraine.

Following the talks, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was "very confident" Finland and Sweden would be accepted into the alliance, despite some initial objections by Turkey.

NATO membership needs to be approved and ratified by all members of the alliance.

"I don't want to characterize the specific conversation that we had either with the [Turkish] foreign minister or within the NATO sessions themselves, but I can say this much: I heard almost across the board, very strong support [for Sweden, Finland] joining the alliance," he said.

Turkey's objections, directed in particular at Stockholm, focus on what it considers to be the countries' leniency toward the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist group by Ankara as well as the United States and the European Union.

However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he was ready to discuss the matter with both Finland and Sweden, as well as with other NATO members.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said her country and others made clear that they would be willing to fast-track the national ratification process for Finland and Sweden.

Also, former Soviet country Georgia's bid was expected to be discussed in Berlin despite dire warnings from Moscow about the consequences if its neighbor joins NATO.

Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod dismissed suggestions that objections from Russian President Vladimir Putin could hinder the alliance from letting in new members.

Kofod said that each country has a fundamental right to choose their own security arrangement.

"We see now a world where the enemy of democracy No. 1 is Putin and the thinking that he represents," he said.

Kofod pointed out that NATO would also stand with other countries, such as Georgia, which he said were being "instrumentalized" by Russia.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP, and dpa

Italy Blocks Cyberattacks By Pro-Russian Groups During Eurovision Contest

Kalush Orchestra from Ukraine poses after winning the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest in Turin early on May 15.

The Italian police have thwarted hacking attacks by pro-Russian groups during the May 10 semifinal and the May 14 final of the Eurovision Song Contest in Turin, authorities say.

Police said on May 15 that during voting operations and contestants' performances, police had mitigated several cyberattacks on network infrastructure by the hacker group Killnet and its affiliate, Legion.

Ukraine's Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest in the early hours of May 15, with their entry Stefania.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, many Western governments have raised alert levels in anticipation of possible cyberattacks on IT systems and infrastructure.

Last week, pro-Russian hackers targeted the websites of several Italian institutions, including the Defense Ministry and the Senate.

The attacks had reportedly not compromised infrastructure but hindered access to several websites, including the National Institute of Health.

Italian media said the pro-Kremlin group Killnet claimed the cyberattack.

In April, Killnet targeted Romanian government websites, citing Romania's support for Ukraine in the war, according to the country's national cybersecurity agency.

Earlier, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joined a chorus of tributes for Ukraine victory, calling it a "reflection" not just of talent, but "unwavering support" for Ukraine's "fight for freedom.”

"Congratulations to Ukraine for winning the Eurovision Song Contest 2022," Johnson tweeted on May 15. "It is a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom."

Ukrainian folk-rap group Kalush Orchestra won in the early hours of May 15, followed by Britain's Sam Ryder in second place.

Receiving the trophy, Kalush Orchestra said: "Thank you for supporting Ukraine. This victory is for every Ukrainian. Slava Ukrayini!" (Glory to Ukraine!).

Russia was excluded this year from competing after its February 24 invasion of Ukraine, a move organizers said was meant to keep politics out of a contest that promotes diversity and friendship among nations.

With reporting by dpa, AP, Reuters, and AFP

Iranian Film Workers Arrested, Homes Raided

Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof poses during a photocall at the 70th Cannes Film Festival in May 2017.

A renowned Iranian filmmaker has said that the offices and homes of several filmmakers and other industry professionals were raided and some of them arrested in recent days.

Mohammad Rasoulof made the comments on Instagram late on May 14, posting a statement signed by dozens of movie industry professionals.

The statement also claimed that security forces confiscated film production equipment during the raids. It condemned the actions and called them "illegal."

In a separate Instagram post, Rasoulof identified two of the detained filmmakers as Firouzeh Khosravani and Mina Keshavarz. Rasoulof himself was not targeted in the recent raids.

There were no immediate comments from the Iranian authorities on the raids, and no additional details were immediately available.

Rasoulof won the Berlin Film Festival's top prize in 2020 for his film There Is No Evil. The film tells four stories loosely connected to the themes of the death penalty in the Islamic republic and personal freedoms under oppression.

Rasoulof was sentenced to a year in prison shortly after receiving the award, but his lawyer appealed the sentence. He has been banned from making films and traveling abroad.

Iran occasionally arrest activists in cultural fields over alleged security violations.

Iran's conservative authorities have long viewed many cultural activities as part of a "soft war" by the West against Iran and an attempt to tarnish the country's Islamic beliefs.

Based on reporting by AP

Russia's Offensive In Ukraine Has Lost Momentum, Western Military Officials Say

Soldiers of the Moscow-backed separatist forces ride a tank near Novoazovsk in the Donetsk region.

Russia's military campaign in Ukraine appears to be faltering as its forces struggle to take more territory in the Donbas amid fierce resistance, Western military officials said.

After initially failing to take the capital, Kyiv, in the first weeks of the war, Russian forces have refocused their efforts on eastern and southern Ukraine.

However, their offensives have been met with substantial resistance, with some Western intelligence saying Russia may have lost up to one-third of its combat strength since it began its unprovoked invasion on February 24.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"The brutal invasion [by] Russia is losing momentum," NATO Deputy-Secretary General Mircea Geoana said on May 15. "We know that with the bravery of the Ukrainian people and army, and with our help, Ukraine can win this war."

Geoana made the comments in Berlin, where top NATO diplomats gathered to discuss providing further support to Ukraine and moves by Finland, Sweden, and others to join the Western alliance in the face of threats from Russia.

Geoana, who chaired the meeting, said Ukraine's supporters were "united, we are strong, will continue to help Ukraine in winning this war."

Alliance members have already given the country billions of dollars in lethal and nonlethal military aid to help repel the largest invasion in Europe since the end of World War II.

According to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, "more weapons and other aid" was "on the way to Ukraine."

The United States and other NATO members have given Ukraine anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, as well as well as heavy artillery.

Kuleba made the comment after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Berlin. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Blinken conveyed details regarding the latest tranche of U.S. security assistance to bolster Ukraine's defenses.

Kuleba was due to brief NATO foreign ministers on the situation on the ground in Ukraine and on how the alliance can further help the country as it battles invading Russian forces for a 12th week.

U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, in Stockholm after visiting the Ukrainian capital on May 14, told reporters on a conference call that he expected the Senate to approve just under $40 billion in further aid for Ukraine in a vote on May 18.

U.S. President Joe Biden had requested $33 billion in aid for Ukraine on April 28, including over $20 billion in military assistance. But House lawmakers boosted that amount to roughly $40 billion, adding more military and humanitarian aid.

British military intelligence said in its regular update that the Russian forces' offensive in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region "has lost momentum and fallen significantly behind schedule."

Russia has now likely suffered losses of one-third of the ground combat force it committed in February, Britain's Ministry of Defense tweeted on May 15.

Many of those losses occurred in the first few weeks of the war as Russia sought to capture Kyiv and impose a puppet regime loyal to Moscow. Russia has since shifted its focus to the Donbas, an area comprising the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Britain's Defense Ministry said that despite small-scale initial advances, Russia has failed to achieve substantial territorial gains in the Donbas over the past month while sustaining consistently high levels of attrition.

Russian forces are increasingly constrained by degraded enabling capabilities, continued low morale, and reduced combat effectiveness, the ministry said.

"Many of these capabilities cannot be quickly replaced or reconstituted, and are likely to continue to hinder Russian operations in Ukraine," the bulletin added.

The ministry predicts that under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days.

The assessments of Russia's war performance came as Russian troops retreated from around Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, after bombarding it for weeks.

The largely Russian-speaking city with a prewar population of 1.4 million was a key military objective earlier in the war, when Russia hoped to capture and hold major Ukrainian cities.

Ukraine's military says that Moscow is now focusing on guarding supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery, and air strikes in eastern Ukraine in an attempt to deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly address early on May 15 that "the situation in Donbas remains very difficult" and Russian troops were "still trying to come out at least somewhat victorious."

Russian forces continued attacks on May 15, shelling military infrastructure in the Lviv region in western Ukraine. No deaths or casualties were reported following the rocket attack, Lviv Governor Maksym Kozytskiy said on Telegram.

The governor said the extent of the destruction was being investigated. One site near Yavoriv -- presumably around the military training area there -- was "completely destroyed," according to the governor.

Earlier, a regional air command of Ukraine said several missiles had been fired at the Lviv region from the Black Sea in the early hours of May 15.

This was the first Russian air strike in about a week in the region near the Polish border.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and dpa

Ukrainian Band Wins Eurovision Song Contest

Kalush Orchestra from Ukraine celebrates after winning the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest in Turin, Italy, on May 15.

Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest with its performance of Stefania in what appeared to be a show of popular support for the country battling against a full-scale invasion by Russia.

The victory early on May 15 entitles Ukraine -- which has won three previous times -- to host next year's event, which Ukrainian officials defiantly said will be held in the hotly contested and now mostly destroyed port city of Mariupol.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailed the victory, saying that "we will do our best" to host next year's contest in "Ukrainian, peaceful, and rebuilt!"

"Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe! Next year Ukraine hosts Eurovision! For the third time in our history," Zelenskiy said on Telegram.

Britain took second place in the competition, while Spain was third. Sweden was fourth, and Serbia placed fifth in the contest, which took place in Turin, Italy.

Italy hosted the event after rock band Maneskin won the 2021 contest in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organized the event, earlier said no acts from Russia would be part of this year’s contest because of the invasion of Ukraine.

As for next year's event, the EBU said no decision had been made about the logistics for the finals.

"Obviously, there are unique challenges involved in hosting next year's competition. However, as in any other year, we look forward to discussing all the requirements and responsibilities involved in hosting the competition with [Ukrainian broadcasters] and all other stakeholders to ensure we have the most suitable setup for the 67th Eurovision Song Contest."

Eurovision is one of the most popular cultural events in Europe and is watched by tens of millions of people on live television. The winner is decided on a vote of a professional jury and by public vote.

With reporting by AP and dpa

Zelenskiy Signs Law Banning Pro-Russian Political Parties In Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (file photo)

KYIV -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has signed a new law banning pro-Russian political parties.

"The president of Ukraine has signed a law banning pro-Russia political parties! The law will come into force on the day following the day of its publication," Olha Sovgirya, a deputy from Zelenskiy’s ruling Servant of the People bloc, wrote on telegram on May 14.

The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament, passed the bill on May 3, banning pro-Russian political parties that engage in anti-Ukrainian activities.

On March 20, Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council suspended 11 pro-Russian political parties while martial law was in place in the country.

The largest of the parties with links to Russia is the Opposition Platform for Life, which has 44 out of 450 seats in parliament.

The party is led by Viktor Medvedchuk, who has friendly ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the godfather of Medvedchuk's daughter.

The list of the Moscow-friendly parties also included the Nashi (Ours) party led by Yevhen Murayev. British authorities had warned that Russia wanted to install Murayev as the leader of Ukraine.

Moscow "is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine," and Murayev "is being considered as a potential candidate," the British Foreign Office said in January.

Portugal Blocks Sale Of $10 Million Mansion Suspected Of Belonging To Abramovich

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich (file photo)

Portugal has blocked the sale of a $10.4 million mansion because of a "strong conviction" it belongs to Kremlin-linked billionaire Roman Abramovich, who has been hit by Western sanctions related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Foreign Minister Joao Cravinho said on the sidelines of a NATO meeting in Berlin on May 14 that the property registry of the luxury home in the Quinta do Lago resort in the Algarve had been frozen.

He said the move was made at the request of the Foreign Ministry on March 25, about a month after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The action means the property cannot be sold or rented and that a mortgage cannot be taken out on it.

"We have a strong conviction, which hasn't been fully confirmed, the house belongs to Roman Abramovich," Cravinho said.

"The challenge here is that many of those sanctioned do not have their properties and assets in their names."

A representative for Abramovich told Reuters he did not own "any property in Portugal."

The billionaire was granted Portuguese citizenship in April 2021 based on a 2013 Portuguese law offering naturalization to descendants of Sephardic Jews who were persecuted and expelled from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th century.

Abramovich has been sanctioned by the British government and the European Union over his links to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has denied having such ties.

On May 7, the British soccer club Chelsea announced it would be sold to a group of investors led by an American billionaire, formally ending nearly two decades of ownership by Abramovich.

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service and Reuters

U.S. Senate Republican Leader Brings Delegation To Kyiv, Meets With Zelenskiy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (center) meets in Kyiv with the leader of the Republican minority in the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell (second from left) and other Republican lawmakers -- John Barrasso (left), Susan Collins (second from right), and John Cornyn.

U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and a delegation of Republican senators arrived in Kyiv for an unannounced visit and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a show of support for the besieged country.

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McConnell (Kentucky) traveled with Susan Collins (Maine), John Barrasso (Wyoming), and John Cornyn (Texas) to the Ukrainian capital, with Zelenskiy calling the visit “a strong signal of bipartisan support for Ukraine from the United States Congress and the American people.”

The trip came as a new round of funding for Ukraine’s battle against the unprovoked Russian invasion is facing a delay in the U.S. Senate because of a Republican member’s objection.

The Senate is working to approve a nearly $40 billion package for Ukraine, but its passage has been held up by Senator Rand Paul, also of Kentucky, who demanded the inclusion of a proposal to have an inspector general scrutinize the new spending.

Nevertheless, final approval is not in doubt and could come in the upcoming week as Ukraine has widespread bipartisan support in Congress.

The McConnell-led visit is the second by a high-profile congressional delegation over the past two weeks.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat-California) visited on May 1 with a group of House Democrats, bringing a promise of continued U.S. aid to Ukraine.

Based on reporting by AP, The Washington Post, and CNN

Russian Food Blogger Added To Interior Ministry's Wanted List

Belarusian blogger Veronika Belotserkovskaya (file photo)

Russia's Interior Ministry has added a food blogger and magazine founder to its wanted list for allegedly "spreading fake news" about the Russian military.

Veronika Belotserkovskaya, who founded the St. Petersburg glossy magazine and website Sobaka and currently lives in France, commented on May 14 upon learning that she was added to the list by writing: "The first? I have officially been recognized as a decent person!"

Russia's Investigative Committee opened a criminal case in March against the Ukrainian-born Belotserkovskaya, who blogs under the name Belonika, for allegedly spreading fake news about the Russian army.

She was accused of publishing several Instagram posts containing "deliberately false information about the armed forces of the Russian Federation's destruction of cities and civilians in Ukraine, including children, during a special military operation."

Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has strictly limited access to information about the war in Ukraine launched by Russia on February 24 and directed media to describe events there as a “special military operation” and not a war or an invasion.

She is one of the first to be added to the wanted list under the Criminal Code's article covering "fake news."

Following the opening of the criminal case against her in March, Belotserkovskaya transferred ownership of Sobaka to employees.

Russian Authorities In Crimea Charge Detained Activist With Possession Of Explosives

Health-care activist Iryna Danylovych (file photo)

The Crimean branch of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) has charged health-care activist Iryna Danylovych with the illegal possession of explosives.

The Ukrainian news site Grati reported on May 13 that the 43-year-old Danylovych, whose mysterious disappearance in Crimea on April 29 led to an expansive search by her family and lawyer, was held for a week in the basement of the FSB headquarters in the territorial capital of Simferopol.

The FSB has claimed that Danylovych's glasses case contained 200 grams of explosives, according to Grati, which said the activist was forced to sign a confession under torture.

After being unable to determine his client's whereabouts through Russian authorities for more than a week, lawyer Ayder Azamatov learned on May 11 that Danylovych was being held in the central city of Simferopol.

Danylovych's defense team alleges that FSB agents planted explosives on her, and that the criminal case was falsified.

Born in Belarus when it was part of the U.S.S.R., Danylovych moved to Crimea as a child and studied and gained her nursing degree there. After moving for a short time to Russia, she returned to Crimea shortly before Russia's invasion and subsequent illegal annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014.

Through her work as a nurse and the head of a doctors' union, Danylovych gained a reputation as an outspoken advocate for medical workers' rights who was not afraid to criticize local medical authorities.

After losing her job as a nurse following her role in demanding promised bonuses for medical staff during the coronavirus pandemic, she continued her advocacy for health workers as a blogger and on social media and contributed as a source to stories about the health-care system in Crimea by media outlets including RFE/RL's Russian Service's regional desk Crimea.Realities.

During a search of her home on April 29, the same day as her disappearance, her family was told that she had been detained for allegedly passing information to a nongovernmental organization.

G7 Asks China Not To Aid Russia; Demands Moscow Lift Blockade On Ukrainian Grain Exports

EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell (left) and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba talk during a G7 foreign ministers' summit in Weissenhas, Germany, on May 13.

The Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies has called on China to support Ukrainian sovereignty and not help Russia, warning that Moscow's unprovoked war against Ukraine has threatened the globe by generating a severe food and energy crisis.

The G7 delivered the message on May 14 in a wide-ranging statement released at the end of three days of meetings in Germany.

In addition to asking China not to support Moscow amid the war, the group called on Beijing "to desist from engaging in information manipulation, disinformation and other means to legitimize Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.”

The G7 also urged Russian ally Belarus to stop "enabling" Russia's war effort and to "abide by its international obligations."

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Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, the G7 said, has "generated one of the most severe food and energy crises in recent history which now threatens those most vulnerable across the globe.”

The group, which comprises the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan, said urgent measures were needed to unblock stores of grain that Russia is preventing Ukraine from exporting, contributing to the food crisis.

An estimated 25 million tons of grain has been prevented from leaving ports in Ukraine, one of the worlds biggest grain exporters. The blockage is seen as particularly affecting countries in the Middle East and Africa.

The G7 foreign ministers in attendance at the meeting in Weissenhaus also vowed to reinforce Russia's economic and political isolation through sanctions, and said their countries would continue to provide defense and military aid to Kyiv for "as long as necessary."

The foreign ministers also addressed Russia's efforts to gain territory in Ukraine, including its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

"We will never recognize borders Russia has attempted to change by military aggression, and will uphold our engagement in the support of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea, and all states," they said.

The G7 ministers also signaled their readiness to provide Kyiv with weapons for many years into the future if necessary in its fight against Russian forces.

"We will pursue our ongoing military and defense assistance to Ukraine as long as necessary," the final statement read.

The group said that phasing out purchases of Russian oil and coal is key to the efforts to put pressure on Moscow to end the war.

"We will expedite our efforts to reduce and end reliance on Russian energy supplies and as quickly as possible," the statement said.

EU member states are expected to reach an agreement next week on ending the bloc's importation of Russian oil next week, despite opposition from EU member Hungary.

With reporting by dpa, Reuters, and AP

Ukraine Says It's Launched A New Counteroffensive As Russia Moves Forces Away From Kharkiv

Ukrainian servicemen ride a motorcycle on a road outside a village recently retaken by Ukrainian forces near Kharkiv on May 13.

Ukraine's military has launched a counteroffensive near the Russian-held eastern town of Izyum as Kyiv said Kremlin forces were withdrawing from areas near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, in what appears to be the latest setback for Moscow's military offensive.

Ukraine’s General Staff said on May 14 that Russian forces appeared to be focusing on guarding supply routes and were launching mortar, artillery, and air strikes in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region in an effort to “deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.”

Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Ukraine was “entering a new -- long-term -- phase of the war.”

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Meanwhile, U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell led a delegation of Republican senators on a surprise visit to Kyiv in a show of support for Ukraine in its fight against the unprovoked Russian invasion.

The McConnell-led trip, which followed one by Democratic House of Representative leaders on May 1, comes as the Senate attempts to finalize a $40 billion military aid package for Ukraine.

Outside of Ukraine, the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrial nations reaffirmed their support for Ukraine, saying they were prepared to provide Kyiv with aid for as long as it was needed in the fight against Russian forces.

“We underscore Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence, and right for self-defense under the UN Charter. This war of aggression has reaffirmed our determination to reject outright attempts to redraw borders by force in violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said the G7, which consists of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan.

Kharkiv had been under heavy bombardment by Russian forces since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, but it never fell. The U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War said in its latest assessment of the conflict on May 13 that Ukraine appears to have won the “battle of Kharkiv," noting that Ukrainian forces had prevented Russian troops from encircling, "let alone seizing," the city.

Speaking during his nightly nationwide address on May 13, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that his country's forces are making progress in their efforts to counter the Russian offensive and had retaken six towns and villages over the previous day.

However, neither side appears to be making major breakthroughs, and while Zelenskiy said that his military is doing everything it can to drive Russian forces from Ukrainian territory, "no one today can predict how long this war will last."

Zelenskiy said the outcome will depend not only on the Ukrainian people, but on "our partners, on European countries, on the entire free world."

Ukraine's top military intelligence official, Major General Kyrlyo Budanov, gave a more optimistic assessment. Budanov told Sky News on May 14 that the "breaking point will be in the second part of August" and that "most of the active combat actions will have finished by the end of this year."

"As a result, we will renew Ukrainian power in all our territories that we have lost, including Donbas and Crimea," he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said it was impossible to determine how long the conflict would last, claiming that the West was planning to conduct a "total hybrid war" against Russia.

He added that attempts by Western countries to isolate Russia through a slew wide-ranging sanctions were destined to fail.

Russian forces have suffered high casualties since their invasion of Ukraine in late February, and their ongoing offensive in the east of the country has made minimal territorial gains and is widely seen to be behind schedule.

But while Russia failed both in its attempts to quickly take all of Ukraine and then to encircle Ukrainian troops in besieged areas, Kyiv now sees the war entering a "third phase" in which Russian forces will seek to defend the territory they have captured.

"This shows that they plan to make it a long war," Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Viktor Andrusiv said in televised remarks on May 13. "Moscow appears to think that by dragging out the war in this way they can force the West to the negotiating table and get Ukraine to give in."

Zelenskiy said that "very difficult negotiations" with Moscow continue in an effort to evacuate Ukrainian forces from the southeastern port city of Mariupol, which has been devastated by Russia's military as it tries open a land corridor to the seized territory of Crimea.

Dozens of seriously wounded Ukrainian personnel remain trapped inside the city's Azovstal metals plant, the last Ukrainian holdout in the city that has been the target of a seven-week siege by Russian forces.

On May 14, the British Defense Ministry said that the civilian administration placed in charge of Ukraine's southern Kherson region by the Russian military will ask Moscow to include it into the Russian Federation.

In the event the occupied region does carry out a referendum, the British Defense Ministry said on Twitter, the vote would almost certainly be manipulated to show a clear majority of the region's population wants to leave Ukraine.

On May 11, the Zaporizhzhya Regional Military Administration in southeastern Ukraine said that Russia was not changing its war plans, which it said entail occupying Ukrainian territories and creating pseudo-republics in the southern regions.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and dpa

Finnish President Tells Putin That Ukraine Invasion Changes His Country’s ‘Security Environment’

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto has informed Russian leader Vladimir Putin in a phone call that his Nordic nation plans to apply for NATO membership, a move Putin warned his counterpart would be a mistake that could endanger the two nations’ neighborly relations.

"President Niinisto told President Putin how fundamentally the Russian demands in late 2021 aiming at preventing countries from joining NATO and Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 have altered the security environment of Finland," a statement by the Finnish government said on May 14.

"The conversation was open and direct, but was conducted without escalation. It was considered important to avoid tensions," Niinisto said, according to the Finnish presidential office.

The Kremlin said Putin stressed in the call that abandoning Helsinki's traditional policy of military neutrality "would be a mistake, since there are no threats to Finland's security. Such a change in the country's foreign policy may have a negative impact on Russian-Finnish relations."

With Finland and neighboring Sweden appearing ready to apply for NATO membership, Russia said earlier on May 14 that its response to the Nordic countries joining the Western military alliance would depend on the type of NATO military infrastructure that would be located on their territory.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko told reporters in Moscow that the accession of Finland and Sweden into NATO would require a strategic change, and that the Kremlin would take "adequate response measures" if NATO nuclear forces were moved closer to Russia's borders.

Grushko added that Russia has no hostile intentions toward Finland and Sweden, where support for joining NATO in the traditionally neutral countries has risen following Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February. Russia has cited Ukraine's ambitions to join NATO as a key reason for launching the war.

Niinisto this week endorsed joining NATO "without delay," saying it would strengthen security in the country, which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia.

The country's ruling Social Democratic Party later on May 14 announced its support for joining NATO, a step that would pave the way for applying for membership in the coming days.

The government’s decision to apply for NATO membership requires parliamentary approval, which appears highly likely.

The Swedish government has also laid out plans to commit Sweden to applying for NATO membership, and is expected to announce a decision soon.

U.S. President Joe Biden held a joint call with Niinisto and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson on May 13 in which he stressed "close security and defense cooperation" and supported the two Nordic states' expected NATO bids.

"President Biden underscored his support for NATO’s Open Door policy and for the right of Finland and Sweden to decide their own future, foreign policy, and security arrangements," the White House account said of the call.

NATO's foreign ministers will meet in Berlin beginning on May 14 for two days of talks that will include Finland's and Sweden's potential membership. Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde and Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto are expected to take part in the meeting, which will also include U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Many members of the alliance have already expressed support for applications from Sweden and Finland.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, said on May 13 that he did not have a "positive opinion" of the Nordic countries' membership, explaining his reservations by citing Sweden and other Scandinavian countries’ alleged support for Kurdish militants and others Turkey considers to be terrorists.

Ankara appeared to ease off in its opposition somewhat on May 14, with a top foreign policy adviser to Erdogan telling Reuters that Turkey has not shut the door to the countries' potential membership bids.

He said, though, that Ankara wants negotiations with the Nordic countries and to see them clamp down on any support for militants inside Turkey.

"We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey," Ibrahim Kalin said in an interview in Istanbul.

The potential opposition has fueled suggestions that Turkey could veto Finland's and Sweden's applications to join NATO, which to be approved would require unanimous support among the alliance's 30 member states.

Hours after Erdogan's comment, the White House and Pentagon said they were "working to clarify Turkey's position" regarding Sweden and Finland, while stressing that Ankara's standing in NATO would not change as a result of its position.

With reporting by Reuters, dpa, and AP

Riga City Council Votes To Dismantle Soviet Victory Monument

The Soviet monument in Riga's Victory park has been a bone of contention between Latvia and Russia for years.

The city council in the Latvian capital, Riga, has agreed to dismantle a contentious Soviet monument in the city center.

The decision was made during a special session on May 13, with police surrounding the building where the meeting was held.

Most Latvians see the monument in the city center as more a symbol of the Soviet Union's occupation of Latvia than its purported purpose of honoring the liberation of the city from Germany in World War II.

It is unclear when the nearly 80-meter-tall obelisk and accompanying giant bronze statues in Riga's Victory Park will be dismantled, but the city's monument authorities have been instructed to take it down.

The issue of Soviet monuments in Latvia, which was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union until 1991, has dogged relations between Riga and Moscow.

Moscow's relationship with EU- and NATO-member Latvia has been further strained by Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine and heightened rhetoric from the Kremlin regarding the Baltic states.

Police in Riga reportedly arrested several people at an unauthorized protest against the dismantling of the monument that was staged by members of Latvia's sizeable ethnic Russian minority on May 14.

Demonstrations were also held in front of the Latvian Embassy in Moscow.

On May 12, Latvian lawmakers approved a bill that would allow the Soviet monument to be dismantled. The bill amended a 1994 agreement between Latvia and Russia on the preservation of Soviet-era monuments.

"The changed geopolitical conditions...mean that Latvia can’t and won’t be bound to preserve...monuments to the Soviet occupation," Rihards Kols, the chairman of parliament’s commission on foreign affairs, said in explaining the move.

Kols added that Latvia will continue to fulfill its international obligations regarding burials and cemeteries holding the remains of Soviet troops.

Latvia has approved many post-independence laws aimed at weeding out Russian influence and boosting the status of Latvian language and culture.

With reporting by dpa and Current Time

Number Of Ukrainian Refugees Arriving In Germany Slowing

A woman fleeing Ukraine reacts as she receives a hug from a volunteer after arriving at Berlin's central station in March.

The influx of Ukrainian refugees entering Germany has slowed to around 2,000 people a day.

German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said on May 14 that the number is down from a high of around 15,000 people a day in mid-March, when Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine was only weeks old.

Faeser was quoted by the Rheinische Post as saying that most of the Ukrainian refugees will eventually return to Ukraine.

However, she said, "some will stay if people see the chance to find their feet in the German labor market with their qualifications."

Germany's Welt am Sonntag newspaper reported on May 14, that more than 700,000 Ukrainian refugees have registered with the German authorities since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Around 40 percent of the Ukrainian refugees are minors, and just over 80 percent are women, according to the newspaper, which cited Interior Ministry data.

Altogether, more than 6 million Ukrainians have left their home country since the war began, according to the United Nations.

Based on dpa, UNHCR, and Reuters.

Ukrainian President Says No One Can Predict Length Of War

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said that while the country's military is doing everything it can to drive Russian forces from Ukrainian territory, "no one today can predict how long this war will last."

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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Speaking during his nightly nationwide address on May 13, Zelenskiy said the outcome will depend not only on the Ukrainian people, but on "our partners, on European countries, on the entire free world."

Russian forces have suffered high casualties since their invasion of Ukraine in late February, and their ongoing offensive in Ukraine's east has made minimal territorial gains and is widely seen to be behind schedule.

But while Russia failed both in its attempts to quickly take all of Ukraine and then to encircle Ukrainian troops in besieged areas, Kyiv now sees the war entering a "third phase" in which Russian forces will seek to defend the territory it has captured.

"This shows that they plan to make it a long war," Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Viktor Andrusiv said in televised remarks on May 13. "Moscow appears to think that by dragging out the war in this way they can force the West to the negotiating table
and get Ukraine to give in."

Zelenskiy said that "very difficult negotiations" with Moscow continue in an effort to evacuate Ukrainian forces from the southeastern port city of Mariupol, which has been devastated by Russia's military as it tries open a land corridor to the seized territory of Crimea.

Dozens of seriously wounded Ukrainian forces remain trapped inside the city's Azovstal metals plant, the last Ukrainian holdout in the city that has been the target of a seven-week siege by Russian forces.

Based on reporting by AP and dpa

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